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!

Edit (18/9/2021): I review Chromatic Dungeons in this blog post.

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.

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?

A new approach to downtime activities and leveling up character abilities.

Dungeons & Dragons have had many options over the years on how you can personalize characters (e.g. training for acquiring class abilities upon leveling up, skills, feats, downtime activities, etc.). I enjoy drawing upon all these sources, but for my Castles & Crusades campaigns I have come up with my own formula for character improvement.

(art by dleoblack)

In AD&D there were secondary skills, in AD&D 2nd edition we got non-weapon proficiencies and later kits, in 3E there was a certain sequence when people would acquire skills or feats, 5E shares a similar approach, plus they have subclasses and downtime activities. They all offer something for players seeking to personalize their character, but they also tend to present things in a restricted manner which can make everything feel the same, such as getting a feat every fourth level. Why every fourth? What is so special about that fourth level? I want my players to have maximal amount of flexibility to mold their characters the way they want for the particular campaign they are in (each of my campaigns can have a very different feel and approach).

Now, if one were to offer new feats or skills every level, then that could easily make over-powered characters and I have far too many experiences with power gamers and min/maxers that ruin the game for the other players that are quite happy to simply play what they have and enjoy it for what it is. Can one accommodate everyone?

My approach is to offer players the opportunity to acquire a new ability every time they level up if they want to, but there is a price. In what follows, I will present what players can gain upon leveling up, and then provide the formula I use.

Leveling Up.
After gaining a level, some players may have discovered that they need to upgrade or expand an ability or skill based on their experiences during the previous level. Here are some of the options open to them.
1. Learn a new language.
2. Learn a new profession (e.g. blacksmith, herbalist, gem cutter, sage).
3. Attempt to raise an attribute (my formula for the player is to roll a d20 with no modifiers, and if they can roll the attribute or higher it will go up by one, if they fail, they can try again next level. This obviously makes it easier to raise low attributes, but more difficult to raise high attributes).
4. Increase a class skill (e.g. a 1st level fighter specialized in the long sword, but half way through 1st level discovered a +1 battle axe and now wants to specialize in the battle axe).
5. Enhance a racial/ancestral ability, a combat ability (melee/ranged), a defensive ability, a magic ability through a feat (or as they are called in C&C, advantages).

The Formula.
When you are younger you tend to pick things up a lot easier, and as you get older you become more set in your ways and things become more difficult to learn. My formula accounts for this.

Time: Level x 2 in weeks to learn/acquire the new ability.
Cost: The experience points you need to gain your next level x 10% in gold piece cost.

Example 1:
A fighter called Ecbert is specialized in the long sword. Halfway through 1st level he gets a +1 battle axe and decides he wants to make that his main weapon and specialize in it. He continues to use it through the remainder of 1st level and upon 2nd level he seeks out a warrior in the area that is a known specialist in the battle axe and has them train him. Since he is 2nd level, it will take 4 weeks (2nd level x 2). To go from 2nd to 3rd level as a fighter requires 2,001 XP in C&C, so 10% of that is 200, as a result he will pay this person 200 gp over that 4 week period.

Some time has passed and part way through 4th level Ecbert acquires a +3 spear that does double damage against undead and now wants to specialize in that. He will use this new spear until he reaches 5th level, upon which time he will seek out an expert in the spear. Ecbert is now a bit more set in his ways, so learning to specialize in the spear will require 10 weeks (5th level x 2), and the XP needed to increase from 5th to 6th level for a fighter in C&C is 17,001, so 10% of that is 1,700, which means he will have to spend 1,700 gp for the training and any materials over that 10 week period.

Example 2:
An elven wizard named Kythaela who knows the common, elvish, and orcish languages, encounters numerous gnomes in her first two levels of adventuring and decides that she should learn the gnomish language so as to better interact with them and understand them. When she reaches 3rd level she seeks out a local sage that knows gnomish. Learning the rudiments of the gnomish tongue will take 6 weeks (3rd level x 2), and cost 520 gp (as a wizard in C&C she needs 5,200 xp to progress from 3rd to 4th level).

