Mechanical audience

The audience determines how your work is received and evaluated. Similar to perspective in photography, it is impossible to be neutral in this regard. You must decide the audience you wish to address to have any idea what successful communication would look like. This is true because the knowledge an audience already possesses will constrain how you can communicate and shape how they will interpret your work. Some obvious examples include jargon (hit points, tactical infinity, carousing), cultural landmarks (orc, cosmic alignment, tiefling), intended use (self-contained game versus supplement), and received wisdom (XP for GP incentivizes creativity, XP for GP is unrealistic, extensive prep leads to deep fictional worlds, extensive prep is the sign of a wannabe novelist). Jargon can be redefined, new landmarks introduced, and received wisdom challenged, but only if you have some idea of your starting line.

I want to highlight one particular dimension of audience knowledge that seems to often be invisible to both creator and audience. This dimension is whether the audience is expecting a procedure that will yield content or expecting fully instantiated content. That is, does your audience expect a monster generator or a monster manual? Reusable tool or catalog of content ready to use? This also corresponds to the parable of teaching a person how to fish or giving a person a fish. More generally, the tension here is between flexibility at the cost of incompleteness and completeness at the cost of builtin assumptions. A tool without a catalog may seem unfinished while a catalog without a tool may seem inflexible or imposing unwanted world-building. An audience will often evaluate your work based only on the dimension they care about.

This may seem straightforward at some level but can manifest in subtle ways. For example, what determines whether an audience responds favorably to a freeform magic system? Such a system is generally a set of rules or constraints which players must use to create spell effects during play; this places players of magic-using characters into the role of spell authors. However, many players may just want some spells and would rather avoid being put into the role of spell author, at least for that kind of content in that context.

One practical takeaway from this principle is simple. To broaden the utility of a game product, make sure that it is useful for players that want a cooked fish dinner and for players that want manuals for how to go fishing. That is, if your product is a generator, such as a method for creating monsters, take that generator and flesh out a catalog of content. Do some heavy lifting for those that want something off the rack. This will have the side benefit of testing your procedure more than I suspect many tools, at least in DIY land, are actually tested. And, if your product is a catalog—bestiary, spell list, populated dungeon with backstory—think about the principles or sources of inspiration that you used to craft that catalog and create a procedure that can help others create similar content.

As a concrete example, my own book, Wonder & Wickedness, is primarily a catalog—spells, sorcerous catastrophes, and enchanted items. Though I do discuss principles briefly, I could probably improve the book by adding more explicit procedures for building spells and so forth.

Ryuutama miscellany

Following are a few miscellaneous mechanical ideas gleaned from Ryuutama which may be worth adapting or hacking into your D&D-alike edition of choice.

Initiative is AC

At the start of combat in Ryuutama, each player character rolls initiative, which is DEX + INT. Recall that abilities are dice, with d6 representing average, so this roll is something like 2d6 or d6+d8. The value obtained both determines order of action and defense value (basically, AC). An equipped shield provides a minimum defense value (7 for small shields and 9 for large shields). This makes both initiative and shields more influential without contributing to numerical inflation (as happens with the arms race between AC bonus and attack bonus for many versions of D&D).

In addition to equipping a shield, player characters can use an action to re-roll initiative, taking the new result if it is better. So, a bad initiative roll does not spell doom, though it can slow a player character down (which seems appropriate for initiative).

Initiative also controls retreat

Even among those woke to the virtues of morale checks, in my experience it is easy to slip into fighting to the last combatant. This may play into the reasons for retreat rules either being somewhat complex or perhaps just untested. In any case, the Ryuutama approach here is both simple and surprisingly harsh when followed to the letter, given the suggested heartwarming tone. The rule is that travelers can retreat if the sum of their initiative values is equal to or higher than the sum of enemy initiative values. This means that once enemies gain an advantage, it may become very difficult, or even mathematically impossible, to run away.

That math may be less than ideal, depending on your intention for combat dynamics, but I like the idea of using initiative to manage retreats. Another, slightly more flexible approach for Ryuutama along similar lines—that I may use the next time I run Ryuutama—would be to have the entire party make a new group initiative check to determine whether running away is possible. This would hold out a sliver of hope, even if several travelers were down and the sum of enemy initiative values was high.

This is even easier to hack into another game if using side-based d6 initiative, though it is a bit more random. When the player characters win initiative they can simply declare retreat and it happens, as long as there are no obvious fictional constraints such as a bridge being out. Similarly for monsters. Then, if one side or the other wishes to pursue, chase rules would come into play.

