Sunday, January 26, 2020

Monstrous Toad

For Black Pudding #6, here's the monstrous toad.

This was fun to draw. I did the original sketch for a client who didn't like it, so I tweaked it up and went nuts with it. When I do monsters for Black Pudding I rarely write them out ahead of time. This is no exception. All the stats and description was composed on-the-fly, with a copy of Old School Essentials Rules Tome open to page 194 for reference. After all, this guy has to be a bigger, nastier version of the giant toad.

I imagine it would be fun to have one of these harass your PCs from the murky shadows, flinging insults and hopping away if it looks like he might get his ass kicked.

Designing Games is Hard

There are a number of reasons why a lot of people, myself included, have leaned hard into designing game stuff based on the classic D&D chassis. One of those reasons is familiarity. I already know beyond the shadow of a doubt what this basic chassis does so it's relatively easy to hack it and bolt on new stuff. It's good that way.

But not everyone is into that. Not everyone likes D&D. And of course we don't get shiny new games by rehashing the old one endlessly*. And even an OSR-lover like myself sometimes wants to climb out of that sandbox and play somewhere else.

Anyway, this post is about how hard it is for me to write game mechanics. I can come up with them all day long but my problem is settling on something. This is yet another reason I often lean into D&D so much. I don't have to obsess over as many choices if I just go with the classics. But right now I'm writing a new game, Dead Wizards, which I've talked about many times before. And it's hard.

Here's the current struggle in a nutshell.

I'm having fun choosing and designing weapons because this setting will have a lot of fighting. I'm taking a cue from Chris McDowell's excellent Into the Odd by eliminating attack rolls prior to damage. You just roll damage, which is soaked by a defense (currently called AC... because this apple hasn't fallen far from the tree yet). So the roll is heavily informed by the weapon you're using in addition to your battle prowess. One PC might roll 1d6+x while another is rolling 2d4+x. Each player will know what to roll because it's in their weapon description.

But for all other actions, you just roll 2d6+attribute and the target is always 13. Simple, right?

And yet it bugs me that I have this "core mechanic" that is simple and well-known for everything except combat. This means combat is special, as it was in most older games. This is like nails on a chalkboard by modern standards, isn't it? (That's rhetorical, I know it is.)

So what's the solution? Some may say fuck combat being special, make everything the same. In some sense I realize this is good design because it is simpler and has fewer moving pieces. But I'm not designing a machine, I'm writing a game. The aesthetic is just as important as the function. And I want the weapon aesthetic to inform the combat mechanics. I am not a fan of games in which all weapons do the same damage, or everyone who is of this class does x damage. I want the weapons themselves to be integral components of play, not just window dressing. My choice to use a scimitar instead of a spear should have some kind of real impact beyond just description.

But I do not want a similar granularity for climbing walls and telling lies. I want most things to be simple, thus the 2d6+attribute vs. 13 target number. A huge part of me is ok with combat being a bit of a "sub-system". Maybe that's because I'm coming from an older age of gamers and I'm comfortable with this sort of thing. You young whipper-snappers and your ultra-light core mechanics just don't get it**.

I could sum up this entire post by saying that I'm designing a new game and I'm in the middle of making important mechanics choices that I wanted to talk about for a few minutes. Sharing is caring.

*Let me unpack that a bit. We absolutely do get cool, shiny new games even when we build them upon D&D (witness the glory of DCC RPG or the elegance of Into the Odd). It's just that we don't get as many new and innovative game mechanics and we risk failing to really crank a thing up to 11 because we're chained to some artifact of an older game. Case in point: Armor Class. I love AC and if I'm designing something that is the equivalent of AC, I wanna use that term. But maybe I'm limiting myself here. Maybe I should jettison that classic term and push into something else. Etc.

**Oh shit, I'm flashing back to making passionate arguments for descending AC. This is where my grognard nads dangle lowest.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Gary Con XII GM Shirt

Once again, I drew the Gary Con GM shirt for 2020's Gary Con XII. Once again, I probably will not be at the con. I wish it was closer so I could drive up for a day or so.

Anyway... here's a white dragon based on Larry Elmore's excellent con art! It was super fun to do this, as usual, and I'm proud to be a tiny little part of the thing I love so much. Thanks to Luke Gygax for continuing to ask me to do the GM shirts. I hope people dig 'em!

Here are some previous years' shirt posts:

Gary Con IX

Gary Con X

Gary Con XI

EDIT: I did a fifth GM shirt, the first one I did for the con. But for some crazy reason I have lost that art. There are no files to be found. I do see some images online of the shirt, which you can see below. This one was sketched by Jim Wampler, who was slated to draw the shirt. If I remember correctly he got too busy and I stepped in to help out. And now you know the rest of the story.

