28 July 2009

‘Swords & Sorcery’ House Rules Index

Here is a summary of my house rules for Swords & Wizardry (with appropriate links). They are intended, when used together, to simulate more closely the ‘swords and sorcery’ genre, as exemplified by the fiction of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber. Nonetheless, most of these house rules can be used on their own in a ‘standard’ or ‘classic’ ‘Old School’ D&D game (including Original D&D, Basic D&D, RC D&D, Labyrinth Lord, 1e AD&D, OSRIC, etc.).

1. Miscellaneous House Rules. Some minor rules for ability scores and combat (critical hits, fumbles, etc.)

2. Hit Points and Constitution. A system for treating hit points as ‘superficial’ damage (i.e., exhaustion, minor bruises, etc.), and constitution as ‘serious’ damage. The former is easy to heal, whereas the latter is not.

3. Wisdom as Sanity. A system for treating a character’s ‘wisdom’ score as a measurement of his/her sanity.

4. Background Professions. A list of ‘background professions’ (e.g., alchemist, minstrel, sailor) for characters, designed to give them some more flavour, and a few minor special abilities.

5. General Task Resolution Mechanic. A system for using the generic ‘saving throws’ in S&W as a ‘general task resolution mechanic,’ i.e., a system for determining whether characters succeed at various things.

6. Class-Based Weapon Damage. This system uses a character’s class in order to determine how much damage that character can do with a particular weapon.

7. The Thief. My version of the ‘thief’ class, inspired primarily by the ‘Gray Mouser’ character.

8. Everyone can Backstab. Pretty self-explanatory, I think.

9. Fighting Styles for Fighters. A list of six different ‘fighting styles’ (e.g., berserker, shield-master, etc.) available to fighter characters.

10. Magicians and the Colours of Magic. The magician is a new class meant to replace the cleric and magic-user classes. I designed it to have a stronger ‘pulp sorcerer’ flavour than the standard spell-casting classes. The ‘colours of magic’ refers to my categorization of all spells as either ‘white magic,’ ‘grey magic,’ or ‘black magic.’ All spells cause ‘exhaustion’ for magicians, and black magic spells might cause ‘corruption’ (i.e., loss of wisdom/sanity).

11. Experience Points. Quite simply, an alternative system for assigning experience points to characters.

Enjoy, gentle readers!

(Note [added 2022]: Many of these house rules eventually were integrated into the Crypts and Things role-playing game from D101 Games.)


EDIT 1 (added 16 November 2009): A PDF of these rules, courtesy of Benoist, can be found here [link removed -- see below].

EDIT 2 (added 13 August 2020): The above link to the PDF no longer seems to be working. I'll see if there is some other way for me to make the PDF available.

EDIT 3 (added 27 March 2021): The PDF is available here. (https://web.archive.org/web/20160804192136/http://enrill.net:80/documents/akratic-wizardry.pdf)  (Thanks to Evangineer for tracking this down!)

26 July 2009

Vote for the Old School Rennaisance

The 'Ennie Awards' nominees have been announced.  Normally I have very little interest in the Ennies, since they typically focus on games that I do not play and have zero interest in.  Much to my surprise, however, this year Swords & Wizardry has been nominated as the best "free product."  Moreover, 'old school' companies Mythmere Games and Goblinoid Games have been nominated in the 'Best Publisher' category!  

If you want to show your support for the 'Old School Renaissance,' gentle readers, I modestly propose that you vote for S&W, Mythmere Games, and Goblinoid Games here.  (Other companies worth voting for, in my opinion, include Expeditious Retreat Press, Iron Crown Enterprises, and Goodman Games.)   

21 July 2009

Still on Hiatus

I'm off to New York City tomorrow, gentle readers.  If anyone knows of any good game stores in NYC (especially Manhattan) feel free to let me know.  Obviously, a selection of out-of-print RPGs would be appreciated in particular.


