Monday, October 31, 2022

My version of the Thief

OD&D and BX thieves are... pretty bad. Even if you subscribe to the interpretation of their special abilities being quasi-magical, the chance of them actually working is still bafflingly low at low levels. This is my attempt to make the thief into a more playable class (especially at low and mid levels).

Sam Mameli


Prime requisite: DEX  
Hit Dice: d4  
Armour: Leather, no shields 
Weapons: Any
Saving throws as per B/X or whatever retroclone you use.

Back-stab: When attacking an unaware opponent from behind, a thief receives a +4 bonus to hit and doubles any damage dealt. At 5th level and above, damage is tripled instead of doubled.

Scroll Use: A thief of 7th level or higher can cast arcane spells from scrolls. There is a 10% chance of error: the spell does not function as expected and creates an unusual or deleterious effect.

Thieves have a few specialized skills they can attempt to use much like in BX. All of the usual skills (except climbing, which would get nerfed) have been consolidated into a single "Thievery" skill. The red number in brackets next to the Thievery score indicates the probability of something extra happening after using or failing to use certain skills (check the explanations for disarming traps and pickpocketing below). 

Level             Exp          Hit Dice            Climb        Thievery      

    1                  0                1d4                 87               65   [33]

    2               1,200            2d4                 88               70   [28]

    3               2,400            3d4                 89               75   [23]

    4               4,800            4d4                 90               80   [18]

    5               9,600            5d4                 91               85   [13]

    6              20,000           6d4                 92               90    [8]

    7              40,000           7d4                 93               95    [6]

    8              80,000           8d4                 94               96    [5]

    9             160,000          9d4                 95               97    [4]

   10            280,000         10d4                96               98    [3]

* The red number in brackets next to the Thievery score is the chance of springing a trap or getting caught stealing (see below).

Interpretation and explanation of the various thief skills (all of them fall under "Thievery" except for climbing):

Climb nearly sheer surfaces: Only roll for climbs that an adept real-world climber would find challenging. Roll a check for every 100’ climbed. On a failure, the thief falls at the halfway point and suffers fall damage. 

Find and disarm treasure traps: A Thievery roll is required to find a trap and then another to remove it. The find traps roll can only be attempted once, but the disarm roll can be tried multiple times. Every time a thief fails a disarm roll, a subsequent d100 roll must be made to find out if the trap has been accidentally sprung. A trap is sprung if the result of this subsequent roll is equal or less than the red number in brackets next to the corresponding Thievery score. Each attempt to find or disarm a trap takes one turn. 

Hear noise: In a quiet environment (e.g. not in combat), a thief may attempt to listen at a door or to hear the sounds of something (e.g. a wandering monster) approaching. Make a Thievery roll or roll under Wisdom, whichever is higher. Can only be attempted once per turn.

Hide in shadows: Requires the thief to be motionless—attacking or moving while hiding is not possible. While hiding in shadows, thieves use a special breathing technique which slows their heartbeat & lowers their body temperature and thus, if successful, are also undetectable by creatures with infravision. 

Move silently: A thief may attempt to sneak past enemies unnoticed.

* The referee should roll for hide in shadows and move silently on the player’s behalf, if the roll fails, the referee knows that the thief has been noticed and should determine enemies’ actions appropriately.

Open locks: Requires thieves’ tools. A thief can try this skill multiple times per lock, each attempt taking up one turn. 

Pick pockets: A thievery roll must be made to see if the pickpocketing attempt is successful, and then (regardless of the result) a subsequent d100 roll must be made to see if the victim has noticed the attempt. The attempted theft is noticed if the result of this subsequent roll is equal or less than the red number in brackets next to the corresponding Thievery score. If the victim is above 5th level, the thief’s roll is penalised by 5% for every level above 5th. This ability can also be used in shops and markets to steal suitable items.

