Category Archives: Fantasy Heartbreaker

Tower of the Star Watcher

Bygning 2aA strange tower awaits the heroes. It lies deep in the forest.

That is the premise for the first D&D 5th edition adventure, I have presented at DMs Guild – you can find it here: Tower of the Star Watcher – and it is not your average adventure. It is small open air dungeon, that originally is part of The Dragon Awakens storyline fra Hinterlandet Living Campaign at the Danish RPG-con Fastaval. In this storyline all the adventuring parties are entering The Vale of the Dragon in order to find weapons against the dragon and find it in order to defeat it.

A fun part of the Tower of the Star Watcher is that it is an open-air dungeon. The ruins lie in a forest under an open sky, and the PCs can enter through one of multiple entrances, but there is nothing hindering the PCs in scaling the walls and entering any part of the dungeon as they please. However, most groups don’t. The players tend to follow the walls and the doors, and part of the fun for the DM is when the PCs discover, that they can approach the ruin in many ways, and that there multiple ways through the area, and none is really the correct manner. Of course a lot of the fun also comes from the encounters, as there several strange ones, and many invite the players to use different approaches rather than charge in at any given time. Ghost children, whistling stone heads and sarcastic skulls are among the encounters.

The adventure has now been adapted to D&D 5th edition and made setting agnostic, but has maintained traces of the original setting, and a lot of the original style, which includes a focus on non-balanced encounters. Talking, bluffing, sneaking, running are all valid strategies and important, when you want to stay alive. Oh, and it also contains a bunch of new monsters, just to keep the players on their toes.

One Does Not Simply Walk Under Illefarn

one-does-not-simply-walk-into-mordor_1394963912After several evenings of storming the dungeons of The Temple of Elemental Evil we decided to put the module to a rest since not too much happened, as the dungeons were deadly and it kept being supplied by new monsters, forcing the players to deal with areas they had already explored. Instead we decided to play N5 Under Illefarn (1987), which consists of three small introductory adventures and then a huge dwarven mine divided by three factions.

One does not simply walk into the mines of Illefarn. Its dark corridors are patrolled by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. The dreadful necromancer and the dwarven prince are ever watchful. It is a barren dungeon, riddled with old traps, new traps, and empty rooms. The water rushing from the mines is a poisonous sludge. Not with ten thousand sessions could you map this. It is folly.

Boromir on exploring the dwarven mines of lost Illefarn.

One Does Not Simply Walk into Temple of Elemental Evil

one-does-not-simply-walk-into-mordor_1394963912This blog has been quiet for all too long. I shall attempt to raise it from its slumber, as have not been quiet regarding roleplaying. Revently I have explored Temple of Elemental Evil with my homebrewed OSR Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands).

One does not simply walk into The Temple of Elemental Evil. Its black corridors are haunted by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. Zuggtmoy er ever watchful. It is a multi-level dungeon, riddled with fire, air and earth. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand party members could you explore this. It is folly.

Boromir on playing Temple of Elemental Evil.

A New XP-system: Exploration-based Rewards

Recently I noticed, that Erik Mona does not like the experience point system – and thus have created his own system – and it reminds of how I have been doing XP myself.

On the good old pre-2000 days, you killed an orc and gained some XP. You might get 50 points or so, and only needing a few thousands, then that was ok. Unless you played D&D becmi, where an orc gave 10 points, and your first level fighter needed 2000 to go up a level. Then collecting treasures became really important.

But even with the increased XP values of monsters in AD&D, once you needed 10.000 or even more XP, killing a few monsters granting some hundreds XP or so resulted in bookkeeping XP just felt meaningless. This also began being reflected in scenarios, where you huge sums of XP were being granted for reaching the end of a module, and in some cases whole levels were granted (making it even less meaningful to collect XPs for killing a few orcs).

With this slowly deteriorating system for granting XP became still more useless, many began developing new ways of granting XP, and when 3rd edition came around a new shiny model were introduced, and an even shinier one with the 4th ed rules.

