Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Blight: Initial Thoughts

Frog God Games is Kickstarting a book called the Blight, by Richard Pett. It's the extension of adventures he wrote a long time ago for Dungeon Magazine, but as a result of doing so he lost the intellectual property for the "Stye," which was the original setting of his adventures. The Blight is a reconfiguration of that setting, into a full city description.

It's an evil city, which everyone loves, but at the outset I had some reservations about it from the standpoint of traditional gaming. It seemed awfully Victorian, and I was very worried about the risk of seeming like a Steampunk mashup with D&D, which isn't my thing. While I know that Richard is an excellent writer (his adventure in Heart of the Razor was my favorite of a strong group), the overall concept of the city appeared to me as something that might not work well.

On further reading, and asking one key question, I think the book is good. First, the key question that I asked was, "Can my guys walk around in plate mail?" Overall, in terms of flavor, this seems to me to be a touchstone question for whether a city "fits" with the need for a beer and pretzels option in traditional gaming. An acceptable answer is still, "Yes, but the city guard will arrest you," since that could be true in any number of medieval cities. A problematic answer would be, "That's not the city's technological level," or "plate mail is not used."

The answer to the question was actually, "Sure, it's a good way to handle the monsters."

Good answer.

My reading of the introductory material, which is still unconverted from Pathfinder format, is:
(a) No firearms
(b) Dimensional travel is highly involved in the city's flavor
(c) There is indeed a very Victorian feel to the place, but it's an extrapolation of what would happen in a city that used necromantically-powered industry for centuries to push itself into a Victorian age without steam or firearms. It's London powered by necromancy and golems.
(d) The result is something akin to Michael Moorcock's Granbretan in the Hawkmoon books, where there's a sinister use of technology without losing the fantasy element. This isn't to say that the result is similar to Granbretan, it's quite different indeed, but it's that sort of mixture. If Granbretan mashed together Nazi Germany and England with magic-baroque technology, the Blight also takes a magic-baroque technology (necromancy/golems) and mashes it into Victorian England with elements of creeping dimensional and planar features.

My next post will probably focus on the Granbretan analogy, because there's another Moorcock analogy here too: The War Hound and the World's Pain. Essentially Pett thinks like Moorcock, and has produced here something that Moorcock might have developed but didn't.

Monday, October 19, 2015

"Dark Medieval" Fantasy in the Borderland Provinces

The entire Lost Lands campaign is usually described as “Dark Medieval," and this is a bit about what that means. To me, at least. If you're a fan of what I'm talking about in this post, you should definitely go and check out the Kickstarter, which is running now (until Nov 15, 2015).
What do people mean when they talk about “Dark Medieval” as a way of describing the Borderland Provinces, or the Lost Lands, or Necromancer Games books? At a surface glance, the world looks fairly traditional: there are elves, there are halflings, there are wizards … what’s the big deal? How is that “dark?”

Basically, Frog God Games offers a “film noir” version of escapist fantasy, in contrast to Tolkien’s epic and folkloric approach to the same genre. Our adventures tend to have lots of horrific elements underlying the apparent reality, which is why you’ll often see us saying, “All is not as it seems” when we’re talking about the Lands. Where the Forgotten Realms have a strong tendency toward high fantasy and heroism, our world is a bit … well … ickier.

One of the strong themes of the campaign is that beneath the civilized veneer of things, there is actually a seething mass of rot, evil, heresy, and supernatural threat. Again, “all is not as it seems.” The Borderland Provinces campaign book, as a supplement, has more focus on the actual veneer than an adventure book. What does the “normal” world look like when I’m not in one of these dungeons? So there is a lot of material about culture, history, trade, and government that would be a bit boring if it weren’t for the fact that it’s written in a way to best drive the game master’s creativity about what kinds of adventures arise from that context. And of course, it also reveals a lot of information about what’s beneath that veneer, a peek into the aforementioned seething mass of rot, evil, heresy, and supernatural threat.

The Adventures in the Borderland Provinces book, of course, is all about the dark underbelly and nothing about the veneer. I'll have more to say about that book later.

