Posts Tagged ‘White Sandbox


Zolobachai’s Wagon and Azagar’s Book of Rituals

Going to Limbo and breaking the dimensional barrier can have strange effects. For James’ PC Arnold Littleworth to be transported from the White Sandbox to Glantri is a giant step for a man, to be sure. But from the perspective of the gods who dice with the lives of such mortals, the distance between two campaigns run in the same city with the same extended group of players using editions published seven years apart is not so huge.

With the impending publication of Goodman Games’ Azagar’s Book of Rituals, however, Arnold has accomplished the transition to an edition published twenty-seven years later, where his legend (or at least that of his alias, Zolobachai of the Nine Visions) will spread through those gaming groups all over the world who have the discernment and modest financial means necessary to acquire this mighty grimoire of rituals and include one of them, Zolobachai’s Wagon, in their campaign. Or, as James put it:

First I breach the dimensions into Glantri, then I breach the dimensions into the real world!!!
I have to retire the character now. It would all just be downhill from here. (I suppose I need to cast my newly researched spell first, just to be able to boast about it. But then: retirement.)

Some thoughts:
1) James is rightly stoked, as am I. I remember well how awesome it was when I first discovered that names like Melf and Mordenkainen weren’t just evocative color added to the descriptions of AD&D spells, but actual players in Gygax and Kuntz’s Greyhawk campaign. I am pleased to be able to create such connections between the bones of D&D’s published ephemera and the actual play that is its beating heart.

2) Such connections are all too rare. I’m currently working on my eleventh professional D&D writing assignment, and this is the first time that I’ve been able to draw direct inspiration from a campaign I’ve been part of. There are many pressures that push what happens in RPG writing away from what happens at the table, which I’ll perhaps enumerate in a later post; this one is to celebrate that those pressures can be overcome. Or at least partially, for:

3) The transition from play to print distorts. In the game so far, Zolobachai’s wagon is not a magical conveyance of spectral force but a mundane (if gaudily painted) wooden cart. The most memorable appearance of the wagon in play was heroic but decidedly un-magical: Arnold drove it into the swamp of the Lost City so that he could creep through its interior and gain the element of surprise when he emerged to brain a lizardman with a frying pan. And while Arnold has in fact been researching a new spell during his carouse in Limbo, he should rightly be considered the creator of Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation; the wagon-creating ritual is a piece of fakery at worst or flattery at best by another would-be wonder-worker who has seen fit to adopt the mighty name of Zolobachai. It might be that this is always the way of things – at GaryCon II I will be sure to ask Melf whether he did in fact invest game time in inventing a spell to hurl an acid arrow at his foes.

I’d love to be able to include Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation, as well as the many other inventions of my fellow players that are worthy of game-book immortality, in a future Azagar’s Second Book of Rituals. To help make that happen, rush out and buy the first one and tell your game-store owners and Joseph Goodman that you want more like it!


i broke the dimensional barrier!

On Thursday night history was made!  My character, Arnold Littleworth the Theurgist, from Tavis’s White Sandbox game crossed over between dimensions to play in Eric’s Glantri game!

Tales of campaign-hopping player-characters are a common feature of the Old School, but if it’s happened in the recent Renaissance I’m unaware of it.  Certainly I’m the first among the Red Boxers to make the trip, even though Eric and Tavis have been running campaigns using the same player base for the past eleven months.

Correction: Dave’s character Ookla the Mok did this months before mine, but he was a rescue from a 2e campaign that had been defunct for more than ten years.  I think I’m the first live transplant from one campaign to another.

Here’s how I accomplished this marvelous feat!  Please pay close attention:

1.  Whine to the Dungeon Masters about figuring out a way to cross over.  (This is the first step in many things, not just traveling between dimensions.) I can only attend a session every three weeks or so, and it was killing me that I had to split those measly experience points into two “bank accounts” merely for the sake of verisimilitude.

2. Encourage the Dungeon Master to invent some hand-wavey bullshit justification to allow the dimensional rift. Personally I’m happy just showing up at the table with my character from another game and saying, “Hey, here I am!  Let’s hit the dungeon!”  But others are a little more fastidious about suspending their disbelief.  Tavis invented the Nameless City of the Ninth Menegril, some sort of equivalent to Planescape’s Sigil.  Several of the characters in Tavis’s game have had dealings with denizens of the Nameless City: one character got high on marijuana with an Abyssal Shadow, and two others sold their souls for Bags of Holding (good trade if you ask me) (or maybe it was the souls of other party members, which makes it an even better trade). But thus far no one had used the Nameless City for its intended purpose, namely allowing me to accumulate XP at double speed.

3.  Steal your character sheet from the Dungeon Master at the end of the session.

4.  Carouse in an inter-dimensional metropolis, and wake up in another universe.

5.  Keep your possessions and and special house-rules modest so the new Dungeon Master won’t send you away. Because Arnold has nothing of value, this wasn’t a problem for me.

