Saturday, February 29, 2020

Sandboxing Part 3 - The Old School OSR Urban Crawl

I have seen a lot of comments about how gaming sessions work in various games. I run a very open ended game, but I don’t do a ton of prep. I have a setting, and the players do their thing, the setting reacts, and that’s the adventure. I have always wanted to share how the game works at my table, but it takes a long time to write it up. Since this session was so much fun, I decided to write this one up.

If you want to know what it’s like to play in an old school OSR style urban crawl dungeon, rulings over rules, sandbox style play, this is how I do it.

I also thought it would be helpful to dispel some myths, that old school D&D is all about fighting, that it’s lack of formal rules for “social conflict resolution” mean that social role play is either all fiat, too easy or too hard, and that you have to do a ton of prep to handle a sandbox style of play.

Sit back and enjoy.

Hot in the City

I have a homebrew city, Bhavisyavani, where my players started off at the beginning of this campaign. They used it as a base for a few sessions then went exploring, and only returned there this past week. They just finished an adventure, they had travelled to the distant past to find a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom. They came back to the present and when they arrived back in their time they were outside the city.

In their adventure they had picked up some holy relics of Athena, a sword, a shield, armor, a necklace, a crown and several rings. When they arrived back in the city they decided to give those holy artifacts, several of them magical, back to the priests of Athena to avoid any bad mojo.

They found a barge, hit the canal and headed to the temple where they returned the items, and the temple priestesses told them they would always be able to come to them for aid. They had a new ally.

At this point, their quest was complete. I run a full sandbox game, so it’s up to them to decide what to do. There are some running events that involve them, NPCs they have wronged that might be seeking revenge and that sort of thing, but there was nothing happening then. The way I play I generally let the players decide what to do, and react to that. Rather than having a “new adventure” ready to go when the old one ends.

DM - “OK everyone, what’s next”?

After some discussion, they decided to ask the priestesses if there was anything they could do for the temple.

That was my hook.

When I have a moment like that I draw on many years of reading sci-fi, fantasy and comic books, and I just produce something. At this moment I said to myself, what haven’t they encountered, what would be new?

A paladin had just joined the party. Hmmmmm. Undead, we haven’t hit any undead yet, I don’t use them often, paladins can turn undead, so that was my way in.

“Well”, said the priestess, “You see, a week ago a body turned up in the canal, one of our priests found it, and it had been drained of life by one of the unliving.

We took in the body and prayed for guidance. One of the priestesses received a vision of more bodies, and indeed, another one turned up a few days later where she saw it in her vision, floating in the canal and a third this morning. We brought the bodies here and were waiting for a sign. You arriving here today with holy relics of Athena is no coincidence, you were sent by Athena to give us aid.”


“We do not know where the bodies came from, just where to find them when they surfaced. That you will have to figure out on your own, but your purpose here must be to eliminate these foul unliving things.”

So that was the new adventure.

So at this point I had a task for them, but nothing prepared, I didn’t know what kind of undead it was, where they were, anything at all. So rather than trying to invent it on the spot, or asking for  a break to figure it out, I said,

“What do you want to do”?

They went out, found an inn to stay at and met in the bar for food and discussion:.

PC - “The priests don’t know where these things are, how are we going to find them?”

PC - “I can sense evil, I will find them.”

PC - “The city is too big for that, it would take forever”

PC - “Do we have any spells that will help us here”?

Furious character sheet consultation.

PCs - “No, we don’t”

PC - “I’m a ranger, I could track them”

PC - “You have to know what you are tracking first, and find the trail”


PC - “Hey, I could contact the thieves guild, if anyone is going to know about dead bodies popping up in the canals, it’s the guild”

PC - “OK, you go to the guild, I’m going to the druids, they can help us”

In a previous adventure they had made contacts at the Druid’s coven, they had someone there they trusted, so they were going there for another source of information.

So already they have two leads, and I’ve done nothing.

With that decided, the party ranger asked me if she could dual class her character.

“To what”, I said.

“Assassin”, she said.

So, we had a talk. Assassins are evil, rangers are good, both alignments are class requirements. However, I do allow non-evil assassins in my game, they are generally holy warriors for a temple, carrying out their missions, sometimes with deadly force, to eliminate evil.

I decided that she should do that. Her deity was Artemis, so why not go to her temple. She liked the idea, so we were good.

So that was the third thread for the session.

We did that first at the table’s direction (when there is solo play the table decides the order of the players)

The ranger went to the temple of Artemis (actually, in this setting most of the temples are to Hindu gods, the other pantheons generally have one temple for all their gods, with a few exceptions for the more popular gods. Artemis has priests and priestesses in the temple for the pantheon), and told them her desire.

I decided to roll to see if they took her in or not. I could have just done it, but it creates a bit more excitement doing it this way. So I told her that they were going to pray, given that her motivations were pure, and that she had been good in the past and courageous, I gave it a 50% chance Artemis would hear her plea and make her a holy warrior for their cult.

I rolled on the table in the dice box, she got it.

