Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Debt to Orcus

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Goethe's Faust

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Goethe’s Faust

Of all the ways people report handling raise read, my favorite response came from Gavin over at The City of Iron:

Courtesy of your friendly local Temple of Orcus.

Following that link (and continuing to quote Gavin):

As luck would have it, following a recent suggestion from Alex, I’d decided several days previously that Orcus is the main cosmic power to whom adventurers may turn when seeking to raise a dead companion.

So, on the spur of the moment I was presented with the task of deciding how that works. Visiting the temple of Orcus in S’raka, here are the choices the PCs were presented:

  1. Pay 5,000gp for the ritual.
  2. Pay 2,000gp and provide a bunch of live sacrifices to “butter up” the lord of the dead. A total of 17 humans or 32 “little people” were the figures recommended.
  3. Accept a group quest to return the favour.

I really like the feeling of dark gods being accepted as part of the world, though still feared. There is a danger here of domesticating the darkness, so setting details like this should be handled carefully. Perhaps cultists of Orcus could be major campaign antagonists as well. Perhaps being raised brands one as an untouchable or immune to normal curative magic.

The monotheistic tradition has to some degree done away with the ambiguity of scary-but-cosmically-necessary (present, for example, in the Greek fates or the fickleness of Poseidon). Monotheism does, however, has an analogue that could potentially be leveraged, which is a deal with the devil (see the Faust legend for some inspiration, though it does not involve the desire for a second chance).

Some Rules Clarifications

Here is an index of the answers people have given to 20 Quick Questions: Rules.

Apologies if I have missed you. Leave a comment and I’ll add your link.


Recently I posted this set of rules clarification questions and a number of people explained how they do things. I had no idea this would turn into a survey, but now that we have some data, why not make use of it? Many people discuss rules prescriptively or theoretically, but this is a measure (at least partially) of what people do. Thus, these approaches are actually working for people at the table (as opposed to just looking good on paper).

Of all the questions, the one that seems to have generated the greatest variation is how people handle helmets. Here are some of the answers, organized roughly by popularity. I tried to group similar answers and in the process I may have lost some minor details.

The most common option (though not a majority) was to have no mechanical benefit or ignore the issue:

(Regarding looking awesome, everyone should check out JB’s B/X headgear table.)

Some people give penalties for not wearing a helmet:

  • Penalty for not wearing a helmet (1d30, DuBeers, Reign of Jotuns, rpgist, Gordon Cooper)
  • “No, but not wearing one makes your head AC9, and I understand you keep important stuff in there…” (Beedo, Chris Hogan)
  • AD&D (DMG page 28):

    It is assumed that an appropriate type of head armoring will be added to the suit of armor in order to allow uniform protection of the wearer. Wearing of a “great helm” odds the appropriate weight and restricts vision to the front 60″ only, but it gives the head AC 1. If a helmet is not worn, 1 blow in 6 will strike at the AC 10 head, unless the opponent is intelligent, in which case 1 blow in 2 will be aimed at the AC 10 head (d6, 1-3 = head blow).

    (James Mishler)

  • Labyrinth Lord (AEC page 142):

    Generally characters are assumed to be wearing a helmet with their armor. However, if for some reason a character is not wearing a helmet an opponent of no intelligence or relatively low intelligence will strike at a character’s AC 9 head on a roll of 1 on 1d6. Intelligent opponents will attempt to strike the head on a roll of 1-2 on 1d6.

    (Bob, scadgrad)

A few people allow helmets to function like shields (presumably stacking the bonus):

Another somewhat common approach is to grant some level of protection against critical hits or detailed injuries:

  • Can save you from a head crit (Jeff Rients, Niccodaemus, Zzarchov, Catacomb librarian, GrognardlingJohnathan Bingham, Dak)
  • Protects against some death & dismemberment results (The Bane, Mike D.)
  • “Only if a critical pushes a system shock check … Critical Hits that require a system shock roll have a chane at serious scaring or dismemberment.” (ERIC!)
  • “A adjusted roll of 17 or better that hits on a helmless target is a successful head short and cause the target to make a saving throw at +2 or fall unconcious. A adjusted roll of 20 or better is a faceshot and will cause the target to make a saving throw or fall unconcious unless they are wearing a greathelm.” (Rob Conley)

Or defense against stuff from above:

  • Protection from falling objects (Lasgunpacker, Stuart Robertson, Timrod)
  • “Only if something falls on their head, in which case the helmet gives the same AC value as the armour worn. A helmetless head is unarmoured.” (David Macauley)
  • AC 2 if attack from above, otherwise AC 9 (Ian)
  • “Anti-critical hits + possible damage reduction for stone blocks hitting one’s head.” (Omlet)

Bonus against head shots:

And finally, some miscellaneous approaches:

(Please forgive me if I missed your answers.)

