Monthly Archives: July 2012

Why I Love Saving Throws

Saving Throws Solve Many Problems With Hit Points

As long as you are at least willing to grant some degree of abstraction to combat and hazards, saving throws can mitigate some of the edge case problems inherent with hit points. Are you put off by the idea of high level characters being able to jump off of towers without fear because they know they have the HP to absorb any damage? In my game, a high fall is a saving throw versus stone (failure meaning death) rather than HP damage. Saving throws (coupled with critical hit tables) are perhaps the best way to model serious injuries (allow a save versus critical hit when HP drops to zero or whenever your system of choice would threaten an injury).

If you are playing a wuxia or superhero game maybe you want players to be able to do that HP calculation for jumping off towers. Here, I’m interested in a more human scale. Being able to not worry about falling requires something wondrous, like a levitation or fly spell.

Progress Without Certainty

The essence of the traditional saving throw is progression with level. What this means is that better saving throws are a reward for surviving a long time. However, even if your saving throw is really good (down in the single digits), there is still a nontrivial chance of failure, and failing a saving throw is often fatal. The best saving throw value in Men & Magic is granted to high level clerics (saving against death rays or poison is 3). But that’s still a 10 percent chance of failure. Are those good odds for a character which may have multiple real world years of history? Thus, it is almost always a good idea to avoid recourse to the save, so skilled play is always rewarded. This is in contrast to fate point mechanics, or even hit points, which serve as a quantifiable buffer before there is any real danger.


Saving throws are proactive in the sense that they are something the player does. They get to do something in order to avoid some potential bad outcome. This is mostly psychological (as the math of a passive defense and an active save might be the same), but psychological does not mean unimportant. For example, in Fourth Edition, attacking a PC’s reflex defense is something the referee does. Whereas in earlier games, the player gets to make a save versus wands or a reflex save. This is also good design, because the referee has enough dice to roll without rolling the player’s saves too.


This is a minor point compared to the others (which in my opinion are critical to traditional Dungeons & Dragons), but it is still worth mentioning. The saving throw categories in original D&D are:

  • Death Ray or Poison
  • All Wands – Including Polymorph or Paralization [sic]
  • Stone
  • Dragon Breath
  • Staves & Spells

This communicates a tremendous amount of information about the setting and the challenges that are present. If these categories don’t match the challenges that characters are likely to face in your campaign, I would recommend changing them. In fact, that would be an excellent way to customize the game. Consider for example a hypothetical game set in mythological China with a save versus bureaucracy. Or the save categories in Mutant Future: energy attacks, poison or death, stun attacks, and radiation.

3 LBB Thief

Hokusai Ninja

The thief class was not included in the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. The only classes at the beginning were the cleric, fighter, and magic-user. The thief was introduced in the first add-on product, Supplement I: Greyhawk (which, despite its name, is a collection of new game options rather than a setting). (Note regarding the image to the right: the oriental style is not really appropriate for Pahvelorn, but it’s really hard to find a good public domain image that evokes the thief archetype. Submissions welcome!)

Greyhawk also introduced a whole host of rules which will be familiar to players of later D&D (different hit dice for different classes, difference dice for different weapons, more influential ability scores) but which differ rather drastically from the game as presented in the three little brown books. If you play with all the rules changes in Greyhawk, the game begins to resemble proto-AD&D.

I really like the thief though, and want to include it in my otherwise “3 LBB only” setting. It only requires a few minor tweaks to fit in. Most of the following details come from Greyhawk unchanged. The divergences are noted.

  • Combat ranks: as cleric (steps based on 4 levels; 1-4, 5-8, etc)
  • Saving throws: as magic-user
  • Prime requisite: dexterity (bonus or penalty to XP like other classes)
  • Hit dice: as magic-user
  • Strike silently from behind: +4 attack, +1d6 damage per combat rank
  • 3rd level: 80% chance to decipher obscured treasure maps
  • May cast spells from scrolls with a successful save versus magic
  • 10th level: may use scrolls of all but the most powerful spells reliably
  • Name level is “Master Thief” at 11th level
Skills by level: climb sheer surfaces, open locks, remove traps, pickpocket or move silently, hide in shadows, hear noise. As per Greyhawk; just look the values up in the booklet or ask me. The progressions could probably be rationalized (I’ve seen several such approaches on blogs and forums), but my goal here is not streamlining so much as interpretation in the light of the original booklets (though I did make a few minor changes).
With the exception of picking locks and removing traps (see below), thief skills are not unique to thieves. Anyone may attempt to move stealthily or listen at a dungeon door. Thieves, however, are the only class that gets better at these things. Also, in most cases, the abilities function as a saving throw. That is, where a character of another class would fall, a thief gets a climb sheer surfaces chance. Where a character of another class would be noticed, a thief gets a hide in shadows chance.
WEAPONS (Greyhawk page 4):

Thieves can employ magic daggers and magic swords but none of the other magical weaponry.

Thieves may use any mundane weapon in my game. They may use magic daggers and swords to their full potential. Magic weapons other than daggers and swords count as magical for determining if certain creatures (like golems) can be hit at all, but do not grant any mechanical bonus to the thief. For example, an axe +1 would not get a +1 to attack or damage when wielded by a thief, but it would be able to hit monsters that can only be damaged by magic weapons.

