Creating a Scarlet Hero

WuYongI started a new solo play “campaign” using Scarlet Heroes, this time sticking in the Red Tide campaign setting instead of using the adventure to build out a new city. This urban campaign will chronicle the rise to power of a Machiavellian wizard, the Imperial Ye Xue. I’ve already run his first adventure and will post it once I have straightened out the narrative a bit more.

Character Sheet


  • STR 8 (-1)
  • CON 10 (0)
  • DEX 8 (-1)
  • INT 16 (+2)
  • WIS 12 (0)
  • CHA 12 (0)


  • HP 4
  • AC 9
  • Atk +0
  • Fray 1d4 (any opponent)


Scribe (background), Long-distance runner, Knows a city magistrate, Strikingly attractive, Has far-flung family


Amber Cloud of Somnolence (sleep), The Daifu’s Bright Mantle (appearance), Lens of the Enlightened Scribe (read languages), Painted Vermilion Eyes (charm)

Coin: 93 gp
Equipment: Ornamental dagger (1d4), Scribe’s tools, Fine clothing.


Goal: Achieve Daifu status

IC: Xue comes from a merchant family and learned the trade of the scribe at an Imperial school. However, his teachers recognized his gift for geomancy and so he received additional training in magic. Xue’s family has never quite managed to achieve the level of commercial success they sought, and thus he has decided to seek his own fortune in the great city of Xian.

OOC: The trait “Long-distance runner” came up randomly, and when I re-rolled it, the dice insisted. So I figured I would go with it and see where it might make sense, but for now it just informs my sense of his build and physical carriage. I also decided to keep his Constitution at 10 but Strength at 8. He’s wiry and has good conditioning. Knowing a city magistrate will almost certainly come in handy. Mages don’t really need to buy much – they can’t wear armor and don’t need much of a weapon. I intend to run an urban adventure (at least at first), so he doesn’t need a lot of gear. Better save that gold for a time when he might actually need it (spoiler alert: good choice!).



Catacombs of the Shield Queen

s-l300.jpgThe Shield Queen ruled benevolently over her realm for years, served by her faithful shield maidens. During that time, the land experienced peace & prosperity. Justice extended from the highest courtier to the lowliest servant. But the official records show that an attempted palace coup by a vassal knight led to her death. The squabbling over her legacy brought an end to the golden age.

Catacombs of the Shield Queen is a dungeon I’ve used a bit in home play, so I thought I’d throw it out there for anyone else to hack on and use for their own campaigns. The map comes from Dyson based on the Dungeon Architect Cards. I used monsters from the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book, all of which can be found on That means it should work with just about any older version of D&D, and probably with 5e if you squint a little bit.

Have fun with it and let me know what you think!

Goblin Gully at TheLab

So I ran a game at a makerspace in Plano, Texas, not too far from my home. Despite my nervousness, it went pretty well. A few people had already played lots of D&D – one showed up with his original stuff including goldenrod character sheets! – which made me even more nervous.

When we finally got started, about half the group had at least some D&D experience (ranging from 1e to 5e) and the other half had never played at all before. We went through character generation, which actually took longer than I expected, but I super-simplified equipment choices. Pick an armor set, pick a weapon or two, let’s go. (Yes, I knew this would eliminate much of the resource management but I could see the newer players were already overwhelmed and some of the experienced players were confused that this wasn’t exactly what they already knew.)

goblin-gully.pngI used Dyson’s Goblin Gully to get things started. As I expected, even a small dungeon like this took plenty of time. We played for about 2.5 to 3 hours, and having 6 players made things take a while as they got stuck trying to make a decision at a few points. Highlights included:

  • A fighter having a crisis of conscience as soon as a goblin begged for his life. “Why are we even invading their home and taking their stuff?” “THAT’S WHAT WE DO!”
  • Burning goblin corpses and kicking them down stairs to check for traps.
  • The magic-user blowing into the vocal cords of a decapitated goblin head as sort of a “goblin call”.
  • The thief dousing himself in goblin feces to cover his scent.
  • Engineering a revolution among the goblin inhabitants so that the new boss would be agreeable to their plan.
  • Half the group insisting on trying to find a way to defeat the flesh mass (black pudding) before giving up. Sadly, they did in fact give up before they took any real casualties.

