Running Holmes at AR RPG Con

I only ended up with two players at the con, but one was one of my regulars, and the other was The Mixed GM, so we made it work. Players ran two characters and I ran a “hireling”.

This won’t be a full run-down, but some observations and remarks on highlights.

Both times I’ve run Xenopus, the parties have known that the sea cliff where Lemunda might be held was to the west, and both times the parties made a B-line west. Main difference, this time the party was insistent on dealing with the out-of-depth 31 HP spider instead of going around it. They didn’t kill it, but they eventually hurt it bad enough that it wasn’t going to mess with them.

The party wanted some extra muscle, so I pulled out a character sheet for a pirate I’d played in a couple other games. Following a bad ‘you had to be there’ joke, Crusty Jim became Trusty Jim. And any character named Trusty just HAD to betray the party at some point. It made for a pretty wild fight in the sea caves, as pirates kept pouring in and Jim tried to make off with both Lemunda and the contract for the reward for her return.

Crusty Jim was going to try to convince Lemunda that he was the only one there to rescue her and he was rescuing her from the party. She might have helped him row away and beat the party chasing him. This didn’t happen, because Crusty Jim has CHA 4 and is OBVIOUSLY A PIRATE.

Just for the hell of it, I ran Lemunda as a MU; she tried to Charm Person Crusty Jim when they were in the boat together, but he succeeded on his saving throw. Her class was never relevant from that point forward. The players were unaware this even happened. Oh well.

Using the Holmes wandering monsters chart can land you with some weird stuff, but I just went with it. There was no good reason for a bunch of Norse Berserkers to be hanging out, but they somehow joined the party. And one of them fought a character to the death for the right to have the +1 sword. He also guzzled a potion of growth that someone asked him to just taste, so for a few minutes, there was a 12′ Nord romping around with the party.

The climactic fight ended up being with a neutral party of mouthy elves who’d mostly rolled utility spells. A random encounter roll had placed the large elf party in the same room with the ghouls. Two sleeps would’ve been the end of everyone, but bad rolls and poor economy of action resulted in the players overcoming and looting some dead elves.

They never found the wizard or his tower. Therefore, I didn’t get to use the little monkey mini my GF loaned me.

They went through maybe half of the 18 pre-gens I rolled up for the con.

Even without playing it straight and throwing extra pre-gens at big problems, two characters would’ve reached level 2, a dwarf and a thief. If the adventure had been played straight and not like a con game one-off, it could’ve easily been more.

Mixed GM’s dwarf actually survived the adventure from start to finish.

With two players, Holmes’ wonky initiative ended up not being a problem at all.

Dammit, they went into the Rat Tunnels! I ended up having to sketch out additional rat tunnels…

Tower of Zenopus – Shorthand

Mixed GM, I know you’re going to be at my table Saturday, so don’t read this! Or, at least don’t download my key for the dungeon map!

I love Holmes’ sample dungeon, but it’s a bit tricky to run straight off the page for a couple reasons. First, he doesn’t use what would become the established convention for keying dungeons crossword-puzzle style. Second, he’ll include several paragraphs of information describing the room and the treasure in it to add at the very end “there’s a monster in here that will attack you”.

So, for my own benefit, I boiled the whole thing down into two pages of key-notes, everything I need to actually run the Tower as a one off. I tried to put dungeon info in the order that it would be relevant to inform the party about it. General room description and any obvious monsters, followed by more detailed descriptions, followed by loot. In the past, I took a highlighter to photocopied text, but I think this will help with the issue of relevant order or room objects.

You can download my PDF here.

Holmes D&D: An Interesting Conundrum

Next month at a local RPG con, I plan on running the Holmes Basic sample dungeon, Tower of Zenopus, and I intend to run it using Holmes Basic/Blueholme rules. I’ve run it in the past before using B/X, and one of the reasons why I want to run this at the con is that I’ve run it before for a library program and know I can run it in a 6 hour timeslot.

