Monday, December 4, 2023

A Staging Post for Adventure

Sometimes, you don't need an entire base town.

I recently started running one of the adventures from the OSE Adventure Anthology 2 for my young nephew (and others, but the game is primarily to show him the tabletop ropes). Neither of the anthologies come with a town of any kind. Most of the dungeons within are the kinds of low-level affairs where you can roll up new PCs and start them right at the entrance without issue. However, there is enough content here that a trip or two back to a haven to rest and restock seem likely. (Note: The same is even more true for other town-less low-level OSE adventures like A Hole in the Oak or The Incandescent Grottoes).

Given my nephew's unfamiliarity with the expectations of pen-and-paper RPGs, introducing a full base town in the middle of his first real delve could prove distracting. "Hey, there is the inn, and next door is a tavern, and over there is the smithy, and that's the thieves' guild ..." etc. etc. So, I sought an alternative.

One common and entirely valid alternative is to abstract the return to town. You don't need to go into detail regarding the people and places around town, just get in, get some gear, sleep, and get out.

My approach, though, is to offer a taste of town without too much distraction: a small staging post / coaching inn along the road, about half a day from town. Give it some personality so that he can experience a respite from the dungeon without so much to do that he loses momentum.

While I decided upon this approach to cater to a novice player, it could be useful for more experienced players as well. Maybe you want to run an adventure but the referee hasn't come up with a whole town yet. Maybe you aren't sure that you want to turn this adventure into a campaign that even needs a town. Maybe you haven't decided if you'll be going to Illmire or Brandonsford next and you aren't ready to commit.

If you fit into any of the categories above, check out the "A Staging Post" PDF for a small but detailed waypoint with an inn, a store, a few personalities, and some fun secrets. And, if you're interested in my "author's notes," keep reading after the download!


The premise of this point of interest is that it sits near a crossroads with a once-great trade route (in my game with my nephew, I called it the Royal Spice Road). Though there is a town "four leagues" away, any travelers just passing through could spot the buildings from the crossroads, rest for the evening, and continue along the trade route without delay in the morning.

However, I insinuate that trade has fallen on harder times, and that fewer travelers pass through this particular crossroads anymore. Perhaps this is because of whatever rumor or incident that your party is in the area investigating. Whatever the case, the waypoint isn't depicted as bustling with people. It's quiet and neither the innkeeper or the shopkeeper expect much traffic.

But, as I fleshed things out, the lack of site-based action gave me space to let the NPCs breathe a bit. They don't have anything to explain, any exposition to deliver, nor any fetch quests to offer. They can be people living their lives as opposed to people waiting around for PCs to show up. I enjoyed that freedom.

There are some secrets here to discover, if the players wish. But, I try to keep it passive. For example, I specifically say that the innkeeper will never ask you to take his wannabe-adventurer daughter along. He will let you if you ask, but the PCs have to initiate it. Later, if someone frees the whiskey-slurping Shadow, I suggest having it flee. The players may pursue if they wish, but not because they have to "protect the NPCs."

Finally, I need to shout out a few influences. The name for the "Shut Eye Inn" was inspired by Miranda Elkins' blog post The DM is a Shut Eye (which I heard about on the excellent Into the Megadungeon podcast). Herman's shield came from the treasure in one of Ktrey Parker's Dolmenwood Dozen. The "glamboge glim" and the magic dog whistle are from Sarah Grove's Sixty Pointless Items in Knock #2. And the "threshold putty" is roughly based on one of Chris McDowall's arcana from Into the Odd.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

A Silver Lining to Everything

Most of my 5e books still take up space on my shelf, despite not playing the system for years now. Occasionally, I will browse the monster books for some ideas. Mostly, they get dusty.

One book still gets opened frequently, though. Xanathar's Guide to Everything. Is it for the sub-classes? Definitely not. The spells that have been so meticulously balanced so as to remove all magic from them? Nope, not those either.

It's for pages 175 - 192: the lists upon lists of d100 names. Without a doubt, these rank at the top of 5e's lasting impact on my tabletop gaming life.

