Sunday, February 27, 2022

Question From The Hive Mind - Variable Damage in B/X

Ah, the dreaded Variable Damage "option" from B/X. Variable damage mucks with so much, but I can't see any other way of having it. If I said it once, I've said it a million times... I've always used a blend of B/X and AD&D so variable damage was baked right into my campaigns. But I have used both. 

(Double damage for a 20 every game. I tried fumbles on a 1 exactly twice. Fumbles suck because they make no sense. Aggression against a critter results in harm to the aggressor... hmm. No thanks, it weakens everyone.) 

Under B/X, a character did 1d6 + strength bonuses, which could be up to 3 points for an 18-strength. The average of that was 3.5 plus 1-3 extra points. It's simple to compare a 1d8 hit die for a monster to an average character. The average roll on a 1d8 is 4.5, so your average adventurer probably wouldn't down a monster in one mighty swing. They would do it on two hits. Or if profoundly unlucky, five hits. A fighter might do it in one due to those bonuses, but many other player characters are punished for taking a high strength over something else. 

Looking at the variable damage table, only 4 weapons do 1d8 or better. Using only the averages of die rolls, a guy with a sword or battle axe should take out a 1 HD monster in one round. A polearm or two-handed sword would also do it, at the expense of having a higher AC due to the loss of a shield meaning the monster could hit you a little better. Against multi-hit die creatures, the two-handed sword or polearm is a clear winner. 

But adventurers have a variety of hit-point dice which makes a PC getting hit different from a monster being hit. A Dwarf and Fighter were on par with monsters, they are combat beasts. Everyone else is worse than a 1 HD monster but had some control over their AC or the use of special abilities to make sure they weren't outclassed. Basically, PC control the pace of combat to remove the possibility of a creature taking a swipe at the squishy 1d4 Magic User or Thief. 

Monsters are all over the place when it comes to damage. They get a number of attacks plus a damage die for each. They are not ruled by the 1d6 non-variable damage rule, but they are balanced for it. There is a tendency to give 1 HD monster 1d6 points of damage or no better than 1d8 or 2d4. NPC Elves are an anomaly, getting 1+1 hit dice and 1d8 for damage. They must be seasoned Elves. 

There is a balance of character power against monster power in B/X when using standard 1d6 damage rules. But the balance shifts when variable damage is allowed. In the general form, by increasing some damage, I am expecting monsters to lose 1 round of combat survivability. A 1 HD monster should survive two rounds with 1d6 points of damage, but when that shifts 1d8 points of damage it means they survive one round less or just a single round.

The dynamic stays the same for multi-hit die monsters but is a little more fluid as the actual die rolls will change things. 

In switching to variable damage, a couple of "other things" happen, all of which follow the form of "begging the question". It creates a logical flaw. A fighter might question why an axe to the head does different damage than a big axe or little axe. Isn't it lodged in the target's brain?  All Magic-Users are now limited to 1d4 hit points of damage, they don't get missile weapons (except for thrown daggers or darts in AD&D), and most importantly, they can't wield a sword like Gandalf. 

The superhero, Magik with a sword.

In my mind, the last item is the most important but let's skip that for a moment. 

What variable damage does is weaken Magic Users to 1d4 or 2/3rds of the hitting power of others. It also brings up "what is a hit point?" If some weapons are more powerful than others, but all are lethal, what does a hit point mean? 

To me, it means that characters and monsters possess an inherent "toughness". Not like the toughness of a wall that just stands there taking abuse, but an ability to shake off stuff that would make other people lay down and quit. They aren't dead, destroyed, or whatever, they merely can't rise again. Some of this "toughness" is just luck meaning a hit isn't exactly a hit either. It could be a miss that forces someone to stumble and twist a knee.  

In taking this view of hit points, I can give swords back to Magic Users as a modified standard damage rule. They can never do more than 1d4 points of physical damage because they either don't have the right weapon or the right training to do better. I suppose I could up this to 1d6, but I feel that makes Thieves less combat savvy than Magic-Users. 

As they should. In the Basic game, everyone hits the same as there is just one table. In the Expert rules, we see a shift where Fighters hit more often than Clerics, and Magic-Users hit the least frequently. Aside from this one detail, I have totally ignored the ability to hit focusing only on the damage done. 

Ah, your standard, non-standard +1 sword.

One thing about Gandalf, all versions of Gandalf, is he only uses a staff or magic sword. He doesn't even get a dagger like a Magic User. In live-action films, he isn't a swordfighter. He tends to foil attacks with the sword, use it as a magical prop, or swing it like a club. He does not look like any other swordfighter I have seen. Because he isn't. And I am happy to let my Magic-User Player Characters behave like this. 

I permit Magic Users to use swords. I immediately describe such an item as being both magical and not a weapon. It is more like a personal fetish, a device that is possessed by a spirit of power. They do 1d4 for damage but don't have to be set down to the cast. This allows the player to have the "flavor" of the weapon without a significant bonus. I also encourage the Magic Users to have a sigil or power glyph on all weapons. They believe the item is there for the power, therefore it is marked and useful. The marking only really identifies the weapon as suitable for a magic-using person. In my world, silver weapons count as "magic" because they have some attributes of magic or special weapons, so this might crossover to ones meant for Magic-Users.

One bonus that I confer to all Magic-Users with any weapons is, if someone steps into melee range, they can abandon a cast spell to swing that weapon without losing the spell. A hit still foils a spell and they lose it. As an item of power, it assists them to switch tasks from mystical to physical but isn't a perfect defense. The reverse is not true, they can't switch to casting once the weapon is swung. They have to wait for the next round. They also have a defense to use in retreat. Someone without a weapon has nothing and is going to get hit or chased if they back up. 

