Player Agency & Emergent Storytelling

When I started this blog a few months ago, I picked the title “Save vs. Player Agency”. The reason is two-fold:

  • When people ask me what I emphasize as a referee, I tend to answer “player agency” and then a discussion usually ensues about what I mean by that
  • Some of my players note that their characters die a lot in my games, which I generally attribute back to the decisions they have made (there are exceptions)

When some of my gaming friends are asked what they emphasize as a referee, I often hear “the story” or something similar offered as a response. There is nothing wrong with this answer, of course, but I often wonder about it when it is given. I’d argue that most experienced referees emphasize “the story” at their table, but there are different forms of storytelling. The reason I say “player agency” and not “the story” is that I want the story told at my gaming table to be shaped by the players and to be significantly driven by their actions and decisions. It has been my observation, though, that some referees who say that they emphasize “the story” mean that they are prioritizing their story, the story arc in their head or in their adventure path. This is a very different form of storytelling to the one I personally prefer at the gaming table, which is emergent from the decisions and actions of the player characters.

That is not to say that I cannot enjoy playing with a referee whose emphasis is on telling their story as opposed to player agency and emergent storytelling. If their story is crafted well-enough that I can’t tell that I am not having a meaningful impact upon how it unfolds as a player, then there is nothing wrong with the game at all. As players, we only tend to use the derogatory term railroad to describe this sort of game when the illusion is broken and we work out that we cannot meaningfully affect the story as it unfolds before us.

I have sometimes seen this cast as an old-school vs. a “new school” dichotomy. I disagree, and the results of the OSR survey appear to bear me out. As recently discussed on Necropraxis, both OSR participants and non-OSR participants identify that they like emergent storytelling in their games. Both groups identify that they strongly dislike railroading, more than any other attribute of play mentioned in the survey.

The principle difference between OSR participants and non-OSR participants shown in this latest analysis at Necropraxis is that non-OSR participants like balanced encounters and OSR participants do not. I could make an argument that balanced encounters de-emphasize player agency, since to exist, player agency in a campaign must mean that players could make decisions which lead to unbalanced encounters. However, I think this argument would miss the context of the question. As encounters by themselves, most players prefer balanced encounters – but to OSR players this term may be loaded with connotations of prescriptive tables and challenge rating formulae from 3rd Edition. I suspect that asking further questions around this point would reveal that non-OSR participants do not believe that the game world should be “scaled” to their level like the CRPG Skyrim, and that OSR participants do not believe that low-level parties should be thrown into combat with high-level monsters without some broader rationale based on the internal logic of the campaign. Let’s set aside the issue of balanced vs unbalanced encounters then. On the issue of emergent storytelling vs railroading, both old school and new school players are alike – they strongly prefer emergent storytelling over railroading.

Somewhat surprisingly (at least to me), everyone, even OSR non-participants, seemed to be positive about Random encounters and Reaction rolls, which are mechanisms that weave juxtaposed outcomes into surprising sequence of fictional game events. This leads me to believe that positive attitude toward play designed to produce emergent (as opposed to planned) narrative is a broadly shared preference. It seems that Railroading, Alignment languages, and Dice fudging are universally disliked, with Railroading being solidly in full Dislike territory across all responses.

In my recent Pendragon campaign game session, a new player commented on the apparent complexity of the Winter Phase. We are playing with the Book of the Estate and Book of the Entourage and some modifications based on the late Greg Stafford’s personal website and collectively, these sources add detail and verisimilitude to land and family management. Unfortunately they also add book-keeping and time, and are not always consistent with each other and with the core game itself. Frankly, there are some mechanics, especially around maintenance and estate budgets, which need to be simplified. However, when I go about this simplification, one thing I will not be doing is removing the random tables for childbirth, deaths in the family, strange family events, and so on. Why? Because these random tables drive emergent storytelling. The Great Pendragon Campaign lays out the major events of the campaign year by year, but the personal history of each player’s knight and their family emerges through play and to a very large extent through these Winter Phase tables, year on year. I feel like the analysis of the OSR survey results support this decision too, even though most of the players in my Pendragon campaign are non-OSR participants.

Twas the night before Christmas…

The family and I have travelled home for Christmas to spend the holiday period with our friends and family. For the second year in a row, I’ve organised a big gaming get together with all of my old gaming buddies from back home as part of our holiday. Hopefully we’ll make it a tradition for many Christmas holidays to come!

So the night before the night before Christmas (I write this on 23 December), I am preparing for the game. We will be playing Basic D&D, and the game I will be running will be a kids friendly game, with my kids joining and possibly one or two others. The adventure is one of my devising.

