I'm not sure why I backed Best Left Buried on Kickstarter in 2020. I mean, I really like OSR roleplaying games, but I thought I'd found my sweet spot with White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game (for that old skool D&D itch) and The Black Hack (for everything else). What was I thinking, investing in some oddball dungeoncrawl game? After all, my own players had tired of dungeoncrawling, so who would I even use it with?
Maybe it was the ominous title or maybe it was the faux-amateurish chiaroscuro art. Maybe it's the irresistible blend of sanity-shredding horror and underground skirmishing. Whatever: I pledged. Then I forgot about it until the rulebooks arrived this summer. Then I forgot about them for a good few months. But they teased me from the Shelf Of Shame where I'd consigned them. Yes, I think it was the art that made me start dipping into them. And I was hooked. So I GMed a game with a couple of players. And they loved it!
Yeah. It's the art.
Best Left Buried is produced by SoulMuppet Publishing, a friendly duo of Zach Cox (words) and Ben Brown (art), who describe it as "a fantasy horror game where the monsters are scary and the players are scared."
In the format established by AD&D, there are three (slim) books in the rules set: The Cryptdigger's Guide to Survival (a Player's Handbook), The Doomsayer's Guide to Horror (a DM's Guide) and The Hunter's Guide to Monsters (a Monster Manual). Interior art is all black and white, but there's loads of it; the print is large and friendly to the eye, the paper is heavy and each book is about 100 pages.
Physical copies seem to be sold out but the PDFs are from SoulMuppet or drivethrurpg (and the bundle is £10 at the time of writing)
What you get is a very stripped back RPG. There are just three stats - Brawn, Will and Wits - and you assign +2, +1 and +0 to them. Tests involving rolling 9+ on 2d6, adding your stat bonus. In combat you roll 3d6 and choose two dice to pass the test and the third die is your damage. Damage is deducted from your Vigour (starting at 6 + Brawn) but a roll of 6 on a damage die usually imposes an Injury - roll on the Injury table; it could kill you outright.
If your Vigour hits zero, down you go. Flip a coin. Heads you wake up later with an Injury, tails you die. Yeah: it's that sort of game. The rules advise you to create three characters so that replacements are at hand as they die off. Don't get too attached.
Spawning a new character just became instantaneous with this cute character generator by David Schirduan
The other important stat is Grip, which starts at 4 + Will. You spend Grip to get re-rolls or use magical powers. Awful events will force Will tests which, if failed, cause you to lose Grip. When Grip hits zero you go irrevocably mad, have a heat attack, turn to evil or leave play in some other disturbing way. Unlike Vigour, which is healed by rest, it's very difficult to regain Grip.
Difficult, but not impossible. A player can choose to acquire an Injury or Affliction at some dramatic moment in play. Injuries reset your Grip to 5, Afflictions reset it to 10. Injuries might be temporary or minor (but could kill you outright); Afflictions are mental illnesses, mystical curses or spiritual corruptions that slowly turn your character into a basket-case or a monster: Debilitating Dread forces you to spend more Grip in triggering situations, Man-Eater means you can't heal through resting unless you've eaten human flesh. You get the idea?
This simple little system leads to interesting choices. Do you keep resetting your Grip while your character disintegrates physically and mentally? Or do you stay pristine and avoid using or spending Grip at any cost? As your character gains experience, they get more powerful Advancements (of which, more in a moment) but go madder and badder and more decrepit. When a character dies, a fresh-faced recruit won't have all the crazy skills the old one accumulated, but won't have the burdensome problems either.
Love the art.
Characters can be built from 13 Archetypes. These are your familiar character classes but given a grimdark twist: Believers have a holy mission and Cabalists have numbed themselves with horror already; Freeblades are mercenary warriors but the Everyman is an ordinary fish-out-of-water; Dastards are city-slicker scoundrels and Scholars have forbidden knowledge. You also get a Journeyman Advancement with a cool name like My Shining Armour Gleams or Spirits of the Beyond (or, y'know, just take +1 Brawn or +3 Grip).
Levelling up means earning 8 experience points and converting them into +1 to your Grip and Vigour plus a new Advancement. Four Advancement qualifies you for the Heroic Advancements (available in one of the PDF 'zinis' that detail all the stuff that was wisely left out of the core rules).
How do you earn xp? Well, not from killing monsters. Monsters are to be avoided, fled or outwitted and only fought as a last resort. You get 1 xp from passing a Grip test. You also get xp from the treasure you drag out of the dungeon (sorry, from the crypt). There's a neat system for this too. Each adjective adds or subtracts 1 xp for a treasure: a golden goblet is worth 1 xp, a gleaming golden goblet is worth 2 xp and a set of gleaming golden goblets is worth 3 xp, but a dented golden goblet is worth nothing ('dented' subtracting 1 xp) while a cracked gleaming golden goblet is only worth 1 xp.
That's it. There are rules tweaks for different weapon types. The Doomsayer's Guide has a 'toolbox' of house rules to choose from covering different approaches to healing, initiative, dying etc and those 'zinis' add even more. The rest is taken up with campaign settings, a complete dungeon (sorry, crypt) called Lord Edmund's Barrow and much sound advice for creating crypts (i.e. dungeons) and making the game scary.
Then there are the monsters.
OK, that's ... different
The Hunter's Guide offers templates for the generic monsters of fantasy RPGs, but offers some evocative names (like Cinderbeasts for demons) but then goes on to provide a selection of detailed beasts that are quirky and memorable - like the Lion Hydra above. Monsters have a pretty simple stat block (Armour and Vigour and the three stats are all that usually matter) plus a bunch of Adaptations which are the monster equivalent of the players' Advancements.
There are some very wise features here too. Monsters have Omens, which are the ways their appearance is foreshadowed (like bloodstains, claw marks on the walls, distant howls) - remember the point is not to fight these things? They have Moods that describe their behaviour. They might have a Wind-Up which occurs before they use their powers, tipping observant players off to what's coming. There are tables to generate everything randomly, if that's what you want.
In fact, designing tables seems to be Zach Cox's delight. There are (optional but fun) tables to roll up your starting equipment, your weapons, your old profession, even your name. The emphasis is on hitting the ground running with a new character or monster and then bringing creativity to bear to explain what you've concocted.
The final ingredient in Best Left Buried is your Company.
Best not go there ...
PCs are Cryptdiggers who belong to a Company that loots dungeons (I'm not going to call them crypts so stop trying to make me) as a business enterprise. Outside of the dungeon, the PCs have bosses, camp followers, quartermasters, healers, a complete military camp. You hand over your treasure in exchange for equipment and board. The GM and players are encouraged to develop this Company almost as a character in its own right and, naturally, there are quirky tables to help you do this.
There seem to be two inspirations at work here. One is RPGs like Blades In The Dark that position all the PCs as part of a 'crew' of thieves and ruffians: the crew will outlast individual characters and the players might take responsibility for several different characters within the outfit, choosing which one to roleplay on any particular occasion.
The other is Tyler Sigman's video game Darkest Dungeons which proposes that you manage a team of adventurers to explore the dungeons under a Gothic mansion, managing their unravelling sanity while you recruit new explorers to replace the ones who die, burn out, run away or murder each other.
Best Left Buried encourages you to create vivid and flawed characters who will lead short, but horrifically memorable lives and continuity is ensured by the ongoing drama of the Company for which they all work.
I'm going to be clear up front: I really like this game. I like its simple but flexible rules engine, I like its dark and scrappy aesthetic, I like its RPG philosophy of frail and flawed heroes spending a lot of time running away, I like the corporate roleplaying involved in developing a Company and Camp, I like the left-field imagination at play in the monsters and naming conventions, I like all the silly tables.
This means I can see why you might not like it. Maybe you like tactical combat. Maybe you don't like running away. Maybe you like characters to survive and prosper. Maybe you don't want your PC to die on a coin flip. Maybe you hate silly tables. Those are all fair and reasonable positions to take. They're just not my position.
Actually, I do wonder about dying on a coin flip. To be fair, the Doomsayer's Guide offers alternatives to this. As part of my old White Box campaign I developed some pretty rigorous mechanics for keeping PCs alive while imposing wounds and frailties on them for surviving. I'm not sure players really appreciated it, in the long run. Best Left Buried takes a very different approach: view your PC as a transient figure, a "poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage" and reconcile yourself to sudden and unjust death. Continue the story of the Company with a new character. Take a wider view of your role in the evolving story.
There are some flaws in the game and they are presentational, which is odd considering the role art and aesthetic plays in this game's appeal.
There is no index. This is a big problem. If a monster has an Adaptation like Gelatinous Grip, is that in the Hunter's Guide or is it in the Cryptdigger's Survival Guide, because different monster powers are described in both? Where are Wind-Ups explained? Even though there aren't many rules, there are occasions where you want to look one up (or find one of those tables) and there's little help doing this.
Adding to this problem is the way the rules are set out in the first place. There's a conversational approach that introduces concepts in the order that you need them while creating a character or designing a dungeon. That's great for the first read-through but it's terrible for using the rulebook as a reference tool, because weapon stats are in an early chapter (because you need to know about them while equipping your new PC) but combat rules are in a much later chapter.
To make matters worse, when page references are given, some of them are wrong. For example, on p77 we learn that rolling a 6 for damage imposes an Injury and are referred to p39 for more on Injuries. Injuries are actually detailed on p87. When Chapters are referenced, they are referred to by number - but the chapters aren't numbered. It's all very well assuring me that a rule can be found in Chapter 6, but which chapter is chapter six?
Giving powers quirky names is fine, but if you want to look up the power that lets a monster animate the dead and you've forgotten that it's called Corpse-mover you have to read through all the monster Adaptations until you find it. It's an unnecessary problem for what ought to be a pick-up-and-play game that looking something up 'in the moment' adds significant stress to the task of GMing.
Of course, adhesive tags come to the rescue but not everyone wants their RPG books to become adorned with fluttering coloured pennants.
A couple of rules don't seem to work as intended. Dealing an Injury to a monster is fiddly (off to p87 we go to roll on that table) and might kill an important enemy outright. Is that what we want? There's an Adaptation called Unstoppable that means a monster takes an extra d6 damage instead of an Injury - but that's actually worse than most Injuries. Would it be better to declare monsters immune to Injuries, even though that shortchanges players wielding heavy weapons? Or create a separate Injury table for monsters?
Gaining 1xp for passing a Grip test strikes me as the wrong way round. Surely passing the test is its own reward and you should gain 1 xp for failing a Grip test. That would be more in line with the game's destroy-yourself-to-advance ethos.
That art ...
A lot of love has been put into this game and it's a dark, demented and cruel love. There's a broad selection of scenarios for it and Zach kindly recommends a bunch of scenarios you can find online for free. I downloaded Skerples' Tomb of the Serpent King for my first game and that's a brilliant intro dungeon - so good, in fact, that it deserves a review of its own.
OSR fans ought to take a look at Best Left Buried, especially if you can track down a print version. It's a shot in the arm for a dungeoncrawl genre that's rather moribund at the moment. And the art is great.
Try it out. But don't go flipping tails!
You know how it is. Work is piling up. You've got a million things to do. But you've been struck by this idea that just tickles you so much that you have to sit down and write a RPG about it.
Yes, I know. First World Problems.
But here's the Hedgerow Hack RPG.
Eerie 'crucified scarecrow' cover art by Fraser Sandercombe (2014, by permission)
You see, it all started last week with an innocent game of D&D - or, actually, BlueHack RPG, as discussed in last weekend's blog. It was enjoyable high fantasy fare, but one player - Karl McMichael - went a bit moodier and darker with his character concept. He decided his generic 1st level Cleric would be a mute child worshipper of the god of scarecrows who wore a sack over his head and communicated through a ragged sock puppet. Then he draw this flavour art.
Bilge by Karl Michael (2021)
Now, if that doesn't make you want to design a brand new RPG, just so that this character can live and breathe and take part in macabre folk-horror stories - well, I don't know what will.
OK, yes, right - that will do it too, I suppose.
Umm. OK. That's another.
That one, maybe not so much.
I started off just creating Black Hack style character classes for druidic tramps, living scarecrows and talking animals. But the world of the Hedgerow really took me by the throat. The first shift was the idea that the characters be time travelling mystical hobos, sort of Sapphire & Steel meets Wurzel Gummidge.
Once you've had that idea, you need your own setting and mythology. So welcome to the Old Shires, a pristine patch of the English countryside caught somewhere between The Railway Children and Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General, with a dollop of Catweazel and Aqualung and Fairport Convention and, oh yes, some of Prince Valiant and The Vikings too please. And John Boorman's Excalibur and the 1980s Robin of Sherwood too while I'm at it.
And throw in some classic children's fantasy literature, why not !
We need a map of the Old Shires, or my favourite part of it, the part that looks like Herefordshire:
Then we need our cast of PCs - the Briar Company of Sky & Furrow. You can choose from Heathen Clerks who are your basic Clerics, but who follow the Heathen Saints, with names like King Wren, Elder Mandrake, Lady Hagthorne and Lord Brock. They can switch to a different saint each story or be exclusive to one. Ouzel are bird-headed Fae who are illusionists and spell-casters. Wurzels are animated scarecrows and mighty warriors. Tinkers are ragged beggars with hidden powers; depending on the season they follow they might be thieves, assassins, prophets or rangers. Gypceans are, well, gypsies really: they know about the Briar Company, they're loremasters and, if another Companion gifts them some magical power, they can craft wondrous items.
The Briar Knights can pass through the mystical Hedge between worlds, moving from the Age of Swords (9th century, Danes invading), the Age of Plagues (17th century, witch trials), Age of Steel (19th century, railways are here) and Age of Ashes (our time) as well as the Age of Fables (your classic high fantasy).
So, it's like Time Bandits isn't it? Why didn't I think to tell you it's like Time Bandits?
Should have won Best Film for 1982. Oscar went to Chariots of Fire and who re-watches THAT any more?