Long live random tables!

Random art with a table in it


Friday, July 14, 2023

What Happened to the Dungeon?

A post on Reddit asked for advice: what should a referee do (if anything) when higher level players return to a dungeon populated with lower level monsters? Users provided some solid responses, including:

  • Change nothing, it will remind them how powerful they have become
  • Evolve the dungeon over time: new monsters have moved in
  • Another adventuring party has already looted the place

Whatever choice one makes, I advise against considering "balance" as a major factor. Do not tune your encounters to make them all "level appropriate." Most good players will notice your heavy-handedness. If you're reading this, you probably already agree.

That said, in a sandbox where players can follow whatever leads they choose, the game world should not stand still waiting for them.

So, how should you determine what happens? Sometimes the answer will be obvious from the establishing fiction of the dungeon: the cultists finished their ritual, or the prisoner you were sent to rescue is already dead. When the answer isn't obvious, do what any good OSR referee does: consult a random table!

I created a d66 table to determine what happens to the dungeon while your party followed other leads. The results generally follow the reaction roll curve: lower results increase the challenge and higher results likely prove fortuitous in some way. Most results in the middle add complexity that isn't inherently good or bad.

What Happened to the Dungeon d66 Table

With these results you can simulate a living world without artificially tuning your dungeons to some "challenge rating" or relying solely on referee discretion. Enjoy!

EDIT: I created the same table in a slightly more attractive half-letter booklet format. I didn't like the way the original looked when printed.


What Happened to the Dungeon d66 Table (Booklet Version)

Monday, July 10, 2023

Scaling Up Player Tools

I often see a variation of this piece of advice in OSR circles:

Give players fun tools without specific applications and encourage them to use those tools in creative ways.

For example, many old-school spells exemplify this adage. They don't simply deal xd6 damage. Instead, they provide you with a tool in your toolbox - the power to warp wood or heat metal - and the spell descriptions lack the hyper-specific limitations included in the name of balance that you see in modern editions.

The principle behind the advice is that giving your players powerful tools without obvious uses enhances your game because it fosters creativity and lets players feel like they outsmarted the game. Use this advice, it's good. Don't try to balance your tools. Let your players "break" the game.

And, importantly, don't forget to employ this adage when your campaign transitions into the wilderness and domain tiers. Your tools don't have to necessarily be more powerful. You can scale them up in other ways: size, distance, duration, etc.

Some examples from my ongoing Age of Discovery campaign include:

  • A talking mountain who will let you hide inside its cavernous mouth to avoid magical or mundane detection
  • A lighthouse that, when lit, either enhances or repels magic
  • A well the purifies anything that passes through its opening
  • An entrance to a parallel realm with shortcuts to various places across the continent
A fantastic discovery waiting to break the world
A fantastic discovery waiting to break the world

All of these are tools in a party's toolbox. Need to lay low after making off with some hot treasure? Go hide in the talking mountain's mouth for a while. Need to sneak out a besieged army? Brave the freaky parallel realm's shortcut.

Open your mind to radical possibilities that the players suggest. Sure, the magic well purifies water. Is that water considered holy water if the blessing is maintained or enhanced? What happens if an undead creature crosses the threshold?

Too often I see referees saddle tools of all shapes and sizes with strange caveats to avoid making them "game-breaking" (whatever than means); lame restrictions like "you can only send fewer than 10 people into the parallel realm" or "you can only pass inanimate objects through the threshold of the magic well."

Restrain yourself from doing this with magic items and show the same restraint when your party starts discovering magic locations as well. Just like you let them unbalance an encounter with their magic dungeon loot, also let them change the world with their fantastic discoveries in the wilderness.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Posts from an Ill-Fated Zine, Part 2

You can enjoy any campaign - even one set in an Age of Discovery like the Last Continent - without any fancy classes. The “core four” presented in OSE Classic Fantasy - Cleric, Fighter, Thief, Magic-User - cover the basic archetypes and allow for endless variations. In fact, many argue that every character boils down to either Fighter or Magic-User.

