Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Christmas in July Sale 2023: My Old-School Essentials Recommendations!

  The Christmas in July sale is on again at DriveThruRPG. For the next 14 days, more than 70.000 rpg titles are available at reduced price!

The list of OSR titles currently discounted counts a big 4241 items, which is still a lot.

The sheer amount of titles available makes it hard to create a list of OSR recommendations, so this time I'll focus on some of the 332 titles listed for Old-School Essentials as it is my current go-to ruleset.

OSE Rulebooks

As with other large DTRPG sales, the core OSE books are discounted, both the Classic Rules Tome and the Advanced rules (Player's tome and Referee's tome). If you're reading this, you're probably already a fan (like me), but don't forget sales are a great occasion to spread the word. Tell your friends!

Moreover, the new, official Foundry VTT packages are on sale.


Well, the whole Old-School Essentials line is part of the sale, which means you can get some great adventures too, like Incandescent Grottoes, the Ennie award winning Halls of the Blood Kingand Isle of the Plangent Mage by Donn Stroud.

In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe - A regional module in zine format written by Jacob Fleming, with lots of dungeons and lots of hours of play. Reviewed here. From the same author, the Through the Valley of the Manticore module with a similar format is on sale too.

The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford - The exquisite, sandboxy point-crawl adventure for characters level 1-3, by Chance Dudinack. Very easy to run, with lots of interaction between locations, and guaranteed to offer a huge number of hours of play. I can't wait to run it. My review here

And The Secret of Black Crag, Dudinack's new module, is on sale too!

Puzzle Dungeon: The Seers Sanctum - Another very good 10 room dungeon with, well, a lot of well conceived puzzles. I've reviewed it here, and if this dungeon is a great opportunity to connect your existing campaign to the setting outlined in the best seller Planar Compass zine series.

Aberrant Reflections, Directsun's new puzzle dungeon, is on sale too!

Wivern SongsHideous Daylight and Temple of 1000 Swords - Brad Kerr's excellent adventures, all highly recommended! I've reviewed 1000 Swords here, and Wyvern Songs here.

Bottomless Pit of Zorth, Darkness at Nekemte and the big huge Gunderholfen megadungeon - G. Hawkins' series of modules. Check out Gunderholfen to grab a 400-page megadungeon at $7.50!

The Frost Spire - An excellent fairy-frosty level 3 dungeon adventure with an interesting moral dilemma. Reviewed it here.

The Falkrest Abbey adventure by Andrea Mollica & I. Now at just $0.85!

Sourcebooks, Supplements & Zines

The full Carcass Crawler series of official OSE zines!

The Axian Library zine collection by yours truly is on sale! Check it if you enjoy alternate rules for Wizards and Clerics, dozens of tables to generate unique dragons, and a host of tables and rules for missing players and new characters.

The Dungeon Dozen, collecting over 200 system-agnostic d12 tables full of awesome inspiration, from the blog of the same name.

The whole Third Kingdom line of hexcrawl supplements is on sale, including the great Filling in the Blanks guide.

The Delver Magazine zine series, full of awesome random tables, along with its Tavern spin-off.


Into OSR? Check my other OSR posts and reviews!

Monday, July 17, 2023

Old-School Essentials: Lairs and Dungeons

 This post is basically me trying to establish the answers to questions the keep coming on and on:

  • What is a lair?
  • What is a dungeon?
  • Are lairs and dungeons the same thing?

I'm going to answer these questions first of all with what's in the Old-School Essentials core book, then trying to make logical conclusions from it. Since OSE is a bx d&d clone, such conclusions should apply to the "whole family" (probably including BECMI and its clones).

What is a lair?

Ok let's begin with good old Merriam-Webster dictionary:


a: the resting or living place of a wild animal.

        "we tracked the bear back to its lair"

b: a refuge or place for hiding.

        "a villain's lair"

Why am I starting with this? Because the rules offer no definition at all, so I believe the only safe path here is to assume "lair" means what "lair" means in ordinary English:

a monster lair is the place where monsters live, rest, and/or hide.

The Game Statistics (Monster) page in the OSE srd, under the Number Appearing (NA) section, gives us the following information:

Number Appearing (NA)

Listed as two values, the second in parentheses.


Monster lair in a dungeon: The second value lists the number of monsters found in a lair in a dungeon.

Wandering monsters in the wilderness: The second value indicates the number of monsters encountered roaming in the wilderness.

