Saturday, June 18, 2011

The First Session: Success!

Last night inaugurated the first session of my OSR D&D campaign.

I’ll get to the action in a moment, but the first thing I have to say is that it was a bit of a struggle at times to not interrupt the other players, jump in, and have an NPC declare “Orcs are attacking the village!” or some other such nonsense.

The campaign should run at the player’s speed, and not mine. So I kept stuffing my mouth with chocolate chip cookies and waited for some to want to talk to an NPC.

As it was, I still got to play various NPCs and I had a good time without stepping on anyone else’s spotlight time. I did prompt them once or twice when I thought they were at loss, but everything went very smoothly.

All but one of the players who had committed showed up. That included.

N. who played Freedrick Rogersson, a mage.

KT, N’s wife, who played a female dwarf named Thump Waymaker

R. who played a bard named Thaddeus Silverkin

Sandra, my wife, who played Garion Cerdic, Priest of Mitra

R.’s wife, KY, wasn’t able to show up tonight, because their child was being extra-fussy. I expect she’ll join us for the next session. She currently has a no-name fighter rolled up.

At the beginning, I handed out Excel based character sheets (I love making character sheets) which had every conceivable number and modifier listed. I know, it goes against the grain of the OSR but some old habits are hard to break.

I had told them I would hand out one-line note cards for backgrounds, but I wasn’t able to finish these before the game began. I did finish sixteen rumor cards, and handed out two to each player, except for the bard, who got five. Most of these were keyed to various local adventure locations, though some were keyed to areas they may never, ever see, like Rappan Athuk or the Dungeons under the City-state of the Invincible Overlord. I also seeded a few duds or red herrings.

Freedrick, the Mage, got a Grimoire with a number of spells. (Note: I am using a variant of the core rule system for mages that is more ‘Vancian’ and less D&D-ish.) Thump, the dwarf, got a warehouse full of goods that she is supposed to set up a trading post with in order to open a new market for the dwarves of Thunderhold, while Garion, the priest, got a Surya (permanent scroll of protection) vs undead and was due to be exiled from the local temple for angering the high priest. Finally, Thaddeus did not get much besides the burning desire to leave the Podunk town he was born in, as well as the access to the Bard character class which people tell me is waaay too powerful. Haven’t seen it yet.

After some discussion of the campaign background, I handed them a blank Wilderlands City-state map, and hand-drawn Grand Tactical map of hex 4015, which contained the village of Brushwood, as well as the surrounding area.

So they knew a little of the surrounding area, but I still need to write up the half page handout for both the Wilderlands and Brushwood.

I said they could determine how they knew each other, and Thump immediately jumped at the option of hiring guards to protect her goods. The other characters wandered up and offered their services, but after a time it became very clear that most of them had absolutely no money to spend, and so they eventually turned to the rumor cards to determine where to get more cash.

Most of the role playing was established in the inn during the interviews, and the characters learned about each other in that way.

Thump Waymaker presented herself as a no-nonsense cash n’ carry type of gal, who kept looking for a way of selling her goods and starting up the trade post. In this she was frustrated by Freedrick, who claimed to be the 6th son of a noble family, who would surely pay for weapons and armor if Thump would transport them there. Freedrick also claimed to have been abandoned by a servant, Liam, who absconded with most of the wealth that has been entrusted to Freedrick by his father. Freedrick seemed to have plenty of wealth despite this claim, and kept having to have his large denomination coin broken for change.

(In a time I weakness some months earlier, I had sprung for a large amount of fantasy coinage, which I distributed, along with dice pouches to carry it in, among the PCs according to their post equipment wealth. This seemed to work out well, as people actually seemed to enjoy fddling with the coinage, asking for change, etc.)

Thaddeus inveigled his way into the group as a cook, dishwasher and guard, while Garion offered to make sacrifices to Mitra for Thump, in order to gain admittance to the forming company.

I had asked that all the characters be between 16 and 19 (except for the dwarf, who is of equivalent maturity) and they all played this to the hilt, with episodes of acne, greed, laziness, etc. as appropriate.

Freedrick then spent some of his wealth (10 GP!) on hiring a 0-level retainer, Arnulf, who I portrayed as a spiritual relative of Don Knotts. Morale rolls (which he actually all passed) are remarkable for the amount of comedy they generate.

Much to my surprise, they decided on the rumor I hoped they would, which led to a dungeon (available on the internet, but I won’t say which, before they finish it) that was located in the same hex. Once there, they fought some giant bees (no–prize if you can identify the dungeon from that hint), which nearly killed two of the characters, but for some lucky saving throws. Wow, poison really is icky in OD&D.

They then took the stingers they collected (without entering the dungeon first) and went to claim the bounty on the bees from a local citadel, in the hex immediately to the north. (Hex 4014, Gasconfold Citadel, for those of you keeping track). After a night at the inn in the village by the citadel, they returned to the dungeon, and scouted a bit. They were considering smoking out any remaining giant bees, when they found a large tree near the tower ruins (which contained the entrance to the dungeon) that contained a small door. Opening it up (and frightening Arnulf, who complained about spooky gnomes who would come to curse them) they found a cramped stairwell leading down.

Abandoning that passage, they resolved to go through the stairs in the ruined tower, redolent with the smell of honey, to the depths below.

That’s where we ended it, for the night. An excellent time was had by all, and I am really, really looking forward to next Thursday (we will be playing on alternate Thursdays and Fridays).

Monday, June 6, 2011

For Those Not in the Know: Resources I

I have had a few requests from those unfamiliar with the OSR for information about resources that I have been referring to. So if you are already familiar with the OSR, these next few pots might seem a bit blasé, but for someone unfamiliar with the movement, who didn’t know where to look, I am hoping this will be useful and informative.


To list blogs as a resource might seem a little strange at first, but in many ways blogging is the heart of the OSR movement. All the main creators (i.e. people who produce useful and game-able resources, not just opinions and reviews) post on blogs, often providing links to pdf dungeons, charts, even whole campaigns. Frankly, the ‘idea’ posts are of even more value, once you begin to delve into them and begin to see how to apply the ideas to your game.

I’ll just list a few of the more famous ones, along with a brief note about each.


