Posts Tagged ‘White Sandbox


arnold and the allosaur

I’ve been bad about blogging – I’ve got little to say these days – but let me tell you about my character… (And solicit your own tales of bravery!)

Last night, while exploring the Caverns of Thracia, my 4th level Magic-User Arnold Littleworth stared down an allosaurus which had just devoured our platinum robotic liger.

Like this but made of Platinum

Rest In Peace, Loki

(Yes, we have had a platinum robotic liger.  This is not the focus of the story.)

Two things are noteworthy about this encounter:

  1. The rest of the party all ran away in terror.  I won’t kid you, I wanted to run as well.  But to the true hero, glory matters more than life itself.
  2. I cast a spell I researched: Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation basically allows you to mingle with monsters until the boss shows up.  Thanks to some sloppy drafting on my part, it worked perfectly in this situation.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time in the OSR that a Magic-User has researched a brand-new spell and cast it in play. (Though I’d be happy to be proven wrong.)

Not only has Arnold, also known as Zolobachai of the Nine Visions, traveled between two different campaigns, and been immortalized in print (entirely due to Tavis’s greatness) – but he is also Using Magic like a fiend.

What crazy, foolhardy tales of derring-do has your character been up to?  For me, this is the third or fourth time Arnold has risked crazy death:

  • Arnold – no weapons, no “good” spells – brained a Lizard Man with his frying pan in his first adventure, purely to save Colin Tree-Slayer’s life.
  • Arnold – again, no weapons or “good” spells – toppled a mind-controlling statue in order to save the party
  • Arnold swindled an 11th level Wizard into eating Giant Eagle dung, in order to lift a curse on his comrade, Sir Argus the Rat-Knight
  • The whole thing with the allosaur, yadda yadda old news

So although Maldoor is smarter, and Forager is more ingenious, and John is more noble, and Ookla is more sensible, and Chrystos is funnier–I think Arnold is hands-down the bravest and most gutsy.

Like this, but alive and smelly

Yes, I Defeated You (by just barely surviving)

I’d be happy to read tales of courage in the comments!


Don’t Make Me Remember that You Have Magic Armor

Another house rule we’ve recently adopted in the White Sandbox is that instead of affecting your armor class and thus your chance to be hit, each +1 worth of magical protection gives you a 1 in 10 saving throw against the effects of the hit.

Let’s say that Caswyn of Apollo is wearing one of the Gray Company’s namesake +1 cloaks of protection when he is struck by a medusa’s dagger. Caswyn’s player Eric calls out two numbers on a d20 and rolls it. If either of Eric’s lucky numbers come up, Caswyn’s cloak of protection has stopped the blow; he takes no damage and doesn’t have to save vs. the poison on the dagger. If Caswyn also has a +1 shield and +1 platemail in addition to his cloak, Eric gets to roll three d20s; of his lucky numbers come up on any of them, his gear saves him from harm.

The idea behind this house rule isn’t to change the statistical benefit of magical protection. Some rough analysis suggests that a 1-in-10 armor save helps you slightly more than a +1 to AC when you’re facing a high hit dice creature, and slightly less against a weaker enemy whose base chance to hit you is small. I see this as a nice side benefit, but the point is to change the way that magic protection feels. (For example, even if both are statistically equivalent, I think there is a very different feel in older editions when the target of a charm spell makes a saving throw and avoids its effects, versus in 4E when you make an attack roll for the spell and miss.)

A guiding principle for this house rule and the one about not rolling your hit points until you’re hurt is to take aspects of the game that normally get resolved off-screen beforehand and instead make them happen at the table as the spotlighted consequence of a dramatic event.

As the DM I roll to hit the PCs many times in an average session. When one of those blows would have landed if not for the protection of Fred the talking magic amulet, it’s obvious only to me. Even if I use this fact to narrate the monster’s miss, it doesn’t seem as real to the player as if I say “The minotaur’s axe slices you for six points of damage” and they get to respond “Not so fast, let’s see if Fred can save the day!” Owning a magic item, and being able to survive a lethal blow, should be remarkable. Highlighting these with a separate resolution step in play makes sure they get remarked upon.

It’s also extra work for me to have to figure out why a roll misses someone due to magic items. The armor save house rule unloads some work onto the players. One of the things I like about “three little books” OD&D is that AC can be directly translated into armor type. When we don’t use modifiers to AC from Dexterity or magic items, I simply track whether PCs are wearing leather, chain, or plate and then figure out AC from there. If AC is instead a complex composite of factors I have to remember both what a character’s AC is and also what armor they’re wearing, with all the other things that implies.

