Thursday, May 21, 2020

Advice for OSR DMs

I wrote an introduction section that is meant for the Lair of the Lamb.  

The most interesting part for most of you will probably be the Advice for DMs section, but I'm posting the whole thing here since it's a good explanation of (a) old-school dungeoncrawls, as I see them, and (b) the style of gameplay that I'm shooting for in the Lair of the Lamb.

by Konstantin Kostadinov

What You are Reading

This text is meant to be an introduction to both the GLOG and an old-school dungeoncrawl.

The Goblin Laws of Gaming

The ruleset in this book is sufficient for the adventure in this book.  The rules will serve you well up until the last page of the dungeoncrawl.
But the GLOG that can be printed is not the True GLOG.  The GLOG is a philosophy—gather the rules that improve your game, and exile the rules that don't.  The published rules are just building blocks for you to incorporate or discard as you see fit.
There are two reasons we should shun a monolith.
First, there is no one-size-fits-all RPG.  Your game will improve after you tailor it to meet your group’s expectations and preferences.  Second, the best rules and creatures for your game will not exist in a single book--they will exist in many.  (In another book, I hope I can write about how to best make these decisions.)

An Old-School Dungeoncrawl

The players will control a group of lowly peasants who attempt to escape a dangerous and exotic underground maze.  That makes it a dungeoncrawl.
They will map the dungeon themselves, track light sources, they will rely on their wits (instead of their class abilities), and some will die.  These things make it old-school.
Level-0 Peasants
Each player will play as several level-0 peasants.  By the end of the module, each player will (hopefully) exit the dungeon with a level 1 character who has earned their hit points the hard way.  
We do this so that:
  • The players can start playing quickly.  New players are neither knowledgeable nor invested.  (Later, the surviving characters will be flesh out.  Backstories are for closers.)
  • The players can learn to play with the simplest character sheet possible.  Mechanics can be introduced one by one.
  • The players are not punished too harshly for their mistakes.  Since they have extra lives, they can move on from fatal errors.  Since the dungeon is lethal, it’s best if players are familiar with the genre before they are attached to a particular character.
  • Parts of the dungeon can be closed off to groups without particular gear.  Torches, ropes, and weapons can fulfill the role of keys.
  • The world's cruelty must be instructed.

Advice for DMs

Meaningful Choices

Give the players as many meaningful choices as you can. This means a choice where:
  • The negative outcome is known (at least approximately).
  • The positive outcome is known (at least approximately).
  • The odds are known (at least approximately).
  • The outcomes affect the game (they are not trivial).
  • The player is also free to choose not to choose (they can walk away).
Shoot for at least 4 of the 5.

Similarly, try to avoid giving players meaningless choices.  “Do you go down identical tunnel A or identical tunnel B?”

And respect their decisions.  If the players choose to avoid the ogre encounter, don’t reskin the ogres as half-giants and put the encounter in front of them again.  Conversely, if they find a way to easily kill the ogres in the first round, respect their ingenuity and allow the ogres to die (don’t give the ogres more HP on the fly, or re-insert the encounter later).

We want players to feel ownership of the results of their choices.  “I did this.”  For the same reason, players roll as many of the dice as possible. (The DM rolls as few as possible.)


Part of giving the players meaningful choices is giving them the information they need to make their decisions.  They need to know what the risks and the rewards are for any decision (at least approximately).

Don’t hide information behind rolls--just give it to your players.  When in doubt, give them more information.  It is more important to inform your players than it is to find justifications for how the characters would know things.


You must allow your players’ actions to change, build, and destroy your world.

You are not a tour guide nor a train conductor.  You are the manager of a very dangerous wildlife reserve.  If your players choose to organize the leopards into a militia, tell them where they can find boots.  If your players choose to burn down the forest, let your setting burn.  Let their decisions matter.

(There is nothing wrong with scripted events or fluff encounters; just be cognizant of what they are.)


Players in breezy games will sometimes drink random potions just to see the result, because they know that nothing truly terrible will happen.  This isn’t that kind of game.  Sometimes the strange bottle contains poison, and sometimes it kills you without a saving throw.  Don’t drink poison.

