Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Guardian at the River

Bull Skull Totem Corners; Robert Kubicek

A totem, placed by the ancient Khiami, having fought the vicious hog men and banished them - pushing them back into the woodlands to cower - on the banks of the river: a reminder that beyond is the dominion of Man.

The Guardian at the River - a location on my home hex map of the Caanish Archipelago - sits silently waiting in my hex key document bearing only the above to mark its existence. So I may or may not be wise to post this online - knowing that one day, running a game, players may run across it. But c'est la vie! If you're ever running in my game and recognize the totem - pretend you didn't read it! 

Herein presented (or as a PDF here) and please enjoy, the Guardian at the River.

Scale: 10 ft.

A Totem on a Hill

A river bends gradually around a mound - a hillock in the plains, blocking the path of the water - making of itself a fat peninsula in the path of a lazy flow. Rising perhaps twenty feet from the water line, at the peak, it takes on a decidedly man-made appearance: with a large totem surrounded by four limestone slabs occupying the hilltop.

The totem, itself, is a ten foot cylinder rising 30 feet into the air, narrowing slightly as it rises. At its apex, it shapes itself into a blade like a spear's head - at the socket, where on a spear the head might be attached to the shaft, is carved the effigy of a boar's skull. Just shy of the spear's head - around 20, 25 feet off the ground - two large, curved spines like the tusks of a boar jut from the side, extending out from the main cylinder and pointing to the west.

The slabs are limestone - five feet wide by ten feet long: with the length extending away from the totem in cardinal directions. They are fitted snugly into the earth and will require effort to break through or excavate - except the slab to the south, which is slightly ajar - having been undermined and shifted by a force not obvious from the surface nor visible on the horizon.

The Shrine Beneath

Scale: 10 ft.

The North Shrine

N1 - North Entry

N2 and N4 are screened from this space by iron bars. Clay idols - sea spirits on the east; cloud spirits on the west - line the flanking walls. The room is dripping - a misting drip, just heavier than drizzle: but the drops seem to always fall and miss characters of Lawful or Unaligned alignment.

The doors to N2 and N4 are both locked.

N2 - West Chamber, North

A disheveled pile of linens lies against the eastern wall. A chest with a skeleton hanging over it sits propped against the north wall. Inside the chest are 300sp, an agate (10gp), and two fire-topaz (500gp). Hiding in the linens are 2 Spitting Cobra (B41) - a further Spitting Cobra (B41) is hiding in the skeleton.

In the north-east corner, there is a semi-circular grate in the floor where water, dribbling in from under the bars to N1, flows and discharges. A character who expressly looks into the grate will see a door leading to N5; a character who does not expressly look may yet find the door with a successful Hidden Doors check.

The door to N3 is stuck.

N3 - Treasure Hide

Two graves - in which ash has been arranged in the shape of a body - are aligned to the east and west walls of this room. There are amulets placed where the neck would be - inlaid with emerald and worth 800 gp each - and on the west, there is a platinum-bladed, electrum-hilted sickle worth 900gp. There is a clay pot at the feet of each grave - one of which has been smashed. Inside are specie - between them are 200 sp and 20 gp.

Light sources, if brought into proximity to the graves, burn brighter: casting 60' of light instead of 30' for the duration of their current context - that is, the torch will burn brighter for the duration of it's lit lifespan; Mosaic at the Alhambra; James Cavanah Murphy a lantern will burn brighter for the duration of its current supplied oil flask; and so on.

N4 - East Chamber, North

A mosaic of stone - that is, no bright colors; only natural rock to the area - is inlaid on the east wall. In the north-west corner, like N2, there is a semi-circular grate in the floor where water, dribbling in from under the bars to N1, flows and discharges. A character who expressly looks into the grate will see a door leading to N5; a character who does not expressly look may yet find the door with a successful Hidden Doors check.

N5 - Servitor's Access

The doors leading out of this narrow hall - to N3, N2, N4, E2, and E3 - are all obvious when viewed from N5. The northern stretch is lower than the rest, with slight inclines leading to the door to N3 and to the eastern portion of the hall. The floor of the depressed areas are moist; the floor of the elevated areas are mostly dry.

Spilled on the floor of the depressed stretch, near the door to N2 and N4, is 400 sp. In the west side, two gold sconces are embedded in the wall - worth 25 gp each.

The South Shrine

S1 - South Entry

Before each door - each of which are heavy stone (as stuck, +1 to the benefit of the player) - a pile of 10 gold pieces is stacked neatly into a small tower. If the gold is removed, the door beside it will not open. The door to S4 has been spiked ajar: open enough for a child to pass, but not an adult.

The far end of the hall is a circular fountain, in which 500 silver pieces appear to have been tossed. A character investigating the base of the fountain may note (and would note on a successful Hidden Doors check) that the base of the fountain rotates, revealing a ladder down into S7.

S2 - Empty Coffin

The head of a stone sarcophagus aligns to the west wall. Inside, there is residue of ash, but not enough to form a pile. A dirty ring - polishing it off will reveal its nature - worth 250 gold pieces can be found inside.

S3 - Blackened Burial

From the outside, a stone statue of a human is lying supine on the floor, framed by driftwood. Stepping inside, however, a character finds themselves immediately unable to see: light sources are not extinguished, but are also not effective. Leaving the area ends the effect; light sources work normally outside the room. Characters with infra-vision or other supernatural means of seeing will - upon entry - see instead a wooden boat, inside which is a pile of ash arranged in the shape of a body. Placed where its ears would be is a set of earrings worth 400 gp and at its waist is a bedecked dagger - non-magical, but counting as silver for the purposes of special resistances - worth 600 gp.

S4 - Rival Halflings

The door to this space is spiked ajar. Inside are eight Halflings (B36) searching the room. Between them, they are carrying 3,000 sp, 100 gp, two agates worth 50 gp each, and a ringed-style crown worth 200 gp. 

They have not yet found the secret door - which is a false wall activated by a pull cord beneath a loose stone in the floor nearby to it.

S5 - Idol Trap

The floor by the door to this room and within this room is gritty. A skeleton with no wounds leans against the door and will collapse outward when the door is opened. In the floor is inlaid a circular design; on the far wall is an altar - attached to the floor, as though the entire place had been carved from a single slab - on which sits an idol in the shape of a boar's head. It is worth 30 gold pieces. Circling the altar is a ring of silver pieces, stacked together painstakingly to form an interwoven wall. There are 1,700 in total.

On the south wall are two panels - one to the north, one to the south. The north panel is a mechanism to trap the room; the south panel, a secret entry to S6.

  • If a downward force is applied to the idol, the south panel will slide open.
  • If an upward force is applied to the idol - such as by lifting it off the altar - the trap activates.

When the trap activates, the north hatch opens and the room fills with sand. Any character in the room must Save vs Breath to evade: at which point, they are able to exit the space into S1. If the exit to S1 is blocked, all saves automatically fail. A character who fails this save is submerged in the sand and will suffocate.

Also when this trap activates, a plug pops open in the fountain at the south end of S1. The trap requires a manual reset - which is accomplished by pushing the plug down and refilling the fountain with at least one gallon of water: after which, a magic seam opens along where the floor meets the walls in S5, allowing the sand to pour out - back into the cistern holding it behind the north panel. 

S6 - Trove

In this space, earthen pottery and a wooden case are used to house tributes and offerings. These offerings are cataloged as follows:

  • 3,000 sp
  • 2,000 gp
  • 2 fire agates worth 100 gp each
  • 1 large ruby worth 1,000 gp
  • 1 electrum headdress worth 700 gp
  • 2 gold chain veils worth 1,000 gp each
  • 1 amulet with two emeralds flanking a sapphire worth 1,200 gp

Six Skeletons (B42) - their frame Orcish (at the referee's option, improve their armor class by 1 to reflect) - guard the treasure.

S7 - South Tunnel

The door to S4 is obvious from this side, as is the ladder up to S1. The rotational aspect of the door to S1 is not immediately obvious, but an enterprising character should figure it out. The exit to E4 is in the form of a loose block which would have to be knocked over to enter.

