Posted on December 9, 2018
One of my regular campaigns is Greg Stafford’s masterpiece, King Arthur Pendragon. For those unfamiliar with the game system, the game is notable for providing game stats for characters in the form of traits and passions. When a player wishes to determine how their knight would behave in a given situation, or when they are confronted by extreme circumstances, they roll against their character’s traits and passions to determine how their character would behave. Naturally, as ever when rolling dice in an RPG, players must abide by the results of dice rolls irrespective of how they may prefer their character to behave. This system simulates knightly behaviour in Malory and other primary sources, where, for example, Lancelot goes mad and runs off into the woods for two years in response to being caught in bed with another woman by Guenever. Although this may sound antithetical to the sensibilities of old school play, it works beautifully in practice and is key to Pendragon‘s success.
I have been toying with this thought as I have reflected on potential replacements for the traditional alignment system in OSR games:
So what if we tried to retrofit a mechanical system to simulate personality traits to OSR games?
Inspired by playing Pendragon, I propose the use of a saving throw mechanic based on the saving throws of OSR games. The basic idea is that whenever a player wishes their character to act against a personality trait for which that character is known, they roll a saving throw against that trait. If they succeed, they may act however the player would want them to act. If they fail, they are compelled to act according to their personality trait.
For example, a notably proud character’s honour is affronted while on a diplomatic mission. Given the sensitivity of the mission, the player would prefer it if their character swallowed their pride and let the matter pass for now without further comment, perhaps secretly swearing revenge in the distant future. The referee asks the player to roll a save versus their pride. The character fails, and immediately challenges the offender to a duel as a result!
These mechanics would only suit certain styles of campaign, of course, and I cannot claim extensive play testing, so I hope you will let me know your thoughts and feedback especially if you try them out at your table! In the spirit of the OSR these mechanics are intended for the referee to make rulings rather than as prescriptive rules.
Every player character picks one or more character traits for which their character is known at character generation. The referee may choose to encourage the selection of traits with some sort of in character advantages – but it is suggested that player characters do not begin play with too many. Some example personality traits:
- Bigotted (against a race or group)
The chosen traits are recorded on the character sheet as a saving throw with a target number of 15.
Save vs Trait
When the referee or the player determines that the character’s personality trait is being tested by the situation, the player rolls a save versus the trait’s target number. A roll equal to or above the number succeeds, as per the usual saving throw procedure.
On a natural roll of 20, not only is the save made, but the character finds it easier to act against the trait in the future. Reduce the save’s target number by 1 for future saves vs this trait. If a trait is reduced to 1 in this fashion, the character has overcome the trait and need not save against it anymore.
On a natural roll of 1, not only is the save failed, but the trait becomes even more pronounced. Increase the save’s target number by 1 for future saves vs this trait. A trait cannot be increased beyond 20 in this way.
Gaining Traits in Play
Player characters often develop pronounced personality traits over the course of a long-term campaign. The referee may award the character a new trait (with a default starting value of 15) if they notice the character consistently exhibit a particular response/behaviour in similar circumstances. The character may also develop a new trait in response to a life-changing event. Such trait-saves may be more specific than those selected during character creation, for example:
- Love for a brother
- Hatred against a sworn enemy
- Heartbreak over the death of a lover
Losing a Trait
Other than reducing the trait-save’s target value by rolling lots of 20s as per the above, a character may lose a trait through making a successful save vs that trait in response to a major event or extraordinary circumstance. For example, a very proud character who makes a successful save versus their pride and debases themselves in a very public setting may forever overcome their pride in so doing. A character may also lose a trait (especially a very specific one) if it no longer makes narrative sense for them to have it. For example, if a character with hatred for a sworn enemy as a trait kills that sworn enemy in single combat, the trait is eliminated. If the character finds out that their sworn enemy isn’t really their father’s murderer and the whole basis for their hatred was false all along, the trait might be eliminated – unless they have another reason to hate them that is!
