I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Monday, April 15, 2024

Weapon speed, size and force: simplifying AD&D

"Forget weapon speed factors. I must have been under the influence of a hex when I included them in the bloody rules." - attributed to Gary Gygax.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might know I'm a bit obsessed with this stuff.

So, I was taking YES another look at AD&D weapons... and, again, I'm torn.

On one hand, I love the idea of certain weapons being awesome when dealing with heavy armor, or large opponents, or tight spaces... OTOH I think the tables as written are almost unsalvageable.

Take the two handed sword, for example.

* It makes attacking someone in leather armor easier to hit than someone who is unarmored. 
* It ignores your shield if you are unarmored, but NOT if you are in leather armor.
* It weights 250 coins. The awl pike (length: 18’+) weights 80 coins.

There is nothing here I want to use. But it also has a few interesting aspects I like:

* It is a decent weapon against MOST  types of armor and shields.
* It is a great weapon against large opponents.

AD&D doesn't tell you this, but it shows this is true with many tables and more than a dozen digits. Here is a radical simplification that would still give me everything I want from 2H-sword:

- The 2H-sword has +2 to hit against any armor, and double damage dice (2d10) against large opponents.

Now, instead of analyzing several tables, the player can choose this weapon for clear reasons. 

We could extrapolate this further; maybe ALL swords deal double damage against large foes, and ALL two-handed weapons get +2 to hit (thus balancing the loss of a shield).

In order to create these extrapolations/generalizations, I compiled this table (right click to open in a new tab):

The columns are:

- Weights.
- Damage (minimum plus maximum, so "1-4" becomes 5).
- Speed factor (the lower/red, the faster).
- Attack (the sum of all attack bonuses, from AC 9 to AC 2), meaning the weapon hits more often.
- Armor spread (which is the AC 2 bonus minus the AC 9 bonus), meaning the weapon is particularly bad against heavy armor if the number is low/red. Ignore this last column for now.

The colors help us visualize some patterns

There is a clear tendency of lighter weapons being faster, but weaker against armor and dealing lower damage. 

When there is a visible shift in color, we can notice outliers. For example:

- The awl pike is much slower than other weapons of a similar weight, while the lance (heavy warhorse) is significantly faster.
- The bastard sword is very good against large opponents, even in its weight class.
- The short sword is fast for its weight class; in fact, all swords are kinda fast for their weights.
- Some weapons (2H sword, heavy lance, flail, morningstar) hit more often, while others (sticks, fauchard, guisarme) have a harder time hitting ("attack" column).
- The "bec de corbin" and "axe, battle" are both bad against large opponents.

Now, the last column deserves further explanation. 

A positive/green number means the weapon gets to partially ignore armor, while a negative/red number means the weapon is particularly weak against heavier armor.

This column has a bit less correlation to "weight class". But there are some rules that seem easy to generalize:

- Picks, flails, maces and heavy lances/2h-swords are good against heavy armor.
- Axes, daggers and swords are bad against heavy armor.
- Sticks/staves are terrible against heavy armor.

So... I still don't know what to make of this. I guess my desire is to make a series of small affirmations that could be easier understood and applied ("picks, flails and 2h-swords get +2 against armor", etc.).

An earlier effort resulted in this, which was good but still not quite what I'm looking for.

My next guess is that we could play with the idea of "combat maneuvers" or "special attacks", with some weapons being better doing a "ignore armor" maneuvers, others with a "fast attack", etc.

Another idea is making clear certain weapons are better against giants, other against undead, oozes, etc.

But I'll leave that to another day. This exercise was interesting but a bit frustrating; it almost seems like any effort to streamline this stuff is in vain, and we'd be better off consulting tables.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Where AD&D is better than 3d6 in order

Being a fan of basic D&D, I always thought that rolling 3d6 in order was the cleanest, fastest way to generate PCs. Also the most fair, so PCs start, on average, as a normal person.

In addition, the -3/+3 modifier spread is beautiful and intuitive, while in AD&D you need to consult lots of tables to fill your character sheet.

In comparison, the AD&D methods were not only more complex - involving more dice rolling, sometimes to ridiculous lengths - but also made starting PCs stronger than average humans (but they could still be knocked out and maybe dying from a 10-foot fall).

In addition, this added complexity, redundantly, often got you to the same modifiers you'd get in B/X. 

For example, in B/X you get abilities of 10.5 on average, while you needed 13 Strength to get a +1 bonus to damage. 

In AD&D the average is 13... But you still get +0 to damage! 

So what is the point?

Well, the point is that despite these things, AD&D got a few things better than B/X here.

- The default modifier is +0, like in B/X, despite higher abilities.
- However, the bell curve in 4d6 is "higher" - averages (13) are more likely and negative results are a lot rarer, which makes the game a bit faster since subtraction is uncommon (addition is quicker).
- Maybe PCs should be a bit stronger than the average human? And, specially, avoid PCs that are extremely weak in any area (e.g., PCs that can barely speak).

In short, this 4d6 methods was adopted in subsequent editions for good reasons - and there are plenty of B/X players using it too.

However, in B/X this makes PCs a bit too strong for my taste.

There are several methods to combine the advantages of both systems. In B/X, these are some of my favorites:

A) Roll 2d6+4 to each ability score. This avoids extreme results and gives you an average of 11.
B) 3d6 in order, but replace one result of your choosing by 15.
C) Some standard array to make things even faster (for 3d6, it could be 14, 12, 11, 10, 9, 7 or 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8; add 1 point to each to get an average of 11.5). 

I'd let the players swap two attributes to play the PCs they want (or assign to taste in "C").

[One thing to note is that I use feats and ability scores improvement, so that eventually you can raise your ability scores. If I didn't, I'd probably use "B" - leaving the possibility of 3s and 18s and also allowing you to play basically any class you want].