    Wilderness Movement Costs

    Earlier this month, Delta wrote a post about wilderness movement rules in AD&D. I like the idea of modelling wilderness movements in terms of a budget (based on mode of locomotion) that can be “spent” to enter adjacent hexes. (This is also the way Fourth Edition does tactical movement.) The important conceptual work is all in Delta’s post, but I want an easily gameable set of rules that I can apply to my 6 mile hex maps based on the B/X wilderness movement rules (the relevant references are Labyrinth Lord page 45, the Expert rulebook page X19, and the Rules Cyclopedia page 88).

    The base budget is calculated by doubling the normal “inches per turn” movement rate. So a standard human movement rate of 12 translates to 120 feet per turn and 24 miles (or 4 hexes) per day of clear ground. Each movement point ends up being worth one mile of travel on clear ground, which is nice.

    Locomotion Mode Movement Budget
    Human, unencumbered 24
    Human, lightly encumbered 18
    Human, heavily encumbered 12
    Riding horse, unencumbered 48
    Riding horse, lightly encumbered 36
    Riding horse, heavily encumbered 24

    (See the LotFP encumbrance rules for what it means to be encumbered.)

    Terrain Examples Movement Cost Becoming Lost
    Easy road
    0 in 6
    Average clear, city, grasslands, trail *
    1 in 6
    Moderate forest, hills, desert, badlands
    2 in 6
    Difficult mountains, jungle, swamp
    3 in 6

    * There is no chance of getting lost when following a trail if the trail is well-known.

    Delta suggests that for added realism different modes of transport might have modifiers when moving over some terrain types (he gave the example of cavalry over mountains). I agree, but I’m not going to systematize that. I think individual rulings for specific situations will be good enough. These calculations are all behind the screen, so players will not be thinking in terms of movement budgets. At least, that’s how I foresee this. We’ll see how it works in practice.


    Zogorion Lord of the Hippogriffs is a great little adventure that arrived in the mail several weeks ago. I’m not going to go into too much detail, because I don’t want to spoil it, but here are some highlights. It’s a lair that can be dropped into any setting without too much trouble, and could even be used as a wandering monster table entry. In very few pages, you are treated to the main area ruled by Zog (with a potential opposed faction available to the PCs), a vampire pal, a portal to modern New York (so Zog can get his cigarettes), and a plot to take over the world. The detached card stock cover with map is a nice touch that recalls early TSR modules without aping the TSR trade dress.

    The art is by John Larrey and Jason Sholtis (both notable artists in the OSR community) and fits the atmosphere perfectly.

    My one concern is that I’m having a hard time seeing the adventure ending well for the PCs, even if they play well. I would be very interested to read a play report where Zog is played to full potential that does not result in a TPK, because short of a very powerful party, I just don’t see a party surviving this.

    You can get your own copy by visiting and placing your order in the leftmost column.

    Traveller: Characters & Combat

    I have been slowing making my way through classic Traveller. Though I’m not speeding through the text, I am enjoying it, particularly the sober approach to character power. What follows are my impressions of Book 1: Characters & Combat. All dice in Traveller are d6s.

    The life path character generation system is the primary reason I became interested in classic Traveller (the secondary reason is for historical knowledge of RPGs: Traveller is one of the first sci-fi games, maybe second after Metamorphosis Alpha). I gather there is something similar to the life path system in Warhammer Fantasy but I haven’t gotten around to reading that yet.

    Character skills are selected by choosing a career and then rolling for what happens during that career before play starts. The career options are almost all military: navy, marines, army, scouts, merchants, and other. This also gives all characters the framework of a backstory with no work required. Famously, one can die during character creation in Traveller (or take significant penalties due to aging). This is not as silly as it sounds. Once you have used the system, you will realize that danger is required to balance the utility gained from accumulating skills.

    The analogue to D&D’s ability scores are called characteristics. The characteristics are strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, education, and social standing. They are generated using 2d6 in order but then are modified by life experiences and aging. The max score for any ability is 15, or F in hexadecimal. Using hexadecimal makes possible the universal personality profile (or UPP) which uses a simple string of characters, one per characteristic, to represent a character. You have to memorize the standard order of characteristics to understand UPPs, but that should be easy for anyone who has played D&D. For example, a very strong but otherwise average character might be represented as B77777. That’s pretty slick.

