Monday, 19 April 2021

Play Report: Sleep is Overpowered + Grymwurld™ Rules Preview

Enter Sandman performed by Metallica (Official Music Video)

Sleep is overpowered but you knew that already…

On Friday the 16th of April in the two thousand one and score years from the delivery of the Virgin, Doctor Arnauld, Sir George, Brother Alec, Aladdin the varlet, and Robert bowman met their doom in the bowels of the War-Pig Fane.

After much butchering of War-Hogs, the wayward band of anti-heroes discovered the sacrifice room in the bowels of the underground temple. It was a large room, larger than their candlelight cantrips could fully illuminate. But the shapes of the elite War-Pigs and their “high priest” were unmistakeable as was the demon idol, and the young woman about to be sacrificed. The knowledgeable doctor summoned the Sandman who put the closest elite enemies under his spell. Those pOrcs who were out of range charged while two of their number were quickly dispatched to Hell by the varlet and bowman. The priest, irritated that his ceremony was disrupted, also summoned the Sandman who ensorcerelled all of the would-be heroes. The surviving Pig-Men serjeaunts gutted the sleeping adventurers, one and all.

Debrief & Commentary

As all of you grognards and old-schoolers know all too well, the sleep spell is brutally overpowered for a 1st level spell. 4–16 hit dice worth of creatures in a 30' diametre sphere are automatically put to sleep with no saving throw. Prior to this climatic battle, I asked my son if he wanted to change the spell and give it a saving throw and he said no. Afterwards, I asked if he still wanted to keep the spell as is and he said yes. He preferred to roll up new characters and start a new campaign rather than nerf the spell.

To paraphrase John Mellenkamp, “now he’s Old School, just like me.”

The New Campaign

My son had a rogue-assassin recuperating back in the village and wanted to continue playing him and he also wished to use the same rogue-scout, and sorcerer as before because they had good stats. I agreed provided he change their names and put them in Constantinople, the largest metropolis in the known world. The DM PC became Rodrigo the Rake.

I should note that the party TPK and subsequent new campaign gives me the opportunity to switch from traditional D&D rules to my forthcoming Sword & Sorcery rules. In brief:

Simple and intuitive player-facing rules so that the PC Character Record can fit on a notecard. GM-facing rules are as detailed as necessary to facillitate game flow rather than looking up rules.

PC classes are warrior, skirmisher, sorcerer, and rogue. Within each class are a number of archetypes. Players pick one archetype for their class. Warrior archetypes are Knight (Heavy Cavalryman), Brigand (Heavy footman), and Marine (Heavy footman). Skirmisher archetypes are Ranger (Commando, Guerilla, or Sauvage), Bravo (Swashbuckler), Pirate, and Berserker. Sorcerer archetypes are Natural Philospher (Scholar), Monk (Cloistered), and Cunning Man (Wise Woman or Hedge Wizard). Rogue archetype are Assassin and Scout.

Each archetype has an assumed set of skills. Knights are master of horses, Rangers are masters of the wild, Natural Philosophers are masters of the occult, and Assassins are masters of stealth. Whenver a PC attempts to do something appropriate to their archetype I either hand-wave it or have them make a 3rd edition style Difficulty Check based on the appropriate ability score + level + 3. Actual DCs are 5 (75% chance of success), 10 (50/50), 15 (25% success) or 20 (5% chance). Players must beat the DC, not meet it. I do not have the players track their skills on their notecard because all I need to know is their archetype, level, and relevant ability score. I can calculate the rest in my head.

As for combat, each class has a Base Combat Bonus (BCB) which is added to their attack rolls, defence rolls, and initiative rolls. Warriors and Skirmishers have a BCB = 3 + level. Rogues have half of that and Sorcerers have one-quarter of the Warrior BCB. When PCs attack monsters, they have to roll better than the monster’s defence. When monsters attack PCs, the GM does not roll. Instead, the players roll their defence and as long as it meets or exceeds the monsters’s attack, the PC is not hit. Armour provides damage reduction (soak) instead of improving defence. Shields improve defence. Note that attacks must overcome defences while defences can simply match the attack.

When a creature runs out of hit points, damage is tracked as negative hit points. Negative hit points act as a modifier to Con, Dex, and Str. Death occurs when Con, Dex, or Str equals 0. Warriors and Skirmishers have a d12, Rogues a d6, and Sorcerers a d3 for hit points.

