Character Death

I’ve been thinking about character death recently. Depending on what TTRPG you run, lethality can vary. So for me the answer on how you should deal with it depends on the game system you use and the specific campaign you are running.

Types of Character Death
First let me clarify some terms and positions one can have regarding character death. There are at least two types of character death: (i) death based on a bad die roll (e.g., failing a saving throw vs. poison from a wyvern sting, or perhaps a failed save and falling into a bottomless pit), (ii) death because the player didn’t use their character’s abilities.

Game System Lethality
Some game systems are structurally more dangerous than others. It is much easier for a character to die in AD&D, whereas in D&D 5E character death is rare.

5E has structural components built into the game to prevent character death for categories (i) and (ii) (e.g., instead of a vampire draining two levels like in AD&D, it just takes away some hit points, and then after you rest for 8 hours you get them back. That is a substantial weakening of that monster from what it once was). To die in 5E you almost have to work at it. On the other hand, character death in AD&D is sometimes effortless. From 2018-2019 I spent a year playing AD&D twice a month and a character died roughly every game session (keep in mind, though, we frequently had 5-6 players running two characters each, so that ended up being 1 character out of 10-12), during the first six months of that game I only lost one character, during my final six months in that campaign I lost 5 characters. After 4 years of 5E I found it boring and unchallenging and walked away seeking a game where I felt challenged and alive again. After one full year of playing in that AD&D campaign I only had two 1st level characters who had only been in 1 or 2 games to show for it. I no longer felt any sense of progress or connection to that campaign, because no matter how thoughtful or careful I would be, I knew I could trip over a pebble and die. So I experienced the two extremes of games where nothing you do has any consequences, and no matter what you, or how careful you are, you could die. I have tried to learn from both those extreme experiences.

Campaign Lethality
We also have campaigns that challenge you differently. I have been running Castles & Crusades since 2018. It allows me to run any edition of D&D through it. I currently run two campaigns. One is the Barrowmaze, made for Labyrinth Lord (i.e. 1981 B/X D&D), and the other is the Dragonclaw Barony, which is currently using Basic Fantasy (but will transition to AD&D 2nd edition when the players head toward Dragon Mountain). I also need to begin prep on a new campaign for 2022 when Barrowmaze wraps up, and that new campaign will be the Dungeons of Aufstrag (imported from the world of Aihrde and altered to fit my world), this is a C&C designed game. Each of these campaigns have a different sense of challenge and lethality.

How I deal with a campaign that has high lethality.
In my weekly Barrowmaze campaign (which has been running since 2019, having finished our 76th session), my players lose roughly 2-3 characters a year.

  1. Multiple Characters. Every player uses two characters each session and has a minimum of 5 characters in their roster which they rotate out of the game when they level up and train to acquire a new ability (I have a homebrew option where characters can take time off and pay to learn a new language, profession, attempt to raise an attribute, or gain an “advantage” – i.e. feat – from the Castle Keepers Guide). The players know well that the Barrowmaze is unforgiving and one of the ways in which they have responded is to create a lot of characters. Using more than one character in post-2000 D&D-type games is a rarity, since characters these modern games have become overly complicated. But in oldschool games (and in my C&C games) where the character sheets are a lot less cluttered with numbers and stats, and success is based more on player creativity than referencing numbers on a character sheet, you have a greater ability to use more than one character (in any given battle in an oldschool game you may only have to use one of your characters and the other can sit out if they have nothing to contribute).
  2. More Careful Planning and Evaluation of Situations. Because the Barrowmaze is filled with plenty of old school “saving throw vs. poison or die,” or “Dexterity saving throw or fall into a bottomless pit” situations, the players tend to be more cautious and engage in more careful analysis and evaluation of a situation before proceeding. They understand the need to bring more than one rogue/thief to check for traps, they have more than one cleric to cure wounds, remove poison, and remove curse. Having more characters and engaging in more planning gives you more options to avoid catastrophe.
  3. Deck of Dirty Tricks. I use the Deck of Dirty Tricks from Frog God Games. Each adventure I fan out the card deck and have players randomly pull out roughly 3 cards. These cards give options that provide a benefit such as a dice re-roll, automatic success on a die roll, cause enemies to attack a different target, and there are even two cards in the 52 card deck that provide limited wish, and raise dead (all have been used by my players to avoid catastrophe!). These cards will alter how the players behave (if you have a raise dead card, you know that if a character dies there will be a strange twist of fate that will allow them to avoid it). I think this is good, it keeps the game a bit unpredictable from session to session, and players can try out different gaming tactics, sometimes being more cautious and sometimes throwing caution to the wind when they know “the gods” are looking down on them.
  4. Alter Critical Hits by Monsters.
    When my monsters roll a critical hit against a player I don’t have them do extra damage, instead, the attack either destroys their shield or weapon (magic items get a saving throw), or their armor is reduced by one point (example: some strapping on the shoulder piece is cut and now it hangs in front of the character, reducing their armor AC bonus by 1 and in some instances reducing Dexterity checks by 1. By using armor/weapon wastage instead of extra damage, characters have an increased chance to survive and hang on a little longer, while adding a new dynamic to the game (the need to fix armor/shield/weapon, or buy a new one when back in town).
  5. Death and Dying in Castles & Crusades.
    There is a rule I use in C&C (slightly modified from what is in the PHB and the Castle Keepers Guide). When you are brought down to 0 hit points you are not yet unconscious. You cannot attack, cast a spell, drink a potion, or defend yourself with your shield, but you can croak out “help!” and move at half your movement rate to try and take yourself out of danger (or put your arm around a companion and have them drag you out of the way). You have some hope and it ties in well with dramatic scenes we’ve read in books and seen in films with heroes on their last legs. From -1 to -6 you are unconscious and will remain so for hours or days (it will depend on what the wound). It is only when you reach -7 that you begin bleeding out, losing 1 hit point each round and dying at -10. I really like this approach because it presents characters with a range of effects. This approach provides opportunities to crawl out of combat, lie unconscious if you slipped and fell in a ravine only to wake up hours or days later, or try and get other players to frantically get to you to try and prevent you from dying. There is an array of possibilities.

Still, in spite of these rules my Barrowmaze players still lose several characters a year! Still, if I ran Barrowmaze without this approach there would have been a lot more deaths.

Campaigns with lower lethality.
My Dragonclaw Barony campaign is (currently) a lot less lethal. In the 1.5 years that campaign has run (it recently completed session 29), there have only been a couple of character deaths. I have mentioned how players in my games are encouraged to roleplay two characters each (since I prefer large old school groups that have as many as 10 characters and NPCs), but only half the players in that group have two characters, the other half have chosen to stick with just one. This group is filled with a large number of oldschool gamers, and they have begun talking about bringing in hirelings to carry torches, carry treasure, guard the camp, etc. But since character deaths have been minimal so far, there hasn’t been the need. I also don’t use the Deck of Dirty Tricks with this group since they aren’t needed.

This group will, however, begin to transition from the relatively easier Basic Fantasy adventures I have been using to more dangerous adventures I am designing, and then into a homebrewed version of AD&D 2E’s Dragon Mountain, and the transition to greater danger will be noticeable for that second half of the campaign.

How to Deal with Character Death.
Regardless of whether you have a high or low lethality game, when a character dies, what do you do? In a recent game we lost a character that was approaching 7th level and had been in the campaign for 2.5 years. That caused a stir. The frustrating thing about that character’s death was not that it was a fluke failed saving throw (category, i), but the player forgot to use their character’s class abilities several times during the battle that led to their death (category, ii). Player’s with pleading eyes and desperate voices can have an effect on you, and during that battle I threw that character an extra chance and only had them lying at the brink of death in the battle at -6 hit points (although the character eventually did die when a lightning bolt went off on top of him).

