Author Archives: jabber


So, school is out for the summer, and my attention is now (partially) freed up to work on some of my extant projects. I’ve been putting the finishing touches on the second draft of my Donjons & Dragoons RPG experiment, getting prepared to iron out Defensive schemes for my (soon to be done done) Quarterback Blitz boardgame, and am finally ready to continue regular blog updates, starting with this one, the first part of a series on my ever evolving theory of Game Aesthetics.


Well, that is the real question, isn’t it? Aesthetics is all about understanding the principles behind taste and the perception of beauty, and to do that we have to ask ‘why?’ Why do I like this? Why do I hate that? Why do I feel meh about the other?

Why should you care about this? Because understanding the ‘why’ of your aesthetics helps you to make more rational decisions about how you allocate your time and resources. And when it comes to the finer (i.e. more expensive) things in life, this is an invaluable skill.

But to be able to intelligently ask that question, one not only has to understand themselves, but the qualities of the thing that they are passing aesthetic judgement on. “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” is a valid argument only in so much as it defines what turns you off and on, but does nothing to help you understand how one type of artifact is perfectly acceptable to you but another, seemingly similar one, is not. Furthermore, when you lack understanding of the subject, it hampers your ability when it comes to creating a similar artifact of your own, and tailoring it for specific demographics.


Games, like paintings, or sculpture, or music, or wine, or any other art form, have measurable qualities. Now, the measure of these qualities is subjective, to be sure, and what is slightly nasty to one person might be extremely nasty to another, and heaven on earth to yet another.

However, within some set variation, we can create a basis from which we can more easily estimate whether or not a game might appeal more to player A or player B, and target our design towards one or both.

So, in the end, applying the study of aesthetics towards games is not only good for helping you to become a more informed consumer (think of all the Kickstarter money you could save), it can also make you a better, and more focused, designer (think of all the Kickstarter money you could earn).


One of the big questions that almost every academic in game theory seems obsessed with is the definition of what, exactly, a game is. Seriously, the pursuit for the Ultimate Answer™ to this question seems to spark more unnecessary debate than Gamergate, and several folks are pursuing it as though finding the answer will somehow enlighten humanity as to the true meaning of life, the universe, and everything (or, at least, prove how much smarter they are than everyone else).

And I couldn’t care less.

For the record, the only qualifier for the title ‘game’ that seems to hold up to any kind of prolonged scrutiny or argument is that it needs to be ‘interactive,’ in the sense that you ‘play’ it. Everything else just seems like excessive harping over lingual minutia and general philosophical twaddle. Folks can argue that point all they want, but for me, the pursuit of this Holy Grail of a definition seems to be about the most boring (and ultimately pointless) thing in game theory.

So what I prefer to do is move the conversation away from that and onto the more interesting question of why we play games, and to facilitate that discussion, I’m just going to assume that we all know what a ‘game’ is, in the broadest sense.


When I first started thinking about game aesthetics and trying to isolate some common qualities that could be universally understood as aesthetic in relation to gameplay, it quickly became apparent that many of these qualities existed in opposition to each other. For example, a game can give a player many options for how to proceed during play (agency), but if many of those options are ‘false choices,’ obvious decisions between something obviously good and something glaringly stupid, and/or the results of all of those choices leads you to only a one or two possible endgames/outcomes, isn’t the game actually very linear, with only the illusion of true agency?

This led to my construction of dyadic sets of aesthetics, based on a sliding scale of 1-3 towards one side or the other, with a ♎ indicating both aspects were in balance (I originally used a 0, but that was often misinterpreted as meaning neither quality existed!). This scale presumes that there is one more step beyond each end, that represents some non-game variation on the quality. For example, in an Agency vs. Linearity measurement, Agency 4 would represent endless choices, factors of influence, and endgames beyond the ability of modern game mechanics to properly represent. Linearity 4, however, would represent the total lack of ability to affect the outcome, as one would find in a standard novel.

And again, these ratings are all very subjective: subject to personal opinion, the possible permutations of complex gameplay mechanics, and so on, but that is actually a strength. A game like Rising Sun might be designed with only a few true randomized elements, but the complexity of the system interactions, and the chaos unleashed across the board by certain moves or events, can often make it seem highly indeterminate and hostile to long-term strategy, which might make it extremely unpopular with the Eurogame crowd (and elicit laughter when people try to relate it to Diplomacy). But, despite this skewing of perception by personal experience, there is an average opinion that can be extrapolated from all of this, which can serve as some sort of clue as to how a game ‘feels,’ and that information can be very useful.


I have identified seven aesthetic dyads that seem to hold true for most games (or at least all the ones I have every played). They are:

Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus

I’ll discuss the first one in my next post on the subject…

UPDATE: After starting the series, a discussion with another theorist, and a perusal of a paper they had written, inspired me to add a 7th dyad to the set, that of Tactical vs. Strategic Focus. The article above has been modified to take this into account.


When I was 12, I was living in a children’s home in Waco. One of the security guys at the place, Warren, was working there part time as he attended college. Warren took an interest in me and taught me how to play my guitar, made sure I got to play at Church on Sunday, and generally took the role of a ‘big brother’ in my life at a time when my birth mother had all but abandoned me.

One day, when at a flea market somewhere in that area, I had found a copy of the Expert set, still shrink-wrapped, for $2.50. I was fascinated by the game, having heard about it in the past from people who played it, and having seen numerous ads for it in Omni, Games, and other magazines at the time. I had even managed to procure the little pocket electronic game, the one where you had to find a magic arrow and then use the process of elimination to find the dragon and shoot the arrow into its room to kill it. So I was primed, and the cover artwork dragged me in as surely as the grapple in that tiny electronic game.

Of course, it was the Expert set, so I couldn’t make heads or tales of the basic play. Didn’t matter: I was fascinated, and even made a number of dungeons (which were more funhouse sites than anything that made coherent sense), despite not having the full rules to run them. Warren noticed the set one day, and told me that he was a D&D player, and would run a game for me and a few of the boys at the home…

Unfortunately, the administrators caught wind of the game and, having been advised by people from the American Psychiatric Association that D&D could lead to Very Bad Things™, cancelled the game (yes, for those of you who constantly seem to want to drag out and beat Pat Pulling’s corpse on a yearly basis, you can also blame the psychiatrists, who were against it before they were for it).

The point of all of that is to relate my experience, as a middle-schooler back in the early eighties, to that of modern middle schoolers, in particular, the ones I ran the game for, and compare the two.


I admit, I’m a nostalgic old bastard, and I like to stick to the basics. So for a kid’s first game of D&D, I like to start them off with a basic module from the early days of the game. There are a lot of reasons:

  1. They are tried and true. After almost 4 decades, I know them, and can run a game with them at the drop of a hat.
  2. The best examples are not written with any particular ‘story’ in mind, but are, instead, little sandboxes that provide the DM and players with a lot of agency. Many of them, like B2, pack more potential in 32 pages than many modern ‘story’ adventures do in 128. As I told someone recently, it’s all about reading between the lines and being ready to react and roll with whatever the dice and the players’ actions stir up.
  3. I enjoy seeing someone else experience the environment that so enthralled me as a beginner, and then see them put their own spin on it. It’s like seeing it through new eyes, again and again. This is especially relevant when running the game for the modern middle schooler: can I recreate the wonder I experienced for kids who grew up as digital citizens?

Normally, I would go with B2: The Keep on the Borderlands for this, but not knowing how the modern middle schooler would handle the wide open agency of B2, I decided to go with a slightly more linear Mega-Dungeon, or at least, the closest thing B/X offered at the time, B4: The Lost City, to get them familiarized with the basic game tropes and way of doing things.

B4 is, of course, another classic, and a great way to really force the players into the survival mindset that so typifies the 1st through 3rd level experience of B/X. There is no safe haven for them to return to, there is only the desert and the dungeon, and their survival depends on their thoroughly exploring the latter and making alliances with some of the other parties within. That last bit is very important: you can’t just run through the pyramid putting the smack down on everything you meet! You need the Cynidiceans to help you stay alive, and that means learning about their culture and helping them with their problems, which generates at least 6 levels worth of adventures all on its own (if the DM expands the dungeon as suggested).


The initial party was 8 kids strong, with a smattering of every class represented at least once. I carefully explained how gameplay worked, and how to question me about their environment before they made decisions. As with any group of teenagers, there are those who naturally take the lead and those who must be prompted, but after an initial warm-up period in the desert to get everyone making decisions on their own, they found the lost city, and began exploring the top of the pyramid.

The first thing that struck me, was how easily many of them slipped into the investigative mode of dungeon exploration. They took the descriptions I gave them and really started to dissect their environment. Some were curious about the statues at the top of the structure. Others examined the perimeter of its base and discovered the secret door. They then asked about a dozen questions about the hobgoblin corpse (including the inevitable “Is there anything valuable on it”).

You really saw how seriously some of them took this facet of play when you watched the lone thief scout out the way forward. He checked every corner, came up with creative ways to open the door into the inner chamber, and checked the handles of every one of the brass cylinders before finally choosing to turn the handle on one. You would think that, after he missed the pit trap in the floor and plummeted to his doom, he would have soured on playing thieves, but no. His next character, another caravan traveller who wandered in from the desert a bit later, was a thief. This kid truly grokked the spirit of the game.

