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

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Unlimited D&D x Limited D&D

These are two different perspectives for playing D&D, or, more specifically, running/DMing D&D. 

One is that your options are somewhat limited whatever is included in the game rules (I'll call this "Limited D&D" or LD&D). 

The other is that there is no such limit, and the DM can come up with whatever he deems necessary for his campaign ("Unlimited D&D" or UD&D).

This is not about "House Rules x RAW", however. 

It is about the number of pieces you get to build your setting: for example, how many monsters, races, classes, magic items or spells you can use in your creations.

I would guess most groups would quickly accept that the DM can include new monsters to the setting as desired, but this is an assumption that often gets ignored when discussing old school D&D. 

For example, I always found that "immunity to ghoul paralysis" was a silly trait to give a class or creature because it is so specific. But if you are only using Moldvay's Basic - and not even expert - it could be an interesting advantage, since the total number of monsters is low. Still, people keep using it even when playing some form of UD&D.

Same for the cleric "turn undead" tables that include the NAMES of the creatures turned instead of their HD. If the number of undead are limited, this makes perfect sense; otherwise, it looks strange and impractical.

(A more extreme example is the blink dog and its hatred of displacer beast. B/X tell us almost nothing about these creatures, but they attack each other on sight. How often will that happen? If you're playing UD&D, almost never).

There are other aspects of old school D&D that seem to be remnants of this limited mindset. For example, clerics and mages cannot use sword, which is important if most magic weapons are swords, but becomes less important if you have several magic maces or daggers.

Another example I've been struggling with lately is spells. I've been running a game slightly based on B/X, which does not contain "counter spell", exactly. But now I'm introducing an NPC for another system that has this spell. Is it fair to my caster that he didn't get to choose it?

(My solution for this is: if my player shows interest in Dispel Magic, I'll let it function as a counterspell. Fortunately, he hasn't got it so far).

Personally, I was always attracted to this "Unlimited" take on RPGs in general. I'm willing to add new monsters, spells and even the ocasional laser guns to my games, and always tried to accommodate every character concept the players suggest (although now I'm tempted to go mall-human for the next campaign).

But there are advantages of the "limited" perspective - it allows players to get more familiar with existing monsters, spells, etc., for example.

And, in general, I want to expand the boundaries rather than destroying them. I would definitely not limit the number of monsters I can use in my games, but I'm perfectly satisfied with running a limited number of monster types: undead, giants, humanoids, beasts, etc.

In fact, having fewer monster types reinforces their significance rather than diluting it.

(This is partly what Teratogenicon is about, BTW).

If every single monster, spell or item the PCs find is completely new, they can never learn anything except trough direct contact. There is no room for extrapolation, generalization, etc.

I have a similar feeling on classes. Yes, I like paladins, assassins, warlords, druids, avengers, and monks. But rather than having a dozen classes, I prefer having FOUR: fighter, mage, thief, cleric, each with a few variations. And I think the AD&D bard - a class that works in a completely different way from other classes - is an unnecessary mess.

(Maybe I'll reduce it to THREE classes for my Sword and Sorcery game, ditching the cleric).
Even 5e seems to have problems with this (correct me if I'm wrong; I don't play 5e anymore). For example, the "Staff of Charming" requires attunement by "a bard, cleric, druid, sorcerer, warlock, or wizard". But what if I'm using a 3rd-party class, or even the very popular artificer? Are they automatically excluded? Or do including a class requires rewriting all magic items like that?

As you can see, seeing classes through a limited scope simplifies some aspects of the game.

(This is partly what Old School Feats is about, BTW - no extra classes but many additional options. You can look at the free previews to see how I treat fighters, for example: a framework to create warriors, paladins, rangers and warlords).

In short, my favorite approached to D&D is having unlimited choices within a limited framework that works as a common language between players and DM.

BTW: my latest book, Basic Wilderness Encounters, is still 50% off for the time being. Check it out!

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Basic Wilderness Encounters is now available!

My new book, Basic Wilderness Encounters, is now available!

