Posts Tagged ‘oldschool’

cursing the thoroughness of the caller

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
This entry is part 10 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

REFEREE: The chest with the poison needle is full of copper pieces – appears to be about 2,000 of them.
CALLER: Empty out all the copper pieces and check the trunk for secret drawers or a false bottom, and do the same with the empty one. Also, do there seem to be any old boots or cloaks among the old clothes in the rubbish pile?
REFEREE: (Cursing the thoroughness of the caller!) The seemingly empty trunk has a false bottom…

OD&D, as described in the sample of play, is unique in that the DM seems to be TRYING TO HIDE HIS CONTENT FROM THE PLAYERS. It’s not just adversarial, it’s gnostic. The DM gets some kind of joy if they miss the treasure – but he still places the treasure.

I’m not convinced that this is really what OD&D game was like. When I played with Mike Mornard, I never got the feeling that Mike was rooting for us to ignore treasure. He might have created lots of treasure we never saw, but but he’d be happy if we were smart enough to earn it.

Trying to twist this example around into something I can understand, I can see playing OD&D as a game more like the Descent boardgame than the D&D I’m used to: the DM is bound by certain rules of fair play, but is actually in competition with the players. If the PCs find more than half of the treasure, the players win. If the DM manages to outsmart the players by concealing more than half of the treasure, he wins.

Naturally, at the end of such a game, the DM would reveal all the hiding places of treasure, and cackle. “There was an onyx in that desk in the Gnoll room, but you walked right by it. (cackle). The pile of discarded rubbish contained Elven Boots, guess you should have checked that out. (cackle)”

Onwards, friends, to more and better loot!

od&d staves

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013
This entry is part 9 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

The standout magic items from OD&D are the staves. They seem like they’re much more powerful than everything else.

Compare the best magic sword with a Staff of Fireballs:

Magic sword: +3 to hit, +0 to damage (so, 1d6 damage).

Staff of Fireballs: Shoots fireballs that do 8d6 damage (save for half). 8d6 is a lot of damage in a game in which the strongest monsters have 12d6 HP. The Purple Worm is the outlier, with 15 Hit Dice, but it will still die in two hits.

And the Staff of Fireball has 100 CHARGES.

Compare that to the equivalent item, Wand of Fireballs, from 3rd edition: it throws 6d6 fireballs and has 50 charges. Furthermore, in 3rd edition, monsters have d8 Hit Dice, and they have more of them. (For instance, dragons have 5-38 HD instead of 5-12 HD.)

Not only that, the Staff of Power is like a Staff of Fireballs with a bunch of other abilities. The Staff of Wizardry is like a Staff of Power with a bunch of other abilities. Between these 3 items, about 10% of staves have the ability to fire 8-die fireballs. You only have a 2% chance of getting the sword +3.

The Staff of Fireballs family might not even be the most game-changing staves in the game. The staff I’d want is “Staff of Secret Doors and Trap Detection.” It has 100% chance of detecting both; it works within 20 feet; and it doesn’t have charges. It’s operational as long as it’s being held. It’s SO MUCH better than having a thief in your party, guys.

Traps (and secret doors) are such a major part of OD&D-style dungeon crawling that I can hardly imagine them removed. Imagine a campaign where that entire aspect of the game was thrown away. I think the DM would have to resort to semi-cheating in order to downplay the staff’s power: “Well technically the lever that turned you all into insects was a TRICK, not a TRAP.” “You detect a trap in the corridor which is THE ONLY WAY OUT OF THE DUNGEON.” “I know you can detect secret doors, but the treasure was hidden behind a CONCEALED DOOR.”

Gygax Hated Hobbits

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013
This entry is part 6 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

From Men and Magic:

Dwarves: Dwarves may opt only for the fighting class, and they may never progress beyond the 6th level (Myrmidon)…

Elves: Elves can begin as either Fighting-Men or Magic-Users and freely switch class whenever they choose…

Hobbits: Should any player wish to be one, he will be limited to the Fighting-Man class as a hobbit.


