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.

Combat and maneuvers

Combat actions other than the standard, damage dealing attack can be resolved in many different ways. In the past, I have used several approaches, such as requiring ability checks instead of or along with attack rolls, or using ability score contests similar to the opposed skill rolls suggested by D&D 4E. However, recently I have come to think that using ability scores in this area is not the best approach. It requires generating ability scores for monsters regularly, which granted is not that cumbersome, but is nonetheless suboptimal. Further, it plays oddly with the primary measure of combat skill, which is the attack bonus (or combat tables), which seem better suited to resolving most kinds of nonstandard attacks. The system below is from The Final Castle rules, but works just as well with most traditional fantasy games, whether or not monological combat is being used.

All physical actions that might be taken in combat are handled with a combat roll. By default, this is the standard “roll high, hit a target number, do damage” that should be commonly recognizable. However, rather than inflicting damage, a character may attempt to cause any number of other reasonable effects, taking the effect rather than damage, as long as the intent is declared prior to the roll and is fictionally reasonable. I have predefined a number of common maneuvers which can be substituted for a standard attack, such as disarm, grapple, and disengage, but these are intended to be samples rather than a comprehensive list of moves. Undefined maneuvers should be negotiated between players and referees prior to any action declaration.

Additionally, I have a rule called overkill which says that attacks do +1d6 damage if the combat roll exceeds the target number by four or more. This is another way that the fighter’s increasing attack competency with level scales damage up, but it also applies to maneuvers. That is, if a combatant is attempting something like a push-back bull rush maneuver, if they succeed with overkill, the result is both the desired effect and 1d6 damage. Thus, doing an attack/maneuver at once is possible, but more difficult, and you might get just the effect without direct damage.

As a more extended example, consider the standard grapple attempt. If it is fictionally reasonable for a combatant to attempt a grapple (and note this is no more unambiguous than whether or not a standard damage-causing attack is fictionally reasonable), the grappling agressor makes a combat roll. On success, the target is successfully grappled, and can no longer move, though may be able to perform close attacks. That now-grappled target will need to attempt an escape maneuver to be free of the grapple, if that is desired, which will require a dedicated future action. Further, in this case, any appropriate side effects of a grapple automatically trigger, such as armor spikes or flaming body dealing damage. Were the initial grapple combat roll to achieve overkill, damage would also be dealt on the first round.

Since the resolution system uses the combat roll, fighters are better at maneuvers than other characters, but maneuvers are not limited to fighters. Like thief skills, I prefer for creative actions to be available to all characters, rather than being limited to fighters for niche protection. The trade-off is clear: give up damage in return for an effect. And the system is trivial to remember, in all cases: make a combat roll. In general, I think this maneuver system can be used for many actions that might be considered stunts in other systems. Particularly tricky maneuvers could either be done with a penalty such as 5E-style disadvantage, or require an overkill result to get the basic effect (note that this naturally reduces then to the 2E standard of called shots being at -4, which seems like a nice result).

In The Final Castle, armor reduces damage and the target number represents a more abstract enemy threat level (as was planned for Gravity Sinister). This means that there may be advantages to grappling, or engaging with some other nonstandard maneuver, a heavily armored foe, as the damage reduction will be less likely to come into play. This is a difference from D&D, which would make the trade-off dynamic slightly different if AC is used directly as the target number in all cases, but is in any case easy to adjust for using a basic penalty or advantage/disadvantage scheme.

Trade and arbitrage

Traders must invest in trade goods, which are an abstract resource costing one bank note (1000 coins) each. Trade goods must be purchased with bank notes, which requires a bank relationship. Nobody is going to entrust their merchandise to a group of vagabonds with a sack of coin. Each trade good requires a wagon and team, making it obvious at a glance the approximate value of any caravan. For simplicity’s sake, the cost of wagon and driver is subsumed into the cost of trade goods.

Arbitrage gained is equal to the number of random encounter checks due to travel braved for each unit of trade goods. If the journey was not perilous, characters other than adventurers would already be moving goods. Upon reaching a destination market, the party gains a return of 50 coins in exchange for each point of arbitrage.

