Solo Gaming with Tunnels & Trolls

If anyone is keeping up with me, I have now to report that the pandemic has created—at least for me—gaming opportunities. Two friends from my local group decided to start a new Swords & Wizardry campaign online, and I found a few likeminded Conan enthusiasts from all around the country to play Conan 2d20 online. As if that were not enough, I agreed to run Against the Darkmaster via PbP for one gamer, and two other gamers joined that experiment. It’s still active, which, for me, must be a PbP record!

But, even after all of this, I still have plenty of headspace with which to occupy myself. So I went in on a recent Tunnels & Trolls Bundle of Holding (containing, mostly, the solo adventures for which T&T is famous) and ordered a hard copy of the latest deluxe rules.

First to say, reading T&T is a delight! There is an energy to this game that I haven’t encountered in any other system. Obviously, I love old school D&D, but, perhaps because of so much time and well-known iterations of it between now and its inception, so much of it feels staid. T&T was published one year after Original. T&T, the “Original Hack,” not only re-envisions the rules but riffs on the menagerie of monsters from folklore and various literary antecedents—many of these, obviously, in common with D&D but often with slightly skewed perspectives that delightfully differentiate them.

Some of my impressions of T&T are at variance with what appears to be the inherited attitude regarding it. Many people consider T&T to be a more “accessible” simplification of Original D&D. I myself haven’t read the original iteration of D&D (again, my gateway is what is regarded as the much more transparent Swords & Wizardry), and I can understand this dominant perspective as long as (by all reports) Original is incomprehensible. Outside of this, however, in my view, any “simplification” made by T&T must be predicated almost solely on how it replaces all polyhedral dice with d6s—unless the original version of T&T, which I haven’t read, is significantly different from deluxe. In fact, T&T seems more complicated to me. This is because it involves so much more bookkeeping than I am used to.

In D&D, after making a character, a player has to keep track of hit points, sometimes spells, and usually gold acquisition. In Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls, a player has to keep track of hit points (which is measured by a character’s Constitution), Wizardry (a resource that is used to power spells), gold acquisition (though, at least in dT&T, these don’t necessarily translate into experience points), saving rolls, spells successfully cast, and (if any of my characters ever succeed at actually defeating anything) the Monster Rating of any slain monsters. These last three are necessary for calculating “adventure points” earned.

Moreover, perhaps a live game is different, but, in the few solo adventures I’ve experienced, my characters’ various Attributes (eight of them to maintain, in dT&T, rather than the six in D&D) seem to be in constant flux, whether it’s because I approached a magical skull and was required to reroll all of my stats (luckily, in this particular instance, to my benefit, though that luck didn’t last long!) or because I pulled up a street cobble which revealed a poisonous spider that bit me and reduced my Dexterity by 3, which additionally caused me to recalculate my Combat Adds. Moreover, whereas in D&D spells are expended by the “slot” and recovered in toto every morning, in dT&T spells are powered (as already noted) via more granular “points” that recover at a rate of one every ten minutes (or every three paragraphs in a solo adventure I played), requiring much more attention and bookkeeping. I assume that this goes, as well, for Constitution (this game’s “hit points”), whereas in D&D it’s as simple as one a day (or a whole HD worth, if you’re playing “other versions”).

I guess what I’m saying is that people who claim that T&T is simpler either haven’t bothered to play it or they are focusing on more subtle aspects. It’s true that T&T uses one kind of die, it has one core mechanic—maybe two or even three. But in terms of work load, it seems to me to require much more.

Another common characterization of T&T, in contradistinction to D&D, is that it embraces a much more silly or wonky ethos. With this I agree, and this attitude comes not only from reading the (often cited) spell names and optional campaign materials (which are based on writer and designer Ken St. Andre’s original home game) but on the solo adventures themselves.

It’s been a very—[contemplative pause]—new experience entering into the T&T community. My primary interactions with it have been through its official Facebook group (which sees frequent activity from its writers, publishers, designers and Ken St. Andre himself!) and through playing the solo adventures. The solo adventures are—[again, contemplative pause]—not much more than choose-your-own-adventures, which, in most cases, would be a near-damning condemnation of a game experience. In this case, however, my reaction is much more ambiguous. To be clear, none of my characters (generated via the punishing old-school method of 3d6 eight times right down the line except for only one instance in which I arranged to suit because the adventure required a Warrior character), to this moment, have survived a single combat encounter. Only my Warrior character survived more than one round of combat; he died on the second.

So far, none of my dead characters even have “survived” the “adventure for dead characters” included in dT&T but have had to remain dead… except for my most recent character, who is in the following state:

It’s passages such as this one—and other subtle tells—that give me the impression that I have begun to engage in a fairly amusing discourse that has been going on since Rick Loomis published the very first solo adventure ever—even before Choose Your Own Adventure—back in 1976. In Buffalo Castle, Loomis writes.

Here Loomis expresses overtly what I have begun to feel: that the writers of these solo adventures truly are, across space and time and through the written word, standing in as my “Gamemasters.” By playing these solo adventures, I’m not so much engaging with narrative as I am simply playing a goofy game. It feels more like playing Atari than it does, say, playing a modern roleplaying game. It doesn’t even feel like I’m playing a Choose Your Own Adventure.

There is no plot to these games—at least not very much of one. Not everything in these dungeons make much sense. In fact, very little does. The GM’s attitude is dispassionate—even mocking.

But again and again, as every character dies, I think, “Can I go further? I know more this time.” And I roll up another character, and I know a little more (I even can narratively justify this “meta knowledge” as rumors about the dungeon that I’ve heard about town). I enter into the dungeon; I die again. I enter the Abyss (the adventure for dead characters); I remain dead. I start over.

I’m a GM myself, of course, so I find myself wanting to contribute to this discourse. I already was disposed to this frame of mind by recently adapting old Weird Tales into Conan 2d20 adventures, then alternately fiddling with them as rewritten, “original” fiction featuring a PC of my own construction or as solo adventures. Neither of these latter projects went much of anywhere—yet. But I’m interested in seeing how some of the dungeons from my ongoing Swords & Wizardry campaign translate to T&T solo adventures.

This seems to me to be an enthralling way of giving the rich subcreation of my gamers’ and me a second life. I’ve considered turning it into traditional fiction, too, in the way Weis and Hickman did (though their project of gaming and writing seems to have been consonant from its inception), or Erikson and Esslemont, or (as I suspect) Elizabeth Moon, or Raymond E. Feist (though I haven’t read Feist yet), and undoubtedly many, many others.

A Player-Facing Comparison Between D20 Systems and Modiphius’s Conan 2d20

Last post, I ended at the beginning of a discussion in which I reflect upon the differences between old school D&D sandbox play and Modiphius’s Conan 2d20. I made comparisons between first adventures, or the beginnings of new campaigns, within the two games. Questions from a player has caused me to realize that the lens through which I had begun this exploration is from the GM side of things. For this installment, therefore, in an attempt to reach a player audience, I’m going to move directly into systemic issues, or those features that are of interest to GMs and players alike. I’m convinced that mechanical dissimilarities between the two systems help impel the qualitative differences between the two games.

The most common way of teaching a system is by staging a combat. Let’s do this. Let’s break the two games down into Basic Attacks.

D20 Basic Attack

In any kind of D&D, to attack, a character rolls a d20 against an Armor Class, which, in this example, essentially is a Target Number (TN).

If the character meets or exceeds the TN, then that character succeeds. You got through the armor. Good job. Roll damage. Deduct from target hit points.

Damage depends on the kind of weapon.

What happens if you don’t succeed? Nothing. You fail. Did you roll a 1? Check with your Ref; she might have something even worse in store for you.

Conversely, did you roll a 20? Also check. Chances are you get to roll double damage. Maybe your Ref has a critical hit table, in which case it might be more interesting.

What happens if you roll more than your TN but not a natural 20? Nothing really. You hit, you succeeded, what more do you want?

What happens if there are situations that make the attempt easier or harder? Check with your Ref; he might award bonuses or penalties, correspondingly.

What happens if this is a really important, really thematic part of the story? What if so much is riding on this? Well, roll d20; if you’re playing 5e, maybe you get some Inspiration or Advantage.

2d20 Basic Attack

The base of any Attack is D1. But wait: what is a D1?

D1 is the level of Difficulty. D1 means that the character has to score at least 1 Success to… well, to succeed.

In an Attack, how does the Difficulty increase or decrease? Well, in Melee, it is every point of Reach, after D1, an enemy’s weapon has over that of the attacker’s. So, off the top of my head, a Dagger (Reach 1) attacking someone with a Sword (Reach 2), must succeed at D2, i.e., achieve 2 Successes. Vice versa, a basic Attack is always D1, so the Sword-wielder must make D1 against the Dagger-wielder. As another example, a Spear has Reach 3, so a Dagger attacking against it must Succeed at D3, and a Sword against it at D2. Now, if a smaller weapon is able to Break Guard, something cool and beneficial happens for that weapon’s wielder, but this is an advanced topic best left for later.