From Men and Magic, page 33:

Raise Dead: The Cleric simply points his finger, utters the incantation, and the dead person is raised. This spell works with men, elves, and dwarves only.


berserk men

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012
This entry is part 8 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

Monsters and Treasure P 6:

“Berserkers are simply mad men with battle lust.”

when inches are inches

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012
This entry is part 7 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

OD&D follows the Chainmail convention of using “inches” as a measure meaning 10 feet (in a dungeon) or 10 yards (outside). This isn’t explained up front: in Book 1, Men and Magic, measurements are just given in inches and you have to deal with it. I like to imagine the sad sap who didn’t have Chainmail and was figuring things out as he read. “Lightly-armored troops can travel 12 inches every ten minutes? Huh. Seems a little slow, but OK.” “The Light spell casts light in a 3 inch diameter? Wow. If it was radius, that would at least be something.”

The actual inches-to-distance conversions are somewhere in book 3. Underground movement is on page 8, in the Move/Turn in the Underworld section: “In the underworld all distances are in feet, so wherever distances are given convert them to tens of feet.” Outside movement is defined (inside parentheses) on page 17, under “Sighting Monsters”: “Players will see monsters at from 40-240 yards (inches convert to tens of yards for the wilderness) unless the monster has surprised the characters involved.”

The poor first-time OD&D reader won’t be skipping around to find this information either, because the Introduction admonishes the reader that volume 3 is presented last “in order to allow the reader to gain the perspective necessary – the understanding of the previous two booklets. Read through the entire work in the order presented before you attempt to play.”

My absolute favorite measurement-related section is the descriptions of the Wall of Stone and Wall of Iron spells (in Book 1, long before the meanings of “inch” are given), where inches (meaning tens of feet) interacts with feet (meaning feet), and also with inches meaning inches:

Wall of Stone: The creation of a stone wall two feet thick with a maximum length and height equalling 10 square inches. The wall will last until dispelled, broken down or battered through as a regular stone wall. Duration: 12 turns. Range: 6″.

Wall of Iron:: Like a Wall of Stone, but the thickness of the wall is three inches and its maximum area 5 square inches. Duration: 12 turns. Range: 6″.

“Huh. Wall of Iron produces 15 cubic inches of iron? Well, since my light footman moves a foot every 10 minutes, I guess it’s useful. How high do you think he can jump?”

D&D is old-school, Chainmail is new-school

Monday, July 9th, 2012
This entry is part 3 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

OD&D? Pah! The REAL Fantasy game is Chainmail. And it is way ahead of its time. Here’s why.

As a new-school D&D player, there’s a lot of D&D history I’ve missed. Editing Cheers Gary, gaming with Mike Mornard, and illustrating the AD&D Dungeon Generator have helped, but there’s a lot in D&D that I still don’t understand. I’m going back to the OD&D texts to see whether they can help my new-school game. Right now, I’m reading Chainmail.

Chainmail has Dice Pools. When you attack some Light Foot with your Medium Horse, you roll 2d6 per horseman, and you get a success (kill) on a 5 or a 6. The dice pool mechanic wouldn’t be seen again until Shadowrun in ’89.

Chainmail has ascending Armor Class. Sort of. Chainmail man-to-man combat is run by crossindexing things on matrixes. On the melee table, there are headings for the different types of armor (No Armor through Plate Mail and Shield). On the Missile Fire table, the armor types are replaced with ascending numbers: 1 for No Armor, 2 for Leather, up to 8 for Plate Armor and Shield.

Chainmail has at-will spells. There are no spellpoints or rules for Vancian casting in Chainmail. A wizard can throw a fireball once a turn, if he likes.

Chainmail has rules for counterspells – and they’re simple: when an enemy wizard casts a spell, roll a target number on 2d6 to counter it. D&D 3e had counterspell rules that no one ever used because they involved readying an action. I don’t think any other edition has counterspells as part of the core rules.

