Monday, October 23, 2023

Dungeon Skrimishing

TACTICAL COMBAT MECHANICS for Theater of the Mind Dungeon Crawls

Front Piece From the Holmes Edition - 1977

Running skirmish sized combat requires more than a party that can win with limited special abilities (such as a sleep spell or fireball), and must hold players interest by avoiding an endless grind of simple attack rolls. To do this it’s best to introduce some element of tactics. It’s important that, without resorting to true “grid combat”, one has rules for: spacing, ranks, and flanking. With these few concepts one can have simple shieldwall combat that provides both faster and more tactical skirmish size combat while still retaining the basic structure of the rules found in older editions of Dungeons & Dragons or other systems built from the same sources. These rules are also modular, and can be adapted to each table’s time needs, comfort with tactics, desire for combat options and interest in measurement or fine detail … to a degree of course. These rules are still early Dungeons & Dragons combat based on Arneson’s “alternate combat system” and use the same abstracted, simple rounds, initiative and attack rolls every Dungeons & Dragon player is familiar with. A significant advantage for my own games is that this set of additional rules don’t require grid-style combat -- the concepts of line, rank and spacing are largely self-contained, self-relational and intuitive to a degree that with a little practice they are easy to run from even gridless maps or a vague sketch of a random wilderness area. That is, these are “theater of the mind” combat rules.

Simplified and Fantastic Pre-modern Combat. Here is a set of mechanics and a procedure that allow some tactical complexity with the limitations of the fairly simple and abstract combat mechanics of older, exploration focused systems, without the necessity of a grid or measurements. They also badly mimic the basic ideas behind pre-modern combat, based on the shieldwall tactics of classical Mediterranean infantry armies and even more a simplified and vague cinematic interpretation of the warfare between warbands in Europe of the Migration Period and Early Middle Ages. They are undoubtedly incomplete and historically wrong in several ways … but they have worked for me to offer a comprehensible tactical system that doesn’t require a complex grid and token system.

Combat occurs between two lines of armored (and often shielded) combatants facing each other so that each front line fighter limits the number of opponents they face and can avoid being flanked
Less well armored combatants either take up positions behind the front line in ranks to attack over their shoulders with spears and polearms, or extend their side’s line in an effort to flank the enemy line.

RANGES AND DISTANCE The dungeon is almost always a cramped place and dungeon combats tend to take place at very short distances compared to field battles. There is no room for cavalry, artillery, push of pike, or even much for missile fire. Because of this the exact measurements or even the grid of a war game are less necessary and estimated “range bands” can be used if they are easier to imagine and remember. As with turn keeping vs. time keeping, remember that the characters and players are unlikely to know or care if their heavily armored foes at the other end of the hall are 42’ away or 37’ — only if they are in range to charge this round. Instead of calculating the 40’ combat movement rate it’s more efficient to consider distance in terms of simple distance categories: Close (grappling or 0’), Melee (in melee strike range or 5’), Reach (attack range for spears and polearms or 10’), Charge/Medium (Distance that can be closed with a charge attack; 10’ - 40’), and Long (beyond 40’ usually outside of torch or lantern light distance, requires a round at least to closer to Charge distance). The referee should estimate distances based on a quick glance at the map (its distance grid can help, but isn’t absolutely necessary), but for it to work the players need to trust and accept the referee’s adjudications rather than argue for advantage.

These range bands still support existing combat mechanics, such as ranged weapon bonuses, the referee just needs to describe ranges and distances in terms of the immediate concerns of the players rather than distances in feet or meters. Explain “What can attack the characters and what can the characters attack” without the intermediate issue of calculating distances. Some detail and granularity may be lost, but for most combats, especially dungeon combats, these estimations are sufficient, far quicker, free the game form grid combat, and leave less room for meta-gaming tiny distances.

MISSILE COMBAT Bows, crossbows and other long range weapons are extremely dangerous to fire into melees and are usually limited to either an initial volley or two as forces close. Thrown weapons can be modeled in a more interesting tactical manner that somewhat mirrors the use of thrown spears in Hellenistic and Roman combat, or hurlbats and francisca by Northern European warriors such as the gallowglass until the 16th century.