    The combat system is very simple and has some interesting aspects. To attack, you roll 2d6, add bonuses for characteristics and skills, apply penalties based on the opponent’s armor, and if your result is 8+ you hit. Damage is applied to physical characteristics; there doesn’t seem to be a separate health score or hit point total. This also means that as you take damage in combat, your combat effectiveness decreases (which is realistic, but seems like it might lead to death spiral situations). When one characteristic is reduced to 0, a character is incapacitated. Two characteristics at 0 results in a wound. Three at 0 and the character is dead. (This sounds like it could be used as an interesting set of house rules for D&D using strength, dexterity, and constitution.)

    Most weapons do several dice of damage, so like in OD&D a single average hit is likely to incapacitate an average character. There is armor, and it makes characters harder to hit rather than absorbing damage. High-tech weapons can do significantly more damage (for example, a laser carbine does four dice of damage).

    The tactical relationship between combatants is tracked by a distance system using range bands, which is sort of halfway between imagining everything and using a full two dimensional combat grid. It’s an elegant compromise, and I can easily see using this in D&D for some situations (especially in the wilderness) though it does not support things like flanking and area of effect very well. Morale applies to PCs too, which is one mechanical use for social skills like leadership.

    There’s really not much sci-fi in book 1. The play example could just as easily be set in modern day New York (there’s a bar, and some taxis). Even the equipment list is pretty low-tech. Sure, there are a couple of laser weapons, and a few space ships (along with mortgages!) that you can begin with but the weapons list is dominated by entries like cutlasses, halberds, and normal firearms.

    This is a sci-fi game?

    I don’t think I have read much of the inspirational literature behind Traveller, because this sort of equipment does not seem to fit any science fiction I am familiar with (though it looks like fun; pirates in space). Maliszewski’s Thousand Suns, which is supposed to model “imperial science fiction” has an Appendix N which may be applicable. I have read Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, and I’m pretty sure there are no swords (though it has been a while). I haven’t read many of the books on that list though. Somewhere (probably also Grognardia) I picked up the idea that Anderson’s Ensign Flandry series (which I have not read) is one of the major influences. This cover illustration does seem to bear that out (man, that is one bad moustache):

    Possible Inspiration

    Book 2 is on starships. Presumably there will be more sci-fi there. It will probably be a while before I get around to finishing it, but that will be the focus of my next Traveller post.

    This is my first classic Traveller character. He survived character creation! The process took me about 30 minutes (not counting making it pretty with HTML for public consumption), though it would probably be quicker the second time around. I would also probably need to buy some more equipment before playing if this was a character for an actual game.

    Ex-army Lt. Colonel UPP: 6A449C Age 34 4 terms Cr20,000

    Skills: Rifle-1, SMG-1, Forward Observer-1, Auto Pistol-1, Electronic-1, Admin-1, Laser Carbine-1, Vehicle-1 (winged craft)

    Equipment: auto pistol

    Additional benefits: 1 high passage, 1 middle passage, 1 low passage

    Characteristic Start Mods Final
    +1 +1
    Social Standing

    Social Standing of 12 means he is a baron.

    Enlist army
    9 +1 (Dex 6+) +2 (End 5+) = 12 >= 5 (accepted)
    Default army skill: Rifle-1
    First term
    Survival: 3 +2 (Edu 6+) = 5 >= 5 (barely survived)

    Commission: 4 (no)
    +1 Edu, Forward Observer
    Second term
    Survival: 10 +2 = 12 (yes)
    Commission: 6 (yes); rank 1 (Lieutenant)
    Promotion: 7 +1 = 8 (yes); rank 2 (Captain)
    +1 Dex, Gun Combat (auto pistol), Electronic, SMG-1 (Lieutenant)
    Third term
    Survival: 8 +2 = 10 (survived)
    Promotion: 7 +1 = 8 (yes); rank 3 (Major)
    Admin, Gun Combat (laser carbine)
    Fourth term
    survival: 7 +2 = 9 (survived)
    Promotion: 7 +1 = 8 (yes); rank 4 (Lt. Colonel)
    Edu +1, vehicle
    Fifth term
    Reenlistment denied
    Mustering out benefits
    4 (terms) + 2 (rank 4) = 6
    Benefits: 10000 Cr, 10000 Cr, gun (auto pistol), high psg, mid psg, low psg
    18 + 16 (4 terms * 4 years each) = 34 (Endurance -1 from aging)
    Based on these scores and experiences, I think he is not terribly bright or strong, but is a hard worker. His one outstanding quality is his agility. Because of those scores, I see him as thin and lithe (perhaps even athletic) but not very tough. He’s a good shot.

