I came up with this silly little system to measure lethality in a D&D game. All editions are different in this perspective, as are all OSR clones. Dungeon Masters also have different approaches to death and dying. The GOBLIN RATING is a way of defining the lethality at your table. It is also a good way to make it clear to players what to expect by providing them with an example most of us can relate to by answering the question “how dangerous is a goblin?“
How to define your GOBLIN RATING
To determine the goblin rating of your game decide how many goblins would it take to pose a serious threat (risk of character deaths, or even a total party kill) to a party of level 1 adventurers in a head on encounter. A high goblin rating indicates a more forgiving game than a low one.
Please excuse the provocative title, but I would like to talk a little about why I think the Bag of Holding is an item that’s better left out of your Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
What is a Bag of Holding?
The Bag of Holding is a magic item that exists in most (all?) editions of D&D, as well as most clones (like Pathfinder and OSR games). It is basically an enchanted bag with an interior considerably larger than it’s outer dimensions. It is used to store treasure and equipment that would otherwise be too cumbersome for the player characters to carry.
Below is how the Bag of Holding is described in D&D Basic/Expert from 1981. Note that in those older editions weight was defined in coins. 10 coins were equal to one pound, so this Bag of Holding can fit items with a combined weight of 1000 pounds. (source: Old-School Essentials System Reference Document):
Bag of Holding
A normal-looking, small sack that can magically contain large objects and weights.
Size: Objects of up to 10’×5’×3’ can fit inside the bag.
Weight: Up to 10,000 coins of weight can be placed in the bag.
When full: The bag weighs 600 coins.
The modern version of the Bag of Holding (D&D 5th edition) is more or less identical to the B/X one, but carries “only” 500 pounds of weight.
What purpose does the Bag of Holding serve?
In short: the Bag of Holding lets player characters carry much more items than they would normally be able to. This is of course extremely useful for a bunch of semi-medieval adventurers in a fantasy world. Players are happy because their characters can bring more equipment and salavage more treasure. The dungeon master is happy because he doesn’t need to bother with rules for tracking encumbrance.
Why the Bag is Bad.
So, why is this a bad thing?
Well, it’s not bad per se. If you want to run a superhero style D&D campaign, where characters are larger than life then it’s fine to not track mundane mechanics such as encumbrance. But then again – why not just ignore it completely? You don’t need the Bag of Holding as an excuse to remove encumbrance from your game. Just assume the characters somehow manages to carry everything they want.
But to me D&D isn’t a game of superheroes and epic encounters. To me D&D is a game about heroic burglary and expedition style adventures. I would argue that most older editions of the game support my approach. Others would argue that later editions are built for something very different. Both viewpoints would probably be correct.
If you want to play D&D the way I prefer, then mundane choices become important. The Bag of Holding removes those choices from the game. It makes them irrelevant, and that is why it’s bad.
Expedition style D&D
Expedition style burglary adventures are all about prioritizing. When encumbrance is a factor the party need to somehow decide what to bring on their journey.
How many torches do we really need?
How much water and food can we carry? What if we run out?
Do we need to bring any special equipment or tools based on what we know of the site?
Can we make do with one tent, or do we need two?
Do we bring things “just in case” or only what we know we’ll have use for?
Do we need to get a donkey? A cart? What do we do with it when we enter the dungeon? (hello Bill)
By having to make all these choices the game becomes richer. Already in “town” the players need to start planning their venture. They benefit greatly by gathering information about the adventure location as such information can help them prioritize. Without a Bag of Holding these are hard choices! With a Bag of Holding they can just buy up the whole inventory of the store and they’re all set. There are no choices to make except for possibly financial ones.
A game of burglary
D&D is a game of burglary. It’s about reaching hard to reach places, and enter dangerous sites to find treasure and get out alive. This presents important choices. Treasure weighs – often a lot. If the players have a Bag of Holding they can just grab whatever they find and stuff it. If they don’t – well that’s another story. The 200 pound statue looks valuable, but is it worth the effort? Salvaging a chest full of coins is a feat of it’s own. Even if you manage to get it out of the dungeon you might not be able to bring it back to town without assistance. Perhaps better bury it somewhere where X marks the spot.
Being encumbered is risky, especially in old-school D&D where combat is dangerous. An encumbered character is putting his or her life at risk should a hasty retreat become necessary. When danger lurks around the corner you want to make sure you’re able to run. Having to leave treasure behind is an excruciating decision to make, but an important lesson can be learnt here: next time make sure to bring hirelings on your expedition.
All these decision makes the game richer in my opinion. What the Bag of Holding does is to remove such dilemma, and that’s why I think it’s bad.