Now, because I am a very busy person with a day job, a weekly column, a gig moonlighting as a retro-game reviewer, and will be shipping out a book I’ve published this month, I was hoping to find some reliable char-gen out of the OSR community so I wouldn’t need to roll up 20 characters by hand. I mean, it wouldn’t take me more than a couple of hours, but still, I wouldn’t mind saving the time.

What I found in the character generators I came across was interesting… While they had some really good features, particularly equipment generation, they either made the mistake of assuming Holmes used B/X’s magic system or they paid lipservice to the INT % modifier but did not calculate a list of known spells. Typically, they would just list one random level one spell that the MU/Elf knew.

I think part of it boils down to early D&D weirdness; the early games don’t actually work the way that most of us assume they work. Whether it’s giving all Magic Users “Read Magic” “because you need it to learn spells” or having B/X characters learn new spells from scrolls and having a spellbook containing more spells than the character has levels, DMs do a lot of stuff that’s not in the book. I’ve done it, too, sometimes from ignorance, sometimes for convenience. But we tend to make a lot of assumptions on how things works and cobble something together from memory and experience of multiple different systems rather than go by the rules.

I’ve never run pure Holmes before. In fact, this summer’s Ultralich mini-campaign is the first time I’ve tried running pure B/X [usually I’ve done weird alternate magic rules that are slightly more AD&D-esque, because those have a more Vancian feel].

I want to get that weird “this is not like D&D you’ve ever played” experience from the game I’ll be running, so I’ll be adhering to the following:

-No STR bonuses. Yes, that’s right, OD&D and Holmes did not have Strength bonuses. STR was purely a “roll under” stat.

-Magic Users will have their spellbooks with all 1st level spells, some of which they’ll know, others they will not.

-Dex-based paired initiatives.

-No Variable Weapon Damage

-Variable Weapon Speed

We’ll see how it goes! I’ll be brushing up on Holmes the next few weeks and see just how little I actually know about this edition!

New Short Review Up – Raiders of the Second Moon + Stat Blocks

Normally I would wait a few weeks and do a round-up of my Castalia House posts, but today’s post has vital gaming content, including how with two stat blocks and two magic items you could run Basil Wells’ Raiders of the Second Moon as an adventure hook for the Holmes Sample mega-dungeon.

Check it out!

Doing It Wrong When It’s Right There In the Book pt 2: Magic in B/X

magic doing it wrong

We’re all familiar with how magic in Dungeons & Dragons works, right? You have your daily spell slots with the spells you memorized from your book, you gain new spells by finding scrolls and enemy wizards’ spell books and adding them to your own. Your library of spells may exceed the number of spells you can cast in a single day, but the point is collecting them like Pokemon: find ’em out in the wild or steal them from rivals. Only you’d be wrong. That’s not how magic works in B/X AT ALL.

I’ll make no bones about the fact that I house rule magic, though my house rule is to basically use the Holmes Basic rules or at least what I understand them to be from my extensive following of Zenopus Archives. I like the flavor of it: giant books and magic users with a fist-full of scrolls plunging the depths to find new scrolls and steal spell-books to write new spells into their own (which are hopefully not stolen while they’re off adventuring). I go with the whole 100gp x spell level scrolls as part of resource management that jibes with some of Holmes’ own articles and, of course, the gaming supplements I use that were created by Zenopus Archives, and in every game I’ve run, it’s worked. Besides, isn’t that the whole spirit of Vancian magic, Dying Earth and all that stuff?

Still, I managed to be surprised and taken aback when I actually READ THE RULES.

Moldvay only talks very briefly about spell books:

Each magic-user and elf has a spell book for the spells that he or she has learned. A first level character will only have one spell (a first level spell) in the spell book. A second level character will have two spells (both first level) in the spell book; a third level character will have three spells (two first level spells and one second level spell) in the spell book.

