OSR Dogma Recency

N1 Cover (source)

It has long been 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?

48 thoughts on “OSR Dogma Recency

  1. -C

    Right, but even Jeff himself has commented that he would skip a random roll for monsters on the way back.

    This isn’t saying “Don’t have the party run into 89 Giant ants that are faster than the party” it’s “Don’t force the party to encounter something that will auto-kill them”, instead have the ants be pre-occupied.

    1. Brendan


      I think there are a number of differences in the advice from N1. On the way to the dungeon is a lot different than on the way back from the dungeon (which runs up against people needing to leave the session in the real world). I think that is a separate problem. Also, don’t forget about Jeff’s “save to survive the dungeon” if the PCs are unable to get back to town by the end of the session.

      The thing is, “something that will auto-kill them” is pretty much impossible to determine beforehand, if you are playing things impartially.

    2. -C

      I think the problem is genuinely complicated, and that the majority of people when addressing the problem, use words not as a term with an objective meaning, but as a word they have ascribed a personal definition too, AEB the insane G+ thread, and pretty much any other thread discussing this topic.

      I specifically refer to giant ants, which automatically attack anything they detect, have a 15″ movement, poison that damages you ever round forever or until neutralized and come in groups of 10-100.

      That’s pretty much an auto-kill for a first level party.

    3. Brendan

      Courtney wrote: which automatically attack anything they detect, have a 15″ movement, poison that damages you ever round forever or until neutralized and come in groups of 10-100

      Sounds to me like a weapon to be harnessed. Also, a reason to scout well.

      Giant ants are poisonous, huh? Never knew that.

  2. Roger the GS

    Well, this is 1982 by now, and a lot of the sheer bloody-mindedness is going out of the game; AD&D already canonized survival at negative hit points, for example.

    1. Brendan


      Interesting; I wonder if it is possible to find contradictory referee advice in earlier products. I suppose it could also be argued that N1, being for novices, is on easy mode (though there is no suggestion that that is in the case within the module text that I have noticed).

      Survival at negative HP is not really the same thing (though it does make the game a bit easier), because that is not fudging encounters based on PC state, which is what is suggested by N1.

      1. Sandra

        So I recently discovered this, too — not in N1 but in Moldvay/Cook Expert — and I was shocked. I never played in the olden days, I learned with an OSR group a couple of years back. To my mind, the way I think, this is so dissonnant, I don’t like to ignore rolls.

        Now. What are those 85 ambushing elves or that giant horde of fire ants even doing on the encounter table?

        What I want to do is to create encounter tables where these auto killing encounters are very rare, and use them for the starting area, and make harder areas furher away. A little unrealistic / video gamey (inspired by Zelda) and a compromise away from the world simulation aspect that we love, but it’ll allow me to let the dice fall as they fall, which I need.

        My thinking is: once I start pulling punches sometimes, then if they do die, it’s my fault, since I didn’t pull the final punch. Conversely, if I always obey the dice rolls, I can shift away the blame from me to the game system and to the prep (and I, the prepper, have an easier time dealing with the guilt than I, the runner).

      2. Brendan Post author


        Your comment had been flagged as spam for some reason and I just now noticed. Sorry about that!

        I agree that I would rather not roll the dice unless I am willing to live with the result.

        My general inclination for things like being surprised by 85 hostile elves is to still interpret the outcome in a way that leaves some scope for player choice. The meaning of hostile is, after all, not as clear cut as a hit or miss in combat (and if it were that clear cut I would probably house rule that part of the game to accommodate wildly unbalanced encounters in a way that was not an auto-TPK).

  3. Porky

    “… even Jeff himself …”

    That’s an interesting construction. We do need our points of reference, our heroes.

    Surely how likely the ants are to be preoccupied would be closely related to the agreed parameters for the campaign and to some extent the feedback received. If the players are game and accept a given recourse to dice, and trust the framer(s) of the questions the dice get asked, why not a column of 89 large, fast ants? The leftovers would be a great new encounter to add to the hex for whichever heirs stumble along next.

    This makes me think again just how much the OSR has set, how much time has cast solid forms from the ideas in the early posts.

    1. Porky

      Of course. If your character gets ripped away from the loot and carried off as fungus feed by a column of four score ants, that leaves a mark.

      On the ground, in the habits of the wildlife, in the cultural landscape. It draws foolhardy fortune hunters to poke about in the long grass, pan the stream for gp, wonder where it all came from, or steers passersby further clear. It breeds ant hate, or maybe ant love if it keeps the troublemakers down.

      You might find your way back in another body – the body of a friend or relative maybe – and standing in the clearing see the torn pack of the former incarnation. You might follow the trail.

    2. bombasticus

      I personally love this. But it sounds like the quantum ogre wave collapses as we cross and recross the hex — forcing the ant reaction dice up and down as the trail blazes. Would Jeff Himself approve of setting arbitrary modifiers for learned ant hate?

