Tag Archives: revisitation

OSR Dogma Recency

It have long thought that many old school gaming principles are fundamentally reinventions and reinterpretations rather than rediscoveries. Here is more evidence for that, from N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God, page 20:

The DM must remember that it is important that the party get to the dungeon. Encounters that are obviously too strong for the group (especially if they have been weakened by previous encounters) should be reduced or bypassed—for example, the party might come across a predator’s kill or war party’s trail instead of the the actual monsters; or they might be able to sneak past a monster that is otherwise engaged. On the other hand, a very strong party might encounter up to double the number of creatures or more. In all cases the DM should match the challenge to party strength and to the general flow of the adventure.

Basic D&D has some similar advice, but the text from N1 is notable in that A) it is even more explicit and B) it occurs in the first “beginner” module, ostensibly designed to teach new referees and players how the game works. N stands for “novice-level” and N1 was published in 1982. If this passage was found in a recently written module by someone like James Raggi or Matt Finch, it would be considered the rankest of heresies.

Personally, I prefer OSR distrust of predetermination and balance over the TSR advice. Why bother even putting numbers to challenges beforehand if you are just going to scale them to party strength? Why roll dice if you are not willing to live with the result?

XP for Roleplaying

Here are the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay first edition rules for awarding XP for good roleplaying:

These points are awarded to players on an individual basis and reflect how well they portrayed their character. Was the character played in an entertaining fashion according to alignment and career? There will be times when it is obvious that players are running their characters simply as extensions of their own personality, and this need not be a bad thing, but the gamesmaster must decide whether the character’s career, alignment and background mean that he or she really should be different. Give each player a rating (this is probably something you should keep to yourself), along the lines of Bad, Poor, Average, Good or Excellent, and award 0-50 EPs as a recognition of the way the character has been ‘brought to life’.

When allocating experience points for role-playing, you should bear in mind the player’s own conception of the character. For example, a player may have decided that his dwarf is taciturn and consequently have very little to say during role-playing encounters, but become very active during more action-orientated situations.

Generally, each player should receive 30 Experience Points per session for roleplaying, with some players gaining more and some less depending on the circumstances. Only those players who have impressed and amused you with their roleplaying should gain me maximum reward; conversely only those who have added nothing whatsoever to sessions should receive none You should avoid encouraging competition amongst the players – don’t always award the largest amounts to the player with the biggest mouth!

I’ve never liked rules like this for a number of reasons. One, I feel uncomfortable judging and rewarding players by how well they have entertained me. Especially since this passage suggests keeping it secret from the player. If this is an incentive system, how can it function if the player does not know for what they are rewarded experience?

That being said, I do like the idea of roleplaying XP, though I know this might be criticized by fundamentalists that believe XP should only be from treasure and monsters, preferably with more coming from treasure. If there are roleplaying XP though, I think they should be less subjective. Another flaw with awarding XP as suggested by Warhammer 1E is that in my experience such as system often leads to roleplaying caricatures rather than more balanced personalities, because caricatures stick out more. For example, a depressed character will be portrayed as moping all the time.

One idea that I have been playing around with is to allow players to select some goals for their characters, the completion of which will result in XP rewards. Something like minor, substantive, and major goals which would award 100, 500, and 1000 XP respectively. A 100 XP goal might be something like getting a hellhound pelt crafted into a suit of leather armor, fashioning a hat out of a shroom head, or transcribing looted dwarven books and donating them to the library of Ioun (all actual examples from my current campaign). Some might object that that some of these things come with their own reward (like getting a suit of armor) but the same thing is true of treasure.

The best part of this is that it seems like it would reward engagement with the setting. I’m always looking for ways that I can get players to be more self-directed. Adventure paths have trained players to just go along rather than venturing out on their own. Goals would need to be negotiated beforehand, and thus would not be arbitrary. A good goal, just like in real life, should be easily measurable. It also offloads some work from the referee to the players, which is often a good thing.

Wisdom from 1986

On the referee’s role:

To help decide what happens the GM uses the rules of the game. While the players don’t need to know the rules in order to play and enjoy the game, you must be familiar with most of them. Don’t commit the entire book to memory, but you should at least know where to find the rules for any given situation. You decide whether a dice roll is necessary, which test to use (see Standard Tests below), and what the precise results of a successful or unsuccessful test will be. Mostly, though, you must rely on your imagination and common sense; the test of a good GM is not whether the rules can be recited from start to finish without looking anything up, but whether situations that may not be fully covered in the rules are dealt with in a consistent and realistic fashion. After all, in a fantasy game the Impossible happens quite regularly, and no set of rules, however large and complex, can hope to cover every possible eventuality.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay first edition, page 63.

