Author Archive for Eric Minton


Weird Tables: Corpse Bits 4 Ca$h

Arch-wizards, alchemists and taxidermists crave various chunks of monster anatomy for their own peculiar purposes, and sometimes they’re willing to pay good money for such things! Players who recognize this may get into the habit of chopping up everything they encounter and hauling the bits back like deranged slaughterhouse workers. To keep the PCs from overdoing it, you may wish to limit such sales to specific requests (or “quests” for short) proffered by enchanters for whatever fresh ingredient they happen to need at the moment, as determined by the


Roll twice on a d20 to determine what weird thing the local magician desires. If this offers a nonsensical result, like a ghoul horn or hellhound wing, ignore it and roll on the “special reagent” table instead.

Roll Creature Reagent
1 Basilisk Blood
2 Cockatrice Bone/Skull
3 Doppelganger Brain
4 Dragon Ear
5 Ghoul Eye
6 Giant Flesh
7 Gryphon Genitals
8 Harpy Hair/Feathers/Scales
9 Hellhound Hand/Foot/Paw
10 Hydra Heart
11 Manticore Horn/Antler
12 Medusa Liver
13 Minotaur Nose
14 Mummy Saliva
15 Ogre Skin/Hide
16 Owlbear Stomach/Intestine
17 Troglodyte Tail
18 Troll Teeth/Beak
19 Wereolf Tongue
20 Wyvern Wing


Roll 1d12.

Roll Reagent
1 Carrion crawler tendril
2 Displacer beast hide
3 Fire beetle gland
4 Gelatinous cube gelatin
5 Giant scorpion stinger
6 Giant spider venom
7 Giant toad tongue
8 Killer bee honey
9 Ochre jelly protoplasm
10 Rust monster antennae
11 Shrieker spores
12 Stirge proboscis

Appropriate payment will vary based on how much gold you want to put into the PCs’ hands. In the past, I’ve generally offered 1d6 x 100 gold pieces for reagents. Now I’m considering monster HD x monster HD x 100 gold pieces. This may inspire PCs to go after monsters that outclass them in order to earn some sweet loot!


Not a trap, but a feature

So why are dungeons full of weird-ass deadly traps anyway? Someone built the place at some point, and surely putting a spiked pit in the middle of the main hallway or a poison needle on the bathroom doorknob was asking for trouble. It would be nice to have a plausible explanation for such things!

Fortunately, our good friends at RPGnet have compiled an exhaustive list of bizarre deathtraps along with tortuous justifications for their presence! Many of the explanations border on the ridiculous; others gleefully leap over that boundary into full-on gonzo surrealism. But the thread is a gold mine for weird traps and weirder backstories that should inspire any DM.

To quote the introduction to the thread:

Old-school dungeon crawl scenarios frequently contain mechanisms and architectural features that seem to serve no imaginable practical purpose, unless one presumes they were deliberately designed to mess with adventurers’ minds. From fountains of acid, to strangely situated pit traps, to Goldbergian contraptions that kill anyone who enters the room in entertainingly baroque ways, it sometimes seems like every dungeon is a malevolent underworld labyrinth with a personal grudge against the PCs.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with playing it that way, but sometimes it can be more fun to take these inexplicable features and try to imagine what their original purpose might have been – that is, to justify them as something other than purpose-built adventurer-shredding devices.

Click here to read more about room-sized winepresses, mimic farms, electric thrones, exploding phylacteries and ultradimensional sharks.


The Reward

The Reward is an awesome little animated short film — a student project from The Animation Workshop — that neatly encapsulates much of the fun and wonder of gonzo old-school play in the so-called “Galactic Dragons and Godwars” style. Watch it, love it, let it bring a smile to your face.