The second thing that struck me about this batch of kids, is how little they understood the power of teamwork in the game. The gas trap, for example, set them scampering left and right, every man for themselves, in panic mode. Because of of this, at least two more characters died, one from trying to figure out and stop the gas by himself (he didn’t and the gas would plague a number of other unfortunates who came into the room later), the other from going unconscious and being unceremoniously dropped down a ladder without anyone to catch him below.

The battle against the fire beetles below fared little better, but at least half of them made it into the machinery room alive after several flasks of lantern oil were sacrificed to set the little beggars alight.

Now, I have to say at this point that this is almost exactly the same problem we had back in the day. As middle schoolers, our overactive hormones, mixed with our sense of excitement over this new type of game, led to many similar catastrophes. My very first character, a Halfling Thief (Warren used a mix of B/X and AD&D) died at least twice, and only survived due to the generous ‘inheritance’ of 1 healing potion that each of our characters received at the beginning of the game. Why did I keep dying? Because, in my excitement I kept rushing in to bad situations. And there was also that whole ‘Bree Yark!’ thing (and if you’ve played B2, you’ll know what I’m talking about).

Thus ended their first session, with 4 dead party members, and their first true taste of old school gaming. They took to it with enthusiasm and were chomping at the bit for the next session.


After some time exploring the forge area, the party was joined by another group of travelers from the caravan (basically, at this point, I allowed character replacements to come in from the desert in staggered groups) and the exploration continued. They chose the NW door and made their way up and around to the northern hallway, which contained a number of interesting doors for them to explore. They rested in a room full of old crates, and the thief, scouting ahead, discovered the room with green slime (I switch rooms 5 & 8, so they found that one first). He managed to avoid the slime through careful examination before entering the room, guessing that the green goo was not good to walk through, and seeing nothing else of value, closed the door.

It was then that they ran into their first wandering monster party: a band of goblins coming around the bend caught the thief by surprise as he closed the door to the green slime room. To my surprise, the first thing he did was try to negotiate with the critters, offering food in exchange for friendship. Unfortunately, the wee beasties decided (due to a really bad roll on the reaction table) that whatever he had to offer could be had more easily and cheaply off of his dead body. They, of course, didn’t know that he had several comrades around the corner, so when the thief chose the better part of valor and ran, they gave pursuit.

A rare showing of coordination between the members of the party soon put the goblins down, with archers shooting from the rear, and an elf with a 2-handed sword making great account of himself. The kids basked in their victory and looted the bodies, which I actually chose to use a higher treasure type for, as this was their first real wandering encounter and they handled it so well. this gave them some gold and, miraculously enough, a magic item: a crystal ball! Maybe I was a bit too generous, but they never even tried the crystal, and they wouldn’t get nearly so nice a haul off of future goblins, so no harm done. A good end to their second session.


They never got out of that hall.

For some reason, they just couldn’t decide what to do in the next session and, after opening a door that revealed a room with pixies, they argued for a time on what to do. One player was heavily offended that the pixies didn’t like him and spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to ‘get’ them. They flew into a tiny vent at the top of one of the corners of the room and he spent a good deal of effort stuffing ancient fireworks into the hole to try and smoke them out.

Another group decided to smash everything in the room, including the jars in the hall outside it. This of course, prompted several wandering monster checks and, sure enough, another troupe of goblins came around the corner to investigate. But this time, the cooperation was almost non-existent. The kids went into panic mode, again, all looking to claim the glory, or save their skins, as their personalities dictated, but few coordinated their attacks. The elf with the two-handed sword, emboldened by his previous success, threw himself right into the middle of the goblins and, despite his dexterity and armor, was brought low by a sneaky stab from behind.

That, followed by the felling of the party dwarf, brought them back to their senses, and after a loss of yet one more party member, they managed to finish the little blighters off. They were mighty disappointed at the meager change earned off the goblin corpses, and gained far more by stripping their dead comrades. Damaged and spent, they closed the door to the fireworks room and prepared to rest for the night.

Their lookout, an elf who busied himself with searching for secret doors while the others slept, managed to hear some scuttling noises and whispering outside the door. For whatever reason, he decided to draw his weapon, but didn’t wake the rest of the party up. And as he party had done nothing to keep the door shut, no spiking, no barring, not even moving some boxes in the way, the goblins burst in en masse and started to attack the group.

Like the goblins that attacked them, it was brutish, ugly and short.


The kids learned some valuable lessons about teamwork and general dungeoneering practices (always spike those doors shut!), and had a great time doing it. The view that “kids these days wouldn’t have the patience or imagination for the old school manner of play,” is clearly not borne out by my experience. It might explain why 4E, a more video-gamey experience, didn’t fare so well, and 5E is a (partial) call back to the previous of doing things, with a lot of old school ethos behind its design.

I had a lot of fun sharing my experience with them, and watching them puzzle it out on their own with un-jaded eyes. There are a few things that really stand out about dealing with kids this age, though:

  1. Short sessions are a must. One thing I can say about the modern kid is their attention spans for this sort of thing are much shorter. About an hour in they start to get ‘punchy’ and wound up beyond the ability to play rationally, and an hour and a half is about the limit.
  2. I never understood the wisdom of the ‘Caller’ position before, and I don’t personally know anyone who ever considered using it. After the last three sessions, however, it is clear that this is the only way to go with the modern middle schooler. Take the bickering and shouting back and forth of yesteryear, multiply it by about 5, and add a mental image of me rubbing my eyes with exhaustion (something Warren never did), and you get the picture. Putting the power of the Caller in the hands of the most ‘mature’ player, and giving them a time limit that ends in a wandering monster check, definitely helps to speed the game along.
  3. The design decisions to make D&D characters more survivable, by tripling their HP at first level, healing surges, or what-not to keep the modern gamer interested in the game? Needless. These kids all rolled their starting hit points. Some had 1 to start with. They littered that pyramid with their characters bodies… and they loved it. If anything, the video game generation is quite used to the concept of a character meatgrinder, and took the rolling of a new character as a fun mini-game. I also explained before the game the whole concept of the ‘Greek Gods & Heroes’ paradigm of looking at their characters, the nature of legend (for every Conan, there are 999 failed adventurers whose skeletons serve as the set dressing for the dungeons the PCs are exploring), and how gratifying it is to have that first character reach level 2, not by artificial inflation of stats, HP or XP, but by sheer player cunning (player skill over mechanical skill) and a little bit of luck.


After the TPK, the kids wanted to continue on, but as the school year is about over, I decided to put D&D away (for now) and introduce them to some other old school games. And as Infinity War was around the corner, I chose out TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG. They are loving it. At this early stage, during character introductions, they are spending more time fighting each other than the bad guys, but they’ve just stumbled onto a pawn shop robbery and are starting to focus their attention on the three thieves, Lawrence, Maurice and Curly, and wondering how those knuckleheads managed to get their hands on advanced weaponry.

Next year, I’m planning on splitting up the Game Club into two clubs: the regular board-game club, and The Adventurers Guild: a roleplaying club with a standing Mega-Dungeon in the Gygaxian/Arnesonian paradigm, that anyone can explore on a weekly basis. That should be a lot of fun…



As mentioned previously, I am both a middle school CTE teacher, and adjunct professor, so I’ve been pretty busy, lately, especially as I am also responsible for the school yearbook, which is finally done, hallelujah! So the game club has had another couple of sessions since my last post, and provided me with some interesting perspectives on what it must have been like for my first game master, a college guy named Warren, who worked at the Waco children’s home I lived in, way back in the day.

But before I get in to that, I’ll finish up on the house rules discussion started in part 1.


While INT and WIS bonuses do have a purpose, I’ve always found it odd that they didn’t have an impact on spell casting in B/X. So, while I stick to the rules for most things magical in the game, I allow Wizards a bonus spell and spell slot based on their intelligence bonus. A small boon, but one that makes being an intelligent wizard a bit more advantageous than extra languages and XP bonuses.

Clerics get the same, but only after they pick up their first spell at level 2. I like the idea of an Acolyte not having access to Miracles (what I call cleric spells) at first, especially as they have the combat skills and weaponry to make up for it.

I also use a ‘cantrip’ type rule based on something I once read on Philotomy’s OD&D Musings blog (which is, sadly, no longer online). Basically, while holding a stored spell, the Magic-User may manifest small ‘special effects’ related to it, by making an Intelligence test (see below). For example, if holding fire based spell, a MU might use some of that stored energy to light his pipe with his finger. A person holding a Charm spell could get a +1 to their rolls on personal interaction, and a person with a sleep spell could use a small smidgen of that energy to make a nearby orc guard drowsy and easier to surprise.

Finally, I allow Magic-Users to make scrolls at 1st Level. A simple little rules change that allows them to: a. get more bang for their buck out of their limited spell repertoire; b. make them spend those hard earned coins; and c. gives them a reason to use weird spells, like Ventriloquism, which they would normally ignore due to limited spell slots.