If you’re interested in the sort of fiction driving this “dark medieval” world of ours, we can point to a few influential sources for those who are curious.

The first of these is undoubtedly Clark Ashton Smith. Smith's stories are broken up into five “worlds:” Averoigne, Hyperborea, Mars, Poseidonis, and Zothique. In particular, our adventures are comparable to the stories from the Averoigne cycle. Many of these stories are available online, in particular at the Eldritchdark site, which unfortunately uses white text on a dark background, making it a bit hard to read. However, as an introduction to Averoigne, you may want to take a look at one of the archetypal Averoigne stories, the “Colossus of Ylourgne.”

Another “film noir” fantasy author is Jack Vance. In particular, the Lyonesse books and the Dying Earth books are good examples of noir fantasy. The Lyonesse books are a strong influence on Matt’s Borderlands. Vance takes what appears to be a fairly light-hearted fairy tale world, but spins an extraordinarily dark view of its inhabitants. For Vance, the underlying horror isn’t the supernatural underpinning of the cosmic world, as it is for Clark Ashton Smith. For Vance, the underlying horror of a world is the people who inhabit it. If you haven’t read the Lyonesse books, be warned that many people find the entire first half of the first book to be tedious. After that, the pace picks up to an almost breakneck level, though. The books are Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc.
For starters, to learn more, check out the Wikipedia entry for the Lyonesse Trilogy

There are some great examples of noir fantasy from a later period, and one of the greatest is Glen Cook’s Black Company series of novels. All of these are excellent, although there are rather a lot of them. The first three are generally called The Books of the North: The Black Company, Shadows Linger, and The White Rose. Cook’s fantasy world is very bleak and quite terrifying, seen from the perspective of some people who are seriously out of their league and watching their options dwindle away rapidly.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Borderland Provinces Kickstarter Launch

We're launching Lost Lands: Borderland Provinces Kickstarter today! The Borderlands are the campaign world containing Rappan Athuk and the Lost City of Barakus, plus several other Necromancer Games books from the d20 era. Not only that, it also links up the long-awaited northwest route from these areas to the city of Bard’s Gate, and ultimately connects Bard’s Gate to the campaign area described in Cults of the Sundered Kingdoms and the Domain of Hawkmoon.

A bare-bones pdf resource for the campaign is $12 (although this is only for a very do-it-yourself DM). The main campaign book is $35 plus shipping, and there are also tons of additional resources that can be added like an a la carte sort of menu.

I wrote this one based on outlines from Greg Vaughan's canon of Necromancer Games, and I'm really hoping that the lower price-point (which I really pushed) and the centrality of the area will make this the biggest Kickstarter we've ever done. It's also the first setting material that we've done for 5e as well as PFRPG and S&W, which I think will interest a lot of people.

Because it's a printing of multiple versions, this has a very high funding goal relative to the price of the books, so I'm biting my nails a little bit about meeting the goal. If you're a Necromancer fan, a Frog God fan, or just looking for good campaign resources, please come take a look. (My credibility on the whole "print a smaller book, price it low, and people will come" strategy is at stake...)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Old School Methods 7: Fly

Little advertisement before we start (and I'm going to keep this up until the Kickstarter finishes): go to the Northlands Saga Kickstarter; it's worth the time and money.

Maneuverability under stress or in difficult conditions. Flying isn't about the inherent ability to fly, it's about how well you fly when using a spell or other sort of device.

When it has to do with conditions, this is what I'd generally call an internal game, or a game within a game. When it has to to with combat tactics, it's got a direct application to an existing set of rules. When it's a game within a game, you're talking about a randomized way of applying something from the character sheet to a way of getting a benefit or suffering a setback.

Tests like this are either one-or-the-other (fall or stay mounted on flying carpet, accurately get between the wind-whipped pillars, etc), or there might be degrees of success (how fast you reach the objective 10 miles away through the wind).

In either case, the skill of flying pretty much applies only to magic-users, since that's the only class with any possible training, but there has to be a way of determining it for members of other classes as well.

