A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

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The Cthonic Codex

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on February 15, 2016

Tagged: odnd afg osr

Paolo sent me a copy of The Cthonic Codex, which I had been meaning to buy a physical copy of for sometime. (I am a fan of pretty handmade books—who isn’t?) I had thought this set described a game in the vein of OD&D, but it is in fact a setting supplement for that iteration of D&D you like the best, describing the strange world of the Hypogea of the Valley of Fire. In The Cthonic Codex world building is done through the descriptions of monsters and spells rather than tedious histories and ethnographic studies. This approach to splat books is of course objectively better.

The first codex is a bestiary full of monsters one may encounter in the Hypogea. The monster descriptions hint at notable figures, events, places, etc, in addition to describing the monster in question. Stats for creatures are given for Paolo’s AFG game, in addition to generic D&D. Creatures are for the most part weird, chimeric, magical sorts of beasts. This booklet hints at things revealed in the subsequent two books. Starting with the bestiary seems backwards, but I think it helps make the initial read through of all the booklets fun.

The second codex is about magic. There is a lot of good stuff in this booklet: new rules for spell casting, making potions, new spells & associated schools of magic, etc. These rules are a nice addition to the game: they give the players reasons to wander the wilderness in search of adventure. (Carcosa’s rituals are similar in that they require players go to this or that hex, or find this or that component, but who wants to cast any of those spells?) There are brief histories about the schools and the world scattered throughout this book. You can picture the sorts of magic users that belong to each of the schools. Like Wonder & Wickedness, I found the spells in this book to be an improvement to those spells presented in traditional D&D. They feel magical rather than “gamey”. You could use this booklet by itself to replace the magic in your D&D game with something a bit more exciting, even if you ignored all the bits and pieces about the game world.

The final codex is my favourite. I suspect it would have the broadest appeal. It’s a hodgepodge of all sorts of stuff, primarily collections of random tables. One of the larger sections is the CHTHONOTRON, which are a collection of tables and rules for generating a large cavernous underworld. This underworld is where adventures in the Hypogea will take place. (I learned while reading this book that hypogea is in fact another way of saying underworld: the more you know!) This Codex is the one that presents the world of the Valley of Fire the clearest, though it is still mostly described via magic items and entries in random adventure tables and the like. The final book shines because it gives the referee and players obvious ways of generating adventure. There are random tables for encounters and events. There’s a table which is subtitled “Exceptional Events and Reasons to Roam.” These are the sorts of things I’d love to see in Carcosa. I think The Cthonic Codex does a better job of being terse, while remaining useful. Carcosa is a bit of a mixed bag in this regard.

There is lots left unsaid in these booklets. As the DM you can decide how you want to use the information within: what’s rumour and gossip, what will be a true fact in your game world. In this way it is similar to Carcosa and other such setting books, with its hands off approach to what is the “official” version of the setting. I like books short and to the point. There is a lot of flavour to The Cthonic Codex, all done without an excessive word count. Commendable.

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OD&D is available as PDFs

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on January 26, 2016

Tagged: odnd

The day has finally arrived: Original Dungeons and Dragons is available for sale as PDFs. These are PDFs of the booklets that were re-created for the collectors boxed set that came out last year. (There were older scanned versions of these booklets available for sale several years ago, and those PDFs were pretty terrible.)

My biggest gripe with OD&D was not with its rules, writing, or art, but with its cost. The game is now a collectable, and has been for some time. The collectors edition Wizards of the Coast made last year is around $100-$200 depending on where you look.. That’s about $15-$30 per staple bound booklet. (Well, you get a nice box too.) If you want to try and track down the originals you likely can’t find them for that “cheap” unless the books themselves are in a state no collector would want. Original boxed sets are usually several hundred dollars—if you can find one that has survived this long. Forget all that: now you can just print your own!

As I have no doubt mentioned on my blog several times now, OD&D is my favourite edition of D&D. At the time it came out I really can’t imagine using these books to figure out how to play D&D. Lucky for you it’s 2016! It’s easy to back-fill any holes in the rules with rules from the Basic D&D rules produced by Holmes or Moldvay. OD&D is a fun starting point for your own variation of D&D.

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Dwimmermount's Room Descriptions

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 15, 2015

Tagged: osr odnd dwimmermount

Dwimmermount is a beast of a book: several hundred pages long and packed full of pulpy science-fantasy. The dungeon was developed and written by James Maliszewski of Grognardia fame, but edited and published by Tavis Alison and Alexander Macris from Autarch. Dungeon of Signs has a thorough review well worth reading. I agree with much of what Gus has to say about the book.

The dungeons development was chronicled on Grognardia. James wrote about the problems involved in turning his dungeon into a book:

Translating sparsely worded notes into something that not only makes sense to others but is thoroughly usable by them is harder than it looks, particularly when one has, as I have, come to appreciate firsthand the benefits of sparseness. Having run many levels of Dwimmermount numerous times with groups of different gamers has taught me to find liberation in a certain degree of vagueness, as it gives me flexibility to tailor the dungeon to whoever is currently sitting at the table with me.

There was clearly a disconnect between James and Autarch when it comes to the level of detail expected of a D&D module. The introduction to Dwimmermount touches on this. Autarch finished the book, and so had the final say when it came to the descriptions of the rooms in the dungeon. They are often quite long. Many people seem quite happy with this outcome. I find the level of detail a bit overwhelming. Often times rooms describe things that really don’t need to be spelled out. I prefer terser descriptions: it’s easier to parse out what’s important.

Level 3B begins as follows in the printed version of the book:

In the south-west corner of this room is a tall fountain constructed of white alabaster. The fountain’s surface is decorated with arcane symbols, while the fountain’s basin is visibly discolored, being darker, almost blackish, in places. Covering the basin is a vitreum canopy.

At present, the fountain is not working. If the Power Generator (Room 10) is turned on, the fountain can be activated from the Control Room (Room 3). If activated, the fountain begins to circulate azoth. The vitreum canopy covering the fountain protects spectators from being splashed by the toxic quintessence, but equally prevents them from gathering it. The hemisphere is immune to damage from weapons and similar physical attacks, but if it takes more than 50 points of damage from spells or magical effects, the material will shatter and allow direct access to the fountain itself. 7 gallons of azoth can then be collected per minute, up to a maximum of 1,200 gallons, although this can only be safely done by a character in an environment suit. See Appendix F, Azoth (p. 379), for more details on the properties of azoth.

The areonite pipes that feed the fountain are too small for humanoid creatures to traverse, and highly toxic besides. If the characters somehow get into the azoth pipes themselves (e.g. by diminution), see Chapter 6, Overview of the Dungeon, p. 77, for details on where they might travel.

The room is currently occupied by four throghrin, who guard the steps from Rukruk’s Throne Room (Room 34) on The Reliquary (Level 2B) from interlopers on this level.

Throghrin (4) [AL C, MV 120’ (40’), AC 6, HD 3, HP 13, 12 (×2), 10, #AT 1, DG 1d8 (battle axes), SV F3, ML 10]

The throghrin keep a chest containing 3,000 sp near the steps. If hard-pressed by attackers from this level, the throghrin will abandon this treasure and retreat upstairs, hoping the chest will distract intruders long enough for them to gather reinforcements.

That’s pretty meaty. Who is going to get through that sitting at a table? This is one of my big complaints with a lot of the Goodman Games modules as well. A lot of room descriptions are interesting, but also far too long. Actually, this is probably a fair complaint of most modules published today.

James’ draft of this room for the book is a bit shorter, but hits a lot of the same notes.

