Sunday, March 26, 2023

How to Handle Parley as an OSR DM

One of the most unforgiveable things that mainstream D&D has ever done was to make Diplomacy a skill.

Weapon skills and knowledge skills, sure.  We can't model sword fights around the kitchen table unless we bust out the boffers, but talking to monsters?  All you need are words.  

Talking is just about the only thing that we can model perfectly, where the player and the player character are actually doing the same thing at the same time.  And I'm especially interested in parley, which is when you encounter something that would normally be a combat encounter, but you end up talking to it instead.

It's also a very rewarding part of gameplay.  Brokering a hostage exchange.  Proving yourself to a band of orcs.  Lying to a dragon in order to sneak around his hoard.  It would be very anticlimactic to reduce Bilbo's interaction with Smaug to a couple of deception rolls, wouldn't it?

History of Reaction Rolls

Modern D&D doesn't usually bother with reaction rolls.  They leverage the social rolls (Persuasion, Intimidation, Deception, Insight) instead.  The modules that I've read are pretty scripted.  Either an encounter is a fight or it isn't, and if there's any ambiguity, it's settled with one of those 4 rolls.  Which is honestly fine, since 5e is more comfortable being a miniatures wargame than anything else.

But reaction rolls have a long history in D&D, dating back to the very first edition of D&D back in '74 (this is Original D&D, not 1st edition).  

Here's Holmes version from Basic D&D in '77.

from Holmes
Notice that this seems to be something that is rolled as a reaction to an offer made by the players ("make another offer") rather than something that is rolled as soon as the monsters catch sight of you.  Perhaps the default assumption was that intelligent monsters would usually talk first, then only attack if they had good reason to (or no reason not to).

So yes, the players would sometimes randomly encounter huge groups of orcs, but they wouldn't always be hostile.  There would frequently be a lot of talking first.

Modern D&D is sort of rediscovering all this old stuff.  But before we use it, it's good to understand why we want in our games in the first place?

Why Parley?

Most OSR games have reaction rolls.  Not every band of orcs is immediately hostile

1. It let's the players see more of the world.

The game is a lot more interesting when you're not trying to kill everything all the time.  As a DM, you're constantly creating interesting cultures, factions, and sidestories--all of which becomes pointless if the orcs attack as soon as they see the PCs.

2. It lets you throw more dangerous enemies at the players.  

A level 1 party might be able to handle a level 4 ogre who suddenly attacks BUT the same level 1 party might also be able to handle a level 8 giant who is easily tricked.

This is how a lot of older games were able to get away putting "10-100 bandits" on the map.  The party can lie to them, get them to go into a cave, and then collapse the cave.  Or the party could avoid combat all together.

You can throw anything in the Monster Manual against level 1 parties if you remove the "attacks the party immediately" assumption from it.  A bunch of level 1s can walk into a dragon's hoard, talk to it, and then leave when it threatens to eat them.  (If they want to keep fucking with the dragon--that's on them.  My point is that making an encounter less immediately hostile gives you a lot more flexibility in the types of threats you can throw at players.

3. It opens up a lot more tactical options. 

What's more interesting?  A game with exciting combat?  Or a game with exciting combat AND tense negotiations?

When you can defeat a dragon with clever words or powerful weapons, you now have more strategies that the players can employ.  Their toolbox is bigger, and so is the game.

So What's the Downside?

Good parley is hard.  It relies a lot of DM skill.  Honestly, I'm not that great at it myself.  Others do it better.

Parley (and high-stakes negotiation in general) has slowly been phased out of D&D because (1) it is hard to reduce it to a procedure (something with points and DCs) and (2) when a DM is bad at it, it makes the game feel arbitrary and unfair.

Modern D&D has worked hard to make the game feel less arbitrary.  You'll hear players complaining about "DM fiat"--this is what they're talking about.

At it's worst, it can sound like:

"A bunch of orcs showed up, said that they would help us kill a worm, and then ganked us from behind when the purple worm showed up."


"The dragon just demanded treasure, and when we didn't have any, it breathed fire on us."


"Nothing we said to the guards worked.  We tried bribing them, threatening them.  But they DM said that they were too disciplined for that.  So we wasted half an hour talking to them, then ending up fighting them anyway."

How to Handle Parley Well

Running reaction rolls is challenging for a new DM, but it is something that you get better with at practice.  And it's a skill worth honing, for all the reasons above.

First, parley isn't any different from other OSR concepts.

1. Dangers Need to be Telegraphed

If someone is a shifty scumbag will betray you--that needs to be telegraphed.  The greater an NPCs ability to fuck you over, the clearer their nature needs to be.  

This is partially why Elden Ring can get away with being so difficult.  There's a huge honking dragon in front of you and you know it's going to wreck your shit.  But the game doesn't make you fight the dragon--you could just walk away.  So when your screen goes red, it's because you read the Terms and Conditions and then hit Accept.

Your players might not care much if Suzy the Pickpocket steals 3 silver coins without warning, but they tend to care a lot if their loyal friend Honorable Dalgar suddenly stabs them in the back.  (This is why so many DM-orchestrated betrayals fall flat.)

2. Follow Good OSR Problem Design

Reposting from here:

  • No obvious solution.  (Rolling Persuasion/Intimidation/Deception is always obvious.)
  • Many possible solutions.
  • Solvable via common sense (as opposed to system mastery, or a high stat).
3. Monsters Need to be Understandable

There's a reason why old-school dungeons sometimes spend half a page explaining exactly how a trap functions.  It's because players pried up the floor tiles and jammed metal rods in the mechanism, and the DM needs to be able to adjudicate if that works or not.

Same thing applies to the monsters and NPCs that the players encounter.

If the goblins are greedy, the players need to know that.  If the Queen of Flowers always keeps her word, same thing.

These things help the players come up with strategies.  Their brains are the mechanisms, but if they don't understand them, the players don't know where to jam the metal bar.  I urge you to give your players a high-information game.  There's nothing stopping you from saying "you've heard many tales of how honorable the Queen of Flowers is" if you can't think of a better way to impart the info.  