So now I had to figure out what to do about it. I decided that it would be fun to let her do a simple job for the priests to see if she had the moxy to be an assassin. So I spun this out on the spot,

“The goddess welcomes your service but first wishes to see if you have the mettle for the job. Clegas Aamm is a wealthy Bhavisyavanian merchant who has been vocal about forcing out the priests of “foreign” gods, in particular he objects to our goddess as she has domain over the same area as his, Soma, goddess of the moon. He has gone so far as to threaten violence, but never directly. Send him a message that the temple of Artemis is not to be trifled with, don’t slay him, that will just fuel suspicion and give his arguments strength, but let him know he is touchable.”

Since Artemis was a minor goddess in this setting, the idea jumped out.

DM: “How do you want to do this”?

PC  to priest - “How do I find this man?”

Priest: “He has a home in a wealthy ward, we can direct you to it”

So the player turned to me - “I want to find this guys house and spy on it for a few days, see when he comes and goes, who he’s with, that sort of thing”

DM: “OK, you can go to his house during the day”

So she did.

PC: “how busy is the area around his house”

DM: “Light traffic, though there is a market very near.”

PC: “Are there any buildings around his house, and does it have windows”

I have ward tables I can roll on to determine what various buildings are, I pick his house at random on the map in the chosen ward and I roll the buildings around it.

DM: “There are residences to either side, across the street there is an inn, a small apothecary, and a storage building. His house has windows, due to the heat they are usually open”

PC: “Does the inn have more than one floor”?

I have a table for that, I roll,

DM: “Yes it is two stories tall”

PC: I go to the Inn”

DM: “The Black Lion Inn has a fairly busy bar right now, the proprietor gives you a look as you enter”

PC: “Do you have any rooms, on the second floor if possible?”

I roll to see if any of the second floor rooms are available, I roll that one is

She asked which way it faced, I rolled and it faced the direction of the house.

PC: “I’ll take it”

So she took the room, and she sat in it for three days and nights with her spyglass, watching the comings and goings. I described the area (the yard is filled in the back with barrels and carts, the parts of the house you can see are opulent and clearly expensive, a giant lizard sits in the front yard tethered there for him to come and go…)

At this point it was time to roll on the DMG spying table to see if she was successful. Technically she was a 0 level apprentice, so I looked at the DMG spying table and it gave a 1st level assassin a 50% chance of success on an easy spying mission. As a ranger I figured she would have some experience sneaking up on animals in the wild and studying them, so I gave her a 20% chance of successfully spying.

If she was successful, I would give her useful information from her spying attempts. If she was not, I would give her little information.

She rolled successfully. So I decided that from that vantage point and for three days and nights of viewing, she would get three pieces of information (I rolled a d4 to see how much she learned)
1 - The door to the target’s room was visible to her from a window at the end of a hallway
2 - Clegas Aamm went to bed alone most nights around 11 and woke around 5
3 - He had armed guards at the house who stayed in the front foyer, about 50 feet from his door.

During the day when he received visitors there were two armed guards, overnight he had one guard.

So she decided to sneak in one night around 1am or so.

In 1e assassins get thief abilities, but only starting at 3rd level, she had none.

So if she was going to sneak in I had to decide how that works. In 1e if you try to sneak up on someone quietly you roll for surprise. As a ranger she surprises on a 3 in 6.

She waits until the street is clear of anyone (I roll for that) and she sneaks over in the dark. She goes to a window, pulls over one of the barrels (there were empty ones) and climbed in the window.

At this point I spoke to the player.

DM: “Let’s see if the guard is awake, it is 1 am and he might be dozing, there is a 2 in 6 chance he’s asleep”

I roll a 5

DM: “You listen and hear him clearing his throat and coughing, he’s awake”

PC - "Rats, I sneak up to the door".

So she has a 50% chance of surprise, but she’s not attacking the guard, she’s trying to get to the door quietly.

DM: “Roll for surprise to get to the door quietly”

She rolls and fails.

DM: “OK, the guard hears you”

PC: “But wait, maybe he just thinks that noise from outside the house, the windows are open, there are sometimes people moving around at night”

I thought about that, when a player thinks about the environment in that way I’m happy to reward it.

DM: “There is a 50% chance he just ignores the noise”

I roll it, he ignores the noise.

PC: I’ll sneak into the merchant’s room

I roll to see if he’s asleep, 4 in 6 chance of that, he’s sleeping.

DM: “you open the door and he’s sleeping”

She rolls for surprise again, she fails.

DM: “He wakes as you approach at the sound of a creaky floorboard”.

PC: “Can I cover his mouth?”

DM: “Roll for initiative”

We roll, she wins.

She rolls to hit, and does it easily.

She puts a blade at his throat, and presses it down until it just cuts the skin.

PC: “Make a noise and you die”

She takes his ring off his finger and whispers to him

PC - “Artemis sees you whenever the moon is out, leave her priests alone or else, there will not be
another warning”

PC to me - “Can I stuff his mouth with something”?

DM - “you look around and see a silk scarf, a belt a hat and a cloak near the bed on a chair.

