Category Archives: OSR

One-Page Generator for Keeps

As I’ve written elsewhere, when I started my current homebrew O5R campaign, I generated a 10×10 hex map using Hex Describe. Even though it is powered by nearly 2,000 tables (!), I found myself missing the cast of characters that populate a town. I came up with a design goal of, within a single page, emulating the keep from The Keep on the Borderlands (buy it!) as a useful starting location for the adventurers, but adding more elements of intrigue. Since Hex Describe is open source, and you can append your own tables to it, I did so and shared my tables with Alex Schroeder and Ktrey Parker. Ktrey suggested I add more professions; Alex suggested it could be used for more than just one town, but if so it would need more options and more variability.

Here’s example output from what we came up with.

This is Selwick, a town of 200 humans (HD 1 AC 8 1d6 F1 MV 12 ML 7 XP 100). The wooden houses are protected by a large keep, a wooden palisade and the river. The outer bailey of the keep houses the richest tradespeople of the land, under the rule of Duke Félix the Lucky Khan. The inner bailey houses the castellan and the guard. Entering the outer bailey is by paying 1sp per person. These tradespeople work there: 

  1. The crier Darwin is an excellent source of rumors. (A member of Fellowship of Pale Fortune Tellers.) 
  2. The herbalist Ève buys rare flora. (A member of Perfect Disciples of the Archaic Victory.) 
  3. The jeweler Loan acquires up to 1,000gp of gems. (A member of Beautiful Folk of the Keep.) 
  4. The merchant Allyson buys bulk quantities of spices, metal ingots, and other trade goods. (A member of Beautiful Folk of the Keep.) 
  5. The moneylender Hristina will convert coins from one denomination to another (10% surcharge). (Prays to Odin.) 
  6. The provisioner Tamira sells all types of equipment. 
  7. The rat catcher Kashfia, a devoted follower of Mitra, travels around singing hymns. (Surreptitiously favors Duke Alesch.) 
  8. The smith Besart sells new – and refurbishes old – weapons and armor. (Surreptitiously supports Duke Alesch.) 
  9. The tavern owner Henos runs the King’s Swan here, frequented by the well-off and the rabble-rousers. (A member of Fellowship of Pale Fortune Tellers.) 
  10. The trader Aaron buys old equipment and rare finds. (A member of Perfect Disciples of the Archaic Victory.) 
  11. The watchman Thalea frequents the shops the PCs visit and keeps an eye on them. (Second-in-command of the Fellowship of Pale Fortune Tellers.) 

(For a rumor about allegiances, roll a d10 and a d6. On a d6 of 1-3, tell the truth about the tradesperson corresponding to the results of the d10; on a 4-6, lie about them.)

The inner bailey is open to the select few and houses these noteworthy personages: 

The castellan Courtney. (Trusted confident of Duke Félix the Lucky Khan.) 

The corporal of the watch Alisha. 

The local secret society Perfect Disciples of the Archaic Victory is being infiltrated. It is led by the wizard Gentjana📷(level 3). The spells known are based on The Book of Songs by Xoralfona the Wordsmith: 1. empathycalm, 2. mind blast. They believe that the ruling class has been taken over by vampires. They prepare for the big fight by studying ancient books and training with silver daggers. 

The Fellowship of Pale Fortune Tellers have been plotting to overthrow them, led by the wizard Diell📷 (level 5). The spells known are based on The Book of the Warp by Korokoro the Mad: 1. recoilmishap, 2. oozeplague touch, 3. warp mind. A potion of strength (deep red, smelling like tree resin, 20min, strength 18). To believe in the current order of things is what servants are trained to do. They believe that another world is possible. 

Yet another secret society waits in the wings.

And, of course, this is built into the full hexcrawl generator, if you select Alex Schroeder’s set of random tables. For my hexcrawl, I actually ran all three sets of tables and combined them. I ran the same map through the generators from Alex Schroeder, Peter Seckler (a fork of Alex’s supporting different terrain types), and Matt Strom. Then I copied and pasted each together. Tedious and not something I’d do again but Alex’s doesn’t cover all terrain types. In retrospect, I’d start with Alex’s only and then cherrypick from the other two documents rather than combine them all to start with.