I love that it says the players don’t need to know the rules in order to play or enjoy the game. The player’s interface is assumed to just be naturalistic. No need to think about bonuses or builds or really anything other than what could be described diegetically. There’s this stuff, and these things happen, what do you do? This is so different from the system mastery assumptions many games make now. It also helps that most of character generation is random (though there are some parenthetical notes about advanced players being able to choose careers).

That test for what makes a good ref is also right on. Not rules memorization, but rather flexibility and skill when adjudicating the parts of the game that are not spelled out clearly (because there will always be parts that are not handled clearly by the rules). I might add organization and note taking to the skills a good referee must possess, but that is a different topic.

Reading this rulebook is my first real exposure to Warhammer, and so far I’m really enjoying it. The art is fantastic. All the percentile dice feel like overkill, but I could probably get used to them. When I played in the 90s, the heavy use of miniatures turned me off, though even back then it had a “metal” reputation (though I’m not sure I would have considered that an unalloyed good back then; my taste was more serious and less gonzo). It is true there is some miniature shilling in the book (along with some full color photo plates of Games Workshop miniatures) but the rest of the book is so good I think I can overlook that.

False TPKs

Revisitation: a series of posts that each feature a quote from a classic source along with a short discussion. Quotes that make me question some previous assumption I had about the game or that seem to lead to otherwise unexpected consequences will be preferred.

This selection comes from B2 The Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax (page 14):

RANSOMING PRISONERS: Organized tribes can optionally be allowed to take player characters prisoner, freeing one to return to the KEEP in order to bring a ransom back to free the captives. Set the sums low – 10 to 100 gold pieces (or a magic item which the ransoming monsters would find useful) per prisoner. If the ransom is paid, allow the characters to go free. Then, without telling the players, assume that this success brought fame to the capturing monsters, so their numbers will be increased by 2-12 additional members, and the tribe will also be very careful to watch for a return of the adventurers seeking revenge for their humiliating captivity. The period of extra alertness will last for 1-4 weeks; the increase in numbers is permanent.

I am not in favor of all combats being deadly, even when the conflict is with agents of chaos. Cultists need live sacrifices, brigands need information about future targets, and everyone could reasonably desire gold from ransoms. Maybe live human is a goblin delicacy. But more important than narrative or naturalistic justifications, games where loosing a fight does not always mean a total party kill are more interesting and varied.

However, this must be handled carefully. I strive to be an impartial referee, so unless there has been some very dramatic development during the course of a fight, I default to assuming that monsters are using deadly force. In other words, the key to fair play is deciding beforehand what the priorities of the opponents are. I also try to seed the environment with clues where appropriate so that skillful play and engagement with the setting can be rewarded. I never want “waking up captured” to be used to save a party of adventurers. The monsters are either seeking to kill or capture, and I will try to play them appropriately based on their priorities. Some way of tying this to the encounter reaction roll might be reasonable too, for cases where preplanning (random encounters, limited time) are not possible.

Because I believe in giving players information about the consequences of their actions, I would also try to make sure that the players understand what was going on. Otherwise, how can they make informed decisions in the future? Perhaps the tribe starts putting up recruiting posters advertising the fact that they defeated the fearsome adventuring party. Much referee advice suggests that players should learn from their experiences, but if there is no way for the players to connect cause to effect, they are more likely to just assume that developments are by referee fiat or based on dice. Many players by default assume that the referee just does whatever they hell they feel like at any given time (“rocks fall, everyone dies”), so I believe it is worthwhile to spend extra effort countering this assumption.

Overusing Dice

Revisitation: a series of posts that each feature a quote from a classic source along with a short discussion. Quotes that make me question some previous assumption I had about the game or that seem to lead to otherwise unexpected consequences will be preferred.

From the Rules Cyclopedia, page 148:

New Dungeon Masters often make the common mistake of using random dice rolls to determine everything. An entire evening can be spoiled if (for example) an unplanned wilderness encounter on the way to the dungeon goes badly for the party. The DM must use good judgment in addition to random tables. Encounters should be scaled to the strength of the party and should be in harmony with the theme of the adventure; whenever possible, they should be worked into the story the characters are playing out.

Likewise, the DM may choose numbers instead of rolling for the amount of damage, number appearing, etc. This may be necessary to allow for a more enjoyable game; heavy damage early in the game may spoil the fun.