Near the center of the space is a thin stalagnate - at its center, the stalagtite and stalagmite are joined by a crystal skull. The skull, itself, is worth 400 gold pieces: but if it is removed, the junction will collapse: preventing movement through the tunnel in any direction. Characters in the junction must Save vs Breath or be crushed by falling stone.

The east portion of the tunnel appears to be filled with liquid. The liquid, however, isn't liquid to the touch. The shore is wispy - like a fog; not like an actual pool - and physically interacting with it reveals that it is of the same consistency of air - a character cannot swim in it, but can walk through it. A character of Lawful alignment can breath in it - unaligned or Chaotic characters cannot. It is turgid - visibility being limited to around five feet.

The East Shrine

E1 - East Entry

The stairs to this space land in a thin pool of standing water - 6 inches deep - carved into the floor to resemble a river. To the north and south of this "stream" (which is stagnant), the ground is dry. The pool runs eastwards and shallows out - a "beach entry" so to speak - just beyond the doors to the east.

The east wall of E1 is iron bars: the doors therein are iron gates. The south door is rusted over (stuck); though the north door will open fine. The door to E4 from the hallway just beyond the north door is locked.

The secret door to the west is not hidden, per se - but is concealed by the stairwell, which is hollow beneath. A character that looks under the stairs will naturally find the door: which is a faux wall, push inward to open. A latch on the far side allows re-opening.

E2 - Alcove Room

Chair-sized alcoves - flat on the bottom, half-domes on the top - are carved into the west wall. Two rugs rotted somewhat by time - parallel to each other - run east to west. The secret door to the north is hidden behind a small cabinet and has a slight drop in the floor level between E2 and N5.

E3 - As We Have Wrought

The north and east walls are decorated with a wrought iron design: embedded at interval into the stone walls. To the north, the design appears to abstractly depict hills; to the east, water - with an overlap of about three feet into the north wall. That overlap is a secret door - which hinges from the corner inward and activates via a latch along the seam of the two designs. Like E2, there is a slight drop in the floor level between E3 and N5.

E4 - River Sanctum

The east wall of this space, as well as the eastern portion of the north and south walls, appear to be sweating - as though they may be below the water table. The floor of this space gradually declines, such that near the east wall is a pool of water, appearing to move in the direction of the river outside. Three copper idols are placed along the shore, facing east. The idols can be removed and are worth 5 gold pieces each.

The liquid, however, isn't liquid to the touch. Physically interacting with it reveals that it is of the same consistency of air - a character cannot swim in it, but can walk through it. A character of Lawful alignment can breath in it - unaligned or Chaotic characters cannot. It is turgid - visibility being limited to around five feet.

In the south-east corner is sunken a heavy wooden chest. Inside can be found 2,000 gp and a silver statue of a dolphin, worth a further 1,000 gp. There is a small hole in the wall nearby, which can be tugged to open a large enough hole to get into S7, as demarcated by the hidden door.

The door to E1 is rusted over (stuck).

The door to the north is locked.

The West Shrine

W1 - West Entry

The entry at the top of this shrine is ajar. The floor bears signs of litter, as though animals have housed here. The ceiling beyond the first ten feet of the stairs, where the room opens, elevates - five feet taller than the initial room. Hanging in this space are eight Stirges (B43).

Like E1, the "secret" door is not particularly hidden, but is under the stairs: a character which intentionally looks under the stairs, which are hollow, will be able to find it - a push-panel of faux wall. 

W2 - Orc Vegas

Eight Orcs (B39) are playing cards in this space, waiting for the Stirges in W1 to leave at nightfall so that they can safely make their own exit. The captain of the group has 2 hit dice and one eye: his other having been replaced with a smooth ruby worth 100 gold pieces. The pot of their card game - orcish Rummy - is worth 4,000 silver.

W3 - North Tunnel

Where the room opens up from the short entry hall, the floor is a slight step down. It is soft earth, on which is growing patches of grass, three feet in height, covering about 70% of the floor. The grass is mundane - though albino - and the room is otherwise empty.

W4 - Silvered Amphora 

Four earthwork amphora - three feet in height - are in the south-east corner. A pile of mud bricks sits in disarray in the western portion of the room. A sack of 1,600 silver pieces can be found tucked into one of the amphora.

W5 - Tunnel

The entrances out of this space are hard to see, but not exactly hidden: searching for the door succeeds on 3-in-6, but a character having entered through one will know where their entry door is automatically. This tunnel resembles a burrow - perhaps a large subterranean animal. Inside, 7 Bandits (B30) are quietly resting: they look roughed up and may simply desire egress at this point in their adventure.

Public domain or open access artwork retried from Pixabay or and adapted for thematic use. Attributions in alt text.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Old Game, New Project: Introducing Weapons, Wits, and Wizardry

As a result of some external family factors, I'm not going to get out a new dungeon, innovation in house-ruling, or review this week - so instead, I figured I'd share a project I'd been collaborating with a few friends on, an attempt to integrate the Fantasy Supplement into a classless fantasy adventure experience, all the while maintaining mechanical OSR compatibility.

Weapons, Wits, and Wizardry

Corpse Candles; Gustave Dore
Weapons, Wits, and Wizardry
Rules for Dungeon Exploration,
the Hero's Journey,
and the Founding of Kingdoms

Dreadful Was the Din; Gustave Dore
The Referee's Enchiridion
Guides, Charts, and References for Running a Game

Weapons, Wits, and Wizardry is a booklet which contains rules for creating, playing, and advancing heroic fantasy characters. Using character races as a template and experience-buy as a mechanism into the eldritch arts of sorcery and the talents and minutia of the tunnel-crawling specialist, it aims to provide a framework by which characters are envisioned, adventure, and grow to participate in regional exploration and politics. It is not original Dungeons and Dragons, nor does it embrace several defining elements of original Dungeons and Dragons, however it is written to be compatible such that a table using the Weapons, Wits, and Wizardry ruleset can freely utilize material from the little brown books, their related supplements, and any other OSR-compatible product - or utilize material designed for Weapons, Wits, and Wizardry in a different OSR-compatible rule system - with minimal to nil adjustment.

The Referee's Enchiridion is a folio intended for use by the master of the game, the Referee, and provides resources to assist in the running of a game, editorials and explanations for decisions made within Weapons, Wits, and Wizardry to help guide a Referee in the customization and crafting of their home table's experience.

Linked above are the working PDFs for these two complimentary booklets.

As of this writing, both documents are in alpha: that is, the rules are still under active development, the editorials are still being edited, and many facets of the game are still subject to change, pending ongoing play-test and community review. Document versions and update dates will be provided to the best of my ability for the convenience of the reader, however the download links will remain unchanged.


Scotch Soldiers; Lancelot Speed
Rules for Fantasy and Medieval Engagements

Ringmail provides the foundation on which Weapons, Wits, and Wizardry is built. It is a tabletop strategy wargame based on the spirit of 1974: intended for use in mass battles between armies in the Medieval period, alongside supplemental rules for the inclusion of fantastic elements - such as dragons and wizards - such that either historic battles, favorite fictional battles, or original competitive engagements of like theme can be played out using this sub-50 page document. It is not Chainmail, but it is intended to be compatible - such that players accustomed to Chainmail will be able to use the Ringmail rules with minimal to nil adjustment - and it is intended to be legible, re-worded and re-arranged, such that learning the game for new players and referencing the manual for experienced ones will be easier and more intuitive.

Linked above is the working PDF of the Ringmail rulebook.

Ringmail is, as of this posting, in beta: that is, the rules are largely set and initial play-testing, third party usability review, and draft editing are in progress - and I've got a dozen or so points I know I need to fix about it. Document versions and updates are provided to the best of my ability for the convenience of the reader - though as the document changes, the download link will remain unchanged.

Get Involved!

This part, I'm still working on. At some point, I will put up a public Discord, helping to coordinate conversation and facilitate running games using Weapons, Wits, and Wizardry, ironing out the kinks and helping move the document into the place it needs to be in order to fulfill the objective it sets out to accomplish and fill the niche it sets out to fill - but the elephant in the room, the update dates on some of those files is admittedly a long while back: at least, as of this writing.

