Dolmenwood: NPC Write-Ups

For some time, I've been mulling over how to organise NPCs in the Dolmenwood Campaign Book. I've not come to any great conclusions yet, so I thought I'd throw the topic out there for general discussion, to see what others think.

The idea is that there will be three kinds of NPCs in the book:

  1. Minor NPCs who are only encountered in a specific location.
  2. Minor NPCs who could be encountered anywhere.
  3. Major NPCs who play a role in the setting as a whole.

Addressing these one by one:

Minor NPCs: Location-Specific
Innkeepers, guard captains, hedge-witches, etc.

These are easy to handle. They will simply be described in the hex or location where they can be encountered.

Minor NPCs: Non-Located
I plan to include a selection of NPCs that can be used by the referee when players encounter random individuals. These will be the kind of people that PCs might encounter in a tavern or on the road, for example. The kind of people that don't play a major role in the setting or one of its factions, but can provide a fun, diverting encounter, and might know interesting rumours or hooks.

Again, these characters are easy to handle. They'll be described in a separate section (an appendix, say) in a format designed for easy random selection.

Major NPCs
The chiefs or most important members of the factions that vie for control of the Wood -- individuals who hold a significant degree of political, military, or magical power, and can exert their influence on the setting as a whole.

This is where things get tricky. There are two possibilities for where to locate the descriptions of these NPCs:

  1. In the campaign background info, alongside the faction which the NPC is associated with.
  2. In the hex description where the NPC can be encountered.

Both options make total sense and have their own pros and cons, but I don't feel that one is clearly better than the other. I can see a few possible ways of resolving this:

  1. Include the NPCs along with the faction descriptions. In the hex description, just mention them by name and say "see page XXX".
  2. Include the NPCs in the hex descriptions. In the faction descriptions, just mention them by name and say "see hex XXX".
  3. Include the full NPC descriptions in both locations (faction and hex description).
  4. Include major NPCs in a separate appendix. In the faction and hex descriptions, just mention them by name and say "see page XXX".
If anyone has any thoughts on this, I'd be interested to hear! Also if anyone has experience of how this has been done in other campaign setting books, and what worked / didn't work.

B/X Essentials: Illusionist Spell List

I'm happy to report that I've almost finished the write-ups of the illusionist spells for B/X Essentials! Since my last post with the projected spell lists, I've tweaked things a bit in order to round out the spell selection.

The updated list is below. Eagle-eyed illusionist fans may spot a few spells that aren't drawn from the original AD&D illusionist list. There are two types of these:

  1. Spells from AD&D 2nd edition. The 5th level shadowcast and shadowy transformation, for example.
  2. New spells of my own creation. Blacklight, visitation, dream quest, and through the looking glass, for example.

I've also renamed a few spells, either to better indicate their function or to tie them in with similar spells:

  • Glamour is the renamed change self. It's just a more evocative name.
  • Quasimorph is the renamed alter self. It indicates its function better (referring to the magic-user polymorph spells) and (I think) just sounds cooler.
  • Veil of abandonment is the renamed vacancy. Sounds less like a job ad.
  • Illusion is the renamed advanced illusion. I think removing the "advanced" helps to tie it in better with the 6th level permanent illusion and triggered illusion.
  • Looking glass is the renamed magic mirror. I like both names, but the rename ties it in with the 6th level through the looking glass.
  • Triggered illusion is the renamed programmed illusion. Just indicates its function a bit better.

1st Level

  1. Auditory Illusion
  2. Chromatic Orb
  3. Colour Spray
  4. Dancing Lights
  5. Detect Illusion
  6. Glamour
  7. Hypnotism
  8. Light (Darkness)
  9. Phantasmal Force
  10. Read Magic
  11. Spook
  12. Wall Of Fog

2nd Level

  1. Blindness / Deafness
  2. Detect Magic
  3. Fascinate
  4. Fog Cloud
  5. Hypnotic Pattern
  6. Improved Phantasmal Force
  7. Invisibility
  8. Magic Mouth
  9. Mirror Image
  10. Quasimorph
  11. Ventriloquism
  12. Whispering Wind

