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!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Cartomancy for Role Playing Games


 heart, health, emotion, passion
♠︎ weapons, strength, intelligence, calculation
♣︎ wands/staves, magic items/artifacts, magic, action
♢ treasure, wealth, goals, desires


A: Singularity, whole, beginning
2: Dialogue, duel, dichotomy
3: Trinity, triad, triangulation
4: Corners, earth, foundation
5: Pentagram, Pentacle, Pentagon (magic)
6. Movement, strategy, warfare (HEX, of course!)
7. Holy, Sacred, Blessed
8. Stop (sign!), cessation, stagnation
9. Celestial, ethereal, primal
10. End, completion, ruin

Face Cards

J: Rogue, knave, problem (N)PC
Q: Eternal feminine, anima, major female (N)PC
K: Eternal masculine, animus, major male (N)PC

Joker (color, or upright): Risk, trust, faith, venture, amazing good fortune
Joker (b&w, or upside down): Foolishness, over-boldness, brashness, disaster, amazing misfortune


2-card reading: First card: context, second card: event or action.
3-card reading: First card: past, condition; Second Card: present state, current focus; Third card: future, goal, want, desire, plan.


Describing NPCs, determining NPC motives and plots, even PC backgrounds, if folks are interested.

Dice don't have to be the only oracle.

Skeletons In The Closet

A Haunted House Mini-Module for Normal Characters (Levels 1-3)


Use this mini-module for character levels 1-3; in conjunction with other mini-modules use to represent dungeon levels 1-4. For use with higher-level characters, see end notes.


A powerful Lady, forlorn of her true love fell prey to a trickster medium. She became a Wight through repeated attempts to contact her dead lover. The medium traps the Wight of the Lady in her abandoned house.

Referee Notes

  • Describe features and furnishings as a typical victorian mansion
  • Characters looking through windows see a grey-blue twilight world of forlorn ghosts and shades (see "exit," below)
  • Determine level-based treasure according to relative level of use

All Closets:
2d6 Skeletons: burn or pulverize to prevent magical reassembly in 3 rounds; silver coin in each mouth
AC7 MV6 HD1/2

Underneath all beds hide
AC5 MV9 HD1+1

Link to Campaign NPC

The Wight is ancestor to a powerful Lord who keeps it secret. If PCs inform others, the powerful Lord will prosecute them and ban them from his territories. If PCs put the wight to rest, keep the secret and inform the Lord, he will reward them accordingly.

Rumor Table

  1. T Lord Campaign NPC Name don't want nobody knowing about that old place
  2. F Nothing in there but rats and roaches
  3. T There's a crazy old witch (medium) what lives in there
  4. F If you go in there, you'll turn into a ghost yourself!
  5. T Legend has it if you put to rest the old lady's Wight you'll get a share in her inheritance!
  6. F All the treasure belongs to wicked hobgoblins

Unique Monster

Haunted Rocking Chair
Rocks incessantly of its own; voices of crying baby and lullaby-singing mother
Attacks upon touch; folds in on itself if sat upon (2d6 damage)
All touched: Save vs. "Fear"

Unique Magic Item

Ouija Board of Speak with Dead: Chaotic in alignment: harms characters as per magic swords with each use. Use up to three times per day to ask single question of deceased familiar or for ESP


Characters who enter through either front or back porch areas see only a dilapidated house full of decaying furniture and cob-webs. Characters who enter from another mini-module enter directly through the chimney or to the stairwell of the second floor if going down to this mini-module from above, or into the fruit cellar beneath the kitchen if going up to this mini-module from below.

Time Element

If characters do not engage Medium in seance, wight appears above table to search for characters 1 turn from their departure from the chamber


Characters who exit through windows or doors find that the grey-blue twilight realm disappears and that they are in the setting where the referee has placed the house. Referee allows hatch in cellar and attic door when stacking further mini-modules above or below this mini module. Ignore otherwise.


