Mountains: More than a Speed-bump, less than Survivalist Porn?

Recently, my AD&D 1E campaign involved some travel and exploration within a mountain range, including scaling one particular peak in search of a dragon’s lair. My preparation suggested two possible approaches to mountaineering by-the-book: the dry application of a movement speed penalty (DMG) or a hyper-realistic treatment that assumes both a detailed area map and skill system that I don’t use (Wilderness Survival Guide). Faced with those extremes, I decided to put together my own system that offered a bit more than a speed bump but still adhered to the “keep it simple” ethos of early editions and the OSR. I make no claims to realism or balance, but it worked pretty well for a couple of sessions and can probably be modified to cover other “hazardous terrain” situations.

Mountain Terrain Assumptions: Movement and Time

  • Movement across mountainous terrain: 1/4 Speed
  • Climbing Mountains (Average): 4 hours to tree line; 6 hours from tree line to peak

Mountain Exploration Process

Below the Tree Line

  1. In addition to normal encounter checks, roll a d6 for each hour of the climb
  2. On a result of 6, the party encounters a special event; roll 2d6 on the event table below
  3. Roll another d6 to determine which turn within the hour the event occurs

Above the Tree Line

  1. In addition to normal encounter checks, roll d6 for each hour of the climb
  2. On a result of 5 or 6, the party encounters a special event; roll 2d6 on the event table below
  3. Roll another d6 to determine which turn within the hour the event occurs
  4. Roll another d6 to determine if the special event coincides with an encounter

Special Event Table

2 Rock slide! All party members save vs. paralyzation or tumble 10′ (d6 damage); save again or continue tumbling d4x10′ (4d6 damage); repeat until dead or successful save.
3 Path split by chasm with no obvious means of crossing; width of chasm is 4d6x10′ (add another d6 for every result of 6); depth of chasm is 8d6x10′ (add another d6 for every result of 6)
4 Path split by chasm with weathered bridge (20% chance it is a rusted automaton collapsed to form bridge); roll d6 for each character crossing — on the second result of 6, save vs. paralyzation or fall unless secured (see above for width/depth of chasm)
5 Path obliterated by rock slide creating treacherous terrain; d6 for each character crossing and save vs. paralyzation for all fails or tumble 10′ (d6 damage); save again or continue tumbling d4x10′ (4d6 damage), etc.
6 Sheer wall impedes progress; thief or grappling hook needed to scale with rope required for others to follow (height of face: 4d6x10′, rolling again for each 6 result); if no means of ascent, an hour detour to find alternative route.
7 Sheer wall with overhang impedes progress; thief or grappling hook to scale (thief skill at -15%) and rope needed for others to follow (see above for height of face); if no means of ascent, an hour detour to find alternative route.
8 Cave with 60% chance of lair (roll on random encounter table immediately); 20% chance that cave is a shortcut to higher/lower area, cutting off one hour of travel.
9 Drop-off next to path leaving only a narrow ledge; roll d6 for each character passing and on third result of 6, save vs. paralyzation or lose footing; fall is 8d6x10′, rolling again for each result of 6.
10 Path split by swift-moving stream cascading down mountain; treacherous footing means d6 roll for each character crossing with every 2nd result of 6 requiring a save vs. paralyzation or fall (d4x10′ distance).
11 Exposed section of path where wind whips around mountain; cannot effectively communicate for d6 turns, otherwise safe.
12 Large rock dislodged from above path; randomly determine targets in character group and roll to hit as 7HD monster (can target any number of targets within 10′ of each other); 2d6 damage on hit and save vs. paralyzation to avoid fall (d4x10′ feet)

Notes on Table:

  • Improvise strength check if characters tied together with rope and some succeed and others fail required saves
  • Cross off events as used; replace table items as needed with new events between game sessions
  • Above tree line, roll for random encounter with special event (i.e., ambushes utilizing special event feature)

Some Considerations

All of this is meant to be random and loose — and that also means there will be a lot of minutiae to adjudicate in the moment. Still, I found this more satisfying than just making the trip take longer or needing to map out the entire mountain and place interesting features ahead of time.

Cover of Saddle-stitch print version

Luka Rejec’s beautiful cover in the flesh!

