Archive for July, 2011


Gold pieces are absurdly huge: do you like it that way?

Each of these coin sandwiches is the size of a single D&D gold piece; shown next to a US penny and nickel for comparison. Click picture for link to waysoftheearth's explanation.

Do you prefer a silver standard for your fantasy economy, such that gold pieces are more valuable and the weight-to-value ratio of a treasure hoard is much reduced? Or do you like the situation in OD&D where gold pieces are huge and encumbering, and hauling a valuable treasure out of the dungeon is a difficult endeavor?

richardjohnguy, aka richardthinks, has a characteristically funny and erudite blog post about historical coins, some of which are almost as big as 1/10ths of a pound, some of which are even larger. But it’s clear that most coinage in the real world is nowhere near as outsized; here we’ll let the equally erudite and analytical Delta’s D&D hotspot give the rundown.

As part of thinking about Adventurer Conqueror King, I’m trying to decide which is more important: historical versimilitude or fidelity to the game’s legacy. Here is a comparison of what each implies:

Implied Setting

  • Historical: Common people and ordinary commercial transactions use silver pieces similar in size to most modern or ancient coinage
  • Legacy: The ahistorical practice of coins being minted in huge discs reflects a fantastic world with premises like “Lawful societies follow the god’s standard for coinage, and coins are huge because the gods made them for their own hands”



  • Historical:  95% of the adventures written for fantasy roleplaying games will require some degree of conversion – at least changing gold pieces to silver pieces, and also increasing the proportion of low-value coins if it is desired to make the treasure hoard as difficult to carry as would originally have been the case. (Castle Zagyg is an exception written for the silver standard, I know, and I bet Harn is too.)
  • Legacy: No conversion is necessary, and the designer’s intent need not be considered – although after playing Jim Ward’s “The Pharoah’s Tomb” adventure whose summary is linked above I am certain that making huge treasures difficult to move is a deliberate design feature, it’s one I’m not usually aware of.

Continue reading ‘Gold pieces are absurdly huge: do you like it that way?’


Stuff to Do on Gygax’s Birthday

Today marks the birthday of E. Gary Gygax, and I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge some of those who are helping make it a memorable one.

The first and most important is you. Your gaming, your enthusiasm, your participation in our community all help keep Gary’s legacy alive. What you’re doing is great – but if you’d like to do a little extra today, here are some suggestions:

  • Leave a testimonial at the Gygax Memorial Fund. Reading these ones that are already there is fun and inspirational too! If while at their site you feel like making a contribution to the Memorial’s effort to build a statue of Gary in Lake Geneva, that’s great too – updates to the site caused the donation button to stop working for a while, but it’s fixed now.
  • Take the world’s hardest Gary Gygax quiz and use the HTML code to share your results! Paul Hughes, editor of the “Cheers, Gary” book produced by the Gygax Memorial, put together this cool test at I use the fact that it isn’t legible against the Mule’s black background to conceal the fact that, even using Google, I only got 90%.
  • Play in the Tower of Gygax, an annual event at Gen Con capably organized by Chris Hoffner and Tim Weisser. This year it’s in JW Marriott, room 303, table HQ – it starts Thursday at 8 am, runs late into every night, and is easy to drop into with generic event tickets. Save versus Death aptly describes it as:

 a commemoration of classic D&D as envisioned by Gygax and his contemporaries; a game of wonder and danger whose currency is imagination and improvisation.

  • Visit the Old School Renaissance Group at Gen Con booth #1541. There you’ll be able to pick up “Cheers, Gary”, a book of his correspondence on the EN World Q&A threads and meet Gail Gygax, who contributed an introduction, and also editor and fellow-introducer Paul Hughes who may have some eyeball-kicking posters as well. Sadly not attending the con are Josh Roby, who laid out the book and its cover, and Erol Otus who did the awesome illustration thereof.
  • Plan to attend GaryCon IV, which honors his inspiration the best possible way: four days of old school gaming from Thursday, March 22nd, through Sunday, March 25th, 2012, in the place where it all began: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I’ll see you there!