But that's life sometimes. Gets in the way of more important things - like elf-gaming.

In the meantime - if you want to be involved in the Weapons, Wits, and Wizardry project - do! Play the game: try it out - a one or two shot with your home group - to see how it fits. Download the PDF and page through it - identify the pieces that make sense or don't make sense, and feed questions back to me so that in future iterations, the questions won't need to be asked. Let it inspire you - run the game your table wants to run, run the experience you and your players want to experience, and take from this tome the bits and pieces conducive to that end.

The fact that you're here on this blog means you know how to get into contact with me - using the provided contact mechanisms in my profile or just tagging me, pinging me wherever it was that we both were when I shilled the link out!

Most importantly - however - delve on!

He Roasted Him; Louis Rhead

Public domain art for this post was downloaded from Attributions in alt text.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Acids and Spike Pits and Stone Traps, Oh My!

Scale: 10ft.
Click here for a PDF version of this adventure!

Room Key

A - Entry

A stairwell to the South opens into a large space. Along the North wall is a pool - semi-circular - which is ankle-deep with a mild acid. Bones - some of which are oversized - appear to have been thrown into the pool. Characters exposed to the acid will feel discomfort, but suffer damage only if exposed for a long period: 1 point per turn.

Cistern Reservoir Water Storage; Pixabay user Free-Photos

Organic equipment will be destroyed in a similarly slow fashion if submerged.

B - The Tooth Stealer

The North wall of the space presents a mosaic depicting Elves. The Elves do not appear quite right - they have a gray pallor to them and no whites to their eyes. If the party investigates further, they find that the lighter colored tiles of the mosaic are made from the teeth of humanoid beings. In so doing, the investigator must Save vs Spells or have their own teeth transposed: replaced with porcelain from the mosaic. A character so affected may not eat Iron Rations - as they will crack the new teeth: something preceded by discomfort, which the character would notice - however gains a +2 bonus going forward if exposed to Saves vs Poison via ingestion only.

The door to the South is stuck.

C - Cube Disposal

Inside this space, a Gelatinous Cube (B35) is moving from corner to corner, clockwise, in perpetuity. The floor and walls have a sheen to them that is remarkably clean. Inside the cube is suspended 84 ep, 66pp, and a Shield +1, which also grants DR 3 vs Acid and Acid Attacks: protected from the corrosive innards of the cube by its enchantment.

D - Projection Chamber

Against the West wall, several broken chairs and divans are propped. The East wall is smooth stone. Above the dilapidated seating, an 8 inch hole is seen in the wall, from which light emits. There are two inlaid metal squares in the hole - in its floor and ceiling - which will turn if pressed.

If the tesseract from Room M is inserted into the hole, it will project up to eight images onto the far wall, depending on how it is positioned. Five of these images depict Elves - black eyed and gray, as in Room B - performing day to day actions; two of the images depict landscapes similar to the surrounding landscape, except trees or shrubs are more barren and bear thorns where thorns might not normally be found; one of the images shows a blurry map of the dungeon, omitting secret doors, but showing room traps for rooms I, L, M, and numbered item 1. It is difficult to copy down from the seating area, but becomes easier if a character stands close to the wall.

Against the East wall in the center is a pit trap - 15 feet deep - dealing 2d4 falling damage to anyone caught in it.

E - Treasure Trove

The door to this space is nondescript: faux stone inlaid in the wall which, if discovered, is controlled by a locking mechanism behind a single stone in the center. Within the room can be found 3 gemstones worth 10 gp each, 5 gemstones worth 50 gp each, 2 gemstones worth 100 gp each, 500 platinum pieces, 1,000 gold pieces, and a Sword +1 (+3 vs Dragons).

F - Blind(folded) Guardians

This room is a wreck. A central dais has been desecrated and furniture - broken but well used - adorns the space amid a strong scent. Five Ogres (B40) - each with bandana or blindfold, but wearing it on the forehead or around the neck, as though positioned for ease of use - are feasting on a greasy, nauseating meal. Among the possessions of the Ogres are the keys to Room G.

The secret door is partially hidden behind a weapons rack being used for laundry. It will not open from this side. 

The door to the South is heavy (as Stuck); the door to the West is locked.

G - Prison

Six Bugbears (B32) are imprisoned behind iron bars. The door to the room is locked. They are unarmed - having been taken captive by the Ogres in Room F - and will try to bargain with the party to set them free: their objective is to retrieve the sword in Room E, but they do not know precisely where it is - only that the Medusa in Room K is its possessor. They will, if the party helps them, be at best neutral - that is, they will not attack outright, but if it suits their objectives or furthers their wealth, they do not hesitate to betray the party after other dangers have passed and the sword has been retrieved.

Ceiling Chandelier Chandelier Lamp; Pixabay user khfalk

H - Central Corner

A chandelier hangs in the center of this space above the heads of the party. No blood; though only 1/3 of the candle holders have candles (unlit) in them.

I - The Junction

A carpet sprawls across the floor - red with orange trim - in an octagonal shape concentric to the walls. The door to the South is stuck. The door to the East is a trap. If opened, a mirror is revealed behind it and spears jab out from the frame. THAC0 16, 2d8 damage.

J - Throne Room

Against the North wall, a large throne - enough for a man and a half - and tall, rests. On the left and right are braziers - unlit, but with cool ashes in them. There is a velour ottoman by the throne which, if investigated, will open - revealing 400 silver pieces within a storage compartment.

If the characters attempt to pull up the seat of the throne, they will find that it reveals a space underneath. Halflings have no trouble crawling in - man-sized characters have to crouch. This leads to a door hidden behind the throne in the North wall, which will open if a cord - situated nearby, under the throne, as well - is pulled.

The door must be manually shut. It does not automatically close after a character goes through.

K - Statue Garden

A well opens in the South-West part of the room. In the North-West part, a dozen or so petrified adventurers, in various poses, have been arranged around a lush divan. Occupying the space is a Medusa (B39). The Medusa carries no treasure, but wears a key on a necklace. The key will open the secret door to Room E.

Four Statues; Adolphe Terris

L - South Corner

A chandelier hangs in the center of this space above the heads of the party. There is a tint of blood on it; no candles. A character stepping under the chandelier will trigger a trap where the chandelier falls: Save vs Paralysis or take 2d6 damage. A generous referee may allow a character to apply a bonus to the save based on armor worn.

M - Chamber of the Ringed Tesseract

Ringing the floor of this room are metal plates. The metal plates are dark, rusted, with washes of blood in several places, and perforated with holes around two inches in diameter, each, in a consistent pattern. A skeleton lies in one corner, a puncture visible through its skull.

The center section of the room is not floored by plate, but stone - as the rest of the dungeon. There are three small pinholes - in the center of the South, West, and East faces where the plate meets the stone. Resting here is an end table, on which can be seen several pieces of colored glass and a metal-rimmed tesseract: its top square slightly askew such that the sides are twisting along its height. The sides are crystal - similar to the colored glass - multicolored: an oil-type sheen. If a character casts light through it, abstract images may appear on the wall on the far side - as described in Room D - but unless the alignment is perfect (distances, volume of light cast, etc.) the image will be difficult to define.

Stepping into the center section will activate a trap.

The metal plates ringing the room fall to a depth of about 10 feet: any character on them at that time must Save vs Paralysis or fall with them. Pikes are positioned to come out of the holes: any character failing their save will take 2d8 damage - resetting itself after 1 turn has elapsed. A generous referee may allow a bonus to the save based on armor worn.

There is a box with three pins embedded in the South wall: not obvious, but easily found by a searching character: if the pins are placed into the three pinholes around the center section, the trap is disabled and will not fire until the pins are removed.

To a collector, the strange cube is worth 1,000 gold pieces.

