THE BATTLE FOR THE RUBY SKULL: An Experiment In Alternative B/X D&D Combat


To me, the best "time scale" in old-school D&D (and any D&D really) is exploration. The time it takes to clear a room with 4-6 PCs in real life (~30 min) matches what is tracked in-game. Social interactions are very similar and very close to 1 to 1. Wilderness travel often deviates very noticeably, especially when a DM basically teleports the PCs to the next major location.

But combat always provides the sticking point. Each round is only supposed to track 6 seconds of time, but in reality, each round can really, really drag. When instead it should be fun and exciting.


I started reading Kill Team to see what the Warhammer folks had to say and a couple of things jumped out at me:

  • Initiative was side, not individual models (very similar to B/X)
  • Objectives were present
  • Five rounds is all the game lasts with a roll at the end of the 5th for one more round
Two other OSR bloggers also had some suggestions about combat. Chris McDowd of Into The Odd had this variation for 5e combat (scaled for B/X):

Roll 1d20 and compare to the opponents AC:
  • If a "natural 1", it is a miss- deal no damage
  • If less than AC, it is a glance- deal 1 point of damage, cannot drop HP below 0
  • If greater than or equal to AC, it is a hit- deal average weapon damage, can drop HP below 0
  • If a "natural 20", it is a critical hit- deal max weapon damage, can drop HP below 0

Next is Nick LS Whelan from Paper & Pencils fame with a really good suggestion thrown out on the OSR Discord:

  • If a hit, PC can deal damage OR maneuver the enemy (negotiated by player & DM)
  • If a critical hit, PC can deal damage AND maneuver the enemy (negotiated by player & DM) 
  • A maneuver is a push, pull, trip, disarm, grapple or anything else that is reasonable with the context of the PC and the weapon or item they are welding.
To test how well these rule work in combination I printed up some random parties of 4x 2 level random characters (+ random equipment; four parties of 4; sixteen PCs total), threw some random terrain on the table, and my friend declared that a ruby skull at the one side of the room had to be carried through the door of the other side of the room. But it could only be carried with two hands.

The movement was dictated by B/X rules mainly based on the armor you were wearing.
The beginning. Forces of Law upper left, Chaos lower left.
Ruby skull to the right (objective) & door to the left (end goal)

And-- this work really well! Were were able to play two battles of 8 v 8 in about two hours. It was a tactical challenge with some great free form moments borne by the maneuver rules as described above. Remembered highlights:
  • Wizards (wearing no armor) and Thieves (wearing leather) moving fast really meant a lot with an objective in play. That ~6-8 squares per round is amazing vs. metal armoring moving 4 square per round. You can one (light blue) moving quite fast in the picture up top.
  • Even with two spells, Wizards did their fair share as a properly timed Magic Missile or Sleep spell really changed the battlefield. And one of my wizards had the floating disc spell which freed up moving the ruby skull on her turn.
  • The "supercharged" combat rules really added nice intensity to combat. The glance rule definitely helped some amazing comebacks, but the slow tick even wore down those with chain and plate.
  • Combat did reach a decisive conclusion in 5 rounds in both games. It's like those Warhammer people know something about skirmish games.
  • So what about those maneuver rules?
    • Some characters had 8 and 10 feet of chain in their equipment and used them as improvised weapons (1/4) to also entangle & disarm weapons
    • A bad of sand was used to blind (and blinded creatures cannot attack in B/X)
    • Two PCs of Law dumped my PC, Zweihander David, into an open crypt and shut it.
    • The forces of Chaos were able to switch places with forces of Law at the door to clear a lane.
The end. The forces of Law pulled out a narrow victory by grabbing the ruby skull at the "goal line"
and went through the door (left). Over on the right, you can see a pile of dead thief and wizard bodies
-- an early and vicious knife fight.

MY ADDITIONS(?)...I guess I am still mulling this over.
  • I've always enjoyed the "notch" system by 10 Foot Polemic so maybe a hit that equals AC does 1 dmg but reduced the target's AC by 1. Notch weapons on a miss "natural 1".
  • I still feel like swords, daggers, axes, maces, two-handed swords, and spears should have some easy to use quality to them that is meaningful (like spears have reach).
  • I thought maybe some good healing rules might be:
    • Combat lasts 5 rounds
    • If the PCs route, defeat, or complete their objective, then they earn d6 x (5-current round) HP back after combat. If they retreat its half that-- cowards.
    • Maybe if they obtain an objective they get an immediate +1d6 HP
    • Roll HP per day
  • A way to make objectives concrete but can be chosen each battle- does Delores Stroke have an answer?


