• OGL 1.2 reactions

    The following is my entry for the main free entry text block at the beginning of the OGL 1.2 “playtest” survey. As such, the second person “you” is WotC. Note that one function of the “playtest” is to kill the momentum of backlash to WotC. If we all publicly post our feedback, that will keep the issue salient, which it needs to remain since I am highly skeptical they’ll get the survey results and say “the people have spoken, we are reissuing the OGL 1.0a and adding the word ‘irrevocable.”

    Good: Creative Commons for abstract game mechanics. You couldn’t copyright that stuff anyway, but it is good to make it clear that you agree and remove any uncertainty about creators having to defend against frivolous litigation over mechanics.

    Good: Clarifies that material published under 1.0a does not need to be pulped. You probably have to concede this under contract law but, again, it’s good to see you agree and remove any uncertainty.

    Good: No royalties, reporting, etc

    Bad: OGL 1.2 deauthorizes the OGL 1.0a for SRDs already released under it. This is a breach of trust with the community and contradicts the universally understood intent of OGL 1.0a. If you want to only release OpenDND under a restrictive license like OGL 1.2 or GSL, that is your right, but no backsies on SRD 3.5 or SRD 5.1 (and also, no damage to various 3rd party SRDs unrelated to D&D but using OGL 1.0a).

    Bad: the joint and class action clause will make it hard for the community to defend its rights if you act in bad faith

    Bad: the severability clause gives you the right to unilaterally revise the OGL any time you lose a case.

    Bad: The morals clause. For the community, the discretionary power claimed in the clause would only work given trust, which has been broken by the OGL fiasco. It is also a bad idea for Wizards as it will draw you in to adjudicating every culture wars dispute involving third party content, with the result that everyone on the losing side of a dispute will blame you. Think about the Spelljammer fiasco, do you want that every month for third party splatbooks? A morals clause would be essential for branded content hosted on DM’s Guild, but for OGL content, you want Schelling’s credible commitment to be able to say “sorry, that’s not up to us, under the OGL we don’t have the power to do anything about that.”

    Bad: In the blog post that promised 1.2, you stated podcasts are allowed under fan content. However fan content only protects free podcasts and so neither fan content nor OGL 1.2 explicitly protect content like Patreon subscriber only episodes. Such episodes are probably legal under fair use, but the license should remove uncertainty on the matter. If I were creating actual plays for a living, I would be scared about getting sued for reading the occasional passage from PHB.

    Overall this draft is an improvement over the leaked version but is still unacceptable.

  • OGL trouble

    Like all of us, I’ve been paying close attention to the OGL revisions. I am not a lawyer, intellectual property or otherwise, but I have studied media industries, and so have some thoughts on all this. I see three basic questions:

    • What rights could you defend in court?
    • How likely are you to have to defend those rights?
    • How will the community and industry respond?

    Let’s take them in turn.

    What rights could you defend in court?

    Note that I did not say what rights do you have. I don’t think that is a particularly relevant question since rights are not self-enforcing. A lot of people have been saying things along the lines of “you never needed the OGL because you can’t copyright game mechanics.” This may be true. Or it may be like sovereign citizens saying you don’t have to pay income tax because the 16th amendment wasn’t printed in the right color of ink or something. But the thing is, even if it is true that the OGL is superfluous because you can’t copyright game mechanics, it’s not true in any way that counts until you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees proving that it’s true. If you look prior to the OGL at the history of TSR litigation, it sure looks like people got sued over game mechanics. And if you don’t have the money and nothing better to spend it on than defending yourself in court, then for practical purposes it’s not true that you can’t copyright mechanics. The OGL was always just as important as a promise that Wizards would agree you had a right to use d20 mechanics, the magic missile spell description, and the owlbear stat block as it was as the actual allocation of rights to these concepts.

    Here are my hunches:

    • Wizards’ position that they can void the OGL 1.0 because what was “authorized” can be deauthorized is shaky, especially given all the evidence from old ancillary material that when they created it two decades ago, they intended it to be irrevocable.
    • An abstract mechanic like “roll a twenty side die, add the attacker’s bonuses, and compare to the target’s defense score” can be used by anyone, with or without an OGL. This is especially true if you rename the mechanic as, for instance, the Kevin Crawford “without number” games have renamed “feats” to “foci.”
    • A much more specific aspect of the game like there is a spell called “cone of cold” and it is a 5th level spell for wizards / magic users could be Wizards’ IP unless they allocate it via an OGL or other license.

    So basically, I think the community is on strong ground to assert the OGL 1.0a can’t be revoked but weak ground to argue they never needed the OGL in the first place, at least for games that are basically the same as D&D 3e like Pathfinder. Those are my hunches. What I know is that my hunches and folk wisdom are just hunches and folk wisdom, and so are yours. As The Alexandrian suggests in his excellent thoughts on this matter, talk to a lawyer. If you happen to be an IP lawyer yourself, then you probably have a better idea than I do of what would win out in court, but ultimately there’s no telling until it goes to trial and appeal, which means a lot of time and money.

    But presumably you don’t have a lot of time and money, which means what rights you could defend in court are less relevant than …

    How likely are you to have to defend those rights?

    How likely are you to have to actively defend your rights is really a question of what is Wizards likely to sue you over.

    The main reason Wizards would sue you is if you threaten their business model. A general trend in entertainment and software is a shift from selling products to selling subscriptions. It’s all about recurring payments. That’s why Microsoft now sells you a 365 subscription instead of a copy of MS Office and it’s why the movie studios are so aggressive about streaming (or at least they were until interest rates shot up). It’s all about that $100 a year or $10/month. The closest that RPGs traditionally get to this is you sell the corebook and then you sell supplements. And since there are more players than GMs, ideally you sell player-facing supplements which is why every year since 2017, Wizards has published a D&D 5e book with a title like Bigby’s Self-Pleasuring Fist that provides rules for playing as a gelatinous cube who is a college of the flatulist bard. But while everyone bought the corebooks, eventually half the players shrug at picking up Robilar’s Grimoire of Miscellany and only a few GMs buy the latest sensitivity-reader all stars anthology of ADA-compliant dungeons. And besides, the books are only $50 retail and $25 on Amazon so even selling one a year per player starts to feel like inviting a shareholder lawsuit against management for under-monetizing the brand.

    How much better if you could charge a recurring payment to every player for access to a virtual table top. Tabletop role-playing games as a service, the El Dorado of the gaming industry, awaits Hasbro shareholders. But only if they don’t face competition from rival VTT services that can undercut them on price while still building in tools that support the 5e ruleset which, let’s face it, is nearly identical to the One D&D rules. So if you’re running a VTT that supports the rules set, I think you are nearly certain to be sued. Likewise, I would not bet the farm investing in another Solasta game.

