What Is ESSENTIAL To D&D? If You Said, “d20s & Vancian Magic,” Spellcraft & Swordplay Would Like A Word With You…

Once upon a time, the d20 was  optional.

Dungeons & Dragons got its start as an add-on to the miniatures wargame, Chainmail.  That much, I had known for years.  What I didn’t know before reading Jason Vey’s OSR effort, Spellcraft & Swordplay Deluxe Edition, is that the core dice mechanic almost all players of almost every edition associate with the name Dungeons & Dragons, the very system of “weird” dice that defined the game experience for generations of role-players, began as an optional task resolution method in the original D&D supplements.  Chainmail relied only on d6s, apparently… and so did the first iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.

Spellcraft & Swordplay seeks to emulate the original D&D experience by doing the same thing: dispensing with all the “weird” dice and taking the hobby back to its conventional d6 roots. And by doing so, it has revolutionized my own vision of the perennial question: what is D&D?

When you begin reading S&S, it seems instantly familiar: the same six ability scores you know and love, the four basic core classes (warrior, priest, wizard, thief), the expected character races (human,  dwarf, elf, halfling).  But within  minutes, everything goes askew.  There are d6s galore here, and no other types of dice.

The core task resolution mechanic is 2d6 +/- modifiers vs. a target number of 11 or higher.  An unmodified 12 is an automatic, critical success, and an unmodified roll of 2 is an automatic failure.  All weapons do a d6 damage, modified by a character’s ability scores.  All creatures and classes roll Xd6 for hit points, modified in various ways.

And then there’s combat.  Forget Base Attack Bonus  or THAC0.  S&S reverts us all the way back to the Weapon Types vs. Armor system, in which a table of weapons is cross-referenced against a target’s Armor Class to produce the number a character needs to roll or beat in order to successfully strike his opponent.  Like more modern games, S&S uses an ascending AC template with higher AC being better.  But it begins the scale at 1, and goes up through 8, with some particularly powerful opponents imposing a negative penalty  on the character’s to-hit roll.  Thus, an ancient dragon has AC 8 -6, meaning everyone attacking it has to subtract 6 from their to-hit roll before checking the weapons vs. AC table.

There are lots of other little bells & whistles to help distinguish characters from one another, most of them handled with ability checks (2d6 + ability score modifier +/- difficulty modifiers vs. target 11+), and/or class- and level-based bonuses.

But it turns out that the excision of “weird” dice is just an appetizer before the real  surprise in S&S: the replacement of a Vancian, fire-and-forget magic system with a skill-check-based one.  All spellcasters — wizards, priests, and their “elite path” sub-classes (which I’ll get to in a moment) — must roll 2d6 each time they cast a spell, modified by either Charisma, Intelligence, or Wisdom bonuses, to determine when (or whether) the spell goes off.  A great roll lets the spell go off the same round it’s cast, an average roll fires the spell off in the following round, and a terrible roll means the spell doesn’t go off at all and the caster forgets it.  The game still uses spell slots per level, but so long as the caster studies or prays for one hour each morning, she retains all her spells in memory perpetually and may cast them any time she desires, provided there’s an available open slot.

Suddenly, low-level casters aren’t one-trick ponies anymore.  I like this, a lot; it is, honestly, the point  that finally sold me on the game.

Oh, and about those “elite paths”:  each of the four base classes contains one or more of them, and they are essentially subclasses in the  style of 1st and 2nd edition AD&D.  To qualify for them, a character must have exceptional scores in one or more relevant abilities, etc.  You know the story here.  Warriors have paladin and ranger as elite paths, wizards have necromancer instead of illusionist (a bold choice!),  priests have druid, and thieves get assassin.  The elite paths get all the abilities of their base class plus unique abilities of their own, but must earn 10% extra experience per level to advance.

Knowing that the game was based, in part, on the old Chainmail rules, I expected to dislike Spellcraft & Swordplay.  But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is now my favorite take on the OSR genre to date.  It’s streamlined, easy to learn, economical, and best of all, evocative of an earlier time while still being grounded in modern innovations.  It’s not so much a retro-clone or a nostalgia game, but its own entity,  paying homage to the past without being limited to it.

And the art is, like the rules themselves, simple and evocative.  Resembling medieval woodcuts, S&S art pieces conjure the courts of Arthur and Charlemagne, the antics of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the legend of St. George and the dragon, the glory and tragedy of the Crusades.

Bravo to Jason Vey and Elf Lair Games.  They’ve got a natural 12 on their hands.

HOW I’D USE IT:  Did I just allude to chivalric settings?  Well there  you go. S&S will be my go-to rules for running a classic knights-errant campaign in the style of the Grail Quest or the courtly romances of the High Medieval.  Its first supplement, Monstrous Mayhem, includes rules for duels, jousting, archery contests, and other medieval fairgrounds activity, which are all great ways for low-level characters to earn experience in thrilling contests without risking their lives (too much). I’m already envisioning a campaign that begins at a medieval fair, in which the PCs navigate courtly politics, contests of honor, and skullduggery in the shadows of kings and princes.

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“Oriental” Adventures Done Right: The Flying Swordsmen RPG

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Oriental Adventures, often rendered in shorthand these days as “1E OA,” was the first role-playing product I ever bought with my own money.  As a wee gamer in the making, my tastes in fantasy had run more towards “Kung Fu Action Theater” than towards Lord Of The Rings, so the prospect of being able to play characters1 like the ones I saw in The Bride With White Hair or A Chinese Ghost Story got me really excited about 1E OA.