In one corner of this room is a strange fountain made of whitish stone and decorated with arcane symbols and covered with a glass-like material. The fountain’s basin is visibly discolored, being darker, almost blackish, in places. At present, the fountain is not working. The controls to activate it can be found in Room 3. If activated, the fountain begins to circulate azoth. The material covering the fountain is immune to damage from weapons and similar physical attacks. However, if it takes more than 50 points of damage from spells or magical effects (wands, etc.), the material will shatter and allow direct access to the fountain itself.

The room is currently occupied by four throghrin, sent down by the hobgoblin king on Level 2B.

Throghrin (4) [AL C, MV 120’ (40’), AC 6. HD 3, HP 13, 12 (x2), 10, #AT 1, DG 1d8, SV F3, ML 10]

The throghrin have a chest containing 3000 sp that they guarded zealously.

He doesn’t spend time talking about gallons of Azoth, or go into too much detail about the what needs to happen to re-activate the well. Both descriptions suffer from burying the lede: they discuss the monsters currently occupying the room after talking about an inert well and how one might go about reactivating it. What’s more important the moment a player walks into this room? This seems like the sort of thing that should come up while editing a book. (I guess the stat block stands out regardless of where it is in the description.)

From seeing James’ rough play notes for other levels of this dungeon, and seeing how he has run games in person, my educated guess for what the original room description was is the following:

dry well, 4 throghrin

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Review: Wonder & Wickedness

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 11, 2015

Tagged: osr odnd

Wonder and Wickedness Cover

Wonder & Wickedness was released at the end of 2014, within a week of Zak releasing A Red and Pleasant Land and James publishing his new zine The Excellent Travelling Volume. December was an action packed month for gaming. I had been following along on Brendan’s blog as he published early versions of his “Spells Without Levels”, and read an early draft of what would ultimately become Wonder & Wickedness. What was finally published is much grander in its scope and vision.

Wonder & Wickedness re-imagines magic for Dungeons and Dragons (and its ilk). The primary conceit of the whole supplement is that spells are not subdivided into levels of progressively more powerful spells. Spells are broken down into schools of magic, arguably a more evocative arrangement. Each spell is designed to be used from first level onwards. They either scale in power, or posses a utility that goes beyond hit points. We have 7 schools of magic—Diabolism, Elementalism, Necromancy, Psychomancy, Spiritualism, Translocation, and Vivimancy—each with 8 spells, for 56 spells total. The book begins with the original magic spells from OD&D’s Men & Magic booklet as its primary influence, and recreates them in novel ways. This initial list of spells is then expanded upon so that each school of magic has an equal number of spells.

For some spells, their original inspiration is clearly visible, though I find the re-writes more fantastic. In Men & Magic we have Read Languages:

The means by which directions and the like are read, particularly on treasure maps.

This becomes Comprehension in Wonder & Wickedness:

The meaning of obscured or indecipherable communications is laid bare. This spell may be used to understand the words of any language or read the true intent of a cyphered missive. Even spirit or animal speech, such as the groaning of clouds or the howling of wolves, may sometimes disclose their secrets.

The reworking of Light, which becomes the Diabolism spell Gleam, is great. Ones natural inclination is to assume Light would be some sort of holy spell, not the result of demon worship.

Conjure a hovering magical spirit of radiance that does not shed heat, does not require air, and is not doused by water. A gleam per level may be summoned and the illumination of each is similar to torchlight.

Gleams may be directed to bedevil enemies, which will cause temporary blindness if a saving throw is failed as long as the spirit remains engaged.

I find the magic presented in Wonder & Wickedness is flavourful in a way much of the magic in most editions of D&D is not. The edges around each spell are looser than they are in later editions of D&D, in this way staying true to their roots. Spells here aren’t simply cheat codes for various game mechanics. Brendan remarks on his philosophy in designing the spells in the books foreword:

I attempted to be suggestive rather than comprehensive. This is in the spirit of the original game, and means that the text cannot foresee every possible outcome. The Referee will be required to make rulings. Can poltergeists be damaged by magic? How are they permanently banished? I prefer to think of the spells here as a point of departure, not a voice of authority.

Following the spell descriptions are magical catastrophes. Each school has 12 corresponding catastrophes, giving us 84 catastrophes total. These are all over the place when it comes to their effects and severity. They are one of my favourite parts of the book.

Several lesser air elementals are imprisoned within the sorcerer’s body. Each time the sorcerer casts another spell, one is released and must be dealt with (standard reaction procedure applies, and there is a 1 in 6 chance that any such elemental released will be the last). These elementals may steal any words the sorcerer attempts to speak, and the sorcerer will naturally float atop water as long as any such elementals are contained.

I was hard pressed to pick an example catastrophe. There isn’t any one that serves as a good example of what the others are like. They are each quite unique.

The book ends with a listing of 50 magic items. Like the spells presented earlier in the book, these magic items are far more interesting than what you find in a typical D&D book. There is an implied world suggested by these items, and the spells, that is lovely and creepy. I won’t spoil any of them by reprinting one here. They all manage to convey a lot of ‘magic’ without a lot of needless verbiage—something I have noticed in a lot of the magic items I see shared on G+.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the entire book was illustrated by Russ Nicholson. Perhaps i’ve buried the lede by mentioning that here? Anyway, hells yes. His new drawings for the book are straight-up amazing.

The books layout and design is beautiful. The book is A5 in size, with single columns of large text on each page. It’s nice to read on my iPad mini. I’m sure it’ll be twice as nice as a physical book. As noted, most everything in the book is prefixed with a number, making it easy to randomly roll for magic items, spells, or catastrophes as needed.

Wonder & Wickedness was one of my favourite books from 2014—and there were lots of great books in 2014. If I ran a fantasy D&D game i’d definitely use this book as the basis for how spell casting works: it’s better than the original. What!

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Ascending AC for OD&D

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on December 23, 2014

Tagged: mastersofcarcosa odnd

I have been using ascending AC for my OD&D Carcosa game. Players roll a d20 to hit, add their attack bonus, and try and score higher than their opponent’s AC. An unarmoured combatant has an ascending AC of 10; plate armour and a shield confers an AC of 17. It’s a much simpler system for adjudicating combat in my opinion. People know if they have hit or not without having to look at a table, and the arithmetic is all quite straight forward.

What follows are the tables from the first OD&D book MEN & MAGIC redone so they work with ascending AC. (I am certain I am not the first person to do this, but there wasn’t an obvious hit when I looked on Google.)

The attack bonus progression for the Fighters is:

Level Attack Bonus
1–3 +0
4–6 +2
7–9 +5
10–12 +7
13–15 +9
16+ +12

For Clerics:

Level Attack Bonus
1–4 +0
5–8 +2
9–12 +5
13–16 +7
17+ +9

And for Magic-Users:

Level Attack Bonus
1–5 +0
6–10 +2
11–15 +5
16+ +7

Monsters use the following table.

HD Attack Bonus
up to 1 +0
up to 2 +1
up to 3 +2
up to 4 +4
up to 6 +5
up to 8 +6
up to 10 +8
11+ +10

The tables are simple enough to make. In a descending AC system a first level characters needs to roll a 10 to hit AC 9 (an unarmoured person), which we determine by looking at the attack table in MEN & MAGIC. To hit that same character who has an ascending AC of 10 by rolling a 10 (or more) implies a 1st level character has no attack bonus. A 4th level fighter only needs an 8 to hit that same character, so their attack bonus is +2.

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Eating Sorcerer Brains

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on December 11, 2014

Tagged: odnd carcosa homebrew mastersofcarcosa

Sorcerer’s in Carcosa are creepy and despicable, and the magic of the setting is totally horrific. I had originally assumed no one would want to play a sorcerer in the game I was running because they are quite villainous. Since everyone is using my random character generator to make characters there is a 20% chance of anyone playing ending up with a sorcerer. There are currently two in my game.

It only took two sessions before one of my players turned to cannibalism. The goal was to learn some sorcerous rituals, and eating the brain of your rival sorcerer seemed like as good a way as any.