Another great thing about OD&D is that there’s a narrow range of AC. Even in magical plate and shield, a fighting man needs to worry about being hit by a lowly man-at-arms 20% of the time. I like this because even if a PC’s magical protection will stop a blow most of the time, I want to make the players sweat in the interval between when I announce the hit and when their magic save comes through for them! Also, when I have dozens of men-at-arms in the combat it’s much easier if I can just roll a handful of dice and count all the 17s or above, knowing that such rolls always have a chance of hitting any target.

Two final notes to put this house rule in the context of the original rules and in actual play. The text about magic armor and shields in Monsters and Treasure says that “Armor proper subtracts its bonus from the hit dice of the opponents of its wearer. If the shield’s bonus is greater than that of the armor there is a one-third chance that the blow will be caught by the shield, thus giving the additional subtraction.” Rather than try to reconcile the Arnesonian, Chainmail-based proto-D&D implications of that with the alternate-combat-system under which we normally roll, I’ll simply appropriate the idea of the probabilistic protection of a magic shield as support for the spirit of this house rule.

The need for these house rules came from a newfound prevalence of protective items  in the White Sandbox campaign. This emerged because, until last session’s return to the Caverns of Thracia, we’d been looting nearby destinations in Jaquaysland, like the Fabled Garlin of Merlin (The Dungeoneer #2, editor) and Borshak’s Lair (The Dungeoneer #3, author), as well as one unique to the campaign, the workshop of the lich Patariki Van in the Nameless City. The consequent increase in bling was purposeful; I love the Caverns, but their distribution of loot doesn’t leave adventurers well prepared to face the stiff opposition in its deeper levels. (At EN World, Bullgrit has raised similar complaints about B1: In Search of the Unknown. Evidence of an anti-“Monty Haul” backlash taking place between 1976’s rich hauls and the spartan offerings of TSR and Judges’ Guild in 1978-9?)

EDIT: Maldoor’s comment below reminds me of another rationale behind these rules: players like to search for anything that’ll save their bacon when a PC’s life is on the line. In more rules-heavy games, the party goes modifier hunting: “Did you remember your temporary hit points? Did the monster hit even with its -2 to hit from bane?” Having a rule that kicks in at this tense moment will hopefully replace the urge to rules-lawyer and find ways to retcon it didn’t happen. Also, a game in which a character is never in danger because of their unhittable AC is boring; one in which that same character is quickly brought to the edge of death because they don’t remember to make their armor saves until it really counts is exciting!


Don’t Roll Your Hit Points Until You’re Hurt

One of the notable house rules in the White Sandbox campaign is that hit points are rolled only as necessary to absorb a PC’s wounds, making it hard to gauge how much damage a character can or can’t take until their luck is put to the test. I find it easier to show how this works than to explain it. At the table I talk people through each step the first time they’re hit, like so:

Lotur the Scurrilous Cur is 3rd level, so he has three hit dice. We imagine each of these as representing a different aspect of his ability to stave off death: mental, spiritual, and physical. Because he was fully healed since his last adventure, we don’t know how many hit points he gets from each dice.

Not five feet into the dungeon, Lotur is hit by a gnoll’s arrow and takes six points of damage. The player notes on Lotur’s sheet that he has taken 6 points of wounds, and starts rolling his hit dice to see if he can absorb the blow.

If Lotur rolls a 6 on his first (mental) hit dice, it absorbs the wound fully. He crosses out that hit dice – we imagine that he’s run out of plans for dealing with gnoll ambush – and leaves the other two untouched and unknown. Unfortunately, he only rolls a 2. He crosses out his mental hit dice, and has four points of incoming damage left to absorb. He rolls a 1 with his second (spiritual) hit dice: he crosses it out. We imagine that he is demoralized, and still has three points of incoming damage.

For his last (physical) hit dice, Lotur rolls a six! He subtracts the three points of incoming damage, and notes that he has three hit points left on this dice. However, at this point we imagine that he is actually bleeding and has an arrow sticking out of him.

Oops, here comes another arrow! This one rolls a 2 for damage. We already know that Lotur has three physical hit points left, so he doesn’t need to roll any hit dice. His player crosses off two of the hit points remaining on Lotur’s physical hit dice, and increases his total wounds taken from 6 to 8.