I’m not a big fan of tacking skills systems onto D&D. I like to keep my games fast and loose, without a lot of extra information to keep track of, especially for the players. In addition to that, I find that a lot of mechanical cruft tends to make the players think, well, mechanically. During the 3E and later editions, it drove me to nuts watching players spend more time staring at their character sheets looking for mechanical answers to problems, than trying to imagine the situations their characters were actually involved in and come up with solutions based on that.

It is much simpler, and flavorful, in my mind, to assume that most characters can use their basic attributes to accomplish most basic tasks. For specialized tasks I defer to the class system. A fighter, for example, would be the one to call on to analyze a tactical situation, while a wizard would be versed in legends and lore, and the cleric would be your go-to guy for ecumenical questions. Basically, if the player can justify it, I let them roll for it.

In addition, I allow the players to have a ‘background’ profession, that represents their life before taking up their adventuring career. Anything from blacksmith, to banker, to beggar, to simple farmer. But, to save time and present a sense of mystery, they don’t define that at character creation. They basically come up with it on the fly, as the game goes on, developing the character’s past as they go, and grow. So if they come upon an ancient forge in the depths of a cave, one of the players might say “this reminds me of my youth as a blacksmith’s apprentice.” At that point, they have justified the ability to make skill rolls for that background and better defined their character’s in the process.

Of course, this is all down to DM fiat, and I will quickly nix any attempt to combine backgrounds for every occasion in a random hodgepodge of ‘memories.’ You say you were a glass-blower’s apprentice? Don’t think so, you already said you were a blacksmith’s apprentice.

I do encourage memories to build on each other, however. For example, you say as a blacksmith’s apprentice you worked in a village near a dwarven enclave, so you could recognize basic dwarven runes? That fits, you can roll to see if you can read that runic inscription carved in the wall. You say you had a real problem with Ankeghs in your area when you were a farmer? Well, I’ll give you a roll to remember best how to fight them

As for how the skill rolls work? Simple. I’ve already mentioned how I like bell curves, and attributes are generated using 3D6, so that is what I use for skill rolls. Roll 3D6, add your attribute, and try to score 21+. Again, I an easily make this roll easier or harder, depending on the situation, by adding or subtracting dice from the roll, just like thief skills.


B/X covers weapon & shield, and two-handed weapons already, but what about two-weapon fighting? Again drawing from Philotomy’s well, I like to allow characters with a 13+ Dexterity to gain a +1 to hit when using a weapon in each hand.


Encumbrance is burdensome to most adults, much less middle schoolers, so I’m going with the Stones System. Smaller numbers. Nice medieval flavor. What’s not to like?


Yeah, it took two posts to lay out the changes, but these are minor and few in number, relatively speaking. There are folks who make a lot more extensive changes to the RAW, and with farther reaching consequences. The Attribute/Skill rolls aren’t even discussed in B/X, left as something that DM’s had to figure out on their own.

Next post will be about the kids and their games so far, with a little reflection on how things compare with my middle school games…


I design games, but that’s not my day job. These days, my mild mannered, not-so secret identity is that of a Middle School Technology and Game Design teacher. I also run the after school Tabletop Game Club, initiating young’uns into the mysteries of games that don’t require a tablet, phone or computer (and, yes, that logo is a modified version of Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop logo, that I made for the club).

Recently, I was asked by some of my club kids to run D&D for them. A couple had heard of it, and one had played an abortive game of 5E, but they were really curious about the old B/X set that I have sitting on the bookshelf behind my desk, and really interested in knowing how it was done ‘back in the day.’

Now, at first I was hesitant. I had already gotten the ‘Parent Concerned over D&D’ letter earlier in the year, for teaching my game design students about the historical context of the game. We didn’t play the game in class, I simply taught them how it not only influenced modern game design, but (along with Star Wars) moved fantasy and science fiction from the backwater kingdom of the nerd and into the mass media arena of popular entertainment. I did use it to teach them how procedural generation worked, why we use it, and where it originated, using the random dungeon, wilderness and encounter tables, but having them generate content is a far cry from having them play the game.

Still, class is class, and game club is game club, so I told them I’d run it for a little while, until they got the hang of it, and then let them take over.


There are dozens of versions of D&D out there when you count the originals, retro-clones, neo-clones, restatements, etc., but one thing was certain: no matter which version I used, we were going back to my old school (no Steely Dan reference intended): descriptive based play, with minimal rolling, and a healthy dose of DM fiat (or ‘Rulings not Rules,’ as the kids are calling it these days). In the end, though, I went with my favorite version: B/X.

Now, to get the full effect of the rules differences, I initially planned to run it RAW, but that was quickly abandoned as an absurd idea, since that really isn’t how the game was played. Ever, as far as I can tell. The beauty of the Basic series over the Advanced series was that it wasn’t locked into Gary’s vision of an FRPG Rosetta Stone that was to be strictly adhered to. It was a crazy DIY toolbox in the spirit of the original 1974 version, which is probably why, even though we added bits from the Advanced rules into it here and there, we stuck to the boxed sets as our primary rules source.

That being said, I didn’t want to go overboard until what we were playing was an unrecognizable Frankenstein’s monster of a game (even though the kids would never know, as they don’t have to know thing one about the rules to play). So I stuck with the few house rules I consistently insist on, to cover the few warts the game presents for me.


I have a real dislike for percentile rolls. I understand that it is the best way to represent chance in the most direct fashion, but the thing that bothers me about it is the ‘ones’ die. If there were ever a perfect analog example of video game ‘Pixel Bitching,’ that is it. You already have the pass/fail of the Tens die (50% chance, did I roll over or under a 5?), but that isn’t the end of it, as you have to now pass a second die roll (I have a 55% chance, I passed the tens roll, now I have to roll under/above a 5 on the ones die). I don’t find missing my roll by a percentage point to be particularly dramatic. In fact, I find it highly annoying.

And B/X D&D makes it worst by starting off thieves with a ridiculously low probability for passing their rolls (except for Climb). So to remove traps, I have to roll a 1 on one die, and a 0 on the next. And even at level 3, when characters are finally hardy enough to actually have a better than average chance of surviving the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, the poor thief still has to roll a 2 or less on one die, and a 5 or less on the other. And in exactly that order.

Never have the ‘wages of sin’ been more clearly demonstrated then by the B/X thief, who is usually the first to die in the performance of his ‘profession.’ A perfect example of this can be found on page B59, as Black Dougal fails to find a poisoned needle trap, fails his save, dies, and has his body unceremoniously looted by his former party members, all in quick order.

BECMI is even worse in this regard, as it takes the 14 level stretch from 10% to 99% and extends it over 36 levels! Thieves show almost no improvement for level gain as a result. I hated playing thieves in BECMI.

I prefer a single roll, with simple numbers. Multiple dice are okay, so long as they are summed in some way, to create a nice bell curve. I like bell curves, because I like the idea that there is a middle level of ability where the apprentice goes from failing most of the time, to succeeding on average, and then becoming even more capable as they rise in level, as opposed to straight increments of success, as given by a single D20, or the grinding progression of the percentile rating. So I converted the probabilities for Thieves skills to 2D6 (with the exception of Hear, which remains 1D6).

This progression, which is loosely based on the original percentile progression, solves my problem and allows for a couple of other considerations, which help to make the thief more interesting for the player, and the DM.

First, the new progression provides the proper range to allow thieves to apply Ability Bonuses to their rolls. A Level 1 thief with a Dexterity bonus of +2, would need to roll an 8+ to succeed, for example. And I can determine which ability applies on the fly. So if they are picking a lock, and I determine that bypassing this particular lock is more about brute strength, they apply their Strength bonus instead.

I can also make the task easier or harder by adding or subtracting D6s to the roll instead of messing about with +/- modifiers (especially fiddly percentile ones). A particularly fiendish lock, made by a master gnomish locksmith for a special door, might reduce the number of dice rolled to 1, requiring a level 5-9 thief (depending on Dex bonus) to open! Or, if a thief is trying to hide in large, dark cave, with lots of nooks, stalagmites, and other cover, I might allow them to roll 3 dice, so the average roll becomes 11, giving even a 1st Level thief an average chance of success.

Besides changing the progression system, I also treat most Thief skills as a kind of ‘Bonus Saving Throw.’ Because I expect thief players to use their descriptive skills to find things, we rely on that first and foremost. I even allow them to find things that normal folks would miss, without need to roll. For example, if the thief player says, ‘I’m checking the underside of the door handle,’ I would reveal any visible things, like needles, and even some things others wouldn’t notice, like a dark resin like substance (contact poison) on the underside.

If they fail to check for a trap, say walking over a pit without knowing it, they get to roll their Find/Remove Traps skill to ‘notice’ it at the last moment. If they fail that, normal saves apply. This takes some of the weight off of the descriptive play, by allowing the thief to walk around without checking every square foot of floor in fear. Very useful, especially for new players, who are just getting the hang of things, or old hands who are comfortable relying on their character’s ‘intuition,’ especially at higher levels.

Is that Magneto’s helmet, in that chest? What kind of crazy campaign is this DM running?


The post is getting long, but in the next one, I’ll detail a couple of other, shorter, changes to the system, and relate how my Middle School group handled their first foray into The Lost City…

Free RPG Day DCC Demo After Game Report (and other DCC related Stuff)…

It was almost a month ago that I ran Dungeon crawl Classics as a part of Free RPG day, but I’ve been totally unable to post about it due to two family vacations, two jobs and (finally) being hired and having to prepare for a full time, proper job that starts in August. I’ve finally found a free moment, however, and so here’s the skinny on what was an extremely fun day out.