Heroes need villains. The Briar Company are up against the usual monsters - undead, daemons, goblyns (with a Y) - but also the Feral Squires who have invaded the Old Shires. There's Isengrim Von Ulf and his sister Hirsent Dame Wolf; there's the ridiculous Martin le Ape and Tibault Prince of Cats. Then there's Reynard the Fox who sometimes thwarts the PCs and sometimes assists them. They're served by the Wer-kynde who are changelings that grow into were-creatures.
You can play the Feral Squires for laughs but there's nothing funny about the Raven Margrave, who is a force of Darkness, with crows for spies, undead for servants and the Murdering Ministers as his lieutenants.
Finally there's the Witch-Harrow, a mortal organisation that hunts down supernatural creatures. Most of the agents are just Gossips and Snoops, but the Hexen Hammers are ferocious warriors and Inquisitors know spells to strip the Briar Knights of their powers.
The novel mechanic here is the Doom Die that ticks down when you attract the attention of one of these factions, finally forcing a confrontation with their agents while you're just, you know, trying to persuade a Fae Lord to return Jenny o'the Fell's baby to her or help Gareth Gamble-Green escape the constables.
I've added in a mechanic to replace gold pieces as the main reward. PCs must track down fragments of Lore and the Legendary Locations that match them, so it's also a game of exploring a mythic landscape.
I'm uncommonly pleased with this. I still delight in Susan Cooper's marvellous Dark Is Rising fantasy sequence, in which an order of time-traveling Old Ones move between the modern world, the Dark Ages and the faerie-themed Otherworld, assembling legendary treasures and finding eerie significance in folk celebrations. There was a 2007 movie, but it was rubbish, despite Ian McShane being in it. I think those books will haunt my life and they're a big influence on this game.
The editions I grew up with. Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) is a bit 'Famous Five Go To Cornwall and find the Holy Grail' but the fantasy really kicks in with 1973's The Dark is Rising. The sequel Greenwitch taught childhood-me the meaning of awe when Will and Merry confront the sea goddess and The Grey King is just haunting and beautiful and strange - so good, in fact, that it rather overshadows the series' 1977 climax, Silver On The Tree.
After a bit of playtesting, The Hedgerow Hack is be available as pay-what-you-want on drivethrurpg - but if anyone wants to offer criticism, beta testing or just to chat about it, send me an email.
Yes, it's Bob Dylan's best song ("Discuss...."), but it also describes my new fascination with Michael Thomas' Blue Hack RPG, after my lovely experience using it last weekend.
Click the image to see the page on drivethrurpg
What I now itch to do is expand the roster of character classes for Blue Hack, like I did for White Box in blogs passim. I want to take some of the so-called 'sub-classes' D&D players have loved over the decades and interpret them through the lens of Eric J. Holmes' 1977 Basic D&D Set, then refract it through the Blue Hack's own quirky sensibility.
For example, what about the Barbarian and the Bard?
The reason I focus on these two is that they specialise in Stats that Blue Hack neglects: CON and CHA. Currently, these Stats are prerequisites for demi-humans (Dwarves and Halflings need CON 9+) but none of the classes get the opportunity to increase CON and CHA when they gain HD.
Personally, I would house rule that all Blue Hack PCs can choose to roll to increase CHA when they gain a HD, instead of rolling to increase one of their class-specific Stats. Rising fame (or notoriety) ought to result in growing charisma.
Blue vs Black
Before creating new Blue Hack classes, we need to look at the distinctively Holmesian direction Michael Thomas has taken the game from its 'parent' publication, the Black Hack.
The Black Hack calls them Warriors. They have d10 Hit Dice, but Blue Hack increases their damage output from d8/d6 to d10/d8. This is perhaps because Blue Hack is a more dangerous game: 1-2 HD monsters deal 1d8 damage in Blue Hack compared to a d4 or d6 in Black Hack. (The two games become more similar as monsters get tougher)
Another difference is Armour. In Black Hack you might have up to 12 points of Armour (from Plate and a Large Shield) but once it's been used to protect you, it's gone until you rest. In Blue Hack you have less Armour (5 points from Plate and Shield) but it applies every turn. The same goes for monster armour: a 4 HD Ogre in Blue Hack is absorbing 3 points of damage every time you hit it, so it makes sense to boost PC damage output.
I presume Michael made this change to make his Blue Hack less fiddly - you don't have to keep track of Armour Points, you just apply them every turn - and perhaps to stretch fights out a little longer, in the style of Holmesian slug-fests of yore.
Black Hack Warriors heal when not in combat. This sort of regeneration fits Black's chugging momentum, but doesn't fit with Holmes' gritty take on D&D. Black Hack Warriors also get attacks equal to their HD, but Blue Hack changes this to one attack per 2 HD; the effect is to make Blue Hack less super-heroic, since Fighters don't get 2 attacks per round until they have 3HD or 3 attacks until they have 5HD, by which time Black Hack Warriors are attacking 5 times a round.
Blue Hack adds in Parrying for Fighters and Shrug Off Damage is a boost to their Armour points - again, equal to half their HD, so it doesn't start to benefit them until they have 2 HD.
Shield Sundering becomes something anyone can do in the Blue Hack - although, thinking about it, Clerics are the only other characters who carry shields.
Clerics are similar in both games, although Blue Hack Clerics have superior damage output (1d8/1d6).
Blue Hack never mentions that Clerics must add the monster's HD to their roll to turn undead - but I take this to be subsumed under general rules for Powerful/Weaker Opponents. Interestingly, Blue Hack does allow you to gain a bonus when testing your Stats against monsters with fewer HD than you. Black Hack seems to assume that, since you improve your Stats as you gain HD, that's enough of a reward in itself, but Blue Hack is more keen to make experienced PCs dominate lesser NPCs and monsters.
Blue Hack removes the Clerical bonus for resisting poison/paralyzation, but it does offer access to all the Clerical spells, rather than just 1d4 of them.
Michael adds some Clerical spells like Resist Cold/Fire and Control Snakes but removes Speak With Animals. This is maintaining continuity with Holmes' 1977 spell lists.
Black Hack calls them Conjurors. Blue Hack raises their HD to beefy d6s and their damage output to d6/d4 instead of d4/1.
Blue Hack retains Black's magic resistance (roll with Advantage when testing INT against magical damage or effects). It makes the unusual choice of offering Magicians access to all the spells of the appropriate level and lets the Magician 'carry' 3 x HD spells in their heads. This makes Blue Hack Magicians rather more competent than old Homesian magic-users. They can create scrolls too - and quite cheaply. There are definitely implications for treasure placement here, since Hack characters don't need gold pieces for XP, but Magicians will spend everything they can find on creating an arsenal of spell scrolls. A Blue Hack campaign would need to be very stingy with money.
Blue Hack spell lists port across everything from Holmes, with a few odd exceptions, like Dancing Lights. Read Magic is gone, because now of course Magicians have access to all the spells.
I'm in two minds about the removal of Read Magic. Forcing magic-users to go adventuring in order to find spells and increase their repertoire was an interesting aspect of D&D. It was perhaps only implied in Holmes and made explicit in AD&D. Holmes' Read Magic spell was for using scrolls - and I support making magic scrolls usable by any Magician without having to cast a spell first. But on the other hand, Blue Hack's more flexible spell-slot system encourages PCs to carry along utility spells just in case, in a way that the rigid Holmes/AD&D approach did not.
Thieves are almost identical in both systems. Blue Hack boosts their damage output to 1d8/1d6 and carries this across to their backstabbing. The Black Hack's rather broad ability to roll with Advantage on delicate tasks is now restricted to Hearing Noises. However, Blue Hack specifically empowers Thieves to test DEX to open locks, hide, sneak, etc. Black Hack seemed to allow anyone to do these things (just, Thieves were better at it), whereas Blue Hack makes this sort of work the specific proficiency of Thieves, which fits with Holmes' more exclusive view of character classes.
Principles for New Classes
A fine principle in D&D is that no new class or sub-class should be better at something than the primary class was. Actually, AD&D violated this principle quite often, making Rangers and Cavaliers better than Fighters. But Michael Thomas clearly adheres to it, because his elf-only Fighter-Magicians have lower HD than Fighters, don't gain the extra attacks of Fighters or the damage resistance or magic-resistance of the parent classes and gain spell-slots more slowly than Magicians.
A Blue Hack principle seems to be a slower ramping up of power, compared to Black Hack PCs. Blue Hack also treats certain abilities as the exclusive province of a character class (like Thieves opening locks) rather than something anyone can attempt by testing a Stat.
CON and CHA are under-used Stats in Blue Hack. Although the Blue Hack spell lists are generous, they're lacking some of the effects D&D players expect, like talking to animals, monster summoning, etc.
Blue Hack Barbarians
Brian Asbury introduced what was (to my mind) the finest iteration of the Barbarian sub-class back in White Dwarf #4 in 1977. I analysed the Asbury Barbarian in a previous blog and offered a reconstruction of it for White Box RPG.
If we accept the idea of the Barbarian as a specialist in ferocity - accomplishing by instinctual energy what other, more civilised characters do through study, technique or reflection - then we can build a Blue Hack Barbarian along these lines:
Personally, I think Barbarians should always be Humans, but if your campaign features savage Frost Elves, Desert Dwarves or Jungle Halflings, go ahead and mix it up.
Starting HP: 1d8 + 6
HP per HD/Resting: 1d8
Weapons & Armour: No armour or shield, may use any weapons
Attack Damage: 1d8 either armed or unarmed/improvising
Gaining HD: Roll twice to increase STR or CON.
Danger Sense: A Barbarian enjoys Armour Points based on an instinct for danger; unlike normal Armour, these points are removed when used and only regained by resting for a turn (like Armour Points in Black Hack); the Barbarian gains 1d4 points per HD and re-rolls them all after each rest.
First Attack Ferocity: A Barbarian tests with Advantage on her first attack against an opponent who is Close
Self Preservation: A Barbarian may test CON to avoid any penalty from being Out of Action but must add the result of the OoA roll (up to +6 for 'Death')
This is the loincloth-clad semi-nude barbarian of fantastic literary fiction, not a medieval Viking or Celt. The d8 HD makes this Barbarian equivalent to a Cleric, but note the superior starting Hit Points. The damage output is the same for any weapon or even bare fists: good for a savage meelee fighter.
No armour is a drawback, but offset by Danger Sense. A 1HD Barbarian enjoys 1d4 Armour Points, which might be equivalent to chainmail, but a 3HD Barbarian will have 3d4 Armour Points, possibly double figures, which few Fighters can match. However, these points are removed as they are used, so in a long fight, the Barbarian becomes helpless. The Armour Points aren't predictable: you might roll poorly. Referees might disallow using Armour Points in no-peril situations, such as getting your companions to attack you just to be allowed to re-roll your Armour Points.
Self Preservation encourages a Barbarian to take foolhardy risks and avoid being crippled or disfigured - or even dying.
First Attack Ferocity is a nod to the Asbury Barbarian's signature move. Attacking with Advantage is particularly sweet as it doubles the chance of getting a critical hit.
This Barbarian shouldn't compete for space with Fighters. He's a sprinter, whereas a Fighter is a marathon runner. The mechanics reward jumping headlong into the fray, taking crazy risks, maybe hoping your comrades will bail you out if it all goes wrong.
The Class Hack by Mark Craddock introduces an alternative build for Barbarians. The Craddock Barbarian has d12 HD, outshining Warriors and d10/d8 damage output, also outshining Warriors but to adapt that for Blue Hack it should be d12/d10. They get the same extra attacks as Warriors/Fighters and roll STR and CON when leveling up. This version of the Barbarian is a superb bruiser. Since they can use any weapons or armour, they end up outshining Fighters in almost every way - Blue Hack Fighters' only advantage is their Shrug Off Damage ability to boost their Armour Points slightly and a chance to increase DEX when leveling up: unless a Barbarian rolls a good DEX at character creation, they are likely to fall behind as ranged combatants.
Click on the image to view it on drivethrurpg. There's also a Class Hack 2nd Ed. with a more nuanced Barbarian build that's rather more distinct from an overpowered Warrior
I don't think Blue Hack really needs a super bruiser to outshine Fighters, but it's certainly another option.
Later in the week, I'll think about Bards and Druids.
I took a long break from running RPGs. I started working on my second edition of The Ghost Hack and then my imagination was entirely hijacked by ghost stories. I started writing a ghost story a day for the Daily Ghost (and you can see a selection in the Archives on this website).
But ... I'm back, running a Cthulhu-esque scenario for some old friends over a combination of Zoom and Google Hangouts. The story is set in Ancient Egypt around 1500 BCE - more of that anon - and I was determined not to use the classic Call Of Cthulhu rules system. I went with The Cthulhu Hack and more of that anon too!
You Got A Problem With The Classics?
Well, yes and no. Look, I was there, back in '81, when Sandy Petersen's Call of Cthulhu landed and rewrote everything we thought we knew about RPGs: non-combatant characters, mysteries not conflict, madness not death (or maybe, as well as death), non-heroic protagonists who were hopelessly outmatched by the monsters.
Seven editions in and the first ed. still has the best cover
Ian Bailey's review in White Dwarf 32 (1982) gives you a flavour of how novel CoC was back then:
Like everyone else, I adored CoC and its world-spanning campaign pack Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984) remains the high water mark for this sort of RPG adventure.
Masks ... you just messed with the best!
But CoC isn't perfect and its flaws have - for me at least - intensified over the years, perhaps due to a growing gulf between the way I like to roleplay and GM and some of the assumptions 'baked in' to early-'80s roleplaying that the game just can't shed.
Partly it's the old Basic Roleplaying system that Petersen inherited from Runequest. I didn't mind Runequest with its stylised Bronze Age setting but some of the quirks in BRP became downright weird in a modern investigative setting. Like the flat percentage skill checks which meant that a Professor of Babylonian Antiquities might outright fail to read a passage in cuneiform by fluffing a Read (Ancient Babylonian) test. Not get the gist but miss the details or misinterpret a crucial passage, but outright fail to make any sense of it at all.
Then there's the incentive to let the least-skilful PC attempt any task first - because the XP system rewards low-skill characters for succeeding more than high skill ones. When a lock needs to be picked, the fumble-fingered psychologists and dilettantes all have a go and only if they fail does the private detective sigh, step forward and spring the lock.