Salvation arrives in the form of a cleric. Each point of healing delivered by the cure spell will subtract one from Lotur’s wound total. If the cleric rolls eight or more points of healing, all Lotur’s wounds are erased and all three of his hit dice are reset. However, the cleric only rolls a 3, so Lotur increases the hit points remaining on his physical hit dice from 1 to 4, and decreases his total wounds from 8 to 5.

Note that poisoned arrows have to get through to the physical hit dice to be effective, so there’s a benefit of having that dice untouched; and some kinds of healing will add to your spiritual or physical hit dice, but won’t work if those dice have been crossed off.

To answer some questions that tend to come up:

– When a character has more or fewer levels than they do physical/spiritual/mental hit dice, we assign extra or missing hit dice to one of the three categories depending on class. A fighter gets an extra physical at L4, a cleric an extra spiritual, etc. Then spread out until at L6 all classes have two of each.

– Once a character’s hit points have all been rolled, these rolls are kept only as long as they have wounds. When all wounds are removed, hit dice reset to unknown.

– High constitution provides a buffer after you run out of hit dice. Characters that are tough get 1 HP per hit die of buffer; exceptionally tough characters get 2 per die. So if a 3rd level PC rolled 12 for their HP, a tough one could actually take 15, and an exceptionally tough one 18, before collapsing.

This idea was inspired by Zulgyan’s method of rolling monster HD, and realizing that most of the d6’s I have are either red, green, or white, which I assigned to physical, spiritual, and mental.

I like this approach because it makes taking damage an exciting dice-roll contest between player and monster. As per Gary’s house rules we’ve started with third level characters, so when a PC is hit by a lizardman spear for 6 damage, there’s a dramatic sequence of rolls: does their knowledge of fencing techniques cover this? No, they roll a 2 for their mental hit dice, so there’s 4 points of damage remaining, and their plan for survival is in shambles. Is their esprit de corps sufficient for them to simply knock the spear aside? No, they roll a 2 for their spiritual hit dice, so there’s still 2 points of incoming damage and they’re demoralized. OK, are they hale enough for them to survive this thrust? No, they roll a 2 for their physical hit dice and die!

I also like the way that doing this helps imagine what different states of being wounded are; it helps systematize the idea that hit points represent divine favor and luck as well as sheer toughness.

In play it does take a little longer to resolve PCs taking damage than if players were just subtracting a number from the HP written on their sheet. It did mean that the math involved was a lot easier – take the # of damage dealt, subtract from 1 to 6, repeat. Plus, I feel like the risk of a player dying is worth spending extra spotlight time attending to, and I like how not knowing what your hit points are before they’re tested means that every wound carries the possibility of death. If a 3rd level character rolled a string of 1’s for their hit dice and was going to be stuck with that forever, I’d certainly let them re-roll, but this approach means that although such bad luck might mean your character gets sent to the graveyard, it doesn’t mean that you might as well roll up a new one even before they start adventuring.


Recent Events in the White Sandbox, Explained: Ontussa the Sphinx

Like a proud father at his son’s elementary school graduation, James recently shed a tear of pride over the fact that the New York Red Box campaigns have matured to the point where our online discussion is so ingrown and byzantine that after missing a bunch of sessions it no longer makes a lick of sense to him, despite Zolobachai’s status as one of our original pioneers of the Caverns of Thracia (and James’ as founder of the Red Box).

Ontussa: Take a picture, it'll last longer.

Is it really as hard to understand recent events as it is to assemble IKEA furniture using the original Swedish documentation? No, not at all; everything makes perfect sense and is crystal clear when seen in the proper light! I have merely been remiss in my duties as explainer of the campaign, and will seek to remedy this lapse in a series of posts. To start with:

EVENT: The sphinx Ontussa has developed a powerful erotic fascination for certain members of our party. Khrystos seeks a herb reputed to be a feline aphrodisiac in the hills near the Stronghold of the First Principles, and while Lotur is too troubled by his temporarily fatal immersion in a water elemental to bathe in the ordinary sense, he has been observed using spirits of wine to perform daily ablutions that are not at all usual for him.

EXPLANATION: Ontussa revealed herself recently to be not merely a coin-operated dispenser of information, but a tragic victim of the necromancer Ashur Ram. What a cruelly ironic fate for a sphinx, forced to answer questions instead of posing riddles! (The parts about hanging out waiting for people to come by and eating them if they make the wrong move are immutable.) Of all the ways a NPC could take independent action to endear themselves to the party, giving back a jewel they’d just handed over in payment is high on the list. Perhaps it is this glimpse of her hitherto unsuspected personality that has won the hearts of our PCs.

