Open Source Roleplaying

A recent (private) thread from +Stacy Dellorfano and an ensuing comment from +Kiel Chenier got me thinking about what I like about these older, simpler rulesets. Bottom line up front: it’s the “simpler”, not the “older”.

Part of the appeal to some gamers of the “Old School Renaissance” is nostalgia. This is how they played when they were younger, and so (much like music), the games they played in their childhood or adolescence imprinted on them. I get this, not least when I see screenshots of old games like EGA Trek.


Credit: wrathofzombie

But I didn’t really play D&D much back at that time. We dabbled a bit in AD&D 2nd Edition, but I grew up in a conservative evangelical family that saw (sees?) D&D through the lens of the Satanic panic. So we quickly moved to science fiction or other non-fantasy games like MegaTraveller and GURPS. As an adult, I played lots of Star Wars stuff (primarily the RCR and Saga Edition), plus roleplaying in MMORPGs.

Labels don’t matter much to me. RPGs are my hobby, not my profession, and I like it that way. But the DIY ethos of the punk movement, which is reflected in the “open source roleplaying” interpretation of OSR, matters to me a lot. I have some of the slickly-produced 5e stuff, and it’s well done, but I also like my d30 companions and such. As previously noted, I like a “riffing” style in my RPGs. Other people can play however they want in whatever frameworks they want, whether that’s story games or ultra-crunchy tactical maneuvering or total freeform text RP. There’s no objective standard or judgment here – only personal preferences.

So, DIYpunk or dungeonpunk or D&DIY or whatever – bring it all on. Everybody’s welcome, as long as they “imagine the hell out of it!”


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.

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!

Revisiting Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Plate 8 of 22 for the Macklin Bible after Loutherbourg.Since posting about various retroclone games, I’ve re-examined my opinions a bit. Thus, I decided to revisit Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Something about the design kept calling me back. In part, the layout looks gorgeous, even in the free no-art version. Also, largely inspired by LotFP, I watched the 2009 movie Solomon Kane. I wanted to get a sense of that early-modern dark fantasy, even if it has more than a few plot holes. For an evening’s viewing with popcorn and whiskey, it entertained me quite well.

The simplification of some things like skills and the silver standard also appeals to me, even if I find six-sided dice a bit ho-hum. My only previous complaint about the game itself had to do with saving throws. It takes the standard approach found in the editions of D&D it emulates. Whereas I earlier stated a preference for the approach of 5e, matching saves to abilities, that has started to feel stale to me. That makes saving throws just another form of ability checks. But they don’t reflect, say, the innate resistance to magic of classic dwarves. I haven’t given the older approach a fair shake.

So what does LotFP do better than many other games?

  • Simplified encumbrance rules that take out most of the bookkeeping but retain the resource management.
  • “Maritime Adventures” get an entire chapter
  • “Property and Finance” for those who get into domains and strongholds
  • Magic remains somewhat unpredictable, especially when researching new spells or summoning monsters. Especially when summoning monsters. More on this below.
  • Skills exist, but with a straightforward “n out of 6” system. Only one class, the Specialist (previously known to many of us as “Thief”) gets to improve these skills as they increase in level.

However, I’d like to see some things improved. Hopefully the upcoming referee book includes guidance on monster creation. The philosophy of the game seems to imply fewer but weirder monsters, which makes sense for a number of play styles. But a few tips would go a long way.

Alternatives to the classic pseudo-Vancian system would work very well in this game. In particular, a vitality-based system (similar to what Microlite20 uses) would fit the “weird roleplaying” motif. Casting spells cost hit points, and only rest, not magic, can heal that “damage”. You could potentially reduce max HP until a full night’s rest for a similar effect.

I should not have written the game off so quickly. The next time I run a new game, I will likely give it a try.

Review: Secrets of the Old City from Immersive Ink

I’ve not yet had the opportunity to play an RPG that takes place in an urban environment. I’d really like to do that soon, however. To that end, I’ve picked up a few products to explore the ideas. This includes Vornheim, of course. But it already has a well-deserved reputation as perhaps the high water mark for RPG supplements of any kind, much less city-building, and I don’t need to spend a lot of time reviewing it here.