The mechanics of spell books are left mostly to assumption in Moldvay*. Cook, on the other hand, writes extensively on them, codifying rules pertaining to spell books and how they work in basic. More importantly, Expert explicitly states how Magic Users learn new spells and how many spells they can have in their spell book:

Magic-users and elves must be taught their new spells. Most player character magic-users and elves are assumed to be members of the local Magic-Users Guild or apprenticed to a higher level NPC.  When player characters gain a level of experience, they will return to their masters and be out of play for one “game-week” while they are learning their new spells. Either the player or the DM may choose any new spells. Magic-users and elves are limited to the number of spells they may know, and their books will contain spells equal to the number and level of spells the caster can use in a single day (thus, the books of a 4th level elf will contain two first and two second level spells).

(Emphasis mine)

This one paragraph at the beginning of Part 3: Spells radically affects the implied setting of B/X, moving it away from the Vancian implied setting (if not the system) as it’s usually understood. In two sentences, Magic Users go from scroungers of lost arcana to part of what will eventually morph into the magitek society settings of continuous light street lamps and tinker gnomes. Magic users would always need to find higher level characters to teach them new magic. Even more significantly, Magic Users cannot add spells they find to their spell book, whether in the form of scrolls or rivals’ spell books!

My first thought was that maybe I’d been doing the Holmes stuff wrong, too. I mean, for the most part, I’d just been taking Zenopus Archives’ word for a lot of stuff, since I don’t actually HAVE a full copy of Holmes basic. Yet when I turned to what I DID have, a facsimile pdf of the Tower of Zenopus, it was immediately apparent that B/X’s magic rules do NOT jibe with Holmes’, as is illustrated by the fact that the 4th level evil magic user has six known spells** he can cast in addition to his scroll. Rather than make the primitivist assumption that characters above 3rd level in Holmes are unknowably powerful, I’ll venture to say the spell books of Magic Users in Holmes are not limited by level.

So what does this mean for B/X Magic Users? Unless a Magic User can apprentice under someone, he cannot learn new spells when he levels up. He also cannot learn spells by saving scrolls or stealing spell books, because he cannot write them into his own spell book. But here’s a real kicker… Remember Read Magic, that spell that no one wants at 1st level because it doesn’t really do anything or you give it to all MUs and Elves in addition to their one first level spell? Suddenly, it becomes a big deal, and here’s why. Look at the text for Read Magic:

By casting this spell, magical words or runes on an item or scroll may be read. Without this spell unfamiliar magic cannot be read or understood, even by a magic-user. However, once a scroll or runes are looked at with a read magic spell, the magic-user becomes able to understand and read that item later without the spell. A magic-user’s or elf’s spell book is written so that only the owner may read them without using this spell.

Without this spell, Magic Users will NEVER have access to scrolls. A low level Magic User who can ONLY ever know one or two 1st level spells, because the caster can only have spells in his spell book “equal to the number and level of spells the caster can use in a single day”, has to make a major decision: Do I want to sacrifice a sure-thing spell for the day like sleep or do I want to never be able to use any scrolls I find until I get another 1st level spell slot? Suddenly, Read Magic is HUGE, especially if you’re only going to be allowed 2 or 3 level 1 spells EVER.

I’m not certain how stolen spell books work, whether they’re treated like scrolls or if they can be used as a new and separate spell book. It depends on whether Cook means “know” as in memorized or as in available to memorize when he refers to the limits on spells per level. A Magic User may not be able to add that wizard’s spells to his spell book or ever learn them unless he levels up and a slot becomes available. Then the primary benefit would be that the Magic User might not need training under a master or a guild to learn one of those new spells, provided it was a) in the book he stole and b) could be fit into the new spell slot the MU acquired when leveling.

The inflexibility of magic in this case is dire; you won’t want to risk getting a bad spell because you can’t just say “Well, Locate Object is lame, it’s a good thing I have two or three other first level spells to choose from for today.” Nope, that’s it.

Cook also offers us rules for scroll creation where Moldvay did not***. Expert contains a simple system for creating one-shot/charged magic items at a cost of 500GP x spell level per charge. Included in this are scrolls, which makes scrolls much more expensive in B/X than in Holmes. Additionally, because of the flat cost of item creation, it would be more awesome to make, I dunno, a tie-rack of Magic Missile than a scroll.

