Categories
Old school Swords & Wizardry Tabletop RPGs

The Frog God Swords & Wizardry Superbundle

Now available: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG!

While prowling around for a deal on Tome of Horrors Complete I stumbled across this PDF bundle on the Frog God website — the aptly named Superbundle for Swords & Wizardry. It’s broken into 3 tiers: $5, $13, and $25.

I love monster books, and in addition to ToHC this bundle includes two others that were also on my wishlist. Sticking to just the monster books, Tome of Horrors Complete ($25 tier) is normally a $30 PDF, Monstrosities ($13 tier) is normally $15, and Tome of Horrors 4 ($5 tier) is normally $25 — so that’s $70 of monstery goodness for $25.

And that’s not even taking into account the other stuff I’m also curious to check out, like the Borderland Provinces (all 4 included) and Hex Crawl Chronicles books (all 7 included), or the stuff that’s completely new to me. This bundle made my day — maybe it will make yours, too.

Here’s the breakdown:

$5 tier:

  • Quests of Doom 1
  • The Borderlands Provinces
  • Tome of Horrors 4
  • The Mother of All Encounter Tables
  • Rogues of Remballo
  • Adventures in the Borderlands

$13 tier (includes lower tier):

  • Monstrosities
  • Quests of Doom 3
  • The Borderland Provinces Gazetteer
  • The Borderland Provinces Players Guide
  • The Borderland Provinces Journey Generator
  • Strange Bedfellows

$25 tier (includes both lower tiers):

  • Digital Maps
  • Hex Crawl Chronicles 1-7
  • Chuck’s Dragons
  • Swords and Wizardry Card Decks
  • Tome of Horrors Complete
Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

Into the Odd is delightful

Now available: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG!

I missed the boat on Chris McDowall​’s Into the Odd (paid link), but eventually figured out that I was missing something splendid. It’s out of print, but the PDF is a dandy $8 and I love coil binding, so here we are.

Here’s the blurb:

Into the Odd contains everything you need to create a character and explore an industrial world of cosmic meddlers and horrific hazards. This is a fast, simple game, to challenge your wits rather than your understanding of complex rules.

You seek Arcana, strange devices hosting unnatural powers beyond technology. They range from the smallest ring to vast machines, with powers from petty to godlike. Beside these unnatural items that they may acquire, your characters remain grounded as mortals in constant danger.

It’s a great book. Tight. Taut. Pregnant with possibilities. It does a lot between the lines, and even more that looks innocuous but is actually delightfully clever. And it includes a marvelous on-ramp in the form of an introductory dungeon, a hexcrawl surrounding said dungeon, and a starting city — plus a raft of tables to flesh things out on the fly.

I absolutely love its leveling system, which is handled not by XP but by the number of expeditions you’ve survived (and later on, shepherded others through), and the mechanics for buying military units and starting businesses which hum along between sessions are fantastic.

There are so many small-yet-not-small flourishes in Into the Odd that I won’t try to catalog them all here. Chris offers a free edition of Into the Odd so you can get a feel for the game before plunking down some cash, and many of those flourishes are on display in that version of the game.

I want to run at least a one-shot of Into the Odd (paid link) to see what it feels like in play — probably straight from the book, as there’s plenty in that intro adventure and its environs to get a campaign off the ground.

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

An overlooked OSR gem: Lesserton and Mor

Now available: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG!

Lesserton and Mor (paid link), written by Joel and Jeff Sparks of Faster Monkey Games, is a product that I don’t think has received its due. It’s a fantastic, unique, flavorful, and versatile sourcebook for a premade city and its neighboring open-air megadungeon, and it’s incredibly cool. (Update: And it’s now free in PDF!)

For starters, just look at this glorious Peter Mullen cover:

The late, great Steve Zieser did all of the interior art, and his style — like Mullen’s — matches up beautifully with L&M’s “dirty British fantasy” aesthetic.