However, a referee can use unique character classes to convey certain truths about a setting. A Cleric class insinuates that either monster hunters or crusaders - religious zealots of some sort - are commonplace. If the Cleric instead gets branded as a Missionary, that probably means they rely less on violence and more on social skills. It also strongly suggests that they seek to convert people to their cause.

Most of the classes used in the Last Continent take familiar abilities and remix them to fit better in the flavor and tone of the setting. For instance, the class showcased here - the Minuteman - takes the abilities of OSE Classic Fantasy’s Halfling class and frames them as those of a hardy frontiersman. It really can be as simple as that. My players have been using this class for nine months and have yet to realize that it's a "re-skinned" Halfling.

Minutemen wearing +1 tricorns of scowling

The Minuteman class draws inspiration from stories of early American colonists who styled themselves as a reluctant militia defending their homes and livelihoods from British oppression. American poets later romanticized these legends in works such as Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” and Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Friday, September 2, 2022

Posts from an Ill-Fated Zine, Part 1

Months ago, I considered releasing a zine that mixed my insights from running a successful Old-School Essentials hex crawl with some of my own adventure sites and a dash of custom classes and monsters. I wound up running out of steam during the layout process, but I figured I could at least release some of the content that I had already created here.

So, over the next few weeks, I will share bits and pieces as blog posts. These posts will reference my campaign setting, the Last Continent - a fantasy realm inspired by the Age of Discovery.

When I first envisioned this setting, I started with the following thesis: "the campaign should revolve around discovery. The world, characters, monsters, magic, abilities … everything must feel fresh and fantastic for the players." I chose the setting - literally, an age of discovery - to reinforce that thesis.

Is that a new world? Nope, just more water.

But, the real history of humanity's Age of Discovery comes with a lot of baggage. How can we play a game in that setting without making light of the atrocious acts and behaviors that characterized that era? The following note from the opening pages of my failed zine tries to address that question.

A NOTE ON COLONIAL HISTORY

Colonialism has been a source of much human suffering throughout history. In particular, the period of European colonialism that began in earnest during the 16th century has repercussions that continue to affect us to this very day.

Unfortunately, tabletop role-playing games also deal with the specter of colonialism. Its influence stems back to the very roots of the game and permeates many settings and adventures. We should not ignore this.

Why even play in a colonial setting, then? Because the prospect of exploring a new world is ripe for adventure. It injects a much needed sense of wonder and discovery back into the game at every turn.

If you decide to use this material, have a conversation with your players. Decide what aspects of colonial history will be off limits. Let them know that they can reach out to you at any time if a topic makes them uncomfortable.

During play, do not glorify the myth of the burden of “civilized man” to tame the wilderness. Steer clear of the idea of the “noble savage.” Portray indigenous peoples as nuanced and complex. Show the real impacts of a cultural and ecological exchange between the old world and the new.

These ethical questions are fertile ground for good stories, but a lazy referee can also perpetuate negative colonial stereotypes. Avoid this. Be thoughtful and vigilant. Game on!

Friday, April 22, 2022

Running Wild

I spent much of last year running Old-School Essentials by the book: meaning, I only added a house rule into the game once the need arose (e.g. rules for magic staves or additional combat declarations). I gave the rules a chance before deciding to change something (Chesterton's fence and all that), or deciding that something was even meaningful or relevant to change at all.

That campaign focused mostly on traditional low-level play: a base of operations (Fourtower Bridge) with nearby dungeons (we visited Winter's Daughter, Hole in the Oak, Incandescent Grottoes, Prison of the Hated Pretender, Star Spire, and The Waking of Willowby Hall). It was great fun.

This year I wanted to focus on adventuring in the wilderness. I talked with my group, got an idea of what might interest them, and then set out to build a setting for their adventures. We began our campaign at the start of the year and it has been a resounding success.

Rocks fall, everyone dies: wilderness adventuring is a dangerous business!

