Player Knowledge & Player Choice

Some in the OSR complain about skill systems, particularly due to the introduction of the Thief character class. I understand that with the 3.X/Pathfinder and 5E, skill systems have gotten out of control. In response, I have even heard a call to remove Thieves from the game!

Icewind Dale Thief
I don’t care how bad-ass you look, buddy. You have d4 hp.

The purpose of this post is not to defend the Thief as a legitimate class in an OSR game, but as an aside, I would like to point out that in Moldvay Basic, on page B8, the climbing skill that Thieves get is called “Climb Sheer Surfaces” on the table and “Climb Steep Surfaces” in the description. Leaving aside that slight difference in terminology, this suggests that the Thief is climbing something that no ordinary person could. Anyone can try and climb a knotted rope or a cliff with handholds.

What a Thief does is climb something that seems impossible for a normal mortal.*

Thieves are kind of like this!

So, back to the main point of the post. What is the purpose of a skill system? I would argue that there the purpose of a skill system (whether a limited skill system that only pertains to a couple character classes or if skills apply to everyone) is the following:

Give a character an ability that other characters do not have (or give them a chance to improve an ability everyone has)

What does this look like? For example, the nearly supernatural wall climbing ability of a Thief. No one else can climb a sheer surface without handholds or rope, but they can climb walls with handholds or the assistance of a rope.

Let us suppose I am making an OSR game set in the modern day. I create a “Ne’er-do-well” class. One of the abilities of this class is that it has a percentage chance to perform a crazy maneuver in a car (instant U-turn, weaving in and out of traffic turning a high-speed pursuit, parallel parking, that sort of thing…think of the Fast and Furious movies). This class is the only class with this kind of ability. As a game designer, am I saying that no other characters can drive cars? Absolutely not! Other characters can drive cars normally, but only the Ne’er-do-well can do incredible driving feats.

Here is a real-life example: I can change the tires on my car, but I cannot change them as quickly as a NASCAR pit crew can! Even though my character class (Incredibly Handsome & Smart Guy) does not have “Change Tires Quickly” as a skill, I can still change a tire. However, if time is of the essence, I better hope I have “NASCAR Pit Crew Dude” in my party when a tire goes flat!

All of this assumes that players know what their characters can do. Modern players sometimes are under the impression that their characters can only do what is explicitly written on the character sheet. I know; I used to be that way!

When a player asks these questions…

Can my character tie someone up?

Can my character ride a horse?

Can my character cook some jambalaya?

…say “Yes”. Don’t add a “Hog-Tying” or “Ride Horse” or “Cajun Cookin'” skill to your game. Assume that the characters can do lots of things automatically, without a need to roll (if the situation is not desperate). This isn’t to say that a character could have a skill that lets them tie up a person in only five seconds or ride a horse up a mountain or cook a Cajun meal so delectable that it improves a Reaction Roll by +3. It just means that under ordinary circumstances, a character can do many tasks automatically, without a need to roll and check modifiers and add and subtract and do a quadratic equation.


ACKS covers this with the “Adventuring” proficiency that all characters get:

The character is well-equipped for a life of adventure. He knows how to clean and sharpen weapons, saddle and ride a horse, set up a camp, and search for a secret door. He has a rough idea of the value of common coins, trade goods, gems, and jewelry. All player characters are assumed to have Adventuring for purposes of the proficiency throws of standard adventuring tasks.

In your own games, if you have players coming from 3.x/Pathfinder/5E, make it clear what the characters can and cannot do automatically. Hopefully, this will help your players come out of the mindset that “I can only do what my character sheet says I can do” and allow them to do something creative with their characters.

To change gears a little bit, I also want to talk about player choice in games. In order to make smart decisions, a player generally needs to know what their chance of success is when rolling the dice. This is one reason I really like ACKS; it gives the player a lot of information regarding the success or failure of most rolls (or it gives them enough rope to hang themselves with!).

If my character needs a Proficiency Throw of 19+ to do a task, I know that when I roll the d20, I have a 10% chance to succeed at that task (if I roll a 19 or 20). Because my chance of success is so low, I may not attempt the task if death or dismemberment is the cost of failure. If I do choose to roll the dice, I know exactly what I am getting into. Even if the GM secretly rolls the dice so that I don’t know the result (for example, a Thief disarming a trap), I know the rough chance of success. When the trap explodes in my face, and I must roll a Saving Throw of 15+ too survive, at least I knew the odds!

In OSR games, this can also pop up when the GM says “roll a d6 and if you get a 1, you succeed” or “roll a d20 and if you get a result under your Intelligence score, you succeed”. These are quick and simple ways to adjudicate some of the weird situations that come up in play. In these cases, the players knows the odds before rolling the dice.

In 3.x/Pathfinder/5E, the GM sets a Difficulty Class (DC) of a task, but if I understand the rules correctly, the DC is not told to the players. For example, a trap might need the Thief to make a DC 15 Remove Traps roll. The Thief’s character sheet has a +5 next to the Remove Traps skill. When the player of the Thief rolls the d20 and adds 5 to the result, they get a 12. The trap is not removed. However, the Thief’s character had no way of knowing what the chance of success was, so when the penalty for failure comes calling, it can seem unfair. All the player knows is that higher is better.

Without the transparency of a game like B/X or ACKS, the GM can fudge the dice in the player’s favor. If the GM is the only one that sets the DC and knows about it, he can miraculously lower the DC to match the result on the dice. I have been guilty of this in the past. I repent in sackcloth, ashes, and spending too much money on Kickstarters.

Combat is a special exception. Sort of. After a few swings, players that are paying attention will be able to guess the AC of the enemy and they can calculate the effectiveness of their own attacks from there.

So to all you GMs out there, I say this: Give your players the information they need to make bad decisions in the dungeon. Let them know the chance of success or failure!

* For you Appendix N lovers out there (looking at you Jeffro!), I am aware that Spiderman’s climbing ability was not the inspiration for the Thief. However, in our modern media environment, it is the quickest way to explain the difference between “normal climbing” and “Thief climbing”.


Starting a Podcast!

My Podcast Set I
Picture Credit: “My Podcast Set I” by Patrick Breitenbach is licensed under CC by 2.0

I took a big step today and decided to start podcasting. I don’t have fancy equipment, sound editing, or a script. However, I do have bad ideas, nervousness, and a modern-ish cellular telephone.

I am trying to get “The Mixed GM’s Ramblecast” on the Apple podcasting search engine thingee and the other places you can find podcasts, but it might take a couple days to show up. In the meantime, you can find episodes here.

Take a listen and let me know what you think. If you have an account, feel free to send me a voice message. I may include it in a show!

Preview of ‘The Tomb of the Mad Jarl’

As loyal readers of the blog may know, I ran a table of ACKS at the North Texas RPG Convention. I created my own little adventure for the convention and I intend to release it here once I take all my handwritten scribbles and put it into a proper document.

To that end, I have created a little preview of it.

PREVIEW of The Tomb of the Mad Jarl


What do I still need to do?
– Set XP values and treasure for all new monsters
– Fill in NPC information
– Finish fleshing out the village

New ACKS Kickstarter!

I know, I know, I constantly talk about how great the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS) is. They have a new Kickstarter for a ‘kilodungeon’ that I highly recommend you back. The idea is that the ‘kilodungeon’ is bigger than a standard dungeon, but smaller than a megadungeon.

Everything that Autarch releases is high quality, meticulously researched, and well worth your gaming dollar. Go support one of the best OSR publishers in the business!

North Texas RPG Con 2018 Reflections

I am back from North Texas RPG Con 2018 and I have (mostly) recovered. What is great about North Texas is that all RPGs are allowed, but older games and OSR games are the big draw. So much B/X, Swords & WizardryDungeon Crawl Classics, 1st Edition Gamma World, etc is available to play.

My ACKS game was the only ACKS game at the convention, but I was still able to get a full table of adventurers to plunder the depths of the Tomb of the Mad Jarl. The rulebooks that Alexander Macris was kind enough to provide may have helped fill the table at 9:00 am on a Friday morning.

Overall, the adventure went well, but not perfectly. I need to tweak the encounters (or make it a 1st level adventure) to make it properly work. The challenges were not as difficult as I thought they would be.

However, we got to roll on my favorite table in RPG history when one character dropped below 0 hp:


One brave character almost got his genitals crushed, but when I double-checked my math, he only suffered noticeable scarring. Everyone (except the player of that character) was upset by the lack of genital destruction. Overall, it was a success and I hope to bring more ACKS in 2019! (and other conventions if I have the time / money)

I also got to play a game of Swords & Wizardry Light. And, just like last year, my character (a Magic-User with 15 Strength, dubbed the ‘Swoleceror’) died. It was fast, furious, and fatal. (No, not FATAL) We played in a big to-scale representation of one of the levels of Rappan Athuk.

Level 1C of Rappan Athuk from my seat

If you ever need a quick pick-up game, Swords & Wizardry Light is an excellent choice. It only uses two dice (d20 & d6) and plays fast.

Finally, I think I am starting to understand psionics. I was in a game with the author of this book. Despite my earlier skepticism, we were able to play B/X with the psionics and it was smooth as butter (from the player perspective). I know the GM has to handle a bit more behind the scenes, but I can see how psionics can integrate into a game better than I could before.

Overall, this convention is really fantastic if you like smaller cons and the OSR. I hope to see some of you there next year!

Behind the Scenes of ‘The Tomb of the Mad Jarl’

June is slowly approaching and that means that the North Texas RPG Convention! My adventure is slowly shaping up (and I am trying to write it / format it in a way that I can release it shortly after the convention for others to use) to be a fun and weird little dungeon.

I have gained a lot of respect for adventure writers, even bad adventure writers. There are enough hand-written notes and ideas floating around in my head to run it, but I want to be able to share it with all of you. Translating my vision / ideas into easily readable sentences is not as easy as I thought it would be.

The world needs more good adventures and I intend to deliver! It may not be “Assault on the Review of Nations” or “The Tomb of the Mad Jarl”, but one day…

Here is an example of what I am making:

Two of the keyed locations from the dungeon map. I made a small hex map, a map of the village, and a dungeon map.

The goal is for this to be a weird mish-mash of strange encounters that are a mixture of combat / social interactions, depending on the reaction rolls. We shall see if this succeeds.

*non-spoiler spoiler, the Mad Jarl worshiped Loki, the trickster god…so anything goes*

Once the convention is over, I will release the PDF on the blog for all to download.

Psionics: Can They Be Integrated?

Is it possible to integrate psionics / psychic powers into a D&D game? There seem to be two approaches to psionics, and for simplicity sake, I am going to refer to them as the ‘Old Way’ and the ‘New Way’.


The Old Way

Often seen in older editions, the Old Way is to make every character have the potential to have psychic powers, in addition to the normal class powers (such as Appendix 1 in the AD&D Player’s Handbook). This could unbalance the game, by having some characters having this strange mind power and others having nothing, even if their character class is the same. This could lead to abuse by players or GMs. If your character is not psychic, they may be particularly vulnerable to that kind of attack. Thus, the GM is forced to run two different scenarios every encounter in order to be fair. Psychic players vs psychic monsters and non-psychic players vs non-psychic monsters. Otherwise the psychic powers can easily dominate the non-psychic characters / monsters.

Reminds me of the bit in “The Once and Future King” where it is mentioned that King Arthur revolutionized war by having his armored knights fight the enemy armored knights, rather than his armored knights slaughter the enemy’s peasants and the enemy armored knights slaughtered his peasants until one king gave up and left the battlefield.

I understand the whole “suck it up; life’s not fair” attitude that many the OSR have. However, in this case, I think this kind of psionics rules should be used carefully, if not at all. These powers are not earned through clever play (such as finding a powerful magical item) or normal leveling up (which is a result of clever play).

Additionally, the psychic mechanics are tacked on to the existing game, so everyone at the table may need to know the psychic rules, in case it comes up for their character. I don’t know about you, but at the table, more mechanics often means more confusion for the players that don’t obsessively read the rule books between sessions.

The New Way

In the New Way, often seen in newer editions, psychic power is confined to new character classes (for example, 3rd edition). Any new mechanics introduced are just for the psychic characters / monsters, in the same way that spellcasters are the only ones who deal with the spell casting rules. A person playing a Fighter or Thief does not need to worry about them.

Rolling a save vs spell or save vs psychic power or save vs poison or save vs death is essentially the same mechanically. Roll a die and based on the result, something good or bad happens. The non-psychic players don’t need to know a gosh-darn thing about the psychic rules and they can still have a good time playing with the psychic player.

However, this leads to a psionic character being just an alternate wizard. Nothing really new is brought to the game.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

I really don’t know. Both approaches have value, but they both have downsides as well. I suppose there is a third way, which would be “No psionics at all”, but the popularity of psychic powers in games shows that people want them.

How can they be integrated into a game? Or should they be abandoned like my hopes and dreams?