Archive for June, 2010


Fighting Blind

“It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.”

So someone’s swinging a sword at a target they can’t see. This isn’t as unlikely as it seems! Aside from hiding beneath a blanket of invisibility or blinding foes with light or darkness spells, the party may simply find themselves in the dark without a torch.

What happens then? Various old-school rulesets have little to say on the subject, and they often disagree.


OD&D and Red Box don’t seem to cover the question of blindness.

The Rules Cyclopedia gives the following penalties to blind characters:
* -6 penalty to attack rolls;
* -4 penalty to saving throws;
* +4 penalty to Armor Class;
* Move at 1/3 speed (this is in feet, even outdoors); increased to 2/3 if led (this is in yards if outdoors), or to full speed if on a horse that’s being led.

Against an invisible foe, the Rules Cyclopedia only applies the -6 penalty to hit.

Labyrinth Lord imposes a -4 penalty to hit for both blindness and invisibility.

OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry impose a -4 penalty to hit for invisibility, but provide no rules for blindness.


In all cases, one must know the approximate location of an opponent in order to attack. Obviously this leaves a lot of room for DM rulings. If a distant opponent is standing in one place and making a ruckus, can it be targeted by a blinded character with a bow? If so, where do you draw the line at which you do or do not know a foe’s “approximate location”?

The Rules Cyclopedia seems to be a bit of an outlier in terms of the effects of blindness, but it also covers some bases that might be worth considering.


So here are my own tentative rulings on blindness in Red Box:
* -4 penalty to attack rolls;
* Move at 1/3 speed, or 2/3 speed if led—may attempt to move faster by making a 3d6 Dexterity or Wisdom check, whichever is better;
* May be backstabbed from any direction, not just from behind.

How do you see yourself handling blindness in your old school game?


Red Box Workshop: The Ghoul PC


Ghouls are living corpses who feed on the flesh of the living and the dead. Withered and cunning, their clotted hair only partially conceals their red eyes and sharp, pointed teeth. Most ghouls are bestial creatures with no interest beyond hunger. A few, however, conquer their appetites and retain their will. Though not as ferocious in battle as their feral kin, they can be valuable allies—if they can be trusted.

The prime requisite for a ghoul is Constitution. A ghoul character whose Constitution score is 13 or higher will receive a bonus on earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Ghouls use eight-sided dice (d8) to determine their hit points. They may advance to a maximum of 8th level of experience. Ghouls may use any type of weapon. Their tough hides grant them a base AC of 6, but they may not wear armor or use shields. Clerics may turn, destroy or command player-character ghouls, though this grows more difficult as the ghoul increases in level. Use the following table to see what type of undead to treat the ghoul as for this purpose.

Ghoul’s Level Turn As:
1-2 Ghoul
3-4 Wight
5-6 Wraith
7-8 Mummy

SPECIAL ABILITIES: A ghoul’s ragged nails and teeth carry a necrotic disease. An unarmed attack by a ghoul inflicts 1-3 points of damage and paralyzes a living target who fails to save vs. paralyzation. Paralysis lasts for 2-8 turns and is removed by any cure wounds spell. A starting ghoul may make one unarmed attack per round; this increases to two attacks/round at 4th level, and three attacks/round at 8th level.

SAVING THROWS: As fighters.


ADVANCEMENT: As per the magic-user advancement table.


Do Not Read Fight On #9 If…

Pity my poor players, for whom some of the content of this excellent zine is off-limits

The new issue of Fight On is out now. Among the many awesome things it contains is an adventure called “Caves of the Beast Mistress”, which I wrote both as a tribute to Paul Jaquays’ Caverns of Thracia and “Night of the Walking Wet” and a memorial to my friend Sang Lee, whose monster illustrations grace the adventure.

Players in my White Sandbox campaign are hereby forbidden from checking out this part of the issue until they’re sure they won’t want to pursue any still-unexplored directions within the “side entrance” to the Beast Lord’s cave!

When y’all finally do clear these areas, the reward for your patience will be seeing that the names of the characters from the last few sessions are credited as playtesters.