James Maliszewski writes the premiere old-school blog. He’s generally very thoughtful and interesting, but only occasionally serves up the red meat of resources in the way many other blogs do.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

James Edward Raggi IV produces the LotFP RPG, which is an adaption of Labyrinth Lord in the Weird Fantasy vein. He’s got a bit of a bay-boy rep, but his works include some of the best old school dungeons available, not to mention fantastic work for LotFP.

Playing D&D with Porn Stars

Speaking of bad-boy reps, Zak S. happens to GM a game with his GF (wife?) who just happens to be a porn star. And most of his other players are porn stars as well. Ya know what? That’s not the most interesting thing about his blog, it’s the tons and tone of useful, gameable old-school resources that he posts every week. Author of the acclaimed Vornheim: the Complete City Guide, which is probably the best fantasy city campaign guide published since The Kaiin Players Guide.

Society of Torch, Pole and Rope

Michael Curtis has written three works, each one of which would grant some lasting fame to any RPG writer, but he wrote all three, and they are really as good as the hype says they are. The Dungeon Alphabet, filled with incredible old school art, Realms of Crawling Chaos, Lovecraftian fantasy written with Dan Proctor, and his sublime Stonehell Dungeon.

Sham’s Grog & Blog

Dave Bowman produces many excellent short PDFs of excellent utility, such as Time in the Game, the One page Dungeon template, marvelous little works like d6 Dungeon rooms and many other tables of use.


As you might guess, the OSR is all about the original rules, but that is actually a little more complex than it seems.

The first set of ‘rules’ that can be called a true RPG is debatable, but for most, the white box Dungeons & Dragons is considered to be the first true RPG rules published.

Four core supplements were profited for this version of the rules.

White Box Swords and Wizardry emulates the box rules alone, and not the supplements

Swords & Wizardy Core emulates the Box rules plus the first supplement, Greyhawk.

Swords & Wizardry Complete emulates it all, plus two classes as they originally appear in the The Strategic Review, precursor to Dragon.

Next: more rules.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Time, Travel, and Exploration

One of the most ignored and overlooked aspects of original Dungeons & Dragons (besides encumbrance) is the emphasis on time, traveling and exploration.

Yet, as Davis Bowman points out, these are indelible elements of the game, linked to other parts in an organic system; taking away one part wrecks the whole.

Consider: the amount of time one spends in the underground (or dungeon, or place of mystery, or mythic underworld) is directly proportional to the amount of wandering encounters a party must engage in.

(Theory interlude begins.) The conventional Narrativist argument against wandering monsters is that it disrupts any sort of story that you, as game master (storyteller, referee, DM, etc.), wish to tell. But if we assume that narrative arises from play, rather than being imposed on play by the referee, a different paradigm emerges where focus and economy in exploration of the dungeon rewards players for clever, quick and strategic play. This can be certainly called Gamist, and strictly speaking it is, but if we assume that narrative arises from play then the nature of that narrative is substantially up to the players and is entirely dependent on their style of play, which they have the freedom of choice to determine as they go along. That’s the freedom of the ‘sandbox’ style, in a nutshell. If the players want nothing to do with dungeons, then there are countless other activities they and the referee can engage, so long as all are willing. (Theory interlude ends.)

So the quicker you make it through the dungeon to get your rewards, the less danger you are exposed to. This is why gp translates into xp, and in fact provides the lion’s share of xp in an old-school game. The point is to get the reward and get out, while being exposed to danger for as little time as possible.

You can’t properly have this work in the game unless you keep strict track of time, which requires rules for movement and time spent for activities in the dungeon. Hence the following rules, which are adapted from a number of sources, including Dave Bowman’s PDF on time, Labyrinth Lord (which are derived from the Basic/Expert D&D rules) and Swords & Wizardry, a retro clone of original D&D.

Time and Travel

Each day, the party may spend up to ten hours in travel or exploration. This is usually broken up into the following schedule:

7:00 – 8:00 AM Strike camp/break fast

8:00 – 12:00 Travel or exploration

12:00 – 1:00 Break for lunch

1:00 – 5:00 Travel or exploration

5:00 – 7:00 Set-up camp/dinner

7:00 – 11:00 1st Watch

11:00 – 3:00 2nd Watch

3:00 – 7:00 3rd Watch

Failure to take a rest after 4 hours of travel results in a -1 penalty on all rolls until next rest, cumulative.

Each day one person consumes one day’s rations or fresh food, one skin of water, and requires eight hours of sleep. Failure to fulfill one of these needs results in a penalty of -1 to Con, cumulative, for the next 24 hours or until the need is met.

Each day of travel & exploration, your party may take one of the following options:

· Travel for a number of miles based on his or her encumbrance, modified by terrain.

o Scavenge for food while you travel. Roll 1d6. On a 1, you find 1d6 days with of food.

· Explore a five mile hex completely (i.e. get the Grand Tactical map for it).

· Hunt for food with no travel. Roll 1d6. On a 1, you find 2d6 days worth of food.

· Search a hex for a specific place based on a rumor, directions or treasure map.

· Restock and rest at a center of civilization like a citadel or village.

· In a city, take a city turn.

In the underworld, time is broken up into turns, which are ten minutes in length. Each turn, you may do one of the following:

· Travel 120’, modified by encumbrance, while mapping.

· Search a 10’ by 10’ area for traps or secret doors.

· Engage in one combat and clean-up.

· Run 120’ for up to five rounds, modified by encumbrance, and then rest for the balance of the turn.

You must rest once every six turns or gain a -1 penalty on all rolls until next rest, cumulative.