Method 1 (simple resolution)
For one-or-the-other, binary-type tests

For non-magic-users, use a DEX check if it's about close-in flying. Use a WIS check if it's about long-distance flying through obstacles. Give magic-users a bonus on the roll (if this makes sense under the circumstances). Alternatively, use a saving throw (this focuses on level rather than attributes). The more doctrinaire you are about being "old school" the more you lean toward character level as the most important factor. I think in this situation that would be dogmatic, but opinions may vary.

Method 2 (series of challenges)
If the situation is an important one, and is more like a game within a game, it's either just extended random checks (sketchy in terms of testing player skill, but exciting) or it's something where player skill comes into play (more interesting but can also bog down the pace). Player skill requires a puzzle or a tactical decision based on knowledge, and I can't off the top of my head think of how flying would give rise to this kind of a game. For a pure excitement-boost series of randomized checks, the situation would be based on a series of changing conditions (wind, obstacles, etc). Possibly even these are randomly determined.

Given that player skill and character level have no real bearing on a flying-type challenge, I would tend to avoid these, and treat flying success as either completely automatic, or determined by a base chance if it's distance travel. It can be used as an excitement booster, but if that's the case, make it short and fairly easy. Excitement boosters should ALWAYS have a second chance to pull the fat out of the fire. If for no other reason than to boost the tension even higher, but also to avoid the feeling that a bad outcome was determined entirely by the dice.

Art: The Flying Carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880)
Music: Of course.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Old School Methods 6: Disguise and Escape Artist

Series continues. Word from our sponsor is to check out the Northlands Saga Kickstarter at

Continuing in my survey of methods and options for old school resolutions of different challenges. Today, the challenges addressed by the skills "Disguise" and "Escape Artist."
Disguise is treated as an "opposed check" in games from 3E onward, meaning that the character's roll is set off against a die roll by the person who might see through the disguise. In older games, the only place this shows up as a "rule" is for the assassin class. Much like climbing and the thief class, it's definitely true that SOME sort of resolution is needed for regular old people making a less-professional attempt at the art.

I generally use this as a flat percentage chance (or a # in 6) to succeed, based on the situation. After all, disguises from a game point of view (a) aren't a trained skill, so nothing about a class or level (other than for assassins) really suggests that level would be a factor, (b) aren't obviously tied to any specific attribute other than slightly to charisma, and (c) don't have an offsetting role-playing component unless the disguise fails, which isn't the issue here.

So in general, I recommend using a base chance, picking the likelihood based on the situation.

Escape Artist:
Try using a check against the character's dexterity (3 or 4d6 if you use a bell curve, d20 if you use a linear chance). Either give a thief an advantage, pose a thiefly solution (you can pick the lock on the cuffs, but at a disadvantage), or allow the thief a dex check when no one else gets one. It's perfectly okay to just say that it's not possible to escape at this time.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Old School Methods 5: Diplomacy and Disable Device

Series continues. Word from our sponsor is to check out the Northlands Saga Kickstarter at

Diplomacy is one of the skill checks that makes the least sense in an old-school type game, since it's almost always a function of player interaction. I truly can't think of any situations where diplomacy, in particular, makes sense to randomize or to base on a character sheet number unless you're working with an entire suite of skill sets in character generation, and even then I think it's a bit weak as a concept. How to convert or use this concept, focusing on concrete ways in which the challenge can be met through player interaction (examples of concrete methods italicized):

"The guard can be persuaded if he is given a token of authority of some kind, and he is not likely to recognize a forgery."
"The merchant can be convinced to assist the characters if they manage to play on the fact that his business will be badly affected if the dragons keep eating people."
"The bartender is lonely and bitter about his life: any friendly approach will result in a flood of useful information and offered assistance."

Disable Device
This skill in the new-school arsenal presumes that the device has been found already, so it is a direct analogue to the thief skills such as "delicate tasks" (in S&W) or "find/remove traps." What's different is that (a) this skill broadens the ability to non-thief characters, which isn't unreasonable as long as the probabilities are very different for a thief vs. another character class. After all, this is where thieves are supposed to shine. (b) The OTHER issue isn't something structural about new-school approaches, but it's a very, very, very common approach in modern adventure design. In more modern adventure design, the traps tend to get harder to detect as the character level advances. I think this tends to devalue the thief if it's across the board. There should still be plenty of traps and locks that are NORMAL in difficulty so the thief can excel. Granted, the super-awesome traps set by deadlier villains will create situations where there's a really tough challenge, but I prefer to have a range that is weighted toward the idea that on normal, everyday trap-triggers, the thief's advancing levels actually mean more successes. There are other reasons for this, and not space to into it.