Referee Advisory Warning
The referee will need to carefully consider the selection of traits and their suitability for the campaign in question. If the game uses the regular alignment system alongside trait-saves, then the referee may also wish to be careful not to allow personality traits which overlap with features of various alignments. It is better for personality traits to be selected which a player may occasionally wish to act against. This does not limit traits to “vices” as opposed to virtues, however. A virtue in one situation may be a vice in another. A notably honest character may wish to tell white lies or withhold the whole truth from time to time, for example! At the same time, it is better to avoid traits which the player will always wish to act against – this can lead to unnecessary conflict and arguments at the table as the player objects to their character being too regularly “compelled” to behave in a certain fashion by the dice.
Posted on December 7, 2018
As mentioned in my previous post, level 0 characters can be a lot of fun. Since a level 1 character starts with 0 XP, a level 0 character does not “level up” to level 1 by gaining XP, but rather by achieving a narrative milestone of some description. One such milestone could be the completion of an apprenticeship. In this post, I am going to consider apprenticeships for human characters leading to the standard four classes in Basic D&D. But first…
Levelling Up to Level 1
When your level 0 character attains level 1, the character immediately gains the full benefits of their chosen character class. This potentially includes a new hit die to replace their racial hit die. Roll the new hit die and apply Consitution modifier as normal. If the result is more than your character’s maximum hit points at level 0, then the result becomes the character’s new maximum hit points. If the result is less, then your character keeps the same hit point maximum as they had at level 0.
Humans can be clerics, fighters, magic-users, or thieves. A level 0 human character gains their first level of a character class once they complete an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships generally last several years of in-game time – thus most apprentice characters will be several years in to their apprenticeship at the time play begins. All of the apprentices given below are level 0 humans, but they have an additional ability reflecting their in-progress training as compared to other level 0 humans. All apprentices have the same weapon and armour proficiencies as level 1 characters of the same class.
Apprentice clerics assist fully-fledged clerics of their orders. Generally, they serve and learn from one high-level cleric of their order who has retired from active adventuring. The high-level cleric tends a temple or major holy place, and has pastoral duties to a congregation of worshippers. The apprentice cleric assists the high-level cleric during ceremonies of worship and other religious rituals. In some orders, apprentice clerics also perform menial tasks like cleaning the temple, or mundane but important religious tasks, like distributing alms to the poor. In addition to performing these duties, the apprentice cleric studies in the temple’s scriptorium, learning from the sacred texts. When the apprentice cleric masters the teachings of their religion (which typically takes 7 years), the high-level cleric recommends that the apprentice be ordained as a fully-fledged cleric of the order. The order may impose some sort of exam, trial, or test of faith before a hierophant of the order ordains the apprentice as a cleric.
Apprentice clerics may cast spells from clerical scrolls just like level 1 clerics. This is the only way they can cast spells.
Apprentice fighters can take many forms, and most fighter “apprenticeships” are not formalised arrangements. Knights train their squires to become knights – and this is the most formal sort of apprenticeship for a fighter. The institution of knighthood and the training a squire undergoes is really a matter for its own article (and in many OSR games, its own character class as distinct from the typical fighter). Less formalised and prolonged than squire training is the on-the-job training in soldiering a conscript receives on the march. An apprentice fighter receives training in arms and armour, but is not yet “blooded” to any significant extent. A squire typically serves a knight for seven years before being knighted themselves, completing their apprenticeships. A common soldier’s training is much shorter, and their “apprenticeship” could be considered to consist of the whole period from the start of their basic training up until their first battle.
An apprentice fighter can wield any weapon, use shields, and wear any armour, just like level 1 fighters.
Magic-Users must study the arcane arts for years, and never really finish their “training” in that they are always studying and learning throughout their careers. The point at which they cease to be defined as an apprentice is the point when they stop depending on their master to teach them new spells and techniques, and develop the ability to learn for themselves. This can take a decade or more. An apprentice serves a high-level magic-user who has retired from active adventuring, their master. The master passes on their magical lore to their apprentice in miserly drips and drabs over that time, while the apprentice assists their master in the laboratory and library, helping their master perform unspeakable experiments in sorcery. More than a few apprentice magic-users have had their apprenticeships brought to an early end through spellcraft experiment gone wrong! Apprentice magic-users also perform the mundane and menial tasks about their master’s abode which cannot (or have not) been eliminated through the use of magical cantrips for the purpose.