18 July 2009

Why I Like Old School D&D

Here are some of the main reasons why I prefer ‘old school’ Dungeons and Dragons over more recent versions (specifically, 3rd edition and 4th edition).  By ‘old school’ D&D, I mean Original D&D (0e), Classic D&D (Basic/Expert D&D and Rules Cyclopedia D&D), and 1e Advanced D&D – and their respective retro-clones (Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and OSRIC).  For the sake of simplicity, I will use ‘OSD&D’ to refer to ‘old school D&D’ (covering all pre-3e versions of D&D, although I should mention that I never really played 2e AD&D, aside from the ‘Baldur’s Gate’ computer games).

Things that I like about OSD&D:

1. It is very easy to prepare for OSD&D sessions (about one hour of prep for every four hours of play, in my experience).

2. It is very easy to run (straightforward combat rules, minimal stat blocks, etc.).

3. It is easy to run OSD&D without miniatures and battle mats (or their equivalent).   

4. As a consequence of the above two points, OSD&D combats typically are over in 2 to 10 minutes.   

5. Sessions run at a very brisk pace.  With any old school D&D system I generally can get through about three-times as much ‘adventuring’ as I could when I played 3e D&D. 

6. Arch-mages (high-level magic-users) rule over all.  It makes sense to me that individuals who have mastered the elemental forces of nature should be more powerful than others.  This is ‘balanced’ in OSD&D by the vulnerability and weakness of low-level magic-users.  The obsession that later editions have with ‘balance’ mean that they endeavour to ensure that high-level magic-users are equally powerful to other classes (fighters, thieves, etc.).  This just seems ridiculous to me.

7. Characters gain diminishing returns for experience points at higher levels.  After reaching ‘name level,’ characters in OSD&D no longer receive hit dice, their progression rates ‘flatten,’ their acquisition of new special abilities slows down, and so forth.  This makes sense to me.  After becoming one of the most powerful individuals in the world, it seems right that a character is not going to improve at the same dramatic rate that he or she did as a neophyte.

8. Most versions of OSD&D include rules for player characters’ strongholds and dominions.  OSD&D has an ‘endgame,’ in the sense that high-level characters can establish strongholds and dominions, and thus become noteworthy political forces in the campaign setting.  This provides a good place for a campaign to end – and allows past characters to have an impact on the overall history of the campaign setting (perhaps returning in a later campaigns as powerful patrons, or even foes).  (Of course, it is not required that characters engage in this ‘endgame’ in OSD&D – they could keep adventuring, if the DM agrees – but it is a definite option.  Moreover, other ‘end games’ are possible – e.g., BECM/RC D&D allows for the possibility of character becoming immortals!) 

9.  Aesthetics: I love much of the art found in OSD&D rulebooks.  In particular, I am a huge fan of the work of Erol Otus and Dave Trampier.  With respect to the retro-clones, I find the art of Pete Mullen original and inspiring (Mullen’s work graces the covers of all of the Swords & Wizardry books).  In contrast, the ‘dungeon punk’ style of 3e always left me cold (why so many buckles and spikes?).  The art of the core 4e books definitely appeals to me more than the 3e style, but lacks the ‘otherworldly’ quality that I love about the work of Otus and Trampier.

10.  Random tables!

There are some additional reasons why I like OSD&D far more than the recent and current versions of D&D (3e and 4e), but this should suffice for now.  It’s Guinness time!


09 July 2009


Since I'll be marrying the elfin princess pictured above tomorrow evening, I doubt that I will be blogging much for the next two weeks (or so). 

Fight On!

08 July 2009

Miscellaneous S&W/OD&D House Rules

Over the past few weeks I’ve posted most of the house rules that I use in my current Swords & Wizardry (OD&D-based) game.  I now offer for your consideration, gentle readers, the remaining few.

Rolling for Ability Scores

Players roll 3d6 seven times, rerolling any rolls of ‘1’ (so the lowest score that a starting character can have in any ability score is ‘6’).  Players drop the lowest score, and assign the other six to their characters’ abilities (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma) as they choose.  If a player’s character does not have at least two ability scores that are 13 or greater, he or she may reroll the entire set.

