Skills in Old School Games

Skill use…


Mention them in relation to Old School games, and some grognards start to cringe. However, this is not one of those blog posts discussing skills or no skills. This post is about how to handle in game situations in old school games.

Also, I mention just a few systems here. There are many more, using 2d6, 3d6 and so on (just google “OSR skill system”), and they’re more or less complicated. Here, I will talk about the ones that I have used at some point in time and some ideas I’ve been thinking of.

I’m not sure that Old School games is in need of a skill system per se. However, I’m positive that Old School games is in need  of a solid task resolution system. These days, “Bend Bars”, “Open Doors” and “Find Secret Doors” just feels wonky. Not to mention that you can’t do certain things if you belong to the wrong class. Or at least if feels that way. That’s just silly. (Note: I won’t discuss B&T or FH&W in this post, as they already have excellent task resolution systems built into the core system). So, let’s take a look at some of the options here:

Old School Galore I – the d6 system

This is the bona fide old school way. When something is to be resolved, you have a x in 6 chance to succeed. Most of the time, it’s just a 1 in 6 chance, but some classes and races get bonuses to specific tasks. Sadly, the old books failed to give you a broader set of situations so the tasks described are very specific, like  “Find Secret Doors” or “Detect Sloping Passages”. Also, the 1 in 6 chance corresponds to a 16.7% probability of success, which isn’t that hot, especially when you get to keep that lousy probability even when you are level 12. Also, back then, we always got the feeling that “my PC can’t do that” since he’s not a thief/wizard/etc.

Another gripe I have with this is that I think that a 3 in 6 chance should be the default average difficulty (instead of 1 in 6), modified by difficulty and maybe abilities. As the d6 has so few possible outcomes, the raw ability modifiers can’t be used as is.

I would therefore use the following die roll modifiers based on ability scores: Ability Score: 3 to 8= -1; 9 to 12= 0; 13 to 18= +1

Pros: Super easy.

Cons: Static target number. Does not scale with increased experience (or level). Low resolution of results.

Variant: LotFP’s skill system (more and better defined skills and a possibility to get better in those skills).

Old School Galore II – the Ability Check system

When a situation isn’t covered by the rules, old school systems often suggest an ability check. Basically, you try to beat (i.e. roll under) an appropriate ability on a d20. This is improvised on the spot by the GM. Relative difficulty can be achieved by the GM granting positive or negative modifiers to the roll.

Pros: Super easy.

Cons: Static target number. Does not scale with increased experience (or level).

Variant: BtW has a loose skill system, where the player gets to choose 2 skills (from a vaguely defined and open list) that they’re good at. All checks in that field are then +2 or +4 to the roll (or ability).

Akrasia’s Save system 

For S&W players, there’s a fan made simple system out there (Akrasia’s house rules), which is also used in Crypts & Things. The idea is to use the Saving throw number also as a target number for various tasks. The list of tasks is deliberately kept vague, to empower flexibility, but all PCs can do anything. And if you have a specific skill (for example thieves), you get to add +2 to +4 to the roll). Also, the GM can vary the difficulty by using modifiers to the die roll.

Pros: Dynamic target number (depending on PC level). Easy and flexible.

Cons: Vaguely defined skill/task set.

5e’s skill system

I think that the new D&D really have nailed the task resolution system. Everyone can do anything, but some are better than their peers at doing said things. Also, as a GM, I appreciate to have a defined task (or skill) list to choose from when deciding what the player should roll in a given situation. I think that many skill-based games have much too prolific and specific skill lists, which really doesn’t add to the game flow, or conversely that the skill/task list is kept deliberately vague in order to keep flexibility. I think both of those concepts are bad for gaming.

5e has a list of 18 tasks, usable by anyone. Sweet. The GM decides a Difficulty Class (DC) for the roll, which is the target number to beat. The player rolls a d20, adding his ability bonus for the specific task (for example Stealth uses Dex). If you are proficient with a task (defined by class and race) you get to add a special proficiency bonus that scales with level. Easy and fast. I like it a lot. And it’s easily left out if you want to use an older task resolution system instead. Which also means that it’s easily added to any OSR game.

Pros: Quite easy. Dynamic target number. Level and proficiency taken into account.

