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.


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 ...


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!

Friday, March 4, 2022

Gotta Go Fast

Yesterday, I found myself involved in a fascinating conversation on Discord about running. Not running games, no ... running during an encounter in the Basic D&D tradition.

Adventurers showing survival instincts / cowardice

I will start here where I started yesterday: with the rules presented in Old-School Essentials. They are pretty clear. You can only run away, and only during a pursuit. 

I will call attention to the phrase "characters run at their full movement rate." I glossed over this when I initially read it. Since you find this section in the Encounters - Evasion and Pursuit portion of the rules, I assumed it meant the character's full encounter speed (usually 20'/30'/40' per round). However, compare that to the OSE section on retreating from melee:

See how the rules specifically state full encounter movement rate in this portion. So, first a character must declare a retreat. Then, the character may move 20'/30'/40' away. Finally, if they're still out of melee in the next round, they may begin to run (using their full or exploration movement speed; 3x encounter speed) and the enemy may pursue (starting the Evasion and Pursuit procedure). Well, wait ... can they? According to OSE: no.

So, OSE implies that you can only run (or, flee at 3x encounter movement speed) during Evasion and Pursuit, and that you can only trigger Evasion and Pursuit before combat has begun. That's kind of a strange limitation, but okay.

Then yesterday, on Discord, user @dcullina called to my attention that this isn't exactly how Moldvay Basic reads. Moldvay basically defines running in the same way, though it is more clear that when a character runs, they move at 3x encounter movement speed (a.k.a. your exploration movement speed, or full movement speed, as OSE calls it).

However, the paragraph on retreating differs in an important way:

Importantly, this paragraph does not specify that you can only move at your full encounter movement rate, as OSE does. It states "any movement at more than 1/2 of your normal movement rate." To @dcullina (and to me), that means that you could retreat and move your normal movement rate or run at 3x your normal movement rate.

Okay, maybe we're splitting hairs; reading into it too far. Maybe. But, check out what Moldvay writes on Evasion:

The caveat about "if [...] combat has not yet begun" in this excerpt seems to be a stipulation for evasion being automatic, not for the ability to evade altogether (as in OSE). You can try to avoid an encounter whenever you want, but if you've already engaged the enemy, it can't be an automatic success.

So, let's recap. In Old-School Essentials:

  • If you wish the retreat from melee, you must move away at your encounter movement rate.
  • Even if you get out of melee, you still cannot move at 3x your encounter movement rate for the rest of this encounter.
And, in Moldvay Basic:
  • If you wish to retreat from melee, you can decide to run, moving at 3x your encounter movement rate (and suffering the normal penalties for retreating).
  • If you are outside of melee, you can decide to run at any time, moving at 3x your encounter movement speed and not being able to do anything else (map, attack, etc.).
There is more to debate here. And, to be fair to the author of OSE, Gavin Norman, he does mentioned this in his Author's Notes:

Gavin clarified on Discord that the later edition to which he referred is likely Mentzer Basic, specifically this passage:

To me, the most interesting question is why can't characters run away at full speed once combat has been joined in OSE? I don't see that restriction as clear-cut in either Moldvay or Mentzer. And, for me, I find that the game works better when you give players an option to retreat (unless they make decisions that get themselves into a really bad spot).

All of this kind of points to the absurdity of getting hung up on "rules as written." Everyone views rules through a different lens. Which interpretation is right? Whichever one works for your table.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

When the Prince of All Toads Asks for Help

A few weeks ago, my party returned to the Incandescent Grottoes, where in Room 32 they discovered the self-pronounced "Prince of All Toads in the Magical Forest" who promises riches in exchange for aid. They decided that this sounded more promising than continuing their run of bad luck in the Grottoes, so they agreed to help the the amphibian.