Apprentice magic-users can cast spells from scrolls prepared by their master. If they use this ability to cast the spell read magic from a scroll written by their master on a scroll written by another magic-user (or elf), then they can cast spells from that scroll too. Apprentice magic-users cannot create scrolls themselves.
Thieves Guilds in major cities employ large numbers of apprentice thieves, who learn their craft performing petty crimes. Apprentice thieves start young, and Guilds have up to a dozen apprentice thieves for every master thief in residence. The attrition rate is horrific, since apprentice thieves are easily apprehended while their skills are still in the formative stage. Nevertheless, there are always plenty of apprentice thieves about, since every major city has enough desperate young people without better options available to them. Thief apprenticeships vary in length considerably, since some apprentices pick up the trade faster than others, and since the apprentice themselves decides when to leave the relative safety of the Guild to seek their fortune. An apprentice thief may serve as little as eighteen months as an apprentice before striking out on their own, or up to five years or more.
Apprentice thieves select any two thief skills from the list of skills for a level 1 thief. They have those two skills at the same level as a level 1 thief. This skill selection should represent the sort of petty crime the apprentice thief specialises in (e.g. pick pocket, cat burglar, etc).
Apprentice Starting Gold
Human apprentices start with 3d6 x 5 gold pieces.
Demihuman characters may also serve apprenticeships while they are level 0, much like human characters. However, since these level 0 characters already have racial special abilities (e.g. infravision), they do not have any other apprenticeship abilities. Since demihumans are longer lived than humans, demihuman apprenticeships are generally of a longer duration. Elven apprenticeships in particular may last for decades!
Posted on December 3, 2018
Level 0 characters are generally NPCs. They have no levels of any character class (hence they are level 0 as opposed to level 1), and represent ordinary, non-adventuring people in the game world. Sometimes, it can be fun for players to (generally briefly) play level 0 characters at a start of a campaign so that they can define some of the character’s “backstory” in play. Some simple rules for doing this are presented here for Basic variants of the world’s most popular roleplaying game and its simulacra.
Level 0 Character Creation
- Roll ability scores (as usual)
- Choose character race (human, dwarf, elf, halfling). Do not pick a character class.
- Roll hit points (using racial hit die instead of class hit die).
- Choose alignment (as usual)
- Choose languages (as usual)
- Rolling starting money and buy equipment (as usual)
- Complete biographical details (as usual)
All level 0 characters must roll 20 To Hit Armour Class 0. Note the hit die and saving throws for your chosen race from the table below:
Humans can go on to be clerics, fighters, magic-users, or thieves when they reach level 1.
Dwarves require at least Constitution 9. They have the usual special abilities at level 0:
- Detect Traps & Construction Tricks on 2 in 6.
- Infravision up to 60 feet
Elves require at least Intelligence 9. They cannot cast spells at level 0, but have the other usual special abilities:
- Detect Secret Doors on 2 in 6.
- Immunity to Ghoul Paralysis
- Infravision up to 60 feet
Halflings require at least Dexterity and Constitution 9. They get no bonuses to missile attacks or initiative, but have the other usual special abilities:
- Halflings get a bonus to AC (-2) when fighting creatures greater than human-size because of their size.
- Hide in bushes when outdoors (90% chance)
- Hide in shadows in dungeons (2 in 6 chance)
Reaching Level 1
Since level 1 characters start with 0 XP, it follows that level 0 characters do not gain experience points in the conventional sense. Instead, a level 0 character has to pass a narrative milestone determined by the referee which represents the character’s transition from “normal life” to a career as an adventurer. Possibly, the character must complete some sort of apprenticeship period in order to “level up” to level 1. To become a cleric, they may have to serve for a period in the temple as an acolyte, for example.
Posted on November 6, 2018
Apparently people are really ideological about the ascending/descending armour class issue. I never understood this. I can understand why some people prefer ascending armour class and positive to hit bonuses to THAC0, on the basis that addition is easier than subtraction, I guess, but on my Basic D&D character sheet, I always wrote down the score needed to hit each armour class. As a player anyway this is even easier than ascending armour classes and bonuses to hit – you just add your Strength bonus to your roll and glance at the table to see whether you hit an opponent with a given AC. For example (for level 1 characters in Basic D&D):
|To hit AC:||9||8||7||6||5||4||3||2||1||0||-1||-2||-3|
To avoid blundering into the ascending/descending AC holy war (seriously people), and also to remain compatible with AD&D’s different base AC I suppose, many OSR/DIY D&D modules now present monster and NPC armour class not with a number, but with an armour type.
