Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Dream Aesthetics Dilemma


I recently reviewed John Battle's My Body is a Cage for Bones of Contention. Battle’s game combines slice of life real world downtime with adventuring in dream dungeons. The game comes with 7 dungeons that embody dream aesthetics quite vividly. I ran the dreamy Hotel Atkinson by Ema Acosta for playtesting purposes. Although the dream aesthetics came through strong in the adventure, there were some downsides that bothered my players. This got me thinking about a dilemma one faces when combining dream aesthetics with the playstyle associated with the OSR. I thought it might be worth saying how I resolve the dilemma in my own published work and home game. I think what I have to say is generally applicable for OSR games.

Dreamlands Aesthetics vs. Dream Aesthetics

When discussing dream aesthetics, I think it’s worth distinguishing two things. The first is the literary tradition of writing about travel in dream worlds. Let us call this the “dreamlands aesthetic”. Although there are no doubt many such traditions, I’m thinking here primarily of weird tales or fantasy authors, most notably Lord Dunsany and H.P. Lovecraft, and their several imitators and elaborators. This is a literary tradition, a special variant of the weird tale, with its own tropes, imaginaries, forms of expression, and aesthetics. In these authors we find the idea of a land of dreams, or the dreamlands, a sort of stable and fantastic country in some way reached through dreams. The authors tend to use both surreal elements and exoticism, sometimes orientalist in its inflection, as a way of emphasizing the fantastical otherness of this place beyond the veil of sleep. We also find many particulars, like the idea in Lovecraft that cats have a special place in the land of dreams, or the idea in Dunsany that one may only cross over to the land of dreams if one knows the hidden places that straddle the two worlds. 

We might distinguish this weird tale tradition from what I call “dream aesthetics”. To evoke dream aesthetics is to attempts to create a dreamlike quality by incorporating features of dreams. Dream aesthetics draws on our own nocturnal experience with unstable transitions, surreal and absurd elements, nightmares, anxiety dreams, and so on. Dreamlands fiction, of course, does tap into this surreal wellspring to some extent in its construction of a mysterious and wondrous other country, but it’s far from the dominant theme.

For a literary-visual case that hews far closer to dream aesthetics than Lovecraft or Dunsany, take Winsor McCay’s glorious comic, Little Nemo in Slumberland. The strip ran as a full pages in the Sunday edition of the New York Herald from 1905-1911. (It had some later reincarnations in different papers.) In its first two years, each installment was in the form of one of little Nemo’s recurring dream of his failed attempts to reach the princess of slumberland for a playdate at her palace. Each installment ended in anxiety dream fashion, with things getting out of hand in some catastrophic way, only for Nemo to awaken in his bed, tangled in the sheets. Along the way the comic evokes surreal and absurd elements to create a a glorious dreamlike visual experience. The comic is shot through with dream aesthetics, beginning with the use of recurring anxiety dreams to frame the serial, and then the extended of surreal elements like the manner of transit, as in the precarious walking bed in the strip above. 

I’ll talk more about dreamlands aesthetics, and Dunsany and Lovecraft, another time (and maybe Windsor McKay too). But for now, I want to turn to the question what happens if we wish to evoke dream aesthetics in our roleplaying games. Can we do for old school roleplaying games what Little Nemo in Slumberland did for Sunday comics?

Dream Aesthetics

Suppose you want to infuse a locale--say a dungeon or pointcrawl—with a dreamlike vibe. Here are some surreal features of actual dreams on which you might be tempted to draw to produce a dream aesthetic for that dungeon.

In dreams, the spatial logic of physical locations breaks down. Places are conflated. Sometimes I'm in one place but it's mysteriously also at the same time another place. Or it's an amalgam of two very different places. There are also sudden transitions between locations. I might open a closet door and find myself on a beach. Dreams are less about navigating objective spaces and more about a vivid sense of place. Generally speaking, coherent spatial representations that links a space you occupy from the first person point of view to an objective map of a region that one is navigating—the sort of thing that looms large in driving apps—does not get a lot of play in our dreams.

Causality is also wonky in dreams. In an anxiety dream, no matter how hard I try, maybe I can't get the key out of the bottom of my backpack, or into the lock; or to my consternation my gun shoots a stream of bubbles instead of bullets at my pursuer. The identity of objects can also get weird. A piece of fruit might somehow also be a book, or a sword a key, or a mirror a disease.

Another way in which dreams are surreal is the people you meet. We find the same mysterious identities here too. For example, someone you know well in real life might look entirely different in the dream, or the person might be an amalgam of two people at once, or a part of a person. Often people we meet in dreams seem less like genuinely intelligent others and more like symbols or figments that occupy a certain role in given scenes. The people we are with often shift subtly as well, without it seeming strange to us in the dream.

OSR Play Styles

In OSR play, player characters explore perilous and fantastical spaces, seeking to overcome objective challenges to accomplish their goals. Furthermore, OSR style games are sandboxes rather than railroads, emphasizing player agency and unpredictable solutions to open-ended problems, as well as emergent rather than scripted stories.

Dungeons, as location-based rather than scene-based adventures, work well in this context provided they are designed with an open-ended spatial logic. The link between the first person point of view and an objective map of space is crucial. Part of the exploration of a dungeon involves uncovering spatial relations between locations in play. You learn that this room is over here in this quadrant, and there is a secret way to get from here to there, or that this region of the dungeon sits atop this other region, which can be accessed vertically through a chasm.

Why is this important to the playstyle? Partly it’s about discovering the unknown—i.e. the pleasure of the players coming to know about things that (already) exist in unexplored regions of the map. But provided the dungeon is properly Jaquaysed, these coherent spatial discoveries also allow for high levels of player agency and unpredictable interaction. The players can come at locations from different routes. They can leverage their knowledge of a coherent space to short-circuit hazards, sneak past inhabitants, give monsters and NPCs the run-around, use environmental features in unpredictable ways to stage ambushes or solve problems, and so on.

Furthermore, generally speaking, in OSR games, NPCs are parts of factions that want things and so can be engaged with in social ways. Many old school games start an encounter with a reaction roll that determines the starting disposition of encountered beings. You can ally with one faction against another. You can get an NPC something they want to win them over to your cause. You can tangle with a faction one time and make it up to them later when you have common cause, or when you regret your past actions and try to make amends. In other words, there are fewer “monsters” that are “just there to kill". Some systems don't even give you XP for fighting monsters, or only a pittance. Many systems use morale checks, so monsters or NPCs mainly don't fight to the death. In all these ways that means that many NPCs and dungeon inhabitants need to have intelligible desires and robust lives of their own. They are very much not figments of your imagination, or only part of some weird vignette that you stumble upon in a pre-programmed scene.

When it comes to things it's important that the causality work in the normal way unless there's something special about the thing in question (e.g. magic). In OSR playstyles, since "the answer is (often) not on your character sheet", players tend to rely on what S. John Ross calls invisible rulebooks, i.e. commonsense knowledge about how things in the environment generally work, in order to engage in lateral problem-solving. This means that guns (so to speak) don't shoot bubbles unless they're magical bubble guns. Similarly, water will generally work like water does. You can't suddenly walk on water just because someone tells you that they believe in you, even if it would make for a vivid dreamlike scene.

The combination of coherent space, determinate factions, and normal causality also allows the GM to avoid arbitrary fiat by reasoning naturalistically about how different factions would respond to player actions. By looking at where they are in relation to what the PCs are doing and what's the factions generally get up to, the GM can reason about what would be likely to happen. This is part of what sustains whatever kernel of truth there is in the idea that the GM is a referee in OSR playstyles. The players trust the GM to set up a situation (say an exploration locale) without having any idea how things are going to go down in play. They also trust the GM to call the shots as they see them. When the PCs brings their chaotic shenanigans into contact with the pre-existing locale, the GM thinks about what would actually happen without stacking the deck one way or another.

The Dream Aesthetics Dilemma

The dream aesthetics dilemma is that many of the features of dreams, if employed in the most obvious ways, undermine OSR play styles. Do you want surreal dream space, or do you want the spatial logic of the dungeon crawl? Do you want absurd causalities or lateral problem solving? Do you want NPCs to embody the aesthetics of mysterious symbolism or do you want coherent factions with hopes and dreams of their own? CHOOSE. You can't have both.