    In contrast, if you’re a medium sized publisher, say one who falls above the $50,000 reporting threshold but below the $750,000 royalty threshold, you’re not nearly as much of a threat to this model and so you’re probably less likely to get sued than a VTT operator. But less likely to get sued is not the same thing as certainty against being sued, as it was when you could use OGL 1.0a and that uncertainty matters a lot. Uncertainty is one thing if you’re planning on putting a hundred hours or so of work and maybe a couple hundred dollars in art commissions into something and releasing it either for free or for beer money. In that situation it is very likely that the scope of outcomes ranges from “they leave you alone” to “they send you a cease and desist letter.” That uncertainty is quite another thing if you’re investing your savings or staking full-time or substantial part-time labor into something. Devoting a year of your labor and investing $10,000 of your savings into a heartbreaker was probably never a great idea but it’s an especially bad idea without the protection of a favorable OGL. And investing substantial capital into a VTT is like building a house on land where someone might contest the title. Even if the claim is frivolous, that’s an expensive headache. All this is to say that even if the OGL 1.0a will ultimately be vindicated, Wizards suggesting that it is no longer authorized introduces uncertainty and uncertainty is poison to investment. Which implies the question …

    How will the community and industry respond?

    This is really two issues, who is likely to fight it and what will people do in the meantime.

    Most people simply don’t have the resources to fight for the OGL 1.0a in court, but some do. Maybe Paizo will decide that a 25% royalty on Starfinder is too exorbitant and they don’t want to lose the right to license another video game or a VTT or maybe even making a Netflix series. Maybe Kobold Press decides to fight it out. Maybe Microsoft will buy Solasta and sue to keep it under the old OGL. Maybe Disney will decide it wants to relaunch Knights of the Old republic. (BTW, if Wizards is smart, they’ll negotiate low royalties with these big actors to keep that from happening). In any case, it’s likely to go to court, which will take a few years and a lot of money and likely turn on the meaning of the word “authorized.” If Wizards wins, you can expect an appeal which will include amica curiae from major corporations who rely on open source software like Samsung, Sony, and IBM since open source software would lose all stability of expectations if Wizards can retcon the OGL of D&D 3.5e out of existence.

    But like I said, that will take a lot of time and money. In the meantime, what do you play and what do you publish?

    Some people, mostly at the beer money tier, will want access to the core D&D normie audience and “product identity” stuff like the Forgotten Realms. I imagine these people will adopt the OGL 1.1 and post to Wizards’ preferred digital marketplace, just as today this same group of people post to DM’s Guild. This is a much tougher quandary for companies whose business is focused on 5e compatible content like Kobold Press. A 25% royalty on anything over $750,000 is a lot and basically means raising the prices of your books from $20 to $27 so you don’t end up losing money on the marginal sale.

    If I had the kind of podcast that is theoretically an actual play podcast but where a bunch of improv actors joke about how infrequently they ever roll a die, I’d switch to a different system which would probably be a better fit mechanically. For instance, the obvious move for Dungeons and Daddies is to switch to PbtA or Gumshoe rather than negotiate a royalty with or risk being sued by Wizards. (I say negotiate as OGL 1.1 is only meant to cover books and PDFs with the implication that podcasts are among the things that would have to negotiate a license). Story gaming systems are better suited for podcasts than the relatively crunchy mechanics of D&D anyway.

    There is a logic by which medium-sized publishers should adopt the new OGL, just to be safe from infringement litigation that could involve damages, but I’m not so sure. For instance, the OGL 1.1 would be very dangerous for Lamentations of the Flame Princess since OGL 1.1 also contains language to the effect of they can revoke your license if, in their opinion, your work is bigoted and a lot of the community (wrongly in my opinion) holds this opinion of that game. I don’t think Wizards is going to actively police content published under OGL 1.1 (sensitivity readers are, after all, an expense) but I think it’s likely that Wizards would pull the OGL 1.1 license from Lamentations under the slightest pressure and that it is a matter of metaphysical certainty that parts of the community would apply such pressure to the OGL 1.1 content guidelines given that they already do so to DriveThru and Free RPG Day. If I were Raggi, I would switch to publishing system neutral adventures before I’d sign the OGL 1.1.

    The OSR retro-clones could be in trouble as they take quite a bit from the 3.5e SRD: the six attributes, spell names, monster names, magic item names, etc. This means trouble for the OSR. The issue is not so much losing access to the rules. B/X is available on DriveThru for cheaper than OSE and while OSE is better organized than B/X, it’s not that much better organized. The problem is it would be harder to publish new content based on those rules. In order for the OSR to really get network externalities, we need to choose a set of mechanics and all produce content for those mechanics. Currently that mechanical lingua franca is B/X, usually under the brand name OSE, but I’m looking at my copy of OSE and it has OGL 1.0a right in it. The second most popular standard in OSR is OD&D (usually branded as S&W), but I’m looking at my copies of S&W and WB:FMAG and both of them have OGL 1.0a in them. And the OSR started with the AD&D standard (branded as OSRIC), which also uses the OGL. So how do we publish new content for those rules? Even if it’s not that big a deal to rely on TSR B/X from DriveThru (or circulate samizdat copies of WB:FMAG), it just got harder to move Dolmenwood from the Patreon draft (which has, guess what, the OGL 1.0a in it) to the Kickstarter finished product many of us are looking forward to. And not just Dolmenwood but the next mega-dungeon, the next hexcrawl, etc.

    However, this does not apply to anything like the same extent to NuSR games. Games like Mork Borg and Knave really don’t take anything but the loosest inspiration from D&D.. If I were an intellectual property lawyer, which I am not, I would much rather defend Maze Rats than OSRIC or OSE against a suit from Wizards. It’s easy for Ben Milton to say “you never needed the OGL” because he doesn’t use the SRD’s bestiary or spell list (and lacks the deep pockets to be worth suing). So one solution is for the OSR to migrate from retro-clones to NuSR mechanics, but which NuSR game would be the standard? There are a lot of NuSR games and if the community doesn’t choose one as the default, it will be hard to produce new content and see it circulate widely.

    I expect one effect is we’ll see a lot of migration away from content written for retro-clones and towards alternative systems or system neutral material. This will work better for some things than others. Battle maps, dungeon maps, settings, and modules will all be 90% as good if written in a system neutral fashion and I expect we’ll see a lot of these materials written in that way. There are system neutral bestiaries but they generally come with stat blocks for a reason. So we will probably see a mix of system neutral stuff and NuSR stuff, with a snowball effect towards one NuSR game as the new lingua franca over several years.

    [Update: one approach may be to publish most of the setting book or dungeon as system neutral with no license and then publish stat blocks and other crunch as a separate free PDF using a non-commercial OGL 1.1 license. This would obviously be inconvenient to both publisher and reader. It also would only work for setting/adventure, not mechanics. For instance, this could work OK-ish for Dolmenwood but not at all for Carcass Crawler.]

