Category Archives: History


by Solomoriah

You see a 15 foot square room.  It has two regular chairs, two rocking chairs, and a comfortable-looking sofa.  A rug lies diagonally on the wood floor, and in the center of the rug is a chest.

100_5502 Checking It Out

You may recall my post back in March 2013 about the passing of my good friend Alan.  Tonight his widow came by and brought me his footlocker.  It was locked, and nobody knew where the key was.  She asked me to return the empty box and any private papers I might find, and told me to keep whatever else I found.

I tried to pick it, but apparently I’m a wizard rather than a thief.  And no, I don’t know Knock.  So I got out my drill and started in on the keyhole.

It spun about three times and unlocked.  Go figure.

100_5509 Now Open

As you can see, I had my familiar helping me.

I unpacked the materials carefully.

100_5515 Contents

Two complete sets of Basic Marvel Super Heroes, one original and one of the updated version (which I didn’t know existed).  Some random D&D materials, from AD&D 1E and BX up to 3E.  Some Forgotten Realms materials, including a box from the 1E version with just the transparent map films inside along with random unrelated materials.  A complete set of Star Frontiers (the original, from before they rebranded it “Alpha Dawn.”  A bunch of comics, mostly Warlord and Conan.

More importantly, to me, I found papers he wrote himself.  Mostly his character sheets, from games I’ve run over the years.  I remembered them all.

But the thing I was looking for wasn’t in his footlocker at all… it was in a binder she handed me almost as an afterthought.  The dungeon he was designing.  It was handwritten, a one-level dungeon map (around 40 rooms or so) and a four page key to the dungeon.

I’ll be publishing it.  Since it’s short, it will probably show up in AA2.

Now I have a hankering to play me some Star Frontiers…

Dungeon Ecology, and Other Religious Beliefs

by Solomoriah

I remember reading about the idea of having a proper “dungeon ecology” in the RPG magazines of the early 1980’s.  The fantasy RPGs of that era all included random dungeon generation tables, and many GMs would simply draw a map and then start rolling to fill in the rooms; this would lead to things like the stereotypical “dragon in a 10’x10′ room.”  So the RPG magazines of the era began publishing articles about planning your dungeons, really thinking about where you put the monsters, what they ate, even how they got air to breathe.

And yeah, this was an improvement, and a big one.  Not only was a sensible, logical dungeon design more pleasing to play, it allowed the players to actually reason about the adventure.  Having met an orc patrol, they might suspect the presence of a lair, for instance; or an encounter with a monster seemingly held prisoner behind a locked door would result in a search for its secret entrance.

Of course, this was more work, but it was worth it.  After all, everyone said it was, so it must be so, right?

Thus “dungeon ecology” became a thing that everyone was supposed to do.  All monsters had to make sense in the context of the imaginary environment, all treasures had to be reasonable, and all parts of the dungeon had to be assembled logically.

The only problem with that is, the real world doesn’t work that way.  So why should the fantasy world?

I’ve seen many old buildings where the arrangement of at least a few of the rooms makes little or no sense.  I recall an old school building where the third floor rest rooms were like handball courts, a few toilets lined up along one wall, sinks on another, and a bunch of empty space.  I think they were converted classrooms.  In another building, a staircase goes up to a blank wall where a doorway was closed off some time in the past.

I’ve seen large houses subdivided into offices, or apartments, or both, with varying degrees of strangeness left from the conversion.  I lived in such a house once, where I had a good lock on my main door keeping people out, but no lock on the attic stair door; that attic being connected directly to the other upstairs apartment.  They could have slipped in to my apartment and robbed me (though they’d have gotten little for the effort) or I could have done the same to them.  Of course, I put a lock on that door.

The point is, life is messy.  Plans get changed, items get repurposed.

Well, the true believer in dungeon ecology would say, then you need to think about that too.  When you design a dungeon, think about all the different creatures that lived there and how they would have changed or expanded the dungeon.

Gah.  That gets complicated fast, and there’s a better way.

Random tables.

Seriously.  Any adequately complex dungeon design of this sort, put together with all that deep thinking (which is hidden from the players, of course) will look pretty random in the end.  So go with the flow.  Roll up your rooms using the random design system of your choice (there’s one in the BFRPG Core Rules), and then go through the design with your map in front of you and think about what parts are pure nonsense.  Dragons in 10’x10′ rooms, for instance.  Rearrange, or change, whatever really doesn’t work, but don’t sweat the details.

Creating a dungeon shouldn’t be so much work that nobody wants to do it.  So why make it that way?

Note:  There’s another good reason to use random rolls at least part of the time for adventure design.  Stay tuned next time for “Single Creator Syndrome.”

I’d like you to meet my friend Alan

by Solomoriah

Alan's Characters 800 DSC_9699

If you were to flip through the Core Rules, or Morgansfort, or Fortress, Tomb, and Tower, you’d find among the playtesters a fellow named Alan Jett.  I met Alan in high school, back around 1982; he was introduced by a mutual friend, one of the first players in my first RPG group, and in no time, not only had Alan joined our group, but we were playing at his house.