Cosine Warriors, Tangent Wizards

In third edition D&D and its various spin-offs, spellcasters became more powerful than ever in mid- to high-level play when compared to non-casters, to such an extent that “Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards” has become a perennial topic of discussion on gaming message boards. This is less of an issue in OSR gaming than in more recent games; old-school D&D rulesets predate the big power boosts of 3e, where more spell slots, broader spell selections, combat casting, and other caster benefits eclipsed the skills and feats offered to non-casters. But the specifics of power balance between casters and non-casters varies significantly by ruleset even under the OSR umbrella, based on caster limitations and non-caster strengths.

In Moldvay B/X, “spells cannot be cast while performing any other action (such as walking or fighting).” (Moldvay Basic, p. 15) The limit on “fighting” is ambiguous; it might mean you can’t cast while attacking, or that you can’t cast while engaged in melee.

In Mentzer BECMI, “The caster must be able to gesture and speak without interruption to cast a spell. While casting a spell, the [character] must concentrate, and may not move. A spell cannot be cast while the character is walking or running. If the [caster] is disturbed while casting a spell, the spell will be ruined, and will still be ‘erased,’ just as if it had been cast.” (Moldvay Basic, p. 25) Again, it’s unclear whether simply being in melee or being targeted by an attack counts as ‘an interruption’ or ‘being disturbed.’

The first edition AD&D Dungeon’s Master’s Guide has an entire section labeled “Spell Casting During Melee.” In this ruleset, a character can’t take any other action while casting a spell. Not only does damage ruin a spell, so does dodging! “The spell caster cannot use his or her dexterity bonus to avoid being hit during spell casting; doing so interrupts the spell.” (p. 65) Furthermore, intelligent enemies recognize how powerful magic is and will target magic-using PCs to disrupt their spells.

Meanwhile, fighters gain a variety of abilities at higher levels in many OSR rulesets. In Moldvay B/X, “for every 5 levels above 15th, the fighter gains another attack that round.”1 (Moldvay Expert, p. 8)  At 12th level, fighters in Mentzer BECMI gain both multiple attacks and special moves such as disarming. (Mentzer Companion, p. 18) Fighter-types in 1e AD&D get multiple attacks as they gain levels, and when a fighter attacks creatures with less than one hit die, he gets a number of attacks per round equal to his or her level. (1e PHB, p. 25) 2e AD&D provides even more advantages for the fighter in the form of weapon specialization, which provides ‘to hit’ and damage bonuses with the chosen weapon type. And all of the TSR old-school rulesets offer high-level fighters lots of followers and access to potent magic swords, both of which are invaluable in that style of play.2

Even so, old-school spellcasters have always been stronger than non-casters at higher levels. We see this right from the start in OD&D: “Top level magic-users are perhaps the most powerful characters in the game, but it is a long, hard road to the top.” (Men & Magic, p. 6) Some of the newer OSR offerings, such as Adventurer Conqueror King, offer fighter-only benefits like extra cleaving attacks and bonuses to damage and retainer morale. Others, such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess, diminish the melee utility of casters to help fighters stand out.

Visit the following blog and forum links to read some interesting proposals for fighter bonus abilities:

Fighters & Weapons (Untimately)

DEX feats and Combat Sequence and The Rest of the Feats (Roles, Rules & Rolls)

Thoughts on Fighter customization (Dragonsfoot)

Noncaster “Wizard Did It” Thread Split-Off: “She’s Just That Good” (

[OSR]Linear Fighter Quadratic Wizard-Beefing up the Fighter (

[1] I suspect this should read “At 15th level and every 5 levels thereafter.”

[2] I have not listed OD&D because I find the combat system too impenetrable to assess.


Megadungeon Mastery III: How Large Was My Level

(Continued from Megadungeon Mastery II: Rise and Fall of the Great Underground Empire.)

How large is it? Relatively large, apparently.

As often happens when trying something new, when I decided to build my first megadungeon I said to myself, “I’ll try to be different and original and do things my own way!”

Naturally, this led to problems.

Right now I want to focus on matters of scale. Ironically, this sounds like a brief subject but actually covers a lot of ground. I’ll start with a few things I learned about designing and drawing megadungeon maps.

