Version 0.2 of my classless OSR houserules is now up for my supporters on Patreon!
Michael Prescott, 2-page dungeon-maker extraordinaire, put out a crowd-sourced dungeon recently called the Halls Untoward. It’s pay-what-you-want on Drive Thru RPG and it’s really good, especially his fantastic illustrations. I’m planning on running it for my 5th-graders, so as usual I’m doing some reformatting. I’ve taken the minimaps of each part of the dungeon, cut them out, stuck them in the middle of a letter-sized page, and then cut out each room description and pasted them right next to each room. The original book is already pretty easy to use thanks to the minimaps, but the larger real estate of a letter page allows for zero information loss while eliminating page flipping and allowing for immediate visualization of each room’s layout and surroundings. Check it out.
I’ve been running Maze Rats at my 5th grade after-school club for a while now, but the main problem is that it’s not very compatible with OSR monsters, spells, and mechanics in general. So what I’m looking at now is a way to make something as fast, simple and intuitive as Maze Rats that will work pretty seamlessly with my gaming bookshelf. I’m calling it Knave until I think of something better.
The first problem: how to make it classless? It needs to be classless because I don’t have time to teach each kid how a different class works every week. Things need to be as obvious as possible. My solution right now is to tie everything into encumbrance slots. You have as many slots as you have Strength, but everything that might make you more martial or more arcane are just items. (All classes lie on the martial/arcane spectrum, and don’t tell me I’ve forgotten rogues, all adventurers are rogues).
So if you want to be more of a fighter, you pick up more fighty things: better armor and weapons. Armor runs from AC 12 to 16, and takes up 1-5 encumbrance slots. Shields and helmets (+1 AC each) also take up a slot. Weapons deal d6, d8 or d10 damage and take up 1, 2 or 3 slots. So a fighter that’s really decked out for war can easily fill 8-12 slots, especially if they’re hauling around a few spare weapons.
I’ve solved the wizard problem by just making encumbrance slots the same thing as spell slots. Each spell is now a spell book that can be cast once per day, and which takes up 1 encumbrance slot. PCs can only cast spells of their level or lower (it’s always bugged the hell out of me how these don’t align in normal D&D), and PC level only goes up to 10. You never get new spell books as a result of leveling up; you have to find them like any other item, and the high level ones are incredibly rare. PCs are flatly incapable of creating or copying the spells in spell books. It’s a lost art. This way magic users have to claw their way to every scrap of magic they have, be constantly on the lookout for people trying to steal their grimoires, and have to wade into battle flipping through the mobile library they have hanging off them.
An early draft of Knave is out now for my supporters over on Patreon.
I really enjoy the way that partial successes in Apocalypse World games continually complicate the fiction. Actions scenes get richer and more interesting as problems mount; the tension builds, and players feel like there’s more thing to react to. However, I’m not a fan of the “moves” system, so I’ve been thinking of ways to port partial successes over to more trad roll-under d20 games, like Whitehack, Symbaroum, or The Black Hack.
A common way to do this is just to say that missing by say 1-3 is a partial failure, while hitting by only 1-3 is a partial success, or something like that. The trouble is that you can end up with some odd quirks, such as a the fact that if you have an ability of 10, it’s more likely to get a full success or failure than it is to get partial ones. The way I see it, characters with average stats should be getting partial results much more often than either of the extremes, similar to Apocalypse World.
Here’s my solution: when making a test in a roll under-system, roll two dice instead of one.
- If 0 dice pass, the result is a full failure.
- If 1 die passes, the result is a partial success.
- If 2 dice pass, the result is a full success.
Here is what the probabilities of this system look like. The sweet spot is from 5-15, as you would expect. What’s interesting is comparing this to the probabilities for Apocalypse World. A 15 looks a lot like a +3, a 13 looks like a +2, and a 11 looks like a +1.