So, examples of non-thieves disabling traps and other devices:
(1) is there a reason for not just keeping this in the thief's domain? "A thief can disable this trap normally. If a PLAYER describes the disarming process, it can also be disarmed." [this allows for player skill to trump the character sheet, with no character-sheet option for solving it if you aren't the thief you chose to have for precisely this reason].
(2) "Thieves can disable the trap [either normally or with a penalty or bonus. Members of other character classes can also attempt to disarm the trap, but with only a [base chance, why not, it's got nothing to do with level since it's not trained for their class]. [another alternative, if it's just a test of not having your hands shake, then use a dexterity check] DON'T FORGET to compare the probabilities and make sure the thief has the better chance!!

That's it for this installment -- hope you enjoyed!

Art from

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Fairly good book

Off the general topic of the blog, but I'm reading an omnibus edition of three novels by Julie E. Czernada: Survival, Migration, and Regeneration. They are science fiction; fairly good for when you've run out of Bernard Cornwell and Neil Gaiman, and you like David Brin type books. I wouldn't recommend them as top-of-the-line, but  not a bad read so far. I'm about in the middle of the second book.

Between getting the air conditioning fixed and fuming through a long power outage today, I've got no fantasy/gaming ideas to post today, so a better-than-average book is all I've got to offer.

EDIT: I got tired of the series about half way through.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Old School Methods 4: Climbing etc.

Although I have to make the due reminder for you go go look at the Northlands Saga Kickstarter we're doing, this post is more about how to convert new-school methods to an old-school one, or (more usefully for most) some resource-options for handling various basic situations in an adventure.

Since I already did a bunch of theory-expounding in the earlier posts, this one is just a set of bare-bones possibilities for each skill.

"If the characters can convince," "a believable lie can," "only a well-constructed and believable story will," "some fast talking might."

"A cleric can convince.." etc. for other applicable classes. E.g., trying to sneak into the magic-users guild or persuade someone that a liquid is actually a potion might look like, "a magic-user will be able to convince," or "a magic-user has a 1 in 6 chance to convince," etc.

This is a common and important one. The essential components are as follows:
(1) Describe nature of the slope/surface. (2) Describe any penalty/bonus for thieves. (3) State if non-thieves can climb. (4) Mention how, if if requires a method beyond just scrambling up (rope, pitons, the right path up, etc). (5) Describe effect of failure.

Example 1 (complex)
"The slopes are steep, although they can be climbed by non-thieves. A non-thief does have a 5% chance to slip and fall, so if there is an assault up the side of the tor, roll 1d20 for each character, each 30ft, with a natural 1 representing a slip and fall. Falling or being pushed off is a different matter: rolling down the slope is not easily controlled. Anyone falling/rolling down the slope incurs 1d2 points of damage for each 30ft rolled downward, but also has a chance to control the fall each 30ft. If the character can roll under his/her Dexterity ability on 3d6, the fall can be stopped (or at least turned into a controlled and non-damaging descent if desired).

Example 2 (fairly simple)
“Climbing the spires is relatively easy due to the irregular surface and can be accomplished automatically by thieves. Non-thieves are treated as if they were thieves with an 80% climb skill.”

Obviously there are MANY different formulations you can use, since there are 5 separate components to the challenge as described above.

This is entirely irrelevant to most old-school adventuring except for McGyvering a solution, such as a temporary raft or a trap. Various possibilities:
Class/race based: "A dwarf can rig the stones to..." "An elf can rig the wooden boards to ..." "A ranger or druid can..." NOTE: these might be an automatic success if you have a character of the right class, or there might be a success number based on a flat success rate (# in 6) or use a saving throw to bring the character's level into a randomized method.
Intelligence based: It might be more of an intellectual challenge, in which case you could use a roll against intelligence (1 in 20 for a linear determination, 3d6 and equal = failure, which is required to allow an 18 to fail, 4d6 for a bell curve that's harder than a 3d6 attribute roll).

