Flailsnails between games

The Flailsnails multiverse is distributed and lacks any central authority. It is comprised of numerous, only partially compatible settings, that have drastically different economies. Firearms or even more advanced weapons are available in some worlds, whereas obsidian edged clubs might be cutting edge technology in other places. Whereas part of the effect of this is that the Flailsnails agglomeration as a whole takes on the qualities of the strangest and most extreme of the constituent areas, it does leave open to question: what areas does any given PC have access to at any given time? The conventions themselves are largely silent on this topic, but I have been following some informal rules of my own with my Flailsnails PCs that feel fair to me.

Currency conversion. Any XP-equivalent currency in terms of purchasing power is transparently converted between realms. So dollars become LotFP SP become gold doubloons become interstellar credits. Or whatever. Unless a particular physicality is important (such as using silver pieces to craft a crude silver weapon to damage a lycanthrope), in which case you are going to have to have a conversation with whatever referee and figure it out.

Downtime actions and equipment purchasing. I only allow my PCs to buy items or take actions within the last setting visited. This means that if my character is not in, say, Kalak-Nur currently, I need to play in another Kalak-Nur game before I can buy stuff there, even if I have played there before at some point. The same goes for administering land holdings or anything else that requires access to some world-specific resource.

Character-specific abilities, however, are a different matter. If I make a Holmes magic-user, I will craft scrolls at 100 GP per spell level between sessions, even though a particular session referee might have scroll creation work differently within a given setting.

While there is no particular reason why anyone else needs to follow these “rules,” I think they are good guidelines, and also provide adventuring motivation (if you assume that you need to survive a session in wherever before you can buy stuff there). Of course, I also happily apply my own rather stringent encumbrance rules (1 item per point of strength) to all of my own Flailsnails PCs unilaterally, so it is possible that I derive more utility than others from self-imposed limits.

Specific beats general

Reading the 5E PHB, it seems to me like one of the differences between older (as in pre-WotC) D&D and newer D&D is that character abilities more often manifest as “specific beats general” rules. For example: monk class feature: Stillness of Mind: starting at 7th level, you can use your action to end one effect on yourself that is causing you to be charmed or frightened. This is, of course, explicitly discussed as a design principle (page 7), and I think the same language was in 4E as well, though I do not have those books conveniently available to check at the moment.

There are some of these sorts of things in earlier D&D also, though not nearly as many. The paladin’s lay on hands ability is one such power, as is turn undead, and, perhaps, spell casting in general. But they were not nearly so prevalent, and the few classes that made heavy use of this sort of design (as did the AD&D monk and bard) felt different, and maybe even a bit off, like they didn’t fit the system quite as well as classes like the fighter, thief, or magic-user. Spells are the standard bundles of reality distortion available in earlier D&Ds, and while they do certainly increase PC play complexity (especially for those classes that need to make spell preparation decisions also), spells are a bit more cleanly separated from the underlying game engine, compared to the myriad discretionary class features present in the newer editions, and also are usually resources that must be spent, as opposed to options that may continually come into play.

As a matter of game play, such “specific beats general” abilities are cognitively heavier than the choices necessary when playing most classes in older editions. They are part of a catalog that must be kept in active memory. You need to remember that you have Stillness of Mind available as an option when you need to end a charmed or frightened effect. Is this qualitatively different than the equipment inventories that develop with medium to high level characters in older D&D? I am not sure. In any case, equipment inventories are also an aspect of characters in newer D&Ds, so at the very least, when comparing complexities, the comparison is A compared to A + B.

I can’t help but think that the card design paradigm of Magic: The Gathering contributed to this trend. Even when considering alternative system approaches before the onset of WotC D&D, most games seem to focus less on little bundles of rules that accrete to PCs as they develop, and more on a fixed collection of measurements that improve (attack tables, skill ratings, and so forth). For example, the attributes, abilities, and backgrounds in Vampire: The Masquerade are mostly all on the character sheet for all characters to begin with. Characters develop vertically more than horizontally. This is not necessarily meant to be condemnatory, nor is it any kind of ironclad principle (as I am sure there are plenty of exceptions), but it does seem like drift in design sensibilities.

On blasted sands

Not too long ago, D&D Classics released the 2E Dark Sun boxed set and the 4E Dark Sun campaign setting. I bought and read them both, and this was the result: some rules to bolt on to an OD&D style chassis in order to run a Dark Sun game with streamlined, lethal rules. The 2E boxed set is the better of the two products, and I would recommend using it for setting material.

