D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Planescape makes a hell of a first impression

My copy of the Planescape Campaign Setting arrived this past weekend, and I had a chance to spend some time looking through it. My first impression is that Planescape packs a punch.

What’s inside?

The guts are classic 1990s TSR: four saddle-stitched books, four poster maps/thingies, and — somewhat unusually — a GM’s screen.

The books are A Player’s Guide to the Planes, which is actually the introduction to to the setting for players and GMs; A DM Guide to the Planes, which is what it says on the tin; Sigil and Beyond, which is the introductory book writ large and aimed at GMs; and Monstrous Supplement, which covers iconic planar critters.

I love this approach. At 32 pages, the intro guide isn’t a burden — and it’s a great introduction to what makes the setting tick. (Birthright, another of my favorite TSR settings, takes this a step further: There’s a player-facing booklet for every major kingdom. You rule Medoere? Here’s the Medoere book. It’s marvelous.)

The other books are just as good, but do different things. I haven’t read much of them yet.

DiTerlizzi and Cook

Planescape has one designer, David Cook, and one interior artist, Tony DiTerlizzi. DiTerlizzi’s art is lovely and distinctive, and conveys the tone of the setting like no one else could. No surprise from the designer of the Basic D&D Expert Set (half of one of my favorite editions of D&D), Cook’s writing is clear, direct, and also fantastic at conveying tone.

One interior illustrator, one designer. Talk about unity of vision and purpose! And it shows. Planescape feels like one of those movies where you just can’t imagine anyone else in Role X: I get the strong impression Planescape without this specific creative team wouldn’t work nearly as well.

Here’s a taste of Tony:

And some Cook, clear and useful as ever:

It all comes together in a layout that’s both spare and evocative. When you have a great designer and illustrator on tap, layout needs to support without overshadowing. Dee Barnett and and Dawn Murin do standout work in this department:

There’s the love-it-or-hate-it planar cant to contend with, yes, but so far that’s not bothering me at all. I’m enjoying reading these books.

Sigil. Oh man, Sigil.

Sigil is awesome! It’s a big part of what attracted me to this setting.

From Sigil and Beyond:

Imagine a tire — no hubcap or wheel rim — lying on its side. Sigil would be built on the inside of the tire. All the streets and buildings would fill the curved interior. Meanwhile, on the outside, there’s nothing, see?

And that city-filled tire? It hovers above the top of an infinitely tall spire at the center of the Outlands, and the only way in or out is through portals — magical doorways to other planes, worlds, and everything in between.

From what I’ve seen of it so far, Sigil is one of the coolest fantasy cities ever created.

Planescape says nein

I’ve been thinking about running Planescape as a gold-for-XP sandbox, which I knew ran a bit counter to its nature. That’s part of the appeal.

So one of the first sections I flipped to was “What’s the Point?” in Sigil and Beyond, which covers campaign themes and goals. I can’t recall another example of a gaming book saying “Don’t do that” to the exact idea I had in mind:

Part of me bristles, part of me agrees, and the rest of me is still turning Planescape over and seeing what clicks.

I see Cook’s point. I’ve heard Planescape described as TSR’s answer to their biggest rival in the 1990s, White Wolf, and the glove pretty much fits: evocative, boundary-pushing setting; factions that disagree about the nature of reality, and to which every PC likely belongs; intraparty conflict; marvelous artwork used well; etc. In that light, I’m not sure a gold-for-XP would work.

But a different sort of sandbox? Absolutely. Sigil is made for sandbox play. Everything I’ve read about it so far screams SANDBOX ME.

Whatever I wind up doing with it, Planescape is shaping up to be one of my favorite TSR settings. I see what all the fuss is about, and I dig it.

D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Raiding the larder for Planescape sandbox ingredients

I’ve been noodling some more about running Planescape as a sandbox, and since my copy of the boxed set isn’t here yet I decided to pull stuff off my shelves that seemed like it might be a good fit.

Important safety tip, Egon

This is dangerous! This is how ideas collapse under their own weight! But I only have two speeds, OFF and TURBO ZOOM, so I can’t not think about it.

I’m not reading, or rereading, these before I dig into the Planescape core set, and if you’re thinking about running a PS sandbox I’m not suggesting that you do, either. But these are Cool Things, and they’re shaping my thinking, so here we are.

Calgon, take me away!

The stuff in that photo falls into two categories: things that seem like a good fit for a Planescape sandbox, and things I’ve used to good effect while co-GMing a Dresden Files sandbox with no session prep. Here they are in alphabetical order:

  • The Dresden Files RPG, Volume 1: Our Story (paid link): The city creation system in DFRPG is stellar, and while Sigil already exists and doesn’t need to be created, Dresden’s toolkit still sounds like a good match. It involves identifying themes, threats, locations, and faces (key NPCs), and then — and this is important! — using those ingredients before creating others. That’s awesome for sandbox play.
  • Fever-Dreaming Marlinko: I wrote about why Marlinko is awesome here on Yore, but the bits I’m thinking might mesh well with Sigil are the carousing rules and the Chaos Index. The latter is a simple way to track how the stuff the PCs and others are doing affects how weird the city of Marlinko is, which — based on my half-baked, haven’t-read-the-books-yet understanding of Sigil — sounds like it’d play nice with Planescape.
  • Fire on the Velvet Horizon: I really need to write about this monster book here sometime, but in brief it’s 1) weird as hell, 2) amazing, 3) strange in ways that make me think of Planescape. I like monsters that confound my players’ expectations, and that’s this book in a nutshell.
  • The Harrow Deck (paid link): This is basically a reskinned Tarot deck for Pathfinder, and it’s awesome for improv GMing. I draw a spread of cards, usually three, and either use them to come up with something specific or just keep them in front of me for those moments where I go “Uuuuuuuhhhhhhh what the fuck is going to happen now?” They go really well with the Story Cubes (below).
  • Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, issue #3: Another thing I’ve written about here, but in this case just one thing from one issue: “The Heist.” PCs are always stealing shit, or hoping someone will pay them to steal shit, and this heist adventure toolkit is fantastic for dealing with that on the fly. It includes patrons, marks, heat, and loot, and rolling up a heist is stupidly easy. In a city full of factions, it seems like a good fit.
  • Planarch Codex: Dark Heart of the Dreamer: This tiny book is more or less solely responsible for making me wonder whether Dungeon World (paid link) might not be a better option for the style of game I have in mind. Either way, though, it includes a system-neutral job generator for planar freebooters which, like the Ur-Hadad heist generator, looks like it’d drop seamlessly into Sigil.
  • Red Tide: I own most (all?) of Kevin Crawford’s books, but Red Tide remains my favorite. It includes great systems for generating locations and other sandbox elements, it’s excellent imagination fuel, and the output is lean and mean — it makes stuff that’s actually useful in play. There’s nothing Planescape-y about it, but the guts line up pretty well.
  • Rory’s Story Cubes (paid link): I have umpty-doodle sets of these, and I love them. I use them when I’m winging things, and in Dresden they paired well with the Harrow Deck. I grab a random handful whenever I need to make or decide something I hadn’t thought about before, like NPCs in whom my players take a sudden interest. Not all the sets are perfect for this, but most of them are.

I’m probably forgetting a bunch of other stuff I shouldn’t be forgetting, but that’s what’s rattling around in my brain at the moment.

D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Planescape as a sandbox

Planescape was one of the AD&D 2nd Edition campaign settings that passed me by while it was still in print, but I’ve been curious about it for years. I was thinking about it yesterday when an idea hit me: What would Planescape be like as an old-school, gold-for-XP sandbox?

Since I don’t own it and the core set tends to be pricey in print, I asked two questions about it on Google+: What’s the minimum you need to run it well, and would it work as that sort of sandbox? I got some great responses. Many thanks to everyone who weighed in!

What do I need?

“Just the core box” got some love, which appeals to me. I like improv, and these days the less I have to read to enjoy a game, the better.

Allen Varney suggested the core box plus three specific books: The Factol’s Manifesto, In the Cage, and the first Monstrous Compendium Appendix. In the Cage expands on Sigil, the centerpiece city of the setting, and The Factol’s Manifesto expands on Sigil’s factions, both of which make for great sandbox components.

I have plenty of planar monsters in other books, so I might skip the MC, but the core box plus two books sounds like a great starting point.

Would it work?

I didn’t get as much consensus around this question, but something along the lines of “Probably, but systems other than D&D might be a better fit depending on what you want to do with it” came pretty close. That’s good enough for me!

Rob Donoghue absolutely nailed what appealed to me about the original idea, though — using old-school D&D, probably OD&D or B/X, precisely because “gold for XP + weird planar sandbox” seems like an odd match. Rob said:

But for all that, there is a magic to doing it with D&D, explicitly because of the tension between the very clear logic of the game and the very much bigger logic of the reality of the planes.

Since power and glory come from leveling up, and leveling up requires treasure to be taken from someplace dangerous and returned to civilization to earn XP (plus a bit of “gravy XP” from dealing with monsters, of course), how do you claim that gold in Planescape?

I find that question deeply appealing. It sounds like it’d be fun to answer through play, and I suspect every group of players would approach it quite differently.

Sigil and portal keys

A big, strange city full of factions is fertile ground for a sandbox, and Sigil sounds like one of the coolest cities ever put into a campaign setting. I was one of four GMs in a city-based, round-robin Dresden Files sandbox campaign that remains one of my all-time favorite games, and our Dresdenverse Boston was a big, weird city full of factions; I know how well that setup works.

Jürgen Hubert also made Sigil sound even cooler when he brought up portal keys[1], which seem like they’d be a currency all their own in a Planescape sandbox:

As for sandbox campaigns, the key way of controlling it is to limit the portal keys the PCs have access to. And you will have to limit the keys, or else the PCs can go anywhere at all in the multiverse. Which might be great for those who can run prepless games, but I like to be prepared, personally.

With a fantastic central city, endlessly rich in adventure opportunities, plus the added special sauce of wanting/needing to acquire portal keys (to seek out treasure, to broker for information, or for a thousand other reasons), basing a Planescape sandbox in Sigil seems like a natural fit. I don’t do session prep, so that’s a good fit for me as well.


In poking around the web, I also turned up Running a Planescape Campaign, which has some interesting ideas in it, and Planescape’s Missing Megadungeon, which proposes a tantalizing option.

“Loosey-goosey planar D&D,” which is kind of what’s grabbing me here, also made me think of FLAILSNAILS. I’ve never run or played in a FLAILSNAILS game, but the basic idea — throw together PCs from a variety of roughly D&D-compatible systems for a night of adventure — seems like it’d apply well to Planescape.