3rd Level

  1. Blacklight
  2. Dispel Illusion
  3. Fear
  4. Hallucinatory Terrain
  5. Invisibility 10' Radius
  6. Nondetection
  7. Paralyzation
  8. Phantom Steed
  9. Rope Trick
  10. Spectral Force
  11. Suggestion
  12. Wraithform

4th Level

  1. Confusion
  2. Dispel Magic
  3. Emotion
  4. Illusory Stamina
  5. Improved Invisibility
  6. Massmorph
  7. Minor Creation
  8. Phantasmal Killer
  9. Rainbow Pattern
  10. Shadow Monsters
  11. Solid Fog
  12. Veil of Abandonment

5th Level

  1. Demi-Shadow Monsters
  2. Illusion
  3. Looking Glass
  4. Major Creation
  5. Manifest Dream
  6. Phantasmal Door
  7. Projected Image
  8. Seeming
  9. Shadowcast
  10. Shadowy Transformation
  11. Time Slow (Time Flow)
  12. Visitation

6th Level

  1. Acid Fog
  2. Alter Reality
  3. Dream Quest
  4. Impersonation
  5. Mass Suggestion
  6. Mislead
  7. Permanent Illusion
  8. Shades
  9. Through The Looking Glass
  10. Triggered Illusion
  11. True Seeing
  12. Vision

On the B/X-ification of Illusionist Spells

A popular look for illusionists.

As I mentioned recently, I've been working on the illusionist spell list for B/X Essentials: Advanced Characters.

When converting AD&D material to B/X, the typical case is that the AD&D materials I'm using as inspiration are nowhere near as well written or well thought-out as the native B/X rules. Spells are no different.

My intention with the Advanced Characters and the Druid and Illusionist Spells books is to ensure that the new material is completely in line with B/X, including in terms of clarity and mechanical complexity. Some degree of adaptation is needed, therefore, to bring things in line with B/X. (I'm not making a pure, warts-and-all clone of the AD&D material. See OSRIC for that.)

Some of the illusionist spells are proving to be subtle and tricky, though...

Phantasmal Force
I'm currently pondering phantasmal force -- which exists in both AD&D and B/X -- and have noticed some subtle but important differences between the two versions:
  • AD&D: "The illusion lasts until struck by an opponent - unless the spell caster causes the illusion to react appropriately - or until the magic-user ceases concentration upon the spell." (PHB75)
  • B/X: "If the caster does not use the spell to attack, the illusion will disappear if it is touched. If the spell is used to "create" a monster, it will have an Armor Class of 9 and will disappear if hit." (B17)

See the difference? In B/X, the illusion disappears when touched or hit in combat; in AD&D, the illusion disappears if hit in combat "unless the spell caster causes the illusion to react appropriately". I would interpret this as meaning that the illusionist would choose for the illusion to react to the hit by recoiling appropriately, appearing wounded, and perhaps behaving more defensively.

Another subtle difference between phantasmal force in B/X and AD&D:

  • AD&D: "Creatures which disbelieve the phantasmal force gain a saving throw versus the spell, and if they succeed, they see it for what it is".
  • B/X: No mention of disbelief.

I think this second difference helps to explains the first difference:

  • If an illusory monster in AD&D does not automatically disappear when struck, it would be possible for the illusionist to keep it "alive" indefinitely (the duration of the spell is concentration, after all). What exactly constitutes "causing the illusion to react appropriately" to hits is open to referee interpretation, but it seems to me the intention is that disbelief comes into play here. For example: a fighter, attacking an illusory goblin, deals 8 points of damage. The illusionist describes how the goblin recoils and is slightly grazed. The fighter finds this suspicious -- the blow ought to have killed the goblin! -- and, in the next combat round, attempts to disbelieve that the goblin really exists. A saving throw is then allowed.
  • In B/X, none of this happens. Moldvay apparently made the (I would argue, wise) decision to simplify all of this. An illusion simply disappears when touched.

Higher-Level Illusions
Now we come to the crux of the matter, and the reason why I started looking into these illusions in depth. Phantasmal force is the first spell in a whole "spell chain" in AD&D:
1. Phantasmal force: Visual illusion, concentration duration.
2. Improved phantasmal force: Visual and audio illusion, concentration duration.
3. Spectral force: Visual, audio, and thermal illusion, concentration duration.
5. Advanced illusion: Visual, audio, and thermal illusion, fixed duration (no concentration).
6. Permanent illusion: Visual, audio, and thermal illusion, permanent duration (no concentration).