The hook

L&M has an awesome premise: The ancient city of Mor, “mankind’s proudest achievement,” was sacked by barbarians, and then destroyed in a mysterious cataclysm. The refugees of Mor made their new home next door, and grew that ragged settlement into the city of Lesserton — “the adventurer’s paradise,” a home base for those brave and foolhardy enough to venture into Mor to claim its riches.

Lesserton is fully described in L&M, from districts to buildings to personalities to laws. But Mor is not — Mor, you make yourself. It’s even possible to roll it up as you play, creating new hexes and populating them as the PCs venture into unexplored territory (along the lines of my own Hexmancer).

What’s inside

L&M is a shrinkwrapped bundle, old-school style: a wraparound cardstock cover, unattached to the three booklets inside. The loose cover doubles as a map of Mor, intended to be filled in as you go. Inside are three books: a ref’s guide to Lesserton, a thinner players’ guide to Lesserton, and a guide to rolling up your own Mor.

Lesserton reminds me of WFRP’s Middenheim (paid link) and Terry Pratchett‘s Ankh-Morpork — two of my favorite fantasy cities — but it’s also its own animal. It’s populated by a ragtag mix of people, including many part-ork (“orkin”) folk descended from the original invaders of Mor, and home to all manner of gambling houses, pubs, and brothels. (“Fantasy Mos Eisley” would also be decent shorthand.)

The Referee’s Guide to Lesserton plumbs its depths rather well, and packs a lot of stuff into 68 pages. It’s not chaff, either — it’s stuff you’ll actually use at the table (like another of my favorite city books, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko [paid link], which I’ve written about on Yore).

There are regular pit fights, places to rob, weird shops where you can buy weird shit, normal shops that will sell you adventuring gear, and on and on. There’s a whole section on carousing, which I now realize I missed in my look at carousing in D&D from 1977 to present, and it’s great.

I loathe homework in RPGs, but I love players’ guides to settings; for me to be happy, players’ guides need to be extremely well done, or they’re just homework. The Player’s Guide to Lesserton is extremely well done. For starters, it’s 16 pages long.

What’s the city like? One page, boom. Where is X? There’s a map on the back cover. “I want to get shitfaced.” Covered. “I got too shitfaced, where do they take drunks here?” Covered. “Where do I gamble/drink/fuck?” Covered.

Also covered are lots of things that feel very Lesserton to me. For example, Brinkley’s Assurity Trust will, for 100gp, sell you a bumblebee pin that signals to the orkin tribes who live in Mor that there’s a ransom for your safe return. That’s brilliant! L&M is full of touches like that; it’s designed for play, not just reading (or worse, endless, droning setting-wankery), and it shows.

Finally, there’s the Referee’s Guide to Mor, plus its companion map. This booklet (28 pages, also a great length for what it needs to do) opens with useful background on Mor — what was where, what sort of city it was, and the like. That gives you a good foundation for improvisation during play.

The balance of the book is a framework for generating your own version of Mor, hex by hex, either in advance or on the spot. Random terrain, random buildings, random encounters, special areas (caches, dead magic zones, excavations, etc.) — pure hexcrawl goodness. It even covers generating the orkin clans who call Mor home.

Awesome possum

Put it all together, and L&M is a hell of a toolbox. To stretch the toolbox analogy a bit, it’s like a toolbox that contains some top-notch tools you’re likely to need, as well as the parts to make the ones it’d be more fun to create yourself, and an owner’s manual to help you make the most of both.

I rarely hear anyone talk about Lesserton and Mor (paid link),  which is a shame — it’s a true gem of a setting. I rate it a 10/10, and heartily recommend it.

Categories
D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Exemplars & Eidolons: an OSR Swiss Army Knife

Now available: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG!

I’m going to be playing Exemplars & Eidolons (paid link) next week, so I figured I’d better pick up a copy. Because Kevin Crawford is a mensch, it’s free in PDF and cheap in POD.

In a nutshell, it’s designed to mash up godlike heroes and old-school D&D adventures. Grab a D&D module, read a few numbers included therein a bit differently, and toss in E&E characters — or make your own, of course. Either way, “a single hero is transformed into a figure of towering might,” and the whole thing is delightfully rules-light.