    3. Porky

      There’s no more involved in this than what the GM would usually do in a hands-off sandbox.

      If the GM listens to what the players choose, makes them roll for what would be rolled for and then applies the results of all of it to the world, the GM surely also tracks the ripples out across that world. It’s part of the whole. Light a fire and the smoke may be seen over the horizon. Run down a villager and incur the wrath. Cross the baron etc.

      The ant love/hate is only one example of a possible repercussion and only appears if a given set of people would reasonably react like that in the circumstances, losing loved ones say, or maybe losing irritations in the form of carousing adventurers. If the GM doubts his or her own powers of reasoning in this regard, there’s a always the reaction table – just roll for the response of the environment. If the world didn’t get a chance to respond, to change based on the actions of the people within, something would be wrong.

      As for the certainty of certainties, if one character left his pack slap bang in the middle of a remote clearing, the very next entity to arrive in that same clearing would presuambly find it, elements forgiving. If it hadn’t worn down or been carried off etc. in 100 years, it would be there still. There’s no funny business in this way of doing things. Go looking for it, you might well find it.

      If you had food and water enough of course and the ants don’t get you, via the normal channels of table and roll etc.

    4. bombasticus

      “If the GM doubts his or her own powers of reasoning in this regard” — slippery slope from here to fudging, no? I thought in the OSR if no dice rolled in the forest no tree could fall.

    5. Porky

      How does a goblin ambush look? Which gobbos move left, which right? What’s the chieftain’s plan and what experience, local knowledge or reserves might that chieftain draw on? The GM has to improvise all of this, and hopefully does so on the basis of good reasoning, fairly to the characters and the wider world they’re a part of. The game system, the players and perhaps most of us in and around the OSR accept this philosophy. That’s not fudging.

      I probably killed a character only last session by thinking as best I could like an orc. I even passed responsibility to the dice for access and vision in a way that many might not, not fully trusting myself not to pull the strikes perhaps. But the orcs were many, and they orced in hard, thrilled with the chase, and one of the party’s key members lost his life. The character took an informed risk – one that didn’t have to be taken – and it didn’t pay off, down in the dark in a rough and tumble corner of the world. It’s the way it goes and the players and I are in it with our eyes wide open, ready for the hard knocks, the potential risks to good friendships too, old or new.

      Extending the good reasoning applied to just that kind of encounter to reactions beyond the encounter and the immediate situation to the wider world is just that – an extension.

      What will surviving orcs do in response to these new arrivals, knowing what they know, being who they are? If I don’t trust myself to judge, I’ll roll reaction, but I still have to make the decision to roll and interpret the result for application to this specific context. If we want rules and tables for everything, and worlds in controlled bite-sized pieces, there’s an industry for that.

    6. bombasticus

      Oh you are my favorite. The scene plays out as it plays out and the world starts persisting. When in doubt roll dice. But what role [sic] there for the professional designer??

    7. Porky

      Good question. As an early attempt at answering it, I’ll go on to ask what a professional designer does that a designer doesn’t, and whether the difference is worth having.

    8. bombasticus

      “Charge money.” Not to make any prescriptive (moral) judgements there whatsoever because that’s the door to the land of truly boring unexamined arguments, but once you’re “industry,” delivering those bite-size rules and tables — or the deliberate absence thereof — looms a lot larger than it does when I’m adventuring through my old haunts with older friends. I make stuff up at the table all the time and who cares? It’s like prestidigitation, so much invested in the performance: forcing *this* card, wrestling *these* giant ants into and out of their lair, keeping the audience. Professional designers may sell a trick now and then and that’s great. We all need to eat. And then there’s magic.

  4. Andy Bartlett

    “Don’t force the party to encounter something that will auto-kill them”, instead have the ants be pre-occupied.

    Or, give the players/characters choices – if they die from something that they had no (or next to no) choice determining, it is the GM that has killed them. This doesn’t mean that a party that chooses to cross the Ash Wastes of Zharr shouldn’t roll up, as a random encounter, a Fleshless Legion, but that they should have some idea that such dangers lie in wait.

    If, on the other hand, it is ‘session ends, return to Threshold’, there isn’t really much choice at play there. If a Fleshless Legion is rolled, the players/characters should be presented with a choice of something more than FIGHT! to make up for the lack of choice leading up to the encounter.

    1. Billy Billerson

      “Don’t force the party to encounter something that will auto-kill them”

      I just can’t relate to this one. My players seem to be experts at weaselling out of nasty encounters…

    2. Gus L

      I might fudge the roll in the situation of a true auto-kill. If I rolled 85 elves waiting in ambush (with crossbows, pincers of polearm troops and traps obciously) I would not just roll 40 x-bow shots and 8 sleep spells on the party and pack up my game. I would fudge, elves are taking tasty prisoners or its a picket of six for the 79 elves lolling at the stream down they way.