It is 50% off for the first week or so - but if you bought ANY of my books before, see if you got my e-mail before buying.

I've been obsessing about random encounters for the last few months of my hexcrawl campaign...

I really liked adding them to my games, but there were some aspects that I found troublesome in practice: mostly, it took me too long to generate encounters and the results did not always make sense.

In this book, I try to tackle the whole idea of random encounters: the tables, procedures, terrains, and so on.


The first part of this book is a collection of thoughts, ideas and alternatives for creating random encounters - including reaction, distance, surprise number of monsters appearing, balance, and so on.


The second part is a list of 1000 random encounters (100 for each type of terrain), one line for each, including number, distance, surprise, and a few details, using this format (I added a summary of terrain features for easy reference):




The third part of the book describes a year in the wilderness – giving you a random encounter check, a succinct description of weather and some random details:




Each part can be used separately.

Take a look at the previews to see if you like it!

Writing this book has made using random encounters faster, easier and more fun in my own campaigns - I hope it does the same to yours!

Monday, May 20, 2024

Inverted Target 20 - Trained/Untrained

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I'm a big fan of Target 20.

However, in the last few days, I've been thinking of an alternative that is even simpler. I'm not the first one to have this idea - I've seem something similar in at least two or three OSR games.

Mathematically, it it's very close to Target 20, but it uses a method that resembles THAC0 and saving throws. Here it goes.

You have two numbers in your sheet, in addition to ability scores* and modifiers: Trained and Untrained.

(* I've been considering 4d4+2 or a 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 array).

To succeed, you need to roll 1d20+mod, equal or over this number.

Notice that the chances of succeeding when you are untrained are about half when compared to a trained PC (e.g., by level 5, the chances are 30% and 15%).

And this replaces:

- Saving throws. I'd say every adventurer is trained in saving throws. Some classes or situations deserve a bonus.
- Skills. Thieves are trained in their usual skills. But you could add "training" to rangers, for example, to forage or find tracks.
- THAC0. Works perfectly with descending AC. Only fighters are trained in combat.
- Ability checks. If you are untrained, this is how you can attempt to do thief (or ranger,etc.) stuff.
- Spellcasting, if you want roll-to-cast.

This has some advantages over Target 20:

- Level is calculated in advance, you only roll 1d20+ability mod.
- Comparing values is even easier than addition.

I'm somewhat tempted to leave this table in the hands of the DM - the PCs just roll 1d20+mod, period, telling the DM if they are trained or not.

But, overall, Target 20 feels somewhat easier to grasp for my players - they expect bonuses over a descending number.

I am a bit doubtful about what version to use in my next game.

Anyway, if you like how THAC0 and Saving throws work in old school D&D, however, this might be  a good alternative!

Notice that the two systems can be used interchangeably, as the "trained" values are mathematically identical to suing Target 20.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Fallout: Carcosa

(Nine years. Whoa. That is quite a lot. And it was fast. I have to think about that. Anyway.).

At that time, I mentioned the Fallout series as one inspiration - besides Barsoom, Carcosa* and Dune.

A few things have changed since then - maybe one or two authors mentioned in that post turned out to be contemptible at best, so I'll avoid them - but, once again, I've been thinking of Fallout and Barsoom, and wishing to run a campaign in such setting.

It was probably the TV series that made me want to play Fallout again. I had only played Fallout 3, and now I'm playing New Vegas. 

It really makes me want to create my own post-apoc setting - "with blackjack and hookers", as the saying goes, but New Vegas already has some of those...

Carcosa* is one of these games that I always wanted to run but never quite got around to it. It is full of awesome ideas, but I think it stops just a bit short of being an amazing setting like Dark Sun. I hear that the author has other modules in the same setting, but these are not in DTRPG.

Here are a few elements from New Vegas I'd like to add to Carcosa in order to make the setting more interesting.


Fallout vaults are a source of endless possibility and fun. 

First, each one is a dungeon to explore - but a dungeon with a real purpose and history. 