I have also sometimes thrown a character a subtle life line if they’ve been around for a while and happen to fail one of those “saving throw or die” situations. I think the “Save or die” is fine for low level characters (levels 1-4 in C&C), they are young and inexperienced adventurers and don’t yet know what they are doing. But once you enter the mid range (levels 5-8 in C&C) I begin to doubt whether a single failed save should result in automatic death, characters at that level have begun to develop a “second sense” for danger. Still, I am reluctant to do that for category, ii, situations, since by that point in the character’s development and that point in the campaign you really should know your character and what abilities they have. And when you get to high levels (levels 9+ in C&C), the characters in the party will, in many instances, have their own class abilities to bring back dead companions.

I wonder whether the mid-level character deaths are the toughest to deal with. By that point you’ve developed an attachment to the character, but characters aren’t quite powerful enough to bring their companions back, and you may not be influential enough to get others to bring them back. It is that transitional phase between being a low-level nobody and a high-level hero of the land.

The Death of King Arthur by John Garrick

Final Thoughts.
So, I try to find a middle ground between the older games where if you fail a single die roll you are automatically dead, to the game where nothing bad will ever happen to you. Games where you die constantly just become tedious and annoying, since you get no sense of being part of the campaign. If you have been part of a campaign for an entire year and you still only have two 1st level characters, they have no connection to the group, they have no shared narrative of challenges that have been faced, and you as a player begin to wonder “what’s the point?” On the other hand, in games where you can get healed, recover, or overcome all obstacles in a matter of just a few hours rest, and there is always some way to cheat death, then the game loses its impact. It is boring. Nothing is ever truly threatening. It may have a lot of flash and special effects, but it lacks substance and impact.

I make it clear in all my games that players will lose characters. They need to expect that. They will probably lose at least one character per campaign, and in lethal games they will lose several characters. If players don’t want that play experience, they probably won’t enjoy my games.

Still, there are different way to deal with high lethality games to give the players the chance to overcome the threat:

  1. Have them use more than one character (this works more in old school games with simpler and easier to manage characters).
  2. Promote careful and attentive group problem solving.
  3. Throw in random chances to alter fate. I enjoy using cards like the Deck of Dirty Tricks for Barrowmaze, but I plan to use other cool options that are available, such as the Heroic Challenges deck made my LoreSmyth, and probability dice to alter an outcome.
  4. Find alternate means for monsters/villains to hurt or reduce PCs. Armor/weapon wastage is a lot more fun, in my view, than simply doing more damage. It keeps the game dangerous as armor or weapons are reduced in effectiveness, or even destroyed, yet it doesn’t just destroy the PC on the spot.

There has been a shift in some games to get rid of “save or die” situations, but I like danger – real danger – in my games, but it is a matter of finding out what works for each style of campaign and the make up of the players/characters.

What are your thoughts? What are some of the things you do, or have done?

Is the current explosion in the RPG market sustainable?

Is the current explosion in the RPG market heading toward a saturation point? There is a post on EN World regarding the explosion of $1 million+ kickstarters and Erik Tenkar also discussed it recently. D&D and RPGs are flying high right now. But beneath it I know a lot of people – like myself – are weary of all the products and promotions. Here are some of my musings on the current situation and ponderings on the future.

RPGs are flying high right now.
RPGs are everywhere. Last year D&D appeared to have its best year by a noticeable margin. Through platforms like DriveThruRPG, Indiegogo, and Kickstarter, we are seeing an explosion of material from virtually anyone who has a sliver of an RPG idea. 5E-inspired indie products released on any given week on DriveThruRPG are drowned out the following week as new products replace them by a fresh number of aspiring designers trying to show off their newly acquired InDesign skills. Can the current heavy release by independent designers continue?

The previous d20 boom and bust.
We saw something similar to this once before during the d20 boom and bust. Third parties saturated the market after the release of 3E in 2000. By 2005 there were so many products of varying quality that people were burned out and quit buying. I wonder if we are going to see something like this in the near future?

I wrote a post last week about why I was going to leave Kickstarter next year (I shutdown Indiegogo over the weekend). The feedback I received from that post was surprising in that a significant number of people – the majority – had all either cut back on their crowdfunding support, were planning to cut back, or had ended crowdfunding support all together. The reasons included:
– There were too many things being published that they didn’t need (i.e. the market is flooded with product and many people already have more than they need).
– Too many crowdfunded products don’t live up to what was pitched to them (i.e. product quality was lacking).
– Poor business practices (i.e. products routinely delivered late, lack of proper editing, etc.).

I wonder if we are once again headed for RPG fatigue? The market is overflowing with products with varying quality and standards. But, what about all the “collector editions” and “leather-bound editions” that appear in virtually every Kickstarter nowadays? Surely that is a sign of an increase in quality and perhaps even demand?

It is true that high-quality products are being produced. But most people I have spoken to (and like the responses to my blog post about crowd funding, this is obviously anecdotal, so please keep that in mind) in the last few months are tired of the leather collector editions. When everything is a “collector’s edition” is it actually a collector’s item anymore? At some point it is going to register with people who pledge that high on Kickstarter that routinely spending $100 for a book that is just going to rest on a bookshelf and look nice is not sustainable. I wonder how many of these books are going to end up at Half-Price Books or eBay in 5-10 years time (albeit at an inflated price so the person can attempt to recoup their money).

We are just three years away from the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons (and the 10th anniversary of D&D 5E). A new D&D movie will be coming out in 2023 (a year before the anniversaries). WotC will undoubtedly be capitalizing on the new high-budget film and the two anniversaries with new product releases. The third-party market will try and do so as well. It is looking like the D&D frenzy will only be increasing.

We are also attempting to come out of a pandemic. I suspect that a contributing factor for why 9 of the 13 $1 million+ RPG Kickstarters have occurred this year is due to some people’s feelings and desires to try and “leave the pandemic behind,” and as a result have increased their “fun” spending to make up for the holidays they weren’t able to take over the last 18 months. But will this continue? Is this just a temporary blip? Some people are clearly spending more on RPGs based on those 9, $1 million+ Kickstarters), but most people I know – including myself – are stepping back from RPG spending.

My speculative thought.
So here is what I am thinking. D&D will be everywhere over the next three years with Hollywood films, merchandise, and promotions for upcoming anniversaries. DriveThruRPG, Kickstarter, and other crowdfunding organizations are going to continue full-speed ahead as more people try to jump on the D&D and RPG bandwagon, adding to the available products. But at some point it will dawn on people that the glut of “collector editions” are unnecessary and too expensive to continue supporting, and the continuation of delayed and poorly executed Kickstarters will take its toll on people. I think RPG product fatigue is going to set in. People will look at all the things they bought and realize they will never use most of it. They will be exhausted and drained financially and emotionally.

In a few years time we will also have to reflect on our jobs and life post-pandemic. Many people are already making big changes to their life and job based on the situation they find themselves in, and in just a few years they will see the results of the decisions they are now making and will have to re-evaluate them to see if those choices were the correct ones and if they need to make a new career pivot or change in personal/family choices. The attitude of “let’s leave this all behind and get back to normal” is something we’ve seen before and it has a limited life span. With the RPG saturation point I think we are headed toward at the moment, along with the larger issues tied-to the pandemic and post-pandemic world, what will the results be?

So, those are my thoughts. Do you think there is any truth in my musings, or am I talking utter bollocks!? What do you think?

What is the future of the current RPG market?

Review of the Castles & Crusades Castle Keepers Guide (3rd printing)

The Castle Keepers Guide is one of the top GM guides you can get. Although it is made for Castles & Crusades (and includes C&C stats for a numerous variety of subjects), it has a wealth of material in its 370 pages that is system neutral and nearly all of it can apply to any fantasy RPG.

The Cover Logo Font and Cover Art
I received my third printing of the Castle Keepers Guide (CKG) from Troll Lord Games (TLG) yesterday and the book is a beauty! It seems TLG is introducing a new look for their C&C products and I welcome this. I remember when I first noticed C&C books at my FLGS in 2017, the font used on the covers of their books appeared to resemble what I interpreted as a far-east samurai font, and I initially assumed C&C was a non-western fantasy game and I just moved on to the next RPG books on the shelf (fortunately, the FLGS also had earlier printings when TLG used – in my view – a better logo, and when I later realized that C&C wasn’t a medieval samurai game I took a closer look). Now, with the 3rd printing, the cover font has been freshened up and looks like what you would expect from a modern RPG game. Hopefully, the D&D 5E and Pathfinder crowd will take a look at it if they see it at their FLGS (unfortunately, the white coloring of the book’s name on the spine almost blends in with the art that is spread across the front and back covers, so most people glancing at the CKG on a bookshelf at their FLGS may have difficulty reading the name of the book!

