Suggested Blog Post, and an Anti-Module Rant (Free-Writting)

I am working on an article now, and it isn't ready. I do, however, like to try and post something at least once a week, this will be one of those free writing, unedited, first-draft things, so consider yourself warned.

Oaks Spalding has been doing some phenomenal work on his blog Save Versus All Wands, my favorite being "Why Do Player's Enjoy Being Puppets?", there is also a link in there to another good article where he defends Gygax from a younger user of D&D. Both are very well written and if you haven't seen them yet, well, there they are.

Now at the end of the article, I would like to point out a comment. A very negative comment that is strange, apparently there is a large enough caucus of people who believe some strange things and are loud enough to be heard. The most obvious belief is that there is only one way to play the game, and that is through modules. I've seen this opinion crop up a lot in the last few weeks, and it is okay to feel that way. If modules are your thing GREAT! They personally bore me to death, but to each their own. What bothers me is the aggressiveness of the campaign. At first, I thought that it was a joke. Many of us are networked together to take the game back from Corporate America and restore it back where it belongs, at the table.

Our goal should be a simple one, remove all prep. Run a game for anybody at any time any place. Perilous Dreamer from The Ruins of Murkhill is an example of a Dungeon MASTER, notice the stress on the Master.  We call ourselves Dungeon Masters, but for most of us, we're students.

I have studied lots of modules, I've got a good collection of them from all different eras. I have never run most of them, modules to me are more trouble than what they are worth. They say that they help you save time, but I must be doing it wrong because after reading, memorizing, correcting errors, tailoring it to my table, chopping it up so it's better organized, adding to it, cutting out garbage, I spent more time prepping the thing than I ever have just done my own thing.  The worst part about modules is that, without fail, half way through, after I'm done prepping the thing, I get bored of it. I had played this game during prep, I don't get to play it at the game table. That, to me, sucks. Another thing that sucks is that at the end of the day, this wasn't "OUR" game, it was somebody else's, I was just an editor. I felt like this soon after DMing and getting screwed by TSR, and being tricked into thinking that it was a failure of mine that my setting doesn't comply with the latest and greatest published version of it.

By studying a good variety of modules, and being critical about the content, figuring out what works, what is a trap, what we hate or love about something, I learned what has been done already and can begin making my own design choices. The game is customized solely for those who show up on gameday. I am no longer studying modules, they are repetitive, repeating the same formula over and over again, the newer the module the more it hides its formula but the formula is still a repetition of the old ones.

I have found fresher ideas by directing my studies to war games. I find that applying wargaming theories to D&D creates a more open world that feels more complex than it really is. A story does not have to dictate progress, I enjoy that element, but I am not a slave to it. Committing to actions, making decisions, interacting with the world around them, that is what dictates progress. In a video game, if you lose a scenario you have to try again until you win, this isn't the case in D&D. That is part of what makes it work, if you fail, the world doesn't stop, it keeps going.

I used to think that the DM was in charge of the content, but they aren't. The player is. The DM designed things, but the more open the better. If you have an interesting design, the players will do their damnedest to find it, and if you did a really good job, then they won't even notice that they haven't found it yet.

If the story plays itself out as a reaction to the players, constantly changing and morphing into something that was not predicted by the designer, is it actually a story, or is it something else?

This stuff all sounds very complicated, but it isn't. The only prep that I really need to do prior to the game is to mentally put myself in this place. If my players are at a loss for what they should be doing, I can give them different options, but typically this isn't the case.

Dave Arneson's True Genius (Review)

Half way through reading Robert J. Kuntz's book, DAVE ARNESON'S TRUE GENIUS, I wrote the following response on the Ruins of Murkhill BBS

You have, I feel, given the best definition of what it is that we do. Describing to others why we sit around a table and play pretend either ends well or it doesn't. You also identify and clarify thoughts that I have had about the system for years but in a concise way which both strengthens and expands what I have been grasping at for so long.

I had taken a very long break from gaming, and when I came back to it, I played MUCH differently than I did as a youngster. The game functions better, we took our time and just did what we wanted to. You go into a house to search it, there is no dice for that now, I make the player search it. One of the club's founding members returned for a game, he had heard that it wasn't just a hack and slash anymore and he got curious about it. During play he'd try old tactics that rely on dice, and would get frustrated when I forced him to use his brain instead; however, the very next session he came back ready to go.

I had a hard time grasping what I did, what was different, and I finally figured it out! I allowed the player's thoughts and ideas to become more important to the game than the dice. If the player can't mentally accomplish a goal, or just becomes overwhelmed, we can always use the dice, but we don't have to. People come first, not the system. This philosophy, once it takes hold, changes the dynamics of the game in a positive way. This book really reinforces this principle, and even extends my personal awareness of how far this knowledge can really take us.

Thank you!

Copyright Three Line Studios
After finishing reading the book, my thoughts about it really haven't changed. The book contains a bit of personal history from an original designer; but, it isn't a history book. The book has no mechanics, nor does it tell you how to design worlds; what this book does do is that it describes the engine that makes the game so addictive and allows you, the reader, to understand the engine for yourself. True Genius is much longer than the page count, it is interactive as it requires you to take the ideas presented to continue the thought processes and what they mean to you personally.

The engine itself is larger than Dungeons & Dragons, in fact, Dungeons & Dragons places limitations upon it to stop it from reaching its full potential. The purpose of the game system isn't to help you, the end user, nor does it govern or improve the engine, the primary purpose of Dungeons & Dragons is to sell you Modules and to pretend that it is the best at what it does, when this is far from the truth.

If you are ready for this book, it is here, but beware that it will challenge what you know and encourage you to evolve. It exposes things that other designers know but don't want you to. The only critical issue I have with the book is that I feel that it could had been improved by a harsher editor, I sure wouldn't want that job! On average, most people have a 9th Grade reading level, however since this is a hobby primarily made up of readers, that average is probably somewhere in the collage level, still, I find it to be a bit too academic minded at times. Some find his word choices to be either intellectually intimidating, or thought provoking. The man is describing something that has never been fully described yet, with ideas as large as this (the engine), language itself is slow to catch up. This barrier has always been an obstacle, going right back to Arneson.