Preparing for a one shot is very different from preparing for a campaign. The format has advantages and disadvantages. Fortunately for this game with old gaming buddies, I have more time than I typically do for a convention game. Rather than a tight four hour slot like at a typical con, we should be playing for at least six hours. I am sure this extra time will evaporate quickly, but I have some thoughts/ambitions about the game and my prep work is largely an exercise in cutting some things out and working on the details of the things which remain.

First, the setting: a desert kingdom ruled by a snake cult, with vast temples erected by slave labour.

The party members are escaped slaves who rebelled and escaped with whatever they could carry to the hills. The snake cult has paid the local tribes of firenewts to round up their escaped slaves to make examples of them to the slaves left to toil in their city, lest they too get ideas of rebellion and freedom. This is a handy way to have the player characters all know each other and share a common enemy and motivation.

So, with those base assumptions, my ambitions for the session:

  • Engaging party with common motivation without pregens – I want to include character generation
  • Let the players level up at least once.
  • Give as much of a sandbox feel as possible (but keep it tight since it is a one shot)
  • Provide several “adventure locales” – the players will not get to them all in the one session but it will give them a sense of there being more about
  • A plot which is engaging and suitable both for adults and for children
  • Give the players the chance to fight some very dangerous foes but with a chance to prevail using the proper strategy
  • Leave them wanting more!

Races of the Hollow Earth: Fomorians

Fomorians are humanoids who live in the permafrost of the north of the Hollow Earth. Once they lived on the surface, and were the enemies of the elves, whom they fought for control of Ireland. Their leader, Balor, was slain, and most of their people was destroyed by the conquering elves. In order to preserve their species, the Engineers took the Fomorians into the Hollow Earth, settling them beneath Iceland in a land called Tech Duinn in elvish.

Fomorians speak both elvish and their own tongue. They both hate and are irresistibly attracted to elves. Fomorians do not “breed true” – they mutate with each generation. The elven form is considered by most fomorians to be the most desirable and beautiful, and very rarely a fomorian will closely resemble an elf, but most fomorians are born with deformities and variations inexplicable to any conventional understanding of the principles of heredity. Human-sized parents can give birth to giant children, and giants can father children smaller than halflings. Fomorians and elves can interbreed, and the children of such unions tend to exhibit less deformities and more closely resemble the elven parent. The effect does not persist to the next generation, however. It is rare that fomorian/elven unions are formed by mutual consent, unfortunately, with most “beautiful” fomorian children born to elven parents dragged back to Tech Duinn in chains. The fate of such elves is generally grim and awful.

Fomorians! Art by Peter Saga


Fomorians are extremely long-lived, although unlike elves, they are not immortal. If you are playing with the maximum age rules, a fomorian’s maximum age is 420 + 2d100.

Age (Description)Years
Middle Aged


In their most “pure” form, fomorians resemble elves, although their skin pigmentations vary dramatically and without any indication of heredity. lmost all fomorians develop mutations in the womb and/or in childhood which distort this elf-like form. Fomorians born from fomorian/elven unions tend to develop fewer mutations than those with two fomorian parents (even if one of those parents was half-elven themselves). Unfortunately fomorians idealize elven standards of beauty, and most fomorians therefore detest their own appearance.

Most fomorians will roll on one or both of the mutations tables several times. Some mutations can be rolled multiple times – where this is the case, it is marked in the tables. Other mutations can only be rolled once – if a fomorian rolls the same “once only” mutation twice, they should re-roll until they roll a different mutation. Based on the number of mutations a fomorian has, and their severity, one can classify them as a common fomorian or a beautiful fomorian. Such a distinction is artificial, of course, but nevertheless a useful abstraction to understand a fomorian’s place in fomorian society. A small proportion of fomorians mutate into giants. Irrespective of their birth, the enormous size and sheer physical power of these giants makes them high status individuals, especially in times of war. Even gigantism does not “breed true” in fomorians, however; two giant parents may have a child of ordinary size. Irrespective of the severity of mutations, fomorians possess an inate ability to identify other fomorians on sight, so a fomorian will never be so mutated that another fomorian does not recognize him or her as their kin.

