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Hackbut – Character Classes – Cleric

The cleric gets it (Stefan Poag)

Okay, here are some design notes on the cleric class in Hackbut. This is the first of the classic four classes that are in my game. I will cover them in alphabetical order.

As previously mentioned in “the basics”, the chassis for my classes is from Hungarian retroclone KéK.

Using the cleric as described there as a base, I added and changed the following things:

  • I explicitly disallow missile weapons. Some allow slings, for example, but I don’t like the visual image it conjures up. If a cleric wants to kill something from a distance, they will have to use flaming oil flasks or holy water.
  • I replaced the classic turn undead mechanic with a d20-based approach taken from Necropraxis. The only thing I changed was that players get to add their WIS mod in stead of CHA, because I interpret turning as an expression of true faith rather than leveraging your force of personality. The main reason I went looking for an alternative to the classic mechanic was that I wanted something that does not require use of a lookup table, because I am all about speed of play at the table. This alternate mechanic does skew the odds of successful turning and destroying significantly in favour of the players. But if handled as an encounter action, it does not upset game balance too much, in my experience. Also, in Castle Xyntillan, named undead can never be destroyed, only turned. (If you want something that is mathematically equivalent of the table-based OD&D mechanic, I recommend Delta’s take.)
  • With regards to divine spell casting, I have clerics not carry a spell book. They gain access to all spells of the levels they can cast automatically at level-up. They do need to memorize spells, just like magic-users do.
  • The spell descriptions in Hackbut are adapted from an unofficial OED-style list of cleric spells created by “baquies”. These are basically exactly the spells that clerics get in OD&D, but the descriptions themselves are streamlined and harmonized. They’ve been working great so far.

And that’s basically it. As I’ve mentioned in the previous post, clerics work great in a pseudo-historical early renaissance campaign setting if you lean into their faux catholic demon hunter characterization. They’ve gone from a class that I’d rather cut from D&D, to possibly my favorite class of the classic four.

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Hackbut – Character Classes – The Basics

It’s been a while since I last posted about Hackbut. We’ve covered core mechanics, abilities, alignment and character creation. Now it’s time to dig into the character classes.

Hackbut has the four classic classes. I did not spend a lot of time debating this. OD&D has cleric, fighter and magic-user. Greyhawk added the thief, and after that, came the rest. But those four cover the spectrum one needs in a classic medieval fantasy game.

I have a conflicted relationship with the cleric. In my homebrew setting I lean towards sword and sorcery, and so demon-hunting clergy are a bit of an ill fit. But it was clear from the get-go that I needed clerics in there for compatibility with the assumed rule set for Castle Xyntillan. And upon reflection, now that we are (at the time of writing) over 15 sessions in, the classic D&D cleric can be a lot of fun if the setting leans into its pseudo-catholic nature. So yeah, the cleric stays. Four classes it is.

As I’ve previously mentioned, the chassis for the Hackbut classes are taken from the Hungarian retroclone Kazamaták és Kompániák (KéK). Ynes Midgard translated them into English on his blog. When I saw those I felt like I had the kernel in my hands for the D&D hack that I wished for. Really the main thing about them is that the progression goes up to level six. I like a low-powered game, so seeing an example of how it could be achieved in a classic D&D framework was inspiring.

I changed a few things about the classes of course, as a home brewer is prone to do. I previously talked about saving throws, how I swapped those out for the unified save from Swords & Wizardry. One more thing I changed since posting about that is to express that unified saving throw as a “base save bonus” that gets added to a d20 roll against a fixed target number of 15. Players continuously struggled with the original save mechanic. This appears to be more intuitive for them because it resembles the target 20 attack roll mechanic we use.

Then there were a few less significant changes. I massaged the XP values on the thief a tiny bit. It bothered me those did not start at 1.250 and progressed from there. An insignificant change, but I’m just particular like that.

Another tweak I made was to the weapons allowed for the thief and the magic-user. Again, mostly just small changes because of personal preference. The thief is allowed leather armor only (no shields); hand axe, club, dagger, spear, staff, short sword, short bow, light crossbow and sling. The magic-user is allowed no armor at all; and clubs, daggers and staves.