Only phantasmal force -- the first spell in this chain -- exists in B/X, but I'm adapting the full chain for the BXE illusionist class.

From their descriptions, one can only assume that the whole chain of spells that derive from phantasmal force work in the same way, including this stipulation about illusions being hit in combat, how they may be caused to react, and the clause about disbelief.

Adapting to B/X
In adapting these spells to B/X, I'll need to take this into account.

Perhaps the simplest and most obvious solution would be to say that the B/X phantasmal force rule about an illusion disappearing when touched / struck carries over to the higher level illusions. The problem with this approach, though, is that it greatly weakens the higher level illusions, in particular permanent illusion. A "permanent" illusion that disappears the first time someone touches it makes for a pretty unappealing 6th level spell.

I've been considering a different approach (and this is where we get into the realm of more heavy adaptation of the AD&D spells to B/X): ramping up the realness and stability of higher level illusions. Something like this:
  • Illusions created by phantasmal force and improved phantasmal force disappear when touched or struck in combat.
  • Illusions created by spectral force, advanced illusion, etc. do not disappear when touched or struck in combat. The attacking character may, however, save vs spells. If the save succeeds, the character realises the illusory nature of the monster and can no longer be harmed by it.
That seems like a simple approach, and solves the problem of powerful illusions disappearing when touched.

Any thoughts?

B/X: High Level Spells

A commonly known quirk of the B/X system is that the game only goes up to 14th level. This means that clerics top out at 5th level spells, and magic-users at 6th level spells.

I love the experience level cap in B/X, but I'm kind of ambivalent about the cap on spell levels. I love me some spells (especially magic-user ones), and there are indubitably some very cool spells at 7th, 8th, and 9th level. We probably all have books full of them.

So I've been thinking for a while about a way to (potentially) bring the higher level spells into B/X, without increasing the maximum level attainable by magic-users. Here's one idea. (Not tested in play.)

High Level Spells (Optional Rule)

A magic-user of 11th level or higher is able to cast spells of 7th, 8th, and 9th level.

Acquiring High Level Spells

Spells of 7th, 8th, and 9th level may be added to a magic-user's spell book by the following means:
  • The normal spell research procedure (see B/X Essentials: Core Rules, p31).
  • By studying the description of the spell in another magic-user's spell book (using read magic). This takes half as much time and money as spell research (i.e. 500gp and one week per level of the spell).

Maximum High Level Spells

Each magic-user may have at most two 7th level, two 8th level, and one 9th level spell in his or her spell book.

Casting High Level Spells

Spells of 7th, 8th, or 9th level cannot be memorized. This means that, while a character may have such spells in his or her spell book, they cannot be cast in the same way as spells of lower levels. High level spells may only be cast as follows:
  • A special ritual chamber is required. This must be constructed as part of the magic-user's stronghold (upon reaching 11th level or higher). It is not possible to cast spells in the ritual chamber of another magic-user.
  • Each time the spell is cast, 500gp worth of rare ingredients per level of the spell are consumed. The magic-user must acquire these ingredients before casting the spell. (The referee may wish to specify the nature of these ingredients, possibly tailored to the nature of the spell to be cast.)
  • Casting the spell also requires time: 1 hour for a 7th level spell, 4 hours for an 8th level spell, and 8 hours for a 9th level spell. If the magic-user is disturbed during this time, the casting of the spell fails.
  • At the culmination of the ritual, the magic-user may choose how the spell manifests, selecting one of the following options:
    1. The spell takes effect immediately.
    2. The spell's effect is woven into a staff. At any time in the future, the magic-user (and the magic-user alone!) may break the staff, releasing the stored spell effect. The magic-user may only have a single staff enchanted with a high level spell at any one time.

B/X Essentials: Adventuring Mode "Control Panels"

In his recent review of B/X Essentials, Ben Milton noted that the way the books are laid out, the reader is provided with super easy to use "control panels" for certain topics in the game. That is, two-page spreads that provide all the information relevant to a specific topic.