Remember, as referee, the standard check for wandering monsters is made every six turns of exploration, with additional checks for combat, loud noises made by the party, etc. In addition, the party must rest one turn out of every six. I have abstracted the amount of time for some common occurrences, such as combat and running away, in order to make time keeping easier. A single page chart summaries underworld movement thusly:

Underworld Time Track

7:00 – 8:00 AM Strike camp/break fast

8:00 – 12:00 Travel or exploration

8:00 __ __ __ __ __ R WM Check □ 1 - 2 (d6)

9:00 __ __ __ __ __ R WM Check □ 1 - 2 (d6)

10:00 __ __ __ __ __ R WM Check □ 1 - 2 (d6)

11:00 __ __ __ __ __ R WM Check □ 1 - 2 (d6)

12:00 – 1:00 Break for lunch

1:00 – 5:00 Travel or exploration

1:00 __ __ __ __ __ R WM Check □ 1 - 2 (d6)

2:00 __ __ __ __ __ R WM Check □ 1 - 2 (d6)

3:00 __ __ __ __ __ R WM Check □ 1 - 2 (d6)

4:00 __ __ __ __ __ R WM Check □ 1 - 2 (d6)

5:00 – 7:00 Set-up camp/dinner

Nightly WM Check □ 1 - 2 (d6)

(Conduct once a night, then roll 1d6 to find the watch it occurred on)

7:00 – 11:00 1st Watch 1 - 2

11:00 – 3:00 2nd Watch 3 - 4

3:00 – 7:00 3rd Watch 5 - 6

Codes: E = Explore S = Search C = Combat and Recover R = Rest N = Negotiate

Enter a code in the line corresponding the activity conducted by the party, and you easily have a mini-record of the exploration conducted by the party for each day.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Visualizing Your Campaign

I believe that it is fairly important to rehearse what one is going to do on that first session, even it if it is only in one’s mind.

I do want to DM in a more spontaneous way, but especially for that first session, I think it important to plan out, in a general way, what you will say and be doing. I have had plenty of first sessions that were disastrous because I was so unorganized.

I do intend to roll up characters with players before the first session. I’ll take their raw rolls and translate them into character sheets. Using note cards for sheets has some nostalgic value, but I think I will stick to a regular, uncluttered sheet, perhaps along the lines of the S&W Complete sheet.

I’ll give a short, one or two line background for each of the players, which will be on a note card. There will also be three rumors note cards, one keyed to a location in the starting hex, and another two keyed to locations in the surrounding six hexes.

I’ll prepare the one page background mentioned in an earlier post, and begin the session by showing the players a map of the Wilderlands, just as a way of showing the scale of the place.

Then, I’ll show the exploded Wilderlands hex map, which contains the village of Brushwood and the surrounding area.

Finally, I’ll show the map of the village, and name a few of the prominent NPCs.

Then, I’ll ask, what do you do? If they need a little more guidance, I’ll suggest they use their money to buy equipment and supplies. They can pick up more rumors from the various NPCs they speak to, but eventually they will need to choose a rumor to follow up on. I may decide to have various NPCs offer work, usually of the “take this here” variety.

Most of the rumors will be keyed to adventure sites in the current or surrounding hexes. That leads us to the maps.

I’ll be using the Judges’ Guild Campaign Hexagon System, which allows us to drill down from a five mile per hex continental map to 0.2 mile per hex map. You can get a blank copy of these maps at

I’ll explain that the players may travel wherever they wish. And further, that they can choose to travel through a hex, or search the hex, or explore it.

As they travel, their rate will be determined by how much they can travel in a day, and the sort of terrain they will be travelling through.

If they choose to explore the hex it will take more time. I’ll let them look at an exploded version of the hex map, on a 0.2 mile per hex scale. They can then use this map (a unmarked copy I will give them) to point to a particular hex and say “we take a closer look at that”. I’ll also use this scale of map for any long range chase or wilderness battles.

Or they can simply say, “we search for X”, where X is a rumor, directions or a treasure map, assuming they have one of those sorts of resources, and don’t want to fool with the 0.2 mile per hex scale map.

After a certain amount of time, I’ll roll for random encounters, and let them travel as they wish. When they arrive at a ‘dungeon’ or other adventure area, we’ll switch to a more collapsed time keeping, and from then on it will look much like any other campaign.

And this is the way I envision it going.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

More Stuff I Want Part II

A ‘sandbox’ style campaign. For those of you unfamiliar with old-school play, there were two different sorts of play styles. The first involved dungeons, and only dungeons, which players serially invaded and shut down.

That, as time went on, was perhaps the more common play style, but the original play style (which I was fortunate enough to participate in) dealt with an entire campaign. A campaign, simply put, was a hex or other map of a wide-ranging area that the players could explore at will. (My DM used a hex map. I’d kill these days to get a look at his original maps.)

These could be really time-consuming to create from scratch, but there are various aids and techniques that help with the effort now. Once of the first 3rd party products for D&D was the Wilderlands, a pre-generated campaign, focused on just such a set of maps, with brief entries detailing lairs, citadels and other locations for a about a third of the mapped hexes. This sort of set-up leaves plenty of room for expansion and work (as I am discovering now) while still speeding up the process of getting a campaign off the ground. I have always been a fan of the original Wilderlands, as well as its recent revision, so this was a no-brainer for me.

The players are given a partially completed version of the map for their own use and they travel about as they will, discovering ruins, dungeons, and all sorts of mischief, in a completely self-directed way. Called a ‘sandbox’ style of play currently, it can blow up in one’s face if the party is given too many choices, with no way of discerning which direction would be interesting or useful to them, so I plan to use rumors to guide them to the more significant areas of interest, while still allowing them complete freedom of choice.

Player engagement in the background of the campaign. This is one of those balancing acts. Too much information and the player’s eyes glaze over, too little and players don’t know what to do. So my base will be the following:

I want each player to have a personal background for each of the players that fits on the size of a note card. One paragraph, ideally. This will be ideally self-generated, but I plan on offering them to players for their characters should they not wish to make up their own. Any more than this is probably too constraining, but I don’t intend to keep them to this limit, if they want to produce more. I intend to base the character’s skills on their written background.

One-half page to explain the Wilderlands world background. Reading this would be optional, and not required.

One-half page to explain the character’s start area: the village of Brushwood in the Wilderlands. Again, reading this would be optional.

Three rumors for each player, each one line, on a note card. These will initially direct the characters to local dungeons, lairs and other sites of interest.

Focus on neglected activities. Things like encumbrance, mapping, and exploration. I think, for one, something is lost when a frenetic, kill-the-monster, grab-its-stuff, and-level-up play style is encouraged. I always told my players that D&D is a game of managing resources as much as it is about killing monsters. That is also a part of the game that is universally dismissed.

