The giant crab from White Plume Mountain by Erol Otus

Lunchtime Dungeons: in praise of mix-and-matching game rules

My office Lunchtime Dungeons game stopped in the middle of a fight this week. Tomorrow, the players will face two high-level priestesses of Lolth who planeshifted on them to free a prisoner. And I have no idea who will die.

I know, you can never tell in advance how a fight will go in an adventure game. Those chancy d20s, right? But even then, I have no statistical idea of who will win, and that’s mostly because I’m mixing rules systems all the time. 

The characters are made with Lunchtime Dungeons, and armed with items and spells from across the old school galaxy, old worn books and spiffy new PDFs. The opposition is straight from a Spelljammer adventure. And I am not doing any conversion work.

This makes me the ultimately fair referee. When the players ask me “how powerful would this dragon be?”, I can only answer in in-world terms. “Well, it razed a couple of villages, and the party of knights that was sent to kill it never came back.” Of course, I can compare hit dice and levels, but I never know the way I would if every element of the game was written in the same system.

I saw interesting power level discrepancies when I was running old modules in Macchiato Monsters, but I blamed freeform magic. You can trust clever players with level 5 magic users to get out of White Plume Mountain with a friendly, momentarily shrunk biggest giant crab anyone’s ever seen in a bucket of water.

The giant crab from White Plume Mountain, by Erol Otus. Not seen in Lunchtime Dungeons... yet.
Who needs a sentient trident when they can have this guy for a pet?

In my present game, magic is of course a factor. It’s like an enclosed Flailsnails campaign, if you will. It’s an open table, ongoing game; people drop out for long enough for me to forget all about their abilities and the items they picked up. When they come back, looking everything up is not an option, so I make a ruling. Same with those AD&D spells the dark elves have – I’ve read over them when prepping, but I probably won’t check the exact procedure at the table.

So shit will happen that no one could have foreseen – not the players, who mostly aren’t into rules anyway, and certainly not me. For all of us, the world is this unpredictable, dangerous, believable mess. Will a minor potion save the day? Will the toughest fighter in the party be turned into dust? Will the campaign setting be set ablaze by a barely controlled spell?

I don’t know. And that’s the way I like it.

A wizard casting Magic Missile at an ogre. Art by Larry Elmore

Rewriting the B/X Spell List (2nd level)

As promised, this is the second part of the spell list for Dungeonsnack, my minimalistic adventure game system. (I guess I have no excuse to not release it now.) You can find the first part of the spell list here. Again, the goal is to have an original spell list that encourages out-of-the-box thinking for my team building sessions of Dungeons & Dragons.

What’s next? I’ll look at the lists for higher level spells, but as I have made these more flexible, I’m expecting a lot of the spells to be redundant. Also, first and second level spells are what I need for introductory games, so it may be a while.

1980s wizard ladu by Larry Elmore.

30 Low-Level Spells for Adventure and OSR Games

1. Attune Map
2. Aura Sight
3. Battle Hymn
4. Blessing of the Fickle Saints
5. Celestial Window
6. Cloak of the Chameleon
7. Commune with Stygian Librarian
8. Crystalline Barricade
9. Djinn Guardian
10. Eldritch Surgery
11. Emberskin
12. Experience the Possible
13. Fly True, my Trusted Friend!
14. Fungal Changeling
15. Gift of the Tongue
16. Halo of the Selenites
17. Head over Heels
18. La Fontaine’s Trick
19. Mechanomancy
20. Microwave Shell
21. Mouldbane
22. Phase Shift, Offensive
23. Pylophony
24. Reflective Retreat
25. Shadow Torchbearer
26. Soul Vortex
27. Spelltrap
28. The Unwearied Wanderers
29. Toadstool Theatrics
30. Vermin Friendship

Attune Map

Duration: 10 minutes
The caster causes a map they are holding to commune with the part of reality it represents. They can ask it one yes-or-no question per caster level. The map’s knowledge is limited to cartographical features: it doesn’t know about occupants or the history of the place (unless the map is ancient, missing pieces, or otherwise special – at the referee’s discretion).
For the price of 3 questions, the caster can point to a blank space on the map. The room or area there appears, drawn as accurately as the rest of the map. There is 1-in-6 chance that each trap, secret door, or other hidden feature is represented. 