Notice that this is quite close to the averages in the D&D B-series pregens - who have average ability scores around 11-12 or a bit higher, as explained here.

This range looks satisfying to me.

Of course, it is ultimately a matter of taste - do you want PCs to be ordinary, a bit better, or heroic form the start? 

But for my B/X(ish) games, this average of 11.5 - just a bit above a normal human - is what I like.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

A wizard of Earthsea

A wizard of Earthsea is an old favorite of mine. I've read it in more than two decades ago. Seeing a new edition illustrated by Charles Vess and in hardcover, I thought it was a good idea to revisit it, especially in the context of the Appendix N (the book is not on Gygax's list, but in Moldvay's).

Well, the illustrations were a bit sparse and not particularly awesome, but the story is still worth reading again.

The book was written for "young adults", but it does not feel juvenile. It is a good "coming-of-age story" that portrays the upbringing of a wizard, from childhood to maturity - and what that entails. Still, a good book for young teenagers - easy, short, no sex and little violence, but carrying a deep message.

The main character is Sparrowhawk, a child who discovers magical powers and then starts an apprenticeship before going to "wizard school". While trying to prove his worth to his peers (and, maybe, trying to impress a girl - but that's subtle), he foolish unleashes a being that will haunt him for years. While re-reading the book, this was my favorite part, because it subtly shows the character's immaturity and insecurity against offenses that might be small or partly imaginary.

The Earthsea books are famous in D&D fandom for its magic system, which focus on learning the true names of things and maintaining balance. There are a few suggestions of spell mishaps that are very interesting - for example, the book mentions that many dolphins are wizards that forgot they had to shape-shift back to human form!

The archipelago setting looks decent for adventuring. There are dragons of varying size and power and a shadow monsters, both of which might have been used as inspiration in D&D. Other than that, the book does not have many monsters or magic items, but still feels like decent inspiration for D&D games - including an interesting mysterious castle...

While I am usually a fan of dark fantasy, this is "light fantasy" at its best. It is not pulp action in the vein of Burroughs and Howard, nor Lovecraftian horror (although it contains nameless things and being older than humanity) or the dark fairy tales of Dunsany. It is somewhat reminiscent of "The Hobbit" but for older readers, or Piranesi for younger ones - but not quite. The author deliberately tried to subvert some fantasy tropes, avoiding war almost entirely. It contains little parody or humor, and the horror is almost entirely metaphysical. It is reminiscent of fairy tales, in a way, but also more "serious".

It is, in some ways, a melancholic, sensitive book (and setting). 

There are no epic battles (except one brief encounter with dragons) and few great heroes. The people  of the archipelago are mostly peasants and fishermen, some having little knowledge of anything except their own island (in the saddest part of the book, this is a very small island, and almost no knowledge at all). Beyond the archipelago, there seems to be a vast expanse of sea and nothingness. The protagonist also spends a lot of time wounded, sleeping, or escaping, which reinforces this feeling. But it is not a sad book, necessarily - on the contrary, it has a hopeful bend, a light tone, and a mythic/archetypal truth to it that mimics the hero's journey without being clichéd. 

In any case, it is a classic and a short read. Definitely recommended to anyone with interest in fantasy and D&D.

[BTW, after finishing this one I immediately started re-reading The Tombs of Atuan, who centers around a labyrinthine dungeon and the cult of  the "Nameless Ones"... I don't remember the details of ths one, but should be fun!]

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

How big is an (6-mile) hex?

I've been thinking of hexes in abstract terms, but I think something more complete would be useful.

I default to the proverbial "6-mile hex" describe here.

Apparently, the area is about 31 square miles (correct me if I'm wrong).

This is bigger than Manhattan (23 square miles).

The Isle of Wight would cover about 2 hexes.

Siena - plus about 20 towns and monasteries - would cover one hex.

The City of London, within the walls, is HALF a square mile - so it covers about 1/60 of the hex.

Notice how thin the Thames would look in a six-mile hex map! It is about 0,16 miles wide near London.

Rivers such as the Danube, Rhine, and Mississippi have an average width of less than one mile.

In short, this means that crossing an hex will not necessarily allow you to see every relevant site. In the 
plains you are likely to see the entire hex in a clear day, so a village is not difficult to find - especially because there are roads etc. But the village is not hard to AVOID, either.

Anyway, there is no way you can picture every village in a six-mile hex (which I used to do - I marked the hex with a small house).

At this level of detail, it would be better to use 3-mile hexes, which are four times smaller than the original hex - and have their own advantages

A 3-mile hex is enough for a village with countryside, or maybe a very large city surrounded by 4-6 hexes of countryside and villages.

In a 1-mile hex, river thickness may start to vary in the map (and maybe even change from season to season). 

Traveling becomes less abstract - you do not cross "the mountains", but choose specific paths.

This is probably too much detail for me. Too much choice with little consequence. I'll stick to 6-mile hexes for now.

Additional reading:


Monday, April 01, 2024

Character death in RPGs, war-games, and storygames

I've tried to differentiate the three perspectives here.

There is one aspect or issue that I´d like to emphasize: the death of a player character.

The  RPG experience requires first person perspective.

But in this perspective, the death of a character is THE END.

No one sees himself as disposable or easily replaceable.

(This is even more of a problem in a TPK. If you send waves after waves of PCs to fight the Tomb of Horrors, you've playing a puzzle, not necessarily an RPG).

The wargame solution is replacing the PC for an NPC or hireling. Easy. The storygame solution could be simply saving the PC or letting death be a relevant plot point.

But, from the perspective of the PC, death means it is over.

So PC death might be a bigger problem in RPGs than even in storygaming (in wargaming, it is not even a problem). 

A story with many characters can easily continue after one death (think Game of Thrones, etc.)

Let's think videogames for a minute. 