Battlefield abstraction

Ryuutama battlefield (PDF here)

As in many classic JRPG video games, combatants are either in the front or rear rank. Combatants in the front rank may be targeted with either melee or ranged attacks while combatants in the rear rank may only be targeted with ranged attacks. Any area effects attack all combatants in the front ranks, either allied or opponent. If all the combatants in the front rank are defeated, the remaining combatants in the rear move into the front, meaning that it makes sense to maintain several frontline defenders if possible, though one will hold the line.

This is elegant (and plays nicely based on my limited experience so far). The structure maintains enough tactical complexity to model offensive and defensive fighting without resorting to bonus math; further, it requires minimal bookkeeping. I was originally somewhat wary of the structure feeling artificial and constraining tactical infinity, but in practice our fictional battlefield and the tactical schematic coexisted without conflict. This approach could be lifted verbatim, I think, into a B/X game.

Ability checks draw on two abilities

In Ryuutama, any ability check uses two abilities. In all versions of D&D that I am familiar with, ability checks use only one stat, such as strength. Using two abilities leads to a surprising degree of mechanical richness, however, and would be particularly easy using the ability bonus scale of B/X, which is 13-15 = +1, 16-17 = +2, and 18 = +3. This, two relevant 18 stats yields only a +6 bonus, well within the scope of modern bounded accuracy approaches. This would be most straightforward when using roll high versus DC style ability checks but easy with roll-under checks too (just allow the bonus of one ability to increase the value of the other ability, for purposes of the immediate check).

Condition modulates poison etc

Traditional D&D often uses save or die for poison. This works well enough, but requires some care on the referee side. It is, however, abrupt. Many alternative approaches soften the blow by providing various additional buffers, such as having poison do damage or applying other effects. Generally, this makes poison either a mere distraction or an additional thing to track.

The approach in Ryuutama is to make poison, and other similar conditions, only affect travelers with condition less than or equal to some set value. (Condition in Ryuutama is sort of like mood and travelers re-roll it each day.) The effect of poison in Ryuutama is to decrease strength by one die type. A D&D analogue might be disadvantage to attack rolls and physical ability checks, with the modulating factor probably being HP; for the threshold, something like 25% or 50% max HP might work. Though this certainly makes poison less immediately terrifying than save or die, I kind of like it.

Stronghold achievements

A Kingdom Death settlement phase

One dynamic I have noticed with XP = GP spent is that there is a great incentive for players to spend money primarily on short and medium term goals. This is largely positive, in terms of gameplay, as it results in PCs spending their GP quickly to gain levels, and thus needing to get back to adventuring to get more GP, which is a virtuous cycle from the perspective of generating adventure.

However, there is an implied endgame in many versions of D&D where adventurers build strongholds, accumulate followers, and possibly transition into a game of domains. Where do the resources for building a stronghold come from if adventurers continually squander recovered treasure? One could abstract this process, simply granting adventurers a stronghold at sufficient level, or expect players to think ahead, saving GP as necessary. In any case, most campaigns end far before adventurers attain such elevated levels, so an alternative and perhaps more practical approach would be to integrate domain game systems into lower levels.

Exploring this idea, I see an opportunity to both ground such as system in the party as aggregate, rather than the individual adventurers, and perhaps build the entire advancement system around the creation and development of adventurer bases. That is, rather than gaining levels from accumulating XP from killing monsters, recovering treasure, or completing quests, why not gain levels based on establishing strongholds? Mechanically, the highest level of stronghold possessed by the adventuring company could determine individual adventurer level as well. That is, to attain second level, the party must purchase a company clubhouse. Even if one were not inclined to push the idea that far, systematizing and simplifying the implied domain game in a way that is accessible to adventurers of all levels may be useful.

Below are draft details for levels 1 through 5. Levels 6 through 10 are haven, stronghold, cultural fountainhead, colony, and capital. I may similarly detail the later levels in a future post. (Cultural fountainhead needs a better name but is intended to represent building libraries, temples, archives, or something like that.)