For example, a party with three units of trade goods that faces four random encounter checks accumulates four arbitrage points. This translates to a return of 200 coins on each unit of goods, yielding a total of 3 (trade goods) x 4 (arbitrage points) x 50 (arbitrage return) = 3 x 200 = 600 coins, which must then be divided among the party and is treated the same way as treasure. The way I usually run wilderness travel, each hex takes one day to traverse at standard overland speed, with one random encounter check (1 in 6 chance) per day and one per night. This means that the “cost” of the above example return is 3 bank notes worth of capital (3000 coins) and 6 random encounter checks. Increase either the capital invested or the distance travelled and the return increases proportionally.

There should probably be some limit to the amount of trade a given town or stronghold can absorb, but that can be handled by common sense and ruling. Return can be adjusted for goods that are particularly in demand if desired, though this requires slightly more settlement elaboration on the part of the referee. Perhaps tags per settlement for goods exported and imported would be enough to support this added level of detail. I vaguely recall An Echo, Resounding and Dungeon World (the steading system) to have some related ideas, so perhaps they can be mined for approaches to managing settlement information.

Two approaches to ability scores

Traditionally in Dungeons & Dragons, there is a relatively sharp divide between inherent character qualities and the main capabilities that interact with important game systems. If we were talking more abstractly about what makes up a person, one might see nature and nurture in this split, but that is not quite it, because there are many aspects of a character that would most properly be considered nurture (such as AD&D secondary skills) which have little impact on game capabilities outside of the occasional edge case.

As you have probably already guessed by now if you have any experience with D&D, this division is realized by ability scores and character class. The former may have some influence on marginal effectiveness of the later (such as a dexterity bonus to missile attacks), but it would not be unreasonable to say that ability scores represent a characters raw potential whereas class represents something more about a character’s particular life experiences and training.

A major benefits of this approach is that two characters of the same archetype can be differentiated without needing to resort to more complicated trait or skill systems. For example, traditional D&D rules support both charismatic, leader fighters and brutal, strong fighters in a way that gives mechanical weight to the distinction without undue complexity. This is possible because most important game capabilities are either located in class (attack bonus, weapon proficiency, spell casting, thief skills) or static across all potential character build options (such as the 1 in 6 search chance).

In this older approach, ability scores are relatively static, baring supernatural augmentation. If a first edition fighter begins with 10 strength it is totally conceivable that the same fighter will still have 10 strength at 20th level, assuming the character manages to survive that long. Despite only being of average strength, this imaginary fighter will still be competent, because increasing combat effectiveness is tied mostly to class level.

Another approach is to treat stats as more direct measures of game effectiveness rather than seeing them as a way to describe the totality of a fictional person. Third Edition takes a few steps in this direction with its regular (every fourth level) stat increase, though this is small enough that it can still be understood as minor fictional personal growth, staying within the “nature” conception of ability scores. Other games take this further, such as Green Ronin’s Dragon Age (which I have previously discussed in more detail), where each level an ability can be incremented and, for example, stealth is just a dexterity test, meaning that characters of any class can improve into that area.

The recently released Fifth Edition D&D version 0.1 basic rules are closer to this second style. Very few bonuses are directly traceable to class. For example, there are no class-based attack bonuses. Instead, there is a general level-based “proficiency” bonus which applies to different things. Proficiency in something can be awarded by background, race, class, and presumably feats (though the details of feats will not be revealed until the publication of the Player’s Handbook). The proficiency bonus ranges from +2 to +6, and otherwise the ability score bonuses apply to all tasks. So, a fighter could gain proficiency in thieves’ tools (thus being able to apply the proficiency bonus). A wizard could get better at shooting bows by increasing dexterity during one of the regular chances to increase ability scores. These opportunities happen approximately every four levels, though it varies by class, but they grant a +2 or two +1s, making the improvement more impactful than how it is done in 3E.

At first one might say that this is not all that different than the older approach. It’s just a few bonuses, right? If you actually look at the numbers though, the way things work out is that most characters, if the player cares even a little about mechanical effectiveness, will end up with 20s (which is the max) in the ability scores most important to the class. At this point, if you can assume that all melee fighters will end up with 20 strength and all wizards will end up with 20 intelligence, the ability score system is no longer attempting to describe the “nature” side of the equation.