More likely, it is the more-than-a-glimpse of the feminine attributes of her human half which have been on display all along. True, the campaign features other, non-bestial female NPCs like the charming Philomena and the provocatively-named Maxsielle the Evil High Priestess, and even actual female players like Emurak, White Rose, and thistlyn. But did any of them appear topless in the AD&D Monster Manual?

You might say “no, but neither do they have the hindquarters of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and a reputation as a merciless man-eater.” (That last might not be true of Maxsielle.)  Still, the eagerness with which I would embrace lobster-headed Blibdoolpoolp argues that having your image burned into adolescent retinas will overcome a great many obstacles to love.


“F1: Bag of the Feeble Condemned Old Man” Kills Orc and Pie, Takes its Stuff

Perhaps you had to have been there, but for those who were this was uniformly hilarious. In our last White Sandbox session, Greengoat’s character Lotur, aka the Sniveling Cur, aka the Slayer of the Patriarch, got himself into an unusual predicament. From Oban’s recap:

This way to Fight Bag, courtesy of Maldoor

Lotur, meanwhile had descended to the next chamber, and found a chest containing five small sacks. He picked them up and examined them; when he placed his hand into the last, he vanished, leaving the bag lying alone on the chest. The rest of the party regrouped, and went in search of Lotur. Ookla managed to follow his tracks, and the group concluded that Lotur must be in the sack.

The tomb was systematically looted, and everyone returned through the pool to the Thracian caverns and from there to the Fortress of First Principles. Patriarch Zekon examined the bag, and [discovered that] it was made to absorb two individuals and compel them to fight to the death. The winner would emerge. He suggested a prisoner could be used as Lotur’s release and found a weak, old man in the prison who was already sentenced to death. The man was armed and sent into the bag. After only a few moments, the mouth of the bag twitched and grew, and Lotur emerged, victorious.

Old-school Dungeons and Dragons is justly famed for its mini-games, and what came to be known as Fight Bag is the greatest of them all. Now, through the design skills of the talented Sternum, you can bring all of its excitement and pathos (“But I don’t want to go in the bag,” said the querulous prisoner) into your own campaign! Simply print and enjoy the PDF at this link: Dungeon Module F1: Bag of the Feeble Condemned Old Man.

Warning: Liquids drunk while reading this module may be expelled from your nose. Failure to expel said liquids may be due to well, you had to be there.

The only flaw in this otherwise perfect module is that I deserve third billing at best, behind Merle Davenport whose adventure in the September, 1976 issue of the Dungeoneer fanzine created Fight Bag and Sternum who did all the text, maps, and layout for F1.

While I’m explaining jokes, here’s Monte Cook’s classic Orc and Pie adventure referenced in the title.


Signposting Styles of Play in a Sandbox Campaign

I’m working on a West Marches-style campaign for the Rogue Trader RPG, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Rogue Trader PCs command enormous resources that enable them to do pretty much anything they want, and the concept of the game is wide-screen enough to encompass a huge variety of possible goals. Different kinds of goals will reward different playstyles, from the social interaction and intrigue involved in negotiating a trade monopoly to the exploration and combat of searching for archaeotech on a derelict space hulk.

Letting players know where to go to find the play activity they want to do

The challenge is that even if I know what kind of play the group wants, as a sandbox GM I eschew the ability to deliver it. If they go to a world that’s marked on my map with a skull and crossbones, they’re going to get combat whether they like it or not. The best I can do is to make sure the environment contains lots of raw materials for whatever playstyle the group might prefer, and then put up signposts to say “Rumor has it that you can find the things you’re looking for by seeking in this direction”. I like this approach because as a player I hate feeling that I’m being catered to, and will gladly trade a high degree of inefficiency in getting what I want for the illusion that when I do I have wrested it from an objective and uncaring game-world solely by virtue of my mighty deeds.

So if it’s up to the players to seek out the kind of thing they like to do, my job is to create accurate signposts to reduce their inefficiency in finding it. My personal preference is for signposts that point to in-game things rather than player desires. Partially this is because I often meet players who aren’t comfortable in talking about what they want, or are used to doing so only in game terms (“I just want to kick some ass!”). I find “you have an invitation to the private party of the planetary governor’s mistress, do you want to attend?” more immersive and evocative than “are you interested in social roleplaying and intrigue?” but this comes at the cost of some inaccuracy.

