Horror’s Harvest: Invasion of the Body Snatchers for D&D (Campaign Diary)

Chris Perkins wasn’t always a professional game designer working on Dungeons & Dragons for Wizards of the Coast. Once upon a time, he was just a player and Dungeon Master, not unlike you and me, and way back in those dreamy halcyon days of AD&D Second Edition, he used to submit adventure modules to Dungeon magazine. And his modules took no prisoners.

For about eight months I’ve been running Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) at my FLGS. I have a party of 6 PCs (two mages, two thieves, a cleric, and a fighter) and their pet bird-person (which is a long story I’ll get into in Part 2). They are currently travelling through my campaign setting, en route to a large city where they hope to sell all the random loot they found in the first adventure. (Old-School D&D awards XP for treature, but they can’t get the XP until they convert the statues, fine goods, and other valuable loot into gold pieces.)

They were nearing a small town at a crossroads, and as they had been on the road for a while, having a series of random encounters, I thought I’d put something interesting in this town. A problem to solve, a monster to kill, a group of innocent villagers to rescue from the clutches of evil. Enter Chris Perkins and Dungeon magazine #38 (November/December 1992).

Originally designed for the Ravenloft setting, this module, titled Horror’s Harvest, is basically Invasion of the Body Snatchers for D&D. The PCs come to a small village (called Delmunster in the original module) to investigate a meteorite. It turns out the meteorite was the seed of a doppelganger plant which is slowly taking over the town, turning the villagers into mind-controlled podlings.

I’ve wanted to run this module since I first read it. I love the eerie atmosphere, the mystery (and the fact that the players have to roleplay to solve it), and the unapologetic deadliness. Perkins is no lightweight. If you run this module (and I think you should), be prepared for character death, possibly a TPK (even in 5E), and make sure your players are too. Having cautious, tactical players who don’t take “encounter balance” for granted will really help keep the body count low.

How I seeded the module

Strictly speaking, I didn’t have to seed the module, as the party were going to pass through the village anyway (it’s on the main road). I did, however, give them some general knowledge about the place, such as anyone might know (there are no knowledge checks in Old-School D&D, so you can just tell players things you want them to know).

The village is called Trifurc (literally “three-fork”), because it is located where three major roads meet. It is famous for its claret wine. It’s technically in a forest, but the villagers cut back the trees to make room for their grapes.

I had thought about having them see the “falling star” during their journey (they usually set a watch at night), but they were actually clearing out a ghoul lair on the relevant night. During that particular adventure, the party’s Paladin fell to a ghast wielding an apparently magic warhammer. The player rolled up a new character (3d6 down the line) and got a cleric. He chose to be a cleric of Vecna.

I decided this was a good opportunity to seed the meteorite, so I asked the player if he’d like to be investigating the falling star. It would give his character a reason to be in the area and to be travelling to Trifurc. The player agreed, but being a follower of Vecna (god of secrets), chose to keep the info and his true affiliation to himself. Little did he know, he was already sowing the seeds of paranoia and mistrust that would spell doom for the entire party.

What I changed

I have never run someone else’s module exactly as written. I’m not really sure you’re supposed to (though if you do, I’m sure that’s fine too). Like many Gamemasters, I freely adapt any and all material to suit my players, my setting, and my own tastes.

I’ve already pointed out that I changed the village name, and I’m not running the Ravenloft setting, but rather my own homebrew world, which is more traditional faux-medieval-European. The area the players are exploring is loosely inspired by post-Roman empire Italy: the distant memory of a fallen empire, no real unified “kingdom”, but lots of competing city-states, mostly run by rich, powerful families, and a highly organized religion whose clergy is nearly as rich and powerful as any of the secular rulers.

The party is ultimately headed to the city of Bard’s Gate (whose name is taken from Frog God Games’ Lost Lands setting, though in my world it’s kind of a stand-in for Medieval Florence), and Trifurc is located in a disputed area which is claimed by both the rulers of Worms (inspired by the Burgundian kingdom in the Nibelungenlied) and those of Eastwych (also taken from the Lost Lands).

So the first thing I had to do was change the NPC names in the original module from the Eastern European style of Ravenloft to something Medieval Italian. (Rewriting all those names, btw, was a much bigger endeavour than I anticipated). I also removed the module’s original hook: a random NPC wizard who offers to pay the PCs to recover the crashed “comet”. As the party was going to pass through Trifurc anyway, I figured all I really had to do was make the place seem “odd” enough that they may be inspired to stop there long enough to investigate.

Then there were a few random additions. Firstly, I didn’t settle on running Horror’s Harvest until I had begun designing Trifurc, and I preserved some of my original features. Using the random tables in Matt Finch’s excellent Tome of Adventure Design, I was creating a place famous for its wine (as mentioned above), and for a breeding a strange milkable hybrid horse-cow, which I dubbed the equibous. To tie into Lazy Litch’s Woodfall setting, which I’m hoping to run soon-ish, I had the town lit by special lanterns, inside of which were trapped fairies.

Most of my work regarding the layout and districts ended up going out the window when I chose to run Horror’s Harvest, because I simply substituted the original map of Delmunster. I opted to keep the fairy lights, because the exploitation of fairies as a free light source is linked to the royal house of Worms (the “kingdom” antagonist for Woodfall), and is both a red herring (it has nothing to do with the doppelganger plant) and a seed to get the party to explore Woodfall. If they survive. The equiboi became a mere bit of “flavour” (and thoroughly disgusted my players, when they learned of it).

Day 1: Let the nightmare begin

The party rolled into Trifurc at about mid-day. They were travelling with a caravan, and technically serving as its armed guards.

The first thing they noticed was that Trifurc is much smaller than they expected (indeed, my original design was for a larger town; the Delmunster of the original module is really a mere hamlet). I handed them the map – Perkins’ original map, with a few mark-ups.

They wanted to head for an inn first.  In the module, the inn was called the Giggling Gargoyle, but I renamed it The Mare and Goblin, as denoted by a painted wooden sign showing a small green humanoid milking what appears to be a claret-coloured horse.

Inside the inn, they encountered the corrupt staff (basically as Perkins wrote them, but with changed names). The casual species-ism (humans looking down on non-humans) exhibited by Francesco, the main proprietor prompted the party’s halfling thief to gift a dose of poison he had crafted from ghoul livers (idea taken from The Black Hack Second Edition btw) to Stump, the Inn’s halfling serving lad and whipping boy, in case he wanted to “teach Francesco a lesson”.

Meanwhile, the cleric of Vecna went to talk to the Ludovico brothers (two teen rapscallions who fancy themselves monster hunters). He paid them a few gold pieces for information regarding the meteorite, and they promised to return the next morning to give him a full report.

Then the party met Ludo, the travelling musician, and the first podling (person enslaved by the doppelganger plant) to cross their path. They were thoroughly creeped out by his demeanour. Altogether we got more than an hour’s worth of solid roleplay, during which time the party learned:

  • There was either a lightning storm or an isolated boom (depending who you ask) ten days ago.
  • One villager died of a mysterious disease about a week ago.
  • Another villager, a little girl, seems to have the same disease, and others may be affected.
  • No one is tending the grape vines (viticulture is one of the most labour-intensive forms of agriculture, but the vineyards are empty).
  • A rival caravan pulled into the village a few days ago, but disappeared mysteriously in the night.

They also learned from the halfling that the innkeepers are crooks who rob their clients, that the townmaster is a snobby recluse who rarely comes out of his manor house, and that he has the same servants as his father and grandfather before him.

The party also met “Mad” Rupert Morteni, who screamed about werewolves and then ran around the village, shouting “They’re here already!” (a quote from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers film, intended as a clue). Part of the original module, Rupert is another red herring, and, as the party soon learned, has been shouting this nonsense for years and years (he was cursed by fairies while hunting them for lamp fuel when he was a teenager, and it serves him right).