As she adventures some more she travels through ancient elven villages and decides that when she reaches her next stage of development (i.e. gains her next level), she will want to take some time off and delve more into her elven culture and pull forth new elven abilities and reach a new stage of development (i.e. gain an elven advantage, or feat). When she reaches 7th level she heads off into the dense wilderness and spends 14 weeks (7th level x 2) with her elven elders to acquire this new elven ability (which, let us say is the Affinity to Nature elven advantage found in the Castle Keepers Guide, which gives her a +1 on checks to avoid surprise, detect hidden foes, and to initiative when in natural surroundings). The cost will be high, since she needs 85,001 xp to go from 7th to 8th level, thus the cost will be 8,500 gp for materials, training, supplies, and anything else related to enhancing her elven awareness.

Comparing players that do and do not use this system.
What you might have seen in the above examples is that you could gain abilities every level, perhaps take a new language at 2nd level, at 3rd learn a new background, at 4th take an advantage, at 5th level try and raise an attribute, etc. You could rack up a lot of abilities. However, this takes time and costs money. Each level will require time off, and unless the party you are in agrees to take time off with you, your character will have to stop adventuring for awhile and that will slow their level advancement (I should mention that in my C&C campaigns I encourage all my players to make several characters and swap them in and out depending on their preferences for that game session, to meet the needs of the group for that session (perhaps a player with the main rogue can’t make it and you have the other rogue in the party, or perhaps you know you are about to enter a trap-heavy dungeon and having two rogues would be useful), or to swap out if they are acquiring a new ability for leveling up. This will also cost a lot of money. Characters in my C&C game are encouraged to have their characters begin building towers, castles, establishments, temples, etc. based on their classes when they reach 9th level (much like AD&D) and that costs a lot of money. If you are spending all your gold on extra abilities, then you might be a bit short on cash to build your class structures and pay the staff and followers.

As a result, those players who are a happy with what they have, may have less abilities than their fellow party members, but they will be higher level then those that take time off (since they will be adventuring more), and from that additional adventuring they may have more loot and treasure as well, and of course they will have more cash sitting around to construct their buildings and draw in followers, since they didn’t spend it on training.

I’ve been using this system since 2018 and it has worked quite well. It also allows a campaign to spread out over time. Weeks and months can pass in game time between adventures, and the players see the seasons change, members of the town may pass on, children are born, others grow up and move on, and the regional politics in the region continue to develop around them. I’ve been able to present the larger world around them grow and change as they grow and change. I think it has made my games more immersive and feel more lived-in.

I’d be interested in knowing what you think of this system.

Virtual GameHole Con 2020, Day 3

A magnificent Day 3 at Virtual GameHole Con playing Dungeon Crawl Classics versions of the classic AD&D modules Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and Hall of the Fire Giant King! After two epic games fighting giants, the third in the giant trilogy ended up being a battle to the death with many casualties DCC style! Another great reminder to me why DCC is one of the best convention gaming experiences you can have.

Dungeon Crawl Classics Core Rules and Quick Start Rules

Yesterday I played in a DCC version of the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. We put part of the steading on fire, took down the kitchen staff, and then ended the adventure by entering the Chief’s main room pretending to be kitchen servants and then taking them all down by surprise.

For this morning’s adventure we all moved up a level from 3 to 4 and began our mission to take on the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl. We fought our way through ice trolls, hill giants, frost giants and their shaman, and after taking down two fire giants with mighty deeds, got the fire giant ambassador to surrender and hand over his parchment of introduction to the frost giant jarl. With confidence we then approached the two frost giants at the entry to the jarls great hall seeking entry, but when our negotiations broke down we entered yet another battle. We were feeling confident (since we had successfully taken care of the Hill Giant Chief the previous day and most recently the trolls and giants in the frost giant area), but then the situation got a lot more chilling when a dragon appeared! But with spellcasters spell-burning themselves to maximize an arsenal of magic missiles, the halfling burning luck to assist the priest in healing, and my dwarf using his powerful dwarven hammer and shield bash pounding out one mighty deed after another, we took it down. However, after defeating the dragon our four hour game had come to an end. So although we didn’t get to take on the Frost Giant Jarl, ending the adventure by defeating a dragon will always provide a sense of accomplishment!