Any gamers that have played AD&D will recognize the echo of the 1E DMG figure on the cover. So while this latest printing presents a freshened up and much needed font style change to move C&C into the new decade, it still retains an echo of the past. Which make sense, since C&C is in my view the best RPG for mixing and mashing together the best of pre-2000 old school D&D and post-2000 D&D. You can make C&C a rules-lite D&D 5E, or AD&D with a consistent rule system (these are the primary reasons why I switched to C&C).

The Castles & Crusades Castle Keepers Guide (3rd printing) kickstarter rewards.

Castle Keepers Guide – what’s in it?
The CKG has 19 chapters covering subjects such as expanding characters, magic, expanding equipment, NPCs, world building, cities, dungeons, air and water adventures, equipment wastage, land as treasure, going to war, monsters, treasure, combat, skill packages, and character death. I won’t go through all the chapters, but just hit a few highlights.

Classes & Races
The expanding characters chapter used to include optional material to take C&C characters from levels 14-24 (the PHB takes characters to level 13), but this material has been moved to the soon-to-be published 8th printing of the PHB. The material that remains covers optional attributes, racial interactions, and expanding playable races. Although this is obviously usable for C&C, it is also very useful for anyone running a D&D-type game.

The magic chapter provides prices of material components, buying, selling, and trading magic, how one can interpret magic in your game, summoning options, and alternate spellcasting systems. It is useful across-the-board for any C&C or D&D game master.

New interior maps by Alyssa Faden.

City Types
The CKG has always had a section on castles, cities, towns, villages, etc. with stats and information on how they operate and how they are structured. But in this printing they brought in Alyssa Faden, and she provided an incredible amount of map art, some of which are full-page spreads to illustrate the varieties of castles, towns, and cities one can create or adventure in. The text was useful in itself before, but this art really brings it alive and truly enhances the chapter. The art is informative, but can also serve as inspiration, and if you are at a loss for a town or city floorplan, just grab one of the illustrations from the book!

New interior art on numerous types of wagons.

Expanded Equipment
The expanded equipment chapter is filled with information for GMs that want information on rations, animal care, room and board, provisions, etc. This is useful for any fantasy RPG game system. But once again, art has been added for this printing. There is a two-page spread on ships and a two page spread on different types of wagons. The art is top quality and I love the realism it presents.

New art showing different landscape types.

The Dungeons chapter previously had text to describe the different cave landscapes and how they look. But this chapter has also received a fresh lick of paint with illustrations to assist the reader. The quality of this chapter has also been raised.

SIEGE Engine, Skills, and Feats
I’ve mostly just touched on the chapters that received new art to illustrate and enhance the text. But the other chapters on treasure, combat, and world building are filled with gems to enhance your game. C&C is one of the most rules-flexible RPGs out there and the SIEGE Engine is what drives the game (the SIEGE Engine is a d20-style rule system that binds the C&C game together). For those running C&C, the chapter on the SIEGE Engine provides new ways to use the system to meet the needs of the Castle Keeper. Although C&C core rules don’t use formalized skills or feats, if you want that in your game, the Skill Packages chapter provides the means to do so (and if you use an RPG that already has skills and feats, this chapter can expand your options or provide a new way to look at them).

Supplemental Kickstarter Material
The CKG Kickstarter came with some additional books to those who pledged at a higher level. The Core Index is a useful quick reference for the CKG, PHB, and Monster books. The CKG Tables booklet is 60 pages of the most useful tables from the CKG. This will probably get used by me every game session – this was badly needed! I’ve said that the CKG is one of the best GM guides out there, but sometimes trying to find what you need in a 370 page book is difficult to do in the middle of a battle during a game session. This booklet makes that a lot easier by putting things right at my fingertips. Adtherpe’s Natural Materials covers herbalism, alchemy, creature harvesting, and mixing compounds. At just 20 pages it is brief and compact, but it appears to me on a first perusal to be highly useful!

Final Thoughts
It was frustrating that this book arrived 11 months beyond its original delivery date of September, 2020. Keep in mind the textual content was largely unchanged from the 2nd printing, the book mostly just had some new art added. Unfortunately, delivering late Kickstarters is something TLG is known for. Still, I must say that this is a really beautiful book, and both it and the user-friendly supplemental material that came with it will get a lot of use from me. The book gives Castle Keepers guidance and suggestions on almost anything they might face in their game, and for non-C&C GMs out there, this is a very useful addition to your game as well. This book come highly recommended!

Two New OSR Kickstarters Worth Looking Into.

There are currently two new OSR Kickstarters which present flexible, open, and usable ideas for those using any OSR game. Book of Lost Lore and Book of Lost Beasts presents alternate rules and expansions of OSR ideas found in 70’s-90’s D&D. Chromatic Dungeons does the same, except it also includes ideas that should successfully pull-in curious modern gamers interested in exploring the exciting possibilities of Old School gaming.

For me these are ideal since I run Castles and Crusades campaigns and C&C is a game system which uses a D20 inspired rule system (the SEIGE engine) along with AD&D 1st edition style character classes. As a result, I can create a sort of “greatest hits” from all eras of Dungeons and Dragons. Indeed, of the two C&C campaigns I run one of them is comprised mostly of players in their late teens to early 20s and the other group is comprised mostly of people in their 50s and 60s. As you can imagine, this presents me with remarkably diverse perspectives on how players approach the game and attempt to solve problems, and I find both approaches energizing and exciting.

But let us get to the Kickstarters. The first I want to look at is the Book of Lost Lore and Book of Lost Beasts by BRW Games. Joseph Bloch, the writer of these books, is the creator of Adventures Dark and Deep (ADD) which imagines what a 2nd edition AD&D game would have looked like if Gary Gygax had created it. But even if you do not use his game system these are compatible with anything from the various Basic D&D versions through 1st and 2nd edition AD&D.

What these new books will provide backers are new classes (e.g., skald, blackguard), races (e.g., centaurs, half-drow), spells, monsters (200), alternative combat systems, two alternate treasure systems, an alternative to AD&D 2nd edition non-weapon proficiencies, rules for weather, and a system for social encounters. It looks to have close to 300 pages of material spread out over two books. Assuming he keeps the same format of his previous books the font and style will be similar to the AD&D 1st edition core books as well as black and white art reminiscent of the 70s and 80s. I’ve enjoyed the ADD work he’s done in the past, and I look forward to acquiring these new enhancements which I can insert into my C&C games.

Next, we have Chromatic Dungeons. One nice thing about this Kickstarter is that the differences from older versions of D&D are clearly laid out in detail by bullet point and four multi-page samples are available for download (indeed, the books are already written and will be delivered this autumn), this allows me to see in greater detail what is being offered. Looking at these samples you will see that they also have the AD&D 1st edition font style as well as charts and art which are reminiscent of the late 70s and 80s. Just like the previous Kickstarter this is a standalone system you can use; however, it can also operate as ideas which you can insert into your OSR game of choice. Which is exactly how I plan to use this for my C&C games.

Like any OSR tool kit there are a plethora of things which you can insert – or not insert – into your game. For example, it uses three alignments similar to B/X: lawful, neutral, and chaotic. There is no fancy skill system, skill resolutions are simply based on an ability check, so it is rules-light, like many of us OSR folk are familiar with and embrace. In old school gaming we are familiar with attribute modifiers based on race. This game has chosen to switch that to the character classes. Thus, if you are a Fighter you get a +1 to Strength, if you are a Cleric you get a +1 to Wisdom, if you are a Druid you get a +1 to your Charisma (presumably because druids need that for their communication with plants and animals). Now, this isn’t completely new, for if you recall specialty priests from AD&D 2nd edition, a god of poetry, for example, would provide a worshipper with a +1 to Charisma and warrior gods might provide a bonus to Str or Con. So, this is not an alien concept for old school, nonetheless, to see it codified in the rules is quite interesting. I know for my C&C games I do use racial attribute modifiers, as well as occasionally use attribute modifiers for certain classes based on the gods that are worshipped, so I currently use a hybrid version of this idea. So, when I get this book, I can take a closer look at how I can mix and match ideas using both racial modifiers and class modifiers for attributes. As with anything in the OSR, it does not have to be either/or, it can be a mixture of options, since we are all about modifying things as we see fit to make them suitable for the campaigns we envision.