Numbered Points of Interest

  1. Pit trap, 10x10, 20 feet deep, Gelatinous Cube (B35) in the bottom. Inside the cube is floating 400 silver pieces, 600 gold pieces, and a Potion of Cure Light Wounds, protected from the acid by its glass exterior and stopper.

  2. Fountain with a fanged face, no water. If water is put in it, it begins to flow, but only the left fang sprays water. If the right fang is twisted, it swivels and opens the secret door.

  3. A stone statue, photo-realistic, of a female magician. She is pointing South, but looking North, towards the junction to Room I. If the adventurers search where she is pointing, they may find a hidden cord between two flagstones: if pulled, it will unlock the secret door to Room J.

  4. A stone statue, photo-realistic, of two adventurers: a man and a Halfling, facing West. The man is holding a lantern: no oil, but it is still functional.
Rubik Cube Game Sand Strategy; Pixabay user lloorraa

Public domain and open licence art retrieved from Pixabay or the National Gallery of Art and adapted for thematic use. Attribution in alt text.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Case for Actual Plays

Dice 3380228; Pixabay user CompLady

In recent and continuing vintage, a common, persistent, and occasionally pernicious distaste for actual plays rears its head in the blog and podcast sphere. In some cases, it's a statement of simple "I don't get it, but more power to you" - in others, invective enters the mix: but in any case, the Actual Play being somewhat dear to my own heart, a personal necessity for this post has come to its own. Herein, I will not attempt to convince others that they should enjoy actual plays if they do not - but instead, define the actual play and attempt to illustrate the attraction of the actual play to its audience, perhaps justifying or at least explaining some of its growing successes.

To Define the Actual Play

An Actual Play is defined by as performative role play, wherein the game is broadcast to an audience wider than those playing: specifying that they may be live or prerecorded, in video or audio. As of this writing, video actual plays make most headlines - with YouTube and Twitch streams and re-watches of the stream - but the definition notably includes both live (e.g. streamed) actual play experiences as well as prerecorded and audio (i.e. podcast) actual play experiences as well as video.

But I know what an Actual Play is. Why do you need to define it? The definition is important because of the media which it encompasses - the actual play genre is bigger than YouTube live streams: which is key to understanding the durability and popularity of the genre.

Why Actual Plays? (A Case For)

Vicarious Gaming

Not everyone is able to game: and while actual play casts are not a substitute for playing, itself, it is a way to immerse yourself in the genre external to the event. A listener might listen to a podcast actual play - or stream one, audio only - in their car: on their way to work or, if they work in transportation, potentially while working in lieu of listening to the radio. New parents, or people with other unpredictable obligations, may not be able to carve out a consistent time to play - and as such, this may scratch the itch for them during the downtime they do have. 

I could go on - but the point is made. At least one element of value in favor of the actual play is that it allows someone who is not able to game to participate in an adventure. In the same sense that someone who can't fly might play Flight Simulator or - more accurately - someone who doesn't have time to read the novel might find time to watch the Netflix adaptation, so also someone who does not have the ability to participate in a game can consume an actual play.

Learning and Engaging

Traditional wisdom in the OSR is that in order to learn the game, you have to play the game. While that wasn't entirely accurate - many of us bought the books, read them and the example-of-play sections, and ran the game until we figured it out -  but with the advent of actual plays, another mechanism of learning the game has come about: watching other people, or listening to other people, who know the game play the game. This was an original driving factor for including reviews as part of this blog: to help identify actual plays that empower the consumer to learn the game, to engage with the hobby, prior to either making the commitment to dive into the hobby or to participate blindly.

Improving your Own Game

How many times have you read a book and thought, "This would be awesome to incorporate into my game!" If the inclusion of Appendix N in TSR publications is to be noted, it logically follows that the consumption of media external to the table and game preparation is a way to improve and build your own game - be it adapting ideas for your players to overcome, immersing yourself in a theme to produce consistency of tone in your game, or otherwise. Actual plays likewise serve to fill this role with the added context of the ruleset in use. Not only would the watcher be able to say, "This setting is neat; I'm going to crib this idea," but also, they would be able to crib the idea - or adapt it - wholesale, with context as to how players might react, with rulings that come up during the actual play, and so on.

Tuesday Knights: White Sands, an OSE actual play available from
Mr. Hobbs' Gamerhood: the first Plate rating of the Clerics Wear Ringmail
actual play review series.

When I was in college, we ran a local gaming league at the comic shop downtown: after, the DMs would meet at Waffle House and make fun of exchange stories of how players handled situations presented. The actual play presents a static version of this midnight Waffle House experience: seeing how other DMs handle situations, seeing what other DMs are doing, empowering the viewer (or listener, as may be) to learn from the experience of others, improving their own game in the process.

Entertainment and Genre Enjoyment

The most obvious - and commonly mistaken to be the only virtue of - actual plays is that people who enjoy watching the game can use actual plays to watch games. I present this as the last in the series of consumer benefits because it is, to my eyes, represents - though a valid reason - a trap that someone new to actual plays may fall into: namely, the biggest, most popular, and best produced actual plays quite commonly represent the worst actual plays in terms of actual representation of the hobby.

To speak to personal experience, the podcast that got me into actual plays back in 2016 or so when I started listening to them (compared to reading play reports, which I'd done off and on prior) was (embarrassingly) Critical Role. Not being interested in 5e, I've moved on - and I've since penned an opinion on the Critical Role product - but more importantly: as you look at the progression of Critical Role episodes, you see a gradual move away from the game and more towards a theatrical experience. The purpose of the product is to produce story arcs, not to highlight the game - the focus is on the production, on the characters, and on the show. This is a key complaint from old school gamers against it - and it's a valid reason: it's a preference element - this stresses the necessity of finding an actual play that suits your preferences - both for rules content, for theater content, and for the length of episodes (which I will elaborate on shortly in the Case Against.)

But I'm diverting from the point. There exist people who like the genre, there exist people who like the game - my readership is exclusively member to this group - and of that group, a subset simply enjoys the system. 

You can listen to a podcast as background noise at work.

You can watch a playback of a stream when on the exercise bike.

Actual plays provide a mechanism to continue to experience gameplay when not playing the game: and at the end of the day, it's important that the gameplay represented caters to your sense of a good one. In the same sense that a disgruntled player would quit a campaign which had disgruntled them, so also should an actual play consumer quit an actual play which doesn't suit their needs - however, the disgruntled player isn't going to (or shouldn't) quit gaming entirely: they'll find a new table, find a new system, find a group and game which caters to the thrills that the old game didn't. In the same sense, it's important to - when using an actual play - identify what about the actual play appeals to you and match those desires to the product presented. Understanding that there is more than one out there - and that "entertainment and not gameplay" is only one demographic to which actual plays are able to cater - is key to understanding the continuing appeal of actual plays and to finding actual plays that appeal to you, as a viewer.

Selling Your Product

My primary motives for actual plays exhausted, a bonus reason sourced from exterior conversations: for a production company, actual play communities are an avenue to market your product and your experience. Why author and edit lengthy example of play clauses when you can point people to your company Rumble account? 

Are all actual plays designed to drive interest in the product that they showcase? Of course not - but that's immaterial to the point that they do. If you are a small time publisher looking to sell a system, a setting, an adventure - actual plays (optimally, good ones, but c'est la vie) are an avenue to market them: showing a potential buyer both how they work, how they can work, and providing an example of players diving in to whatever it is you're bringing to the table.

Why Not Actual Plays? (A Case Against)

Why Watch when you can Play?

Do you watch football? Why watch football when you can get with some buddies for a few hours and toss the pigskin around?

Less facetiously, some if not most actual plays will run for long stretches: exposing the length of a full game session. An argument can be made: if you have 2-6 hours to spend watching YouTube, you have 2-6 hours to invest in actually playing the game, yourself. While this - on the surface - is valid, it fails to take into consideration that not everyone can play.

  • Your 2-6 free hours may not line up with 2-6 free hours with a compatible group.
  • Your 2-6 free hours may be distributed: watching one actual play over the course of a week, one hour a time, at lunch or on your commute.
  • Your 2-6 free hours may be inconsistent - having it one week, but not the next, due to a swing-shift or maybe family obligations - which is not conducive to traditional play.

