I have more posts on running Castle Xyntillan on the old to-do list, starting with one on our single delve per session doctrine. But I realized there are a few basic rules details I’d like to jot down here so I can then refer to those. Specifically, on time and movement. So we are picking up the thread on the Hackbut homebrew rules series. In the rulebook, we have arrived at the chapter titled “playing the game.” The very first section, which precedes time and movement, is on experience. Let’s get to it.
Sources of experience
All XP in the game is gained from “looting stuff.” Treasure must be returned to a place of safety for it to count towards XP. Mundane items that are kept for use rather than sold do not net XP. Magic items do not net XP, ever. Each gold piece of treasure is worth 1 XP.
Side note on monster XP: I chose not to hand out XP for defeating monsters because I knew I wanted to disincentivize combat. An added benefit is that it reduces bookkeeping on my part. If I were to do monster XP, I would simply hand out 100 XP for each monster HD. In any case, not giving out monster XP has worked fine so far. Any slowdown in advancement is made up for by generous carousing rules, which I will detail some other time.
Dividing experience points
In practice, we tally treasure and commensurate XP at the end of each session. Players are then free to divide the XP between all characters that participated in that session’s expedition as they see fit. Hired help usually does not receive XP, unless they are classed NPCs, in which case a half-share of XP is mandatory.
Side note on dividing XP: Just letting players divide things however they see fit adds a bit of strategizing on a group level. They can choose to have certain characters advance quicker if they figure it would be helpful for the party as a whole. For example, getting that magic-user to the next level where they gain access to more powerful spells. It also adds a small amount of politics to the proceedings, players will petition others for giving more XP to their character. This is fun for our group and differences are usually settled amicably. But I would only recommend this approach to groups with a lot of trust between players.
Characters cannot advance more than one level in a single session. Any XP that exceeds the second level above their current one evaporates, and the character’s XP is left one short of the next level.
Finally, I also detail rules for multi-classing in this section. These are basically the same as described in Original Edition Delta. The only change I made is that I lowered the minimum score required in the new class’ primary ability to 13.
In practice, we have seen less than a handful of multi-classed characters so far. I am left wondering why. Perhaps the slow advancement is just not worth the extra abilities for the majority of the players in our group. If I were playing I know I would be all over a fighter/magic-user combo. Anyway.
That’s it for the rules on XP, advancement and multi-classing. Nothing shocking, I know, but at the same time, this is the little engine that makes the whole game run. A simple idea which has had far-reaching consequences for the hobby and beyond.
The next post will be on time, and possibly movement thrown in at the same time.
Another year, another annual review. This marks the third full year of publishing on this website. Let’s hope there are many more yet to come. (Previous annual reviews: 2020, 2021.)
The previous two years were marked by the global pandemic. This year was characterized by our collective emergence from that strange and challenging time and the resumption of what I guess can be called normalcy.
Most COVID measures in this country were lifted by the end of February. I was worried that increasing competing activities would end our weekly roleplaying game. This was luckily not the case, as will become clear. We settled into what I think is a “new new normal” or the old normal, one with fewer plays but still enough to sustain a satisfying campaign.
Table of contents:
What we played: Castle Xyntillan, Planet Karus, MOTHERSHIP: Bloom, boardgames.
Play statistics: sessions, attendance, character deaths, experience points.
We played a fourth and final season of Castle Xyntillan from mid-January to mid-April numbering seven sessions in total. These are all written up here on the blog. (See the index.) It was a very satisfying conclusion to a very memorable campaign, one that taught me a lot about how to run classic D&D and also gave me the insight and the confidence to start creating my own material. This brings me to the next thing we played.
We went on a bit of a hiatus as I finalized preparations for a new campaign named Planet Karus. Its setting is homebrew sword and planet inspired by other planets, including Eternia, Skaith, and Pandarve. For the rules, we continue to use Hackbut, with some setting-specific tweaks sprinkled on top. My ambition is for this to be the campaign world where I can run classic D&D games until the end of my days. So one goal was to keep it compatible with baseline classic D&D, to make it easy to develop things using stock tools out there (like the original book’s treasure tables). But to use a setting that resonates with my younger self’s first encounters with fantasy, which is not EDO, but decidedly more science-fantasy, horrific and weird. (This approach was inspired, among other things, by this great now-gone blog post by Robert Parker.) The idea is to just reskin classic D&D where necessary. To basically reinterpret classic D&D’s implied setting through a sword and planet lens. (More on Planet Karus can be found on the campaign’s site.)
Anyway, we played seven sessions of Planet Karus from early September to early December. Let’s call it Season 1. I have not written those up on the blog here, contrary to my stated intentions in the previous annual review. Writing up CX was fun and useful but also quite a bit of work. The posts found an audience because they were about a published module. The same does not apply to my homebrew campaign even if I at some point publish the materials here (as was previously suggested by commenter DC.) I am keeping notes, of course, if only for my own reflection and analysis. But those are too rough for public consumption. It will probably stay that way. It makes running the game more sustainable, and I can focus my blogging energies on other types of posts.
