OSR: The Monster Overhaul is the Best RPG of 2023 (according to some people)

According to this list from GeekNative, The Monster Overhaul was the 6th bestselling fantasy RPG on DriveThruRPG in 2023.

That's astonishing, considering the other works on the list! I'm delighted that people are enjoying the book.

I don't run advertisements or manage a marketing campaign for my books. The Monster Overhaul relies on word-of-mouth recommendations and unsolicited reviews. I'm grateful to everyone who's taken the time to recommend the book, talk about it on a podcast, review it on youtube, post about it on whatever forms of social media remain, order it at their local game store, or shout about it from the rooftops. After many years of work, it's amazing to see the book out in the real world, helping GMs everywhere.

Polygon: The best tabletop RPGs we played in 2023

The Monster Overhaul, by Skerples, reimagines not just the monsters, but the very notion of what a bestiary can and should be. The book is divided into 20 categories, each containing 10 critters that hew to a theme. The categories are unusual: There is “Dragons,” of course, but also “Summer” and “A Wizard Did It.” “Summer” monsters include the Froghemoth and Pyromancers. Some of these may sound similar to classic D&D monsters, others are entirely new. Tables galore help build and flesh out encounters. “Summer” has a set of generic swamp hexes; other entries have lairs and dungeons. There is an entire flowchart table for populating a megadungeon. Every page of this book is designed to make the reader think about monsters, how to make them feel new, or to recontextualize them, or to simply subvert player expectations. Like all great RPG supplements, The Monster Overhaul not only offers answers for these questions and more, it also teaches the reader how to continue answering them long after these published tables and suggestions are exhausted. A monstrous achievement that should be on every GM’s shelf.

Cockatrice Nuggets CN230: Best RPG Books of 2023

This might be my favorite release for 2023. I have gotten more use out of this book than most of the things I have bought this year. I have gotten more use out of this book than probably the 5E Monster Manual, and I ran 5E for a long time. This book is not just monsters. [...] The way this book is put together makes a lot of sense to me. The stuff that's in here! Most of these monsters have a lair attached with them. If they don't have a lair they have something else. [...] There is so much good stuff in this book that I keep coming back to it. This is my new monster manual. When I want a monster, I come here first.

-Rich Fraser

 If you're not sure what this book is all about, check out the megapost.


OSR: Rereading OD&D: Normal Men, Hobbitouison, and the Orcian Way

If you want a cleaned-up modernized one-volume OD&D rules set, you have a lot of options these days, but the original texts, without the benefits of decades of polish and revision, are well worth analyzing. 

The previous post has been described as full of "wilful misunderstandings and wilful misreadings" of OD&D. It's not. Well, not completely. It's textual analysis; not what you think the text says, or what you think the text should say, but what it does say. (What the text means is an entirely different and equally perilous question.) It's an analysis that wilfully ignores Chainmail, The Strategic Review, other publications, and decades of analysis, and concentrates solely on the three LBBs.
Stepan Alekseev

Take the issue of magic-users wearing non-magical armour from the previous post. A GM familiar with the fantasy trope of a robed, bearded, and unarmoured wizard might say, "Obviously OD&D Magic-Users shouldn't wear armour." 

A GM who's skimmed the rules might say, "The rules say Magic-Users can't wear mundane armour" and not worry about the grammatical details.

But a close reading of the text suggest that yes, in the rules, Magic-Users in OD&D can wear non-magical armour. Was this intentional or an oversight? Who knows. But it's in the text. And now a GM who's read the rules can say, "That's silly. Magic-Users can't wear armour" or "Perhaps there's a reason the rules let Magic-Users wear mundane armour?"

The rules are not the game. They are tools to create the game. They are not laws or proscriptions. You can (and should!) adjust, interpret, or ignore them. These OD&D examination posts are not advocating for blindly following a non-traditional and/or nonsensical interpretation of the rules; they're an exploration of possible interpretations, overlooked aspects, or amusing incongruities.

If the LBBs were religious texts, there would be wars over whether or not Hobbits could be resurrected. Hobbitiouisian vs Hobbitouison.

