Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Secret Doors

Erik Tenkar makes the following criticism of secret doors in dungeons:

I find secret doors to be an overused obstacle. Just how many does a single dungeon level need?

My problem with secret doors is that they are a potential show stopper that even with good play from your players, the dice can decide the door is never found. What lies behind? For all intents and purposes it never existed if the dice decide it was never found.

Concealed doors? Now THAT is something I can get behind. Look behind that armoire. Why are there curtains on this wall? What's under this rug? Good play will reveal with concealed doors what dice may otherwise steal with secret doors.

I think this reflects a poor understanding of the various purposes that secret doors should serve. They should never be a “show stopper,” and if you are not designing boring, linear dungeons that generally should not be an issue. To state the obvious, however, secret doors should not be placed in a fashion that could halt the party’s forward progress in the dungeon.

So what should secret doors be used for? Among other things:

  • to segregate a sublevel that somehow differs from the present level;
  • to secure significant treasure from casual discovery;
  • to conceal a useful additional entrance or exit (e.g., out of the dungeon, to a much deeper level);
  • to serve as a hidey-hole for opponents to lay in wait for or seek refuge from the party;
  • to hide a route that allows quick or safe passage past an obstacle or hazard; or
  • to seal off an especially dangerous foe so that the party does not merely stumble across it.

Nor should secret doors be discoverable by random dice rolls alone. Players should be able to locate secret doors—or at least increase their chances of doing so—through good play. For example:

  • intuition as to where searching might prove fruitful based on room or corridor shape or structure;
  • careful mapping that reveals curious empty spaces in the level; or
  • examination that turns up telltale clues, like footprints that lead up to a blank wall, seams in the masonry that outline a portal, or an unexplained draft that causes torches to flutter.

As for the concern that areas lying behind secret doors might go undiscovered . . . well, this is a game of exploration. It is not a foregone conclusion that the party will unearth all of the underworld’s secrets. There’s no sense of the unknown or adventure in a dungeon that lays bare its mysteries to everyone who stumbles through the front door.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Blueholme: Journeymanne Rules — A Review

Blueholme: Journeymanne Rules
Author: Michael Thomas
Dreamscape Design
Approx. 120 pages
Available on Lulu ($24.99 hardcover; $14.99 softcover)

Blueholme: Journeymanne Rules essentially is a restatement and expansion of Holmes’s basic edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn was a restatement of the original edition of the game and some of its supplements further edited in anticipation of the publication of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Whereas Holmes’s basic edition only covered the first three levels of play, Blueholme aims to be a complete roleplaying game, supporting play through level twenty.

The rulebook is divided into several sections, including but not limited to:

  • 11 pages on character creation that cover four classes—clerics, fighters, magic-users, and thieves—as well as armor, equipment, and weapons;
  • 31 pages of spells: 8 spells per level, spell levels one through seven, for clerics; and 20 spells per level, spell levels one through nine, for magic-users;
  • 9 pages of combat-related rules, which includes some Holmesian elements like parrying, attacks provoked by retreat, and the effect of cover;
  • a 26-page bestiary detailing 123 monsters (more when different subtypes are accounted for; e.g., different types of giants and dragons); and
  • 19 pages on treasure, including a table of treasure types, which are referenced in monster entries, and a wealth of magic items.

In comparison, Holmes’s basic edition was just 48 pages. But Blueholme’s increased page count is not unreasonable given its expanded scope. And Blueholme generally does a nice job of revising and condensing Holmes’s prose while retaining its clarity.

Blueholme likely will not appeal to those who prefer AD&D to other editions. But for those who want a less complicated, more streamlined version of the game, Blueholme is a very good alternative. Class, spell, and monster descriptions are far more concise than those in AD&D. In general, Blueholme is better organized than its inspiration, not that Holmes’s basic edition was poorly organized.

Blueholme’s artwork is strong. Its cover depicts an adventuring party in a cavern gathered before a treasure chest and hoard; a dragon reminiscent of the one on the cover of Holmes’s basic edition lurks behind them in the shadows on the periphery of the party’s light source. Stylistically, the cover art melds old and new in a manner well suited to a restatement and expansion of an older edition of the game; its color scheme, which features gold and aquamarine hues, is appealing to the eye.