For the moment, that’s where my head’s at with the idea of Planescape sandbox: use 0e or B/X D&D, stick to the core set plus maybe another book or two, base things in Sigil, and see what happens. I lucked into a print copy of the boxed set, so once it arrives I’ll be able to bounce those ingredients off the setting and see if it still sounds as appealing as it does right now.

[1] He also brought up lots of other stuff, and even started an thread to talk about some of it. Like many of the folks who commented on G+, he’s got great ideas about how to run Planescape.

D&D OD&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Chance Cards in Blackmoor

I was poking through Dave Arneson‘s The First Fantasy Campaign[1] the other day and happened across a section I’d never looked at before: Gypsy Sayings & Chance Cards.

The sayings don’t mesh well with my GMing style (they remind me of Ravenloft’s Tarrokka Deck (paid link), a 2e product revived for 5e), but the Chance Cards certainly do. They look a lot like the event tables in Oriental Adventures, which I absolutely love (and which — like so many cool D&D things — I was introduced to by way of a post on Jeff Rients’ blog).

And that’s basically what they are: random campaign events for Arneson’s Blackmoor setting. He wrote them up as cards, but presents them in FFC as a simple chart.

“Random campaign events” may not sound interesting, but they’re a great piece of gaming tech.

Chance Cards

Here’s Arneson on his Chance Cards:

It was the Chance Cards that allowed the Great Peasant Revolt and the Duchy of Ten Raid I mentioned earlier. These cards were only used after the 3rd year and generally only in the Outdoor Survival section of the campaign.

Those both sound like awesome events! Just the sort of thing to provide a backdrop for what the PCs are doing, or to give them something obvious to do if they’re overwhelmed or feeling directionless.

Here’s the other bit:

These cards represented ‘strategic encounters’ for the Blackmoor area, though one could allow one of the 20 forces listed under the Great Invasion to be affected at random. Roll percentile dice to determine Chance Occurance [sic] once a month (preferably ahead).

The “Outdoor Survival section” refers to using Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival (paid link) board game to represent the campaign’s wilderness areas, and manage wilderness travel.

As Chris Kutalik notes, Arneson determined these events well in advance — “once a month (preferably ahead).” That’s an approach to random events I’d never considered; I’m more of a “roll when you need to” sort of GM, but there are lots of advantages to having a year of events already rolled up.

The table itself

The table is pretty brief, just 35 events (counting a couple of “draw twice” results, and the like) with a 2%, 3%, or 4% chance of each (varying by encounter). Here are three examples:

  • Large Orc Uprising (Civil War) Report: Each area, 400 – 4000 per area (special as for Isengarders).
  • Small Bandit Attack: 100 – 1000 Cavalrymen.
  • Storms: Delay Trade by one month, movement reduced.

I’m currently reading Jon Peterson‘s Playing at the World (paid link), and one thing that’s struck me about it is just how much of what I love about D&D can be traced back to Dave Arneson’s contributions to the game. Chance Cards are just one more example of this.

While the FFC’s Chance Cards didn’t make it into the original three booklets of OD&D, nor into Supplement II: Blackmoor, they were certainly in use around the time of D&D’s publication. I didn’t realize the notion of random event tables in RPGs went back that far — and it’s a durable concept. Tables like this are still around because they still work well.

Why they rock

“Domain-level” random events are a great way to spice up an ongoing campaign and, like wilderness encounter tables or OD&D’s implied setting, what you put on these sorts of tables communicates a lot about the world.

For instance, look at the second example entry above: 100-1,000 mounted bandits is a small bandit attack! As befits a setting (and game) born out of wargaming, Blackmoor was a place where roaming around during the wrong month might mean running into hundreds of bandits. The PCs were expected to marshal suitable forces to deal with those sorts of threats.

Compare the top of that range, 1,000, to the top end — in terms of number appearing — of the wilderness encounter numbers for the creatures in OD&D, and it’s 2.5 times higher than the most goblins, kobolds, or dwarves one might randomly encounter (400). That alone makes it a dandy monthly event — something that will define a good bit of play during that period.

Populating a table like this isn’t too difficult, either. The ones in Oriental Adventures make a great baseline, as do those in The First Fantasy Campaign. Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko both offer nifty interpretations of this simple mechanic, and I’m sure there are plenty of other books out there from which to borrow.

[1] Why the FFC isn’t legally available in PDF is both baffling and frustrating. It’s a fascinating book!

D&D DCC RPG Old school Tabletop RPGs

DCC RPG wilderness travel speeds

I wanted to use the wilderness travel rules from the B/X D&D Expert Set in my DCC RPG hexcrawl, but character’s movement speeds don’t translate 1:1 across the two games.

I compared species (races) in both editions, crunched the numbers, and turned the results into a one-page PDF reference for DCC RPG wilderness travel speeds by terrain type.

I also tweaked my favorite weather mechanic, weather as a reaction roll, from The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, and stuck that on the bottom of the page, mostly because there was room for it.

This one-pager is designed to work with my DCC RPG wilderness encounter tables and Hexmancer (for procedurally generating terrain), and all three share the same terrain types (“fantasy western Europe”).

D&D OD&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Dungeon stocking in OD&D vs. Delving Deeper, plus The Strategic Review

My copy of Delving Deeper just came in the mail, and after a thorough skim I quite like it. I was after a retroclone that hews as closely as possible to OD&D[1], and at first blush DD seems to fit the bill.

