The Labors of Hercules as OSR Obstacles


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.

This has led to a great discussion on G+, and even a community dedicated to making up these kinds of tasks.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Retrieve the Belt of Hippolyta the Amazon. The is the first genuinely social task, but Hercules just kills Hippolyta and takes it. Boring.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

Variable d6 weapon damage

Delilah by Barry Moser
Delilah by Barry Moser

I’m not a huge fan of the highly differentiated weapon damage in DnD. All weapons are deadly in the right situations, so the 2d6 of a longsword and the d4 of a dagger don’t make that much sense to me. On the other hand, OD&D, with its flat d6 for all weapons, doesn’t sit right either.

I’m working on a 2d6 system that’s a bit more robust than my previous Maze Rats, but still simple and fast to play. One of its conceits is that I’d like to use 2d6 for everything, including damage, and this ended up evolving into a very satisfying system that both differentiates weapons and prevents the swingyness of rolling a single damage die.

There are two types of weapons, heavy and light. Heavy weapons use two hands (so this includes bows) and light weapons use one. The advantage to using a light weapon is you can also hold a shield (dual wielding weapons strikes me as a bit silly). Shields can be splintered to negate all damage from 1 attack, as per Trollsmyth’s excellent idea.

When you hit with a heavy weapon, roll 2d6 and use the greater die. When you hit with a light weapon, use the lesser one. When you make a critical hit, add them together. Simple.

This results in much lower damage output than DnD, especially since armor absorbs damage (max 2), but that just means that HP totals are lower, which reduces bookkeeping. All weapons have the same max damage, but larger weapons are tilted towards the higher end, which fits with my ethos of “All weapons can be deadly.” Looking forward to how it work in play this Tuesday.

Maze Rats

Sam Bosma

I’ve spent the last few months polishing Maze Rats, a minimalistic OSR-style dungeon crawler derived from Chris McDowall’s Into the Odd, and which should appear soon in a supplement for that game, Odditional Material. I may expand it later into something more complete, but it’s perfectly playable as is now. It also fits onto two double sided sheets, making it ideal for players new to RPGs. You can make characters in minutes, and explain the rules just as quickly. Download the whole thing below and let me know what you think!

Maze Rats 0.1

d100 NPC Character Traits

Elliot Alfredius


I’m on a random table kick, a d100 table kick to be precise. They’re all still works in progress, but I figure I’ll start throwing them up here for others to use. First up, 100 character traits for NPCs. Roll a d100, or just choose ones you find amusing.

  1. Always bored
  2. Angry drunk
  3. Annoyingly Cryptic
  4. Avant-garde
  5. Bigoted
  6. Bloody-Minded
  7. Boastful
  8. Bookworm
  9. Bossy
  10. Bully
  11. Calculating
  12. Can-do attitude
  13. Chatterbox
  14. Chirpy
  15. Collects small animals
  16. Compulsive Liar
  17. Condescending
  18. Conniving
  19. Conspiracy theorist
  20. Creep
  21. Decadent
  22. Ditz
  23. Egomaniac
  24. Exquisite dresser
  25. Extravagant
  26. Fanatically loyal
  27. Fast-talker
  28. Femme Fatale
  29. Fiercely ambitious
  30. Fits of melancholy
  31. Flamboyant
  32. Folksy Wisdom
  33. Gossip
  34. Hard-boiled
  35. Hears voices
  36. Hillbilly
  37. Hothead
  38. Hypochondriac
  39. Iconoclast
  40. Idealistic
  41. Illiterate
  42. Incredibly persistent
  43. Insightful observer
  44. Into crystals
  45. Jack of all Trades
  46. Jerk
  47. Klutz
  48. Knows everybody
  49. Life of the party
  50. Love-struck
  51. Mad genius
  52. Magnetic Personality
  53. Manic
  54. Master Orator
  55. Militantly Vegan
  56. Misanthrope
  57. Miser
  58. Mopey
  59. Naïve
  60. Nerd
  61. No-nonsense
  62. Obsessive
  63. Old Fart
  64. Overeducated
  65. Paranoid
  66. Perfect Manners
  67. Pouty
  68. Power-hungry
  69. Prickly
  70. Proselytizer
  71. Ruthless
  72. Sadist
  73. Self-destructive
  74. Self-important
  75. Self-pitying
  76. Senile
  77. Serene
  78. Shameless Flirt
  79. Slacker
  80. Slimy
  81. Slovenly
  82. Snarky
  83. Snitch
  84. Snob
  85. Social butterfly
  86. Sophist
  87. Spacey
  88. Terrible memory
  89. Thick
  90. Toady
  91. Totally unreliable
  92. Twitchy
  93. Vain
  94. Vengeful
  95. Village idiot
  96. Well-Travelled
  97. Whiner
  98. Wild Child
  99. Wisecracking
  100. World-weary

Valley of the Kings


I recently discovered the Theban Mapping Project, which is mapping all of the tombs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. It’s amazing how similar many of the tombs look to DnD-type dungeons. Since the PDFs with the maps were scattered all over the site, I compiled them into a single document here.

Simplified Notches

Over the summer, I spent a lot of time reading up on OSR games, and gaining a new appreciation for that style of play. I’m working on a DnD mashup game called The Broken Throne that combines my favorite mechanics from earlier editions with house rules from DIY DND blogs round the web.

I’ll write a more in-depth post about that later, but today I want to look at one of my favorite mechanics, notches. I first heard of notches via Last Gasp Grimoire, but Logan’s system for tracking weapon and armor degradation is a bit too complicated for my taste, so I looked for a way to slim it down a bit.


My main complaint was that there were two values you had to track, quality and notches. In Logan’s system, rolling a weapon’s quality or less made you add notches equal to the quality, and from then on if you rolled quality or less you had to roll over notches on the weapon’s damage die or add another notch. Gaining notches equal to the damage die or failing to roll over the notches broke the weapon.

I tried a couple things, but the most straightforward solution was to eliminate the quality value and just use notches. Weapons start with 1-5 notches. If you roll notches or lower on an attack roll, try to roll over the notches on the damage die. If you successfully do this, add another notch. If not, the weapon breaks.

For armor, if you roll notches or lower on a defense roll (I use contested defense), add a notch and subtract 1 AC. Armor breaks at 0 AC.

This has a couple interesting effects. First, it makes it possible, though very unlikely, for high quality weapons to break on the first swing, which wasn’t possible in the original rules. Second, as weapons take damage the threshold at which you test for breakage rises. Thus, the breakdown escalates more quickly over time, rather than remaining static.

These rules are a bit harsher than Logan’s, but I’m willing to pay that price for simplicity.

Burning Wheel Procedure Guides on Roll20

I was just watching Adam Koebel’s intro to Burning Wheel on his Roll20 channel, it turns out he’s using the BW procedure guide that I wrote a while back! I’m working on an updated and expanded version, but if you want the most recent edition, check out the downloads tab.