EDIT: You may have trouble finding my contribution to this issue in the table of contents, as your attention is likely to be distracted by the familiar-looking name of  Eric Minton: Purchasing Potions (p. 25) and Grognard’s Grimoirs (p. 114). I am mortified to have forgotten to celebrate Eric’s pieces, which I hope will inaugurate an ongoing takeover of all printed matter everywhere by Mules.


Tactic Table: Ghouls

Ghouls have descended on the party! Their bodies reek of rot and corruption. Claws rake an adventurer’s flesh — paralysis! A victim falls prone, frozen but conscious.

What do the ghouls do next? Roll on the following table!

* * * * *

Roll 1d6 the first time any member of a group of ghouls paralyzes a party member. Apply an impromptu penalty if the ghouls feel outmatched, or a bonus if the ghouls feel they outmatch the party.

Less than 1: The ghouls flee for safety, hoping the other adventurers will tend to their paralyzed comrades instead of pursuing.
1: The ghouls flee in hopes of luring the party after them (possibly into a trap), then double back to seize the paralyzed adventurers.
2: The ghouls tear out the throats of paralyzed adventurers to ensure that they stay down. This coup de grace takes one round.
3-4: Whenever an adventurer is paralyzed, a ghoul will pick up the adventurer on the next round and carry him or her off to the lair.
5-6: The ghouls ignore the paralyzed adventurers, leaving them alone until the battle is over so they can feed on their still-living bodies at leisure.
More than 6: Any ghouls not engaged in melee spend the rest of the combat glutting themselves on the flesh and blood of paralyzed adventurers, stopping only if attacked.


Proof that D&D is the Apocalypse

Only the pipe organ is post-apocalyptic; the powered battle armor, anti-grav medical kit, and interstellar radio are all extraterrestrial

Today’s Escapist has a piece of mine called “D&D Is the Apocalypse,” tracing the importance of the apocalypse to the earliest development of the game and examining why it continues to be an essential part of the default D&D setting.

My research for this article was greatly aided by posters in two threads I started at the OD&D boards, especially geoffrey (creator of Carcosa) and aldarron (creator of Dragons at Dawn). Perhaps in order to get in all the scholarship they contributed – or because as someone who used to to do neuroscience I am  still uncomfortable making assertions not backed up by a lot of footnotes – my original draft had a comprehensive rundown of every apocalypic reference I could find in the original campaign settings and the  literary sources Gygax listed in Appendix N of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Editor Greg Tito, whose many awesomenesses include the ability to shoot ten arrows in six seconds, pointed out that all this name-checking made the piece read like a book report. The final version is definitely better for his suggestions. Nevertheless, one thing you can always count on the OSR for is exhaustively exhuming obscure early-D&D lore, and Grognardia’s response to Jeff Rients’ plan for a campaign that defied the default assumption that D&D is post-apocalyptic suggests that this may be of some interest to Mule readers. Here, then, are some of my notes:

Campaign Settings

Tekumel is the first D&D campaign setting to be published, if you grant that Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) is basically a set of D&D house rules. The nature of the “Time of Darkness” apocalypse is not  specified, although the quote Geoffrey supplied & which I used in the article gives many evocative details about its effects. It’s worth noting that Tekumel predates D&D, as Barker had been imagining it since he was a kid and only translated it to a RPG after seeing some of Arneson’s circle playing D&D at the University of Minnesota gaming club. If, as seems likely, the Time of Darkness was part of this pre-existing history, this supports the idea that the apocalypse entered gaming via literary sources and relevance to contemporary events, but persisted because it makes for a good game.

The Greyhawk supplement was  published earlier (in February of 1975 according to the Acaeum)  but has very little information about the setting of the Greyhawk campaign. Although others may have been discussed in Dragon or other fanzines, the first explicitly post-apocalyptic references I know of in Greyhawk appear in the 1980 Folio, where the Sea of Dust covers the remains of the Suel Empire destroyed by the Rain of Colorless Fire after they brought down the Invoked Devastation on the Bakluni Empire. The Sea of Dust is visited by the characters in Andre Norton’s Quag Keep (1978), the first novel based on a RPG, but it’s not clear whether it is the ruins of a former empire. I don’t know whether this element was added when Gygax revised the setting for publication, or if it was already part of Greyhawk by 1978 but Norton didn’t pick up on it.