In the past, I have thought that perhaps a human-only Dark Sun, with a more swords & sorcery, or old Hollywood sandal epic, style might be more interesting than the twisted versions of the standard D&D races that were actually included in the setting. But now I think that is not quite right. The flavor of Dark Sun needs some honestly strange Barsoomian weirdness, which I have included. But there are no elves, dwarves, or halflings to be found. Race has been subsumed into background. You will see that most of the Dark Sun archetypes have been preserved without the Tolkien races, however.

There is a PDF version too.


In the far future or distant past, a ruined land abides under merciless suns. Of those that remain, most toil hard and die young. Few prosper. Some, however, take an obsidian blade or bone scourge and try to wring what blood and sweetness are left in this withered husk of a dying world.

Select (randomly or by desire) a background, class, and (optionally) theme. Depending on those options, contacts and psionic powers may also be called for. For rules not included here, refer to any traditional fantasy ruleset (Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, Labyrinth Lord, 1974 Dungeons & Dragons, and so forth).

Background

Roll 1d10 or pick.

  1. Slave. Either a foreigner captured in war, slaver abductee, or born into slavery. Slave skills and education can vary dramatically based on life before slavery, but most slaves are manual laborers that provide city-states’ resources and finished products. Who is or was your master? Are you still a slave, and if so what arrangement allows you the functional freedom to adventure? Always on the lookout for danger, characters with a slave background gain a +1 to search checks based on d6 rolls or bonus to ability checks associated with perception.
  2. Citizen. From a wealthier background. Likely a land-holding noble, professional soldier, free artisan, or templar. Citizens begin with a society contact in one of the city-states (family, army, guild, or templar bureau). Citizens are the only background that may begin the game as a templar (see themes below).
  3. Monopolist. Members of the great trading families are never granted citizenship, and in fact monopolist compounds have a pseudo-sovereign status. Monopolists begin with a merchant house contact (useful for hiding from authorities) and may (along with traveling companions) take passage on company caravans without needing to pay passage.
  4. Arena-bred. Somebody invested a lot of money either breeding you or purchasing you from a breeder. Gladiators, prestige slaves, and seraglio workers for those with specific tastes are all common employments for arena-bred. The arena-bred tend toward extreme stubbornness and thus make terrible soldiers. Arena-bred gain a +2 bonus to all saving throws and can thrive on half normal rations.
  5. Herculon. The elite troops of sorcerer kings. Swollen to enormous proportions by dark sorcery. All herculons have 18 strength and constitution (replace any previous roll). However, virtually all costs, from equipment (which must be custom made) to upkeep and transportation, are doubled. The sorcerous origin of herculons makes them more susceptible than normal to magic, imposing a -4 penalty to saves versus magic when not under the protection of a sorcerer king, and their great size may pose other problems, such as being more likely to be hit by stray missiles, as determined situationally by the referee.
  6. Mantis person. Jump twice as far as an athletic human. Jump attack deals +1d6 damage but is only possible if not in melee. Natural chitin AC of medium armor. Mantis people are inscrutable to humans and thus have a functional charisma of 3 to all those not of their own kind.
  7. Nomad, dune runner. Hardy, tall, and slender folk that have adapted to nomadic life on the sands. Dune runners have speed equal to 150% of human standard, and are not affected by sunstroke (though they can still die from running out of supplies). Starting contact: nomad dune runner tribe.
  8. Nomad, herder. Herders are especially knowledgeable about the savage wilderness, and any party that includes a herder gains a +1 to d6 search tests during wilderness turns. Long association with the partially psionic livestock allows herders to broadcast psychic commands to such creatures with a successful charisma check. Standard reaction rolls should be used to determine actual animal behavior, if such a command is successful. Starting contact: nomad herder tribe.
  9. Pygmy head hunter. These wild folk have no taboo against the use or consumption of humans and other intelligent creatures. Head hunters delight in crafting equipment from the remains of their slain enemies. If recognized, they are terrifying, imposing a penalty of 2 to intelligent enemy morale tests. The pygmies are also small and lithe, rarely taller than four feet, and gain a +2 to armor class when aware, unrestrained, and not wearing heavy armor.
  10. Sandlark. A scavenger of the desert grit. Sandlarks can be found both within and outside of the few, great city-states. Given a day of scrounging, sandlarks have a 5 in 6 chance of acquiring enough sustenance for 1-2 human sized creatures. Additionally, during each downtime action, a sandlark may repair for free one non-iron item.

