A Bit of Fellhold Flavor

So, I was inspired by Mr. Maliszewski's post over at Grognardia about homebrew campaign settings to talk a little bit about what's been established regarding Fellhold so far. There isn't a whole lot, because I'm trying really hard not to indulge my world building bug and detail out a hugely elaborate setting before things occur in play. Instead, I'm trying to fix a firm aesthetic in my mind, so that as questions/situations come up in play, I can incorporate recent events and player actions, but still maintain an editorial voice. I first saw this approach spelled out in Apocalypse World, and it was a recurring point in the Dwimmermount campaign at Grognardia.

So, that being said, I did want to give the players somewhere to start so they're not totally flopping around in the dark. I decided that my setting would be largely inspired by Germanic culture and folklore, but with a decidedly swords & sorcery vibe. Really inspirational to me were the works of Paul Bonner, especially for Drakar Och Demoner by Riot Minds. Along these lines, I decided that there had to be dwarves, but that I wasn't really feeling the other demi-humans. So far, dwarves are fairly typical, revering their ancestors, organized in clans, living in great underground delvings, et cetera. Fellhold itself was once a great dwarven city carved into a lone mountain towering out of immense forests, with the crystal clear waters of the Silverdelf flowing out of springs in the mountain side.

One of the main ways I decided to impart flavor indirectly was to provide name lists. I haven't restricted the player characters to using the name lists, but I do pick all of the NPC names from them. I used the simple expedient of finding historical names from the sorts of cultures I want to emulate and selectively picking them based on sound and meaning. Dwarven names, for example, are Old Norse, with as much emphasis as I could get on smiths, warriors, and tools. Human names are Anglo-Saxon, but where most real-world Anglo-Saxon names were compound, for Fellhold, I picked out the one syllable root words, and most are words that refer to mundane items, like Ketyl, which means "kettle". Trollkin (Goblins, Hobgoblins, Bugbears) have Gothic names, again, selectively chosen to emphasize words for weapon and warriors and violent stuff. Trolls have Finnish names. I'm hoping that this goulash will result in a generically "northern Germanic" feel, without tying too much into real-world history.

The other area of flavor I've fleshed out somewhat is religion. I've tried to leave myself room to adapt, but I wanted to have some of the gods spelled out for any cleric characters. Thus, the main deities shared by humans and dwarves are Hrokr, the Crow Father, Dwyn, the Oak Mother, and Volundr, the Smith. In addition, the dwarves revere their ancestors and believe that their spirits aid them in the form of the tools, weapons, and armor passed down from them. They also especially revere Volundr as their creator, but they recognize Hrokr's pre-eminence as king of the gods. All three of these gods stand for the alignment of Law in different ways: Hrokr upholds and is the patron of organized society, especially the sanctity of the guest-host relationship and the authority of chiefs and elders. Dwyn upholds the wilder, more organic structure of nature, which may appear chaotic to normal men, but is still governed by rules and structures. Volundr, obviously supports the pragmatic and tangible order of physical objects and laws.

In addition to being the king of the gods, Hrokr is a trickster god, and the lord of magic and secrets. He gave men and dwarves the gift of cunning that they might make their own way in the world, but is still open to the occasional intercession.

Dwyn presides over the harvest and death as well as nature, and she is the patron of women and wild animals. She is Hrokr's wife and queen of the gods, but they largely see to their own affairs.

Volundr, in addition to being patron of smiths and craftsmen, crafted the world from the corpse of the mother of dragons after Hrokr tricked and killed her. He created Aki, original forefather of dwarves, to be a companion, and taught him much of his craft. Aki presented nine perfectly life-like statues of ones like himself, richly armed, armored, and covered in jewels. Volundr was much pleased and breathed life into them and created wives for them, and they originated the original dwarven clans.

Contrawise, the trolls and trollkin worship demons, beings of chaos, who seek to undo creation and tear it down, and offer bargains of power to their worshipers if they believe it will lead to chaos and entropy. I don't want to go too much into this now, because the players haven't met any Trollkin yet, and play will reveal more details.

Other than that, I haven't worked much out besides the fact that magic items are scarce and precious, and magic has  slightly dark reputation. Also, as mentioned above, Fellhold itself was originally a dwarven city, but it was conquered by a sorcerous cabal who added their own dark additions and delved even deeper into the mountain. Who knows what lies underneath even that?

Porting Dungeon World's GMing Rules to Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox Part 2

So, the title of this post is more for the sake of continuity than for accuracy. You see, as my referee rule hacking has continued, I've been using not just Dungeon World, but also An Echo, Resounding and to a lesser extent the Red Tide Campaign Sourcebook. The sandbox material in Red Tide is, as mentioned before, quite excellent, but a good deal of it is superseded by what is included in An Echo, Resounding. So, what I have been occupying myself with recently is in figuring out how to blend together Dungeon World's rules for Steadings (cities, towns, keeps, et cetera - see also Apocalypse World's holds) with An Echo, Resounding's domain play rules. I think that Red Tide will come back into play when I get to expanding the fronts and threats section, as it has some really good suggestions for urban/court related complications and dangers.