The tacky gold stripe edition

I booklet-printed my PDF copy and took it to an office supply store for assembly. I went with a gold border because they didn’t have any plain options, and gold is fancy. Coil bound, of course, because all hail coil-bound gaming books.

It runs 47 pages, and once you subtract the covers and so forth it’s really just north of 40 — this is a game that does a lot with a little, which is something I love. And while E&E looks like a book, it’s actually a Swiss Army Knife. You know:

The larch

That Alox Electrician (paid link) was my constant companion during our 2015 move from Utah to Seattle.

It cut, pried, poked, and unscrewed all sorts of stuff while we packed up our house; it bounced along in my pocket for a thousand miles; and it broke down dozens of boxes when we arrived in Seattle. It’s one of my favorite pocket knives.

It’s compact, tough, multifunctional, and can accomplish a lot with its handful of cleverly designed tools. Which is a pretty good analogy for Exemplars & Eidolons, because just as you can do all sorts of stuff with a SAK, E&E isn’t only a game:

Exemplars & Eidolons is really an RPG book layout template. Its pages are intended to provide a basic framework for other indie game publishers who’d like to print booklets in the same vein as the original “Little Brown Books” of our gaming youth.

The PDF package comes with InDesign templates, artwork, and permission to use them as you see fit (including for commercial projects). This is basically the most Sine Nomine thing possible, and Kevin’s ability to do stuff like this while also publishing a really nifty-looking game is one of the things I love about his approach to publishing.

Under the hood

Like all the other Sine Nomine books (paid link) I’ve read[1], E&E runs on a lightweight D&D-like chassis: 3-18 for stats, classes, saving throws, hit points, yadda yadda. But, also like Kevin’s other stuff, E&E is its own thing; there are flourishes and tweaks and additions that make it tick.

(Illustration by Joyce Maureira)

Here are my favorite elements (so far):

  • One-page character creation. Nine steps, one page, all neatly summarized. Yeah, you’ll need to look up a few things, but still: zippy.
  • Facts. You write down three facts about your character, each one sentence long, and in play you get bonuses whenever they’re relevant. Instant flavor, player-driven worldbuilding, and mechanical heft — I dig it.
  • Gifts. This is how PCs start as “figures of towering might.” Want amazing AC without armor as a rogue? Take Dodge Blows, and boom amazing AC. As a sorcerer, want to cast a low-level spell at will, as often as you like? Take Mastered Cantrip. Gifts are powered by Effort, a scarce resource which grows as you level up, keeping things interesting.
  • 1st equals 5th. E&E PCs are about equivalent to 5th or 6th level old-school D&D PCs. Grab a higher-level module for an epic challenge, or enjoy grinding a mid-level one into pulp under your godlike boot-heels.
  • The Fray die. Alongside anything else you do in a round of combat, you can always roll your Fray die. It’s automatic damage applied to foes within range who have fewer hit dice than you do levels. In just three short paragraphs, this mechanic goes a long way to giving the game a godlike, larger-than-life feel.
  • Converting from D&D. To use a D&D monster with E&E, just treats its HD as HP; most E&E characters have single-digit hit points. 8 HD monster? 8 HP in E&E. I balk at any sort of game conversion that requires work[2], but this is so trivial it’s brilliant.
  • Wealth. “Legendary heroes don’t count coppers.” Small treasures are ignored; you always have that kind of spending money. Substantial ones are worth a point or two of Wealth. Need to acquire something big, like a ship? Spend 1 Wealth.
  • Problems and Influence. The basic “unit of adventure” in E&E is the problem. A problem is something that calls for heroes: plagues, invading armies, evil cults, etc. Each problem has a difficulty rated in Influence, which is E&E’s version of XP. When the PCs do Hero Stuff, they earn Influence; if they do Hero Stuff which works towards solving a problem, they can apply that Influence to the problem’s rating until it goes away. That’s a really slick way to create a setting, and adventure opportunities within that setting — and, like every other damned thing in E&E, it’s handled clearly and efficiently. E&E’s adventure and setting advice is excellent, and takes up just five pages, one of which is random tables for adventure seeds. So fucking solid.

