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Swords & Wizardry House Rules

I recently bought the Swords & Wizardry complete rules book and Monstrosities. It sits along side several other OSR games I’ve picked up over the last year or two. I’d heard good things about this one. While I was skeptical the very lean “rules light” approach would interest me, I’m delighted with the book.

The reason is that it’s shifted my thinking about an Old School approach. I’ve been meaning to take on my own take on a house rules set for OSR play, and the old AD&D fan in me, along with the gorgeous WoTC reprints, was the place to start. I got stalled out in all the byzantine rules, comparing to Labyrinth Lord, ACKS, and even Swords Without Number to find my own “dialect.”

It turns out that Swords & Wizardry is a better place for me to start. Rather than disassembling the complexity of AD&D, it offers a clean slate to build up from. Plus, hey, out of the shoot it offers up separate classes and races. I know I’m not alone, but maybe in the minority, that B/X style with races as class drives me nuts.

So! Without more rambling, I’ve already put together my own house rules below. You can probably see some of the influences of later editions that stray from purists’ love for the very original version of the game, as represented by S&W. But, it’s much more in the category of a game I want to play now!  You’ll have to forgive my formatting here, especially on charts, for a couple days. Typos, too! I’ll fix as soon as I can sleep on it!

Ability Scores

Ability scores provide modifiers to many types of rolls, including saving throws. Many modifiers are explained below. Others are left to the judgment of the game master. Saving throw modifiers are open to interpretation, based on situations in the game and players actual choices about what their character is doing (not what their character “is like” or “might be doing!”) For example, the game master may allow a Constitution modifier for rolls against a wyvern’s poison for anyone stung. Or, he may instead rule that the Dexterity modifier applies because the player described his character evading rapidly while doing nothing else.
All ability scores use this chart to determine the modifier, though each ability score uses the modifier in different situations. If your ability score ever changes — perhaps resulting from injury or magic — your modifier also changes.Ability Score Modifier
3 -3
4 – 5 -2
6 – 8 -1
9 – 12 0
13 – 15 +1
16 – 17 +2
18 +3

Generating Scores
To create your character’s ability scores, Roll 3d6 six times. Then, assign the results to your six abilities, described below.

If you have a low ability score that you really want to increase, you can increase any score below a 9 by one, but you must reduce a different, higher score by two. That penalty must apply to a single ability. You may do this multiple times for any scores still below 9. For example, if you have an ability score of 7 and another at 14, you could increase the lower score to 8, but you’d have to reduce higher score to 12. You could again increase the lesser score to 9, but then you would have to decrease any higher score by two again.

There are no experience bonuses for high prime requisite scores at all.