As a quick recap of what the basic "Campaign Region" framework is in An Echo, Resounding (from here out AER), a referee is instructed to make the following sorts of sites (with guidance, of course):

Cities & Towns




Each of these categories is meant to provide both adventuring locales as well as things for domains to try to control in order to get benefits. Each type of location has some tables you can choose from or roll on to determine the nature of the site and what sort of obstacles are there to keep a domain from just waltzing in and taking full advantage of it. Each location provides bonuses to one or more locations if a domain does take possession of it - Military, Social, and Wealth. These categories can then be used in domain turns to perform domain level actions.

A quick word on domains, in case you're not following me. Domains are meant to be large-ish political entities, but they're set up more for borderland duchies and the like than for sprawling empires. Gamewise, they are intended to play two roles: one, they give a referee a system for adding some dynamism and life into the backdrop of a sandbox campaign, and two, they provide rules for higher level characters influencing the campaign setting at a larger scale in later play. I find both of these goals to be quite worthwhile, and so I found the rules very intriguing.

Now, in addition to the Agenda, Principles, Moves, and Always Say from DW and AW, I've also taken a shine to the Steading rules from DW. So, what I'm working on now is, as I said earlier, an integration of the steading rules with the AER campaign region and domain play rules. I started out by going through the different types of sites in AER and deciding whether or not I want to make DW Steading compatible site rules for them. I ended up deciding that Lairs would be better represented by fronts and threats, as would obstacles for the other sorts of sites.

So, first off, I decided to simply subsume AER's cities, towns, and borderland sites into the Steading rules. I may change some of the steading creation options to reflect some of the more interesting origin and activity options in AER, but otherwise, I felt like most of the options could be covered by the steading tag options. Perhaps most importantly, I decided to do a straight one for one conversion of Prosperity = Wealth, Population = Social, and Defenses = Military as a baseline. Other tags will be able to increase the Domain values as well. Now, this means that I won't be able to use AER's "Saving Throw" mechanic as written for Domain Turns, but I'm planning on working that out as I go forward.

For Ruins, I decided to do a "Shadow Steading" with Treasure, Population, and Danger. Treasure is a measure of how much loot the ruin contains, population measures the number of hostile inhabitants, and Danger measures their relative level of threat posed by said inhabitants. So, a low population, high danger ruin might have a single, large monster, while high population, lower danger might be hordes of less dangerous creatures, like goblins. The main reason for this framework is so that Ruins can fit into domain actions and domain turns, but I worry that  giving "Danger" a mechanical level will get in the way of the Old School approach of not trying to balance monster threat level to character level.

Resources were relatively simple. I just took the resource types from AER, and made them tags. I then added a "Richness" scale, parallel to prosperity in steadings. Since there's already a "Resource" tag for steadings, I decided that Resource Locations require a steading to "own" them or else to have a new Steading established on them. A Resource adds the resource tag to the steading that controls it and increases prosperity by the richness of the location. The resource also has an inherent danger level like ruins as a guide to the threats that should be attached to the location.

As I mentioned before, I'm going to use Obstacles and Lairs as sources for expanding the available fronts.

So, with a rescaling associated with the switch over, I'll have to redo the actual domain play rules, but so far I'm pretty excited about the direction this is going in. On the other hand, as I mentioned above, I *am* worried that I'm introducing mechanics (even loose ones) for things I don't want overly mechanized, like threat level. I think it'll be okay, since even OD&D had guidelines for the level of the dungeon and the average level of monster HD. I'll figure something out.

More to follow as I get into the fronts and threats and into the actual domain play rules.

Fellhold Session 3 Recap

After leaving last session with our explorers holding a bandit sergeant hostage, we rejoined the action this evening. A brief parley established that the bandit leader, Gren, didn't value the contributions of his sergeant Dag, and some quick bargaining brought Dag over to the side of the adventurers. They managed to flee, trigger the pressure plate trap to drop a net, and then picked up the net and threw it onto the advancing bandits. With this delay, they managed to get out of the Fellhold gates and to spike the door closed so that they could flee back to Silverdelf. Dag agreed to become a hireling to Bryni and throw his lot in with the adventurers from here out, and the party rested up to recover its wounds, with the notable exception of Varian who caroused in high style to make use of his loan. We'll open next week with their further adventures.

A Brief Sci-Fi Aside

So, I read through Grognardia's review of Warhammer 40,000, Rogue Trader, and it made me realize something. My design meant to take Necromunda in a slightly more role-play-ey direction was in fact taking 40k back to its roots in Rogue Trader. Now, I think that I can make some more interesting and balanced game design decisions, but overall, Rogue Trader was originally created to address the design space I was shooting for: small skirmish groups based on flavor, with an Arbitrator making it easier to have complex scenarios. I'm going to give the rogue trader rules a gander and see what's different from the 2nd Edition 40k and Skirmish rules I grew up with versus how I want to design my version of the rules.