There is a couple of advantages in having an ill-defined definition of hit points that variable weapon damage causes. One, it really doesn't deviate from the rules too much except for shorting the staying power of monsters and NPCs. Second, it permits flavoring to settings because the concept of hit points is softer. You can easily tack on other rules like natural 20s do double damage or -10 hit points is death. I personally use the -10 hit as death because makes everyone tougher, it forces the players to either verify the kill with a coup de grace which eliminates the need to create an endless parade of suspiciously similar NPC because the original guy got back up. Having that padding softens the blow of a bad hit-point roll. 

The flip side of this is, 1d6 standard damage allows for different sorts of creative add-ons. The rule basically says anything is a weapon, torch, stick, or sword which makes Magic Users tougher because those daggers and staves do the same damage. You could spin this into a high magic campaign where Magic-Users and magical creatures can do 1d6 of damage with a thought or glance. Who cares if they don't physically use a stick to poke the target? That's really kind of cool and can only happen when you have a very stylized or abstract combat system.  

Variable damage or standard damage are both effective methods of play, which one you pick is based on desire and need for the campaign. 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Old-School Essentials Fantasy RPG Box Sets - Kickstarter

I've been sidelined by real-life lately, but I had an alarm set for this Kickstarter project. This one is the Old-School Essentials Fantasy RPG Box Set. I missed it the first time around a few years back but managed to score just one book from one of my favorite local gaming stores, Iron Buffalo Games. 

As much as I wanted to go all-in on this Kickstarter project, I had to limit myself to the $100 level. If this set is anything like the last set, it's going to be excellent! 

I love the digest size of these books. They have a nice solid feel with a good text size for my aging eyes. Having picked up some of the PDFs, I knew that a physical book would frame the artwork better than any home-printed copy. 

This post reminds me, I must review the OSE Rule Tome, Iron Buffalo Games, and my new HP Printer. I'll be looking to post on those in the near future, as real-life permits. 

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Copy, Paste, Flip, Cut... The Countdown is On

If you look over to the right, you'll see the countdown is on. We are set to return home by mid-April. 54 days. That means a lot of things. 

Due to the time of year, everyone here is hauling ass. Nate and Cat have the school play the first week of March. Weddings are in full swing, so they are doing double duty with practice and work at the banquet hall. My older son is off with the Air Force Reserves, in and out of the house as duty dictates. My wife and I are starting new jobs. 

Things are getting real. 

The biggest change is that we won't have time to game much at all. Rather than go on hiatus, I will still have time to do some reviews. I also want to show off some cool stuff I have received from people who reached out after the fire. I should have time to post every week or two. 

Before I check out for a bit, I wanted to show off something I put together today. I love the game Star Smuggler, a solo game created in the 80s. It's like Traveller Super Lite. You can download and print it from Dwarfstar Games

One thing that always bothered me about the set is that the tiles used for the planets forced the player to invert one tile or another to create the necessary planets. Last night, I decided to correct that by flipping every tile with Gimp. This afternoon, I printed them out and pasted them on cardboard. 

It took forever. You see, the problem was each tile has text and numbers which are backward if you merely flip them. I went in flipped the words the right way around. 

It wasn't until I had the whole set printed and mounted on cardboard that I realized the high production value of the artwork included with this game. Everything lines up correctly. 

When you look at two A tiles side by side, the available paths line up because they are mirrored. And the continents look like a Rorschach test. But that is not how they are supposed to be used. 

You're supposed to match up left and right tiles according to the rules. For example, the Planet Regari uses tiles K and J while Palatek uses A and C. 

Not only do those match, every tile matches. That's brilliant! Tom Maxwell, who did the art for the tiles was a genius. I love it. 

Given that I won't have much time on my hands in the next 50+ days, my gameplay will be limited to solo games like this one. Physical tiles make it so much easier. 

Thank you, everyone, for everything. I will be around but probably not as much as I'd like. 

Friday, February 18, 2022

The Dread 'n Mechanics

In my post about our hexcrawl sessions, I was trying to show my son the difference between visceral and existential threats by using ghouls as the monster. 

Ghouls are ghoulish. They are the wolves of the undead world. On either of two attacks, they can paralyze a target. And then they eat you. There is also the concept of being turned into a ghoul, which is out of scope mechanically but may hang out in your player's head. Dang, that's all so scary. It's also existential as it begs the question, do you want to engage this threat or flee? 

Unless you are an elf who is immune. Or if you don't know what a ghoul is or does, then it's less scary. The existential threat changes from fear of being eaten alive (existential) to the likelihood of loss of life or limb (visceral). 

In these events, a paladin slammed into a pack of 5 ghouls not realizing what they were. No one did. Once the paladin was paralyzed, everyone realized what these things could do. The party had a choice: try to regroup and come up with a plan or press the attack. 

They decided to press the attack for a couple of reasons. First, I was trying to explain to my son that a pack of ghouls against 4th level characters isn't much of a threat. 

Ghouls have 9 hp, which makes them 2 or 3 hit monsters. I come from a wargaming background where hits count. With a d6, the average roll is 3.5. That's your damage against the 9 they have. Chances are you will kill them in 2 to 3 rounds and in that last round, they won't have time to do anything important.

Second, in pressing the attack, the party was preventing the downed Paladin from being eaten. The party had the ghouls outnumbered. The rank closing in on the ghouls was made up of a Fighter, an Elf, a Cleric, and a Ranger. On the wings, a Bard and Theif had bows ready. I used green to display characters that were not threatened by the ghoul's special attack: the Elf by her nature, and the Bard and thief were at a safe distance. 

My son objected to this as the ghouls swing twice. But they are facing armored opponents and have much less of a chance of hitting than the player characters do. Additionally, they strike with much less power, 1d3 hp. If they hit, then the paralysis comes into play. That is a whole other die roll where the player characters stand a good chance to resist.  

I explained to him that the threat is the most important part of the fight. With the odds loaded in the players' favor, the ghouls don't have much of a chance of winning. The players should know that, but maybe they don't. 