Ground Floor

Second Floor


Ground Floor


Large dining table set with silver platters and candelabras; dining chairs move of their own
Blow out or snuff candles: save vs. curse
Clues: Guest book on stand has a reminder to the butler "it is rude to have unlighted candles at table;" mural on the wall depicts angels holding candles and demons with snuffers; snuffer on the table cannot be picked up until candles extinguished by other means
Treasure: 12 dining sets of silver and 2 silver candelabras: level treasure in value


2d6 Zombies preparing and serving "meal" of dust and ashes between kitchen and dining
Will eat brains of fallen victims, rendering them zombies


Room filled with flowers, wreaths and sprays of Lady's funeral: Touch turns to ash


Chanting "Bloody Mary" staring at the mirror in the dark will conjure the Wight through mirror
If Wight already dispatched, wraith appears


Sinks with ashen and charred remains of previously blasphemous seances


Chimney may be used to move between stories; also between mini-modules at referee's discretion
Portrait of Lady above mantle; behind portrait: safe:
Treasure: per level + magic sword
Clues: Portrait slightly crooked; Lady pictured with jewels in her lap; folded note on mantle reads "true riches hide behind mere representations"
Monster: Haunted Rocking Chair (See Unique Monster, above)

Stairwell Up

Trap: Stairs turn to slide (d6: 1-2) per ascending character; may be stopped by jamming something between stairs
Clues: sign in magic above stairwell entry reads "some may not ascend;" marbles on floor in front of stairs; painting to the side depicting children on a slide


Gas lamps light hall with cool eerie blue: If characters address house, lamps answer yes/no questions dimming once or twice; also alphabet or morse code per referee ability
Skeletons in Hall Closet defend huge sapphire (1Kgp): rings like crystal glass upon touch

Second Floor

Bedroom Top Left

The Lady's Bedchamber: canopy bed
Vanity with chair and mirror flanked by candles that never burn out until removed
Lady appears in mirror when character sits in chair
Jewelry box, save vs. poison gas (clue: poison symbol on lid), inside:
Treasure: per level & 3 gems (large agate 500gp, medium diamond, 500gp and medium pearl 500gp)
One item of Jewelry: The Lady's Elegant Hairpin: (7Kgp) Solid gold with large agate that glows on touch; save vs. geas: character must wear hairpin and seek the admiration of others

Bathroom Top Middle

As per "bathroom," above
Also medicine cabinet contains 1d6 poisons and 1d3 potions, all unlabeled

Bedroom Top Right

The Lost Lord's Bedchamber
Portrait of Lady's lost love: Eyes follow characters movement
Skeletons in closet defend magic armor


As per "hall" on ground floor, above

Stairwell Down

Trick: Stairwell actually leads up (d6: 1-2) per descending character: Grants access to next mini-module upwards when used in connection with others; Otherwise leads to widow's peak surveying haunted lands
Clues: sign in magic above stairwell entry reads "sometimes you've got to get down to get up;" Picture in hallway of widow's peak above house; bird feathers on the floor

"Bedroom" Bottom Left: NOT BEDROOM but: Seance Chamber

Chimney may be used to move between stories
Round table in area shaped as partial octagon
Ouija Board of Speak with Dead (see Unique Magic Item, above) in middle of table
Chandelier above
Medium sits at table; greets characters; invites to seance
Seance conjures wight over table; Wight attacks
Medium charms characters who resist
If characters dispel or, upon defeat, pray the Wight to Rest in Peace: Wight disappears in exhausted sigh, full level treasure + magic weapon issues from chandalier onto seance table, covered in ectoplasm
Medium MU Lvl 1; Silver Dagger; Spell: Charm
AC9 MV12 HD1
Wight: impervious to normal range-fire: successful attack = 1 life-energy drain; renders killed victim wight

Bathroom Bottom Right

As per "bathroom," above. Also treasure:
Shiny Golden Toilet Seat (500gp) attached to wire triggering guillotine trap from ceiling


Large fruit cellar accessible through hatch in kitchen and down ladder
Used in connection with other mini-modules, characters find hatch to next level under treasure
Treasure by level
Monster: 1d6 Ghouls emerge from earthen floor

Tiny attic door with ladder above second floor hall grants access to next mini-module when used in connection with others

Modifications for Heroic Characters (Levels 4-7)

Haunted Rocking Chair: HD6 2d6 normal dmg., 3d6 folding bite
3d6 Skeletons in closets wield rusty shields (AC6)
1d6 Hobgoblins under beds
Zombies become ghouls
Ghouls become Wights
Wight becomes 1d3 Wraiths (sisters, perhaps?)
Medium becomes Witch (Warlock, Lvl 8)
Adjust all treasures per relative dungeon level

Modifications for Super-heroic Characters (Levels 8+)

Haunted Rocking Chair: HD12 2 attacks, 3d6 dmg., folding bite poisonous
4d6 Skeletons in closest wear rusty armor (AC3)
Troll under beds
Zombies become Wights
Ghouls become Wraiths
Wight becomes Spectre
Medium becomes Necromancer (Lvl 10)
Adjust all treasures per relative dungeon level


Monday, September 5, 2016

Mini Module Project

This began as a thread over on The Perilous Dreamer's Ruins of Murkhill forum.

