The Monster Without

Any unusual campaign setting has one or two (hopefully more, but one or two will do) very unique monstrosities that express the core flavor of the setting. When crafting a gonzo setting for your old-school campaign, or just an atypical sci-fantasy campaign, the tendency is to want a number of races that especially inspire the ‘WTF!?’ reaction. More familiar races give a sense of familiar themes or enable the DM to play against type for effect, but it is our truly weird races that let us know that this world MEANS BUSINESS. Of course, as soon as you’ve designed your crazy telepathic slug-people with a fondness for zoos, you begin to design their culture and eating habits, and next thing you know, you want to detail them as a playable race. Because it seems unfair, somehow, to invent all this info and then leave it out of the hands of the players to dive into to create their own spin and intrigue and interspecies melodrama, right?


First of all, there are only ever two kinds of creature: those that PC’s can play, and those that they can encounter. From that perspective, you can have any number of weird races you want, since that’s all they are—window dressing. Or combat. Otherwise, they function in a way roughly analogous to human forms of interaction. So that shopkeeper who looks like a Rhino walking upright with a hookah pipe in his hand? Perfectly ordinary, save for that odd cinnamon smell that comes and goes. Remembering that, it’s OK to allow the unusual details and complex cultural mores of the vast majority of species to remain in the dark.

If, however, you find that this leaves much to be desired in your new invented race, which was almost all about lunar ritualism and a completely different set of genders and their interactions, then—tough. Ask yourself: What will these creatures mean to my PCs when they encounter 2d6 of them? Will they just be another shade of lizard people? Or will they have some readily apparent, unique feature that forever marks them in the player’s mind? Will my players have to know this elaborate backstory in order to give a shit? Or will they care immediately based on the situation in front of them?

As for PCs playing monsters, I have increasingly come to realize that, if you want your monstrous races to be at all mysterious and foreign, let them be…well, mysterious and foreign. Don’t let players play them. Otherwise, you fall into trying to preserve the unusualness of your race by attempting to school the player on the race’s complex culture and society and mysterious aims and…just stop. The player will usually violate this stuff anyway. If you have a bunch of players fully committed to playing crazy foreign cultures and bizarro physical needs, then make up a set of charts to roll on (Unusual Ritual Practices, Bizarre Dietary Restrictions, etc.) and let them take things from there. Otherwise, you wind up trying to be a roleplaying coach. This is where the whole idea of monstrous races as classes makes sense. You aren’t playing an Elven Wizard or Thief or whatever. You’re playing an Elf. That does Elf things. Not Thief things, though the two are identical on occasion.

One last bit, about monsters in cities. Now, we all know that Mind Flayers want to conquer the galaxy and the Sahuagin want to sacrifice folks to their shark-god. But really, that Illithid down the street is just a book seller*, even if he specializes in tomes relating psionic powers to Continental Philosophy. He has no one else’s agenda but his own. We craft the ‘racial narrative’ so that, when we see a goblin, we know that he cannot be parlayed with. He must be killed, and this apparently happens all the time, so it’s OK. When we see a Mind Flayer, we know now that this whole adventure has to do with the Plot To Take Over The Galaxy. It is a useful shorthand for a game, even if it has Unfortunate Implications. But if you think about cities in our own time, and even more so for great port cities of the past, they are places to escape the troubling implications of one’s culture and heritage and immerse yourself in the freedoms of uniqueness and anonymity. So let your city monsters, those that walk the streets at least, be individuals before they are anything else. Besides, who knows what that Mind Flayer’s spawnmates used to call him at home when he was a tadpole? Maybe he’d rather live in a little apartment and read a book than hang out with those assholes, thank you very much.

* I understand the peculiarities of the Illithid diet render any sort of peaceful coexistence problematic. So what?

Niche Classes and Archetypes

Much is made of the ‘archetypal’ nature of classes in older model D&D. The Fighter, the Wizard, the Thief, later additions like the Ranger and the Paladin—each one seems to embody a pretty broad outline that enables characters to be both instantly recognizable and infinitely diverse. But when I open the 1st Edition Player’s Guide, what I’m usually struck by is how very unique the ‘vision’ of each class really is. A woodsman who can cast spells? A priest who fights only with blunt objects? Vancian casting? And how did Bruce Lee get in there?