I can see why. It simply seems boring to most people, much like personal accounting and doing your taxes is boring. But it is very significant part of the original game. I see acting on the experience in several beneficial ways. It slows down play, especially in the dungeon, which can be seen as a gigantic puzzle in many ways. It allows such equipment (and thus encumbrance) to act as a sort of mini-game, where the right piece of mundane equipment can save a character or even the whole party at some point. It puts the focus on the experience of play, as opposed to what level-up beanie you are going to get when you get your next xp award.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

So, what do I want? Part I

I have spoken a lot so far about the sort of elements of D&D I don’t like. So I thought I would begin to discuss the sort of D&D campaign that I do want.

To begin with, a game with simple rules. Specifically?

I intend to use Swords & Wizardry Complete as a base. I strongly considered using Labyrinth Lord or LotFP as my base rules, but even though there are things that I like about both their approaches, S&W complete is a better fit for the Wilderlands, which I intend to use as my campaign background. With the addition of the original Bard class from Best of the Dragon, Vol. I, all the PC classes I want will be available for play. Wilderlands specific classes I intend to bring in later, in case anyone wants to play a Witch, Amazon, Alchemist or Sage, which I don’t really anticipate.

Fast combat. I want to be able to have multiple combats per session. In the area of three to four, which is how I remember a combat heavy session going in the old days.

I intend to use a variant of Daniel R. Collins’ ‘Target 20’ system for combat, which I hope will help with speeding up the calculation of to hit rolls. In addition, I am intending to implement two simple rules for modifiers. Positive modifiers don’t stack (that is, you take the highest of all possible modifiers and apply that modifier only) and there is absolute cap on modifiers of +4. Fighter Str bonus and Dex bonus for attack rolls wwill be exempted.

Simple (to the point of non-existent) skill systems. I don’t want tons of rolling and looking up modifiers on charts. I want to be able to ask the player if their character has a skill from their background and then say yes, or ask them to roll some dice (see Baker’s Dictum). Specifically, though I can’t currently source it, I intend to use the multiple d6/stat system for skill and statistic rolls (roll a 2d6 under the relevant stat for standard tasks, 3d6 for hard tasks and 4d6 nearly impossible tasks). Skills will be a ‘real world’ listing of skills based on background. I don’t want to pin down a specific list, but they will be things like Huntsman, Equestrian, Archery, Knightly training, etc.

No feats or cafeteria list of special powers. I do want to have players to be able to acquire special powers or techniques, but I want these to flow out of their experiences in the campaign, rather than get an automatic new bennie every level.

No prestige classes. No dual classing. No class switching at all. I have seen a few times in my long history where someone took one of these options for ‘character’ reasons, but damn few of them. That’s why I want non-humans as classes, ala Labyrinth Lord or LotFP. In fact, I’ll probably take elements of both racial classes from the two B/X inspired games.

Alternate spell list. I will be giving the spell lists for both Cleric and Magic-user the once over. I definitely want a more Vancian feel for the mage spells, and a more focused version of the cleric spell list. This won’t be quite as difficult as it sounds, as I will only have to deal with a few mage spells initially and the 1st level of cleric spells. I will probably make the cleric spells cast-able at will, like the 3.0 sorcerer.

Next: more stuff I want.

So you have been doing what?

As I have recently returned to college as a full-time student, the last three weeks or so were taken up by the painful process of writing term papers for three classes.

No excuse, perhaps, for letting my blogging lapse, but there it is. And I have three A's (I believe) to show for it, which is justification enough for me.

Before my next terms starts, I plan to throw the hose open wide, and eventually build up a buffer of two weeks of posts, so that I don't have to let my regular posting lapse again.

If you are checking back after a long period, thanks for your patience.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Improvisation and the One-Page Dungeon

Greg Stafford notes that fully 50% of the work of game mastering lies in making it up, improvising to meet the needs and desires of your players as expressed by their characters.

For the longest time improvisation scared me, and whether it was wandering monster encounters, filling out worlds generated by random Traveller tables, or just the unexpected misstep or random weirdness by a player character, my solution was to prepare, prepare, prepare. I had until recently note card after note card for random encounters for one of my 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms campaigns, certain that by generating encounters ahead of time I need never ‘hand wave.’

Handwaving was our derogatory term for ‘making it up’ and it was often considered a cardinal sin among my fellows whom I gamed with. The idea that somehow what we were doing was not real was the fear that lay behind our objections, for after all making real the unseen was one of the cardinal virtues of RPGs; to deny that seemed both egotistical (to think that we could get away with it without our players noticing) and futile (in the sense that we were somehow betraying some fundamental premise of what we were trying to accomplish).

So you might imagine my surprise when I found myself improvising more and more. Either when I had not prepared sufficiently or, more and more often, when my players went in a direction I had not anticipated. Even more surprising was how satisfying these sorts of sessions could be, how much more alive and spontaneous they seemed, compared to sessions where we relied on tons of rules and lengthy procedures, or when I had to force the players down some pre-determined railroad path.

I have described before how my latest attempt at a sandbox style game went, and how there were simply too many choices for the players to adequately deal with. Yet the part of that game that went well was when I got to improvise with the tools I had on hand, allowing my imagination and subconscious to help unfold the story as we went along, without the players noticing.

Alfred Bates Lord, in his scholarly work Epic Singers and the Oral Tradition, describes how improvisation actually worked for story tellers in the past. Rather than have a perfectly memorized work to recite, what the singer actually possessed were fragments and pieces, along with a general outline or plot. Pieces like phrases such as ‘wily Odysseus’ or ‘the wine-dark sea.’ The singer would takes these bits and use them in the telling of a tale using the plot to determine what needed to be said when.

So the individual elements of Old School are the stat block, the map (dungeon, town, encounter area, relationship map, whatever) and a plot, which determines when these need to be used. The dungeon, or site-based adventure, if you prefer, offers the most elementary of plots: you go there, and encounter something.

Other random tables, such as those produced by Matt Finch and Zak S, can be immensely helpful, as long as they are used in moderation. Use the charts most generally useful to your campaign; bring others to the fore as you need them.

And this brings me to the one-page dungeon. Originated by Dave Bowman, this is the idea of having a dungeon map and key on one page, the idea being that this forces an economy of expression on the game master, allowing a large idea time to expand and bloom during play, rather than during the writing and prep stage. If all you have is the key, a map and some stat blocks, you then get to implement more during play, which is the important part of all this, after all.