Alan was very reserved normally; I’ve known a number of people who described him as unfriendly, in fact.  He was really just rather shy, a consequence of being, well, nerdy.  Like me, unsurprisingly.  It was in the game world where he really opened up, though, and we got to see him the way he wanted to be seen.

One of his very earliest characters, possibly his first, was a human fighter named Faldren.  Faldren joined a party of adventurers who got lost in the Great Desert and ended up exploring some lost pyramid.  Faldren was a front-line fighter whenever he got the chance, fighting alongside Thorin the dwarf.  (No, neither of those names are particularly original.  Give us a break, we were kids.)

Late in 1983, having played what seemed like forever (as everything that lasts more than a month does at that age), we changed to a more “advanced” game, and I let Alan bring Faldren into that game.  We experimented with other systems too, superheroes and science fiction and other kinds of fantasy.  I soon realized that you never really see what someone wants to be until you play an RPG with them.

Alan wanted to be a hero.  He had hoped to serve in the military, but he had the sort of medical issues which would prevent that.  In real life he was a bit of a gun freak.  He hunted, something I never did with him (or anyone, hunting never appealed to me).  He’s the guy who convinced me to see the movie Shocker… someday I have to watch that one again.

I did what he wanted to, but could not.  I spent four years in the Air Force, gaining valuable experience that led to my current job.  When I got out and came home, we picked up the game as if we’d never quit.  I was still running “advanced” adventures, but I began to get an urge for something more, well, basic.

So, along with the rest of my game group, Alan became one of the playtesters for Basic Fantasy RPG.  He had two characters, sometimes played together when the group was too small, sometimes played separately; the miniatures pictured here are the ones he used.  One, a human fighter named Kyron Ristan, was almost the reincarnation of Faldren, even coming from the same dusty land of Kel south of the Great Desert.  The other was his dwarf cleric Tybrinn.

Like every other character I ever saw him play, they were heroes.  Another player in my group had the bright idea to play a necromancer, but he was very careful to keep the true nature of his powers secret as he knew if Alan’s characters learned what he was, he’d likely end up dead.  Alan was like that, no tolerance for evil.

In October 2012, days away from his 47th birthday, Alan succumbed to the cancer that he had been battling for several years.  He is missed at my game table and in my life.

What Is Old School?

by Solomoriah

Back in the day, as they say, when I started playing RPGs, there were certain things that were just understood.  What the GM said was law.  When you rolled up a new character, you rolled a spare just in case, because you knew that not all the player characters were coming back alive from their first adventure.  When you met the monsters, you were not guaranteed to be at your best… and there was no guarantee you could defeat them, either.

Looking back, I can see when it began to change.  It started in small ways.  New character classes and races resulted in a form of what is called “feature creep” in the programming world.  More detail added to the player characters made creating one take longer.  A new focus on “story” led to some players writing extensive background for their characters, well beyond “he’s a barbarian from the hill country looking for adventure.”  All that effort spent creating a character meant that, before play even began, the player was already emotionally invested in the character.

When you have an investment in a character, you sure don’t want to see him (or her, or it) die right away.  Traditional games tended to mitigate lethality for higher level characters with spells like Raise Dead, which were generally not available to beginning characters; so the rules were changed to make it harder to kill the character in a permanent fashion.

There is surely a balance to be struck here, a balance we’ve tried hard to find in Basic Fantasy RPG.  Modern games ignore the balance, as creating a character takes so long and involves so much work that no one wants to risk (character) death.

But even in a modern game, there has to be some semblance of failure.  To make the game “better” for the players, even that risk required mitigation.  The designers of the new school made the idea of game balance into a virtual religion… each encounter was carefully analyzed to confirm whether it was a proper challenge for an “average” party.  As far as I can figure, this means “make the PCs work up a sweat while killing the monsters.”  It specifically doesn’t mean “the monsters might kill you all.”

Players who learned in the new school will tell the GM he’s doing it wrong if he causes them to face monsters more powerful that “game balance” allows.  Players trained in the old school know that monsters prefer to prey upon the weak.

Let me give you an example of the old school at work:

In my current campaign, the player characters, all around 3rd level, were traveling through the wilderness; I rolled a random encounter, and a green dragon was indicated.  The dragon did not leap directly into battle; rather, it positioned itself across their path, and told them it could smell their gold.  “Give me half, and I’ll let you live.”  So they did.  This sort of exchange has actually happened several times, even one time involving a red dragon (though he wanted more than half).

In the new school, I’d have been shouted down as soon as I announced the monster.  How dare I use a monster the party couldn’t defeat?

Bah.  The real world doesn’t work like that.  Bad guys don’t pick on you because you represent a fair challenge… they pick on you because they believe they will win.  They believe you are weaker, one way or another.  Why in the world should the game be any different?  Is this world we’re imagining designed by Disney or what?

The Difficulties of Sharing

by Solomoriah

Sharing is hard.

The Basic Fantasy Project is built on the idea of sharing, freely, the game we love with all its many facets and options.  Many people have told me over the years that I’m crazy to give the game away for free… I’ve talked about it before.  Let me tell you right now, if I sold the game, I’d be crazy.  I’d have been driven crazy by now.