"You Have to Put in the Work"

Let me tell you a little story about the path that led to my starting up an Old School D&D Campaign. While having far too much time on my hands courtesy of the United States Government, I stumbled onto the indie RPG scene online. Amongst other things, I discovered Vincent Baker's games and blog, and started reading and being inspired by both. One post that didn't particularly register at the time, but has since stuck with me was I <3 the OSR, and especially comment number 8. by Vincent (from whence comes this post's title). Well, about a year later, I don't even remember how or why, but I stumbled onto Grognardia and started reading all of the posts of the Dwimmermount Campaign. This is what really fired me up to actually get a D&D game together over Google+ and led to Fellhold (as I've discussed in pretty much all of the posts this last month). Now the game is underway, and yesterday I read a few posts by game designer Luke Crane (of Burning Wheel fame) regarding his experiences running Moldvay (Red Box) D&D while hewing strictly to the rules: Moldvay D&D RetrospectiveA Tale of Two MapsLet's Talk about Luke's D&D Explorations.  It was reading these posts that made an idea that's been floating around in my head as I've prepped Fellhold really click.

If you didn't check out the link to Mr. Baker's blog, he basically said that there is no book, no blog post, no single text that you can point to and say "if you read this, you'll 'get' the OSR". You have to put in the work. That work is following blogs, participating in discussions, wading through different retroclones in different versions, and most importantly *playing the games*. Sure, things like the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming provide an excellent introduction, but in the end, to grok it in fullness, you have to immerse yourself in it. Just like any subculture/philosophy, really.

Of course, all people everywhere want shortcuts to mastering things, that's human nature. But what has been valuable to me in exploring the Old School Renaissance has been that it is a wonderful antidote to the ubiquity of instant gratification. By way of example, after tearing through all of the Dwimmermount posts on Grognardia, I decided I was going to treat the archives like a "campaign" and read all of them. In many of the Dwimmermount posts, Mr. Maliszewski talks about the value of a long term campaign rather than jumping from interesting game to interesting game every few weeks. In particular he points out that part of a campaign is that some sessions are ho-hum but carry things along, and some drag a little bit, but these are necessary for the sessions that really pop to do so. You build up investment and commitment, and that's what makes the great stuff extra great.

Sure enough, reading through the rest of the Grognardia archives (and this took me a solid month or two of spending most of my reading time reading blog posts), there were a lot of posts that I wasn't particularly interested in (like an extended review of Gamma World) but I read them. I read every single post, even when I got into it and was like "I don't really care about this post". In the end, this had two chief benefits: for one, I discovered things I would have skipped otherwise. I thought I was well versed enough in Pulp Fantasy and wasn't looking for reviews on fiction, but I discovered numerous new authors and stories (more than I've had a chance to check out yet). Secondly, when I did finally slog my way onto the front page, I had a sense of accomplishment. Sure, that's a silly feeling to have for reading through the archives of a blog about a hobby I enjoy, but I feel like I am a moderate expert on this one small thing.

So, to bring this back to play, where it matters, Mr. Crane and Mr. Maliszewski both point out that what makes the rules of pre-AD&D D&D so great is that when you put in the time, a lot of the stuff that seems extraneous or stupid begins to make sense. When I was a kid learning D&D (AD&D 2nd Edition in my case), stuff like exact time keeping and movement rates and encumbrance seemed oh so horribly unnecessary. Ridiculous, even. Reading those posts about Mr. Crane's Moldvay games showed me exactly why they make for a good game. And I know this now, but I don't really get it in my gut yet, because my players haven't been at it that long.  But even the prep I've done on my own has taught me a lot and been immensely satisfying. Watching the players figure out the puzzle door to get into Dwimmermount and not resorting to an intelligence check or the like, just having faith that they'd figure something out was crazy satisfying.

So, if you're interested in this OSR thing, but you don't know much about it, I say dive in. Hell, if you're interested in any large and diverse area of interest, dive in and do the work. It's worth it.

Fellhold Session 2 Recap

In tonight's expedition, our daring adventurers took their first steps into the dank underground of Fellhold. After some accurate mapping and cleverly avoiding a pressure plate trap, the party got the drop on a group of bandits going through their loot. They failed to take full advantage of the surprise and entered into a grinding battle with them. With only the bandits' leader and one bandit still standing, a group of bandit reinforcements was spotted about to join the fray, and in a last ditch desperate effort, our adventurers managed to subdue the leader and hope to use his life to parley a way out of this dangerous situation. Meanwhile, the skeptic cleric and one of the few effective (wo)men at arms lay bleeding and near death, being tended to by nurses and torch bearers. We'll find out next week how the high stakes parley goes, and whether the desperately wounded characters can be tended to and healed.

Porting Dungeon World's GMing Rules to White Box, Part 1

So, as mentioned in my previous post, I think that the GMing rules from Dungeon World/AW are those which can most profitably be ported into an Old School D&D game (Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox in my case). With that in mind, I'm going to start by going through the Dungeon World Agendas, Principles and Moves, as well as the Always Say guidelines, and discuss/tweak to the 'Old School' refing style I am using in my game.

As a quick aside to those unfamiliar with these: the concepts of Always Say, Agendas, Principles, and Moves comes from Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World and are a way to codify and make rules good GMing practice for a particular way to run games. They aren't fluffy "advice" nor are they nitty-gritty "use monsters of X challenge value against characters of Y level" mechanics. They are honest to God game rules, ones you can point to and say "He's not GMing the game by the rules if he doesn't do this". All that being said, the particular style of play Dungeon World's GM procedures point to is close to but not identical to the style of play I'm shooting for with Fellhold, hence the tweaks coming up. Well, let's roll up our sleeves and get to work, shall we?