Image from

Monday, August 31, 2015

Northlands Saga: Vikings Interrupt Blog Series
Interrupting the series on old-school DMing methods ... vikings. Frog God Games is starting our Northlands Saga Kickstarter today, and it has a Swords & Wizardry (0E, old-school, etc.) version for those of us who don't play Pathfinder. I'm not going to include the "Venture Into Adventure!!" type sales blurb -- it's on the Kickstarter page, and if you like vikings at all, you'll at least be headed there to take a look.

These are excellent adventures (once exception that's not excellent but still solid), and the feel of the thing is like R.E. Howard wrote the Elder Eddas, and Clark Ashton Smith edited it. I'm still in the process of doing the conversions -- the book is written, and the only two missing components are the remaining art (which is coming in at the speed of art) and the conversions (which are being done at the speed of conversions).

For those following the Lost Lands world setting, which is the campaign containing all the old Necromancer Games adventures from the old days, this book is part of the Lost Lands.

This is an "adventure path," which for Pathfinder means that it's a campaign series taking your characters from level 1 to a billion. In S&W, it's altered a bit to make it a linked series like G1-G3, and it goes from level 1 to level 9. A few stretches in terms of the experience gathering there, as one might expect, because it simply compresses level acquisition into too short a period of adventuring.  It's a non-issue if you plan to use the adventures as stand-alone pieces interjected as possibilities into the campaign when the characters reach the right levels. If you want to run it as a series, the progression works, but it would still be beneficial to throw in a few side adventures, IMO.

This is a good one.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Old School Methods 3: Appraisal Skill

The appraisal skill basically lets you guess (accurately or not) at the value of an item. As an in-game, hardwired skill, it basically gives the player a basis for bargaining with someone when selling treasure. This is mildly valuable, since if you're going to involve some bargaining then the seller has to have a basis for asking one price or another. How to handle this?

How is it a test of player skill as opposed to a test of the character sheet?
The job here is to involve player skill in some way (if it's highest quality) or make it an interesting, game-within-a-game test of the character sheet, or else there's no real point to it other than perhaps making a die roll to see how much the treasure (or whatever) actually goes for -- perfectly fine in a regular home-made adventure, a bit weak if you're charging for it.

Most likely this is addressed as an opportunity for a bit of roleplaying, to let the players bargain with an imaginary person, switching up the pace for a short time from die rolling. That's valuable if it's done right. How do you introduce this little bargaining session in a meaningful way?

Given the above, it seems like the optimal approach is either to just hand the players a number they think the item is worth (without needing to randomize it), or to give them a couple of pieces of information they can use in the back-and-forth of a quick haggling session. "The dwarf sees that the gem has a slight flaw." "The fighter notices that the horse has a slight limp." "The thief recognizes this as an antique from the Quoo-Am dynasty, adding additional value." Then they can either feel that they have to hide a problem (directing the buyer's attention away from the limping horse by pointing out the beautiful sunset as you describe the buyer starting to check the horse's legs" or little seeds for fun interactions like that. The focus isn't really on the value of the item, it's on creating a couple of seeds for fun (and SHORT) breaks in the action. Everyone remembers the "These are not the droids you're looking for" scene. Really that's just a traffic stop with a bit of interaction with the cops and a quick-thinking response. The goal with treating appraisals in this way is to create the "Not these droids" encounter, not to actually measure or set the value of treasure.

Handling it this way (examples)
As above. "The [character] notices that the [treasure] is/has [flaw or additional value]. A regular [treasure] is probably going to be sold for [their guess, just hand the number to them], but the [flaws or extras] might drive the price up/down to [top or bottom of negotiating range]. This creates a simple situation where the characters already know the approximate value of a regular item, and know how much their roleplaying could earn them.