I know it might seem tempting to have honorable characters suddenly betray the party, or to have characters with mysterious motivations.  Those things work fine in books and in scripted adventure paths--they don't work well in negotiations where players expect to have some agency.

And let me be clear: monsters don't have to have human psychology.  (In fact, I think it's more fun when they don't.)  They might want things that a human never would, and ignore things that a human never would.  They should be alien, but not incomprehensible.  

Do I Have to do Funny Voices?

No, you don't have to do funny voices.  Neither do your players.

Everyone needs to be clear about what they're communicating though.  

If your player says "I'm going to threaten the orc chieftain" then you need to prompt them with "what is your threat, exactly?"  These details are how the negotiation proceeds.

Similarly, you don't need to be good at Persuasion in real life to roleplay a character who is good at persuading.  You just need to be able to approach negotiations like any other puzzle.

from Dai Dark by Q Hayashida

The Basics

Everyone you run into in a dungeon is going to want something.  As as DM, you should have an idea of what this is when you start the roleplay.

Even with a neutral or positive reaction roll, the NPCs are still going to ask who you are and what you're doing there.  Likewise, the NPCs/monsters need to have an answer to those questions, too.

Beyond that, you should have an idea of what the NPC/monster wants.  This is what drives the conversation.  For a lot of normally-hostile NPCs, there's also a third question: why shouldn't we kill you?

Unless the enemies are fighting in defense of their families or homes, there's little motivation to fight to the death.  Even a random gang of orcs in a dungeon is more likely interested in looting than they are in risking their lives trying to kill the players, unless the players look weak, or if they have something the orcs want.

But also remember that monstrous denizens have monstrous desires.  They may only accept a promise rom the party if the party accepts a disease from them, or if the two groups exchange a slave.  (Nevermind that the PCs don't have a slave.)  These desires unreasonable, but they are still actionable.  Perhaps they would accept the donkey as a slave?  

The demands of the monsters should be challenging to meet.  This negotiation is a replacement for combat (sort of).  A challenging combat should be replaced with a challenging demand.  One shouldn't be easier than the other, because we don't want any easy decisions in an OSR-style challenge.  The drow are impressed by your wizard's magic and will let you pass, provided you seal the deal by exchanging slaves--or would the players rather kill these weirdos?

What Do Monsters/NPCs Want?

I recommend picking the thing from this list that makes the most sense, and then roll for another one randomly.

  1. Information (usually about the dungeon itself, such as maps)
  2. Treasure (gold!  but alternatively: magic items, weapons, or slaves)
  3. Food (we're hungry)
  4. You to leave (now)
  5. You to come (meet our leader)
  6. Violence (we can't kill this thing alone)
  7. Entertainment (a duel or a game of skill--we're bored and want to wager something)
  8. Help (with something in a dungeon: e.g. open this weird door for us)
  9. Honor (defeat me in a duel)
  10. Shame (lick our boots)

A surprising amount of players would rather fight to the death than have their imaginary elf lick a imaginary goblin's imaginary boots.

And of course, remember that people ask for more when they think they're negotiating from a position of strength.  If the orcs outnumber you 10 to 1, they're a lot more likely to demand your total surrender than when it's 2 to 1.

And remember to keep the pressure on the players.  If they take too long to speak up, the NPCs should become impatient.  Are you wasting our time?  Are you stalling while your reinforcements creep up on us?  (Also remember to roll for random encounters if the negotiation drags on too long.  A wandering monster is always a fun complication.)

Lastly, remember that the players can demand all of those things from the NPCs as well.  Draw us a map, orcs!  There's gold in it for you if you can.

Handling a Stalemate

What to do if neither side seems willing to budge?  Does it then turn immediately to combat?

  • Yes, "the orcs become impatient and attack" is always an option.  It shouldn't be your first resort, though, since this ends the negotiation.
  • You can give the players a small victory now and up the stakes later.  The orcs can retreat, after vowing that they'll come back and kill everyone.  (And indeed they might come back with reinforcements if the players linger here.)
  • The two parties can agree to leave each other alone.  Feel free to propose a hostage exchange at this point.  "If we ambush you, you can kill Grok.  If you ambush us, we'll kill your linkboy.  Meet us at the tree outside at sundown and we'll exchange back."
  • Alternatively, switch demands, with either higher or lower stakes.  "Naw, we were just kidding!  You should have seen the look on your face!  You can keep your torch boy.  But come on--don't just waste our time.  Let's play a game.  A friendly wager."

Information and Faction Mastery

Dungeon Mastery is when players spend a few sessions in a dungeon and learn how to use the traps to their advantages, how to use shortcuts to ambush enemies, where to hide safely so there's no random encounters, etc.  If you learn how to operate the portcullis, you can lure the giant snake over and pin it to the floor.  A well-designed dungeon allows players to "tame" it, at least partially.

Similarly, exposure and experience should allow a 
  • If you know their objectives, you can lie to them better.
  • If you know some of their names, you can leverage that for intimidation or deception.  ("We killed Gundarr.  He was a lot bigger than you.")
  • If you know who their boss is, that information can also be turned into intimidation or deception.  ("Big Chokka sent us.  We're supposed to guard the hidden door.  Can you show us where it is?")
  • If you took prisoners, they are now hostages that can be ransomed back.
  • If you know their costumes and disguises, you can impersonate them.
  • If you learn what they are afraid of, you can threaten them with it.
  • If you learn more about the dungeon, you can also craft better lies (or truths, if needed).  For example: "You saw the dead worm downstairs?  We were the ones who killed it."
Experience is my preferred way for the players to "get good" at negotiation.  It's a satisfying way to win an encounter without drawing your sword, and it rewards clever, attentive players.

When in Doubt

Roll dice.

There's no hard mechanics for this.  (And you shouldn't attempt to make one.  Negotiation is too complicated for dice and too easily modeled with real conversation.)

Your best friend is a d6.  I recommend stating the odds out loud to your players, then rolling the die in plain sight.

"The chieftain looks you up and down.  He's having a hard time imagining you beating Gundarr in a fair fight.  I'm going to roll a d6.  If it's a 1 or a 2, he believes you.  Before I do, is there anything you want to do to seem more convincing?"