So this post is instead about Secrets of the Old City (found via OSR Today). It didn’t cost me anything, after all, and hopefully it could provide some inspiration. An earlier version of this dungeon won “Best of the Best” in the first One Page Dungeon competition in 2009.

Secrets of the Old City mapThe new version comes as two very short PDFs, one two pages long and one four pages. The cover has a map that lacks much in the way of organization. The keyed encounters, for example, appear scattered about the map randomly. I don’t recommend printing it, either, considering it’s mostly black and will kill your ink. The PDF does not include a player version such as what you might use in Roll20 or some other virtual table top.

In the encounter PDF, the map legend doesn’t match the map at all. It uses letters and symbols (like “*” or “?”) while the map has actual icons. The legend looks like a holdover from the 2009 version but did not get updated with the map. The urban dungeon itself includes a goblin invasion, a small and incompetent thieves’ guild, and several more significant monsters. Most of the encounters don’t have anything particularly new or interesting: an ogre has been cooking and eating children. The boots of the recently-eaten goblin does go in the right direction, providing a bit of dynamism. One encounter refers to “dungeon level 2”, but nothing else in the document does. I suppose the DM should use this as a hook for creating something else below the Old City.

With a little more effort, this could really shine as a starter urban sandbox. I hope the creators update the map for usability and the encounters for a bit of innovation. Now I’m really motivated to enter the contest this year.

Heavy metal inspired quests

Ronnie_James_Dio_TombA few weeks ago, I set up a Pandora station called “OSR Radio“. It plays music my buddies and I listened to while playing RPGs in the wayback. Think Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc. Lots of the songs sound like they could inspire some fun D&D adventures. I have tried to avoid the most iconic works because many of us already have very strong associations with some very popular songs. Nothing feels more D&D to me than remembering the first time I heard Black Sabbath and “Iron Man” in my best friend’s bedroom about 1am, reading D&D books that our parents didn’t allow us to have. And Metallica’s powerful “Wherever I May Roam” describes a party of chaotic “murder hoboes” better than anything else I can imagine.

Whether all the groups  cited below qualify as “heavy metal” or belong to a particular period is beside the point in this particular case. The themes matter more than the specific musical genres. But in all honesty, you could just point at a random song in the discography for either of those bands, or Iron Maiden, or Judas Priest, or Megadeth, or Dio, or some other metal band I don’t even know about but you totally love. And from that random finger wiggle, you’ll generate d4 adventures just like that. You probably have ideas right now from thinking about your favorite song and have stopped reading. I could be writing “titty sprinkles” here and nobody would notice because you’ve already got your notebook open and have started scribbling ideas furiously.

So here I’ve listed a few ideas resulting from a fusion of Pandora selections and perusing the D&D 5e Monster Manual. Hopefully one or two of these can provide some inspiration for you. If nothing else, go listen to some tunes.

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Losing ruleset weight: evaluating older RPG games

D&D 5e has started to frustrate me. I feel like I spend way too much time looking stuff up when running a game. Some of that comes from poor information organization in the core books. This leads to too much time looking up spells and so forth. Another large chunk results directly from the amount of rules: conditions, cover, grappling, etc. Wizards of the Coast has made the business decision not to provide us with electronic materials. As a result, we have to depend on books, player-generated material that lawyers don’t take down, or our own preparation efforts. The amount of time taken by data entry in various applications and private documents doesn’t help.

As the DM, I can decide to change the rules, of course. But I want to take care when doing so. DM fiat shouldn’t frustrate players more than absolutely necessary. That doesn’t even include the optional rules I’ve chosen to exclude, like multiclassing and feats. Some of the things that take more time than I’d like actually include some of the most fun bits, like the different monster abilities and features.

Switching to another simpler game could certainly work. I don’t care one way or the other about labels like “OSR” (including whatever the abbreviation actually means to someone). But I do like the balance between crunch and freeform play in older games and “retroclones“, which I lump together here for this purpose.