What about Armor? Good question. That is coming.

How do you make D1? You roll 2d20 under your Skill. For Melee, it is Melee, which is tied to your Agility. The D&D gamer already is asking, “What? It’s not Strength?” In 2d20, we call that Brawn. And, no, it’s Agility to hit, and one’s high Brawn awards extra damage. Pretty tidy simulationism, right?

So, let’s say your Melee TN is 14. You roll 2d20. Each of your rolls under that number scores one Success.

What happens if you roll a 1 or a 20. Are there critical hits and failures in this game? Yes, surely. A 20 on any die roll is a Complication. It is possible to roll multiple Complications, just as it is possible to roll multiple Successes. There are some rules around Complications that we might get to later. Usually, if a character rolls a 1, that character gets 2 Successes for the roll. Why? Characters have something called Focus in their Skills. Any roll falling at or below that value scores 2 Successes. For example, if our Melee is TN 14 and Focus 2, a 2d20 roll of 11 and 2 would score 3 Successes. Good job. Roll damage.

Is that all? You see, I got 3 Successes, and I only needed 1.

Hey, I’m glad you asked! Those 2 extra Successes are now a resource called Momentum. There are things you possibly can do with them right now, or you can “bank” them for later use. But this is more advanced stuff that we’ll get to later.

Okay, different. So I roll damage. What is that?

For your Sword it’s 4 Combat Dice (I usually designate Combat Dice as “#”). They are d6s, but they are read in this way: 1=1 damage, 2=2 damage, 3-4=no damage, 5-6=1 damage + Effect. What’s an Effect? Well, most weapons have weapon Qualities that “trigger” on an Effect. This is another advanced topic we should get to later. But, hey, remember those 2 Momentum earned from 3 Successes? A popular “spend” for that is +1 bonus point of damage per Momentum spent here.

You roll your 4# for your Sword and get 1, 4, 5, and 2. How much damage is that? 4, good. And an Effect, but we’re ignoring that for now.

Now you apply it to your target’s Armor. In this game, Armor is Soak, i.e., it absorbs damage. Let’s say our target has 2 Soak. You subtract that, and now you have done 2 damage. To be clear, if this attack is against a PC or “Nemesis,” we would have to roll a d20 and find the hit location to see if that spot actually is Armored, but, again, more advanced concepts.

Finally, what if this is a really important strike for your character? What if you have a lot riding on this? Is there anything more you can do, to emulate a character going “all in,” to represent someone “giving her all”?

Yes! I’m glad you asked. Remember, odds of success go up based on the number of d20s you can roll on any given Test (in 2d20, an Attack is a kind of Skill Test). Remember that Momentum I mentioned earlier? Another use of Momentum is to Create Opportunity. You can spend 1 Momentum for 1 bonus d20 up to a total of 5 (the first draft of this game was called the “5d20 System”). But remember: though bonus d20s increase your chances of Success, they also increase your chances of generating Complications (by rolling any 20s, or, in some cases, any 19s or 20s).

There are at least two other ways that you can Create Opportunity: Fortune Points, (which are kind of like super powered Momentum points) and Doom. Now Doom is a resource that is used by the GM to make life interesting for the PCs, so any PC using Doom (called “paying Doom” to the GM) to Create Opportunity in one really important moment can have the stakes raised against her by the GM spending Doom, possibly in the very next Round or Scene. (Rounds, Scenes and Downtime are how time is measured in 2d20; in D20 it’s Rounds, Turns, “Long Time,” and Downtime.)

Now let’s consider.

In D20, attack resolution is Pass/Fail, with wrinkles (criticals) for exceptionally high or low results.

In contrast, in 2d20 attack resolution is Pass/Fail with (possibly) Momentum earned. The greater the chances of highly Succeeding or generating Momentum, the greater the chances of creating Complications.

As the Complex Games Apologist explains, this latter approach contains a dynamic process for player risk vs. reward. The most striking example of this is in the mention of Doom, in which the player can hand to the GM tools that will make his character’s life more difficult later, for greater chances for success now.

Let’s not forget that I am trying to find true differences between the two systems. If this risk/reward feature is something that the players desire in a game… And let’s not pass this over too lightly. If someone doesn’t believe that this is not a fundamental difference between D20 and 2d20, then I might as well not write another word. Both systems are a form of gambling, true. In the former, a player makes a decision regarding a possible attempt at an attack. Let’s say that she is playing a Level 3 Fighter trying to hit Armor Class 7 (or 12). So the player must decide on the odds of rolling a d20, adding 3, and beating 12. Most of the time, big deal, who cares? But what if something really important is riding on this? What if the target is an evil cultist in the very act of slashing the throat of a sacrifice, and that this act is sure to release an Elder God into the cosmos, an Old One that will instantly devour all things? Does the player believe that the attack should be merely dependent on a roll of a d20+3?

So, to return, if this risk/reward feature is something to be desired in a game, can it be replicated in D20? My contention is almost. 5e has Advantage (and its converse, Disadvantage) and Inspiration, the former of which I have anecdotally heard mathematically results in an average of +/-3. But I would maintain that this resource still is reliant on the whim of the Referee. I allow that 5e characters have a host of special abilities and features (on the continuum begun with 3e) outside of the domination of the Referee, but what we see in practice is a defined set of static resources tactically employed against situations designed by the Referee or particular module that is in use.

Is there a way to develop something like “momentum” in D20? Perhaps. Most Referees I know already rule an extent of Pass/Fail based on the quality of the roll, but this usually isn’t any tactile additional benefit the players can later leverage. Can it be made to be so? Perhaps, but I can’t imagine anything as elegant as the 2d20 system. How would we expedite it? Would we award a bennie for every two points over a TN number? Three? Four? Already we are working with a system that adds modifiers to a roll on a sometimes sliding TN. With this possible change to the system, we are looking at continuing to crunch integers that transform into points that become… Well, what, exactly? Should 1 Momentum be +1 to a roll? Certainly not! Two Momentum? Three? Four? Should they be transformed into Advantage? Perhaps 5 Momentum can purchase 1 Advantage. Does this make any sense? Moreover, is there a corresponding resource for Referees? Should there be? Don’t they reign supreme anyway?

At this point I have begun to brush up against the GM side of the 2d20 system, and I should steer away. This is because this post is meant to be solidly focused on the players.

Another point before I move on. Despite all it’s complexity, at the table 2d20 runs quite smoothly (once the core mechanics are understood), and I think the greatest reason for this is in its roll-under system. It’s quite quick and easy to compare two numbers; these are the numbers of the rolls and the number of the TN right there on your character sheet. It’s always going to be that number. Your GM might require more Successes, but there are no modifiers to add or subtract. The only counting you do is totaling the number of Successes, and these usually go no higher than 5. Seldom they go even that high. Remember, a base Success is D1.

More bookkeeping results from the meta-currencies, the Momentum, the Doom, and the Fortune Points. But once this is grokked, its management becomes procedural, really no different—easier, perhaps, because they are fewer—than tracking D20 hit points. Yes, there are “hit points” also in 2d20, but they need not be tracked for as long, which brushes up against another “advanced” topic to be considered later.

Before getting to my final point of this post, I should briefly address weapon Qualities. Remember that Effect that is triggered on a Damage Die roll of 5-6? Well, this unlocks special weapons features. A Dagger, for example, has the Unforgiving Quality. This means that, if the Dagger is used in an Exploit Action, then the weapon gains the Intense and Vicious Qualities. Clearly these are more “advanced” features, but I need to bring them up here as a reflection of a “critical hit.”

My own D&D uses critical hits and fumbles tables that are vastly simplified from Rolemaster d100 tables and effects. In my Rolemaster games, I must point out, the criticals get no more simulationist than in rolling on a highly swingy Pierce, Slash or Crush table. But 2d20 confines these Qualities specifically to individual weapons in a way that is not too onerous in terms of consulting charts and tables. It’s neat. Sometimes weapon differentiation comes up, but not too much, and no additional rolls are required; these are baked into the Effects.

To conclude, why would anyone want 2d20 rather than D20? I don’t think that’s a fair question. My contention is that the two systems are significantly different enough to emulate contrasting narrative or fictive experiences at the table. It is at this point that I want to characterize (most) D20 combat as procedural, whereas 2d20 allows for more dynamism. Now in my head are all the voices of the rpg community, particularly those of the OSR/DIY crowd: you want your action dynamic in D20? Then describe your actions. In fact, if it’s a very important swing, then just let it succeed. The Rule of Cool always shall prevail! Fine. I am not disagreeing with you. (Can you tell how used I am to being misunderstood or misread?) If you want to lean on that narrativist aspect of your game, by all means, have at it. What I am saying is that, if you want more game in your narration and simulation, then 2d20 is a great option.