Read languages: Understanding maps and ancient inscriptions is an important part of tomb robbing. Some thieves study languages and graphology in their free time, others just get lucky and overhear pieces of regional lore and rumors that sometimes end up becoming relevant in their adventures. Thieves can roll Thievery to try to decipher the general meaning of non-magical text in any language (including dead languages and basic codes). If the roll does not succeed, the thief may not try to read that particular text again until they reach a higher level of experience.

A note on non-thieves trying to hide, sneak around and steal stuff:

I am of the opinion that non-thieves should be able to attempt most of the things that thieves can do, but their chance of success should be much lower. For most skills, I would consider giving non-thieves around a 10% chance and only one attempt (in the case of picking locks and disarming traps), and calling for a saving throw of some kind if there's a chance of springing a trap or getting caught stealing. Most importantly, always remember that the thief's abilities are specialized skills and that you should try to call for rolls or checks as seldom as possible. Pickpocketing or sneaking past a sleeping guard, for example, should be relatively easy for most adventurers, regardless of their class, and should at most require a dexterity check if the guard is an exceptionally light sleeper. Only call for Thievery rolls when a character attempts something that a competent thief would find challenging. Wrapping up, here are a few examples of situations where I would say a thief skill is being used:

Hiding in shadows (this one's a bit silly, but just imagine that the black bag at the beginning is a cloak):

Climbing almost sheer surfaces:

Moving silently (relevant part starts at around 4:44):

Knowing many languages (ok, this last one's mostly a joke):

Sunday, July 10, 2022

A setting in 3 images

I just saw this post from Signs in the Wilderness and decided to try my hand at doing it for the setting of the campaign I'm currently running. My campaign's setting has gradually turned into an amalgam of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1e, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and the implied setting from OD&D + the Greyhawk supplement. I don't think I even need 4 images to sum it up; the next 3 might be enough:

November 2022 EDIT: Ok, found a fourth one:

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Mautbek, a starting town for OSR games

There's a lot of excellent dungeons out there, but in my opinion there's a bit of a shortage of towns to go along with them. So here's my take on a short and simple starting town. Just place a dungeon 2 or 3 hours away from it on foot, and you're ready to play!

Mautbek is a small, grubby town at the edge of civilization with a population of around 200-300 souls. Since it's specifically meant to serve as a "home base" and not an adventure locale, there's not a lot going on in the way of intrigue. It's mainly just a relatively safe haven where PCs can eat, rest, and buy equipment between expeditions to a nearby dungeon or wilderness.

In Mautbek, everybody carries a dagger in their belt at all times. The streets are always muddy and the town is surrounded by a wooden palisade, outside of which there's only the town's graveyard and a few hovels. A good chunk of the townsfolk hunt bears for their pelts and meat and make torches; the rest practice stereotypical medieval trades. Trade caravans arrive from the nearest city a couple times a month, bringing food and goods in exchange for bear pelts, torches and miscellaneous crafts. 

All guards & soldiers wear chainmail and carry a polearm and a sword. Most crimes are punished with death, and criminals are beheaded outside of the government palace. Since there's not much else to see or do for entertainment, most of the people of Mautbek see public executions as the equivalent of going to watch a movie or a stand-up comedy show. 

Places of interest

1. The Red Dodo tavern & inn 

•  Room & board is 5 gp per day per person. Animals bigger than a hen must also pay. Guests sleep in either of the two 20 foot-long communal beds upstairs. 

•  Halana the innkeeper is a big, stocky woman who owns the inn (stats as a 1st level fighter). She serves bear ribs with rosemary sauce and watered-down beer for every meal. Rations are spicy tamales with bear meat jerky. 

•  Limeach the rumour-seller spends his day drinking and talking with the guests. He will sell rumours about nearby adventure locales for 5 gp each. 

•  1d6+1 desperate peasants can be hired as henchmen here (stats as 0-level commoners). 1d6 of them "restock" every 2 weeks, but the number of available recruits will never go above 7. Each one charges 25 gp per expedition/delve. 