  1. Tavern hangout (in lawful haven)
    Recovery: 5 GP per adventurer per haven turn
    Reputation: scoundrels available for odd jobs
  2. Clubhouse (in lawful haven)
    Adventurers possess their own private space in a haven.
    Requirement: 5000 GP purchase price
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: adventurers
    Habitants: at least one or two attendants or stewards, along with off-duty retainers
    Dangers: competing adventurer companies
  3. Hideout (in chaotic wilderness)
    A hideout is a small, unobtrusive lair liberated from forces hostile to civilization. Lawful hunters, trappers, and other travelers help ensure that the hideout is self-sufficient and provide regular news and exchange.
    Requirement: lair liberated from a faction of chaos
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: established freebooters
    Habitants: several stewards plus visiting traders, minstrels, or travelers
    Dangers: evicted faction becomes dedicated foe, monster attacks
  4. Outpost (in chaotic wilderness)
    An outpost is a fortification liberated from forces hostile to civilization. Once liberated, an outpost starts to acquire some trappings of civilization, including some permanently resident tradespeople. However, the area remains too isolated or dangerous for lawful settlers to call home permanently.
    Requirement: fortification liberated from a faction of chaos
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: serious mercenary company
    Habitants: several enterprising craftspeople or merchants, stewards, travelers
    Dangers: evicted faction, military assault, monster attacks
  5. Settlement (in pacified, previously chaotic borderlands)
    Settlements are small, fortified villages. A settlement is stable enough to attract enterprising settlers seeking opportunity or a new start.
    Requirement: pacification of nearby borderlands (several hexes in all directions if using a hex map), 5 notable triumphs such as pirate kings defeated or significant monsters slain, 50000 GP investment in infrastructure
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: governors or warlords
    Habitants: several permanent shops, traders, and craftspeople; several settler families
    Dangers: local lawful powers see the company as political risk

Adventurers must go through each step in sequence. Think of the collection of bases as an umbilicus stretching from civilization into the unknown. A hideout, for example, will only be self-sufficient through connections with the clubhouse in town. For this reason, adventurers retain all bases as they expand outward.

As the adventurers grow in reputation and stature, they naturally accrue a retinue and staff which enables and lives off the exploits of the company. The details of such organization may remain relatively abstract in terms of costs, though stewards, resident craftspeople, and so forth could be drawn from personages encountered by the adventurers during the game, such as rescued villagers or converted bandits.

What about adventurer death? New adventurers begin at level one, increasing one level for each session survived until they reach the current company level. Or, if that is too much bother, players could just make a new adventurer at the current level. Such parvenue adventurers would still need to accumulate gear and renown in the eyes of players.

The Ryuutama engine

A while back, I posted about the OD&D game engine. I think that post was helpful to me at the time for understanding how OD&D the game worked at a mechanical level. As I have been reading and enjoying Ryuutama recently, a similar exercise may be informative. This exercise may also provide a good intro to Ryuutama for players familiar with traditional D&D.

There are several broad, generally applicable rules systems: travelers, incentives, journeys, setting, combat, and the ryuujin. I will only focus on the first four of those systems here because they seem most integral to the core engine.


These are the rules for player characters, which Ryuutama calls travelers.

Travelers have three major mechanical underpinnings: classes, type, and ability scores. Class in Ryuutama is more like background in many other games, and provides a set bundle of skills. Example classes are merchant, hunter, and farmer. Travelers get one class at first level and another at fifth level (max level is 10). Type, however, is more like what class means for other games, and can be one of attack, technical, or magic, which map, respectively, to the traditional classes of fighter, thief, and magic-user. There are four ability scores: strength, dexterity, intelligence, and spirit. Ability scores are measured in dice, with d6 seeming to be about average, d8 being one step higher, and so forth. Travelers also have three state variables: hit points, mental points, and condition (a value that fluctuates daily and is sort of like mood).

The major resolution system is the check, which involves rolling two ability dice (sometimes both are the same ability), adding the results, and comparing the sum to a target number (like a difficulty class in D&D terms). For example, accuracy with a blade (basically, rolling to hit, which is based on weapon type) is DEX + STR. Trapping, a hunter skill, uses DEX + INT. Target numbers range from 4 up. The text labels 7 as a little difficult and 12 as very difficult, to provide some orientation.

  • Class: artisan, farmer, healer, hunter, merchant, minstrel, noble
  • Type: attack, technical, magic
  • Ability scores: strength [STR], dexterity [DEX], intelligence [INT], spirit [SPI]

There are a few other details such as favored weapon, carrying capacity, and so forth, but the rules mentioned above are the foundational components. You can check out the full character sheet as well.


Similar to most traditional fantasy games, characters increase in power through gaining levels, and gaining levels requires XP. Concretely, increasing level improves an ability, provides some extra HP or MP, and provides a few other perks depending on which level.

Ryuutama awards an amount of XP each session based on the highest topography target number (more on this in a moment) encountered, the single most powerful monster defeated, and for each benediction (GM-PC power) the referee used.

I like this approach overall because it rewards seeking out challenges and requires minimal bookkeeping. It is generally relatively easy to recall the single most powerful monster and there is no need to track the exact number of orcs or whatever. Further, though the marginal benefit may be small, the game will always reward tackling a more powerful monster or more dangerous environment within a given session.