It’s like this. Say you’re playing a card game. Say you’re sitting at a table, playing Poker. Your hand of cards, in D20, is your characters stats, skills, equipment and abilities. You are playing that against the Referee’s hand of cards, which is the D20 system. He might not play the system to the best of his ability, she might let you win a hand or two, just because he wants you to, but that’s not the point. Moreover, notice that there are no “stakes” involved. Any currency on the table, for which the gamers are playing, at most must be Advantage and/or Inspiration.

Now, in 2d20, the hands of cards likewise represent the character stats, skills, equipment, abilities and system. But this game has stakes involved. On the table here is Momentum, and you only get it by playing, by gambling, by taking risks. Momentum, in use, represents the players’ pocket change, or what they have brought to the game. Now, if they really want to raise the stakes, they have to bet the house, and that is represented by paying the GM Doom.

Are you willing to bet the house to prevent Cthulhu from invading the world?

Trying To Understand the Differences Between Old School D&D Sandbox Play and Modiphius’s Conan 2d20

Preamble: This is probably the first installment in a long and microscopic comparison between old school D&D sandbox play (which I love) and Conan 2d20, aka Modiphius’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of (which, as you shall see, I also love). I expect that, while trying to understand why I’m pining so for a forestalled Conan play experience, I will continue these until when—or if—I’m able to gather a game group for that system. Because of the contrast of Conan with old school play, this project has the added benefit of filling in the Referee side of a gaming discussion from an earlier series, “The Way I Play.”

Solo-Gamering Is a Lonely Kid Looking for People to Play with His Ball

For many of us gamers, I believe, the roleplaying disruptions resulting from the pandemic have been transformed into opportunities. No one needs me to claim here that many games have migrated online; anyone who is remotely interested in rpgs should be able to confirm this as self-evident. I myself now use Discord to conduct, with my home group, a weekly Swords & Wizardry game, and I began two Conan 2d20 games that appear now to have atrophied.

I wrote last time about commencing a solo Conan game. That endeavor lasted until the end of the opening scenario. I had built an avatar who was pretty competent in terms of Personality, but this didn’t serve him very well when he faced a pack of ravenous wolves. My character managed to just survive that initial encounter, with yet a Wound and all three Fortune Points expended, to face a fairly entertaining encounter with a dis. Here is a sample of that:

He did not bow, for it is not the custom for men in the north to bow, though Gebir knew it to be common in the warmer lands of the south. “I believe I stand before Glaesa Haugdis.”

Her melodic voice echoed and rippled off the stone walls. “And you, young as you are, believe that your heart is worthy of my board?”*

Allowed to speak, Gebir found his sail-wind. His new confidence even allowed him to look with open interest on Glaesa’s nakedness. Perhaps he was at the foot of a new adventure, one that he could boast about hereafter in jarls’ halls.

“If my heart does not please you, now, within its youth, I recommend that you send me back out into the world, to grow large and manly, so that, in my prime, my substance may satisfy your hunger.”

In the ensuing silence, Gebir believed that he had found his mark, though Glaesa did not smile.

“You’re a wit,” she said. “A bard, am I right? I hear it is unlucky to slay one such as thee. Do you suppose such a prohibition applies to myself?”

To that, Gebir stammered, unaccountably slow to form a response, and Glaesa said, “At any rate, I am honored that a bard graces my hall. Can you compose a stave in my praise?”

Now Gebir’s tongue loosened readily:

The woman of wolves wants my heart

But other meat my mistress should munch

Now Glaesa’s laughter rang. “Stop there, if you please. Such lines won’t work on me. I know that it always is the way of young men to reflect praise of woman as attention upon themselves. You are correct, young skald. Your heart is tender, and vain. With more age, I imagine, you shall learn to look truly at Woman, to learn by praising Her and not your own mirror. But come. I yet desire your entertainment. Sit at my side, eat at my board—you won’t feast upon your own heart, I assure you.”

*To escape her wolves, Gebir had pledged his heart to Glaesa, as the steaming hearts of men are believed to sit the board at Ymir’s table. This is Conan game lore, of course.

This, of course, is writing, maybe (I compliment myself) good writing. It might even be gaming, insofar (as mentioned last time) as writing is “gaming.” But I don’t think it’s roleplaying. Moreover, even if it is gaming, I don’t find it satisfying. In a roleplaying game, a player character really, truly tries to stay alive and accomplish his or her objectives within an indifferent universe (perhaps even an antagonistic one, depending on the gaming sensibilities of the GM). An auto-directed story comes laden with “plot armor;” I can try to keep my character alive, but I am hard pressed to ensure that the cosmos remains “indifferent” to my hero’s experience. It seems to be wasted effort for my protagonist to perish within the very first scenario, which, in a true “game,” always should be a possibility. In a roleplaying game with multiple players, the “game” remains clearly within sight. The roleplaying—or “acting”—organically emerges from the system mechanics and the collaborative imaginations of all participants involved. And this latter, in my experience, invariably results in better, more immersive and surprising gaming than one that follows a narrative unilaterally controlled by a “GM,” or writer. Moreover, if a PC dies, another simply enters into the narrative stream. It’s just “what happens.” In other words, there are no guarantees, there are no “main characters,” only PCs and NPCs, those with agency outside of the purposed domination of the “author,” and those without it.

Therefore, when I managed to fire two Chat-based games of Conan, I saw these principles well in action.

One game contained two players. The gamers were “provisionally invested,” participating, mainly, merely to gain a familiarity with the system. This they did by diving right into every available conflict, which resulted, before the game went “silent,” in PC carnage so dire that it necessitated a retreat. Since the players’ aim was to learn the rules, they did pretty well at it. Less and less often had I to tell them what to roll or how to interpret various die results. We were only just getting into greater familiarity with managing their various resources and meta-currencies when Downtime commenced and not another interaction was made.

The second game involved one player, a close, lifelong friend currently residing on the other side of the planet. He was more interested in roleplaying, and he is excellent at it. His panache for story and dialogue might be because we were students together in a masters of English literature program, and, into my Conan game, he began channeling Jack London’s ethos, which I believe highly influenced Robert E. Howard’s own.

My friend and gamer was less keen on the tactical rules aspects, however. In the time we played, we never quite got out of the stage of the player telling me what he wanted his character to do and me explaining how he could use the physics of the game to attempt that. He also appeared to rely more and more on his adopted NPCs to resolve various conflicts and complications. For now, the action is indefinitely paused in the moment in which an NPC charges the PC Qalandar to use his experience as a Mercenary to strategize getting around an outpost of hill bandits.

So here I am with, figuratively speaking, two television shows, one with a pilot only, a series never picked up for full production; another frozen in time, like a video stream that is glitching and will not progress. I understand gaming culture; I know that this is a leisure activity, that no one should be expected to make a commitment, that we pick things up and put things down, as is in our natures. A host of entertainments, all around, blare for our attentions. Still, I am disappointed. I wanted to “see what would happen.” Now I might never know.

Trying To Understand Why My Two Most Favorite Games of the Moment Feel So Qualitatively Different

I have started D&D games—some have gone on for years—and I’ve pulled the plug on them and walked away from them with nary a care about what could have been their resolutions. The fact that my feelings for these Conan games are different is a testament to the system’s success at emulating its core fictions. I have been thinking long and carefully about just why it is so successful, and I don’t have good answers. The first and most overpowering conceptions that come to me are mental images that contrast the two systems: D&D is a map of a place, Conan is a map of a story.

Of course, both systems have maps of places, both have maps of stories, but, between systems, these components feel qualitatively different, and I think these dissimilarities are more than superficial. As I attempt to trace binaries—all the while recognizing that they are misleading—yet more and more come to me. D&D is “procedural,” Conan is “inspirational.” D&D is “random,” Conan is “constructed.” D&D combat is “abstracted,” Conan combat is “tactical.” Again, these are false dichotomies. But this deconstructive exercise has nevertheless shown me that, though both games might be all of these things, their actual working parts have been rearranged so that they run remarkably differently!

I’m going to start by comparing my first thought: the map of a place in comparison and in contrast to the map of a story. But If I have any readers still with me at this point, I need to express the caveat that the “D&D” I have in mind is specifically the old school sandbox approach. I know that much that attracts me to Conan 2d20 also can be accomplished with old school D&D (most any system, really), that later iterations of D&D even have such approaches “built in.” But I maintain that Conan 2d20, as written, presents the qualities I’m about to describe particularly well. Moreover, I claim that even the later iterations of D&D have baked into their core mechanics a particular approach to storytelling and narrative expectations that never entirely go away (without a very good and trustworthy DM who can, in effect, break from conventions without alienating or frustrating players).

Now that this is clear, I will show that my practice of building an adventure for either system is more or less the same. If the game is already underway, I, of course, will consult the players about anything they might want their characters to do. If it is the first session of a possible campaign, however, then, naturally, I will need to have prepared something for them to do. Ideally the players already have characters, so I keep in mind those PC goals, motivations and abilities as I turn to various adventure generation tables.

The tables I most frequently use for my D&D game are to be found in Richard J. Le Blanc’s D30 Sandbox Companion. For the first session of the new campaign that I am calling Barton’s Best, however, I unconventionally made use of Matt Finch’s Tome of Adventure Design. Here are the results.