Chainmail has rules for spell failure. A weak wizard (a seer) can try to cast a difficult spell – they just have a chance of failure. This was taken out of D&D, and generations of fans have tried to houserule it back in.

art by gygax and arneson

Monday, June 25th, 2012
This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

(Today I’m talking about the art of OD&D, so this post is NSFW inasmuch as you think the OD&D art is NSFW.)

During a D&D game with Mike Mornard, we got to talking about the art in the original Little Brown Books and the Greyhawk supplement.

Greg Bell is listed as one of the illustrators in the original books. You can recognize Greg Bell pics by the blocky outlines.

It seems that Greg copied the compositions of a lot of his pieces from comics of the time: for instance, I bet this picture started its life as a Conan the Barbarian splash page.

But hey – Greg was a teenager drawing pictures for a friend’s semi-amateur zine. I don’t think we need to hold him to super high standards here.

Mike Mornard says that, at the time, he hated Greg Bell’s pictures and asked Gary why he was using so many of the illustrations. “Because Greg works for $2 a picture,” said Gary.

Mike disliked the Bell artwork so much that he went off and recruited an artist who, he believed, could do better: David Sutherland. Mike met David at a Society for Creative Anachronism meeting, saw his drawings, and told him to get in touch with Gary Gygax.

Sutherland’s art, of course, became a staple of early TSR work. He drew the adventurers that inspired my dungeon map poster. He also drew a lot of naked ladies. Here are two David Sutherland succubi.

Mornard told us that the body of one of these original succubi was copied from a Playboy centerfold. If I were truly dedicated to D&D history, I would no doubt look through early 70s centerfolds to find the original. I will leave that research project up for grabs.

Speaking of nudity, there were a lot of naked-lady monsters in Oe and 1e. They’re often recalled fondly (and only barely creepily) by guys I know who played D&D as kids. A lot of these pieces are by Darlene. Here’s Darlene’s succubus, this time in a sort of Baroque odalisque pose instead of a Playboy pose:

Mike Mornard mentioned that another of the naked-lady pieces from the original book was by a female artist, and that it arrived unsolicited in the mail:

It’s interesting that more than half of the nude women of OD&D are by female artists. I have no conclusions I can draw from this, except that it seems that the indie geek scene of the 70s is different from the one I’m familiar with.

Another artist whose OD&D work has always fascinated me is Keenan Powell:

Keenan Powell’s amateur, almost outsider-art pictures set the tone, for me, for the OD&D aesthetic. The whole book gives the feeling of being illustrated by gamers who draw pictures, not by artists who play games.

Is Keenan Powell (who’s also a female artist, apparently) the same person who drew the Beautiful Witch and Amazon? I can’t read the signature on the witch illustration.

While we were on the subject of OD&D art, I asked Mike something which had puzzled me for a long time. “Who drew that stone head in the Greyhawk book? And what was that about?”

“I think that was by Gary,” said Mike. And he didn’t know what it was about: it wasn’t one of the things he encountered on his trips through the Greyhawk dungeon. As far as Mike knew, the Enigmatic Stone Head might have been something that Rob Kuntz discovered on one of his solo dungeon escavations.

Furthermore, Mike told us, the Carrion Crawler picture from Greyhawk was by Dave Arneson.

Without hearing it from Mike, I would never have known that these pictures, by the inventors of the game, weren’t by the same hand. I might have attributed them to Keenan Powell. I find it somehow touching that these guys, out of their exubrance and their love of the game (and maybe in an effort to save $2) were inspired to draw and share these pictures.

I’m not a professional artist. When I draw a picture and put it up on the Internet, I sometimes feel like it’s an act of hubris. Maybe it is, but it’s also an act of faith that the world will cut me a break and accept what I can offer. I think that all of these OD&D artists need to be approached on those terms.

dungeons and dowels

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012
This entry is part 1 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

I guess Gary Gygax must have had a bunch of spare dowels in his house, because there are some great dowel-based rules in the Chainmail booklet.

