Sunday, January 26, 2014

5 OSR Table Types

Happy Birthday D&D!  I remember the moment I first heard of the game.  My friend was excitedly  telling me about it on the playground of our elementary school.  A game with knights and dragons and treasure.  I remember the first thing I asked him was "Does it have witches?"  So, from the very first, the gift D&D gave me was more the knowledge that you could play a game based in your imagination than a particular incarnation of rules.  And I immediately wanted to make things myself to add and use in the game.  In that spirit I'd like to celebrate 40 years of D&D by sharing with you cool stuff I learned in just the last 4 years of blogging hoping that you will find it useful in making your own stuff.

First, I'm working from an understanding of the game that considers randomness essential to play.  The dice remove responsibility from the DM to know and plan everything and they give the game a sense life in the way their unexpected results surprise and must be dealt with.  Those dice work most commonly by interacting with tables of possibilities.  And the possibilities of what you can do with those tables are a lot more exciting than simple lists.  I'll show 5 below. 

Another assumption I'm making is that you are doing it yourself, and when you re making your own tables, the more possibilities you can get from them the better.  So, many of these "Tables" actually involve multiple subtables greatly multiplying the possible outcomes.  The problem with that is they become ungainly, hard to fit even on one page, hard to use quickly or during play.  So, the tables below are mostly trying to resolve that problem: how do you pack in as many crazy possibilities as possible in a table while still keeping it useful as a tool?

I would be surprised if some of these kinds of tables hadn't shown up back in the heyday of D&D, but as a very enthusiastic hobbyist, I never saw them.  Feel free to point out examples of these I might have missed in old products or even other table types you've seen in the community.

Roll All the Dice

Years ago now, James R. "Grim" Cone posted a random NPC generator online.  You can still get it and two other tables of his here.  The innovation was that the dice types would help you keep track of the subtables.  But also it acknowledged that the amount of space you need for good results on a subtable varies.

It can also be fun to resolve at the table , by players.  I praised it in a post way back here and have created several of them.  The one I use most often is probably my Hireling Traits linked in my sidebar.

So if you find yourself making a table and you can't squeeze everything you want into a single list, try laying out 6 lists with 4 to 20 entries and see if that works better.  Then pick a set of dice with a bright, easy-to-find color so you can grab them all when you need them.  And let your players roll and read out the results.

Sentence Sub-Tables

Okay, this isn't really a different table type but this simple innovation really helped think about my own tables differently and makes them much easier to understand when explaining to players.  Chris Hogan from Vaults of Nagoh posted a few roll all the dice tables that had a sentence up top with the subtables embedded as words in that sentence.  This showed how the subtables worked together.

The sentence in the image at right is basically the dice in order of magnitude, but they don't have to be.

I see blogposts to this day that would benefit from this kind of simple overview of what subtables to expect.  And, in looking, I realize I never added this to my older tables like hireling traits.  I'll have to do that.

Dice Drop

I think I probably encountered these first from Talysman's The Nine & Thirty Kingdoms where he calls them dice maps, but you may be most familiar with those that show up on ZakS' Vornheim covers.  He calls them die drop tables.  Both of them have been sharing ideas with blog readers for years of how to use the positions dice fall on a paper as well as their numerical results to squeeze out more information with the same effort.

(The images here are just examples I picked from the many they've posted to their blogs.)

When you roll dice they are going to fall somewhere, so why not use that info as well as the numbers on their faces to tell you something?

This can be efficient in telling you a lot fast, it can also be a showy way to have players roll up things.  One aspect I've also tried to explore is the "fuzziness" of the positions.  In other words, trying to use where the dice fall in an evocative way to push my thinking.  I tried that with my item generator here.

These tables probably aren't the most useful, the dice have a way of running off the table, for example, and putting these in a box to prevent that undermines the ability of players to see results, but they are fun and this kind of coming at D&D from a new angle is what keeps me excited and writing blog posts.


I don't have an example of this type, which I just made up the name for.  I also haven't made one of my own yet.   But it's been banging around in my brain for a long time waiting for the right table.  (It looks like I was thinking about it way back here and called the idea "stepped charts.")  Link me some good examples in the comments.

Basically this is a single table designed to give graduated results depending what type of die you use to roll on it.  So, for a critical hit results table the first four results on the table might be the mildest, and the 20th or 100th the very worst.  And then built into your critical hit rules would be calls for rolling different dice on that single table.  (Now I'm remembering one that gave results for random encounters during the day and night.  But I don't remember where I saw it.) 

This type of table is interesting because there will be some results that are impossible to get during certain contexts.  They would probably be most useful for determining random things that often have different contexts, like monster encounter tables, without needing to make bunches of tables.  Night time, bad weather, making lots of noise, being wounded, these all bump you up to worse results.

Update 1/28/14: Okay, some sweet examples from the comments: here James Young has being resurrected at higher levels doing different things.  Here scrap princess has drugs doing graduated results based on exploding dice, which very cleverly means the more drugs you take the more likely you bump up the results.  And here scrap princess has linear and bell distributions preferencing different parts of a table.


I don't know which of Roger the GS' posts first clued me in to this type of table, it might have been his genre tables.  But the idea is, you have one table that can act as one table, but has multiple subtable parts that can each be rolled on independently as well.  This blew my mind, because it solves the problem of trying to include the old standby genre-standard results you might want for any table, while allowing for mixing and matching those parts into something weirdly new.

In a way, this is like a graduated result controlled by the DM's understanding of the context.  Playing with a group of newbies?  Why not let them experience some things we might consider rpg cliches?  Playing with a more experienced group or getting a result the newbies have experienced several times now, tumble those subtables.

I incorporated this idea in my own Traps table (notice I've incorporated Chris' sentence idea on that one) and have it foremost in my brain when making a new random table.

Bonus Ideas
Buffers - I never saw a published random table with more entries than could be indicated with a die or set of dice.  But I've liked the idea that a) some entries you might not want to have come up more than that one time in your campaign, so you scratch it out and replace it with an entry from the overflow results and b) folks will have different tastes and it's hard to predict which results any one person will find cool.  My 100 Rare Wonders actually has 110 entries.  Since it's more work, this more about sharing and tables you make with other people in mind.

Mix-n-match - I've had an idea for a long time for a way to use sets of subtables to build different tables to roll on based on context.  The idea in my head is magical effect that can be applied to a player.  You have many subtables of types of effects and whenever you make new dungeon with a migic pool or statue or something, you can tailor the effects those cause by your choice of subtables that you assemble.  I blogged about it here.  The 1e system of artifact effects is kiiiind of like this, if they were more about determining random effects for for artifacts in-game and not just determining a single static effect that artifact has beforehand.

p.s. - Am I the only one that has always interchangeably called these random doohickeys tables and charts?  I had to keep catching myself in this post to remain consistent.

Update 1/28/14

Toss & Trace

This isn't what I normally think of when I think "table" but Josh W is absolutely right, this is like the opposite side of the coin of the dice drop table.  Here you drop the dice and then create something based on where it fell and its result.  Josh mentions How to Host a Dungeon, which I don't own.  But this technique is near and dear to my heart, it's how I make most of my cave dungeon maps.  This technique really shines when you want to make something that is more organic in its placement like  caves or cottages in a village.

Here is my pyramid campsite which uses four-siders to get a simple topographical map of where the party is camping.  Here's my post about making caves.  I learned later to use the dice results to indicate elevation and even/odd to help me determine which caves are connected to each other with tunnels.

1d30 used this technique to make the scattered buildings of a village.  Check out the Babbling Bane's use of pocket change to make a village here.

Bonus 2
JD has kind of flipped the idea of the graduated table, rather than multiple ways to read a single table, multiple ways to read a single toss of the dice, here.

I love all the examples from the comments, thank you so much. There are probably tons of cool tables I've seen but now forgotten, if so I apologize for not mentioning them here.

Wouldn't it be cool if D&D Next used some of these kinds of tables?  They are simple to use and I think even simple conceptually.  So I don't see it hard for players to use.  They do take more work to make though.  The layered tables, for example, require a good sense of the core aspects of what you are making a table for (like classic treasure items, or classic trap types) and ways to divide them up into columns that will lead to fruitful results when rolled separately.

Update 1/30/14

Split Column

This is similar to the Layered table, but I think different enough in intent to be considered a different type.  It is essentially reducing the clutter and confusion of multiple little tables by associating them together.   Zak shows how to consolidate small tables here.  So, each of Jeremy's sub-tables can be incorporated into a single table that is easy to read across.  For a simple, fast result you roll 1d6, or to mix up things you can roll all 5d6 and read the tables individually.  Zak's Vornheim uses this several times and makes for efficient generation in limited space.  Why have 50 aristocrat names, when you can split first and last into two columns and double multiply the possibilities.  Why have a big list of npc details when you know you will want several details for each npc encountered in-game.  Instead have a split column chart with three details per npc entry and you can always roll them separately if you need to.

How is this different than what I called layered?  Well, it would be layered if the fast, simple result was a core trope, or genre expectation you wanted to make sure was possible to generate, and the rest were weird and unexpected.  I makes more sense for some topics than others.  Treasure items, traps, quests, might all have some results you might like to have possible with weirdoid results possible too.

Ah, it might be splitting hairs.  If it helps you make more useful tables in the end I'll be happy.


  1. Also, rolling dice is fun. The sound they make when they hit the table. The thrill of a natural 20 to hit. They can be a reward in themselves.

  2. Excellent post! Thanks for pulling those together for everyone.

  3. There's the opposite of drop tables too for creating maps, like in how to host a dungeon.

    For those who don't know, you roll onto a blank sheet, and wherever the dice lands, that's the location for what the number on the dice generates. So if on the d10 table a 6 is an old unstable castle, you replace all the d10s showing 6s with a drawing of a castle or a note of some kind.

    If this is combined with a different type of location for each dice type, you can define your setting in a general way before you roll by picking dice, but not it's actual arrangement.

    Can be good for defining large scale landmarks in a hexcrawl before you go back and fill in the details.

  4. I've used the graduated table thing a few times I think, quickest example is here
    but also here with a night/ day changing the type of die(s) you roll
    That last one is not a exact fit for what you were explaining though, because it alternates between a linear probability curve (a d12) and a bell probability curve (2d6)

  5. I think I first got the graduated table thing from Courtney's death and dismemberment table.
    I used it on my resurrection thing: and it ended up being the most popular post on my blog so that was neat!

    You should definitely put this on that Links to Wisdom site for new OSR DM's.

  6. Thanks for collecting all of those. It's so easy to forget what could be done and has already been done!

    I don't know if it counts, but I made an Anthropomorphic Character-Generator end of last year. The basic idea is to use all the results 2d10 could come up with. So one roll gives you 1d100, 2d10, 1d20, two seperate d10 and 1d10 minus 1d10. In this case I came up with 4 connected tables. The method could be used for several other things (I'm working on one for books right now and started to think about a culture-generator, to name but two examples) and even using 3d10 should work (but will result in a lot of entries). Anyway, if you're interested, the whole mess is here:

  7. Thanks for the great comments. I'll try to reply more extensively and update my post tomorrow. too tired tonight.

  8. @ Darnizhaan: Agreed.

    @Edward: Thank you and my pleasure.

    @Josh: Fabulous reminder, I'll add that to the post.

    @scrap princess: Great. The latter is similar in that it targets a different spot on the tables, but you're right, it is different in that it won't exclude any completely. Pretty damn cool drugs too.

    @James: Do you have a link to Courtney's table? I went looking but didn't find it. I feel weird promoting something I wrote, but if you think this would be helpful and Links to Wisdom, feel free.

    JD: That's fascinating, I never thought to use multiple results from the same die like that. . .. wait, I got a tingle of familiarity. Because the results aren't independent doesn't it mean that some things will be more common than others? Like crocodiles tending to be huge? Anyway I'll think about it more.

    1. Thank you for considering it. And you're right, with this you'll always have a large thin lizard and a huge fat crocodile. But that only happens with two results of 19 (for the race) and was something I did (had to) consider when filling the blanks. The bell curve results for this table will assure much more variety with all the other tables and most numbers are independent. Knowing which are not means you're able to control the outcome to some extent and still get a huge range of results with the rest.

      I believe there are still a lot of possibilities to use it and I'm far from finished to explore this idea further.

      Now that I think about it, the dilemma with the crocodile could be solved by giving it more entries.

    2. Here you go -

      And yes I'd be averse to promoting something I wrote myself too, which is why I thought I'd better mention it!

  9. One consideration about dice drop tables is that the results are not as random as an actual die roll. Whether this is desireable or not depends on the specific table, I guess. The clustering of dice makes for a good topographic map, as the pyramid camp site shows, but the pseudo-"to hit" tables in Vornheim, for example, strike me as being less useful than simply rolling an extra d20 (which is an exception in that otherwise exceedingly useful tome).

    1. I usually use it when I got like 10 guys shooting arrows. I drop the dice dead center. It makes a bell curve rather than a flat curve--I can live with that

  10. "Layered" tables are a variety of what I called "split-column" tables in Vornheim

  11. I really recommend trying How To Host A Dungeon, it's fun to do. A basic version of the rules is available for free, and the full product isn't all that expensive for what it does.

  12. @amp108: Yeah, none of them are perfect. I think a good way to think of them is tools that you might pull out of your tool box when their strengths align with the particular needs you are generating for.

    @Zak: Acch, sorry I forgot about those. Did you call them "read across" at one time too, for some reason that pops to mind. Anyway I added an update.

    @Ben: Yeah, making stuff hands on like that is something I like a lot and I've praised Tony's stuff in the past:
    I just get overwhelmed by all the products available. It seems like anyone that's blogged about D&D has something for sale. (Also, I'm not good about buying things for myself.) So I never picked it up.

  13. A WanMo table you might be thinking of is in the Lamentations semi-joke module "Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess" - you use different dice and bonuses/penalties based on the party's level of Chaos/Law (the Woods like Elves. Clerics.. not so much).
    James Young made an interesting table for resurrection using Clone that also works that way..

  14. @docschott: Hey, thanks for the comment and example. And yeah, I added James' nice example in an update to my post.

  15. Descriptions of the evolution of one's thoughts are usually tediously boring, but you actually make this interesting to read!

    Well done, as usual.

  16. Thanks! I tend to think that's what blogs can be best for-- show someone thinking around and through something and then coming back with later posts to revise their thinking. I like it a lot.