In this game the term “race” has been replaced by “ancestry.” Some will see this as an idea drawn from modern gaming. But if you wish to keep the term as “race” – keep it! However, if you wish to incorporate a modern gaming term like “ancestry” as a gateway or opening for some members of modern gaming to enter old school gaming, this can be a way of doing it. Regardless of whether you go with the term “race” or “ancestry,” the abilities available to the races/ancestry are highly creative and will enhance your game (and there are lots of options – Bugbears, Centaurs, Gnolls, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Kobolds, Lizardmen, Minotaurs, Orcs, Bullyfrogs, etc.). This game doesn’t provide half races such as half-orcs or half-elves (with reasons provided, such as “why are there half-elves, but not half-dwarves”?), yet it gives you ideas for creating any type of half-race if you decide you do want them.

There is also a category called “Heritage.” This is a great way to create either new subraces/ancestries, new regional variants to differentiate subraces/ancestries, or I suppose as a way to incorporate a concept of “feats” into your game (feats not actually mentioned, it is simply my own thought from reading through the sample pages). It really is an amazing tool kit as I look at it (Heritage options are one of the download options in the Kickstarter).

The armor class system in this game is ascending, rather than descending (or using attack tables), but anybody who has played Swords and Wizardry, Old School Essentials, or Castles and Crusades, is aware that many OSR games have provided ascending AC as an option or fully left the descending AC in the past. Of course, if you wish to use descending AC it is quite easy to do so!

This rulebook organizes classes like AD&D 2nd edition (so you have Warriors and then underneath that are Fighters, Berserkers, Paladins, and Rangers). This game will introduce a crafting system (the six page preview they provide is pretty interesting), and it adds a new element to traditional treasure (such as finding rare and exotic items). All in all, I am excited to get this book (if it gets funded!) for this along with the previous Kickstarter mentioned provide an amazing set of tools and ideas to enhance in OSR game. So for anyone looking to enhance or expand their OSR game, I encourage them to check these two Kickstarters out!

Returning to the Gaming Table!

In early March 2020 gaming at my home, game stores, and the conventions I attend came to a halt. For nearly 15 months I’ve conducted my gaming online. But beginning 1 June, 2021, all the gamers in my home game will be making their triumphant return to my table! Will anything be changing after gaming online for the last 15 months?

Well, first of all, with 15 months of working at home (and a brief period of unemployment), I’ve had time to work on my house. The medieval décor has been enhanced during this time. When my players enter my house they should feel more immersed than before. Also, I gained three players for my home game during the pandemic, so those three players have never been to my house, so this will be their first visit.

When I first switched from Dungeons & Dragons to Castles & Crusades I purchased extra books so that players could reference them at the table and buy them from me if they enjoyed the game and my campaign (some might initially be reluctant to try a game other than D&D or Pathfinder. I’ve now been running C&C for 3 years now and have a steady and loyal group of players dedicated to my game and the C&C system. With the books you see on the table (Codex Germania, Nordica, Slavorum, Classicum, Celtarum, Mystical Companions, and several Players Handbooks) in the above picture, I now have players who’ll be purchasing most of those books off of me, ensuring that they have all the options for available game play for C&C and my campaigns.

You can also see some of the map fragments from Barrowmaze. During the pandemic I made use of Discord screen sharing and later the Owlbear Rodeo VTT to share the Barrowmaze map sections they had discovered. Now, we can return to using old fashioned paper handouts with the players folding and taping them together as they receive them.

As it happens, two of the players over the next few months will find themselves unable to game in person at various points in time, and here all the experience of online gaming will remain relevant. For those unable to attend in person for a session, can still appear via Discord and I will have a map fragment posted on Owlbear Rodeo and the webcam aimed at our gaming with everyone in sight (and we will be able to see them with their webcam).

As for GMing, face-to-face gaming won’t change much for me, since I mostly ran my online gaming using the actual physical books before me (I really don’t like reading digital/PDF material while gaming and only used them for screen sharing or uploading to Owlbear Rodeo). I run games mostly standing up and moving about and that means picking up and reading through physical books when needed, and this is remains true for me whether gaming in person or online.

However, there will be a few minor changes. So, instead of me rolling the critical hit/fumble dice for a player, they can now roll the dice themselves (you can see the dice tower where I will makes some of my occasional public rolls as well as the critical hit/fumble dice in a skeletal hand in the picture of my gaming table two pictures above).

I also like to have ambient music playing in the background of my games, and that didn’t happen during my online games. Now, with people back in my gaming room, I can have music and sounds playing in the background. When you add the subdued lighting, candles, flickering LEDs, etc., the game should be greatly enhanced! It will be nice to finally have everyone back for proper socializing!

Subduing a Dragon (or other Monster) in Castles & Crusades

Have you ever thought of subduing monsters? This has come up numerous times for my players and so I have taken a closer look at this, since I want my players to have the greatest array of options when it comes to how they can deal with monsters they encounter.

Subduing monsters has existed in previous editions of D&D (AD&D 1st edition, for example, had unique rules for attempting to subdue dragons, which is what inspired my deeper look into this, for subduing a dragon – or draconic creature – will become an option in one of my Castles & Crusades campaigns). I would like to present some scenarios as to how this might be done using the C&C rules as written and present some homebrew adjustments I will be making. Even if you don’t use C&C, the discussion that follows might be of interest to you.

What is subduing?
From the C&C Castle Keepers Guide (3rd printing, p.316): “Subduing an opponent or monster is a form of establishing dominance. This only succeeds if the opponent or monster believes the person doing the subduing is superior or has been convinced that any established bond is reciprocal. Subdual most often involves a physical contest but may involve more, depending on the intelligence (and memory) of the opponent. Creatures completely lacking any sort of intelligence, such as a skeleton or a green slime, cannot be subdued. Creatures of bug-level intelligence could possibly be subdued for short periods of time, but they would tend to resort to instinct.” [I will note that, for me, there may be exceptions to that last sentence. My Barrowmaze group may have subdued an Amber Golem without realizing it! Like with anything, if a player makes a good case for accomplishing something, or comes up with a genuinely creative solution to a problem, exceptions may arise.]

More from the CKG (ibid): “Animals, particularly those of the herd or pack variety, are programmed to dominate or be dominated. It is simply a physical contest where the strongest is the boss. This would last until the boss demonstrates significant weakness or poor judgment. The wolf who cannot lead his pack to food may himself become food. Lower end human-level intelligence creatures would follow a similar code, although the initial subdual may not require a physical contest at all. Intimidation may be enough. Higher intelligence creatures would certainly require more than a physical contest to be subdued.”

For the Barrowmaze group there have already been attempts at dominance made with wolves and lycanthropes (one player has become a werewolf), and with the rules that follow, we will be able to deal with this much more clearly and successfully in the future. My Dragonclaw Barony group may also find this useful with their future dealings with dragons (and other draconic creatures), and giants.

How does subduing work?
Subduing may begin as a physical contest but can evolve into a test of wills. Again, from the CKG (ibid): “[subduing] comes by defeating the foe in non-lethal combat, thus demonstrating to the foe your superiority. The attacker succeeds at this through unarmed combat, or by using the “flat” of a weapon, that is, by using the weapon in such a way as to deal non-lethal damage. The weapon will do the same damage as far as hit points go, but the majority of this damage is temporary or “bruising” damage, which will heal relatively quickly.”