This is not a bad design decision, but I think it might be frustrating for players expecting something with a feel like 3d6 down the line. That set of random numbers, in addition to providing game bonuses, is also something like a personality profile. That use of ability scores has been marginalized, which may be part of the reason that other personality mechanics (ideals, bonds, flaws, inspiration, etc) were added.

Dark Souls uses a similar scheme. Class in that game determines only initial stat values, starting equipment, and starting spells. It is possible to level a “warrior” character into, essentially, a sorcerer by improving attunement and intelligence scores. The system is elegant and easy to understand. It is probably slightly more flexible than is appropriate for a tabletop game, which will almost certainly involve multiple PCs cooperating. Dark Souls, however, being at heart a one player game, needs to support accessing different strategies through the same fictional avatar. Though there are some cooperative multi-player features, most of the game is not about a party of adventurers solving problems by working together. That said, the way the stats are improved, and what they affect within the game world, are almost directly appropriate to the tabletop context, and are interesting to compare the “increase ability scores” models that can be seen in Dragon Age and Fifth Edition D&D. For reference, the Dark Souls stats are vitality, attunement, endurance, strength, dexterity, resistance, intelligence, and faith.

In The Final Castle, I have also settled on an approach where stats are more about game capabilities than complete representation. Like Dragon Age, the scores are much smaller, what would be probably recognized as the “modifier” in D&D terms, and each time a level is increased one is incremented. The basic array is described here (strength, dexterity, constitution, magic, perception, charisma), though the mechanics have changed somewhat. Starting values range from 0 to 3, with no possibility of negative modifiers, as with the original Gravity Sinister system, and the 3-18 number is no longer recorded, though it is used to determine initial values. I am also considering narrowing the scope even more for some of the abilities, to make it even clearer what is going on, such as replacing perception with aim. The current improving bonus from perception sits uncomfortably with the scale of the d6 skill rolls (once perception reaches +4, the basic skills such as search and listen become optimal, with only 16% chance of failure).

The rise and fall of the Harbinger

As previously mentioned, I have been working on a system which is the evolution of my earlier Gravity Sinister work, also informed by my experience running OD&D over the past few years. This is coming to fruition as an integrated coupling of setting and rules. I am calling the project as a whole The Final Castle, after the fortress/dungeon which is the center of the games I am running with it.

Here is the background summary, which is also the intro to the current Player’s Guide draft. This draft is actually a text-complete finished document that has already seen some play-testing but will need to see more before I decide on the best way to release it.

Scion of the immortal Basmophael, the figure known only as the Harbinger claimed to herald the next phase of reality. The Harbinger moved inexorably across the known lands, unleashing monsters previously imprisoned in the dark places of the earth, and promising great power to those that would recognize the new dominion.

The arrival of the Harbinger was always preceded by a fortress that would tear itself from the ground. Then, the legions would pour forth, destroying all defenders. If the settlement was not annihilated entirely, the leadership would be replaced with a loyal servant, and the fortress would wither, soon becoming little more than a looming husk. Then the cycle would be repeated elsewhere.

The sempiternal courts took no action, assuming that they would be able to endure any human turmoil. The agents of Basmophael, however, infiltrated their hidden strongholds. Some surrendered and were corrupted. Others fought and were reduced to shadowy echoes of their former glory. Few remain.

Using subterfuge, an alliance of champions entered the Harbinger’s castle by means now unknown. With great hubris, the Harbinger had taken insufficient precautions against such a daring attack, and was subdued, though not destroyed, as destruction was beyond mortal power. The Harbinger’s armor was found to be a locus of Basmophael’s power, though it too was impervious. Unable to destroy the panoply, pieces of the armor were divided among the champions for safekeeping, but the Harbinger’s will was underestimated. Many of the panoply bearers that escaped have since been driven mad, compelled to return with the armor to the Harbinger’s fortress. Thus, the divided panoply remains held by occupants within the castle, each scheming to acquire the entire suit, as it is said to allow full control of the castle’s terrible armaments.