Firing into Melee. In an open field battle where opposing forces advance across the field from hundreds of yards, or in a siege long range missile weapons such as bows and crossbows are deadly and effective… in the close darkness of a dungeon, they are rarely useful for more than a couple of shots before melee commences.

Missile weapons can always be used normally prior to melee combat and fired from any rank, but the risk of injuring or dangerously distracting one’s allies is quite high.  When firing into a melee (even at enemies in the second or deeper ranks) a natural attack roll of five or under (modifiers don’t count), will strike the ally nearest the target (or alternatively distract them allowing their opponents to strike them) inflicting its damage on the ally.

Optional Rule: Reactive Thrown Weapons Thrown off hand weapons such as hurlbats, plumbatas, piling, or throwing knives, which can be used in reaction to and attack. Held in the off hand these thrown weapons allow a trained Fighter or Thief a ranged attack as a new enemy moves to engage them in melee.

A Reactive Attack is made just like a normal attack, but interrupts the initiative sequence, and allows the combatant with the drawn thrown weapon to attack prior to an enemy moving into melee.  This attack can only be made immediately prior to the enemy’s first attack or charge, thrown from a foot or two, it is otherwise as a normal attack. Reactive attacks are not allowed as an additional attack on the combatants own action (though the throwing weapon can be used as normal if missile combat is an option). A reactive attack with a thrown weapon does not provide time for the combatant to draw an additional weapon, pick up a shield, brace against a charge or otherwise perform any additional acts prior to the opponent's action.

Lines are one or more combatants armed with a melee weapon who controls an area and prevents up to two enemies directly in front of them from passing them.  While it’s possible to break or flank a line, an enemy armed with a regular melee weapon cannot pass it or attack anyone except for the 2-4 enemies directly in front of them in the enemy line. In a dungeon skirmish lines are often anchored by a wall or other obstacle, and so become impossible to circumvent (or flank). Each human sized combatant takes up and can protect 5’ of space (or half a map square) (See Fig 1.), unless they are in a doorway, in which case they can cover up to 10’ of space (See Fig 2. This means that two defenders are required to form a line across most corridors.

A combatant in a line formation can attack enemies in the 15’  in front of them, including the right or leftmost enemy in the next line segment. This means that the most enemies a combatant in a line will face directly is three (Fig.1) ... well four if they are in a doorway.

Defenders A & B make a narrow line, attacked by 1-5
is in melee with 1 & 2.
B is in melee with 1, 2 & 3
has been FLANKED by 5
is not in melee combat

For those defending doorways this is significant, the lone defender is able to prevent the enemy from flanking, but still faces multiple (up to 4 plus any from the enemy's rear rank) attacks each round. For larger groups attempting to block an advance it is always better to defend behind the doorway allowing and attack single (See Fig. 2)

Monday, August 7, 2023

Crystal Frontier - Ongoing Campaign - The Forest

“There are many worlds. Some have passed and some are still to come. In one world the Lui all creep; in another they all walk; in another they all fly. Perhaps in a world to come, the Lui may walk on four legs; or they may twist like snakes; or they may swim in the water like fish. Perhaps this is that world already."

 - Woundsmens’ Fable

The deep forests of Blackacre, now known as the Blackwound, are older than humanity, and perhaps older than the world itself. While the Old People of the deep wood are either extinct, mythical, or retreated into some unbreachable fastness within the mountains, the forests are still no friend of humanity. Rough Imperial logging towns and camps of prisoners, heretics, and undesirables under inquisitional and military rule are the limits of civilization, even close to the canal that tenuously connects the province to the Capital.

Along the Grande Gracht canal, noble and merchant dynasts once attempted to build hunting lodges or retreats, usually with the hope of being granted dominion when Blackacre finally “civilized”. Centuries after settlement Blackacre remains a brutal penal colony, despite minimal magical pollution, flowing wealth, and a ecclesiastical zeal. Blackacre, and especially the fecund Blackwound is winning... As the trees spread their gloom, the forest people are losing the trapping of Imperial culture, slinking back into fur clad obstinacy, and mere subsistence as they embrace cultic superstition and invent “old ways”. The province seems doomed to wither before it blooms into the bastion of Imperial faith that the province’s Nuncios aspire to.

