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.)

RPG Rules for Minecarts – Not!

Another bit of advice that I find particularly useful from Sly Flourish is to add three features to a fantastic location for players to interact with (see “What are three fantastic features of this location?” in Creative Mind Exercises for D&D). For a recent delve into a mine, for my 5e campaign, my three were a rusted minecart, rail track, and a trellis bridge over a deep chasm.

I didn’t create any rules for minecarts, nor do I think you should. Instead, improvise rules for features using your RPG system’s mechanics. For instance:

  1. The artificer took a turn to oil the wheels of the minecart, which I ruled he automatically succeeded at. (Where’s the fun in a minecart that doesn’t move?!)
  2. When players decided to get in and later get out of the minecart, I ruled they had half their movement range on a turn when they did that.
  3. The track sloped down, so when players entered or exited the cart, then the player at the front of the minecart had to make a strength DC check (which increased as more players entered, from 15 to 18).
  4. The minecart became portable cover for ranged attacks against troglodytes entering the mine. Treated as regular cover. (The wizard minor-illusioned a cover over the cart!)
  5. When one of the players hopped out, the cart started to move, so another player slammed his foot on a brake outside the minecart (which I had never described, but the players assumed would be there, so there it was). I decided on the fly that the brake was rusty and that I’d reverse the strength check for the fun of it – a high roll would break the brake; he rolled a 3, so I ruled he engaged the brake successfully.
  6. The half-orc missed the players talking about the narrow bridge over the chasm and decided to shoot the cart over the chasm – she failed a dexterity check (on trying to push the cart a certain way) and ended up going on a roller coaster ride! Fortunately for her, the dwarves had engineered the track to incline back up (improvised at the table) and come to a gentle stop outside the new shafts the dwarves had been digging before abandoning the mine.

Now “low prep” doesn’t mean “no prep” – you should prep what you enjoy prepping and what you find hard to improvise at the table. Keeping in mind that players are by their nature unpredictable.

In this case, my players had already had a session in this mine system and had found the loot while purposefully avoiding the dragon they had all told me back in Session 0 they wanted to fight. The troglodytes were just supposed to provide a strong start to the session – I expected the players to use the minecart to escape from the troglodytes and find another way out. Instead, of course, the strong “start” became almost the entire session as they magicked, battled, and then drove away the dozen troglodytes.

Sketching out rule subsystems for each feature of a fantastic location, such as the minecart, would have just been too much prep, in my case. And had I done it they would have probably spent all their time crawling along the trellis instead!

Image credit: Gzzz

Most RPG Products Sell Fewer than 50 Copies

DriveThruRPG and DMsGuild (same corporate parent) publish the number of their products that sell at different “metal tiers”. For instance, DriveThruRPG has had 10,719 products (as of today) sell 50 to 99 copies (Copper tier), compared to 1,792 products at that level for DMsGuild.

Extrapolating from these, you find that 72% of DriveThruRPG products haven’t even sold 50 copies, and 90% of DMsGuild products haven’t either. So if you’re looking for a quick market forecast for the RPG product you’re planning to sell through these channels, “under 50” is a good estimate (probably “under 10”).

It’s good to be the aggregator, though: DriveThruRPG has sold perhaps 8.8 million products, while DMsGuild has sold perhaps 1.5 million. (Those estimates will be off by an order of magnitude if non-metal products sell more than 4 copies apiece – my best guess, averaged across the two sites.)