And of course the Sanity system with its infamous SAN checks, that results in characters either being utterly unfazed by whatever they see, or turning into gibbering wrecks, with nothing in between.
My biggest problem was the nature of investigations themselves. In CoC it's usually vital that the PCs at some point find a secret compartment, trail a suspect or decipher a text. But if everyone fails the Spot Hidden or Read Languages roll, that simply doesn't occur.
Ken Hite gets round a few of these issues in Trail of Cthulhu, which uses Robin Laws' Gumshoe system to enable a sharper focus on clue-gathering and investigation. My own Cthulhu Abides tries to tackle investigation and sanity: it's a glorious mess (in hindsight) but reviewers were very kind about my sanity rules.
One of these games is a slick product by a pair of RPG luminaries; the other is by me!
Keep It Simple, Shoggoth!
Cthulhu Abides needs an overhaul and I'm not getting into that just now. CoC and ToC are both too clunky for my taste. I'm wanting to run a fast paced Lovecraftian adventure in an exotic setting and I want the players to focus on their characters and environment, not their skills or numbers.
This gives me two choices.
The two choices
Eldritch Tales is a lovely product. It's a White Box adaptation of Call of Cthulhu, which means it takes the Original D&D rules architecture - six classic characteristics rolled on 3d6 each, four character classes, levels, Hit Dice, saving throws - and attaches an Insanity score and a Feat system for doing skills as well as the usual spells (very much in the D&D format), monsters, experience points and the like.
The physical book is lovely, with heavy sepia-tinted pages, nice maps of New England and Arkham as well as essays on Lovecraftian sensibilities and plot construction. The D&D tropes, easy to deride for being artificial, are here presented so simply that you barely notice them and they fit in strangely well with the short mayfly existence of Cthulhoid investigators. The Feat system (roll a d6, try to get a 5 or 6, get bonuses or penalties, roll twice if it chimes with your occupation) is very elegant.
You can buy Eldritch Tales (physical or PDF) from drivethrurpg. It's published by Raven God Games and is written (and largely illustrated) by Joseph D Salvador.
The Cthulhu Hack is a different sort of beast: slimmer (52 pages compared to 220 pages) and altogether frothier. It takes the bare bones of David Black's versatile The Black Hack and runs with that game's innovations.
TCH also takes Original D&D as its departure point, but it travels further from its parent. There are the familiar six characteristics rolled on 3d6. There are Hit Dice. But in place of fixed classes there are Archetypes and an invitation to abandon even them and construct freeform characters around a triad of potent abilities. For example, build in 'Better Alone,' 'Jack in the Hole' and 'Surprise Attack' and you've got some lone assassin or scrappy kid.
TCH takes the Hack idea of resource dice. You roll these dice when you use items or powers and on a 1-2 they exhaust and shrink down to the next-lowest die; so d8s shrink to d6s and d6s shrink to d4s but when a d4 exhausts that resource is entirely gone.
This beautifully abstracts things like wealth. You go around buying things until your Wealth Die completely exhausts, at which point your cheques start bouncing.
But the real innovation is when this applies to investigation. You have two investigative resource dice: Flashlights (physically looking for things or researching them) and Smokes (talking to people, either nicely or through intimidation). These abilities automatically work until the die fully exhausts.
Let me spell this out. Your professor has a d10 die for Flashlights. You search for a secret door. You automatically find it, but roll your die and on 1-2 it shrinks to a d8. In the secret room, you look for a hidden compartment. Again, you automatically find it, but on a 1-2 your d8 shrinks to a d6. Inside is a scroll in Babylonian cuneiform. You automatically translate it, but on a 1-2 your d6 shrinks to a d4. Once your d4 is gone, you won't be finding or translating anything else.
Of course, these is deeply artificial. Just why would a character 'run out' of investigative ability? But it achieves something important in narrative terms. If the PCs look in the right place or talk to the right person, they automatically get the clue. The issue is not "will I succeed in a roll to get the clue?" but "is it worth making the roll to get a clue?" Players need to weigh up whether they are better conserving investigative resources and figuring things out by themselves, or make the rolls and risk exhausting their precious dice.
The Cthulhu Hack is available as physical copy or PDF from drivethrurpg or (physical only) from Lulu. It's published by Just Crunch Games and written by Paul Baldowski.
Shadows Over Karnak
The Cthulhu Hack wins the face-off, although I'd probably go with Eldritch Tales if I intended to run a proper Cthulhuesque campaign rather than this extended one-shot.
Since the setting is Thebes during Egypt's 18th Dynasty, an evocative character sheet is needed:
You can see I've got the six classic characteristics, with Wealth and Hit Dice abstracted as resource dice rather than scores. In place of the pulp detective themes 'Flashlights' and 'Smokes' I've got the Eyes of Ra and Horus. Sanity is replaced by Maat (the Ancient Egyptian concept of harmony and balance).
The scenario is set towards the end of the reign of Hatshepsut, Egypt's famous female pharaoh. The queen has just returned from the far-off land of Punt, bringing back a Puntite delegation who worship strange and nameless gods. Thebes becomes a party town to welcome the guests. Among all the revelry, the ageing Royal Architect is murdered and one of the PCs is implicated in the crime. Cue, investigation to unearth the true murderer and expose a plot that threatens the entire realm ... perhaps even the planet.
I'll keep readers posted on how things unfold and afterwards I'll publish the scenario. The setting has already thrown up some quirky details, like the Handmaids of Isis (Thebes' frighteningly competent all-female civil service) and the danger of knowing even the slightest detail about a pharaoh's tomb.
I'm writing a set of short scenarios for GMs to use one-on-one with new characters to introduce them to the rules of Blueholme and the Delvingwood setting of Michael Thomas' Necropolis of Nuromen. The first was a scenario for a solo Fighter. This one's for a solo first level Magic-User of Good or Lawful alignment and explores the background of the villainous necromancer Nuromen.
Of course, you can adapt this for a full party or higher level characters. Just make the traps more deadly, turn the Tormented Knight into a Mummy, replace the Giant Rats with a colony of Giant Spiders, go nuts!
The Desolate Wedding
You have been hired by Lady Leika of the Lily to do some legal work. Norgules Manor is an estate on an island on the far side of Lonely Lake from Camlann Castle. Norgules Manor has been abandoned since the disappearance of Palin Norgules 50 years ago. The ‘Grandsire Law’ allows a grandchild to arrive and claim an inheritance, but after 50 years this expires and the property reverts to the feudal lord, in this case the House of Lily. Lady Leika wants the estate valued and has sent her clerk, Honorius Squint, and guard, Bland Mulgrew, along with you to assess any magical texts or objects in the estate. Palin Norgules had a reputation as a sorcerer and his son-in-law was the dreaded necromancer Nuromen!
Squint is dull and fussy. Rules infractions throw him into fits of shrill rage, threatening dreadful punishments from "my Lady of the Lily, once we are back in Camlann!" He wants to document every room, with painstaking slowness (an hour per room) and won't allow any properties in the House to be "stolen from their rightful owner, my Lady of the Lily!"
Mulgrew is lazy and boorish. He drinks constantly and complains all the time. He is looking to enrich himself by stealing petty valuables from the estate. His arguments with Squint escalate in ferocity.
Each time the text indicates they argue, each gains a Stress Point. Keep track of the Stress Points the NPCs gain. If Squint reaches 10 Stress, he has a breakdown and tries to run away, jumping into the lake and drowning. If Mulgrew reaches 10 Stress, his irritation with Squint becomes murderous rage and he attacks him; then, he tries to flee the house by the front door and, if he cannot, he goes mad, attacking the PC whom he blames for their predicament.
Norgules is a small island off the eastern shore of the Lonely Lake. Palin made his money from timber from the Delvingwood Forest which presses close by the lake here, and used it to build Norgules Manor and amass an occult library. His wife died giving birth to his daughter, Zimena. Palin lavished money on tutors for Zimena, who grew to become a dark-haired beauty and an enthusiastic sorceress.
Palin offered his daughter in marriage to the necromancer Nuromen, hoping to learn Dark Arts from him. He fully expected Nuromen to sacrifice his new bride to Gamosh, the evil god they both worshiped. However, at the wedding, Nuromen betrayed Palin, slaughtering the household with his undead servants. Palin was sacrificed and left behind as an undead guardian while Nuromen and Zimena decamped to the necromancer's hideaway of Law's End.
Rowing across the Lonely Lake
A pair of boatmen row the PC and two NPCs across the Lake to Norgules. They are talkative fellows and it is easy to get the following rumours out of them:
The Manor House
The Manor stands on a bleak headland overlooking the lake. Its upper storey sags and the roof has collapsed in places. In front of the house stands on odd statue: a knight in full armour, kneeling, clutching a sword in one hand. The statue is of rusted iron, the sword immovable. The statue’s posture is cringing, as if pleading for its life. This is the Tormented Knight, containing Palin Norgules' undead corpse, and it will animate later.
The House has windows of stone lattice that are too small for anyone to climb through. The main doors stand open and tilt from their broken hinges. The floor is strewn with rubble and rat droppings. Most of the doorways have no doors. The rooms are 10’ high and lightless.
The doors stand open. Passages lead left and right and a grand arch opens into the Grand Hall: the arch is constructed to look like bones entwined with roses and is capped by a stone skull.
When the PC first enters, rats scurry away, squeaking in alarm. It is so dark within the House that someone must light a candle or lantern. A Detect Magic spell reveals a faint enchantment on the doors.
When the Tormented Knight enters the Manor, these doors will close, Arcane Locked until dawn.
The main chimney has collapsed, filling the floor with rubble and partially blocking access to the library to the south. The stairwell to the north rises to the first landing but then collapses. Weak light filters through the exposed roof beams. There is no second storey. Arches lead to the Foyer, Parlour and Kitchen, all with bones and roses carved out of stone.
Under the ruined fireplace is the skeleton of a young woman (though this is only likely to be discovered after the Shrieking Ghost Event reveals the body). She carries a key to the Study and the Library.
The stairwell is unsafe, especially the first landing which will creak perilously after one person’s weight is put on it. A second person’s weight will cause it to collapse, dropping the person to the floor below and bringing masonry down on top of them for 2d6 damage. The Tormented Knight counts as two people because of its heavy armour.
A table fills the room, set for a wedding feast, although rats have eaten most of the food and the cake is a nest of spiders now. There are old bloodstains on the tablecloth and chairs.
The player can deduce that a fight broke out at the wedding. Searching will find name plates: the bride was Zimena Norgules, the groom Nuromen Antinomus.
The entire upper storey has caved in, filling most of this area with rubble, tilting roof beams, plaster and smashed furniture. Dim light filters through the dust motes from the windows at the back.
There are skeletons under the rubble: a dozen men at arms and as many skeletons in dark robes. Climbing over the rubble will reveal a space at the north end of the room.
There are two corpses here. One is a guard in Norgules livery (bones and roses), the other is a skeleton with runes on its ragged robes. The guard’s leg is broken but he carries an old crossbow. The skeleton has a crossbow bolt in its skull.
If the PC visits the Shrine, they will identify the runes as those of Gamosh. The player might deduce that the Manor’s guards were assaulted by the Undead, evidently in a surprise attack.
This room is in fine condition, with an upholstered chair (slashed) facing the fireplace and a painting mounted above the fire. An archway to the south leads to the Library and north to the Kitchen. The portrait shows a tall, solemn man beside a young woman, clearly his daughter: she is very beautiful, but there is something hard about her features. The Manor is behind them, in its former glory.
If the picture is taken down there is an old message on the back: “This is a fair likeness of my daughter Zimena. If she pleases you, we shall discuss marriage; return with this painting and see her with your living eyes – Thanks be to Gamosh – your friend, Palin Norgules.”
The Library is lined with shelves but the books have been pulled down and are strewn across the floor, many torn or ruined by rainwater.
This room is entered easily from the Parlour but the archway through to the Grand Hall is blocked by rubble. Climbing over the rubble reveals the weakened masonry of the arch, which creaks and drops clouds of dust and gravel; a second person crossing will see cracks appearing. A third person crossing the rubble will suffer the arch falling in on them, dealing 1d6 damage. The Tormented Knight counts as two people crossing in its heavy armour.
The door out onto the Deck is locked and must be broken open by Mulgrew’s crowbar unless the keys are discovered. A small passage leads to a privy.
Each hour spent searching in the Library will turn up a find from this list (roll d4, re-roll if repeating):
This small chamber stands above the front door, reached by a narrow flight of steps. The ugly altar is studied with melted candles, long extinguished, and splashed with old bloodstains. A single unlit candle remains.
There is an altar to Gamosh, a god of chaos and evil from the distant Northlands. The god’s name is etched in the Common Tongue upon the altar along with the inscription LIGHT MY CANDLE TO REVEAL MY GLORY.
If the candle is lit, the characters will all see the vision of the Desolate Wedding. The Tormented Knight will animate. If the PC has already seen the Vision, the scene will instead by a roofless tower on a limestone crag looming over an abandoned village in the forest: this is Law’s End, to where Nuromen fled with Zimena.
Prayers on scraps of paper have been pressed into cracks in the stonework. Most of these are written by Palin Norgules, saying things like “I lit the candle and saw visions most dreadful, yet all true!”
Some of the papers are written in Northern Runes. If a Read Languages spell is cast, these are prayers from Zimena Norgules. Here is a flavour: “How I loathe my father. How little he understands the Misery Unending! O Gamosh, send my love swiftly to me on wings of the night. Nuromen, come to my arms. Then let us open father’s eyes to mysteries of undeath he cannot yet imagine! – your servant and slave, Zimena Norgules”
The study has intact doors. The one from the Great Hall has been smashed inwards and an improvised battering ram lies discarded inside. A trap has been activated: a rusty blade at head-height. The south door is still locked.
The south door has a similar trap which is still functioning and the blade will swing out at anyone entering without using the key. However, the blade is stiff with rust and jams: the victim will only suffer 1hp damage on a failed save vs Breath and a NPC target gains 1 Stress. If the blade is oiled, the trap can be made functional again, in which case anyone entering through the south door takes 1d6 damage and must save vs Breath or be decapitated.