Until I read it, that is.  It’s not that the book was bad; it wasn’t, not at all.  In some ways, it remains one of the best 1st Edition products published, one that has aged well.  The book went into great and, as far as I could tell, accurate detail about a particular Asian culture and time period, and made for a great primer on total immersion role-playing in that culture.

The problem was, that culture was medieval Japan.  Sure, there were a few tidbits from other Asian cultures sprinkled into the mix, but for the  most part, 1E OA was designed with Japanophiles in mind.

This is  not a bad thing; ninja and samurai are cool.  They just weren’t what I was interested in. 1E OA was heavily grounded in the tropes of chambara fantasy, and I was looking for wuxia.  And its emphasis on (pseudo-)historical and cultural accuracy distracted from the fantastic, other-worldly feel of kung fu fantasy films.  Sure, wuxia stories are nominally set in Imperial China, but they’re often a-historical in feel, and could easily be  set in a completely fictional time and place that only vaguely resembled China.  1E OA was trying to pull me, I thought, in the opposite direction.

And its martial arts rules were not terribly theatrical, I thought.

In  the years since, I’ve wanted to either run or play in a wuxia-style D&D campaign, but no version of OA on offer ever really gave me what I was looking for: a simple, flexible set of rules that handled fast-paced martial arts fighting in a cinematic fashion… a game where wizards could cast spells as part of their kung fu rather than having to choose between magic and fists.

Enter Flying Swordsmen RPG, the OSR(ish) game of fantasy  martial arts action, by Dennis Lafey, otherwise known online as Lord Gwydion.  Lafey’s completely-free gflyingswordcoverame understands exactly  what’s appealing about wuxia, and knows exactly how to render that appeal in the form of a D&D retro-clone without all the clutter of a complex proficiency, feat, or skill-point systems.

Flying Swordsmen is apparently a retro-clone of an older, 2E-ish game called Dragon Fist.  I”ve never seen Dragon Fist, so I can’t fairly judge whether Lafey has captured its essence.  What I can say, though, is that if he has done so, then Dragon Fist “got” wuxia better than any other “Asian” version of D&D ever did.

Flying Swordsmen does two things with the OSR rules structure that successfully evoke the  pace and feel of wuxia: it replaces ability score  modifiers with stunt dice (and an associated system of Stunts); and it gives every character class automatic access to martial arts, without having to spend “proficiency slots,” “skill points,” or “feat trees.”

Stunt dice are perhaps the coolest concept in the game, as they give a bit of narrative autonomy to the players, and the Stunt  system can handle on-the-fly simulations of later-edition things like Feats without bogging either the player or the DM down in a mountain of bookkeeping.

The system works  like this: each of the six standard ability scores has a corresponding type of Stunt rated from 1d2 to 1d6 (Strength = Might stunts, Intelligence = Savvy, Wisdom = Insight, Dexterity = Acrobatics, Constitution = Fortitude, and Charisma = Charm). The die ratings of your Stunts are determined by their associated ability scores, just like static ability score modifiers in a standard OSR system.

So, where a character with a Strength of 15 might get a +1 static bonus in a standard old-school system; in Flying Swordsmen, he instead gets a Might stunt die rating of 1d3.  Whenever he wants to do something impressive with his Might, such as bend a bar or lift a gate, or give himself an edge in melee combat,  he rolls his stunt die along with the d20 (or his damage dice, whichever is appropriate), and adds its result to his total.  The final number is measured against a difficulty rating set by the DM (in combat, this would be AC), or determined by the level + ability score of another character.  If the total beats this number, the character succeeds (the game uses an ascending AC, higher-is-always-better-system).

The catch is that the player has to describe what he’s doing in some detail.  This is where the Stunt system can allow players who prefer proficiencies or feats to mimic those game mechanics without having to write them down anywhere. “I want to use my Might to attempt a Cleave maneuver,” could be one way a player coming in from 3.x would use the system.

Of course, Flying Swordsmen supplies every character, regardless of class, with a nice assortment of Martial Arts Maneuvers that have evocative names like Grasping Monkey or Phoenix Strike, allowing players to simulate the time-honored wuxia tradition of telling their opponents exactly what they’re doing to them (“Ha ha ha, your Grasping Monkey is no match for my Phoenix Strike!”).  That’s where the second feature comes in.

There are four base character classes in Flying Swordmen: you guessed it; they are Fighter, Shaman, Thief, and Wizard, that all do pretty  much what you expect.  However, each one also has its own Martial Arts Maneuvers By Level progression table, that works somewhat like the spell-slot system for spell casters. Each  class must take specific maneuvers to fill its slots up to 3rd level, after which, they are free to customize and diversify as they see fit.

This means that every character class is capable of impressive feats of martial artistry like those seen in wuxia films… and spell casters can use some of their Maneuvers, along with Stunts related to their prime requisite scores, to augment their magic.  In other words, they can use kung fu as part of their magic, rather than having to choose one or the other.

That hits the wuxia nail right on the head with a resounding Iron Fist.

There’s lots more here that’s evocative, too:

  • The saving throw categories have been renamed to correspond to the five elements of Chinese myth (Earth, Fire, Metal, Water, Wood).
  • Each of the character classes comes with a set of “profiles” (sort of like kits or sub-classes) that further refine and define their role in the campaign world (fighters, for instance, can choose to be Mystic Archers or Weapon Masters; wizards can be Taoists, or Yang Magicians, etc.).
  • The Equipment list gives a pretty good sampling of Chinese arms and armor (but could have used some art to illustrate them).
  • The magic section replicates some classic OA spells, and gives us some new ones, as well.  Ditto for the Monsters (finally, Hopping Vampires done right!).
  • And the default campaign setting looks pretty nice, too, and even comes with a continent map.