PC - “I stuff the scarf in his mouth, tie his hands with the belt and bolt for the door”

DM: “Roll for surprise to see if the guard hears you or hears his grunts”

PC rolls and fails

She is now out the door in the corridor, and has made enough noise that the guard will hear. Since this is the second time he heard a noise, he’s now going to look.

I look at the distance between him and her, and the distance from her to the window, she’s much closer to the window. So I look at movement rates, and see if he will come around the corner in time to see her before she heads out the window.

She makes it to the window first, is out and down.

I roll to see if there is anyone on the street, from an urchin, to a thief to a city ward patrol.

The street is empty. She bolts off into the night to hear the distant shouts of the merchant when the guard finds him. She takes the ring back to the priests to show she completed her task, she has delivered a message to the merchant that the temple can get to him.

She is now a 1st level holy warrior for the cult of Artemis.

Mission complete.

We then switched to the PC going to the druid.

Druid’s IMC are all animal cultists, and each one wears a carved bone mask for their animal most of the time. Their contact wears a carved alligator mask.

The players knew the druid from an earlier adventure, as they had a positive relationship before I didn’t have to roll for reaction, and the PC asked a bunch of questions. He was using this NPC to get information about undead in the campaign.

No “lore check” roll here.

I let his questions lead the conversation.

PC - “Are undead common in the city, we have reason to believe there are some here”?

Druid - “No the sheer number of priests here makes it dangerous for them, we haven’t had undead in the city for years”

I just made that up on the spot.

PC - “Why would they be here now”?

Druid - “If they are here and not being destroyed by the temple clergy, they must be hidden or protected in some way”

So now they have caught wind of a possible conspiracy or know that the undead may not be working alone. Also made that up on the spot.

PC: “Where would they be hiding”?

Druid - “They wouldn’t be out during the day, and they would stay in places where they can’t be seen, they would not want the priests to come for them, but they would hunt by night in the dark then slink back to their hiding places.”

PC: “Maybe they would be in places that nobody would go to”

Druid - “That would be one way to avoid detection”

DM - I wasn’t sure where to put them, so I pinched this idea, they would be hiding in a place people don’t go to, and come out at night, thank you very much to my players. Never do the work when you don’t have to, throw them a few bones and watch them create your solutions.

PC: “Do you know where they are”?

Druid - “If they enter the forest around the coven we will sense it, the unliving blaze like a star to us, but we have no power elsewhere”

The idea is to give them some things, but not everything. They gained a few pieces of information by leaning on a past alliance with a faction in the city. This sort of factionalized play creates advantages and disadvantages, but it is crucial to success in a sandbox environment, where information is power.
So I don't roll for this information, they earned it through earlier play by creating relationships with factionalized NPCs.

So with some small talk that encounter ended.

The last individual mission was the party thief.

He goes to his guild contact (he has this from earlier in the campaign) and asks for information. I roll to see if the guild knows anything about this. Thieves skulk around at night and go to places others don’t go, so it isn’t a crazy idea that they might know something.

I decide it’s a 15% chance, and I roll it.

Their contact says it will cost to find out anything. The PC offers him a 200gp ruby to find out. The thief says it will take a week or so to gather information.

The PC takes out a 400gp emerald and tries to talk his contact into doing something faster. I roll an encounter reaction check and the result is positive. I decided since the first estimate was a week or so, I’ll peg that at 7 days, I roll a d6 to see how much faster the information will be with the extra gem, if I roll a 6 it’s 6 days, a bit faster, if I roll a 1 its 1 day, a lot faster.

I roll a 3. The PC has three to four days to do this (the PC ranger spied for three days then did the attack on the fourth) so they will have the info in three days, plenty of time.

I decide that the guild knows about two areas where the undead might be, but it is only two wards that are being identified, they don’t know a specific place in the wards.

Note that I don’t tell them the specific buildings, or PICK the Wards, thought that might be tempting, to make it easier or harder, or to direct the party to a particular part of the map. But I have NOTHING planned, so I let the dice decide, they will make it harder or easier on the party. This is important, if you start picking too much then you will likely work to make it harder or easier, if you roll, then the “hard” and “easy” dimensions of the adventure are not up to you, so it’s more naturalistic.

I roll randomly to see what Wards they note, and I get Ward 14 and Ward 24. Ward 14 is in the NE quadrant of the map, it’s huge with more than 100 buildings and roughly triangle shaped. Ward 14 is the military ward, filled with garrisons and soldiers. Ward 24 is mostly crops, and only has 28 buildings.

So the thief meets his contact and gains this information, cost = 600gp

The party all reconvenes at the Inn.

They pool information and decide to go to Ward 24 as it is the smallest. They will investigate during the day and come back at night to hunt.

Smart thinking.

They found a barge on the canal, paid the fare and went to the Ward for House Aerew, Ward 24, a crops ward that harvested vahela plants, used to make spices and medicinal herbs.

My city setting doesn’t detail every building, there are more than 1000 buildings in the city, it would take forever. Instead each Ward has a random table with representative buildings for that Ward.

