Archive Page 2


the pulsating heart of AD&D

Skidoo, one of the regulars in our on-going Pendragon epic, wrote insanely awesome combat charts for how to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e) “by the book,” near as he can figure out.  Everything is explained in flowcharts.  Because Skidoo has done this, and has spent session after session watching his knight’s agenda go down in flames before the titanic incompetence of my own Sir Carabad, I must conclude that Skidoo is a masochist.  But a devilishly handsome one.

But the files are right here (36 meg PDF), and this is Skidoo’s explanation for what he’s done:

skidoo’s explanation for spending time away from his family

Hi.This is a combat flowchart for AD&D 1st Edition, by the book.  It attempts to include all the rules in the three core rule books (PHB, DMG, MM).Everybody playing AD&D 1E ignores some of these rules.  I wondered if it was possible to include all of them in a game, when I joined a campaign that attempted to play AD&D strictly by-the-book.  I created this flowchart to see how all the combat rules fit together, to see if it’s possible to play through combat with all the rules, and what that might look like.I admit it looks nuts.
This is not:
How to play AD&D.
How I play AD&D.
How you must play AD&D to play it right.
One other point:
Because a flowchart gives as much space to a rule that’s used 2% of the time as one that’s used 98% of the time, the format makes it look like there’s a lot of rules to deal with in every combat, when there aren’t.  Many of the rules would only come into play at higher levels.  Multiple attack routines are not an issue at low levels.  BtB psionics will hardly ever happen.
In a way, it reminds me of a heavily house-ruled Basic D&D game.  I imagine many DM’s combat resolution systems would actually look just as crazy if you laid them out like this.  It’s just that the decision points and sequences are so ingrained from years of play that they don’t have to think, “Okay now I’m noting all of the spells in order of # of segments” or whatever.
I don’t have a big philosophical purpose for doing this.  I did it just so I could get my head around how it (might) work.  Kind of like dissecting a frog.  Or drawing what I think the dissected frog looks like.  Use it as you will.  Please leave a message in the comments if you have a different reading of a rule, or know one that I missed.

Special thanks to DM Prata for his ADDICT document, to which this project owes a lot, especially the chart illustrating how multiple attack routines work.  And to the makers of the game.

when you meet the buddha, kill him and take his flower sermon

(These are my opinions, not Skidoo’s.)

What I fucking love about this chart is that, at least for me, it ends the OSR as a rabbinical quest for The True Game Text.  (I suppose the rabbinical quest to play the game “as Gary actually played it in the year ______” can go on indefinitely, until we get a bunch of people with Gygax Number 1 together to thrash out that beast.)  This is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Everything else is just monster descriptions, maps, and character classes, all of which are simply inputs to the engine which Skidoo has exploded out for study.  And, uh, frankly it looks kind of un-fun.

This chart also ends the Edition Wars, at least for me.  I never cared about that stuff as an adult, but as a kid, even though I was playing a game called “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” it was the Second Edition.  I had this sneaking suspicion key things from 1e, such as demon tits, had been left out.  But dugs of darkness aside, I think Skidoo has pretty much demonstrated why creating 2e was a good idea, even if you don’t like the specific game that emerged from that redesign process.  It probably explains why the OSR seems to love Labyrinth Lord / BX and games derived from it so much.

Also, for me, this document kind of ends the OSR as an outlook.  My earliest interest in the OSR came from the puzzling realization that, despite mucking around with it for years as a child and teenager, I had never actually played Dungeons & Dragons, to the extent that “playing Dungeons & Dragons” meant playing by the rules.  But what these charts show is that, very likely, nobody has ever played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons by the rules.  Back in 2008-2009, there was a lot of reminding ourselves about “rulings not rules” and “if the rules have gaps, fill them in yourself,” and that kind of thing, as a rebellion against the comparatively rigid styles of 3e and 4e play.  But damn, man: the same problem of rigidity existed in 1979!  And people solved it the way people always solve it: by making up their own stuff to route around the bullshit: the hell with level caps and encumbrance rules.

In other words, no one has played 1e, 2e, 3e, 4e, or (likely) 5e by the rules.  Gaming didn’t need to be saved.  It had been saved the whole time. (“Saved” here of course isn’t meant to be taken seriously.)

The other thing I wonder about, when looking at these charts, is about the design process in RPG’s.  I am, despite playing D&D almost exclusively for 5 years, a Forge guy at heart, and I do believe that game design is important: it’s why I love B/X so much, for example.  But these charts, man!  When I was 9 years old, we had the super-simple Mentzer Basic rules, and we couldn’t be bothered to actually understand the text, or even read it.  We made up our own rules as we needed them, and then broke them.  Years earlier, however, poor Gary or Dave or Larry Schick or Mike Carr or Zeb Cook or whoever else, was slaving away on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e, with a zillion times more rules.  What’s the ratio of design effort in Lake Geneva to fun at your table?  I think us kids had a far better labor-to-fun payoff.  No matter how old you are, nothing beats Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time.  And maybe that’s what, in practice, the players of 1e figured out too.


you must be this lucky to play, part 2

“I’ll work up how to do the math for 4d6 drop lowest arranged, but not today.”  Well, that was more than a year ago, and I can’t say I’ve really devoted myself to the project.  Frankly, I have failed you, dear trio of readers: it was much easier to re-learn Java to solve this problem by brute programming force rather than to re-learn probability.  The University of Illinois Math Department will probably come ’round demanding that I return my diploma…

Anyhow, I worked up a crappy little program to handle 4d6 arranged to taste for one million characters.  Surprisingly, even with that many data points there’s a lot of random noise in the second decimal place and a moderate amount of wobble in the first decimal place.  But I ain’t running this beyond a million characters.

Here are PDF’s of the charts below, in case, like me, you have trouble reading the way WordPress formatted the diagrams below.

advanced dungeons & dragons, 1979

As was pointed out in comments to the earlier blog post, 1e apparently uses 4d6 Drop Lowest Arranged to Taste as its default method of creating a character.

Several of these stat requirements are not specifically identified in the class description, but rather called out in the ability score charts. For example, if you have a Strength of 3-5, you can only play a Magic-User. Thanks to Olivier Fanton for pointing this out.


Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Dr. Low, Arr.
Cleric Str 6, Int 6, Wis 9, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Druid Str 6, Int 6, Wis 12, Dex 6, Con 6, Cha 15 2.87% 73.51%
Fighter Str 9, Wis 6, Dex 6, Con 7, Cha 6 58.30% 99.80%
Paladin Str 12, Int 9, Wis 13, Dex 6, Con 9, Cha 17 0.10% 24.19%
Ranger Str 13, Int 13, Wis 14, Dex 6, Con 14, Cha 6 0.16% 29.46%
Magic-User Int 9, Wis 6, Dex 6, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Illusionist Str 6, Int 15, Wis 6, Dex 16, Cha 6 0.37% 35.82%
Thief Str 6, Int 6, Dex 9, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Assassin Str 12, Int 11, Wis 6, Dex 12, Con 6 6.39% 93.51%
Monk Str 15, Int 6, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 11, Cha 6 0.04% 13.15%
Bard Str 15, Int 12, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 10, Cha 15; Fighter 5, Thief 5* 0.00%** 1.59%


* = Before becoming a Bard, characters would have to survive through 5 levels of Fighter and then 5 levels of Thief, totalling around 28,000 XP, before beginning Bard training. From our five years of weekly play, that would require about three years, assuming the character didn’t get killed or super-killed in the meantime.


** = The odds of the 1e Appendix II: Bard is actually 0.0017%. That is, if you rolled 1 million AD&D 1e characters using 3d6, you could expect to see 17 Bards occurring in nature using 3d6 in order.  

unearthed arcana, 1985

Unearthed Arcana has a lot of alternate ways to generate character stats. I have ignored these alternate methods, as I have ignored everything else in this book. I leave rolling 9d6 or whatever as an exercise for severely bored readers.


Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Barbarian Str 15, (Wis 16), Dex 14, Con 15 0.14% 28.23%
Cavalier Str 15, Int 10, Wis 10, Dex 15, Con 15 0.03% 12.52%
UA Paladin Str 15, Int 10, Wis 13, Dex 15, Con 15, Cha 17 0.00%* 0.89%
Thief-Acrobat Str 15, Dex 16; Thief 5** 0.43% 35.74%


* = The actual number is 0.0002%, which means out of 1 million characters rolled up using 3d6 in order, a full 2 of them might expect to qualify for Paladin status in Unearthed Arcana rules.


** = Thief-Acrobat has to accumulate 10,000 XP as a Thief first. I don’t know how to assess how hard that is, but several players in the Glantri campaign have hit similar numbers after three years of play (and leaving many corpses of less-fortunate PC’s in their wake). 


dragonlance adventures, 1985


Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Knight of the Crown Str 10, Int 7, Wis 10, Dex 8, Con 10 18.56% 97.94%
Knight of the Sword Str 12, Int 9, Wis 13, Dex 9, Con 10; Crown Knight 2 3.33% 84.90%
Knight of the Rose Str 15, Int 10, Wis 13, Dex 12, Con 15; Sword Knight 4 0.05% 27.60%
Tinker Gnome Gnome only*; Int 10, Dex 12 23.12% 99.90%


Note that, like the 1e Bard and the Thief-Acrobat, the Knights of the Sword or the Rose require you to advance in level to qualify.


* = The Tinker Gnome must first qualify to play a Gnome: Strength 6, Constitution 8, and a Wisdom no higher than 12; they also get a +2 to their Dexterity. These stat requirements and adjustments have been factored into the “Odds to Qualify” columns.

oriental adventures, 1985

Oriental Adventures explicitly says to roll 4d6 Drop Lowest Arranged to Taste as the way to create characters.


Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Barbarian Str 15, (Wis 16), Dex 14, Con 15 0.14% 28.28%
Bushi Str 9, Dex 8, Con 8 52.02% 99.98%
Kensai Str 12, Wis 12, Dex 14 2.28% 80.91%
Monk Str 15, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 11 0.04% 13.63%
Ninja-Bushi Str 9, Int 15, Dex 14, Con 8, Cha 14 0.15% 34.54%
Ninja-Sohei Str 13, Int 15, Wis 12, Dex 14, Con 10, Cha 14 0.01% 10.07%
Ninja-Wu Jen Int 15, Dex 14, Cha 14 0.24% 35.16%
Ninja-Yakuza Str 11, Int 15, Dex 15, Cha 16 0.02% 12.63%
Samurai Str 13, Int 14, Wis 13, Con 13 0.28% 31.98%
Shukenja Str 9, Wis 12, Con 9 20.57% 99.54%
Sohei Str 13, Wis 12, Con 10 6.08% 95.23%
Wu Jen Int 13 25.93% 35.16%
Yakuza Str 11, Int 15, Dex 15, Cha 16 0.02% 12.63%


 advanced dungeons & dragons, second edition, 1989

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition uses 3d6 in order as its default method to roll character attributes, but 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged to Taste, was listed as an alternate method that a lot of people seem to have used.


Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Fighter Str 9 74.07% 100.00%
Paladin Str 12, Con 9, Wis 13, Cha 17 0.13% 27.05%
Ranger Str 13, Dex 13, Con 14, Wis 14 0.18% 30.55%
Mage Int 9 74.07% 100.00%
Hard Specialist Stat 16 *, Int 9 4.63% 56.76%
Easy Specialist Stat 15 **, Int 9 9.26% 79.43%
Cleric Wis 9 74.07% 100.00%
Druid Wis 12, Cha 15 3.47% 78.28%
Thief Dex 9 74.07% 100.00%
Bard Dex 12, Int 13, Cha 15 0.90% 68.90%


* = The “Hard Specialists” are the Diviner, Enchanter, Illusionist, Invoker, and Necromancer.


** = The “Easy Specialists” are the Abjurer, Summoner, and Transmuter.


what have we learned?

First: that knowledge of calculus does not survive fifteen years of total disuse.

Second: wow, no wonder people like 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged!  The odds of playing a 2e Paladin jump from barely one-in-a-thousand to about one-in-four.

Third: 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged works on a “generosity curve,” for lack of a better term.  Slightly less than 60% of characters using 3d6 in order qualify to play a Fighter in 1e, but using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged this basically hits 100%.  That’s a 66% improvement in the odds to qualify.  But the 2e Bard, who occurs just under 1% of the time using 3d6 straight, is about 7000% more likely using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged.  And the freakish Unearthed Arcana Paladin, who occurs in 2 out of a million characters using 3d6 straight, occurs roughly 8900 times in a million using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged–becoming 445,000% more likely.  There’s a reason for this!  But I am now too dumb about math to understand why!

Fourth: the UA Paladin is still the hardest class to qualify for in terms of straight-up stats, but the 1e Bard is only twice as likely, and requires you to earn 28,000 XP before you can even show up for Bard College.  I think that’s got to be a huge filter, easily making the class 10 to 20 times harder to qualify for than stats alone would suggest.

Fifth: in the earlier blog post, it really looked like people back in the day had to cheat like crazy to qualify for some of those hard-to-reach classes.  That’s much less likely using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged.  Whether people still cheated on stat rolls or not, who can say. I sure did as a  kid, but we were using 3d6 in order.



half-life of gaming lust

After flirting with several different game systems lately, I am now conducting a scientific experiment: how long will it take for me to get sick of Vampire: the Requiem, and by implication, other games that I get momentarily infatuated with?  (The answer: I was fed up with the presentation and authorial voice instantly.  But maaaaaaybe there’s a game worth playing hidden in between the schlocky writing?)  I ask this because I was recently enamored of Star Frontiers and then Gamma World, only to have those feelings quickly dissolve within a few days.

star frontiers: what am I doing here, captain

Our group has been wrestling with science-fiction games for quite some time.  By New York State Law I am forbidden from playing Traveller, but it doesn’t quite seem to get a critical mass of interest from the other Red Boxers.  I know the Alternity system pretty well, but its spaceship combat rules are awful, character design takes forever, and I’m a perfectionist about designing a scenario in these types of system-is-everything games.  A friend wrote a beautiful hack of Starships & Spacemen that some of us used to play a joyous Star Trek rip-off, but he doesn’t want to run it any more.

Anyway, what with one thing and another, I figured I’d check out Star Frontiers, given its TSR pedigree and remembering incomprehensible adds in Marvel Comics.  Frankly, I am not sure what Star Frontiers is about.  Apparently you’re like, the Away Team sent down to hex-crawl across alien worlds and zap things. Several of the modules take this approach, and the game’s tagline, “Exciting adventures on alien worlds!” seems to bear that out.

Somewhat awesomely, all of human knowledge has collapsed into thirteen fields of study, of which a full seven (54%) directly involve killing things.  (This amazes me mainly because in Alternity, the sci-fi game I’ve played most, there are like 109 skills, of which like 25 directly involve killing things.)  Also, the aliens aren’t described in much detail, but they’re fairly non-human, which is a plus in my mind.

Part of the problem with Star Frontiers, maybe, is that it is deliberately non-political science-fiction: that is, science-fiction that’s designed to be bland.  Star Trek‘s original series is infused with mid-1950’s techno-utopian thinking, Cold War tension, and late-60’s cultural concerns; the later iterations of the show tended to veer toward the police procedural genre, albeit ones where the police get trapped in caves a lot or date women who are actually disguised space-monsters.  Star Wars (the watchable movies, at least) is an admixture of Zen platitudes, anti-fascism, and perhaps a qualified rejection of the Industrial Revolution.  But those two are only the big sci-fi franchises in hindsight.  In the early 1980’s, there was also Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica and many other things besides, and it feels like Star Frontiers was just trying to fit in with the crowd rather than stake out new territory.

Certainly some people love the hell out of this game, enough to create a deluxe, high-quality remix of the rules with better art.  I do find it curious, though, that a company like TSR / Wizards has never tried to squeeze more juice out of this game.  Maybe the Williamses wanted the company to start fresh with Buck Rogers XXVc or something.

gamma world: that’ll do, pig

After quickly growing bored with Star Frontiers, I got into Gamma World very briefly after Tavis was kind enough to run me through a goofy little half-scenario in which my twice-super-intelligent pig, Boss Hogg, who I imagine is the Samuel L. Delany of post-apocalyptic Hazzard County, helped some benighted villagers understand the mystery of witch-fruit (“it’s really a tuber”), found them a robot-obstetrician to help with their appalling infant mortality rate, and fed pig-slops to a smelly toothless hobo, just like the real Samuel L. Delany would.

Gamma World 2e (which is kinda the Moldvay equivalent of the 1e rules) looks like a lot of fun, precisely because it’s what disappointed me about Star Frontiers: you’re some weird freak rollin’ around in an “alien” world.  Why this appeals to me in Gamma World but disappoints me in Star Frontiers is a mystery, and probably unfair.

I mainly fell out of love with Gamma World when I realized it seemed to be D&D with a facelift: modern-day ruins instead of medieval ones, tons more hit points, and an unchanging list of magic spells mutations.  To whatever extent D&D is a game about managing your resources wisely, this seems less true Gamma World in the main (though I guess you’d have to ration your D batteries pretty carefully).

I still wanna play that pig, though.  Boss Hogg, Edible Consultant, has a lot more adventures left in him.

i hope vampires are not too stupid

Over the weekend I got hopped up on old Tomb of Dracula comics, and took down my old unplayed copy of Vampire: the Requiem down from the shelf.  So my experiment started on Sunday night and I’m waiting to see when I get tired of this thing.  That way, whenever I fall into the grip of some new gaming passion, I will know to wait _____ days before taking it seriously.

I am not, and probably never was, part of the target audience for Vampire: the Requiem.  I don’t like horror movies, LARPing, or freeform role-play twiddle-twaddle.  I hate the book’s padding and fake-ass lingo.  I strongly doubt that whoever called it “Modern Gothic role-playing” had read The Castle of Otranto.  This book is not meant for me.

On the other hand, I really, really dig the idea of what a pain in the ass it would be to only be active at night.  I can barely get my shit done in 18 hours; now I’ve only got 12?  Man, what if I want to check out some Isaac Asimov book from the library and it closes at 5 p.m.?  Can’t see no animals at the zoo.  Can’t see no kids on the playground while strolling around.  Can’t renew my drivers license at the DMV; can’t pick up Amazon boxes at the post office.  Plus, every night you gotta drink blood instead of having a toasted cheese sandwich or whatever.  This is not enough to make me all emo and mopey, but it would be an interesting problem to have for few sessions.

Stripping down the game to the basics, it seems that what you’ve got is a game about extremely territorial cannibal-folks with magic blood-powers, who more or less hate each other but any big move would set off a gang war apocalypse.  There’s also some stuff about enslavement and addiction, and a risk of growing insanity, which has to be carefully managed to avoid being disabled for years or decades.  It looks like there’s a playable game lurking in there, if you can avoid the pretentious nonsense.

I expect my interest will fade by the end of the Memorial Day, but we’ll see.


Playing Domains at War and Papers & Paychecks

As a blogger and a signatory to the Joesky Accords I have a responsibility to talk about play. As a publisher I need to let you know that if you want to back the Domains at War Kickstarter but haven’t yet, you should do so soon because it closes tomorrow, May 18th at 3:32 pm.

These may boil down to the same thing. I’m helping create Domains at War because I enjoy playing it. If you’re also excited about what having a wargame integrated with a RPG system for mass combat and strategic campaigns will mean for your gaming, your Kickstarter pledge is part of that process of creation. Sharing excitement about D@W is good for Autarch as a publisher because it’s in our interests for people to get into the games we make, and it’s good for me as a gamer to learn from what other people are doing with the systems I’m interested in.

You might not share either of these interests, but as a reader of blogs I often find something of value even in reading posts about games that I feel no urge to play. In the case of posts about publishing with Kickstarter, that game is Papers and Paychecks. Here are some of the system-neutral insights it’s generated.

To be a publisher, one should first be a corporation. This is the difference between rolling up a player character to go adventuring and actually descending into a hole filled with deadly traps while wearing your own skin. One of the foundational mistakes in the Dwimmermount Kickstarter was that James didn’t incorporate Grognardia Games. Happily, the potentially dire consequences of doing business as an individual have been averted in this case. We’ve managed to warp the ship off the shoals, but even if it’s wrecked on some other obstacle having Autarch at the helm will mean that all the casualties among the crew will be purely fictional entities.

It is interesting to be running a player character in real life, although usually not in the ways you’d think. Playing a role that’s made distinct from your own by the rules of the game or the laws governing corporate entities gives you the chance to act as if it is you and is not you. I think it comes down to protection from risk. Doing business as a company means that you can always roll up a new character if the current one gets killed, which leads to the same kind of exploration-based, consequence-embracing play we celebrate in games that don’t implicitly require that your guy will survive until the final act.

Autarch is actually more like a chartered adventuring party, and I think that the robustness that comes from making this the fundamental unit of play is as useful in other games as it is in Papers & Paychecks. Original D&D is the story of the world rather than the story of the characters who explore it, but making the party the recurring lens through which this takes place focuses the cumulative actions of the players and makes it easy to bring new actors into the story.

One of the cool things about roleplaying games is that they’re not just an outlet for your DIY creativity, but a chance to participate in the creativity of folks who have talents you don’t. My Night of the Walking Wet game at this year’s Gary Con introduced me to Fred Liner, who had one of the original pieces of Jonathan Bingham’s art that the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter made possible. For Domains at War, Fred pledged for a backer reward that let him choose the subject of an illustration for the book. His description nods to the Walking Wet party in which Mark’s hobbit has a special ability that makes him always appear to be a member of a group of 14:

The foreground of the picture is a small command group with a banner the banner bearer is a dwarf, Snorri One-eye, one of his eyes is a glittering black orb in the hand not holding the banner he carries an axe, his helmet is made of lizard skin. The headpiece of the banner is similar to a roman standard with “The XIV”, the banner, if it can be made out, is a griffon on a white field. The other members of the command group are 2 mages and a cleric. One of the mages specializes in fire magic and the other is a dark, necromancer. To the left and in the background are a of couple siege engines. To the right the rest of the company is in the middle distance advancing on an earthworks. There are 8 figures in this group all soldier types with various weapons with one exception. One of figures in this group should be a scout type in leathers and a cloak that is swirling around him as the cloak transforms into smoke.

Here’s Ryan’s compositional sketches for this idea:

Here’s the final piece:

I find it fascinating to be part of this process in the same way I’m amazed by people in my gaming groups who can do more than one funny voice. Of course, Ryan has a more than professional level of talent, and some of the people I’ve gamed with actually get paid as actors. Still, the personal involvement – the fact that it’s my character’s foolhardiness they’re talking about in that funny voice – means I value it much more than any exercise of skill I would appreciate as an outsider.

The last thing to say about Papers & Paychecks and other kinds of non-real-life gaming is that they fundamentally cross over. You can play Metamorphosis Alpha and you can play AD&D, but how much cooler is it to be transported from one to the other by a wish spell and realize that your campaign encompasses both of these multitudes? Likewise you could be a publisher and not play your games, or (more happily) a gamer who doesn’t feel the urge to aspire to what Gygax perhaps self-servingly saw as the ultimate level of player achievement in Master of the Game, but the greatest enjoyment comes from combining the two.

Here’s a game I ran in which the players led armies across the original outdoor map, seeking to be the first to extract the riches of Dwimmermount:

You can read more about the session from Tenkar’s perspective here. The thing I learned from it as a gamer is that I tend to make my scenarios front-loaded with choice. As a player I love the stage where we spend a long time coming up with a plan after considering all options and making elaborate preparations, and there’s a legitimate argument for including some of this even in a one-off game. Given a finite amount of time for play, though, spending more on these choices means having less room in which they can become meaningful by creating consequences at the table.

Something I’ve been doing with the character generation templates in the ACKS Player’s Companion might suggest a workable intermediary. You roll 3d6 for starting wealth, and this gives you the package of thematically-related equipment and proficiencies that your village elders or whoever have invested in providing for you. The option I give players if they don’t love that template is to swap it for any of the lower ones on the table and pocket the difference in gp value. This is awesome not just because it creates choice but because it immediately creates a context in which it can become meaningful. Why did your forefathers want your Dwarven Fury to be a Foehammer? How did you become a Vermin Hunter instead? These are juicy questions to launch directly into from character creation.

Here’s a snapshot of the final turn in my spur-of-the-moment recreation of the Battle of Arsuf with Paul, which you can read more about here.

The thing I learned here is about limits of attention rather than time. When I ran a Domains at War battle at Gary Con, it was the switch between playing a commander of units and zooming in to focus on your leader’s actions as an individual hero that I found most exciting and immersive. At that game, we had multiple players per side so each of us could manage the decisions about when to make that switch. When Paul and I played we were each running a general and three commanders, and the tactical decisions they were making for the divisions of thousands of troops each one led occupied our complete mental bandwidth.

One mark of a good game is that it can expand or collapse to meet the circumstances around the table. For me, Domains at War does this really well. I enjoyed the ebb and flow of battle lines seen entirely from an eagle-eyed commander’s view as much as I did the more heroism-focused game at Gary Con in which characters sometimes duked it out man to man. If we didn’t have enough attention for either we could have used the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Campaigns, and the game was fun in the Dwimmermount session above even when no mass combat ensued at all!

This flexibility is one of the key features of Domains at War’s inspiration Chainmail – sometimes you use the man-to-man system, sometimes the fantasy combat table, sometimes it’s purely unit-based. In the afterschool class when we started out playing 4E, I saw the importance of collapsibility. I’ve had great times with 4E’s uber-tactical resource management, but it breaks down when you play it with a group of kids with the attention span of 8 to 12 year olds and in the confines of an 80 minute session. I’m eager to use D@W more in my life as a gamer because of the extra degrees of expansion and contraction it offers, letting the story of the world be told at a number of scales from player characters in nightmare mazes to rulers of mighty hordes.


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!


Mass Combat as Sport, Mass Combat as War

D@WThe Kickstarter for Domains at War launched yesterday, and my fellow Autarch Greg Tito recommended it on Facebook by saying “Domains at War is probably the most versatile fantasy wargame I’ve played.”

Versatility is an important feature to have in something you’re going to use in a RPG campaign, because of what S. John Ross said

may be the most unique feature of RPGs: tactical infinity. In Chess, the White Queen can’t sweet-talk a Black Knight into leaving her be; in Squad Leader, a group of soldiers can’t sneak through an occupied village dressed as nuns. In an RPG, you really can try anything you can think of, and that’s a feature that thrives on anarchy.

Game systems cope better with this infinite possibility than stand-alone games. One of the first things the original D&D set tells you is that you should have several other games on hand before you start playing, which you’ll then glom together to make a Frankengame.

Dungeon! is a great game, deeply linked to D&D thematically and developmentally, but it’s not on the Recommended Equipment list. I think this is because it is the closest to what ordinary players would recognize as a game instead of a set of rules for making your own game: it’s immediately playable out of the box, no elaborate customization needed, which means that it can’t be easily incorporated into a RPG. It’s only useful for gaming out the outcome of dungeon-crawling this one dungeon represented on the board, with these specific heroes printed on these cards. As a result, Dungeon! manifests in OD&D not as itself but as an abstracted set of principles for dungeon-crawling activities like finding secret doors, gauging risk/reward by dungeon depth, and earning victory points by bringing treasure out of the dungeon.

Outdoor Survival fares little better. This one is more of a hobby game, and less of a mass-market ready-to-play boardgame: the rules provide for several different scenarios, each of which introduce variant rules. It makes the Recommended Equipment list mostly because its hex map is such a useful play aid for RPGs (which is why we’ve included a version of it an add-on reward for Domains at War). You’re not encouraged to actually play a game of Outdoor Survival to resolve your character’s wilderness travel, although doing so may help make sense of D&D procedures like getting lost that are abstracted from its rules.

Chainmail is the game that actually makes it whole into OD&D. With the exception of the “alternate combat system”, you are encouraged to set aside playing a RPG whenever your characters get into a fight, at which point you’ll translate the shared imaginative space from D&D into the setup conditions for a Chainmail battle. Not coincidentally, this is the one on the list that, to the uninitiated, looks least like a game and most like a self-help manual in some esoteric discipline.

Domains at War can be as versatile as Greg says because, like its inspiration Chainmail, it’s a game system rather than a game. This DIY element means you can use it to recreate ancient or medieval battles from real-world history as easily as you can use it to resolve mass combat situations from your favorite hit-point-and-armor-class RPG. Domains at War’s default scale is 1 unit = 120 foot soldiers, 60 cavalry, or 30 giants, but it’s simple to adjust this to play out engagements between a large adventuring party and its mercenaries vs. an orc lair, or titanic conflicts with thousands of troops on each side.

ACKS Afterschool

That said, the goal of Domains of War is to present a system that’s quick and easy to use to generate a game. It succeeds at this well enough that nine-year-olds all jumped up with having had to sit still all day can learn and play it in an afternoon, while still retaining enough complexity that their impulsive tactical decisions have consequences.

The kind of versatility that makes Domains at War most valuable when incorporated into a RPG is that you can use it for both combat as sport and combat as war. In the game at right, I set up the forces opposing the kids’ characters to give them a well-balanced challenge, because I wanted the process of playing out the battle to be enjoyable in its own right. It took a long time to get the system presented in Domains at War: Battles to the point where it can be used to set up a game that’s fun in itself rather than just an exercise in dice-based resolution. That’s what I wanted in that particular after-school class, and it made sense in the imaginary scenario of the campaign.

In this afternoon’s session, however, it’s entirely possible that the kids will choose to lead their surviving armies somewhere else on the hex map and run into a wilderness encounter that’s not at all balanced. In a game like D&D 4E that’s strongly designed for combat as sport, this would be a problem because every combat is a symphony of interlocking choices that takes a long time to play out even when the outcome is more or less pre-ordained. Using the detailed tactics in Domains at War: Battles to dice out the kids’ armies wiping out a tribe of goblins, or getting stomped by an entire ogre village, would be no fun for the same reason. Here’s where the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Battles – or the Free Starter Edition which you can download at DTRPG right now – shines. It’s got just enough dice rolls to make squishing goblins feel satisfying without taking up the whole session, or to make having one’s troops exterminated by giants while the PCs run and hide feel like a misfortune instead of a lengthy ordeal. And the rules for armies attempting to avoid detection by enemy forces in Campaigns make even the attempt to run from enemies fun and gameable.

Even accepting that most players didn’t use both Chainmail (which itself encompasses three different resolution systems) and the “alternative” d20 system to handle OD&D combat, old-school games work well in sandbox play because they facilitate their own versions of this toggle between interesting, slow, and detailed and trivial, fast, and abstract. As a result, you can do sport and war with the same rules. When a major fight comes up in the White Sandbox, the pace of the game naturally goes into bullet time; I’m very careful with the initiative count, and each player’s turn takes a long time as they search their character sheet for the half-remembered magic item or special ability that might save the day. If it’s a random encounter with nothing more at stake than a few hit points here or there, everyone accepts that I drop the individual initiative count-down and ask everyone to roll to hit as one big volley; we all want to get back to the exploration or logistics or narrative-building which the combat is interrupting. To my mind, the way the overall Domains at War system can be used to mirror either of these modes is its single biggest asset to me in running a RPG campaign.


Dungeons & Dragons In a Theater Near You

Two D&D-related plays are running this April: SHE KILLS MONSTERS is at the Steppenwolf in Chicago until 4/21, and GOLDOR $ MYTHYKA: A HERO IS BORN is at the New Ohio Theater in New York until 4/27.


I haven’t seen this one yet, but I can say that:

  • it’s based on a true story of a gamer couple who become folk heroes following “a theft so large and brazen that even law enforcement officials admit some admiration for it”
  • the coverage in the NY Times that inspired the playwright is remarkable for presenting RPGs as the opposite of a predisposition to crime:”Mr. Dillon, who regularly led long sessions of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, dreamed of doing something grand with his life… Friends of Ms. Boyd and Mr. Dillon say they never drank alcohol, took drugs or smoked, preferring books, movies, music and role-playing games for entertainment.”
  • the play’s production company, New Georges, is making a concerted effort to reach out to gamers, including a D&D page on their website and weekly pre-show games of D&D held in the theater every Friday at 7 pm
  • this Friday the 19th I’ll be running a scenario I developed for the Tower of Gygax, as this format’s audience participation, short playtime, and fast turnover are great virtues in running games in unconventional settings. (Unfortunately I’ll be arranging for another DM to fill my shoes on the 26th. Also unfortunately I didn’t post this in time to say “hey go play with DM Andy Action of 2 Skinnee J’s on the 12th!)
  • if you want to check it out on any of these Fridays, they’re offering complimentary tickets to the DMs to share with their gaming circles: I certainly plan to take them up on this offer at 8pm this Friday. See below for details!

New Georges presents
a new play by Lynn Rosen
developed with & directed by Shana Gold

APRIL 3 to 27

Wednesdays thru Saturdays @ 8pm     Sundays @ 5pm

Mondays @ 7pm      opens April 8


154 Christopher Street

(between Greenwich & Washington in the far West Village)

tickets   $25 / $35 premium seats
Mondays: pay-what-you-will OR ROLL OF THE DIE (at the door only)
Fridays: enter the world of Dungeons & Dragons!  starts at 7pm in the lobby; curated by D&D consultant Rusty Thelin
Sundays: late brunch! FREE McClure’s Bloody Marys & crinkle-cut chips! or call 212.868.4444

Fun and appropriate for kids, say, 12-ish and up!

WATCH, IF YOU DARETH, as love and hunger collide most fantastically with the elusive American dream. In hearty games of Dungeons & Dragons, young Bart and Holly escape the dreary reality of hauling money all day in armored transport vehicles. When jobs are lost and the boss starts looking at Holly funny, escape becomes reality, releasing Goldor & Mythyka upon the world. Thusly, lucre shall be heisted! Throngs shall cheer their criminal exploits!

And Have Nots will rule the day!  Until…


I blogged about the premiere of this play at the Flea Theater before seeing it, but never got around to reporting “hey this is really awesome!” The frame story follows a woman who comes back to her home town after her younger sister’s death in a car crash. Big sis finds little sis’s D&D campaign notebook and, seeking to understand her better, convinces that gaming group to reform and run her through the adventure it describes.

Overall SHE KILLS MONSTERS is fantastic – funny, action-packed, and well written. If you’re in Chicago at the right time, you wouldn’t do wrong to invite anyone you know to go see it. For gamers in particular, you can be reassured that this is an accurate and sympathetic portrayal of the role-playing experience. Following one of the performances in NYC, I organized a panel about how RPGs relate to theatrical performance. Here are some reasons SHE KILLS MONSTERS is especially worth checking out in this light:

The frame story allows the audience to be led through the process of learning what a RPG is about. Our viewpoint character is initially awkward about sitting down and playing let’s pretend with her sister’s friends. As she gets into it, the staging has her and the GM sitting and talking while in the background the events described are being acted out. Soon big sis is fully into the fantasy – the actor is dressed up like the character, grooving on killing monsters as promised – and then the play cuts back to the mundane reality of being in a room rolling dice.

A gaming group is first and foremost a social gathering. I’m aware of being in a room with other human beings with whom I’m looking to have a good time. Part of the enjoyment of the game is then appreciating the imaginative performance of these people; I’m not just cheering the hobbit Lucky as he delivers the killing shot to the Beast Lord, I’m also moved by his player Quendalon’s description of these events. To the extent that the game is immersive and compelling, I care about Lucky and want to learn about how he overcomes challenges. Still, this is just a shadow of how much I care about my friends and want to get to know them better through the lens of gaming. The narrative of SHE KILLS MONSTERS gets this right – little sis’s gaming notebooks and the stories told about her by her gaming group reveal an inner self otherwise hidden from the world – but it’s the way this story is told through the medium of the theater that sells me on the idea.

In a film like Heavenly Creatures which likewise plays with the link between reality and imagination, the fantasy sequences are neither more nor less real than the depictions of the people imagining them. Special effects aside, both are just images flickering at 60 frames a second. As a rule, I prefer watching movies to seeing a play because  the awareness that I’m seeing people acting dramatical tends to inhibit my immersion into the story. As a way to explore what a RPG is like, though, theater seems to me exactly the right tool for the job.

As the audience for a play, I’m normally judgemental: watching people act rarely convinces me I’m seeing another reality the way the illusions of film can. When playing a RPG, I’m not just a spectator evaluating others, I’m also a participant eagerly trying to get to another reality. The need to be forgiving of my own ham acting in the service of this goal means that I’m full of charity and good will towards my other players’ own turns on the imaginary stage.

In the frame story, I’m aware that I’m watching someone on a stage, acting out the hesitancy faced by someone who wants to be cool and adult as they try to get into the silliness of playing a RPG. When I see the character they’re playing starting to sink their teeth into the game, and then in the next scene the actor is dressed like the character in the role-playing game going wild with the stage fighting and whooping out over-the-top battle cries, it’s a great dramatization of why RPGs are awesome. Here is Zak’s famous observation about ironic distance in the form of a play; I’m simultaneously aware that I’m seeing a person, and seeing a person pretend to be something they’re not, and in my mind’s eye seeing the thing they’re pretending to be. Being a gamer trains me to cheer on this process and do everything I can to help with the make believe, and being a good play means that SHE KILLS MONSTERS keeps getting energy out of the frame shifts the same way that a RPG feeds on breaking the action to make out-of-character jokes or to admire the fact that it’s your friend who is coming up with these wild inventions and impromptu dialogue.

In the panel after the show, we talked a bunch about the idea that a key difference between RPGs and other theatrical forms is the way that RPGs combine spectator and audience. Nick Fortugno said that plays have to be good in an Apollonian sense, worthy of being held up for objective appraisal; trying to appeal to some imaginary audience of theater critics would immediately squelch a roleplaying game.  SHE KILLS MONSTERS appealed to me as a gamer because it showed the process of conjuring an imaginary space, but at the end of the night I realized that it also appealed to my desire as an audience member to sit back and be entertained by people more talented than me, at no effort to myself.

If one of the high moments of your play is going to be a puppetry gelatinous cube, it helps to have the audience in the mindframe of gamers eager to imagine that the GM’s amateurish sketch is whatever it’s supposed to be. But I wouldn’t pay for the experience of being a spectator for the exact same roleplaying session twice, and if I were going to be anywhere near Chicago this week I’d eagerly see SHE KILLS MONSTERS again.


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.


an “oriental” adventure

I’m using “oriental” in scare quotes because my partner is Chinese and keeps rolling her eyes when she sees that word.  But y’all know what I’m talking about.  Last night, with very little prep, I ran a kinda dumb scenario based on OA1: Swords of Daimyo for half of our Pendragon crew (Skidoo, stop looking after your family and come back!)  Alas, while it did feature ninjas wearing Spider-Man costumes, there were no giant robots or love-smitten beetle-accessories.

a nice day for a . . . white wedding

The unstoppable forces of TANAKA Toru (poetry-loving samurai lord of Bingo Village, notorious for its unbelievable hidden treasure caches) and WATANABE Yuki (financially ruined Bushi and master to the strange hairy gibberish-speaking forest gnome Konando) combined to thwart a wedding!

A wedding of eeeeeevil!

Or, at least, a wedding involving a heartbroken suicide returned as a horrible demon of insanity, a clan of ninjas wearing Spider-Man costumes, and more court intrigue than could easily be displayed on a relationship-map. Plus, burning buildings! A pavillion tent with one entrance but three exits! Psychic duels! A display of incredible archery! “Furious” urination! An attempted seppuku! Sake! Sorcery! And a litany of similes as inexhaustible as the ocean’s waves!

Poor Tanaka was driven insane, Watanabe kept encouraging the bridegroom to kill himself, and stout-hearted Konando rang a gong like a gong-ringing monkey-dwarf to wake up a priest who actually did the hard work of banishing the demon to save the day.  But he is only a priest, and everyone knows that glory goes to the warriors.

some half-assed prep

Before I had a scenario in mind, one of my players rolled up a down-on-his-luck Bushi character of very low-class origins.  When the Oriental Adventures Monthly Events table indicated that there was to be a Momentous Wedding . . . well, you gotta get Toshiro Mifune to that one somehow, don’t you?

By complete coincidence, this player had named his Bushi after one of the loyal vassal families of Niwa Hirotada, shugo-daimyo (military governor) of Miyama Province.  So I figured some comical fop had gotten the names confused and would deliver an wedding invitation for this dude.  And since, under the Oriental Adventure rules, he would constantly be smacking into serious negative reaction modifiers when hobnobbing among the aristocracy, hijinks would probably ensue.  And they did!

So, dig it:

  • NIWA Hirotada = military governor, head of Niwa family, more or less decent guy
  • IGI Tajima = civil governor, a sinecure position; mostly collects taxes and gives grief to the rival Niwa family
  • EBISAWA Ryu = head of the Ebisawa family, traditionally loyal retainers of the Igi clan . . . buuuuuut, Niwa Hirotada has offered his niece in marriage to
  • EBISAWA Saberu = son of Ryu; engaged to Niwa Hirotada’s niece; just had a heartbreaking affair with
  • WATANABE Minori = princess of the Watanabe clan which is traditionally loyal to Niwa.  Committed suicide when Saberu called off their elopement.

So what’s going on in political terms is that Niwa Hirotada is peeling off the Ebisawa family’s loyalty to the Igi clan. If anyone had known that Saberu was already having an affair with a girl of the Watanabe family (loyal to the Niwas) it might have accomplished the same result, but nobody knew, it all came to tragedy, and Saberu is kind of a mess.

Minori’s ghost comes back as a Con-Tinh, sort of an evil dryad demon of insanity, haunting the cherry-blossom Shrine of Taro the Poet, where Saberu will be married to Niwa’s niece.  She is supernaturally disappointed in Saberu, and plans to possess the spirit of his bride and have them commit a lover’s suicide.

Meanwhile, someone else has hired a clan of Spider-Man suited ninjas to kill young Saberu.  All signs would seemingly point to the civil governor Igi, who is mad that the Ebisawa clan is breaking up with him, but there are actually several other possibilities based on the political situation in Swords of the Daimyo.  I hadn’t really figured out who is responsible, except that blaming Igi was probably too obvious to be true.

It turns out that a second player arrived, created a Samurai loyal to the Niwas and a friend of the Watanabe clan, so that was handy for the purposes of exposition.

The adventure consisted of mostly improvised social encounters as the players gradually pieced the social and political puzzle together, and fended off various assassination attempts and supernatural events.

Major adversaries included the Con-Tinh ghost of Watanabe Minori, three unnamed 5th level Ninjas (a Ninja/Sohei priest with 10 first-level followers; a Ninja/Wu Jen who impersonated a member of the entourage and attempted to poison Saberu; and a Ninja/Bushi who was going to kill Saberu on his wedding night with a sword he’d stolen from the PC Bushi), a group of drunken Were-Bears who kept breaking into a village’s rice-warehouses looking for sake, sarcastic fop Igi Sanekata, and various other stock-character NPC’s.

what worked

The Yearly, Monthly, and Daily Events charts in Oriental Adventures are good stuff, well worth stealing.  For the last five years, my exposure to D&D has consisted very largely of dungeon-delving per the ethos of the OSR revisionist/purist movement.  The idea of running a D&D wedding scenario struck me as irresistibly ludicrous, and it was.

Swords of the Daimyo has a complicated political situation, but that’s actually pretty good in a court intrigue scenario.  The trick is to present that stuff in bite-sized pieces.  In this case, I took the description of Muroto Village from the gazetteer, figured the political situation there would easily tie into the Marriage Event, and bang, the political stuff fell into place immediately.

The rules for Psychic Duels were used, mainly because I wanted to force it in somehow.

Though this scenario was written up perfectly straight-faced–it’s a bummer, basically–the players brought their usual farce and a good time was had by all.  One player couldn’t stop boasting about his secret treasure caches, while the other was busily trying to pretend to be an aristocrat (or hide from people who recognized him).

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the preposterous Korobokuru barbarian, Konando (originally inserted as a henchman for the Bushi PC), who didn’t speak Fake Japanese and nobody else spoke his dialect, so he mostly communicated in gibberish.  Some interesting facts about Konando emerged during play:

    • If his master is a sleep, Konando will wake him by tugging on the left big toe to signal supernatural danger, or the right big toe to signal ninjas
    • Konando is a skilled woodsman, passable dancer, and terrible cook
    • On formal occasions, Konando wears a big pile of furs, to the point where he looks like Captain Caveman
    • Though Konando cannot understand the content of a haiku, he can count meter very well; furthermore he finds blank verse intolerable
    • The word for “ninja” in the Korobokuru dialect is “Los Banditos Malvados!!

what did not work as well

I’m not great at improv.  If the players had said, “Screw this wedding, let’s just hang out in the city instead,” I did not have anything planned.

I was under an extremely tight time crunch, which is why I did virtually zero prep.  As a result, I defaulted to 2e Wizard spells for the Wu Jen ninja instead of using spells from Oriental Adventures, of which there are many and they are not obvious.  (Quick: what does “drowsy insects” do?  Answer: I thought it made guys like Mothra real tired, but it turns out creates a cloud of mosquitoes who put people to sleep.  Who knew?)  Anyway, even with “standard” spells this guy was a pretty devious assassin.

The Iaijutsu, or fast-draw, rules only give you a +1 bonus to surprising your enemy (on a 1d10 roll), which isn’t enough to be worth a proficiency slot.  (Maybe in OA surprise is done on a d6?  Still, lousy benefit.)

You really do need non-weapon proficiencies, or some way of adjudicating courtly nonsense, when your characters aren’t slogging through a dungeon all day.  The OA/2e proficiency system is kind of a kludge.

in summary

Swords of the Daimyo is quite worthwhile as a gazetteer, as I suspected.  Dungeons & Dragons can be hacked to do Fake Japan, and it was fun, but it’s not a particularly elegant fit.  On a player’s advice I’m reading through Bushido (only $18 for a print copy!) which seems interesting (if not for all the dang early 80’s derived scores nonsense).  Bushido apparently doesn’t come with a local setting (maybe I missed it); you could probably drop Swords of the Daimyo in there and get something quite worthwhile.


OA1: Swords of the Daimyo

In the other post, Sam Curry comments that OA1 is one hell of a module.  He’s right.  I confess I don’t read a lot of OSR blogs.  Maybe someone has talked about OA1: Swords of the Daimyo before and I missed it.  But I suspect that, like many classic D&D modules, you can’t praise it enough, and it certainly deserves to rank up there with The Keep on the Borderlands, Night’s Dark Terror, and The Vault of the Drow.  If you don’t know this one, you should.  It’s an extremely well done wilderness hex-crawl.  David “Zeb” Cook comes through in a major way here.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this thing for more than two years, but I really wanted to play/run it first, and that never quite got off the ground.  Still, better late than never.  Hopefully someone can use this thing with the class summary charts

the province book: hell yeah

Swords of the Daimyo comes in two parts: the Adventure Book, which is terrible, and the Province Book, which is amazingly good.  Briefly, we get a run down on the Miyama Province, a politically important region in Kozakura (“Fake Japan”).
The first twelve pages of the Province Book contain a sketch of Kozakuran politics, which is basically a four-way struggle for power between the Emperor, the Deputy Emperor, the Shogun, and the Deputy-Shogun.  The prominent families in the Miyama Province are aligned with these imperial factions, and they’re all scheming against each other for influence.  If only there were some ruffian adventurers to take care of dirty work with plausible deniability–or a group of noble heroes to sponsor in a way that brings glory to your house…
(These same twelve pages include some boring stuff about climate, trade resources, etc.)
It’s the last twenty pages, though, where the Province Book really kicks ass.  A gazetteer of the Miyama Province, the Province Book provides several adventure hooks, and provides a hex-by-hex view of the setting in large terms.  Here is a typical entry:

1124.  Stone-Icicle-World.  At the base of the mountains, hidden in the deep woods, is a narrow, rubble-clogged cave mouth.  This is the entrance to a vast series of caverns that underlie all of Miyama Province and more.  Although the exact location is unknown to the general population, there are a few hengeyokai and korobokuru who can guide one to the site.According to local legend, Stone-Icicle-World is the place where O-Miyama-no-Mikoto, a local deity, entered the Realms of the Dead to visit his mother.  The caverns are believed to extend for hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles beneath the earth, magically reaching even into other planes and dimensions.  It is also said that the caverns are filled with all manner of horrible creatures, although this is somewhat uncertain as few tell tales of this subterranean region.

As far as names go, “Stone-Icicle-World” kills “the Underdark.”


In broad strokes, Miyama Province has three major population centers.  Tamanokuni is the provincial capital, prosperous but beset by feuding yakuza gangs, samurai rivalries, and religious squabbles, while the noblemen plot to wheedle more money out of the shogunate which they can dispense to their underlings to buy loyalty.  Kuda, the former capital, is a large city across Kobawan Bay from the horrors of Kuroijo Castle, where the demon-master Aga wrought untold horrors more than eight centuries ago.  Okahira, to the north, is relatively isolated and has fallen under the control of a Shou Lung (“Fake Chinese”) wizard who is using a figurehead governor to hide an invasion force.
Lurking around are several bandit camps, a ninja village, your obligatory ruins and abandoned mine shafts, and wilderness monster lairs.  There are numerous shrines–including one where a blind saint is teaching fake-Buddhism to a gaggle of goblins.  The former shogun has gone into retirement at a heavily fortified monastery, though he still receives messages from court and continues to meddle in high politics.


Numerous villages exist, most plagued by problems which their (naturally) incompetent or corrupt mayor cannot or will not solve.  One of the cool things about the Province Book is that administering your lord’s villages, and making sure the mayors are doing their jobs properly, is an important responsibility for a mid-level samurai.  The idea seems to be that a campaign could be run as an itinerant 7th level Samurai & Friends, roaming around between the daimyo’s manors to make sure everything is cool, bumping into weird stuff on the road and hoping to winter at one of the more comfortable towns.

not everything is perfect

While I’ve said nice things about this product, the Adventure Book that comes with it is . . . well, it’s not good, but it’s 1986 TSR, so you probably shouldn’t expect too much.  It contains a trio of railroaded vignettes which lack all interest.  It does contain eight pre-generated 1st level characters, and maps of typical buildings.

The Province Book’s political situation is a little too complicated for my taste–and much of it happens off screen or by proxy through families in Miyama.  The wilderness encounters are often flavorful, but some could stand to have stronger hooks.  (That said, there are so many laughably corrupt, or slovenly, or undisciplined, or sacrilegious NPC’s that role-playing these doofuses would be a lot of fun, even if there’s no dungeon to loot.)

Also there is a town named Bingo.

how can this be an OSR blog without the occasional C&D letter?

So the problem with Swords of the Daimyo is that the versions available on the secondary market often don’t have the maps.  Let me fix that for you.  Wizards of the Coast, when you put this stuff up for sale again, I’ll gladly take down these scans which are offered solely to help those who have legitimately purchased this on the secondary market.Miyama Province NEMiyama Province, SouthwestMiyama Province SEMiyama Province, NorthwestMiyama Province NWMiyama Province, SouthwestMiyama Province SW

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2020

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