Sunday, March 31, 2024

This is level 1

People have some differing thoughts on what exactly 1st level PCs are in the game world and what distinguishes them from an average person. However helpful they may seem, level titles are big source of the confusion. Here is how I interpret 1st level PCs in the games I run.


What differentiates 1st level fighters from laymen and 0 level men-at-arms is that fighters fought in and survived a conflict where others like them perished. Could be anything from fighting in a war to fending off a pack of wolves. What's important is that fighters went through the crucible of lethal combat and emerged more alive than before. First level fighters are called VETERANS. 


Beginning magic-users have studied in the ways of the sorcerers of ancient Zenon, where it is said all secrets of magic were known. Through rigorous cultivation, a magic-user's mind is prepared to serve as an intermediary between this world and the unseen realms from which magic is derived. First level magic-users are known as MEDIUMS.


Anyone can slink in the dark and steal an exposed coin purse but a real thief is something more. To move in true silence, vanish in shadows, scale sheer surfaces without aid, intuit the precise workings of a complex mechanism and the vulnerabilities of an unsuspecting target—all are feats that exceed the capability of mundane folk. But it's hard to learn these things on your own, so it is assumed thieves start as inductees in the mysterious thieves' guild or some other branch of the organized crime network. First level thieves are APPRENTICES. 


Clerics are closely tied to their alignment. Beyond conventional worshipers, clerics are the earthly champions of Law and Chaos, and are granted numinous powers for their devotion. While some clerics may follow a specific patron deity, all clerics of the same alignment are more or less part of the same faith. Newly initiated clerics must still prove their worth, and so are relegated to executing their function without the use of spells. First level clerics are called ACOLYTES. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Place-names: the naming convention

A name is almost always the first thing a person learns about a place, and so it carries a lot of weight. A good evocative name has the capacity to convey the "feel" of a place in a way that a bland or more rotely descriptive name does not. To paraphrase Mark Twain, "the difference between the almost right name and the right name is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." 

I used to struggle so hard with names that it would impede the rest of my game prep—if I couldn't find the right name for a place, I would lose my excitement for the idea and let it die on the vine. Eventually though I came to a solution: offload my place-naming to a naming convention. 

After that, every time I needed a new region or settlement, I used the name of a fabric type. For a stretch of years, my players sought mythic treasure in the island of Cottondor, fought witches in the blighted lands of Woolovia, explored among the ancient trees of the Gabardine Forest, and partied and schemed their way through the bustling city-state of Corduroy. I called the setting "Fabricant."

Most of the locations in my game were conceived as me thinking "I need a place for x" and then looking at a big list of fabric names, letting whatever jumped out at me guide the look and feel of the place. The trick I found was that having the name first and working backward to the details of the place is far easier than the opposite approach. You're using a name to evoke somewhere that largely doesn't exist yet, as opposed to making a place and then struggling to find a phrase or collection of syllables that truly captures it.

And even when you do have a pretty clear idea for a place, a naming convention expedites the naming process by giving some guardrails to work within.    

Why fabric types? There are a lot of them, they're usually short and easy to remember, and they often have a good sound to them. Also helps that textiles come from all over the world so there are names for all kinds of eras and cultures.

One might worry that fabric names are already known as such by the players and that repurposing them as place-names might limit their ability to buy in to the fantasy of the world. That wasn't an issue for me: what I observed is that once the players heard the names in the context of the game world, they were able to form a sort of subconscious line in their mind that delineated the fabric names from the place names. My friend Mike only came to realize the whole fabric thing six whole months into the campaign. C'est la différance.

The naming convention did run me into another issue though, and it was a rather predictable one: after a while I started to feel pigeonholed. Even with a wealth of fabric name options available, I started to feel a bit listless about the whole thing. I never broke the naming convention, but after the campaign ran its course, I never since went back to a naming convention. But the one I had was substantially useful to me for quite some time, and I would still consider using one for shorter adventures or campaigns.  

Here's the shortlist of fabrics I compiled for place-naming. A good amount of them had use in my old game, but most of them were kept in reserve, only loosely sketched out with a handful of notes based on what the word sounded like to me. See what sort of places the fabric names evoke in your mind:

Saga Nishiki

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Overloading the search die

The overloaded encounter die is OVER in 2024. A monster will appear at the same time your light source goes out while you need to rest and you will LIKE IT.

But the idea of streamlining procedures by keying each result on a die is a good one, if streamlining procedures is your aim. 

As far as I'm concerned BX D&D and its derivatives are as close as you can get to the platonic ideal of dungeon crawlers, but, and I say this with head bowed in humility, the assumptions baked into the game's design do not necessarily apply to the contemporary elfgamer's table. It's the iPhone era, after all.  

