Fight off, dodge, or block

Some Dark Souls dude

Some Dark Souls dude

The combat system for my Stonehell Dark Souls game has drifted steadily away from traditional monster attack rolls toward monological combat (in short, players always roll, similar to Apocalypse World and Numenera).

Brief recap. In the initial December formulation, players chose between blocking or dodging (resolved using ability checks but also risking running out of stamina) or having the ref make a traditional monster attack roll versus character armor class. The trade-off was between relying entirely on ability scores or pitting character armor class against a monster’s potentially high attack bonus.

Making rules stick. In the past, I have sometimes had trouble getting combat house rules to stick because it is so easy to fall back on a familiar procedure, even when new rules result in more engaging outcomes and are advantageous to players. However, from the start of experimenting with the Dark Souls inspired active defense options, and across several groups of players with varying levels of tabletop roleplaying game experience, the active defenses seemed to remain top of mind. During the most recent session, players only ever defended actively, never letting the monsters make attack rolls, even with the risk of running out of stamina, which is punishing. I draw several lessons from this experience.

Choice prompts. First, the explicit choice prompt is an effective and low-maintenance way of communicating formal rules without needing non-referee players to read any rules (“zero homework” requirement). This is huge. Making such prompts habitual . This does place some constraints on potential rules, since the procedure must be fluent enough to survive being deployed all the time. That opposes complexity bloat which is positive more often than not.

Active options. Second, active options, assuming equal player effort requirements, have an advantage over passive options (such as submitting to a monster attack roll). Risking overgeneralization, I suspect this is universally true because players prefer a sense of control keeping all other factors constant.

Proposal. What follows is the procedure I am now considering, with parts that have not been play-tested in bold. Previously, armor class was a traditional passive defense score, but the approach below requires damage-reducing armor.

Resolve Monster Actions

  1. Determine actions for each monster.
  2. Match groups of monsters with defenders.
  3. Resolve defenses.


When monsters attack, to the defending player ask:

“Do you fight off the attack, dodge, block with a shield, or react in some other way?”

Resolve as specified below or by using the most relevant ability check.

Fight off. To defend using a melee weapon, roll the weapon’s damage and add the result to armor rating this turn, then suffer monster damage. In effect, this defends by comparing damage potential between player character and monster.

Shield block. To defend using a shield, make STR check (success → suffer no damage, failure → suffer ½ damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).

Dodge. To avoid monster attacks, make DEX check (success → suffer no damage, failure → suffer monster damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).

Suffer Damage

Add the damage from all monsters threatening a player character together, subtract armor rating from the total, and then suffer this amount of damage.


  • The fighting off procedure uses one roll per adventurer no matter the number of monsters. This means that the fight off option is more easily overwhelmed by multiple monsters, since the player character damage roll opposes multiple monster damage rolls added together.
  • Not needing to make tons of attack rolls for a host of enemies is a nice added bonus.
  • To simplify presentation for this post, I left out one small step, where player characters can intercede to block for an ally assuming the positioning makes sense fictionally. This can happen during the matching of monsters with defenders (step 2).
Playtest results

Playtest results

Ultimatum games and shared narrative control

Narrative control is the degree to which fictional authority is shared between referee and non-referee players in a tabletop roleplaying game. This is one of many properties useful for categorizing and understanding games. Traditionally, narrative control is centralized in the person of the referee but can also be shared either informally based on social norms or formally using game systems. For example, in the Fate engine players can spend fate points to establish facts in the fiction of the game world.

Spreading fictional authority over multiple people can lead to greater recombinant fictional potential. However, delegating authority also decreases puzzle complexity, challenge, and potential surprise (see Zak quote below for more on this dynamic). Spending a point abstractly to make a door be unlocked does not require any creativity or lateral thinking.

At one level, moving along the dimension of narrative control in game design caters to different player preferences. Some players are more interested in being challenged and solving problems while others are more interested in formally structured shared storytelling. Given a set of clear preferences, groups can tailor systems and practices. However, authority in games, just as in the broader social world, is continuously negotiated, even when formally addressed by laws or rules. That is, there are more settings or levers available for games regarding narrative control than simply picking a point on the spectrum.

Anecdotally, while I am generally more in the traditionalist camp of centralized referee narrative control, on reflection I have noticed that I often both explicitly and implicitly delegate fictional control to non-referee players. For example, see how ratlings became part of my Vaults of Pahvelorn. However, the way I find myself delegating fictional authority entails implicit veto power. Though all players, referee and otherwise, contribute to fictional game outcomes, the referee acts as steward. The responsibilities of stewardship in my games include balancing present play against future play and attending to the engagement of individual non-referee players. While this does not mean I adjust outcomes based on what I predict will give particular players more pleasure, it does control whether I linger on a particular fictional experience or work out fictional imperatives quickly.