I made further changes to the specific abilities of each class, but I will save discussing those for future posts. I’ll just close by saying that those KéK classes have served me well as a base for my game, and I recommend checking them out.

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Hackbut – Character Creation

Now that we’ve covered core mechanics, abilities, and alignment, it’s time to move on to character creation. My goal with this was to keep things as simple and quick as possible, while mitigating some of the most extreme aspects of classic D&D’s randomization. Here’s how it works:

  1. Roll 3d6 down the line for the six ability scores.
  2. Determine ability modifiers. If the sum is less than zero, you may start over.
  3. Pick a class: cleric, fighter, magic-user, or thief.
  4. Optionally swap two ability scores.
  5. Determine your age.
  6. Pick your alignment.
  7. For starting HP, roll your HD and apply your CON modifier. Reroll natural 1s and 2s.
  8. Starting GP is 3d6×10. Buy starting equipment using it. The remainder is cash on hand.
  9. Pick or roll a name.

You’ll notice there is no step for picking a race. That’s because fantasy demihuman races is the only D&D trope I just really can’t stand in my games. So Hackbut is written for a human-only campaign, which for a sword & sorcery style setting in the vein of Howard or Leiber works perfectly fine.

Step 2, where you get to start over if your character is particularly unfit for duty, may raise some eyebrows. I took this from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I thought it would make the randomness a little more palatable to my players. They like it I think, but what troubles me is that it slows down character generation quite a bit. Calculating those modifiers each time is a little cumbersome. I also feel like it makes all the characters a little samey. It may be fun to have a wider spread of competence in the party. And it’s not like the modifiers make a huge amount of difference in most cases. So yeah, this is in there currently but might get cut.

The classes are the classic four, and will be written up in future posts. They are more or less the same as those in OD&D. I allow for swapping two abilities so that players have a little more control over which classes are viable, given that each relies on one ability in particular. Again, this is a bit of a modernism but I think it brings just the right amount of customization to what is otherwise an almost entirely random process.

Age determination is in there because Castle Xyntillan has several things in it that might unnaturally age characters. So I need to know how old characters are, and I have some rules for what happens when they do grow older (inspired by this post by Delta). For the starting ages I copied over the random rolls from 1e AD&D. For the most part they produce surprisingly youthful characters (the fighters and thieves in particular) which I find kind of amusing. If a player feels strongly about how old their character should be I let them just pick their age.

Alignment is an open pick, except for clerics, who must start the game aligned to Law. The remaining classes are neutral by default, and no player (so far) has picked Chaos.

Hit points is pretty straightforward. I added the rerolling of 1s and 2s to make first level characters a little more viable out of the gate (I took this from OED). Not that it makes a tremendous amount of difference (because, as I’ll blog about more at some point, we re-roll HD at the top of every session). It’s mostly to soften the psychological effect of rolling a 1 on your HP.

Starting gold and equipment is absolutely traditional. I’ll get around to writing about the equipment lists at some point, but for the most part their contents and prices are exactly as in OD&D.

Finally, you’ll notice I let players roll for a name. Character names that do not fit the setting are kind of a bugbear of mine. So I assembled a random table of names that are roughly from the time period the game is set in (late medieval, early Renaissance). On it, there are six male names and six female names for six modern-day European countries: The Netherlands, England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. (They were sourced from lists published on The Academy of Saint Gabriel.) So not only does the table yield a name but also a gender, which explains the delightfully anachronistic gender balance in our game’s mercenary company.

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Rules

Hackbut – Alignment

Alignment never really sat right with me. As typically presented, it tends to prescribe player character morality, and imply monolithic, unidimensional world views. Judging by its absence from many contemporary OSR games I’m not alone in that sentiment. But Castle Xyntillan features alignment in its stat blocks, Swords & Wizardry includes it (of course) and the goal of Hackbut was to have full compatibility with the classic editions, so I felt I had to include some statement of what alignment means.

I went trawling through my collection of retroclones and hit the OSR search engine again. This turned up more than a few useful sources of inspiration.

The things that clicked the most for me were those that presented alignment as allegiance to a faction in an ongoing supernatural battle of cosmic proportions. Lamentations of the Flame Princess does this quite well, although the way it conflates arcane magic with chaos and divine magic with law makes it too far removed from classic D&D’s implied setting.