We concluded the year’s roleplaying with frequent player HB taking over the game-mastering reigns from me for another MOTHERSHIP miniseries. This time we used the latest preview versions of the first edition rules and the module BLOOM by Daniel Hallinan. I’ve enjoyed playing through this so far. The module gave me some good underwater sci-fi vibes in the vein of The Abyss (and, I am told, also Underwater) as well as bio horror along the lines of Annihilation (novel, film).
We played two sessions in December and will pick it up again in January to finish up in another session or two.
MOTHERSHIP as a system is fine. The changes made to the classes for the new edition are definitely improvements over the original version. But I continue to feel like the skill-tree design is a poor fit for a game that purports to be “old school” in its sensibilities. I notice players tend to look at their character sheet when they are faced with a problem, looking for something they can roll against to solve it rather than engaging with the fiction directly. Also, at character creation, choosing skills is still a significant speed bump, as it invites planning ahead and offers a large number of choices at the outset. Better to randomize them, like we do with magic-user spells in classic D&D.
We sat down eight times this year for face-to-face board games on the last Friday of the month. BoardGameGeek tells me these were the games we played in order of the number of plays.
King of Tokyo and Skull are quick games that we like to break out at the end of an evening when we are too tired for the big stuff, but we do not want to go home just yet. “Tokyo” is always a riot, and Skull is a great shortcut to some of the bluffing kicks one also gets from games like poker.
Dragomino is a kids’ game I acquired for my boys (who are now getting into tabletop gaming themselves, an exciting development.) It is surprisingly appealing even for adults as well.
7 Wonders mainly sees table time when we have a big turnout, and some of the other meatier games’ player limits are exceeded. I have a love-hate relationship with this one, I find the engine-building aspect of it kind of tedious, but I have yet to find a satisfying replacement.
This brings us to the top three.
Quantum I acquired second hand late 2021. I have been looking to add it to my collection ever since my game design consultancy days when I was acquainted with its designer. It is quite good and strikes a nice balance between quick-to-play and crunchy. The way it uses chunky six-sided dice is elegant and satisfying.
Galaxy Trucker I received for my birthday in spring. Another one that had been sitting on the list for a long time already. Ever since playing Space Alert, I have been a Vlaada Chvátil fan. Galaxy Trucker has recently had a revamp, and the components are all very nice. I also love how, as is usually the case with Chvátil games, the how-to-play is integrated with the rulebook. This game was an instant hit with the group. It is very funny and plays really fast, but it still has a satisfying amount of crunch. It feels like riding a rodeo on a chaos-generating engine that is quickly tearing itself apart.
And finally, my personal favorite, Inis, which we now play with the Seasons of Inis expansion so that it allows for five players. I adore this game. It looks gorgeous, plays really quick, scratches that “dudes on a map” itch in a way that is not obvious, and does not lead to analysis paralysis like its close contender Kemet does. Highly recommended.
Moving on to some data and analysis of how often we played, what the attendance was like, and the two most important data points in the D&D resource economy: character deaths and experience points. What follows is limited to our classic D&D roleplaying sessions, which continue to take place online.
We had a total of 16 sessions in 2022 (down from a whopping 37 in 2021). That is an average of 1.3 sessions per month (SD 1.2). In 2021, by contrast, the average was 3.1 (SD 1.5). This can be explained for the most part by the long break between the final Castle Xyntillan season and the new Planet Karus campaign kicking off. If we removed the months when no plays happened from the data, we get an average of 2 sessions per month in 2022 (SD 0.8) versus 3.4 in 2021 (SD 1.2). Still lower, but not as dramatic a drop as it would first seem, and it can largely be explained by the fact that one Friday a month is now devoted to face-to-face board games.
Our group still consists of seven players (eight, if you include the undersigned). Two players did not participate in any of our roleplaying at all (they did join in on the board games occasionally). This year we had an average of 2.6 players per session (SD 0.7). That is down from 3.7 (SD 1.4) in 2021. However, in the last season of 2021, that number is 2.6 (SD 0.7). So things are staying pretty stable. Barring significant life events that impact the ability to participate, this looks like the “new new normal” for our group for the foreseeable future. As in the previous year, the top three players are once again responsible for 66% of attendance, but players did trade places.
And now, for the statistic that all classic D&D referees care about the most: character deaths. It is interesting that I now get to compare a module written by someone known for their grasp of classic module design, and my own home campaign, in terms of deadliness (as well as XP, for which see the next section). Just to reiterate, rules and procedures have remained basically the same: My homebrew rules Hackbut, which largely has parity with OD&D, B/X D&D, and its retro-clones.
Castle Xyntillan season 4: Seven sessions, zero player-character deaths, and 11 retainer deaths, for an average of 1.6 deaths per session (SD 2.1). The single deadliest session was #37 in which five retainers died when the company breached the Crusaders’ Tomb, went head-to-head with undead crusaders, faced off against the Giant Snail Guardian, and pilfered the treasury.