Other people I’d like to thank not named above are Memorial Fund board members Gail Gygax, Jody Mikkelsen, and Jim Ward;  Mike Shannon, the civil designer who has volunteered to draw up CAD plans for the Gygax memorial site, and JP Robson who will be constructing it; Memorial Fund accountant Mike Buttleman; Jason Hurst, the webmaster for and all-around great guy; and Adjua and Erin at McNally Jackson, and Kim at 360 Digital, who helped us get “Cheers, Gary” printed in time for Gen Con.

And the final thanks, of course, goes to Gary; without you none of this would be possible.


OD&D provides chunky experience rewards

And now a return from the heady thoughts of domain- level campaigns and estimating the cost of the accountant-hirelings you need to manage your riches. Let’s go all the way back to the first level dungeon and wrestle with experience gain in OD&D. Is it too slow? For monthly games it can literally take years for a party to build to mid-levels.

I wondered what the rules-as-written allocation of experience might reveal or confirm about the rate of advancement in dungeons, hoping it would help me decide if slow advancement is a problem (for me) or not. The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures gives guidance on stocking a dungeon on pages 6 – 8. Here is a rough summary:

Thoughtfully place a few important treasures (magical items and large amounts of wealth) in out-of-the-way locations, with or without guardians and traps. Then randomly generate contents of remaining areas. 33% of rooms contain a monster, with half the monsters having treasure. Of the remaining empty spaces, 16% have treasure (likely guarded by a trap or trick).

Let us imagine a dungeon with 100 rooms on the first level. Of the 100 rooms,

  •  X contain non-random, DM-placed treasures and encounters
  • 55 are empty
  • 11 contain treasure
  • 16 contain monsters with no treasure
  • 17 contain monsters with treasure

Expected treasure for a first level encounter is 52 gp with additional 5% chance each for jewelry, gems, and magic [1]. The expected value of each gem is about 233 gp [2]. The expected value of each piece of jewelry is a whopping 3,410 gp [3]. The distribution of treasures should look something like this [4]:

  •  X “important” treasures
  • 1 or 2 treasures with gold and jewelry, expected value 12,005 gp each
  • 1 or 2 treasures with gold and gems, expected value 887 gp each
  • 25 treasures with gold, expected value 52 gp each

This is a key element of the by-the-book DNA shaping am exploration-based game. Your party only levels by finding hoards; you find hoards through exploration and discovering out-of-the-way areas.

The rules promote periods of slow experience gain characterized by exploration, mapping, and retreat, followed by a big payoff when you find the occasional hoard. If your character is not present during the big payoff, you lose out. If this is seen as a problem there are obvious workarounds: make the average treasure bigger and reduce the size of hoards. But consider how else that may effect the feel of the game and behavior of players.

[1] See pg. 7

[2] Ignoring the specified 1-in-6 chance for each gem to be in the next higher category, because.  I am using the gem and jewelry tables from Monsters & Treasure pp.39-40.

[3] Look! We found a Bracelet of Leveling!

[4] This distribution provides about 19,350 experience from treasure, about enough to level a party of 5 to second level (assuming a 50% death rate along the way and other lost exp). If we assume an additional 6,000 exp from monsters (17 encounters plus wandering monsters) the level offers about 25,000 before the DM’s specially-placed important treasures are counted. And this is a 100-room first level; a similar 50-room first level would provide 12,500, etc.


Building Blocks of the Second Wave Retroclones

Matt Finch asked for “a laundry list of various things of note that have happened in the OOP fantasy RPG gaming scene”, and I realized that I hadn’t posted here about my notable entry to that list:

In the OSR it’s steamship time for takes on the Arnesonian progression from dungeon to stronghold, and the economic framework developed in the Adventurer Conqueror King System looks like it might be the go-to building block for this among second-wave retroclones, just as LotFP is for encumbrance. ckutalik’s Domain Game was developed in parallel, but he decided that “because the unified economic system inside ACKS is a really inspired piece of work,” he will publish the now-titled Hill Cantons: Borderlands under the ACKS compatibility license.