The study was looted long ago: the impressive desk has its drawers pulled out and papers scattered everywhere. A faded circle marked with occult symbols is painted on the floor.
The circle functions as a ward vs undead but a Read Magic spell is needed to activate it. It lasts until dawn. If the Death Knight is inside the circle when it activates, it will be trapped inside.
A secret compartment in the desk contains a life phylactery: a talisman with an unfortunate soul bound into it. If the wearer takes damage that would kill them or is struck by a level-draining attack, the phylactery shatters and the wearer is left unharmed. A Detect Magic spell makes the phylactery glow, revealing its hiding place. However, the wearer suffers terrible dreams and must sleep for two nights to get one night’s worth of rest. Putting it on triggers the Desolate Wedding vision and animates the Tormented Knight. Honorius Squint will insist this is now property of the House of Lily, gaining a Stress Point if the PC or Mulgrew argue.
Correspondence on the desk is between Palin Norgules and Nuromen the Necromancer, regarding Nuromen’s forthcoming visit to Norgules Manor. Nuromen’s letters are written in Northern Runes and require a Read Languages spell to translate: they contain instructions for creating and activating the ward versus undead (without needing a Read Magic spell) in return for Palin providing Nuromen with a suit of plated armour and helm made from solid iron.
The kitchen has big oak tables, a large fireplace and rusty pots and pans hanging from hooks on the rafters. Ornate archways lead into the Grand Hall and Parlour and a shadowy passage leads to a Pantry. There is a door leading out to the back of the house.
The door is unlocked (Slythy Roach picked the lock). There are signs that, in the recent past, people have camped in this room and looted it (the outlaws, before Slythy Roach became guardian of this place).
Someone lives here in this dark and stinking room. There is a bedroll on the floor and skinned and salted rats hang from hooks on the ceiling.
The rats are future meals for the House’s occupant, Slythy Roach. Slythy is an outlaw who works for the White Company and guards the contraband they drop off here. Staying in the haunted house and subsisting on rats has driven him rather mad as has his terrible skin disease, contracted from the rats, which makes him look like a rotting corpse. He has seen the Desolate Wedding in his dreams but, because he is evil and insane, this has not animated the Tormented Knight and he is ignorant of its presence.
Slythy has opened the lock to the door onto the Deck. If captured (e.g. by a Charm Person or Sleep spell or simply cornered and outnumbered) he will assist in fighting the Tormented Knight or Mogo's Henchmen.
The room contains Roach's treasure: 123sp, 32gp and a pot of salt worth 10gp and a pouch of Black Lotus. This will provoke an argument between Mulgrew and Squint over whether it is part of the estate or loot for adventurers. The salt can be poured into the visor of the Tormented Knight: roll To Hit to do this (3 attempts) and the Knight must save vs Poison or be destroyed. The Black Lotus is a drug which causes a trance for 1 turn, bringing on the vision of the Desolate Wedding but will also grant a clue about one location in the house (such as how to activate the ward in the Study, wear the phylactery is hidden or where Slythy is hiding).
The ceiling above the door has collapsed, blocking any way in or out of the House here. Rubble blocks the doorway into the Cellar, but this can be climbed over.
The floor here is unsafe. Any character walking on it will see cracks spread. After that, any armoured character (Mulgrew or the Tormented Knight) will fall through the floor into the Cellar below, taking 1d6 damage and then being attacked by the Giant Rats.
This room is choked with rubble. A staircase descends to the cellar below, but that noisome shaft stinks of rats and their droppings are everywhere here and prodigiously large.
A staircase descends to the Lower Cellar, which occupies the space of the Buttery/Kitchen below ground. It is lair to a nest of Giant Rats. There are a dozen of the creatures down here.
12 Giant Rats AC 7, 2hp, HD ½, AT bite for 1d3 + disease, XP 6
Anyone bitten by a rat will become feverisj within the hour and experience the vision of the Desolate Wedding if they have not done so already - this animates the Tormented Knight.
There are vintage wines in the cellar, with a value of 50gp: this will prompt another argument between Squint and Mulgrew.
This wharf sags dangerously. At the north end there are four barrels lined up. The Lonely Lake stretches away into the mist, deep and dark.
If it is night time, there may be a lit lantern on top of one barrel. The barrels are contraband, brought here by the White Company and awaiting collection by Mogo the Miller, a corrupt merchant in Camlann. Slythy Roach lights a lantern to guide Mogo’s men here at night (this lantern was not lit when the PC arrived on the island).
Grimbold and Bluto
They are a superstitious pair and will jump on their boat and row away empty handed if there are scary goings-on. They have never met Slythy Roach and know nothing about the provenance of the contraband.
The contraband consists of a barrel of salted herring (10gp), fine brandy (50gp), peppercorns (75gp) and oil (20gp, equivalent to 10 flasks and capable of creating a fiery explosion that deals 3d6 damage if exposed to flame).
The contraband will prompt an argument between Honorius (who wants to add it to his ledger) and Bland (who wants to split it as loot).
The south door to the Library is locked. The deck here is unsafe and creaks ominously if walked on. After that, it will collapse if two characters (or one unarmoured character) walk on it, tipping them into the lake. Mulgrew will drown in his armour and Squint will drown because he cannot swim, unless rescued by the PC. If the Tormented Knight falls in, it will take 2d4 rounds for it to climb back out.
The PC could try to swim away from the Manor but warn them that the Lake is famous for its treacherous currents: save vs Death Ray to avoid drowning. Alternatively, the boat brought by Mogo's henchmen could be an escape route if Grimbold and Bluto are defeated.
These events occur as the PC and NPCs explore the house. Trigger one event each hour: it takes an hour for Squint to document a room’s contents in his ledger. Once the Tormented Knight animates, trigger an event on a 1-2 on a d6, checking every turn.
The Tormented Knight
Palin Norgules’ zombie is trapped inside the iron armour outside and will animate when the vision of the Desolate Wedding occurs. This will occur at sunset (if the vision was invoked during the day) or immediately (if the vision was invoked at night) and creates a shriek and squeal of grating metal that can be heard throughout the House, adding 1 Stress to the NPCs. The Knight enters the House and seals the gates behind with another loud crash.
The rusted armour moves with creaks and squeals of grinding metal, jerky and yet filled with menacing purpose. Dead eyes look out from behind the visor slit, consumed with hatred for the living
The Tormented Knight
The Knight will cause the two NPCs to gain 1d6 Stress each when it first appears. The zombie retains some intellect: it knows the layout of the house and will search for intruders methodically but slowly (Move 15, so an unarmoured character can out-walk it).
The Desolate Wedding
This vision will occur if a PC Magic-User sleeps inside the House. There are several other events in the House that can trigger it (notably the Shrine but also Slythy's Black Lotus, the phylactery in the Study or a rat bite).
In the Manor's Grand Hall a wedding feast is occurring. Torches burn merrily in their sconces and candles illuminate a majestic wedding cake. The bride is a beautiful young woman in a dress of black and red; her groom an older man with a trim beard and a saturnine smile. An older gentleman, the father of the bride, has finished his speech - this is Palin Norgules.
The groom rises. "I must no longer call you friend," he announces to Palin, "but rather father. I do this once. For you shall henceforth be my slave."
Robed skeletons and zombies burst into the room and start murdering the dfenceless guests. The groom and his new bride watch, smiling.
Palin is dragged before his son-in-;law. Skeletons bring in a huge suit of armour. They seal Palin inside it, hammering long nails through his arms and legs. A helmet is pressed over his face.
"Nuromen - no! It wasn't supposed to be me! We had an agreement!"
The groom hands a mallet and nail to his bride who steps close to the struggling Palin, kneels beside him, then drives the last nail through the helmet. Palin slumps, silent and motionless. From all around the house, screams can be heard as the undead go about their murderous business.
Running the Scenario
This is a horror story and rather open-ended. The PC will enter the House and start exploring. There are jump-scares and mysteries. It soon becomes clear the party is not alone in the House. Squint and Mulgrew argue and tempers fray.
Slythy is more of a scare and a pest than an adversary. He might successfully backstab and even kill Mulgrew. Don't over-use him. He's not the main adversary. Once the Tormented Knight arrives, he might even become an ally. Remember that he is easily mistaken for a ghoul or zombie.
Invest some time in characterizing Squint and Mulgrew, their arguments (which will drag in the PC to arbitrate) and their deteriorating sanity. If Mulgrew goes mad, he could become a threat to the PC too.
Once night falls, Squint and Mulgrew will want to make camp and sleep. Throw in a creepy storm outside. Mulgrew will take watch. If the PC sleeps, she will experience the vision, wherepon she will be awoken by the shriek of the Tormented Knight animating and the crash of the doors locking.
If the vision has already occurred, there will be no time to sleep, because the Tormented Knight animates once the sun has set.
The Knight is a tough opponent, with a strong AC, lots of Hit Points and a nasty weapon. Fortunately, it's slow. Hopefully, the player can use knowledge of the House (its traps, weak floors and staircases, the ward in the Study) to damage or cage the Knight. It's appearance will probably trigger breakdowns in the two NPCs, possibly creating more problems, if Mulgrew goes murderously mad.
The arrival of the two Henchmen might provide more threat, a welcome distraction for the Knight or even possible allies (though they will try to row away if they see anything scary).
Reward a PC who tries to appeal to Norgules' humanity, using an understanding of his betrayal by his daughter and son-in-law. At the very least, such traumatic memories will stun the Knight for 1d6 rounds, perhaps allowing it to be carried to the warding circle or thrown into a pit to be eaten by rats.
If the PC survives the night, the boatmen will arrive to row him back to Camlann. If Squint died, the PC can decide what treasures to declare to Lady Leika and which to keep for himself.
A first level Magic-User has a single spell, which could be used in the scenario as follows:
Charm Person: Cast on Slythy Roach or one of Mogo’s henchmem, possibly on Mulgrew or Squint if they lose their minds
Dancing Lights: Frighten away Mogo’s Henchmen, lure Slythy or the Knight into a trap
Detect Magic: Discover the magic in the Foyer, Study or Library (with 20 minutes duration, the spell might last to explore two of these rooms).
Enlarge: Cast on self or on Mulgrew to gain advantage of double damage for a turn
Floating Disc: Transport the contraband to the main wharves where the boatmen will collect the PC in the morning: the round trip takes two hours and the NPCs will stay at the house so check to see what has become of them. Alternatively, take both NPCs with you up the weakened staircase in the Grand Hall, the unsafe part of the Deck or across the weak floor in the Buttery
Hold Portal: Lock a door into the Study or onto the Deck to trap or redirect an enemy (perhaps into the blade-trap on the Study’s other door)
Light: This will reveal Slythy where he is hiding if cast on a room; it will cause the Knight to be blinded (-4 to hit) for 1d4 rounds if cast directly at it, or make the Giant Rats retreat to their holes for 1d6 rounds if cast in the underground Cellar
Magic Missile: An effective weapon against any opponent
Protection from Evil: Imposes a penalty on the Death Knight’s attacks; if the PC is non-agressive, the Knight will back away, perhaps allowing the PC to direct it into a trap
Read Languages: Translate the Northern Runes in the Library, the Study or the Shrine of Gamosh; lasts for 20 minutes so sufficient to visit two of those locations
Shield: Effective protection against any opponent
Sleep: Could be used against Mogo’s Henchmen, the Giant Rats or even Slythy
Ventriloquism: Could be used to scare away Mogo’s Henchmen or lure Slythy or the Death Knight into a trap
After reviewing Michael Thomas' Necropolis of Nuromen, I have been teased by the desire to make a contribution to Blueholme and its elegant, rather fey-themed setting. What I imagine is a set of short scenarios for GMs to use one-on-one with new characters to introduce them to the rules of Blueholme and the Delvingwood setting.
The remit of these mini-scenarios is:
The idea is that, when the party assembles to commence Necropolis of Nuromen, the PCs are already established, know their powers, have a sense of identity and know a few snippets of useful lore about the Delvingwood, Camlann, and/or the Necropolis.
Here's the first mini-scenario for a Lawful Fighter.
Oaths Not Lightly Given
1. The Wrecked Wagons
The Old Road from Zimrillas ends at Camlann Castle, where you hope to find honourable work serving the House of Lily, but a restful night in Camlann is still hours away. A bend in the road reveals an alarming sight. Wagons are overturned, one tipped into the ditch along the south edge of the road. Ravens and buzzards circle around the wreckage. Brigands have made bloody work of a merchant train.
The player should describe how they approach the wreckage. On the south side of the road is a deep ditch, about 10ft wide, beyond which marshy lands stretch away, bare except for a distant treeline. On the north side, the eaves of the Delvingwood Forest draw close, about 30-50ft away.
Searching the wagons reveals half a dozen corpses: wagoners and travellers, unceremoniously put to the sword or drilled with crossbow quarrels and then stripped and robbed of valuables. The attack probably happened earlier that same day.
You hear furtive movement. Someone or something is hiding in the wagon that has been tipped into the ditch. You sense you are being watched.
The PC can sneak up on the wagon or call out for the watcher to identify themselves. If the player decides to leave (or sneaked around the wagons without searching them), they will see the watcher break cover and try to run away before stumbling and falling: it is a child.
The watcher is a small girl, no older than 7 or 8, and badged with dirt and blood. She has the glassy eyes of a child in shock.
The child says only one word: ‘Frog.’ Since she has slightly bulging eyes, this is an apt nickname for her. If asked about her parents or carers, her eyes flick towards the corpses on the main wagon. She carries a letter in her pocket which reads:
Lady Leika of the Lily: We commend to you this child, Franne Ogden, and hope that, as your ward, she may prove herself apt to study and serve. Her parents died last year of the Sobbing Pox and we, her uncle and aunt, are committed to a perilous journey north to Blueholme and beyond in the service of your House – Your servant, Hyrcan Ogden
A Lawful PC will recognise an obligation to protect Frog and bring her to Lady Leika in Camlann. Ask the player if they wish to swear a formal oath to do this:
Ask the player what form this oath takes and what they swear it on. If the PC swears an oath, there is a rumble of thunder and a flash of lightning among the dark clouds far to the north. The Lords of Law have heard the oath and honour it.