If it's not worth roleplaying, just tell them the value so they can write it on the treasure list and move on to the action. It may be worthwhile to give them a value in the country and in the city, to give them a meaningful decision about where to go next.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Old School conversions 2: Acrobatics

This is useful for anyone writing adventures because even though it's phrased as a conversion handbook (which is why I'm writing it) it is also a plethora of methods to use if you're writing an adventure from scratch.

So, that said, I decided to start at the beginning of the various types of challenges, so I'm looking at both the Pathfinder and the 5e rulebooks, going down the skill lists, since these define a number of different discrete challenges. They make a useful pre-generated list of challenge types. Today: acrobatic challenges

Acrobatic Challenges
Both Pathfinder and 5e have an acrobatics skill, designed for staying on your feet or generally keeping your balance. What are various old-school methods for handling this type of challenge? This is the narrow path, the tightrope, and the shifting surface.

Old-School Elements
Character Sheet: The ability to handle situations like this is contained within a couple of different factors in the old school approach. (1) the dexterity score, without reference to any additional trained skill. (2) the thief class as opposed to the other classes. (3) Wearing armor or otherwise being encumbered, which is almost always used as a factor in situations involving dexterity. (4) Race: depending on the nature of the shifting ground, a non-human race might get a racial consideration in whatever method the Referee uses. Elves in trees, dwarves on shifting stone, something along these lines. Moreover, level is always a consideration in old school approaches, since it tends to be more emphasized than ability scores (depending on the edition). Level can be just the number, or can be reflected by saving throws.

Player Skill: All of the above factors are challenges to the character sheet rather than player skill. What additional elements of player skill might be involved in an acrobatic situation? Counterweights of some kind, like the way a tightrope walker carries a pole, are the only thing that occurs to me, but something might spring out in the description of the specific situation.

Success, Failure, and Sliding-scale success
Many successes aren't a yes-or-no proposition. There is the chance for partial success, or for degrees of success. On acrobatic situations, the various possibilities include (but aren't limited to) perfect success, freezing in place (can't proceed but no bad result), sliding, tumbling, looking stupid, falling to take lesser damage, making a noise but succeeding, and total failure (falling for full damage or whatever).

Example List of Resolution Methods
(Remember, the initial description probably already describes some bad results, but these may also need to be modified). The first 6 tests are automatic and fast, depending on a single number on the character sheet, or a single die roll. The seventh and eighth entries are more complicated methods for if the challenge is important in the adventure (otherwise it's not worth the time).

(1)  Simple Stand-Fall Challenge with Simple Result 1: Each character must roll 1d6. Rolling a 1 means the character falls.
(2) Simple Stand-Fall Challenge with Simple Result 2: Any character other than a thief will fall.
(3) Simple Stand-Fall Challenge with Simple Result 3: Any character wearing plate mail will fall.
(4) Simple Stand-Fall Challenge with Simple Result 4:Any character with a dexterity score lower than 13 will fall [that's a check where only the better-than-average will succeed. If it's an easier situation, use lower than 9 to catch only the characters with lower-than-average Dex]
(5) Simple Stand-Fall Challenge with Simple Result 5: Any character of level 4+ may remain standing, all others fall
(6) Simple Stand-Fall Challenge with Simple Result 6: Each character must make a saving throw [possibly with bonus or penalty depending on general difficulty]
(7) Ability Score Complex Stand-Fall Challenge: The characters must roll [3d6, 4d6, 1d20] and compare the result to the dexterity score. If the result is less than or equal to the character's dexterity, the character [describe total success]. Thieves do not need to make the check at all [alternatively, they get a -4 or so on the die roll to reflect greater skill]. Anyone wearing plate mail must add +2 to the die roll. [usually plate mail is the only victim of this sort of thing, but "metal armor" is a more wide-ranging penalty]
(8) Saving Throw Complex Stand-Fall Challenge: The characters must roll a saving throw or fall. Thieves get a +4 [or so] on the saving throw. Anyone wearing plate mail has a penalty of -2 [or so] on the roll. [usually plate mail is the only victim of this sort of thing, but "metal armor" is a more wide-ranging penalty]