After a one hour break we reconvened for our third game we took on the Hall of the Fire Giant King. Would our luck hold? No! Although we were elevated another level to level 5, one’s luck can only last so long, it seems. Almost immediately upon entering the hall of the fire giant king we took down several fire giants and the fire giant king went down with minimal struggle, but it was not as easy as our time in the hill giant and frost giant lairs due to our Roll20 digital dice rolls not always going in our favor, which forced us to burn luck and spell burn.

Still, we defeated the fire giant king and we were only 30 minutes into our game. What more was there to do? My dwarf, Gromlir, sat on the throne and pretended being king for a moment pondering options with the rest of the group. After some time to think we chose to explore the mountain halls to discover what was going on. After some upper level wandering we eventually passed to the lower levels and encountered two ettins, and when a fire giant forge worker began hurling anvils at us, we escaped down a narrow stairway (which giants could descend only with difficulty), and entered a large chamber divided by a lava flow. Making our way over the lava flow we encountered a couple of chimera and managed to deal with them.

Throughout all our combats in the fire giant halls our rolls were not always in our favor and we had all been burning our luck (my dwarf’s luck score had gone from 12 to 1 during our adventure, the halfling had used up all of his luck as well, and our magic user was no longer able to spell burn). It was then that we were attacked by three mind flayers! We were in the greatest danger and were now out of luck! At one point three of our group were about to have their brains sucked out of their heads only to have party members like my dwarf shield bash a tentacle off and free a person. But with no spell burning and luck available to boost our dice rolls, our unending success had come to an end. When all was said and done the three mind flayers took down most of us (including my dwarf Gromlir). But those of us who lost our lives to the mind flayers gave the last two characters a chance to live long enough to take down the final illithid. As most of us lay dead with our brains having been devoured, the two members remaining swore over our dead bodies to tell others about the mighty deeds we had done and how we managed to defeat the hill giants, frost giants, fire giants, and mind flayers.

Over the last two days we had 3 game sessions lasting 12 epic hours. This is what convention gaming should be like! Tomorrow for the last day of GameHole I will be in only one game, but it will be a 0-level funnel. How many of my 3-4 characters will survive the onslaught? I find out tomorrow!

Virtual GameHole Con 2020, Day 2

Day two at Virtual GameHole and today I spent the afternoon playing in a Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) interpretation of the classic AD&D module Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. This module is always a joy to immerse oneself in, and through the lens of DCC almost anything can happen!

The DCC Core Rulebook and a supplementary book of charts.

As you will find on these virtual convention games, the gaming platform will vary from game to game based on the GM’s preference. In my Swords & Wizardry game yesterday we were on Discord voice and text chat, today it was Discord voice and Roll20 VTT. I have never used Roll20 before, so I was a little slow in the game at first (all the games I run online are Castles & Crusades games that embrace a Theater of Mind approach that is met simply by using Discord voice, text chat, and screen share, and we all roll real dice in our hands like RPG’s are meant to be played!). Several others in this group were also inexperienced in Roll20, and perhaps as a result we were a little slow starting off in communicating as we approached the Hill Giant Steading, and did a lot of preliminary hunting about to find the best way to proceed (although caution is wise when approaching a giant stronghold!).

We did have a good group of players, though, so once we got acclimated to this environment we made steady progress (I even managed to grudgingly accept digital dice rolling!). The team work built up, and began making bolder moves, spell burn occurred, luck was burned, and it very soon became a full-on DCC convention game! At the end of four hours we managed to make it through the outer ring of the Steading, entered the main hall, and then took on the Hill Giant Chief. My human warrior was quite pleased to step forward and take on the chief with another as the rest of the group took on frost giants and fire giants. Our DCC characters were level 3, and yet through some might deeds and typical DCC madness we prevailed!

