Old school Tabletop RPGs

An overlooked OSR gem: Lesserton and Mor

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

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

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

The hook

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

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

What’s inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome possum

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

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

DCC RPG Tabletop RPGs

DCC RPG: convention funnel edition

When I thought about what I wanted to be able to run on short notice at Go Play NW, if the opportunity arose, DCC RPG (paid link) was on the list — except I didn’t want to carry the whole rulebook.

Having already trimmed the rulebook down to 18 pages, I wondered if I could go even lighter by printing out a version that only includes the rules I needed to run a funnel. There’s stuff in the “core 18” pages that doesn’t apply to funnels, but for a pickup game with strangers I’d also want a few other things included. Here’s what I came up with.

Funnel packet

So what’s in the pile? Seven things (starting in the bottom left in the photo, and working deeper into the pile):

  1. A stack of pregenerated peasants, produced using Purple Sorcerer’s o-level party generator[1] and then cut out, so that we could draw randomly for everyone’s PCs (which feels appropriately DCC).
  2. The 12-page convention funnel edition of the DCC rules, which is only the stuff you need to run pregenerated peasants, and nothing else. Setting aside the cover pages (use whatever you like), and using the printed page numbers from the 4th printing (not the numbers my PDF reader assigns), that’s:
    • Skill checks, pp.66-67
    • Equipment and related rules, pp.70-73
    • Combat, pp.76-82
    • Damage, healing, and other misc. rules, pp.93-96
  3. The Portal Under the Stars, a fantastic funnel, printed straight from the core rulebook (pp.452-456); ideal for a short session.
  4. A second funnel option, Sailors on the Starless Sea (paid link), which I haven’t run before but have heard only good things about; ideal for a longer session, at least four hours.
  5. A character creation packet, pp.18-24,[2] in case we decided to make characters. I wanted to have that option, because making funnel PCs is fun.
  6. Extra copies of the occupation tables, pp.22-23, because experience has taught me that having more than one of these available is a big timesaver.
  7. A few blank “four-up” 0-level PC sheets, also from Purple Sorcerer, which are hiding at the very bottom.

The whole idea is to reduce size and handling time. If I was less concerned about carrying stuff, I’d have stuck the pages in a binder; keeping them as little packets made them smaller. Making packets also helps with handling time: Not creating PCs? Set that packet aside, and now I don’t have to flip past those pages to look up rules I actually need.

I didn’t wind up running DCC at the con — my lone pickup session was of another game I’d brought, The Quiet Year (paid link; one of my favorite RPGs). But the next time I need my “convention edition,” it’ll already be there in a tidy little stack, just waiting to mangle some peasants.

[1] With the option to only show Luck modifiers if they matter turned on, because those are just noise to first-time players.

[2] This could easily be included in the main packet, and it does contain rules that aren’t unique to character creation — stuff about saving throws, etc. I’ve run enough DCC that I don’t need these basics handy.

D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Exemplars & Eidolons: an OSR Swiss Army Knife

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

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

The tacky gold stripe edition

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

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

The larch

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

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

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

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

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

Under the hood

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

(Illustration by Joyce Maureira)

Here are my favorite elements (so far):

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

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

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

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

[2] Because it’s fucking work.

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

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

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

It’s a flavorful delight.

Rules needn’t be dull

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

By way of example

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

The introduction:

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

From the write-up on dwarves:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

The case of the colorful ogre

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

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

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

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

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

Goblins is yeller

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

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

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

Where did the colorful ogre come from?

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


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

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

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

Nope again. How about Holmes Basic?

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

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

Okay, what about Moldvay Basic (paid link)?

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the ogre from the MM:

Seems like a solid theory to me!

Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

The Lulu coupon code that keeps on giving

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

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

Make with the coupon already

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

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

What should I buy?

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

When does it expire?

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

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

D&D Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

Jason Pitre’s RPG design worksheet

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

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

Here’s Jason on the underlying premise:

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

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

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

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

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

D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Planescape makes a hell of a first impression

My copy of the Planescape Campaign Setting (paid link) arrived this past weekend, and I had a chance to spend some time looking through it. My first impression is that Planescape packs a punch.

What’s inside?

The guts are classic 1990s TSR: four saddle-stitched books, four poster maps/thingies, and — somewhat unusually — a GM’s screen.

The books are A Player’s Guide to the Planes, which is actually the introduction to to the setting for players and GMs; A DM Guide to the Planes, which is what it says on the tin; Sigil and Beyond, which is the introductory book writ large and aimed at GMs; and Monstrous Supplement, which covers iconic planar critters.

I love this approach. At 32 pages, the intro guide isn’t a burden — and it’s a great introduction to what makes the setting tick. (Birthright [paid link], another of my favorite TSR settings, takes this a step further: There’s a player-facing booklet for every major kingdom. You rule Medoere? Here’s the Medoere book. It’s marvelous.)

The other books are just as good, but do different things. I haven’t read much of them yet.