I submitted an entry to the current one page dungeon contest, but even if I don’t win, the experience was very rewarding. I plan to use this format as much as possible in the future, and you will see some of the fruit of that work in posts to come on this blog.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Your Comments and the Old School

As a way of introducing the OSR to some of my friends, I recommended to them Matt Finch’s excellent “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming”, available here.

Matt Finch has been involved with a great many of the more important old school games. He was an editor for Castles and Crusades, co-wrote OSRIC, the 1st Edition retro-clone, wrote all the Swords & Wizardry editions, which are various versions (some with the supplements, some with not) of Original Dungeons and Dragons.

The “Quick primer” is, just as the name suggests, a short (though expanded from its original length, I believe) essay which talks not about the difference in rules for retro-clones, but the difference in play-style. This is condensed into the four ‘Zen’ moments, or paradigms that explicate old school play.

They are:

Rulings, not rules.

Player skill, not character abilities.

Heroic, not super-heroic.

Forget game balance.

I encourage you to download the “Primer” and read it yourself, I won’t recapitulate more here.

One of my gaming buddies, Afredo, wrote some of the following comments on my Facebook page have reading the “Primer.”

I have to disagree with you on less is more. Less is less. More is more. What you do with it is all that counts.

I have to say, after playing in several high level campaigns, that my experience doesn’t bear this out. After my players reached about level 8, I was easily forgetting elements of stat blocks, strategies, taking advantage of using spells correctly every single fight. If I have so much I can’t properly use it all, would it not be better for me to use a set of rules that has less baggage, so that I could use what I have properly?

I can easily anticipate the objection that while this was fine for me, the GM, it’s not that great for the players. But I have yet to experience a PC with a back story or character so weird that we could not have used a simpler set of rules along with some house ruling to get exactly what they had in 3.0/3.5, and with a lot less guff and power bloat.

In addition, as a GM, I am much more interested in seeing a properly played classic fantasy archetype than I am seeing a build fomented by some weird splat-book. A 3.5 dragon shaman may seem great, without the rules exploits built into the thing, no one would actually want to play one.

Zen moment 2: if your character's abilities are limited by your skill at playing, you are restricted from playing out of character. Less is definitely less.

I would rather encourage a shy or less skilled role player to come out of their shell than I would to give them lots of cool toys. It may be true that you would have a harder time playing someone who is somehow more cool than you, personally, because you don’t have a lot of feats and weird abilities to back you up, but from my perspective, having the players feel cool and competent is less about rules as much as it is about campaign tone. I like having player characters who are cool bad-asses, but I know that is more about how the NPCs treat them than it is about how many feats and prestige class abilities they have stacked.

You've changed the game so that a different type of player has the power focus then said it's okay to be imbalanced but the issue is the same as with PC builds.

I presume you mean that I have moved the focus of player power from those players who can come up with superior builds to players who role play well and are clever. Well, yes I have and I am totally OK about that.

If I understand the second part of your comment, you are saying that that the imbalance in a game world is just as much as a flaw as it is if PCs are imbalanced because their builds are too strong.

That’s not exactly the game balance that Finch is talking about. If I understand the “Primer” correctly, Finch is simply saying that the PCs may encounter forces that are too powerful for them and have to withdraw or run away. That’s a world of difference from the PC having such exploited builds that the 3.0/3.5 challenge system becomes effectively useless. If I have to judge XP handed out and threat levels on the fly, based on my gut instinct, because the character builds have broken the way challenge levels work, then why am I playing the more complicated game?

I do firmly believe that my players can have individual and interesting characters in OD&D just as much as in 3.0/3.5, all it takes is some willingness on my part to meet them half way.

Next: Improvisation and the One Page Dungeon.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The OSR, Part II

In many ways, the history of the OSR movement is bound up in the games they have helped create.

When 3.0 debuted, one of the first publishers was Necromancer Games, whose PR tagline was “Third Edition rules, First edition feel.” which is an effective a description as any I can think of. It was at this point that there was a publisher who sought to satisfy those who might have been dissatisfied with the play experience of that which came before.

It was several more years before that dissatisfaction blossomed into Castles & Crusades, which uses a rules-light version of 3rd edition in an attempt to recapture something that was felt to have been lost. Hackmaster is effectively 1st edition with additional rules, but Kenzer & Co’s RPG was more an attempt to recreate the fictional game of Hackmaster then it was to re-capture a particular essence of previous era of game play.

OSRIC was the first true retro-clone, or simulacrum. It set out to be a strategy more than a game, an attempt to use the OGL to create a game that could be used as a way to promote the new publication of 1st edition modules. Labyrinth Lord, which sought to emulate B/X, and Swords & Wizardry, which sought to emulate the original three volume box set of D&D soon followed.

More retro-clones, variations, modules, and supplements have appeared since, each taking a slightly different approach, either in marketing, theme or rules. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, for example, takes the B/X rules and applies the principles of horror to create a Weird (in the sense of the old Weird Tales magazine) Fantasy RPG.

There is a sense, in this explosion of enthusiasm and material, of a common purpose: a renewal of something that has been lost, a return to a time where play was paramount over rules, and most of all a style of play that was less frenetic, more leisurely, and much less complicated by matters of rules interpretation.

There are certainly different ways of expressing this ‘common’ purpose within the OSR movement; in particular James Malezewski has reminded all of us that old school does not have an exact equivalency with rules-light.

But I do think that there is a concern with ‘play over rules’ that marks this movement, and it is this reversal of priorities where the OSR movement shines brightest. Facilitating a sense of free play and improvisation is a common denominator that the OSR movement has with its sister sub-genre, the ‘indie games’ movement.

Like the OSR, the indie games movement promotes rules light texts. Like the OSR, the IGM is focused on play, rather than endless splat books, vast tomes of background material, and a consistent revenue streams. Most indie games are a single book, with any expansion designed to take the original idea in a totally new direction. The IGM doesn’t have too many modules, but OSR modules, especially with the explosion in the one page dungeon, is more about a text to base improvisation around, rather than a module in the old sense of the word. (Witness Fiasco, however, as an indie RPG with lots and lots of ‘modules.’)