Game analyses

A sorcerer comes to a peasant wedding. I’ve been re-reading various versions of a number of games. As much as I like Microlite20 and Microlite74, they just don’t seem to have much traction in terms of finding groups. For players, this choice might look like a distinction without a difference. None of the systems differ in large ways. Find a group you like on Roll20 and use what they use, since the DM will probably have tons of house rules anyway. But as a DM myself, I need to choose a place to begin. All three of these systems have tremendous community support. In addition, they are cross-compatible with each other and lots of other older games or clones (which is largely the point).

Dungeons & Dragons

OGL-based games constantly refer to “the Original Fantasy Roleplaying Game”, or  they use some other euphemism for actual Dungeons & Dragons. Wizards of the Coast has made available legitimate (non-infringing) electronic copies of older editions. This includes 3.5e and 4e, editions I prefer not to play, but also B/X and AD&D. A little time and effort can find actual books for sale on Amazon, eBay, and other places like that. Used bookstores and local gaming stores also carry them at times. The organization and lack of clarity in some of these editions has left me a bit cold, though I have some of this material for reference as needed.

In the meantime, my campaign in 5e will continue. I still plan to finish running Dyson’s Delve with the Relic Hunters Guild if the players keep going. I also play in a meatspace 5e game and find the new Dungeon Master’s Guide useful for everything, not to mention that gorgeous Monster Manual.

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game

Basic Fantasy has something of an “Acme Industries” vibe to it. It focuses on doing what it does very well, including mechanics as well as production value, without embellishment to the point of distraction. BF uses ascending armor class, which I like, but it also has the older-style saving throws (“Dragon Breath”? “Wands”?). These never made much sense to me. It also uses the modern separation of race and class. I’ve never used the older approach of race-as-class and would like to experiment a bit, but I don’t know how players typically feel about that.

Labyrinth Lord

Labyrinth 28, etching, aquatint, soft-ground etching, mm.180x330, Engraved and designed by Toni Pecoraro 2007.Labyrinth Lord supports race-as-class directly in the core book. It seems closest to the older edition it seeks to emulate, including descending AC and all the old saving throws. This system has a bit more heft to it, though in this case that means “completeness” rather than rules-heaviness. I’ve joined a campaign using LL rules on Roll20 that will start in the new year, but this time I’ll get to participate as a player rather than DM. We will play in a really unusual campaign setting: the Anomalous Subsurface Environment. I have high hopes for that!

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Lamentations of the Flame Princess has a beautiful approach in terms of its simplicity (e.g. the silver standard) and just enough “weirdness” to make it stand out. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading an adventure as much as I did Death Frost Doom. It uses race-as-class & ascending armor class and has extensive domain management rules. The old-style saving throws are a turn-off, as is the fact that, for reasons I do not understand at all, James Raggi has blocked me personally on Google+. I’ve never had any interaction with him that I recall, so it strikes me as somewhat odd.

Swords & Wizardry

Swords & Wizardry seems the most hackable. It supports both ascending and descending armor class. Since I prefer ascending, this helps a lot. A single number for saving throws might go too far in the other direction from the original game. In fact, D&D 5e probably does this in the way that makes the most sense to me, tying saving throws to ability scores. SW does modify certain types of saves based on character class, though, which helps. And it has both “race-as-class” and the more modern approach available depending on which edition you use.

What’s next?

For now I will start from S&W, though I have much love for all the systems above in their own ways. This will immediately require a few small tweaks, such as bringing in Advantage/Disadvantage. I also have taken some cues from Microlite74 OSS and some rules variants in 5e regarding skills. Characters who specify a particular skill or background at creation time will get advantage on relevant attempts. I will also use some of the material in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, like the extensive support for strongholds and hirelings.

In reality, no two RPG campaigns truly use the same system once you include house rules and such. Systems like these, all based on more or less the same game, just provide a framework from which we can begin.

Time to do work.

Building the framework of a dungeon adventure

I’ve wanted to try to generate an adventure with the random tables in the new Dungeon Master’s Guide since I bought it. Here I present one example of my experimentation. Note that I didn’t fudge any rolls – all this reflects actual results.