Class

Classes represent a character’s basic capabilities and never change once selected. Characters of any background may choose any class.

  • Fighter
  • Rogue
  • Sorcerer

From class, determine HP, attack bonus, saving throws, and permitted equipment.

Theme

Themes are optional, and function like careers that characters of any class can move in or out of. Characters may begin with a theme, and there are no restrictions other than that starting as a templar is only possible for citizens. A character may only have one theme at a time. themes have an associated level, and each time a character gains a level in their base class, the theme level increases as well. Thus, a fighter could start as a gladiator, and progress in that theme for, say, three levels, and then switch to psion. At fifth level, then, the character would have all the standard fighter stats plus the abilities that accrue from being a level 3 gladiator and a level 2 psion. Switching to a new theme requires finding a teacher or acceptance into an appropriate organization.

  • Gladiator. Combat die and special maneuver.
  • Templar. 1 sorcerer king boon per level per excursion.
  • Psion. Gain one power point and a new psionic power (see psionics below).
  • Elementalist. 1 elemental boon per level per excursion.

Abilities listed per theme are gained each level. Characters that choose to begin with the psion theme are wild talents and develop their psionic skills without need of a teacher. This development ends if they choose to switch themes, however, and a teacher must be found to progress beyond their natural level of talent. Each theme generally comes with responsibilities as well, such as services to a psionic master or missions for a sorcerer king. Most adventuring templars have special responsibilities as either spies, secret police, or fixers (playing an establishment templar would likely be boring). Note that “gladiator” can refer both to arena combatants and mercenaries or soldiers of fortune that fight in a similarly flashy and intimidating manner.

Many sorcerers are psions, as this allows sorcery to be camouflaged with psionic effects.

Elementalists must choose one of air, earth, fire, or water and changing this requires changing theme (finding a new teacher, etc). Boons are drawn from element specific lists or developed by the player (with referee approval).

Gladiators gain one combat die (d6) per gladiator theme level. These dice may be added to any combat-oriented roll (attack, damage, ability check, and so forth), but must be committed prior to the result of the original die being known. Once rolled, combat dice are expended, though all combat dice are recovered during downtime.

Psionics

Psions have a number of max power points equal to psion theme level. Powers costs one power point per use. All power points are refreshed during downtime.

Each time the psion theme level raises, the PC gets another power point and the choice of 1) a new first rank power or 2) increasing the rank of an existing power. The result of increasing the rank of a power is noted in parentheses below.

Psions may not use psionic powers if wearing a helmet.

Psionic powers

Default range for all powers is 100 feet. Default duration is one turn, except for bind blast and pyrokinesis, which are instantaneous.

  • Clairaudience (+100 feet range, increase duration)
  • Clairvoyance (+100 feet range, increase duration)
  • Mind blast, 2d6 psychic damage, divide dice between targets as desired (+1d6 damage)
  • Pyrokinesis, 2d6 fire damage (+1d6 damage)
  • Telekinesis, up to PC weight (+PC weight)
  • Telepathy, reading minds permits save, projecting thoughts does not (+1 target)

Suggestion

All psions have the ability to control minds. This can be attempted any number of times, though no more than once per exploration turn, and failure causes feedback (1d6 psychic damage). Resolve as 1d20 + psion theme level versus mental defense (which is 10 + psion theme level). Psions reduced to zero HP from such psychic damage are not slain, but rather knocked unconscious, retaining a single hit point.

Sorcery

Sorcery consumes life energy. Sorcerers can either draw this from within at personal cost or from external life.

If drawn from within, the sorcerer takes 1d6 physical stat damage per level of spell. Each such die of ability damage may be inflicted upon strength, dexterity, or constitution as desired by the player though the stats must be declared prior to rolling dice. For example, a second level spell would “cost” 2d6 ability points. All stat damage from sorcery is recovered during downtime. Sorcerers reduced to zero in any stat are knocked unconscious.

If drawn from external life, all vegetation near the sorcerer withers and dies. The energy may also be forcibly drawn from another person, dealing 1d6 damage +1 point of damage per spell level (save for half). Such a target must be within 10 feet of the sorcerer per sorcerer class level. Sorcerers can sense when energy is pulled from external life nearby, as can psions if the energy was drained from an intelligent creature. Syphoning life in this manner is accompanied by spectacular blue lighting, which conveys the sorcerous energy from the victim to the sorcerer’s outstretched fingers.

