Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

An overlooked OSR gem: Lesserton and Mor

Lesserton and Mor, 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 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, 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, which is a shame — it’s a true gem of a setting. I rate it a 10/10, and heartily recommend it.

Categories
Books Tabletop RPGs

Steam locomotives powered by burning mummies

My kiddo checked Claire Llewellyn’s The Big Book of Mummies (paid link) out of the library this week, and we’ve been reading it at bedtime.

Apart from being interesting in its own right, I was thrilled to find that it contained four fantastically gameable ideas — beyond the obvious, that is (mummies are cool, pyramids were full of traps, etc.).

Breeding animals to mummify

Ancient Egyptians mummified a shitload of animals:

Sacred animals were mummified on an almost unimaginable scale; in fact, some were bred specifically for mummification. Thousands upon thousands of corpses […] were buried in special animal cemeteries, located in sacred sites. […] A single cemetery in Egypt was found to contain more than a million embalmed ibises (birds), each in its individual pot.

My mind fixated first on “bred specifically for mummification,” which is creepy in a very Antiviral sort of way, and second on those million ibises.

Can you imagine a cemetery with a million bird-graves? What would happen if something brought them all back to life? What might it mean if they all went missing?

The Valley of the Golden Mummies

Indiana Jones and the Valley of the Golden Mummies:

Early investigation suggests the cemetery holds up to 10,000 mummies, many of them covered with golden masks. […] These mummies have lain untouched for over 2,000 years.

I know what the average party of murderhoboes would do with that information[1], and as a GM I think Barrowmaze would be the tip of the iceberg in terms of what horrors might await them there.

The walls have mummies

Catacombs are creepy enough, but bodies and bones stacked in little niches have nothing on this:

(Photo by Christopher Cormack)

What’s going on in that photo? This:

Underneath a church in Palermo, Sicily, is an underground cemetery containing about 6,000 mummies. The cemetery is a catacomb — a series of passages that are not only stacked with coffins and tombs, but where mummies hang from the walls.

Generations of monks have been interred there, along with doctors, lawyers, and other folks who were jazzed about getting preserved, dressed in their finest, and hung from the walls — and people used to bring their kids down there for picnics. Love it!

Mummy-powered locomotives

There’s a whole campaign in these two sentences:

During the 19th Century, the great stock of mummies in Egypt was used for fuel for the steam boilers of railway engines on the Cairo-Khartoum line! The ancient resins used as a coating on the mummies meant they burned extremely well.

What if mummies were the only thing that could power steam engines — the infrastructure of the world’s commerce? And what if they were running out?

Alternately, isn’t “You’re aboard a train that runs on mummies . . .” a delightful opener for a Call of Cthulhu (paid link) scenario?

Update: Over on G+. Jeff Sparks noted that mummy-powered trains were apparently not a real thing, dating back to Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. He also noted, and I completely agree, that this in no way diminishes its appeal as a plot hook. Thanks, Jeff!

I’m sure there are bigger, better books about mummies out there with even more juicy, gameable stuff in them, but I was excited to turn up four complete surprises in The Big Book of Mummies (paid link).

[1] Set phasers to “loot.”

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

Doodle Temple and Gormand’s Larder: illustrated DIY dungeon generators

Doodle Temple and Gormand’s Larder, both illustrated by Cédric Plante, are two of the coolest gaming books I’ve bought in recent memory.

They’re both dungeon generators, but instead of random tables, they consist entirely of Cédric’s beautiful illustrations. And they’re weird. I love weird! Mundane dungeons are boring, and neither of these books will turn out a mundane dungeon.

Doodle Temple is for making a peculiar temple, while Larder covers a small dungeon/lair. There are no stats or rules, just pictures of what to roll and indicators for what die roll produces what result. Totally system-neutral.

But oh, those pictures! They’re creepy, esoteric, graceful, twisty, sometimes quite dark, and above all they’re imaginative. I can’t flip through these books without thinking about what they might mean in-game, and how my players might react to them.

They’d work well in just about any old-school fantasy campaign, and probably in other genres, too — there’s nothing about the temple, for example, that wouldn’t fit right into a sci-fi game. Fantasy-wise, they’d be a perfect fit for a darker setting, which I wouldn’t have guessed beforehand.

Doodle Temple

(I didn’t have great light for these photos, so please ascribe any oddities to me, not Cédric.)

Doodle Temple opens with rooms and dungeon dressing (larger version):

What do the doors and windows look like?

And what lives there?

This is my favorite creature in the book, but it was by no means easy to choose just one. The temple denizens are all equally strange and wonderful.

Gormand’s Larder

The Larder is in black and white, and ups the creepy factor quite a bit. Here’s the foyer and its potential denizens and dungeon dressing (larger version):

You don’t need a written room description — it’s all there, clear and detailed, including the contents of the chamber.

What happens when you eat that weird thing in the recipe room? Why, this, of course!

This dude hangs out in the meat zoo. The meat zoo. I’m going to have weird dreams about this room.

On the whole, Larder feels more distilled. It’s denser with ideas, and the skin-crawl factor appeals to me, as does its strong sense of place. Doodle Temple is more loosely themed, and instead of lots of small pictures, you get fewer illustrations, but they’re larger and in color.

For Doodle Temple, Cédric collaborated with Benjamin Baugh, Ian Reilly, and Edward Lockhart; for Larder, Baugh was his sole co-contributor. Hats off to all of these folks, especially Cédric, for coming up with such a nifty idea and executing it so well.

If I had to pick just one, it’d be Larder, but I’m glad I don’t have to pick just one. Gormand’s Larder and Doodle Temple both get starred entries on my big list of Lulu RPG recommendations. I highly recommend them both!

Categories
D&D OD&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

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

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

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

OD&D vs. Delving Deeper

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

Here are the odds in OD&D:

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

Here are the odds for dungeon stocking in DD:

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

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

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

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

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

The reasonable one

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

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

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

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

The Strategic Review

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

Update from Simon Bull

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Simon!

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

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

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 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, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, 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, 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, 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 Book III:

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

OD&D wandering monsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

B/X wandering monsters

In B/X, things are a bit different:

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

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

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

But wait, there’s more

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

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

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

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

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

A wild aside appears!

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

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

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

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

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 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 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.

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.

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.