Cons: The system adds a bit of complexity to the game.

Bolting a task resolution system to your OSR game

Another problem if the system you like haven’t got a built in task resolution system is how to define what skills/tasks your characters are extra good at. Of course you could write down a list of “fighters are good at this” and “dwarves are good at that” and pre-define such things. Another way is to grant the players a couple of things (maybe 2) they are good at. For example, your fighter might be good at “Sneaking” and “Obtaining information”. When such things are happening in the game, our fighter would get some bonuses to his rolls. Also, this makes for some character personalization – why shouldn’t a fighter be able to be sneaky? Or, you define a list of tasks/skills and let the players choose 2 each at start, and maybe they can get more as they level up. Being proficient in a task/skill also means that you get to add your current level as a bonus to your roll (this idea I nicked from FH&W).

My motivation for this blog post is that I want a simple task system to use in adventures and other stuff I post online. It has also got to be flexible enough to be used in several systems and easily translatable to whatever system you guys use.

Dawnrazor’s Old School Universal Task Resolution System mk I

Here’s what I’ve decided to use for my adventures (unless they’re for a system like B&T or FH&W).

1. Task format (in adventure text): Task at hand (DIFFICULTY: ABILITY). Example: Spot the hobgoblin (HARD: WIS) 

This format excludes the actual skill, but since I suspect that not everyone will use skills, or if they use systems with different skill sets and names, it will get confusing. If you are using skills, use the task description (Spot the hobgoblin) to determine which skill would be appropriate in your system, and add those modifiers if applicable.

2. Below, there’s a table you can use as a guide to define task difficulties and modifiers for various task systems. I am well aware that the probabilities aren’t the same, but for me it is good enough at the gaming table. Also, using difficulty to define a target number or conversely, to define a modifier to use against a static target number is very different. And the d6 behave in a whole different way than the d20, probability-wise.

Task/skill difficulty conversion
Difficulty DC Target number d6 chance Roll modifier for static target number
Very easy 5 5 in 6 +4 (or +5)
Easy 10 4 in 6 +2
Average 15 3 in 6 0
Hard 20 2 in 6 -2
Very hard 25 1 in 6 -4 (or -5)

3. I will use the 5e task/skill list as I think it covers a lot in a small and logical package. I don’t know if I’m allowed to write them down here, since there’s no SRD, so feel free to check the free PDF here.

In short:

STRENGTH: All tasks having to do with raw muscle power (like bashing down doors) as well as athletic stuff like swimming, jumping etc.

DEXTERITY: Acrobatic stuff like keeping your balance, climbing etc. Also sneaky stuff like moving stealthily and doing tricksy stuff like picking pocketses.

CONSTITUTION: More used is a passive way, like doing a CON check to see if you can hold your breath or resist the freezing cold in the Silent Valley.

INTELLIGENCE: Basically all knowledge tasks are here, whether it’s about natural things, religious matters or old magical runes. Also used for detective work and investigative tasks.

WISDOM: Tasks about tracking and surviving in a certain environment, medical matters, spotting that hobgoblin or secret door and the ability to determine if someone’s intentions are sincere or if they are setting you up.

CHARISMA:  Covers social interaction like intimidating or persuading someone as well as trying to lure them. Other social and arty skills like dancing, singing and writing a sonnet are also covered here.

4. Classes (and maybe races at times) that can be assumed to be good at something (for example a Ranger at tracking or a Wizard at arcane knowledge) add their current level as a bonus to the task roll. Also, if you use the “good at” system above, or a more defined set of skills, the level bonus could apply. So the 3rd level Ranger above would add +3 to his tracking roll because he’s proficient in that field.

Well, that’s some ideas for thought…

A bad case of level drain…


Have you ever felt that you definitely should get up and do something and then realized that you have absolutely no energy whatsoever to do it?

Well, that’s where I am now.

Bad case of Energy Drain.

As some of you might know I’m in the final phase of work on my PhD thesis, that is due October 31st.

Which means that I have to put in all my creative energy into that. Which in turn means that there’s very little of said energy left over for fun stuff. Like games.

I’ve felt frustrated over this, since I want to blog and write cool adventures to share with you awesome people.