The Blackwound resists the dreams of Imperial theocrats, devouring or transforming the young missionaries and curates that the See pours into it each Spring. Even generations of logging have failed to check the forest’s growth and tracts cleared mere decades ago are again choked with tall straight trees. Flash floods in the Autumn destroy camps and mills, ferns erupt among the stumps to devour fields, and in high summer, lightning fires rage through undergrowth to wash nutrients back into the soil allowing the trees to grow taller and encouraging the undergrowth erupt with new vigor.

Yet the Blackwound is simply a forest, perhaps unlike any other, grown on a grander scale grander, where the ferns, lichens, moss, and brambles of the floor often rise to near the height of a man, and the Great Trees sore until they are lost in the permanent green twilight. Entering the Blackwound is entering a hostile universe where paths lead in circles, the mists muffle sound, the trees confound invaders with their scale and conceal sudden obstacles: chasms, torrential creeks, deadfalls, sheer cliffs and bramble basins of wire strong thorn. The forest resents change, resents humanity’s dream of conquest, and resents intrusion.

Friday, August 4, 2023

7 Maxims of the OSR

Back in the aughts and the 2010’s, a decade ago now, there was a movement in older RPGs that I was part of - the “Old School Renaissance” or "OSR". The OSR still hasn’t really been defined, or at least its definitions have always been in conflict, now more than ever as it becomes a subject of nostalgic veneration. It’s uncontroversial to me (I’m sure others will feel incandescently differently) that one of the hallmarks of the OSR was the creation of instructive maxims about how to enact its desired play style. That play style in turn depended on and created an exploration focused elevation of player choice in a strongly referee controlled setting. The maxims of the OSR were commonly offered to newcomers and now linger in the communities of the PostOSR, where they are too often repeated as if they are unalterable, clear truths obvious to everyone. They aren't and they weren't. Like most maxims, aphorisms, and pithy bits of commonsense, these distillations of OSR gaming wisdom are useful … but only up to a point, and they work best as reminders for people already familiar with their goals.

Trampier from the 1st Edition Monster Manual

These days it feels like the Post OSR spends a lot of time reinventing things that people wrote on blogs in 2010, or stumbling into the same well known solutions and declaring they have "fixed" the play style. Part of this is a lack of information for people new to these kind of games, exacerbated by the lack of citations among the hundreds of retro-clones that claim to be OSR games. There's little help for this, and as much as introductions to OSR theory like Philotomy’s Musings, Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, or Milton, Lumpkin and Perry’s Principia Apocrypha are useful documents and helpful introductions, the majority of OSR wisdom exists as scattered blog posts and in the minds of people who have engaged with the play style over the past 20 or so years. People don't read blogs anymore, but even if they did ... these bloggers, designers, referees, and players have a tendency to fall back on maxims when asked to explain elements of the play style, and it’s not the most efficient way of communicating craft and knowledge.

Worse, as the actual creation of the maxims recedes into the past, clouded by memory's failings and wearing into the grooves of dogmatic repetition, they have begun to take on the force of natural laws rather than suggestions or explanations of design decisions and play culture. The power of nostalgia and orthodoxy transforms simplifications and shorthand for larger, complex concepts into definitions that are frequently misinterpreted or carried to lengths that subvert their original meaning and damage the very type of play they were meant to support.