Alex SchroederPeter SecklerMatt Strom
Best forAlpine mapsSmale mapsSmale maps
Word count101,00717,882101,165
LicensePublic domainPublic domainCopyright held by various authors

The specific ruleset that Hex Describe uses is Alex Schroeder’s heartbreaker: “Halberds & Helmets is the name of my Players Handbook for old school D&D. It takes its inspiration from B/X D&D (1981) via Labyrinth Lord and incorporates many of the various rules and ideas I tag Old School.” This is mostly compatible with B/X but Halberds & Helmets (and therefore Hex Describe) uses its own sets of spells.

You can take the generator for a spin here: Hex Describe Town Rule (about half the towns have the keep with personages).

OSR Spellcasting Systems

I’m amazed by the variety of implementations of spellcasting in OSR systems. I asked OSR Reddit what the problems are that these new implementations are trying to solve, what the most popular approaches to spellcasting are, and people’s preferences. I distilled the discussion into the following analysis.

  • Perceived problems with OD&D
    • Boring
    • Vancian magic isn’t magical enough
    • Difference between spell levels and PC levels
    • Set spell lists
    • Doesn’t suit certain settings and types of campaigns
  • Types of spells
    • Set spell lists:
      • By spell level
      • By player level (e.g., level 2 spell for level 2 caster)
      • By schools (e.g., Necromancy)
      • Level-less
    • New spells are discovered in game (as treasure or from other casters)
    • Improvised by player
  • Availability of spells
    • Cantrips can be used any number of times
    • Spell slots:
      • With slots per level
      • Overall number of slots (level-less)
      • Spells have physical form (e.g., scrolls) and take encumbrance slots
    • Any spell they know:
      • Chosen by player
      • Chosen by player if they pass a check (e.g., Intelligence)
      • Determined randomly
    • Casting has a cost:
      • Time — Spellcasting takes 2-3 rounds
      • Reduces hp
      • Mana cost
  • Success of spells
    • Target, if any, gets a saving throw
    • Caster rolls for success
    • Caster failure results in anything from magical side effects to catastrophes
    • Magic Dice (MD) per level, with option to roll as many or as few as you wish (GLOG) but with doubles result in a side effect and triples result in a catastrophe

Based on this research, I decided to do a survey to provide feedback to the OSR (Old School Renaissance) community on what Level 1-3 spells are considered most useful. The results can then be used to create shorter spell lists and player aids.

For each of the six groups of spells, you’ll be asked to rank at least the top three spells for OSR play, from most useful to least useful. You can take the survey here:

Many thanks!

(Illustration credit: The Sorcerer, by Jennie Wilde.)

Using “Old School Principles for Players” to Tweak O5R

I know O5R is seen as an oxymoron by many, but let’s go through the “Old School Principles for Players” section of Principia Apocrypha and determine what’s the least we have to change about 5e to live this philosophy. Its principles:

  1. Learn When to Run
  2. Combat as War, Not Sport
  3. Don’t Be Limited by Your Character Sheet
  4. Live Your Backstory
  5. Power Is Earned, Heroism Proven
  6. Scrutinize the World
  7. Interrogate the Fiction
  8. The Only Dead End Is Death
  9. Let Your Creativity Flow
  10. Play to Win, Savor Loss

I would argue most of the rule changes have to happen “behind the screen” rather than for the players. For the players, though:

  1. Learn When to Run – In my O5R campaign, the players know that encounters aren’t balanced. The fear is so strong they now sometimes run from threats they can defeat.
  2. Combat as War, Not Sport – They’re better than in our straight 5e campaign but have room to improve. After swearing they would hate a session without combat, we had a session without combat, and they all enjoyed it.
  3. Don’t Be Limited by Your Character Sheet – This one has taken coaching. “I approach the leader and do a Persuasion check.” “OK, but first what are you saying?”
  4. Live Your Backstory – Our Session 0 had them describe their relationship with the PC of the player next to them. (Next campaign I want to approach this with a DCC-style Level 0 funnel.)
  5. Power Is Earned, Heroism Proven – They recognize this principle and are already planning ahead. “We’ll attack that goblin tribe after we’ve learnt more about their lair and progressed further. Maybe we can convince the Wolf Claw orcs to attack with us.”
  6. Scrutinize the World – This is why we abandoned Forgotten Realms (the most well-documented campaign setting in history) in favor of a homebrew hex crawl. (Thanks to Hex Describe.) I still can’t get anyone to make maps, though. But they are deciphering the runic alphabet I’m using!
  7. Interrogate the Fiction – This is the hardest for them. There is a retreat to mechanics. “I do a Perception check.” “First, what are you looking at and for?”
  8. The Only Dead End Is Death – I’d argue removing resurrection-style spells is the main change needed to 5e. This group was resurrection-happy in Forgotten Realms. (Though Holmes wrote, “A seventh level cleric can raise the dead, if you can find one! Also, of course, wish rings and other magic can restore the deceased adventurer to his comrades and friends!”)
  9. Let Your Creativity Flow – They often come up with very creative approaches to situations and problems. Last campaign (which wasn’t O5R) they used a soul-stealing sword to capture the soul of the lich, when they couldn’t find her phylactery.
  10. Play to Win, Savor Loss – They do not savor loss. Three PCs were aged 10 to 40 years each due to a ghost’s Horrifying Visage and one of the players (25ish IRL) is so angry IRL that her character is now 38 years old that I’m starting to feel old indeed! But at least that has inspired an interesting quest to find the ingredients for a potion of lesser restoration (which will only roll back the clock for these three).

Behind the scenes, there’s a lot more work for the DM to use O5R:

  1. Learn When to Run – The 5e DMG says, “Choose the starting attitude of a creature the adventurers are interacting with: friendly, indifferent, or hostile.” I use the Holmes 2d6 rules: 2, attacks; 3-5, hostile; 6-8, uncertain; 9-11, friendly; 12, enthusiastic.
  2. Combat as War, Not Sport – They haven’t realized it yet, but every short rest I roll 2d6 and if a 6 comes up the rest is interrupted by a wandering monster. I’m trying to get them to better husband their resources.
  3. Don’t Be Limited by Your Character Sheet – I’ve kind of given up here. I tried to enforce Adventurers League rules of PHB+1 but that doesn’t help the DM when everyone picks a different book. I have characters from XGE, from Eberron, from Unearthed Arcana. But this is old school, too; Holmes wrote, “At the Dungeon Master’s discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be… Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halflingish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man.” (Which is why I always laugh when OSR purists insist on 4 races and 4 classes.) I am definitely regretting the artificer, though, as I lose some control over the magic-item economy.
  4. Live Your Backstory – I’ve nudged the players out of town, as 5e had them expecting more stuff to happen in town, especially related to backstory.
  5. Power Is Earned, Heroism Proven – I’ve custom-created a magic-item table that offers limited upgrades. They’re all about leveling up, though, so that’s how they see their “power earned.” (Depending on how the session went, I award a third to half the XP they need to level up. This group has no interest in spending loot on manors, retainers,  political influence, etc. I tried repeatedly last year.)
  6. Scrutinize the World – The most work, by far. I spent a bit of the summer working on the campaign setting, so I wouldn’t have to prep much during the year. (Our last campaign ran from September to July.) It’s definitely cliché old school – they’re in one of the last bastions of human society, uncertain of what happened to the empire their city-state was part of 4 centuries ago or why their city-state was spared.
  7. Interrogate the Fiction – I’ve tried to be better about giving each location three interesting features to interact with (a la Sly Flourish).
  8. The Only Dead End Is Death – We use the three standard death saves. Too ingrained for the players to change, though we talked about it.
  9. Let Your Creativity Flow – I’m adding constraints to encourage creativity. Our last campaign, in Melvaunt, often involved players buying whatever magic item they wanted (from Thentia). Every player had a bag of holding; no bags of holding in this world, and we’re tracking encumbrance.
  10. Play to Win, Savor Loss – They really don’t want to start new characters at level 1 but want to introduce them at the same level as the dead character. This bums me out, but they were unanimous.

I have players that only know the core 5e mechanics of combat, attribute checks, and advantage/disadvantage, and do fine. And those mechanics are more than rich enough to hang an OSR game on. As for many of the other rules, they are often race and class and level specific, and those players who want to live off their 5e character sheet can and do. If I could, I’d limit the spell list more – many of the spells seem too powerful: my players use Mage Hand to pound the dungeon floor checking for traps, and use familiars to scout far ahead in the wilderness.

Still, my players want 5e and interesting sessions; I want OSR; so far O5R has made us all happy.

(I posted an earlier version of this on Reddit. Check out the comments.)