Always Say

As a Dungeon World GM you always say these things (in bold - followed by my commentary in regular text):

What the rules demand - This one is pretty consistent with my refing philosophy for an Old School game anyhow. I had already decided to follow Mr. Maliszewski's example and make all rolls out in the open and to have a firm "no fudging" policy. On the other hand, one of the "rules" is my judgement as referee (which I am attempting to regularize somewhat with this post) and sometimes the "rule" will be that I roll a die and figure something out based on whether it's high or low. Overall, though, I don't think this one needs any tweaking.

What the adventure demands - Again, this one is fairly straightforward, and pretty close to old school principles. Though it doesn't need to be said to those familiar with Old School or Story Now methods, "the adventure" in this  instance emphatically does not mean "pre-planned story". Rather, this is a reminder to insure that the world's internal consistency informs what I say, and not to hold anything back.

What honesty demands - Building off the "not to hold anything back" idea above is this notion not to hoard information or keep secrets for dramatic/plot based purposes. If a player pokes the canvas cover of a pit trap with his 10' pole, he found it, the end. If the wandering monster check brought up something scary right when the party is wounded and retreating, well, damn, there it is. Once again, totally consistent with an old school approach as I understand it.

What the principles demand - Here's one that is usually not spelled out in Old School games, but I think there is some precedent for the concept. I read somewhere recently someone saying that the OSR relies mostly on "tribal knowledge" and "best practices" to achieve what games like Dungeon World and Apocalypse World have codified in GMing rules, but that both embrace the idea that there is a right way to GM/Ref a game for a particular approach. I'm making some of my indie sympathies obvious with this very post, and it's partially because I don't have much experience with actually running in an Old School style.


Your agenda is what you sit down at the table to do:

Make the world fantastic - Not much to say here, describing everything to present a coherent fantasy world is definitely one of my goals.

Fill the characters’ lives with adventure - I think this one has potentially the greatest room for differences, but isn't fundamentally different. The agenda as stated and implemented in Apocalypse World/Dungeon World calls for the GM to actively craft threats that target things that are important to the characters, while the Old School approach tends to go more for scattering a number of potential dangers/adventurers around, see what the players engage with, and then run with that. I don't have any problem with bringing in a focus on targeting what the players/their characters establish as important to them, but I think I will strongly filter it through the idea that I just make things that the characters interact with, and that I don't try to get at certain "issues" or themes.

Play to find out What Happens - This is the agenda that most struck me as a point of similarity between Old School refing and Apocalypse Engine GMing. Old School GMing expresses it via random tables and constructing locations and environments based on their internal logic and ecology rather than on a story line or specific challenge levels. Apocalypse derived games express it by having stakes and questions in Fronts and strongly reminding the GM not to pre-plan outcomes. I might even point to this agenda as the heart of *my* in-play enjoyment, whereas the other two have more to do with how I help the players have fun (although, Make the World Fantastic ties right into my lonely-fun prepping between sessions).

I can't think of any agendas that need to be added, although my particular version of Play to Find out What Happens, includes a little more of "test the players' skill" than a straight up story now focused game. Here's why I don't think this will result in incoherence: the focus on player skill has practically zero to do with system mastery and more to do with player creativity and initiative. I view seeing the ways players get around puzzles and traps or think up outlandish tactics as part of what I'm playing to find out, and since finding that out doesn't have an impact on the rules the way, say, min/maxing would, I think the other principles and moves will mostly hold.


Draw maps, leave blanks - If anything, Old School play has more focus on maps, but I think it tends to interpret "blanks" more abstractly. Rather than leaving sections of the map literally blank, Old School approaches tend to concretely map out the physical location (dungeon complex, mountains, town, whatever) and then to intentionally leave areas "blank" to be investigated in play. In particular I'm discovering the joy of random dungeon stocking tables, and I'm going to experiment with doing more on the fly once I really have my in-play reference hammered out.

Address the characters, not the players - This one is probably one of the bigger departures. There's much more of a tendency in Old School play to view your character as "your guy" that you control, rather than a "persona" you get into the headspace of. This makes sense given the high rate of lethality for low level characters. I've somewhat consciously avoided this principle in the sessions so far in order to play up the fact that players can't expect plot immunity. As characters grow and develop (and survive) I might start doing this more.

Embrace the fantastic - No problems here, although I've been trying to force myself to be open minded about "the fantastic" than my own narrow sense of what is "right" for the setting. So I think I'll keep this as a reminder to relax and remember the free wheeling pulp source material.

Make a move that follows - Obviously, this one is built on the idea that you are using "moves", but I think the core idea that what you decide to do as a GM/ref should logically follow from what came before fictionally, and perhaps more importantly, that you have "permission" to do hard/bad things if it makes sense fictionally is very Old School. That's part of why I think incorporating "moves" into my thinking will help encourage me to make interesting and exciting decisions about the fiction.

Never speak the name of your move - Here's one that doesn't come up very strongly in most Old School play, but the idea of "embellishing" the nuts and bolts explanation is an old one. I might embrace this one and stop saying things like "the monster rolls to hit", even if it's obvious that that's what's happening. I think that will help focus things back on the fiction, which is the whole idea here.