Unpacking this a little:

  • ‘Steamship time’ is Charles Fort’s for the way lots of people all seem to independently start working on the same stuff at the same time. Like many Fortean phenomena, I think it’s not so mystical. The OSR is old enough now that campaigns started to try out its ideas, like my White Sandbox and Alex’s Auran Empire, have now progressed to the point where they’re starting to need to deal with stronghold building rules and the like. And it’s not surprising that we’re all interested in doing that with our name-level characters since that’s clearly promised by the original D&D texts.
  •  ‘Economic framework’ you can read more about at the Autarch blog; it’s important so that the progression from dungeon to stronghold is organic and internally consistent. Even if Arneson knew the answer to questions like “why do the knights in castles expect that parties passing within two hexes of their castle will be able to pay 100-600 gold pieces if their fighting men don’t want to joust’, it wouldn’t help me when questions come up in play like “so if the knights in question are hill giants carrying 1,000 to 8,000 gp on their persons, why is there so much lucrative traffic on this wilderness river for them to shake down that much?” because that figure comes from AD&D. Since the Arnesonian and Gygaxian assumptions don’t always match, and B/E/C/M are all at odds with one another (let’s not even touch I), having someone sort it all out under one cover is a good answer to “why let us do any more of your imagining for you?”
  •   ‘Second-wave’ retroclones is a name I made up for those systems that a) are built on the work of the original wave, which used the OGL and reverse-engineered the d20 SRD to make it possible to publish stuff that emulated older editions and b) are now focused on supporting a specific style of play rather than a particular edition. I will repeat this term until it sticks.
  • The Domain Game was a really exciting project to handle lots of the same stuff ACKS does. We saw that he was looking for players for a PbP exploration of these ideas at a point when Autarch had already started down the same path, and I was so busy doing so that I regretfully decided not to join the game. I meant to reach out to ckutalik but to my shame kept forgetting until the spectre of two competing approaches already darkened his door.
  • Hill Cantons: Borderlands is the product that will result from the Domain Game, and because I am as excited about it as it’s possible to be, the fact that it will be compatible with ACKS cannot make me any more excited. “Compatible” here should be read as “this work is intended to be part of the same conversation as this other work”, the way that say Moldvay and Mentzer are compatible because they use the same toolbox to do takes on the same pre-existing ideas, but are different because they emphasize the things each presenter thought most important/had the best ideas how to handle.  In this case the difference is even more marked, because ACKS is designed as a complete system and HC:B is modular and designed for cherry-picking.
  • Compatibility licenses are an important way for the second-wavers to announce their unity as part of a new movement as well as their continuity with the old. In a comment to the annoucement of Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s compatibility license, I wrote:

 Creating a compatibility license has worked spectacularly to transform Adventurer Conqueror King and Hill Cantons: Borderlands from potential competitors over the same “domain game” turf into collaborators, each focusing on the part of this where we have the most unique vision and sharing the best ideas in areas which we agree. We would have wanted to try to do this anyway, but having the compatibility license + the open gaming license made it like duh, of course a declaration that these games work well together is the way to go.

In the post where I coined ‘second-wave retroclone’ (that sounds fancy, no?) I asked for help thinking of more second wavers. Having gotten some feedback on this, I now seek to predict which piece each of them is going to contribute to future waves built on our legacy:

  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Encumbrance.
  • DCC RPG: Some tool for glorious swinginess, of which it has too many and I am too close to see which will get picked up. Spell charts rock but, like class powers in 4E, are system-specific and creating them requires an amount of design that most folks will want to get paid to do.
  • ACKS: Economic framework, which is kind of a cop-out because it subsumes a lot of stuff but whatever, it’s all good.
  • Astonishing Sorcerers & Swordsmen of Hyborea: rules that inform the setting, and setting that informs the rules.