Monster lair in the wilderness: The second value multiplied by 5 indicates the number of monsters found in a lair in the wilderness.

Lairs are mentioned again right after that, in the Treasure Type (TT) section:

Treasure Type (TT)

The letter code used to determine the amount and type of treasure possessed by the monster(s) (see Treasure Types). The letters listed are used as follows:

A to O: Indicate a hoard: the sum wealth of a large monster or a community of smaller monsters, usually hidden in the lair. For monsters with a lair encounter size (see #Number Appearing) of greater than 1d4, the amount of treasure in the hoard may be reduced, if the number of monsters is below average.

This is basically all there is to it.

In the rules, a lair is defined by two things: 

  • A variable amount of monsters (a "community");
  •  a (usually specifically) associated treasure type.
Additionally, from the NA section we derive the following knowledge:
  • A lair can be in a dungeon;
  • A lair can be in the wilderness (and has 5x the monsters, but their treasure hoard stays the same!).
Accidentally, I think the first point takes us closer to answering the question "Are lairs and dungeons the same thing?" Spoiler: no.

Let's put it all together and this is the best answer I can offer:

A lair is place where a (typically large) group of monsters (often as an organized "community") live, rest hide, etc, and keep their "community" treasure hoard; monster lairs can be found both inside dungeons and in the wilderness.

Let's work an example?

The Goblin entry in the OSE srd has additional specific information for goblin lairs, so let's see what we get.

  • A goblin lair in a dungeon amounts to 6d10 individuals (and x5 if the lair is in the wilderness).
  • If encountered in their lair, the goblins have a type C treasure.
  • A 3HD (15hp) king and 2d6 2HD (2d6hp) bodyguards live in the goblin lair.
These three pieces of information are the building blocks to create a goblin lair.

An average goblin lair in a dungeon amounts to about 30-36 individuals, plus a 3HD goblin king and 6-8 2HD bodyguards, and a treasure hoard worth around 1000gp.
Yes, that's a lot of enemies for some crappy loot... but type C also has a 10% chance to include 2 magic items!
Considering the swingy nature of random treasure, wise players should try to figure out if a specific lair is worth making an enemy of, before committing to attempted mass goblin murder. Their hoard might as well amount to zero...

Just for fun, let's also consider the largest, richest goblin lair we could finde in the wilderness according to the implied setting: 300 goblins, 1 king with 12 bodyguards, somewhere around 10,000 gp worth of treasure, and 2 magic items.

The only thing that's lacking is: where is this goblin lair? What kind of place is it?

For the most part, we can only answer using common sense and imagination.

The rules tell us it can be in a dungeon or in the wilderness.

In the wilderness, the lair can be anything the specific monster would consider a suitable "home": a cave, a ruin, a hole in a hill, a nest on a mountain peak, the inside of a volcano, etc. And also any type of "home" the specific monster might be able to build, in the case of intelligent creatures: a camp, village, castle, or even a whole city. Remember, NA in the wilderness is x5!

In a dungeon, the lair can be one or more rooms of a larger dungeon. If the dungeon is a small one, the lair can occupy all of it, causing "lair" to be the same as "dungeon". Or does it?

What is a dungeon?

Hey this sounds like the dumbest question. We've been playing dungeons & dragons for decades, we don't need to define what a dungeon is. 

Of course! What I'm doing here is answering the question only with information from the OSE rules, because this will help us understand the difference with lairs.

Again, the rules don't give us a definition of what is a dungeon, but the OSE srd has a whole big Designing a Dungeon page, so my take is: whatever we can infer from that page, gives the "nature" of a dungeon.

The page tells us a dungeon can be a variety of different places (section 1), it has monsters (section 2), you should map it (section 3), and you should stock it with the following "important details" (section 4):

Important details: Monsters (including the possibility of patrols in the area), traps, tricks, treasures, or special magical effects that are present should be noted.

Section 4 continues with the notion that a dungeon often extend over multiple levels, and the deeper you go the higher the risks and the reward, and then notes that treasure is usually guarded by monsters, but can occasionally be found unguarded.

After that, the final section is the Random Room Stocking section. In my mind, this is not just a tool to randomly fill the blanks, but also a set of implicit guidelines. That simple table tells me that a dungeon "as intended" is supposed to roughly have:

33% "empty" rooms (i.e. no monsters and no traps, and about 16% of such empty rooms should contain treasure)
33% rooms with some monsters (and about 50% of such monster rooms should contain treasure)
16% rooms with a trap (and about 33% of such trap rooms should contain treasure)
16% "special" rooms.

