The Game Master’s Oath

Referee. Judge. Administrator. Dungeon Master. Game Master. Should you take up this mantle by any name, make first this oath before your fellow players to prove you take serious the having of games-playing fun. And by ancient tradition, apply your will and best judgement in altering this creed to suit those players whom you serve. Only make and keep your oath if you wish eternal and unlimited adventure.

I solemnly swear to fulfill this covenant to the best of my ability and judgment.

I will respect the wisdom accumulated over time by those game masters in whose footsteps I travel, and gladly will I share such knowledge with my comrades and any who follow.

I identify as my greatest resource imagination, my own and that of the other players, which implies the freedom to try anything. Never will I force action on a player character. Always will I fulfill my duty to imagine an exciting world and describe reactions as the players enjoy their free will.

I will judge circumstances impartially with prudence and a sense of proportion. Neither will I fall to nihilistic randomness, nor will I rule by secret fiat out of misplaced allegiance to a narrative. By my hand will fate weigh in the balance ever in service to the ultimate goal, an enjoyable game.

I will honor game mastery as a craft, part art and part science, remembering that rules may bend to inspire a sense of wonder, but rules make triumph possible. As such, I will allow the ingenuity of players to supersede abstract contests decided by dice.

Yet when intuition offers no obvious ruling, I will admit “I do not know”. In such circumstances I will rely on the chaos of casting dice to stand in for unknown variables. Remaining true to the game, I will accept the outcome even if it spells doom.

I will set the scene, offer choices and answer questions to the greatest extent possible, always taking care to maintain a sense of verisimilitude. I will adhere to the precedents of campaign history, employing precise tracking of deeds and resources.

So long as I honor this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling, and may I long experience the joy of playing with those who seek my mastery.

D&D Monster Reaction Charts Compared

The following monster reaction chart from the Mentzer red box edition of D&D shows up frequently on blogs and twitter. Every time I see it, I wonder about the chances of each end result. So, I worked out the chances by doing the multiplication.

Monster Reactions Chart from Basic D&D Red Box page 22

For example, roll a 3 for a possible attack. Then roll a 9, uncertain. Finally, roll a 5 for an attack. That’s a 25% chance of rolling 3-5. A second roll of 9-12 happens 28% of the time. A third roll of 5 also has a chance of 28%. That works out to 0.15%. However, there are many rows that end up as attack that must be added together. The following table reproduces the original with d100.

00‑02Immediate Attack3%
99‑00Immediately Friendly3%
Red Box converted to Percentile

A roll of a 2 on 2d6 is really 2.78%. The leave result should really be 14.95%, but I donated remainders to the first and last results to keep it to increments of 1%.

Other Basic Editions

Of course, this got me wondering about other editions. The chart from the third volume of the little brown books looks like the following.

OD&D The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures page 13 – Random Actions by Monsters

With such a high chance of an uncertain result, maybe it’s trying to tell the DM to figure it out himself. But said DM might say to himself, “uncertain, eh? I wonder which way they are leaning.” And then he’ll roll again. Maybe that’s how we got the nested Mentzer table.

Next, I looked at what’s in the Holmes book, which breaks up the negative and positive reactions into less likely immediate reactions. Nearly half the time, though, you’re rolling again.

2Attacks immediately!2.7%
3‑5Hostile reaction25.0%
6‑8Uncertain, make another offer, roll again44.4%
9‑11Accepts offer, friendly25.0%
12Enthusiastic, volunteers help2.7%
Holmes Basic Reaction Rolls page 11

Presumably only a roll of 6-8 requires a re-roll. I’d probably interpret a 6 as being vaguely hostile. Now consider the Rules Cyclopedia.

D&D Rules Cyclopedia page 93

This table has a bias for monsters being hostile or at least not helpful. That probably makes more sense for monsters in a dungeon into which a party of adventurers just showed up, busting down doors. I appreciate how this table has a memory for previous results. Imagine first getting a 6. The monsters growl in response. The players have a chance to do something. If they keep talking, though, the best they can do is push the monsters to a cautious state.

2‑3Monster Attacks8.33%
4‑6Monster is aggressive33.33%
7‑9Monster is cautious41.67%
10‑11Monster is neutral13.89%
12Monster is friendly2.78%
D&D Rules Cyclopedia percentages

The rules for using this table go into more detail. Don’t apply any charisma bonus on the first roll, but do afterwards. Adjust based on what the characters are doing. A cowardly or outmatched monster should run rather than attack. Lastly, never roll more than three times. After that, the monsters attack or retreat.