That's great. The Cleric is in the front rank and has a chance of pulling a Big Damn Hero moment by attempting to turn. Potentially, the Cleric could take out some or all of them. If a ghoul paralyzed someone, the Bard and the Theif have a moment to save the day with a timely arrow. Even an unaware party has some great counter moves for a paralyzed character. 

Thanks to some really awesome die rolls (from the DM's perspective), the last round of combat occurred simultaneously. In the exchange Rolf, the Fighter was hit and paralyzed as he took out his ghoul. I could not have planned that outcome, thanks to random dice. 

"So, what happens next? How long are the paralyzed?" my son asked. 

My answer was simple. The rules don't say, so I guess I, the DM can keep this sense of dread up as long as I want to. In a hexcrawl, that really doesn't come up as much as it does in a dungeon. A hexcrawl is ruled by long-term mechanics, usually days over minutes. Hurrying in a hexcrawl is done in hourly increments. By any reasonable measure, the paralyzed characters will be up before the DM has to call another event. 

A party in a dungeon doesn't have the luxury of waiting it out. They will if they have to, but that cranks up the threat level. Stuff happens fast. When in a dungeon setting I will tell every player that they feel the effects of paralyzation kicking in regardless of their saving throw: 

"Your arm feels like putty and lead..." 

"Pins and needles race up your leg..." 

"You are so cold..." 

Unless I feel it's too much stress, that is. Sometimes, the players don't need more stress. It's a judgment call that needs to be made in the moment.  

So what happens next? In this case, the party took action that resolves everything. They dropped the tent and walked the Paladin and the Fighter to the hex with trees and shrubs. Then some return to pick up the tent and settle in for the night. Presumably, the Fighter and Paladin will stand up on their own before morning. 

The great thing about ghouls against a well-trained and armed party is you can adjust the feeling of threat without tinkering with mechanics or dice rolls. 

Since I mention dice rolls so much, The Red Dice Diaries has a nice pair of episodes on fudging die rolls. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Antiquity Tuesday - Coinage and Brilliant Minds - February 13th

I've always wanted to write about the subject of coinage in D&D, but haven't had time to do the research until recently. And not half the research I wanted to do. 

But from what I have, I can lead with the chart from the e1 PHB:

If you are playing a game based on D&D, this chart should be familiar to you in some form or another. Two weeks ago, I wrote about what a Roman soldier would carry and got into the coin-based encumbrance system. That led to a follow-up post from Ian Borchardt on Mewe that he graciously allowed me to post here. And this morning, I spotted a post from Stephen Wendell about "Holmes on a Coin’s Weight", which covers a realistic treatment of the mass of coins. 

OSR style games really went out of their way to make a system that while idealized, is actually excellent enough to hold up for decades and decades. It's actually amazing. 

But what about Antiquity Tuesday?

One of my favorite historical personages is Diocletian. He lived from 242ish to 311ish and brought about the Crisis of the Third Century. Yes, the 3rd Century was chaotic enough that we don't know the exact years. Whole books exist about the Crisis of the Third Century, but one of the crises was the triple problems of coins, inflation, and prices. And Diocletian actually failed to fix it. But he tried. And it was a hell of a try. 

Just like in AD&D, he decided the issue could be resolved with a simplified system of just 5 coins. The system was based on a silver coin worth 100 denarii. There is some variability in these values and please forgive me, but I don't trust this table in name or values. Take it as a guideline: 

aureus 1,200 denarii 
argenteus  100 denarii
nummus (a silver-washed coin) 25 denarii 
bronze radiate 4 or 5 denarii 
copper laureate 2 denarii 

What is interesting about this order or valuation is that bronze appears as a valuable metal. Both brass and bronze are alloys of copper, and that meant that bronze age implements had an innate value due to the material that they were made of. 

When compared to the AD&D valuation, we still have five coins, but electrum and platinum appear on Mr. Gygax's list. Electrum is an alloy of silver and gold which would have been more valuable than just silver and platinum wasn't discovered by Europeans before the 1600s. They may have known about it but it wasn't described until it was discovered in the New World. 

What I find wonderful about these two lists is that both are meant to be simply used. And they are perfectly logical for the system each is attached to. 

Unfortunately, Diocletian was unable to resolve Roman's economic problems, which were many. After he reformed the coinage, he call back tons, literally tons of old coins and replaced them with new ones. The Romans understood market forces, a lack drove up prices, and a dearth dropped them. What they didn't get was the variable value of coins themselves. To a Roman, a coin was a coin, was a coin. 

I bought my first PBH for $9. Used. 
This replacement was priced $15 and
I actually paid $50ish. Uhh. Inflation.

Parallel to this, Romans understood the dangers of debasement which is why Diocletian replaced so many coins. And this was also the very reason that other emperors debased coins in secret. They knew it was playing with fire. And Diocletian believed he fixed it but he didn't call back nearly enough coins to fix a centuries-old problem. 

But this was not lost on Mr. Gygax, debased coins or washed coins show up a couple of times in modules like B2 Keep on the Borderlands

A possible explanation for this lack of vision on Diocletian and every other emperor who monkeyed with the coin system was the hands-off nature of minor transactions. Roman grew in both space and time. Diocletian was trying to fix hundreds of years of bad coins on top of not seeing the effects of how Romans used coins on a day-to-day basis. As regions were absorbed into the Empire, so was their coinage. Who cared if people bought bread with denarii-based coins or some old copper from a defeated enemy? A coin was a coin. Fixed and constant. 

He had no idea what a battle he was fighting. But Diocletian didn't accept the failure of logic or reason. He decided that the actual problem was the merchants. Those evil little price gougers were running up the prices. So he tried to put a stop to it. He penned the "Edictum de Pretiis Rerum Venalium" or "Edict Concerning the Sale Price of Goods" or when we are placing blame, "The Edict of Diocletian". 