But it’s the Stunt system and the Martial Arts Maneuvers By Level mechanic that really set Flying Swordsmen apart from its OSR kin.  Dennis Lafey rolled a natural 20 on this game.

HOW I’D USE IT: Kara-Tur, anyone?

I’m about to start running a Spelljammer campaign, tentatively using Labyrinth Lord as its skeleton, in which the Shou Lung of Realmspace play a much bigger role than they were given in canon material.  The party will begin their careers as crewmen aboard a Shou dragon ship.  Flying Swordsmen would be great for running that campaign from the Shou Lung point-of-view.

But, if the DM is willing to do a little conversion work, the core system of Stunts and Maneuvers By Level could also be used to simulate the great acrobatic and witty sword duels of swashbuckling non-Asian fiction like The Three Musketeers or Pirates Of The Caribbean.   Which makes Flying Swordsmen even further suited to being used as the base system of an OSR Spelljammer game.

I still might just do that.

And did I mention that the game is completely free?

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Classic Campaign Setting Review: Spelljammer

ImageSUMMARY: Inventive, wildly imaginative, great set of tools for the ultimate sandbox-style campaign, but suffers from too much focus on other settings and never really comes into its own.

SPELLJAMMER was one of the first campaign setting boxed sets published specifically for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition rules.  I didn’t discover it until a few years after that, and at first, I was skeptical.  Very, very skeptical.

The subtitle said it all: “AD&D Adventures In Space.”  That tagline called to mind all the wrong images for me.  I immediately pictured elves with light sabers, robot wizards, and lots of ray guns.  Everything I’d never want in my fantasy campaigns.  Back then, I was a real stickler for genre purity, and sci-fi and fantasy mixes just didn’t float my boat.

But I was mistaken. Not about the virtues of genre-blending, but about the content of Spelljammer itself.  This was an outer-space game setting, but turns out there was little to no actual science in it.  And that is what made it great.

I stumbled upon a used copy of the core boxed set several years after its release, and it wasn’t shrink-wrapped.  That allowed me to examine its contents in detail, and I was hooked from the very first sentence:

“Everything you know about space is wrong.”

From there, I learned that my character could get out of the atmosphere on the back of a dragon (OK, the text actually said “back of a roc,” but dragons are just cooler); that he could breathe in outer space without protection, because the open-decked flying ships of this setting generated their own atmospheres; that “solar systems” were encased inside gigantic crystal spheres that protected them from a universe filled with a rainbow-colored flammable gas called phlogiston; that planets could be spheres, sure, but they could also be flat, or be carried on the back of a gigantic animal; that stars could orbit planets and as well as the reverse. For that matter, stars themselves didn’t necessarily have to be giant balls of super-heated plasma; they might be enormous gates to the Elemental Plan Of Fire, or flaming bowls held aloft by the statues of forgotten gods, or glowing gems with connections to the Positive Energy Plane.  And it just went on and on in that vein, working very hard to disavow me and other readers of everything that came to our minds when the word “space” was used alongside the word “adventure.”

I dug further, and found to my delight that there were no light sabers or ray guns; no robots, or computers, or powered armors, or anything like that.  The most advanced technology in this version of space was black powder weapons, and they were not as reliable as magic.  Ships in space fought each other with archers, ballistae, catapults, and in some rare circumstances, primitive cannons.  There were rules for how things like gravity, oxygen, and other concerns of space travelers worked, and those rules were consistent across the whole universe, but these rules were based on fantasy, not real-world physics.

In short, Spelljammer was not a science fiction game using the AD&D rules.  It was the AD&D rules and its underlying assumptions extrapolated outward into an entire universe rather than just a single continent on some backwater planet.

My initial reaction to this was: “play this right now!”  So I did. Within weeks, I had a game up and running, which turned into one of my longest, most successful, and best-remembered campaigns, ever.

That’s not a coincidence.  The SPELLJAMMER Boxed Set is chock-abrim with tools for the ultimate sand-box style campaign. You really can go anywhere, do anything here.  The DM needs to dangle very few hooks, as the nature of the setting itself is intriguing enough that players generate their own adventure ideas, and pursue them independently, 

But, there are weaknesses.

Perhaps the biggest was the focus on TSR’s other campaign settings at the time: Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and The Forgotten Realms. Each of their crystal spheres was detailed for use by DMs and players, so characters from those settings could easily take spelljamming side-quests in the local version of “outer space.”  Or travel from one setting to the other without using magical gates or other powerful spells.  All of which is fine, as far as it goes.  It made marketing sense, if nothing else, for TSR to draw these connections and provide these tools.

The problem with it is that these three settings were made the centerpiece of Spelljammer‘s interstellar (or interspherical?) civilization.  Which would be OK, except that most people on said worlds knew nothing about the  existence of space travel, and there was very little on any of those three worlds that would attract more than passing interest from the universe-spanning culture sailing among their stars.

This approach took a brilliant concept, and reduced it to the equivalent of a plot device to justify crossovers between TSR’s Big Three properties.  That ultimately served as a dis-incentive to play Spelljammer on its own terms.

Spelljammer deserved its own, stand-alone setting, something that wasn’t constantly defined with reference to other campaign worlds.  A setting where, for instance, each of the major races had their own homeworld or home crystal sphere, and their own spare-faring culture.  Late in its run, the Spelljammer team started heading in that direction, giving us The Astromundi Cluster boxed set, a fully space-based campaign setting in which everyone was in on “the secret.”  But that was too late. The Spelljammer line was cancelled not long after, and most of its unique elements were incorporated into other products with their numbers filed off.