Edit 2020-10-11: this has made some people angry. That’s fine, there’s no reason to agree for the sake of agreeing and everyone plays the game the way they want. Some of the angry readers have accused me of being a boring DM for taking the mundane into consideration when playing D&D. And while they might be right about me being boring (I hope not, but I’m not the right person to say) I’d like to write just a few words about why I think the mundane has an important place in my campaign:
The tension between the mundane and the fantastic
A lot of people roll their eyes over mundane things like encumbrance mechanics in D&D. To me such things are important to set the right tone in the game. It’s not about “high” or “low” fantasy. It’s about tension between the mundane and the fantastic.
To me fantastic genres like fantasy, horror and sci-fi is at it’s most captivating when the mundaneencounters the fantastic. It is the contrast between those two realms that creates tension and awe.
If your character is a flying half-demon that shoots laser from his arse then few things in a fantasy world will feel very fantastic. Finding a magical item will be convinient, but never awe-inspiring because magic is an everyday commodity.
This is why I prefer human characters and why I think it’s good to count torches and track encumbrance. Because when the characters are rooted in the mundane, encountering something that isn’t is a truly magical experience.
The home base (town, village, hamlet) is an important element of many fantasy adventures. It provides opportunity for roleplaying and setting the tone for the campaign. The home base also allows the game master to adjust the difficulty of the adventure by deciding what resources are available for purchase, if retainers can be hired and if rumours can give hints about dangers to come. The home base works as a hub, and lets the game master enrich the campaign world by adding lore and side quests.
Despite this, many adventures lack a town, and leaves it up to the game master to create it. That is why I created Fourtower Bridge. It’s a small home base that can be dropped into pretty much any fantasy campaign or adventure, with minimal (if any) work required by you.
This is Fourtower Bridge
Fourtower is located on the moorlands in the outskirts of the realm. The name refers to the bridge itself as well as the small settlement surrounding it.
The fortified bridge provides safe passage across the river for those traveling the old King’s Road. While originally built for military purposes, the fortification no longer serves such a role and civilians have been allowed to build houses around it, forming a small hamlet. While a few farms are scattered across the surrounding landscape, this area is certainly considered the backwoods of the realm.
The bridge construction consists of four towers and thick gates barring passage across a sturdy stone overpass. The fortification was given as reward by the local regent to a party of four adventurers who did the realm a great service many years ago. The four adventurers are now retired and live in the towers. “The Four” collect tolls from those who wishes to cross the bridge, although not from locals.
Download “Welcome to Fourtower Bridge” (.pfd)
Welcome to Fourtower Bridge is free to download and print for personal use, but please do not publish it online or in print without written consent by the author.
Let me be very clear: the content on this website is free for personal use, and it will stay that way. That said, I sometimes get questions if there’s any way to support my work. If you insist on giving me a tip my Ko-Fi account is https://ko-fi.com/pathspeculiar. This will make me very happy, but is not expected!
Sometimes when I post my dungeon maps online I get angry comments pointing out design elements that “doesn’t make sense” because they don’t serve a practical purpose. Such elements can be anything from a simple alcove to a corridor dead-end or more fantastic features such as a bottomless pit or a unpractical trap. The people protesting these elements claim things should be constructed with a clear, practical purpose or it doesn’t make sense and breaks the immersion of the game.
But does everything in a dungeon need to serve a practical purpose? No, it certainly does not.
What is a dungeon?
I will be discussing “dungeons” in a fantasy context like Dungeons & Dragons or sword & sorcery litterature. In this context the dungeon concept is not limited to the prison-pits of medieval and renaissance Europe (although a prison could certainly have non-practical features).
In this broader definition a dungeon can be any type of confined space where the adventure takes place, such as:
the underground temple of an evil cult,
the cursed mansion of a deranged noble
a necromancers dark tower
the ruins of an ancient dwarven city
the cave-settlement of an orc tribe
an old crypt containing the remains of a great general
Why do we build?
Humans have always created things with little or no practical purpose. We do it because we are visual, creative and curious creatures. While we are amazing at creating practical things like the wheel and the nuclear power plant we are also driven by aesthetics and curiosity. This heavily influences the way we craft things. We construct a fully functional fighter plane, but still feel the need to paint shark teeth nose art even though it doesn’t affect the functionality of the plane.
Sometimes we build things just to see if we can. We do it it to prove our exceptional skill and to instill awe. The Statue of Liberty was useless as a lighthouse, but a wonder of engineering and still one of the most famous and beloved landmarks on the planet. Does it serve a practical purpose? Not really. Does it make sense? Yes, to a human it does.