If the PCs  explore they can do one of two things:
1 - They can go building to building and I roll to see what each one is
2 - They can ask the locals where something is and I can arbitrarily place it and direct them there

This time they wanted to check every building.

So I told each of them to take out a percentage dice.

I drew a quick hand sketch of the buildings in the ward in relative position and numbered them.

Then they went around the table rolling, as they approached each building they would roll the number and tell me and I would write down what the building was and tell them, and gave each numbered building an entry.

There are three buildings in every Ward that are not rolled randomly, the warlock’s tower (they are the tall 3d columns on the map) and the two largest buildings in the ward, one is the garrison and the other is the temple. There is a temple ward and each ward has its own temple.

So we started going around the table, we rolled a restaurant, an inn, a tavern, residences, several markets, storage buildings, stables, a grocer or two, an alchemist, a seer, and an astrologer.

They all immediately wanted to go to the seer.

So they did.

They walked in and we had about 10 min left in the session. I asked why a group of 7 had come in together. Before they answered, one of the PCs mentioned that the seer could be involved with the undead, so they had to watch how they asked their questions.

PC - “We need to know something of the future, where to find something of interest to all of us so we all came, can you help”?

Seer - “I can read the cards for your group, see what I see”

I took out my tarot cards. I always bring tarot to the game. I don’t read them formally, as that takes too long and I don’t want to be constrained by the cards I have.

So I make up an arrangement, in this case the four point star, and I lay the cards out. I decide when I see the cards what each position stands for, and what the card in that position signifies. This is riskier as you have to interpret it on the spot, but it is more adaptable as I can interpret it in any way I like to fit the situation.

So I flipped the first card,  it was a knight. A paladin had joined the party 4 sessions ago (new player), so I said:

“This card is the key, the key to your success, and it is the knight of pentacles, the magic knight”

They all squealed, they are now convinced the paladin will be key to their success, and as he can turn undead, this fits completely.


I turn over the second card, it is a eight of swords, and depicts a woman bound, with her eyes blindfolded, and eight swords around her, stuck in the ground. I look at the list of buildings, then I say:

“This card is place, the blindfolded figure suggests that this is someone who sees without eyes”

My campaign is set in a Vancian far far future, a few thousand years before the sun burns out, the solar system has eight planets, with Pluto out of the running.

“The and the eight swords must signify the eight planets, the place you must go has someone who sees the planets without eyes”

The party looks over the list, there is an astrologer’s place of business. That fits the bill.


The third card I flip is the seven of cups, it has cups with various things in them, the person looking at the cups appears to be looking at the 5th cup, it is filled with coins and such. Since the last card was “place”, I think “face” for this one. I say:

“The face, the appearance of the thing you seek, will be wealth, riches.”

They chatter and think that the undead they find will perhaps be a merchant, or will be gaudily dressed, or have obvious signs of wealth, maybe a vampire, definitely not a ghoul or a skeleton. Then they wonder if it might be a zombie with jewelry rather than a rusty helmet, or undead controlled by a wealthy warlock..

I file all these ideas as I haven’t picked the kind of undead yet, and any one of these sounds fine to me.


I flip the last card, it’s a three of swords. Three swords piercing a heart. This one comes to me instantly. I say:

“The seer pulls back, and takes in a breath, then looks at you all gravely. This card speaks to loss, all ventures suffer some sort of loss, in this case it is death, there will be three deaths in this endeavor”

The players start to talk, jumping out of their chairs, shaking their heads.

PC - “But wait, that could be others that die, not us!”

At this point we have about a minute left, so I decide to mess with them.

Seer - “I’m afraid not, the heart indicates the death will be of someone you know, someone who matters to you, it will not be strangers that die”


And that was the session.

The party has 5 henchmen in the group, and I might send along the priest from the temple of Athena who found the bodies along with an assistant low level priest, so that’s 7 NPCs to go along with the 7 party members. To fulfill my quota three will have to die.

The great part about the game is that just running the encounters BTB there is a good chance that any of the NPCs can die (henchmen have 1-6 hp each), so I will just see how it goes and I shouldn’t have to do much. Or of course one of the party members might die too...


A few things to note here.

In each case I didn’t have anything prepped in particular, the PCs choices suggested courses of action. I just needed to have a setting in the background to respond.

I rolled for a lot of things by assigning percentages based on the situation. Gygax recommends doing this when you don’t have a mechanic for something. This allows me to capture the party’s actions in a game mechanic without having to have a “single rule for everything”, or “rules for everything”, it keeps me adaptable. However, when there was an existing rule (e.g. the assassin spying table) I used it, even if that meant a bit of modification for the situation. I also used encounter reaction rolls in a few places, but there were minimal social mechanics that supported an entire session of social role play.

I adapted the game rules to allow a player to play what they want. I think this is very important. I run a game for kids, I can’t really have them running around as paid assassins, I’m sure their parents wouldn’t like that. But holy warriors for the temple of a good god, carrying out their divine will and smiting evil? That’s cool. I want to let the players explore the game, if a class can’t be used in my game for some reason I can reskin it to make it acceptable so the player can get access to the class.