Based on this understanding of stewardship, as referee I might ask a player what kind of farm a character grew up on or whether they might have relatives in the current town. It is not against the spirit of the game for a player to use this opportunity to gain some present problem solving advantage. However, the player has an incentive to restrain themselves. The more ambitious, far-reaching, or obviously self-interested the interpretation is, the more likely the contribution is to fall afoul of the referee’s steward responsibilities and be rejected. To clarify, this is not at all about protecting a static, perfect setting from the grubby hands of players or ensuring that a plot conforms to a desired narrative arc. Instead, the approach attempts to harness shared creativity while not sacrificing exploratory potential or challenge.

This process works like the ultimatum game in game theory. In the ultimatum game, two players divide some resources between themselves. Player A proposes how to split the resources. Player B decides whether to accept or reject the split. If B rejects the split, both get zero. Empirically, people in the player B responder role are more likely to reject inequitable splits even though such rejection entails personal monetary cost. After all, even one penny is greater than nothing. Because of this empirical fact, proposers have an incentive to not be perceived as too greedy, even though no proposal is formally defined by the rules as invalid.

Mapping this structure to gaming, non-referee players take the proposer role while referees take the responder role. Even this description oversimplifies, as in practice non-referee players may iterate proposals following referee rejection. That said, potential negotiation is limited in practice as groups will not tolerate perpetual renegotiation. Further, once new facts settle, offhand details may lead to surprising fictional consequences, potentially both advantageous and disadvantageous to player goals. This adds to the richness of the game as players incorporate the fictional logic of more inputs. Like butterfly wings shifting weather patterns.

Comment from Zak on the effect of narrative control locus on challenge:

the problem for me with a lot of player-created content ( as a GM ) is the fact that what I then give them then has less of a chance of being a surprise and less of the character of a puzzle. If what’s there has even a 25% chance of being what they decided would be there every time then that’s 25% less fear and dread and giddy anticipation.

The problem for me as a player is that I don’t get surprised, it’s less of a puzzle, it’s less challenging for me (the more info I have, the easier a challenge is), it bores me (I can create content whenever I want when I run a game, why should I do it when I’m playing?) and it robs me of the specific challenge of “If I want something to exist in the game I have to find a way to build it”.

When I’m asked “so, Zak’s PC, what’s over the ridge” my immediate response is “all the treasure int he world and the big bad’s head on a spike”–not because I don’t like making stuff up but because when playing I am conscious that I am trying to direct all my mental energy to exploiting every affordance to get specific goals done that could take years . Asking me to then turn to Author stance is just asking me to do a much easier job with much lower stakes that is consequently less fun.

(Click this link to return to pros and cons paragraph above.)


Forber, P., & Smead, R. (2014). The evolution of fairness through spite. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 281(1780), 20132439.

Jeff questions for Abelia Caliginous

I am considering running some basic-ass pickup D&D online from time to time and this happened. What can I say, I needed an unadorned setting.

Players of my Stonehell: Prepare to Die in-person game, don’t worry! I will keep running that campaign.

Go here for Jeff’s original quick questions prompts. Below, bolded terms are places with some degree of elaboration to which adventurers can travel.

What is the deal with my cleric’s religion?

There are no standard clerics but spirits and demons have shrines scattered around the world. Some folk worship these beings while magicians call on them for aid and knowledge or even summon them outright. (Think Final Fantasy summons.)

Where can we go to buy standard equipment?

In the Clovertown district of Abelia, adventurers can buy digging implements, brewing equipment, knives of all types, and various oddments. Journey to other places to find other goods.

Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?

In Abelia, The lion tamers at the Eternal Carnival can hook you up but you need carnival tickets to get into the best events.

Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?

Unquestionably Prospero Imperatax, the Pope of Magic. He singlehandedly dissolved the Republic of Magicians and choked the ruined Republic Guildhall with the Forest of Thorns. He resides in the south.

Who is the greatest warrior in the land?

The Itinerant Queen and her retinue of Royal Hunters seek the missing prince. Since the prince disappeared, the King Primrose III cloistered himself and locked the doors of Castle Abelia. He has not been seen since and Knights Regent now rule the various districts of Abelia.

Who is the richest person in the land?

Other than the Cloistered King, who technically owns all of civilization, the treasure map seller in the Bookbinders District.

Where can we go to get some magical healing?

The bathtub chemists in Clovertown sell healing tinctures and other concoctions.

Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?

Shivertown in the swamps to the east is home to many herbalists. Legend has it that adventurers can find spirits of the dead in the deep swamps which can then be coaxed back into corporeal shells with the help of a skilled medium.

Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?

Independent sorcerers can learn spells from spirits and demons or concoct their own.

The Republic of Magicians is now a secret society, the members of which are hunted by the agents of Prospero Imperatax. They may safeguard old secrets though the Pope Prospero claims copyright on all spells.

Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?

The Librarians of the Bookbinders District are a good place to start. A library card is a necessity for all well-heeled Abelians.

Where can I hire mercenaries?

The members of the Mudlarks Society in Clovertown specialize in dangerous low-skilled labor. The standard contract contains an anti-fighting clause but mudlarks have been known to overlook such details given generous tips.