Maxims have such a power in the OSR because it was forced to deal with the convoluted history of early Dungeons & Dragons. It’s often, and falsely, claimed that the goal of the OSR was to play games in the manner of some ideal past table: Gygax’s basement in Lake Geneva, or “the way D&D was meant to be played”. While some undoubtedly tried, this claim and any efforts towards it that actually happened is mostly nostalgic invention, a blend of cognitive distortions and bias that includes: rosy retrospection, survivor’s bias, selective abstraction, the masked-man fallacy and the halo effect. The problem being, that even where it’s discernible through faulty memories, self aggrandizing claims, and lies made up during IP litigation, the play style of early RPGs was constantly in flux. Dungeons & Dragons showed a great deal of conflict and transformation within play style from the first, and even within the 1974 edition. For example, the "Alternate Combat System" alone suggests an entirely different play style then the combat rules for Chainmail that were originally intended for the game. Worse, depending on one’s prior experience or influences a variety of play styles and design approaches all seem to fit within the description of “Old School” RPGs. The bloggers, referees, forum wits, and designers of the OSR struggled to articulate exactly what they wanted, which wasn’t uniform among them in the first place.

Instead of representing a “rediscovery” of a fully functional set of rules, procedures, design ethos, and play culture of Gygax's golden age -- somehow lost or destroyed by some ever growing cast of villains (the Hickmans, the Blumes, Lorraine Williams, Patricia Pulling and the Satanic Panic, Dungeons & Beavers, Hasbro, Vampire Larpers, Organized Play, or ... as always ... Young People), the OSR was always a place of invention, adaption, and revaluation. The OSR play style, to the degree any exists, was a new thing that evolved over time in the 2000's and 2010's, influenced by and partially formed from original early RPG texts and long-term play experiences of its members -- but necessarily taking in the various ideas and work in RPGs from 1974 to the present. Pithy maxims acted to anchor this decades-long aggregation of hundreds of peoples’ ideas and experiences into vague statements of general principle. "Rulings not Rules" is a phrase that one shares like a secret handshake, even if it's meaning isn't especially clear. Such statements are great for forming group identity (far more pleasant and long lasting than railing against a cast of villains and blaming them for a rupture from the nostalgic ideal) … but they don’t actually explain how to play the game.

Maxims differ from aphorisms in that they present themselves as little truths, almost with the force of natural laws. Aphorisms instead ask their audience to think about them, and often hint at paradoxes or complexities in a way maxims don’t - and again this is where maxims are great tools for forming group identity, but less effective at teaching or giving their audience any sort of deep understanding.

The following maxims were common in OSR spaces and continue to be cited in much of the discussion around OSR and Post-OSR play style. I haven't generally listed their originators, though I suspect that most of them can be traced to a specific blog post or forum thread, largely because I am lazy, and they are always presented outside of their original context. Without it, they have changed meaning with time, and each is an effort to condense and simplify complex concepts or even arguments from or between numerous other contributors. Instead, all I can offer is my criticisms of the maxim (based on observations of how I've seen it used) and then my personal understanding as someone who was there, or at least peering though keyholes and standing in the shadows, when most of these maxims were hashed out. Generally this is a positive reading. 

Friday, April 14, 2023

Crystal Frontier - Ongoing Campaign Note: Templars of Blackacre

To the North and East of the Crystal Frontier, beyond the Bay of Fallen Stars or across the Maiden Tombs over the Road of Dead is the Province of Blackacre, sometimes known as the Blackmash. Grey salt marshes rising from the Silt Straights and beyond deep, wet forests of colossal evergreens and ancient malice. Blackacre was the last Imperial Province settled, and never much beyond wilderness. A wealth of lumber, fish and the rare dyes of found in the vast tidal pools along its shores provided impetus for settlement, but the climate, old sorcery and (according to heretic scholars and false prophets) the dogged resistance of the “old people'' who once lived in its forests has made it difficult to find voluntary settlers. The majority of residents in Blackacre are prisoners or the descendents of prisoners, sent to toil in the lumber towns fisheries and dye pools.Even the Imperial soldiery abhors Blackacre, long considered a dangerous punishment posting, and its 5th “Battle”, the Larks, who have been charged with Blackacres’ defense since before the rise of the Successor Empire, now exist only as a few hundred residents of canal and border forts subsisting on transit taxes. With the typical logic to Imperial governance, Blackacre, one of the few provinces that produces a surplus of wealth, trade goods, and raw materials is almost devoid of official protectors and most in need of them. The shores of Blackacre are directly across the murky shallows of the Narrow Sea from the Mud Isles … the Ghoul Kingdoms, now almost united under vile White God.

