The Seven-Sided Die

The odds & ends of roleplaying

What breeds in Chaos

written by d7, on Nov 4, 2013 2:02:00 PM.

Reading some of noism’s musings on mimics and the comments that followed sorted something out in my head recently.

Though I love Adventurer Conqueror King System as a system, as an implied setting it is very strongly “classicist” in noism’s two-fantasies nomenclature. I do love me some simulationist fantasy, but I find it doesn’t work very well for the kind of West Marches–inspired sandbox that I’ve been wanting to run. (My first go at using ACKS was a sandbox, but horrendously over-detailed using its domain system, and I very much lacked for enough “wild” land to provoke my imagination.)

In Non-Banal D&D, he wrote:

There must be a way, then, of making D&D somehow more fantastical, mysterious and romanticist while retaining the elements which make it a game. How? This is the question that is occupying my thoughts at the moment.

To which Beedo replied:

The moment you decide that goblins hatch from pumpkins blessed on Halloween night by the Goblin King, that Bugbears slip into the world from the Nightmare Realm in order to hide in closets and terrorize people, you put that sense of wonder and mystery back into the myriad monsters out there, and take a big step away from “Classicism”.

So that’s where I’d start - whimsical monster origins, origins that are unknown or barely imagined by human folk.

All of which suddenly clicked with my own thoughts about the three-fold alignment system (law-neutral-chaos) and the nature of the sandbox I’m currently running, which isn’t well-served by the limited and arguably banal and limited wilderness encounter tables of ACKS (as inherited from B/X D&D’s limited monster selection, to be fair).

Metaphysical Law

Chaos, when people get fundamental about the origins of alignment, is usually considered to be a metaphysical force, but one that is impersonal and cosmic, happening “out there somewhere” in a cosmic struggle, with mundane goblins and humans duking it out “down here” in a pale echo of that struggle. But what if it wasn’t remote?

ACKS presents such a classicist view of lawful and chaotic alignments, defining them in the context of PC alignments as how much you hew to or reject civilisation and its structures.

But in a romanticist conception, Chaos is where pumpkin-goblins and bugbears congealed from the nightmares of the World Dreamer come from.

Why not both? As an method of injecting romantic fantasy into this sandbox, to un-banal its wilderness, why not make the lost, ruined provinces the literal provinces of Chaos? Why not make the settled lands metaphysically Lawful, not just philosophically? Human settlement brings not only order and law, but also Order and Law, a aura that permeates the land and air in a deep, mystical sense. Fundamentally, settles lands are boring (as is done in a West Marches style of sandbox to make them out-of-bounds), precisely because Law rules there.

Metaphysical Chaos

Meanwhile, Chaos breeds in the ruins and wilds of the playing region of the sandbox. Literally, breeds. The fall and retreat of civilisation from these lands hundreds of years ago hasn’t merely allowed humanoid tribes and decay to move in, but also tangible Chaos to take hold of the land and air.

Why are there dragons in dungeon rooms with exits they can’t fit through? The wyrm slithered out of the darkness itself. Rather than trying to figure out how such a dragon feeds itself (how does a many-tonned creatures feed itself even when flying free?!) enough to grow so large, fuel dragonfire, and be able to sustain a metabolism that lets it launch that massive bulk into flight – it doesn’t. It is a creature of Chaos, bred from the darkness that rules where civilisation dares not go, and its non-rational existence is sustained by the very lack of orderly rules about how flesh and blood should operate.

Dragons are magic.

Goblinoid plages sweep down on humanity, not when population pressure forces them to migrate and violently colonise human-settled lands, but when a long autumn results in a bumper crop of pumpkins. Why not?

I have a rope tied to the top of this slippery slope

There is a danger in getting so chaotic that nothing makes sense and the players have no handles to grip this setting by. That’s a slippery slope that I’m sure some of you will be freaking out about right now. If so, great! That’s an important slippery slope to avoid for you.

I’m not actually worried about that for myself, because my tendency is to be overly classicist and try to explain everything. Even my weird Chaos creations will end up having some kind of explanation and method to the madness. More importantly, thinking of this sandbox’s lost Western provinces as the breeding grounds of Chaos will help me resist the urge to overly-classify things to the point of making them banal and boring for my players. That is my actual danger and slippery slope, so permission to be weird is the antidote. Your mileage will most certainly vary, depending on your own narrative and world-building habits and crutches.

Carving a domain from Chaos

There is a beautiful synergy available, then, too. In high-level ACKS play, the players carve out a domain from the wilderness for themselves. They clear of it monsters, yes, but they also “clear” it in the sense that videogames sometimes use: they actually disable the ability for the settled domain to breed new monsters, because it is now an island of Law in the Chaos-ruled wilds.

ACKS explains the weirdness of dungeons (in a classicist way) by saying that wizards stock them for the monster parts, for use as reagents in rituals and magic item creation. The classicist in me likes that, but wonders: how do they get in? Is there an interview at the dungeon door? Do I have to add in unknown entrances and tunnels, to allow monsters to infiltrate and fill in the dungeon? What do they eat?

Saying that ruins become monster-infested because they are enabled by or spring directly from the fabric of Chaos itself solves the problem, as in the previous example of dragons. This also gives an extra weird dimension to being a wizard: you are civilising an area for your tower and researches, but you also have to invite in a bit of Chaos for your dungeon to stock… and maybe, Chaos is where magic comes from in the first place? It’s a nice tension for a high-level wizard to manage, and fits with the image of a wizard-ruled domain being a place that, though settled, is still uncanny and unsettling.

Stripping down to Basic essentials

written by d7, on Oct 22, 2013 10:22:00 AM.

I’m running Adventurer Conqueror King System again, and it’s like I’ve come up for air without knowing that I was underwater.

One of the most refreshing things about ACKS (and B/X D&D upon which it’s based) is that this game knows what it is. And, importantly, I know what it is and I like what it is.