While I agree - I would rather play than watch (and I'd rather run than play!) - the use case for the actual play does not fill the same use case for the game session. It's a different niche.

This argument is occasionally phrased, "when I watch someone else play, it makes me want to play - not watch." The above commentary applies, but in addition (for this permutation specifically) this is a feature, not a bug: a benefit, not a drawback. For some players, the desire to play (or run, specifically) can fade when life gets in the way; the use of actual plays to stoke that desire can produce a better game. For others, knowing that no one plays 24/7, the use of actual plays to fill your downtime, producing that same sense of desire, will help focus thinking about the game, preparing for the game, building anticipation for the game. 

Note, some folks don't like thinking about the game between games - I have not and will not claim that actual plays are for everyone: if actual plays reduce the quality of your experience, or reduce the quality of your life, don't watch them! But the same can be said for any hobby - too much sunbathing giving you squamous cells? Stop sunbathing!

Bandit's Keep Presents: A Thousand Thousand Islands DCC Campaign,
a definitely not boring actual play series by Bandit's Keep and Bandit's
Keep Actual Play
: of whom Clerics Wear Ringmail speaks favorably.

Watching People Play is Boring

If your game is boring to watch, that's your problem.

That said, this is actually a very important point in that some actual plays are better than others, in terms of presentation and usability. This is the exact reason I rate actual plays on this blog. A well-done actual play is both entertaining and informative - showcases the game, allows the players freedom to explore the world and the experience, and involves the onlooker seamlessly, as would any other fiction media. So - if an actual play is boring, or taking too long: don't consume it! Find another that has a shorter runtime. Or find one that has better editing to chop out the chaff and present the game better.

Finding a good actual play is a challenge - especially if you're looking for an OSR actual play: as 5e dominates the larger space. In part, the reason for my review series was to document that process and help others who enjoy actual plays navigate the morass. So - to amend my initial (facetious) remark, if your actual play is boring to watch, I would suggest investing in editing; and if the actual play you are watching is boring, I would suggest either jumping a few episodes forward, seeing if they improve, or finding another.

They Don't Play the Game

Actual plays that don't play are a pox on the genre. Again, this is a reason that I review actual plays and rate them on this blog. The success of some big-name "actual plays" has jaded the larger genre, and although it's usually easy to tell which ones are going to be playing and which ones are intended as improv theater, again - the purpose of the blog reviews are to help separate the wheat from the chaff in this regard. As a caveat, if you enjoy improv theater - more power to you! Though this blog likely doesn't cater to your demographic: knowing that, it may be useful to consider my reviews will frequently give an opposite qualitative assessment than yours. That is. if I indicate of an actual play, "they ham it up too much" - try it out: you may like it!

Is the production value too high and are the rolls just too coincidental? Do the rules just never come up - and does it seem like the action is entirely characters interacting with one another?

You might be watching improv theater.

Who Has the Time?

The applicability of this argument tends to evolve from streams. Yes - if you are watching a game live, you've now tied up several hours of your day into watching someone else game - but consider that even on Twitch, the king of streaming platforms, streamed hours are only a subset of total hours watched. A viewer does not need to sit through a six hour session if it's recorded and accessible. Sure, context may suffer - watching 30 minutes of a film, then coming back for the next 30 minutes later - but as I've implied above, it's distinctly possible to watch what you can, then come back for more later when time permits. This was the primary mechanism by which I consumed actual plays when I first found them. Having twin infants and not being able to play - anyone who has taken care of an infant can tell you, waking up every three hours 24/7 for six months is a fairly effective way to upend your normal schedule - meant that I was able to consume RPG media effectively for just over an hour a day: the mornings when I would watch or listen to actual plays while exercising. From that experience, I can vouch: the time you have - be it exercising, be it on commute, be it whenever: there is more time in the day that most of us realize: and it's very feasible to fill that time rather than to try to carve out a full sitting.

Second, consider that not all actual plays are long-form. The Delvers comes to mind - or Iron Tavern - some of the earliest reviews I did, but also two podcasts that ran for short sessions: less than 45 minutes, as I recall - a span of time sufficient to occupy an episode of most television programs. Edited actual plays, or episodic actual plays, exist: if you are avoiding actual plays only for the temporal commitment they require, or if the actual play you are following is hard to follow because it is difficult to maintain context day to day, watching subsets of the episodes at a time, consider finding an actual play with more concise editing or better separated, better delineated breaks: such that a single session might occupy a smaller amount of your time.

In Conclusion

If actual plays don't do it for you, even after accounting for the various mitigation mechanisms can be applied for your reasoning, that's ok. The purpose of this article is not - and never was - to convince the reader to like something that they don't like: instead, the hope in its publication is to clear up some questions, some observations, and some criticisms of the culture around actual plays: to provide an answer for when the statement arises, "I don't get why people watch these things" or to provide a rebuttal for when the assertion - or assertions in kindred - arises, "Actual plays don't provide value to the community or to the new player."

As a consumer of actual plays and a proponent for their production, I will tell you that some actual plays are better than others - and I will tell you that both on a game qualitative and a production qualitative sense - and as such, I would encourage you not to discount them out of hand: if they aren't for you, like I said, they aren't for you - but it's possible, too, that it's not that you don't like onions or celery: it's just that you haven't tried jambalaya.

Play on, readers!

Open license artwork retrieved from Pixabay and adapted for thematic use. Attribution in alt text.
Still captures from Mr. Hobbs' Gamerhood and Bandit's Keep used with permission of the respective party.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

02.03 - Black Hammock Town

Ancient City; Gustave Dore

Black Hammock Town is a trading post and port town of 6,000 souls. Sitting along the banks of the Indigo River, it is situated approximately 9 miles from the ocean – as far inland as the winding river is navigable before becoming too shallow or unpredictable for ocean-going craft. To the East, the great ocean; the gateway to civilization – in every other direction, the new world – unclaimed territory fraught with hazards and potential fame.

Built on the ashes of an older settlement, the ill-fated ransomed colony based at the rumored Watchtower on the coast, Black Hammock Town, itself, sprung up in the last few years as rumors of war spur industrialists to seek out new sources of raw materials to ship home. Its population consists primarily of hopeful would-be explorers: trappers, foresters, and sailors looking to strike it rich on either the coming tide of trade or - preferably - a surprise windfall pilfered from forgotten troves.

Comprised of ten boroughs - Black Hammock Town provides a wide gamut of experiences, services, and encounters: more so than would be implied by its small population. From the north, trappers and trackers from the inland woods bring a consistent stream of trade from outer settlers: from its bustling docks, a link between the outer world and the inner wilds sees constant movement, constant new faces, and constant trade. And across the river - nestled into the tip of the sandy island protecting the harbor - Far Bank: where ne'er-do-wells congregate in abundance.

Districts of Black Hammock Town

Circling the town is a wooden palisade - twelve feet high with no parapet, but with stone watch stands flanking each of three gates and arrow loops (functional, where not obscured by buildings outside the perimeter) at interval along the palisade's length. Inside the gate, construction is mixed, with larger, more opulent buildings having been bricked with coquina but smaller or more economical buildings constructed of timber. Outside the gate, the architecture is much more rustic - thatch, timber, and questionable building standards.

Far Bank

Accessible only by water, the Far Bank is quiet, commonly, during the day, and raucous at night. Presumably, the daylight serenity is benefited by hangovers, interest paid on the evenings prior. There are rarely guards and the perimeter is said to have several sneak-holes where one might slip into and out of the encampment: avoiding the main gates and oversight of the guards on a return trip.

Governance District 

Dominated by the Governor's Mansion - a part residence, mostly governmental function building - the Governance District is where those who want to have a say in the movement of the colony and to ride the wave of interest pouring into the region make their home. Buildings in this part of town are more adorned, more extravagant - and often ostensibly more guarded.

