Silver Standard

This post was drafted ages ago after replying to a nice post on Delta’s blog, then completely forgotten.

Use of gold standard in D&D irks me a bit. I started my career with Das Schwartz Auge (silver standard) and Kata Kumbas (silver standard as well). If characters need 5 gold pieces to eat for a week, it feels terribly fake. 15 GP/week for iron rations is even worse. It gets even worse if you consider that 10 GP make a pound (that’s 45 grams of gold for you), while gold florins weighted about 7 grams.

D&D, DAS and KK use a 1:10:100 gold:silver:copper conversion ratio. GURPS use a copper standard and a 1:20:80 rate. The same rate was used in medieval England. This is not to be confused with money of account ratios of 1:20:240 (pounds, shillings, pence) you can find on the Medieval Sourcebook price list (which is very interesting: Delta here discusses prices more in depth).

The 1:20:80 rate is what I’d use if it wasn’t for treasure tables are rated for a 1gp=1xp rate. Converting the treasure tables seems something useful to do. From now on I’ll convert everything this way:

  • old SP 4:1 to gold sovereigns/orbs/crowns/florins/marks/luis d’or (as the relative value goes from 5 old GP to 20 new shillings)
  • old GP 1:1 to silver shillings/scudi/talers/dollars
  • old SP 1:1 to copper pennies/soldi/rappels
  • old CP just vanish (nobody ever cared about them) or are converted to tin coins

All prices are now expressed in shillings, obviously, and coins weight 7 grams each, which means 1000 coins to a stone. And 1 XP is awarded for every silver piece or equivalent “brought back to civilization”. This means that the amount of coin-based experience haulable back from dungeons increased about six times.

Also, there are two additional kinds of “money” I use in my campaign (both strangely liked by players over the years):

  • letters of credit: it’s a proto-cheque, featured also in Scott’s Ivanhoe (won’t spoil for what purpose). The theory goes that holding the letter gives you credit (as in, you’re owed money) from the emitting financial institution or merchant and you can use it as money with third parties that recognize the emitter. Obviously it’s as good as the emitter line of credit with said third parties. Obviously it’s really easy to burn a letter. In my campaigns usually jewelers, cities, banks and trading companies pay with letters of credit if the amount goes over 1000gp/shillings.
  • Bullion/hacksilver: chunks of precious metal, to be traded by weight. Some of them might be pretty ingots showing with the holder trading company symbol in relief. Some of them might be shaped like torcs, pendants and the like. Some are just slabs, or pieces hacked off a church altar or something very posh.

against the grain: evolutionary sandboxes and fun with hexmaps

Our sandbox campaign is picking up speed lately.

Players are keen on following the seeds I plant and other things I mention. They are taking way more initiative, doing things on their own and buy pack mules and mercenaries to guard their remote camps.

Awesome; exactly what I wanted, for a few reasons:

  1. Players are way more engaged now: the empowerment given by the “endgame” usually does that, even if they don’t have fortresses/armies yet, but as previously mentioned they got crenelation rights over a ruined fortress (it’s the ruined Rodemus Castle from Moldway repurposed as “ruined border fortress, blocking a mountain pass used to trade with the Eastern Kingdom” (and before you dismiss “Eastern Kingdom” as a lame name, please note it’s more or less the meaning of Österreich, Austria for your anglophones)).
  2. Their drive make interesting campaign elements emerge and I just need to riff on them, which is helpful because I can simply give full attention to bloom  better focus on NPCs, encounters, locations, rhythm. Furthermore player having ideas keeps me from fretting over planting seeds, as the “campaign elements density” reaches criticality (the point where people start saying “I can’t keep track of what the heck is going on”) sooner, which in my opinion is the sweet spot.
  3. The most valuable insight I gained from running this campaign is that interesting seeds (either introduced by me or by them) are followed more; even better, in a sandbox the best seeds are the followed ones, those garnering interest from players. Bad seeds don’t sprout simply because they’re not followed, removing the motivation to sprout at all, and with it the effort. Obviously the DM can make them evolve in the background anyway, if he can be bothered/remember to. See “criticality” above, and prepare to read more about this as my thoughts on the topic coalesce 🙂

The other topic for tonight is random ramblings on hexmaps.

