Fearful Ends Now on Kickstarter

Fearful Ends book & cards on Kickstarter
The long-time passion project of my Wandering DMs partner Paul Siegel is currently funding on Kickstarter!

Fearful Ends is a rules-light, story-centric roleplaying system for horror themed games. It features nihilistic stories about characters discovering impossible horrors. It aims to allow players to roleplay characters that experience mental or emotional collapse in a safe play environment that neither stigmatizes nor sensationalizes mental illness. 

We've been playing and refining Paul's system for horror games for a bunch of years, and it really runs well. I've even GM'd a session of it myself with a custom scenario very successfully, without needing to be a deep expert in this flavor of RPG. Easy to pick up and learn, and we always have a great time with it.

Join the Fearful Ends Kickstarter today!


40 Years of the D&D Cartoon

Dungeons & Dragons cartoon ride entry

The D&D cartoon first appeared on CBS 40 years ago this week! Man, 1983-1984 were really great years for our hobby.

Here's a link to the blog and an hourlong video interview by Mark Evanier, who wrote the pilot script and series bible"

News From Me (Mark Evanier)


How Much Weight Can a Horse Carry in D&D?

Young horse with luggage
I've vaguely known for a long time that there was some essential problem with the system for horse encumbrance in early D&D (O/AD&D). But I hadn't personally done the accounting to pinpoint where the issue was; I recently went on a deep dive on that point. Big thanks to the folks on the Wandering DMs Discord server for pointing out the problem in OED and helping me think through this reasonably.

Original D&D

Original D&D encumbrance rules
To the side here is the page of encumbrance rules from OD&D (Vol-1, p. 15). Once again I'm struck by the overall completeness of the Original Dungeons & Dragons rules: whatever its other faults, everything you could possibly need to know about D&D encumbrance is included on this one digest-sized page. This includes: the weight of weapons and armor, helmets and shields, bows and arrows, miscellaneous gear, coins of any type, gems and jewelry, magical treasures, movement categories, container carrying capacities, saddles and barding for horses, and the weight of an average man. Plus a complete example. This compares extremely favorably to what came later: in AD&D, you'd need to look in at least four separate books, published over eight years time, to put all the equivalent information back together. (This complication makes it nontrivial to do the desired accounting as I wanted for AD&D, below).

So, here's the accounting for light, medium, and heavy lancer cavalry, under reasonable assumptions, according to the OD&D rules.

OD&D Cavalry Weight Accounting

Here's some notes & observations on that.

  • Horses are only given a single maximum load limit (in the Vol-2 monster entry): by type, 3000, 3750, and 4500 coins. These values are vaguely reasonable: real-world research frequently pegs 30% body weight as the point where horse gait performance starts to experimentally drop off (e.g., Wikipedia: "horses can carry approximately 30% of their weight"). If we take very round estimates for horse weight of 1000-1250-1500 pounds, and compute 30% of those, then we get exactly the load limits shown here.
  • The weight of men given, 175 pounds, is roughly equal to the average weight of men in the U.S. in the era of publication (173.4 pounds, per NHANES I, 1971-74 from the CDC; compare to S&P's estimate for medieval Swiss men, 71.7 kg = 158.1 pounds).
  • The weights for arms & armor seem high, like, around double the weights based on real-world examples (possibly more on that later). 
  • These rules only give one type each for a saddle, barding, shield, helmet, lance, and one-handed sword, so these are common across each cavalry type.
  • Following the listing for bandit men et. al. (in Vol-2), the expectation is that heavy horse are barded, but light and medium horse are not.
  • In particular, the barding weight (75 pounds) is reasonable; compare to Wikipedia ("barding, or horse armour, rarely weighed more than 70 pounds"). Several examples at the Met Museum weigh in at around 90 pounds. 