ARMOR (Greyhawk page 4):

They can wear only leather armor and cannot employ shields. 

Wearing armor heavier than leather will result in penalties to thief skill rolls. Some skills may not be attempted or are penalized while employing shields (preternatural climbing and striking silently from behind for sure, and others by context).

TRAPS (Greyhawk page 4):

remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)

The thief ability to “remove traps” is not an arbitrary trap deactivation skill, but rather a limited skill to disarm small mechanisms.
SCROLLS (Greyhawk page 4):

Thieves of the 10th level and above are able to understand magical writings, so any scroll that falls into their hands can be used by them — excluding spells which are clerical in nature. However, with spells of the 7th level and above there is a 10% chance that the effect will be the reverse of that intended (due to the fact that even Master Thieves do not fully comprehend such great magic). This reverse effect can be known only after the spell is read.

Well, first thing, in the 3 LBBs there are no spells of the 7th level and above (there may be magic more powerful than sixth level spells, but it is not the kind of magic that can be prepared in a spell slot). So, by those rules, the 10% chance of failure would never come into effect. So I have decided to extend the use of spells from scrolls backwards to lower levels, given a successful save versus spells (failure miscasts the spell and consumes the scroll).

The ability to use scrolls (unreliably) at lower levels is the only substantial change I have made to the class. I think it is reasonable because it encourages fun play (“roll to see what fun way the thief is going to screw this spell up!”) and means that players of thieves will be more likely to get some use out of scrolls (since few characters reach name level). I don’t think this “save to cast from scrolls” steps on the magic-user’s toes because it will always be more reliable to give scrolls to magic-users (since they never fail when casting a spell from a scroll). At tenth level, thief scroll use also becomes reliable, though the thief never learns how to scribe scrolls and thus still must still find them or procure them from magic-users. Also, the same societal pressures regarding diabolism and black magic apply to thieves, especially since thieves don’t usually advertise any sorcerous power they may possess. Also, many magic-users will not look kindly on their secrets being stolen.

Though I have tried to stay within the parameters of the class as written in Greyhawk, my interpretations are heavily influenced by the following sources.

You can also check out my previous attempt at a thief class rewrite.

2012 10 30 edit: see also my clarification on thief skill use.

Cleric XP

Healing of the Demon-Possessed

The cleric part of my recent XP awards post was becoming too complicated, so I decided that it deserved its own space. The process of thinking through what clerics would spend money on was also revealing lots of setting details which seem naturally to belong together. See also the general post on clerics for more background. So here, without further ado, are some ways for clerics to convert their GP to XP, and serve their order in the process.

NAMING. Knowing the true name of a person or creature gives you power over them. Demons and sorcerers are particularly vulnerable to someone that has their true name. Thus, where possible, it is traditional to have a cleric perform a naming ceremony. In the process, the cleric will discover the person’s true name, and record it in the hidden language of law. That cleric, and any of their acolytes, will have access to this true name in the future. They will also sometimes bestow a use-name (some people consider this lucky). Most people willingly entrust their true name (and the true name of their offspring) to the clerics, because they would not want to live as a diabolist (and it is assumed that demonic influence is behind people becoming diabolists). Rich people will be able to pay for the entirety of the ritual, but the poor are dependent upon the cleric’s generosity. The ritual components cost 1d4 * 100 GP and require one day to prepare and execute. The procedures involve preparing special incense, meditation, and copying certain scriptures. When clerics meet, one of the common tasks is to exchange the true names so collected.
CONSECRATION. Some sites have been tainted in a way that can only be purified by the mysteries of the light. In addition, once hauntings have been dealt with, the sites must often be blessed. Cost is 1d6 * 100 GP plus a save versus magic to avoid consequences. Shrines may also be constructed for a similar cost, and do not require a saving throw (though they are really only worthwhile in a town or settlement that does not yet have a shrine). If the shrine houses a relic (the remains of a fallen cleric), special procedures are required (in addition to the return of the relics, if they are missing). Such a shrine has a level and can be used by clerics during level up. The cost of the consecration ritual is 1000 GP * level, in addition to any architectural costs required. The shrine of a great matriarch or patriarch, for example, may be an elaborate affair.
EXORCISM. Much like naming, rich people will be able to pay for an exorcism, but the poor will not. The components for an exorcism cost 1d6 * 100 GP and the ritual will usually take one day, but may take longer depending on the strength of the possession. A save versus spells is required for complete success, and a fumble may have extremely dire consequences (but then, continuing demonic influence may also have dire consequences).

EXEGESIS. The Mysteries of Light are deep, and there is always more to discover, both in the scriptures themselves, and by communing with higher powers. This functions in the same way as magic research, and also requires a save versus spells to avoid unintended consequences, such as the attentions of dark spirits.

