Don’t Sleep It’s Broken

Expanding/editing my comments from What Makes Something Broken G+ thread:

“Broken”, for me, is anything that makes normal character choices, tactics, or roleplay irrelevant.

“Normal”, for me, is whatever’s described in the setting. This is sometimes implicit, but there are books mentioned in the D&D prefaces, Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser, or John Carter of Mars, or some Cimmerian thief named Conan.

The World of Greyhawk looks like 100-Years-War to Napoleonics, with Elves and Dwarfs and Giants on the fringes. Blackmoor/First Fantasy Campaign looked like the Italian Renaissance on a border with Mongol hordes, with cults armed with alien tech. Empire of the Petal Throne looks like the Aztec Empire, Vedic period India (pre-600 CE), a lot of advanced tech, weird aliens, and quasi-Lovecraftian gods; things that are broken in default setting or Greyhawk may be more passable in Blackmoor or EPT.

Exhibit 1: Sleep:

Sleep: A Sleep spell affects from 2–16 1st-level types (hit dice of up to 1 + 1), from 2–12 2nd-level types (hit dice of up to 2 + 1), from 1–6 3rd-level types, and but 1 4th-level type (up to 4 + 1 hit dice). The spell always affects up to the number of creatures determined by the dice. If more than the number rolled could be affected, determine which “sleep” by random selection. Range: 24”. [mdh: 240′ indoors, 240 yards outdoors]
—Book I: Men & Magic

Sleep spell is my classic example of “broken”. Many players love original edition no-save long-range area-effect Sleep, rampaging thru a dungeon with it, until a Referee has an NPC magic-user TPK them with it. Walk into the far end of a 240′-long corridor, or cross a field at 1/7 of a mile away, and there’s no save, fall asleep, throats cut. Then everyone’s unhappy.

The only defense is taking up to 16 equal-Level mercenaries along, so some of them will get slept instead of the PCs, but then the PCs are probably paying equal shares and make no money, which in original edition either directly becomes XP, or can be spent on training/orgies to get XP. So progress grinds to a halt because of this stupid spell.

This is not “normal” in anything except maybe EPT, where a small army of slaves were de rigueur dungeoneering gear, and got expended in traps and spells.

There is nothing else you can do. Die or cower behind a wall of cannon fodder. No rational NPC Magic-User would ever have any Level 1 spell but Sleep ready.

In practice there’s a polite agreement where the Referee doesn’t give common hostile NPCs Sleep, because the game ends if they do. Just searching TSR’s B-series PDFs, I see one hostile NPC with Sleep in B4 Lost City’s Tier 3, one boss you shouldn’t stand-up fight in B6 Veiled Society, a deadly magician in B7 Rahasia, and a couple in B9 Castle Caldwell. All of the other sleep-inducing gasses and other effects give saving throws.

In less dogmatic games, the Referee just house-rules a saving throw in and maybe reduces the range, and it’s a non-broken spell again.

Exhibit 2: The Ranger:

The additional classes (from Strategic Review, early Dragon, and Supplements I-III) beyond the first 4 are generally broken. Rangers, Paladins, Cavaliers, and Barbarians are better than Fighters in every way. Assassins, Bards, and Monks are better than Thieves in almost every way (trivially lower skill chance). Druids are better than Clerics at spell-casting, weapons, AND can turn into bears! Illusionists are the only somewhat balanced additional class. There is no reason to take a stock Fighter, Thief, Magic-User, or Cleric if you can take one of the additional classes.

The setting implies mostly human warriors, thieves, wizards, and priests of varying types. Demi-humans without level limits, balanced stats, or some other drawback are broken, because there is then no reason to be Human. In OD&D, Dwarfs are limited to 6th Level, Elves are limited to 4th/8th Fighter/Magic-User, Halflings to 4th Level; non-Humans rarely appeared in Gary Gygax’s groups.

You can make a setting for that, I used to run an urban-vs-wilderness setting where the primary classes were Assassins, Cavaliers, Illusionists, and Nightblades (reskinned Bards) vs Rangers (toned down from the RAW), Druids, and Barbarians (toned down even more). A generic “fighter” or “thief” didn’t exist, and would have been completely overshadowed by better classes.