I loved when some of the players talked about how much more they liked playing without miniatures and stacks of rule books. (One player kept calling for “arcane checks” and “morale checks” and “called shots”. He did not seem to understand the freewheeling nature of this type of play.) The only things we had were my S&W Core rulebook and the monster book, plus my Chromebook. They’ve already started talking about when to play again!

Play options in 2016

isue5full.jpgI didn’t actually play much D&D during most of 2015 for various reasons. This year, I want to do a lot more of that. So I started thinking about how I can do that in ways that work for my life: father of older children, a relatively demanding job with intermittent travel, social anxiety that sometimes keeps me from wanting to go play at a FLGS, etc etc.

Family home game

Most of my 2015 gaming fell into this category: D&D with kids. This sort of play works best when kept light, like for an occasional “family game night” or when the kids ask to spend a Saturday afternoon rolling dice. However, I would like to make it slightly more regular so that it doesn’t get lost so easily in the shuffle of everything else. We currently use Swords & Wizardry for simplicity and I think we’ll stay with that for a while.

Some family members have asked about joining the game, including those who don’t live nearby. I have started to consider a mixture of in-person players and one or two people participating via video chat, like Google Hangouts from a Chromebook sitting at the table.


This coming Saturday (January 23, 2016, for time travelers reading this from the future), I will be running a one-shot at in Plano, Texas, for some friends. We had intended to play a couple of weeks before but illness kept me home. While this will start as a one-shot dungeon run, I have hopes it could turn into more. A lot depends on the players, of course. They include experienced players and total newcomers. If all goes well, we could turn it into a semi-open game running more regularly. Since it’s at a makerspace, that presents fun possibilities for props and stuff that I don’t get to do at home or online.


I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Roll20. Over the last year and a half, I have learned some lessons about playing on a VTT. Voice chat is hard for me because of the interruptions at home, otherwise I have to wait until the kids go to bed. I have not yet tried a text-only game on Roll20, but years of experience roleplaying in Star Wars Galaxies and other MMORPGs has prepared me well for it (I hope).

If I can make this work again, then three possibilities come to mind. First, a megadungeon lends itself to the mapping capabilities. I would probably do this via an open table approach since the site has tens of thousands of players. (The clamoring for spots in a 5E game gets out of control sometimes.) Alternately, I could focus on the text chat capabilities and run an urban campaign focused on intrigue, social interaction, diplomacy, espionage… And finally, I have a number of friends who don’t live near me but would like to play. This is the closest to using Roll20 in the stead of a traditional game, but that carries the traditional headaches of scheduling and whatnot. I have to think hard about that one.

Play by post

Text chat also means thinking about play by post. Of course, Roll20 could support this style (private forums for each campaign, character sheets), but other platforms do so in a more integrated fashion. Campaigns that de-emphasize combat and “adventuring” in favor of heavy RP, such as the above-mentioned urban campaign, fit this style much better, I think.

Musing on the implications of the D&D 5e SRD

Little Dorrit, Musing and dreaming, by PhizThe main reason I stopped playing D&D Fifth Edition was that it read too much like a set of software requirements (use cases). 5e writes everything out in expansive detail, rather than in a concise “Strunk & White-esque” manner.

This drove me back to simpler rule sets like Swords & Wizardry and even Microlite20 or Searchers of the Unknown. For some purposes (e.g. playing with my kids), those still make the most sense. I need the ability to riff on what my players do as quickly as they  do it. Otherwise, their interest starts to wane and they want to go watch anime or play Minecraft or something.