2. Market 

•  Open every day from sunup to sundown. Adventuring gear, weapons, armor, horses, mules and carts can be bought here. 

•  6 guards (1st-level fighters all of them) keep an eye out for troublemakers and thieves.

•  There is an unlimited supply of torches available, but the availability of items like oil flasks, daggers and holy water vials is limited to 12 units per session. Horses and mules are limited to 5 per month.

3. Sage's hovel 

•  Abiaka the know-it-all is a strange, decrepit man who lives in squalor and can identify potions, scrolls & magic items for 300 gp per item. It takes him d4 days per item. No one really knows how he does it. Some suspect he used to be an adventurer in his youth; some say that he hears voices in his head that whisper the information to him.

4. Miniature chapel 

•  A small chapel, barely the size of a garden shed. The chapel is tended by an androgynous shrine keeper called Two-Sun. On top of a shrine inside the chapel sits a reliquary that contains a fragment of the collarbone of St. Rejavi. If one of your players plays a cleric, St. Rejavi can be a well-known cleric from their religion who died several decades ago and performed various miracles while alive.

•  Two-Sun can't cast spells, but they can pray to the ghost of St. Rejavi to perform miracles from beyond the grave, and also knows how to perform a sacred ritual that turns water that has been in contact with the relic into anti-venom potions. This process takes 1 day, and the relic can't produce any more potions for 6 days. These services are usually free for the people of Mautbek, but they have a cost for PCs.

•  Anti-venom potion (as a Neutralize Poison spell): 300 gp.

•  Cure disease: 250 gp.

•  Remove curse: 500 gp

5. Government Palace 

•  Margrave Lhurg the Fretful, ruler of Mautbek, is an eccentric, gaunt man in his late 50's who rarely leaves his chamber and doesn't have any immediate family. He has recently become obsessed with collecting ancient artefacts and has instructed Wolmer, the palace's seneschal, to pay adventurers full value for any treasure they retrieve from dungeons. 

•  Besides those two, the castle is also inhabited by 10 servants and 10 elite soldiers (2nd-level fighters all of them) who serve as the Margrave's personal bodyguards. 

•  Land and houses are generally not for sale in town, but if the PCs manage to sell at least 14 000 gp worth of treasure to the Margrave, he will allow them to stay in the town's inn for free and will offer them citizenship. 

6. Military tower 

•  24 town guards (1st-level fighters all of them) live here with their commander. Half of them are always out, some in the market and some patrolling outside the palisade.

•  The commander is a grim-looking 5th-level fighter called Reginald the Mirthful; he's also responsible for carrying out executions.

7. Guild house 

•  Specialist hirelings like animal trainers and engineers are available for hire here.

Optional: Random town events  

If you feel like it, roll a d6 on this table every other session to shake things up a bit in town.

1. A merchant arrives selling a map showing the location of a new dungeon.

2. A merchant arrives selling 1d4+2 potions of healing.

3. A merchant arrives selling a random magic scroll.

4. The town is celebrating a feast day! All shops and services will be closed and unavailable for the next 1d4 days.

5. A gang of 10 ill-mannered ruffians has arrived in town (stats as brigands). 4-in-6 chance of antagonizing the PCs. 

6. A trade caravan has been attacked by werewolves. Market and inn prices are doubled for the next d4 weeks.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Whitebox campaign state of play

I've been running a "weekly" White Box FMAG game since November 1st, 2020. Last sunday I ran the 40th session of the campaign, and in commemoration I've decided to write a post about the things I've learned and noticed while running it. 

First of all: We try to play every Sunday at the same time every week, but occasionally we've gone several weeks without playing because of one of the players work schedules. Setting a fixed time and day of the week to play (Sundays at 7:00 pm, in our case) has been essential for the campaign surviving as long as it has. I can't really recommend it enough. The "core group" at my table consist of only 3 regular players + me, the DM. The vast majority of sessions it's only been the 4 of us playing, but 4 other people have joined the game for a couple of sessions on a few separate occasions. All of the players are IRL friends of mine (or friends/partners of friends of mine). 