Yes, interpreting the ambiguous units in OD&D to allow Magic-Users to create a titanic 10'x100'x240' Wall of Stone is unusual... but it is, just barely, an interpretation supported by the text. Of course, most GMs would entertain the idea for a few seconds, decide "that's silly", and choose the equally supported, probably intended, and far more sensible units, but it's still a valid interpretation that might lead to a very interesting campaign and setting. 

Finally, these articles are not advice, in the same way that saying, "Blood can be used as a substitute for eggs" does not mean, "You should make blood-flavoured cupcakes for your next office party."

Reading Turn Undead

There's not much to read. The image above is everything presented in OD&D. It's one of the most notoriously confusing rules in the booklets. (The most confusing is, of course, what a "turn" is, but that's a different sort of turn.)

The general belief is that the Turn Undead ability arose in the Blackmoor campaign, where we known the cleric was created, so priests could function as vampire hunters. If it is true the turn undead ability was a Twin Cities thing, it would explain why the normally verbose Mr. Gygax said virtually nothing about turn undead in the 3lbb’s.
-DHBoggs, Hidden in the Shadows

The general consensus is that "turned away" was intended by Arneson to mean "held at a set distance from the Cleric" rather than "compelled to flee."

Viy (1967)
By that interpretation, Arneson's Turn Undead functions a bit like Gygax's spell "Protection from Evil".

Protection from Evil: This spell hedges the conjurer round with a magic circle to keep out attacks from enchanted monsters. -Men & Magic

How often it can be used, and what it the ability requires, are up to the GM, as the books provide no guidance. "Once per round..." or "Once per set of undead..." and "Instead of attacking, while brandishing a holy symbol..." are traditional, but they're not suggested by the text (except, arguably, in the Vampire monster entry.)

It is also possible to interpret "Clerics vs. Undead Monsters" and its proximity to the spell tables to mean that whenever a Cleric casts a spell (and at no other time), they make a roll on the table and turn away/destroy nearby undead. 

The rules proposed by Fred Funk make a lot of sense to me, if you're looking to expand OD&D. At low levels, Turn Undead protects the Cleric, not the party.
Additionally, beginning at 7th level, the creatures that are affected, either by a successful roll, or natural talent, give ground at the rate of 5 ft./level of cleric, a radius on the cleric. As an example, when Macduff reaches 7th level, the Skeletons and Zombies that he turns will stay at least 35 ft away from him at all times, and so would a Specter, on a roll of 16 or better. This enables him to extend protection to members of his party. -Fred's World: the Clerical Companion

Misreading "Turn Undead"

It's possible to misread "turn undead" as "turn into an undead creature." This interpretation is not supported by the text, which clearly states "monster turned away," among other clues.

It still happened (though I think it was in AD&D...). It's very silly, but hand-on-heart, it happened. I can't find other stories mentioning it on the internet, but I'm sure it was a relatively common misinterpretation, especially among young and enthusiastic gamers who only read their character sheets and not the rulebooks. "Turn" as in "turned to stone" is more common than the LBB usage of "turn" as "deflect", as in "turn aside" or "turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways."

There's a table of monsters and hit dice corresponding to your Cleric's level. Lycanthropes are in the game. Clerics could be... Thanatothropes?

So a level 6 Cleric (a Bishop) could turn into a Vampire on an 11+, a Spectre on a 9+, a Mummy on a 7+, and Wight or a Wraith automatically, but they'd be destroyed if they tried to transform into a weak undead like a Ghoul, Zombie, or Skeleton. 

Below level 7, Clerics don't have to pick an Alignment (see below). Undead are aligned with Chaos, so presumably a Law or Neutrality Cleric who turns into an Undead creature (by this method, by vampirism, etc.) also changes their alignment to Chaos, but below level 7 this does not necessarily make them an evil Cleric.