As this is more of general sketch or introduction than a true history or analysis, and I am leaving out quite a bit. Many of the topics here demand expansion. But I do want to give some general context for some of the succeeding posts I will be writing, especially for those who have never been exposed to the OSR before.

Tomorrow: Your comments.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The OSR, Part I

There has always been a disconnect between the manufacturers of Dungeons & Dragons and the people who regularly play the game.

The reasons for this disconnect are simple, and have to do with the enormous popularity of the D&D, and the subsequent interest in cashing in on that popularity.

This is not unnatural or in any way unexpected, but rather a natural outgrowth of the culture we live in. When Gygax and co. realized that the war game campaign supplement they had was selling and selling and just wouldn’t stop, the most natural thing in the world was to reorganize Tactical Studies Rules into TSR. One was a hobby, while the other was to become business, and potentially big business.

Since that point in time, it must be understood that nearly every design (and redesign) decision made about D&D was informed by a capitalist, money-making motive.

And again, there is nothing wrong with that, if the purpose is simultaneously to create a better beast. Thus, there is a residual fondness for 1st Edition and Basic/Expert D&D that later editions don’t match, both are which were seen as more genuine attempts to create that better beast than later iterations of the game.

The exact mix of ‘good intent’ and greed can be calculated differently by different people, rendering some editions more pure than others. But the impression that the ‘best’ editions of D&D are OD&D, 1st Edition and B/X-BECMI remains a palpable one.

The truest answer may be that any edition of D&D, and by extension any RPG, is best if you and your group enjoy it. But, as I like to remind people, one person’s version of fun is another person’s piss pot.

In my mind, 1st edition held many of the flaws that plagued later editions; too many rules, not well explained, and the organizational flaws that made the Pentagon a model of efficiency. It was at least as compromised as nearly every other edition, as its main impetus in design seems to have been to re-create the game without Dave Arneson as co-designer.

Yet the dream persists of the one, true edition, which would wipe away the flaws of the newer iterations of the game.

This does not explain the motivation of the actual authors and writers of the Old School Renaissance movement, but it may explain why the OSR has become so successful.

Perhaps the most important point to make about the OSR writers (and I will refer to them in that manner) is that they are a collection of individuals, rather than a monolithic party of hard-liners. There is no one true way among them. If they agree upon anything, it is the belief that those who played the original game had a play style – a manner of playing the game – that was rendered increasingly obsolete by each further iteration of D&D. This is most apparent in the Thief and trap paradigm, where the presence of the thief obliterated the need for a play style that centered on the exploration of dungeons, and had in no small part to do with the discovery of traps. The original paradigm – which had no thieves as a character class – required that traps be circumvented by clever and careful play, which had the players describing what their characters were doing, rather than the later ubiquitous, “I search for traps. (rolls dice) Success! Was there a trap?”

This is not the only difference in play style between the original versions of the game and more current iterations, but it is instructive of divide that took place as further versions of the game not only provided new rules, but also implicitly demanded new ways of playing, in keeping with the designer’s belief about the ‘proper’ way of playing the game, whatever that might have been in the minds of the designers.

As more and more iterations of D&D piled up, the amount of players who stopped playing, dissatisfied with whatever current iteration was being marketed to them, also increased. The OSR writers, bloggers and designers include self-described fossil gamers who haven’t touched a RPG, much less D&D, since 1st Edition, to those who left 3.5 or Pathfinder last week.

Next: More OSR

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A History of My Complaints, and More Lessons

But before I go on to the OSR, let’s take a look at the lessons learned from the last blog:

Lesson #6 – Too many rules is too many rules.

I like rules, and reading rules, as much as the next gamer, maybe more. But playing and reading are two different things. By and large, most toolkit games (like Rolemaster or GURPS) don’t even intend for you to use all the rules. Believe me, I tried, much to the regret of my players. While not a toolkit game, D&D has Lots and Lots of Rulez, and for the most part you are expected to play with them all. This trend starts out with 1st Edition, which had many rules we all ignored (like segments and weapon vs. armor modifiers) and get more pronounced with every succeeding edition. I am reasonably sure that the three core books for 4th edition had no optional rules, while 3/3.5 had a few, and 2nd had a few more.

Maybe some of you young studs can handle all that rule-mongering, but at this point in my life, I want less, not more. That means a game where there are fewer rules, not a game where I ignore most of the rules.

Lesson #7 – The GM should be the final arbiter of the rules.

Every ruleset I know plays lip-service to this idea, but if you have three hardbacks full of rules, it doesn’t make much sense to ignore several pounds of books you just bought. The very presence of the rules means that you are going to be looking up stuff some of the time. Again, only by limiting the rules can I feel free enough to be that final ‘decider’.

Lesson #8 – The less rules options characters have, the better off your campaign will be.

Look at that statement again. Less is more. Really. Still don’t believe me? Character options, once thought to be one of the holy grails of gaming, are now just another sacred cow. It does seem to make sense that the more options you give people, the happier they will be. The problem is that most players don’t know where to stop. There is a whole class of people who will endlessly tinker with their builds, trying to find the fastest way to kill, the best way to deal combat damage, the best way to cast two spells a round, etc. There are whole games dedicated to this sort of principle, like Champions/HERO System, and those sorts of games rapidly become more focused on the builds, and not the character within the context of the campaign.

I don’t know about you, but I want my players to become fascinated with the play of the campaign, not the next level-up or how their guy is cooler than the guy of the player next to them.

I am all for having characters that seem individual, but that has to come in the context of the campaign, not what monstrosity the newest builder book allows me to Frankenstein up.

Lesson #8 – Freedom only works if your players are prepared to use it.

When I tried to run my first modern sandbox game, my players rebelled. Too much freedom meant they didn’t know what to do next. Digestible information is key, here. If I give my players the 50 page bound Player’s Guide to Doyle’s Kool Kampaign, their eyes will glaze over. I now intend to give them a background in a paragraph, and a fair amount of rumors each (3?) at the beginning of the campaign. I also have an idea how to get them to give their characters structure, but that's for a future blog. If you are reading this three years after I wrote it, look for the Milestone blog entry.

Lesson #9 – Stat blocks should be able to be generated on the fly.