These proportions match the intent of "risk goes hand to hand with reward".

In a hypothetical 36 room dungeon, these proportions give us:

10 "empty" rooms (i.e. no monsters, no traps, no treasure)
2 "empty" rooms with unguarded treasure (no monsters and no traps!)
6 rooms with monsters
6 rooms with monsters and treasure
4 rooms with some kind of trap
2 rooms with some kind of trap and some treasure
6 "special" rooms.

This is not all, however, because another important bit about dungeons is found in the Dungeon Encounters page: dungeons are expected to include wandering monsters!

Can we figure out a definition from all of that? Let's try:

A dungeon is a place that: is populated by monsters; features traps (or other environmental hazards); has treasure that make it worth exploring; has bizarre, magical things going on, good and bad (the "special" rooms), and monsters roaming around. 

Are lairs and dungeons the same thing?

Short answer: No, obviously.

Longer answer:

A dungeon can host anywhere from zero to dozens of lairs. If the dungeon hosts 1 lair of monsters, we can say that the dungeon is a lair.
We can look at it the other way around and say that a lair can be a dungeon if it has all the features that a dungeon requires: monsters and treasure, and also empty rooms, traps, and special rooms. In other words: it has to be fully fledged, exciting adventure site!

Let's make some comparative examples with Fire Giants:

  • You can have a Fire Giants lair inside a larger dungeon, with the following numbers: 1d3 individuals, with a type E treasure hoard + 5,000gp.
  • You can have a Fire Giants lair in the wilderness. The description tells us that it should be a black castle near a volcano, with 1d3 x5 individuals, the same type E treasure hoard + 5,000gp, and also the "guardian" creatures listed in the description; 1d3 hydras or 3d6 hellhounds.

The wilderness lair has a lot more giants, but has the same potential treasure as the dungeon lair. How is this fair?

This is supposed to be fair because:

  • The wilderness lair is supposed to be all there is to it, i.e. it is supposed to NOT include traps and wandering monsters.
  • The dungeon lair is supposed to be part of a dungeon with all the "dungeon stuff": traps, special rooms, and wandering monsters. All of that should compensate for the reduced amount of giants.

Can we have another example?

Sure, let's go on with the hypothetical 36 room dungeon:

6 rooms with monsters + 6 rooms with monsters and treasure
It really is up to you to decide how many monster you put into these 12 rooms.
It IS up to you because the BX flavor of d&d does not include a "% in lair" for monster entries, which is featured in the AD&D books and bestiaries.
So you can decide to have zero lairs! Just a bunch of monsters, with some treasure of your choice.
You can decide to have the twelve rooms as a single goblin lair, and this means you'll spread the total number of goblins, and their king and bodyguards, among these 12 rooms, and spread their hoard among 6 rooms.
Or you can decide to have 6 lairs of different creature groups, each controlling 2 rooms. This will give you a much more crowded and dangerous dungeon, but also more potential loot.

4 rooms with some kind of trap
The guidance for traps is sorely short and only amounts to the six examples in the Example Room Traps section.

2 rooms with some kind of trap and some treasure
The guidance for traps is sorely short and only amounts to the six examples in the Example Treasure Traps section.
How much treasure here? The answer is in the Treasure in Empty / Trapped Rooms section, and depends on dungeon level.

11 "empty" rooms.
These have no monsters, no traps, no treasure, so you "stock" them with whatever makes sense for the type of place the dungeon is.

1 "empty" room with treasure.
No monsters and no traps! How much treasure? The answer is in the Treasure in Empty / Trapped Rooms section, and depends on dungeon level.

6 "special" rooms.
The guidance for special rooms amounts to the 9 examples listed in the Example Specials section.

(The truth is, for actual guidance about traps, "empty" and "special" rooms, you should probably check Courtney Campbell's Artifices, Deceptions and Dilemmas).

Does all of this matter?

No, probably! I mean, considering the gm is supposed to roll the dice to determine how much treasure (if any!) can be found in each lair, we can safely say all of this is just guidelines to stock your dungeons.

Not to mention this post is probably the nerdiest thing I've written in my own life. I feel comforted by the fact that if you are reading this, you are at least as much of a nerd as me.