Poison is still the odd duck here. Given that hit points are spent to reduce mortal wounds to flesh wounds, glancing blows, & bruises, when does a poisonous bite take effect? It seems to me that the bite of a snake would only occur when a character has no more hit points left. As long as they have hit points, they are avoiding the bite or at worst getting scratched but not bitten. Even a critical hit with double or more damage, is just an abstraction of avoiding a death-stroke. From a literary perspective, several times has Conan felt the burning drip of venom without getting bitten. Perhaps a character who still has hit points automatically makes their poison saving throw. And of course, the bite has to overcome the damage reduction of armour. Further playtesting will sort this out.

The Morgath Idol Job

The new party is hired by one of the sons of a local duke (a contact of Rodrigo) to acquire a jade and ruby idol of Morgath that was supposed to go to the duke but was aquired by the local temple of Morgath. Morgath, being a rather generic demonic deity of some kind. The party “cases the joint” and notice that there is chimney in the temple ceiling to allow the smoke from the sacrifical brazier to escape. After supper, they shop at the Night Market to buy silk rope, a grappling hook, a wooden board, and chickens. After midnight, they arrive at the temple courtyard, distract the guard dog with a couple of chickens and climb over the wall. The assassin lassos the grappling hook to the roof, and the party climbs up. At one point they had to release the rest of the chickens to continue to distract the guard dog. Once on top, they place the board on top of the chimney, sit on the board and wait for the smoke to drive the priests out into the courtyard.

I saw no need to make any climbing checks to get over the wall or up the rope because they were distracting the dog with chickens, which by the way was hillarious. We both laughed at my description of the dog chasing the chickens. So while by the rules, I should have had the PCs make the checks, it did not serve the emerging story at all.

While the priests are coughing in the courtyard, the assassin climbs down from the roof, goes through the backdoor and arrives at a four-way intersection. He takes the left fork which leads to a number or clerical cells. He goes back to the intersection and rakes the right fork which leads to the kitchen and storerooms. He goes back to the intersection and follows the corridor to a locked door. It is a simple lock so I do not bother with an open lock check, he is a professional assassin after all. As expected, the door leads into the main temple hall. The assassin locks the door behind him. The room appears to be empty so he grabs the idol. It is much heavier than it looks and he senses that he is not alone. The assassin heads for the nearest wall in an attempt to climb it. Suddenly he feels a sharp pain in his neck and wheels around to come face–to–face with a giant spider dripping with venom! The spider had rolled a 4 on a d6 for damage, but the assassin’s light armour absorbed 3 points. Since the bite did at least 1 point of damage, I had the PC make a saving throw versus poison which he did. Based on what I reasoned above, he should have automatically made his saving throw. At any rate, being justifiably frightened of a spider whose shoulder stands at his eye level, the assassin tumbles out of the way quickly. He detaches a torch from his thigh and ignites it in the sacrificial flame. Naturally, the spider is wary of the torch but does not flee. The assassin sprints for the front door only to find that it has a heavy wooden bar across it.

What should Merciful the Assassin do? Should he try to hack at the wooden bar with his shortsword? Pick the lock of the backdoor one-handed? Yell at his friends on the roof to lower the rope? Attack the spider? Or something else?

Be sure to tune-in next time — same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Would you burn hit points to hit harder?

“The man gasped agonizedly and went to his knees, but his tall mate lunged in, in ferocious silence, raining blow on blow so furiously that Valeria had no opportunity to counter. She stepped back coolly, parrying the strokes and watching for her chance to thrust home. He could not long keep up that flailing whirlwind. His arm would tire, his wind would fail; he would weaken, falter, and then her blade would slide smoothly into his heart.”
 — Red Nails by Robert E. Howard, 1936

What if you could burn hit points to get an attack bonus for one mêlee attack? How much would you burn? 1 hit point? 2 hit points?

What if you could burn hit points to get a damage bonus for one hit with a mêlee weapon? How much would you burn? 2 hit points? 4 hit points?

What if you could burn hit points to get an additional attack that round with a mêlee weapon, subject to a maximum no. of total attacks that round equal to your level? 2 hit points? 4 hit points?

What if you could burn hit points to improve your AC against a single attack (mêlee or missile)? How many hit points would you burn? 1 hit point? 2 hit points?

What if special combat manœuvres such as disarm, knockdown, bullrush, et cetera cost hit points instead of coming free at certain levels?