Running Carcosa has been fun and lighthearted thus far—seriously.


Eating Sorcerer Brains

Sorcerers may attempt to learn new sorcerous knowledge by devouring the brains of other sorcerers. This isn’t an ideal way to learn ritual magic, but sorcerers are often quite secretive about their sorcery, and reticent when it comes to sharing what they have learned.

The player should roll under their constitution score. Success indicates they have learned some new ritual(s). The number you succeed by indicates how many rituals the player learns, which are selected randomly from those the dead sorcerer knew. Those who fail this check should roll on the I shouldn’t have ate that brain … table. Brains need to be harvested and eaten as quickly after the death of the sorcerer as possible: impose a penalty of 1 to the roll for each minute that passes after the death of the sorcerer.

Players who are not playing sorcerers, but decide to eat a sorcerer’s brain, should just go ahead and roll on the I shouldn’t have ate that brain … table.

I Shouldn’t have Ate that Brain

d8 Effect
1 Maybe you ate it wrong? No ill effects, but you have learned nothing.
2 Your stomach feels terrible. Moments later you are on your knees retching. The character is completely incapacitated for one turn, and making a fair amount of noise.
3 That’s just not sitting right: you dry heave for one round and feel woozy for the rest of the day. The character is at -1 to all attack rolls and dexterity checks.
4 The brain acts as a mild hallucinogen. The character is has a 1d6 penalty to all Wisdom and Intelligence checks for the rest of the day.
5 The rituals trapped within the sorcerer’s brain are too much for your body to bare: you collapse on the ground as your body spasms. The character takes a dCarcosa of damage.
6 You hear voices in your head? Or maybe your stomach. The sorcerer’s personality has survived within the ritual magic burned deep within his brain. The characters decision making is impaired while his mind fights to push out the invading id: the DM may request the character re-roll any die rolls (when doing so will be most annoying) if the player fails a Save vs. Magic. This effect lasts for the remainder of the session.
7 Oh God: roll on the random mutation table.
8 Delicious: you recover all your HP.

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Coming Out of Retirement

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on November 18, 2014

Tagged: odnd carcosa homebrew mastersofcarcosa

At the start of 2014 I decided I would finally run a game of D&D, rather than always being a player. It was a sort of gaming New Years resolution. If you read this blog you can probably guess what I wanted to run: a game set in the doomed world of Carcosa! I started writing up rough notes for where the campaign would begin, and fleshed out a small region within the larger world map for players to explore. I then sat on those notes for 8-9 months.

Deciding what to run and how to run it wasn’t that difficult. My main stumbling point was getting over myself and actually running a game. I hadn’t DM’d anything in probably 20 years, if not longer. It seems weird to feel apprehensive about an activity little children do without much fuss. I’d talk about running a game, eventually, and leave it at that. Until yesterday.

Being on the other side of the DM screen was a strange experience. I didn’t find it as stressful as I had thought it would be. Because everyone I normally game with was busy it was just me and two players, Eric and Gus, but that was probably for the best. I found the logistics of managing players was probably easier. I decided to run an OD&D, a system so poorly fleshed out you don’t really have to worry about playing the game wrong. The nice thing about our group is that we all have a rough sense of how to play an OD&D game, and make the same sorts of assumptions when playing. The adventure we were playing was one I made myself. That familiarity with the material probably helped the game run smoothly.

I think the session went well enough, but I have been trying to reflect on what I need to do better. I want to run a Carcosa game with a healthy dose of He-Man, but this first session lacked anything that would suggest a Masters of the Universe vibe. I don’t think I did that great a job highlighting what makes the world weird. The dungeon I had made was supposed to seem mostly empty, with the big reveal being, “oh shit it’s actually full of Bone Men!” I think the actual result of the session lacked that critical, “oh shit.” From the game side of things, I need to firm up when I roll for random encounters. I was too inconsistent here, sometimes letting the players search without consequence or travel through larger chunks of the dungeon unmolested.

All in all it was a lot of fun. In hindsight there was really no way it wouldn’t have been. I think the people you play with really make or break this stuff.

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Magic Arrows

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 31, 2014

Tagged: odnd mahabharata

Magic Arrows have a +1 chance of hitting their target and do additional damage. Thus, a Magic Arrow normally does from 2-7 points of damage when it hits. — Original Dungeons and Dragons: Monsters and Treasure,

If your D&D game is full of boring magical arrows this is easy to remedy. Magical arrows are a much more prominent feature of the Hindu epics than they seem to be in Western fantasy literature. Most of the battles in the Mahabharata are fought on chariots, the heroes shooting arrows they summon from the heavens at one another. You don’t need to read these epic poems looking for examples to pull out for your game: the good people at Wikipedia have done some of that work for you. For example:

[The Narayanastra] would create showers of arrows and discs. The astra’s power would increase with the resistance offered to it. This weapon had to be obtained from Vishnu directly, and could be used only once. If the user were to attempt invoking it a second time, it would rebound on him, and possibly, his troops.

That’s a little bit more interesting, no?

The greatest weapon in the Mahabharata is the Vasavi Shakti / Naikartana, gifted to Karna by the god Indra, which could kill any one foe. He is goaded into using it against the half-demon Ghatotkacha who is terrorizing the Kaurava army. This prevents him from using it against his biggest foe, Arjuna.

Inflamed with rage like a wrathful lion and unable to brook the assaults of the Rakshasa, Karna took up that foremost of victory-giving and invincible darts, desirous of compassing the destruction of Ghatotkacha. Indeed, that dart, O king, which he had kept and adored for years for (achieving) the slaughter of Pandu’s son in battle, that foremost of darts which Sakra himself had given to the Suta’s son in exchange for the latter’s ear-rings, that blazing and terrible missile twined with strings and which seemed to thirst for blood, that fierce weapon which looked like the very tongue of the Destroyer or the sister of Death himself, that terrible and effulgent dart, Naikartana, was now hurled at the Rakshasa. — The Mahabharata: Ghatotkacha-badha Parva

That’s a mother fucking magical arrow.

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The Spirit of the Rules

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on June 13, 2014

Tagged: odnd

People discuss playing OD&D ‘by the book’ online, though I’m not completely sure what that means. There are so many holes in the rule books that any attempt to avoid “making stuff up” is doomed to fail. Original Dungeons and Dragons is more of a framework to build your own fantasy RPG than an RPG, as we might understand one today, in its own right. This laissez-faire attitude towards spelling everything out can be seen in the earlier source material for OD&D, Chainmail:

These rules may be treated as guide lines around which you can form a game that suits you. It is a good idea to amend the rules to allow for historical precedence or common sense — follow the spirit of the rules rather than the letter. — Chainmail, pg 8.

Making the game your own seems to have been a core tenant of early versions of role playing games that starts to get lost with AD&D. Gygax seems to have an about face when it comes to playing D&D the official way. It’s possible this comes out of a need for consistent rules for tournament games, or annoyance at people making up dumb rules and telling him about them in the letters sent to Dragon magazine.

One of the biggest differences between what one might call old-school and new-school gaming probably hinges on how you feel about house rules and a poorly spelled out ruleset. 3rd and 4th Edition are notable in just how verbose and exacting they are: very little of the core elements of the game are left up to the DMs discretion. Some people appreciate that with 3rd and 4th Edition their gaming experience will likely be consistent, at least with respect to the rules.

I’ve come to really enjoy the variety that comes out of playing old-school D&D. Everyone has their own rules for this and that. I enjoy all the subtle differences.

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Men and Magic

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 04, 2014

Tagged: odnd

It’s read an RPG in public week. That’s how I live every week of my life. Nevertheless I grabbed the first booklet from my fancy Original D&D boxed set to read on the train yesterday.