A second weakness of the setting was “too much comedy.” Tinker gnomes from Krynn, the world of the Dragonlance setting, were a major space-faring race (which sort of begged the question why they weren’t a dominant race on their homeworld). Their ships were usually powered by a combination of giant hamster wheels and very unreliable proto-steampunk technology.  Now, tinker gnomes can be fun, don’t get me wrong. But given that they weren’t even a major race in their natural setting, their prominence in Spelljammer made little logical sense, and played a huge role in many Spelljammer detractors’ dismissals of the setting as “silly.”

Finally, there are the rules for how most of the spaceships in Spelljammer are powered: helms.  These are magical devices which require a spell-caster to sit in them, causing the ship to become an extension of their own body, and tapping the spell power within them for motive force.  A cool idea, in theory. The drawback, though, is that helms sucked all the magic out of your spell-caster, even if you only touched them for a brief moment. So, to be effective, a spelljamming party would need to be very heavy on both clerical and wizardly spell-casters: enough members to work in shifts on the helm while still being able to have active spell casters on deck at all times, as well.  This could be handled with a large crew of NPCs, but doing that deprived players of the opportunity to role-play their own ship.

Most of the time, this aspect of the setting didn’t get in the way, but in retrospect, it’s probably something I would have done differently at the design level.

In summary, then, SPELLJAMMER was a hidden gem among TSR’s old-school settings.  Even with its weaknesses, it provided my gaming group with two years’ worth of weekly fantasy-space adventure, and ranks among my personal top 5 best campaigns I’ve ever run.  If you happen to stumble across it the core boxed set somewhere, it’s well worth your money.

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Things To Do Different With The Drow…

Let’s be honest.  Drizzt D0Urden ruined the drow.

Before he  came along, they were at least somewhat mysterious.  And not entirely predictable, either: despite their long association with The Forgotten Realms, it’s often overlooked that the dark elves first appeared in the The World of Greyhawk setting, and that the first published drow villain wasn’t a worshiper of Lolth the Spider Queen, but of the Elder Elemental Eye. For many years, the drow were an effective bogeyman that DMs could pull out and give their players the creeps.

Then came Drizzt and his ongoing adventures.  These stories both pulled back the veil on the dark elves, and entrenched canon about them so deeply that it’s next to impossible to form a D&D group where someone doesn’t want to play a renegade drow modeled on Drizzt’s example.  It’s getting to the point, it sometimes seems, where there mustn’t be too many evil dark elves left in the world.

But I have to confess, even before all of this, I wasn’t a big fan of the drow.  I filed them under, “great concept, mediocre execution.”  My biggest gripes against them were the two things that have become most iconic about them: the spider -worship and the sadomasochistic matriarchy.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from thinking how I’d use them differently. So here are a few ideas:

1) Define Them By Their Absence

That is, remove them physically from the campaign setting, but litter traces of them all over the world.

In this set-up, the drow are a lost civilization of the Underdark, who vanished before the beginning of recorded history. Only the ruins of their cities and temples remain; and their power niche in the Underdark has been filled by other races who don’t get enough attention — the duergar, the deep gnomes, or even more esoteric subterranean denizens like medusae, minotaurs, or ghouls.  With this option, the entire canon of who and what the drow are (or were) all about can remain unchanged.  Drow artifacts and other magic riddle the Underdark and surface world, but the drow themselves have vanished entirely.

Oh, and Lolth is dead. Really and truly dead, never to return. Ever.

2) Give Them A Different Iconic Animal

The Eberron setting did this… a little bit.  In that setting, the drow are jungle-dwelling scorpion worshipers: an interesting choice, but one that didn’t go nearly far enough for my taste.  What can I say? I like arachnids.

When it comes of cave-dwelling, dark-crawling animals, I’ve always preferred bats over spiders. I came very close to designing a campaign in which the drow civilization was ruled by a werebat priesthood of Raxivort, and their favored class was barbarian.

I still might do that.

3) Make Them Masters Of A Different Magic

Necromancy is the obvious choice, but I find elementalism — especially Earth-focused elementalism — a lot more interesting.  This could be tied into the first option, making the drow into a lost culture of Earth mages whose achievements in sculpting the Underdark have never been rivaled.

This option has the appeal of maintaining some loose ties to canon; perhaps its an alternate reality where the Elder Elemental Eye supplanted The Spider Queen as patron of the dark elves.

4) Change Their Alignment

I’ve always thought the drow’d be much better off, and much more plausible as a civilization, if they were lawful evil.

5) Change Their Environment

Again, Eberron did this to some extent, and again, I’d go further. Maybe the drow and the sea elves are one and the same race, thriving in the darkest depths of the ocean and its Underdark connections, and either allying with, serving, or opposing the aboleth.  Like their canon cousins, they could be masters of poison, associating totemically with nematodes, anemones, sea snakes, and various venomous fish species.

And you just know who they’d worship, right?

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Now THIS is old-school: A review of the Cavemaster RPG

There’s a school of thought which argues that a role-playing game’s mechanics should reflect or evoke its genre. I don’t agree that it’s always necessary — a good GM and her players working with a flexible set of rules they all enjoy should be able to make any genre work — but it can sometimes be fun to have a “full-immersion” experience.  And some genres are better suited to this approach than others. Horror comes to mind. And four-color supers.101850

And Ice Age adventure fantasy.