Is this a one-time effect, for a set number of rounds, an at-will ability like the Vampire's gaseous/bat form, or until sunrise? Who knows. It's very silly. In OD&D, Lycanthropes don't have any folkloric guidance on when, or even if, they change shape (in contrast with the Vampire entry's detailed rules), so we can't use that as a guide.

Evil Minions and Chaotic Leaders

Note that Clerics of 7th level and greater are either "Law" or "Chaos", and there is a sharp distinction between them. If a Patriarch receiving the above benefits changes sides, all the benefits will immediately be removed! -Men & Magic 
Anti-Clerics: Evil Acolyte, Evil Adept, Shaman, Evil Priest, Evil Curate, Evil
Bishop, Evil Lama, Evil High Priest. -Men & Magic
Character Alignment, Including Various Monsters and Creatures: Before the game begins it is not only necessary to select a role, but it is also necessary to determine what stance the character will take - Law, Netrality, or Chaos. Character types are limited as follows by this alignment  [...] Chaos: Evil High Priest. -Men & Magic

Evil and Chaos are not equivalent in OD&D. Chaos seems to be a theological upgrade to lowercase-e-evil. Presumably you learn about it at a training seminar. Either at 7th level (Lama or Evil Lama) above 7th level (Patriarch or Evil High Priest) (the rules above disagree), a Cleric must pick Law or Chaos, but before then, merely being evil is not a firm commitment to Chaos. Clerics are the only class with built-in alignment-altering moments.

Finger of Death: [...] A Cleric-type may use this spell in a life-or-death situation, but misuse will immediately turn him into an Anti-Cleric.) -Men & Magic

Evil is a very nebulous concept in OD&D. At its core, it seems to be about intent. The GM needs to make a ruling every time.

Detect Evil: A spell to detect evil thought or intent in any creature or evilly enchanted object. Note that poison, for example, is neither good nor evil. -Men & Magic

So Detect Evil wouldn't detect poison in a chalice, but would detect the poisoner. But what if the poisoner was poisoning someone who was going to blow up an orphanage? Discuss.

Stephen Oakley (currently here).

Just Normal Men

Attack/Defense capabilities versus normal men are simply a matter of allowing one roll as a man-type for every hit die, with any bonuses being given to only one of the attacks, i.e. a Troll would attack six times, once with a +3 added to the die roll. (Combat is detailed in Vol. III.) -Monsters & Treasure

On discord, DymeNovelti noted:

Even without Chainmail we can see evidence that the 10th level Lord isn't a "normal man" -- see Book 1 p 19's table saying normal men are first level fighters, and Book 2 calling out leveled bandits etc. as "super-normal types." So trolls would make 6 attacks versus bandits or soldiers, not against a Lord.

This is a very good point. What qualifies as a "normal man" in OD&D?

Normal men equal 1st level fighters. -Men & Magic

BANDITS: Although Bandits are normal men, they will have leaders who are
supernormal fighters, magical types or clerical types. For every 30 bandits there
will be one 4th level Fighting-Man; for every 50 bandits there will be in addition
one 5th or 6th level fighter... -Monsters & Treasure

BERSERKERS: Berserkers are simply men mad with battle-lust. They will have
only Fighting-Men with them as explained in the paragraphs above regarding Ban-
dits. They never check morale. When fighting normal men they add +2 to their
dice score when rolling due to their ferocity. -Monsters & Treasure
NOMADS: These raiders of the deserts or steppes are similar to Bandits as far as
super-normal types and most other characteristics go: -Monsters & Treasure
BUCCANEERS: Buccaneers are water-going Bandits in all respects except com-
position of their force. -Monsters & Treasure

PIRATES: Pirates are the same as Buccaneers except they are aligned with Chaos. -Monsters & Treasure  

By that logic, a 6+3 HD Troll fighting ten hirelings lead by a 5th-level Fighting-Man can either make one attack against the 5th-level Fighting-Man or make six attacks (one with a +3 bonus) against the hirelings. 

(The intention behind these rules becomes a lot clearer if you have access to Chainmail, but for the purposes of this experiment, we don't.)

When Do You Stop Being Normal?