But every time I sit down at the computer or with my papers and pens, all ideas are gone.

So, in order to stop feeling frustrated I’ve decided to officially postpone my Blood & Treasure and Fantastic Heroes & Witchery adventure PDFs until after the dissertation, and prioritizing my free time creative energy into playing games and preparing my own games.

To paraphrase I: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

To paraphrase II: “I’ll be back!”



And probably, I will break these intentions, since this gaming thing is so much fun ;)






Multiple premières the other evening

Bombasticus von Hohenheim. Human Wizard 1. Criminal background.

The day before yesterday I tried a lot of new things:

  • Pen and paper role-playing using Google Hangouts
  • 5th edition D&D
  • Gaming in Forgotten Realms (other than old computer games that is)
  • Me playing a Wizard! Unheard of!

We used the free PDF basic rules (available here), while the GM used a mix of the Basic rules and the full Player’s Handbook.

Initial reaction? It was really, really fun! The rules are simple enough to not get in the way and hog up the game, but at the same time they are detailed and flexible enough to accommodate the situations in the game. Both of us players as well as the GM were n00bs with 5th edition D&D, but there we learned as we played, which was nice.

I also liked the quick character generation (about 30-35 mins for my first character, including reading). Also, the backgrounds felt like a good addition to the game, as well as the equipment packages. As I loathe the meta-gamey “character building” and power gamer aspects that started in the end of 2E and culminated in 3E/PF, its nice to see that those things are mostly absent from the new edition. Of course, if you enjoy those bits, maybe 5th edition will feel like a step back.

Playing over the internet worked much better than I initially thought, and the other guys were very helpful with telling me how it all worked. We played a little home-brew thing as a prequel to “Lost mines of Phandelver” (I think), and despite not knowing each other we quickly got into it. Nice experience!

I must confess that I held some initial skepticism toward 5E, especially after following the play test for some time. And at first reading of the free PDF it felt kinda “meh” – not bad, but not good enough to make me leave my old favorites. However, this first test ride and actually making a character has swung me around a bit. In fact, I ordered the PHB the other day, as I got a discount check for an online bookstore. About 38 bucks including shipping is about as cheap as they will be over here I think, so I did it!

So, is it OSR then? Well, there’s a mix of old and newer concepts in the rules, so its not pure old school. But I think the rules are modular enough to let you play old school style, and that’s good enough for me. Some things I’m less fond of, like regaining all your hp after a long rest, but I think such things are easy to house rule. Also, the power levels seem higher than in OSR games. Not 3E high (can’t say about 4E as I never got into that), but higher. The monster stats I’ve seen are also more elaborate than the early editions, but good enough I think, and probably quite easy to convert. The only thing I didn’t like is the absence of a PDF or electronic version of the game. I love books, but sometimes the electronic version is quicker. For example, the online SRDs of Swords & Wizardry and Pathfinder has seen heavy use at our tables. And a searchable, inter-linked PDF is also very useful.

Given that my OSR favorites are those that – (i) takes the old school rules and evolve them a bit (Blood & Treasure, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Fantastic Heroes & Witchery) or (ii) stay very simple and true to the old rules (Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry) – this version of D&D feels like a near perfect fit for me personally.

In contrast with many others, I don’t think that the new D&D will attract tons of new kids to the pen-and-paper RPG fold, restoring ye olde times of RPG glory, but for kids getting into the game or those who are curious about it, the high production values in combination with availability in ordinary bookstores will probably attract some extra people to the hobby.

To conclude, this far I must say that I’m very positively surprised by this edition, and I’ll probably end up with even more books on the shelf. And given that the number of people playing 5th edition D&D will probably surpass the B&T and FH&W crowd by huge amounts, the ability to join online 5E games or running some myself is indeed realistic.

I already long for the game next Thursday evening :)




Mini book review: The Elven Blade by Nick Perumov

Art by awesome Jon Hodgson

A while back I wrote about this new book i found: The Elven Blade by Russian author Nick Perumov.

What makes it special is that it is an unofficial sequel to LotR, written in Soviet before the Iron Curtain fell.


