Categories
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 (paid link), 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 (paid link).

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 (paid link) has been illuminating for me. I suspect I’ll be blogging about PatW at some point — it’s so good!

Categories
Books Tabletop RPGs

The Night Land seems ripe for gaming

I just started reading William Hope Hodgson‘s 1912 weird fiction work The Night Land (paid link ; also available as a free ebook). I’m interested in it in large part because the setting sounds fabulous — and rather well-suited to gaming.

I say “sounds” because I’m not that far into the book yet. It’s a strange animal: It’s almost 600 pages long, there’s no dialogue (and, based on reading about the book, there won’t be any later on, either), and the prose isn’t conducive to quick reading.

What piqued my interest was the snippets on Wikipedia, and tell me this doesn’t seem like it’d make a great setting:

The Sun has gone out and the Earth is lit only by the glow of residual vulcanism. The last few millions of the human race are gathered together in a gigantic metal pyramid, nearly eight miles high – the Last Redoubt, under siege from unknown forces and Powers outside in the dark. These are held back by a shield known as the “air clog”, powered from a subterranean energy source called the “Earth Current”. For millennia, vast living shapes—the Watchers—have waited in the darkness near the pyramid. It is thought they are waiting for the inevitable time when the Circle’s power finally weakens and dies. Other living things have been seen in the darkness beyond, some of unknown origins, and others that may once have been human.

Something about this reminds me of James MacGeorge’s Black Sun Deathcrawl, which is part of what made me want to dig deeper.

The Redoubt is basically a city-dungeon (composed of over 1,300 individual cities), or a Shadowrun arcology on a grand scale — eight miles tall, and five miles wide at the base. I have no idea how feasible it would be to try to model the whole Redoubt as a dungeon in-game, but I’d love to see it done.

As for the Watchers, check out this gallery of Stephen Fabian‘s Night Lands artwork. It’s great imagination-fuel, even if you ignore the Night Lands aspect entirely.

I don’t know if I’ll finish The Night Land, as it’s competing with a million less-dense things I could be reading, but I’m looking forward to getting to the weird bits.

Categories
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.

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

While reading Chris Kutalik’s excellent blog, Hill Cantons, I found myself thinking, “Why the hell don’t I own any of his books?” So I ordered three of them in print: Slumbering Ursine Dunes (paid link),  Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (paid link), and the Hill Cantons Compendium (paid link).  (While I was waiting for them to arrive, I also blogged about his killer series on dynamic sandboxes.)

After spending some time with them, I want to write a bit about Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko.[1] Maybe this should be two posts, but I don’t care. I’m in the Kutalik Zone[2], and I’m staying there. Onwards!

Slumbering Ursine Dunes

Here’s a snippet from the introduction to set the tone:

Slumbering Ursine Dunes is known to the outside world for three things: the massive bulk of its red-sand beach dunes; the annual Yambor pilgrimage of soldier-bears; and Medved the hirsute godling who tenuously rules over its Weird-dominated reaches.

SUD is a small, short book, but its size is deceptive: There’s a lot of stuff packed into its 64-odd pages. Like what? Like this (note: spoilers, albeit somewhat mild ones):

  • Pointcrawl: Chris notes that he originally ran SUD as a traditional hexcrawl, but realized that because of the way the dunes truncate the PCs’ option set based on location, it makes a better pointcrawl. Seeing the pointcrawl concept in practice in SUD is neat just from a design standpoint. (If you’ve never heard of a pointcrawl, Chris also wrote a handy index to his entire series of pointcrawl posts.)
  • Sandbox adventure: There are factions, tons of locations, wandering monsters, rumors — all the ingredients of a saucy little sandbox. Even if you have no interest in running the dunes, this is a great toolkit for developing your own sandbox by way of Chris’ example.
  • Two cool dungeons: The Golden Barge is a huge ship with a golden dome rising from its deck, while the Glittering Tower is a tall sandstone obelisk that’s home to one of SUD’s signature personalities, Medved. Both are nifty dungeons.
  • The Chaos Event Index: This is such a neat piece of tech. It’s a subsystem to model the ebb and flow of weirdness in the Dunes based on the actions of the PCs and SUD’s factions, from blood rain to comets to the arrival of bubbleships to a demi-god who arrives to tour the Dunes. It fits SUD perfectly, but it’d also be easy to re-skin and use elsewhere.
  • A box full of goodies. There are monsters (ghuls, grues, pelgranes, soldier bears, zombastodons, and more), a couple of spells, a couple classes, and some tables for random hirelings, all solid stuff.

