Thursday, 16 November 2017

Eight Elven Mysteries

For me, mystery is the key to all adventure writing. If I can make the players wonder about what's happening, what's happened, or what's going to happen, their curiosity pulls them straight into the world. I'm hoping to do a bunch of posts about mystery and include some random tables of mysteries as well.

Here are eight elven-themed mysteries to draw your players in:

  1. An elf riding a white horse hard through the woods just off the road. (bears a message which proves the innocence of accused kin)
  2. A shadowy wood where an elven tower stands abandoned. (inhabitants, under a gloom curse, infused their weapons with their own despair and animated them, knowing the weapons would kill them)
  3. An elf sleeping against a tree, golden hair spread out around. (actually dead, body magically preserved)
  4. A perfectly cylindrical chamber which has no visible exit when the door is closed; ornate pillows on the floor. (elven meditation chamber -- sitting on the pillows and meditating causes luminous elven script and symbols to appear on the walls)
  5. An elven shrine; an elf sits in meditation and will not leave. (an elven deity once appeared here long ago and promised to return to the shrine)
  6. A band of elves processing, protecting a hooded elf in the centre. (an elven noble escaping from an abusive spouse or lord)
  7. Tales of a dryad that once communed with elves, but whose tree was lost. (if asked, the elves don't remember the tree's location, but they remember the name of the dryad and that it granted them Wisdom of the forest)
  8. A tree with a symbol of a sword drawn on it which is illuminated by moonlight. (speaking in orcish or goblin will cause the sword to fly out from the tree and attack; speaking in elvish will reveal the sword embedded in the tree behind the symbol)

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Magic-Users With Swords

Michael Whelan's cover for Stormbringer

Most older editions of D&D restrict the Magic-User class in its use of weapons other than daggers and staffs. These restrictions are in place for game balance and make sense for the archetype of the scholarly magician, but what about players who want to play the archetype of the sword-wielding Magic-User?

The two main examples of this archetype are Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné, and J. R. R. Tolkien's Gandalf. People like to say that Gandalf doesn't count as a player character because he's one of the Maiar in human form and is essentially a supernatural being, but that doesn't make people want to play a character like him any less -- and fantasy roleplaying is all about playing the kinds of characters who inspire you to want to walk in their worlds.

Here's a way of allowing Magic-Users to wield swords in your old school game while still preserving the balance between Fighters and Magic-Users.

Magic Swords

If looking at these two characters as the main representatives of the archetype of the sword-wielding Magic-User, you will notice that neither Elric nor Gandalf are interested in the mundane swords of soldiers. Both of them come into contact with magic swords. As Magic-Users, they are inherently interested in magical artifacts. In the case of Elric, his sword Stormbringer is obviously intelligent and exerts some influence over him. No such relationship is explicitly described between Gandalf and Glamdring, but that doesn't mean there couldn't be some form of intelligence in that sword as well, and therefore some sort of inferred connection between the wizard and the blade.

For the purposes of furthering this archetype, based on the above, I will posit that Magic-Users are only interested in magic swords, as the result of their unique magical capabilities and their intelligence.

Magic swords, however, are most interested in Fighters, who represent the archetype of the brave warrior. Magic swords want to be used, and they know they will be used in the hands of a Fighter. But they are also artifacts of magic, and so Magic-Users do interest them to some extent; they are perhaps willing to make deals with them.

The Bargain 

Magic-Users cannot offer magic swords nearly as much melee action and spilled blood as Fighters, but they can offer them something else: the unique resource Magic-Users have at their disposal, which is spells.

In exchange for a store of magical energy (a spell slot), a magic sword might be persuaded to lend its strength to the Magic-User.

Magic-Users are not trained combatants. They spend their time studying books and scrolls, not gaining skill with body and weapon. Both Elric and Gandalf are Magic-Users who were capable of powerful magic long before they come upon their respective magic swords. Stormbringer lends Elric almost the entirety of his strength and ability to fight; without the blade's magic, he's a feeble albino, albeit still a powerful sorcerer. Gandalf's relationship with Glamdring is not explicit, nor implicit, but a similar lending of strength and fighting ability is something that could make sense in the context of a fantasy roleplaying game, given that Gandalf never wields another weapon and that there must be some special reason for his taking up Glamdring.

New Spell: Commune With Sword

This is a 2nd-level spell. Once this spell is cast, the Referee should make a Reaction Roll for the magic sword when first grasped by the Magic-User. If the result is positive, the sword will allow itself to be carried and drawn by the Magic-User. Going forward, it will lend its strength and fighting ability to the Magic-User in exchange for a spell slot, determined randomly by rolling a die equal to the maximum level of spell the Magic-User is able cast and adding a modifier of +1 (a magic sword will not accept a 1st-level spell slot as adequate recompense).* If the Magic-User is out of spell slots of the rolled spell level, re-roll.