Conclusions for OD&D:

  • The fully kitted-out cavalryman weighs in nicely within the load limit given for each type of horse (indicated by green highlight in table).
  • Moreover, the gear for each type is greater than or equal to the limit for the next lower type -- implying that for medium kit-out you want the medium horse, and for heavy kit-out you really need the heavy horse. (Arguably, you could just barely use a light horse for medium kit; but let's ignore that wrinkle for now.)
  • In addition, if we look at the gear on the man alone (perhaps if they have to fight on foot), these weights also synch up perfectly with the encumbrance tiers for men (given as 750-1000-1500 coins). Respectively, each is just barely within the window for light, medium, and heavy loads for men (12-9-6 inch movement tiers).
  • Overall -- this is excellent, coherent game system design. All the parts work together to generate the expected & desired results. The numbers are within the ballpark of modern real-world research. It has the sign of someone who paid close attention to both historical details and good wargame design.

Advanced D&D

Now for a different story. First of all, doing a similar accounting for AD&D is a lot more work, because (as noted above), the equivalent information is spread all over at least four different books. To wit:
  • The PHB (1977) has melee weapon weights (p. 37), and elsewhere movement thresholds for men (p. 101).
  • The DMG (1979) has armor & shield weights (p. 27), and in Appendix O (p. 225), most other weights for miscellaneous gear, bows & arrows, helmets, saddles, etc.
  • Container carrying capacities could only be found if you looked in the AD&D Player Character Record Sheets product (1980). 
  • The specifications for barding weren't given until an article by Gygax in Dragon Magazine #74 (1983), and then reprinted in Unearthed Arcana (1985).

You can take this as a case study of my thesis that there was a lot of key stuff in OD&D that was haphazardly copied or lost in the transition to AD&D, making it a lot more cryptic and mysterious than it needed to be. Anyway, putting it all together we can get the accounting for cavalry weights in AD&D:

AD&D: Cavalry Weight Accounting

 Observations here:

  • In the AD&D Monster Manual, horses get two load categories: light (full-speed; approximately equal to the OD&D limits), and heavy (half-speed; about double the light load). That's arguably reasonable.
  • The average male human weight of 175 pounds is reiterated in the table on DMG p. 102, so we use that again in our spreadsheet.
  • The weight for arms & armor are generally reduced, pulling them more towards real-world scales, as far as I can tell.
  • The Advanced D&D ruleset gives distinctions to different types of saddles, barding, shields, helmets, lances, and swords -- so I've indicated the expected selection for each.
  • In particular, DMG p. 31 describes medium horsemen as "similar to heavy cavalry", so when necessary I picked the heavier version of the gear (saddle, shield, helmet).
  • The AD&D Monster Manual makes no reference to expected barding anywhere in the book (contrast with OD&D above). So are we to assume that light cavalry always use the leather barding, medium chain, and heavy plate, as provided in the equipment list? That would be my best guess of the intent (despite it being ahistorical to my knowledge) -- so that's what I've entered for each type.
  • Strangely, Gygax has massively increased the weight of barding to a completely ludicrous level (noted by orange warning lights above). Even the leather barding is more than double the weight of barding in OD&D. Plate barding is more than quintuple the heaviest historical example I could find -- on its own, maxing out the first-tier load limit of the heavy horse. (!)

Conclusions for AD&D:

  • The fully-kitted cavalrymen are all significantly over the limit for expected full-speed horse movement. In particular, the heavy horseman is far over the maximum limit for the heavy horse, and cannot move at all by the letter of these rules. The medium horseman is only 3 pounds away from the same thing. (Noted by yellow & red highlights.)
  • Apart from the barding issue, looking at the men alone (i.e., off the horse), there is a similar problem. The load limits for average-strength men have been reduced by an order of about a half (35-70-105 pounds in the PHB), and the light & medium men are over the expected limits for the first two categories. (Despite this reduction being maybe real-world reasonable, it outpaced the reduction in arms & armor weight to drop the men into slower categories.)
  • Overall -- this design is simply broken. The primary problem is the unwarranted and inexplicable inflation in barding weights (which, again, renders the heavy horseman immobilized). But more generally, the fragmentation of where the encumbrance rules are located (scattered all over many books) is echoed in the design decisions being unsynchronized, and have produced a fundamentally incoherent system.