I’ve read Men and Magic before, but my bootlegged PDFs don’t do an actual copy of the book justice. It’s nice to be able to read a nicely printed copy of the booklet. As I mentioned when discussing Pits & Perils, the Original D&D books are pretty charming. Here is how they describe that infamous 6th attribute, Charisma:

In addition [to its other uses] the charisma score is usable to decide such things as whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover.

There are lots of gems like that scattered through out the book. It also has a great introduction.

These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time.

People often complain—rightly so, I suppose—that OD&D is incomplete. For someone like myself, who is revisiting the game knowing how to play its modern incarnations, this isn’t really that big an issue. I can fill in most holes in the game because I know how they were eventually filled in.

What is notable is that the creators of D&D were well aware that what they had published wasn’t ready to play out of the box, so to speak. There is an expectation from them that rules would be fleshed out by gaming groups. OD&D exists to help you build your own fantasy RPG.

We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first. That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned. New details can be added and old “laws” altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable.

This is also great advice on how to approach developing a long-running D&D game. There is definitely a meta-game to D&D which is all about the things you do to prepare to play D&D: drawing dungeons, making up NPCs, house rules, etc. (Games like How to Host a Dungeon take that meta-game and make it explicit.) It’s easy to get sucked into doing far more than is needed when it comes to this sort of prep work. The authors tell you upfront that you need to watch out!

I read Monsters and Treasure today. Tomorrow I’ll probably read The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. If you haven’t read the original D&D books they are well worth checking out. I think they are by my favourite edition of the game.

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Review: Pits & Perils

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 02, 2014

Tagged: osr odnd

James George, one of the authors of Pits & Perils, emailed me out of the blue to let me know I got a special thanks in his new book, Fear! Fire! Foes! He appreciated my enthusiasm for the game he had written along with his wife. I thought it strange that despite loving Pits & Perils like it’s no ones business, I’ve somehow managed to avoid talking about it here on my blog.

Pits & Perils is another Original Dungeons & Dragons retroclone, but one that is trying to copy the spirit of the game rather than its rules. When reading other retroclones I’m constantly trying to figure out what has been changed, often unfairly judging them on how close they can get to the game they are attempting to recreate. I find Pits & Perils quite refreshing in this regard.

Pits & Perils uses the roll of a 2d6 to resolve most situations in a game, from fighting monsters to making saving throws. The various character classes from D&D all make an appearance in this game, and are for the most part very similar to their D&D counterparts. One thing I really like in Pits & Perils is the magic system. All the magic spells in Pits and Perils have four letter names (cure, glow, pass, ruin, etc), are described with a handful of sentences, and are usable at any level. I was reminded of what Brendan at Necropraxis is doing with his spells without levels writing. The game as a whole is much simpler than Original Dungeons and Dragons, and the rules are presented in a much more straightforward fashion. I think it’d be a great game to introduce someone to RPGs with: there is just enough stuff going on, and no more.

There is something about the game I find thoroughly charming. Like Original Dungeons & Dragons there are lots of little throw away rules scattered throughout the booklet that add colour to the whole game and its implied game world. I love this entry about demons from Fear! Fire! Foes!:

“DEMONS above 10th level are individual (named) demon lords. Ambitious referees can assign names to each and have these written in books or musty old scrolls with a slight (1 in 1d6) chance of accidentally summoning them when their name is spoken aloud. A terrible fate.”

The introduction to Fear! Fire! Foes! does a great job of capturing the overall mood and goals of the game.

Many old-school games attempt to recreate a time when role-playing had already become a separate hobby (the early 1980s). Pits & Perils, on the other hand, goes back to when it was still just emerging from the historical simulations it came from. Everything we now call “old-school” owes much to the hobby’s war-gaming origins:

Historical war games emphasized movement and maneuver over special powers and abilities. In fact, most were tables of movement rates, ranges, and modifiers for achieving tactical superiority, like flanking enemies or seizing the high ground, etc. The underlying mechanics were otherwise extremely simple, often little more than “you hit on a 6.”

This was the early 1970s. Fantasy had not yet become mainstream, and inspiration was limited to the real Middle Ages, mythology, and the smattering of books, movies, and television available at the time. This lack of sophistication lent the rules an innocence missing in later, more advanced, role-playing games. It was homemade fun.

It’s interesting to compare the original three Dungeons and Dragons booklets to most everything that followed them. You can clearly see their war-game roots. So much of Original D&D isn’t even spelled out, the authors assumed you had played enough Chainmail or other war-games to know who goes first in combat or what to do about morale. With Greyhawk you see the game move in a much more modern direction: it starts to become its own things independent of the war-games that proceeded it.

Pits & Perils is such a solid piece of writing. In 74 pages you have all the rules, spells, monsters and treasure you’d need for a great campaign. It’s well worth checking out. I’m also a big fan of its first supplement, Fear! Fire! Foes!, and not just because my name is in the book! This is some good stuff, people.

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Play Report: Empire of the Petal Throne

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on February 06, 2014

Tagged: ept odnd toronto meetup

Empire of the Petal Throne will feel familiar to anyone who has played Original Dungeons and Dragons. Some of the changes strike me as odd: the standard six stats have been renamed and are rolled up using percentile dice: that’s a lot of variability in your core stats. There are some basic skills and professions that characters begin the game knowing, and can learn as they level up. Thanks to a good die roll my character had a ton of skills: he was a sailor, a ship captain, a tailor, a sail maker, etc, etc. The standard three classes, fighter, clerics and magic-user, are all accounted for, though the later two are further tweaked to make sense within the setting of the game. I suppose that is what really makes Empire of the Petal Throne stand out: its setting, the fantasy world of Tékumel.

Tékumel was created over a life time by professor M.A.R. Barker. He began when he was 10 and it sounds like he never stopped developing his fantasy world until his death at the age of 82. Many people compare it to Tolkien’s Middle Earth in its depth and scope.

James, Brendan, Evan and myself met to play a game of Empire of the Petal Throne over the weekend. James DM’d, and as such had the unenviable task of trying to introduce the world of Tékumel to us. Our adventure began using what I am led to understand is a common conceit for gaming in Tékumel: we played a group of barbarians who had recently arrived in the great port city of Jakálla. We quickly found work evicting some some other foreigners from a tenement: not the most heroic of tasks, but we were new to the city and needed money and friends. I had rolled a 1 for my starting gold (kaitars), so my character was particularly eager to change his financial situation. With no equipment to speak of I pictured him like a character from Final Fight.

Brendan played a magic-user, and we used his characters spells to good effect. Magic in EPT works differently than OD&D. There is a chance of failure when you try and cast a spell. The starting compliment of spells is also higher. That seemed to offset the chance of failure and then some. We scouted out the home we were going to invade using some clairaudience and clairvoyance. I enjoy games with some variability in spell casting. Less reliable magic usually introduces some additional excitement into the game, and makes magic feel magical.

It was a session full of hijinks. EPT seems like it could lend itself to some ‘serious’ play, but at the end of the day you still have poor dice rolls and foolish choices to inevitably lighten the mood. We decided to bust into the tenement via roof, but we were both spotted while climbing it and nearly fell off while trying to hide. We had to punch out a kid who was acting as a look out. We threw a dead body we found on the roof onto the street to cause a distraction. (We found a dead body? Yeah, the house was clearly inhabited by a death cult.) We ended the session fighting zombies and finding a secret passage that looked to lead into the undercity—and future adventure!

I suspect Empire of the Petal Throne might be challenging to run if you aren’t familiar with the game world. Like the Forgotten Realms there is so much canonical material at the point it could be quite overwhelming. In contrast to the Forgotten Realms, Tékumel is very much its own breed of fantasy. It seems to be completely unlike the sorts of vague Tolkien inspired worlds you often find in D&D supplements and fantasy books. It’s a real shame EPT isn’t more popular. If you weren’t previously aware of Empire of the Petal Throne, you should definitely check it out.