The Story

The book takes place in the 4th Age, 300 years after the War of the Ring. Middle Earth is different. The Elves have sailed to Valinor. The Wizards are gone.  Arnor have been re-settled and are now known as The Twin Kingdoms – an alliance between Arnor and Gondor. Most of the orcs and goblins have been hunted down and eradicated from the earth. Peace have prospered for several hundred years, and everyone has become complacent. And the Hobbits are the most complacent of all.

Our protagonist is Folco Brandybuck, a late relative of Meriadoc Brandybuck of LotR fame. Like Frodo, he’s tired of being a farm boy, and dreams of the adventures of old. In a secret chest, he has Merry’s old Gondor sword and a copy of the Red Book of West Mark.

One day, a Blue Mountains dwarf named Thorin comes to the village, in search of the famed Red Book that is rumored to be among the Hobbits. He’s looking for historic clues, as Moria has been overrun by something dark and evil from the deep, and the Moria dwarves have been driven out. Again. Thorin is looking to get some information of what the threat might be and is trying to gather a party to go investigate the new Moria threat.

Of course, Folco becomes Thorin’s follower and together they embark on an epic journey, where they find that the Darkness indeed is stirring, not only in Moria…


My thoughts

I  can’t speak of the Russian original, but at first I was a bit annoyed by what I felt was teen-ish language. However, after a while it settled down, and became a quite nice read. Physically, the book is about 550 pages, and it became my pool reading buddy the first week of my holiday in Crete. Now, my son and wife are battling who’s gonna be the next one to read it :)

I think the author does Middle Earth justice, and in my opinion it’s a worthy saga for Middle Earth. I especially liked that it is more adventure focused than LotR. No poems, songs or any such things. In fact, it would work quite well as a fantasy RPG adventure. It’s also much darker in style than LotR. The characters aren’t pure good or evil. Rather, they are all shades of gray, and the gloomy Russian literary tradition shines through here and there. Apparently, there has been some controverse in the Tolkien fandom over Perumov’s deviation from Tolkien’s good vs. evil story, towards a morally more dubious world. Personally, I don’t see the problem, but if you expect a Tolkien clone maybe you will be disappointed.

The book is the first in a trilogy called “The Ring of Darkness” (Mörkrets Ring in Swedish). Part two, “The Black Lance” recently came out and is a beast of 700 pages. The third part isn’t available is Swedish yet, but I’m surely going to read them, and I heartily recommend them for anyone interested in fantasy and Middle Earth.

Sadly, the books are only available in Russian, Swedish, Polish and some other Eastern European languages at the moment. Hopefully, they will be translated into English.

An added bonus is that I’ve gotten back the urge to play some traditional high fantasy again. In fact, I’ve started designing a home-brew world for that!

Scary Shit Mechanics in Old School Games – Part 2 – Mental Disorders

The Werewolf of Bedburg, 1589

Since I wrote the first post on this topic, I’ve been trying to figure out the perfect Fear & Sanity system for my Old School games.

Actually, there’s a whole lot of good stuff to find out there, and some good RPGs to nick ideas from:

OpenQuest 2 by d101 games has a dead simple mechanic.

Renaissance by Cakebread & Walton has a simple, yet very playable mechanic built on the one in OpenQuest.

Call of Cthulhu is the original. A bit dry, but good for designing your own system.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2e has their own mechanic, but basically very similar to both the above. Furthermore, flavorful descriptions of the insanities, and the consequences for the afflicted player, as well as for the GM are included. Good stuff.

I know that I promised “advice” on how to run insane characters. I have also realized how silly that idea was. Instead, I’ll discuss some ideas on how to construct your own ultimate Fear & Horror system.

Fear & Horror system worklist

The first thing is to decide whether you want a Saving throw → direct consequence system, or if you want a Saving throw → Loss of Mental Hit Points (SAN) → direct consequence system.

The next step is to make a distinction between direct consequences of Fear & Horror, and the more long term serious consequences of insanity. I’d make a table of Direct Consequences, which would be the result of a missed saving throw. These could be things like Flee, Soil Your Pants, Rage, Repulsion etc. Also, define the direct game consequences of these afflictions, and their duration.

If you use some kind of Sanity Points system you also need to define the amount of Sanity Points the PC would loose. I’d make an easy list like: 1 SAN for scary but trivial things, 1d4 for more scary things etc. Of course, you will need to scale this against how many Sanity Points your system includes.

