As 2020 rolls in, I find myself preparing for my next Forbidden Lands session while at the same time looking ahead by looking back. I am considering running 1981’s Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons as my next campaign. Only I’ll be using Old-School Essentials to do it. Because layout and rule formatting matter.
Photographer Dmytro Ostapenko.
Forbidden Lands is a new RPG from Free League that is d6 pool based and involves kin, professions, monsters and villains, magic items, dungeon delving, wilderness exploring, and stronghold building. Basic and Expert D&D swap a d20 for the dice pool but is otherwise similar. And Old-School Essentials combines the rules of Basic and Expert together into one book with modern layout and formatting.
I really enjoy Forbidden Lands. The setting is kingdom sized and full of lost ruins and fallen rulers, the combat is dangerous and exciting, and the monsters are a breeze to run.
However, I have one complaint. The formatting of NPCs (human and other kin) leaves a lot to be desired. Take a look:
TYPICAL MAIDEN DRUID
STRENGTH 2, AGILITY 3, WITS 4, EMPATHY 3
SKILLS: Melee 2, Marksmanship 2, Lore 2, Manipulation 2, Move 1
TALENTS: Path of Shifting Shapes 2
GEAR: Short bow, dagger, leather armor
What armor (points) does the druid have? What spells if any and at what Power Level? How much damage do her weapons do and what is the range and what are the adjustments if a foe parries or dodges? Does Move use Strength or Agility? If she takes a point of Strength damage how do you track it? If she parries with a dagger is there a penalty? How many arrows does she have?
If Forbidden Lands is new to you then you may not understand how you would know any of the answers. My point is even if you know the rules, how quickly can you gather the answers? Here are the answers in page numbers. For skills and what attribute they use see page 43. For the talent see page 64 (which leads to page 125 which leads to page 63). For the short bow see page 103 and for the dagger see page 101 (and for weapon features turn to pages 37, 92, 93, and 88). For leather armor see page 106.
The good news is, a lot of these pages contain charts and charts can be put on a screen or cheat sheet. But it is a lot of information to parse during a game. In contrast, monsters run smoothly and easily with each one having six different attacks options, armor, and maybe a small number of skills.
These is why formatting matters. Because no GM wants to run a combat with the stat block for the typical maiden druid.
For D&D, the formatting for two thieves looks like this:
Candella (AC 5; T/2; hp 8; MV 40’; #AT 1; D 1-8; Save T2; ML 7; AL N; S 12, I 15, W 13, D 17, C 15, Ch 14), and Duchess (AC 5; T/2; hp 11; MV40; #AT 1; D 1-8; Save T2; ML 7; AL N; S 11,112, W 15, D 16, C 18, Ch 15. The thieves will have the following on them: dungeon pack C; 21 cp, 7 sp, 15 gp, wolfsbane (Duchess only), and a string of pearls worth 600 gp (Candella only).
In Basic D&D, the modifiers for ability scores are already factored in (leather is AC 7, Dexterity bonus of 2, making it AC 5 and the hp are high enough to reflect the Constitution) and the 2nd level thief’s attack and savings throws are on page 35 in Old-School Essentials. If a GM wants to use thief abilities those display on page 34 opposite page 35. However, there are acronyms here that a DM must learn so call it two-page lookups (or three to find out what is in dungeon pack C):
Elf = E, Fighter = F, Halfling = H, Magic-User = M, Thief = T, Normal Man = NM; Level = some number; hit point = hp; Movement =MV; Number of Attacks =#AT; Damage=D; Save As =Save; Morale = ML; Alignment = AL; Abilities: Strength=S, Intelligence =I, Wisdom = W, Dexterity = D, Constitution = C, Charisma = Ch.
Those two page spreads in Old-School Essentials also point out how great layout can be for a GM. The physical book contains everything I need to run a thief when I open it to pages 34 and 35 if I know the acronyms. Here is an example from Necrotic Gnome’s website of the cleric two-page spread:
(Cleric example from Necrotic Gnome.)
I vastly prefer an RPG book with a layout meant to facilitate use at the table rather than written like a book with blocks of paragraphs. Forbidden Lands does a decent job with layout not counting stat blocks and Old-School Essentials excels at layout. Basic and Expert D&D not so much.
My first point that layout and formatting matter leads to my second point. I’m usually not willing to run older RPGs written in the book and paragraph style. Which would include Basic and Expert D&D except that Old-School Essentials fixes that problem for me. I had trouble running Call of Cthulhu for the same reason.
The opposite is also true, however. Basic D&D was published in 1981 and I’m eager to play it using the Old-School Essentials layout and formatting treatment. If a long-lasting game like Call of Cthulhu saw an update in this area (and maybe a trimming of the skill list) I’d take another look at it.
I’m okay with Mongoose Traveller 2E for the same reasons. Those rules haven’t changed much over the years, but the structuring of the rulebooks and adventures work well for me especially the flowchart for character creation.
You may never plan to publish an RPG. But as a GM, you should still consider layout and formatting. For example, I changed the Forbidden Lands stat block so most NPCs will fit two to a page and look like this:
Candella and Duchess, 2 MAIDEN DRUIDS
TALENTS: Path of Shifting Shapes 2
- Cast Bear’s Claw once with Power +1
- Power 1 for Rank 1
- Power 1 for Rank 2 no magical mishap
- Power 2 for Rank 2
Print outs of: Magic Mishap table on page 119 and shapeshifting spells pages 125-127
GEAR: Short bow, dagger, leather armor, d10 arrows, bear’s claw, staff, studded leather cap
|Agility||3||3||Marksmanship 2, Move 1 (Fast Reactive: Dodge & prone |
or Dodge -2)
|Dagger||1||1||slash or stab|
|Staff||1||1||Fast Reactive parry, slash, Fast shove|
Print outs of combat tables like actions including shove, range, and attack and defense.
A layout like this does take more room. But I’m looking for utility here not space savings. I can slash out attribute and gear damage as I go and modify the other rolls accordingly. I print out the spells and magic mishap table along with needed combat tables. I added in a d10 resource die of arrows so they can use their short bows. I also gave the druids an ingredient to increase Power Level and a staff so they can parry and push creatures and foes around (as well as for hiking). Also, a stylish studded leather cap to show how it adds more to armor.
Whether you design games or run them, taking time before the game to organize game information, especially for combat, can really improve your RPG and game play. It is not just the rules that matter but also how the data that powers the rules is presented and accessed. Take your favorite RPG and ask yourself if the current stat blocks make GMing easy. If not, create your own version and see if your skills as a GM improve in the next game you run.
Roll for insight. What does your success tell you about this article?