While these classes can be interpreted very broadly, in practice the D&D Druid (for instance) is pretty distinct from other historical nature-mystics. The AD&D classes are a diverse and oddly unique bunch, especially if you imagine them all in a party together and coming from the same general area. This is partly the result of the various sources from which they were drawn, partly the quirks of their creators.

Really, I think a class doesn’t need to work very hard to serve as an archetype. This is because of the nature of archetypes themselves and also the way players tend to stretch the edges of whatever box they’re put in. This leads me to wonder what it would be like if we substituted a number of more unusual and ‘niche’ classes for the traditional D&D classes. I have wanted to run a game for a while that had maybe 7-9 unusual classes to pick from that still served many of the same functions as the Fighter, Cleric, Mage and Thief combo that we all know and love.

Has anyone out there has already done this? What classes did you use? What ‘niche’ class ideas have you come up with?    

Token Proficiency System

My character got killed by some harpies the other day. I'm pissed. So I'm going to think about game mechanics for a bit to calm down. 

Proficiencies still rub a raw nerve for me. I want to obliterate them. The question is, how do you represent specialized skill without forcing characters to choose from amongst pre-generated skills? 

General skill systems can be a problem because they the curious habit of ‘bland-izing’ characters--for some reason the more general your skill system is, the more similar characters seem to become. I have been a big fan of skill systems in the past because I found them more uniform than feats or proficiencies and more versatile. At one point, I thought an interesting way to handle skills in Oe might be to port over the skills from 4e. Those skills were simple, generic, and easily customizable; but when I tried it in practice I found the whole setup pretty boring. I settled on a stopgap that worked out OK; just have the players write down a one-word to one-sentence 'background' for their character, like 'Viking' or 'third son of an impoverished noble' or 'raised in a monastery'. That gave me a sense of a PC's abilities, and from there it was up to the player to be really convincing at the table to determine what else he can do.

But the eternal problem remains: how do we make mechanics that reflect our character's particularities? Should we try to do this?

There is a subtle shift that occurs when you stop seeing your character sheet as a reflection of your character and begin to see it as the foundation of your character. When you see the character sheet as a foundation you have the unconscious assumption that whatever your character does must in some way be founded upon information on the sheet. Randomization then becomes an obstacle to achieving your vision for your character. You desire more specific and flexible tools with which to paint your character. But despite this desire for individuality, you start choosing from options rather than inventing for yourself. Characters seem to become more alike the more possibility they get for mechanical distinction. I can point to 3e games where this has and hasn't been true, but 4e is built around allowing you to choose from options and being guaranteed safety in doing so. 

I want to view the character sheet as a reflection. Then, my stats become randomly determined lines within which I may draw whatever I like. But perhaps I have it backward. Maybe if everyone were given a sheet of paper and told just to draw, most drawings would turn out to be of the same things: a tree, a bird, etc. But then again, maybe most of those people don't play a whole lot of D&D. Besides, the character sheet is not where you draw your character. You create your character at the table when you're playing. Therefore, I created this little system to handle skills not based around flexibility or specificity on the sheet, but the way I know players like to play. I've seen something like this before, but I can't remember where. 

Token Proficiency System: Give the players a set of tokens for each level gained. They get a number of tokens equal to their INT modifier at first level (minimum 1) and 1 for each succeeding level. Each token can be turned in to the DM mid-play to declare a language or skill or bit of lore that the character knows how to do.

DM: ‘You cannot tell which mushrooms look poisonous. They are very unusual.’
Player tosses in a token. ‘Not to me. I majored in Mushroom Studies.’
DM: ‘You sure did. The greenish-capped ones are poisonous.’

This system is intended to function specifically rather than generally; in other words, we want to avoid generic words like ‘Appraisal’ and instead use things like ‘Atlantean Artifact Expertise’. Also, I would like for it to enable non-knowledge-related abilities—for instance, a token could be spent to design a weapon that only a PC knew how to use. Highly obscure information or knowledge might mean that a character has a chance of being mistaken. Otherwise, 3d6 ability checks work fine.