Major Mutations Table

1Goat-head, with horns. Gain an additional horn attack for 1d6 damage.11Prehensile feet. Can use feet as hands.
2Halfling-sized. Generate height and weight as per procedures for halflings. Cannot use large weapons, medium weapons must be used two-handed. 3 in 6 Stealth skill.12Stretched to be unnaturally tall for their frame. Double the base modifier when determining the fomorian’s height. Note, this can combine with halfling-sized. Can be rolled multiple times.
3One leg. Base exploration speed becomes 60′, base combat speed 20′.13Fur. The fomorian’s whole body is covered in fur, usually of a colour which contrasts sharply to their skin colour.
4One arm. Cannot use weapons which require two hands.14Tusks. Gain an additional gore attack for 1d6 damage.
5One eye. No depth perception. -2 to missile attacks at short range, -4 at medium, -6 at long.15Hound’s snout and smell. +2 bonus to Search rolls for living (or recently deceased) targets. Increases to +3 against elves.
6Bloated. Double the base modifier when determining the fomorian’s weight. Can be rolled multiple times.16Hardened skin. The fomorian’s skin becomes even more leathery. +1 natural Armour. Can be rolled multiple times.
7Arms in wrong places. -2 to Dexterity ability score. Cannot throw. Can be rolled multiple times.17Over-muscled. The fomorian’s Strength is determined by rolling 1d6 and adding 12.
8Bestial. The fomorian possesses an animal-like appearance and temperament. -2 to Charisma, +1 to Strength, +1 to Dexterity. Can be rolled multiple times.18Hunchback. Reduce height by 1d6 inches (1d3 inches if already halfling-sized). Can be rolled multiple times.
9Poison bite. Gain an additional bite attack for 1d3 damage. Enemies taking damage from this attack must save against Poison to resist falling unconscious as if affected by the Sleep spell cast by the same level caster as the fomorian.19Oversized cranium. Hit die reduces from d8 to d6. Gain the ability to cast spells as an elf of the same level. Spells granted at random, one for each spell “slot”. Gains spells with each new slot. Each known spell is automatically prepared after 6 hours rest.
10Tail. 3 in 6 Climb skill.201d4 Minor Mutations. Can be rolled multiple times.

Minor Mutations Table

1Unnaturally long tongue, which can extend up to 1d8 inches from the fomorian’s face. Can be rolled multiple times.
2Elven magic. The fomorian gains the ability to cast magic as per an elf of the same level, in exactly the same way as an elf can. If combined with oversized cranium, the fomorian can additionally prepare spells (either those automatically known through the oversized cranium mutation or from a spellbook) up to the normal daily limits in addition to the spells automatically prepared thanks to oversized cranium. The number of spells the fomorian can cast per day, however, is unaffected.
3Cat’s eyes. The fomorian gains infravision, the ability to see in the dark up to 60′. This is spoiled by the presence of light sources, which, if they exist in the fomorian’s field of view, restrict the fomorian to only being able to see what those light sources illuminate.
4Elven reflexes. The fomorian is only surprised on a 1 in 6, as are elves.
5Ultra fertile. If the fomorian falls pregnant or impregnates someone else, the resulting pregnancy will produce a litter of 1d8 fomorians. Can be rolled multiple times, each time giving an additional +1d8 offspring.
6Unnaturally long fingers, giving the fomorian +1 to the Tinker skill. Can be rolled multiple times.

Common Fomorians

Common fomorians are generally the product of unions between two fomorians. Sometimes a fomorian/elf union will produce a common fomorian, but all fomorian/fomorian unions produce common fomorians. They are not necessarily “low status” fomorians – most fomorian kings are common fomorians. Common fomorians have thick skin, which approaches leather. This affords some natural protection, but is irrespective thought of as unappealing by fomorians, who idealize the soft skin and flawless complexions of the elves. Common fomorians also tend to be slightly bigger and bulkier than the elven ideal. The default method for determining height and weight for common fomorians is given below, but may be modified by mutations rolled on the major mutations table:

  • Roll 2d6 for adult fomorians, 2d4 for young fomorians. Take this value as the modifier.
  • For adult female common fomorians, height = 4’6″ + modifier“, and weight = 85 + ( modifier x 5 ) lbs.
  • For adult male common fomorians, height = 5’0″ + modifier“, and weight = 120 + ( modifier x 5 ) lbs.
  • For young female common fomorians, height = 4’6″ + modifier”, and weight = 70 + ( modifier x 5) lbs.
  • For young male common fomorians, height = 4’8″ + modifier”, and weight = 85 + ( modifier x 5) lbs.

The basic game statistics for common formorians of first level are given below. These can easily be “scaled up” by increasing the number of hit dice (and thus increasing the attack bonus and saving throws).