Liberate from Caves Celebrity in hiding or disguise

Patron: political counselor

Obstacle: business rival

Motivation: remove a curse

Well, none of these prompts means anything unless there is some context for it. A player wanted a new world, so I scratched one out, using an improvisational method out of Kent David Kelly’s Old Skull Adventure Generator. You’ll hear more about his Chaotic Descriptor Table when I get to dungeon design. For now, however, I employed a “home brew” method of randomly turning to pages of a dictionary to find inspiration for various geological and geographical features, resulting in this, with many blank spaces to accommodate further inspiration.

The world of Conan, of course, is already “developed.” This is both exciting and limiting, and it most certainly is one qualitative difference. The opportunity in old school sandbox play is the joy of original creation, both for the Referee and for the players. This latter consideration is included here because my players are encouraged to detail their characters’ homelands and political situations therein. They’re even allowed to “highjack” features from my map, lending my locations purposes and qualities that I might not have intended—or even got to yet. In other words, in my old school game, the entire group gets to participate in Tolkienian sub creation.

But that’s not the point of Conan, and it also is one of the major features attracting me to it. Conan’s Hyborian Age is expected to be a pseudo-historical milieu, with a variety of times, places and cultures telescoped together so that the GM always has at his beck an analogous shorthand in which to set her adventures. It’s liberating. Gone is the map—or, rather, here is our map, festooned with dazzling and evocative names—Aquilonia, Argos, Zamora, and others—all as stage dressings against which the adventures of our heroes are played.

To reiterate, for a sandbox game, I make a map. A Conan game comes with one. I recognize, so far, that the “difference” here is superficial, perhaps even irrelevant. In a sandbox game, I can use someone else’s map. There are a gazillion settings materials published for D&D. I even can set D&D in the Hyborian Age.

Well then, since a settings comparison is irrelevant, what does one of these Conan adventures look like? I hazard that, with this consideration, we might be closing in on one difference.

Here is the skeleton of a Conan adventure, using the Modiphius GM Toolkit.

Opening Setting: Sewer System – Tempestuous

NPC: Nobility – Hostile

Hook: Close Friend

Draw: Called in Debt or Favor

Plot: Enact revenge for wrongdoing, misperceived or otherwise

Motive: Greed

Antagonist: One or more royal advisors

Trait: tortured

Kidnap powerful figure from otherworldly gateway

Obstacle: cross highly disputed territory

Twist: personal sacrifice required, letting antagonist escape saves lives

Not too procedurally different from the sandbox adventure, is it? I think there is just one, however, and that is in the inclusion of an opening scene. Conan play encourages sessions to open in media res. I’m going to keep arguing with myself: this can be done with D&D, too. In fact, such an approach might even be common. I’ve heard more than one person say that there is no better way to get a small-talking group to focus up at the beginning of a session than to say, “Roll for initiative.”

Yet, in my sandbox game, I’m not likely to do this. It seems to me that part of the “strategy” of old school play is the opportunity for informed player preparation for an encounter. If I were to spring a Conan-esque “opening scene” on my D&D players, I’m sure I’d hear some variation of “Wait, who, where, what now? How did we get here?” I could tell them, I could make something up, and they invariably would say, “But I wouldn’t have done that!” And, I maintain, they would be justified. Springing such a thing on them would be in violation of the D&D gaming script.

In contrast, the Conan GM is encouraged—even expected—to throw PCs into a tense opening situation with little or no chance for character preparation. The players are welcome to ask, “How did we get here?” And the GM should be able to answer them. But this, it seems to me, is a fundamental difference between two games. The consensual script for a sandbox game reads something like: this is where you’re going, this is what that place should look like, this is your expected reward. The opening of a Conan game is more like: waves of wailing Picts, all wielding tomahawks, stream—as if they are their living embodiments—from the trees. Their ululating mouths are open so wide that you can see right down their gaping throats. The swings of their axes whir through the air. Heroes go first.

Solo Gamer-ing in the Time of Coronavirus

The situation is frightening.

I am very fortunate that I am able to self-isolate, in relative comfort, with my immediate family, in a very spacious house. (Some of my external family is on the front lines, particularly a daughter in the grocery industry, who recently was sent home because she had a fever and a cough). The three of us at home—Mom, Pops, Son—work on various projects throughout the day. Mom dragged out the sewing machine yesterday, Son does whatever preschool children do throughout a no-school day (it typically entails engaging in whatever is occupying the parents at the time), and Pops’s projects shall be detailed later.

In the evenings we watch, on YouTube, about three episodes of the original 90s Moomin TV series. Son absolutely adores the books, so, some weeks ago, Pops investigated the video series as a subject for movie night, which used to be held exclusively on one night every weekend. Now, during this sequestration, movie night is every night.

There’s uncanny symmetry between the Moomin family and my own immediate one. The fictive one consists of Moominmamma, Moominpappa, and Moomintroll (who is referred to as just “Moomin” in the series). To qualify this correlation, I should mention that Son idolizes and imagines himself to be the resourceful and heroic vagabond Snufkin, though this even further identifies him, in my own mind, with Moomintroll, because Moomintroll feels similarly in regards to his wandering friend.

There’s another compelling similarity between the Moomins (the books especially) and our own current lives. The plots of most Moomin stories entail an encroaching disaster, such as a great flood or a nearing comet. My life these days has been underscored by reflecting on a new Moomin novel, one perhaps titled The Moomins and the Spreading Sickness. Though Son knows such vocabulary now as “coronavirus” and “Covid-19,” we in the family most often refer to it as “the Sickness,” used by Son in such ways as, “Don’t let the Sickness get you!” In my mind I’ve even started drafting an unauthorized Moomin sequel:

It is Spring in Moominvalley; as happens every year, Snufkin heralds his return to the home of his best friend by sitting on the rail of the footbridge leading to Moominhouse and drawing a few plaintive notes out of his mouth harp. Moomintroll runs toward his returned friend: “Snufkin!” But Snufkin abruptly gains his feet and, standing stolidly, says in his authoritative voice of command, “No, Moomintroll, do not come any closer. I might have the Sickness. I have come to warn you. The Sickness is coming. Spread the word, but do not get too close. You all must stay in your homes until the Sickness passes.”

I believe I was one of the early adopters of social isolation. On the Wednesday night that the U.S. President suddenly started believing that this pandemic was maybe a little bit serious, I already had taken it upon myself to cancel game night for the foreseeable future. Then I bought some Army Painter paints for miniature painting. I already had resolved to try out the hobby, having helped Kickstart a new set of Monolith Conan gaming supplies, and believing it was an activity that I could do with Son (it was/is, but his preschool interest in it is diminishing).

I’m surprised at how much I enjoy it! I never imagined I would like it so much, since, years ago, I decided it was so much easier for me to paint a color with a few well chosen words than to labor away with a pen or palette and brush. But it’s like adult coloring. It’s immersive. And, afterwards, you can play with your results! The image above represents my first efforts, with Runebound figures. You can see I’m using their color palettes. I want to practice up before putting paint to my Conan minis. The picture below is my second batch, before a wash (I’m going to use a lighter one this time), likewise Runebound (though the Hobbit is Descent, same thing 😁–Tomble Burrowell is going to represent my 1e character Hemulen [that’s a Moomin reference!] the Happy).

A week later, I was wondering about gaming online. The campaign I had been running, before a forced hiatus, had been Modiphius’s 2d20 Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. I investigated various online platforms, deciding on, because of my minimal requirements, Discord. I set up a channel and invited my two gamers, cautioning that I was not yet certain that I was ready to fully explore this medium. At the time of this writing neither gamer has even accepted the channel invitation.

GM Gebir is me–all alone with DiceParser in my Discord channel! 😔

So I looked again at solo gaming. Over the years, I’ve acquired a few products dedicated to the practice, but, it seems to me, most of them are more or less traditional games that involve an “engine” that essentially helps the player make decisions about what should happen in the fiction.

To me, this simply is a more structured—perhaps the better term should be “inspirational”—form of traditional fiction writing. There has been tension between my writing and my roleplaying since my earliest interactions with the practice. I identified as a writer first, since my second grade, and my interest in roleplaying emerged out of a desire to more actively escape the world—through some avatar that more or less represented “me”—with my friends. Well, I seldom played, since, introducing the practice first to my neighborhood, then to my “brothers of the heart” met in middle school, the burden usually was on me to GM. Moreover, on those occasions when someone else GMed, since none of my friends were sufficient writers (though one was an amazing line artist), I didn’t exactly “escape” into their fictions.

Resolved to be the regular GM, my tension between writing and gaming resulted from not wanting to “waste” my best ideas on roleplaying scenarios and from being dissatisfied when my players took my narrative in a direction that became insensible to me. I have vivid memories of becoming so immersed and overawed by my work on an rpg component—be it an NPC, a plot, or world building—that I felt compelled to take my little flame of imagination away from my friends alone into my room to nurture it into a bonfire of a novel.