Market District 

The Marketplace of Buenos Aires; Emeric Essex Vidal

The Market District - central to the town - is commonly congested, the scene of both traveling merchants, street food vendors, and outdoor performing artists. Likewise, many who work in the peripheral supply industry supporting the maritime interests of the town make their home in the Market District, livelier than other parts of town - and more affordable than the Governance District.

On a given day, 3d4 merchants selling various wares - some acquired in Trappers'  Market and brought in, others acquired from inbound ships, can be found about the bazaar.

North Gate

The poor district, North Gate is a primarily residential area, housing the working class - longshoremen, shipwrights and trades-folk, and similar - continuing to grease the cogs of the local Black Hammock economy. There is some crime in this area and the sanitation is par for the course: it is usually safe to walk the streets alone at night.

North Wharf 

Of the three piers at Black Hammock Town, the North Wharf caters to bulk goods and raw materials. The environment is brusk and businesslike. A couple languages are spoken - as settlers have come from several backgrounds - but there are too few people to truly build natural animosity. It is mostly vacant at night - excepting scant security around varied warehouses. It is the place a body will be found if a body "happens" to wash up.

La Rixe (The Brawl); Charles-Melchior Descourtis
Smugglers' Wharf

Its piers officially designed for recreational use and its small buildings officially decontamination or quarantine structures, Smuggler's Wharf is known to be an avenue to move goods into and out of town quickly: often via connections in the Far Bank. With the commonness of this knowledge, it's often a point of talking around an ale as to speculate why Smugglers' Wharf is allowed to persist. 

To an adventurer, it's easy to find a boat here - and after trust has been earned, potentially other things as well.

South Gate 

The South Gate, just outside the palisade beyond the wealthy Governance District and Egg, is home to anyone who, having not yet gained entry to the town (or unable to gain entry to the town!) but who desires to gain standing with the leadership. Likewise, it is where most of the mercenary presence of the community resides - both those contracted in the defense of the township and also those who are not, seeking an opportunity to sell their swords - congregating in a small camp along the wall.

South Wharf 

The port of the South Wharf caters more to finer goods - wrought things, tinkered things, luxury items: clocks, glassware, the like. The buildings are cleaner than the North Wharf and usually guarded due to their contents. The atmosphere is likewise somewhat more light than other port areas of town - despite many of the workmen living in the North Wharf.

Arm and Escort; Eugene Delacroix
The South Wharf, due to its proximity to the Governance District, is a preferred living place - with many buildings serving two functions to accommodate housing merchants who prefer their privacy or newcomers hoping to focus on making a good impression with the local elite.

The Egg 

Named for its conspicuous shape on a bird's eye map, the Egg is the clerical district: serving to house the temples of Black Hammock Town and those who maintain them. There are 150 odd clergy in the district - only about half of which can be found within the Egg at a time, the others moving about the township in day to day business: chief among them, a Vicar (Cleric 4) named Bendis the White. Acolytes make up the vast bulk of the group; though some other leveled Clerics move about within the ranks.

Trappers' Market

The governor has decreed a quarantine on many goods and some services acquired from the exterior of the township, originating in the wild lands of the inland continent, in anticipation of potential contamination from a new unknown. North of the perimeter, a market has thus sprung up. Most of what is available in town is likewise available out of town - with the exception that coinage is less common, a barter economy being more valuable to a colonist or trapper living outside the reach of the civilization's footprint.

Goods and Services

There are four blacksmiths operating between three smithies in Black Hammock Town:

  1. Yaromir the Dwarf - a lean sort, commonly wearing pelts and furs on cool days and going shirtless on others. His most common fare is nails, agricultural equipment, snares, and other metal needs as presented by trappers or settlers living out of town.
    Yaromir can be found in the Trappers' Market.
  2. Seloue the Jeweler - being an artist in a past life, Seloue is known for her penchant to detail and design in her work. She is capable of bog standard work, however might be intrigued by a challenge, or a more intricate and thus interesting, assignment.
    Seloue can be found in the Market District.
  3. Ageric the Board and Dora of the West Hills - Ageric, a wiry former soldier in his middle years, has a history with and an affinity for the mercenary presence in Black Hammock. Dora - his wife - is less talkative, Ageric being the face of the business, but is oft talked about, in reference to her Dwarfish heritage. They have no children, Men and Dwarves being genetically incompatible.
    Ageric and Dora can be found in the South Gate.

Characters looking for accommodation can find lodging in one of three Inns:

  1. Hagan's Rest, a mid-budget establishment, is run by an Elf named (unsurprisingly) Hagan. It is staffed to provide lodging as well as dinner (or lunch, if the staff likes you). Hagan is level 3 and an interested practitioner of the esoteric arts: capable of casting Charm Person, Floating Disc, and ESP. The clientele of Hagan's Rest tends to lean towards traders and travelers.
    Hagan's Rest can be found in the Market District.
  2. Black Welcome - a smaller facility - is run by a smooth-talking human named Erluf. Erluf is quick to make friends and always has a wry smile on his stubbled face. The clientele of the Black Welcome leans towards profiteers - including adventurers and mercenaries.
    Black Welcome can be found at the South Gate.
  3. The Blow Hole, its patrons primarily comprised of sailors, is an "inn" and tavern run by a former merchantman named Gunder. Gunder is tall and sports a pot-belly: something developed in the time between now and when he once plied the waves.
    The Blow Hole can be found in the North Wharf.
Shady Inn; Alphonse Louis Pierre Trimolet

Optionally, three physicians ply their trade in Black Hammock Town. Though the effect of having a doctor around is at the discretion of the referee, it is suggested that a character under the care of a physician will recover 3 hit points daily rather than rolling and may, with treatment, re-roll a failed Saving Throw to shake a disease or injury.

  • Jaromir, a former soldier (Fighting Man, level 1) who trained as a medic: subsequently attending a formal physician's academy before transporting himself and his family to the new reaches of Black Hammock Town, resides in the Governance District.
  • Red Vuldret, a female human with shocking red hair which she wears loose, was formally schooled by a convent. She practices in the Governance District and takes a keen interest in the politics of Black Hammock Town, finding herself at odds with The Egg on routine occasion.
  • Terric the Fast, a surgeon, known for his ability to move quickly, but who is gruff and can come off as abrasive to sensitive patients, operates out of the South Wharf. He is very industrious, more productive and more quick than his contemporaries: working longer and more frequent hours.

Unlicensed or untrained physicians - folk healers and the like - can typically be found as well. Their effectiveness should be half that of a trained physician, but they are cheaper and more abundant. On a given day:

  • 1d8 unlicensed healers can be found in the Trappers' Market.
  • 1d6 unlicensed healers can be found in the North Gate.
  • 1d6 unlicensed healers can be found in the Far Bank (occasionally carrying lotus or its like, as well)
  • 15, less the sum of the other districts (to a minimum of 0) can then be found in the Market District.

Hamburg Before the Fire; Auguste Etinne Francois Mayer
In the Far Bank, a witch named Faileuba sells reagents, unguents, and trinkets said to bring health or luck in the wildlands, bought from the Bullywugs, stolen from Toad Magi.

In the Trappers' Market, a traveling salesman can usually be found - 60% chance on a given day - selling alchemical supplies, reagents, and similar. What he doesn't have, he tends to know where to get - and may offer a bounty for someone to go get it in sufficient quantity to supply his own inventory.

Three taverns operate in Black Hammock Town, as follows:

  • The Blue Heron is an upscale establishment run by an Elf (4) named Gable. He will on occasion see parishioners from The Egg in his establishment - and the selection he offers is finer, more expensive, than the mean. Gable can cast Light, Shield, Detect Invisible, and Web.
    The Blue Heron is located in the Governance District.
  • The Pony's Porter is a low-brow establishment: selling basic (and arguably watered down) wares at prices affordable to the working class of the North Gate neighborhoods. It is a decent respite for adventurers and mercenaries not looking for trouble and is owned by a female Magic User (2) named Rothtrude. She tends not to come out, instead deferring most operations to her staff, allowing her more time to her studies. Rothtrude tends to know Hold Portal and Ventriloquism, but carries with her a scroll of Sleep.
    The Pony's Porter is found on the northern edge of the North Wharf.
    A character drinking at the Pony's Porter must Save vs Poison or, on the following day, suffer an acute hangover that day, imposing a -1 penalty on all d20 rolls.
  • The Black Eye, named in the honor of its pugilist proprietor, a Fighting Man (3) named Froi, operates out of a mobile cart - moving to a new locale roughly twice a week. Froi is a former seaman and fond of both a fight and a bottle: of which he has a wide, changing variety available.
    The Black Eye can be found on the Far Bank.