This table, along with the Bandit entry in Monsters & Treasure, suggests that until a Fighter hits level 4 (Hero), they're still a Normal Man. "Hero", for both Bandits and PCs, marks the transition from "disposable meatshield in a uniform" to "character who gets lines in the screenplay or a separate figure in a massed battle wargame", and therefore from "gets shredded by a Troll" to "fights a Troll one-on-one."

It's equally valid to treat the line "Normal men equal 1st level fighters" as the end of the matter. By that logic, a 2nd level fighter is no longer a Normal Man.

One Attack Per Target?

It's possible to interpret the monster HD-based multi-attack rule, and OD&D's vague alternative combat system rules, to suggest that only one attack can be assigned to each target in each round. It's "versus normal men" not "versus a normal man."

Under this interpretation, a Troll fighting four normal men can attack each one once (with one attack getting a +3 bonus), and the two excess attacks being wasted.

The Cusp of Heroism

This is probably crossing the line between analyzing the rules and wilfully misreading the rules, but if:

  • Monsters get one attack roll for every hit die against Normal Men.
  • Monsters can only assign one attack to each Normal Man. 
  • A Swordsman (a level 3 Fighting Man) is equivalent to 3 Normal Men according to the table above.

Then could a Troll assign three of its six attacks to a level 3 Fighting Man?

It would create a very odd difficulty curve, where level 2 and 3 Fighting Men are increasingly vulnerable, but stop being squishy at Level 4. 

It makes very little sense from a game design perspective, but OD&D isn't concerned with fairness or balance in the modern sense. Heroism must be earned. A Swordsman must leap into the fray, take disproportionate risks, stand out from the nameless rabble, and fight terrible foes in unequal combat to rise from the depths of minonhood to the safe plateau of Heroism. 

PCs with Multiple Attacks?

Remember, we don't have access to Chainmail, The Strategic Review, etc. We're stuck with the 3 LBBs. Based on those books alone, do PCs get multiple attacks?

Attack/Defense capabilities versus normal men are simply a matter of allowing one roll as a man-type for every hit die, with any bonuses being given to only one of the attacks, i.e. a Troll would attack six times, once with a +3 added to the die roll. (Combat is detailed in Vol. III.) -Monsters & Treasure

This rule isn't limited to monsters. PCs get hit dice too. Yes, this rule appears in the Monster part of Monsters & Treasure, but so do humans, elves, dwarves, etc.

By that logic, a 6th-level Fighting Man makes 6 attacks against Normal Men or 1 attack against anything else. A level 1 Fighting Man (with 1+1 HD) makes 1 attack with a +1 bonus. Ditto for Clerics, Magic-Users, etc. Do not underestimate a high-level wizard with a dagger!

However, this creates a small problem with the Fighting Capability column.

Fighting Capability: This is a key to use in conjunction with the CHAINMAIL fantasy rule, as modified in various places herein -Men & Magic
Unlike the Fighting Man, the Magic-User and Cleric Fighting Capability columns do not line up 1:1 with their Hit Dice. A 9th level-Magic User (a Sorcerer) has 6+1 Hit Dice, and therefore can make 6 attacks against Normal Men (one with a +1 bonus). But the Fighting Capability column doesn't list "6 men", it lists "Hero+1. From the Fighting Man table, we know that a Hero is equal to four Normal Men, so that's four attacks (one with a +1 bonus).

There is no easy solution. If they're not using Chainmail, the GM needs to decide which column to use (if either).

In any case, Normal Men are in trouble in OD&D. I'm surprised there are any left!

Alexander Mandradjiev

Normal Ghoul Paralysis

GHOULS: As stated in CHAINMAIL for Wights, Ghouls paralize any normal figure they touch, excluding Elves. -Monsters & Treasure

"Normal figure" is not defined anywhere in the LBBs, so it's less of a case of textual analysis and more a case of inventing a ruling. "Figure" is used sparingly in the books, but does crop up in one very relevant entry.