Second, vaults are created as different experiments, so each vault can be unique and even contain different creatures (including mutants, robots, etc.). Some experiments are social, so different forms of government are to be expected - you can check this post or Dark Fantasy Places for ideas.


New Vegas has several interesting factions. Some evil, some neutral, some trying to do 
good, with many shades of gray,

"Everyone wants to save the world, they just disagree on how" as the show mentions.

There are several factions that think that things will be a lot nicer when THEY are in power, even if they need to brutalize some folks to get there.

Carcosa doesn't have much of that - all groups are similar, and governed by a single individual. Add a few details and things start to get interesting.

In addition, Carcosa has "men" int he encounter table, but doesn't give you anything else - are these merchants? Explorers? Adventurers? We should probably add some ideas here.

Lost technology

This is another fun part of both Fallout and Carcosa - projectile weapons, power cells, power armor, robots and cyborgs are in both settings.

Maybe the system deserves some kind of "repair/tech" skill, allowing some PCs to try to access technology they cannot fully understand.

Mutated monsters

In Carcosa, "The spawn of Shub-Niggurath are the innumerable and typically unique monsters [...] These [...] are the most common type of monster on the planet of Carcosa". There are also numerous oozes, jellies, worms and dinosaurs.

Which is fun. But I think mutated/giant insects (or other beasts) might be an interesting addition to the setting. 

Unique monsters are cool, but not every monster needs to be unique - sometimes, fighting a bunch of giant cockroaches or giant scorpions can be fun.

Sandbox & Hexcrawl

It doesn't make sense that an adult wouldn't know at least vague directions to nearby lands. The idea that you enter a new hex and suddenly see a new city (or the sea!) sounds absurd. There are exceptions - maybe when discovering a new continent, etc. Still, if there are intelligent people around, it should be easy to ask for directions.


What if the PCs are vault dwellers? When they come out to the world, they have no idea where they are! They still can see a mountain at a distance, but not much more than that. It would be a nearly ideal setting for a hex-crawl.

Can we use Carcosa hexes?

Carcosa hexes are often interesting but sometimes very repetitive and terse ("Castle of 29 Black Men led by a neutral 5th-level Fighter"). 

Human groups are very small, somewhat similarly to Fallout.

Maybe we can combine existing hexes with some random tables to add detail.

Do we still need magic?

Fallout doesn't have magic spells. Carcosa has rituals, but they are very unique - unlike anything I've seen in other RPGs. Dark Sun has proper spells. But do we need them?

Maybe psionics would work better here. And, of course, technology that is "indistinguishable from magic".

But the rituals in Carcosa are so interesting and unique that I'm doubtful about getting rid of them.


Well, that is it. I hope I can actually do something with this before nine more years have passed!

* Affiliate links.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

How many leaders? Demographics of command

Just a small thing I noticed examining B/X encounters.

Some humanoid groups have a 2 HD leader for every 10-20 people, a 4 HD leader for every 40, etc. 

A few examples: merchants, pirates, brigands, etc.

It changes from creature to creature, but it would be easy to say, for example:

- One 2 HD leader for every 20.
- One 3 HD leader for every 30.
- One 4 HD leader for every 40, etc. 

Maybe up to level 9 (or lower for demi-humans; humans are the most organized and can get more levels).

If you ever find a group of 100 warriors, it would be organized like this:

- Led by a 9th-level warlord.
- One of each level 6, 7, 8 characters as advisors, maybe clerics, magic-users, etc.
- A couple of 5th-level captains.
- A couple of 4th-level lieutenants.
- Three 3rd-level and five 2nd level lieutenants.

This assumes an organized army. About 20% of the individuals are above 1 HD.

But most groups are way smaller, and it only have 10% of exceptional individuals or fewer.

I used to think the best way to calculate the number of exceptional people in a population was exponential: for example, one out of ten fighters would be level 2 or more, one out of a hundred for level 3, etc.

You'd need a army of MILLIONS to find a 9th-level fighter!