Although the campaigns I run are all Castles & Crusades, the games I play the most at conventions are DCC. There is something about getting together with other gamers and be able to go ALL OUT to see what gaming madness you can achieve in 4 hours that makes DCC, in my mind, the BEST game for conventions. All those critical hit and fumble charts as well as spell charts and deed die options leads to epic collapses and staggering successes in a way that no other game that I am aware of can produce. When you only have four hours to game, DCC gives you the most exciting experience!

Tomorrow the DCC madness will continue as I will be with the same Judge and several of the same players to take on The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and Hall of the Fire Giant King!

Virtual GameHole Con 2020, Day 1

Today is the beginning of GameHole Con (this year it runs from November 5-8). Normally this convention takes place in Madison, Wisconsin, but due to COVID-19, it is entirely virtual this year. What I love about GameHole is the great community of old-school gamers (although there is still plenty of modern D&D 5E available for those interested in the current edition).

This morning I played in a Swords & Wizardry (S&W) game called Hall of Bones. S&W is made by Frog God Games, and after Troll Lord Games (the company that makes Castles & Crusades – the game I run), this is the company I support the second most. S&W is a great game system modeled off Original Dungeons & Dragons and its supplements from 1974-1978. It is a great and challenging game and I enjoy opportunities to experience the game as a player.

Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook (by Frog God Games)

There are three primary things that stand out about S&W old-school game play:

1. Description.
Because it is modeled off original D&D there are no fancy feats or elaborate skills. You explore dungeon corridors by saying what you are doing step-by-step and you can hear, feel, smell, and taste the environment around you as you and the Game Master interact through your descriptive interplay (this is so much more fulfilling than the “roll a Perception check” approach). There is much greater depth and interaction with a game like S&W (at least if you get a good GM, and I very much did for this game session, our GM described the types of wood the dungeon doors were made of, the wood grain angle, etc. – very immersive).

2. Journey.
The adventure itself was very simple from the perspective of only being around a half dozen rooms. Yet in our four hour game our characters where crawling on their stomachs through narrow passageways, prying up stone slabs inside a metal cage found inside a large cavern filled with hundreds of huge spiders, passing through rooms aglow with phosphorescent fungus and mushrooms, etc. This is a type of game where when you are done you may realize that, yes, there were only about six rooms, but it is the journey through them that you remember. Every step was memorable. And you had to do it through player creativity and thinking, not simply glancing at your character sheet to see “can I do this?” In a game like S&W you can always try something. I love not getting bogged down in skills and feats, this way of gaming is so much more fluid, dynamic and immersive since every experience is a puzzle that you have to solve, you aren’t just mindlessly rolling a die and briefly glancing at the result while you’re scrolling through some nonsense on your phone – you have to pay attention. And you are rewarded for that with a much richer experience.

3. Unsolved Mysteries.
Both while traveling through these dungeon rooms, corridors, as well as natural cave formations formed from centuries of underground rivers and streams, there were things we encountered which were simply unexplained. I love games with mystery where you don’t just “roll a nature check” and get all the answers. Some things you simply don’t know if you are a 17 year old human fighter from a small medieval farming village. There are not only some things you don’t know, you may never find the answer. The world is so much bigger and more mysterious with this approach.

4. Danger everywhere, some of which you cannot defeat.
And like so many old school games, there is danger lurking everywhere. The GM left us guessing when we entered a cavern that was beyond what the dwarf could see with his underground sight. Webs covered the floor, walls, and ceiling, and we could tell that there were things behind the webs, but they were but mere shapes. We could hear chittering, but couldn’t make out details. When we decided to rush towards a sheltered cage around 20 feet from the entry to this cavern and enclose ourselves in it, that was when hundreds of spiders surrounded us from everywhere, and it was then that we realized that even firing arrows through the large (more than 10 x 10 feet in size) that we wouldn’t nearly have enough ammunition to hit or kill all of them. We managed through careful examination to find a stone slab beneath our feet that we could move and then lower ourselves into a small stone corridor and crawl to a new location. If we would’ve tried to enter the room thinking we were going to have a “balanced encounter” we would’ve died. Immediately. Every choice matters in a game like S&W. I love it!