Admittedly, that’s a very niche genre, and it’s one that doesn’t adapt well to standard tabletop RPGs.  The problem is that most RPGs build advanced technology into their rules, and can only simulate primitive existence by limiting character options.  Sure, we can build a campaign about shamans and hunters following mammoth herds through the Land Of Black Ice… but, uh-oh, look at all these spells that become useless because no one’s wearing armor or carrying metal.  Oh, and all these skills that become pointless. Not to mention all of these magic items that haven’t been invented yet.

Needless to say, no player likes having their toys taken away, and any group interested in playing an Ice Age adventure with native characters is going to have a  lot of shoe-horning to do.  Which might be part of the reason that such campaigns, while often proposed, rarely get off the ground for long. Few gamers relish the idea of having a shiny game full of options they mostly can’t use, because “realism.”

That’s where UNIgames’ Cavemaster: The Paleolithic Roleplaying Game comes in. Rather than starting with a familiar set of rules and taking things away from them to create a believable “prehistoric” experience, Cavemaster presents a game full of options that feels complete on its own terms. And it does so by making its game mechanics evoke the setting in a fun, elegant way.

Cavemaster‘s rules are designed around a central conceit that’s fun to indulge: it’s not just a RPG about “cavemen,” it’s also the RPG that cavemen  played.  That is, it pretends to be a set of “primitive” role-playing rules used by Homo habilis and later species as they sat around Pleistocene fires, reconstructed through meticulous archaeological research.  It thus does not require the use of written language, complex record-keeping, or dice. Instead, it uses materials that would have been available to our earliest ancestors, and task resolution methods that even an ape-man could get the hang of.

The fun starts right away with character creation: the CM (Cavemaster, the game’s referee) assigns her players a number of “core stones” that reflect their characters’ starting power levels.  The standard beginner character gets 6 stones to work with.

And these are, ideally, actual stones, preferably about the size of a bean, that she and her gaming troupe have gathered from their local surroundings.  In a pinch, modern-minded groups could substitute coins, dice, beads, or similar small objects for stones, but where’s the fun in that?

Anyway, the  players gather up their six stones, and place them inside a circle they’ve drawn at the center of their character record “skin” (that is, the blank piece of paper that serves as their character sheet).  This circle is called their core, and it is where they place their core stones.

Next, players choose a job, a breed, and a perk for their character.  Each of these aspects grants their character a  particular set of skills or a special ability, and each is represented by a pictograph.  Jobs and breeds are mandatory, perks are optional. As with their core, the pictograph for each of these aspects is drawn inside a circle on the character skin, and has one of the player’s core stones moved from the central circle to the pictograph. At the end of the process, a starting character will have six stones allocated between up to four pictographs, but only one stone each  for any pictograph outside the central circle.

For example, say you want to play a H. sapiens warrior who’s a natural leader. You begin by placing all six of your beginning stones in the central circle on your character skin. You then draw a separate circle for your breed and inside that circle draw the pictograph for the Yorwa people (the implied setting’s name for H. sapiens). Next, you take one stone from your core and put in the circle for your  breed, leaving you 5 core stones and 1 stone representing your breed’s special ability.

Follow a similar procedure for your job (warrior) and your perk (Charismatic): each gets its own circle, its own pictograph, and its own beginning stone. At the end, you have a character  “sheet” that represents the stats of Core 3, Yorwa 1, Warrior 1, and Charismatic 1 using nothing put pictographs and little stones.  On the perimeter of each circle, you then make a tick mark for each stone it contains; as your character gains experience, you can add more stones to your abilities, and make tick marks for those on the appropriate circle, as well.  This allows you to unroll your character skin, look at the  pictographs, and immediately know how many stones to put on each symbol.

It goes on in this fashion, remaining just as charming at every step. You’re encouraged to represent your name, your stuff, and so on with pictographs of your own design.  Of course, there’s nothing to stop you from just writing it all down in words and numbers like a high-falootin’ Holocene hominid, but if you did, you’d be  missing half the fun.  Cavemaster‘s character creation process is designed to get you into character before you even have a character, and it succeeds wonderfully here.

The task resolution mechanic is just as evocative: players resolve actions by gathering stones from their core circle and secretly allocating them between their two hands. The CM does the same, and then they each pick one of their opponent’s hands, which has to be opened to reveal the number of stones it holds. Whoever has the most stones in their open hand wins the contest, after their total has been modified by adding stones from their other pictographs/abilities (where relevant), and/or subtracting any penalties imposed by the CM.  There’s a system for rating the difficulty of static tasks according to the final number of stones that a player must be holding in their revealed hand (Easy = 2 stones, Extraordinary = 10 stones, and so on), and contested actions are handled simply by comparing totals between the opposing parties. In combat, the difference is applied to the loser’s total pool of stones as “damage.”

There are plenty of nuances for thing like assisted actions, dodging attacks, and so on, along with rules for creatures, invention of new technologies, and magic, too, all of which use variations on these core mechanics.

In addition to its evocative rules, Cavemaster comes with an implied setting: a fantasy version of the Pleistocene populated by four distinct species of bipedal primate, each given its own “homeland” inspired by a particular real-world Ice Age ecology.

The four breeds (PC races) are: standard humans (the Yorwa); an elf-like species (the Tanui) that specializes in boating and trade; a cave-dwelling race of not-quite dwarfs (the Rogok); and a furry race of monkey folk (the Maheechee) who have tails and can swing from branches with the best of them.