*:One difference which I was already aware of was that rules for memorization are different, something which Holmes himself wrote about; B/X magic users can quickly relearn spells after a nights rest, whereas Holmes magic users, unless aided by scrolls (their ‘dungeon book’) would need to spend full days at study relearning with their spell book. Restrictions on taking one’s spell book into the dungeon are not mentioned, so that would eliminate the need for a separate dungeon book.

**:This raises more questions for me; are there bonus spells in Holmes, does this guy just get a boss-bonus, is he expected not to live long enough to cast all of these, does he not have the less useful Read Magic memorized, and, since that still gives him 5 spells, which other spell does he not have memorized? He does, however, explicitly have two books of spells (one for each level).

***:Scrolls are only mentioned in Moldvay as a treasure type with descriptions on how the DM can come up with them, but without any rules for writing scrolls.

Into the Tower of Zenopus + plus some ranting

My first session of Tower of Zenopus went quite well Wednesday.  The players I had were enthusiastic and seemed to have a good time.  Drawing a map of Portown, even if it wasn’t a great map, was very helpful for improvising a few things here and there, getting a general idea of what was going on around the Tower and give players an idea of what they could do and where they could go.  There was less interaction with the stuff I had setup than I anticipated, but that was not necessarily a bad thing.  There’s something nice about a party that says “Alright, there’s a dungeon, let’s go check it out!”  No long elaborate getting to know yous, describing characters’ regalia and backstories, just an “Oh, hey, we’ve only got enough money to stay at the inn for a few more nights, we’d better score some treasure fast!”

I’m having a lot of fun with reaction rolls, something I haven’t had a chance to use much in Alfheim, given that undead tend to have a uniformly negative reaction to PCs.  I’m using them everywhere I can, whether it’s with townsfolk (see below) or intelligent monsters my players come across(see further below).  I’m trying to make sure that all stats have some value, including Charisma and Intelligence, which tend to be dump stats in a lot of games.  For Charisma, I’m doing it with reaction rolls.  Intelligence is a little harder, since it really ONLY governs MU/E XP and languages known, so I want to make languages a bit more useful.  Too often I’ve been in games where a character knows a boatload of languages and none of them end up being particularly useful.  “Why did I bother learning Crabman?”  So I’m using INT for the capacity to pick up on new languages.  It may not come into play as often as reaction rolls, but I want to do SOMETHING with it.

In my map of Portown, the neighborhood around the ruins are kind of slummy and plagued by robberies (of a copper wiring variety); this was the obvious spot to ask around about the tower, though no one really wants to talk to outsiders who want to go muckin’ about trespassing where the Tower used to be.  A crotchety old lady told party about how when she was a wee girl ol’ Zennypus’ Tower was knocked down but since troublemakers and adventurers had been poking around giving folks no peace.

The party went in and got ambushed by the obvious skeleton ambush.  The elf was nearly killed; even though I’m using AD&D’s negative HP rule, chances are anyone getting KOed anywhere but within one room of the dungeon entrance is going to die for realsies.  In this case, though, the Chapel of Triton is close enough to the dungeon entrance than he was able to be dropped in front of a cleric before he hit -10.  As the mage ran out with the elf over his shoulders, the old lady pointed and laughed.

With the second foray, the party continued following the old left-hand rule, landing them in the garbage filled rat room.  “Look out for rats!” (Garbage filled rooms almost always means rats; my players are genre-savvy.) And rats there were indeed.  The rats were easily dispatched and the coins and dagger found.  The party was going to head down the tunnel which would’ve put them right by where the Thaumaturge and his pet pirate are hanging out when a random encounter came up.  I mentioned the problem earlier about wandering monsters in this dungeon; rather than rolling on the wandering table, I decided to just go with a goblin patrol.  I don’t think it’s mentioned in the text why the goblins are in the dungeon, but I feel it’s safe to assume that they’re probably in the employ of the Thaumaturge.  It explains why he suffers their presence and why they have so much money.