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.

Bundle of Fantasy Age

The Fantasy Age RPG main books: Great fast hack-and-slash system with just three classes, random-roll ability tables, a ton, like pages of lists, of talents and “specializations” for classes, without a ton of skill bookkeeping. 3d6 roll-over mechanic with one funky Stunt Die, and a ton of little case-point rules rather than a big unified “System”. In Jeff Rients’ Threefold Model, AGE is Retro-Stupid.

The Starter Collection is a great deal for $10. Whether the expanded bundle is worth $15 more is debatable.

I loved the Dragon Age: Origins videogame, but the second game was an abomination, didn’t make me want to try the third one (which I hear is better, but I’m past caring). Thedas (the world of Dragon Age) has some annoyances, with powerless priests of a nonexistent god thinking they can control mages who literally control life, death, dreams, and elements; and squishy, stupid humans thinking they can control longer-lived and vastly more competent Elves and Dwarfs.

It’s a tolerable dumb setting in a computer game, but it’s nearly unplayable disaster in a tabletop game. Thedas went down in flames when my players hit it in the first box set: Looting & burning out the Chantry was much higher-profit and lower-risk than fighting darkspawn. That said, there’s a lot of lootable setting, monsters, and such for Fantasy AGE in the Dragon Age books.

Wil Wheaton’s Titansgrave is a nice post-apocalyptic science fantasy setting, however the main book is mostly a very linear adventure, not a hexcrawl or gazetteer of the world. Choo-choo all aboard the plot railroad.

I picked up the whole bundle, because I only had the first Dragon Age box set and why not, and I think I’ll get some use out of it. I’m more annoyed that they have a GM screen for Dragon Age, but not Fantasy Age.

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


Kyle Mecklem asked:

What should a game have to possess the “spirit” of old school Dungeons & Dragons?

Good question!

D&D-nature is about exploring some area (possibly a social graph, as seen in B6), call-response interaction with the Referee (see those early examples of play in OD&D and Holmes), and deadly results from bad luck or bad decision-making, with just enough rules to handle the common cases.

There are no fixed rules.

  • Six stats? Many games have 3 stats, or 7 or 8, and are still D&D-nature.
  • Group initiative? OD&D used Chainmail’s individual weapon-rank initiative system. Holmes basic used individual Dex-rank, rolls for ties.
  • Hit Points? Chainmail just had alive/dead results from combat, and it was the official combat system of OD&D. There are later games that have no HP and only survival rolls, which seems VERY D&D-nature.
  • Descending AC? Most retro-clones have ascending AC, and they seem to have D&D-nature.
  • XP? Metamorphosis Alpha has D&D-nature and no experience system.
  • Theatre of the mind combat? Well, mostly, but some people do run D&D-nature games with minis, tho I think that’s poor form.

In fact, I don’t see any rules that can’t be thrown out and still have D&D-nature, and for example Ken St. Andre, M.A.R. Barker, James Ward, Greg Stafford, Kevin Siembieda, and Dave Hargrave recognized that and made their own things which are still D&D-nature. Venger Satanis‘s Crimson Dragon Slayer is D&D-nature, even though it’s basically Over the Edge (I was going to say “with swords”, but there’s few guns on Al Amarja, so… it’s OTE)

Where it stops is when you’ve codified everything and forbidden people from screwing with the rules, or nerfed it so nobody can have a stupid death.

  • AD&D does not have D&D-nature, not so much because of the excessive rules as Gary’s rules-as-written edicts from convention games.
  • Obviously some forms of D20 have D&D-nature, even if 3.0, 3.5, and Pathfinder do not.
  • 4E did not, it’s arguably not even an RPG.
  • 5E kinda does, but it covers every surface in Nerf® and makes sure mommy will kiss your owies and give you back a hit die when you take a popsicle break. Has anyone ever died in a 5E game? Is a TPK possible?

Alpha Blue

A proper review of Alpha Blue & supplements is on my TODO list for this year, but the shortest possible version is:

Almost non-existently minimalist storygame system, great art (often but not always pornographic), great maps/deckplans, tons of weird random tables (often but not always pornographic), adventures are linear drug-trip nonsense (often but not always pornographic) but always have weird scenes and sleazy NPCs that could be thrown in front of a more self-directed party.