Bickering over resources between the elite of Dawn Rill and the Imperial Cult, mean that no colossi or lesser war machines have been redeployed to Blackacre, and the Cult’s fear of increasing the power of the military means that recruiting the 5th up to strength cannot even be discussed. Instead Blackacre’s coasts are protected from the raft fleets that come each autumn to reave and kidnap by penal templars. Sects of “Sword Saints”, devoted to Emperor Isacco Hydria, saint of tribulations and protector of the imprisoned, falsely accused, and repentant.

From five huge monastery-prisons, geomantically sculpted spires of sea basalt, and numerous smaller gaol hermitages, the penal templars watch the sea. An army of fanatics and felons that defend the shoreline’s dyers and fishers, but also extract dues and taxes in the form of food and raw materials. Those who have lived in the spires describe them as hellish. A cruel hierarchy, layered from top to bottom, where the newest prisoners or those of the lowest status live on a diet of kelp and barnacles in the half flooded galleries at the base. The cold seas seep and flood regularly into these dark vaults and the threat of drowning is as constant as that of the predatory gangs. Children of the galleries and the strongest fighters who survive the yearly gladiatorial contests are allowed into the dry stone above, where thousands of rock cut cells are home to a cruelly excessive creed of asceticism and martial training. When the training monks deem these unfortunates properly tempered and disciplined, they become part of the templar host, and move up to the temples, meditation halls, arenas, refractories, training halls, forges, and armories of the spire’s upper levels.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

A Fistful of Crystals

Character Generation
and House Rules for My Home Game

I'm going to be running a Crystal Frontier game online, the first semi-public game I've run since the end of G+.  In preparation rather then introduce my house rules piecemeal I've prepared a character generation and basic rules document for the game.

It includes the major subsystems for my house ruled version of Original Dungeons & Dragons (the 1974 pre-Greyhawk version, but not using Chainmail). This is the system I've used for several years and I find it works quite well for dungeon crawls. The goal is a quick, low complexity system that makes exploration a coequal element of play and can be used for online two to four hour sessions in an expedition based (each session you must leave the dungeon) campaign.

They make significant changes to the base OD&D system, though I think most of these changes fill in voids in the original rules or streamline areas where the design doesn't support contemporary games. At it's core though it should still be that same sort of D6 and D20 based flatter power curve, high lethality system as the original.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Dungeon Design, Process and Keys

With my decision to work on Dungeon23 coincides my starting a public Crystal Frontier Campaign and being dissatisfied with the progress I've been making to various new projects. I've got three large, rather experimental dungeons about 1/4 - 1/2 finished (including art and layout), and a smaller one of about 20 rooms 2/3 done, but they've just refused to come together this year. Hopefully at least the small one will be out sometime. So I've had lots of reasons to thinking a bit about how I personally design dungeons and adventures again - not as a theoretical exercise, but because I need to write some new, satisfying dungeons.

Below are some notes on my personal quick technique for getting something together for play at my table and (after a lot of additional polishing) for publication. I hope they can be of help to newer designers thinking about giving Dungeon23 a try (or really just writing up a dungeon to crawl).  As always they are for the classic dungeon crawl style of play: exploration supported by procedural turnkeeping, supply, and randomized risk. They are likely the entirely wrong way to write an adventure that will make really good live action Youtube or help you run a Vampire the Masquerade campaign, I don't pretend to know how to do either of those things. 

I’m a naturalistic, or maybe even ‘organic’ designer.

This has nothing to do with whole grains. As a style of adventure design, what I’m calling organic is an expansion of what's often described as “Gygaxian Naturalism” because Gygax discusses it in “The Campaign” section on pages 86-88 of the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. While the focus is usually on Gygax's creation of a fantasy ecology, I'd say he goes further and offers an approach to making dungeon adventures that form a logical whole.

It’s also obvious to me that this was Gygax’s personal style of adventure design, meaning naturalistic design was extremely important to the success of Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games more generally. Organic design shows through clearly in Gygax’s best work, his most memorable adventures such as Keep on the Borderlands (B2) and Against the Giants (G series). While these adventures might not appeal to everyone today, in praising them it’s important to look at them compared to other design options at the start of the hobby. Arneson’s original Temple of the Frog as included in the Blackmoor supplement for OD&D and Wee Warrior’s Palace of the Vampire Queen by the Kerestans are great counter examples.