The journey procedure is a loop that the party engages to move from one fictional place to another. In sequence: condition checks, travel checks, direction check, and finally camping check. The final three checks all use terrain + weather as the target number. Each traveler makes a separate condition and travel check, but the mapper (one traveler designated by the party beforehand) makes a single direction check for the entire party. A single camping check applies to the entire party as well. The travel check is kind of a big deal, because failing it halves the traveler’s HP (which is about as important in Ryuutama combat as it is in traditional D&D combat, though the halving procedure suggests quite a bit more abstraction in Ryuutama compared to what many players assume about HP in D&D).

For each of these journey checks you end up rolling a pair of ability dice (added) versus an objectively determined target number; for example, grasslands = 6, deep forest = 10, strong wind = +1, and hard rain = +3. So, travelers journeying through deep forest in the hard rain will be rolling against a target number of 13.


Travelers journey between places and encounter things. What determines the details of towns, what lies between them, and what challenges relevant to the travelers exist?

Within the setting rules are guidelines for creating the world at a high level, towns, scenarios, and events. These rules are more elastic than other systems and read more like a set of suggestions than a tight set of procedures, though there are worksheets for each (town, world, scenario, event) with prompts, along with the invitation to maybe work through the process collaboratively with players. For example, the town worksheet has spaces for representative building and specialty goods.

Though not explicitly stated procedurally, several aspects of the rules gesture toward the idea of building up the world organically as journeys unfold, while leaving space for some more traditional lonely-fun referee world-building. There is a grid map sheet that players could fill in as travelers journey. The rules suggest an option where all the players design the town for the next session at the end of the current session and place it on the map, indicating what interstitial areas the referee should focus on in preparation.


The ryuujin (GM-PC guardian angel) rules also seem important for running a game of Ryuutama in the expected mode, due to how they support the referee intervening in a limited way to shape the story. However, the ryuujin rules are tied less tightly to the core engine, as far as I can tell, apart from the XP reward for using benedictions as noted above, and so I will end here. See this post for a bit more on the ryuujin rules, if you are curious, and also the ryuujin character sheet.

Into the Borderlands review

Into the Borderlands is a hardcover compilation of the training modules B1 and B2, both originally published in 1979, along with conversions for fifth edition D&D. There are several intro essays reminiscing about experiences with these foundational modules, including one by Mike Mearls, currently manager of research and design for D&D. The early modules are scans rather than newly typeset and there are two printings of each original module, showing some minor textual and presentation differences. The conversion for fifth edition includes new black and white accompanying art and some expanded encounters. The original modules are classics for a number of reasons that I will avoid discussing much, but if you are curious some good places to start are the reviews over at Dungeon of Signs (B1 and B2). Also, check out this essay related to B2 on how limitation can help foster creativity.

Physically, the book has a stitched binding and, though on the large side in terms of width, feels solid and pleasant to hold. Though I can see this being only a collector’s item for many people, it would be usable as an actual game tool also. Apart from players only familiar with 5E, most potential customers probably already have copies of B1 and B2, if not physically then in PDF (drivethru links: B1 and B2). Because of this, the value that this product should add, for anyone other than a pure collector, must be over and above the simple information content of the original modules. The high-quality form factor definitely delivers on part of this.

Unfortunately, there are some weaknesses too. First, I noticed several typos, even just limited to the first few pages1. Second, the original module scans are a bit grainy compared to my older printing of B2. Third, while it is hard for me to really evaluate how useful the 5E conversion would be to a referee only familiar with that edition, from my vantage it does seem to waste some space. For example, who needs to be told in a stat block that siege weapons are immune to psychic damage? Fourth, this is a matter of taste, but I find the new art to be somewhat uninspired. The book also feels repetitive, given the multiple versions of the same module, and the 5E conversion further recycles a lot of text. This is somewhat baked into the product concept though, so take it more as a comment and less as a criticism.

There is so much potential in representing classic modules such as B1 and B2. However, the book for the most part ignores this low-hanging fruit. The three stocked examples of B1 dungeons are a step in the right direction, but there are many other unexplored possibilities. Goodman could have included alternative maps of Quasqueton, such as these beautiful examples from Dyson (one, two). Or, what about some creative play aids, such as maps annotated with content or player handouts? There could be essays about how to creatively flip some conventional assumptions, such as considering the keep as the target of heists. A discussion of adapting modules to local campaign worlds, along with possibly an example reskin, would have felt right at home and maybe even made the book a touchstone for thinking about integrating modules. For an example of creatively using the framework provided by B2, consider this idea about replacing the caves ravine with the Stonehell mega-dungeon ravine.

