Stonehell: Prepare to Die blocking and dodging

Knight blocking (image source)

Knight blocking (image source)

Blocking and dodging are an iconic part of Dark Souls combat. While I do not want to model Dark Souls combat entirely, I do want to inject some of that feeling while maintaining the randomness necessary for engaging B/X combat and also not changing the core combat engine or making it significantly more complicated.

The Shield Block and Dodge reactions replace the monster attack roll and so must be declared prior to throwing the monster attack roll dice. When a monster attacks, the referee should say to the adventurer player (paraphrasing): the monster is attacking you, do you want to block or dodge? and then proceed with the appropriate procedure.

The approach outlined below in essence allows the player to use strength or dexterity as their defense stat, instead of armor class. This also eliminates the effect of the monster attack bonus, and so will often, especially for particularly fearsome monsters, be probabilistically advantageous. The downside is that blocking or dodging risks running out of stamina, represented by a constitution check. This trades chance of near future danger for immediate benefit.

Knight dodging (image source)

Knight dodging (image source)

Characters that are out of stamina are sluggish and do not fight as effectively. They may not block or dodge and make all physical rolls, including attack rolls and ability checks, with disadvantage.

Blocking is more effective (even when the strength check result is failure the adventurer suffers less damage) while dodging consumes an adventurer’s per-turn movement allowance.

Some attacks are difficult to block (strength check success → half damage, strength check failure → full damage) or impossible to block (suffer full damage no matter what). Players must discover which attacks are able to be blocked through play. In general, this should follow common sense; don’t try to block a giant’s club.


Reaction: Shield Block

To block an enemy’s attack, make a strength check. On success, suffer no damage. On failure, suffer half damage (round up).

Also make a constitution check to avoid running out of stamina.

Playbook cue:
Make STR check (failure → ½ damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).

Reaction: Dodge

To avoid an enemy’s attack, make a dexterity check. One dodge can avoid multiple enemy attacks if fictionally reasonable.

Also make a constitution check to avoid running out of stamina.

An adventurer may not move after dodging on a turn during which the adventurer dodged.

Playbook cue:
Make DEX check and CON check (failure → out of stamina). Avoids multiple attacks.

Action: Recover Stamina

To recover stamina, make a constitution check. This takes a combat action.

Playbook cue:
Make CON check.

Condition: Out of Stamina

Make all physical rolls with disadvantage.

Blocking and dodging are impossible.

Stamina recovers automatically following combat.

Summoner and Pyromancer playbooks

Here are Summoner and Pyromancer playbooks. The playbooks include instructions for creating an adventurer along with core rule cues. Below are slightly more precise spell rules.

This summoner is a tightened up version of the OD&D summoning rules I posted a while back.

As a reminder, intelligence checks control how many times an adventurer can cast a spell. After casting and resolving a spell, the adventurer makes an INT check. Failure means the adventurer looses the spell. Spells refresh during downtime.


Summoner Spells

To cast summoning spells or use magic, adventurers must have a catalyst in a hand slot.

Charm

Bind a neutral or friendly creature as a minion.

Hostile creatures and creatures of higher level than the summoner get a saving throw.

Minions resist commands that are suicidal or anathema.

Compel resisting minions with a CHA check. Failure breaks the charm.

Previously charmed creatures become hostile when liberated.

Summon

In a puff of smoke, a monster appears. Determine monster randomly.

Choose: careful, reckless, or named.

Careful results in a monster with level not exceeding the summoner’s.

Reckless could summon anything, even a duke of hell.

Named summons a creature by true name, which must be known.

Ward

Draw a boundary, either circle or line, on the ground with a catalyst.

Summoned or extra-dimensional creatures may not transgress this boundary.


Pyromancy Spells

To cast pyromancy spells, adventurers must summon a pyromancy flame.

Adventurers knowing pyromancy spells may summon or dismiss pyromancy flames as an action.

A pyromancy flame occupies a hand slot.

Pyromancy flames are fist-sized, hovering, smoking spheres of dim pulsing fire that smell acridly of sulfur and seared tar. They shed about as much light as a dying ember. The odor makes concealment difficult.

Fireball

Deal 1d6 + (1d6 × Level) damage (save for ½) to all in an area.

Flaming Weapon

Ignite a weapon. Weapon deals +1d6 damage and damage is magical.

The enchantment persists as an expiring resource during exploration.