All of this matters a lot if you care for the implied setting and "balance", and if you want to know how much treasure and how many monsters you are supposed to put into your dungeons and wilderness locales.

Even if you don't roll the dice and end up choosing exactly how many goblins and gold pieces you stock your dungeon with, I think it's just nice to know what the expected numbers are, you know, so we try to be all on the same page.
Because those numbers, and the treasure/HD ratio, is the only attempt BX has to make things "fair" and less "whatever the GM thinks".

Especially if you want to write a dungeon module for publishing, I guess.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Painting HeroQuest! A FAST Guide

 So you got the new HeroQuest and you are thinking of painting it, but you have no idea how to even start? This is the guide for you!

This post will guide you through the optimal steps to have the whole game painted with a time-efficient effort and more than decent "tabletop" quality, taking advantage of the "slap chop" technique.

I won't go into all the details of each technique, but instead provide you with a working road map for the whole journey of specifically painting the HeroQuest board game. For each step, you'll probably want to delve into video tutorials on youtube.

A painted HeroQuest is different level! Picture and paintjob by Ian Schofield, with models on an alternative board by Ian himself. 

0 Solve the storage problem

The plastic trays that come with the game are guaranteed to ruin your paint job very quickly, so first of all you need to find an alternative for storage. Most people use the dedicated Feldherr Foam Set, designed specifically for the new edition of HeroQuest. If you want to keep the minis inside the game's original box, this is the most efficient solution by far. If you are going to keep them on a display shelf, that's good too, of course.

1 Get your minis ready

Before painting your miniatures, you must prepare them.

  • First of all, check them one by one and remove any "flash". "Flash" is the name given to the lines that MAY be on some models, marking the line where the two sides of the cast touch. Most models have no flash, or very little. If it is there, you can probably see it easily along the arms, legs, and weapons. Gently remove it with a cutter and/or sanding paper. If you don't, you'll regret it, because the most common (and easiest) painting techniques will make it x10 more visible.
  • Get your minis straight! The HeroQuest minis are made with a soft plastic that is prone to bending into weird shapes and positions. This often happens with long weapons and extended arms, but sometimes you may get a whole figure that is slightly bent forward or backwards and cannot really stand up properly. Fixing them is really easy: put the bent miniature into very hot water for about 5 seconds, then pull it out. Now it should be soft enough for you to get it straight with your hands. Once the position is ok, put it immediately into cold water. This will ensure the plastic "hardens" again, this time without the undesired bending.
  • Next, wash your minis! This is needed in order to remove the grease from production AND from your hands! And any dust that may have accumulated. Simply wash them with water and a drop of dish detergent. Rinse and let them dry thoroughly. If you don't do this, paint will have a very hard time sticking on the plastic, and the risk of seeing the paint chip away quickly while you play is much higher.
  • Finally, check and fill any gaps. Check ALL your models (especially the Barbarian and the Abominations!) for parts that haven't been assembled properly, because this is the time to fix them. You do this by filling the gaps with a plastic putty such as Vallejo's. Again, if you don't, you'll regret it. After this, you are ready to paint!

Removing flash and filling the gaps is important because the slap chop technique automatically exalts all the details of your mini, so you want to remove the small flaws, or you'll make them super-visible.

2 Slap Chop!

The slap chop technique requires a very specific priming technique and then a very specific type of acrylic colors. It is the easiest and fastest way of painting more-than-decent looking models, even if you are completely new to miniature painting. Lots of videos explain this technique, one of my favorite is this one. But go ahead and watch as many as you can.

  • Black primer. In order to take advantage of the "slap chop" technique, you must prime your minis with a black color. A spray is the fastest way to do it. You can get Citadel's, or Vallejo's, or Army Painter's, or any other brand, as long as it's black, matte, and specifically made for miniatures. Using a spray primer is an art of itself: the correct distance and angle, etc. Watch some tutorials before starting!
  • Dry brush with grey. For this step, you need a large brush (say, the size of your little finger): a cheap make-up brush will be perfect. And a normal, matte, grey acrylic such as Vallejo's or Army Painter's. Dry brush means you dip your brush into the paint, then you "clean" it on a piece of cloth or paper towel until almost no paint seems to be on the brush. That's when you use the brush on the miniature, so that the paint will not reach the recesses: they must remain black! All the while, your brush must NEVER EVER touch water, not even when you start. It must be perfectly dry for the technique to work. Wash your brush when you are finished, of course. Or don't wash it and go to the next step now.
  • Again, with white. After the grey, you do the same procedure with white, with even less color on your brush, so that the white only hits the most prominent details. Don't bother washing the grey away from the brush. Keep it dry!!
  • Time to actually paint! Finally! This is the moment you get to paint all your sweet minis. In order to take advantage of the slap chop technique, you must use a specific type of paints: Citadel calls them Contrasts; Army Painter calls them Speed Paints; Vallejo calls them Xpress Colors. All of them will work the same. Watch this video again!

