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Thursday, April 26, 2018

REF (Random Encounter Fun): Prairie Petrification!

Time for another round of random encounter rolls! Last time, we had multiple dragons in dungeon, so this time let's return to the great outdoors.

Rolling randomly, our terrain is grasslands. I rolled "Unusual" for the encounter type (uh-oh). The result was Gorgons! Fortunately for our hypothetical party, they only meet one; just one measly, little, armor-plated bull with a petrification attack.

Encounter distance come up at 40 yards. Given that this boulder-making bovine can cover that in a single round, that's pretty close. Let's assume the PCs came over a hill and there it was on the opposite side; maybe just down the slope?

Next up, since there isn't anything in particular in the gorgon's description to indicate a default reaction, and it's of animal intelligence, let's make a reaction roll. An 8 indicates uncertainty and no immediate attack. If the players don't rush it, they might be able to just back away and avoid the fight. Let's assume they try to calm the beast with soothing noises and move around it. A second reaction roll gives us an 11! Since there was no offer to consider, it's fair to say the beast wanders off. Crisis averted.

Or was it?

One of the issues with random encounters like that is if you meet the monster away from its lair, then you're a lot less likely to see any treasure. A gorgon has type E treasure, and since it's a beast, it's not carrying its loot around with it. Greedy players might decide to follow the gorgon and see if it leads them to its lair. Rolling for the Number Appearing in lair (1d4), I got a 2; which means another one (its mate?) is back at the old homestead.

Let's assume the fight occurs and the PCs win (at least some of them). That's not so crazy. Heck, if they can down one of them, maybe the other fails its lousy morale. So what was their fabulous reward? Well, TT: E is listed with an average value of 2,500gp (B45), but we're doing random here! So I rolled for it. Turns out, the PCs did pretty well for themselves.

  • 1,000gp in gold coin/buillion
  • 9 gems (!), totaling 2,400gpv (including one 1,000 gpv stone)
  • 7 pcs of jewelry (!!), totaling 7,500gpv. The highest value piece rolled at 1,500gpv alone.

This give a grand total of 10,900gp worth of loot!

Defeating the gorgons is worth 2,400xp (8HD + special each). So the party could walk away from that with over 13K xp to split amongst them.

This is why PCs sometimes foolishly pursue risky encounters unnecessarily. Sometimes, just sometimes, it can pay off.

Now, that's the bones of the encounter. Let's put some meat on it.

I don't think we need to do much to explain the gorgons' presence. They are listed as living in grasslands, so that's just their habitat. How they heck did they get all that swag though?

Since as treasures go this has got a pretty high value-to-size ratio and is almost all in gems/jewels, it seems more likely to have come from one place than have been collected from many sources. Who has such things? Nobles do, but it seems odd for them to have been out on the prairie dripping in pearls. That doesn't explain the loose stones or the gold coin, either. So here's my idea:

Years ago (how long is up to the DM), a young gentlewoman was promised in marriage to some horrible old nobleman, but she was in love with a poor commoner-type. She decides to flee in the night, taking enough easily portable wealth for her and her paramour to start anew. Galloping madly cross country to meet him in the next town, she accidentally stumbled across the pair of gorgons. Her horse shied and threw her as it bolted, causing her to drop the bag of treasure. Thus, when the startled monsters breathed their petrifying fog, only she was turned to stone, not the gold, etc.

When her father's men searched for her, the fleeing horse's tracks led them off in the wrong direction. The stone figure of the girl and the small leather bag lying in the tall grass were all but invisible to searchers. The gorgons had wandered off but eventually returned to their preferred resting spot. Over the years, the gorgons and their kin have made the area around this hollow their home.

Perhaps the story of the lass and the treasure is a local legend. Maybe the lad was found out and it was assumed he killed her for the loot. Maybe he's been executed and he haunts the girl's family to this day. If the PCs find the petrified girl when they find the loot, a whole new adventure arc could spawn from a simple random encounter.

Assuming the PCs don't go full murder-hobo and just leave the girl as a rock and take the loot. Those Stone to Flesh scrolls ain't cheap!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Curious Objects: Helm of Teleportation

I mentioned in my earlier post about communication that the Helm of Teleportation is a bit, well, odd. I thought I would talk a little about that today.

As non-combat oriented items go, it's pretty powerful. It emulates a fifth level spell up to once per round! Albeit with a few caveats.