The first rule is for determining the efficacy of cannon fire.

The length of a firing dowel will correspond to the maximum range of the cannon which it represents. Each is colored alternately white and black to represent the flight and bounces of a cannon ball. BEFORE PLACING THE DOWEL THE PLAYER FIRING MUST STATE WHETHER HE IS FIRING SHORT (white) OR LONG (black) AT THE TARGET. All figures that are touched by the named color on the dowell are eliminated.

This is a beautiful, elegant rule. I love the way it simulates the random bouncing of high- and low-ranged cannonballs, both on the same dowel, each using the other’s negative space. It’s like the yin and yang of shooting pretend people.

I Photoshopped this dowel image based on the measurements in the book for a cannon with a range of 36″.

Dowel Rule 2 is in the Fantasy Supplement:

If any number of figures are airborne at one time, it becomes difficult to maintain a side record of their height and course. It is recommended that a number of 36″ dowels be set firmly into 2″ x 4″ bases, and flying figures be secured at the proper height in the dowel by use of a rubber band.

Recording flying creatures’ positions is a bit of a problem in D&D. We’ve used stacks of dice, notes on scraps of paper, and, most frequently, ignoring positioning altogether. I’m not going to rush out and buy dowels, but I recognize that perhaps I SHOULD.

a new schooler reads Chainmail

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012
This entry is part 2 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

As a new-school D&D player, there’s a lot of D&D history I’ve missed. Editing Cheers Gary, gaming with Mike Mornard, and illustrating the AD&D Dungeon Generator have helped, but there’s a lot in D&D that I still don’t understand. I’m going back to the OD&D texts to see whether they can help my new-school game.

I decided to start with the original fantasy roleplaying game: Chainmail!

I’m not a war-gamer, so I expected to get bogged down in pages of elliptical rules that only made sense to other wargamers. I have to say, it was much more readable than I thought!

For the most part, Chain Mail uses a simple system, and most of the rules seem like rulings – fairly logical rulings – on corner cases, mostly involving how awesome awesome Swiss and Landsknechte pikemen are.

Double all penalties for poorly trained troops, and half for Swiss/Landsknechte and horse.

Only Swiss and Landsknechte pikemen can form a hedgehog. If ten or more of these troops are in a square-type formation, pikes or pole arms facing outwards in all four directions, a “hedgehog” has been constituted.

Swiss/Landsknechte Pike Charge: Because of the reputation and ferocity of these troops, an enemy charged by Swiss or Landsknechte pikemen (other than like troops) must roll two dice and consult the Loss Table, just as if they had suffered excess casualties.

Swiss and Landsknechte armed with pikes or pole arms facing the enemy automatically stand any charges.

Swiss/Landsknechte attacking in close formation ( 5 x 2 figures minimum) fight as Armored Foot, with extra die for weapons. For every two men so attacking as additional “mass shock” die is added.

At the Battle of Marignano, Swiss pikemen actually fought Landsknecht mercenaries. Because it was impossible for either side to lose, THE BATTLE IS STILL GOING ON.

There are a handful of charts in the back, but the basic melee mechanic seems to be to to convert your soldiers into a d6 dice pool, roll all the dice, and score kills for every success. 6 is always a success, and for better troop types, 5’s and 4’s can be a success as well. It’s all very… White Wolf.

The 45-page book manages to find room for rules for sieges, and … jousting! Not to mention the 13-page Fantasy Supplement that kicked off this whole D&D thing.

There are a few rules that make me scared to play. For instance:

Continued activity brings on weariness:
1. Moving 5 consecutive turns.
2. Moving 2 consecutive turns, charging, then meleeing.
3. Moving 1 turn, charging, then meleeing 2 rounds.
4. Meleeing three rounds.