Common Fomorians

Armour 13, HD 1d8, Speed 120′(40′), Attack Bonus +1, Claw attack for 1d4 damage or as per weapon, Save as Elf 1, Morale 8, 1d3 Major Mutations

Beautiful Fomorians

So-called beautiful fomorians are rare, and are exclusively the product of fomorian/elf unions. Beautiful fomorians are accorded a high-status in fomorian society irrespective of however low-ranking their parents were. They are highly sought after sexual partners, and often marry royalty and high-ranking nobility, even if their fomorian parent was a simple commoner. Beautiful fomorians have only minor mutations, and although their skin may be brightly coloured, it is no thicker or harder than the skin of any elf. Likewise, beautiful fomorians share the same basical physical dimensions of elves:

  • Roll 2d6 for adult fomorians, 2d4 for young fomorians. Take this value as the modifier.
  • For adult female beautiful fomorians, height = 4’5″ + modifier“, and weight = 80 + ( modifier x 3.5 ) lbs.
  • For adult male beautiful fomorians, height = 4’5″ + modifier“, and weight = 85 + ( modifier x 3.5 ) lbs.
  • For young female beautiful fomorians, height = 4’5″ + modifier”, and weight = 66 + ( modifier x 3.5) lbs.
  • For young male beautiful fomorians, height = 4’3″ + modifier”, and weight = 70 + ( modifier x 3.5) lbs.

The basic game statistics for beautiful formorians of first level are given below. These can easily be “scaled up” by increasing the number of hit dice (and thus increasing the attack bonus and saving throws).

Beautiful Fomorians

Armour 12, HD 1d6, Speed 120′(40′), Attack Bonus +1, Damage as per weapon, Save as Elf 1, Morale 8, 50% chance of 1d3 Minor Mutations

Giant Fomorians

During adolescence, approximately 1 in 100 common fomorians experience a rapid acceleration in growth, and grow into a 13′ tall giant by the time of adulthood. Beyond this vastly accelerated growth, giant fomorians also experience additional mutations compared to their smaller kin. Their sheer size guarantees their status in fomorian society despite their deformities – giants are the most deadly weapons in any fomorian army.

Giant Fomorians

Armour 16, HD 13d8, Speed 90′(30′), Attack Bonus +13, Smash attack for 4d8 damage, Save as Fighter 13, Morale 10, 1d6 Major Mutations (re-rolling any results of halfling-sized)

Fomorian Player Characters

It is possible to create a fomorian player character. All such player characters are assumed to be common or so-called beautiful fomorians, rather than giants.


All fomorians have a random skin tone, irrespective of the skin tone of their parents, ranging from “natural” skin tones as seen in humans, through to bright colours, blackest black, and albino white.

Common fomorians start play with 1d3 Major Mutations.

Beautiful fomorians start play with 1d6 – 3 Minor Mutations (negative number = no mutations).

Experience Progression

Fomorians with the oversized cranium or elven magic mutations (or both) progress using the experience points progression of elves.

Beautiful fomorians without spell-casting ability progress using the experience points progression of specialists.

Common fomorians without spell-casting ability progress using the experience points progression of fighters.

Hit Points

Common fomorians gain +1d8 hit points per level up to level 9, after which they gain +2 hit points per level.

Beautiful fomorians gain +1d6 hit points per level up to level 9, after which they gain +2 hit points per level.

All fomorians have a minimum for 4 hit points (modified by Constitution) at level 1.

Saving Throws

Fomorians save as elves of the same level.

Other Special Abilities

Fomorians can use the press and defensive fighting options when fighting in melee.

Common fomorians have a base Armour of 13, as opposed to 12.

Beautiful fomorians have the regular base Armour of 12.

Races of the Hollow Earth: Demihumans

And God said, Let vs make man in our Image, after our likenesse: and let them haue dominion ouer the fish of the sea, and ouer the foule of the aire, and ouer the cattell, and ouer all the earth, and ouer euery creeping thing that creepeth vpon the earth.

So God created man in his owne Image, in the Image of God created hee him; male and female created hee them.

Genesis 1:26-27

MOST people are unaware that the World is home to other species of intelligent life beyond humankind, and has been home in the past to even more. Those learned people who have discovered the sometimes terrible truth that we are not alone have wondered that there is a similarity between the world’s intelligent species (at least those thus far discovered) which clearly differentiates them from beasts, beyond simply the faculty of language and the ability to use tools. All intelligent species outwardly resemble each other to at least some extent: they are possessed of two arms, two legs, a head, opposing fingers and thumbs, and broadly similar organs. The primary intelligent species of the world resemble each other so closely that we can call the non-human species “demihumans” to mark their very close resemblence.

Humanity is the only species of intelligent life which inhabits the surface of the world in modern times. Although it is split into various races and nations, most starkly divided between Old World and New, all humans are much alike when considered against the other, less well-known peoples of the Hollow Earth. In its hubris, humankind fancies itself the master of the world, but only very few understand even the smallest part of the truth of this world, and one cannot be master of that which one does not understand.

