3d6 Six Times In Order

“I’m gonna revise what I said earlier. You’re not cowards if you don’t try this, you’re boring. And that’s worse. Cowards at least can be interesting. Who dares, wins.”

This, I completely agree with. Players are often terrified of 3d6 stats (or even the 1d4-1d4 I use in Stone Halls & Serpent Men), in a way that’s never made sense to me.

My first three characters in 1978, with 1-2 players and 1 DM so we each ran a few guys, were rolled 3d6 in order:

  • Grecal: Dex 16, Int 15, Wis 6, rest 10 or less. Magic-User. Sneakiest bastard mage/knife-thrower ever. Later class-changed to Illusionist.
  • Starkad: Str 15, Cha 13, rest 10 or less. Fighting Man. I’d been reading about the Norse sagas, because that’s the kind of weird kid I was.
  • Cleric I don’t remember: No really terrible stats. Died in first adventure. I’ve played only one Cleric again (Gracke Sundowner the Half-Orc Fighter/Chaos Cleric) in the following 40 years.

I played both Grecal and Starkad actively for years, they finally got killed in an asshole DM’s deathtrap dungeon called Hexcomb Horror, so I just ignored that session and kept using them. Now they’re just background NPCs, as a Referee I don’t spotlight hog from players like Ed Greenwood, but they’re around if you need information or a patron.

There’s no significant benefit or penalty to high or low stats in Original D&D, Holmes Basic, or other white box rules (up to +10% XP gain! Maybe a +1 bonus!); but even when they were run in power-gamer AD&D, they were fine. Stat rolls against any mediocre stat, in any stat roll system (1d20-roll-under, 3d6-roll-under, 1d20+bonuses over target number, etc.) are going to give you a 25-50% chance of success, which works fine in actual play. Just don’t make stat rolls be save-or-die without some warning, way to get a higher bonus, or way to recover; failure is a complication and a few complications or stupid play should lead to death.

One point Noah doesn’t get to: In Original D&D, there’s a TON of ways to increase or decrease your stat scores. Fountains (drink everything! … after testing for acid, etc.), magic books, divine favors (sacrifice at every altar!), etc. Sometimes you get an increase, sometimes a decrease, but you need that random variation to improve. Later editions (and SH&SM because it’s balanced against 3E) gave level-up stat increases just like CRPGs had been doing since the early ’80s. You’re not stuck with crappy stats forever, there’s a chance you’ll get better.

The fear of 3d6 in order is especially galling in Tunnels & Trolls, where the entire advancement mechanic is that you start off kinda crap and get to add to your stats.

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Adventuring in Stone Halls & Serpent Men

Have brought in a lot of lessons learned from using SH&SM, more optional rules, and reorganized adventuring to be more convenient. Layout and proper art pass are still on my TODO list, but not for a while longer.

Moved the download links to a permanent page:

  • Stone Halls & Serpent Men

  • Editing:

    • All fractions now display super/subscript.
  • Characters:
    • Stat death now happens at -5 (equal to 0 on 3-18 scale) instead of -6 (equal to -2 on 3-18 scale)
    • Hit Point options
    • Assassin’s Stealth gets more detail
    • Hunter skills get more detail
    • Prestige Professions all require Level 4
    • Alchemist gets Create Chemical
    • How to roll social status for NPCs
    • Earthborn starting equipment
  • Equipment:
    • Took 18th C lanterns out of medieval tech, gave Dwarfs Shadowvision instead of Darkvision
    • Purchaseable poisons
  • Combat:
    • Multiple Attack Initiative
    • New Combat Stances for more tactical, martial arts choices
    • Weapon vs Armor (Optional)
  • Adventuring:
    • Moved to a more useful location.
    • Explain dungeon depth and Level.
    • Law & Order
  • Hazards:
    • Combined details of Search, Invisible, Stealth, Tracking Scent, Keen Senses.
    • Cave-Ins
    • Advanced Deprivation
    • Insanity, using Curses for the effects, rather than a Freudian list of disorders
    • Intoxication
  • Magic:
    • Low-mana and high-mana environments affect MP
    • Doubling spell range & duration with extra MP
    • Optional: Material Components
  • Bestiary:
    • Terror effects added to several monsters
    • Bear variants
    • Cat, Dog, Crocodile, Frog
    • Ghost, Wraith, Spectre combined & expanded
    • Skeletal Warrior, Knight
  • Treasure:
    • Adjusted many monster treasures (mostly down)
    • Made treasureGenerator.html to roll random treasures.
  • Referee:
    • Place Names
    • Weather
    • More Traps
    • Community Events

