Author Archive for


0-Level ACKS Alices

Introductory Complaining

If I’m running a low-power game, I like 0-level play: It sets the tone, establishes more of the character at the table, and introduces new players to the game in play rather than in prep. What I don’t like about it is a tendency for the (scant) modules to concretize class restrictions in a particularly unbelievable way. Consider N4: Treasure Hunt:

Zero-level characters all know how to use one weapon. Before your adventure gets underway, have each player choose his character’s weapon proficiency. (Weapon proficiency is explained under “Weapons” in the Players Handbook). A player may only choose dagger, quarterstaff, or dart. Tell the player to write his character’s weapon proficiency on the character sheet.

If, in the course of the adventure, a character picks up a weapon and states that he’s going to try to learn to use it, let him. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that, while these characters are in their “state of grace” and learn things speedily, they can learn a weapon proficiency after using the weapon in two combats. A character can learn no more than three extra weapon proficiencies.

Tell the character he should swing the weapon around for a while, get used to its heft and characteristics, and that after a couple of combats in which he uses the weapon, he will have a proficiency with it.

The characters are not limited to dagger, staff and dart after they enter the adventure but, again, the choice of the weapons they learn can limit their character class choices.

If a character tries to learn more weapons during the course of the adventure he starts limiting the number of character classes he can choose. For instance, a 1st level magic- user can only have one weapon proficiency. If the 0 level character learns a second weapon before taking 1st level, he can therefore not be a magic-user when he reaches 1st level. That’s how it works.

Some of this is a consequence of the AD&D weapon proficiency framework, but I’d dread having a conversation at table about whether a PC wanted to surrender the chance to become a magic-user because they used a dagger and a dart. I get bored just thinking about it. Instead, I thought projecting a Jack-of-all-Trades class backwards to 0, with accreting abilities after creation, would work better with the group I’m running a game for.

The ACKS approach to weapons, classes and proficiencies gives a GM some tools to work around the rough spots in the 0-1 progression, and I thought that an ACKS conversion of the Alice class from A Red & Pleasant Land would make an especially good 0-level class for the group I was running.

The Alice: A 0-Level ACKS Conversion

As you might expect, it’s pretty easy to convert between LotFP and ACKS. The Alice is built on the Thief without a backstab ability, and over the course of the 0-1 progression they:

  • Get a +1 to hit (going from 11+ on AC 0 to 10+)
  • Get a +1 to saving throws (going from Thief 1 with a -2 modifier to a -1 modifier)
  • Get a +1 to skill throws in 3 abilities (equivalent to the 1/2 level progression in RPL)
  • Get an ability from the Alice random progression table (see RPL, this happens twice)
  • Get the exasperation ability (see RPL)

There’s a lot of room there to set up minor XP milestones or success feedback checks along the course of an adventure to result in level 1 Alice characters, and none of it is jarringly binary (with the possible exception of exasperation, but that worked well to establish the kind of fantastic space the PCs were in).

The ACKS Thief skills improve more-or-less by 1 with each level, so I started them with thinly renamed throws as follows:

  • Take Things Apart: 19+
  • Find Hidden Things: 18+
  • Sleight of Hand: 18+
  • Be Not Heard: 18+
  • Climb: 14+
  • Be Not Seen: 19+
  • Eavesdrop: 14+

Three of those are 1 better than would be expected from the ACKS Thief, but I thought it was fair for the worse initial climbing and rounding the 1/2 level progression down to improving 3 skills instead of 4. Given the style of progression, I found it easier to leave the throw targets static and have the players record a modifier on their character sheets.

Play Report: Waking Up, or Possibly Falling Asleep, in a Library

Caddy Jelleby, Percy the Urchin, Robert Call-Me-Bob, Scotia and Tadcaster awaken with a start from the falling dream in a library (map) with a ruined roof. A quick wealth roll revealed the quality of their clothing and the number of things in their pockets (modifier of a 3d6 roll, +1).The room they were in was full of numerous books, crockery, broadsheets from all over the world, several partial decks of playing cards, and a military saber (with which Scotia armed herself). Feeling like they needed to find a place with a sturdier roof to escape the snow beginning to fall, the 5 of them set out to look for an exit.