Most of the world’s intelligent life appears to have been created by the Engineers, an incredibly advanced race which disappeared from this orb untold millennia ago. It is possible that the similarities which exist between humans, dwarves, elves and halflings are due to a common creator. Perhaps the Engineers formed us all in their image, with only small deviations to differentiate us?


The dwarves were created by the Engineers who built the Hollow Earth in the time before time. They were created as servitors to maintain the creation of their masters, but over the eons most of the truth of their origins has been forgotten, leaving existence bereft of meaning for most dwarves. There is nothing for most dwarves but work, endless work, as time allows chaos to encroach upon the perfect creation of the Engineers. Ironically the dwarves know too much; they know enough to know that what is most important to know has already been known and long since forgotten. This is their curse, the terrible knowledge which slowly murders their race, killing the joy of life, and with it the love between dwarves which leads to the birth of successive generations.

Unlike the other inhabitants of the Hollow Earth, it is common knowledge amongst the dwarves that the world is hollow and that they live on the inside of it. The dwarves know that they are custodians of this hollow world for the Engineers. The Engineers are the closest things the dwarves have for gods, but they have been gone for millennia, and beyond a few artifacts and the world itself, the dwarves have nothing left of the Engineers. Access to the Great Archive of the Engineers was lost dozens of centuries ago, when the elves invaded the hollow earth by means of magic, occupying the island the elves now call Tír na nÓg, which had been forbidden to the races of the hollow earth, for it lay above the Great Archive. The dwarves fought to defend the Great Archive against these invaders, but since the Engineers had not created them with the ability to use magic, the dwarves were gradually pushed back by the elves. Eventually, the dwarves were forced to make a terrible decision – collapse the subterranean passages beneath Tír na nÓg on top of the fighting armies and in so doing cut off their only access to the Great Archive, or allow the invaders access to the forbidden knowledge of the Engineers. Their duty ingrained in their DNA, the dwarves protected the Great Archive even at the cost of losing their own access to it forever. Over the years the collective memory of the contents of the Great Archive has passed into dimly remembered mythology as successive generations of dwarves fail to pass on everything they remember to the generation which succeeds them.

The dwarves know there are no gods, and that all the world is but a mechanism whose designers have long abandoned it, a mechanism whose maintenance is their responsibility, against whose inexorable decay their endless work is ultimately futile.

The dwarves are spread almost everywhere through the Hollow Earth, unlike its other species, living mostly hidden from view between mountains, linked by a subterranean network of tunnels. The continents were once linked through such tunnels by high-speed transports and cables which carried communication signals across great distances, but after the dwarves lost access to the Great Archives they gradually lost the ability to maintain such high technology, and the great train and communication networks of the Engineers run through the veins of the earth no more. The dwarves do the best they can, travelling these tunnels to tend to the ancient mechanisms which maintain the world’s gravity (to both the inner and outer world), and filter its atmosphere, but these too are losing battles, for as the ancient machinery develops faults not encountered in generations, the dwarves can no longer consult the Great Archive to find the appropriate maintenance procedure.

The dwarves are not just maintenance staff – they are also zoo keepers, charged with keeping the various civilizations of the hollow earth intact and more or less separate from each other. Here too they have not been as successful as once they were, finding it especially difficult to counteract the abilities of magic users since the Engineers, in their wisdom, designed the dwarves to be incapable of wielding magic (and thus incapable of challenging the supremacy of their now absent masters). Historically the dwarves have only directly confronted the inhabitants of the Hollow Earth when they have felt there was no other option – generally they prefer to work in the shadows to contrive to keep each species to the area assigned to it by the Engineers, or to at least prevent their further spread. When the sea monsters around Tír na nÓg proved inadequate to prevent the elves spreading to the surrounding islands, for example, the dwarves built fleets for the Fomorians, and gave them maps sufficient to navigate to Tír na nÓg and the new elven colonies, working through proxies where possible, hoping that the Fomorians would further dissuade the elves.

The few dwarves who become adventures are those who throw off the malaise of the rest of the culture, and deny the doom of their people, determined to live in the world they know to be dying, and to enjoy it while they can. They are still hesitant to share the secrets of their people and the Hollow Earth with the non-dwarves they befriend, however, because to do so would break not only a deep-seated cultural taboo, but also every instinct written into their DNA by the Engineers in the time before time.


The elves are creatures of Chaos, bathed in the arcane fires of magic. They once ruled the surface of the world, but retreated into the Hollow Earth through eldritch sorcery in the earliest days of humanity. The Tuatha Dé Danann, sometimes called sidhe, fairy folk, or elves in the mythology of those who dwell in our world, once inhabited Ireland before the arrival of the first humans, the Gaels. Having just been involved in a cataclysmic war with the Fomorians, the elves retreated to the Hollow Earth, which they call the Otherworld, rather than fight the human settlers. They have lived in the Otherworld for untold millennia and although they are ageless, few if any elves still live who can remember Ireland before the first men.