Additional Ability Score Modifiers

A score of 18 confers a bonus of +2 to any roll affected by that ability score.  A score of 3 confers a penalty of -2 to any roll affected by that ability score.

Critical Hits

If a character rolls a natural ‘20’ he rolls again to see if he scores a critical hit.  If the second roll is also a hit, the character does maximum damage plus an additional damage roll.  (For instance, say a fighter wielding a broadsword scores a critical hit.  He does 8 points of damage + 1d8 + any applicable modifiers.)

Firing Missile Weapons into Melee

If a character is using a ranged weapon (bow, sling, etc.) and fires into a melee combat involving an ally, he suffers a -2 to his roll to hit his target (this penalty is due to the character being careful not to hit his ally).   


If a character rolls a natural 1 in an attack roll he must make a saving throw (modified by his dexterity bonus/penalty).  If he fails, he drops his weapon and must make another saving throw (again modified by his dexterity bonus/penalty).  If he fails again, he has fallen down and is prone for one round (-2 to AC).

Final Notes:

Well, fellow gamers, that's it for my house rules for S&W/OD&D (at least for now).  They have been play tested (albeit modestly), and seem to work well.  At some point I will provide summary of them all in a single post, along with appropriate links.  Unfortunately, I will not have time to do that in the immediate future.  Cheers!

07 July 2009

Magicians and the Colours of Magic

These rules are meant to modify the Swords and Wizardry magic rules [or the rules of 0e D&D, Basic/Expert D&D, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy RPG, or – with a little work – 1e AD&D or OSRIC] so that they more closely resemble the way that magic works in most classic ‘swords and sorcery’ tales.  Specifically, they introduce the idea of the ‘colours of magic’ – magic spells are classified as ‘white,’ ‘grey,’ or ‘black’ in nature.  A new system of casting spells is also outlined, as well as a new class, the ‘magician,’ that replaces both the standard cleric and magic-user classes.

The Magician Class

The magic-user and cleric classes are replaced with the magician class.  Magicians may be benevolent witches, reclusive shamans, eccentric sages, enigmatic priests, malevolent necromancers, or megalomaniacal sorcerers – their exact nature depends on their background, goals, spells, and sanity.

There is no longer any division between ‘cleric’ and ‘magic-user’ spells.  Instead, spells are categorized as ‘white,’ ‘grey,’ or ‘black’ (as explained below).  Magicians may learn and cast any kind of spell.  Magicians who focus on white magic tend to be called wizards, savants, or thaumaturges.  Magicians who focus on grey magic often are called enchanters, mages, or illusionists.  Magicians who focus on black magic tend to be called sorcerers, warlocks, or necromancers.

Magicians of any focus who are associated with a cult or religious order might be called priests, seers, or acolytes.

The Prime Attribute of Magicians is Intelligence.  Magicians with an Intelligence of 13 or greater receive a bonus of 5% to all experience points earned.  Magicians with an Intelligence of 15 or greater can prepare an additional first-level spell.

Magicians use the ‘magic-user’ experience chart, spell chart (ignoring spells above level 6), and saving throws.  Like magic-users, they typically eschew armour, although they may wear leather armour without interfering with their spell casting, and are not trained in the use of shields. 

Magicians may use any weapon, although they receive a -1 to all damage rolls (but always do a minimum of ‘1’ point of damage), unless they are using daggers, darts, quarterstaffs, or slings.  (If using the ‘Class-Based Damage’ system that I presented in Knockspell #1, magicians use the ‘cleric’ damage table, and do not suffer any penalty to their damage rolls.)  Since magicians normally need at least one hand free in order to cast their spells, they rarely will use two-handed weapons (except for quarterstaffs, which are easily held in one hand when necessary).   

Magicians use the ‘cleric’ attack chart when using one-handed weapons (including slings, throwing daggers, and darts) or quarterstaffs.  They use the ‘magic-user’ attack chart when using any other kind of weapon (including missile weapons other than slings, throwing daggers, and darts).