What I was hopping from this book were some insights on Dave's behavior while in the company, which are addressed, very clearly. I also wanted to know what Mr. Arneson's lost notes said, they, regrettably, are gone, but Rob does elude to some motivations of why this is. While those notes have no doubt been destroyed, Rob Kuntz, I believe, does his best to describe the contents of them. They didn't describe D&D, there was no D&D, they attempted to define the engine itself, which, like I said, is the exciting part of this book. This engine is the focus, and it, my friends is a very large yet illusive concept. The intent of the engine wasn't to recreate games that had already happened, it can do that, but as a resource, it is capable of so much more; how much more will only be discovered once we unshackle ourselves from the influences of people who aren't even at our gaming tables.

The target audience for this title is for those who are very very advanced. Those who have noticed the limitations set in place by their system of choice; any system. It is also of interest to those who study the history of our hobby, the information presented here is first-hand accounts, however that is not its goal, outside of helping you grasp what the engine is and how it was restricted right from the gate.

If you are serious, or just on the fence about developing your own designs, as I was; this book will provide motivation and direction. It defies my normal grade standards as it isn't a DM or Player Guide, it isn't something that you can apply to your current system, it is it's own thing. I will, however, state that this book is important. It's ultimate goal overshadows the status quo and forces you to question it. It also sets out to, hopefully, allow the hobby to grow beyond its current stagnation set in place by traditional formulas and be allowed to take greater leaps into future innovative designs. Wouldn't that be nice? 

The book itself is only available on the Three Studios webpage if you are waiting for it to come out digitally, I've been told that that isn't going to happen. A Kindle version would had been nice, but for the small press, Amazon takes a huge bite and leaves the Author unfairly compensated.

Gothic Earth Session 9: Burn The Witches (Experimental Design Notes)

Via Pinterest
This session report is mostly about game design; we tried something new and the players got a ton of work done. I've tried a couple of times to write up the notes into some linear fashion but they always turned into short stories, so instead, I will make this very brief.

 In session 8 the players got one over on me. For years I have always been able to get away with mobs. Lynchings involving lots of people are dangerous and wicked things! For the most part, my players have never been able to settle one down; until session 8. Through very good Role-play and quick thinking, the players were able to stop the terrified and riled up citizens of Belalp from playing into the villain's game plan.

From the enemies point of view, this was a well-thought out and calculated move that was critical to the master plan. There are agents operating within the village of Belalp, and one specifically was going to be rewarded that night. They had framed the old woman, instigated a lynching, and planned to use it as a distraction to steal a baby for a vile ritual which would greatly increase the agent's power as well as the mastermind's.

This didn't happen, the mastermind found themselves perilously exposed to discovery, the evidence against the old woman was solid enough to cause a gut reaction but not good enough to withstand any close scrutiny, and no baby was stolen; thus no ritual was performed and the plan was thwarted.

The players definitely earned this win! They now had a chance to force an encounter with the enemy before it had a chance to reach its full potential. The players had been able to give themselves a three-day window to figure out what is going on, identify the enemy agent, and deal with them.

The elements of having the perfect game were there: Allow the agent to steal the baby, accurately predict where the ritual was to take place and catch her and her boss in the act. Of course, we all know that the perfect game is an elusive thing, but the potential was there.

I wanted things to be tense, as well as frantic; I've toyed around with time-based adventures before, but never really was all that happy with the results. My villains had their work cut out for them, they had a lot to do in a very small window, they had to strengthen the evidence against the old women, create another diversion, set the groundwork for a fast and precise kidnapping, and complete the ritual while the old woman burned, preferably along with the PC's.

I decided to try something new, I really enjoy strategy games and I thought that this scenario would fit that format in a very interesting way. Instead of using a clock to count time, the players, and the villains had a limited amount of actions allotted to them to complete their goals.

Now there is a problem with this, strategy games are difficult, you have to experiment for a while until you hit upon formulas that work, D&D is very different. There are no redos in Dungeons & Dragons. There are no take-backs, either. I had to figure out a way to make this game fair for both sides; while I enjoy strategy games, my players might not, and it is them on the hot-seat, not me. 

So, I got to designing. I decided that 13 Actions might be enough; it would hopefully give them enough wiggle room to let them make an error or two without the entire thing becoming impossible to win. I wanted a really good challenge, and a difficult game, but not something that was too mentally demanding.

Prior to play, I laid out the ground rules.

  • Play is broken up into a set number of actions. Day 1 has 3 actions, Days 2 and 3 each have 5. 
  • At the end of the game, Events will play themselves out, independently.
  • The party is not allowed to split up, each action must be done as a team. This is out of fairness to the enemy who has the same amount of actions as the players do.
  • Movement Rates are going to be ignored, it is free to walk in all civilized spaces, but there is a charge of 3 actions if one goes out into the wilderness.
  • There is no need to go out into the wilderness.
  • While the players are limited in actions, once one is declared, you are allowed as much time as you need to to explore the location and complete the action.
We took our time before beginning, this is a strange playstyle and I wasn't sure if it would work or not, we were play-testing. I let them know that if I feel that the game failed because of something that I did, then we'd replay it in a more traditional game. By the third day I knew that the game had worked.


I kept some rules of play a secret for pacing reasons, I also had to keep the game fair. Like I said, D&D doesn't give one much time to think, evidence has to be loud enough so that puzzles can be solved in real-time at the table.

At the end of each day, if they went back to their cabin they got a free turn which was used as a briefing. The NPC ally Dr. Van Helsing would talk with them about what they had figured out. Now Van Helsing, in order to function, had his own motivations and biases. I didn't give anything away, I just asked leading questions so that they could have a better chance of thinking clearly and faster than if they had just been left to ponder this stuff on their own. I did limit the number of times that Van Helsing could eliminate a false lead and point them into a different direction.

In regards to enemy activity, for the most part, I kept it so that when the heroes made a move, the enemy moved at the same time. I had a short list dictating daily objectives for the enemy, however, they were not limited to these actions, they had to be responsive to the players. An attack meant to draw attention to itself would force the players to make a decision, complete their planned action and let the police handle the attack, or investigate the scene itself. As always, my villains played to win. Some enemy actions were just distractions while others were productive. Some went undetected, while others; since the players were close to the locations in question, were noticed.