DriveThruRPG DMsGuild
Metal Tier Threshold Products per Tier % Catalog Unit Sales Products per Tier % Catalog Unit Sales
No metal 0 86,454 72% 6 40,145 90% 2
Copper 50 10,719 9% 76 1,792 4% 73
Silver 100 12,061 10% 150 1,519 3% 145
Electrum 250 6,045 5% 330 647 1.4% 332
Gold 500 2,866 2% 647 316 0.7% 732
Platinum 1,000 1,198 1% 1,096 274 0.6% 1,253
Mithril 2,000 127 0.106% 2,542 93 0.208% 2,393
Adamantine 5,000 28 0.023% 6,500 14 0.031% 6,500
(extrapolated) 10,000 12 0.010% 12,000 6 0.013% 12,500
(extrapolated) 20,000 3 0.003% 25,000 2 0.004% 26,667
(extrapolated) 40,000 1 0.001% 40,000 1 0.002% 40,000

Note: Thanks to Tory for pointing out that the thresholds are off by 1. Minor effect on the math. Can’t trust everything you read! 😉

Attributes/Stats for Characters in Old School RPGs

One comment I got about Tunnels & Traps was surprise that I used Wisdom instead of Intelligence. That was definitely atypical of 1970s RPGs (which were my influences in 1980).

Inspired by D&D, the typical attribute-based RPG had Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence. A majority had Constitution and Charisma. And they all had 6 to 8 stats:

D&D EotPT T&T B&B C&S Traveller RuneQuest
1974 1974 1975 1976 1977 1977 1978
Attributes 6 6 6 8 7 6 7
Strength 100% X X X X X X X
Dexterity 100% X X X X X X X
Intelligence 100% X X X X X X X
Constitution 86% X X X X X X
Charisma 57% X X X X
Wisdom 43% X X X
Appearance 14% X
Bardic Voice 14% X
Comeliness 14% X
Education 14% X
Endurance 14% X
Luck 14% X
Power 14% X
Psychic Ability 14% X
Size 14% X
Smell 14% X
Social Standing 14% X
Speed 14% X

OK, so here’s a system that’s Old School and evocative of every one of these: Bardic Voice, Luck, Psychic Ability, Smell, Social Standing, and Power. (Plus Strength, Intelligence, and Dexterity – of course.) Clearly it’s a game about singing, psionic ants.

Update: For comments, check out the Reddit thread, Attributes in 1970s RPGs.

Provide Your Players with Situations Rather than Scenes

The best book I’ve read on gamemastering so far is Matt Shea’s The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. The key philosophy is to prep only those things that you find hard to improv. Session prep typically follows this template:

  1. Characters
  2. Strong Start
  3. Scenes
  4. Secrets and Clues
  5. Fantastic Locations
  6. Important NPCs
  7. Potential Monsters
  8. Potential Treasure

While still following Matt Shea’s advice, instead of “Scenes”, I’ve relabeled that section in my notes “Situations”. Here’s a good example of why.

Last night my PCs encountered a band of 19 orcs: I had prepped interesting terrain for a battle or a staged retreat, plus I had written a sentence about the leader’s motivation. The players could engage with this situation in any of the Three Pillars of roleplaying: exploration, social, or combat.

One of the PCs had ended up in prison at the end of the prior session (he had been possessed by a ghost and then, possessed, tried to commit regicide). So his player introduced a new PC, whom I knew nothing about beforehand: a 16-charisma dragonborn archeologist.

Heck, I didn’t even know there were dragonborn in this world!

That provided me with a good reminder that roleplaying is co-creation between players and the DM, even in a homebrew setting.

While I never would have expected an archeologist, the overall campaign arc is about exploring ancient ruins to learn why the empire fell, so that was a good call on the player’s part.

As mentioned, an hour or two into play, 19 orcs appear on the horizon. Selma, our naïve half-orc PC, wants to approach the orcs but gets talked out of it. The dragonborn player, whose regular PC has by now been broken out of prison, decides to make a point of how evil the orcs are and sacrifice his new character by marching him off to the orcs all alone.

Off the dragonborn goes. But he rolls a 24 on a Persuasion check!

All I knew about the orc leader, besides his name, Jomongen, was that it was his motivation to study the old empire to establish a new one. So now Jomongen wants to bring the architect back to his citadel to explain his land’s role in the old empire!

With this unexpected new ally, suddenly secrets and clues (again from Sly Flourish’s guide for session prep) now end up being volunteered by their new orc ally instead of discovered in other ways!

