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.


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:


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.


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.

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.



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.