Newer Editions

Following is the chart provided in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide page 63

Interestingly, Gygax provides a percentile chart in AD&D. Though not explicitly stated, I assume an uncertain result should cause a second roll with a bonus or penalty of 55%. That seems to mean that a roll of 45 prevents getting back to a neutral state unless some other bonuses are in effect. In the chart below, you can see how the AD&D table is symmetric, not biased towards hostility from monsters.

01‑05Violently hostile, immediate attack or check morale5%
06‑25Hostile, immediate action or check morale20%
26‑45Uncertain but prone towards negative20%
46‑55Neutral, uninterested or uncertain10%
56‑75Uncertain but prone towards positive20%
76‑95Friendly, immediate action20%
96‑00Enthusiastically friendly5%
AD&D reaction percentages

Since my game runs on Basic Fantasy, I also computed percentages for the reaction table from that game. The table is presented as being for monsters.

Basic Fantasy Reaction Roll Table page 43

The results are only slightly biased towards hostility. It’s closest to OD&D.

2Immediate Attack2.78%
12Very Favorable2.78%
Basic Fantasy reaction percentages

The AD&D 2E rules use 2d10 and a cross reference against player stance (friendly, indifferent, threatening hostile) to produce the monster stance, which produces the same four stances plus flight. It looks like rolling for monster reactions went away in 3E. I don’t see it in 5E, either.

Comparing these methods, I’m inclined to adapt the Rules Cyclopedia ideas for my campaign. I like the idea of the dice pushing me in a direction when it’s not obvious how the foes should react. I also like the idea of the exchange playing out over three rolls.

Leon’s Reaction Table

Here’s what I plan go with in my game.

2‑3The time for talk is over. Check morale. Failure means flight or surrender. Otherwise, attack immediately.
4‑6Someone will get their head bashed in. Attitude is aggressive and negative. Apply -4 to the next check if there’s room for negotiation. Otherwise, it’s fight or flight.
7‑9Clear and present danger. Cautious and aware of possible trouble. Disengage without violence if possible, or provide a final warning.
10‑11Trust and verify. Neutral and open to a fair exchange. Apply +4 to the next check. Any final offers are take-it-or-leave-it.
12This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Relaxed presumption of courtesy.
Leon’s Monster Reaction Table

Move the interaction through three phases, generally divided by exchanges of dialog but not necessarily only one round long.

  1. Determine initial attitude without the benefit or penalty of charisma. Apply ±4 for any non-verbal biases, such displaying the symbols of an enemy tribe or being a filthy barbarian among perfumed concubines.
  2. Roll again, applying relevant charisma bonuses. Ignore the biases from first impressions, but include any new information. Friendly gestures or bribes promote a friendly reaction. Rude or aggressive behavior promotes negative reactions. Consider the actions of participants.
  3. Make one, final roll. Conclude the encounter with role-playing or combat.


Cathedral Collapse

I created the following short rules to model an earthquake created by the closure of a portal to the land of the dead. The narrative of how it played out is at the beginning of the Session #82 entry over at Empty Z.

The setup is a low rumble followed by shaking. It’s not an actual earthquake, rather a magic event that spans a few minutes. As a DM, I want uncertainty for myself to keep the action surprising. I also want the rules set ahead of time lest I feel tempted to improvise something overly influenced by my mood at that particular moment. That is, I want to be Crom, merely setting the world in motion.

The players are inside a church. The doors are spiked closed from outside. They can try to force the doors open using the rules for smashing open a locked door, which is rolling d10 and getting in the range of 1 plus their strength bonus. The strongest character has a 30% chance each round to make this happen. There’s also a way out they way they came: up stairs to the roof, across the roof, down a rope 30′ to the ground. They can take two rounds to safely repel or try going down in one round, but risk a save versus death or take 1d6 in damage.

I did not anticipate escape via the stained glass windows which I’d described a couple of sessions previously. I improvised that they were 10′ up and would take 10 damage before breaking apart.

The progression of the magical earthquake used the following procedure.

Each round, roll a die. Start with d12. Use a smaller die each round using the sequence d12, d10, d8, d6, d4 and then keep going with d4. Check the result.

