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.

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?

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?

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?

Gaming Diary – Bestiaries and Monster Manuals

Many Dungeon Masters have a never ending need to collect monster collections because lets face it – monsters and monster lore are fun to look at and read about! We get to be children again. But more than that, we get to use them to scare and challenge our players, and players love to see brand new monsters, as well as old monsters in a new light.

I have collected a good number of the lavishly colorized and “realistic” modern style monster manuals (I have at least a half dozen from 3E and 5E, and the artwork in them is indeed attractive). But I am now running traditional-style D&D, my tastes have changed, and I have lost a lot of interest in the uber colorized, flashy, post-3E monster art style. I have gone back to appreciating and wanting more of the classic black & white line art. This style allows the players to color it in the way *they* want. *They* get to use their imagination to fill out and expand the piece of art provided. I want to move away from the video game style of art where everything is put in your face. I want my players to hear my descriptions and visualize it for themselves, ask questions, and fill in the details themselves. This is what tabletop roleplaying gaming is supposed to be – collaborative and immersive. I think this black & white art style supports that.

So, with that in mind, I have been looking far and wide for some old school bestiaries and I have been fortunate to find some. Many of these are inspired by – or based on – the classic Basic D&D Creature Catalog, the AD&D Monster Manuals I and II, and the Fiend Folio, with slight stat differences and new black & white line art. I really love them! Sadly, though, this is a niche market and you have to really dig around to find the small publishers and independent game designers who cherish these alternate ways of doing things.

Just as OSR rules are light and allow for more options and imagination, the black & white art also allows people to open their imaginations to the strange realm of fantasy.

Imagination. Wonderment. Mystery. That is what I am focusing on in my game. It is my hope that I am moving in that direction.

Bestiaries (3)Bestiaries (4).jpg

Gaming Diary – AD&D Character Death.

Gaming Diary – AD&D Character Death.

Last night was pretty crazy. We gamed at Fantasy Flight Games from 4PM till almost closing time at midnight (nearly 8 hours).

We nearly had two Total Party Kills (TPK’s) even though we had 6 players in our group managing 10 characters (old school games are tough and you need to have as many capable bodies as possible!). In the end two characters did die – a player lost their paladin, and I lost my 1st level, half-elf, cleric/fighter/magic-user.

I still have a human 2nd level magic-user, but now I need to create a second character again. In fact, I’ll be creating a third and possibly a fourth character just as a backup(s) to the other two!

I love these challenging games! I suppose for those who make modern D&D characters where they never expect the characters to die because all encounters are supposed to be “balanced,” this old school game style can be a bit jarring. But I have to say it is a real rush when you see your DM rolling on the encounter chart for the monsters as well as the number of monsters and not know what might come up! So many modern games feel like a video game where the random encounters are just “trash mobs” that you are meant to wipe away with no real threat, and if you have to worry at all it will be during the “boss fight” at the end. This makes the game too predictable, in my view, and I think it can get a bit boring. In old school games your random encounter in the woods could be a wandering dear, or ten hungry trolls – you might have a simple encounter with nature, or a total fight for your lives using everything in your backpack, saddle bags, and wagon, to desperately stay alive!

When you succeed at an encounter you feel a much stronger sense of satisfaction, and if you lose a character like I did last night, you still feel a genuine sense as if something was still accomplished. In nearly 40 years of gaming I’ve lost plenty of characters before and I can say when it was happening during the 3E era I got upset and sometimes, I think, felt a bit entitled and would think “you can’t kill my character (again!), I wrote a backstory for him and that story is unfinished!” But as I said above, the feelings are different in old school. Just hours before the game I had written up backstories for both my characters and shared them with my DM – I finally knew more about where they had come from and what they wanted to do – and hours later one of them died. But I didn’t feel that it was a waste, it was simply how life goes in a world that is filled with constant danger. Any sense of entitlement in old school games gets dispensed with quickly, for you are not a hero and not that special unless you actually manage to survive a few levels, before that you are simply a nobody with a dream and the world doesn’t bow to your will. It is a humbling but worthwhile experience.

Gaming Diary – AD&D 1st edition

30 September, 2018

Had another fantastic game tonight! A classic AD&D dungeon crawl. I love the uncertainty in these old style games, for even if you discover a trap, you have to examine and experiment with it in detail to discover how it should be picked if is locked, or if it is trapped how it is trapped. I love the interactive aspect. This was how I gamed in the ’80’s and ’90’s, but this has been largely lost since the ’00’s when people just roll an “investigation” check and expect to be told everything about it. No fun in that.

Magic is rare, limited, and special; equipment.
The limited availability of magic in a low-magic game also ensures you save your magic for just the right moment, which means you have to rely much more on mundane, every-day materials to solve problems (we all become MacGyver in our attempts to come up with solutions to overcome obstacles).