The Atkinson Hotel made this dilemma vivid for me. It consisted of a pointcrawl between eight hotel locations from a creepy turn of the (20th) Century hotel, connected by often surreal transitions. For example, the first room had a normal door that led (presumably) down a hallway to a ballroom, but also a door in the back of the closet that led to cramped storage room, and one under the bed that led straight into a hot tub in the hotel baths. Given its limited number of locations, it was clearly not a map of an actual hotel, but rather of dream scenes like one might have in a dream (nightmare) of the Hotel Atkinson.

This meant that there was no place for the hotel staff or other guests that you might meet to reside on the map. They existed just as encounters waiting to happen in fixed rooms, or as random encounters. Some of the inhabitants were just doing something in a room with no naturalistic connection to anyone else, like the 1 HD chefs in a kitchen which apparently served no one. When I ran this room, I constructed a vivid scene in the kitchen, treating them in my mind like Maurice Sendak’s ominous but not malicious bustling chefs from a favorite children’s book of mine, In the Night Kitchen—which by the way is clearly about an anxiety dream. The players grasped the chefs as the surreal obstacle that they were, engaging with them appropriately in that mode by staging a deliciously ridiculous distraction to get past them.

But afterwards they reported that this whole thing really cramped their agency. They couldn’t reason in naturalistic ways. They felt like when they closed the door on someone they would cease to exist. They felt that many of the people they met, like the chefs or even some of the guests were maybe not real people they could engage with in the open-ended ways they were used to dealing with NPCs and factions. They knew that they couldn’t really leverage the absurd space of the hotel. There wasn’t really a there there. This meant they couldn’t fully engage in OSR style play.

And by the way, I consider that a good adventure in the mode of embracing the surreal aesthetics of dreams. Hence the dilemma.

The Dilemma Dissolved

My view is that this dilemma can be overcome—that we needn’t choose between dreamy aesthetics and old school playstyles, but only if we learn how to capture dream aesthetics in ways that don’t disrupt the logics of OSR play. I have a lot of experience trying to do this, admittedly with varying degrees of success. My best attempt, in print, is probably The Ruins of the Inquisitor’s Theater from Through Ultan’s Door 1. But there are some good dreamy bits in Through Ultan’s Door 3 as well, and many other unpublished things that I think worked fairly well in this vein from my long running (and now multiple) home games in Zyan.

The Surreal Adventure Location Premise

You can often get a lot of mileage by having a surreal premise for an adventure location, and then otherwise allow the adventure location to follow normal old school norms for exploration.

Here’s a dreamy premise for a locale: a theater where people are punished by puppets for being bad. Why is this dreamy? For one thing, it’s immediately recognizable as a child’s nightmare. Puppets are meant to entertain, and there is something sinister and dreamlike in reversing their function in this way. As dreams do, it also picks up on something real, something subtly alarming about puppets: their uncanny resemblance to humanity, and unnerving wooden theatricality.

In Through Ultan’s Door 1, rather than developing this dreamy premise through vivid puppet scenes and symbolic elements from childhood, I instead did the location up as proper ruins for dungeon crawling purposes. I gave it a rationale, treating trial by puppet as a holy spectacle conducted by a religious order no longer present. Like all ruins in D&D, I had other factions who had crept in since then, who were occupying different parts of the dungeon and were in conflict with one another. In this way, I began with a surreal dreamy premise and then treated the space as a naturalistic environment in accordance with ordinary (old school) dungeon logics. I tried to capture a vivid sense of place in connection with surreal theme—but then I always do that when designing an adventure locale.

Or consider a hex crawl, another procedural space of exploration, this time wilderness exploration. A striking example from my home game that has yet to see print, except in Huargo’s deliciously lurid poster above, is the White Jungle. The concept of the White Jungle is simple: it’s a jungle but it’s upside down. This premise literally upends the ordinary orientation of waking life, where the ground is under your feet and the sky is above your head. It makes a place (a jungle) that is already surreal in its unimaginable vibrance of life an order of magnitude weirder.

Once you have that absurd dream premise, the key to old school exploration-based play is to treat it, from that point forward, as if it's a naturalistically intelligible location. The jungle is not a pretext for a series of disconnected vivid dreamlike scenes where common sense physics is turned upside down. It is a hexcrawl that hangs from the bottom of a flying island. The jungle is a real physical space player characters can explore, as if it were a real wilderness. Just like falling is a thing in the real word when you’re climbing around according to our invisible rulebooks, so falling will also have to be an ever-present possibility here. Since the jungle is vertical, I fit it to hexcrawl conventions by creating a series of stacked hexmaps to model its four different levels, with rules for both vertical and lateral travel.

Suppose we zoom out from the level of the dungeon or the wilderness crawl to the level of the world or setting. Generally speaking, if you’re going to have an entire campaign where PCs in the waking world somehow explore dream locales, my first advice would be to follow the dreamlands aesthetics of Lovecraft, or Lord Dunsany from whose superior notes he was cribbing. Treat the dreamlands as an actual place—a land—where adventures can be had. Then you can embed surreal premises in ordinary exploration enabling locales. In other words, don’t treat it as disconnected dream bubbles that vanish when the players exit. Let there be a real there there at all levels from adventure locales to the whole world—the country of dreams.

Although this is the approach I’ve taken, it’s far from the only one possible. I’ll talk about Johnstone Metzger’s Nightmares Underneath a little bit later. It takes a different approach.

Jumbled Items, Conflated Locations, and Wonky Causes

Probably the single most dreamlike element from the White Jungle is the mysterious identity between the sky and the sea. The Zyanese call the sky, “The Endless Azure Sea”. The lowest level of the White Jungle is The Dangling Isles, where only a few groves descend into the depths of the Endless Azure Sea. They are like archipelago of inverted wooded isles, between which flying fish swim on the currents of air in the open sky. Of course, this strange environment is modeled in typical OSR fashion, by way of a hex crawl, and encounter tables populated by birds, flying fish, and other stranger aerial-aquatic beings like the immortal spirits of the air, the aery elemental demons of Wishery, or the painted baboons, dream travelers who skirt the lowest isles in hot air balloons. This phantasmagoria of dream elements is simply a hexcrawl with an associated encounter table, rules of travel, and the like.

The most dreamlike element in my Ruins of the Inquisitor’s Theater is probably the tree of silver melons. It grows in the darkness, with its roots in a loamy soil of decaying law books full of the casuistry and hermeneutics of the crooked law of Zyan. Having burst from the law library, its gnarled roots now block the door, its branches heavy in the darkness with silver skinned melons. These sweet, white-fleshed fruits have seeds like letters, so that if one is cut open, jumbled text can be seen. When one eats the fruit, one imbibes the knowledge from which the tree has nourished itself, becoming a fearsome Zyanese jurist.

There are many oneiric elements to this scene. A tree, heavy with silver-skinned fruit grows in the darkness: this already defies the laws of plant life. Its soil are books of the law, and the fruit somehow distilled their hermeneutics, so that when one eats the fruit, one somehow reads the books. Here we have the conflation of items typical of dream logic. Imagine describing a dream this way, “The fruit from the tree was somehow a book, and when I ate it, I was full of knowledge.” There is a strange identity of things, and causal logic breaks down.

And yet, when placed on the map, the tree is just a tree. Aside from its absurd implied cycle of life, it operates according to invisible rule books. For example, one must cut through the roots to reach the blocked door to the law library. Although fresh wood, it still could be used to try to kindle a fire.

Even the fruit can be assimilated to the challenge-based logics of old school play. In old school play, as I’ve written elsewhere, magical items are less passive buffs to characters (+1, +4, resistance to damage, etc.) and more like strange and very specific tools that players may use in unpredictable ways for out of the box problem-solving purposes. (An activity Ben Milton charmingly calls “shenanigans”.) For all their lurid dreamlike properties, the melons of the tree are essentially magic items—in D&D parlance, they are potions. In my new face to face game, where the party recently found this tree, I decided that the fruit would have a 24-hour duration, which assimilated them further to the logic of old school one use magical items. They are a resource the party can now deploy in unpredictable to solve their problems with an entirely new means: through superb legal reasoning. God only knows to what use they’ll put this strangely specific skeleton key—which is just how I like it.