In videogames with a single character, death usually requires a "do over". Go back to your most recent level (or saving point) and go from there, otherwise the game has to end.

In Warcraft, on the other hand, nothing happens if an "unit" is destroyed, as long as you have other pieces. This is the wargaming perspective (Darkest Dungeon is another great example - it really feel like an old-school RPG due to its proximity to wargames).

I felt more "character immersion" in Resident Evil than Darkest Dungeon or Warcraft (although FUN can be found anywhere). This is part of the reason I think a wargaming perspective is not ideal for RPGs.

Are there computer storygames? I am not sure. My first instinct is compare storygaming to cutscenes - certain things just happen because they are important to the plot, including the death of a player character. But storygames have mechanics that are difficult to translate to videogames - shared narratives, story tokens, etc.

There is a tension in there I cannot quite resolve right now: if there is no risk of PC death, immersion/simulation is ruined. But if you can simply replace a dead PC, his life has little value and therefore there is no real risk.

My instinct says the death of a PC should be possible but meaningful. This requires balancing RPGs with some wargaming and maybe storygaming perspectives.

But this certainly requires more reflection.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Fudging, lying and cheating

[D&D] is a game, and outcomes shouldn’t always be predictable! Removing the risk of failure also removes most of the fun. (From an upcoming random encounter book).

"Fudging" is a very contentious topic; most people reading this might have an strong opinion before reaching my conclusion. But before we discuss it, we need some definitions. The Cambridge dictionary defines it as to avoid a direct answer or "to cheat about something slightly, esp. by not reporting facts accurately or not telling the exact truth".

In the context of RPGs, most of the fudging discussion refers to the moment when the GM secretly changes the results of the dice (or other statistics of the game, such as monster HP) - usually in combat - in order to save players characters (PCs) - or even NPCs - from a fate that the GM deems inappropriate, anti-climatic, etc.

There could be other definitions (and I'll discuss some), but this is the most common.

The debate has two vocal sides: the ones that say fudging is cheating, as per the dictionary, and the ones who think fudging is necessary to avoid anti-climax or to save the PCs from fates they do not deserve. Curiously, the first camp is full of "old school" gamers like myself, despite the fact that the 1e DMG suggests saving "undeserving" PCs from death.

I believe both sides are too extreme and there is some nuance to be considered.

First, a small caveat - this is NOT a moral judgment

In the past, I've seem people get offended by discussing this topic. I'm not calling anyone a cheat for fudging - it is your table, not mine.

I think every GM has fudged in some circumstances, and I certainly did. 

But I also think this is usually a mistake, should be almost always be avoided, and it can ruin games. I'm not saying it is "evil", but I think it is fair to say it is "bad form".

This discussion is akin to asking "is sugar bad for your health?". It probably is, but I'm not calling you unhealthy or forbidding you to eat a cake when I say that. I eat too much sugar myself...

Please skip this post if you don't like the idea of criticizing fudging.

Is fudging cheating?

The dictionary seem to indicate so, although some seem to think it is "cheating with good intent", and therefore shouldn't be considered cheating. 

RPGs are a cooperative game; between a GM and a player, there are no winners and losers, which is why the "cheating" term feels inadequate. 

To that I often reply that GMs who defend fudging in never had to deal with a fudging player. I have, and it is exhausting. I also noticed a GM was fudging and it almost ruined that game for me (but there are exceptions - read on).

[I didn't expel the player or quit the campaign, FWIW; but I avoided these situations in future games]

Or put it in another way: fudging is NOT cheating if you are honest about it. "So, I rolled a natural 20 here, and that would probably kill your PC... but you know what, that goblin encounter shouldn't be that hard, my bad, let say the goblin missed".

On the other hand, if you're fudging and constantly lying about it, then it is probably cheating, even if "cheating with good intent". 

After, why would you lie is what you're doing is good and expected?

Maybe you can START the campaign by saying that "look, I want to provide a good time to everyone, so I will occasionally change the result of the dice to avoid that any PCs die by accident. I'll try to use it sparingly and you guys try to avoid abusing the system".

I'm not sure I'd play in such a game (I probably would!), but I'd like it one hundred times better than being duped into that.

PC death is a problem

The death of a PC is a problem. That is why HP were created - people get attached to their PCs. 

A TPK (total party kill, i.e., the death of ALL PCs at once) is a big hurdle in a campaign unless you already have other PCs/NPCs involved in the campaign to avoid starting from scratch.

Fudging is one solution, but not the only one. You can also:

- Create a new PC.
- Turn hirelings or NPCs into PCs.
- Use some form of resurrection.
- Make 0 HP mean unconsciousness/maiming as suggested in the 1e DMG.
- Have immortal PCs (examples: Toon RPG, Dark Souls).

I wrote an (unpublished) RPG (with some story-game influence) that actually required the player to DECLARE his PC is willing to die for this fight. If the answer is negative, the worst that can happen is capture, failure, unconsciousness, etc. If positive, you get some temporary bonus but risk death, let the dice fall where they may.

This solution is as good as any of the above, depending on the kind of game you're playing.

The best way to address this is make it explicit. Talk to your players in the beginning of the campaign. What do we do if a PC dies? Or in the event of a TPK?

Do PCs ever "deserve" death?

Many GMs fudge to save PCs from an "unfair" death. Maybe two or three enemies hit in the same round, all with near maximum damage, not giving the player option of running away.

What is more, maybe it was a surprise attack and not a battle the players chose. Maybe the PC lost initiative and didn't even get to act or parlay.

I find that most of these cases enhance the fun of the game by adding risk and unpredictability. But if you believe otherwise, the best policy is, again, discussing this with your players beforehand and even changing the rules in advance to match your play-style.