  • Rifts Atlantis for D&D and OSR

    Rifts is a post-apocalyptic giant robots firing missiles at demons game, which isn’t exactly the kind of thing you think of for OSR or D&D, but Rifts: Atlantis is readily adaptable to the OSR. Atlantis has relatively little of the fascists and giant robots world-building that characterizes most of Rifts but rather is sword and planet with a hint of Lovecraft. That sort of thing seems anomalous from the high fantasy perspective that dominates D&D now, but it characterized a lot of the Appendix N literature and was a strong theme in old school D&D and OSR, from “Expedition to Barrier Peaks” to Hyperborea. The Rifts rules are pretty different from D&D so Atlantis is not exactly ready to run out of the box as OSR, but it has great potential as adaptation material for a major faction in your campaign world. I’ll first give a synopsis and then some ideas on adaptation.

    The basic premise of Rifts: Atlantis is that an interdimensional alien confederation has established a territorial base for slave raids where they capture people and then sell them off in other dimensions, often after altering them with magical tattoos or magical parasites. The alien confederation are led by truly inhuman Lovecraft type entities, then about a dozen types of more or less humanoid aliens, and finally actual people at the bottom of the org chart. Much as real world empires are usually named for the numerically small nation at the top rather than the more numerous but diverse peoples they rule, the aliens are called the Slugorth even though only the handful of Lovecraft entities are actually Slugorth in the limited sense.

    I wouldn’t adapt the setting wholesale in part because Atlantis in the game is huge; about the size of the continental United States. Rather I would make Atlantis the reasonably sized evil kingdom that threatens the rest of the region, like Iuz in Greyhawk. It can be on the mainland or an island, but should be hard to access and mysterious, known mostly from the raiding parties and trade caravans it sends out. Some of the provinces of Atlantis could be spun off as separate factions both geographically and politically distant from the inter-dimensional space slavers.

    Although Rifts ultimately traces its mechanics to a fork of AD&D (the Palladium Fantasy RPG), the mechanics are so different that some conversion notes are required as the power curve for Rifts is ridiculously high.

    Your first step should always be to see if you can treat a monster as a reskinned standard D&D or AD&D monster. For instance, the splugorth high lord could be an ogre mage / oni, the kydian an ogre, and the blind warrior women as 3rd level monks or fighters. Often the monsters will have bio-wizardry weapons (see below, but basically these are magic items).

    MDC should be multiplied by 1/4 to get HP and any creature with MDC should have AC 3 [17].

    For non-MDC creatures, take 1/10 of the sum of HP and SDC. AC should be 7-10 [10-13].

    Any attack in MDC should do half that amount in hit points.

    You’ll need to have OSR rules for energy weapons, which you can find in Carcass Crawler #2, Hyperborea, Mutant Crawl Classics, or Warriors of the Red Planet. For 5e, try the futuristic weapons entry in DMG. If you don’t have any of these, just treat an energy weapon as a wand of magic missiles, wand of lightning, or perhaps a wand of paralysis (set phasers to stun).

    Divide attacks per round by 3 and round down.

    Bio-wizardry is a key concept for the setting in which alien creatures are either bound into devices or surgically implanted into someone. When bound to a machine or device, bio-wizardry is grotesque color for magic items but can function as a wand or staff. You may need some game mechanic to keep players from using captured weapons too much, much as drow gear doesn’t work once exposed to sunlight. When bound to a person or monster, it generally is a buff with a cost, such as increasing strength and HP at the expense of charisma.

    Tattooed Men get combatant buff spells (e.g., shield, shocking grasp, enlarge person) and summoning spells, but no divination, heavy artillery evocation, or the like. In flavor these spells are tattoos, but they’ll work well with Vancian mechanics. I suggest using elf race-as-class HD, XP, and spell slots.

    Pyramids at ley line nexuses are a key concept in the game. Use the artifacts rules from the 1e or 2e DMG, but with the change that they can’t move and lack negative properties for their users.

    I would simply cut much of the mecha but to the extent you keep them, consider apparatus of kwalish as a model. Something like the slaver barge can just be a large flying carpet.

  • Thieves’ Guild as Stationary Bandit

    Among the most familiar tropes of D&D is the thieves’ guild, one of many ideas D&D inherited from Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. In a lot of D&D-related material (e.g., Gygax’s Saga of the Old City) you get the sense of the guild as, well, a guild, where apprentices train under master craftsmen to achieve journeyman status. At first glance this is a ridiculous concept, based on a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the sense that everything in the middle ages was based on guilds, so why not thieves. However on reading Anja Shortland’s Kidnap, I changed my mind and came to see a thieves’ guild as an institution that is both realistic and eminently gameable if you move away from the idea that they’re constantly picking pockets.

    Kidnap is a great book and if you enjoy this post I highly recommend you read the whole thing. I read it as a social scientist and it’s a very good scholarly work. However non-academics who just want ideas for intrigue and adventure will find plenty of gameable hooks beyond what I’ve summarized and riffed on here. The central thesis of the book is that the kidnapping insurance markets and their associated negotiators at Lloyd’s of London are awesome and governments are a bunch of amateurs who mess things when they ban ransoms, pay ransoms much higher than is standard, or both. However, I want to focus on a secondary point in the book, which is the role of a “protector,” an issue heavily inspired by Olson’s stationary bandit model.

    Kidnapping for ransom is difficult because it assumes you have a place to keep the hostage, a way to safely collect the ransom, can credibly commit to releasing the hostage and seeing them to safety, etc. All of that assumes a monopoly of force in a territory by a faction she abstractly refers to as a “protector.” This can be a state, a mafia, a rebel army, or a tribal clan. In fantasy, it would be a thieves’ guild in an urban setting and pirates, bandits, or some type of rogue state in a hexcrawl. The thing is, the protector doesn’t want to kidnap you. They want you to pay protection money against being kidnapped. Kidnapping for ransom as a direct revenue generating activity is for amateurs. Pros use kidnapping as an enforcement mechanism for extortion. In equilibrium (economist-speak for “when things settle down”), nobody will get kidnapped and everyone will pay protection money. And it’s not just kidnapping — an effective protector will keep those who pay protection money free from other types of criminal predation, and indeed, will use theft and vandalism as escalating enforcement tactics against those who refuse to pay protection. So you shouldn’t think of being in the thieves’ guild as like Oliver Twist making his quota of thefts for Fagin, but as like being a property tax assessor, but for the mob. A truly powerful thieves’ guild would hardly ever commit any thefts.

    On the other hand, you will see lots of kidnappings when you are not in equilibrium and a criminal/rebel/whatever organization is contesting authority with either the state or with rival criminal/rebel/whatever organizations. If I, as a local burgher, don’t believe the thieves’ guild can kidnap me with impunity, I won’t pay them protection money, which means they actually have to do it to set an example. Likewise, if I’m getting shaken down by lots of criminals, I can’t pay protection to all of them and I may not want to pay protection to any of them if they can’t guarantee my safety from their rivals. All of this suggests that a protector organization will need to ruthlessly suppress not only rivals but also freelancers. Shortland quotes friends in Naples or Palermo who will say ironic but sensible things like “It’s perfectly safe here, it’s mafia territory.”

    All of this suggests treating a thieves’ guild (or pirates or bandits or rebels) as a faction with lots of gameable hooks.