And I accidentally have the orc leader talk about the dragonborn’s tail, so now dragonborn have tails in this world. (That’s canon now.)

So, yeah. The DM’s job is to provide *situations*. The players’ decisions will create the scenes.

Tunnels & Traps: A Tiny BASIC Game

Back in 1980, I created a computer game for my TRS-80 Pocket Computer, inspired by Tunnels & Trolls. Given the passing of Rick Loomis, I thought I would dig it out.

As with T&T, I had attributes: ST (Strength), DX (Dexterity), and CN (Constitution, used for hit points). But I skipped LK (Luck) and CH (Charisma), and I used D&D’s WS (Wisdom) instead of T&T’s IQ (Intelligence). Like T&T, and unlike D&D, attributes could increase: in my case, quickly, after every monster, rolling three dice and if the total exceeds an attribute you can increase that attribute; if it doesn’t exceed any attribute, take that amount in gold instead. Powerful characters would gain wealth, while weaker characters would gain power. Unlike in T&T, attributes couldn’t increase past 18, though.

Combat was different. As with T&T, monsters had one number (this MR was based on how deep and how far you were in the dungeon), which was used for all their attributes (CN=3*MR, ST=3*MR, etc.). But missile attacks (F for FIRE, using DX plus a bonus for level deep) lost effectiveness after the first round, melee attacks (A for ATTACK, using ST) quickly lost effectiveness during an encounter, and spell attacks (C for CAST SPELL, using WS) gradually lost effectiveness. If you rolled under your attribute score (on 3 dice), you doubled your result, so better attributes minimized your downside. Your result was compared to the monster’s, and the difference was the damage and determined who it was dealt to (a difference of 0 harmed no one). After killing a monster, you could heal up to the monster’s level, providing the incentive for attacking tougher monsters.

Saving rolls were different too: they were done on three dice instead of two, with no cascading rolls in case of doubles. You had to roll under your attribute to succeed. A wisdom saving roll is needed when looking for traps, and a dexterity saving roll when jumping away from triggered traps or for parrying an attack when fleeing a monster.

A last shout-out to T&T: the troll was the toughest monster!

The Pocket Computer would only display 24 characters at a time. After a PRINT statement, you’d hit a key to see the next PRINT statement.

Screencap from a YouTube video

The Pocket Computer had a Tiny BASIC that lacked the ELSE statement (a common omission), but also RND, DATA, READ, and RESTORE. However, unlike TRS-80 Level I BASIC (my first programming language), which only had two string variables (up to 16 characters each), the PC-1 had 26 string variables of 7 characters each – sort of. They were actually an overlay over the 26 numeric variables: if you used A$, you couldn’t use A (numeric variable), and so forth. Also the array A() would alias these variables: A(1) was the same as A, A(2) was B, etc.

The PC-1 only had 1,425 bytes of RAM available for programming, and I must have hit that limit because my TRS-80 Level II BASIC listing had longer text descriptions and an additional command.

The goal is to collect the most gold. Commands:

  • Attack with a sword (uses ST)
  • Cast spell (uses WS)
  • Fire missile (uses DX)
  • Traps? (detects a trap in an empty room using WS)
  • Inventory (shows your attributes)
  • North
  • South
  • East
  • West
  • Up
  • Down

You can play Tunnels & Traps with Joshua Bell’s great Applesoft BASIC emulator. Copy and paste the following code, modified a bit to work there:

1 DIM A(26):GOTO 7
3 D=0:FOR I=1TO 3:R=23*R:R=R-32767*INT(R/32767):D=D+R-6*INT(R/6)+1:NEXT :RETURN 
5 PRINT "ST"; S; " DX"; F; " WS"; W; " CN"; C; " GD"; G:RETURN 
6 GOTO 30
7 PRINT "TUNNELS & TRAPS":INPUT "EXPLORE TUNNEL #?";N:R=N
8 GOSUB 3:S=D:GOSUB 3:F=D:GOSUB 3:W=D:GOSUB 3:C=D:G=0:GOSUB 5
9 PRINT:INPUT "COMMAND?";A$:GOSUB 3:GOSUB 10:GOTO 9
10 IF A$="A" THEN T=S-E:PRINT "SWORD";:GOTO 76
12 IF A$="C" THEN T=W-E/3:PRINT "SPELL";:GOTO 76
13 IF A$="D" THEN Z=Z-1:GOTO 6
14 IF A$="E" THEN X=X+1:GOTO 6
15 IF A$="F" THEN T=(F+L)*(E=0):PRINT "ARROW";:GOTO 76
18 IF A$="I" GOTO 5
20 IF A$="N" THEN Y=Y-1:GOTO 6
22 IF A$="S" THEN Y=Y+1:GOTO 6
23 IF A$="T" THEN T=W:GOTO 62
24 IF A$="U" THEN Z=Z+1:GOTO 6
26 IF A$="W" THEN X=X-1:GOTO 6
28 PRINT "NOR SOU EAST WEST UP DN":PRINT "ATTK CAST FIRE INV TRPS?":RETURN
30 IF M<0THEN GOSUB 62
31 IF M>0THEN A$="X":PRINT "PARRY";:T=W:GOSUB 80
32 L=INT((ABS(X)+ABS(Y)+3*ABS(Z))/3)+1:M=0:GOSUB 3:IF D>7 THEN M=L:REM
38 IF D<5 THEN PRINT "TRAP";:T=F:M=-L
40 IF M=0 THEN PRINT "NOTHING";
41 IF D<7 THEN M=-L
42 IF M=1 THEN PRINT "IMP";
44 IF M=2 THEN PRINT "KOBOLD";
46 IF M=3 THEN PRINT "GOBLIN";
48 IF M=4 THEN PRINT "HOBGOBLIN";
50 IF M=5 THEN PRINT "ORC";
52 IF M=6 THEN PRINT "HALFORC";
54 IF M=7 THEN PRINT "OGRE";
56 IF M>7 THEN PRINT "TROLL";
58 PRINT " HERE!"
60 IF D>4 THEN RETURN 
62 GOSUB 3:IF (D<T)AND(M<0) THEN PRINT "YOU JUST ESCAPE A TRAP!":M=0:RETURN
64 IF M>=0 THEN PRINT "NO TRAP DETECTED.":RETURN 
66 GOSUB 3:IF A$="T"THEN D=INT(D/2)
68 IF D>L THEN D=L
70 IF D>C THEN D=C-1
72 C=C-D:PRINT "A TRAP CAUSED ";D;" DAMAGE.":RETURN 
76 E=E+1:IF M<=0 THEN PRINT "S ARE USELESS HERE!":RETURN 
78 GOSUB 3:IF D<T THEN D=D+D
80 P=D:GOSUB 3:IF D<L*2 THEN D=D+D
82 IF P>=D AND A$<>"X" THEN M=M-(P-D)/3:PRINT " HIT FOR ";P-D;" DAMAGE."
83 IF P>=D AND A$="X" THEN PRINT " SUCCEEDED."
84 IF P<D THEN C=C+P-D:PRINT " MISSED.":PRINT "YOU TOOK ";D-P;" DAMAGE."
86 IF C<1 THEN PRINT "YOU DIED IN TUNNEL ";N;"!":GOSUB 5:PRINT:END 
88 IF M>0 THEN RETURN 
90 PRINT "YOU KILLED IT!":M=0:E=0
91 GOSUB 3:PRINT "ROLL OF ";D;": ";:IF C<L THEN C=L:IF C>18 THEN C=18
92 IF (D<=S)AND(D<=F)AND(D<=W)THEN G=G+D:PRINT "GOLD!":GOTO 5
93 T=23:A(6)=F:A(19)=S:A(23)=W
94 IF (S>=F)AND(S>=W)THEN T=19:U=23:V=6:IF (F>=W)THEN U=6: V=23
95 IF (F>S)AND(F>=W)THEN T=6:U=23:V=19:IF (S>=W)THEN U=19: V=23
96 IF (W>S)AND(W>F)THEN T=23:U=6:V=19:IF (S>=F)THEN U=19: V=6
97 IF D>A(T)THEN GOTO 195
98 IF D>A(U)THEN T=U:GOTO 195
99 T=V
195 IF (T=6)THEN F=F+1:PRINT "DEXTERITY!":GOTO 5
196 IF (T=19)THEN S=S+1:PRINT "STRENGTH!":GOTO 5
197 IF (T=23)THEN W=W+1:PRINT "WISDOM!":GOTO 5
198 GOTO 5