Planet Karus season 1: Seven sessions as well, four player-character deaths, eight retainer deaths, for a total of 12 deaths, and an average of 1.3 per session (SD 1.5). The deadliest single session was #4, in which the same player lost two characters, and two retainers died as well, during a foray into The Balok (the campaign’s current tentpole dungeon). One fighter was killed by a volley of gremlin javelins. (Gremlins are Planet Karus’ equivalent of kobolds.) As a result, a porter failed his morale check and fled back out of the dungeon, triggering a trap on the way out. The same player’s second fighter later stepped on a large venomous snake while heading back out of the dungeon and failed his save versus death. The last retainer also failed their morale roll at this incident and fled into the dungeon’s darkness to be captured by boogieman slavers (read: hobgoblins). (The party later declines to pay the ransom.)
So, it looks like Planet Karus is about as deadly as Castle Xyntillan, but we see more PC deaths on Planet Karus. This can be explained by the fact that the number of monsters and their deadliness is about equal, but PCs in Planet Karus are just starting out and so have far fewer hit points to rely on when things go south.
Moving on to the flip side of character deaths: The sweet rewards reaped for braving danger in the form of experience points. I should point out that I only reward XP for treasure recovered at the traditional rate of 1 GP = 1 XP. (Although in Planet Karus, we use a silver standard for flavor reasons, the game is balanced accordingly, basically as Delta recommends here.)
Castle Xyntillan season 4: The company gained 14,800 XP, all in a single haul in the very last session when they ransacked the suite of the countess. That amounts to an average of 2,114 XP per session (SD 5,594). By comparison, in the previous year’s gaming, they collected 132,796 XP, on average, 5,533 XP per session (SD 5,281). A pretty big drop which can be explained by the fact that by this point, they had cleared out most of the easy-to-reach treasure. The campaign ended with the company on average at level 4.4 (min 1, max 6, SD 1.9). Between the active characters, they had collected 126,926 XP.
Planet Karus season 1: Here the picture is quite different. So far, the party has collected 7,071 XP in total, averaging 780 XP per session (SD 1,830). Am I being too stingy? I know there are big hauls tucked away in the tentpole dungeon, but players have been repeatedly repelled by the gremlin tribe that has made the first level their home base and appear to have lost interest in making a concerted effort to oust them. This dungeon has been set up more as a classic assault-style scenario in the vein of the original G series of modules. It is something the players are less accustomed to, and it is certainly a very different approach compared to Castle Xyntillan.
The single biggest haul (5,000 XP) was actually from a wilderness adventure where they cleaned out the treasury of a clan of swinelings holed out in a somewhat remote swamp. (Swinelings are the Planet Karus equivalent of hobbits. Don’t ask.) This may have taught them the “wrong” lesson.
The current total XP for the party is 5,631. The average level is 1.3 (SD 0.5), although 2 out of 7 characters in the active stable have managed to reach level 2. I guess I will not change anything about the treasure distribution for now, but if I place new treasure, I will err on the side of making it easier to reach.
So much for play statistics. Let’s move on to the games I acquired and then wrap up with some blogging numbers.
I will not account for every acquisition that sits in my DriveThruRPG account. When I went through the 2022 purchases, I was kind of shocked by the volume. I will call out some notable items instead.
The book I actually pulled things from, technological items in particular, is Hyperborea 3e. I love the vibe of the items in this book, and they can be transplanted easily into any classic D&D rules framework.
(I should also mention Warriors of the Red Planet, Xuhlan and Carcosa; three books that I have drawn significant inspiration from for Planet Karus, but which I had already acquired some time ago.)
I also got the Hill Cantons Compendium II specifically for the white wizard class in there, which I adapted for my own Planet Karus “celestial wizard” NPC class (there are no clerics in this setting, so I needed an alternative source of magical healing).
I also received some physical books from kickstarters I backed. Knock! Issue Three was once again fun to leaf through and sits nicely next to the first two editions. Through the Valley of the Manticore I liked for its solid art and compact yet comprehensive design. And Into the Odd Remastered is a refreshing example of what can be achieved by a formally trained graphic designer when they take a stab at a game book.
On the board games front, I managed to limit myself to two acquisitions, one for my birthday and one for Christmas. My shelf space thanks me. These were the aforementioned Galaxy Trucker, and Power Grid, another game I have played in the past but was still missing from my collection of classics.
I did way less blogging this year. Seven Castle Xyntillan reports and two entries into the new “Running Xyntillan” series (on magic swords, and on downtime). That’s nine posts versus 33 in 2021. A big drop. A lot of my creative energies went into completing Planet Karus materials instead. The first note I wrote towards this when I was still following the Gygax 75 framework that I would later abandon dates from 29 August 2021.
My writing energies were otherwise pretty depleted by a lot of heavy lifting on my Ph.D. labors. I will have to complete my thesis in the upcoming year, so it is unlikely I will have a lot more room for blogging. But I will try to hit about a post a month.
On to some readership statistics: The blog had 3,896 views and 1,108 visitors. In 2021 the numbers were 3,519 and 1,188, respectively. So about the same despite way fewer posts. This can be explained by those Castle Xyntillan play reports being of enduring interest to people who are (considering) running it themselves.
The top sources of traffic are search engines (329 views) and Reddit (191). These are followed by a bunch of classic D&D blogs: Beyond Fomalhaut (run by Melan, the designers of Castle Xyntillan, 91 views). Twitter has yielded a mere 23 views. The final referrers I will mention are A Distant Chime (home to a great Castle Xyntillan campaign write-up, 16 views), Tales of the Rambling Bumblers (Joshua was kind enough to link to an old post of mine about ability checks, 11 views), and DIY & dragons (11 views).