Ability Score Specifics
Strength: All classes may benefit from high Strength score modifiers for melee attack rolls and all damage rolls (except crossbows). Fighters gain other benefits via these house rules — see the Fighter class notes.
Dexterity: All classes benefit from high Dexterity score modifiers for ranged attack rolls. Strength modifiers to not apply to ranged attack rolls.
Additionally, Dexterity modifiers adjust Initiative rolls in combat. Dexterity modifiers do not adjust surprise rolls, however.
Constitution: The Ability Score modifier chart (above) applies to all hit dice rolls. The constitution modifier does not add additional hit points once the character reaches name level and gains specific numbers of hit points.
Intelligence: Characters know two languages, plus or minus languages based on their Intelligence modifier (minimum language known is one).
Magic Users with high Intelligence gain bonus spells. Magic Users with low intelligence may not be able to cast some higher level spells. See the Bonus Spells chart (below).
Wisdom: Clerics and Druids with high Wisdom gain bonus spells, but those with low Widsom may not be able to case some higher level spells. See the Bonus Spell chart (below).
Charisma: Characters may employ a number of special hirelings equal to four, plus or minus their Charisma modifier.
Bonus Spells
This chart shows the minimum ability score required to cast different spells. It also shows how many additional bonus spells a character with a high ability score gains. Note that bonus spells are cumulative. For example, an ability score of 16 means the character gains three additional first level spells and one additional 2nd level spell. An ability score of 18 means the character gains three 1st level spells, two 2nd level spells, and one 3rd level spell.
Score Modifier Bonus Spells
3 -3 Unable to cast any spells.
4 -2 Unable to cast 3rd or 4th level spells.
5 -2 Unable to cast 5th or 6th level spells.
6 -1 Unable to cast 7th level spells.
7 -1 Unable to cast 8th level spells.
8 -1 Unable to cast 9th level spells.
9 – 12 0 Character may cast spells normally.
13 +1 Additional 1st level spell.
14 +1 Additional 1st level spells.
15 +1 Additional 1st level spell.
16 +2 Additional 2nd level spell.
17 +2 Additional 2nd level spell.
18 +3 Additional 3rd level spell.
Character Classes
Assassins gain their level in bonus damage to backstab attacks. This bonus damage is added after normal backstab damage is multiplied.
Assassins also use the new Thief Abilities chart as though there are a Thief two levels lower than their actual level.
Clerics roll d8 for hit dice.
Fighters roll d10 for hit dice.
All fighters may parry, regardless of Dexterity score.
Fighters gain the ability to attack more than once per round as they gain levels. At 6th level, fighter gain a second attack. At 12th level, fighters gain a third attack.
Thieves roll d6 for hit dice.
Character Races
There are no level or class restrictions for any race.
Humans gain +10% experience bonus at all times.
Replace weapon tables with the following:
Melee Weapons
Weapon Type        Damage / 2-H        Item Slots        Cost        Special
Axe, battle        d8 / d8+1        1        5 gp
Axe, hand        d6        1        1gp        Can be thrown
Club        d4+1        1        0 gp
Dagger        d4        1        2 gp        Can be thrown
Flail (two-handed)        d8        1        8 gp
Lance        2d4+1        1        6 gp
Mace        d6 / d6+1        1        10 gp
Morningstar        d8        1        8 gp
Polearm        d8        2        10 gp        Reach
Spear, long        d8        2        2 gp        Reach
Spear, short        d6 / d6+1        1        1 gp        Can be thrown; Can use 1 or 2 handed
Staff        d4+1        1        .2 gp
Sword, bastard        d8 / d8+1        1        25 gp        Can use 1 or 2 handed
Sword, long        d8        1        15 gp
Sword, scimitar        d6+1        1        10 gp
Sword, short        d6        1        8 gp
Sword, two handed        d10        2        35 gp
Warhammer        d6        1        2 gp        Can be thrown
Missile Weapons
Weapon Type        Damage        Range        Rate of Fire        Item Slots        Cost
Axe, hand        d6        10 ft        1        1        1 gp
Bow, long        d6        70 ft        2        1        60 gp
Bow, short        d6        50 ft        2        1        15 gp
Crossbow, heavy        d8        80 ft        1 per 2 rounds        2        40 gp
Crossbow, light        d6        60 ft        1        1        24 gp
Crossbow, hand        d4        20 ft        1        1        100 gp
Dagger        d4        10 ft        1        1        2 gp
Dart        d3        15 ft        3        1/3        .2 gp
Sling        d4+1        40 ft        1        1        .2gp
Spear, short        20 ft        d6        1        1        1 gp
Warhammer        10 ft        d6        1        1        6 gp
Ammunition Type        Item Slots        Cost
Arrows (20)        1        2 gp
Bolts, heavy (20)        1        2 gp
Bolts, light (20)       1        2 gp
Bolts, hand (20)       1        2 gp
Stones, sling (20)       1        .1 gp
Initiative and the order of battle breaks down as follows:
1. Surprise
First, as a combat begins, check for surprise: If a surprise roll fits the situation, each side rolls 1d6. Results of 1 or 2 indicate that side is surprised.
Combatants that are not surprised may act, including casting spells, moving, attacking, or taking some other action like readying an item or searching around for something. Surprised opponents may not act, though they defend themselves normally.
If both (or all) sides are surprised, narrate what happens as the battle ensues. Move to step 2, Initiative.
2. Declare spell casting
Any combatant casting a spell in a round must declare so prior to rolling initiative. Opponents who act prior to the spell caster may be able to injure the spell caster and thus interrupt the spell. Interrupted spells are lost for the day and have no effect.
If a spell caster is injured prior to his or her action, the spell caster must make a saving throw with a penalty to the roll equal to the total damage suffered.
3. Initiative
Next, at the beginning of each round, roll Initiative to determine the order for each combatant individually. Each player rolls d6, modified by Dexterity bonuses or other special bonuses. The combatant with the highest initiative roll acts first, the next highest acts second and so on through the rank order of all combatants. The game master may roll for groups of monsters as a single combatant so they all act on the same rank order. Players may wish to do the same with any NPC hirelings they control.
Attack Rolls
Any attack roll that shows a natural 20 on the die hits, regardless of opponent’s armor class. Such attacks are critical hits. Maximize the damage for the attack.
Contrariwise, any attack roll that shows a natural 1 on the die is a miss. Depending on the situation, the game master may also rules some penalty results, like a dropped weapon or temporary penalty to hit.
Damage & Dying
Characters reduced to exactly 0 hit points are unconscious, but may recover without further harm.
Characters reduced to -1 hits points or worse are dying. The character “bleeds out,” losing one hit point per round until he or she reaches negative hit points equal to his or her level. At the end of that round, the character dies. Damage that reduces a character to negative hit points greater than their current level dies at the end of the round.