This is one of those seminal works, like the Domesday Book. It is a list of maximum prices allowed for 1200 goods or services in denarii communes or "common coins". Unsurprisingly, it looks suspiciously similar to a gamer: 

Brilliant minds work alike. This is a totally workable system... except Diocletian had to abandon his because it simply didn't work in his world, unlike Mr. Gygax who built from the ground up. If only Diocletian could have wiped the slate clean, I bet his system would have worked as well as Mr. Gygax's. 

What is awesome about Diocletian's cataloging of items is it reveals how people in antiquity thought. We know the Romans like to have 8 soldiers together carrying 3 pilums or 3 caltrops. But when it came to quills, they wanted to have a set of 4 in a leather box. We also know that most wines were of the same value when fresh, but worth somewhat less as they age. What is notably missing from Diocletian's list is weapons. No one bought a weapon, they paid for the services of an armorer who made weapons. Oddly, sharpening a sword, an axe, and a spear appears under several different categories of services. There is a difference in the task depending on the object. 

It really is amazing that someone would think of such a system several different times for completely different purposes. For the Romans, it was life and death. For us, it's a game. 

Friday, February 11, 2022

Five Point Friday - February 11th, 2022


Welcome to this week's Five Point Friday. This one will be a quick stroll through to current events to memory lane. 

Point 1 - This week, the kids and I have really dug into Todd Leback's Hexcrawl books. We've got a couple of purposes in this. I personally want to run a hexcrawl. My son wants to run a campaign as a DM. My daughter wants to play with tokens and slay creatures. And if you are using Into the Wild or The Basilisk Hills Ultimate, you can do all of these things. 

I'll circle back to this at the end. 

Point 2: I am reminded of all of the wonderful coffee table books of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. To see unicorns through Robert Vavra's eye. Or take a flight with F-Stop Fitzgerald, in airplanes, or on the back a gargoyle. These books sparked so many creative flights of fancy in my youth, I love them. I spent hours looking at them. And I couldn't help it, I had one. My parents-aunts-uncle-grandma and neighbor had one. These photo books offered something for everyone.  

They often show up at thrift stores and garage sales because tons of people had them for decades. You can also take a look for them over on AbeBooks. 

Robert Vavra on
F-stop Fitzgerald on

Point 3 - I'm still in fantasy mode. Back in my youth, I recall spending hours looking over the Columbia House flyer for tapes, CDs, and records. I could have six for a penny. Or if I could find just two more for $2.99 each, I could have 8! If only all I had demanded vinyl back then. 

And back then, I would struggle to find just 6 or 8 items to select, month after month. Sometimes, I would team up with friends and family to make these never-to-be redeemed selections. 

It happened a lot. 

Now we have Pandora, Amazon, and Youtube music on top of Netflix, Disney+, Discovery+... Plus... Plus... Plus. I can hardly pick what I want to watch or listen to for all the great choices. 

It's often too much. I have to force myself to remember how happy some things make me (Van Halen or Def Leppard) or how good Led Zepplin is. 

What is missing from all of these choices is the not choice. The magic of having a friend play Peter Gabriel to me. Or Ella Fitzgerald. Or my dad rocking out to Chuck Berry. Music, and to some extent TV and movies have become a sadder, more personalized activity. 

Point 4: Facebook is dying, so I will no stay on that platform. More importantly, 38% of my visitors come to my site via a bookmark or manually typing the address. 

Well. Thank you 38%. That is amazing. Apparently I am doing something right and providing content that people desire. I guess that means that I can forget Twitter because it doesn't even appear. Best of all, I can actually kickback on Mewe and Dice.Camp and simply enjoy the content that they provide to me. 

Point 5: Eric Tenknar has this excellent piece on The Dungeoneer's Survival Guide on Youtube. This was not a good direction for e1 in some respects. And excellent in others. In B/X and Holmes, the thief was the gamebreaker. He had individual skills no one else could have. The Dungeoneer's Survival Guide kicked it up a notch or ten. 

I love the idea of a character having some sort of professional, non-combat related skills. Hell, I wrote a book on it. The difficultly is, AD&D e1 has a very hard time with ordering events in normal gameplay like combat. Like when and how to roll initiative is badly handled. Adding more die rolls for other points and times in play is going to be bad under e1. 

I didn't have this book wayback then or even now. I wasn't a huge fan of most of the stuff from UA and the Survivial Guide was worse. I took what I needed and ditched the rest. You can see this in my Character Sheet on DriveThruRPG. . 

I honestly think that people are writing materials along the lines of the Survival Guide. We just call it hexcrawling. B/X is a good place to land unified rolling mechanics for events and activities, so long as those rolls are very simular to other well established die rolls. A save, a to hit roll, an ability check or a plain-old 100% die. This is the strength of B/X. No new mechanics, just one of the old mechanics reused. 

Well, that is it for Friday. Have a great weekend. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Audio Book Review - History of the Alphabet by Kevin Stroud

Title: History of the Alphabet
Author: Kevin Stroud
Presentor: Kevin Stroud
Year: 2013
Duration: 4 hours, 49 minutes
Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kevin Stroud is the host of The History of English Podcast. In this audio-only title, he presents the fascinating History of the Alphabet. 

The Alphabet has only been created once. And with this remarkable innovation, we have connected the English language to ancient languages. In this audiobook, Mr. Stroud traces the Alphabet from Egyptian hieroglyphs to Phenicia through Greece and Rome to us. 

Ever wonder why C can be pronounced as S or K?  Why not K and S and no C? And what about Q? What's up with that? Well, Mr. Stroud answers those questions in a fascinating study of how the alphabet came to English. I wish I could sum it up so succinctly but his explanation is excellent and informative. While this journey began in his History of English podcast, he takes on a journey through the history of all the letters of the Alphabet and even explains the ampersand. (Hint, it's badly rendered French.) 

You can download each letter for $0.99 but you are far better off ordering the whole Album. For some reason, this is considered a musical offering. I don't know why, but give it a try. 

For those of you who have a Youtube Music subscription, this one is offered for free with your subscription.