Give every monster life - Here's one that I think was present in very early Old School play and the renaissance, but that maybe got de-emphasized pretty early on. If you look at the Little Brown Books, you can see that there's an expectation that monsters are more than piles of hit points and attacks sitting on top of treasure. There are rules for capturing dragons for sale, recruiting monsters as followers, and seeing what sort of reaction monsters would have to you in a social situation. This one I definitely want to embrace.

Name every person - I think Old School best practices follow this one, and I've definitely embraced it whole-heartedly, making good use of random name lists and quick NPC creation tables. Something alluded to in the Dungeon World rules that I think will be interesting to see in play is that sometimes monsters become persons, and how they're interacted with will change how the rules treat them.

Ask questions and use the answers - This is fundamental to the Old School way of running things, especially in any sort of rules light game. "You search for traps? Okay, how?" One thing that AW derived games are more open about that I'm keen to embrace is sharing some of the game world's authorship (though there are some excellent examples of this in the Dwimmermount Campaign over at Grognardia).

Be a fan of the characters - Though the Dungeon World rules stress that this does not mean root for the Player Characters to win, I think a cultivated attitude of impartiality is more the approach of the Old School. Perhaps a more specifically Old School restatement would be "Never Treat the Characters as your Enemies".

Think Dangerous - The Old School is so on the same page here. I think DW's broadening of said dangerous thinking from just the characters out to the world's institutions and NPCs and so forth is a worthwhile and consistent  expansion.

Begin and end with the fiction - Yup, another point of strong kinship here. While Old School games have historically not had all of the links between the fiction and the rules as clear as would be ideal, the strong emphasis on the fiction as what matters is definitely there. Hell, I'd argue that rules that started to distance the fiction and game mechanics (thief skills, generic skill sets, et cetera) are what started Old School games on the path away from the Old School.

Think offscreen, too - This one's a staple of good sandbox campaign play, and is also reflected in modules and supplements that presented dungeons as living places (like the various humanoid tribes abandoning the Caves of Chaos after an attack in Keep on the Borderlands). So, I think it's a great idea to put this up as a reminder.


There's going to be significantly less overlap with established Old School procedures in some of these moves, I think a lot are just formalized versions of what Old School Refs do all the time.

Use a monster, danger, or location move - Things like this tend to be covered by special attacks, spells, or the like. The big difference that comes immediately to mind is that most Old School games have an implicit assumption that the monsters follow the same rules or variations of the same rules as the characters (HD as analog for levels, rolling to hit and to damage, et cetera). The idea of having mechanical moves that are *not* based on the player rules is intriguing, and I'm going to have to think about well I think they'll mesh.

Reveal an unwelcome truth - One word here: traps. That being said, thinking of this as a general move to be applied to multiple situations ought to be useful in an Old School context.

Show signs of an approaching threat - A lot of this will get pre-loaded in a module, and the Old School will often rely on the characters asking about it as the prompt to supply it, but I know that in my own design of my megadungeon, I've felt compelled to include indications of the really nasty stuff to be found rather than just springing it out of nowhere.

Deal damage - Pretty obviously in the Old School Ref's repertoire.

Use up their resources - This tends to be more systematized and by the rules in the Old School, but it is definitely a strong focus. I particularly like some of Dungeon World's examples of thinking broadly about "resources" and emphasizing it can be temporary (like the example of a sword skittering across the room out of reach during a fight).

Turn their move back on them - I think the canonical Old School example of this move would be the critical miss/fumble, but it should be fun to keep it in mind with a broader definition of player "moves" as well.

Separate them - Here's one that is less popular with the Old School, if only because of logistical reasons. Never split the party and all that.

Give an opportunity that fits a class’ abilities - I'm not sure how much I'll use this one in play, on the fly, as it seems to go against the idea of the world as a place of its own that the characters interact with, rather than as something designed for the characters. Certainly I try to put a variety of situations with opportunities for all different ways to solve them, but I don't know if I'll look at my notes and go "right about here we need something for the mage to do".

Show a downside to their class, race, or equipment - And here's exactly why you don't take polearms into cramped underground tunnels. I very much plan for this to be one of the ways I make their lives interesting besides throwing monsters their way.

Offer an opportunity, with or without cost - This one's a pretty basic GMing/Refing thing to do, so yep.

Put someone in a spot - See above. Yep.

Tell them the requirements or consequences and ask - Here's one that I think is especially important with so much depending on the referee's judgement. It takes a lot of sting out of arbitrary decisions when you make sure the players have buy in to what the outcome of that arbitrary decision might be. I definitely already use this one and will continue to do so.

So, all of that was a somewhat lengthy way to arrive at the fact that it looks like the Agendas, Principles, Moves, and Always Say of Dungeon World map pretty closely to how I intend to continue to run my Old School campaign. I may think of some additions/modifications as I go, and if I do, I'll post them here. If anybody with more Old School experience takes issue with any of my comparisons, let me know.

Dungeon World, An Echo, Resounding, Refereeing and You

(ed: in my original post, I said that Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox was shared under a Creative Commons License, but this was incorrect. It is, in fact, shared under the Open Game License. I've edited the text below to reflect this)

So, I've been reading through the ever-excellent Kevin Crawford's An Echo, Resounding, as well as Sage LaTorra's totally sweet Dungeon World, switching back and forth between the two of them, and I think there's something really powerful to be made between them.