Mercenaries can sometimes be found in Starfall Basement.

Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?

Holding an unsheathed weapon in the sight of a Knight Regent is a capital offense and will invariably lead to a scene.

Which way to the nearest tavern?

In Clovertown, drinking establishments are known as basements. They are located, unsurprisingly, in basements. Pleasure houses can often be found in attics with particular delights advertised using colored chimney smoke.

What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?

The dragon Sartar ventures regularly from Cinderpeak Mountain. The Knights Regent keep the peace in the districts of Abelia but can also be a royal pain in the ass.

While not exactly causing any trouble, bagging a thunder lizard from the Bonewaste Expanse to the west or a giant serpent from the eastern swamps will establish credentials as a big game hunter of consequence. Live capture is even more impressive, and the impresarios will pay well for caged beasts.

Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?

Officially, all civilization bends knee to the King of Abelia and eternal peace reigns.

How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?

The Tourney at the Eternal Carnival always needs fresh meat.

Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?

  • The Republic of Magicians persists despite the efforts of Prospero
  • Ghoul Loyalists work toward eventual ascension of the King in the Swamp
  • Prospero’s Papacy of Magic accepts pledges of unconditional loyalty

Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?


Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?

  • Sartar the Unquenchable, dragon of Cinderpeak Mountain

Maze Rats review

2017-01-01-22-05-19-maze-ratsBen Milton’s Maze Rats is a traditional fantasy RPG ruleset in 13 landscape-oriented A4 pages (the last of which is a pair of character record sheets for printing). There is no art. Ben also runs the Questing Beast Youtube channel, the most active (as far as I know) video DIY D&D RPG reviewer. Maze Rats started as a hack of Into the Odd (which I discuss here) and still occupies nearby design space, though there is less implied setting. Maze Rats relies only on six-sided dice. For best results, players should have dice with different colors for the 36 item tables described below.

System Basics

The player-facing system uses three stats (strength, dexterity, will) and resolves outcomes using 2d6 + stat with 10 or higher indicating success. There are a number of other ad-hoc systems, such as the familiar side-based d6 initiative, but the 2d6 ability check is the workhorse. The standout rule for me is the simple but flexible class-free advancement system. The random spell creation and atmospherically named character features (briarborn, fingersmith, etc) are runners-up. My least favorire rule is XP rewards for “overcoming challenges” (I prefer more impartial and concrete rules in this area). It is a minor point though and trivial to house-rule.

Random Generators

2017-01-01-22-05-49-maze-ratsApproximately eight of the twelve text pages are mostly consumed by 36-item lists used to jumpstart game content. For example, there are lists of clothing adjectives, mutations, monster traits, and so forth. Each list is essentially a two-dimensional (6×6=36) d6 random table where you roll one d6 for the first blob of six possibilities and another d6 for the particular possibility within. This is clever but I still wish there were numbers on the lists (the d66 notation some games use would work well). Many tables belong to sets that work together. For example, monster = animal base + feature + trait + ability + tactics + weakness.

Sample Generated Game Elements

Random adventurer. STR +1, DEX +0, WIL +2, health 4, roofrunner (advantage when climbing, leaping, balancing), athletic appearance, tattoos, background: headsman, perfumed clothing, personality: stubborn, mannerism: overly casual, blah blah choose some more gear (random rather than alphabetic arrangement of the item d66 table would allow items at least to be done with a single d6 throw). I think I randomly generated Vin Diesel, or maybe wannabe Vin Diesel (given the physical stats).

Random spell. Formula: physical effect + physical form, name: resurrecting sentinel (the first word came from the physical effect table, the second from the physical form table). I think this probably animates a receptacle using a piece of the sorcerer’s soul (temporary max health reduction) which will attempt to raise allies that have fallen to zero health (STR check). The resurrection check risks bad necromantic voodoo (WIL check).

Random monster. Aquatic, anglerfish, gills (no too boring, roll again: plumage), colossal, spell-casting, tactics: ambush, personality: mystical, weakness: moonlight. So the anglerfish lure is clearly a fully-sized humanoid and this cyclopean peacock fish is trying to gather an army of hypno-drones to somehow get rid of the moon or block its influence.

These were the first three elements I used the rules to create and all turned out interesting so I count that as a system success. There are more sets of tables for other game elements (cities, wilderness areas, dungeons, and so forth).


As written, players randomly generate new spells during each recovery, which must be interpreted and defined. It seems like this would create wonderful opportunities for player creativity. At some level, however, this also makes all magic-using characters functionally identical given that they are all rolling on the same tables. As a player who tends toward magic-using characters, I might want more individuation.

There are a number of easy ways to push this system into more adventurer-personalized territory without jettisoning the novelty benefits of regularly determining random spells. Possibility 1: characters can prepare current spells again if desired rather than randomly determining a new spell. Possibility 2: characters can choose specialization defined by fixing results for one or more of the tables used to generate spells. For example, one sorcerer may be able to choose physical form spells while another may be able to choose spells with deceiving ethereal effects. Possibility 3: characters can record particularly desirable spells in a library at some cost. This would allow each sorcerer to build a unique collection of spells. Cost could be monetary, specific sympathetic component (probably requiring adventuring), or both. I would find this last library option particularly satisfying as a player. Any or all of these approaches could be used together.


