Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

M.A.R. Barker sometimes ran Tekumel games with just a d100 roll

Thanks to a G+ share, I found myself checking out a 2010 post on Hill Cantons about one of the ways that M.A.R. Barker ran his Tekumel campaign: M.A.R. Barker on Rules Lite.

The post is primarily a quote, so I won’t repost the whole thing here. Instead, here’s the business end, an excerpt of the excerpt[1]:

As my old friend, Dave Arneson, and I agreed, one simple die roll is all that one needs: failure or success. […] A low score on a D100 roll denotes success; a high score signifies failure. A middling score results in no effect, or an event that is inconclusive.

This quote comes from a Runequest-Con program book, long out of print. (Chris teased a follow-up, which appeared the next day; it’s also quite interesting: Empire of the Petal Throne, the “Gamist” Early Years.)

All you need is love (and percentile dice)

But I just want to zoom in on M.A.R. Barker’s system from the quote above — a system apparently also enjoyed, at least in a broadly similar form, by Dave Arneson. A system lighter than just about anything short of pure let’s-pretend — for crying out loud, it’s lighter than Risus (which I love), and Risus fits on a single sheet of paper.

What’s there is one die roll, and rough metric for success and failure. There’s no implied character differentiation, although another sentence or two could easily bake that in. There are no rules for doing specific things, and no real assumptions baked into the mechanics — other than that success or failure actually matter.

Because there is a die roll, and M.A.R. Barker also notes that “The players don’t really care, as long as the roll is honest.” A simple roll with a meaningful outcome is a super-distilled, narrative approach, and a fascinating one.

For years I’ve held that story games and old-school games have more in common than not. “Make one die roll, and then figure out what happens narratively” could just as easily describe the core mechanic of an indie RPG — and hey, in the mid-1970s, they were all indie RPGs.

I’ve played a small number of games with nearly this little in the way of mechanics, but I can’t recall ever playing one that combined such a simple system with old-school fantasy gaming. It sounds like a fun combination.

[1] Do you want inceptions? Because excerpting an excerpt is how you get inceptions.

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 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.

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, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and the Hill Cantons Compendium. (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.

Old school Tabletop RPGs

Hill Cantons and Building Dynamic Sandboxes

Chris Kutalik has been running his marvelous-sounding Hill Cantons campaign for seven years, and blogging — with clarity and vigor — about his experiences along the way. I love reading about sandbox and hexcrawl games, and Chris knows his stuff. (He’s also published several books, three of which — Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and Hill Cantons Compendium II — are currently winging their way to me.)

His series on dynamic sandboxes is a fantastic read:

  1. Building Dynamic Sandboxes Part I
  2. Building Dynamic Sandboxes Part II
  3. Building Dynamic Sandboxes Part III

Here’s the core premise, from the first post in the series:

Often providing dynamism is just a matter of thinking through after a session ends how the various pieces of your sandbox (the machinations/reactions of NPCs high and low, what an in-game activity like a massive treasure haul did to change a base settlement, etc) are organically pushed and pulled by players (and other actors), but it helps immensely to develop a range of tools and habits to give it depth and consistent motion.

Also from the first post, this gem is half of Chris’ technique for making wandering encounter tables (already a fantastic piece of worldbuilding tech) more dynamic:

Adding a variable New Developments slot that is basically a place holder for a special encounter tied to either a recent news event or an action that the party takes. A concrete example is that there has been a recent invasion by horse-nomads (kozaks) just to the north. If that slot is hit on the chart the party will hit something that has to do with event, maybe it’s a patrol by the local militia, foraging stragglers from the horde, deserters etc.

If that sounds like your jam, check out the whole series. They’re quick reads, but dense with inspiration and ideas.