Oh, also the book has some great art!

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Play Report: Once More into Pahvelorn

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 27, 2013

Tagged: Pahvelorn osr odnd

I wrote this several months ago, but for reasons I don’t recall never posted it. I suppose I thought another play report would be boring. Now its an annotated play report.


My friends and I have been a bit disorganized with our 4th edition home game, so it looks like my participation in Brenden’s OD&D game will be more consistent. I’ve played in three games now and they have all been a lot of fun. Our group is a good mix of impulsive and cautious.1

My second session began with a much more startling start than the first. The very first room we encountered when venturing into Pahvelorn was full of beastmen and body bags.2 We got the jump on them, commanding them to drop their weapons. Sadly, they decided shooting us with crossbows was the way to proceed. After a short fight we discovered we had saved some bandits from certain doom. We returned them to the city and planned to venture back to the dungeon the next day.

We made it a little bit further into Pahvelorn before being attacked once more. Well, we thought we were being attacked. We had actually stumbled on some missing villagers. They too were safely returned to the city. No one spoke of an unfortunate and accidental death.3

It was on our third trip to Pahvelorn that we made it back to the mansion we were exploring in our previous session. Not much looked to have changed. We managed to convince the clerics to hold off messing around with the frozen demon clearly held in place by a magic sword, and so proceeded to explore the rest of the mansion. The first unexplored room we entered looked empty save for a tantalizing jade statue–and then some sort of crystal elemental materialized and killed one of our henchmen. We fled and there was no pursuit: always a good thing.

Moving on we stumbled upon a library in much disarray. The magic-users took the bait and stared rooting through the soiled books in hopes of treasure. My character Satyavati discovered a giant centipede. A failed Save vs. Poison later and I though I’d need to roll up a new character.4 Luckily for me the rest of my party was well prepared for this expedition. Benni, our thief and rat catcher, had some anti-venom he administered posthaste and all was well in the world.

Further exploration led to the discovery of a dissected demon. We found his well preserved body parts throughout the rest of the mansion. We tied up the clearly dead body, and then started replacing its missing body parts. Of course the demon promptly headed itself and woke up. We had a short discussion to determine whether it would kill us or not. The demon decided Benni was our leader, and was now its leader as well. We learned the demon arrived from some other realm to fight the previous occupant of the house and quite likely the rest of the lands of man. As demons go it was quite friendly. We named it Tangle.5

We discovered a trapdoor leading down to a cavern below the mansion. The passage was was next to some incredibly expensive looking fountains we will need to figure out how to steal at some point. We ventured through the cavern, finding and killing a giant white snake hiding in a pool in the process. With that we decided to call it a night.

I now have a much better sense of the layout of the dungeon we are visiting, which greatly helped with my initial confusion during the first session.6 We now have a demon butler and a cavern to explore, which we did in our next session.

  1. I believe Brendan’s original plan when he started his Pahvelorn campaign was to have players drop in and out, so that if one person was busy another person could take their spot. This is apparently how the very first D&D campaigns were run, with a huge pool of players. This is also how a lot of G+ games are run: it’s often not too hard to find someone ready to jump into a game. We play on Monday, which is probably a quiet night for most people. We went a very long time before having to cancel a session, and that was because Brendan was traveling through Europe. My friends and I tried and failed to keep our 4th Edition game going in this manner. I think the trick is to get people to pencil something into their calendars. I know I’m busy Monday nights–and I suppose more importantly my wife knows too.

  2. We ended up killing the Wizard that was creating these beast men several sessions later. One of the current characters in the party was that wizard’s apprentice.

  3. Brendan doesn’t award XP for killing monsters, so every fight is often more risk than reward. We often start every fight with a meagre attempt at negotiation, unless it’s clear the monsters we are fighting aren’t intelligent. It’s actually kind of funny we ended up killing a villager: that might be one of the few times we shot first, so to speak.

  4. Satyavati died a tiny bit after his 10th session: I tempted fate and lost. Brendan discussed this at length in a blog post about character death. He was definitely one of my favourite D&D characters. I’d never play Magic-Users normally, so it was a big change of pace. (This is one advantage of totally random character generation: it pushes people into playing characters they might not normally.)

  5. Brendan created this evil demon army that’s clearly attempting to take over the game world. Because we met this friendly and confused demon early in the campaign, all members of this race have henceforth been referred to as Tangles: hardly a name that strikes fear in the hearts of men. We have encountered these creatures several times, and those experiences has never been pleasant. Nevertheless they are Tangles: harbingers of the apocalypse.

  6. After a few sessions full of character death and little gold our party left Pahvelorn and has yet to return. I miss all the dungeon delving. We need to get back there. Our characters are beasts now, to boot.

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Let's play OD&D

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 19, 2013

Tagged: odnd

Talysman of The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms offers up the reasons he enjoys playing OD&D. He touches on a lot of the reasons I quite like the system as well. After playing 4th Edition for a few years, playing OD&D is quite refreshing. If you have a few tables printed out there is almost nothing that will slow down a game. A lot of what is spelled out concretely in later editions of the game is left up to the players and DM to resolve, which ideally leads to less looking up rules and arguing about whether you have cover or combat advantage or this or that. The game relies on you using your judgement and common sense to adjudicate situations the rules don’t flesh out. It feels like there are just enough rules to play the game, and no more.

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Gorgonmilk's Vancian Magic Supplement

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 30, 2013

Tagged: osr d&d odnd ad&d

I printed out and bound the Vancian Magic supplement from Gorgonsmilk. I find all the folding and sewing relaxing. The book seems like it is actually a little bit too big to work as a saddle-stitched booklet. Maybe i’m just not good at making them. At 90-odd pages its a pretty meaty supplement. The book collects 2 stories by Jack Vance, 4 articles about magic in D&D by Gary Gygax, and a re-imagined Vancian spell list for D&D.

I had never read anything by Jack Vance before. I found the two short stories presented here really quite good. Vance produces a very evocative world in just a few pages. Both stories contain plenty of examples of the bizarre version of magic one finds in D&D: wizards can memorize a handful of spells, which they can cast just once before they are forgotten until they are memorized again. The stories definitely increased my appreciation of the magic system used in D&D.1 Previously it felt both arbitrary and not particularly fantastical.

The articles by Gygax are all great picks. Gygax explains why he went with Jack Vance as his source for magic in D&D. Briefly, Vancian Magic lends itself well to balanced and fun game play. One of the articles is from 1980 and discusses magic in AD&D. It’s full on Gygax raging against people doing it wrong DMG style and its fantastic.

Finally we get to the re-imagined D&D spell lists by Shadrac MQ. The spells have great names and really imaginative effects.

This supplement is free, features art from Moebius, and collects some great writing: why haven’t you grabbed it already?

  1. The stories both contain footnotes with commentary about how the fiction relates back to D&D: a good idea poorly executed. Most of the footnotes offer up obvious insight or simply repeat what you just read. Anyway, it’s a small gripe: the footnotes are small.

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Philotomy's Musings

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 28, 2013

Tagged: osr odnd

I’ve put Philotomy’s Musings by Jason Cone back online. You can head over to the grab bag section of my site to read them. It joins the He-Man show bible, so it is in good company.

When I got back into old school D&D one of the first websites of note I came across were Philotomy’s Musings by Jason Cone. The writing there was my first experience with Original D&D as a scholarly pursuit. The 1974 D&D rules are so minimalist they beg to be interpreted. His writing was one such interpretation, one that gained much well deserved popularity.

I am using the NYT’s Emphasis library to let readers link to individual paragraphs and sentences on that page. I will probably start using it through out the site, it’s quite cool. If you do any long form writing its worth checking out.