In my current years, I’ve given up this measure of control over my rpg experience—and I’ve given up, mostly, writing fiction. To explain my philosophical and existential reasons for the latter is not necessary here, but, to return to where I began, the muscles exercised in solo gaming, to me, have remarkable consonance with fiction writing. And vice versa. I once read an interview in which Ursula K. Le Guin referred to her writing process as a “game.” This impressed me for the obvious reasons. Also, many writing “exercises,” designed for boosting creativity and demolishing writer’s block, are mini games to the process. And many pulp writers relied on the same sorts of “adventure generators” now used by rpg home brewers.

So I started a “solo game” with 2d20, because the adventure generators in Modiphius’s Conan GM Screen are glorious, because I wanted to play a sword & sorcery analogue to myself, as a form of escapism, and because I want to remain conversant with the 2d20 system for when—and if—this pandemic resolves and I am able to get back to the literal table with my players. I am “gaming,” in a way, and also writing some Conan-esque pulp out of the experience. I’m going to close this post here, with every intention of returning to this topic later during this time of physical isolation.


P.S. Regular readers might wonder about the abrupt finish to my last “The Way I Play” series. I didn’t mean for it to end that way, but my game—having become 2d20 Conan—no longer was that old school method of roleplaying. When my mind is again in that space—when I next am running an old school sandbox—I should be inspired to continue. I have yet to write in depth about the Referee—or GM—side of things.

The Way I Play: Adventuring and Magic Use

Adventuring

This is the catch-all category of player-facing rules. The beauty with old school methods of play, as I’ve already suggested in my Skills section, is that specific in-game situations usually are best resolved through mini-games, which should be devised, with the players, right at the table. Some of these spontaneous mechanisms result in precedents. Here are a few that I’m considering or that my group already employs.

Death. Expiration occurs at negative Constitution score. In general, PCs who are dropped below 0 lose 1 hp/rd till death. This can be averted by any character taking a round to “stabilize” the fallen comrade or NPC, at which point the downed character ceases losing hp/rd. (If I utilize any of my “bleeding” house rules, hp/rd might be increased from 1.)

I should add here, for I don’t foresee a more convenient place in which to include it, that every PC, at creation, receives +5 hp to the character’s initial HD roll. These bonus hp are derived from Middle-Earth Role Playing.

Bind Wounds. I use the WhiteBox house rule that allows characters, directly after a fight, to bandage wounds for 1d4 hp. This requires one uninterrupted Turn (10 minutes). (Someone has told me that this is kind of like a “short rest” in 5e.)

Healing. Trying to prevent a “high magic” game, I allow PCs to cure one HD of hits per full, relatively comfortable night of rest. (I’m told this also is familiar to 5e.) Wounds that result in penalties to activity generally can be treated with Cure Light Wounds. Otherwise I suppose it takes 1d4 days per point of negative activity, with proper care, to recover.

Subdual Damage. Most rules I have seen for beating someone into unconsciousness equate to penalizing the party that is not trying to kill its opponent. Consequently, I rule that a party simply can elect to render an adversary unconscious, still inflicting full damage, without penalty. I also use Matt Finch’s (quite elegant, to me) rules for Unarmed Combat.

I suppose that a character attempting to grapple an armed opponent should either result in full weapon damage on the grappler or a negative modifier on that character’s “to hit” roll.

Turning the Undead. In general, any character with a holy symbol, be she a Cleric or otherwise, may attempt to Turn the undead as a Level 1 Cleric (see Equipment). Anyone (including Clerics), upon failing a Turn, can attempt again at -2. If this too fails the character must Save or become paralyzed with Fear and Unbelief (-2 to actions) for the duration of the encounter or even longer.

Getting Lost. Any Rangers in the party subtract their level from the Referee’s percentage roll of the party getting lost. If the party does get lost, one with a Ranger deviates course on a 2 in 6. Parties without a Ranger deviate on a 4 in 6.

Arcane Magic

A “prepared” spell (one memorized in the morning) may be cast almost immediately. All the preparations for it have been performed; it’s reliant only on a “trigger”—a word or a gesture—so these spells “go off” in the Movement and Missile phase (essentially at the beginning of the combat round).

If the caster elects to cast a spell he or she knows but has not “prepared,” this must be “declared” in the Declare Spells phase, and the spell must be “cast” in the Melee Combat and Spells phase with a successful Saving Throw minus the spell level. These spells replace available prepared spell “slots.”

When a caster is out of spells but still wishes to cast, hp can be burnt to fuel them (1d4 per spell level). Spells cast in this way still are subject to the Saving Throw as described above.

Spell casters may wear armor, but this protection subjects the caster to a chance of Spell Failure. This chance is # in 6 according to the armor type. For example, wearing Leather armor would cause a 2 in 6 chance of Spell Failure. Plate armor would cause automatic failure. However, a Dex of 15+ offsets this chance by 1.

In general, Magic-users cannot cast while in melee combat. Staffs and wands, however, can be used without penalty.

If the caster is violently struck while spell casting, there is a chance that the spell will fail. The caster must Save minus the spell level and minus the hp of damage taken.

If a 1 during any spell casting Save ever is made, detrimental effects may result from the spell failure.

Divine Magic

Essentially, divine casters have access to all their known spells without penalty. Spells “memorized” in the morning may be cast at the beginning of the round, just as an arcane caster’s prepared spell. Casting a different spell can be done without penalty (as long as spell slots are available), though these must be “declared,” and they fire during the Melee and Spells phase (in other words, they are the result of a prayer). Once spell slots are exhausted, divine casters may burn hp (1d6 per spell level) for more, much as arcane casters. In general, divine casters are not subject to Saving Throws because of unorthodox spell use.

The Way I Play: Combat

Next to spell-casting, the component of Rolemaster that I wish greatly influences my game—and I’m continuously seeking ways to work it in—is Rolemaster combat, with its armor types and its attack and critical tables. This begs the question, of course: why don’t I just use them? Believe me, it’s a question I ask myself nearly every time I sit down with my books, and the first answer is the one that most people, those that often denigrate Rolemaster as “Chartmaster,” often give: it’s too much.

And yet regular ol’ D&D isn’t enough for me. I’m constantly negotiating between the dual impulses of efficacy at the game table and the desire for simulationism in my combats. The first way that this sneaked into my game was through Fumbles, after I had acceded to giving my PCs double damage (I have them roll double dice, not multiply the values of their rolls), even though Matt Finch advises against such an extreme effect.

It’s worth pausing here to interrogate a few design considerations. Finch makes clear, elsewhere in his rules, that if any bonuses or benefits are to be handed out, the top end should be +/- 4, which is the equivalent to striking an invisible opponent or shooting someone through an arrow slit. The disparity between this and RM becomes evident when one converts the RM2 bonus of striking a combatant from behind, +35 on an open-ended roll (an “OE roll” means to roll again and add or subtract the result, the positive or negative direction depending on 96+ or 5-) and +2 in Swords & Wizardry (+4 for Assassins and Thieves) on a d20 in which the 20 always hits and the 1 always misses. The RM modifier on a d20 is a +7, which is well outside of Finch’s cap of +/- 4. If, as Finch says, the far end of a variable never should exceed +/- 4, that means that nothing—in combat, at least—should exceed a 20% variability, which is well under the RM 50% (+10) probability of striking a prone or Stunned target.

I don’t know if Finch’s is an accurate judgment, but I use it, more or less. He wants to avoid “swinginess” in the probabilities, I think, and maybe he wants to mitigate the PC-lethal qualities of the game. I have done this by allowing PC hit points to fall to the negative values of their Constitution scores before character death, as in RM. Also, though I allow my PCs to dish out double damage on 20s—let’s face it: it’s the house rule legacy with which we all must contend—my NPCs don’t necessarily reciprocate. Kobolds, for example, might be entitled to, at most, +1 to damage on a 20. But others…

I mentioned I brought in Fumbles. This occurred after I sensed that my players expected something—anything problematic to their characters’ purposes—to happen when they rolled a 1, in correspondence to their crushing 20s. I started by simply narrating something applicable to the fiction occurring, during the moments, at the table. But it’s also fun to roll and “see what you get,” and it’s also helpful to have a table on hand for whenever inspiration fails.

Building this, naturally, had me considering more interesting critical hits. In a previous S&W campaign I had been using RM critical tables pretty much unaltered, using a second d20 roll, modified by Class, situation and weapon, to determine the severity. But I quickly became unsatisfied with this method, first with the frequently unexceptional result, second with everything that had to be tracked—from loss of activity to hits/rd because of Bleeding to # rds Stunned to location of the strike.

So, this time, I tried to design from first principles. Much of what I desired in critical effects, unsurprisingly, ended up coming directly from the RM critical tables, but I sought a way to minimize the bookkeeping. I also found myself emulating something else I love about RM attack tables—the relationship between offense and defense, or certain types of weapons vs specific armors. Here is the final draft of that endeavor.

