Economical zine storage

To state that I am not the biggest fan of Ikea would be… let’s just say an understatement. However, I try to regularly question my biases, and while making another expedient purchase, I decided to look for some boxes to use for hardcopy zine storage. I found FJÄLLA, which looks relatively attractive on the shelf, is perfectly sized for zines, and is $4 USD per box. I ordered a few (7×10¼×6 dimensions, article number 703.956.73), and they arrived today.

The quality is reasonable, especially given the price. The apocalypse will probably do FJÄLLA in, but as long as you avoid sitting on them, I suspect they will do a satisfactory job of holding your zines. If you are curious how the thing assembles, check the goofy instructions. I have been on the lookout for something like this for a while, so I thought it might be useful information for others as well.

For transparency (following my recent thoughts on good reviews), the purchase details were: order placed 2018-09-06, price paid $23.96 CAD (four units), and shipping $17 CAD (but that included a small hanging wall cabinet too).

(This kind of review post is rather uncommon for me, so I want to draw attention toward my policy regarding reviews: Any reviews I post here are based on purchases, not free review copies. Not that Ikea would solicit my publicity, but it is the principle of the thing.)

FJÄLLA, on a bed of blue velvet

FJÄLLA, on a bed of blue velvet

FJÄLLA, on a bed of blue velvet

Supernatural magnitude

(This post has a soundtrack: Ligetti’s Beyond the Infinite—link opens YouTube in new tab—used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also: click any image to expand it in a new tab.)


Much too big (Berserk 1)

In the dark fantasy manga Berserk, the protagonist Guts wields a weapon called the dragon slayer. It is: too big to be called a sword, like a heap of raw iron. Preternatural versus mortal limits is a recurring theme in Berserk. It is a story of humans consistently transgressing cosmic boundaries, both of ability and morality. In this context, the name of the weapon, dragon slayer, has a certain literal meaning which may not immediately be apparent given the somewhat mundane rendering in English and the naturalism of many modern fantasy stories, where dragons are more like powerful, possibly intelligent, carnivores with strange biology. In Berserk, Dragons are dragons because humans can’t beat ’em. Dragon here is shorthand for higher being, creature beyond or outside of complete human understanding. As with narrative fiction, tabletop roleplaying games have a challenge regarding how to confront the supernatural. The two most common approaches, naturalizing the supernatural or protecting it from players by fiat to maintain danger and mystery, have drawbacks. Using fiat threatens the integrity of the game at a fundamental level, at least for the kinds of games I find satisfying, so I will dismiss that option immediately. I will argue that there is another way to approach the supernatural, though it may rely to some degree on referee artistry, perhaps being impossible to entirely systematize.

If there were any (Berserk 14)

What kind of weapon could damage impossible beings? An impossible weapon, or a weapon that would be impossible to use, might have some chance at harming an impossible being. Q: Could… this really kill… a dragon? A: If there were any… dragons. But you know, this ain’t even what you’d call a sword. It’s a meaningless slab of iron you can’t even lift… for killin’ dragons and monsters that ain’t even real. In this way, grasping the imaginary is the first step toward taking on monsters.1

In exploring this tension, Berserk seems to implicitly advocate for the possibility of transcendence. After all, time and again Guts triumphs over demonic, superhuman apostles using only human faculties and ingenuity, apart from the occasional dose of healing elf dust2. There is clearly some sort of categorical separation between the natural and supernatural in the world of Berserk, but humans, or at least some humans if you want to take an aristocratic stance, can, through enduring pain or sacrificing others, break through this barrier. Berserk is in this way metaphysically optimistic, with the caveat that the story is so far incomplete.

Dragons and humans (Berserk 14)

Traditional Dungeons & Dragons models the dichotomy between the natural and supernatural, at least in terms of combat, by differentiating categorically between magical and mundane weapons. The immediate system benefit of a magical weapon is a numerical bonus, leading to the sword +1, but what makes a magic weapon truly magical is the ability to damage creatures from the lower planes or insubstantial undead which are otherwise immune to mundane, physical attacks. Other systems apply hierarchies to damage. Rifts, to model the conflict of different tech levels, has mega-damage, which equates one point of mega-damage with 100 standard damage points. Lamentations of the Flame Princess introduces a hit point system for vehicle integrity, which equates one ship hit point with ten normal hit points. Plus-style magic weapons are unsatisfying due to ubiquity in mainstream D&D, coupled with general aesthetic blandness. Additionally, plus weapons completely fail to capture anything of the tension between mortal and supernatural in Berserk—and, I would argue, some of the most effective weird fiction.

Nosferatu Zodd wounded (Berserk 5)

The ship hit points approach has more promise. Humans can affect the supernatural, but only by dealing damage beyond some threshold barely attainable by human standards. This uses numerical order of magnitude to model supernatural hierarchy. However, using a system based on damage threshold is interactive in that it depends on many other system details, such as whether weapon damage is flat—like in OD&D where all weapons do 1d6 damage or whether a bonus from strength augments damage. The variability of damage available to adventurers will determine how accessible the supernatural becomes to a Guts-style assault. In OD&D, I might make one supernatural hit point equal to six normal hit points, which would make damaging the supernatural attainable to any mortal, but only with low probability, unless players can even the odds through creative play. This would be in keeping both with the themes explored in Berserk and the nature of OD&D.