Taken as a whole, Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a self-contained, peculiar, sometimes-gonzo sandbox area, all ready to go — you can drop SUD right into an ongoing campaign. It doesn’t deluge you with useless information, but it doesn’t stint on providing cool stuff, either.

But it’s also a toolkit, a box of delights from which you can pick and choose just the bits that interest you. Either way, well worth the money.

(Illustration by David Lewis Johnson. David also did many of the illustrations in Focal Point: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Running Extraordinary Sessions, which I published in 2015.)

Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

Set in the same world as SUD (but not requiring it in any way, or vice versa), Marlinko is “a more directly adventurable location than the traditional city setting book,” which is good because most city books are kind of super-boring. Marlinko is designed for change-of-pace adventures, a session or two long, and for use as a hub. (Notably, a hub for exploring the Dunes.)

The beautiful back-cover map by Luka Rejec is a perfect introduction to the city of Marlinko:

Marlinko’s four quarters (Contradas) are succinctly described, with a focus on conveying their flavor and providing interesting encounters. My favorite is the Golden Swine Contrada, a “benighted slum,” which includes:

  • A catacombs excavated by robo-dwarves full of ossuary sculptures dedicated to Jesus — yes, Earth Jesus.
  • The hirelings’ union. Send too many hirelings to their doom, and the party will find themselves blackslisted.
  • The Brothers of the Other Mother, a loathsome and dogmatic cult nonetheless useful to PCs because they can heal you.
  • Headquarters of the League of the Free-Handed, a criminal society that sticks up for the city’s poor.

That quarter feels like two-parts Ankh-Morpork, where a union of hirelings and a combination thieves guild/mutual aid society would be right at home, one-part D&D (the Brothers), and one-part Hill Cantons weirdness (robo-dwarves and Jesus). Marlinko isn’t Just Another Fantasy City.

Marlinko also two dungeons (one being the catacombs noted above), both excellent; a section of city news, which I love; a bit on buying/selling stuff; and a useful look at what happens when you commit crimes in Marlinko. But wait, there’s more — my three favorite things in the book!

  • The Chaos Index, which is like the one found in SUD, but Marlkinko-specific. I particularly like the (non-exhaustive) list of things the PCs can do in Marlinko that will directly affect the Index.
  • Random carousing rules, divided up by city quarter. “You must admit that waking up caked in dried blood is an alarming experience.” “Who is lowering that wicker basket of hand lotion down to you?” “Exactly whose mummy is this that lies in your bed.”
  • Rules for tiger wrestling. It’s as funny as it sounds, and your players will have their PCs do it: Defeating Pan Meow-Meow is worth a 1,000 gp bounty.

That last bit — of course the PCs will wrestle tigers for money! — is the genius of Fever-Dreaming Marlinko: This is a city book purpose-built for gaming, not fluff-wankery or the someone’s shitty novel masquerading as gaming material. Everything in Marlinko is there in answer to the question “What will your players actually give a shit about here?”

It does what it says on the tin, and it’s one of the best city books I own.

[1] The Hill Cantons Compendium is neat, too, but it’s a modest tome compared to the other two — by design — and it’s a PWYW PDF.

[2] It’s right next to the Danger Zone.

Categories
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.

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs Zines

Zine roundup: Wizards Mutants Laser Pistols, issues 1-6

I love weird gaming zines, and Wizards Mutants Laser Pistols[1] is one of my favorites. I bought the compilation of issues 1-6 on Lulu ($17), and it’s a delight.

If you like Castle Amber (paid link), Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (paid link), or Anomalous Subsurface Environment, you’ll dig WMLP. It’s got gonzo, it’s got science-fantasy, and it’s got funhouse — but it’s also a mishmash in the spirit OD&D (paid link), with its mélange of component elements and influences.

Bryce Lynch turned me onto WMLP with his review of issues 3 and 4. Bryce is a brutally frank reviewer, and our tastes in old-school gaming books are pretty similar, so when he gushes about something I generally buy it.

Here’s one of Bryce’s highlights:

The encounters here are exactly what you would expect from an OD&D adventure. A little goofball, a little weird, a lot of THE FANTASTIC. It is the type of feel I equate with OD&D and exactly what I’m looking for. A world where everything seems fresh and new again and the players get to experience something similar to the very first time they met a gelatinous cube or a fell in a bit [sic]. It’s the world of Whimsy and Wonder.