Turkey Day

Generally appearing as a new monster in Stone Halls & Serpent Men:

  • Turkey: LVL 1, Weak, SIZ S, AL N, ST -1, DX +0, IN -3 (A), AC 10, MV 9/12 Flight, Init +0, AT 1, TH +0, DMG d3, TR None.
    • Common fowl, originally imported from Gwyrdland, now common in light woods. Capable of short flight and roosting in trees.
    • Butterball Turkey: LVL 2, SIZ S, AL N, ST -1, DX +1, IN -2 (A), AC 11, MV 6/12 Gliding, Init +0, AT 1, TH +1, DMG d4, TR None. Semi-domesticated, fattened turkey, kept in the more prosperous villages. Aggressive, but slow and incapable of real flight.
    • Dire Turkey: LVL 3, SIZ M, AL C, ST +1, DX +0, IN +0 (A), AC 13, MV 9/15 Gliding, Init +0, AT 1, TH +2, DMG d6, TR -2, SA: Screech (as Fear spell) usable 3/day, Gobble (as Confusion spell) usable 1/day, Baste (as Acid Arrow spell) usable 3/day. Turkeys allowed to escape to the wild and continue feeding and growing to their 5th year metamorph into a hideous sauropod with blackened feathers and hardened spikey wattles, and a taste for man-flesh and vengeance. 1 in 6 Game encounters near villages in Fall may be Dire Turkeys.

Stone Halls & Serpent Men balancing act

This is pretty close to a final version of the main rules. I’ll eventually do the other lands (and more importantly the rules to support them) as a second volume. Now I just need to fix the page layout, and do some interstitial and cover art!

  • Redefined starting characters. Level 1 now gets 2 Professions, Level 2 gets +1 Profession, and “journeyman adventurers” start at Level 2. The super-fragile Level 1 experience is more “fun” with limited skills, and actual adventuring is more fun with a second hit die and enough MP to cast a few spells.
  • Earthborn “race”. Half the secondary world fantasies have an Earth person transported to Faerieland (Three Hearts & Three Lions), Barsoom, Witch World, Lord Kalvan’s paratime, etc. and forced to survive. L.Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt’s Harold Shea goes exploring mythology. Magic resistance makes them good witch-hunters.
  • Social Status rank.
  • Social Status to Communities.
  • Encounter rates for communities.
  • Dwarf & Kobold tech notes.
  • Personal goal GP costs.
  • Option for Fixed “Holmes” Initiative. I played and ran Holmes (D&D 1977) for a very long time, and prefer that mechanic, but find most players like more randomness.
  • Spells: Pyrokinesis, Acid Arrow, Magic Trap. Cure * spells heal more detailed injuries.
  • Curses: now 20 for lesser and greater.
  • Androids. Everybody loves androids. Androids have feelings, too.
  • Satyrs.
  • Treasure Value, establishing the economic scale for adventures.
  • Action Cards. This is a fairly major addition, a way to bring a lot of player control into both combat and non-combat play. After a few levels, players have interesting tactial choices from a hand of several cards. It does increase character power some, and the Referee needs to use named NPCs with cards to balance them out.
  • Shrine ideology.

Old-School Modules, Part I

I need to post more often. A new update of Stone Halls & Serpent Men is coming, but needs some more work and testing, since I’m making a significant change: Level 1 characters will only receive 2 Professions, they’ll get a 3rd at Level 2. There’s also a major gameplay & player control tool, and some other goodies.

In the mean time, I thought I’d go thru the collection of ancient modules, and see which ones are suitable and interesting to run with Stone Halls & Serpent Men. Since I expect most people don’t have the oldest rules (even though you can buy all but Holmes currently on DriveThruRPG), I’m just going to include their maps to show what they’re like, but I won’t do that for the standalone modules. All map rights held by Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast/TSR, except Outdoor Survival by The Avalon Hill Game Company.