Okay, let’s wrap this thing up with a reflection on last year’s resolutions and make some new ones for this year.
Last year’s resolutions
2022’s notable achievements include bringing our Castle Xyntillan campaign to a satisfactory conclusion and starting up the new Planet Karus one, which, as planned, is indeed so far 100% homebrew.
I also did manage to get Quantum to the table, but not my other acquisition from back in 2021, Tigris & Euphrates, which I will have to amend soon.
Blogging-wise, I did not continue writing play reports and also did not continue the series on Hackbut. Reasons for the former, I have already addressed. I might revive the Hackbut series, but probably not by continuing to go through the rules section by section.
Finally, we ended up not adding any new players to our group, although I did ask around and got some enthusiastic responses from potential candidates. This year I hope to actually get them to join in.
And finally, here are some new year’s resolutions: We will finish up the MOTHERSHIP: Bloom miniseries. Then we will pick up the Planet Karus campaign again, and I hope to run 2-3 seasons this year. One in winter, one in spring, and one in the fall. Maybe we can hit 20+ sessions this year? That would be great.
We will obviously also continue our last Friday-of-the-month board game nights, of course. Those are always great.
Blogging-wise, as already mentioned, I hope to post maybe once a month this year. Who knows if I will actually manage that. But this monster-size annual review is at least a solid start.
And finally, a “dream” I’ve had for some time is to get together physically with the group and play D&D for more than a few hours but do one of those marathon sessions we used to always do over the weekend when we were teenagers. Maybe rent a holiday home? It would be great to play face-to-face again sometime. Roll physical dice, scribble maps, and stain character sheets with crisps-soiled fingers.
The second year of blogging has come to a close, time to take stock. Contrary to my hopes and expectations this time last year, 2021 turned out to be the second year of playing in times of a global pandemic. In spite of this, we managed to continue our gaming.
What we played
So what did we play? Most notably, I refereed two seasons of Castle Xyntillan using my homebrew classic D&D rules, Hackbut. Season two ran for 14 sessions, from late January to late April. Season three lasted 10 sessions and ran from mid-September to mid-December. In between these, from early May to mid-July, one of our players stepped up to “warden” a season of Mothership. We played one session of The Haunting of Ypsilon 14 and 10 sessions of Gradient Descent. Over summer I ran a two-shot of The Coming of Sorg, again using Hackbut. When circumstances allowed for it, we managed to resume our monthly face-to-face boardgame night. To celebrate, I acquired Kemet Blood & Sand, which according to many is the pinnacle of Matagot “dudes on a map” games. We managed to play this three times between late July and late October.
With regards to our ongoing Castle Xyntillan campaign I kept pretty extensive records. What follows is some data on attendance, character deaths, and experience points. Just for kicks.
Like last year, our play group numbers 7 players, not including me. Most sessions had 2-3 players attending, with average attendance being 3,6. Season 2 had an average attendance of 4,4, season 3’s average attendance was 2,6. This drop in attendance is probably the result of a number of factors, including big life events for at least one of our players, and perhaps also some fatigue with online gaming setting in for a few others.
The top 3 players were good for 66% of the attendance. This was 56% in the previous year. This shift can be explained mostly by one of our group not participating at all this year, and another only playing in the beginning of the year.
Ah, killing player-characters, the thing every classic D&D referee enjoys doing the most. I am kidding of course, but still, deaths is a good indication of how hazardous my game is. Seeing as how a key distinguishing aspect of classic D&D is that it is a game of challenge for the players, character death serves as a reasonable proxy for it.
In total, 10 player-characters died in the dungeon. That’s an average of 1,7 per session. The most PCs killed in one session was four, which happened during session #18 when the company had an ill-fated run-in with a bunch of ghouls.
Retainers were unluckier still, with a total of 27 perishing across this year’s two seasons, for an average of 2,3 per session. The most retainers killed in one session was five, during session #33, when the company got lost in a pocket dimension forest.
Overall, 37 characters were killed by the dungeon, for an average of 1,5 per session. I don’t have a baseline to compare these numbers to, so I really can’t say if I run an extraordinarily deadly game, or if I am soft-pedaling it. I guess over 1 PC killed on average every session is kind of rough, but I don’t go out of my way to try and slaughter them. In fact I often feel bad about not giving the players the challenge they deserve. Maybe this number is an indication I should relax a little on that front.
In any case, was all that dying good for anything? I would say so. The players brought back 132.796 XP. This breaks down to 84.754 XP in season 2, and 48.042 XP in season 3. That is an average of 5.533 XP per session (6.054 XP in season 2, 4.804 XP in season 3). I think it is safe to say Castle Xyntillan is a pretty generously stocked dungeon, but not overly so. I think this nicely offsets its lethality. Yes it is easy to die in the dungeon. But it is is also easy for players to get back into the game reasonably quickly, and level up past those first fragile levels.