First off, it's a piece of armor that only magic-users or elves can use. That's not such a big deal. Elves can wear armor, and I usually picture items like this as more decorative than protective. Secondly, the helm is a one-time item when you first find it. To quote the description:
"This item may only be used once by a magic-user or elf. It will have no further effect until a teleport spell is cast on it"

So think about that for a moment. You find this bad boy and it will let you teleport ONE time. Then you need to cast the fifth level spell on it to reset it. After that, you can pop around all you want, UNLESS:
"The user may try to teleport another creature or item; an unwilling victim may avoid the effect by making a saving throw vs. Spells. If used to teleport an unwilling creature the helmet will only work once, and the helm must thereafter be recharged with another teleport spell before again becoming useful."
So if, for instance, your party is fighting some big, bad nasty and you decide the best course of action is to teleport it far away, fine. But then your helmet is out of gas until a new teleport spell is cast on it. Note that its magic is only dissipated if the target is unwilling. If you use it to teleport someone that wants to go, there's no problem.

The whole idea that to make this thing useful requires access to a 9th level arcane caster who already has the spell amuses me. I suppose a scroll would do as well. Remember too that Teleport is a spell fraught with its own risks: There is a not-insignificant chance of instant death when being teleported.


All this makes me think about how I mentioned using this spell or item as a communication tool in the previous post. I think it might be even rarer given the chance of failure. Keep in mind that the spell as written only teleports the caster or another creature. Not an object. You can't just send the letter, someone has to carry it.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Getting the Word Out: Communication in a BX World.

For a radical change of pace, I was looking at the Moldvay/Cook rules and noticed something that I found interesting: I've always assumed that a society with access to relatively reliable magic would be able to use it to communicate over long distances. e.g. relaying messages across hundreds of miles in moments instead of days, telepathic communication, etc. This came up as I was noodling with an idea for an adventure: A nobleman dies in the capital, and the PCs must get word to his heir out at the distant estate. Why, I thought, would the PCs need to be sent? Can't the people involved just magically notify the heir?

...or send a raven?

Turns out, not so much.

The fastest way to magically send a message, BtB, is the teleport spell. That's right. You need to zap someone from point A to point B via a 5th level MU spell. That means a name level wizard (or elf), a pricey scroll, or a Helm of Teleportation (a seriously odd item in its own right)  is involved. Things like a Crystal Ball allow for observing, but not sending to, distant locations. If one went full palantir, there could be a network of such items where the operators could check in at preplanned times and literally read the writing on the wall left for them to see, but multiple crystal balls quickly becomes an expensive proposition.

Every method in the BX rules that lets a PC communicate over long distances actually requires that the distance itself be traversed (even if instantaneously). Of course this led me to think of flying carpets and winged mounts like griffons or pterippi (look it up).

What if a country's ruler kept a small "fleet" of winged messengers for the most critical of missives? Sure it's way faster than a man on a horse, but it's not instant. The message can still be intercepted. Mounts must rest, and carpets carrying more than one person aren't terribly fast, so the rider probably needs to stop to sleep, so people wanting to literally kill the messenger would probably get at least one opportunity. The fact is, most long distance communication would be written on sealed letters and delivered by horse or ship and take some time. This would also have the effect of driving up the value of things like griffon eggs or similar. Likewise successful research into a long-distance sending spell.

I don't know why, exactly. But that makes me smile.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Endgame, part 6: Elves and Dwarves aka Tree-huggers and Stumpies

I put the last two demi-humans together to wrap this up and because the rules aren't very elaborate with either of them. Like the halfling, elves and dwarves have level limits in BX, meaning there is a point at which (BtB) they aren't really gaining much mechanically from adventuring.

Side Note:

I know this is one of the complaints against race as class, and I don't want to get to deeply into that here, but I would mention a couple of things I've observed over the years. First off, I've rarely (if ever) played or run in a classic D&D game where characters who started at 1st managed to run up against their level caps, even 14th for humans. Second, it's my belief that by the time characters reach those levels, a few more hit points or incrementally better THACO or another spell slot just isn't going to be that crucial. Hopefully PCs involved in the end game at that point are focussed more on the roleplay aspects of being commanders and high priests, etc.

Not to mention that when elves and dwarves hit their cap around 600K XP, the humans are all at about 11-13th anyway. Even if the demi-humans don't level up again and keep adventuring while the wizard is trying for another 400K or so, they'd still be seeing HUGE gains in terms of treasure (coin and magic) during that time.

End of tangent.


