Friday, January 15, 2021

Open Game Content: New 1st Level B/X-OSE Spells, and Twists on Existing Spells

"Sweet Human Sorcerer"
by Ioana-Mursesan  is licensed by
CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 

My posts lately seem to be going for a record for "longest blog post title," and I always struggle with how much to convey in the titles. Every time I've posted new content, I've prefaced the title with "Open Game Content" to make it clear what it is, but maybe it's implied and I can take that part out? I also always wonder if it's necessary to call out both B/X D&D and Old School Essentials, since they're essentially (pardon the pun) the same thing. But I always worry that some players of each version might not realize that, so if I don't call out both games, I might be alienating a group of people who might end of skipping past my posts.

I posted a few new spells about a week ago, and they generated a lot of good comments both here on my blog as well as in a few old-school gaming Facebook groups, which I really appreciated, because this is actually the first time I've written any new spells for any version of the game. I've definitely used tons of 3rd party spells over the years from various supplements, particularly when creating NPCs as adversaries for my players, but as a player, I don't often get excited about new spells and I tend to play more rogue or fighter types anyway. 

Spell descriptions are one of the last things I read when picking up a new game, and I also am not known for being very creative in how my NPC spellcasters use their spells in combat. I think that's pretty clear from an analysis I got on one of the new spells I posted last time, that I called "Alter Fortune." The spell was intended to have a variety of different effects that the spellcaster could choose from. One of them was to force a subject of the spell, on a failed save, to do only minimum damage for an attack or spell on the next round, and consequently, the caster would be able to do maximum damage that round. My intent was that the spell would be used against a powerful enemy or spellcaster, and it was a 1st-level spell, so my thinking was, the caster would be lower level, so the "maximum damage" wouldn't be that bad.  Of course, it turns out that I wasn't really thinking clearly when I wrote that spell, as a commentator on Facebook pointed out that a mid-level or high-level caster could target a low-level minion (or even worse, one of his own hirelings or henchmen) who have a much lower chance of making their saving throw, so the spell would most likely work as intended, and then cast a higher-level spell for maximum damage. That was never how I intended the spell to be used, and it was sloppy writing and planning on my part. I've edited that part of the spell to tone it down a lot, especially given that it's a 1st level spell. 

Another thing I did was re-write some existing spells with a different flavor to make them a bit more weird, and oftentimes to have a small consequence that affects the caster. It was pointed out to me, and I think rightly so, that it might be better to simply just have a table or some kind of template mentioning what was different from the standard spell versus completely re-writing it and changing the name. I do think that makes sense, and it also is causing me to be a bit more creative and prolific than I first intended by creating 12 all-new spells for each level, as well as writing the "weird modifications" separately. 

All of this is for potential future publication for a small booklet I'm working on that will feature the B/X (and Old School Essentials) Sorcerer class I wrote last year. In addition to the class itself, and 12 sorcerer bloodline modifications, there will also be new spells so that, if the player and referee want, the sorcerer's spell list can be completely different from magic-users and elves. I also have notes on adding some other options for changing/modifying magic, and running campaigns around different themes for sorcerers. 

And now without any more background, here are the new spells I've written so far for 1st level. As always, I appreciate any comments, suggestions, and/or criticisms.

[Note: A couple of these spells were inspired by spells from Fantastic Heroes & Witchery]

1st Level Arcane Spells

Duration: 1 turn + 1 round/level
Range: 60’

Causes living creatures to become aggressive and argumentative with everyone around them, including both allies and enemies. Targets must save versus spells, or their aggression will lead to combat between allies in 1d3 rounds.

The caster may target up to 2d8 Hit Dice of creatures. Certain naturally aggressive creatures may suffer a -2 penalty to their saving throws, per referee discretion.

At the end of the spell’s duration, the targets realize they have been manipulated and turn their aggression toward the caster.

Alter Fortune
Duration: 1 turn
Range: 60’

A single humanoid creature must save versus spells or suffer ill luck, while the caster gains reciprocal good luck. The caster chooses one of the following effects:


·        Attack Rolls: Subject must re-roll next successful attack roll; caster re-rolls next failed attack roll

·        Damage: Subject applies -2 to damage (minimum 1 Hit Point) on next successful attack or spell; caster gains +2 to damage to next successful attack or spell against the target

·        Saving Throw: Subject must re-roll next successful saving throw; caster re-rolls next failed saving throw

·        Spells: Subject casts the wrong spell of the same level (determined randomly); no effect for caster

Restrictions: Humanoids of greater than 4 +1 HD are not affected. 

Attack Intuition
Duration: 1d4 +1 rounds
Range: The caster

The caster glimpses into the future to see multiple attack outcomes, bestowing a +4 bonus to the caster’s next attack roll. Once the caster makes an attack, the spell’s effect ends.

For the next 2d4 turns after casting the spell, the caster’s temperament turns violent, causing a -2 penalty to any reaction rolls (see Encounters in Core Rules).

Battle Awareness
Duration: 1 round per level
Range: The caster

The caster is supernaturally attuned to incoming attacks. The first time the caster is attacked during the spell’s duration, the attack automatically misses. After this failed attack, the spell’s effect ends.

Bestial Vitality
Duration: 3 rounds +1 round/level
Range: The caster

The caster gains athletic abilities reminiscent of feline and other creatures, as follows:

  • Fall: 20’ without taking damage
  • Jump: 20’ wide spaces
  • Climb: Sheer surfaces with 90% chance of success
  • AC: Gain +2 to AC from missile attacks and when retreating from melee

For the duration of the spell, the caster grows dark fur, and the eyes and teeth take on a feline appearance, conferring a -1 penalty on the monster reaction roll table (see Encounters in Core Rules).  

Eldritch Perseverance
Duration: 2d4 turns
Range: 240’

Allies within a 20’ radius within the range of the spell begin to glow with a mysterious eldritch energy, granting them a +1 bonus to attack rolls and the ability to re-test failed morale checks. The bonus increases by +1 per five experience levels (+2 at 6th – 10th level, +3 at 11th – 15th level, etc.).

The eldritch energy leaves allies feeling unsettled. After the duration of the spell, NPC allies will not approach caster for 24 hours.

Duration: 1 turn
Range: 30’

This spell targets one creature, enticing it with an irresistible sense of greed to possess a small mundane item designated by the caster, such as a coin, gem, or piece of jewelry. The target must save versus spells or be focused on the object to the exclusion of any other activity. The subject will move toward the object in the most efficient way possible while crying out that the object is theirs and they must have it. The creature will not do anything dangerous such as jump off a cliff or walk into fire to retrieve the object but will get as close as possible and then stare at the object until there is a safe way to acquire it. For the duration of the spell, the target cannot attack or take any actions other than moving toward the object and trying to grab it.

At the end of the spell’s duration, the object disappears, and the target is bewildered for 1d3 rounds. Roll on the following table to determine the subject’s actions:


Greed: Subject Actions




Flee to try to find the item


Scream “they stole it!”


Attack the caster and demand the item

Horrific Visage
Duration: 1 turn + special
Range: The caster

The caster’s features morph into an otherworldly and sinister aspect, unnerving any creatures within a 20’ radius. Creatures who are successfully attacked by the caster must save versus spells or attempt to flee. If they are unable to flee, any attacks they make on the caster suffer a -2 penalty to attack rolls and damage (minimum damage of 1 Hit Point).

Restrictions: Undead and creatures over 4 +1 Hit Dice are immune.