Unlike previous castles, the final castle has not withered, though neither has it belched forth new armies since the armor was disassembled. Rumors say that the Harbinger’s generals and creatures have fallen to internecine struggle. The final castle broods darkly over surrounding battlefields, which seem to be slowly expanding, inch by inch, day by day, despite the absence of any true fighting since the daring infiltration that seemingly ended the Harbinger’s war.

Learning spells: risks & investments

I have been experimenting with an approach to learning spells inspired by AD&D’s intelligence derived % chance to learn system. The goal is to individuate magicians by the spells that they are able to learn during play. My own issue is that the magic stat in the rules that replaces intelligence and controls most aspects of sorcery increases somewhat predictably, making it easier to learn spells if you wait, which is a dynamic that I do not want. I did come upon a solution (or rather, someone suggested something that I think will work), but that is not what this post is about.

While discussing the problem on Google Plus, Benjamin Baugh threw out an idea that I thought was worthwhile even though it did not fit exactly what I was going for, and I suggested that it was worth a blog post of its own so as to not be forgotten. As Benjamin does not maintain a blog, I thought it would make a good guest post, and he liked the idea as well. All words below here are Benjamin’s.

I riffed this originally on a g+ post of Brendan’s related to how a magician would learn spells in his old school game’s magic system. It was too verbose for his tightly focused ruleset, but he invited me to expand on it, and host it as a guest column on his blog, so here we are.

I’d originally tossed this out as a way to see if a old school mage could learn a given spell, with the chances being modified by the effort they put into the magical study and what they risk up front to learn it.

I went with one of the simplest possible old school mechanics – the X chance in 6. I also didn’t include anything like level or ability modifier, though there’s no reason you couldn’t do this too for something a little fiddlier. You could expand the range as well, making the check based on 2d6, and using the Basic reaction table’s range of outcomes. But for now, I’m going to stick with the chance in 6, as it’s dead simple, and keeps the effort focused on player choice and character action rather than stats.

You could use this kind of scheme–with different risks and investments–for other downtime actions, like making contacts, hiring retainers, sourcing rare equipment, accessing specialist services (like curse removal or resurrection). You could expand on it, and turn it into a general purpose ritual magic system.

So to start, here’s the basic scheme for learning new magic. All the things invested in the learning process are committed before the die is rolled, and lost if it fails. Them’s the breaks. This scheme is especially advantageous in B/X and other editions which don’t have a system in place for learning spells outside of those granted by character leveling.

The basic chance to learn a spell is 1 in 6.

You might rule that the basic chance requires some reference – a scroll, spellbook, or instructor. Or, you could rule that with those reliable basics, you don’t need to make a check to learn a spell, and the following scheme is for personal experimentation. It works however you position it.

Each risk or investment you make in the process expands your chances by 1.

It will be possible to take on as many of these as you like – and with five, you can learn a spell without any chance of failing. But, the process is going to be fraught, and there’s going to be consequences.

To keep things interesting, you can rule that a character can’t use the same risks or investments twice in a row.

Take extended downtime, requiring weeks of seclusion. The character is unavailable to play during at least one session, possibly longer.

Expend high quality materials – magical reagents, experimental apparatus, baths of ritually purified mud, inks made from monster blood, sheets of colored crystal, incense, oils. This costs you up front d6+spell level x 10 gold.

Invoke Demonic Aid – there are many otherworldly creatures willing to aid a spellcaster in his studies, for a small price. Such a small price. A magician has a lunar month to meet the price, and if he fails to do so, the knowledge of the spell curdles in his brain, becomeing useless – and that spell may never be learned again. Roll 6d6 to see who you invoke…





of the Hateful Face







the Moon-Eating Maw







Who’s Wings Blacken the Sky






Sif Sanar

the Hungry Childe







of the Thousand Eyes






Shakan Gu

the Whisperer




Mortify the flesh to exalt the spirit. Ritually deny the body, castigate the flesh, use bloodletting, leeches, sweat lodges, or other methods to invoke altered states of consciousness with extremities of pain and deprivation. Suffer a d4+spell level Con loss, which returns only slowly.