Since there’s almost no system, you can just restat everything for whatever system you actually use; use Alpha Blue content in Alpha Dawn, for instance.

D&D Cartoon Time

“That was Venger, the force of evil! I am Dungeon Master, your guide, in the world of Dungeons & Dragons!”

Classic, but note:

  • Ranger: Cheesemonkey munchkin Aryan creep. Basically everything I loathe most wrapped up in one guy, and he’s the “leader”, just because he talks loudest.
  • Cavalier (Eric): Whiny rich asshole with plate & shield but no sword. Should’ve been a Paladin so at least he’d have “good” to excuse his “stupid”. I kinda get a “Less Than Zero” vibe off Eric, like he might’ve ended up like Julian if he’d stayed on Earth. He’s the right age, demographic, and attitude.
  • Acrobat (Diana): Worst class ever, but the girl’s cute and fur bikinis are sexy. Monk or Assassin would’ve been better.
  • Thief (Sheila): Soulless ginger with a voice like fingernails on chalkboard. But she’s the only effective-at-class character.
  • Barbarian (Bobby) & Whiny Thing (Uni): Thief’s little brother sat in on a game, and got the only class more broken than Ranger. Never uses any of the dozen+ skills given in Dragon #63/Unearthed Arcana. Is Uni supposed to be the party healer? It never comes up that I know of.
  • Magic-User (Presto): Mediocre amateur does nothing except with magic items, which is a good levelling strategy for classic M-U. Unfortunately, he has no self-direction, casts only when he’s ordered to by others, and his “spells” are just begging for help with some “alla-kazam” chants. I’m pretty sure anytime someone calls him “Wizard” they’re being sarcastic, since that’s the 11th-level class title, and he’s 0-level.

Dungeon Master runs an annoying game, probably modeled on Ed Greenwood, where he appears in-game as his own talking head NPC to deliver quests and lame backstory (“until the dragons were driven away by good magic”).

Random encounter table in the quadruple-sun wastelands of Dungeodragonia:

  1. Tiamat
  2. Venger and/or Shadow Demon
  3. Flight of Shadow Dragons
  4. Giant Scorpion
  5. Fat Dragon
  6. Beholder

Party marching order is terrible, Rgr, Cav, Acro, M-U, Thf, Barb. Dumb. Should be: Acro (walks point), Barb (lead fighter), Cav, Rgr (ranged), M-U, Thief (trail rear); swap Acro & Thief situationally.

“Tell me, Ranger, what brings YOU here?”
“You know me?”
“He’s Merlin, he knows everyone!”

Asshole wearing green leathers with a bow and a smug look of someone with an extra hit die. It’s not magic to guess he’s a Ranger who’s so personality-less he only goes by “Ranger”.

Horrific nightmare fuel, a semi-invisible Hector the Halfling; this is why I don’t allow Hobbits:

Hector the Halfling

Hey, it’s KELEK™, Evil Sorcerer (Chaotic Sorcerer, 7th Level Magic-User), WARDUKE™, Evil Fighter (Chaotic Superhero, 8th Level Fighter), and STRONGHEART™, Good Paladin (Lawful Lord, 10th Level Fighter) as seen in XL1-Quest for the Heartstone and the D&D toy line. Kelek’s plan was bonkers but effective, except then Venger kicked his ass. Warduke captured Dungeon Master, that’s one bad-ass NPC.

In Strongheart’s XL1 stats he’s just a fighter, with an intelligent magic sword +2 (not a holy avenger!) that can detect evil & heal; that’s a neat end-run around Paladinhood. In “Servant of Evil”, he’s a useless follower with a cask of Santory 1855(!), and a magic golden hammer that makes force fields; very disappointing appearance.

The Orcs here are exactly how I envision them: Green-skinned & pig-snouted, cruel slavers at the Mines of Theramore (! later used in World of Warcraft as their super racist Human supremacist faction city). Lizard Men look far too human-with-lizard-heads. Bullywugs are overly competent, they remind me more of the Final Fantasy “Sahagin” more than either D&D Bullywugs or Sahuagin.