Using either method, the spell cast is wiped from the sorcerer’s mind and must be prepared before it can be cast again.

Gear and money

Default coinage is the ceramic chit, and should replace the gold piece if consulting other rules. Metallic coins are extremely rare and function much like gems in other settings.

Weapon and armor prices assume bone construction, double for obsidian, and quadruple for chitin. Bronze and iron cannot be purchased on the open market, being only permitted to the agents of authorities within city-states.

Quality by type:

  • Bone: 5
  • Obsidian: 4
  • Chitin: 3
  • Bronze: 2
  • Iron: 1

Rules for gear degrading can be found here.

Contacts

Most contacts will offer up to one favor per downtime, in appropriate circumstances. This can be information, basic assistance, or small material aid. Contacts will not generally endanger themselves unduly. Contacts may also call upon PCs, as all relationships go two ways.

  • Criminal syndicate or smugglers
  • Freedom fighter cell (potentially financed by enemy city-state)
  • Gladiatorial school
  • Merchant house
  • Nomad tribe
  • Sorcerer
  • Templar

Finding a hidden contact requires “searching” as a downtime action. The chance of success is 1 in 6. Once such a person or group is located, there is no guarantee of a favorable reaction. Generally, a PC will need to offer something in return for training or to build trust with the organization, especially if the nature of the contact is proscribed (smuggler, sorcerer, freedom fighter).

Modified image of Libya, original by Luca Galuzzi - www.galuzzi.it

Modified image of Libyan landscape, original by Luca Galuzzi – www.galuzzi.it

OSRCon 2014 Toronto

The fourth annual OSRCon is going to be held in Toronto again this year. Unfortunately, I will not be in town when it will be going on, but I attended the past two, and enjoyed both. In the first, I played a magic-user that explored Dwimmermount. In the second, I played a Pathfinder adaptation of White Plume Mountain and ran an OD&D game set in the Fight On! community mega-dungeon, The Darkness Beneath.

My understanding is that this years event will be far more casual, more like a game day, without panels or guest speakers. The details are being coordinated on a Google Plus community, and the specific event can be found here. It is happening on saturday, august 23rd. So far, I see LotFP, AD&D, Basic D&D, and DCC games already scheduled. I wish I could make it.

OSRCon 4 2014 IMG_4762

Stats and magics

Playing Dark Souls has helped crystalize in my mind a lot of how I want the character advancement options to work in The Final Castle. Back when I was working on the Hexagram rules, one of my main goals was to support flexible cross-class abilities without complexity or undermining traditional class archetypes, though now I find the particular approach I was working on somewhat unsatisfying. There was too much discretion, not enough structure, and the lists of system options were too long.

The Final Castle has a far simpler, and more elegant, method of advancement which I believe satisfies my original requirements. Characters may advance potentially to level ten, and each level gained allows the increase of one ability score* (though the same score may not be increased over subsequent levels). The ability scores are combined with a class bonus (which is half level, round up) to determine most action resolution. So, for example, a character is going to roll something like 1d20 +dexterity +fighter (shorthand here for fighter class bonus) when making a combat roll. Starting stats range from 0 to 3, a given stat can be increased up to +5, and the class bonus rises to +5 at most, yielding a nice range of bonus for even the luckiest and most focused character (up to +13 on the d20 scale at level 10). Such specialization comes at the cost of flexibility, as will become clear momentarily.

It may seem at first glance like this does not have much to do with the previous discussion of Dark Souls. However, like Dark Souls, the magic rules apply to characters of all classes. That is, a fighter, for example, rolls 1d20 +magic +magician when casting spells, and the number of spells that can be prepared is also governed by those numbers. (Recall that intelligence has been replaced by magic.) Now, in the case of a fighter, +magician (the class bonus) is always going to be zero, but +magic may be increased (if the fighter wants to dabble in magic) during level up rather than one of the physical stats. Magicians have access to more methods for learning spells, but any character with sufficient stats can at least learn spells from a teacher, and any character has the potential of sufficient stats through level up choices.