[Blueholme’s Cover Art]

The interior of the rulebook includes a lot of old-school style black-and-white artwork, including a really nice callback to the cover art by a different artist that depicts the adventurers in combat with the dragon amidst the treasure hoard. Some of the interior art might be considered too racy for younger readers:

  • a sorceress with ample cleavage;
  • some bare-breasted water nymphs;
  • an amazon archer with exposed breasts;
  • a trio of saggy-titted harpies; and
  • a half-serpent woman who’s mislaid her blouse.

This is not inconsistent with Holmes’s basic edition, which included a buxom, bare-breasted harpy. Nor do I personally find this artwork objectionable (even for younger readers). But some might not care for such nudity or so much of it.

I’m not especially knowledgeable about Holmes’s basic edition (or other editions of the game for that matter); however, to my non-expert eyes, Blueholme appears to emulate its namesake well. A few interesting features traceable to Holmes’s basic edition that differ from at least some other editions of the game include:

  • a five-point alignment system: lawful good, chaotic good, neutral, chaotic evil, and lawful evil;
  • an initiative system that largely turns on the relative dexterity scores of the individual combatants, subject to the following attack sequence: spell-casting, missile weapons, and melee combat;
  • a combat round that is 10-seconds in duration (as opposed to OD&D’s and AD&D’s one-minute combat round);
  • simple rules for magic-users to create level-appropriate new spells and scrolls without first attaining several experience levels; and
  • good and evil clerics are limited to casting opposite versions of certain spells (e.g., cure light wounds for good clerics and deal light wounds for evil clerics).

Like the scroll-making mechanic for magic-users, Blueholme adds similarly simple rules allowing clerics to create holy water and healing potions.

At least one significant deviation from Holmes’s basic edition stands out. Holmes’s basic edition has specific rules as to the abilities of dwarves, elves, and halflings; it also limited the classes available to demi-humans. Blueholme leaves these racial abilities and class availability to the discretion of individual DMs. It does refer the reader to monster entries for demi-humans, which specify various racial abilities that could be applied to characters as well. But this is not the only place the racial abilities of demi-humans are discussed. Racial modifiers for several types of demi-humans regarding thieves’ abilities are included at the very beginning of the chapter on monsters, and some additional rules about elves and secret doors and dwarves and traps are included in an altogether different section of the rulebook. This leaves a bit to be desired in terms of organization.

Like Holmes’s basic edition, Blueholme emphasizes that players can play just about any creature detailed in the section on monsters, subject to the DM’s approval. In particular, it suggests dreenoi—humanoid insect-men—as a racial option in addition to dwarves, elves, and halflings, because Holmes played such a character. But the monster description for dreenoi does not necessarily provide any meaningful abilities for them apart from the possibility of telepathy, which they are said to use only in communicating with one another. For an experienced DM, the lack of default rules concerning the abilities of demi-humans and the classes available to them won’t pose too much difficulty. But less experienced DMs could find the lack of default rules a little more challenging; making demi-humans distinct and interesting while not rendering humans a second-class species can be tricky.

Nor is that the only instance in which Blueholme might be less user-friendly for inexperienced DMs. To take a relatively minor example, the monster entry for "gnoll" provides no clue as to what one is apart from “bestial, vicious, and stupid”; whereas, Holmes’s basic edition succinctly identifies gnolls as “beings like hyena-men.” The same is true of the entry for "spectre." Blueholme says spectres are “incorporeal” but not much else, while Holmes’s basic edition references Tolkien’s Nazgul. If one does not already have a sense of what these monsters are, Blueholme does not clarify matters. For monsters that are well known outside of roleplaying games, like vampires or zombies, descriptions might not be necessary. But for lesser known monsters, like gnolls and spectres, some rudimentary description might be helpful.

Blueholme deviates from Holmes’s basic edition in some minor ways as well. One notable instance—it adjusts the experience points required per level by one so that each class begins first level with one experience point rather than zero. Why? The rulebook does not explain, and this revision is sufficiently atypical that an explanation would be useful. I surmise that this change might have been made to distinguish adventurers from “normal humans,” who are 0-level and belong to no class, based on a couple of references within the section on monsters, specifically the entries for “normal human” and “vampire.” But this is a guess, and its in-game significance is unstated. My hunch is that 0-level retainers who return from an adventure and are awarded experience then take on a class and become first level.