In addition, judging if a PC "deserves" death is an extra burden to the GM. The GM is not there to morally judge the PC's choices, but to present a coherent setting. In any case, a brave PC might be more "deserving" of an heroic death than an NPC who decided to be a farmer instead.

In short, let the PCs decide what risk they are willing to take. Sometimes, simply traversing the wilderness can be deadly. If you don't find that fun, let your players know that they will always have the option of running before the battle starts (which is NOT the case for most D&D systems; surprise and initiative can kill you before you can act).

What about "unfair" challenges?

Fudging is sometimes related to the idea that encounter difficulty should match the PCs level. I usually advise against that, because:

- It makes the setting feel “fake”, as if it was built around the PCs.
- It robs the players of the satisfaction of finally facing stronger creatures that were once too powerful for them.
- It misrepresents the (RAW) danger of wilderness travel.

The last point is especially relevant here. If you keep fudging the dice, the players will never learn how dangerous a group of orcs really is.

Fudge now, and you'll fudge forever

This brings us to another problem? if you misrepresent the danger of these orcs once, it is unfair to expect your players are more careful next time. Then, you`ll need to fudge again.

Also, if you save ONE PC from death, it is unfair to not save ANOTHER PC under different circumstances - no matter how you justify it, it might feel like you're playing favorites.

Honesty is the best policy

My PC was recently on the receiving end of a critical hit by a zombie that "should" be easily defeated. The DM was a bit apologetic, but for me it was the first time in the game that I felt my PC was in danger (he lost an eye). It made he game more interesting to me.

As a GM, I don't like the burden of having to lie about dice results. I always roll in the open and never use a DM screen in order to avoid temptation (as someone else commented, would you like your players bringing "player screens" to hide heir rolls?). 

[In fact, if you use a DM screen when you make attack rolls I will assume you are fudging. I might even agree that your players should know you're fudging, although I'd prefer if you said it out loud. Online play brings a number of related issues that we will have to face soon - will there be "fudging tools" for the GM in RPG apps such as roll20? I wouldn't know, but I find the idea interesting.]

I let the players choose the risk they are willing to take, and the dice decide if the risk materializes.

If I am "saving" the PCs whenever I want, I am to blame whenever I don't.

Fudging and story-gaming

I have said before that "fudging" in D&D is the result of a misconception, since the role of the GM is not to protect the plot or the pacing of the story". 

Fudging seems more common in people that want to play D&D as a story-game, using it as a tool to provide a "satisfactory narrative".

Again, if that is how you like to play, it doesn't matter what other people say, have fun.

I will just remind you that actual story-games usually do not encourage fudging either. You don't get to choose your rolls in Fiasco or with Rory's Story Cubes AFAICT.

In fact, these games often have no DM, or at least include multiple tools to allow the players to meaningfully participate in the creation of the setting without directly controlling their PCs.

Fudging in D&D seems to create a weird, asymmetric situation in which the DM is playing one kind of the game and the players are  doing something different; as if the DM could change the dice at will, but PCs will be seems as cheaters if they do the same thing.

Fudging players seems to be an ignored point in this topic. Can players "fudge" too or they always cheat? How come DMs get to "save" PCs and NPCs, while the player cannot simply decided that letting his barbarian die against a lowly goblin would not be appropriate to his "character arc"?

If changing the result of the dice is cool for GMs, it should occasional be permissible to players - unless they agreed beforehand only one person gets to change results.

Fudging and random tables

There is at least one example of "recommended fudging" in the 1e DMG: ignoring random encounters rolls to spare the PCs who are "undeserving" of more danger.

Curiously, many people do not see that as fudging. Even GMs that are vehemently against changing an attack roll to save a PC can feel comfortable by planning encounters beforehand and ignoring results that feel "too hard".

In any case, you can see the method and results are very similar: changing dice rolls to save PCs from danger.

I do not like this idea, for the reasons described above ("What about "unfair" challenges?"), but I don't think it is exactly the same situation.

There is an oracular quality to random tables - which could be an interesting discussion, but this post is too long already. For now, I'll just say I'd happily "fudge" the results of a random table when creating a dungeon, for example.

For random encounters, I'd prefer to have better tables then to fudge results. I'm working on that...

"Acceptable fudging" - or "not-fudging"

There are cases in which the GM is expected to be able to change the dice or mechanics as he sees fit.

I often change stats from monsters in published modules. I think it is important to say I change the monsters when I do that - these are not super-strong goblins, but morlocks, etc.. 

I ignore encounters I don't like and even erase entire sessions of dungeons.

I am not sure I'd call this "fudging", but I don't mind if you do - in any case, this is not what people usually refer to when they say fudging (instead, it is a part of "prep"), so I see no reason to make things more confusing. 

There are other examples, as pointed in Jens post. Changing the rules, even during the game, can be more or less expected when play-testing, or getting to know a system. As he suggests, "don't call it fudging".

But I'd be careful with that too. I often think of my Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign, in which the PCs almost suffered a TPK in the FIRST adventure by fighting A SINGLE GHOUL. It was certainly "unfair" - nobody had played this game before and they were coming from an "heroic D&D" background.

But it DID set the tone for the rest of the campaign. They immediately realized SotDL is a hard, gritty game. If I had changed the dice (or HP etc.) at that moment, I would ruin the player's understating of the system - unless I explained what I had done.

I still think the first adventure in Tales of the Demon Lord is too hard, and I'd change it if I were to run it again - but I'd avoid misdirecting the players or they'd never really get to experience the system.

In conclusion...

I find fudging a dangerous tool.

Letting the dice fall where they may takes a heavy burden of my back when I GM.

Ignoring this tool has a cost, but it creates new and interesting opportunities.

In any case, you should always talk to your players about which kind of campaign you're planning to run. Don't assume they expect this or that.