JUDGMENT. In addition to being demon hunters, clerics carry the law of the True Empire wherever they go. This is one of the reasons that they often have problematic relationships with secular authorities in these degenerate times. Many clerics seek out the worms nestled in the timber of civilization. Communities generally don’t like to expose the skeletons in their closets on their own, so clerics must bring their own resources to bear on the problem. Spend 1d6 * 100 GP and make a wisdom check (less than or equal to on a d20). If successful, roll on the Pronouncing Judgment table (which I admit does not exist yet, and so will require improvisation). Otherwise, roll on the complications table (also still imaginary). Note that adventure leads, rumors, and other info may be discovered in the process of judgment.
Funeral Procession of Sir Philip Sidney

LAST RITES. The dead are particularly vulnerable to the attentions of necromancers and demons. Some believe that souls are unable to find their way to the afterlife without the final rites. Others believe that eternal peace and extinction of the soul (the alternative being endless purgatorial wandering) require a cleric’s rites. The mysteries are silent regarding the truth (at least, silent to the uninitiated), but few wish for their fate to be unending undeath, forever hungering again for the warmth of life. Cost is 1d6 * 10 GP for a commoner’s funeral in addition to an evening of work (or a full day if a gravedigger is not available). The rich will demand more lavish affairs, and will generally be able to pay for them. Putting the spirit of a great adventurer to rest, however, is a more involved affair and requires 1000 GP per level of the deceased character. However, such expenses are often wise: the wraith of a powerful warrior is a terrible thing to behold.

INITIATION. Most people cannot become clerics on their own (though there are exceptions, people who are able to figure out the beginning of the mysteries on their own, either from the panoply of a fallen cleric, or from visions). Instead, they must be initiated by an existing cleric. Clerics of fourth level or higher may initiate new clerics. This requires the copying of a holy book, and a ritual that consumes many rare components. The total cost is 1000 GP. Because of the great expense and effort that initiation involves, generally the aspiring cleric will serve a period of apprenticeship and training beforehand. The new cleric begins with the title Acolyte.

Note that most of these prices are either guesses or loosely based on the carousing costs. I reserve the right to change them later based on play experiences.

Converting GP to XP

In Pahvelorn, you get XP from treasure recovered from the underworld or perilous wilderness. This happens when you spend the GP so recovered. Note that you don’t get XP just from spending money, it has to be money derived from recovered treasure. There are lots of good explanations about why this works well in D&D, but here’s one over at the LotFP blog if you’re curious.

This should very much be considered a draft set of rules. I’ve used some of these systems in play before, and the community at large has had, it seems, a positive experience with carousing as a game mechanic, but generalizing these ideas to other activities (magical research, alternatives for clerics, etc) very much seems to be an active and ongoing project (for example, see this post over at In Places Deep and this one at Kill it with Fire).


  • Upkeep. Choose a standard of living: squalid, standard, or luxurious. Squalid gives you a -1 penalty to pretty much everything due to poor nutrition and low-quality rest. Living luxuriously won’t help you swing a sword, but it might affect some reaction rolls and may attract attention (both good and bad). Living squalidly may give you some reaction roll bonuses if you are trying to blend into poorer social groups. Preliminarily, upkeep costs per week are (rounded up, if fewer days than one week are spend in civilization between adventures): 1 SP (squalid), 5 GP (standard), and 100 GP (luxurious). I reserve to right to tweak those as I see fit.
  • Other Expenses. Repairing or replacing weapons, paying retainers, purchasing passage on a caravan, etc. Some other referees only like to give XP for spending on things that you don’t get other utility from, but I don’t have that concern. As long as the source of the money was treasure, anything is fair game.
  • Advertising. Advertising may be the only way to find certain specialized kinds of retainers. I will be using something similar to the system in the Ready Ref Sheets. This allows you to spend from 1 – 600 GP per week looking for special kinds of hirelings.
  • Strongholds. Traditionally, characters build a stronghold at name level (for fighters, this is 9th level, Lord; for clerics this 8th level, Patriarch). Magic-users often build towers to study and practice their dark crafts, though name level is not as clearly defined (though it is probably the Wizard title, gained at level 11). In any case, to have the funds for such a venture, you need to start saving. Once you locate a stronghold site, even if the area is not totally cleared, you may start to put money towards its creation.
  • Big Ticket Items. Like a ship, for example. You can take XP without spending the GP if you bank the funds with some reputable moneychanger, but if you spend that money on anything else you will take an XP penalty in the future. Maaaaaybe you can do this for strongholds too.
  • Goals. Perhaps your character collects pottery from a particular lost civilization, or is obsessed with any tidbit of knowledge regarding elves and Elf-Land. If you spend money on a PC fascination, you can take XP for that expense.
In addition, there are some class-specific ways to spend recovered treasure. In general, they work by spending GP and then making a saving throw to avoid unintended consequences (this procedure was adapted from Jeff’s carousing rules).
  • Rites, ceremonies, marriages, funerals, naming ceremonies, consecrations, purifications, sitting in judgement, and exorcisms. I have had so many ideas for this recently, I think they deserve a separate post. Also, remember, clerics are widely respected, but as demon hunters and travelling law men, not sedentary priests.
  • Carousing. This can be either public (a feast) or private (wine, lotus powder, etc).
  • Competition. Wrestling, jousting, non-lethal gladiatorial combat. The specific options will vary based on location.
  • Magical Research. See here. Money spent this way should be recorded and can be used towards magical research rolls later.
  • Carousing. See fighter entry above.
  • Surveillance. This should be appropriate to your character concept (e.g., an urban rogue can surveil city contacts whereas Robin Hood might be talking to shepherds and watching the comings and goings of the Sherif’s soldiers). This can get you some sweet rumors or threat level information that you might not be able to discover any other ways.
  • Poisons. Brewing or buying; both require GP.
A character may spend money in off class ways, but takes a saving throw penalty, if one is required. The side effect might be interesting… what happens when a fighter sneaks a peak at the magic-user’s grimoire and can’t restrain her curiosity? I don’t know, try it and I’ll make up some system to resolve what happens.