1) Don’t make your levels too large. In designing the dungeons beneath the Chateau d’Ambreville, I sketched out a huge, elaborate castle and decided to put entrances under various towers. In order to fit all these entrances onto one level, I printed out maps on 11″x17″ sheets of paper, then folded them in half so they could fit into my binder. But there were problems!

• 1a) If you fold your maps in half, they’ll fray and tear along the fold. This is no fun, and requires lots of fiddling with adhesive tape to keep them together. It’s better to make smaller sub-levels that each fit onto one sheet of paper, and connect them with long corridors.

• 1b) Large maps can get out of control. Once you’re trying to fill in a huge map, you may realize that now your themed level now has 200 rooms and after filling in 50 of them, you’re stumped as to what to put in the other 150.

• 1c) If your levels are too large, it’s hard to keep track of what’s where. This can be important when trying to figure out how nearby dungeon inhabitants will react to the PCs and their trail of theft and murder! (I’ll include more detail on these issues in a future blog post.)

Note that you can always provide more level-appropriate encounters by making an additional level — a “sub-level” — at the same depth, connected to the rest of the dungeon by a single stair or passage. Multiple themed sub-levels can be strung together to generate the effect of a huge dungeon level while avoiding many of the problems inherent in huge dungeon levels.

2) Use graph paper with large squares. Maps are about more than walls and doors! They’re an invaluable resource for marking down other details: furniture, whether doors are locked, tracks on the floor, light sources, odors, etc. And at five or six squares per inch, there’s just no room for those details. Even the traditional four squares per inch may feel a little cramped. Sure, you can note these things on your map legend, but if too much of this information is written in the legend rather than drawn on the map, it’s far too easy for key details to slip your mind in the heat of play.

* * *

I’ve mentioned that the number of rooms on a level is significant. This isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics. Rooms contain monsters and treasure; in a sense, they’re buckets of XP for the player characters to fill themselves from. Furthermore, each deeper level is supposed to have tougher monsters and bigger treasures (on average) than the previous level, so that higher level PCs are encouraged to keep delving deeper to get the XP needed to continue leveling up at a decent rate. So each level should contain enough treasure for all of your PCs to level up if they clear it out — plus some extra to account for PC death, level drain and hidden caches that they fail to discover. Too little treasure and they can’t level up; too much treasure and they’ll hang around on that level instead of going deeper. (The specifics of how much XP comes from monsters and how much comes from treasure varies by edition.)

The problem here is that the size of the level roughly determines the number of encounters, which take time at the table and increase the chances of losing XP to PC death. So if you make a really big level, you either need to add more treasure or reduce the number and/or intensity of the encounters.

Reductio ad absurdum: You decide that you need to put 20,000xp worth of treasure on the first dungeon level to ensure your PCs can level up. You’ll distribute this roughly according to the OD&D guidelines: 1 encounter per 3 rooms, half of all encounters have treasure, one-sixth of rooms without encounters have treasure. (This comes to treasure in roughly one-quarter of all rooms.)

• In one instance, you design a 4-room dungeon level containing a single treasure: a 20,000gp gem. Unfortunately, there’s no worthwhile combat challenge available for this purpose; either you’re giving away treasure like Monty Haul, or the monsters are strong enough to kill the PCs (so why did you put this encounter on the first level?), or it’s so well-hidden that no one will ever find it. Failure!

• In another instance, you design a 4000-room dungeon level with 1000 treasures, each averaging 20gp. Aside from the difficulties of designing over 1000 first-level encounters, it will take your players forever to wade through enough of these encounters to get an appreciable amount of experience, and they’re bound to lose PCs faster than they can bring in treasure to level up. Failure!

So the amount of treasure on a dungeon level needs to be enough to level up all of the PCs, as modified by the number of encounters required to obtain that treasure.