Characters seeking laborers - such as treasure-haulers or torch-bearers - can typically find them hanging out in the Market District or Trappers' Market: 18 in total, typically, split between the two locations. Characters seeking men at arms can typically find them - around 8 on a given day looking for work - commonly congregating at the South Gate.

Dramatis Personae

Stunned; Herbert Cole
The following individuals make up the upper crust of Black Hammock Town - the movers and shakers, so to speak - whose favor (or disfavor!) can have immense impact on an adventuring group.

  • The governor of Black Hammock Town is a Human woman named Gueva. She is married - according to posterity - though her husband has not come to Black Hammock, instead continuing to work (temporarily or who knows?) in the northern kingdoms. Some controversy follows her, as she is consistently accompanied by a male Elfish consort, Aodhan.
  • Halfling Milton, son of Adonimen, and spouse Chrysanthe (Halfling 2), is an envoy from afield, representing a mercantile union. They have two young children and are accompanied by Xandri (Halfling 3), sister to Chrysanthe, who is very protective of the two younglings.
  • Dwarfish venture explorer Bromil, accompanied by his siblings: brother, Tikomir; sister Stetsia (Dwarf 2); Bromslava, wife to Tikomir; and Nikola, his grown (but still relatively young) son. Bromil and company are seeking mineral rights, secretly believing that Mithril might be found as a sand, able to be smelted, in the beaches to the south.
  • A crone, Onisimova (Dwarf 1), serves as advisor to the governor. Her motives are her own and she lives alone - leading to some degree of speculation as to what might have motivated her to sojourn to this remote place in her twilight years.
  • Human Bero, member to a mercantilist family, is accompanied by business partners Hammen and Gipp, seeking to gain traction with the shipping market - with some barely-concealed preference to the activities going on in the Far Bank. Hammen in particular is fond of vice: always accompanied by an "understudy," Engeram (FM 1).
  • Savaric of Lis, a former adventurer (Thief 2), is the unofficial guide of Far Bank. He knows the ins and outs and has relationships with dozens of small time operations. He is more bluster than ability, but has a lot of friends - if needed. Among his friends are two adventuring companions: a Hylos (Halfling 1) and Milla (MU 2). Milla tends to keep Sleep and Magic Missile in her arsenal.
  • A former adventuring party - the Hardwood Hammerers - is using the gains from their recent findings to establish themselves in the elite: working out of the South Wharf and risking other people's lives instead of their own. The brains behind the act is a female Conjuror (MU 3) named Ellin. Ellin can cast Hold Portal, Light, and Mirror Image. Other members of the troupe include Moisent, female fighter (FM 2); two Halflings, Haemon the Quick (level 2) and Ynta the Quicker (level 3); and two Elves Caitir (level 1) and Boisil (level 2). Caitir can cast Read Magic; Boisil, Read Magic and Darkness. They will, to a trusted contractor, give information about the Fette Tante in exchange for an agreed cut.
  • The oldest family to the colony, among the founders and with relatives in the original, ill-fated colony, is led by Engilbert (FM 3) and his grown son Sichar (FM 1). The matriarch of the family having passed, Engilbert prioritizes security and cohesion of the colony, fearing what lies outside the walls - arguably being the source of the quarantine on exterior goods. Engilbert has two young children - Okter and Sigeric - who are guarded by a Dwarfish tutor, Milogost. Likewise, Engilbert has a teen-aged daughter, Liutgarde, whom he guards zealously - but who, unknown to him, is a frequent (albeit anonymous) visitor to the far bank (Thief 3).
The Port of Monaco; Adolphe Appian

Public domain artwork retrieved from or the National Gallery of Art and adapted for thematic use. Attribution in alt text.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Time Tax Thief

Reached Over; Louis Rhead
Back in February, I penned an alternative mechanism for Thief skill resolution intended to make Thieves more interesting and to introduce an element of player skill into the execution of Thief character skills. In terms of those rules success at the former - introducing an interesting mechanic - the post succeeded; in terms of the latter, introducing player skill... I was less satisfied. While an element of player skill was introduced, it was very little difference than simply allowing a re-roll: which tied in to the idea that the consequence of failure was simply lost time - falling into a tried complaint against re-rolling the Thief skills: that traps, locks, and other non-enemy hazards are simply a tax on the party's time.

But then I thought - why not tax the party's time? 

In OSR games, time is a finite resource - same as light, rations, or hit points - that must be managed by the party, spent one turn at a time to progress the adventure. Puzzle preventing forward movement? Takes time to solve. Guardians in wait that have to be fought or circumvented? Takes time - both options. 

In this spirit of the game, I submit the intentional Time Tax Thief.

Thief Skills as a Time Tax

When resolving a Thief skill, roll a percentile die as normal: however, when identifying the potential to succeed, multiply the Thief's chance of success by their level - hence referred to as their net success rate - making a note of each multiple. The roll succeeds if it is equal to or less than the calculated net success rate - however it takes a number of turns (or other appropriate increment of time) equal to the multiple corresponding to the roll. For example, a Thief of level 3 attempting to Move Silently through a 120' space, a span equating to 1 turn of movement in a dungeon, would roll accordingly:

  • A result of 1 to 30 would succeed, taking 1 turn.
  • A result of 31 to 60 would also succeed, taking 2 turns. 
  • A result of 61 to 90 would likewise succeed, taking 3 turns.
  • A result of 91 to 100 would result in a failure.

A natural roll of 100 on the percentile dice will always result in a failure, typically on the first turn of the attempt, but subject to the discretion of the referee. 

Likewise at the discretion of the referee, the failure may take a number of turns proportional to the margin of failure - though for simplicity, the referee may be encouraged to set the time-tax for failure at a single turn.

If a total failure occurs - that is, the roll is a natural 100 or outside the net success rate of the rolling Thief - the Thief fails as normal, per rules as written. 

Bar Lock and Keys; Alexander Anderson

Uncertain Timing (optional)

Instead of having the player roll the percentile skill, the referee rolls the dice for the player in secret. Then, according to the roll, they reference how many turns are required for success: counting up, allowing the player the choice to continue or to stop trying. For example, a level 3 Thief is attempting to remove a trap. In secret, the referee rolls a 67 - resulting in a failure:

"Ten minutes pass and the mechanism seems in tact. Do you continue?"
The player opts to continue.
"A further ten minutes pass; the mechanism is more complex than most. You still do not feel it is disarmed."
The referee rolls for a wandering monster - a 5: undisturbed to continue.
"Do you continue?"
The player opts to continue.
"A final ten minutes pass - and you are able to determine the trigger, itself, is embedded deeper in the wall. You will be unable to disarm this trap. Caller, how does the party proceed?"

If the referee, in this situation, had rolled a 57 instead of 67 - of course - on the third turn would inform the player that the trap was disarmed: as a 57 would be within a level 3 Thief's net success range.

Exploding Failures (optional)

Stealing; Louis Rhead

Instead of treating a natural roll of 100 as an automatic failure, instead, the referee may opt to have the Thief - or, the ref themselves, may - roll again: adding the second result to the first. This continues on each subsequent roll of 100, likewise adding to the final result, increasing the net chance to succeed above 100% for Thieves of sufficient level. 