But come to think of it the difference between level 5 and 6 is not as extreme as level 1 to 2, so maybe level 6 is just a bit less common than level 5, a suggested above.

For larger populations (cities etc.) I'd say 50% are simply non-combatants, 25% are level 0, and 25% level 1 or more.

Anyway, it is nice to have more leaders. Gives NPC bands more personality.

This should definitely affect morale, BTW. 

I always found odd that you can defeat a group of 40 by killing one and forcing a morale check. 

Maybe this applies to leaderless groups - but with a leader, you only check when the leader or half heir numbers is killed, for example.

Anyway, just something to consider for my future encounters.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Minimalist magic resistance (B/X)

As much as I love B/X, I often miss something from AD&D. I tried playing AD&D but found it too complex. What I often do, instead, is simplifying AD&D ideas to use in my B/X(ish) games.

Case in point, I find that magic-users in B/X are just too powerful (and Fighters are too weak, but let's leave that for another day). 

AD&D got things right by adding spell components and magic resistance (MR) to the game - now so you cannot defeat EVERY enemy with a good fireball or two (except for a couple of golems that are immune to fire).

What AD&D gets wrong is adding a MR to EVERY creature (and about 80% of the time, the MR is "standard", which means it can just be ignored).

Here's a simpler version (or two...)

Method 1.

Only a few special creatures have MR.

To "defeat" the MR, a magic-user must roll 1d20+level and beat the target's MR.

For demons, the MR is 12+HD.

For devils, either use the same or 8+HD.

(This is, assuming your B/X games have demons and devils).

For faeries, the MR is 20 regardless of HD.

For golems, AD&D has special rules, but they are mostly impervious to magic. Either use 12+HD like demons, or AD&D rules as written.

If you don't want to calculate for every creature, just make it 20 to everyone - which is similar to giving 50% in AD&D.

Method 2.

Method 1 is already a huge simplification over AD&D. But here is something even simpler:

Demons, devils, faeries and golems have a +10 bonus to saving throws against spells (if the spell doesn't have a saving throw, they get the chance to roll a save with no bonus).

If they succeed by 10 or more, they completely ignore any effects (e.g., instead of taking 50% damage from a fireball, they take none).

If you want to take MU level into account, the target gets a penalty equal to half the MU level.

Notice that in AD&D 2e, the caster's level is ignored. 

So you could just, say, give 50% MR to every monster that has MR, or use 2e monsters as written (which is probably the easiest way of them all...).

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Ability scores generation: method X (B/X? S&S?)

In the past few days, I've been considering the many methods of generating abilities scores (again...) for my S&S game. 

The most popular are 3d6 in order (OD&D, B/X, etc.) and 4d6, drop lowest (AD&D, Method I). However, AD&D has several other methods - why can't I find a favorite?

Well, someone else did the math. Turns out that 3d6 in order gives you an average of 10.5, and Method I gives you 12.24. And ALL the other AD&D methods give you results that are HIGHER than 12.24. 

So there is nothing between the two most popular methods.

But remember, B/X modifiers are bigger than AD&D. If you look at damage modifiers, for example Strength 13 in B/X is similar to 16 in AD&D (+1 damage), and a 16 in B/X means 18 in AD&D (+2 damage). A B/X PC with lots of 16s and 17s looks too powerful, adn a 18 should be extremely exceptional.

I like stats that look like the picture below: above average but not "epic". An average of 11-12, a couple of impressive abilities (14-17), and almost NO dismal abilities. I think someone just chose these abilities instead of rolling, but they feel about right for me.

[Notice that HP is also above average - maybe maximum HP at level 1?]

I feel that what is missing is a list of B/X methods, similar to AD&D: start with 3d6 in order and add several options that give you slightly higher results.

Anyway, I've heard one method I particularly liked: roll 3d6 in order, but re-roll 1s. 

This gives you:

- Average 12.
- Minimum 6.
- Low ability are unlikely or impossible, but high ability scores are not so common either (less than 1% chance of getting a 18, which is lower than AD&D).
- A decent chance of getting a 15+ for one ability at least. 