How To Get New School Players Ready For Old School Gaming

 Try this simple exercise out on a batch of OD&D n00bs:

Sit them down without stats or dice.

Say to them: You see a door. What do you do?

Being n00bs, one shall say, ‘I open it.’

Roll 6d6. Declare that the door was electrified.

They say, how was I supposed to know? Tap it with a stick?

You say, It’s called a ten-foot-pole.

You set up the exercise again. This time it’s a monster, who, upon the door being opened, rushes out and claws one of the players in the face, then vanishes.

Do this ten times, each time crafting another scenario of death and dismemberment.

Gradually, they learn both the techniques and the tools necessary to assuage their growing paranoia.

Then let them roll stats. Picking equipment will be especially enjoyable to watch. 

New Racial Class: The Changeling

One thing that perplexes me about OSR blogs: why aren’t there more class ideas being explored? I grasp the simplicity of the OD&D class structure, and the archetypes of later editions, but it seems odd to me that few seem to have taken it upon themselves to design any new or unusual races and classes. Maybe I’m wrong, and the OSR blogosphere is rife with these sorts of inventions and I just haven’t ground through enough back posts to find them. Nevertheless, I thought I might start posting some of my newly invented classes so that people could take a look.

A while ago, when I first started checking out OD&D, I was in the midst of a furious outpouring of world creation; it seemed that every other day I was struck by a new idea for a planet or continent or historical event. Upon seeing the OD&D rules, I was suddenly seized with a new objective: design a world that works with OD&D’s three classes. This was pretty weird for me, being used to the plethora of options in d20. I might talk more about that setting in a while, but right now I want to point out that I was never really keen on the three racial classes in the original game. I’ve come to appreciate the racial classes since then, but at the time I was baffled as to why anyone would want such ‘unimaginative’ derivatives. So I set to reworking the Elf for my new setting, which was inspired largely by Northern European mythology. I created the Changeling (only a little ripped off from Eberron).

The Changeling progresses as the S&W Cleric in HP and saves, and uses the MU’s XP chart. It possesses the ability to alter its appearance at will to appear as any humanoid of roughly equivalent size. This change in appearance extends to clothing and any small objects on the Changeling’s person; upon being separated from the Changeling, the objects revert to their original appearance in 1d4 minutes. A Changeling can also change its skin tone to allow for greater stealth. A Changeling’s prime requisite is Charisma.

Changelings are forbidden to use weapons of iron or any kind of magical item. Carrying these objects forces the Changeling to make a saving throw; failing the save causes the Changeling an amount of damage equal to the bonus of the item (if the item is ordinary iron or has no bonus, this is 1 HP of damage). Using these items forces the Changeling to re-roll the save. Moreover, the Changeling is harmed by healing spells. Instead of using healing magic, the Changeling regenerates 1 HP per round. This ability is likely what gives rise to the story of Changelings abandoning their friends in the heat of battle. Damage caused by using magic items cannot be regenerated and must be healed at the normal rate. 

Changelings possess the power to create powerful weapons out of ordinary wood. Any bladed weapon or bow can be produced in one day, arrows being created a dozen at a time. These weapons do 1d6 damage, and gain a bonus equal to 1/4th the Changeling’s total level (+1 at 4th Level, +2 at 8th, etc). These weapons only function for their maker.

At 9th Level, the Changeling’s mystic understanding progresses to the point where they can cause a small ‘twist’ in the fabric of reality. This is a small pocket realm within which the Changeling can control the appearance and conditions of the world. Thus, it can create a sunny field when all around it is winter. Nothing in this reality can cause direct harm, but phantoms may be engineered to speak and serve the Changeling’s whims. These phantoms may not leave the pocket dimension. From time to time, mortals and other creatures may stumble into the Changeling’s realm, whereupon they may be persuaded to stay and work the land or serve their new lord as part of a pact, or merely out of simple ignorance.

So. That was my original treatment. These creatures differ considerably from some other ‘changelings’ in mythology, but I like that. They are a little more complicated than I would like them to be, but whatever. 