The Blackmoor supplement, first published in September of 1975, has the last surviving pipe organ that I talk about in the piece. Arneson’s webpage says that Blackmoor was slated to be published first, and there’s no doubt that this was the first proto-D&D campaign. Having played with both Barker and Gygax makes Arneson a good candidate for transmitting an apocalyptic meme, but I think it’s more likely to have arisen independently in each of these campaign worlds.

City State of the Invincible Overlord, the inaugural product set in Bob Bledsaw’s Wilderlands, was  released at Gen Con in August of 1976. Its millennia-long chronology that includes the Uttermost War and other cataclysmic events is, along with Tekumel, the clearest statement of  the post-apocalyptic nature of the early RPG settings.

Literary Influences

– Archaeology of vanished civilizations informs both the pulp adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, and Leigh Brackett  and Burroughs pastichist J. Eric Holmes’ sample dungeon in the original Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which begins in a town built on “the foundations of the older, pre-human city.”

– The  end of the world as you know it looms in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as the forces of the War of the Ring converge on Mount Doom, and has echoes in his Simarillion history. Michael Moorcock turns it up to 11 with the world-destroying final conflict in Stormbringer, whose “victors would have the privilege of re-forming the earth.”

–  Moorcock’s Hawkmoon series is set in an after-the-bomb  Granbretan where, following the Tragic Millenium,  swinging London is dimly remembered as having been ruled by those “terrifying ancient gods”, mop-tops Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl and Rhunga.

– The subterranean complex in Margaret St. Clair’s Sign of the Labrys (1963), the closest thing to a multi-level dungeon with secret doors and teleporters you’ll find in the pre-D&D literature, is a 20th century bomb shelter appropriated by the survivors of the “yeast plagues”.

– In Fred Saberhagen’s Changeling Earth, sorcerers invoke an atom-powered tank and a demon brought to life by a nuclear explosion.

– Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey, set centuries after a nuclear holocaust, features scenes of psionic combat with strange fungi that strongly resemble a late-‘70s D&D session.

– Vance’s Dying Earth stories are rife with apocalypse, from the relics of antediluvian empires to the looming extinction of the sun. In a previous blog post I talked about how Gygax hardwired these assumptions into AD&D.

Utility for Gaming

I kept in the bit about how apocalypse breeds the anarchy that S. John Ross identifies as one of the “Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design,” but for the sake of space I left out how it enhances Ross’s other four elements: it’s a well-loved Cliché that draws a veil over the past to make it an Enigma and atomizes the law enforcement that stops people from engaging in frequent Combat, which in turn enhances Fellowship by making it dangerous to go anywhere without your buds to watch your back.

I’ll be interested to hear other examples of apocalyptic themes in early (or late) D&D, as I’m sure there are many I missed!


make mine Marvel!

Poor Captain Marvel. The years have not been kind.

It’s been a while since I ran a game, and since the New York Red Box crew is well-saturated with fantasy at this point (Tavis’s OD&D campaign, Eric’s B/X campaign, and Adrian’s Rune Quest II arc), I figured I’d run a few sessions of Marvel Super Heroes.

I have a long, frustrating non-history with this game.  I’d bought it in 1985 – my second RPG after Mentzer Basic D&D – an fell in love with it, but none of my friends were comic fans, so it stayed unplayed, in time joined by its brother the Advanced Set.  Aside from a brief two-hour session a year ago, I never had any exposure to it in practice.

So, I’m organizing a handful of sessions for some people I don’t get to game with very often, applying a mixture of old and new school approaches.

The old school approach I’m going for here is a classic sandbox.  Marvel Super Heroes was released after the Golden Age, as Grognardia observed, and the standard adventures published as part of the line were of the worst railroady sort.  But the Marvel Universe is basically a sandbox waiting to happen, as it’s nothing more than a map with beloved locations (Daily Bugle, Gamma Base, City of Toads, Blue Area of the Moon, the Dark Dimension) populated by NPC’s and monsters (J. Jonah Jameson, the Hulkbusters, Deviants, the Watcher, Mindless Ones).  Rather than come up with an overarching plot, there will be a handful of threads and the sessions will go wherever the players lead me.