CAUTION: While I am not going to go into a blow by blow account of the entire session (more of a greatest hits compilation of the death and mayhem that ensued), this is SPOILER HEAVY  territory, so if you haven’t played Sailors on the Starless Sea before, and would like to attempt this adventure as a player at some point in the future, stop reading here and skip down to the bit on music for DCC.20170617_140518

I had 4 players for Sailors on the Starless Sea at 10am and a pile of 40 villagers from the nearby village, which the participants named ‘Murica’ (as in “Let’s do this for Murica!”, an actual quote). As is always the case when I run this adventure, I gave each participant 4 level-0 villagers each to start, with the rest held in reserve to be parceled out as the others died and were replaced by freed prisoners or reinforcements gathered from the village. After a brief, but dramatic, recitation filling them in on the sorry plight of Murica, we got underway.

Now, I modify the intro a bit. I start with the small random disappearances, but then for dramatic effect, I add a massive raid, in which most of the village is emptied by the forces of the fort the night before, complete with descriptions of misshapen shadows flitting between the flames of the burning buildings and chaotic gibbering mixing with the screams of terrified villagers being dragged into the night. This, along with an emphasis on how isolated they are from outside assistance, tends to add some gravitas to the villagers predicament and force action in a way that avoids any hesitation or doubt about the direction the characters need to take, and what might possibly await them when they take it. I find that this puts a more heroic edge on the grinding fatalism of this deadly level-0 funnel.

SotSS_MapI always give the players the option of choosing their approach to the hill fort, between the three offered in the scenario: the southern path to the front gate (C), the rock slide up to the ruined wall in the west (B), and sinkhole to the east (G). This particular group decided to scout out the rock slide first, with a small handful going around to check out the sinkhole. Fortunately, they brought a couple of dwarven brothers with them, one of whom managed to get to the top of the rock slide without undo difficulty. Unfortunately, the second dwarf rolled abysmally and loosed a landslide which instantly crushed 10 villagers below, and seriously injured several others.

Five minutes into the game and half the starting characters were dead.

Feeling uncharacteristically benevolent (for a DCC Funnel, but hey, it was Free RPG Day) I made it much easier for the survivors to climb the (now stable), pile, and half way up, they discovered a hidden tunnel revealed by the landslide. The dwarf brothers decided to explore it together, while two other villagers climbed to the top to explore the fort, and the rest hung outside to see what might become of the two other parties. The dwarves found, at the base of the tunnel, a small room with a mysterious, round portal inside. Reading the glyphs along its edge, which they determined to be the work of Chaos Dwarves, they suspected a trap and hooked a 10′ chain with which to open the door from a safe distance. The whole room was engulfed in flame, leaving two smoldering (but miraculously unharmed) dwarves and a newly revealed an icy tomb in which three greedy villagers slipped, slid and, eventually, froze to death, while trying to retrieve the weapons of a frozen chaos warrior.

30 minutes in, 13 dead.

Cut to the fort and our two curious villagers have ascended to the top and are exploring the courtyard. They see the short tunnel leading to the open gate and go to ascertain whether that might offer a safer point of ingress into the structure. Just as they get into the tunnel, however, the portcullis slams shut, nearly on top of one of them! They test the bars but lack the strength to lift the gate. Deciding to go back, they find the exit to the tunnel blocked by two horrid beastmen, one with the head of a cockroach and the other, the head of a wolf.

The screams and howls are heard by the remaining villagers, who abandon their efforts in the icy tomb to climb to the rescue of their companions. They used the well in the courtyard for cover (whose insidious whispering almost claimed a number of their party) and observed dark inhuman shapes wetly ripping and tearing at something inside the darkened tunnel entrance. They attacked, prevailed, and found the grisly remains of their comrades.

SotSS_C40 minutes, 15 dead. At this point, the few remaining villagers decided to head back to town for reinforcements.

Upon their return, they decided to give a large scorched. interior building (barred from the outside and with the word REPENT, painted in large, unfriendly red letters on the doors) a wide berth and gave their attention, instead, to the lone standing tower. Barred from the inside, they crow-barred it open only to be rushed by a horde of animalistic monstrosities. A ram’s-headed creature with plates sized eyes led the charge, a raven headed and winged one flew above their heads, diving in an out with a spear, a bull headed one charged violently through their midst, and a pigmen squealed insanely as he impaled several adventures like a morbid kebab. After a great deal of fighting and a number of casualties, the villagers cut them down and charged into the tower, only to be ambushed by a great bull of a beastman with a large axe, who barely missed slicing a dwarf in half.

One of the villagers threw holy water in the bull’s face (which just made him angrier), while another jumped onto his axe, attempting to hang on for dear life and keep the great weapon from being lifted again (only to have his head knocked off for his troubles) while the rest charged the remaining beatsmen in the tower. When the dust cleared, 7 villagers lie dead in the courtyard and tower, including the doughty dwarf warrior who had been leading from the front the whole time.


75 minutes in, 22 dead.

The villagers found several of their comrades chained up inside the tower and set about to free them (replenishing their numbers in the process). One lost an arm to a rot grub as he dug through the rancid belongings of the beastmen. The remaining dwarf smelt gold, and following the scent down a set of stairs, found a hidden chamber with looted treasure chests. He noticed, however, that one had a false bottom and, reaching to open it, got his hand caught in a scything blade.

85 minutes in, 22 dead, one less arm and 4 lost fingers.

Finding and binding the dwarf’s wounds, the villagers descended the many winding stairs under the fort. They found a strange pool in a weird, temple sort of room lower in, but only one of the peasants was beguiled into taking one of the many skulls floating in the pool as a souvenir. The rest helped themselves to moldy old robes hanging about the chamber, thinking (rightly) that they might serve as a disguise should they meet cultists later

Descending further, the victi… villagers find themselves staring at the eponymous ‘Starless Sea,’ a massive cavern SotSS_1_4underneath the fort which contains a vast underground lake bordered by black sand. Trackers in the party identify the footprints of villagers being herded towards the sea by beastmen, while the elves study the ancient runic carvings on a giant menhir. Unbeknownst to the party, the words ensorcelled one of the elves, who surreptitiously led his brother up the stairs winding up the side of the giant stone. When they got to the top, they found an altar with a strange bowl shaped depression and the enspelled elf turned on his brother and attempted to offer him as sacrifice! His brother prevailed, however, and the poor possessed creature ended up with his own blood spilled upon the altar, and his body claimed by several gigantic tentacles that burst forth from the water to take him.

110 minutes in, 23 dead, and a potential future TPK by Kraken averted. So, a net positive, really.

A mysterious boat with carved sigils in it’s side appeared at the edge of the water and the surviving villagers hop in. The trip across the sea is slow (and uneventful as the Kraken snacks deep below on elf), and as they proceed into the darkness, the glowing shape of a ziggurat appears at the edge of sight, the shadowy images of cavorting figures becoming clearer and bestial howls drifting across the water as they get nearer. Eventually the boat bumps up against the edge of the massive structure and the villagers can see their fellow citizens being ushered up its slopes to the top by horrid creatures. They don the robes they found and make their way up.


At the top a scene of horror awaits them: a great goat headed shaman flanked by even more horrible creatures, leads a great sacrifice in which baskets of gold are dumped into a great pit of lava and flame at the center of the ziggurat, followed by a few captured villagers, then more gold, etc. in an alternating pattern as the shaman brays dark incantations to an effigy hanging above the pit. The PCs can take no more and act, several of them targeting the shaman, several trying to interrupt the sacrifices and the rest trying to free and rally their fellow villagers.

The bodygaurd of the shaman is quickly subdued in the surprise attack, and one of the more martial villagers throws a knife right at the shaman’s head. It catches the knife deftly and throws it right back! Miraculously, the villager catches it back and throws it again, this time catching the foul beastman right between the eyes (a series of rolls and actions that are the kind of unexpected but truly epic activity that makes running an RPG so fun). It falls bleating into the flame.

DCC67MullenminicoverMany villagers die, but are quickly replaced by those freed from captivity, and the beastman horde is slowly overcome, but a new threat emerges from the volcanic cauldron of the ziggurat, as the bodies of the slain and the gold dumped summons forth the demonic form of a long dead chaos hero. It emerges, it’s cyclopean eye scanning the remaining villagers, and throws itself into battle. And dies rather quickly, as the villagers, now mentally abused to the point where no sight seems to hold any terror for them, fall upon it and pierce its giant eye with multiple spear points (again, due to a series of unexpected actions and rolls that really show how the players embraced the old school ethos of quick and imaginative thought over simply chucking dice at a problem).

150 minutes, 30 dead, and an army of deviant beastman and 1 resurrected chaos lord sent back to whatever hell spawned them.

The death of the chaos lord starts the pyramid to quaking, balls of lava spewing above the villagers heads. Despite the temptation of unclaimed gold lying in piles near the edge of the pit, they all immediately flee to the boat below. Waves, caused by the crumbling stone of the sinking ziggurat, push the boat down a tunnel and a wild ride ensues, in which everyone miraculously fails to fall overboard. The ride ends with the boat shooting out of the side of the hill and splashing down in a lake near the village of Murica.