Due to the nature and limitations of online play, I've found just 3 players + 1 DM to be the ideal amount of players for online games. We play on discord with voice and video on, and use a bot called rollem to handle the dice rolls. We don't use a VTT or any of that other fancy stuff, mostly because we've never felt like we needed them, but also because we're too lazy to figure out how it works. Before we switched to discord, we were even more primitive: we played on zoom and used for dice rolls, but zoom kept kicking us out every 40 minutes and I eventually convinced the rest of the players to get discord accounts. All this to show that you don't need much to play D&D online. 

The average party size is usually just 3 PCs + 4 or 5 hirelings, with each player being in complete control of at least 1 hireling in addition to their PC. Given the small party size and the fact that I started them out at level 1, making hirelings cheap, plentiful and fully controllable by the players was pretty much indispensable for them to have any success. The current adventuring party consists of: 

Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa, 4th level magic-user; 

Snet, 4th level chaotic cleric of Ultrazoa, the god of all wild beasts;

Bette Davis, 3rd level fighter;

and their three hirelings: Murray, Virginia and Paulino (all of them 1d6 HP, 0-level commoners).

With the exception of Snet (who is basically a sentient colony of rats in a trench coat), all of the PCs and hirelings so far have been human because I wanted to keep the setting humanocentric and somewhat low-magic, so I didn't allow players to make elf, dwarf or halfling PCs. Snet is so weird because he rolled three 7's for his stats during character creation, and I thought I would let him roll to get a random mutation as a consolation prize. 

this is what most of the
PCs' recruits look like

The PCs have spent most of their time exploring a single "tentpole dungeon" (Bugbear Castle) that I've been kludging together between sessions, but a couple of sessions were dedicated to doing other stuff unrelated to the dungeon. One particularly memorable side-trek consisted of the PCs hunting down and massacring a company of brigands they had been fighting on and off for the entire campaign. (The very first session the PCs waited outside the Castle and ambushed a small detachment of said brigands when they came out, killing them and stealing the treasure they had retrieved from the dungeon.)

Anyways, "Bugbear Castle" started off as an attempt to make my own Castle Greyhawk or Castle Blackmoor and run a campaign centered around it. It began as a single level with around 34 rooms inspired by a reskin of B3-Palace of the Silver Princess that Gus from Dungeon of Signs did. The main enemies were different kinds of goblinoids, animated furniture and miscellaneous skeletons and stirges. As the PCs explored it I slowly started adding more rooms to it, and eventually added a small "cellar" level under the original castle to bring the total number of rooms up to 79. Once my players were almost done exploring that cellar level, I realized I wanted to keep expanding the dungeon but I was too lazy to write an entire new level myself, so I just grabbed the Hyqueous Vaults and half-assedly grafted it to the bottom of my franken-dungeon without thinking about it too much (the PCs are currently exploring this level). I plan to do this again with Diogo Nogueira's Halls of the Blood King and more unrelated modules when the time comes. 

I've referred to it as a megadungeon before, but tbh it's still quite small in comparison to, say, Stonehell. Maybe one day it will be big enough to deserve being called a megadungeon, but right now I'm happy just calling it my humble tentpole dungeon. 

AD&D bugbears

The setting is fairly standard, vanilla-ish D&D. The main inspiration was Wayne Rossi's posts on the implied setting of OD&D. It's a Points-of-Light-y, mountainous, pseudo-medieval, pseudo-European region, with a few town-baronies, fortresses, and ruins scattered here and there. The wilderness is full of bears, brigands and werewolves. The towns are inhabited by grubby bumpkins and scoundrels who spit on the ground compulsively. The tentpole dungeon literally just fell from the sky near the starting town a couple of days before the campaign started, and the game began with me telling the players: "You've heard rumours that the Castle that fell from the sky is full of monsters and treasure. You want that treasure."