The three layers of black, grey and white will enhance the semi-transparent nature of such colors, creating an excellent effect for the time it takes.

3 The Devil is in the details!

  • How about metal? You can paint swords, blades and armor with the above technique, or you can grab a few metallic colors if you prefer a shinier effect. Your choice!
  • Eyes eyes baby! Eyes are hard. If you want your Heroes to look mad, paint each eye as a white oval and then paint a black dot in the middle. They will look crazy, so please don't do it. Instead: paint a full black oval covering the whole eye, then paint TWO white dots in each eye, trying to keep them inside the black oval. This is the easiest, simplest way to paint decent-looking eyes that don't seem insane.
  • Bases. Painting the bases is an art. You can add rocks, sand, skulls, tufts, synthetic grass, or just leave them black and get the job done. Plain black (or grey) is ok, and if you're new to miniature painting, there's no shame in that.
  • How about transparent minis!? The spectres and wraith from the newly released Rise of the Dread Moon expansion are made with transparent plastic. Maintaining the transparent effect is really easy. You prime them with a thin layer of matte varnish (a spray is ok). Next, you wash them with a diluted wash / contrast / speed etc of your chosen main color. Add details such as eyes, as you prefer, with normal colors. Depending on the effect you aim for, you may consider a VERY LIGHT dry brush with a brighter tone to highlight some spots.

4 How to actually proceed: BE WISE AND FOCUSED

Keep in mind your job is to have THE GAME painted, not a couple models, so you must practice self-discipline, wisdom, and focus.

  • Always work in batches. Prepare, and then prime, and then paint all the doors. Then move on with the other furniture pieces. Then all the undead; then the orcs, etc. This is how you get THE WHOLE GAME painted. If you don't work in batches, you'll grow tired after your third door.
  • Begin with the least interesting models!! Really, start with the open doors and get them out of the way immediately. You only need three colors to paint them. If you're an absolute beginner, the open doors are great to get a feeling for using a spray primer and to learn how to dry-brush, and to feel how the colors flow. Closed doors are next. Then tables and cupboard. The bookcases, alchemist's bench, sorcerer's table, fireplace, etc are more interesting and more detailed sculpts. Save them for last among the furniture. After all furniture is done, you start with the monsters.
  • Save heroes for last. You want the heroes, gargoyle and dread sorcerer to look cool! This is why they MUST be the last models you'll paint. They are your final goal, your prize. So after the furniture you must tackle the common monsters! The zombies, mummies and dread warriors are easier than the skeletons, orcs, goblins and abominations, so start with them.
  • Choose a color scheme and stick to it. Check online for examples of painted figures. Choose a color scheme that you enjoy, and stick to it. I strongly advise against making each orc different. It WILL look bad when you play. A single color difference (hair, loincloth, etc) is ok, but avoid making each model different. They will look bad, and it'll also cost you a lot of extra time because you won't be able to work in batches. Also, choosing the color scheme before starting will make you work much much MUCH faster.

5 Shopping list

If you are completely new, this is what you definitely need to buy.

  • A cutter or modeling knife.
  • Plastic putty to fill the gaps.
  • Black primer spray.
  • Black, grey and white normal acrylic colors.
  • A set of about 20-50 contrast / speed paint / xpress colors. This one seems like one of the best deals at the moment.
  • Optional, but recommended: gun metal, silver, and gold metallic acrylic colors.
  • One or two cheap make-up brushes for the dry-brush technique.
  • A set of brushes like this one, or at least a "2" brush for most of the job, and a"0" for smaller details.
  • A matte varnish spray! You NEED this if you plan to ever play with your minis! Even if you plan to put them on a shelf, you would still be better using one to protect the minis from dust anyway.


Into HeroQuest? Check the HeroQuest page with all the posts.

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