Special: At the end of the spell’s duration, a supernatural residue of the features remains for an additional 2d4 turns, causing the caster to suffer a -2 penalty to reaction rolls (see Encounters in Core Rules).

Obstruct the Divine
Duration: 1 turn
Range: The caster or a creature touched

This spell offers protection against divine magic, bestowing a +2 bonus on saving throws against divine magic. Against subjects with a different alignment, the bonus increases to +3.

After casting this spell, the caster is marked with an invisible symbol that is instantly recognizable by divine spellcasters, and which cannot be removed. 

Perilous Insight
Duration: 3 turns
Range: The caster

Nebulous, otherworldly, and capricious spirits from beyond space and time appear that are only visible to the caster. The caster enters a trance and begins speaking in an unintelligible language and can ask the spirits up to three questions concerning the general area or the people that dwell there. Each question requires one turn to ask and receive an answer.  

Asking questions requires an NPC reaction roll modified by the caster’s Charisma modifier and with a +1 bonus as follows:


Perilous Insight: Spirit Reactions



2 or less

1 yes-or-no question only; the spirits are hostile and evasive with a 50% chance of lying


1 yes-or-no question


2 yes-or-no questions


3 yes-or-no questions


3 questions with details

Duration: 1 round +1 round/level
Range: 60’

A non-lawful creature must save versus spells or be overwhelmed with remorse about past evil deeds. It can take no actions for the duration of the spell.

If the creature saves, it gains +1 to attack rolls against the caster for the duration of the spell.

Shifting Viewpoint
Duration: 1 turn/level
Range: The caster

The caster draws upon the mysteries of unnatural angles to see from a different perspective. The caster can choose any viewpoint within line of site at a range of 30’ plus 5’ per level. The caster cannot see through solid objects but can create a new viewpoint to see around a corner or choose an elevated viewpoint to get a bird’s eye view. While the spell is active, the caster can change viewpoints or return to normal vision once per round.

Using shifting viewpoint causes vertigo, and the caster is at -1 to attack rolls for the duration of the spell.   

Those are the spells I have so far - I'm working on 2nd level and will post those sometime next week. Also, below are the changes I've made to existing spells to add some weird flavor and consequences. 

Charm Person
New Name: Evil Eye
Changes: This is pretty much a wholesale change of how the spell works, combining the duration, range, restrictions, and target type from Charm Person with the spell effects of the 2nd level Cleric spell, Blight (the reverse of Bless). Instead of charming the target, it causes them to suffer a -1 penalty to all attack rolls, saving throws, and morale checks. The penalty increases by one for every five levels (-2 at 6th level - 10th level; -3 at 11th level - 15th level, etc.). The subject of the spell feels uncomfortable in the presence of the caster. At the end of the spell's duration, the subject has a 50% chance to either attack the caster immediately, or to move away without making contact or harming the caster.  
Notes: The idea behind this spell is channeling "charm" type magic for negative purposes, with the subject being completely aware of what's happening but unable to break the "charm." 

Detect Magic
New Name: Expose Magical Veil
Changes: Instead of glowing, enchanted objects whisper and chant in an unnerving, unknown language that may attract unwanted attention, and causes fear in the caster's enemies within the spell's range. Subjects must save versus spells or move away from the source of the whispering. 
Notes: I just liked the idea of changing it from a simple glowing magic effect to the items whispering and chanting. It seemed creepy, and would also potentially echo throughout an underground environment, drawing the attention of wandering monsters. 

Hold Portal
New Name: Supernatural Seal
Changes: The seal is visible as an unsettling swirling mass of eldritch energy. If trying to force the seal open by physical means, subjects of a different alignment than the caster take 1d4 damage when making the attempt. 
Notes: My original idea was to see a bunch of otherworldly tentacles wrap around and hold the door/portal, but I toned that down a bit. 

New Name: Ghostly Luminescence
New Range: The caster
Changes: The caster starts to glow with a soft, eerie light that changes colors depending on the caster's mood. The light covers a 15' radius from the caster. The light makes the caster more visible in darkness, but enemies must save versus spells or be at -2 on attack rolls against the caster. 
Notes: This obviously makes the caster much more vulnerable, as usually one would cast it on an inanimate object and ideally give it to a stronger, more protected party member to hold. The idea of the caster himself/herself glowing seemed fun to me, with the color of the light constantly shifting. It's obviously not as flexible as a standard light spell, hence the penalty for attacking the caster. 

Magic Missile
New Name: Sorcerous Tendrils
Changes: Instead of a bolt of magical energy, it's a tendril of void magic, eldritch power, or some other unknown sorcery that whips forward from the caster to unerringly strike targets. Instead of 1d6 +1 damage, it does 1d6 + "effect" (roll D6): 1) -1 to AC for 1d3 rounds; 2) Paralyzed, no actions for 1 round; 3) Slowed to half movement for 1d3 rounds; 4) Attack rolls at -1 for 1d3 rounds; 5) Blinded for 1d3 rounds; 6) +1 additional point of damage per tendril. 
Notes: This is a minor change that's mainly aesthetic (change from a bolt to a weird snaking tendril), and with a random additional effect instead of just straight damage. 

Read Languages
New Name: Decipher the Archaic & Weird
Changes: Only works on extinct or alien languages (not native living languages). For 24 hours after reading the unknown language, the caster gains a supernatural insight, granting a +1 bonus to all ability checks during that time. However, the caster must succeed on a Charisma ability score check when attempting to speak during that same 24 hour period, or else begin speaking in the unknown tongue. Others will not be able to understand the caster, resulting in a -2 penalty on the NPC reaction roll table.  
Notes: As with many of these small changes to existing spells, the goal was to add an element of "stuff that is unknown" and introduce a small consequence for a caster that could lead to some interesting role-playing opportunities. 

New Name: Dragon Scales
Changes: The AC bonus is AC 4 [15] only; there's no difference between melee and missile attacks. The caster also gains a +2 bonus to saving throws versus dragon breath and fire-based spells. The caster appears to be wearing dragon hide armor, and suffers a -2 penalty to reaction rolls against dragons while the spell is active. The referee may alter what type of spell damage receives the saving throw bonus based on the color of the dragon scales (e.g., cold-based spells for white dragon scales or electricity-based spells for blue dragon scales, etc.).  
Notes: This was an attempt as an homage to the strong connection between sorcerers and "dragon blood" in 3rd - 5th editions.

New Name: Nightmare
Changes: This works exactly the same as a standard sleep spell, except instead of falling asleep, the targets are paralyzed in a waking nightmare. The effects are exactly the same, including the ability to use a bladed weapon to instantly kill a subject. Subjects who survive are at -1 to attack the caster in the future. 
Notes: The thought of someone being trapped in a nightmare and unable to take any actions was pretty creepy - I imagine people walking past a small group of soldiers or brigands, their eyes bugged out and their mouths open in a silent scream, unable to react as the part of adventurers walk by. Such a sight could unnerve even the bravest adventurer. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: San Pellegrino Sparkling Water
Listening: "Pick Up - 12" Extended Disco Version" by DJ Koze from the single, "Pick Up." 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Open Game Content: New Arcane Wizard-Elf Spells for B/X D&D and Old School Essentials

By Unknown author - Own work, Public Domain,
It's a new year, and so in honor of that, and to distract myself from all the crazy stuff going on right now, I'm posting so new content. Similar to the goals I made for myself last year, one of my goals for this year is to write and create more. I've actually been writing "behind the scenes" pretty much every day this year so far, but I wanted to post something before we got too much farther into January. One of the things I've noticed is that, when I'm writing (with an eye toward eventually publication), I tend to spend more time actually writing every day, but that translates to less time blogging. However, I did notice last year that when I began increasing the frequency of blogging, as well as switching up my topics by including a bit more in terms of RPG-related content and less in terms of just musing about stuff or posting comic book reviews, I get more views and engagement. 