When two of them tumbled into the giant pneumatic tubes under the map room’s floor, the rest followed and were shunted to a reference desk staffed by the last remaining librarian: A hulking bear in a tweed suit named Ian. Ian drinks gin from a porcelain tea set (-3 to hit and AC when drunk, save vs poison each round or lose an attack to hiccoughs). Ian dissembles over questions he doesn’t know the answer to, and is prone to fib responding to those he does. Ian regards the PCs as items from Special Collections, and makes up elaborate classifications for them that shape the contents of rooms in the library.

Ian can be tricked into classifying PCs as outdoor goods, he can be killed leaving his pneumatic controls to the PCs to decipher, or he can be bargained into “remaindering” the PCs outside by bringing him the 2 dozen or so catalog cards that have gone missing. His catalog is full of many shifting cards- if the drawers are turned out, the cards will flap through the air on a middle crease like a swarm of bats.

The 5 PCs set out to find the cards. They discover a talking penguin named Birdtha who just wants to go home to Pengland, and promise to aid her (Caddy: “a quest!”). They discover the missing cards being used as a makeshift deck in a Euchre-LARP conducted in an inexplicable garden party in one of the library’s salons. After establishing one of their own as the best, correct, and right bower, the PCs won most of the tricks (but not all). They cheated by swiping the last trick, and an enraged Left Bower (a level1 Alice) came after them with a sword-cane. Scotia confronted him in the doorway with the saber, and Poor Percy seized the opportunity to drive a silver letter opener into the poor Bower’s neck. The rest of the party fell into panicked chaos as the Left Bower fell dying to the ground, and the PCs escaped with the cards.

Ian proved trustworthy enough in the card exchange, and the PCs ended the session shunted into a bin outside the library with the saber, some maps and newspapers, and about 40 xp apiece. The xp is earning them 2 of the accumulating abilities before the next session.


Into the Woods We Go

In 1984, TSR published N2: The Forest Oracle, a module for characters level 2-4.  I hate it. It’s a ham-fisted, credulity-straining railroad laid down on a track of base Tolkien stereotypes. The landscape makes no sense, there are obvious PC choices that are entirely foreclosed on, and the event-driving NPCs seem to play by a completely different set of rules than the players. This isn’t even getting into a ridiculous table of mishaps borne out of falling into a river (“a magic item, or 200gp if the player has none”) or a comically blunt Raiders of the Lost Ark ripoff.

On the other hand, I also kind of love N2. It’s got a ruined castle camped by worg-riding goblins that would be perfect for putting Dyson’s Delve under. It’s got no less than 4 hidden groves/glades. It’s got what are basically the underpinnings for a nice little sandbox: A dungeonous cavern, lairs for creatures from the encounter tables, and a comically blunt Raiders of the Lost Ark ripoff.

So I’m trying to remediate the module by tearing it down and putting it back together again. I’m modifying the map- expanding it to the local (6-mile hex) ACKS regional map template, re-arranging and rationalizing it a bit. I’m also re-thinking all of it against the ACKS recommendations for building a campaign map, since it seems useful to have a swatch of low-level campaign fodder I can pull out of the binder when I need it. So this is like a kick-off post for that work.

Reworking and expanding a classic map

Reworking and expanding a classic map


The ACKS map template I’m using measures 15 x 25 hexes. If it’s a typically-populated realm unto itself, it would clock in as a principality of 100k-120k families.  However, I’m thinking of this as an agrarian/borderlands realm, I’m knocking that population down a rank to a duchy of 52k families. ACKS predicts right around 5200 families in settlements, with 1042 of them in the largest settlement of the realm (you can see it off the river near the bottom of the map above). That’s a Class IV market that brings in 617gp monthly income for the duke.

It doesn’t really sport any other settlements that even show up on a  map at the 6-mile scale: Its most notable settlements after the largest would be 6 villages of 75-170 families that center the counties of the duchy.  Because much of the map is occupied by somewhat hostile territory, I’m collecting two of them into one which brushes up against the Class V threshold for mapping (250 families) at this scale (it’s in the Southwest of the map near an intersection of roads and a freshwater spring in the nearby hills). The rest will probably end up on the roads out of the mountains and forests, which looks grim for the Count and Countess of Marshy Fens up in the Northwest and Lord Scrubland of the North. There’s a reason no one lives there.