Dead Wizards Initiative Idea

In the last post I was talking initiative and I mentioned the idea I was cooking up for Dead Wizards. Here's the idea a little more fleshed-out, along with a couple of alternates.

When there seems to be a fight on the horizon, the Judge* makes a threat roll. This is a d6 roll referencing the table below. Or, if you have a d3, you can throw it. Whatever.

1d6 Result
1-2 No enemies act
3-4 At least 1 enemy acts
5-6 More than 1 enemy acts

The results are self-explanatory. Since I can't predict how many enemies any given fight will feature, I am not going to put ranges of numbers. The Judge will use their best judgement based on the fiction. If the result is 3-4 and there are 3 enemies then maybe just 1 of them acts before the players. If the roll is a 6, maybe all of them act first. Only the Judge will know in a given situation what would be the most natural or most badass way to handle it.

After the threat roll and any resulting actions from the bad guys, the Judge chooses 1 player to go first. That player will take action or hold their action as they wish. Then they will choose the next player to go. They cannot choose a player who has already acted in the round. They can choose an enemy to go next.

But before that player goes, the Judge will make another threat roll. And that same process will repeat until all the players have taken a turn. So the order of events in a battle round would look like the table below.

1 Threat Roll
2 Judge chooses first player to act
3 Threat Roll
4 First player chooses next player to act
5 Threat Roll
6 Last player chooses next player to act
7 Repeat pattern until all players act
8 End of round

If all the enemies have acted, the Judge stops making threat rolls until all the players have acted. Then, if necessary, a new round begins with the Judge making a threat roll and selecting a player to
start the round.

In any event, after the last player acts, then it is time to start a new round by exactly the same process.

*I'm using the term Judge for the GM as a placeholder for now. It might stick, or I might invent something cooler.


I have played a lot more RPG sessions in the past 5 years than I did in my entire gaming life beforehand. I just didn't have a lot of friends to game with when I was young and we were too meandering to get our shit together for "regular" games. Playing a ton of Labyrinth Lord, in particular, has lead me to think of the standard D&D initiative systems as a little too clunky for the vibe I am going for in Dead Wizards. I want there to be combat, but I want it to be a little more fast-and-furious. So I am working on ways of handling initiative that I believe are faster and smoother.

I might be wrong, but this method feels like it would do the trick. It reduces the GM's load to a single d6 roll prior to each player's actions. And it reduces the players' load to just taking their action and picking someone else to go. There isn't much to keep track of except who has went so far.

Alternate #1

Same as above, but the Judge doesn't track which enemies have attacked and so they make the threat roll between every player turn until the end of the round. They select enemies each time purely based on the drama. In this method I would tweak the threat roll table a little bit so the enemies don't get action quite as often.

1d6 Result
1-3 No enemies act
4-6 Enemies act

Alternate #2

This one is kind of a totally different method and it eliminates all tracking, making initiative 100% random.

The Judge still makes a threat roll on 1d6, but they also make a PC roll at the same time. The PC's initiative die would be based on how many characters are in the group. So a group of 4 would just use a d4. A group of 5 would be a d5 (or d10 divided by 2 if you don't have an actual d5, which most people don't). And so on.

The Judge would roll both dice. If the threat die indicates the enemies may act, then they do. The PC die would indicate which of the PCs gets to take their action next.

This is probably an even faster method than the main one detailed in this post. But my thinking is that you'd always go with the dice, which means player 1 could potentially go 2 or 3 times before player 2. A single PC could end up taking a crazy number of actions before all the PCs have gone. Unless you want to re-roll the PC die each time it indicates someone who has already went.

Or perhaps after player 1 has taken action and the die is a 1 again, that means player 2 gets to go. Or something along those lines.


The side-based initiative, such as what we see in D&D (B/X 1981), is also quite fast and easy. I would even argue against myself here and say it's faster and easier than what I've outlined here. And maybe I'll just go with it in the end. It all depends if I feel like an alternate method better serves the vibe of game I'm going for.

Also wanted to say that the ideas herein are not altogether new. There are games that allow players to decide who goes next, especially outside the OSR sphere. There are probably games with highly random initiative. I know that the Troika! method is completely random, fast, and fun as hell to use. I use it when running that game. My only hesitation with adopting something similar here is that it loses some of its charm when gaming online. I do most of my gaming online so I'm writing my game with that in mind.