The artwork is wonderfully OD&D-esque, too. Here’s the cover of issue 2, by “Dr. Brainus Mangenius, Psy D.”

Beneath the Ruins: Kihago Megadungeon

The highlight of issues 1-6 is also the anchor of each issue: the levels of the Kihago megadungeon, by Alex Fotinakes, collectively titled “Beneath the Ruins.” If that title sounds familiar, it’s because the first level of Kihago is also offered in Beneath the Ruins (paid link), the first volume of the Psychedelic Fantasies series of modules.

Lately I’ve been reading OD&D and really digging it, so the idea of an OD&D megadungeon is right up my apple cart. The presentation is sparse, without read-aloud text, and short on background — basically my favorite approach across the board. More than enough to run with, but not so much that your creativity is stifled.

Some of my favorite bits from Kihago (spoilers abound, though I’ve tried to keep them fairly mild):

  • The Eye of the Immortal, a TV that occasionally plays episodes of Three’s Company. It’s held in high regard by one of the factions on the first level, the Luminites.
  • Yeast puddles which can infect careless PCs, turning them into yeast zombies if the infection isn’t dealt with.
  • A cloning chamber. You know what rules you need for a cloning chamber? Pretty much none, in my book, and that’s how it’s presented here. In one paragraph, you’ve got a dungeon- and campaign-changing room.
  • Nosferoggu (vampire frogs), flamingodiles (guess!), the drunk ghost of a psionic ninja — Kihago is packed with monsters like these. That kind of gonzo can be hard to pull off (try too hard and it feels forced, phone it in and it feels lifeless), but Kihago nails it.
  • Level four, a vast, wide-open cavern (with some distinct areas), is going to be a playground of interesting stuff by the time the PCs reach it. Kihago has factions and intelligent denizens, and a big, open area is rife with opportunities for luring tougher foes to their deaths, playing factions against each other, etc.
  • And oh, the factions! Level five has bidepal fly-people covered in shit vs. feral cat people. Level four features a savage tribe led by Mike Mickelson, KTLA sports anchor, who found himself (and his control room, which of course you can find) transported to Kihago and decided to make the best of it. And on and on — inventive, amusing, whimsical, but also meaty and rich with inspiration.
  • The wraiths on level 5 who want the head of the summoner on level 3, and will share a valuable secret if it’s delivered to them. Call-backs and intra-dungeon goals are awesome, and I love this one.
  • A closet which hides an energy nexus capable of recharging magic items. It’s hidden, but not impossibly so — a great balance for encouraging exploration.

I could go on — and on! — but hopefully you get the idea. Kihago is a fantastic megadungeon, and one I’d love to run as written. Grab the LBBs and go. (Or another flavor of D&D, but that’s the flavor that seems to dovetail best with how I see Kihago.)

Other highlights

Looking only at Kihago would be doing WMLP a disservice, because it’s not the only gold in them thar hills. Here are a few more highlights:

  • There’s the animator class (issue #1), who can draw stuff and then animate it; after a couple levels, that includes tattoos. The animator’s spell list is all stuff, like doors and animals and so forth. It’s a clever class.
  • Creating a Chimera,” from issue #5, is a page of tables for making patchwork hybrids. Like so: body of an anteater, two zebra heads, two pairs of lobster arms, the legs of a sloth, and it has a wasp stinger. Toss that into a random encounter and see what happens.
  • Need a weird character background? “Something rad!!!!!!![2] (issue #6) delivers: You’re a prolific sperm donor. Or maybe a refugee from the Peanut Butter Wars, or a slave to Lady Jessica. It does settings, too: This place is like medieval Persia, but with sixguns and wagons, and it’s got regicidal vampires.

Because I own it as a book, I look at WMLP as a book. That book, for me, is mainly about its stellar megadungeon — but like delicious gravy, I also get some other fun stuff alongside it. Wizards Mutants Laser Pistols is a great zine, and the compilation of issues 1-6 is easy to recommend.

[1] Confusingly, it’s sometimes referred to as “Wizards Mutants Lazer Pistols.”

[2] Yes, I counted the exclamation points. Such is my dedication to science!

Categories
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 (paid link) 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 (paid link):

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 (paid link) is fantastic. The quality of the B/X PDFs (paid link) 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 (paid link), 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.

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

B/X D&D vs. Labyrinth Lord treasure stocking

My head’s full of Labyrinth Lord at the moment (I’m working on a megadungeon), so I’m prodding the areas where divergence from B/X D&D (paid link) interest me in some way. So far I’ve looked at dungeon stocking, which is basically the same with a minor flavor difference, and dungeon doors, which aren’t the same at all.