If at anytime the enemy and the player chose the same location, I would have rolled a secret initiative but this never came up. What I ended up with was a nice clean investigation game, it made in-town exploration exciting, everyone was on the same page, and running the NPCs was a breeze!

The time required to play this scenario out was perfect for the time we had allotted to us, as DM I was able to maintain a strong grip on pacing, which was important because I wanted the players to experience the pressure that their characters were under. They were able to acquire LOTS of information about the village and the people who live there (too much to write here). They had to choose their moves wisely, they did make a few errors which I had expected, but by the last turn I judged that the game had succeeded, they knew who the agent was, what her plan was, now they just had to predict her last move.

The game wasn't perfect for either side. That last turn was one of the most intense moments that I had ever had in D&D, I so wanted to help them, they had almost played the perfect game but this last move had to be precise for them to pull it off. In the end, they made the wrong decision but this was a really difficult game. They still ended up winning. The agent hiding in the village of Belalp was exposed and became a loose end, the mastermind knew that it was just a matter of time before she led the heroes right to them, so the agent was eliminated.

The heroes were able to stop the enemy from thripling its strength, but the agent who eliminated his co-conspirators and former boss is now a local hero as he was able to steal all of the glory from the players and become untouchable.

Over all, this was a very well played game that was demanding on the players' skill to get a job done in a limited amount of time that was simulated perfectly. It was definitely gamey, the mechanics were more out in the open than I normally have them, but it more than made up for it in playability. This is something that I will definitely be doing again.

Balance By Design: It isn't what you think it is
Folks around here hate the word “Balance”, and I get it, there is no movement with balance. I myself am on the record as stating, “When the players can try anything, there is no such thing as balance.” Yet, you look in the books, and you see designers talking about balance all the time, and they insist that it is present. 
There is a problem in translation: for most of us laymen, we associate balance with equality. Chess is a seemingly balanced game. Everyone starts out with the same amount of pieces in the exact same spaces and it is all equal until play begins.
Chess, however, from a design standpoint, is not a well-balanced game. It is a game of skill: while two people of the same skill level can enjoy the game, the most skilled player is always going to win. There is no way for me to beat a chess master, I may enjoy getting clobbered, but the skilled gamesman is going to win every time.

To best examine the inner-workings of game balance as it applies to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (since it is such a hidden system), we'll look at another game that is popular and itself providing a giant leap in game design: Axis & Allies (A&A). There is no game master, so the rules controlling the game are all out in the open, it hides nothing. A&A is a strategy game, but like D&D, it is also both a team and an individual game.

Setting up the game and playing it for the first time, A&A doesn't appear to be balanced at all, however, it is, very beautifully so. On the surface you've got the Axis powers, they appear to have the best position: their forces are centralized and they have the most powerful military, however, as the game progresses this balance will shift during play. The Allies are able to build units more quickly than the Axis.
  • The early game favors the Axis 
  • The middle is equal
  • The late game favors the Allies. 
The balance of the game isn't fixed, it fluctuates, thus it dictates  different strategies. The Axis have a limited amount of time to win the game through offensive force, while the Allies are playing a defensive game, slowing down the game as much as possible to give them time to gather their strength. That is a balanced design.

The balance in the game isn't equal; play is dynamic and allows everyone to play the game on equal terms, regardless of skill level. Sure the odds are in favor of the most skilled player, but they can choose more difficult countries to run, and give less skilled players the easier ones. Victory isn't just dictated by skill alone, nor does it depend simply on luck, these things factor in, but that is what makes this game so playable.

More in relation to D&D, A&A is a team game, if the players who are playing the Allies don't work together, they are going to get annihilated. Like the D&D Fighter, you have England, it has a huge army, however, it is scattered around the map, not centralized like Germany. England has to give its allies enough time to build up their forces, but at the same time, if they sacrifice too much then their removal from the board will cause the downfall of the Allied forces.

You have the United States that begins play much like the wizard class, it is weak but it has the potential to become the strongest force on the board, but even at its most powerful, it still needs England. Each nation has it's own group strategy, as well as a personal strategy. Each nation is different, some are so difficult it is almost impossible to play, but skilled A&A players gain respect if they are able to master them.

This is all esoteric really. Let's move on to something that more closely resembles D&D.

The majority of users don't play wargames, but the original designers did. Wargames teach you a new definition of balance and how it applies to the D&D system. Let's set up a simple scenario:

You've got a Prince returning from war, he's been gone for a few years and the Regent really doesn't want him to return, everything was going so great without the Prince!

We'll set up our scenario out in the open, the Regent has chosen a spot to do battle on the road. He wants a nice open space to use his superior numbers to his advantage. His units out number the units of the Prince three-to-one.

To make things interesting, we'll give the Princes men more skill and a higher morale rating than the Regents troops.

Who is going to win? Will the Regent's numbers overwhelm the Prince's elite but battered troops? Or will the Prince be able to break the Regent's defenses and move on to retake the capital? We don't know. We could probably run this simple scenario a few times and have different results each time. That makes things interesting, and while it doesn't appear to be balanced on the surface, it is.

If this battle was perfectly even, we could decide it all with a percentile dice, but since each side has weaknesses and strengths, we have an interesting scenario that is worth running on our table.

Balance isn't about keeping things fair, it is about keeping the game interesting. 

If we introduce a dragon to first level characters, we should strive to end up with a scenario that they will lose, but can survive if they are skillful and a little lucky. Something has to be there which allows escape or an equalizer of some kind, even if that strategy is to run like hell and regroup.

But are the players actually beaten? Now the players know what they are up against, and can start a defensive game to minimize the creature's influence until the players feel they are strong enough to challenge its power or come up with a scheme which gives them an advantage over the more powerful opponent. The DM can kill them at any time, but what would the point of that be? In this case, we balance player skill vs. the chaotic might of a dragon. Who is going to win? We don't know, not until we run it.

Balance has nothing to do with keeping the game fair, or even. A high-level wizard is still going to need the protection of the fighter if he doesn't then why make the fighter play at all? On the same note, the low-level wizard is still able to contribute, he isn't just a liability. This is balanced as well, but that enforces the idea of teamwork and really isn't our problem. The players still have to pick their moves based on individual and group benefits. The better the team, the cooler the adventures that they are going to have.