This part is important.  You want player buy-in.  If the orcs attack you on the next round, it shouldn't feel like DM fiat.  It should feel like the results of a decision that the players made.

Perfectly Competent Foes are Boring

Consider sneaking onto the Travis Air Force Base in California.  If the guards catch you, they're going to arrest you--no need for a reaction roll.  There isn't much variation if the guards are trained, loyal, intelligent, equipped, confident, and at full strength.

So, when you run into the cultists guarding the lower levels, consider making them (d6):

1. Untrained and uncertain.  Maybe this is their first time encountering someone else down there.  Maybe they didn't think that anyone else would ever come down here.

2. Unmotivated or disloyal. Maybe they resent this situation.  They don't really want to be guards.  They might disagree with their leader, or they might not care about the larger objective.  They may offer safe passage in exchange for gold ("It's like I never saw you.")  They may be more interested in personal goals: an honorable duel instead of a fight to the death.

3. Stupid, or least making an error.  When they catch sight of the PCs, they look confused and ask "Are you Uxamog the Defiler?  You're one day early."  Deceiving the monsters is always a possibility, but some enemies make it extra-easy.  (You'll still need a plan for when they escort you to their leader, though.)

4. Unequipped.  Maybe this guy stepped away from the rest of the patrol on a bathroom break, or they left their swords somewhere else, not expected anyone here.

5. Unconfident.  Noticeably reluctant to fight.  Perhaps they're cowards, perhaps something has just happened that has shaken their faith.

6. Wounded or Weakened.  They could be dealing with another incident, perhaps even carrying a wounded person back to their barracks.  They could be drunk, or sick with something.  

This d6 table also functions as a list of excuses for "why these guys aren't attacking us right now".  

Adapting to 5e

You sorta can't.  

5e is more focused on character-building synergies and tactical combats.  That's where the fun is in 5th edition.  (5e is not a bad game.  It accomplishes most of what it sets out to do.)

But having said that, 5e has mostly stripped away the mechanics that make parley possible, and it's not well-supported by the published modules.

Having said that, here's my best ideas.

System Support
  • Add wandering monster checks
  • Add reaction rolls
  • Remove Persuasion, Intimidation, and Deception
The third option is pretty unpalatable to most players.  What if I want to be a high-charisma Bard who is good at lying to people?  You could conceivably take a hybrid approach, where you raise the DCs by a good amount (maybe 8 points) and give players a hefty bonus to the social rolls (+4 to +10) based on the strength of your argument.

The bard is still the one doing all the talking, but at least it's less about the numbers on your sheet and more about what is being said.

Also note that you don't need wandering monsters or reaction rolls to introduce parley gameplay.  Honestly, the easiest way to ease yourself (and your players) into this playstyle is to just create scripted encounters that support parley.  Example:
Grog the ogre guards the front gate.  He is bored and doesn't take his job seriously.  He doesn't think anyone is stupid enough to challenge his boss.  However, he will defend the place in earnest (including yelling for reinforcements) if he thinks there is an actual danger to the cult.
And then see how your party does at talking to the ogre.  Replace the ogre with something bigger if needed--you want the monster to be big enough that your players will hesitate jumping into a straight fight, and start thinking about more creative solutions.

Group Support
  • Player buy-in
If you're going to be changing your game away from the base 5e, you may be changing it away from the expectations of your group.  Talk to them about this potential change, get their input.

Caution them that parley gameplay isn't always more satisfying, and requires more effort from both the DM and the players.

Adventure Design
  • Get used to players "skipping" combats
  • Use factions
5e is built around keystone combat encounters.  Are you comfortable with your players bypassing them?

And parley gameplay is closely linked to faction play.  If most of the enemies in your dungeon aren't linked together, consider replacing the encounters with monsters that are linked (speak the same language, have the same goals, know each other).

Tasha's Cauldron of Everything

Don't use the parley rules in Tasha's.  They're terrible.  

The list was constructed without any thought for how it fits into the game.  Most of the items are trivially simple "the tale of a heroic figure" or an entire side adventure "the crown of a defeated tyrant".

Monsters should desire things that are (a) difficult/painful to grant, but at least immediately possible, and (b) linked to the current situation at hand.

As a list of potentially interesting encounters, though, it's not bad. Treants that want you to break your axes, sun-proofing a mausoleum for an undead, etc.

Saturday, March 25, 2023


Modrons don't have a morality like we do.  They have a prescribed set of behaviors, and many rules they must follow.  But desire is never in question--all modrons want to follow the rules, as certainly as humans want to breath air.

But modrons have sins, just as humans have sins.  They only have one type of sin: error.  This can be error in behavior (such as overcharging interest) or it can be error in calculation (such as getting the wrong answer when calculating a 15% tip).  

In the eyes of modrons, both of these are moral failings, and both put a modron's soul in peril of damnation.

Modrons in Hell

Most modrons who are sent to hell become part of the architecture, in one way or another.  It suits them better.

A few modron souls who are deviant enough and tenacious enough to thrive in Hell's soul-churn of debt and predation can rise to become demons in their own rights.

Modronic demons still preserve many of the classic modron traits.  They tend towards simple geometric shapes.  They have hyper-rational minds (although they are not especially intelligent).  And they have have prescribed codes of behavior--although in the absence of the Primus, these modrons must invent their own "Primus" in order to avoid going (more) insane, although I will point out that an insane modron is still more sane than your average human.  

Does anyone know the illustrator?
I think it's from the Monstrous Compendium - Mystara Appendix (2e)

Flying Hole

Lvl 1  (HP 4)  Def none  Consume
Fly slow  Int low  Dis hungry

Voidstuff - immune to all damage except holy damage.  Other spell effects work normally, but the strange minds and senses (see below) must be taken into consideration (e.g. hypnotic pattern does nothing, since they are blind).

Less of a creature and more of an environmental hazard (like green slime), flying holes are the remains of monodrone souls.  They resemble black blots in space, about 2' across.  