Like any revision or expansion of a prior edition, Blueholme has some material that is new (or at least it’s new to me and appears to have no precedent in Holmes’s basic edition). One of the more intriguing bits is its optional rule regarding light and heavy weapons. Under this rule, one can attack with a light weapon (e.g., dagger) twice per round but rolls two damage dice per hit and takes the lower result; one can attack with a heavy weapon (e.g., great sword; light crossbow) once every two rounds but rolls two damage dice per hit and takes the higher result. Standard weapons (e.g., long sword) allow one attack per round and one damage die. The damage die for all weapons is a d6. I’m not sure how this shakes out mathematically (i.e., whether it confers a relative advantage on the use of light or heavy weapons).

Blueholme’s monster entry for “demon” is another addition. Whether due to space limitations or some other consideration, Holmes’s basic edition consciously excludes demons. Rather than including numerous entries for the various subtypes of demons made famous by OD&D’s supplements and AD&D, Blueholme includes a single entry with a table for generating random demonic abilities along with the guidance that demons “come in all shapes and sizes, and may have wings, extra limbs, horns, scales, tails, or any number of usually grotesque physical features.” A creative DM could expand on this entry with additional tables for physical attributes as well as additional abilities to create a wide array of unique demons (or types of demons). This is a nice way of making something familiar new again while conserving space.

Arguably, the weakest section of Blueholme is the final one on campaigns, which discusses dungeons and the wilderness. This material generally is new. Its shortcomings relate not so much to what is there as what is not; this section spans just five pages and omits key material that Holmes’s basic edition includes, specifically a cross-sectional dungeon map and sample dungeon. Blueholme states that these materials are omitted due to space considerations, however, and that an introductory adventure—The Shrine of Sobek—is available in .pdf for free that discusses dungeons and the wilderness in further detail. This adventure has not been released yet, but it likely will make up for this material’s absence from the rulebook.

Blueholme is very well done overall. Its strengths far exceed any ostensible weaknesses. Many of my criticisms may be attributable to hard choices posed by considerations of space and price point. Personally, I’d rather pay a little more for some additional content, but that’s a judgment call. That said, this rulebook makes me want to run a Blueholme game, and that’s probably the highest praise one can give a product of this nature. Kudos to Michael Thomas for his excellent work.

[cross-posted at Knights & Knaves Alehouse]

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Vornheim: An Anti-Eulogy For A Product that Should Have Been Buried Long Ago


Vornheim: The Complete City Kit (2011)

Author: Zak S.

64 pages

Retail Price: $19.99

Prefatory Note

Zak S. is a polarizing figure; people tend to love him or hate him. This is a review of a book that he wrote, not a review of him, his detractors’ opinions of him, or any of the controversies between them.


Since its release, Vornheim has been much-lauded by the OSR community. Most of its reviews are very positive. Many of these reviews offer nary a word of criticism. It’s not that there are not positive reviews that note some shortcomings, or even the occasional negative review, but they are far rarer. I penned this review because I think that Vornheim is a product sure to disappoint most old-school gamers. Vornheim’s many flaws exceed its very modest virtues. It is poorly organized, too fragmentary to serve its stated purpose of providing a complete city toolkit, and its content is too eccentric to be of use to most referees. Vornheim deserves a fair-minded review that identifies these failings in detail. This is that review.


Vornheim states that its intended purpose is to provide a referee with the tools necessary to run a city adventure “with a minimum of hassle, so you and your players can get to the good stuff.” It is meant to be a “kit” to facilitate the creation of a city “even in the middle of the game.” But it does so within the context of a particular city, Vornheim.

The book gives some general notes on Vornheim and neighboring locales; details three specific locations in the city—a medusa’s lair, wondrous zoo, and library; provides rules or guidelines about navigating in a city, generating building floorplans, the law, non-player character contacts, chases, items costs, and libraries; and includes several random tables regarding aristocrats, books, non-player characters, random encounters, fortune-telling, searching corpses, magical effects, types of buildings, and other subjects. In addition to these contents, the interior of the dustjacket contains a map of a significant portion of the city. The front and back covers of the book contain charts for generating certain random results, such as the hit location of an attack, by dropping a four-sided die on the covers.

The dustjacket art is in color and depicts an androgynous figure battling a peryton with a flail. The dustjacket’s interior city map also is in color. The remainder of the book's art and diagrams are in black and white.

Some Specifics

Almost a third of the book—21 of its 64 pages—is devoted to three very specific locations within the city: the House of the Medusa, Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, and the Library of Zorlac. These are effectively three adventure locations or miniature adventure modules, for lack of a better description.