This first installment will just cover original D&D, Holmes, Moldvay, and B1.

Dungeons & Dragons Book III Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (TSR, Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, 1974)

The underworld adventure consists of a side-view of 6 levels split into several parts with interconnections, but no key.

There is a partially-keyed map for level 1. Not really usable as an adventure by itself, and the other levels are not detailed.

The outdoor map is the Outdoor Survival boardgame, with some features changed into fantastic equivalents, but it’s unkeyed.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ Barely a sketch.

D&D Book 3-pg 3
D&D Book 3-pg 4
Outdoor Survival

Dungeons & Dragons, Basic Set (TSR, Eric J. Holmes, 1977)

There’s a much better side-view map of The Great Stone Skull Mountain, 7 levels including a domed city. But again there is no key.

The sample dungeon has a setting (sadly not the interior of the Great Stone Skull), a nearby town, and is fully keyed, with stats for the NPCs. I’ve only used this dungeon a couple times ever, but it’s nearly a modern adventure. Interesting points are the multiple entrances (stairs, tower, and sea cave) and multiple loops; it’s unreasonably hard for a defender to hold this dungeon, but that’s good for a starter adventure, where an overly powerful enemy can be avoided.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ Acceptable, if bare-bones.

D&D Basic-pg 39
D&D Basic-pg 42

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X), Basic Set (TSR, Tom Moldvay, 1981)

The side-view doesn’t even have named levels.

The sample dungeon of the Haunted Keep has one tower mapped with a few small rooms but a sort of interesting maze, fully keyed with example rolls from the tables. The scenario backstory about wererats, the second tower, and the 2nd-3rd levels are not mapped. I’ve never used this, and it’s kind of a sad little stub of an adventure.

However, note the dungeon key, by this time dungeon notation’s become standardized.

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ Incomplete.

Basic D&D-pg 58
Basic D&D-pg 57
Basic D&D-pg 58-key

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X), Expert Set (TSR, Dave Cook & Steve Marsh, 1981)

The sample wilderness is the Grand Duchy of Karameikos with a hex map and 3 barely-described towns, and an unkeyed “Gnome Lair”. But it does have a terrain notation key.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ Nothing there.

Expert D&D-pg 61
Expert D&D-pg 62-gnome lair
Expert D&D-pg 62-key

B1 In Search of Adventure (TSR, Mike Carr, 1979)

Two complex maze-like levels, completely filling a page each (starting the very artificial pattern of an 8.5×11, north-facing dungeon map, easily predicted by players), with about 8 themed areas. Quasqueton is a funhouse trap dungeon built by an obviously unstable wizard and his murderous militant partner. The descriptions are often evocative of the tone of a well-run facility degraded into the den of a few scavenging monsters. This is not a “mythic underworld”, it’s not Gygaxian Naturalism with ecological notes and political interactions mapped out, but somewhere in between.

There is no side-view, and it’s not absolutely needed, but there are multiple connections between the levels. A more 3-dimensional dungeon would probably be too hard for novice players to map.

The monsters and treasures are given in separate lists at the end of the module, not assigned to specific rooms, whether to throw off players who have read the module, or because TSR was trying to teach novice “Dungeon Masters” how to distribute items, though I don’t think they succeeded at that.

There’s a good section of character lists (12 of each class), for pregens or henchmen, with randomized personality, arms, armor, level, and spells.

The handout/background sheet including a Sutherland illustration and adventuring tips is interesting. And the occasional interior art, mostly by David C. Sutherland III and some “DIS & DAT” with David A. Trampier of Wormy fame, is both informative and a little wacky.

In general, this dungeon is less deadly and more forgiving than one designed to test experienced players. It is designed to be fairly challenging, however, and is by no means “easy.” Careless adventurers will pay the penalty for a lack of caution—only one of the many lessons to be learned within the dungeon!

The dungeon itself is ready to run, and I think it’s an interesting challenge even 38 years later. I’d replace the every-monster-in-the-book tables entirely with a smaller number of themed monsters, and work out patrol paths and zones where they can hear alarms and come running. Make the dungeon a living community instead of a prison where you murder inmates. The treasures are almost acceptable in value (maybe halved, with the really good ones hidden or guarded better than usual), but there’s no flavor text for any of the magic items, which I consider unacceptable, so I’d have to expand those.