There being no such thing as D&D means that, over the years D&D has accumulated a lot of cruft designed to make the game accommodate more and more playstyles. As the editions have progressed, the “centre of gravity” of the rules has moved with these rule additions, making the game as written appear very different than what I know as D&D. I can still play 3.5e as the D&D I know (and know how to run), but someone coming to it fresh is going to see a game of high magic, Wealth By Level, optimisation, splatbooks-are-required, and magic item shops. 3.5e doesn’t know what it is, and making it run like the D&D you know is a trick that requires patience, hard work, getting everyone on the same page, and vicious elimination of any implications (rules- or fluff-based) that don’t fit your gaming style.

ACKS is great because it’s pretty much just Basic D&D, and Basic was early enough in the game’s history to be very focused on doing one small set of playstyles well and smoothly. ACKS adds some refinements to the rules, but they’re well-considered to mesh with the existing game’s playstyle – they don’t change its essential nature or move its centre of gravity. ACKS is D&D as I know it and love it, with a few rough edges filed off, and it runs like oiled silk on the game-execution engine that is my brain.

So that’s something to consider when playing a game: Does it know what it is? Is it honest with itself? Is it full of rules that are there as compromises between a diverse and divided player base, or divided game history? Does the game communicate well what its aim is? And finally, is that something you like? Is it something your players like?

These criteria are why I don’t run 3.5e and probably never will again: it has too many moving parts that are central to its design that only exist to support design goals that are contrary to what I want out of a game called “D&D”.

It’s why I don’t like 4e: it does what it does very well, and it communicates what it does well, but it’s not honest with itself in that it pretends to be “D&D” for everyone. (It’s a pretty minor lie by omission, but it was still a lie in the service of brand promotion. I’m pretty sure Hasbro wouldn’t have let WotC say “this is a particular kind of D&D, and it might not be to your taste, so you might want to stick with 3.5e or try another RPG entirely”.)

It’s why I have trouble playing even 2e again: it’s all very much about the player’s individual character story and their special-snowflakeness (which is great on its own), but the combat system and class/level design are relentlessly hostile to that, which makes the system incoherent. And, it’s why 1e doesn’t really work well for me: it’s too baroque for a simple dungeon/hex-crawl, and I don’t like the epic questing that it’s design for.

ACKS is great. It’s in my personal Goldilocks zone.

Pilgrims of the Weeping Willow

written by d7, on Jul 7, 2013 6:54:00 PM.

Today we met for brunch, walked in the sun to a park by the ocean, and sat under a willow tree near a piñata birthday party and a persistently adventurous dog and her people. There I introduced my gaming group to Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple by Daniel Solis.

I love it when I find a non-traditional roleplaying game that my regular group appreciates. Do now joins the company of A Penny for My Thoughts, Microscope, and Roll For Shoes in that regard. We sat on the blanket and I explained the basics, introduced the setting very briefly, and trusted to their inherent silliness to carry the rest of the setting. We made characters in mere minutes (which, if you’re unfamiliar with Do, consists of naming them and interpreting how the parts of their name metaphorically represent how they get in trouble and how they help people), chose the Swallowed Whole demo-length Letter, and I took the first turn with Pilgrim Muddy Waters to show them how the drawing of the stones and writing of sentences worked.

We had five Pilgrims:

  • Pilgrim Sunny Cupcakes gets into trouble with inappropriate happiness and helps people by indulging in unhealthy pleasures

  • Pilgrim Felonious Biscuit gets into trouble by lacking respect for personal property and helps people with the healing power of food

  • Pilgrim Running Pig gets into trouble by running into things and helps people by finding rare things

  • Pilgrim Twirly Straw gets into trouble by getting dizzy and breaking things and helps people by dispensing earthy wisdom

  • Pilgrim Muddy Waters gets into trouble by making things dirty and helps people by jamming [1]

This was our story:

Pilgrim Muddy Waters makes the WHALE smile wide open by jamming melodiously. But his sweaty aroma causes the WHALE to sneeze, covering him in rapidly-hardening whale snot.

Pilgrim Twirly Straw spins into the WHALE’s mouth and smashes one of its teeth! But she says, “A hole in your smile makes it easier to suck. (Milkshakes, that is.)”

Pilgrim Felonious Biscuit finds the swallowed world, where he befriends the CAT with his strategic tuna reserves.

Pilgrim Sunny Cupcakes takes Pilgrim Muddy Waters stunt-flying, where Muddy Waters crashes into the whale’s uvula, breaks off the snot, and falls into the TREES. Pilgrim Sunny Cupcakes laughs, “This is such a cute little planet; I could just eat it up!” and makes MELANIE cry.

Pilgrim Running Pig finds a rare sheep-rat, native to the digestive system of space whales, and gives it to MELANIE to cheer her up.

Muddy Waters jams so hard that the whale sneezes and unEATs the world. But Melanie’s HOUSE gets knocked down and covered in whale goo in the process!

Pilgrim Twirly Straw says, “Ambergris COOKIES kill at Girl Guide meetings.” She gives the whale a wink as the world spins away, breaking its heart.

Pilgrim Felonious Biscuit prepares a celebratory feast from sheep-rats that had been sneezed out with them. Pilgrim Cupcake dances with the cat, and calls Melanie’s parents to tell them to get anti-whale insurance. Pilgrim Pig helps Melanie bake cookies… we were promised them, after all! Pilgrim Muddy Waters plays music for the feast. Pilgrim Twirly Straw says, “If you squeeze sheep-rats they will squeak in tune with the Thong Song.”

We easily got a Parades ending in seven turns.

I explained how names change, focusing on developing or shifting the details of the help and trouble and then picking a new banner or avatar to suit. [2] We updated our Pilgrims, and as they flew away from Melanie’s tiny world they became:

  • Pilgrim Sunny Cocaine (help: pharmaceuticals) [3]

  • Pilgrim Incendiary Biscuit (trouble: setting people’s stuff on fire)

  • Pilgrim Running Octopus (help: knowing where anything is)

  • Pilgrim Entrancing Straw (trouble: unknowingly hypnotizing people)

  • Pilgrim Tidy Waters (trouble: obsessively cleaning)

I would have liked to play a longer letter and have more turns so that everyone could have a better chance of seeing their help and trouble in play, but in practical terms it was the perfect length of game for an afternoon in the park when we had places to be later.