In the end, the village of Murica was reduced to a mere handful of villagers. Those who fought and persevered had their names recorded for posterity:

Stinky, the Cheesemaker; Granite, Dwarven Stonemason; Legoless, the Elf Forester; Madame Tousaud, the Fortune Teller; Gax, the Soldier; Halves, the Halfling Haberdasher; Idiotota, the Wizard’s Apprentice; Domean, the Dwarf Herder; Brak Beaverlicker, the (last) Trapper; and last, but not least, Joe the Jeweler, the only villager to live through the whole experience from start to finish!

During the 3 hours of carnage, a fun time was had by all, and the players really embraced the old school attitude necessary to make the most out of DCC. About the only thing that didn’t go off as planned was the music…


I find that DCC, above all other games, really benefits from a good soundtrack. And as DCC is old Ozzy1school fantasy gaming turned up to 11, the soundtrack should reflect that with music that is hard and heavy. For example, here is my soundtrack for Sailors on the Starless Sea (sorted by encounter area):

A: Revelation (Mother Earth), Children of the Grave
B: No Quarter
B-1: Trapped Under Ice
C: Zaar
D: Bark at the Moon
D-1: I left this one silent for effect.
E: Fight Fire with Fire (Pause between intro and main)
F: Anesthisia

G: Zaar
H: The Number of the Beast
1-1: Clockwork Orange
1-1a: Evil Eye (Pause 30)
1-2: Zaar
1-3: Time Steps (Pause)
1-4: Black Star, Children of the Damned
1-4b: Call of Ktulu, The Thing That Should Not Be
1-5: Black Sabbath, Enter Sandman, Repent
1-5a: 100,00 Years, God of Thunder, The Mob Rules
1-6: Run to the Hills, The Immigrant Song

Now, some of you might think that the lyrics would interfere with communication between you and your players, but there are two ways around this. The first and most basic method is to keep the music low and in the background. But for those with a little more ambition, and the help of any number of free audio editing programs available on the internet, you can (mostly) eliminate the voice channels, leaving the music intact to manipulate your players emotions aurally.

Here is a quick tutorial on doing just that using Audacity, one of the best of the free audio editors.

Now, this is only as effective as the quality of your system vs. the noise of the space in which you are playing. For Free RPG Day, I was in a very small space, with several other games going on around us so that my own words were sometimes lost in the din,and music would have only made that more problematic. So my list went unused this time. But for situations where there is less competition, sound wise, you will find that a good soundtrack can amplify the players emotive response to the game. For example, in SotSS,  Beastman and Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast go hand in hand, the subtle menace of a Kraken is amplified by Metallica’s The Thing that Should Not Be, and nothing quite signifies the mad rush to escape the Ziggurat like Black Sabbath’s The Mob Rules.

And if you don’t have an entirely Black Sabbath inspired soundtrack for Hole in the Sky, you really are missing the whole point of Adventuring Like It’s 1974.

Donjons & Dragoons: Characters Part 5…

ClfDWaNWEAAKbJLThe school year is over, I’ve turned the student’s grades in and I have a little more free time (more than I can afford, actually), so on with the motley.

Up to this point, it has all been about the dice and the player, but our final step is based on the Judge and his plans for the characters and what kind of stories he wants to tell.

I should point out that the Men & Muskets booklet will generate characters who are mainly soldiers, and soldiers in the Peninsular War, at that. This does not mean the whole game will be set solely in that period and with those sorts of character. Indeed, I think that our literature professor, who would have enjoyed the complex interplay of characters from across the spectrum in such works as War & Peace, would have been more inclined to focus his campaigns on multiple characters in multiple arenas of conflict, both martial and social.

In effect, I believe he would have come up with some form of Troupe play, where each player had multiple characters across the battlefield as well as in the halls and drawing rooms of the powerful aristocrats, and even in the dirt and dung of lower class life. A single adventure would play more like a novel for Dr. Luther, with the scenes going from a group of infantry, to their superiors at HQ to the family woes at home to the petty power struggles of politicians and merchants trying to make hay out of the conflict. War & Peace in RPG form.

At the same time, I think he would recognize that the simplest way to explain how to play is to start with the simplest of stories: that of the soldier in the field and their day to day interactions. So that is what Men & Muskets will start with. Book 2 of the basic set, Captains & Campaigns, will expand the game into slightly larger territory, and later expansion supplements, like Navies & Nabobs, Blackamoor (colonial settings) and  Airs & Aristocracy (basically, the ‘Jane Austen’ supplement), will introduce new arenas and styles of play.

But for now, each player will be encouraged to roll up 3 characters who to give the Judge the largest selection of protagonists to draw from when creating adventures in the Peninsular War. And for most of these, he will need to determine their Rank and Unit.


If the Judge desires, unit ranks can be rolled for these just like everything else, and that is the default assumption. The lower and middles classes roll on the Enlisted table:


The Raised From the Ranks result indicates that the character started out as an enlisted man, but after some act of extraordinary service (like taking a French Eagle) or bravery (surviving as part of a successful Forlorn Hope), they were elevated from the rank of Sergeant to Ensign. Such a promotion is as much of a curse as a blessing, due to the ruinous fees that are required to keep pace with the officer’s lifestyle, and the derision, from both officers and enlisted, that it attracts. Due to the extremely tight class structure of English society, such men were considered ‘neither fish nor fowl’ and their former mates were often as hostile to them as their new ‘peers’ for daring to rise above their natural place.

The Upper Classes may attempt to purchase a commission by making a Wealth roll OR they have the option of forgoing that and rolling randomly for a rank earned through battlefield promotion (which earns them a +1 to their Soldier rank, as recompense).


Officer and NCO Numbers Per Battalion


If the Judge is following the organizational structure of a British army in 1812, there may only be one Lt. Col per Battalion, 1 Major per ½ Battalion, and 1 Captain, 2 Lieutenants and 1 Ensign per Company. Likewise, for the enlisted ranks, there are a maximum of 2 sergeants and 3 corporals per Company.

If there are too many officers of a particular rank at the level of play desired by the Judge (Lt. Cols at Battalion, Majors at ½ Battalion, Captains/Lieutenants/Ensigns at Company, etc.), then the person with the lower social rank is reduced in military rank one step. Officers were often given brevet ranks upon the death of their former superior, which could later be taken away if someone of greater position and more money purchased a commission, so we must assume that this is the case here.

If social rank is tied, the character with the lesser Charisma is reduced in rank. If these are tied, the one with the lowest Luck is reduced in rank. Otherwise, both parties must roll off using 2D6, the loser being reduced in rank until a vacancy opens up (usually with the death of a senior officer).

Alternate Ranking

Instead of randomly determining ranks, the Judge may assign ranks at will to fit whatever campaign plans they have. For example, he might have decided to start the characters off as prisoners of the French, in which case, he might want all of the characters to be enlisted personnel. Or, he might want them to be part of a small exploring unit, with a junior officer or two and some experienced rankers scouting the frontier under the command of one of Wellington’s senior exploring officers.


There are a great many historical battalions the Judge my choose to assign the characters to, and there is no reason that he has to assign them all to the same one. As I mentioned earlier, Luther would have likely indulged in Troupe style play, where the players might have characters in a few different units or places to capture the bigger picture style of the great literary epics.

A player might have an officer in the historical 95th Rifles, a Sgt. in the fictional South Essex and a spy in the French army, and the Judge might jump between those characters during the same adventure, maybe even in the same session of play, to resolve bits of action that might influence other parts of the adventure. During major historical events, like the Battle of Barrosa, a player might have several characters all engaged in different parts of the battlefield as well as back politicking and spying behind the lines, so that a single major battle like that might take several sessions to resolve.

2isfcshAlso, like the characters in the original D&D campaigns, I think that character’s in Luther’s games would have come and go based on availability and the adventures at hand. Captain Vaughn of the historical 95th Rifles, for example, might end up serving with the fictional South Essex battalion after his unit is seconded there for a special mission to contact and help Spanish partisans, along with an officer from the diplomatic corp and several rankers from a depleted company of the 33rd Fusiliers.

There are historical lists of the battalions actually involved in the war, but it’s easy to come up with new ones who might be slotted into the historical narrative without causing it to deviate too greatly. and the book will have a few suggestions along those lines.

Finally, the Judge may decide to override the dice in other parts of chargen to ensure a better fit, skipping the roll for Culture and just deciding that all the character’s will be Irish so that they fit into the 27th Inniskilling regiment, for example, in order to narrow the focus of his campaign.


And that about wraps up character generation. With this and the basic rules sorted, there is enough to create a few characters and take the system for a spin. As a helpful little aid for anyone who wants to try it out, I’ve created a Quick Play PDF with all the relevant info from the last half dozen posts, whittled down to bare essentials so you can quickly generate some characters and try them out. If you do, leave me their stats and your impressions in the comments section below…

Donjons & Dragoons: Characters Part 4…

The previous posts fleshed out the character of our in-game persona on a personal level: their strengths and weaknesses, their place in society and what they do. Now we will look at a set of characteristics that represent how they interact with the world outside of the the implications of birth and profession.