In rereading the excellent post by Wayne Rossi that sent me down this path, Clones and Rules, Inside and Out, I noticed that Wayne called out “treasure stocking” as an interesting difference between OD&D (paid link) and its principal retroclone, Swords & Wizardry. Here are the two bits that grabbed me, with the middle snipped out for clarity:

Indeed, if you follow OD&D’s logic a bit further, treasure is based not on monster level but dungeon level, which is significant. […] But in S&W, gnolls should always be guarding CR-appropriate treasure, and therefore the reward is determined by monster level, not dungeon level. This pulls the game toward the modern “dungeon combat” genre.

I wondered whether or not B/X and LL differed in this area, so I took a look.

B/X D&D dungeon treasure

Here’s the Expert Set on treasure in dungeons, with the middle excised for clarity:

If random rolls are used, the table below lists treasure amounts found in unguarded rooms (those without a monster) on all dungeon levels. […] If a monster is present, use the Treasure Type listing (p. X43) for the monster to find the amount of treasure in the room.

Let’s poke that with an example, a level 1 dungeon:

  1. If the treasure is unguarded, roll for level 1 treasure
  2. If there’s a monster, use the monster entry instead

Since there are 2 HD monsters, which have treasure more generally associated with dungeon level 2, on the level 1 wandering monster table, that means those monsters likely have more rewarding treasure than an unguarded room.

Most monsters will be 1 HD, though, with treasure you’d expect for level 1, because most of the level 1 wandering monster table consists of 1 HD monsters.

Let’s see how LL handles this.

Labyrinth Lord dungeon treasure

Here’s LL on treasure, again with the part I’m not comparing snipped out:

When a monster result is obtained on the above table, the Labyrinth Lord must roll for a random monster appropriate for the labyrinth level. […] If treasure is present, the treasure will be determined based on the Treasure Hoard Class of the monster encountered, or from the Unprotected Treasure Table based on labyrinth level.

Sticking with the same level 1 dungeon example, that means:

  1. If the treasure is unguarded, roll for level 1 treasure
  2. If there’s a monster, use its entry OR roll for level 1 treasure

That leaves the choice to the GM: Make randomly rolled treasure appropriate to the dungeon level (by only using the Unprotected Treasure Table), or make some treasure — that which is held by 2 HD monsters — more appropriate to level 2. (Or a bit of both, I suppose.)

That first option sounds a lot like what Wayne noted about OD&D, so let’s take a quick side trip.

OD&D dungeon treasure

Book III, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures:

A roll of 1–3 in those rooms or spaces with monsters in them indicates some form of treasure is present. A roll of 1 in a room or space which is unoccupied indicates that there is some form of treasure there. […] To determine the kind of treasure use the following table[.]

Relative to our example, that’s:

  1. If the treasure is unguarded, roll for level 1 treasure
  2. If there’s a monster, roll for level 1 treasure

No matter what’s in the room, you get level 1 treasure. This is huge in OD&D because of how its wandering monster determination works — I’ll be looking at that in a future post. For now, what matters is that treasure is always dungeon-level appropriate.

Conclusions

B/X: If I’m exploring level 1 of a B/X dungeon and I bump into a 2 HD monster, there’s an incentive for me to try and take its treasure: There’s a decent chance this room has better treasure than the other rooms on level 1.

By extension, in B/X I know that trying to find unguarded treasure, which consumes resources (time, torches, wandering monster checks), is likely to be less rewarding than trying to take it from a 2 HD monster. Maybe over time that pushes me to focus more on taking those tougher-than-me monsters’ treasure, and less on trying to find unguarded treasure. Personally, I think that makes for an interesting choice: Do I take a greater risk in exchange for a greater reward, or risk less and get less?

LL: If I’m delving into level 1 of a Labyrinth Lord dungeon and I find a room with a 2 HD monster in it, I don’t know which option the DM has used. The monster might have the treasure listed in the bestiary, or it might be guarding the treasure listed in the Unprotected table. Maybe I can infer that since using the monster’s treasure is listed first in LL, it’s the default option — but only maybe.

In LL, it’s a crap shoot. I can’t assume a tougher-than-me monster will reward my efforts with better treasure. It’s probably safest to assume it won’t, which makes the dungeon more like OD&D.

