D&D 5E SRD OGL Acronym Soup

Hasbro of the Coast finally released the D&D 5E SRD!

(SRD = Systems Reference Document, the genericized version of the rules you can use to publish adventures or supplements; OGL = Open Gaming License, which makes all this not-quite-D&D stuff legally possible)

I plan to give this a good going thru, and see if I’d want to update Stone Halls & Serpent Men to be based on this instead of the D20 3.x SRD. I never did get around to a full review of D&D 5E Basic when it was coming out, and frankly it just bored me to death; it’s not liveliest awfulness like 4E, and not a hot mess of incoherent rules like 3.x or Pathfinder, so… snooze. They can’t have my money for 5E until they put out PDFs, which I guess now I don’t need. Cash being left on the table, Hasbros.

The one big change I see is that instead of 1d20 + stat (bonus) + Level rolls, D&D 5E uses 1d20 + bonus + Proficiency Bonus, and P.B. ranges from +2 at Level 1, to +6 at Level 20; this makes higher levels more playable, but everyone kinda sucks equally. Fighters don’t hit any better than Wizards, and nobody can hit an AC 30 monster. I’d rather have the game be a race to competence at Level 9 and near-godhood at Level 20.

P.S. Testing out the 2016 WP theme. I like seeing date & comment links up by the top of a post.

Stone Halls & Serpent Men Setting & Maps

A good start to the setting in this update, all the major areas of Western Hyperborea, some basics of Eastern Hyperborea, just stubs for the other 4 lands. During play, I’d drill down into each area as players go there. I’m nearly done!

The maps came out even better than I’d thought, what I’ve got now is a nice microformat that generates tilemaps from an HTML element. So others can play with this, I’ve included an HTML version of the book, and put tilemap.js under the open MIT license.

World of Stone Halls & Serpent Men

I did very little game writing over the holidays. One thing I have done is start writing up the setting I use, a sandbox world I can drop adventures into. This is a pastiche of a bunch of my previous GMing notes, but focusing more on the swords & sorcery and open-ended ideas, instead of the claustrophobic medieval horror I often go for.

Mapping is always a difficulty. I’ve previously used map editing software, and written my own, and never liked the results. So instead I’m doing it the software over-engineering way: Writing a little Javascript library that scans a page and turns preformatted ASCII-art maps into tile maps, mostly from David Gervais’ set which I used in Perilar. I thought about doing hex maps or an isometric view, but that takes more math and art resources, and I grew up with Ultimas and JRPGs, so I think of the world as a brightly-colored tile grid. I can hear the chiptune music now.