The sooner that players learn this expectation, the sooner they will thrive.  Playing multiple characters helps players learn this lesson without a tutorial section.  Do not go easy on them--if your kindness teaches them that their characters will not die even when they probably should, your kindness has become a cruelty, since it creates expectations that will be shattered much later (and more painfully).

The dungeon is not an unthinking meat grinder.  The dungeon is a test, where wrong answers are penalized.  Skilled players will be able to navigate the dungeon without any deaths, while fools will TPK in the first few rooms.

Combat is a little different, since the chaos of d20 rolls means that the weaker party sometimes triumphs--which is why risk-averse players should also be combat-averse players.

Fair Deaths

Players should die, but they should die as the result of bad choices.

A player that dies shouldn’t feel angry at the injustice of it all.  Ideally, they should sigh, shrug, smile, and say “yeah, I kinda figured that might happen.”

Bad: “You walk into the room.  Rocks fall.  Everyone roll a Dex save or take damage.”

Good: “The sagging ceiling seems to be held up by a spear.”

A player that dies in the first room would have good reason to feel bitter.  A player who dies in the second will only have themselves to blame.  Fair deaths result from meaningful choices.

Keep Track

Every action in the dungeon has a cost.  Searching the bone pile takes precious time.  Torches will burn down.  There is the chance that a random encounter might occur.  Searching the bone pile is a bit like a shop where items are purchased with torchlight and blood.

You cannot have a meaningful campaign unless strict time measures are kept.  The same applies to torches and rations.

HP (or the number of peasants) is another resource.  HP can be thought of as the character’s risk budget.  You spend HP on risky actions.  Characters with more HP can do more things because they can afford to take more risks.  A low-HP group is a miserable thing, crawling past the wonders of the underworld, unable to afford a taste.

Allow Failure

Your players will die: sometimes heroically, sometimes embarassingly.  Resist the temptation to save them.  This is one of the hardest things for groups to adjust to (which is why it’s so important to set expectations early).

Allow PCs to flee combat, but never fudge the dice.  After all, they chose to stay and fight.

Your players will not find all the secret areas.  Resist the temptation to drop hints.  Finding secret areas is one of the things that separates good players from novices.  Not that there’s anything wrong with participation trophies, but there needs to be a trophy for excellence, too.

After the session, resist the temptation to tell players about all of the things that they missed.  Those secrets must be purchased through cleverness and bravery, or not at all.

Allow Success

There must be rewards commensurate with the dangers.  Allow players opportunities to feel powerful.  They will sidestep your traps and one-shot your bosses; celebrate these moments with them.

They will want to make their characters cool.  Let them go buy the swordcane that they want.  The dungeon made the survivors rich--let them throw a party.

Allow Players to Pick their Genre

You cannot enforce morality on your players if they want to play as murderhobos.  Similarly, a horror game is impossible if the players keep making Monty Python jokes.  You can nudge in a direction (after all, the DM is a player, too) but you cannot require.

If you write up courtly intrigues but your players only want to kick down doors and kill things, either (a) have an open conversation about your goals for this game, or (b) give them the kind of game that they want.

Never Fudge the Dice

Better yet, roll them out in the open.

If you are adjusting the difficulty on the fly, then it’s no different than wrestling with your dad.  A mock struggle, followed by a fictional triumph.  You might as well not roll dice at all.  (It might still tell a good story, but how shallow must that victory feel, knowing that was never any other outcome.)

If a combat is too easy for the players, the monsters will flee or surrender (see Morale).

If the combat is too difficult, the players can always run away (see Pursuit).  Learning to flee a losing battle is something that many groups struggle with, which is why that is the first lesson taught in the Lair of the Lamb.

Advice for Players

Think in Terms of the Dungeon Level

Other games might envision an adventure as a series of encounters, each relatively isolated from each other.

This dungeon is not like that.  It is a single, interlocking mechanism.  Opening paths creates loops that you can retreat down.  Monsters roam from room to room.  Noticing a blank spot on the map allows players to infer the location of a secret room.  Answers to a puzzle are found in a different room.  Think globally, rather than locally.

Keep an eye on that map.