That said, these new spells below are part of a new project I'm working on, partially inspired by the Old School Essentials game I'm running for my daughter and her friends. We've only had three sessions so far (the last was in November) and I hope to have another one soon, but with the combination of the holidays as well as the awful toll that COVID-19 is taking here in my area of Southern California, I'm not sure how soon we'll be able to get together to play safely. 

For this new project, I'm working on a new spell list, mainly to go with the Sorcerer class I wrote for B/X D&D and Old School Essentials last March. While the write-up of that class I mentioned that sorcerers use the standard wizard/elf spell list, my original thinking is that sorcerers would have their own custom spell list. As I mentioned over the summer, I'm actually working on taking a lot of my recent content from here on the blog, getting some professional layout and illustrations, and self-publishing it as PDFs (and if I'm lucky, print-on-demand). The first "book" about Experts and Specialists is already written, and the layout is about 90% done. The last thing I need is art, and then I'll be ready to sell it. Hot on the heels of that book will be one about B/X sorcerers, including a completely revised spell list. The idea is that you can either use the wizard/elf spell list, the new sorcerer list I'm going to provide (with 12 spells per level), or work with your referee to mix-and-match from both lists to create a custom list. 

Here are the first five spells I've written, all for 1st level. Many of these come with an odd side-effect or consequence, which fits my version of how magic should work in a campaign; it should be a little bit dangerous and mysterious, and its practitioners should have this feeling that they don't quite know how it works and that it controls them more than they control it. A few of these are small tweaks on existing spells, but changed to incorporate a consequence, while others are inspired by things I've seen in popular culture. Brownie points go to the first person who comments below to figure out what my main inspirational source was for some of these new spells. Actually - as I think about it - I'll give you more than brownie points. The first person who comments will get a free PDF of my Experts & Specialists book for Old School Essentials once it's finished. 

These spells are still pretty rough and I definitely appreciate any comments, criticisms, and suggestions and if I left anything open to abuse, etc. I'm also very keen to try to find a name for the spell "Decipher the Archaic & Weird" that's not so cumbersome. 

And with that, here are my first five 1st level spells that I've written so far. 


Alter Fortune
Duration: 1 turn
Range: 60'

A single humanoid creature must save versus spells or suffer ill luck. The caster chooses one of the following effects: 

  • Attack rolls: The subject must reroll a successful attack
  • Damage: The subject does minimum damage on a successful attack or spell
  • Spellcasting: The subject casts the wrong spell of the same level (determined randomly by the referee)
  • Saving throws: The subject must reroll a successful saving throw
The caster gains the opposite fortune for the duration of the spell (e.g., rerolls a missed attack, does maximum damage on a successful attack or spell, or rerolls a missed saving throw; there is no opposite effect for choosing to have the subject cast the wrong spell). 

Restrictions: Humanoids of greater than 4 + 1 HD are not affected. 

Bestial Vitality
Duration: 1 round +1 round/level
Range: Caster

The caster gains athletic abilities reminiscent of felines and other creatures as follows: 

  • Fall: 10' without taking damage
  • Jump: 10' wide spaces 
  • Climb: Sheer surfaces with 90% chance of success
  • AC: Gain +2 to AC from missile attacks and when retreating from melee
For the duration of the spell, the caster grows dark fur, and the eyes and teeth take on a feline appearance, conferring a -1 penalty on the monster reaction roll table (see Encounters in Core Rules). 

Decipher the Archaic & Weird 
Duration: 2 turns + special
Range: Caster

For the duration of the spell, the caster may read any extinct, ancient, or alien language, coded message, map, or other set of written instructions. This spell does not work on any living, current native languages. 

For one day after reading the language, the caster gains a supernatural insight, granting a +1 bonus on any ability checks during that time. Additionally, on this day, the caster must succeed in making a Charisma ability score check (see Checks, Damage, Saves in Core Rules) each tine when attempting to speak, or else is only able to speak in the unknown language previously read. Others will not be able to understand the caster, and the caster takes a -2 penalty to any NPC reaction rolls made while speaking the unknown language (see Encounters in Core Rules).  

Dragon Scales
Duration: 2 turns
Range: Caster

Creates a field of force that protects the caster: 

  • Against melee and missile attacks: The caster's AC is 4 [15]
  • Saving throws: The caster gains +2 to saves versus dragon breath and any fire-based spells
Special: The referee may alter what type of spell damage receives a saving throw bonus based on the type of dragon scales (e.g., lightning spells for blue dragon scales or cold-based spells for white dragon scales). 

The caster appears to be encased in armor made of dragon scales (of a color of the caster's choosing) and has a -2 penalty to reaction rolls made with dragons during the spell's duration (see Encounters in Core Rules). 

Evil Eye
Duration: 1 round per level
Range: 120'

This spell places a curse on a single creature in range. The subject must make a save versus spells or suffer a -1 penalty to all attack rolls, saving throws, and morale checks for the duration of the spell. 

The subject of the spell feels uncomfortable in the presence of the caster. At the end of the spell's duration, the subject has a 50% chance to either attack the caster immediately, or to move away without making contact or harming the caster. 

There you go - let me know your thoughts! 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Winterbraun by Lost Coast Brewery
Listening: "Life on Mars?" by David Bowie, from the album "Hunky Dory" 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

RPG Review: Domain Building (Populated Hexcrawl Series)

Domain Building
is an entry in Todd Leback's "Populated Hexcrawl Series" of PDFs. This particular entry is concerned with the building and management of a domain, which was a major goal for characters in old-school RPGs back in the 1970's and 1980's, but has become less of a concern in recent years. With the popularity of old-school games and their retro-clones continuing to increase, the subject of "name level" and domain building is one that may interest both old-time gamers as well as newer games just discovering old-school games. 

I first encountered Todd Leback's name as a contestant in the annual One Page Dungeon Contest for which I've been a judge for the past few years. I had rated Todd's 2019 entry, "Dome of the Library" as among my Top 20 entries that year, which earned him an "Honorable Mention" prize in the contest, and in my notes, I mentioned it was a "fun, non-standard fantasy adventure in the old-school style..." So, Leback has the chops to create old-school products like this. 


Creating and managing a domain, while often a PC goal in the early years of the hobby, particularly for the Fighter class, was never adequately described beyond just a few sentences. For example, in the Old School Essentials (an exact retro-clone of the 1981 Basic/Expert D&D game) entry for the Fighter class, under "Stronghold," it says, "Any time a fighter wishes (and has sufficient money), they can build a castle or stronghold and control the surrounding lands." That's it - there are no details on clearing the area, maintenance costs, staff and personnel, etc. 

Domain Building fills in all of these details and provides information on recruiting and keeping retainers to help manage your domain, protecting your domain with troops and checking their morale, bringing civilization to a wilderness hex area and creating an urban center around which to build your domain, attracting settlers, generating income, managing expenses, translating domain income into XP, calculating your domain's morale, trading goods for profit, and then provides detailed examples of the process. 