Having approved the proofs from both DrivethruRPG and, my low-level OSR adventure module is now available in print from those vendors. I am quite happy with this as someone who, while regularly purchasing PDF resources, only makes use of things for which I have physical copies. As someone who has worked in digital publishing for more than a decade and whose dissertation was written in XML before that was cool, my Luddite tendencies when it comes to books sometimes surprises even me — heck, I’ve never managed to read in eBook in all the years that I have been producing them for a paycheck!

Leaving aside issues of hypocrisy or technophobia, though, there are some real reasons to check out the print version of Automata Run Amok. Chief among these is that the map key portions of the module (see my previous post) were arranged on purpose to take advantage of the two-page spread. That explains the following features:

Interior spread from Saddle-stitch print version

Interior spread (Map Key)

  1. The map key portions of the module are oriented differently than the rest of the adventure (landscape versus portrait) and the spreads are flipped so that you can turn the book and read straight down across the gutter.
  2. All keying information appears on the same spread as the relevant mini-map (the map appearing in the top-left of the spread when you hold the book sideways).
  3. Visual information trackers and commentary for section of the map key always appear at the lower-right of the page spread.

While I have been happy with the comments on the layout of the PDF version to date, I think these choices show my print prejudice and my future publications will likely save these flourishes for a print-only layout since they add little to the reader’s experience when viewed in a digital format. Lesson learned!

Links to Print Versions

Detail of illustration by Luka Rejec

Let’s take a look under the hood … (Art by Luka Rejec)

Last week I published my first RPG product, an OSR module entitled Automata Run Amok designed to be an introductory adventure for low-level characters. I’ve been pleased with the reception so far and, barring unforeseen circumstances, there will be a much more substantive follow-up publication next year. Before going to work on that new project, though, I thought it might be good to discuss explicitly some of the design choices that shaped Automata. This post is the first in a series to tackle that subject and it focuses on that topic of perennial debate at the heart of most modules: map keys.

Platonic vs. Aristotelian Map Keys

There seem to be two schools of thought on keying maps for published RPG adventures. In more traditional products, like many of those created in the early days of the hobby by TSR, map keys read like the authors were transcribing the platonic ideal of a play-through for that module: copious text lays out the details of each location with the assumption that every Dungeon Master aims for the same tone and style of information management, that the DM has carefully read and at committed much of the product to memory, and that the group consists of well-behaved players who will dutifully listen to and absorb those details before acting. Everything needed to run the location is present, somewhere in the text, but there’s very little indication that the writers concerned themselves with the realities of variable humans interacting with their creations in real-time. An example of this would be the key entry for the Earth Temple in The Temple of Elemental Evil:

Example Page for The Temple of Elemental Evil

May Zuggtmoy help you if you need to know who and what is in the Earth Temple quickly while running ToEE …

The alternative to this ‘Platonic ideal’ approach is what I guess could playfully be described as Aristotelian — an empirical approach to map key information design based on observation and direct experience of what really happens at the gaming table. There have likely been examples of this throughout the history of the hobby, but the explosion of small publishers and other hobbyists dissecting and philosophizing about RPG design has intensified the drive to innovate the map key. Of course, like anything based on observation and direct experience, this innovation has led to a number of competing and idiosyncratic approaches. I will not even attempt to describe this variety except to say that, generally, these methods favor the hierarchical arrangement of information based on its perceived importance to play and the use of formatting to provide visual cues so DMs can quickly parse what is being presented. My work in Automata Run Amok borrows shamelessly from what I feel to be the best examples of this ‘Aristotelian’ map key design, distilling the practices and recommendations I have encountered over the last few years into what I hope is something solidly useful if not innovative.

Dissecting a Map Entry from Automata Run Amok

So, what does it mean in practical terms for my module to employ ‘Aristotelian’ map key design? That will be easier to explain by grounding the discussion in a specific example from the publication and then explicating how it embodies my design philosophy. Let’s look at the first entry in the key, which describes the public part of a tinkerer-wizard’s shop that has been overrun by out-of-control automata:

Map Key example for Automata Run Amok

Some Aristotelian Key Entries (Click to Enlarge)

This makes an excellent example for three reasons: there is quite a lot of stuff for characters to investigate, its default state is rather static in terms of opposing NPCs and monsters, and it integrates some non-key elements of the module like its random tables and timeline. Even before diving into those details, though, notice how certain items are called out using color or styling (i.e., italics and bold-face) while the key entry largely consists sub-headings and bullet lists to create a clear hierarchy of information. Comparison with the entry for the second room shows that this layout is consistent so that, once the Dungeon Master learns the module’s visual vocabulary, he or she knows everything necessary to parse subsequent entries on-the-fly.