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pi~~~~~~~iippppppppi
~~~~~~~~~~ptttttttpp
~~~~~~~~~~t~tttt~tt~
++~~~~~~~~~~~1~~~~~~
5~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~333
++~~~~~~~~~~222~~~~3
~~+~~~~~~~~2~~~2~~33
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~3
~~~~~~~~~~~44444444~

CtCCLCCCAC
tSttMttDCC
ttttM,,,ht
ttHhZ,,R^h
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bW.MG++vv~
~~~M+~~~V~
~~~~++~~~~
tilemap

The Hyperborea map details that one door/skull tile on the world map, and I’ll make wilderness maps at 10km scale for each grid players enter. I still need to put labels and grid coords on these, likely to do that today.

Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Giant Monsters and Vorpal Daggers

Updated Stone Halls & Serpent Men.

Got some good feedback from Joshua Lyle in the original post.

Bestiary: Added SIZ stat to monsters, mostly to resolve grappling. The Gygaxian way would be to also use this to alter the damage of some weapons against Large or Giant monsters, but I leave that kind of detail up to the Referee.


Horse stats were missing, which made my playtest joust between Knights difficult. Bugbears were missing, and I explain Greyhawk’s pumpkin-head image in my own way. Kobolds were missing; I treat them like a cross between German myth and little evil Dwarfs. Nothing’s funnier as a Referee than seeing a party pick a fight with the little guys and it all goes Fantasy Fucking Vietnam (see also rpg.net, Hill Cantons, and The Black Company), or like Tucker’s Kobolds.

Added TR stat to monsters, which I’d planned but forgot to put in. Complex treasure type tables can make more consistent treasures by monster type, but I think players and Referees prefer more variety.

Magic Items: In fantasy literature, magic weapons are rarely just “plus one”, they have unique traits and a name. Fred Saberhagen’s “Books of Swords” are always good for crazy weapon ideas. In white box rules, all magic swords and only swords have intelligence, and the power tables are full of non-standard powers.

The Stone Halls & Serpent Men way is to simplify that down to a few basic ideas. Holy weapons used to be an anti-magic field, which is insane, even aside from the +5 bonus; changing that to a saving throw bonus and a second power is more fitting. Did you know Swords of Sharpness and Vorpal used to be Holy, too? Crazy. Vorpal is easy since I have hit locations already. Rune swords replace the old intelligent swords, and just cast spells.

Future thoughts:

Working Table of Contents and Index. So the way I write: I write my original in MultiMarkdown, in BBEdit. Then I generate HTML with a script. Then I print that from Safari into PDF. Rube Goldberg would be proud, but it works great for my writing process. The TOC links work in HTML, but PDF apparently doesn’t like anchors? Anyway, the longer-term solution as I approach a printable version is to generate LaTeX and get it to make page references, or… ugh… do it by hand? At least you get to see the outline for now.

Aerial and underwater combat are useful things to have, I need to think about how to minimize those rules.

Land warfare and naval combat I think I can resolve in a narrative table fashion, rather than with specific rules.

Strongholds, dominion management, and trade are way out of scope.

Asian professions and customized martial arts, like Oriental Adventures without a giant hardcover tome of rules. I grew up watching a lot of kung fu and jidaigeki, so they fit in my own settings, even though few modules ever used anything from OA. Blackmoor Monks are such a weird grab-bag of skills, they’re not Shaolin or Shaw brothers.

Technology, whether post-apocalypse, alien, magi-tech, gadgeteering, or urban fantasy.

Ghosts as the high-end incorporeal undead. D&D Ghosts are so broken, they can demolish a party unless you have the right spell and then they’re nothing. A Frighteners-like Ghost should be more interesting.

Stone Halls & Serpent Men Design Notes

Let’s read Stone Halls & Serpent Men together!

Stats: I don’t see the sense in having two ways to use one stat, so either it should be used directly (as in Nightmare Eve, Phobos, GPA, or DUDE) or there should only be a bonus, as here. Normally I’d have more than 3 stats, but stat drain needs to be limited, I want character stat progression to go at a steady pace, and all stats should be useful. So it got pared down. I came close to using Charisma for White Mages and loyalty, but it’s a dump stat for many others. Making IN do all those things means even fighters want it.

Stat drain’s an important mechanic, replacing level drain. It needs to be fast enough to be terrifying, yet not instant one-fight kill or ruin a character forever.

Stat Rolls: I don’t object to critical success and failure, but it’s not really needed. A “critical hit” is a success and a good damage roll. And in Old-School gaming, that’s deadly enough.

Race: My cardinal rule: I don’t stomp on a player’s fun as long as they’re not grossly overpowered or disruptive to others.

Generally I think the only race appropriate to medieval fantasy is Human. If you have Norse influences, add Dwarfs. If you have Celtic influences, add Elves. Gnomes can be annoying, but Rien Poortvliet & Wil Huygen’s Gnomes and Mansion of E’s Nomes are interesting. I’ve gone back and forth on Orcs; now (perhaps overly influenced by Elder Scrolls games) I like having some of them trying to be civilized, while many are barbaric monsters. Half-Breeds are never as good as either parent, but some players like them. White box and Holmes D&D allowed any monster type as PCs, until Gary Gygax ran too many tournament adventures and locked it down to just the boring white honkey races and diatribed in AD&D and Dragon.

I’d never allow a filthy Hobbit PC except perhaps to teach a player a cruel lesson. I don’t even use them much as vermin animals, I find them so distasteful. But you do what you want and I’ll stand over here judging you.

Profession: This started out as just a few skill-like groupings called Proficiencies, the idea being to replace classes with feats. And then I realized they looked more like jobs, with a small ladder of requirements, kind of like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or GDW career paths, and renamed them to Professions. You could probably go full in on that concept, give out more background and equipment, but that requires exhaustive lists even for a medieval setting, and what if you expand it to a more modern world? So these are a simplified compromise, but I think more flexible and short.

Alignment: The main purpose in keeping Moorcock’s cosmology is the division of Black Mages (who are usually Chaotic) from Knights (who are usually Lawful). Let no party have power over both mystical and temporal worlds.

Equipment: Lowering starting wealth and increasing costs for the more powerful gear doesn’t slow players down long, but it makes that climb to wealth and Level 2 more significant. I rarely give out magic items until Level 2-3, so gearing up is an important part of low-level play.

Combat: Initiative systems are obviously an unsolved, maybe unsolveable problem, because it went from two different contradictory systems in white box, to Holmes’ Dexterity-rank and phases system, to Eldritch Wizardry’s segmented simultaneous system, to various group systems. UGH. Mine’s the least time-consuming or disruptive thing I could make, but you have plenty of other choices if you don’t like it.

Stances, and using them for descriptive maneuvers, solves a lot of the “I hit it with my boring axe so I don’t get any penalties” problem. You can do anything creative on the battlefield, and it doesn’t penalize you, just changes your stance.

Hit Locations: Really only there for Zombies and idiots who don’t wear their helmet because it messes up their hair. Totally ignorable otherwise.

Grapple: Ugh, unarmed combat. But this is the least ugh I know of. I make sure to take cheap shots on everyone involved if this gets abused. Only a Giant can grapple a Dragon but I don’t want to make complex rules to require that, so just use common sense.

That Arthur Rackham art, man. The death of Arthur in a crow’s feast. And it’s all public domain! Ha ha suck it modern artists you’ll never be that good.

Magic: Other than dumping Vance’s joke spell system, the Old-School spells work great. A few needed tweaks, like Sleep and Magic Missile have saving throws. Sorry, but you’ll be glad when it’s being used on you. The arbitrary limit of 8 Black Magic spells and 6 White Magic spells, for just odd levels 1-9 (i.e., Old-School spell levels 1-5), is purely space and patience based. You have thousands of spells in various SRDs, modules, netbooks, and you can make your own easily enough. The main rules just need enough spells to cover common situations. I tried to have 1-2 combat spells per level and the rest be utility or weird stuff.

Encounters: This table follows me around like a Shadow waiting for a chance to suck out my life force and make me another Shadow. Fun fact: Shadows aren’t on it. Because Shadows are everywhere, look behind you.

The entourages turn a lot of these simple encounters into larger tactical or strategic engagements. 3 Aristocrats, 6 Knights, 12 Guards, 18 Servants, and a partridge… roll up on your party, and you can’t just hack-and-slash your way out of any faux pas. And those Knights are trouble if you’re a Blackguard.

Henchmen & Hirelings: In white box D&D, the hiring, care, and support of henchmen is probably the single most important part of a dungeon expedition. Look at the old art, always a few party leaders and a bunch of men-at-arms. That’s why you got so much gold, that’s why Charisma and leadership ratings were important. Fighting low-level monsters is a deadly game for low-level dudes. In later editions the PCs became superheroes able to “faceroll a dungeon solo”, as the kids say.

Bestiary: You don’t really need this. You can just read stat lines and estimate the few things you need from Level/HD. But it’s a convenience to have some of these pre-built, and I have a different spin on a few of them. Demons, Dragons, Lycanthropes, Serpent Men, Slimes, Vampires, and Zombies most obviously. Undead go in pairs of flesh and spectral: Zombies and Skeletons or Shadows, Wights and Wraiths, then Mummies and Spectres, then Vampires. I don’t have Liches, because a Lich is just a Black Mage with a Soul Jar spell, right? Or they’re Mummies who level up; I go with the Boris Karloff take.

Treasure Distribution: Forestalling player arguments.