It's not surprising the GoblinPunch and Necropraxis has some good thoughts on adventure design. I like both of these posts because they help distill the source of the most enjoyment of D&D- player lead/initiated non-linear problem-solving. 


  1. The generic optimum is the best plan that's printed on your character sheets.
  2. Dynamism is the opposite; it's how much you have to change your plans each round.
  3. Nearly all games would benefit from more dynamism.  Let's talk about where it comes from.
  4. A common mistake that DMs and game designers make is confusing complexity and dynamism. 
  5. Imagine a lich with a bunch of spells and abilities: fireball, finger of death, teleport, disintegrate, counterspell.  It has a bunch of legendary actions each turn, paralyzing people and using cantrips.  As a monster, the lich is fairly complex to run.
  6. And yet, despite that complexity, the lich is not very dynamic.  A party facing a lich expects to take a lot of damage every turn.  Most of the lich's abilities do not disrupt the party's plans.

I was curious about the way in which players would choose to interact with various factions rather than intending to subvert tropes, such as, for example, presenting orcs as having a sympathetic subaltern perspective. For example, given two wicked factions in tension controlling different aspects of a dungeon, how would players react? What about two seemingly sympathetic factions locked in internecine conflict?

I wanted to play to find out who would become the antagonists.
In retrospect, maintaining a certain degree of discipline regarding avoiding moralization at the time of populating the setting enabled greater player freedom and, probably, more interesting and complex moral outcomes, without transforming the game into a simplistic morality play, or pandering to the idiosyncratic political ideals of myself or my group of players at the time.


  • Talking with Matt Finch over the differences between old/new styles of DMing. As well as chatting about how he DMs 20+ players in a session after watching him do just that. Best part about said session was:
    1. GM Finch asking the group, "Who bows down to the shrunken' halfing head now possessed by a demon?"
    2. The 5 PCs that did immediately gained tattoos, teeth, horns, and one person- wings!
    3. Then GM Finch started offering 5,000 XP bonuses if the tattooed players would perform tasks for the demon. Not compulsory, just move this person to that staircase or temporarily blind another PC.

  • Talking with Greg Gillespie about Forbidden Caverns of Archaia. That man is very nice, low-key on social media, and very big. Like halflings would be an AC bonus in combat with him big. He also filled me in on the next big megadungeon- wizards, floating dungeons, teleporters. I think he has a nice inside about D&D and I hope he does more podcasts in the future.

  • Talking with David "Zeb" Cook was a real big delight, I also got my bound copy of B/X signed by him. But forgot to bring my Planescape box set! We initially had a short conversation but I met him later in the Dwarven Forge hotel party were we covered:
    • Magical realism & Italio Calvino
    • Russian fantasy movies on Netflix
    • How he wasn't on the team that did Planescape: Torment
    • A little of the origins of the Planescape setting
  • Through Ultan's Door did not really garner much attention, but I did end up thinking of a new hook for it and running it through with my friends. The better idea I came up with is to start the highest CHA PC off as the new "chosen one" in a group of acolytes of the Cult of Sleep on the run after their cult had been smashed. Once through the door, the PCs have to find the demon to re-anoint the chosen one with the God of Sleep's favor. Three players with 6, level two, B/X PCs- two of which died in the first encounter and one that was sacrificed to gain the demon's favor.
    It worked out well and I want to develop this angle better and look forward to continuing using issue #2.

  • Zjelwyin Fall was the second game I ran, again B/X pre-gens all of level two. This module requires the players to travel to the Astral Plane and infiltrate a lich's phylactery and obtain the Quantum Crown. Each of the modules seven levels is a puzzle. Now, I thought this would be a good con module because its a unique setting, made for low-levels, and doesn't involve combat. However, what I realized is that the meta-problem with puzzle dungeons is that players solve them as players, not as characters. So that might have sapped some of the experience.
  • LotFP's Grinding Gears --again, a puzzle module that I started playing a player not really getting into it as a character. The DM was one of the folks that run The Long Con which is another small con in Texas. He ran a good game that kept us guessing, but still, I think the problem of puzzle dungeons stands.

