Old School Rebellion, Part III

— Käthe Kollwitz, 19th century

This is the conclusion of a three part series. You can read part one here and part two here.

Game Master Principles

While part two consisted mostly of player-facing procedures and mechanics, here I’ll offer principles for GMing a rebellion-focused campaign and mechanics and procedures to support those principles. (Note that throughout this text, “empire” functions as a catch-all term for any form of tyranny).

Generate Sustained Pressure

Implicit in the premise of a rebellion-focused campaign is asymmetrical conflict. The empire will wield far greater economic and military power than the rebels. Reinforce this facet of the premise by introducing time-sensitive threats and opportunities with enough frequency that the player characters will struggle to address them all. The gradual pace of healing in old-school D&D facilitates this and prompts risk-versus-reward decisions. May this selection of time-sensitive, rebellion-oriented hooks serve as inspiration:

  • In a matter of days, a column of soldiers will remove a hoard of treasure from an imperial dungeon and escort it to the capital.
  • The empire has imprisoned sympathizers of the rebellion in a dungeon. The prisoners are due for execution in a matter of days.
  • In retribution for aid provided to the rebellion, the empire bars all travel to and from a village. Disease ravages the village, and its inhabitants require medicine.
  • The empire is on the verge of rooting out a spy serving the rebellion. The spy faces imprisonment or death if they are not exfiltrated from an imperial fortress.
  • A rampaging monster has drawn imperial forces away from an occupied town, leaving it relatively unguarded.

Introduce Dilemmas

One consequence of time-sensitive hooks is that the players will face difficult choices regarding which hook to pursue. But time pressure isn’t the only tool available for crafting dilemmas for the players to contend with. Incomplete information and double-edged swords can also serve this purpose. May this selection of rebellion-oriented dilemmas serve as inspiration:

  • A faction opposing the empire could prove to be a valuable ally. However, this faction clearly has sinister motivations.
  • Someone close to the player characters is suspected of acting as an informant to the empire. However, no concrete evidence has been uncovered.
  • Refugees fleeing empire-controlled territory seek shelter in a liberated town. However, it’s suspected that a monster or imperial spy lurks among them.
  • Imperial soldiers are marching to recapture a liberated town. Destroying a particular bridge would halt their advance but would also cut off the rebellion’s access to other towns.

The Exposure Clock

The rebels can only operate within a single town for so long before attracting the empire’s attention. When the player characters begin operations in a new town, create a clock with a number of segments based on the town’s size, its importance to the empire, and the extent of the empire’s presence there. A peripheral village that hosts half a dozen soldiers and an informant or two might have a twelve-segment clock, while a key industrial town garrisoned by a platoon of soldiers might have a six-segment clock.

Mark one segment of a town’s exposure clock whenever the player characters engage in activity that might draw attention, such as:

  • Redistributing wealth among the townspeople
  • Holding a large gathering
  • Stockpiling food, weapons, or other resources
  • Killing or capturing an agent of the empire
  • Distributing leaflets or otherwise spreading word of the rebellion
  • Destroying an apparatus or symbol of the empire
  • Demolishing infrastructure such as a bridge, road, or watchtower

Keep these clocks hidden from the players, but telegraph the risks their activities incur, perhaps through warnings from allies and contacts. For every ten days without signs of rebel activity in a town, clear one marked segment from its exposure clock. When half the segments of a town’s exposure clock are marked, a sudden increase in imperial activity in town will signal that the rebels have drawn the empire’s attention:

  • The number of imperial soldiers garrisoned within the town doubles.
  • Imperial agents go door to door seeking information about the rebels.
  • Imperial agents arrest and question a few of the player characters’ allies and contacts.
  • Imperial agents damage or shut down businesses belonging to people seen as sympathetic to the rebellion.