The Dwarf Lord follows a very similar model to the fighter's. He builds a stronghold and protects it. At 270K xp to reach 9th, the dwarf should have acquired enough loot for constructing at least along the Tarnskeep level of complexity.  He attracts members of various clans to his territory. There is a lot of leeway given to the DM in how these clans are organized; be it by bloodlines, trades, homelands, or what have you. In keeping with the stereotype, dwarf holds are largely underground and often in mountains or hills. Dwarves will only hire or retain dwarf soldiers, but can hire other races as specialists, etc. One bit on X7 that intrigues me as plot-fodder says: 
"There will be many different clans of dwarves, each gathered under the protection of a Dwarven Lord, but usually only members of the same clan will live together. Dwarven clans are generally friendly with each other and may join forces in times of need, such as when there is a war of natural disaster."
(emphasis mine) 

So the implication is that the clans don't necessarily get along. That's not to say that there is open warfare in the tunnels, but perhaps rivalries or petty feuds? Dwarves are known to hold grudges, after all. 
In some worlds, they have a book full of them!

The "may join forces" line leaves the door open to the idea that they may not. A good leader would need to herd those bearded cats in times of crisis, and that could make for some fun diplomacy sessions.


Elves can become lords of their lands at 9th level, which takes them 400K XP to reach. This puts them later than everyone except, interestingly, Magic-Users. The assumed stereotype has these sylvan elves creating a base of operations in some spot of great nature beauty and seclusion. An interesting conceit to balance the cost to the PC is that the efforts of beautification (elaborate woodcarving, landscaping, statuary, or what-not) means that even of the elf-hold is not made of great stone blocks, it costs just as much. Like the dwarves, I find the default assumption of demi-humans retreating from human lands and being somewhat insular a definite, though not exclusive, trait of a BX setting. Like the dwarves, the elf lord attracts other elves to his hold, and only hire elven soldiers. 

Elves have the interesting twist that they protect the creatures of the forest around them and, in turn, all the critters are friendly toward them. These animals can even bear messages to and from the elf lord. (!) Does this mean he can talk to these animals innately? Or does he give them a little scroll to carry a la "Game of Thrones" ravens? I say it's up to the DM, but personally, I'd let him speak to them and they can make themselves understood to the recipients via the elf lord's bond with them and his magical nature. 

(I don't know why I went all Rankin-Bass on this post!)

What a wonderful plot device for low level PCs to be at a village and have a fox come out of the woods to deliver a warning from the local NPC elf lord about some imminent threat!

Speaking of magical natures, I should also mention that as a 10th level spell-caster, like the magic-user, the elf lord-wizard is theoretically capable of spell research and magic item creation. So in addition to his duties as a leader among his people he can also play mad wizard in his laboratory, adding to his arcane powers.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Endgame, part 5: Halfings, aka "There's a new Sheriff in Town!"

Down, down to Hobbiton. You go, my lad!

Halflings are an odd one in BX. I've already espoused their general kickassery as adventurers. Their name level/end game scenario is quite different from the human classes', and only slightly less so compared to other demi-humans. A lot of this can probably be chalked up to the Professor's influence on the class' conceptualization. The LOTR/Hobbit overtones are quite strong. Some later TSR products, like "The Five Shires", offer some different takes on halflings, but we're dealing with straight BX for now.

Since the halfling XP chart caps out at 8th, they reach name level ("Sheriff") before anyone else (120K). As Sheriff, they don't get troops or apprentices. If they build a stronghold, they get "a whole community of halflings." Numbers aren't specified, and I assume are at DM's discretion, but it's interesting that the halfling gets by default what fighters need to entice to their lands. It should also be noted that technically, a halfling doesn't need to wait until eighth level. X7 specifically states he can set up a shire "any time a halfling has enough money."

There isn't any overt mention of clearing a hex or getting a title from the local rulers, but since halflings "prefer pleasant communities in fair countrysides," it seems unlikely that such prime real estate would be unclaimed in any civilized territories. Again, JRRT's idea of hobbits having a secluded nature is coming through here.

In terms of gameplay. I suppose a halfling sheriff would get taxes and could hire mercenaries to protect his borders (bounders), but he isn't really set up to do a lot high level adventuring. Unlike the human classes, he isn't going to progress any further (not in BtB BX, at any rate).

I do see some interesting roleplay opportunities when it comes to things like trade and diplomacy. A fertile land producing goods and commodities, which a powerful character protecting its interests could influence a lot of things in the wider world. Assuming you break with Tolkien's isolationist model enough to have the halflings get involved in such matters.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Endgame, part 4: Thieves in the Night

"Behind every great fortune there is a crime."

I saved thieves for last among the "Core Four" human classes, since he's a bit unusual. For one thing, he reaches name level sooner than any other class (160,000 xp). For another, he doesn't build a stronghold, tower, or castle. He usually sets up shop in an established area. Lastly, exactly how his endgame plays out can vary a lot more than most other classes, depending upon the DM and how the player wants to handle things.