The referee advice (last two pages of text) is gold. The principles are basically distilled community practices for a game focusing on exploration, lateral thinking, creative problem solving, and so forth. The advice may not be unique to Maze Rats, but it is tightly written and clear. I know of few better sources for concisely explaining what to prioritize when running this sort of game.


As I began reading Maze Rats, I was expecting another set of old school house rules, some of which might be useful to me in my continuous project of rules experimentation. What I found was a tight, well-written system with strong identity. I am curious if the lightweight chassis can stand up to an extended campaign.

A minor issue: the layout makes it hard to copy chunks of text. (That’s probably easy to fix using some option to the PDF creator software.)

Currently, Maze Rats is pay what you want on RPGNow. It has a creative commons license so you can hack it and publish what you make.

Disclaimer: Ben reviewed my book Wonder & Wickedness positively and includes my name in the thanks section of Maze Rats.


Review of Klein’s The Ceremonies (spoiler-free)

2016-12-26-20-59-41-klein-the-ceremonies-coverSeveral years ago, I was looking for highly-regarded recent cosmic horror novels. I asked online and somebody recommended T. E. D. Klein’s novel The Ceremonies. I finally started reading it a few months ago, somewhat distracted by other books and priorities, but made my way through it slowly and finally finished in a few days ago.

One way of looking at The Ceremonies is as a 500-page callout to others in the know. The primary viewpoint character is a young, unaccomplished assistant professor of gothic literature, Jeremy Freire. Jeremy regularly discusses the various horror novels that he is reading to prepare a syllabus for a class he is planning to teach. This device allows Klein to drop literal references to the existing corpus of cosmic horror and its genre predecessors. Some key works within this literature even serve as diegetic plot elements, such as a short story by Arthur Machen. Because of this, The Ceremonies itself works as a syllabus of cosmic horror or strange tales.

Readers who enjoy this tradition of cosmic horror will recognize many formulaic elements. That may sound like a criticism, but the formulas are used skillfully and the writing act itself (on Klein’s part) almost seems ritualistic to me. Even the mostly-wooden characters are in keeping with Lovecraft. While I never really sympathized with any of them, they worked as archetypes with just enough individuation to keep my interest. Daniel Day Lewis would make a good Sarr, a farmer who is one of the main supporting characters.

The plot is slow and meandering. It is skillfully crafted enough that the events generally did not feel contrived to me in the moment, but when viewed from a high level the story does rely on several somewhat unsatisfying coincidences. The plot exists primarily to support a mood, however, and the mood is effective. At its best, The Ceremonies has some of the best horror writing I have come across, especially the way that Klein is not afraid to use classic elements where they serve his purposes, which I appreciate.

The parts of the story I enjoyed most were the evocations of mysticism and the carefully detailed monstrous elements. Klein never falls into the trap of Lovecraft-inspired cliches, there are no tentacles to be seen, and his horrors never seem taxonomic. Due to the almost inbred nature of the allusions and references, readers who are not members of the Lovecraft fanclub subculture may find the length trying. That said, my overall reaction is favorable.

The Ceremonies is Klein’s only novel, though he also has a collection of novellas (Dark Gods) that I am now interested in reading at some point. Supposedly, he has been working on another novel called Nighttown for 30 years and it may actually be published soon.

Kingdom Death


5 of 7 core monsters with 4 prologue survivors

Though I heard about the first Kingdom Death Kickstarter when it launched in 2012 and adored the aesthetic, A) I do not really play board games and B) I had no experience assembling miniatures. So, I passed. However, after seeing some of the models in the wild, I took advantage of the Black Friday 2015 opportunity and bought a copy of the core game along with the Sunstalker and Flower Knight expansions. The game arrived early January 2016 and then it sat on my shelf unassembled for almost a year. The 1.5 reprint/update Kickstarter prompted me to actually attempt assembly. It took me a few weeks to assemble the four prologue survivors and all the core monsters.


It is surprisingly hard to find a concise description of the game. Here is my attempt. It is a cooperative campaign board game where four survivors wake up barely clothed in an unlit land. The ground is all stone faces. The survivors hunt monsters for resources and found a settlement near a pile of creepy lanterns. Players grow the settlement, building structures, developing innovations, and reproducing. They stave off inevitable entropy for as long as possible.

Male dung beetle dancer pinup concept art

Male dung beetle dancer pinup concept art

You have to assemble complex components yourself without any official instructions (though the community stepped up enthusiastically to fill this void). The art is beautiful, but the aesthetic includes sexual objectification, gore, and puerile humor that mixes the two. You will need to have friends that are okay with this if you want to play the game with other people. Your survivors start weak and fragile, similar to zero level characters in trad D&D terms. Rule zero of the game is when in doubt, rule against the survivors. Pinups like the one to the right are promotional items, not part of the game. (I am not interested in discussing opinions on the representation of sexuality or objectification in this game.)