(Except of course that Swiss/Landsknechte can go twice as long in every category before getting fatigued. OF COURSE they can.)

When I read these fatigue rules, I realized how much recordkeeping is involved in this game. Every turn, you have to write down every unit’s move – even if you’re not using the optional “written orders” rule variation. Not only that, you have to look back through your notes to see if each of your units have rested in the past 5 turns, etc. I’d think this would slow the pace way down. How are you going to get through Waterloo in one day at this rate?

There’s also a bunch of stuff you have to reevaluate at the half-move (after the unit has moved half its movement rate). Melee and archery can take place at the half-move and at the end of the move. I wondered why every unit’s movement rate wasn’t just cut in half and one turn cut into two. I’m sure there’s a reason, though.

I’m kind of surprised to say this, but I would… play… Chainmail. I’m just throwing that out there, guys. Any beardos in New York with a sand table?

in search of the unknown

Friday, May 4th, 2012
This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

I’ve heard a lot of references to the 1981 module “In Search of the Unknown:” it came with the first edition of Basic D&D, and a lot of people have fond memories of it. I’ve never read it. When I got a heavy box of D&D books in the mail, it was the first module I grabbed.

I’ve been on a search of my own lately, exploring the D&D I missed before I entered the hobby. As a kid, I played in bizarre junior high versions of Red Box Basic and AD&D, and as an adult I’ve mostly played third and fourth edition. It’s been fun playing OD&D: I’m slowly getting a handle on a different style of D&D than one I’ve ever played.

I was delighted to find Mike Carr’s lengthy “how to play D&D” essay at the beginning of the module. It’s pretty similar to advice in the OD&D and Dungeon Master’s Guide books, but since I’ve never read it before, it’s fresh. I have two other fresh experiences with which to compare the advice: my OD&D games with Mike Mornard and my extremely close study of Gary Gygax’s Random Dungeon Generation tables from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. There are a lot of parallels to draw here.


Here’s what Mike Carr says about the dungeon in In Search of the Unknown:

The dungeon is designed to be instructive for new players. Most of it should be relatively easy to map, although there are difficult sections – especially on the lower level where irregular rock caverns and passageways will provide a real challenge.

I didn’t realize until Mike Mornard spelled it out for us that mapping was intended to be one of the big challenges of D&D. The labyrinth is as dangerous as the minotaur. In Search of the Unknown is explicitly teaching mapping skills. The assumption is that more advanced modules will be bigger mapping challenges.

It is quite possible that adventurers (especially if wounded or reduced in number) may want to pull out of the stronghold and prepare for a return visit when refreshed or reinforced. If this is done, they must work their way to an exit.

When we play in Mike Mornard’s D&D game, he makes us use our maps. We can’t say “We leave the dungeon.” Every time, we have to specify our twists and turns back to the entrance. This still feels foreign to me. I think I’ve quoted Baf of The Stack before: a game is about what you spend your time doing. OD&D is a game about mapping. Exploration takes more game time than combat. Coming from 3e and 4e, I feel like I’ve been playing a different game.

I love the 1e Player’s Handbook illustration of the troll re-winding the twine trailed by the fighter. (I referenced it in my poster.) Mornard related this story: Once in Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor game, some guys decided to leave string behind them instead of mapping. Eventually, the rope jerked out of their hands and started unrolling, and then they heard a slurping, like someone eating spaghetti. Mapping is a necessary skill: don’t try cheat your way out of it.


One player in the group should be designated as the leader, or “caller” for the party… once the caller (or any player) speaks and indicates an action is being taken, it is begun – even if the player quickly changes his or her mind (especially if the player realizes he or she has made a mistake or error in judgment).

Before playing in Mike Mornard’s game, my eye would have skipped over this classic bit of old-school advice as irrelevant to me. Now I’ve seen it in action:

DM: There are passages north and west.
US: We go south.
DM: Bump… bump… you bump into the wall.