But when I got to the section on dungeon stocking, it looked pretty different from OD&D. Let’s poke that bit and crunch the numbers, like I did with B/X D&D vs. Labyrinth Lord dungeon stocking.

OD&D vs. Delving Deeper

Both games assume that the GM is placing some things by hand before switching to random generation. In OD&D, that’s tricks, traps, and important treasures; in DD, it’s just important treasures (more on this later on!).

Here are the odds in OD&D:

  • Monster: 16.67%
  • Empty: 59.25%
  • Monster with treasure: 16.67%
  • Unguarded treasure: 7.41%

Here are the odds for dungeon stocking in DD:

  • Monster: 22.22%
  • Empty room: 44.45%
  • Treasure guarded by monster: 16.66%
  • Unguarded treasure: 8.34%
  • Treasure guarded by trap: 2.78%
  • Trick or trap: 5.56%

First, treasure: You’ve got a 24.08% chance that a given room contains treasure in OD&D, compared to a 27.78% chance in DD — basically the same. That’s awesome, because it indicates a similar balance of risk vs. reward, and a similar incentive to explore, in both games.

The first four categories in DD’s table correspond to the four categories in OD&D, so we can compare apples to apples in those cases — and they’re really close. The biggest difference is the chance of an empty room (without treasure), which is a whopping 14.8% higher in OD&D than in DD. That just about covers the increased chance of meeting a monster, finding a trap, or finding trapped treasure — the latter two of which aren’t options in OD&D’s chart.

And that’s the biggest difference, of course: DD’s two additional categories, which aren’t present at all in OD&D. Since Delving Deeper’s goal is “faithful emulation of the original 1974 edition,” where did those extra categories come from, and why are they there?

I have two guesses, one reasonable and one perhaps a bit more fun.

The reasonable one

My best guess as to the origin of those two categories is that DD’s authors wanted to provide a clarified take on OD&D’s system for random dungeon stocking, which entailed backing into the parts that OD&D doesn’t randomize.

OD&D includes a section called “Tricks and Traps,” and also notes “It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures.” Those directives map pretty well to DD’s two “extra” categories.

It’s also significant that, unlike OD&D, DD only proposes that the GM place the “principal treasures” before rolling for the rest of the level — not tricks and traps. If you’re not going to stock those by hand, then they need to appear on the chart.

Legal “cover” may also come into play, too. By presenting stocking differently than OD&D, DD establishes a degree of variation between the two systems. At the same time, the percentages are mostly close enough that OD&D’s intent is preserved.

The Strategic Review

The fun guess involves pure speculation. When I was reading the DD section on dungeon stocking, the categories rang a bell — I thought I’d seen them in an early issue of The Strategic Review. Here’s the relevant chart from Gary Gygax’s article on random dungeon generation for solo play in issue #1:

Bingo! Those categories are almost identical to the ones in DD. The biggest difference is “Treasure guarded by trap” in DD vs. “Special or empty” in TSR; I’d argue those are pretty similar. (Crunching the percentages, they line up almost perfectly with OD&D, with a bit of fuzz factor in order to fit in the additional two categories. They don’t line up as perfectly with DD, but they’re still pretty close.)

I don’t know if Delving Deeper took that TSR article into account, but I do know that it encompasses the 1974 boxed set, Chainmail, and “some ‘zine commentary of the time (most particularly the FAQ that appeared in The Strategic Review and the unofficial untested thief as it appeared in The Great Plains Game Players Newsletter).” Given that the FAQ didn’t appear until issue #2 of TSR, contemplating an article in TSR #1 seems reasonable.[2]


Like B/X and Labyrinth Lord, Delving Deeper’s approach to dungeon stocking incentivizes the same play style as the system found in OD&D. Some treasure is unguarded, and about the same percentage of rooms in both games contain treasure.

Delving Deeper does a great job of breaking down the math used to stock an OD&D dungeon, and then matching it quite closely in the four categories that both games share. It then formalizes a part of the dungeon stocking process — tricks and traps — that OD&D leaves informal, and adjusts the percentages to make everything fit.

In a vacuum, that makes DD dungeon stocking look different from OD&D dungeon stocking — more traps, fewer empty rooms. But it’s not apples to apples, because DD expands the random generation system to encompass more dungeon elements.

It’s hard to directly compare OD&D’s combination of manual placement (tricks, traps, and principal treasures) and randomization to DD’s more fully randomized approach, which only involves manual placement of the big treasures. One GM might stick traps in 10% of her dungeon rooms, while another only traps 5% of chambers.

On the whole, it seems like it would have been easier to follow OD&D’s example exactly, sticking with four categories and matching the percentages more closely. But on balance I like that Delving Deeper attempts to fold the rest of the dungeon stocking process into one table, and that it does so by remaining faithful to OD&D’s intent — and, perhaps, to Gary’s take in The Strategic Review.

Update from Simon Bull

Over on G+, Simon Bull commented on writing this section of Delving Deeper:

DD V3-V4 were written, largely, mid 2013 to mid 2014–so a while back now–but being “legally different” to the original was an ever-present design consideration throughout.