Nosferatu Zodd wounded (Berserk 5)

In a game like B/X with variable weapon damage and the strength bonus applying to damage rolls, a threshold of 10 might be appropriate, though a damage threshold would make having an average or low strength score that much more of a disadvantage, a game feature which draws attention back toward the character sheet and away from creative problem solving. Additionally, increasing the importance of the strength score could create fairness concerns, though that is at most a minor problem for me. This might be an issue in a game that pushes 3d6 in order while punishing player mistakes lethally. Lamentations of the Flame Princess operates on a similar numerical scale without applying the strength bonus to damage, giving only the largest weapons—and firearms, possibly—any chance of wounding supernatural entities.

Using a damage threshold for affecting the supernatural has some other game benefits. First, it is in line with a general trend toward removing level-based gates on character abilities, such as spells without levels and finding ways to make the endgame, such as building strongholds, accessible throughout play.  Second, a damage threshold increases the potential contributions of fighters in supernatural challenges without relying on semi-magical special move powers, facilitating a less super-heroic, or low-fantasy, tone.


1. There is a parallel here between Guts’ impossible sword and Griffith’s shining castle, an impossible goal for a gutter-born urchin.

2. At least, up until he acquires the Berserker armor, which is arguably supernatural, but Guts pre-armor serves my purposes here.

Down in it

My new home workspace is approaching its final form; this configuration exposes the great white tower of D&D—see included image. (Previously, the great white tower was in my closet.) Because of this, I end up looking at all these DCC books on my shelf every time I enter the room or sit down at my desk. This makes me want to run some DCC. Following is a campaign brief, which I plan to run online and probably in person (primarily Vancouver).

Setting

DCC in the great white tower of D&D

A long time ago on a planet far away, some inconsiderate wizard opened a gate to hell, or somewhere so unpleasant as to be indistinguishable. The monsters that emerged from this gate proved greatly inconvenient. To avoid all that nonsense, a conclave of magician magnates built a sky-arc. These magicians took their disciples, drudges, and minions up into the sky, to live in a superterrene approximation of safety. Up above it, they look down relatively securely and smugly from their celestial refuge.

When a lower-caste superterrestrial misbehaves, the punishment is either temporary or permanent exile. Sometimes, the miscreant must complete some task or recover some object on the surface before being permitted to return. When this happens, the magnates send a prison barge to the surface to deposit exiles. The campaign begins when a prison barge crashes mysteriously. The crash survivors will provide characters for the starting funnel and the prison barge wreck will function as a starting base. The immediate concern will be to survive on the hostile, savage surface world. I see the style as lurid and fantastical, esoteric rather than veiled technology.

Ned Dameron (Kull,1985 Grant edition)

To create the campaign world, I plan to draw from some official DCC modules, using elements to build up a sandbox. I will salvage background and world details based on module implications. I have few other predetermined ideas about the setting, which factions are villainous, or really anything else. We will discover those elements together through play. I will continue to flesh out campaign details based on what players attend to.

I will make content from modules of vastly different levels accessible from the beginning of the campaign. Though I will endeavor to provide clues and warnings regarding danger level, I will make no effort to ensure that challenge is proportional to adventurer capabilities. Proceed at your own risk.

Rules

Stephen Fabian (Dream of X, 1977 Grant edition)

I will be using the core DCC rules as written, including the zero-level funnel, with the following adjustments and clarifications.

Funnel. Following a funnel, players must choose one adventurer for promotion to first level. Any additional surviving zero-level characters will become retainers.

Encumbrance. You can carry one item per point of strength without penalty. Some items stack several per slot, usually 6, such as torches, throwing knives, flasks of oil, and so forth. If uncertain, ask. Each additional item carried beyond the limit provided by strength rating imposes a cumulative -1 to physical d20 checks (such as attack rolls and saving throws).

Time. I will use the Hazard System to track passage of time and resource attrition. I may use some additional event engines on the back end to keep the gears turning as well.

Ned Dameron (Kull, 1985 Grant edition)

Recuperation. To recover lost HP, adventurers must take a haven turn to rest and recover, following the Hazard System rules, rather than reckoning HP replenishment based on measured time passage.

Experience. Experience will only accrue to adventurers that return to base by the end of a session. Any experience earned during a session where an adventurer fails to return to base will be lost. Additionally, the players must roll on a table to determine the method of return, which may have deleterious outcomes similar to the triple secret random random dungeon fate chart of very probable doom, though likely somewhat less punitive. This rule is to simplify bookkeeping and facilitate variable player groupings. I will provide 30 and 15 minute warnings as the end of a session approaches.