I’d love to host the original D&D rules online in a similar fashion, but I’m guessing Wizards of the Coast wouldn’t be cool with that.

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Review: Delving Deeper

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on October 24, 2012

Tagged: delvingdeeper odnd osr

Delving Deeper was released as a set of PDFs yesterday. It’s a retroclone of the Original D&D rules. The only other edition i’m aware of that is similar in scope is the Sword and Wizardry White Box. Unlike the White Box, Delving Deeper stays much closer to Original D&D in its rules. I also think it’s a much better laid out and organized product. The White Box PDF feels more verbose than it need be. That said, some of the additional exposition is good for getting a better understanding of Original D&D. The White Box also feels like a neglected product, with Sword and Wizardry seemingly more interested in their other products.

Original D&D is an incredibly simple game. Delving Deeper would be a great edition to use to teach someone how to play D&D. There are only a few mechanics for resolving problems, there are only a handful of character classes, and all the rules and spells fit in a 34 page booklet. People complain Original D&D is a bit ambiguous at times, and it certainly can be, though I think that’s part of its charm. If you have one player who knows how to play D&D I think the ambiguity won’t be a problem.

Delving Deeper is available for free so you should certainly check it out. The PDFs by Simon J. Bull are really well done. I heartily recommend it. If I ever run a game I think I’ll use this ruleset.

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More Thoughts on D&D Encounters

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on October 10, 2012

Tagged: 4e d&d odnd encounters dwimmermount

Combat by Henry Justice Ford

Since starting this blog the amount of D&D I’ve been playing has increased greatly. I continue to participate in the Encounters games held at Dueling Grounds. In addition to those games I’ve been playing a fair amount of old-school D&D: a weekly game run by Brendan of Untimately and occasional games run by James M of Grognardia and Reynaldo of Baroviania fame. After playing so much D&D recently I find the differences between the modern incarnation of D&D and its older editions are quite stark.

D&D Encounters is very much the pathological case of a 4th Edition game. Each session is distilled down to the core of 4th Edition: mostly combat with a tiny bit of role playing. For many people D&D Encounters is their first introduction to D&D. After playing in these games for several months now my feeling is that they teach bad gaming habits. Killing things is more or less the only option open to players to resolve conflicts. You might be able to avoid a fight, but there is a disincentive to do so because then you would probably end up with a very short game. Because each Encounters session needs to transition into the next there is also no room for exploration or change. You can’t take a session in a wild new direction. This isn’t true of 4th Edition, obviously, but is of D&D Encounters. I think a good DM can do a lot to keep the game interesting, but the structure of the adventures hinders a lot of creativity.

The Dwimmermount sessions I’ve participated in are actually similar in scope to the Encounters sessions. Dwimmermount offers a good alternative to running a pick up game. Each session is more or less a self contained unit of adventure: you begin on some level of the dungeon and end things back outside. There isn’t some overarching story that ties the Dwimmermount games together. The story is the exploration of the dungeon; the story is what you and the other players choose to make it. Each session can end in all sorts of strange ways because there is no need to lead into the next chapter of a particular adventure.

I’d love to see a D&D Encounters game that was just a dungeon crawl, but i’m not sure that will ever happen. The current structure lets people discuss the game they played in like they might a TV show. Everyone doing their own thing doesn’t facilitate that sort of conversation.

Combat is fast in the older editions of D&D. This is because it’s very abstract. My old-school D&D sessions often feel like they are full of accomplishment. In a few hours you can do a lot: lots of exploring, lots of fighting, lots of puzzles. 4th Edition is much more tactical and meticulous in its presentation of combat. An Encounters session is usually an hour and a half, give or take, and the bulk of that time is spent on a single fight.

I think most people would agree that faster combat is better, but the way 4th Edition handles combat is not without its merit. Because 4th Edition combat is far less abstract you can talk about that fight in a level of detail you don’t often get with older editions of D&D. Dungeon’s Master’s recaps of his Encounter’s sessions are usually quite long, despite the fact they are primarily a description of a fight, because the pieces that make up combat are quite expressive. You really feel the ups and downs of a fight in 4th Edition. In the last game I played we had a round where almost everyone was down, we were on the verge of a total party kill, only to manage a big come back big the next round. It was amazing.

I’m curious to see if the structure of the public play events Wizards of the Coast runs will change with the release of D&D Next. Combat in D&D next is much faster so adventures wouldn’t need to be modeled as a series of fights. They would presumably still be quite linear, but I suspect you could accomplish more per session than you do in the current Encounters program. There are rumours that the next Encounters game will be more varied in what happens week to week. We will have to wait and see.

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Random D&D Characters, Huzzah!

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on September 17, 2012

Tagged: d&d odnd greyhawk webapp

A month or so ago I wrote a small Python script to generate D&D characters. Making a character for the older editions of the game is fairly straightforward, the only part most people find slow is picking equipment. In D&D you start the game with 3d6 x 10 gold. With that starting gold you have to decide what to buy. For new players I think this can be intimidating. Brendan of Untimately posted a pretty great table for picking equipment randomly: he basically did the work of buying equipment for each possible starting gold value and class. Using that table you can spit out reasonable random characters that are good to go quite quickly. Over the weekend I took my basic script and turned it into a little web application.

Right now it only picks from the 4 human classes, but should otherwise work quite well. It can also generate characters using the 1974 “Little Brown Book” rules, or the rules taking Greyhawk into account. I would describe that support as “preliminary”. (If there are any obvious mistakes, please let me know.) When I have a bit more time, I plan to add support for letting you pick the class you want to play.

If you have any feedback about the applicaiton, please get in touch. Otherwise, enjoy.

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Play Report: Decent into the Vaults of Pahvelorn

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on September 11, 2012

Tagged: odnd pahvelorn

My friends and I have been a bit disorganized with our regular D&D 4e game. This meant I was free to play in Brendan’s OD&D campaign, the Vaults of Pahvelorn. He’s been writing about his campaign and OD&D for the last few months and it all sounded pretty fantasitc, so it was nice to participate in a game.

As i’ve said before, rolling up a character in older editions of D&D is pretty quick. For this game things felt even quicker: 3d6 in order for my stats suggested I play a wizard. From there it was random equipment, random spell books, a random retainer and a random background. The only thing that isn’t random about this character is his name, Satyavati. Removing almost every choice from character creation makes the process painless. The whole experience was very stress free.

With that I was ready to game. The other players were regulars in the campaign. As things got going I felt a little bit lost. I had read play reports and Brendan’s own posts about the game, but I didn’t feel like I had my bearings till we were found a section of Pahvelorn that was new to everyone. In our session we explored some old row houses accros the street from a mansion.

pahvelorn map

The first room we examined was full of bodies in various states of butchery. That’s just not pleasent. From here we found a room containing an empty chest, presumably already looted. I’m always a bit suspicious of empty chests, so I decided to investigate futher. Brendan asked how exactly I do so. Now, at this point I thought my character was going to die in a firey inferno. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case. We found a secret room and an apparently elven magic sword. We call that, “loot.” In hindsight I probably should have devised a safer scheme for examining the chest, but it was late at night and sometimes it’s good to not be so timid.

It’s always funny watching the push and pull between the cautious and the not so cautious. We alternated between busting heads and hiding in alleyways and dark corners. We killed some cultists, some giant rats–of course–and some good for nothing demons. In Brendan’s game you only get XP for finding and spending gold so these fights were purely for our own satisfaciton.

We explored the mansion a little bit, and it was an interesting scene. I had memorized Read Magic for the delve: it’s the only first level spell I know. Seriously. In all our previous fights I had joked about how I had prepared Read Magic and then promptly hid in a corner till the carnage was over. When we enterd the mansion we came upon a room divided in two by runes, presumably of a magic nature. That’s what i’m talking about! A Read Magic later and we learned they were probably sealing some sort of evil inside the mansion.