Notice how E&E is just one letter further along in the alphabet from D&D? I don’t think that’s an accident: E&E is like D&D, one layer higher — epic fantasy on an old-school chassis, with similar expectations around creative problem-solving and making your mark on the world, but a different focus.

Exemplars & Eidolons (paid link) is a deft, clever, and efficient take on epic fantasy, marvelously lightweight and streamlined, and compatible with all things OSR. I’m excited to try it out.

[1] Favorites include Red Tide, An Echo, Resounding, and Stars Without Number (all paid links.)

[2] Because it’s fucking work.

Categories
B/X D&D D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Small But Vicious Dog: B/X + WFRP + love

Now available: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG!

Thanks to a post by James Aulds over on G+, I got to enjoy reading Chris Hogan‘s mashup of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and B/X D&D (paid link), a free RPG called Small But Vicious Dog.

It’s a flavorful delight.

Rules needn’t be dull

SBVD presents fun, coherent rules that express the ethos of the game and the world, all in 36 pages. It’s everything I love about dirty British fantasy (which in turn is part of why the Fiend Folio [paid link] is my favorite monster book). Chris knows his B/X, and he knows his WFRP, and he groks them both.

By way of example

It’s easier to show than tell, so here are some of my favorite bits from SBVD.

The introduction:

Welcome to a fantasy world where the men are Baldrick, the dwarves are punk, and the dogs are small but vicious. Welcome to a world of bawds, grave robbers, excisemen and witchhunters; a place where “Blather”, “Flee!” and “Mime” are legitimate skill choices; and where all material on the insidious threat of Chaos is officially interchangeable between settings.

From the write-up on dwarves:

All dwarves are beersoaked beards on legs who stop mining only to fight, drink heavily and/or sing about mining. They consider everything they say and do to be SRS BZNZ and nurse a grudge like a Bretonnian nurtures a fine vintage wine. All perceived similarities between Dwarves and Yorkshiremen are coincidental.

It’s funny, but it’s also functional. I could play an SVBD dwarf character using only that description, and it would be a hoot. The game is excellent at combining concision with humor.

In SBVD, a character’s social status makes it harder for peasants to do anything against them:

Social position affects all dice rolls made directly against a particular character. […] Exactly how and why this works the way it does is something of a mystery: the consensus is that it’s rather difficult to beat the crap out of someone while you’re malnourished and/or busy doffing your cap. Either way, this rule prevents some dirty oiks with rusty knives and a plan from opportunistically assassinating the Kaiser.

This is a great example of a clever rule that’s also a fun read. The whole section on how social status runs less than a page, but it communicates a lot about the setting and the people in it, and the actual mechanics are excellent.

Lastly, here are items 4-9 from the list of stuff to keep in mind that closes out SBVD:

4. Everyone has an agenda, sometimes several.
5. It can always get worse, and generally should.
6. If in doubt, Chaos did it!
7. If it appears that Chaos didn’t do it, check harder.

Even if it never hits the table, Small But Vicious Dog is a fun read for fans of WFRP — or anyone interested in how to communicate RPG stuff clearly and briefly without it coming off as dry.

It also does some neat things to B/X D&D that could work well in other settings. For example, it immediately makes me think of the OSR setting Lesserton & Mor (paid link), which is criminally underrated (and which I should really post about sometime!) and shares some of the same dirty British fantasy feel.

Categories
D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

The case of the colorful ogre

Now available: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG!

Over on Against the Wicked City, Joseph Manola posted about colorful versions of classic D&D monsters — from the AD&D 1e Monster Manual (paid link).

Quick, picture an ogre. What color is it? Now check out its description from the MM:

The hide of ogres varies from dull blackish-brown to dead yellow. Rare specimens are a sickly violet in color. Their warty bumps are often of different color — or at least darker than their hides. Hair is blackish-blue to dull dark green. Eyes are purple with white pupils. Teeth are black or orange, as are talons.

Whoa! That’s not what I picture in my head when I think “D&D ogre,” but I love it.