An Idea

My idea of a "mini modules" project is linked to my desires to link the mythic underworld with demon haunted lands in the Perilous Realms. I love how TSR called them "modules," not "adventures." Use of the term "Adventures" seems like what I am getting is going to be self-contained and goal, if not narrative oriented. "Module," sounds, to my ears, well, modular. And here I mean not only something that could be dropped into a sandbox setting (their original implication, I think) but droppable in relationship to each other in terms of a multi-layered dungeon.

When the OSR came on-line, the word "megadungeon" entered our vocabulary. But I feel constricted by mega-dungeons in a different way. The idea that everything that adventurer's would need for an entire campaign is under one castle seems to constricting and too much like I'm playing Q*bert, or Pac-Man rather than exploring a real perilous realm.

Each mini module would be 1 to 3 levels (preferably 1) and the mini module would have stairs up and down, thus making the mini modules compatible with each other. If used as a "one off," the ref would ignore the stairs, teleports, etc., to other levels. If used in conjunction with other mini modules, those connecting points would be used.

But here is my other idea. What if each map was keyed three times: once for normal leveled characters, then for heroic and finally for super heroic and beyond. So, for example, a kobold lair for normals, a hobgoblin for heroic and a troll for super-heroic. Thus many birds are killed with one stone. Or, again, a wight borrow for normals, a mummy's tomb for heroes, a vampire's undercroft for super-heroes.

The mini modules would be fairly "vanilla" so that they could fit in anybody's setting with just minor tweaking. Next, there would be just enough standardization that the modules would be "modular," that is to say, mutually compatible.


Here could be some standard "design" elements, kind of like a template in a wiki:

Note(s) for the Referee
Unique Monster
Unique Magic Item (or Treasure)
*Link to Campaign NPCs 
*Rumor Table
*Start (or Entry) 
*Time Element
*End (or Exist, or Conclusion) 
*Wandering Monster Table

So, again, the name is "Mini-Module," so we are going for minimalism and assuming a referee with familiarity with 0e or similar rules. We are going for the kind of sketch we actually make for ourselves, rather than some poetic full-description plush product. So, some general rules (of thumb?) might be:

  • No more than three sentences per the above headings (excepting the key(s), of course), preferably one.
  • And, as implicit, only one unique monster and one unique magic item or treasure per mini-module. NOTE: word choice is "unique," not "new." The idea being these are one-off freaks, not stuff to gather up in a "Monster Manual."
  • Give basic stats for each monster.
  • No more than a noun phrase description, or, at most, sentence for a room, and then only if truly necessary.
  • Give rest of main treasure and other treasure by level or type only: assume the referee can use the books or a compatible on-line generator -- even at table if necessary.
  • Preferable one map and one key.
General composition rules (of thumb):
  • Focus is on retrieval of main focal treasure.
  • Trick or wonder likely hides/guards/ or directs to this treasure, otherwise guarded by thematic BBEG or trapped.
  • Trick or wonder has at least 3 clues.
  • Main monster and theme of lair linked thematically to main treasure.
  • Half rooms/spaces empty.
  • Of the other half,  rooms/spaces treasure ½ guarded, rest ½ hidden, ½ trapped.
  • Traps have 3 to 5 clues.
  • 1/6 remaining rooms have monster(s).
  • ½ thematically related to theme monster, the rest "random."
  • If presented as print-ready, map and key lay flat side-by-side with one another.
The asterisked items are optional:

  • The "Link to Campaign NPCs" would be a suggestion for how to hook the module not just to other modules or the campaign setting, but to major movers in the campaign world with a quick suggestion as to how the clearing of the lair would affect this NPC and, thereby, the PC party. How to do this generically? And in one sentence? Something like this: "An important Lord/Wizard/Patriarch (does not) want(s) the party to X the lair, if they succeed, NPC will Y."
  • "Rumor Table" is always fun: d6 or at most d10, with T/F marked and at least half F.
  • "Start/End," again, only if truly necessary.
  • "Time element" allows for time pressure to enter. Keep to a one sentence description: "Once PCs do/perform/take/ cross/enter X, NPC NAME / MONSTER will Y in N turns."
  • "Wandering Monster Table," only if both a.) deemed truly necessary and b.) a simple (d6, d10?) table.
Finally, if we go with the idea of keying each mini-module so that it could be compatible with different character level tiers, each mini-module would conclude with two of the following three headings, depending upon the original target level:
Modifications for Normal Characters (Levels 1-3)
Modifications for Heroic Characters (Levels 4-7) 
Modifications for Super-heroic Characters (Levels 8+)