Seriously, in any game, but especially in a sandbox game, you need to be able to generate content on the fly, ideally without your players noticing. I once thought Complete Preparation was a key to a well run game, and there is still plenty that you can do to prepare generic resources: names, stat blocks, one page adventures, etc. But planning a scenario in such detail that you could publish the thing is too much to do every week. Stat blocks that are more than a line are too much every week.

Believe me, I am not a proponent of ‘handwaving’. The key here is that effective improvisation isn’t about lack of preparation, it’s about using the content you carry around with you in your head, and well as some minimal stat blocks, maps and notes to their fullest possible potential. If your rulebook has three gazillion options, stat block bloat ensues. Another reason for having very few rules.

Lesson #10 – This is a game. You should be happy and looking forward to playing the next session of your campaign. If that’s not the case, something is wrong, and you should fix it.

I don’t know about you, but I am people-pleaser. I get off on creating an emotional and visceral reaction in my players, whether that is laughter, horror, sadness, or passion. That’s my definition of fun. And if they weren’t having fun, I told myself that I was doing something wrong. There’s still a lot of truth in that, but the reality is that some people will never be pleased. Everyone (including you) can have an off night, but if someone, including you, is not having fun, sometimes the answer isn’t the game, or how you run it, but the fact that they will never have fun in your campaign. There doesn’t have to be blame about this, and it doesn’t even have to be their fault. That’s just the way it is, and if you are the GM, then they need to find a game where they can have fun.

In many ways, that’s always been the hardest lesson for me to learn, and the one I have to re-learn every few years.

Now here’s the biggie. Drum roll, please.

Lesson #11 – The success of a campaign has very little to do with the quality of play of the campaign. A successful campaign is one where you show up every week, and there are players there, waiting to play.

This may seem a little counter-intuitive, until you remember that players only show up if they are having a good time. Most of my longer running campaigns lasted until I ended them Рnot because people said they were bored. As the clich̩ goes, half of life is showing up.

Next: The OSR. Really.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A History of My Campaigns, Part II

Within a couple of years of D&D 3.0 coming out, I decided that I really wanted to run it. So I gathered some friends, and told them the campaign would end at level 20. Then I took them through a 2nd edition mega-adventure (Night Below), with some add-ons. I figured that having a structured system like 3.0 would allow me to better provide challenges for PCs, and I would be able to use the challenge level system to provide an even playing field for the characters. I allowed any OGL resource to be used, pending my approval. I also specified that I would be using the Rules As Written (RAW).

By the time the campaign was over, certain players, who could readily absorb and manipulate the system, had characters for whom I could not provide a sufficient challenge (again). Other players, who didn’t care or didn’t bother to tinker with their builds, were waaaay behind on the power curve. So the inherent flexibility that the system provided proved to be more troublesome than the benefits of customized characters. In addition, the amount of time I spent on builds was growing exponentially with the power of the opposition. Since I played RAW, I didn’t cheat, guess or fudge, I used what I prepped, and if the players walked all over the opposition, so be it. I used the EL and Challenge level system religiously. By the same token, if they were outmatched, then someone died. This ‘all or nothing’ result also grew as the characters progressed, because using these detailed, high level stat blocks in play required that I have the system down, and be proficient using the rules in a way I was frankly unprepared for. There were many times that I made mistakes, or was simply unaware how much the correct use of spells and abilities contributed to being an effective threat.

I was aware of this principle since 2nd Edition days – I still vividly remember being told in a tournament playtest that the characters had been scaled back in level, and provided with very simple (yet powerful) magic items, because time and again players lost when playing high-level characters, yet were able to win with lower level characters against the same high level foes.

You can see this principle in action on the RPG message boards. Go to and listen to the high essence Exalted tactics, or to Enworld or the Paizo boards for discussions of high level characters. If you eyes don’t glaze over, it means you are probably young and sharp, or you are an engineer or some other science based professional. Which didn’t help me, the perpetual English major, at all.

The campaign ended, and I felt like I had succeeded in some of the goals I set for myself, and failed in others. I still hadn’t been able to properly provide consistent regular challenges to players. There was still too much discrepancy in power between the adept student of the rules and the casual player. In sticking to a scripted high level mega-campaign, I had not pleased some of the players, who grew tired of the endless combat slog of Night Below. New problems had also appeared. I spent way too much time on stat blocks. I was not proficient enough in the rules set to make it do what I wanted it to do.

Let me explain that last bit some more. During the late eighties and nineties I helped run Call of Cthulhu tournaments both locally and at GenCon. With the exception of a few disasters, I was fairly good at running Call of Cthulhu. To use some fairly sexist imagery, I could slap around the BRP system, make it my bitch, and get it to do what I wanted it to. The system, at its basic level, allowed me to accomplish what I needed to happen with very little work, and I knew when I could ignore the rules and when I had to stick to them (without the players noticing, usually).

Since everyone and their brother liked d20, the majority of my players wanted to continue play D&D. I had hopes that 3.5 would alleviate some of the problems I was experiencing, and I was eager to try my hand at a sandbox campaign. I had owned in the past the original Wilderlands campaign produced by Judges Guild and had recently purchased the revision from Necromancer Games. So I started another D&D campaign.

My players hated it.

There was too much freedom for them. They weren’t used to finding the adventure, and it was taking too long to gain levels, because they spent a lot game time travelling and exploring, especially compared to my previous campaign. Unspoken, but fairly clear to me, was that they were getting used to that level bump in power, like a MMORPG, and slower advancement was keeping them from getting their fix.

So after several sessions, I put that aside, but my players liked my GMing enough to want me run more D&D, so I did my best to accommodate them. There was a large, 20-level adventure path put out by Paizo in their pre-Pathfinder days, called Age of Worms. It name-checked enough old school Greyhawk stuff to make me want to play it. So I charged ahead into a 3.5 game, and mandated certain requirements: No 3rd party material, only WotC builder books. At that time, there were maybe three or four of those (the Complete series) and I could keep up with the rest of it, right?

Before long, I found myself in exactly the same situation as before, builder books and expansions proliferated, until they were too heavy for me to carry in a single large bag. Characters with an absurd amount of options, prestige classes and templates emerged, some of which were so powerful they ended combat before the fighters could land a blow. Rule interpretations provoked arguments, and since we were playing RAW, some (few, really) players thought they could argue and bluster their way out of nearly any situation, if only they could determine a precedent in their favor.