Magicians use a d6 (no modifier) as their hit die.  (Thus, using the damage rules outlined above, first level magicians start with 11 hit points, prior to any constitution modifiers.)  They receive one hit point per level after level nine. 

First-level magicians start with a spellbook that contains three first-level spells (player’s choice) and one second-level spell (player’s choice).  All other spells must be found, learned from a tutor (usually for a steep fee), or purchased (also usually for a steep fee).

Magicians can prepare a number of spells as determined by their level (see the magic-user spell chart; as noted earlier, magicians with an Intelligence score of 15 or greater may prepare an additional first-level spell).  A magician may change the spells that he/she has prepared with eight uninterrupted hours of study (the magician’s spellbook must be available).

Magicians may cast any spell that they have prepared any number of times – however, as explained below, they suffer exhaustion (loss of hit points) every time that they cast a spell, which limits how many spells they can cast before resting.

Magicians can write their own scrolls, copying the spells from their spellbooks, at the cost of 200 gold pieces per spell level for supplies (special ink and parchment).  It takes one full day per spell level of careful work to copy a scroll (one has to be very careful when dealing with the mystical powers!).  Thus writing a scroll of a fourth-level spell would cost 800 gold pieces and take four full days of work.  Spells cast from scrolls, whether prepared by the magician or found, cause exhaustion – and, if the spell is classified as ‘black magic,’ corruption – just as if the magician had cast the spell normally.  Scrolls increase the range of spells available to a magician; they do not reduce the physical costs of casting spells.  (Exhaustion and corruption are explained below.)

Magician Summary

Prime Attribute: Intelligence, 13+ (5% experience)
Hit Dice: 1d6 (Gains 1 hp/level after 9th level)
Saving Throws: As Magic-User
Experience Chart: As Magic-User
Armour/Shield Permitted: Leather only
Weapons Permitted: Any, but does less damage with certain weapons (see description above)
Attack Charts: Cleric (if using one-handed weapon or quarterstaff) or Magic-User (all other weapons)
Spells Prepared: As Magic-User
Spell Casting: Any number of times per day, but spells cost exhaustion (hit points), and possibly corruption (if a ‘black magic’ spell is cast)


There is no division between ‘clerical’ and ‘magic-user’ spells – all spells can be learned by magicians in the same way that magic-users do (i.e., by recording them in spellbooks, and ‘preparing’ them to be cast later).  If a spell has both a ‘cleric’ and a ‘magic-user’ version, use the ‘magic-user’ version. 

No spells above level 6 exist, although powerful but costly ‘rituals’ may be created by the Game Master in order to simulate the powers of higher-level spells – including especially the summoning of vile demons!  

There is no ‘read magic’ spell.  Instead, all magicians know the ancient eldritch language in which all magic is written.

Spells are divided into White Magic (spells that promote or maintain life, protect against harm, and generally are ‘in tune’ with the natural laws and forces of the universe), Grey Magic (spells that typically involve the manipulation and/or alteration of objects and/or minds), and Black Magic (spells that typically are destructive and/or ‘contrary to nature,’ say, by being necromantic in character or by drawing on forces beyond this universe). 

White Magic

First Level: Cure Light Wounds (applies only to lost constitution points, not hit points), Detect Evil, Detect Magic, Light, Protection from Evil, Purify Food and Drink, Read Languages, Shield.

Second Level: Bless, Continual Light, Detect Invisibility, Find Traps, Speak with Animals, Strength.  [Excruciating Cauterization] [Force of Forbidment]

Third Level: Cure Disease, Dispel Magic, Prayer, Protection from Evil (10 ft radius), Protection from Normal Missiles, Remove Curse, Water Breathing.  [Word of Ioun]

Fourth Level: Create Water, Cure Serious Wounds (applies only to lost constitution points, not hit points), Neutralize Poison, Plant Growth, Remove Curse, Speak with Plants. 