The elves have many gods, chief amongst whom is the mother goddess Danu. Tuatha Dé Danann means “the peoples of the goddess Danu”. Once they reach adulthood, elves are effectively ageless, maintaining the appearance of eternal youth. For this reason the part of the Otherworld they call home is called Tír na nÓg, meaning “Land of Youth”. Elves have also settled on a few nearby islands, and there is some trade by sea between these colonies and Tír na nÓg, although elves prefer not to sail long distances due to the risk of sea monsters and Fomorian sea raiders. Although they left Ireland and the rest of the world of humans in the time before history, elves have often interacted with humans through magical means, which led to them becoming an integral part of the pre-Christian religion of the Irish. Many elven kings, queens and other leaders have become “gods” to the pre-Christian Gaels or figures in modern Irish folklore, although naturally many of the stories and depictions are distorted through their retelling over centuries. Amongst the elves, there are stories of elves who travelled from the Otherworld back to the world of humankind – none of them have ever been known to return.

The elves live in Tír na nÓg with the Brownies, their halfling servants. Although long-lived, halflings do age and die. Most elven families have been served by halflings of the same lineage for centuries. Halflings do most of the housework, farming, gardening, and other manual labour, leaving the elves to pursue martial, cultural, spiritual and magical pursuits.

Although generally peaceful, the elves are occasionally called to arms to defend their homes against the Fomorians and other residents of the Otherworld. Like the elves, the Fomorians once lived in Ireland, but were driven into the Otherworld or destroyed after the death of their warlord leader Balor. The Fomorians raid elven lands from the sea, taking slaves, looting, and destroying homes. These violent incursions recur frequently and stop the elves from sinking into total decadence. They also serve to thin out the numbers of the otherwise undying sidhe. The elves have also fought against other residents of the Otherworld, although far less frequently.

In the earliest days of their time in the Otherworld, the elves fought a war with a race of short, gruff, bearded warriors who lived underneath the mountains of Tír na nÓg, who had been determined to drive the elves into the sea. Instead, thanks to their use of magic, the elves drove them from the surface and chased them into their subterranean lairs, and all that stopped them chasing their adversaries ever deeper beneath the surface of the earth was a massive collapse, triggered by the retreating enemy to stop further incursion, crushing what remained of their own armies as well as those of the elves.


Halflings, or Brownies as they are sometimes called, live in the Hollow Earth, mostly in the elven homeland of Tír na nÓg. Most live as the servants of elven families. Since elves are immortal and halflings are not (living about one hundred years on average), it is common for halflings to serve the same elven master as their parents, and their grandparents and great-grandparents before them, going back many generations. They are not slaves, and are generally well-looked after by their elven masters, for if they would not, they would leave. They do not have their own language, and instead speak the tongue of their masters. They perform most of the manual labour for the elves, but are nevertheless characterized by elves as self-indulgent, because halflings spend their free time frivolously, in the judgement of elvenkind, eating, drinking, playing games, and generally being merry, instead of the “higher pursuits”‘ of the elves.

Halflings generally have their own homes nearby the homes of their employers, and tend to be very house proud. In larger elven settlements, there tends to be a Brownie district, where the homes of all the halfling servants are found. All of the generations of a halfling family live under one roof. Generally speaking the adult males, unmarried females, and females whose children are grown will all work for the same elven master – it is rare that halflings from one household work for different elves. The roles they perform for the elves change over time, with older halflings generally employed in less physically demanding roles. Most halflings retire sometime in their nineties. Most halfling males will live in the same home for their entire life – the females will move only once, when they are married. Halflings like to say that the reason for their bare feet is that they don’t like to walk very far so they don’t need shoes – in reality their feet are naturally hard and insulated against the elements so as to render shoes redundant, but it does illustrate the halfling attitude about straying too far from home.

Henchman Rules for LotFP

In my game I supplement the rules for henchmen in LotFP with the following rules taken from AD&D 1e – these rules (or more likely, the 1981 B/X D&D interpretation of them) seem to be assumed by LotFP but there are a few details missing. Everything in Rules & Magic pp.47-51 is correct and unmodified by these supplemental rules.

Henchmen Limit

A character may employ a maximum number of henchmen equal to 4 modified by the character’s Charisma modifier. Thus, a CHA 3 character can only have 1 henchman, a CHA 18 character can have a maximum of 7. This limit does not apply to other types of retainers – only to henchmen. A character is only restrained with respect to other retainers by their ability to pay.