Using Hexographer I started to put together my campaign map, with 24 miles hexes, as per BECMI set. It started as a “glue” to link dungeons and towns, and evolved by conglomerating bits and bobs from previous campaigns the group was not involved with, and by writing some bad fiction (I’m too ashamed of that to even show it to my players): the first glued bits were B/X Rodemus Castle, Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos, Threshold (later removed and changed to Capolago, “LakeEnd”), Sham’s Dismal Depths, a handful of villages and so on.

Here on the right there’s map a portion depicting the Libera Lega di Sidesi, “Sidesi Free League”, a bunch of ex-warlords that conquered bits and pieces of wild lands and asked settlers over. The land still a bit rough, as it’s mostly woods and mountains, but it’s a good place to live as an adventurer. Borders are dashed in red, Capolago is the town right in the middle of the map and Sidesi is 5 hexes south of it. The map is still incomplete as, well, most things are still TBD. The grain is vertical, as you can see.

Why do I care about grain? Because I use hexes to resolve movement and to track positions. Hexmaps have lots of qualities (go read Dunnigan’s Complete Wargames Handbook if you’re interested in hexpr0n), but the fault of introducing distortion if moving against the grain (well, it’s a problem common to all maps with discrete, “grid-like” locations): if in the map right here you wanted to move two hexes to the right you’d moving “two steps” (for example SE,NE) but the “real” distance is the square root of three (about 1.73). Not as bad as “squared” maps with diagonal movement costing 1 or 2 (and not 1.5), but still.

A little advice: orientate the hex grains on the expected “usual” travel directions. If you expect movement to happen from east to west, pick an horizontal grain, if north to south pick an horizontal grain. Even better, take a fountain pen and some good paper, draw a map and use compass and ruler to calculate movement disregarding entirely the grid.

A couple of weeks ago I learnt about the free Judges Guild map template and its design and decided that, well, I had to use it. So I started to draw maps with 5-mile hexes. The purple hex is to show the extension of the “big hex” from the JG templates. Here’s the “more detailed” map, with Capolago in the middle, the Keep on the Borderlands and Caves of Chaos at the NW edge, Rodemus Castle to the SE and the dismal Depths under the ruined castle in the mountain hex by the lake. The south is more developed as it’s where players hang out more. Lots of stuff is not on this map obviously, as my players read the blog… 🙂

Something else to consider when “putting places on maps” is overland speed. Unencumbered PC can travel 32 miles/day on roads, 24 on “easy” ground. This makes me definitely realize that PCs are either trained soldiers, expert trekkers or übermenschen: have you walked 32 miles miles a day on paths for more than a week, cooking and setting up camp every day, maybe in the rain, maybe with bad wounds, possibly while having fights with monsters and horders of goblinoids?

Or maybe they were fitter as they walked everywhere and had manual jobs and, most important, were not not unfit geeks that enjoy playing fantasy adventure games.

Red Box Class: Berserker

A while ago I was randomly browsing Moldway monsters when I noticed that the berserker entry could be a totally sweet player class. That additional +2 to hit against humanoids is really sweet for low level characters.

A totally sweet class for players that don’t mind having their characters dying often. Very often.

As bersekers don’t run away from a fight.

Don’t take prisoners.

Always fight to the death.

And use light armours: maybe because they’re just wanderers and metal armours need maintenance, maybe because less encumbrance makes easier to charge your enemies as they’re fleeying from you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

That’s most of my players, by the way. Because we all want different things from D&D, and at times being amongst the meanest, badassest and heavy fucking metal dudes around is what you are looking for.