One great benefit of a convention game is being able to try a game out with a GM or players you may never have gamed with before and in four hours just go all out and try and do everything – give the game a genuine workout – put yourself out there and see what the game, you, your fellow players, and the GM, are capable of doing. In many of these conventions you will find games, GM’s and players that you come to really like and then you can plan to game together again at future cons. This is another experience I love.

Now, because of the pandemic, this con is entirely online this year, and it was admittedly a different experience doing this on Discord, rolling virtual dice (I normally hate rolling virtual dice and I refuse unless I have to, for me, feeling dice in my hand is one of the key experiences of RPG gaming), but it worked well enough in this case. Map fragment graphics were displayed when necessary to provide a basic outline of rooms, but this game was good and proper Theatre of the Mind.

Tomorrow and Saturday I will be playing the Dungeon Crawl Classics game system and doing classic AD&D giant adventures from the distant past (1978). But more on that tomorrow…

Variant Classes in C&C.

In the Castles & Crusades Castle Keepers Guide we have examples of variant races, but what do you think of variant classes with a different prime attribute from the Players Handbook?

Background for this question:
I liked the AD&D 1st ed. triple-class options for elves and half elves, such as the cleric/fighter/magic-user, and the fighter/magic-user/thief. That can’t happen in C&C due to the fact that you would need three prime attributes for half-elves (elf lineage) and elves, and they only get two. I have looked at the multi-classing, class and a half, and expanding classes options and I currently don’t feel they provide a satisfactory solution. There is also the possibility of mixing and matching the very niche classes from the Adventurers Backpack and the Codex books. Finally, I thought about bringing in primary, secondary, and tertiary attributes, but think that overcomplicates things. What can I do?

AD&D 1st edition Players Handbook (1978)

Race-Class Variant 1:
What if you have a race-specific class variant? For example, elves are quick on their feet, could there be an Elven Fighter class with Dexterity as prime instead of the PHB Fighter with strength as prime? That would make an elven fighter/rogue/wizard a reality. What about Elven Cleric or Elven Wizard classes that are charisma based? That could allow cleric/fighter/wizard.

Castles & Crusades Players Handbook, 7th printing (2017)

Race-Class Variant 2:
I also want to bring in the B/X and BECMI-inspired Race-as-Class to represent a sort of elder version of the elves and dwarves in my campaign world. I’ve already outlined versions of them but have yet to playtest them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Elder Dwarf class is a strong fighter type with strength and constitution as primes for their race-class. The Elder Elf class will be a mixture of wizard, sword/bow fighter, and a little rogue stealthiness. Their primes would be dexterity and intelligence. Using this approach I could achieve a sort of elven fighter/thief/wizard, but this would require being an Elder Elf. However, this again would not allow for an elven cleric/fighter/wizard.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set Players Manual (1983)

Why am I so hung up on race-as-class and the AD&D elven triple class? They were a very important part of my D&D upbringing in the 1970’s and 80’s, and I want to bring that into my Castles & Crusades game. I just have to find the right way to bring that about.

The challenge of running homebrewed published campaign settings.

I currently run two Castles & Crusades campaigns. Both these mini campaigns are flexible enough that I can place them anywhere in my campaign world and few ask questions. However, future campaigns will grow in scope. I want to run Aufstrag, for example, but I am putting it in my own world, not Aihrde. The issue is that those that know the “official” lore of these large campaign settings may very well say “that’s not how it’s listed in the Codex of Aihrde” (or some other published source).

Prior to switching to Castles & Crusades and creating my own world, I previously ran a Forgotten Realms campaign for nearly 30 years through multiple editions of Dungeons and Dragons. Eventually I just threw up my hands and flushed that campaign down the toilet due to drastic world changes I hated and rejected (e.g. 4E’s spell plague and timeline jump), and when new players would say “that’s not what it says on [so-and-so] website!”

Switching to C&C means player’s don’t say “that’s not a D&D rule” because I am not using official D&D, and thus far I have been using mini-campaign settings that fit well with my own home brew world that is slowly growing over time (I have pantheons of gods that take up a spreadsheet with 7 tabs of options and powers). This change has been truly liberating! (I wish I would’ve left D&D and the Forgotten Realms behind years earlier).