All of this XP is from treasure recovered, at a rate of 1 GP equals 1 XP. I award no XP for killing monsters and in case you are wondering, magic items also do not yield any. Another important thing to note is that players get to divide XP between all player-characters that participated in an expedition as they see fit. I do not enforce shares for player-characters.
The highest single haul was 15.900 XP, in session #21 (in season 3, the biggest score was 11.660 XP during session #34). In general, it is those wine barrels in the cellar that are the real money makers.
The seven currently active player-characters between them have acquired 106.393 XP. The average party level is 4.
The lowest level character is Guillemette, a level 1 thief, with 432 XP collected over 4 sessions. But this character saw no action this year. The next lowest-level character is Robert, a level 2 cleric, at 2.529 XP, all of which was acquired in one session.
The highest level character is Hendrik, a level 6 magic-user, at 36.000 XP, collected over a whopping 24 sessions of careful, diligent play. Level 6 is the highest level in the game and the magic-user is of course the class that requires the highest amount of XP. Getting there was quite an achievement, well-earned.
Closely following Hendrik is Jürg, a level 6 fighter / level 1 thief, at 31.600 XP collected over 14 sessions. Jürg is the only multi-classed character in the game. I wonder if more will follow now that some of them are plateauing and have no use for XP anymore. It’s also worth noting Jürg began life as a retainer (and husband) of this player’s previous PC, Bartolomea.
Moving on, what happened with the blog? I mostly wrote play reports, for Castle Xyntillan seasons 2 and 3 (see the index), as well as the Coming of Sorg two-shot (a, b).
WordPress tells me I had 3.519 views and 1.188 visitors over the past year. This is of course very modest, and in truth I pay little attention to this sort of stuff. I do promote my posts on the OSR discord server and my twitter, but not anywhere else really.
I got quite a bit of traffic through referrals from Beyond Fomalhaut (thanks Melan). Most of my visitors are from the anglosphere (US, UK, CA) and also from The Netherlands of course.
I hope I will be able to keep our weekly online D&D game going. It is definitely something that keeps me sane, and a welcome outlet for my many creative urges. I think we have one more season of Castle Xyntillan in us. I might try to add a new player or two to our group, so that we push the average attendance back up to the 3-4 mark. We are a close-knit group though, so recruiting will have to rely on our immediate social networks.
After Xyntillan, I think I want to try my hand at running material of my own fabrication. I have come to realize that this is the purest form of D&D, homebrewing everything, and I want to experience it first-hand. I have been quietly chipping away at a mid-size dungeon (about 120 rooms across three levels) and am about half-way through completing it. It is strongly OD&D inspired, but filtered through my personal fantasy canon, which is very much in a science fantasy vein and includes things like Masters of the Universe, Storm, and The Incal.
Of course, once we are able to, I look forward to once again playing games face-to-face, but that will most likely mean more boardgames. I recently acquired both a copy of Tigris & Euphrates, and Quantum and I hope to get those to the table in 2022.
In terms of blogging, I will continue to write up play reports for as long as I referee games. I like keeping a record of what happened and most of all reflecting on what went well and what I can improve on as a referee. Occasionally I get a comment saying others are getting some use out of them as well, which is always nice. I also intend to continue the series on Hackbut, although we have now hit the section on running the game, which may lend itself a little less well to the kind of posts I have been doing so far.
In any case, despite circumstances, 2021 was another good year for me for gaming, and I hope to maintain this in the year to come, bat plague be damned.
“Retainer” is the catch-all term I use in my game for NPCs that accompany player characters on adventures. I make no distinction between hirelings, henchmen, mercenaries, etc. In some editions, each serves a particular purpose: Some accompany PCs on wilderness treks, others also go with them into dungeons, etc. In our current campaign, town is mostly handled off-screen and we don’t do wilderness treks. It’s all about the dungeon crawl, so different types of retainer don’t add anything.
The reason for having rules for retainers in Hackbut is mainly so players can pad out their expeditionary force with some extra muscle. This way player-character death rate is reduced, without having to dial down the lethality of the campaign. Retainers are usually the first ones to drop, as anyone who has been following my Castle Xyntillan play reports will know. Retainers also add to the party’s carrying capacity, which nicely complements the rather strict encumbrance rules we enforce.
Okay, so how do they work? The short answer is that I lifted the Morale & Men rules module by Istvan Boldog-Bernad and Sandor Gebei published in Castle Xyntillan (as well as Echoes from Fomalhaut #1). These are a coherent, comprehensive, but straightforward set of rules that fit on a single A4 page. They cover:
Determining the availability of retainers that takes into account settlement size, and includes light & heavy footmen, bow & crossbowmen, and mounted troops
Determining their level
Loyalty and morale (very close to the rules in B/X, with a few clever tweaks)
I more or less lifted these rules wholesale, so I won’t describe them here. I will note the few small changes and additions I made.
Rather than having all retainers be 1 HD by default, I say that non-combatants are 0 HD, and men-at-arms are 1 HD but have no class.
I add a line to the table for determining availability of classed NPCs. These are the ones for whom a level and class can be determined as the original rules module suggests. The probabilities and amounts for village, town, city and metro are: 10% 1d2, 10% 1d4, 20% 1d6, 30% 1d8.