Additional Links:

Nerd out with me:  'Axis & Allies' - A Buyers Guide

GAMEMASTERING: Style or Evolution?
Youtuber Kevin Mason recently did a video on a subject that got me thinking, I encourage you to watch it, he identifies several styles of DMing and discusses the positive and the negative aspects of each. Here is the link so that you can go view it, Gamemaster Style: What Kind of Gamemaster are You?

Kevin Mason identifies four different styles:
  • Rules
  • Story
  • Fun
  • Balanced
It got me thinking, I have been all of these extremes at one point or another. When I first started out, I was very Fun. I catered to all of the player's desires and did whatever it took to get people to play at my table. That wasn't the only reason why I did it, there was also the fact that there was so much cool stuff in the DMG and I wanted to use it all at the same time! This, of course, got boring and convoluted.  It did help me figure out how lots of things worked, just throwing everything out there and seeing how things function. Sure the game lacked challenge, but it was a stepping stone.

What if the game is teaching itself to us? We all see these examples floating around, we suggest to new gamemasters to avoid traps and perils, usually from our own experience, but what if that is exactly what we are supposed to do? We learn more from making mistakes than we do from somebody telling us anything . . . at least I do.
My next evolution was one of story-telling. I wrote overly detailed notes and didn't realize that I was removing the players from the scenario. In essence, I was playing the game during prep. The story was great, and my players did enjoy this aspect of the game. Mastering this state is also one of trial and error. Spending 20-40 hours prepping an eight-hour session is a waste of energy. I learned by cutting back and experimenting with levels of story elements until I found one that satisfied the players, but was told not at the prep stage, but during play itself. If the players cannot interact with it, it isn't a game.

We buy modules, and we want a good collection of different styles. Sometimes we run them, sometimes we don't, but they are nice to have. They aren't all that practical though, by their very nature they are self-limiting, which forces the DM to either accept this limitation or start tinkering and molding modules to fit the style of the players, which eventually leads to writing your own material, and then cutting back until you are actually playing the game the way that it was originally designed to be played. At this point, I think that we start another evolution.

We discovered that the rules can either work against us, or for us. We become obsessed with them and say weird stuff like: If you aren't following all the rules to the letter, you aren't playing System X! We keep our story, but we force it to bend to the will of the rules. We become inflexible and this leads to predictability and stagnation. But, we have to know the rules before we can disobey them. This is a natural stage. Going back through the core handbooks and applying everything that we know thus far to the rules and seeing what complies and what doesn't. 

We are building upon our knowledge base, and the trick is to find players who will put up with our learning the game until we decide that enough is enough. Once we get tired of looking up rules all the time, being controlled by the system, being interrupted by mechanics that we feel offer nothing to the game, we get a feel for how these specific rules function and can begin improvising our own mechanics quickly, and in a way that complies with the ruleset itself. We have mastered the rules and can once again return to the beginning, applying what we now know into the structure of a fun game that satisfies all elements in a style and is ours. Balanced! We've earned the title Gamemaster, and can now come up with our own designs.

I don't think that any of this is a mistake. Perhaps, just as a player's character advances in level, so does the DM. I remember my mother once asking me what level of DM I am, just wanting to connect with me, but maybe she wasn't all that far off base? Perhaps DM's do have levels, we do evolve, and I bet you that we all evolve the same way. This means that the system itself is teaching us how to play the game as if it were self-aware and completely independent of us. A natural progression that taps into the human mind, and maps it.

There are, no doubt, more evolutions than just the three before we hit the stage of balance, or perhaps we go through a short stage of balance prior to taking the next steps of evolution. Maybe if we can figure out what these specific evolutions are we can better understand how our minds function.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it may make the journey too easy. Are we better DM's because we took this evolution with no outside aid of any kind? We had to fight for each evolution without the knowledge that we were evolving? Or, on the other hand, if we spell it out for new users, can we as a whole benefit by them applying the established evolution faster and beginning evolutions that we will never know?

The time required before fully exploring an evolution is individual, there is no one size fits all. We can spend years on an evolution without achieving any groundbreaking success at it, or cycle through a phase fairly quickly, easily mastering it. Perhaps when we say things, such as, "My style of DMing is Character-driven" we are detailing the personal evolution which we are currently exploring?


New AD&D Crossbow Rules (variant)
I've got a lot to do this week, what with Spring here, as well as a fresh copy of Robert J. Kuntz's new book to read. This week, I've decided to take it easy.

I like weapons that function differently from one another, it is a total AD&D 2e thing. We can make the rules as complex or as simple as we like. One of the things that bugs me about the system is, as the title says, The Crossbow.

The Crossbow was a terror on the battlefield, and was, at the time, considered to be much like the nuclear bomb is today. It was an unfair advantage. Bowmen had to spend hours honing their craft, it is a weapon of skill, while the crossbow was not. Anybody could pick up a crossbow and use it to kill other men.

What the crossbow lacked in distance, it made up for with accuracy. It's kind of like a shotgun today, you don't need to be a good shot with a shotgun, you just aim the barrel in the general direction of what you don't want to be there anymore, and when it gets close enough, you pull the trigger.

This factor really isn't all that apparent in the AD&D Weapons table. There are multiple ways that we can go about fixing this:

  • You can have the weapon always fire against AC 10. 
  • This weapon was slow to load, but the power behind it was pretty impressive, much better, I feel, than the damage listed in the book. We can alter this, either up the damage die used, or if max dmg is rolled, roll the same die again and add that to the total. The problem, however, with this solution is that the die in question is fairly easy to influence, a d6 would give you much better results than the d4, or you can roll the d8 but have it only give you results of 1-4. 

I do think that the damage needs to be altered, I'm not sure why it was set so low. DEX does make it more accurate and more dangerous, but I think that the best solution might be focusing on its ease of use.

  • One doesn't need to spend a Prof. point on this weapon, those that do are actually now specialized in that weapon, and anybody can specialize in it at least once, fighters can spend multiple slots specializing in it further.

I also think that the Range might be set a tad too high, I don't see how a heavy crossbow could reach 250 yards and still be able to hit. Maybe it could, I've honestly never shot one, but I am kind of in the camp of cutting those numbers in half. It would remove the hand crossbow from play, but I think that I'd be happier with play-testing this system.