And Joseph is right: There are lots of other monsters in the AD&D 1e MM that fall into this category — much more vividly hued that what’s come to be the default D&D version. I’d never noticed that before.

Goblins is yeller

Joseph also quoted a few other descriptions, including the one for goblins — “yellow through dull orange to brick red,” and yep, no green ones — that made me take a closer look at the back cover of the MM. And there they are — bright yellow goblins!

My copy isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but the yellow still shows up clearly. I thought maybe I was misidentifying those little dudes as goblins, but check out the lovely Trampier goblin illustration from the goblin entry:

It’s a perfect match, right down to the shape of the shield. Bright yellow goblins — awesome!

Where did the colorful ogre come from?

That made me wonder whether I’d just been missing, or perhaps glossing over, marvelously colorful ogres (and other humanoids) in other editions. Did colorful ogres start in OD&D (paid link)?

Nope:

These large and fearsome monsters range from 7 to 10 feet in height, and due to their size will score 1 die +2 (3–8) points of hits when they hit. When encountered outside their lair they will carry from 100 to 600 Gold Pieces each.

That’s the whole entry — no word on their appearance. But OD&D sometimes assumes you’re also looking at Chainmail, so let’s look there, too:

What are generally referred to as Trolls are more properly Ogres — intermediate creatures between men and Giants. They will fight in formations, and have a martial capability of six Heavy Foot.

Nope again. How about Holmes Basic?

These large and fearsome humanoid monsters range from 7 to 10 feet in height and are of various disgusting colors.

That’s interesting — “various disgusting colors.” I like that it’s left vague, but it doesn’t help pin down the origins of the violet ogre.

Okay, what about Moldvay Basic (paid link)?

Ogres are huge fearsome human-like creatures, usually 8 to 10 feet tall.

They grew a foot, but they’re back to having no reference to skin color. So where did the colorful ogre come from?

Noodling

OD&D is a short game, and light on details in many places. It wouldn’t surprise me if Gygax and Arneson didn’t both describing some creatures, like the ogre, with which they assumed folks would be familiar. Holmes and Moldvay both used OD&D as their baseline, so it makes sense that they’d leave ogres pretty much the same.

And then along comes the MM. It was written by Gary, so presumably the colorful ogre — and its brightly-hued friends — is a Gygaxian ogre, not an Arnesonian or Gygax/Arneson one. I’ve read a decent chunk of Appendix N, but I haven’t bumped into any ogres that look like this so far.

I’d love to know the answer, but I’ve got nothing. Nothing but Joseph’s original point, that is: There are some cool, wildly colorful humanoids in the AD&D MM.

I’d love to play in a game where those were the defaults — that’d be a pulpy setting with a healthy dose of zany, and I dig that.

Update

Michael Curtis has a theory about the origins of the colorful ogre, and gave me permission to share it here (including his photo). Thanks, Michael!

“When Gary and the guys were playing Chainmail with the Fantasy supplement, there wasn’t much in the way of fantastical miniatures to use as monsters and humanoid troops. Chainmail itself suggests using 25mm and 15mm figures of normal medieval troops (then readily available) to portray dwarves, halflings, goblins, etc for example.

In those games, the players used larger scale miniatures to represent the bigger monsters. One such figure was an American Indian warrior with spear and breastplate. These figure were used as ogres. Their coloration: bright yellow.

The attached photo is from Gary Con IV where they replayed the “Battle of the Brown Hills” Chainmail fantasy scenario. The game used figures dating from the early 1970s, in some cases the actual miniatures owned by the Lake Geneva crew. Here you can see the yellow warriors (and one painted dark brown) facing off against human soldiers. Compare the pose of these “ogres” to the picture in the 1st edition Monster Manual.

I can’t confirm this with 100% accuracy that this is how we got bright yellow ogres, but the pieces fit the theory.”

Here’s the ogre from the MM:

Seems like a solid theory to me!

Categories
Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

The Lulu coupon code that keeps on giving

Now available: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG!

Lulu has all sorts of great RPG stuff, and I quite like shopping there. I never shop without first Googling whether or not they’re running a coupon, and you can almost always count on at least 15% off. Also nifty: Lulu coupons always come out of their end, not the publisher’s end.