The limitations I set on myself as a sandbox GM mean inaccuracy can’t be eliminated altogether. It’s always possible that a group seeking hot chainsword action may somehow believe that it will be found at the mistress’s party, and it’s all too likely that one player will draw their chainsword during the banquet and spoil others’ hopes for play focused on intrigue and status. But I can avoid contributing to the problem. It’s tempting to turn every social invitation into a deadly trap and every xeno-infested world into a political negotiation, but when I do I have to remember that these false signposts are frustrating the players’ ability to steer towards the kinds of play they want.

I think this ties into some things we’ve been talking about here and amongst the New York Red Boxers recently. I haven’t been consciously setting up signposts for different kinds of play in the White Sandbox; many of the adventure hooks I dangle lead to just another hole in the ground, which may contribute to James’ feeling that all D&D adventures are basically the same. (When I have created hooks for political intrigue and town adventure they haven’t been followed, which might also suggest that there’s a narrower collective understanding of what playing D&D entails than may be the case for Rogue Trader. Perhaps this is abetted by the fact that old-school D&D rules don’t seem to support those other styles of play, although I increasingly support our Invincible Overlord’s contention that often the best thing a system can do is not get in your way.)

Signposting also came up in a conversation about Eric’s frustration with internal conflict among groups of players who can’t agree whether they want to be psychopathic killers or story-builders. My feeling is that if we use strict West Marches scheduling where the party is formed around both a date and a specific plan of action, and if there are clear in-game referents that can be used to distinguish between different styles of play, a group that comes together for a night of adventure in Glantri City will likely all agree that they’re there to develop ongoing storylines and do collaborative world-building just as the group that plans an excursion to the Caves of Quasqueton will have cohered around kicking down doors and setting things on fire.

(This post is based on discussions at EN World and Story Games in which other folks say interesting things even if I mostly repeat the above.)


Why a West Marches Campaign Needs a Town (Moving Into the Dungeon, Pt. 1)

The White Sandbox campaign has recently been playing out the implications of a shift away from a fundamental West Marshes tenet: the adventure is in the wilderness, not the town.

In gearing up to write about this, one thing I realized is that Ben Robbins’ excellent and influential posts never point out what I consider to be the main reason you need a town in a West Marches campaign: so that you can answer the question “What happened to the PCs of the players who aren’t present during this particular session?” with “They’re hanging out in town.” This might seem obvious, but I think it’s key to understanding what happened when I violated the “town=safe / wilderness=dangerous” separation.

The town of Belltower, unfortunately no longer a boring place where nothing ever happens

When the last West Marches post advises “be careful not to change the focus to urban adventure instead of exploration”, it’s part of a discussion on motivation: “Once players start talking to town NPCs, they will have a perverse desire to stay in town and look for adventure there.” Since the rewards of the game are meant to come from ventures into the unknown, and the unifying principle for the party is the need to band together against the dangers lurking outside the boundary of civilization, giving the players an incentive to hang out in town works against the premise of the setting.

I don’t deny that this is important, but as far as I’m concerned the most pressing need to avoid having adventures take place in town is pointed out in Jeff Rients’ post about using West Marches methods in his Cinder sandbox: “My idea of a town adventure goes something like blah, blah, blah, there’s a fight, and then the town burns down“. A place that the PCs interact with during play is going to be changed as a result, often drastically and for the worse.

The social dynamics of a West Marches campaign demand that town be safe and unchanging. If the adventure is happening in town, it’s hard to explain why all the inactive characters who are supposed to be cooling their heels there wouldn’t join in the action. Part of why I want to keep these PCs offstage is laziness. As of last session, that’d be 32 NPCs for me to run: no thanks! But the more important part is that sooner or later I hope all of those players will rejoin the campaign and want to run their old PC again. The more the town becomes an unsafe environment, the more likely it becomes that I’d have to say “Sorry, you have to roll up a new character because your last one died during a session when you weren’t around.”

And if town is a place where nothing ever happens, it’s your one refuge against the intimidating accumulation of play history that James prepared to hurdle but smacked into nevertheless. We spend enough time each session with the PCs in Zolobachai’s wagon or the Bloody Traveler Cellar explaining to one another what happened on the last venture into the dungeon. We’d never get anything done if town adventures meant we first had to tell the returning players what happened to their unplayed characters since last time: how did we decide that they escaped the doom that the players brought upon the town that was the last known location of the inactive PCs, and what trail of bread crumbs led them through a string of burned-down taverns to the one that the party is currently using as the staging ground for the latest town-destroying adventure?

Unfortunately, much of this wisdom comes in retrospect. Later posts in this series will explain why I yielded to the lure of town adventure, and how I think this crossing the streams resulted in the players’ decision to move into the dungeon.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2020
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