I also like Talysman’s take on alignment. Like him I prefer the simplicity of the chaos/law split. I too prefer alignment not to prescribe morality. In light of this, I likewise interpret spells that relate to “evil” as not targeting alignment but harmful intent.

Finally, I’ll point to the Wandering DMs episode on alignment. In particular, there is a moment when Dan boils alignment down to the following: “When Cthulhu rises, do you run, stay and fight it, or join its side?”

I guess the one thing that makes my take a little out of sync with the original game is that neutrality is not a faction or cosmic force. I realize that in AD&D in particular, this idea is that classes like druids adhere to a belief system that is about balance between chaos and law. I kind of dislike that interpretation, and although it features a little bit in Castle Xyntillan — for example there are intelligent swords that are of neutral alignment — I don’t consider it a huge problem and can easily work around it on the fly.

That’s about all I have to say about alignment at this point. It hasn’t come up much in our game so far. But I expect once we hit higher levels and players begin to acquire intelligent swords for example, it might become more of a thing. I’m pretty happy with where I ended up with this, and it makes me comfortable with having alignment in my game. Perhaps some of these ideas make you reconsider completely ignoring it yourself, too.

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Hackbut – Abilities

This being a classic D&D hack, I went with the traditional six abilities of course. For their description, I mainly cribbed from Old-School Essentials. I also added a note to each about which things it modifies. I won’t enumerate those here because we’ll get to those individually when I discuss other parts of Hackbut. Suffice to say that I am largely sticking to B/X here.

Speaking of modifiers, I did choose to diverge from OD&D and B/X for their values. OD&D via S&W has a diversity of modifiers across abilities, which I find unwieldy. B/X has that +/-3 at the extremes which feels a bit much when used as a generic modifier with my previously discussed approach to ability checks. Instead I’ve gone with Delta’s rationalized range of modifiers: 18-16 +2; 15-13 +1; 12-9 0; 8-6 -1; 5-3 -2. Nice and clean and if necessary easily repeatable in both directions (increase by 1 for every three points).

I guess the final thing to remark upon is experience modifiers for prime abilities. Here I follow Ynas Midgard’s approach in KéK, which I found quite clever. In a response to a comment of mine he explains how prime abilities modify the experience required for the next level, in stead of XP received. This eliminates the need for repeat calculations each time XP is received. Smart. The XP modifiers follow the same segments as the ability modifiers: 90%, 95%, 100%, 110%, 120%.

That’s about all I have to say about abilities. Pretty straightforward, as can be expected from a thoroughly vanilla classic D&D hack.

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Rules

Hackbut – Core Mechanics – Ability Checks

So far in this series on Hackbut core mechanics I’ve described attack rolls and saving throws. That leaves a way to resolve anything else that may come up in the game. Out of these three components, ability checks, general task resolution, or “situation rolls” as Talysman aptly calls them, were the hardest to pin down, and I don’t feel I’ve completely settled on an approach yet. But what follows is what I am going with for the time being. Strap in, this one is a bit longer than usual.

Probably the biggest reason it’s hard to settle on a general way to handle situations is that there wasn’t really any general mechanic as such in the early editions of the game. The closest candidates would be the n-in-6 die roll pattern that frequently occurs (with the 2d6 reaction roll a close second), then we have the bit in Moldvay about using roll under ability checks, and finally there are the various ways thief skills are handled. Let’s tackle each in turn.

We can quickly eliminate roll under ability because, like I mentioned before, I have over 30 sessions of The Black Hack under my belt. This uses roll under for everything (attacks, defense, saves, skills, you name it). The problem I have with this is that it makes abilities too important. I also find it encourages rolling for trivial stuff. Used in moderation I guess it can be fine, but since I have had my fill of this mechanic I decided to not use it at all in my hack.