But the release of the Systems Reference Document and Open Gaming License for 5e might change things a little. +Stan Shinn already has a project titled Dungeonesque: Red Box RPG that will provide a streamlined version of the 5e rules based on the SRD. I expect a number of similar projects to come out soon as well. While the so-called “O5R” movement may not have gathered much steam, this sort of approach might do enough to make it worthwhile for me. In fact, incorporating the best parts of other games (e.g. the encumbrance rules from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the domain level play from Adventurer Conqueror King System) just became a lot more viable.

Related to this, I have trouble playing via Roll20 in part because data entry for the monsters takes so much time. (Voice chat has become less workable for me due to my home environment as well.) I expect we’ll see the monsters from the SRD available on Roll20 soon based on comments from the developers there, however.  They can’t afford to miss the opportunity to streamline play for the most popular game on their platform.

I’d like to come back to 5e for something other than dungeon crawling. Perhaps a game of urban intrigue and espionage using text chat on Roll20 would work better, as it involves a lot less crunch and a lot more roleplaying. (The reason for sticking with 5e comes down to the interest level from players.) I also like designing monsters and such using the 5e crunch, ironically enough, so I might stat up a few things from my Roll For Initiative collection and put them out on the Dungeon Master’s Guild for people to use.

Certainly this started me thinking about 5e again in a way I haven’t in quite a while. Good job, WotC.

Do the simplest thing that could possibly work

XKCD "Board Game" comic

my backup plan

So this weekend I’m going to run some D&D at a local makerspace ( has an open house Saturday evening for anybody in the Dallas-Plano area). I’m probably going to use “Searchers of the Unknown” by +Nicolas Dessaux or some variant thereof, because you can’t get much simpler and call it D&D. Microlite20 would work just about as well and for the same reasons.  Several of the folks who have expressed interest in playing also noted they’ve never done this before, and the open house will  almost certainly provide a fairly raucous environment.

I remain unsure about what dungeon to use, though. Here again, I’m partial to the simplest possible approach: here is a dungeon, go get the treasure and try not to die. Normally I’d go with “Goblin Gully” by +Dyson Logos for this, but my kids are likely to play and they’ve been through that one before (albeit not all the way to the end). So I think I will quickly stock an existing map or try to pick something simple from the One-Page Dungeon contest entrants in the past. Of course, any suggestions on this would be welcome, because I have a lot of level 1 modules in my archives and such but need to do this in a way that satisfies two conditions: (a) family friendly-ish (i.e. no Death Frost Doom even if I love it), and (b) approaching the platonic ideal of “old school D&D”. If it goes well enough, it could end up being an open-table setup where every few weeks I show up with another dungeon level or two, but one step at a time.

Exploring the Ruins of the Undercity

Great success playing with my kids tonight! They’d lost most of their old character sheets, but no problem – we rolled up new ones pretty quickly. My favorite part of old-school gaming is how little time character generation takes. I let them roll 3d6 6 times and assign each as they wished, mostly using Swords & Wizardry Core. The 12 year old wanted to play a sort of “battle mage”, so I grabbed the variant Elf from S&W and told her she only knew “Read Magic”. The 9yo wanted a Fighter – simple enough. He’s done this before and knows that’s basically the simplest class to play. “I want a shield and a sword and chain mail.” Rock on, little dude.


Allen Deger, “Rebel Dragon”, and a hastily scribbled map…

We also used the overlay system from Scarlet Heroes. This basically means you get a “fray die” to represent all the smaller attacks and by-blows over the course of a round, plus you read hit and damage dice slightly differently, so that you can play effectively with 1 or 2 characters. Because we were going for a simple dungeon crawl, I didn’t want to overthink it and they don’t have much fun when they have to spend all their time bleeding out on the dungeon floor. (Careful play is not quite in their mindset yet.)

So we started off using Ruins of the Undercity. The 9yo did most of the mapping and the 12yo tried to keep a narrative going in a Google Doc. That last part only made it about halfway through the session because it just slows down the pace too much. Also, kids roleplay way better than adults. “Describe your attack” leads to jumping around with air swords, and describing kobolds all burning to death from lamp oil leads to running around the living room with screams and flailing arms.