While the Oath is in effect, allow the player to re-roll one failed (or unsatisfactory) die result, keeping the better roll, if this is an attempt to fulfil the Oath.
2. THE BANDIT BARRICADE
A mile on, the road is blocked by a crude barricade made from a felled tree, since the Delvingwood draws right up to the north side of the road here. Half a dozen armed men guard the barricade. They carry swords and crossbows. Frog reacts to the sight of them with recognition and terror.
If the PC approaches the barricade, the bandits will react to the sight of an approaching warrior by firing crossbows. The first volley will miss, but half a dozen quarrels will pass close by and there is still a distance of 70ft to close on the barricade. Advise the player that a head-on assault is reckless against overwhelming numbers armed with crossbows. The land to the south is bare marshland with no cover. The ditch is full of churning water and offers no safety. The only way off the road is into the Delvingwood Forest, where a narrow path presents itself.
3. DELVINGWOOD TRAILS
On either side of the path, the forest presses in close and is unnaturally still. The trees crush together so close there is not chance to leave the trail. Behind you, there are shouts from pursuers, crashing after you. The whine and zip of a crossbow quarrel tells you they are armed and murderous.
These trails are narrow, less than 5ft wide. The forest is unnaturally dense and attempts to cut into the undergrowth with an axe will be noisy and slow. Shortly after the PC enters the trail, there is the sound of pursuit from behind: 4 Bandits are pursuing. If the player is minded to stand and fight, advise them to seek a place where the pursuers can be ambushed and can’t use their crossbows.
Lothar’s Bandits (4) AC 7, 6hp, HD 1, DEX 10, AT sword or crossbow 1d6 dmg, XP 10
Feel free to adjust Bandit numbers. The point is, there are too many to stand and fight against and they will use crossbows rather than closing to melee. If the PC is strong and well-armoured (high HP, high Strength, plate mail), increase their numbers to 6 to drive the point home.
Frog slows the PC down and there is a 2 in 6 chance at the end of every trail that the pursuers will come within crossbow range and fire 1d4 shots. If the PC carries the little girl, a shield cannot be used but the pursuers will not catch up.
If the PC tries to return to the road by this trail, it will have disappeared: the Forest has mysteriously closed in over it.
4. THE HANGING MAN
In this clearing, a man hangs from a noose lashed to an overhanging branch. He is still alive because his hands are free, but his fingers have been broken, making it painful for him to support his weight. He wears similar clothes to the bandits.
Norfred of Urvekos AC 9, 6hp, HD 1, DEX 12, AT none, XP 10
If the PC cuts Norfred down, Norfred will become and ally. He cannot fight, but he can carry Frog. He can be questioned, but check to see if the Bandits come within range if the player pauses to do this.
Norfred reveals the following information each time he is questioned (necessitating another check for the pursuing Bandits):
Norfred is a dignified warrior who never complains, despite his broken fingers and the bruises on his throat that threaten to asphyxiate him. He regards his reprieve as nothing less than a divine intervention by the Lords of Law and intends to earn it by serving the PC and protecting Frog.
5. THE TRAP
Whoever is leading or carrying Frog blunders into a snare here. A rope draws tight around one foot, pulling the character into the air to hang upside down a couple of feet above the ground. Frog is grabbed by claw-like hands and pulled into a large hole under the roots of a tree.
Frog's terrified face can be seen in a cave-like opening under the roots of a big tree, then something yanks her into the darkness. She screams and there is an answering peel of diabolical laughter inside the cave.
If Norfred was caught in the trap, the PC will be free to grab Frog and tussle to save her. Otherwise the PC must cut themselves down and rush to the hole: Frog can be heard screaming inside.
The trap was laid by Goblins. Inside the hole, a Goblin is pulling Frog down into the bowels of the earth. The PC can attack this Goblin and if it takes any damage at all the Goblin howls, releases Frog and flees into the darkness. The Goblin will spend 1d4 rounds pulling Frog into a cave under the tree; when the time is up it has succeeded and then it can draw its weapon and attack the PC; at this point, there must be a fight to the death and the Goblin will not flee.
Goblin AC 7, hp 4, DEX 9, HD 1-1, AT saw-knife for 1d6 dmg, XP 7
The Goblin’s saw-knife is an odd weapon with the name SPIDERBANE carved on the hilt in goblin runes. It is a cursed weapon for non-Goblins: it imposes -1 To Hit/Damage and becomes the only melee weapon the PC can use; however, it inflicts double damage on spiders.
After rescuing Frog, check to see if the Bandits catch up. If the PC hides in the cave after defeating the Goblin, the Bandits will pass by, allowing the PC to double back down the trail. The chance of pursuers catching up drops to 1 in 6 until they do catch up, then it returns to 2 in 6 again.
6. SPIDER GORGE
The trail here dips into a gorge with steep sides and thorny brambles on either side. It grows darker and darker as you advance and looking up you see the sky is hidden by a ceiling of dark webs. There are webs to either side. The gorge is entirely surrounded by webs. Setting fire to it is self-destructive, since the PC is caught in the middle of the ensuing fire.
If the PC presses on into the gorge, they will have to do battle with a Giant Spider.
Normal Spider AC 8, 4hp, DEX 8, HD 1, AT bite for 1d4 + poison XP, 15
The spider will back away if presented with a burning torch, but then it will climb into the webs to move round and attack from the flanks. If the PC fails to save (at +2) vs its poison, they become paralysed and the spider will drag them to the end of the tunnel and wrap them up in webbing. Norfred will automatically be captured too. However, Frog will escape and emerge to free the PC while the spider is distracted by the pursuing Bandits.
7. AMBUSH POINT
The trail emerges from Spider Gorge and a low branch hangs over the gorge – an ideal point to ambush pursuers since it is hidden from view by the webbing.
If the PC waits in ambush on the branch, the 4 Bandits will emerge from the Gorge at intervals. If the Spider was still alive, one Bandit will have died fighting it. The other 3 will emerge 1d4 rounds apart and each will spend the first round climbing out of the gorge, unable to attack. In addition, the player gains a surprise attack at +2 To Hit.
If the PC needs to flee, they can jump from the branch and onto the trail with no penalty, with the pursuit resuming as before.
8. DRAGON FEAST
The snarls and gnashing of teeth warn of a great beast ahead. Peering into the glade, you see nothing less than a Dragon with slimy black scales feasting on the carcass of a big elk. The creature is lithe and majestic but in its cold eyes there is only malice.
This is the Black Dragon of the Delvingwood and is placed here as a warning and teaser for future adventures. After 1d6 rounds of feasting it will take flight northwards. Discourage the PC from attacking an opponent who utterly outmatches them: if they insist, they are bowled over and stunned by the monster's roar and awake to see it flying away.
If the PC tries to approach the dragon with an offer (in exchange for help against the pursuing Bandits) then the Dragon will consider this (swooping over the pursuers and annihilating them); it might accept the Spiderbane Knife but is more likely to demand instead a tasty child for its fee: if no deal is reached. The Dragon sneers at the PC and departs.
Conversing with a Dragon is a life-changing experience. Let the PC re-roll their Wisdom and Charisma, taking the higher score rolled.
9. TUMBLEDOWN STAIRCASE
A flight of ancient stone steps rises up the steep hillside here, cut into living rock by ancient hands. The hill ahead of you is bald of trees and the climb exposes you to any pursurers.
Climbers are the steps are exposed to missile fire from pursuers: check to see if the Bandits come within range on 1-4. If the PC chooses to make a stand here, the Bandits will fire one more volley of missiles (1d4 quarrels) then advance up the steps to come at them two abreast; the PC gains +1 To Hit always wins Initiative because of the height advantage.
If the Dragon (8) has not been encountered, then 1d6 rounds after the PC starts climbing the steps (or 1d4 rounds into a battle on the steps with the Bandits), the Dragon will take flight northwards. The stupendous spectacle will cause the bandits to break off from combat and flee back into the woods.
10. ELFIN KNOWE
An ancient monument dominates the bald crown of the hill, a dolmen worn smooth by the slow centuries. Three beings stand around the stones in quiet discussion. THeir fine features possess an unearthly beauty and a deep sorrow. They are Elves of the Delvingwood, garbed as hunters, and they turn their eyes to you with curiosity.
The bald summit of the hill is marked by a structure of tilted standing stones. It is a meeting place for the Elves of the Delvingwood and 3 Elves are here now. They had been hunting a great elk but broke off their hunt when the Dragon snatched their quarry.
Elves (3) AC 9 or 7, 5 or 7hp, DEX 15, HD 1, AT spear or bow, XP 15 or 10
The Elven leader, Hirazel (AC 9, 5hp), is a Fighter/Magic-User and she knows the spell Sleep.
The Elves are suspicious and reserved and will demand a full introduction and explanation from the PC before offering any themselves. If treated courteously they will respond kindly; if they realise the PC is protecting a child or has sworn a Lawful Oath, they will offer their assistance. Hirazel can incapacitate the Bandits with a single spell.
The Elves know of the White Company and hold it in high esteem, especially its leader whom they call ‘the Prince’. They have never heard of Lothar. They will offer to take Norfred under their protection and return him to the Prince.
The Elves will point out the path south that rejoins the road near to Camlann.
If the PC carries the Spiderbane, the Elves will declare it “an unchancy weapon better borne by those who serve darkness than those who fight darkness” and will offer to relieve the PC of it. On this special day, the Elfin Knowe confers on Elves the power to Remove Curse; they will then take the weapon and break it upon the stones of the Knowe.
Whether or not the PC chooses to relinquish the Spiderbane, the Elves will confer a gift of their own: a turquoise pendant worth 50gp that marks the PC as ‘Elfinlief’ or ‘elf-beloved.’ The PC gains the elvish immunity to paralysation from Ghouls and increased chance of spotting secret doors. This magic will not benefit anyone else if the PC gives the pendant away.
If you run The Necropolis of Nuromen, during An Unexpected Encounter the Elves will recognise the Elfinlief and take them into their confidence.
Returning to the Old Road, the PC might decide to hike back to the Barricade, surprising the remaining two Bandits. If battle is joined, one of them will flee, jumping the ditch and running across the marsh. The other will fight until he has taken damage, then surrender.
At Camlann Castle, the PC can present themselves to Lady Leika of the Lily. Delivering Frog along with the letter will earn a 100gp reward, taken from a fund set up by Frog’s uncle and aunt to provide for her. If any Bandits were captured, the reward is 50gp each. If the Barricade is still in place, Lady Leika sends out her Griffon Cavalry to break it up and chase the Bandits away. In Camlann, the White Company have a terrible reputation as kidnappers and murderers and Lothar is reviled as their leader.
The PC is now in Camlann with the goodwill of Lady Leika, considerable reward money, possibly a magical weapon and the Elfinlief pendant. Award XP based on the reward money, any monsters defeated and allies rescued or befriended. Do not award XP for the Dragon: re-rolling attributes is the reward.
The scenario is designed to allow a Lawful Fighter to conduct him or herself with honour and discretion and impress important allies. There are several possible ways of defeating the pursuing Bandits: set the Dragon on them (unlikely to reach an agreement however), ambush them in Spider Gorge, fight them on the Tumbledown Staircase or recruit the Elves to dispatch them with a Sleep spell. The PC could still engage in a victorious battle of their own by returning to the Barricade. It's not necessary to fight either the Spider or the Goblin to the death.
If the PC is 'killed' by a crossbow quarrel from the pursuing Bandits, let them call on their Lawful Oath and the Lords of Law will restore them to 1hp so that the Oath can be fulfilled.
Friendship with the Elves and familiarity with the factions within the White Company will help the party if they undertake Necropolis of Nuromen - as well an improved ability to spot secret doors!
The guardianship of 'Frog' is, of course, inspired by the character of 'Newt' in James Cameron's Aliens (1986). Her presence, and that of the crippled Norfred, gives an opportunity for someone other than the PC to be put into peril or injured - or to act as a rescuer if the PC is overpowered (as by the Giant Spider).
Michael Thomas' Blueholme Prentice RPG introduced Eric Holmes' 1977 Basic D&D rules to a new audience. His Blueholme Journeymanne positions the game as a serious retroclone contender, muscling up against White Box and Delving Deeper for the title of 'Heir to Seventies D&D.'.
The last blog reviewed these two: Blueholme Prentice for 1st-3rd level PCs; Blueholme Journeymanne for up to 20th level. Click the images for drivethrurpg links.
Blueholme has an advantage over its competitors. They have to draw something coherent out of the jumble of Original D&D materials, picking and choosing their rules and supplementary material and trying to give it a character of its own (I feel White Box succeeds at this; Delving Deeper less so). Blueholme is channeling one man's singular vision of D&D. It has distinctiveness built-in.
The trick is to reveal it. The solution is an introductory scenario. So welcome to THE NECROPOLIS OF NUROMEN, Blueholme's first module for starting characters.
The contender: Michael Thomas' Necropolis of Nuromen (click image for link to download).
The reigning champ: Eric Holmes' Ruined Tower of Zenopus from the 1977 Basic D&D Rules Set.
The brief for this is a tough one. Of course, it has to be an excellent dungeon-crawl that will challenge and intrigue experienced players paddling at the shallow end with first level characters but also work well for newcomers. More than that, it has to showcase what's special about Blueholme: how does this version of OSR roleplaying help tell stories that the others don't?
The scenario has a collaborative history, emerging from Justin Becker's 'Forbidden Mazes of the Jennerak' campaign, which is being adapted by Michael Thomas into a 3-part scenario series, of which this is the first. This gives context to some criticisms I make later.
Leaf through Blueholme Prentice and you'll see that Michael Thomas has a gift for sourcing public domain art with a fantasy vibe. The cover here looks like an Ayleid Ruin from Elder Scrolls IV, but it's a piece of stunning Romantic art by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th century German landscape painter with a taste for the spinetingling. He's best known for that one where the chap stands with his back to you on a mountain top, looking down on the clouds.