I think that’s the way you do this.

The game is not “all combat”, nary a sword was unsheathed or a spell was cast in aggression in this adventure. It was two hours of information gathering, alliances with representatives of factions and exploration.

I used my players to get ideas rather than planning them out myself. I started with bare bones (there are undead in the city!) and each step of their investigation inspired me to a new piece of the puzzle in real time. They now have a potential conspiracy theory, an faction on their side in the temples of Athena and Artemis, and a direction for their next few sessions. All of this was done in real time during the session.

The tarot cards have also given me inspiration to fill this out, they will be going to the astrologers, so she is involved in some way, they will also have to encounter wealth in some way as the “face” of the undead they seek. I have a week to come up with ideas, you don't need to sort everything out ahead of time or on the spot.

I let the dice stand. There were many places where I could have interfered to make this “easier” or “harder”, but instead I let the dice surprise the players and me. By doing this the adventure unfolded before me without a lot of work on my part. Success was not “automatic” or by “DM fiat” as the dice did a lot of the decision making, and if you look there were many successful and unsuccessful rolls in the session, each one forced both the PCs and me to adapt.

This sort of organic, back and forth reaction based play drives the session and keeps it fresh, challenging and exciting to everyone.

This is what OSR style D&D looks like, it’s fun, open ended and challenging.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Emergent Character Building in Dungeons and Dragons

Image: Black Sorcerer by Oriental-Lady on Deviantart

I’ve blogged about the narrative mechanics of old school D&D before, in order to counter the idea that D&D is just a mechanical “beer and pretzels” sort of game. 

In this blog post I want to talk about how character development happens in old school games.

AD&D (my preferred edition) is typical of old school games in that it doesn’t really do “character backstory”. Some more modern systems also add in personality features to characters at the generation stage. So things like, ‘list one dislike and one like your character has” or “come up with a rumor about your character, a secret that none of the other characters know and a goal that your character has”, that sort of thing.

AD&D does none of this. Your character’s background is entirely up to you and the DM to decide. So for example, IMC the only character backstory you have is where you came from and what you do other than your class (e.g. your character’s non-class skill, like fisherman, bowyer, blacksmith or leather worker). Other than that, the only clues you have to what your character is like are their class, their alignment, their race and perhaps what god they worship. 

There is certainly nothing wrong with doing more than this, with coming up with characteristics for your PC that create the personality you will be playing. And there is nothing wrong with having more backstory. Backstory can plug you into the game world in an interesting way, create “buy-in”, and get players excited about playing the game. I acknowledge all of these potential advantages, and I have played in and enjoyed games where they have been realized at the table. 

So to be crystal clear, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t do this, or that it can’t be part of a successful, fun, gaming experience.

However, it’s worth considering some of the potential benefits of doing it in a more minimalistic way as AD&D does. A stripped down approach might be appealing to your group, or a nice variation on your regular style.

The Benefits
The biggest difference to the old school approach is that it shifts the process of defining your PC from the beginning of the game to actual play at the table, allowing in game actions to dictate events, not backstory or character traits. 

An analogy for this difference that I find helpful is the difference between acting and improv. When you act you are given a character with particular features, and lines for them to say. The character is defined by what is written before you start to play the role. Actors interpret this when they perform, it isn’t rote, but the character is defined for the most part before they are played.

Improv gives you a bare bones skeleton of a role, and you develop that role primarily in the process of playing it. It’s funny, someone suggested to me that old school gaming produced PCs without personalities, they were sort of empty cyphers for stereotypes because the players had little to no guidance on how to play their PCs. 

But this is not what happens in most cases. Indeed, if you think about it, playing roles is a natural thing for most people. Children role play instinctively with only minimal guidance as to how the role is to be acted out, and they LOVE doing it. 

Players discover their PCs as they play. The environment produces events, and as the players make in game choices in reaction to that environment they define the characteristics of their PCs. The longer you play a PC, the more you get a feeling for how your PC will respond, the more “natural” it becomes.

These in-game defining features are no less meaningful than features created in a backstory, but they are subtly different. They are more spontaneous, and in an interesting way they feel more real because they are concrete reactions to in-game situations. It’s the difference between saying “my PC is brave because she came from a war-torn nation and had to flee for her life” as part of your backstory, and saying “my PC is brave because she took on an ogre on her own when the rest of the party was downed”. 

PC characteristics that emerge from play organically feel earned, they feel real, because they  are born out of role playing experiences, not out of backstory written before the PC has ever been played at the table. Again, there is nothing wrong with backstory, but it is important to realize that PC characteristics that emerge from game play are just as powerful and impactful.

I find that this also reduces the tendency for players to play stereotypes. The surly dwarf, the aloof elf, that sort of thing. Without a pre-set collection of backstory elements the player is free in the moment of play to direct their character whatever way they want, and this produces interesting variations at the table. Sure, some people play to type even without the backstories and such, but I find that you get something more interesting from this style of play, namely a version of the player reflected through the PC, rather than a PC directed by a player. 