DiTerlizzi and Cook

Planescape has one designer, David Cook, and one interior artist, Tony DiTerlizzi. DiTerlizzi’s art is lovely and distinctive, and conveys the tone of the setting like no one else could. No surprise from the designer of the Basic D&D Expert Set (paid link; half of one of my favorite editions of D&D), Cook’s writing is clear, direct, and also fantastic at conveying tone.

One interior illustrator, one designer. Talk about unity of vision and purpose! And it shows. Planescape feels like one of those movies where you just can’t imagine anyone else in Role X: I get the strong impression Planescape without this specific creative team wouldn’t work nearly as well.

Here’s a taste of Tony:

And some Cook, clear and useful as ever:

It all comes together in a layout that’s both spare and evocative. When you have a great designer and illustrator on tap, layout needs to support without overshadowing. Dee Barnett and and Dawn Murin do standout work in this department:

There’s the love-it-or-hate-it planar cant to contend with, yes, but so far that’s not bothering me at all. I’m enjoying reading these books.

Sigil. Oh man, Sigil.

Sigil is awesome! It’s a big part of what attracted me to this setting.

From Sigil and Beyond:

Imagine a tire — no hubcap or wheel rim — lying on its side. Sigil would be built on the inside of the tire. All the streets and buildings would fill the curved interior. Meanwhile, on the outside, there’s nothing, see?

And that city-filled tire? It hovers above the top of an infinitely tall spire at the center of the Outlands, and the only way in or out is through portals — magical doorways to other planes, worlds, and everything in between.

From what I’ve seen of it so far, Sigil is one of the coolest fantasy cities ever created.

Planescape says nein

I’ve been thinking about running Planescape as a gold-for-XP sandbox, which I knew ran a bit counter to its nature. That’s part of the appeal.

So one of the first sections I flipped to was “What’s the Point?” in Sigil and Beyond, which covers campaign themes and goals. I can’t recall another example of a gaming book saying “Don’t do that” to the exact idea I had in mind:

Part of me bristles, part of me agrees, and the rest of me is still turning Planescape over and seeing what clicks.

I see Cook’s point. I’ve heard Planescape described as TSR’s answer to their biggest rival in the 1990s, White Wolf, and the glove pretty much fits: evocative, boundary-pushing setting; factions that disagree about the nature of reality, and to which every PC likely belongs; intraparty conflict; marvelous artwork used well; etc. In that light, I’m not sure a gold-for-XP would work.

But a different sort of sandbox? Absolutely. Sigil is made for sandbox play. Everything I’ve read about it so far screams SANDBOX ME.

Whatever I wind up doing with it, Planescape (paid link) is shaping up to be one of my favorite TSR settings. I see what all the fuss is about, and I dig it.

D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Raiding the larder for Planescape sandbox ingredients

I’ve been noodling some more about running Planescape as a sandbox, and since my copy of the boxed set isn’t here yet I decided to pull stuff off my shelves that seemed like it might be a good fit.

Important safety tip, Egon

This is dangerous! This is how ideas collapse under their own weight! But I only have two speeds, OFF and TURBO ZOOM, so I can’t not think about it.

I’m not reading, or rereading, these before I dig into the Planescape core set (paid link), and if you’re thinking about running a PS sandbox I’m not suggesting that you do, either. But these are Cool Things, and they’re shaping my thinking, so here we are.

Calgon, take me away!

The stuff in that photo falls into two categories: things that seem like a good fit for a Planescape sandbox, and things I’ve used to good effect while co-GMing a Dresden Files sandbox with no session prep. Here they are in alphabetical order:

  • The Dresden Files RPG, Volume 1: Our Story (paid link): The city creation system in DFRPG is stellar, and while Sigil already exists and doesn’t need to be created, Dresden’s toolkit still sounds like a good match. It involves identifying themes, threats, locations, and faces (key NPCs), and then — and this is important! — using those ingredients before creating others. That’s awesome for sandbox play.
  • Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (paid link): I wrote about why Marlinko is awesome here on Yore, but the bits I’m thinking might mesh well with Sigil are the carousing rules and the Chaos Index. The latter is a simple way to track how the stuff the PCs and others are doing affects how weird the city of Marlinko is, which — based on my half-baked, haven’t-read-the-books-yet understanding of Sigil — sounds like it’d play nice with Planescape.
  • Fire on the Velvet Horizon (paid link): I really need to write about this monster book here sometime, but in brief it’s 1) weird as hell, 2) amazing, 3) strange in ways that make me think of Planescape. I like monsters that confound my players’ expectations, and that’s this book in a nutshell.
  • The Harrow Deck (paid link): This is basically a reskinned Tarot deck for Pathfinder, and it’s awesome for improv GMing. I draw a spread of cards, usually three, and either use them to come up with something specific or just keep them in front of me for those moments where I go “Uuuuuuuhhhhhhh what the fuck is going to happen now?” They go really well with the Story Cubes (below).
  • Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, issue #3 (paid link): Another thing I’ve written about here, but in this case just one thing from one issue: “The Heist.” PCs are always stealing shit, or hoping someone will pay them to steal shit, and this heist adventure toolkit is fantastic for dealing with that on the fly. It includes patrons, marks, heat, and loot, and rolling up a heist is stupidly easy. In a city full of factions, it seems like a good fit.
  • Planarch Codex: Dark Heart of the Dreamer: This tiny book is more or less solely responsible for making me wonder whether Dungeon World (paid link) might not be a better option for the style of game I have in mind. Either way, though, it includes a system-neutral job generator for planar freebooters which, like the Ur-Hadad heist generator, looks like it’d drop seamlessly into Sigil.
  • Red Tide (paid link): I own most (all?) of Kevin Crawford’s books, but Red Tide remains my favorite. It includes great systems for generating locations and other sandbox elements, it’s excellent imagination fuel, and the output is lean and mean — it makes stuff that’s actually useful in play. There’s nothing Planescape-y about it, but the guts line up pretty well.
  • Rory’s Story Cubes (paid link): I have umpty-doodle sets of these, and I love them. I use them when I’m winging things, and in Dresden they paired well with the Harrow Deck. I grab a random handful whenever I need to make or decide something I hadn’t thought about before, like NPCs in whom my players take a sudden interest. Not all the sets are perfect for this, but most of them are.