Overall, I am glad the book was made, and am continually impressed by the physical quality of Goodman volumes, but I wish that the compilers took more care with the finishing details for the text. I hope that Goodman continues the Original Adventures Reincarnated series with other classic TSR modules. That said, the product could have been so much more.

1. On the copyright page: 5E Edition (note redundancy). In Mearls’ essay: “It was the first D&D adventure I read, thought it would be years before I ran it” (thought should be though).

B2 room 12 fan art by Evlyn

Eidolon mode

Ryuutama mechanizes a limited degree of referee fudging through a conceit where the referee plays a character called the ryuujin. In translation, this means dragon person, and represents an entity somewhere between minor deity and guardian angel. The ryuujin exists within the fictional world, but in practice stays mostly offscreen. It is actually a character though, with a record sheet, life points, powers, level, and so forth, though the applicable rules for a ryuujin are different than those for player characters.

Mist dragon summon from Final Fantasy 4 (SNES)

In Final Fantasy 4, the character Rydia is a caller, a kind of magician that can summon Eidolons, or Call Beasts, to fight for the party. In Final Fantasy 6, espers are powerful magical entities that once defeated can be summoned. Systems exist for summoning in many Final Fantasy games.

Can you see where I am going with this?

A similar structure could be used for a powerful supernatural ally such as a bound demon, sandestin, or summoned creature. For players used to a more limited scope of narrative influence and narrower tactical challenge, the ryuujin rules can seem to be something between easy mode and cheating. However, that interpretation may be more driven by tone rather than mechanics. With slightly different flavoring, and possibly exposing more aspects of the ryuujin record sheet to the party as a whole, similar rules could support access to something like summoning an esper. Consider also the possibility for something like a mech or titan form (Attack on Titan, Voltron, etc).

Mechanically, Ryuutama gives the ryuujin several capabilities, including benedictions and reveils. Benedictions are powers that a ryuujin can use by spending life points and have effects such as rewinding a small amount of fictional time or declaring a particular check to be a critical success. Some benedictions create obstacles for players, such as increasing monster power or allowing an enemy to run away without needing to satisfy any conditions, presumably in support of guaranteeing certain story elements. In a reveil, the ryuujin appears in dragon form and saves the players in some specific way, such as manifesting to take the damage intended for a player character. Even when representing something like a summoned ally more under the control of players than is the ryuujin, the entity could maintain a degree of autonomy, also causing complications for players occasionally.

Evangelion / Voltron / Attack on Titan

Some of the ryuujin rules are attempts to mechanize a limited degree of referee discretion while maintaining some impartiality. Others are explicitly for rescuing and assisting the travelers, essentially decreasing the stakes in pursuit of the intended tone, which is low-arousal, calming, and heartwarming (honobono, in Japanese). However, with a slightly different set of priorities, similar rules could mechanize access to limited supernatural heavy artillery that players could deploy a few times per session.

Deadlift playtesting

The DIY D&D scene has many strengths, but there is notably little discussion about playtesting. This is particularly surprising when viewed abstractly, as people pay a great deal of attention to usability concerns such as layout, stat block efficiency, and creating procedures that, in isolation, are easy to use. The one page dungeon contest exemplifies this concern. When I write about playtesting here though, I mean testing the effectiveness of a more extensive product, such as a larger module or ruleset, rather than an isolated mechanic, procedure, or bit of content such as a player character class. In particular, I am most interested in intermediate level products, such as adventure modules or significant subsystems, rather than rulesets or retro clones, which in the context of the community most players are already relatively familiar with. The definition of adventure module should be relatively obvious, but for significant subsystems consider the supporting rules in Veins of the Earth or Cecil H’s Cold Winter.

This came home to me again somewhat recently when I decided to run a large module by an experienced traditional D&D adventure writer that had been written within the last few years. The identity of the module is unimportant here; the main point is that it was written with access to recent collective community knowledge. I like the content of the module, which while somewhat vanilla is creative enough to be inspirational for me, and the game itself went well, but throughout I felt like I was fighting the product, often unsure where to find the info that I wanted. This was despite being a reasonably experienced referee and spending a couple hours beforehand skimming the module and making some notes for myself.

A while back, I noticed that Vincent Baker’s Seclusium claimed that the product could, with 30 minutes of use, produce a wizard’s tower significant enough to do honor to Vance as inspiration.

I actually like Seclusium quite a bit as inspiration, and want to avoid making this about criticism of that particular product, but I think that the best products should aspire to that level of usability, assuming a reasonably competent operator.