  5. Stuart Robertson

    By 1984 the Module-as-Railroad was firmly established with Dragonlance. Something being “Old School” doesn’t mean it’s giving advice that everyone is going to agree is good. This “change things around to get to the exciting part!” advice is the precursor to “do whatever you need to so that the story continues” advice of Dragonlance.

    1. Brendan


      This is pre-Dragonlance, and I don’t think anything is gained analytically by considering the Dragonlance modules.

      That said, the point about multiple kinds of advice is a good one, though I’m still looking for examples of the other kind of advice in early AD&D or other even ichearlier TSR materials. I think it’s also notable that AD&D had a very explicit “one true way” official rules ethos, so if N1 is supposed to be only one kind of advice coexisting with other types (as opposed to the party line) it would be useful to see examples of the other types (they probably exist; I’m just not an AD&D expert).

    2. Zenopus Archives

      Holmes Sample Dungeon Room A has a number of goblins based on the party size: “There at least three goblins. The Dungeon Master should increase the number of goblins if the party of adventurers is a large one – i.e., if more than three are in the party, have five goblins, more than five, seven or eight goblins, etc.”

      This is much earlier, 1977, though also an introductory product.

    3. Zenopus Archives

      And actually this is just a working example of the guidelines earlier in the rulebook (pg 10):

      “The number of wandering monsters appearing
      should be roughly equal to the strength of the party encountering them. First level adventurers encountering monsters typically found on the first level of a dungeon should be faced with roughly equal numbers, i.e. a party of three would encounter 2-6 orcs, 3-12 giant rats, etc. However, if the party were second level, or the first level monsters were encountered on the second level of the dungeon, the number of wandering monsters encountered should be doubled. In a like manner, the number of monsters should be tripled for third level adventures or in the third level of the dungeon if the monsters appearing are first level. If justification is needed,
      simply consider that a small party is relatively quiet, thus attracting less attention than a large group, and powerful characters will similarly bring more numbers of monsters.”

    4. Zenopus Archives

      I looked back at OD&D Vol 3 and found the corresponding material that is the source for Holmes. It’s on page 11:

      “Number of Wandering Monsters Appearing: If the level beneath the surface roughly corresponds with the level of the monster then the number of monsters will be based on a single creature, modified by type (that is Orcs and the like will be in groups) and the number of adventurers in the party. A party of from 1-3 would draw the basic number of monsters, 4-6 would bring about twice as many, and so on. The referee is advised to exercise his discretion in regard to exact determinations, for the number of variables is too great to make a hard and fast rule. There can be places where 300 Hobgoblins dwell, but how many can come abreast down a typical passage in the dungeons? Allow perhaps 3 in a ten foot wide passage, and the balance will either be behind the front rank or fanning out to come upon the enemy by other routes. The most fearsome man or monster can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers of smaller/weaker creatures provided the latter are able to close!”

      So the referee advice on scaling the number of monsters based on party size goes all the way back to 1974.

  6. Gus L

    It strikes me that there needs to be some metric for determining how random encounters take place. Both to avoid the classic “Ummm … roll, roll. Yeah so you run into 2-24 goblins on the road – they’re doing goblin things” and if you want to avoid GM bypassing. With classic random encounter tables there’s nothing to indicate the distance or circumstances of the encounter. Personally I’d like to see a table the allows distances a vague circumstances to be randomly generated for each terrain type.

    1. Brendan


      Traditionally, encounter distance is 2d6 x 10 feet in the dungeon and 2d6 x 10 yards in the wilderness. Then there is the reaction roll and surprise roll for further encounter individualization. Personally, that’s still not quite enough for me to improv encounters that I am happy with, so I usually do some degree of pre-generation so that the encounter participants have more interesting motivations.

    2. Gus L

      Yeah the simple numbers help – but really a good random encounter table is more than statlines. I have a table somewhere for Mt Rendon encounters with things like “squabbling over food 40′ off the road”, “emerging from the woods on the opposite side od a 200′ clearing filled with blue wildflowers” and “signs of recent passage”. I find it useful.

  7. Telecanter

    Interesting post. This is a central problem of DMing, I think. Since we aren’t simulating a world that exists, how dangerous will the adventure be for the party?

    The cool thing about random tables is that it shifts some responsibility off the DM’s shoulders. (Not all, because the DM is crafting the charts, but if the DM conveys information well to the players about the possibilities, a lot). This era’s TSR seemed to decide that the swingyness of random charts was a bad thing and is, in this quote, shifting the responsibility back onto the DM’s shoulders: “only give them encounters they can handle.” Latter D&D seems to have realized how difficult a task that is for DMs and turned into into a numerical formula, right? (I’ve never played 3rd edition).