We will definitely play Do again! It’s a neat game that hooks you quickly with very little setup. We had enough attachment to our pilgrims to enjoy playing them, but they’re still unknown enough to us yet that we want to see who they become and where they go next.

We thought it was a perfect park-blanket game. It has little enough paper that we weren’t constantly guarding a pile of sheets from the wind. No dice meant we didn’t need a central flat surface to roll (or need to fall back on smartphone dice). Quick setup, simple rules, and the 1–2 hours needed to play a Letter suits the pace that feels right for sitting in a seaside park on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The bag of stones, passports, rule book, journal, and writing instruments were all easily packed in a shoulder bag or were things we normally carry around. The whimsical nature of the game also suited the real-life context and our surroundings. It just fit the afternoon perfectly.

We also liked that we don’t need a player quorum for future games. With each Letter being a self-contained episode that can be finished in a short playing session, we can keep playing these pilgrims’ stories even if we don’t have everyone from the initial game session every time. Since there’s no mechanical quantification of ability tied to advancement, “missing” players won’t be missing out mechanically, just narratively. And even then, play creates the artefact of a written story that can be read by players who missed a session.

We walked back the way we came, got ice cream on the way, and went our own ways to tend to our Sunday evening plans. [4]


“Jamming” isn’t really a help that properly fits the avatar “Waters”, but we all thought it was too good a name and help to pass up, just to satisfy the letter of the rules!


Rather than the other way around, like it is during character creation. This was a bit of a stumbling block because of the switch in direction, which is one of the few places where the game runs anything less than smooth as glass.


Non-PG black humour definitely counts as silly with this group. As we were walking back from the park, someone speculated that Sunny Cocaine might become “Pilgrim Happy Endings”, with exactly the sort of help that sounds like.


I got a new filing cabinet! No more stuffing RPG notes into my games bookshelves! … Just as soon as I clean up the spot it will live in and move it there, that is.

D&D Next: more complicated than 4e?

written by d7, on May 22, 2012 4:08:29 PM.

Gillespie on Mearls on Hit Points over on Discourse & Dragons sparked a large discussion thread about the latest Mike Mearls Legends & Lore column on D&D 5e design. I found the article in question – Hit Points, Our Old Friend – dismaying for a number of reasons. (My comment on Greg’s blog post grew long enough that I’m posting it here.)

I don’t get what they’re trying to accomplish with this re-imagining of what HD are. So instead of tracking just current and total hp, we have to track current and total hit dice as well? And “spend” them for natural healing? But it’s not a “healing surge” because you can only use them between fights, and you regain them by taking long rests?

(Or maybe I do get what they’re trying to do with this use of hit dice, but I just disagree with the design decisions or they’re meant to support other parts of the system that I don’t value. I think this is fairly likely.)

Is it just me, or is 5e shaping up to be just 4e plus attempts to reify the dissociated mechanics with new, canonical in-fiction explanations? I would have hoped 5e’s base would be less complicated than 4e, not more.

In a related aside, did anyone else notice how the article let slip that “bloodied” is still an explicit part of the game, just not in name?

“Here’s a brief overview that gives you an idea of what happens when a creature takes damage.

A creature with more than half its maximum hit points has nothing more than the superficial signs of injury. There might be a few tears in its armor or clothes, or it could have a dent in its shield, and it has not yet suffered any serious physical harm beyond a scrape, light cut, or bruise. Anyone looking at the creature likely doesn’t notice that it has been involved in a fight.

A creature with less than half its maximum hit points has suffered a few noticeable cuts or bruises. A casual inspection or quick look reveals that the creature has taken a few hits, so it is noticeably injured.”

Now, instead of getting rid of concepts like “bloodied” for the base game, they’re keeping them and they’re baking them into the basic game fiction. In the process, they’re settling the question of “what hit points represent” with a canonical system answer.

Reifying game mechanics is all well and good, and some excellent games out there do just that to make the game-play and the fiction intertwine in a satisfying and organic fashion. What I think the 5e crew don’t get is that well-integrated examples of such games have their implied setting built around and from these reified concepts, while in 5e they appear to be tacking them onto D&D-as-we-know-it in an attempt to justify dissociated mechanics they want to keep. That’s just going to result in a) many of these additions to the fiction feeling like transparent afterthoughts, or b) making the game’s implied setting incompatible with everything called “D&D” prior to 4e.

It’s also overly complicated the game. Two of the charges leveled against 4e is that it’s overly complicated and that its mechanics are dissociated. Solving mechanical dissociation by making the game more complicated seems like a choice that won’t win over the people who leveled these charges in the first place.

I applaud Mearls looking to classic D&D for inspiration, but I can’t get excited by all this overcomplication of the game in order to blend the editions. This isn’t unification – this is just throwing everything and the kitchen sink into a system and calling it unified.

XP for journals in old-school games

written by d7, on May 9, 2012 1:29:00 AM.

I’m engaging in an old-school heresy: I’m not awarding XP solely for monsters defeated/outsmarted and treasure earned.

I’m also awarding 100 XP for player journal entries. I know that XP is an incentive system, and here are my thoughts on why such things should be incentivised with experience points:

  • It rewards player engagement. A player who is willing to write a journal entry is a player engaging with the fictional experience of their character.

  • It doesn’t do violence to the XP curve: early on the squishiness of characters ensures that incautious and unlucky characters don’t survive regardless; later, 100 XP is a drop in the bucket.

  • It encourages reflection, which I can only hope results in a positive “study history lest you repeat it” effect that may directly contribute to improved player skills.

  • It creates a tangible artifact of play that I can re-use within the game world. It would be neat for another party to find a page of a fallen adventurer’s journal.

  • It’s better than them trying to hunt rats for that 1 XP needed to level up.

So is this heresy unforgivable? Must I burn my GM dice in atonement? Have you done something like this and had interesting effects on the game and player behaviour?

Scarcity creates desire

written by d7, on Apr 24, 2012 6:50:07 PM.