And then your character dies. Berserkers are not supposed to be balanced, but neither are supposed to survive much. The hit bonuses are going to be less interesting at high levels, but the penalties will always hurt.


Berserkers are people that in combat hppen to flip out and stop killing when there’s no enemy left standing. Sometimes they keep on with their maiming around even after after that.

To hit roll, saving throws, weapon allowed, multiple attacks: as fighting men.

Hit dice: 1d10, +3/lvl after level 9

Armors allowed: just leather and padded armours (and linothorax if available). Shield usable. Dragon skin armours usable.

Special abilities:

WHAAAG! (think about your vanilla black metal singer growling a battlecry): once they start fighing, if there’s an enemy in sight, they’ll do their best to kill/maim/disable all of them. They never surreder, fail a morale roll, are immune to fear, and so on.

BLOOOD! (same as above): +2 to hit rolls against humans and human like creatures.

GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG! (once more with feeling): +2 to hit rolls against giants, dragons, sea monsters, titans, gods, demigods and other badass monsters.

This is just a labour of love for my players. Don’t complain to me if you alow this class and your campaign world dies chocking in a nightmarish maestrom of pillage, massacre and rape.

usability test and DM screen

I’m putting together a new GM screen because I found out that AC7-1 (that came with my Italian D&D Companion set) is kinda useless to me and my players as all the tables on it are either used when a new level is gained (so they can be in a manual, as they don’t need to be referred to more than once every few games) or are not used due to rules revision (percentile thieving skill scores).

As I usually run hexcrawls or dungeons, mostly improvised (as my players manage to derail even a sandbox), I made a list of the the bits I referred to more often. In randomish order:

  • NPC reactions (B24, Moldway Basic)
  • death’s door (homebrewed version of Jeff Rients‘s)
  • dungeon stock and unguarded treasure (a riff on B52 and Sham‘s)
  • treasure tables (B45)
  • wandering monsters, level 1-3 (B53-54), but could do with a better selection
  • missile fire ranges (B27)
  • character movement (homebrewed variant of B27, integrating armours, AC and encumbrance)
  • overland movement and trasportation (Expert set, sadly not integrated yet with above table)
  • campaign and dungeon maps
  • monster stats (but could do with a short summary)

Players often referred to:

  • armor, weapons and equipment lists (B12)
  • their campaign map, dungeon maps and other handouts
  • the Expert set fortification shopping list, mostly for drooling 😉

This gave me the idea of having a three panel screen with a panel devoted to “dungeon improvisation”, panel that can be covered by a one-page-dungeon or by the campaign map (with a paperclip) as it’s not going to be used much during overland travel or while going through a “pre-made” dungeon. The idea of adding a fourth panel with town/npc improvisation tables, to be maybe covered with random encounters or features specific to the current (non city) locale (mirroring the dungeon improvisation panel usage) seems also a good idea.

On the players’ side, their maps and handouts can be paperclipped to the screen, covering what they don’t need.

Do you use a screen? Do you have any advice? Any table or content I should include on any side of the screen? Please leave a comment. 🙂

a mind blank and improvisation

When I’m tired my language skills are terrible. I wrote this at 1:30 AM after a very long day. please forgive me.

It’s been a while since my last post here. About 10 days.

It also must be said that meanwhile I started about 10 drafts, but none of them seemed worthwhile enough. Possibly beause I’m very tired and feel very spent, possibly because (before sunday) I haven’t run a game since April 4th, when the party went TPK. I played Carlo’s GURPS fantasy sandbox a handful of times in the meanwhile, enjoyed a few games of Agricola, Sankt Petersburg, Carcassonne, San Juan. But no games run.

But Sunday players came over, rolled new PCs and decided to start over in a random campaign location. to pick the spot one literally closed his eyes and pointed at the map. Turned out the location was exactly one hex away from there the TPK happened. I could have had railroaded them back to the “main campaign” but they wanted something different, so I just came up with this village of hunters, loggers and shepherds, and unilaterally declared that their PCs are teenagers, a few months before their “coming of age” ritual.