OD&D: In OD&D, I know that 2 HD monster will have level 1 treasure. The incentive there is to avoid the monster at all costs, because the treasure’s no better than what I can find in an unguarded room. Over time, that may lead to more of an emphasis on exploration and monster-avoidance.

It’s a bit muddier than that analysis makes it seem, though.

Oh shit, a spider

Let’s use a 2 HD monster that appears on the level 1 wandering monster table in both B/X and LL: the giant crab spider. I’ll limit myself to B/X, since this post is already getting long.

  • In B/X, that spider has treasure type U. That’s a 10% chance of 1-100 cp, a 10% chance of 1-100 sp, a 5% chance of 1-100 gp, a 5% chance of 1-4 gems, and a 2% chance of 1 magic item.
  • Dungeon level 1 automatically gives me 1d6x100 sp, plus a 50% chance of 10-60 gp, a 5% chance of 1d6 gems, a 2% chance of 1d6 jewelry items, and a 2% chance of 1 magic item.

Statistically, that means:

  • If I try to steal that spider’s treasure (setting aside whether I do this by fighting it), it’s quite likely my reward will be…nothing.
  • Conversely, if I instead poke around in an unguarded room, I’m guaranteed to get at least 100 sp, and very likely (50%) to get at least 10 gp. My chances of getting anything else are about the same as they are with the spider.

Unless I happen to know that giant crab spiders have kind of shitty treasure, dealing with the spider isn’t a risk I’m likely to take more than once. Sure, I could get super-lucky — but I could also get super-lucky just poking around an empty room, and I’d run a lower risk of dying.

Moar conclusions

The way LL handles treasure clones B/X, which is LL’s goal, but it also changes the character of the dungeon. The simple-seeming addition of half a sentence — “…or from the Unprotected Treasure Table based on labyrinth level” — does have an impact on the overall flavor of an LL dungeon.

I’m not sure that it’s a significant impact, though. The water gets pretty muddy when you mix in the fact that not all monsters whose HD exceed the current dungeon level have better treasure than unguarded rooms, as well as the option to go the B/X route or the LL route — not to mention the vagaries of the dice.

To me, this difference feels less meaningful than the fact that LL dungeons don’t actively work against the PCs. It’s more of a difference in flavor, much like the increased chance of finding special/unique rooms.

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

B/X D&D vs. Labyrinth Lord dungeon doors

After comparing dungeon stocking in B/X D&D and Labyrinth Lord, I went hunting for a detailed list of differences between the two games. I couldn’t find one (still looking!), but I did come across a post about stuck dungeon doors by Peregrin on RPG.net noting that there might be a difference there. There is one, and it’s fascinating.

Why do stuck dungeon doors matter? It sounds like such a little thing, but it’s surprisingly significant. The nature of dungeon doors plays a big role in defining the character of the dungeon.

To get there, we first have to walk back the cat a little bit — specifically, all the way back to OD&D (paid link).

OD&D dungeon doors

Here’s what Book III says about doors:

Generally, doors will not open by turning the handle or by a push. Doors must be forced open by strength, a roll of a 1 or 2 indicating the door opens, although smaller and lighter characters may be required to roll a 1 to open doors. There can be up to three characters attempting to force open a door, but this will disallow them rapid reaction to anything awaiting them on the other side. Most doors will automatically close, despite the difficulty in opening them. Doors will automatically open for monsters, unless they are held shut against them by characters.

There are three cool things in that excerpt:

  1. Most dungeon doors are stuck
  2. PCs have to force them open, but monsters don’t
  3. Most doors automatically close behind the PCs

My favorite interpretation of why that might be comes from D&D blogger Philotomy, whose site has vanished from the web. Fortunately, “Philotomy’s Musings” have been preserved (in several formats). Hit that link and scroll down to “The Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld,” and you’ll find this theory:

Similarly, characters must force their way through doors and have difficulty keeping them open; however, these same doors automatically open for monsters. This is a clear example of how the normal rules do not apply to the underworld, and how the underworld, itself, works against the characters exploring it.

I love that! The dungeon itself is working against intruders. It’s a fun theory on its face, it explains a lot, and it highlights something compelling and quirky about OD&D.

Even if you don’t buy the “mythic underworld” concept, though, dungeons in OD&D do work differently for monsters than they do for PCs. With that in mind, let’s peek at the B/X D&D Basic Set (paid link).