To attempt subdual, the creature must be reduced to at least 50% of its hit points, although some monsters may require more. For example, bringing a normal animal to at least 50% would be enough for a check to be made (detailed below), but I would probably require bringing a dragon or giant very close to 0 hit points before it surrenders or submits.

Control is gained by making a successful, relevant, attribute saving throw (add attribute bonus plus level). [The CKG says to roll a successful Charisma saving throw, but in my view a character could do this by other class-specific means that make it a lot more fun and relevant to the PC, as I explain]. What do I mean by “relevant?” It depends on the class doing it. For a paladin it would be Charisma, for a Dragonslayer, Dexterity, for a Giant Killer, Strength. Your class will determine the method you will use to attempt subdual – it will be unique to each character. This means the Challenge Base will be 12, since the check will always be based on the character’s best prime attribute.

The Challenge Level added to the Challenge Base will be equal to the creature’s hit dice or level. Additionally, in this contest, any damage the character has taken will affect the outcome of the saving throw, since the creature will perceive the PC as being weaker and easier to defeat. For every level’s worth of hit points the character has taken in damage (rounded down), you reduce the number they add to their roll by 1.

Example [from the CKG, (ibid)]: “A 7th level bard, Amanoth, with a primary attribute of charisma 14 attempts to gain control of a griffon. The creature’s hit dice is 7 making the challenge class a 19. The character rolls a 13, receives a +1 for his attribute modifier and a +7 for his level for a result of 21. The check is successful, and the character gains control. However, if Amanoth had taken half his hit points in damage, the character would only add 3 to the roll for his level. The result is very different: 13 +1 + 3 for a total of 17. The subdual fails. If the attribute check is successful, the character gains control of the creature. If the attribute check is unsuccessful, then the creature is unaffected.”

As you can see, it is not just the creatures hit points that play a role in subduing them, you must appear strong and dominant yourself!

Maintaining Control
Keeping the creature subdued may require a series of attribute checks. Quoting from the CKG again (p.316):
“Checks may be required whenever the subdued creature’s life is endangered or when the master commits some sort of significant error. Times to check subdual:

• If ill-treated.
• If forced into evil/good actions.
• Highly stressful situations.
• Master very weak.

Keeping a foe subdued may be a far more difficult job than the initial subdual. A creature treated well, and which shares an alignment with its master is less likely to rebel than a creature of opposing alignment or one which the character forces into dangerous or deadly situations. Chaotically aligned creatures, more individualistic by nature, are more likely to rebel, as are creatures of a higher hit dice than their master. Lawful creatures may be more likely to wait for an opportunity to defeat their master and usurp his place.

Remember that subdual always begins in defeat and fear. In time, it may grow into a devoted loyalty, but this is something that the master will have to work hard to earn.”

Applications for Subdual, and an Example of it in Action with a Dragon
Normal Monsters and Magical Beasts

The CKG example regarding the griffon is a great demonstration of how subduing would work with animals and some magical beasts.

Humanoid Opponents
You could also use this against humanoid opponents who you want to question or place under coercive influence. We have all read stories or seen TV shows or films where a villain is subdued into a submissive role working for someone they dislike or hate. This could be a tactic you use to achieve a similar result. Obviously, high level villains will have a lot more options before them, so this is by no means a guaranteed form of control (remember, they are not charmed), but it does offer an option. Imagine you have a rogue who wants to run a guild and you see another active thug as competition, if you can succeed in subduing this thug, you they might do your bidding and become your “muscle.” They might resent it and work to find a way out, however, if they admire strength and cleverness, in time they might realize that it is in their best interest to remain with you and their allegiance might switch from their previous employer to you.

Epic Monsters
What about something more epic like giants, or dragons? Have you considered getting a dragon to guard your treasure? Perhaps you want to ride a dragon? Perhaps you want to have a dragon as an advisor. What about bullying a troll to live under your bridge and collect tolls from those that pass over it? Why attack the city walls of your enemy when you can get a giant to do it for you? Some of the above examples are activities that these creatures frequently do on their own, so getting them to do it for you may not be as much of a stretch and they may find it reasonable or even enjoyable.

Still, these creatures are quite powerful, are they more resistant to subdual? In C&C Dragons get bonuses to their saving throws based on their age category and many are resistant or immune to certain types of fear, so all of these factors will increase the Challenge Level to subdue. A Young Adult Blue Dragon, for example, has 8 HD. A young Adult dragon also gets a +3 bonus to saving throws. Additionally, if you attack a dragon in its lair, I think they should have an advantage, since they know every nook and cranny of this location. I would give them an additional +1 for fighting them in their lair. I would then add all these numbers together to get a Challenge Level of 13, providing a total Challenge Class of 25. This would emphasize the dragon’s greater resistance to being controlled or defeated. If they had also cast Aid and Protection from Good on themselves, then the Challenge Class could increase to 27 or 28.

However, if someone in the party trying to subdue the dragon were a Dragonslayer (i.e., the Drachentöten class from the Codex Germania), then I might give them an additional +1 bonus to their roll since they are a class trained to deal with and defeat these monsters. Also, in my games the god the players choose for their characters gives them abilities similar to what worshipers got as Specialty Priests in AD&D 2nd edition. So, if you worship a god that is focused on destroying these creatures (such as Thor when it comes to striking down Giants), then I might give the player a +1 bonus for that as well. Finally, if you are attacking in large numbers, then that is bound to influence the monster you are trying to subdue. In my campaigns I want a large group of PCs – usually 10 – since I want my players to have the most options available to them and my campaigns tend to be very dangerous, so if I have five players and they each have two characters, they could lose one character during an adventure and keep going. Plus, having additional members of a class such as rogues and clerics adds to the different ways you can heal or find/remove traps. Having a large group will also pose a greater intimidating challenge to the dragon they are trying to defeat, and I might give the character attempting to subdue the dragon an additional +1 for every character that is currently standing with them.

So, let us look at a more complicated example of a party trying to subdue a dragon.

Green Dragon (art from Wizards of the Coast, 2014)

George is a lawful good 10th level Dragonslayer who lives to slay or subdue dragons. He slays the chaotic evil ones but is open to subduing the lawful non-evil ones to do his bidding or to consult for their knowledge of the area. In this case he wants to subdue a local green dragon and use what it knows so that he can go slay a red dragon. He is part of a group of 10 adventurers that call themselves, rather boldly, “The Masters of Dragons.” The Masters of Dragons arrive at the lair of an adult lawful evil Green Dragon named Grawvish. Progressing through its lair they all take some damage from its traps but make it to his central chamber. There is some initial verbal sparring between George and Grawvish demanding the dragon submit to his will, but Drawvish laughs at these arrogant mortals and battle begins. The wizards might normally cast fireball and lightning bolt but George wants to subdue Grawvish, so they and the other spellcasters focus instead on controlling spells such as using entangle and web on Grawvish’s tail and wings to reduce its movement and reduce the effectiveness of its multiple attacks, leaving it to the warrior types to make the physical subdual attacks and damage. Grawvish breaths forth a horrific cloud of toxic gas that kills one of the wizards and brings a rogue and druid to a state of unconsciousness. There are now only 7 characters still active in the fight. George is doing the most to the dragon, using his Baldr’s Strike ability for twice maximum damage with each hit, and using Dragon Dancing to avoid getting hit by it in return. Still, the dragon knows that George is the greatest threat to it, and he has knocked George down to ¼ of his maximum hit points. It so happens, though, that at this same moment George has also (with the assistance of the other fighters, barbarians, and monks in the group) reduced it to just above 0 hit points with their subdual attacks. George now demands that Grawvish submit to him. Now it is time for George to make his check.

Here are George’s numbers: normally he would get +10 for his level, but because he is only at ¼ his maximum hit points, it is only +2. His Dexterity modifier is +2. He is a Dragonslayer, so I give him another +1. He worships a god of hunting, so I decide to give him another +1 for the skill his god has given him. Normally I would give him another +9 to his roll because of the other nine members of his party, but because three of them are down, he only gets another +6.