Location-based adventure

Because my current “sandbox” campaign focuses on dungeon crawls, I’ll start with “location-based adventures” on page 72. The process flows as follows:

  1. Identify the party’s goals
  2. Identify important NPCs
  3. Flesh out the location details
  4. Find the ideal introduction
  5. Consider the ideal climax
  6. Plan encounters


I’ll roll a d20 on Dungeon Goals and Other Goals, skipping the wilderness table, and see what happens.

19. Hide from a threat outside the dungeon
2. Defend a location from attackers

Those certainly don’t look like the other adventures I have run. But I want to use this process to spice things up. So I will choose the first. Perhaps the party originally sets out on some other mission, such as to go ask a sage for a map or some historical guidance. When they arrive, though, they find themselves ambushed just outside the location. Or maybe they get there just before some sort of attack on the dungeon occurs. That lets us merge these two goals nicely.

Important NPCs

We definitely need a few NPCs here to drive this.


Who will provide the threat? From my d20 roll on the Adventure Villains table:

7. Undead with any agenda

Death KnightThis points up an immediate weakness in both the DMG and the Monster Manual. Even with the new indices, Wizards of the Coast hasn’t provided an index of creatures by type. I have a player-created one, though. Because of the nature of my plan, I don’t want one with sunlight sensitivity. The death knight fits the bill perfectly:

When a paladin that falls from grace dies without seeking atonement, dark powers can transform the once-mortal knight into a hateful undead creature. A death knight is a skeletal warrior clad in fearsome plate armor. Beneath its helmet, one can see the knight’s skull with malevolent pinpoints of light burning in its eye sockets.

An Arthurian name generator seems appropriate for this character. That site generates 10 names, so my d10 chooses:

3. Claunus

Chapter 4 in the DMG, “Creating Nonplayer Characters”, can help give Claunus a bit of depth. I’ll roll on the Mannerism, Interaction with Others, NPC Ideals, NPC Bonds, and NPC Flaws and Secrets tables first.

16. Chews something
12. Suspicious
2. Greed (evil)
6. Whimsy (chaotic)
1. Aspiration (other)

So Claunus works his jaw (as an undead, he doesn’t actually eat per se). Suspicious, greedy, and aspiring to power & conquest, he fits the archetype pretty well. We also have some specific tables for Villains: Scheme, Methods, and Weakness.

1. Immortality (steal a planar creature’s essence)
19. Vice (drugs or alcohol)
1. A hidden object holds the villain’s soul

The methods roll doesn’t provide much utility in our case, so I will reroll just once:

5. Confidence scams (fine print)

That doesn’t make sense either. But it doesn’t matter since we have an existing concept. I’d just hoped to give it a little more depth.

Villainous class options from the DMG preview

Villainous class options from the DMG preview

This chapter also contains a section on villainous paladins, including a new spell list and some new features. I don’t have to use them unless the party will face the villain directly. At CR 17, Claunus already has more power than almost any group could handle. But the class options do give a greater sense of how this sort of villain operates. He should have an army of undead to command in addition to his own ability to besiege the sage’s dungeon with his hellfire orb.


As noted, Claunus provides a greater threat than a typical adventurer party can handle. Let’s give them a bit of help.

1. Skilled adventurer
9. Celestial ally

If it should come to some sort of showdown, a celestial ally fits the bill! The planetar has a similar CR (16) and background that matches:

Planetars act as the weapons of the gods they serve, presenting a tangible representation of their deities’ might. A planetar can call down rain to relieve a drought, or can loose an insect plague to devour crops. A planetar’s celestial ears detect every falsehood, and its radiant eyes see through every deception.

The adventure shouldn’t take the focus off of the party, though. Perhaps the party needs to accomplish some task to summon the planetar, all while fending off the undead army. We can adjust the sage to some sort of cleric to match the developing flavor.

And another adventurer could come in handy as another vector for exposition. She won’t do too much, again because the party members are the hero of this story. Maybe the adventure will call for a heroic sacrifice, even. Back in Chapter 4, we can generate mannerisms, abilities, talents, mannerisms, ideals, bonds, and flaws & secrets.

