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.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Bringing a Base Town to Life

A few months ago, I shared my Between Adventures procedures from my ongoing Old-School Essentials campaign. It has worked well for my table. Like all good turn procedures, the time between adventures has a "ticking clock" that I called Scheming Factions.

These schemes take the place of random encounters or wandering monsters. Unlike wandering monsters, a scheme doesn't usually lead to an immediate encounter. Instead, schemes model the plots and machinations of various NPCs in the region, as well as random happenstance. Here are the current schemes from my town notes:


For every stay in town of a week or less, I roll a d6 for each ongoing scheme. Some schemes have multiple stages (like The Blood King in my example). If I roll a 1, the scheme advances sometime during the course of that stay. Schemes that have been on the list for a while might have a higher chance to advance (most of them do in my example above).

You don't need more than one ongoing scheme. In my example, I added every entry except for The Blood King to the list as a reaction to actions previously taken by the players. I like to use this to show the players that the world around them will react to their escapades, without arbitrarily dropping "plot" in front of them.

The best example of schemes in action in my current campaign comes from another multistage scheme no longer on the list, inspired by the adventure The Waking of Willowby Hall.

First, the rival party from that adventure made their way through town, boasting about the goose who lays golden eggs. Then, when it advanced again, they had stolen the goose and run back into town chased by Bonebreaker Tom.

The second bit happened as my party approached town. They heard the battle in the distance and then hurried into town to see that Tom had smashed up the inn and stolen the tower bell. He then chased the goose thieves to a manor house (Willowby Hall) outside of town.

Two town NPCs offered a combined 4,000 gp for the return of the bell, which enticed my party to go check things out. Unfortunately, they tried to talk to Tom instead of sneaking past him. The conversation did not go well and Tom smashed a PC with a boulder. My party ultimately retreated and decided not to engage with the adventure.

The rest played out "off-screen" while my party did other things. The next week, Helmut Halfsword of the rival party returned with the bell and collected the 4,000 gp for himself. I thought my players would be ticked off that someone else got their gold, but they didn't really seem to mind.

So far, this small table of schemes has been a low maintenance way to make my base town feel alive without overwhelming my players with quests and quest-givers. Show the world in motion around them and leave it up to them whether or not they decide to engage with it.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Attending the Old School, Part 6

Here ends the story that began with two brothers inheriting the burial mound of Sir Chyde (Winter's Daughter) and continued with multiple expeditions to some nearby caves (Incandescent Grottoes) that would ultimately claim their short lives as well as the lives of their three companions.

That's right ... a TOTAL PARTY KILL. Here's what happened ...

A bystander captures the moments before a party meets its end

NOTE - Yes, there is a bit of a gap between my last Attending the Old School post and this one. The sessions ended up taking place primarily in town, dealing with the fallout of some carousing, and I didn't really have much of substance for a post. This was their first session heading back to the dungeon.

Dramatis Personae

Flynn, Level 3 Thief

Ancin, Level 2 Magic-User

Chadwick, Level 3 Cleric (NPC Follower)

Jaq, Level 1 Elf

Russell, Level 3 Fighter

Notable Events

  • Returning to the crystal caves, the party headed through the troglodyte spy tunnel in the first room. There they encountered two imperial soldiers searching for Marjoram, the fugitive illusionist. The soldiers got testy and Russell intervened, and the party agreed to go back the way they came.
  • Changing plans, the party ate some bubble moss and descended to the bottom of the pond in the first room. The water dumped them out into an underground river flowing north. Once they got their bearings, they found a sandy shore and climbed out of the water.
  • First, they followed some tunnels north, where Ancin, Flynn, and Jaq all got themselves blinded by some sort of magic device. Still blind, Flynn and Ancin decided to feel around the walls of the room. They found an exit, as well as two incorporeal creatures that chilled them to the bone. They fled, but Ancin fell to the icy touch, dead.
  • Jaq and Flynn regained their eyesight. Looking for a way out, the party all headed in the other direction, following tunnels south. They stumbled upon a crazy dreamscape. Jaq tossed a rock at the illusions, which interrupted the dream and awoke a dragon.
  • The dream dragon put Flynn to sleep with its breath. The party ran back to the beach. Russell took a few slashes from the dragon's talons as he brought up the rear, hauling Flynn in his heavy armor. The dragon pursued them around the corner, caught them all together on the beach, and with another mighty breath put them all into a deep sleep.
Referee Insights

Things went south quickly for our intrepid band of adventurers. But, I don't think it had to end this way.