    Rescue. The most obvious game hook is the player characters get sent to rescue an important NPC who has been kidnapped. This would make Shortland very upset as she stresses that real life kidnappers typically treat hostages well until there’s a rescue attempt, at which point they murder them. So the challenge for the player characters would be to treat the rescue as a stealth mission, which should be feasible with enough hide in shadows rolls and silence spells.

    Revenge. An alternative to rescue is revenge. First you pay the ransom, and then you come back and slaughter the hostage takers. Plutarch recounts a story about Julius Caesar being kidnapped as a young man, paying an ample ransom, and then returning with a bunch of dudes to crucify the pirates who kidnapped him. The player characters can be that bunch of dudes sent on a punitive expedition.

    Bag man and negotiator. Shortland has great admiration for the ex-special forces bad asses who work as consultants for Lloyd’s insurance companies to actually handle ransoms. These guys are total player-characters, but they’re mostly player-characters in a story game even if they used to play in an action-based game. You need some bad asses to handle the negotiation and to deliver the ransom without it being intercepted by rival criminals. Your PCs could take on this task and finally use those language skills they have in speaking goblin.

    Punish rivals and freelancers. If rival gangs or freelancers start doing kidnappings, thefts, etc, this is bad for the protection business. The thieves guild needs to put down any threats to a monopoly on miscreancy. The player characters can serve as enforcers for this purpose, most obviously if they are gritty cutthroat members of the guild, but this plot hook can work even if the party is entirely lawful good paladins. “The brotherhood recognizes that you don’t approve of our line of work but we live by rules and we have a common interest in punishing the animals who kidnapped that child and sent her ears back with the ransom letter. That kind of behavior is not just despicable, it’s bad for business, and someone needs to make these desperados disappear.”

    Freelancers. The PCs themselves could easily be seen as freelancers in need of guild discipline. The PCs probably aren’t going to get into the kidnapping and extortion business themselves, but the thieves’ guild might take an expansive view of what activities they claim as jurisdiction. Just as mafias tend to shake down pimps, pushers, and thieves in real life, in a fantasy campaign, murder hobos might be expected to pay a hefty tribute to the guild. (If you really want to make this painful in an OSR game, make any treasure paid as tribute not count for XP). Alternately, the PCs could be minding their own business doing murder hobo stuff and learn after the fact that the snake cult whose tower they just sacked had itself been paying protection to the thieves’ guild and so the adventurers’ quarter is now a distinctly unsafe place to be.

  • Hexcrawl compatibility

    We are often told that the great thing about OSR is that all of the materials are mutually compatible. The idea is that it doesn’t matter if it says D&D, AD&D, OSRIC, Swords & Wizardy, or Old School Essentials on the cover of the module — regardless you can run it with any of the above with minimal conversion. This makes sense as these editions all have similar rules for a) combat and b) dungeon exploration and most modules are mostly about a) combat and b) dungeon exploration. However what about other play styles? The hexcrawl dates back at least to X1 Isle of Dread published in 1981, but it is increasingly popular now with OSR hexcrawls like Hot Springs Island, Hideous Daylight, and Dolmenwood being esteemed for their creativity and design. Likewise hexcrawl theory is an active topic on the OSR blogs (e.g., the October 2022 Glatisant has four links to hexcrawl theory posts). So the question is, can OSR hexcrawls boast the same mutual compatibility as OSR dungeons? If I buy a hexcrawl that says OSE on the cover, can I trust that it will run OK using Swords & Wizardry? If I write a hexcrawl, is the decision of which edition to identify it with as incidental as it would be for a dungeon?

    A hexcrawl is about exploration and resource management relevant to wilderness travel. In many editions, you face random encounters as a function of time, and these random encounters can be brutal. This makes travel time a key issue since the slower you travel, the more danger you face and more resources you consume per unit of distance. Moreover, encumbrance also plays a role since if you’re carrying a lot of gear or treasure, this slows you down. And finally, a good hexcrawl should encourage travel through favorable terrain by giving differential penalties in terms of speed and getting lost by terrain types. There are other mechanics that could be relevant to hexcrawls (e.g., resource management magic like goodberry), but the big one is how fast can you travel, through what terrain, and will you get lost. And it turns out these vary a lot between editions, as shown in the following tables. Note that I ordered these by “family” of rules, with all the B/X varieties together, all the AD&D varieties together, etc. “Miles/day” is for an unencumbered human on easy terrain. I include road travel time as a special case given that systems inspired by B/X tend to have a 1.5x rule for roads. I describe terrain and lost rules as “vague” if it’s a blink and you miss it “DM may adjust” in the middle of a paragraph type rule.

    cross country
    Castles & Crusades2mph 2mphvagueno
    Five Torches Deep10 + STR mod10 + STR modyesno
    Basic Fantasy RPG2432yesyes
    Labyrinth Lord2436yesyes
    Lamentations of the
    Flame Princess
    Old School Essentials2436yesyes
    Worlds Without Number3060yesno
    Crypts & Things1212nono
    Swords & Wizardry1212vehiclesyes
    White Box FMAG1212vagueyes

    It turns out that a simple question like “how far can you walk in a day under ideal conditions” varies from about 10 miles to 60 miles! The 60 miles figure for Worlds Without Number is an outlier, but B/X-inspired games in general include a generous road modifier, and so games based on B/X tend to have maximum distances per day more suited to a bicyclist than a pedestrian. If the characters are traveling cross-country, it’s not as bad, but even for cross-country travel B/X, AD&D, and d20 style games still tend to let you travel twice as fast as do OD&D style games. One implication of this is that Swords & Wizardry may be similar enough to Worlds Without Number that you can run a dungeon written for one using the other, but for hexcrawl purposes, you’ll need to rescale the map.

    Now there’s the question of what rules should you use. The simulationist answer is to use the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules. In real life, the average human walking speed is 3mph and a healthy adult can walk about 20 miles a day under ideal conditions. This matches pretty well with Lamentations’ rule that you can go a bit more than that on a road and a bit less cross country. Plus Lamentations has sensible, well-presented, and generally easy to use rules for terrain, encumbrance, and getting lost.

    The gamist answer might well be different. Dolmenwood is written with OSE‘s canonical B/X assumptions in mind and so however unrealistic it might be to expect that you could walk from Sacramento to within site of San Francisco Bay in a weekend, those are the assumptions that campaign setting was written with and if you make characters go slower than that you’re throwing off game balance elements like “are these locations within one day’s travel of each other.” In addition there’s always a compromise between what would the ancient or medieval world really be like and what do players from modern cultures expect. Just as we give D&D a capitalist economy rather than simulating some type of gift exchange or palace economy, there’s a certain appeal if not logic to playing to the intuitions of people who regularly commute in cars or on trains and so think of ten miles as a quarter hour, not all day or half a day. In addition, having a road multiplier is a great incentive to funnel characters along set routes.