Now let’s walk through each element of the entry:

  • Room number, name, and dimensions (larger red font): As the only non-black font in the module, the red titles for each entry clearly divide up the key’s entries instead of relying on spacing alone to convey this information. This allows the DM to find the entry’s beginning quickly and jump back-and-forth between the text and map without losing his or her place. The number’s purpose should be self-explanatory, while the name of the room simultaneously provides a shorthand indication of what kind of location is being described and makes sure there’s enough text for the red font to stand out. Finally, the dimensions are given in the top line since the player group’s mapper (remember, this is an OSR module!) will need this information. My habit when Dungeon Mastering is to give mappers the information they need early in the description unless there is a logical reason — such as a huge chamber or attacking monsters — that would prevent someone from quickly eyeballing the size of the room. That allows them time to sketch and revise even if the party is prone to moving along quickly from location to location.
  • Brief evocative phrase (italic font): Quite a bit of the debate surrounding RPG map keys involves boxed text and I tend to agree with the argument that blocks of read-aloud for the DM are largely useless or even counter-productive at the table. It constrains the tone of the game to whatever the module author thinks is appropriate for a “typical” group and assumes a level of patience and attention to detail among players that I have rarely encountered in an individual let alone an entire party. However, ditching boxed text does limit the module author’s opportunities to convey the non-visual elements of a room that would be immediately evident — its smell, sounds, and general feel. My compromise is this evocative phrase, which describes the flavor of the room yet still allows the DM to couch that information in whatever tone or style fits their gaming group. For example, this particular room has “shelves of arcana and pungent herbs” — in other words, it’s a crowded shop of curios of mysterious origin suffused with the smells of magical ingredients. My opinion is that a DM doesn’t need more than this to describe the room in appropriate terms according to the needs and attention span of their player group.
  • Subsection detailing room occupants (if any; bold-face header with bullet list of details): Once the DM has been given the top-level information about the room’s dimensions and feel, the module’s key consists of subsections presenting information in a hierarchical list from most to least important. Since the first thing players (and DMs) will want to know is whether a room contains living creatures to either speak with or kill, those are covered in the first subsection entitled “Occupants.” The shop room in the key above is typically unoccupied, but this subsection is still present because there is a chance of encountering monsters (monkey automata) or NPCs (robbers) as the adventure’s timeline, as outlined earlier in the module, advances. When appropriate, this description of the room’s occupants will also cover the likely reactions along with references to the module’s bestiary. A good example of this comes from the alchemy chamber later in the module:

• The first time the party enters the tower, a single monkey automaton (AC:6; HD:1+1; #ATT:2; DAM:d6; Bestiary 1) is in this chamber collecting the last two acid vials (the remainder are already piled on the catwalk near the ladder). Hearing the group enter, it will climb the wall and perch above the door – making a last few squeaks in the process
• When the first party member enters the room, the monkey will attempt a surprise attack and toss one of its acid vials (2d4HP direct damage; 1HP splash within 1’). Any counterattack will cause it to scamper over to the other side of the wall and toss another vial; a successful counterattack will cause it to leap onto the catwalk (which provides 25% cover from missile attacks)

  • Subsection listing and describing exits (bold-face header with bullet list of details): Once the players know whether there’s anything in the room, the next thing they need to know is where the available exits are located and whether those exits are barred, locked, or otherwise impeded. This is also the next thing the party mapper will need to know once the outline of the room is sketched and therefore appears towards the beginning of the entry.
  • Series of subsections listing items of interest (bold-face headers with bullet lists of details): The last thing a DM must provide players is a list of miscellaneous items within the room that can be interacted with or investigated. My intention here is that only the headers would be shared during the initial room description and that the additional information detailed in the bullet lists would only be disclosed if the party spends time (i.e., expends resources) to look more closely at the item in question. So, in our example, the DM would let the party know that there are shelves covered in items, a counter, and a closet in the shop. In most cases, I imagine, the party will be interested in seeing exactly what’s on the shelves and choose to spend a turn investigating those; at that point only they would learn that these contain objects “artfully arranged to look cluttered with no labeling,” including several large crystals (one of which is valuable), spell components if a magic user is doing the searching, and something special from the random magic item table. Similarly, if the party or member thereof spends a turn investigating the counter, they will find the shelf underneath with the book and money-box.