These two experiences together suggest to me a kind of instrumental playtesting that I think may be particularly effective in improving the usability of game products for gaming, which is timed prep starting with minimal specific product knowledge but assuming general familiarity with the base game or style of game. This is in contrast to what seems to me as the ideal of the indie scene, which often focuses on beginners and whether a game can stand alone from roleplaying culture in general, explaining itself to a completely naive reader; hence, the ubiquity of sections on defining a roleplaying game. While that general pedagogical focus has a place, it does not solve a problem that I have, and further I think there is a good case to be made that the larger, more mainstream games introduce the basic idea of imagination-driven fantasy gaming reasonably well and are also more likely to be a new player’s entry point. Instead, what is more relevant to me, and I suspect others consuming such intermediate-level content, is whether this particular dungeon (or whatever) will be easy for me use use as a busy person with a pretty good handle on B/X D&D (substitute your favorite flavor).

More concretely, I suggest that to playtest a product, find someone willing to run it from a dead start, strictly limiting prep time to one of 30 minutes, 1 hour, or 2 hours. Then, get a list of the questions the playtester had of the product that went unanswered. This kind of info is mostly separate from issues of creativity, inspiration, or aesthetics, which the community is already effective at criticizing and fostering (see 10 foot pole reviews, etc). For easy shorthand, call this the deadlift approach to playtesting: start from the ground, do the thing without the blue sky assumption of perfect conditions, evaluate the outcome, and report back.

Catastrophe magic

This is a magic system I have been testing. It is general enough that I think it should be easy to use with other traditional fantasy games, if you like, given a small amount of adjustment to the system you are using.

This is a roll to cast system. You need to decide on a set of known or prepared spells for a character. Then, the die outcome will take care of the resource aspect of spells. You also need a resolution system that provides five levels of outcome. You can think about these outcomes as levels of player character success or as augury into the fictional world. The five outcomes are:

  1. Principle intensified
  2. Principle
  3. Principle & corollary
  4. Corollary & decline
  5. Catastrophe & decline

The principle is the basic spell effect, the thing that the sorcerer is generally attempting to bring about. The principle intensified is the critical hit version of this. The corollary is an unintended side effect that generally complicates the magician’s life but may occasionally be useful. Decline represents a decrease in future spell potential or magical energy. The simplest implementation of decline is, following a Vancian approach, forgetting the spell. And finally, catastrophe is a total misfire which may have personally deleterious effects. This set of outcomes means that something magical always happens but the potential corollaries and catastrophes should make players think twice about playing with arcane fire.

To resolve the casting of a spell, I use an ability check, similar to the approach described here, with intelligence for black magic and wisdom for white magic.

For an approach closer to classic d20, consider the following:

Let target = 10 + spell level. Then, roll 1d20 and add spell bonus (something like one-half level, rounded up). Interpret the result as follows:

  • Natural 20: principle intensified
  • Target + 4: principle
  • Target: principle & corollary
  • Below target: corollary & decline
  • Natural 1: catastrophe

Further, you need a way to determine what each class of outcome means for a given spell. Writing new spells with extensive corollary and catastrophe tables is wonderful but by no means necessary.

Ideally, catastrophes are specific to individual spells, but lacking specific catastrophes, you can fall back to some general outcomes, such as these:

(I am sure there are others available too.)

Hacking a spell to support this system can be easy. For example, here’s a hack for the classic spell magic missile:

  • Principle intensified: +1 extra missile
  • Principle: as written
  • Corollary: an additional missile targets something non-animate (determine randomly)
  • Catastrophe: determine target of each missile randomly (friends and foes)

For many spells, it is feasible to rule on potential corollaries and catastrophes in real time. I would just clarify with the player what the potential scope of outcomes would be and confirm intention to cast the spell prior to the roll.

See also:

Text versus culture

I contend that one of the major causes of misunderstanding in discussions of tabletop roleplaying games is differential prioritization of where rules should live. At base, games are bundles of practices that can be stored and communicated in various ways. For example, baseball in the United States started as a game played by amateurs using informal rules that lacked textual basis. A social club wrote the first baseball text in 1845: the Knickerbocker Rules. Tabletop roleplaying game rules can also reside ultimately in culture or in texts.

The community that developed around the Forge in the early 2000s is one influential example of prioritizing texts. The games developed by designers from the Forge and the subsequent Story Games forum tend to have clear, explicit procedures and written creative agendas. Critique often focused on potential disconnect between what a game text promises, either explicitly or implicitly, and what the game delivers. For example, Vampire: The Masquerade promised “struggle for humanity” but “always ended up as emo superheroes” (ref). This disconnect tends to be framed as a flaw or a sign of broken rules. In this tradition, to understand games one returns to the original text, tries to follow the procedures carefully, and then evaluates the outcome. For example, here is Luke Crane on Moldvay D&D and Ron Edwards, quite recently, on 4E D&D. A different community that exhibits strong textual fundamentalism in a different way is the portion of Pathfinder players concerned heavily with tactical game balance and character build optimization.