Dave’s Ookla the Mok character had the opposite problem: he had two magical swords in his old 2e game, but when he arrived in Tavis’s OD&D game he suddenly discovered that all magical swords are intelligent, with crazy super-powers (and maybe can take control of your mind) (why this is so bad, I don’t know: okay, so your greedy, violent swordsman is brainwashed by a greedy, violent sword.  Quelle horror!).  So Ookla has become pretty much defined by his sword-granted super powers; going into a less generous campaign would be very disruptive.

6.  Listen with a hard heart and a smirk as other players complain that it’s unfair for you to introduce a 4th level character when their guys have been laboring under the curse of 1st level stinkiness. Guys, I have spelled out my method right here.  You can do it too, just give me credit for being first.

PS.  Tavis, Arnold has acquired the inter-dimensional property rights to a slice of Brass Dragon Hide.  Just so you know.


Deeper Themes

A recent Grognardia post about Tolkien and Howard proposes that “as the years have worn on, [RPGs have] become more focused on surface elements of their supposed inspirations than on their deeper themes.” Commenters on the post discuss whether RPGs need or benefit from deeper themes, and a different guy called James suggests:

Players & DM’s will create their own thematic elements. Hopefully, there will be some synergy here, but, an amusing exercise might be to ask your players, after a year or so of play, how they would describe the deeper elements within the campaign.

I’ll bite! I think the amusingness is supposed to come from the match or lack thereof between what the DM sees as the themes and what the players do, so let’s have our DMs wait to weigh in on the themes until the players have had a chance. Here, though, are what I’d identify as the themes of Eric’s Glantri campaign:

– Mortality. Arguably this is not unique to Glantri, but is the theme of any old-school campaign that starts at first level. Nevertheless, our experience of play is shaped largely by the extreme transience of the adventurers involved.

– Belief. This relates to mortality in the usual way religions do; also in that it creates the need to regularly introduce new cleric PCs, which makes “what is the nature of your faith” an oft-asked question, and that the cult of the Boss is all about meeting an untimely end. The existence of that cult has also provoked interactions with other Glantrian religions, further exploring this theme.

– Family history. This is the one that seems to most emerge from Eric’s side of the screen rather than ours. As a player, though, I’ve been intrigued and impressed by the way that doors in the Caves of Chaos are marked with crests of different branches of the D’Amberville family, for example. So far this theme hasn’t been used much by players, although the arrival of Francois’s brother as a PC may change that.

Do y’all agree or disagree with these, and what do you think are the themes of the White Sandbox or James’ With Great Power game?

(We might need to have the ‘what is a theme’ conversation too.)


Special powers for OD&D characters

In yesterday’s comments, Eric requested a post about the individualized special powers that players are encouraged to choose for their characters in the White Sandbox campaign, and I’m happy to oblige!

First, some notes to put this in context. In theory, the White Sandbox uses only the “three little brown books” of OD&D, modified by some of Gary Gygax’s house rules – most notably that characters start at third level, so that PCs are already unusually capable at the start of play. In practice, I chose to leave the boundaries of the system very porous. Going forward in time, I wanted people to be able to use a copy of any of the D&D Basic Sets or the AD&D Player’s Handbook at the table as a good-enough reference as to how the game-reality worked. I also wanted to give players some of the kinds of options for making their character distinct from all other members of their class that later editions provide via feats. Going backward, as much as I enjoy scholastic investigation of the meaning and history of the original D&D rules, I didn’t want to have to refer to Chainmail in play or come up with my own definitive interpretation of the myriad and mystifying assumptions that OD&D borrows from that game. (If I were starting again today I’d look to Jason Vey’s Spellcraft and Swordplay and Forgotten Lore, and Nicolas Dessaux’s Epées & Sorcellerie, as great examples of such interpretations).

So giving players the choice of one special power related to their class helped me address these issues. If you want your fighting man to be able to split-move and fire like in Chainmail, make multiple attacks against one hit-dice creatures like in AD&D, or follow up with a free strike after a killing blow like the 3E Cleave feat, you can choose that as your character’s unique power without having to bring in all the other aspects of those rulesets.

Here are the special powers I suggested for each OD&D class, with the note that each member of that class will ” choose one of the following, or work with the referee to create a similar special ability.”

Fighting Men:

– Terrifying Foe. The fighting man can force a morale check upon surprising an enemy, killing an enemy, or performing an especially impressive deed.
– Melee Expert. The fighting man takes half the normal penalty when using a cautious defense, reckless assault, or targeted attack.