Henchmen Class Levels

Henchmen are the only retainers who can have class levels. Their maximum level at the time of being hired is the level of their employer minus 2, and they cannot increase to the same level as their employer (always remaining 1 XP short of so doing). A character can have a level 0 henchman, if they really want… they don’t gain a class until level 1 though (which they will automatically reach when their employer reaches level 3).

Loyalty Checks

The LotFP Rules & Magic book lists the general cases in which a henchman’s loyalty is tested. Loyalty is kept confidential by the referee. As per p.47 of Labyrinth Lord (retroclone of B/X D&D), loyalty is tested at the end of an adventure – this is defined as when they are paid out. If the loyalty check is failed, the henchman will gracefully retire rather than let you suicidal idiots needlessly endanger them again before they get a chance to spend their hard-won loot.

Henchmen Loot

Henchmen are entitled to a half share of loot (if they survive). In the AD&D Players Handbook (Appendix V) they effectively get half as many magic items as player characters. This hasn’t come up much in our campaign thus far, but when it has the value of magic items has generally been reasonably accurately known, so the henchman can just be paid out half the value. Either way it works out to a half share of loot anyway. All of a henchman’s treasure is the property of their legal heirs upon their death – any equipment provided by the player characters can be reclaimed by the employer. The henchman’s equipment and expenses should be paid by their employer individually, not out of the party fund.

Ruling for Henchmen XP

Henchmen receive a full share of XP gained for defeating enemies. They gain XP for treasure based on their half share of treasure, however.

Coins of the English Civil War in LotFP

This article was originally written for players in my own LotFP campaign, set in the English Civil War, starting with the England Upturn’d module.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is distinguished from other D&D variants in that it uses a silver standard. As per the main rulebook, 1gp = 50sp = 500cp.

What does this mean in actual English money? That is, the old, pre-decimal pound sterling: 1£ = 20 shillings (s), 1s = 12 pence (d). But at this point, the pound sterling and shillings alike were really units of account – not actual coins. Even where coins existed with these “face values”, the face values were generally overlooked in favour of the metal value of the coin (which was often debased by the government – and during the civil war there were two governments in effect doing the debasing!).

The basic coin is the silver piece – the silver penny. In theory it should be mostly silver although it is occasionally debased but we’ll overlook that for the purposes of playability. Likewise there were two pence coins, groats, six pence, although none probably as commonly circulated as the penny, and we’ll also overlook them. These are primarily minted at the Tower of London, and even under Parliament’s control during the war, the coins are minted with Charles I’s face on them. Coins are still hammered at this time, so they are not always perfectly round and shaped as modern coins are. An example is shown below. We can take the silver penny as having a concrete value in game terms – 1sp.

There were gold crown coins minted with a face value of 5 shillings (confusingly there were some silver crowns too but let’s ignore them). These were by far the most common “gold coins” and are almost never seen. Gold coins are the currency of pirates! Well, that and international trade. There are double crowns (10 shillings – example below), unites (20 shillings = 1£), double unites (40 shillings = 2£) and the King even mints some triple unites (60 shillings = 3£) at the mints he controls at Oxford and Shrewbury from 1642 to 1644. We will assume that most gold coins encountered are crown coins, with a face value of 5 shillings (60d) – this is the denomination closest to the Lamentations 50sp = 1gp. In any case, we can assume currency debasement will make the value of any gold coin “even out” to 1gp.

All silver and gold coins minted by the King and Parliament alike feature a “head” side which shows the King’s head encircled by “CAROLUS DG MAG BRIT FRAN ET HIBER REX” – abbreviated Latin for “CHARLES BY THE GRACE OF GOD, OF GREAT BRITAIN, FRANCE AND IRELAND KING”. Coins minted by the Parliament usually make the King look older for some reason. Usually the “tails” side shows the coat of arms.

Along the edge of the tails side of the penny is usually printed the phrase “IUSTITIA THRONUM FIRMAT” – Latin for “Justice Strengthens the Throne”. Other silver and gold coins may replace this phrase with “CHRISTO AVSPICE REGNO” – “I reign under the auspices of Christ”. Larger coins minted by the King during the early years of the war replace the “tails” side with a part of Psalm 68 “EXURGAT DEUS DISSIPENTUR INIMICI” – “Let God arise and His enemies be scattered”, and most importantly, what amounts to the King’s “campaign motto” – what he promises to uphold if victorious in the war: “RELIG PROT – LEG ANGL – LIBER PAR” – or “The Protestant Religion, the Laws of England, the Liberty of Parliament”.