These classed NPCs don’t take a per-expedition wage as the others do, but instead insist on a half-share of the expedition’s treasure haul (and as a result, because of the way my XP rules work, they also get a half-share of the XP).
I say that unclassed retainers can be promoted into a level 1 class by assigning XP to them. For 0 HD this requires an initial expenditure of 1000 XP. I took this rule, like so often, from Delta.
I added stat blocks for the basic retainer types to my rules booklet, which are largely based off of those created by Nic, with just a few tweaks to bring them in line with my flavor of classic D&D.
And that’s it, really. These rules have served us so well hardly a game has gone by we do not have at least a few retainers join the party. I cannot count the number that have perished in those haunted halls of Castle Xyntillan. At least one of the currently still active player characters, a level 6 fighter now, started out as a lowly porter. In short I can’t imagine playing classic D&D without retainers, and this set of rules make running them a breeze.
That’s it for this Hackbut rules post. With this, we have also come to the end of the equipment section of the rules booklet. The next section is “playing the game”, which is substantial, but also in many cases maybe less interesting to blog about section by section. So I will have to see how I will go about that. In any case, to be continued.
Update (2023-03-30): The series continues! Read on for all about XP, leveling up, and multi-classing.
Time for another Hackbut rules post. This one is about encumbrance and inventory management.
I considered sticking with the traditional way of tracking encumbrance, but none of the systems in the original editions felt right to me. They were either too abstracted, or too unwieldy. Of course, in contemporary old school D&D circles, slot-based encumbrance tracking has become a house rule many people adopt. We were familiar with this approach from playing The Black Hack, and liked it, so I decided to adopt it for Hackbut as well.
My goal with this particular iteration of slot-based encumbrance was to have a set of rules that would be easy to remember and adjudicate, something that would make inventory management meaningful and enjoyable, but also, to have something that would be compatible with the traditional movement rates, and weight allowances that go along with that.
Let’s get to the rules. Here’s a bullet-wise rundown. I’m sure a lot of this will be familiar to those versed in contemporary old school D&D gaming.
A character’s carrying capacity is a number of slots equal to 10 plus their STR mod
Most things take up one item slot
For on-the-fly adjudication purposes, slots are roughly equal to 1/3 stone, 5 lb, or 2 kg
When you exceed your capacity — and once again at every multiple of it — your movement rate drops by 3″, and physical rolls incur a cumulative -1 penalty
The first three slots are so-called quick-draw slots, readying an item from any other slots takes a round
Small items stack to a slot — most notably, 100 coins take up one slot
Armor takes up a number of slots equal to its AC “bonus” (e.g. light armor, AC 7, takes up two slots)
We ignore clothing, worn items, and very small single objects for encumbrance purposes
And that’s it, basically. I will close with some further notes on my thought process here.
I did not use the raw STR score because that’s too swingy. In general in Hackbut I use the ability score bonuses rather than the raw scores to ensure abilities don’t matter too much.
I went with a simple progression between the MV tiers. In particular, the break point for MV 6″ is some times at 1.5 or 1.33 times the base capacity. I dialed in the slots and weights to a slot so that I could simply have breakpoints at each multiple of the base capacity. Again, easy to remember.
The weight a slot is roughly equivalent to I dialed in by analyzing the classic editions, some of the main retroclones, but also OED and Knave.
I played around with the number of coins to a slot to get a sensible single coin weight. I landed on 0.05 lb (0.02 kg). By comparison, Delta’s coins are 0.01 lb, and Knave’s are 0.05 lb.
I believe I mentioned this in my series of posts on the equipment lists, but I determined slots for each item mainly by translating from the weights listed in Delving Deeper, and plugging holes where needed using Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy’s Equipment Emporium (PDF).
Finally, keen-eyed readers may be wondering about the slots for armor. I admit this is a deviation from the classic editions. If I were to follow the weights listed, armor would have to take up roughly twice the slots I am currently using. But that is hard to remember, and also possibly too punitive under a system where a lot more stuff adds to your encumbrance than was the case in the original game. So I have made peace with the fact that my armor slots are on the lenient side.
Besides those already mentioned, I would also point to Necropraxis (a, b), Delta (a, b), and Coins & Scrolls as three other sources of inspiration.
And that’s it for encumbrance. Next time I will likely discuss how I handle retainers.
This, along with the missile weapons, are a part of the game I agonized over way too much. In particular, I fiddled with their damage and properties until each each was distinct from all the others.
The items on the list are basically a merging of the OD&D and B/X weapons lists. I wanted something that would be broadly compatible with the original editions. So I stuck to the original prices or took averages where editions diverged.
I also did not want to offer situational bonuses for specific weapons against particular types or armor, like for example OED does. I think that is adding a level of complexity that does not fit the simple and fast-playing game we want to be playing.
I rationalized the damage as follow: 1d4 for small weapons; 1d6 as a baseline; 1d8 for two-handed weapons with reach or versatile weapons wielded in two hands; 1d10 for two-handed weapons with no reach. (I took some inspiration from Skerples for this.)
If it wasn’t obvious, “reach” means a weapon can be used to fight from the second rank. “Versatile” means the weapons can be wielded in one or two hands. “Oversized” means the weapon takes up two slots.