The party wanted to stock up on some road supplies, but didn’t want to roleplay a shopping trip, so they each coughed up 5 gold pieces and sent their two hirelings, Mutt and Jeff, to Volpone’s Emporium. Then they took a walk around the village, after securing rooms and asking Stump to make sure Francesco didn’t steal from them.

The party’s dwarf fighter was formerly a baker. She had collected some elderberries from an animated elderberry bush (the berries were actually used as missile weapons against the party), and stayed behind to bake a pie. Francesco actually agreed to this, because the village’s current baker is terrible. Her baking is known as “the bane of Trifurc”, and she once accidentally gave her husband food poisoning (or was it an accident?), a detail from the original module.

As the party toured the village, they found it suspiciously quiet, apart from Rupert’s shouting, and they began to wonder if everyone was dead. The dark elf thief decided to peak through a randomly chosen window – and found himself face-to-face with the village gossip, Ezra Kourkouas, who gave them all quite an earful. This altercation attracted the attention of a small group of soldiers, led by Sir Alexander Sosius.

The soldiers were from Worms, and are not normally stationed in Trifurc, nor were they planning to stay long. The Signeur of Worms (who secrectly styles himself King), sent them here to “show the rabble to whom they really owe allegiance”.

Through good roleplaying, the party manage to talk their way out of trouble (aided by a good reaction roll and the fact that the soldiers don’t particularly like the Trifurc villagers). Unfortunately Sir Alexander hasn’t been in town long enough or paid enough attention to be of any real help, so the party moved on to visit the sick girl, Lotta Gravidius.

The original module makes it clear that Cure Light Wounds won’t heal podlings. However, I ruled that, though it wouldn’t break the doppelganger plant’s Mind Bondage, it would heal lost hit points. The plant would then continue devouring its podling immediately. In this way, the plant could “double-dip” on its feeding. My my real motivation for the change is exemplified by how the scene played out.

When the party called on Lotta, she had 1 hit point left and was unconscious. The cleric healed her back to full, at which point she woke up and immediately began exhibiting the unnervingly flat, emotionless, yet peculiarly optimistic demeanour that the party was already learning to fear.

Attempts to interrogate her were futile. She declared she wasn’t sick and that nothing odd was happening in the village. She then repeated the refrain which the players already knew to be the calling card of whatever evil force was taking over the village: “I hope you’ll stay, at least a few days. It’s such a friendly village.” It got to where you could almost see the players shudder when they heard those words.

While “healing” Lotta, they learned that the village Priest, Father Brume, had locked himself in the church and wouldn’t attend to anyone. So the party made the church their next port of call.

In the foyer of the church they found the body of Umburrow, the first podling, who had attacked the priest’s acolyte with a shovel (he was formerly the gravedigger). The priest clubbed him to death and then locked the church doors. All this happened a week ago.

While examining the body, it collapsed like a deflated balloon, long sucked dry of all its internal organs. I had the players make saving throws, and only the dark elf succeeded. Everyone else ran screaming into the village, unable to face their horrific discovery for the next hour.

This attracted the soldiers again. They investigated and also failed their horror saves. It was at this moment that Rupert returned, pointed a finger at the PCs, and screamed “Murderers! Assassins! You’re next!” Then he ran off again. The players now really hate Rupert.

Tune in next time to see how a simple passeggiata causes all hell to break loose.

The Origins of Mad Marge (OD&D Campaign Diary 2)

So for the past few weeks I’ve been running Original Dungeons & Dragons (in the form of Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox for my kids, aged 8 and 5. They are each running two PCs: my 8yo is running Lilac the elf fighter and Singing Geoff the Thief; my 5yo is running Meanie Miney the elf magic-user and Sammy the Cleric.

When we last left our intrepid, probably foolhardy heroes, they had just dropped an ogre and a black bear, and spent about an hour painstakingly combing through rubbish and detritus for a tonne of loot.

My kids love loot, and they have the patience to keep searching and searching, if they suspect there’s more to find, and as the ogre and the bear were the only denizens of this cave, there were no random encounters to keep them on their toes. Among the most relevant finds were a longbow, a shortbow with no string, a very nice quiver containing three silver arrows, and a crystal sphere wrapped in a burlap cloth. They were afraid to touch the sphere, and planned to have the magic-user prepare Detect Magic the following morning, to find out if it was magic.

Session 3 began with the party searching the other tunnel, which led to a small pool. This was one of the moments when I was really proud of how thorough my 8yo is with room descriptions. I mentioned the crack in the wall through which the water flows, but I left out the crack on the opposite wall, through which the water flows out. She immediately clocked this and asked how the water gets out of the cave. She was worried she had stumbled into a flooding chamber trap. It’s that kind of thinking that keeps PCs alive.

The water was clean. The kids were initially worried that the ogre had used the pool as a bathtub, but I reminded them of the sweaty stink of his den, making it clear that the ogre did not bath, here or anywhere). They filled their waterskins and I described the rest of the cave, including three dressed out deer and one dressed out human. I thought that would freak them out, but they just decided to take the deer to use for meat. So now I had to determine whether they could butcher and cook venison in the wild, in the absence of a background skill system. We’ll get to that later.

Because there was so much loot in the cave, it took another solid hour for the four of them to haul their treasure up the ledge to their wagon. When they arrived on their first trip, they did not see the old woman with the shovel who had agreed to watch their stuff. The party assumed she just wandered off, but then my 8yo realized she might have stolen something. In making a careful search of the wagon and the handcart, they came upon a 6 foot deep hole, at the bottom of which was the woman, still digging.

They threw her a rope and hauled her up (I resolved this with an Open Doors check, and it took two tries; the first time the rope slipped through Lilac the Fighter’s hands and the poor old woman – whom my kids have dubbed Mad Marge for some reason – fell on her bottom).

Once she was out of the hole, they paid her four gold pieces and one brass bell. I rolled her reaction and she was grateful. They had found a total of six bells and there were only four PCs, so I asked what they were doing with the fifth bell. My 8yo informed me the were going to tie it around their mule’s neck, so they would know where she was.

Now it was decision time. The short route across the gorge was over a felled log, and there was no way they would get a mule, a wagon, and a handcart over that. So would they leave their beast and wagons behind or stray off the map in search of a suitable crossing. They chose the latter, as I pretty much knew they would.

The gorge ran North-South, and I asked which direction they would pursue. Looking at the map, my 8yo determined they were nearer the northern edge of the map, so that would be the shorter trip. The hugged the gorge for the better part of a day (having spent the entire morning fighting the ogre and looting his cave). Eventually they came upon a merchant caravan heading south.

I had pre-rolled this random encounter, because I was hoping to get some good roleplaying out of it. There were five wagons in total, each with two merchants, and 8 armed guards between them. Each wagon was carrying goods of differing total value, with wagon 1 carrying only 10 gp worth of goods, and wagon 3 carrying a whopping 100 gp of goods. Wagon 3, belonging to the merchants Ferol and Flynn, was the only wagon to have three armed guards. Wagon 4, belonging to the merchants Zhest and Zhivago, carried 70 gp worth of goods, but only had 2 guards. Zhest and Zhivago resented Ferol and Flynn getting an extra guard, even though their goods were nearly as valuable. Meanwhile, the merchants of wagon 5, Bildrath and Frod, were carrying 50 gp worth of goods, had only one guard, and resented both wagons 4 and 5.