    If you’re writing a hexcrawl for publication, my suggestion is to either a) include the hexcrawling rules in the hexcrawl itself or b) give the hex scale in terms relative to the system’s speed. For instance, “the scale of 6 miles per hex is based on the expectation that, given favorable terrain and light encumbrance, characters can travel up to 24 miles or 4 hexes a day. If you are using a game like Swords & Wizardry with a slower movement rate, you might want to use a scale of 3 miles per hex.” There’s also the radical option of not writing a hexcrawl at all but instead writing a pathcrawl, which effectively replaces the system rules with ones specific to the locations.

    Some additional notes.

    Several games allow a forced march for more distance. Swords & Wizardry and Crypts & Things both let you “force march” to double your distance by a strength check. White Box FMAG (which shares a genealogy with these games) allows a force march but doesn’t give any downsides to doing so.

    Some games, e.g., Swords and Wizardry, gives terrain modifiers for vehicle speed but not pedestrians.

    Filling out the table and searching through all the, often poorly organized, rules made me appreciate modern design and organization exemplified by OSE all the more.

    Beyond the Wall and Through Sunken Lands (which are mechanically the same game) don’t have hexcrawl rules at all in the core books, though Through Sunken Lands says to read the supplement Further Afield for hexcrawls. I don’t own this supplement, but from reviews I gather it gives a movement rate of 20 miles / day.

  • The Social Construction of R’yleh

    Among the great classics of 20th century social theory is Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality. The book is brilliant and if you hate the phrase “social construction” it’s probably because you haven’t read the book itself but only gotten the ideas second hand from its less appealing fans who don’t take its ideas seriously enough to apply them in a temperate fashion. Social Construction of Reality is fundamentally about the issue of intersubjectivity, such that if I believe something that’s just me, but if we believe something, that’s in some sense real. For instance, there’s no real reason that 16 square inches of green high cotton paper should be worth much of anything, but we all agree that a dollar is valuable and so it is. As the book proceeds, it goes beyond mere intersubjectivity to discuss how culture becomes codified in social structure. For instance, consider this thought experiment about 2/3 of the way through the book.

    It is not difficult now to propose a specific “prescription” for alternation into any conceivable reality, however implausible from the standpoint of the outsider. It is possible to prescribe specific procedures for, say, convincing individuals that they can communicate with beings from outer space provided that and as long as they stay on a steady diet of raw fish. We can leave it to the imagination of the reader, if he is so inclined, to work out the details of such a sect of Ichthyosophists. The “prescription” would entail the construction of an Ichthyosophist plausibility structure, properly segregated from the outside world and equipped with the necessary socializing and therapeutic personnel; the elaboration of an Ichthyosophist body of knowledge, sufficiently sophisticated to explain why the self-evident nexus between raw fish and galactic telepathy had not been discovered before; and the necessary legitimations and nihilations to make sense of the individual’s journey towards this great truth. If these procedures are followed carefully, there will be a high probability of success once an individual has been lured or kidnapped into the Ichthyosophist brainwashing institute.

    By this point you should be thinking “what idiot gave these two Austrian-American sociologists Delta Green clearance and read them in on the Innsmouth raid after action reports?”

    Well, it’s pretty obvious why Berger and Luckmann were recruited if you scroll up and reread my sentence about “if I believe something that’s just me, but if we believe something that’s in some sense real.” From the perspective of MAJESTIC-12, that sounds a lot like a new mode of magic beyond hypergeometry with the possibility to reshape reality, just as in the Neal Stephenson novel Anathem “rhetors” are such masters of sophistry that they can reshape consensus reality, often as part of a veil out. Just imagine what uses that could be put to in the Cold War, everything from accelerating the Sino-Soviet split to giving new identities to Operation Paperclip recruits.

    You could work this into a Fall of Delta Green game by having your agents read the book (published in 1966) and “hey, wait a minute” at that passage then investigating leads them to see what grants the New School for Social Research was getting at the time and that starts the trail of clues to learning about MAJESTIC-12’s involvement in MK Ultra.

  • Tumor table

    Inspired by an r/osr typo. Roll 1d6.

    1. Crystoma. Small crystals erupt from 3d10 square inches of skin. Common in mining races and thought to be spread via exposure to xorn droppings. Crystals are most likely worthless but on a nat 20 the afflicted’s survivors can roll on the gems treasure table.
    2. Osteoma diabolica. Bony tumors of the skull. Found most often in tieflings but difficult to diagnosis as often mistaken for horns. Roll 1d6: 1-3 benign, 4-5 creates headaches or impedes hearing, reducing wisdom by 1, 6 time to buy a psionics supplement.
    3. Draconic Keratosis. Skin develops thick scaly structure. Thought to be caused by cellular damage from magical energies of dragon breath. Fatal in 2d4 months but in the meantime AC improves by 2.
    4. Invasive arcana carcinoma. Afflicts magic users and illusionists. Thought to be caused by imperfectly casting Vancian magic which leaves vestigial bits of the incantation in the body where they can multiply rapidly. Every year there is a charity 3 league race to raise money for a cure and lobby RPG publishers to avert this tragedy by switching to spell points.
    5. Necroma. Bits of flesh turn pale and translucent. 90% survival rate if treated with a dozen weekly applications of turn undead but most guild health plans don’t cover more than two sessions and the much vaunted Keoland single payer plan has a six month waiting list to see a cleric.
    6. Elven chondrosarcoma. The cartilage in the pointy part of an elf’s ears grows at an excessive rate until the elf resembles a bat. Can be easily treated by surgery but many post-surgery elves grow depressed after being mistaken for a human.
  • Waqf

    The economist Timur Kuran has written a lot about Islamic financial institutions. Long story short, he doesn’t like them. Nonetheless, they’re really interesting in ways that are potentially good for gaming.

    One in particular that could be useful for gaming purposes is the waqf. In secular American law, a waqf is like an NGO with incredibly strong donor intent. Kuran describes waqfs that were probably a good idea when created, but are still chugging along centuries later, long after changing circumstances have rendered their mission obsolete. For instance, a hostel for travelers along a trade route that no longer sees much traffic.

    Kuran ‘s argument is that waqfs led to a misallocation of capital, but it strikes me that this could be a world-building element for why there is a town in the middle of nowhere. An entrepreneur wouldn’t throw good money after bad by staying in a godsforsaken hellhole but a waqf has more resources than options on how to spend them. It could be that its location used to be bustling but the hereditary board of directors are legally unable to relocate in the face of changing climatic conditions, ogre raids, etc. And here is where it gets game-able. The waqf could be not just an improbably located safe haven, but a mission giver.

    Suppose great great grand pappy established a waqf with his descendants as the salaried board of directors bound by geas to operate what at the time was a crucially necessary buggy whip repair shop in an oasis. Fast forward a century and the oasis has nearly dried up, nobody uses that trade route any more because wyverns eat the camels, and WotC sensitivity readers have excised any reference to whips, buggy or otherwise. So a new forward-looking generation of the board decides to stretch the limits of their geas to send word to the thieves guild of Colorful Metropolis that there’s good money in it for any murder hobos willing to travel to the desert and work for the waqf doing gigs to destroy the wyvern nests, travel into the underdark to see what’s gone wrong with the oasis aquifer, and make sure that monsters seek better opportunities on the competing trade routes.