A ninth level thief is not actually all that powerful a PC. With an average of only 18 hit points, limited armor options, and no spells he is not making anyone quake in their boots.Of course he has probably picked up some magic items along the way and made enough money that he owns quality gear, but he still isn't all that intimidating on his own. A name level thief's strengths lie in his ability to operate "off radar." The underground world of crime and corruption is bread and drink to the higher level thief. Dark alleys and shadowy corners are fine for a low level cutpurse or thug, but master thieves need to think bigger.

I've always thought Charisma should have been a prime requisite for thieves. Sure, DEX is nice, but eventually being able to convince and persuade is going to count for a lot more potentially. Ah well, a topic for another time.

Cook says that name level thieves "...a thief may construct a hideout (a fortified house in a city, a cave network, or so forth). A thief who has constructed a hideout will attract 2-12 1st level thieves who have come to learn under a master."

2d6 apprentices is not a lot to work with, manpower wise. However, he's not manning a castle or patrolling a barony, he running a gang of crooks. Sure the gang might one day rule a whole city's criminal underworld, but that's not something most DMs would just hand wave away. They'd play that arc out (as well they should!).

Furthermore, thieves don't need to set up shop in a city. They can be highwaymen, smugglers, spies, or pirates. The Master Thief can arguably adapt to settings or individual player concepts to what they want more so than the other classes. 

To use the pirate example, a sailing ship costs much less than our Tarnskeep example. A small ship might even be crewed by your 2d6 apprentices alone. Not to mention it provides convenient transportation to various parts of the world for the PCs and the thief can sack ships or raid coastal settlements as they go.

Name level thieves need to be smart more than tough, and willing to look at the different ways they can profit from their newfound status in the shady underworld of the setting.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Endgame, part 3: Mages, Magical Studies, and Masonry

Magic-Users vary a bit from the previous classes since they don't necessarily have a role in a larger political or religious institution when it comes to reaching name level and building a tower. I like to think that the local rulers turn a bit of a blind eye to wizards laying claim to some lonely hill and starting construction. In truth, there are a couple decent reasons when I think about it:

  1. Wizards aren't (generally) trying to rule over an area. They just want a place to work.
  2. I mentioned in an earlier post how magic in a BX setting is somewhat limited in nature, so it doesn't really do to irritate high level MUs unnecessarily.
  3. Do you really want them doing magical experiments right in the middle of town?
While the wizard's redoubt is traditionally dubbed a "tower," I'm sticking with the Tarnskeep 175K price tag for simplicity. Also, there are other costs a name level MU incurs that we'll get to in a minute. At 600000 xp to reach 11th level (that's right, 11th, not 9th), The MU should be able to afford the place.

First off, I'm going to quote a chunk of Cook Expert's text about name level MUs from X7 and then break it down a bit:
"Magic-users may add more spells to their spell books through spell research. At 9th level (Wizard) or above, magic-users may also create magical items. Both of these activities are explained under Magical Research (p. X51). Upon reaching 11th level, a magic-user may choose to build a tower, provided that money to pay for the construction is available. A magic-user who constructs a tower will gain 1-6 apprentices of levels 1-3."
Spell Research:

So while any level MU can do research, it can get pricey. Page X51 sets it at 1000gp per spell level with two weeks' research. The other party members might find waiting around for weeks at a time as the MU plows through books a bit dull. Sure they can have a town adventure, but then the MU's player is left out, and that's no fun for him. Better to be in a play mode where people are more settled and have the facilities to do proper research. You can still have adventures. How awesome would it be for the wizard to find out that in order to complete the formula, he has to find the lost scrolls of Kalb-Th'arr? Time to go collect your pals and go raid a lost temple!

Item Creation:

Name level wizards can actually craft magic items. This is a time-consuming and expensive process. Having a "lab" and a place to work seems like an obvious choice. The expense of some items is why I leave the price tag for the tower as high as I do. Since a wizard (probably) isn't commanding armies or raising temples, he is probably adding to his knowledge and his magical skills. Not every mage is going to sell magic items, but they might. They might focus on strengthening their own power, or their tower's defenses. In either case, it can get expensive. I can envision some wizards seeking patrons instead, like powerful fighter or local rulers and going the "Court Magician" route. After all, spell research and item creation gets pricey when, "There is always a 15% chance (at least) that magical research or production will fail. This check is made after the time and money are spent." (X51).