I could have gone a bit further and, instead of let them pick a “normal” equipment, force them to look around and pick stuff up.

But they decided to go hunting, to show off. And stumbled in tracks, that ended at a cavern, smoked out what was inside and killed a bear. In the bear cave they found a dungeon entrance as well. They went in and did neat old school stuff. As in having their gender changed by a magic fountain, set a tapestry afire, which in turn made angry an ogre, which later was dispatched as it charged the spear-set characters. Enough loot was had to max-out level 2, mostly jewels (which are extremely valuable in B/X and BECMI), plus a +1 long sword, light on command (but they don’t know the command, and it’s switched on). Nothing too complex, but good fun was had, and later feedback was good.

Same setup as last time (at the Glasgow University gaming club), except I didn’t chicken out. Because, despite not having prepared anything, I spent some time preparing myself to improvise; decent “fluff” comes easy, but decent “crunchy bits” are a way, way harder for me. My mind was blank, but I had tools.

A few notes from the session:

  • d6 as oracle: simply put, if something is in doubt, a x-in-6 change is determined and a dice is rolled.
  • Kellri’s Old School Reference manuals proved to be awesome again, specially volume 4.
  • Dungeon was built using geomorphic tiles from A Character for Every Game. If a dungeon is needed it can be uncomfortably hard to come up with one. In this case tiles were pulled out randomly from a stack. I expected to see a 8×8 pattern of content but a mix of transcription errors and a bit of fudging made it more organic (and made the tiles reusable). Sure, it can feel a bit randomish, but most probably it was built by a number of different cultures/people over the years and not just by the current inhabitants, so there is the increased verosimilitude of both adapting the inhabitant needs to the living space and the inhabitants adapting the living space. Kobolds burrowed and the ogre kept for himself the bigger room. The magic fountain makes water available (the magic wears off if water is taken away).
  • Moldway suggestion to stock the dungeon with a few selected monsters and fill the rest with the dungeon stock table. Jeff Rients, in a great article in Fight On! #6, advices to split the population in “main guys” (say, a tribe of kobolds), a “lone wolf” (say, OGRE) and random creeps (snakes, fungi, etc): coming up with interaction between these three groups is up to you and, while technically not needed, can add complexity and depth to the dungeon (the ogre is fed by the kobolds so to keep him from going “OGRE SMASH”). Sham wrote on the topic of empty rooms and dungeon stocking a lot (also in more meaningful posts that I can’t find at the moment) so if you want to know more just follow the link.
  • Rients suggests also to create a random encounter table specific for the location. The tables provided in B/X has entries that probably won’t fit with your dungeon. My suggestion is to start with an empty table and fill it with random results from other tables, replacing entries that don’t fit with handpicked ones or with monster from the above three groups.
  • my GM screen (AC7) doesn’t have any table that I use in game. I prepared a list with 22 items I needed to refer to (more or less) frequently that my stupid screen doesn’t make available. I might try to consult Dragonlance DM screen (my favourite from AD&D) to to see if it has any good bits I missed.
  • take notes on what you create, so you can refer to them later. Running a campaign like this is like a flyweight: if it’s not moving, it takes effort to move it, but as you fill in the blanks it will be easier and easier to create material. In this case coherency can be both a great help and a really powerful tool, because if something is “wrong” you have an “instant mistery” (as in “why the caravans that left the village last week never made it to the city?”).
  • the biggest asset tho was to have no idea whatsoever of what would happen next. I often riff off my player’s ideas because, well, if it’s fun to “say yes”, it’s even funnier to run away with them.

For me, improvisation is a skill that needs practice and can be helped a lot by the right tools. It requires confidence from the DM and willingness to risk (both to be wiped out and to have a bad game) from players. It’s definitely thepart of running games that I prefer, and with practice it gets more and more effective and easier. It’s just a matter of getting started.