Lessons for next time:

  • On-the-fly dungeon generation slows the game down too much compared to basic dungeon preparation in advance. I like to improvise details (because players always ask questions about stuff I hadn’t previously considered), but figuring out the basics of what’s behind a door or inside a room should be done ahead of time, at least in games where there’s an actual GM. This isn’t a fault of RotU which is really designed for GM-less play.
  • Equipment “packages” can really speed up character generation. Buying equipment is the longest part of that process for us. The players can customize the packages, of course, but depending on the class and adventure type, they’re going to get almost the same stuff each time anyway.
  • Funny voices are still the best part of being a GM. The looks on the players’ faces when I say “hmmm…” and start rolling a bunch of dice are the second best part. It’s a good way to get them thinking more about what might occur and how they should prepare, because it makes it clear that things can happen even if the GM hasn’t specifically decided they should happen.
  • Set a time limit. Even older kids may get antsy after an hour or more of play and want to do something else. Be prepared to suggest ways to wrap up a session logically. In my case, this means “we’re not pausing in the middle of the dungeon, so you need to head back to the entrance.”

We’ll probably play again tomorrow, or at least the 9yo and I will. He wants that treasure!

Rooted in make-believe


When I was a kid, seeing a movie meant more than just a couple of hours of entertainment. It meant hours or maybe days of material for playing “make-believe” or “pretend”. After The Goonies or Return of the Jedi or anything else I liked, the ideas and characters and settings and themes would inform my playtime for a while afterwards. (In the case of Star Wars, I guess that was true for years…)

Now that I’m a dad, of course, I’ve realized how normal this is. Kids watch an adventure movie, and then they go replay the movie in their own ways, either with their own dolls & “action figures” (i.e. dolls), or maybe they run around in the living room yelling and laughing and pretending they are the characters.

The more things change…

…the more they stay the same. After all, what are role-playing games but semi-structured make-believe? When I’m playing some computer game or reading a book for a while, I end up wanting to emulate that in my RPGs. Earlier this year, I played lots of Diablo 3. That led to making new lists of monsters, researching cathedral floor plans, working on archetypes and character classes for demon hunter-esque characters, and so forth. It didn’t lead to an actual campaign, though. Maybe the game prep was enough to satisfy that thirst for a while.

Now lately I’ve been listening to the audiobooks in the series A Song of Ice and Fire (better known as Game of Thrones) and I’ve reached about the midpoint, halfway through the third book of five. I love the intrigues and scheming far more than the battles and bad sex (don’t judge me). Any scene with Tyrion and Varys grabs my attention far more than another account of outlaws in the forest. So my solo Scarlet Heroes campaign has been all urban adventures. I’m trying to establish this character as something akin to a Master of Whisperers, I suppose – an information broker, eventually, but one who occasionally pulls out the short sword to get things done. (It’s a good method for world building, too, but that’s another post for another day.)

The bleedover goes in all directions, of course. Game of Thrones has led me to spend more evenings playing Civilization V again, going for diplomatic and culture victores. Actually, it’s circular, because playing D&D again drove me to fantasy fiction again like GoT and the Kingkiller Chronicles (Name of the Wind, Wise Man’s Fear, etc by Patrick Rothfuss).


Dungeon crawling is fun and still probably where D&D games shine the most, especially those based on older editions. My occasional game with my kids mostly consists of random encounters and some underground exploration so I can just keep pace with their insatiable curiosity and creativity.

It could be that this is actually where I’d like 5e more than B/X or Swords and Wizardry. Perhaps a play-by-post or text-based Roll20 game would provide the right medium for a game of urban intrigue and mysteries.

What I know for sure is that I’m having tons of fun even just with game prep I never use and solo RP and gaming with the kids. The 8-year-old in my heart is giggling once more.

Solo RPG Play using Scarlet Heroes

I finally spent some time playing Scarlet Heroes, the old-school D&D-alike from Sine Nomine Publishing and Kevin Crawford. Unusual for these sorts of games, Scarlet Heroes focuses on very small parties (one or two characters) and even provides support for solo play where the GM is also the player.