The campaign has been pretty easy to run. Most weeks I do less than 20 minutes of prep for the next session; I mostly just keep a record of changes in the dungeon and sometimes track the development of town happenings. This is a success in my eyes. One of my priorities when I started planning this campaign was to run something as simple and effortless as possible. Over-preparing stuff has burned me out in the past, and I can happily say that I don't really see myself burning out on this campaign anytime soon. 

The main thing that has helped me keep the campaign simple has been focusing on a small region. So far, the PCs have only (very briefly) visited another settlement besides the starting town. NPCs sometimes mention other towns and cities, but so far the party hasn't had any reason or motivation to travel to them. This is fine, tho, because I want to keep the campaign low-prep, simple, and focused on the tentpole dungeon. Every now and then the PCs go visit the M-U's teacher to trade magic items for spells and consult him about stuff, but other than that they just travel between the starting town and the dungeon.

As for the play: most sessions the PCs just spend a while planning their next expedition, go to the dungeon, explore a couple of rooms, and then return to town and sell their loot. Some days they've spent up to one and a half hour just in the planning process, wandering around town trying to recruit hirelings, visiting carpenters and blacksmiths to commission expensive contraptions, and coming up with theories about stuff they've seen in the dungeon. The dungeoneering has been very fun, tense and exciting most of the time. The PCs have killed a ton of goblinoids, undead and other miscellaneous monsters, and a bunch of PCs and hirelings have gotten killed too (see the end of this post for the on-going Roll of the Dead). Some noteworthy things I've noticed are that already at 3rd level, PCs start feeling much less fragile and much more capable, so they start getting a bit more careless about combat and traps; Sleep, Turn Undead, Light, and heavy armor are the MVPs of the campaign; and dungeon rivers are extremely dangerous. Most PC and hireling deaths owe themselves to bad luck (i.e. getting one-shotted by critical hits) or bad judgement (i.e. one player charging a group of enemies alone while the rest of the party just watches), and they have decreased over time as the players have learnt to stick together and support each other during fights. The biggest take-away when it comes to tactics is that the party should always either fight together or run away together. Lack of coordination kills. 

Lately I've been thinking that I would like to give M-Us more ways to find new spells, since they don't get any new ones by just levelling up. Something I've thought about is spreading rumours of a certain valley or swamp littered with the tombs of dead spellcasters generated with the tables from Barrowmaze. Currently, the M-U occasionally finds the odd scroll or bundle of spellbook pages in the dungeon, or trades magic items in exchange for spells with the wizard that taught him magic, but having a specific location where you can go and know for certain that there's a big chance that you'll find new spells seems like a good idea to me. Obviously, looking for spells in these mountain tombs would also be dangerous and challenging. Alternatively, I could try to come up with more ways to learn or obtain spells inside the tentpole dungeon (or maybe in town?) Hunting other magic-user NPCs for their spells is a classic and something I would also like to incentivize.

I've also been using spells as "particular instantiations of a spell-species", taking inspiration from this goblin punch post. TL;DR: each spell is an individual specimen of a certain species, but you can potentially have multiple specimens of each species in your spellbook. This solves the problem of M-Us only ever using their one or two strongest spells repeatedly, but also leaves space for them to have multiple copies of sleep, or magic missile, or whatever, if they can obtain them.

Ociro the Magnificent, the high-level
wizard who taught the party's M-U

That's pretty much it. It has been a fun campaign so far, and I'm looking forward to keep running it. Will probably write more about it in a few months.