Dicing Up a B/X Dragon

Monochrome dice would actually be hard to use for this

Monochrome dice would actually be hard to use for this (h/t

This was a side project from a while back: Building on an earlier post, I wanted to lay out a small system for generating a dragon out of a handful of dice, with the idea of running some one shots that pitted whoever showed up against whatever dragon I generated (I think I was inspired by a short story in Dragon magazine in the early 90’s, I forget the name. Middle-aged dragon hunter.).

It’s actually not especially fast, but that was part of the point: I wanted to write the charts up by hand on a big, yellowed piece of paper, and play up the oracular reading of the dice.  I actually like how most of it turns out: Rolling six dice determines the hit dice, breath weapon, alignment, gender, lair type, whether the dragon can cast spells, and (this is the weakest part) name.  It’s also some fun with different ways to generate distributions with dice… In any case, maybe it inspires someone else to do something clever-er…

Dragon Dice Oracle


The Value of a Rerolled Die

I’ve seen a couple of blogposts about the advantage/disadvantage mechanic in WotC’s playtest materials that suggested some interest in the underlying math.  I actually find these functions useful to have around in other situations, too, so I’m reposting this bit I wrote up for our campaign wiki.

Average Value Re-rolling a N-Sided Die, Taking the Highest Result

Average Value Re-rolling a N-Sided Die, Taking the Lowest Result

So, for a D20…

The highest of two dice averages 13.825, the lowest of two dice averages 7.175.


Generating Non-Standard Undead

As part of my slow-burning Saltbox project, I’m working up material on ghost ships.  I think of them in three categories: Ships with divine purpose (La Grande Chasse Foudre, or a more malign analog), ships of cursed undead taking their anger out on passers-by (Flying Dutchman, or the Black Pearl), and boats of monsters that want to eat your face.  Since I’m usually working with either B/X or ACKS (with occasional recourse to the SRD), this breakdown organizes undead monsters like so (this is ACKS, which gives Ghouls an extra HD):

Since I’d also like to present the population of ghost ships in terms familiar to descriptions of ship crews in these rulesets (“there is a Nth level fighter for every X pirates…”), I’m interested in being able to target the gaps in that chart: If I have a ship of ravenous undead captained by a 6HD creature, what is it?  I could just fiddle with the HD of existing creatures, but I’d like to be a little less predictable.

Instead, I’m taking the target HD, using a base attack damage of 1d6, and calculating the armor class of the creature as 8-HD (for B/X) or HD + 1 (for ACKS).  Then I’m rolling as indicated on these tables for special abilities and quirks of appearance (forgive the slight maritime bent):


I expect that the entries will get weirder with use, but I like the way the captains are shaping up so far. As is, they come fairly close to generating the traditional undead monsters as possible outcomes, which I regard as a virtue.


Dungeon Notoriety and the 15-minute Workday

Recently over at the Greyhawk Grognard, there was a discussion of how to deal with “the 15-minute workday.” This is a situation in which PCs become so risk averse that they immediately retreat to a safe haven after expending any resources at all in the dungeon, nickel-and-diming their way through the even the shallowest dungeon levels.

In the comments, Talysman responded:

*Discourage* the players from returning to town every time they run a little low on resources? I’m trying to *encourage* them to do that! It doesn’t have to be easy, and things can certainly change between visits, but I think there should be a series of short expeditions instead of “hanging on until the last hp”.

I agree with Talysman that this behavior is precisely the kind of careful management the lethality of an old-school dungeon requires, but I’m sympathetic to Joseph’s concerns that the necessary risk of a dungeon expedition can be eroded if the PCs are risk-averse in the extreme. The solution I would suggest is to make the dungeon itself a resource to be managed: If the PCs appear to be hauling loot up risk-free, others will be emboldened to try their luck in the dungeon’s depths.

Flora's mallewagen, by Hendrik Pot

Download Dungeon Notoriety and Interloper Tables (PDF)

The linked document details what it is essentially a random encounter roll when treasure is brought up from the dungeon; the likelihood of encounter is modified by the secrecy of the dungeon’s location, the party’s health on returning, and the amount of treasure retrieved.  The latter is variable by market class (ACKS’s I-VI reckoning of market size, with I being global metropolises and VI being tiny hamlets), and based on the monthly wage of three heavy infantry and the number of said infantry on the market.  The translation of other ACKS-isms to B/X-like games should be fairly transparent.