>> I love locate object for dungeon delving. It took a while to find an idea for this, but I’m quite happy with the way this makes the in-world map more relevant.

Blessing of the Fickle Saints

Duration : until fully expanded (see below)
The Kasinous, also known as the 36 fickle saints of chance, turn their attention onto the caster and their allies. The party gets a Blessing risk die according to the caster’s level: Δ6 if 1st to 3rd levels, Δ8 at 4th to 6th levels, Δ10 at 7th to 9th level, and Δ12 at 10th level and above. 

  • Every round, exploration turn, or travel day, any player can roll the Blessing die and add its result to the dice roll of their choice. 
  • On a result of 1 to 3, the die is stepped down to the next lower die (Δ12 to Δ10 to Δ8 to Δ6 to Δ4). A Δ4 that is stepped down means the blessing is expanded. 
  • On the maximum result, the die is stepped up (Δ6 to Δ8, and so on) and the 36 saints change their mind: the Blessing die goes to the referee, who uses it as they want. 
  • If the referee gets the maximum result, they give the Blessing die back to the players.
  • If the Blessing die hasn’t been used at the end of a round (in combat) or exploration turn (outside of combat) or day (in a city or wilderness environment), whoever holds it (referee or players) must give it to the other side. 

* Risk dice are from Macchiato Monsters: they are noted Δn instead of dn (where n is the number of sides of the die).

>> This is obviously bless. I’ve just tried to make the spell more interesting than an improved 5% chance of hitting monsters and resisting spells.

Celestial Window

Duration: until dispelled
A spell inherited from spacefaring elven archmages. It creates a minute, airtight window to the vicinity of a distant sun. The window appears on the palm of the caster’s dominant hand, projecting a cone of light. Within their ability, the caster decides the type of sun and how close to it the portal is.

  • The caster chooses the colour and the range of the light (up to the caster’s level in metres). 
  • If the caster wills it so, the window also casts radiation that is damaging to living tissue (caster level in damage per round of exposure — save to avoid). 
  • A sentient being staring directly at the window for several hours can sometimes glimpse a secret of the universe (referee decides – a save is always needed to stay sane).
  • By touching their palm to a surface (an attack roll may be needed), the caster can stick the window to it. It stays there after that. 
  • Star invasion. If the window is left unattended, there is a 1-in-6 chance every month it opens and lets something out.

>> Continual light is such a good spell for enterprising PCs, and also the first premise of the old magic-breaks-the-world conundrum. (Why isn’t everything lit by continual light items after a couple of generations?). We already have two light shedding spells, so I looked at the offensive aspect of the light spells, trying not to undermine shadow torchbearer and aura of the Selenites.

Cloak of the Chameleon

Duration: until removed
The caster grants the power of camouflage to a single skin or pelt. The more exotic the skin is, the harder it is to notice the wearer (or hidden area/object) by sight or smell (the wearer make just as much noise as anyone else).
Some guidelines are given below. Note that the chance of hiding is for a creature who stays very still; it is reduced by 1 or more if it is moving. At the referee’s discretion, a large pelt can be used by more than one creature. When the skin is removed, the spells ends and the skin is destroyed.

  • Hood of pigeon feathers: 1-in-6
  • Ram or billy goat skin: 2-in-6
  • Stallion or bull hide: 3-in-6
  • Polar bear or white tiger pelt: 4-in-6
  • Halfling scout or elf maiden skin: 5-in-6
  • Blink dog or displacer beast fur: 6-in-6
  • Lammasu or ki-rin: 7-in-6

>> This is merely a reskinned (haha) version of invisibility with a tug towards plot creation. Side note: I love that invisibility can make objects disappear permanently. I don’t think this is used often enough! Maybe because of magic-breaks-the-world again? How long does it take until cities are full of invisible doors and coffers?

