Saturday, February 18, 2017

Questions for a Campaign

Somebody (sadly, I can't remember whom) pointed me back to Jeff's Gameblog's list of twenty quick questions for your campaign setting.

As with just about anything I run into, I can't take it as is -- I have to play with it and make it fit my way of thinking and my way of campaigning. So, inspired by Jeff, here are my questions.

Please note that they can work for every level of campaign scale: cosmic, setting, territory, settlement. (I think however, a different set of related questions are necessary for generating dungeons and the underworld. More on that to come.)

Questions for Campaigns at Each Level of Scale

What is the name of this place?
  • ·       Why
  • ·       Backstory
  • ·       Size
  • ·       Population
  • ·       Army and size

What race is in charge here? Really?

Do they speak common? Something else?

Is anything illegal?
  • ·       Weapons
  • ·       Magic
  • ·       Something odd or absurd?

Who is in charge? Really?

Secret societies? Cults?

Who is the wealthiest? Different from above? Really?

  • ·       Motte & Baily
  • ·       Castle & Keep
  • ·       Curtain Walls
  • ·       Wood
  • ·       Stone
  • ·       Enchanted

What is the religion? Really?

Who is their cleric? Really?
  • ·       What are “clerics”?
  • ·       How do clerics “work” here?

Is this place for law, chaos or no-side?

Can we change alignment here?

Who is the most powerful?
  • ·       FM
  • ·       CL
  • ·       MU
  • ·       TH
  • ·       Dwarf
  • ·       Elf
  • ·       Hobbit

Who knows the most?
  • ·       Book knowledge
  • ·       Experience

Is there a _______ here?
  • ·       Tavern / inn
  • ·       Stable / livery
  • ·       Jail / Prison (Who is in it?)
  • ·       Church / Temple
  • ·       Bank
  • ·       Town / Guild Hall
  • ·       School

Can we buy?
  • ·       Supplies
  • ·       Equipment
  • ·       Weapons/armor
  • ·       Magic Items
  • ·       Transportation

Can we find?
  • ·       Healing / potions
  • ·       Antidote
  • ·       Cures
  • ·       Raise dead
  • ·       Curse / remove
  • ·       Lycanthropy cure

Can we hire hirelings? Retainers?

Where is the nearest treasure to recover?
  • ·       Is it legendary
  • ·       Will it make us famous
  • ·       Will it make us rich

Are there any problems around here?
  • ·       NPCs
  • ·       Monsters
  • ·       Will it make us famous
  • ·       Will it make us rich
  • ·       Will it make us landed

Is this place its own problem?
  • ·       Deception
  • ·       Intrigue
  • ·       Corruption

Does anyone need something done?
  • ·       Are they rich
  • ·       Powerful
  • ·       Will they pay:
  • ·       In kind
  • ·       In coin
  • ·       In land

Is this place at war?
  • ·       With whom
  • ·       How long
  • ·       Is it just
  • ·       Who is winning

Where is the nearest dragon? And hoard? Or any creature that:
  • ·       Petrifies
  • ·       Paralyzes
  • ·       Drains Energy
  • ·       Poisons
  • ·       Breathes a weapon
  • ·       Contagious condition
  • ·       Regenerates
  • ·       Enchants

How do PCs find out about these things? Rumors?


Monday, January 16, 2017

Less Rules, More Fun, Now my Little Tale is Done

I am coming to the bottom of the downward slope of the parabola of interest in my hobby of D&D. I would have said "RPGs" three years ago, but I am not interested in RPGs anymore. I am only interested in D&D now. One set of rules is enough for me, personally. Also, I am interested in medieval fantasy wargames campaigns more than in "role playing" per se. Role playing is just a necessary part of conducting a wargames campaign. But it is not my main focus. The campaign is. Well, and even that is relative to the fun of playing a bunch of wargames and then stringing them together so that they build on each other and help to make sense of each other. Etc.

In other words, I've come along way in my research and playing since I returned to the hobby about three and a half years ago.