  • On a 1, the entire structure collapses. Anyone still inside takes 3d6 damage. Anyone on the roof takes 2d6 damage.
  • On a 2 or 3, part of the roof gives way, either dropping a large chunk or opening a hole underneath one character. Choose the character at random.

The sequence of ever-smaller dice means collapse becomes more likely with each round. However, I can’t know exactly when, though most likely it would happen in five rounds or sooner. I communicated urgency. The players picked up on the uncertainty of what could happen and responded with creative problem solved that was both action-oriented and not combat.

D&D Entertainment News

Secrets of Blackmoor Review

Dungeons and Dragons eludes complete understanding. Secrets of Blackmoor offers one step on your way to enlightenment.

Despite re-reading the 239 pages of the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide as a kid, the game remained inscrutable. Despite this, I recall my first encounter with the game as effortlessly joyful. Though it was easy to catch on to the varied and vigorous opinions about proper play in The Dragon magazine, some force drove me onward, compelling me to re-read pages. Somehow, I aimed to solve the disconnect between the game as played by my friends versus the outlandish ideas in the books.

The written word, however erudite or evocative, can only suggest the experience of artwork. It cannot reproduce the feeling of gazing meditatively at The Starry Night. I thought if I could just decipher the jumble of thoughts in the rule books, I’d reach some nirvana of RPG mastery. Eventually I concluded, playing is a craft you learn by doing, hopefully with the guiding hand of a master, in the same way you learn to build a fence with your dad.

I have read Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World. It’s deep. It’s essential. And it illuminates a thousand other paths to explore. I’ve read Jeffro Johnson’s APPENDIX N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. It inspires, offering additional twisting trails to follow. Two aspects of Secrets of Blackmoor make it uniquely compelling: the focus on Dave Arneson and the experience of first hand accounts.

The confident voice of Gary Gygax echoes across the years. Though sharing equal billing with Arneson on the original little brown books, the misconception that the D&D was his invention is easy to understand. By the time AD&D arrived, it was the Gygax name alone on the front cover. By the end of the 1980s, it’s as if he gave birth to the genre and all other games descended from his wisdom. Fortunately, historians are uncovering the complete story.

The more we learn from the originators, the better our play today. I am completely happy to spend weeks pouring over 720 pages of thick, comprehensive history. At the same time, I’m grateful for a 2 hour documentary I can share with my sons. It offers a concentrated impact to receive the legends related by the heroes themselves. It communicates an infectious passion for the hobby.

As this film is labeled as the first volume, I do look forward to a continuation of the series. The more we all enjoy this work, the more it will encourage and enable the creation of additional volumes in the series. As I write this, physical copies are still available from the Secrets of Blackmoor store. You can also stream the film from Vimeo or Amazon.

D&D Games

XP Bonuses that Encourage Great Play

In this post, I describe house rules I’m adding to my Basic Fantasy RPG campaign. Vast documentation about our gaming presents itself on EmptyZ, including several years of session reports.

From the beginning, my aim was to replicate the Swords & Sorcery experience as portrayed in the literature of Appendix N of the 1E DMG. I recommend Jeffro Johnson’s passionate writing on the topic as the most compelling argument for enjoying more of this genre. Furthermore, I aimed to expose my sons and the children of my friends to the wonder of D&D in the way it was originally conceived.

I knew most of my players experienced the genre secondhand at best. As a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, I read little of the masters, and I count it as a blessing to enjoy many of these works for the first time as an adult. I wanted my sons to think of Gygax ahead of Skyrim, Anderson before Halo. We enjoy these modern works even more when we acknowledge from whence they came.

I also considered how the kids experienced infinite lives in the video games they play. I saw them using Minecraft creative mode often, hardcore mode never. We adults had some expectation that the low survivability of 1st level characters might prove traumatic to 9-year-olds. Despite the sheading of a few tears early on, the kids mostly took our coaching: roll up another guy and jump back in.

As in life generally, my approach is non-coercive. I never threatened my sons with spankings. I never threaten my players with a trip down a plot railroad. I tend towards an economic mindset where the system itself offers incentives and disincentives. If it’s gold you want, as a player you are advised to sneak it out of the dungeon when you can and avoid fights.