The system supports existing D&D material with one or two characters by modifying how dice are read. Briefly, NPCs hit points are replaced by their hit dice (so a 1 HD mook is taken out by 1 point of damage). Damage dice instead map a range of rolls to a damage result (so a roll of 2-5 on damage does 1 point of damage, a roll of 6-9 does 2 points of damage, etc.) And heroes get a “fray die”, which allows them to do damage every turn to NPCs at the same or lower HD as the hero’s level.

For solo play, the system provides lots of material for procedural generation. Scarlet Heroes presents three general types of adventures: Urban, Wilderness, and Dungeon. The last two are fairly traditional sandboxes, while the first tends to focus on intrigue and investigations:

These adventures are the catch-all heading for plots centering around urban intrigue, investigation, political machinations, and grim street justice. The “urban” area might be nothing bigger than a village, or even a remote rural villa, but the events that are going on revolve around people and their interactions rather than the exploration of unknown wilderness or the plumbing of ancient ruins. Run an urban adventure when you want your hero to deal with their fellow humans.

This first time I ran through an Urban adventure, which I tracked in a Google Doc. It developed into low-fantasy and (thus far) zero magic in a fake English society, rather than the default Red Tides campaign setting. While I used the procedural generation rules for “scenes” and “foes”, this time around I didn’t use the oracle that much. That would let me ask questions and get variations on “yes/no” answers (such as “yes, but…” with a complication). I didn’t completely follow the rules properly, mostly due to paying insufficient attention, but anyway it was fun.

This will also help my family game where I run some adventures for my kids just because of all the procedural generation to support the GM (even in traditional non-solo play). I am unsure of Sine Nomine’s stance on add-on material such as additional classes, but you could probably backport your favorites without too much trouble once you understand the main changes they’ve made to old-school D&D.

D&D with kids: Goblin Gully

Last night, I played D&D for the first time in months – probably the first time in 2015 – and I did so with my kids. TL;DR: structured make-believe with my kids is the best pastime.

Setup and character creation

They’d asked me to play, and I hadn’t been happy with 5e for various reasons. Mostly, I just find it still too rules-heavy for me. Related to that, character creation takes too long and requires too much understanding. So I went with old-school D&D, in the form of Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying (because I like its straightforward implementation of the B/X ruleset). I don’t really plan to use much of the LotFP-branded adventures with them purely due to age considerations, although there are some things I can lift from a few of them.

My 8-year-old son, who’s never played before, rolled up a fighter named “Oduyx” (pronounced differently every time he said it). We went with 3d6, arrange to taste, and he chose to go with a sword & shield. Equipment selection took longer than I’d have liked, although they both chose to get dogs. (These probably have the most utility per silver piece of almost anything you can get). I told him to think about what his character looks like and maybe a little bit of background while I helped his sister with her character.

My 11yo is becoming less of a tomboy. This is her notebook, character sheet, and dice bag.

My 11yo is becoming less of a tomboy. This is her notebook, character sheet, and dice bag.

As previously noted on this site, my 11-year-old daughter has played before in the guise of 5e as well as Microlite20. She immediately wanted to play a shapeshifter of some sort (e.g. a lycanthrope), so I explained that I would be happy to run an adventure in which her character acquires that characteristic in some fashion. After she thought it over for a few seconds, she decided to play an elf so that she’d have immediate fighting capabilities but the ability to learn magic. She named him “Lloyd” as her first male RPG character. (I think of elves as not really fitting a gender binary, anyway, and she liked that but kept the “he/him/his” pronouns.)

The two kids went off and consulted on their backstory just enough to figure out why they were working together. I made sure they understood that this game involves a lot of teamwork. Their characters will need to cooperate and support each other, because I will obviously be using this as a little bit of a parenting exercise. (Almost everything we do together has to be that, just by necessity.) The two of them didn’t really overthink it, but instead envisioned sort of a non-romantic “meet cute” at the inn where Lloyd worked and they just decided to become friends in the way that kids do. This made my life way easier, if for no other reason than that they understood that the real idea is to get to the adventure quickly.