For example, a level 6 Thief attempting to remove a trap has a chance of succeeding after between 1 and 3 turns: 

  • 0-40, 1 turn
  • 41-80, 2 turns
  • 81-99, 3 turns
  • Failure on a roll of 100

Using the Exploding Failures option, the Thief could take as many as 6 turns to succeed (or to fail!): 

  • 0-40, 1 turn
  • 41-80, 2 turns
  • 81-120 (the dice having exploded at 100), 3 turns
  • 121-160, 4 turns
  • 161-200, 5 turns
  • 201-240 (the dice having exploded again at 200), 6 turns
  • Failure on a roll of 241 or above

Under this option, Thieves of 4th level and higher are even less likely to fail than in the standard method: but the potential time tax imposed on them for that higher success chance likewise increases - stretching even for hours!

Some skills, under this method, make more thematic sense than others; it is at the referee's discretion as to how and where they best apply at their table. More notably - however - this creates a situation where the lamp oil and henchmen's nerve slowly whittle away without an abundance of re-attempts: streamlining on a single toss of the dice.

The Math Part

Notably, at first level, this method does not help the Thief at all. A first level Thief is still unlikely to be able to succeed in almost any of their given skills under pressure. However, because the rate of net success rather than immediate success increases rapidly thereafter, an added emphasis is placed on the Thief's generous experience progression table. 

The net chance of success - that is succeeding, but not necessarily on the first turn - is as follows:

Level Open Locks Remove Traps Pick Pockets** Move Silently Climb Sheer Surfaces Hide in Shadows Hear Noise*
15 10 20 20 87 10 33
40 30 50 50 99 30 66
75 60 90 90 99 60 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
Level Open Locks Remove Traps Pick Pockets** Move Silently Climb Sheer Surfaces Hide in Shadows Hear Noise*
8 99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
* Hear Noise expressed in percentages rather than B/X's standard X-in-6.
** Pick Pockets is weird, in that the roll is adjusted by level of the target - there should always be a chance to fail.

By level 4, under this system, the Thief is virtually guaranteed - 99% chance, running by the standard suggested approach - to succeed at every skill they have... eventually. 

But how long will it take them to succeed? By level, a Thief will take an average number of turns to succeed (assuming a success) as follows:

Level Open Locks Remove Traps Pick Pockets Move Silently Climb Sheer Surfaces Hide in Shadows Hear Noise*
1.13 1.55 1.52
2.03 2.03
1.12 2.03 2.01
1.11 2.53 2.01
1.1 2.89 2.01
1.09 2.24 2.01
1.08 2.08 1.34
Level Open Locks Remove Traps Pick Pockets Move Silently Climb Sheer Surfaces Hide in Shadows Hear Noise*
8 1.36
1.36 1.07 1.46 1.34
1.06 1.36
1.05 1.26 1.34
1.04 1.16 1.18
1 1.05
1.03 1.11 1.18
1 1.03
1.02 1.06 1.18
1 1.02 1.02 1.02 1.18

These numbers are close, but approximate - for example, Open Locks or Remove Traps at level 3, being capable of failure, should have an average turns to succeed of 2, as each multiple of the base chance has an equal chance of being rolled - but I only have so much patience debugging Libre Calc macros and these numbers are close enough to provide a weighted gauge. 

If the reader is better at statistics than the author, as always, please feel free to pipe up!

Considering this average, how long can a task skill check to succeed? Depending on level, a skill success will take between 1 and 4 turns. For example, Open Locks and using the B/X + OSE Thief progression succeeds as follows:

  •  The minimum number of turns required is 1. This represents a traditional success.
  •  The maximum number of turns that can result in success is 2 or 3 at levels 2 and 3, respectively.
  • The maximum number of turns that can be taken by any Thief to accomplish a task is 4 at level 4: a roll of 0-30 taking 1 turn, a roll of 31-60 taking 2 turns, a roll of 61-90 taking 3 turns, and a roll of 91-99 taking 4 turns. 
  • The maximum number of turns for a Thief of level 5 or 6, following the arithmetic, is 3.
  • From level 7, the percent chance of a first-turn success exceeds 50% for the first time and - thus - will take a maximum of 2 turns to succeed.
  • At level 14, when the percent chance reaches 99 - the maximum threshold - the Thief will take 1 turn to succeed or will fail.

You said "B/X + OSE Thief progression." Why? To some referees, the prospect of an auto-success in average 2 turns may seem a bit overpowered. For that reason, those tables are encouraged to reduce the base success chance: knowing that the focus is less on success and failure, success chance rising exponentially and the focus thus aiming at the amount of time it takes. The most obvious existing product with which readers may be familiar that does exactly this is the Mentzer Basic line - BECMI, as independent booklets, or compiled in the Rules Cyclopedia. 

Using the latter, a Thief - levels 1 to 14, comparing apples and apples to the B/X level range - can expect a net chance of success as follows:

Level Open Locks Find Traps Remove Traps Pick Pockets** Move Silently Climb Sheer Surfaces Hide in Shadows Hear Noise*
10 10 20 20 87 10 30
30 30 50 50 99 30 70
60 60 90 90 99 60 99
99 99 99 125 99 99 96 99
99 99 99 125
99 99 99 99
99 99 99 125 99
99 99 99
99 99 99 125 99
99 99 99
Level* Open Locks Find Traps Remove Traps Pick Pockets** Move Silently Climb Sheer Surfaces Hide in Shadows Hear Noise
8 99 99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
99 99 125 99 99 99 99
* Why did I bother typing an "everything is 99" chart...
** Again, weird - adjusted by the level of the target.

... over an average number of turns as follows:

Level Open Locks Find Traps Remove Traps Pick Pockets Move Silently Climb Sheer Surfaces Hide in Shadows Hear Noise
1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
1.54 1.55 1.55 1.54 1.53 1.13 1.55 1.52
2.03 2.03 2.03 2.03 2.02 1.12 2.03 2.16
2.89 2.53 2.53 2.89 2.24
1.11 2.53 2.08
2.24 2.89 2.89 2.24 2.16 1.1 2.94 2.01
2.16 2.24 2.26 2.16 2.1 1.09 2.85 1.47
2.08 2.16 2.19 2.08 2.04 1.08 2.24 1.43
Level Open Locks Find Traps Remove Traps Pick Pockets Move Silently Climb Sheer Surfaces Hide in Shadows Hear Noise
8 2.01 2.08 2.13 2.01 1.49 1.07 2.19 1.39
1.47 2.01 2.07 1.46
1.46 1.06 2.14 1.35
1.43 1.47 2.01 1.41 1.43
1.05 2.1 1.31
1.39 1.43 1.47 1.36 1.4 1.04 2.05 1.27
1.35 1.39 1.43 1.31 1.37 1.03 2.01 1.23
1.32 1.35 1.4 1.26 1.35 1.02 1.48 1.2
1.29 1.31 1.37 1.21 1.33 1.01 1.45 1.17

Notably, "Find Traps" and "Remove Traps" are two skills in Rules Cyclopedia, whereas B/X provides only "Remove Traps" - but a dive into that conversation is peripheral to the purpose of this post. More relevantly, we see that the level at which a Thief reaches 99% success rate in all of their skills has increased to 5, rather than 4, and comparing Open Locks to Open locks, you're still looking at between 1 and 4 turns to succeed: with level 5 marking the shift in the curve, taking at most three turns: 

  • 0-35 succeeds in 1 turn
  • 36-70 succeeds in 2 turns
  • 71-99 succeeds in 3 turns
  • 100 results in failure

What we do see, the average turns to succeed - using a reduced progression as BECMI is to B/X - curves downward more gradually after its peak. MS Found in a Bottle; Hermann Wogel For example, looking at Move Silently, the peak average time tax occurs at level 4 - 2.24 turns - but by level 8, the B/X progression results in an average time tax of 1.36 turns where a BECMI progression results in an average time tax of 1.49 turns.

How much of a difference would that make? Depends on how often Moving Silently comes up during your sessions. Moral of the story? It means they will take longer to do it - they will consume more torches, they will encounter more wandering monsters, and they will have to consider accordingly before pulling the skill trigger: and that's a better injection of player agency.


Delve on, readers - may the percentiles fall in your favor!

Public domain artwork retrieved from or the National Gallery of Art and adapted for thematic use. Attribution in alt text.

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