After this, you need to define what it takes to make a hero go loco. In a Sanity Point based system this could be when SAN reaches 0. In a Saving throw direct consequence system, Insanity could happen if you roll a Critical Failure (1) on your Save. You now need one (or several) table(s) with different Insanities and their consequences for that PC.

Some games dictate that insane PCs are out of play and handed over to the GM. I don’t agree. Playing these sometimes erratic and random characters are great fun, and present lots of opportunities for rememberable role-playing events. 

So how to create such a table/list?

One way is to look to science. Here’s a list following the DSM-5 system, but much simplified. This is one way of classifying these conditions:

Adjustment disorders – Stress disorders

Anxiety disorders – Fear, worry and anxiety disorders. Phobias are found here.

Dissociative disorders – Disassociation in consciousness, personality including memory/identity.

Eating disorders – Obsessive concerns with eating patterns and weight.

Factitious disorders – Acting as you have an illness, even damaging self.

Impulse-Control disorders – Inability to control impulses.

Mental disorders due to a general medical condition – Mental disorders due to other disease.

Neurocognitive disorders – Disorders that affect memory and cognition.

Mood disorders – Characterized by changes in mood.

Neurodevelopmental disorders – Intellectual disability, autism, ADD are found in this group.

Personality disorders – Maladaptive patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Psychotic disorders – Loss of contact with reality. The classic example would be schizophrenia.

Sexual disorders – Those that impact sexual functioning.

Sleep disorders – Interruptions in sleeping patterns.

Somatoform disorders – Mental disorders that involves physical symptoms without a physical cause.

Substance-related disorders – Related to use/abuse of various substances.

Just by looking at this broad classification system I get a lot of nefarious ideas…

Of course, such a list is kinda dry for game use, but as a source of inspiration or knowledge for the GM it’s a treasure trove, I think. Also, some of these are more appropriate for PCs, while others are hard to link to game events.

Once you have made your list or table, you can of course use it randomly (the gonzo option), or  the GM could assign a fitting Mental disorder (the ambitious option). For example, for the PC that was almost drowned by that Water Elemental, an Anxiety disorder – Phobia vs. water would be a nice fit. Or maybe a sleep disorder involving water would be better. This approach would maybe also allow for the player to immerse in the role-playing better, but of course depends on the thematics of the game.

Your list should also mention the in-game consequences of these afflictions. For our water-phobic friend above, it could mean that (i) he must roll a Save when encountering “watery” situations. If missed, you make use of the Fear & Horror mechanic discussed above. In this case, the insanity makes an ordinary situation into a fear situation for the afflicted character. Of course, there’s the chance of even more SAN loss…

Here’s a more detailed list of diagnoses to help building those tables/lists.

The Saving Throw

For the important Saving Throw I would use the Petrify/Polymorph (harder) or Poison/Death (easier) or Will (FH&W and B&T) saves for Mental Saves. Maybe adjusted by the Wisdom modifier and other mods you see adequate.

Mental Hit Points/Sanity Points

Another question, if you want to use Sanity Points is how many SAN the characters should get. Several OSR games recommend that you start the game with Sanity points equal to your Wisdom score. If so, the Sanity loss couldn’t be that great. Maybe 1-2 points per fear-inducing encounter. Renaissance (above) uses a system where you can go down to negative the positive score. So a PC with SAN 12 could function down to SAN –12. However, there is one list of consequences and insanities when you’re above 0, and a much more severe one that is used when you’re into the negatives. Of course, the potential SAN-loss can be greater, up to 1d6 or 1d8 for really sanity-blasting stuff.

A last remark

The use of a Fear & Horror system must of course be adapted to the style of the game you wish to play. I would definitely tone it down in a high fantasy or gonzo style of game, while for a darker fantasy game I would definitely use it.

Personally, I use Jack Shear’s system from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque for my OSR games. It’s in line with those types of games, and dead simple. And free.

Writing this gave me some cool ideas, and maybe, if I come up with something cool, I’ll publish a PDF with my Fear & Sanity rules. Also, stay tuned for part III of this series – about insanity in medieval times and how to cure your insane character.