And below is the PC-1 source code. You’ll have to forgive the lack of comments. There wasn’t sufficient memory to have any! And it is spaghetti code, inspired by assembly language: the common subroutines had one-digit line numbers that jumped down because every byte counted, and RETURN took less space than GOTO 9. The whole thing later got much further developed in the comparative luxury of 16KB RAM on the TRS-80 Model I Level 2. But that’s a post for another day.

  1:GOTO 7
  3:D=0:FOR I=1TO 3:R=23*R:R=R-32767*INT(R/32767):D=D+INT(R/6)+1:NEXT :RETURN 
  5:PRINT "ST";S;" DX";F;" WS";W;" CN";C;" GD";G:RETURN 
  6:GOTO 30
  7:INPUT "TUNNEL #?";N:R=N
  8:GOSUB 3:S=D:GOSUB 3:F=D:GOSUB 3:W=D:GOSUB 3:C=D:GOSUB 5
  9:INPUT A$:GOSUB 3:GOSUB 10:GOTO 9
 10:IF A$="A"THEN T=S-E:PRINT "SWORD";:GOTO 76
 12:IF A$="C"THEN T=W-E/2:PRINT "SPELL";:GOTO 76
 13:IF A$="D"THEN Z=Z-1:GOTO 6
 14:IF A$="E"THEN X=X+1:GOTO 6
 15:IF A$="F"THEN T=F*(E=0):PRINT "ARROW";:GOTO 76
 20:IF A$="N"THEN Y=Y-1:GOTO 6
 22:IF A$="S"THEN Y=Y+1:GOTO 6
 23:IF A$="T"THEN T=W:GOTO 62
 24:IF A$="U"THEN Z=Z+1:GOTO 6
 26:IF A$="W"THEN X=X-1:GOTO 6
 28:RETURN 
 30:IF M<0GOSUB 62
 31:IF M>0THEN A$="X":PRINT "PARRY";:T=F:GOSUB 80
 32:L=INT((ABS X+ABS Y+ABS Z)/3):M=0:GOSUB 3:IF D>8THEN M=L
 38:IF D<5THEN PRINT "TRAP";:T=F:M=-L
 40:IF M=0THEN PRINT "NOTHING";
 41:IF D<7THEN M=-L
 42:IF M=1PRINT "IMP";
 44:IF M=2PRINT "KOBOLD";
 46:IF M=3PRINT "GOBLIN";
 48:IF M=4PRINT "HOBGOBLIN";
 50:IF M=5PRINT "ORC";
 52:IF M=6PRINT "HALFORC";
 54:IF M=7PRINT "OGRE";
 56:IF M>7PRINT "TROLL";
 58:PRINT " HERE!"
 60:IF D>4 RETURN 
 62:GOSUB 3:IF (D<T)*(M<0)PRINT "YOU ESCAPE TRAP!":M=0:RETURN 
 64:IF M>=0PRINT "NOT FOUND":RETURN 
 66:GOSUB 3:IF A$="T"THEN D=INT(D/2)
 68:IF D>LTHEN D=L
 70:IF D>CTHEN D=C-1
 72:C=C-D:PRINT "TRAP HIT FOR ";D;".":RETURN 
 75:E=E+1:IF M<=0PRINT "S USELESS HERE!":RETURN 
 77:GOSUB 3:IF D<TTHEN D=D+D
 79:P=D:GOSUB 3:IF D<L*2THEN D=D+D
 81:IF (P>=D)*(A$<>"X")THEN M=M-(P-D)/3:PRINT " HIT FOR ";P-D;"."
 83:IF (P>=D)*(A$="X")PRINT "!"
 84:IF P<DTHEN C=C+P-D:PRINT " MISSED":PRINT "YOU TOOK ";D-P;" HITS."
 86:IF C<1PRINT "YOU DIED!":GOSUB 5:END 
 88:IF M>0RETURN 
 90:PRINT "YOU SLEW IT!":M=0:E=0
 91:GOSUB 3:PRINT "ROLL OF ";D;":";:IF C<LTHEN C=L:IF C>18THEN C=18
 92:IF (D<=S)*(D<=F)*(D<=W)THEN G=G+D:PRINT "GD!":GOTO 5
 93:IF (S>=F)*(S>=W)THEN T=19:U=23:V=6:IF (F>=W)THEN U=6:V=23
 94:IF (F>S)*(F>=W)THEN T=6:U=23:V=19:IF (S>=W)THEN U=19:V=23
 95:IF (W>S)*(W>F)THEN T=23:U=6:V=19:IF (S>=F)THEN U=19:V=6
 96:IF D>A(T)GOTO 99
 97:IF D>A(U)THEN T=U:GOTO 99
 98:T=V
 99:A(T)=A(T)+1:IF (T=6)PRINT "DX!"
100:IF (T=19)PRINT "ST!"
101:IF (T=23)PRINT "WS!"
102:GOTO 5