    That is, the waqf could be a mission giver who is attempting to restore a lost locale and willing to devote resources to doing so. In this respect it’s something like the premise of Arden Vul, where a restored empire delegates to murder hobos the hard work of restoring some recovered ruins. The difference being that the patron is much humbler than the Archontean Empire and indeed the waqf may even be on the outs with the political authority.

  • Roll Over vs Roll Under

    One of the basic differences between modern and old school D&D is whether ability checks are roll high (modern D&D) or roll under (old school D&D). I’m going to bracket various aesthetic issues of which mechanic is more elegant, simple, etc. and only look at the math of how swingy they are and in particular how much does the ability score matter to the roll. Whether swingy is desirable or not is itself a matter of taste or circumstance, but it seems to me that some tasks should be like arm wrestling, where strength matters way more than luck, and others should be more like looking for a lost set of keys, where luck should matter at least as much as wisdom (in the sense of how observant you are).

    My hunch is that the ability scores should matter more in the roll under mechanic than the roll high mechanic, but let’s see if I’m right. (Spoiler: I was right). It’s the kind of thing you could do with probability theory but it’s much easier to do via simulation and so that’s how I did it. You could probably do it in anydice, but I ran it in R.

    First, let’s review the relevant mechanics.

    The 5e version of roll high has the following rules and guidelines.

    • Roll equal to or higher than a target number. An easy task is 10, a medium task is 15, and a hard task is 20. There are more gradations, some of which are more difficult than the merely “hard” but we’ll leave it there.
    • There is nothing special about a natural 1 or natural 20.
    • Apply the relevant ability score modifier. These are very swingy, with mods ranging from -4 to +4 over the ability score range of 3-18.
      • The ability scores themselves are generated by 4d6 keep 3, so on average mods are positive.
      • Players can assign score arrays to abilities. (I will be ignoring this rule).
    • Apply proficiency modifiers. (I will be ignoring this rule).
    • Savings throws, rogue abilities, etc. are all special cases of ability checks.

    The OSE (B/X) version of roll under has the following rules and guidelines.

    • Roll equal to or under your ability score.
      • Ability scores are rolled as 3d6.
      • Scores are rolled down the line. (I will be ignoring this rule).
    • A natural 1 is an automatic success, a natural 20 is an automatic failure.
    • Use difficulty to modify the die. An easy task is -4 and a hard task is +4. Implicitly, a medium task is a straight roll.
    • Savings throws, thief abilities, etc. have their own mechanics unrelated to ability scores.

    The first step is creating a set of ability scores. I’ll do the OSE rules as written approach of 3d6 first.

    n.sims <- 10000
    results.3d6 <- vector(length = n.sims)
    for (i in 1:n.sims) {
      results.3d6[i] <- sum(sample(seq(1:6),3,replace=TRUE))

    As you’d expect, it’s a pretty much perfect bell curve.

    Since I want to compare a pretty low to an average to a pretty high ability score to see how much ability score matters, let’s use 10th percentile, median, and 90th percentile.

    deciles.3d6 <- quantile(results.3d6,probs = c(.1,.5,.9))
    p10.3d6 <- deciles.3d6[1]
    p50.3d6 <- deciles.3d6[2]
    p90.3d6 <- deciles.3d6[3]
    ## 10% 50% 90% 
    ##   7  10  14

    Now let’s do the same for 4d6, keep 3, which is both rules as written for 5e (and AD&D) as well as a popular house rule for OSE.

    results.4d6 <- vector(length = n.sims)
    for (i in 1:n.sims) {
      results.4d6[i] <-  sum(sort(sample(seq(1:6),4,replace=TRUE),
      decreasing = TRUE)[1:3])

    The 4d6 keep 3 method gives us a left-skewed distribution.

    deciles.4d6 <- quantile(results.4d6,probs = c(.1,.5,.9))
    p10.4d6 <- deciles.4d6[1]
    p50.4d6 <- deciles.4d6[2]
    p90.4d6 <- deciles.4d6[3]
    ## 10% 50% 90% 
    ##   8  12  16

    Now let’s create our mods. The range is 3-18 but I’m creating mods for the range 1-18 for ease of value indexing. We only really need the 5e mods as the OSE mods are irrelevant for this mechanic but including them anyway.

    scores <- seq(1:18)
    mods.ose <- c(NA,NA,
    mods.5e <- c(-5,
    mods <- cbind(scores,mods.ose,mods.5e)

    Now let’s create a ton of d20 rolls. We’ll do two sets of rolls and store it as straight rolls, rolls with advantage (keep high), and rolls with disadvantage (keep low).

    rolls.a <- sample(seq(1:20),size = n.sims,replace=T)
    rolls.b <- sample(seq(1:20),size = n.sims,replace=T)
    rolls.adv <- pmax(rolls.a,rolls.b)
    rolls.dis <- pmin(rolls.a,rolls.b)
    rolls <- cbind(rolls.a,rolls.adv,rolls.dis)

    OK, now let’s see how often our players succeed on their rolls for every combination of easy roll/medium roll/hard roll and low score/medium score/high score using OSE checks with the OSE 3d6 scores.

    matrix.template <- matrix(nrow = n.sims,ncol = 3)
    colnames(matrix.template) <- c("p10","p50","p90")
    matrix.template <- as.data.frame(matrix.template)
    ose.raw <- list(matrix.template, matrix.template, matrix.template)
    names(ose.raw) <- c("easy","medium","hard")
    for (i in 1:n.sims) {
      ose.raw[["easy"]][i,1] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]-4<=p10.3d6,1,0)
      ose.raw[["easy"]][i,2] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]-4<=p50.3d6,1,0)
      ose.raw[["easy"]][i,3] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]-4<=p90.3d6,1,0)
      for (j in 1:3) {
        ose.raw[["easy"]][i,j] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]==1,1,ose.raw[["easy"]][i,j])
        ose.raw[["easy"]][i,j] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]==20,0,ose.raw[["easy"]][i,j])
      ose.raw[["medium"]][i,1] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]<=p10.3d6,1,0)
      ose.raw[["medium"]][i,2] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]<=p50.3d6,1,0)
      ose.raw[["medium"]][i,3] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]<=p90.3d6,1,0)
      for (j in 1:3) {
        ose.raw[["medium"]][i,j] <- ifelse(rolls[i,j]==1,1,ose.raw[["medium"]][i,j])
        ose.raw[["medium"]][i,j] <- ifelse(rolls[i,j]==20,0,ose.raw[["medium"]][i,j])
      ose.raw[["hard"]][i,1] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+4<=p10.3d6,1,0)
      ose.raw[["hard"]][i,2] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+4<=p50.3d6,1,0)
      ose.raw[["hard"]][i,3] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+4<=p90.3d6,1,0)
      for (j in 1:3) {
        ose.raw[["hard"]][i,j] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]==1,1,ose.raw[["hard"]][i,j])
        ose.raw[["hard"]][i,j] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]==20,0,ose.raw[["hard"]][i,j])
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.5578 0.7011 0.9009
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.3601 0.4834 0.7155
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.1596 0.3121 0.5074

    An easy task is one that a character with a low score can complete a bit over half the time and a high score character can complete about 90% of the time. A hard task is one that a character with a low score can complete about 1/6 of the time and a high score character about half the time. That’s both plausible and shows a strong influence from the score.