Vornheim has a sensibility reminiscent of dark, weird fairy tales. For example:

  • a nearby goblin city’s inhabitants are said to “speak backwards and walk on the ceiling”;
  • a horned goddess’s priesthood once built their temples in “colossal goat-like creatures”; and
  • there are scholars who can read the skins of snakes like books, some are cookbooks.

There is a section on superstitions, which are intended to flesh out the city’s culture. For example:

  • “Cows are considered indolent and undesirable. Anyone bringing a live cow into Vornheim will lose a shoe within a week.”
  • “Pigs must be present at all trials.”
  • “No dog will be faithful to someone who gives leftovers to a crow.”

There are two pages of “player commentaries,” which are observations about the campaign made by Zak’s players. These provide brief glimpses of their experiences in and perceptions of Vornheim.

The city map and building diagrams in the book are somewhat impressionistic in appearance. Readers accustomed to clean, precise maps and floorplans will find little that is familiar. The book does, however, include a shortcut method of generating rudimentary floorplans for ordinary buildings.

The book provides mechanics for “urban-crawling.” These are intended for situations in which adventurers are traveling through the city but their movement is hindered in some manner (e.g., chases, evasions, searches, hostile locals, civil disorder). These mechanics includes guidelines for creating neighborhood boundaries and determining street layouts and destination locations within the city on the fly.


The overview should make plain that which is obvious from a quick perusal of the book—Vornheim is very incomplete. Most of the city is left undescribed and undetailed. Apart from the very few locations that are detailed, the referee is left to his own devices other than some thematic notes that often have no immediate game application and some random tables. Zak pitches the spare amount of detail as a virtue, avoiding the exhaustive treatment of the typical city supplement. But he merely replaces too much detail with not enough. The result is a setting too fragmentary to run as written.

As an example of its fragmentary and disorganized nature, consider the Church of Vorn. One gathers that it is a significant force within the city, but the book gives little detail about it. We know only that:

  • its cathedral is a significant feature of the inner city, and there is an impressionistic diagram of it;
  • Vorn is a grim god of iron, rust, and rain;
  • the color brown “is reserved by Vorn, to use on rust” and thus wearing it is taboo;
  • the tenets of their faith require priests of Vorn to use edged weapons rather than blunt ones, as they regard attacking with the latter hypocritical, and they lose a memorized spell if they transgress this tenet;
  • the church may or may not be corrupt, prone to fanaticism, or in the grip of occult influences; and
  • the church administers trial by combat, in which the combatants fight in pools of waist-height rusty water.

These sketchy details are interesting. But they are more of a beginning, not the finished product that should appear in published work. A good referee would need to flesh these ideas out for use.

Moreover, this organized summary of the church also belies the haphazard presentation of this material. These details appear in various sections of the book across pages 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 32, and 59. Instead of getting an organized paragraph or two of material or a bullet-point summary, the reader has to search this information out and organize it for himself. A more useful approach would have been to place this information on the page opposite the diagram of the cathedral, so that it could be quickly read and later accessed for reference as necessary.

This haphazard presentation is a consistent feature of the book. Recall the inexplicable superstition that pigs must be present at trial? That appears on page 10 without context; on page 59 we learn that the people of Vornheim believe that pigs are the only honest animal. They sometimes conduct trials by a ritual known as trial by swine:

7 pigs are tied to the defendant by 10’ ropes and the defendant must go about his or her business in this way for 12 days. If the defendant cuts the ropes, leaves the city, or goes mad, s/he is guilty.

Set aside the silliness of this procedure, why are these details separated by 58 pages? Zak does not need this material to appear in one place; it’s his setting. But this disorganization is a nightmare for another referee who wants to run Vornheim. A referee who wants to make this material his own is going to have to devote a lot of time to this book.

This is not a minor fault. The haphazard presentation is exacerbated by other shortcomings—small font sizes, less than ideal formatting and layout, a hard-to-read table of contents, and lack of an index. The end result is that the book is a chore to navigate and its contents are hard to digest. All of this undermines the book’s stated purpose of assisting the referee to run city adventurers with “a minimum of hassle.”

Setting aside the manner of presentation, the contents are an odd hodgepodge for a supplement that bills itself as a “complete city kit.” As noted, roughly a third of the book is devoted to three specific locations that effectively serve as miniature adventure modules. In a larger supplement, this sort of material would be welcome. But if one only has 64 pages to provide the tools necessary to run urban adventure on the fly, the inclusion of this material is a mistake. The space is needed for other, more essential matters.