Further Discussion

Obviously, this is another instance where the Original D&D system runs the table on the later Advanced D&D system. It's really puzzling how the latter system was allowed to get so fragmented, so quickly, as to produce results like this.

I suppose one could argue that the light and medium horse types shouldn't be expected to wear barding -- despite a move-limit table in Dragon #74/Unearthed Arcana showing them in it (a table which doesn't make any sense, because the raw weight has already slowed the horse down more that the table shows for armor max moves). At the very least, you have to observe that plate barding is useless, because it and a heavy horseman are more than any horse can bear.

Of course, a lot of people don't want to use encumbrance rules at all. If you've read this blog before you're likely aware of my argument that scaling the weight units to individual coins was too fine-grained, and juggling all the big numbers is a major part of the headache. So I prefer using a bigger unit like historical stone weights, which (usually) makes the calculations easier to estimate and add up.

Based on our research on real-world horse carrying capacity, I'm confident that the 30% body weight number is a solid value to use before horse speed drops off (see short bibliography below). And aligned with patron feedback, I've become convinced that the 20% body weight number cited in a lot of modern horse-riding articles represents a very conservative rule-of-thumb, trying to be painstakingly humane, with a large safety buffer built in (i.e., not representing medieval workloads). For the OED House Rules we plan to use a round guideline of 1/3 and 2/3 body weight for the light and heavy load thresholds. This represents a revision to this prior article.

Finally, I seem to recall a letter or article in Dragon Magazine that pointed out the problem with AD&D horse encumbrance, in particular, that a heavy horseman couldn't move at all. But I can't remember which issue, and asking around online to date hasn't gotten any answers. Do you know of such an issue?

Answered: In the comments below, jbeltman found the letter we were looking for -- in Dragon Magazine #118 (February 1987), Forum p. 6, by David Carl Argall (of La Puente, CA). Huge thanks to jbeltman for that!


  • Bukhari, Syed SUH, Alan G. McElligott, and Rebecca SV Parkes. "Quantifying the impact of mounted load carrying on equids: a review." Animals 11.5 (2021): 1333. -- This is a really great, recent review of all the research to date around the issue of horse carrying capacity.
  • Matsuura, et. al. . Various articles (2012, 2013, 2016, 2018, etc.) -- Matsuura runs a lab in Japan that studies different horse breeds, and keeps coming up with a number close to 30% body weight for the point where any statistical dropoff in performance can be observed.
  • Wickler, S. J., et al. "Effect of load on preferred speed and cost of transport." Journal of Applied Physiology 90.4 (2001): 1548-1551. -- Wickler loaded seven Arabian horses with about 20% body weight burdens, let them walk freely with no rider or lead, and found only about a 5% drop in the speed at which they wanted to walk.

Here's a spreadsheet (ODS) with the tables above if you want to play around with them.


Solving Chainmail Jousting

Chainmail Jousting Matrix

Last year I wrote an academic paper formally solving Gary Gygax's Jousting game, as it appears in the original edition of Chainmail: Rules for medieval miniatures (1971; and prior to that in The Domesday Book newsletter).

This paper was presented at a conference of the International Computer Games Association (ICGA), namely, Computers and Games 2022 (CG2022) -- and recently published in the Springer collected lecture notes for the conference. You can see the abstract here:

Collins, D.R. (2023). Solving Chainmail Jousting. In: Browne, C., Kishimoto, A., Schaeffer, J. (eds) Computers and Games. CG 2022. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 13865. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-34017-8_4

Solving the game involves a mix of mathematical game theory principles and computer solving techniques. In brief, it turns out that there are 3 tentpole "best strategies" (Nash equilibria), involving a particular probabilistic selection of a handful of possible moves in the game. And for more sophisticated play, you can mix-and-match these three tentpoles in an infinite number of ways (all having an equivalent expected win payoff). One of the tentpole strategies is extremely simple, and possibly identifiable on inspection of the game matrix by a smart player; the others are more obscure.