What I had planned for this, was that Ferol and Flynn would try to rip the party off, buying goods as 25% of their value in the rulebook, and selling at 125%. Obviously some haggling could change this, but Ferol and Flynn are wealthy and arrogant and not inclined to drop their prices. However, if the party negotiate with Zhest and Zhivago after speaking to Ferol and Flynn, Zhest and Zhivago would try to undercut the competition, not because they are greedy, but just to spite Ferol and Flynn. And Bildrath and Frod would potentially undercut both. (Wagons 1 and 2, carrying 10 and 20 gp worth of good, respectively, are just too poor to play this game, though for the record they hate all three of the richer wagons.)

However, I forgot that my daughter is rather spendthrift with game money, so when Ferol and Flynn quoted their prices, she happily shelled out. She has also been known to voluntarily pay double when her characters are particularly flush. So most of the prep I did for the merchant caravan went to waste. They managed to sell the cleric’s chainmail (he got some banded mail from the ogre hoard), and they bought a new bow string and some ordinary arrows (Ferol charged 25 gp for the bowstring alone). They also restocked their rations and bought a whetstone (they found a rusty greatsword in the ogre hoard, but they can’t use it until it has been sharpened).

The other thing they got from the caravan was news. They had just come through Klaganfort, a small farming village to the north. It has been hit hard by a plague of locusts. At this point, my daughter broke the player knowledge / character knowledge barrier and said “Hey daddy, aren’t you writing an adventure about bugs?” So when they hit Klaganfort and saw the locust-eaten fields, they elected not to hang around. “We’ll help them out on our way back.”

Unfortunately for them, that night they were attacked by wolves as they camped out under the stars. Eight wolves, which is more than a match for a party of four first-level PCs.

The wolves plan was to lure the PCs away from their camp and attack them one by one. So while Singing Geoff the Thief was on watch (and thus the only one still wearing armour),  two wolves howled off to the right, less than a hundred feet away. They were trying to draw his attention while three more wolves sneaked over to where they had tied their mule to a stake in the ground. To resolve the sneaking, a rolled for surprise (when running OD&D, I try to resolve as many situations as possible on a d6, preferably using one of the handful of defined checks in the original game: surprise, trigger traps, open doors, listen at doors, search for secret doors). The wolves failed to surprise the thief, so I told the kids that a wolf was sneaking up to their mule. My 8yo had the thief shout a warning to the rest of the party and spring into action.

The party won the first initiative, so the thief let loose a sling that actually dropped the wolf in one hit (even at 1d6-1). An auspicious start. However, on their initiative, three more wolves appeared. Two closed to melee range with the mule, while the third closed to the thief.

The wolves one the next initiative. Two wolves attacked the mule. The first missed. The second hit, but failed to drop the mule. The mule kicked on its returning blow and another wolf was down. The thief meanwhile took 4 damage from the fourth wolf and failed to kill it on his return blow.

By now the rest of the party was awake. There was no time to don armour, but the fighter had a brand new bow. She took two shots, one at each of the remaining (visible) wolves. In OD&D, when you fire into melee, there’s a chance you hit your allies, but fortunately she missed with both shots (because she would have killed the mule if she had hit).

In the party’s melee phase, the mule and the thief managed to drop the last two wolves. There were still four more hiding in the brush, but this was not the outcome the wolves were hoping for. What they really wanted was mule and venison for dinner. Now they were at half strength, but no closer to that goal. I rolled a morale check and the four wolves who were still hidden decided to flee in search of easier prey. The party managed to patch up some of the mule’s wounds, restoring 2 hit points, and they passed the rest of the night without incident.

At about mid-day the next day, the party reached a point where the gorge flattened out enough that it could be crossed with pack animals and vehicles. Once on the other side, they turned south again. The going was slow, as they entered thick forest, and were not on any defined path. It was only by remaining within sight of the gorge that they avoided getting lost.

During this detour, they tried to butcher the deer. For something like this, where the PCs may or may not be able to do something, and aren’t particularly trained in it, I use a baseline 2 in 6 chance (a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6). If they have a particularly low ability score that would be relevant to the action, it might be a 1 in 6 chance, or a 3 in 6 if they have a particularly high score. And if there’s some kind of demi-human racial bonus that is relevant, it could go as high as 4 in 6. That’s basically how I do “skill checks” in OD&D (I save the “roll under your ability score” method, which I also like a lot, for B/X or Basic Fantasy). The first day they managed to cut some deer meat and roast it on their campfire, but the second day it went wrong and they didn’t get anything usable, so they had to revert to their trail rations. They don’t know this, but in three more days, the deer will go off, and if they try to eat it after that they will need to save against poison or spend a day vomiting.

They camped in the woods, and I put on some forest sound effects, including wolf howls, and played up each PC’s turn at taking watch, rolling dice for no reason to freak them out, they were still pretty shell-shocked from the fight with the wolves before. But of course I knew all along that there were no encounters that night.

The next day, they picked up the trail again, and as they passed the log bridge I pointed out that they had basically taken a three-day detour to get to this place. But my daughter didn’t care. She was already studying the map again, planning their route (they were nearing a fork). But first, they came upon ruined cottage. They sent Singing Geoff the Thief (who sounds more like a bard to me) in to investigate. He found four bottles of various pickled foods: garlic, eggs, red cabbage, and fish. There were four coins in the fish bottle. They gleefully knicked all four bottles, planning to eat their contents, apart from the coins of course (you better believe I will be requiring saving throws for this). Then they put forth the theory that this is where Mad Marge lives. It’s not far from the log bridge, which is not far from the ogre den, so this checks out to me. Now Mad Marge officially lives here, and I guess the party just stole her dinner. They were also pretty stingy with the loot they gave her. That might be worth an XP penalty.

Then again, they’re going to Rappan Athuk. They have enough problems in store.

So I finally started running OD&D (Campaign Diary)

I’ve wanted to run Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) pretty much since I read the rules a couple years ago, though my exact plans for running it have evolved quite a bit between then and now. For one thing, I have discovered retroclones, which caused me to abandon my earlier attempt to run OD&D using Chainmail combat rules. Another of my early plans was to run the game using just the first three booklets for, say, levels 1 to 3. Once every character had reached level 3, I would introduce material from the Greyhawk supplement. But then I discovered James Spahn’s amazing White Box material, which retools some of the Greyhawk classes in a “WhiteBox” style, meaning you can have thieves, paladins, rangers and druids, etc., without having to “move up” to Greyhawk or Swords & Wizardry Core Rules if you don’t want to (and I don’t want to).

I’m once again running this game for my kids (aged 8 and 5, both already experienced gamers, though this is the younger one’s first time at actual D&D). They are each running two characters. We rolled down 3d6 down the line for their stats. My 8yo got a mediocre elf fighter (11 Strength) and a decent elf thief (13 Dexterity). My 5yo got a decent human cleric (13 Wisdom) and an excellent elf magic -user (16 Intelligence). Their hit point rolls were so low that I caved and let them have max hp at first level (later I found that Swords & Wizardry Continual Light also uses this rule, so I feel better about it).

For the adventure, the goal is to reach Rappan Athuk (my kids want to fight the poop monster). The problem is, you have to be at least level 4 even to venture into Rappan Athuk (and probably higher to survive the wilderness around it), so we needed an “introductory adventure”. I chose Bill Webb’s 1975 (so named because it demos the style of play common for that era of the game). I intend to do a full review of the adventure once we’ve finished it, but for now I will say it’s tricky to run and has a lot of “fill in the blanks” for the DM (and thus demands a lot of prep), and I kind of wish I had gone with Matt Finch’s Grimmsgate or James Spahn’s White Box Trilogy instead. But the kids are enjoying it, and they’ve survived their first major combat – against my expectations – so I thought I’d write up our progress so far.