Fictional epistemology

When an Apocalypse World character makes the read a sitch move, they ask the referee some questions (from a list; for example: where’s my best escape route?) that grant some information about the immediate situation. The player rolls +sharp, which basically means makes an intelligence check, and gets to ask a number of questions proportional to degree of success, with misses triggering complications or hazards. Superficially, the implementation of this move seems in line with the fictional perspective of the character, especially taking into consideration the low bandwidth of information flow between referee and player. That is, it gives the player character the benefit of the doubt regarding an ability to—sometimes—accurately assess, for example, which enemy is the biggest threat. So far so good. However, read a sitch leans subtly away from the norm in traditional play, which involves the referee first sketching a situation and then the players focusing in on particular aspects and requesting elaboration.

Consider the following traditional play conversation. Referee: The room is drenched in preternatural gloom and formed like an inverted square pyramid, with four tiers descending to a central pillar which stretches to the ceiling and is hung with mouldering but detailed tapestries. Player: I look more closely at the tapestries; what do they depict? Referee: They depict symbols that look like funnels, and spidery—probably arcane—script that… (make an intelligence check since you know some magic—okay, success?) …binds a curse to the buried structure. What do you do?

Now consider the read a sitch approach to information exchange. Frame the scene as above, interpret preternatural gloom as a charged situation, and call for the move. The player succeeds to the degree affording a single question and asks who’s in control here. The ref explains about the tapestry and the curse (the person in control is long dead, but the curse legacy remaining is close enough). I’ve truncated the description the second time around, but assume the Apocalypse World play interaction is similarly evocative—as it easily could be.

There are still some subtle differences between the two approaches. First, the menu of questions gently nudges players to think about a particular set of possibilities. This has some similarities to declaring skills on a character sheet such as hear noise or find traps, though with a finer grain and more social quality. Second, and more of a departure from the traditional query loop, answers to the Apocalypse World questions provide less ambiguity regarding the import of the details. Rather than describing a curse and letting the players decide what they want to make of it, the referee might say the curse represents the greatest immediate danger. Rather than describe a storm drain, the referee might tell players that the storm drain would be the best escape route. That is, the referee ends up presuming the meaning of details rather than describing concrete aspects of the fictional world.

The information is still from the perspective of the characters, and the move avoids providing the player with details that would be unavailable to the character in the game world’s immediate fictional context, but the move pushes the referee and player to interact on a level of meaning separate from immediate concrete fictional details. One might be tempted to see this as advancing a particular plot. Instead, I suggest that the difference has to do with fictional epistemology, by which I mean the degree of certainty a player has regarding the shared conception of the fictional world. Like most dimensions of play, rather than a simple either/or dichotomy, this is more of a spectrum, with the norm in trad play biased toward concrete details and the move under discussion here injecting more unambiguous meaning.


Here’s the text of the move, if you want to do your own close reading:

Read a sitch

When you read a charged situation, roll+sharp. On a hit, you can ask the MC questions. Whenever you act on one of the MC’s answers, take +1. On a 10+, ask 3. On a 7–9, ask 1:

• Where’s my best escape route / way in / way past?
• Which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
• Which enemy is the biggest threat?
• What should I be on the lookout for?
• What’s my enemy’s true position?
• Who’s in control here?

On a miss, ask 1 anyway, but be prepared for the worst.

Reading a situation can mean carefully checking things out, studying and analyzing, thinking something through, or it can mean a quick look over the wall and going by gut. Depends on the character.

As MC, sometimes you’ll already know the answers to these and sometimes you won’t. Either way, you do have to commit to the answers when you give them. The +1 is there to make it concrete.

Spring sudden unhappy revelations on people every chance you get. That’s the best.

A character can’t read the same charged situation more than once.

(Apocalypse World 2E, p. 144)

Apocalypse World agendas

The core of The Master of Ceremonies chapter involves three agendas and 11 principles, where agendas are the abstract goals of play and principles are means, or methods, that further the agendas. The three agendas apply 100% to OSR play (text of agendas from 2E, p. 80):

  1. Make Apocalypse World seem real
  2. Make the players’ characters’ lives not boring
  3. Play to find out what happens

If anything, the third agenda is the single most important aspect of open-ended, exploration focused play. Whether you are exploring a dungeon, crawling hexes, or even engaging in palace intrigue, the most rewarding OSR play for me starts with a setting backdrop, some situations in motion, some randomly determined events, and a sequence of player choices about what to investigate or ignore. Setting backdrop includes elements such as fictional locations and random encounter tables. Events include particular random encounters that happen, reaction rolls, and even the positive or negative outcomes of combats. Then, that mix determines fictional developments, alliances, and ultimately some form of emergent narrative. This requires some discipline, or at least trust that such juxtaposition will lead to engaging play. As Apocalypse World directs (2E, p. 80):

It’s not, for instance, your agenda to make the players lose, or to deny them what they want, or to punish them, or to control them, or to get them through your pre-planned storyline (DO NOT pre-plan a storyline, and I’m not fucking around).

The other two agendas are also central to OSR play for me. Make the world seem real means that when adventurers retreat from a dungeon, monsters may learn. The same tactics should work less well the second time. Intelligent denizens will remember being wronged—or helped. Retainers will betray characters if poorly treated (with appropriate foreshadowing or communication between referee and players, of course). Developments occur offscreen, especially regarding threats telegraphed but ignored, such as unchecked goblin raiding leading to food shortages. And so forth. Making the world seem real drives adventures and makes player choices matter.

