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Wond’ring aloud: Parrying, armour and swashbuckling fighters

April 24, 2014

Our Stonehell on the Borderlands campaign is on hiatus again. Meanwhile I’m running an assortment of adventures using Swords & Wizardry Core Rules. It’s not a million miles from B/X, of course, but I enjoy the OD&Desque “vibe” and I like the single saving throw a lot.

There are oddities, though. The parrying rule (page 11) is one:

In the Original Game, only fighters with a Dexterity score of 14 or better can fight on the defensive, parrying enemy blows and dodging attacks instead of attacking, as shown on the table below. This is the “official” Swords & Wizardry Core Rule.

Here’s the table, cut and pasted from the S&W SRD:


To my mind, that’s a rather odd (through legitimate and playable) interpretation of the dodging and parrying rule in Supplement I: Greyhawk (page 8), which goes like this:

Fighters with a dexterity of greater than 14 can use their unusual manual dexterity to attempt to dodge or parry opponents’ attacks. For every point over 14 they are able to reduce their opponents’ chances of hitting them by 1 (5%).

For a start, we’re talking about fighters with Dexterity greater than 14 – i.e., 15 or better, not 14 or better.

For another thing, Greyhawk doesn’t mention dodging instead of attacking. You could perhaps infer from the words “attempt to” that the player must make a conscious choice, but I think it’s just a turn of phrase. With the benefit of hindsight, and more importantly the AD&D Players Handbook (wherein all characters get a -1 AC bonus per point of Dexterity over 14), I think what the the passage is intended to convey is this: for every point of Dexterity above 14, the fighter imposes a -1 penalty on opponents’ attack rolls. Parrying, then, isn’t a separate action taking the place of an attack during a round; it’s a defensive factor applied to the normal mechanical resolution of abstract combat. In later editions, this became the standard Dexterity bonus to AC and was granted to characters of any class, not just fighters.


While thinking about this, it struck me that there might be the germ of a decent house rule here. Let’s say you wanted to run a swashbuckling campaign in which agile fighters could run around, jump off balconies, swing on chandeliers, leap onto galloping horses, climb rigging, etc., without wearing cumbersome armour. Like Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood or Arnie’s Conan or Inigo Montoya or Captain Bethany off the cover of Razor Coast or any one of a thousand skyclad Celtic warriors. Sounds good, no? But wait. Why would any sane player of a fighter character forgo plate mail when a good Armour Class is so important for survival?

Here’s why.

Swashbuckling Fighters House Rule

We’ll use the standard Dexterity modifiers from S&W Core Rules:


Those effects apply to all characters. But only fighters wearing no armour gain the extra bonuses to AC listed on the Fighter Parrying Ability table (given above).

So, a thief in leather armour with Dex 16 has AC 6 (7-1). His companion, a swashbuckling fighter with the same Dexterity score, wearing just a feathered hat, doublet and hose, has AC 5 (9-(1+3)). He could don plate and pick up a shield for AC 1, of course, but then he can’t run or jump or swim when circumstances require. And those rare fighters with Dex 18 get AC 3 even when completely unarmoured, or AC 2 with a shield. I haven’t playtested any of this but I think it might work well in “cinematic”-type play, encouraging high-Dex fighters to try athletic combat manouevres.



Tauroman (new monster)

April 24, 2014


Hit Dice: 5+2
Armour Class: 6 [13]
Attacks: 2 hooves (1d6) and 1 weapon (by weapon)
Saving Throw: 12
Special: None
Move: 15
Alignment: Chaotic
Challenge Level/XP: 5/240

Think of a centaur built from a bull instead of a horse and you have a good idea what a tauroman looks like. (Alternatively, take a look at the picture below.) They make their slave-built fortresses in deep caverns. Brutish and cruel, they enjoy blood sports: hunting victims through the tunnels of the underdark or watching gladiatorial combat in the arena. They relish the spectacle they call andromache in which a captured human warrior (usually naked and wielding a short sword or dirk) is ritually slaughtered in the ring by a tauroman – called a fonias – bedecked with a short cape and armed with a long spear.

It is likely that tauromen have demonic ancestry. No tauro-women have ever been seen.

Minotaur from Dante's Inferno, Canto XII, by William Blake

Minotaur from Dante’s Inferno, Canto XII – Watercolour by William Blake

Seven “real” cursed objects

April 9, 2014


Thanks to my friend Ed who spotted this impeccably researched and entirely credible article on the ætherwebbe.

This calls for a random table.


Roll 1d8.

1. “Woman from Lemb” statue
2. Thomas Busby’s chair
3. Annabelle the doll
4. “Crying Boy” painting
5. Lead box containing the Basano Vase
6. James Dean’s car (or part thereof)
7. Wine cabinet (contains dybbuk)
8. Roll again twice.


Notes for an Old Norse-inspired campaign

April 6, 2014

I’m running an Old Norse-inspired game using Swords & Wizardry Core Rules. Here are some of my notes, probably too rough-and-ready as yet to be dignified with the term “house rules”, but already beginning to resemble a kind of “2e-lite”. (No bad thing in my book.) None of this is set in stone yet. Please feel free to chip in with comments and criticism.