I think that should be enough for now.

Some DCC Thoughts

I just played my second session of DCC RPG (run by Josh from Being Giant) yesterday. Our first session was a zero level funnel with four character each. Two of mine survived, and became Natan the Cultist (wizard) and Javid the Thug (thief). I rolled for their alignment, and both turned out to be chaotic. Natan’s background was a trapper, so I’m picturing him a bit like a mountain man but with some voodoo going on. Javid was a scribe with an intelligence of 5, so he must have been a failure at that career, probably just writing random characters and hoping nobody would notice. For the second session, I generated another zero to serve as a retainer (Pergamoy the smuggler).

There was one other player in our second session, with a first level cleric, a first level halfling, and a newly generated zero. I have read the criticism that DCC is insufficiently lethal after zero level, but that was not our experience. Of our six characters, only two survived (Natan the Cultist and the halfling). The less fortunate were slain by the rakes and hoes of some sort of underworld gardeners. It’s true that characters reduced to zero HP get one round per level of bleeding out during which they can be saved, but that was not enough for us, even with a cleric in the party. I do think there is an aspect of the funnel which is 3d6 in order, four times, choose the best. The only character of mine that survived from my first four probably had the best scores. It seems natural to be more cautious with the character that has the most potential.

Characters above zero level also have a “not really dead” chance which is a luck check (it functions sort of like a saving throw), but the thief and the cleric both failed their second chance roll too. This is a nice compromise between danger and survivability (and is similar to how I play basic and original D&D, with a save versus death at 0 HP, success indicating unconsciousness rather than death).

Every class felt like it had interesting things to do without having a huge list of powers. The magic system really shined. For every spell (you begin with 4 + intelligence modifier), you roll for a unique side effect (this is called “mercurial magic”). For example, Natan becomes ravenously hungry every time he casts detect magic, (mechanically this is a personality penalty until he eats). Whenever he casts magic missile (which for him is a ray of frost), he changes something nearby into lead and something else into gold (determined randomly).

Spell checks are required for every casting, and you can use the spell again if you don’t fail the spell check (so the system offers more spells than traditional D&D without being unlimited). In practice, this felt very similar to my vancian variant 1 rule (save to retain spells), and I like it a lot (though I still think all those tables are probably overkill, and unique spell fumble charts might be a better use of that space). You don’t need to prepare specific spells beforehand though, which destroys the planning aspect of the magic-user class. The thief ability to burn luck for temporary bonuses was also nice. It allows you to have a greater chance of success on important rolls, without making the outcome certain.

Having absolute control over zero level characters that you don’t care very much about can lead to a hazardous style of play. (We used one of our zeros to fish for plant people in a pit.) I think I prefer how retainers are traditionally handled in D&D, where they are pseudo-NPCs. As a player, you can only partially control them, the referee can veto anything, and they are subject to morale checks. Also, if you mistreat retainers, it may become harder to hire more later. Since zeros are “PCs” though, and control over PCs is sacrosanct in D&D tradition, these constraints to not work.

Whatever else this game might be, it is not rules lite. It feels very similar to Third Edition D&D in play, with ability checks (roll high against a DC) replacing most skill checks. DCC lacks much of the customization complexity of 3E though, so it is much easier to get started, and doesn’t feel as overwhelming. There is little opportunity or pressure to optimize. We had to look things up several times, though I expect such need will decrease once we have played a few more sessions.

There are lots of tables that need to be used in play. Critical hit charts that vary based on class, general fumble charts, one chart per spell, and probably a few more that I am forgetting. That being said, I didn’t mind. All of these tables added to the fun of the game. It would be nice if the book had an index though, and it would also be nice if each spell chart was exactly one page. But those are minor issues. In any case, I’m really looking forward to my next session, and in the end I think that is the best for of praise for any game. (Also, I think Josh might have space for another player or two, if anyone is interested; we have been playing on Thursdays so far.)

An Added Incentive

Vincent Baker’s entry in the LotFP grand adventure campaign (The Seclusium of Orphone) looks really interesting to me. In essence, it is a random wizard tower generator (something I have been thinking of putting together myself, actually) along with an example tower and scenario. In addition, it is intended to be a tribute to Jack Vance.

I knew that Vincent Baker had written Dogs in the Vineyard, but what I didn’t know before today was that he has also written In a Wicked Age and Apocalypse World. Wouldn’t you like to see this creativity chained to a simple traditional fantasy game like Lamentations? I certainly would.