Gameplay alternates between tactical combat and settlement building. More specifically, after the first story prologue fight that introduces basic concepts, the cycle is settlement, hunt, and showdown. This cycle constitutes one lantern year (the time it takes one of the creepy settlement lanterns to burn out). A full campaign in the core game is 20 lantern years. I think a reasonable real-world session would be one or two lantern years generally, but I do not yet have extensive experience. During my first play (we were four players), we did the prologue and lantern year one. This took about four hours but included taking cards out of shrink and looking up lots of rules. I think it would be significantly faster the second time. Note that you also have to assemble some miniatures first, though you can get by with only the white lion and four survivors to begin with (see remarks on assembly below).


Hitting from behind!

Showdown Phase. The showdown phase (where you fight monsters) is straightforward two-dimensional tactical combat. Move some spaces, take an action. The showdown board is small enough that it seems like few turns would be movement-only (I consider this a good thing). Players rotate controlling the monster though the monster controller needs to make few decisions as the monster actions are mostly dictated by an AI deck.

In addition to the AI deck, each monster has a hit location deck which controls various monster reactions. After survivors hit, they must confirm damage as well (accuracy adds to hit, strength adds to confirming hits). I was worried at first that this might result in many turns where engaging multiple resolution systems would lead to no overall effect, but in practice that did not seem to be a problem. A monster-specific resource deck controls the resources that the monster could potentially yield. Actual drops are determined mostly randomly, though some hit locations give access to specific resources. If the survivors defeat the monster, they scavenge resources which can be used to build things during the settlement phase. Some monster fights use terrain pieces to increase the arena complexity. Overall, the tactical combat is simpler than 4E D&D, one of my few points of comparison (I consider this a good thing).


White Lion monster AI card

Monster AI. The AI deck also doubles as the monster health score which means that the monster actions become less variable and potentially more predicable as survivors wear it down. The AI deck system also means that the same monster can be reconfigured in many ways with differing difficulty. For example, we fought the white lion twice, during the prologue and the first hunt. The AI deck construction was different between those two and the construction incorporated randomness. The lion we hunted (level one) had 7 basic and 3 advanced AI cards, randomly selected (this also meant that it had 10 health, though note that you need one final hit to take a monster down after that total is depleted). For me, the AI deck is probably the most compelling game design I have seen so far in Kingdom Death. It is approachable from a player standpoint but seems to generate a lot of emergent complexity. There are many lessons here for D&D monster design, probably best realizable through sets of tables.


Hunt board

Hunt Phase. Between settlement phases survivors can go on a hunt, though this is not the only way to encounter monsters (encounters can be caused by settlement events also). The hunt, which hopefully culminates in a showdown (briefly described above) plays out on a one-dimensional track where events occur on the way to the monster. In our first hunt, one of our survivors was terrified to death by the screeching and yowling of a lion in heat so we went into the lantern year one fight with only three combatants. This could mean that one player might be out for the showdown. The game is collaborative enough that it might still be fun, but I am not sure (we did the prologue fight with four players but were down to three anyways for the first hunt and showdown). Our first lion hunt ended in a TPK. Since there are still some other survivors left in our settlement, the TPK is not game over.


Settlement board

Settlement phase. In some ways the payoff to playing Kingdom Death is the settlement phase. It is sort of like a fun, collaborative, non-homework version of building a character in games that require complicated character builds. However, unlike complex character building, success in the settlement phase depends not on voluminous knowledge of the rules text and combos, but rather on success during previous showdown phases and a few choices about what to prioritize. Also, as discussed below, I think that the settlement is the primary fictional element of play in Kingdom Death, not the survivor. As you can see in the image to the right, the settlement phase also has its own board, which similar to the hunt board is a one-dimensional track that walks players through the procedure.

Prepare to Die


Defeated by ground fighting (TPK)

The survivor is not the primary element of play in Kingdom Death. The settlement is. When you lose a survivor, that is a setback but the settlement’s remaining population acts as a buffer (and the slain survivor’s gear is not lost but automatically returned to the settlement). As I understand it, settlement wipes are certainly possible (though I do not know how common). If you would be frustrated by such a loss after, say, 20+ hours of in-person play rather than experiencing it as the dark closing chapter of a story to remember, this might not be the game for you.

One strain of traditional D&D play is similar to this approach, where the setting and adventuring party are the first-order units of play and the adventurer is, while not disposable exactly, at least not central. I have run games like this before and participated in them and I think that this approach offers a unique potential for engaging play. In such a game, impartially resolved catastrophic failure is possible but not fatal to the campaign, increasing the potential stakes of decisions. Kingdom Death is a far more focused game than D&D but it provides examples that could be adapted to a D&D game centered around developing a party or settlement. In fact, I do not think it would be that hard to run an OD&D game using many Kingdom Death mechanics directly, perhaps replacing magic items and treasure with resource drops and settlement crafting and adapting monster decks to D&D monsters.