20. Exceptionally ugly
5. [High] Wisdom: perceptive, spiritual, insightful
2. [Low] Dexterity: clumsy, fumbling
14. Expert carpenter
7. Whispers
11. Quiet
6. [Lawful] Tradition
6. [Good] Self-sacrifice
4. Loyal to a benefactor, patron, or employer
12. Foolhardy bravery

This sketches out a pretty interesting character we can use as the cleric. (The carpentry expertise doesn’t matter for this adventure.) Our priestess speaks quietly when she speaks at all, but her deeds mark her as a devoted servant of her god. I’ll roll a d10 on the results from a dwarf name generator:

7. Durirnoir Bluntchin

Now we have a link to the “exceptional ugliness” after all! Durinoir’s surname will fit, and she will have a misshapen lower jaw. Her physical appearance belies her beautiful spirit and holiness (although I will attempt not to turn this into too much of an Aesop). I like her playing against type, though.


They have some reason to go, after all.

12. Respected elder

What can we learn about this elder? The same tables as those used for the cleric above will serve us again.

17. Distinctive nose
2. [High] Dexterity: lithe, agile, graceful
6. [Low] Charisma: dull, boring
13. Drinks everyone under the table
16. Chews something
1. Argumentative
6. [Neutral] People
3. [Other] Glory
6. Drawn to a special place
1. Forbidden love or susceptibility to romance

Everyone loves the adorable old town drunk because he has been a fixture for generations. Perhaps he even holds a place on the council. But his alcoholic dreams of a sacred temple become the clue needed for the party to learn how to defeat the undead army.

Location details

This process really deserves an entire post of its own. But the basic characteristics don’t take very long to generate. For the Dungeon Location:

14. Beneath a graveyard

Landscape with a Graveyard by Night

That result evokes some fantastic atmosphere and fits the developing themes quite well. To identify the Dungeon Creator:

7. Dwarves
6. Chaotic Good
1. Barbarian

This plays against type a little (barbaric dwarves who don’t care too much for tradition) but could provide a nice bit of atmosphere.

We also might want to learn a bit about the original Dungeon Purpose and History:

2. Lair
1. Abandoned by creators

These will all provide help when we generate the dungeon in a future post.


The table could provide additional inspiration for beginning the adventure.

7. A town or village needs volunteers to go to the adventure location

The council sends the party to the ancient temple that houses the item holding the death knight’s soul. I’ll flip back to “Appendix A: Random Dungeons” and roll on the Religious Articles and Furnishings table for this item:

07. Bells

That gives us a couple of pieces of mood music! Maybe we should ask For Whom the Bell Tolls:

No, we shouldn’t, because “it tolls for thee.” Instead, the death knight’s soul resides in Hells Bells:

Enough of that tangent.


Adventurers have a well-known tendency to go “off script”. Role-playing games differ pretty strongly from films and novels, so this just comes with the territory. But what will the adventure aim for?

10. A threat more powerful than the adventurers appears, destroys the main villain, and then turns its attention on the characters.

The planetar’s adherence to its lawful good alignment could put the adventurers in danger. Those with impure hearts or who desecrate the graves might run significant risk. That keeps the focus on them and can help avoid a deus ex machina solution.


These also belong primarily in a future post about the dungeon, but we have the outline of how to proceed already.


The DMG helped create the scaffolding for a group to get started. A lot of work remains to turn this into a full-fledged adventure, especially the encounter design. But in reality, a few minutes with the book provided enough for a creative DM to get started with roleplay. This could even happen on-the-fly with an automated dungeon generator or a similar system.

Also, nothing in this post relies on specific system mechanics. The outline above could fit any fantasy system and a few others besides (perhaps a Cthulhu-esque horror game with a few adjustments). So yes, the new DMG certainly could provide a lot of utility for people playing OSR games.

Dungeon Masters Rulebook (Red Box version)

Basic Dungeon Masters Rulebook

I picked up the Dungeon Masters Rulebook from the old BECMI D&D edition (aka “the Red Box”) a few days ago. Most of the OSR products I’ve read didn’t have enough guidance for this rusty old DM.  What better source for guidance on running an old-school game than the actual old-school guidance?! The rest of this post consists of my thoughts as I took notes during my second reading. It isn’t really a review in the critical sense but in the “let’s go back over what’s here” sense.