  • The second game I played was a playtest of a new style of gaming that focused on encouraging RP by handing out tokens as the players attempted certain actions. The idea is that your character starts out with 0 attributes and skills. But as you perform actions the GM awards tokens that you use to buy, real-time, attributes and abilities. The actual adventure itself involved a band of dwarves separated from a war band coming upon a lost keep controlled by four factions guarding an evil power.
  • B/X Essentials Magic-User & Cleric Spells: Fantastic asset at the table.
  • Big Dragon's DM Screen: Nice heavy cardboard. And really great physical "master" character sheets on cardboard for scanning or copying.
  • B4 The Lost City & AD&D Player's Handbook (the demon idol one of course)
  • Meeting both Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley and learning they are both from KY was pretty fantastic. I also got DARLENE to sign all the original Greyhawk maps I have!
  • Watching the Midnight Auction was hilarious- free booze- "Zeb" Cook produced the Honeymooners board game?!
  • Looking around you can tell the NTRPG CON is put together with a lot of love, but I do wonder when the old guard passes on to the mythic underground, what will become of it? Can this Con evolve into something new or encourage fresh blood?


[Below are the first few session reports from my on-going store game using Forbidden Cavern of Archaia and 5e D&D run in an old school style. The part in italics is on the flyer I posted].


HIS 5E GAME OF D&D will use just the free Basic Rules found online at:
Making it perfect for those new to the hobby and curious. New players are very welcome! Not even dice are needed.

FIFTH EDITION RUN IN AN OLD SCHOOL STYLE: We will use a few of the alternative 5e rules for slower healing and stress. EXP is mainly gained by loot which removes the focus on combat. Dead characters are replaced by a 3d6-down-the-line generation. And this megadungeon exploration is in the vein of METROID/DARKEST DUNGEON, but there are plenty of NPCs and factions to manipulate for your own selfish ends!

#2 PREVIOUSLY: TOMB RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARCHAIA. Two devout clerics of St. Ygg dared to plunge into the Forbidden Lands with their recently liberated thi--, "relic hunter", in tow. Their goal is to bring dangerous relics of the past and information about the gathering chaotic hoards back to the warm, lawful embrace of Ygg. Currently, they are hunkered down in an elven crypt with four magical but fragile amphora-- worth plenty if they can get them back safely.

#3 PREVIOUSLY: OH GREAT, ELVES. With the arrival of the elven "delegation", Katyanna, Buddy, Radon, and their halfing burglar Brakka, Ukko and Gunter see their grave digg--- relic retrieval in peril. But diplomatic name-calling and judicious use of thieves cant brokered a deal where the adventuring party would help with the urns and then only draw from the recently recovered (and very slippery) Deck of Many Things once they were safely around other innocent Ygg-fearing souls. A treacherous climb awaited, but Ukko was to suffer the first non-Deck misfortune, by almost falling to his death! Where it not for the entirely inadequate medical attention performed by almost everyone and Gunther's devotion to Ygg, Ukko would have been dead. But instead, he lived to deal with the jerks of St. Ygg. Now much richer, the party drinks really, really well and decides their next course of action!

#4 PREVIOUSLY: JUST A BUNCH OF ROCKS. Loaded up with supplies, the party leaves early in the morning to explore more of the dread sunken city. Playing it safe, the party plunges into one of the upper caverns to avoid the humanoid patrols on the canyon floor. They tangled with well-disguised denizens in the forms of a large draco-form and stalactite-like crustaceans. Then, once across one of the broken city's many subterranean gulfs, the party pauses in a puzzling vine-covered foyer and muffled cries for help!

#5 PREVIOUSLY: STONE COLD DEATH! Disaster strikes! After meeting up with a pair of inquisitive dwarves, a sufferer of demonic thrall, and another sly thief, the party battled their way past ravenous mimetic plant life to a maze of doors. While mostly empty, the designs on the wall revealed this tomb to be the resting place of a powerful Archaian summoner and necromancer. Soon enough the party found themselves in said tomb tempted by a large brilliant ruby and a crypt of magic items. But it was all a trap...

Stone guardians mobilized and although moved like drunken men from years of dormancy, they laid low all but two of the party. Those two escaped from death leaving behind the mournful songs of their crushed friends- may Ygg take them quickly.