Fortunately, the organizers of the conference record all of the presentations and make them publicly available on YouTube. Here's the session where I made my presentation (first in the block): it goes fast, as we only have 15 minutes each to speak. I'll let you watch below to see the three magic best strategies. Thanks to the organizers for giving me a platform to present these results!

(Note: If you're an entrant to the Jousting tournament at the GaryCon game convention, this won't help you win there; the rules context is significantly changed there in terms of the number of rides, point-scoring, end-game, restricted-ride rule, etc.)


Health & Damage in Swords & Spells

Mini monsters attacking men

I'm constantly fascinated by the novel rules detail in OD&D Swords & Spells. There's a bunch of stuff in there that can be interpreted as updates or clarifications to the core D&D rules -- stuff that often failed to matriculate forward into later versions of the game. Ironically, it's the only little-brown-book I had as a kid, until I got a copy of the other stuff well past 2000 A.D. 

Here's one: Recall that in the OD&D LBBs (1974) all hit dice and damage were just d6's by default. Then Supplement-I (1975) changed that to give different hit dice by character class, d8's for monsters, assorted dice for weapons, and a kaleidoscope of increased and altered attacks and damage for all the monsters in the game (e.g., ogre damage goes go from 1d6+2 to 1d10, hill giants go from 2d6 to 2d8, etc., among many other variations). We get linking text between those pieces like the following:

If varying amounts of damage according to weapon type used is employed, the various monsters will likewise be subject to-receive additional points of damage or dice of damage.


This [elaborated damage for monsters] system is to be used with the varying damage by weapons and in no event is it recommended for use without the aforementioned.

But in Swords & Spells (1976) we get an unexpected combination (from p. 17):

The amount of damage base (1-3, 1-6, etc.) is a function of the size of the attacker and/or weapon size. As a rule of thumb, small creatures will do 1-3 base damage (exception: dwarves). Those large creatures indicated in the D&D rules as doing above-average damage (ogres 3-8, giants 2-12) will use the appropriate base. Once the appropriate base damage is determined, simply cross index the level of attacker against the armor class of the defender to find the number of hit points of damage scored upon the defender. Thereafter, modify this number by any bonuses or penalties to determine the final number of hit points of damage inflicted.

The amount of damage various creature types can sustain is computed by multiplying the average number of hit points a single such creature can sustain by ten (the number of scale creatures represented by a single figure) times the number of such figures mounted on a single stand. Mounted troops include the hit points of their mounts. For example, assume a stand of 10 orcs: the average damage an orc can take is 1 die or an average of 4.5 × 10 = 45 × 10 = 450 points, with a figure removed at 45 points, and a scale orc killed for every 4.5 points of damage inflicted on the unit.

While the signal we get in Sup-I is that the updated hit dice and damage are meant to be taken as a single package, in Swords & Spells, Gygax's monsters are using the updated hit dice (d8, for 4.5 points average), while still using the original uninflated damage (with the tweak that small monsters get only 1d3). All the recognized monster damage is still some multiple of d6 dice. The core combat tables reflect this: the only options presented for monster damage are 1d3, 1d6, 1d6+2, and 2d6. (Meanwhile, "Human-type" combat tables support damage in ranges 1d3, 1d6, 1d8, or 1d12.) There's also a table of damage for mounts (p. 18), on the same base d6 scale, with output much reduced from the earlier Sup-I revision (in particular: just a single attack each, instead of the claw/claw/bite routine set out for most in Sup-I).

It's an interesting editorial choice and I kind of like it. Without having noticed it before, it mostly lines up with I decided for monster damage in the OED Monster Database, reflecting an interpretation of late-era OD&D, but one where monster damage is kept on on the 1d6 base scale. For a long time I've been fond of the DM running everything with a pile of d6's behind the screen, while the PCs get to experience a finer-grained experience with the other polyhedral dice on their side. And my intuition is likewise to drop small-creature damage to 1d3.