Since XP is such a nice thing to drive the game, as it quite literally is an award, you can use it to tell the players, what you want to reward them for. Kill monsters and bring home treasures! Complete modules! Use your class based abilities! For surviving encounters (as Erik Mona suggests)! Spending your money at the inn between adventures (as I saw suggested years back)! Roleplaying! (An always nebulous one for who is to gauge “roleplaying”, and you might end rewarding extrovert or charismatic players or players for ‘reading’ their GM?).

Attending Class, Gaining XP

I just recently ended an eight year long campaign about a group of teenage wizards at The Great School of Glantri. Xp were not granted for killing monsters or picking up treasures, nor were they granted for ‘good roleplaying’, but instead for attending classes and passing exams, and everytime you had enought to level up, you had to pass a test. Failing exams also gained XP, as you still had learned something.

The system worked great. It gave the game a good focus – we are at school and need to balance fun and adventuring with actually attending class, and what to do, when a great adventure presents itself the night before exams? It also gave us space to explore, what happens at wizard schools and how does it feel to attend one?

Exploration-based Experience

For my D&D retro-clone the focus is on exploration. I have been reading and playing a a bunch of the old, really old modules, and one thing that separates them from the 90’s modules is absence of the detailed narratives to draw the PCs through (especially thinking of the Ravenloft and Planescape modules here), and from the 3,5 material, where you go from encounter to encounter. In the older material you explore areas. You map dungeons, you fight monsters, avoid traps and meet weird things, ancient things and strange things. There are plenty of empty rooms, and sometimes there is a room with a large bed and a lady’s hat for no other reason as to pique the players’ imaginations.

So for my D&D retro-clone (previous design posts part 1, part 2) I want an XP-system, that rewards the players for exploring dungeons, for poking their noses into the next room and the next room and the next room again.

This is what I came up with.

The Adventure Points System

For each room investigated the party gains 50-100 Adventure Points (50 for fairly harmless dungeons, 100 for average dungeons).

For each wonder and mystery encountered the party gains 50-400 points. Mysteries can be an enchanted lake, an illusion covering a room or some other supernatural effect. Wonders are the wonders experienced in the dungeons, as finding an ancient wallpainting made by a long forgotten artist, whose art touches your soul, or it may be a natural rock-formation in a grotto of great wonder.

For each trap encountered is gained 50-400 points – and half that much if the trap is avoided or otherwise not triggered. So if you find a pittrap, but never activates it, or disarm a crossbow-trap before it is triggered, you gain less, than if you fall into the pit or get shot at by the crossbow-trap. The basic idea is to entice the players to touch the red button, knowing they will only get half, if they disarm the red button instead of triggering it.

Adventure Points for exploring, for wonders and mysteries, and for traps are rewarded, when the PCs leave the dungeon and have time to rest briefly. Each PC present gains the full amount (four characters exploring eight rooms each gain 800 adventure points).

For treasures brought all the way home, the players each gain a share of adventure points equal to the treasure brought home. The four characters have borught home treasures equal to 500 gold, so each character gains 125 adventure points, however one of the characters hid a gem (value 50 gold) for himself. That character gains additional 50 adventure points, as he does not share the treasure.

The adventure point table

  • Level      Adventure Points
  • 1                             0
  • 2                     1200
  • 3                    2400
  • 4                    4200
  • 5                    6000
  • 6                    8400
  • 7                 10800
  • 8                 13800
  • 9                 16800
  • 10              20400

So far

I have tested the Adventure Points with several groups, and the great thing is that it works as intended. It makes the PCs open every door and stick their head into every nook and cranny. Since monsters don’t reward any Adventure Points, and combat with them generally slows exploration down, the PCs are just as willing to negotiate and use trickery to avoind fighting monsters, as they are to pick fights, and plenty of things are left alive, as long they grant access to more parts of the dungeon.

The extra points for mysteries, wonders, and traps also ensures, that the PCs are less likely to avoid set-ups and potential dangers, as being exposed to these, grants more Adventure Points. The players are eager to explore and map dungeons, to push on and take just one more room, because they are certain to gain points (every room grants points, whether or not any monsters, traps or any other things are present, so picking just one more room is a calculated risk).

Designing an OSR Heart Breaker – Character Creation

I continue my design thoughts on creating a Heartbreaker OSR D&D retro-clone. This time it is about designing characters, and how I want it done. At the end of the post are the rules for creating characters in all their simplicity, but first the frame-work behind it.