B/X D&D dungeon doors

Here’s the B/X version:

Doors in a dungeon are usually closed, and are often stuck or locked. A lock must usually be picked by a thief. An unlocked door must be forced open to pass through it. To force open a door, roll Id6; a result of 1 or 2 (on Id6) means that the door is forced open. The roll should be adjusted by a character’s Strength score adjustment. The number needed to open a door can never be less than 1 nor greater than 1-5.

Once a door is opened, it will usually swing shut when released unless it is spiked or wedged open. Doors will usually open automatically for monsters, unless the door is held, spiked, or closed with magical spells.

The mechanics are a bit different, but it’s not the mechanics I’m interested in — it’s the “active dungeon” element. Most doors are stuck (or locked), stuck doors aren’t stuck for monsters, and they close automatically behind PCs. Like dungeons in OD&D, dungeons in B/X work against the PCs.

Ready for LL’s take?

Labyrinth Lord dungeon doors

Labyrinth Lord on dungeon doors:

Labyrinths often have many doors, some secret and others obvious. Many are locked, and a thief will need to attempt to pick locks. However, characters can attempt to break a door down. In this case, the player rolls 1d6. A result of 2 or less means the door has been broken down. Strength adjustments apply, but no matter what the adjustment there must always be a chance of success or failure. Bonuses cannot take the success range above 5 or below 1 on 1d6. For example, if a character has a STR of 15 he receives a +1 to open doors. He would instead need to roll 3 or less on 1d6 to succeed. A character with STR 5 has -2 to open doors, but since the odds cannot go below 1, if the player rolls a 1 on 1d6, he succeeds in breaking down the door.

Setting side the die rolls, which aren’t my focus, that’s quite different!

Stuck doors aren’t mentioned at all, and locked doors can only be broken down (rather than forced open). Also absent are doors that close automatically behind PCs, but not monsters — doors are just doors, and they work the same way for everyone.

Conclusions

Many small differences between B/X and Labyrinth Lord can be chalked up to maintaining a certain amount of “legal distance” from D&D, or to limitations based on what’s available in the SRD, or both. I’m not sure if this difference falls into that category, but I thought that looking at Swords & Wizardry (which emulates OD&D) might help.

S&W notes that “Stuck doors (and many doors in an ancient dungeon may be stuck closed) require a die roll on a d6 to force open.” That’s part of what OD&D says about stuck doors, but not all of it. It seems odd to me that the rest of OD&D’s rules for stuck doors would be off-limits legally, but I guess it’s not out of the question.

But whatever the reason, Labyrinth Lord dungeons don’t work against the PCs in the same way that B/X (and OD&D) dungeons do. A by-the-book Labyrinth Lord dungeon will have a different character than a B/X or OD&D dungeon, and it will play by the same rules for monsters and PCs.

The differences between B/X and LL dungeon stocking were pretty minor, the most notable being a slightly upped chance of a room being special/unique in LL. That gives LL dungeons a subtly different flavor than their B/X counterparts. The dungeon door difference feels more significant, and it surprised me.

Whether that’s a good, bad, or neutral thing comes down to personal preference, of course — and if you like the B/X approach, it’s just a house rule away.

Categories
D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Patrick Wetmore on keying megadungeon rooms

I love megadungeons. I’ve often thought it’d be fun to design one, but balked because I’m not sure I have the chops and because of the sheer size of the undertaking. The solution to the first part of that problem is to just try it, but what about the second, the fact that it’s a big project?

Cue Patrick Wetmore, who designed one of my all-time favorite megadungeons, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, on keying the first level of ASE:

So I’ve got 100 rooms to key for the dungeon. Following the distribution in the back of the Moldvay Basic rules, that breaks out as follows:

1/6 monster w/ treasure = 16-17 rooms
1/6 monster, no treasure = 16-17 rooms
1/18 trap with treasure = 5-6 rooms
1/9 trap, no treasure = 11 rooms
1/6 special = 16-17 rooms
1/18 unguarded treasure = 5-6 rooms
5/18 empty = 28 rooms

That’s 17 traps, and 17 specials. That’s where all the real work lies. Sticking a bunch of monsters in a room is easy, it’s the creative bits with traps and specials that’s hard.

And bam, just like that I realized I could design a megadungeon. I read that post yesterday, and I started designing one last night.

It’s that last part, about focusing on just a third of the rooms — the special, weird rooms — that clicked for me. Seeing the whole chart from the B/X Expert Set (paid link; my favorite version of D&D) broken out into rooms in need of keying helped, too. It’s a classic “eating the whole elephant” situation, and I’d never thought of it that way.