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, 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.