Fighting style Benefit Penalty for others Penalty for fighting man
Cautious defense Foe attacked takes -2 penalty to hit you -2 on roll to hit -1 on roll to hit
Reckless assault You gain +2 on roll to hit Enemy has +2 to hit you Enemy has +1 to hit you
Targeted attack Roll twice for damage -6 on roll to hit -3 on roll to hit

– Missile Skirmisher. Each round, when equipped with a missile weapon the fighting man can either move and engage in missile fire, or fire twice per round (taking two shots with a sling or bow, firing and reloading a light crossbow, or fully loading or firing a heavy crossbow).

Magic Users:

Fingerbone Wand. The magic-user turns his or her finger into a magic wand. This finger becomes permanently dead, and the magic-user permanently loses one point of Constitution. The magic-user may or may not choose to leave the finger attached to their hand during the creation of the fingerbone wand. When armed with this fingerbone wand, a magic-user can attack in melee as if using a dagger, or hurl a bolt of mystic energy in missile combat as if throwing a javelin. One point of constitution is temporarily lost whenever an attack with the fingerbone wand rolls a natural 1. The magic-user regains temporary Con loss at the rate of one point every eight hours. If their fingerbone wand is destroyed, the magic-user may craft another one, again losing one point of Con.

– Mental Scroll. The magic-user creates a memory palace big enough to contain an impossibly long scroll. One autistic part of the magic-user’s mind is always scribing rudimentary spells onto this imaginary scroll. , Creating the mental scroll takes 1d6 days, after which the magic-user permanently loses one point of Intelligence. By reading a spell off the visualized scroll, the magic-user may evoke a blast of baleful energy within a range of 50 feet. The magic-user may focus the blast on a single foe, who must save vs. spells or suffer 2d4 damage, or evoke the blast in a 10 foot radius, in which case 1-2 points of damage are dealt to all within who fail their save vs. spells. A potential victim of this blast who rolls a natural 20 on their save vs. spells has successfully disbelieved the essential illusion powering this spell. The magic-user temporarily loses one point of Intelligence whenever this happens, as it becomes difficult to maintain the necessary state of self-deception. The magic-user regains temporary Int loss at the rate of one point every eight hours.

– Familiar. The magic-user summons, creates, or binds an uncanny animal, magical beast, extra-planar servitor, or homonculous to serve his or her desires. The specific nature of the familiar will be determined by the player and the referee, but in general they are capable of rudimentary communication and simple tasks such as scouting, carrying messages, and picking up key rings when the magic-user is behind bars. Familiars are always fragile and inept combatants who must be coaxed into danger with promises of reward; keeping a familiar happy can be quite costly. The familiar also feeds on the magic-user’s blood or life energy, causing a magic-user with a familiar to take a -1d4 penalty on each dice roll for maximum hit points. Should the familiar be killed, the magic-user suffers 1d4 points of damage and must spend a similar number of days working to gain a new familiar.


– Oracular Trance. The cleric has performed a grueling ritual that leaves them able to enter a catatonic state in which they become receptive to divinations, but permanently drains them of one point of Wisdom. Entering the trance is instantaneous, after which the player temporarily loses one point of Wisdom and rolls 1d8 to determine how many rounds they will remain in the trance. During this time, they are paralyzed; afterwards, the player and the referee roll for surprise (no modifiers). If the player is surprised, the divination contains untruth as well as truth; fif the referee is surprised, the divination contains only truth; if both were surprised, the divination contains truth as well as falsehood. Temporary Wisdom loss is regained at the rate of one point every eight hours.

– Lucky Coin. The cleric possesses a talisman that they believe indicates the favor or disfavor of the gods. Owning this talisman causes the cleric to permanently lose one point of Charisma, as they become sullen and deflated when its luck turns away from them. When faced with a binary choice, the player of the coin’s owner may flip a coin to decide which option to pursue. If, in the DM’s judgement and the eyes of the character’s deity, the result of this choice would bring woe to the cleric, the DM will inform the player that their lucky coin revealed a different result. Each toss of the coin causes the cleric to temporarily lose 1 point of Charisma.

– Restore Spirits. The cleric can minister to a comrade and buck up their fighting spirit, enabling them to re-roll their hit dice. If the new result is higher than the character’s previous maximum hit point total, this becomes their new maximum. Accumulated damage is subtracted from this new maximum to determine current hit points. Restoring spirits takes 1 round, after which the cleric must save vs. death ray or suffer damage equal to the sum of all hit dice that rolled identical numbers. (Example: Faithful Lurue restores the spirits of Balto, a myrmidon. Balto rolls 6 dice for his new maximum hit points; two of these dice come up 6’s, while three come up 1’s. Lurue fails her saving throw and suffers 15 points of damage.)

I still think these examples of mine are pretty cool, although in some cases they no longer reflect our house rules (e.g. the cleric’s Restore Spirits). However, in actual play almost no one has used these suggested ones. This might be because I didn’t print these examples and bring them to the table during the early sessions of character creation (and also didn’t include them in my later one-page character creation guide). It also might be because players latched on to the way that a completely self-defined special power allows a character to be personalized to match an individual concept in a way that later-edition rules options or my list of examples can’t.