Did you ever think to be surprised by this representation in OD&D Swords & Spells?


Can Superheroes See Invisible?

Invisible stalker lurking over unaware fighter

Consider the O/AD&D Superhero -- a.k.a, the 8th-level Fighter. If you blink you'll miss it, but in multiple places in early texts it says that fighters of that level can automatically see invisible enemies. (!)

Here's the Fantasy Reference Table from the Chainmail game (included by reference in multiple parts of Original D&D), with key parts highlighted:

Fantasy Reference Table: Superheroes highlighted

Now, you might possibly think that's a typo or something, except that it gets restated in Original D&D, Vol-2 (the Monsters & Treasures booklet), specifically in the entry for Pixies:

PIXIES: Air sprites as described in CHAINMAIL, Pixies can be made visible, or make themselves visible, but they are naturally invisible to human eyes. Therefore, they are able to attack while remaining generally invisible. They can be seen clearly only when a spell to make them visible is employed, although certain monsters such as Dragons and high-level fighters will be aware of their presence.
A few years later, the Advanced D&D game generalized this ability, such that any high-level creature had some chance of detecting invisible. However, the chances of success are much reduced. For example, the 8th-level Superhero fighter now needs a very high Intelligence score, specifically 15 or higher, to have even a 5% chance of detecting invisible in a given round. Here's this table from the 1E DMG p. 60:

AD&D Detection of Invisibility Table

This seems like an odd rule: counterintuitive, easy to forget, unlikely to come into play in most games. And under the interpretation seemingly shared by the earliest designers -- that OD&D and AD&D were a single continuous game undergoing some evolution -- this seems like a case where Gygax was quickly becoming disenchanted with the rule; radically dialing down the likelihood for standard high-level fighters, for example. I take this as evidence that the clear intent was to largely take the ability away from standard Superheroes after some amount of playtest experience in D&D. (And of course this general rule was sufficiently fragile that it disappeared in later editions.)

Separately: As usual for O/AD&D, if you disentangle the numbers in that 1E table, you'll find that the progression on each axis is mostly linear. You could get a good approximation of that rule by doing the following:

Roll 1d20 + Level + Intelligence and score 40 or more.
Or in Target 20 terms: roll d20 + Level + Intelligence - 20 and get a total of at least 20.

But would you want to use such a rule?


Consider Chaos

Horrified David with blue hair and wings
I had an experience the other day where, trying to resolve an issue, office A told me it's the job of office B, office B said to talk to office C, and C said I had to talk to A. This is not uncommon. Things are pretty chaotic.

The next time you lay out a dungeon or lair of a bunch of chaotic monsters, consider the chaotic people and institutions in your own life, and see if injecting some of those details doesn't heighten how bewildering they are (or at least give some catharsis to you). I'll say as someone just slightly on the spectrum, it's somewhere between challenging and painful to imagine a world that works like this -- but it is the world I live in.

Some seeds for thought:

  • Cave A, B, and C have the same monster type, but they don't coordinate in any way.
  • Different caves have different "bosses" who are in direct competition with each other.
  • There's a "king" monster but (like the book says), their immediate command is only the people in direct line of sight. They can give dictates to the larger complex, but it's always a per-area reaction roll to see if they are obeyed or not.
  • Cave A and B are the same clan, but due to a feud they haven't communicated in several years.
  • Cave A may have information the PCs can cajole, bribe, or force out of them: details on people, places, things, passwords, maps, etc. But they're simply wrong, and the monsters in Cave B say they've never heard of any of them. Maps are incorrect. Passwords are out of date.
  • Cave A has certain protocols that are maintained for weeks or months: a patrol schedule, name of a boss, guardian monster pass, puzzle-lock pattern, etc. Then one day it doesn't work like that and everyone denies any knowledge that it was ever different.
  • The tribe is known for using a particular weapon (say: long spears). Then one day the king announces that these are now anathema (due to a scroll, religious revelation, wormtongue consultant, etc.), and every such item in the tribe is burned in a great bonfire. The tribe starts manufacturing swords and shields; this works poorly, so, some months later, they switch back.
  • Monsters are not proficient with the new weapons they've recently been given. Or, they've had them for some time but never received any training.
  • The king has a cool magic item but can't use it. The shaman is currently on the 5th cycle of divining a series of control words for it, none of which have worked when the king goes to use the item in a crisis.
  • Any idiom you can possibly think of gets misconstrued. "We need to see the boss! - We don't allow portraits in here." "I'm all ears - That's horrible, I'm glad you masked yourself with an illusion." "That'll be a piece of cake - I had cake once, I challenge you to the death for it."
  • General willingness to give BS responses (in the Frankfurtian sense) randomly on any issue, large or small.
  • Claims to great monsters, defenses, or treasures that simply don't exist.
  • Boss monsters who run away immediately and let their goons die to cover their tracks.
  • Numbers in the lair may go up or down randomly between sessions as other monsters are recruited/dismissed for various reasons.
  • Various cargo-cult rituals occur; claims to magic power, alien gates, etc. The majority do nothing. Can the PCs depend on them continuing to do nothing as they try different things in the future?
  • Scrolls & spellbooks of twisted, semi-cursed versions of standard spells.
  • Bosses reactions: Always screaming random directions. Often self-contradictory.
  • Tribe has a series of religious dictates which are all vocally worshiped and ignored in practice.
  • Door with a puzzle lock unknown by anyone in the tribe. Maybe there is no solution.
  • One low-level member of tribe actually has solution or passkey for a certain puzzle, trap, or monster, but no one believes them, because they're politically disempowered. Who is it?
  • Key tribe members are mostly drunk or drugged on a regular basis.
  • Going darker: The tribe randomly accuses some of its members of non-existent heresy and imprisons or tortures them, to no benefit.
  • The tribe ejects members randomly for various infractions. And/or: If members seek to leave, they are captured and imprisoned instead.
  • Townsfolk are kidnapped: And some random proportion are afflicted by the chaos of the place with Stockholm syndrome and surprisingly fight for their captors.
  • The tribe is spending a great deal of resources to defend themselves from a nonexistent threat (fictional monster, enemy tribe, made-up curse, cult, etc.) Meanwhile there's an actual disease, poison gas, parasite infestation, or geologic catastrophe that's degrading the tribe and being scrupulously ignored.
  • The tribe practices culling of a certain part of its population (based on age, gender, physique, etc.) They then have a problem of being over-biased in one direction, so they flip to culling the opposite part of the tribe.

At a somewhat higher level, consider if reality itself isn't morphing all the time, faerie-style:

  • Room furnishings and decor are changed frequently to their exact opposites semi-randomly.
  • NPCs show up in sequential encounters with somewhat changed hair, body, facial features (scar switches side), vocal tics, etc.; and show no awareness they were ever different.
  • Magic tricks, traps, puzzles, riddles, etc., get morphed on different dungeon delves.
  • Time slows down or speeds up in different parts of the dungeon, randomly in different sessions.
  • The spatial map layout of the dungeon, and possibly the surrounding wilderness, likewise shift between different sessions. Connections appear and disappear. Rooms gets closer or further apart. (Note: I've wanted to implement this for some time, but creating a nice keyed map takes so much time, it's difficult to commit to re-generating it on a regular basis. Some software tooling that "rubber-sheets" the map would be really great.)

I'm sure you can think of more examples. Just reflect on the institutions closest to you and riff on out-of-control processes you've seen yourself. Write a dungeon background key as normal; then go through every sentence and roll for whether that really is how things work - in contrast to how the inhabitants think/claim it works. Go read Stack Exchange: Workplace and fold in various absurdities.

In conclusion: The classic trope of a dungeon with monsters in nearby rooms or caves who are totally disconnected, without any communication or coordination, is actually not that unrealistic. It happens around us in the standard workplace all the time. Let your players experience the force of true chaos!