Dave Arneson's True Genius Is out now

Dave Arneson, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons has been a long-standing debate in our circles for a really long time. What, exactly, his involvement is has been difficult to determine; very large egos were injured. There is a lot that we don't know about this figure, but that is now over. Robert Kuntz was there, he's been teasing us about this book for quite some time now, and it was FINALLY released today.

The book itself is a private release, click the picture and it will take you to the website where you can learn more and order your copy. Or click the link below.

Unlocking the Gygax Code, the game hidden inside of AD&D

FREE-FORM KRIEGSPIEL is the system which the designers took for granted that you knew. All wargaming systems have the same basic rules to function. When variant designers, such as Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, published their changes they didn't really focus on the basics. Not only did the people who bought these books not want them, but, honestly, wargame players become blind to them. They are just there.

There is actually enough basic wargaming rationale in the AD&D system that it makes it fairly easy to understand the more complex processes of kriegspiel and how to get a game on a tactical level to function, and I recommend that you do! There are principles and theories that can be carried over to the D&D table which will greatly help the DM understand the art of war. Understanding is key to running Free-form Wargame scenarios.

When one thinks about wargamers, there is an image in your head which features men standing around a highly detailed battlefield moving finely painted miniatures, determining combat through highly complex rules; this game exists, but it isn't native to AD&D. Folks have incorporated that game into the system, and it can function! If you want to see how a specific large scale war will affect the world, this probably is your best bet, but it isn't necessary, and there are some serious flaws with it that make it incompatible with the D&D system.


This is the image that comes to mind for most people. Those who have incorporated it into their games had to deal with pounding a square block into a round hole; it is a bad fit, and since it is a bad fit you have to alter the game until it does fit. It can be done, but it is clunky and awkward for one simple reason, the figure representing the player does not follow the same rules as the rest of the units. Elaborate rules have been introduced in an attempt to fix this, but only serve to extend an already long game into something even more tedious.

Another problem is the players themselves. Anyone who is interested in strict kriegspiel can tell you, we are rare breeds. Buying or creating these games, learning the complex rules, modifying them to your own specs, painting figures- this is the easy part. The difficult part is finding opponents.

Just because you build it, doesn't mean that players will come. Your players don't want to learn these new, very specific rules, and even if they did, strict kriegspiel is a long game that they probably don't care about and are not interested in. While not scientific in any way, I estimate that about 1-10 players of tabletop RPGs are even interested in experimenting with this system, those that find it fascinating and discover enjoyment from it, maybe 1-50.

There is also another glaring problem with the strict wargame format, it is a 2 person game. You can break up into teams, and have fun, but this is not D&D. At its heart, strict kriegspiel is nothing but a complex and heavily modified game of chess. While two players can enjoy it, a DM expecting to challenge the entire table to a strategy game is going to get destroyed. This removes the need to simulate the event and makes the act pointless.

Another problem with 4+ players as powerful as D&D characters is that it takes longer to set up the board than it takes for advanced players to destroy the enemy. This was built into the system by the designers on purpose, that purpose being to eliminate the need for strict kriegspiel altogether.

Kriegsspiel was originally invented by the Prussian military, it was not designed to be entertaining, it was designed to run thousands of scenarios which allowed the small German army to resist the overwhelming might of the French; a feat that (I believe) was successful!

The game was also used to train officers, and strict kriegspiel had the same problems with accomplishing this as we D&D players do; the participant has the ability to see the entire battlefield from an unrealistic position, overhead. This position also makes it too easy to study and accurately predict the strategies of your opponent.

To fix this, and make the game more realistic, the referees concealed the board. The participants didn't get to see it, they had to ask questions and command their troops through written messages which the referee would take into the room with the board and they would interpret the commands of the player. Commanding Officers would apply the changes to the board and decide what happens, and then update the player.

This sounds exactly like Dungeons & Dragons, and this is exactly how the game was intended to be played. This style is called Free-form Kriegspiel, and the benefits are obvious; namely that the players don't need to know the rules at all. 
via Pinterest
Studying the mechanics of D&D itself, and comparing them to kriegspiel, you gain an appreciation for the true genius of Gygax and how his invention was designed to limit the number of dice rolled, while not limiting the game in scope in any way.

Free-form Kriegspiel applied to the rules which govern Dungeons & Dragons eliminate the necessity of an actual board completely. Often, the results of a player's commands to his units can be compared to the tactics which were defined by the DM prior to play, and logic will dictate if an entire battle was successful or not.


Advanced players have known for years that you don't need to kill them all, you just need to figure out ways to trigger a morale check as quickly as possible. In this way, a party of 4-6 high-level adventurers can easily defeat small to medium sized armies. Even mid-level PCs can overwhelm entire armies on the field of battle if the players are skilled enough. They don't even need followers or an army to do this.

The Morale system is the key. This is the tool that makes Free-form Kriegspiel function without the need of a board. When we use this tool, even if a battle doesn't go well for the players or we want more involvement from the participants, we can update the players to the situation and use the morale system to quickly determine the actions of NPCs with very little fuss and just a few die rolls. The play doesn't stop because we have to move a bunch of little pieces and determine combat on a tactical level.

Speed and playability are always desired over specifics and realism.

Applying followers and allied soldiers to the game is made practical once we understand the mechanisms in place to govern their actions. Gygax could take the players into the midst of a full-scale battle, and decide how the player's choices interacted with the event taking place around them without ever having to set up a single miniature soldier. The only person who had to understand the inner-workings of these mechanics was the Dungeon Master.

The DM can alter the challenge of a battle and the players level of involvement by using the Morale System, Enemy morale can be high or low, the higher the level of enemy morale, the more actions and involvement will be needed on the part of the player.

The Language of Free-Form Kriegspiel

Now the folks who played in Gygax's campaign and helped him play-test the designs were all avid wargamers, this is where it can come in handy to do some study, just to acquire some common concepts and the vocabulary. The player need not write down his commands as the rules of kriegspiel were applied to soldiers, we are doing this for entertainment. You can give leeway and continue the standard D&D guideline of trying to error in the favor of the PCs, but the more specific and precise the command, the better.