Being efficacious in the game world is the primary value. That is, being able to make the changes you want with relatively low effort. It’s hard building a castle when you’re 1st level, so you go out adventuring. Experience points (XP) are the currency traded in for the power to make a difference. I leverage that when adding rules so that I get a system that produces the experiences I estimate will be most enjoyable.

This was the direction from where I came as I built house rules recently to encourage more genre-compatible play. I noticed our primary party, Tienarth’s Raiders, were all playing against the stereotypes. The beefy dwarf fighter runs away if his hit points get low or he’s afraid his backpack will get wet. The ancient elf mage sometimes jumps into melee even though his AC is bad and he can only do 1 or 2 damage with his 4 strength. The thief refuses to steal or otherwise behave dishonestly.

I don’t want to dictate proper play. Occasional atypical behavior is one of the best spices in the hearty stew of roleplaying. I love that we have a name for the feeble dagger attacks from the mage: The Tienarth Tickle. I do want it to be unusual and a considered choice from the player.

I started by reading through the descriptions of races and classes in all editions through 2E: OD&D, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, 1E. I also looked at splat books and what’s in Basic Fantasy. It was not surprised to find the earliest work to be sparse and the later work to be quite generic. I found enough concepts from the rest to produce lists of stereotypical aspects. For example, elves like to be in the wilderness, not the city.

I also thought about actions all adventurers take. We already have rewards for fighting and finding treasure. I like the idea of rewarding discovery itself. I want to encourage the players to head off into the forest because just finding a ruined fortress is interesting on its own, even better if there’s a skull carved out of diamond several levels underground.

For all players, I outlined ways to earn experience as follows.

  • Defeating monsters in battle, per the standard rules.
  • Trading 1 GP for 1 XP. I make them spend the GP. Just getting it out of the dungeon isn’t enough.
  • 20 XP for each 1 HP of damage taken during combat. 10 XP per 1 HP of damage dealt by spell. I’m sure I first saw that idea when reading The Tao of D&D. I like that it make the most difference for low level characters. [See Note #1]
  • Discovery of wonders or artifacts can earn variable, predetermined bonuses. If the players wander around the jungle and find an ancient pyramid, that’s great, so long as they survive to bring that story back to civilization. The same would apply to finding the thigh bone of a saint.
  • Each race and class has a list of stereotypical behaviors. If the player can work those behaviors into play, I award a 1% XP bonus up to a maximum of 5%. As is standard in BFRPG, humans earn an automatic 10% bonus. Humans just have to be generally accepting of a wide variety of experiences.

Here’s my list for dwarves.

  1. Rugged, resilient, courageous. Endures hardship with no complaining or being afraid.
  2. Stubborn.
  3. Suspicious.
  4. Enjoy a hearty meal and/or a strong drink.
  5. Dour. Taciturn. Humorless, except black humor.
  6. Discovers something important based on knowledge of stonework.
  7. Adventures underground and not on water.
  8. Drives a hard bargain.
  9. Respects law or tradition.
  10. Acquires a double share of gold or gems measured by value.

Note how I’ve set up rule #10 to encourage greediness without leaving it abstract. If the dwarf can work it out so that he gets more than his fair share of the treasure, he gets a slight XP boost. I’d like to structure the rest in that way. It’s a work in progress.

Here’s my list for thieves.

  1. Steals. Also, the value of anything stolen awards 1 XP / 1 GP in value immediately. Can still be spent later on training.
  2. Uses dexterity to good effect, including thief skills.
  3. Successfully deciphers an unknown language or reads an arcane scroll.
  4. Attacks by surprise or behind and never in frontal assault.
  5. Avoids honest work. Runs a racket. Plays a trick for monetary gain.

As above with the dwarf, a thief is encouraged to steal if he can get away with it. A character who manages to play a trick that allows him to steal money from a sorry rube will end up with XP equal to the value stolen plus a bonus of 2% on the entire session’s share due to hitting points 1 and 5.

I must confess, none of this is playtested. It’s a work in progress as the game is always so. The complete rules are documented at Empty Z’s XP Bonuses. I’m sure I’ll updated them over the coming weeks.


  1. May 14th, 2020: I dropped the XP for damage taken. It was too much bookkeeping
  2. May 30th, 2020: The incentives have had an immediate, positive effect. Both thief and mage quit rushing in to fight side by side with the fighters. The halfling consistently pursues trouble-inducing curiosity. And one of the players gave me a dungeon map followed by a sonnet.