For starters, don't get me wrong: both are awesome and great on their own. The sandbox GMing advice in Red Tide and An Echo, Resounding is useful, flexible, and imminently playable. Where it touches on the specific campaign setting it is evocative enough to get me to want to read more about it despite my firm intention not to play in it. On the other hand, it is light enough and tied enough into standard D&D tropes that any setting-specific content can be easily excised or repurposed. Just about the only thing I'm finding a little bit difficult is that some of the assumptions in the Domain Play rules in An Echo, Resounding assume a technology level and social organization consistent with Imperial China/Shogun era Japan. In a more European flavored milieu, some of the social structures described imply a higher technology level/later historical analog. Since I am going for a Iron Age/Dark Age Scandinavian feel (predominantly) with scattered and primitive bits of "civilization", assuming that domains can dispatch "magistrates" or that there are organized mercantile forces pushes in some different directions than I have in mind. Fortunately, I've done some thinking about bronze/iron age social and economic structure rules, as that is the entire point of my Book of Threes game.

Which segues me nicely into Dungeon World, given Book of Threes' current status as an AW hack. Ever since Tony Dowler threw together some playbooks and GM advice for "Apocalypse D&D", I've been enamored of the implementation of Apocalypse World's rules to Dungeons and Dragons. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered the Dungeon World kickstarter a week after it was successfully funded. Poop. Fortunately, if you're willing to do some work with InDesign, the rules are available as open source (I had to import XML, since my CS4 InDesign won't open the included InDesign files, and my student discount isn't *that* good on CS6). At any rate, they'll be getting my money just as soon as the make the book/pdf available for purchase. It really is a fantastic way to get a lot of what is great about D&D and a lot of what is great about these new-fangled story games/story now games/indie games/whatever in the same package. Reading through the rules makes me want to play it/run it like whoah.

But I've taken to heart Mr. Maliszewski's advice on gamer ADD to heart, and I'm already having a great time with my S&WWB Old School campaign, so I'm mostly resisting the urge. Mostly. But as I opened the post with, I think there is a lot of use to be found in Dungeon World that can be ported to D&D without too much pain, especially since I loves me some kit-bashing, whether with models or with rules systems. So, following are my thoughts on what I plan to do with Dungeon World while still running a game I can call S&WWB with a straight face.

First off, I won't be importing any player moves. I thought long and hard about importing some for areas that aren't "skills" - stuff like "Last Breath" and "When you Make a Perilous Journey". If I ever do import any player moves, it'll be ones like those - stuff that is not a substitute for or supplement to player observation or description of action, but rather a system for covering something that would otherwise purely be me making decisions out of the blue. Because that's where I think Dungeon World has the most to bring to Old School D&D, at least in my case. I don't have nearly 40 years of good Old School Refing practice to fall back on. I do have buy-in to the underlying principles, and I have read through a lot of OSR posts, and I can look back on a fair number of play experiences as emblematic of Old School play, but it's just not automatic to me. So, AW style agendas, principles, and moves are a great way to give myself reminders of how to Old School ref. Fortunately most of what's in the Dungeon World GMing sections is congruent with if not representative of Old School refing. What doesn't match up, I'm going to tweak.

Where these tweaks will take shape is in the reference file I'm creating for myself. I'm taking the Creative Commons Licensed Dungeon World material and chopping it up in InDesign to export into a PDF of just the stuff I want for my current D&D game. With a little more effort I may actually combine it with some of the stuff from Red Tide and An Echo, Resounding, but that stuff is *not* CCL, so if I do, that would not be quite as releasable as  a fan supplement. If I get really ambitious, I just might even take the White Box rules (Open Game License, which is similar to CCL) and combine them with the various Ref aids I end up using, and make a one volume Fellhold Edition ruleset for my own use (or to be shared if anybody cares and if I can wrangle a legal version).

Now, I think that the traits system (like the tags system in Stars Without Number, Kevin Crawford's excellent and free sci-fi game) in Red Tide and An Echo, Resounding along with the Location rules and Campaign Region rules more generally could have some really awesome interactions with Fronts, Dangers, and Tags from Dungeon World. I'm not sure what those interactions are just yet, but they both are modular and evocative in a way that supports individual referee decisions while still making the work easier, and I like that a lot. They also both tie directly into how to make those decisions matter in play and to help in moment-to-moment running of the game, which I definitely appreciate. Again, I'll probably post here when I think of something more concrete about how to merge these systems that are both getting my engine going.

In the meantime, check out some of those links I included above if you're not already familiar, they are well worth your time if you're at all interested in RPGs of any stripe.

A Point of Similarity

So, all of my recent posts have been about the Old School Renaissance, and my old school D&D game. If you look to the posts that started this blog, you'll see that I was quite enamored of indie RPGs and forge theory and the like. At first glance this seems like something of a flip-flop, but it was actually from the indie "scene" that I discovered the OSR and became fired up to run a D&D game. And one game design specific thing I think can be found in both camps is a distrust of "skill systems". Now, plenty of old school games use and love skill systems, and some indie games use them to great effect, but it's one of the things taken for granted in late 80's - mid 90's game design that is significantly absent from the earliest D&D or the indiest of indie games.