Give it a try. It's a great exploration of our language through the letters we use.  

Hexcrawling Tiny Hacks and Secret Rolls

Now that I have two sessions of a hexcrawl down, I thought I would share some tiny hacks and secret rolls happening. 

The first is using The White Box by Atlas Games for tracking purposes. In my last post, I used meeples for character tokens, reserving the red ones for opponents. 

Meeples are little figure tokens. The White Box is loaded with all kinds of cool stuff for gaming. If $30 is too rich for you, try a search for used on Abebooks. The White Box by Jeremy Holcomb on 

Using tokens for the party enables the players to see basic information without turning the Theater of the Mind into a game like Car Wars or something. The players were able to determine the approximate range and distance to targets and come up with plans for dealing with problems. 

Normally, I would grab whatever tokens were on hand for the players: a chess set, a Risk game, dice, etc., but I had other ideas for the tools in The White Box. 

Old School Essentials has a great item-based encumbrance system. You can download the rules and tracking sheets here. The quick gist of the rules is you can have 2 items in your hands plus 10 items in a pack and still move at 120'. Two more items drop you to 90" and so on. 

Since the majority of the stuff my players are carrying is not their personal property and also consumables like food, I had them use the small blocks from the set to figure it out. Green is the full 120" movement while yellow means 90", red is 60" and 30" is black. By doing this visually, the players were able to visualize picking items up from a pile of gear and load up their boots. 

I also have a few environmental hacks to help me DM my first hexcrawl. Since the players are on the Island of Sardinia, I have simply googled the weather in Palau, Sardinia. Todd Leback's Into the Wild has some great rules for generating weather, but this is one less thing for me to track. I'm 99.99% certain that Mr. Leback didn't expect someone to use his book to hexcrawl a real-world place, so there is that. 

The characters are also experiencing some other things not included in the session reports. Since they are on a grassy plain, their line of sight extends to the sea. Every time they enter a hex in a direction that faces the sea, I roll a 1d20. On a 1, they spot something in the water. 1 and 6 is their ship, 2 and 5 is a different ships and finally, 3 and 4 are one of those dreaded sea serpents. Additionally, once per hex, I allow the party to actively search for The Zypher. The only difference is they roll a 1d20 instead of me. Should this come up after I make my secret roll, I will override my roll with the party's die roll. 

This puts some agency in their powers of observation and planning. Quite a few times, a ship has passed by but it wasn't their ship. They seem to appreciate that detail because they are not ready to give up their quests, but if they did, the real civilized world calls. 

I cannot tell you how pleased I am with this collection of rules, from Todd Leback's Into the Wild to the hardcover of OSE's Rules Tome. This is my new favorite combo. Good thing too, because it looks like they'll have another kickstart campaign coming soon

Session 2 - Bounty on the Beach and a Ghoulish Discovery

Session two covered two days, which brings us to the 3rd day on the island. We break off from the action at midday of day 3. 

The party rested up uneventfully the first night and is trying to figure out what to do next. Not having horses has them hamstrung. They have too much equipment to carry and some of it like the saddles is pointless to take along with them. Bartholomew, Masha, Alex, and the two sailors are charged with determining what will go and what will stay. 

While they are busy with that, the rest of the party splits up into two teams, red and blue. Red Team is the Cleric Garven and William the Ranger. Alice the Elf, Rolf the Fighter, and Gerwinder the Paladin make up Blue Team. They decide to ditch most of their gear and set out exploring to the south by two different routes. 

And much to my embarrassment, I realized that I accidentally set up the party on the map of Sardinia, not Corsica. I scrolled too far south. Oh... I'll just roll with it.  

Each small hex is 1.2 miles and the weather is good. It's been cloudy and warm for winter, in the 60s (or 16° C). Since this map is based on a real place, I have simply been looking at the real weather in Palau, Sardinia. Why reinvent the wheel?  

Red Team moves to the grasslands at a slow pace. On the way south, they encounter nothing. Blue Team moves down the beach and onto the grasslands. The blue team has an animal encounter right away. They notice two strange-looking donkeys or mules following them. They are unable to approach them too closely but determine they must be some sort of feral ponies. 

On the way home, Red Team encounters Ezekiel the warhorse. The animal can speak to humans but is rather closed-lipped about how he got there. As the two teams return to camp, an odd thing happens. The feral ponies start to follow Ezekiel. The warhorse advises the Paladin that there is a herd of ponies and he has been trying to avoid the beasts since he got here. 

That of course begs the question of how he got here. 

Ezekiel tells the party that the horse sling fell overboard as the sailors tried to take it down. Two sailors went in the water with it. The horse jumped in to rescue them. Having done his duty honorably, he was annoyed when the men walked off northwest. 

Back at camp, everyone greets their newest adventurer. Bartholomew and the sailors are super excited to see the extra pack animals and tried to lasso one of the ponies. The thief took a kick to the chest for his trouble. 

While Garvin quickly ministers Barth's chest injury, Alex, Alice and William assess the ponies. They are too small to ride and too skittish to capture. It's an odd standoff as the ponies seem to be attracted to Ezekiel but too scared to approach the adventurers. 

The party settles in for night two on the island, no further along than when they landed. But they discover quite a few things about each other. It turns out that both sailors were rowers elevated to seamen. Sammy likes to fish and the George likes to whittle. They were leading the mules because neither is very adept at seamanship, yet. 

Ezekiel shares that the other two sailors took off towards the northwest. Gerwinder explains that the horse is being literally accurate. The last time the horse saw them, they probably walked exactly direction up the beach. 

Alex discovers that Sammy and Alice can sing and the music brings the ponies closer. Alice was able to toss some fruit at them and they tolerated it. Once to food was gone and the music stopped, they retreated. They hope the routine will tame the ponies, but they have their doubts. 