After the spell slot is consumed, the Magic-User fights as a Fighter of equal level to the Magic-User. The duration of the boon is a number of turns equal to the level of the spell slot consumed. After the duration has passed, the Magic-User no longer has the strength or skill to wield the sword in combat, but can still make use of its passive magical abilities.

This spell can be cast in advance, before preparing spells, and only activated after the sword is drawn.

This spell must be cast each time the Magic-User wishes to wield the magic sword in combat. It only requires a single spell slot, whichever one has been consumed in the casting.

If the magic sword is not used in combat with occasional frequency, the Referee should make another Reaction Roll to determine whether the sword will continue to allow the Magic-User to wield it.

*Alternatively, the Referee may allow the Magic-User to decide the level of the spell slot to be consumed, thus giving the Magic-User control over the duration of the spell. Some Referees may find this flexibility too powerful, as it further infringes on the Fighter's precedence in regard to magic swords.

On Balance

The important thing to note here is the Reaction Roll: the magic sword must accept the Magic-User as its bearer, and Commune With Sword must be cast before the Reaction Roll is made. In addition, the desires of the magic sword and its influence over the Magic-User should be role-played during the game. These restrictions protect the Fighter's role as sole master over magic swords, but allow the lucky, clever, and sacrificing Magic-User to benefit from wielding such special blades of intelligence and magic, which may well be better understood by the Magic-User than the Fighter; after all, it isn't a Fighter who crafts these artifacts in the first place, but a high-level Magic-User.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

OD&D: Balancing Demi-humans (Dwarves)

The Dwarf from Swords & Wizardry Core Rules

Dwarves in OD&D/S&W are fairly competent characters with no real drawbacks aside from being limited to 6th level Fighters. As the majority of my play happens in the levels 1-4 range, level limits are usually irrelevant at character creation.

Using the Swords & Wizardry Core Rules as a base, I developed the following house rules in order to balance low level Dwarves against humans in my OD&D/S&W game:


Prime Attribute: Strength, 13+ (+5% experience bonus)

Hit Dice: 1d8/level

Armor/Shield Permitted: Any

Weapons Permitted: Any except large two-handed weapons, specifically two-handed swords, polearms, or longbows. When wielding a battleaxe, longsword, or bastard sword, Dwarves must use two hands and therefore cannot also carry a shield.

The player-character Dwarf has a +4 on saving throws against any magic, and easily takes note of certain features of stonework: sloping corridors, moving walls, and traps made of stone -- in particular: falling blocks, rigged ceilings, and tiny arrow slits designed to release poison gas or darts. They can also identify whether stonework is recent or not. There is no established die roll for using these abilities; exactly what a Dwarf does or doesn't perceive is up to the Referee. Dwarves only take 1/2 damage from ogres, trolls, and giants. Dwarves can see in the dark (darkvision), to a limit of 60 feet.

Dwarven player characters must be Fighters.* They may advance beyond 6th level only if the warrior has a Strength of 17 (maximum 7th level) or 18 (maximum 8th level).

Dwarves use the class abilities and advancement table of the Fighter, however, Dwarves may not make use of the Fighter's Parrying ability.

Dwarves with a Constitution of 14+ may choose to brace themselves instead of attacking, giving enemies a -2 penalty to attacks against the Dwarf.


The main change I made in balancing the Dwarf against the human Fighter was to limit the Dwarf's use of weapons. Specifically, keeping the Dwarf from wielding a longsword one-handed means that out of the two, only the human Fighter can deal 1d8 damage and carry a shield; Dwarves with a shield are only able to do a maximum of 1d6 damage with the weapons available to them. And only the human Fighter has access to the highest-damage weapon, the two-handed sword (1d10 damage). Therefore the best choices a Dwarf has for two-handed weapons are the battleaxe and bastard sword, due to their +1 to damage when wielded two-handed. I like the archetype reinforcement these rules encourage.

Removing the Dwarf's ability to Parry as a Fighter keeps the integrity of the skill and speed humans have over Dwarves in tact.  

For the bracing ability, I wanted to give Dwarves some feature which represents their sturdiness without giving permanent bonuses to hit points or Armour Class. Incorporating the 1/2 damage from ogres, trolls, and giants helps with this too, though the Referee needs to include those monsters in the campaign in order for it to be useful.

*I do not use the Thief class in my game. Therefore, all Dwarves are Fighters.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

OD&D: Balancing Demi-humans (Elves)

The Elf from Swords & Wizardry Core Rules

The concept of level limits, hotly debated in old school circles, does little to dissuade my players from choosing to play demi-humans at low levels. As the majority of my play happens in the levels 1-4 range, level limits aren't really relevant, and demi-humans end up being the obvious choice due to their myriad advantages over humans.

Using the Swords & Wizardry Core Rules as a base, I developed the following house rules in order to balance low level Elves against humans in my OD&D/S&W game:


Prime Attribute: Strength and Intelligence, 13+ (+5% experience bonus)

Hit Dice: Elves roll a d6 for their hit points, as opposed to the average of a d4 and a d8 that S&W uses. (This isn't so much a balancing mechanic as it is me finding the combined hit dice too clunky.)

Armor/Shield Permitted: Leather, ring, chain; shields

Weapons Permitted: Dagger, staff, longsword, and longbow

Elves can see in the dark (darkvision) to a range of 60 feet and generally have a 4-in-6 chance to find secret doors when searching, unlike the other races, which have a 2-in6 chance. Elves also have a 1-in-6 chance to notice a secret door even when they are not searching. They also cannot be paralyzed by ghouls.

Player-character Elves are Fighter/Magic-Users.* Elves are limited to 4th level Fighter (5th level with Strength of 17, 6th level with Strength of 18) and 8th level Magic-User (9th with an Intelligence of 18). Regardless of any further progression in levels as a Magic-User, Elves are able to cast magic spells only as high as 5th-level spells.

An Elf cannot cast spells while wearing non-magical armor, although magical armor does not inhibit spell casting.

Elves cannot make use of magical scrolls other than protection scrolls.

Elves are exceptional archers and do not suffer any penalties to hit for shooting beyond range when using a longbow. The weapon still cannot reach farther than twice its range.

Elf Advancement Table

Number of Spells (by level)
Experience Points Required for Level*
(Fighter / Magic-User)
Hit Dice (d6)**
Saving Throw
1,500 / 1,875
3,000 / 3,750
6,000 / 7,500
12,000 / 15,000
24,000 / 26,250
/ 37,500
/ 56,250
/ 75,000
  *Any experience points received are divided evenly among both of the Elf’s classes, even when the character can no longer advance as a Fighter (in which case, those XP are simply lost). You still need to keep track, though, because it may be important for when you gain more hit dice (see below).
 ** A new hit die is not gained until the Elf has advanced a level in both classes. If an Elf reaches the point where the Fighter class is "capped," and the character cannot advance in that class any more, the character still only gains a new hit die when both levels would have been reached.


These rules give the Elf immediate trade-offs for their versatility out of the gate at 1st level. Being restricted to chain, an Elf can never have a higher AC than a human Fighter in plate. Limiting access to the larger and heavier weapons ensures the Elf will never be able to do as much damage in melee as a human Fighter potentially could. Giving the Elf a d6 hit die keeps the human Fighter well ahead in hit points. I did however remove the range penalties for an Elf using a longbow to represent the archetype of the Elven archer.

Balancing the Elf against the Magic-User was a bit trickier. The Elf has a better hit die, is able to use melee weapons, and is able to cast in magical armor. To offset these advantages, I allow human Magic-Users in my game to create scrolls beginning at 1st level as in Holmes Basic (100gp per level of spell and 1 week of game time per level of spell); I do not allow Elves to use scrolls at all.

Elves use a magic that resides within; they spend their time honing the natural magical energies that flow in their fae blood. They do not prepare spells by memorizing gestures and incantations by rote as humans do, but rather attune themselves to inner thoughts and feelings which bring about the magical effects of their spells. Thus, magical scrolls are useless to an Elf.

The XP chart is simply the separate requirements of the Fighter and Magic-User classes, multiplied by .75 to give the Elf a bit of a break in lieu of these limitations. I otherwise use the advancement rules for multi-classed characters in the Swords & Wizardry Core Rules.

 *I do not use the Thief class in my game. Therefore, all Elves are Fighter/Magic-Users.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Making a Fantasy Sandbox: Part III

Part II

The next six steps in Rob's guide:
5. Grab a 8.5 by 11 sheet of hex paper.
6. The scale should be so that it represents a 200 by 150 mile region
7. Draw in mountains
8. Draw in rivers
9. Draw in hills using them to divide the region into distinct river valley
10. Draw in vegetation (swamps, forests, desert, etc)
These steps can be distilled into one instruction: make a cool map on a sheet of hex paper.