I can remember spending a lot of time trying to get the dungeon stocking probabilities “just so”. I was aware that EGG’s expanded dungeon stocking article in the SR included the possibility of random traps and, although I don’t remember my precise rationale now, it probably helped me to “justify” adding traps to V4’s method of randomisation.

I can also remember being a bit dissatisfied with V4’s frequency of empty rooms, but I figured it was the least disruptive way I could add traps into the mix.

FWIW, I do consider the random dungeon stocking section–and particularly randomisation of monsters–a bit of a weakness in V4. However, I have done a lot a more thinking about it since then, and this element of game is presented far more cleanly in V5.

Thanks, Simon!

[1] “OD&D” can sometimes be a fuzzy term. Is it just the three original booklets? Those three plus Supplement I: Greyhawk? All seven LBBs? What about the FAQ in The Strategic Review #2, or the prototype thief class that appeared in a fanzine before it was published in Greyhawk? I’m most interested in the three original booklets plus the FAQ, so that’s what I have in mind in this post.

[2] While I’m out on a limb, given that Gary published this article in 1975, just a year after OD&D came out, I wonder whether or not the percentages for “Special or empty” and “Trick/trap” in TSR #1 might not be pretty close to what he used in his home games when stocking a dungeon level. I have no way of knowing, but it’s fun to think about.

D&D OD&D Tabletop RPGs

Rerolling hit points, OD&D, and Empire of the Petal Throne

I love hit points. They’re a brilliant abstraction, though often misunderstood, and they work beautifully in play.

I double-super-love that in OD&D, how you roll them for your character is completely open to interpretation. I don’t think that’s been true since the late 1970s, as each edition since has spelled things out much more clearly.

This isn’t news, and I’m not a scholar uncovering D&D’s Hidden TruthsTM. These two threads on the Original D&D Discussion boards are both great reads on this topic: In defense of the original HD system and Origins of hit point re-roll at every new level?. I’m just a dude exploring old-school D&D and having fun poking things with a stick, and one of my maxims is that everything is new to someone.

It’s fun to talk about this stuff, and here on Yore is where I like to talk about it.

OD&D: Dice for Accumulative Hits

Here’s OD&D on rolling hit points:

Dice for Accumulative Hits (Hit Dice): This indicates the number of dice which are rolled in order to determine how many hit points a character can take. Pluses are merely the number of pips to add to the total of all dice rolled not to each die. Thus a Superhero gets 8 dice + 2; they are rolled and score 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6/totals 26 + 2 = 28, 28 being the number of points of damage the character could sustain before death.

That first sentence seems clear enough: you roll hit dice to find your hit points. And the second sentence just explains what “3 + 1” means: add the “+ 1” just once, at the end. So far, so good.

Then we get to the example. “Superhero” is the title for an 8th-level fighting man, listed as “Super Hero” in the chart. At 8th level, our doughty fighting man gets 8 + 2 Dice for Accumulative Hits — and in the example, they’re all rolled at once.

I don’t think I’d have noticed this on my own. If I hadn’t stumbled across folks talking about hit dice online, and then read those two threads above, I’d almost certainly have assumed you rolled HP the same way in OD&D as in every other edition — and maybe you do! Which is the neat part.

Consider this: Which of these is correct?

  • The fighting man adds 1d6+2 to his existing hit point total (which has been going up by 1d6, sometimes with a small bonus, every level).
  • The fighting man rolls 8d6+2, and now has that many hit points. It doesn’t matter how many he had before — this is a fresh roll.

I don’t see anything in OD&D that clarifies this, which suits the game’s DIY spirit just fine in my book. But if that second option, rerolling HP every level, sounds weird, consider Empire of the Petal Throne.

EPT: Hit Dice

M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne came out in 1975, just one year after OD&D, and it does a lot of things exactly the same way as OD&D — but not everything. That makes it an interesting counterpoint to D&D in some respects, notably this one.

As each player enters the game, he or she shakes on 6-sided die to determine his or her available hit dice points. As each succeeding level of experience is reached, the indicated number of 6-sided dice are shaken to determine his new total.

And, later in that same section:

No character may ever have LESS hit points at a higher level than he did at a lower one. This, if a warrior shook two 5’s and had 10 hit points at level II, and then on reaching level III shook three dice but got only a total of 7, he adds 3 points to maintain his total at his previous 10. He must always equal his previous total, although he may not be lucky enough to surpass it.

Much clearer than OD&D: You roll hit points anew each level, keeping the new total if it’s higher.

Which is pretty wild! I’ve never played D&D that way, and it sounds like it’d be fun to try.

But what did Gary and Dave actually do?

As far as I can tell, whatever they thought best. Here’s Michael Mornard, one of the original playtesters of OD&D, on the subject:

Gary used to give us the option of rolling an additional die, or rerolling all your hit dice. However, if you rerolled them all, you took the new number, period.

You could also reroll at the beginning of an adventure, rerolling them all.

c. 1972

Not sure how Dave did it.

So at Gary’s table (at least during that time), you not only got to choose which option to use — from the two we’ve already looked at, additive rolling or full reroll — you could also reroll at the start of an adventure. And either way, there’s none of EPT’s “keep the highest.” Nifty.

Update (March 11, 2016): By way of an excellent post on Necropraxis, Rerolling Hit Dice & Healing, I found a direct quote from Gary on EN World on the topic of hit dice:

Everyone I know of kept hit points as rolled.