They sit motionless for thousands of years, or patrol corridors in repetitive patterns.  They have poor senses, and can sense heat but nothing else, and only in a range of 30' (although larger heat sources can be sensed from further away).  If they ever sense the sun, they will attempt to fly into it, where they are presumably destroyed themselves, the sun being an even greater source of annihilation.

They seek to devour the living, and when they sense a warm-blooded creature near them, they will charge it, dealing 1d20 damage on a hit against a resisting target.  Against an immobilized target, they will fly through the center of mass, leaving a hole 2' wide.

In fact, anything they touch is devoured.  A flying hole can fly right through a wall and leave a perfect hole 2' across.  

They can be distracted by torches with a 5-in-6 chance the first time you use the trick, but this decreases to a 3-in-6 chance the second time, and finally bottoms out on a 1-in-6 chance from the third time onwards.  They are not mindless, and they will learn.

Devoured matter has different fates, depending on its substance.

  • Natural, inert matter phases back in after 1d6 exploration turns.
  • Crafted, inert matter phases back in after 1d6 exploration turns completely repaired.  Bent swords are repaired, broken locks are fixed.  Flying Holes are incredibly good at this task, and sometimes you can get one to repair obtuse ancient mechanisms, or to fill in blank spots in water-damaged scrolls.  They are not infallible at this task, though.  (This ability is not well known, and is poorly understood.)
  • Living matter is eaten.  Flesh and blood are physical digested.  Indigestible bits such as bones will simply fall out of the bottom of the flying hole once digestion is complete.
If devoured matter is still semi-anchored to a physical location, it will return "in-place".  A hole in the wall will fill itself back in, leaving the wall exactly as it was (although any cracks in the plaster will be repaired).

If devoured matter is not anchored, it will fall out of the bottom of the flying hole once "digestion" is complete.


Spheres of annihilation / blackballs / umbral blots are much too interesting to be used only at high level. 

They work well at low level play, where the game tends to be about learning to exploit your environment.  And flying holes are certainly exploitable!  You can use them to cut holes through stone walls, trick them into destroying your enemies--but only at considerable risk to yourselves.

One of my philosphies is "nothing is mindless".  I don't like seeing how D&D has reduced most complex interactions (familiars, summons, warlock patrons, intelligent weapons, reaction rolls) into programmatic mechanics.  Too many things are mindless in D&D.

I try to extend this to elementals, golems, and all forms of undeath.

Can you make a flying hole angry?  Of course!  That makes the game better.

Behond the Takara Tomy Amaterios Evil God WBBA Beyblade Burst Evolution Wheel / Layer B-00, which is actually has some good names inside it for a demonic lich top.

Black Metal Murder Top

Lvl 3  (HP 10)  Def chain  Beyblade
Mov fast  Dis hungry

Black metal and modronium blades, wrapped in pull-chains, resting in the hollow abdomen of a large skeleton.

Fel Momentum - Demon tops cannot be truly destroyed except in a smelter.  In combat, their HP represents their rotational momentum--how fast they are spinning.  Demon tops can jump up to 2', but it costs them 1 HP to do so, and they can only jump once per round.  They also lose 1 HP every round, just from spinning.  Things that impede their spinning (sand, clutter) increase this HP/rnd cost.

Whenever they are missed with a slashing or bludgeoning attack, they convert it into momentum, gaining 2 HP.  (It doesn't matter if you swing at them from the opposite direction--they are able to reverse their spin like a rattleback.)

Beyblade - A demon top deals 1dX damage, where X is equal to their current HP, rounded up to the nearest 2.  For example, a demon top with 7 HP deals 1d8 damage on a hit.

Necromancer - Every demon top is a necromancer, capable of raising and controlling lower-level undead.  They typically ride in the stomachs of undead that they have dominated in this way.  They use their dominated undead to yank their chains, sending them flying into battle.  Their listed HP of 10 represents an average corpse.  Stronger corpses can send them into battle with greater momentum (HP).

Even at 0 HP, a demon top is capable of calling to undead from across the dungeon.  Lesser undead will seek out the demon top and start carrying it around again.

They are capable of speaking with low, buzzing voices.  They are the remains of tridrones.


Black Metal Murder Tops are meant to be alternatives to liches in low-level undead dungeons.

It might arrive at the head of half a dozen zombies, barking orders from the belly of the biggest skeleton.  

Even if you kill the zombies and arrest the demon top, it is still difficult to destroy it.  The players can try to throw it down a hole or something, but sufficient numbers of undead are capable of retrieving their master from most places.

If you remove the demon top from the dungeon, it will continually attempt to strike bargains with you, while summoning undead to your location.  It doesn't fear destruction, since you'll have a difficult time destroying it without an active volcano, dragonfire, or a full-scale smelter.  (Your local blacksmith's kiln doesn't cut it.)

They're meant to be the solo boss of a low-level necromancer dungeon, but you can certainly use them in groups.  If you do so, they are capable of stealing spin* from each other as form of HP vampirism.

*if you've never dug into beyblade lore, it's wild.  e.g. Moses used his beyblade to part the Red Sea.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Dwarf in the Glass

There was once a dream called the Charcuterie Board.  A GLOG zine, it was a messy heap of delights, like a squirrel nest in a candy store.  

There were plans for a sequel, and so Phlox and I co-wrote a dungeon, intending to make it part of the Char2terie Board.  But alas, it was not to be.

So it is with sadness that we admit that our malformed child will never enjoy the fate for which he was designed, but it is with joy and pride that we present the creature to you today.

from Dwarf Fortress

It's a mirror dungeon, based on one of Dyson Logos' maps.  Phlox and I each wrote one side of the mirror.  (Phlox's post is here.)

It's called The Dwarf in the Glass and you can read it if you click


Note: not a paid Patreon post.

Monsters of the Mythic Underworld, Part 2

 A while ago I wrote some monsters for the Mythic Underworld.  (See also Exultations of the Underworld at the bottom of this post.)

Basically the Underworld is actually Overhell.  Reality is hostile and distorted.  Dreams and dead things are sometimes real here.