Rating: ★★★½☆ The page-fitting maps and fill-in monsters & treasures hurt an otherwise respectable challenge dungeon.

B1-pg 31

If all attempts to escape fail, the persons trapped will be doomed to their fate.

Indeed.

Next time I’ll look at Blackmoor’s Temple of the Frog and B2.

Non-Human PCs

Ken St. Andre (@Trollgodfather) was musing on Twitter:

Gamers, did you know that Monsters! Monsters!, a direct spinoff from Tunnels & Trolls published by Metagaming in 1976 was the first frpg to allow–nay, it required you–to play monsters as your protagonist player character. Not just humanoids, but any monster. Dragon anyone?

Monsters! Monsters! is pretty straightforward, Tunnels & Trolls with a giant list of monster stats instead of a few puny humanoids, how to fight humanoids, a sample village full of enemies (that STR 20 Miller is a beast!). It’s very much a sandbox, where your monsters go out and do whatever malevolence they want before returning to a nice safe dungeon.

It’d be a great game to run Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic (sort of NSFW), where half the characters are monsters from Black Mountain, half are humanoids from stupid fantasy kingdoms. Or mix it up with the old Dwarfstar boardgames as maps & scenarios.

(Speaking of which, I need to write a serious review of Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls; I meant to do some tabletop or online play first, but that’s not happening, and I do play solos with it.)


White box D&D (Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, 1974) has Dwarves[sic], Elves, Halflings (“Should any player wish to be one”, as crappy max level 4 Fighting Men), and the following rules-less advice:

Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as, let us say, a “young” one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (ed. by Eric Holmes, 1977) has Dwarves[sic], Elves, Halflings (without the snark or level cap, alas), and again no rules, just advice:

ADDITIONAL CHARACTER CLASSES

There are a number of other character types which are detailed in ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. There are sub-classes of the four basic classes. They are: paladins and rangers (fighting men), illusionists and witches (magic-users), monks and druids (clerics), and assassins (thieves). There are half elves. Special characteristics for dwarven, elven, and halfling thieves are given. In addition, rules for characters who possess the rare talent of psionic ability are detailed. However, for a beginning campaign these additions are not necessary, and players should accustom themselves to regular play before adding further complexities.

At the Dungeon Master’s discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak and build on their experience. Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halflingish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man.

By 1979, all such permissiveness is gone, and I’m certain this comes from Gary having burned out on convention tournament games being griefed by weird characters, and just locking it down. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide has a 2-column essay on how unacceptable monster PCs are, followed by 3 columns on handling PCs infected with lycanthropy, so that nobody would want to keep it.

THE MONSTER AS A PLAYER CHARACTER

On occasion one player or another will evidence a strong desire to operate as a monster, conceiving a playable character as a strong demon, a devil, a dragon, or one of the most powerful sort of undead creatures. This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign. A moment of reflection will bring them to the un-alterable conclusion that the game is heavily weighted towards mankind.

[4¶ on how great humankind is elided…]

As to other sorts of monsters as player characters, you as DM must decide in light of your aims and the style of your campaign. The considered opinion of this writer is that such characters are not beneficial to the game and should be excluded. Note that exclusion is best handled by restriction and not by refusal. Enumeration of the limits and drawbacks which are attendant upon the monster character will always be sufficient to steer the intelligent player away from the monster approach, for in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination. The truly experimental-type player might be allowed to play such a monster character for a time so as to satisfy curiosity, and it can then be moved to non-player status and still be an interesting part of the campaign -and the player is most likely to desire to drop the monster character once he or she has examined its potential and played that role for a time. The less intelligent players who demand to play monster characters regardless of obvious consequences will soon remove themselves from play in any event, for their own ineptness will serve to have players or monsters or traps finish them Off.

So you are virtually on your own with regard to monsters as player characters. You have advice as to why they are not featured, why no details of monster character classes are given herein. The rest is up to you, for when all is said and done, it is your world, and your players must live in it with their characters. Be good to yourself as well as them, and everyone concerned will benefit from a well-conceived, well-ordered, fairly-judged campaign built upon the best of imaginative and creative thinking.

I love the trite sign-off of his Rule Zero caveat. When Gary was being nice like that, he was flipping you off.