Typically, they run a handful of deep discounts a year, usually Black Friday, Christmas, and at least one more. But since December 2015, one of the all-time best coupons they’ve ever offered has just . . . kept on working.

Make with the coupon already

So what is it, and what does it get you?

Free shipping completely eliminates Lulu’s Law from the equation, and 25% off is a fantastic discount. And unlike some of their past coupons, this one works over and over.[1]

What should I buy?

If you need recommendations, here are 80+ RPG products on Lulu that I like, mostly OSR and story games.

When does it expire?

Will it stop working tomorrow? Maybe! But probably not. In a month? Who knows! Has Lulu forgotten that LULURC is still working? Also maybe! But while it works, make the most of it.

[1] While writing this post, I checked how many times I’d used it. The answer frightened me so much that I peed a little.

Categories
D&D Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

Jason Pitre’s RPG design worksheet

Now available: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG!

Jason Pitre‘s RPG design worksheet is a nifty tool. It’s available as a free, form-fillable PDF.

Each section gives you a number of points to assign to elements of your design, forcing you to 1) prioritize, 2) acknowledge design goals that are present/absent, and 3) think about game design more broadly.

Here’s Jason on the underlying premise:

The basic principle underlying this little tool is the idea of limited resources. Designers need to account for the amount of complexity associated with their designs, and to prioritize the elements they find most important for the desired play experience.

That’s handy! The flipside is also handy: Jason posted a filled-out example sheet for D&D 4th Edition (paid link), and if I knew nothing about 4e and looked at only the worksheet, I’d be able to tell that it’s not a game that’s likely to interest me.

Jason’s approach reminds me of the Power 19, a set of game design questions, which I associate with The Forge. Those 19 questions are a fantastically useful tool.

The Power 19, in turn, reminded me of Jeff Rients‘ excellent 20 questions for your RPG setting, which is aimed at D&D. I didn’t realize that Necropraxis had done a related version, and that one also looks neat: 20 Quick Questions: Rules.

If you’re designing a game, a setting, or a D&D-alike, these are great places to start.

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

One choice, two consequences

Now available: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG!

Over on Monsters and Manuals, David McGrogan (author of the excellent Yoon-Suin, one of the starred recommendations on my big list of RPG stuff on Lulu) wrote a neat post about a rule of thumb for sandbox games: Two Problems for Every Solution.

David shares an example from his campaign that explains it well:

For example, in one of the games I am running, the PCs solved the disappearance of a group of villagers – but as a result of this they now have a vengeful demigoddess to deal with and a magic potion to track down, not to mention having to act as a go-between for two power centres and becoming entangled in an apparently unrelated issue to do with the enchantment of a young noblewoman.

Emergent play with a high degree of player agency is my jam, and I love this rule of thumb. It reminds me of last Sunday’s Star Wars World session, which makes sense because, as David points out, Star Wars is full of solutions that only beget new problems.

One bad roll popped us out of hyperspace in the wrong place, and we crashed our ship. We survived, and learned of a settlement not far away . . . full of dangerous poachers, and about to be attacked by angry natives. Problem > solution > problem, problem, and so forth. It’s a good fit.

For where I’m at in terms of sandbox experience, though, I’d like to offer up a related, but not identical rule of thumb: one problem, two consequences.

Making meaningful choices which have meaningful consequences is a hallmark of sandbox play (and other sorts of game with no predetermined plot), and “problem” is just another way of saying “meaningful consequence.” Reminding myself that choices ripple, and those ripples don’t lead to a single new choice, or consequence, or problem, should help my sandbox stay vital and alive.

When I’m stumped for how the world might react in my DCC RPG hexcrawl campaign, I’m going to keep both of these rules of thumb in mind.

Categories
D&D OD&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Chance Cards in Blackmoor

Now available: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG!

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 (one of the best things in an otherwise so-so book with a racist title).

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 (paid link), nor into Supplement II: Blackmoor (paid link), 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 (paid link) and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (paid link) 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!