This was certainly one of the layout goals of the books, and is evidenced especially in the Core Rules and Classes and Equipment books. The following "control panel" spreads are good examples:
  • The basic rules for combat.
  • The character classes (all info on 1 or 2 pages).
  • The rules for character creation.
  • The rules around ability scores.
  • The basic equipment lists (including combat info for all weapons).
Looking back at Core Rules, one thing that I've been considering for a long time is whether the rules for adventuring would be better laid out by "mode" (i.e. dungeon / wilderness / seafaring), as opposed to alphabetically by rules topic. Ben's mention of "control panels" made me think about this again.

In working on the text for the all-in-one B/X Essentials tome, I'm taking the opportunity to reassess some of the decisions I made in the books to this point, and have been trying out some new approaches. So it felt like a good time to try out the alternative structure of presenting the adventuring rules by "mode".

You can see the results of my experiments below. Note that they're just rough renditions, and will be further refined in the final book.

Interested to hear what people think! Are these "control panels" more usable than the way these rules are currently presented in B/X Essentials: Core Rules?

The Dreamlands

Map of the Dreamlands, by Jason Thompson

This morning, I spent some time browsing the first issue of Ben Laurence's zine Through Ultan's Door. Naturally, it is fantastic. Ben is a talented writer, with a delectably vivid imagination. I always love his stuff.

You can purchase copies of the zine (print and/or PDF) here.

Reading Ben's description of the entrance to Zyan (the city that floats above the Dreamlands) that appeared unbidden beneath the stairs of a printmaker, I found myself catapulted back into the fantastic realm of dreams. Like Ben, the Dreamlands are a campaign setting (genre?) that has long captivated my imagination, and that I have also spent time exploring in games.

This brought my mind back to some material that I was writing for what was intended to be the second issue of my (thus far) one-shot zine Wizardzine. (Issue 1 available here.) The theme of the second issue was to be the magic of dreams, including guidelines to planar travel in the Dreamlands. (Ben and I even discussed collaborating on the material.)

I have lots of half-finished projects, but this Dreamlands material is one of the projects that I most yearn to complete and publish. Maybe once my work on the Dolmenwood Campaign Book is over, I'll have time to return to it.

For now, though, I thought it'd be fun to share a couple of extracts.

The Levels of Dream

Those who concern themselves with the study and classification of the world of dreams delineate several levels or realms to which a dreamer may gain access. These intersect variously with the dreamer's own psyche, with the real world, and with an independent reality known as the Dreamlands. The most commonly discussed levels are as follows:

  1. The hyperreal realm: Only accessible by powerful magic, dreams within the hyperreal realm have the power to change the real world.
  2. The hypnagogic realm: Existing at an intersection between the mind of the dreamer and the astral plane, dreams in the hypnagogic realm begin to overlap with reality. Prescient dreams and dream scrying are possible from this realm.
  3. The upper levels of dream: Where everyday dreams and nightmares take place. This realm is tied to the psyche of the individual dreamer and has no overlap with other worlds.
  4. The deeper levels of dream: Wherein the subconscious depths of the psyche become manifest and may be explored.
  5. The Dreamlands: An independent plane of existence which can be entered by magical means. Some mortals also have the natural ability to enter the Dreamlands via special gateways discovered in dreams.

Some Spells of Dream


Level: 2nd
Duration: 1 turn per level
Range: Sight
Schools: Charms, Dreams

Cast upon a sleeping subject, this spell allows the magic-user to insinuate his will into the subject's dreams and exercise control of their body. If a save versus spells is failed, the subject is caused to rise and walk under the caster's control. Two means of command are possible:
  1. Direct marionette-like control, as long as the subject remains within view. This requires concentration on the part of the caster.
  2. A series of instructions to be carried out. Once given, the instructions are followed mindlessly. A somnambulist has no capacity for independent decision making.
Initially, the caster's control of the subject is limited to direction to walk a certain route or to a specific location, but as the caster advances in level, more complex commands are possible:
  • From 5th level, the subject may be instructed to manipulate large objects such as opening doors, moving furniture, or carrying a pack.
  • From 7th level, the control extends to the manipulation of fine objects, including writing. The subject may also be caused to speak.
  • From 10th level, the subject may be commanded to fight, attacking using the caster's to-hit probability.
While under the spell's effect, the subject moves in a sluggish, drowsy manner -- it is usually clear to onlookers that the subject is sleepwalking. Loud noises do not awaken the subject, but a physical shock such as being slapped or shaken does.