The day three plan has the party moving westward and then south. It wasn't the plan, but the two missing sailors are without food and water. Also, the party has more food than they can easily carry. The Ranger and Theif want to hang it in a tree. They can see the foliage of shrubs and small trees to the southwest. They'll be moving pretty slowly due to the load, but if they can find the other sailors, they can share their supplies and load. If not, they'll cache the extra food. 

I am using the item-based encumbrance tracker for OSE. The party is trying to tote their personal gear, two tents, and 24 saddlebags full of extra food and supplies. I've decided that each individual saddlebag is a little smaller than a backpack so two together are about the size of 1 and 1/2 backpacks. Each mule can carry 4 or one of the tents. Ezekiel can carry two saddlebags and a rider. 

Before setting out, they fill the rowboat with the saddles, extra baggage cover it with the tent, and rope it down. The sailors were great at this. 

They have 24 saddlebags. The equines are carrying 10, the two sailors are carrying 4. That leaves 10 extra bags. They leave the remainder at the campsite with the intention of reaching the stand of trees and shrubs by midday. This should leave time for them to cache some food in a tree and return for the rest. However, the party is of the opinion they may not want to or have to. 

They make it 3.5 of the 5 miles to the shrublands before trouble occurs. William spots footprints leading south. He gleans that two men passed through the area at a run. The terrain is undulating, so they don't see anyone in the distance even though it's grasslands. 

In a low spot, Ezekiel freezes and Misha lets out a shout of warning before unleashing a magic missile. Five men are approaching from behind the party, the magic missile strikes the first to little effect. Alice, Barth, and Alex pull their bows and step in front of Misha. The sailors form a second barrier between Misha and the attackers. The 4 fighter types have to turn around and rush back to defend the rear of the party, with Gerwinder and Ezekiel looping wide to avoid missile fire. 

In the first round, a flurry of arrows and missiles hits three of the men, but none drop. They are approaching fast. Misha and Barth with the two sailors start backpedaling. Alice advances with Rolf, Alex, Garvin and, William. The Paladin is just out of striking range. 

In the second round, the Paladin surges forward and slashes one of the men. As one, they turn on her. As the party rushes to her aid she yells out, "Ghouls!" Since all of the ghouls have attacked, the party runs straight into them. They down 3 ghouls as the horse stands over Gerwinder. 

Round three starts in a tie for the initiative. Alice barks, "Get back!" but no one listens. Alex and Barth have moved to each side hoping to angle an arrow into the ghouls next round. Everyone gets hit. All of the ghouls are down, but Rolf flops to the ground paralyzed moments after the last ghoul falls. 

Bartholomew makes an executive decision and unloads the tent mule so that Rolf and Gerwinder can be carried to the shrublands. He will stand guard over it with Alice. Once the party makes camp, they can come back for them. Garvin the Cleric makes only one change to this declaration, he will also stay with the Theif and Elf. 

This brings us to midday of day 3. We'll pick back up next session. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Antiquity Tuesday - Guest Post by IAN BORCHARDT

This week, I would like to welcome my first guest poster, Ian Borchardt. I have annotated this post with some images for clarity. Also, my thoughts are in italics. I managed to keep my commentary to a minimum, which is also for clarity. This post came about as a MeWe response to last week's Antiquity Tuesday and Ian has graciously allowed me to use his response for the Blog. 

Thank you, Ian. And thank you readers. 

A legionary conturbium after the Marian reforms consists of eight soldiers, two slaves, and a mule. The items required to set up the camp were shared amongst the conturbium, which was the lowest indivisible group of Roman troops for that reason. Thus they were often assigned duties together. The two slaves and mule stayed at camp, so were often ignored in accounting for the components of a century. Thus you have the strange situation of a "100" only having 80 soldiers. The military slaves/servants (servus) made up the other 20 since they also had to be fed. Camp and the baggage therein was a pretty important part of military life, hopefully, kept separate from battles. Until you lost.

Tents highlighted in yellow, 1 per conturbium.
Image from 

Unlike D&D the legionary didn't fight whilst carrying this load. The two advantages of the furca, or carrying pole, was that you could wear armour whilst using it to carry goods and that it could easily be dropped if you were ambushed en route so that you were unencumbered in a fight. And you could carry the three pilums along with it fairly easily.

Ian's Icon

The furca continued to be a very convenient way to carry baggage for a long time (cf my icon, for example). The alternatives tended to be large wicker baskets and porter's trunks, which are not readily shed and more often used for carrying heavy loads. Slinging loads were poles was pretty common.

Wonderful inventions, poles. Although not very useful in a dungeon, but then any sensible legionary would have left the bulk of his gear back in the camp before they went exploring a dungeon.

The loculus, or goatskin satchel, was made from a single goatskin because that was the only way to keep it pretty watertight (as far as the rain was concerned). They were not particularly large as a result. It generally held the few personal possessions of the legionary. This and the other gear of the sarcina were carried in baskets or nets slung from the furca. Including food supplies and tools. All readily discardable in an ambush.

Loculus details from Trajan's column. 
Image from Wikipedia.

Most legionary food was prepared normally, and locally sourced. Again supplies were delivered to the conturbium as a whole to be prepared for all of its members by its members. This was fairly standard for most armies up to the 18th Century. technically the locals, if neutral or friendly, were given scrip for any supplies that were "requisitioned," but the ability to redeem that scrip depended on the local tracators. Iron rations were never really a thing until the 17th Century when you could determine an army was thinking of going to war because cheese and sausage were suddenly impossible to get for love and money (food that could easily be eaten cold). Most military preserved rations still needed cooking, even if they had a longish shelf-life and could be easily be transported. For example, salted food needs to be soaked to remove a lot of the brine before being prepared.

Next week, I will be trying out a recipe for Roman Hardtack from Pass the Garum, a food history website. As the recipe only has 4 ingredients, hardtack was probably invented and reinvented a zillion times over as a way to preserve the wheat harvest for lean times. (Edit - this has been canceled due to my daughter's Birthday Party. We will properly have cake instead.)