Monastery Ruins in the Snow (1819) - which is going on ALL my Christmas cards from now on - and Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) which seems to be a painting about both nature AND humanity.
Friedrich's landscapes defy improvement (that sky!!!) but Michael Thomas gives the whole thing an eerie blue tint, because branding, right? It's a great cover that sets the tone for his game.
The scenario is only 20 pages long, but Thomas devotes the first 4 pages to the setting. This is a bit of a gamble. Some people just want to wrench dungeons out, bleeding, from their settings, like Molam Ram plucking out hearts for Kali. You can do that. Just skip this stuff and go straight to the dungeon. But you're missing out!
Don't be this guy.
The setting is a distinctive High Fantasy realm. The town of Camlann gets its own map, its mystic porcelain tower, Lady Leika of the Lily and her griffon-riding guards. There are local celebrities, rivalries and gossip. This takes the lightly-sketched idea of Portown and the Green Dragon Inn from Holmes' sample dungeon and improves on it. The Camlann setting has its own magical quality, while rooted in the earthy down-homeliness that's needed to make a journey away, out into the darkness and danger, so compelling.
Outside Camlann is the Delvingwood where the local Elves are declining and the Goblins are advancing, turning the fairy forest to evil. This is an evocative setting, with more of Narnia to it than Middle-Earth. A broad grassy road, the Elfway, cuts through the woods but if you leave this highway and enter the trees, why, you're stepping into the Otherworld, crossing Joseph Campbell's Threshold for the Hero's Journey. This is all very nicely structured.
Holmes' 'Zenopus' dungeon had a menace to it and Thomas parallels this. Instead of the morally-murky Zenopus, we have Nuromen who's an outright rotter. This necromancer sets up a Chaotic enclave in the woods called Law's End but his gang of villains are blasted by an unspecified catastrophe, doubtless of his own making. His underground Necropolis stands unguarded beneath a 'ghost town' in ruins with the forest advancing over it.
As is standard, the PCs are greedy and ambitious dungeon raiders looking for a fortune and a name for themselves. However, Thomas adds a feature that Holmes misses. The PCs encounter the Elves on their way to the dungeon and are tasked with the recovery of a magical heirloom. This gives the players a focus and a sense of dignity to their mission: they're not just looters.
I really like this set-up. The tone is very effective: an elegaic sense of decline and lengthening shadows, an evil from the past, a noble mission and a wilderness journey, all set in a fairy tale kingdom with just enough darkness to it to head off sentimentality. It reminds me of the setting sketched out for Jean Wells' Module B3: Palace of the Silver Princess (1981). If Holmes drew inspiration from Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft, then the world of Justin Becker/Michael Thomas feels like it owes more to Lord Dunsany and Lloyd Alexander's Prydein Chronicles.
The downside is that this material is not well laid-out. The text starts with the description of Nuromen's downfall, then outlines the geography of the forest, then the set-up in Camlann. There are NPCs and Rumours in Camlann, then back into the Forest we go, with Wilderness Wandering Monster Tables for on and off the Elfway landing us back in the Ruins of Law's End and the abandoned Necropolis. It's an odd structure, involving repetition and redundancy while also allowing you to forget or muddle important material. A bit of editing would help here: Camlann > Elfway > Delvingwood Forest > Law's End/Necropolis is the structure that GMs need.
It's a shame that this background material is (slightly) impenetrable, since it encourages careless readers to skip it. A lot of thought has gone into offering low level characters a wilderness journey with real dangers but balanced encounters and a metric ton of theme.
Jeff Jones' Dunsany-inspired art also captures the world Thomas is exploring
The dungeon is a two-level affair, but it's built to an epic scale. The party have to drop down into a vast shaft - 50ft across and 100ft deep - using ropes that a squad of Goblins have left behind. Deep underground, the PCs move through corridors and chambers carved out of the limestone crag. Holmes' dungeon evoked suffocating darkness, opening out into immense, echoing chambers; Thomas' Necropolis is different, it has an eerie but sinister beauty in its carved murals and looming doorways.
There are 20 rooms on the First Level, 6 of them empty and the rest more often interesting than dangerous. A gigantic subterranean courtyard offers a safe hub that the party can branch out from in their explorations. Most of the traps can be avoided with forethought. There are ghosts and illusions and remnants of Nuromen's old spells. Aside from the Goblin raiders, the monsters are largely dungeon pests and mindless undead, but the Big Bad on this level is a nest of Harpies who could easily overwhelm an incautious party. There's treasure to collect but not much: a couple of thousand GP total, so no one is levelling up by clearing this out. There are magical items to pick up, especially for Magic-Users.
The highlight of the First Level is the study and workshops of Nuromen himself. There are lots of things for players to tinker with and surmise, plus a few windows into the dead wizard's psyche and rewards for players who can figure out what motivated the old villain. Unlike the opaque figure of Zenopus, Nuromen is present here in spirit if not in body. There are signs of his handiwork everywhere.
If the First Level is a slow-paced investigation into long-dead mysteries, down on Level Two things take a turn for the weird and the wonderful. There are 15 rooms, but only 3 are empty, so it's more densely packed and more unforgiving. There are nastier traps (an over-reliance on poison, which I hate!), riddles, some quirky magic items and chilling scenes of evil occultism. Troglodytes will give first level characters a run for their money. The climax comes when the party access Nuromen's Tomb and go up against Nuromen himself, now a very dangerous undead antagonist. The treasure here is stupendous, so survivors are definitely leveling up.
The dungeon is beautifully structured, offering players radiating spokes to explore on the First Level while the Second Level funnels them towards an inevitable showdown with Undead Evil. The maps look lovely. They are all tucked at the back, after the OGL pages, which confused me at first. It would be nice if the maps appeared alongside the room keys, making it easy to read off the screen/page and hold a picture of the layout in your mind as you do.
Similarly, there's a lot of high quality description, but it's usually mixed in with exposition and mechanics. The Dungeon Key would benefit from introductory descriptive paragraphs for each location: something the GM can read aloud, providing all the visual detail for players, with the GM-only material underneath.
It's a pity that the Rumours back at Camlann don't help the players make more sense of what they encounter in the Necropolis. For example, there's Robin the Thief, now turned into a riddling Ghoul and guarding some of Nuromen's treasure. How much better for the PCs to hear the tale of Robin's hideous fate back in Camlann, then recall it here, rather than the GM having to info-dump for Thieves in the party. Other snippets about the Cult of Gamosh and Nuromen's wife and child would make helpful Rumours too.
The stinginess of treasures is a problem. Blueholme sets its XP rewards for killing monsters quite low and, in any event, there's not that much combat to be had. It's desirable that at least some of the party be second level by the time they go up against Nuromen. If (say) the Thieves and Clerics are going to get to second level, then a party of 4 needs to earn over 5,000 XP. There just aren't enough combat encounters or valuable treasures to do this. I think doubling the treasure rewards in the dungeon and halving the size of the big hoard in room 25 could result in a party of mixed 1st/2nd level characters going up against Nuromen at the climax. Some of those second level characters will probably lose a level in the fight. 'Nuff said.
Alternatively, instead of placing the key to the treasure chamber (25) around the undead necromancer's neck, it could be found instead upstairs in his chambers (12 or 13), perhaps with a map indicating the presence of a secret vault, reached through the caves on the lower level (18). This would allow canny players to access the treasure before they run into Nuromen himself: flight is then the prudent choice.
Certainly, when the PCs emerge blinking from the Necropolis at the end, they will feel that they have earned their spurs.
More Caspar David Friedrich: Evening (1820-1) makes a great image for the faerie Delvingwoods
Epilogue: Bandits, grr-rrr
The scenario doesn't end there. Back in Camlann, bandits are up to no good. A breakaway faction of the outlawed White Company is kidnapping merchants. Tracking them back to their cave lair is in order, then bloody retribution.
This is a welcome epilogue. The Dungeon itself was mostly investigation, mystery and puzzles, with just a handful of combats, the latter ones very stressful. Some players might be in the mood for uncomplicated monster-bashing as a way to unwind, especially if everyone is second level now. Bandits make great punchbags.
Well, guess again. The Bandits all have 6hp, so they're surprisingly resilient. Their boss, Lothar, is a 6th level fighter, also with above-average HP, and he's got half a dozen Gnolls backing him up. There's an Owl Bear in there!
The good news is that Lothar is sitting on a hoard that should get all the survivors up to third level. However, his treasure is the only loot in this place, so if the Bandits send the adventurers away with their tails between their legs, they'll have nothing to show for the adventure but bruises.
This section of the adventure feels undercooked. The Bandits are well-organised in defense of their lair, but there's no option but to slog through them.
Lothar is supposed to be defying the Bandit Prince who leads the White Company. It would be helpful if some of the Bandits were loyalists who would turn against Lothar. There's a prison pit, crying out for a prisoner to occupy it, a useful NPC who knows the caverns and could guide the PCs.
As it stands, this side-quest is a brutal skirmish that will probably overwhelm second level characters and doesn't offer much to reward experienced players who want to try more devious or diplomatic strategies. Of course, the party don't have to take on Lothar. They could just rescue the merchants and claim a modest reward. But c'mon now, is that what HEROES do?
Michael Thomas confirms his intention that PCs do NOT fight Lothar to the death, but instead try to capture Bandits for the reward (50gp a head!). Blueholme doesn't provide any mechanism for subduing enemies nor does the scenario suggest one, but here's a thought. The GM could rule that, with any group of Bandits, once half are dead, the other half surrender. This makes skirmishing in the caves easier and more lucrative. Alternatively (or additionally) a force of 2d6 1st level Fighters from the Camlann Constabulary could bolster the PCs in the final showdown with Lothar - and Lothar could surrender once he has lost half his Hit Points.
Can't get enough Caspar: Cairn in the Snow (1807) is great for the entrance to Lothar's Lair
This is a deeply atmospheric dungeon in a great High Fantasy setting. It's got a distinctive mystical vibe to it that takes its cues from Eric Holmes. It's clearly a Blueholme Dungeon and it promotes its brand.
The Dungeon is structured around exploring and investigating rather than fighting. There are treasure troves to pick up but not enough to level up. The massive hoard at the end (should it be found) will level everyone up, perhaps placing Thieves at third level. That feels 'off' - especially considering the climactic battle the players have to endure to get the key. It's tempting to dial back the danger (Nuromen would be quite deadly enough as a Ghoul or a Wight) or shift some of the loot out of the hoard or put the key elsewhere in the dungeon; that way, PCs could retreat to their camp, level up, then descend to vanquish Nuromen or run away from the encounter with him.
The problem is even more pronounced in the Lothar epilogue. Lothar's hoard exceeds 10,000gp, so half a dozen PCs could level up from that, but he's 6th level and protected by Gnolls! Part of the charm of Blueholme Prentice is its third level 'ceiling'. Why can't Lothar be a really nasty 3rd level Fighter? Couldn't his loot be scattered throughout the lair so that PCs can pick some of it up during other skirmishes? Alternatively, rules are needed for capturing and subduing the Bandits rather than battling them to the death.
These aren't damning criticisms. It's easy to adjust treasure and threat, based on how quickly you envisage the PCs progressing through the levels and how many need to die doing so. GMs will need to make their own minds up about what they expect players to accomplish and whether The Necropolis of Nuromen is supposed to end in hard-won victory, tactical retreat with riches or an ignominious death.
However, set all that aside. The scenario has much greater strengths. The journey down the Elfway, into the Delvingwood and then deep down below ground, into the vaults of the Necropolis: this is a deeply memorable start to anyone's campaign and a calling card for Blueholme as an RPG with a distinctive style.
Michael Thomas is working on a new scenario that will function as "a real introductory adventure" to Blueholme (rather than just being a low-level adventure): The Shrine of Sobek should be out next year but I hope The Necropolis of Nuromen gets its sequels too.
No, not the sensational 1959 Miles Davis album, but the equally seminal 1977 'Blue Book' D&D rules by Dr J. Eric Holmes. I want to review Holmes' treatment by a pair recent retroclone RPGs: Blueholme and The Blue Hack, both by Michael Thomas.
If one of these things interests you more than the other, you MIGHT be in for a disappointment with this blog...
Holmes' 'Blue Book' rules set has a legendary status among D&D fans, and deservedly. Before Holmes volunteered his services, D&D was a rag tag collection of cheap booklets and magazine articles supplemented by fan products of varying credibility. Since few gamers owned them all, no one who played D&D was really playing the same game and the game itself was pretty impenetrable if someone hadn't shown you how to play it first.
Eric Holmes changed all that. His 50-page softback manual set about building the Original D&D game from the ground up, starting with character creation, rules for combat, spells, monsters, treasures and concluding with his wonderful sample dungeon, the 'Tower of Zenopus'.
By modern standards of rules design, Holmes' book is cluttered in places, sparse in others and confusing all over the place, but compared to what had gone before this was a lean, modernist take on the baroque grotesquerie that D&D had quickly become. Oh, and it only went to third level for PCs. To go further with the game, the reader was directed to the then-forthcoming Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules set that Gary Gygax had been working on and was to emerge, with the Players Handbook, the following year.
AD&D pulled down the tower that Holmes had built. In Holmes' game, rolled attributes counted for very little. Your prime requisite (e.g. Intelligence for Magic-Users) boosted your earned XP. Dexterity awarded you +1 or -1 to hit with missiles. Constitution earned you +1, 2 or 3 Hit Points. That's it. No Strength Bonuses. No extra spells for Clerics. No Armour Class modifiers. Oh, and all the weapons dealt 1d6 damage, whether they were a dagger or a two-handed sword.
