Dungeon Mastering - What I Run

What am I running? Well... Almost everything! I love the Byzantine complexity of the First Edition game, plus I love Gary's voice. Jeez, it is a tad bit complicated though. Even more so when I insist on utilizing portions of The Dungeoneer's Survival Guide and The Wilderness Survival Guide, both of which I am quite fond of. Hmmm, let me think for a second.

Hey! I know! I'll just use OSRIC in addition to streamline things! There is some pretty great stuff in Swords and Wizardry too, gotta love the simplicity there, it's almost zen like, and since I am running a first edition game I might as well utilize Swords and Wizardry Complete too (plus some Core).

As you can tell by my last post I am starting to develop an appreciation for Moldvay as well, there is a gold mine there. I have to use a pinch of that. Oh yeah, Labyrinth Lord! Duh! I have to use some of this, and again since I am running a First Edition game (he said haughtily), I might as well be using the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion.

Whatever I do, I can't forget about house rules of course, Akrasia's fighter subclasses are a must for instance. God only knows how many random tables and charts from obscure sources I am utilizing or even worse, trying to find a way to utilize.

What am I playing, HA! Even I don't know anymore! But you know what? I LOVE it! Can you do this with baseball? Football? Gin Rummy? Hell no! You can do it with Dungeons and Dragons however, I know, because I'm making it work.

The great thing is that the DM is in charge and to me there is only one law that they must live by. Impartiality. Above all else. First and foremost. If you can maintain impartiality as a DM you can run ANY set of rules or any amalgamation thereof. To me that is beauty of form in what many might consider Chaos. Plus, you never know, that jaded party who thinks they know every stat and law of the game world might just have to think outside of the box for once. Always keep 'em on their toes and never let 'em see you sweat. They'll thank you for it later.



Rethinking Moldvay's Basic

Come on, admit it. You thought Basic was a kiddie game for babies. Ok, maybe you didn't but I sure did. Everybody I ever played with did. Oh, I still bought it, I just didn't let any of my friends see it. It didn't matter that we didn't fully understand the complexities of the First Edition game in the beginning. There is no way we would be caught playing anything but the real deal.

I'm sad to say that I attached that stigma to Basic by Tom Moldvay for all of my early gaming years. In fact it's an attitude I maintained until very recently. It only changed after reading a stellar series of posts by Al at the excellent blog Beyond the Black Gate.

Al discusses some of Moldvay's Dungeon Mastering advice and it's really good stuff, so good that I tracked down my old Basic set and dusted it off. Guess what? I was surprised to find a lot of stuff I really like in there. You mean to tell me there's variable weapon damage in Basic?! Huh. I never knew. Guess I need to find that Expert set that I stowed away and take a look at it next.



Review - Crypts and Things

If you are familiar with Swords and Sorcery Core and Akrasia's House Rules (In fact, the title page shows the author as being Newt Newport with Akrasia) then you will recognize the skeleton upon which Crypts and Things is built. In fact the rulebook spends the first 35 pages or so presenting these two systems clearly and concisely to the reader. Additionally in this first "Player's Handbook" section you get some great art and a few minor deviations from the norm.

Some of these deviations are that there are no demi-humans in Crypts and Things and that the Undead can't be turned either as a class abilty or by a spell. Additionally, there are no alignment systems, the reason being that the world itself is an amoral one. Also of interest is the fact that magic Is almost always a bad thing. This implies that there is a price to be paid for magical power, not only for spells either, artifacts and magic items can carry a toll as well.

This is where the game really starts to show it's greatest strength, and the Swords and Sorcery aspect really starts to shine through. What is the game's greatest strength? Undoubtedly the setting and the ambiance. Newt Newton's world-building, milieu and overall vibe really start to assert themselves in the "Crypt Keeper's" section of the book. He includes a map of the continent with different locations that are well realized and each is given a small description.

Two more sections that do an especially good job of getting you into the Sword and Sorcerey mindset are the "Ill Gotten Gains of Dark Desire" (treasure and magic items) and the "Compendium of Fiends" (monster manual). Many of the magic items and monsters are tailored to fit the setting and it provides a nice immersion factor.

In addition to everything I've already mentioned you get a small adventure, a character sheet template and a very strong selection of appendices. These were perhaps the best part of the work other than the setting for me. They include such varied things as, The Role of the Crypt Keeper, Random Objects, City Events, Horror and Heroism, Descriptive Phrases and quite a few others. Most are tables of sorts but some like The Role of the Crypt Keeper are advice sections. All are designed to fit within the setting.

Crypts and Things by Newt Newport is a lot of things. How many of these things you need will determine how much mileage you get out of it. If you are confident in building a Sword and Sorcery world yourself and don't feel the need for inspiration then perhaps Akrasia's House Rules are sufficient for you. However, if you are a big fan of Swords and Sorcery or the fantasy worlds of Howard, Lovecraft and Lieber then Crypts and Things moves into must buy territory. It also bears mentioning that the game can be tailored to fit almost any rules system and is very adaptable, it can be used for anything from a single adventure to the basis for an entire campaign.




The Wisdom of Gygax - On Hearing Noise

The following paragraph appears on page 60 of the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide. The punctuation and spacing are exactly as they appear there.

Hearing Noise: When a die roll indicates a noise has been heard, tell the player whose character was listening that he or she heard a clink, footstep, murmuring voices, slithering, laughter or whatever else that is appropriate. (Of course, some of these noises may be magical, e.g., audible glamer spells, not anything which will be encountered at all!) Be imprecise and give only vague hints; never say, "You hear ogres," but you hear rumbling, voice-like sounds." Failure to hear any noise can be due to the fact that nothing which will make noise is beyond the portal, or it might be due to a bad (for the listener) die roll. Always roll the die, even if you know nothing can be heard. Always appear disinterested regardless of the situation.