Cleric magic (called boons), is handled similarly, with +charisma and +cleric taking the place of +magic and +magician. Rather than learning spells one by one as does a magician, clerics are granted access to a full suite of powers upon making a covenant with a given immortal. The default covenant available to clerics at first level is with The King of Life**, but other covenants may be discovered during play and accessed by any character that has sufficient charisma score. Most immortals will not covenant with characters that use magic though, as such is considered presumptuous and hubristic. More than one covenant at a time is impossible, and breaking a covenant may come with serious consequences.

* Oversimplifying slightly for clarity.

** Inspired by Dogs in the Vineyard and used with permission.

Dark Souls magic

Almost all of the Dark Souls rules are somewhat applicable to the tabletop context, but the magic systems seem especially so suited. There are three magic systems: pyromancy, miracle, and sorcery. There are “classes” associated with each, but any character can level into the various kinds of magic by increasing the appropriate stats. Each magic requires a characteristic implement be equipped in order to cast spells of the given type. Each interacts with PC stats in a slightly different way, and the number of overall spell slots, which must be divided between all types of magic, is controlled by the attunement stat. Spells must be prepared (“attuned”) at bonfires, which is the equivalent of downtime or recovery in D&D, and may only be used a limited number of times before resting again.

Pyromancy is the simplest type of magic. There is some intimation that it is more primal and less sophisticated than sorcery. It is often associated with swamp dwellers, symbolic of exclusion and the primitive. There is a similarity here to the distinction WotC D&D makes between wizards (pseudo-academics) and sorcerers (wild talents, magic by lineage). Pyromancy power is not affected by any stats, other than the slots from attunement needed for spell preparation, and their power is dependent only upon the strength of the pyromancy flame used, which is the characteristic implement.

A pyromancy flame can be upgraded independently by spending souls, which, remember, function like both GP and XP. Most pyromancy is simple attack magic, fireballs and so forth, though there are also a few defensive spells, such as iron flesh and flash sweat (which increases defense against fire damage). From a game perspective, pyromancy gives players a way to get access to magic damage by dumping souls into an upgraded pyromancy flame and a few pyromancies without needing to increase level at all, assuming a PC meets the (very low) attunement requirement to be able to prepare any spells at all.

Sorceries are more academic, and higher precision. They often have intelligence prerequisites, and spell power is affected by intelligence. A character that wishes to be a competent sorcerer must dedicate a number of levels to the sorcery-oriented stats. The characteristic implement is the catalyst, often depicted as a wand or staff. Unlike pyromancy flames, or weapons, catalysts cannot be upgraded. You must find better ones.

Though there are several attack sorceries (such as soul arrows, which are basic “magic blasts” that also have the useful function of tracking enemy movement to some degree), there are in addition many utility and misdirection spells, such as aural decoy (which lures enemies away by creating a sound elsewhere), fall control (as feather fall), and hidden body (basically, invisibility). I have been playing a warrior and have only dipped lightly into sorcery so far, so I do not have much direct experience with these spells beyond soul arrows, but for a combat-oriented action RPG, there are a surprisingly large number of spells that seem to enable non-combat creativity.

Miracles are the province of the cleric, and are mostly, by default, as in D&D, defensive or restorative. However, the miracles a character has access to depends on which covenants are formed. For example, if you join the gravelord servant covenant, there are miracles that call giant phantom blades to attack your enemies. This is a fascinating system, reminiscent of “clerics of specific mythos” in 2E D&D, but much more dependent upon action during play. Further, a covenant comes with clear, objective factional duties and restrictions. I do not fully understand exactly how this affects gameplay, but what I have seen of the periphery makes the covenant system one of the most interesting aspects of Dark Souls design, and one that has been highly influential over my conception of clerics as servants of immortals in the world of The Final Castle. Beyond this contextual aspect, miracles work similarly to sorceries, requiring attunement at bonfires, and dependent upon the faith stat for power. The characteristic implement, which must be equipped to call a miracle, is the talisman.

This system design engenders several different kinds of trade-off. First, there are the advancement decisions about which stats are increased during level up. While strictly speaking it is possible to grind souls and increase everything, in practice this is tedious, and further unnecessary to be successful*. If you are just playing the game to explore and overcome challenges, you will naturally need to choose between physical capability and the various kinds of magic. This mode is also more applicable to the tabletop context, where grinding dynamics are minimized or nonexistent. Second, there is the cost and availability of various spells. Third, when you set out from a bonfire, you must divide your available attunement slots between spells. If you have four slots, for example, two could be miracles and two could be sorceries.