This is quite neat. Let’s look at the basic armour types from Basic D&D and their numeric armour classes from Basic, AD&D, d20 and 5e (slightly simplified):
Not only are there different armour classes between each generation of D&D as shown in the table above, but the gaps between armour classes is also inconsistent. In trying to provide a “look up” table similar to the kind written on your character sheet in Basic D&D with rolls required to hit for each armour type listed, I have by coincidence settled upon the d20 AC numbers (they tend to be either the same as the roll required in Basic or between that number and the 5e AC):
|Armour Type||Roll Required (1d20 + To Hit Bonus)|
The “To Hit Bonus” is the Strength (melee) or Dexterity (ranged) modifier plus the proficiency bonus (5e), base attack bonus (d20), or 20 – your THAC0 (in TSR versions of the game).
Posted on November 2, 2018
As discussed in my response to the OSR questionnaire, Castles & Crusades was my pathway to the OSR. There’s a variety of reasons for this. The system is more familiar to 3rd edition/Pathfinder players than 1e AD&D, but the game has that 1e feel in play, but this familiarity is overstated, in my view. Probably the biggest reason is that C&C looks the most like a “modern” game as a result of its full-colour, hard-cover rulebooks, and as such, is the easiest sell. Even though I am not currently playing C&C, I like the game a lot and I have continued to back its Kickstarters and buy the odd book when they’ve been on sale, because I think I probably will run C&C again one day.
I am embarrassed to say that I backed The Adventurer’s Backpack and then forgot about it until just recently. Since The Adventurer’s Backpack was launched on Kickstarter and funded, Troll Lords Games have launched other Kickstarters and fulfilled them. The production quality is always high, and the Trolls do a good job of staying in touch with backers without completely spamming them with updates (despite the opinion of some publishers, there is in fact a balance). The Kickstarter was nevertheless late by over a year, which isn’t great, but I’ve come to expect this from Kickstarter generally and probably didn’t miss the book because my C&C campaign fizzled out a while ago. The book was worth the wait, nevertheless!
The book is 144 pages long, full-colour, with a hard-cover, like TLG’s other handbooks. The main feature of the book is a set of pre-designed “backpacks”. In addition to this, the book includes 14 new character classes, new spells, expanded rules for spell-casting and magic, and rules for mounts and unarmed combat.
I am going to talk about the book’s titular feature first: the backpacks. Effectively, these are “quickstart” equipment packs. At the end of character creation, you roll your starting gold as usual, but rather than go equipment shopping, you go backpack shopping. I still say shopping because there is a huge range of backpacks to choose from – enough that you may even question whether this is any faster than simply buying all the equipment item by item. There are four broad types of backpack:
- Common Backpacks (in dungeon, overland, and city varieties – both “basic” and “expert” levels which basically come down to cost)
- Terrain-specific Backpacks (for cold weather, deserts, mountains, and sea-faring)
- Speciality Backpacks (in effect these are for different “professions” rather than character classes and I suspect they’re intended for use by NPCs)
- Class-specific Backpacks
The last three types are also generally labelled “shoulder packs” implying you can carry one of them in addition to a common backpack. Thus, despite there being 32 backpacks (and assorted related things like spell component packs and pack animals), the division into these different types of backpacks simplifies use. Most players can simply buy the one backpack intended for the broad sort of adventure they’re expecting (common backpack), then add shoulder packs for the type of terrain and their character class. Then the player can buy their weapons and armour as usual. In all likelihood, they will not be able to afford one of the shoulder packs, depending on their starting gold.
The packs contain an interesting mix of old favourites and flavourful “this might be handy” style equipment, the latter being more common in the “shoulder packs”. Although the prices are calculated with the C&C equipment list, these backpacks are fairly translatable to most OSR games, and substantially speed up the part of character creation which I find most tedious. As such, the core of the book is a really useful aid in play.
This core has also been translated into equipment cards, which you can buy separately if you prefer that format. I don’t have the cards so I can’t say much else about them. While I didn’t see the point of these when I backed the Kickstarter, I can see the point now, and I’m contemplating buying them.