Disposition and Reaction Rolls

I've started putting monster disposition in my statblocks (abbreviated as Dis) to give an overview of how monsters will react when encountered.  Roll a reaction roll on a d12, then consult the relevant table below (or just improvise).


  • 1-3 Attack, and will pursue further than normal.
  • 4-9 Attempt to drive you off, attacking if you don't.
  • 10+ Attempt to drive you off, but will not attack if you don't intrude further.


  • 1-3 Attack.
  • 4-9 Attack if party seems weak or hostile.  Possible chance for retreat.
  • 10+ Not hungry right now–but will be soon.  If approached: may flee or attack.


  • 1-3 Attack if you seem weak, steal if you seem dumb, beg otherwise.
  • 4-9 Steal if you seem dumb, beg otherwise.
  • 10+ Tries to strike up a bargain.


  • 1-3 Will try to cheat you.
  • 4-9 Will only try to cheat you a little.  If odd: have a small quest for you.
  • 10+ Discounts!  Limited time only.  Reason: desperate / they like you / common enemy.


  • 1-3 Attack.  Reason: protecting something / desperation / honor / mistaken identity.
  • 4-9 Hostile parley.  Will attack unless you: leave immediately / surrender money / surrender.
  • 10+ Parley.  They want something: information / assistance / supplies.  


  • 1-3 Attack.  Reason: protecting something / desperation / honor / mistaken identity.
  • 4-9 Parley.  They want: information / assistance / supplies / to sell their services.
  • 10+ Benevolence.  They want to help in some small way.


  • 1-3 Attack.  On a 1, attack without any regard for its own well-being.
  • 4-9 If you seem weak: attack.  If you seem far too strong: flee and seek aid.  Parley otherwise.
  • 10+ Not hostile at the moment.  Possible reasons: tired / scared / disgruntled / wounded.


  • 1-3 Shun.  If you don’t leave, they’ll leave.  Reason: disgust / fear / dislike / you are bad.
  • 4-9 Small assistance.  Limited in duration and degree. Shares information.  Asks questions.
  • 10+ Large assistance.  As above, except will probably want to come with you.

Underworld Monsters

Note: if a stat is not mentioned, assume that it is human-like.  

Zolliphar’s Voice
LvlDef none  Grab
Move slow  Int low  Dis guardian

Looks like a giant slinky, 7 feet tall, made from coins and glass.  If killed, it shatters into a heap of broken glass and 1d100 silver coins.

Zolliphar’s Curse - Immune to slashing and piercing.  Half damage from all other magic types.  All bludgeoning damage reduced by 5.  Shatters immediately if it falls at least 10’, or if it falls down stairs.  It can be shoved with a normal combat maneuver.

Grab - a Zolliphar’s Voice moves like a slinky.  When it grabs you, it traps you inside it’s body.  It then stretches floor-to-ceiling in order to lock itself in place, and begins vibrating and casting light and making a series of strange chiming sounds.

In this position, an ally can “bend the bars” (difficult Str check) to allow a trapped person to escape.  If it has no ceiling to brace against within 15’, it can be pushed over (easy Str check).

If a trapped person is still inside the Zoliphar’s Voice afterwards, they will vanish in a flash of light.  (They have been teleported to a random, non-secret room of the dungeon.)

NOTE: this is a reskinned version of the Zephyrus from the first Underworld Monster post, which itself was a reskinned version of the wallmaster from Zelda.

A Clobstrok from the Book of Mice
I drew this!
LvlDef medium  Claw 1d6
Move slow  Climb spider  Int low  Dis hungry

Looks like the picture above, except it's now more disk-like than the last time.

Heavy Shell - half damage from slashing and piercing.

Flying Crab - If they are at least 10’ above, and 10’ away from their target, they can launch themselves up to 100’ away like bladed frisbees, +4 bonus to hit and dealing 1d8 damage.  If the area is large enough (at least 30’ by 30’) they can remain airborne, and will prefer to circle.  In this circumstance, they will stay in the air, and can only be struck by ranged weapons.  If someone wants to ready an attack against them, they’ll have to wait until the clobstrok attacks, and then both attacks are made simultaneously.

LvlDef low  Claw 1d6+paralysis
Dis hungry

Looks like a ghoul.

Paralysis - Struck target is paralyzed if they fail a Con save.  A paralyzed target takes 1d4 damage on its next turn if it takes any actions (as their muscle fibers tear).  The turn after that, the damage drops to 1d4-1 (min 0).  The turn after that, it drops to 1d4-2 (min 0).  After that, it ends.

Varghoul Surprise -  When a varghoul takes damage, the head flies off and attacks independently, taking half of the remaining HP with it.

Varghoul Head
Lvl Def low  Bite 1d4+attach
Fly bat Dis hungry

Attach - as stirge.

Lvl 4  Def low  Trample 1d8, 50' line
Int low  Dis hungry

Looks like an undead cow.

Varghoul Surprise - When a vargomere takes damage, the head flies off and attacks independently, followed by two more (humanoid) heads from the rib cage.  The Varghoul Head has 3 HP.  The two regular heads each have 1 HP.  The body retains the remaining HP.

by Tony Diterlizzi

Trolls in the Underworld

Trolls are very common in the Underworld.

Green Trolls 

The cruelest of their kin, green trolls are usually in dungeons because it’s a good place to hunt and eat people.  Green trolls are famous for their cruelty and predation.  They’re common lieutenants.

Or more rarely, a troll is dismembered and scattered into a subterranean location with lots of food.  Since each piece of a green troll is a complete green troll, you can come back a few months later and have lots of young trolls (Levels 2-3) to collect.  

Sometimes this happens spontaneously, when an mature green troll is killed and eaten by something larger–lots of shredded troll bits (1 inch tall, the size of a hand, etc) eventually calve off from the mostly-eaten corpse.

Rock Trolls 

If there are no nice rocks to eat, there will be no rock trolls.  If there are nice rocks to eat, you may run into a rock troll.