The Most Important Rule: BE FAIR. That fits, since we control everything about the world and universe in which the characters exist. The world itself may not be fair, but our rulings should be consistent and even-handed.

Hewlett-Packard 48GX

“An electronic pocket calculator is helpful.”

Quite a few pages consist of “your first game”. Actually, this game is first for the DM, which comes after the solo game in the players guide that teaches the initial rules. The players go after some magic user named “Bargle“. Most of this doesn’t apply to my games or needs. The map of the dungeon’s second level looked interesting, though, and would make a great candidate for conversion.

The rulebook includes advice on issues like arguments and complaints. That reminds the reader that RPGs are social in ways most other games are not. Given the age and inclinations of the target audience for D&D (especially at the time), I suspect Gygax and even Mentzer felt themselves in something of a fatherly position.  Related to that, the rulebook gives advice on providing clues appropriate for the player skill and experience level, including the admonition that “extreme danger with no warning is not very fair.” ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES! Also, the Deities section obliquely refers to some sensitive issues and takes a diplomatic approach: “The DM should be careful not to needlessly offend players and current beliefs should be avoided.”

For the first time, I finally understand how early editions treated demi-humans. Dwarves consisted of both a race and a class, so that all dwarf characters basically act like Gimli: short, squat fighters all up in your face who know everything there is to know about stones and gems and dungeons. Most modern players probably would not like this. Generally speaking, I don’t either, but there’s a certain mindset where I can see that working.

Experienced dungeon masters may select results instead of rolling dice.

See, the old school includes fudging rolls! I remember reading a quote from Gygax to the effect that the real secret to being a good DM is that the dice are just for show. That perhaps goes a little to the extreme (which could be a product of my faulty memory) but the sentiment is useful.

Reaction rolls seem like a core mechanic in this old edition. I’ve seen these in Microlite20. If the new Fifth Edition DMG doesn’t contain something like this, then I will likely incorporate some version of it in my games. Often I just roleplay the NPCs and “select results” as discussed above, but a little unpredictability in some situations can go a long way.

Lost spell books? Now that’s evil. I wouldn’t do that to a player unless they actively did something that clearly would result in losing the spell book. “I throw my spell book at the fire elemental.” “Um… okay.”

Mapping SymbolsMapping has changed considerably in the last thirty years. I don’t think most groups really treat it as a player skill anymore. Certainly those of us who primarily play online on Roll20 or similar can’t do this effectively without significant restructuring. Perhaps allowing one of the players to draw on the map…? I do like the old-school concept of player skill mattering at least as much as character skill, and this fits into that philosophy much as the clues discussion does.

During the play of the game, a player will eventually try something not explained in these rules… Be sure to write down any rules you create, and apply them fairly to everyone.

If by “eventually” we mean “within the first five minutes”, then sure! Otherwise you could send a self-addressed stamped envelope to TSR with a rules question. Things about the 20th century I don’t miss include SASEs and snail mail.

Timekeeping still presents a challenge for me outside of combat rounds. I’d hoped for some guidance here but it honestly doesn’t help much:

You may simply make notes on the time used during an adventure, or you can create a system (check marks, boxes to cross off, etc.) for keeping track.

Transferring characters remains a touchy subject. I just had a player ask me about it this past weekend, in fact. For some sorts of campaigns, it would feel odd just for narrative reasons. It could also create the perception of fairness issues with other players. But in other cases it might work fine, and so Mentzer gives some guidance on balance considerations.

Then the book goes into some lengthy monster references, including stat blocks and reactions and everything else. The treasure tables, though, really come in handy for me. I frequently find an old-school adventure I want to use that refers to “treasure type H” or something. Now I can cross-reference that.

Dungeon stockingFinally we have some guidance on dungeons, especially adventure motivation. The table on stocking dungeons reminds me of the so-called Barrowmaze method. But now I know the real source, because the method here is to roll 1d6 twice. The first roll tells you what’s in the room (e.g. a trap or a monster) and the second roll tells you whether the room has treasure.

I still look forward to getting my 5th Edition DMG in two days.The material in this rulebook will help fill in any gaps, plus provide additional stuff for my Microlite games.