If you wanted more degrees of success than apocalypse world, you just add more dice. Here’s a system with 4 degrees of success: full fail, partial fail, partial success, and full success. With 4 degrees of success, the odds of a full success or failure goes down significantly, so you will be dealing with a lot of partial results. However, the split between bad results and good results will be symmetrical, as opposed to the 3-degrees system, where two out of three results allow the PC some degree of success. I suspect 4 degrees would work better for more realistic games, while 3 degrees would be better for more heroic games.
If you were using Whitehack or The Black Hack, you could still keep advantage and disadvantage by rolling an extra die and dropping the highest or lowest, respectively. Or you could just give players mods to their stat, which might be easier.
I’m planning on using a system like this for the project I’m working on now, The Wormwood Throne(or The Wormwood Crown…I haven’t decided) which will be more robust and detailed than Maze Rats, but the principle is applicable to lots of games.
If you need quick ideas for random NPCs and encounters, just open to the relevant page of a Where’s Waldo book and throw some d6s at it. Make the die result how favorable the encounter is to you. Martin Handford’s done all your work for you.
For example: Town Encounters
And so on and so on. Almost every page of those books are useful for ideas. Even anachronistic ones can be easily re-themed into some thing suitable.
And for more random tables than you can shake a goblin’s dismembered leg at, download Maze Rats and never run out of ideas again.
I just found the Paper Towns subreddit, which I’m convinced is one of the best RPG resources I’ve ever seen. It contains hundreds of high-quality paintings and drawings of ancient and medieval cities – just print them out and write a key over them or a random table, and you’ve got yourself multiple sessions of content. Players think completely differently when they can actually see the layout of their surroundings and can plan accordingly. Here’s a few of my favorite maps below.
Great little port town. The details in the whole harbor/fort complex look especially interesting.
The elevation in this one is great, as are all the ways around the rooftops and the twisting roads.
Diocletian’s palace is basically begging to get robbed by some murderhoboes in the dead of night.
I love how concrete and specific this one is. You get encounter hook ideas just looking closely at it.
My endlessly-revised RPG is complete, and live on DriveThruRPG! Go there to download it now!
Maze Rats is a RPG and sandbox toolkit for old-school-style adventuring. It contains a single, compact page of rules, a one-page character creation guide, a hand-drawn character sheet, and eight pages of 66-item random tables, rollable with 2d6. Each page contains 9-12 tables, covering everything from spell and monster generation, through NPCs, treasures, cities, wildernesses, and dungeons. If you run (or have always wanted to run) open sandbox adventures, Maze Rats offers everything you need in a compact, easily-referenced format. Also included is two pages of advice for preparing and running open-world games in the OSR style.
The game system itself is 2d6 based. Character are extremely quick to generate, making it great for convention games, one-shots, or introducing new players. The game is highly lethal, and assumes a style of play where caution is essential to long-term survival. It is technically classless, but the leveling options allow players to specialize in fighting, thievery or wizardry or some mixture of the three. Magic is simple and chaotic, with new randomly-generated spells filling the magic-user’s head each night. Everything about the game is designed to be as clean, fast, and intuitive as possible, while driving players towards creative solutions rather than brute force (though brute force is always an option).
A 5th grade girl at the school where I teach is running a D&D-like game at recess. The rules are posted below. I decided to interview her to get some insights.
Questing Beast: What are all these monsters that you wrote down in the rules?
Dungeon Master: They’re what you can be.
QB: What are the really unusual ones, like the Orazen?
Player: It’s like part dragon, part human. Also, in D&D, it’s also known as the Dragonborn.
QB: What about a Racsaca?
DM: They’re in D&D! They’re like a Tiger-person, with a mane..
QB: What’s a Fawnalese?
DM: It’s like a human that has an animal quality, like ears, or a tail, something like that.
QB: So it’s like a part Faun?
QB: What is a Bungee?
QB: Bunger, sorry!
Player: That’s what I am.
DM: It’s like a normal human, but when they get very mad they can become 3 times the size of a normal human, or three times as small, depending on the dice roll!
QB: They can shrink or get bigger? That’s neat. Ok, what’s a Zazen?
DM: That’s what you are. Remember? It’s like an animal that can speak and turn into other animals?
QB: It’s a shapeshifter?
DM: Yeah, yeah.
QB: Let’s see…what is a Dragonteller?
DM: Oh, you can’t be that!
QB: It says “No killing the Dragonteller.” What’s that?
DM: It’s hard to find the Land of Dragons, but if you find the Land of Dragons, you have to get past the dragons, and once you do all that if you find the Dragonteller, he can answer your questions, he can tell the future and the past…
QB: So he’s the most powerful person in the Dragonlands?
QB: Why are there 600 dimensions?
DM: …I don’t know.
QB: Because it’s cool?
QB: Have you gone to any of them?
Player: How many dimensions?
QB: 600 dimensions is what the rules say.
DM: Yeah we’ve been to some of them.
QB: Like which ones have you gone to?
DM: Nether…you can make up any of them…
Player: We went to this sky dimension, that had an evil part of the dimension…
QB: Cloud kingdom…it had an evil part, a good part…the evil part had the Lord of Death.
DM: The Lord of Death?
Player: Lava dimension, the acid dimension, the giant dimension…
QB: So it’s all different elements, basically?
DM: Yeah! No! You can make up any dimension, basically.
Player: There’s the giant dimension, where everything is huge.
QB: What does rainbowneum look like?
DM: It’s like a coin, and it’s rainbow.
QB: It says it costs 100,000 Wadroneum. What’s a wadroneum?
QB: Is is just another coin type?
QB: I’m really curious about he Cloud Kingdom. How do you get there?
DM: In ONE dimension, in one TOWN in that dimension, there’s a tiny door that leads you there.
Player: Also, you can be teleported into it.
DM: Someone can be like, boom, you’re there.
Player: You can ride up to it, you can fly up to it…but you have to FIND it.
DM: Yeah, you have to find it. That’s the hard part.
QB: Why did you start making your own roleplaying game, instead of just using Dungeons & Dragons?
DM: …it’s fun.
QB: It is fun, isn’t it? What things about it do you like better than the normal D&D rules?
DM: Well…you can have a special power.
Player: Well, it’s also that creating your own game, your own Dungeons and Dragons game…it’s showing how much you like D&D.
QB: What’s it called?
DM: Adventures in the Land of Dragons.
QB: Makes sense.
Player: It’s pretty much D&D, except there are different mosnters and stuff.
DM: You can be more things than you can in D&D. And you have special skills…and INSTEAD of having having just Intelligence and Wisdom, you can just have Mind, because that just takes less time.
QB: That’s true. That’s why I made mine, because I didn’t like the D&D rules as much, so I just made up my own. Where are you guys right now? What are your characters doing?
Player : So we’re in a dark manor that has a bunch of these doors, and we’re trying to find the owner, kill her, so we can get out of the manor.
Player 2: I want to kill her like a BOSS!
A 5th grade girl is DMing D&D with a circle of boys on the playground of the school where I teach. I sit down to play along. She is having everyone roll a die.
Me: “Where are we?”
DM: “We’re in hell.”
Me: “Why are we all rolling dice?”
Boy: “Hades cursed us to pick up his room. We’re rolling to see if we can put away all the clothes.”
Me: “Can I teleport out of here?” (I’m a magic user.)
DM: “No, there’s too many clothes.”
[Rolling continues until someone rolls a natural 20. Everyone cheers.}
DM: “Hades teleports you all out of there! Roll a die to see where you end up!”
DM: “You’re in the top of a tree! A palm tree.”
[Everyone else rolls. They’re in a tropical village nearby.]
Me: I want to climb down.
DM: Roll a die! [It works]
Me: I want to find out who’s in charge of this place.
DM: Roll a die! Use your Charisma.
Me: 4 [I’m not charismatic].
DM: You have no idea who’s in charge of the village. A lady walks by and is like, “Who are you?!”
Boy: I want to find out who’s in charge! [Rolls CHA. Succeeds.]
DM: You see a huge mansion on the hill. It has enormous billboards next to it saying “The Guy In Charge.”
Me: I want to knock on the door.
DM: Roll a die!
DM: No one answers. They’re ignoring you!
Me: I want to kick that door down.
DM: Roll a die!
Me. I’m a weak wizard, but I’ll roll my strength. 17!
DM: You kick a hole right in the door! You stick you head through and see the guy in charge.
Me: What does he look like?
DM: Roll a die!
DM: He’s a…half orc. A really skinny half orc.
[The whistle is blown and recess ends]
Let’s analyze this. For one, there was almost no railroading (apart from not being able to escape Hades’ bedroom). It was a total improv sandbox, where you could try anything and the DM would come up with a result.
Second: there was no cutesy theme, no polish. Character sheets were hand drawn and photocopied. Character art was about what you would expect, which was half rabid enthusiasm, half bored doodles.
Third: There was no moralizing, no paternalism, no appropriateness filter.
Fourth: There was no emphasis on storytelling of any kind. No narrative mechanics, no personal goals. There was also no combat (although I have observed sessions this DM runs with combat). The focus was on immersion and on doing what you found to be entertaining. Exploration and amusement was king.
Fifth: The DM let herself be surprised. She demanded rolls for everything, even rolling to see what kind of NPC the village leader was. She didn’t have a table or anything, so I have no idea if she just made that up on the spot, or if it corresponded to how dangerous the species was, but it was funny anyway. She treated the dice like a kind of oracle that was guiding the game nearly as much as she was.
In other words, it was utterly unlike every RPG on the market that’s targeted at kids.
There’s no shortage of “Kids RPGs” (No Thank You Evil, Playground Adventures, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple), but they all seem like games written by people who haven’t observed kids playing RPGs in the wild. The most worrisome was Playground Adventures, which actually pitches itself as a game about making good moral decisions. Kids are amoral little psychopaths in games, and no RPG is going to reign that in. (I certainly haven’t in my four years of running RPGs with kids.)
Most kids’ RPGs are highly mission based. Set up a quest, have the kids go do it. Turns out that that kids love random tables and surprising twists that they have to deal with on the fly. Most Kids RPGs focus on carefully designed PCs who don’t ever die. Turns out that kids love the high-risk, high-reward structure of lethal dungeon crawls, and love generating oddball characters with dice rather than planning them out. Turns out that kids don’t enjoy games where violence is sanitized or glossed over, and enjoy dealing with real danger.
(Example: I had a game where kids were on a sinking ship in a storm. They piled into the lifeboat, but there wasn’t enough room for the captain, who begged to be put on board. One kid looked at the others and said. “It’s okay guys, the captain always goes down with his ship,” and they rowed away.)
The biggest problem is that these games talk down to their audience, and kids (at least 5th graders) can smell condescension a mile away. Kids don’t want to be “A Cool Robot that love Ooey-Gooey things,” as No Thank You Evil! would have you believe. They want to be Spike, A Chaotic Neutral Fire-dog Rogue with claws, fire fangs, and a 7d6 fireball spell.
Over at Goblin Punch, Arnold has been talking about what makes an OSR adventure, and in particular what a good OSR challenge looks like.
- has no easy solution.
- has many difficult solutions.
- requires no special tools (e.g. unique spells, plot devices).
- can be solved with common sense (as opposed to system knowledge or setting lore).
- isn’t solvable through some ability someone has on their character sheet. Or at least, it isn’t preferentially solvable. I’m okay with players attacking the sphinx (a risky undertaking) if they can’t figure out the riddle, because risky-but-obvious can be a solution, too.
However, thinking about this keeps bringing me back to my favorite OSR adventure, The Labors of Hercules. In this episodic greek myth, which sounds exactly like something out of a DnD campaign, Hercules has to atone for killing his whole family in a drunken rage. His penance is to serve king Eurystheus for twelve years, and ends up accomplishing twelve tasks for him. What nearly all of them have in common is that they require Hercules to solve a difficult problem in an unorthodox way.