Fifth Level: Animal Growth, Create Food, Dispel Evil, Insect Plague. 

Sixth Level: Anti-Magic Shell, Control Weather, Conjure Animals, Legend Lore, Restoration.

Grey Magic

First Level: Charm Person, Hold Portal, Sleep

Second Level: ESP, Invisibility, Knock, Levitate, Magic Mouth, Miror Image, Phantasmal Force, Pyrotechnics, Silence (15 ft radius), Snake Charm, Web, Wizard Lock.

Third Level: Clairaudience, Clairvoyance, Darkvision, Fly, Haste, Hold Person, Invisibility (10 ft radius), Rope Trick, Slow, Suggestion.  [Ball of Ice]  [Filigree]  [Omar’s Mistake]  [Red Bull]  [Rejectment]  [Strange Waters]

Fourth Level: Charm Monster, Confusion, Dimension Door, Fear, Hallucinatory Terrain, Massmorph, Polymorph Other, Polymorph Self, Sticks to Snakes, Wall of Fire, Wall of Ice.  [Hylogenesis]  [Imperfect Suspension]  [Infuse]  [Seven Gates]

Fifth Level: Feeblemind, Hold Monster, Magic Jar, Passwall, Quest, Telekinesis, Teleport, Transmute Rock to Mud, Wall of Iron, Wall of Stone.  [Crystallogenesis]  [Magpie]

Sixth Level: Animate Object, Enchant Item, Geas, Lower water, Move Earth, Part Water, Project Image, Repulsion, Speak with Monsters, Stone to Flesh, Word of Recall.  [Twilight of Thieves]

Black Magic

First Level: Magic Missile.

Second Level: Darkness (15 ft radius), Stinking Cloud.  [Strangulations]  [Tarnu’s Collaring Coiffure]

Third Level: Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Monster Summoning I, Speak with Dead.  [Tarantella]

Fourth Level: Ice Storm, Monster Summoning II, Wizard Eye.  [Beast of Chaos]  [Deadly Bliss]

Fifth Level: Animate Dead, Cloudkill, Commune, Conjure Elemental, Contact Other Plane, Finger of Death, Monster Summoning III.  [Deadly Dissolvative]  [Most Horrible Absorption]  [Six Mouths of Horror] 

Sixth Level: Death Spell, Disintegrate, Invisible Stalker, Monster Summoning IV.  [Cohesive Cocoon]

Spell Notes

In addition to all 7th-9th level spells (except for ‘Restoration,’ which I have made a 6th level spell), I have removed the spells ‘raise dead’ and ‘reincarnation,’ as they seem inappropriate for a ‘swords and sorcery’ flavoured magic system.  

To ameliorate the consequences of ‘permanent death,’ the modified rules concerning hit points and damage presented earlier should make character death somewhat less frequent.

The ‘Extension’ spells (I-III) do not belong to a particular colour (white/grey/black).  Rather, they belong to the same colour as the spell they are used to ‘extend.’  So using Extension I to extend the duration of a ‘fly’ spell means that the magician in question has cast two ‘grey magic’ spells (and thus would suffer 12 points of exhaustion damage, as explained below).

Remember that the ‘cure wounds’ spells only heal lost constitution points – not hit points!

Spells in square brackets are taken from Matt Finch’s ‘Eldritch Weirdness: Book One.’

Spell Casting: Exhaustion, Corruption, and Sanity

When magicians cast ‘white magic’ spells they suffer exhaustion damage equal to one hit point plus one hit point per level of the spell cast (so a magician who casts a third level white magic spell would suffer four points of damage).

When magicians cast ‘grey magic’ spells they suffer exhaustion damage equal to twice the level of the spell cast (so a magician who casts a third level grey magic spell would suffer six points of damage). 

