Relevant Reposts: Combining D&D, OSR and Old School with freeform play

Two years ago, I posted the following article. In light of the continued success of FKR, I think it’s a good thing to repost it:
OK, so you have some edition of D&D at home. Or another old school game, Traveller, Bushido, I don’t know. Or any of the millions of OSR games (hint: Chris McDowall’s Into the Odd/Electric Bastionland is da shiat).

But now you’ve taken a look at the rules, and you’re not sure if you’ll ever be able to play that game. How is anyone supposed to remember all those things? Page upon page upon page of rules. How?

Freeform roleplay to the rescue!

You can still keep your books, there’s so much inspiration in them, you’ll see. What you want to do if you’re overwhelmed by the sheer amount of numbers and rules and pages is this:

  1. Create a character with the rules set you have. Don’t sweat it, there’s no need to stick slavishly to the rules in the book. Follow the character creation rules as well as you can. Boom, your character is ready to leap headfirst into adventure (or into the mouth of a green-faced stone demon face, as the case may be).
  2. Read this blog post: It contains everything you need to know to start playing NOW. The founding fathers of our hobby played like that, and what was good for them is good for us.
  3. Understand that rules are only a necessary evil. What’s important is the game, is playing with friends and family at the table, moving miniatures around (or not), scribbling, planning, laughing, acting. That’s the important part. Don’t let your imagination be drowned by tons of rules. Early roleplaying games didn’t rely on any rulebook — because there were no rulebooks yet. Play the world, not the rules.

Git y’all’s Troika! ass in ar OD&D

I’ve sung the song of Troika! before, and I’ll continue to sing it. Troika! is the rebel child of British roleplaying, a world away from the American forefathers as you can imagine.

Troika!’s rules feel old, but move fast. And that’s where the original edition of Gary’s game and the much younger sibling from the UK have something in common. OD&D IS old, but moves fast, too. So, naturally, I have to try and play Troika! with the rules of the little brown books. This will be easy, very easy. Let’s see.

All I have to do is to pick or roll a Troika! background and treat the Advanced Skills as rough guidelines for saves. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of role-under stat saves; I like them to be more guesswork-y, if that makes sense. So, roll a Luck Die (d6), gauge the character’s Advanced Skill and tell the player what number to roll on or over.

Let’s try that with Caro’s Owl Detective.

As class template, I’ll use the elf. Like in yesterday’s blog post, an investigator starts out with 1+Level Detective Points. Re-interpret the OD&D spells in a way that applies to investigative work. “Lightning Bolt” could mean getting valuable intel on someone. Starting investigators get 3 detective tricks (ref determines). You can have any Level of spell. When you do your Owl Detective thing, save vs. INT (the higher the spell level, the harder the save). If you roll successfully, the trick works. If not, the trick doesn’t work, and you lose (spell level) Detective Points.

If the Owl Detective wants to Interrogate someone (one of his Advanced Skills), I’d simply say, roll more than 4 to be successful.

So there you have it. Your Brit rebel game in the warm embrace of its American ancestor.

Little Brown Books Cyberpunk, or: OD&D 2020

OK. I’m innocent. Honestly. Wizard Lizard started it. His credo is “OD&D can do anything”, or sometimes, “OD&D is the best game”. And while I’ve sworn not to write OD&D any more (because of reasons), I’m breaking my promise now. The original D&D game is still one of the best games ever written. And while Wizard Lizard has used OD&D to power Zoopunk and Shadowrun, I’m using it to run Cyberpunk 2020. The cool thing is this: It takes about 15 minutes to re-skin the game to fit your genre. So cool.

So, this, then is Cyberpunk 2020 by way of The Little Brown Books:

Rockerboys (thieves): Music is the universal language, and you speak it so, so, so well. That’s ALL you live for, ALL you want. The thief skills are your rocker skills; sway people with ROCK’N’ROLL (open locks), read corp fine print (remove traps), interpret catchy tunes your way (pick pockets), compose (move silently), hide in shadows, detect lies (hear noise).

Solos (fighting-men): They not only work like F-M, they are the prototypical F-M.

Netrunners (clerics): hack into computer systems. xd6 (6s explode) to determine how many minutes the run lasts; refs roll 1d6 each minute to determine if ICE and corp hackers notice something, 5+ they do; small x=tough system, large x=easy-peasy lemon squeezy). Use the Turning Undead table to determine the outcome of the netrun (with skeleton being a simple, unsophisticated system, and vampire being fraggin’ orbital bank HQ shit). Think about the consequences of failed netruns, too.