In Stone Halls & Serpent Men, I allow anything with the “Monster” race, because it really doesn’t hurt the game if they’re levelled up just like anyone else. The limits on gaining abilities are a little tough, but they keep monsters from completely overwhelming the humanoids.

A monster PC will have social problems, but rarely kill-on-sight: A Gargoyle stomping through the streets of Glorien would scare the citizens, and the guards will keep a distance and get more competent help to find out what the monster wants, but a relatively peaceful monster’s gold spends the same as a Human’s.

Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Curses and Shrines

A small update for missing details.

  • Updated encounter tables to split low-level 1-12, high-level 13-20, merged in psionic encounters.
  • Curses. Following d20 SRD’s model of very simple curses, because I can’t figure out how to table-ize more complex curses.
  • Radiation area of effect
  • Finished mutations. Egg-Laying clones should be played like Gremlins from the movies, or Miji’s clones in Dark Legacy comics.
  • Shrines. There’s always a balance with religions between putting wealth & power in the hands of possible allies, and tempting murderhobo players to sack the temple.

Life in Stone Halls & Serpent Men

A rather long time since the last post, which wasn’t even on-topic. I was working, made some web-based CRPGs as well as updating my iPhone games. But I’ve also done some gaming, and wrote a ton in SH&SM.

The what’s new for this update is very long. Some of it’s tested. The psionics & mutations have been used very lightly, so I’m sure they’re unbalanced, but do accomplish their goal, giving high-level abilities at high risk. The random dungeon/community tools are well-tested, but by their nature can produce surprising results.

I’ve decided that my older fantasy RPG projects should be mostly scavenged for material for SH&SM, so a bunch of that went into this update, and more will be added later. I still don’t love the d20 mechanics, but I love how Professions have made character creation fast and flexible, and my style of swords & sorcery fits.

What’s New:

  • How to Play the Game
  • Characters:
    • Beastmaster
    • Psionic
    • Hero brought in line with Prestige Professions
  • Social Status
  • Equipment:
    • Material & Repair
    • Lifestyle & Maintenance
    • Dwarf tech
  • Combat:
    • Slight increase to Untrained combat table at mid levels
    • Swimming & Underwater
    • Throwing flasks & grenades
  • Psionics
  • Radiation & Mutation
  • Bestiary:
    • Changed Incorporeal to Ethereal, for consistent mechanics
    • Added Faerie trait
    • Ape-Man
    • Crab, Giant
    • Dolphin
    • Eel, Giant
    • Elemental
    • Elf, Sea
    • Golem (Theurgist ability)
    • Homonculous (Alchemist ability)
    • Imp
    • Intellect Devourer
    • Medusa
    • Merfolk
    • Nymph
    • Octopus, Giant
    • Phase Spider
    • Psychic Parasite
    • Sea Devil
    • Sea Monster
    • Shark
    • Sprite
    • Squid, Giant
    • Star-Hound
    • Star-Spawn
    • Whale
    • Wolf reduced to Normal (but tougher than average)
    • Wolf, Dire
  • Treasure:
    • Trade Goods
    • Treasure Maps
  • Referee’s Tools:
    • Escaping the Underworld
    • Fortune Cards: TODO: find inspiration article
    • Wilderness Features
      • Chamber
      • Trap
      • Trash
      • Campsite
      • Tomb
      • Castle
        • Very simple siege mechanics
      • Community

Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Mountebanks & White Mages

What’s new:

A few more setting notes, and level guides for each region.

After another playtest run, thieves needed help. So now Assassins are more effective, Hunters can use Stealth without being Assassins, and I added the Mountebank profession as an endgame crime lord equivalent to Knight, Alchemist, and Theurgist.

White Mages were also desperately sad, so boosting healing items and adding more spells fixed that. The spells are a mix of Cleric and Druid spells from the D20 SRD, though several got moved up or down level or totally redesigned for old-school balance.

While I was at it, a few more Black Magic spells were needed, so now both lists go to 9.

Upgraded the equipment list, so it’s not just dungeon-crawling gear.

Added Celestials, the Lawful opposite of Demons. I take my “Angels” from comics like Hellblazer and movies like The Prophecy; they’re as bad as Demons, just on the other side.

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.