My son is watching Kinder Surprise unboxing videos on YouTube. Putting aside why he is watching these (answer: he’s four and doesn’t discriminate much yet), the mere existence of such videos caused a moment of perplexity in the house. Being Canadian, we don’t really get intuitively why Americans are so obsessed with Kind Surprise, but the simple explanation occurred to me: they’re valued because they can’t be had easily in the States. [1]

Which leads to the gaming insight into why old-school play can be so compelling, and a bonus insight about the state of the modern rule sets.

Players most want what they can’t have right now. They want that next level. That first magic item. That first big haul of gold. That brass ring, figuratively and literally, can be an incredibly compelling motivation to dare the forbidden places of a game setting and risk (the character’s) life and limb therein.

Scarcity creating desire is well-known. It’s part of why diamonds and gold have historically been worth more than other bits of rock. (The rest of the reason is that they’re particularly shiny. Humans are creatures of simple pleasures.) Manufactured scarcity is the business model behind diverse companies from Disney (their Vault policy) to Wizards of the Coast (rares in Magic: the Gathering boosters) to De Beers (diamonds really aren’t very rare anymore, so they throttle supply). Scarcity in games is a huge motivator for human behaviour, and this remains true even in the shared consensual hallucinations that are the central activity of the roleplaying hobby.

If you want to motivate your players, make things scarce.

I’ve seen this in my own play lately. Players that were hard-core WotC D&D players have suddenly been lusting after treasure and XP in ways that I’ve never seen. The need for creative approaches is bubbling to the surface. A scarcity of hit points is motivating working hard to keep those HP, and the desire to avoid danger. This tension between seeking treasure and yet trying to avoid the inherent danger of the places where treasure is found is, as far as I can tell, the quintessence of a certain kind of old-school play that is immensely enjoyable.

Conversely, if you want to demotivate a behaviour, remove the related scarcity. This is a large part of why modern D&Ds have come to where they are: in the quest to satisfy consumers, more and more player desires have been answered by removing scarcities from the game. No longer is it hard to get XP, treasure, or even magic items (they’re parcelled up in convenient bits and hidden inside encounters that are designed to be easy-but-not-too-easy to overcome, much like the toy in a Kinder egg). No longer is high level something to aspire to: it’s a given that your character will survive to that high level, assuming everyone maintains interest in the campaign. No longer is fun something to be sought and made yourself, but it’s something every designer is scrambling to somehow guarantee in the rules themselves (and have yet to figure out how to deliver with perfection).

I suddenly see why dyed-in-the-wool old-school gamers often accuse “new school” gamers of being entitled and spoon-fed. Straddling the old and new, I don’t see it that way; but I do see that new-school games must be understood as either “failed” designs or entirely different games with different design goals. (Hint: the latter is the correct answer!)

But what does satiety accomplish?

Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if you satisfy the basic game scarcities, players are freed up to start taking those for granted and moving on to satisfying other needs.

What satiety does is something a designer needs to consider. It’s a game after all, there needs to be something to strive for if it’s going to be more compelling than Candyland. If you’re going to make character power a given, what does that free players up to strive for? Is that what you want your game to be about? If you want your game to be about charming rogues delving dungeons, handing success in that endeavor to the players will make your game goal different than you intended.

One significant danger is that satisfying one scarcity merely moves the location of scarcity up an increasingly-narrow pyramid of player desires: what’s at the top? Would a game that satisfies all player demands actually be a game still? [2]

I need one more space to get an RPG blogger bingo, so let me leave off with the question: What does that mean for DnD Next? Will 5e be able to make different scarcities simultaneously scarce so that 4e players can enjoy their tactical success scarcity while TSR-era players can still enjoy their survival and treasure scarcity? I can’t imagine how that would work, but I’m curious what Mearls and company will try.


For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about: Kinder Surprise are hollow chocolate eggs with a toy inside. They’re available worldwide, but not in the US because the FDA forbids foods that entirely enclose non-edible objects. They’re definitely not fascinating to adult Canadians, and yet they remain fascinating for adult Americans.


This is why I think so many (but by no means all) old-school gamers and modern-D&D gamers are joined in reviling “indie” and post-Forge game designs: those games remove scarcities that they value as core to their conception of gaming. They moves the scarcity to somewhere else (there’s definitely still scarcities in such games), but to a location that such critic simply can’t see or doesn’t value as a motivation of play.

Roundup of things to read

written by d7, on Apr 24, 2012 12:03:00 PM.

A selection of things I’ve been reading, pulled from my currently-open browser tabs and recent history:

Treasure Type B-X looks inside a box of Basic D&D bought off eBay that turns out to be a time capsule, from The RPG Corner.

B/X Combat - Fast, faster, fastest talks about the emergent properties of Basic D&D’s combat system, from the slumbering Ode to Black Dougal.

Random Scroll Labels and The Way Scrolls Look describe an alternative to the way I’ve always envisioned scrolls that I quite like and which has some nice effects on the mechanics and fiction of scroll use, from The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms.

Dyson Logos’ Random Tables page collecting all his posts on the subject, from Dyson’s Dodecahedron.

TSR Fonts matches up (or near-matches) the fonts used in TSR and WotC products with typefaces from various foundries, from the Acaeum. I’m doing up all my DMing materials in Futura for that original-hardcovers feel.

The questions Randomly generating weather for a sandbox campaign and Where can I buy original edition and out-of-print roleplaying books and accessories? have lots of good answers at the Role-playing Games Stack Exchange. (The first is one for which I’m still looking for a good answer.)

Retrospective: Forgotten Realms Campaign Set looks at the original expression of Ed Greenwood’s setting and how it’s quite different in some ways than what everyone thinks of as the Realms due to the product line that followed, from Grognardia.

There you go. What blog posts and pages have been informing your gaming lately?

Meanwhile, I got my hardcover of Adventurer Conqueror King System in the mail yesterday, as well as Greg Gillespie’s Barrowmaze. (Aside, you might be interested in the crowdfunding campaign for Barrowmaze II on now.) I’ve also been refining my play and setting notes for the Fallen Crowns campaign, which is itself chugging along nicely with different players each time who surprise me with where they go and what they do every session. There’s a post in there at some point, if I can find the time between the items in my ever-increasing reading queue!