When all the segments of a town’s exposure clock are marked, the empire brings its full wrath upon the town 2d4 days later. Additional soldiers arrive to search houses and raid businesses and warehouses. Imperial agents interrogate those suspected of providing aid or sympathy to the rebellion. If imperial agents discover evidence that someone has collaborated with the rebellion, they will imprison or execute that person. If the player characters have allies in nearby towns or scouts watching the roads, they will receive 4d6 hours’ notice before the crackdown occurs. Otherwise, they will receive 1d6 hours’ notice.

Inspiration for this mechanic comes from John Harper’s Blades in the Dark. See the Blades in the Dark System Reference Document for more about progress clocks.

Sow Mistrust

The empire employs numerous spies and informants and constantly seeks to convert new ones. The players should be uncertain at times of whom their characters can trust. Agents of the empire will approach the player characters under pretense of offering material aid or information. In reality, these agents seek to gain the player characters’ trust and glean information about the rebels’ activity.

In addition, agents of the empire will attempt to contact the player characters’ recruits, offering pardons, land, and wealth in exchange for information. If an imperial agent manages to contact a recruit, roll a loyalty check to determine whether the recruit defects or remains faithful to the rebellion. If the check succeeds, the recruit will inform the player characters of the empire’s attempt to convert them, and no further attempts by imperial agents may be made to sway that recruit. If the check fails, the player character loses that recruit; then, mark two segments on the exposure clock of the appropriate town.

Recruit Loyalty

The limited rate at which player characters gain recruits through repute and the risk of recruits defecting both offset the fact that player characters need not share repute with recruits as characters in B/X D&D share experience points with retainers. Because player characters have limited access to recruits and defection poses a high risk, recruit loyalty matters greatly.

I recommend implementing dynamic recruit loyalty. For each recruit, establish something they care about: their hometown, their family, a cultural artifact, a landmark. The recruit’s loyalty increases when the player characters benefit or protect that which the recruit cares for. Conversely, the recruit’s loyalty decreases when the player characters abandon or endanger that which the recruit cares for.


To preserve your impartiality and to promote emergent gameplay, I recommend randomly generating opportunities, threats, and other events. Create a table that includes the following elements, and roll on it as often as feels best for your game:

  • Time-sensitive opportunities: prisoners to rescue, towns to liberate, etc.
  • Time-sensitive threats: an imperial invasion to recapture a town, an impending attack on a rebel base, etc.
  • Long-term opportunities: treasure to plunder, imperial apparatuses to destroy, etc.
  • Long-term threats: construction of new infrastructure, imperial petitioning of a neutral faction, etc.
  • Imperial agent activity: entrapping the player characters, attempting to convert recruits, etc.

Distance between towns, characters’ healing rate, and whether you run a closed or open table are all factors that may influence how often you want to generate events.

Reconsider What Treasure Is

In a campaign in which player characters advance not by enriching themselves but by aiding their community and generating goodwill, treasure need not be limited to gold and gems. Medicine, art objects, food, construction equipment, musical instruments, history books, maps, and livestock can all be treasured by the characters’ community.

Celebrate Victory

A rebellion-focused campaign will challenge the players—strategically and emotionally. Facing the pressures of time-sensitive hooks and exposure clocks, they may feel they are taking two steps forward and one step back. Therefore, it’s important to take the time to show the fruits of their struggle and celebrate their victories. A simple way to accomplish this is through your portrayal of their community.

Establish at least one problem that each town faces. When the player characters first visit a town, show how that problem affects the community. When the player characters take steps to address that problem, show how their efforts transform the community.

For example, one town may struggle due to the lack of a hospital and access to medicine. When the player characters first visit the town, they will see an empty square, corpses carted to a burn pit, and scrawny, pockmarked children. When the player characters distribute enough wealth throughout the community, they will no longer see corpses being carted away. The streets will no longer appear so empty. When the player characters fund the construction of a hospital, they will return to find the town transformed: citizens gather at an outdoor market, a band plays in the square, and children gambol through the streets.

Closing Thoughts

Of course, some work remains in order to transform these ideas into table-ready systems. One would need to determine, for instance, how much repute to reward for specific objectives. Adapting a system for downtime activities may also prove valuable. (I’d recommend Downtime in Zyan by Ben Laurence of Through Ultan’s Door).

I may, as one commenter suggested, compile and refine these ideas into a proper PDF resource. I have several other projects in the works, though, so until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts and criticisms. Thanks for reading!

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  1. Buffo

    I love the use of Käthe Kollwitz’ art here.

    I really like the approach in this series of engaging with problematic themes such as colonialism and imperialism, instead of purging them from RPGs. To me, the community building approach of the Towards a Leftist OSR article you referenced works best in the context of an oppressive regime, as you’ve put forward. I think of how Levellers communities in the UK faced this type of oppression.

    The way you’ve suggested running these games seems to fit best with an outright authoritarian regime or invading empire, as outlined in your 2nd post. The rebel forces and communities feel quite divorced from the empire, as they would be in this context. An alternative approach is to make the characters complicit in the actions of the empire, without glossing over this. The Helm RPG does this pretty well, as I’ve reviewed on my blog. In a collaborative game I’ve contributed to (the 2nd Age), we’re specifically trying to link advancement to actions in the support of the empire. The idea is to give the players an inherent dilemma if they want to advance their characters.


    1. Dododecahedron

      Thanks for the comment! I enjoyed your review of Helm.

      While developing this framework, I felt quite conflicted about whether or not to tie character advancement to support of the empire (perhaps alongside the existing methods of advancement). After all, if the player characters only advance by supporting the rebellion, then this system undermines the reality that supporting the rebellion would be a difficult choice involving great sacrifice. However, it’s also a matter of player buy-in. Just as players in a picaresque game of old-school D&D buy into the gameplay loop of dungeon-delving and self-enrichment before the campaign begins, so too do players in a rebellion-focused campaign buy into this premise before the first session. In addition, if some characters in an open-table game side with the empire while others side with the rebellion, this introduces a major headache for the GM and the potential for interpersonal conflict between players. Ultimately, this is a game played among friends, though I do recognize the flaws of only offering advancement through support of the rebellion.


      1. Buffo

        I think you’ve got a good framework for a rebellion focused campaign, where players buy into this shared goal (a bit like the Spire RPG).  I’ve had a slightly different approach in mind, which might be interesting to share as a discussion point (not that I’m convinced it’s better myself).  

        In your first post, you talk about your campaigns taking an anti-authoritarian direction, despite occurring in the context of picaresque old-school D&D.   Having rebellious actions emerge organically as a player choice like this appeals to me.   I might take away XP for gold as an incentive, but I’m not sure I’d add a rule mechanic to incentivise rebellious behaviour.  I like the idea of a process that brings about a change in consciousness, provoking rebellious actions when it reaches a tipping point.  I’d like it to be something you discover about the world through play (not sure exactly how to pull this off yet!)

        Many of the ideas in your posts could be used as a tool box, for any campaign that takes a rebellious turn (e.g. the exposure clock).  But I’d also like to try the rebellious focused version as intended (you should definitely put this in a pdf!)

        Yes, having a party split between those supporting the empire to advance and rebelling against it would be a challenge!  I’ve purposely introduced rogues as an anti-class in my game Beggar’s Choice, meaning there is a viable way to play without the need for advancement.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Dododecahedron

          I do like the idea of allowing players to discover that the status quo of their society is malign, thus leaving room for rebellious play to emerge organically. I think these ideas would harmonize well with those presented in “The Keep on the Borderlands is Full of Lies” from Prismatic Wastelands and Zedeck Siew’s conversation with Liam on a recent episode of Toa Tabletop. Specifically, Zedeck argues that bestiaries, maps, almanacs, etc. function best as diegetic artifacts that betray a subjective worldview, rather than non-diegetic sources of objective fact.


          1. Buffo

            That Prismatic Wastelands post is great. I will check out the podcast too. I had the idea of using the Greyhawk setting cannon as having the status of myth within my game world. The players then return to Greyhawks a hundred years later after a sundering event, and get to compare myth with reality. Seems along similar lines.


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