The players got incredibly lucky on their reaction roll; the goblins were drunk and, while mildly apprehensive, not really looking for a fight. The goblins, though exasperated by the heroes persistence, insisted that they weren’t supposed to be there and needed to leave.  No, they can’t take the heroes to the boss, because the heroes aren’t supposed to be there and the boss will be mad.  You want to talk to the boss, you gotta talk to him upstairs.  Where?  In the tower.  There’s no Tower.  Stupid elf, no, the other tower.  Why can’t you take us there now?  Because we’re supposed to keep you out of here, duh, but we’re almost off duty, so leave, okay?  The party was slightly outnumbered and didn’t feel like risking death when the goblins didn’t seem interested in the fight, so they gave up and decided to look into this “boss” the next day.

Now, here is where things get interesting: the players claim that they’d be interested in working for the “boss”.  I don’t know if that’s just what they were BSing the goblins or if they’re serious.  They plan on offering the silver dagger as a gift.  I’ve already set up a rival wizard of the Thaumaturge with his own tower across the way.  The idea was that this would be the “good” wizard that magic user characters could hang out with and keep their books in his tower; his ‘quest arc’ would be the rivalry with the Thaumaturge.  Of course, as I mentioned, the players opted to go straight for the dungeon without checking out everything in town.  This means I might end up needing to make a micro-dungeon out of the “good” wizard’s tower if they actually end up getting an audience with the Thaumaturge.  Naturally he’ll ask them do away with his rival.

On a side note, I’ve noticed that my writing has gone to crap lately.  I feel like I’ve had way more typos all over the place, half-finished jumbled thoughts and weird traces of edits or rewrites that weren’t properly cleaned up.  Or maybe the thought I was writing changed mid-sentence as I typed.  Sleep issues have had me going somewhat brain-dead and my posts have been suffering for it.  I probably update 5 or 6 times trying to fix things I catch AFTER I post something.  And that’s after all of the fixes before I copy what I’ve typed up over into the post box.  Blargh!  I may try to slow things down here for a bit.  The last two or three months, I’ve been writing here like a maniac, and I’m not entirely sure why.  I love Veemonro, but when he posts a dozen videos in a day, I end up skipping lots of them.  I’m sure that people who enjoy this blog feel the same way, so I will try to rein it in a bit.  Hopefully my writing will be less sloppy for it.

City at the Top of the World will still be free for a few more days.

Lastly, I just had to remark on this somewhere or I think I’d go crazy, but my mind is absolutely blown by the adoration I’ve seen for Rat Queens from some of the same people who are upset about words on the internet. I mean, do they not know?  That nobody is talking about how and why Rat Queens’ Hugo nomination might be “problematic” is genuinely shocking, especially given how much energy is devoted to painting Correia, Hoyt, and Torgerson as monsters.  I really do feel bad for the writer of Rat Queens, because you can’t say it’s his fault that his artist tossed his wife (who on her blog alleges a history of abuse) down some stairs, choked her, and punched her in the face, but in a world where people are being told that they should’ve turned down their nominations because of things nominators have written, said or have said to have written or said, or even just the slate process, it is astounding that this has not only not been made into an issue but it has not even been talked about. Rat Queens seems heavily favored and has garnered tons of accolades from feminist and LGBT media outlets; the momentum it had meant that even its co-creator being fired for spousal abuse was not enough to keep it from getting a Hugo nomination and a GLAAD Media Award.  It will be interesting to see if there’s any fallout from the cognizant dissonance if Worldcon ends up giving a trophy to Roc Upchurch.

Suggest me some monsters!

I’m working on a bestiary for my OSR System.  It’s not going to be a very extensive bestiary by any means, but I’d like to include a few samples. The system is made to be compatible with any sort of Stat Block style monsters, but I’m going to add in some flexibility to the monsters I port over.  Are there any favorites or oddities anyone would like to see?

A Solution For Scaling Problems: Hit Dice Caps

Many DMs and Players wrestle with HP and Hit Dice scaling problems, with characters becoming too much like superheroes.  Depending on luck and bonuses, even mid level characters can have absurdly high Hit Points.  Characters who are supposedly normal humans must be stabbed dozens of times, receive multiple crossbow bolts to the head and set on fire before they say “Maybe I should pace myself a bit!”  Apparently, hard work and a vigorous regimen of calisthenics can render a human being more durable than dragons!  This is a frequent game-world-breaking complaint I hear.  It gets to the point when the only way PCs are challenged is by stupid high-level wizards or throwing so many giant monsters at them simultaneously that if such a horde were to really exist, it would seriously upset the ecological balance of a region.

Then I recall reading somewhere, and I really wish I could remember exactly where, so I could give them credit here, that some early D&D groups never moved beyond Holmes Basic, content to play three levels, where achieving level four was a superhuman achievement beyond comprehension.  Still, I don’t think that capping your players at level 3 is an optimal solution, simply because for so many players, gaining levels is part of the incentive to keep playing: getting stronger and getting better.  However, there is another option: Cap Player Hit dice early.

Hit Dice and HP are abstractions that offer little realism for combat.  I’ve read a lot of interpretations of what they represent, such as the character’s ability to survive a blow or some sort of measure of willpower and endurance in the heat of combat rather than actual wounds.  Lots of special rules for Killing Blows have evolved to try to compensate for the fact that the base damage of a weapon, that in real life would cause lethal damage with one good strike, is often unable to do so against characters or monsters with more than 3 hit dice.  It’s up to the DM to describe what the mechanical outcome translates into narrative terms.  Here are a few examples:

Orc does 8 damage w/longsword to 7hp lvl 1 fighter – “The Orc runs you through with his longsword; the fighter spurts forth blood from his mouth before collapsing dead.”


Orc does 8 damage w/longsword to 40hp lvl 5 fighter – “The Orc lands a grazing blow with his longsword, opening a gash on the fighter’s shoulder.”

Orc does 8 damage w/longsword to 84hp lvl 12 fighter – “The Orc’s blade catches a small exposed spot on the fighter’s armor, drawing blood.”

Mechanically, the exact same thing happened from the orc’s end.  He’s put forth his very best within the constraints of the game, but as the player’s level increases, the effect of any blow landing with full force becomes lessened, eventually to ludicrous outcome.

Now think for a minute about any high fantasy that you’ve read.  Most of the characters, no matter how good they are, either a)avoid fighting when they can, b)don’t get hit in fights, or c)get hurt really bad or die when someone actually stabs them, unless they have literal magic plot armor.  This is why any time people stat out Lord of the Rings characters, they generally end up with a Fellowship of level 2-4 characters led by a level 5 or 6 Gandalf.

Okay, I’ve been rambling for a bit now, I think.  Let me cut to the nuts and bolts of my suggestion.

-Cap Hit Dice at level 3.  Maybe allow for a +1 or +2 to HP or Constitution bonus per level depending on class.

-Allow progression of spells beyond level 3 for magic user classes/races.  Still the weak, squishy mortal wizard, but with powers far greater than any non-magic using mortal could comprehend.

-Allow progression of class & combat skills. Fighters get better at fighting, thieves get better at thieving, halflings get better at… halving?  Characters can develop phenomenal skill in their chosen fields, perfecting their trades, but are still limited by their constraints of being hominids.

-Allow for progression on the Saves tables, because these are based on class skills, training and experience.

What are the practical effects this will have on your gameplay?

The world will never lose its sense of danger for the players.  Large monsters, such as ogres, trolls, and, of course, dragons, will always pose a serious threat to those who hunt them.  Even Beowulf, after two very successful dungeon crawls, got killed by a dragon.  Additionally, smaller common monsters will never lose their threat.  If players can’t mow through demi-humans like dry grass, they can remain a significant menace throughout a campaign without having to house-rule them or give them their own Levels.

Combat will have more risk and therefore encourage better planning and strategy than simply running in and dishing out a lot of damage really fast, having tanks soak all the melee damage, and sit around and heal those dozens of lost Hit Points.