1d6 apprentices is not a huge following, but keep in mind some of these might be up to 3rd level MUs. The idea is that they are there to study and learn from the wizard, not act as soldiers, They still could certainly bolster the defense of the tower. Nothing prevents a wizard from hiring mercenaries, either! (I have a vague memory that one flavor of D&D or clone allowed for the idea that chaotic wizards might attract monsters into the lower halls of his tower, I couldn't find it. EDIT: It was in the Rules Cyclopedia) Apprentice MUs can act as errand runners, too. Perhaps allowing for a split-level campaign where recovering rare materials for the high-level mage is a task for the lower level (N)PCs.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Endgame, part 2: Fighters, aka The Lords of the Land.

Fighters are pretty straightforward. First off, the class information expressly states:
“High level fighters usually spend their time training and leading men-at-arms, clearing the wilderness of monsters, and expanding human settlements.” 
So the idea is that the whole “endgame” thing is a big part of what name level fighters do.


Fighters reach ninth level at 240k xp, which is fairly middle of the road, advancement-wise. Using our earlier Tarnskeep example of a 175k gp price tag, it’s likely the new Lord would have enough scratch to at least start the construction process.

Unlike clerics, BX fighters don’t automatically attract followers to their castles. In fact, only clerics and thieves gain followers by default. Why is this? Well, it seems to me that a cleric’s followers aren’t really his. They are followers of his faith. We’ll talk more about thieves in a later post. A fighter must gather men with the force of his personality (CHA) and by the promise of rewards. If he hires mercenaries and leads them well, he might recruit more easily in the future, but in the end the soldiers will want their pay.

Another fun tidbit mentioned on X7 is that:
“When a fighter reaches 9th level (Lord/Lady), the character may become a Baron or Baroness  and the land cleared and controlled by that character will be called a Barony.”
So the assumption is that the fighter joins the ranks of his homeland’s nobility. (Note: While it’s not really a “BX product,” GAZ1 (Karameikos) does do a pretty nifty job of integrating these aspects of play into the societal/political structure.) DMs can harvest a lot of plot fuel from characters that are not only vested in the current power structure, but under an oath of fealty to serve it!

This also makes a Baron or baroness all the more interested in attracting settlers to their lands in order to collect taxes to help pay for their soldiers. When the crown calls in the banners, a lord that cannot respond might lose their fiefdom!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Endgame, part 1: Castles, Clearing Hexes, and Clerics

Turning on Retro-Scope, I dredged up a post on this topic from that iconic Old-School gaming blog of yesteryear, Grognardia called “on the Loss of D&D’s Endgame.”  Rather than regurgitate it all here in bits and pieces, I urge you to follow the link and give it a read. Mr. Maliszewski has been kind enough to leave the blog online even though it has long been mothballed. It reflects many of my thoughts on the subject. Not to mention James is a far more articulate writer than I.

Once a character reaches name -usually 9th- level (so called because that’s when the character’s experience “title” stops changing and they are referred to by such grandiose labels as Lord, Wizard, Master Thief and so forth), most classes are going to construct some sort of castle, keep, or tower. There are short, but functional rules in Cook for costs, times, and more. But before the PCs can build anything, Cook has a few things to say (from X52):
“When building a castle or stronghold, a character must first clear a hex or local area of monsters, entering the hex with a force of men and dealing with any lairs the DM has set up in the area. (The DM may also require the character get a land grant from the local ruler, if any.)”

So it looks like the PC is going to be busy before the first stone can even be laid. There are critters to clear out! A character might pay some men at arms, or lower level adventurers, to do the dirty work. The bit about the local ruler is not insignificant, either. That’s the sort of thing a DM needs to think about for his setting ahead of time if he plans on getting into this aspect of the game eventually.

As sort of a baseline cost for these posts, I took the description of Tarnskeep from Threshold in the Karameikos Gazetteer and priced out something roughly equivalent. Without getting into all the particulars, a character wishing to build Tarnskeep would be looking at approximately 175,000 gp, including hiring two engineers from the specialists section, and a little under a year in building times.

Not to mention Tarnskeep's owner is a high-level cleric!

I thought we’d look at the human classes first, as they are the most common. Going alphabetically, we’ll begin with the Cleric. The cleric is also the class that’s going to reach name level sooner than most in the XP charts, so it seems as good a beginning as any. (Thieves are a bit unusual, so I’m happy to save them for later).

The cleric PC hits 9th level (Patriarch/Matriarch) at 200,000 xp. Considering that most of a character’s experience is coming from treasure, this means he should have a fair bit of coin to work with. Of course a good bit of it may well have been spent along the way, but he should still be pretty flush.