Dyson’s Dodecahedron

Dyson Logos runs a fantastic OSR blog called Dyson’s Dodecahedron.

He has a few offerings there. The hand-drawn maps are top notch. I already grabbed several of the smaller dungeons he offers for a new sandbox game I’m running this weekend. He just saved me tons of time, and the maps are really great quality, as you can see:


Dyson’s map, “Peridanes Tomb”

He just released a slick new book called Dyson’s Delves for a low price ($20 for paperback, $40 for special hardback). It includes some B/X style adventures and then several dungeons with blank notes DMs can fill in.

Be sure to check the Maps link in his blog’s main navigation. There are some awesome resources there.

My gaming retrospective

As I mentioned in my previous post, I bought the premium editions of the AD&D 1st Edition Players Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. It’s a heavy dose of nostalgia for me, so I thought I’d blog my reactions to it nearly 30 years later.

Some history is in order, but I’ll make it brief. I find long essays on one’s gaming biography pretty dull and interesting mainly to the writer.

The key point is that my gaming hobby started with those very AD&D hardbacks. Unlike so many gaming enthusiasts my age, which is to say a kind of “second wave” in the gaming boom, I never experienced D&D B/X. I had no red box moments, nor any Holmes edition play. Where I was vaguely aware of them, I perceived them as inferior products that limited the game somehow.

That sticks with me even now as I don’t fully appreciate the high level of enthusiasm for B/X within the OSR today. I confess things like Labyrinth Lord and Adventurer, Conqueror, King leave me a bit flat. They feel so limiting and “deadly” to the point of unfun.

No, for me it was the allure of those gloriously mysterious, wonderful books my older brother had. He played with our cousin and later with a friend. I was young and fascinated to the point of literally spying on play through the keyhole of his bedroom door.

He finally played with me, allowing my first character Xandor do accomplish absurd victories, a Deck of Many Things, and a disintegrating sword. I was hooked, and soon had a friend of my own who played with me.

We went from there, trying out many games like Gamma World, Marvel Super Heroes, some dabbling in Star Frontiers, and a lot of Warhammer FRP. But AD&D was a staple until we went with the natural progression of AD&D 2nd edition.

So, since 1989, I hadn’t really looked back on those first edition books, and had forgotten so many fun parts — the art, the fun tables, the sometimes quirky rules limitations. When I heard  over the years there were groups out there sticking to that game despite newer products, I didn’t understand why.

Now that I’m reading them again, I can see it. Sure, in those hoary old tomes there are oddities and strange assumptions about role-playing. But, there’s also imagination. There’s a vision for play that in many ways has been lost to lengthy newer editions and games. As player preferences shifted to more codified rules sets and more player options, swaths of creative license, especially for the gm, shriveled up.

That, of course, is what the OSR is all about.

An Overdue Apology

This is long overdue.

It’s a long, pitiful story about me being an angry asshole. I’m sorry I behaved the way I did, and especially sorry I insulted and hurt Gary Gygax’s family.

Here’s what happened.

In 2008, shortly after Gary Gygax passed away, I wrote a dumb, callous blog post about an online acquaintance who credited Mr. Gygax with saving his life. He explained how he had been into some bad stuff in his youth, but once he discovered D&D, was able to get away from ruining his life.

In attempting — and failing, I might add — to say that Gygax didn’t deserve the credit for him improving his life, I said (among other things) the following dumb thing:

 Meanwhile, Mr. Gary Gygax died. And, seriously, I don’t give a damn.

My blog’s no longer around, and I can’t locate an archive of it. The Wayback Machine has an incomplete record of the post and replies here, however:

That, understandably, lead to some frustrated and upset replies from others, some of whom I now observe doing cool stuff. Whatever shred of a point I had, it doesn’t matter to me now. I wrote that at a very different place in my life, a time when I was very angry about life issues that had very little to do with my gaming hobby. Still, as that old post obviously shows, my behavior infected everything I did. Since then, many things have changed, for the better. I’m very sorry for that post. I behaved like an asshole, and deserved every bit of the replies.