The thief skills are a different matter. Similar to save categories, I never got on with the granularity of the various skills. In the KéK classes, the separate skills are maintained but rationalized to n-in-6 probabilities. In WBFMAG, the thief has a generic “thievery” skill that is also an n-in-6 chance. I like the latter quite a bit because it affords some flexibility for determining what does and does not fall under the thief’s abilities. However, where these approaches fall short is in being generalizable across all classes for any kind of skill check (or situation roll) that may come up. This also applies in the other direction, so to speak, to those generic n-in-6 rolls you find in classic D&D, such as finding hidden things, forcing doors, etc.

Some searching (using Brendan’s invaluable OSR search engine) turned up an excellent post by Homebrew Homunculus, which outlines a general way of handling any skill check on a d20. The nice thing about this in particular for me is that it allows for applying an attribute modifier if desired, and it also allows for improvement with level if a class applies. The TLDR of it is: if a situation comes up for which a roll is warranted, roll a d20 and try to get a 15 or higher. If an attribute applies, add the modifier, if a class applies, add your level. Done.

Slick, right? I do like it quite a bit and have basically replaced all the typical n-in-6 rolls with this mechanic, as well as replaced the thief skills with this. It’s very easy to grok for players because it’s so similar to Target 20. And similar to roll under ability checks it’s easy to apply on the fly when a new situation comes up. However, abilities make less of a difference with this approach and if desired, improvement with level is baked in. Also, the target number is fixed, so trivial rolls are discouraged.

I wasn’t entirely happy with it, though, and the main reason for it is that I like the chunky feel of the d6, and I worried a bit this made rolling for various things feel too similar. In a way, I wanted to feel like I was refereeing the game more closely to the old ways, as for example described here by Delta:

If a “brand new” thing comes up (say: baking skill, something like that) then I revert back to a d6 roll — like OD&D uses for listening, opening doors, finding secret passages, traps opening, etc. I feel like on an improvisational basis I can estimate a reasonable chance for success out of 6 (but not 20) — as a default I give a 2-in-6 chance to succeed, like: roll d6, add some ability bonus, and a total roll of 5+ is success.

Delta’s D&D Hotspot

However, I wanted to stick to a fixed target number (5 on a d6) and I could not really figure out how to translate HH’s approach to a d6. The main issue being that levels and attribute modifiers quickly overwhelm the d6.

The final piece of the puzzle was the previously linked series of posts by Talysman on situation rolls, as well as a pamphlet on “general abilities”. First of all, John offers some neat guidelines for translating attribute modifiers across the various dice rolls (d6, 2d6, d20). Basically, if you have a +/-2 in an attribute, you get a +/-1 on a d6. (I use Delta’s attribute modifier sequence, so I don’t need to deal with +/-3.)

Second, in response to a comment of mine, John suggests a painfully elegant way of applying character level to a d6 roll: compare to dungeon level or monster HD. If lower, get a -1; if higher, get a +1.

The upshot of all of this is that I can now freely choose between resolving a situation on a d6 or a d20, depending on what I feel like in the moment. I might gravitate to one or the other at some point, it’s too soon to say. And for proper skills (like the thief skills) I expect I will stick to the d20 system. But for anything else, I now feel comfortable using the 2-in-6 roll as well.

Before I close, some of you may be wondering: isn’t a generic task resolution mechanic anathema to old-school D&D? You may be right. I don’t know. But what I do buy into is the insistence on reducing die rolls as much as possible. For this, Talysman also has some excellent guidelines which I’ve chosen to adopt. Because I feel it’s not just important to be able to explain to players when we will roll dice, but also when we won’t.

In closing, I think 15+ on a d20 and 5+ on a d6 are a sufficiently rich palette for adjudicating any situation that does not fall under an attack roll or a saving throw. With the tricks outlined above you can apply ability modifiers and class levels if you so wish, and if you pair this with a doctrine that prioritizes skipping die rolls all together, you are freed up as a referee to run a game at the blistering pace that classic D&D in my view requires.

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Hackbut – Core Mechanics – Saving Throws

Continuing on my discussion of Hackbut core mechanics, let’s briefly touch on saving throws. This one did not take a lot of poking around. To begin with, I have no nostalgic attachment to the classic saving throw categories. They strike me as obtuse and needlessly granular. I know the origins of the S&W unified save are primarily legal, but they represent a welcome streamlining in my view. So I decided to port them over into the KéK classes. This was a trivial exercise. If you want to do the same, simply use a base save of 15 minus level for fighters and thieves, and 16 minus level for magic-users and clerics. I also use the +2 save bonuses for the various classes as listed in WBFMAG.