Once the DM has these vocabulary words, the players will pick them up. A Unit, for instance, represents a number of people, “You see a couple of units of cavalry riding in your direction.” is a good description. The players don't know exactly how many men on horseback are approaching, but it is fair to say that it is more than 10. The statement above is enough to start a dialog, the players have time to ask specifics and come to a conclusion as to what course of action would be best depending upon the information that they were able to get before either side enters each other's range of attack. Exactly how much time and information being dictated by the DM, as always.

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It is also helpful to study the old rules of CHAINMAIL, you don't necessarily need to use CHAINMAIL during the game, but it will greatly help you determine results without actually having to run them, Free-form Kriegspiel relies heavily upon the laws of averages, for example: if equal numbers of infantry attack an equal number of cavalry, the cavalry are going to win. Both sides may suffer casualties, but the infantry will be routed. 
CHAINMAIL even has the mathematical principals behind exactly how many cavalry units may be lost before the infantry are slain. The actual results may vary if the scenario is physically run on a board with dice, but we want to eliminate that step, thus the averages add to playability and speed of the game.


Once the DM understands the rules and logic of Free-form kriegspiel, many of the strange or obscure rules and mechanics will finally make perfect sense; the hidden wargame is revealed and the genius of the design is exposed. The system becomes neat and tidy and we discover that we were over-complicating things.

Art by Giuseppe Rava via Pinterest
Art by Giuseppe Rava
It can be difficult to find a DM who will allow followers, but now fighters can enjoy the full ability to gain and use their troops as they were intended to be used. Followers are loyal, can guard treasure and property, keep night watch at camp, search large areas so the players don't have to, their uses are very functional; besides, when the fighter walks into town with a military escort it is awesome!

An unlimited number of NPC actions can be determined with very little work, it enforces the separation between player skill and character skill in a balanced way that truly has to be experienced to be appreciated. CHA matters to this game, it is not a drop stat; an enemy with a high charisma is going to be much more dangerous than a wizard with high intelligence.

This doesn't mean that we can't make complicated tactical battles if we want to, this just means that we have the ability to run them, keeping all of the players involved, and preserving the DM's ability to challenge them. If you need to keep a tactical map secret from the players, do it. If you want to play the CHAINMAIL system or the BATTLESYSTEM rules, you can do that too, but Free-form is what was intended.

The Complete Bards Handbook: or, What is Class?

Via Medieval Life & Times
2127 PHBR7 The Complete Bard’s Handbook was released in April of 1992 and was designed by Blake Mobley. I know that a small, but very loud group of people think that Bards, as written in the AD&D system, are the best class ever written in the history of the written word; to those gentle readers, I suggest that you click away as I am not remotely in that camp. Those who continue reading this, you have been warned.

Despite what the title of this post says, I'm not really going to review this specific book. I have never owned it, and am never going to. I had once borrowed seen a copy and the thing is just so counter to everything that I believe that a good product should be that I wouldn't even know where to begin. If you were expecting a grade, I think that you can connect the dots. This title has been used as evidence that by 1992, the life-cycle of AD&D was already over; that statement isn't true, but this is a horrible book in every sense of the word.

I have no idea what TSR was thinking; logically The Complete Race Handbooks should've been completed before scraping the bottom of the barrel, if we have done anything here we have already established that TSR executives had no idea what they were doing.


I don't play bards; I hire them. There have been some awesome bardic characters that have appeared in literature, unfortunately, the AD&D system does not allow you to play them. They just don't fit the mold of what AD&D is about. If I could ask Dave Cook anything, I'd ask him if he included the Bard template to visually show how weak a character who can do everything is, or should be.

The AD&D bard can fight, do some thief skills, and cast spells, the catch is that he isn't very good at any of this. He can't hit, he can't steal, and he can't control his spells. One should never play a bard, and instead focus their attention on specializing in one skill set, only then do you offer anything to the team. As the bard sits, I hire them when we are dealing with mass combat, or using the morale system; THAT is their specialty. That also doesn't make for a very interesting character.


Here is the deal, you make a fighter, or a thief, or a wizard: have him learn how to play the harp, you've got a bard. The other Complete Class Handbooks were about taking the templates and skills of a set class and using them to define what a character is, not based upon their chosen class, but upon the identity of the character itself.

Bard isn't the best example, so we'll instead examine the Druid: as it is laid out in the "2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook". Once you look at the entry, and read the decription, you will notice that this really isn't a class at all! It clearly defines all of the skills that specific character gets per level, as well as listing all of the requirements that must be met beyond just gaining XP to actually level up. 
The Druid is a poorly labeled example of what a cleric should be, something very specific to the character that the player is using. Something unique that is only based upon the class system itself.

Now, we look at the Paladin or Ranger and I think that we see the same thing going on. None of the Sub-Classes are true classes, but examples of blending ideas together. This begs the question, are we supposed to be blending?


Another example: The Barbarian, this isn't a class either, but a race of people. The template assumes that the Barbarian is a Fighter, but honestly, a barbarian can be a cleric, a thief, a whatever. Barbarian doesn't define his skill set, it defines his background.

Things got really muddied once many of the Original Dungeons & Dragons classes became races, the elf could multi-class now, he could be a Fighter/Thief/Wizard which is all fine and dandy at lower levels of play, but once the other players are fighting dragons, this guy has to hide in shadows because he's been playing 3rd level for the last eight years.

The very concept of Race is strange now, the player who chooses to play a demi-race gains all of these special abilities, but they never improve; the only thing that improves is their skills dictated by class. 
There really isn't anything special about them anymore. An Elf used to be able to pick at the beginning of each session if he wants to play as a Fighter or as a Wizard, the Dwarf was a much sturdier fighter than the one that we have now; he's been lost among the other demi-races and in regards to mechanics, there is nothing really all that unique about dwarves anymore.


Via: Pinterest
Is class our job? Do the things that we are good at define who we are as characters? I have always just assumed that Fighter or whatever was nothing more than a job. A character that is really good with a specific skill set. 

We can choose to play a fighter by the book, but even playing it core to the rules it doesn't really define us as characters, it just defines how our characters progress if we survive. How we define our characters is still up to us. That is what makes the fighter class so solid.