Let me pause here to note that a defining characteristic of the second-wavers seems to be problems with coming up with both a good name and a good acronym. I will talk Ghul into using our compatibility license just so we can say ASSH for ACKS. I will leave a dirty-sounding way to work LotFP:WFRPG in here as an exercise to the reader.

Now onto a subgenre of second-wavers which use the retroclone framework to shoot for a type of play modeled on a different genre:

  • Stars Without Number (modern space opera): Judging from a post-game conversation with jedo and foner, and reinforced by the way they’ve brought it back to fantasy in Red Tide, this has to be the use of tags to summarize characteristics of organizations.
  • Mystery Men (superheroes): ?
  • Terminal Space (classic space opera): ?

This list is by no means exclusive, and my predictions entail no money-back guarantee.

Since this post mostly makes a blah blah sound, I will pay the Joesky tax. However this is usable only in your game if you are contemplating publishing it under the OGL and are thinking about compatibility with ACKS, or if you are playing a Papers & Paychecks campaign in which you are simulating the travails of a retroclone publisher. See below the cut if so.

Continue reading ‘Building Blocks of the Second Wave Retroclones’


What do New-Schoolers Want?

One of the Visionary backers for the ACKS Kickstarter described this illo, which I love. She's also done some great edits on v.16 of the rules MS. Yay for patronage publishing!

I’ve been thinking that the integrated economic system in Adventurer Conqueror King may interest fans of other editions of the “world’s most popular fantasy RPG”: debatable but not unreasonable. I’m also thinking that Mule readers include folks who aren’t exclusively old-schoolers, and also a large-enough group of people who don’t read EN World’s General RPG Discussion forum or the D&D Meetup boards. Running with those assumptions, here’s how I broke down ACKS over there in search of some insights about whether and how new-schoolers might kit-bash bits of our system into the one they prefer.

The game’s tagline is “fulfilling the promise of the original fantasy RPG with support for every level of campaign play.” What that means is:

1) it’s built on the chassis of the retro-clones, especially Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy RPG, but instead of emulating a particular older edition it’s designed to enable a certain kind of long-term gameplay

2) it presents comprehensive guidelines for all the different “tiers” of the classic game, from dungeon crawling to wilderness exploration to building a stronghold and ruling a kingdom, with lots of other stuff in between like running a thieves’ guild, mercantile trading by land and sea, spell research, etc.

#1 means ACKS plays like the old-school games I’ve increasingly come to love. But to do #2, we had to create an integrated economic framework that ties all this stuff together. That’s because:

a) getting and spending gold is tightly tied to character progression in the classic game, and thus serves kind of the same role as encounter levels, treasure parcels, wealth by level, etc: an integrated framework lets you predict pretty well that a character who can cast fly can also afford to buy a pegasus mount, and design adventures around that expectation without having to dissociate it from the concrete things in the game world

b) different characters and campaigns will have different goals, but spending gold in pursuit of those goals is a universal constant; rules for all the things you can do with money are always going to be useful and allow the progression from low levels to the end game to proceed organically in response to player actions

c) making these things self-consistent, so that the price of hiring mercenaries and forging swords for them is consistent with how much skilled characters could earn as a sell-sword or a blacksmith and also how much it costs to buy food and a place to sleep, is hard work that no previous edition has gotten exactly right and maybe one of the few good answers to Gary and Dave’s question in OD&D: “why have us do any more of your imagining for you?”

OK, with that background in place, I’m getting to my question for y’all. One of the things I did when I was one of the guys whose names were going to be on the cover of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium was to design mundane items. And because I wanted them to be things that you wouldn’t just buy at first level, I worked out this same kind of comprehensive economic structure for 4E, based on the range of existing prices from a wagon to a galleon to a spelljammer. I was surprised to see that the difference from previous editions (the d20SRD and the B/E/C/M/I Rules Compendium were my main sources) was within the margin of error!