Pick up a Habit. There are many formulations of herb and alchemy which expand the consciousness and open the inner eye. Many magicians find these dream drugs enhance their perceptions of magical realities. Using such drugs in quantity is a way to discern occult insights, but risks addiction. Spend d6x10 gold on occult drugs, and make a Save vs Poison. Success on the save means you are free of addiction. Failure means you pick up a nasty habit. Without at least 3d6 gold worth of the drug in your system each day, you are at -1 on all checks and rolls, and can memorize one spell less from each level you can cast. Only high level curative magic or extended downtime with the Brethren in the mountains can cure this addiction. It is possible to have more than one addiction, and the effects of detoxing are cumulative.

Perform Risky Experiments. Suffer a d6 damage per spell level. Save vs Spell for half damage. This might kill you. If it does kill you, you are dead.

Bribe a powerful mage to tutor you. A more powerful spellcaster might be induced to aid your studies and share her knowledge, but magi are jealous of their power, and their integrity does not come cheap. This will cost a d6x100 gold pieces, but this cost can be reduced by finding leverage with which to blackmail, intimidate, or otherwise force the wise one to share her secrets. This costs nothing, but earns an enemy.

Cause a Magical Catastrophe. Your experiments release terrible magical contamination into the area, with character, range, and severity based on the level of spell being learned. This poisons your reputation locally as surely as it poisons the land – you and those associated with you will be unable to buy and sell in the area, and hirelings from the area will abandon you or refuse to answer the call. There might be local legal sanction as well, if you stick around to find out. If done in the wilderness, this this contamination is the seed of a tainted land, and will attract dark things.

Allow the magic to mark you. The magical revelation marks your flesh permanently, altering your appearance in weird, grotesque, or horrific ways. You have a harder time convincing hirelings to join you, and those you meet on your adventures will be more wary of you. Your charisma is reduced by 1 permanently. The changes wrought on your flesh will be in character with the spell being learned.

Take on an Apprentice. They say the best way to learn is to become a teacher. In exchange for helping you with your studies, the local magic guild, college, or counsel of crotchety old bastards sticks you with an apprentice. You must teach the surly youth the ways of magic, keep them from harm, and see that they do not get into trouble. You are responsible for their health and their actions, and officially anyhow, they must call your Master and obey your will. Roll 6d6.





the Foundling

a surly






the Butcher’s Child

a smart-arsed






the Lord’s Heir

an ever-smiling






the Chosen One

a hot tempered






the Privy Cleaner

an inept






the Prodigy

a gormless




IMG_7326 doom-caveJames Raggi’s LotFP modules have generally two, rather extreme modes. The first, which I will call serious, includes Death Frost Doom, Hammers of the God, Death Love Doom, Better than any Man, God that Crawls, and Tales of the Scarecrow. The second, which I will call goofy, includes Monolith Beyond Space and Time and Fuck For Satan. The goofy modules often use incomprehensible space aliens rather than “a wizard did it” to justify the various puzzles and dilemmas presented to the players. Doom-Cave certainly belongs in the second grouping.

The categorization presented above is not perfect, as, for example Grinding Gear presents a set of absurd (though fictionally justified) puzzles within a relatively serious context, and Tower of the Stargazer (notably, one of my favorite of Raggi’s efforts) includes in an offhand manner a reference to bopping mossy plant creatures on Necropoli Centauri. The goofy mode modules often include anachronistic, present-day references (such as Wiki Dot Pod in Doom-Cave, which is actually explained within the fiction of the module). Depending on the group, this kind of humor could easily fall flat.

Another common Raggi module practice is the use of dungeon maps reminiscent of game boards. This is true most obviously here and in God that Crawls, but can also be seen in Grinding Gear and Death Frost Doom. There are lots of winding, 10-foot corridors intended to eat up PC movement rate and create attrition cost via random encounters. I do not think this sort of “tracking movement” is particularly bookkeeping heavy, contrary to some criticism, but it does require a certain discipline of taking your turn and moving your squares that may be foreign outside of combat to many RPG players that were introduced to the hobby during the 90s or later, where gaming is usually presented in a more dramatic fashion with all the paraphernalia of fiction in other media forms (scenes, plot, character arcs, and so forth).

The most interesting parts of the module for me are the monsters. The “no monster manual” philosophy of the system often pays rich dividends in this area, and Doom-Caves is no different in this regard. The monsters are interesting in mechanical execution in addition to conception. They are more than just different configurations of HP, defense numbers, and special attacks. For example, there is one group of monsters where each individual depends on the state of all the others (and surprisingly, this is done in a way that looks like it would be easy to run at the table). The monsters are all illustrated well in sketches by Gennifer Bone, the artist who is also behind Rafael Chandler’s in-progress Lusus Naturae bestiary.

The single most glaring weakness in Raggi’s goofy mode is that players often add plenty of anachronistic goofiness on their own to even the most serious of scenarios, as Noisms discusses in D&D as straight man. This is actually one of D&D’s unique strengths compared to other narrative forms. If all the modules in a campaign were of this type it would probably get old.

Raggi modules can be read a bit like zen koans meant to smack you upside the head with their absurdity to remind you that in these games of adventure really anything is possible, as long as you have a group of players on board. Why Limit yourself to the expected? Yes, yes, you do not need such prompting and how dare Mr. Raggi waste your time? If that is your reaction then you will probably not enjoy Doom-Caves much. From a perspective beyond that of any single group or referee, I do think it is nice that someone is putting together works that embody this philosophy.

In general, LotFP modules (especially those by Raggi himself) tend towards bundles of toys for players to interact with rather than coherent fictional scenarios (and I would argue that this is true even of the more serious modules, such as Death Frost Doom, though to a lesser degree). That said, a goofy Raggi module can probably best be used as a weird ice-axe to shatter the frozen sea of a placid campaign world. As a final assessment, I like the monsters more than the actual adventure. Even with a goofy, campaign-disruptive premise, I would prefer more connections between the disparate encounters and set pieces for use in my own games.

The Doom-Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children was LotFP’s contribution to Free RPG Day 2014 and I understand that it will be available in the next month or so for free download as well.

IMG_7326 doom-cave

Pits & Perils

Pits & Perils cover (source)

Pits & Perils cover (source)

The ranks of zero edition style games are increasing. Pits & Perils is a game in this mode, presented as a single PDF booklet of around 80 pages. It seems letter-sized when I open the file on a computer, but uses a generous typewriter font that is easily readable on my tablet without zooming, and I suspect it would print well as a digest-sized hardcopy. Illustrations are sparse and done in a charming woodcut style (digital excerpts mostly drawn from History of the Nordic Peoples by Olaus Magnus). The tone is reminiscent of pre-advanced Gygax, concise but enthusiastic, which I assume is intentional based on the other design choices.

Tasks are resolved by rolling 2d6. Nine or higher is a success in combat, while seven or higher is a success out of combat. As you might expect, some character and situational bonuses apply, but not enough to dilute the essential elegance and simplicity of the system, unlike many games that rely on modifiers. In combat, damage inflicted is one point for rolls of 9 to 11 and two points for 12 or higher. Most rules needed for common dungeon exploration tasks are handled elegantly. Encumbrance is just flatly limited to 10 items beyond armor. “Anything more is simply too much. Characters cannot perform if overburdened with equipment, and gold coins are bulky in large amounts” (page 17). Suffocation and drowning is handled simply with saving dice and the accumulation of damage.

Rather than roll 3d6 down the line during character creation, as is traditional, the player instead rolls once for exceptional abilities (which happen to be drawn from the classic six). This rule is inspired. Most of the time, this will result in only a single “ability,” but players can choose two on rolls of eleven or higher. The actual distribution is a bit strange (for example, you roll 2d6 and only get “strength” if you roll 2 or 11 or higher and choose it). Further, there are some minor complications (such as that dwarves treat rolls of strength or charisma as constitution instead). For a simple, pickup game of D&D I would be tempted to use a mutation of this rule, perhaps simplifying it to roll 1d6 for exceptional stat and then grant a simple +1 bonus to whatever is related to that stat.

There are six classes: cleric, dwarf, elf, fighter, magician, thief. Each one of these seems to roughly associate with one of the abilities, though I am not sure if this structure was intentional. The experience progression tables require less XP than many similar games, with second level being achieved around 200 XP for most classes and mid levels occurring around the low thousands. For example, a fighter with 3200 XP is 6th level according to these charts. That is probably not a bad approach. Who has time for multi-year campaigns, anyways? Class abilities are minimal. Fighters get +1 to attack dice, the use of all weapons and armor, and two attacks at 9th level. That’s it. There are no other bonuses hidden in other advancement schedules such as can be found in the OD&D attack matrices or saving throw tables. The magic system uses a very simple spell point system with no levels. Casting any spell costs one point.

There are a few things that I am uncertain about, including:

  • The benefit of wearing armor is just bonus hit points
  • All projectile missile weapons seem to get +1 damage for being two-handed
  • Thieves need to wait until 9th level (“robber baron”) for a backstab ability
  • Random encounter math implies only 1 encounter every 36 turns

These are relatively minor concerns within the overall scope of the game and are easily adjusted by a referee, but are still worth noting. Of greater impact for gameplay is the relationship between character HP and damage. As noted above, most attacks deal only 1 or 2 damage and there are very few potential bonuses to damage. Using a two-handed weapon grants +1 (making every hit do either 2 or 3 damage), and there are a few magic weapons that can increase damage. Relative to damage potential, character HP (which is static, based on class and level) seems high, ranging at first level from 5 (for magicians) to 10 (for fighters). This is not necessarily a bad approach, but it is most definitely an impactful choice, leading to far more durable PCs than in, for example, OD&D or B/X.

I often have a short attention span when it comes to reading game content such as spells, feats, magic items, monster descriptions, and so forth, usually just skimming such material while reading the occasional entry in full. In this case though, I read every single entry in the entire book. Here are a few choice quotes, to give you a sense of the rules.

BOLT scores 1d6 hits on a single target. The caster adds +1 per 3 levels gained, so a 3rd level magician would deliver 1d6+1 hits. Lightning can sunder doors up to 5′ thick and melt gold within 10′ of the point of impact.

–Page 14

Harpies attack with their two razor sharp claws. About one-third (1-2 in 1d6) are SIRENS. These use an evil song to hypnotize victims within 30′. These must save or fall into a mindless trance and present themselves for slaughter.

–Page 36

A MAGICIAN’S HAT looks like an ordinary pointed cap. However, the wearer can pull any normal/non-magical item, like a ladder or rope, out of the hat up to 3 times per day. The item must be of less than 10 GP value, so armor, weapons, and other valuables cannot be produced. This includes foodstuffs and living things of all kinds, even rabbits!

–Page 51

Exploration and problem solving is the meat and drink of these games, provided the referee makes it challenging and fun.

–Page 65

Final thoughts? Recommended if you enjoy reading variations on the 0E theme. The PDF can be bought at RPGNow for $5 and happily does not include a watermark.

Necromancer class

Several of my favorite archetypes are rarely handled as classes in a way that satisfies me, including the necromancer, summoner, and warlock/diabolist. It is possible to simulate these types of characters in traditional D&D, but only with a specific set of spells and a higher level magic-user. In a game where you are playing to find out what kind of magic-user you become based on the spells you find this can be fun, but if you are looking to play a particular kind of magician from the beginning it can be something of a letdown.

I have already attempted to create a necromancer class, but in review that approach (with variable undead creation costs) feels a bit clunky and bases too much of the necromancer’s primary competency (undead minions) on treasure cash flow. Like a traditional magic-user’s spell preparation, the necromancer should be able to recover thralls as part of the basic resource cycle. As such, there is no cost for the basic creation and maintenance of undead thralls. Procuring corpses may still require adventuring, depending on the setting, and each body can only be used once. Scarcity of corpses can thus be used to modulate thrall disposability, but the expectation is that necromancers should be able to burn through a collection of thralls between each downtime if desired.

This necromancer does not gain new spells automatically and can only learn necromancy spells. These can be found (unlikely, as the referee is not expected to tailor treasure found to desires of specific PCs) or researched at a cost of 1000 coins per spell level. In a game where treasure yields the bulk of XP, I would expect necromancer PCs to spend most of their money on researching new spells (or making scrolls of known spells, if that is an option allowed to magic-users). This also means players can handle most spell choices on their own between sessions, only relying on the referee for final approval, easing the administrative load.

Allowing any magic spell to be re-skinned with necromantic trappings (“skeleton key” as a knock spell, negative energy blast rather than magic missile, and so forth) will likely make this class overpowered (and also indistinct). So don’t do that. Require necromancy spells to be taken from existing books or newly designed around strong (and limited) necromantic themes. This necromancer is intended to play differently than the traditional magic-user.

There is a PDF convenient for printing front and back on one letter-sized sheet.


Level progression, HP, saves, attack, weapons, armor, and spell slots as magic-user.

  • Prepare and cast only necromancy spells
  • Maintain control over up to 1 HD worth of undead per level
  • Assert control over undead as an action
  • Direct any or all controlled undead as an action
  • Create and repair undead minions up to 1 HD per level per downtime
  • Will not generally be served by mortal retainers other than apprentices

Spells and magic items

Given that the chance of finding many necromancy spells during play without fudging is low, necromancers of any level may research new spells during downtime. This requires 1000 XP-equivalent currency units per spell level and takes one downtime action irrespective of spell level. Necromancers may only research new spells of a level that can be prepared. Necromancers may craft scrolls of known necromancy spells following the rules used by magic-users and may only use scrolls, wands, staves, or other wizardly magic items that have a strong necromancy component.

Control and direct undead

Death and the miser (source)

Death and the miser (source)

Necromancers may maintain control over a number of HD worth of undead equal to level. No check is required, but asserting control takes an action if done in combat. Intelligent undead deserve a saving throw and a necromancer only gets one try when attempting to influence such beings. Directing newly controlled undead must wait for another action.

Most created undead have dim and limited intelligence. They can only follow crude commands and are unable to perform complicated tasks. An action such as “pull that lever” is about the limit of undead sophistication. As an action, a necromancer may direct (or modify previous directions for) any or all currently controlled undead. Directions must be clear and vocalized but need not be overly specific. For example, “attack those orcs” is acceptable; there is no need to declare exactly which orc should be attacked.

Actions available include attack (a target), defend (a person), follow (a person or thing), guard (a location), move (to a nearby place), patrol (an area), and retrieve (a nearby item). Minions will intuit needed movement given an attack command, but may not choose the smartest route on their own. Minions instructed to defend will hold actions and use opposed combat rolls to determine the success of a potential interception.

This structure means that a necromancer can either take an action themselves during a turn (such as cast a spell) or redirect minions but not both. Undead will continue to follow existing directions until new directions are provided.

Undead become uncontrolled upon the death (though not unconsciousness) of a necromancer master and uncontrolled undead without directions are hostile to all life. A necromancer may release undead minions from service at will.

Create undead

During downtime, necromancers may create or repair a number of HD worth of undead equal to level. This may result in a necromancer having created more undead than can be controlled. Excess undead are uncontrolled and hostile to all life. The propensity of necromancers to create uncontrolled “spares” that often get loose is no small part of the profession’s generally poor reputation. Strictly speaking, no resources are needed other than corpses that have not been previously animated, though in practice a private ritual sanctum is necessary for the sake of privacy (necromancy being widely vilified as black magic). Created undead are by default a form of zombie. Other undead may be controlled but must be discovered in play or created with the aid of augmentation spells.

HD may be allocated as desired between multiple minions. For example, a fourth level necromancer may create 4 minions of 1 HD each, one minion of 4 HD, or some other combination. Undead minions attack and save as a creature of the appropriate HD, have an AC bonus equal to HD, move in combat as a lightly encumbered human (three-quarters of an unencumbered human’s rate), and gain no benefit other than style from armor. Damage is by weapon or 1d6 from fearsome unarmed strike. Undead are not effective porters and have a tendency to hide or vandalize carried objects other than raiment or armament when unsupervised.


Even if being strict about weapon usage, it is suggested that necromancers be allowed to wield sickles and scythes because of the symbolic value of these tools to the craft of necromancy.

  • Sickle: as dagger, not throwable, 1d4 damage
  • Scythe: as staff, requires two hands, slashing rather than bludgeoning, 1d6 damage

Good sources of necromancy spells for use with traditional class-and-level fantasy games:

Image by Millet (source)

Image by Millet (source)

Thanks to Duncan E. for suggesting Holbein as an illustration source.