I want to use the D&D Clone at conventions, but without pre-made characters, so it must be kept simple and fast, as time spent creating characters is time not spent playing. Also I want an RPG-system, where you do not use one session creating characters, as easily happens with 2nd, 3rd, and 4th edition.

Creating characters themselves can be a small mini-game and I have enjoyed many a mini-game of creating characters. It is like playing a puzzle or building a small engine, where the different elements of the characters interlock. For instance creating a character for Traveller with their background-system, or for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, where it is quite fun mutating an animal into a mutant ninja (but otherwise it is not that great a rule system), or creating an experienced character with the old Warhammer Fantasy RPG Career System – and likewise creation a third edition character with combinations of feats and skills, and perhaps a few levels in order to activate some weird prestige class from on obscure issue of Dragon Magazine. But it is a game in itself, and it is not the essential part of roleplaying nor of D&D, and I will there dispense with the character creation.


Another interesting element is shopping. How important is shopping in RPGs – as part of the character creation and as part of the game? In one sense I enjoy equipping characters, mostly with signature equipment, that interlocks with the character’s abilities. Otherwise it easily becomes a chore.

However equipping a character also contains strategic choices, if the equipment has a function beyond the amount of damage dealt and the defense conferred, but equipment does not really play that role in D&D – once rope, lantern and backpack is secured, and armor and weapons are acquired, the character is good to go, and at later levels so much gold i accumulated, that buying regular equipment cease to be a strategic choice.

And it takes time. Looking at the long list of equipment and then just picking the same essentials is time-consuming, which explains the premade equipment packs.

Since I will severely keep treasures in check and make armor really expensive, and keep track of food, players in the game will keep an eye on their equipment during the game, and consider if they can afford more flasks of oil or if they should save their gold for a chain mail. However for character creation I will use a combination of strategic choice and pre-made package. The players will roll 8 stats, where two of them represents equipment (regular equipment and magical equipment). So equipment becomes a part of the character creation process, but it is kept fast.

Character Class Names

Fighter, thief, rogue, ranger, monk, barbarian, berserker …

What’s in a name? – one might ask, and when players pick a thief to play, it is not uncommon for the other players to assume, that the character might steal from their characters, or if a player picks a fighter, what abilities beyond fighting will the fighter have, and what abilities should a fighter have?

For that very reason I have chosen to rename the classes. There are no thieves or fighters, but instead knights of fortune (this one works better in Danish: Lykkeridder or soldier of fortune – so looking for a new title here) and adventurers. For the same reason I have changed other designations – the characters don’t have Armor Class and Hit Points but Defense and Life Points.

Skills, Feats, and Special Abilities

Quite a few feats and powers in D&D are related to combat, and they are about expanding a character’s abilities in combat, and skills are mostly for non-combat things. Abilities can either be seen as expanding the characters horizontally or vertically. With the steady increase of skill modifiers (D&D 3rd is designed for characters to have the same skills all the way through and then continuously increasing them – e.g. so the fighter has a +4 bonus to riding at level 1 and a +13 bonus a level 10, making it both difficult to put a first and tenth lv character together, but also difficult for a character to expand to other skills, as the increased bonus is needed) choosing to increase a new skill is not really an option, and likewise feats can stack and increase their modifier often making certain feats and abilities mandatory – and that is expanding the character vertically. The disadvantages I have just covered, but the advantages is that the PC can be truly awesome at some things and give them a sense of being epic, heroic and/or badass. Expanding sideways or horizontally adds new abilities or skills (as in AD&D 2nd when acquiring a new non-weapon proficiency granted the skill at full level, but whereas increasing it gave a measly +1 bonus, often making it a better choice to add another skill, than increasing the existing ones). The disadvantage is mostly the absence of a gradual development of a skill, but the advantage is that the characters master a broader range of abilities at higher levels, but not necessarily better than low-level characters, making it easier for PCs at different levels to go adventuring together. I prefer this one, as the PCs can gain more abilities and more options, as the players become more familiar with the game and their characters. The disadvantage is that the character might end up a being lousy at many different actions rather than just a few actions.