So you could use the economic structure from ACKS in pretty much any version of the game you play. The changes in prices for items, hirelings, and the like are minor and not the main benefit; the big benefit would be that if the party wants to do things like manage a caravan going between points of light (the theme of one of the most fun 4Ecampaigns I’ve been in), you have a sound basis for calculating things like how much demand there will be for goods in different-sized cities, the profit the caravan might expect to realize from carrying different cargoes, etc.

What I want to know is: would you want to include skill DCs, designing skill challenges, and other such new-school stuff if you were going to use this framework in your game? And if so, how would you fit it in?

In that caravan game that me and my ACKS co-author Greg Tito played in, even though it used the 4E rules that we were elbows-deep in at the time while writing the Forgotten Heroes books, neither he nor I paid much attention to how the profit-and-loss part of the operation worked. I was playing a fighter, so I was happy if we made money, but I left the details up to others. This is maybe part of why I like old-school play. Even though caravan wandering monsters were something my character cared about, I preferred to let the DM roll these behind the screen instead of being the outcome of my character’s Survival or Nature skill checks, and so likewise my inclination is to have the price the caravan goods be something the DM determines based on supply and demand, not something that emerges from my character’s skills.

What about you?


Campaign Economics as Player Empowerment

Who is served by the classic D&D rules for economic activities like building strongholds, hiring armorers, and (if your definition of classic includes the B/E/C/M/I gazetters) running mercantile enterprises? An email from Eppy, the designer of Dread and Swords without Master, that followed up on a mention in my last post has me thinking about this in a new way. He wrote:

I had a moment, last year, while working on Swords, where I found myself compelled to hack D&D. It was like I was exorcising a demon. With both Sw/oM and the hack, I was striking at the very roots of my gaming in an attempt to capture the essence of what lured me into this hobby. And what I was finding was two completely different games. Swords answered all the promises in one way; and something in that Basic-Expert-Companion set combo felt like the other way to answer them. ACKS looks like it’s hitting right on that second way. I’m excited about that.

I think that one of these different games empowers GMs, and the other empowers players.

As a GM I don’t feel compelled to work out economies in a rigorous way. I want to be able to make stuff up like “gold pieces are huge things that weigh 1/10th of a pound because the gods designed them for their own hands” and “coins are inherently Lawful because of this divine origin, and because they symbolize the sun” and “dragons hoard gold because, as Chaotic creatures, they seek to weaken civilized economies by depriving them of their life-blood.” I just want to throw these ideas out there half-baked; I don’t feel like I need rules for how a dragon in the region would cause a depression, because if it seems to make sense that this would happen I’ll just use my narrative authority to make it so.

This is the style of play that “why let us do any more of your imagining for you” systems like OD&D facilitate for GMs, and modern indie improv and shared narrative authority games like Swords without Master facilitate for all players.

But when they sit down to scratch their itch to “play D&D” with whatever system best acts as a backscratcher for them at the moment, I think most players neither have nor want the kind of narrative authority that would let them say “My robot cleric attracts more followers because it’s sitting on a giant pile of gold that demonstrates how well it has pleased the Lawful deities.” Even though that totally follows from the premises, I can see why as a player I’d want rules to show how I could make that follower-attracting goal happen in incremental steps, and guarantee that I can make it so without the GM taking the improv in some other direction.

The great promise of old-school sandbox games is that your character’s goals and beliefs can organically become part of the game by just taking concrete actions in the world that will make them manifest. Yes, there is a strong belief in rules-lightness in the OSR. And yes, as a GM it no longer appeals to me to calculate the construction costs of every castle I plop down on the landscape. But I think there is a real utility for players in having detailed rules for building their own castles, running their own thieves’ guild, and every other kind of concrete, large-scale way they might act on their beliefs and pursue their goals.