I have run one session with this, and, since the PCs primarily fought Kobolds that day, most of these effects were unnecessary and irrelevant. Those looking closely at the table, moreover, will find that effects on NPCs usually are abstracted, in relation to minor creatures, and nullified for many large or special monsters. This had me wondering what, really, the purpose for all this was.

So, unsurprisingly, I went back and simplified it. I’m thinking about, when relevant, letting players choose one of these effects for critical hits. For strikes against them, I’ll follow the fiction or determine an effect with a roll.

It remains here to point out a few other RM innovations in my S&W. This is the relationship between armor and weapons. If one studies the RM attack tables, that person will recognize that it is quite easy to “hit” a heavily armored character, but it is more difficult to “penetrate” that armor and deliver a critical hit. I should add that a critical strike in an RM game tends to be combat-ending, if not life-ending, which makes physical confrontation in that rules system very different from that in the average classic D&D game. Actually, this puts me in mind of a comparison I hear being commonly voiced these days, that armed conflict in old school D&D is “war,” whereas in newer iterations it is “sport.” If this is true, then I would suggest that differences in combat between early D&D and RM is the difference between war and “carnage.”

This line of inquiry has brought me to the verge of design considerations that I’m not certain I have the expertise with which to address. A close examination reveals that RM and D&D combat are quite different. I have already pointed out how RM armor functions. Moreover, in RM, hit points are “concussion hits;” it is very difficult to die because of loss of them, but it is possible to get knocked out. In contrast, in D&D, “hits are the thing;” characters lose them at their grave peril. D&D hits also generally heal much more slowly, whereas in my favorite version of RM they recover at 1/hr. So, to return to the RM armor, heavily-armored characters tend to lose a lot more hit points, but, if they have proper “Body Development” (aka “hit points”), they can shrug this off until, after a particularly long combat, becoming exhausted and overwhelmed, whereas lightly armored characters generally avoid most strikes against them, but, wherein they err, they tend to get heavily damaged through a critical hit.

This is remarkably different from the D&D armor and attack system, of course. In D&D, heavy armor protects characters from being “hit” at all. Moreover, unless the 1e rules that few people use are in play, the efficacy of various weapons is no different vs different types of armor. In RM, this difference is inherent in the attack tables (or subject to modifiers, if the simplified MERP charts are in use). Also, RM characters possess two more defensive resources: a Defensive Bonus based on the use of a Shield and/or Quickness or Agility (in D&D both of these values are figured into Armor Class, aiding the “all or nothing” avoidance) and Parry. This latter requires a character’s Offensive Bonus to be manipulated: a portion of it can be set aside for deflecting enemy attacks, in the form of more DB.

Aspire2hope has done the best work I have seen in describing RM combat. If you are interested in more detail, I recommend you check it out. RM combat is so much different from D&D combat that it requires different roleplaying. In describing “combat as war” in D&D, commentators advise PCs to try to get monster treasure without fighting the creatures. But a fundamental reason why so many play D&D is to roll a d20 and hit some monsters. Armed conflict is a very real reason for why we play; it is a core feature of our enjoyment in the hobby. Since RM combat is even deadlier, the advice for PCs to avoid armed conflict is even more strident, and it is a major learning curve for gamers new to the system who are approaching it from D&D. They’re eager to roll on those combat charts—a system so lovingly detailed that it must be the “point” of the game (it counter-intuitively, I am told, is not—but, as a young gamer, all I wanted to do was fight Orcs and roll on a critical table). They’re also trying to get a critical, expending all of their OB, not reserving any for Parry and thereby leaving themselves open for counterattack. Many criticize RM for being “CharGen” (the character creation process is involving), and then player characters promptly die (usually because the players haven’t been properly briefed about the qualitative difference between combat in this game in relation to others).

Whew. What’s my point here? Well, hopefully my point is that I love the detail and simulationism inherent in RM combat. It takes up a lot of table time, however, and it also, because its design considerations are so different, doesn’t plug neatly into a d20 chassis. Here are two elements I have managed to synthesize, however:

Armor. Attacks landing within two integers of AC of characters in Plate will cause 1 hp of damage. 1 hp will be caused within one integer for characters in Chain.

Parry. Characters can use their “to-hit” bonus to parry attacks. This always is a minimum of +1 (even if the bonus is +0).

The Way I Play: Alignment, Equipment and Encumbrance

I use the Swords & Wizardry alignments of Good, Evil, and Ambiguous. I don’t need my moral universe any more particular than this, though I recognize that the nine-vector system (or more) of other editions might be a useful guide for roleplaying.

With my current home group, I haven’t had the need to leverage Alignments to any appreciable degree. The possibility is there, though. The Dwarf Fighter sometimes pushes, out of Neutral, very close to Chaotic. Our Paladin character is quite Lawful but belongs to an Order that is committed to burning witches.

My home group, right now, is a likeminded assemblage of adults who are about my own age (44), so the possibility of Alignment restrictions hasn’t come up. I’ve had enough experience gaming in public locations now, though, that I wouldn’t hesitate to require all PCs to be some form of Good. I have listened to Referees and rpg commentators describe in-game consequences for heinous character actions, but I’d rather avoid unsavory play entirely—and morally troubling play often has a tendency to assert itself, as PCs get used to taking what they want and defying average townsfolk to do anything about it.

Rpg commentators also routinely have said that, to determine what a game is about, study its rules for what components receive the most detail. I find Equipment lists suitable for this exercise. It’s fascinating that nearly every retroclone and original edition of the Game contains, in their equipment lists, items such as holy symbols (wood or iron), holy water, wolfsbane, and wooden stakes, but these usually provide very little guidance for how these tools are to be used mechanically during play. This, of course, is a dizzying and exciting opportunity to learn the benefits of the unusual items during the action of the game, but I have found that most players, if they have any gaming experience prior to sitting down at my own table, tend to settle into default understandings arising from formalized later editions. For example, no Fighter is likely to purchase or wear a holy symbol, because everyone knows that the only use for such a trinket is for Clerics, who use them to Turn undead.

Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter (first in the Deed of Paksennarion), however, presents many soldiers, as faithful people, doing just that—buying and wearing their deities’ holy symbols for “luck” during combat. Sometimes these fetishes are presented as maybe doing something subtly supernatural and beneficial. In the hands of a true Cleric or Paladin, of course, these symbols have even greater powers, but my point here appears to be that everything on the Equipment list should provide some measure of use to just about anybody.

Garlic, charmed. Some undead, particularly Vampires, must Save to approach the would-be victim. Charmed garlic provides -2 to the Save. Old, dry garlic decreases in efficacy (giving bonuses to the undead’s Save).

Holy symbol, wooden. Non-Clerics can attempt to Turn undead 1/day at -2 (usually at Cleric level 1), symbol burns to ash after failure. The symbol also may be used for an additional Save (luck) 1/day.

Holy symbol, silver. Non-Clerics can attempt to Turn undead (as above) without penalty. It also can provide an additional Save 1/day at +1 to the attempt. Clerics can use this with +1 to Turning attempts.

Holy water, flask. Can dispel Evil magic (magic must Save). As weapon against undead, acts as flaming oil (1d4+1 +1 in following rd).

*all of these may be used as a means of defense vs Evil and Undead, for a short time (usually 1d4 rds). Symbols are held forth (wood might require a Save or be burned), water is sprinkled onto the ground. In all cases, the creature so opposed might be allowed a Save.

Spellbook, blank. Hmm. Someone play a Magic-user!

Wolfsbane. As with garlic (above). Efficacy decreases with age.

Encumbrance, as has become standard with so many game groups, is a matter of common sense. My players are fair and usually can be trusted to self-regulate. Every once in awhile I might ask after everything that a certain character might be carrying, which can result in some embarrassment and quick modifications. It helps that, in old school games, excess weight tends to penalize movement speed, not activity. I imagine that characters can pretty quickly become unencumbered by, during a movement phase or right before combat, tossing aside a pack or sack to be regained later—as long as the PCs don’t need to flee.

The only character burdens I track with any real care are coins. I have borrowed this directly from the Smoldering Wizard. Basically, every 1200 coins (+600 for character Str 15+) reduces speed by one increment. 1200 coins fit into a large sack, 600 into a small.

The Way I Play: Class and Race

After reflecting on last post, I should assert, again, that PCs have the opportunity to develop “skills” through gameplay and background. Here are a couple examples. In my current game, a Ranger character became patron to a cult, shelter and school for women. Osric (as the Ranger’s name was) recently died, but were he still to be living, he quite naturally would be learning all he could about the River Daughters (as the sorority is called). My Dwarf Fighter comes from a family of merchants, so I allow him to Appraise almost anything he finds without fail, especially when it comes to stones and worked metals—his heritage as a Dwarf serves him well.