I can see the objection already: all this is just common sense, there is nothing specifically OSR about this approach to refereeing; there may not even be anything specific to Apocalypse World. But I disagree. These agendas do not apply to all games. If you are playing a Pathfinder Adventure Path, the game—the place where player choices matter—is not so much in playing to find out what happens. Instead, the game challenges player skill in crafting effective builds and in tactical battlefield teamwork. There exist other reasonable high level goals of play which diverge from these agendas as well. For example, there are some RPGs where maintaining the sense of a world in motion outside of the player characters is less important. In those games, the equivalent to make Apocalypse World seem real is less applicable.

The question then becomes, are there other abstract, high level goals of OSR play apart from these three agendas, or do these three agendas suffice? I think there are two potential candidates. The first involves exploration and the gradual discovery or revelation of wondrous landscapes. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. The inky expanse of an underground sea. The second involves navigating fictional challenges using creative problem solving and teamwork. The first potentially falls under playing to find out what happens and making the world seem real, though I can imagine a satisfying game of Apocalypse World never leaving, for example, a refugee camp. So even though some of the principles, which I will discuss in later posts, may naturally fit with exploratory play, the agendas do not in and of themselves demand exploration. The second also probably deserves a separate agenda statement, if one were to write the OSR referee equivalent of the MC chapter.

Panel from Berserk chapter 93

One final note. So far I have mostly been discussing the applicability of Apocalypse World methods structurally rather than in terms of content. Much of the fictional content presented by Apocalypse World may be absent from OSR settings, such as guns, vague memories of our present world, cigarettes, napalm, and so forth. That said, D&D is the apocalypse. A points of light setting, which describes many D&D settings, where danger and adventure surround small areas of safety, would be the natural outcome of life after an apocalypse. Examples of stories in other media that feel most D&D to me are often post-apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic adjacent, such as The Walking Dead, early episodes of Lost, the Blame! anime, Vance’s Dying Earth stories, Berserk after the Advent, The Book of the New Sun, and all the Dark Souls video games. So while the cosmetic details might vary if your setting includes elves, knights, longbows, or riding velociraptors rather than bikers, automatic weapons, and Fury Road battle cars, there may be more similarities than differences once you get past the surface associations.

Reading Apocalypse World

Apocalypse World provides some of the best statements I know of regarding several aspects of play that I find particularly rewarding. However, Apocalypse World also has a reputation, especially around the dives I frequent, of prioritizing dramatic development and focusing on shared narrative authority rather than facilitating fictional challenges. While some of these assumptions have a grain of truth, the bulk of the text is, in my opinion, tremendously useful for OSR games, or at least the kinds of games I run, whatever you want to call them. So I plan to write a handful of posts highlighting some of the acumen I see in Apocalypse World.

Though Apocalypse World the text is for the referee (the subtitle is The Master of Ceremonies, which is the game’s term for referee), the order of chapters seems focused on players, perhaps in an attempt to build interest by sketching an evocative setting, barfing forth apocalyptica in the game’s own lingo. This ordering does the text no favors, because it buries the bulk of insight regarding running games under reams of character class descriptions and powers, the playbooks. So I will be reading the text here in my preferred order, beginning with the Master of Ceremonies chapter.

My interest in running a game where I do everything Apocalypse World directs and nothing else is relatively low. As with all game paraphernalia, I am looking for what I can use rather than a complete, perfect edifice. I treat all game products as tools rather than gospel.

Note on editions

Apocalypse World has two editions: 1st (2010) and 2nd (2016). For my purposes, the differences between the editions are minor, though the second edition’s physical book is nicer. The most notable difference is that 2E replaces fronts with threat maps, which serve a similar purpose but take a slightly different approach. I will be reading the second edition.

Additional resources

If you are curious, I would also read Vincent’s post about concentric game design, by which he means that Apocalypse World is designed to degrade gracefully as you progressively ignore the rules that are less fundamental. Finally, I want to provide a shoutout to Jason D’Angelo’s long series of posts on Google Plus, The Daily Apocalypse, in which he undertakes a close read of Apocalypse World. This volume of commentary would probably be overwhelming for someone with only casual interest, but I find it useful so there you go.

Sigils, sages, and libraries

Art of alchemy, cropped (source)

As a referee, I often place runes or sigils on items or locations. Such sigils can encode spells, clues, or other relevant local information. I have used several different systems for decoding sigils, including the classic read magic spell, time-consuming intelligence checks for wizard-type characters, and probably several other methods. Below is a generalized approach for handling sigils that reflects my current approach and should be broadly applicable.

Any sorcerer can interpret sigils by spending a dungeon turn, which reveals the domain of magic unfailingly. Sorcerers that know any spells of this domain interpret the sigil fully, but otherwise learn only the domain and a scrap of additional information. If the sigils contain a spell, sorcerers that fully interpret the sigil may spend another dungeon turn to cast the spell, if desired. Full interpretation entails general knowledge of potential spell outcomes, including any risks, though exact details may remain shrouded. Most enchantments, including those bound to objects, require sigils.