So, he will roll a 1d20 +2 (weakened 10th level character), + 2 (Dex), +1 (unique character class) + 1 (deity bonus) + 6 (characters reinforcing him). Or put more simply: 1d20 + 2 + 2 +1 + 1 + 6.

The Challenge Base begins at 12 since it will be a prime check for George. The Green Dragon is a Young Adult (8 HD) for a +8. I am giving it a +3 for its Age Category. It is fighting in its lair, so I give it another +1. And it had time to cast Aid on itself, and I have decided that the +1 bonus the spell provides should be added to its Challenge Level to resist.

So, the Challenge Level will be 8 + 3 +1 +1 = 13.

The final Challenge Class will be Challenge Base 12 + Challenge Level 13 = 25.

George rolls 1d20 +12.

This will be difficult, for George will have to roll 12 or higher to succeed in his subdual attempt. And he rolls…

How ‘bout you roll a d20 to see if George succeeded? What did you get? Did George succeed in subduing Grawvish? Will George be able to get the information he seeks for the nearby Red Dragon he wishes to hunt and kill?

As you can see from this example, there are a lot of variables. In my game your class, god, and how many people you have supporting you will play a roll [pun intended] in your success, as well as how much health you have when you attempt to subdue the creature – you need to get the creature’s hit points down while keeping yours up.

Whether you use the more simplified Castles & Crusades system for a ranger or barbarian that wants to subdue a wolf or owlbear, or add a few more homebrew variables like I will add for more challenging monsters like giants and dragons, this adds great new options for players to consider for game play.

RPG Product Review: Taverns, Inns, and Shops

City Sites: Taverns, Inns, and Shops. We all need them in our RPG games. In the review I am doing today I will take a look at the options from three companies: Fantasy City Sites and Scenes designed by Philip Reed. Remarkable Shops and Remarkable Inns by LoreSmyth. And The Book of Taverns, Volumes 1-3 by Necromancer Games.

First up is is Philip Reed’s Fantasy City Sites and Scenes books. There are currently two, but a third was successfully kickstarted recently and I should have it in a few months. I really love this series that Reed does and will admit that they are my favorite of the three product lines that I will be reviewing here. What is there to like?

Each site is displayed on a two facing pages (see below). You usually get a picture of an NPC or an important object, and a picture of the establishment. The artwork is very good (I especially love the buildings). Tying all the pictures together is background text and adventure hooks. It is just what you need to run the site. You could even run some of these on the fly, and to have everything on two facing pages makes it very easy to use. Some of the locations and the people are tied together across the two books (and presumably the upcoming third). Thus, you could plan some of this ahead of time to construct a larger subplot in towns, city neighborhoods, and districts. Of course, you can ignore the tie-ins if you prefer, and I have in some instances, since I have taken some of the locations described in these two books and spread them across three towns in one campaign, and others are being placed in separate campaign I run. Still, if you want to build up a network of related characters Reed gives that option to you.

At the end of each book is a chapter called “City Scenes” which is broken down into “Daytime Scenes” and “Nightime Scenes.” There are 20 options for each and they each get a generous sized paragraph. This gives the GM the option to randomly roll or specifically choose a scene if players wander down a particular street or alley. These add a lot of character to a street scene as characters walk through a town, and within some paragraphs you can roll another die to change the details up some more, so these scenes are reusable.

The material is all system neutral, so regardless of what fantasy RPG you run you’ve got something that will work for it. The character art sometimes leans towards a D&D 5E feel, but not overly so. This is a versatile game product. The paper stock is also sturdy, so the book will last. I am also very happy to support Reed’s products on Kickstarter, since (so far) he delivers the PDF as soon as the Kickstarter ends and delivers the physical product on time (or early) within a month or two. Finding a person who delivers a Kickstarter on time is rare (in my experience), so when you find someone who does, and it is of such high quality, I will give them my future support.

Next is LoreSmyth’s Ultimate Guide to Remarkable Inns & their Drinks and Remarkable Shops. These books are broken down into two areas, the first half of the books are examples of Inns or Shops, each example usually gets 4 pages dedicated to it. Each establishment begins with a chart breaking down wealth, prices, security, authority, rooms, services, talent, disposition. It’s a nice quick reference for those GMs looking for a place within a particular price range or service. The next couple of pages describe the details of the place, along with the race/class of the staff and notable patrons. An example menu or chart is then provided giving the GM items with some unique character to use to help the place stand out. You have a lot to work with here. However, although largely system-neutral, these example establishments have a strong D&D 5E focus and feel to them. So if you have a 5E-ish exotic high-fantasy world with tieflings, aasimar, dragonborn, genasi, etc. then this will give you a lot of new material to work with. On the other hand, if you prefer mysterious and enigmatic creatures to remain mysterious, enigmatic, and rare in your campaigns, then you might struggle with some of these example institutions. I am in the latter category, and although I can swap out some of these NPCs for something else, in some cases I’ve decided it won’t be worth the effort. When it comes to these sections of the books I think I may only be able to use about 1/3 of the shops/inns listed (whereas with the Philip Reed books, they are broader in scope and I can use 90% or more of his material in my campaigns).

But there is still the last half of these books to consider. These sections have titles like: “Bring Your Inns/Shops To Life” and “Creating Your Own Inn/Shop.” These sections are filled with lists, charts, and descriptive text, to help you work out the dispositions of shopkeepers, their security measures, wealth & prices, services, work & training, custom items, sample floor plans, etc. There is an amazing amount of material here to create your own shops and inns (sample picture below). This is where the strength of these two products lie. This material is more system neutral then the examples in the first half of the books and can be dropped into more fantasy RPG settings.

Since these two books are roughly 100 pages each, that means you will get 50 pages of example shops and inns, and 50 pages of how to create your own. On the LoreSmyth website the PDFs go for around $15, softcovers $25, and both for $35. For D&D 5E and Pathfinder GMs this is quite worthwhile, for those that run old school games the price does does pose possible issues if you want PDFs and a softcover, since some of the sample inns/shops may not be useable. You will just have to decide how much 50 pages of tables/ charts/ descriptive text is worth to you. I supported three more LoreSmyth kickstarters recently (Remarkable Cults, Wondrous Expeditions – Forest, and Heroic Challenges Roleplaying Cards), and the cards have been great fun to use (I will review those another time), but I do wonder about future books in this series, since so far it seems I will only use about 60% of the content in them, and since there are other companies out there that do this sort of thing that are more in my mindset of medieval low fantasy, I think I might be better to focus on them.

Finally, we arrive at Necromancer Games and the Book of Taverns series. There have been three volumes completed so far. Each softcover is 20 pages with two taverns, so you are getting 10 pages dedicated to each tavern. They are pitched as system neutral. The strength of these is for those that want a fully detailed tavern. Each tavern has roughly two pages of background, two pages of NPCs, a full page menu, and five pages of floor plans with each room getting a paragraph description. If you have not detailed an area in your campaign and are happy to have a fully detailed tavern with backstory and accompanying NPCs, this will give it to you.

However, these are very niche taverns. If you buy volume 1 and don’t want a Greek-themed tavern based around philosophical debates, or a dive bar located on the docks, then this probably won’t interest you. You will want to look at the contents of each volume ahead of time to see if it will work in your campaign.

Since there is so much developed for each tavern, it does give me a lot to work with, and if I don’t want to use it all I can obviously leave some of it out and re-write portions of it. Of the six taverns designed for these three volumes, I think I might use four of them, but it will require more effort on my part to bring them into my campaigns, and I will, in turn, probably want to build campaign-specific subplots around the ideas within to get the most out of the effort.

So, those are the three different product lines I wanted to look at for this post. I hope you found something useful in my review. Best of luck to you all in your design of taverns, inns, and shops!

The Castles & Crusades Illusionist

In the history of D&D the Illusionist has shifted about when it comes to what they are and what they can do. In AD&D the illusionist was a sub-class of the magic-user. In 2nd edition eight schools of magic appeared and the illusionist was now just one of the eight (this has remained for all subsequent D&D editions). But Castles & Crusades went back to the AD&D illusionist and then gave it a unique twist that allowed it to stand on its own.