Taking the Initiative (or some other init joke)

Almost every RPG I have ever ran or played has some kind of initiative system. Such a system determines who gets to act first and next and since most RPGs are terribly concerned with the crunchy details of battles this proves to be an important feature.

So when people tell me you don't need any initiative system I give them the same look a parent gives their 14-yo when he says he doesn't know how those magazines got under his pillow*. I mean, I get it. You don't need initiative, really. A good gaming group will roll with the drama and it'll be great. A less-cohesive group may struggle. And while I don't ever try to write my game materials specifically for dysfunctional gaming groups, I do like to include tools that I want to use myself. And I do like having some kind of initiative system in my fighting-heavy games.

I have monkeyed with various methods. Issue #1 of Black Pudding features Quick Init. In this system you roll a die and subtract 1 and the result is how many PCs get to act before the enemies. The GM chooses who acts based on the fiction. I tried that method a few times and it works just fine, but isn't exactly what I was hoping for.

Another method I like is the one used in The Black Hack. Each PC makes a Dex check. Those who pass go first, those who fail go after the enemies. It's just about as quick and dirty as you can get and it lends a huge advantage to those with a good Dexterity score.

The method I'm noodling right now for my Dead Wizards RPG is as follows.

When battle is imminent, the Judge switches to combat mode, which is pretty bog standard for RPGs. It just signals to the GM and group that rules specific to action order are now in effect. So the Judge makes a threat roll, which is just a d6 roll that determines if enemies get to act before the PC and how many of them. Then the Judge selects the first player to act. After that player acts, the Judge rolls another threat roll and then the player picks the next player to act. And you just continue that same pattern until all PCs and enemies have acted in the round.

What I like about this method is that it embraces the narrative power of not really having initiative, allowing players to decide who goes next. But it maintains some randomness to the order of events via the 1d6 threat roll. It also grants the GM lots of leeway in deciding which enemies get to act next.

I haven't playtested this yet.

*OMG... does that date me? Nobody has "magazines" anymore. We have the world in our pockets, including nudie pics. Also... I'm not some sexually repressed asshole. I wouldn't necessarily be all "Junior, you know better" if I found a magazine stash. It's just a funny example. Get off my back!!

That RPG Folder What Done Crawled Up From the Grave and Howled

Continuing this series, just looking through and sorting my RPG files. Still in the folder called "new"...

Ray Otus is one crazy bastard. You should give his podcast a listen. Also, check out this wicked cover.

Lords of Mars is a game about Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars. It's 16 pages long and has a fairly complete little system. You can play it. You can totally read A Princess of Mars and use this little pamphlet to play some damn Martian adventures. Oh, and it looks like it is based on Tunnel Goons, which I mentioned in this post.

I love Peter Mullen's art. He is obviously the spiritual successor of Erol Otus, which is no small feat. Of course Erol himself is still giving us killer art, so we get both at once!

Anyway, here's Lamentations of the Flame Princess Referee Book. I haven't read it... at all. I own the little hardcover player's book, which is great. Just never looked at this thing. Probably because it has "referee" in the title.

Yeah, that's right. I'm anti-referee. I just hate that term. It smacks of sports and wrestling, not swords and skulls. I like it when games give their game masters a cool title. I don't give a fuck if it doesn't impact game play at all. This is an aesthetic thing and I'll die on that hill spitting blood in your face. I mean... nobody actually uses the GM's title at the table much. So how does it pain you to make the game text more interesting and pleasing by not using generic terms?

Laser Ponies is a QAGS based game with this premise:

Laser Ponies is intended as the ultimate 80's Saturday morning cartoon for girls, one unhindered by watchdog groups or cheap animation. In Laser Ponies, players take on the roles of intelligent ponies who live in the magical world of Panagonia.
Since I know that QAGS, at least in its original form, suggested the use of handing out candy as in-game resources, I can only imagine a wonderful time being had by all if you incorporate candy into your pony magic game. Do it!

The Pool's First Notes

I wrote The Pool sometime in mid-2001. My memory has always been that I just hammered it out one night in a couple of hours. And that's true, in terms of the writing of the actual document. But I must have been thinking about the idea for a while prior to that.

Here's a pic of a note I had in an old sketchbook. The entry just before this was dated 06-19-01 and this entry seems to suggest that I hadn't actually written the game yet, but I clearly had most of the mechanics in my head.

What's most interesting to me is that bit about the GM having a secret pool of dice you can gamble from "in the dark". That isn't part of the game so it must be something I briefly considered and then dropped. I wonder how the game would play with that bit included?