Given writing materials, a literate player character can spend a dungeon turn to record details of sigils, for continued investigation during a future haven turn. Rough tracing or copying is insufficient, so only literate player characters can record sigil details. If literacy is unclear, perform an intelligence test or save versus magic to determine if a given character is literate. Assume non-specialist retainers are illiterate.

Given records of sigil details, and access to a library or archives in a haven, a sorcerer can research the meaning of the sigils as a haven action. Roll 1d6 to determine if a haven contains a library or archives if this is undetermined, with 1 indicating the presence of a library. Access to the library may require payment (reasonable default: 1d6 × 100 GP) or subterfuge. Player characters other than sorcerers lack the knowledge to use a library effectively but can instead consult a sage if one is available.

Roll 1d6 to determine if a sage resides in a particular haven. If a sage is unavailable, in most havens elders will be able to direct player characters to the nearest haven with a sage. Sages can interpret sigils within their domains of knowledge fully, though they lack the ability to cast spells. By default, a sage has a 50% chance of relevant domain knowledge (note any domain known for future reference). All sages can determine basic properties of sigils, such as domain of magic. Sages charge 100 GP for basic information, plus a rider based on how valuable the sage considers the resulting details. Sages survive on their reputation, and so only charge for information they judge valuable. Sometimes, gathering local curiosities for sages from inconvenient locales (1d6 hexes distant) will suffice for part or all of the fee.

The sorcery rules in Wonder & Wickedness use sigils to manage semi-permanent magical effects. Such sigils can be interpreted as described above.

Whenever a player character spends a dungeon turn, remember to make a random encounter check (or roll the hazard die if using the Hazard System).

Random table format wars

In general I am wary of introducing technological prosthetics into tabletop roleplaying games. Often, I think such tools are patches over needless rules complexity. I would generally prefer to adjust the rules so that they can stand efficiently without machine crutches. However, one place where I relax my attitude in this matter is the combination of results from several random tables. Occasionally I appreciate the slow, ritual process of rolling dice, consulting a table manually, noting a result, repeating this process over and over again, and then finally reconciling the complete set of results. However, most of the time reducing a 20 minute operation to one that takes mere seconds is a trade I will take. So, what tools exist for automating the juxtaposition of multiple random tables? Ultimately, I will advocate using a simple spreadsheet, which I argue has benefits in terms of both flexibility and simplicity over many other more specialized solutions, but first I will survey the alternatives.

To my knowledge, the other major players are Abulafia, Chartopia, and Last Gasp Choose Your Own Generator. Abulafia is basically a wiki that supports syntax for random tables. Abulafia’s major benefits are the ability to reference tables uploaded by others and web sharing. Chartopia is a specialized web app for random tables that seems like a work in progress. Both use their own format for encoding data. Last Gasp will generate standalone JavaScript tables that you can store entirely in a bookmarklet but requires some external solution to manage and recombine lists of table data. All of these are good tools but none of them quite scratch the itch of blending results from multiple tables in a flexible and easy to manage manner, at least for me. Chartopia may have emergent potential from social media participation, but so far lacks the user base and requisite functionality, such as intuitive hash tagging. Chartopia supports uploading tables as CSV files, but the process of creating a full generator ended up feeling cumbersome to me.

Using a spreadsheet, once you know a couple simple tricks, is flexible and quick, and the social media aspect seems easily handled with Google Sheets, Dropbox, Google Plus, Twitter, Reddit, or whatever. The main benefit for me of using a spreadsheet though is encapsulation. All the other solutions I have experimented with involve a mess of files, links, or other elements, which end up difficult to organize or share. In contrast, the method I outline here keeps all the subtables together in a single spreadsheet workbook file, with one column per table in the second sheet. This ends up interoperating easily with the most natural format for storing random tables, which is a plain text file having one result per line.

Basic Excel random tables

These instructions assume that you have basic knowledge of spreadsheet concepts, such as cell addresses and formulas. That said, to make this accessible, I try to be as explicit as possible, and apologize in advance for boring those with spreadsheet experience. Spreadsheet files (the files with xls or xlsx extensions for Excel) are called workbooks, and each workbook can contain multiple sheets. Beyond these basics, all you need to know is how to name a region of cells and how to use one, admittedly ugly, function to select a result randomly from a named region. To create a multi-table generator:

  1. Create a workbook
  2. Enter the table data into the workbook’s second sheet, one table per colum
  3. Name the column regions so you can reference them by name
  4. On the first sheet, reference the named regions using the ugly function

As a basic example, I will automate Telecanter’s excellent Magic Item Spur, the content of which is released under a creative commons license. This is a roll all the dice generator, meaning there are six tables corresponding to the classic handful of polyhedrals: 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12, and 1d20. (The d10 table here is basically just the number, but I have left it exactly as Telecanter originally specified, for clarity of example.)