The Secret Dream Logic of Dungeons and Dragons

Earlier my advice was to fit dreamy premises into standard modes of procedural exploration with their ordinary(ish) spatial logics and standard issue invisible rulebooks. In other words, my advice was to tame dream elements for old school play by embedding them in tried and true exploration formats. Good advice, I think. But the tree of the law hints at more interesting possibilities. How to describe what happened with the tree and its fruits to allow this synergy between dream aesthetics and old school play styles?

What I did with the tree, I think, was lean into what we might think of as the latent dream logic of dungeons and dragons. This dream logic is obscured by the accretion of decades of workaday publishing and tiresome tropes. It’s hard to see it Gary’s encyclopedic treatment and decades of late TSR and WoTC cruft. Let’s stick for the moment with the “potion” framework. Take the most quotidian of potions: the potion of invisibility. Let me redescribe it, adding just a little bit of aesthetic flare, as if it were a dream element.

“I drank a liquid so clear I couldn’t even see it was there. And when it was in me, somehow no one could see me. I could watch people, but not interact with them. I knew that if I did, they would see me and they could hurt me.”

There is a lot of dream thinking already happening in the formats for adventure locations and items, bog standard as they might seem. In fact, even procedures of exploration are dreamlike when thought of the right way. In Original D&D, the megadungeon around which play was assumed to center had exacting exploration rules that intensified the peril of dungeon delving, forced resource management on players, and generally titled things against the PCs. All monsters could see in the dark, but no PCs could. Light sources would deplete and flicker out. All doors were stuck for PCs and would close behind them, needing to be forced open--but yet they would open freely for monsters. I’m going to quote Philotomy’s wonderful explanation of these exploration procedures enabling high stakes old school dungeon exploration at length.

There are many interpretations of "the dungeon" in D&D. OD&D, in particular, lends itself to a certain type of dungeon that is often called a "megadungeon" and that I usually refer to as "the underworld." There is a school of thought on dungeons that says they should have been built with a distinct purpose, should "make sense" as far as the inhabitants and their ecology, and shouldn't necessarily be the centerpiece of the game (after all, the Mines of Moria were just a place to get through). None of that need be true for a megadungeon underworld. There might be a reason the dungeon exists, but there might not; it might simply be. It certainly can, and perhaps should, be the centerpiece of the game. As for ecology, a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it. For example, consider the OD&D approach to doors and to vision in the underworld: Generally, doors will not open by turning the handle or by a push. Doors must be forced open by strength...Most doors will automatically close, despite the difficulty in opening them. Doors will automatically open for monsters, unless they are held shut against them by characters. Doors can be wedged open by means of spikes, but there is a one-third chance (die 5-6) that the spike will slip and the door will shut...In the underworld some light source or an infravision spell must be used. Torches, lanterns, and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to "see" the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind. Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character. (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, pg 9)

What Philotomy does in this passage is link exploration procedures that make dungeon exploration challenging and fraught to a certain idea of what a dungeon is, which he calls, following OD&D, the "Underworld”. Note what he does and doesn’t say about the Underworld. The Underworld has an ecology, “a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency”, that allows one to reason about it in ordinary ways, or where it departs from the ordinary, to puzzle out its general principles of operation. Although it has its own ecologies, and mappable spatial logics, the mythical underworld is somehow opposed in its nature to adventures. Philotomy invites us to view the rules about stuck and closing doors, or light sources and vision, not only as artificial game elements that make high tension procedural exploration possible, but as the metaphysical expression of a place that “gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer”. In other words, Philotomy takes the idea of a megadungeon as the center of a campaign, and associated exploration mechanics, and following the lead of the OD&D rulebooks, invites us to view “the dungeon” as an inimical dream space, surreal in parts, where the laws of reality above may not apply. It is as if a dream has broken through into reality, and the exploration rules about stuck doors are an exploration of the way in which the whole thing is like a living nightmare.

Although I can’t do it justice here, Johnstone Metzger’s The Nightmare Underneath runs with this idea in the best possible way. In a high Islamic setting dominated by reason, law, and civilization, “the nightmares underneath” are breaking through in the dungeons the setting calls “nightmare incursions”. Metzger recasts traditional rules for exploration of perilous spaces through the nightmare metaphysics of this reimagined Underworld. Dispensing with the idea of a megadungeon, he opts for smaller adventure locales that nonetheless adhere to the logic of the “Underworld”, now explicitly rationalized as an expression of the incursion of nightmares of unreason into the orderly world of law. He also introduces novel exploration rules that have to do with the nightmare being at the heart of the incursion. Brilliantly, he does this too with the idea of PC party as rootless, social outsiders, a common and often derided trope from early D&D. In The Nightmares Underneath, the PCs are adventurers who for unknown reasons are able to enter these nightmare incursions without being destroyed. They are in some ways pariahs outside of the civilization, although civilization depends on them as a dubious cure for the chaotic cancer that gnaws at reality. He also recasts the idea of dungeon exploration as treasure hunting, by having each nightmare incursion held in place by an “anchor”, a valuable piece of treasure to which the nightmare incursion is tied. (This allows him to reinterpret the idea of treasure for XP, in a way that fits with the dungeon as a nightmare space: to cut out the cancer of the incursion one must remove the treasure that “anchors” the nightmare from the dungeon.) In short, Metzger runs with the idea of the Underworld reimagining rules and setting tropes in relation to his recasting of the Underworld as a literal nightmare, while pleasingly subverting their original meanings.

Even without going as far as Metzger does to aesthetically reimagine the entire game this way, we can see many discrete elements in Dungeons & Dragons that are amenable to this kind of treatment. Take, for example, another trope of D&D in its many incarnations: the “funhouse dungeon”. Here we have a dungeon with a feel of a funhouse. Surreal elements jostle with one another in close proximity, defying the tidy confines of our daytime expectations. One might find here hellish games of chance alongside bizarre traps, riddling manticores, and other monsters implausibly occupying single rooms. Funhouse dungeons rightly get a bad rap in part because they push against the logics that enable unscripted exploration-based play. Why would real factions with lives of their own sit waiting in a room down the hall from a demonic circus barker (or whatever)? The danger is that the whole thing becomes like the Hotel Atkinson, a series of vivid but discrete scenes, rather than an open-world environment that can meaningfully be navigated. But before we dismiss the funhouse dungeon, perhaps we could pause a moment to acknowledge what a glorious fever-dream it is. There are ways of reimagining a funhouse dungeon to keep the demonic circus barkers and cannibalistic manticores, while enabling OSR playstyle. We should consider the funhouse dungeon as a surreal resource in D&D on which to draw. And there are a million things that are like this, from potions, to talking swords, alignment languages, travel by silver chord in the astral plane, and much more.

In other words, I’m saying that if we wish to embody dream aesthetics in our games, we might go beyond embedding a dreamlike premise in tried and true exploration structures. We can do more than paint an oneiric glaze on established Dungeons & Dragons tropes. There’s a lot that’s surreal in the history and practice of D&D. Why not intensify the dreamlike (il)logics implicit in otherwise stale D&D tropes and exploration mechanics? We can make things fresh by awakening the dream aesthetics that already slumber just below the surface of the game. Like Metzger, we can reimagine the entire system of rules and tropes as expressive of dream aesthetics, or otherwise rationalized by them. Or we can do it in a more piecemeal fashion. 

In closing, what I want to say is that we can do both of these things. We can place dreamlike premises that conflate places, render objects ambiguous, or apply a single surreal twist, in tried and true exploration frameworks. This is to treat them as real place, or real factions, that allow for challenge-based, exploration, sandbox play. Or, we can work to bring out the dreaminess of those very exploration frameworks or seemingly workaday tropes of what is already an absurd game. To bring out the dream aesthetics, we just need to own the absurdity. 

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Ages of Life

I'm now middle-age. I've developed an interest in ways of folding this experience into gaming. In particular, I've become interested in the starting age of player characters, less the aging process over the long term and more what it means to pick up and play a character of different ages, although I would be very interested to see serious attempts to bring that into gaming. 