That more or less covers saving throws for player characters. One last thing would be how to handle monster and NPC saves. Here, interestingly, WBFMAG and S&W proper diverge. The former has the basic guideline of using 19 minus HD, whereas the latter has a table listing a save value for each HD.

I had problems with both approaches. While convenient, WBFMAG’s monster save seems high in comparison to those of player characters. S&W’s solution requires a table lookup which is a no-go for me. So I decided to do a quick analysis of the S&W numbers and arrived at an average base save of 16 minus HD. Let’s call it a nice and easy to remember 15, incidentally making them save the same as fighters. This means low-level monsters save a little better than by-the-book S&W, and high-level monsters get off ever so slightly worse. I call it a wash.

As an aside, I could have also gone with Delta’s approach to saves, which in many ways is similar in spirit and mathematically balanced to a comparable level as S&W’s solution. The reason I did not go for it is that it maintains the various save categories which, like I said at the top, are just not something I feel I need in my game.

So that covers saving throws. The point of all of this is basically: a unified saving throw is a convenient and justifiable streamlining, easily hacked into your preferred classic D&D ruleset of choice.

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Hackbut – Core Mechanics – Attack Rolls

In the previous post I mentioned using Target 20 and Homebrew Homunculus’s simple d20 skill system. I should probably also mention that although I use those basic KéK classes, I did stick with Swords & Wizardry’s unified saving throw. Between the three of them those cover all the “core mechanics” in the game.

I arrived at Target 20 mostly through a process of elimination. I knew I did not want to do any lookups during gameplay so the traditional attack matrices were out. The logical alternative baked into S&W and also WBFMAG is ascending armor class. However, as HH has pointed out, S&W’s base ascending armor class of 10 is mathematically incorrect. You don’t really notice it when you use it out of the box, but I ran into trouble when I tried to come up with a player-facing defense roll that would be mathematically identical to a referee-facing monster attack roll.

This left me with two options: adjust the AACs listed in CX on the fly by 1 point (violating my rule to remain fully compatible with the module), or use descending AC after all. This is when the appeal of Target 20 really became apparent to me. It is both 100% mathematically identical to the original game, and very easy to use at the table. You just need to get over the fact that lower ACs are better.

Incidentally, it is also trivial to rewrite Target 20 as a player-facing defense roll:

Defend: d20 + your armor bonus + opponent attack value + modifiers ≥ 20

Armour bonus: 9 - AC
Attack value: 9 - HD

However, after using this for one session, I came to the conclusion that rolling to attack as a referee is actually faster (and possibly more fun). I’d gotten so used to The Black Hack’s player-facing defense rolls that I thought they were essential to a smooth-flowing game. But the big difference is that attack and defense rolls in TBH are exactly the same procedure, so there is no extra learning involved for players. With my so-called clever defense roll, players now need to learn two procedures. That’s one too many.

This is getting long-ish so I will leave discussion of saves and skill checks to future posts. I’ll just reiterate that Target 20 is indeed the superior procedure for attack rolls in classic D&D. I recommend using it.

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Hackbut – Overview

So, let me tell you about my D&D hack.

I put this together for my Castle Xyntillan campaign. After a 30+ session campaign using The Black Hack I decided I wanted to try a ruleset that would be closer in feel to Original D&D. In particular, I had grown weary of the roll-under ability score mechanic. What I did like about TBH, and continue to appreciate, is its simplicity and accessibility. So whatever I would switch to would ideally be of a similar level of complexity.

The obvious choice would have been Swords & Wizardry, because that’s what the megadungeon is ostensibly written for, although I believe Gabor Lux used another system to play-test it, and there are a few details, like intelligent sword stats, that don’t show up anywhere in S&W. But I wanted something a bit more light-weight, while at the same time maintaining full compatibility with the module’s contents.

I also considered using Old-School Essentials, but although its presentation is incredibly slick, believe it or not, I still felt it comes with overhead that I would then have to house-rule out. I wanted to be able to have one document that would contain all of the rules.