First, switch to Sheet2 within the workbook and enter the data. Check the lower left tabs to access the different sheets within the workbook (you may need to click the + button to create a second sheet). I left the sheet names Sheet1 and Sheet2 in this example so they match the Excel defaults. I use the first row for column names, but this is just superficial:

Excel example – enter random tables

Next, name the ranges for each column so that you can refer to them by name elsewhere. To name a region, highlight the column data and the type the name in the upper left cell address box—the text in the blue box below. Do this for all columns (there are six in this example).

Excel example – name region

Finally, switch to Sheet1, which will contain the randomly generated result. For each table, draw a result randomly using the following function, replacing TableName with whatever you named each column region:

=INDEX(TableName,RANDBETWEEN(1,ROWS(TableName)),1)

You can organize Sheet1 visually in whatever way you want. I have the generated content in cells B2 through B7 here, with labels to the left and credits below.

The formula in cell B2 (which resolves to distance in the result) is:

=INDEX(range,RANDBETWEEN(1,ROWS(range)),1)

The formula in cell B3 (which resolves to weapon in the result) is:

=INDEX(type,RANDBETWEEN(1,ROWS(type)),1)

And so forth.

Excel example – Sheet1 generator with formula

That’s it.

Now, every time you recalculate the sheet, you will get a new result. In Excel, press F9 to recalculate the sheet. In Google Sheets, reload the page.

Share, or embed in blog post

Upload this to Google Sheets, and you can share it with others, or embed the result in a blog post or other web page using the following iframe code.

<iframe src=”https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1am-3-CfNcIV4ICCr6jysJckVr03iWBphdeIaeSOtEBY/edit” width=”600″ height=”600″></iframe>

Just update the URL. Every time you reload the page that includes the iframe code, you will get a new result, as you will see below. (Try reloading this page.) I have highlighted the random content area in red to make it clear for this example.

Edit 2018-09-18: I find the embedded iframe presents strangely on mobile browsers, at lease Safari and Chrome for iOS. So maybe link to the spreadsheet rather than use embedding. Click here for the spreadsheet mentioned in the above paragraph.

Use on phone or tablet

This approach is portable, both in the software compatibility sense and in the will work on your phone sense. I tested these sheets on the Google Sheets, Numbers, and Excel apps for iOS. They all work, even when offline, though there are some minor differences in the user interface, and the free version of Excel for iOS prevents saving. Generally, to generate a new result using a phone or tablet spreadsheet, close and reopen the document. The Google Sheets app seems to be the most full-featured and flexible, but really as a simple viewer any of these works.

Opening this file unmodified in the Google Sheets app on my phone presents this interface, which is just about perfect for use during play:

User interface on a phone

Deleting or editing names for regions

Once you have created one of these, it is relatively straightforward to make a copy the workbook file and edit the copy to make another generator out of different tables. To do this, you may want to delete or rename existing region names. I explain how to do this next.

In Excel, you can delete existing names for ranges using Insert > Name > Define Name, highlighting the name, and then clicking the minus button.

Excel – region name menu

Excel – delete region name

In Google Sheets (access via Google Drive on the web), the relevant menu is Data > Named ranges… and at the time of this writing looks like:

Google Sheets – Delete region name

(Just do a web search for “named range” and your spreadsheet software of choice if using another tool.)


Comparing solutions

Okay, now that you have seen a simple proof of concept example, how does this compare to the other solutions?

  1. It functions without the network
  2. It only relies on standard spreadsheet functions
  3. Easy to share by uploading to Google Sheets
  4. Easy to organize using folders in Google Drive
  5. Easy to copy one-per-line text files into columns
  6. Keeps a collection of related tables together in one file
  7. No reliance on domain-specific language
  8. No reliance on continued existence of whatever cloud service
  9. Easy to embed in a blog post using iframe (will regenerate on each page load)

That seems like a pretty compelling list of advantages to me. A while back, I considered and decided against using a spreadsheet, but I have now changed my opinion. For a few more examples:

  • The Vornheim aristocrat generator is one of the classic examples for me of this kind of multiple table generators. Here is an automated excel version (content used with permission). Buy Vornheim; it’s great.
  • Random Devilspawn from this post (note how easy it was to embed the generator at the bottom of that post as well).

The other solutions are mostly unitaskers, unlike Excel, which is a useful tool in its own right. And keeping all the subtables nicely contained in a single workbook file is extremely helpful, especially in comparison to the mess of files I have to automate, say, some of the chapters from Seclusium (such as this chapter that is basically a magic item generator).


Adding Functionality

Though the above example provides all the functionality most generators require, spreadsheets have almost unlimited flexibility, and you can make any particular generator as complicated as you want, if your time is worthless. I tried to keep the example above as simple as possible for ease of use and portability, but there are a few other functions that might be worth the effort.

RANDBETWEEN (for dice values)

For slightly more complex generators, two other functions may be useful. The first is RANDBETWEEN(), which can serve as a basic dice roll. For example, =RANDBETWEEN(1,6) yields 1d6. =RANDBETWEEN(1,6)+RANDBETWEEN(1,6) yields 2d6 (and so forth). Use this function to instantiate values for elements such as number of monsters appearing.