Crystalline Barricade

Duration: permanent until destroyed
This spell creates a 10 square metres surface of translucent, friable quasi-matter (the caster chooses the exact dimensions). The barricade has d6 hit points per caster level and can be destroyed by normal means. 
Reducing the barricade’s HP to half is enough to poke holes into it, making it porous to spells and missile attacks. 

>> Basically, a more combat focus version of web. It’s not as awesome, though. I may rework or rewrite it later.

Emberskin

Duration: 1 turn per caster level
This impressive but uncomfortable spell wreathes the caster’s skin in hot smoke and burning ash. They are immune to normal and magical fire, but everything they touch or wear have a 1-in-6 chance of melting or catching fire every minute.
Also, even if the caster can breathe normally, their companions may want to stay upwind of them. 
Of course, stealth is out of the question in most environments (except maybe volcanoes and hellish planes).  

>>This is resist fire with a bit of added texture and risk.

Experience the Possible

Duration: 1 second per caster level
Casting this spell with a mere whisper, the character can glimpse into a timeline branching from reality, starting with their next action. The experience is very short, but sufficient to get an idea of whether a door is trapped, or if an interlocutor would take offense at a joke, etc.
When the spell ends, the caster effectively goes back in time and must decide what to do. If they choose not to act at all, they must save or be forced to reenact the triggering action. This is why wizards have a reputation of acting strangely sometimes.

>> Without invisibility, detect invisible is useless. So I thought abut information gathering spells, keeping in mind that I have two strong ones already. I am aware that this could be used to accurately detect traps, but as it’s a one-use spell, I don’t think thieves will feel disempowered.

A magic user casting the DPS spell. Art by Larry Elmore

Head over Heels

Duration: 1 hour
The target’s relationship with the floor and ceiling is inverted; also, their feet and hands swap purposes. Not only are they able to use their hands to walk, magically suspended from the ceiling, but also they can manipulate objects with their legs. If there is no ceiling, tree branches and other overhead objects can be used to walk. The spell doesn’t work if there aren’t any.
It is however very difficult for them to interact with the floor and ceiling normally (just as it would be for someone else to walk on their hands while holding a sword with their toes). An unwilling target is allowed to save. 

>> A silly reskin of levitation. I voluntarily glossed over its effect on gravity to let referees decide what happens when this spell is cast in places with very high ceilings.

La Fontaine’s Trick

Duration: permanent
Up to one normal animal per caster level is granted the ability to speak. Roll 1d12 to know what languages the creatures know. Look at the table below: it can understand and speak the languages between (die result) and (result + caster level).
The animals also gain the personality traits in brackets corresponding to the die’s result, which may influence their reaction to the characters. 

1: Demonic (cruel and scheming)
2: Draconic (greedy and temperamental)
3: Goblin (cowardly and mocking)
4: Medusa (artsy and traitorous)
5: Gnoll (proud and ferocious)
6: Dwarvish (gruff and industrious)
7: Elvish (haughty and intellectual)
8: Gnomish (curious and inventive)
9: Halfling (hungry and jolly)
10: Sylvan (shy and benevolent)
11: Celestial (peaceful and judgmental)
12+: Common (talkative and nosy)

For example, a 3rd level caster who rolls a 6 to bestow speech to a group of mules would bestow them the ability to speak Dwarvish, Elvish, Gnomish, and Halfling. The animals would behave like a bunch of grumpy miners. 

>> Talk with animals. A druid spell before there were even druid player characters! Again, I tried to make it more playful while covering the same area. I hope you will forget the meta/French name.