    I think a better solution is to tell DMs how to make their own charts, how likely deadly things should be on them, how to convey information about risks to parties setting out (with rumors, npcs, signs and tracks), and how to teach new players that they can run away or avoid encounters. But that is much more complicated and messy.

  8. Hedgehobbit

    The question I have is why would an adventure module include random encounters that were “obviously too strong for the group” in the first place?

    Still, thing changed very fast for RPGs in the 80s. By 1983 we already had narrative devices* and Pendragon in 1985 intentionally removed the idea of player agency with their personality mechanics.

    *The James Bond RPG had explicit narrative devices in 1983 but I’m not 100% sure that this was the first game to include them. Anyone?

  9. Scott

    I don’t have it with me, but I’m pretty sure the first page or so of the 1e DMG has advice from Gygax to ignore wandering monsters if necessary to get the party to the dungeon.

  10. -C

    I have given this some thought.

    I am coming to the conclusion that it is not helpful to discuss this publicly.

    My personal experience is that looking at any comments on a 5e Mearls article is less than useless. The people I know personally irl who want to design games (or write books or what have you) haven’t even taken the time to learn the very basics of statistical probability or game theory.

    When you go to a design forum and discuss these things however, when you talk to working professionals, you don’t have the same experience. You get cogent useful responses instead of emotional diatribes.

    There’s been some talk about how all the ‘old guard’ blogs aren’t posting. Well, there’s a good reason for that. We’re all busy writing books and being actual game designers instead of arguing with people who have difficult being speaking clearly.

    This isn’t a critique of you, Brendan. I think there’s some ground to discuss what you are talking about in this article. Lately, I just feel that perhaps 90% of the responses are people just figuring out how to use words to say what they think. I certainly don’t have time to respond to barely grammatically 10,000 word (!) diatribes over people who feel offended over blog posts. That’s borderline unhealthy. I have far too many life responsibilities to try and parse that out.

    If anyone wonders why blogs keep disappearing and more and more people keep seeing new products on the market, it’s part of a cycle that we are all involved in. I think I’ll be bowing out of the process myself soon.

    That said, I’m done hijacking your comment thread.

    1. Brendan


      No worries. I always enjoy your work on Hack & Slash, so I hope it doesn’t go away. Of course, I’m also looking forward to your published projects. Dilemma…

    2. Michael S

      FWIW, not to rewrite history, but most of the guys who wrote blogs 2007-2010 who stopped … most stopped because they said what they had to say and it was time to move on – life and shit happens.

      Some of y’all take things seriously, some just want to play games and have fun. I don’t think one is better/worse than the other – at the end of the day, the word “game” is there and there’s a verb “play”. That’s pretty much my take on it.

    1. bombasticus

      Good crikey, you’re right! This whole thing reminded me of the DSG “matrix campaign” blithering — I think Brendan unearthed Patient Zero of this trend in AD&D.

    1. bombasticus

      …actually, I stand corrected. Broodmother Skyfortress text was in Raggi’s hands almost two months ago. Maybe Jeff Himself just got tired “of arguing with people who have difficult being speaking clearly?”

  11. Ivan Sorensen

    I completely agree with the original poster. If you are going to roll dice, go with what you rolled.

    That doesn’t mean you /have/ to roll the dice. But if any of the outcomes of a roll are unacceptable to your campaign, don’t make the roll then. Just go with what IS acceptable to the campaign, and move on from there.

  12. Random Wizard

    The virtual environment provided by a Dungeon Master to the players is an imperfect presentation. It is similar to various situations in video games. You get shot by a tank from a bunker. You think to yourself, if you were really there, you would have got some information from HQ, or you would have seen it because the video game provides a tunnel vision view, but in the real world your eyes shift focus around and your head is able to swivel but that is not emulated in the video game.

  13. Nick Peterson

    I don’t believe in “scaling the challenge of an encounter to the strength of the party”, but I do believe in “giving the party a path to survival”. I let the dice determine what is randomly encountered, but I reserve the right to interpret the circumstances of the encounter.

    If a random encounter seems like something that can easily overwhelm the party, I think it is acceptable for the monster(s) to be initially unaware/distracted/preoccupied so as to let the party decide to either engage or back off. If you give people enough rope, you’ll be surprised at how often they tie the noose themselves and put it around their own necks. Then if the result of the encounter is a Total Party Kill the blame lies with the choices of the PCs and I get to go home with a clear conscience.

    If the party is trying to flee I have no qualms about picking off the slowest member of the party and letting the other PCs get away while the monsters are busy eating. Intelligent and/or vengeful monsters might pick off more than one, but killing off an entire party as they scramble to run away just feels wrong. I enjoy watching the PCs as they flee in terror or cower and hide so I like to reward those behaviors with outcomes like “some survivors”.


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