Learn Everything You Can

In the beginning, the dungeon is unknown, and peasants will die because they didn’t recognize its perils.  But eventually the dungeon will be maps and the mechanisms tamed.  You will turn the traps against your enemies.  At this point, the dungeon is no longer the wolf beyond the firelight, it is the tame dog at your side, another tool in your backpack.  Yet, the only thing that you have gained in knowledge.

Information is a precious resource that can be leveraged to gain an advantage in nearly every situation.  Your DM has been instructed to give you plenty of information in every situation, but you can always ask for more.  Try to ask a question in every room.

The more you know about the dungeon, the better you can use it to be clever.

Be Clever

Fuck your Int score.  Always be as clever as you can.  You are not wrestling with your dad; the dungeon will kill you if you let it.  

The solutions are not on your character sheet.  You do not have class abilities that you can rely on in every situation.  Look at your inventory, look at the map, look at the other players.  The rules have fuzzy edges in the GLOG--bend reality to your will by bargaining with the DM.

“Can I fill the pit with enough bones so that Akina can climb out?”

“Can I use my Butchery skill to help stabilize Goren?”

“Can I use the brightness juice to blind her?”

None of these three questions are covered by the rules, yet they are all indisputably good ideas.  A good DM will find a way to reward good ideas.

Similarly, many of the puzzles in the Lair of the Lamb are open-ended.  They have multiple solutions that I have imagined, and many other solutions that I haven’t.  Keep throwing ideas at them--eventually something will stick.

Treat the NPCs Like People

Think about what the monsters want.  Every sentient thing has a set of wants and fears, even if it’s as simple as “food” and “light”.

Likewise, no NPC has an entirely rigid response.   Enemies can become friends.  Friends can turn against you. Not because it’s scripted or because it makes dramatic sense, but because of how you treated them, and how well you fit into their wants/fears.

There are no social skills.  You’ll have to figure out what they want by asking them the old-fashioned way.

Avoid Combat

Unless you know you are going to win, of course.  The best combats are the ones that you have already won before they start, whether through trap, trick, poison, or fire.  Never rely on the dice--they will always betray you, in the end.

You may spend more time choosing and planning battles than actually fighting.  This is good.  And remember that running away is always an option.

And if combat is unavoidable, at least try to fall back to a more defensible position.  

Focus on the Dungeon

Right now, the real focus is the byzantine machine at the heart of the world: the dungeon itself. Quickly learn its moods and anatomies.

Keep a mind on your goals: water first, escape last.  

Look for Secrets

There at least a dozen secret areas and items to discover in the Lair of the Lamb.  Finding them will give you useful tools (and level-ups).  All of them will improve your chance of survival.

You must balance your hunt for the exit with your search for resources.  It is not easy to find a balance between these two things, and yet the best players will find a way.


  1. I really like these sections of RPG books. It lets me know what they're about, right out of the box.

    When I first started reading RPG books, I'd read the "New to RPGs?" section because I was trying to get my head around it. Then I ignored them. Now I read them again, if only because there's so many *types* of games I need to know what THIS game is about.

  2. A lot of solid advice! I've really been trying to signpost a lot these days. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but I feel like it's a lot fairer to the players and makes me feel a bit less guilty about character deaths. There'd a couple ways in which it sort of backfires or a least doesn't lead to anticipated results - hopefully a logical assessment of the dangers of an action. One is where the players overthink an obvious warning as some sort of DM subtlety and proceed without caution, another is where the players completely ignore the warning, and a third is where the warnings cause the players to completely abandon a venture (or never start it in the first place). The last can be the biggest challenge for the DM, depending on where you are at in your prep, as the players often want to do something completely different than what was initially planned. A good chance to stretch your extemporaneous muscles but sometimes a real struggle to present something interesting for the players to interact with.

    1. I try to keep a few options open at all times, and in sight of the players. They don't want to go to the Pit of Dracoliches? They can chase down the bounty on Fat King Candy instead, or try to find the baron's missing head.

    2. It also helps if you have random city encounters that are active (they hook the player) in addition to random city encounters that are passive (they allow the player to walk away).

  3. Like the advice but would like to nitpick: Not players die, characters do. At least in my experience. Don't know how you handle your groups (and law enforcement).