When magicians cast ‘black magic’ spells they suffer exhaustion damage identical to that caused by ‘grey magic’ spells (twice the spell level).  In addition, magicians casting ‘black magic’ spells must make a saving throw (versus ‘spells’ if using a system other than S&W) in order to avoid corruption.  If this saving roll is failed, the magician is corrupted slightly and suffers a loss of temporary Wisdom points equal to the spell level (e.g., 3 points of temporary Wisdom for a third-level spell).  Temporarily lost points of Wisdom can be recovered at a rate of one point per complete day of rest and meditation (no other action possible).  The spell ‘Restoration’ will restore instantly all temporarily lost Wisdom points. 

Furthermore, if a magician casting a ‘black magic’ spell fails his/her saving throw by rolling a ‘1,’ then that magician loses one point of Wisdom permanently (so if a magician fails his/her saving throw casting a third-level black magic spell by rolling a ‘1,’ he/she would lose one permanent point of Wisdom and two temporary points of Wisdom).  The spell ‘Restoration’ will not restore any permanently lost Wisdom points.

A magician whose permanent wisdom score is lowered to 2 becomes insane, and possibly the thrall of an extra-planar demonic force.  He/she henceforth is a non-player character!

Final Notes

1. These house rules are meant to be used with my other house rules, and in particular my rules for sanity and damage (both already posted on this blog).

2.  A version of these house rules will appear in a longer article on ‘swords and sorcery’ campaigns in issue 3 of Knockspell magazine.

06 July 2009

Are You Experienced?

Because of the relative dearth of valuable treasure in my Swords & Wizardry ‘Ilmahal’ campaign setting, experience points are not awarded for treasure found (gold pieces, magic items, etc.).  Instead, experience points are awarded for opponents and obstacles overcome, missions completed, and clever playing (as outlined below).

1.     Experience points are awarded for foes overcome, whether slain, subdued, fooled, dealt with diplomatically, or whatever.  (If characters unnecessarily fight non-player characters or monsters, experience point awards are reduced or even eliminated.)  The amount awarded = 100 x HD + bonuses for special abilities (d4 HD creatures = 50 exp; d6 HD = 80 exp).  ‘Challenges’ overcome without combat are assigned a ‘hit dice equivalent’ by the Game Master.

2.     Experience points should also be awarded for traps, tricks, and other life-threatening obstacles overcome.  In general, 50-1000 experience points should be awarded, depending on the difficulty of the obstacle in question (a rough guide is 100 x average character level).

3.     Finally, experience points are awarded for missions completed (typically 200 x Party Average Level).

The above awards are totalled and divided amongst all characters at the end of an adventure.  The Game Master may also provide individual experience awards for clever thinking, good ideas, etc.  Such awards normally should not exceed 100 x character level.

02 July 2009


Witnessing unspeakable supernatural horrors – always a professional risk for any protagonist in a ‘swords and sorcery’ adventure – can drive a mortal man or woman mad.  Deliberately delving into ancient eldritch secrets for the purposes of unleashing unnatural forces or contacting demonic intelligences radically increases this risk.  Insane sorcerers and men whose minds have been broken by ancient evils are standard staples in ‘swords and sorcery’ tales.

In order to simulate this aspect of the ‘swords and sorcery’ genre, these rules treat a character’s Wisdom score as a measurement of his/her sanity.  A character with a Wisdom score of 18 has a firm grasp of the nature of reality, considerable self-discipline, and remarkable strength of will.  In contrast, a character with a Wisdom score of 3 is barely lucid, easily confuses reality with fantasy, and is on the border of lapsing into madness.  Characters with Wisdom scores of 2 or lower are utterly insane, and must be treated as non-player characters.  (If this Wisdom loss is temporary, as explained below, the character is under the control of the Game Master until he/she regains his/her sanity.)