This feels like an endless topic, and don't feel like I considered every angle. I only hope this post has helped to make my opinion on the subject clearer.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Minimalist roll-to-cast, take 2

My previous attempt was not minimalist enough, as pointed in the comments. So let's try this again.

The MU gets one spell per level.

Maximum spell level is equal to half your level.

To cast, make a spell saving throw - adding your Int modifier, but subtracting spell level.

Failure means one of the following (PC's choice):

- You lose 1 HP per spell level, AND the spell fails.
- You cannot cast the same spell until tomorrow.

A natural 1 means BOTH happen, or one plus spells mishap (spell goes wild, Earthsea style).

A natural 20 means the spell was particularly powerful.

Yes, I like this version even better!

Clerics get half as many spells (starting on level 2). Is this too much of a nerf? Consider they have more HP to cast spells, more levels (per XP), and a potentially lots of healing powers with this one. Probably deserves further reflection.

Thursday, March 07, 2024

Update on the wilderness encounter book

I spent most of last weekend working on my wilderness encounter book for B/X.

The first part is a simplification of the random encounter procedure. I like how that turned out; I'll publish most of it in this post blog soon.

The third part describes 366 days in the wilderness. Basically, weather, encounters and a few details for variety.

These parts are mostly finished by now.

The second part is the hardest. It describes, very succinctly, ONE THOUSAND random encounters, with most necessary rolls (number appearing, surprise, reaction). This is how it looks right now:

This was a bit harder than I thought. Rolling dice thousands of times was easy with the help of apps and AI. Same for adding names to NPCs. 

The hardest part right now is "confused wolves". 

I had a hard time thinking of hundreds of variations for what's the monsters are doing. 

I could certainly take some inspiration from this amazing blog d4 caltrops, but I still feel it will get somewhat repetitive anyway. Most aggressive animals and beasts are just hungry or territorial - I can think of a few alternatives, but not hundreds of them.

At least intelligent NPCs, dragons, etc. are looking pretty good IMO.

B/X descriptions are very terse, so I have to add a few details from other sources.

Anyway, it's lots of work, but maybe it is worth it if other people find the book useful. 

Well, at least I've been using it in my own sandbox campaign.

And I've been learning a lot about B/X monsters and encounter tables (mountains are VERY dangerous, and troglodytes are SCARY - 5d8 appearing, 2HD, camouflaged, attack everyone).

So for now what I ask you to do, is let me know if that looks interesting/useful, or if you'd change anything.

If this looks interesting and you and want to provide even more feedback, consider joining my discord channel to discuss it.

The book will take a couple of moths or more to complete, but at this point I am pretty confident that it WILL be completed.

BTW: let me know if you have any reservations about the use of apps and AI for dice rolls, random names, etc.

Friday, March 01, 2024

GMs day sale (2024) - OSR, classic D&D and others

GMs day sale has arrived, so here are my picks (same as last years with some additions).

Notice that the usual discount this year is 40%, which is even better than last year IIRC...

First, let me remind you that all of my books are included in the sale

If your tastes are similar to mine, take a look! They are mostly compatible with OSR games (except for a couple of 5e books - "Manual of Arms").

There are some big discounts if you use VTT, which I don't. Dragonbane looks good so... maybe?

New stuff I'm getting this year

- I've been curious about AS&SH for a while, and might finally check it out.
- I've been running some classic modules and I might get Night Below and others (recommend some in the comments!).

The Halls of Arden Vul Complete is also 40% off - or $45.00 off. Soudns reasonable for 1.100 pages (!) although it is probably too much material for me to digest.

Now, let's see the old favorites...

Big discounts!
These products seem to be about 40% off and I find each of them interesting. The first two are my own. Some are also mentioned (and further explained) below:

Teratogenicon, my monster maker (check the previews!).
Dark Fantasy Basic, my B/X neoclone.
Low Fantasy Gaming Deluxe Edition (review of the original version);

Classic D&D
This are some of my favorites, also 40% off. Explanation here.
Monstrous Manual (2e) - the current price is RIDICULOUSLY LOW for such a a great book.
Dark Sun boxed set.

Goodman Games
In addition to the amazing Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (DCC RPG), I really like The Dungeon AlphabetThe Monster Alphabet and The Cthulhu Alphabet. They are near system-less and full of awesome stuff to inspire your games. I still haven't read How to Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck but it is also on sale. All of them 40% off.

They also publish awesome adventures; alas, few are on sale, but fortunately Doom of the Savage King, the one I am currently running, is 40% off! Recommended! Same for Jewels of the Carnifex, which I reviewed here.

Necrotic Gnome
Several Old School Essentials titles are also on sale in addition to Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome. I really like Old-School Essentials. It is basically a concise, well-organized version of my favorite D&D (B/X). The SRD is great. the version that interests me the most is the advanced version - it is NOT an AD&D clone, but B/X with many new options taken from AD&D, dragon magazine, etc. For players and DMs.

Sine Nomine Publishing
Worlds Without Number is probably the hottest "new" (released in April/2021) OSR title on sale with 40% off. I have only read the free version briefly, but seems very good overall, and I've appreciated many other titles form the same author, including Scarlet Heroes and Silent Legions (maybe my favorite OSR take on horror and Lovecraft).

I think that's it for now. If you know any other books on sale that you'd recommend (especially if it is 40% off), let me know in the comments and I'll add it to my list. Feel free to promote your own products!

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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Vanilla Overdose, Random Insanity, and Fortress of the Iron Duke

I have recently ran Fortress of the Iron Duke, a free BFRPG adventure that is part of BF2 Fortress, Tomb, and Tower: The Glain Campaign (get it here).

I chose this adventure because it fits my own setting very well. In addition, has an interesting premise and site, a few moral dilemmas, and great opportunities for world-building and role-lay once the adventure is over. And I love BFRPG and its modules.