Staple binding PDFs tutorial

written by d7, on Apr 21, 2012 11:43:00 AM.

Five half-letter booklets fanned out on a table below a long-arm stapler, a bone folder, and a pair of yellow binder clips.

A player asked me how I made the Adventurer Conqueror King System mini-booklets that we’ve been using. I ended up writing a long email and figured I’d share it here.

I can’t stand playing from PDFs on a laptop (and I don’t have an iPad), so being able to bind my own printouts has made lots of PDFs in my collection infinitely more useful for actual play.

There’s four tools that make staple binding work: a duplex printer, a long-arm or saddle-stitch stapler, a paper cutter, and a bone folder aka paper knife. Most of the trouble is in cost for the stapler and paper cutter, and even finding a bone folder. For larger books a pair of small binder clips is very useful to keep the sheets lined up for stapling (my stapler doesn’t have the v-shaped alignment bump of a real saddle-stitch stapler), but for booklets of just a few sheets I don’t bother.

I’ve been using the latest version of Acrobat Reader to print in booklet form. (Versions earlier than 10.1.3 had problems with doing the two-sided printing right when the booklet option was selected.) It automatically handles the imposition and two-sided printing so the sheets nest right. There are some PDFs that were never intended for print and printing all pages will do things like put the page numbers on the inside or something like that. Often just leaving out the covers does the trick. Printing parts of a PDF like I did with ACKS takes more experimenting to get it to look nice, though you might notice I messed up one of the booklets and the page numbers are in the fold. There are certainly worse things. Experiment with the preview until it looks right. One thing to note is that the “automatically rotate pages” checkbox is off by default in Acrobat Reader, which only matters if the PDF has landscape pages mixed in with the portrait pages. I didn’t notice that, so the Mortality tables in my GM booklets are printed upright and tiny instead of sideways and full-page.

The long-arm stapler came from, appropriately enough, Staples. The paper cutter too, and it took some talking to them to find one that would do more than two sheets at a time well. The packaging mostly lies and you can pretty much halve the claimed sheet capacity to find out what a cutter will handle without pulling and making a curved cut. As it is, just under a couple hundred still only gets you one that can do four well, six kinda, eight claimed on the box. The ones that nicely cut stacks at a time are exorbitant. The rotary type are only really good for one sheet at a time and are way less satisfying than the guillotine type.

The bone folder is a piece of magic. It’s just a flattish stick made out of a certain kind of plastic (or actual bone if you get a fancy one) that you can press super-crisp folds with without the kind of friction that drags the fold into a curve or burnishes the paper. Michael’s appears to carry one as part of a Cricut tools kit. Otherwise they’re hard to find. Deserres might have them but I can’t find them in their online store. Might be worth talking to them if you’re passing by. I got mine from a local bindery: Rasmussen Bindery. They have an online store but they’re the quaint kind of place that will call you on the phone to discuss your online order before putting it together for shipping.

You can do without the bone folder. Not having it will make thicker booklets fit together less well and be fatter, but it’s doable. Having one does make the folding less time consuming and annoying though, which makes a difference in how fast you can make one book and how long it takes before you’re tired of all this folding crap.

So just print the booklet sheets (collated if you’re doing multiple copies of a PDF), fold the pages but don’t nest them yet, and use the paper cutter to trim the edges. I just eyeball the margins to make sure I’m not cutting any text and there’s enough margin to be visually pleasing. Making the outside cuts about the same distance from the text block as the fold margin (or slightly thinner if there’s a large inside margin) seems to give good results. I ususally do two folded sheets at a time (so four paper-thicknesses) because my cutter cuts that cleanly without pulling and it’s fast enough for the size of PDFs I’ve been doing. I do one edge for all the pages before moving to the second and third edge so that I don’t have to keep resetting the backstop on the cutter.

The only problem with cutting a few sheets at a time is that in the end you’ll get a V-shaped outer edge to the book that’s more pronounced the more sheets it has. It’s not really avoidable. (Real books sometimes have a saw-tooth edge for the same reason. The only way to avoid it is to use a book clamp and actually plane the edge of the text block until it’s even, but that’s serious binding geekery.)

Once you’ve got them all folded and trimmed, nest them together and unfold them. Try to pinch the folds flat rather than holding one side or the other so that they stays lined up and don’t drift. For thicker books like the ACKS booklets, I use a pair of binder clips after unfolding to keep the folds lined up for stapling. My stapler has a sliding stop to make consistent staple distances easy, but setting it is still a matter of eyeballing where the staple will go through. I haven’t perfected this yet, but the closer to right through the fold the staples go, the easier the pages turn in both halves of the book. For a half-letter sized book, a pair of staples 1/4 from the top and bottom of the fold works.

Then you’ve got a nice self-cover book. They’re not super-durable, but once you’ve got the setup to make them it’s just a bit of time, paper, and toner to replace them, and the time it takes is little enough that I’m more worried about toner costs. I printed, folded, cut, and stapled the entire GM section of ACKS in less time than it took everyone to make characters in the first session.

This is a great way to make books out of PDFs, especially ones that don’t exist in print at all. It’s not a replacement for a real print version, but it’s a great DIY project to take a book you would like to use at the table out of the computer and into your hands.

I’m looking forward to my hardcover of ACKS coming in the mail (I got the shipping notice email last week!) but in the meantime being able to bind copies myself has been invaluable – we wouldn’t have been able to play without them.

Basic D&D spellcasters have more fun

written by d7, on Apr 15, 2012 1:16:00 PM.

Ages ago I ran a game of AD&D 2nd Edition and I wrote a post-mortem of that campaign in which I said, in part:

Finally, I hate – hate hate hate – the fire-and-forget magic that AD&D uses. A poke in the eye with a sharp stick would be an improvement, and there are even better systems of magic in other games that don’t involve fire-and-forget spells or pointy sticks. […] This is probably one of the larger points driving me away from 0e through 3e for my “default” fantasy gaming system.