In contrast, some tabletop roleplaying game traditions deemphasize singular texts and are more likely to prioritize norms and expectations communicated informally. The community that developed around the old school renaissance seems closer to this approach on balance. People seem perfectly comfortable with a more distributed storage of practices, drawing from resources such as the old school primer, assorted blog posts, and recalled experiences. In this approach, no single text contains the full game and various aspects may lack textual basis completely. This is not just house rules, where players modify a canonical text to suit local group preferences, though house ruling is a part of how rules evolve culturally. Instead, the full game is more like a cultural tradition rather than a solid, defined, bounded artifact.

In terms of game design, both approaches have pros and cons. A strong textual basis serves as a shared landmark. People or groups that differ in expectations but share a specific, relatively explicit text, such as Apocalypse World, Pathfinder, or 5E D&D, might be able to communicate more effectively compared to people that lack such shared singular text, all else equal. Culture, however, is extraordinarily effective in social coordination, requiring little explicit deliberation to function. For example, norms are more influential in directly coordinating social behavior than laws, and when laws do come into play, few people other than judges and lawyers are familiar with legal details.

The major misunderstanding, as far as I can tell, is the idea that the choice is between system and individuals making things up rather than between prioritizing text and prioritizing culture. For example, in a classic Forge document, Ron Edwards writes, to characterize an objection to the importance of well-designed systems: “It doesn’t really matter what system is used. A game is only as good as the people who play it, and any system can work given the right GM and players.” And, from a DIY D&D perspective: “sometimes people just suck and redesigning the game won’t fix that” and “Reading the book is not and never should be essential.” Now, of course there is also an effect both of well-crafted procedure in text and individual creativity, but players (and cultures of players in aggregate) can differ on preference for textual versus cultural embodiment of rules.

Personally, I see the benefit of both approaches. I spend a lot of effort trying to effectively proceduralize rules that I develop, particularly for many of the less fluent aspects of traditional fantasy games, such as encumbrance, resource management, and bookkeeping, with the Hazard System being a more involved application of this kind of thinking. However, insisting that individual texts be highly pedagogical and entirely self-contained both creates strangely unmoored documents, seemingly unaware of their likely audience, and ignores the massive, brilliant social fabric to which we all belong.

That said, this post is more about facilitating communication than advocating for a particular approach to game design. People with a strong focused design bent might want to consider that games can be stored culturally, similarly to the way traditions develop and propagate more broadly. And, people who feel like they already know how to play and just want the text to get out of their way may find that trying to play some innovative or experimental games may suggest new techniques or even be enjoyable as completely self-contained games. At the very least, recognizing that people may differ on this preference might help prevent misunderstanding.

Credit to a post by Dan M. that helped me crystalize this idea and provided some useful language.

See also: game design as common law, though that post concerns a method to craft rules in the context of a particular group, rather than broader cultures of gaming.

Mettle, trauma, and grit

For me, the ideal hit point or vitality system for tabletop roleplaying games involves the constant threat of engaging consequences while also mitigating the disastrous influence of luck. Using OD&D and sticking to the three little brown booklets comes close to this ideal when run in a certain manner, but still perhaps gives luck too much influence at first level and creates too much of a hit point buffer at mid to high level. Put another way, I want a system that encourages players to always care about combat consequences but rarely if ever shanks without warning. And, of course, the system must be fluent, easy to use, plugged in to the core flow of play, and require minimal bookkeeping.

Playing Kingdom Death gave me some ideas regarding ways to build a combat system that better prioritizes these goals, and that influence should be clear in the following sketch. As written, it may be too invasive to just trivially drop into a game using a B/X type engine, especially given that it requires replacing traditional armor class with ablative armor, but I think it would be possible.

Before anyone gets all up in my business about the dynamics of real armor or wounds, I want to emphasize that realism is a relatively low priority apart from maintaining predictable fictional consequences, necessary for allowing creative problem solving. Instead, the point is to create rules that facilitate choices and consequences while reinforcing the overall feel of the kind of survival fantasy that is my preferred mode for tabletop roleplaying games. This system assumes the turn structure of the Hazard System.

Section of the Hexagram character record sheet relevant to armor and mettle


Rather than hit points, player characters have mettle, which can be both bound to hit locations (all player characters have this kind of mettle) or floating (for tougher characters, those with high constitution). Instead of taking damage, player characters mark mettle boxes. The hit locations are head, body, abdomen, arms, and legs. Each location has two points of mettle except the head, which has one point. Additionally, player characters have a number of floating mettle points equal to the constitution modifier. These points can absorb damage to any hit location.