Osric, our Ranger, perished in battle with a Troll. After the surviving two PCs dispatched it, the question emerged from my players as to whether their characters would know how to permanently kill a regenerating Troll. This I placed under the category of “player skill”—we all know to burn a Troll. This would make sense in the fiction, as well, as common sense and folklore—as ubiquitous as the most popular fairy tales—held by all in the fantasy world. This does not mean, though, that players should be allowed to page through a Monster Manual during and after every encounter with a creature. This, then, would not represent “common knowledge.” If the PC chose to purchase—in game—such a tome, such an action might be allowed.

Okay, with those last observations I move onto the topic of Class and Race in my game. It’s interesting that those two categories are inverted, in Swords & Wizardry and the structure that I’m loosely following in this series, because, in most later iterations of the Original Game, these two concepts are switched: Race is decided on first, then Class. This makes sense. First one is born, then one develops a career. What’s more important, in Swords & Wizardry (and other games like it), Race restricts what Class options are available. These restrictions are listed in the Swords & Wizardry Class descriptions, so there really isn’t any confusion here, though the structure could be a subtle push towards the primacy of the Referee: Human might be considered the default Race unless the player chooses to ask her or his Referee about Race options. I should also note that, in nearly every modern version of the Original Game and its derivatives, the word “Race” has been replaced with “Kin” or “Culture.” It appears that Race might contain some unintended connotations.

I’m going to glance through the list of Classes and record any thoughts, modifications or additions I have.

I use this sort of thing pretty much as is. HD, for every class, following a feature of Middle-Earth Role Playing, receives a bonus +5 to hit points only at character creation. I know that Armor/Shield/Weapons Permitted often are contentious with players. My own DM allows Magic-users to use swords “because Gandalf used one.” But so far none of my players have pushed back against any of these constraints. Then again, they’re all playing Fighter-types right now. I suppose that, were I to have a Magic-user that wanted to use a sword, I’d allow that character to operate at -2 to his or her attack rolls. I’d allow this ability to be improved, in the midst of game time and, perhaps, with a penalty to casting ability (to account for the attention and development diverted from this pursuit).

Likewise I would allow Magic-users to wear armor while casting, but they would be subject to a spell failure check. This consideration probably comes from Rolemaster. RM2, in accordance with 1e, for which it initially was designed, specifies that arcane (or Essence) casters cannot wear armor. However, the spell-casting tables appear to make provisions for armor in the presence of penalties to be applied for the use of this protection. RM also applies an armor penalty to Moving Maneuvers. I reflect both of these considerations in my Swords & Wizardry game: casters using armor must succeed at a d6 roll (at or under the # of protection provided) or be subject to Spell Failure (the specifics of which I shall formalize should any of my gamers play a caster); likewise, anyone trying to Sneak or do anything particularly active in armor must make an armor check according to the same sort of roll. For example, someone in Plate can only succeed on a d6 roll of more than 6. The only way to realistically accomplish this, then, is with magical or lighter armor or with a Dex adjustment resulting from 15+.

Hmm. Any other changes? Clerics get a bonus spell for high Wis, per Matt Finch’s recommendation. Rangers reduce chance of getting lost in the wilderness (to be covered later) by their levels. If lost, their courses also deviate less than they do for other characters. I think that’s it, for now. Of course, most changes players might want to make are negotiable. I should add that I have made some quite radical alterations to spell-casting, which would affect any caster’s abilities. But, again, I don’t currently have anyone playing a caster, and my proposed changes shall be covered much more extensively later.

Races restrictions and level caps? I use both as written. I always have been interested in “Race as Class” systems—I believe this approach functions well with my concept of fantasy beings, for, for me, Dwarfs and Elves, etc., are Otherworldly and should be built accordingly. Therefore these restrictions model this in a satisfying way for me. I also admire the rule in MERP that, for Elven characters, Presence (Charisma) must be one of the PCs’ highest stats. But I suppose the racial limitations in Swords & Wizardry satisfactorily covers my preference both for Race as Class and impressive Elves. I also appreciate that Swords & Wizardry re-identifies 1e’s racial “infravision” as “darkvision.” “Predator-vision,” as I call it, seems very strange to me in a non-monstrous PC. I also like how bonuses and modifiers involving combat with various creatures, in addition to knowing their languages, aren’t included. These sorts of things should be resolved at individual tables.

I write the above as if Swords & Wizardry postdates 1e. Of course, it is published later in the historical timeline, but the content that Complete comprises (so Finch says) is everything up to the eve of the release of 1e.

The Way I Play: Abilities and Skills

My last post, in which I detail how Rolemaster influences my Swords & Wizardry stat generation, had me wondering what benefits the various Classes might enjoy were they to have a Prime Attribute of 16+ and not the 15 any rolled value can become as long as it is placed into a Prime Attribute. Perusing the rule book, I find that Assassins possess three Prime Attributes, that Druids possess two. 1e gamers at my table sometimes are confused that, in Swords & Wizardry, these Prime Attributes don’t constitute minimum scores with which to qualify for the various Classes but that having the relevant scores in these areas only awards an xp bonus. In other words, in Swords & Wizardry, whatever one’s attributes, one can play whatever Class one desires.

Most Classes’ Prime Attributes are either Strength (for Fighter-types), Dexterity (for Thieves—Assassins use this and two others), and Wisdom (Clerics, Monks, and Druids—with one other). A Strength of 16+ already confers a benefit greater than that of 15. With high Wisdom, I can award a bonus spell along the same lines as a 16+ Intelligence as explained last post, though I have some house rules for divine casters that might nullify this. For Dexterity, which mostly interacts with Thieves, I think I’ll just use the 16+ Thief Skills Dex adjustments as they are presented in OSRIC. I think I will likewise use this as a model for awarding something similar to Monks with Wis of 16+, only the skills affected in this way will be more Wis based than Dex based, skills such as Hear Sounds and Hide in Shadows.

Readers might wonder why I’m exploring these options now in a series that ostensibly is about the “way I play.” It’s because these questions haven’t come up before; my PCs right now are Dwarf Fighter, Human Paladin, and Human Ranger (recently deceased—I hope that player makes a Magic-user next; I want to explore magic-using possibilities).

While I am on the subject of Skills, I might as well say that, in my game, the Class Abilities at my current table represent (as Kevin Madison of Dungeon Musings recently characterized OSR Skills) superpowers. In other words, any character can attempt to Hide in Shadows or Climb or even Pick a Lock, but only Classes with these specific Skills have this last, absolute resource, and, if the percentage roll succeeds, they can accomplish the superhuman, such as vanishing into the shadows or spider-climbing sheer surfaces.

Skills? There are no Skills. Mostly.

I recently saw yet another OSR genre emulation on Kickstarter, and the way the designers described their approach to their rules made me think, “Hey, that’s my way.” My way isn’t my way, of course, but something implicit in the Original Game that these current designers, for me, now have made explicit. Largely, in OSR gameplay, there are three mechanics at work (outside of the largest and most obvious one, of course—roleplaying): the d20 roll, mostly for Attacking and Saving; the # in 6, derived from Attributes, mostly for Kicking Down Doors; and the percentile roll, mostly for Skills specific to Thieves. Those designers on Kickstarter enumerated these for their game. That one in the middle they called “The Rule of 2.”

The Rule of 2 doesn’t exactly apply to Skills, but I use it this way. I see that Jeffrey Talanian, with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, has used the d6 for an articulation of attribute “Tests” and has expressed Thief abilities as # in 12. Most characters, in any OSR game, have a 2 in 6 chance to Open Doors or to discover a secret passage, up or down for high or low stats or special character qualities.

But, in testing these abilities, of course, it is the fiction that has the most bearing. As a group, at our table, my gamers and I determine what the probabilities for success might be for any unusual action. And some calculations, because of the fiction, are obviously null. A Cleric can identify a heretical sect. A Druid can recognize a plant. A Magic-user can decipher an arcane symbol, a Ranger can forage for supper in the wild. Is there a chance, because of circumstances, that they can’t? Fine, then. Roll a 2 in 6 to succeed.

Here’s another way to put it. A group is trying to disarm a trap. After some investigating and roleplaying, they either lift the cord off the hook while maintaining tension throughout and preventing the business end from doing its job, or they lift the cord without maintaining tension through some certain means (2 in 6 it activates, or, if there is a Thief present, additionally roll the superpower Disarm Traps for a deus ex machina).

The Rule of 2 likewise is useful for emergent storytelling, a tool I perhaps will detail later. For now, though, I will say I use it as a divination rod, as runestones, as tea leaves, or as a magic 8-ball to answer in-game player questions that I haven’t anticipated. Many modern gaming styles adopt the improv acting rule of “Yes, and.” With this approach, if a player asks if there’s a candlestick in the room, the Referee says “Yes and [something relevant].” If the PC is looking for an improvised weapon, the Referee might describe it as lead and heavy at its base, like a club. If the PC is looking for a light, the Ref might say that there also is a box of matches beside it. That sort of thing. In my game, a roll of 1 is an unqualified “Yes.” A 2 is “Sure.” Anything more is “Probably Not, Tell Me More.”