Lots of these topics actually provide a lot of opportunity for role-playing, including recruiting retainers and stronghold garrison troops and attracting settlers. While these can be hand-waved or dealt with by making simple Charisma checks, enough ideas and details are provided to help DMs create role-playing scenarios for domain rulers to offer land grants or gold payments to potential settlers, which could lead to some interesting politics and intrigue in a campaign. 

While Fighters are the main focus of ruling a domain, there is also information provided for each main class (cleric, magic-user, and thief) to also create and rule a domain, with details on how it impacts those class's typical name-level benefits and the followers they typically attract at that time. 


The main draw of this product is the actual topic itself, and that Leback has put so much thought into each area of how to manage a domain, but keeps the details reined in so that the process doesn't get bogged down in an obsessive amount of detail. There are some areas that I wouldn't have actually even considered, such as the aforementioned section on attracting settlers to the domain, creating "retainer trees" to allow a PC to entrust the management of a domain to select higher-level retainer "lieutenants" and have those lieutenants, in turn, provide direction to lower-level retainers for the mundane aspects of domain management that a PC wouldn't want to deal with. 

There are also costs provided for different parts of a castle/stronghold (barbicans, gates, keeps, towers, walls) but also the maintenance costs. 

All of the aspects of domain creation and management are here, so a player and referee will have everything at their fingertips if this is an aspect of the game you want to embrace. 

I also really like the "extended example" provided that shows examples of what happens in certain months and years of a domain, showing how many peasant families are attracted to a domain; the income generated in the initial month from the value of land, services, and taxes; expenses by month; and XP gained. At the end of the example, it notes that the ruler of the domain can continue to grow through conquering new territory and adding it to his kingdom, which will soon grow too large to manage properly, so land grants and titles may be given to various loyal retainers. To me, again, this creates great opportunities for role-playing and future conflict, as some retainers may not be happy with the size of the land or the title they are granted. 


The topic could initially appear to be a bit dry, but the presentation and concise writing help keep it entertaining and manageable. The layout is pretty clean, with a standard two-column format, and a simple black-and-white presentation. Examples are called out with boxed text and gray shading to help them stand out. The illustrations, while sparse in number, are generally good and evoke an old-school aesthetic with a combination of three sketchy pencil drawings by Patrick E. Pullen, and some pen-and-ink work by David Lewis Johnson and Miguel Santos. There is also some stock art by Rich Hershey from Fat Goblin Games. The main font size is sans serif, but large enough to be very legible, while headers are in a serif font.

In terms of improvement, I would have liked to have seen a layout style adhere a little closer to the Old School Essentials style of distinct two-page spreads and not having sentences cut-off and requiring turning the page to finish. While that ultimately may have made the book a bit longer, it minimizes page-turning when using the book during play, which is a big benefit. The art has two very different styles (one more loose and sketchy with pencil shading, and the other pen-and-ink line drawings with minimal or no shading). Both styles are fine, but they clash a bit, and the way are placed in the book puts all of the pencil drawings first, upfront, then all the pen-and-ink drawings in the back, so there's a definite change in style about a third of the way through the book. 

Also, in one section, there's mention that "The document Hexcrawl Basics explores the actual process of exploring and clearing a hex. But, for now, assume the adventurers have thoroughly explored the target hex, cleared it of any threats, and are now ready to found their domain." While this makes sense, I wonder if a little more synergy could be made between the two products, or at least have a summarized version of what exploring and clearing a hex entails including in Domain Building. It might even be worth some marketing text for the product to note that exploring and clearing the hex is covered in another product, and Domain Building assumes that step has already been done. 

These are minor quibbles and don't impact the use of the product. If you're running B/X or Old School Essentials game, or really any old-school retro-clone, and you're looking to insert domain creation and management into your campaign, this is a great addition to your toolkit to do so. 


  • Format: 49-page black-and-white PDF, including cover and Open Game License
  • Where to Buy: Available at DriveThruRPG (link leads directly to the product page)
  • Price: "Pay What You Want" 
  • System: Designed specifically for Old School Essentials, of course completely usable with the 1981 B/X D&D Game, and easily adaptable to most old-school fantasy games and retro-clones
  • More Information: The author, Todd Leback, has a Patreon Page specifically for supporting his "Populated Hexes" products. Other Populated Hexes can be found at DriveThruRPG. 
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this PDF for review purposes

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Cold brew coffee (Stumptown Nitro)
Listening: "Holiday on Skis" by Al Caiola and Riz Ortolani, from the album "Ultra Lounge: Christmas Cocktails"

Monday, November 23, 2020

My New Old School Essentials Campaign & the DungeonCraft YouTube Channel

The First In-Person Session. All girls had been
quarantined for the pandemic and some were 
already tested as negative. 

I've been writing on here for the past few months about starting a D&D campaign for my daughter and her friends. 

After a few months of planning and preparing, we finally started our game back in September with a "Session 0" that was held primarily online (a few of us were in-person, including my daughter and me). Before we met up, I had asked my daughter what her friends' favorite colors were, and got them each a set of dice in that color and had it shipped to their house. During our Virtual Session 0, I discussed how the dice worked, some of the basic terms, the idea of playing a character, and went through the basic class types. We're using Old School Essentials by Gavin Norman, and I've found it to be a really great way to help keep things streamlined and without too many options to make these first-time players get confused or overwhelmed. I also had emailed one of the free OSE character sheets to each player before the game and asked them to print it out, and together online we rolled stats, assigned them to the ability score of choice, and picked classes. At the end of this, I asked them on their own time to pick equipment using the equipment list I sent them, and to send me questions before our next session. 

One challenge I have found with this group is that they are not comfortable with using email, but they aren't old enough yet to have their phone mobile devices, so it's very difficult to get in touch with them between sessions or get them to answer emails. My own daughter has told me that my emails are "too long," which which I guess she means that they are longer than a short instant message that one would send over Google Hangouts, which these girls use for school (but which I can't use to chat with them, because their school accounts, rightly so, do not allow non-school people to message the kids). 

So, at our first actual session, which was held the weekend before Halloween, most of the players had not yet picked their equipment, so we spent a good 45 minutes or so going over the equipment lists and explaining what certain things were. One character wanted to keep as much of her starting gold as possible, so her equipment was very limited. Another character spent every last coin. 

The players consist of my daughter, three of her friends, and the dad of one of her friends (who I'm also friends with, so that makes it easy). My daughter and two of her friends all three decided to be elves, and one other friend decided to be a thief. My daughter's friend asked her dad if he would play a cleric, because "we might need healing." She had paid attention enough as I described the different classes and their abilities to understand that cleric were the only class with magical healing and turning undead abilities, and so her, that was more important than fighting or wizard capabilities.

Before officially starting the session, I also asked the players if there were any subjects that were "off-the-table" for them. For example, I know my daughter has a severe fear of spiders, and I wanted to understand if giant spiders appeared in my game, if that would be a problem for her. The last thing I want is for these kids to have nightmares over something they experienced in a game. Most of them were pretty vague, although one girl had a very strong fear of being bitten by a shark, and several of the players did not want to have any encounters with evil clowns. I also asked about descriptions of violence and how graphic was "too graphic" for them. On this, they were a bit more accepting of most things "as long as it isn't too much." 