Gary also notes that the omission of a spot to record HP on the OD&D character sheet was an oversight, so it seems likely that he was doing this — roll and keep — in that same general time period.

Drop some math

My gut sense is that rerolling HP every level would make all PCs’ HP trend towards the mean — average out, basically. No one gets hosed by one or two bad rolls (at least not for long), and no one enjoys wild advantages based on very lucky rolls (ditto). But I can’t back that up with math.

Fortunately, Compromise and Conceit has the stats background to delve into the differences between these two methods. Here’s one of the bits I understand, a handy takeaway:

This does not have a central distribution: it reduces the probability of getting small numbers rapidly, and drives the weight of the probability distribution towards the maximum.

Fascinating! My gut is apparently totally off.

I love the fuzziness of OD&D in areas like this. It’s a feature, not a bug, and it encourages individual groups to develop their own approaches to the game. Just as Gary and Dave almost certainly weren’t playing the same game even as they were publishing it[1], playing OD&D looks like it requires a willingness to make up all sorts of things on the fly — including how you handle something as central as characters’ hit point totals.

And just like every time I’ve delved into OD&D, this makes me want to run it more than ever.

[1] This is just one of so many things Jon Peterson‘s stellar Playing at the World has been illuminating for me. I suspect I’ll be blogging about PatW at some point — it’s so good!

D&D DCC RPG Tabletop RPGs

Debauchery & Dragons: Carousing for XP, 1977 to 2015

It’s 1977. D&D is wild and wonderful and everyone’s doing their own thing.

So much so, in fact, that in that same year two people published alternate versions of one of the core mechanics of old-school D&D: earning XP for treasure.

In 1977, Dave Arneson, co-creator of D&D, and Jon Pickens, who later became an editor at TSR, each published alternate systems for earning XP.

While the baseline was 1 XP for every 1 GP of treasure recovered and brought back to civilization[1], Arneson did things differently in his Blackmoor campaign, and Pickens proposed much the same alternative in Dragon Magazine #10.

I love this stuff, so I want to talk about it here — and about its modern descendants.

Special Interests

Here’s Dave Arneson in The First Fantasy Campaign (which — a crying shame! — isn’t legally available in PDF, and tends to command high prices in print), under the heading “Special Interests”:

Instead of awarding points for money and Jewels acquired in the depths of the Dungeon or hoarding items against the indefinite future, the players will receive NO points until they acquire the items listed below unless it happens to already fall within the area of their interest.

The “items listed below” are:

  • Wine
  • Women
  • Song
  • Wealth
  • Fame
  • Religion or Spiritualism
  • Hobby

The wine rules are entertaining, awarding XP only until the PC is drunk. After recovering, she can drink more to earn more XP. “Song” is basically a big-ass party, with rules for how damaging the tavern impacts XP earned. Wealth covers hoarding gold, which would be a bit of a cop-out (doing that in vanilla D&D earns you XP, too) except that here, if it’s stolen you lose that amount of XP.

Fame is based on dueling and gladiatorial combat — basically picking fights for glory, but you have to go to a big party afterwards. Religion covers donations to churches, as well as quests, and “Hobby” is just that: Pick Your Thing, do Your Thing, and earn XP for it. (One suggestion is “the devising of better Torture machines,” a peculiar hobby indeed.)

“Women” is problematic. Sleeping around for XP, sure — that sounds like fun, and it’s true to the source literature (more on this in a moment), but it assumes the PCs are male and straight, and that all prostitutes are women.

Appendix N is rich with examples of carousing in action, notably in the Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales and Robert E. Howard’s Conan yarns. Lankhmar’s duo and the fearsome Cimmerian are frequently broke, and rarely shy away from wine, companionship, or song. But just that simple shift, substituting “companionship” for female prostitutes, costs nothing and admits all comers[2].

And then there’s this bit:

Slaves of the appropriate type (left to player) may also be purchased with the funds and utilized to fulfill this classification. These slaves may then be sold at reduced value, the difference being credited to the players account.

That crosses a line for me, and it’s something I’d strike before using Dave’s carousing system in my game.

Apart from those sour notes, though, this is a neat system. “XP for GP blown in Conan-like excesses” is a fantastic concept, and despite sharing a publication year with Pickens’ article in Dragon #10, I think it’s fair to credit Arneson as the first, as he’d been running Blackmoor for years prior to 1977.

Orgies, Inc.

Pickens’ article in Dragon #10, “Orgies, Inc.,” proposes basically the same thing:

Instead of receiving experience for gaining treasure, players would receive experience only as the treasure is spent.

He lists five options for accomplishing this expenditure of wealth:

  • Sacrifices
  • Philanthropy
  • Research
  • Clan Hoards
  • Orgies

Salacious title aside, Pickens leaves “Orgies” at “Lusty indulgence in wine, women, and song.” You can orgy for a number of days equal to your Con score, with a cost per day (earned as XP, and then you have to rest for a like amount of days. Set aside the “women” assumption, and I like this version better than Arneson’s.

Philanthropy is about the same as in Blackmoor, and “Research” and “Sacrifices” likewise map pretty well to Hobby and Spiritualism, respectively.

Clan Hoards is a much cooler idea than plain ol’ hoards, and it’s very Tolkien: Dwarves are called out specifically, and they must return home and consign the treasure to the clan’s vault (no withdrawals!). That’s awesome.