In an interesting way, when a PC doesn’t have a backstory or an extensive set of pre-defined characteristics the player BECOMES the PC as they are relatively undefined when they start, they inhabit the role. Characters become defined by their actions, how they responded to the game world, what choices they made in game. And that character’s story becomes what happened in the game. 

This is important as what happens in the game is a shared experience with others, not something that happened outside of this shared experience. Other people were there to watch it happen, which in itself makes it a powerful experience. 

The difference can be expressed in another way.

Say your PC has a backstory element where they dislike wizards (for whatever reason, perhaps a wizard killed their parents). When they encounter wizards in the game they have their PC react negatively due to this backstory element. The player role plays the dislike because it’s there in the character background.

But say instead that a PC is almost killed by a wizard in game, the animosity that comes from that experience is different, as it happened to the player while they were playing the PC. It’s personal in a way that the backstory isn’t. I find that character traits generated through play have a powerful immersive element. You have lived through the experience in a real way.

Another benefit of this approach is that it works against the tendency for players to look to their character sheets to decide what their PC would do. If you have an involved backstory, goals and plot points associated with your PC then these features become reference points for decision making. The party encounters a soldier from the Halkarnian army, and in the PC’s backstory their family was slaughtered by the Halkarnian army, so they feel the need to react to that in an appropriate way because that’s something that is part of their character background. 

Having a minimal backstory and role playing guidance means that the player has to decide on the spot how they choose to respond to the situation. You don’t need to consult your PC’s written background to know what to do, you react because of something that happened to you in play. A Halkarnian army soldier killed your fellow PC, so now YOU want to attack them.

Having played D&D this way for more than three decades I can say that it can produce remarkably powerful role-playing experiences. Your character's experiences matter to you as they are your experiences as well, you were there when they happened. There is an immediateness to this sort of experience, something visceral and real. Defining your PC’s characteristics in play is a unique experience, you build the role as you play it. You could call this “organic” I suppose, but whatever you call it there is nothing quite like it.

As an added bonus, it lowers the barriers to entry for a new player. Having to create a backstory, personality traits, goals, rumors, etc. about a new PC can be intimidating and time consuming. Some players find it challenging. The AD&D approach gets you up and running with minimal prep. That’s a bug for some, a feature for others, but it is worth noting.

Now, there are some players that NEED to have a backstory, personality traits and goals in order to role play, and some that don’t. So my approach to this is to default to AD&D’s minimalist style, but I tell my players that if they want to have a backstory, defined personality traits and goals when they start the game then they can and I can help them if desired. 

The point of this isn’t to push a “there is only one way to play” argument, the point is to show some of the benefits of a different approach. 

The image at the top is the last PC I played (about 5 years ago now), Farrenthir Tellbinder, magic user.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

House Rules and Game Identity In D&D

Another week on Twitter, another opinion that I disagree with! Must be my age, I’m becoming the crotchety old guy screaming “get off my lawn”.

Oh well, time to sit on the porch and shout.

So, house rules! I commented on Twitter recently that everyone uses house rules, I believe that is the case, but it was suggested that it was not.

And to be fair, making ‘universal’ claims like this is always risky, even one exception and you are wrong. Still, I’m going to push back on this because I think it’s important, as the presence of house rules in a game is often used to claim that someone isn’t actually playing the game in question. If everyone house rules, then house ruling can't be a useful category to determine game identity.

What are House Rules?
There are several varieties of house rules that are used at TTRPG tables:

1. Choices about optional rules
2. Interpretations of core rules
3. Dropped core rules
4. Rules imported from other systems
5. New rules created for the game
6. Official expansion rules

1. Choices about optional rules
Most games have “optional” rules that are at the discretion of the individual group. The idea is that TTRPG’s are fairly complex games, if you put in rules for many different things the game can get unwieldy, so most games have “optional” rules, rules you can put in if you want them for your group. A good example of this is the Weapon versus Armor Class rules in AD&D, they add a dimension of crunch to your combat, but they are fiddly enough that many don’t use them.

2. Interpretations of core rules

OK, just kidding. But initiative is a great example of a rule that is interpreted in various ways. Rules interpretations are common house rules because, again, TTRPGs are complex beasts, so there is often room for interpretation on any given rule.

3. Dropped core rules
There are optional rules and there are rules that are meant to be used but are often just dropped because of the preferences of a particular table. Encumbrance is a popular example of this, some people just aren’t interested, material components for spells is another example.  

4. Rules imported from other systems
Sometimes you see a rule somewhere and just think, “SWEET”, and graft it on to your game. Critical hit rules are a popular example, many, many people use crits of one form or another. 

5. New rules created for the game
There are two versions of this. In one case the DM or player is thinking about the game when they are not playing and come up with a brilliant idea for a game rule. In another case something comes up in game that is not covered by the existing rules, and the table comes up with a rules interpretation (either through a combination/extrapolation of the existing rules or by creating a whole new rule on the spot). 