But I’ve already contributed to the adventure campaign. I dallied to begin with, because there were so many options, and also because it was not clear where my contribution would do the most good. I narrowed my options down to $100 towards one project or $30 towards three different projects. As the front runner (Broodmother Sky Fortress) was still unfunded as of this morning (though it was getting close), I finally decided that that would be the best place to put my resources.

So what’s the deal with that stack of books in the picture above? I have a number of RPG books that I don’t use very much, but are in great condition, either like-new or lightly used. Some of them are duplicates, some of them are just books that I don’t see myself using much in the future for whatever reason. For example, I now have 2.66 copies if the AD&D core set, and an extra copy of the excellent Weird Adventures by Trey Causey. I’m not a collector, so I don’t see any value in keeping some of these books when they could be getting some use. If you contribute $100 towards Broodmother Sky Fortress (until it funds) or The Seclusium of Orphone (until it funds), I’ll give you one of these books, and pay for shipping too. First come, first served. Note that not all books in the list are in the picture, and there is no attempt at a parity of value. Also note that I will only send you the free book if the campaign in question reaches the target, as you will get your money back from IndieGoGo if it doesn’t.

  • B1-9 adventure collection (there is a small bend in the spine) (reserved for AB)
  • Hardcover Fight On! compilation of issues 1 through 4
  • Second Edition Player’s Handbook
  • Second Edition Monstrous Manual
  • AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (orange spine) (reserved for AV)
  • AD&D Players Handbook (orange spine) (reserved for JW)
  • AD&D Monster Manual (orange spine) (reserved for olajostein)
  • Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets
  • Weird Adventures hardcover (reserved for JA)
  • Microscope paperback (reserved for JS)
  • D&D Fourth Edition DMG 2
  • D&D Fourth Edition Open Grave (the 4E undead book)

I know that for the cost of shipping these I could contribute more to the campaigns myself, but if even a few people take me up on this offer, it will help more to get other people to contribute. I figure that if some people are still on the fence or unsure which project to back, this might help.

The fine print: Raggi has nothing to do with this, it’s all me. So if I screw something up, you can’t blame him. If you have any questions about a specific item, please ask. I’ll ship to anywhere in North America or Europe, but if you live somewhere else, please check with me first. I don’t want to be stuck paying $50 to ship a hardcover to Mongolia or something. Also, the deal is only good for people who help out with these projects during this final stretch, not those that have already contributed. Sorry about that, but fairness is not my aim here.

Weapon & Armor Strengths

Weapons table from the Ready Ref Sheets

I have written previously about redesigning the weapon versus AC modifiers as bonuses, and then making access to that table a fighter benefit. Basically, the idea was to reformulate the table as only bonuses, and then give that table to the players of fighter characters. As it would always be a good thing to use the table, players would be incentivized to pay attention to that sort of thing, and probably also be incentivized to carry more than one kind of weapon (so that they would be able to have advantages against different kinds of enemies).

Redoing the weapon versus armor class table is hard though, so I never managed to bring that idea to fruition. But what if we don’t change the numbers at all, but rather only read the parts of it that are advantageous to the player? We can still keep the negative numbers, but rather than weapon penalties against certain kinds of armor (players are not going to try very hard to remember that), instead consider the negative numbers as armor strength against particular weapons. So, for example, if you are wearing plate armor, you can impose a -3 attack penalty against someone attacking you with a dagger. I think this table is identical to the one in Supplement I: Greyhawk, other than the omission of the military pick.

(Aside: I believe that second column, the one that goes 1, 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc is supposed to indicate weapon length. This could be used to determine space required or initiative. But that is a topic for another post.)

So here is a version of the data in the above table, displayed as benefits and by diegetic armor type rather than AC number. Players obviously only need to pay attention to the weapons they have. Unless otherwise noted, all penalties and bonuses are 1.


  • dagger: unarmored (+2), shield
  • hand axe: unarmored, shield
  • mace: plate
  • hammer: chain, plate
  • battle axe: chain, chain & shield
  • morning star: unarmored (+2), shield (+2), leather, leather & shield, chain (+2), chain & shield
  • flail: unarmored, shield, leather, leather & shield, chain (+2), chain & shield, plate (+2), plate & shield (+2)
  • pole arm: unarmored (+2), shield (+2), leather (+2), leather & shield, chain
  • halberd: leather & shield, chain (+2), chain & shield, plate
  • two-handed sword: unarmored (+2), shield (+2), leather (+2), leather & shield (+2), chain (+3), chain & shield (+3), plate (+2), plate & shield
  • mounted lance: unarmored (+3), shield (+3), leather (+3), leather & shield (+3), chain (+2), chain & shield
As an example, the way to read the first weapon entry above is that daggers are very good against unarmored combattants (a +2 bonus to attack) and good against leather armor (a +1 bonus to attack). You will note that there is no entry for swords. That’s because according the Ready Ref Sheets, swords aren’t good against anything. Same goes for spears and pikes.
I’m not sure I really like these numbers, so I might tweak them, but for this exercise I’m leaving them as is. It looks like morning stars, flails, and two-handed swords are the standout champions, probably too much so.