The particular locations included are creative. But Zak’s vision is an eccentric one. The inclusion of a medusa with a manor is consistent with the dark, weird fairy-tale sensibility of the book. Opinions will vary on whether this sensibility is an asset or a liability. It has limited appeal for me. More to the point, Zak’s creative vision is well enough outside of the mainstream of fantasy gaming—even broadly defined—that most referees will not share his sensibility. He references Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as inspiration for Vornheim’s legal system. That should suffice to give one a feel for how bizarre the setting can be and how out of step it is with most old-school campaigns.

Some of the material in the book is difficult to describe as anything more than filler. Inclusion of the player commentaries section is baffling given the space limitations. Consider these two comments:

  • On Vornheim’s taverns: “When I went out in Vornheim I had too much to drink. I had a good time, but I had so much to drink that I probably would’ve had a good time anywhere.”
  • On Vornheim’s NPCs: “Those random guys are fun. . . . I always end up having sex with them to get information and then there isn’t any information. Like I’ll have sex with the vet to have drugs and there’s no drugs.”

I suppose this is the kind of thing that is bound to happen in Zak’s game; his players are porn stars. But of what conceivable use is this information to other referees? The question answers itself.

Other material, if not filler, is still of no use to time-pressed referees and will not be of interest to players. Most of the superstitions fall into this category. By way of illustration: “All cakes must be tasted by the oldest person in the room first, or else they will taste like fish. Except fishcakes, which will taste like rye.”

The last half of the book is devoted to mechanics and tables that are supposed to assist a referee to run urban adventures off the cuff. The tables likely are the most readily usable by other referees. But they once again reflect Zak’s unconventional tastes. Two pages are devoted to generating random aristocrats, and supply details like: “has a peculiar fondness for injured women,” “compulsively shaves women bald,” “only finds joy in the sound of innocent women crying,” and “bathes in the liquefied bone of young maidens.” Not all of the results are this weird, but enough are that it reduces the usefulness of the table. The table devoted to the random generation of non-player characters is equally oddball, including results like: “is a random PC’s mother in disguise,” “is secretly a creative genius on the level of William Shakespeare,” “vomits often” for no reason, and “has an unusually well-maintained collection of doll houses.”

Doubtless this material suits Zak’s style. It is unsuited in most others’ though. The net result is that the tables—which span 17 pages—are of limited use to others. The best that could be said for these tables as a whole is that they might serve as examples to referees for the creation of their own tables. Regardless of differences in taste, however, a true “complete city kit” would have to include more tables on a wider variety of subjects.

Of the mechanics presented in the book, the “urban-crawling” rules have received the most praise. I think they could be used, but very little space is devoted to them—just two pages. This material would have benefited from a more expanded treatment, given how important it is to a city kit that does not feature a complete map of the city. These rules would be less useful, arguably not useful at all, for referees who have fully mapped their own city setting.

Zak’s decision to try to make the entire book useful, including its covers and dustjacket, is innovative. But not all innovation is good. One of the cover charts does no more than simulate a d20 attack roll and its corresponding damage (as well as hit location if desired) through the mechanic of dropping a d4 on the cover. How is this an improvement over just rolling standard attack and damage dice simultaneously? It is not, of course.

I have left the artwork for last, because an assessment of it is much more subjective. As a purely descriptive matter, it is not old-school. Zak's style has nothing in common with artists commonly associated with old-school gaming (e.g., Peter Mullen, Erol Otus). I find it crude and unappealing. But judge for yourself:

[Map of the House of the Medusa]

Whatever one thinks of its artistic merit, this is less utilitarian than a traditional map. Perhaps the best than can be said for this map is that you get what you pay for and the price point is relatively low.


Vornheim is creative, more creative than many other OSR products. But this is a two-edged sword. Its creative direction sharply diverges from what most old-school gamers will find to their tastes.

It is mislabeled. It is not a “complete city kit” by any definition. It utterly fails to realize its stated purpose.

If Vornheim is any indication, Zak has an artistic bent. Vornheim would have benefited from a critical, right-brained editor or collaborator. The absence of such input is apparent from the poor focus, disorganization, and inclusion of much material that is of little or no practical value game-wise.

Vornheim is not entirely bereft of merit. It could be mined for ideas. But mining is hard labor, and the gold in these hills is sparse indeed. A good supplement should save the referee time and work. Vornheim does not.

This book is a missed opportunity. A well-done book that is half city setting and half toolkit for running urban adventures there (and elsewhere) would be very useful. Vornheim is not that book.