Since I'm using Jared Blando's How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps, I followed along with his step-by-step instead, which covers most of what Rob suggests anyway.

For your hex map, you can draw freehand over the hexes, you can draw a symbol in each hex representing the terrain type, or you can colour code your hex map, using green for forests, blue for water, etc.

Here's a (printer-friendly) numbered blank hex map I made using mkhexgrid:

Rob suggests a region map of roughly 200 by 150 miles, but I had to scale back the number of hexes to make it legible and printer friendly for standard 8.5 x 11 paper. I tried to put as many hexes as I could without making them too small. To account for fewer hexes, I'll be using 6-mile hexes. There are a number of reasons people think the 6-mile hex is superior anyway. Using a 6-mile hex, my region map is now 180 miles x 126 miles.

While drawing in the coast, I roughly followed the contours within the grey box I selected as the campaign region previously. Just treat the "grey box" (i.e. your campaign region) as your full 8.5 x 11 hex page and draw to scale.

I decided to continue with a freehand poetic approach for my region map. You can see I just treated the edge of the hex page as the borders of the grey box:

After drawing in the coast and islands, I just had fun filling in the mountains, lakes, rivers, hills, and forests:

These drawings were done in pencil and scanned using an app on my phone, so there's some smudging and fading, but you get the idea. I overlayed my blank hex map onto my drawing using I may have gotten a bit carried away with the details. It would be easier to see the hex numbers and add points of interest if I had made features a little more symbolic with less shading. The trade-off is I'm inspired when I look at the map. C'est la vie.

The scale of your map features doesn't matter too much; it's mostly about what terrain the party encounters where and knowing how many hexes-worth of travel it takes them to reach a destination. Whether you draw big detailed trees or simply colour a hex green, when the party enters that hex, you know they're in forest terrain. Use whatever method inspires you or is easiest.

Next we'll stock the map with settlements, lairs, and ruins in Part IV.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Choosing D&D Background Music

Background music is a guaranteed way to add atmosphere to a D&D session, but it's easy to choose the wrong kind of music for a traditional fantasy campaign. It's not enough to just put on the soundtrack from Conan the Barbarian and call it a night if you want the most out of this tool.

Movie Soundtracks

Movie soundtracks can sometimes have cool pieces, but film music is often written directly to reflect the action on-screen, which means it has too much movement and is too distracting at the table. Background music should be subtle yet evocative. Slower-tempo, spacious, texture-rich pieces are generally better than up-tempo pieces with a strong melody. For example, Star Wars has one of the greatest adventure scores of all time, but it doesn't make great D&D background music in my opinion. Too many strong melodies. i.e. You don't want your players to be able to hum along to the background music.

Video Game Soundtracks

I mine a lot of good music from video game soundtracks. Most game soundtracks in the fantasy genre are composed with the goal of immersing the player in the game world, which is exactly what you want in good D&D background music -- music that is flavourful, but not too distracting.

Open world games are especially bountiful hoards of good D&D background music. Games like the Elder Scrolls series (especially Oblivion and Skyrim) and The Witcher 3 are loaded with great background music.

Explore and Battle

When I'm preparing for a new campaign, I spend a lot of time curating specific pieces that meet the requirements of what I consider to be good background music, as well as helping to create the mood of that particular campaign. I generally split the music into two playlists: explore, and battle. I do find it much harder to find good classic fantasy battle music than explore music. A lot of battle music is composed to create this epic tension while the player wrestles with the controller or the viewer leans forward in their seat, but when a group of players is sitting around a table trying to declare actions, ask the DM questions, roll dice and do D&D math, the screaming choir and relentlessly slamming timpani can be overwhelming. Try to find something with a good beat and medium tension, but not too loud.


Look for music with the following qualities:
  1. Slower, spacious, rich textures
  2. Flavourful, not too distracting, avoid strong melodies 
  3. Split tracks into Explore and Battle 
It can take a lot of time, but I think the payoff is worth it. If you've already put x amount of hours into preparing your adventures, and the players have put in x amount of hours making their characters and showing up every week, why not use all the tools you can to get the most of your D&D experience?

Keep in mind, this advice is all to help with creating a traditional mood in your D&D game. Sometimes it's fun to run a campaign with a soundtrack featuring 80s hits or Led Zeppelin, but for that classic fantasy vibe, you need a certain kind of music.

If you don't have time, desire, or knowledge enough to sift through dozens of soundtracks on YouTube, I've got you covered. Here's my ultimate D&D Ambient Background Music playlist, carefully curated with all of the above in mind: D&D Ambient Background Music