Recently James attempted to compile a list of the White Sandbox characters’ special powers, which is incomplete but representative:

  • Argus the Rat Knight can inspire massive amounts of pity
  • Arnold can pretend to be Zolobachai, a high-level Magic-User
  • Caswyn is a good healer
  • Colin Treeslayer can shatter wood with a scream.
  • Into the Mystic is largely immune to the touch of the undead
  • Lucky is a spectacular marksman
  • Maldoor (deceased) can identify magical items
  • Tiburon can astrally project

Comparing the first and last entries, it’s apparent that the power level of these special powers spans a wide range! Sternum wrote:

The Aura of Pity works as follows: If Argus is about to be struck down in combat, he makes a charisma roll. If he fails, his opponents take pity on him and leave him curled in a fetal position, sobbing for his mother. This skill was inspired by Argus’ incredibly low ability scores. Of course, as fate would have it, he is my most successful and resilient White Box character. Each session, Argus has charged into hordes of gnolls or lizardmen on horseback and fought in deadly one-on-two combats, only to emerge victorious and unscathed time and time again.

I was eager to allow Tiburon’s astral projection ability, because I love silver cords and Githyanki battleships. To balance it against what other characters could do, we agreed that Tiburon had to go to sleep in order to use this ability – so that he spent the entirety of his first battle trying to drift off despite all the noise – and that he was potentially at risk from things he might encounter during his astral travel. In play, this special power had interesting effects. It broadened the players’ knowledge of the dungeon, which I was glad to see taking place, and it caused me to roll some random encounters which shaped my own understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes and will likely have long-term effects on play. At the same time, Tiburon’s astral investigations posed an even more acute version of the normal problem with scouting, in that it occupied play-time with an activity in which no other character could participate. I’ll consider ways to address this problem if Tiburon is rescued from his current vile captivity, which points out the ultimate check-and-balance on the special power system: the cruel fate of the dice, which have long smiled on Argus (at least, after an initial chastisement when he rolled 3d6 in order) but quickly smote down Tiburon extra-planar abilities and all.


A picture is worth 1,000 exp

 Two graphs made using the information we collected from the first twelve sessions of the Lost City game. [1]

(I like to geek out with this sort of analysis, and it adds to my enjoyment of the game.  I know folks who see it as trying to dissect a butterfly to find the beautiful part.  Skip it if you wish.)

A couple thoughts on the first graph.[2]

The one-session column will always be large since there are people who play one session and do not return.  Other players like to play a new character each session.

The mortality bulge in the second/third sessions is largely due to probability.  The majority of characters in any one of these sessions have attended only 2-3 previous sessions; by the twelfth session the average character had attended 2.7 sessions.  (This is changing, the average “session age” of the group is rising, fast, and I expect mortality to drift upwards on the chart along with it.)

There were also learning curve issues: we lost a bunch of characters in the first few sessions as we learned.  Hard to tell if it was learning the particulars of this dungeon, or learning about the game in general. [3] 

Sternum also raised an excellent point:

When I roll up a fresh, level one character, I tend to play a lot more recklessly than when I’m playing a seasoned adventured because I have little to lose.  I went through three guys in Tavis’ game one evening because, for those few hours after a character is created, death wasn’t really much of a threat because an equivalent (or better) character would only cost me a minute or two of dice rolling.

This is especially powerful in white box, or any early D&D where random things like opening the wrong door can kill a low-level character.  Newly crafted characters are more likely to volunteer… [4]

I think we will have more deaths in the next few sessions as we move into more lethal areas (teleport traps, efritt, astral monsters, and the beast lord) without having gained new informational resources.  Wear your (low, soft) running shoes.

The second graph is easier to read: I see no linear relationship between sessions played and experienced gained.  The majority of experience comes from treasure (as it should!) and the amount of loot we get has been wildly variable.  Your best bet is to show up for as many games as possible and hope you attend one where we find a nice hoard.  White box advancement is just not a direct result of “putting your time in.”  It has more to do with adroitness, cooperation, and luck.

[1] A sandbox game based on the three original D&D books, with a few changes from the DM (e.g., carousing rules, use of full spell set from AD&D, a different way of approaching HPs).  Original data here:

[2] The crunchy part of me is obliged to point out that the data set here is too small to provide anything in way of statistical significance, but we will not let that stop us, will we?

[3] [Tavis, stop reading please] It would be interesting to have a total wipeout, resulting in a completely new party but with players who already know the game and the DM’s style; would we have as many deaths in the first few sessions of the new party? [/resume Tavis]

[4] To reinforce this, think about how excited everone was about Lydio’s special spider-sense ability during the last session.

Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2020

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