In this way, players can make tactical choices of whether or not to play it safe or try to end a combat quickly.

After all, hit points represent stamina and luck as well as combat skill.

Thursday, 11 March 2021

An oft forgotten rule in 0D&D that should be the norm

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
 — H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (November 1925 to May 1927)

In 1974, the very first printing of Dungeons  & Dragons redefined what dungeons are. No longer the central keep or donjon of a castle. No longer the repurposed donjon as a prison. The dungeon beneath the castle merged with the Gothic idea of secret passageways, Roman catacombs, Parisian sewers, Egyptian tombs, and the mythical underworld of the Greeks, the Celts, Lovecraft, and the haunted house.

Dungeons are unnatural and break all the rules. Doors open freely for its denizens but are stuck fast and must be forced open by intruders. The occasional gust of wind blows out the torches and candles of the intruders. Clanking chains, ghostly moans, and all the sounds of a haunted house can be heard. Past every door and around every corner lurks a jump scare or a trap for the unwary. Untold riches and magical power await the intruders who heed the siren call but it is merely a trick to lure them in. The dungeon feeds upon the fear of the intruders. Fear is the oldest emotion and fear of the dark is the oldest form of fear.

It is f*****g dark in the dungeon! So, G*D awful motherf******g dark! Darker than the darkest overcast new moon night. Darker than the depths of the darkest ocean. It is so dark that not even the infravision of elves and dwarves can pierce the oppressive and omnipresent black void.

And yet the dungeon’s brood can see as well in the inky blackness as if it was full daylight.

Cheaters! All of them! Unfair that PCs cannot see with infravision but monsters can see hundreds of yards effortlessly! And woe to the monster who joins the party whether willingly or unwillingly for the dungeon knows the bertrayal. A monster who joins the party loses the ability to see in the darkness and doors no longer open for it. The dungeon knows and it scares the s**t of the turncoat creature. A punishment worse than death awaits all traitors!

Dungeons are not fair. Dungeons are not historical nor do they slavishly follow the laws of physics. Dungeons are (thankfully) an anomaly.

Dungeons are sinkholes of chaos and evil. The deeper the dungeon goes, the greater the depravity. Surely dungeons are hellmouths for the deepest level must be the final level of Hell!

Am I exagerating? Am I only describing dungeons in my game? Consider the following…

Torches through the editions & Real World

In this post I will examine the various ways that D&D handles torches (flambeaux & firebrands) from Chainmail up to 5th edition as well as examining historical real-world sources. I am doing this because I have always freely took rules that I like from any game to use in my D&D campaign, regardless of what edition I ran. And as a bonus I am including original content on torch-staves and brazier-staves suitable for any Old School game.

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

A forgotten 0D&D Rule for Fighters

Conan the Destroyer by Frank Frazetta

One of my favourite rules from TSR era D&D is that fighters get 1 attack per level of experience versus 0-level Humans and monsters of less than 1 HD. Consider the following:

Heroes attack 4 times per round, Trolls & Ogres attack 6 times per round, Superheroes attack 8 times per round, and Giants attack 12 times per round versus Normal Men. Normal Men are defined as typical soldiers.
— Paraphrased from Chainmail by Gary Gygax & Jeff Peren
“Attack/Defense capabilities versus normal men are simply a matter of allowing one roll as a man-type for every hit die, with any bonuses being given to only one of the attacks, i.e. a Troll would attack six times, once with a +3 added to the die roll.”
— D&D Book II Monsters & Treasure by Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, page 5 (premium edition)
“Note: This excludes melee combat with monsters (q.v.) of less than one hit die (d8) and non-exceptional (0 level) humans and semi-humans, i.e. all creatures with less than one eight-sided hit die. All of these creatures entitle a fighter to attack once for each of his or her experience levels (See COMBAT).”
— AD&D Players Handbook by Gary Gygax, page 25 (premium edition)

There are two reason why I like this rule. The first is that it evokes Conan wading through an army of Picts, leaving a pile of bodies in his wake! The second is that during my years of fighting in the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) I would watch the very best fighters mow down the novices like a scythe through wheat. When I was one of the novices, I can tell you that the attacks came so fast and furious, I was defeated before I could react. Come to think of it, the same thing happend to me during my martial arts period as well.