When we finished our dungeon crawl and made it back to a town, we took our new loot and spent a good amount of time visiting shops and re-purchasing equipment (pack animals, mounts, carts, wagons, upgrading weapon/armor, replenishing backpacks and pouches, and filling up saddle bags).

Combat, tactics, and the random roll and fate of the dice.
Combat is quick, and there is always danger, for it is so easy to die (remember, encounters are not guaranteed to be “balanced”), so tactics and planning are essential. Trying to come up with innovative approaches to overcome a foe is necessary to survive. In one randomly rolled encounter, our 1st-3rd level characters had to take on over 20 bugbears on a narrow, steep, mountain pass with a several hundred foot drop on either side. A couple carefully placed ‘entangle’ and ‘grease’ spells ensured that they didn’t massacre us, and indeed it forced them to retreat, which allowed an elfin thief to use archery and carefully timed rock falls over a ledge to weaken them further, and we then picked them off one by one. Cooperation and strategy was essential, simply relying on full-on charge into melee combat would have been assured deaths for us all.

This was followed up by a randomly rolled encounter of…two stone giants! Again, this would have been immediate death in a single round of combat for 1st-3rd level characters under normal circumstances, but a few more random rolls resulted in them being asleep in their lair, so we had the opportunity of avoiding the encounter altogether, but then we decided to take a big chance and try to kill these particularly evil creatures in their sleep. So a single die roll was made by each of us to see if we could pull off a coup de grace – and it worked…barely! A chance roll of the dice presented us with a combat we couldn’t win, another random roll presented us with the opportunity to walk away, and we relied on the fate of the dice again to take another deadly chance that ended up resulting in the instant death of deadly foes.

The experience of a game that is constantly this dangerous and potentially deadly really makes your successes and ability to walk away that much more meaningful.

Played first AD&D game in 30 years

16 September, 2018

Last night I went to my FLGS and played my first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition game in 30 years. It was a genuine joy! I was reminded very vividly why the older way of gaming is so much more satisfying and fun.

There were several hundred people at this game store (I believe there was some big Pathfinder 2.0 Playtest event going on) and when people walked by and saw the sign saying ‘AD&D 1st edition Greyhawk’, with players like myself with a roughly 40 year old original Player’s Handbook, they frequently paused, said “wow!” and watched with curiosity. Although some of the mature people I gamed with had books that were clearly worn to the bone after 40 years of play, they were still in better shape than many of the 5E books that are being produced by Wizards of the Coast with their bad bindings and wavy pages.

Character Creation and Death.
I began by rolling up a character. Based on the stats I rolled, I didn’t qualify for some of the classes I wanted so I ended up choosing Magic-User. Magic-Users at first level have one spell. ONE. So you have to choose your equipment carefully, since that is what you’ll be using most of the time. It forces you to be creative and carefully consider what you want to do and how you want to do it.

Old school is also tough. One player lost a character tonight, and I understood they lost a character the previous adventure as well. In these games you always have to have a backup character ready, since you might very well witness one character death per game session. We are also not superhero characters, sometimes we have to turn back. We encountered a trap last night, and we couldn’t figure out everything out about it, so we decided it was best to turn around and try and find another route through the crypt. It is refreshing not being invincible, it makes you a better player when you have to come up with alternatives to solve problems.

Large Group and Swift Combat.
We had 8 players using 9 characters. That may seem like a lot to manage, but in old school games like this you don’t have mind-numbing amounts of actions to keep track of each round (e.g. attack action, move action, bonus action, reaction). Watch any modern Pathfinder or D&D 5E game, and try to find one that is able to keep track of their character’s actions for a round; they’re always looking things up and hemming and hawing as they try to decide what they can do. Combat takes f o r e v e r. In old games like this you do your one thing and move on, with only having to worry about doing one thing, you go around the table significantly faster. I think we managed to cover 3 rounds of 1st edition combat in the time it takes to do 1 round of combat in Pathfinder or D&D 5E. You can get so much more done in an old school game.

I know some of my modern gaming friends may be wary of rolling initiative every single round, but again, this keeps combat VERY dynamic and unpredictable, and it doesn’t slow down combat at all in an old school game. We spent the first 4 hours of the night doing an old-fashioned hex crawl (each hex was 5 miles) and we were fighting all the time, but it was swift and effortless. Managing 9 characters was easy, indeed, I will be adding a second character of my own next time, moving us up to 10 characters.