Here are some features of aging from my own experience that seem possibly relevant to starting characters. I don't want to suggest these are universal, but they're certainly some aspects of how aging feels to me. 

  • I know more than I did when I was young, having acquired greater skills, both in terms of breadth and depth. I've even learned from some of my mistakes. 
  • I have developed deep relationships that take time to develop, including parenting children and building a marriage and some very long lasting friendships, although I've lost many more friendships to drift and family relationships too over the years in some cases to death. 
  • Although I'm lucky to be about as healthy overall as I was when I am young,  my body is subject to constant injuries and indignities that remind me I can't handle what I used to. I'm very aware that pushing it physically might injure me. Even when I'm doing something rugged, I feel fragile. 
  • Mortality is on the brain. I can survey all too clearly the delimited vista of the finite time remaining to me. For this reason, I am forced to accept that there are a lot of things I'm just not going to get to do in this life. 
  • This is part of the reason that I no longer have a shapeless and endless hunger to learn and experience new things. I know I have to pick and choose. 
  • I have a vivid sense of how hard it would be to pick up and start something altogether new this late in life, especially a career. I have always felt profound admiration for people who do this late in life, but now I can vividly imagine what that would take, especially when it would involve starting something new alongside those who are young, as beginning a new career at the bottom inevitably would. "I'm too old for this sh**," is a sentiment I get.  

I'm sure there's a lot more I could say that could be relevant to gaming, for example about intergenerational relationships, understanding better where my elders were coming from than I could when I was young, and a lot of other things. But this will do for now.

With this stuff in mind, let's look at the way a few old school or OSR systems handle the starting age of player characters. 

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1E

In AD&D 1E there are five age categories (DMG pp. 12-13): young adult (15-20), mature (20-40), middle-aged (40-60), old (61-90), and venerable (91-120). Starting age is determined randomly at character generation based on your class, which give you a base starting age a die roll on top of that. For example, a fighter is 15 + 1d4 years old, whereas a magic-user is 24 + 2d8 years old. 

Given the starting ages and ranges specified, if you're a fighter or a thief it's fixed that you'll be a young adult, close to maturity. If you're a cleric, monk, or ranger you will be mature. And if you are a magic user you will be mature, possibly within striking distance of being middle-aged. In this system, the effect of the age categories is solely to modify your stats, like so. 

Young Adult: -1 Wisdom, +1 Constitution
Mature: +1 Constitution, +1 Strength
Middle-aged: +1 Wisdom, +1 intelligence
Old: -2 Strength, -2 Constitution, -1 Dexterity, +2 Wisdom, +1 Intelligence
Venerable: -3 Strength, -3 Constitution, -2 Dexterity, +3 Wisdom, +2 Intelligence

Why do different classes start at different set ages? I assume because we assume people start "training" for their class in childhood. It takes longer to learn to be a wizard, but not very long to learn to be a fighter or thief. By this logic, if your fighter or thief were older, they would be higher than 1st level. 

I find these choices unnecessarily confining. They bake some boring choices about worldbuilding into character generation. Why assume that everyone is training from youth? Can't an adult like Bilbo become a robber when some dwarves unexpectedly knock on his door? Can't someone pick up arms later in life after having done something else? And why assume that "wizard training" takes decades? Can't someone start as a young apprentice magician, like Ged? Or as a young monk? 

Furthermore, the effect of belonging to an age category is solely an effect on base ability scores. There's some truth to this, insofar as my constitution is not what it once was, and perhaps I'm a little wiser than I used to be. But there's an awful lot it leaves out. This system is not about the life the character has already built as someone mature before they begin adventuring, with their acquired relationship, resources, and skills. Nor is it about the advantages of youth, the hunger for new experiences, boundless vitality. Nor are the penalties for aging about one's relation to mortality, or about the difficulty of starting something new, or about what one has lost and left behind at that age, and so on.

Given the  effects of belonging to an age category, we can't just fix the prior problem by allowing players to choose their character's starting age, because all that will do mechanically speaking is encourage min/maxing. Since the only effect is on stats, fighters will choose maturity, and magic users and clerics middle or even old age. The effects of age just aren't very interesting, with optimum trade-offs for each class based on their favored ability score.  

Although these rules were published when Gary Gygax was 41 years old, they don't really strike me as the kinds of rules someone who had personal experience of aging would write. Or at the very least they seem close to the least interesting possible translation of that experience into game terms. 


In Traveller, the starting age of your character is determined entirely by the clever career mini-game that's involved in character generation. In the system presented in Book 1, everyone is basically ex-military. At the start of the process your character is age 18 and has no skills. (Your stats are determined by 2d6 down the line.) The character generation minigame follows you career through the service until you "muster out". 

You enlist or are drafted into one of the branches of the military for 4 year terms, with a roll to determine if you have the chance to re-enlist at the end of each term. So the minimum starting age for a character is 22 if they are unlucky enough to fail to re-enlist even once. Each 4 year term you serve comes with at least one new skill (often multiple skill) and possible chances to be promoted, which brings additional skills and benefits when you muster out at the end of your service. But each 4 year term also comes with a non-negligible chance of being killed, with a greater probability in the more dangerous branches of service. 

If you manage to re-enlist three times, getting yourself to starting age 34, you check to see whether various stats decrease. For each term you re-enlist you check for further decline of stats, meaning that as you manage to survive and climb through a successful military career into the 4th, 5th, 6th, or even 7th term (very rare), your stats are likely declining along the way. On a 2d6 system, each point lost is significant!  

When you muster out or retire you get benefits based on how many terms you served, and what your rank is at the time you leave. You might leave with a large load of cash, or free passage on a starship, or with a fat pension that pays out annually, or if you enlisted as a merchant, even a ship of your very own. The importance of the skills gained through winning at these gambles and so aging is amplified by the fact that Traveler has no real character advancement mechanic. So the skills one has at the start of the game are very likely the skills one has throughout the campaign. As a result, being older is MUCH better than being younger, although it may come with some decline in stats.

The end effect of all of this is that aging represents successful advancement along a career trajectory that involves training and access to more resources. It is a pure positive up until 30. To age is to have increasing skills, respect, and financial resources. Past 30 one faces trade-offs with randomized stat loss, but the effects are likely still quite positive.The mini-game aspect means that one is invited to gamble, pushing length of service against the possibility of being killed in service, which nicely represents the hazards of a lengthy term of service in certain branches of the military, or against losing stats if you manage to re-enlist a whole bunch of times. 

Mortality figures in this system, but only in terms of death in character generation. Physical decline is rolled into the gambling aspect of the system in pleasing ways. But the primary driver is the idea of how important it is to have had a successful military career before you start adventuring. Although Traveller does not have levels or experience points, to be an older starting character in Traveller is essentially to start as what would be in other systems a higher level character in a system without any real possibility of further advancement. All the leveling happens in the game happens before you get to the table.

I like the Traveller system a lot. But for one thing it's focused on an ex-military style game, and works less well outside of that context. And for another, it represents aging in a way that is relentlessly positive. If you've managed to live this long, then you're likely to be that much more formidable. Because what you used to do is super relevant to the new career you're embarking on, the skills translate seamlessly. Think how different the system would be if the four year terms represented stages in your career in a secretarial pool, moving up a corporate ladder, or as a teamster. 

Beyond the Wall

Beyond the wall is interesting on age (actually, on almost everything). Since it takes its flavor from coming of age fantasy books like The Chronicles of Prydain, or The Wizard of Earthsea, the default assumption is that the player characters are youths who are just coming to adulthood. However, Beyond the Wall: Heroes Young and Old introduces the possibility of playing an older character. 

Beyond the Wall, like Traveller, uses a lifepath character generation minigame. Unlike Traveller, the lifepath in Beyond the Wall includes collaborative setting creation. Character generation begins by picking a class. You then select a playbook, which tells you what background you have. So, for example, if you are a fighter, you might pick between the "village hero" or "would be knight". This playbook assigns you starting stats (e.g. the village hero has 10 on strength and constitution and 8 on everything else). It then comes bundled with a set of tables that tell you about experiences you've had, and what you've gained (or lost) from them. Some of these tables are shared across playbooks representing facts about childhood, and some are playbook specific. As you roll on these tables your stats will go up and you will also acquire various skills. 