But why stop with 1st level soldiers? It has always struck me as odd that a 1st level fighter is such a threat to a 20th level fighter (e.g. Conan) that the 20th level guy redirects so much of his effort into defence as to reduce the number of attacks from 20 to 1 (depending on edition). It is most certainly true that masters of the martial arts fight more cautiously against another master so I support the idea of less number of attacks. But why not a continuum instead of a binary solution. Consider the following:

“A super hero, for example, would attack eight times only if he were fighting normal men (or creatures basically that strength, i.e., kobolds, goblins, gnomes, dwarves, and so on).
Note that he is allowed one attack for each of his combat levels as the ratio of one Orc vs. the Hero is 1:4, so this is treated as normal (non-fantastic) melee, as is any combat where the score of one side is a base 1 hit die or less.” [emphasis mine]
Questions Most Frequently Asked About Dungeons & Dragons Rules, (presumably written by E. Gary Gygax) The Strategic Review, Summer 1975, Vol. 1, No. 2

Note that what Gygax is saying is that if the Orcs were instead Gnolls (2 HD humanoids) and the fighter a Superhero (8 HD), the ratio is 2:8, simplified to 1:4 so the combat is treated as “non-fantastic” meaning that the superhero gets… 8 attacks or 4? I think his intention is that the superhero gets 4 attacks per round versus Gnolls and 8 attacks per round versus Orcs.

Getting back to my question of Conan the 20th level legendary fighter versus the 1st level veteran, according to Gygax’s FAQ, a 20th level lord gets 20 attacks per round versus the 1st level veteran because the ratio is 20:1. Likewise, Conan would get 10 attacks per round versus a 2nd level warrior, 6 attacks versus a 3rd level swordsman, 5 attacks v. a 4th level hero, 4 attacks per round v. a 5th level swashbuckler, 3 attacks vs. a 6th level myrmidon, 2 attacks per round versus 7th–10th level fighters, and 1 attack per round versus fighters of 11th level or higher.

Gygax’s system of attacks per round based on the ratio of Hit Dice between humanoid combatants explains why Conan can wade through lower level fighters but fights more cautiously against his peers. Which is always what I observed and experienced first-hand in the SCA and in martial arts.

Given that this FAQ appeared before the publication of Grayhawk, why was it not included in that supplement or the AD&D rules? Obviously we can only speculate at this point, but I suspect that it has to do with fighters, paladins, and rangers getting multiple attacks per round at higher levels which first appeared in the AD&D Players Handbook in 1978. Although, Gygax did retain the attack/level when facing creatures of less than 1 Hit Die and 0-level Humans.

I like this rule so much, I shall refer to it as the “Conan” rule. The next question then, is ‘how broadly or narrowly should this rule be applied?’

Ever since the Giants in the Earth series of articles appeared in Dragon Magazine in 1979, I realised that fighters are effectively a core component of all other classes. That is, since all classes increase in combat ability, they are effectively lower level fighters as well. For example in the AD&D Deities & Demigods, Merlin is a 14 level Druid, 15th level Magic-User, and 10th level illusionist. He has no levels in fighter per se. 14th level Druids have a THAC0 of 12 exactly like a 9th level fighter. Therefore I ruled that Merlin can fight as a 9th level fighter and gets 3 mêlée attacks every 2 rounds. So from that point forward, I gave all classes multiple attacks per round based on their equivalent fighter level. The fact that I was not the only DM to do this is proven by 3rd edition doing the exact same thing. In 3e, the number of attacks per round is determined by a character’s Base Attack Bonus (BAB) rather than an arbitrary table.

Carrying this one step further, non-fighters are treated as their equivalent fighter level for determination of how many attacks per round they receive versus lower level creatures but also for high level fighters versus them! After all, what is good for the goose is good for the gander…. So if Merlin did not want to waste any spells, he could smack 9 squires per round with his quarterstaff but Syr Launcelot (Pal 20) could reprimand Merlin at 2 attacks per round (ratio of 9:20).

So this is all very good for humanoid versus humanoid combat, but what happens when it is combat versus bears or owlbears? Alligators or dragons? What Gygax calls “fantastic combat”? I think that this is where the attacks/round of high level fighters should come into play. D&D is an abstraction and it is very difficult to adjudicate how much of an owlbear’s combat ability comes from skill versus natural talent. Theoretically, an RPG could work out that difference but no edition of D&D has done that (aside from 3e allowing humanoids to take some class levels) and I  have no desire to do that as well.