So that basically demonstrates my Aristotelian style of map keying, which leverages visual cues and the hierarchical presentation of information to make running the adventure at the table a smoother experience requiring less preparation. The page layout supports the structure of the key entries, with each two-page spread in the module containing all the entries relevant to the map (an innovation lifted from Maze of the Blue Medusa) and trackers with check-boxes and blanks for the DM to note the passage of time, defeat of enemies, and other changes to the location (suggested by my editor and illustrator, Luka Rejec). When printed out, all of this information would be visible at once and (hopefully) easy to interpret even with the reality of excited players, imperfect recall of module details, and a tone that in my experience inevitably oscillates between epic and farce.

Quick Summary of Map Keying Practices

  1. Consistent ‘visual vocabulary’ across all map key entries
  2. Hierarchical presentation of information (from possible threats to miscellaneous objects to investigate)
  3. Front-loading of information for mapper (dimensions and exits)
  4. Use of ‘evocative phrase’ as substitute for boxed text to convey non-visual information not specifically associated with items in the room (i.e., the ‘flavor’ of the location)
  5. Subsections for each item in the room with which players can interact; bullet list details only shared with players if they expend resources (time, light source, random encounter rolls, etc.)
  6. All key entries appear on same two-page spread as map that references them along with visual tracking tools to keep track of monsters defeated and similar things

[If any of this sounds interesting, please pick up a PWYW copy of Automata Run Amok at DrivethruRPG; if you have any feedback — including reviews — please let me know!]

automata-title-pageThis blog has suffered severe neglect in recent months, although my RPG-related activities have continued unabated. Besides my ongoing first edition campaign (which recently surpassed five hundred hours of play), I have also been working hard on converting some of that game’s early adventures into publications. The first such adventure is the incident at the tinkerer-wizard Talessin’s tower (see the annotated play reports: first session and second session).

That work is now complete and my first adventure module, Automata Run Amok, has gone live on DriveThruRPG as a PDF with print versions to follow as soon as possible both there and on (spiral bound in the latter case!). This module is being offered for free (PWYW) as an appetizer for what I hope to be a series of publications. Here’s the marketing copy blurb for this adventure:

Out-of-Control automata have driven a wizard from his shop. He would like the PCs to solve the problem (without damaging his creations) while his rival will pay for evidence of the wizard’s dabbling in forbidden knowledge.

This is an adventure suitable for four to five low-level characters written to be compatible with OSRIC and early editions of the world’s most popular RPG.  In addition to full details on a tinkerer-wizard’s tower overrun by rampaging automata, this module includes:

  • Random tables to generate elements of a bustling port city situated in the tropics and titles for books on both magic and techno-magic
  • Twenty unique magical items of variable usefulness and danger with which to tempt players
  • Several unique NPCs and monsters, from a clock maker revolutionary to a brain floating in a machine animated by the spirit of a long-dead racist dwarf
  • Eight illustrations by the wondefully talented Luka Rejec

This twenty-page adventure should provide between four and eight hours of Old School fun. Enjoy!

Here’s a link to the page to “purchase” and download the module.

Temple Ruins

Temple Ruins

Just a quick note that +Follow Me, and Die! has posted an interview about my experiences with RPGs and our ongoing Roll20 campaign on his blog: Click here to read it.

Dolphin or Devil Fish?

Dolphin or Devil Fish?

[This is the sixth post in a series of session summaries (i.e., a play reports) for the first campaign I have run in the Curabel setting. Each summary was written by one of the players, but I am adding my own ‘DM Annotations’ on these write-ups before uploading them here. These annotations will mostly call attention to bits of the summaries that will be significant later in the campaign (with links to relevant summaries to follow as they are posted) or else explain my rational for my game-mastering choices.

Please note that the summary will be displayed as regular text and my annotations as block quotes throughout.]

Session Six: April 23, 2014

This summary was written by Brian, who played the human cleric in service to the dwarven deity named Xen’Teler (who figures prominently in later sessions). Brian participated in the campaign for the first twenty or so sessions. This particular session wraps up the adventure in the ancient dwarven bathhouse, with the party defeating the Bullywugs and their Devil Fish master in order to appease the goblins guarding the tunnel to the tomb the group seeks.

Frog feet patter on stone in the distance and the party seizes the moment to organize themselves for the battle to come. It is a gruesome engagement, for both the Frog-Men and adventurers. Axel receives a grave wound, but, at the end of the skirmish, there are six dead frogs. The party loots the bodies for a longsword and the small amount of gold that they have.

This was a fun little battle. The bulk of the Bullywugs charged the group from the east, cornering them in the stairwell chamber – the stairs leading up having been blocked by the goblins and those down flooded. During the fighting, a couple of the Bullywugs flanked the party by swimming through the flooded lower level and coming up the stairs. Fortunately, Ir’Alle was able to drop these attackers.

Fearing for their injured allies, the party decides to head back to a safe place to rest. On the way back to the Goblin leader’s room, the party regroups with the remainder of their allies in the large hall and the women they saved. Fires are built to protect us from any assault and Ir’Alle manages to call on the favor of his God, Xen’Teler, and heal Axel. However, soon after the party begins resting, a crossbow bolt is fired. One of our frog enemies pokes his head through the door leading eastwards, but quickly runs in fear. Guards are on red-alert for the rest of the night, but fortunately, no attack comes.

At this point, the Bullywugs have suffered serious casualties and the Devil Fish leading them is growing uneasy. They decide not to abandon the bathhouse just yet, though, preparing an ambush to the east. Not mentioned here is the fact that the party knew one more prisoner, a young woman recently married, is still in the hands of the Bullywugs. Their decision to rest before pushing forward leads to her death, which has unforeseen consequences that reverberate through many sessions and leads to political turmoil in the city above.

On the following day, the decision is finally made to go through the double doors through which the Frog-Man had poked his head. Upon entering, the party sees a large chamber complete with frescos (much more risqué than the previous ones encountered), deactivated Automatons, and the mutilated body of the prisoner who was missing from the cells. Due to of heat vision, the party is alerted to the presence of two enemies hidden behind the Automatons, who are quickly dealt with. Upon closer inspection of the Automatons, it is found that they are pretty much the same as the warrior contraptions that were encountered earlier, albeit much more fancy.

The mutilated body of the prisoner was arranged to catch the attention of the party as they entered – there was even a message scrawled on the floor in her blood about the group being too late. This was meant to distract the party’s attention and give the hidden enemies time to strike. The group was not distracted by this ploy.

With only one way to go, the group moved forward. Passing through the doors before them, they encounter the leader of the Bullywugs and three of his minions. However, there is also something in the water. This strange creature cast magical spells on the party freezing the paladin in place, and the party begins to fall like wheat before a scythe to the Bullywugs. The battle is long and gruesome, but ultimately the party of brave adventurers stands victorious over the ruin of their enemies. On the leader, the party finds a scroll, a flask, and five gems of stunning beauty. However, the victory was to be short lived. The creature in the water, a Devil Fish, that previously cast its vile magic upon the adventurers, returns — this time looking for the party’s help. There is a statue that it wanted, a strange stone carving standing beside the small pool of water. The creature claims that it houses the spirit of one of its ancestors, kept alive to guide his people through challenging times. If we help to move it, we can keep the gem in the statue. After much deliberation, Sthorm bravely drinks an elixir found on the body of the Bullywug leader (allowing underwater breathing) and dives into the depths.

[An early Hold Person spell from the Devil Fish (Ixitxachitl) almost turns this battle into a TPK, taking the party’s paladin and one of the dwarven warriors out of the fight. However, the Bullywug commander is distracted trying to push the strange statue into the water – which it fails to do – thereby giving the party time to pick off all the enemies without being overwhelmed. Ultimately, it turns out to be fortunate the paladin is incapacitated since the party is able to make a deal with the devil fish without dealing with his objections. This cooperation with the Devil Fish also has implications later in the campaign, opening up possible approaches to a future problem that would have not been available if they simply killed the creature.]