The tables also serve to introduce NPCs who are meaningful to you, and give you the chance to contribute facts about the starting village for the campaign. Importantly, they also involve a mechanic whereby the player character to your right shared certain experiences with you that affect both of you. So your final stats and skills from a record of experiences that get weaved together with locations, NPCs, and facts about the setting that you develop together through character generation. It also explains how the party members are tied to one another through shared coming of age experiences.

Instead of quantifying age numerically, Heroes Young and Old folds age into class selection by introducing a separate elder playbook for each class. The assumption seems to be that there will be at most one elder in the group. The elder begins at 2nd level. They share the same common tables with the youths, but their playbook-specific tables introduce novel materials. One table represents an adult relation to another person in the village, subtly different than the the playbooks of youths. Another discusses the characters previous adventures, or past military experience, or mastery of sorcery that brought them to 2nd level. The final one explains how the player to their right became their pupil. So these tables introduce an intergenerational connection, and it assumes that your elder character is a mentor to one of the other player characters, and likely by extension to the group as a whole.

Given the coming of age focus of the game, Beyond the Wall: Heroes Young and Old introduces a subtle and interesting use of age as a mechanic. It represents the aged as more experienced and skilled than the young, and it gives both the character and the group a subtly different relation to the world of adults. It also ties the party together with intergenerational bonds, by representing the older character as a mentor to one of the younger characters. To balance all this out, it gives them character slightly lower stats over all, perhaps in some way to represent what they've lost along the way, or perhaps merely for the sake of game balance. 


One assumption that Traveller and Beyond the Wall share is that characters who are older have already had experience adventuring. This is implicit in the AD&D rules as well insofar as the assumption is that you've been training since childhood, and your starting age is determined by class on the basis of how long that training took. If you could start older in AD&D, you would logically start the game further down the same path, i.e. at a higher level

Note that things go in a very different, and potentially more interesting, direction if we assume that all starting characters are 1st level characters with 0 experience, but we nonetheless allow them to be different starting ages. In that case, you can start the game as a middle-aged apprentice wizard, or as an aged spinster newly turned to thievery. This of course raises the question what these older characters were doing before they started adventuring.

One thing that Traveller and Beyond the Wall do well is give play to the idea that an older character brings with them the experience, relationships, and knowledge they gained throughout life. I like that and want to hold onto that. But if we ditch the assumption that this takes the form of a previous adventuring (or a military) career,  what you bring to the table will have to be something different than what you get through increasing experience in your new class. In terms of downsides, perhaps we could capture the feeling, or anxiety involved in feeling too old to start afresh, especially among younger people. 

One thing that all three systems fail to do pretty much anything with is the sense of physical frailty and mortality that comes with aging. The closest they come is simply decrease starting attributes. This just sort of makes your character worse. It doesn't bring home mortality or vulnerability in any very strong way. Traveller does, of course, have the wager against death in service, but that's a vulnerability that exists only during character generation, i.e. offstage. Is there some more interesting way we could bring the sense of mortality and physical vulnerability into play?

A New System for Ages of Life

When you generate your character, select one of three ages of life: youth, adult, or aging. Each has benefits and drawbacks. 

These mechanics use a new saving throw against death that I took this saving throw from Gus L's HMS Apollyon Player's Guide. The way it works is this. When a character falls to 0 hit points or below, they roll a save against death by rolling 1d20 trying to hit the target number specified by their save. If they make it (roll equal or higher to the target number) they return to 1 hit point immediately and may continue acting, but their save permanently goes up by 1 point, becoming harder to make each time. If they fail, their character dies. (As an aside, this mechanic introduces a wonderful sense of drama at the table. Everything stops for that single roll, with all eyes riveted to the d20 clattering across the table. It's the most high-stakes roll anyone could make.)  

The system also uses a bonus to experience points. It is intended to replace rather than complement the "prime requisite" mechanic from older editions of D&D. (Additional XP for high stats is boring, especially where high stats already bring substantial other benefits.) 

Finally, the system refers to skills. I actually find it works best in games that don't have a skill system or have very freeform systems. However you resolve such matters, it's important that you treat the skill seriously. The starting skills possessed are a whole range of things connected to a line of work that represent serious knowledge about that subject matter derived from training and long experience. 


You have the vitality and hunger for experience of youth. You are adaptable and learn quickly like a sponge. But you have not done much in life yet. What you know is mainly what skills your class provides you.
  • Death Save: 8
  • + 10% on all experience points gained


You had a trade before becoming an adventurer. The skills from your past life may come in handy from time to time.

  • Death Save: 10
  • Choose a former profession. You are skilled in all matters pertaining to that profession. Begin with the tools of your trade, whatever those might be. These can be substantial and valuable. A trainer of horses might have a horse, a jeweler might have jewel cutting tools and small bag of cut gems, a midwife might carry tinctures, herbs, and other medicinal remedies. 


You had another life before becoming an adventurer. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but you bring more to the table than your younger comrades.

  • Death Save: 12
  • -10% on all experience points gained
  • Choose a former profession. You are skilled in all matters pertaining to that profession. Begin with the tools of your trade, whatever those might be. These can be substantial and valuable.  
  • Begin with one loyal companion. This companion could be an animal, like a hunting dog, trained monkey, or horse; or a a human companion: a fastidious butler, bodyguard, thug, or sub-apprentice. If they are an animal, they are attuned to your reactions and cleverly trained to follow simple instructions the way a remarkable dog or horse might be so trained. If they are a human they may be the equivalent of a skilled hireling. Either way, this companion is utterly loyal and need not make morale checks. Describe the nature of your character's bond with this companion. If they are human are they your son or daughter? Or a very old friend? Someone who was in your service in the older profession?  

I have now playtested this system a bit. In play, it allows players to trade off flavor and backstory for the character against the straightforward mechanical benefits of youth, and also allows you to build some "character concept" even in systems that work with very basic class selections. It also induces a vivid sense of mortality, since the number for the death save looms so large at the table. 

Of 6 PCs to date, we had one wonderful aged character, a fighter named Jonah who had been a sea preacher in a former life. His loyal companion was a seagull. We have also had several adults, including one cleric of Mother Winter who had been a midwife in her previous career. Her skills in herbalism and medicinal remedies frequently came in handy. It's been a lot of fun, especially since I'm playing at the table with folks who themselves range from adults to aged. 

Have you seen starting age handled in interesting ways in other RPGs? How about the aging process during play? What other good materials are out there for thinking about how to meaningful incorporate this basic dimension of human experience into our games? Drop it in the comments.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Six Starter Spell Books

A while back I posted some downtime rules for magical research, which you can see here (they get expanded in my forthcoming zine, Downtime in Zyan). These include rules for the creation of spellbooks that were intended to make spellbooks more interesting and evocative. The idea is that spells can only be held in a book that is a splendid item fashioned by an artisan our of remarkable materials. Such wondrous artifacts consist of a prison architecture including thematic unity that can hold a certain number of spell levels. To bring one into the world is to affect the setting. 

The idea is that spellbooks will be known by name, sought after by many wizards. Finding one would feel rightly like a big deal, and spells from the common list will have a distinctive flavor when learned and cast from one of these tomes. On this approach, to introduce a spellbook is to introduce not only its wizardly author, but also a master craftsman, so every spellbook comes wrapped in a bit of lore.

According to the same rules, it is possible to copy such a book, which is then not a splendid item. This post presents some of the more common, widely copied magical books. Instead of randomly dicing for a new magic-user's starting spells, randomly dice for one of these. These can also be used as templates for the magic-user's player to make their own, thereby contributing an important text and author to the setting of the game.

This post is one in a long tradition of trying to make spellbooks more interesting. It was influenced by Brendan S's post here, which I highly recommend, as well as slew of posts reimagining spellbooks from the heady early days of the OSR blogosphere. For the purposes of this post I have limited myself to starting spells in OSE. Note that should a player wish to design their own spellbook, the spellbook should contain 2 first level spells and 1 second level spell. No starting spellbook may contain more than 1 of the most powerful 1st level spells: charm person, sleep, and light. (Light in OSE is a strangely powerful spell given the effects of being blinded and the lack of limitations by HD.)