In the next room we discovered a giant demon frozen in place with a sword through its chest. I’m going to guess it’s evil. It was a tough and anguished decision, but it was decided that pulling the sword out should probably wait.

Till next time.

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Play Report: Dwimmermount at OSRCon 2012: Level 2

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 20, 2012

Tagged: osr odnd dwimmermount toronto osrcon osrcon2012 convention

After a short break we continued our delve of Dwimmermount. We were joined by two more players: another magic-user, and the dumbest fighter ever–the poor guy had a Wisdom score of 3–who was played to perfection by Steve Conner. It turns out those two characters were with us all along, of course.

At the foot of the steps down to level two were a set of lifeless bones wearing armour with weapons at their side. That’s certainly unusual. Our cleric tried to turn them to no effect. You can’t turn a bunch of bones, after all. We walked further down the steps and then they sprung to life. (Maybe you saw that coming.) So began an exploration of the second level of Dwimmermount.

We headed South, finding a room with 6 pillars. Each pillar was made out of a unique material, and each had a character inscribed upon it. In a normal game we would have spent much longer puzzling out what this room was about. As we were playing for a fixed amount of time we quickly moved on. This came up often when exploring the second floor. Because this was a convention game we didn’t dedicate as much time as probably would have in a normal game trying to understand what the rooms we encountered were about. There were lots of strange and interesting rooms on this floor we quickly glossed over. Our focus was more survival and gold.

From here we went East, eventually stumbling upons the ruins of a library. Some careful searching revealed a secret room filled with a cache of books we assumed were of some value. The dilemma: there were hundreds of pounds of these books. We each grabbed one, and decided to move on. We would come back for them at some later date. (Well, in our imaginations, I suppose.)

We moved North from here, passing a room with shattered statues and a stone gargoyle we proceeded to shatter ourselves. We were waiting for it to spring to life. Nope. James informed us that room was now completely full of broken statues. Destroying things was a recurring theme with our party.

Further on we found a room with writing on its walls we couldn’t read. The funny thing about this situation was that we had previously had a conversation about Read Magic / Language being a useless spell because no one ever wastes a spell slot on it. Both our magic-users had charm and sleep. We couldn’t figure out what to do about the writing so we decided to make a sketch and back track.

Heading North once more, we came across another set of pillars. There were four of them, each made of glass, and they ran floor to ceiling seemingly beyond this level in both directions. Each contained one of the four elements. We were going to move on, but someone had a pretty great idea: the air pillar was empty, so why not smash it open and jump down to a lower level of the dungeon. (OK: maybe “great” is the wrong adjective to use with respect to the idea.) We got to smashing and eventually broke enough of the pillar we could send a man through. The problem: we had assumed we had found an empty pillar; in fact air was zipping through the pillar very quickly. We spent a fair amount of time throwing things down the hole to see how fast they sped away, and if we could hear them landing somewhere safely. After some scientific research we decided jumping down was probably not a good idea. Steve’s fighter needed to be talked off the ledge, so to speak.

The very next room we encountered contained several large glass tubes, with doors. Guarding the giant empty tubes were hobgoblins. Our magic-user didn’t feel like another fight so he shouted, “sleep!” and that was that. We decided we would carry one hobgoblin with us to interrogate later. The rest? Well we fed them to the dungeon disposal system we had just found in the previous room. They zipped away to places unknown.

We explored a little bit more, and would have continued to explore indefinitely had Brendan not asked, “can we grab all of those books we found in the secret room, head back to town, try and level up, and then come back to the dungeon ‘two weeks later’”

And so it came to pass we found ourselves levelling up characters in the middle of a one-shot. James didn’t bother rolling for random encounters, something i’m guessing he would do if this was a normal game. As such our exit was without incident. My character actually didn’t earn enough gold to get to the next level, but other players fared better. (We each were grabbing odds and ends as we made our way through Dwimmermount, hence the disparity.) The hobgoblin we were lugging around was now a charmed hireling known as long hair, because we had fed him a potion of hair growth while he was unconscious. (We learned it was a potion of hair growth when his hair started growing.) With that we headed back into the dungeon, right back to where we left off. Once again, I suspect James skipped a few steps to speed things along.

The very first room we encountered when back in the dungeon was once again full of hobgoblins, but also a metric ton of treasure. God damn it! If we had explored one more room before heading back to town we all would have definitely gained a level.

From here we once again encountered a series of strange rooms we didn’t have time or energy to investigate fully: a triangle painted on the ground, probably magical; a room full of statues of gods with their heads replaced, and finally a locked door. We could hear what were probably horrible monsters behind it, so it was probably for the best the doors were locked.

We were running short on time. We back tracked to the start of the level and made our way East. We replaced one charmed hobgoblin hireling with another, after the first was killed in battle with the second. We pressed on, but ultimately our search for a way to the third level wouldn’t be fruitful. No one can say we didn’t try.

The game was a lot of fun. James wasn’t to fussy about a lot of the more tedious rules one would probably pay more attention to in a typical dungeon crawl. We weren’t really tracking time, how long torches last, etc. I think these things can be an important part of the game, but if you are only playing for 3-4 hours, there are much better things to focus on. James also drew the map of Dwimmermount as we explored. (I made my own copy, as I knew I’d want to write about this game later.) This all helped the game run quickly and smoothly. I felt like we accomplished so much in such a short period of time.

This game was probably the highlight of my time at OSRCon. I felt like we had a good group, and that we all had a good time. If you have a chance to play in a game with James I recommend you take it.

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Play Report: Dwimmermount at OSRCon 2012: Level 1

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 15, 2012

Tagged: osr odnd dwimmermount toronto osrcon osrcon2012 convention

As I mentioned in my previous post on OSRCon, I got to wander through the dark halls of Dwimmermount on Saturday morning in a game run by James Maliszewski. What follows may ruin the surprise of some of the rooms in the dungeon: you have been warned.

We began with 5 players. We rolled up characters using the original D&D rules, and for a change my rolls weren’t half bad. Strength was my highest score so I decided to play a fighter. We used Brendan’s random equipment lists to pick items, so this whole process was very quick. Buying items is probably the slowest part of the character creation process in D&D. I think we all had characters ready to go in about 10 minutes. The bulk of that time was probably spent trying to find the saving throws tables in the old D&D books.1 When all was said and done we had three fighters, a magic user and a cleric ready to go. We also brought two hirelings with us: Mary the Torchbearer, known for her ability to carry a torch, and a porter of no real repute.

Like all good one-shots ours began at the foot of a dungeon. Our group had marched into Dwimmermount in search of gold, presumably. The stairs into Dwimmermount entered into a room with 5 statues. Thankfully they weren’t booby trapped. Neither was the room. When playing the previous day in Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels and Trolls game, our group spent a very long time trying to get into the dungeon. It’s possible that in James’ actual Dwimmermount game this room is full of machine guns, but if you only have a few hours to play it probably doesn’t serve you well to kill all your players a few minutes into your game. We had 4 doors to choose from, one for each direction, and we chose to go East.

I was ready to just walk into the next room, but Brenden, a more patient and prudent player, thought we had a better chance with this dungeon crawl if we proceeded a bit more cautiously. From this point on every door we opened (that had a circular pull) was opened by looping rope through the pull and tugging the door open. Before we ventured into any room we’d listen for noise first. In this fashion we ventured East till we came across a circular room with a set of masks hanging on the wall. One mask was missing, and in front of where it should have been there was a long dead man, now just a pile of bones. I know what you’re thinking: it’s a trap! And you’d be right. Examining the skeleton revealed the missing mask. There wasn’t any indication on his body that he’d been hit by some sort of projectile. Looking at the wall we could see a small hole where the mask would have sat, so we guessed there was some sort of poison gas trap protecting the masks. Now I was ready to just move on, happy I’d avoided the booby trap. Smarter and/or greedier heads prevailed. We decided to carefully loop our rope through the eyes and mouths of the masks and then tug them all off the wall from a safe distance. Sure enough we could hear the room filling up with gas as the masks hit the floor. Our first “loot”: who wouldn’t want creepy death masks from a dungeon?