Edge of Empire wrap-up

But now I’m running ACKS, a variant of 1981 Basic/Expert Dungeons and Dragons, and I’m not hating the D&D-style magic system. I had to ponder why for a while, and I think I’ve figured it out.

Everyone’s a wizard

The difference is that everyone in B/X is a wizard in one particular way: everyone is made of tissue paper. I briefly considered using the optional rule that characters start with max hit points at 1st level and then decided not to, reasoning that I could always add it later if I didn’t like the effects of low hit points but taking away the max hit points rule mid-campaign for new characters would cause a mutiny.

Apart from often having little difference in hit points and therefore durability against an enemy’s 1d6 damage, the fighters are usually in the front rank and taking the hits while the mages are (usually) in the middle or back avoiding (usually) damage entirely. To top things off, a 1st-level fighter with a sword hits as often and does the same average damage as a 1st-level mage with a staff striking two-handed.

The result is that yesterday I rolled up some NPC adventurers to hire the PCs [1], and the NPC fighter had 3hp and banded plate, while one of the NPC wizards had 4hp and no armour. Over the course of the adventure, the fighter was always on the front lines while the wizard was in the middle rank, making the AC disparity less relevant. The result is that Corwyn the fighter was taken out early on and nearly died, while Miriam the wizard opportunistically brained goblins and survived without a scratch.

The dice could have easily fallen the other way, but the point is that fighters and mages are mostly on par in a B/X fight. The statistical equality of fighters and wizards at first level when everything is taken into account – including to-hit chance, hit points, weapon damage, AC, and the effects of aggressive/defensive roles in combat – was really apparent with these NPCs I was running.

Amplifying these factors is the fact that combats are so short in B/X: most PCs and enemies go down in one or two hits, making an even fight a very short thing, and an uneven fight even shorter. A wizard can wade in and smack a lingering opponent and have just as much chance of ending the fight then and there as if the fighter did the same. The small difference in a fighter’s and a mage’s durability only matters if the fight lasts long enough for the enemy to hit back more than time or two, and then the difference between 3hp and 6hp is still slight against a few 1d6 damage rolls.

Power spirals are to blame

Wizards in later editions, even as little later as 2e, are annoying because there is already much more of a disparity in survivability between classes.

Because of the increased disparity in later editions, a 1st-level party as a whole is more likely to charge in and take a fight’s damage on the chin, dragging the tissue-paper wizard with them into danger that’s really only dangerous to the wizard. The much-weaker wizard simply takes much less of a combat role for the very sensible reason that the fighters are so much better at it, doing their thing every round, round after round, and mostly managing to keep standing. A 1st-level wizard’s spellcasting ability is therefore the only thing an AD&D wizard is good at, making it much more important. And yet, they still cast only a single spell.

Meanwhile, the usefulness of a 1st-level mage in B/X is fairly general since they fight very nearly as well as anyone else, plus they get to pull out their special trick once a day. No wonder the AD&D mage annoyed me so much! They’re so very niche protected that they’re good for nothing but their niche, and at 1st level that niche frankly sucks goats.


The PCs decided to invert the hireling/PC relationship by hiring themselves out as spear carriers. Nice out-of-the-box thinking. They got room and board, the NPCs already had an adventure and a reward lined up, and they didn’t need to pay for the extra meatshields. Of course, they only got a half share of the loot.

Fallen Crowns campaign report, inagural session

written by d7, on Apr 8, 2012 2:09:00 PM.

On Friday we played the first session of my Fallen Crowns campaign. There were some interesting lessons learned both by the players and by myself as referee, which I’ll write about after recounting the brief events of the session.

Loosely connected to the previous Edge of Empire campaign, this campaign takes place in the same world 300 years after the events of the prior one, long after the titular Empire has fallen. We’re using Adventurer Conqueror King System and I’ve set it up to accommodate an ever-changing player roster for maximum flexibility. Being a hexcrawl sandbox, this wasn’t hard to do.

No, the hardest part turned out to be the adjustment to the old-school, Basic Dungeons and Dragons play style. My players weren’t taken by surprise; but it’s one thing to know intellectually that monsters and traps are deadly and treasure is the goal above all, because I had been telling them that all month, and an entirely other thing to actually know the terror of having only 1hp left facing a screaming goblin and looking up at that first 2,200XP hill to gain 2nd level with only 6XP earned for the entire misadventure.

All of my players have experience with 3rd Edition D&D. Some additionally have experience with 4e and 2e, but I think no-one at the table other than myself had played Basic, and even then I had played it only once with an inexperienced DM who was raised on 2e-style campaigns.

But on with the story…

Setting out

The party of five were the incorrigible bard Jacques de la Coeur, the aspiring necromancer Branwell the Ominous, the honourable dwarf Able Stoutfist, the former shopkeeper Marcello Bending Rodriguez who liquidated his share of the store to set out as a fighter, and the apprentice wizard Gennady the Anæmic. Having met for mutual protection and adventure in the large village of Grandfields that is the capital of the Duchy of the same name, they compared notes on the region (Marcello being a village native and having heard some few rumours) and set out immediately south for the Caves of Chaos two leagues south of town, gear on their backs and leading a donkey to carry the equipment of the less muscular party members. It was the 7th of the 1st of Early Summer.

This set the stage for the first lesson of the game, which didn’t really come to light until the middle-end of the session. I was committed to being an impartial referee, and when the party was unsure how to proceed I mentioned several times the possibility of gathering further rumours or even seeking retainers. Everyone wanted to get to the adventuring post-haste though, so when Able declared that she was leaving by the south gate, the party left town. Possibly this was exacerbated by another factor of playing an unfamiliar system: despite being fairly simple, character creation still took two hours all told. I expect it will get much faster as we gain familiarity with the system, but there was definitely some “c’mon, let’s go” among the party by the time they were all gathered on the village green.

Entering the wilderness

Following directions from the gate guards, the party walked south along the east bank of Elescene River for an hour before turning directly away from the river into the rolling hills and vales. Copses of trees increased in frequency and density until a half-hour’s walk brought them near a ruined Imperial watch tower or some such on a small hill, the tower missing most of its second-floor walls. After their repeated hails went unanswered, they approached and entered the apparently-unoccupied tower with the intention of gaining a view of the land ahead and locating the ravine where the caves are located.