The victim of this post is the BX search procedure, the rules of which are as follows:
  • Characters can listen at a door for passing monsters, or spend a turn examining a 10'x10' area for room traps or a 10' section of wall for secret doors. 
  • Each action has a 1:6 chance of success, modified by certain race/class abilities. If there is nothing to be found in the area the character is searching, no roll is made.
  • Each character can only listen at a door or search a given 10' wall/area once. 

This can be boiled down to "PCs get one chance to search X to find Y, rolling a d6 and succeeding on a 1 or sometimes 2." As an aside, I like how each search action has a specific noun its looking for: monsters, room traps, or secret doors for listening, searching an an area, or inspecting a wall, respectively. This is one of those board-gamey elements of BX that show it was designed in part to be a closed system, but with rules and mechanics robust enough to be applied to all manner of other scenarios.

For instance, if a PC wanted to rifle through a cluttered desk to find a specific document, there's no reason why a search roll wouldn't be appropriate even if that situation wasn't outlined in the rules. It shows a design philosophy distinct from that of most contemporary games—instead of describing mechanics expansively with general terms, old school D&D defines its mechanics through specific instances which invite players to extrapolate how else they may be used. Saving throw names are another good example of this.

Anyway, the old OSR maxim goes that players should mostly be describing their character's actions instead of rolling dice, but the dice system still has its place for searching. In my games, if the actions a player describes would reveal something hidden I give it to them without any rolling, but if they just want to do a general search I roll to see if they find whatever noodly detail is hidden there, if any. This works reasonably well from a game flow perspective, but the problem is that 1- or even 2-in-6 chance is punishingly low for smaller groups, especially when abiding by 10' space increments and the one-chance-per-character rule. Sure, traps and secret doors should be telegraphed, but telegraphing all of them all the time removes those moments of random danger and discovery that contribute so positively to the game.  

My solution is to OVERLOAD the SEARCH DIE.

Here are the rules: When a player wishes to search a room, they can choose to specify which actions their character takes or opt instead to conduct a general search, which takes one turn. During a general search, the character attempts to find secret doors, concealed traps, monster spoor, and other obscured features. When a general search is made, the DM or player rolls a d6 to determine the outcome. A character may spend as many turns as they wish searching until a 6 is rolled or they get the same number over two consecutive turns, indicating they have exhausted their faculties and can no longer comb the room until their next dungeon excursion. Demihumans roll a d8 instead of d6. Big rooms can be broken up into halves or quadrants per the DM. 

Search results
  1. Discover secret (if any)
  2. Discover secret (if any)
  3. Encounter omen
  4. Scavenge goods
  5. Dungeon insight
  6. Setback
  7. [Demihuman only] Discover secret (if any)
  8. [Demihuman only] Encounter omen
Discover secret
Identify the location of one secret door, concealed room trap, or other important but not-obvious feature of the room if there is one to be found. 

Encounter omen
Find evidence of other nearby dungeon inhabitants. 

This result accounts for both hearing noises in adjacent rooms or corridors, like the original listen-at-doors roll, as well as general clues regarding the next encounter. If there are no creatures keyed nearby that the character could hear, the DM rolls for the next encounter and provides a hint or detail as to its nature.

Scavenge goods
Uncover a random item. A character can only find one item in a room per dungeon excursion—if this result is rolled again during the same excursion, the character finds nothing this turn.

This is where I tell you that if you don’t already have a d100 list of junk lying around your dungeon, get one now, and trust me when I say it’s worth it. I recommend The Dungeon Dozen and d4 caltrops blogs for inspiration. Trick out your list with unique and specialized entries and it becomes another avenue to convey the dungeon’s lore. Anyway, this result implies that the item was not immediately visible upon entering the room—there are situations I foresee where this could be contrived but generally unless your dungeon rooms are empty cubes it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a little hiding spot for that left boot a character just found.

Dungeon insight
While the characters might not find anything in particular, their search may yield some fact or detail about the room, level, or dungeon as a whole. A character can only find glean one insight from a room per dungeon excursion—if this result is rolled again during the same excursion, the character finds nothing this turn.

Dungeon insights could be something that indicates the room's original purpose, the behavior of the former or current inhabitants, a hint regarding a special set piece somewhere else in the dungeon, or even just a curiosity that contributes to the wonder and strangeness of the mythic underworld.

The character didn't find anything, and an additional complication occurs. 

This can be a direct result of the searching, such as the character springing a trap or dropping something that makes a loud noise, but the setback can also be an anomalous hazard the dungeon throws at unwelcome interlopers: a flagstone launches itself at the character, a ration-rotting miasma billows from a grate in the floor, or a ghoulish hand yanks at a piece of gear from a gap in the wall.


Here's why the overloaded search die works: it does away with the null results of classic search rolls, so even if characters don't find any secrets the find something else worthwhile or get into some trouble. Upping the success rate while introducing an element of danger makes searching more exciting, and the option to burn turns to continue searching introduces a compelling risk/reward challenge. If you love your hazard system/overloaded encounter die/event die/whatever else it's called but you're not overloading your search dice, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.