I’m probably forgetting a bunch of other stuff I shouldn’t be forgetting, but that’s what’s rattling around in my brain at the moment.

D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Planescape as a sandbox

Planescape (paid link) was one of the AD&D 2nd Edition campaign settings that passed me by while it was still in print, but I’ve been curious about it for years. I was thinking about it yesterday when an idea hit me: What would Planescape be like as an old-school, gold-for-XP sandbox?

Since I don’t own it and the core set tends to be pricey in print, I asked two questions about it on Google+: What’s the minimum you need to run it well, and would it work as that sort of sandbox? I got some great responses. Many thanks to everyone who weighed in!

What do I need?

“Just the core box” got some love, which appeals to me. I like improv, and these days the less I have to read to enjoy a game, the better.

Allen Varney suggested the core box plus three specific books: The Factol’s Manifesto, In the Cage, and the first Monstrous Compendium Appendix. In the Cage (paid link) expands on Sigil, the centerpiece city of the setting, and The Factol’s Manifesto (paid link) expands on Sigil’s factions, both of which make for great sandbox components.

I have plenty of planar monsters in other books, so I might skip the MC, but the core box plus two books sounds like a great starting point.

Would it work?

I didn’t get as much consensus around this question, but something along the lines of “Probably, but systems other than D&D might be a better fit depending on what you want to do with it” came pretty close. That’s good enough for me!

Rob Donoghue absolutely nailed what appealed to me about the original idea, though — using old-school D&D, probably OD&D (paid link) or B/X (paid link), precisely because “gold for XP + weird planar sandbox” seems like an odd match. Rob said:

But for all that, there is a magic to doing it with D&D, explicitly because of the tension between the very clear logic of the game and the very much bigger logic of the reality of the planes.

Since power and glory come from leveling up, and leveling up requires treasure to be taken from someplace dangerous and returned to civilization to earn XP (plus a bit of “gravy XP” from dealing with monsters, of course), how do you claim that gold in Planescape?

I find that question deeply appealing. It sounds like it’d be fun to answer through play, and I suspect every group of players would approach it quite differently.

Sigil and portal keys

A big, strange city full of factions is fertile ground for a sandbox, and Sigil sounds like one of the coolest cities ever put into a campaign setting. I was one of four GMs in a city-based, round-robin Dresden Files sandbox campaign that remains one of my all-time favorite games, and our Dresdenverse Boston was a big, weird city full of factions; I know how well that setup works.

Jürgen Hubert also made Sigil sound even cooler when he brought up portal keys[1], which seem like they’d be a currency all their own in a Planescape sandbox:

As for sandbox campaigns, the key way of controlling it is to limit the portal keys the PCs have access to. And you will have to limit the keys, or else the PCs can go anywhere at all in the multiverse. Which might be great for those who can run prepless games, but I like to be prepared, personally.

With a fantastic central city, endlessly rich in adventure opportunities, plus the added special sauce of wanting/needing to acquire portal keys (to seek out treasure, to broker for information, or for a thousand other reasons), basing a Planescape sandbox in Sigil seems like a natural fit. I don’t do session prep, so that’s a good fit for me as well.


In poking around the web, I also turned up Running a Planescape Campaign, which has some interesting ideas in it, and Planescape’s Missing Megadungeon, which proposes a tantalizing option.

“Loosey-goosey planar D&D,” which is kind of what’s grabbing me here, also made me think of FLAILSNAILS. I’ve never run or played in a FLAILSNAILS game, but the basic idea — throw together PCs from a variety of roughly D&D-compatible systems for a night of adventure — seems like it’d apply well to Planescape.

For the moment, that’s where my head’s at with the idea of Planescape sandbox: use 0e or B/X D&D, stick to the core set plus maybe another book or two, base things in Sigil, and see what happens. I lucked into a print copy of the boxed set, so once it arrives I’ll be able to bounce those ingredients off the setting and see if it still sounds as appealing as it does right now.

[1] He also brought up lots of other stuff, and even started an thread to talk about some of it. Like many of the folks who commented on G+, he’s got great ideas about how to run Planescape.