All PCs are human. Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User (Sorcerer), Thief. Maximum level is 9th, for whatever that’s worth.

Forest Troll (1906) by Theodor Kittelsen

Forest Troll (1906) by Theodor Kittelsen

A patron deity – either Odin, Thor or Freyr – should be chosen for each cleric character. Each god grants a slightly different spell list to his representatives in Midgard. Here are the draft spell lists for clerics of Odin and Thor. (I haven’t done Freyr yet.)

Level 1: Detect Evil, Detect Magic, Protection from Evil, Purify Food and Drink
Level 2: Bless, Find Traps, Snake Charm, Speak with Animals
Level 3: Locate Object, Prayer, Remove Curse, Speak with Dead
Level 4: Create Water, Protection from Evil 10-foot Radius
Level 5: Commune, Dispel Evil

Notes: Clerics of Odin may have any alignment. They must wield a spear. They can Turn Undead.

Given Odin’s stewardship of both poetic inspiration and runic wisdom, I am minded to give his clerics some or all of the distinctive abilities of the AD&D 2e bard: Influence Reactions, Rally Allies, Counter Song and Legend Lore.

Level 1: Light, Detect Evil, Protection from Evil, Purify Food and Drink
Level 2: Bless, Hold Person, Chant*, Spiritual Hammer*
Level 3: Call Lightning*, Continual Light, Prayer, Remove Curse
Level 4: Create Water, Protection from Evil 10-foot Radius
Level 5: Dispel Evil, Quest

*These spells are not in S&W Core Rules but can be imported from other editions and/or clones.

Notes: Clerics of Thor cannot be Chaotic. They must wield a warhammer. They can Turn Undead. Outdoors, they can control local weather conditions (within natural parameters) once per day. The process takes a turn and the effects last 2d6 turns.

Magic-Users (Sorcerers)
They cannot be Lawful. They can wear leather armour and wield any weapon doing 1d6 damage or less. (A hand axe is often favoured.) They also have a limited selection of spells, as follows:

Level 1: Charm Person, Detect Magic, Protection from Evil, Read Languages, Read Magic, Sleep
Level 2: Detect Evil, Detect Invisibility, ESP, Invisibility, Locate Object, Mirror Image, Phantasmal Force
Level 3: Clairaudience, Clairvoyance, Dispel Magic, Hold Person, Invisibility 10-foot Radius, Protection from Evil 10-foot Radius, Protection from Normal Missiles, Suggestion
Level 4: Charm Monster, Confusion, Fear, Hallucinatory Terrain, Remove Curse
Level 5: Animate Dead, Contact Other Plane, Feeblemind, Hold Monster, Magic Jar

Money and equipment
Money in medieval Scandinavia is a complicated topic, but I don’t need that complexity in my game so let’s simplify things by adopting a silver standard and saying that whenever a treasure hoard contains, say, 530 sp it doesn’t necessarily mean there are 530 individual silver coins; it’s an abstraction representing a collection of coinage, bits of hacksilver and precious objects worth, in total, 530 sp. (And probably weighing 53 lbs., using standard encumbrance.)

No plate armour, crossbows, lances or warhorses. The best armour is mail and shield, AC 4 [15].

Clerics don’t have healing spells. Therefore I’ll probably allow something like “Dutch Courage” – except it’s “Norse Courage” and obviously it’s a horn of mead, not a flagon of wine.

These include dwarves, trolls and giants, all of which commonly have magical powers.
There are those – often crusty old vikings – who do not rest easy in their grave-mounds. Such undead beings will have unique stats and uncanny abilities.
Berserkers are always bad guys.



Norns weaving destiny (1912) by Arthur Rackham

Edit: I think clerics of Odin should be Lawful or, at worst, Neutral. Pulp fantasy-style alignments aren’t necessarily a good fit for Norse mythology, but if I’m going to use them then it seems to me that the Æsir represent a stable, orderly cosmos in opposition to chaotic, destructive forces like the jötnar (especially the fire giants) and the old worm Níðhöggr, gnawing at the roots of the World Tree. Moreover, Odin – despite his wandering ways and troublesome relationship with the occult – is the ruler of the gods, so his clerics ought to be interested in the maintenance of social order and hierarchical power structures. As well as killing monsters and taking their treasure, obviously.

20% off at Lulu until the end of the month

March 26, 2014

Lulu is celebrating National Waffle Day, apparently. I’m not entirely sure what country celebrates National Waffle Day, nor why it can’t be International Waffle Day. I want a waffle too!

Anyway, there’s 20% off everything until the end of March. (No, I don’t understand how come National Waffle Day lasts a week, either, but let’s not quibble.) To get the discount, use the code WAFFLESSAY20.

I’m getting The Dungeon Dozen in hardback. Any other recommendations?


This is madness!