“Magic armor, shields, and weaponry
Barbarians detest magic and distrust those who use it. They will refuse to employ any sort of magic item if they recognize it as such. They will destroy magic items if they have their way. While a magic-user will be shunned by barbarians, clerical spells are not regarded as magic (except for the more powerful spells not typically usable by a tribal shaman or low-level cleric), so barbarians will associate with clerics on occasion.”
—Gary Gygax, “The Big, Bad Barbarian”, Dragon #63

So Bobby ignores this rule not just for the Magic-User (which, to be fair, everyone playing Barbarians ignored, just as Paladins ignored the obvious Assassins and other heretics in the party), and his club and the party’s items, but also a magic amulet handed directly to him by the Dungeon Master. I know he’s like 8 years old, but cheating little bastard.

“Magic works in “our world,” though with some limitations. Magic-users without spell books will, of course, be unable to regain cast spells. Clerics will be completely out of touch with their deities and their servants, and subsequently will not be able to regain spells above second level. There may be problems obtaining material components
for spells, and substitutions may result in interesting alterations of spell effects at the DM’s option. Some spells are affected by the location; see below for more information on spell alterations.”
—Robert Shroeck, “The City Beyond The Gate”, Dragon #100

The multiverse magic rules are inconsistent and wrong. In “Beauty and the Bogbeast” and “The Box”, the kids get back to Earth, they have to leave Uni behind, and their magic weapons don’t work on Earth; but also in “The Box”, Venger (a demon!) is able to reach Earth with his flying nightmare mount, and his magic works. There’s also “Modern Monsters” by Ed Greenwood (ack, spit) in Dragon #57, and “Sixguns & Sorcery” in the AD&D DMG, clearly stating these principles. The kids should be able to come back to Earth with their weapons and start a new dark age of magic and tyranny.

“PRESTO Spells Disaster” starts with the party being chased through a forest by a Stegosaur; it’s classic D&D to have dinosaurs running around, but it was a plains herbivore. Robert T. Bakker hadn’t published The Great Dinosaur Debate yet, but this was known from pre-80s research.

We finally get a name for the four-armed, membrane-winged, face-tentacled monster from the Prison of Agony, “Slimebeast”, which is weird since it isn’t slimy, and doubly weird since there’s never been official stats for it!

Star Frontiers

  • Star Frontiers on DriveThruRPG: PDFs of core rule boxes, charsheets, and the rest of the Volturnus modules so far, and Alpha Dawn in print-on-demand!

The third RPG I ever played; D&D (Holmes), Gamma World, then Star Frontiers: TSR dominated the shelves at small-town bookstores and hobby shops.

Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn went off in such a different direction from D&D and GW, being skill-based, Primary Skill Areas (classes) only doubling the cost of non-PSA skills. Stats were used directly for task resolution, and in the Basic Game there were just stats, no skills, a mechanism I’ve come back to over and over. Combat (on foot and vehicular!) was extremely tactical, and while they said “no gameboard needed!”, in practice it needed the tactical map and counters, with all the ranged weapons and AOE attacks. Programming and robotics were significantly useful, which as a newbie programmer by then I found exciting. Just a great game all around. ★★★★★

This is the game that convinced me 10-sided dice suck, though; the original soapy TSR dice flaked away to garbage very fast, replacement Dragon Dice did the same, so I went back to using two d20s from GameScience. I presume DriveThruRPG doesn’t ship dice with a POD book.