    I’m not going to include the code for using OSE ability checks with a 4d6 house rule, but here are the results.

    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.6042 0.7612 0.9970
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.4104 0.5740 0.8091
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.1970 0.3918 0.5973

    (Update: there was a glitch in my code that generated ose.4d6[["hard"]]. Thanks to John for catching it. I have since corrected).

    Now, let’s do the 5e system with straight rolls (ie, no advantage or disadvantage).

    dnd5e.raw <- list()
    dnd5e.raw <- list(matrix.template, matrix.template, matrix.template)
    names(dnd5e.raw) <- c("easy","medium","hard")
    for (i in 1:n.sims) {
      dnd5e.raw[["easy"]][i,1] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+mods.5e[p10.4d6]>=10,1,0)
      dnd5e.raw[["easy"]][i,2] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+mods.5e[p50.4d6]>=10,1,0)
      dnd5e.raw[["easy"]][i,3] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+mods.5e[p90.4d6]>=10,1,0)
      dnd5e.raw[["medium"]][i,1] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+mods.5e[p10.4d6]>=15,1,0)
      dnd5e.raw[["medium"]][i,2] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+mods.5e[p50.4d6]>=15,1,0)
      dnd5e.raw[["medium"]][i,3] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+mods.5e[p90.4d6]>=15,1,0)
      dnd5e.raw[["hard"]][i,1] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+mods.5e[p10.4d6]>=20,1,0)
      dnd5e.raw[["hard"]][i,2] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+mods.5e[p50.4d6]>=20,1,0)
      dnd5e.raw[["hard"]][i,3] <- ifelse(rolls[i,1]+mods.5e[p90.4d6]>=20,1,0)
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.4926 0.5896 0.6879
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.2501 0.3471 0.4422
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.0000 0.0991 0.2004

    We can notice two things about the 3e/5e mechanic as compared to the OSE mechanic.

    1. In 3e/5e, success is more a function of task difficulty and less a function of ability score with the notable exception that “hard” tasks are not just hard but impossible if you have a low ability score.
    2. In 3e/5e, the mechanic is much harsher, not withstanding that RAW 3e/5e ability scores tend to be higher.

    There are a few caveats to the second point though. First, OSE has special mechanics for many of the things 3e/5e uses ability checks for, these tend to be based on level, and at low level your character is pretty much useless. For instance, old school thieves are famously useless as thieves (but have a good shot at scaling El Capitan). Second, 3e and 5e are games of stacking buffs. 5e isn’t as bad about this as 3e or Pathfinder, but there’s still the expectation that straight rolls are for suckers. There are other buffs, such as the “guidance” cantrip (add 1d4 to your roll), but the big buff is advantage (roll twice, keep high). And of course sometimes you have disadvantage (roll twice, keep low), with the really important one that everyone fails to apply being that using darkvision gives disadvantage on perception checks.

    I’m not gonna give my code for simulating ability checks with advantage and disadvantage as it’s really similar to above except the code for advantage is similar except it has rolls[i,2] in every line. Likewise, disadvantage has rolls[i,3]. Here are the results.

    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.7486 0.8410 0.9104
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.4414 0.5760 0.7001
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.0000 0.1899 0.3625

    With advantage, the overall difficulty level is similar to OSE checks. Of course with disadvantage it gets even harder.

    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.2487 0.3539 0.4795
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.0630 0.1223 0.1963
    ##    p10    p50    p90 
    ## 0.0000 0.0109 0.0423

    Anyway, it seems that the old school “roll under” ability check is actually pretty generous aside from the fact that it doesn’t apply to many situations, being used only when there’s not a more specific mechanic. However it’s not too bad for 3e/5e players as they can get similar ease by stacking buffs.

  • What kind of treasure?

    The module I’m writing is called “Treasure of the Satrap’s Army,” which implies the question … what exactly is the treasure and how much of it? More generally you can use these thoughts in your own game for whenever you want to make transporting the treasure as much of or more than a challenge than seizing it in the first place.

    But first, a digression. One of the first questions is what level to write the module for but that wouldn’t be interesting to read about so TL;DR, low level is more challenging resource management and I can just write my own encounter tables if the default ones are too harsh. So that being said, the big question is how much treasure should the characters get anyway? Remember, the premise of the adventure is they start by looting the army camp and then the bulk of the adventure is they need to get the treasure to a safe haven.

    How much treasure is really two questions, the monetary value and the bulk. Let’s do value first.

    Treasure by value

    This adventure assumes experience points for treasure (the GP=XP rule). So when I talk about how much treasure, really I’m placing XP pellets. GP=XP is not a great fit for every play style and I’m a big fan of Hyperborea‘s “all of the above” model for experience points, but GP=XP is a great fit with this adventure’s intended play style.

    I know I want this to be a one or two session adventure, so how much XP is reasonable for a one or two session adventure?

    Old School Essentials suggests 3/4 XP is from treasure, so take monster XP and multiply by 3 to get GP value of treasure. Similarly, ACKS gives a 4:1 ratio. But the problem with that is ideally the PCs will avoid all combat so that rule of thumb doesn’t really work.

    There’s also a general rule of thumb you hear around the OSR that a megadungeon should have enough treasure to level up once per level of the dungeon plus a healthy margin for treasure they miss. But how many sessions is that?

    If we look at the 5e DMG, page 261 gives the expectation that with the exception of the first few levels (which have trivial XP requirements in 5e), that further levels should take about 2 to 3 sessions per level. So if we assume this adventure will take one session, that implies 1/3 to 1/2 the XP you need. That’s a bit generous by OSR standards, but Lamentations of the Flame Princess (which has a strict silver = XP rule) suggests each session should provide 1/4 to 1/3 of the treasure needed to level, but with the expectation that they won’t get or keep all of it. That seems about right, so let’s go with the LotFP guideline of around 1/4 to 1/3 of the needed treasure to level on a GP=XP standard.

    If we assume the adventure is targeted for 3rd level characters and we take the fighter table as typical, that’s 4000 XP needed to advance from 3rd (4000) to 4th (8000). Let’s assume the typical party is 4 PCs. So that’s 16,000 XP for them all to level up. If we assume the adventure should provide 1/4 of that, that’s 4000 GP.

    By encumbrance

    So we have the total value of our treasure, now we need to figure out the form. It’s one thing to say the wealth is a sapphire called the Star of Eskiloth which is worth 4000 GP (and which in an emergency the thief can coat in lamp oil and, ahem, conceal). It’s yet another thing to say that the 4000 GP of treasure is a herd of 400 cattle or a thousand poorly sealed amphorae of kimchi or garum.