6. Official expansion rules
Games often start with basic rule sets and then expand to cover new areas. I’m not talking about new editions here, I’m talking about taking an existing edition and adding new rules to it. So expansions for new classes, new monsters, new settings, that sort of thing.

All 6 of these constitute house rules in the sense I mean. They are all house rules because they are variations in your game that might not apply elsewhere. When someone sits at your table, these are the rules that govern the “house”, this combination of rules choices is unique to your game. Importantly, you can’t know how individual tables will engage with all 6 of these. Some tables will change very little, some will change a ton, but in both cases it will impact the game the way it is played at the table. 

“Wait, optional rules aren’t house rules, they are official!”, but that’s the thing, the presence of optional rules implies that some groups will use them and some groups won’t. So the game at the table for a group that uses an optional rule will be different than the game at the table for a group that does not, thus optional rules are, in effect, house rules.

I think house rules are VERY important to the kind of game you end up running. TTRPGs like D&D are complex beasts, open ended and expansive, often used for long running games with intricate plots and interactions. The house rules you choose will impact how that all cashes out.

People sometimes claim that they run everything “BTB”, which I think is fair, but then claim they don’t use house rules, I find that HIGHLY unlikely. 

1 is unavoidable, you will either use or not use optional rules, that very choice is a House Rule, as a game with options A,B and C is different than a game without. 

2 is unavoidable as well, all rules have to be interpreted, some are so simple that the vast majority of people interpret them the same way, but many are not, so almost everyone house rules in this sense. 

3 is not unavoidable but pretty close to it. I always raise an eyebrow to people who claim that they use “all” the rules in a given game system. I’m sure it can happen, particularly with games that have smaller rule sets, but I would be surprised if most refs and players were even AWARE of all the rules in most TTRPGs. Your choice of which rules to use and not use makes your game different than others, and thus represents a house rule.

4 is avoidable, but my gut tells me it’s pretty popular amongst players that have been using one particular system for a long time.  

5 is very hard to avoid as well. Unless your system has a “rule for everything” (e.g. many, many rules) or a “universal rule” (e.g a generic rule that covers most circumstances), chances are the game will throw you curveballs, situations that simply aren’t covered in the rules. Spells and magic in D&D are a great example of this. Each spell and magic item is essentially a mini-rule set that applies in one case. Some are complex (some spell and magic item descriptions take up most of a page), some are simple, but their interaction with each other and the game world is necessarily unpredictable, complex and frequent. So in each case you have to decide what to do, and in doing so you establish the rule for your table.

6 is somewhat avoidable as well, you can choose to stick to the “core books” for any given game. But again, as you play you will feel the pull to add things to your game (or change to a different game) as it can get stale over time. I see phases of this in TTRPG groups, some start with the core materials, after a time start bringing in more expansion materials, then cut back again later as they find the game has changed too much. 

In short, it is HIGHLY UNLIKELY that anyone is playing a game without any house rules. Instead what you get, surprise, surprise, is a continuum, with some groups using minimal house rules (e.g. all the optional rules, not eliminating or changing any published rules, not adding any new rules from outside the system), some groups using many. 

Why is this Important?
Good question. I think this matters as house rules have been used over the years to suggest that someone isn’t playing game X. So for example if you are using house rules in AD&D you aren’t playing AD&D anymore, you are playing a different game that reflects your experiences at the table. 

Or it is used to argue that you shouldn’t play AD&D any more, as an AD&D game with house rules isn’t really AD&D, and another game will do it better. 

With my understanding of house rules, every game is house ruled AD&D, so it makes the most sense to suggest that house ruling doesn’t, in and of itself, make your game “not AD&D”.

In philosophy we are told the tale of Theseus’s Ship. Theseus set out on a long journey in his ship. At one point a damaged plank had to be replaced. 

When the plank is replaced, is this still Theseus’s Ship, or is it now a different ship?

Most people when asked this will answer that it’s still his ship.

Then a sail is replaced. Then a rope. Over the course of the journey, Theseus replaces every part of his ship. So, when Theseus arrives back home, is that the same ship that left the port at the beginning of his journey? At what point is it no longer Theseus’s Ship? 

Better still, say someone scooped up every part of the ship that was replaced, fixed it, and built a new ship out of the original parts. Which is then Theseus’s Ship? 

This suggests there are two ways of looking at identity, as continuity, or physicality.

If you think identity is constructed through continuity, then Theseus’s Ship is the one Theseus is on when he arrives home from his journey. If you think identity is tied to physicality, Theseus’s Ship is the ship rebuilt out of the damaged parts. 

Are you the same person you were say 10 years ago? 

TTRPGs are like a ship, with a lot of moving parts, so the same analysis applies.

I think for most people it’s something like this: if you change a few things it’s still X, if you change too many things it’s not X any more. I think that’s probably about right. The issue is that determining that point is hard, when have you changed too much?

I run a game where the PCs are given described damage, they aren’t told how many HP damage are done to them, the hit is described, as is their general reaction to it. This isn’t common, but its BtB 1e AD&D as an optional rule listed in the PHB. I’ve had people tell me that D&D without being told your damage wasn’t D&D.