Knight Hawks has one of my favorite starship construction & combat systems (far more so than any Traveller version), though I ended up making movement phased like Star Fleet Battles, because too often you’d whip past the enemy without a chance to shoot rockets and lasers at optimal distances. The FTL system is nonsense even by the normal standards of FTL being nonsense (our Universe does not have FTL), but it’s not hard to retcon or rewrite to use something less stupid. The slightly weird part there is that there’s usually only one enemy, the Sathar, rarely some pirates. It’s a system looking for a galaxy at war, but the Frontier is largely at peace/corporate espionage. ★★★★½

The Volturnus saga is very much like an Ensign Flandry adventure, stranded adventurers doing some survival, shooting, and uniting aliens to save civilization from afar. I’ve never liked it as a starting adventure, though, since you’re told about this high-tech society and then don’t get to see it for… 12-24 sessions? It’s a long-ass adventure. ★★★★☆

There’s been openly-pirated versions of these books out forever, WotC had semi-officially abandoned it and Star Frontiersman and have been supporting it. Earlier this year “Evil Hat” (an appropriate appellation) filed to take the trademark and use it for whatever they wanted, presumably prompting this release. That’ll do, Wizards of the Coast, that’ll do.

Now I’m thinking all my Space Game adventure & setting notes can be converted back to Star Frontiers, since there’s a legit source for the rules.

On Naming a New Game

So the “Magic School” idea is kind of a pain to develop, and there are a few usable games in the genre; I want to look at this further someday, but not now. But it did lead me back to one of my ideas for a “Magic Returns” game. While Bright certainly isn’t inspirational, it’s not the worst big-budget B-movie I’ve seen, and made me miss some parts of Shadowrun.

I’ve got a good ways into it.

Obviously, there’s D20, Microlite, The Black Hack, etc., and on the other side almost-freeform systems like Venger Satanis’ Crimson Dragon Slayer, but I feel the tone should be lite-retro-crunch; D20 and even TBH are too heavy, Microlite has no crunch, CDS isn’t all that retro (the setting is, but the system’s pure ’90s storygame like Over the Edge). Tunnels & Trolls has been mangled into modern settings a few times, and it doesn’t make sense, but “only six-siders” is a good design rule, and those saving rolls are the best mechanic ever.

I look back at some of my old games like Phobos (my first attempt at the “Magic Returns” genre), and go “shit that’s a lot of rules & words for stuff I don’t do anymore”. The spell design rules in that were hard, and nobody liked making spells.

Design Notes

  • Premise lets you throw magic, tech, anything you want into one blender, like the old multigenre invasion settings.
  • System is inspired by fantasy gamebooks and early post-apocalyptic games, quick systems with a fistful of six-sided dice.
  • Stats are more specific than many minimal games, because the system is largely about making stat rolls.
  • There are no classes or skills; characters can try to do anything.
  • Experience encourages a variety of actions from the players, not just grinding.
  • Equipment has been purified down to what you need for an adventure, not a catalog of every item ever made.
  • Wilderness and Tactical Exploration are the bare minimum to do a hex-crawl/dungeon-crawl. Try to avoid complex resource management but still keep the two that matter: food and torches.
  • Combat is a pair of opposed rolls, and then a damage roll. No tables.
  • Armor mechanics are meant to make heavy armor a big initial advantage that wears down over time, as a constant gold sink, but can’t require a lot of bookkeeping.
  • Magic is freeform, but constrained by known spells, which lets the Referee have some idea what characters can do.
  • Monsters use the same simple mechanics as other characters, and are freeform to keep players on edge, unable to memorize stats and weaknesses.
  • Treasures are given as a set of cascading die rolls, but with a limited value in mind so runaway wealth isn’t so likely.


Here’s the hard part. My codename for the system was “DiceChucker”. There’s already a DiceChucker game, but that’s not a shipping name anyway, just a place to put a file. Everything involving “Arcadia”, my placeholder name for faerieland, is taken, often for alternate-world erotica.

I dunno what to do here. Die-roll up some random names? The magical world of Ffnnfgrppa awaits you! A cursory view of DriveThruRPG suggests that’s how many people work.

Basically a portal, central hub of RPG blogs, feeds, and other communities, to try to tie everyone back together.

Back in the day, we had web-rings, DMOZ, sites like my RPG links page, and just subscribed to each other in newsreaders. I still do, I have a couple dozen feeds in FeedBin. But that’s difficult to discover.

If you’re here from OSGR, or if you’re new here from some other source, look in the sidebars for the games I’ve written, poke through the categories list for subjects you’re interested in. I typically post every couple weeks, and a new game or two a year. If there’s something you’d like to hear about, write a comment or send me email. Thanks!