An indecisive encounter

On the first floor they noted a door and a stairwell in the opposite wall dividing the round tower’s ground floor in two. The dwarf lead the way to the stairs as Gennady lit a lantern. Everyone but Branwell followed; he instead approached the door, only to find that the tower was in fact occupied. The creatures beyond the door spoke Common and claimed the tower as their own, brusquely telling the party to get lost. The dwarf had already got a look at the land ahead, so the party obliged. As they entered the denser woods around the Caves of Chaos, the party noted a figure watching from the ruined second floor of the tower.

The Caves of Chaos

The party spied a ravine choked with trees and tangled underbrush, with several dark cave mouths visible in the limestone slopes. Deliberating on how to approach the ravine, they opted to sidle up the left and, leaving the donkey outside and lighting a torch and a lantern, unhesitatingly entered the first cave mouth they found.

Rough limestone walls quickly gave way to worked stone walls and a four-way intersection, and moments later the party heard a cry of “Bree-yark!” go up as a patrol of six goblins charged them from the left-hand passage. Branwell cast a sleep spell as Marcello and Jacques (who were on the left flank in marching order) held their ground and Able stepped forward on Marcello’s right. Sadly, Branwell’s spell caught only two goblins – the fewest possible for the spell – when the party had been betting on all six falling asleep.

A brief melee ensued between Able, Marcello, and Jacques on one side and the goblins on the other, as Gennady held back, opting to save his own sleep spell. Three goblins were quickly felled, but not without felling Marcello and Branwell, and inflicting grievous injury on Able and Jacques that brought them down to 1hp each. (Gennady had only 1hp to start with, so now everyone was even!) With a single goblin standing with its morale unbroken, and everyone standing having a single hit point to their name, Gennady won initiative and put it to sleep. With cries of “Bree-yark!” resonating from deeper ahead in the dungeon and an ominous growl from the right-hand passage, Jacques administered some hasty first-aid to Marcello and Branwell as Gennady scooped up the sacks and pouches on the goblins.

And with that, they grabbed their injured fellows and fled the Caves of Chaos. Branwell looked back as he was hauled bodily along: goblins glared at them from the cave mouth before retreating in the darkness, followed by an ogre of monstrous proportions who leered at them, but declined to pursue. Was that the sound of argument issuing from the cave, or just beastly gibberings…?

The aftermath of the Caves

Branwell and Marcello both lived, but were crippled by cuts to their legs. Hidden in a copse of trees a half-hour from the caves (which took one hour at their limping speed) the party fashioned travoises from young trees and inspected the take: 21 pieces of silver and four days’ standard rations consisting of bread, cheese, and sausages of surprisingly high quality. Between the five of them, 6XP were earned for the goblins. The silver, split evenly, was insufficient to earn even 1XP each should they survive the trip back to civilisation.

Tower ruins, redux

Hauling themselves past the ruined watch tower, a figure approached down the hill, waving and greeting them. The man, dressed in leathers, introduced himself as Gildan. Noting their injured state, he bade them rest by their fire in the tower. Wary, the party accepted nonetheless and were introduced to Gildan’s companions, a similarly-dressed man named Mark and a man named Sal dressed in robes. They whiled away the afternoon companionably, sharing the men’s stew and adding the food taken from the goblins and their own beer and wine to the pleasantness of the company. Though Sal and Mark remained cool, Jacques caught Gildan’s eye and, serenading him with music, they became quite friendly and retired to the empty partial second floor for some recreational activities. Sal and Mark remained cool, but enjoyed the wine and company and remained relatively relaxed as night fell.

It came out during the conversation (mostly from the enamoured and consequently incautious Gildan) that the three were brigands and had done quite well for themselves taking from merchants travelling up and down the Elescene. Sal and Mark retired to the back room (the inside of which the party had still not seen), and Gildan opted to spend the night in Jacques’ company. As the brigands retired for the night, Able conspired with Gennady to either kill them in their sleep or prepare an ambush should they try to do the same to the party. Option for the defensive approach, the party camped out in the open air of the second floor, taking watches against the possibility of attack from their dinner companions.

Night passed, and the morning of the 1st of the 2nd of Early Summer came without incident. Able was disappointed, as her player very much wanted to close the gap between Able’s 6XP and the 2,200XP that would raise her to second level, but the party left the tower without violence for the road to town.


Marcello retired, poorer but wiser, and intends to found an adventurer’s guild in Grandfields. Branwell similarly retired, now aspiring to become a sage in town who could say, “I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took a goblin to the knee.” Able, Jacques, and Gennady were also wiser for the experience. Determined to make it in the life of an adventurer they are looking for others so inclined to join them on their next expedition.

Lessons learned

  • The biggest lesson wasn’t that B/X (as embodied in ACKS) is deadly since everyone “knew” that already in some intellectual sense, but rather the reality of what that meant for party preparation, tactics, goals, and the swiftness with which a character can go from full health to death’s door.

  • Goblins are not to be underestimated as they can easily kill a 1st-level character in a single round.

  • Charging ahead to find the story is a natural reflex for post–Wizards of the Coast D&D players, and the indifference of a sandbox setting to players’ desire to “find the story” really came home.

  • Gathering intelligence before an expedition is a good idea.

  • Missile weapons might have made a first-round difference in combat. The party and the goblins had none, so this is more a guess of mine than something viscerally learned through play.

  • What constitutes good combat tactics are non-obvious, and very much an emergent product of the whole network of game rules, including encumbrance, character creation method, experience system, available combat actions, initiative system, and more. While (for example) holding your initiative and standing ground to receive a charge is a great idea in 3e, it’s risky in ACKS and therefore the soundness of it as a tactic is contingent on the situation. Similarly, the particular balance of a few bits of math vastly changes the resilience of 1st-level characters.

  • The lack of magical healing at first level (clerics don’t receive spells until 2nd level) makes falling in combat a potential career-ending event instead of an expected event that’s barely even a setback in WotC D&D.