Value & Condition

Starting magic-user spell books are stained and tattered copies of the most common spell books. To see which one, the player should roll 1d6 and consult the table below. They can be sold as a regular book for 250 gold pieces, as a sort of curiosity, to anyone who might buy books. But the real value of the texts are known only to the the small number of actual wizards, who are, sadly, likely to already have a copy of these books of paltry magic (10% per level of the magic-user). Only those without a copy will want to buy such a soiled copy, likely for 500 + 1d4x100 GP.

1. Beyond the Convex Mirror*

This book was authored by Oliphaxus the Heretic Sage. The original was created for him by the workshop of Selim Aphastes whose unparalleled creations abounded with consequences unintended and unforeseen.  The original is coptic bound betwixt darkened mirrors that strangely distort what they reflect, shards of a shattered portal between worlds. The lettering of the title is etched into the glass, and painted in silver hues. 

Inside, the work is an abstruse treatise on the optics of occult mirrors. Those who deeply study the work may intuit the principles for pulling reflections from mystical mirrors as strange sorceries. All spells learned from this book teach the way to summon a different mystical mirror from which the enchantment is drawn. The book may also be used to research any phenomenon having to do with mirrors, optics, or reflections. 

Cheap copies, such as those likely to be possessed by a starting wizard, often have cloth boards with a plate depicting a mirror. They also include tiresome contemporary appendixes with more "up to date" views about optics. 

1st level: Light, Ventriloquism
2nd Level: Mirror Image

2. Enchantments of the Twilight Court*

Authored by the poet enchanter Elidar who it is said sought to forsake his humanity so that he might dwell amongst the fey courts and dance in their glades forever. To make the book, Elidar brought glittering ink distilled from the tears of fairy laughter to Telisa the star touched, who knew the art of binding cold and fickle starlight into pulp. For this pulp she gathered the tough stems of cat-tails, dandelion dander, and the shells of robins eggs and fashioned creamy paper, soft as a babe's skin. She bound the book in cloth boards of amethyst hues, with darkling endpapers, twinkling like stars new emerged at dusk. 

Within these creamy pages is an illustrated poem about the allures and charms of the fey Twilight Court. Its verses contain three potent pieces of fairy magic that one may employ only if one's heart has truly been awakened to the temptations of fairy. The casting of these spells betrays their fey source.

Lesser copies, such as those in the meager collections of newly minted wizards, are often bound in plain boards with pink wraps painted with the silhouette of a gauche and stereotypical fairy. Sometimes they are illuminated in a cloying and distracting fashion intended to perk the poem up.

1st Level: Charm Person, Detect Magic
2nd Level: Phantasmal Force

3. Geometry of Unseen Potencies

The work of Daglon the Geometer, mystical master of force and balance, architect of suspended structures. He had the original crafted by confounding Ubaes who constructed books like puzzles and conundrums. Geometry of Unseen Potencies is bound between polished stones taken from the hearts of substantial clouds in Wishery. Although ponderous in appearance, the book weighs almost nothing.

Within the book is a complex geometrical treatise on otherworldly shapes and forms. Many of its intricate geometrical constructions and proofs are on elaborate foldout pages. The final proofs are actually powerful sorceries that exert strange forces. To master them, one must master the theorems that have come before. 

Cheap copies, such as might fall to a young magician, are often on a single scroll that one unrolls revealing each proof in succession. Such copies require ponderous turning backwards and forwards to remind one of the place in the proof structure. 

1st Level: Hold Portal, Floating Disk
2nd Level: Levitate

4. Saffroy’s Principles of Arcane Dueling

This work was penned by Saffroy, a meticulous duelist with both sword and spell. He had many dashing victories in his youth, serving in his middle years as a tutor to the aristocratic scions of magical families, before he was slain in a final duel by the treachery of Imbabo. To create the Principles of Arcane Dueling, Saffroy brought his magical sword Fluid Riposte to the workshop of Pentalon the Illustrator, whose famed depictions of historical scenes produce melancholy daydreams of shocking vividness. Pentalon had the sword melted into a metal cover for the book, illustrating the book with swirling scenes of swordplay and spellcraft. 

Within the covers, an antique treatise on the history of magical duels, and the etiquette, rituals, and rites of the dueling code dating to the era of the Sorcerer Lords is printed on heavy vellum. By reading the text and daydreaming about Pentalon's captivating illustrations of three famous historical duel, one may bring the scene to life sufficiently to learn from them how to cast the spells illustrated in the scene. 

The depressing copies found among the possessions of marginal wizards are leather bound, dusty tomes, with workaday illustrations and dense text boring enough to make one doze. Only in such delicate involuntary catnaps may one--if one is lucky--recover the enchantments of the duels depicted.

1st Level: Magic Missile, Shield
2nd Level: Web

5. Lesser Emanations of the Archduke

This grimoire was written by Melanoch, eerie sage of forbidden lore, who worshipped the black sea of chaos and wrested knowledge of what lies above the heavens and below the earth from the hands of those who guard it. To the doomed bookmaker Zunnis, who had forsaken all hope owing to a curse of the gods, he brought the black scintillating peacock feathers of a corrupted seraph of the Overworld, from which Zunnis fashioned a soft cover of feathered eyes. Within is a treatise on the infernal spirits know as "lesser emanations of the Archduke". It contains speculation about their nature, and testimony of those who have held congress with and supposedly mastered them. Deep penetration of the text allows one to deal with these emanations, and summon them to perform unsettling sorceries or to protect oneself from them and their ilk. The text is the first in an intended trilogy, a mere prelude to Melanoch's supposedly lost or unfinished magnum opus.

Common editions of this work are bound in ordinary black goat skin. They tend to be decorated with edgy illustrations of unwholesome scenes of sacrifice or pornography. Sometimes they are barely legible owing to the sinister lettering style of their scribes who overcompensate for lack of art by developing a doom-laden scrawl.   

1st Level: Sleep, Protection from Evil
2nd Level: Invisibility

6. Inner Illuminations of the First Organ

This meditative treatise was conceived by Poscilles the Psychonaut, who it is said acquired six of the nine occult organs, until his form could bear no more and he disintegrated in a flash. (Others say he wanders still in inner landscapes in search of the Seventh Organ, which no mortal has acquired.) Whatever his fate, in those earlier days he brought silver saplings of the mighty shangra tree that grows on the inner astral plane to Saekeko the Gardener, whose books overflow with organic forms and lush illustrations of natural history. From their pulp Saekeko fashioned a pale grey vellum that thrums with inner meanings, and from their bark a set of silver boards into which they burned a single eye surrounded by a ring of flowing occult symbols. Within is a bewildering work, one part treatise on the inner plane and one part ascetic exercises to prepare ones body for incorporation of the First Organ. This text is illuminated by teeming otherworldly vegetation. Those who engage in the ascetic and meditative exercises, preparing body and mind, are eventually able to open the First Organ, a floating spiritual eye, from which the spells of this treatise are cast. 

Lesser editions, such as commonly circulate, are often copied with rainbow stained boards for covers. Inside, in place of Saekeko's glorious illustrations one finds earnest but ethereal illuminations of spirit beings with a third shining eye.  

1st Level: Detect Magic, Light 
2nd Level: ESP

*These two spell books are inspired by playing in Nick Kuntz' Twilight Shores game, which has a mirror universe in it with which my character and I are obsessed as well as a captivating fey realm that is at once close to hand and far away. 

EDIT: Check out this sweet post at I Cast Light! that expands this system by tying the starting spellbook her to associated starter gear for magic-users. It ramps up the flavor nicely. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Downtime in Zyan: Pants or No Pants?

Downtime in Zyan, my new zine, has just launched on Kickstarter! The zine presents a system for downtime, the activities characters engage in between adventures. Brought to life by the whimsical and alluring art of Evlyn Moreau, the mole rats of Zyan will show you how to transform the neglected space between adventures into a site where player-driven schemes and dreams grow with delightful results.