Celebrating Rick Loomis by Replaying Buffalo Castle

When I learnt Rick Loomis passed away, I pulled out my copy of his Buffalo Castle, the first solitaire RPG adventure. I played a lot more solitaire RPGs than in-person, and I have Rick to thank for that. (I met Rick once, at a convention, of course.) You can play along with me:

  1. Purchase a revised edition.
  2. You’ll need Tunnels & Trolls to play. I recommend 1st Edition, because Rick originally sold Ken’s 100 copies from the ASU copy shop, and it’s actually a love letter from @Trollgodfather (Ken St. Andre, the designer of Tunnels & Trolls) to a group of friends who made up the game together. Plus, go Sun Devils!
  3. You’ll also need this treasure table (not in 1st edition).

Play along! I created a character. Key thing to note when you do: “Constitution” is what you will probably think of as health or hp. “Hit points” in T&T are for each round of combat: “The hit point total is the sum of a characters [sic] dice roll plus whatever adds may be coming to him.”

  1. On my first game, I went through the left door, and I tried to sweet-talk my way past the troll (spoiler!), only to have him kill me in one blow.
  2. On my second game (same character), I went through the center door, was teleported to the troll (1 out of 12 paths!), to be killed in one blow after I missed my saving roll by 1. (“Saving rolls are made with 2 dice. Doubles add and roll over so that you need not give up hope.”)
  3. On my third game, I went through the rightmost door, fell into a pit, and crawled out to be rewarded with “You have entered room number six.” I drank from a fountain and lost 2 charisma. I then failed my saving roll twice and got: “The walls smash you flat. Sorry about that!”

Yeah, so this was like a 1970s arcade game. You’d just expect to die a lot and have to puzzle your way through. This reminds me of a BASIC or FORTRAN IV program, which is not surprising as Rick claimed to be the first person to buy a computer just to play games!

I eventually came up with a strategy, bought different weapons, and won!

So celebrate the life of Rick Loomis by playing this pioneering game and returning, momentarily, to what gaming was like in 1976.

At Loggerheads

The hook:

A Saltmarsh merchant says his woodcutter partner, Concisor Maplesky, hasn’t been heard from in a month. The merchant needs the party to find out what happened to the woodcutter and to ship two masts down Kingfisher River. He’ll pay 100 gp per player. He provides a boat to go upstream and a map showing which tributaries to traverse to reach the logging camp at Flicker Creek.