Over on the ODD74 forum, Falconer posted the following:
My House Rules document started big and proud. Over the years, it has shrunk. I have found that most of my rules were based on “theory and philosophy” or on my precious vision for “my world,” yet these didn’t add up to more fun for the players. While I definitely feel that, as DM, I should be master of the game, and I want to run a game that’s solidly about adventure and not about character building, I’d like to think I have become more sensitive to what my players care about and what makes the game fun for them. What’s more, the game is more fun for ME the more I allow the players’ creative input to shape the game. I’m trying to think of solid examples of what I’m talking about. Take classes. If my house rules document has a definitive list of sanctioned classes, even a permissive one, that’s that. If I don’t have such a definitive list, maybe someone will come up with a unique concept that actually ends up adding a lot of flavor and hilarity to the game. So my baseline is “mere” D&D. Somehow Gygax found (or founded) the center of peoples expectations, and it branches out from there in a million directions.
My house rules document was huge, about 50 pages. I wanted something both mechanical pure and balanced and also capturing a more "medieval Christendom" feel to it -- thinking I could use mechanics to affect the mood I was after. I have learned that all of this is baloney. I mean, it was fun to think about it as an abstraction in my brain. But it absolutely killed fun at the table. I was trying to solve through mechanics what can only be performed through role play. Mechanics do not necessarily encourage role play.

I have found that most of my rules were based on "theory and philosophy," or on my person vision for "my world," yet these didn't add up to more fun for the players. Although I love high and heroic fantasy, it is HARD AS $%&* to play as a game that is actually any fun. Sword and Sorcery, however, is a riot to play. D&D was invented to game that setting. I have not been able to improve on that formula and I see no need to reinvent the wheel.

I have become more sensitive to what my players care about and what makes the game fun for them -- as a game! I have seen it not only in myself but in others: amazing vision for a fabulous fantasy world that, in the end, has nothing to do with playing the game and, therefore, winds up being of no interest to the players. Was all that world-construction wasted time? Not necessarily, not if it was fun to the thinker. But why not turn it into a cool fantasy novel? Let the world the players play in be a "generic vanilla low-fantasy" setting and let their decisions give you ideas for what is going on in that crazy world. The game is not more fun for ME the more I allow the players' creative input to shape the game.

So, like Falconer above, my baseline is "mere" D&D. I don't want mechanics that "match" my legendaria. I want as few mechanics as possible so that they do not get in the way of the legendaria, yet still have a game that doesn't feel like playing cops and robbers in the back yard!

Because of this shift in my hobby and my energies, I am coming to the end of my desire to research RPG material and peruse rules. I am not interested in reading any more rules. Now, new monsters, treasures, and world and encounter building tables and charts -- I am interested in that. But, as Talysman always says, those aren't "rules" anyway, just resources.

But I am not reading anymore rule books. I mean, I am not even interested in reading AD&D -- too many rules -- so I certainly am no longer interested in reading attempts to reinvent the wheel again and again.

So, there I am. I am at the end of something. But every end is also a beginning.

I am writing this to let whoever is reading this know why I may not be posting here much anymore, or, at least for a while. And also why I may not be posting on some of my favorite fora, e.g., ODD74, Ruins of Mirkhill, K&KA.

But every ending is a beginning, so, who knows what might come next.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

D&D 5e as viewed by one 0e referee

I will keep this brief, as hundreds of others more important than I have written their own reviews. I will also keep it free from any polemic or really even criticism. I am only going to share my own first impressions of the 5e core rule books as an 0e referee.

I bought the core rule books from my FLGS and enjoyed perusing them.

First of all, it seems to me that what most folks have said is true, this feels much more "old school" than either 3e or 4e to me. There is an emphasis on dungeons, and rulings over rules-lawyering. That feels good to me. The magic items are great and they have brought to prominence ones I recognize from 0e itself. Double plus good to Mike Mearls and team for all that.

I could see myself playing 5e, under the right referee, and having a lot of fun.

That said, I will not referee 5e. And that for really only one reason: it is not rules light enough for me. Now, that is no deep criticism. I won't touch AD&D, 1e, for the exact same reason: too many *%$! rules. Rules light versus rules heavy has nothing to do with old or new school. Hence my post is about an 0e referee looking at 5e NOT an "old school" referee looking at "new school." Those categories don't help in this situation.