The new school approach will probably be Beliefs, Instincts and Traits, stolen from Burning Wheel.

  • Beliefs are brief statements about how your character views the world and his or her place in it; they should, ideally, be drafted to apply to the current situation.  Beliefs help the player figure out the character’s general goals, but also give the GM a target, a way to catch the character off-balance or address challenges that are relevant.  “With great power comes great responsibility!”  “Anyone can be a hero – the secret is to never give up!”  “Puny humans never leave Hulk alone!”  “I’m the best there is at what I do…”
  • Instincts are habits, reflexes, or schticks that the character can always be counted to employ.  This helps the player resist GM force, but also helps the GM create situations to show off (or problematize) those habits.  “Always keep my ruby-quartz visor on,” “Invoke the hoary hosts of Hoggoth when surprised,” and “When talking to people, boast about how great the Sub-Mariner is–Imperius Rex!” are instincts.
  • Traits are general comments about a character’s personality.  They’re mainly there so that the group has a baseline for awarding points for good play.

We’ll see how it goes.  At the very least, I’ll be able to cross a game off my list after 25 years of wistful speculation.


Red Box Workshop: The Trader PC


Not every merchant is a sedentary copper-pinching clerk. Those who make their living buying and selling in foreign lands must be amiable, quick-witted and ready to draw steel to protect their wealth and property. Such traders make good companions to an adventuring band.

The prime requisites for a trader are Intelligence and Charisma. A trader character whose Intelligence or Charisma score is 13 or higher will receive a 5% bonus on earned experience. Traders whose Intelligence and Charisma scores are 13 or higher will receive a 10% bonus to earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Traders use six-sided dice (d6) to determine their hit points. They may use any type of weapon or shield, but they may not wear any armor more protective than leather.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: A trader’s candid demeanor and experience with outsiders merits a +1 bonus to reaction rolls. The trader may also assess value when examining an item of treasure; this has the same chance of success as a thief’s ability to hear noise. A successful roll provides the item’s exact worth, while a failed roll means the trader is unsure. (This is contingent on how much information the trader has, such as whether an item is magical.) If the DM rolls a 6 on the assess value check, the trader’s assessment is wildly inaccurate. Lastly, the trader pays 10% less when buying goods and services and haggles for 10% more when selling treasure. This does not increase XP earned.

SAVING THROWS: As fighters.


ADVANCEMENT: As per the thief advancement table.


Funky Blank 4E Character Sheet

I just found the thumb drive on which I’d been keeping the blank character sheet I made for the D&D art-world party. (Note that another art-world RPG event is slated for October 22; more about that as it draws nearer.)

You can download this at – it’s there as a .jpeg file, a .xcf file if you want to tweak the image in GIMP, and a Powerpoint slide (this is how I added the text about powers etc. for the party pre-gens, which are also there if you want 3rd level PCs with powers selected not to need miniatures on a grid & summarized simply).

Sometime soon I’ll post my OD&D sheets, perhaps after the long-planned redesign to leave more room for special powers and the like.


Red Box Workshop: The Berserker PC


These barbarian warriors practice the art of the berserkergang, or battle trance. This state imparts great strength and fearlessness in battle, but makes it difficult to distinguish friend from foe.

The prime requisites for a berserker are Strength and Constitution. A berserker character whose Strength or Constitution score is 13 or higher will receive a 5% bonus on earned experience. Berserkers whose Strength and Constitution scores are 13 or higher will receive a 10% bonus to earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Berserkers use eight-sided dice (d8) to determine their hit points. They may use any type of weapon or shield, but they may not wear any armor more protective than leather.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: A berserker enters the berserkergang by spending a full round working himself up into frenzy. (Starting at 4th level the berserker may enter the trance state instantly.) In this state, he gains +2 to hit and damage, 2 additional hit points per hit die (which are lost when the frenzy ends), +1 to individual initiative and a 10’ bonus to his movement rate. However, he suffers a +2 penalty to AC, and he may take no actions when not in melee other than moving into melee. If a berserker engaged in melee finds that he has no opponents left but is in melee range of an ally, he must save vs. spells or attack an adjacent ally; this save may be repeated each round until it succeeds. Terminating the berserkergang before combat ends also requires a successful save vs. spells. Upon leaving the battle trance, the berserker is fatigued for the next hour, suffering a -2 penalty to hit and damage and a +2 penalty to AC.