    Most of what he has achieved through life so far is most likely based on his social station (his family probably pulled strings to get him into the army and fast-track his promotions, even though he didn’t want special treatment), so he is quite sensitive to implications that he didn’t earn his advancement. Thus, he has turned into something of a risk taker in order to prove people wrong (and this is probably responsible for his close brush with death during his first term in the army).

    20 Quick Questions: Rules

    Jeff Rients has a great list of 20 quick questions to add campaign details in ways that are likely to affect actual play. I was thinking, based on this other post by Jeff about treating all editions of D&D as a toolbox and this post by JB over at B/X Blackrazor about creating his own version of D&D, that it would be useful to have a list of rules that often change from campaign to campaign.

    Here are 20 rules clarifications that are likely to be needed anyways at some point.

    1. Ability scores generation method?
    2. How are death and dying handled?
    3. What about raising the dead?
    4. How are replacement PCs handled?
    5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
    6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
    7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
    8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
    9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
    10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no?
    11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
    12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
    13. What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
    14. What do I get experience for?
    15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
    16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
    17. How do I identify magic items?
    18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
    19. Can I create magic items? When and how?
    20. What about splitting the party?
    If you decide this stuff early, you are less likely to have misunderstandings and more likely to all be on the same page.

    Edit: index of some responses here.

    On Elf Height

    From Robert Kirk’s glossary in The Secret Commonwealth, written in the seventeenth century (page 76 of the NYRB edition):

    Elves: A tribe of the fairies that use not to exceed an ell in stature.

    So how tall is an ell? According to this helpful page of conversions:

    1 ell = 114.3 cm = 45 inches = 3.75 feet = 5 spans

    It’s interesting to see this meaning actually encoded in the name, despite the fact that the tall Norse elf (the álfar) has become dominant via the works of Tolkien.

    Also related, over at Strange Magic: Monster Makeover: Elves (though I prefer my faeries to have more sinister and less German peasant).

    AD&D Monster Manual page 40

    ACKS Setting Part 3: Isle of the Dead

    Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead

    Conspectus: Resting on warm but brooding seas, the Idle of the Dead is a palimpsest of ruins. Many different civilizations have in the past settled on the Isle. The wilderness is haunted by the hidden realms of Faerie, visible only to those with the second sight. The Isle is scattered with abandoned colonies, restless dead, ghost towns, and the cast-off outposts of past inhuman visitors. The fragile but tenacious settlements of recent colonists cling to the coasts and ply the shallow seas. Spirits and wizard kings have set themselves up as petty gods demanding worship and tribute.

    The primary visual inspiration is obviously Böcklin’s piece above, but I’ll post more images in the future. I don’t want to clutter this post up too much. Here is information about some of the past inhabitants.

    The Monument Builders. Their works are crude but of immense scale. No one knows anything else about them.

    The Old Empire. This was a civilization of tremendous advancement. They built wonders of engineering including bridges, aqueducts, soaring towers, and cities beneath the ground. Little is known about the society of the Old Empire. In fact, it is unknown whether it even was an empire. It is assumed to have been an empire due to the vast extent and uniformity of obviously related ruins. It is so old that nothing is known of its history or rulers, and few artifacts other than the architecture itself has survived. Many Old Empire structures have been repurposed by later settlers.

    The Visitors. These ruins are obviously not of human origin and sometimes contain strange devices. Sages differ on whether the remnants of the Visitors came before or after the Old Empire.

    The Hundred Kingdoms. The beginning of written history as far as most scholars are concerned. For the most part, the kingdoms did not extend to the Isle, though there are ruins of small outposts, perhaps the homes of heretics or outcasts. Other islands, and of course the mainland to the east, are the primary sources of Hundred Kingdoms ruins. The religion of the Kingdoms held that past the western seas lay the land of the dead. Some believe this is the origin of the name Isle of the Dead.

    The Great Empire. The Great Empire arose on the mainland to the east when the Hundred Kingdoms were unified.