Although I think these rules could be used to play in a sandbox kind of way, the "fluff," or descriptive material in both the DMG and PH emphasize that the game is about making a story. The rules don't necessarily force a referee to railroad. But the emphasis on story together with what most of the supplements look like means that that particular trend seems to continue. If that characterizes the "vibe" of 5e, I will not prefer to join those tables.

Finally, they make it very clear that they are trying to make rules for, and present the rules (especially, for example, in their presentation and illustration) in such a way as to support heroic fantasy role play. They mention sword and sorcery and low fantasy as an option the rules support, but not the main focus of the rules. Now, double plus to WotC for making this clear and saying so. The art is crazily heroic fantasy. There is absolutely nothing pulp about it. It therefore does not have a "vibe" that attracts me. I love heroic fantasy. I could even play in a campaign of heroic fantasy. But D&D is sword and sorcery role play to me, forever, full stop.

So, to conclude, these books are sleek, beautiful, with amazing art work. The rules are written clearly and presented beautifully. I could play as a character in a campaign run in a sandbox, sword and sorcery way. But I will never referee these rules for three reasons:

  • Too many rules
  • Story-focused (vs. sandbox)
  • Heroic vs. low fantasy focused
So there are my two-coppers. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Maxims of Mechanical Minimalism

I am discerning three recursive maxims that drive my D&D minimalism and define my approach to "rules-lite." Here they are:

  1. Always resolve through role-play anything that can be resolved through role-play
  2. Keep all mechanics as abstract as possible, as concrete as necessary
  3. Use abstract mechanics as openings to, rather than shut-downs of role-play
Notice how the three form a neat recursive circle. The first prioritizes role-play over mechanics. The second limits the nature and use of mechanics. The third reminds us to use mechanics to support, rather than shut-down, role play, thus leading us back to the first maxim. I must say I find this quite satisfying.

Always resolve through role-play anything that can be resolved through role-play

What I mean here by "role-play" is wargame-style playing of a particular tactical role defined by character class, race, level, etc., much like infantry, cavalry, artillery, with light, medium or heavy armor define rolls to play in napoleonic wargames. I do not mean amateur improvisational theatre. That said, just as with Diplomacy, there are good times to "ham it up" for the sake of "sealing the deal" in a tough diplomatic negotiation.

I remember running a game of original edition using my Perilous Realms house rules for some players who were familiar with later editions. One first-time-to-original player asked "do all weapons just deal 1d6 damage?" "Yes," I answered. "So why not just buy a cudgel and leave it at that? Why spend the money for a halberd or a sword?" "Cudgels can't cut anything," I replied, "halberds have a long reach. Swords cut and thrust." He could not understand what I was driving at because he had been living under the oppression of over-mechanization! I had to explain, "the different weapons allow different role-playing possibilities. You can do things with a spear you can't do with a sword, and vice versa. Does that make sense?" He was doubtful. But when the mummy came and they lowered the portcullis just in time, skewered it on a spear to keep it from retreating, hit it with oil and torched it, they then started seeing the strategic nature of the game -- something that has more to do with role-play than mechanics. A bunch of first level characters survived a random mummy encounter. I could only congratulate them.

Point of the maxim in this case: there is no need for variable damage mechanics in order to "describe" the usefulness of different weapons. The weapons themselves, used "in-world," do that for us, through good role-play.

Keep all mechanics as abstract as possible, as concrete as necessary

Mechanics serve as a kind of "oracle" that gives the game-world the feeling of independent reality. The more mechanics are used to dive into describing concrete minutiae, the more they become a straight jacket upon either referee or player decision-making. Like all oracles, they should be abstract and open to interpretation by the diviner -- in this case, the referee. The more concrete the mechanic -- like research into the exact force of the weight of a blow from a halberd on plate armor generating a complex chart of bell-curves, yada yada -- the more the game gets stuck in the morass of endless non-interpretive dice rolling -- what folks call "roll playing," rather than role-playing.

Let's take the common complaint that the original edition doesn't have a "universal mechanic." I will not dispute that here but I will point out that it has a near universal exploration mechanic:
1d6 : the lower the more beneficial, the higher the more detrimental to playing-characters
Key examples: Locate secret passage: 1-2, elves 1-4; elves sense secret door on passing by 1-2; force door: 1-2; spike slips: 5-6; traps spring: 1-2 (I suppose this means deliberately looking with a ten foot pole, otherwise it should have been 5-6, but inconsistency is one of the glories of the original edition!); listen at door, hear something: 1, elves 1-2; wandering monster per turn: 6; surprise: 1-2 (again, should have been for monster, 5-6 for party!); wilderness exploration has similar mechanics.

A pattern emerges: Roll 1d6:

  • Unlikely to benefit PCs: 1
  • Possible to benefit PCs: 1-2
  • Toss up: call high or low
  • Likely to benefit PCs: 1-4
  • Unlikely to be detrimental to PCs: 6
These represent chances of 1/6, ⅓, and ⅔, respectively (except for "toss up," which I only use when both the players and I are "meh" about the outcome of something. I never write "toss ups" into my house rules).

I only consult these exploration mechanics when I need something more than my own knowledge of the setting and the player's careful description of their actions to make a ruling about the results of their behavior. That means I don't use mechanics very often. If they describe something pretty well and their characters are pretty high level or possess talents and possibilities, then they succeed. The more beautiful, interesting and fun their plan of action and description, the more inclined I am to grant them success. It is a game. The point is fun. The point is to reward, not punish, good, fun role-play.

I learned this the hard way but I am the better for it. I had some high-powered PCs surprised by finding a high-powered ancient vampire waiting for them in a closet they opened up. He shot out about 50 bats in their faces (awesome!). When they got their wits about them, the wizard decided he would turn rock to mud, opening a whole in the ceiling of the temple right above the vampire, thus turning him to dust with sunlight. I was still stuck in the old mechanics-heavy framework. I said,  "okay, high it works, low he escapes from the light." I rolled low. I ruled he escaped from the in-coming light just in time. One of my players, a long time referee in his own right, noticed that I was disappointed in this outcome. He said to me, "are you disappointed it didn't work?" "Well, yes, " I replied. "Well hell then, man, rule that it worked, you're the ref! Let's have fun!" It was like scales falling from my eyes. We were all supposed to have fun, even me. I liked their plan. It contributed to fun -- even my own fun as the referee -- after all, although I was "playing" the vampire, I was not "on his side"! So I reversed the ruling and we all cheered. I learned something important that day. I only need mechanics when I really am unsure of the outcome of player actions. If it makes sense, or just seems fun to me, it works!

In most situations where I do use the "universal exploration mechanic," I reason it out with the players. I low-ball them. They high-ball me, and we comprise and I roll the dice in front of them. "I think you have about 1 chance on a d6 to pull that off." "No way, man, at least a toss up!" "Okay, 1 or 2, fair enough?" "Fair enough." "I rolled a 4 so it didn't work as you'd hoped, sorry guys." "That's cool. It was worth a try." "But you do manage to get about half way there." "Cool!" Etc. I do, of course, roll secretly for "listen at door," the triggering of traps, etc.

Point of the maxim in this case: abstraction allows for oracular interpretation, and that only when the referee feels the need.

Use abstract mechanics as openings to, rather than shut-downs of role-play

We keep mechanics as abstract as possible in order to encourage role-play. Keeping mechanics abstract allows room for interpretation and creative description. But sometimes we turn the abstraction into a chance to make things as boring and free of detail as possible. And that is our mistake, as players and as referees.

[NOTE with regards to the following example: I mean no severe critique of the referee or his rules. I am trying to make one small point about a use of mechanics that bugs me. I've learned so much from this referee and he is awesome. Okay, now, moving on to the example:]

I've played in a game where the referee allows magic-users to have up to two shield-bearers. These shield-bearers serve as kind of body guards. The referee describes the results of hiring such help purely in mechanical terms. He says each shield-bearer, so long as they are defending the magic-user, has his armor class increased by one, while lowering the armor class of the protected magic-user. So a magic-user would effectively have an armor class of, say, 7 while these shield-bearers would have an armor class (in plate) of 3 each. This seems reasonable. But I find it affects play in an adverse way. It takes away a chance to role-play strategically and reduces it to numbers and probabilities.