April 16 Postscript

A version of Zak's "urban-crawling" rules are posted at his blog. Had I realized this, I would have included a link. Though the online version is not identical to the book's content, it will help readers understand the mechanics.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Blueholme Journeymanne Rules

This kickstarter for a Holmes-inspired retroclone spanning levels 1 though 20 seems very worthwhile.

I'm looking forward to seeing it in print.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Swords & Wizardry House Rules: Revised Retainer Tables


Hiring Retainers

Retainers are 0-level hirelings that may be hired for their base salary, food and lodging, plus a percentage of their employer’s share of monetary treasure. They typically are available for hire in most civilized locales, such as cities, towns, and fortresses.

The number of retainers that can be hired by a single employer is limited by the would-be employer’s charisma score; consult the Table 5 on page 8 of the rulebook for these limitations.

If potential retainers are available, the DM should determine the number present based on the locale and circumstances and then determine their type on an individual basis by rolling 2d6 for each individual and consulting the following chart:

Roll 2d6 Result
2-7 Combatant
8-9 Non-Combatant
10-12 Specialist

Once the general type of retainer—combatant, non-combatant, or specialist—is determined, consult the appropriate table below to randomly determine the potential retainer’s specific profession, qualifications, or skills.

If an adventurer then wishes to hire this particular individual, he should roll 2d6 and consult the following chart for the potential retainer’s response to his offer:

Roll 2d6 Result
2-6 declines offer
7-8 asks for greater compensation
9-12 accepts offer

If a potential retainer asks for greater compensation, his potential employer must increase the offer in some fashion, such as the ways listed below for attaining bonuses to the hiring roll.

The preceding chart assumes that the adventurer offers the standard terms of employment. He may increase his odds in the following ways:

  • buying the potential retainer strong drink—beer, mead, liquor—at the outset of negotiations results in a +1 bonus to the hiring roll
  • offering to increase the potential retainer’s daily salary—by at least double the usual amount—likewise results in a +1 bonus to the hiring roll
  • offering to upgrade the potential retainer’s equipment in a significant manner, such as the purchase of better armor, results in a +1 bonus to the hiring roll
  • offering to increase the potential retainer’s percentage of their employer’s treasure by 5% results in a +2 bonus to the hiring roll
  • the preceding bonuses are not exclusive; they are offered by way of example and are cumulative of one another—i.e., more than one may apply to a single roll


For each potential retainer who is a combatant, roll on the following table to determine his particular profession, qualifications, or skills:

# Type Hit Points Equipment Cost/Day
1. Weapon Bearer d3 short sword, leather armor 1 Silver Piece
2. Shield Bearer d3 short sword, leather armor, large shield 1 Silver Piece
3. Archer d3 short bow, 20 arrows, dagger, leather armor 2 Silver Pieces
4. Spearman d3 spear, leather armor 2 Silver Pieces
5. Mercenary d3+1 long sword, ring mail, shield 5 Silver Pieces
6. Man-at-Arms d3+1 long sword, lance, chain mail, shield, horse 1 Gold Piece

  • combatants—those who will be directly involved combat—are entitled to a 10 percent share of their employer’s monetary treasure
  • a weapon bearer may immediately hand his employer a weapon whenever necessary—e.g., if the employer is disarmed or his weapon is broken or disabled
  • a shield bearer protects his employer, increasing his AC by one; however, the shield bearer does not gain the benefit of the shield to his own armor class when doing so


For each potential retainer who is a non-combatant, roll on the following table to determine his particular profession, qualifications, or skills:

# Type Hit Points Equipment Cost/Day
1. Porter d2 backpack, 2 large sacks, litter 1 Silver Piece
2. Cook d2 pots, utensils, foodstuffs, spices, tinder box 1 Silver Piece
3. Guide d2 knife, walking stick 2 Silver Pieces
4. Torch Bearer d2 tinder box, torches or lantern, leather armor 2 Silver Pieces

  • non-combatants—those who generally will not be involved in combat—are entitled to a five percent share of their employer’s monetary treasure
  • porters provide muscle for carrying equipment and treasure; each may carry up to 300 pounds subject to ordinary rules regarding encumbrance and movement
  • cooks permit those who eat their meals to recover 1d2 hit points per night of rest even in the wilderness; their hot meals also increase the morale of other retainers
  • guides are locals familiar with the terrain; parties traveling with a guide move five extra miles per day and only have a 1-in-6 chance of becoming lost regardless of terrain
  • torchbearers may kindle a flame, light a torch or lantern, and keep them lit under difficult conditions; they are allowed a saving throw of 10 to do so in most cases