But as I look ahead to using Aufstrag, and later on The Lost Lands (Frog God Games), the Wilderlands (Judges Guild), Harn, etc. I do not want to re-experience what I did during the Forgotten Realms years with player’s demanding “official” rules and lore. I want to be able to use some of these other amazing campaign settings, but I also want to be able to make changes to personalize them. But what are the chances of that working?

Castles & Crusades Diary: The Dragonclaw Barony Campaign. Hobgoblins, Orcs, Oozes.

Castles & Crusades Diary: The Dragonclaw Barony Campaign.

Hobgoblins, Orcs, Oozes, Crab Spiders, Fire Beetles, and an unconscious dwarf – a busy day of gaming!

Yesterday a new player joined my group, a player I hadn’t gamed with in 17 years (I ran my D&D 3E campaign in his garage on a 10′ x 4′ table which he covered in green felt, and to which I added my supply of tree and rock outcropping terrain and dwarven forge dungeon sets – I went through a terrain phase back in 3E). But thanks to new online gaming opportunities like Discord, he has rejoined my game after many years, now, of course, playing C&C.

This group left off in a simple and rather below average underground complex located beneath an old ruined fortress. The underground complex, like the fortress above it, was hastily put together, which the characters are discovering as they wander through the corridors (the dwarves are almost constantly shaking their heads at the uneven stonework. They can also see that on some of the walls a new corridor was begun and then abandoned).

But why is the group here? They are seeking out a gnome sage named Fonkin. He went missing, and the last people heard was that he was exploring this ruin. In previous game sessions the group encountered goblins seeking a place in the eastern portions of the underground area, and kobolds attacked them from the south. They left off last time with hobgoblins attacking them from the north. They decided to continue their explorations north.

The first room they explored was an apparently empty 40′ x 40′ room that had some dust and rubble around the edges, but was clear in the middle. While some remained in the corridor, others entered through the north door and headed south down the east wall of the room examining the wall. Unbeknownst to them, a couple clear oozes moved in and cornered them in the south east corner, and when they turned to head north again they stepped in the oozes and the acid began eating through their footwear! Hurled flasks of oil and fire took care of them within a few rounds, but not before two characters nearly went down!

After getting healed they continued north and found a locked room. Unlocking it they discovered why it had been locked – it had two large crab spiders within! During the fight the paladin critically failed and the blade of his bastard sword snapped in half, and a barbarian then critically failed and got his two-handed sword lodged between the door and the wall beneath the top hinge). The noise this caused attracted the attention of eight pig-faced orcs! A sleep spell took care of six of them and the rest were dealt with more easily. Exploring the spider room afterward they learned that the orcs had been ambushed by the spiders (some of them lied dead within) and they had closed and locked the door to keep the spiders in and retreated to a different location.

David Sutherland from the AD&D Monster Manual, TSR, 1977

The group continued north. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they encountered more of the military precision and two weapon fighting style of the hobgoblins that were situating themselves in this portion of the complex. The adventurers did succeed in fighting them, but in just exploring four rooms characters had fallen unconscious and weapons had been broken. The clerics were all out of healing spells. They decided to barricade themselves in the hobgoblin room to rest up (the hobgoblins had recently brought in fresh deer and rabbit meat from the surface, so the group had some fresh food to eat).

The next morning they headed into a small room in a dead-end passage just south and encountered four fire beetles. They killed them, but when the nature-oriented barbarian tried – and repeatedly failed – to successfully remove the glands above their eyes that produce a glowing red light in a 10′ area, only one of the glands was successfully removed.

They ended the adventure entering the furthest north room in this complex and discovered an unconscious and manacled dwarven cleric/fighter of Thor. He had been a teamster leading a supply wagon from the town of Heatherleigh to Dale when Hobgoblins had ambushed them and taken their supplies. The room also provided a stairway to the surface, so the group now has another access point. In the next game session (two weeks from now) they will continue to look for the missing gnome, Fonkin, only now they have another person capable of fighting and healing.