I remember explaining this clever mechanic to some trusted folks on an online forum and someone replied "why turn this into mechanics? Just role-play it. The shield-bearers protect the magic-user until the opponent can break their defense." Oh. It suddenly made perfect sense to me and I saw how mechanics could steal role-playing opportunities. So it breaks my first maxim. But it also, in play, winds up becoming an example of why I need the third maxim.

We were playing with these mechanics when we were attacked by poisonous hypnotic frog-men. The referee randomly rolled that they attacked the magic-user rather than either body-guard. He rolled an attack against armor class 7 and hit. My thought was, this mechanic forced us to assume that these were the most inept two shield-bearers ever hired. I suppose the frog men could have leaped over the shield bearers and landed on the magic-user's head. But why weren't the shield-bearers knocking the creature off their patron? It just didn't make sense to me the way that the abstraction of the mechanic then forced an interpretation of the game world rather than the other way round.

Why not allow the player and referee to role-play the shield-bearers? If the random roll shows the magic-user is under attack, imagine what the shield-bearers are trying to do to prevent it. Ask the player, "what instructions or agreements has the magic-user made with his bodyguard?" Imagine what you would do if you were the body guard. Then make up something creative -- mechanics be darned!

This extends to many other aspects of combat. We've all been subject to the unbelievable boredom of:
  • roll d20 fail to hit
  • roll d20 hit
  • roll d6 damage: 1
  • you are now hit: 6 damage
  • next round, roll initiative
  • yada yada, yawn
Now, I am not saying that strategic role-play should necessarily grant mechanical benefit. I am not saying that if a player says, "I swing down on them from the chandelier," that your response as a referee should be "+1 to hit!" I think quite the opposite. It should open up role-play, strategic role-play, possibilities. What to the goblins think of this acrobatic act? Perhaps roll for reaction. Do they cower at the bravado, laugh at the stupidity, or leap to bite the feet? Keep rolling the d20s and the d6s but describe what is going on.

I've "trained" players by having my NPCs do strategic stuff with objects nearby. As the players see that the NPCs can turn a situation around by grabbing a chair, throwing over a table as a shield for their archers, etc., they start doing the same thing. That way, the attack and damage rolls become oracles for interpretation within a combat scenario that is role-played with strategy, rather than abstracted to the state of absolute boredom.

Point of the maxim in this case: mechanics are supposed to be abstract in order to free the players and the referee to describe the concrete actions of the characters.

Okay, that's all I've got for now. I hope my little mini-essay was helpful, or at least interesting, and I welcome comments.

Fight on!

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Rules for Medieval Toy Soldiers


"Ringmail" was an improbable historical construct. So too these rules are an improbable match to anything historical. But they sure are fun!


Toy soldiers are 1:32 scale; that is 2&¼" or 54mm.

Field of Battle

Arrange a field of battle anywhere from 6' to 24' in dimensions. Determine battle line between opposing sides in roughly the middle of the field. Each side has a starting line set back from the battle line equivalent to that of their opponent's and no less than 24." Main stronghold, camp or pavilion of each side no more than 12" back from respective start-lines. Scale of play is such that terrain types and penalties make little sense. Distribute interesting obstacles for tactical use. Recommended: felt battle mat marked with 2" hexes; model trees, blue ribbon for rivers, etc.

Composition of Forces

Each side has one or two engines of war. Arrange each side with troop types falling roughly within the following ratio:

1 Archer : 3 Cavalry : 5 Infantry

Turn Sequence

  1. Engine
  2. Range
  3. Melee
  4. Move

All actions simultaneous. Alternatively, players determine initiative for movement by opposing check. First turn: move only. Second turn: move and melee (if any). Third turn adds range. Fourth and all subsequent turns: all four phases.