For each potential retainer who is a specialist, roll on the following table to determine his particular profession, qualifications, or skills:

# Type Hit Points Equipment Cost/Day
1. Bard d2 dagger, musical instrument, leather armor 1 Gold Piece
2. Surgeon d2 surgeon’s tools, medical supplies, smock 2 Gold Pieces
3. Holy Man d2+1 sacrificial dagger, holy symbol, robes 3 Gold Pieces
4. Hedge Wizard d2+1 staff, spell components, robes 3 Gold Pieces

  • a bard is a musician and poet; adventurers who travel with a bard receive a five percent experience bonus for all activities the bard witnesses, if the he survives to tell the tale
  • a surgeon may treat the physically injured once after each combat; the injured person saves and if successful regains d2+1 hit points; a surgeon may treat someone who otherwise would be dead
  • a holy man is an itinerant priest or prophet unaffiliated with an organized church or cult; see the table below for sample holy men and their abilities
  • a hedge wizard is a self-taught or poorly educated freelance magic-user; see the table below for further details on hedge wizards and their abilities

Holy Men

The following are eight examples of holy men; others exist. Holy men will not accept long-term employment. Most often they either do not care about the money at all—accepting employment because their god instructed them to do so—or have a charitable purpose in mind.

Each of the example holy men below have three abilities: (1) an innate characteristic; (2) an ability that they may use once per day; and (3) an ability that they may use more than once per day based on a d6 mechanic. However, they generally may try to use this last ability only once in a given situation or combat.

# Type Description and Abilities
1. Dervish A dervish communes with his god via ecstatic religious rites.
– he has a bonus of 2 to his AC due to his agility
– once a day, he can make another ecstatic (+1 bonus/1d6 rounds)
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he can cause a target to dance for 1d4 rounds
2. Elementalist An elementalist invokes the jinn, ifrit, or other desert spirits.
– any fire he kindles is smokeless and burns ten times longer than usual
– once a day, he can assume gaseous form for 1d6 rounds
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he may summon a minor spirit for a round
3. Exorcist An exorcist protects against and banishes demons and other extraplanar beings.
– he has a +4 bonus to all saves against these beings
– once a day, he can cast a protective circle against them in a 20-foot radius
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he can banish a demon to its place of origin
4. Hermit A hermit is a recluse who wears a coarse hair shirt and has taken a vow of silence.
– he may walk over any solid substance without incurring injury or damage
– once a day, he can silence a 10-foot radius for 1d6 rounds
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he can seal a target’s mouth for 1d4 rounds
5. Sadhu A sadhu renounces worldly things and travels nearly naked but for his holy spear.
– he has a +3 bonus to attacks/damage with it
– once a day, he can allow an additional save against disease
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he can negate an effect suffered by another
6. Snake Handler A snake handler interacts with venomous snakes to prove his divine favor.
– his pet snake may attack any foe that engages him in melee (1d2 damage)
– once a day, he can grant an additional save against venom
– on 1–2 on a d6, he can charm 1d4 snakes or 1 giant snake
7. Wonder-Worker A wonder-worker performs miracles to demonstrate the power of his god.
– he has a +2 bonus to all saving throws and non-combat rolls
– once a day, he can heal another for 2d4+2 hit points by touch
– on a roll of 1–2 on a d6, he may multiply or purify food/drink
8. Yogi A yogi pursues the divine through contemplation, meditation, and reflection.
– he is immune to mind-affecting spells and effects
– once a day, he can levitate for 1d4 turns (see spell description)
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he may grant 8 hours’ rest for 1 of meditation

Hedge Wizards

All hedge wizards have a staff. Whenever attacked in melee, they may imbue their staff with magical energy and try to parry by rolling 1–2 on a d6. The staff is non-magical though and no one else wielding it will have the ability to parry with it.

Hedge wizards have a spellbook, which is unreadable gibberish to others, including those who can read magic. The book contains two spells—randomly determined by rolling on the chart below. Hedge wizards may cast both spells once per day.

All of the spells below permit a saving throw when cast on an unwilling recipient, unless the spell description indicates otherwise. If the description does not state a specific range, treat it as effective within visual range so long as it’s reasonable.