Here's the thing: skill systems make a *whole lot* of sense. Once you've accepted the premise of deciding things about a fictional world by rolling dice, it's a very short jump to decide such things should be made regular and to hang together. Especially if any of your justification for your rules is in "modeling" the real world (even if it's as simple as stats like strength, intelligence, et cetera). So, it's no surprise that skill systems were introduced to the hobby in its very first few years.

There's a few potential problems with them, though. The worst is probably the fact that the implicit assumption of a skill system is that if you don't have the skill you can't do it, and that if you do have the skill, you must use the skill system to resolve something. This puts you in a position where your master driver character both has to roll to do routine driving and face the chance of failing and is prohibited from cooking, because there's a cooking skill in the big list of skills and you didn't take it. Now, of course, I've picked some especially heinous examples, and plenty of GMs and rules systems have work arounds to prevent such annoying instances, but the that is one of the logical directions for skill system-based play to go in.

So, if you look at pre-supplement OD&D or at lots of cutting-edge modern indie games, you do not see any sort of regularized universal skill mechanic, and I've come to believe that this is a beautiful thing. Don't get me wrong, my anal-retentive, simulation-loving side gets giddy discussing intricately nested area of expertise-skill-focus-specialty type systems that are elegantly executed. But I've come to appreciate the complete opposite as well: replacing any attempt at yoking every possible situation to a rule system with faith in the judgement of one or more players at the table. That's the whole reason the GM/referee role was invented in the first place: a disinterested 3rd party's judgement is one of the most flexible tools you can have for providing open-ended excitement.

Have advances in game design reduced the necessity for relying on unaided referee judgement? Certainly. Is properly guided referee judgement obsolete and useless? Not on your life. I'd argue that Original D&D, at its best, stumbled upon some of the best stuff that is designed into modern systems through its default fallback position of "let the ref decide".

As such, I have made the conscious decision to *not* include any skill systems, proficiencies, or what have you into my D&D game, but I've taken ideas from Apocalypse World and others to heart when it comes to constraining and directing what my actual role as ref is, and I hope the result is a fun game.

How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Random

One of the many things I've learned to embrace in preparing my Old School campaign has been what Mr. Maliszewski over at Grognardia refers to as "The Oracular Power of Dice". I also got the name for my blog from a post by Ben Robbins at Ars Ludi on a similar topic. Basically, the idea is to accept what the dice give you and then craft your plans around them, rather than to have a master plan and only accept results that fit with that plan.

Now, this is a little bit hard for me because I tend to have some pretty definite ideas about the "flavor" I"m going for, and I tend to want to make decisions about everything. But I've discovered a few interesting things while prepping Fellhold. First, it is strangely liberating to just go through rooms and roll to see if anything is in there and what it is. It removes a lot of the burden of trying to think up logical monster and treasure placement and hold the entire dungeon ecology in your brain. It also removes worries of being either too easy or too harsh on the players, as much of it is out of my hands.

So, ease of use and making the ref's job easier are widely known and pretty obvious benefits of random monster and treasure stocking. What is perhaps less obvious is the way that taking this unexpected input and linking it to what is already established results in unexpected depth. Sometimes asking yourself "okay, so why are these hobgoblins in this room?" with them being there as a given inspires more creativity than thinking "what is this room and should it have hobgoblins in it?". Also, sometimes strings of monsters will just seem to fit so perfectly that you can't believe you didn't think of it on your own.

Finally, the non-random aspects of this process are interesting as well. I'm learning to love stocking tables and wandering monster tables, and figuring out cool things I can do with them because of it. So, originally I was just using my wandering monster table to stock a particular sublevel, but for further levels I'm thinking that I will have separate room stocking tables and wandering monster tables, since different sorts of monsters are more likely to be wandering around than others. Also, it helps me to establish the sort of ecology that exists in a particular place without actually having to establish every little detail. I'm planning on playing around with multiple dice tables, so that I can have more nuance in frequency (for example, use 2d6 so that things in the 6-9 range are more common, whereas the 2 and 12 results are quite rare). Hopefully if I can develop sophisticated enough tables and charts, I'll get to the point where all I have to do is draw a floorplan, plop down a few points of interest, and then roll up a totally fleshed out dungeon level. Such techniques will also help when we get to wilderness adventures.

A Note about Rules

So, one of the things I took to heart while reading through James Malieszewski's Dwimmermount campaign over at Grognardia was the notion that it is easier to start with sparse rules and then add more subsystems than it is to cut back an existing bigger system. I originally intended to go real-hard core old school and use the original three Little Brown Books as the rules, and add from there. Alas, during character generation I found myself not comfortable enough with them to quickly and efficiently use them as in-game reference material.

Instead I found myself going to my extremely handy little hardcover of Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. I find its minimalism and digest size to be delightful, not to mention the awesome cover art, and so I have made it the "official" rules for the campaign. In other words, my players can expect the rules to work as written in there unless otherwise notified.

Most of the shared material for the campaign is being posted in a Google Docs folder, since we're playing via Google+ Hangouts (2 players in California, 4 in Texas, and 1 in Virginia), and included there is a compendium of house rules to date. I highlight any changes or additions made since the last session, and I'm planning on eventually editing any changes that become established into the Whitebox .rtf file and making a little "Fellhold Edition" for my own personal use, but we'll see.