The artwork for the article is great, too (though uncredited[3]), depicting an interspecies Bacchanalian revel. I’ve trimmed out a safe-for-work portion, but it’s worth seeking out the whole picture.

Ale & Wenches

Fast forward to the 2008, and we get the best-known OSR system for carousing, published by Jeff Rients: Party like it’s 999. Here’s an excerpt:

At the beginning of a session if a PC is hanging around Ye Olde Village Inne with nothing better to do, they can roll 1d6 and spend 100gp times the roll on liquor and/or lechery. The character gains experience equal to the gold spent. The d6 x 100 standard applies to villages only. A PC could travel to a town or city and debauch much more efficiently.

Where Arneson and Pickens assign categories and break things down in more detail, Jeff simplifies everything down to carousing/debauchery and adds a glorious d20 table. If you fail a save vs. poison while blowing your gold, you roll on the table.

A 10 is “Beaten and robbed. Lose all your personal effects and reduced to half hit points.” A 14 gets you “One of us! One of us! You’re not sure how it happened, but you’ve been initiated into some sort of secret society or weird cult. Did you really make out with an emu of was that just the drugs? Roll Int check to remember the signs and passes.

It’s a light, easy-to-implement system, and it looks like it’d be a hoot in play. Again, I’d substitute “Companionship” for “Wenches.”

Carousing, orgies, and their alternatives

Claytonian JP mashed up “Orgies, Inc.” and Jeff’s carousing system and designed a DCC RPG version tied to Luck. His table is also fantastic. My favorite carousing result is 20, “An evil magic user has some of your hair and flesh… you wake up with a gash and covered in strange runes.

He also spun off systems for martial training, research, and sacrifices, each with its own fabulous, quirky table of delights/horrors. (They’re collected in a free Google Doc.)

  • A 4 on the martial table is “You lose a hand, but now have a wicked hook and intimidation rolls are easier for you.
  • Roll an 8 for sacrifices, and you get “Thou must feed my sheeple. 3 Idiots join you. They fight as henchmen, but they are bumbling fools and will constantly give away your position. Killing or turning them away is bad luck.
  • The table for research is pretty brutal. An 11 is “You attract ghosts like the dickens. Whenever you are in a haunted locale, wandering ghost are twice as likely to show up and primarily target you.

Unlike its predecessors, this system also assigns no gender specifics and makes no assumptions about the PCs — anyone can feel welcome to carouse.

Claytonian’s take is my overall favorite. It’d be easy to port into your own campaign (or out of DCC, or both), and it encompasses a variety of activities without adding much in the way of rules overhead. It’s slick.

Carousing in Marlinko

I wrote a bit about carousing in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, but I want to expand on it here.

What Chris Kutalik and company have done in Marlinko is really neat: Carousing is based on which city quarter you do it in, and unless I’ve missed something it’s an optional addition to the normal XP-for-GP arrangement.

The different quarters of Marlinko are quite different from one another, which gives this system a lot of flavor. In one quarter, the PCs can hit the bathhouse, booze it up, and visit lotus powder dens. In another, a variety of pleasures — from savory to unsavory — can be indulged.

Spend the gold, earn the XP . . . unless you Lose Your Shit, which happens if the carousing roll exceeds your level. Out come the tables, also divided by quarter, and they’re awesome (spoilers):

  • Lost your shit in the Golden Swine quarter? You just joined the Church of the Blood Jesus, and are being held by nun-maenads in their private dungeon.
  • After a bender in the Domesman quarter, you took a purgative and shat your room at the inn so badly that it’s going to cost you some cash.
  • You thought Mercator would be better? You wake up while being serenaded by “horrifically disfigured serial murderer Taurus the Clown.”
  • In the Apiarian quarter, you spilled beer on the wrong woman’s dress, and she’s going to make you pay — hard.

Like Claytonian’s system, the one in Marlinko makes no assumptions about the PCs. As Humza Kazmi, one of the book’s editors, said on G+, “We tried to make sure that the carousing table in FDM was gender- and sexuality-neutral, to avoid the idea that all PCs are straight dudes.

It’d take new tables to adapt Marlinko’s carousing to another city, but the bones are all there.

2016 and onwards?

These are the five published carousing systems I’m aware of, but I bet there are others (and I’d love to hear about them in the comments!). Almost 40 years on, this idea is still going strong and being used in play, so I’d also bet there will be other takes on it in the future.

I’ve never run or played in a game that used carousing-for-XP, but it’s on my list of takes on D&D that I’d like to try.

[1] Plus XP for defeating monsters, of course.

[2] Pun intended.

[3] According to commenter Tony Rowe on G+, the artist is Dave Trampier.

D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Quickly carve out dungeon maps with Gridmapper

Alex Schroeder‘s Gridmapper is a free, online dungeon mapping tool. That’s a pretty crowded space these days, but Gridmapper stands out. Gridmpapper is a fantastic mapping tool, easy enough to use that I get my ideas down as fast as possible, but not so simple that it lacks options.

I’ve experimented with lots of different dungeon mapping options, and Gridmapper is my sweet spot. One of my favorite things about it is that instead of adding rooms to a blank grid, which sometimes paralyzes me (so many choices!), you carve gridded dungeon rooms out of a blank canvas. That shouldn’t feel different, but it does.

Here’s the screen you’ll see when you first access Gridmapper:

All you need is your keyboard and mouse, and no drawing skills are required. Which is good for me, because I’m not good at drawing dungeons.