While I have not ran the other two adventures in this collection, they seem to be a bit more interesting than this one.

Overall, I can say I had fun with this adventure, and the ending last night was memorable; I'm glad I chose it (but I did require lots of tweaking to adapt to the level and needs of my group).

Fortress of the Iron Duke seems to be a homage to Palace of the Silver Princess, which I haven't played. This might explain some of my two (big) reservations with the module, that I've seem repeated on many popular modules, and which I'll call Vanilla Overdose and Random Insanity.

Now, this isn't a review exactly, but an opportunity to discuss these two aspects, so I hope I'm not being too harsh to a free module that provided me with plenty of fun.


Vanilla Overdose is the constant repetition of fantasy tropes: you have orcs, goblins, kobolds, skeletons, hobgoblins, oozes, zombies, giant rats... barely a single interesting monster to be found. I think the term is more or less self-explanatory. you can have goblins in your adventure, sure, but if ALL your NPCs/foes/challenges are predictable tropes, I simply cannot take the boredom after a while.

The other problem - that seems closely related to the first, for some reason is Random Insanity - the feeling that you are facing a place that was created by rolling multiple times on a random table (for example, as suggested in the DMG).

Take the goblins, kobolds, skeletons, and giant rats, for example. How are they living side by side? This adventure at least has an explanation for the humanoids and rats - they are attracted/affected by a magical gem. But the undead seem to come from out of nowhere*. Why not make them connected to the gem somehow? Sure, the GM can make these inferences, but it should be part of the adventure.

(* Quite literally - there are 10 skeletons in a closet for no reason. Only today I realized it was an obvious joke - "the duke has skeletons in his closet". Fine, you got me.).

Come to think of it, if the Fortress had been raided by multiple goblin clans - maybe with different weapons and even traits - it would be less tiresome than goblins + kobolds + orcs. 

Having only goblins as enemies could be boring for some people, but for me it is the contrary; each element that is added without some novelty makes me like the whole thing a bit less. 

Both The God That Crawls and Doom of the Savage Kings (and most DCC adventures I've played) are good examples of having a limited number of creature types, but valuing each creature as something unique. I tried to create something along these lines with my Wretched Hive.

The module also has living statues and an ordinary fountain that is hidden for some reason - and hidden in a strange manner:

The whole lower floor has a strange architecture that doesn't resemble an actual castle or cave. Look at this corridor; it is almost impossible that there wouldn't be a better way to build this:

Curiously enough, the upper level is completely different, and much better - we get something that resembles and actual building and even some new creatures (narcotic giant roses).

Anyway, it was a fun adventure, but for my personally it would be awesome without these two aspects. 

Classic fantasy is cool, but vanilla can become boring (or maybe I'm just tired of orcs).

Weird is cool, but random is tiresome.

In any case, I'm still interested in trying the other adventure from this book and the entire collection. I've already ran The Blackapple Brugh, Castle by the Sea, and some others. Many were enjoyable. Blackapple is probably my current favorite due to having both internal consistency and some novelty (and no orcs!).

Anyone can check these adventures, since they are free and all, but maybe sharing my own experiences is useful if you're looking for your next module.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Minimalist roll-to-cast

Not entirely my idea, I read it somewhere and added a little twist.

Here it goes: the MU gets one spell per level.

To cast, roll 1d20 equal/under Intelligence.

Failure means one of the following (PC's choice):

- The spell fails.
- You lose 1 HP per spell level.
- You cannot cast the same spell until tomorrow.

Failure also means you must make a spell saving throw - a new failure means that the GM randomly chooses a second consequence from the list (alternatively, he may create a spell fumble if you're exhausted enough that losing HP means death. This is because otherwise no one would ever want to learn magic).

A natural 20 could mean all three things happen, but a natural 1 means your next casting gets a bonus.

Clerics: maybe they need to roll under wisdom and only get half as many spells. "Cure" spells are always a problem with HP-based spells, so that might need some consideration.


- The system is a bit harsh, especially at lower levels, if you're using 3d6 in order*.

- Clerics are somewhat safer casters because of their HP and better saves. Good.

- Level is taken into account through HP and saves.

- Low-level MUs can cast high-level spells but they risk their lives or a magical mishap. Neat!

- Other classes can cast spells, maybe with a penalty?

- Spells in combat become more dynamic, with failure and even death being possible consequences.

* Come to think of it, maybe memorized spells are rolled with "advantage" or whatever - provided you're rolling 3d6 in order for PCs. If using AD&D methods, this is probably unnecessary (give a penalty to non-memorized spells instead).

Saturday, February 24, 2024

The Fallible Fiend (book review)

The Fallible Fiend is a novel by L. Sprague de Camp recommended in the Appendix N, which is why I bought it in the first place.

I had never read anything from the author (who wrote over 100 books, wrote and edited Conan stories, invented the term "E.T.", among other things), and I was pleasantly surprised.

The Fallible Fiend tells the story of the demon Zdim, bound to work for one year in the (earth-like) "Prime Plane". During that time, he gets constantly confused trying to understand human customs, subtleties, and contradictions. Amusingly enough, the demon is often more moral and reasonable than most humans he meets. After being summoned by a wizard, he is eventually sold to other masters, gets to see the wider fantasy  world, and embarks on an epic (if still funny) quest to save a big city from being destroyed.

The first few chapters are very funny, and I thought the book would follow a series of vignettes as Zdim gets handed from master to master, but by the middle of the book the demon gets embroiled in much larger matters. This second part is equally good if maybe not as funny - it could be the basis of an heroic D&D adventure by its own right.

The setting described in this book is very D&Dish, and you can see how Gygax might have been influenced - maybe this was one of the sources of DMG shamans. We've got underground cities, kangaroo riders, giant reptiles, mazes, and various wizards.