- Slay the Nemean Lion. The lion has an invulnerable hide. Hercules solves this problem by first sealing up one of the exits to the lion’s cave, so it can’t run away. Then he uses non-lethal damage and stuns it with a club, and then strangles it to death. In other stories, he shoots it in the mouth, which is another great solution. He wants to use its hide as armor, but of course he can’t cut it. Solution: use its own claws to skin the beast.
- Slay the Lernaean Hydra. The hydra lives in a cave in a toxic swamp, and it grows two heads whenever you cut off one. Solution: Hercules creates a breathing filter out of cloth and drives the hydra out into the open with arrows, then he burns each stump with fire to stop them growing back. In another version, he burns the heads with the hydra’s own venom, which is even better. After it’s dead, he dips his sword in its toxic blood, because hey, now you have a poison sword. After this point, king Eurystheus stops giving Hercules tasks to kill things, and has him start capturing things instead, which makes the tasks harder.
- Capture the Ceryneian Hind. The hind is so fast it can outrun an arrow in flight. Solution: Stalk it slowly and set a net trap for it while it sleeps. He then uses charisma to talk Artemis into allowing him to take the hind to the king.
- Capture the Erymanthian Boar. The boar is gigantic, dangerous, and very fast. It needs to be brought back alive. Solution: use the environment against it by driving it up a mountain into deep snow where it is immobilized until it can be tied up.
- Clean the Stables of Augeas. The stables are full of 1000 divinely healthy cattle, and the stables have not been cleaned in 30 years. Solution: Divert a river into the stables to do the work for him.
- Defeat the Stymphalian Birds. The birds are made out of bronze, can throw bladed feathers at enemies and have toxic dung. They live in a swamp. Solution: Shake a huge rattle that scares them out of the swamp, then shoot them with arrows as they flee.
- Capture the Cretan Bull. This one isn’t that interesting. Big bull destroying Crete, Hercules sneaks up behind it and throttles it until it passes out, then ships it to the king.
- Capture the Mares of Diomedes. This is a good one. Diomedes has bred fire-breathing, man-eating horses, which are wild and uncontrollable. Solution: visit Diomedes, but stay awake all night so he doesn’t feed you to his horses. Then cut the horses free, and drive them towards the end of a peninsula. Dig a trench through the peninsula to turn it into an island, trapping the horses. When Diomedes shows up, kill him and feed him to the horses, which temporarily calms them. Then bind their mouths shut and ship them off.
- Retrieve the Belt of Hippolyta the Amazon. The is the first genuinely social task, but Hercules just kills Hippolyta and takes it. Boring.
- Capture the Cattle of Geryon. Geryon is the three-headed grandson of Medusa, but the cattle aren’t particularly interesting. Hercules just kills Geryon and drives the cattle back. One OSR moment is when Hera (who hates Hercules) floods a river to prevent him crossing with the cattle, so he throws huge boulders in until the water level is lessened.
- Retrieve the Apples of the Hesperides. At this point, Eurystheus is just trying to set tasks that should be completely impossible. No one even knows where the apples are, and it’s guarded by a full-on dragon. Solution: Visit Atlas, who holds up the sky. Atlas knows where the Garden of the Hesperides is, but he can’t put down the sky. Hercules uses his strength to take Atlas’ place, and in exchange Atlas goes to get the apples. When Atlas returns, he’s decided he doesn’t want the sky-holding job anymore. Hercules asks him to take it back for just a second so he can adjust his cloak, and then walks off when Atlas falls for it.
- Capture Cerberus. A supposedly impossible task, but Hercules succeeds by being inducted into the Eleusinian Mysteries, and getting two gods to guide him into the underworld. He then gets Hades’ permission to take Cerberus by subduing the monstrous dog with his bare hands. Not a terribly creative solution. There are some great traps in the underworld, though: snakes that twine around your limbs and then turn to stone, and a chair of forgetfulness that prevents you from wanting to leave.
There’s lots of other stories in which heroes overcome problems with ingenuity rather than brute force. Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and Medusa, the Trojan Horse etc. It seems to be a running theme in greek myths, which is what makes them so entertaining.