It’s always interesting to see divergences from current dogma in older books. In this case, the difference really is dramatic. This advice is exactly the opposite of what many people now would consider to be old school play. My RC has a copyright date of 1991. Is it possible that the Second Edition ethos has already begun to infiltrate the basic line by this point? I’m not familiar with the Mentzer boxed sets, so I’m not sure if this language originally showed up there as well.

In any case, I can sort of see the argument for adjusting encounter strength. I am not in favor of that now, but I don’t think it fundamentally changes the game. But choosing numbers instead of rolling for damage? Seriously? Talk about moral hazard.

B40 Normal Human

Revisitation: a series of posts that each feature a quote from a classic source along with a short discussion. Quotes that make me question some previous assumption I had about the game or that seem to lead to otherwise unexpected consequences will be preferred.

This entry comes from the Normal Human monster entry in Moldvay Basic (page B40):

A normal human is a human who does not seek dangerous adventure. A normal human does not have a class. … As soon as a human gets experience points through an adventure, that person must choose a character class.

So this is how humans in Moldvay D&D become adventurers: not by training, not by having exceptional ability scores, but rather by sheer audacity.

Retainers (at least the kind recruited in a tavern) should probably have the statistics of normal humans. Once they survive their first excursion into the underworld or wilderness, perhaps the player of their employer should be allowed to select the retainer’s class? That would help give the player a stake in the fate of the retainer, and maybe also be a good time to introduce the traditional idea of the retainer as a PC-in-waiting. I’ve liked that idea ever since I read about it, but I have never seen it used in play.

Finding a retainer with a class (like some of the NPCs in Bone Hill) could be a special occurrence, almost form of treasure or reward, rather than a disposable grunt. Especially if that means that dying means that you go back to level N (where N is the level of your highest retainer) rather than level 1. That, however, is probably anathema to many new school players, who suffer from “my precious character” syndrome just as much as many referees suffer from “my precious encounter” syndrome. Many people are only happy with wish-fulfillment characters, which also undergirds much of the drive for being able to control every aspect of character creation.

When discussing normal humans, it is also perhaps worthwhile to note that many monsters in the bestiary are in fact thinly disguised versions of other monsters with minor cosmetic changes and trivial rules differences. There are four alternate type of troll, for example, in the Fiend Folio (giant troll, giant two-headed troll, ice troll, and spirit troll, in case you were curious). I would argue that most of the humanoid races as presented in D&D are pretty much just this. Much like the aliens of Star Trek, they are just humans in makeup.

James Raggi said it better than I could. In the LotFP Grindhouse Edition Referee Book, he wrote (page 51):

Humanoids are basically man-like creatures who have a gimmick and are present merely to give PCs intelligent, organized opponents which can be slaughtered wholesale with little reflection, remorse, or consequence.

Whenever you think to introduce a humanoid, just ask yourself, “Why would these not work as humans?” Much of the time it is of the desire to not portray humans of a barbaric bent as savages.

This also allows the referee to keep the truly monstrous humanoids waiting in the wings for portrayals such as Beedo’s Orcs of Gothic Greyhawk or my own Goblins as Corruption. And to make more use of the monster entry on page B40: the normal human.

Dungeoneer’s Best Friend Part 2: Mules

Revisitation: a series of posts that each feature a quote from a classic source along with a short discussion. Quotes that make me question some previous assumption I had about the game or that seem to lead to otherwise unexpected consequences will be preferred.

This quote comes from the monster entry for the common mule in Moldvay Basic (page B39):

If the DM permits it, mules can be taken into dungeons. A mule can carry a normal load of 2000 coins (or 4000 coins at most, with its move reduced to 60’/turn).

That’s 200-400 extra pounds of equipment or treasure.

Some other benefits:

  • No XP sponge (the mule does not get a share of XP).
  • Minimal chance of theft or rebellion (unlike some retainers).
  • Monster detection system. Presumably one could get the same benefit from a trained war dog, but a mule might be less likely to die in combat partway through the expedition, since it is probably not going to be an active aggressor.
  • Mules are still used by the US Air Force in Afghanistan.

I would say that mules compare favorably to hired porters.