Hedge wizards may read any magical text by rolling a 1 on a d6; if they fail, then they cannot read that text and cannot try again. If they use a magical scroll, there is a 1 in 6 chance that the spell is miscast in some manner or fails to operate.

# Spell Spell Description
1. Acid Rain He can summon a rainstorm for 1d4 rounds in a 200-foot radius; range of 200 feet; does 1 point of damage to all within it each round.
2. Blood Bond He can create a link between himself and another creature such that damage to one does an identical amount to the other for 1d6 rounds
3. Bug He can infest a single target with bugs for 1d6 rounds; he must save each round until he successfully saves or be preoccupied by the bugs
4. Combust He can cause an object or creature to spontaneously combust; range 100 feet; 1d4 damage first round and 1 damage for the next two.
5. Docility He can render 1d4 animals quiet and docile but not charmed; domesticated animals do not get a saving throw, but wild animals do.
6. Enervate He can reduce a humanoid’s strength by 3d6 for 1d6 rounds; if reduced to 0 or below, the humanoid is immobilized and helpless.
7. Identify Object He can identify an enchanted object’s magical properties by handling it for 1d4 rounds; he is permitted a saving throw against ill effects.
8. Ironskin He can make a target’s skin damage-resistant for 1d6 rounds; the target suffers two less damage per die while this spell is in effect.
9. Magic Manacles He can conjure a pair of manacles that bind the hands or feet of a target for 1d4 turns; these bonds cannot be broken except by magic.
10. Photon Bullets He fires 1d4 orbs of light the size of sling bullets from his fingers; multiple creatures may be targeted; each orb does 1 point of damage.
11. Play Possum He can allow a target to pass for dead for 2d6 rounds; the target appears to be a corpse and the fact that he is alive is undetectable.
12. Portal Password He can assign a password to a doorway or other portal that lasts 1d4 days; to pass, one must say the password or save with a -2 penalty.
13. Reverse Gravity He can reverse gravity in a 30-foot radius for 1d4 rounds; range of 50 feet; rate of ascent within the radius is 10 feet per round.
14. Servitude He can force a single target to serve him for 1d4 days; the target is aware of his servitude but cannot resist; the wizard can only have one servant at a time.
15. Shadowstep He can step into and move among the shadows for 2d6 rounds; he is incorporeal and imperceptible as anything other than a shadow.
16. Shrink He can shrink an object or person for 2d6 rounds; range 150 feet; roll 1d10 to determine the percentage reduction in size (1 = 10% etc.).
17. Spellbind He can target a spell-caster; next time the target casts a spell, he must save to finish casting or else keeps casting each round till he saves.
18. Spore Cloud He creates a thick cloud of spores in a 200-foot radius for 2d6 rounds; range 200 feet; all in it must save to attack or pursue another.
19. Translocate Object He can teleport an inanimate object from one location to another 2d10 x 10 feet in distance; the object may weigh up to 35 pounds.
20. Transport Circle He draws two circles within 2,000 feet of one another; people can teleport between them; each time, roll 1d10; the circle ceases to work on a 1.

Terms of Employment

Most retainers hire on for a single adventuring session and then go their own way. An employer may try to re-hire a previous retainer using the ordinary rules outlined above.

If a retainer is killed in service, his employer is obligated to pay his salary, if not already paid, and his share of treasure to the retainer’s next of kin. If reasonably possible, a deceased retainer’s personal possessions also should be returned.


Combatants usually become first-level fighters after completing an adventure; they should reroll their hit points (but cannot have less than their current total). As first-level fighters, their daily salary increases to 2 GP/day and they now receive 20 percent of their employer’s monetary treasure.

Non-combatants and specialists generally do not advance in level. However, a DM may at his discretion assign a returning non-combatant increased or additional abilities or hit points.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Great, Genderqueer Elves

You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. . . .

You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon's image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being a mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.

Fifth Edition D&D Player’s Handbook, page 121.

This is one of the sillier passages ever written in a role-playing game. In fairness, the bit about Corellon arguably has a basis in the history of the game; AD&D's Deities & Demigods stated that Corellon "is alternately male or female, both or neither." Otherwise, only the first sentence of the material on sex concerns mechanics; the rest is just politics or virtue-signaling.

Does anyone really need this guidance? In the almost 35 years I have been playing D&D, these issues have never arisen at the table. And if players or the referee were inclined to raise these issues, they would not need this guidance, which only states the obvious. My character’s sexual orientation is up to me? Thanks for clarifying that Wizards of the Coast.