CONCATENATE (for joining two random results into one cell)

To join two or more elements so they occupy a single cell, use CONCATENATE(). For a simple example:

=CONCATENATE(“Number appearing: “, RANDBETWEEN(1,6))

I use this in my Devilspawn generator to join the number of attendants and the description of attendants into a single result (check the contents of cell B10 in the first sheet).

Ennies publisher guide

It can be difficult to keep all the game studios straight, especially with the proliferation of personal brands. Since it is Ennies season, and the voting page for publishers is awkward to use, I thought it might be helpful to highlight some publishers that I consider notable, along with my reasons. I have included a few big players as well that any reader of Necropraxis is probably already familiar with, that want to note for particular actions.

(Inexplicably, Lumply Games, Meguey & Vincent Baker’s brand, and the publisher of Apocalypse World, does not seem to have been nominated. What? Moving on.)

Chaosium Inc. deserves praise for reprinting classic RuneQuest titles in high-quality editions, keeping the back catalog available digitally, and reinvigorating Glorantha with a beautiful new edition of RuneQuest that builds on the classic version.

Cubicle Seven did a great job with the 5E Adventures in Middle-Earth line, though the art is a little brown for me. The mechanics are thoughtful in how they try to support the feel of Tolkien’s stories. I think the 5E Middle-Earth books would be a good mechanical base for a low-magic 5E game, even ignoring the setting.

Dolorous Exhumation Press is “Dungeonesque” Jack; I consider his first Tales free compendium an OSR classic and Krevborna is great.

E.M.D.T. is Gabor Lux, writing some of the best current AD&D style content, but more usable and with less verbosity.

Fria Ligan (Free League) is relatively new to me, but Forbidden Lands, which bills itself as retro open-world survival fantasy, looks to be a promising fusion of old school mechanical goals with focused design principles. Not sure whether the final result will match my tastes, but worth keeping an eye on. (They show up twice for some reason on the list at the time of this writing. I hope someone fixes that.)

Goodman Games, along with work on DCC, deserves praise for keeping other old school classics, such as those by Judges Guild, in print and bringing them to the attention of the mainstream, such as with the 5E conversion of B1 and B2 (my review).

Hydra Cooperative is the non-commercial hobby collective behind Operation Unfathomable, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isles of the Eld, and many other key OSR publications. (The entity itself is non-commercial, but I think individual creators may earn profits.)

Jarnringen publishes the Swedish Symbaroum setting and RPG (see the Iron Pact fan site). The rules of Symbaroum are a bit mainstream for me, but the art is wonderful and evocative (I ran a short-lived campaign in the setting using my own rules). Symbaroum is also somehow associated with Modiphius, which I mention below.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess probably needs no introduction here. James still deserves support for being unwavering in commitment to quality of physical product and willingness to take risks. Frostbitten & Mutilated is also up for a number of awards.

Lampblack & Brimstone publishes supplements associated with or brand-adjacent to Dungeon World, but their pubs are just as useful for OSR play. Freebooters is a slick ruleset and I consider Perilous Wilds one of the classic hex-crawl supplements. Servants of the Cinder Queen is a short module worth checking out. The taste in art is impeccable too.

Lost Pages is Paolo Greco, fellow book snob, meticulous bookbinder, and the publisher of my own Wonder & Wickedness, along with games such as Into the Odd (my review) and his completely sui generis masterpiece, Cthonic Codex (False Machine review).

Melsonian Art Council: Undercroft zine, Troika, Fever Swamp, Crypts of Indormancy.

Modiphius Entertainment is assembling an intriguing catalog of what I might call hybrid mainstream-indie games… is that a contradiction? Mutant: Year Zero, Legacy: Life Among the Ruins (an Apocalypse World derivative), and so forth.

Necrotic Gnome Productions is Gavin Norman and an always reliable source of good B/X style content and rules, such as Dolmenwood, B/X Essentials, Theorems & Thaumaturgy (my review). Necrotic Gnome has plans for expansion and fancy editions, about which I am excited.

Olde House Rules does Pits & Perils (my review).

Red Box Vancouver is Johnstone Metzger, of Metamorphica (classic edition is pay-what-you-want), innumerable trad-friendly adventure modules such as Evil Wizards in a Cave, the Nightmares Underneath OSR game, Dungeon Full of Monsters, etc etc etc. He has also done a lot of work on powered by the apocalypse style games and so may be slightly less well known among the DIY D&D crowd.

red moon medicine show does Vacant Ritual Assembly, one of my favorite zines, though it has recently been dormant. Issue one is one of my top used-in-play supplements, for the ghoul market (my review).

Schwalb Entertainment is Rob Schwalb, industry veteran, who has created the mechanically innovative Shadow of the Demon Lord (my review), which may be slightly heavy rules-wise for someone with B/X tastes but is nonetheless worth checking out.