Example List of Fail/Succeed Results
Only the Ability Score or the Saving Throw types of checks give you enough of a numerical spread to generate a sliding scale of failure and success.
(1) Simple: Fall and take damage
(2) Simple: Fall prone and cannot progress
(3) Simple: Fall and stunned for [time period relevant to this part of the adventure: rounds if in combat, turns if not]
(4) Simple: Fall and knocked out for [relevant time period]
(5) Complex (saving throw): If the saving throw succeeded by 2 or more over the target number ..., if the saving throw was exactly or only 1 above the target number, ...
(6) Complex (ability check): If the number rolled was 3+ points under the character's dexterity, then ...... If the number rolled was more than 2 points over the character's dexterity, then...

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Old School Conversion Methods Part One - Theory

This is the first of the newschool - to - oldschool conversion notes I made recently. I'm talking D&D systems here, not general old-school "theory." This series is about nuts and bolts, with the slight exception of this introductory entry.

Conversions: System Matters
I don't think of conversion as a numerical process; you can't "plug and chug" through a newschool module converting to old school methods, because there's no single old school "rule," and often the method is (and should be) different according to the intended potential results of the situation.

In the next issue I'm going to cover a couple of "climbing" scenarios, but a moment about the general theory, as I see it, of good conversion. The point of conversion is to take a good adventure idea, and the structure of the adventure, and then adapt the details to fit the strengths of the new system, avoiding its weaknesses. In other words, writing to the system instead of the numbers. System matters, numbers don't.

Method: Discrete Challenges
In general, I'm writing at one of the possible micro-levels of conversion, breaking an adventure down into discrete particles of "challenges." It might be a mapping challenge, combat challenge, climbing challenge, swimming challenge, etc. Most adventures are composed of a series of such challenges, no matter what they might look like from the outside. Indeed, part of good adventure writing is to conceal this fact by blending the challenges together, describing them in non-numerical terms, and other tricks that conceal the squares of the players' decision tree.

There are essentially two "pure" sorts of challenges, plus the hybrid situation where they are mixed (which is the most common form in both new and old school gaming). The pure forms are (1) challenge to the character sheet, and (2) challenge to player (PLAYER) skill.

All challenges have, or should have, a set of possible results that can affect the party's success and capabilities down the road. Otherwise it's pointless unless it's a self-contained potential source of experience points, and even there it affects party capabilities, just not in the short term and on a different level of the game.

General Strengths of Old-School: the conversion's sweet-spot target
The general strength of old school systems is that you can pose challenges to the players themselves (puzzles with no default to a dice roll being the clearest case) without having the test of skill be sidetracked or constrained by pre-existing rules or elements of character generation. In many new-school games, players invest lots of time in pre-planning for what they may face, and picking skills accordingly. Bypassing those skill rules is slightly unfair to the players, since it's hardwired into the game. On the other hand in old school gaming there's no constraint about the structure of player-challenge puzzles. It's structured however the GM/DM wants to structure it.

Lack of pre-set form for a player-challenge puzzle is a strength of old-school systems. For one thing, it's a hell of a lot easier to WRITE them. It's hard enough to think up cool mental challenges without also having to structure them with lots of possible skills that might bypass the thinking. "OOps, I forgot that Knowledge (linguistics) can let them read this ancient warning without using the book from Area 7." Stuff like that.

Variation of Method
Some people complain that old-school systems aren't streamlined with single-resolution methods. I think this is a strength, in that it provides variety. Providing a variety of resolution methods, games-within-games, etc. is one of the sweet-spots to work towards. Things don't always work the same way, they conform to a specific situation. That's a strength, it keeps people on their toes, which means it keeps them excited.

So the goals, in looking at discrete challenge situations, are to: (a) write toward challenging the players, with less emphasis on using the elements of a character sheet. In most cases, since these are almost all hybrids of player vs. character sheet challenges, the character sheet is still going to come into play on each one;  (b) include a variety of methods for resolving the parts of a challenge that challenge the character sheet. Blending them with player skill in different ways, which is possible when you have different resolution methods. I know this probably sounds densely theoretical, but the next issues should hopefully make it a lot clearer when it's reduced to the mechanical engineering rather than the physics.