As I mentioned earlier this year, my plan was to start with the old-school adventure, B2: Keep on the Borderlands, partly because I remember playing at least parts of that adventure when I first started, and I still have my copy that came with my Moldvay Basic Set that I got as an Easter gift back in 1982 or 1983. As luck would have it, I was searching online for reviews of the Goodman Games version of the adventure, a revised hardback called Into the Borderlands, which combines both B1: Into the Unknown and B2: Keep on the Borderlands into one big package and includes both the original adventurers as well as a 5E conversion. While I didn't plan to use the 5E stats, I was curious about the new material that was included. One of the first video reviews I found was by "Professional Dungeon Master" for the YouTube Channel, DungeonCraft, which I'd never really looked at before as I wasn't interested in creating terrain or painting miniatures for my game. However, after the review on the channel, the next video that came up was a summary of a Keep on the Borderlands play session that Professor DM ran for his group, with a grim-dark twist to it. I got sucked into, and I'm really glad. I've found DungeonCraft to be so inspirational and giving me new ideas to run my games, and using advice from this channel, I ran my favorite session of D&D ever for my daughter and her friends just a few weeks ago. 

For those who are interested, I highly recommend looking at the video playlist for the DungeonCraft Campaign, which covers a few early sessions and then goes right into Keep on the Borderlands. Along the way, Professor DM doesn't just recap what happened during the session, but instead he tells you why, and what rules or techniques he used to achieve his results. He talks about re-skinning monsters so they aren't straight out of the Monster Manual, limiting over-powered PCs, a very unique twist on magic that includes rolling to cast spells, the three types of NPCs you need in your game with examples of how he incorporated them into his game, how to run dungeons and mazes using theater of the mind and limited terrain rather than elaborate maps, and more.  

Here are some examples of ideas I got directly from the DungeonCraft channel and incorporated into my game to help get the campaign started. 

  • I dropped the characters right into the action, but at a festival instead of a combat. This was a way of way helping them learn a bit more about the world but also get used to role-playing. The characters were approached by various NPCs who asked them if they wanted to enter the Archery Contest or Cart Lifting Contest. Each contest was just a simple D20 roll and adding the character's missile attack or melee attack bonus to the roll, with the highest number winning a small purse of 10 silver pieces (1 SP to enter). I loved this idea because it helped these very novice characters get used to rolling dice and how to find the bonuses and penalties on their character sheets to adjust the numbers, as well as learning how to talk with NPCs. 
  • Given the age of my players and the make-up of the party, the next thing from the DungeonCraft channel was a "courting ritual" that involved Charisma checks, with female characters able to win potential suitors. I changed this slightly, and used an exposition NPC of an elderly woman who talked about always looking forward to the Fall Festival every year and how she had met her husband there, but that perhaps these adventurers were "too young for that sort of thing." (My daughter and her friends have all chosen to play characters who are in their very early teens at the oldest). But, there was a dance, and the players had to interact with NPCs who asked them to dance. One refused, while two others agreed. Meanwhile, I decided to have a young orphan girl approach the thief character (who, in game, is only 12 years old, and had no interest in participating in the dance) and instead introduce the thief to the idea of Beggars Guilds and Thieves Guilds, and let her know that most big cities have one if not both, and that as a Thief, she could always seek them out and might be able to get assistance or at least a few rumors to follow up on. For the cleric character, who is celibate and did not want to participate in the dance, I instead introduced him to an NPC and allowed him a chance to discuss his faith, which is a small cult that most people haven't heard of. All of these required Charisma checks on the part of the players, once again so they could understand using the dice and how it can complement their role-playing. 
  • Lastly, I gave the characters a chance to visit a fortune teller and have their fortunes read. This was a way for me to distribute different rumors without making it seem forced, and for a twist, I decided last-minute that the fortune teller refused the tell the Thief's fortune for "unknown reasons" - something to follow-up on later, perhaps. For each character that had their fortune told, I had them make a Wisdom check, with the highest roll getting a "Luck Point" that they can spend once to re-roll a failed "Save or Die" saving throw. 
The players loved this, and I actually watched a lot of other videos on doing accents and such beforehand, so each major NPC had a completely different accent. It was a good way to get the players used to talking to NPCs and having conversations in-character. 

Other ideas I took from the DungeonCraft channel were to have the players encounter a strange hooded and cloaked figure (foreshadowed through the use of the fortune teller and various rumors about town) who was with bunch of beast-man cultists conducting an evil ritual at some abandoned ruins on the outskirts of town. The characters were overwhelmed with fear at the cloaked figure, and eventually ran away after the Thief character shot him with a crossbow bolt and got a Natural 20, but the bolt appeared to do hardly any damage. 

They ran back to town and tried to warn the townsfolk, who were mostly intoxicated from much revelry, and refused to listen. The cloaked figure and his cultists arrived shortly after and began to raze the town, and the adventurers, realizing they were outmatched, chose to run away again and head east on an ancient, neglected road that was the only way out of town. That was the end of the first play session. 

I guess the folks at Bottle Logic are gamers.

For the second session, which we held yesterday, the players continued on the road and had a few strange encounters, all generated using a random table of 100 Road Encounters that I made using inspiration from the DungeonCraft Channel, a few blogs online, and my own ideas to fit my world. To give the players some fun and also get them used to percentile dice, I took turns asking them to roll the dice, and then I dealt with the encounters, which included them coming across a clear, clean stream they could use to resupply their water-skins, finding a patch of herbs that could later be turned into a potion, finding a list of potion ingredients (like a shopping list of sorts), and one of the characters at night seeing a Faerie Mound in the distance with glowing lights flittering around it, and then feeling extra lucky afterwards (I gave her "Advantage," per the 5E rules, for a day afterward, even though that's not part of the B/X or OSE rules). The two biggest encounters consisted of passing two guards who were holding a wanted poster and who studied the adventurers intently, and revealed that they were looking for a female barbarian warrior who was accused of murdering the son of the baron of the adjacent barony. The characters hadn't seen her, but a few hours later, they came across an overturned coach and the unconscious body of a woman who matched the drawing on the wanted poster. This was an opportunity for me to introduce a sixth player to the group, the younger sister of one of my daughter's friends. I realized that it was becoming a bit of a challenge for the parents of my daughter's friend to have one of them playing D&D for hours on a weekend while the other one had nothing to do due to the pandemic and limited options for leaving the house. So, we all agreed to invite the friend's sister. She wasn't sure if she wanted to play, so rather than have her spend all the time creating her own character, I made one for her, a human fighter, and gave her a small backstory about having been accused of a crime she didn't commit. 

This last part is another thing I got from DungeonCraft: He has a random table of 20 PC Backgrounds, and I rolled on the table and came up with "accused of a crime you didn't commit." I took that idea and incorporated it into the campaign, in which I had already established a feud between two local barons. 

The session ended with the new character joining the rest of the adventurers, being attacked by an overwhelming force of goblins and eventually being subdued and imprisoned. They woke up in a goblin prison inside a dark cave, and stripped of equipment, weapons, and armor. After some incredibly lucky rolls against their goblin captors who were attempting to take one of the PCs to be prepared to be eaten, they tackled the goblin and used his body to keep the prison cell gate from crashing back down, then freed their comrades. As it turns out, this goblin prison is going to be part of the goblin caves from the Caves of Chaos from adventure module B2: Keep on the Borderlands. This is another idea I got from the DungeonCraft channel, and I really liked it. I did give the players a chance to defeat the goblins in the original encounter, but three of the six of them had been knocked down to 0 HP on almost the first round, so the fight was pretty much over before it really began. 