Fourth, and most importantly in terms of the gameplay experience, you must wield the appropriate implement to cast a given spell. While encumbrance rules do not prevent you from carrying everything with you (an aspect of the game I find somewhat strange), they do prevent you from equipping more than a few items, and switching between items that are not equipped during combat is asking for a quick death. In practice this means that you have a primary and secondary equipped item in each hand that is east to switch between. The left hand is usually occupied by a shield and either ranged weapon or tool (such as the skull lantern). This leaves the right hand for (likely) a melee weapon and magic implement. The final result of all of this design is that it is impractical to ready more than one kind of magic on a given excursion. Fifth, and finally, casting a spell has a more or less lengthy animation and thus requires a trade-off consideration in terms of when you start to cast a spell, as enemies may take advantage of that time or your vulnerability.

* At least in single-player mode. If you are into PvP it is likely different. The fact that grinding souls might make a big difference in the viability of character power is part of the reason I have little interest in PvP.

Derived weapons

Following these system guidelines, here is a set of balanced, predefined weapons.

2DTH stands for “two dice, take highest” and 2DTL stands for “two dice, take lowest.” 3DTH is “three dice, take highest” and so forth.

One-handed melee

  • Axe (2DTL, sundering)
  • Dagger (2DTL, close)
  • Flail (2DTH, dangerous)
  • Javelin (2DTL, throwable)
  • Mace (2DTL, armor-piercing)
  • Spear (2DTL, reach)
  • Sword, arming
  • Throwing knife (2DTL, throwable)
  • Tomahawk (2DTL, throwable)
  • War hammer (2DTL, armor-piercing)

Two-handed melee

  • Chain scythe (2DTH, reach, dangerous)
  • Halberd (2DTH, long-hafted, sundering)
  • Maul (4DTH, heavy, crude)
  • Pike (3DTH, long-hafted)
  • Pole-flail (3DTH, dangerous)
  • Sword, claymore (reach)
  • Sword, two-handed (2DTH)
  • Sword, zweihander (3DTH, heavy)

One-handed ranged

  • Crossbow, hand (2DTL)
  • Sling (slow)

Two-handed ranged

  • Bow, short
  • Bow, long (2DTH, immobile)
  • Crossbow, light (2DTL, armor-piercing)
  • Crossbow, heavy (armor-piercing, slow)

The way this works out, the arming sword, two-handed sword, and short bow end up each being the default weapon (the mechanical result of not applying any benefit or flaw) within a larger category, which feels right to me. I am pretty happy with all of these except the long bow. I thought about “heavy,” but that does not quite seem to be an appropriate flaw to balance the higher damage. Something where the long bow could only be used with sufficient area to allow the proper stance would be best, so I invented “immobile,” which means that the wielder cannot both move and take a shot in the same round. It may still be possible to improve on that, however. The limited number of properties, especially per given weapon, seems far more approachable that my previous effort, while also prioritizing fictional logic.

You may note that there are a few different weapons listed that are still mechanically identical (such as javelins, tomahawks, and throwing knives). I do not necessarily see that as a problem, as they may have different tool uses outside of combat as well. I also added a few somewhat absurd items to the list (chain scythe!) because they are fun, and to show how the blending of properties can make stranger weapons both viable and different beyond just literal re-skinning, which I often find unsatisfying as a player.

Dark Souls zweihander (personal photo)

Dark Souls zweihander (personal photo)

Build your own weapons

Many systems for nuancing weapons function as an overlay for simpler base rules. Maces might gain benefits versus armored opponents, for example. This is a good approach as it is easy to understand and has reasonable face validity, but leads to problems of needing to come up with benefits for weapons that do not easily suggest advantages, such as the basic arming sword. This becomes especially clear when using d6 damage for all weapons. It is, in some sense, the inverse of the problem with AD&D variable damage. When the longsword does d8/d10 damage and maces deal d6, damage dealing capacity dominates. When all weapons deal flat damage, extra properties dominate.

In order to navigate these twin rules design hazards, here is an experiment that trades damage dealing potential for benefits, but uses a drop highest/lowest dice scheme to keep the expected damage bounded (no comments about 5E please; Philotomy did it first). Further, the effect of benefits is increased, because they need to really be clearly better within a given niche. A mace getting +1 or +2 to hit versus armor is just not good enough to justify the decreased effectiveness against all other types of opponents.

This is a mechanics-first approach to balancing weapon capabilities and power. Rather than looking at weapons naturalistically and applying special-case rules as necessary to represent weapon benefits, this guarantees a level of mathematical trade-off. It is meant to coexist with d6 hit dice as well, but could also be applied to a variable hit die (“Basic style”) approach, substituting class hit die for the d6. Rules have been phrased here in terms of the d6, however, for clarity.

Weapons begin with one of the following templates:

  • One-handed melee: 1d6 damage
  • Two-handed melee: 2d6 (take best) damage
  • Two-handed missile: 1d6 damage

Then, properties (benefits and flaws) may be applied by moving up or down the damage dice chain. Rolling multiple dice means the best (or worst) value is taken, depending on where in the dice chain the weapon lies. For example, a one-handed melee weapon with a benefit drops down to two dice, take lowest. Add another benefit and it would be doing three dice, take lowest. And so forth. Flaws may be added to move up the dice chain. For example, a one-handed long-haft (flaw) reach (benefit) spear does one die of damage (standard one-handed melee template) and the reach/awkward properties balance out. In essence, lower damage is a flaw and higher damage is a benefit.

This means that you could have a one-handed melee throwable, armor-piercing, sundering weapon, but you will be rolling 4d6 and taking the worst result for damage when using this swiss army knife monstrosity (assuming it has no flaws). There are some interesting corollaries from this system which you do not often see, such as the 3d6, take best two-handed long-haft pole-arm (meaning that it can only be used effectively with two hands and at reach, which seems just right).

Benefits

  • Armor-piercing: +4 attack versus medium or heavy armor
  • Close: +4 attack following grapple
  • Reach: attack from the second rank
  • Sundering: +4 when trying to damage armor or shields
  • Throwable

Weapons acting within their area of specialty (for example, reach weapons at reach or armor-piercing weapons versus armor) never deal less than one die of damage.

(Rather than the +4 bonus, you could also use 5E style advantage.)

Flaws

  • Crude: drops down one damage die step per level of target armor
  • Dangerous: wielder takes 1d3 damage on natural 1 attack rolls
  • Heavy: following a miss, an action is required to ready the weapon
  • Long-haft: may only be used at reach
  • Slow: requires an action to ready (or reload)

If using an approach like this, a set of basic weapons should probably be defined so that players don’t need to do any reasoning to figure out how a mace should be represented. There is no reason not to expose the underlying system for players that wish to “build” slightly more unique weapons as well though. The list of properties was kept intentionally short, based on my experience with weapon property systems, and should be taken as a set of examples rather than a comprehensive list. New properties giving bonuses to particular maneuvers (such as a bonus to disarm maneuvers for a weapon like a parrying dagger) could be added as needed, keeping in mind basic balance considerations.

A few weapons do not fit well into this structure, such as nets and whips. This seems less like a flaw in the system, though, than a sign that such items are not really weapons (that is, tools designed to deal damage), but rather things with more specific purpose that just happen to be useful in combat. It is probably better to give such items special moves that can be made in combat and design them outside of the strictures of these guidelines.

Public domain image from Telecanter

Public domain image from Telecanter

Dark Souls preliminaries

Channeler (source)

Channeler (source)

Dark Souls has captured my attention like no other video game before. The basics of the game are relatively simple. You have a set amount of resources, including health, a number of healing potions (called estus flasks), and perhaps some spells depending on your advancement and equipment choices. You set out from a bonfire to explore an area, collecting souls as you go. Souls are acquired by (mostly) killing enemies and (occasionally) found as treasure. If you rest at a bonfire, resources are replenished and all recurring enemies respawn. Bosses and mini-bosses (for lack of a better term) stay dead once killed. If you die, you lose all souls that have been gained from killing enemies (though not those found as treasure, which remain in your inventory until you convert them to actual souls that can be spent). You can reclaim any souls lost if you return to where you died before you die again. Souls can be used to level up (increasing your choice of any one stat) or as currency to purchase items.

These dynamics should seem extremely familiar, because other than a few nuances, they almost entirely replicate the OD&D game approach of recovering treasure to gain XP using a limited number of resources, such as HP and spells, which replenish between excursions. Every action you take is a balance between risk and reward. Do you want to go a little bit farther, risking the souls you have accumulated, or do you want to return to a bonfire to replenish resources (and perhaps level up)? Is now the time to challenge a boss, which, if defeated, will permanently alter the game world, perhaps opening up new areas?

Pinwheel (source)

Pinwheel (source)

The twin factors that make Dark Souls so remarkable are extremely tight gameplay and an aesthetic sensibility that manages to be both restrained (in an almost classical manner) and wildly creative. The style is primarily brooding European gothic, with plate armor, visored helms, western dragons, gargoyles, and so forth, but, as with many Japanese fantasy games, there is also a smattering of East Asian gear and many of the creatures have a vaguely Shinto demeanor.

Being primarily* a one-player, action RPG, combat is the main element of gameplay, and almost all PC capabilities and equipment are geared towards combat efficiency. That said, running away (or past) enemies is often a viable strategy, and, in addition, many dirty tricks are possible, such as knocking enemies over ledges or into the path of traps. Dark Souls combat is real-time and highly positional, though minimal reflex is involved. Combat is paced, almost languid. Almost all actions have very explicit animations, allowing the player to predict and react to enemy attacks and maneuvers once they are learned. This also extends to PC actions, such as drinking a potion or casting a spell. The time taken often exposes you to enemy attacks, meaning that every choice must be carefully weighed and could potentially have consequences. The game rewards careful approach and intelligent tactics far more than quick reaction times.

The regions (stages?) are topologically relatively simple, sometimes almost linear, but the connectivity between regions provides a much more vivid sense of extended world than many more open games, which often contain large amounts of open expanse that feel blank and under-detailed. Further, the connections between many areas are somewhat concealed, requiring careful investigation (though no pixel bitching). There are several areas, including some near the beginning of the game, that I did not discover for a long time due to oversight. Finding a new area to explore always felt like a major accomplishment, either by coming across a hidden path or defeating a gatekeeper boss.

Skeleton wheel (source)

Skeleton wheel (source)

Though the difficulty of Dark Souls is overstated (I am not very good at video games, and have been able to make considerable progress, though I have not yet finished the game), it does not coddle the player. I can imagine that this might feel frustrating to some people, but I have found it refreshing. There are no undo mechanisms, not even a way to reload an earlier saved game. Once you make a change to your character or the game world (such as by choosing which stat to increase during a level up), it stays changed. If you accidentally kill a friendly NPC (as I did with the first merchant I met), it stays dead. Congratulations, you just made the game more difficult. (In my case, I was unable to buy crossbow bolts until reaching a significantly distant area). Because of this design, defeating a difficult enemy or finding a way around a devious challenge feels all the more satisfying. Personally, I have maintained a strict embargo against looking up strategies online (with the exception of some mechanical issues, like figuring out how to aim the longbow), and would highly recommend this approach, as it makes investigating the world far more engaging.

Titanite demon (source)

Titanite demon (source)

This game is so amazing that this only scratches the surface. I would particularly recommend those interested in traditional D&D, especially OD&D, to give it a spin. Many elements will be recognizable, and, in addition, the design decisions that are different have been (for me) quite fruitful in inspiring ideas for tabletop games, both in terms of setting and game mechanics. You will need some patience to begin with, as you get used to the dying in order to learn how things work, though that passes relatively quickly. Don’t worry too much about which class you start with, as you will be able to level any character into any abilities. My current game (still the first and only character that I have created), is up to around 130 hours. It is the only video game that I have played where I expect to make a new character immediately after finishing the game to see how it plays with other advancement choices and perhaps tackling regions in a different order.

* There are some online features that allow other players to leave signs within your game or assist during fights, but I have not used them and based on my understanding they do not seem important to the experience of play.

Detect Magic

Detect Magic is a blog by Daniel Davis, just started this year. If I had to select an appropriate pigeonhole or tagline, I might say: “older D&D through the lens of Apocalypse World with lots of useful tools and also rules hacks,” though like all such summaries that sells it somewhat short. If those things are your bag (and they are certainly mine), I would recommend heading over there to check it out and maybe adding it to your regular reading list and/or blogroll. Old standby blogs are regularly slowing down or ceasing posts entirely, so it is always good to see new folks jumping in.

Here are some posts you might want to start with:

  • Faction wars procedure
  • Conquest: making control of territory a gameable thing
  • Fisticuffs: dueling or brawling for trad D&D using stakes setting
  • Pathcrawl: an interesting wilderness exploration procedure

Also many of the table sets are automated using Logan’s excellent generator of generators.