    The First Expedition. During the zenith of the Great Empire, armies and settlers were sent in all the directions of the compass to explore and subdue. This was the first of two waves of colonization, and was a direct political extension of the metropole. Not much is known about these earlier colonies because after several generations contact was lost. The legend is that they rebelled against the homeland and so were cursed by the gods. That was 500 years ago.

    The Second Expedition. Founded approximately two hundred years ago, the Second Expedition followed in the disastrous footsteps of the First. Unlike the First Expedition, the Second was led by adventurers and frontierspeople. At this time, the Great Empire was in a more inward-looking mood. When the settlers arrived, all they found were ruins and ghost towns. Initially, the colonies flourished, and spread around the edges of the Isle. Trade and commerce with the homeland was strong, but over time fewer and fewer ships returned until there was no contact. It has been two generations since the last successful voyages, and many assume the Great Empire has either suffered some disaster or disintegrated once more into feuding kingdoms.

    The point of this detail is not to have an extensive history, but to allow me to differentiate between different types of ruins, and to create meaningful connections between them. I am trying to avoid engaging in world building for its own sake, so if something doesn’t add to the experience of the game as game, I don’t want to spend (much) time on it. I’m trying to build from the bottom up as much as possible, but I find I still need some level of thematic framework before I can begin creating domains and points of interest on the map.

    As I have been detailing this setting, many things have surprised me. For example, the degree of Mediterranean influence. I wasn’t really planning that to begin with. And the influence of the sea. I guess I will need to become more familiar with nautical rules.

    ACKS Setting Part 2: Zoom

    Before I can proceed further with my Adventurer Conqueror King System setting, I need some actual geography. Note that I’m a “learns best by teaching” kind of guy, so don’t take any of this as gospel. This is just a record of what ended up working for me. I would love to hear about different methods that work for other people.

    I was playing around with generating random terrain with Hexographer, and one of the areas that stuck with me was this island:

    So I decided to use this fragment as a portion of my 24 mile per hex “campaign level” map and my first region. It’s 8 by 8, so that’s one sixteenth of the entire campaign map. I have some ideas about the surrounding area, but I’m not going to worry about it at this point. The fact that this is an island helps somewhat also; it is unlikely that the PCs will accidentally wander too far afield near the beginning of the campaign (Trollsmyth took a similar approach in his hex mapping series). It also means that PCs can either begin as natives or as victims of a shipwreck.

    I really like this particular map because it has two major sections with a nice small choke point in the middle. I’m envisioning those connective lowlands as the center of civilization on this island with deep, forested wild mountains to the east and more wild interior to the west past the barrier of the rocky mountains. Flipping the assumptions of Keep on the Borderlands, I think the mountains will contain chaotic border forts (like the gates of Mordor, but smaller scale) protecting the western interior from the settled lowlands. In addition, other lawful settlements will be scattered around the edges of the island, much like the way settlements hugged the shore of Ancient Greece. Communication between the lawfuls will be by short range sea vessels, but more on that in later posts.

    To proceed, I need to zoom in on that map and translate it to 6 mile hexes. The Welsh Piper has some wonderful hex templates that can be used with Hexographer, but unfortunately they assume 25 mile and 5 mile hexes (thus 5 subhexes per superhex), which is not compatible with the dimensions I am using. So this is what I did to make sure that the maps line up at different scales.

    I started by marking the center of the 24 mile hexes using an arbitrary hex icon that will go away at the end. I chose volcano hexes because they stick out. All hex centers should be equidistant and separated by three hexes in any direction. To see why I placed the centers where I did, check out this picture from my previous post.

    Then, I grew the terrain type outward one level:

    After that, I filled in the rest of the hexes that would be entirely contained in any of the 24 mile hexes. The remaining gaps between them are liminal hexes that could go either way:

    Contiguous terrain of the same type is then connected and the 24 mile hex center markers are removed:

    Finally (for this post, at least) we have the “filled in” terrain, with the beginnings of some local variation:

    This is still far from complete geographically. You can see that I started to add some details, such as small variations in terrain type at the 6 mile resolution. I don’t plan on creating all the variations prior to play, even just within this single regional map, but as I start to place locations such as domains and dungeons, I’m sure more terrain variation will creep in. My personal rule of thumb is that the majority of subhexes should share the terrain type of the superhex (for example, if the 24 mile hex is forest, at least 7 or 8 of the contained 6 mile hexes should also be forest). Exploring this geography also finally led me to a setting name, which I will reveal in the next post.