If you want the possibility of sub-par abilities, re-roll 1s ONCE, so you could STILL get a 3... But it is very rare.

The typical abilities would be something like 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. Feels almost perfect!

I'm probably using that for my S&S book. 

A regular adventurer is above average in MOST things, can still have a flaw, but is unlikely to be Conan by level 1 either. 

I'll certainly include ability score improvements as you level up, so you can eventually get that 18 if you want.

[IF I were to use point buy, I'm thinking that maybe giving PCs something like 75 points to distribute - but positive modifiers costing points, so that 18 (+3) would cost 21 - would encourage fewer low abilities but also not many high ones. But that is probably for another post...]

Saturday, May 04, 2024

Sword&Sorcery I: Introduction

I don't know when I'll finish this book but here is the introduction. Let me know if there is anything missing.

I'll add the following chapters as I write them.



Old School Sword & Sorcery (OSSS) is exactly what it says on the tin: an old school RPG in the Sword & Sorcery (S&S) genre. We assume you are familiar with RPGs, especially of the OSR type. If you are not, you can easily find explanations online. [add link to "what is OSR"]. This book will not teach you to play RPGs, since it is better to try it in practice or watch videos of other people playing.

If you are not entirely familiar with S&S, this book will discuss several aspects of the genre: characters, magic, monsters, treasure, and so on. The most famous S&S character is Conan the Barbarian, created by Robert E. Howard. Elric of Melniboné (created by Michael Moorcock) and the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (by Fritz Leiber) are other quintessential S&S heroes. These examples are particularly important because the term “sword and sorcery” was coined by Leiber while discussing Howard’s stile with Moorcock.

Howard (especially due to the Conan stories) is the quintessential S&S author. This book will reference Conan stories multiple times. If you are not familiar, I recommend reading a few short stories to get the idea. Red Nails, The Tower of the Elephant, Queen of the Black Coast, and The People of the Black Circle are some of my favorites. If you want to expand your knowledge of S&S literature, there is a list of authors on page xxx to keep you entertained for years.

There are multiple ways to use this book: as a complete game (with characters, monsters, tools and rules) contained in a single book, or as toolbox to create your own S&S campaign or adapt existing adventures and modules to the S&S genre (see " Compatibility ", below).

No matter how you decide to use this book, we hope you enjoy it!


Sword & Sorcery tropes

Sword & Sorcery has its own tropes, somewhat different from the most famous fantasy games. This section explains some of them. Each of these tropes are reflected in the rules (sometimes clearly, sometimes subtly): the heroes are a bit stronger and more competent, alignment is not always clear-cut, magic is dangerous, and so on. Understanding S&S tropes will help you understand some of the rules choices we have made.

Tough protagonists

S&S protagonists are very tough but often amoral, and sometimes true anti-heroes, unlike the noble heroes of epic fantasy. They are driven by their own interest and passions for wealth, romance, revenge or simple survival, instead of honor and compassion.

The protagonists are often competent from the beginning of their stories, instead of going “zero to hero”. They excel in multiple fields: warriors that can climb and move silently, thieves that fight with sword and spell, and sorcerers who are also skilled swordsmen.

Peril everywhere

S&S settings are dangerous and unstable. They contain pure Evil, but pure Good is harder to find. The opposition is rarely a single “Dark Lord” that threatens the realm with his goblin minions. Instead, the world is full of callous humans, prehistoric beasts, fallen civilizations, and cosmic entities that are unknown to most people.

Limited scope

S&S narratives often focus on characters and small locations rather than big armies and the fate of entire nations. Sometimes the world and the characters appear remarkably unchanged from one story to the other.

Many S&S authors choose to tell stories in episodic fashion rather than part of a big narrative. Unlike epic fantasy sagas such as The Lord of The Rings or The Wheel of Time, the stories take shorter format and uncertain chronology. You can enjoy Conan’s stories in any order (and the same can be said of Fafhrd, Gray Mouser and even Elric to some extent). 