As noted, each race has its own homeland on the map: Esplandia, inspired by the LaBrea Tarpits and Pleistocene California in general, is home to the Yorwa people; Croatan, based on the east coast of North America from Maine to Virginia, hosts the Tanui; Orinoco, based on the Amazon jungle, is where you’ll find the Maheechee; and Teutonis, modeled after Ice Age Germany, is where the Rogok make their home.

These four lands each host unique assemblages of fauna and flora that are, as far as I can tell from my geology notes, historically accurate to the  regions that inspired them (so you won’t be finding any woolly mammoths in Orinoco, for instance).  And dividing them all from each other is the mysterious, mist-shrouded Lost Valley, a place that may or may not contain anachronistic creatures like dinosaurs, time-travelers, or other weirdness the CM would like to throw at her  players.

Speaking of which, there are stats for a wide variety of relevant creatures, including all the stars of the Ice Age, a few dinosaurs and pterosaurs, a couple of the aforementioned time travelers, and even an ancient astronaut.  Supplementing these is a nice, simple, yet comprehensive set of creature creation rules, enabling the CM to quickly homebrew any beasties she likes, along with a starting adventure that gives both players and CMs an idea what life in the (fantasy) Ice Age was like, and what sorts of challenges they can expect to encounter throughout a campaign.

Finally, I wouldn’t be doing Cavemaster justice if I didn’t mention its self-described status as a “stonepunk” game. This is meant to imply that it explores how Stone Age technologies might have been used to develop analogs to modern (or at least more advanced) devices, an idea that immediately made me think of “The Flintstones.”  Thankfully, Cavemaster doesn’t go there; it keeps the tone serious, and only provides a set of flexible, free-form Invention rules to help CMs push that aspect of the game along. Nothing here railroads a campaign into “stonepunk”; instead, it just makes it easy to head down that trail if CM and players are interested. This was a wise decision on the designers’ part, as I wouldn’t have looked twice at Cavemaster if my first glance had made me wonder what Bam-Bam’s stats would be.

HOW I’D USE IT: There’s a region on my old Greyhawk maps called “The Land Of Black Ice.” Maybe you’ve heard of it.  I’ve often imagined what that region and the lands just south of it must have been like during Greyhawk’s Ice Age: the black glacier receding, leaving behind deep, dark lakes and rivers of evil-tinged waters that spawn unspeakable horrors, and hardy, primitive people fighting back the darkness using spirit-magic and often-inadequate stone tools. Cavemaster would be perfect for a campaign in that setting, since it wouldn’t require me or my players to “subtract” anything from the D&D rules to get the right Ice Age feel. The game’s magic rules are free-form enough to represent the earliest, barely-understood foundations of the D&D game’s more sophisticated spell system, and there are enough character options in the  rules to provide lots of grist for a satisfying campaign of Stone Age action.

FINAL VERDICT: Cavemaster wins. It’s cleanly organized, easy to understand, has nice art, and evokes its subject matter like few genre games I’ve ever read. And playing it doesn’t require you to buy anything else you (or a caveman) wouldn’t already  have on hand, anyway.  It’s perfect for quick one-shots, and would make a great introductory RPG for young children, as there’s no complicated math, reading, or writing involved. It’s caused me to move “Ice Age fantasy adventure” from somewhere in the nether regions almost all the way up to the top of my list of Things I Want To Play Right Now.

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A Wild Idea; Beastly, Really

Meanwhile, I’ve been writing my own OSR game, specifically for use  with the animal fantasy genre.  It’s grown out of efforts to simplify and streamline my current 3.5 campaign, in which all the players are portraying nonhuman animals; like many DMs, I’m perennially unhappy with the rules in front of me, so I went and designed a set that suits my current interests and desires.

I’ve got a Quick Start document written already, as well as all the character classes, stats for a few species of animal, and some notes for three default settings.  My next step is to design a series of one-shot adventures with pre-generated characters, and send out invites so I can take the rules for a test run.

Needless to say, I’m reluctant to share the game with a broader public yet, but I do have the intention of ultimately making it available to  the broader gaming community, possibly with a Kickstarter campaign.

I have no idea how to get that started, but I’ll figure it out when I’m ready.

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In Thunder’s Wake: An Alternate Shazam-verse Concept For Old-School Supers RPGs

The most popular super hero character of the Golden Age was Captain Marvel (aka Shazam!), who out-sold Superman and Batman by millions.

Somebody feels cheated…

But it didn’t last; by the early 50s, sales of superhero comics overall had declined sharply, and Fawcett Comics, the publishers of Captain Marvel, had gotten embroiled in a complicated copyright-infringement lawsuit with National Comics (later DC Comics), who claimed the Captain Marvel character was a knock-off of Superman.  Eventually, the case was settled in DC’s favor, and Fawcett closed up shop; its stable of characters — including Captain Marvel, the Marvel Family, and all their villains, along with others like Bulletman and Ibis The Invincible — were licenced to DC and absorbed into its continuity.

But what if things had gone differently? What if  Fawcett had stayed independent of and more popular than DC, and its universe had continued to develop into modern times, with multiple re-boots and re-interpretations of its core characters, just as DC and Marvel did in the real world?

In  other words, what if the Shazam-verse had never become part of DC’s continuity, and had instead eventually eclipsed it? What if Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman had faded into obscurity, and Fawcett Comics’ family of heroes and villains had become the industry standard?