Another thing I asked each player to do was to send me an email indicating the thing their character fears the most, the thing they hate the most, and the thing they love the most. The answers were really interesting - unsurprisingly, my daughter noted that her character hated spiders. One friend said her character feared being alone. Another friend noted that she hated negativity, and that she loved her pet wolf, Drake. I hadn't realized that this player had thought that she had a pet wolf, so chatted with her about it, and we decided she would have a small wolf cub, completely dependent on the player character, and unable to do much in terms of combat. But, as the character grows in level, I will allow the wolf to gain some more HP and combat ability.

Some of the things I'm considering changing for our next game are reverting to Ascending AC. I really tried to give Descending AC a chance, but I really didn't want to keep referring back to the attack matrix tables when running the goblins to see if they would hit, and a lot of times, I just winged it and figured the number was high enough to hit so as to not slow down the action. In hindsight, it would have just been easier to use Ascending AC so I could immediately tell if the attack hit without referring to a table. 

I'm also considering adapting a few things from the 5E version of combat actions. One of the things I noticed when re-reading the combat section for Old School Essentials was that, during combat, the only move a character can make is a fighting withdrawal or a retreat; by the rules as written, a character can't move closer to an enemy and then strike (at least, as far as the way I'm reading it) [EDIT: I've been corrected on this due to a misreading on my part. Characters can move and attack in the same round, but once in melee, the only move they can make is a fighting withdrawal or retreat] . So, I'm considering implementing the 5E rule that a character can move and take an action during a combat round (with an action most likely being an attack, but can be activating an item or casting a spell). That's still pretty clear and I don't think all that game breaking. 5E also has "bonus actions" and while I don't necessarily intend to use those for my players, I may adopt the rule for some of my adversaries (for example, I allowed my goblins during yesterday's ambush to fire bows/slings, move, and then, as a bonus action, hide so that they attack from a hidden position on the next round).

I'm looking forward to our next game. We were playing outside last night and the main reason we stopped is because it was starting to get too dark to see, even with a lot of candles and decorative lights in our trees, and also because the food I ordered was going to show up soon and I didn't want to be in the middle of a combat or something and have to stop for food. 

As always, I'm very interested in your comments, whether about my game in particular, your thoughts on the DungeonCraft YouTube Channel, or your experiences running games for younger players. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Charisma Check IPA by Bottle Logic
Listening: "Hounds of Winter" by Sting, from the album "Mercury Falling"  


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Open Game Content: D12 Criminal Subclasses for B/X or Old School Essentials Games

Despite being involved in a variety of different projects right now for the advertising agency I own, as well as editing an RPG book for another publisher, finishing my final judging on this year's One Page Dungeon Contest, and having a backlog of RPG reviews to write, I was struck by a desire earlier this week to revisit another D12 Subclasses table. This time, the list takes a bit of a turn toward larceny, and focuses on some Criminal subclasses for campaigns with characters who skirt the law. 

As I always do when posting these lists, I want to acknowledge another far more prolific creator who inspired me to make these tables, Dyson Logos, who not only makes and posts fantastic RPG maps and artwork, was also the person who developed the idea of small tweaks to old-school style character classes to create modifications for different types of games. I highly encourage you to check out Dyson's work, which I have found very inspiring. 

My list of subclasses so far includes Experts/Specialists, Wilderness, City/Urban, Naval/Sea-Based, Horror, Fairy Tales, Sword & Planet, and a brand new B/X-OSE class, the Sorcerer, with D12 bloodlines. 

Work on a short booklet for Experts/Specialists, including the 12 Specialist/Expert subclasses as well as three new ones (one each for Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings), and three full classes (Alchemists, Demolitionists, and Inventors), along with new equipment and genre rules for Expert/Specialist games, is in the works. The writing is about 85% done, and the layout is complete other than the sections I haven't quite finished writing, and I'm working on getting some artwork. After I get that ready for sale, I'll work on the Sorcerer book with new spells and other content, and then after that, my plan is to put together a booklet with all of the rest of my D12 Subclasses content to date, with additional ideas and content for each "genre." 


As always, if you're read this section before, you can just skip down to the DESIGNER NOTES.

For those who haven't seen my previous posts on Dyson's original D12 subclasses, the idea with these is that every character in the game would take a subclass to keep things balanced, as the subclasses tend to be slightly more powerful than a standard B/X class. If a player opts not to take a subclass and prefer to use the standard B/X (or OSE) classes, the referee should award that player's character an extra +10% to earned XP. 

These subclasses are intended to be short, quick modifications to allow for a bit of customization without creating an entirely new class, so while there may be a whole host of additional abilities you could think of to add to each subclass, they would most likely make it too overpowered or would warrant creating a new class instead of modifying an existing one. Each subclass adds one or two new abilities, and often removes something as well, for balance. 


Most of the subclasses on this list were part of my original ideas when I started working on this idea, but I ended up skipping past it to write the Fairy Tale and Sword & Planet subclasses. A few nights ago when trying to fight off a mild case of insomnia, inspiration struck and I jotted down some notes in a small notebook I keep handy on my nightstand so I can get ideas out of my head before trying to drift off to sleep. 

I did have to do a lot of work to come up with 12 distinct archetypes, and in particular, at least one for each of the seven basic B/X - OSE classes. There were quite a few times that I had an archetype assigned to one class, and at the last minute, shifted it to another class. 

The cleric subclass was by far the most difficult, not in terms of the class modifications, but in terms of how to think of the archetype. In my notes, I had a mention of the Crime Bible from DC Comics, but ultimately discarded that idea and went with a basic "god of thieves" theme. As I worked on this one, I recalled the old 1st Edition AD&D half-orc multi-class option of the Cleric-Assassin. 

The dwarf archetype was one of the very first ideas I had, going back months ago to pre-pandemic planning. I went a bit back-and-forth with a lockpicker or a safe cracker, but decided on the latter as it seemed a bit more unique. 

The shadow archetype for elves was another older idea that I kept - it's a very slight homage to a ninja type character, which I think fits a B/X type elf well, given their supposed magical abilities. For the "Confidence Man/Woman," this was a brand new idea that only surfaced in the past couple of days as I sought out new archetypes to fill out my list. I did struggle a bit with the name - I originally intended to call it a "Grifter," or a "Face," but, while I knew the meaning behind those terms, I thought they were a little too uncommon for people. This is the type of character who is focused on the social aspect of role-playing, and able to convince others that they will have all they desire if only they do whatever the character says. I would prefer to have a gender-neutral term for the class, but "Confidence Person" didn't sound right. I'd love suggestions if people have them. 

For the fighter, I went back and forth on whether to include the bandit, as it seemed to stand out a bit as not being part of a more "formal" guild arrangement in line with the other archetypes on the list, but it is a strong archetype and required few mechanical changes to implement, so it stayed. The enforcer was a bit more fun, as I had a much longer list of abilities and penalties, mostly involving social situations. One of my ideas was to give them a bonus on the NPC reaction table, but only against people who owe the enforcer's guild money, and in that case, a positive reaction wasn't "friendly," but instead, "compliant." I pared it down to the version on the current list. 

Halflings were another somewhat easy class to modify, by sticking with the age-old archetype of Bilbo Baggins and a Burglar (originally called a "Sneak" on my list). The Courier, however, is new - just added in the past day or so, and originally an archetype that I was trying to shoehorn into the Cleric class, but that wasn't working to my satisfaction. This is the person who is making the drop, delivering something fast and without being noticed. These types of characters are very appreciated in the criminal underworld for their speed and discretion. 