We make so much out of the deadliness of old school pen-and-paper RPGs. "Combat is a fail state" is a common refrain. Newcomers worry that their players - perhaps more attuned to contemporary "heroic" games - will get into fight after fight out of habit, and die in the process.

One of the first adventures that I ran with this group in the old school vein was the Lair of the Lamb (using Into the Odd). It can be fairly brutal, and I impressed that brutality upon my players: you're groping in the dark while someone beside you gets crushed to death by a monstrous lamb-beast. You don't have much more than a single dagger between all of you. Your best choice is to run.

Well, after eight sessions of Old-School Essentials, I can certainly say that I must have made an impression. This party never resorted to combat unless it was forced upon them. Take this anecdote: Russell the fighter obtained Sir Chyde's +2 sword at the beginning of the third session. He did not swing it once before he died at the end of session eight. He never even knew what he had.

The thing is, they had two chances in this final session to benefit from standing and fighting. First, with the imperial soldiers. Second, with the dragon itself.

The party - five members strong at the time - encountered two imperial guards right off the bat. They outnumbered them more than 2 to 1. The guards had an unfavorable reaction roll (a theme for the night) and ended up being quite pompous. However, the party was hesitant to kill two "official" soldiers, so they fell back and avoided a fight.

I believe they could have leveraged their superior numbers, even if they decided not to fight to kill. Wrestle them down and toss them in the water. Tie them up. Or even just call their bluff - would the soldiers really attack if the party pushed past them?

I have conditioned them to avoid fighting at all costs. I see now that maybe I should not have been so heavy-handed with my message!

The dragon fight actually started well for the party. They didn't know exactly what they were up against, but I gave them a few hints that it was something big. When they interrupted the dragon's dream and awoke it, they rolled initiative and won. But, they didn't really decide what to do. They all ran into the room, took up positions, and waited (the dragon had not yet come around the corner). I think they were waiting to see if it wanted to talk.

In the moment, it made some sense. But, of course, they stayed bunched up near the entrance. So when the dragon appears, they're all sitting ducks for it's sleep breath.

But, they get lucky with their saves! 3/4 of the party made it, with only Flynn succumbing. At this point, I admit things aren't looking great for them. However, this dragon has 20 hp. I think, for them, they see a dragon and their minds go to 80, 90, or 100 hp. They've never really been in an OSE fight against anything with more than one hit die. I don't think it occurred to them that a dragon would be under 50 hp, let alone something like 20.

If they split up and start attacking after the dragon's first attack, I think they could have forced a morale check. They only needed 10 damage, and Russell is sporting a +2 sword. But, again, here their lack of experience in OSE combat hurts them. The concept of a morale check is still a bit foreign - to them, it's either they kill it or it kills all of them, with no middle ground.

As it was, they ran. Russell in his plate armor taking up the rear. He scoops up Flynn and gets mauled from behind. But, he only ends up taking five damage in total. So, here they have another round where they could have attacked the dragon. That's three rounds where 3 out of 4 party members could have attacked. It's entirely plausible that three rounds of attacks would have slayed this dragon!

Instead, they run back to the beach by the underground river. Here is where I think they made their only true tactical error of the fight (as opposed to misjudgment). No one tried to split up, or push themselves up against the wall to hide from eyes in the other room, or jump into the rushing river. They stood on the beach and the dragon came around the corner and put them all to sleep.

I'm sad to lose this party. We will continue in the Grottoes, rolling up a new party and getting back to it, but I plan to end this series of blog posts here for now.

My journey into by-the-book Old-School Essentials was enlightening and enjoyable. It helps that Necrotic Gnome's OSE modules are top notch. There is still a lot to learn from this set of rules 40 years later. Most notably, the procedures (and the idea of procedural play) will forever change the way I run traditional fantasy pen-and-paper RPGs. I highly recommend giving it a try.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Never Let Your Friend Copy Your Magic Homework

My magic-user player found his first scroll a few sessions ago. I knew that Old-School Essentials - by the book - does not have rules for copying spells. The magic-user receives one spell per level, and that's that. If they want more, they must spend money and time on research.

However, the new Advanced Fantasy rules contain optional rules for spell books, including a rule that allows a magic-user to attempt to copy a spell scroll with a chance of success dependent upon their INT score:

A very advanced table (from the OSE Advanced Fantasy Player's Tome)

I like this table. It has a good B/X "mechanically unrelated to other parts of the game but feels right anyway" quality to it. I didn't love the price of failure, though. If the M-U fails their roll to copy the spell, they can never learn it again.

It's ok, but it also doesn't present much of a choice. I guess for spells that you really want the choice is "do I risk it or wait to level up and use my class benefit to obtain it?" But, for most spells, the choice is do I risk trying to copy the spell and fail or ... never get the spell at all? Wait until I research it? I think there is an even better way.