If you’d like to read the rest of my one-page adventure, it’s available in the new DMs Guild exclusive ebook, The Lonely Scroll Adventure Contest: Saltmarsh. It’s got a great custom map by Daniel “Axebane” Walthall.

Whether you’re interested in the Saltmarsh of Greyhawk, of Forgotten Realms, or just need 47 ideas for seashore adventures for your own campaign world, check it out!

The Village Blacksmith (RPG Setting-Neutral Edition)

My players’ characters are visiting a village smithy, so I decided the local bard will sing this poem as they approach (then ask them for money!). Since our homebrew campaign world is set in Stone Age Eurasia, I changed the references to Christ and Sunday worship. My edited words are in italics. (With apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)

The Village Blacksmith

UNDER a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge
With measured beat and slow,
Like a cleric ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.

And children coming home from toil
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And watch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

He goes each tenday to the shrine,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the cleric pray and preach,
He hears his daughter’s voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,
Singing in paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.

Toiling,—rejoicing,—sorrowing,
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought!

Questions to Ask During Session Zero

I ran a Session Zero on Friday for our new homebrew campaign. We had just wrapped up a 41-session, open-table campaign set in Melvaunt in Forgotten Realms, and this time we’re doing a homebrew, closed-table campaign. Every group’s Session Zero has different things to cover, but here’s what we found useful.

The questions I asked to better tailor this campaign:

  • What was your favorite moment from the last campaign? Least favorite?
  • What did you like in general about the last campaign? What did you dislike?
  • Do you want to play one character over the new campaign or play multiple characters?
  • Should we allow players to be resurrected or not?
  • Do you like creating maps?
  • Do you like codes and ciphers?
  • What kind of records are you as a team going to keep about the world and your adventures?
  • What types of monsters would you like to encounter?
  • How would you feel about a session with no combat?
  • How can we speed up combat? [We have 7 players, so I feel like it can bog down, though not every player felt that way.]

Introduction to any house rules. For instance:

  • For a player who is not present during a session, their character is assumed to be present and along for the ride but not contributing much. An absent player’s character cannot be killed.
  • At the end of a session, the players reach consensus on where they want to go the next session. [A complaint was how long it took them to decide which clue/quest to follow at the start of a session.]
  • While the DM’s guide says a permanent magic item every five levels, we are going to have some different items that come along more often.
  • Combat ideas:
    • Everyone rolls for initiative (including me as DM for monsters). High roll goes first, then combat proceeds in clockwise order around the table.
    • Players can postpone their turn if they are not ready. [We were already doing this.]
    • If the AC is obvious (humanoid wearing armor), I’ll tell the players it. Everyone will roll d20 and damage die together, ignoring damage die if they didn’t hit.
    • I’m going to provide better feedback into the declining health of the opponents.

Discussion of how the world differs from Forgotten Realms or other player expectations. In my case:

  • There’s a shop with common magic items only, but anything rarer – even uncommon – will require tracking rumors and legends to find.
  • Rather than copper, silver, electrum, gold, and platinum pieces, the lands use electrum pieces universally, though their home city is unique in that it has copper pennies too. The electrum pieces are the only reminders of the wider world of the vanished empire: which city-states used the minotaur coins, the winged horse, and the lion?

After much discussion of character races and classes, I had every player tell us about their character. I had already encouraged them to think of a high concept and troubled aspect of their character’s background. Then also had to tell us how their character knows the character of the player to their right.

I’ve already tweaked the encounter tables based on what I learnt from the session, and I have changed some of the clues and potential story lines. For instance, while one of our past players loved riddles and ciphers, that wasn’t something any of the current players wanted much of, so that series of clues is being revamped.

I believe the Session Zero is going to pave the way for another great 40-session campaign.

Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels.