A Case For Perpetual Low-Level Adventuring

I’m a fan of the knife’s edge of low-level adventuring. I even dummied up an OSR system called HALLS (High Adventures for Low Levels System) based on the premise of a B/X-like system that caps out at level 4 but allows for a handful of XP sinks. I don’t think what I was doing scales well, however, and the vast amounts of XP required to level up in HALLS put a bit of a drag on that play-reward feedback loop that makes levelling such a focus of gaming.

I really think that the system my friend has cobbled together, loosely based on Warhammer Fantasy RPG, really manages to capture what I was unable to with the D&D based HALLS – a system that allows for constant and continual character development/improvement while maintaining that rain-slicked precipice feeling of the first few levels. Almost every session, we’ve been able to gain enough XP to put a point in something, but every adventure has a substantial amount of risk that doesn’t require massive scaling of monsters, NPCs and treasure hoards. Even my character, with whom I’d only missed a couple sessions over the course of maybe 20 now, while incredibly good at doing what they did (throw knives, steal things, do massive damage, and plan really great parties) I always had to stay cautious, because two solid hits would kill me; when I stopped being cautious, two hits killed me. It’s a system where you can’t afford to get cocky.

The new character I rolled up, though substantially weaker in many regards, was not so much weaker than the rest of the party that I was a load; on the contrary, my new character held his own and killed a cultist or two before fleeing to the back ranks after taking a crossbow bolt to the shoulder.

The way the system calculate character HP (grit), 1d4+3 + CON mod (max 3) + Profession mod (max 2), you’re never going to get a character who take a lot of solid hits. Weapon damage is all d6 based with modifiers (usually -1, occasionally -2, sometimes +1, very rarely +2). Armor reduces damage rather than detracts from to-hit rolls (allowing for a minimum of 1 ‘ping’ damage). You end up with combats where most characters can take at least 2 hits, 3 or 4 if a few are glancing, but you don’t have those long, drawn out mid-to-high level combats where everyone is slowly whittling away at dozens of HP in 1d8 increments.

The relatively low HP means you can throw weak-to-average monsters or opponents at the players, and it will ALWAYS feel like a challenge. Foe creation is incredibly quick. A monster statblock would consist simply of Grit, Movement, Melee, Ranged, Init, and a base save.

A human mook would be something like this:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 10, Ranged: 6, Init: 0, Save 10

Let’s keep him simple by giving him a sword that does a flat 1d6 damage.

  • The mook could take 6 damage; any damage putting him below 0 would force a roll on the dismemberment table (for mooks, it’s easier to go with ‘not killed by the wound’/’killed by the wound’).
  • The movement of 5 translates to whatever scale you’re using. 5′, 10′ squares, 5 yard, 10 yard hexes, whatever – he moves five of them.
  • To hit in melee, he’d have to roll equal to or under 10. To hit with ranged, he has to roll equal to or under 6.
  • No mods to initiative, and if a situation forces a saving throw, he has a 50/50 chance to save.

Now, let’s try something more interesting; a spitting spider dog:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 12, Ranged: 10, Init: 1, Save: 10

On the surface, it’s not much different. And that’s good! Because it means it’s easy to create new, weird things. But players will be terrified of it, because it’s a spitting spider dog. Instead of biting, the spitting spider dog might use a ranged attack that will incapacitate a victim with saliva. The target would get to make strength check at disadvantage when their initiative came up to break free. I just came up with that monster completely on the fly; took me 2 minutes thinking of something weird and gross that we’d probably run into in the setting. We’d probably fight half a dozen of them; if we got lucky, we’d get away with some scrapes, bruises and one or two broken limbs.

To give you a bit of comparison for what a PC looks like, my character who died looked something like this:

STR: 7, Con: 11, Dex: 18, Int:11, Cha:11, Luc:11

Grit: 7, Move: 4, Melee: 6, Ranged: 17, Init: 5

That 17 in range meant that I was good enough at throwing knives that I could attack at disadvantage every time to ‘buy’ an additional d6 damage (for 1d6-2 + 1d6), and the Init 5 meant I could make that attack twice per round whenever I rolled a 3 or higher on a d6 for initiative (0-7, where 8 or higher gets a second attack on the modified initiative roll -8; so, if I’d rolled a 4, I’d attack on 9, then again on 1). Now, I was a bit of a fluke, because I a)had a 17 natural dex that I bought to 18, and poured all of my XP into maxing out my ranged skill profession mod (combat skills can’t be modded higher than +8, and you have to have the advanced profession that allows you to reach those caps). But that’s what a character with nearly 1200 XP looks like (session XP was usually in the neighborhood of 70). Yes, I’d point-by-point built a killer who could put a knife through someone’s throat and skip off into the crowd before the guards showed up, but certainly wasn’t going to be able to take more than a couple blows. In a previous fight, she took a crossbow bolt to the arm; like most folks who take a crossbow bolt to the arm, she was done – time to hide behind the wall and hope her friends could finish the fight without her. The most I could’ve ever got my grit up to was 10, which would’ve taken a classes that would let me raise my Con by 2 and my Grit by 2 (possibly requiring anywhere between 400 and 800 XP depending on how I ultimately went about it). But that could’ve been the difference between suffering broken ribs and the disemboweling she ultimately succumbed to.

Every fight was life-or-death. It was exhilarating!

My DM is working on codifying his core rules into a consultable player’s guide. I’m hoping to convince him that this will be a worthwhile marketable system and offered to help him put together something if he were ever interested in commercially publishing it. I’ll admit, I had a few issues getting used to it at first, but I have a hard time imagining enjoying another system as much.


Sometimes Things Go Just According to Plan

I haven’t had time to do much game blogging lately, particularly about the current game I’m in, which is a homebrewed frankensystem that borrows liberally from Warhammer RPG, B/X and all sorts of weird OSR bits and bobs.

Fortunately, our DM has been blogging session reports.

Last session, my acrobat set up a massacre in the form of an evenings entertainment. Amazingly enough, it was one of the few times that a plan survived contact with the enemy and went off almost without a hitch. Also, unlike several of our plans, this one only took a few minutes of preparing as opposed to nearly an hour of debate (sometimes it helps for someone to just take charge and say “this is the plan, this is your part in it”).

Anyway, you can read the thing in detail here.

Ultra Discount Minis for Impovrished Gamers

Dollar Tree has the ultimate way for you to start your minis collection for dirt cheap.

$1 for packs of 3 ceramic gaming-sized minis.  They may not be quite to scale, but they definitely fit 1″ square battlemats.

$1 a piece for ceramic buildings, cemetery fencing, mausoleums, tombstones(not really gaming scale), and even skeletal gazebos.

I spent $25 on a whim last night, and now have enough minis for most low-to-mid-level undead encounters. Also, if I ever play Warhammer ever in my life, I have enough pieces to make a little haunted coastal town.

I don’t see the skeleton minis on this link, but trust me, they were there.  I wish I’d had them for all of the skeleton encounters thus far in my game.  Up till now, I’ve been using old dried halloween pasta.


I might let my one-eyed goblin thief use that zombie pirate. And the reapers would work for wights/wraiths.

All undead modules you run must now include undead skeletal gazebos.

All undead modules you run must now include undead skeletal gazebos.


Kellar’s Keep: My First Megadungeon

So, with all of the hullabaloo going on about mega-dungeons, megadungeoneering, the death of megadungeons and the colossal failures of Dwimmermount both in terms of finance, delivery and fun, I got to thinking about my first experience with a ‘mega-dungeon’ (I use the term loosely here to define a dungeon that is really really big.)

For me, that dungeon was Kellar’s Keep, the first expansion created for Hero Quest, a really cool game set nebulously in the Warhammer universe (just try figuring out where in the borderlands this is supposed to take place, I dare you).  Kellar’s keep features a fairly simple plot line: Immediately following the heroes’ massive screw-up of unleashing a powerful lich king upon the land, Morcar/Zargon has used the opportunity to throw everything he has at “the Empire” (I’m guessing as in Nuln & such), and the Emperor’s army got trapped in a citadel called Kellar’s Keep. Fortunately for the emperor, Kellar’s Keep is supposedly connected to the Dwarven Fortress, Karak Varn, by a series of now abandoned tunnels. If the heroes can find their way from Karak Varn to Kellar’s Keep, they can secure the Emperor’s army’s retreat path and escape the besieging forces (aparently escape, at this point, is preferable to actually breaking the siege).

The campaign is made of a series of 10 ‘quests’, which are really just large segments of the tunnel between Karak Varn and Kellar’s Keep sandwiched onto the Hero Quest board. There’s an in door and an out door. Get to the last out door, you’ve established an escape route for the Imperial guard. While the tunnels are cram packed with various greenskins and a handful of undead, what was a decent bit of work for the 4 Heroes is probably nothing for the full Imperial guard, so the quest is about ‘finding the way’ rather than getting everyone out afterward; that part is a given.

For the benefit of those who’ve never played Kellar’s keep or seen it or don’t believe me when I say it’s a megadungeon, I’ve put together a map (doors and secret doors only, it’s not keyed yet) that represents the 10 ‘quests’ as if they were strung together as a single dungeon. I’ve taken a few liberties with the layout, since oftentimes you’ll have an exit door on the north end of one map with the entrance door on the east end of another. Since you can buy things in between ‘quests’, one can assume that there are areas in between each ‘region’ that a)have shops or places to trade, b) connect back with a populated portion of Karak Varn, c) wandering adventurers might be willing to trade, d)it’s an ancient hasbro game, stop overthinking it.

In mapping, I’ve attempted to place the layout in a fashion that connects each quest hub in a sensible location in relationship to the preceeding and proceeding areas. As such, a few things are apparent: The abandoned tunnels are something of a spiral with two obvious tiers (level 4 is directly below level 3) and Kellar’s Keep is almost directly below Karak Varn (the final area and exit are more or less directly beneath the first tunnels; i couldn’t really represent this on a single image graph map) unless we handwave some distances between the hubs.

Kellar's Keep