The naturalism and coherence of Gygax’s adventures sets them apart, he focused on the dungeon space as interconnected by logical relationships, sometime ecological, but often political or historical. His contemporaries produced dungeons that were far closer to a board game sytle series of encounters, or as the afterthought to a larger scale political and military conflict (which Arneson did design quite naturalistically). The mead hall of Gygax’s giant chief makes sense as a location, structurally, thematically, and as an adventure. Its rooms have clear uses and a sensible layout within the larger fictional space. Its inhabitants relate to each other and have uses for the spaces they inhabit. While Gygax's dungeons are far from realistic, and can become odd at times there’s almost always a thruline of sense and purpose that can only come from the conscious effort to build a dungeon around its inhabitants and a theme. As affirmed in his Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gygax doesn’t want to overthink the logic of his dungeons as a simulation, but to create a plan and structure a location that are comprehensible to and and exploitable by the players. You can poison the giant’s stew in the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief because the kitchen and feast hall exist as part of a sensible and coherent whole—that’s Gygaxian Naturalism (though the term is also used sometimes to describe a group writing process). Jennell Jaquays, tentatively with F'Chelrak's Tomb (1976), and notably in her later adventures Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower (less effectively), expands on Gygaxian Naturalism quite successfully. Her designs start the practice of layering history and increasing the density of description, the level of interactivity, significance of faction relationships, and spacial complexity of dungeons making them more functional for exploration.

In some circles, Gygax’s other major contribution to adventure design is more popular - procedural generation. Appendices A-H of the Dungeon Master Guide are one of the first (they date back to Strategic Review/Dragon, Issue 1 as a way to play D&D solo) efforts to define this technique - providing a means for a dungeon to build itself through random dice rolls.

I’m not much of a fan. Here’s why.

I’ll acknowledge that procedural generation can be useful as a springboard for ideas or to fill space in a hurry when nothing better is available (such as when your players move off “the map”), but randomly generated rooms are either too vague and disconnected for anything more than board game style play, or require such complex tables that the designer might as well just produce a much larger keyed adventure with the amount of space and ideas. Relying on random stocking almost always means that the details and complexity need to be filled in, and the random design expanded and rationalized. You’ll still end up describing, keying, factionalizing and connecting the parts of your dungeon for it to function well. All procedural generation does is add the step of randomly generating elements of the space that have to be revised to give the dungeon coherence.

These are the basics of what sort of dungeons I want to write. Classic keyed spaces with a high degree of coherence, interactivity, variety, a layered history (useful and discovered via clues in play), navigational puzzles, and both description and themes that go beyond those of typical Gygaxian vernacular fantasy or the contemporary expectations of standard fantasy settings.

Friday, December 9, 2022



Sean McCoy of Mothership fame recently proposed a community challenge, event or project he calls
Dungeon23. My friend Ben L. over at Mazirian’s Garden has a bit more to say about it.  

The basic idea is to challenge yourself to write a dungeon room key each day and dungeon level a month in 2023. Come January 1, 2024 you will have a 350 room dungeon … a megadungeon.

The room keys don’t need to be fancy or extensive, and Sean suggests an extremely minimalist style, so the dungeon keying becomes a manageable habit and not a chore. I like the idea, it feels a lot like some of the challenges and community events from back in the days of Google Plus, such as these hex crawls, keyed by anyone who wanted to add a hex key -- a practice referred jokingly to as “Gygaxian Democracy” at the time.

I’m likely to give Dungeon23 a try, but unlike my aborted effort at Gygax75 -- where I discovered that what I needed for an adventuring region was very different then the project -- I’ve made the changes I want to make to the challenge to make it work better for me. I also want to help others get their own megadungeons finished, so I am sharing the series of worksheets I made and have linked them below so that anyone can use them by making a copy of the googledoc (please turn of sharing on your copy).

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...