Though I highly customized the setting, I took the same approach with the actual rules for wilderness adventuring that I did for dungeon crawling and combat last year: stick to playing it as close to "by the book" as I can before making changes.

You can find numerous blog posts and videos about hex crawling across the Internet, ranging from elegant and practical to needlessly complex. In fact, almost every hex crawl procedure that I found overcomplicated the process. You don't need to do this to run a wilderness adventure! A referee has everything they need to run an excellent wilderness adventure right there in the Old-School Essentials rules.

As you play, you will add to or clarify those rules. That is expected. But, if you start with the bare necessities, your brain will thank you later for the reduced mental overhead.

AN EXAMPLE OF PLAY

Here is a real example of a full day of wilderness adventuring from a recent session.

1. The party woke up at camp and I described what they saw in every direction. In this case large hills to their north, southwest, and southeast with an obvious stretch of open plain due east. I asked them what they wanted to do for the day.

2. The party decided that they wanted to try to find a nearby river, which they knew was somewhere to their west. Hills rose in that direction, but there were a few passes that they could try to pick their way through.

3. Now I rolled some checks: a check for wandering monsters (the result was high, a 5 or 6. No wandering monsters today). Then a check for losing direction (a 2, uh oh).

4. Since they started in a clear plain, they did not immediately lose their way. But, as they moved into the hills, I described them getting turned around as they tried to make their way across them to the west. They couldn't tell one slope from the next. I described the peril and presented their options: they felt confident that they could backtrack and get back to where they started the day, or they could try to push through in a random direction. They chose to backtrack.

5. Now, having lost half of the travel day in the hills, they were back where they started. I described their surroundings once again and this time they chose to head northeast, keeping to the open plain while skirting the range of hills to the north.

6. Since they were on horseback, they could still move pretty fast. By the book, a riding horse travels 48 miles per day in grasslands. Having wasted half of the day in the hills, I ruled that they could still make 24 miles of progress. I eyeball this on the map, drawing a line as I go. Hexes are six miles across, but sometimes they only clip a hex. So, I use the hexes more as measuring guides than actual units of measure.

7. Whenever they reach a point where their surroundings change, I describe that so they can reevaluate their options. In this case, a clear pass opened up to the northwest between two ranges of hills. They shifted direction, so I continued their line of progress to the northwest.

8. As the travel day winds down, I describe them coming across a smaller stream that flows into the river they're looking for. They decide to make camp there, where they each consume a ration.

9. I roll again for wandering monsters overnight: this time, I roll a 1. I roll again on my regional encounter table: a small pack of blink dogs. I roll a d12 to determine an approximate time of night when this encounter happens and get a 3 or 4, so the encounter takes place a few hours before midnight (3 hours after making camp).

10. I follow encounter procedures. The blink dogs end up playfully trying the lead the lawful party member to a nearby river crossing. He does not follow them the entire way, but the party decides to head in that direction the next day ...

WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE AT THE TABLE?

We play on a virtual tabletop, but it would look very similar if we played in person.

The referee has their own map. This map is likely keyed and labeled. They do not share it with the players.

Here is a portion of my referee map relevant to the example above. They started the day at the X in Hex 0912. They traveled west into the hills and got lost. They backtracked and instead headed northeast, then turned northwest and camped by the stream at the X in Hex 1010.

The referee's wilderness map

As players complete their expeditions into the wilderness, I reveal those areas on their map. Note that I do not reveal as they go, only once they return to town. If the players want, they can make their own map based on my descriptions during an expedition. I highly recommended that my players do this.

Here is their map. You can see a previously explored area in the lower left. A previous expedition had already traveled up the river to this point and returned to town. Notice that their scale is off, but it doesn't matter. I don't try to correct them. In fact, I don't even look at their map at all during play. If they have a question about their surroundings, they describe what they do in the fiction and ask me!

The players' wilderness map

That's it. Rinse and repeat. Make rulings as they come up. Add rules for things that become relevant to your table. Have fun!