A less trustworthy amphibian

I determined that this toad was, as far as it was concerned, telling the truth, and I had it lead the party to a mini-dungeon where they could claim their treasure. I had been sitting on Dyson Logos' Goblin Gully for a while, dropping hints of a goblin hideout nearby, so I decided to use it for this little side quest.

Since we started this campaign with the Dolmenwood-based Winter's Daughter, I have styled all of my goblins like the whimsical goblin Griddlegrim in the Fairy tower at the end of that adventure. Using this variety of goblin changes the tone of the Gully quite a bit, as the goblins become less aggressive and more like annoying little tricksters.

So, I started modifying the Goblin Gully adventure to fit whimsical goblins, to add toads and magic mushrooms on the gully floor, and to tweak a few other things here and there. The end result was pretty fun.

This is just a riff on Dyson Logos' original adventure, but if your party ever decides to help the Prince of All Toads from the Incandescent Grottoes, or you just enjoy a more whimsical brand of goblin, take a peek at my modified Gully adventure below!

Thursday, November 18, 2021

When It's Time to Party, We Will Always Party Hard

My Old-School Essentials game that started six months ago has continued weekly - almost uninterrupted - for 27 sessions now. We started playing OSE by-the-book and we haven't really introduced many house rules at all. It has been a great exercise in listening to what really matters for our table, making rulings for that, and ignoring the rest. There are probably many great house rules that we don't use, but why bog down our brain space with rules that will never come up?

That said, every good table has their own quirks that get codified over time as "house rules." One of our most interesting house rules has been our table's take on the classic carousing house rule: waste your gold to earn more xp!

Adventurers earning care-free bonus XP. No strings attached. Really!

I offered my players multiple ways to waste their gold, giving them a menu of choices with varying degrees of risk such as:

  • Full-blown carousing that could leave you penniless or an accidental criminal
  • Flashy purchases that could draw unwanted attention
  • Costly donations that don't offer much xp for your money, but give you karma (read: future xp) for your next PC
These options led to a lot of emergent gameplay scenarios. We had a murder mystery scenario arise after a night of drunken bocce ball. We had a recurring rival party of former circus performers come to town, seeking the PC who had displaced them as lead acrobat. Even though there are known risks, players always bite. The rewards are so tantalizing. Bonus XP, without the hassle of more dungeon delving and treasure hauling!

Ar first, I included some conditions: you could only carouse for up to your level x 100 XP or something like that, but during play those conditions proved really unnecessary. In the adventures that we have played (lots of Gavin Norman's stuff, plus two from Gus L.), the PCs didn't wind up with enough raw coinage (after hauling it back, selling it, buying gear and other necessities) to have an absurd amount to waste anyway.

So, I trimmed them down to fit in a nice and neat single column of rules, integrated with the XP rules from the OSE SRD in a single PDF below. You won't find any fancy tables of gonzo carousing mishaps here - I'll leave those to other blogs. Just a simple guide to implementing them into your B/X clone of choice. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

I Do Declare!

A few weeks ago, someone asked on the OSE Discord how other referees handled changing weapons during combat. Do you make players use a turn to change weapons? Do you let them do it freely as many times as they want? Can they only swap weapons quickly if they drop the first, but it takes a full action the sheath it?

I don't use any of those approaches. Instead, I made swapping weapons a part of the "Declare Spells and Retreats" step. If you want to change your weapon for the next round, you have to declare it before rolling initiative for that round. That's it. It doesn't "use up" your turn. If you declare it, it happens. But you don't get to change your mind if the turn plays out differently than you expected.

A PC declaring that he has swapped out what he was holding for his axe

As my first foray into running OSE has progressed, I've added more things to the declaration step. I find it to be ideal for decisions that telegraph what you're doing next. These are the decisions that might inform your opponent's actions, should they win initiative. In addition to the normal Cast a Spell and Retreat from Melee, I have currently added:

Charging into Melee - Declare that you plan to charge toward an opponent. You must start the round at least 20' away. You gain a +2 bonus to attack, but incur a -1 AC penalty. 