And now, last but not least, a list of all the PCs and hirelings that have died thus far. Funnily enough, I think it does a pretty good job of capturing some of the more memorable encounters and occurrences that have come to pass:

Krebb the M-U, stabbed by goblins.
Robin Hood the henchman, devoured by a mountain dragon.
Unnamed mule #1, carried off by a mountain dragon.
Regend the M-U, disemboweled by a hypno-peacock
Igor Ironteeth the henchman, gormandized by a carnivorous cottage.
Herr Cooles the M-U, ripped apart by a cloth dragon.
Tyson 2 the potbellied sellsword, shot by a goblin, heroically saved the party's lantern.
Circe the warg, crushed by an avalanche of bones.
Tyson 3 the sellsword, crushed by an avalanche of bones.
Kovacs the henchman, killed by orcs.
Lukacs the henchman, slain by brigands.
Tyson 4 the sellsword, slain by brigands.
Tyson 1 the fighter, slain by brigands.
Mamú the bodyguard, slain by brigands.
Morlak the thief, slain by brigands.
Calypso the fighter,  slain by brigands.
Ha Cin the fighter, flattened by an animated cupboard.
Kaína the hireling, trampled by a stampede of animated chairs.
Zwann the hireling, suffocated by a crawling fume. 
Morgana the fighter, head ripped off by a skeleton.
Koolhaus the hireling, consumed by a vermin grotesquerie.
Xer the dog, eaten by bears.
Unnamed mule #2, eaten by bears.
Moebio the hireling, assassinated on the PCs orders.
Olufemi the carpenter, assassinated on the PCs orders.
Macario the hireling, drowned by a vodyanoy.
Britney the hireling, drowned by a vodyanoy.

A lightning-breathing mountain dragon

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

A magical 8-ball that doesn't waste your time by giving non-committal answers

For when the party is by the parapet of a castle wall and a player asks if there is a haystack or tent or something to break the fall if their character jumps, so you have to adjudicate if something exists to break the fall (or other similar situations related to the existence of details you hadn't considered), but your magic 8-ball keeps telling you to "ask again later":

This post was inspired by a question that @RandomWizard asked on twitter.

Made using the List to HTML generator found here: (Thanks Spwack!)

Here are all the possible answers:

1. Don't count on it.
2. My sources say no.
3. Not a chance!
4. No, but...
5. No! On the contrary...
6. As I see it, yes.
7. You may rely on it.
8. Outlook good!
9. Yes, obviously.
10. Yes, but...

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Theater of the Mind Abstract Terrain Generation

As we all know, sometimes, when traversing the wilderness, the PCs will come across wolves or bandits or whatever else inhabits your random encounter tables. My current campaign takes place in a mountainous region and, often enough, my players will ask me if there are trees nearby where they can take cover, or similar questions pertaining to the terrain of the "battlefield". The problem is that most of the time I don't know what the terrain looks like either. I'm not a big fan of using battlemaps for encounters in old school D&D, and ever since COVID started and we moved the campaign online, keeping things strictly Theater of the Mind has become even more important since we don't use a virtual tabletop. So I came up with a lil random table to generate "abstract terrain features" when the need arises. The roll describes the starting position of the PCs and their foes relative to the terrain. It's very important to roll as per the regular wandering monster rules to know how far away each side is from the other.

Roll a d4.

1 : Terrain feature favors foes

2 : Terrain affects neither side

3: Terrain feature affects both sides

4: Terrain feature favors PCs

Terrain Features that would favor only one side would include things like the higher ground, a copse of trees in the middle of a field, random ruins or maybe a bottleneck.

Terrain features that affect both sides implies that the encounter takes place in an area with lots of trees, in a field of geysers, on a hanging bridge, or that there's a river separating each side from the other. 

The idea behind this table is that abstract terrain generation should be simple, quick and versatile, and provide some extra info for players to decide if they want to stay and fight or try to run away. Maybe running away is not so easy in certain situations. Maybe the terrain will dissuade foes from attacking or chasing the PCs. Full disclaimer: I haven't play-tested this yet, so hopefully I'll report back in a few months with some insights about how well it works in actual play.