The new character classes in The Adventurer’s Backpack are an interesting collection. My first comment is that the classes are not what you might expect looking at the name. For example, there is a class called “Magic User”, which I can assure you is nothing like the venerable Magic User of Basic D&D, but rather a class which uses magic to manipulate the outcome of rolls rather than to cast spells. There are a few other such examples – “Arcane Thief” is not just a wizard/thief, for example. In some ways I am reminded of the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide, only the classes in The Adventurer’s Backpack are unique and creative and not just a way to multiclass without having to use the multiclass rules. As someone who is generally ambivalent about the prospect of new character classes, I actually found myself pleasantly surprised by the character classes and think that these may help hold the interest of players from a 3rd Edition/Pathfinder background who are used to more character options than are typically provided by Castles & Crusades a
One comment on the presentation. I note that many OSR products, although generally printed in black and white, feature outstanding layout which not only looks great but is very thoughtful and deliberate. The layout of many OSR books enhances their “game-ability” at the table dramatically. The Adventurer’s Backpack has a fairly stock standard two column format. It’s not terrible, but it’s not up there with work like Jez Gordon’s layouts for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The art throughout is in full-colour, which adds to the presentation since, as mentioned earlier, the full-colour, hard-cover presentation of C&C books helps them hold up against Paizo and WotC books in the eyes of “new school” players considering whether to give C&C a
I think The Adventurer’s Backpack has a lot of great gaming material for Castles & Crusades players. It’s nice to see a product for that system come out which caters to players rather than Castle Keepers. I am not worried at the possibility of overwhelming “rules bloat” either – Castles & Crusades has been around since 2004 and even if you have every book of optional rules, the game is still sleek and smooth. Even though it is new content, the core of The Adventurer’s Backpack mostly exists to streamline play by adding “speedy shopping” options which still preserve the realism of equipment management. As such, this is one “expansion” which won’t bog down your campaign.
If you would like to support this blog and purchase a copy of The Adventurer’s Backpack all at the same time, you can buy the book as a PDF from DriveThruRPG through my affiliate link below. The cards are also available, although I haven’t really reviewed them (I’m intrigued though!).
Posted on October 24, 2018
Judged by my reading of the OSR blogosphere, it seems that online play via Google Hangouts alone without virtual table top software (like Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds) is quite popular with OSR players. This might be for a number of reasons:
- OSR players are old people who find new technology hard
- OSR players prefer “theatre of the mind” and eschew the use of miniatures and battle mats
- Roll20, Fantasy Grounds and other solutions do not support OSR rulesets very well
I am going to rule out the first point out of hand, because my observation of OSR people is that even if they are old, they are hardly technophobes! Witness the recent coordinated mass-migration to MeWe – sure we haven’t worked out everything yet, but people have generally embraced the task of learning something new.
The second point – about OSR players preferring “theatre of the mind”, could well explain things. That’s probably a topic worthy of its own blog post because the use of miniatures in the original D&D seems overlooked in some OSR circles, in a reaction against the perceived over-reliance on them in modern versions of the game. The miniatures topic was well discussed on Grognardia a long time ago (http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2010/04/miniatures-are-old-school.html) so I won’t presume to do it here. I do think that keeping the focus on the faces of other players rather than on a screen-sized battle mat plays a role in the preference for tools like Hangouts over Roll20, but I think this is only part of the explanation again.
I think the biggest contributor is that Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds do not support OSR rulesets very well, at least by comparison to their support for 5e and Pathfinder. As a consequence, OSR VTT games are high-prep games. Pre-made characters sheets are available for many popular OSR games, but there aren’t pre-made modules ready for purchase and deployment, nor compendiums, not built-in scripts etc as are available for 5e and Pathfinder. Castles & Crusades has pretty good support on Fantasy Grounds with a huge range of modules and support products available for purchase, but even popular OSR games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Swords & Wizardry do not.