Other than the Cleric, the Magic-User class gave me the most trouble in terms of coming up with archetypes that made sense to assign to the class. Once I started to dig a bit more into various roles without the criminal underworld, however, I came up with a list that included about four different archetypes, and ultimately I settled on these two as being the two that seemed most aligned to using one's Intelligence attribute. The Mastermind came first - this is the type of character who would make a perfect leader for a Thieves' Guild, but they really only come into their own if they have a group of like-minded characters to work with. The Mastermind is the brains of the operation, doing the research, finding the right people, and making the plan. 

The other Magic-User subclass, the Chemist, is a bit darker in its inspiration, with the idea that the Chemist is making potions that are in high demand, and therefore command a higher price. It's possible that people who quaff the Chemist's potions develop a strong desire to want to obtain more potions, and are willing to pay whatever it costs to procure them. I did go back and forth on whether to include this subclass or not, but I ultimately decided that this list was the only one that made sense if I ever wanted to include a character like this, so if I wanted to try it out, I had to include it here. Again, I appreciate any feedback from people if the archetype is considered offensive, etc. 

Oddly, when putting this list together, the Thief class was one that originally I hadn't assigned any subclasses to. The Thief fits the role of an all-around criminal already and I felt that many of the criminal archetypes I had that could be taken by thieves had already been assigned to other classes. When creating these two archetypes, I had to figure our some roles that hadn't already been taken by the other classes. The Fence is a classic criminal archetype, so my goal was just to pick a few strong abilities changes to make the role clear. The Ghost, I knew, was going to take a bit more work. These are the characters who want to complete a job without leaving a trace; they aren't looking to make a mark or to gain comments or appreciation from other thieves; in fact, their goal is do a job without anyone having a clue who pulled it off. If you are playing a ghost subclass of thief, your main objective should be to achieve your missions without engaging in combat at all. In fact, a referee might consider awarding you XP for encounters that are avoided instead of encounters that are won


I've only played a thief type character once, a very long time ago, shortly after I first began playing RPGs. I had a multi-class 1st Edition AD&D Dwarf Fighter-Thief, and I really wanted to test my abilities, so while attending a "How to Play D&D" session at the local library with my friends who were running the seminar, I had my character try to pick the pockets of a few of the new players who had shown up, as we were about ready to starting playing through Module I3: Pharaoh. I recall that I failed my role miserably, and was very embarrassed, but I forged ahead and tried to be a role-model, however awkward, for these younger players who were trying to learn the rules. It was the only time I ever attempted to have one of my characters steal something from another member of his party. 

Other than that, I've only played an "evil" character one time as well, for my friend's 3.5 Edition Evil One-Shot, and in that case, I was assigned a character (a Githyanki Psion) to play. I did have fun in that game because the goal was to really explore the boundaries of what could be done with the 3.5 system when taken to its extreme, and the fact that we were evil was really not a huge part of the game since it was a one-shot and we knew we weren't going to be using these characters again. 

But, other than that, I'm not really a fan of playing evil or even chaotic-selfish characters. I find the game works best when character are all working together toward a common goal. However, if all of the characters are playing some type of criminal archetype, and ideally are all part of the same criminal organization or guild, and their actions are watched and directed by the hierarchy of the guild, and there's the constant threat of discovery by the local law enforcement, then I think a criminal type campaign could be fun for a a few sessions or short campaign. 

Here's the D12 Criminal Subclasses Table. Have a look and let me know your thoughts on class balance, the archetypes I chose, and whether you try any of these in your games. My plan is to include this along with the other subclasses I mentioned above in a short booklet with some cool art and great layout, and additional content for ideas on playing a criminal campaign. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop) and small idea notebook
Drinking: Tap water
Listening: "Crazy Good' by Dojo Cuts and Roxanne, from the single "Crazy Good"

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Superheroes as Modern Mythology (Superman as an Analogy for Moses)

Yesterday, my friend Jeff made a post on his social media page to share an article noting that the President of the U.S., having recently been hospitalized with COVID-19, apparently wanted to "rip open his button-down to reveal a Superman T-shirt to surprise people when he left the hospital." 

In his post, my friend asked me some comics related questions about Superman, and in one of my comments, I mentioned the following (edited slightly for this blog): 

"...Superman is an illegal immigrant. 

To take the analogy further, Superman is the story of Moses, placed into a small boat (a spaceship) to protect him, and sent away down the Nile (to earth) where he is saved by the Pharaoh's daughter (a kindly couple) and raised as an Egyptian (earth human) and grows to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt (become a symbol of hope and save humanity from a multitude of threats."

Interestingly, despite me having made somewhat similar comparisons here on my blog and also on my social media accounts before, wherein I mentioned that superheroes are a modern day mythology meant to inspire us to be better, for some reason, this short comment to my friend's post seemed to resonate with people. I got a lot of replies noting things like "I'll never look at Superman the same way again" and "Mind Blown" GIFs. My friend Jeff helped carry the analogy even further, noting that Superman was the creation of two young Jewish kids in America who were looking for a form of wish fulfillment as they worried about their Jewish relatives and friends in an increasingly terrifying environment for them in Nazi-controlled Germany, and that you can find a lot of religious and mythological overtones in the Superman movies as well, including messiah imagery and the story of him dying and coming back to life.

[As a quick aside, I will note that the original Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was actually for a1933 story entitled "The Reign of the Superman" for a self-published magazine by Jerry Siegel called Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization, five years before the debut of the Superman we know today in Action Comics #1. In this initial story, the "Superman" was actually a bad guy, but that idea was discarded for the more familiar version we know today.]

All of this discussion seem to really open people's eyes to the idea of Superman and how his stories are more than just "a guy in tights and a cape punching bad guys" nor are stories about Superman (or, to me, almost any superhero) supposed to be dark, gritty, and somehow, "realistic." As I've noted on my blog before in this post on the 80th Anniversary of Superman

"I subscribe to the premise that superheroes are a new type of American mythology, something that is unique to our cultural make-up. The heroes of Greek myth were not admired because people thought they were real. They were gods and demi-gods with extraordinary powers, and their exploits provided moral life lessons that we could learn from and try to emulate in our daily lives. The 12 Labors of Hercules teach is that, as humans, we need to learn how to control our anger, lest we be consumed by it and do something horrible that we regret while we are in a rage. People didn't hear those stories and think, "I want to be strong enough to kill a lion!" What they got out of that story was that we shouldn't let our emotions control our actions. Superman has the strength to eliminate Lex Luthor and take over the world and run it as a dictatorship (what he would most likely think is a benevolent dictatorship, but that's aside from the point). However, he doesn't do so. Despite his great power, Superman tries to figure out ways to outwit Lex and also to provide proof of Luthor's wrong-doing within the context of the law so that Lex can be punished by a jury of his peers. The lessons we are intended to take from this is that might does not make right." 

I'm glad that some people saw my comments and it gave them an opportunity to rethink their preconceptions about Superman and, hopefully, superheroes in general. There are deeper philosophical issues in comics, even ones about superheroes in masks and capes, that we can use as an opportunity for self-reflection or as the catalyst to an engaging discussion about the world and our place in it, if we just take the time to look for it. 