Sthorm brings the statue to where the Devil Fish requires it and gains a fist-sized gem in return. With our riches in hand and in the company of the freed prisoners, we leave the bathhouse battered and bruised. We returned to the goblin warren and leave with a small sack of supplies, the enchanted Morningstar named “Midnight Star”, and directions to the ancient dwarven tomb.

This was quite the treasure haul, easily providing enough funds via the gem to cover training costs for everyone who gained a level. In fact, the party never really found itself hurting for funds after this point, except for the occasional scramble to pool funds as training costs increased with level. The party soon finds out the gem is more than it seems to be, a fact that brings them quite a bit of attention from the city authorities (both good and bad).They also have the goblins’ blessing to pass through their warren and enter the tunnel leading to the ancient dwarven tomb – where they hope to find the mysterious key the dwarf Desric has hired them to recover.

Upon returning to the surface, the group manages to make a city guard suspicious, but they also manage to deliver the two women from the prison to their homes. Everyone agrees that the women will meet with the party on the following day to tell the tale of their kidnapping so that the adventurers can learn more of the Bullywugs’ plans. With that, the party retires to their townhouse for some much-needed rest.

Nothing else ever came of the Bullywugs – the remaining creatures fled with their Devil Fish master after the last battle and returned to the waters beyond the city via the sewer system. In fact, the Devil Fish has the party’s water-breathing thief maneuver the statue through a hole in the large chamber (hidden among the machines once used to heat the bath water) leading to the sewers. The meeting with the former prisoners and their families, though, does turn out to be important – especially the introduction of the dead prisoner’s bereaved husband.

Earlier this week, Richard LeBlanc shared his OSR time tracking tool on G+. It was an excellent resource, but not quite what I needed for my current campaign. Using his sheet as a model, though, I decided to create my own version optimized for dungeon exploration in the ongoing AD&D 1E campaign detailed elsewhere on this blog (I will likely create another specialized sheet the next time the group embarks on wilderness adventures). Creating the tracker specifically for my campaign allowed me to highlight those exploration activities I find myself most often needing to record as well as add sections for tracking rounds.


Link to PDF: CurabelTimeTracker

Link to Adobe Illustrator File: Google Drive

Here is a quick explanation of the document’s contents:

  • The header allows the DM to record the date (both real and according to the in-game calendar), adventure location, and campaign session number. My own inclination is to use a new sheet each session. I make a quick G+ community post with various bookkeeping information the day after a session, and this tracker has already proven easier to use then tally marks on notebook paper (not to mention the greater granularity of information).
  • Below the header is the first major section of the sheet (each section being indicated by double horizontal lines). This first area is for recording the time spent on activities typically measured in turn increments. As with Richard’s sheet, I use six-piece pies (each representing one hour of in-game time divvied up into ten minute turns). However, instead of generic recording forms that could used for any activity, I went ahead and created dedicated subsections for the specific activities I tend to track: Exploration (i.e., movement), in-depth area searches, casual examination of areas, resting, treasure collecting, destroying doors, memorizing spells, ten round combats, and spells. A few of the activities I am less likely to mark as distinct activities are grouped based on the typical time they take to complete.
  • Next, the middle section of the sheet has areas to record activities that most often take place in increments of one round (i.e., minute) divvied up into blocks of ten — which would be equivalent to a pie slice in the upper area. I wanted somewhere to record this information in the tracker document because these one minute activities tend to add up but often happen in fractions of one turn. A great example of this are listening checks — if you have six rounds of combat and four listen checks spread across a four-hour gaming session, that’s equivalent to a turn and there should be an easy way to track that alongside those activities that are normally a full turn in length.
  • Finally, the bottom section of the document has places for recording the use of limited resources such as light, rations, water, and spells. Light and spells are setup to allow turn-based recording, while the rations and water are simple check-boxes since they are normally exhausted at a rate of one per day for each adventurer.

Fully aware that this document is derivative of Richard LeBlanc’s original and specialized to reflect the peculiarities of my campaign, I still hope there are some who find it useful.