Head over to the campaign and you'll see some exciting stretch goals. Half of the stretch goals for this project are about sharing the profits with my dream team. It’s a way of recognizing Evlyn for her fantastic art that has brightened our collective existence for the better part of a decade in this corner of indie rpgs, and Lester for his visionary graphic design and layout, which has given Through Ultan’s Door its distinctive (and award-winning) look. Both members of the dream team also played in my original dreamlands campaign, Evlyn as her character Satareh who explored the hanging Summer Palace in the bright groves of the inverted White Jungle, and Lester as the lizard man gladiator Sleestakarus whose dreamland picaresques include snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the Gauntlet of the Panther Priests. It means the world to me to be working with them both on this project. Along the way there are also Kickstarter exclusive stretch goals that provide a handy reference to the system of downtime activities as well as a pamphlet with special rules for carousing in Zyan!

This Kickstarter presents two versions of Downtime in Zyan. The first is the modest edition. In keeping with the human preference for pants, this version has added bottom coverings to the illustrations of mole rats that otherwise would appear naked to human eyes. The cover illustrated above is drawn from the modest edition of Downtime in Zyan. But this Kickstarter also presents an option to purchase a Kickstarter exclusive bold edition of Downtime in Zyan that presents the mole rats as they actually dress and prefer to be seen: without pants. I encourage you to think of your pledge for the zine as a vote between these two editions. Choose sides in this eternal struggle and back this Kickstarter by clicking here!

Stay tuned, I'll have more exciting news on blog soon about Through Ultan's Door 4. Until then, I'll see you in slumberland.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Downtime in Zyan

On Tuesday 2/8 I launch my next Kickstarter, this time for Downtime in Zyan, It presents a unified and flexible system for handling the actions characters take between adventures. Brought to life by the whimsical art of Evlyn Moreau, the mole rats of the dreamlands will show you how to transform the neglected white space between adventures into a garden in which player-driven schemes and dreams grow with delightful results.

Longtime readers will recognize the discussion of downtime activities from this blog. In terms of rules, it is the single contribution I am most proud of to the emerging OSR style play. The zine unifies, expands, and develops my posts on downtime into a single approach for the downtime phase of play, with rules for acquiring skills, building institutions, cultivating relationships, crafting splendid items, gathering intelligence, mastering martial techniques, researching obscure topics, engaging in wild revelries, plumbing the perilous depths of spellcraft, and seeking enlightenment through spiritual exercises. For newer readers who want a taste of the system take a look at the posts on building an institutioncultivating a relationship,or doing research.

The zine also contains an article on the theory of downtime, and more importantly, an article explaining how GMs can leverage downtime to help build their campaign setting and sandbox world, and prep adventure locations and NPCs. By integrating this system into your campaign, I really think you can supercharge active player involvement in your campaign and bring the sandbox to life in new ways.  

The zine is system agnostic, but written with older editions of Dungeons & Dragons, their retro-clones, or newer rules-lite "OSR" games in mind. It can be used with any fantasy setting and doesn't presuppose familiarity with the setting of Zyan presented in Through Ultan's Door. If you are interested in following the project and being notified when it launches, you can do so here

On Tuesday, when the zine launches, I will also have big news about what's next for Through Ultan's Door. So stay tuned!

Sunday, November 7, 2021

House Rules for New Face to Face Elspeth's Letter Campaign


I'm starting up a new face to face campaign with a co-worker and some people from the neighborhood. I'm using (play testing) Elspeth's Letter, a stretch goal in the form of an alternative campaign premise from my last Kickstarter. It is going to be released soon in expanded form with full art as the inaugural issue of my new zine Pale Echoes that presents alternate frames in the waking world for dreamlands campaigns. The basic idea is that one of the players is the godchild of Elspeth. They receive an inheritance of Elspeth's house, which includes a ticket to the dreamlands by using the memories of a dead dreamer (Elspeth). 

These rules are close to Swords & Wizardry in some way, but really they're an amalgam of three things: Gus' HMS Apollyon Rules for stat modifiers and the death save, Errant for inventory, Jorune: Evolutions my evolving Jorune hack for the general 2d6 mechanic, and White Box for the idea of white spaces.

Generally speaking, my idea here is that I control the setting and world of the dreamlands. Players do not have any input on that. That is my domain--and I am relying on an asymmetry of knowledge. (Indeed no one in this group has ever read my zines or blog!) But about the dreary waking world, my stance is that I know little beyond some barebones elements I'm contributing about a town near Elspeth's house. If I knew these players better I might even suggest a session 0 where we designed the waking world together. Instead I'm choosing to use "white spaces" (a concept from White Hack) during character creation that allow the players to contribute elements of the setting for the waking world. 

To be clear, I threw these rules together hastily. They represent a compromise between keeping things familiar enough for players who have played recent versions of D&D and my own predilections. They are just a set of house rules for what is likely a temporary return to face to face gaming. They aren't like my work on Jorune: Evolutions, where I'm trying to come up with a system that works from the ground up to do what I want it to do.


Roll 3d6 down the line. Swap one roll if you want to. 

Strength: How physically powerful you are
Wisdom: Attunement to spiritual things (NOT how "wise your choices are")
Intelligence: Facility with book learning (NOT how "smart you are")
Dexterity: How agile or dexterous you are
Constitution: How hardy you are
Charisma: Your leadership ability (NOT how "persuasive your in speech in game is")

The crucial point of the NOTs is that you are not to play your stats, and in particular, you are not to try to use them as a basis to make bad decisions or play suboptimally in the game. 

In the spot for bonuses and penalties next to the state:
If you rolled 6 or less write -1 next to that stat
If you rolled 15 or more write +1 next to that stat

For each +1 or -1 you have on a stat give your character an adjective. So if you rolled 5 on dexterity, you might be lumbering or butterfingered. If you roll 15 on charisma you might have gravitas. This is solely for flavor. 


Most versions of D&D have various races you can play. In this game, all the player characters are human. There are no other “races” to play in the waking world. Other kinds of playable beings may or may not be unlocked as a result of your adventures in Wishery.


Fighter: Violence is your specialty. Choose your flavor of fighter--this will affect your class-related skills. Perhaps you are a mercenary, knight, soldier, swashbuckler, pirate, etc. HD 1d8 Damage with weapon: 1d10. Armor allowed: any.

Magic-User: You are a master of the occult. You can cast powerful enchantments but are not much use when it comes to the arts of war. Perhaps you are a diabolist, enchanter, witch, gentleman scholar, etc. HD 1d4. Damage with weapon: 1d4. Armor allowed: none.

Cleric: You are blessed by a god or divinity and may perform miracles. You also possess some fighting ability. Perhaps are a monk, divine, savant, miracle worker, preacher, paladin, etc. HD 1d6. Damage with weapon: 1d6. Armor allowed: any.

Thief: You possess a rare set of skills, such as stealth, sleight of hand, and lock picking. You strike from the shadows. Perhaps you are a con-man, assassin, spy, specialist, etc. HD 1d6. Damage with weapon: 1d8. Armor allowed: light. 

Age of Life

Pick an age of life. One player, Elspeth’s godchild and heir, must be a youth. All others may choose an age of life as they prefer. Write this age category down in the line for age on your character sheet

Youth: You have the vitality and hunger for experience of youth. You are adaptable and learn quickly like a sponge.

  • Saving Throw 8
  • + 10% on all experience points gained

Adult: You had a trade before becoming an adventurer. Your skills my come in handy.

  • Saving Throw 10
  • Choose a former profession. Add +1 to any roll that falls within that skill set. Begin with the tools of your trade.

Aging: You had another life before becoming an adventurer. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but you bring more to the table than your younger comrades.

  • Saving Throw 12
  • -10% on all experience points gained
  • Choose a former profession. Add +1 to any skill or ability roll that falls within the skill set of that profession. Begin with the tools of your trade.
  • Begin with one loyal companion. It could be a hunting dog, trained monkey, horse, fastidious butler, bodyguard, thug, or apprentice.

Saving Throw

You have only one saving throw the value of which is set by your age of life. It works like this: If your hit points reach zero or lower, roll a saving throw on 1d20. If you roll equal to or higher than your saving throw, your character is saved, return to 1hp. Whenever you make a saving throw, increase your saving throw number by 1.