Currently, Hexagram uses active defending—blocking or dodging—sort of like this, rather than resolving monster attack rolls versus player character armor class. The details of the monster attack step are less central to the mettle and trauma system, and any method to decide if an opponent hits a player character in combat should slot in fine here. Even just leveraging the saving throw system seems like it would be a totally functional system for determining whether a character risks taking some damage, bringing armor, mettle, and so forth into play.


Player characters can equip pieces of armor to any hit location. Armor is ablative, meaning that it reduces incoming damage. The protection offered by a piece of armor maps roughly to the traditional light, medium, heavy (or leather, chain, plate) scale with light armor offering 1 point of protection, medium offering 2 points, and heavy offering 3. Since player characters have five hit location slots, they can mix and match, for example by wearing a heavy visored helmet but a light, boiled leather breastplate. Equipped armor still takes a gear slot, so piling on protection comes at the cost of lower versatility. Additionally, player characters act at a disadvantage when wearing armor with protection higher than the strength bonus.


When a player character takes damage, determine hit location randomly, subtract armor protection from damage taken (minimum zero), and then mark off one mettle slot for each point of damage remaining. I assume that the magnitude of damage is generally around 1d6 (following OD&D flat damage). If at any point a player character takes damage and has no remaining relevant mettle, then the character is in danger and must roll for peril. This is the step that can potentially lead to serious consequences, including character death.

Hit location (1d6): 1 head, 2 legs, 3 arms, 4 abdomen, 5-6 body

Peril (1d6): 1 messy death, 2-3 bleeding, 4-5 fracture, 6 sprain

Fractures disable the affected hit location. For example, a character with a fractured arm can no longer effectively wield a weapon using that arm. Healing fractures requires magic or taking a haven turn to recover (which would require retreating from a dungeon to town). Sprains work similarly but player characters can recover from a sprain by resting for a single dungeon turn (so, in effect, sprains only influence the current combat).

Other than being messy, gaining the first bleeding condition has no direct result. However, getting the bleeding result again, even to another hit location, means the character bleeds out and dies.


Injuries are tricky to handle well in tabletop RPGs. On the one hand, they can make characters much less fun to play even for players on board with working out the implications of player character hardship. On the other hand, a fictional consequence is almost always more engaging than simple HP attrition through both adding narrative color—fan of blood—and changing the context as appropriate—a tiled floor slippery with blood. Further, while permanently changing settings and characters through play is satisfying, ruining characters is generally not. You can’t lose an arm in Dark Souls, and if you did I imagine the common response would be to restart the game. That would be a hardcore lose condition. For this reason, the peril table includes immediate fictional consequences beyond something like HP loss, such as heavy bleeding or broken bones, but defers the possibility of permanent disfigurement, the control of which falls to players through the grit system, described below.


Bleeding and fractures count as trauma, and surviving trauma strengthens tough characters. Player characters that survive a trauma can mark a grit box during recovery in a haven. Characters have a number of grit boxes equal to the constitution modifier. When a player marks a grit box, they should note how the trauma has permanently marked the character. This could be a scar or something else, and is entirely up to the player, but should be fictionally appropriate to the particular trauma (this would be a good place to insert fantasy prosthetics if such are setting-appropriate, such as necromantic grafts or enchanted wooden limbs). In effect, grit slots are like unlockable extra mettle slots.

False Machine has some creative ideas for scars here.


This system feels mechanically quite perilous. A mettle slot is roughly equivalent to one hit point, meaning that on average marking 1d6 mettle slots (expected value: 3.5) results in peril for all hit locations lacking armor. However, five-sixths (83%) of peril results are non-fatal initially. Strictly speaking, a one-shot kill is still possible, but is statistically much less common than the OD&D case of 1d6 damage versus 1d6 HP, and could easily be entirely eliminated if desired (such as by changing the messy death result to unconscious and dying, with final death occurring at the end of combat lacking miraculous intervention). Also, the odds improve dramatically with some armor while still maintaining the threat of real consequences.

In terms of complexity creep, this system requires an extra roll to determine hit location if an opponent hit is successful. So, there is a small increase in complexity, but the overhead seems minimal, which I have confirmed in preliminary play testing. The peril step replaces what I would otherwise run as a saving throw versus death, and that is an uncommon occurrence. Tracking the mettle and hit location slots does require a little help from the character sheet, but that seems manageable (see the character record sheet excerpt above).