Pikes, lances, pole-arms and halberds are a bit of a mess in the original editions. I decided to make pikes and lances functionally the same weapon, with certain benefits gained when fighting from horseback. Halberds I used to model large axes that do not quite have reach. Pole-arms I used for the plethora of slashing/stabbing/hooking implements that do have reach.
The keen-eyed observer will see that spears are incredibly useful, as they should be. Note, however, that the 1d8 damage die is only rolled when using the weapon with two hands without reach.
The flail is the two-handed variant that might have actually seen some use in the late medieval and early modern eras. I designed it to basically be the cleric’s alternative for the fighter’s zweihander.
The bows are balanced against each other by trading rate of fire for damage. (My rules don’t have multiple shots for regular bows like some of the classic games do. My combat round lasts 10 seconds. I follow Delta’s reasoning for this.)
The eponymous arquebus is the only deviation from “official” classic D&D weapons. I added it to the list because I wanted to add some early modern flavor to my game and guns are a big part of the battlefield in that era. However, I again went for simplicity, so it is basically a souped-up heavy crossbow that has an even worse rate of fire, and a heavier ammo kit. My main reference for this was the firearms appendix of Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
Those “Ud” notes are usage dice (taken from The Black Hack) which are rolled after each combat. In my game, no-one enjoys counting individual missiles, except when they are remarkable in some way (magic arrows, silver arrows, etc.)
Edit (August 15, 2021): I should add missile weapons all have the same range. All missile attacks are at -1 for every 10 feet beyond the first 30 feet. Thrown weapons can’t go beyond 60 feet. (This, like so much else, was taken from Delta.)
Armor really is incredibly straightforward. The only deviation from the classic rulesets is the pricing, for which I followed Delta’s intervention to make chain and plate more expensive.
I’m sure there are more teeny tiny details that might catch your eye or you might think are odd. Suffice to say that I don’t think I left any aspect of each single item unconsidered.
Let us continue the discussion of the equipment list in Hackbut. Last time around I provided an overview, this time I will cover adventuring gear. Below is the table once more.
I started with the White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game (WBFMAG) list. I really only removed or combined a few items. My goal was to have a list that wasn’t too long but would still contain most of the things commonly required for a dungeon delving expedition. The item descriptions I for the most part lifted from Old School Essentials, but I did make a few rules changes here and there.
I removed the wine bottle, scroll case, helmet, and tent. I list only one type of holy symbol, and only one type of rope (hemp).
I translated the capacity of the containers to match my 2 kg (5 lb) inventory slots, and tweaked each container’s canonical capacity somewhat.
I rejiggered a few prices. The price of garlic is dropped back down to the 5 gp it also is in OD&D. The class-specific tools I all set to 25 gp (so the spell book price is dropped down from 100 gp). This only seems fair.
I also rebalanced the numbers on those items that come in bundles. I primarily used the weights from Delving Deeper, and rounded the amounts that go into one slot to multiples of 5 (spikes, stakes, torches, rations).
With regards to the notes in the table, here are a few clarifying remarks:
“Non-encumbering” means what you think it does. These items are so light that they only start counting towards encumbrance when you carry ridiculous amounts of them, so for all intens and purposes they do not take up slots.
I don’t allow oil to burn of its own accord, so it requires a wick, or some flammable material (possibly a creature) needs to be doused and set fire to.
The “splash” weapon property rules text boils down to: Attack against unarmored AC. On a hit, listed damage is inflicted for Ud4 rounds. Target can use an action to try and prevent further damage for an additional roll of the Ud. Fumble: attacker has doused themselves. Crit: max damage on first round only.
As mentioned in previous posts “Uds” are usage dice — you roll the listed die size and if it comes up 1-2 you drop down to the next smallest size. I mainly use this for light sources. They are rolled each exploration turn (i.e. 10 in-game minutes).
“Oversized” means the items takes up two slots. Rope is heavy. Poles are long.
The rules for the special herbs and spices (belladonna, garlic, wolfsbane) I adapted from OED.
The next section to discuss in this series on my homebrew D&D rules is equipment. A big part of classic D&D play is about using tools to solve problems. From this perspective, picking equipment from the list is already playing the game. Not surprisingly, this section is probably also the one I obsessed over the most. In particular, I agonized over the specifics of the weapons list, what exactly to include as adventuring gear, and probably most of all, how exactly to dial in the encumbrance rules. I will probably devote a post to each of those topics. This post however serves as an overview of the section as a whole.
But before I continue, why don’t I just show the lists as they are in the current draft of Hackbut:
My starting point for the lists was (as always) those provided in White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game (WBFMAG). I also relied heavily on Old School Essentials, in particular for the adventuring gear descriptions, and the weapon qualities. I did do a lot of editing and tweaking. For example, I revised the weapon damage, and massaged the qualities as well.
Seeing as how my game is set in a pseudo-historical late medieval to early renaissance period, I had to have a firearm on the list. This is also where the name Hackbut comes from, it’s an early form of arquebus. I borrowed some description and detail from Lamentations of the Flame Princess for this one, but vastly simplified the rules.