When looking at the rules for clerics, Cook Expert has several things to say about 9th level. Rather than quote a great block of text, I want to take each point in turn.

“When clerics reach 9th level (Matriarch/Patriarch), they may choose to construct a castle (see p. X52) or stronghold.”

Seems straightforward enough. This next bit is interesting:

“...the cost of building the castle will be half the normal amount due to miraculous assistance from the deity.”

So if you were wondering how those ancient civilizations managed to build such elaborate temples before you dungeon-crawled their ruins, now you know!

Once a keep or temple or whatever is built, it needs to be manned. No worries for a cleric though:

“Furthermore, once the castle is completed, fanatically loyal troops (the "faithful", who never need to check morale) will come to defend the cleric. There will be from 50-300 soldiers (5d6 x 10), from 1-2nd level, armed with various weapons.”

Wow. No morale check for an average of over a hundred soldiers. That is not insignificant in a portion of the game where things like having troops to call on can have a real impact. Never mind wars, take a look at this bit from the castle construction section again:

“When the building is complete, the character may want to clear the surrounding area of monsters. The cleared area will remain free of monsters as long as it is patrolled.”

Finally, there is a section about settlers moving in if areas are cleared and improvements are added as enticements (mills, inns, etc.). This can yield 10gp annually per family of settlers. That will help pay for a lot of the day to day expenses once things are up and running.

So even after looking at a fairly simple clear & build model for just one class, we can already see some of the shifts that this sort of play would lead to in a campaign. I can understand some folks questioning whether this sort of thing would be fun, or just more book-keeping. But I also have to ask, if you’ve run a character all the way up from first to ninth level or higher (after all, you don’t need to start building right at ninth), don’t you think you might be ready to try something different? Of course you could always just start a new campaign or play a different system for a while, but it seems a shame to me to shelve a character that has paid such heavy dues when there is a whole new sphere of play awaiting them. The potential scope and depth of the plot-lines that could unfold. Whether it’s the responsibilities of leadership, political intrigue, or even militarily.

The Endgame: Getting to Name Level (part 0)

Old-school D&D systems in general, and "non-Advanced" versions in particular, have a bit of a reputation for slow advancement and lethality (not necessarily in that order). How many 1st level corpses lie in the Caves of Chaos? How many brothers, sisters, sons, or cousins of the original PC had to take up the mantle before one of them made it to 2nd, or even 3rd (!) level? Some players are frustrated by this, and that's a fair point. The PC that perseveres may one day not only graduate from the red book to the blue, but eventually reach the airy realms of 9th+ level. A world where strongholds and wizard's towers may be built, followers start following, and the PC can move from murder hobo to robber baron.

Of course the party might choose to continue their wandering ways, slaying bigger and badder monsters and taking bigger and cooler stuff. Perhaps they need to gather a bit more hard coin before they can afford that moat for the castle. Maybe they're trying to impress the king so they can receive a title and fiefdom. In any case, a campaign that manages to get to this point is likely to see the dungeon crawl for crawling's sake as getting a bit stale. Players may well be ready for a new kind of challenge.

I confess that I've never run a BX game that got to this level. The closest it ever came was having a couple of Labyrinth Lord PCs reach 5th-6th level by the end of B10: Night's Dark Terror. Back in the day, our 1st edition game saw name level PCs and strongholds, etc. but we were pretty monty haul as kids & teens in the 80s. We hardly explored the political or military aspects that could have been integrated into the campaign.

For the next few posts, I plan on taking a look at the "name level PC" rules in BX, as well as some of the secondary rules associated with this level of play.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The BX setting (part 3)

OK, I am wrapping this up. Seriously!

To finish up my musings about settings for a setting representative of the Basic/Expert game, I wanted to touch on just a few more topics: Resources, Risks, and Rewards.


For me, and many grumpy old-schoolers, managing your resources is no small part of classic D&D play. Heck, I even created products specifically to make it easier to incorporate into tabletop play. Rules like encumbrance, searching times, movement rates, and light source duration all lead to some real cost/benefit decisions being made: Do we take the time to search every room? How many torches did you bring? Do we hire someone to carry our extra stuff?

Now all these sound more game mechanics-related than setting, but bear with me. A BX world is a place where not only do decisions like those above matter, they matter because it's a world where dungeon crawls are a relatively common. Ancient labyrinthine ruins, extensive subterranean caves, mysterious catacombs, they practically flourish in a BX world. Of course this is true for many other versions of D&D, too. The point is the characters live in a world where someone, at some point, decided that it was a good idea to carve out an underground lair that looked like this.