Dark magic

Magic is seldom a superpower or a universal solution to your problems; instead, it is dangerous and costly. Most sorcerers are antagonists, but magic is a sinister tool even when wielded by the protagonists.

Wicked cities

Civilization is not merely threatened by outside forces: it is often rotting from the inside and a threat unto itself. Cities and realms are not always safe harbors in S&S settings, but places full of intrigue and backstabbing in dark alleys. Sometimes barbarism is preferable – at least it is more honest.

Weird worlds

The S&S genre flourished in pulp magazines that also featured horror and sci-fi stories, in addition to fantasy. “Weird Tales”, the most important pulp magazine in this context, featured works by Howard, Lovecraft and Ashton Smith. Sometimes, the genres (and settings) were combined to generate dark fantasy, sword and planet and others subgenres. Even within S&S, horror and sci-fi elements are present, and the protagonists often have to face aliens and demons, magic and technology, without being able to tell them apart. One example is “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, by Smith, that seamlessly mixes influences by Howard, Lovecraft and Dunsany.

Unique creatures

In S&S, unique monsters are more common than evil hordes of orcs or various dragons. Each monster is shrouded in mystery. This includes “nonhuman humanoids” – elves and dwarves are rare, and, if they are present, they often have a dark twist. Protagonists are almost always humans from various backgrounds, usually from a strong or mythic lineage (e.g., from fallen Atlantis or Lemuria).

Unreliable deities

Deities in S&S settings are often unreliable or simply absent. Demons, monsters, monarchs and even gigantic beasts can be worshiped in lieu of actual deities. If deities exist, they are often capricious and mysterious, sometimes having their own hidden agendas and dark appetites.

Blood and passion

Some S&S stories are famously for its violent aspects, including bloody descriptions of combat. Sexuality and romance is portrayed in a more realistic and cynical manner – or leading to tragic consequences. S&S art often contain bare-naked bodies of muscular men and voluptuous women. A few stories include (more or less obvious) references to murder, torture, sexual assault, and so on. Needless to say, you do not have to include any of these aspects in your games.



The rules

My favorite kind of rules are easy to use and remember, while also providing players enough variety for their characters.

In addition, I like them to be compatible with my favorite modules - usually, those using the OSR label or the classic ones written before the year 2000. The goal is being able to use these modules whenever I need, with minimal or no conversion.

At the same time, I enjoy the simplifications and the additions that often come with modern (post-2000s) games: a single unified mechanic for multiple tasks, skills and feats to customize PCs, and so on.

Basic Fantasy RPG (BFRPG) by Chris Gonnerman was one of my greatest inspirations for writing this game – not only for being a great set of rules but also for adopting a Creative Commons license that allows others to use their material.

The rules contained in this book attempt to fulfill the requirements described above and enforce some of the S&S tropes mentioned above. You might notice that PCs are tougher than usual, magic is more dangerous, magic items are a bit scarcer, etc.

The rules contained herein are “advanced” in the sense that we assume you are familiar with other RPGs. Still, they should be clear enough that no important question is left unanswered.


A note about Dark Fantasy Basic

Sword & Sorcery tropes, as explained above, shares some tropes with dark fantasy. This book is, in some ways, a sequel to my first RPG, Dark Fantasy Basic. While some ideas are similar, the rules have been almost completely rewritten not only to make them better fitted to S&S but also to take advantage of all the years of experience I had with that system since then.


The basic mechanic

Before delving into PC creation, it is useful to understand the basic mechanic of the game.

When a character tries to do anything that carries a risk of failure, roll 1d20, plus modifiers (usually due to ability and class/level), with 20 or more signifying success. A “hard” difficulty is assumed; the GM may set other difficulty number (DC) for particularly easy or hard tasks, as described in the following chapters.

This process is called a “check”. When the books call for a check, assume it means rolling 1d20, adding the relevant modifiers, and succeeding on a 20 or more, unless otherwise specified.

Combat, spellcasting, skills, all work in a similar way.

Now let’s create some characters!