The adventure centres on a map, a literal treasure map, showing the way from the starting town to a dungeon site, and this map is given to the players as a handout (which is very cool, especially as I’m running theatre of the mind; it gives them something special and tangible). This map is literally the DM’s map without the numbered encounter areas, and has the path clearly marked, so it’s more hand-holding than I would normally like in a game, but works well for kids, and several encounter areas occur between visible landmarks, so it doesn’t actually give too much away.

Due to some very good starting gold rolls, the party has a mule, a wagon, and a handcart, in addition to the usual adventuring gear. Because of the handcart, and because mules are really pack animals, they don’t get a bonus to their travel pace, but neither are they encumbered, except the cleric, who is wearing chainmail and carrying a shield (and even he has a movement rate of 9, which would give him 30 ft in a combat round).

In the first session, the party procured the map from a caravan trader in town, purchased some additional adventuring gear, and set off first thing the following morning. They chose not to hire any torchbearers or henchmen.

Not far from town, they came to their first landmark: a black stone obelisk atop a small hill. This is clearly shown on the map, so they parked their wagon, cart, and mule and hiked up the hill to explore. The stone had an inscription at the base which was meant to be in a forgotten language, but the magic-user had prepared the Read Languages spell for the day (remember, though they’re young, this isn’t their first time at the rodeo), so I had to make something up. I ad-libbed something about commemorating the army of light that chased the followers of Orcus from the land. It was then that I decided to change the adventure’s final dungeon from the tomb of a High Priest of Set to the remains of the original Temple of Orcus in the Rappan Athuk origin story. Perhaps the temple was repurposed by priests of Set in between; I’ll decide when we get there.

Next they encountered their first treasure drop: a full set of leather armour, just lying in the tall grass. The description of it is purposefully mysterious, but its just ordinary leather armour in perfectly good condition. However, they decided to leave it where it lay. I think they thought the rightful owner would come back looking for it soon.

After that ther came upon the ruins of a small building, really just two walls at right angles with no roof. They didn’t know it, of course, but it was the hideout of three bandits.  They didn’t bother exploring the ruin, however, and the bandits preferred easier prey, so the party moved on until dusk, and set up camp in the open plains.

That night they drew a random encounter: two bandits. I decided these were two of the three bandits from the ruin. They left one behind to guard the hideout and hoped to take the party in their sleep. The party had set a watch (again, experienced players), but the bandits surprised them, firing arrows at the thief, who was on watch, and one of the bedrolls, which turned out to contain the magic-user. They missed on the thief but hit the mage for 2 hp.

The party won the next initiative, but only the thief was ready to attack, so he threw a dagger and severely wounded one of the bandits. Then the party sued for peace. I made a reaction check and found the bandits were willing to negotiate (now that the party was awake, they no longer fancied their chances). They told some half-true story about being hungry and having to steal to stay alive. The party bought it and felt sorry for them, giving them a trail ration each. (I considered having the bandits mentioning their friend back at the hideout in an attempt to finagle more rations, but decided they would rather keep their number secret… in case they should meet again!)

Natural healing in OD&D is slow, and clerics don’t get a spell at first level, so I use the “binding wounds” house rule, where if you take ten minutes to clean and bind a PC’s wounds, they can recover 1d4 hit points. My 5yo rolled a 1 on his d4, so his magic-user was still 1 hp down, but that’s not bad. The rest of the night was uneventful, and that ended the first session.

In our second session, the magic-user prepared Shield (even though I shouldn’t have let him have that spell, as it’s in Core Rules, not White Box), and the party set off in search of the next landmark on the map, which looked like a cave, but turned out to be a big rock with a burrow at the base. Only one person could fit into the burrow at a time, so they sent the fighter.

This area is basically another treasure drop, but you have to do some searching to find it. There is no searching mechanic in Swords & Wizardry or OD&D, apart from the one for secret doors. The mechanic I use for searching an area for treasure is based on old AD&D modules, particularly the ones written by Gary Gygax, where the PCs must spend a certain number of ten-minute turns searching. The more carefully hidden a treasure, the more time it takes to find it.

After one turn of searching, they found a valuable mug full of strips of parchment. They also noticed there were coins scattered on the floor of the burrow, amongst the dirt and excrement and crawling beetles. The fighter crawled out and let the thief have a go, and he spent another full turn gathering all the coins. Meanwhile the mage examined the strips of parchment and discovered it was a spell scroll, though it would take several days of careful work to lay it out in order and stick it back together (just as well, as it’s a high level spell from the Complete Rules).

Next, they pressed on towards a gorge, crossable by a log bridge. The map clearly showed a cave near the “bridge”, and the path headed right to it. This was their goal for the day. Before they reached the cave, however, they came upon the abandoned wagon of a travelling wizard. The wagon had a broken axle and the wizard was long gone, but the thief cautiously inspected the inside, finding the wizard’s travelling cloak, which still contained three copies of the Shield spell. So that was a good find.

When they reached the gorge, they discovered that the cave was on a narrow ledge, too narrow for the wagon, mule, and handcart. The fighter and thief climbed down the ledge and easily discover a concealed door (they’re both elves), but were too cautious either to explore the cave on their own or leave their wagon et al. unattended. So they announced their intention to wait for random passersby and ask if they would watch the wagon for a while.

They didn’t meet anyone, and night fell. But before they could make camp, they noticed the light of a campfire coming from behind the concealed door. Smoke from the fire disturbed a swarm of flies, which flew up and became an Insect Plague centred on the cleric. The party had to run in terror for ten minutes before the flies let them alone, and even then the swarm hovered around the mouth of the cave, preventing the party returning to collect the wagon and mule. They had no choice but to set up a hasty camp in the open. Luckily, there were no further encounters.

In the morning, the party went back for their stuff and found an old woman digging a hole in the dirt. She asked them to go find some shovels and help her dig for treasure, which they could transport using “This mule and wagon I found”. (The mule was calming munching grass, still attached to the wagon, apparently unperturbed by last night’s insect plague.) After some animated role-playing, they managed to convince the woman that the wagon was theirs. They offered her 2 gold pieces to watch it while they explored the cave, plus a share of the treasure. I rolled 2d6 for her reaction and got a friendly acceptance of their offer.

So the party took the narrow path down to the ledge and came once again to the poorly concealed door. I asked if they were going straight in, but my 8yo said no, they would examine the door first. They found six brass bells tied to the vines, a primitive alarm system. They then spent a full turn disabling it. One PC held a bell in both hands to stop it clanging while another carefully cut the vine with a dagger. They decided to keep the bells as treasure, one each and two for the lady with the shovel.

Inside the cave they found the remains of a fire. 30 feet in the light from outside failed and the cleric (the only human) had to light a torch. The tunnel forked here, and the party chose the passage on the right.

At this point I was sure we were heading for a TPK, because this was the lair of an ogre and its “pet” black bear: both 4 Hit Dice monsters. When they stumbled into the den, neither side was surprised, so we went straight to initiative.

This adventure was written for the Core or Complete rules, so I frequently have some tinkering to do to bust it back to White Box. One thing I have to do is re-roll monster hit points, because White Box uses a d6 for all hit dice, but Greyhawk and later versions use d8s for monster hit dice. The original White Box game also has all weapons doing a d6 for damage, so I have to rework monster damage rolls as well. Thus, the adventure’s ogre with 22 hit points and 1d10+1 damage turned into 12 hit points and 1d6+1 damage. The bear had 9 hit points and did not have the claw-claw-bite attack routine.