    I want to create a trade-off for how much wealth the characters can recover and how much risk they incur by doing so. I envision the PCs facing three options:

    1. stuff your pockets with liquid wealth. This will make it easy to hide from random encounters, take shortcuts that only work for humans (eg, climbing a rope up a steep hill), etc.
    2. load up pack animals with a moderate amount of wealth, but not so much that they can’t move at full speed or go off road.
    3. load up pack animals or vehicles with everything you can find, to the extent that the animals are slowed considerably or the vehicles can only travel on roads.

    The first time I ran a play test, I found my players could fit all their loot on the pack animals and still have the pack animals move at full speed. So not really much of a trade-off.

    Let’s say the fill your pockets option should be 1/8 a level’s worth of XP (2000 GP), the low-risk pack animal option 1/4 a level (4000 GP), and the high-risk pack animal option 1/2 a level (8000 GP). I’d say make the high risk option 1/3 a level, but nobody would sensibly choose much added risk for a small increment in reward, so let’s round it up to 1/2 and see if the player characters get greedy enough to overload the party’s mule with silver plated airhorns. Remember, part of the inspiration for this adventure is movies like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Triple Frontier, or A Simple Plan where the characters get essentially infinite wealth with minimal effort but they get greedy and that’s their downfall.

    OK, so now that we have our wealth totals, we need to figure out what goods.

    The 2000 GP of liquid wealth is easy as that’s what the treasure table default to. The most obvious thing is to let the PCs discover one of the army treasurer’s chests with 2000 GP in it. Given D&D’s ridiculous assumption that gold pieces are 1.6oz each (about 10x the weight of a Roman solidus or Islamic dinar), that works out to 200lb or about 50lb each spread across 4 PCs. If the PCs carried nothing else — no armor, no weapons, no food, no water, no spellbooks, no ten foot poles, etc — that’s still enough to slow their movement a bit. So if we really want to give them the option to travel light, we need to take some of that cash and convert it into jewelry or gems. The median value for a gem in the OSE treasure table is 100gp and the mean value for jewelry is 1050gp. Jewelry is more fun, so let’s say the most high value treasure they can find is 1000gp cash plus a necklace with five rubies that is worth 1000gp. That works out to about 25lb each for four players.

    The medium and high difficulty treasure involves more creativity. There are really two questions: how many pack animals do we provide and what kind of wealth is available for those animals to carry. Let’s bracket the pack animals question for now. Both medium and high difficulty should involve something that’s less valuable than gold coins on a per pound basis. We could just say silver pieces, but that’s no fun.

    As described above, when I first thought about it, the high risk/ high reward treasure was just “overload the mules so they go slower so you hit more random encounters, find it harder to evade pursuit, etc.” But at the abstract level it doesn’t have to be heavy, it just has to be inconvenient to transport in a way that exposes the party to risk. Here are some possibilities:

    • The treasure could be so noisy (eg, a bunch of rare parrots), shiny (a highly polished bronze statue), or odorous (eg, spices or perfumes) that it attracts more random encounters. After writing the first draft of this post, I passed a basset hound on the street and there’s something hilarious to me about player characters herding a kennel of outlandish-looking but valuable rare breed dogs who attract extra random encounter rolls by their frequent barking or howling.
    • The treasure could make negative reaction rolls when dealing with human beings (eg, items that are strictly forbidden to lowly murder hobos under the kingdom’s sumptuary laws).
    • The PCs may have to choose between carrying treasure and carrying essential but economically worthless supplies, especially water (8lb/gallon, in the unlikely event the player characters are carrying it in plastic milk jugs). Economics talks about the diamond/water paradox. You can make that an actual gameplay choice.
    • High ransom hostages must be fed and can try to escape, scream for help, etc. Historically this was a huge source of wealth from the aftermath of battles, but I prefer to avoid this one as it creates a lot of not fun ethical issues as well as imposes a duty on the DM to role-play the NPC hostage.

    One advantage of cargo problems other than “high encumbrance means slower movement and hence more random encounters per mile” is that only works with hexcrawl, not pointcrwal. Another is that difficulties other than encumbrance will scale better to different party sizes. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that some forms of treasure may make some routes relatively appealing.

    • The satrap’s monogrammed silk bedsheets might incur shock in one cultural zone and indifference in another, so head through the territory where people either don’t care or think it’s hilarious to imagine how infuriated the foreigners over the ridge would be to learn that you stole that.
    • Maybe you’d have to prioritize water over treasure if you want to take the quick route through the desert but it’s ok to load up the mules with treasure and count on finding streams if you take the longer or more heavily patrolled route through the forest.
    • Maybe the treasure is so bulky that the only way to transport it is by wagon or barge so you have to stick to the road or the navigable river, which means facing a lot of army traffic, customs inspection points, etc.
    • Maybe some treasure is simply worth more at certain destinations because it’s less risky to fence, there’s more demand for it, or it’s harder to obtain there. Maybe basset hounds are ubiquitous in the satrapy but extremely rare and prestigious on Pirate Island.

    So with all that in mind, let’s think of some treasure, along with possible inconveniences it may imply.

    • Silks and furs. May be readily recognizable as the satrap’s property and from your nation. Will be much heavier if they get wet. Carpets have all these properties but are also extremely bulky and larger carpets will require a cart, not just a mule.
    • Art. Readily identifiable as coming from the satrap’s household. The art may be less valuable in more distant cultures with different taste. Some art (eg, bronze sculptures, crystal, etc) may have highly polished reflective surfaces that will be visible at a great distance and attract more encounters. A lot of art is brittle, vulnerable to being punctured, etc. There could be both a high value, low convenience option and a low value, high convenience option in that the art is difficult to transport without breaking it or attracting attention, but it is worth a lot more intact than just prying the gems out of it.
    • Medicinal or psychoactive herbs. Sword and sorcery fiction often talks about the drug “lotus,” usually prefaced by a color to code different effects. In antiquity the wild fennel variety silphium was a valued contraceptive. These drugs could be subject to local taboos or laws. You could also have each player secretly roll for whether their character is an addict who must make a wisdom savings throw every night to avoid smoking the party’s profits and being catatonic or deranged the next day.
    • Amphorae of fine wine. Liquids are extremely heavy. Let’s say 10 lb/gallon between the wine itself and the vessel it’s stored in.
    • Animals. Maybe the satrap traveled with his hunting falcons or hounds. Or the harim insisted on bringing their lap dogs in the seraglio-on-the-go. Or maybe the satrap brought a small menagerie to impress his officers. The animals could be noisy, difficult to feed, uncooperative, or even dangerous. In the Neal Stephenson novel Quicksilver, in the chaos of the failure of the siege of Vienna, Half-Cock Jack Shaftoe beheads the sultan’s pet ostrich to take its tail feathers as a trade good. Nobody wants to buy a corgi pelt, but colorful birds or big cats could provide a low value, high convenience option (kill it and take its plumage or pelt) or a high value, low convenience option (keep it alive for the exotic pets market).