Constraints Aid Creativity

And here is a nice article about how constraints actually aid creativity:

Mini Module Title Ideas

Here is a list of possible "mini-module" titles based upon the monster list and some magic items. Namely, those monsters that clearly constitute the mythic underworld (vs. wilderness) in my loose estimation and the misc. magic items (some, not all of them):

The Monsters:
The Bandit’s Lair
The Brigand’s Redoubt
Berserker’s Mountain
Revenge of the Mad Dervishes
Nomads of Wasteland
Pirate’s Cove
Buccaneer’s Bounty
Cavern’s of the Lost Cavemen
Mermen’s Hidden Mere
Tucker’s Kobolds
Night at Goblin Mound
The Minions of Orcus
The Gnoll Knoll
The Ogre’s Horrid Banquet
Cairn of the Troll Lord
Rebirth of the Nephalim
Jotunheim’s Anvil
Cloud Castle of the Giant King
Temple of the Titans
Cave of the Cyclopes
Skeletons in the Closet
Escape from Zombie Plantation
Graveyard of Ghouls
Barrow of Wights
Tomb of Wraiths
Curse of the Mummy King
The Spectre’s Haunted Mansion
The Vampire’s Undercroft
Lair of the White Wyrm
Black Dragon Swamp
Glade of the Green Dragon
Blue Dragon Dunes
The Red Dragon’s Deepest Delves
The Search for the Golden Dragon
The Halls of Hell (Demon / Balrog)
The Werewolf’s Dire Den
The Hidden Weretiger of the Mountain Monastery
The Ratcatcher’s Nightmare (Wererat)
Feast of the Boar’s Head (Wereboar)
The Skin-changer’s Longhouse (Werebear)
The Minotaur’s Labyrinth
Search for the Unicorn Maiden
The Nixies Netherkingdom
The Craggy Peaks of The Roc Eyrie
The Gate to the City of Brass
The Salamander’s Sea of Lava
Ruins of the Living Idol
The Golem’s Gold
The Android’s Secret Program
The Treasures: 
The Search/Quest/Hunt for:
The Scrying Ball
The Medallion that Makes Minds Known
The Amulet of Mental Protection
The Scarab that Spells the Pagan Priests’ Repulsion
The Bottomless Bag
The Censer of Elemental Air
The Stone of Elemental Earth
The Brazier of Elemental Fire
The Bowl of Elemental Water
The Efreeti’s Bottle Chamber
The Djinni’s Lamp
The Elven Cloak of Old
The Boots of Speed / Levitation / Leaping
The Witch’s Flying Broom
The Flying Carpet of Old Araby
The Beating Drums of Panic
The Horn of Blasting
The Ogre’s Mighty Gauntlets
The Giant’s Strong Girdle
The Mirror that Traps Souls
The Teleportation Machine
The Crown, Orb and Scepter of the Ancient Kings / Priests / Magi
The Stone Crystallization Projector

I just went through the lists and tried to give a fun, youthful, pulpy adventurous title based upon each. So, a mini module on each classic monster. Or each classic treasure. And, come to think of it, starting with the treasures (the real "goal" of the game in 0e) may actually be best, linking the key treasures to key monster-types.

So, e.g., if orcs subsume elven ruins, then the elven cloak and boots may be hidden away in the lair of the Minions of Orcus! Then we would get: the Search for the Elven Cloak and Boots in the Lair of the Minions of Orcus! Now that sounds fun to me!


I love B1 and B2, but I kind of just wish they had made a module for each major monster. Likewise I love the Judges' Guild Wilderlands, but, for me in our current one session a month gaming style, I need something that fits a bit more nicely into a single session. Hence my "mini module" idea.

I think another thing that I love about 0e is that it is prior to the feed-back loop of D&D world-generation separate from the main western tradition. I play 0e because I want a set of simple rules in order to walk into (pre 1974) the fantasy land of our classical, western legendaria. Beholders and Liches are fine, I suppose, but, for me, as one-off unique monsters. I still want my plane jane vanilla standby monsters.

Here is another way to put it. If I were a Napoleonic war gamer, I would want my knowledge of actual Napoleonic warfare to contribute to my success at a given scenario.