The party won the first initiative. The fighter and cleric closed into melee range, even though I warned them that they couldn’t attack until the next round. Then the thief attacked with his sling, hitting the bear. In the spell phase, the magic-user cast Shield, buffing his AC. As the ogre and bear were in melee range of two targets, they didn’t need to move, so they attacked. The bear missed the cleric, but the ogre hit the fighter, reducing him to 1 hp (at which point I was glad I let them have max hp). I allow “return blows” to melee attacks (a rule I carry over from Chainmail, and it takes the place of opportunity attacks), so the fighter and the cleric each got to make a melee attack. The cleric missed, but the fighter hit the ogre for 3 points. The party one the next initiative and I advised my 8yo that, as there were no opportunity attacks, she could use her movement to withdraw from melee. The cleric decided to withdraw as well, even though he hadn’t taken a hit, and we moved onto missile attacks. This time the thief and the mage both made attacks, the mage throwing darts, both hitting for 1d6-1 damage. At this point the bear was nearly down, and the ogre was surprisingly hurt. However, I rolled a morale check, and they elected to keep fighting (it was, after all, their home).

The monsters won the next initiative and closed into melee range (neither had any missile attacks). When the party went, the thief dispatched the bear and the mage took more points off the ogre (I rolled morale for the ogre again, and again h chose to fight on). In the melee phase, the fighter missed, but fortunately the ogre missed his return blow (and I did not even fudge that roll!). The cleric no longer had a target, so he bopped the ogre on the head with his torch (he hadn’t had a hand free to draw his mace) and the ogre went down.

Now, obviously I had to nerf the monsters in order to “White Box” this encounter, but keep in mind I only altered them to balance them within the White Box system. If I were using Core Rules, for example, the fighter would have had 9 hit points instead of 7, and would have had a similar chance to withstand a 1d10+1 blow. Considering, though, how worried I was about this combat before it took place, I’m now wondering if White Box combat is “easier” than combat in later versions of the game. It will definitely be something I keep an eye on.

In any case, with the threat vanquished, they bound the fighters wounds, restoring 3 hit points (she’s at 4 now), and then spent a solid hour picking through the ogre’s den looking for treasure. One thing I love about Bill Webb’s approach to treasure is that it contains very little in the way of coins, but lots of stuff. That stuff is actually quite valuable, but the players have to realize that themselves, based on the description. Sometimes its obvious, like lace gloves sown with pearls. Sometimes it’s more subtle, like a wooden box of ground cinnamon. After each turn of searching, I would read out more things they found, and they would decide whether to take it. Spoiler alert: they took everything, because they’re kids and they’re hoarders. Thank the gods they have a wagon and a mule.

And that concludes our second session. They have one one tunnel to explore, but there are no threats in it. Then we will get to see what the party decides regarding the old woman’s cut of the treasure, and whether they will leave their mule and wagon behind. The adventure assumes the party will cross the gorge at the bridge, but it’s literally just a fallen tree, so they would have to go on foot. And there’s at least a week of travel beyond it, at least by my reckoning (the adventure doesn’t give a scale; that’s one of the blanks for the DM to fill in). So I suspect they will head along the gorge, looking for a place where it levels out and can be crossed with vehicles. If they do that, I have decided they will run into my homebrew OD&D adventure, which could delay them quite a bit, if they chose to follow it as a side quest. The good news is, I wrote that adventure to lead to Rappan Athuk as well, so they will still get to fight the poop monster. And then they will die.

Pre-History of D&D: Chainmail

When I get into something, I like to find out all about where it came from, and how it got to be what it is today. So it was inevitable that I would get stuck into the history of Dungeons & Dragons. As usual, I have to take a moment to refer you to Kent David Kelly’s series Hawk & Moor, which is a very thorough history of the game.

Likely as not, there would be no Dungeons & Dragons without miniature war games. These are niche games of military strategy and tactics. The players act as commanders of armies, either using miniature figures or perhaps coloured tokens to represent their troops. Actual game play often takes place on a sand table, which can be sculpted to represent virtually any kind of terrain. The rulebooks for these games are intended to simulate historically accurate combat, so the players may test their actual strategic ability.

You would think there would be war game rule sets for just about any era of military history, but this wasn’t the case. The Napoleonic wars were (and, as far as I know, remain) the most popular period for wargamers.

Gary Gygax became hooked on these games when he received a copy of the game Gettysburg, a simplified wargame based on the US Civil War (and published by Avalon Hill, which is now owned by Wizards of the Coast) as a birthday present. Gary Gygax loved games. He loved strategy. He loved history, including military history. He used to run a local chapter of an international wargaming society and host massive gaming sessions in his basement (much to his put-upon wife’s dismay).

It was at one such session that Gary Gygax met Jeff Perren, fellow gamer and fellow Medieval and Ancient warfare enthusiast. They got to talking about how there was no ruleset for Medieval wargames, and Jeff mentioned that he had adapted an existing ruleset to represent medieval combat for his own use. Gary suggested they expand the rules and co-publish them. Jeff agreed, and the game Chainmail was born.

You can buy a pdf of Chainmail from the DMs Guild. Tracking down a physical copy will be harder and more expensive. I used to have a free (and almost certainly illegal) pdf of it, but I have gone legit and purchased the pdf, and it will be referring to that legal copy for the rest of this post.

In the above list of things Gary Gygax was enthusiastic about, I left out one very important thing: fantasy. Especially pulp fantasy. And while the Chainmail rules were still in preparation, it occurred to him that combat in fantasy literature resembled medieval combat more than any other period of military history, and therefore it would be possible to add rules for magic, monsters (especially dragons), fantasy “races”, and super-powered humans. But when he suggested this to his co-author, Jeff Perren gave an emphatic no.

Why? Because most wargamers saw their hobby as a branch of “serious military history”. To add in magical spells and fantastic beasts would be to cheapen it, in their opinion. But Gary eventually convinced Jeff to consent to including an appendix of optional fantasy rules, which became the famous “Fantasy Supplement”. And that is basically the very beginning of what would later become Dungeons & Dragons, a game whose popularity and appeal dwarfs (ha!) that of “serious” war games. In fact, the only miniature war game that comes close to D&D in popularity is, wait for it: Warhammer. So suck it, Jeff!

The “Fantasy Supplement” and rules for single combat notwithstanding, Chainmail is first and foremost a set of rules for combat between armies. Mass combat. The suggested ratio is 1:20, meaning that every figure or token on the sand table represents 20 similar figures. So it was never really intended to resolve the kind of four-on-one combat that occurs when a party of adventures fights a troll. Also, neither Gary nor anyone else in the gaming community had discovered the rainbow of various polyhedral dice that have since become emblematic of RPGs, so any time a die roll is used in Chainmail, they mean a d6, and not even the Arabic-numeral RPG d6s we use today, but traditional “board game” dice, numbered with dots (or “pips” as the rules refer to them).

Using Chainmail in D&D

I have no interest in running the kind of mass combat for which Chainmail was designed. The only reason I got a copy was to attempt to run combat according to the OD&D (Original Dungeons & Dragons) rules from 1974, which seem to require Chainmail. This turns out to be a misconception, but it’s an easy one to make. OD&D lists Chainmail among the “Recommended Equipment”; the descriptions of elves and halflings refer to abilities they have in Chainmail, and the class progression tables give “Fighting Capability” for use “in conjunction with” Chainmail. The more familiar combat system, in which you roll a d20 to hit, is labelled as the “Alternative Combat System”. So you can see why people would think they need to use Chainmail to play D&D. The game basically says you do.

So how do you go run D&D combat using Chainmail?

The first thing you need to do is decode the language. Just as Jeff Perren underestimated the appeal of fantasy gaming, Gary Gygax mistakenly assumed that the principal audience for D&D would come from established wargamers. This meant he loaded the D&D rules with a load of jargon that only wargamers would understand, and assumed they would grasp or be familiar with certain concepts that are actually alien.