Sine Nomine Publishing is Kevin Crawford, creator of many products useful for old school exploration-focused games, including An Echo, Resounding, which is a must-read if you are interested in new takes on domain play. Additionally, he has created several free publisher tutorial products, such as this guide to TSR layout and Exemplars & Eidolons, a playable old school game which is also an InDesign layout tutorial.

Squarehex is Peter Regan, of Oubliette, a stylish old school zine from the early phase of the OSR, and is also involved with the practical side of the Black Hack second edition Kickstarter.

Steamforged Games publishes the Dark Souls board game.

Swordfish Islands is Jacob Hurst, who has singlehandedly created a couple books with production values higher than Paizo or Wizards of the Coast and also happen to be fantastic old school hex crawl resources. Swordfish Islands is also up for product of the year.

Wizards of the Coast, despite managing Dungeons & Dragons, the Coke brand of tabletop RPGs, and needing no further promotion from me, deserves praise for making Fifth Edition D&D a versatile version that can be used for old school or new school play, and for keeping the TSR back catalog available.

State of the art

Old school, smooth ride (photo credit)

There are several rules trends that I have come to see as evolutionary improvements. That is, there are a few rules that seem to be simply superior approaches to solving certain game design problems, at least most of the time. Below is a list of rules I would place in this category. Improvements are always relative to some goal, so I have organized this post around the game design problems that the various innovations address. Many of these ideas have older pedigree, and the innovation may be in application to traditional fantasy roleplaying games rather than pure invention.

Though simply superior is a strong claim, and of course there are exceptions, I think anyone writing or hacking rules, especially for OSR or DIY D&D type games, should think carefully before ignoring these developments.

Goal: make chargen fast and easy

Even in games heavy on characterization, quicker character generation is advantageous. Who wants to spend a full session on character generation, especially if people must make decisions which will ultimately influence play minimally?

  • Determine starting gear randomly rather than shopping. Ideally, the possible starting gear packages will be varied and evocative while still always being gameable. For example, a butterfly net made of silver thread for catching fairies rather than just bedroll and torches. This set of tables for OD&D starting gear by class could be more evocative, but for sheer utility are still one of the tables that see the most direct use in games I run.
  • Support fully random character generation. Players who prefer to make all the choices themselves can still do so, but random characters are invaluable for the casual player or the player who needs a replacement character quickly. For example, see the one-click total party kill online character generator.

Fast character generation also makes lethal consequences more tractable.

Goal: minimize bookkeeping

Resource management adds weight to a game, in both good and bad ways. Not all games demand complex resource management, but I think it is better to let the nature of the game determine rules requirements rather than neglecting the consequences of encumbrance due to the hassle of using cumbersome mechanics. There are simple systems which yield benefits for gameplay similar to complex calculations of weight carried.

  • Approximate encumbrance. One significant item per point of strength or some flat limit are both well-tested. Abstract encumbrance rather than bothering with details such as weights, which probably requires players to use a spreadsheet or other computerized prosthetic. See the Lamentations of the Flame Princess encumbrance rules (2013 Rules & Magic, page 38, free no-art version; still too heavy for me, but usable) and Papers & Pencils (making encumbrance work) for the recent ground zero of usable encumbrance rules. Historically, Dragon Warriors (by Morris and Johnson), back in 1985, used a flat limit of ten significant items, with minor adjustments based on character strength.
  • Overload the encounter die or use a hazard die for timekeeping and event engine. Winter can be a potential downtime event outcome (with a nod to Torchbearer) as can various other events. This makes a setting live without requiring complex tracking or Tolkien-style world building on the part of the referee and builds such fictional developments into the core gameplay workflow.
  • Randomize the exhaustion of consumables, such as with a Black Hack style usage die, event engine outcome, or overloading an action test (such as attack roll or ability check). The illogical edge cases are easy to handle. Similar rules have been around at least since the Necromunda ammo roll1, and probably earlier, but have only become popular in D&D type games over the last few years (see archive of this 2011 intwischa post).

Goal: maintain tension at desired level of difficulty

Low level D&D is a sweet spot for dungeon exploration games. One easy way to maintain this tension is to keep hit points low and have zero hit points mean death, as the rules of OD&D and B/X dictate. However, low HP and death at zero can be more punishing than many groups desire. Witness the wide variety of house rules to increase the survivability of first level characters, even among hardcore old school players. For example, max hit points at first level is a common house rule and Lamentations of the Flame Princess has minimum hit point thresholds (2013 Rules & Magic, page 7, free no-art version).

Goal: develop content that will see play

This includes character options, powers, and abilities. For player-facing rules, this generally means removing level gates on powers. In-fiction requirements, in contrast, such as locating an ingredient or seeking out a teacher, create concrete goals and prime adventure, as opposed to the more abstract idea of just get more gold and at some point 9th level will roll around.

Goal: minimize numerical inflation

(This has some relation to developing content that will see play, as flatter power curves mean balance violations are less mechanically shocking.)

Goal: keep content fresh

Are these referee techniques or house rules? Either way, I am including them here.


Thanks to people that suggested commonly used house rules when I asked on Google Plus (private share; opt-in here).


1. Thanks to Paolo Greco for mentioning this a while back.