I love it. The distinctive voice behind the words. Archaic and a bit professor-like in it's way but never cold or impersonal. Also of great import here is the advice given to those looking for it, gems of knowledge strewn throughout for the observant reader.

Pay close attention to these words from the above excerpt, "Be imprecise and give only vague hints" and "Always roll the die, even if you know nothing can be heard. Always appear disinterested regardless of the situation."

These are words all DM's should heed, and not only in regards to hearing noise. All this in less than two inches of the book's column space. Perfect.



Art by Stefan Poag from the module Barrowmaze by Greg Gillespie



Module Retrospective - The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

I plan to do one of these module retrospectives every week or so, I also plan to keep these relatively spoiler-free. In order to do this I will simply give some of the highs and lows without a tremendous amount of detail.

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh or module U1, is first on the chopping block. This module is suggested for play with characters at levels 1 through 3. Read on to see how it fares.

Originally released in 1981 and written by Dave Brown and Don Turnbull, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, or SSoS from here on, was the first in a series of three modules developed in the United Kingdom. To me the module has always managed to convey a unique sense of "Britishness". There is even an interesting aside in the beginning of the module regarding some of the differences in spelling between the UK and US. They also explain that Americans may find the text a little "flowery".


  • There is a lot offered in this package, essentially you are getting two smaller adventures in one module. One with a haunted house atmosphere and another on a ship.
  • The setting and plot are different from your average fantasy tropes and may not end up being what you initially expected.
  • The module unfolds nicely and outcomes could be somewhat different for a second playthrough with another party.
  • There is a nice difficulty curve to the module as well as a natural stopping point between the two halves, at this point characters are expected to return to the town of Saltmarsh and this in itself could be considered a micro-adventure of sorts.
  • The DM gets to do a little role playing and the adventure requires the DM to juggle a few balls in the air. These are positives to me, if you consider them negatives, be forewarned.
  • Great old school art, particularly the full page illustration on page 14 by Stephen D. Sullivan.
  • Although the module is suggested for characters at levels 1-3, I would not recommend it for a party of amateurs. This module is designed for a "smart" party to get the most out of it. Not to say that a party could not bash their way through, but ultimately the savvy and canny player is rewarded accordingly with experience (I like that tremendously) as well as treasure. This could be seen as a positive to some.
  • The module requires an experienced DM as there is a good bit to consider in regards to some of the enemies encountered, their movements, and party actions that can result in varied outcomes.
  • The town of Saltmarsh is not mapped for the DM. You are left to create your own version following the modules basic template and instructions.

This module offers a lot to the player in terms of varied approach and just as importantly, is a blast for the DM as well. Often the involvement of the DM is taken for granted but one of the strengths of SSoS is its ability to "work" the DM yet remain clear, concise and engaging at the same time.

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is one of the best modules I have ever been in the DM's seat for. I remember reading it for the first time and thinking that it was unique, I had played quite a bit by that point so maybe it was just leaving the dungeon, so to speak. Upon re-reading it for this post however that uniqueness came flooding back and I feel confident in saying it has withstood the test of time.

Final verdict: Highly Recommended.




Dave Trampier Thursday - Orcus

I asked myself, "What would I want to see on a blog?". The answer? Art by Dave Trampier. An icon and a master.

Regardless of what inane and unremarkable topics I may end up blogging about, those of you who return here on Thursdays will find another piece of beautiful artwork by Tramp.

Good fortune and good health to you DT! Wherever you may be.




The Adventure Begins...

This blog is intended to touch on topics about 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and the OSR revolution in general. First, however, by way of introduction, a story and an acknowledgement.

When I was in sixth grade I was fortunate enough to receive one of the greatest gifts ever. My Mother bestowed me with the three cornerstone books of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and a set of dice. Why was this such a great gift you ask? Well, to give a short answer, I would have to say that to me these were not only books but the gateway to another world.

For similar excitement of this sort back then I could read fantasy novels, which I did voraciously. Another option was to stomp around the countryside hacking weeds with my +1 stick, which, I am embarrassed to admit, was a task I performed to the best of my meager ability scores.

Upon receipt of these tomes however, I suddenly had a toolset that enabled me to build worlds in their entirety and a foundation for the underlying laws that would govern them. I suddenly went from being an slightly-geeky adolescent to something else, something bigger and infinitely cooler.

I'll never forget the smell of those books (you know if it if you've ever played). More importantly though was the ability they gave me to stop being controlled so much by my world and to instead create and control my own, with the help of Gary Gygax and friends of course.

I spent hundreds of hours reading those books, playing the game with friends and escaping from my goofy, awkward teenage body and into that of a powerful Ranger, a sly Thief, or a wizened Magic-User. Many would say this was a waste of time, a useless pursuit, some at the time even considered this to be a dark and sinister pastime. Years later, in college, it certainly came in handy. Imagine the ease of textbook navigation for someone weaned on the obtuse, Gygaxian prose of the first edition.

I learned much more from those books and I also eventually gave them up and moved on to other things before picking them up again years later, but those are stories to be shared another time.

In the end, when my story is complete it will be one infinitely familiar to anyone who ever played the game. You know the one, it's probably similar in some ways to yours, it's the one about the young farm boy who starts small and ends up becoming a part of something much, much larger.

Thanks Mom. You don't know how much that gift you gave me years ago changed my life...