Metaphysically Ambiguous Dark Fantasy

Beyond gameplay though, the aspect of Kingdom Death that originally drew my attention, and sustains my interest, is the aesthetic and setting which reminds me of two of my other favorite fantasy franchises, Berserk and Dark Souls. This is not that surprising, as I understand that Berserk is an explicit influence on the designers of Kingdom Death. These three, Berserk, Dark Souls, and Kingdom Death, make up what is for me a dark fantasy trinity. All three have complex, well-designed, internally consistent worlds with ultimately ambiguous canons. There is enough detail to keep my interest but not so much that the audience ever really knows exactly what is going on.

The world of Kingdom Death is an endless plain of stone faces lit occasionally only by lanterns. Why? Where did the survivors come from? Who knows? Despite the detailed and baroque monster design, all three of these franchises also have an ultimately restrained sensibility that rests more on mythical resonance than raw newness. None of the three franchises are shy about recruiting cliches, but the cliches are never used thoughtlessly and often adjusted (though never entirely subverted, which I also appreciate).

For example, the background text for the Black Knight, previously a collectible model but being developed into a game expansion in the current Kickstarter:

They say if you take a lantern that never lit down the trail of corpses and past the whispering stars you will find an ancient figure atop a crest of determined faces. Treasured by a hidden cult of loyal squires, the figure will awaken for only the most honorable of challengers. For generations, the Black Knight has unknowingly defended a settlement of people hidden in the ruins of its home.



What wraiths look like from now on

These were the first miniatures of any kind that I have ever assembled. As noted above, the mini parts come attached to sprues as cast in the factory and must be clipped out. There are no official instructions, but I found the guidance on Vibrant Lantern satisfactory except for the phoenix and the watcher. I used this one for the phoenix and this one for the watcher (both linked to from Vibrant Lantern). For general advice, I found this conversation useful. Several issues tripped me up that might be obvious to experienced model builders. Below I address some of these issues. Hopefully that will be useful to other gamers with similar levels of experience.

Tools. You need to buy at least two things to assemble the minis: sprue clippers (I got Citadel Fine Detail Cutters, $35) and plastic glue (I used Plasti-Zap, $4). A model file would be helpful to clean up join points but I did without. Another useful tool that I did get was a clamp (Irwin One-Handed 6″ Bar Clamp, $12).


That’s right, those are all individual hands

Glueing. The plastic glue begins to set quickly as long as you do not jostle the pieces, so the technique I found most useful is to find a way for gravity to hold the parts together so that you can go do something else (the clamp can help with this). To be safe, I generally attach a few parts and then let them fully dry overnight before adding anything else. You can have multiple models in progress, but do not clip parts before you are ready to attach them because it would be easy to mixup or lose parts. Assembly was time consuming in a hurry up and wait manner but not exactly difficult. I found the absurd complexity of the process somehow motivating. I used up a full ⅓ oz bottle of Plasti-Zap to assemble four survivors and all seven of the core monsters, so I would recommend buying more than one bottle of glue.


The four prologue survivors

Basing. Each mini base is two parts: bottom and inset. The core game comes with a small number of special face inserts. This is just a cosmetic detail, but you will not have enough for all the minis. I used four of them on the prologue survivors. Hopefully, the 1.5 Kickstarter will include an add-on to get more face inserts. See discussion of stone face bases here and here. There is no special correct placement of minis on bases. Just glue them on however looks reasonable.

Gaps. While most of the parts fit together well, if you are anything like me you will still end up with some fit gaps in the assembled models. The phoenix was the biggest offender here (use more clamp, I guess). I have heard good things about Tamiya Basic Type Putty (which is itself gray) and so will likely look better than Green Stuff before painting. I have not used either of those myself yet.


I have not yet used any of the expansions in play, but as I understand it several of the expansions offer alternate campaigns (Dragon King, Sunstalker, and Flower Knight) while others offer monsters that can sub in for core game monsters. The Gorm can be hunted early on (otherwise the White Lion is the only monster that can be hunted during the first few lantern years). The Lantern Festival, which was intended to extend a campaign past 20 lantern years, was cancelled because the designer was not satisfied with how it worked. The Lantern King model is amazing though, so I hope it becomes available in some form. The upcoming Nightmare Ram (available through the new Kickstarter) is intended to offer some sort of dungeon crawl experience. See here for more. It looks to me like the game should play just fine with no expansions. The core game alone, if you dig the style, should provide lots of replay value.


My handsome pal Josh modeling the showdown board

My handsome pal Josh modeling the showdown board

Play was smooth and none of the phases were that complicated. The hardest part of playing the first time is finding the various kinds of cards (there are a lot of different kinds of cards). A few of the mechanics seemed like they could be streamlined in minor ways. For example, weapon and monster accuracy is a target number (used to hit) while strength functions as a bonus that is compared to a toughness target number. Both kinds of stats can have bonuses and penalties. It is also easy to get a few of the stats mixed up (strength versus accuracy, movement versus speed, and so forth).

I never felt like there was choice paralysis, even when we were making decisions about items to craft during the settlement phase. I can see how that might change as you build more settlement locations and have more kinds of resources to draw on but hopefully the complexity increases gradually. I am not yet sure which elements of the game are best served by cards and tokens as opposed to just writing things on record sheets, but so far I am enjoying the physicality of everything. At this point, I am kind of a super-fan of both the world and game mechanics, but I am not blind to the fact that there are a number of drawbacks which make Kingdom Death a big commitment and probably not for everyone.

Additional Resources

Chris Handley’s videos with Beasts of War are the only decent actual play videos I have found. They have so far released lantern year one, lantern year twolantern year threelantern year four, and lantern year five (I have not watched all of them yet). Chris’s Instagram has many nice examples of painted models too and is worth checking out for inspiration (and check out his amazing hair!).


First, I am far from a Kingdom Death expert. That said, I have assembled all the core game monsters and played it, so I can speak to some aspects of setup and play. Hopefully the fact that I am neither a diehard board gamer nor a miniature person might help me speak to other similarly casual gamers that nonetheless find the Kingdom Death vision compelling. Second, I am backing 1.5 for the upgrade pack and some expansions.


Tangle armor


Image source (processed)

I was looking through my blog drafts folder, and came across several unfinished posts related to my Pahvelorn OD&D campaign (which has been on hold for several years now). This is one of those posts. If it feels somewhat out of left field, that is why. This is a fun item though, so I thought it still worth sharing.

In that game, one faction is a group of borg-like demonic invaders. They look like a mixture between Lord Zedd, Giger’s alien, and matte black humanoid crabs. They are highly organized, militaristic, and woven into a psychic mesh which allows telepathic communication. They cannot speak human language but at some point during the game one of the adventurers managed to communicate telepathically with a drone that had been separated from the central consciousness. I described the experience as a series of tangled visual signs and from then on the players referred to the creatures as Tangles. A tangle drone’s exoskeleton can be worn as armor if properly extracted.

There are two varieties of tangle armor, soft-shell and hard-shell.

  • Soft-shell: AC as medium armor, 5 [14].
  • Hard-shell: AC as heavy armor, 3 [16].

(Note that in this game, no AC, even for monsters, is ever mechanically better than plate.)

Anti-Disintegration. Wearers of tangle armor are immune to disintegration.

Rejuvenation. Following combat, tangle armor will heal 1d6 points of damage. This only applies to damage just suffered. This causes a head rush in a human wearer.

Pincer-Claws. Tangle armor appendages count as armaments (standard 1d6 damage). They also have 18 strength in terms of grip (think alligator jaws: easy to hold closed, hard to pry open). These pincers surround hands but do not interfere with standard hand uses.

Creepy. Wearing tangle armor results in a functional charisma score of 3 when interacting with civilized others.

Receptive. Wearers suffer disadvantage (such as -4 penalty) when resisting psychic attacks.

Wearing. To put on a suit of tangle armor safely, cast the bind exoskeleton spell. Otherwise, get naked, slip inside, and save versus stone. If the saving throw fails, roll 1d6:

  1. Armor wearer is psychically attached to the tangle hive consciousness.
  2. Armor wearer becomes unable to perform aggressive acts toward creatures with 4 or 6 legs/arms.
  3. Armor wearer’s mouth and larynx are replaced with a mandible-like mechanism that prevents speech. Spells may still be used though interpretive dance. This result is permanent even if the armor is successfully removed later.
  4. Armor wearer secretes colony spores whenever resting. There is a 1 in 6 chance that the resting place will become a new hive shortly thereafter. This hive is autonomous from the mother hive on tangle world.
  5. Armor wearer becomes a beacon. There is a 1 in 6 chance that a gate will open to tangle world every time the armor wearer rests. The gate will be located in a secluded area within one mile of the rest point and will remain open for one week.
  6. The armor fully infiltrates the wearer’s body, rearranging parts, integrating with organs, and improving resilience. Armor wearer gains one HD permanently and no longer requires oxygen but will collapse into a pile of disaggregated flesh if the armor is ever removed, even with a “safe” spell method.

(It may be enjoyable for the referee to keep this result secret assuming the effect would not be obvious to the wearer. But make a note somewhere to remember the per-rest checks!)

If the saving throw succeeds, putting the armor on has no side effect other than being permanently integrated with an alien exoskeleton.

Removal. Tangle armor may be removed from a human safely only with dispel evil (this destroys the armor) or remove curse (after which the armor may be worn by another). The armor may be removed forcefully or in a nonconsensual manner (if the wearer is restrained). This causes the wearer 3d6 damage (save versus stone for half). Spell-based removal does not protect the wearer from bodily disaggregation based on result 6 above.

Extraction. Defeating a tangle drone in combat damages or destroys the armor. Functional tangle armor can only be extracted from captured, living drones. Extraction kills the drone unless the extractor takes extraordinary measures.

Tangles have stats as hobgoblins with supplementary abilities consistent with the armor description above. In any raiding party, at least one drone will be armed with disintegration weaponry. Mounts and vehicles are hover platforms that can be psychically controlled. Tangles may be remote-controlled using telepathy (drones get a save to avoid, connecting to the hive mind risks alien psychic mental control and insanity).



Scavenge Dungeon Move

The playbooks inspired by Dark Souls that I am developing for my current Stonehell game do not include traditional attack bonuses derived from class and level. Ability bonuses do contribute to attack competence, and ability scores do improve with advancement, but the scope of bonuses is the stingy B/X +0 to +3. To fill the game role of the attack bonus, Adventurers may enchant weapons. I envision a mechanism similar to that of Dark Souls, where players gather item drops such as titanite shards from monsters and then pay smiths to improve weapons using those resources.

Scavenging and Moves

To gather Monster Parts as resources for later use, Adventurers can use the Scavenge Dungeon Move if there are monster remains available (such as following successful combat). In the Hazard System, Adventurers take Dungeon Turns to make Dungeon Moves. Some example defined moves are Climb, Explore, and Search. This is similar to the various traditional D&D X in 6 checks, though more formalized. In practice, players often need not declare Moves explicitly (though they can), but, for example, the referee will naturally interpret moving from one dungeon area to another as the Explore Move and call for a Hazard Die throw. Making Scavenge a Move means that players expend dungeon time in exchange for weapon improvement resources.

Monster Parts as Incentives

Such resources also provide an incentive to engage monsters, though not necessarily directly. Since one can scavenge the corpse of a trapped monster killed from afar just as easily as one slain in a fair fight, and with less risk, players are rewarded for clever stratagems. Hunting monsters for parts also requires taking care to not damage the goods in the process. Unlike in traditional D&D, in my games Adventurers do not get any XP for blasting an enemy to smithereens with a fireball. This incentivizes player creativity much like rewarding experience points for treasure spent, though the best strategies may differ. (I am also rewarding XP for treasure spent.)

Monster Parts and Improving Weapons

Monster Parts can lend additional properties to weapons, such as fire enchantment from fire monsters. Improvise Monster Parts properties using common sense. There is no need to preemptively design a complicated taxonomy. For example, assuming traditional monsters, Monster Parts Scavenged from giant centipedes might be Poison Monster Parts. To increase the difficulty of improving weapons, have only uncommon or rare monster corpses supply useful Monster Parts. I think allowing brutal weapons or creepy upgraded weapons to be built out of common orc or skeleton parts could be fun though. I generally prefer to make just about all possibilities open to low-level characters so I plan to follow the second route (making all monsters provide Monster Parts).

For simplicity, do not differentiate between monsters with regard to quantity of Monster Parts available. One Adventurer Scavenges Monster Parts from one monster with one Dungeon Move and that exhausts the monster carcass. Specific or unique monsters may be exceptions to this rule. Six parts per Gear Slot seems like a reasonable default for encumbrance, though this is also something that can easily be adjusted by situational ruling. Maybe dragon Monster Parts take up a full slot per part.

Determining Degree of Scavenge Success

I am planning initially to make Scavenge success depend on a Wisdom Check. Make the check, gain 2 Monster Parts. Fail, gain 1 Monster Part. Critically succeed, gain 3 Monster Parts. Critically fail, spoil the remains. A critical success is the best result from the d20 or success by four or more.This follows my general approach for d20 partial success, based on the OD&D purple worm swallow mechanic. In shorthand, gain degree of success +1 Monster Parts.

Alternatively, substitute some system other than a Wisdom Check to determine Scavenging effectiveness, or just grant a unit of Monster Parts for spending a turn and enduring the roll of the Hazard Die. A simple d6 roll would work, avoiding the influence of ability scores, as would an Apocalypse Engine 2d6 roll with success thresholds at 7+ and 10+. Time passing and resource attrition are the important trade-offs.

Since enchanted weapons are powered by the Adventurer’s soul, improving weapons early in the game need not flood the fictional world with glowing +1 swords.

How many Monster Parts are required to upgrade a weapon and how much does it cost? That seems like a topic for another post and will probably require some experimentation and adjustment during play testing. This post has gone long enough. To end, have a formal rule in the Hazard System style.

Dungeon Move: Scavenge

To Scavenge the corpse of a defeated monster, make a Wisdom Check, scavenging Monster Parts equal to the degree of success + 1. Note any special Monster Parts properties, such as poison, slime, or fire.

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, spend a combat action.

Playbook cue:
Spend combat action.

(2016-12-08 Edit: recovering stamina used to require a successful CON check but I think that may be too harsh.)

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.


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.


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.

Optional: choose a minion specialty. Summoners with a specialty may opt to summon minions of the chosen type during any particular summoning occasion. When summoning in this manner, determine specifics of summoned creature randomly within desired type. Once chosen, the specialty may not be changed though summoners may acquire additional specialties through play.


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.


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.