Somewhere along the lines, class attempted to define us. It got really bad with later editions, so bad in fact that the language changed. A player was no longer a Fighter but a Demon Slaying Doom Lord, or what have you, whatever they called themselves it was so precise and well-defined that one must ask if that is even truly the player's character or just some definition that they read in a book. 
The idea of Min/Maxing and Powergaming is not a new concept, it happened right away, but to set it at such high levels that you can't even identify the basics anymore implies that something, somewhere, was lost in translation.

How far should we be going to blend classes? Does it change the language when we do it? If we make the connections laid out for us in the Players Handbook, we can use these strict examples of what somebody at some time did to make a character unique to them, and apply it to our games. And, we don't need a supplement or splat book to do it either.

One of the things that have always irritated players the most is the Battle Mage, or why can't a wizard pick up a sword. . . Gandolf used a magic sword, I want to too!

Well, lets first identify our Battle Mage as not a wizard at all, but as a fighter. We'll place limits on the mage's spell abilities by stealing the Ranger's spell progression, but instead of cleric spells, he uses wizard spells.

We'll also borrow the XP charts from Paladin/Ranger and apply them to our Battle Mage, and DONE!

If the battle mage wants to cast a spell that requires free movement, he can't be wearing armor; he has to decide if taking it off is worth it or not. We can also stipulate that the only sword a battle mage can use is a magical one, all normal swords interfere with his spells.

The battle mage can't specialize in weapons, but he can become proficient in their use and must use the Wizards Proficiency chart of progression instead of the Fighters.

via pinterest
You get the point; if we put enough thought into a specific idea, we can tailor it to actually identify what the character is. We just have to figure out which rules to use to keep this character fair for the world which we created it for. A real mage is going to be able to cast more spells, and a real fighter is going to be more dangerous, but the battle mage pays for the privilege of being both.

If we take this logic and apply it to the bard, we see that that is exactly what happened. In order to be an effective character, one must play a bard for a very very long time, even longer than a wizard except that low level wizards, while fragile, don't suck.
If we ignore the bard, and instead set out to make a character that better suits what we want to play; say, Will Scarlet, we can accomplish this goal better by the player and the DM sitting down and designing this character and agreeing on a set of rules and limitations that apply to him as an individual.

Bilbo never considered himself to be a burglar, Conan wasn't just a barbarian, Robin Hood was not a thief, these were just things that other people called them. They were all special cases, and this can transfer over to our game.


This book, I feel, endorses a lie. It takes a misconception and instead of clarifying it, gives it flesh and blood and perpetuates it. Yes, it has some new things in it, but once again, why are we getting an entire book made for a couple of good ideas? Of course the answer is that TSR wanted money and they made poor Blake Mobley waste his time writing garbage that offers nothing to the hobby itself. This description fits much of the products that are published, good ideas are hard to come by, I get it; but does that really mean that we have to lower our standards in order to feel like we are succeeding? Well, it probably does.

With all of this said, I can perhaps skip reviewing the Complete Sub-Class Handbooks altogether, and I no doubt will. Books like this one are what irritated me at the time, and still give 2e a bad name. People remember the system for garbage and dirty tricks and forget the good stuff, the great ideas that came about in the 90's. We DMs of the period ignored the titles we didn't like, and if we were suckered into buying books like this, most of us left those things where they belong, on the shelf, collecting dust and holding the bookcase down so that it doesn't float around the room.

Medieval Life & Times: Bard

A special thanks to Mormonyoyoman from the Ruins of Murkhill Forum for inspiring this change of direction. If you experience any problems, blame him.

Gothic Earth Session 8: Curse of the Belalp Witch

It always takes so damned long to get into the game, but once we do we have fun. Normally we play every 4 weeks, but this time it was only 2 weeks. It really didn't change how much we remember the previous game. I will tell you that I love my prep style for these last few sessions, it was a ton of prep work, taking a full four weeks to design, but we are getting a whole lot of bang for our buck!

Everybody was tired as hell, so I cut everyone some slack. There was also some concern on their part that they are getting dazzled again while the witch is getting away. They had decided to go down the mountain and follow a lead, they had heard that a reclusive goat herder who lives at the bottom of the mountain between Naters and Blatten is the custodian of an old medieval church that isn't used anymore because of it's location (out in the middle of no where) called The Church of Saint Laurentius. Due to bad weather, it was a long climb down the mountain, but eventually they reached the herdsman. He told them that the church hasn't been used since his father passed away, but loaned them the keys to help them with their research.

The Church of Saint Laurentius is an isolated structure located well off the beaten path out in the wilderness. Opening the door of this ancient building, they see a very odd sight; instead of a statue of Jesus or crosses, the symbol dictate snails and features a larger than life statue of Saint Laurentius, the patron Saint of Librarians; against his leg rested a wooden rack, in his left hand he held a glacier, and in his right a mountain; an odd curvy crack went from his heart up his face and to a snail perched on his head.

This was definitely a clue; my wife cheated with her smart phone, but it kind of worked; she discovered that Laurentius was also the patron of witch hunters. I think that it got the players more excited when they found out that this was a real Swiss Saint, and they found a picture of him to look at. Eventually they figured out that the caretaker had removed all of the valuables from the church in case looters broke in, among them an old mirror elaborately decorated with the images of St. Sebaldus, when they hung the mirror up behind the statue, an oddly plain window perfectly framed the nearby mountain peak.

Now, the caretaker refused to let them borrow the mirror, as it was priceless; but he did accompany them and since it was too dark to travel back through the forest at night, they stayed in the church. In the morning, as they were preparing to go, and the sun was rising over the Reiderhorn, the diamond set in the pane of glass focused the sun into a beam, which reflected of of the mirror and for just a second, lit up the snail on his head. (Indiana Jones lifted once again!) They found that St. Laurentius Day was just under a week away.

Sam White climbed back up to Blatten and sent a pigeon message up the mountain for Van Helsing to come down, later he messaged back that he couldn't, as there was an uproar in Belalp.

They had a few days, so they did some low mountain investigation. They were able to secure some real meat, hunting a deer that had wandered near by, and found the Blatten Lumber camp that was said to had been torn apart by yeti. The camp was badly damaged, but the mill, that was the scene of something very large and powerful; entire logs looked like they had been broken over one's knee, some logs weighing hundreds of pounds had been thrown high up through the walls and were lodged there. The scene told them of a giant creature who wanted to shut this operation down, probably under the orders of somebody who didn't want the lumberjacks in the area anymore. There was something here, but they wanted to figure out what the church mystery was first.