This is the premise of Terra Tonitrua, the World Born of Thunder.  It’s a setting in which the most powerful and most well-known heroes are Captain Marvel and The Marvel Family, but other popular characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman never existed.  The Marvels have dominated the supers landscape for decades, along with Ibis The Invincible (an immortal Egyptian wizard), and a few other perennial Fawcett icons, but a new generation of heroes is emerging in their shadow (including the PCs).  The setting would include a few core assumptions, extrapolated from the origin stories of most of Fawcett Comics’ most powerful super-beings:

1) Most truly superhuman characters have powers of a magical or occult origin.

2) Super-science characters are considerably rarer, and are often villains (example: Dr. Sivana, who may or may not have been the inspiration for DC’s Lex Luthor); though Bulletman is arguably an exception.

3) Super-skilled “normal” humans like Mr. Scarlet, Spy Smasher, and The Golden Arrow, were a majority the first generation of costumed heroes, and have thus either retired or passed their mantles to younger successors by the time the campaign begins.

The setting, as I continue to develop it, is system-neutral. Sadly, I never played any of the old-school supers RPGs, and thus don’t have a “go-to” system for this kind of thing.  I’m familiar with more modern games like Mutants & Masterminds, Wild Talents/Godlike, and GURPS Supers. Of course, I’ve heard of older games like Champions, Superworld, and Villains & Vigilantes, but my knowledge of their rules is limited.

I always found Captain Marvel a more interesting character than Superman, anyway. I will enjoy designing a setting around him and the concepts related to him.

Stay tuned…

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A unified d20 mechanic, old school style

One of the things that attracted me to 3.x edition D&D was its (seemingly) streamlined core d20 mechanic. Rather than cobbling together a mish-mash of different dice mechanics for different aspects of the game, 3.x pulled almost everything together under the umbrella of one simple system: roll a d20 and add in all relevant modifiers, hoping to beat a target number that rested on an ascending scale of difficulty.

I liked this a lot. The  old system — especially  the descending Armor Class combat rules, where lower ACs were better, and a positive bonus  to your AC thus lowered it rather than raising it — had never made much sense to me. Sure, I used it for years, and became quite adept at calculating THAC0 scores on the fly. But intuitively, it never bought into it. Every time I tried to explain it to a new player, I’d see my own confused first-time player self looking back at me. And I’d wince inside, just a little.

So, the new-fangled ascending AC system was a big hit with me. I daresay, in retrospect, it was the main selling point of the new edition. And to be fair, I still think it’s pretty good.

But, as I’ve drifted back into an old-school mentality, I’ve wondered what an old-school version of the unified d20 mechanic that incorporates descending ACs (and other difficulty numbers) would look like. Two of the old-school games I’ll be reviewing in the near future — Kevin Crawford’s Spears Of The Dawn and Stars Without Number — give a glimpse.

It works like this: players roll a d20 + modifiers (including an ascending class & level-based “to hit” rating) + the target’s Armor Class, hoping to score a total of 20 or higher. It’s an elegant way to maintain the old school’s descending AC scheme without creating too much confusion, or requiring new players to consult a table of values or calculate their THAC0. Lower Armor Classes, when added to your roll, simply make it harder to score a 20. The really good ACs (the negatives, that is) would actually subtract from your total.

My hat’s off to Crawford here.

But Crawford’s games only use this mechanic for combat, and rely on other types of dice for other systems (notably, d6s for skills). But it could be used in a more across-the-board kind of way.

I’d use it for thief skill checks, saving throws, undead turning attempts, etc., as well as for combat. Every challenge would be rated from 9 (the easiest) to -9 (the hardest). The goal, as above, would be to score a total of 20 or higher on a roll of 1d20 + modifiers + challenge rating. New players, or players whose only exposure to D&D has been 3.x or 4th edition, would feel right at home using a d20 for pretty much everything except rolling damage. No more worrying about which combat or saving throw table to consult.

I’m giving some thought to homebrewing a system similar to this for use in converting my current 3.x game of animal PCs to a more old-school rules set. If it plays well, I could write it up and release it for public use. Of course, I’d make a few changes to avoid ripping off Mr. Crawford too much. But the rules are open content…

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House Rule: Human Multi-classing in old-school games

One of the design  priorities of the early editions was crafting a human-dominant world. But I’ve often questioned the game-design choices made to accomplish this goal.

The  supposed strength of humanity in old-school D&D — its racial ability, if you will — was its flexibility. Human characters, alone among the other racial choices, could advance to unlimited levels in any class. Other races were restricted in both the classes they could join, and the levels to which they could advance in those classes.

But this led to interesting contradictions. The one that always stood out to me was that elves, supposed masters of magic and the wild places, could only advance to about 9th – 11th level in the magic-user class, and couldn’t be druids in most early versions of the game. And humans, supposedly the most flexible of the races, could not multi-class at all. Instead, they had to use a clunky “dual-classing” rule that required them to abandon one class completely, and focus exclusively on a new class.

So, the most flexible race in the game could only be one class at at time, while the supposedly less flexible demihuman races could multi-class freely, albeit in racially-restricted combinations.

This never made any sense to me. My house rule always  struck me as an easy fix, and served me well in older campaigns.

The rule is simple, assuming a human-dominant fantasy world is what you want: humans can freely multi-class in any combination to unlimited levels (barring other restrictions like alignment and ability scores). Demihumans can multi-class, too, but only in their racially-defined combinations, and only up to listed level limits. However, I’d allow elves unlimited advancement in the magic-user class, to reflect their arcane heritage.