You should be able to calculate this by determining two key variables: how many sessions you want to run before the PCs level up, and how many rooms your group typically gets through in one session. The latter number will vary a lot, of course; sometimes the party manages to cover large expanses of the dungeon by wandering from empty room to empty room, while at other times the party runs right into a big set-piece battle where clearing out a single room takes up the entire session.

So if your party averages four rooms per session (for example) and you want them to level up roughly every ten sessions, if one in four rooms has treasure in it, then you want ten of those treasures to be enough to level up. Moreover, if the party tends to miss about half of the treasures they run across (because the treasures are well-hidden, or they use up half the treasure on raise dead spells, or whatever), you could ramp up the treasures further, so that only five treasures will suffice to level up.

And remember: what’s right for your group isn’t necessarily what’s right for other groups. Some players enjoy mapping complicated dungeon levels, seeking out carefully hidden treasures or unraveling intricate tricks and traps. Others don’t. Unless you have access to a sufficiently broad player base that you can find players who like playing exactly what you want to run, you need to adapt your dungeon design to the needs and desires of your players. After all, the fun is the thing!


Megadungeon Mastery II: Rise and Fall of the Great Underground Empire

(Continued from Megadungeon Mastery I: There’s No Place Like Home Base.)

“You are in a maze of… oh, never mind.”

Ah, the Great Underground Empire! What would the dungeons of Zork have been like without Emperor Flathead, the Zorkmid, or Flood Control Dam #5? Just a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Ditto for Moria without its dwarven halls, or Castle Timeless without its evil wizards and Great Old Ones. A dungeon is more than mere rooms and corridors, monsters and treasures; it’s an environment all its own, with its own character and context.

For now, let’s just look at the big stuff — the overall structure of the dungeon, its nature and its history. This provides essential context for play.

Every dungeon has its own underlying principles. For the sake of convenience, let’s divide them into the following two categories:

    • Those that developed and remain stocked in a naturalistic fashion: “Gygaxian Naturalism.”
    • Those whose inner workings are fundamentally illogical and occult: “Mythic Underworlds.”

Naturally there’s some overlap between these categories. But the distinction is a useful one, and choosing between them has an enormous impact on dungeon design and the feel of the resulting campaign.

“Gygaxian Naturalism”

Naturalism requires verisimilitude. This limits your options insofar as it requires some sort of explanation for all of your chambers and corridors, your monsters and treasures. But such restrictions are excellent for inspiring creativity! Filling a bunch of random rooms can paralyze you with choices, but if you know this section of the dungeon consists of a city slum that was paved over centuries ago, that section was dug out by dwarves following a seam of mithril and establishing a forge, and the other section contains a nexus of ley lines being used as a hatchery by a naga queen, you can work within those strictures to make interesting and engaging environments.

In addition, a naturalistic environment provides valuable context and connections for the players. Not only aren’t they wandering through the dreaded Dungeon of 10,000 Identical Doors, but they can analyze the environment to draw useful conclusions about areas they haven’t yet seen. You may choose to incorporate some of these ideas! (For instance, PCs may start investigating one area’s ventilation system, or they may take note of the lack of organic debris in another area and wonder as to the presence of a cesspit or sewage system.)

A useful tool for naturalistic dungeon design is the “How to Host a Dungeon” game, which provides a game-like semi-random procedure for generating the overall layout of a megadungeon by tracing its development — showing which regions were built, used, abandoned, invaded, captured or squatted in by various underground denizens and surface dwellers over the course of its history. Click here and here to watch the Mule’s own Greengoat use “How to Host a Dungeon” to build a megadungeon environment of his very own!

“Mythic Underworld”

By rejecting naturalism outright, you can establish your megadungeon as a place where anything goes. Perhaps the dungeon was created by a mad wizard or a vengeful god, or it’s some sort of living entity which spontaneously generates monsters and treasures, tricks and traps within its labyrinthine innards. Whatever its origins, the usual formulae of cause and effect don’t apply within its walls.