Irrational Uniformity

            I just started playing a weekly West Marches-style game using the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS—pronounced ‘axe’). Very cool thus far. The system reminds me of Castles and Crusades, but based off of B/X instead of AD&D. It also brings to mind Adventures Dark & Deep in its expanded class options. Our party of first-level adventurers went into the wilds looking for a tower rumored to be full of enchanted soldiers or monsters or something, and accidently happened upon a full score of orcs and their human slaves. Feeling heroic, we killed the lot of ‘em (except the slaves, whom we freed) thanks to luck, tactics and judicious use of the ‘sleep’ spell.
            After our astounding victory (seriously—one hit could have killed any of us!), I took a rulebook home with me to study. I won’t go into too much detail here, but if you’re wondering, the system has a number of unique classes and expanded rules for adventuring—from magical research to PC kingdom economics—without feeling too overwhelming. At less than 300 pages without art, I feel this is a great system to use if you would like a bit more upper-echelon crunch than Labyrinth Lord without sacrificing flexibility. The extra classes are pretty cool, too; a blade-wielding cleric variant and specialized dwarf and elf adventurers, among more traditional bards and assassins. 
            The more unique feature of the game is its system for class abilities and proficiencies. Many of these function mechanically like saving throws on a d20, which is neat. Proficiencies are not something I thought I would care for, however. For a long time, I considered them part of the ‘clutter’ of later AD&D—something which needed to be streamlined and unified (like a skills system) or abandoned. As it is, they occupy a strange place (to my d20 mind) between feats, class abilities and skills, but I found them pretty friendly to use rather than simply superfluous. Nevertheless, immediately afterward my mind began to invent ways that classes and proficiency lists could be collapsed into one another. I felt it would be better to have only a few classes with expanded proficiency lists than the seeming glut of classes who often shared many proficiencies between them.
            Then I stopped. I was comparing the ACKS method of resolution to the SIEGE Engine when it hit me, something which I think should have struck me earlier in my obsession with old-school games. The thought was: the desire for system uniformity (and also simplicity) is an irrational one.
            That’s not to say that it is without reason that we appreciate systems that have uniform mechanics. It also doesn’t mean that complexity is inherently desirable. It just means that the desire for uniformity is a preference, not a rule of game design. I like my systems to be uniform and simple, but that doesn’t mean that a system ought to be, or that somehow a game has failed when it isn’t as straightforward as *I* would like it to be. I should have learned that lesson a while ago, when I first played Moldvay and found the different systems—percentile, charts, d6, d20—to be fun rather than just crazy and cumbersome. 
            I still prefer the SIEGE Engine, though. And I’m still not sure about proficiencies, feats, and percentile skills (especially percentile skills). But who knows? Maybe this time next year, I’ll be more on the side of ‘wacky subsystems’ than ever. 

What's Next For 4e?