Rock trolls are like shepherds to their flocks of rocks.  In natural caverns, they'll usually have herds of stones, for both companionship and meat.  It's pretty easy to herd rocks, since they don't move on their own very often, but just the same you'll sometimes see a rock troll urging his herd to a new pasture.  Perhaps this location became too wet, or perhaps it is time to find new members.

Rocks in a herd vary in size from pebbles to boulders.  When animated by an elder rock troll, they amble about as quickly as a pokey pony.  And like pokey ponies, they sometimes get lost.  

On rare occasions, you'll find rock trolls enchanted by someone who has a big shiny gemstone.  All you need to enchant a rock troll is to wave a fist-sized gem in front of their face.  You don't even need to know magic.

Shaggy Trolls (Longtail Trolls)

Shaggy trolls are friends to Zulin, and at least one has a seat at his table.    Because of this favor, Zulin upholds their oaths, and so promises made in front of a shaggy troll are especially binding.  And while they are very clever, shaggy trolls sometimes lose their riddle challenges or drinking contests.  As a result, they sometimes find themselves bound in service for 7 years and 7 days (to give one example).  When this happens, they may end up in the dungeon.

When acting as a guardian, shaggy trolls wield their giant rattle-maces (made from giant walnuts filled with black beans) and ride tops into battle, balancing on a single toe while resting on their heel in sitting tree pose.

These are different from their typical giant rattles, and typically cast mirror image - hole - soften metal

There is a decent chance that these trolls are accompanied by their spouse.  Roll a d6:

1-3    Not married
4        Human.  "I'm not here to fight, I'm just waiting for this stupid oath to be done."
5        Shaggy Troll.  "I'm not here to fight, I'm just waiting for this stupid oath to be done."
6        Shaggy Troll.  "I'm not here to fight."  (Will totally join the fight.)

Multiple Types of Trolls

As a general rule, the three species of trolls don't get along very well together.  If a green troll and a shaggy troll encounter each other, there's a good chance it ends in violence, but a 0% chance that it ends with someone dying.

This is because all trolls share a common ancestry (of sorts), and all trolls honor the Trollfather.  

Even though green trolls hate shaggy trolls, they'll still shelter them if they are seriously wounded.  And if a troll is killed unjustly, expect other trolls to avenge them, even if they are of a different species.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Gigantic Attack -- Resolving Combat in One Roll

 So tonight I'm going to be writing the first draft of a mechanic that is meant to replace an entire combat round with a single roll.

I first had the idea back when I was recording Go Die in a Hole with Nick from Papers and Pencils.  It's a little podcast (4 episodes!) where we run through dungeons as quickly as we can, in order to analyze them.  Because the focus is on analyzing the dungeon, we don't really care about combat, and so we eventually abstracted combat to a single d6 roll.

I mostly just treated the d6 as an oracle--1 is pretty bad, 6 is pretty good.  I just made up numbers and it seemed to work okay.  I've been DMing for a while, so I sorta know how bad a "pretty bad" round is.

It has the following design goals:

  • to discard individual actions--the party fights as a single unit, and makes a single roll together
  • to give similar outcomes compared to most OSR games
    • similar damage per round
    • similar damage spread
    • similar chances of victory against opponents
    • similar number of rounds of combat (but much faster)
  • to be compatible with current OSR standards 
    • e.g. swords deal 1d6, level 1 fighter has +1 or +2 to hit, etc
  • to have sufficient granularity where a +1 to hit makes a (small) difference
    • but not much more granularity than that
I've spent the last couple of hours playing with spreadsheets, and I think I have something workable.  I'm giving up on the "single d6" and changing it to "one d6 roll per side" because it's hard to map all the outcomes to a single d6 in a way that feels intuitive.  I do want this mechanic to feel intuitive when it is used.

Anyway, first let's talk about combat in general.  (If you don't have time for all this shit, just scroll down to GiganticAttack).

Why Have Combat Rolls Anyway?

Combat occupies a weird place in the tabletop game.  More than any other aspect, we like to break down combat into little pieces.  Combats are broken down into rounds, rounds are broken down into turns for every single person and every single monster.

We don't do this for overland travel.  DMs typically make a single roll for the party (navigation, etc) for a single day of travel.  This is weird, because a traveler probably makes more decisions over the course of that day than a fighter does in 6 seconds of combat--but maybe not interesting decisions?

#1 - We like to model combat at a granular, round-by-round level because we see each round of combat as an opportunity to make an interesting decision.

When there aren't any interesting decisions to make on each round of combat, it gets boring very fast.  "I attack.  I attack again.  I attack again.  We win."  (See also: dynamism.)  I'll talk more about this in a second, when we talk about the combat loop.

#2 - The stakes are also higher in combat than they are in overland travel.  When traveling, the worst case scenario is (often) taking longer to reach your destination.  In combat, the worst case scenario is always death.

In a game where the party was lost in the desert, completely out of water, and there was a real risk of death, the DM would probably zoom in for this reason.  There would be discussions about killing hirelings, opportunities to spend resources (potions) for advantages, etc.  

#3 - There's also a good bit of cultural momentum here.  Combat is granular because combat has always been granular.

Could we abstract or remove combat?

Yes, absolutely.  Many people (myself included) have argued that good combat is not as interesting as good dungeoneering.  That's another philosophy that is close to being an OSR standard.

Making attack rolls is usually not as interesting as poisoning the crocodiles (removing the need for attack rolls).  In combat, your options tend to be more limited (attack, cast spells, run away--and you only have 6 seconds to do it) but when dungeoneering (and preparing for a combat) you have far more interesting options.

So there is room to have an abstracted combat system.  Someone will be interested in it, at least in theory.  We just want to make sure that we keep #1 and #2 in the mechanic as well.  We want to give the players opportunities to make interesting decisions (#1) and we want the players to feel like they have ownership of the consequences--no one dies off-screen, so to speak (#2).

The Gameplay Loop

All parts of the game basically boil down to the same gameplay loop.

1. The DM presents information, rolling dice if needed.
2. The players make decisions and roll dice.
3. Repeat.

What separates good gameplay from bad gameplay is how meaningful, interesting, informed, and impactful those decisions are.  And that's it.  If you can do that, then you've written a good game (with shockingly few asterisks).