All the Things at Level 1

One of the curious things when using D&D 3rd or AD&D 2nd with all the Player’s Option-books, Complete Class Guides, various articles from Dragon Magazine and Campaign Settings is the amount of choices to pick, and all these choices are made at (or just before) level 1. After level 1 there are considerably fewer and fewer choices to make, not more choices. The disadvantage is that the more choices at first level, the more time character creation takes. I want to do it the other round. Few choices, actually close to no choices, at level 1 and then expanding the choices, as the character gains levels. Though in this version of the rules, the character remains quite limited in what choices, there are to make at even higher levels.

Character Creation

  • Step 1: Choose a class
  • Step 2: Roll stats
    • roll 3d6 eight times. Allocate the results on the six ability scores and on the two equipment scores.
    • Ability Scores: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma
    • Equipment Scores: Regular Equipment, Magical Equipment
  • Step 3: Fill out the character sheet
    • Add modifiers for ability scores
    • Note class abilities
    • Note Attack bonus, Resistance bonus, and First Aid Die
    • Calculate Defense: 10+armor+shield+dex bonus
    • Calculate Life Points: Class + Constitution Score (not the modifier!)
    • Note equipment and weapons

Ability Score             Ability Modifiers

  • 3-4                              -2
  • 5-8                              -1
  • 9-12                          +0
  • 13-16                        +1
  • 17-18                       +2

These are the steps, and since there no choices as such when it comes to special abilities, it is actually possible to have character sheets that are pre-filled for each class, where you only need to add equipment and ability scores and calculate the scores derived from abilities and equipment (attack, defense, resistance, life points, weapon damage).


Trine wants to create a character. She chooses a Knight of Fortune and rolls stats. She generates 15, 15, 12, 11, 10, 10, 9, 6. She puts 15 in STR and CON, 12 in DEX, 10 in both INT and CHR, and 6 in WIS. 11 is placed in regular equipment, and 9 in magical equipment, and she adds the two equipment packages to her character sheet.

She notes 25 lifepoints (10 + con), Defense 15 (10 + chain mail (+5)), Attack bonus +0 (melee +1 via STR), Resistance bonus +0, First Aid Die d10, and special abilities: Weapons Master (+2 to any damage roll with a weapon) and Chug (+2 to challenge opponents to a drinking bout; +4 bonus to resist effects of alcohol). Among her weapons are a battle-axe. Battle Axe Att+1, dmg 1d8+3, effect: crush shield. Besides her regular equipment she is also equipped with a Lucky Coin, Flame Powder, and Waking Candle.

And within 10-15 minutes Trine is ready to go adventuring.

To be continued …

Designing a OSR Heartbreaker – The Framework

I my last post I stated, that I wanted to a D&D retro-clone heartbreaker, and so I do – and have actually done – and with this design diary I want to reflect upon my design choices and bit by bit reveal the rule set.

At first I have for the last few years been playing D&D becmi,AD&D 1st, AD&D 2nd, D&D 3,5, D&D 4th, D&D Next play test and Legends & Labyrinths (still eagerly awaiting the printed book and the complete rules) – beside a slew of other games from the Nordic countries and from the Indie-movement and some more classic games.

From D&D to D&D

Playing the different versions revealed some serious differences in the D&D-editions. They have all the same core mechanic (roll a d20), but the resource management and the structure of the play were quite different. In older versions of D&D (becmi, 1st, 2nd), you can expect not to be fully healed after one or more days of rest, however you can expect spells to have powerful long-lasting effects. In newer versions you at more or less fully healed every day and in some instances during the day (D&D 3,5; 4th). Secondly you have multiple resources to spend each day in each encounter making it more and more necessary to have multiple encounters a day in order to challenge and exhaust the players’ resources. – this for instance make journey based games difficult, as you need to present the players with multiple encounters a day or some really difficult wandering monsters in order to make a dent in their armor. These are just minor aspects but they do point towards a greater problem.

With third edition you needed magic items, and they became a part of the levelling. Even though there many things I like about the third edition (and it’s successor 3,5), I was not satisfied with the magic item necessity. Magic became an everyday thing. a necessary thing even. – and I do like to play low-magic and with strange and weird magic items, rather than yet another +weapon.