#6 PREVIOUSLY: ABRAKADABRA! THE PARTY GOT A MYSTERIOUS STAFF BUT STILL LEFT CADAVERS! Undaunted by death and haunted by the mysterious crypt, the sole survivor of the previous trek gathered a new band of adventurers to raid the crypt of the Archaian sorcerer.

The trip was fill fated from the beginning as the party was attacked at Dragon's Tooth Henge by undeath rising out of the growing mounds of mold, filth, and garbage at the henge. Each bore the crude mark of a hand with a fanged mouth in the palm. Although surrounded, the adventurers overcame and finally laid to rest these horrid bones.

Once back at the crypt of the sorcerer, a plan was hatched to steal the staff, ring, and the too-enticing-to-be-left ruby. The results were the same, but this time the two surviving members have a mysterious ebony staff and gold ring. Now if they can just get it back to Eastdale...


Still always milling over how to make weapons simple, but contain meaningful context-dependant choices so that combat can become faster and environments matter.


A very excellent post from Ben L. (of Ultan's Door Fame which I'll be running at North Texas RPG Con) about story emerging from sandbox play. He also gives a really even-handed explanation of the different approaches adopted by the OSR and indie games in their response to "trad rpgs". 

I could quote it to death, but here is one of my favorite parts:

If we don't see ourselves as storytelling, then in what sense do we take pleasure in "emergent stories"? When we say we're into "stories that emerge from play", we mean precisely stories that no one aimed to produce. Like in ordinary life, where we do various things not intending to produce a story, but nonetheless through the interaction of chance, the dubiousness of colorful characters, and our boldness in the moment, a memorable story emerges. 


Into The Breach

D&D Combat Objectives

Into The Breach continues to influence how I think D&D combat should be run. Its because in addition to varried terrain, Into The Breach uses a limited set of turns and variable objectives: Kill X, Guard Y, Hold Z, Destroy A, Don’t take B total damage. This makes each round section of combat a short tactical puzzle. Your “party” in this game consists of 3 mechs with limited movement, HP, and 1-2 attacks that do damage, push/pull enemies, freeze them, set them on fire etc.

Often D&D combat can devolve into a sluggish exchange of blows between sides with the only objective being to kill one side. This is often unrealistic- most people don’t want to die and really only the most zealous will fight to the death.

B/X provides tools to help a DM guard against this outcome by employing three checks: Suprise (2-in-6), Encounter Reaction (2d6), and the Morale Check(2d6).

Another tool to add, would be eliminating “kill everyone” as the default objective to combat once its determined the encounter is hostile and involves conflict. Here is my stab at such a thing:

INTELLIGENT CREATURES (Goblins & Gnolls, Orcs & Ogres)
01 | Grab the gold/valuables
02 | Capture the caster & spellbook
03 | Sacrifice the cleric in the name of foul gods.
04 | Hit & Run! Reduce 1+ PCs to 50% HP then withdraw
05 | Loot the party for supply and equipment packs
06 | Push the PCs out of the room/area/bridge; then guard it
07 | Capture the animals/NPCs/Hirelings
08 | Hold position until more dangerous reinforcement arrive.

INSTINCTUAL CREATURES (Animals, Beasts, Basilisks & Hydras)
01 | Attack the nearest NPC/pack animal-- drag into the underbrush
02 | Attack the weakest/smallest PC-- drag into the underbrush
03 | Hold a specific territory
04 | Bloody the largest PC in a territorial display
05 | Fight until hit with magic
06 | Ravage backpacks for food
07 | Hit & Run-- next three encounters will be with this creature
08 | Territorial display, but will yield ground quickly

UNINTELLIGENT CREATURES (Oozes, Constructs, (Most) Plants)
01 | Attack nearest PC
02 | Consumes one PC then goes dormant or leaves
03 | Probe each PC looking for X: gold, nectar, metal, stolen jewels
04 | Attacks until PCs issue a command or says “stop” in creature language
05 | Moves to inconveniently occupy a space the PCs want to move to/through
06 | Covers or grows around an object of significance for reasons unknown
07 | Attracted to PC with specific color/sound/smell/taste/astral aura
08 | Attack those who stole something

THE BATTLE FOR THE RUBY SKULL: An Experiment In Alternative B/X D&D Combat

MY "PROBLEM" To me, the best "time scale" in old-school D&D (and any D&D really) is exploration. The time i...