The Mirror Image spell (art from the AD&D 1st ed. Players Handbook, p.75)

When I left D&D and switched to Castles & Crusades I was excited to see that the Illusionist was it’s own class and not subordinate to the magic-user like in 1st edition (“Illusionists form a sub-class of magic-users…[w]hile being equal, or even slightly inferior, to normal magic-users in most respects…”, AD&D 1E PHB p.26), or in recent editions just becoming lost in the crowd of arcane magic, in C&C the illusionist was elevated to something unique (“…it could be argued that illusionist magic is the most powerful of all magics as it can allow those affected by it to defy nature and its physical laws”, C&C PHB, 7th printing, p.69).

Still, I’ve had some issues with how the illusionist class is written up. On the one hand it is clearly TLG trying to bring the AD&D class into C&C, and on the other hand, it feels like someone had an idea for a unique new class but it then got shoehorned into the illusionist. I’ve seen so much potential, and yet the class write-up needs to cleaned up.

Expanding Current C&C Illusionist Monster-specific Spells.
First, let me consider some of the illusionist spells. C&C has greatly expanded the types of spells that illusionists have at hand to cast, and yet some seem strangely restrictive and narrowly focused.

In C&C we have specific illusionist spells like Dragon Mark (0-level), Dragon Armor (1st-level), Dragon Image (1st-level), Illusionary Hounds (1st-level), Dragon Bite (2nd-level), Dragon Mount (3rd-level), Dragon Scales (4th-level), Dragon Shadow (5th-level), etc. Why so many dragon spells? Do illusionists have some special connection to these creatures that we don’t know about? What is the rationale? You could simply say that dragons are cool and this makes the class cooler as a result, but if you have people constantly throwing dragon images and sounds all over the place (and people discovered that most of these are illusions), would this not actually diminish dragons in the world? And what would dragons think if they heard about short-lived, spindly, bipedal apes running about using the majestic images and sounds of dragons to spook people? (Perhaps that is why dragons are always destroying cities and hoarding people’s treasure, they hate that illusionists are using their likeness without permission!)

These illusionist spells are all so very specific. The illusionist is touted as being “masters of time and substance” (C&C PHB p.70), illusion spells “are not simple parlor tricks to fool the weak of mind, but are powerful incantations drawing upon his own powerful mind; he weaves these musings with magic drawn from the world around him, thereby fabricating the very stuff of reality. Illusionists can literally create something from nothing” (C&C PHB p.72), yet why the focus on conjuring hounds and dragon sounds/images? It seems limiting when there are so many other great monsters out their that players can draw upon for a fun encounter.

To give my players more creative flexibility I will be telling them to re-imagine some of the spell names, so instead of Illusionary Hounds, it will be Illusionary Animal. This allows them to choose the animal they wish to make an illusion. Think about how that opens the door to their imagination. Dragon Bite can become Monster Bite and the player can once again choose the beast they wish to create to lunge in and bite the target. This doesn’t have to happen to all of the monster-specific spells, but it would be good to open a few of them up. It would also be a good house rule that an illusionist can only summon the image/sound/scent/feel of a creature they have previously encountered. This allows the character to grow from one encounter to another and from one game session to another. They might begin with by making Monster Bite that of a wolf they previously encountered in combat, then after encountering a cave bear they could add that to their repertoire, in the third session they might encounter a saber-toothed cat, etc. The spell remains the same mechanics-wise, yet the player gets an amazing expansion as to how they creatively present and describe the spell, and that adds so much to an encounter when the player has the ability to imaginatively present a spell in a new way each time they cast it.

Bringing Back Old Illusionist Spells.
I also miss some of the 1E spells like Phantasmal Force (1st-level), Improved Phantasmal Force (2nd-level), and Spectral Force (3rd-level). Now, I suppose Minor Image (2nd-level) and Major Image (3rd-level) are the C&C versions of those (and those names came from D&D 3E), but I plan to take a closer look at this, if nothing else the AD&D spell names are much more interesting than the rather bland “minor” or “major” image. If you were a spellcaster and you came up with a new spell, would you call it “minor illusion” or “phantasmal force”? I suppose it depends on whether you were some austere academic obsessed with the taxonomic ordering of all known forms of magic, or if you were more of an artistic spellcaster seeking to project with a flourish your imaginative imagery into the world around you.

Illusionists and Healing.
I do like the C&C idea that illusionists can heal. “How do they do that?” You might ask. “They heal damage in the same manner in which they cause damage – not by tricking their targets but rather by projecting their own magical power into the target and changing the nature of time and substance. They do not trick the target’s mind into physically healing itself…An illusionist channels or controls the natural magic of the world around him” (C&C PHB, p.72).

However, this is contradicted when you look at the healing spells in the PHB. The Players Handbooks spell entries for the Cure Light Wounds, Cure Critical Wounds, and Cure Critical Wounds (p.99-100) all say that when the illusionist casts the spell that the “the recipient of the spell must make an intelligence saving throw. If the creature fails the saving throw, the spell acts normally. If the creature makes the saving throw, the spell fails as the creature realises that the spell is an illusion” (C&C PHB p.100).

But then in the Castle Keepers Guide (2nd printing) it gets it right by saying this: “To bring greater continuity to the table and to better express the illusionist’s power as a manipulator of time and space in regard to his ability to heal, it may simply make more sense to have the illusionist make an attribute check to succeed at casting any curing spells. When an illusionist attempts to heal, the recipient, either unconscious or conscious, receives the magic only if the illusionist successfully makes his attribute check. In this case, the CL equals the level of the target. Use this rule in place of the target making the check against the illusionist. This approach expresses the nature of the class better than when the target makes a save” (C&C CKG p. 52).

Yes! So why does the PHB still have the outdated and confusing statements in the cure spells that the target makes the check? I will be sure to let my players know to ignore what the PHB says in the cure wounds spell entries regarding illusionists.

So those are my thoughts on the C&C illusionist, what do you think?

Weather Dice and Conditions for RPGs

Do you make use of weather conditions in your game? Weather conditions add an immense amount to a game, bringing the environment to life for the players, altering the pace of travel, and adding dynamic changes to encounters. I make use of weather dice to add randomness to my game which gives my players and myself something new and exciting to respond to for travel and encounters. Below I lay out some of the game-changing options available from using weather dice.

In my early days of GMing during AD&D, I occasionally made use of weather charts in the rule books. Two books that I made use of during those days were the AD&D 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide and the Wilderness Survival Guide. They were – and still are – great references which I return to whenever I can. The Castles & Crusades Castle Keepers Guide is also a great RPG source (even if you don’t run C&C).

However, although those three books are great to work out the effects of a weather condition, I like to try and run my games as quickly and spontaneously as possible. I want my players to respond to things on-the-fly, and I want to as well, for it keeps the game exciting for me. I love to think on my feet and have to improv an encounter based on the changed circumstances. Using weather conditions means encounters are rarely going to be generic, bland, and all look like each other. That is why I have purchased weather dice from several companies (from my FLGS, game conventions, and Kickstarter). Whenever my players set off on a day of travel, I will roll one of the dice and we all have to deal with the result. I usually roll the weather die 1-3 times per day (morning, afternoon, and evening) to signify weather patterns moving through, as well as at night when players are on watch (weather doesn’t stop at night!). I also use other polyhedral dice to expand upon what was rolled on a weather die. Here are some examples.

Example 1. I roll the weather die and get “foggy.”
I might then roll a d4. On a 1 the fog will be light and only limit sight over long ranges (perhaps at increments of 100-400 yards), but if I rolled a 4 on the d4, then the limit to sight might begin after 10 feet, at which point a creature would get 1/4 cover, at 20 feet 1/2 cover, at 30 feet 3/4 cover, and at 40 feet full cover. This would effect any monsters relying on site to discover the PC’s as well as for the PC’s noticing the monsters. Imagine if the players smell some monster but can’t see it, or they only get glimpses through the rolling fog – that adds a lot of atmosphere to an encounter, and it has suddenly become a lot more interesting and challenging for all involved!