Qualities represent those ineffable traits  which set a character apart from others of their birth and station. There are three of them: Élan, Leadership and Renown, and they are generated using information we have already generated for the character.

These three Qualities are an attempt to address three issues I think would have arisen during Professor Luther’s design of the game (as they did with Gygax) based upon the wargaming precepts of the day, namely the ‘rank’ or ‘level’ of the individual heroes and their ability to bolster the morale of troops, but also the literary implications of playing the ‘protagonist’ in what is, basically, an interactive novel of sorts.

Élan (Mettle+Luck+Soldier)


“In war, luck is half in everything…”

Most of the main protagonists in a narrative have the ability to survive and thrive regardless of their individual strengths and weaknesses. Something about being the focus of the story gives them the ability to persevere mentally and physically against all odds. This ‘plot armor’ tends to protect them from mortal (if not temporary) harm and gives them a reserve of inner will to experience the most horrific events, weakening them without breaking them until, at last, the narrative ends and their final fate can be realized.

In much the same way, our heroes will not be killed by the first musket round to fly their way, nor will they run in pants-wetting terror at the first sign of danger, because they have at their disposal an internal reserve of ardous, impetuous spirit called Élan.

A character’s base Élan is a combination of two character attributes: Mettle and Luck. These represent the character’s ability to avoid serious harm and impairment through mental toughness and outrageous fortune. To that we also add any ranks the character has in the Soldier trade, to represent a warrior’s ability to deflect or minimize the damage from blows. Any Élan lost during the game represents some of that reserve being worn down by lucky escapes from major injury, major wounds turned into non-lethal scratches and bruises or sheer, bloody minded determination keeping the character going despite the odds.

Élan, once lost, recovers slowly. You recover your Luck’s worth of Élan immediately after an encounter in which you lose it (up to the amount you had going into said encounter). After that, you recover 1 point per day (more with medical attention or the help of certain other items, like alcohol and pleasant company). Once out of Élan, the character is open for a killing blow and/or mental break.

Only major characters have Élan. The average soldier typically goes own with a single hit. They also run in terror as soon as they fail a Mettle test, unless they are led by someone with great…

Leadership (Charisma+[Soldier or Sailor]+Statesman)

The ability to command can lead others into situations where they would not normally go, and keep them there when the going get’s tough.
This Quality is useful for a number of in game effects. For each point spent:

  • You can reroll a die used for a Charisma check.
  • You can generate D6 Élan which can used by any character under your direct command to recover Élan loss.
  • In the Mass Battle rules, you can cancel a failed order (among other things).

Leadership recovers slowly, like Élan. You immediately recover your Charisma’s worth after a battle, and that amount again after each full day that passes.

 Renown (Starts at 0)

barrosa“By Jaysus, boys, I have the cuckoo!”

Sergeant Patrick Masterson, 87th Royal Irish Fusiliers

This quality represents the character’s fame and notoriety and recognition of their ability to perform great deeds. It is the most direct equivalent to ‘Level’ in OD&D, but instead of accruing as a result of experience points, it is awarded for great achievements during major events, like storming the breach at Badajoz and surviving, or capturing a French Eagle at the Battle of Barrosa. Each point of Renown allows the character to add +1 Success to any roll. Once spent, Renown points are gone for the rest of the current adventure.


That was a short post, but we’re nearing the end of character creation and there is only one more thing to take care of at this point…

Donjons & Dragoons: Characters Part 3…

NOTE: I think I’ve got the Spambots under control, so, as a test, I’m opening comments for the first time in donkey’s ages. We’ll see how it goes…

6c352529c0987bcb64076f33acf71e4eAt this point, our character has largely been subject to the whims and vagaries of the dice, their attributes and place in life largely out of their control. A single decision (their initial Trade) is made, but even that is heavily influenced by the circumstances of their birth.

At first, I questioned this decision, wondering if my basic premise (that of a literature professor replacing Gygax as the ‘father’ of RPGs) would result in a game with a more narrative, choice driven, character generation scheme and rules. After all, considering his profession, his approach would logically be more inclined towards a literature first, gaming second approach, whereas Gygax (and as a result, OD&D) was arguably more gaming first, literature second.

The fact remains, however, that the games of the time were largely simulationist in nature, so some semblance of that should show in the initial design. Considering the wargaming roots of the hobby, and our professor’s initial intent to create a game that gives life to the models in those very wargames, where success and failure, life and death, are so driven by the roll of the dice, it seems natural that his more narrative inclinations would be tempered by his simulationist background. Some sort of hybrid would emerge, where tools for dramatic situations outside of combat would be more thought out, but the role of random chance and tabular information would remain strong, and this is my best approximation of that result.

That said, we are now getting to the point of the process where the players will be making some direct decision for their characters…


c08eec09152cb58c6bd19cf7850a6efaA Trade in the game allows the player to reroll Attribute dice when an action is taken to allow a character trained in a specific area to succeed more often (and suffer less Misfortune) while attempting certain tasks. In certain cases the Judge may decide that a specific Trade is required to even attempt the roll in the first place (as would often be the case with many tasks that require advanced education, like Engineering or Doctoring).

The term Trade is just a tiny bit incongruous here, because no one in the upper classes and aristocracy would ever demean themselves by referring to what they do as a ‘trade.’ After all, trades are what the hoi polloi engage in, not people of breeding and rank! But at the same time, the definition for trade is ‘a skilled job, typically one requiring manual skills and special training,’ which holds true for even a Duke, who must learn to read, write, manage large land holdings, and whip servants with force enough to dissuade impertinence (How dare you call Statesmanship a trade!) but still leave them capable of doing their work.

So, unless I think of something better, Trades it is.

Our birth class will have given us a single Trade, and In this portion of character generation we will determine if our character has any additional Trade ranks due to being clever. This is determined by our Savvy Attribute:


These ranks can be added to our existing Trade, or used to learn a new one, from the list below. Each Trade has a brief description of the sort of things you might do with it, any starting bonuses you receive for taking that Trade at character generation, and basic starting possessions (if any).

NOTE: I removed Bureaucrat, Farmer and Servant from the list, as the last two (being just another form of laborer) are redundant  and the first is fairly useless (from both an objective and subjective point of view). I’ve corrected the previous post in this series to reflect that.

88f146693383a192917c400ad51eac4cAcademic: A Trade that covers a wide variety of subjects of a book-learning nature, from sciences like Astronomy or Engineering, to liberal arts like History and Poetry, and everything in between. Can be used to recall  knowledge, do research or impress others who find such things impressive (i.e. other academics).

At character generation, Academics gain 1 Expertise in this Trade without having to reduce their Rank. They start with D6 Books on various subjects.

Example Expertise: History, Engineering, Poetry

Aristocrat: This ‘Trade’ covers all the knowledge necessary to maneuver through high society, including knowledge of societal ranks, manners, and activities (like hunting, dancing, riding, etc.).

At character generation, an Aristocrat may reduce a single Attribute by 1 to raise their Charisma by 1. They start off with Very Fine Clothing, a Fancy Sword, a Thoroughbred Horse and a Servant.

Example Expertise: Dandy, Rake, Intrigue

Banker: Bankers understand everything about money and running financial institutions. This makes them naturally good at math, bookkeeping, financial negotiation and generally increasing wealth.

At character generation, a Banker may reduce may reduce a single Attribute by 1 to raise their Wealth by 1. They start off with Fine Clothing, a Money Belt, and a Riding Horse.

Example Expertise: High Finance, Accounting, Bureaucracy

Parson_woodfordeClergy: Members of the Church (the player should signify their denomination). They can use their sermons to inspire, intimidate. They know a great deal about religion (theirs and others) and many have basic knowledge in medicine.

At character generation, Clergy may reduce may reduce a single Attribute by 1 to raise their Luck by 1, representing the will of the Almighty to use them (for good or ill). They start off with a Holy Book and the ability to read, write and speak in 1 language for every Rank they have (one of which must be their native tongue).

Example Expertise: Vicar, Monk, Inquisitor

Craftsman: An artisan who makes a specific product, like shoes, barrels, etc. or provides a more general service like blacksmithing or silversmithing (the Judge will determine if your class level fits the work you do).

At character generation, Craftsmen gain 1 Expertise in this Trade (which represents their actual skill) without having to reduce their Rank. Whenever they work outside of this expertise, however, they suffer Disadvantage. They start off with Workman’s Tools specific to their Expertise. If they have Wealth of 3 or more, they also have a place of business and all the necessaries to run it.

Example Expertise: Blacksmith, Wainright, Mason

pic_416156bDoctor: This Trade represents a university trained physician, trained (if not necessarily competent) in all the most modern medical techniques of the day.

At character generation, the Doctor may reduce may reduce a single Attribute by 1 to raise their Saavy by 1. They start with a Doctor’s Bag, and Riding Horse.

Example Expertise: Battlefield Surgery, Psychiatry, Coroner

Entertainer: This Trade encompasses any all the entertainment arts, from drama, to music to demonstrations of mental or physical acumen. May be used for performing, creating new content and capturing an audience’s attention.