So if fantasic combat relies on the multiple attacks/round rule rather than the opponent ratio, then why does Conan get only 1 attack per round versus his doppleganger instead of 2 attacks per round (AD&D fighters levels 13+)? I rule then that the minimum number of attacks per round is always what the fantastic combat rules allow for. So Conan always has a minimum of 2 attacks/round regardless of how high level his opponent is or whether it is humanoid or not.

Below is my expansion of Gygax’s rule that can be applied to all versions of D&D:

Conan Rule: “Fighters” get multiple attacks vs. lower level opponents

Abstract: Fighters get 1 attack per level per round divided by their opponent’s fighter level with a minium equal to their standard number of attacks/round. For eample, a 4th level gets 4 attacks per round versus a 1st level fighter (4:1), 2 attacks per round versus a 2nd level fighter (4:2 = 2:1), and 1 attack per round versus 3rd level fighters and higher (4:3).

This house rule is an expansion of one that appeared in the D&D FAQ  published in The Strategic Review number 2, obstensibly written by E. Gary Gygax in 1975 prior to the release of the Grayhawk expansion.

In this rule, “fighters” include the fighter class as well as the equivalent fighter level of other character classes and humanoids (creatures of roughly human size, shape, & movement). Equivalent fighter level is determined by examining the base attack capabilities of the character class (To Hit, THAC0, or BAB). For monsters, use their Hit Dice or BAB if using 3rd edition rules. For example, in AD&D clerics of 1st & 2nd level have the same THAC0 as 1st level fighters, as do magic-users of 1st–4th level and thieves of 1st & 2nd level. Therefore they are all treated as 1st level fighters for determination of attacks/round.

The number of attacks a fighter gets against lower level opponents is determened by dividing the level of the attacker by the level of the defender, drop all fractions and give a minimum attack per round of 1 or higher if the rules allow for a higher number of normal attacks per round, e.g. AD&D fighters get 2 attacks/round at 13th level, 3e fighters get 2 attacks/round at 6th level.

For example a 9th level lord versus a 1st level veteran gets 9 attacks (9 ÷ 1 = 9) while the 1st level veteran gets but a single attack (1 ÷ 9 = 0.1111). Versus a 2nd level fighter, the lord gets 4 attacks (9 ÷ 2 = 4.5), versus a 3 level fighter he get 3 attacks (9 ÷3 = 3), versus a 4th level fighters he gets 2 (9 ÷ 7 = 2.25), versus a 5th level fighter and higher he gets only a single attack per round (9 ÷5 = 1.8). Note that in AD&D the 9th level lord has a minimum attack of 3/2.

What about Great Cleave? In third edition, fighters with the great cleave feat (at 4th level or higher), upon killing an opponent may attack another opponent within range. In this way, a fighter could theoretically kill all creatures within range so long as he hit and killed each one of them in a single swing (see the pictures at the bottom of this post). However, as soon as an attack misses or does not kill an opponent, the great cleave ends. In contrast, under the Conan Rules, a 4th level fighter gets four attacks against 1st level opponents regardless of whether he hits and/or kills the opponent. Thus, these two rules can work together if you so desire.

How this will change your game: Monsters will get scarier; and the earlier the edition, the scarier they will get. But remember that in Chainmail and 0D&D, giants have always attacked 12 times per round versus “normal” men-at-arms. Now they attack 6 times per round versus 2nd level fighting-men, 4 times per round vs. 3rd level fighters, 3 times per round versus 4th level, and 2 times per round versus 6th level fighters.

High level fighters will also becomes closer to magic-users in power. A 9th level lord now gets 9 attacks per round versus that press gang of 1st level sailors instead of only 1.


For those of you who think that this rule is too cinematic or literary, consider the follow except from the book “This is Kendo” which depicts a fight scene from the film “Sanjuro.” Yes, I am aware that I am referring to a scene from a film, but this was done without any wires or CGI and was choreographed by a expert in kenjutsu (whose name I forgot).


I want to thank Delta of Delta’s D&D Hotspot for reminding me of the D&D FAQ in Strategic Review that mentioned number of attacks based on the hit dice ratio. I do not know if I unconciously internalised this article after I read it back in 1978 and forgot the source or if I developed this idea in parallel. Regardless, it is gratifying to see that at least at one point in time, Gygax and I shared this idea.