The effect of this was to de-emphasise combat as the central pillar of What D&D Is All About, in favour of exploration, traps, riddles, puzzles and NPC encounters. PCs are individuated, not by their attributes, but by the player's imagination. Since a Strength 17 Fighting Man functioned no differently from a Strength 7 Fighting Man, the colour had to come from characterisation. Holmes offers the standard D&D classes (including Thieves and Dwarves, Elves and Halflings functioning as classes too) but offers encouragement to go beyond this, citing his famous example of a diverse party of adventurers:
Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, hobbitish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man
In a 1981 article in Dragon Magazine, Holmes is quite explicit about his free-wheeling approach to character generation:
Most game systems rather rigidly specify what kinds of characters players may assume, but the majority of referees are lenient. If a player particularly wants to be an unusual or inhuman character, many referees will let him. It's not unusual to encounter player characters that are werewolves, Vulcans, samurai, centaurs or whatever. Fantasy role playing is, after all, an exercise in imagination
In another Dragon article, Holmes confesses his own preferences for non-canon characters:
For several years there was a dragon player character in my own game. At first level he could puff a little fire and do one die of damage. He could, of course, fly, even at first level. He was one of the most unpopular characters in the game, but this was because of the way he was played, not because he was a dragon. I enjoyed having dragons, centaurs, samurai and witch doctors in the game. My own most successful player character was a Dreenoi, an insectoid creature borrowed from McEwan’s Starguard. He reached fourth level (as high as any of my personal characters ever got), made an unfortunate decision, and was turned into a pool of green slime.
Uh-oh. Dreenoi. Roll for initiative.
Gary Gygax dismantled this approach with AD&D. Character attributes were exalted and character classes nailed down to very specific collections of powers and advancements. Whereas Holmes might identify his character as a 'Lawful Werebear', AD&D invited you to become a a 4th/5th level Half-Elven Cleric/Thief with a 17 Dex and a 16 Wisdom.
Perhaps that's the fascination with Holmes' work: it offers a brief window into a year (1977) when D&D could have gone another way. If AD&D was prog rock, with complexity and grand pretensions, then Holmes was that other flower of 1977: punk rock, with its three-chord simplicity and vigorous DIY ethos.
Eric Holmes. Johnny Rotten. Rarely mistaken for one another.
Two figures bestride the Internet, bearing the Holmsian lamp aloft. Zach Howard runs a fantastic Holmes blog and website, the Zenopus Archives, making the case in fair weather and foul for continuing to play D&D the way Holmes envisaged. He has done fantastic advocacy for the 'Tower of Zenopus' dungeon and delved into Holmes' manuscripts to explore how much Gygax diluted and redirected Holmes' intentions.
Click the image to explore the underworld of Holmes Basic.
The other is Michael Thomas, over at Dreamscape Design, who has published two loving Holmesian D&D retroclones: Blueholme (in two versions) and Blue Hack.
Blueholme Prentice is pay-nothing on drivethrurpg; Blueholme Journeymanne is quite cheap on drivethrurpg or there's a nice hardback from Lulu; Blue Hack costs next-to-nothing on drivethrurpg
The 2013 Blueholme Prentice rules (62pp) is a fairly standard OSR retroclone. Thomas takes Holmes' rules set and presents it in his own words, with the orderliness we now expect in good games design. There's a bit of advice on how to play the game and how to referee it. There's nice (public domain) B&W art. The ambiguities (e.g. elven fighter/magic-users) are cleared up. The attributes still offer almost no distinctions. Weapons all deal 1d6 damage. This is vintage Holmes, straight from the cellars. Carrion Crawlers get a copyright-dodging name change but I think Johnny Rotten and other veterans of 1977 will feel right at home here.
Is there a use for this sort of game, besides nostalgia? After all, Charlie Mason's White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game one-ups Blueholme by going back to the original D&D rules set, but compressing character progression into 10 levels and adding variable weapon damage (well.... 1d6-1, 1d6 or 1d6+1 but it's variable!). It only slightly expands the modifiers for high/low attributes, it's got a low price point and it's rather more lovely in its typeface and old school William McAusland art.
The appeal of Blueholme Prentice is precisely its strict boundaries. It offers a D&D experience with just three levels of experience. The King of the Realm, he's a third level Fighter. His Court Magician? He's a third level Magic-User. The Guildmaster Thief? Third level too! This is a world with a ceiling on it and, rather like crafting a haiku, composing scenarios within such limits draws forth surprising creativity.
If you're not psyched by a 3rd-level-campaign, fear not! In 2017, along came Blueholme Journeymanne (118pp) on the back of a successful Kickstarter, with hardback rules and lots of original art by old school veterans like Russ 'Firetop Mountain' Nicholson that has a great late-Seventies vibe.
Russ Nicholson's homage to David C Sutherland III's art panel that introduced the original Holmes Basic Set makes me feel happy in ways only the Germans have words for.
All of this and twenty (count them, TWENTY) character levels, spells up to 7th level, hirelings and strongholds and VARIABLE WEAPON DAMAGE. Yes, at last. But not just different dice for different weapons. Oh no. All weapons still roll d6s (take THAT, Gygax) but puny daggers roll two dice and pick the worst while heavy weapons roll 2 or 3 dice and pick the best. Delightful!
In just over a hundred pages, Blueholme Journeymanne muscles up alongside White Box and thoroughly intimidates it. Actually, they're both great games. It really boils down to whether you want your D&D campaign concertina-ed into ten levels or twenty. White Box has a cool fey-themed thing going on with its monsters but Blueholme Journeymanne is more Sci-Fi, with Lovecraftian Mi-Go and Deep Ones in the mix alongside Dreenoi. Yes, Dreenoi.
Human, Dwarf and Dreenoi, together at last. Watch out for that Green Slime!
This is where Journeymanne plays its Holmsian trump card. Character races are gone: poof! Instead, this:
It's been a long journey, but we finally got there. You can play that Lawful Werebear at last. I like to think John Eric Holmes (who sadly died in 2010 and missed this renaissance in RPGs) is smiling upon this, up there, in the Outer Planes of Chaotic Neutral. Journeymanne gets the next-best endorsement from his son, Chris Holmes:
These cyclopean corridors of peril await you and your players as they did my friends and me in 1976 when we explored the dungeons of John Eric Holmes.
If this doesn't bring a tear to your eye, then you ought to be reading reviews of Miles Davis jazz albums.
The Hacks I like, all on drivethrurpg (click on images for links)
Blue Hack is a different beast. It's a variation on David Black's The Black Hack (2016), which offered an alternative streamlined take on D&D, with attribute tests replacing skills and abilities, ten character levels, super simplified classes, monsters and spells and groovy Usage Dice replacing tallying arrows, torches and rations. It spawned a host of imitators with various degrees of professionalism. Karl Stjernberg's Rad Hack is a fantastic pop art take on Gamma World, while Matthew Skail's Blood Hack is a cheerfully amateur (but very imaginative) interpretation of Vampire: The Masquade.
All well and good, but how do you Holmesify The Black Hack, which is about as stripped-back as an old school fantasy RPG can get? How is Blue Hack any different from The Black Hack?
The answer, oddly, is to make it more like the sort of D&D that Black Hack is trying to escape from.
The Black Hack enjoyed a recent Kickstarter and there's a fancy Second Edition out there but the original rules are a trim 20 pages that are a master class in clarity and elegant graphic design. The 'Big Six' stats here here (STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA) and four classes (Warrior, Cleric, Conjuror and Thief). Going up a level boosts your Hit Dice and lets you improve your Stats. Spells are summed up in no more than a dozen words each.
This is the spell description for Power Word Kill:
A Nearby target with 50HP or fewer dies and cannot be resurrected.
Blue Hack takes all this and stirs back in some recognisable D&D. Dwarves, Elves and Halflings re-appear as character races, adding familiar flavour abilities, and Fighter-Mages are added to the class roster to accommodate those mystical elves. The presentation is a bit more expansive (it runs to 26 pages) and illustrated by the ubiquitous William McAusland's adorable B&W art, but the descriptions retain that charming "figure-it-out-yourself" brevity. Here's the explanation for the spell Limited Wish:
Change reality in a limited way or time.
When I think of the ink that's been spilled in D&D rulebooks and magazines trying to codify, limit, clarify and define what a 'wish' spell can do, this makes me want to break down and cry.
Like a lot of Hack RPGs, Blue Hack feels like a slap in the face. Why did you just spend all that time and effort mastering Blueholme Journeymanne (never mind freakin' Dungeon Crawl Classics or D&D 5th ed.) if you could play fantasy RPGs as simply as this? Like a stage magician's prestige, it makes you blink your eyes and look for the trick. Can it really work like that?
Well it can and it probably should, but something is lost. Perhaps what's lost is Holmes himself, whose genial ghost presides over every page of Blueholme in both its iterations but seems absent from Blue Hack, which is really just a pretty version of any already pretty game, given a more recognizably D&Dish spin. No rules for Dreenoi PCs. No Lawful Werebears. Maybe that's my beef with it.
Skip to the end. My feeling is that, while the Hack RPGs are a fantastic development in roleplaying rules, they're not necessarily the way I want to go with old-school dungeonbashing. Sometimes, the flavour is in the rules themselves and, with minimal rules, you often get minimal flavour. With, say, the Rad Hack, the flavour is in the whacky radioactive post-holocaust setting. But with D&D-hacks, the flavour is in the D&D, which is exactly what you're taking out.
Blueholme does a stunning job at honouring Holmes' legacy and provides a set of OSR rules that should be right up there for anyone wanting to explore the wild frontier of '70s-style D&D. Blue Hack is a solid Hack version of D&D, but I guess I don't really have a need for such a thing when the more conventional OSR D&D retroclones are already so sweet, simple and inspirational.
There's a module for Blueholme - The Necropolis of Nuromen - which I'll review later this week.
Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that's what
Back in the '90s, waiting for the next chapter of White Wolf's World of Darkness game line to see print occupied the space in my life that was later occupied by waiting for Game of Thrones to release a new season. 1991 brought out Vampire: The Masquerade and then Werewolf: The Apocalypse in 1992 and Mage: The Ascension in 1993.
By 1994, I was a frothing fan and the arrival of Wraith: The Oblivion was a bombshell, with its fantastic cover of interlinked chains, moody spectral art and surreal, grotesque setting of the rotting Shadowlands and hyper-real Tempest, with slave-harvesting wraiths and Oblivion-worshiping Spectres.
And yet. And yet. Wraith remains the one World of Darkness game that has never worked for me. I've run long campaigns with the other main games but every attempt to launch Wraith has met with, well, dissatisfaction. The closest I came to making Wraith fly was a campaign set in the 18th century Caribbean. Pirate Wraiths are cool.
Part of the problem is Wraith's setting. The other World of Darkness games are set in a bleak dystopian version of our world. Although werewolves and mages can step away into the more fantastical spirit worlds, they are still products of this world and this world is recognisable. Wraith is weird. Where are you? A sort of parallel reality called the Shadowlands that both is and yet is not the same as the world the living inhabit. There's a nightmarish hyperspace called 'the Tempest' that extends beyond the Shadowlands and that's hard to grasp too.
The moment you start playing Wraith, you butt up against confusions about what everything looks like. Do buildings in the Shadowlands have doors and windows? Are cars real there too? Can wraiths read newspapers and watch TV - or is the paper rotten and the screen cracked for them? What happens if a human stands in a spot which is a Nihil (a portal to the Tempest)?
Wraiths get discorporated by rough contact with 'real' things. This makes crossing a street or moving through a house rather difficult. Wraiths are perpetually being bashed into insubstantiality every time someone opens a door into them, drives through them, kicks a ball at them. So where do Wraiths live? What do they do?
Wraiths are supposed to be driven by obsessive Passions and tied to Tethers, which are objects or people that mattered to them. Yet they are also supposed to be servile minions in the Hierarchy, a Kafka-esque slave state of the dead. There doesn't seem to be a way to combine both ideas of what a wraith is.
Then there's the Shadow, which is your dark-side given voice, whispering in your mind and offering power in exchange for the gratifixcation of its own Dark Passions. If every Wraith NPC has this sort of Jekyl-and-Hyde persona, the social world of wraiths becomes unimaginably weird. The game recommends players roleplay each other's Shadows, ascting as tempters and tormentors to one another. Great on paper, but I've never been able to get it to work. Some players are too amiable to play the Shadow with gusto; others throw themselves into it with such cackling enthusiasm that it derails the plot.
All of these existential conundrums weigh down a game that was already way too fiddly. Wraiths have Passions and Tethers, but also Dark Passions and Shadow Thorns, and Memoriam and Angst, they are loyal to a Faction and a Legion as well as a Guild plus their own mortal attachments, as well as ... look, there's a lot to keep track of, a lot of dice to roll, a lot of points to tot up.
TLDR: Wraith's concept is brilliant, the execution gets in the way.
Let's Hack Away the Dead Wood
I've written about my delight in Matthew Skail's The Blood Hack, which takes David Black's ... Hack skeletal rules set and applies them to vampire, creating a OSR spin on the '90s game.
This set me thinking, could the Hack system be the way to turn Wraith into the sort of game I could actually play - that my players could wrap their heads around and I could Referee? And could I write The Ghost Hack myself?
So, I did. There's a PDF on drivethrurpg but I can't for the life of me make drivethru's print-on-demand system do what I want so the softback physical copy is available through Amazon.
Click the image for Amazon or visit drivethrurpg
The Hack system is very streamlined. You have the 'classic six' attributes of STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA and you do everything by rolling equal or under them on a d20. Advanatage lets you roll twice, choosing the best, and Disadvantage forces you to choose the worst. David Black's Usage Die mechanic replaces points: every time you use a dwindling resource you roll its die and on a 1-2 it shrinks a step, with d4 being the lowest step after which the resource is gone.
'Soul' becomes a Usage die that you roll every time you apply your supernatural energy to accomplish something. You replenish your Soul by feeding off your Mortal Coil. This is a group of living people and perhaps objects or places that matters to you and it is represented by another Usage Die. Mortal Coil shrinks when you suck spiritual power out of it, grows when you nurture it.
The other Usage Die is the Grave Die, which gets BIGGER when you roll 1-2 and it represents your spiritual Rot: a d6 Grave Die means you're still pretty human, with d8 and d10 losing humanity and d12 becoming monstrous. When the Grave Die is rolled you assume your Charnel Form - your horror movie appearance - and when the Die gets too big you stay stuck like that.
