Monday, May 11, 2009

REVIEW: Old School Encounters Reference

In my recent review, I lamented the fact that there were so few products in print that were of utility equal to that of Judges Guild's Ready Ref Sheets. In saying so I reveal the poor state of my memory, because I should have remembered Scot "Kellri" Hoover's fourth installment in his "Classic Dungeon Designer Notebook" series, Old School Encounters Reference. Like much of the best old school material released these days, CDDN #4 is available for free, which is all the more remarkable, as it is probably the most useful 160 pages in old school gaming. Indeed, what Kellri has assembled in this PDF is not only a worthy successor to the Ready Ref Sheets, but also one of the best "introductions" to what old school gaming is all about ever written. I think it's the perfect companion for Matt Finch's superb A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, providing as it does heaping helping "practical Zen moments" in the form of pages upon pages of tables, charts, and other reference material.

CDDN #4 boasts of "contain[ing] everything the Dungeon Master needs for designing encounters for 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventures," but that doesn't really do it justice. For one thing, the Old School Encounters Reference is useful not just for designing adventures, but also for world building in general, as I'll explain. For another, its contents are eminently usable not just for AD&D, but for any game of Gygaxo-Arnseonian heritage. I'd even venture to guess that referees of games even farther removed from the D&D family tree could benefit from this PDF, since a goodly portion of its charts and tables are not tied to game mechanics of any kind.

The Old School Encounters Reference is divided into eight sections: Men, Humanoids & Demihumans, The Underworld, The Wilderness, Settlements & Civilization, Treasures, The Campaign, and Forms & Appendices. Each section begins with a pertinent quote from Gary Gygax or a pulp fantasy author. Though dense with information, the layout is clear and easy to use. That in itself is a marvel, considering how often professionally produced charts and tables prove to be confusing and impractical in their presentation. Just as marvelous is the extensiveness of all the tables, presenting more options than most referees will likely ever use. This is the heart and soul not only of products like this but also old school gaming in general -- the willingness to employ a vast palette of alternatives, a veritable smörgåsbord of ideas both mundane and bizarre, the random combination of which can produce gloriously unexpected results.

There is simply so much information in the Old School Encounters Reference, that it'd be impossible to describe them all. Here are but a few of the highlights of each section:
  • Men: Dozens of pregenerated NPCs of every class, pregenerated henchmen/hirelings, NPC details and motivations, pregenerated NPC adventuring parties, spellbook contents for magic-users from 1st to 18th+ level.
  • Humanoids & Demihumans: Humanoid ability scores, tribal spellcasters, humanoid and demihuman group generattion.
  • The Underworld: Wandering monster charts, doors & locks table, ruin table, tricks & traps (including special/magical effects), animated statues, quests & geas results.
  • The Wilderness: Random terrain generation, weather generation, wilderness encounter tables, encounters at sea, hunting & foraging tables, random herbs.
  • Settlements & Civilization: Inn & tavern rumors, markets & bazaars, shrines & temples, random structures, underworld guilds.
  • Treasures: Treasure assortments for levels 1-9, treasure assortments by type, treasure maps, quick & weird magic items.
  • The Campaign: Adventure locations, adventure names, adventure antagonists, exotic places, random gods.
  • Forms & Appendices: Bibliography, dice ranges, record sheets and logs.
I've been using the Old School Encounters Reference in my Dwimmermount campaign since the beginning and it really is the perfect way to jog my imagination and inspire me, not to mention eliminate some of the tedium of generating NPCs and treasures. It's a near-perfect companion for any old school D&D referee and I'm frankly amazed that some enterprising publisher hasn't offered Kellri a contract to publish it. Of course, I think the PDF serves the old school community far better than any published product would do, since it's readily available and accessible so long as you can get online.

If the Ready Ref Sheets are a treasure trove, the Old School Encounters Reference is a dragon's hoard. It's one of the few old school projects of recent vintage that I'd deem as a "must have," both for what it includes and for what it is -- an umatched example of creativity by someone who doesn't just get what the old school is all about on some abstracted, airy-fairy philosophical level but who knows what it's like to play these games and what's needed to do so successfully. The Old School Encounters Reference is like looking into a veteran referee's binder of notes without the need for having to decipher his bad handwriting. It's simply amazing and, if you don't already have a copy on your hard drive, you need to get one now.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 10 out of 10
Utility:
10 out of 10

Get This If: You play or referee old school D&D, love random rolls, and/or wish to see the essence of old school gaming distilled into table form.

Don't Get This If: You don't believe in the oracular power of dice.

16 comments:

  1. If I had to do a "desert island" collection of D&D products, the Old School Encounters Reference definitely makes my top 10. It probably makes my top 5.

    Anyone remotely interested in D&D, no matter the vintage, should go download it now. It's free.

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  2. I've had Kellri's netbooks for about a year now and in that time they have become indispensable.

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  3. FWIW, I completely concur that CCDN#4 is a great product - Kellri has done us all a great favor by producing this.

    If it was sold for $50, it would still offer astounding value for the money. As a free product, it is without peer.

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  4. I downloaded this quite some time ago and due to extreme idiocy didn't read all the way through it. Next time I go to the local copy shop I'm getting a bound copy made. Thanks for the review!

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  5. A few rolls on his sub-system for generating ghost ships (how great is that?) launched an entire encounter session idea. Now that's practical sandbox utility at its best.

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  6. Oh, to have had this or something like it circa 1981. :)

    Lord Hobie

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  7. Wow, it's awesome, it's cool, I can actually get a lot of use out of it AND IT IS FREE!!!

    Goes a long way to cheering up my Monday morning. Thanks JM.

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  8. Next time I go to the local copy shop I'm getting a bound copy made<

    Smashing idea, Jeff. There is a binding machine in one of the copy rooms here at work. Yet another thing, besides being on the internet too much, to risk getting fired for. Worth it!

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  9. count me in on the downloaded and printed at work bandwagon! What a sweet piece of work, I am stoked on this product!

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  10. Love this product. Page 99, for example, with its "On the Road" tables for traveling. Vivid descriptions of what kind of roads you find and some really clever wayfarers on the way ("local goodwife," "wedding party," "deity in disguise"). Page after page of goodness. Genius.

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  11. I printed this out, as well, since I travel a lot and don't always have computer (let alone internet) access. I made mine into a booklet, having been inspired by Wheggi's Green Devil Face production blog entry. It's a little on the thick side, but it works great (as did Kellri's Spell Reference).

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  12. Thanks to Jeff's comment, I stopped in at the local copy shop while running errands today and now have my own bound hardcopy. It's amazing how much goodness I overlooked when I just had the .pdf version.

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  13. Thanks a lot for the amazing review James. I doubt if I could have written a better one myself! Only one problem - you've singlehandedly shut down my file server with a surfeit of downloads. For folks unable to get ahold of a copy, I'll be uploading to another server and will post the new link on my blog, DF, and K&KA.

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  14. Howdy:

    I started reading Grognardia from the beginning and I have most definitely profited from the time spent.

    Question:
    Does anyone have a copy of this? The link in the blog post is broke and the author's download page is ate up like a soup sandwich.

    Thanks you all for your interesting & helpful banter.

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  15. jfruser: There's a download hyperlink available on http://kellri.blogspot.com/2008/07/cdd4-final-version-3.html

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  16. I just stumbled upon this now, and I must thank you for the guidance. Fantastic review.

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