  • 1st-level characters can sometimes afford to hire retainers if they budget for it or roll for wealth well. The degree by which bringing more warm bodies along on a dangerous adventure can increase the margin of safety isn’t really obvious until half the party is down and the rest are all needed to drag bodies and loot to safety.

  • The players are hungry for XP now, and starting to see how being wily and merciless is necessary for survival in dangerous places.

  • My dice are out to get the players. The goblins didn’t miss once. The roll that took down Marcello was a 15 plus two due to charging, which was exactly what the goblin needed to get past his AC 7. The hit that took Able down to 1hp was a natural 20 (which doesn’t crit in ACKS, but would have been an automatic hit regardless of AC). We’ll see if the dice’ animosity holds beyond the first session. I actually hope not, since I want to see the ebb and flow of fate. They’re a nice Gamescience set, so I’m going to trust that they’re fair.

Things I really liked about running ACKS

One of the best parts of the night for me was the ease with which I could referee unexpected situations. I didn’t plan for the ruined tower along the way – Marcello’s player asked if there was something like that and I turned to the dice, which gave me the 1-in-6 answer “yes”. I chose an easy layout: two ground-floor rooms and a single “room” half-open to the sky on the second level. I rolled for a wandering monster and got one, which further rolling revealed to be 1d4+1 NPCs. My first thought was that humans are boring but I persevered and got two brigands and a mage, all male. I rolled for whether they were in their lair according to the percent chance in the Monsters section of the book, to find out whether they were passing through or based there. And… I won’t reveal which because I want to keep my players, who read this, guessing about whether there’s any treasure to be had off Gildan, Sal, and Mark. ;-)

Furthermore, I had no idea how the NPCs should react. Should they be on guard? Sleeping? In ambush? Fleeing out a back door? My default was “suspicious and hostile”, but again I asked the dice. They were… Indifferent? So I had to figure out what that meant. Furthermore they didn’t hear the PCs despite the hollering, which I determined by checking for surprise – allowing for the chance of surprise at all due to the distances and the possibility they had been sleeping. These gave me everything I needed to know to adjudicate on-the-fly the PCs’ interactions with these NPCs. Later, the same Reaction Roll mechanic was easily repurposed to find out whether Gildan was susceptible to the androgynous Jacques’ charms when the Magical Music charming attempt was made: boxcars said yes!

Overall, being able to turn to the dice when I didn’t know what would happen next provided for a much more interesting, easy, and entertaining GMing process than I’ve been used to playing Diaspora. There’s still plenty of creative work to be done, but whereas in Diaspora I have to decide how things will happen next both when I’m inspired and when I’m totally lacking a good idea, in Basic D&D I can disclaim the role of Decider any time I’m unsure what to do and put the question to chance. Given what psychology has revealed on the subject of decision fatigue, this leaves all of my energy to be used for efficient purposes when running the game – vivid descriptions, quick thinking, being generally lively and engaged, projecting my own excitement to the group – instead of draining it away in troublesome struggles of indecision. Though I do love the story-driven and collaborative mechanics of Diaspora, the structures that emerge from the chaos and chance of Basic D&D without undue effort from me are wonderful and easy to play with.

Another lesson I learned is that I didn’t know how to use the Mortal Wounds table. It’s really not clearly laid out, and the text does not make it clear whether the modifiers apply to both the d20 and the d6 roll or what. I played it at the time that the negatives modified the d20 downward, giving me the row of the effect, and that the d6 was modified upward by the negatives (since that way seemed worse on the matrix at a glance – which is incorrect once I realised what I was missing), in order to give a table cell that was the entire result of the injury. The result was that Marcello and Branwell were tended, woke with 1hp, and were found to be crippled in the legs (they rolled effectively the same results). That’s wrong as I discovered on further inspection, but that’s the ruling that was made at the table and stands.

How it actually works is only the d20 is modified, and the confusing language on 104 simply mean that what the d6 means is modified by which row the d20 indicates, not that both rolls are modified numerically. Then, both the effects of the first, unnumbered column and the effects of the numbered column indicated by the d6 are suffered by the fallen character. Upon careful inspection, the unnumbered column is the general state of the character: alive, instantly killed, concussed, and so forth, indicating in general to how much healing is needed (or possible) to recover. The numbered columns are specific permanent injuries that are suffered in addition to the necessary healing time (or instant death). On this reading the two fallen adventurers would have suffered permanent brain damage, and regardless would have die in a turn since Jacques could only perform recuperative healing that aids hp recovery per day, not the emergency healing necessary to immediately heal hit points. (Jacques had taken the Healing proficiency once; in ACKS, taking it twice allows the equivalent of cure light wounds with a successful roll. However, Jacques might choose to carry comfrey to prepare for poultices next outing, as these do restore 1d3 hit points when applied with any skill in healing.)

Despite this confusion, I really, really like the Mortal Wounds Table method of doing things. Unlike most system that use critical injuries, the Mortal Wounds is a sort of “saving throw” that occurs only when a character is reduce to 0hp or lower. Instead of instantly dying at 0hp as in Basic D&D, or tracking and rolling for bleeding out in 3e and 4e, in ACKS you just note the zero or negative hit points and then don’t do anything until the character’s wounds are treated. Only then does the player (and everyone else) get to learn the state of the fallen character’s health: whether they were killed instantly, or are bleeding out, or are alive but unconscious, or were just dazed and need to walk it off. It neatly takes all of the bookkeeping out of dying and adds a flavourful injury system on top in a very simple fashion. Though it may seem like the results of the table are cruel and unusually maiming, it’s relatively nice to PCs when you consider that the alternative in B/X is plain old death at 0hp. The suspense that it achieve with no bookkeeping is especially awesome.

Next time

We’re playing again on Monday. I’ll be reminding them to seek hirelings and rumours again, and I think their experience this session will make the difference. I’ll also be suggesting missile weapons, military oil, and comfrey to increase the party’s offensive options and survivability. I’m also going to make up a few characters to keep on hand as backups; with a rotating roster of players, such a file of characters will likely be useful for the unexpected deaths and for drop-in players who want to start playing right away.