Techies (magic-users): they start out with 3+Level Tech Points. Re-interpret the OD&D spells in a way that applies to the miracles of technology. “Lightning Bolt” could mean short-circuiting nearby wires so they electrocute the target. Stuff like that. Starting techies get 3 spells, er, tech tricks (ref determines). You can have any Level of spell, repeat: you can have any level of spell. When you do your tech wizardry, save vs. INT (the higher the spell level, the harder the save). If you roll successfully, the trick works. If not, the trick doesn’t work, and you lose (spell level) Tech Points.

Medias (thieves): you know all the tricks in the book of communication; you know people who might help you or owe you a favor. You’re in that game for The Truth, and you really think you can uncover and discover it. The thief skills are your job skills; ask the right people (open locks), get clearances (remove traps), steal info (pick pockets), shmooze your way in (move silently), go undercover (hid in shadows), analyze rumors (hear noise).

Cops (elves): you can be a tough street-cop (elven fighting-man) for one case, and a sly investigator (elven magic-user) for the next. As an investigator, you start out with 1+Level Detective Points. They work like he Techie’s tech points: Re-interpret the OD&D spells in a way that applies to investigative work. “Lightning Bolt” could mean getting valuable intel on someone. Starting investigators get 3 detective tricks (ref determines). You can have any Level of spell. When you do your cop thing, save vs. INT (the higher the spell level, the harder the save). If you roll successfully, the trick works. If not, the trick doesn’t work, and you lose (spell level) Detective Points.

Corporates (clerics): You’ve been in the biz for a while. You know how to deal with people. And you know to to pull certain strings to get certain things done. Use the Turning Undead table to determine the outcome of your activities (skeleton = a simple, unsophisticated task, vampire = that shit might be way above your paygrade).

Fixers (dwarves): Import, export. So to speak. You help people get what they desire. And you help them lose what they want lost. Use the Retainer/NPC Reaction table to determine the outcome (not the reaction of your business partners) of your business transactions.

Nomads (hobbits): When everybody else has lost their collective fraggin’ mind (and soul!), you know what’s important in life: a tribe. A family. A wolf-pack of friends. But life on the road has its downsides, that’s why you know how to shoot guns and throw shit. And you add +4 to every saving throw against things that hurt.

Older School: Pre-D&D, 2nd edition

After working on the rules with friends, this is the latest incarnation of the Blackmoor/Arneson/Pre-D&D rules, as I interpret them. They now include the simple mass combat rules I’m using at my table. Ray Otus came up with the title “Older School”. I LOVE it.


  • Write down a few words about your character. 
  • Note one special power that allows you to do things others can’t. Special powers are defined before play by the ref and the player. By design, this is open to interpretation. The freedom in pre-D&D is its biggest strength and weakness (for modern players, who are used to hard and fast definitions) . One referee might say that “wizard” is already a special power. In another game, it might be different. 
  • Your character has no stats, but you may write down “strong”, “agile”, “tough”, “charming”, “smart” or “wise”. If this helps you in a situation, add +1 to the roll. 
  • Your character has 5 hit points; the referee may handwave hp and say your character dies if/when you screw up real bad. 
  • In mass combat, you roll 3d6.  


  • When the ref calls for it, roll 2d6: 
    • High = good 
    • Middling = does not change the situation, or negotiated/mixed results (fleeting success, success with a downside, failure with an upside) 
    • Low = bad 


  • Both combatants roll 2d6: The higher result hits. If we’re only 1 point apart, we negotiate: maybe we hit simultaneously, or we both lose our footing, or anything else that makes sense in the situation. 
  • Rolling a 12 deals +1 hit. 
  • Normal weapons deal 1 hit, 2-handed weapons deal 2 hits. 
  • Shields add 1 hp, light armor adds 1 hp, medium armor adds 2 hp, heavy armor adds 3 hp. 


  • Melee is simultaneous. Only the first row of combatants can attack, except for polearm/spear attacks from the second row.
  • Each figure may move up to one length of a pen in normal terrain. Difficult terrain halves movement. Very difficult terrain allows movement of up to 1/4 of a pen. Fast or slow combatants move farther or shorter than one pen — come up with your own rulings here.
  • First, Missles are fired, second, spells are started, third, combatants move, fourth, spells started in step 1 now take effect; fifth, archers who didnʻt move and havenʻt been engaged in melee may fire again, sixth, Melee
  • Using light weapons: roll 1d6 for every 3 men 
  • Using medium weapons: roll 1d6 for every 2 men 
  • Using heavy weapons: roll 1d6 for every man 
  • Using superheavy weapons, or mounted: roll 2d6 for every man. 
  • Attacking heavily armored opponents: 6 is a kill 
  • Attacking opponents in medium armor: 5, 6 kills 
  • Attacking opponents in light or no armor: 4,5,6 kills 
  • 1 hit kills a normal being. Monsters and npcs can take a number of hits depending on how many humans they’re equivalent to. E.g. A bear that’s as powerful as 4 humans can take 4 hits. 
  • Hirelings die first; player characters only start taking damage after their hirelings have died.
  • Check morale with 1d6 when a unit has lost 3+ figures, when a unit has lost more than half of its members, when a unit is attacked from behind or in the flank, or when friendly units are routing nearby.
  • If the unit rolls higher than the its morale number, it is routed and immediately turns in the opposite direction and moves as far back as it can. It will continue to do so till it reaches the end of the playing field; at that moment, itʻs considered defeated.
  • Morale numbers: under fire
    • Civilians: 3, Soldiers: 4, Veterans/Elite Soldiers: 5, Heroes: 6
  • Morale numbers: routing/other
    • Civilians: 2, Soldiers: 3, Veterans: 4, Elite Soldiers: 5, Heroes: 
  • A leader might be able to rally fleeing troops; roll 1d6 and stay at or under the leaderʻs Leadership Skill (1=uninspired, 2=typical, 3=talented, 4=superb, 5=tactical genius).
  • Modifiers to Morale: 
    • Attacked in flank -1
    • Attacked from behind -2
    • Leader close by +1
    • Double ranks (formation wider than deeper) +1
    • Triple ranks (formation wider than deeper) +2
    • Lost half or more figures in unit -2
    • Witnessed the loss if their leader in this turn -2
    • Lost a general -3

This way, 10 soldiers in leather armor and with swords fighting against 3 knights with war axes on horses roll 5d6, and 6s kill. The knights roll 6d6, and 5 and 6 kill.

Pre-D&D: How Dave, Gary, Phil and the original grognards played

To me, going back to the roots of our hobby means one teaching moment after another. For instance, did Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax use the Original D&D rules? In public, yes, or at least houseruled versions of them. But in private? After doing quite some research and after private communication with players who were there at the dawn of roleplaying games, I think it’s safe to say that they used a completely different set of rules – in fact, a much earlier version, before levels and before fancy dice. 

They played a version that avoided the pitfall of using Chainmail as one-on-one combat system in roleplaying because it was way too deadly and thus, simply no fun. (In fact, Bob Meyer, one of the earliest players of Dave, complained after one of the first games because his character died after just one blow – that was one of the reasons Dave introduced “hits” or “hit points” into the game).

So how did the roleplaying game that came before D&D really work?

In a nutshell:

  • write down a few things about your character
  • one special power that allows you to do things others can’t
  • no stats
  • no hit points; but you have to screw up real bad to die 
  • saves: roll 2d6; high=good; middling=does not change the situation; low=bad
  • combat: we both roll 2d6; if I’m higher, I say what happens, if you’re higher, you say what happens; if we’re close, we negotiate

Variations included 3d6 or d100 instead of 2d6, but the above is the complete game system. 
A like this a lot.

Still, I’ll change a few things because Klint Finley’s 2017 article is still darn impressive , and because I love mass combat in my rpg sessions.

Character Creation

  • write down a few things about your character
  • one special power that allows you to do things others can’t
  • no stats, but you might write down “strong”, “agile”, “tough”, “charming”, “smart” or “wise”. If this helps you in a situation, add +1 to the roll
  • 5 hit points; or the referee handwaves and you die when you screw up real bad
  • roll 2d6; high=good; middling=does not change the situation; low=bad
One-on-one Combat
  • we both roll 2d6; if I’m higher, I hit; if you’re higher, you hit; if we’re close, we negotiate; rolling a 12 deals +1 hit
  • 1-handed weapons deal 1 hit, 2-handed weapons deal 2 hits
  • shields add 1 hp, light armor adds 1 hp, medium armor adds 2 hp, heavy armor adds 3 hp
Mass Combat
  • each player character rolls 1d6 for every two people in their group; 5 or 6 is a hit
  • 1 hit kills a normal being; monsters and npcs can take a number of hits depending on how many humans they’re equivalent to. A bear that’s as powerful as 4 humans can take 4 hits in combat.
  • hirelings die first; player characters only start taking damage after their hirelings have died

So let’s put this beauty to the test.

The silver-colored fighter on the left is Korkonn, warrior of the Alligator Clan. He is strong and can cling to giant opponents. He has 5 hit points (in mass combat, this gives him 2.5, or 3, d6 to roll). With him are 6 other fighters. They also get 3d6 in total. So Korkonn rolls 6d6 in this melee.

The giant dark monster on the right is a Gorgolyth. It is as strong as 10 men and thus fights with 5d6 and has 10 hit points.

Round 1: Korkonn rolls 6d6 and gets one 5 and two 6s, the rest of the dice show lower numbers. The Gorgolyth loses 3 hit points. Gorgo rolls 5d6 and scores three 5s which means three of Korkonn’s fighters die, and Korkonn loses 2 dice. 

Korkonn and his remaining 3 fighters launch another attack, rolling a 5 and a 6, which costs Gorgo another 2 hit points (he now has 5 hp left). Gorgo scores a 5 and two , and Korkonn loses another man. Korkonn is now down to two men and 4d6.

Another round of combat, and Korkonn has lost his last two fighters. Only now Korkonn can get hurt, and we switch from group combat to one-on-one combat. Gorgo deals 2 hits with each successful attack, Korkonn deals 1, but also wears  medium armor, giving him 2 more hit points. Korkonn starts with a total of 7 hit points, Gorgo with 5. Korkonn adds +1 to each roll because he’s strong, Gorgo adds +2 because it’s fucking strong.

First round: Korkonn loses 2 hit points. Now he’s down to 5.
Second round: again, Korkonn loses 2 hp and is now down to 2.
Third round: Gorgo gets hit (Korkonn rolls a 12, which means 2 hits) is down to 3 hp.
Fourth round: Korkonn gets hit again and is now down to zero hp. 

Poor Korkonn.


Special powers are defined before play by the ref and the player.  
Armor, in the simple version, is not accounted for. If you want to get more detailed, you have several options:
simply reduce the opponent’s “kill numbers”, so for instance, they score a kill with a 6 only.
Fighting power:  
For instance, instead of 1d6 for every 2 men, you get 1d6 for each single one.

Why D&D has nothing to do with the original sword & sorcery stories

Old school D&D: “I’m modeled after the old science fiction stories, where life is short and unforgiving. Your character probably dies very early on. What would you expect, with those ridiculously low hit points?”

Old science fiction stories (Vance, Leiber, ERB, de Camp, Carter, etc): “Our protagonists are heroes, that’s why we’re still (or, again) so popular with many readers. Life is short and unforgiving – but not for our heroes; to them, it’s dangerous, but they usually live to tell the tale.”
Notice anything? Old D&D was definitely not “modeled after” these stories. Anybody seriously claiming D&D is sword&sorcery in the tradition of Leiber, Vance, and their companions is wrong. The low survival rate of early D&D is a remnant of wargaming and has nothing to do whatsoever with the literary sources.
Even the term “Vancian magic” in the context of D&D is completely incorrect. Reading the literary source material, you’ll soon find that Mazirian, one of Vance’s heroes and a very powerful sorcerer, for instance tells the reader that he can hold four of the best/most powerful spells at any one time in his memory, or five minor ones – at best.
There are only 100 known spells on earth. One hundred. And every mage is a potential target because he might possess a spell that others don’t. I think cozy evenings in the armchair, while smoking a pipe, are definitely not on the list of those guys.
In my proto-D&D games, I’ll change all of this to make it real Vancian. What do y’all think?

From OD&D to Pre-D&D: Short play report

(liberated from my G+ feed)

The adventure:

So my players and their characters (3rd level) continued their misadventures in Yoon-Suin. After helping a village fight orc hordes (beautiful battle, using our simplified Chainmail-ish system), they found out that they had been caught in a full-sensory illusion the entire time. After the sorcerer had tried a sleep spell against the mayor of the village and failed, and after the “thief” had experienced curious perception shifts after a couple of strong schnappses (the beautiful little homlet looking rotten, devastated and foul), they managed to break the spell and kill the being that was responsible for it. Oh yes, and they found good loot in a small dungeon hidden behind a subterranean temple room.

The rules:  

We started out with OD&D, the first three books. A couple of house rules, nothing major. After the battle, the first thing I tried was dropping the to-hit numbers. I replaced them with impromptu numbers, going with what felt right (“Your opponent is pretty close to you, not very experienced in melee, you have a dagger, but are no fighter, so give me a 12 or more”).

I kept d6 damage for the first fight, but dropped that also later. I replaced all saves and tests with 2d6, roll 7+ for simple stuff, roll 9+ for demanding or difficult tasks, or even higher, adding +1 or +2 when a character had some sort of expertise or advantage. 

Even later in the game, I replaced the d20 for to-hit rolls with 2d6, using the target numbers above. Combat went lightning fast, and we had a lot of fun 🙂  The numbers I used are familiar to all those of you who play Barons of Braunstein, Blood of Pangea or Pits&Perils.

What’s next:

I might keep OD&D hp, but maybe I’ll replace them with something simpler (lower hp overall, roll average and do 1 pt of damage, roll really high and do 2+ pts of damage). For now, I’ll keep the spells and Vancian magic, but I can see them leaving, as well.

Translating OD&D to Into the Odd: What happens?

I’m a sucker for minimalist games, but ones that keep the old school spirit alive. Inspired by Brian Harbron’s ideas on incorporating old school magic in Into the Odd, I translated my group’s OD&D characters to ItO. The results are very interesting. I’ve come to really dislike wishy-washy “narrative” games that don’t take character death seriously. Into the Odd is the exact opposite of that. It’s like OD&D’s little mean brother. And I mean this as compliment.

This character:

becomes this:

In short: quicker and even more compact than OD&D. This looks more and more promising. I’ll keep y’all posted.

Into the Odd is onto something

I’m a long-time fan of +Chris McDowall’s brilliant old school game “Into the Odd”. Every time we played it, we had loads of fun. But my search for old, older, oldest school games led me away from this compact game into other fields. Original D&D, the first three books, caught my attention. It still does, by the way.

I find it refreshing to use really old game systems because it teaches me a few things about game flow, ad-hoc rulings and improvisation; more so than any story-game I’ve ever played (and I’ve played a few).

In OD&D combat, you have to beat a number with a d20. This number takes into account your opponent’s ability to withstand real damage, be it because of a thick hide or his agility or speed. The tougher or quicker he is, the higher is the number you have to roll on your d20.

Fighters and non-fighters alike have not-too-good success chances on lower experience levels. This results in lots of misses. Now, misses are nothing else but dice rolls without any discernible result. In other words: unnecessary. Of course, its proponents argue that missed to-hit rolls still do something, namely for the “narrative”: they tell you you missed. Well, this kind of information does nothing for me. I don’t need it. I don’t want it.

Other systems, even the older ones that attempt to go back even further than OD&D, suffer from the same problem: Your dice roll can miss. ‘But in combat, misses increase tension!’, I hear some of you say.

Ah, no.

All they do is they draw out combats. And this is not exactly my idea of fun. A miss is a miss is a wasted opportunity to move things forward.

Enter Into the Odd. 

ItO doesn’t have to-hit-rolls. Every attack hits. You roll damage for your weapon, subtract armor (1 to 2 points for humans, 3 for the toughest monsters), and subtract the result from your hit points. Just as in OD&D, you start out with a measly 1d6 hp. Once your hp are gone, you are wounded and subtract any further damage from your Strength attribute. But each time you do that, you roll a STR test (on or under) to avoid a critical wound that’ll take you out.

This makes combat not only really fast, it also increases tension. The best you can hope for when the opponent attacks is they roll minimal damage. But hurt you, they will. This very much resembles what real melee is like — and I’m speaking from experience here; I was a military combatives/reality-based combat instructor.

So, what could I learn from Into the Odd?

Lots and lots.
I could, and I’ll definitely try that, do away with to-hit-rolls. Fighters either roll their damage “with advantage” (roll two dice, take the better result), or they roll what ItO calles “Enhanced Damage” (1d12), regardless of their weapon.

I could, and I’ll also try that, use ItO’s healing rules. They are more forgiving than OD&D, which is not a bad thing.

The bottom line is even more interesting than the details: Using ItO for OD&D combat turns the old game into something that very much resembles proto-ItO… From there, it’s only a small step to remove spells and turn them into “Oddities” (artifacts).

We’ll see what the future holds. One thing I’m sure of: It’ll be awesome.