I cannot find a record of the most troubling response, which appeared to be from one of Gygax’s own sons. My memory says it was Luke Gygax, but I am not sure. I am very sorry to have troubled him at a painful time, and I would like to contact him with an apology. If anyone reading this knows how to contact him, I’d appreciate them letting me know.

Like I said, this is overdue. After about a year of passing interest in the Old School Renaissance, this post has been stuck in the back of my mind.

Today, I purchased the recently issued Premium editions of the AD&D Players Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. And, I’m looking at them now happy to be supporting the memorial, and looking at them fondly. It’s a far cry from the shrill, vicious things I said.

I’m at peace with all that. I’m not trying to seek absolution from others, though I do sincerely wish to apologize to Mr. Gygax’s son. Anger is a terrible thing to fester in oneself. You become your own victim. Every nasty comment, every outburst is about yourself. It’s not about that other person, certainly not those you’ve never even met. I’ve reckoned with that, and am better for it.

I think Gary Gygax was a fascinating, creative guy. He shares credit for this fun hobby with lots of other people. I’m glad he made fun games, and I’m happy to have his work back in my hands.

And, for those of you who recall this dumb episode, my apologies to you as well. I’m sorry for acting like an ass. This hobby’s too small for that kind of anger and in-fighting. Happy gaming.

Custom old school hex map for sandbox campaign

Earlier, I posted my first attempt at an old school hex map. Now, here’s a much better — and finished — one.

I’m going to kick off a new sandbox campaign soon using this map. I really had a blast creating this. I used Adobe Illustrator to draw everything “by hand.” Those familiar with old school maps will see some familiar iconography, though. There are also some hints of Skyrim map icons, and a few twists of my own, too.

It’s a tabloid size (17″x11″) map, and as you can see there are well over 50 spots of interest. Part of the fun was letting map design then inform placenames and a more coherent set of language.

Make sure to click the map image for a full size view so you can see crisper details and read the map names. Resolution on the map is high enough to print in color, and you’re welcome to use it for play, inspiration, and fun, but not for commercial use, of course.

Hex map

The Crown Lands – click to enlarge full version

Old School Encounters

I’ve been busy lately, but still plugging away at some fun RPG projects. The hottest of those right now is a really nice hex map. I’ve put in hours on this thing! I’ll post full details soon, and the map itself, of course.

Meanwhile, I’ve really dived into a lot of the OSR leading games, including Labyrinth Lord, and skim through OSRIC.

It’s the newer, slightly flashier ones I find more interesting. Adventurer, Conqueror King (ACK) has an impressive vision. I haven’t had time yet to dive into Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but it’s also interesting at a glance.

One of the tidbits I noticed last night is a mention in ACK about a product for lairs and encounters (the specific title escapes me). It teased a great idea for lairs and encounters to fill up sandbox play. That’s a product I’d chase after immediately. And, it sparks some ideas for my own creations.

In essence, the idea is simple. Create some mini-dungeons and encounters — say, 2-3 “rooms” — that DMs can throw into a session quickly and easily. The example they use is a manticore lair. So whenever random encounters turn up as manticores, toss the prepared encounter at the players.

This kind of toolset is just the thing sandbox play needs. There’s a great deal of prep time publishers can unload from the DM’s shoulders, and it makes those games much easier to play.

Critical hits and memorable sessions

My game group, like yours, has favorite stories. Memories of awesome moments in a game that we still talk about decades later.

You know what I realized? A lot of my groups favorite moments, both hilarious and awesome, involve critical hits.

There’s the now legendary story about my group’s younger days, right before I joined the fray. They were mid-level D&D characters who went up against a dragon turtle. Someone rolled a “natural 20″ hit for a longbow attack. Back then, our GM used a percentile based critical hit chart, largely based on (it took us a couple years to track down the actual article) a classic Dragon article. He rolled an “ought,” which was group talk for 00 result, the best possible roll. Bang. Dead dragon turtle.

Enter: Dead dragon turtle’s loot, which produced some highly memorable items for beloved characters.

My group still brings up that fun story from time to time. The thing is, in my current Pathfinder game, we have a slightly less rich, but altogether fun and defining moment.

Tony, one of my players, has a barbarian character. In the second session of the campaign, we did a crazy “night of zombies” session where they holed up in a farm house and fought wave after wave of zombies.

Early in those encounters, Tony’s character Ottar found a scythe, which he then used to attack a pair of zombies while raging. Bang. A critical hit the likes of which we’d never seen. With his rusty scythe, 1st or 2nd level (I forget which) Ottar delivered somewhere around 51 points of damage.

