Archive for the RPGs Category

Fellhold Session 28 Recap

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , , , on May 2, 2013 by Jeff Russell

So, after a two week hiatus due to my visit to the exotic orient for school, we resumed our regularly scheduled game on Monday.  Everybody, not least of all myself, were a little bit rusty, and a few players had connection issues and/or reasons to show up late and leave early, so it was a bit rocky, but overall a good time. Probably even more kibbitzing and joke making than usual, including a rather inappropriate one involving ents that had the whole group rolling, but is best left unrepeated.

The thing I’ve noticed about campaign prep is that no matter how much time is taken, you never get everything you want ready.  I have great faith in my ability to improvise in just about every activity in my life, but I’m discovering that my D&D improvisation benefits from some robust support.  There are just so many cool things I want to incorporate from what I’ve seen online, read in published material, or stolen from heavy metal songs.  Oh well, the important thing is that the game keeps going so I keep having a chance to use this stuff and improve.

We picked up with the characters getting ready to high tail it away from outside of the giant cave after their fight with the trolls.  They decided to risk being surprised and injury/damage on the mountain path to move faster, not slowing down until they made it into the woods.  I spent a lot of my prep time coming up with some random adventure sites, focusing on the wilderness areas between the giant cave and Silverdelf, and overall I’m really happy with what was added.  The Kraal is a crazy awesome crowdsourced hex map of an arctic area, and I’ve stolen a lot of good stuff that has really started to make the wilderness feel like a living place, not just a vehicle for burning rations between marked locations on the map.  I still need to flesh some stuff out, but I like what’s there so far.

Speaking of which, as the group was coming to a stopping point near dusk, they spotted the ruins of a small inn and trading post, apparently as ancient as the Volsungril mine and probably serving the traffic that used to pass that way.  They burned some torches and got their hirelings in a police line and searched the place pretty thoroughly, but didn’t find much.  Then, during the night, Yllgrad the dwarf was on watch and heard a faint scratching sound.  Investigating, he found a trap door buried under some rubble, and when he opened it, he found a cellar.  He impetuously jumped into the cellar after sending calling for the rest of the party to wake up, but didn’t wait for their help.  He found a wine cellar, then a storage room and around that time everybody else showed up.

So, they’re checking out the nondescript storage room with an enticing strongbox when BAM! a huge, disgusting undead beastie bursts through the cellar wall and attacks! Now, I made this monster up myself (rules below) because all I knew before they found this place was that there should be something creepy there at night.  I was all excited to run this (I thought) scary monster against unprepared and largely unarmored (!) characters, but you know what? They wasted it in like 3 rounds, with only a scratch to the dwarf, damage-wise.  And that was without their minions.  I really need to work on my sense of challenge scale.

I’ve actually arrived at a new philosophy due to this, and other experiences: your players can handle it.  Anytime you’re wondering if you should spring something on the group, repeat that mantra.  It might take desperate creativity, multiple character deaths, and unorthodox solutions, but they will totally wreck every dangerous thing you throw at them.  So don’t pull your punches.

Anyway, after dispatching this fat nasty thing with a gaping maw, they break open the strong box, finding a fair amount of gold ,and then our alcoholic former nobleman checks out the wine and determines that he’s maybe heard of the vintage, somewhere, and it ought to be worth some money.  So they drink one bottle, then haul the other 159 out and take some special precautions to transport it, and hope to get some money for it.

After that, they start out again for Silverdelf, and one of the clerics (Caleb, cleric of Hrokr, the Crow Father) uses his favorite spell, speak with animals to try to get some info about the area.  I ended up doing a lot of animal impersonations this game (squirrel, sparrow, owl).  I try to give each animal a personality based on what they’re like, vague memories of Redwall characterizations, and what seems fitting at the time.  I also make it a point that they’re, you know, animals.  They can have perfectly intelligible conversations, but they don’t care about the same stuff we do or make the same distinctions.  They don’t have the same concepts of distance or time, they care a lot about food.  That sort of thing.  The more ‘supernatural’ the critter (like crows and cats, maybe) the more person-like their thoughts and conversations will be.  At any rate, they heard about some Great Owl that “knows things” and decide maybe that’d be cool to find, so they vaguely set their course in the direction indicated by a helpful sparrow, but mostly keep heading for Silverdelf.  The next night of camping, they end up encountering the Great Owl. Now, they had learned from one of the animals or another that it will answer questions, but only a limited number (turns out it was 3).  Earn (Cleric of Dwyn, the Oak Mother) wastes the first question with “What’s up?” and gets the response “the sky”.  The owl won’t engage in conversation besides answering questions, and mostly just stared at the party.  They ended up asking about the Volsungril mine and mostly just confirming what they already knew about it (I wish I had thought of more details to make it even cooler, I hate to waste a cool mystical question answer about something the players are already invested in), and then about what Trolls fear (fire, being bested in a deal, and their gods).  Then it mysteriously flew off to the Northwest.  They hope to find it again sometime and maybe learn some more things, and I think that’s cool.  I need to work on more connections across the map so things feel interrelated and point in different directions.

They made it back to Silverdelf and commission some wine racks for their new haul, and otherwise stock up on provisions and set out the next morning for Mickleheim, giant captives still in tow.  I *really* need to be making them more of a pain in the ass. So far all they’ve done is eat extra rations.  I ought to come up with escape chances and increased likelihood of wagons breaking down and all that jazz.

So, the road to Mickleheim has been established as pretty safe, so I let them get there no problem, but we call it a night as we were coming up on our time limit (midnight, my time). I’ve adopted from Zak S. the incredibly wise procedure of stopping play about to go somewhere/start something rather than after resolving something.  This allows me to go “hey guys, what are you planning on doing next time?” Now, sure, often this changes or is just vague, but it allows me to triage prep time most effectively.  I certainly don’t try to plan out what they’re gonna do when they get places, I just try to make sure there’s stuff there for them to interact with, and I have enough of a rough idea of everything else that I can wing it for a session or so, it just might be a little flat.

At any rate, this discussion led to the decision to go check out the volcano on the newly detailed and awesomed map.  I think I discovered a principle of refereeing: Checkhov’s Volcano.  “If there is a volcano introduced on the map, players will go there eventually”. It’s the one thing our usually fairly “along for the ride” player has strongly pushed for, so I want to do it justice and really bring the awesome.  I also see it as my chance to do my first real stand alone dungeon entirely from scratch for this campaign.  I’ve used lots of geomorphs, random generators, pieces from published adventures, and otherwise mostly kitbashed stuff rather than doing it from scratch.  And where it has been from scratch, it’s mostly been as part of Fellhold, which has its own stuff going on.  So the chance to do a stand alone, strongly themed dungeon of a decent size as a complete unit is new and both exciting and scary.  I just have to have enough for one night’s worth of play ready for next Monday night, and I want it to be awesome.

For rules, the Disgusting Undead Abomination the players made short work of in the basement:

Disgusting Undead Abomination

HD: 5

AC: 4

Attacks: Claw/Claw, Special: Bite (1d6/1d6, 1d8)

Saving Throw: 12

Special: On a natural hit of 16+, grapple and bite for 1d8 damage and drain 1 point of CON. Anyone reduced to 0 CON dies, and anyone killed by damage or CON drain raises in one round as a ghoul that will eventually turn into a Disgusting Undead Abomination

Move: 12

Alignment: Chaotic

Number Encountered: 1

Challenge Level/XP: 7/600

Every Version of D&D Part II: Men & Magic

Posted in Every Version of D&D, Projects, RPGs with tags , , on May 1, 2013 by Jeff Russell

menandmagiccoverart As promised, we’re beginning with the beginning – the Little Brown Books of the original white box.  Okay, yeah, yeah, you might call “the beginning” Chainmail or Braunstein or what have you, but this is the first thing released into the world as “Dungeons & Dragons”, though not yet as a “roleplaying game”.  I’m no James Malieszewski when it comes to the history of the game, but for this analysis, I’m more concerned with differences in the products as rules manuals that I can use now than I am in their history.  I will touch on it briefly (as well as I’m able) in order to speculate on what changes tell us about the play experiences the designers were trying to address.  But enough jibber jabber, let’s jump in.

Men & Magic

Here is something better!” First off, a word about formatting and graphic design (in the sense that Zak S. talks about it) – there isn’t any.  Well, that’s not true, there’s formatting of the sort some guys could do as hobbyists in 1974, and yes, there’s some charm to ‘slap it together yourself’ aesthetic, but it’s a terrible in-play reference.  Material isn’t very clearly grouped, there’s no index, and rather important concepts get a mention and that’s it.  I honestly think a lot of the reputation OD&D has for being “incomplete” or needing high levels of referee involvement and prep stems from the fact that it’s not formatted in a way where you can pick it up and use it as an instructional manual.  As I’ve mentioned before, I started out with the purist vision of playing actual OD&D, but after the first session of character creation and brief play, I made the switch to Swords & Wizardry Whitebox on account of its being easier to reference (and I actually have dreams of reformatting that in a more useful way, but it’s still loads easier to refer to in play than the LBBs). With these books, you have to read, re-read, internalize, interpret and otherwise work to make the text work for the game.  That’s okay, and there may even be some virtue in that, but overall I tend to come down on the position that RPG texts should facilitate learning the game and referencing the rules in play first, and being engaging and thought provoking works a distant second.  The engagement and thought provocation ought to come out in play rather than the rules.  Given how rarely RPGs acquire new players by someone picking up a book out of the blue and getting an impression of it from that book alone, I think that’s a fair set of priorities.  That tangent out of the way, let’s take a look at Men & Magic section by section, even if they are inadequate as organizational tools.


There’s not much applicable to the rules here (as you’d expect), other than the emphasis on campaign play and the exhortation that these rules are intended for people with imagination. I like that.  As much as I admire a “scientific” approach to game design, where rules are crafted to attempt to guide players to the desired play experience, there’s a lot to be said for openly putting the onus on the players to use the toolkit provided.

Introduction, Scope, Preparation

So, despite my smack talking about OD&D’s value as an instructional manual, it does go into charmingly specific detail on recommended equipment: “Sheet Protectors (heaviest possible).”  It also gives a piece of advice that remains good to this day, around which I’ve built the entire Fellhold campaign – start small and build up detail as you go.  Other than that, it emphasizes the expectation that the referee will house rule like the devil, and the flexibility of the rules, from the prehistoric to the futuristic.  I like to think of this as acknowledging the then latent potential of roleplaying games as a form combined with some understandable boosterism for a fledgling product.

Characters, Abilities, and NPCs

What I find most interesting about the characters, abilities, and non-player characters sections is what they say about the play that produced them.  The character races that have become canonical are presented more in the sense of “hey, here’s the stuff we already figured out, but go ahead and make up something else if you want”.  Acquiring followers and armies, and their morale and loyalty scores get a lot of detail, showing the wargaming roots.  I like that abilities are “determined” rather than “created” – I think James Maliszewski hit on that on Grognardia, this notion that your character is randomly picked from all the possible characters in the world rather than crafted to your whim.    I’m still confused about the “use one stat for another at a 3 for 1 rate for experience purposes only”, but I don’t think I’m alone in that.


Some of the prices here don’t show the same concern for medieval verisimilitude that later editions get to.  Though not listed here, it’s a running joke in my game that tents, as priced in Swords & Wizardry Whitebox, costs something like a year’s soldiering wages.  Great fun was had by me in describing the giants’ new loin cloths after they chased the party out of camp.

“Alternative” Combat System

Here we have the combat system that turned into D&D’s defining mechanic.  The tables are a little confusing, or rather the ways they try to save space by giving Magic Users and Clerics as relative values to Fighting Men.  Deep in my heart of hearts, I’m a THAC0 man myself, so I’m considering switching over, originalism be damned.  It’s interesting to me that AC only goes down to 2 and up to 9.  I’ll have to check out the Supplements to see when that was expanded.  The 10 to -10 spread is imminently logical, but it does divorce the idea that AC represents particular armor types.  That was probably inevitable, and possibly desirable, considering the diverse uses AC was already being put to to describe different monsters that are hard to hit for reasons other than wearing particular types of armor.

The saving throw matrix is also kind of terrible.


Level 1 spells have a lot of overlap between Magic Users and Clerics, but after that they start to diverge quite a bit.  Clerics get “Remove Curse” as a level 3 spell instead of level 4, and obviously have all the healing spells.  Otherwise, perhaps what’s most surprising about the spells is how little many of them have changed.  Effects and mechanics are remarkably consistent for many of them, and despite the profusion of spells available in later editions, most of the most used and iconic ones are right here.

Next up in the series will be “Monsters & Treasure”.


For rules, here is the method I used recently for filling out “adventure sites” as determined with the previous rules adapted from Welsh Piper (which generated too many adventure sites and too many large outposts for the vibe I was going for, but would have been good for creating a dense, interesting small map)

Adventure Site Generation

Take stuff from a good source like Dyson LogosHexenbracken or the Kraal, or the Tome of Adventure Design, or your favorite published setting material or:

01-60: Monster Lair

            – Roll Random Encounter Chart for Terrain type

61-70: Surface Ruins

            – Use outpost generation rules to determine size and type of ruins, then either roll random encounter chart for monsters there, add intelligent but dangerous inhabitants, or come up with something to make it worthwhile

71-80: Some Kind of Inhabited/Dangerous/Interesting Place besides an outpost

81-90: Small 1 Level Dungeon

            – Generate Randomly, Wing it, or Grab a map

91-00: Full Dungeon

            – Generate randomly, grab a map, or go whole hog and make it

A Problem

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , , on April 25, 2013 by Jeff Russell

So, in my ongoing Fellhold campaign, we’ve been using Akratic Wizardry’s rather good “weapon damage by class” rule as a compromise between “all weapons do d6” and “all weapons have their own unique damage”.  I think if we weren’t already 6 months into using these rules, I’d probably tweak some of the damage a little bit, and maybe recategorize a few weapons (having short bows, long bows, and crossbows all do “medium weapon” damage, and treating hired swords as level 1 fighting men means that players have access to cheap and plentiful d8 damage – I gotta remember to play up the hirelings as people more).  Altogether, though, I like the rule, and it has allowed players to use stuff they think is cool while still giving the fighters a useful role as damage takers/dealers.

I ran into a small problem recently, however.  In my zeal to go all OD&D, I gave everyone d6 hit dice.  Everyone, even monsters.  Those of you more clever than I will have already spotted the problem it took me 6 months to deduce.  In OD&D, the baseline assumption of weapons and hit points was that an average guy has d6 HP, and an average weapon does d6, so any given blow has an average shot of killing someone if it connects.  So far, so good.

When you plug d8’s in as effectively the “default” damage (medium weapons in the hands of fighters and fighty hirelings) against d6 hit dice, all of a sudden the difficulty of monsters as related to their hit dice is thrown way off.  Mobs of hirelings offing hill giants in one round with a volley of short bow fire.  Trolls getting cut down faster than their regeneration can work.  In other words, we’ve gone from damage dealt scaling nicely to damage capacity to slightly (but significantly) favoring the players.

Now, I am by no means suggesting I want carefully crafted “Challenge Levels” for encounters, or even that I want things to be harder for the characters per se.  What I think bothers me is that right now, the meaningfulness of player choice is being undermined, even if it is generally in their favor.  As it stands, fighting men, and employers of hired goons, choose between “bigger damage die than monster hit dice” or “way bigger damage die than monster hit dice” (the latter having the marginal cost of foregoing a shield).  Small weapons are pretty much completely ignored (except for the occasional thrown axe or knife).

By bumping monster HD up to d8s (as was done pretty early on – what, in Greyhawk? Definitely by AD&D) I get to a) keep using the damage scale we’ve been using and which has started to be automatic to players, b) increase the upside of going for a big, two handed weapon and foregoing a shield, making that a more meaningful choice, and c) make monster longevity more in line with their ability to hit, make saving throws, treasure awarded, XP given, et cetera.

So, the rule for today is both short and easy: All monsters have d8’s for hit dice.

Adventurer as a Meta-Class

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , , on April 25, 2013 by Jeff Russell


So, I’m reading through the excellent analysis of skills in D&D over at Hack & Slash.  It touches on what the functions of a resolution mechanic are at all, and especially digs into what 3.x/Pathfinder style skills bring to D&D (and don’t).  Considering some of my recent forays away from a pure lack of skill systems at all (using the “Good at” and “Bad at” cues, considering the use of roll under stat checks more often, et cetera), this is striking me as very useful analysis.

The main approach I’ve been taking when skill type things come up is to ask myself if I figure the situation is the sort of thing a class would cover.  Considering we’re still rocking the original 3 classes only (Fighting Man, Magic User, and Cleric), this gets broadly interpreted to “General Outdoorsy/Rugged stuff, smarty pants stuff, and healy/religious stuff” respectively.  With some consideration for the Dwarf knowing dwarf stuff.  In the Hack & Slash series, the author mentions in a couple of posts (those on ride and heal specifically that I can think of) that there’s some stuff that it’s just assumed adventurers can do, and I kind of like the idea of “Adventurer” as a meta-class for OD&D.

What I mean is a baseline assumption that all PCs know a thing or two about adventurery stuff in the same way that fighting men are assumed to know about combat and weapons and the like.  Now, this gets dangerously close to the whole “adventurers are a special class of people, a cut above everyone else from the get go” mentality of later editions.  I much prefer “your adventurer is just some schmuck until gameplay shows us otherwise.” Overall, though, I don’t think the idea that characters can be assumed to have a basic level of competence in things like riding horses, bandaging wounds, checking doors for traps and so forth clashes with the basic assumptions of a class & level game where fighting men start out tougher, magic users start out knowing a spell, and clerics start out, hmm, well, religious and able to swing a mace?

Clearly, there are play styles where you would not want to approach things this way – a Dungeon Crawl Classics style 0-level “funnel” approach, a Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay weird horror tale, a career or lifepath system like WFRP or a “our first adventure” story or whatever.  But I think that acknowledging “adventurer” as a factor for the referee when determining if a character can know or do something comes pretty close to what ends up being the default assumption at many tables anyway, especially in a skill system light approach, where the players have plenty of “dungeoneering/adventurism” experience and use it, regardless of who their characters are.

So, the rules section is easy this time:

Adventuring Skills

All characters are assumed to be basically competent at skills common to an adventuring life style – riding, camping, cooking, first aid, orienteering and so forth, unless stated otherwise by the player.  No tests are necessary related to these skills except in unusual or extremely difficult circumstances (riding a giant lizard, say, or determining directions in a sorcerous fog, et cetera).

Every Version of D&D Part I: Introduction

Posted in Every Version of D&D, Fellhold Campaign, Projects, RPGs with tags , , on April 24, 2013 by Jeff Russell


So, for some blog fodder, I’ve decided I’m going to take on the rather ambitious project of going through every version of D&D and comment on the rules.  To keep myself sane, I’ll be sticking to core books only.  I’m up in the air on OD&D if it will include the supplements or only the the original three LBB’s.  The idea is to hit up White Box, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia, AD&D 1E, AD&D 2E, D&D 3/3.5, and 4E.  And I’ll probably have to get to Next if it’s out by the time I get through all of the other stuff.  Then, maybe I’ll hit up the retroclones for the sake of comparison.

Now, I’m sure somebody’s done something like this before, and I have read some “cover to cover” posts about specific editions, but my goal here is going to be to a) highlight the differences and think about why they are there, and b) identify those rules, tools, and ideas that are most useful to me for actual play, to aid me in kitbashing the Frankenstein’s monster of a “perfect version” for my campaign.   In large part, though, I just want to get to know the versions I’m not as personally familiar with (basically everything besides 2E and 4E). I expect it will take a while, but hopefully it will keep me gainfully blogging whenever I’m running short on ideas.  First up will be the original three LBB’s in the next post in the series.

Meanwhile, Fellhold Hex Stocking

(Using Welsh Piper’s Regional Hex Template, with 5 mile sub hexes and heavily cribbed from Lore.Keeper0’s Hex Crawl)

The lands around Fellhold are comparatively sparsely settled, so I’m going to modify the chances of an “outpost” (settlement type place) to be lower.  I’ll be running this for the regional hexes the players are currently traveling through first, and eventually flesh out the whole map.

For Each Regional Hex, determine the dominant terrain type (if you can’t tell, just use the center hex). In the case of dual terrain (like wooded hills) go down this list in this order for precedence. Roll the appropriate die for the number of outposts/settlements in the regional hex.  Then roll to determine size and inhabitants for each. Place as desired, or decide on a method to randomize placement:

Terrain Type

Number of Outposts

Size of Outposts



1d2 – 1

Tiny (01-60)

Small (61-00)

Dwarves (01-10)

Men (11-00)


1d3 – 1

Tiny (01-60)

Small (61-89)

Medium (90-00)

Trolls (01-40)

Trollkin (41-80)

Giants (81-90)

Dwarves (91-95)

Men (96-00)


1d2 – 1

Tiny (01-70)

Small (71-00)

Trolls (01-20)

Trollkin (21-30)

Men (31-00)


1d3 – 1

Tiny (01-50)

Small (51-89)

Medium (90-00)

Trollkin (01-30)

Dwarves (31-35)

Men (36-00)


1d4 – 1

Tiny (01-50)

Small (51-80)

Medium (81-90)

Large (91-00)

Trollkin (01-30)

Dwarves (31-50)

Men (51-00)


1d6 – 1

Tiny (01-50)

Small (51-70)

Medium (71-80)

Large (81-00)

Dwarves (01-20)

Men (21-00)


  • Tiny: Individuals or very small groups, hermits, inns, mining/logging camps, homesteads
  • Small: Villages, trading posts, forts
  • Medium: Towns, keeps, market fairs
  • Large: Cities, castles, fortresses, tribal encampments

Next, roll the number of adventuring sites per regional hex by dominant terrain type:

Terrain Type

Number of Adventuring Sites













Adventuring Sites

Adventuring sites are ruins, monster lairs, encounters, and so forth.  Detail as you like or use a cool random generator. Abulafia has lots of great stuff.

A Brief Interlude on Rule Systems

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , , on April 23, 2013 by Jeff Russell


Not exactly what I’m talking about

So, after a discussion with Bryni’s player (GM of many of my favorite gaming moments, and fellow game design enthusiast) as well as working my way all the way through the archives over at Zak S.’s Playing D&D with Pornstars, I’m thinking rather a lot about rules.

When I started out the Fellhold campaign, I was pretty high on the “player skill not character skill” and “rulings, not rules!” rallying cries of the Old School Renaissance, and the accompanying rules light approach that I found appealing.  Now, don’t get me wrong, these are still principles I think are good and valuable, but I’m starting to wonder if my game is suffering from an overly strong attachment to some “pure” vision of those ideas.

From the beginning, I intended to take a similar approach to James Maliszewski in his Dwimmermount campaign and add on rules as they became necessary or desired, but in practice I haven’t really regularized that many rulings or added that many brand new rules.  Even if I were to, Bryni’s player pointed out an interesting analogy in the above mentioned conversation.  He said that OD&D (or retroclones thereof, like our current S&W Whitebox) is an excellent bicycle – spare, efficient, gets you where you’re going.  But when you start adding on all sorts of gewgaws and motors and horns and whatnot, you end up with a crufty bike when maybe you would have been better off with a moped or a motorcycle.

This conversation came up because he is a fan of the crunch.  In addition to the tactical and outside the box thinking of play, he enjoys having a meaty rules system to sink his teeth into and engage with as a game. And I can certainly sympathize – I just tend to get that fix with board games and wargaming more than from RPGs.  When I suggested that we can add more systems and subsystems to the game as we go, he made the analogy above and it got me thinking about what the rules are doing now, what we might want them to do that they’re not, and how best to serve those goals.  Most of all, I don’t want to let some silly sense of pride in playing D&D “like it was” get in the way of playing it in the most awesome and fun way possible for me and my friends.  It’s not like I have any personal attachment to how D&D was played before I was born.

So all that has me thinking about how the rules are contributing (or not) to the awesome in my campaign.  One area I’ve been giving a lot of thought to is rolling for skills and stats.  I’ve shied away from doing it much at all in the hopes of encouraging player creativity and problem solving, rather than using character stats and skills as a crutch.  This post by Zak S. made an excellent distinction about what rolling stats is for in D&D, though, and may be the necessary step to break my otherwise loathe to roll stats mentality.

I’ve been so worried about letting the game slip into “roll vs. whatever stat/skill” in place of engaging with the fiction and actually thinking, that I may have gone the opposite direction and made the only useful character distinction how well you hit in a fight.  We’ve had some really good times with stats being little more than a way to color your impression of characters (and the occasional precious +1 hit point), but I think I’ve closed off whole sections of the game to the delights of the oracular power of dice that I’ve not only discussed before, but named my damn blog after.

What I mean is that when social interactions, or trying to notice things or whatever are entirely based on my rulings on what the players describe, then there is no unexpected content at the decision point. I may be surprised by the player’s actions, but I will have incorporated those actions into my mental model before making my decision, so there is no surprise (to me) from the actual decision. With dice added to the mix, I can shape the probability with modifiers, but the actual result still has the chance to surprise me and even force “unwelcome” outcomes, as Mr. Baker would say, which makes the game more interesting and textured overall.

Embracing this notion, however, starts to point to some of the areas ripe for change in OD&D.  Though I never played D&D 3 or 3.5, the open endedness of ascending AC and difficulty kinda makes a lot of sense, and allows a little more range than roll under a stat.  On the other hand, moving to a totally open ended system like that quickly minimizes the role of the actual D20 that the system is named for.  If you’re adding and subtracting values over 20, then the probabilities get a little weird.  The very strength of having no limit to modifiers starts to become meaningless when they get big enough that the dice roll only matters to check for a critical hit or failure.  Of course, if you want huge amounts of granularity to base stats, skills, and modifiers, all within a reasonable range, you can go to a percentile system, but man, I just kind of hate them for aesthetic reasons that I can’t quite explain (sorry WFRP).

So what to do? I flirted with the idea of a Dungeon World style 2d6 + modifier derived from 3-18 stat with a 2-6 fail, 7-9 mixed success, 10-12 full success model, but again, Bryni’s player pointed out that the basic assumption of such a system is not “does this make sense?” but rather “succeeding while creating problems is the most interesting outcome, so it should happen the most.”  I think making that assumption for some parts of the game but not others is ultimately more problematic than it looks on its face.

What about 3/3.5 style modifies added to a D20 roll against an ascending DC set by me? I feel like this is only slightly different from a straight up decision on my part based on description.  Sure, it’s technically different to set a difficulty, then award a bonus or penalty to the player’s roll, but overall I’d still be largely shaping how a thing goes down based on what sounds right to me, minimizing the surprising effects of the dice.  I’m sure lots of GMs are super good at doing this fairly, but it’s not a skill I’m exactly practiced at right now, and I don’t know how long it would take me to train that skill to the same hard core old school “let the dice fall where they may” approach I’ve been taking so far.

When I started this post, I didn’t know exactly where I was going with it, but I think I’ve figured it out.  Rolling for stats will be a simple roll under affair.  Modifiers will be limited to +1/-1 for both the player and the difficulty, which is consonant with what I’ve been doing for combat rolls (I’ve based this on something I read in either DNDWPS or Grognardia, I can’t remember, which pointed out that the early rules intended a +1/-1 to be a pretty big deal, that was mostly all you got if you got anything).  This means a maximum swing of +/- 10% probability, which still makes the importance of the stat and the D20 roll itself important, which I like.  Plus, it makes my job of judgment a lot easier by making it effectively binary (well, trinary if you count “no effect”): Is this thing unusually hard (-1 to stat) or unusually easy (+1 to stat)? Is your description especially useful (+1 to roll) or especially not (-1 to roll)?.  We’ll see how this works out as time goes on.  So, I guess I’ll cheat a little bit and use the above as my “rules content” for this post:

Fellhold Ability Checks:

When a player cannot or will not expand on an action his character is performing, and the outcome of that action depends to some degree on an inherent trait of the character, then the referee will call for an ability roll.  The player rolls 1D20 and attempts to score the relevant ability or lower. The referee may modify the ability or the roll as follows:

  • If the player’s description significantly improves his chance of success: -1 to the player’s roll
  • If the player’s description significantly detracts from his chance of success: +1 to the player’s roll
  • If the situation is unusually easy: +1 to the character’s relevant ability for the purposes of this roll
  • If the situation is unusually difficult: -1 to the character’s relevant ability for the purposes of this roll

Note that if using the “Good at” and “Bad at” skill rules, these should normally grant a -1 and +1 to the player roll respectively.

Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day!

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , , on April 17, 2013 by Jeff Russell

It’s the first official Swords & Wizardry Appreciation day! Considering Swords & Wizardry Whitebox is the ruleset we’re using for the Fellhold campaign, I thought I’d like to jump in on this.  I’ve expounded earlier why we went with Whitebox, but basically I found the simplicity attractive as a foundation to add house rules to, rather than trying to cut out pieces of other versions.  As play has gone on, it has both taught me to value and enjoy the lack of some rules but also it has pointed out exactly how other rules came to be by experiencing the desire to have them in game.  My only real regret about using Whitebox is that it means my beautiful full core rules I got in the kickstarter are only pulled out when I’m looking for guidance on making a ruling on something outside the scope of the Whitebox rules. A small price to pay for an excellent slim set of D&D rules that is far more in-play reference friendly than the actual Little Brown Books.

I’m working on a quickstart character sheet that will hopefully have everything a player needs to create a character A) on one page, and B) logically sequenced and labeled to be as new player friendly as possible, but I’m traveling and wasn’t able to get it finished yet.  So, instead I’ll post my custom Fellhold character sheets (heavily inspired by the Dwimmermount character sheets), and, unimaginatively enough, a couple of magic Swords and an example of some Wizardry.

Fellhold Character Sheet

Fellhold Character Sheet

Some Swords

Grief, the Foemaker

Grief is a finely made long sword with intricate knot and runework on the crossguard and round pommel.  The steel of the blade is dark, almost smokey, and the scabbard  is black leather with inlaid silver in the form of a knotwork wyrm.

When Grief comes into the possession of a new owner, it is a +1 sword that increases its wielder’s chance to fumble by 1 (so, a 1-2).

Every time its owner rolls a fumble, increase the to-hit bonus by +1, to a maximum of +4, and increase the chance to fumble by 1. This works out to:

  • +1 = Fumble on 1-2
  • +2 = Fumble on 1-3
  • +3 = Fumble on 1-4
  • +4 = Fumble on 1-5

In addition to an increased chance of a fumble, as Grief’s to hit bonus increases, the severity of fumbles should increase.  This is left to referee discretion, but anything that increases discord and endangers allies should be preferred.

Whenever the owner of Grief is present during an interaction with strangers, any reaction rolls will suffer a penalty equal to Grief’s current to hit bonus.

Grief cannot be freely given to anyone its owner considers a friend or ally.  If Grief is ever used in the presence of a former owner, any fumbles will automatically strike the former owner (provided it is even somewhat reasonable).

Grief’s powers “reset” whenever it comes into the possession of a new owner. 

Woe, the Blooddrinker

Woe is a “viking style” sword of regular size, effective at both stabbing and slashing.  The broad fuller is bronze, and the crescent shaped upper and lower guards are inlaid with copper knotwork polished to a bright red sheen.  The hilt is wrapped in simple, well-worn leather. It is currently housed in a weather and sweat stained simple leather scabbard.

Woe gives no bonus to hit, but instead any damage dice rolled “explode”, meaning that if the maximum value is rolled, save that value, roll again and add them together.  If this second roll is also the maximum value for the die, roll again and add, and so on.

On a critical hit, automatically consider the damage die to have rolled maximum value and proceed from there, in addition to any other usual effects from a critical hit.

Woe always inflicts vicious, nasty wounds when it is able.  Any time its damage die “explodes”, NPCs and monsters with HD equal to or less than the victim must test morale (yes, this applies to both friends and foes).

Woe’s owner will find it hard to keep his or her hand off of the hilt and the blade in the scabbard anytime his situation is uneasy or dangerous, unless he exercises iron will (a good way to reflect this is for the referee to assume that the owner does these things in these situations unless the owner’s player specifically says otherwise).  NPCS will likely interpret such actions as hostile and react accordingly.

Some Wizardry

Altered Guise

Spell Level: 1st

Range: Self

Duration: 8 hours

The caster may take on the appearance of any person of roughly the same size and shape provided he obtains something that belongs to the person being imitated. He may change appearance within the duration as many times as he likes, though once he returns to his own appearance the effect ends.  The greater the disparity between the caster’s appearance and the imitated person’s, the more likely something will seem off, and people familiar with the imitated party will have a greater chance of spotting the deception.


Humanoids of Fellhold

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , on April 17, 2013 by Jeff Russell

Player Spoilers!  This post might spoil some stuff if you’re playing in my Fellhold game!

Okay, so, with that out of the way, today we’re going to talk about the humanoid races we’ve encountered so far, with associated rules.  Rules stuff is in bold italic:

The currently playable races:



Men are pretty much what you’d expect.  Vaguely Germanic (Anglo-Saxon names by default), scattered settlements, one largish town outside of Fellhold, one big city a few days away on the coast.  There are probably more and different cultures farther away, but those haven’t come up yet.


All playable classes (Fighting Men, Magic Users, and Clerics).

Languages: By default, all men speak Mannish, and may choose additional languages in the usual manner.



Dwarves are a mostly insular race, though they once had many mighty holds dug into mountains across the land.  The greatest of these was Fellhold, conquered by sorcerors, now overrun with all manner of foul beasts.  Dwarves are pretty stereotypical super-nordic dwarves: hard working, expert craftsmen and miners, live in giant cities carved from the living rock, tendencies towards rampant greed, et cetera.  Know ancient secrets of weaponsmithing that men do not. Pretty much all magic weapons come from the dwarves, and most of those from long ago.  I’ve been pretty inspired by Burning Wheel and Warhammer’s versions of dwarves, but ultimately they come from the Norse myth (and Tolkien’s take on them, of course).  While their skill is better than humans, they don’t have any advanced technology like steam or clockwork or guns, because I don’t want it.  This may change in the future, who knows.


Character Advancement: The only character class available to Dwarves is that of the Fighter, but they have no level limits.

Weapon and Armor Restrictions: Like human Fighters, Dwarves have been trained in warfare and have no restrictions on the weapons or armor they may use.

Fighting Giants: Giants, ogres, and similar giant-type creatures such as trolls are not good at fighting dwarves, and only inflict half the normal damage against them.

Keen Detection: Dwarves are good at spotting traps, slanting passages, and construction while underground.

Saving Throw: Dwarves do not use magic and, as such, are somewhat immune to its effects; they receive a +4 bonus on saving throws vs. magic (whether or not the alternate “Saving Throw Matrix” is used).

Languages: Dwarves are able to speak Mannish, Dwarvish, Goblinic, and Trollish.

Those encountered by the party



Trollkin are a group of related tribes of humanoids, with a fairly wide range of technological sophistication, physical size, and characteristics.  Men tend to refer to them based on size as “goblins” and “hobgoblins”, and there are rumors from the dwarves of even larger and more sophisticated Trollkin that dwell almost exclusively underground.

Okay, so, stats-wise, I’ve to this point used standard goblin and hobgoblin stats, which is pretty boring and generic, I know.  Where I’ve tried to bring in some interest is to make Trollkin more than just two dimensional walking XP sacs guarding treasure.  The PCs even ended up as chiefs of a Trollkin tribe for a while, but then messed up their sacred rites and started a tribal war, and who knows how that turned out.

So, act what later versions of D&D would probably call “lawful evil” despite being dedicated to the forces of Chaos (demons).  They take their traditions and religious values seriously – but those traditions and values are kind of, you know, evil.  So, for example, when the PCs challenged the chief of the Sword clan to single combat, a champion fought him, and that champion became the chief (despite being a dwarf).  All the trollkin were like “them’s the breaks” and acknowledged him as chief, even though they thought it was pretty weird.  When the PCs tried the same stunt on another tribe and cheated, however, they made the mistake of telling their shaman, assuming that an evil guy would be all about cheating and backstabbing.  But to him (a demon worshipping cannibal), breaking the trust of the blood rite was a horrible blasphemy and could not be borne.  So, he summoned a demon as he was killed by the PCs, the tribe dissolved into Chaos, and that’s the last we heard of them.

Oh, except for his assistant that the PCs captured, who adamantly refuses to go along with them, because he’s a devout believer in Mustakrakish, demon lord of trolls (yes, from the Dethklok song).

Because you’ve waded through all of that, here’s my quick and dirty blood magic rules (I want to find and/or come up with better ones, but this is simple and makes hordes of otherwise useless guys scary):

Trollkin Blood Magic:

A Trollkin shaman can invoke the powers of demonic patrons with appropriate sacrifice.  For every 1HD of sentient creature killed by a shaman, he can attack any target within sight for 1d6 damage.  If he begins a ritual, chanting and remaining stationary, drawing grotesque symbols with the blood of his sacrificial victims, he can “store” HD for an attack or a summoning. 


As stated, a shaman may perform a ritual, slaying a sacrificial victim each round and storing up the victim’s HD.  At any point he may finish the ritual to attempt to summon a demonic being with HD up to sacrificed HD -1.  Chances of success are 1 in 6 for every HD stored above the target demon’s HD. Damaging the shaman mid-ritual will disrupt the ritual.  Consider any fun “interrupted summoning” consequences you like.

Example: Odo the head shaman of the sword tribe wants to punish the unbelieving upworlders for their blasphemous ways.  He begins chanting and grabbing nearby members of his tribe and viciously cutting their throats.  He can do that, because he’s the shaman.  The PCs hear his disturbing chant and see smoke starting to gather around him, so they direct their attacks his way, but are stopped by his bodyguards.  Each round, he sacrifices another hapless tribe member, until after 6 rounds, he announces he has completed the ritual and is attempting to summon a 4 HD demonic being (Erishkaltu, the sword clan’s totem demon and servant of Mustakrakish). He has a 2 in 6 chance (6 sacrifices – 4 demon HD = 2 in 6).  The PCs finally land a telling blow, killing Odo, but he had initiative and completed the ritual.  The referee rolls a 1, and the smoke begins to congeal into a tangible form. . .



So, in the world of Fellhold, Trolls are related to trollkin (goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears) but are their own race.  They’re sort of a mash up of ogres and trolls and look more like the guy above than like the classic green rubbery dude.  They’re size L, but smaller than giants (basically, think Warhammer scale Ogres). But they still regenerate.  Here’s a “normal” troll’s stats:


HD: 6+3

AC: 4 [15]

HD: 6+3

Attack: Weapon (1d10) or Berzerk (claw/claw/bite for 1d4/1d4/1d8)

Saving Throw: 11

Special: Regenerates

Move: 12

Alignment: Chaos

Number Encountered: 2d6

Challenge Level/XP: 8/8000

Trolls regenerate 3 hp every round. They do not regenerate damage by fire or acid.  When below 10 HP, they go “berserk” and attack with claws and teeth instead of their weapon. Berserk fury ends when troll reaches 0 HP or the fight is over and he cools down, but not if he regenerates to over 10 HP.

I haven’t decided yet if Trolls regenerate from decapitation or total bodily destruction by means other than fire or acid.  The party has a mostly charred headless troll body in their caravan right now, and I’m really tempted to have it wake up in a few days, but we’ll see.

Like Trollkin, trolls are intelligent and have a society with rules and values, and also like trollkin, they’re evil and worship demons.  They’re just rigidly principled about it.  Trolls are super transactional.  They see all interactions as exchanges of value for value.  They are extremely “letter of the law” sorts of people.  Probably from a long history of asking for things from demons.  Normally they are very calm and terse, but when severely injured or pushed too far, they go berserk and attack in a blind rage with their bare claws and teeth.  So, they can be dealt with as any other intelligent species, but their rules of behavior might be strange and unsettling.

Major sources of inspiration visually are Paul Bonner’s stuff for Drakar och Demoner, along with every Warhammer ogre ever.  Behavior-wise, I gleaned some stuff from Magic: the Gathering’s Kamigawa (one of the few good things to come out of a misguided decision to read the novel that came in a “fat pack” of cards for the block), and now that I think about it, I’m ashamed to admit, from “Sword of Shannara” with its stoic, noble troll guys in thrall to the evil lord.  But my trolls are evil, just stoic and honorable.



Unlike Trolls and Trollkin, giants much more closely resemble men and dwarves.  The way I figure it, trolls and trollkin are one “genus”, and men, dwarves, and giants are another.  Not that I want to get too naturalistic with the ecology here, but I like folk lore giants that are just big, ugly, kinda dumb humans.  I’m keeping the scale of hill giant on up to fire giants and titans and the like pretty much the same, with a comparable ascending scale of sophistication.  Unfortunately for me, besides dishing out tons of damage, Hill Giants have proven to be kind of pushovers for well-equipped PCs and their army of hirelings.  I really need to rock the morale rules more carefully.  And it turns out that dwarves’ “half damage from giant type creatures” rule is insanely useful.

Giants speak a crude dialect of mannish (hill giants = mostly grunts and 1 syllable words, frost and fire giants = normal conversational skill, but sound like, well, monstery giants).  Giants aren’t evil per se, just greedy, selfish, and prone to violence.  So, like I said, big, dumb people.  I’m thinking that the frost giants have a big ass keep up north and that they have the Trolls in unwilling serfdom, but we’ll see.



So, I put this way down at the bottom to make it even less likely that my players will read it (shame on you if you’re here!), but I’m considering putting elves back into the mix.  Initially, I was so sick of ‘elf-bloat’ and I wanted to stick to a sword & sorcery kind of Germania that I thought elves wouldn’t fit (yes, I know elves come from Germanic myth, even Tolkien’s, but they’ve been so D&D-ified that I was sick of them).  Now, though, reading about Zak S.’s pitiless white elves, I’m thinking there might be a place for them as sort of Others-cum-Melniboneans living up in frozen palaces in the icy wastes, probably only a few decadent remnants of apathetic, cruel, graceful aristocrats.  Maybe with armies of frost wights, I dunno.  I’m still pretty torn.

Fellhold Sessions 13 & 14 Recap

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , , on December 12, 2012 by Jeff Russell

After fleeing from the seemingly endless hordes of large and aggressive trollkin, our adventurers spiked a door behind them and listened with baited breath. Not hearing any sounds of further pursuit, they decided against fleeing blindly, and continued to explore and map carefully. After discovering a secret door and defeating a hideous ooze that dissolved a few weapons, they secured a small clutch of gems, spiked another two doors behind them and decided to rest inside the dungeon. With a careful watch and secure location, their rest was uneventful, and after a few divine acts of healing from the groups clerics, they decided to make their way back out to the surface. They directly encountered no more trollkin, only the surprised sound of a guard coming from a newly constructed barricade and a poison trap that was defeated by Varian’s iron constitution.

After successfully reaching the surface, the group made proper payments to the families of the deceased hirelings and proceeded to hire new soldiers and a few more torch bearers before returning to the grim mountain. Having decided that enormous hordes of angry humanoids might not be the best thing to face just now, the party returned once again to the Western entrance to Fellhold, where they encountered and defeated Dag’s former bandit group. Exploring more deeply and more carefully, they once again triggered a portcullis, trapping them within, but before they had to resort to the aid of strongman Mihtig the Mighty, they discovered a secret crank that opened the gate. Further exploration led to a secret door opening onto a stairway leading upwards, in sharp contrast to what they’ve encountered thus far.

Climbing the stairs, they found an elaborate Dwarven antechamber holding six musical pipes. Experimentation revealed that playing certain pipes opened certain doors and closed others, until the proper sequence was found, opening all three sets of huge, impressive double doors. Entering, they found first a rough, unfinished section of halls and chambers, but then more beautifully crafted Dwarven architecture and sculpture, including a massive statue of Aki, the father of all Dwarves, carved from the living rock of the mountain. Though there was a plethora of doors to explore, the party found a large staircase leading farther upwards and pressed on, surprising a small band of trollkin at the top landing!

Even hemmed in by the stairs, the group made short work of them, with Yllgrad stopping the final one as he fled with a well placed thrown dagger. Following the path the dead trollkin seemed to be heading for, they fell upon another small band of trollkin, these obviously searching and rummaging around in what appears to have once been an officer’s quarters. Outside the chambers was a large, magnificent hall with pillars carved in the likenesses of Dwarven heroes, warriors, and smiths. Crossing over they found a doorway directly opposite and entered a room in even worse repair, this one the nest of eight disgusting giant rats! The rats were quickly dispatched, with Sir Braxton the war dog taking especial pleasure in tearing apart one of the foul vermin. Catching their breath, our intrepid band prepares to continue to explore this mysteriously upwards reaching section of Fellhold.

Fellhold Session 12 Recap

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , , on November 28, 2012 by Jeff Russell

We left off with our adventurers deep within the Ashfell, and as we joined them this week, they continued to explore . They returned to the relief mural depiction of the founding of Fellhold and followed the carvings around a large hall, reading a story of dwarves comes to Ashfell, delving into the mountain, and ending with a scene of trade, craft, and fellowship between dwarves and men. Having satisfied themselves that this mural did not contain any further clues about how to proceed, they set off to continue down a wide passageway leading from the imposing statue of a sorceror. Along the way, they found a large, crude set of double doors with a sword painted on and decorated with human and goblin skulls. After listening at the door and hearing some sort of chanting or cheering coming from beyond, they set to and kicked down the door.

This alerted a group of trollkin bigger than the goblins previously encountered to rush the party and slam the door closed. The party hacked open the door, and made pretty short work of these unarmored trollkin, but they were followed by fully armed and armored trollkin warriors in seemingly endless numbers. The group stood their ground and fought, felling scores of the humanoids. The fight began to take its toll, however, with Blum the magic user seriously wounded, the other members of the party reaching the limits of their endurance, and the deaths of four hirelings.

Deciding that surviving to fight another day was better than a valiant last stand. Flinging recovered gelatinous cube slime behind them to slow pursuit, they fled to a previously discovered narrow hallway with a door and spiked the door closed in the faces of their pursuers. As we leave them, deciding to put more space between them and the howling hordes, they flee deeper into the pitch darkness of Fellhold too quickly to map. . .