  • chain: hand axe, spear
  • chain & shield: hand axe, spear, dagger
  • plate: dagger (-3), hand axe (-2), sword, spear
  • plate & shield: dagger (-3), hand axe (-3), sword (-2), spear (-2), pole arm, pike
The way to read the first armor entry above is that chain armor is good against hand axes and spears, so if you are wearing chain you can force opponents wielding those weapons to take a -1 to their attack roll.
I find the presentation of those lists above far more approachable than the rather complex matrices that have shown up in various early books. Those just look like a mess of plusses and minuses. Using this format, a fighter with a hand axe just needs to look out for lightly armored targets and remember to apply their bonus.

Only Ten

If you could only keep ten of your printed RPG books, which would you pick? I asked this question a while back on Google Plus, and got some interesting answers (I also learned about some awesome books, like the Warhammer Realms of Chaos volumes; thanks Zak!). Then recently this TSR versus OSR thread came up on ODD74. I do not generally enjoy false choice hypotheticals, but it did make me recall this exercise, which is sort of an empirical version of the same idea.

I’m going with the following arbitrary conventions, because restrictions are fun. First, it has to be something I actually own and a physical book. Second, the decision has to be based on content not rarity or value (though content can incorporate things like nostalgia value and artwork).

The original list that I posted to G+ was the following: AD&D DMG, the 3 OD&D booklets, LotFP Referee book, S1-4 Realms of Horror, The Guide Book to Taladas, D&D Rules Cyclopedia, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Tome of Adventure Design. I have changed a few items, but it has remained largely the same.

Also, I know many people think very highly of the core Wilderlands books, and some of them probably deserve placement. I only have them in badly-scanned RPGNow PDFs though, and so I haven’t really spent much time with them. So they are disqualified both for technical reasons (not books) and for practical reasons (I really haven’t used them much).

So how do the TSR and OSR camps fare?

  • 4 early TSR (original D&D and the DMG)
  • 1 Judges Guild (Ready Ref Sheets)
  • 3 OSR (LotFP Grindhouse, TOAD, Carcosa)
  • 1 more recent non-OSR (Vampire)
  • 1 alternate take on fantasy from the 80s (Warhammer)

Also, when I was doing this, I couldn’t actually keep it to only ten, so I included some runners-up also. The runners-up are about evenly divided between “original” material and OSR material.

This is not just an idle exercise, as I might be spending a few months in London at the end of the year, so I might actually have to pick a few books to take with me.

I, II, III: Dungeons & Dragons. Suggestive rather than prescriptive. By the time we get to AD&D, we can already see all the tendencies of modern games in proto form. Here, things are still wide open. And the systems are really elegant, if you can get past the bad organization. Concise though, so still faster to learn than most bigger games.

IV: Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Gygax’s magnum opus. I believe this volume needs no introduction. I don’t even particularly like AD&D as a complete system, and this still would take a place near the top.

V: Ready Ref Sheets. This is sort of the Judges Guild DMG, but almost all tables. City encounters by social level, poison tables, offensive locution rules (social combat!), tables for ruins, verdict and punishment tables. A really great resource.

VI: Tome of Adventure Design. Random tables for just about everything, and lots of philosophy about how to use them. Another random monster generator. More tools for dungeon generation. There is not really anything else of this scope and quality available, even considering everything published to date.

VII: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Another direction fantasy gaming could have gone. A great diversity of character options that manages to avoid choice paralysis and does not reward system mastery. Not afraid of dark atmosphere. Chaos metaphysics. Also, John Blanche (example 1, example 2, example 3).

VIII: LotFP Grindhouse Edition Referee Book. Probably the best thematic book on refereeing. Fits my “suspense movie” style perfectly. If we’re counting boxed sets as single items, of course the entire Grindhouse Edition would go here, but this is the standout booklet from that set for me. There is a free no-art PDF of the Rules & Magic book.

IX: Vampire: The Dark Ages. What is a Storyteller book doing in the top 10? I have enough D&D mechanics in my head that I don’t really need anything to play, so what I want in books is primarily inspiration. This book is beautiful, and has excellent atmosphere. I would probably still use D&D type mechanics. Dark ages Transylvanian dungeon crawls.

X: Carcosa. Unapologetic dark imagery, one of the best examples of a sandbox, random cthuloid monster generator, random robot generator, random tech artifact generator. This is how it’s done. It’s only missing a sample town. Perhaps the most attractive bound RPG book I own, too. Rich Longmore art.

Runner-up I: Empire of the Petal Throne. Honestly, this should almost certainly be higher on this list. It isn’t only because I don’t yet feel knowledgeable enough about EPT to have much intelligent to say about it. I am more interested in EPT because of its system, not the setting, which I gather is odd.

Runners-up II, III: B/X D&D. In many respects, these two books make up my favorite iteration of the game. So why aren’t they in the top ten? Well, the 3 LBBs are already there, it’s hard to justify both, and the LBBs have more (though in less detail). For example, there is no stronghold resident generator in B/X. If B/X was one book, it might replace Vampire in the top ten.

Runner-up IV: Monster Manual. If Monsters & Treasure from the original box didn’t also have treasure, the Monster Manual would probably win. It has all the important iconic monsters, though I still sort of prefer the open ended nature of the OD&D box monster write-ups.

Runner-up V: Fiend Folio. More weird fantasy and less mythology than the Monster Manual. An excellent example of what might live in an alternate cosmology setting. Russ Nicholson art. Elemental princes of evil. Githyanki and drow. Grell. Killmoulis. Slaad. Man, maybe this should be in the top ten. The encounter tables in the back are also almost a complete setting.

Runner-up VI: Mutant Future. I’ve never seen the original Gamma World, but I gather Mutant Future is more compatible with D&D, which is how I would want to use a post-apocalyptic game anyways. I like MF more than Metamorphosis Alpha. One of the real strengths of the OSR is the off-genre offerings.

Runner-up VII: The Guide Book to Taladas. From The Time of the Dragon setting (and see here). One of my favorite settings; more original and less sprawling than most TSR settings without being batshit crazy like Dark Sun (which I also like). And illustrated by Stephen Fabian (linked pictures are just to give you a sense of his style; they are not from this book).

Runner-up VIII: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. The style and attitude of this volume are just amazing, and there are lots of rules ideas that could easily be poached, like the dice chain and variable attack bonuses. So what that half of the content is spell tables. Erol Otus art. Pete Mullen art. I’m usually not a fan of such physically cumbersome books, but DCC caries it.

Runner-up IX: Realms of Crawling Chaos. This is a great supplement, very tightly written. A bit too much overlap with Carcosa to have both in the top ten, but very worth picking up, especially for the Reading Eldritch Tomes and Random Artifacts appendices. The psionics section is also good. Most of this book is reusable as open game content, too.

Runner-up X: D&D Rules Cyclopedia. With both OD&D and B/X in the running, there is no way that I could include the Rules Cyclopedia too, but it still deserves a mention for the breadth of material that it covers, even if pretty much all of the interior art is bland. The hex maps are great too, but but the book lacks guidelines on hexcrawl play.

Runner-up XI: B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. I feel an example of town, wilderness, and dungeon all together would be good to have (though the wilderness in B2 is not really fleshed out). Perhaps this should be higher; I’m not sure. B2 also has lots of good referee advice that probably should have been in the core rulebooks.

Encumbrance Again

So, encumbrance. This is a solved problem, right? We have encumbrance by stone, the much-lauded LotFP encumbrance system, and several others. All these are great, and are certainly an improvement over counting coin weights or pounds.

I used the LotFP system successfully for my 4E hack game. It worked well, though there was some back and forth about how many daggers or torches counted as “an item” (we settled on 5). And, as elegant as the system is, it still requires some adding, and cross-referencing (even if all the info is on the character sheet). Math is for suckers. I think I can do it simpler and still maintain both verisimilitude and the resource management trade-offs.

Thinking more about it, there are really only a few questions I care about regarding encumbrance.

  1. Attack penalty?
  2. Skill penalty?
  3. Movement rates (exploration/combat/escape)?

I am going to focus mostly on the movement in this post, because the attack and skill penalties are going to be more system-bound. In OD&D, which I’ve been focusing on recently, combat has few enough modifiers that encumbrance penalties don’t seem to make much sense (strength does not affect to-hit or damage rolls, and dexterity does not affect armor class). Thieves will take some sort of penalty to their skills when wearing more than leather, but I’ll decide that later.

In my experience, three levels of resolution are usually enough to model interesting phenomena without getting caught up in minutia. So I’ll go with that here too. Light, medium, and heavy encumbrance. This also fits the effects described in Moldvay (120′, 90′, 60′, 30′ movement rates) and is implied in OD&D (see Men & Magic page 15; light, heavy, and armored foot move at 12″, 9″, and 6″, respectively). LotFP used the B/X effects while changing the coin math to slot math.

Here is the proposal.

  • nothing OR backpack OR leather armor =  no encumbrance (120’/40′)
  • backpack + leather OR chain =  light encumbrance (90’/30′)
  • backpack + chain OR plate =  medium encumbrance (60’/20′)
  • backpack + plate =  heavy encumbrance (30’/10′)
  • bulky item + any of the above = heavy encumbrance (30’/10′)

That’s it. Rather than counting items and keeping them under some cap, it turns into a simplified location-based system. Would it reasonably fit in your backpack? Is it a quick access item hanging off of a belt or bandolier? Is it in your hand? Those are the options. I left the 30’/10′ category there out of deference to Moldvay, but to be honest it seems a bit silly; I think I might make the bottom three categories all 60’/20′ (or maybe 30’/20′ to represent adrenaline).

This also means that we can encode this information by where we write the equipment on the character sheet without really requiring anything else. For example, have a carried items zone, a quick access zone, and a backpack zone (an example character sheet is included at the bottom of this post). This will also make it really obvious what is where as opposed to just measuring quantity (which is what the LotFP method does).

If you’re carrying some treasure, and it can reasonably fit in your backpack (say, some gems, a few hundred coins, and bowl), it all still just counts as a backpack. Once you start needing extra sacks or containers, things are either in your hands (see carried items below) or are bulky items such as treasure chests or small statues. Hirelings should be very useful here, and the backpack also becomes the unit of hireling carrying capacity.  Handing off or dropping your pack can help, and that seems reasonable to me. Note also that I am using backpack in a general sense here; if your character instead has a series of pouches or a satchel, that will just change (slightly) what is considered a sane amount of contents.

As mentioned above, in addition to items in a backpack, there are also the items that you are carrying and quick access items.

Carried. Most PCs probably have a few different modes regarding what they are holding. For example, torch mode and longbow mode. Writing those modes down will avoid any confusion later.

  • Primary configuration. Example (“exploration”): lantern and shield.
  • Secondary configuration. Example (“danger”): sword and shield.
  • Tertiary configuration. Example (“ranged”): light crossbow.

Players can record as many configurations as they like, though I imagine 2 or 3 should be enough for most characters. It takes a round to switch between configurations, unless the items you are switching to are “quick access” (see below), and you don’t mind dropping what you are carrying, in which case the switch is free (e.g., dropping a torch and drawing a sword).

Quick access. These are objects that are explicitly arranged for access during battle. Things like belted scabbards, slung quivers, boot daggers, and bandoliers all are in this category. More than 3 or 4 such items requires explanation. Even a relatively heavy quick access item (like a two-handed sword in a scabbard on a character’s back) will not be cumbersome, so these items don’t count for encumbrance at all (though as always, common sense should apply in specific situations).

Backpack or pouches. Obviously, backpacks can hold more and do it more efficiently. Also, items stored in backpacks are not accessible during combat, at least not without spending several rounds (I would do this by situation, but something like 1d3 + 1 would be reasonable).

Bulky items. These would include things like a rolled up carpet, a treasure chest, or a chair. Even if it’s not that heavy, carrying a single bulky item consumes both hands and immediately drops your character to the worst encumbrance category. In general, a character can only carry one bulky item in standard exploration mode, though in special cases, or for short periods, exceptions might be made (like a strong character hefting several stacked chests while walking across a single room). The first thing I imagine anyone would do when confronted with danger is to get rid of any bulky items (either by handing them off to a hireling, or dropping them).

A character sheet using this encumbrance system

From the looks of it, the best thing about this system is that it makes interaction with the movement rates really simple, without requiring any math at all. If you drop your backpack, you go one category faster. Getting rid of your quick access or carried items isn’t going to help unless you are carrying something bulky. I could imagine using this system in a FLAILSNAILS pickup game without even needing to explain it to the players (what are you carrying? what is on your belt? can the rest of your stuff really all fit in your backpack?) which is certainly not true of encumbrance by stone or the LotFP system.

The main simplification comes from the fact that an almost empty backpack is mechanically equivalent to a stuffed backpack. Situational rulings can correct such outliers easily though. And really, what adventurer doesn’t carry too much stuff?

Preparation & Meaningful Choices

There has been some discussion on the blogs recently regarding the value and practicality of preparation. Check out Roger, in The Mediocrity of Improvisation; Noisms, in Verfremdungseffekt; Courtney, in On the Preparation; and the RPG Site thread which prompted the Monsters & Manuals post. Roger makes the most direct claim for the value of preparation (which I think is indisputable):

In short, while improvised content can be wildly fun and creative, it usually also tends toward a middle ground of risk and reward. … As sole authority, there is a strong pull toward the middle ground – to mitigate challenges, to clip rewards. The lurking spectre in the background is that of the juvenile, “mad god” style of DMing, where party-killing traps and mind-numbing treasures are handed out, “just because.” Avoiding this spectre, you veer towards the safe and average.

If you are deciding what PCs encounter “just in time” (without rolling on a table, as populating an encounter table is a form of preparation), there is almost no way to be impartial. Your choice of kobold or dragon is largely a choice about whether you want the party to live or die. All of the linked articles above make valuable points, but don’t mention (at least explicitly) what I consider to be the main reason that preparation is necessary, and the main benefit to be gained thereby.

Much of the discussion around sandbox play revolves around the idea of making player choice meaningful (as opposed to railroading where you will tell your story no matter what the players decide, or using quantum ogres). For this kind of play to be fair, PCs must have a way to learn about the threat levels of their possible choices. Players cannot make an informed and meaningful choice if you decide what is present after they have already made choices.

Or, in more concrete terms, you can put Mordor on the map, which gives players a chance to learn about the danger through rumors or other clues, or you can improvise them walking into Mordor. Following Roger, this will either be bland (because you don’t want to kill them) or unfair (because they were not given a chance to assess the risk and prepare, or go somewhere else).

This very specific kind of virtue is not dependent upon the quantity of preparation. You can put in a lot of time into Tolkien-style world building and still not obtain the primary virtue available from preparation, which is threat level communication. For example, a very simple hex map along with four encounter tables (one for each compas direction) and a few lairs are enough for you to be able to impartially dole out info about risk levels if your players are curious.

If you put a little more work into it (maybe some history and upcoming events, to bring the temporal dimension in), your players can make even more sophisticated choices (do they want to attempt the mountain pass before the snows, or take this other lucrative job first?). If PCs still kick in doors without listening first (or take analogous actions in other environments), then what happens is on them, as long as the info was available for them to find in the first place.