Play session

I decided to use Goblin Gully from +Dyson Logos for their initial foray, although I used the version from Dyson’s Delves II because it had monster stats already included. This includes some obvious tropes – goblins, kids doing dumb things, the sheer evil of elves, hidden treasures – in a small package for brief attention spans. Since I’ve been supporting the Patreon there for a long time and own a couple of the related products, this felt right.

As they approached the old tree over the cave, a couple of goblins let loose with arrows at them. After siccing the dogs on the goblins (to keep them up in the tree), Oduyx tried to protect Lloyd with his shield while the elf let loose with rocks from his sling. Two natural 20s took care of the monsters and it was time for the real threat: arguing about which character would get to go first into the cave…

Already thinking like adventurers, they tossed pebbles down stairways to get an idea of how far down they went. It also eliminated any chance of surprise but I didn’t feel the need to tell them that. I added some flavor text in the first antechamber (“there are faded rectangles spaced evenly on the walls, such as you’d see if there had been paintings or other decorations for a long time that were later removed”). The ambush in the great hall was fun and they were suitably freaked out by the arrows spewing from the mouth of the monster face carving in the far wall. After eliminating all the goblins but one, they took it prisoner and then argued about which order they’d use to cross the suspension bridge. This led to a lot of fun roleplay with the goblin prisoner, whose suspicious manner clearly indicated he was just cooperating out of fear and would betray them at the first opportunity.

Once they crossed the bridge, they had a choice to make: descend the spiral staircase or climb the rope dangling from the shaft in the ceiling. Lloyd took the bait and climbed the rope while Oduyx waited with the dogs. I loved the look on my daughter’s face when I told her that “he reaches the top, grasps the edge, starts to pull himself up – and sees five goblins grinning back at him, waiting”. They cut the rope before he could get back down and the resulting fall brought the already-injured elf to exactly 0 HP (unconscious but alive).

Their goblin prisoner took this distraction as an opportunity to break for the staircase, yelling for help. Oduyx chased after him, only to run into several goblins in their stinky little hole (“it smells of wet dog and onions everywhere”). Thinking quickly, he realized that the kerosene lamp in his hands could be an improvised weapon and smashed it at their feet before running back upstairs. Almost all the goblins failed their saving throws, so he got away.

With his comrade unconscious and not waking up (I let my daughter try some saving throws but the dice were not cooperating), Oduyx had to decide whether to grab Lloyd’s stuff and run or try to drag him away quickly before the goblins above could descend upon them. That led to some heated OOC discussions between the kids, but finally my son decided to do the honorable thing and try to get his sister’s character out of there. They made a fighting retreat across the bridge, then cut the supports so that the goblins would be trapped on their side of the gully and finally could make it back to town.

Aftermath and lessons learned

The characters didn’t get much XP in this session since they literally recovered no treasure. I awarded them 200 XP, though, for defeating quite a few goblins and confirming the presence of the raiders for the local law enforcement. They immediately went to work fleshing out backstory a little more and begged to play again, so in general it was a success.

As the GM, I learned (or relearned) a few things:

  • Optional prepackaged equipment is really important, especially with newer players.
  • Making funny voices is the best part of this job.
  • Kids really like “artifacts” of some sort, whether homemade LEGO swords to wave around during roleplay or towels tied around their neck for cloaks.
  • I didn’t understand the rules around hit points and unconsciousness / death well enough. But it turned out that I followed them anyway just by winging it according to what I’ve done in other games.

The kids provided some good feedback too:

  • Some combat is fun, but exploration and puzzles are better. More of that next time.
  • They’d like to play in a city-type environment, or at least start out with one.
  • It was cool not knowing exactly where the treasure was.

My work is cut out for me, as I hope to play with them late this week or maybe this weekend. That will take some prep, but I can’t wait!