For GMs, I think the virtue in having a ruleset like Adventurer Conqueror King that thoroughly encodes those detailed economic rules is that when you randomly generate a band of knights, the size of the castle it is implied they come from makes sense given the size of the domain it supports and all that other world-building stuff I want baked in rather than having to pay attention to myself. This kind of “making sense” is important because it enables appropriate player action. The party won’t be frustrated that they can never afford an army big enough to reduce to rubble these castles that pop up as a result of dice-based-improv, because the tables that generate the castles follow the same internal consistency as the rules the players use to build them.

Now, the idea that more rules = player empowerment is frequently advanced in the context of D&D’s change over time, but I generally feel that this isn’t the case. For example, having a skills or feats or combat maneuvers tends to disempower players who didn’t have the system mastery to choose those rules options in pre-play. I feel differently about rules for economics because:

  • they lead in lots of different directions and leave open what the game is about in a way that combat, which is where most detailed rules development tends to happen, does not. Players who really want to build strongholds may feel gypped if they don’t get to use those rules, but I think that providing lots of rules for combat produces a much stronger feeling that a session without using crunchy fighting rules is a waste of time, and tends to disempower players who want to make non-combat characters.
  • they model concrete and high-granularity stuff, which affords lots of leeway for doing it in ways outside the rules. Like if you have the Trip feat and I say someone else can trip just by sticking a polearm between the giant’s leg, it feels unfair not to use the rules in that situation. But if you follow the guidelines for building a castle, and I say someone else gets one for free as a reward for helping the Faerie Queen, it’s a different kind of unfair because you can deal with it within the game – “how can I suck up to this gauzy-winged royal tart,” not “how can I get a DM who doesn’t cheat.”

Cross-posted to nerdNYC this morning hoping for confirmation of these ideas, which mumblethrax provided in the form of a claim that his rogue once disarmed a liquidity trap 


4E, OD&D, and Cheap Urine Gags

Back in ’09, when the OSR and blogging were yet kinda young, I played in a Swords and Wizardry game that Michael aka chgowiz ran at Gen Con to showcase old-school play for a bunch of folks who were mostly recent-edition gamers: Phil (The Chatty DM, no longer a stranger to S&W), Dave and Danny of Critical Hits, and Greg who was neither yet working at the Escapist nor one of my co-authors on Adventurer Conqueror King (although we had worked together on Goodman’s Forgotten Heroes books, and one of the seeds of ACKS was a conversation we had later in the con about how the 4E idea of tiers of play relates to old-school campaigns). Although even the current holder of the D&D name is no longer all that shiny and new these days, I thought that Mule readers might be interested in the reflection on the experience I wrote in an email to these guys afterward:

I’m pleased to be able to say that my 100 percent old-school player death rate is intact, and that it was very satisfying to die with all my pockets, sacks, and backpacks stuffed with treasure!

Given the unique (to put it mildly) characterizations and hilarious & inventive improv skills on display all around the table, I don’t doubt for a second that I would have had a great time with whatever game we played, or none at all. I do think, though, that the stark & elegant simplicity of the OD&D system makes it especially easy to both give in to every wacky impulse and opportunity for a cheap urine gag and also still get in adventuring, exploration, and pulp drama. The 4E group I play with has lots of laughs & also likes to kick ass, but the process of having to add up your initiative bonus, choose powers, etc., etc. makes it harder for me to switch between the two modes.

I think that the lethality and hilarity of OD&D go hand in hand, which is why Leiber is for me the truest inspiration – the situation comedy of Fafhrd as Issek of the Jug is the bright obverse of the doomed pulp grimness of Thieves’ House. For me, the original rules do this best both by letting you switch from one face to the other more quickly, and also by reinforcing the feeling that luck and wits may stave off Death for a little while, but quickly rolling up a new contender is part of the essence of the game.

I am interested to see that this idea perfectly prepared me to be blown away by Swords without Master‘s emulation of pulp adventure via a dice mechanic devoted entirely to whether you narrate things in a glum or jovial way; when Eppy broke Conan’s melancholy and mirth down this way and quoted Leiber from memory at the start of that session to back up his thesis, I’d entirely forgotten having once reached a similar conclusion via that source myself.

Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2011
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