Each country visited by Zdim has its own customs, religions and forms of government. The author uses this an opportunity to mock some idiosyncrasies of human societies, somewhat like Gulliver's Travels. 

It is also comparable to authors such as Vance, Lieber and Clark Ashton Smith, both in theme and style.

The book is reasonably short and the pacing is great, never making me tired or bored. 

Overall, a great read, and I will definitely look for other books by the same author - probably starting with THE CARNELIAN CUBE.


Thursday, February 22, 2024

Minimus Ludus

MINIMUS LUDUS* is a new minimalist game by my friends Mark van Vlack with Jens Durke (the disoriented ranger).

This post has additional information.

All I can add is that I've read it and really enjoyed the idea.

As you know, I love minimalist systems, and this one fits is a couple of pages. 

It is also very freeform and flexible, usable in any setting or genre - the book contains 8 micro-settings to begin with, and it seems very easy to create your own.

The layout is simple and good looking - check the previews.

If you like games such as Risus, you might enjoy this one. I'd definitely be interested in playing or maybe even running it, as both things seem very easy.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Minimalist sword & sorcery I - The concept

I've been thinking about this idea for a while. I started writing a minimalist D&D but I got stuck, maybe my hearth is not in elves and orcs anymore. 

But what about a minimalist sword and sorcery game? That sounds cool. There are a few good ones out there (I really like LFG for example, but it is a bit crunchy for my tastes), but maybe I can add something of my own.

Here is how I would (will?) do it:

S&S Tropes

- Tough protagonists - Starting at level 3 is recommended, everyone has many talents: a fighter can climb and hide, a sorcerer can use swords and some armor, etc.
- Dark, Dangerous Sorcery - Must recreate the entire spell system.
- Perilous world - well, we already expect that from D&D. But add easy rules for starvation, dehydration, etc.
- Decadent civilization - even resting in town is a challenge.
- Some dark fantasy tropes apply here: nonhumans are mysterious, alignment is complex, etc.

The system

- The basis: BFRPG because it is an awesome game with CC license.
- Convert everything to a Target20-like system.
- Take some hints from AD&D.

Player Characters

- Ability scores: 3d6 in order or maybe something a bit stronger.
- Classes: Fighter, Sorcerer, Expert. Optional feats and skills to differentiate them.
- Races: none, but you can add some cultures or backgrounds (barbarian, civilized, decadent, etc.).

Adventure and combat

- As usual, with my own tweaks, including cleave and other power-ups for the fighters.
- Most challenges are simply Target20 or similar.
- Lots of optional rules for weapons and armor because I like them.


- I have to rewrite it completely to make it more dark and dangerous.
- Sorcery probably requires bounding spirits to your will, but also includes some alchemy, mesmerism and summoning.
- Add some rituals, corruption and blood magic from Alternate Magic.
- Magic items are not as common and not as useful.


- Probably just curate the list a bit, giving more emphasis to S&S foes.
- Also emphasize unique monsters and monster variations (using Teratogenicon as inspiration).


- Must be significantly reduced (see this post).


- Single save, single XP table, single mechanic for skills, etc.
- Lots of optional rules left to appendices.

Sounds interesting?

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Hitting armor in D&D + glancing blows

Here's another idea on weapon versus armor. 

Assume ascending AC: 10 if unarmored, 12 for leather, etc.

If you roll less than 10 (or a natural 1), you miss. But if you roll a number higher than 9 an lower than AC, you hit armor.

This part is intuitive. Maybe you already use something similar when narrating combat: "17? You hit him, but your sword is deflected by his armor", etc.

Now give each type of weapon an Armor Piercing (AP) rating. Maybe a maximum of 50% (heavy mace) and a minimum of 10% (natural weapons). Unarmed attacks get AP 0.

When you hit armor, you deal a fraction of your full damage  round down.

And that's it! 

A +1 bonus due to magic or dexterity bonuses can save you on a roll of 11, for example (no damage).

Easy right?

Most (not all) side effects are positive for me:

* When a giant hits you - even in plate armor - you'll get hurt. Dexterity might be more useful here...
* Everything becomes more dangerous, so many give a few additional HP. 
* Armor is a bit less useful so this requires some balancing (make it lighter or raise all ACs).

The downside is adding more crunch.

We could go one step further and do the same with speed... From 10% to 90% chance of getting an extra attack, roll once for all combatants. Or roll to see if you can interrupt a spell before it is cast, etc.

But that is another matter...

Glancing blows

Here is an easier/lighter alternative.

An exact hit (e.g., rolling 17 against AC 17) is a "glancing blow", dealing a fraction of damage (or -x damage, depending on the weapon). 

Against very high AC, glancing blows will happen very often (e.g., once for every four hits), but against low AC there will be little difference in damage per round.

The effect is similar: some weapons are better against armor. However, the impact of this rule is much smaller.

(What is more, maybe a glancing blow gives you a chance of getting a free attack - so that quick weapons are more useful against unarmored targets!)

This might just be easy enough to actually try to implement in my B/X games...

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Wargames, storygames and RPGs

We have been through this before, but I might as well make try to make it clearer.

Role-playing games are neither wargames nor storygames.

The main difference is probably how you play the PCs (and the setting; see below).

In RPGs, you play them in as if they were real people, with their own needs and interests. This stance is very unique to RPGs.

In wargames, you play them as pawns in a "board" or table: they are easily discarded for the benefit of the faction/army or whatever, and player choice is determined by meta-analysis of the game or the grand scheme of things (e.g., I can lose this PC to save the unit, and then quickly create a new PC with 10% of his XP, maybe I can beat this trap with ONE of my PCs if the other dies, etc.).

In storygames, PCs are protagonists in a story. Player choice is determined  meta-analysis of the plot. A player could choose the death/defeat of the PC because it is appropriate to the plot or story.

