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.