If a character witnesses an unspeakable horror, the Game Master may require the player to make a saving throw (versus ‘spells,’ if using a system other than S&W).  The saving throw should be modified by the severity of the horror in question.  If the character fails his or her saving throw, he or she loses points of temporary Wisdom.  The exact amount should be determined by rolling 1d6.  If a ‘6’ is rolled, the character also permanently loses one point of Wisdom (i.e., one permanent point of Wisdom and five temporary points of Wisdom).  Temporarily lost points of Wisdom may be regained at a rate of one point per day of complete rest.  The spell ‘Restoration’ (which I treat as a 6th level spell of ‘white magic’ in my game) will restore instantly temporarily lost Wisdom points, but will not restore any permanently lost Wisdom points.

Characters may also lose Wisdom by casting spells that are characterized as ‘black magic’ in nature.  This will be explained in a future post.

(Note: This house rule will appear in a longer article in Knockspell # 3.)

01 July 2009

Happy Canada Day, eh!

I still have a deep fondness for the 'red ensign' flag, even though it was replaced with the maple leaf flag long before I was born ...

The FRPG Social Contract

Yesterday James Maliszewski of ‘Grognardia’ fame (possibly the best general ‘old school’ gaming blog around) posted an interview with the Skip Williams.  As a wee lad Skip Williams played in Gary Gygax’s and Rob Kuntz’s Greyhawk campaign.  Much later he served as one of the principal game designers of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and was in charge of Dragon magazine’s ‘the Sage’ column that gave ‘official’ answers to questions concerning the rules of 3e.  So Mr. Williams has an ‘old school’ pedigree, but was instrumental in shaping the ‘new school’ of the fantasy role-playing hobby.

I found the interview very interesting.  Two quotes, however, revealed something fundamental about the philosophy behind the 3e D&D system.  Here they are:

Whenever we came to a place in the rules where I knew DMs and players were going to clash, I'd tell a "campaign from hell" story, in which a character (mine or someone else's) was in peril and the DM made the most illogical and completely off the wall ruling you could imagine. I tied to be very careful that all the loose boards in the system were well nailed down.”

The early designers were wrong. It comes down to this: If you want to be in control of your character who [sic] have to have some idea how anything you might try is going to come out. and [sic] you can't know that unless you have some idea of how the rules are going to handle the situation. If the GM is making capricious decisions about what happens in the game, you're always shooting in the dark and you have no real control over your character at all.”

The obsession with limiting the scope for a ‘capricious GM’ certainly describes an aspect of the 3e D&D rules that I found quite annoying, and a detriment to good gaming, when I was a 3e GM.  Of course, when I ran 3e years ago (one campaign during 2001-2002, a second campaign during 2004-2005), I simply house-ruled 3e as I liked, and improvised as necessary.  Or at least I tried to.  I found myself fighting against a rules system that fundamentally opposed such an approach.  

The fundamental problem, in my opinion, is that Skip Williams seems to presuppose a ‘GM-versus-players’ approach to fantasy role-playing games.  Consequently, one of his aims with 3e appears to have been ‘empowering’ players vis-à-vis GMs. 

The simple fact is that no amount of rules can prevent a crappy GM from being a crappy GM.  Role-playing games, fundamentally, are cooperative endeavours.  People want to have fun together.  The possibility of character death is part of that fun – adventures need to be challenging and involve some significant element of danger.  However, if the GM is a jerk, or the players don’t trust the GM to make fair judgements during the game, then it seems certain that nobody involved will have a good time (at least not over the course of several sessions).  In other words, if Game Masters and players view the game in antagonistic terms, the game invariably will be a waste of time for everyone involved.

Irrespective of the system, the best fantasy campaigns are those that involve an implicit ‘social contract’ amongst all of the participants.  The GM agrees to be as fair as possible in his rulings, while nonetheless setting up difficult and challenging adventures for the players, and the players agree to trust the GM.  If the GM abuses his authority – say, by arbitrarily killing off characters – then the contract has been broken, and the game invariably will descend into an unpleasant ‘State of Nature’ … and soon end.  

Skip Williams’s attempt to ensure that 3e ‘empowered’ or ‘protected’ players vis-à-vis GMs did not stop many 3e campaigns from being awful, antagonistic affairs.  It did make being a 3e GM a rather tedious chore.

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).