When the spell expires, the subject lies down and continues sleeping, wherever he or she may be. No memory of the somnambulistic activities remains, but a vague feeling of having dreamed of a malevolent presence pervades. One time in ten, the subject has a clear memory of the controlling magic-user's face.

Note that the spell's range includes subjects who are viewed by magical means such as scrying.

Hyperreal Awakening

Level: 5th
Duration: Instant
Range: Self
Schools: Dimensions, Dreams, Translocation

Among those who study the lore and metaphysics of dreams, it is well known that the real world (indeed, the whole multiverse) is but another level of dream, and that it is possible to awake from this dream into another world, about which nothing is known. This infamous spell provides the means of awakening. One who casts it vanishes immediately and permanently from reality, waking up in a dimension whose nature cannot be speculated. If a player character casts this spell, the referee may choose to play out the character’s adventures in this other reality, which may be radically different in nature to that of the world in which the character originates.

The awakening into higher reality which this spell brings about is absolutely permanent -- not even wish has any power to reverse it. Legends speak of one arch-mage who, by means of intervention by the god of dreams, returned from the higher reality; his mind was void and utterly insane.

Some Saints of Dolmenwood

Work on the Dolmenwood Campaign Book continues apace! Today I have finished the write-ups for the 34 primary saints in Dolmenwood, each of which has a dedicated shrine or chapel somewhere within the forest (though many are now lost).

Here's a small sample:

St Abthius, Ever-Lustrous
Feast day: 22nd of Harchment
Associated spell: Resist cold
Major patronages: Ambassadors, righteous vengeance
Minor patronages: Courtly dances, seamstresses, springtime
Shrine: Hex 0406
Miracle: Abthius came to Dolmenwood at the command of King Thaldred II of Brackenwold, as an ambassador to the Cold Prince, who had newly returned his frigid gaze to the mortal world. Gaining an audience with the fairy court, the saint proceeded to preach the virtues of the One True God and His host of angels. The fairies responded only with jeers and mocking laughter, and their liege pointed his crystal wand at the saint, casting a spell of ice about him. The saint’s radiant beauty melted the fey frost, and he turned his back on the Prince, damning him to be vapourised in the flames of perdition.

St Cornice of the Angels
Feast day: 16th of Chysting
Associated spell: Insect swarm
Major patronages: Chastity, beetles
Minor patronages: Scullery maids
Shrine: Hex 1505
Miracle: As a maiden, Cornice worked scrubbing the kitchens of a cruel lord. The lord was accustomed to having his way with all of the scullery maids, but Cornice rebuffed his advances, quoting passages of scripture at him whenever he came near. One day, the lord cornered the saint-to-be in an isolated cellar and began to ravage her. Cornice bit the lord’s lower lip and tore it off, preserving her chastity, but was subsequently imprisoned for her insolence. In the dungeons, she whispered to the beetles that crawled across the floor, beseeching them in the name of the One True God to aid her. The insects obeyed, fetching ever more of their kind, until the cellars and dungeons of the lord’s castle were overrun. When the swarm encroached upon the lord’s bedchambers, he relented and had Cornice released.

St Eggort, the Troglodyte
Feast day: 28th of Lymevald
Associated spell: Continual light
Major patronages: Chandlers
Minor patronages: Undertakers
Shrine: Hex 0703
Miracle: Devoted his life to prayer in a minor chapel in the crypt of the monastery where he dwelt. Spending his days alone in the darkness, Eggort's devotion manifested, over many years, as a flickering glow upon the altar. This light grew and grew until, at the time of Eggort's death, the crypt was lit as bright as day, as if by the light of a thousand glimmering candles.

St Elsa, balm-gusher
Feast day: 19th of Grimvold
Associated spell: Commune
Major patronage: Floods, towers, and hunters of sea monsters
Minor patronage: Follies
Miracle: As the vicar of a small, coastal village called Hawksworth, Elsa had nightly visions of a great flood. Heeding this prophecy, she insisted that a high tower be built, with enough space to house the inhabitants of the village and their livestock. The project was regarded by many as a folly, but the saint's visions proved to be true when a great sea dragon, hunted by the famed knight Sir Willowthorn, was beached and slain at the village of Hawksworth, opening a sea bay which engulfed the village. To this day, the saint's tower is the sole surviving element of the original village.