I want to stress here that there is nothing which requires a VTT game, using any system, to be a high-prep game. If you don’t want to use maps, tokens, etc, if you’re content with a blank screen, character sheets, nifty dice rolling, and voice/video chat, you can run whatever game you like just fine. If that’s the case, then there’s not much point to using a platform like Roll20 over Discord or Google Hangouts, I suppose. However, I find there is something about the VTT format which demands more visual aids than the face-to-face format. Perhaps it is something about sitting at a computer rather than around a table with my friends which makes me feel like the players need something to look at on the screen – and not just occasionally when combat calls for it, for example, but all the time. I think using the extra features a VTT provides over a simple online chat (e.g. Google Hangouts or Discord) makes playing online more engaging. These extra features also enhance one important aspect of many OSR games:
Mapping! Rather than describe the dungeon and have players keep their own maps, I can have the dungeon unfold visually in front of the players, effectively “drawing” the map on their screen. With Roll20’s Pro features (dynamic lighting and advanced fog of war), this map can be unique for each player, and reflect only the features of the dungeon which have actually appeared in the player character’s line of sight. OK, I grant, this is not really mapping, true old school style, but truth be told my players do not generally make their own maps (either face to face or online), but this automatic mapping overcomes the “player laziness factor”. The examples below are from my Roll20 Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign – from the excellent James Raggi module “The God that Crawls“. If you’ve played this module, I think you’ll agree it benefits from mapping.
Another location from the same campaign (this one not from any published module) which is “zoomed in” helps show the distinction between areas the player can see, areas the player has not explored, and areas the player has explored but cannot see right now (note that players cannot see the health bars of any tokens except their own, despite what is shown in these images):
Something else you may notice from these “zoomed in” pictures – the beautiful custom tokens made especially for my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign by the very talented Peter Saga. Peter is also very easy to work with if you are thinking of commissioning similar tokens for your game, by the way: https://www.artstation.com/petersaga_1 These tokens effectively take the place of miniatures, which many people (certainly my players) find both visually exciting and engaging – can’t do that in Discord.
To really get the most of the visual advantages of virtual table top, you need to do quite a bit of prep. First, you need to find/make token-scale maps (effectively battle mats) for more important locations in your game. You can also incorporate regional and kingdom maps, although these can be in any scale they come as precise location of individual player characters tends to matter less. Then, you need to load the maps into your virtual tabletop. To take advantage of the Pro features in Roll20 which enabled the effects above, you need to both pay for a Pro subscription and to draw your dungeon’s walls again in Roll20 to allow dynamic lighting to work its magic. To do this, you need to jump to another layer, and then draw in the map lines, preferably in bright lines so they stand out (don’t worry, you won’t see them in play). When a player character opens a door, you need to jump back to the dynamic lighting layer to remove the line through the door, then jump back. It’s time consuming for large dungeons like The God that Crawls.
Now, I have to make a referee confession at this point. I have never been good at consistently preparing for game sessions, especially in the preparation of maps. And yet, despite becoming adept at flying by the seat of my pants, preparation does make me a genuinely better referee. It means I save my improvisation skills for where it is really needed and that the game world is much more consistent. Playing a VTT campaign forces me to prepare lots of maps before playing – maps that cover everywhere I think the players might go. Preparing these maps also means I stock locations in my sandbox as I go. Dare I say, players also have more agency because I am not “forcing” any scraps of ideas I have on them – they choose where to go and what things to get killed by, not me.
So, at least for me, VTT games are high prep games, but that’s not a bad thing.
Posted on October 19, 2018
In my last post I mentioned that you can already find a lot of maps to run B1-9 In Search of Adventure. Some of these, by more talented artists than I, are available commercially through OneBookShelf (affiliate links ahoy – I get a commission if you buy these):
- B1 In Search of the Unknown Realistic Maps by John Pintar
- B2 Caves of Chaos Realistic Maps by John Pintar
- Iconic Encounters: B4 – the Lost City by P Daniel Johnson
- B5 Horror on the Hill Map Resource Kit by Daniel Pryor
- Iconic Encounters: B6 – The Veiled Society by P Daniel Johnson
Some other very talented artists have made their maps available for free:
- Palace of the Silver Princess
- Thorfinn Tait has made beautiful maps for Mystara, including virtually all of the overland maps, city maps, and town maps required for B1-9 In Search of Adventure.
That covers a lot of maps but still leaves me quite a few to draw myself with my limited ability! If you know of any other sources for the missing maps, free or paid, please let me know.