Unlike most other game components, mules are primarily about encumbrance. Their function is to carry things. If you are not using encumbrance rules, don’t be surprised if your players ignore mules. I have never been satisfied with the old coin-based encumbrance system, or more “realistic” systems that sum weight carried (realistic is in scare quotes because such sums don’t take into consideration awkward items or how the weight is distributed, which is just as, if not more, important than the absolute quantity carried). Luckily, the LotFP encumbrance system (free Rules & Magic book, pages 38-40) covers mounts and pack animals as well, though there is no dedicated encumbrance record sheet for animals yet (something I hope to rectify soon — it’s on my list of things to do).

Dragon #48 (“Carrying a heavy load? Let a mule do it for You!”) suggests that mule training should require time and resources:

Players can train mules in uninhabited caves and ruined fortifications, offending their sensibilities until the animals are used to odd smells, dank dungeons, and strange noises. All of this takes time — up to several months if you want a really good mule — but the players can hire someone else to do the job so that they remain free to go adventuring while the mule is being trained.

The article goes on to say that a druid could do this through magic more quickly. As long as an adventuring party is not asking their mule to do anything ridiculous, I don’t think I would require special training.

If that’s not enough, you can go read the 121 post (at the time of this writing) Dragonsfoot thread on mules, from which some of these observations were drawn.


Image from Wikipedia

Dungeoneer’s Best Friend Part 1: Dogs

Revisitation: a series of posts that each feature a quote from a classic source along with a short discussion. Quotes that make me question some previous assumption I had about the game or that seem to lead to otherwise unexpected consequences will be preferred.

This quote comes from the 1977 Monster Manual:

Dog, War: These are simply large dogs which are trained to fight. They are loyal to their masters and ferocious in attack. They are typically protected by light studded leather armor and a spiked collar. The number appearing depends on their masters.

In this entry, war dogs have an AC of 6, 2 + 2 HD, and do 2d4 damage (that’s right, better than an AD&D broad sword). In fact, they are pretty badass. And as far as I can tell, there is nothing anywhere in the rules proper prior to second edition suggesting that dogs are standard dungeoneering animals. This first Monster Manual entry is pretty clearly intended as an opponent, down to the “number appearing” language. (Incidentally, I love that bit about the spiked collar. Every war dog should have one.)

They are not in the 3 LBBs. They are not in Holmes. They are not in Moldvay Basic or Cook/Marsh Expert. I’m not all that familiar with BECMI, but it doesn’t look like dogs show up in the Rules Cyclopedia, so I’m guessing they are not in Mentzer either. A pair of war dogs is one of the items that can be found in a Robe of Useful Items (AD&D DMG page 153). Some dogs do show up in the 1978 PHB on page 36 under livestock:

Dog, guard 25 g.p.
Dog, hunting 17 g.p.

Now, a guard dog or hunting dog seems like a far cry from armored dungeoneering war dog to me, but I can see how a player might see that entry in the PHB and then say “cool, what are the stats on those?” and come upon the war dog entry in the Monster Manual (which, arguably, is the closest fit superficially).

War dogs don’t show up in the equipment lists until second edition PHB (which also contains rules for training animals in the chapter on proficiencies). Second edition prices:

Guard 25 gp
Hunting 17 gp
War 20 gp

So much for the official TSR rules. I am sort of fascinated with when this trope developed, but really it is neither here nor there. What if we don’t care too much about the old rules and just want some guidance for using dogs?

More recently, Daniel Proctor (of Labyrinth Lord) wrote a special supplement, Dogs in the Dungeon (discussed in this forum thread). A post in that same thread alerted me to the fact that this topic was treated twice in Dragon, once in issue 103 (pages 26 – 28, for first edition) and once in issue 237 (pages 18 – 22, for second edition). From that article in issue 103 (in 1985):

Dogs can be useful allies or formidable opponents, depending respectively on the inventiveness of the players and the intelligence and imagination of the DM; with their keen senses, even the smallest dogs are the bane of thieves — PCs and NPCs alike — and a war dog is more than equal to the average hired swordsman or first-level fighter. Many other uses will doubtless suggest themselves to the thoughtful referee or player. Dogs may be employed as scouts, guards, or hunters, and are almost as useful and much less demanding than hirelings or henchmen.

So at least by that time, using dogs essentially as retainers seems to have been a common idea. And from the article in issue 237:

This article provides a method for designing canine NPCs. Included are numerous skills and gaming suggestions to turn man’s best friend into a furry adventuring companion.

The article goes on to (I kid you not) define a specialized set of canine ability scores (intelligence, aggressiveness, strength) and a skill system for dog training (some example skills: mounted heel, resist instinct, and stay). I find the complexity of some of these systems somewhat baffling. Did anyone ever really think it would be a good idea to have a specialized skill system for dogs?