Worries about things like “brand recognition” and “fragmentation” only make sense if you are trying to make a profit.  Marketing… it’s a pernicious thing, a necessary evil in a land of capitalism (which I do believe in, honestly).  It influences my business, but I refuse to let it worm its way into my hobby also.

So really, sharing is easy.  It’s the easiest choice, once you lay down the idol of profit.

But sharing is still hard.

You create something, something that you think is good.  Maybe really good, but you know you can’t tell for sure.  You share it, and you invite people to help you finish it, polish and primp and repaint and remodel, and behold, they do come.

But there’s an unexpected factor.  They don’t all think just like you.  They have ideas… their own ideas.  You think some of their ideas are really, really cool.  You aren’t so sure about the rest.

They want to help, but they expect you to take their stuff and put it in your stuff.  What you do next defines you.  It defines your project.  It colors things from then on.

This is what I faced when I started the Basic Fantasy Project.  It turned out, once I let go of my ego for a few moments, that more of the stuff I received was good than bad, and even the bad stuff had a certain charm.  Many times, we’ve taken ideas that were not so good and hammered and polished them into something really nice.  It helps that I published my goals and my methodology from the very start… people whose ideas differed too much from what I was trying to accomplish quickly came to understand, and moved on to other projects more compatible with their material.

Still, even now, every time I receive a new document to consider for the site, I have to push my ego away for a bit and try to be objective.  Even the authors I respect the most sometimes turn in material that doesn’t fit with my vision, and I have to decide, is it the material that needs to be changed, or my vision?

Sharing is hard, but its been worth it.  Thank you, to everyone who has contributed to the project.  Thank you very much.

On the Origin of Species

by Solomoriah

One of the questions I seem to answer over and over again is this:  What was the original “retro-clone” game system?

For the purposes of this discussion, let me define “retroclone” in this way:  Such a game is one which reproduces the class-and-level game mechanics familiar to those of use who attended the Old School, where dungeoneering and the slaying of dragons was of paramount concern.  Retro-clones in general depend on the Open Game License originated by Wizards of the Coast to make themselves legal, or at least, to cover their author’s behinds.

Given that definition, which was first?  Well, it’s a bit of a gray area.  Before any OGL-based clone game ever appeared, Kenzer and Co. released Hackmaster.  That game definitely reproduced the classic mechanics, but it did so while being, in essence, a parody of those games.  This parody status, and other legal issues, allowed Kenzer and Co. to sell their game without fear of legal retribution.

The first “old school” game to use the OGL was undoubtedly Castles & Crusades, and it could reasonably claim the title of “first retroclone” if you accept it as a clone.  Many don’t consider it a proper clone of the classic game systems, as it includes a “unified mechanic” which replaces the various odd rules of the Old School.

About the same time the Troll Lords were designing C&C, I was creating my own game system called Project 74.  Though I did not refer to C&C at any point during my development process, I found that they and I had taken similar approaches in some details of our game systems.  But I found Project 74 ultimately unfulfilling; it just didn’t feel right.  I had thrown out too many Old School rules, and unified the game system too much.  I felt the need for a change.

That’s when I started putting together the rules that became the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game.  There wasn’t much to it when I released the first version back in 2006, but over the course of a few months it became playable (I ran a game at a mini-convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa using Release 45 of the rules) and within about a year it was complete and available in print.

Around the time I was halfway done, I was contacted by Stuart Marshall, who had a similar project in mind.  His “coverage target,” i.e. the age and style of mechanics he was replicating, was different than mine (more advanced, you might say), and his game, now known as OSRIC, was closer mechanically to the original materials than I had dared to go.  Matt Finch worked with Stuart on OSRIC, and I honestly don’t know how much or which parts of the development were done by each of them.

EDIT 12/26/2013: While searching for something else entirely, I came upon a thread on the Knights and Knaves Alehouse forum where Matt “Mythmere” Finch proposed the project that became OSRIC.  The post was made March 18, 2006, the same day I announced Release 29 (labeled “2006.29”) of the Core Rules.  So that gives a bit better indication of the order the games were released in.  The thread is here:

Not long after that, I recall hearing of Dan Proctor’s Labyrinth Lord game system.  Whereas I had solicited all the help I could get, Dan built his entire rule system all by himself.  That cannot have been easy, but I knew as soon as I read the first release version that he really had something there.  In fact, if Labyrinth Lord had existed in early 2006, there would be no Basic Fantasy RPG… I wouldn’t have needed to write it.

The last game of the “early period” that I remember hearing about was Swords & Wizardry, by Matt Finch.  His game’s “coverage target” was the very earliest RPG systems, and what I’ve seen of that game is pretty impressive.

I must admit, I don’t actually know which of the game systems that followed BFRPG was really first, though I’m pretty sure OSRIC was out before either of the other two.  Each game that came after Basic Fantasy was closer to the source material, just as BFRPG was closer to the source material than the games that came before it.

Nowadays, it seems that every second game master has his own retroclone game system… recalling the days when I was treading on untested ground seems very strange indeed.