Example 2. I roll “rain” on the weather die.
I might then roll a d6 to discover how heavy the rain is and a d4 to work out how long it will last. A roll of 1 on the d6 might just be a drizzle and not have any immediate effect, yet, if I rolled a 4 on the d4, then that drizzle will last four hours, and even after four hours those who are wearing padded armor or certain types of clothing might be soaked and the players might want to consider taking a break to dry off or begin to feel some level of exhaustion. If I rolled a 4 on the d6 and a 1 on the d4, then at that point I would know that the rain would be heavier and would last one hour. Heavy rain would effect line of sight (think of partial cover effecting the AC for monsters and PCs), it would also be detrimental to ranged attacks and spells. Exact details can always be looked up in one of the books I referred to earlier, but if you don’t want to slow down the game, you can simply add modifiers of of -1 to -4 to relevant attacks or attribute checks to detect things through the heavy rain.

Example 3. I roll “wind” on the weather die.
Wind will effect not only flying creatures, but missile attacks, some spells, and depending on whether you are upwind or downwind, your sense of smell and any sounds that are being made. Rolling a d6 could let you know whether it is 10-60 mph, and of course you can apply the relevant modifiers to attacks or attribute checks. Imagine hearing a howl, or a scream and not be entirely sure where it came from in the 40 mph wind? The same can happen with a smell that a character might pick up. The wind can distort a smell or sound and this can lead to an opportunity for the monsters or PC’s to come up with a strategy to surprise the other, or perhaps for the others to fail their surprise attack!

Example 4. Combine dice rolls.
If I roll “rain” and “wind” on two weather die rolls, then I’ve got a thunderstorm rolling in, and now we’ve got wind and rain effecting everyone in all the areas I described above. And if it has been raining for a long time, then surfaces may be slick and people may have difficulty maintaining footing, and this in turn may require checks to see if they slip and fall.

When outdoors weather is something everyone encounters, all the time, and yet in most games I’ve been in, weather is ignored and the monsters encountered are assumed to be met on some generic moderately lit day, and night encounters on a moderately star-filled night. But with weather dice everything is changed. Even a bright sunny day can effect what you see, since some flying monsters might fly in to attack in the direction of the sun which is a blind spot for the players. Wind, rain, clouds, fog, sun, snow, lightning, etc. These are all weather conditions that you can find on a weather die and each one of them can alter what you see, hear, and smell. Give it a try, I think you’ll find that it adds a lot to a game. If you have tried this, I would love to hear what you’ve experienced!

The case for players playing multiple characters.

Should a TTRPG be run as one character per player, or can players have multiple characters? I’ve done it both ways over 30 years of gaming, but I now have my players use multiple characters.

When I first began running game regularly during AD&D 2nd edition, I only had three players and to have a full group they each had 2-3 characters each, plus I used an NPC or two. Our adventuring groups were roughly 10 characters (keep in mind that many older D&D adventures were designed for 6-9 characters). There were multiples of rogues, clerics, mages, warriors, etc. We had a lot of fun. Once 3E appeared and all the way up through my time with 5E, there was one character per player, and our groups were down to 4-5 characters. This worked to some degree since modern D&D characters are substantially more powerful than older versions of D&D (everyone has more hit points, it is incredibly easy to heal, you rarely run out of spells, and character death is rare). I now run Castles & Crusades and have returned in part to the multiple characters approach of the past, but with some modifications. Below I will lay out my reasons for doing so and why I enjoy it so much.

What if everyone here were all part of one adventuring group? (art from Gameloft “March of Empires”)

Reason 1: Old-school gaming – dangerous and less complicated
The Barrowmaze campaign I run on Tuesday’s is particularly challenging and you need as many people skilled in arms, spells, and problem solving as you can get. Being an old school game, I think using an extra character is more fun than just making use of henchmen, hirelings, or retainers, to accompany the group. In old-school games spellcasters run out of spells, hit points are lower, and healing is slower. In my days playing AD&D 1st edition, my magic-user had one or two spells per day. He used them for one or two encounters and the rest of the time he sat in the back of the party (or the middle, whichever was safer), and used his intelligence to solve puzzles that might arise. If you just use one character, that player could get bored. Whereas, if they were to have a wizard and a fighter, for example, they will always have someone they can use in most situations.

Old-school characters are also less complicated than modern D&D characters (there are a lot less special class abilities to manage in most old-school games), so it is much easier to manage them. Finally, whereas modern D&D and Pathfinder focuses on cramming a lot into one round (move action, attack action, bonus action, reaction), which necessitates the need for players to feel that their characters must always do something. Old-school games shift the focus from doing up to four things in a single round, to (sometimes) doing four things in an entire combat. This leaves plenty of room for players to have multiple characters with multiple things to do and not feel overburdened.

Reason 2: Expanded options allows players get more done
Each of my players are urged to create up to four characters and then swap them in and out based on:
1) What they are interested in playing that session.
2) Meeting the needs of the adventuring party for that session.
3) Some characters may be out training for new abilities (see this post for more information on that).

In my C&C games I encourage my players to bring up to two of their four characters on an adventure, or to have 10 characters go on any given adventure. So on days when five players show up to game, they usually bring two characters each, and if seven players are available to play, then only three of them will bring an extra character.

I like this because every player is not just invested in one character, they are far more involved with the adventuring company overall. In my Tuesday Barrowmaze campaign, there are 7 players with roughly 4 characters each, giving us 28 characters (and keep in mind that some characters are dual-classed, so there are actually well over 30 character classes represented). In the town where they reside – Ironguard Motte – they have their own building the size of a multistory tavern. At any given time when 10 characters are out adventuring, the other 18 are making or repairing weapons and armor, creating scrolls or potions, learning spells, identifying magic items, practicing their trade or profession, training lower level characters, connecting with local people of importance, and keeping the long-term interests of the adventuring company going on in the background. On any given four hour game session with the adventurers fighting their way through the Barrowmaze, I sometimes – in a lull or slow spot – throw in a 5-10 minute interlude when we return to Ironguard Motte for someone to knock on the door of their establishment and in a brief conversation set the stage for a future adventure. I think it is quite successful in conveying the feeling that there is always something going on in the world.

Reason 3: A Total Party Kill (TPK) is not the end of a campaign
In most D&D-type games, if everyone dies in an encounter, the campaign may be over. I ran Dragon Mountain in 1993-94 and there was a TPK. After two years of committed adventuring everyone died. It was a letdown. I also ran a Tomb of Horrors campaign over the period of a year. Everyone died in an encounter. But the way I run games now, if there were to ever be a TPK, the campaign would not end, since the other adventurers could avenge their friend’s deaths, and may even retrieve their bodies and equipment. It could add renewed vigor and more passion for the campaign (although obviously one does not want that to happen).

Summary thoughts:
Games like D&D 5E focus on one character. Many players will purchase a new set of dice to represent their new character. There is an array cool material on Kickstarter and Etsy for players wanting to purchase a journal for their character, or a unique token or miniature to represent the character. That is perfectly fine if that is the style of game you are aiming for. But my games are more dangerous and I aim for more group flexibility, and rather than focus on the beliefs and goals of a single individual, I’d rather focus on a family group dynamic, both a small family group that a player will have if they rotate four characters in and out of adventures, and a larger family dynamic which encompasses all the other player’s characters combined. This can also work more positively in keeping the focus on the overall arc of the campaign instead of on a particular character (although obviously individual characters will shine and stand out. That has happened in my Barrowmaze campaign, where the highest level characters have taken on leadership roles, and the younger, lower level adventurers, view them more as veterans, or parental figures and seek them out for their experiences and insights).

There are other ways in which this could be done. D&D 5E recently introduced the idea of a side kick. Older editions of D&D encouraged the use of hirelings, henchmen, and retainers. The game Ars Magica makes use of a “troupe system” style of play. And Dungeon Crawl Classics has the 0-level funnel where a player uses four characters in an adventure and whoever survives by the end makes it to 1st level. The approach I take seems to be a bit different.

What do you think? Would having players use multiple characters and rotate others in and out of adventures work in your game?