This offers lots of scope for gonzo weirdness! You can jam in monsters and treasures any which way, without having to worry about niggling questions like “what do the orcs eat,” “where do the troglodytes poop” or “why does this room hold a dragon that’s too big to fit through the door?” Likewise, you can design the most bizarre tricks and traps without needing to justify their presence. Who cares why this door has an elaborate puzzle lock or why that fountain has a fifty-fifty chance of increasing your Strength or turning you into a snail? They’re just there, that’s all, and the PCs must deal with them!

The downside here is a lack of context for the players. Some players may get turned off if there’s no context for their exploration. How can they take advantage of patterns in the layout of the dungeon if there are no patterns to be found?

So you’ll probably want to have some sort of underlying rules governing the place, even if those rules aren’t immediately obvious to the players. The dungeon environment spelled out in OD&D — a place where doors open for monsters but remain stubbornly shut for PCs, where everything but the PCs can see in the dark — clearly follows its own inscrutable principles. Figure out the how and the why of your mythic underworld, its “unnaturalism” if you will, and that’ll both provide you with simple tools for building the place and provide a colossal and inspiring puzzle for your players to decipher!

Valuable analysis regarding the mythic underworld style can be found on the site where — to the best of my knowledge — the term was coined in the context of OD&D and the OSR: Philotomy Jurament’s OD&D Musings.

Mix and Match

The two aforementioned themes can overlap, and there’s much to be gained by doing so. Weirdness is extra weird in a naturalistic dungeon, while bits of naturalism in a mythic underworld can provide a welcome change — as well as generating pathos for the poor suckers who tried to establish a rational lifestyle in the mythic underworld’s phantasmagorical environs.

An early example of this sort of fusion is the Underworld of the planet Tékumel, as found in Empire of the Petal Throne. (See “Developing an Underworld,” pp. 61-63 & 98-102.) It’s a morass of forgotten cities, buried necropoli, wizards’ lairs, alien hives and the eons-old ruins of a spacefaring human civilization. Everything has its own reasons for being there, but the place is nonetheless supernaturally hostile towards intruding PCs, with doors opening for monsters while holding fast against the party as per the OD&D rules.

Other offbeat settings like Arduin, Barsaive, Glorantha, Harmundia, Jorune, Talislanta and Uresia are worth investigating in this regard. Remember, one of the defining characteristics of old-school play is its catholicity. You can never steal from too many sources!


Not-so-Weird Tables: Starting Magic User Spells

Would you trust this guy to give your apprentice magic-user a proper education? (PS: I hear the movie is terrible)

This post on Planet Algol reminded me that my own game’s house rules for starting magic-user spells might be of interest to folks. (They’re derived from the Aquerra starting wizard spell tables, here.)

Note that one way of de-emphasizing the elf’s superiority to the magic-user at first level is to give the elf a single spell randomly rolled on a d12. (This also applies to homebrew hybrid casters like the thief-dabbler.) Watching the elf try to find a use for a spell such as floating disk or shield is an amusing exercise!

If these tables seem insufficiently dependent on the magic-user’s Intelligence score, feel free to allow additional rolls equal to the number of bonus languages the character receives for high Intelligence, or allow that many spells to be chosen by the player without resorting to a roll.

A starting magic-user begins play knowing three spells: an offensive spell, a defensive spell and a utility spell. Roll 1d6 on each of the following tables to determine which spells your magic-user has researched. (“Wizard’s Choice” indicates that you pick any one spell from the list you are currently rolling on.)

Offensive Spells
1: Charm Person
2: Light
3: Magic Missile
4: Sleep
5: Sleep
6: Wizard’s Choice

Defensive Spells
1: Hold Portal
2: Protection from Evil
3: Protection from Evil
4: Shield
5: Shield
6: Wizard’s Choice

Utility Spells
1: Detect Magic
2: Floating Disc
3: Read Languages
4: Read Magic
5: Ventriloquism
6: Wizard’s Choice

Past Adventures of the Mule

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