Good combat has all of those things.  

That's about as far as I can go with generalized theory.  I'm going to start piling on the generalizations and assumptions now--forgive me.

A good combat is about 3 rounds long.  By the end of the third round, one side has surrendered, fled, or died.  It opens with the DM giving everyone information and allowing players to make their decisions.  Each side loses about 1/3 of their health.  If the players are losing, they'll have two rounds to flee or turn it around, typically through either a clever scheme or by depleting a resource (spells, bombs, etc).

Remember, the gameplay loop doesn't see numbers.  We just want to make sure that the combat situation changes enough-but-not-too-much each round.

If everyone loses too much health % per round, the players don't have opportunities to react, make plans, and spend resources.

If no one loses enough health % per round, the fight seems like it drags on forever, with people just making endless attack rolls while grinding down the enemy health bars.

Our goal is to hit that sweet spot.

At low levels, PCs (and monsters) tend to be more fragile.  Combat tends to last 2-3 rounds.  At higher levels, it can take longer.

The Simplest Case

Let's consider a quartet of level 4 characters fighting a quartet of level 1 bandits.  Everyone has 4 HP, +1 to hit, leather armor (AC 12), and has weapons that deal 1d6 damage.

Well, everyone has exactly a 50% chance to hit.  With four attackers on each side, that's an average of 7 damage per side per round.

4 attacks * 3.5 average damage * 50% accuracy = 7 damage.

Damage per round will go down as combatants are killed, so the second and third rounds will not deal 7 damage on average.  It'll be lower.  So, speaking very broadly, this is approximates our desired combat.

So how do we turn this into a single dice roll?

Let's talk about relative standard deviation (RSD) first.

Average, Range, and RSD

Whenever you talk about a bell curve, you need to talk about the average and the RSD.  Consider

30d6 compared to 3d6 x 10.

They're both bell curves.  They both have the same average.  They both have the same max and the same min.  But these bell curves are not the same.  They have different standard deviations.

the heights aren't normalized, but you can still see that 30d6 is skinnier.

The 30d6 is a much skinner bell curve than the 3d6x10 curve.  Even though they both have the same average (105), 30d6 has a standard deviation of 9.35, while 3d6x10 has a standard deviation of 29.58.  Since we know that 95% of all results fall within 2 standard deviations, we can say that:

95% of 30d6 results fall within 86 - 124.
95% of 3d6x10 results fall within 46 - 164, a much wider range.

Why do I bring this up?  Because whatever we end up replacing the combat round with needs to have a similar spread of damage, not just the same average.

So what is the average damage of our 4-vs-4 match from above?  (This is four attack rolls, each with a 50% chance to hit for 1d6 damage, with all of the damaged summed into one pile.)  It looks like this:

Not a bell curve.  There's a bunch of zeros (since it's possible for all 4 attacks to miss) and some asymmetry coming from the overlaying the 1d6 result (only one hit) on top of the 2d6, 3d6, and 4d6 result.  (Since this is basically just a 1d6, 2d6, 3d6, and 4d6 curve laid on top of each other).  The RSD is 61% (standard deviation divided by average is 61%--the standard deviation is printed in the top right corner). 

RSD is useful to see how much variance there is, proportionately.  Since not every probability curve has the same average, we divide by the average to make them comparable.  (For example, 3d6 and 3d6x10 both have the same RSD, since all the randomness came from the same place: 3d6.)

If we average this across three rounds of combat, though, it looks much more like a bell curve:

Which does look like a bell curve.  (You don't need a bell curve to be incorporated into a single roll.  Enough flat rolls will always produce a bell curve.)

What about if our 4 characters were fighting armored enemies (AC 17) instead of leather-clad bandits?  They'd only hit on a 16-20, or a 25% of hitting.  Since this is half of their previous hit rate, we'd expect them to deal half as much damage on average.

Even further from a bell curve.  The 0 (chance of everyone missing) is much larger now.  In fact, 37.5% of the time, no one will land a hit.  The 3d6 and 4d6 curve (where 3 or 4 people hit) are now so unlikely that the 1d6 and 2d6 curves dominate the probability shape.  The RSD is a whopping 99%.

Just to be a completionist, let's look at what it would look like if the players had a 75% chance to hit:

Ah, you can barely tell this isn't a perfect bell curve.  RSD = 40%.  Much less variability compared to the other two, since there is a much smaller chance of everyone missing their attacks.  (All those zeroes really impact the standard deviation.)

SIM 75%10.54.2440%
SIM 50%74.2661%
SIM 25%3.53.4899%

So, what do we do with this?

Well, we want to make a mechanic (really a function) that accepts as inputs:
  • everyone's average weapon damage
  • everyone's attack bonus
  • all enemies' ACs
and outputs 
  • a probability distribution like the ones above, with both a similar average and a similar RSD.
The first idea I had was just to take the averages and make a table mapping the outcomes the appropriate percentile.  I think this is valid approach, but it makes it much harder to explain.

Instead I came up with this.  Basically, you calculate the average damage and roll a d6.

1-2:     deal 50% average damage.
3-4:     deal 100% average damage.
5-6:    deal 150% average damage.

as a starting point.

by Rin84

I call it


First, you need to calculate the individual attack power (AP) of the characters.  
  • Everyone contributes 1 AP per point of attack bonus.
  • Everyone contributes AP equal to the maximum damage of your weapon.
So a fighter with +1 to hit and a 1d6 sword contributes 7 AP.

A fighter with +5 to hit and a 1d8 greatsword contributes 13 AP.

The everyone's AP is summed together into the party's AP.  From now, AP will only be used to referred to the party's AP.  We don't care about individual AP anymore.

When the party makes an attack, everyone states who they are attacking.  Then they roll a single d6 for the entire party.  They deal damage according to the table below.