 While I have had these thoughts for quite a long time, they were reinforced by a free online course I took called "The Rise of Superheroes and their Impact on Pop Culture." You can read more about my experiences with the course by following the link to read my post about it, and you can also sign-up for the course by visiting the Smithsonian's EdX page here

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and views on this topic. What are some comic book heroes or stories you like that tell a modern mythological tale, or that have roots in our shared history of stories?

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water
Listening: "I'd Rather Go Blind" by Etta James, from the album "Tell Mama" 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Memories: Blackmoor (Dave Arneson Day)

My Blackmoor collection.
First Fantasy Campaign, 2nd Printing
Supplement II: Blackmoor, 9th Printing 

I've seen a few posts online regarding how today, October 1st, is the anniversary of Dave Arneson, who was born on this day in 1947. We sadly lost Dave back in 2009, but over the past few years, his legacy seems to be generating more interest and study, particularly with regard to his involvement in the creation of role-playing games.

Back when Arneson died, I didn't have the same reaction I did after Gary Gygax died, for a variety of reasons, but primarily because by the time I had become involved in Dungeons & Dragons, around 1982, Dave had already left TSR (D&D's publisher) and due to legal issues arising between him and the company regarding his status as a co-creator of the game, he was not mentioned much, if at all, in Dragon magazine, my primary source of information about the game at the time. None of the names of the creators were on the box cover nor the front cover of the Basic Set (Moldvay version) that I started with. While Dave Arneson's name is listed next to Gary Gygax's on the first page of the rule book, that was one of the only places I saw it listed. Gary had a regular column in Dragon magazine, and the few news story about the game at the time almost always only mentioned Gygax. 

Interestingly, when I first began to learn a bit more about Arneson was upon discovering Supplement II: Blackmoor, at a local toy store in Sandy, Utah, where I was living at the time. I had come across a beat-up copy of Supplement I: Greyhawk at my friend's house, but the copy of Blackmoor at the store was in pristine condition, other than a small area in the lower right-hand corner where a price sticker had been peeled off. At the time, I was still very confused by the rules differences between the Basic version of D&D that I knew, the more Advanced rules that I was just getting exposed to from frequent borrowings of my friend's Player's Handbook, and this weird version of what, at the time, I called "proto-D&D" stuff from Greyhawk and Blackmoor.

It was in the incorrectly named "Foreward" to Blackmoor, written by none other than Gary Gygax, that I learned more about Dave Arneson than just his name. Gygax actually compliments Dave and credits him as "...the innovator of the 'dungeon adventure' concept, creator of ghastly monsters, and inscrutable dungeonmaster par excellence." This level of praise by Gygax toward Dave was seldom seen again, at least in written form, but this was, for me, a little peak into the man who I had begun to learn was the co-creator of Blackmoor. 

However, what really interested me about the Blackmoor supplement was of course the new rules being added to the game, and for me, I was viewing these through the lens of someone who had already seen many of the later versions of these rough concepts, polished into the Gygaxian versions that would appear in 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The first published version of the assassin and monk classes appear in Blackmoor, as they were taken from Arneson's home campaign. Many new monsters were introduced in the supplement as well, including such now-famous creatures as the umber hulk, sahaugin, and locathahs. Dave also introduces a hit location table, something that's been kept out of every officially published version of D&D to date, but which finds use in many homebrew versions, and also rules for sages (another important part of Dave's Blackmoor campaign). Most intriguingly, the Blackmoor supplement includes what I believe is the first official published D&D adventure, "The Temple of the Frog." 

As a youngster, just discovering D&D and without access to the scholarly research available today through the Internet and from such books as Playing at the World, piecing all of these disparate parts of D&D history together to understand how they related to, and inspired, each other, was a bit of a chore, but one that I actually enjoyed. I felt a bit like a gamer archaeologist, sifting through layers of D&D history to find kernels of forgotten knowledge. 

My investigation into Arneson stopped for the most part after my discovery of the Blackmoor supplement; although I recall seeing ads for a series of four Blackmoor-inspired modules by Dave Arneson (the "DA" series) being released by TSR in the mid-late 1980's. But, they were created for the Basic version of the game, and at this point I had moved on to the more "adult" version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, so while the modules somewhat interested me, I never picked them up. Part of this was also due to the fact that, where I was living at the time, finding new D&D products was difficult

Flash forward to around 2009 or 2010 when I discovered the Old School Blogosphere and I found several people, most notably James Maliszewski, writing about Arneson and his contributions to the hobby. I began to do more research into Arneson, which was becoming easier now that the Internet was more pervasive. And a few years ago, I stumbled across a kickstarter for "The Secrets of Blackmoor," a documentary claiming to tell the story of "The True History of Dungeons & Dragons." I received my Blu-Ray copy of the disc sometime last year, but only somewhat recently finally got around to watching it. For people interested in the history of the role-playing game hobby and seeing how it connects back to miniatures war games and other pre-D&D pseudo-role-playing games such as Braunstein, I highly recommend it. The team who put this together produced a very well-crafted documentary that was frankly of a higher quality than I was expecting from something funded via kickstarter. The interviews with the surviving members of Dave's old Blackmoor group, as well as with Dave's father, and the photographs from games back in the day, combined with great narration and professional transitions, titles, and music, are all worth the 131 minute running time. I learned so much about the influences that went into creating the hobby that we all love, and found it immensely educational. 

Recently during quarantine, being able to save my money by not making trips to the local pub or eating out as often, I went on a short Ebay bidding binge to acquire some older game products I've always wanted. One of these was the original first printing of the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Deities and Demigods, with the Cthulhu and Melnibonéan pantheons. I'd always wanted a copy of that ever since I discovered that the version I had was "missing" these pages, being one of the later printings. 

The other thing I picked up was a near-mint copy of Dave Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign, published by Judges Guild in 1977. In doing my research into the history of the hobby, I'd learned that this product was created by Arneson after he left TSR as a way to show what his original setting was really like. I had read a few reviews of the product, but other than that, had not seen any pages before. It is definitely a product of its time, with limited production values, almost no editing (it seems as though Arneson wrote stream-of-consciousness and neither he nor an editor went back to correct his spelling  or grammatical errors, nor provide any sense of structure), and lacks any kind of organizational sense to help find and use the information presented therein. While it's fun to own this piece of history and read some of Arneson's quirky writing and compare it to "High Gygaxian" writing from the same era, I can honestly say that I learned more about Blackmoor and the type of game it was from watching the "Secrets of Blackmoor" documentary than I did by digging through the poorly organized and written First Fantasy Campaign. Clearly my age is catching up with me, as I no longer enjoyed the archaeological effort to dig through Arneson's early publications as much as I probably would have as a teenager just discovering the game for the first time. 

These three products, all published, and (more importantly) read/watched/acquired by me at completely different times, are interesting and educational glimpses into the "other" co-creator of D&D and, by extension, the hobby of fantasy role-playing. They reveal a different approach to the game that is, at times, much less serious and structured into traditional high fantasy tropes, but that also deals with minutiae such as troop types and domain economics. 

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Arneson and his playstyle, writing, and his creations. I'm particularly interested to hear from people who have the "DA" series of modules to hear their thoughts on them, but also to hear peoples' thoughts on the different Arneson media I wrote about. I look forward to your comments. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: I met up with my dad tonight and made a "Corpse Reviver #2" with him and his friend for a video show he makes for YouTube about cocktails. 
Listening: "Can I Kick It?" by a Tribe Called Quest, from the album "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm" 


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