Let me repeat this: in RPG, you RP characters as if they were REAL within the bounds of the fictional setting.

In other words, RPG characters have value in themselves, regardless or side or plot. This is so unique to RPGs that it often generates anecdotes about players creating dozens of characters for fun, which, while a bit absurd in itself, would be almost unthinkable in a wargame or storygame.

One important thing to remember is that saying wargames and storygames are not RPGs is not an offense to ANY of these games!

They are just different. 

Sometimes the boundaries are so fuzzy that they allow some intermingling. Old school role-players sometimes fall back to wargame rules and methods, while modern D&D often contains lots of storygaming in actual play.

The chronological order for D&D is wargame - RPG - storygame. But that does not mean any of them is more genuine or obsolete. Checkers is not a better or worse game than chess or poker.

The role of the GM

The GM, in RPs, plays the world as if the setting was REAL. Fluff is crunch. Likewise for NPCs, with their own interest and needs, often regardless of "faction"/side or plot.

In wargames, the GM is a neutral arbiter, but his impartiality usually comes from the need to be fair to both SIDES of a quarrel.

In RPGs he should also be impartial, but in favor of the reality of the setting.

In storygames, there is not always a GM, but if present he is foten responsible to move the "plot" forward, create climaxes, antagonists, etc.

Wargames and storygames can easily be played without a GM.

RPGs, on the other hand, need the GM role; in a "solo RPG", the player takes this role, sometimes even more often than the role of player (e.g., in Mythic GM Emulator). Another possibility is having a game so full of detailed random tables that the book provides the GM role.


In RPGs, the precedence of the fiction over the mechanics (remember, this is a "real" world, or at least treated as such) makes too much metagaming (i.e., thinking as a player SEPARATED from the PC) an undesirable occurrence.

In wargaming and storygaming, metagaming is the norm, because the PCs are viewed from a "third person" perspective.

This is one reason I avoid miniatures; on the other hand, I see how they can be useful to ensure the player see the whole picture the PCs are seeing.

Another example: "describe how you killed the troll". While this could look like a third-person perspective (if you describe the troll's reaction to the killing blow, for example), you're encouraging the player to see through the eyes of the PC.

Again, the "play like you were the character", "play like the setting was real", part is very unique to RPGs. 

A wargame or first-person shooter can align the player with the PCs motivations if they are very simple (i.e., just survive the battle), but the "the PC can do anything like a real person" and "a world with no invisible walls" of RPGs is hard to replicate in any other media.

Unclear boundaries

The definitions above are clear enough, but in practice things get fuzzy.

The original D&D was partly a wargame (Chainmail). Alignments were "sides" of a battle (later, they became intrinsic to characters and creatures; HOW they see the world since you're going to see the world from their eyes).

Things like 1:1 time (in all its forms) and the idea that "you must end the session in town" are typical meta-game concerns. The players are asking themselves if they can play next week or if they have to finish in a couple of hours, instead of how many torches the PCs have.

[What about "how many HPs the PCs have"? This is not exactly a meta-game concern as it has a translation WITHIN the fiction: how wounded the heroes are. But that is a looong discussion.]

And modern RPGs (often called "narrativist RPGs") get deep into storygame territory. But even in regular D&D, story concepts are popular. For example, "fudging" dice because the "plot" demands it, or because the "main antagonist" got defeated too soon, etc.

Now, I think "fudging" in D&D is the result of a misconception, since the role of the GM is not to protect the plot or the pacing of the story. Likewise for changing a monster's HP mid-fight; this is not the role of the GM in RPGs.

On the other hand, metagame challenges are often fun to include in RPGs (for example, using a stopwatch for random encounters), especially when they help the players to get into the PC's mind.

The reason is that it is not always easy to stay "within" the mind of PCs for a long time, especially when the PC is hurried and scared and the players are seating cozily and taking minutes to decide what the PCs are doing in the next second.

Here is an hypothesis: RPGs must balance two different urges: playing your PC as a pawn or playing him as a protagonist. A real person is neither, but since pawns and protagonists are opposed, so one perspective/urge can sometimes balance the other.

In other words, while I think these non-RPG perspectives should be avoided as a general rule, they can sometimes be useful if they enhance the alignment between players and PCs.

Everyone is the hero of their own story...

Another problem to consider is that the players, as the PCs, can rightly think of them as the heroes of their own story - this is how most real people see themselves anyway.

On the other hand, the GM, with a wider view of the setting and keeping it true and coherent, while ,controlling lots of NPCs, must sometimes see the PCs as mere pawns in the grand scheme of things.

So, maybe, there will always be a tension between these two sides, and we will never find RPG in its "pure" form. But searching for this balance is of the essence of our hobby.

UPDATE/ADDENDUM (17/02/2024)

It has been brought to my attention that the term "wargame" is much broader and can includes all types of games and many RPG-like elements - even before the creation of D&D. The history of wargames and RPGs is much more nuanced - to elarn more about this, the books by Jon Peterson have been recommended to me.

For this post, I'm using "wargame" and "RPG" basically as defined by wikipedia. Same for "storygame":

A wargame is a strategy game in which two or more players command opposing armed forces in a simulation of some military operation.

A role-playing game [...] (RPG) is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting

A storytelling game is a game where multiple players collaborate on telling a spontaneous story. Usually, each player takes care of one or more characters in the developing story.

As mentioned above, the lines are sometimes blurry - is Braunstein wargame or proto-RPG? Is Dragon quest a quasi-RPG or simply a boardgame like Heroquest? Are boardgames scuh as Risk or Battleship also wargames? Etc.

However, these definitions are good enough because they come from a famous source (Wikipedia) and include three descriptions that are essential to define each kind of game: opposing armed forces, characters in a fictional setting, and telling a story

These three perspectives are useful to differentiate these three games.