           That's right. Not 5e. 
           I found myself in a pretty unusual position when I discovered the announcement of D&D 5th edition only a few days after I opened up my first blog. Truth is, I didn’t know what to make of it, though much of my possible speculation has already been covered by other areas of the blog-o-sphere. In short, I’m not sure this is going to be a new edition. My suspicions are strongly, at the moment, in the court of ‘4.5’ (note that much of the material fromWotC says ‘next iteration’). But I really support much of what I’m hearing about modularity and allowing older editions to be sold on .pdf and whatnot. I want to talk about something I haven’t really heard much about—what to do with 4th edition?
            People have talked ad nauseum about the problems of 4th edition, and I’m still not sure that all of my issues with the system have been satisfied. I feel like there is still some problem at the heart of the game that makes it a fundamentally less enjoyable game for me. I have no issue with playing the game, with people who like the game, etc., but for myself there is a need to discover more about my own gaming needs by studying those games that do not answer them. These criticisms are not malicious, though it’s hard not to feel that way about a critical analysis of anything that doesn’t live up to your standards of what it ‘should’ be. Godard famously said that the only way to really criticize a film is to make another one. So I’m going to walk through a little exercise to see what kind of game I think the 4e system could become. The hypothetical scenario begins with the question: what if Wizards handed the 4e system to someone to continue modifying, like they did with 3.5?
            I think that one of 4e’s greatest problems was that the game was branded as D&D. If it had been released as, I don’t know, Minis and Minotaurs, or something, I think it is very likely that the game would have developed a strong following, and even been cited by players of 3e as a means by which to ‘fix’ some of the problems in the d20 system. Instead, it started a furor over ‘violating’ the core principles of its namesake. 4e was never truly given the chance to stand up on its own two feet, instead always being judged in comparison to its forbears. In addition, I always got the impression that 4e was developed in order to solve some of the issues of 3e, and again, it never really became its own game.
            So, let’s imagine that Wizards gave 4e to some company (Tactical Minis Systems? I can’t help it…) and said, ‘Do whatever.’ Here is a new vision of the game, and maybe even a kind of appreciation for the possibilities of the system.
            First of all, the company releases three books, each about the size and thickness of the ‘essentials’ line. The first is a core rulebook, very similar to the essentials ‘Core Rules’, and containing all the rules necessary for playing and DMing. The next book is player class information, but with several differences. First, classes are abolished. Instead, each power source and party role has an expanded list of powers, enabling full customizability. You select a power source, role, and secondary role, and then construct everything from the ground up. There might even be more At-Will powers permitted at different levels. This prevents the ‘martial striker’ from being judged against the ‘Rogue’ of D&D, and enables a more flexible and expansive set of class possibilities.  The initial book will contain the Primal, Arcane, Martial and Divine power sources, subdivided into groups for the four roles—striker, defender, controller and leader. The second major change is a new set of races. Each race needs to be distinct from the races of D&D (think ‘Arcana Evolved’) and have abilities that take advantage of the powers system, like the Shardlings and Wilden. Thus the game looks very different from traditional D&D. The third book details monsters. Each book should be produced with line and ink drawings, both for expense and in order to stimulate the imagination (line and ink drawings really do it for me J). Ideally, each book should cost $20 or less.
            From there, each new book is a modular supplement that introduces more of the same (more powers, monsters, treasure, etc) or expands options (character themes, backgrounds, new power sources, etc). The ‘points of light’ is a great idea for a setting, but 4e needs its own unique setting to explore in that vein. The idea here is modularity of approach with cheap books and close-to-classless character generation. This is akin to what 4e has already, but liberates the system (I think) from the D&D mythology to find its own way. 4e will never look very much like older editions of D&D, but I think that that can become a strength of the system. Instead, the more Wizards attempts to ‘close the gap’ between 4e and older editions (redesigns of older modules, for instance) the more the ‘uncanny valley’ becomes apparent.
            I don’t know what 5e, or 4.5 will look like. But I hope 4e doesn’t die forever, since I don’t think it was ever really given its own life to live. 

D30 Table of Stock Characters

There comes a time when your NPCs need some personality beyond a few abstract character details. Luckily for us, the idea of a 'stock character' has been studied for many centuries. Here's a list of stock characters from Theophrastus, rendered as a d30 table:

D30 Chart of Stock Characters           
After Theophrastus

1. The Insincere Man
2. The Flatterer
3. The Garrulous Man
4. The Boor
5. The Complacent Man
6. The Man without Moral Feeling
7. The Talkative Man
8. The Fabricator
9. The Shamelessly Greedy Man
10. The Pennypincher
11. The Offensive Man
12.The Hapless Man
13.The Officious Man
14.The Absent-Minded Man
15.The Unsociable Man
16.The Superstitious Man
17. The Faultfinder
18.The Suspicious Man
19.The Repulsive Man
20.The Unpleasant Man
21.The Man of Petty Ambition
22.The Stingy Man
23.The Show-Off
24.The Arrogant Man
25.The Coward
26.The Oligarchical Man
27.The Late Learner
28.The Slanderer
29.The Lover of Bad Company
30.The Basely Covetous Man

I've left the list pretty vague, since it should be easy for you to comprehend what these characteristics mean in context. Enjoy!


This is a blog about Old-School D&D and its variants. I have been playing retroclones and originals for a couple of years now, and am looking forward to sharing my thoughts with anyone who finds them useful or constructive. Please comment if you have any helpful suggestions or unusual ideas!