Likewise, as a player of 0e, I want, for myself and for my players, to find reward in knowing the classical and romantic legends of our heritage.

Here is an example: I was thinking the other day of a high-level NPC vampire in one of my campaigns. I had decided he was going to surprise attack a PC at night in his own castle -- I mean, he has gaseous form and can be a bat and all that. But then I remembered: vampires cannot enter where they have not been invited. My knowledge of the monster, as our collective inheritance, guided my decision -- regardless of the fact that this is not in the description of vampires in the rules. Instead, I had the good count meet a high lvl CL just outside his camp pavilion one night. "Are you going to be rude, or are you going to invite me in?" The player knew to say "no"! So he was rewarded. His tent was a safety zone.

So, for example, the description of Ogres in 0e is pretty scant. You need to know that they are small giants who delight in eating human infants! Thus I named that mini-module "The Ogres Horrid Banquet." In it, I would try to imagine some way in which knowledge of the classic archetype of an ogre would be rewarding to the player's exploration and discovery. Etc.
Possibly a Shared Project

Now let's make it even crazier: What if we made a free, "share-ware" on-line resource for people by building a "setting" through multiple "mini-" modules. Perhaps a "wiki" would be better for this, I don't know. But I would love to hear ideas from folks who find this interesting or inspiring.

Weather in the Wilderness & for Campaign Baronies

Roll two dice to determine weather, one indicates precipitation, the other indicates relative extremity. Rivers and cities as per terrain of surrounding area.

Weather Table

Weather is relative to season: winter precipitation = snow, etc.

Extreme precipitation = thunderstorm, blizzard or even a tornado or hurricane, depending upon location and referee interpretation.

Extreme weather without precipitation:
  • spring = strong winds
  • summer = heat wave
  • fall = dense fog
  • winter = cold snap; etc.

All other rolls assume seasonably clement weather. Precipitation covers tracks and scents. Both precipitation and extreme weather deal cumulative terrain penalties.

For a campaign year, especially for character baronies and territories, extreme precipitation indicates flooding; penalize yields accordingly. Normal precipitation indicates bumper crops, etc. Extreme weather without precipitation lowers yields due to a late freeze, a drought, etc. Other rolls indicate normal temperate climate yields.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Perilous Realms: Where the Mythic Underworld Meets Demon Haunted Lands

Image of Map by Dyson Logos, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0.

One of the directions my refereeing thinking has been traveling recently (and assumed in my proposal for "mini-modules" over at the Ruins of Murkhill forum) is something like the following for a setting:

I want to combine Wayne Rossi's account of the "Original D&D Setting" of The Outdoor Survival Board (or some equivalent wilderness) as a "Demon Haunted Land" with Philotomy's Musings about the "Dungeon as Mythic Underworld." I imagine doing so by filling up the wilderness with lairs and "dungeons." So, if literally using the OS board, the difference would be between standing deer (lairs = 20) and crouching deer (dungeons = 9).

The lairs and first levels of these dungeons would be "mini-modules" of 1 to 3, but preferably only 1 "level." Clear a lair, and they are cleansed. They are irruptions of chaos in what should be lawful, fay lands.

The "dungeons," on the other hand, would be a lair that also served as a portal to other dungeons and lairs - perhaps even rolled randomly at the table! (So there would need to be a lot of prep for all the different lairs - hence my desire to "crowd source" this one, see above.)

If one departed the entrance/exists of a deeper lair or dungeon one would exit at its actual location in the wilderness. If it were a lair, there would be no way back to that particular magical configuration of levels. If it were a dungeon, upon entrance, the ref would roll randomly again, giving another, more than likely quite different configuration of "levels." So long as one stayed in the dungeon, the current "stack" would remain intact. Dungeons could not be so easily cleared as independent lairs. Dungeons are irruptions of the underworld. The only way to "clear" a dungeon hot-spot would be after each possible random lair was cleansed. Then cleansing each dungeon. So there is a kind of "end-game" per wilderness: complete cleansing and restoration to wonder, fay and law.

The "mythic underworld" itself usually represents some odd, enchanted, diabolic "subsuming" of the various lairs and dungeons throughout the wilderness. Going on this, I would also assume that each dungeon and lair was really the chaotic corruption of some previously lawful or at least wonderful thing. So, for example, an orcan lair would probably be the defile of a previously beautiful elven stronghold. Goblins subsume something dwarven. Trolls something Entish, etc. This would explain why so many powerful and good lawful items are down in the underworld. Chaos herself is "eating up" all these good items in a mad babbling attempt at domination. The adventurers purge the bowels of the earth and reclaim the buried antiquities.