The first thing that confused me is that, in Chainmail, “die”, and “man” meant the same thing. Each human soldier was assigned one six-sided die, which they would roll to attack in melee combat, provided they were attacking opponents who were armoured similarly to them. Heavy footsoldiers would get one die roll per “man” (yes, the rulebooks used the non-inclusive term), provided they were in melee with a troop of Heavy footsoldiers. If they were fighting fully armoured footsoldiers, the attackers would only get one die per two “men”. (I assume that’s per two men on the attacking side, but to be honest, the rules don’t clarify this.)

This “man”/”die” correspondence carries over to the Fighting Capability in the D&D ruleset, were a level 1 fighter fights as “Man +1”, meaning he would roll 1d6 and add 1 to the result, as long as he (or she, because it’s the effing 21st Century) was attacking a creature who also fights as “1 man”. In D&D, this is also equivalent to “1 hit die” creatures. So “man”, “die”, and “hit die” all basically mean the same thing. This is important, because it suggest that, under Chainmail rules, a troll (6 +3 hit dice) would fight as six “men”, and get six attacks against a level 1 PC, adding 3 to one of the attacks. Harsh!

Another thing about Chainmail is that it doesn’t use a numeric armour class system. Instead, troops are given a descriptive armour class: Light Foot, Heavy Foot, Armoured Foot, Heavy Horse, etc. Because the D&D rules give instructions for calculating numeric armour class based on what armour you purchase, to run Chainmail combat, you would have to “translate” these descriptive terms into an AC value.

I decided, when I tried to run it, that Light Foot mean either leather armour and no shield, or shield and no armour. Heavy foot meant either leather and shield or chainmail and no shield. Armoured foot was full plate, and obviously adding a shield would raise the AC (or, technically, lower it) by one.

Movement in Chainmail is given in inches, and is pretty much identical to movement in the OD&D rules. This is because Chainmail used a scale for distance, with 1 inch equal to ten yards. You would calculate how many yards your troops could move on their turn, convert to inches, and then measure the inches on the sand table. In D&D, this scale would change to 1 inch = ten feet (or one square of graph paper), and would primarily be used in mapping out the dungeon, but the movement rates remained the same. In the Wilderness section of the D&D rules, the scale reverts to 1 inch = ten yards. This movement in inches would actually last into AD&D, and is still used in some retroclones.

The “Man-to-Man” combat rules in Chainmail were basically grafted onto the mass combat rules. The fit isn’t great, and in any case, the rules are copious, confusing, and full of special cases and exceptions, because the aim was realism. In addition to familiar concerns such as armour and hit dice, there was also Weapon Class, and rules for whether or not the attacker struck the first blow, based on weapon class. Basically, if you close into melee with an opponent, but they’re holding a spear and you just have a dagger, they still get to attack first. Because a spear is longer than a dagger. And whereas in mass combat, there is one die per attacker, individual combat used 2d6 for “to hit” rolls. This is assuming the attacker and defender are on equal hit dice, but armour class only affects the number required to hit. Wherever Chainmail indicates a “kill”, translate that to a “hit”.

There are no rules for initiative in OD&D, so you have to use the Chainmail rules: each side rolls a d6, highest goes first, roll again each round (this is basically the rule for initiative in every edition of D&D until 2nd Edition AD&D, which rolled initiative on a d10, lowest going first). However, Chainmail also includes some rather complex and convoluted rules for what actions can occur and in what order. The “basic” version is: movement, including split-moves comes first; then missile fire; then melee. These rules are found in the “normal” section of Chainmail, so they don’t include spells, but check out Matt Finch’s Swords of Jordoba game, where he includes spells with missile fire (though he is using a version of Holmes Basic initiative).

Where it gets complicated is that split-moves can attract “pass through fire” (kind of like a ranged version of an Attack of Opportunity), and melee attacks generally receive a “return blow”, meaning the person you just hit gets to hit back on your turn. (You will probably get a return blow on their turn, if you’re still alive.) Combined with the rules about weapon class, including which weapons can parry, and some even more complex rules about bow ranges, angles, “indirect fire”, etc, this section is quite a daunting read. However, much of it wouldn’t be relevant for your average D&D combat, and the DM (or Referee) has, as always, permission to simplify it as necessary.

I eventually came up with this, my proposed method for running Chainmail combat in a game of Original D&D:

  1. Roll initiative: each side rolls a d6, Highest goes first.
  2. Each combatant can take one action, resolved in the following order: delay (choose to go last); move or split move (see below; missile fire is resolved later; attacks of opportunity are possible); missile fire; melee (see below); spells (spells can be “readied” during the movement phase, but won’t “go off” until the spell phase.
  3. Repeat for the losing side. Any number of other actions are possible, including Parley or fleeing.
  4. Check monster morale if necessary (roll 2d6 under the monster’s morale score to keep fighting).
  5. Roll initiative and repeat as necessary.

Split moves: elves are capable of taking half their movement, firing missiles, then taking the rest of their movement. In this case, the half move is taken first, missile fire is resolved in the missile phase, and the remaining move immediately follows, preceding any melee. If either move brings the attacker within 10 feet of an enemy melee combatant, an attack of opportunity is immediately resolved (I ignored “pass through” fire, as I judged it was highly unlikely that the party would face a band of archers).

Missile fire: mass missile fire is resolved using 1d6 per attacker, as per Chainmail (p11). Each group of attackers must choose targets of the same armour class, scoring the number of hits indicated by the table. Hits are divided as evenly as possible between the targets.

E.g. 6 goblin archers take aim at a party in which a fighter and a cleric are both wearing plate armour and carrying shields (fully armoured), whom they choose as targets. They require a roll of 5 or 6 to inflict even 1 hit. They will gain bonus of +1 to their roll at short range, and a penalty -1 at long range. If the targets were lightly armoured, they would inflict 2 hits regardless of the roll.
Individual missile fire (one attacker and one target) is as in Chainmail (appendix B), with individual targets (rolling 2d6 with the “to hit” number determined by armour class).

Melee: mass melee is not appropriate to first-level PCs or monsters with 1 or fewer hit dice/fighting capability, so the individual combat tables are used (appendices B or E as appropriate). Mass combat (in the case of large numbers of humanoid monsters) is preferably restricted to missiles.
In the first round of combat, the side with the initiative (including the non-surprised party) may charge into melee range, gaining a +1 to hit, but defending at one armour class lower until the start of their next turn. Otherwise it is not permitted to move and attack in the same turn.
Melee combat is resolved according to the Chainmail tables (2d6 to hit, with required number determined by target’s AC).
The attacker will strike first unless the defender is wielding a weapon two or more classes higher or has the higher ground. If the defender survives the attack, they immediately return the blow before their turn in initiative order. A return blow is always one attack, regardless of hit dice or character level (so a troll would only get one attack, not six, as a return blow against a first level fighter).
A defender wielding a weapon 3 classes lower to 1 class higher than the attacker may attempt to parry the attack, subtracting 2 from the attack roll, but forfeiting a return blow.
If the defender’s weapon is 4-7 classes lower than the attacker’s, they may either strike first or parry without forfeiting a return blow, but if the attacker still scores a hit, the defender’s weapon breaks. If the attacker’s weapon is 4-7 classes lower, they get 2 attacks even at first level, provided they are on equal hit dice with the defender.
If the defender’s weapon is 8 or more classes lower, they may parry (-1 only to the attack roll) and strike first without forfeiting a return blow, but if the attacker still hits, they will break the weapon defender’s weapon. If the attacker’s weapon is 8 or more classes lower, they may attack three times, even at first level, provided they are on equal hit dice with the defender.

All of this sounds very complicated. And it is. Normally I’m not one for extra rules and extra complexity, certainly not in the name of “realism”, but I confess I kind of like the Weapon Class rules, because it adds an extra consideration to combat. Truth be told, I find 5e combat boring. Everyone takes turns rolling a d20 until the other side is dead. Weapon class, and the effect it has on the exchange of blows, provides more situations in which the players may have to re-think their standard attack routines.

However, these rules are so cumbersome that I can’t imagine running them in-game without thoroughly preparing each combat, including making notes of how the monsters’ weapon class will affect the turn order.

The only time I actually ran Chainmail combat, it went like this.

A party of three first-level PCs (fighter, magic-user, and cleric), were exploring a total mind-f**k of a dungeon. They entered a room and found six kobolds. Neither side was surprised, and parley broke down (the party didn’t speak Kobold), so we rolled initiative. The kobolds went first. They had leather armour and daggers, so they had to close to melee. They outnumbered the PCs two to one, so they charged, killing the cleric, and wounding the fighter. The fighter’s return blow missed, and the survivors decided to flee. The kobolds did not pursue.

No one had a spear or ranged weapons, so most of those complicated rules never came into play. Perhaps if we had continued to play using Chainmail for combat, more of the intricate mechanics would have come up. But before I could run another session of OD&D, I read this in the second issue of The Strategic Review (from 1975):

CHAINMAIL is primarily a system for 1:20 combat, although
it provides a basic understanding for man-to-man fighting also. The
“Man-To-Man” and “Fantasy Supplement” sections of Chainmail provide
systems for table-top actions of small size. The regular CHAINMAIL
system is for larger actions where man-like types are mainly involved,
i.e. kobolds, goblins, dwarves, orcs, elves, men, hobgoblins, etc. It
is suggested that the alternate system in D & D be used to resolve the
important melees where principal figures are concerned, as well as
those involving the stronger monsters. [emphasis mine]

What follows is then a long description of a combat between a single fighter and some orcs, which plays out more or less like any D&D combat you or I have ever run: attackers roll a d20 to hit, higher is better, roll damage on a success.

So what the f**k did I bother with all that Chainmail BS for?

Joking aside, I did actually learn several things from my experimentation with Chainmail. I learned, in a fairly hands-on way, some of the history and background of my favourite game. I was exposed to some tactical combat considerations which have been lost in the modern editions of the game. And I learned that there is nothing “wrong” with simply rolling a d20 to hit. In fact, Gary Gygax always intended that you do so, unless your players will commanding large armies of “man-types” (by which he meant “humanoids”; Gary Gygax was many things, but he was not a feminist, at least not back then).

Anyway, I hope this examination of Chainmail hasn’t been tl;dr. In the near future I will be writing an in-depth post on the original Dungeons & Dragons rules (the first three booklets), and there were certain basic concepts from Chainmail that I wanted to address separately, before I started on that post. So trust me: this is going somewhere.

And, seriously, don’t use Chainmail for D&D.

Play D&D for free, part 2: retroclones

On my first post on the subject of playing Dungeons & Dragons for free, I stuck implicitly to living systems; that is, the current editions of games in print and supported by their publishers. For D&D this means Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (5e), published by Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), and Pathfinder, published by Paizo.

My advice was to stick to the free materials, which for 5e the is Basic Rules, available as a free PDF, including DM guidelines, and the free content on D&D Beyond, which includes the whole of the Systems Reference Document (SRD). I neglected to discuss Pathfinder, which also has a lot of free content available to download. And as these two systems are the Big Beasts of fantasy role-playing, they are likely to be the first ports of call for new gamers.

The major drawback of sticking to this free content is that you won’t have access to the “complete” game. For example, the Basic Rules pdf limits players to the four “core” races (dwarf, elf, halfling, and human) and the four “core” classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard), with one customization path or “archetype” for each (meaning it isn’t really customization at all). D&D Beyond’s free content gives you access to all the races and classes in the Player’s Handbook, but sticks to one archetype for each class, and only a limited selection of backgrounds and feats. While feats are optional for 5e, backgrounds are actually an essential part of character creation, so this is a significant omission.

There is, however, a way in which you can play a “complete” version of D&D (that is, have access to all “core” game mechanics) for free: play a retroclone.

For those who have never heard the term, a “retroclone” is an independently-produced ruleset which recreates an earlier edition of a popular role-playing game, usually with some refinements or additions. Pathfinder itself could be considered the first retroclone, as it was produced by Paizo (at the time a much smaller company than Wizards of the Coast), and recreated Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, which had recently been replaced by Fourth Edition.

Because retroclones make use of the existing Open Gaming Licenses, any changes to the original rulesets are made less for copyright reasons and more for the preferences of the producers and their intended audiences. For example, many Zero Edition (or Original Dungeons & Dragons) retroclones have much clearer wording and organization of the rules than the original 1974 game (which was notoriously opaque). Another common innovation is to allow ascending armour class (in which a higher armour class is better) as the norm or at least as an option. There have been several ways things like stats, abilities (and “skills”, if they are used), combat, etc. have been handled in D&D over the years, and the author(s) of a particular retroclone tend to pick their favourite one or suggest a personal house rule as the standard option.

Some retroclones are as pricey as the current versions of the game. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, a 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons retroclone, retails for $70, although this is excessive, and mainly due to artwork and binding, still, many popular retroclones, such as Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess will cost you at least a little cash, even for just the pdf. [EDIT: Both LL and LotFP are available as free, text-only pdfs (no artwork).]

However, if you divide Old School D&D into the three categories of Original, Basic, and Advanced, there is at least one free retroclone for each.

There are several “Original D&D” retroclones. I discover new ones all the time. My personal favourite remains Matthew Finch’s Swords & Wizardry, which comes in four versions, all of which you can get for free. White Box, my absolute favourite RPG ever, is a clone of the original three booklets in the first ever printing of D&D. (Unlike that original printing, White Box makes perfect sense and is a pleasure to read.) This version is no longer available on the Frog God Games website, as it has basically been replaced by Swords & Wizardry Light, which is also free, and pretty much the same game except it allows the Thief class and only has rules for levels 1 to 3. The next step up is Swords & Wizardry Core Rules, a close second to White Box, in my opinion. This version clones the rules as they stood after the Greyhawk supplement was published in 1975. It is, on balance, probably the best version of the game. It has plenty of options and mechanics, but not so many that it becomes, well, Pathfinder. And finally, there is Swords & Wizardry Complete, which clones everything you would find in the original rules, all five supplements, plus anything you might have pulled out of issues of Dragon Magazine. Personally, I only own this one for the monsters. You can never have too many monsters. I would never give this many options to the players in an Old School game.

Swords & Wizardry is, in fact, so popular that it has its own “clone”, White Box, by Charlie Mason, published by Seattle Hill Games. The pdf of this is also free, and could be a good alternative if you want to play a White Box clone but don’t want to play Swords & Wizardry Light.

Then there is Chris Gonnerman’s Iron Falcon, also free as a pdf, still available and supported, and more complete than either S&W White Box or S&W Light. It does include things like the Thief and Paladin classes, and tons of spells and monsters, so it is probably more comparable to S&W Core or Complete, but unlike those games, it includes some free adventure modules, which can actually be played with any OD&D retroclone (or even the “real” OD&D), with little or no modification.

When we talk about “Basic D&D”, we usually mean either the early 80s boxed sets (called Moldvay Basic after the editor of the Basic Set – again, levels 1-3 – or B/X because I it contained only the Basic and Expert rules) or the later BECMI, which stands for Basic, Expert, Comnot panion, Master, Immortal: the six sets of rules that take you from levels 1 through 36, and eventually to a godlike status that transcends character levels.