Speaking of missile weapons, some will have noticed a “Ud” listed for the ammo — this is the usage die from The Black Hack. It is also used for some consumable items, although not as many as in The Black Hack itself. I feel like it only adds something when counting individual items is too much of a chore, and adding some unpredictability makes for a more exciting game. The main thing here would be light sources.
The prices listed are in gold pieces, and in many cases are a straight copy from the source material. The coinage in the game is also entirely standard, following the description in WBFMAG. I considered switching to a silver standard for more verisimilitude, such as how Delta suggests doing it, but I opted to not go down that route because it would mean constant conversion of treasure and prices in the modules I am running.
The one major thing changed in terms of pricing which some of you may have noticed are those of armor. Here I did follow the change suggested by Delta, and made plate armor in particular significantly more expensive. This adds a degree of verisimilitude and also makes it so that fighter players have something to strive for in the early stages of the game.
I’ll close by just briefly noting that my encumbrance rules take a slot-based approach. It is heavily inspired by Skerples’ GLOG hack, The Black Hack, Knave, and Brendan’s OD&D house rules, but also Delta’s stone-based approach. The whole thing is also fully aligned with the classic D&D movement rates. This took a ridiculous amount of time to get right, and I am still not 100% satisfied, but it has withstood over 25 sessions of play and hits a sweet spot between ease of use and meaningful choice. I will certainly dig into it more in a future post.
That’s it for the overview of equipment in Hackbut. Next time I will dig into adventuring gear.
Out of the four, I’ve probably tinkered with this class the most. As is often pointed out, the skills-based nature of the thief is at least a little at odds with the spirit of early D&D. On the other hand, the sneaky dungeon-delving specialist does add a nice bit of sword & sorcery genre flavor. There was no way I wasn’t going to include them in my game.
As always, I’ll just note that all of Hackbut’s classes are based on Hungarian retroclone Kamazaták és Kompániák. And again I’ll point out that the saves are replaced with the unified save in WB:FMAG. Below are the further changes I made to this class specifically.
Only simple and light weapons are allowed (hand axe, club, dagger, spear, staff, short sword, short bow, light crossbow and sling). This is mainly to protect the fighter’s niche and reinforce the fact that the thief is not a front-line fighter. It was inspired by Brendan’s OD&D “rogue” class.
I use the term “sneak attack” (rather than, say “backstab”) and some language from OD&D (“silent attacks from behind”). This to allow for some looseness in the interpretation of what counts as such an attack.
The OD&D percentile-based thief skills are collected under a single “thievery” ability and operate on a d20. This was inspired by Homebrew Homunculus’s deep dive into thief skills. For disarming traps I borrow some additional language from OED (three tries allowed, traps are only triggered on a fumble). I also make explicit that this skill is only applicable to small devices (aka “treasure traps”).
The hear noise skill is covered by a bonus to “perception checks” (+1 every four levels). Perception checks are handled by rolling 1d6, adding your WIS mod, with success on a 5+.
Climbing is similarly treated as a bonus. As well as allow for attempts at climbing unequipped that would be impossible for others. (This is based off of how Delta handles it in OED.)
Finally I allow thieves of any level to try and use magic-user scrolls, provided they succeed at a save vs. magic. If they fail, the spell backfires in some amusing and possibly deadly fashion. This is once again taken by a blog post by Brendan on the LBB thief.
So yeah, as you can tell, this is a mix-and-match of elements from various interpretations of the thief in the glorious OSR blogosphere. I should probably add that I would have not been able to assemble this version if (a) people had not taken the trouble to blog their OD&D house rules, and (b) those blogs were not made easily searchable through the OSR search engine created by Brendan (of Necropraxis).
And with that, we’ve come to the end of this series of class write-ups for Hackbut. I hope they will be of use to fellow homebrew enthusiasts out there.
In the weapons permitted, I removed the sling and added the club. Historically, slings are actually among the hardest missile weapons to master. It doesn’t make sense to me that a wizard would have time to learn how to use one in-between all the arcane studying. Clubs, by contrast, are possibly the simplest weapon to use (a stick, basically) and furthermore, on the Hackbut equipment list they are free and do 1d4 damage. I see no reason why a magic-user wouldn’t be allowed to use them.
The rest of the things to note are all related, unsurprisingly, to spell-casting.
Starting spells, and gaining spells at level up, are basically as described in the aforementioned KéK blog post. I do, however, prescribe that such spells are determined randomly.
The spell list and spell descriptions themselves are from Delta’s excellent OED Book of Spells. The spell selection is classic but flavorful, and the description are streamlined and rationalized. This one comes highly recommended.
Finally, I tweaked the rules for memorizing and casting spells as described in White Box to be a little bit more flexible and forgiving. Taking a page from 5e, magic-users can memorize level + INT modifier spells from their spellbook. They can cast memorized spells by “expending” a spell slot, but the spell itself remains memorized for further use. Essentially, memorized spells and spell slots are decoupled. So yes, this does mean a magic-user can cast the same spell more than once, which I know is frowned upon in old-school D&D circles. However, the number of spells a magic-user can cast per day remains as per the original game, so some looseness aside, the system is no more powerful than before.
And that’s all there is to say about magic-users, really. Next time I will tackle the last of the four classes, the thief.