Stat or Skill Checks

To make a stat or skill check roll 2d6 and add your modifier. 

Normal: 6- failure 7+ success 
Challenging: 6- failure 7-9 partial success 10+ success
Difficult: 9- failure 10+ success

We use a freeform skill system. For skills that your character isn't trained in make a roll with a -1. (Highly specialized skills cannot be used if untrained.) If are trained in a skill roll without modifier. If you are skilled add +1 and if you are a master add +2. Unless you are a thief, your starting skills are limited to those fitting your class and former profession. For class specific skills treat the modifiers this way: Levels 1-4 trained, Levels 5-8 skilled, Levels 9+ master. Use your description of your class to specify your skills. Any skills that fall under former professions are at the trained level. 

What would normally be saving throws in old editions of D&D are instead difficult or challenging stat checks. So a saving throw against dragon breath would require a dexterity check at difficult level to take half damage. If it was a young dragon, or I was being a softie, perhaps it would be challenging dexterity check with full damage on a failure, half damage on a partial success, and no damage on a full success. 

Most downtime actions use a 2d6 mechanic modified by a stat bonus. They are, in effect, often (although not always) stat checks.

Note 1: You can learn and improve skills through my system of downtime activities.

Note 2: This is a bit simpler than the challenge rating I use in Jorune: Evolutions, which involves two different categories of rolls and a difficulty modifier. I want to see if this simpler system works. On the whole I prefer the rules to be simpler where possible. 

Former Professions

If adult or aging choose a former profession, from this list or anything you can think of. The setting in the waking world is a dreary faux Europeanish setting that spans anachronistically medieval Europe to the renaissance and beyond, with a sprinkling of magic, divinity, and the occult. So, any profession that could fit with that very broad vibe will be admissible. Write down your former profession on your character sheet.

Some will want to use this choice mainly to add flavor to their character. But it can also be used to add some skills that wouldn’t normally come with your class. For example, want to be a bard? Be a troubadour turned fighter, thief, or cleric, depending on what bard aspect you want to emphasize. If a cleric, since you can settle the details of your faith too, make it a god of song and you magic can all come through performance! Or if you want to be a ranger, choose a fighter with a past career of woodsman. Want to play a spellsword? Be a magic-user with a former profession of duelist. The tools of your trade and how the skills might work can be decided together at the table. 

Astrologer/Fortune Teller
Charlatan/Snake Oil Salesman
Peasant (i.e. farmer)
Gambler/Card Sharp
Grave Digger/Ditch Digger/Stevedore
Scholar/Natural Philosopher/Historian
Rat Catcher/Poisoner
Squire/Apprentice/Indentured Servant

Determine How You Know One Another

In this game, you are a group of comrades who have come together around Elspeth’s godchild to pursue adventure and who work as a team. Everyone must have a tie to one other person in the group. What is it? We should probably wait to decide this together at the table.

Blood relative
Childhood Friend
(Former) Lover
Thrown together by circumstance
Shared trauma
Business partners
Met in a jail cell
Fought together in war
Common political cause/common enemy

The Death of Elspeth's Godchild

I probably don't even need to say this on this blog, but I will mention that Elspeth's Godchild does not have plot armor on this premise. If they die, then the player of the godchild designates another PC as the heir and they are now the inheritor of Elspeth's estate. If there is a total party kill, the estate has passed to an heir in the new group that is rolled up. (The player who dies may also opt to collectivize the estate to the group, if they do so then the group must pick a legal name for their adventuring party.)


Whatever the description of their class, all thieves possess the following skills. Every time you advance a level assign an additional +1 to two of these skills. Every time you acquire a level you will add two more +1’s. Unlike other skills (including other skills from your class description), the maximum plus you can have to any one thief skill listed below is +3 rather than +2.

Climb Walls
Pick Pockets
Pick Locks
Find/Remove Traps
Hear Noise
Read Languages


Choose Your Deity: This is the mystical source of your power, usually a god or religious principle of some kind. I do not have a pantheon for the dreary waking world, so you may imagine any deity or mystical power you like. Here are some very generic types of deities if you would like a list:

Art or Craft

Name your deity. Answer the following questions (more will come up over time in play). What does your holy symbol look like? What do miracles granted by your deity (spells) look like in action? Think of one rite, sacrament, or holiday associated with your deity.


If you are a magic-user, select three spells contained in your starting spell book from the Old School Essentials List: two first, and one second level spell. Of first level spells you may book may contain only one of the following (objectively best spells): light, sleep, and charm person. I do not have a view about how the dismal magic of the waking world works. Think of your spell book as a way to contribute to this aspect of the setting.  The spell book is not a little black book that you write your own spells in it. It is a significant magical text that is known in the game world. Name and describe the spell book that contains them. It has a title and appearance, and embeds the spells in some broader subject, speculation, art object, or discourse. Also decide what the spells you have selected look like in action. To acquire new spells you will need to research them in downtime or to learn them from spell books you acquire.


We are using a slot-based inventory, which is influenced by Ava Islam's Errant.

In hands: Two slots
Handy: Four slots
In pack: Six slots

Anything that is in hand or handy can be used without spending an action. Anything in your pack you must take an action to get out. You can fill a slot with a bundle of four small items of the same or related things. (I.e. quill + bottle of ink, 4 flasks of oil, etc.) Jewelry, clothing, and knick knacks do not fill up a slot. A slot can also hold 100 coins.

You get the following items based on your class. If you have a former profession, also write down the tools of your previous trade.

Fighter: Chain Armor (AC 15), melee weapon, and either shield (+1 to AC) or missile weapon
Thief: Leather Armor (AC 12), melee weapon, missile weapon, thieves’ tools
Cleric: Chain Armor (AC 15), melee weapon, holy symbol
Magic-User: Spellbook and either melee or missile weapon

A note about weapons and armor. Rather than using different damage for different weapons, and only allowing some classes to use certain (more damaging weapons), we’re going to use weapon damage by class. So, you can imagine the weapons you use to be just about anything. We are using ascending armor class so higher is better as in 5E, with the normal 1d20 + attack bonus roll to hit a target number set by the armor class.

Fighter: Weapon damage 1d10; Armor allowed: any
Thief: Weapon damage 1d8; Armor allowed: leather
Cleric: Weapon damage 1d6; Armor allowed: any
Magic-User: Weapon damage 1d4 Armor allowed: none

In addition, pick one starter pack:

Scholar: Pack, scroll-case with 3 rolls parchment, ink, quill, charcoal, small mirror, candle in holder, matches
Explorer: Pack, Lantern, 2 flasks oil, matches, rope 50’, caltrops
Specialist: Pack, 3 torches, matches, rope 50’, mallet, 5 metal spikes

Experience Points and Advancement

We will be using the experience tables listed in Old School Essentials. You will receive experience points for the following things.

• Each character will receive 200 experience points for your first session in a new place of adventure in Wishery. (There will be experience points awarded for other exploration related goals to be introduced later when the opportunities are uncovered.)
• Each character will each receive 600 experience points for accompanying Elspeth’s barge on its funeral procession. You will receive these experience points only if the barge completes the procession and goes over the falls intact.
• Your party will receive 1 experience point for each gold piece worth of treasure you bring back from Wishery to the waking world. This be divided between the characters on the adventure. So if there are four players and you retrieve 600 gp worth of treasure, you will each receive 150 xp.
• These are the only things you get experience points for. Note that you get no experience points for combat. Violence is an important tool at your disposal, but it does not provide any reward in itself.

When you gain a level, you acquire one more HD of hit points. You may add a +1 bonus (or cancel a -1 penalty) to one of your stats at 4th, 7th, and 10th level. The maximum stat bonus is +2. 

Attack bonus progression works like this:
Fighter: +1 AB on even levels. Max +6.
Cleric and Thief: +1 AB on odd levels starting at 3rd level. Max +4.
Magic-User: +1 AB at 4th, 7th, an 10th. Max +3.  

Otherwise, except for thief skills mentioned above, you advance as per old school essentials. Note that advancement in other forms is also possible through the robust system of downtime activities that will you to acquire skills, craft splendid items, research magical spells, do non-magical research, build institutions, and the like.