At character generation, Entertainers gain 1 Expertise in this Trade without having to reduce their Rank. They start with an Entertainer’s Kit that fits their Expertise.

Example Expertise: Acrobat, Actor, Violinistsarah_mapp-the-bone-setter

Healer: This is the lower class version of the Doctor trade, uneducated in modern medicine but wise in the way of folk remedies (“Aye, paraffin and brown paper’ll fix that up right as rain…”) , herb lore, midwifery and the like. They often worked on animals as well, and were well versed in local folklore and gossip.

At character generation, the Healer may reduce may reduce a single Attribute by 1 to raise their Luck by 1. They start with a Healer’s Bag and a Knife.

Example Expertise: Plant Lore, Midwifery, Animal Care

Hunter: This is the Trade of game-keepers and poachers alike, and covers the tracking, stalking, shooting/trapping and cleaning of game, as well as living rough.

At character generation, the Hunter may reduce may reduce a single Attribute by 1 to raise their Dexterity or Vigor by 1. They start with a Musket, Ammo Pouch, Knife and D6 Small Animal Traps.

Example Expertise: Sharpshooter, Trapper, Tracker

V0020299 A rat-catcher (accompanied by two dogs) carrying a cage of lLaborer: This Trade covers any sort of manual labor, from shovelling dung to serving the aristocracy (which impertinent types might imply is essentially the same thing). Farm laborers, drovers, sweeps, servants, etc., all fall into this category, which covers the ability to get the most done with the least effort as well as the ability to skive off and still get paid. Laborers with Expertise might be actual tradesman with some particular skill for making barrels, laying brick, etc.

At character generation, the Laborer may raise their Strength, Vigor or Mettle by 1. They start off with some sort of basic tool for their work, like a Hammer, Shovel, Servant’s Uniform, etc. If they have an Expertise and at least Rank 3 in Laborer, they are a Tradesman and may have Workman’s Tools for that particular trade.

Example Expertise: Bricklayer, Butler/Maid, Rat-catcher

Landlord: The management of properties, ensuring their maintenance and milking the most profit out of them, is the purview of the Landlord. They might be over a single building, large estate or even an entire Dukedom, but whatever the level, they must manage workers, pursue rents and occasionally act as the local magistrate for internal legal affairs.

A Landlord starts out with a holding to manage based on their Rank and/or class. A Rank of 1 indicates a single building or tenement, while a 5 or more indicates an estate of considerable size. Whether or not they own or simply manage it for another depends on their class and the Judge may increase the size of the holding if the character’s Title entitles them to more.

Example Expertise: Innkeeper, Mill Operator, Work House Owner

06b5953ea954dfa1b6be18266443c4bcLawyer: The Law, and everything to do with it, from trials to contract negotiation, is the domain of this Trade. They are empowered by the government to operate in a court of law.

At character generation, the Lawyer may reduce may reduce a single Attribute by 1 to raise their Savvy by 1. They start with a number of Lawbooks equal to D6 x their Lawyer Rank, Lawyer’s Robes and a Powdered Wig.

Example Expertise: Criminal, Contract, Military

Merchant: Buying, selling and arranging the transfer of goods, across the country or across the globe, is handled by the humble merchant, who must be highly organized, mathematically minded, able to quickly evaluate the value of any object, and an expert haggler.

At character generation, the Lower Class Merchant starts with 1 Wealth rating in Trade Goods, a Wagon to carry them in, and a Draught Horse to pull the wagon. Merchants in the Middle Class start with a Warehouse, their Merchant rating in Trade Goods and a full wagon train to carry them. Upper Class Merchant’s have Warehouses (complete with land transport and D6 Wealth in Trade Goods each) and Ships equal to their Merchant Rating.

Example Expertise: Clothier, Spices, Sutler90cb567161f97547930377a99d2e673d

Rogue: Pickpockets, burglars, cutthroats, swindlers and all the other villainous scum that populate the lower class slums of every major city in Great Britain, as well as the horse thieves, vagabonds, gypsies and charlatans that haunt the countryside, as well.

At character generation, the Rogue gains 1 Expertise in this Trade without having to reduce their Rank, to represent their main criminal vocation. They start off with Rogue’s Tools for that Expertise.

Example Expertise: Fence, Forger, Highwayman

Sailor: Covers a knowledge of river, lake and sea, how to traverse them, whether in small boats or as a member of the crew of a larger trading vessel or ship of the line, and live off of them.

At character generation, the Sailor may reduce may reduce a single Attribute by 1 to raise their Thews or Vigor by 1. They start with a Club and a Bottle of Spirits. There is a 4 in 6 chance that they know how to swim.

Example Expertise: Gunner, Navigator, Shipwright

napoleonicwarsSoldier: Marching, fighting, shooting, living rough and working regulations to best advantage are all part of a soldier’s life. The enlisted ranks will also be well versed in digging trenches, building emplacements and other sorts of menial military labor.

At character generation, the Soldier may raise their Thews, Vigor or Mettle by 1. Enlisted start with a Musket, Ammo Pouch, BackpackUniform and Hat – Shako. Officers start with a Fine Uniform and Hat – Bicorne.

Example Expertise: Artillery, Cavalry, Light Infantry

Spy: This Trade is not one gained through normal channels. It represents a character who specifically works for His Royal Majesty’s government to root out information on some particular form of enemy, foreign or domestic. From street level informants in the London underworld, to master spies in Spain, seeking advantage for their armies and countering the agents of the enemy, they are masters of stealthy infiltration, the acquisition of secrets and the knife in the back.

At character generation, the Spy may take another Trade at Rank 1 as a cover. This cover may be of any class equal to less than the Spy’s birth class. They start with whatever equipment their cover starts with, as well as a Poignard, Spyglass, and Falsified Documents.

Example Expertise:  Disguise, Infiltration, Seduction

William Pitt from Posthumous memoirs of his own time by Nathaniel Wraxall V2 1836Statesman: Politicians, diplomats and attaches to the royal court, those with this Trade are master negotiators with some real world authority and/or power, which they wield as effortlessly in the halls of Parliament as they do the drawing rooms of high society, and everywhere in between.

Statesmen who have a Peerage may sit in the House of Lords. Statesmen who can afford to sit in the House of Commons (Wealth 4 or better), or can find someone who will financially support their candidacy, may run for election to do so.

At character generation, the Statesman may reduce a single Attribute by 1 to raise their Charisma by 1.

Example Expertise: Diplomacy, Intimidation, Truth Detection


You may pick an Expertise for your Trade by reducing it one Rank (to a minimum of 1). You gain Advantage on any roll for which your Expertise applies. Each Trade will have a few examples of Expertise that might be chosen, but the Judge may allow others if they consider them narrow enough to be useful in a few specific circumstances.


Characters in the Upper and Middle Classes are assumed to have had at least some schooling and know how to read, write and do basic math.

Those in the Lower Class will be largely illiterate, however, unless they have a Trade that the Judge determines gives them the ability (like Merchant or Entertainer – Actor).

The chance of literacy for everyone else in the Lower Class is 1 in 6.


A character may roll 2D6 and add their Savvy Rank: they know a number of additional languages equal to the result – 12. They must justify each language they take to the Judge’s satisfaction and he may decide to limit them to a lesser number of languages or simply declare that they only speak their own.


So now we know who your character is and what they do. From this point we can take the information we have and use it to derive some purely mechanical info for use in the game, which we will do in the next post…

Donjons & Dragoons: Characters Part 2…

Welsh-OfficerAfter some noodling on the cultural aspects of the character from the last post, I’ve settled on the following characteristics,,,

Émigré: Hanoverian Germans, American Loyalists and other exiles from countries allied against the UK, who are serving in the British army. Gain Advantage when fighting against their kinsmen who side against the British, and when scouting, spying, or navigating within their homeland. Allied forces will also gain Advantage in marching and counter-marching within the Émigré’s home territory, so long as they are with them and actively advising.

Welsh: The Welsh gain Advantage on any rolls involving singing, statesmanship and seduction.

Irish: The ‘Luck of the Irish’ gives the starting Irish character +1 Luck. They suffer Disadvantage, however, whenever dealing socially with the English and Welsh, or when rolling to maintain order and discipline on the battlefield.

Scottish: Scotsmen gain Advantage on any roll to maintain battlefield discipline and order. Conversely, the fearsome reputation of the Highland warriors imposes a Disadvantage to the same on any battlefield enemy against which they march or charge. They are very thrifty, however, and suffer Disadvantage when making Wealth rolls, as their frugal temperament will often work against them when spending money, especially with those who refuse to haggle.

As you can see, not all of the cultures are equally disadvantaged. There is, for example, no disadvantage to being an Émigré or Welsh, and the Scottish are at less of a disadvantage than the Irish. One commentator mentioned to me that the Welsh are essentially the ‘elves’ of this game (which I find appropriate considering Tolkien’s love of the Welsh language and culture), but without level caps, like OD&D.

This is intentional and represents the under-representation of those ‘races’ on our chart (the chance of being welsh is only 4%, for example). This was not an uncommon method for ‘balancing’ results back in the day, and much preferable (IMO) to allowing direct choice of race and then ‘hobbling’ the character in some other way.


The next part of our character design process concerns three things very important to Georgian society: class, titles and wealth.

KCS067This is also very important for our RPG, for it is what sets it apart from the standard wargame and makes it something special. We might know that our miniature officer in a table-top wargame of Napoleonics is almost certainly a wealthy noble due to the expense of purchasing a commission in the British Army, but the rules don’t really encourage us, mechanically, to explore his background in any way. He is just one more piece on the battlefield.

One might go as far as to name him, come up with an imaginary personality for him and even record his exploits, if he is particularly lucky or involved in memorable engagements during a campaign (as the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson was wont to do), but it is all a simple personal fiction, made up as the player wishes, with no real interactive/game structure or balance. Our miniature officer could be royalty, have come up from the ranks for some imagined past act of bravery or have the assistance of a lucky faerie companion, if the player so chooses to describe it that way. But whatever the description, it is all made up after the fact and doesn’t change the actual rules of the game one whit.

In an RPG, however, such things are of great import to playing the character and the rules reflect it. The child of a Peer will be a very different character from that of the street urchin who joined the ranks to escape crushing poverty, for example. He will have a mechanical advantage in situations of society and wealth, but is unlikely to possess the toughness and roguish skills of his streetwise counterpart.

The following rules present a bit more complexity than that used to create characters in OD&D, but531001_400433280025300_1590190270_n I think that this is one of those areas of design in which Luther, a literature professor, would differ from Gygax, whose game was essentially, at it’s heart, still very much a wargame in the traditional sense. OD&D characters were given attributes, a career class (which often served as their name as well) and some equipment, but rarely a backstory in those early days. They were characters in the sense that they were named individuals, but they still remained largely playing pieces (albeit, ones with much more agency) and the player was more like the Greek gods of old, guiding their mortal pawn and watching them live or dice by the throw of the cosmic dice, than actors playing a role.

In stark contrast, I think Luther would have created a more narrative style of gaming right out of the gate, something that would have drawn from the SCA tradition of playing the character in a more dramatic, immersive sense, with primitive systems to support such play. And that would start with Step 3 in the character creation process…


There are three Standings in Donjons & Dragoons: Class, in the social hierarchy sense; Titles, which are specific, awarded ranks within that hierarchy; and Wealth, an abstract measure of your purchasing power.


Determining your birth class is a two step process, determining your overall societal rank followed by your position in that rank. This is important because it not only gives you a starting Wealth rating, and a starting Trade, but also because it give you a greater sense of the what kind of life your character lived before taking up their current adventures (something that will be elaborated on in the rulebook).

Table_Class_UKAristocracy: Your character’s father is, or was, a Peer or the child of a Peer, possibly of royal blood. They may inherit a title upon his death, assuming they are the eldest surviving son (see TITLES, below).

Take ONE of the following Trades at a rank equal to the character’s starting Charisma: Aristocrat, Sailor, or Soldier.

Thomas_Gainsborough_-_Mr_and_Mrs_AndrewsLanded Gentry: The character’s father is, or was, a member of the lesser nobility (a Baronet or Knight) or a wealthy landowner of means. They will receive no hereditary title from him, but may inherit his lands and wealth.

Take ONE of the following Trades at a rank equal to the character’s starting Savvy: Landlord, Sailor, Soldier.

Upper Middle: The character comes from well to do parents who have provided them with a top notch education that can lead into a variety of professions.

Take ONE of the following Trades at a rank equal to the character’s starting Savvy: Academic (Professor), Banker, Clergy, Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Sailor, Soldier or Statesman.

Lower Middle:  The character’s parents owned a thriving business of respectable size that required long hours to support, but also provided a comfortable living and, possibly. a decent education for their offspring.

Take ONE of the following Trades at a rank equal to the character’s starting Savvy: Academic (Teacher), Clergy, Entertainer, Landlord, Lawyer, Merchant, Sailor, Soldier or Statesman.

Lesser Freeholder: The character’s parents owned an inn, shop, public house, farmstead or other small, common business, which everyone in the family labored at constantly to support. There weren’t much in creature comforts, but it made a stable living.

Take ONE of the following Trades at a rank equal to the character’s starting Vigor: Clergy, Craftsman, Entertainer, Healer, Laborer, Merchant, Sailor or Soldier.

V0020299 A rat-catcher (accompanied by two dogs) carrying a cage of lLaborer: The character is a common laborer or craftsman, working for an established business owner, working as a servant, or travelling from odd job to odd job.

Take ONE of the following Trades at a rank equal to the character’s starting Vigor: Craftsman, Entertainer, Healer, Hunter, Laborer, Rogue, Sailor or Soldier.

Poor/Orphan: The character was born extremely poor, living a meager existence on the streets helping to support their family, orphaned and forced to grow up in a work-house, or as part of a criminal gang. Some young children are scooped up by the military at an early age to serve as drummer boys, ship’s boys and powder monkeys.

Take ONE of the following Trades at a rank equal to the character’s starting Vigor: Entertainer, Hunter, Laborer, Rogue, Soldier, or Sailor.


If your character is male and has a father with the title of Baron or greater, he may inherit his father’s title and the lands. It all depends on his Birth Order and his Father’s (and possibly Grandfather’s) Status.

Birth Order: Roll a D6 to determine how many male children are in the family. Then roll a second D6 and subtract it from the first. If the total is 1 or less, the character is the eldest son. Otherwise, the result will determine their actual place.

Father’s Status: Roll on Table UK3A: Peerage, to determine your father’s rank.

Table_Peerage_UKNext, roll a D6. If the result is 1 or 2, the character’s father has passed and the eldest son inherits his title and full Wealth rating.

Grandfather’s Status: If the character’s father is the son of a Peer, then his grandfather holds the title and his father is in line for it. If this is the case, determine the grandfather’s title (as above) and then the father’s birth order (as above) to determine his place in the line of succession.

Female Titles: If your character is a female member of a noble family, her title is dependent on the title of her husband, if she is married.

Roll 2D6 and add the ladies Charisma rating. On a result of 12 or more, she is already married and should roll on the Marriage Class table below to determine her husband’s Title (and hers, if any), as well as her starting Wealth (which replaces that of her Birth)

A Note on Female Characters

Now, one of the things that had occurred to me when trying to imagine the impact of this game replacing OD&D in the history of RPGs is the place of women in the growth of the hobby. The fantasy milieu of that game was certainly more friendly to women characters than the historical Georgian era. Would Lee sharpes-goldGold, for example, have become such an avid role-player if her character was so restricted as indicated by the rules above? More importantly, would Luther have considered the place of women in gaming as he wrote the rules?

I’m going to have to do more research on the subject to definitively answer this, but my experience and gut instinct tell me that there would be some allowance made for female adventurers in such a setting. After all, outside of the obvious female partisans and assorted spies and provocateurs, there were also ‘wild women’ of the aristocracy who did precisely what they wanted, when they wanted to.

But aside from that, I think that there is wide scope for stories told outside of the war, in the style of Jane Austen and Tolstoy, where the war is a backdrop to courtly maneuvers and high society shenanigans. This would be addressed in a later supplement, Airs & Aristocracy, and include rules for running a game where the action switches from the war, to the halls and drawing rooms of power, and back again, with players running different characters in both areas whose actions can affect each other, as in War & Peace. Considering his love for Tolstoy, I think this form of troupe play would be very much on Luther’s mind as designed the game.


bc47b906403f7f92dbd400652ec3c972Luther being a professor of literature, not accounting, would have absolutely 0 interest in keeping track of money down to the farthing. In most literature, wealth is depicted less in terms of actual coinage and more in terms of description. You know, for example, that a character is rich by the many frills on their uniform, the quality of their horse, the silver filigree on their fancy, rifled pistols and the fact that they have servants waiting on them hand and foot. Likewise, a character with a shabby, patched uniform, dung on his boots and an outdated blunderbuss is clearly a peasant with nowt to his name.

Wealth in Donjons & Dragoons, then, will be based on a rating, just like an attribute, and represents raw purchasing power. A 0 represents no source of income, with only a few farthings to one’s name, while 6 represents massive land holdings and investments that are rarely found outside the coffers of a King.

Our class (or marriage class, in the case of noble women) provided us with a base Wealth Rating. This is now modified by a roll of 2D6 on the chart below:

Table_WealthMod_UKA negative modifier might represent family debts, poor management, or reckless spending that has reduced the character’s income below the normal level. A positive modifier might represent hard earned savings, or a sudden influx of wealth from battlefield plunder, political appointment, etc., so even a common Private in the army might have a tidy sum socked away in the hem of his clothes if he gets lucky (like many of those at Vitoria, where soldiers ‘liberated’ the modern equivalent of $128m from the French baggage train). Whether he can keep it is another thing, entirely…


So at this point, one should have a fairly good idea of where their character comes from and under what circumstances they live their life. From these seeds, the rulebook will encourage them to flesh out the history of their character. As we will see later in character generation and combat, characters have a much greater life expectancy in this game than OD&D (through a form of narrative immunity/plot armor), so such detail, which would seem extravagant for a character who might fall into a pit and die a few minutes after entering their first dungeon, is well worth the effort in Donjons & Dragoons.

Next up, we will discuss Trades, Qualities and assigning characters a Rank and Unit…