This is the first decision point that I added to the declaration step. I placed it here to solve the problem of "when does an opponent get to brace against a charge?" The answer: if you declare that you're charging (meaning, you start running toward them), but they win initiative and brace their weapon.

Swapping Weapons - Declare before initiative that you're swapping held items. If you do this while in melee, opponents get a +2 bonus to all attacks against you this round.

It didn't make sense to allow changing your weapons when in melee combat without some sort of penalty. But, that rarely comes up. This is usually used to swap from a bow to a sword when the enemy nears, or to place a lantern on the ground and draw a weapon at the start of a fight.

Aiming - If you have a ranged weapon out at the start of the round, you can declare that you're foregoing your movement to take careful aim.
  • If you're firing into melee, reduce your chance to hit a friendly character from 3-in-6 (50%) to 1-in-6 (~17%)
  • If you're firing at a distant target, you can fire as if the target is one step closer (ex. a medium range target becomes short range)
This rule doesn't have to be in the declaration step ... it's not exactly telegraphing your actions in the same way the others do. But, since it depends on not having declared a weapon swap, I put it there for the sake of simplicity.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Artificer Intelligence

I built an entire class for Old-School Essentials around the concept of the infusion mechanism detailed in my previous post. Since I cribbed the name "infusion" from the 5e Artificer anyway, I call it the Artificer here, though I also considered Enchanter or Mage-Wright.

The Artificer class for Old-School Essentials

I started with the Magic-User "chassis." It uses the same hit dice, level progression, saving throws, and base attack bonus.

The biggest drawbacks compared to the M-U: the Artificer's reliance on finding spell scrolls and then successfully crafting once they do. They have to jump through far more hoops to even have their first spell effect.

Because of those drawbacks, I give them a bit more up front:

  • The ability to wear leather armor and use shields. Since they don't have to perform an incantation like the Magic-User, they don't have the same limitations.
  • Access to a few extra weapons: the crossbow and the warhammer. For a class concept built around using tools to craft, proficiency with a big hammer felt right. Crossbows, being more like contraptions than other ranged weapons, are also at home here. If your campaign uses the new Black Powder Firearms rules from Carcass Crawler # 1, consider giving the Artificer access to the semi-martial firearms as well.
  • Since they depend on understanding spell scrolls to even gain access to magical effects, I give them the ability to spend a turn to decipher magical scripts. Essentially, they can Read Magic without casting the spell. Otherwise, they'd rely on a casting class to even get started tinkering.
Additionally, the mechanism itself has the same benefits that I outlined in my previous post: the potential to get more uses out of a spell scroll and opening up access to spell effects to other classes through your infusions.

For those of you familiar with Numenera, this class essentially creates cyphers: limited use arcane contraptions. You could even consider stealing that game's rule that restricts the number of contraptions any character can carry: carry too many, and they start malfunctioning and blowing up in your face.

A few more insights into my design choices:
  • The Level 11 class feature states that your apprentices arrive with spell scrolls of their own. This could insinuate that Artificers start with a spell scroll. If you choose to do this, I suggest randomly determining the scroll as if it had been acquired by chance.
  • Artificers can use spell scrolls normally, like other arcane casters, but they always have the Thief's 10% chance of error. They aren't quite the experts at casting that Magic-Users are.
  • The section on infusions does not explicitly prohibit infusing the same item multiple times. For instance, an Artificer 3 could infuse the same armor with Shield three times, thus giving it three charges. I find this to be an entirely viable interpretation!
  • Note that when the Artificer attempts to recharge an infusion, the original spell scroll is not required.
There you are: an Artificer for OSE. Steal it, mine it for ideas, use it for inspiration ...  it's yours to do with as you please!

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Magical Arts and Crafts

Crafting rules for pen-and-paper RPGs usually miss the mark. They're often overwrought or too complicated. Sometimes they're too specific to a certain setting and difficult to apply outside of it.