  • Engine 3"
  • Archers 6"
  • Infantry 12"
  • Cavalry 24"

Range & Melee

Range fire and melee resolved with modified rock-paper-scissors:

  • Archer removes cavalry (24" range)
  • Cavalry removes infantry
  • Infantry removes archer

All other melee resolved on opposing check: loser removed; both remain on ties. Note the following exceptions:

  • Cavalry and archer opposing check in melee
  • Both archers remain when attacker losses opposing check against archer not returning fire
  • Flank (side) or surprise (rear) attack of lesser to greater allows opposing check
  • E.g., infantry flanking cavalry resolved by opposing check


  • Redo misfires
  • Remove any figure hit by projectile
  • Remove engines hit by opposing engine fire
  • Take engines with two or more troops of opposing side on successful opposing check


Check a force's morale at the top of every turn after reduced beyond half its original line-up: maintain morale on 2d6 = 7+ otherwise morale lost.


Battle ends when one or both sides:

  • Losses morale
  • Reduced to less than a third its original line-up
  • Surrenders


Victory goes to the side that:

  • Does not loose morale
  • Is not reduced to less than a third its original line-up
  • Does not surrender

Otherwise a draw. Alternatively, other end and victory conditions may be agreed upon; e.g., attaining some goal such as capturing an object or flag, etc.


Make walls with gates and even some wall-portions that engine fire can topple. One additional engine to the defender but defender starts with one third the troops of the besieger. Imagine any foot soldier positions along a wall or upon a parapet as capable of range fire, whether depicted with range weapon or not.

Point Values

  • Engine 5
  • Cavalry 4
  • Archer 3
  • Infantry 2

Setting up a Medieval Toy Soldier Wargames Campaign

Each side starts with 50 points to acquire starting forces. Note guidelines to composition of force, above. After each battle, save for the return of removed troops on 2d6:

  • Engine 6+
  • Cavalry 6+
  • Archer 7+
  • Infantry 8+

Victor gets 20 points, looser 10. Capture of opposing "baggage" or some other such treasure, object or goal grants 5 points. Each side of a draw gets 15 points. Unused points accumulate. Use points to acquire new forces for subsequent battles.

Fantasy Supplement

For a fantasy scenario, use larger scales for large types (e.g., tall elves, trolls, ogres, etc.) and smaller scales for diminutive types (e.g., small elves, dwarves, hobbits, pixies, etc.).

For monsters, use appropriate toys (e.g., dragons, giants, animals). Most monsters move as cavalry. Flight grants 36" of movement. Monsters resolve melee with an opposing check: monster = 2d6 to normal figure = 1d6. Some monsters also have range or engine capacities, e.g., dragon fiery breath, giants hurling rocks, etc. Monsters cost 15 points; those removed in battle save for the next on 2d6: 9+.

Mark one or more figures per side to indicate special status as a hero, wizard, or knight (i.e., "Templar" or "cleric").

Hero = best of both cavalry and archer; removed by archery
Wizard = best of both archer and infantry; removed by infantry
Knight = best of both infantry and cavalry; removed by cavalry

Heroes melee and range monsters with equal opposing check; defeat monsters by flanking or surprise. Heroes and wizards range fire as archers (wizards by magic). In any given battle wizards may cast each of the following once per battle: fireball, lightning bolt, light (good wizard) or darkness (bad wizard) during the engine turn phase. Light spells cause fell and undead creatures to check morale with a penalty. Darkness spells cause normal troops to check morale with a penalty. Resolve fireball and lightning bolt as engine fire. Lobbing a colorful marble with the thumb usually does the trick. During the engine phase knights may do one of the following per battle: restore one removed figure upon a successful save (see above); cast light (Dark Knights cast darkness); dispel undead creature. Heroes, wizards and knights cost 10 points and those removed in battle save for the next on 2d6: 5+.

A Sort of Challenge

"How much better is the amiable miniature than the Real Thing! Here is a homeopathic remedy for the imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster -- and no smashed nor sanguinary bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sides, no petty cruelties, none of that awful universal boredom and embitterment, that tiresome delay or stoppage or embarrassment of every gracious, bold, sweet, charming thing, that we who . . . remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence." H. G. Wells, Little Wars, 1913.

Fight on!