Ottar has since been called Ottar the Reaper. He’s the centerpiece character of the campaign. It was, without question, the greatest moment of high fives in the campaign (nevermind that zombie had something like 12 hit points).

One gripe does come up at the table. It did this weekend. My players and I absolutely hate the 3e D&D / Pathfinder second roll to “confirm” a critical hit. I watch them literally slump in their seat, or maybe just shrug and sigh, when they fail to confirm the critical.

As I look at this and other games, I see some reasonable points on why critical hits are odd, or how they distort game play, that kind of thing. One thing’s clear to me.

Players absolutely love critical hits. Love them. They remember them as fun events. They’re crucial to my group’s enjoyment, at least.

How do you handle “crits” in your game?

One Page Dungeon Contest 2012 underway

The fourth annual One Page Dungeon Contest is underway.

Neat! Enter a one page dungeon as a creative commons entry.

I’ve not paid close attention to this in the past, and was vaguely aware it happened. This year, I’m really interested in checking this out. Heck, maybe I’ll even take a stab at entering.

You can also check out previous year contests here:


Prizes include a bunch of nice RPG items, plus an anonymous donor’s giving $300!

Well, that, and everyone gets a bunch of clever one-page dungeons for free.

Hacking away at Stars Without Number

I’ve been tinkering under the hood with Stars Without Number. I started dabbling in other OSR games, but I find they’re too tied to D&D stuff for what I’m trying to tinker with right now.

One of the things that struck me was both ability bonuses and, especially, Skill Checks. SWN gives characters the usual ability scores ranging from 3 to 18. Modifiers work out like so:

3: -2
4-7: -1
8-13: No modifier
14-17: +1
18: +2

Which is fine, and SWN assumes that average characters are still competent. I like it for what it is. I also like to tinker. Here’s a different set of modifiers I think could work for different games:

3: -3
4-5: -2
6-8: -1
9-12: No modifier
13-15: +1
16-17: +2
18: +3

(Incidentally, this matches at least one set of ability modifiers for Labyrinth Lord.)

I like this for a couple reasons. First, rolling an 18 is statistically very tough. It’s something like less than 2% of rolls. So, +3 bonuses aren’t wildly common. And, players can really appreciate a nice bonus on scores like 16 and 17. Overall, it just feels more rewarding and “smooth.” Yes, it makes characters more hardy and competent than SWN. That’s intentional. But, it doesn’t break the bank, so to speak, either.

One of the tricks with a shift like this is the skill roll. SWN uses a 2d6 roll with two modifiers. There’s the ability score modifier, which is why the above matters. And, there’s the skill level modifer, which ranges from 0 (trainee) to 4 (legendary). Again, it works for SWN. Dismantling SWN isn’t my point here. Tinkering for other stuff is.

I’m interested in a simple change here, one that smooths things out a bit, and allows for bigger ability score modifers. Just shift from 2d6 up to 2d8.

Here are some relevant points.

SWN’s 2d6 skill roll:

  • Average result for the universe’s perfect player character (18 ability score, level 4 skill) is 13.
  • That result is higher than normal characters can achieve.
  • It occurs for 58.3% of that character’s skill rolls.
  • The same character has no chance of failure for skill rolls deemed “Average” difficulty by the GM, barring some situational penalty.

Shifting that up to 2d8:

  • Average result for the world’s perfect character (18 ability score, level 4 skill) is 16.
  • That result is equal to the maximum result for normal characters.
  • It occurs for 56.3% of that character’s skill rolls.
  • The character could fail average skill checks, but still has a 98.4% chance to pull them off.

Here are interesting other points for more normal characters. I’m assuming a combined skill check bonus of +2:


  • This character succeeds on average checks 72.2% of the time.
  • The character succeeds on challenging checks 41.7% of the time, a shift of over 30%.


  • The character succeeds on average checks 67.2% of the time.
  • The character succeeds on challenging checks 43.8%. Here, a less severe shift of about 23%.

There, contrasts are less severe than the superlative character. But, again, the numbers make good sense as I hack away.

Dwimmermount Kickstarter

I just backed James Maliszewski’s Kickstarter for Dwimmermount, and old-school megadungeon he’s created. I’m interested to see what this is like, especially if it’s something I could use “chopped” up for smaller play segments.

Plus, hey, he’s hired Adam Jury, one of the best graphic designers in the hobby, to do the design. Awesome.