I love the way this contributes to a more fantastical dream-like encounter. Just as in dreams where you can walk from one familiar place and suddenly find yourself somewhere completely different. Imagine a "haunted house" level where, out the windows, one saw a grey-blue dim-lit land of wandering specters and forlorn ghosts. If the windows are opened or one walks out the doors - you are suddenly in the wilderness - somewhere else!

So I also feel motivated to key each lair or dungeon for normal, heroic and super heroic levels. That way one is ready to go for your given party, even if randomly rolling the next "level."

You could do this lots of different ways. I think I would put a limit on any given "stack." No more than 3 lairs. But I would probably just stick to the entrance and one other random lair or dungeon lining up beneath it.

But under any given dungeon configuration the "third level" would be a cavernous mushroom forest of clean-up crew and purple worms.

Then, once the hidden entrance was discovered, one would finally come, one more level down, to Hell itself: "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here." The "Hell" level would be the main lair of Chaos' henchmen doing all the subversion of law and eruption of chaos throughout the good fay wilderlands. Some kind of giant's hall, like Dyson Logos has made, would be perfect. Here the highest level baddies would be met! This may be the best way finally to purge the dungeons themselves - clearing this local hell. The key or a very important campaign artifact may be necessary to bring down there and shut down operations - all foretold in some ancient, riddle-like oracle.

This would be a vast project. But it seems to me immensely rewarding both for the referee and the players.

Fight on!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review: Icons of Power

I just had a chance to read Naomi Janowitz: Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity: Pennsylvania State University Press: 2002.

This was a fun book! Ritual practices in Late Antiquity were full of cosmic secrets and divine names! Many hoped for alliances with superhuman powers. There was a crazy wide diversity of rituals. And many secular scholars today claim that “magic” just names the rituals your group finds suspect. Magic is, however, separable from mysticism, insofar as mysticism looks for union, rather than alliance.

The author explains that we ought to understand ritual efficacy more like a speech-act – and here inclusive of sign-events – which is not the same thing as the old sympathetic theory of magic.

The chapters work down a kind of continuum from the highest “magic” being purely “verbal” with the pronunciation of divine names, through letters and sounds with cosmic pragmatics through combined words and deeds such as the Angelic imprecations in the Book of Secrets finally to purely material, almost nonverbal “magic” in the form of metallurgical alchemy.

Now here is something crazy cool: Vowels were associated with the spheres of the heavens, consonants with the material. Every act of speech was an incarnation of a form into a body. Thus “nonsense” syllables could still have magical affect, with the emphasis on the pragmatics of the performative gesture over any semantics of words themselves. These even jives with our intuitive sense that "holier," "lawful" speech sounds "beautiful," light and full of vowels; while the "dark speech" sounds ugly, heavy and full of consonants. Fascinating, right?

The ancient ritual text known as the Book of Secrets has 6 “levels” of spells (I kid you not!), corresponding to the 6 levels of heaven. Because the 7th heaven is holy, reserved for God alone, and therefore there is no “imprecation” possible.

Now I just love the descending scale or continuum. Perhaps "clerical magic" is the purely vocal (without elements) invocation of divine names. Chaotic clerical magic invokes demons. Lawful magic invokes cosmic powers. Chaotic magic invokes the dead and the chthonic. Neutral magic builds from metallurgical and plant spygerical alchemy.

The term “alchemy” is medieval. In late antiquity the equivalent was known as the “Sacred,” or “Divine Art,” or “the Great Work.” Alchemy developed from a ritualized approach to metallurgical transformation, purification and use of metals. It is evident that they had developed some kind of means of changing the color of metals, with the goal being to color them “gold” such that they became gold. The alchemist moved through a ritual metallurgical process whereby the metal changed colors several times. Metal is not static because the cosmic system is dynamic. The metal is “cooked” to perfection, just like the material elements in man in order to become virtuous. Alchemy puts to rest any kind of Gnosticism or agnostic interpretation of Plato or the philosophia perennis, because in alchemy material is no longer contrasted with the spiritual. Rather, the material forms one pole along a continuum that includes the spiritual as its compliment. Therein and thereby, the material may undergo transformations that mediate and participate the spiritual.

Nothing like a little research into the medieval and ancient world to build campaign material!