After a couple of days, they saw the spot on the wall stay longer and longer, finally they went back to the caretaker who had planned on bringing the mirror on St. Laurentius Day, and talked him into letting them borrow the mirror early (we've got some smooth talking characters that know that CHA isn't a drop stat), on the long walk through the woods, they were ambushed by giant men, at least 20 of them! Hiding in the dense forest and hurling rocks; we have a character whose player has a hard time making it to games, while everyone else is at least 7th level, he is only 2nd, and as the giant men had gained a surprise, they tagged him, dropping him down to low hp before the battle could even start! Sam, the gunfighter, gave him the mirror and Charlotte cast Sanctuary on him. I determine targets randomly, and my dice really hated that 2nd level thief and wanted him dead! Luckily for him, the monsters sucked at making their Saving Throws.

On a technical note, I had wished that I had laid down the play mat and used miniatures, but we didn't; however for enemies I had so many to track I just gave them 4 hits and dead, drawing circles for each one and dividing each circle into fourths; instead of rolling damage, the party was shooting wildly into the woods, I had them just tell me when they hit or not, if they rolled 20's then I took off 2 HD but mostly it was just 1 HD per hit. It kept the combat fast and much easier to track considering the number of enemies. A combat scene which normally would had been boring because I took to long, could quickly be played out without losing anything; in fact it was probably easier on the monsters as guns dish out 2d6+1 damage, they were naturally 5HD creatures. For determining the monster targets, I throw a d10, I had 1-6 represent players, 4-10 meant that the creatures missed and targeted the giant man across from them.

It was pretty exciting as I was nailing the players and whittling them down, the 2nd level thief tried to escape, but a giant man caught him, and made his saving throw; he attempted to grab the little man, but failed, and gave a great target for the other players to shoot at. At the end of the combat, the party was badly beaten, Charlotte healed the worst off of the lot; examining the bodies of the enemy, they identified them as giant wild men, they had no money and looked like they have lived rough their whole lives. They deduced that some of these guys had been behind the destruction of the Blatten lumber operation.

They made it back to the church, locked themselves in; fearing that the witch now knew that they were up to something and was trying to stop them, somehow they had managed to save the mirror. They took it easy that day, and in the morning, they had just enough time to draw the cryptic drawings that were projected onto the floor by the sunlit snail, and wrote down a weird written phrase in an unknown language, however the name Belalp was clearly being refereed to.

That task done, they made their way back up into the mountains, to the village of Belalp satisfied that they had made some sort of headway, they planed on showing the drawing to Van Helsing, believing the language to be Latin, which he can read, however once they get into town they see that a large wooden pyre has been constructed in the village green. They find everybody all in an uproar, Van Helsing could care less about their discovery, he is trying to talk sense into a mob who is intent on dragging the old woman being held in the jail to the village green and burning her.

A lot has happened while the party was away, the Belalp Sheriff lay in a coma, the victim of witchcraft, a totem exactly fitting the description of the one that had been used against one of the party members last game had been used on him. The thief was able to talk the mod down, and give them a couple of days to either clear the woman's name or prove that she is in fact the Belalp witch. They immediately start investigating.

Sam and David head up into the mountains to try and find some mountain carrots which David knows can counter the poison and the spell of the totem doll, meanwhile the rest of the party began the investigation. Talking their way into the jailhouse, passed the armed officers who have the old woman in protective custody, the part is allowed access to the evidence and Van Helsing was finally able to get a good look at one of the totem dolls, and was able to determine how it worked, it was some sort of contact poison, the doll contained an article of the sheriff's clothing and he was charmed into touching it. Van Helsing fearing for the safety of the Relic of Sebaldus and quickly returned to their rented cabin.

The rest of the party went to the Sheriff's house to check on him; they startle a woman who instantly tries to escape, but they won't let that happen. Antonia a Prussian officer and master spy has assumed responsibility for this investigation, she orders Bart (the 2nd lvl thief) to see what the woman was doing, and he finds a weird drawing under the sheriff's pillow. Charlotte is able to determine that this is a weak protection from evil spell, and identifies the woman as a faith healer, and a spiritualist. The suspect admits to using magic, but for good; the party warns her against it, especially while the villagers are on a witch hunting kick, and they send her on her way.

Eventually the two fighters come back down the mountain, it was hard finding the herbs that they needed but they got it done. David Marshal brewed up the bitter mountain carrot broth and administered it to the sheriff, the man woke up, and while he would be forced to rest for the next couple of days, he should be fine.

Sheriff Hoffer is in no shape to do his job, he tries to get up instantly verifying that the old woman being held is just a crazy old lady. Hoffer says that there is no such thing as witchcraft, he's just allergic to those damned Alpine skinks, he must had touched one really good for this to happen.

Their investigation has uncovered some unsettling facts:

  • All of the wives take turns helping the bachelor sheriff with his housekeeping, so all the women had access to him.
  • The totem that had been used on the party member Vanessa Smith, required someone who had access to her things, the only suspect being Nela Saner who offered herself to be their housekeeper right away.
  • Ivan Hoffer also had access to Vanessa's property as he was sleeping in the tent with them at the time of the attack.
  • Lynn Tuller, the woman who was caught administering Sheriff Hoffer and practicing folk magic is not above suspicion either. Van Helsing says that she is no doubt a practitioner of spiritualism, a relatively new pseudo-religion that is in vogue right now, and they rarely practice alone.
  • Corinne Meyer, a none-native transplant and author who moved up here for the tranquility. She lives alone in the woods and has written a book on the Belalp witch.
  • Agatha Gammenthaler, the old woman kept in protective custody to protect her from allegations of witchcraft.
  • Van Helsing suggested that Charlotte refrain from using her skill set, else she becomes a prime target of the current local rage, and says that he believes that they aren't looking for a human witch, but fears that they are in fact dealing with the ancient undead. He says that the only way that they will be able to identify it, is by the aura of fear that all powerful undead share.

That is where we left off, and that is where we will begin again in four weeks.


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