I was told recently that some people treat all discussion at the table as in character, or play such that there are as few exceptions as possible. That was entirely new to me, my games and the games I’ve played have never been IC that often. But for them, that’s D&D, as was pointed out, D&D is a role playing game, right, so shouldn’t you be playing your role, and be in character, most of the time?

So I’m very hesitant to say, “Now, now that isn’t D&D anymore” because you have house ruled any particular thing. "Oh, you use milestone levelling, that's not really D&D" or, "oh, you don't use character backgrounds, that's not D&D", that sort of thing. I think it makes more sense to look at the identity of TTRPGs like D&D as a continuum, where only the extremes are called out as “different”. Every rule set will create a set of experiences at the table, and every group will bring their own unique interpretation to that rule set for the reasons I have suggested above. 

But it’s all still D&D. I say that because, at least in the case of 1e AD&D (and it may be the case in other editions as well, as I have heard), you are expected to operate under the principle of free Kriegspiel. 

The idea is that TTRPGs are complex beasts, games like D&D have hundreds of spells and magic items that are each their own little mini-ruleset that has to be applied, they interact in varied ways. Rather than spend your time hunting through the rules, the referee has the authority to adjudicate this and you move on. 

Gygax’s preferred style of play was adversarial but fair, he believed the game was meant to challenge the player, and D&D had the advantage of a referee that could manipulate the game to produce challenging play. The ref’s rules are absolute so the game world can be adaptive. Gygax had a ton of specific suggestions on how to achieve this, some I agree with, some I don’t, but that’s not the point. The point is that the authority of the DM (and if you play in a game where the DM consults with the players as I do, the table) is greater than the rules.

So this means that D&D was designed to be house ruled, for you to make the decisions above to shape the game into something that works for your table. Gygax tells you this time and again in the first edition books, you are the final arbiter, the dice and the rules are there to serve you, not the other way around.

For example:

“Pronouncements there may be, but they are not from "on high" as respects your game. Dictums are given for the sake of the game only, for if ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is to survive and grow, it must have some degree of uniformity, a familiarity of method and procedure from campaign to campaign within the whole. ADVANCED D&D is more than a framework around which individual DMs construct their respective milieux, it is above all a set of boundaries for all of the "worlds" devised by referees everywhere. These boundaries are broad and spacious, and there are numerous areas where they are so vague and amorphous as to make them nearly nonexistent, but they are there nonetheless...

When you build your campaign you will tailor it to suit your personal tastes. In the heat of play it will slowly evolve into a compound of your personality and those of your better participants, a superior alloy. And as long as your campaign remains viable, it will continue a slow process of change and growth... 

Naturally, everything possible cannot be included in the whole of this work. As a participant in the game, I would not care to have anyone telling me exactly what must go into a campaign and how it must be handled; if so, why not play some game like chess? As the author I also realize that there are limits to my creativity and imagination. Others will think of things I didn't, and devise things beyond my capability...

Imaginative and creative addition can most certainly be included; that is why nebulous areas have been built into the game. Keep such individuality in perspective by developing a unique and detailed world based on the rules of ADVANCED D8D. No two campaigns will ever be the same, but all will have the common ground necessary to maintaining the whole as a viable entity about which you and your players can communicate with the many thousands of others who also find swords & sorcery role playing gaming as an amusing and enjoyable pastime...

It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game.” 

I quote these at length with highlights to make the point clear, in the case of AD&D, the identity of the game is based on its use, not just its rules, if you change too many rules it will play differently enough that it won’t feel like D&D anymore, and this point of familiarity will vary for everyone. But the idea is that you are supposed to be creating the game as you play it, in real time, and the process of house ruling is part of this creation.

Gygax does, however, give you a hint as to when he thinks AD&D campaigns stop being AD&D any more. 

“The danger of a mutable system is that you or your players will go too far in some undesirable direction and end up with a short-lived campaign. Participants will always be pushing for a game which allows them to become strong and powerful far too quickly. To satisfy this natural desire is to issue a death warrant to a campaign, for it will either be a one-player affair or the players will desert en masse for something more challenging and equitable. Similarly, you must avoid the tendency to drift into areas foreign to the game as a whole. Such campaigns become so strange as to be no longer "AD&D". They are isolated and will usually wither.”

From what I can see here, Gygax’s argument is that if you change AD&D too much (e.g. by making it too easy or too hard) then players will leave your game, it will “wither” as it isn’t fun to play any more. In short, the success or failure of your house rules is determined by the success of your campaign, if people want to keep playing it or not. Or in other words, Gygax’s advice is this: you have only changed AD&D "too much" if no one wants to play in your game.

This suggests to me that there is a lot of latitude in changing the game while still having it be “still AD&D”. It means you have to be cautious when evaluating anyone’s home game mechanics, as you need to know all of the changes they have made, all of the options they use, to determine the impacts properly. And it means that you don't have to switch games just because AD&D (or any version of D&D) doesn't do X, Y or Z, you can house rule to obtain individual goals with your game and it still counts as that game.

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