Fear of a Black Dragon

Sometime during the phase in which my mother really started to decline as she neared the end of her life, I started binging all the RPG podcasts I could find. I spent a lot of time at her apartment sitting with her and later cleaning it out and much of that time I had podcasts in my ear.

It's not that I'm new to RPG podcasts. No... in fact it was Save or Die and Spellburn that brought me into the OSR RPG scene to begin with. I would never have dropped $50 on DCC RPG if not for Spellburn. It's just that lately I've been listening to a lot of podcasts.

Fear of a Black Dragon is one that I binged from episode 1 through current over the course of a month or two. It seems redundant to say I liked the show since I did in fact listen to the entire catalog. I would have bailed if it sucked.

The show is ostensibly "OSR" in the sense that the hosts wanted to do a show about old school gaming. But these guys are coming from the story games spheres, not OSR. They play a lot of Dungeon World, World of Dungeons, and Blades in the Dark. Their focus in this podcast is 99% on scenarios with very little talk of game mechanics. Each episode is a review/exploration of an adventure module of some kind. It might be an old D&D module such as Against the Cult of the Reptile God or something more modern such as Dead Planet. The hosts give you a detailed synopsis of the adventure and then dive deeply into it, asking questions and pointing out their favorite bits. They are not afraid to be critical and they try to always run or play the adventure before covering it. Episodes usually wrap up with a list of inspiring resources such as movies, other games, books, etc.

One thing that's interesting is how the hosts don't really adhere to the game systems that the adventures are written for. Even if the scenario is written for Call of Cthulhu the hosts might have ran or played it using World of Dungeons. As I said, these guys are deeply into story games and they make no secret of their bias toward drama and story, mechanics be damned. So if you want crunchy details about how modules interact with specific game mechanics you'll be disappointed. This is a show about adventure, tension, drama, and no shortage of horror. And it's really damn good.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

OSE and B/X Spellbooks

One of the things I always ignored about B/X was the strict rules on wizards' spellbooks. Probably because my first gaming group mixed B/X and 1e liberally, I hated the idea that a wizard couldn't find lots of spells hidden in dungeons and add them to their library. By B/X rules as written, you can find a million spells and still only be able to write into your own book the exact number of spells you can cast per day, per your level.

Of course this is a game and they were intentionally trying to make it simple. And it works. It's clean and fast and easy. And if I allow myself to just accept this as the rules and then think about how it can be justified in the fiction I can come up with some cool ideas, I think.

Every Spell is Unique

Magic spells are like living entities. They exist in only a single place in a single book. The magic-user who has Fireball in their spellbook is definitely going to be the Flame Wizard or something like that. In this version of the fiction wizards would necessarily be rare simply because finding spells is god damn hard.

So the magic-user who wants the power to create light must find the wizard who is the master of the Light spell and somehow convince them to give the spell over. Maybe they barter powerful magic items or weird arcane paraphernalia. Or maybe one wizard slays the other in magical combat. Either way, perhaps the rules need tweaked a little bit to allow the acquiring wizard to transfer the Light spell from the other wizard's book into their own. Or, since we're talking fantasy here, the Light spell, knowing it has a new master, transfers itself.

This idea makes the rules on page X51 (page 59 of the Old School Essentials Rules Tome) much more attractive to the player. If I can't find a new spell to cast I can create one! This also gives the players and DM more incentive to have weird things in the campaign. For example, to cast Light, you don't have to have anything. You just say the words and make a gesture. But to research a new spell you need to find rare materials. Now's your chance to actually have eye of newt be an important thing in your game. Do you have eye of newt just lying around? You've been murder-hoboing around the dungeons for 3 levels. When have you had time to set up a proper workshop?

This type of campaign could be a lot of fun for the magic-user and DM. But it feels like it might be the party wizard who is dictating campaign goals. The fighter and halfing are just looking to spend some coin on grog and go bust goblin heads.

NOTE: I vaguely remembered a blog post from back in the glory days of he OSR where someone pontificated this same idea, more or less. And it is here on Ode to Black Dougal.

Rules as Written, Buddy

So in this fiction spells are not unique entities, they are just rare and hard to come by. This is actually
exactly what the Ode to Black Dougal post was talking about in the link above.

The biggest difference here is that Read Magic is an even more important spell than anything else. It's true even in the concept outlined above, but with that idea you could have the house rule that allows spells to be transferred from one book to another. Here you don't have that option. You must be taught or you must do research. I suspect a good DM would require the use of Read Magic quite a bit in this kind of campaign.