Since returning to town from the dungeon is typically a call for a short break in the games I’m in, it should also afford me the opportunity to roll some dice and replace a defeated group of orcs with a NPC party eager to get in while the getting is good.


Saltbox Report

I was able to wrangle some of the NYRB faithful into another saltbox this session this weekend.  Because I am either ambitious or masochistic, I also began trying to run the saltbox sessions under the ACKS ruleset.

The latter provided some utterly predictable pain as we shifted from a just-ended B/X session, but I want to soldier on there.  The actual session:  The players collected around Poseidon (a player) and the Venerable Brude (likewise), as they have a small ship.  They set out from the port town of Nantaticut with the intention of finding the lair of a sea hydra killed by the players in the last saltbox session, hoping to scoop up a treasure protected only by li’l baby hydras.

I’ve been running these sessions more-or-less like a hex crawl: Stocked with a fistful of undiscovered islets, kelp forests, and random encounter tables, I let the players put out to sea and look for trouble.  In general, I think this would have a lot to commend it in a more regular game, but it’s a little slow to start with an irregularly attended one.  This sense of slowness is compounded by the mechanics of sea voyages:  Every day begins with a flurry of DM dice-rolling (Wind direction! Weather! Random encounters! Other events!), most of which boil down to a fairly trim description.  This is the area I think the most about improving: How to make the daily rolls more compact.  It’s effectively like randomly generating a dungeon with very similar-looking rooms as it’s explored.  Until the players have a thread to pursue, it can feel a bit like you’re waiting for a fight to happen.

Of course, once those fights start happening, things change in a hurry.  “Fight” #1: Nixies.  I had included them on my encounter tables in place of some shark entries, and am reconsidering that decision.  On the open seas, a passle of nixies is basically a save-or-die trap.  Retrieving a character lost that way is a deep-water affair.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means I need to have thought through that scenario better.  Fortunately, the players bailed me out with some snappy initiative and attack rolls, and the captain of the ship made a difficult seafaring proficiency throw to evade the pursuing nixies.  Thanks, dice!

Fight 2: Cockatrice.  This is an entry from the Flyer subtable that I’ve also thought about removing, but for different reasons: It sounds ridiculous when you start describing it to the players.  “From the crow’s nest, you see a dark shape approaching.  It appears to be a seagull or small albatross, but as it approaches it seems to be struggling to carry a snake. It flaps awkwardly towards you, and you see that in fact the bird has a snake-like neck and tail…”  What the hell is that cockatrice doing out over the ocean?  Did it get lost in a storm?  With most of the flyers, it’s not difficult to imagine them ranging out over the water from an island, but this thing is an even less aerodynamic rooster.  Roasted by a fireball, dead.

Now, that fireball: One of the things I’ve been dissatisfied with in the saltbox sessions is the resource management of spells.  A norm of a single combat per day allows your wizards to just unload in every fight.  This session I began using a “Blood in the Water” rule to address that: When the crew draws blood in a fight, I immediately make another random encounter check. In this case, it meant that  they were beset by Giant Carnivorous Flies later that night.  While not especially difficult, this is a fun encounter on a ship at night.  The flying beasties are able to position themselves over the water (to their detriment at times), and having them pursue the light sources under which the players are defending themselves is entertaining.

The last phase of the evening was the delve into the hydra lair, where the party killed a couple of small hydra spawn and found an enormous treasure guarded by the mate (or parent?) of the previous session’s hydra: An 11HD regenerating hydra.  This was a wall for the party, but they did seem to hit on a strategy for dealing with the thing next time.

Thoughts for next time:

  1. Instead of stat blocks for pregens, I should have brought character sheets to ease the B/X-ACKS transition.
  2. I need to come up with a way to determine the various characteristics of a day at sea faster: As it was, I found myself “cheating” a few days ahead when the players made plans.
  3. With the melee bells and whistles ACKS has, I wish we would have run into a naval encounter.  Maybe my North Seas tables need to be adjusted a bit to reflect more maritime traffic.
There’s a chance I get to run another session this coming weekend: If so, it’ll be a bit more of a scenario for lower level characters.  If it’s successful, I’ll try to run it again at third-annual Arneson Game Day in NY.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2017
« Jan    

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,049 other followers