Random Treasure: No more unbalanced than much larger treasure type tables, but really only useful for emergency dungeon/cache stocking. You should place treasure by hand. The quick potion/item table works well enough. You’re far better off buying potions from an Alchemist (or becoming one) than trying to taste or mix random potions; I almost went with a full miscibility table, but that’s overkill.

Character Sheet: Form 27B-6. I should get someone with art skills to draw one, right?

Stone Halls & Serpent Men

A small role-playing game for running Old-School adventures.

I’d really like some feedback about this, if it’s working for you, what you found useful or were missing. My tendency to minimalism and assumptions of too many years behind the ref screen may have missed something.

I’ll share some thoughts about the design in upcoming posts.

Serpent Men carving out Stone Halls

I’m currently editing, doing some minimal design, and finishing the gods-damned bestiary in my Old-School game system, Stone Halls & Serpent Men.

The elevator pitch is: A small role-playing game for running Old-School adventures.

The keys there are small: About 20 pages, with everything. I’ve made smaller, of course, but not that can run a long-term campaign of old modules.

Old-School: The Old-School Renaissance for me was entirely satisfied by Supplement V: Carcosa, Swords & Wizardry, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. But Carcosa’s a super deviant SF/Lovecraft setting, and the latter two are somewhat long, discursive, full of optional rules or details you don’t need if you’re creative enough to Referee in the first place.

New, less trashy, more flexible game designs, with no page of OGL legalese gibberish, don’t accomplish the goal of rolling characters in 10 minutes and crawling, desperate and dehydrated, into B4 The Lost City.

In Jeff Rients’ threefold model, SH&SM is Retro, maybe Retro-Stupid. I’ve done one thing I think is really clever, and the rest is a functional listing of the absolute minimal rules needed to play.

Surveillance: Lasers & Feelings, Scrolls & Swords

Surveillance is my category for not-quite-reviews of other games. Often I get a game, read it, mine it for ideas, but never get around to playing it.

Lasers & Feelings from onesevendesign, and the fantasy variant Scrolls & Swords. Go read them now, they’re 1 page each, you have time.

This is beyond “lite”, yet a little crunchier than my old SIX WORD RPG (“Describe character. Roll dice. Gamemaster decides.”). The style & role descriptors are used to get more dice for actions. I’d probably require that everyone choose different ones, maybe put them on cards? The cards could be face-up, and everyone fights for the card they want, or dealt at random. At first a Sexy Doctor and Sexy Engineer and Other Sexy Engineer sounds fine, but the catfighting over who’s sexiest or senior engineer? Don’t need it.

The ship in Lasers & Feelings, and the comatose Captain Darcy, are kind of boring, like if it has powerful Fightercraft, the Pilot is enabled but nobody else really is. The Bond with fellow characters in Scrolls & Swords is much more interesting.

The basic mechanic is clever. Using your number to represent two traits, and adding extra dice for circumstances, works perfectly. However, the “Laser Feelings” (exactly your number) coming up so often might be annoying; maybe only if ALL rolled dice match your number you get Laser Feelings?

I think I don’t like the lack of combat tracking. “It goes wrong” and “inflicts a complication, harm, or cost” really isn’t enough for me. Perhaps -1d per injury?

Now the awesome bit: The Space Adventure! While this is a very short table, only 6 mostly vague ideas for each, the mix-match results still generate a reasonable variety of adventures. Rolling 6, 5, 3, 3: Alien Brain Worms want to Build the Star Dreadnaught which will Enslave a Planet. Fair enough. Why aren’t they brain-worming? Maybe this planet has brain-worm scanners. Obvious plot hook is to sabotage the construction, or evacuate the planet.

So steal that idea, but with many more specific entries.

Nightmare Eve

Some years ago, in a fairly foul mood at the “wacky Halloween” festivities, I got to thinking about what a real All Hallows Eve would be like.

The dead or demons come into the world; from where? That leads to my version of the Underworld. Why only this day? That leads to ripping off Prince of Darkness. They must be shapeshifters, given the costumes. They like playing with us, given the “trick or treat” choice. So they’re predatory, but at the higher level they’re herding us, they need our fear.

The first time I ran this was in Eden Studios’ Witchcraft/All Flesh Must be Eaten, but it really cried out for a less heroic game, something with a horrible downward spiral. The 3d6 system in this is unkind, to say the least. Damage makes you less and less competent to escape or accomplish anything. Pretty soon you’re just throwing your dead meat in the way of a monster to let someone else escape. Note the Tech rules. That’s your closest thing to magic, the only advantage you have.

Of the 3 groups I’ve run it for, one of regulars, two pick-ups, nobody’s made it to the next day, so the long-term campaign ideas are ludicrous and untested.

Happy nightmares.