This is not something new. There are cave paintings more than 40 000 years old that likely served no other purpose than decoration or religious expression. Medieval castles were certainly built with a practical purpose in mind, but they are still fitted with decorative and extravagant features – things of beauty and pride. Quite often humans do things just to show off.
The folly of architecture
There’s even a word for this: folly. A folly is a structure, often eccentric in nature, that serves no other purpose than decoration. Like a Roman ruin built in 18th century England or a “Chinese” pavilion in a Swedish palace park. It’s basically a very expensive conversation piece. Another example is the classic garden maze.
And sometimes we fail. Sometimes we build things in a certain way just because we didn’t know better. Not all architects are good at what they do. History is filled with examples of unsuccesful construction. It’s easy to say in hindsight that such a construction element “makes no sense” – but it did to the ones that built it.
In short: while we build things to serve practical purposes we also build for the sake of beauty, curisosity, awe, narcissism, vanity, superstition, faith, love, hate and … folly.
The sense-making dungeon?
Considering the above not everything in a dungeon needs to “make sense”. While there need to be some balance – everything should probably not be silly – adding decoration or eccentric design features makes the dungeon more interesting to explore. It makes for a better game.
An insane (but powerful) necromancer has his minions create a dark underground palace. Would it really be so far-fetched that his megalomaniacal ego would shape the construction of such a site? Does it not make sense that he will create traps that are overly sadistical in nature even if the typical nature of a trap is to deal out instant death? What would his idea of “beauty” be? Probably different than most.
A rich and decadent nobleman builds a castle. Would it not be possible that he’d spend his gold on a folly labyrinth just to show off for his guests? And with all gold spent on the folly, the construction of the rest of the castle took an abrupt end leaving several corridors in dead ends.
When an obscure cult build their temple, their leader gets a vision telling him the ceilings of the inner sanctum may not be taller than five feet. Ridiculous, of course, but people in the real world have come up with stranger religious dogma than that.
Designing your dungeon
When you design your dungeon, keep this in mind:
not everything needs to be practical
not everything needs to “make sense”
You don’t have to be able to explain everything in a dungeon. People will sometimes build for shits and giggles. If you come up with something cool that you can’t explain – leave it in. There’s a good chance the imaginary dungeon builder did it just for the hell of it. Maybe she had a good reason which is now lost. Who knows? The best dungeon is the one with a mix of practical, predictable elements and elements of art and mystery.
BREACH is part fan art for the great game “Carrion”, developed by Phobia Game Studio (published by Devolver Digital), part illustration for my Termination Shock sci-fi setting.
Carrion is a reversed-horror metroidvania game, where you play a horrible blob-like creature trying to escape a science lab. I had so much fun playing it, and I’m really hoping for an expansion as the game is quite short.
Termination Shock is my sci-fi setting concept for OSR style tabletop roleplaying games.
Most vigilant among the King’s guardsmen was Ernest Spudfield. His watchful gaze was unmatched, and his loyalty was fierce. Three times he thwarted attempts on the King’s life, and three times he refused to be knighted for his service. Ernest was a humble man who cared little for fame and glory: all he wanted in life was to keep watch.
The king asked the dwarves to craft a masterwork halberd and on it mount the royal seal, and so they did. The Queen tied her scarlet ribbon to the halberd’s shaft. All knights of the realm cut their palms on the weapon’s edge to acknowledge it as well as the man who wielded it as the prime protector of the royal family.
And so it was presented to Ernest Spudfield who gracefully accepted the reward. He carried it for the rest of his life, and over the decades of service his zeal was infused into the halberd. At his death the weapon had become magical, even though no wizard had ever touched it.
Properties of the halberd (rules for D&D B/X or Old-School Essentials)
This +2 halberd grants the following abilities:
Hypervigilance: 2 in 6 chance of being alerted when a hostile creature is within 100 feet
Wakefulness: the wielder of the halberd only needs to sleep once per week
Vanadis-13NE is a manned space station in orbit of Neptune. It’s main purpose is to scan for information about Neptune and it’s moons, but also to pick up radio signals from space and monitor astronomical phenomena in the Kuiper Belt and beyond. It was built by the Swedish Space Agency in 2090 and deployed shortly after, it is currently the only earth construction in Neptune’s orbit.
Vanadis has a crew of four scientists who typically serve for 24 months on overlapping rotations. It can host another 10-12 people in temporary quarters when needed, and other earth ships may dock to replenish supplies and get help with repairs. It get’s lonely out there, so the crew of Vanadis-13NE are happy to welcome guests whenever possible.
Please Note: Termination Shock is a work in progress and an ongoing project, it is updated every once in a while when I’m in the mood for. It is meant as a setting concept for Old-School Renaissance games and early versions of D&D.