Stat block complexity multiplied, and hours could be spent on a minor NPC, trying to tweak them to be able to present a proper challenge or even just get a handle on what the stats could be used for during play.

I was miserable.

It wasn’t all bad, and I had a lot of good times with/because of the people I played with, but I dreaded all the rules related stuff I had to deal with. I made one, maybe more, rules related mistakes every time I played and I hated that. I’m in the climactic battle of the second to last scenario, and I am mostly relieved that it’s nearly over.

I tried Pathfinder, and have played in lots of other d20-based games. Pathfinder certainly cleans certain things up, I’ll give you that, but my complaints are too systemic (ahem). I thought D&D and I were basically through.

Then I found the OSR.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A History of My Campaigns, Part I

So, I think that in order for you to understand where I am coming from, you need to know a little about my gaming background. That means you need to know about a history of betrayal, regret, abortive beginnings and catastrophic endings. You need to know about my campaigns.

So like most gamers I started as a player. That lasted several years and included some abortive attempts to run a game, usually with laughable results. One notable exception was Traveller, which was successful mainly because of some Talking In Funny Voices, an essential skill for any GM.

Lesson #1 – Talking In Funny Voices is a good skill to have.

As the old group I played with broke up, my remaining fellow players and I had to share the burden of GMing, as the ‘good’ GMs of group were older, and had moved away or left for college. Thus my friends and I were forced to take up more of the burden. This resulted in more and more character creation sessions, and more aborted campaigns. None of us knew what it really took to run a consistent campaign.

It wasn’t until the last two years of high school that I was able to run a ‘successful’ campaign, using the Runequest II rules and set in Glorantha. I have successful in brackets because even though the campaign went on for more than a year, there were plenty of fits and starts in the game. I let one rather pushy player play a giant (you could play monsters in RQ) and the other players complained, eventually fracturing my player base. I stopped the game because eventually no one wanted to play besides the player with the giant and his cronies.

Lesson #2 – Some players always want more power than is good for the campaign.

More time passes, along with some moves of my own, and some more aborted campaigns. There were some successful notes here and there, like the Call of Cthulhu campaign that I played with players who were all much older than me. It worked, and I found that I could do creepy really well. That campaign ended because I moved for a year to another city. By the time 2nd Edition had come out, I had experience under my belt running Call of Cthulhu and other games at Tournaments, and I had more success running year-long games with AD&D2 and Pendragon. In part, my campaigns seemed to work better when I had more discretion about who to play with. As a teenager, you had to take whoever came along, especially if they were ensconced in whatever group or clique you felt the need to belong to. Now I had a car, and I could exercise a lot more control over whom I played with.

Lesson #3 – Play with people you like, and who like you.

In particular, that Pendragon game worked well because I found myself playing to the strengths of my players rather than trying to lead them to areas I found more interesting. I ended that game because I wanted to restart the campaign arc from the beginning.

Lesson #4 – Play to the level of the people you are playing with.

So all throughout the nineties I played many other games, tried to start many other campaigns, some with limited success, some with no success. I had long term campaigns (more than a year) with WFRP 2nd Edition, Runequest III, Traveller: The New Era, Mage The Ascension, Nephilim, and Rolemaster. But generally speaking, none of these games came to a satisfactory conclusion – I was never really able to end a game well. It wasn’t until 2000, after 3.0 of D&D came out, that I realized my error. In many of those games in the previous ten years, I felt the campaigns were untenable because the players were too powerful under the system I was using at the time. That is, there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to adequately challenge the players after a certain point. They were always, by the time I felt the need to end the games, maxed in terms of what the system allowed the players to become. With no challenge, I felt like running scenarios were pointless, if the players were able to walk over any opposition I could throw at them.

Lesson #5 – In a long term campaign, slow advancement is the best advancement.

Next - More lessons!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

So what is this all about again...?

I'm glad you asked.

So, here's the thing: I started playing role playing games in 1980, more or less.

It was Junior High School, and I had already learned three important lessons:

1 – Kids hate fat kids.

2 – Kids hate faggots.

3 – I was both.

I was desperate, genuinely desperate to get some manner of human contact. I didn’t leave my room, unless I could help it, where I read some basic fantasy and SF – Tom Swift, Jr. Ursula K Le Guin, some Moorcock and Howard. Add to that comics (when I could get them) and a whole bunch of scholastic and library books of all types. But reading is as solitary as masturbation, and while I did both a lot, I was still desperate for more, even if I couldn’t bring myself to admit it. My room seemed much, much safer than the rest of the world.

Then I went over to the house of some friends of my parents, and this guy, who was like three years (OMG, three years!) older than me was there, and lying on the floor drawing something.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a castle for my thief!”


“Yeah, it’s part of my Dungeons and Dragons game. Wanna come and play?”

I think you know the rest.

All of a sudden, I had friends. Wellll, maybe not Stand by Me kind of friends, but people who called me and asked me to come and play, people who didn’t constantly torment and ridicule me. People who kinda valued me. I was part of a group. I wasn’t a complete loser. Well, OK, maybe that part was bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

So here I am. It’s thirty-one years later. And, once again, I am about to play D&D with a group of friends. But not just any ol’ RPG. No, I am about to start on the granddaddy of them all, Original Dungeons and Dragons. With my wife (I’m bi, before you get all confused. That counted as ‘Faggot’ in 1980.), her friends, and some new friends. So this is my blog to document my return to Dungeons and Dragons, and the Old School Renaissance (OSR) movement (more on that next time).

There is going to be a real mix on this blog between my ‘real’ life (whatever that is) and the gaming stuff. If that makes you uncomfortable, no problema, amigo, go your own way. There are plenty of OSR blogs out there that are chock full of gaming content. But I am not your average gamer, your average husband, your average GM. I think about lots of stuff besides gaming, even when I am gaming. So a lot of that will wind up here. If you do stay to check me out, you’ll get to see a lot about me and my friends, maybe more than you wanted. But, I do hope that I will never be boring, and that you’ll want to continue reading. See you tomorrow.