I also base my encumbrance rules on the Roman legionary but tend to consider armour as the primary encumbering item for determining movement rate. The next question is asking what you are doing with your hands, which I often find to be a more useful question to ask when you are carrying stuff than the weight of a thing. 

In many regards this is similar to RQ1/2 method of measuring encumbrance in the amount of things. The last question is the weight of what is being carried, which is the strength requirement. Usually such loads are self-encumbering from step two: what is he doing with his hands? Strength really only comes into it when they are trying to lift a specific load.

And I much prefer using Constitution in these matters, not least because it is the characteristic most associated in my game with the Peasant Caste.

Ian has saved me a post on Old School Essentials encumbrance rules. OSE has an item based encumbrance system which trades mass and weight for an item/bundle system which is intuitive and easy to use.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Session 1 - A Very Bad Day at the Beach

I have the party all set. There are eight 4th level characters. The quick details are: 

  1. William, Ranger
  2. Gerwinder, Paladin
  3. Alex, Bard
  4. Rolf, Fighter
  5. Misha, Magic User
  6. Garvin, Cleric
  7. Alice, Elf
  8. Bartholomew, Theif

Their goal is to land on the beach of the island and move south, tracing the shoreline. They are looking for furred animals, freshwater sources, and any trails or paths that hint at the location of the shrine of Terminus. Their ship, the Zephyr will check in on them from time to time. The captain of the ship has found a nice place to put the explorers down, a rock shelf with very shallow water. Due to the wind and currents, the captain has to put the starboard side of the ship closest to land. 

The party briefly explored the beach while a group of 4 sailors brought their gear to shore using a large rowboat. Two of the sailors were left on the shore to watch the gear while everyone else waded out to the ship to help with the mules and horses. 

The ship used a sling to lower 4 mules down to the water. It took two people to settle the mules and get them wading ashore. Gerwinder and Rolf awaited the first horse, Ezekiel the warhorse to be lowered to the water. 

At that moment, the crew on the deck sees a surge of water coming towards them. There are sea serpents bearing down on the party in the water. 

Since no one is surprised due to the range, the captain bellows orders to raise the anchor and drop the oars in the water. Bedlam ensues because of the men in the water near the ship, the horses on the deck and the sling is still in the way of the oars. Only the port-side rowers get into the water. The ship is backward with the port side facing out to sea. 

The party loses the first round of initiative. The first sea serpent lashes out at the third mule but accidentally bites a sailor between it and the mule. Satiated, it turns away as the party is knocked to and fro. The first two mules make for the beach taking Garvin the Cleric and Bartholomew the Theif with them. Masha is pushed away by surge while the fourth mule and Elf use the same push to move away from the beasts.  

The Ranger, Fighter, Paladin, and Bard splash forward to meet the second sea monster with swords. Everyone else tries to get out of the water with the mules. 

The party loses initiative again and the sea serpent tries to devour the mule. The mule takes 4 points of damage and cannot land a hit. Only Rolf and Alex are in range to strike and manage to roll a 20 and 19, doing a total of 11 points of damage. 

The Serpent is hell-bent on taking the mule and stays in place giving Gerwinder and William time to close. It mistakes the sailor as an attacker and bites him. Onboard the ship, the captain gets the crew moving and the ship rows backward and sideways a bit.  

The mule thrashes away while the serpent finishes off the sailor. The Bard and Ranger miss, while the Paladin hits with another 20 for 7 more points of damage. Rolf barely manages to hit but rolls enough damage to kill the sea serpent. The first serpent has disappeared in the distance while the third is confused by the thrashing oars and combat. 

The last sea serpent rushes behind the party and they manage to wack it a few times. 

The sea serpent manages to grab the mule but takes a series of fatal blows for its effort. 

The tired party stumbles ashore. While not mentioned in the above notes, the party has taken minor damage from being battered by the surf. They don't have a lot of good options as the ship has pulled back away from the shelf. The first sea serpent is circling the corpses in the water. No one wants to wander out there and the ship doesn't have any weaponry. The crew does have slings and bows, but the crew is not confident in their own abilities considering the serpent could attack the ship and sink it. The bard and ranger have taken a couple of potshots with arrows, but it's ineffective. 

The captain and the explorers have a frustrating shouting conversation across the water. The explorers will take the two sailors with them south. They will leave the horses on the ship. The party takes stock of its resources and realizes how lucky they were. No one was wearing armor in that fight. 

They have their supplies, three mules, and two extra sailors in tow. The mules were meant to carry two large tents, water, and food, plus some equipment like lanterns, oil, firewood, and a handful of spears. Additionally, they have 8 saddles, 8 saddlebags full of supplies, and a rowboat. It's beginning to look like they have too much stuff. 

They decide to set a watch for the afternoon and set up one 8 man tent for the night. Since there are two extra members of the party, setting watches is easy and the night passes uneventfully. 

By morning, things are looking better. Bartholomew, Alex, and the two sailors have cobbed together a 3 or 4 man tent out of horse blankets, a pair of reasonably serviceable backpacks from some saddlebags, and hatched a plan to cache the saddles and extra supplies with one of the two 8 man tents. 

Two serpents are circling in the sea. Maybe more because the corpses are all gone. The ship nowhere to be seen.  

Also on the downside, someone has named all of the mules Barth-a-mule. The Bard pointed at the Paladin and she muttered an ungodly oath that it wasn't her. She also roundly curses her armor and the lack of a horse. These are real problems, she can't walk fast in plate armor and they have far too much gear for 10 men and 3 mules to carry easily. 

The Cleric, Theif, and Bard urge the party to stay in place one more day and night while they try to get a handle on all of the gear they have to transport.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Antiquity Tuesday - The Sarcina Revisited

Back in September of 2021, I wrote about the sarcina as an alternative to a backpack. It's a stick carried over the shoulder by a Roman legionary. The sarcina came into its own around 107 BC, when the statesman Gaius Marius pushed for a professional paid army for the Republic. And it's been around ever since. 