Stonehell: Prepare to Die weapons

Dark Souls zweihander (personal photo)

Big sword from Dark Souls 1 (personal photo)

Combat house rules are hard to remember in the heat of the moment, so these are designed to augment traditional B/X procedures. If players do not learn the options or forget to use them, the game will not be much harmed. Applying these procedures should help create the feel of Dark Souls tactics to the degree permitted by traditional tabletop RPG rules. The final playbooks will also include reminder cues to help players. I tried to keep new rules to the absolute minimum required to support basic Dark Souls actions.

For now, shields just grant the standard traditional +1 AC. A Dark Souls emulator deserves better than that, but I also do not want it to slow down combat or make adventurers too tough. I do not like rules that allow adventurers to sacrifice a shield to avoid a hit.


Starting Weapons

All playbooks provide an initial melee weapon proportional to starting strength. Some provide a missile weapon as well, proportional to initial dexterity. The instructions section of each playbook includes available initial weapon choices. See below for a compiled list of starting weapons.

Two-Handed Weapons

Adventurers with an ability score high enough to use a weapon may wield it one-handed. Some weapons may be used two-handed to deal extra damage. When using a melee weapon two-handed, roll two damage dice and take the larger result (that is, roll damage with advantage).

Dual-Wielding

Adventurers may wield a weapon in each hand, allowing two attacks per combat turn. However, dual-wielded weapons are limited by the lowest of both strength and dexterity. For example, an adventurer with strength 14 and dexterity 10 wielding two weapons may only use weapons that deal 1d6 damage or less. Further, dual-wielding prevents using a shield or any other off-hand item. When dual-wielding, both attacks must be rolled at once. Combatants may not save one attack for a potential parry (see below).

Critical Hits

When a critical hit occurs, players can choose to inflict either double or full damage. For double damage, roll the weapon die twice and then apply any other modifiers. For full damage, do not roll damage but rather use the highest potential result of the weapon die. For example, a critical hit with a longsword (a 1d10 weapon) will inflict either 2d10 or 10 base damage, according to the player’s choice. Natural 20s inflict critical hits, as do strong attacks, parrying counterattacks, and sneak attacks (see below).

Strong Attacks

Successful strong attacks are critical hits. However, strong attacks leave the attacker open to counterattack, reducing the attacker’s AC to 10 (unarmored) temporarily unless the strong attack reduces an enemy to zero hit points, in which case AC is unaffected. Because of this, strong attacks are best used finish off enemies. Reduced AC from a strong attack persists until the adventurer that made the strong attack acts again.

Parrying Counterattacks

Rather than attack, a combatant may try to parry and counterattack. This requires waiting for an opponent to attack. Resolve a parry with opposed attack rolls rather than static armor class. If the parry is successful, the combatant parrying inflicts a critical hit for taking advantage of an opponent’s opening. Parrying is only possible against opponents wielding weapons.

Sneak Attacks

Concealed adventurers may make sneak attacks with melee weapons. Sneak attacks are made with advantage and inflict critical hits. Melee weapons used for a sneak attack are limited by both strength and dexterity. For example, an adventurer with strength 14 and dexterity 12 may use weapons dealing 1d8 damage for a sneak attack. Following a sneak attack, successful or otherwise, make a dexterity check (with disadvantage if base AC is higher than 12) to determine if the adventurer remains concealed. Concealed combatants may not be targeted directly.

Blunt Weapons

Blunt weapons (for example, caestus, club, and mace) are more effective against some enemies but are also more clumsy than other weapons. Exactly what clumsy means must be ruled situationally by the referee but may include occurrences such as striking after an opponent with a more agile weapon.

Enchanting

(This upgrade system replaces the attack bonus rule described in the previous post.)

Upgrade weapons during downtime by bringing special resources, along with personal essence freely given, to a blacksmith or enchanter. Weapons may be improved up to +5 and can be infused with other magical powers. Enchantment bonuses apply only to attack rolls, not damage rolls. Elemental enchantments modify the type of damage inflicted and can sometimes augment amount of damage.

Special resources may be explicit external treasure but can also be harvested abstractly from defeated enemies according to the magical principle of similarity. For example, the essence of a monster that breathes fire would be useful for a fire enchantment. Record abstract essences in HD or level terms. Such monster essences do not occupy item slots.

The process of improving a weapon links it to the wielder’s soul. Because of this, the original wielder suffers any damage the current wielder takes, making it unwise to lend your enchanted weapon to another. (Yes, this means that stealing an enemy’s linked weapon and cutting yourself is a strategy. Good luck with that.) The improvement process uses the personal essence to create the link between living soul and item. Such personal essence can take many forms. For example, blood, hair, or valued secrets. The details of the essence affects the weapon’s physical manifestation.

Since enchanted items draw their power from living souls, such items rarely persist beyond the death of their original wielder. Rarely, a wielder’s power and personality are so strong that an enchantment is permanently burned into the item. Such legendary items are unique and sought after.

Bleeding

A bleeding combatant suffers one damage per combat turn. Bleeding is easily staunched after combat. Some weapons, such as katanas, cause bleeding.

Poison

Poison of the common variety inflicts one damage per dungeon turn and can only be cured by consuming an antidote. Uncommon and rare poisons may have other effects. Most poisons allow an initial constitution saving throw to completely resist the effect.

In game design terms, bleeding and poison are fast and slow hit point attrition effects.


Melee Weapons

1d4 caestus dagger broken straight sword
 caestus  dagger  broken-straight-sword
1d6 club hand axe short sword
 club hand-axe  shortsword
1d8 broadsword mace scimitar
 broadsword mace scimitar
1d10 battle axe longsword spear
 battle-axe long-sword spear
1d12 bastard sword greataxe halberd
 bastard-sword greataxe halberd

Missile Weapons

1d6 shortbow light crossbow
 short-bow  light-crossbow
1d8 longbow heavy crossbow
long-bow heavy-crossbow

Crossbows can be used with a single hand but take an action to reload.

Bows must be wielded with both hands.


Weapon images are from Dark Souls 3.

Stonehell: Prepare to Die playbook overview

Adventurer playbook determines starting ability scores, starting HP pool, starting gear, and starting spells (when appropriate).

Initially, I am developing four playbooks based on Dark Souls classes and one custom playbook. The four playbooks inspired by Dark Souls are Bandit, Deprived, Knight, and Pyromancer. The custom playbook is the Summoner and is based heavily on the OD&D summoner I posted before.

Playbook HP Pool Str Dex Con Int Wis Cha
Bandit 1d10 16 12 12 9 9 9
Deprived 1d4 9 9 9 9 9 9
Knight 1d12 14 10 14 9 10 11
Pyromancer 1d6 10 10 10 12 10 9
Summoner 1d6 9 12 10 13 10 12
My first Dark Souls dude, with a shield

My first Dark Souls dude, with a shield

Similar to Dark Souls, all adventurers sharing a playbook start with identical ability scores, as shown above. Players differentiate adventurers primarily through advancement choices during play though there are also a few choices per playbook regarding starting gear.

I chose these 5 playbooks because they include a damage-oriented melee class (the Bandit), a defense-oriented melee class (the Knight), a damage-oriented ranged class (the Pyromancer), and a hard-mode class (the Deprived). The Summoner provides a magic-using class that relies on minions.

The full list of potential playbooks includes Bandit, Cleric, Deprived, Hunter, Knight, Pyromancer, Sorcerer, Summoner, Thief, and Warrior. The playbooks of next-highest priority to me are the Hunter (for a non-magical ranged class) and the Sorcerer (for a more general magic-user).

Most adventurer capabilities are determined by ability scores, which also have approximately the same bonuses (and meanings) as in traditional B/X. Ability scores are also used for traditional roll-under (<=) ability checks. Disadvantage, as in fifth edition, means to roll two dice and take the least favorable result.

Weapons

Strength and dexterity determine which melee and missile weapons (respectively) an adventurer my use without penalty, categorized by damage die, as shown in the table below. For example, an adventurer with strength at least 10 may use melee weapons that deal 1d4 or 1d6 damage. Adventurers may use weapons with greater die sizes, but make attack rolls with disadvantage when doing so and do not add ability bonuses.

Score Die
8 1d4
10 1d6
12 1d8
14 1d10
16 1d12

Armor

Constitution, in addition to adding HP to the HP Pool and functioning as an endurance or fortitude saving throw, limits the adventurer’s max AC. For example, an adventurer with constitution of 14 may wear armor that grants up to AC 14. Adventurers wearing armor granting AC higher than the constitution score make all physical tests (ability checks and attack rolls) with disadvantage. Unarmored AC is 10 (including for the Deprived, even though the Deprived begins with constitution of 9).

Attack Bonus

Edit: the weapon upgrade rules replace the attack bonus.

Adventurers have an attack bonus (determined by level). Add the attack bonus to attack rolls made when using a weapon that does not exceed ability score damage die limits. For example, an adventurer with strength 10 that attacks with a 1d10 weapon does not add the attack bonus (and in fact makes the attack roll with disadvantage, as described above). The attack bonus is calculated as level divided by two, rounded up, plus one (or consult the following table).

Level Attack Bonus
1 +2
3 +3
5 +4
7 +5
9 +6

 

HP Pool

Potential adventurer HP is recorded as a dice expression plus the constitution bonus. At first level, this will include one die (and possibly a bonus, depending on playbook). For example, the knight begins with an HP Pool of 1d12 + 1. An example of a higher-level HP pool is:

1d12 + 1d6 + 1d6 + 1

Adventurers recover by re-rolling their HP Pool when resting in safety.

Carrying Capacity

Adventurers may equip several location-specific items (head, torso, left hand, right hand) and have an additional set of item slots equal to the strength score. Some items may be bundled, such as throwing knives. Such items require only a single item slot up to the bundle limit. Bundle limits are determined by specific items. For example, the bundle limit of throwing knives is 6.

Magic

Intelligence determines number of spells an adventurer can know (intelligence – 10, min 0). For example, an adventurer with intelligence 13 can know up to 3 spells. After casting a spell, an adventurer must make an intelligence check. If the adventurer fails this check, that spell may not be used again until the adventurer rests in safety. This makes the number of spell uses uncertain, but never less than 1.

Minions

Charisma determines number of minions an adventurer can control (charisma – 10, min 0). For example, an adventurer with charisma 12 can control up to 2 minions. Commanding minions requires charisma checks in some circumstances. The charisma bonus applies to minion attack and damage rolls.

Advancement

To gain a level, spend coins equal to level multiplied by 1000. For example, to advance from second to third level, spend 2000 coins worth of treasure. Merchants are only interested in coins, gems, and precious artifacts. The focus of these rules is not on scavenging curtains and furniture from dungeons (not that there is anything wrong with that). Adventurers may advance in level wherever they can spend treasure, including deep within a dungeon, assuming the can find a merchant to deal with.

When gaining a level, adventurers add 1d6 to the HP Pool, choose one ability score to increase by one point, and increase the attack bonus (for odd levels). The maximum adventurer level is 10. Ability scores may not be raised above 18.

For moderate niche protection, I set playbook starting ability scores so that non-magical classes must dedicate one level of advancement to increasing intelligence before they can start learning spells. That is, advancing intelligence from 9 to 10 requires a level but does not grant any spell slots (since 10 – 10 = 0). The adventurer must then spend another level (increasing intelligence to 11) to gain the first spell slot. Advancing from 9 to 10 is not totally without mechanical benefit, even though it does not grant a spell slot, since saving throws versus magic use intelligence checks.

Ability Bonuses

The strength bonus adds to melee attacks and damage. The dexterity bonus adds to missile attacks and damage (but not AC). The constitution bonus adds to the HP Pool. The wisdom bonus adds to miracle effects (to be discussed in a future post). The intelligence bonus adds to spell effects (such as damage). The charisma bonus adds to minion attack and damage rolls. All other resolution systems use simple ability checks. For example, reaction rolls are handled as charisma checks. Ability score bonuses follow the traditional B/X schedule of tiers made up of 13-15, 16-17, and 18.

Score Bonus
13 +1
16 +2
18 +3

Stonehell: Prepare to Die

Principles

  • Use a chassis similar to B/X
  • Use a published dungeon and structure the setting around the dungeon
  • Reinterpret dungeon elements using a Dark Souls filter

Setting

On the frontier of the central kingdom, the High King Vollrath built a fortress in the mouth of a dusty box canyon. Though billed as a borderlands fort, the location was not strategic. The extensive excavation and heavily loaded provisioning caravans were out of all proportion with a mundane outpost. After completion, visitors slowed and then stopped. One day the gates closed and did not reopen. For months, lights and guards were still visible on the parapets, and then those too vanished. Years passed, and parts of the wall fell into disrepair. Nature began the gradual process of repossessing the edifice. Then, the High King was defeated in battle and unified kingdoms fragmented again. Locals assumed that the distant civilized Central Kingdoms had forgotten the fortress.

A generation ago, those dwelling near the fortress began to behave strangely, gripped by unnatural passions. Many had nightmares. People regularly had bouts of uncontrollable rage or crippling fear. Settlers abandoned homesteads, soldiers sent to garrison outposts deserted, and trading outposts gradually became ghost towns. Soon, industry ceased.

Most people that linger are mad or catatonic, though a few have managed to retain their selves. Even the sane are plagued by nightmares with uncomfortably similar details: dark tunnels, shriveled men scurrying on all fours like roaches, and glittering treasures. Drawn by rumors of wealth, some fortune hunters regularly trek from the now divided Central Kingdoms, assuming the dangers superstition. None enter the nearby frontiers without being changed. Even those not driven mad suffer tremors and strange uncontrollable emotions that intensify with distance from the complex, growing into an obsession with the abandoned fortress. Until they return, colors are dimmer, food tastes like dust, and nothing seems to satisfy. All return, many to die in the depths or to a madman’s cracked blade.


Next up: B/X style playbook design inspired by Dark Souls starting classes.

Let It Ride or Push Your Luck

Following is a designer note from the current working draft of Hexagram, the ruleset I have been working on.


The game Burning Wheel has a principle called Let It Ride:

A player shall test once against an obstacle and shall not roll again until conditions legitimately and drastically change. Neither GM nor player can call for a retest unless those conditions change. Successes from the initial roll count for all applicable situations in play (Burning Wheel Gold, page 32).

This means that once the players agree upon a particular test to resolve an uncertain outcome, the result of that one test fully determines the outcome. For example, a player may roll to determine if a character is able to open a lock. According to the Let It Ride principle, the player gets only one try to accomplish this goal using this means. Spending more fictional time for another attempt is not possible. Players must consider other means to get past the lock, such as smashing it with a hammer that may come with additional unintended consequences.

Hexagram play is based on a different game design principle: Push Your Luck. In Push Your Luck play, the number of attempts is not limited but risk attends each try. Additional tries tempt fate. In Hexagram, making Moves requires taking a Turn and taking a Turn requires rolling the Hazard Die and possibility of setbacks. In other words, potential mechanical reward entails potential risk. Part of the risk in taking another Turn comes from advancing fictional time. For example, taking a Haven Turn to recover could result in opponents gathering reinforcements, weather taking a turn for the worse, a political crisis, or a natural disaster. Though Adventurers may be making the same Moves, the setting does not remain static in response.

From a general perspective, Let It Ride and Push Your Luck can be seen as two poles of a bipolar resolution finality spectrum. Let It Ride specifies that a resolution is final after one iteration while Push Your Luck specifies that resolution may be indeterminate. An Adventurer may fail to open a lock, take the outcome of the Hazard Die in stride, and then try again, repeating this procedure as many times as desired assuming the Adventurer remains capable. Various intermediate principles are also possible along this spectrum. For example, limiting the number of potential retests to some arbitrary number or requiring players to spend some consumable game resource to try again.

Neither principle is inherently superior, but they do have different properties and structure play differently. In Burning Wheel, the purpose of Let It Ride is to continuously push the fictional narrative forward. Additionally, Let It Ride may encourage more diverse problem solving over time as probability suggests that a given means will be insufficient at least some of the time, forcing players to use alternative strategies. Push Your Luck leverages the psychology of temptation, assuming the uncertainty in question stands between players and their desires. By allowing players to take on greater risk in pursuit of outcomes judged important, Push Your Luck also lends weight and consequence to player decisions.

Roles for common adventurer jobs

There are a small set of regular questions that tend to come up regarding character behavior. For example, which character is in the front of the party? Which is carrying a light source? The particular questions may vary depending on the particular style of game, but most games probably have some such common character jobs. Rather than regularly determining such details explicitly every time, common jobs could be defined beforehand and marked on character sheets. For purposes of discussion here, call these common jobs roles. Players may always override a role specification situationally, but otherwise the role specified beforehand would function as a set of default actions and dispositions.

Such predetermination supports the attribution of player decisions to planning rather than expedient choices of the moment. For example, if a player gives their character the Scout role, they will never find themselves telling the referee that their character would have been scouting after the referee declares an ambush is underway. Roles as described here have some similarities to Burning Wheel instincts mechanically, though they are less open-ended.

Roles function as tags with interpretation specific to the current level of gameplay abstraction. The games I run generally operate at one of four different scales, as modeled by the Hazard System, from most abstract to least abstract: Haven, Wilderness, Dungeon, and Combat. Each role may have consequences at multiple scales. For example, the Vanguard role means, unless the player declares otherwise, that a character is near the front of the marching order when exploring dungeons, will be part of the front rank if combat begins, and will guard allies when searching a room for hidden features.

Multiple characters may take the same role, though high role redundancy decreases the utility of using roles at all. For example, if everyone is a Scout then, functionally speaking, nobody is. If after consulting role specifications and the current fictional situation it is still not clear, for example, which vanguard character would have been the one to open some box, the players could always decide or the referee could determine the result randomly. However, I suspect role + situation is enough to eliminate ambiguity most of the time.

Common Roles

Vanguard
When exploring, Vanguards occupy the front of the marching order. Vanguards open doors and operate crude mechanisms when needed. When not exploring, Vanguards guard allies, focusing attention on unknown areas ahead of the group. Vanguards are responsible for first impressions in encounters and determine initial monster reactions. In combat, Vanguards form the front line and protect allies.

Rearguard
When exploring, Rearguards occupy the end of the marching order. Similar to Vanguards, when not exploring, Rearguards defend allies, but focus attention on where the characters have come from rather than ahead. Rearguards also generally will keep watch in contexts where that might be fictionally reasonable, such as when searching a dungeon room or setting up camp.

Scout
When exploring, Scouts move slightly ahead of their allies. This allows Scouts to report back about danger before it descends on the entire group. Additionally, Scouts may advance beyond signs of obvious allies such as illumination and so move more stealthily if desired. When combat begins, scouts have a chance to hide. Scouts tend to be snipers or skirmishers and so if not hidden stay in the center of the group so as to not expose themselves directly to danger in melee.

Torchbearer
When exploring, Torchbearers tend to stay toward the center of the group and always keep a light source active when necessary. In combat, they begin with at least one hand occupied by whatever light source they are using.

These are probably incomplete specifications and I am sure there are some other common roles that I am neglecting, but hopefully the idea is clear.

There is some redundancy between roles and classes. It does not seem like a bad approximation to assume, for example, that one of the fighters would be the one to open a door and one of the thief or rogue-type characters would be scouting, but somehow in practice that does not seem to be enough. I think that having another field on the character sheet that can be interpreted as default job contains different enough information and comes up commonly enough to be worth the little extra space required.

Alternatives to genre

Genre emulation in tabletop RPGs, as I understand it, is the attempt to write game rules that when followed result in play experiences congruent with the genre being emulated. More specifically, the fictional events that occur and stories generated retroactively should conform to various genre patterns and expectations. For example, the rules of Pendragon are designed to result in stories recognizably similar to Arthurian romance, the rules of Monsterhearts are designed to result in stories recognizably similar to young adult contemporary fantasy, and the sanity death spiral of Call of Cthulhu intends stories in the key of Lovecraft. This allows game designers, and so referees, to leverage shared meanings.

Despite this benefit, games that attempt to emulate genres flexibly tend to be somewhat bland. While this might read as a criticism, and it is to some degree, it should not be surprising considering that genre is, at some level, structure without flesh. The horror genre is the collection of structures and properties shared by, for example, The Exorcist, Psycho, and Night of the Living Dead. This means that the referee, or gaming group as a whole if setting and narrative responsibility is shared, must add this layer of aesthetic detail atop the genre-supporting framework or be satisfied with a more stereotypical or conventional realization of whatever genre is being emulated. Every dwarf gruff, every elf haughty, and every private eye cynically jaded. Even though such direct reliance on genre can sometimes result in elements of questionable uniqueness, the now widespread availability of many different genre emulators is a real advance for players desiring such tools.

However, for those not satisfied with more agnostic toolkit rule systems but also lacking enthusiasm for genre emulation, another option would to be prioritize what Ynas discusses as thematic concerns. Tabletop RPGs have always had aesthetically engaging settings such as Tekumel or Dark Sun, but this thematic approach, which may be somewhat recent, blends setting with rules while still building on recognizable frameworks. This approach leverages as many commonly known elements as possible to communicate setting flavor and may use rules to generate setting details rather than taking an encyclopedic approach. For examples, consider the character creation rules of a Thoroughly Pernicious Pamphlet and the tables constituting the setting of Yoon-Suin.

Some additional recent standouts taking this approach:

Circumplex ability scores

On G+, Ian B. has regularly mentioned his house rules for ability scores. Whenever he has, I have been impressed by the elegance of his approach. He views the six ability scores as divided between physical and spiritual domains and encoding several underlying properties: power (strength/charisma), finesse (dexterity/intelligence), and durability (consitution/wisdom). Further, each individual ability score has application to many other concepts, including character class, saving throws, weapons, and social caste.

Recently, he posted an extra-thorough description of the system. I thought it would be a shame if the exposition was buried in a G+ comment thread rather than easily available using web searches, so I am publishing it here as a guest post. Below the horizontal rule are Ian’s words, used with permission, lightly edited for blog post form. Find the original text in a comment on this G+ post.


charwheel2_medium

Image from Ian

I arrange the attributes in a circle. In the upper half (left to right) are Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity. these are the physical abilities. In the bottom half reading from right to left is Intelligence, Willpower, and Charisma, These are the spiritual attributes. They reflect the nature of the physical attributes above them. This makes it very easy for players to identify the role the attributes play because they can compare the more abstract spiritual quantities to more physical representations.

[Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I renamed Wisdom Willpower. It made sense in OD&D because the first three abilities represented the native ability of the three classes (which is why they were tradeable). So Strength might as well be called Fighting-Man Ability, Wisdom could be called Cleric Ability, and Intelligence called Magic User Ability quite easily. The other three abilities were discrete supporting abilities common to every “figure” (and characters were still really figures on the battlefield in many senses in that first version). But when people started thinking the names of the attributes were significant and they started having their own application outside that of the character xp gain (that is, in Greyhawk), then you started getting confusion over what Intelligence and Wisdom meant to many people. This avoids the confusion by what I mean when I say Willpower.]

Actions taken to the left of the diagram involve the use of physical or spiritual force. So wrestling might involve a contest of Strength, whilst an argument might involve a contest of Charisma to see how well it sways people emotionally.

Actions taken to the right of the diagram involve the use of physical or spiritual finesse. Such as accurately hitting a target or negotiating an agreement.

Very few intentional actions can be taken using the middle of the diagram (Constitution and Willpower). Mainly they provide the intrinsic resilience of the character (the ability to endure physically and spiritually). They boost both hit points and spell points respectively.

Each Saving Throw maps directly to a characteristic (even though this does mean adding an extra one), which provides a bonus. They are:

  • STR: Paralysis and Petrification
  • CON: Death and Poison
  • DEX: Blast and (Dragon) Breathe
  • INT: Magical Devices (formerly Wands & Staves)
  • WPR: Spells and Magic
  • CHA: Fear and Charm

Where multiple saving throws might apply characters may select a specific one by reacting appropriately. For example against a wand of paralysis they could seek cover from the wand wielder (INT), dodge the caster pointing the wand at them (DEX), attempt to actively resist the magic itself (POW), or passively resist the effects of the magic (STR). (Brendan here: note the POW intrusion from RuneQuest.)

Each of the primary six adventurer classes is directly connected to each of the characteristics as their prime requisite.

  • STR: Fighter [melee specialist]
  • CON: Ranger [missile specialist]
  • DEX: Tomb Robber/Dungeon Explorer [still flipping between class names because I don’t really want to use Tomb Raider] (Brendan here: presumably this is the thief class analogue.)
  • INT: Warmage [D&D magic user]
  • WPR: Sorceror [closest analog is the 5E Warlock. I may just change the name to Warlock since Mages normally use sorcery rather than wizardry (which is something quite different)]
  • CHA: Demon Hunter [D&D cleric except without a divine connection; they use antipathetic magic rather than the sympathetic magic of magic users]

This not only strongly affects abilities central to the class but because abilities increase each level (and a random prime requisite increases every odd level they get the maximum boost in their prime requisite). Incidentally I start PCs off at 2nd level (“normal” people have a level of between 1 and 4).

Player character generation is also tied into the characteristics, with players either selecting or rolling their Birth Caste, which gives a bonus to the related characteristic.

  1. STR: Military Caste (2/3 [depends on culture])
  2. CON: Peasant Caste (5)
  3. DEX: Artisan Caste (4)
  4. INT: Religious Caste [ie Educated] (2/3)
  5. WPR: Outcaste (6)
  6. CHA: Aristocratic Caste (1)

“(#)” indicates hierarchy rank. Note that 95% of the people in the wold belong to the Peasant Caste and may actually serve in other castes. So a common soldier is Peasant Caste (albeit more privileged by their association with sharp pointy things), whilst a knight would be Military Caste.

The other major philosophy in my current home system is that spellcasting and fighting abilities for the basic classes are at opposite ends of the spectrum. So if your class gives your d10 hit points (a fighter) then you would get d4 spell points. The reverse is true for a magic user. [It used to be offset slightly to match the initial D&D spell allocations (for instance an average cleric had a 50% chance of being able to cast a first level spell each day (1d6 spell points and costs 4) which was a nice compromise between early editions I thought, but I want to get players using their casual abilities more.]

The hit points die is also the base physical damage a class does (although it actually works out closer to the types of weapon the class can actually wield. For example a mage with a +1 Strength bonus could wield a shortsword in one hand rather than just a dagger. [Bonuses from abilities always increase a die roll – bonuses from magic are always added to a die roll.] A fighter armed with just a dagger is still only going to do d4 damage although they are much more likely to cause it. On the other hand at the upper end of the scale it can start getting complicated as fighters trade damage boost for increased utility with the weapon.

Tactical Hazard Die

Dragon_Warrior_NES_ScreenShot3

NES Dragon Warrior

The current unreleased working version of the Hazard System uses six potential outcomes which are then interpreted relative to the current turn type. The four turn types, from most abstract to least abstract, are Haven, Wilderness, Dungeon, and Combat. The six outcomes, mapped to the sides of the 1d6 Hazard Die, are 1) Setback, 2) Fatigue, 3) Expiration, 4) Locality, 5) Percept, and 6) Advantage. This unifies the set of potential outcomes so referees need learn fewer exceptions. Additionally, the order roughly ranks the outcomes from most negative (Setback) to most positive (Advantage) taking the perspective of player characters.

Previous versions of the Hazard System only used the Hazard Die for Haven, Wilderness, and Dungeon Turns, not Combat Turns. This makes sense genealogically given that the Hazard System was adapted from the Overloaded Encounter Die which was inspired by traditional random encounter checks. However, there are uncertain outcomes that require dice resolution during combat regularly, such as initiative, so perhaps the Hazard Die can subsume the resolution of uncertainty at all levels of abstraction.

It is not hard to find analogues in combat for most of the Hazard Die outcomes. For example, Setback could mean that reinforcements arrive or the opponents act first. Fatigue could be general attrition, such as all engaged combatants taking a point of damage. Locality could be any kind of change on the battlefield, such as a door being locked or a table overturned. Percept could be information telegraphing an opponent’s future strategy. Advantage could be an additional move per player character or a forced morale check for the enemy.

This set of outcomes does not replicate the probabilities of initiative in the same way that the wilderness travel or dungeon exploration applications of the Hazard Die replicates the chance of having an encounter. As described above, opponents have only a 1 in 6 chance of acting first, compared to the traditional 50/50 odds. Whether this is a problem will depend on how one sees the purpose of initiative. If the point of initiative is to inject some regular uncertainty and tension into combat, then it seems like the set of abstract Hazard Die results should serve the same purpose while also increasing combat dynamism through variety of events.

Another benefit I see of overloading the initiative die is that some other aspects of combat, such as morale, which are easily overlooked but quite beneficial to the dynamics of play, can be potentially built into regular game procedures. I am not sure if a 1 in 6 chance of opponent morale check (on the Advantage Hazard Die result) is the best way to do this but it seems promising. Are there any other combat events that deserve a place in the Combat Turn Hazard Die interpretation guidelines?

As with most systems that replace bookkeeping with probabilities, such as tracking ammo abstractly, there are absurd edge cases. What if your torch runs out on the first turn in the dungeon? What if you run out of arrows immediately? I see three solutions to this sort of problem: 1) use rulings based on fictional appropriateness, 2) use illogical results as a kind of oracle demanding explanation, or 3) make the system more complex to handle such edge cases reliably. I lean toward option 1 and away from option 3. In my opinion, it is no particular shortcoming in the system to rely on the referee to determine whether it makes sense fictionally for reinforcements to arrive in any given instance. Illogical results can also just be ignored occasionally given that doing so just falls back to the traditional mode which works reasonably reliably.


More concretely, my current play test interprets Combat Turn Hazard Die outcomes as:

  1. Setback: opponents act first or reinforcements arrive
  2. Fatigue: combatants engaged in melee suffer 1 point of damage
  3. Expiration: some or all ongoing effects end (such as burning oil)
  4. Locality: the battlefield changes in some way
  5. Percept: players gain some clue to opponent strategy
  6. Advantage: players choose extra action or forced morale check

(Post image is only mildly relevant, but hey it’s combat right?)