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.

Old school Tabletop RPGs Zines

Zine roundup: The Excellent Travelling Volume, issues 1-4

The Excellent Travelling Volume is a print-only Tékumel fanzine by James Maliszewski, offering up a host of content for Empire of the Petal Throne.

James’ work tends to be polished and thoughtfully considered, and that’s a big part of what I like about it. I wanted to see how that translated into a zine, and I’m always curious about Empire of the Petal Throne, so I took the plunge.[1] What’s between each issue’s covers is polished, thoughtfully considered support material for Empire of the Petal Throne.


TETV is a licensed Tékumel product, and James is clearly a fan of M.A.R. Barker and his work — plus, he’s running an EPT campaign as he produces this zine. All of that comes together to make a nifty resource.

Here’s my favorite thing from each issue:

  • Issue 1: This issue lays the foundation for what’s to come, much like the first issue of Wormskin, so it’s full of stuff a new EPT GM might need — often accompanied by observations about EPT and Tékumel. My favorite is Magical Devices, a regular column full of new magic items. The accompanying note points out that magic items in EPT are meant to be unique (with rare exceptions), and once discovered shouldn’t be available for future random treasure rolls. Cue the ongoing need for more magic items, like the six on offer here. The Aeonian Donjon of Nrashkéme imprisons anyone who touches it just so in another dimension, while the Mace of Vanquishing the Less-Than-Men has a chance to disintegrate nonhumans when it strikes them. I love flavorful magic items, and these are great.
  • Issue 2: By default, EPT assumes new PCs are strangers in a strange land (abrogating the need for players to learn the setting material, and preserving the joy of exploration), and they need someplace to start out, The city of Sokátis (beautifully mapped below) is just the ticket. This piece covers its factions, just enough backstory to be interesting, a chunk of its underworld, and a list of notable locations. It’s plenty to get things rolling, and later issues include more.
  • Issue 3: I love monsters and devil’s choices, so when the two combine my ears perk up. One of the demons in Demons of Ksárul and Grugáru, the Llyanmákchi (shown below), does just that: Make her an offering of childrens’ hands and feet, and she can be summoned to perform tasks — like teaching a PC skills or spells, or forming up a mob of lesser demons for sinister purposes. Sweet.
  • Issue 4: Another regular column, Patrons, provides more — and more fully fleshed-out — patrons for starting Tékumel PCs. These NPCs want things, they have means of rewarding PCs who help them, and they have connections to the setting. On top of that, each one includes four ways to use them, making them easy to fold into a game. I like pregenerated NPCs like this (obviously!), and like everything in TETV they also meet a specific EPT need.

If you’re reading this and wondering how much TETV material might be useful in your non-EPT game, I’d say 60%-75% of each issue is broadly compatible with all flavors of old-school D&D. But where 100% of it will shine is in an EPT campaign.

Fantastic artwork

James’ writing is accompanied by some truly stellar artwork. TETV is lighter on artwork than most of the other zines I’ve looked at recently, but it uses its art budget well.

(Jason Sholtis)

(Victor Raymond)

(I can’t figure out who did this one)

The Excellent Travelling Volume is a neat zine, different in tone than any of the others I’ve been reading. It further piques my interest in running an EPT game, something I’ve been meaning to do for years, and I like knowing that practical, immediately useful support material from James’ ongoing campaign is readily available.

If you’re in the market for a different sort of OSR zine, or of course if you’re running an EPT campaign, take a peek at The Excellent Travelling Volume.

[1] As I write this, issue 5 has just come out. I could have waited for it before writing this post, but that way lies madness!

D&D OD&D Tabletop RPGs

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

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

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

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

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

OD&D: Dice for Accumulative Hits

Here’s OD&D on rolling hit points:

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

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

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

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

Consider this: Which of these is correct?

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

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

EPT: Hit Dice

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

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

And, later in that same section:

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

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

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

But what did Gary and Dave actually do?

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

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

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

c. 1972

Not sure how Dave did it.

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

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

Everyone I know of kept hit points as rolled.

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

Drop some math

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

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

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

Fascinating! My gut is apparently totally off.

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

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

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