Turning the focus to the blogosphere. Noisms has created a number of variant dogs with various specialized uses. For example: the basilisk hound, a dog selectively bred for blindness to hunt basilisks, the ghost hound, trained to bark at invisible intruders, and orc mastiffs which are “terror weapons for rooting out and killing orc females and children”.

Or, if you want you dungeon dogs to be a bit more rooted in the real world, here is a guide to the proper breed to bring along.

And the whole thing arguably reaches its apotheosis in Zak’s d100 war dog table. Sample: Brindlecoated linklurcher. Will carry a lit torch in its teeth.


Molossian Hound (personal photo, from the British Museum)

X13 Neutralize Poison

Revisitation: a series of posts that each feature a quote from a classic source along with a short discussion. Quotes that make me question some previous assumption I had about the game or that seem to lead to otherwise unexpected consequences will be preferred.

For the first revisitation entry, consider the fourth level clerical spell Neutralize Poison from the Cook/Marsh Expert booklet:

This spell will cancel the effects of poison and revive a poisoned character if cast within ten rounds.

Think about that. Parties with sixth level clerics become significantly less vulnerable to death from poison. Unlike magic-users, clerics have access to their entire spell corpus automatically, so there is no question of the cleric needing to do something special to learn Neutralize Poison (unless you are playing with house rules). Sixth level clerics require 25,000 XP, so while reaching sixth level is an impressive achievement in a reasonably dangerous campaign, it is not in the mythical realm of “name level” abilities that most players never reach.

This changes the nature of the game at sixth level. This is not the only spell that has this effect. As 1d30 writes:

All of this means the attention of the players gradually shifts away from counting food and water and illuminations, simplifying the Normal Equipment part of the character sheet just as the Magic Items inventory becomes more complex. … Which means low-level play was intended to be more focused on nonmagical equipment to solve problems, and high level play focused on magical equipment to solve problems.

Though that post is explicitly about AD&D, I think the same observation holds regarding basic D&D. It also shows how the availability (or lack) of specific classes can drastically change the nature of the game. If there are no clerics, then mundane resource management becomes dramatically more important at higher levels (it is always important at lower levels). This says something about party balance that I don’t think is often acknowledged within the OSR, especially since many people (myself included) like the idea that any character can try anything. However, if you don’t have a cleric, you have to carry more rations and be more cautious around poisonous monsters. If you don’t have a magic-user, you need to rely more on ropes and grappling hooks due to the lack of spells such as levitation and fly. Obviously, the point is not absolute, as magic items can take the place of some of these abilities, though the players have less control over whether or not such gear will be available.

The “within ten rounds” bit also reminds me of the AD&D death rules (see the Gygax DMG page 82) and the “Hovering on Death’s Door” optional rule from the Second Edition Dungeon Master Guide (page 75). Both of these systems see characters losing 1 HP per round if at 0 or negative HP and actually dying at -10 HP, which mirrors the “dead from poison in ten rounds” suggested by the Neutralize Poison text. Thus, one could think about a failed save against deadly poison as instantly reducing the victim to 0 HP (and unconsciousness) and starting the “final death” clock. (The 1E rules are harsher than the 2E rules, as a near death experience also results in 1-6 turns of coma followed by a week of required rest, but the idea is the same.) Further, this suggests that “death” at 0 HP is not medical death, though it might as well be for low level characters.

A bottled poison antidote would also be a reasonable extrapolation from these rules. (Is this already in the rules somewhere? I can’t find such a thing in either the Basic or Expert rule books.) Having antidotes available would turn poison into a resource tax, and would be particularly appropriate in games that also have Raise Dead spells available for a price. My preference would be for antidotes to be not economically viable for low-level characters. Clerical spells are available as scrolls, so Neutralize Poison could also be “bottled” in that way, though a cleric would still be required to use the scroll, unlike an antidote. Scroll creation also offers pricing guidelines; by the magical research rules on page X51, an antidote (really, a Potion of Neutralize Poison) costs 2000 gp and takes 4 weeks to produce. Market price should be higher than that, to allow for profit margin, so I would probably allow PCs to buy antidotes for 2500 gp. Brewing antidotes would be a nice little side business for an entrepreneurial cleric with some free time.

Neutralize Poison can’t be used as a prophylactic (such is noted clearly in the text). However, items that provide temporary protection against poison (following the example from the scrolls of protection) might also be interesting treasure items, allowing another level of resource management.