So, I decided to put together a full-fledged hack of my own. The trigger, if I recall correctly, was reading the Kazamaták és Kompániák basic classes. I really liked the level 6 ceiling on those. It nicely matches the level range of CX and I prefer a low-level game anyway.

Not feeling like re-inventing the wheel, I looked around for a game to use as a chassis. Ultimately I went with White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game. It’s small but comprehensive, and therefore makes for easy copy-pasting and adapting.

So those are the two basic building blocks of what is now titled “Hackbut”, my classic D&D rules kit-bash: WBFMAG provides the rules framework, and KéK provides the classes, although I did overwrite quite a bit of both. Other key elements include Delta’s Target 20 for attack rolls, and Homebrew Homunculus’s simple d20 skill system for, well, most all other situations that need resolving through dice.

There is a lot more to be said about the various components that make up Hackbut, but I’ll leave that for future posts. The point here was mainly to say that if you are in the mood for putting together your own D&D hack, consider picking up WBFMAG. It’s an excellent place to start if you want something that is fully compatible with the old editions but easily adaptable.

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20 Quick Questions: Rules (Hackbut)

Answers to Necropraxis’s 20 questions about the rules of my upcoming Castle Xyntillan campaign. I’ll be using a kit-bash of rules mostly from OD&D and B/X (largely via Swords & Wizardry and Old-School Essentials) which I’ve dubbed “Hackbut”.

  1. Ability scores generation method?
    3d6 down the line, swap two
  2. How are death and dying handled?
    Save vs death at 0 hp, success means you are unconscious and at 1 hp, failure means you’re dead.
  3. What about raising the dead?
    The raise dead spell is in play, and handled as per old-school essentials (OSE) OD&D. It’s a 5th level cleric spell, which means you would need to find a cleric of sufficiently high level to cast it (7th level) which is unlikely anywhere in the immediate area of the campaign. However, the dungeon also contains a very small number of items that can raise someone from the dead…
  4. How are replacement PCs handled?
    It’s recommended to bring a few retainers — these can easily be promoted into a class by assigning 250 gp worth of treasure to them if they are 1HD. 0-level “normal humans” (non-combatants) require an additional 125 gp 1000 gp. Any other replacement PC can be rolled up and can join the party at the earliest possible moment.
  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
    Individually rolled each round, winning initiative means you act before the opposition, losing means you act after.
    Group; roll 1d6 at the top of each round, on a 4-6 the PCs go before the opposition.
  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
    Crits do max double damage. Fumbles give the opposition a free attack or might cause some other mishap which requires an action to recover from.
  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
    Helmets are assumed to be part of any armour worn. No specific benefits.
  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
    Yes, target hit when firing into melee is determined randomly, odds possibly adjusted for relative size.
  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
    Running will more than occasionally be a wise decision.
  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no?
    No. Undead drain attributes. Hitting 0 in an attribute means you’re lost and become undead yourself.
  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
    Yes. Save-or-die is on the table.
  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
    Pretty strictly, but abstracted into a slot-based system.
  13. What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
    No requirements other than returning to a safe haven and spending roughly a week of downtime there. Spells are acquired automatically at level-up.
  14. What do I get experience for?
    XP is gained by recovering treasure, and by spending treasure frivolously carousing.
  15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
    Primary means of locating traps and other secrets is through description. Dice rolls are used when outcomes are uncertain or when a player insists they want to expedite things and handle them abstractly.
  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
    Retainers are encouraged and probably necessary to be successful, given the somewhat limited carrying capacity of characters. Each retainer has a morale rating which is rolled against when things get dicy. Failure means the retainer would very much like to terminate the expedition. Morale only ever goes down. (For more details see the rules in Castle Xyntillan.)
  17. How do I identify magic items?
    The primary means is to empirically test the item yourself, or convince some hapless retainer to do it for you. NPCs in town are able to identify potions and items for a fee.
  18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
    Some magic items and potions are for sale in town.
  19. Can I create magic items? When and how?
    Yes, you can. It will cost a significant amount of time and money, and might require specific ingredients or components for which a quest is needed.
  20. What about splitting the party?
    Good luck, have fun.

Updated 15 September 2020.