SAVING THROWS: As dwarves.


ADVANCEMENT: As per the fighter advancement table.

* * * * *

NOTE: The author recommends that any group which restricts PC-on-PC conflict should not use the Berserker class, as it may be seen as a tool for evading such restrictions.


Red Box Workshop: The Spellbender PC


Spellbenders have an affinity for the shape and flow of magic. Instead of learning spells, they hone the knack of countering or controlling the spells of others.

RESTRICTIONS: Spellbenders use four-sided dice (d4) to determine their hit points. They may use any type of weapon, but they may not use shields, nor any armor more protective than leather.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: Spellbenders gain a +4 bonus to saving throws against magic due to their understanding of magical energies. They may also use any magical item that can be employed by magic-users or clerics. In addition, a spellbender may employ the warp spell ability when any character within 60′ casts a spell, uses a magical item or otherwise creates some magical effect, or when the spellbender encounters the manifestation of a magical effect, such as an area of magical light or a wall of fire. The spellbender may only make one attempt to affect any given magical effect. The spellbender rolls 2d6 and consults the following table:

Level of Spellbender 1st Level Effect 2nd Level Effect 3rd Level Effect 4th Level Effect 5th Level Effect 6th Level Effect
1 D7+
2 D6+/M11+
3 D5+/M10+ D7+
4 D4+/M9+ D6+/M11+
5 D4+/M8+ D5+/M10+ D7+
6 D4+/M7+/C11+ D4+/M9+ D6+/M11+
7 D4+/M6+/C10+ D4+/M8+ D5+/M10+ D7+
8 D4+/M5+/C9+ D4+/M7+/C11+ D4+/M9+ D6+/M11+
9 D4+/M5+/C8+ D4+/M6+/C10+ D4+/M8+ D5+/M10+ D7+
10 D4+/M5+/C7+ D4+/M5+/C9+ D4+/M7+/C11+ D4+/M9+ D6+/M11+
11+ D4+/M5+/C6+ D4+/M5+/C8+ D4+/M6+/C10+ D4+/M8+ D5+/M10+ D7+

A “D” result indicates that the spellbender has successfully dispelled the chosen spell or spell effect.

An “M” result indicates that the spellbender may modify the chosen spell or spell effect. The modification must be relatively limited in nature, but is otherwise limited only by the player’s imagination and the DM’s discretion. Examples include creating a small gap in a wall of fire or a fireball, adding or subtracting two pips from each die of damage inflicted by a lightning bolt or healed by cure light wounds, increasing the range of a magic missile spell from 150’ to 200’, enhancing a sleep spell so it affects targets of up to six hit dice, or transforming the targets of massmorph into rocks instead of trees.

A “C” result indicates that the spellbender may control the chosen spell. When a spellbender controls a spell as it is being cast, the spell originates from her rather than from the caster, and she makes all decisions called for by the spell—the target(s) of a hold person spell, the location of a wall of ice, the form she will assume for polymorph self, and so forth.

On a roll of “2” or “3”, the spellbender fails critically, suffering a number of points of damage equal to the spell’s level from magical backlash.

A spellbender who obtains a “C” or “M” result can choose to take a lower result. She may control or dispel a spell instead of modifying it, she may dispel a spell instead of controlling it, and she may always decline to affect the spell at all.

SAVING THROWS: As magic-users.


ADVANCEMENT: As per the cleric advancement table.

* * * * *


A rare few magic-users also possess the talent for spellbending. These spellbender-mages function exactly as normal magic-users, but they may also use the spellbender’s warp spell ability. A spellbender-mage may try to warp her own spells in hopes of obtaining a modify result, allowing her to alter a spell’s effects.

ADVANCEMENT: As per the elf advancement table.

Past Adventures of the Mule

June 2010

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