Magical crafting rules will usually list a set of components or reagents necessary, plus a Very Special element that requires a Very Special quest to retrieve. This approach forces a campaign to revolve around crafting, at least for a little bit. That's fine and could be fun, but what if you want to play a magical craftsman or enchanter type in a more traditional dungeon crawl campaign?

I designed a game mechanism (class feature, character ability, however you want to use it) to address that question.

What is art? Are we art? Is art art?

Magical Infusions

It all starts with a spell scroll. To craft a magical item at low levels, you must transfer the magic from a spell scroll into that item.

Why spell scrolls? Mostly because spell scrolls fit right into the basic dungeon-crawling feedback loop. They're found as treasure in most adventures.

Then, with enough time, the right tools, a place to work, and some training, a character can infuse an otherwise mundane object with the spell from that scroll. This allows someone to cast that spell from the item instead of the scroll.

Why would anyone want to go through this trouble?

  • It could increase the number of consumable spells at your party's disposal, as it doesn't necessarily consume the original spell scroll.
  • Anyone can cast the spell from the infused item, whereas not everyone can use spell scrolls.
Ok, so what are the limitations?
  • A character can only maintain a number of infusions equal to their class level.
  • Every attempt to infuse an item carries a 10% chance of error: the spell disappears from the scroll, and maybe something else goes awry.

Creating an Infusion

To infuse an item with magic, the character requires:
  • A spell scroll that they can read
  • A set of tools: tinker's, alchemist's, smith's ... something
  • A workbench in a safe place
Then, the character can spend an uninterrupted day at work to make an infusion attempt using their Intelligence score. This could be a standard INT check based on your system of choice. Alternatively, you could use the Spell Books and Learning Spells table from OSE: Advanced Fantasy that I referenced in my previous post on copying spells.

Whichever method you use to adjudicate the Intelligence check, remember to include a 10% chance that the scroll gets erased entirely.

Higher Level Spells

One potential way to abuse this ability: finding a high level spell scroll and using it to repeatedly churn out powerful infusions, even at a low class level.

To avoid this, you could simply rule that there is a maximum spell level that a character can infuse at any given class level. I would probably align this to the maximum spell level that a magic-user of a similar class level could cast.

Or, you could allow higher level infusions, but apply some penalty to the infusion attempt.

Infusions on Adventures

Once created, any character can carry this infused item and cast the spell contained within in the same way a magic-user would cast a spell from memory. Once used, the magic fades and the spell cannot be cast again.

However, if returned to the character who created it in the first place, there is a chance that they can recharge the infusion by spending another day at work and making another attempt using their Intelligence score. Note that they do not need the original scroll on hand to do this.

They only get one shot: if the attempt to recharge the infusion fails, the magic fades for good.

An Example

You're a Level 2 Fighter. Last week during your downtime, a fairy smith in town taught you how to enchant items using the process described above.

During your adventure, your party finds a Scroll of Invisibility. You pocket it and return to town.

You acquire some tools from the local blacksmith and rent out a room with a large table where you can work. You spend the next full day tinkering with a mundane silver ring and the scroll.

You have an Intelligence score of 13. Since Invisibility is a Level 2 spell (and above what an equivalent M-U could cast at this level), the referee applies a -2 penalty to your INT score for this check. That brings your adjusted score to 11: a 50% chance of success.

You make a roll: 67. A failure. However, not within the 10% range of a catastrophic failure, so the scroll is still intact. You sleep and make another attempt the next day.

This time you roll a 14: success! You have infused the spell Invisibility into the ring. You grab another ring and try again the next day, since at Level 2 you can maintain two infusions.

You make your check: 96. Uh oh, you're in the danger zone. The attempt fails. The spell disappears from the scroll! The mishap makes your eyes turn a milky gray.

After a few more days of rest, you slip on your magical ring with its single charge and set off for your next adventure, looking for more spell scrolls.