As I mentioned above, each saint has a shrine or chapel in Dolmenwood. Here's my rough map showing which hex these shrines are located in:

Note: The marked location of the shrine of St Signis is wrong. It should be
in Castle Brackenwold.

B/X Essentials: Rebranding?

For some time, I’ve been pondering the name B/X Essentials and what it means to different types of people.

I chose the name in the early days of the project and I think it does a great job of expressing the content of the core books: the first five books form a clone / rules reference of B/X (the essentials of the B/X game, if you will). B/X Essentials has now become a (to some degree) known name in the OSR scene, and I’m delighted that my work has played some part in bringing B/X back into the limelight.

However, over time, I've had a growing awareness that the name is pretty obscure. This was reinforced by my experience last week at the SPIEL convention in Essen, selling B/X Essentials and Wormskin. I met three types of potential customers:

  1. People who are completely new to role-playing, but are interested in the hobby.
  2. People who are experienced role-players, but have never played B/X and aren't part of the OSR scene.
  3. People who are familiar with the OSR and B/X Essentials. (This group was by far the smallest.)
As you can probably guess, people in the first two groups were mystified by the name B/X Essentials. They don't know what B/X means, they don't know what a retro-clone is, they don't (for the most part) even know anything about old-school D&D. The name, in and of itself, isn't evocative. (If anything, I guess it sounds mathematical?)

I didn't have an easy time selling the game to them.

And I think this is a real shame. Of course, it's not good for my personal business interests, in terms of being able to sell the books I've produced, but more so I think it's a shame for the name to scare off people who would potentially get a great deal of enjoyment from the game.

Expanding the Reach

One of my core personal aims with the B/X Essentials line has always been to expand the reach of the classic rules set by improving the ease of use. The B/X rules, especially when presented in the new, streamlined form of B/X Essentials, are a great way for a novice to jump into the role-playing hobby.

To that end, in my work building up to the Kickstarter next year (the BXE boxed set and all-in-one hardback), I've been making a few tweaks to improve the accessibility of the game:
  • I've added a proper introduction, explaining what the game is, why it's split into modules, and giving some links and suggestions for how to learn about role-playing. (I don't feel there's any need to actually include a "What is a Role-Playing Game?" section, in this day and age. I've just linked to info online.)
  • I've included a section talking about what other products the game is compatible with. (I think the massive cross-compatibility of most retro-clones and TSR editions of D&D is a bit of a hidden secret in the OSR. It's obvious to most of us hardcore old-schoolers that you can grab a book of Labyrinth Lord classes, an old TSR adventure, and run a game with BXE, but I think it's really non-obvious to those outside the scene.)
  • I've added an extra section before the character creation rules, laying out all the different stats that make up a player character. (Such information was implicit in BXE before.)


Additionally, I've been considering rebranding the game. My goals for this are:
  1. Casual gamers who don't know what B/X and the OSR are should be able to recognise it as a simple to learn RPG.
  2. Experienced role-players who aren't directly in the OSR scene should be able to recognise it as an old-school game.
  3. OSR folks should be able to recognise it as being 100% compatible with B/X.
It's a challenge to come up with something that covers all of those different goals!

My current thoughts on the matter are as follows:
  1. The overall product line should have a new name. B/X Essentials is too obscure. I have a few thoughts on potential names, but nothing that I'm totally convinced about yet. Hex & Ruin is the current front-runner that I'll use in the example below.
  2. The game will probably need a subtitle that makes it obvious what it is.
  3. Each individual book will need a title (obviously).
  4. Some kind of "corner band" or "sticker" will indicate the game's compatibility with B/X.
So, we might have something like this:
  • Brand name: Hex & Ruin
  • Brand subtitle: Classic Adventure Role-Playing
  • Book title: Core Rules
  • Corner band: 100% B/X
The actual names there are all just rough ideas right now, but I feel like the general scheme is the right way to go to achieve the aims laid out above.

I'm posting about this now as I'd love to hear what people think about all this. If anyone has any suggestions for names, please let me know! The larger the pool of possible ideas, the better.