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Bunnies & Burrows: The best Old School RPG you’ve probably never heard of

I’m currently DMing a 3.5 campaign in which all the player  characters are nonhuman animals.  We meet every two weeks, and most of the group seem to be enjoying themselves a great deal.  The party consists of a black bear fighter, a wolverine barbarian, a wolf ranger, a rabbit cleric, a raccoon rogue, and a snake sorcerer with a half-elf familiar. There’s also a DMPC who’s a German shepherd paladin, the figure who brought the party together. So far, they’ve tangled with zombie rats, kobolds, a greenspawn leaper, and a forest fire. The last session left them in the company of a grove of owl druids who might be able to help them with a mystery that’s been brewing under all the action.

They’re still low-level right now, but things are already getting too rules-heavy for my taste, and many of theirs, as well.  Naturally,  I’ve been knocking around ideas for converting the game to a simpler, more old school-ish rules engine. And while  there are many good D&D clones to choose from, the entire campaign has made me nostalgic for an old game I’ve never played, but that has always intrigued me.

I’m talking, of course, about Bunnies & Burrows, an rpg inspired by Watership Down, and published in 1976, two years after the original Dungeons & Dragons.  To my knowledge, B&B is the only role-playing game ever published that focuses on nonhuman animals as player characters. Sure, there’s the excellent third-party 3.5 supplement The Noble Wild: An Animal Player’s Handbook, which my current campaign is making extensive use of. But it’s still only a supplement, while the original B&B is a stand-alone game.

Now, in B&B, you can’t play any old animal. In fact, you have to  play a rabbit. And everything in the game is defined from a rabbit’s-eye point of view, including the scaling of non-rabbit creatures. This, I gathered, is an aspect that hurt the game’s popularity, as many people scoffed, “but what do rabbits do?” (I suspect many such people never read Watership Down or watched either of its animated adaptations).

If you can accept that limitation, B&B is a pretty cool little rules engine. It has some similarities to OD&D, such as the use of character classes, saving throws, and the rolling of attributes with a 3d6. This is hardly surprising, given the time period and state of the RPG hobby in 1976.

But B&B also has its own unique core mechanic, a percentile-dice-+-chart-referencing system that in some ways foreshadows the original Call Of Cthulhu RPG.

Player rabbits in Bunnies & Burrows have eight ability scores, each generated with the roll of 3d6 — Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma (any of this sound  familiar?), Smell, and Speed. Each of these ability scores is associated with a specific character class. A rabbit’s level in a particular class defines her level of proficiency in a set of skills also associated with the class’s prime ability score.

The eight classes are Fighter (Strength), Runner (Speed), Herbalist (Smell), Scout (Intelligence), Seer (Wisdom), Maverick (Dexterity), Empath (Constitution), and Storyteller (Charisma). Some of these classes mirror their OD&D counterparts and do pretty much what you’d expect, but the interesting thing is that while a character must begin as one of the classes, they’re  not limited too much by their initial choice. Levels in a given class provide characters with a bonus to their chart-reference standing, and so each rabbit begins at level 0. It’s expected that they’ll focus on their starting class for a while, but it’s very easy for them to gain levels in other classes.

Level advancement works on an honor and assessment system, rather than on points. Basically, if a rabbit spends a lot of time during an adventure making successful attribute checks, the GM can decide it’s enough to earn her a new level in the class associated with that attribute. This means that a Fighter who makes a lot of successful Smell-related tasks can gain a level of Herbalist. Just like that.

There’s no cumbersome, arbitrary multi-class system in Bunnies & Burrows, no level limits or class combination restrictions. Characters are limited only by their inherent talents and growing knowledge pool. B&B is the first RPG to have free-form multi-classing rules. This probably owes to the fact that all PCs in the game are members of the same race, so the designers didn’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about assigning races and classes. But it’s still neat, and years ahead  of its time.

Of course, there are stats for non-rabbit animals (including humans!), but they all play the role of monsters in B&B. The game contains no guidelines for playing, say, dogs or owls. Humans are statted to dragon-like levels of hit points, and armed with modern weapons, pretty much making them the most fearsome creatures a rabbit will ever run away from.

The core mechanic is a collection of tables on which the rabbit cross-references their Attribute level against a target number, and derives a percentage chance of success.  She then makes a percentile dice roll, hoping to score less than or equal to her chance of success. This is a mechanic very similar to Call Of Cthulhu‘s resistance table, except that each Attribute (and thus, each character class) has its own chart.

And the best part of Bunnies & Burrows is the rewards system. Rabbits don’t earn experience points or collect treasure. They struggle for food, shelter, and sex. The more experienced a rabbit gets, the better her chances of getting more of those rewards, eventually being able to found her own warren, populated largely by her offspring and their mates and children.

This system, in my opinion, was B&B’s master stroke. “But what do rabbits do,” you ask? They fight for survival in a world full of big scary creatures who want to eat them. And if they make it to the end, they get to pass on their genes and wisdom to the next generation. This is Natural Selection, The Roleplaying Game.

The drawback is that the rules are poorly organized, and often needlessly complicated. In fact, the authors admit as much, explicitly, at least once in the book. And the game is too limited in scope, I think, to facilitate the kind of animal-PC campaign I’m running right now. While B&B does have some rudimentary magic-like rules in its Herbalism, Empath, and Seer classes, they’re not robust enough to handle the kind of magic that D&D  players would expect. Converting from 3.5 to old-school Bunnies & Burrows would require porting over and designing a completely new magic system.

On it’s own terms, though,  B&B is a brilliant, charming little game that does exactly what it was designed to do: evoke the spirit and ambience of Watership Down. It remains one of the core inspirations and  influences on my own conception of animal as PCs.

And oh yeah, it was the first RPG with martial-arts rules. Get yourself a copy, and learn the secrets of Bun Fu.

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