Four character classes give PCs their main options: Banshees manipulate and trade in emotions, Nightmanes explore the realms of death, Poltergeists can manipulate objects in the living world and Revenants can take form that the living can see. You choose your Crafts to complement your class abilities and off you go.
I sourced some nice pulp-style art
Out of respect to ghost-lore (and perhaps TV's Supernatural), these ghosts are harmed by iron and repelled by salt.
Rather than get bogged down by a metaphysically-muddled Shadowlands, these ghosts are alongside us in our world but insubstantial to everything except solid iron. There are portals to a ghostly realm of Hades - the underworld - which has Paradises and Infernos run by angels and demons (who probably used to be ghosts themselves) and a mysterious city of Dis run by powerful ghosts. Soulfire lets you recharge your Soul if your Mortal Coil is no more and soul crystals make a ghostly currency. A freezing mist - the Dread - emerges from Hades and forces ghosts to shelter in Fanes, which are places of spiritual strength. Ghosts overcome by the Rot turn into Wights, either temporarily or permanently, and wreck havoc.
If you want a Ghost Empire built on enslaving the dead, I cover this as an optional rule. Also optional is allowing other players to roleplay each other's 'Rot' if that's important to you.
A nice character sheet
Is it any good? Well, you'll have to tell me! Reviews are much appreciated! Contact me for a copy! There comes a point with the Hack games where, if you add on too many fiddly sub-systems, the essential simplicity has been lost. I think the Ghost Hack sails close to that but stays on the simple side: you can tell complex stories with sturdy yet uncomplicated mechanics.
I'd like to develop The Ghost Hack a bit further. There's a mini-campaign I want to get onto paper at last - with the PCs haunting a hospital with a strange past under threat from terrorists with a sinister agenda - and my next project (The Fey Hack) will tie in with the Ghost Hack, because ghosts and fey should adventure together. In folklore, they are almost indistinguishable.
Milton's poem describes the poet waking from gloom to throw himself into the busy tumult of life, traveling from the farm, through the beautiful countryside, to the city, and a life given over to pleasure and romance, with poetry being the highest pleasure of all.
It doesn't start in the lovely city. The poem begins in a place of nightmare:
Hence loathed Melancholy,
It's quirky that Milton's description of his nightmares resembles a dungeon adventure, with Cerberus the hell-hound, Stygian caves and Cimmerian deserts. The whole poem (whose title, L'Allegro, means 'The Happy Man') reads like the experience of dungeon adventurers, returning from their harrowing escapade through the peaceful realms, past farms, through woods, at last to a great city, where they will spend their loot and, y'know, level up.
Ah. Downtime. Every Referee has his or her own system for it. Go to drivethrurpg and there's an embarrassment of house rules on offer. No one needs to add to this tottering pile.
So obviously I'm going to tell you about mine!
But I'll make up for it by explaining my thinking as I go and maybe raise a few issues about why we need systems like this in Fantasy RPGs - and why we don't.
What's Downtime for?
In a nutshell, roleplaying.
Look, in some idealised gaming world, there would be no 'downtime': the roleplaying experience would move seamlessly from the quest or dungeon to the home town, to the Green Dragon Inn in Portown, to negotiations with merchants and feudal lords, reunions with family and friends, flirtations with lovers, marriages, funerals, the highs and lows of a life well-lived. Fighting monsters and unearthing treasure would be one of the things fantasy adventurers do - but they would also ask Rosie the barmaid to marry them. And really, which would be the greater achievement?
But it's not always so easy. Some Referees are uncomfortable narrating domestic joys and tribulations, some players find it boring; at the end of an adventure many gamers (players and Referees) are tired and want to relax with treasure distribution and XP calculation, not launch into arduous personal roleplaying. The sheer open-endedness of downtime can be daunting: at least with a dungeon the Referee can plan things out in advance.
Before Lockdown moved us online and into more conventional dungeon-bashing, I was running a One Ring campaign set in Bree. The characters were humble Hobbits, a Dwarf tinker and a troubled Woodsman and much of the roleplaying revolved around running their businesses, pursuing their love lives and exploring their families and neighbours. In other words, activities that would usually be assigned to Downtime dominated the roleplaying. The players found this refreshing and addictive but, for a Referee, it was fatiguing. Moderating a dungeon-crawl is, by comparison, a relaxing activity.
Ignoring Downtime is unsatisfactory too. The PCs end up lacking a context and a world outside of adventuring. They accumulate huge amounts of loot but have little to spend it on.
My Downtime system is based on a couple of core concepts:
One last note. I'm using White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game alongside Simon Piecha's Expanded Lore supplement with his rules for Feats. White Box condenses the whole D&D level system into 10 levels (well... 12 for Magic-Users) and the dice rolls here are based on that rather condensed approach.
Staying at the Inn
Staying at 'the Inn' between adventures is a sort of default option for players who really don't want to engage with Downtime or who need to save money. Time passes, you heal your Hit Points, it doesn't cost much, then back down the dungeon we go.
Adventurers heal 1 HP for every day of rest; luxury guests can add their Constitution Bonus to this. Merchants at the Inn will buy gems and jewellery but will only offer 50% of its value. No one will buy or sell magic items.
Going to the Big City
Accommodation in the City charges double the rates of an Inn.
During each week in the Big City, players engage in City Activities.A character may undertake 4 activities per week modified by their Charisma (from -3 to +3) but each activity may only be chosen once.
These activities usually have a cost based on a d8 die roll and a multiplier. For some activities, the cost is multiplied by the character's current level. Many activities generate Favours or Insights, which are explained later. All die rolls are capped by the player character's level: if you get a result higher than your level, the result is treated as being equivalent to your level.
When a character reaches 9th level, builds a stronghold of some sort and attracts followers, they roll 1d12 instead of the d8.
Bawdiness & Harlotry*: Enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. Have a Random Encounter (roll at +1 or +2 for expensive bawdiness). Cost: 1d8 x 50gp or x 100gp for the expensive sort.
Black Market*: Buy illegal goods/hirelings or standard goods/hirelings at 75% cost (contraband, slaves).
Carouse*: Drink, eat, dance then do it all over again. Have Random Encounters (one for ordinary carousing, two for the expensive sort). Cost: 1d8 x 10gp or x 100gp for expensive carousing.
Craft*: Manufacture potions, scrolls and other magic items at higher levels. War Smiths create arms and armour with this activity (which represents spending up to 5 Craft points).
Debt Management: If you overspend, this MUST be your next City Activity. Visit your debtors. Spend a Favour. Add 50% to your debt. You can do this once, plus one extra time for each bonus point of Charisma. Debtors will send collectors (i.e. assassins) after a month. If you leave the city without meeting your debtors this way, the debts are doubled and the collectors/assassins are dispatched after a week.
Devotion*: Carry out the rites, sacrifices and services of your religion. Gain 1d6 Insight. Optional: roll a Random Encounter. Cost: 1d8 x 100gp per level.
Fence*: Sell stolen gems/jewellery or illegal valuables to criminal deals. You will get 50% of the value.
Gambling*: Dice, cards, pit fights and races. Spend the cost then pass a Saving Throw to recover it and another Saving Throw to double it. Thieves and Street Mages add +2. Have a Random Encounter at -1. Cost: 1d8 x 10gp or x 100gp.
Good Works: Devote yourself to a project you believe in. Gain 1d8-1 Favour and 1d8-1 Insight (0 means nothing is gained). Cost: 1d8 x 100gp per level.
Lotus Eating*: Take mind-bending drugs and lie in a stupor.Gain 1d8-1 Insight (0 means nothing is gained) or 1d8 Insight for Luxury Lotus. Gain 1 Trauma. Have a Random Encounter at -2 or a normal Random Encounter for luxury Lotus). No further activities this week. Cost: 1d8 x 25gp or x 150gp for luxury Lotus.
Magickal Market*: Spend a Favour to inquire to buy a magic item or sell one. If buying, roll a magic item randomly (White Box p117) to see what is for sale. The cost is in Favour/Insight. Potions and Protection Scrolls cost 10 Favour/Insight, 25 for Lesser Items/Lesser Rings and 50 for Medium Items, Lesser Wands/Staves and non-unusual Arms/Armour. More powerful treasures are not for sale: if you roll these, treat "nothing for sale this week." If selling, the PC earns half the sale amount (5, 12 or 25) but can choose whether to be paid in Favour, Insight or a combination. Optional: roll a Random Encounter.
Market: Buy standard equipment and recruit Hirelings at normal prices. Optional: roll a Random Encounter.
Physicks and Leeches: Hire a skilled doctor to treat you. Add +1 to the number of HP you heal each day and heal 1 Injury (in addition to any normal healing). Cost: 1d8 x 100 gp
Politicking*: Meet with the movers and shakers and influence their plans. Gain 1d8 Favour. Optional: roll a Random Encounter. Cost: 1d8 x 100gp per level.
Quest*: There are downtime quests, like following a treasure map. Cost: 1d8 x 10gp for supplies, porters, horses.
Spiritual Comfort: Hire a cleric or mystic to help you pray or meditate on your problems. This counts as Spiritual Comfort, removing 1 Trauma for a week of rest (no * activities) and removing 1 point of Derangement after 4 weeks of rest. Cost: 1d8 x 25gp (or 1d6 x 100gp for a month).
Study*: Visit a library, laboratory or Sage to find answers to questions. Cost: 1d8 x 100gp.
Trade: Sell your gems and jewellery to respectable dealers. You will get 75% of the value or 100% if you spend 1 Favour.
Training*: One week of training per level you currently possess is required before you can advance a level in your class. You must spend 1 Insight or Favour to use this activity. Spending extra Insight or Favour halves the cost (multiple Insight/Favour may be spent in this way). Cost: 1d8 x 100gp per level
Work*: Spend a week earning money from your profession. Thieves may roll twice and choose the higher amount. Assassins roll Assassinate ability and claim fee if successful. Gain XP equal to 50% of your earnings. Optional: roll a Random Encounter. Gain: 1d8 x 10gp per level
Horatio is a 3rd level Magic-User with a +1 Charisma Bonus so he gets 5 City Activities a week. He spends his 10gp accommodation undertakes these activities:
At the end of a week, Horatio has completed a third of his training, gained a Trauma and spent 1,135gp. He also earned 90gp and realised 1,000gp cash from some dungeon loot. He has to roll on the Encounter Table from his lotus binge.
Random Encounters must occur while Carousing, Gambling, Lotus-Eating or carrying on with Bawdiness & Harlotry and are optional with several other activities. They are rolled on 2d6. Charisma Bonuses apply, but there is a penalty of -1 if you have debts and -1 per Favour you owe to NPCs.
Favour can be lost and turn into negative favour (Favours you owe rather than favours owed to you) but you cannot reduce Insight below 0.
Horatio has a +1 Charisma Bonus and rolls 7, minus 2 (for cheap lotus) and plus 1 (Charisma), resulting in 6: someone robbed him while he was at that drug den. He rolls a d8 and the result of 8 is reduced to 3 (because he's third level) so Horatio has lost 90gp. That was his weekly earnings! Horatio begins a roleplayed encounter as he blearily pursues the thief through the night time streets.
Favours & Insights
Favours/Insights are a sort of currency for Downtime, representing leverage with NPCs or institutions or else your own growing understanding of plots, factions and power in your community. Ideally, I like to turn each favour or insight into a roleplayed moment: an incident, a new NPC, a flashback or cut-scene.
Insight can be traded for a (true, relevant) rumour about a dungeon. Insights can be spent to engage in Training or halve its cost.
Favour can be used to get the full gold value of a Trade or 75% for a Fence/sale of a magical treasure. A Favour enables you to manage your Debts or engage in Training. A Favour can also be spent to halve the cost of a week’s training.
Horatio has 3 Insight and 2 Favours. As a third level Magic-User, his To Hit Bonus is +0 so a temporary Feat costs him a basic 1 Insight. He purchases Iron Will for +2 to all his saving throws during the next adventure. He wants someone to cast continual light on his dagger so he doesn't have to worry about his torch going out. This is a 2nd level spell so spending 2 Favours will turn up a friendly mage willing to cast the spell. Horatio trades his other Insight in for rumours about the dungeon.
Homebrew rules are funny. You create them to be as simple and unfussy as possible, but anyone else looking at them sees only a dog's breakfast of otiose tables, dice-rolls and redundancy. Then they offer their suggestions which strike you as insanely baroque and over-complicated. Ah well...
I wanted this system to be ABSTRACT. I didn't want it to dictate to me that Dian the Cleric has been mugged in an alleyway by 3 fifth level Thieves or that Konall the War Smith has offended the Dowager Princess' favourite eunuch. Those are campaign specifics that I can come up with myself once I know that someone has lost money or made an enemy. I get that some people want a system to tell them much more detailed events but that's just not a requirement for me.
I also wanted the system to be EXPENSIVE and it's been through several drafts to get the economics right. Players emerge from dungeons with huge amounts of loot. I want to take it off them, partly so that they value finding the next haul and partly to provide an economic incentive for adventuring. Arranging the money and the Favour/Insight to go up levels is becoming an abiding concern for players and I think that's as it should be. My early drafts were too punitive, though - I think this one is about right.
I want the system to LEVEL UP because D&D is all about levels. First level characters potter about, gambling with small stakes, making modest donations, politicking with low-tier bureacrats, carousing in inexpensive taverns. Higher level characters incur much bigger costs for greater benefits. A first level character might spend 100gp at the temple and earn a single Insight but a fifth level character could part with 2,500gp for 5 Insight. That's why fifth level characters are down on the lower dungeon levels, doing dangerous stuff for big rewards.
Favour and Insight quantify the ebb and flow of a character's influence and awareness about what's happening in their world. Using them as the currency for magic items and spells spares me quantifying the cash value of a +1 sword or getting remove curse cast to remove that lycanthropy. The option to buy 'temporary Feats' lets PCs power-up ahead of important or dangerous missions. They also generate roleplayed encounters, in-character flashbacks and NPC allies, patrons and contacts.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..
The shoddy PDF rulebook available at drivethrurpg is missing pp 66-67, 82-83, 86-87, 126-127, 140-141 and 162-5. You can read or download these below: