How the Grognards really played, 3rd edition

This is the second re-write of my Really Old School Rules, modeled after the way Dave Arneson, David Wesely, Phil Barker, Bob Meyer, Jeff Berry and many other Twin Cities gamers roleplay(ed) before D&D.

I’m looking for a new name because “pre-D&D” is absolutely NOT what it is (thank you, @Matt Jackson, for pointing this out in your podcast). Arneson’s play method has nothing to do with Gygax’s younger game – it deserves another title. If you guys come up with a good one, i’m happy to adopt it.

One thing that kept me thinking was hit points. We know Dave Arneson used hit points after the unfortunate one-hit-kill incident in the infamous “Troll under the Bridge” game, a test game where Bob Meyer played a hero and got killed by one blow. I tend to handwave this aspect in my games, but now I have more historical information.

On Facebook, I posted the following question:

Let’s take a look at Strategos, a military game that had major influence on Arneson and Wesely, as well. Table T says:

Of interest to me is the results section. The higher the difference between the winning dice roll and the losing dice roll, the worse the result becomes for the loser. As we’ve read, Arneson used points, at least in the sense of “this character can get hit X times”, and Bob Meyer seems to walk the same path. I’ll use this for my own interpretation.

I also asked Chirine ba Kal (Jeff Berry), one of the oldest friends of Prof. Barker’s, and the current “official” Tekumel referee, the same question about a Really Old School Star Wars campaign.

NorbertDid you use hit points? Or “three strikes and you’re out” or similar things? 

ChirineYes, modified by the particular game’s setting. It works. Hits were based on the game’s setting. Blasters generally meant that the hit was fatal; same for lightsabers. Tekumel sessions used EPT for the stats and HP – for example – but the players were the ones who kept track of them; they would tell the GM what had happened, which also told everybody in the party, as everybody role-played. I have some dice to indicate where hits occur, and we use these for some games. otherwise, it’s Phil’s rules and roll %D. If one knows how the world works, it gets pretty easy and fun to play.


  • 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. 
  • 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 can get hit/injured a certain number of times; the exact number of hits is determined by the referee. In combat, if the winning result is really high (again, the referee has the final say in this), or your actions leading to this situation were stupid enough, it is entirely possible that your character is severely injured or even dies. (Note for referees: a good number is four hits: after the first hit, you’re stunned, after the second, lightly injured, after the third, severely injured, after the fourth, mortally wounded. Armor gives the character a number of “free hits” – think damage sponge – before they start getting hurt).
  • In mass combat, you count as four men.
  • If you’re playing a published rpg setting: 
    • roll attributes. Write down only extremely low and extremely high stats. 
    • pick 10 skills from the rulebook (if the game uses skills)
    • pick 2d6 pieces of regular equipment/gear from the book, then lose 1d6 of them
    • pick 2 “Powers”: special equipment, spells, special abilities, connections, special backgrounds etc.


  • 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 
  • The ref can also roll his 2d6 against the player’s. Higher result wins and gets to say what happens.
  • You can also use a d20 instead of two regular six-sided dice. If a character has an advantage of any kind, the player may either roll 2d20 and pick the higher result, or add +5 to his 1d20 roll. For disadvantage, roll 2d20 and pick the worse result, or subtract 5 from a 1d20 roll.


  • You roll 2d6, I roll 2d6. Who rolled higher determines what happens. If we’re close, we negotiate. 
  • Winning with a high number (ref determines what that means) means a really good and/or severe hit.
  • Shields grant a character 1 free hit before they can get injured, light armor also 1 free hit, medium armor 2 free hits, heavy armor 3 hits. So a player character wearing leather armor (=light armor) can get hit once without major consequences, after that, he can usually take 4 hits before he dies.


  • 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.