Mechanomancy

Duration: 1 hour
The caster gets an innate sense of how mechanisms and complicated machines work. Their chance to detect moving parts, such as pressure plates and secret doors is twice as likely with a cursory glance (they will always detect them when looking).
The caster is able to infer what (non-magical) effects pulling a lever or turning a key will trigger. They aren’t able to disarm a trap, but their description of the mechanisms should give a generous bonus to the thief’s skill roll. The caster also learns how to operate machinery, but they must make an INT check if they want to keep doing so after the spell ends.

>> I cast find traps and we can fire the party’s thief! Again, this is an attempt at broadening the applications of the spell while creating a lot of edge cases (and headaches for the referee).

Reflective Retreat

The caster holds a silver mirror (worth 10 GP) in their hand. If they are hit by an attack, the mirror is destroyed and the caster disappears into the mirror dimension for 1d4 rounds. Note that the caster can also destroy the mirror.
They cannot affect the material world, but they can watch it (and be seen) through reflective surfaces, including the mirror’s fragments. They are free to do whatever they like during the spell’s duration. If they wander too far away from a reflective surface however, the referee may ask for a check or save to avoid becoming lost in the mirror dimension. 
At the end of the spell’s duration, the caster reenters reality from the closest mirror or reflective surface.

>> Mirror image is everyone’s favourite defensive spell, even if this version is less efficient than the one I remember from AD&D. This is less efficient as a combat spell, but creative PCs can use reflective retreat to explore and bypass obstacles.

Soul vortex

Duration: 1 hour
Range: 10 metres per level
This spell lets the caster open an invisible gate into the astral void, where the spirits of the dead travel. The astral currents thus released let the caster perceive the souls of sentient beings in the vicinity, even if the beings are not normally seen (i.e. invisible, or just in another room). By concentrating on one soul in particular, they can:

  • Know whether it has a connection to a divine or other powerful supernatural being (like clerics, warlocks, or some undead). 
  • Borrow the soul for up to a minute per level, allowing instant communication of complex thoughts and concepts. (Touch required, save cancels.) The target’s body falls unconscious until the soul is returned. 

>> As written in Moldvay and Cook, ESP is mostly useful for detecting enemies (provided you have time) and interrogate prisoners. I tried to duplicate this and add another use. Also, there should be more soul magic in D&D. Soul harvest from Wonders & Wickedness has provided much entertainment at my table!

Spelltrap

Duration: 1 minute per caster level
The caster conjures a mystical sphere of energy that automatically captures a spell cast or aimed at a point in its immediate vicinity. The spelltrap hovers and can be moved slowly as long as its caster concentrates. When the spelltrap ends, the captured spell takes effect as if cast at the spot where the trap was. Some additional details:

  • A spelltrap can be popped like a bubble; it has AC 0 (19), and a number of hit points equal to its caster’s level. 
  • The caster of a spelltrap can attempt to dissipate the captured magic, effectively negating the spell. However, there is a base 1-in-6 chance that the spell is released accidentally. Add 1 to these odds if the caster of the trapped spell is of higher level, and 1 if the caster of the spelltrap doesn’t know the captured spell. 
  • At level 3, the caster can capture their own spell if they cast it immediately after spelltrap
  • At level 7, the spelltrap can be kept empty and floating for up to an hour, or until it captures a spell. 

>> Replacing silence, 15ft radius is no easy task. I had to choose between its two effects: stealth and incapacitating spell casters. I went with the latter, and made it more polyvalent if not as efficient ror the purposes of killing evil cultists.

Toadstool Theatrics

Duration: concentration (see below)
The caster throws mushrooms on the ground (up to one mushroom per level); each one grows into the desired shape, up to the size of a large humanoid. The caster must concentrate on the spell to animate their fungal creations. If they stop, the theatrics crumble in 1d6 minutes. 
Only rare and expensive* mushrooms can accurately mimic a creature or object, but any fungus can approximate a humanoid or a door well enough to fool a casual viewer at a distance or in dim light.

* Rare and expensive: according to the setting and the referee’s discretion. If they plan to impersonate an elven queen, the caster may have to quest for the mythical royal purple milkcap, which can only be found in Farthest Faerie. Any decent alchemist will sell a dozen greenwart puffballs, good for mimicking goblinkind humanoids, for about 8 GP. 

>>This is phantasmal force with a fungal twist and an opportunty for story hooks.

Vermin Friendship

Duration: 10 minutes per caster level
The caster is able to communicate with one type of creature commonly considered as vermin (insects, arachnids, some rodents, birds, or bats, etc.). Cooperation is not guaranteed: roll 1d10 + caster level on the monster reaction table (reproduced below).
At the referee’s discretion, an offering (of food, for example) may justify another roll. 

2d6 Reaction
2 or less Hostile, attacks
3–5 Unfriendly, may attack
6–8 Neutral, uncertain
9–11 Indifferent, uninterested
12 or more Friendly, helpful

>> I have no idea how snake charm made it into the Greyhawk book of OD&D. Bible inspiration? Good ole orientalism crap? Did someone in the original crews run a snake themed dungeon? Will we ever know? John Peterson, we need you!

Players deciphering a players map at Trolls & Légendes

Game conventions and team building

Running Dungeons & Dragons in a corporate environment isn’t something we nerds usually do.

Roleplaying games are traditionally something we play with our friends, and doing it with strangers for team building and wellness purposes is a bit of a leap. Fortunately for my self confidence, it turns out I’ve done this many times before. I spent the Easter weekend at a convention – the always amazing Trolls & Légendes in Belgium were I was invited to run my latest release, Macchiato Monsters. I’ve done this sort of thing maybe a hundred times in the last 20 years and I always love it, but this was the first time I ran at a con since I started Desks and Dragons. And interestingly, I noticed more than a few similarities between the ‘demo’ games you typically run at such nerdy gatherings and the ones I host in offices. 

Players deciphering a players map at Trolls & Légendes
“Do you think they wrote gnomes here, or gnolls?

Playing with strangers

Only rarely will you know anyone among the players. So make sure everyone knows what this is all about — from RPG principles to fantasy tropes to social contract to old school gameplay – before you even start explaining the rules of the game. You need to ask questions and adapt you brief to your audience. Be wary of neglecting the shy player who doesn’t know as much as the others. During the game, you’ll have to pay attention to everyone and make sure no one gets bored. This is probably the main responsibilities of a game master.

Playing under time constraints

Furthermore, the players don’t know each other either – some of them will have come together, but it will almost never be a table-full of friends. These teams within the teams may create interesting dynamics during the game, but they may also become a problem. Your job as the GM is to create a group purpose, at least until the magic of imaginary team building happens. Very soon, the players will realise that they need to rely on each other if they want their characters to survive and their party to achieve its goals. This is where team building happens!

Let’s be honest: tabletop roleplaying games are always too short. Handling time is another skill of a good GM. You try to keep things fun, balancing player choice and narrative pace. In a convention, you have three or four hours for people to experience as much of your game as feasible. A demo session cannot afford to be slow or unfocused; there won’t be a next time to find out who killed the Duchess or to escape the wizard’s tower. The session must have a satisfying ending, an interesting middle, and a compelling start.

This is doubly true in office games. Even if most of my clients opt for a four-part game (the recurrence is key to team engagement), it isn’t a lot of time for a full adventure. Like other veteran conventions GMs, I use all the tools and tips I know to make every lunchtime session engaging and fun – the rules and the adventure framework I have designed help me a lot, but I keep learning from other referees and coming up with new techniques.

Playing with the format

Short games, new audiences, these are both opportunities to get creative. Have guests, have props, or simply play around with the story structure. Keeping a stack of index cards with tricks like in medias res starts or flashbacks is a good thing. Or you can let players come up with small parts of the game world, pertaining to their character or not. The list is endless, but I’ll have to try and post about it sometime.

To give you an example, at Trolls & Légendes I ran the same dungeon delve on both the Saturday and the Sunday. As the first group made it out with some treasure and a decent bit explored, I asked them if they would sell the map they drew to the innkeeper at the village nearby before leaving the region. The next day, I gave the next group of players the opportunity to buy this map. Here’s some of them, puzzling on some hand written notes.

This made the dungeon come alive for the second group of players and gave them a sense of persistence.  Little ideas like this will make a game memorable — make sure you always have some in your pocket!

Cover for the basic rules of Old School Essentials

Learning from Old-School Essentials

I am currently working on translating part of Gavin Norman’s Old-School Essentials into French. I wasn’t aware when I starting writing this, but OSE is actually on Kickstarter right now! Let me tell you about it and explore some of the reasons why it is such an excellent game for ‘old school’ play, and particularly as a team building exercise.

Cover for the basic rules of Old School Essentials

A short history lesson

If you don’t delve the same internet dungeons as I do, you may not now about OSE (formerly BX Essentials) : it is a masterful rewriting of one of the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons. It was released in 1981 as two sold-as-introductory-yet-sufficient-for-a-lifetime boxed sets, the Basic and Expert boxes. These were the work of Tom Moldvay and David ‘Zeb’ Cook, who followed on the steps of the good doctor Holmes and his blue Basic box (another fascinating story – look it up or leave a comment and I’ll tell you). This edition is often called Basic / Expert, B/X Dungeons & Dragons, or sometimes Moldvay D&D (Tom and Dave collaborated on both boxes, but they each got the credits on one of them – and we seem to only remember the author of the Basic game). 

Games history digression over. I have a lot of tenderness for B/X. It was my first ever roleplaying game, the pit trap into the nerdy Wonderland where I’ve been living since I was eleven. But it is also a hell of a great game. Historically speaking, it was the first time D&D that had (mostly) cohesive rules that were (mostly) easy for beginners to understand. As I said above, it was also a self contained game that a lot of people chose over the more complex, more heroic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which was on the shelves at the same time. Oops, that was more games history — I’m not even sorry.

Things we can learn from B/X D&D and OSE

 I’ve used BX Essentials as a reference for my lunch break D&D sessions in the office since the beginning, and I have had many an occasion to swoon over the amazing work Gavin has done. Old-School Essentials takes it one step further with better organisation and even more clarified layout. There is a lot of learn from B/X D&D and a few more to learn from Old-School Essentials

The balance is exemplary. The game has enough rules to function out of the box, but it leaves a good few grey areas that the referee and players will have to cover with their own rulings, thus adapting the corpus to their own collective taste. It can easily be played like a board game at the start (with easily followed turns and procedures) while the newcomers ease into the role-playing aspect.
 
If you are a game designer, you probably remember more than one rules writing related headache. We constantly try to make our written rules concise yet detailed, precise yet entertaining. One thing I had never considered was redundancy. If you have worked at or with a publisher, or if you are one yourself, you know that paper costs money, and that some people shy away from rules book that look too think or filled with complex procedures. So concision is your friend, and even if you put in a lot of cross referencing in your work, you try not to repeat yourself, at all.
But going through OSE word by word as I was translating, I found quite a bit of redundancy, which I reckon happened because Gavin spent a lot of time deconstructing and reconstructing the rules to make sure every bit was in the right place. And sometimes, I guess the right place is several places. Because a rulesbook is both a learning tool and a manual — we want people to find the information they’re looking for in a few seconds.
 
From the team building point of view, B/X is a perfect basis for running Dungeons & Dragons as a team exercise. As I said above, it plays like a board game and doesn’t require any gaming chops or taste for the amateur theatrics (as Gary Gygax would have put it). As an old school game, it lets players focus on problem solving in the game world rather than on their character sheet. Most of the time around the table is spent planning, arguing tactics, and trying to convince NPCs to help.
 
Of course, I’ve tried to keep this all in mind when designing Lunchtime Dungeons. But I guess this is a post for another time…