As an aside, I never ever ever paid attention to the rule that you have to use Read Magic to cast from a scroll. Or even a book. My rule was always that anyone can read a scroll and any wizard can read a spell from a book. But in either case, reading the spell makes it vanish (or explode, disintegrate, slither off the page, etc.). In the hardcore RAW campaign, I think you'd have to ensure that your party's wizard has Read Magic as their first spell or else make damn sure it becomes available quickly or a magic item bestowing it becomes available.

It Is the Way

In this fiction the wizard is obeying ancient laws and customs. This might be because of some grand all-powerful order of wizards or because of the hand of the gods. In either case, the magic-user will only transcribe the exact number and levels of spells they are able to cast per their level. Not because they can't do otherwise, but because doing otherwise is unthinkable, like kicking a puppy.

You can take this one a step further and say that the wizard actually has levels in the fiction, not just in the game. So those level titles become concrete in-fiction devices. You're on the deepest level of the dungeon and you just hit 20,000 XP? You'll have to wait until you can make it back to the High Yellow Tower and demonstrate your skills in order for the Lofty Sorceress to initiate you into the ranks of the Enchanters.

By this style of play you open things up to a ton of potential fun. Because you know that one player is going to break the rules. They're going to thumb their nose at the Order like a witch slinging Avada Kedavra all over the halls of Hogwarts. Let them! What are the consequences going to be? Will the other wizards come calling? Will the gods themselves show up? Will the magic-user's body be twisted and ruined as if cursed each time they cast more spells than they are supposed to?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


For your Supercalla game:

The Astrophalt Turf Hyper Stream (ATHS) works with the cops to keep traffic flowing safely. At least it does when it is functioning properly.

One of the tools of the PACT was to make it mandatory for all road vehicles to have a regulator... a device that regulates speed. With a properly installing regulator you won't be able to drive too fast and cause a nasty accident.

But maybe you don't want the PACT controlling your ride. Maybe you want the freedom of the ATHS atmo in your hair as you and your chopper drift along at speeds far greater than 55 GMPH. If that's the case, you need a fake-yulator.

The fake-yulator is a device that mimics a regulator, issuing the correct digital codes to fool cop radar and ATHS detectors. But it doesn't actually regulate jack.

If you are using a fake-yulator and the cops come sniffing around, roll 1d6. On a roll of 1, the device malfunctions and you are probably busted. On any other roll you're golden. Keep on truckin'.

The fake-yulator is not legal and so you'll have to pay in excess of 500 STDs in a pawn shop or seedy joint. Maybe more. And be aware that some fake-yulators are actually fake. They send a signal to the cops letting them know you're trying to fake 'em out. Since these are nearly indistinguishable from the real ones (they all look like real regulators, remember) you might not know when you get one. But the GM will let you know...

Tuesday, January 14, 2020


Here's a drawing for Jim Wampler's Fight This Mutant monster collection. The overseer is a worm that takes over your mind, man!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Old School Essentials

Ben at Questing Beast did a nice little video on the new Old School Essentials box set. In his typical fashion, Ben covers the game succinctly and gives you a clear view of what the books look like.

OSE is the best damn thing ever.

When I discovered Labyrinth Lord back in 2012 or so I was blown away that such a thing existed. Here was a delicious re-statement of my favorite D&D of all, and it was open source! I loved the classic, quirky Steve Zieser art (R.I.P., Steve) and I loved that Daniel Proctor chose to use the term "Labyrinth Lord" not just for the game but for the game master as well. It had pinache! It was and is great.

Now comes Gavin Norman with Old School Essentials and he just blows everything away. We're stuck here with the generic game master label, but that's a tiny tiny gripe. This re-statement of B/X is more precise and clear than anything that has ever been produced. Not only that, but it's organization is top-notch and makes using it at the gaming table far easier. Not only that, but it's loaded with exquisitely cool art. Not only that, but the new hardcover format and sturdy box set are deliciously high-quality.

This is the good shit right here. If you are on the fence about picking this up all I can say is do it. If you love old school D&D and you have any interest at all in a more usable version then you cannot fail here. I promise you that.

NOTES: I did the cover and interior illustrations for The Hole in the Oak, Gavin's first adventure module for OSE. But that is not my reason for singing the game's praises. Also, my love for Labyrinth Lord is not diminished. Daniel's version of B/X stands as the best iteration of the game other than OSE and the best iteration that goes to level 20 for sure. In some ways I feel like Gavin is pushing his game into areas that we all wish Daniel had explored. I did some art for the Advanced LL book Kickstarter and I'm proud to have been part of that, but I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't just a little bit disappointed by the final product.