Termination Shock is not about grand scale, travelling the galaxy and meeting alien civilisations. It’s about mankind’s attempts of taming the great, untamable frontier. That is not to say it’s not a grand adventure! It’s about setting off into space to repair the wreckage of our space infrastructure, and to explore how petty our first steps into the unknown are.
Background – Setting the stage
It’s 2114, and we are the masters of our solar system. A breakthrough in nuclear science made it possible for us to build small fusion reactors suitable to power starships, and discoveries within the field of electromagnetism led us to invent magnetic propulsion technology that could send us through space faster than ever before. Far from the warp travel of science fiction of course, but still fast enough to be able to reach the Kuiper belt at the edge of our system in a year’s travel.
We built star ports and space stations. We put permanent science outposts on Mars and on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. We mined precious metals on Mercury and in the asteroid belts. Radio relay beacons made instant communication possible between earth and the motley armada of commercial and governmental starships setting off to explore the vast darkness of space. It is earth’s second great age of discovery, and a time where great heroes are born.
We have not yet landed on Orcus, so for sometime yet we do not know Hell.
Then all went silent and dark. A few months ago a particle storm suddenly swept through the solar system and wiped out almost all of our sensitive electrical components. The radio beacons broke, starships lost their propulsion and the heroes of mankind found themselves dead in the water, millions of kilometers from home. Earth managed quite well, the atmosphere withstood most of the storm although the inhabitants got to experience the greatest aurora borealis in the history of the planet.
Here begins our campaign. The player characters make up the crew of one of the few starships that survived the storm. They will set off into space against a backdrop of a solar system gone dark, where hundreds of drifting starships, millions of kilometers away, are either cold, floating tombs or small beacons of flickering life, their crews slumbering in life-support pods. On planets and moons and asteroids mankind’s earliest space-colonists waits to be rescued, or at least given a proper burial.
Is space crowded?
Well, no. Hundreds of starships are out there, drifting, as well as several large space stations, satellites and other constructions of mankind, but keep in mind that the solar system is almost unbelievably vast. When this campaign starts, Pluto is 7.37593 billion kilometers from Earth. The likelihood of bumping into another soul when traveling the solar system is microscopic unless you are actively trying to rendezvous. During the course of this campaign, the heroes will at times feel very small and very lonely. Space is dark, silent and often utterly terrifying.
And that’s true even before we land on Orcus.
Are there aliens?
Well, yeah. There are probably things that lurk in the darkness. There will be some insidious space goo and other scary stuff like mind-controlling bacteria. The characters might even pick up an alien radio signal hidden in the static or something similarly strange. It’s not Star Trek or Wars, though. There will be no fraternizing with intelligent, human-like alien civilizations.
Don’t land on Orcus, though. Seriously.
The things we build for space is rugged. There are no smart phones or other delicate electrical gadgets. Keyboards are mechanical and goes “clunk” when you hit the keys. Computers are built to do very specific things, we do not waste processor power on graphical interfaces or color screens if we don’t have to. Screens are black with green text.
We like nuclear energy, because it almost never needs refueling and most of the time it doesn’t explode. Our ship’s engines create magnetic fields, and we surf them at incredible speeds. We can reach Mars in weeks. We have built weapons that can shoot rays, but most of the time we prefer things that say bang.
We have built robots to help us with menial tasks. Some of them show signs of eerie intelligence though, as if our AI-blocking protocols isn’t as safe as the manufacturer’s claim them to be.
Starships are very, very expensive. They are built and commandeered by corporations, governments and eccentric billionaire adventurers.
For the last hundred years or so, cosmic phenomenons, radiation fields and electrical storms has increased in our system, and it has made communication over vast distances much harder than it used to be. We now rely heavily on a network of radio relay satellites to facilitate transmissions between planets, stations and ships. Bandwidth is low. We cannot submit video, and images arrive distorted. Since the storm, all of these satellites needs to be repaired.
How is life on Earth?
Pretty much like it’s always been. Humans are quite often assholes to each other, and we pollute our planet. It’s not apocalyptic, but could be better. We still desire fame, money and power. The rich are very rich, and the poor are very poor. Kids in shit countries die from diseases that can be prevented. The middle class has a pretty decent life, most of the time. But little of that really matters to the players or their characters, because this campaign is not about earth.
The “Danse Macabre” is an artistic genre from the late middle ages. It usually depicts skeletons or skeletal figures dancing, and is meant to symbolise the universality of death. I was really inspired by the danse macabre for this illustration of an undead skeleton dancing on top of it’s own grave.
If you are as fond of the undead as I am, check out some of my undead-themed dungeon maps, perfect for horror-fantasy adventures!