Marius's goal was to eliminate the dependency of the army on a baggage train. To this end, all carts, and wagons were eschewed except when absolutely necessary. The average Roman soldier didn't travel by horse, they walked and carried everything they needed on their backs. While the Marian Reforms meant to eliminate the baggage train, it did not eliminate horses and sometimes the troops used donkeys or mules for support. 

Being that every rule has an exception, there was the Legio X Equestris, or 10th Mounted Legion which did travel by horse. In a strange case of history rhyming without repeating, there exists the 10th Mountain Division. Based out of New York, the 10th specializes in mountain warfare and makes limited use of vehicles and equipment like artillery. Being specialized in moving troops and equipment without support places the 10th at the forefront of humanitarian deployments. 

While I'm revisiting the sarcina, I want to compare what a Roman soldier would carry to what a D&D character would have. 

A soldier would have his sandal-like boots, leg wraps, a tunic, a cloak, a scarf, lorica type armor, a gladius or short sword, a dagger, a shield, and a bag to carry it, a helmet, and possibly some darts or pilums or caltrops, plus his sarcina. For some reason, when it came to darts, pilums, wolves, and caltrops, they were carried in threes.  

From that list, we can remove all of the clothing which is normal and customary. That leaves the following list (with weights) for soldiers in combat: 

Shield 100 cns or 10 lbs
Lorica 200 cns or 20 lbs
Gladius 30 cns or 3 lbs
Dagger 10 cns or 1 lbs
Helmet 0 probably counted with the armor
Darts 10 each or 1 lbs
or Pilum 20 each or 2 lbs

D&D seems to get these weights correct most of the time. No one thing would have a standard weight as they would scale to the wearer. A lorica is typically 11 kg or 22 lbs, which almost matches the list. So a Roman soldier would be carrying about 37 or so pounds in a combat setting. Where D&D slides is in the armor types slowing the base rate of movement down. The Romans ability to move and to maneuver was pretty much the gold standard in antiquity until they met eastern forces like the Huns and Seleucids. Armor wasn't much of a factor in speed of movement. 

But this essay is about the carrying capacity of a sarcina. So what is in one? A lot: 

satchel 20 cns or 2 lbs
cloak bag 20 cns or 2 lbs
shield bag 30 cns or 3 lbs
spare tunic 10 cns or 1 lbs
a pot 10 cns or 1 lbs
a mess kit (called patera) 10 cns or 1 lbs
a bag with 3 days of food 60 cns or 6 lbs.
iron rations 
a bedroll 70 cns or 7 lbs
a pickaxe 100 cns or 10 lbs
a turf cutter 70 cns or 7 lbs
a saw 50 cns or 5 lbs
a sickle 10 cns or 1 lbs
3 wolves (a type of spike) 15 cns or 1.5 lbs
a basket 
a water container 20 cns or 2 lbs
tinder kit 10 cns or 1 lbs
personal effects 

Some of these items have an unclear weight or mass. A basket would have been wicker and those weigh next to nothing. Toiletries and personal effects were probably less than 50 cns or 5 lbs all combined.  It's attested that those with too many toiletries or personal effects were roundly mocked by hardcore soldiers. Before Marius, some soldiers had a slave (or if you prefer, a worker with a job and no pay) in tow just to rub, perfume and oil a soldier before and after combat.  

The iron rations were a lamentable and dubious item. Bucellatum, as the Romans called it was hardly edible. Losing a tooth to the biscuit was a common war wound. Soldiers were actually called bucellarii or "biscuit eaters". Let's call it 2 lbs. or 20 cns.  

There are a couple of standout items on that list. The bags were made of leather or hide and heavy. They provided some structure to the sarcina so they were also necessary. 

All told, without the mysterious items without weights, the average Legionary was packing 50 lbs or 500 cns in the sarcina plus the 37 pounds of weapons and armor. Surprisingly, that is in the realm of what modern soldier carries on a good to a great day. 

What is interesting about that list is what is missing. The Romans had a great road system with mile markers. They also knew the lay of their own land. This meant that they didn't remotely carry as much water as a modern soldier. So long as they weren't going the wrong direction, they knew where the next stream, spring or well was. In foreign lands, they would have scouts looking for such things. 

The other thing that is missing from the list is a tent. The Romans had 8 or 10 man tents called a contubernium. There is no way for a man to carry one. Basically, they would set up camp with what they had and if necessary move the tents to the camp later. 

That sounds pretty poor, but if you think about what the sarcina is, it provides a solution. It's a pole with 3 different bags, a tunic, and a cloak. Two of them put together could be cobbled into a makeshift tent using the cloaks, shields, and bags. A Roman shield at its smallest is 2 feet by 3 feet and could be as big as 3 by 4 feet. The bag is bigger than that so the shield fits. While I wouldn't want to sleep in the snow with such a ramshackle tent, it's doable in three seasons. 

Now looking at a typical D&D character, they should be carrying just as much as a Roman soldier, but in a backpack. And judging by my players, they often don't carry that much by half. The players never think to bring a pickaxe, a turf cutter, a shield bag, or any of the other stuff a real person would need. Some of them think a 10-foot pole is ungainly. 

What I find amusing is, a lump of 1600 cns worth of gold is only about the size of a couple of two-liter bottles of pop. "Soda", to you demi-humans. That would totally fit in a backpack, but your spine would scream. This is another case of needing some other method to move something. Neither a sarcina nor backpack would help much in moving that much coin. 

This isn't to drag down the idea of coins to pounds for encumbrance, it actually proves the system works. And reasonably well. The flaw is in the idea that treasures would be limited to gold coins. I think everyone has had that campaign where the party ignores copper pieces because they aren't worth enough to pick up. 

The other thing is the dubious nature of iron rations.

But those are essays for another day.