Worse was prepping. I have been playing a lot of different modules – last we played Spelljammer and before that Dragonlance – and when I play with the older systems (pre-1990) most of my prep-time is just reading the module and checking a few spell, monster abilities and magic items. No biggie. When I play post-1990-modules I spend a lot of time structuring events, studying the module text in order to structure all the intricacies of the plot, and then I look up spells, monster abilities and magic items. When I prep post-2000 materials I spend my time on studying the encounters, noting spells and their effects, stacking modifiers, and even worse when it comes to D&D 4th, where I really have to plan the encounter with different types of monsters, their physical positions, terrain and so on and on.

Prepping went from reading the module to studying the module text to planning combats. – However planning combats is more accounting and bookkeeping than just preparing tonight’s game, and it takes me a lot longer to do. More work with the fiddly things and less with just the story. This is to me one of the major differences and weaknesses with D&D 3,5 and D&D 4th (for even though the rules are somewhat different in these two versions, the structure of the game is more or less the same: planning combat).

Encounter Structure

This is where I want to claim, that D&D is doing it wrong – or rather this is not, what I want my D&D to do, and thus I need something else (either going back to pre-2000 D&D or going for D&D Next, that seems to do, what I want D&D to do or designing my own D&D).

I do not want a scenario-structure that is based on encounters, and especially not encounters predestined to be combats. D&D (in my opinion) is not about combat but of exploration (of caves and cellars, of outer planes and isolated villages, of old castles and forbidden islands), and of the meeting with creatures as you explore said places, and I want a D&D-system that can handle exploration and the meeting with other creatures.

Exploring and Quick Combats

I want a D&D-game where I can explore, and the emphasis is exploring rather than killing and looting. As a consequence I want a D&D-style game where combat is quick, and by quick I mean measured in real-time, i.e. the time spent at the table rolling dice battling monsters. Somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes is optimal, and better 15 minutes than 30, and combat does not need to go beyond three combat rounds.

To Sum Up

The purpose of my designing a D&D-clone is to recreate the D&D experience from some of my earliest years. Yet designing that will not make me any younger, so the design must also be able to suit my interests. Thus the retro-clone that I am designing must have the following parameters: (I will explore these parameters in detail in later posts)

  • Focus on exploring (dungeons)
  • Quick combats (15-30 min, 2-5 combat rounds)
  • System must support talking with monsters
  • Combat is choosing exciting actions rather than tactical actions
  • Combat must be a theater of the mind
  • Drifting is a feature
  • As few tables with modifiers as possible
  • A slower progression (than D&D 3rd and 4th)
  • No detailed character creation

To be continued …

Designing an OSR Heartbreaker – Prologue

There has been some silence around the blog, since I posted most of my DragonLance as a/is a science fiction-posts, but since lately I have been caught up on a lot of work with creating a D&D retro-clone trying to all that I thought was wrong with D&D 3,5, D&D 4th and Pathfinder, and recently it has been playtested successfully at two minor conventions and privately and I have now people expanding the rules and adding more modules to the collection, as the grand playtest at Denmarks second largest roleplaying festival, Fastaval, is about to take place. But it is not just a fantasy heartbreaker designed in accordance to (as much as anything can be in accordance with the Old School Renaissance), it as at the same time a living campaign, where the players are exploring a huge sandbox area littered with dungeons (there will be somewhere between 13 and 17 dungeons presently), and when not exploring dungeons (that is sitting at a table playing the D&D retro-clone), you can roleplay yourself as a member of Fastaval Roleplaying Guild collecting rare roleplaying supplements (that is there will be rare rule supplements you can collect, that adds additional options, you can use when playing at the table). As a living campaign my project began back in January with the first convention introducing Hinterlandet, as my project is known as, and it has been running as a living campaign since.

At Fastaval this year Vincent Baker and Lizzie Stark will be attending (Lizzie also guested us last year), and so I will be presenting Old School roleplaying at a convention that usually features a whole slew of Nordic Roleplaying, which is quite artsy and edgy – and which are the RPG’s that I normally produce myself, so I am looking forward to this so rather different year.

I hope to share a lot of my thoughts on creating a OSR fantasy heartbreaker in the next few months and exploring the simulationism-side of roleplaying as I explore the development of the system.