Treat the price of failure as the scroll itself. If you fail your roll, it doesn't copy to your spell book and the spell scroll crumbles to dust. Now your choice becomes "do I risk losing the scroll to possibly copy the spell and get to use the scroll later, or do I refrain and guarantee that I have the scroll for my next adventure?"

This has the added benefit of explaining why magic-users don't lend out their spell books for others to copy very often, besides the hand-wavey "because magic-users are selfish and greedy." If you lend out your spell book and your pal fails their roll, the spell gets erased from your book. Not good!

Monday, June 14, 2021

Attending the Old School, Part 5

As my players explored their base town of Fourtower Bridge over the last few sessions, they began to interact with the sandbox that I had stocked. I still remember years ago when I watched Matt Colville's video on creating a sandbox. It blew my little mind. It's such a simple idea: take various dungeons and other adventure modules and seed them across a small region for your players to discover. But, for some reason, I never considered doing it on my own. I was brainwashed by the campaign or "adventure path" style of running a game. Probably all of those Dragonlance books I read as a teenager!

Luckily, I broke that habit quickly when I returned to pen-and-paper RPGs a few years ago, mostly thanks to Colville's video. Even when I played primarily 5e, I stocked a sandbox for my players to explore. I made a few different choices this time around ... but, before we get to those, a recap:

Dramatis Personae

Flynn, Level 3 Thief
Russell, Level 2 Fighter
AncinLevel 2 Magic-User
ChadwickLevel 3 Cleric
JaqLevel 1 Elf (another new player!)

Notable Events
  • The party spent three days in town resting and healing up. Chadwick learned how to create holy water, Flynn joined Silar's guild, and Moira introduced then to Jaq Turntleaf - an elf who could guide them to the crystal caves
  • After a quiet travel day, the party decided to try to get some rest before descending into the dungeon. However, an encounter with a full-size roc in the forest changed their minds.
  • Chadwick loudly introduced himself to a group of kobolds, who provided some dubious information in exchange for the party letting them leave with their gathered purple moss. Russell escorted them out.
  • Ancin and Chadwick investigated a slime-themed corridor and got surprised by a pair of gelatinous squirms lurking on the ceiling. Jaq and Flynn killed one with arrows from down the hall, and Ancin put the other to sleep.
  • Chadwick barged into a room labeled Master of Dissolution and stomped on a giant rat carcass, which drew the ire of the three monstrous larvae feasting on its guts. Ancin put them to sleep, but not after they paralyzed Chadwick.
Referee Insights

Astute readers may have noticed that my players have entered a new dungeon: the Incandescent Grottoes. The first few rooms have been great fun so far. But how did they get there?

First, and probably most importantly, they had motivation. Since we're playing Old-School Essentials almost exclusively by-the-book, finding treasure is by far the quickest way to level up. This already puts the players in the mindset of engaging with the setting more. They're not looking for the "story" so that they can earn milestone XP. They want to know where the loot is!

Luckily for them, I have seeded the region with several loot-filled dungeons nearby. Quelle coïncidence! Here is my local hex map:

A box of sand (Hex Kit and tile set from Cone of Negative Energy)

Nothing fancy. I'm not even sharing this map with them - it's just for my reference. I used the arrival of a new player - Jaq - as an opportunity to give them a guide who knew the location of the Oak and the Grottoes. That meant no need to hex crawl or search. Just a day's journey, point-crawl style, to introduce some time and resource management complications.

Ok, so there are dungeons nearby. How do the players find out about them? Actively, not passively - my NPCs don't have floating question marks over their heads. They can either talk to NPCs to hear rumors through conversation, or they can head to the inn and buy the bar a round to get the rumors flowing!

Inspired by this post on rumors at Delta's D&D Hotspot, I decided to lean into rumor-gathering as a game mechanism: spend a night buying rounds at the inn (spending 3d20 gp/night) and automatically learn a rumor. I like this because it gives a way for players to quickly find leads without going from NPC to NPC waiting for someone to give them a "quest."

Now, it doesn't prevent NPCs from asking for things. Those requests will just be more organic; no need to shoehorn quests into normal conversations to keep the game moving.

During their first stay in town, they learned one rumor from the bar (using the "buy the bar a round" mechanism) about night tomatoes that grow under the Old Oak. Chadwick also learned a rumor from Moira the Holy through conversation: she believed he could find the gold teeth of St. Orlo in the Grottoes. They chose to pursue the latter for now, and I can't wait until they discover that the gold teeth are in the mouth of a troglodyte.