I don’t know of a BECMI retroclone (which isn’t to say one doesn’t exist, just that I don’t know about it), but there’s a very popular free B/X clone, Basic Fantasy, Chris Gonnerman’s more well known game. If you’ve heard of one Old School retroclone, chances are this is it. Everything for this game, including lots of adventure modules, is available as a free pdf, and even the print versions are dirt cheap. [EDIT: As above, Labyrinth Lord is also free in an artwork-free pdf.]

And finally, there is OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation), a 1st Edition AD&D clone, also by Matthew Finch, and also free.

So if you’re willing to go Old School, it is definitely possible to play D&D for free, without sacrificing any of the core options or mechanics, and you don’t even have to homebrew your own adventures, thanks to Chris Gonnerman!

I fully expect that a lot of readers will not be pursuing these options, however. One reason is, none of these games are (or, legally, could be) branded Dungeons & Dragons, and I expect that makes a big difference to prospective new players. Make no mistake, all of these games are Dungeons & Dragons. There is nothing about them that does not ring true to the authentic D&D experience. But just as audiences rejected the “imposter” Uncle Fester in the first Addams Family movie, a lot of players might reject these games (even though, like Uncle Fester, they turn out not to be imposters after all). If you get your friends psyched up to play D&D and then whip out a pdf of Swords & Wizardry, they may feel they’re not getting “the real deal”.

Of course, Pathfinder solved this problem, mostly by tacitly allowing their customers to call their product “D&D” colloquially. The one time I played Pathfinder, it was because someone asked me if I wanted to play D&D. I only found out they meant Pathfinder after I had already said yes. And check out this video series in which they are clearly playing Pathfinder, but frequently call it “D&D”.

But the major stumbling block will be that all these retroclones are exclusively Old School, and therefore might not appeal to gamers whose expectations are informed by Modern D&D. If you were inspired to play by watching Critical Role, you might be disappointed that you can’t play a “goliath barbarian” or a “tiefling bloodhunter”. If you were intrigued by stories you heard from Pathfinder players, you may feel let down when you can’t be a “kitsune alchemagus death priest” or whatever OP bullshit they allow in that game.

And that’s perfectly understandable. There are a million ways to play D&D, and the game is broad enough to accommodate everyone’s fantasy. But if yours can fit the Old School mold, don’t overlook these retroclones as a way to get a memorable gaming experience for hardly any cash.

[EDIT: If you are interested in a more complete list of retroclones, visit Tenkar’s Tavern (you should visit it anyway, as it’s a great blog).]

Want to OSR your 5E game? Play with kids…

…or beginners. Basically anyone who doesn’t own their own copy of the Player’s Handbook.

Imagine this: it’s 1974. You have heard about this new game, Dungeons & Dragons – a whole new kind of game – and you want to try it. You’ve shelled out your $10 dollars (which is like $50 today, so you’d have to have wanted it pretty bad) and got your little fake wood box with the white label, containing three badly-written booklets which attempt to explain how to play this game, the likes of which the world has never seen.

Now imagine that you manage to drum up some people to play with (the rules suggest “from four to fifty players”, but let’s assume it’s closer to four). Unless they’re every bit as eager to play this as you are, and also have ten bucks to throw around, you are likely to be the only one with a copy of the rules. Which means two things: 1) congratulations, you are the Dungeon Master (called a “Referee” back then), and 2) you are probably the only one who really knows how the game works.

Now flash forward to 1978. You have just bought the first edition Player’s Handbook, which claims to “provide all of the truly essential information necessary for the game”, but doesn’t even tell you how to roll stats or make an attack. That material, and much more, is restricted to the Dungeon Master’s Guide, to be published the following year. Why? Because “considerable enjoyment and excitement in early play stems from not knowing exactly what is going on.”

Not knowing the rules of Dungeons & Dragons is a classic part of the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Now, I wouldn’t blame you if reading this has already given you pause. Am I actually suggesting that players knowing the rules of D&D is a bad thing? And the short answer is: yes. But here’s the long answer:

While it isn’t bad for the players to have a firm grasp of the most relevant game mechanics, knowing all the mechanics can have several effects on the game which some DMs may find undesirable (I certainly do).

One such effect is that it creates rules lawyers. All the players knowing all the rules doesn’t stop the DM being able to modify, eschew, or otherwise house-rule certain game mechanics. If they’re good players, they’ll remember Rule 0, and if changing the rules becomes a problem, or you think it’s going to be, you can always let your players know this is what you’re doing (choosing the level of detail you go into).

Although Rules Lawyers are my least favourite type of “problem player”, this is, admittedly, a small issue, because not every fully informed player will become a Rules Lawyer, and at the end of the day, Rules Lawyers don’t actually make the rules. Still, you are far less likely to get players like this when they haven’t memorized the entire PHB.

The bigger issue, for me, is that the rule books can be limiting. Going back to our hypothetical 1974 players: if you’ve rolled up a fighter, you know you have a weapon and that you can, presumably, use it. If you’ve rolled up a magic-user, you know you have that one spell you can cast, and more or less what that spell does. And regardless of your class, you know what equipment you’ve bought.

So now you’re creeping through the dungeon, looking for god knows what (treasure, probably). And when something – anything – happens, you all have to figure out how to respond to it. And not everything that happens in a dungeon – especially an old-school dungeon – is a cue for combat. Read up on old school dungeon crawls. Most of the tales involve the PCs running away.

So when you’re presented with an obstacle, encounter, or other situation, you have to generate a solution. It may well involve your weapons, if you have them, or your spells, if you have them, or any of your equipment, or terrain features, or things lying around. But whatever you do, the main component is probably your own ingenuity, and that of the other players.

And there’s no limit to that ingenuity, because there are no mechanics involved. There are no skill checks or ability checks, no rules for using various pieces of equipment in novel ways. Each situation is unique, and requires a unique solution from the players at the table.

This is a hard way to play, because the onus is on the players to propose their actions out of their own imagination, and then on the DM to figure out how to adjudicate their actions in a fair way. It’s far easier to play a game where the actions are spelled out for everyone. This is what you can do, and this is how you do it.

If we contrast the “rules-light”, 1974 approach to Fifth Edition, we find the ten Actions in Combat. These are prefaced by the following text:

When you take your action on your turn, you can take one of the actions presented here, an action you gained from your class or a special feature, or an action that you improvise... When you describe an action not detailed elsewhere in the rules, the DM tells you whether that action is possible and what kind of roll you need to make, if any, to determine success or failure” [emphasis mine].

There is also the the Improvising an Action sidebar, which specifically states “The only limits to the actions you can attempt are your imagination and your character’s ability scores“. But these brief reminders can easily get lost in the meatier descriptions of game mechanics, and the ten suggested actions in combat quickly become The Only Ten Things You Can Do in Combat, just as the 18 Skill Checks become the only 18 things you can do the rest of the time.

Of course, not every player will treat the rules this way, and it was certainly not the designer’s intention that they do. But there’s basically zero chance of this happening of the players don’t know the ten actions in combat in the first place. Most of the time, when combat starts, they will want to attack or cast a spell. But they might say they want to wait and see what happens. Tell them they can ready an action. They might want to try to disarm or restrain or otherwise subdue an opponent. Good opportunity to explain grappling.

I once had a new player decide to toss a rope to another PC, then run circles around an enemy guard, wrapping his legs up in the rope and restraining him. This was not something he had read in a rule book. He hadn’t even read the PHB. It was just something he came up with in his own mind.

Easy enough for him to suggest, but to adjudicate it, I had to call for a to hit roll to toss the rope, a strength check to hold the rope, the dash action to wind the rope, and a contested athletics check to resolve the grapple. And it took more than I’ve round to get it done. But that’s my job as DM: figuring out how to resolve player actions. I even awarded him inspiration for coming up with the idea.

And that, to me, is how you play D&D.