With that foreword out of the way, here's a summary of the major house rulings so far:

Equipment Quick Start Packages

Shortly after one of my players asked for this option, I discovered that Brendan at Untimately had already made an excellent table for quickly generating starting equipment for OD&D. The only slight discrepancy here is that 1 wk of iron rations from the LBB's costs 15 GP, whereas 7 days worth of dried rations in S&WWB costs 21 GP. So, for now, I've skated around the issue by modifying the table to only provide 5 days of dried rations. Also, as you'll see below, the starting weapon assumptions of Brendan's chart have been modified, so there may be more trading out than would otherwise be suggested.


Weapon Damage by Class

Another excellent house rule I have swiped wholesale is Akrasia's Weapon Damage Chart from his blog Akratic Wizardry. For me, these rules are a great compromise between all characters doing d6 damage and having some mechanical differentiation between characters and weapons. I read somewhere an argument in favor of all characters with all weapons doing d6 damage that basically pointed out that by removing the mechanical import of weapons, you can have your Gandalfs with swords and Fafhrds with great swords and what not and not worry about whether they're the right class. Then there's the added benefit that the differences between weapons become much more flavor and player inventiveness based. Your giant greatsword may do the same damage as a dagger, but you can't swing it around in a 10 x 10 room. On the other hand, the idea that the magic user might be more useful just butchering people with a dagger than, you know, using magic, struck me as a bit off. So, this chart allows for flexibility while still providing mechanical benefit to fighting men actually fighting, without creating "objectively better weapons".


Bleeding to Death

I've adopted the suggested alternate treatment of 0 HP in S&WWB, where players are bleeding to death until they reach their level in negative hit points. I mostly did this as a concession to the fact that my players are not used to the lethality of Old School games, and because it has a long and hoary tradition in the game.


Class and Level Limits

Dwarves are the only non-human PC race in my campaign world, so I've done away with level limits, but to insure that it remains a human-dominated Swords and Sorcery feel, they are still limited to being fighting men.



New characters can take out up to 3 loans for 3d6x10 GP each if they desire. These loans will have 25% interest, compounded monthly, and are of course not from reputable lenders. When I saw this idea mentioned on Grognardia, it was too good a source of future trouble to pass up.



Experience is only earned by treasure *spent*. I'm not picky about what it's spent on (carousing, tithes, room and board, new equipment, whatever). This is to provide an incentive for players to have trouble acquiring large hoards and to keep diving back into the megadungeon for the increasing riches.


Late Game Stuff

I'm going to be setting up the campaign region using the rules from "An Echo, Resounding" so that I can bake in higher level concerns right from the get-go. Once again, I have to agree with Mr. Maliszewski that the appropriate "end game" for D&D characters is to become lords and lead armies and manage domains, not to become demi-gods who can warp the fabric of reality with their super powers. That stuff is way less interesting to me, and I feel like is the sort of thing that computer RPGs do better, whereas complex domain building and politics is something that tabletop games with a human referee still do better.

Fellhold Session 1

So, our brave expedition's first venture up the mountain led to a ruined outpost guarding a gate into the underworld. Blum and Varian were unable to make it on this first expedition, but Yllgrad, Caleb, Bryni, and Earn set their sights on adventure and followed the path out of Silverdelf up the spur of the mountain. While exploring the ruined outpost, Earn and Caleb ventured into a ruined tower and were set upon by a giant spider! This loathsome beast failed to (literally) get the drop on them, and Earn bravely set to it with his morning star, inflicting grievous wounds. Caleb fled in terror at such a horrific challenge to his rationalist view of the world. In a few rounds, the rest of the party showed up, and Yllgrad and Bryni also wore down the beast's defenses. Yllgrad's hireling, Gar, lined up a shot with his crossbow, but in the heat of the moment missed the spider and wounded Bryni instead. After heroically leaping onto the spider's back, Earn was grievously wounded by the spider's stinger, and only survived due to the ministrations of Caleb. Bryni was able to thrust his spear up into the bowels of the spider and to finish it off. After a thorough search of the outpost, the party discovered a small sum of silver and copper coins, a few plain, but serviceable weapons, a potentially valuable Ivory box, and a fine idol of Dwyn, the Oak Mother. They returned to Silverdelf to assess their treasures and to allow Earn and Bryni to recuperate, but they learned the secret of opening the gate into the mountain before departing, and they intend to venture into the underground when their members once again are in fighting shape.

Prep is Fun!

So, we had to put off our first game session until next week due to a number of scheduling difficulties, but that's probably good, as I will be far more prepared this way. I'm having a grand old time swiping stuff from modules and supplements new and old, gleefully combing OD&D, S&W, AD&D 1E, LL, and whatever else comes in handy, while checking facts about ecology online. I haven't designed a dungeon in about 15 years, and back then I was completely focused on providing *just* the right challenge that players would have a tough time of it, but would win, and they were all "lair" type dungeons, very much of the "something bad is outside of our village, please go deal with it!' school of thought. This is my first megadungeon, and I'm finding the process of thinking out what the different levels are, and what their relationship to each other is to be fascinating and intoxicating. Let's hope it stays that way.