112.5% APdown
212.5% APup
325% APdown
425% APup
537.5% APdown
637.5% APup

Damage is applied first to the player's target.  Excess damage rolls over onto the next targets with a 2 point tax every time damage rolls over.  For example:
The party does 9 damage to a pair of bandits (4 HP each).  9 damage hits the first bandit, killing him.  The remaining 5 damage is taxed for 2 points, leaving 3.  The 3 damage rolls over onto the second bandit, leaving him with 1 HP remaining.
Things that would normally give advantage to attack rolls give +4 AP.   Disadvantage is -4 AP.

This assumes that enemies are wearing leather.  
  • Unarmored enemies: +6 AP (each attacker gains +1.5 AP)
  • Versus Chain: -6 AP (each attacker loses 1.5 AP)
  • Versus Plate: -12 AP (each attacker loses 3 AP).
Wizards can still cast spells normally (outside of the Gigantic Attack system) but if you wish to fold them into the Gigantic Attack system:
  • The wizard does not provide their regular AP that round.
  • The wizard ignores all enemy armor.
  • The spell provides 20 AP per MD.  
This is because 4 AP = 1 expected damage.  A 1 MD magic missile deals 1d6+1 (average 4.5) damage.  4.5 * 4 gives you 18, which is rounded up to 20 (since spells are usually cast at very opportune times, and tend to be more useful than their straight damage would imply). 

If all enemies are flying, PCs without ranged weapons cannot contribute AP.  If there are a mix of flying and non-flying enemies, all PCs can contribute AP, but the PCs cannot place all damage on flying enemies--it must be split proportionately between flying and ground enemies, since not all players can attack  the flying enemies.

A PC can perform a non-combat action during their turn (e.g. lighting a torch).  They don't contribute their AP during this turn, though.

When enemies attack the players, they calculate their APs and attacks identically.

If a PC is at full health, they cannot be killed in a single round unless the monsters deal more than 2x as much damage as necessary to kill them.  (So if a full health fighter starts at 5 HP, and the monsters deal 9 damage this turn, the fighter will take 4 damage, and then the remaining 5 damage will roll over without any tax.)

Bandit (5 AP)
+1 to hit, 1d6 damage
6 damage + 1 attack - 2 attack penalty* = 5 AP

Goblin (4 AP)
+0 to hit, 1d6 damage
6 damage + 0 attack - 2 attack penalty* = 4 AP

Owlbear (19 AP)
+5 to hit, 1d6/1d6/1d8 damage
6 + 6 + 8 damage + 5 attack - 6 attack penalty*  = 19 AP

Cultist (5 AP)
+1 to hit, 1d6 damage, can cast 2 MD magic missile (40 AP)
6 + 6 + 8 damage + 5 attack - 6 attack penalty*  = 19 AP

*When enemies attack the players, their AP is reduced by the player's armor.  For the average party, this penalty is about -2 AP per attack.  This attack penalty (due to PC armor) has already been baked into the monster stat-blocks above.

Heavy Armor Rule: heavily armored players cannot be one-shotted (from full health) unless the incoming damage is more than 2x enough to kill them.

And lastly, here's a table for you

APRoll 1d6AvgSDRSD


Realizing that even a single magic missile (1d6+1 damage) deals more damage than two regular attackers is fairly eye-opening.

Anyway, this system is never going to scale perfectly. It's impossible to reduce ~8 dice rolls into 1 die roll without losing some of the details.  

Having said that, let's see if the distortion is acceptable.

Four Fighters (+1 to hit, 1d6 damage) vs leather (AC 12)
Gigantic Attack741%
Four Fighters (+1 to hit, 1d6 damage) vs chain (AC 14)
Gigantic Attack5.542%
Four Fighters (+1 to hit, 1d6 damage) vs plate (AC 16)
Gigantic Attack441%
Four Fighters (+5 to hit, 1d6 damage) vs leather
Gigantic Attack1241%
Four Fighters (+5 to hit, 1d8 damage) vs leather
Gigantic Attack1341%

So, after comparing the two methods, here are the takeaways.
  • Getting another +1 to hit is better in Gigantic Attack.
In general, those +1s and -1s to hit matter more in Gigantic Attack.  It would honestly be better to say that each +1 to hit only contributes 2/3 of an AP.  I don't want to fiddle with it anymore, though.  

Is this an acceptable outcome?  Yes.

The only people who get a big attack bonus are higher-level fighters, and I'm okay with them being more effective in combat. 
  • Wielding a 2-hander (1d8 damage) is still useful, but not as much as it used to be.
I'm fine with this.
  • Players are more effective since they can drop all their damage on a single opponent.  Since excess damage rolls over, damage is never wasted.
This is a pretty big one when you're fighting a bunch of small dudes.  The 2 point tax is meant to represent the average amount of damage that is wasted (via overkill) whenever  you kill an enemy.  This will prevent the players from killing 6 goblins everytime they deal 6 damage.
  • The RSD is lower in Gigantic Attack.
Yes.  This means that the players' attacks will be more reliable.  Fewer high-damage rounds, fewer low-damage rounds.  In most games, it is the players who benefit from more reliable mechanics (not the monsters) since the players are usually the stronger side in a fight.

Think of it this way: if two teams are competing, the stronger team always wins,  unless something unexpected happens.

Higher RSD = unexpected things happen more often.

I have mixed feelings about this change, since I enjoy the chaos that comes out of combat.  It is nice when you have 4 HP left and the dragon misses you, thank god.  That sort of thing will happen less with Gigantic Attack.  (In fact, it's impossible to have a combat round elapse without damage dropping.)

Lots of people have argued for more reliable combat, though, since a combat round where everyone misses is very unsatisfying.  Chris "Into-the-Odd" McDowall has also argued for the same.

And more reliable damage during combat rounds will  hopefully keep the gameplay loop tight and effective (hopefully).

Anyway, if you end up trying this system, let me know how it goes.

And because I can't resist tampering, here's another grid.  This one corresponding to six evenly distributed percentiles (8.3%, 25%, 41.7%, 58.3%, 75%, and 91.7%).  It has the same averages as the table above, but this one has more chaos baked into it (the RSDs are higher).  This one is harder to calculate by hand (you pretty much need to print out this table) but it should match the chaos of regular OSR D&D a little bit closer.

APRoll 1d6AvgSDRSD