Skills… You probably can see that my approach involves the OSR mantra of “player skill,” not “character skill.” I have heard that this doesn’t work if the group has an untrustworthy Referee, but I don’t see how an unfair DM would be able to keep a group anyway. I have heard that it is difficult for some groups to find a GM. In other words, the word on the street is that there are many players (or potential players) but a dearth of DMs. If this is true, perhaps it’s because of the greater amount of preparatory work, dramatic sensibilities, rules savvy and all around ego required for the role of Referee.

Whatever the case, outside of the OSR—and perhaps these new “Indy” story games—it seems the industry standard is skills in rpgs. As I have said, in my game, whenever my table decides that a skill roll is called for, we tend to go with a kluged # in 6. This, in general, is what I use for intentional activities on the PCs’ part, whenever there is a chance for failure and whenever a botched attempt might be interesting. Saving Throws I use as reactionary, though sometimes they have some purposes that are remarkably similar to intentional activities.

It’s interesting to explore the skill mechanics of other systems. What seems to be the most standard in Original Game rpgs is a d20 roll, adding attribute and skill modifiers to match or exceed a difficulty score. It seems to me that, especially when skills can be developed level by level, these rolls and targets can grow ludicrously large. There also is the Saving Throw as a model, also something that progressively improves as the character gains levels. Though not “skills,” precisely, there are Talanian’s # in 6 Attribute tests or the almost-ubiquitous roll-d20-under-attribute resolution. My own favorite method here uses a bell curve: roll #d6 under attribute, the number of dice being contingent on difficulty, with 5d6 generally being on the top end of difficulty. All of these are potential tools for the Referee, but I prefer to settle on a # in 6.

Since I have professed such a love for RM, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention its skill resolution; I also should say that my preference for OSR play here pushes me far away from RM’s ethic, for, as one RM gamer said to me once on the Iron Crown Enterprises forums, “RM is Skills.” I’m not considering using RM skills or its method of advancement, as attractive as they are. RM once sold itself as the fantasy rpg that allowed gamers to make whatever characters they wanted. Essentially, in RM, a Fighter character can learn magic—with a tax: a Fighter, predisposed to a certain discourse, required a greater expense than others in learning magic skills. I would entertain Fighter-magic in my current game; if a non-caster expressed a desire to learn some magic skills, I’m sure we could work something out—slowly, in game, in the midst of a satisfying fiction. Generally, though, my players have chosen their Classes because they feel comfortable working within the parameters of their selected archetypes.

What I am interested in using is RM’s Skill resolution system, it’s Maneuver Table. I’ve always been impressed with how elegant and comprehensive it is. The table is used in the following way: make an open-ended roll (d100—95+ means roll again and add the result, -5 means roll again and subtract the result), add skill bonus and modifiers, consult the table, cross-referenced to the GM’s ruling of difficulty. What I like is that, usually, the result can be interpreted in either one of two ways: a number, a percentage result, indicates how much of an activity has been accomplished in a certain period of time; but, if the action is strictly “succeed or fail” (like jumping over a pit), this is the percentage value that needs to be rolled under to effectively accomplish the task in one swoop (to continue with the parenthetical example, to seize the lip of the far end of the pit, cling on to it and pull up; alternatively, with a 70 result, the PC might make it just 70% across the chasm before plunging into the murky depths).

If I were to use the Maneuver Table for my current campaign, I’d allow the players to add their character levels x 5, plus whatever ability modifiers would result from their stats on the RM chart shared last blog, to an OE roll. Hmm. The Maneuver Table just might be a worthy tool at my table, just one of many methods that an OSR group might use, at any time, to resolve an action for which failure might be a possibility.

The Way I Play: A Swords & Wizardry Foundation with Rolemaster Sensibilities and House Innovations

Swords & Wizardry is my game of choice… sorta. Rolemaster is my game of choice… sorta. Swords & Wizardry is a little too simplistic. Though, since I use Complete—which some people compare to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1e—it’s not as basic as it would be were I using WhiteBox (an iteration of the very, very first Original Game). Rolemaster, alternatively, is way too much to use at the table effectively.

But here’s what’s similar between the two systems (besides their shared origins in Arneson’s and Gygax’s D&D): they both are toolkits. Matt Finch, with Swords & Wizardry, presents an articulation of the core structures of the Original Game. For the rest, he says, go and make it up. Early Rolemaster was precisely this: modular rules additions to 1e to be picked through and sorted and tweaked. The original additions were published in three separate volumes, each containing plenty of advice for customizing the possibilities to a range of systems. In order, they were Arms Law & Claw Law, Spell Law, and Character Law & Campaign Law. All three volumes together constitute a full game separate from D&D, but Coleman Charlton, designer of 1984+ Middle-Earth Role Playing, says (on Facebook) that one would be “crazy” to use all of the RM rules.

That doesn’t prevent large populations of people from doing just that, though, and many of them seem happy with their games. I envy them. I absolutely adore Rolemaster, but all of the granularity, all of the tracking of resources and conditions, all of the paging through charts and tables and applications of situations and modifiers drags the fantasy fiction at my tabletop to an utter standstill. This might be different were I to use E.R.A. (Electronic Roleplaying Assistant) to burble out most of this work for me, but (call me old school and tactile) that seems kind of counterintuitive and at odds with the experience of tabletop roleplaying. Though, if I were gaming online, or if I could get some people together for play-by-post, my attitude in these contexts certainly would be different.

Over the past few years I’ve run campaigns using Yggdrasill, MERP, Swords & Wizardry and Against the Darkmaster. Evidence of all of these campaigns can be found on this blog. I have run ten sessions now of my latest application of Swords & Wizardry, and I have found myself making so many modifications to it, many of them inspired by RM, that I have the desire to put them all neatly down here for myself and for posterity.

Creating a Character: Generating Attributes

We begin, as with most systems, with stats. My stats use primarily the Swords & Wizardry method—and the applications that derive from them—with an RM innovation. All stats are generated by rolling 3d6 six times. These can be assigned any way the player likes with the following option: one value (usually the lowest, for gamist purposes) can be transformed into a 15, with the qualification that it must be assigned to the player character’s Prime Attribute.

This option, of course, comes from RM. Except, in RM, players are rolling d100s to generate their stats, and they are generating ten of them, not six. I’m very attracted to the symmetry of ten stats for a percentile system (perhaps there is the converse of six stats for a system that was originally dominated by d6s?), but I don’t really see the use for so many. Perhaps even six stats is too granular. Most characters can be represented with just three: Mind, Body, and Soul. Whatever the case, six stats suits me just fine (as is the case with MERP, too), though I have wondered how my game would go were I to generate stats with percentiles instead of the 3d6s. RM has the player reroll any results lower than twenty (with the 3d6 system, a player is incapable of generating a result lower than 3), but making this change, however attractive for a variety of reasons that I shall leave out here, would require rewriting all of the Swords & Wizardry subtables associated with each stat. This is no big deal, really, but, for now, a change to a percentile stat system is something to mull over in my spare time.

My greatest attraction to percentile stats is a more efficacious system for attribute advancement that they provide. RM has its own system for increasing stats, of course, elegant in its own way, which involves generating stat potentials on a separate chart (or, alternatively, just rolling a second set of numbers) and checking for gains at each level advancement by rolling on a separate table. While messing around with MERP recently, I proposed to a MERP community simply increasing a stat of one’s choice by 1 at each level advancement (with some limitations I need not specify here). In a 3d6 system, this wouldn’t work: a one-point increase isn’t granular enough. I know some systems allow an increase every third level or so, but there’s something I hate about studying the class abilities in those games about what changes level to level.

More importantly, though, I like games, and I think stat investment, as with many other qualities of character creation and adventuring, should have a measure of risk and reward—well, in this case, maybe not any risk but tactics, at least.

Therefore, with each level advancement, I allow my players to make a roll, in an attempt to advance a stat, according to the following table. If the stat doesn’t increase, the player makes a hash mark next to the stat. If the player seeks to advance the stat again, at a later level, the chance of advancement is increased by one, and so on. This process starts over once the stat actually advances.

*My instinct, in first building this table, was to make low stats easy to increase, automatic at the lowest level and 1 in 4 until midrange, but my friend, player, and 1e DM convinced me that advancement should be more difficult at either extreme.

The overall mini game involved in rolling stats at character creation, of course, is whether that player is going to transform a stat into a 15, thereby placing it into a Prime Attribute, or whether the player rolled high enough stats overall to ignore or—worst case scenario and a common one—the player rolled only one high stat and it is over 15.

I make this a difficult choice for players, particularly those generating Fighters or Magic-users, because (at least in the case of Magic-users) I award an additional benefit for a Prime Attribute of 16+. Writing this now makes me consider if I should sweeten the pot and make a difficult decision for all Classes. Magic-users with 16+ receive the benefit of one bonus spell (any they know and of a level they can cast) once a day.

This probably is the beginning of a series in which I make my way throughout the entirety of the Swords & Wizardry rulebook, while recording my own observations and modifications.