There are weird, even zany places in a BX world. Maybe they are ancient ruins or a mad wizard's tower, but those that decide to brave those places prepare for mapping long corridors, regular booby traps, hidden passages, and foul monsters lurking around corners. Which brings us to...


Whether it's claw, sword, or spell, PCs face most of their risks in combat. The BX world is one where monsters are real and your character is going to have to fight for his life at some point, if not many times. A BX world allows for the possibility of a dragon flying over your head as you travel the King's Road or for a hill giant to be walking down a city street! This is a fantasy world. 

That being said, most of these creatures are monsters, not NPC or PC "playable" races (BtB at least). But "monster' does not always equal "enemy." A decent reaction roll and the appropriate language slot can result in parley or even friendly communication. 

Combat can be de-emphasized and other aspects of play can be focussed upon, but by default at least the threat of violence is deeply ingrained into a D&D setting. What can give this a more "BX feel?" Well, BX is a fairly lethal flavor of D&D. PCs tend to be fragile with their lower hit dice and -by the book- 0 hit points being dead. Even mid to high level PCs can be killed fairly easily, and morale rolls can lead to the better part of valor being exercised by monster and hireling alike. Compare that to some of the later versions of the game and you can easily picture a world where life can be a bit cheap and those that live by the sword are likely to pick their battles carefully as well as try to squeeze every advantage out of a situation. And once the battle is over, they will be sure to get as much of the spoils as possible to offset the risks.


XP for GP. That brief statement tells me this is a world where its inhabitants gain influence and become more competent by getting as much as they can for as little risk as possible. It's not the slaying of the monster, it's the treasure it was guarding. A BX world is a place where foul humanoids have piles of loot stolen from victims or looted from old castles they now infest. Half-rotted coin pouches lie among the bones in the lairs of terrifying trolls and gigantic spiders. And that axe of antique design wielded by the bugbear chieftain? It has a +2 enchantment on it. 

This is a world of coin-filled coffers and magic swords. Of scrolls containing mystic spells or treasure maps. Of idols with a single ruby eye the size of a golf ball. Of dragon hoards, staves of power and magical rings. The DM may not wish to flood his world with  magic items but in a BX world, such things exist and, even leaving it to the random treasure charts, the PCs will encounter at least some of them. 

Assuming the characters live long enough, it's also a world where lowly murder-hobos and would-be heroes might accrue enough wealth, fame, and connections to become lords (and ladies) of the land themselves. It's not a place where everything is 100% fixed sociopolitically. Maybe there are wars, or dynastic struggles, or rebellions and invasions. Maybe there are young nations that are still growing. The point is even if your PC started as a turnip farmer, he could one day be a knight in a keep with a fiefdom of his own to rule.

Wrapping Up

What does all this mean? Have I answered the question? Well, no. probably not. But I don't think that it's a question that can be answered definitively. What I do think I've accomplished is to work through some concepts of what I think a setting should or shouldn't have to be a good fit for Moldvay/Cook. 

And maybe it's done a bit that for you, too.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The BX setting (part 2)


Soldiering on, one of the ways that a BX setting is not like a typical swords & sorcery world is the presence of "non-monstrous" demihumans.

These guys

S&S tends to be fairly human-centric. With nonhumans relegated to the monstrous or degenerate. While it's not fair to say that classic D&D's default is somehow less fantasy-laden than more modern versions, I think that's its style of fantasy ends to be more of the 'grounded reality with a fantastical layer,' as opposed to 'full-on mix of fantastical elements where the "real" world is almost gone from view.' There is a spectrum here to be sure, and any system has representative settings from various points along the line. But to me BX leans to a pseudo-medieval with magical elements world, and that includes things like elves and such. That being said, the idea of level limits and race-as-class could indicate a world where demihumans that follow the path of the PCs are outliers among their kind and outsiders among the humans. But that's just one interpretation.


Typical BX settings also stray from many swords & sorcery tropes with magic being far more common and 'stable.' Predictable effects and organization of set spells is a mainstay of nearly all flavors of D&D, as opposed to things like spells using blood-soaked rituals and spells only being found in long-lost tomes. Also wizards in those worlds are typically quite rare and often in league with multiple foul demons or similar.

BX is hardly unique in D&D with settings that include things like player character spellcasters, magic schools, court wizards, as well as town clerics that can cast healing magics up to -and including- raising the dead. This aspect puts it more in line with 'high fantasy' settings. Where BX varies from most other editions is while BX magic isn't terribly rare as a rule, it is relatively limited. 

