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?

Advertisements