So these are the “official” coins. What is a copper piece then? Generally it amounts to a local trade token produced by a guild redeemable for real money, or even a silver coin cut into smaller pieces, or perhaps a “siege coin”, but they may also be copper farthings (value 5cp). These farthings were not produced by the Royal Mint, but by aristocrats who were granted (or bought) the privilege of minting farthings from the King, under patent (they can be called patent-farthings for this reason). This started in the reign of King James I, and continued under Charles I. They are small with simple designs usually featuring crossed sceptres, crowns, roses, harps, and other devices associated with the King (example shown below). They say “CAROLVS DG MAG BR” on one side and “FRA ET HIB REX” on the other – “Charles by the Grace of God, of Great Britain” / “France and Ireland, King”. They were heavily prone to forgery, as were local trading tokens, so 10cp = 1sp is quite a reasonable exchange rate because people would generally honour a lower value than the face value.

Finally, as the war goes on, there are more and more “siege coins” minted during a siege. They were generally made deliberately not to resemble “normal” coins and would be redeemed later. An example from the Siege of Newark is shown below.

Personality Trait Saving Throws for OSR Games

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.

Trait Selection

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:

  • Proud
  • Lustful
  • Bigotted (against a race or group)
  • Generous
  • Honest

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.

What is a long campaign in Lamentations of the Flame Princess?

My LotFP group just wrapped up what will likely be the last session of our regular LotFP campaign of 2018. Our game is played via Roll20 as we are split between three different countries these days, and generally we play every fortnight, although over the middle months of the year we were often playing weekly instead. We have been playing our “England Upturn’d” campaign for just under 2 years now, although about halfway through we did have a near total party kill (and the survivors imprisoned without hope of escape) and we started playing again with a new party, continuing in the living campaign setting of weird fantasy Civil War England as the first party had left it. Maybe that fact means that our 2 year campaign is really two 1 year campaigns, with the second a sequel to the first? I am pretty sure though that by the standards of Gyyax Himself in the 1e DMG, our game counts as one campaign. But I digress…

What counts as a long campaign in LotFP anyway? I have noticed in Raggi’s forewords to recent products and online statements the suggestion that the typical campaign is short and tends to stay in a low-level range. Indeed, the “most campaigns don’t last until high level” thinking informs the suggested spell-level free casting system included in the last two Free RPG Day releases, Vaginas are Magic! and Eldritch Cock. High level spells are fun but you aren’t going to make it to high level so why not make spells level-free so that any magic-user can cast them? I am not saying that is wrong, by the way, just that it suggests I am right when I guess that most LotFP campaigns are short.

LotFP is based on Basic D&D, which tends to be deadly. Its published modules are generally deadly (and often campaign-world changing). I feel I am running this campaign very much in the high-risk, high-stakes mode suggested by the official material. And I have certainly killed my fair share of player characters along the way. The highest level PCs may have just hit level 5 in today’s session, so true “high level” play is still some way off, but it still sounds like our campaign has outlasted many other LotFP games.

If this is true, I want to know why? Is it by design? Do other referees set out to run say, a 6 session campaign with LotFP? If so, why do they do that? Is it because it is harder for these adult gaming groups (and I assume everyone playing LotFP is an adult!) to game regularly, and all their campaigns are thus planned to be brief and therefore easier to sustain? Or do they only do this with LotFP? If these short campaigns are not by design, then I am even more interested to know what the cause of that is. Do players start dropping out because they start finding the modules distasteful, offensive, or too fatal? Or are TPKs super common, killing promising campaigns in the cradle before they hit their stride?

Either way, we are still having a lot of fun and hopefully in a year’s time we’ll be about to wrap up our third year of our weird fantasy English Civil War!

Level 0: Apprenticeships

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.

Human Apprenticeships

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

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.

Apprenticeship Ability

Apprentice clerics may cast spells from clerical scrolls just like level 1 clerics. This is the only way they can cast spells.

Apprentice Fighters

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.

Apprenticeship Ability

An apprentice fighter can wield any weapon, use shields, and wear any armour, just like level 1 fighters.

Apprentice Magic-Users

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. 

Apprenticeship Ability

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.

Apprentice Thieves

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.

Apprenticeship Ability

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 Apprenticeships

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!

Level 0 Characters

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

  1. Roll ability scores (as usual)
  2. Choose character race (human, dwarf, elf, halfling). Do not pick a character class.
  3. Roll hit points (using racial hit die instead of class hit die).
  4. Choose alignment (as usual)
  5. Choose languages (as usual)
  6. Rolling starting money and buy equipment (as usual)
  7. Complete biographical details (as usual)

Character Race

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.