Charm Person: This spell applies to all two-legged, generally mammalian figures near to or less than man-size, excluding all monsters in the "Undead" class but including Sprites, Pixies, Nixies, Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Hobgoblins and Gnolls. -Men & Magic

If you put the emphasis on "normal", then "super-normal types" (i.e. Fighting-Men of level 4 and above, Magic-Users, Clerics, Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, and all monsters) are immune to Ghoul paralysis.

If you put the emphasis on "figure", and note that the rule specifically point out that Elves are immune suggests that other creatures that might fall into the Elf category are not immune, then the Charm Person target restrictions make sense.

Kibri model No. 37304,
N-Gauge model of Branzoll Castle
a.k.a Castle Blackmoor

Primordial Silliness in The First Fantasy Campaign

Whimsy is one of the founding principles of D&D. Compared to early games, giant stone walls are practically sensible. Dave Arneson's The First Fantasy Campaign is a rich document for anyone trying to understand Blackmoor and pre-D&D. Here are two of my favourite silly stories. 

I: Super Berries

Due east on the road to Bramwald lies the Super Berry Woods wherein the Berrium Maximus is found. It is a timeless place where all who enter lose track of time. As with the Siren’s call and the island of the Lotus Eaters, there is no desire to leave. If the proper spells are cast ahead of time (each turn you are in the wood, you must make a saving throw vs. Charm Person spells) you can enter and leave normally (even with a saving throw vs. Charm Person each turn you are in the woods will equate with 1-6 turns outside the woods).
The main fruit of these woods is the great Super Berry which are as large as big pumpkins (the whole creation was a result of using some HO/00 scale trees which had great orange fruit on them; since these things were always infesting the board by dropping off, they became Super Berries and were saved - that’s what you do with imagination), and are endowed with Magical properties (the exact nature of which changes with the season of the year, phase of the moon, maturity of the berry, if it is cooked, boiled, dehydrated, sliced, diced, made into juice, wine, soup, mush or eaten raw). Since my players are far from figuring out the details, I will not reveal them here. -The First Fantasy Campaign

There was a tree. It was off a railroad game and it was supposed to be an orange tree, but the oranges were about the size of basketballs in proportion to the people. So he called 'em "Super Berries." So I was able to take the Super Berry and, say you're a fourth-level Magic-User, and you could throw spells and stuff that are for higher people. A fourth-level Magic-User could throw first- or second-level spells, but with a Super Berry, you could go to fourth or fifth or sixth level.

[And this just came out of Dave's head one day?]

Well, part out of Dave's head, and everyone else put in their two cents in, you know that works.

-Pete Gaylord, interviewed in Secrets of Blackmoor.

The Blackmoor magic-system was very different than OD&D's approach, was not well documented, and is poorly understood, even today. It was probably impossible to systematize for publication.

Tim Kirk

II: The Orcian Way

All spelling and grammar is original (in every sense). Append one big [sic].

The first six levels of encounters were prepared in the last two years for convention games, and set up along "Official" D&D lines. The last (7th-9th and the Tunnel Cavern System) are originals used in our game. Additional crazy characters that got into the game over the years have been the Orcian Way and Sir Fang the Vampire. 

The first is a great glowing stairway (with Orc Music, Rule Britannia played backwards!) that goes directly from the 1st level to the 10th level magically, although the players seem to be walking down an endless stairway. Upon entering the stairs, the Orcs, Ghouls, Wraiths, and Balrogs at the bottom are warned of the adventurers approach, and composition. If too strong, the expedition will descend the stairs forever with no apparent way out. If weak enough, the Orcs and Company, will attack and try to take them all prisoner, sacrificing them to a great feast. There are two Balrogs, six Wraiths, 200 Ghouls, 50 Ogres and 750 Orcs waiting at the bottom. They are all that is left of King Funk's Orcs' Grand Army that took Blackmoor.