BX magic-users get 72 standard spells, 6 levels at 12 spells each. They don't even see a 6th level spell slot until after name level (11th). Elves don't even get a 6th level spell by the book, being capped at 10th. Compare that to 1st edition AD&D, with 194 spells spread out (unevenly) over NINE spell levels. Clerics fare similarly, with BX clerics getting 34 spells over 5 levels  vs. AD&D's 76 over 7. That doesn't even take into account the druid and illusionist lists. Not to mention starting clerics aren't even spellcasters yet!

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying AD&D (or similar) is 'broken' by too many spells, but I do think it changes the tone of the game somewhat. It's still definitely Dungeons & Dragons, but I do feel that BX's more streamlined list does contribute to part of the game's feel, and -by extension- to the feel of a BX world.

(to be continued in Part 3)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The BX setting (part 1)

[Edit: this started to ramble a bit, so I decided to cut myself off and save the rest for a later post.]

While there is certainly no shortage of settings for fantasy RPGs, it seems that some are better suited to certain games than others. I’m not interested in dissecting every published setting out there. Rather, I’ve found myself mulling over those aspects of some fantasy worlds (whether it’s a game setting or a piece of fiction) that seems -merely in my own personal opinion and experience- to embody some facet or facets which fit a Basic/Expert D&D game.

 To begin with, I find BX and OD&D lend themselves a little more towards "swords & sorcery" and little less to "high fantasy." I'm not sure I have hard and fast definitions for either of those terms, but let's see if we can't parse that a little bit.

 Wikipedia defines the swords & sorcery genre as:

"... a subgenre of fantasy generally characterized by sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent conflicts. An element of romance is often present, as is an element of magic and the supernatural. Unlike works of high fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus mainly on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters. Sword and sorcery commonly overlaps with heroic fantasy."

And high fantasy as:

"High fantasy is defined as fantasy set in an alternative, fictional ("secondary") world, rather than 'the real', or 'primary' world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent, but its rules differ from those of the primary world."

The theme of good vs. evil features heavily in such stories as well. Whereas S&S tends to have more personal battles. But I don't think of Moldvay/Cook or Labyrinth Lord quite as "Swords & Sorcery" games. They are after all, still Dungeons & Dragons; and while the roots of D&D may be more John Carter than Aragorn, it's not quite pure Conan to me either. The truth of it (if there is one) seems to lie somewhere in between. Which brings me to alignment.

3 v. 9

Classic D&D uses the three-point alignment spectrum as opposed to the nine of AD&D. There is no 'Good' or 'Evil'. Just law, chaos and neutrality. I have heard the opinion that this is a simplification for a "basic" game, but I don't find that to be the case. Rather the opposite really. I've rambled about this in the past, so I won't rehash it here. But I do feel that keeping the three point system and what it entails firmly in mind influences the nature of the setting. One need look no further than the introductory text of the seminal B2: Keep on the Borderlands for an indication of how Gary envisioned Chaos in the world:

"The Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures. If it were not for a stout few, many in the Realm would indeed fall prey to the evil which surrounds them."

One could read this as a classic "good vs. evil" set up, and -to be fair- that's perfectly valid. But reading the wording closely, I notice two things: Firstly, it's the "Realm of mankind." A human nation. This realm is "Narrow and constricted," seeming to imply that civilization has a limited reach. Much of the world is wild and quite possibly chaotic.

Second, while the text does talk about "evil" preying upon the populace, the fact that this evil seems to be interested in personal gain (slaves, riches, etc.) and not necessarily covering the world in darkness makes this less about EVIL and more about Us vs. Them. Sure, the "them" in this case are primarily humanoid monsters, as opposed to just some other country of people, but this IS a fantasy game after all.

It makes sense to me that the majority of people you'd meet would fall under Neutrality in this model. Most people have a natural desire to just get along and live their life. They recognize the utility of law & order, but they also don't want to jettison their desire for a level of personal freedom. Benign self-interest is the rule of the day. I'm reminded of a quote from The Hobbit about the dwarves when Bilbo goes through the hidden door.

“Dwarves are not heroes, but a calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.”

That last part pretty much sums up my idea of neutrality. So in a world where that's where most people fit, it's pretty reasonable to expect their motivations to be more personal and self-interested. As opposed to altruistic world-saving. It also follows that players are more likely to accept the hooks that benefit their characters directly, as well as trusting NPCs who seem motivated by self-interest as well. Adventurers tend to be a greedy bunch, as a rule. Especially in a game where advancement is largely achieved through the finding and gaining of wealth. At least, I've also found that a better fit in my BX games.