From here we ventured South. We ended up on the Eastern edge up of a long corridor. There were plenty of doors to open. We ignored the double doors to the East: never trust double doors. The first set of doors to the South eventually led us to the stairs down to the next level. We weren’t quite ready to head down yet.

We walked back to the long corridor and checked out the next room to the South. We found a library with some books and maps that looked like they might be of value. More loot!

Further South was another door behind which we could hear the muffled voices of something, we couldn’t be sure what. One of the other fighters and myself got in place, and we busted that door open. We encountered a bunch of monsters, who looked monstrous and maybe vaguely dwarven. They were small, anyway. We shouted, “surrender!” but they weren’t having any of that. Myself and the other fighter made short work of the first wave that approached us. The rest started to flee. The magic-user in the group thought we just weren’t speaking the right language. He shouted “surrender and join us”, but this time in dwarven. That didn’t go over too well. The ones that were fleeing ran back, angrier than they already were. Lucky for us we were wearing plate mail.2

At this point we could have continued South. We had heard some noises coming from that direction. Maybe we would have encountered more of these crazy definitely-not-dwarves. We decided the best course of action was to start making our way down as deep as we could into Dwimmermount. We were being a bit too cautious for a convention game. I mean, I hadn’t even named my Fighter.

And this play report is already longer than I thought it would be, so you’ll have to wait for the excitement of level 2!

  1. James has a very slick hardback version of the little brown books that he built using his copies of the old Wizards of the Coasts PDFs and Lulu. I was surprised and how good the hardbacks Lulu produces are. It made me want to print up some PDFs.

  2. It costs next to nothing in OD&D. I think by the time you get to 2nd Edition it’s thousands of GP.

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OSRCon 2012

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 14, 2012

Tagged: toronto osrcon osrcon2012 convention d&d odnd t&t labyrinthlord

I wasn’t completely sure what my schedule this past weekend would be like: I knew I was quite busy. When I discovered OSRCon was a thing happening in Toronto I bought tickets anyway. Even if I couldn’t go it felt like a worthwhile event to support. I was hoping I’d be able to participate a little bit, at the very least. As it turns out I managed to do much more than I thought I would over the two days the event ran.

I arrived a bit late on the first day hoping to watch Ken St. Andre running a game of Tunnels and Trolls. I wasn’t signed up for any games, and I knew Ken’s game was full, so I didn’t feel like waking up early on my day off. I arrived a half hour after his game was set to start, but managed to avoid missing any of the action. As I settled into a chair away from the gaming table I realized Ken was still discussing the finer points of Tunnels and Trolls. He spoke at length about his game. He’s clearly very passionate about T&T, and happy to proselytize about it when given the chance. Brendan from Untimately had a similar idea as myself, showing up shortly after me planning to watch the game. Ken saw both of us just sitting there and offered to let us join in. Brendan took him up on his offer and picked a troll to play. When he had to duck out for lunch–which was more or less when the game got going–I took over the character. The adventure was interesting, even though we didn’t get too far into the “Dungeon of the Bear”. Our party had a series of misadventures trying to venture down into the dungeon itself. Failing is often as much fun as succeeding with role playing games. Ken is definitely an old-school DM, out to kill his players. (Or as he put it, out to create situations where the players kill themselves.) He is a certainly character, and I’m glad I got to meet him. It was an experience.1

In the afternoon I played a game of Labyrinth Lord run by a Carter Soles of The Lands of Ara, who had made the trip to Toronto from Rochester. I had to duck out early (the reason I hadn’t signed up for anything in the afternoon), but I did get to do a fair amount of adventuring before my departure. Our party was off to investigate a presumably haunted keep, and investigate we did. The thief I rolled up had 2 hit points, so he was a little bit of a coward. Sometimes 3d6 in order works in your favour and sometimes it doesn’t. This character was all kinds of meek. You have to love basic D&D characters: they are the true everyman. I suppose that is part of the charm of playing basic D&D. Our first encounter was against some undead rats. When rats are a scary threat you know you’re playing old-school D&D.

James and Evan at OSRCon

My second day at OSRCon began with the only game I had actually signed up to play. James Maliszewski of Grognardia fame was running an Original D&D game, taking players through his megadungeon Dwimmermount. We actually managed to get through a fair amount of dungeon in a small amount of time. There was a lot of exploring and the occasional fight. I plan on doing a play report shortly. Suffice it to say I had a lot of fun.2

There was a panel discussion in the afternoon, featuring Ed Greenwood of Forgotten Realms fame, Ken St-Andre, Lawrence Whitaker from Runequest, and James from Grognardia. It was interesting hearing how these guys all ended up where they are today and their thoughts on writing and gaming. Ed Greenwood is particularly engaging. He explained that his professional writing career began by writing letters to Penthouse for $25 a pop. Apparently Dragon magazine paid $20 a pop for monsters and was more prompt in paying him. The rest is history. The talk probably would have worked better with a moderator leading the discussion and keeping people on point. The talk went a half hour or so longer than it was supposed to, and it felt like no one really knew when it was supposed to stop. Ed Greenwood and Ken St-Andre sitting next to each other discussing the game was definitely quite the scene, so I suppose we shouldn’t complain too much.

The day concluded with another round of games. Like the day before I had to leave early, so I elected to watch Ed Greenwood run a Forgotten Realms game. That guy is amazing. He puts the role in role-playing. I don’t think I’ve seen a DM quite so animated. He would literally act out the part of every NPC the players encountered–even the monsters that can’t actually talk. It was great to watch. I’m not sure how well i’d handle having to actually play in a game like that. He clearly approaches the game as shared story telling. Often I find I just want to kick in doors and kill goblins.

These last two days were the first time I had played basic D&D in a very long time, at least 15 odd years. I was surprised at just how much of the rules I had forgotten. Say what you will about 3rd and 4th edition, but they did a great job at rationalizing the game system. One success of those games is that you can more or less guess the mechanic needed to resolve any action. With basic D&D some situations call for a d6 roll, others 2d6, others a d20; sometimes you need to roll high, other times low. The game is simpler, but at the same time maybe not as simple as it could be. Of course, old-school D&D is simple in ways that that 3rd and 4th Edition don’t come close to competing in. I rolled up characters a few minutes before both the games I played in. If my characters died and I had to start again, I feel like I could have rolled up a character in a few minutes tops. These early games feel light and easy to get in to. 4th Edition feels needlessly complex with all its classes and options.

OSRCon was a lot of fun. I got to meet a bunch of fellow table top gaming enthusiasts and play a bunch of games. I don’t get to play that much D&D, so it was a nice change of pace.

  1. And that’s all i’ll say about that.

  2. I had backed the project to get them printed on Kickstarter. I don’t know if I’d ever want to run Dwimmermount myself, but I supported the project anyway as a thank you for writing such a great blog. I actually have copies of the levels of the dungeon we traveled through. I had avoided reading any of this material in the hope I would get a chance to actually go through the dungeon as a player.

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Untimately

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 12, 2012

Tagged: osr blogs odnd blogfaves

There are lots of great blogs about D&D out there on the Internet, but one that puts out consistently good stuff is Untimately by Toronto’s own Brendan S. His most recent post is on the rules that compromise Original D&D, distilling everything in the 3 brown books into concise lists of rules. A recent post that was particularly creative was about his take on schools of magic. If you’re into D&D you should be reading Untimately.

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