March 23, 2014

Michael Curtis’s announcement that Stonehell 2 (featuring levels 6-10 of the eponymous megadungeon) is only a couple of months away makes me a very happy DM. I’m itching to discover the secrets of the prison’s lower depths – the fabled “Astronaut’s Tomb” especially. My players haven’t yet ventured beyond the third level, but that could change at any moment.

Having said that, our Stonehell on the Borderlands campaign is on hiatus right now. Non-gaming “real life” stuff has intervened, in the form of a very recent addition to the family of one of my three players. Understandably, Martin now faces demands on his time and attention even more pressing and important than acquiring those last few XP to get his mage Nebit Mhunraice to 2nd level.

In the meantime, we intend to play some shorter games of 1-2 sessions apiece. This means that I get to be a player occasionally, which is a very refreshing change. Last week, Craig ran a nameless homebrewed D&D variant. My mohican-sporting fighter G.B. Hovercraft faced cleaver-wielding badger-men and mysterious demonic foes on the Isle of Gavgaar, and did not live to tell the tale. Great fun, though.

forgiveusIt also means we have a chance to visit – or revisit, as the case may be – some other games, old and new. I’ve been eyeing my old Ghostbusters box set for a while now. Maybe it’s time for a session of spook-snaring silliness as a tip of the hat to the late Harold Ramis. Furthermore, despite the number of boxes with Helsinki postmarks I’ve received over the years, I’ve never actually run a game of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I think that might change very soon – the catalyst being Kelvin Green’s recently published Forgive Us, which is bloody brilliant. Kelvin references White Dwarf in his introduction, and – with its English provincial setting and its combination of grisly tentacular horror, gags and authorial asides – Forgive Us feels like an adventure that could have graced that periodical in its prime. Moreover, it strikes me as an excellent, accessible introduction to the game LotFP has become in a way that books like Carcosa, Vornheim or Qelong – for all their many marvellous qualities – are not. Nice map, too!

Finally, this afternoon I started work on what’s intended to be a “module”-sized adventure for a few sessions’ worth of weird sword-and-sorcery dungeon-crawling. I’m fully aware of the fact that I start many more projects than I finish (D100 Jorune, anyone?) but I have a particular idea in mind right now and it’s clawing at my skull in its eagerness to get out. I’ll say no more but I’ll leave you with a glimpse of my work table.


Amulet of riparian ambuscade (new magic item)

March 17, 2014
Crocodylus acutus - Photograph by Tomás Castelazo

Crocodylus acutus – Photograph by Tomás Castelazo

This object features (rather exotically, given the context) in an adventure I wrote for the forthcoming fourth issue of Wayne Rossi’s splendid Dungeon Crawl zine.

Amulet of riparian ambuscade

This item is a necklace of many sharp teeth, engraved with magical runes. Read magic reveals symbols pertaining to “water”, “predator” and “metamorphosis”, among others. The wearer of the amulet may change him- or herself (and all he or she carries, including the amulet itself) into the form of a large crocodile – HD 6; AC 3 [16]; AT 1 bite (2d8); MV 9/Swim 9. The change may be undertaken once per day and lasts 1d6+6 turns. Each time it is used, there is a 1% chance that the change is permanent.

Grey Mare’s Tail

March 14, 2014

Doubtless there are bigger, more spectacular waterfalls in the world. However, I’ll wager there are few in more bleakly beautiful surroundings. And none with a finer name.


Photographed by me, yesterday, while hiking up hills and making a dungeon level in my head.

Subterranea Britannica

March 7, 2014

I just found out about this site from a friend on Facebook. Despite the name, the coverage is not restricted to these islands. There are – to pick a topical example – some good photographs of the remains of a Soviet-era submarine base in the Crimea.


But the pictures that really grabbed me (and the ones that led me to the site in the first place) are of the old railway tunnel under Scotland Street, Edinburgh. I’ve stayed in Scotland Street before – in a basement flat, as it happens – unaware that this was mere yards away.



Now there’s a tunnel just crying out for a shoggoth… Tekeli-li!

And on the topic of Lovecraftian horror, West Norwood Cemetery in London, with its catacombs and its hydraulic coffin lift would make a perfect location for Cthulhu by Gaslight investigations. There’s even a map.



The site’s layout is rather clunky and it’s not that easy to navigate. Nevertheless, if you’re seeking visual inspiration for your Cthulhu game – or post-apocalypse bunker, or city underworld, or steampunk megadungeon, or whatever – it’s well worth trawling through the categories.

A dragon for St David’s Day

March 1, 2014

Red Dragon - Art by Ian Miller -

Ian Miller’s eldritch dragons graced the pages of David Day’s Tolkien Bestiary back in 1979. For me, there’s something uniquely compelling about their blend of organic, mechanical and purely geometrical morphology. I’ve often felt that dragons shouldn’t just be overgrown reptiles, but something more alien, something… Other. Miller makes that happen.

The red dragon above is one of the artist’s more recent works. You can see it and much more besides at Miller’s fantastic web site here.


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