More ridiculously, I recently had my thief start down the magic staircase into the chamber of Necross the Mad, even though I knew that the stairway hadn’t been summoned yet. A merciful DM would have reminded me of that fact – what adventurer would step off a ledge? – but Mike Mornard took me at my word, and I fell. Mike only gave me one point of damage, where perhaps Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson would have assigned more.

Mike says that his game is pretty close to the Gary and Dave game in rules and in content, but where their influences ran more to swords and sorcery, Mike brings more Warner Brothers to the table. There is a lot of laughing in Mike’s game, where Gary and Dave’s were grimmer. But in all three games – and in Mike Carr’s game as well – you need to listen to the DM, and visualize what you hear – and think. As Mike Carr’s introduction says elsewhere, “Careless adventurers will pay the penalty for a lack of caution – only one of the many lessons to be learned within the dungeon!”


Every third turn of adventuring, the DM should take a die roll for the possible appearance of wandering monsters at the indicated chances (which are normally 1 in 6)… Some occurrences (such as noise and commotion caused by adventurers) may necessitate additional checks… Wasted time is also a factor which should be noted, as players may waste time arguing or needlessly discussing unimportant matters or by simply blundering around aimlessly. … You set the tempo of the game and are responsible for keeping it moving. If players are unusually slow… allow additional chances for wandering monsters to appear.

This passage will feel very familiar to the players in Mike Mornard’s game. We’ve all grown to fear the d6, which comes rolling out at us whenever we’re “needlessly discussing unimportant matters or simply blundering around aimlessly” – which is often. Wandering monsters disappeared from 4e (and from many 3e games) because they slowed down the game pointlessly. What Mike Carr is suggesting here, and what we’ve learned from Mike Mornard, is that wandering monster checks are actually a way to preserve pacing. Once you’re in the dungeon, you can’t afford to get bogged down in bickering over minutiae. How I wish that work meetings came with wandering monster checks.

mysterious containers

The dungeon includes a good assortment of typical features which players can learn to expect, including… mysterious containers with a variety of contents for examination.

The typical D&D treasure announcement isn’t “You find 1000 GP in a chest:” it’s “You find an old wooden chest. What do you do?” Containers are important. The Appendix A random generator has three separate tables for rolling up characteristics of treasure containers. Here are a couple of the ones I’ve encountered in OD&D:

Contact poison on trap: One of the cardinal OD&D rules is “check the chest for traps.” As the party thief, I make sure to incant this formula. I think that the Greyhawk supplement has rules for finding traps, and I imagine that my odds of success are quite low, but in the last game, Mike told me, without requiring a roll, that the lock was covered with a brownish paste. Good enough warning for me to wear gloves. This transforms a 50/50 chance at arbitrary death into a game element that rewards a methodical, cautious play-style: quite in keeping with the mysterious OD&D “player skill.”

We considered taking the chest with us so we could brush it against opponents, but Mike’s beatific expression – that of a DM who’s thought of flaws in PCs’ plans – warned us to leave it where it was.

Invisible chests: Invisible chests are are oddly common in dungeons made with the Appendix A random generator – and hard to illustrate. They always seemed to me oddly pointless. Why include a treasure you can’t possibly find?

In our case, we passed the invisible chest on the way into a room, but tripped over it on the way out. I can imagine it working like OD&D’s 3 in 6 chance to fall in a pit: there are rewards, as well as dangers, you might never know you passed.

Our invisible chest contained 1000 or so gold, but we were all struck by the advantages of owning our own invisible chest. My character in particular, who frequently leaves his bandit hirelings unsupervised at home, has every need of a way to hide his treasure.

There’s probably a lot more of interest in In Search of the Unknown, but I’ll leave the rest unread – just in case I can get someone to run it for me. After all (says Mike Carr,) “this element of the unknown and the resultant exploration in search of the unknown treasures (with hostile monsters and unexpected dangers to outwit and overcome) is precisely what a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS adventure is all about.”