The learning curve is shallow. Fiddle around for 10 minutes, and you’ll be set.

Unlike some other map-creation options, Gridmapper gives you angle corridors, round rooms, a host of symbols that will be familiar to anyone who’s cracked open an old TSR module, and an expandable canvas/mapping area.

Here’s a dungeon (approximately 37 rooms) I knocked out in about an hour (including time spent thinking about what might inhabit it, etc.):

You can save your maps, export them as images, share them as links, and generally do what you need to do to make further use of a map you’ve created online. Anytime you save a map, it gets added to the Gridmapper wiki (so be aware of that, if you don’t want others to see it).

It even offers the option to use a map in an online game: Everyone loads Gridmapper, accesses the same (presumably sparse) map, and then a designated mapper adds to it live. Every 20 seconds, it saves and the rest of the group can see it.

Lastly, Gridmapper is fun to use. Maps sometimes feel like a chore to me, but making them with Gridmapper falls squarely into the category of play.

Go make one, and you’ll see what I mean.

B/X D&D D&D OD&D Tabletop RPGs

Wandering monsters: OD&D vs. B/X D&D

While I was comparing dungeon treasure stocking in B/X D&D and Labyrinth Lord, I noticed something in OD&D that surprised me: The way OD&D handles wandering monsters is delightfully unforgiving.

At a glance, B/X looked pretty different in this regard, so I thought I’d compare the two. Let’s just look at level 1 in both systems, and let’s assume the party is composed of level 1 PCs.

I’ll also assume that monsters with X+Y HD, like hobgoblins (1+1/2 in OD&D, 1+1 in B/X) count as 2 HD monsters. (This assumption is borne out by both systems, which list hobgoblins on their respective level 2 tables.)

Das tables

Here’s the wandering monster matrix from OD&D‘s Book III:

In B/X each dungeon level just has its own table, which includes a mix of monster HD values. Here’s the analogous table from the B/X Basic Set:

OD&D wandering monsters

In OD&D, a party exploring level 1 of the dungeon can encounter wandering monsters with a range of HD values.

The Monster Level tables roughly map 1:1 to HD, but not universally. For example, there’s a 5 HD monster, the ochre jelly, on the level 3 monster table. There are also monsters with suggested values, but no actual entries; giant animals fall into this category.[1]

But for our purposes, “roughly” is good enough. With that in mind, the chances of bumping into different levels — hit dice, more or less — of monsters look like this:

  • Monster Level 1 list, mainly 1 HD or lower: 33.33%
  • Monster Level 2 list, mainly 2 HD: 33.33%
  • Monster Level 3 list, mainly 3 HD: 16.67%
  • Monster Level 4 list, mainly 4 HD: 16.67%

One-third of the time, you’ll meet monsters whose HD match your level. Another third of the time, they’ll be 1 HD higher than you. The remaining third of your encounters will be with monsters 2 HD or 3 HD higher than you.

And that level 4 monster table is going to wreck your shit: wraiths, ogres, lycanthropes — if you’re not cautious and willing to run, be prepared to die instead.

B/X wandering monsters

In B/X, things are a bit different:

  • 1 HD or lower: 70%
  • 2 HD: 25%
  • 3 HD: 5%

The chance of encountering a 2 HD monster is roughly the same (25% vs. OD&D’s 33.33%), but what’s missing? Except for one 3 HD critter (the giant gecko), what’s missing is 3 HD and 4 HD monsters — which are encountered fully one-third of the time in OD&D!

The dungeon of B/X, at least on level 1, is a much tamer place than its OD&D counterpart. Wandering monsters still spell trouble, but not nearly as much trouble.

But wait, there’s more

You know what else changed between 1974 and 1981?[2] How often you check for wandering monsters. (The chance of an encounter, 1 in 6, is the same.)

In OD&D, it’s every turn. In B/X, it’s every two turns.

So not only is the B/X party unlikely to meet a 3 HD monster (5% chance) and guaranteed not to bump into any 4 HD monsters, they’re also going to have half as many random encounters overall. These are completely different dungeons.

Time is a resource in old-school D&D dungeon crawls in large part because of wandering monster checks, but OD&D really squeezes the ol’ temporal vice in this regard. If you don’t get in, grab some loot, and get out pretty quick, you’re playing with fire.

I’ve never played OD&D, but my interest in it has been growing over the past couple of years. This difference clinches it, though: I need to play some OD&D! I want to see this style of dungeon in action, rather than just in percentages.

A wild aside appears!

As an aside, while I’m normally a print guy and the photos I use in posts reflect that preference, I went with screenshots from my PDF copies this time around. This is partly because my OD&D set is in storage, but it’s also because I’ve been working from the PDFs a lot lately.

While I prefer the old covers, the layout and clarity of the OD&D PDFs is fantastic. The quality of the B/X PDFs is also high. Both have been a good investment, especially when I need to search for things while comparing editions.

[1] And then there’s Supplement I: Greyhawk, which removes the “optionally usable “Martian” animals such as Apts, Banths, Thoats, etc.” and adds new monsters to every list, making the picture fuzzier still. I’m sticking with “good enough.”

[2] Yes, I’m leaving out the Holmes Basic set, but only because my copy is in storage and I don’t have it in PDF. I’d love to see whether Holmes looks more like OD&D or B/X in this regard.