Should the players ascend the stairway. they will reach the top at about 250 feet where the stairs end in a small room (10' x 10'). In the ceiling of the room is a trap door. When you open the trapdoor, all you can see is sky and what is apparently a small platform 3' x 3' with a one foot wall around it. When the players reach this platform they seemingly (to those in the room) continue on through the trapdoor and vanish out of sight. Actually those that are passing through the trapdoor suddenly find the entire structure (trapdoor. platform. dungeon, etc.) vanishes and they fall towards Blackmoor Bay some 5-100 feet below them. Any rope that is holding them is broken and they hit the water. They must then avoid drowning (I ask them while they are falling what they are doing; if they are in Plate Armour, I give them a 1/10 chance of getting it off in time; other must make a throw less than their Dexterity rating when they are wearing some other Armour). When in the water, there is a one in six that the Great Kraken of the Bay will capture and eat them each turn as they are swimming (generally two throws) to shore. When they reach shore they are destitute by alive.

The entrance to the Orcian Way is marked by a great bronze tablet:

Orcian Way
Orc Public Works
Erected by Funk I
King of All the Orcs
It too, glows in the dark and is inscribed in the Common Tongue. Once you are on the Orcian Way, the only way out is the trapdoor or fighting your way through the Orcs on the 10th level. It has nailed many a party. It's nature is now well known, but it still claims it's victims regularly.

-The First Fantasy Campaign
Tim Kirk

Orc Music

For your listening pleasure, Orc Music: Rule Britannia Played Backwards. To make it more orcish, I've create a second version pitch-shifted it one octave lower

You may need to download the .mp3 files to get them to play; Google Drive doesn't always want to play them in browser.

The result had me in stitches. The presence of "Soron" (Sauron!?) in the reversed music might explain the orcish connection (if Arenson used a reversed record/tape)... or it might be a coincidence. 

Sbyeen seebla
Schanamen namen namen urahsneep
Sneer galdoo vignats der
Vegnatsy groo

Sbyeen seebla
Schanamen namen namen urahsneep
Sneer galdoo vignats der
Vegnatsy groo

Gner snee ya
Shosneyverbraa ya-ah
La lachbromis gostop
La stromis gospe

Veer brosnya
Iquemalock soron
Lamback soron

Veer brosnya
Iquemalock so-o-o-o-ron
Lamback slemback sneegnasy bleh

It's unlikely to be a karaoke hit, but you can sing along at home. The original file, in case people are worried about copyright, is in the public domain. The files I've created are also in the public domain (so feel free to distribute them), although you could make your own in any audio editing program in under a minute.

How did Arneson (or Fred Funk, the player who constructed the Orcian Way) produce this "Orc Music"? The gag doesn't work as well if you just say "Rule Britannia played backwards". It needs the audio accompaniment. A tape recorder or a record player would work... or perhaps, and this is an alarming thought, Arneson learned to sing it backwards. 

Does anyone know? Perhaps I should contact the crew at Secrets of Blackmoor.

Finally we came to an open stairway with circular stairs down which we heard music playing. Richard stumbled down the stairs immediately. The rest of the group halted and tried to decide to follow him or not, Tindell urging them on. As we walked down, we heard the orc national anthem (don't blame me; it's Arneson's dungeon; how could orcs have one nation?) played backwards. This brought a horde of orcs on us from in front.

-Bill Paley, Alarums & Excursions #15, transcribed here.

Obvious Traps

I think that the best trap is usually a known trap, and I've said as much in print.

Some of the traps in classic funhouse dungeons seem like jokes designed for the module’s author and the GM to share, with the poor players left frustrated and baffled. I’ve tried to make Magical Murder Mansion entertaining for everyone; even the deathtraps and surprises should get an joyful “oh no, I can’t believe we walked into that one” from the players. The GM knows it’s a trap. The players know it’s a trap. But someone’s got to open that door. - Magical Murder Mansion

I suspect Arenson's players, when first confronted by a the glowing "Orcian Way" sign, felt the same way. Of course it's a trap. Horrible death is expected. The fun is finding out what sort of horrible death awaits and, if by luck, guile, a half-forgotten inventory item, or fleeing madly in all directions, it can be avoided.

Final Notes

If you have a favourite odd OD&D rule, ruling, or fact, feel free to leave it in the comments.