Creativity and Player Skills over Character Abilities.
Modern D&D since 3E is all about what is on your character sheet, it tells you what you can and what you can’t do. And the more rules you have, the more bogged down you get with looking things up or arguing over rules minutiae. More rules give you less options in my view, since one ability you have tells you the thing you can do as well as revealing all the things you can’t do with it. In a game with no feats and no skills (except for some broadly defined ‘secondary skills’), you can try anything and it relies on the creativity of the player. You want to try something? Bring it up and the DM makes a ruling. All the never ending feats people struggle to acquire in modern games you can simply try on your own in an old school game. You don’t need a rule telling you what you can/can’t do – just try it!

It was so refreshing to be a part of this. I’ll be gaming with this group twice a month. I also have a gaming group where I play 5E once or twice a month, and then I have my own Castles & Crusades campaign that I will be running. I can’t wait to bring in this open and creative old school element into my C&C game. People raised on D&D since 3E – and computer games – have a restricted view of what they think they can or should be able to do. Liberate yourself! Let your imagination and creativity reign! Go old school!

A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming

There was something special about gaming and playing D&D in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, the game was in its infancy and you could try almost anything – the rules were guidelines – and you had so much freedom in what you did. As I shift back to an older, grittier, style of gaming that asks players to develop creative and imaginative responses to situations and an attempt to try almost anything (as opposed to just rolling dice all the time based on some narrowly defined ability check), I discovered a great document which provides an insightful overview of the differences between old school gaming and modern gaming.

This primer created by Swords & Wizardry is an informative comparison and analysis of old vs. new styles of gaming which I would encourage you to examine more closely if you find the quotes below interesting (here is another link directly from their website).

1. Rulings, not Rules.
“Most of the time in old-style gaming, you don’t use a rule; you make a ruling. It’s easy to understand that sentence, but it takes a flash of insight to really “get it.” The players can describe any action, without needing to look at a character sheet to see if they “can” do it. The referee, in turn, uses common sense to decide what happens or rolls a die if he thinks there’s some random element involved, and then the game moves on. This is why characters have so few numbers on the character sheet, and why they have so few specified abilities.”

Flexibility and an openness to try things was a great virtue of old D&D, as well as Old School Games like Swords & Wizardry, and Castles & Crusades (C&C). A primary reason I am shifting from D&D 5E to C&C is to embrace a more free-wheeling and open gaming experience for my players. I want my players to try things without wondering if a particular skill would stretch to cover this scenario – just give it a try!

2. Player Skill, not Character Abilities.
“Original D&D and Swords & Wizardry are games of skill in a few areas where modern games just rely on the character sheet. You don’t have a “spot” check to let you notice hidden traps and levers, you don’t have a “bluff” check to let you automatically fool a suspicious city guardsman, and you don’t have a “sense motive” check to tell you when someone’s lying to your character. You have to tell the referee where you’re looking for traps and what buttons you’re pushing. You have to tell the referee whatever tall tale you’re trying to get the city guardsman to believe. You have to decide for yourself if someone’s lying to your character or telling the truth. In a 0e game, you are always asking questions, telling the referee exactly what your character is looking at, and experimenting with things. Die rolls are much less frequent than in modern games.”

As stated above, I want my players to develop and use their imagination, not have to memorize an ability that can only be used under some narrow set of circumstances. Less class abilities can actually lead to more things you can do!


3. Heroic, not Superhero.

“Old-style games have a human-sized scale, not a super-powered scale. At first level, adventurers are barely more capable than a regular person. They live by their wits…It’s not about a guy who can, at the start of the game, take on ten club-wielding peasants at once. It’s got a real-world, gritty starting point.”

I prefer the rugged and more gritty styles of earlier games where you have to earn your place in the world. This was something that would take time and effort to accomplish. In a modern game like D&D 5E, so many things are simply handed to you, either with your ‘background’ or with the ability to endlessly spam cantrips that never run out.

4. Forget “Game Balance.”
“The old-style campaign is with fantasy world, with all its perils, contradictions, and surprises: it’s not a “game setting” which somehow always produces challenges of just the right difficulty for the party’s level of experience. The party has no “right” only to encounter monsters they can defeat, no “right” only to encounter traps they can disarm, no “right” to invoke a particular rule from the books, and no “right” to a die roll in every particular circumstance. This sort of situation isn’t a mistake in the rules. Game balance just isn’t terribly important in old-style gaming.”

I remembered growing up how the worlds my characters grew up in were big, dark, and dangerous, you could never tell when you entered the woods if you’d encounter an angry badger protecting it’s den, a pack of hungry wolves, a group of goblins, a hill giant war party with half a dozen ogre and worg companions, or an adult dragon. You might defeat one encounter with confidence, only to flee in stark terror from the very next encounter.

I still play D&D 5E as a player and enjoy it, but as a DM running my own world, I want it to be gritty, frightening, and challenging, yet also give my players the greatest of amount of freedom to try things and push their creativity to its limits, and that is why I have shifted to OSR games and the earliest editions of D&D to meet my needs.