Monthly Archives: March 2014

Monologic combat example

Expanding on the previous idea of modeling combat between two foes with a single roll (monologic combat) rather than a pair of rolls, here is an extended example.

Dramatis personae:

  • Magic-user (PC, level 2, unarmored, dagger, fire wand, HD 1+1, HP 4)
  • Fighter (PC, level 2, armor 3, sword, shield, crossbow, HD 2+1, HP 8)
  • Thief (PC, level 2, armor 1, crossbow, dagger, sword, HD 2, HP 7)
  • Torchbearer (PC magic-user’s retainer, level 0, armor 1, lantern, dagger, HD 1, HP 4)
  • 4 goblins (monsters, armor 1, short bow, cleaver sword, HD 1-1, HP 3)
  • A six-legged giant lizard the size of an ox (monster, armor 2, HD 5, HP 20)
  • Goblin beast master captain (monster, armor 3, axe, whip, HD 3, HP 11)

The scene: a cavern bisected by a crevasse with a narrow stone bridge of ancient provenance. An underground river flows quick and cold, 100 feet below the bridge. The player characters wish to take the bridge and proceed to the tunnel leading out of the cavern’s far side.

Lantern light and a snarling giant lizard make it so neither side is surprised (because I want this example to be less of a one-sided engagement). Surprise could be determined using the standard d6 per side method. I am also going to decide that the goblins are out for blood, but in a real game I would probably roll for reaction.

Bocklin - Fighting on a bridge (source)

Bocklin – Fighting on a bridge (source)

Initiative is important to determine in this system, because going first means you can choose your engagement (if you are not already occupied). Retreating or disengaging requires a successful combat action. To determine if initiative is gained, each player makes a combat check versus a threat number that the referee determines by ruling to represent the opposing forces. In this case, it is 3 (based on the leader’s level; note that this could change based on balance of forces as the skirmish progresses), leading to a target number of 13. Any player that makes this roll (1d20 + combat bonus) acts before the monsters. Otherwise, after. Spell casting must be declared before the initiative die is rolled, and in that case no movement may be taken. Spells resolve at the end of the round. The magic-user elects to begin casting a spell, charm person, against the goblin captain, while remaining in the cavern entrance behind the other party members. (The magic-user’s other prepared spell is hold portal). The fighter and thief succeed in their initiative check. So the order is: fighter, thief, monsters, magic-user, torchbearer (who acts on the magic-user’s count).

The thief chooses to move to the side and take aim at the lizard. Next round, he will be able to take a shot with backstab advantages since the lizard is not yet in melee (a rule I just made up). The fighter (armed with sword and shield) is going to charge across the bridge and take the fight to the goblin archer brigade. Despite winning initiative, the fighter is still going to need to defend against the goblin arrows this round (consuming her combat action), given that missile weapons beat melee weapons (if she was using a missile weapon, she would have a chance to inflict damage as well, but in this case she will not). However, her shield will grant her a +2 combat bonus since she is facing arrows. The goblin archers are ganging up (+1 each, up to +4 max; it seems like these are the “helping” rules). So the final roll is 1d20 + 3 (fighter combat bonus) + 2 (fighter shield) = 1d20 + 5 versus 10 + 0 (goblin combat bonus) + 3 (gang up) = target number 13. Fighter rolls 9, which is 14, and thus defends successfully against the volley. (Had it hit, the gang up bonus would have applied to damage as well.) The fighter’s action resolves and she is now in melee with the goblins, but has already made her combat roll. Thus, the goblins take no damage, but are still in melee and will not be able to fire their missile weapons without disengaging. They have also already used their action and thus will be passed over on the monster count.

Next is the thief, who moves and aims. (A stealth check might be permitted here to make it so that the thief cannot be targeted by enemies until an action triggers, but I am not going to worry about that now.) Now the monsters act. This is just the lizard and the captain, as the archers have already made their attack. Further, the bridge is currently threatened by the fighter in melee with the archers, so advance over the bridge is impossible. The fighter is surrounded in the front by mooks scrambling to hold the fighter at bay, so the referee rules that the lizard cannot enter the melee (not having any reach attacks). However, the captain has a whip, which is a reach weapon, and so will attempt to grapple the fighter at reach and pull her prone so that the goblins may attempt to overwhelm her. The fighter makes another defense roll, with no modifiers applying, of 1d20 + 3 versus 10 + 3 (captain HD) = 13. There is no chance of the fighter damaging the captain, both because the fighter has already spent her action and because she is not wielding a weapon with reach threat and is constrained by the archers. She rolls badly, 5 (+3 = 8), and is pulled prone under the stamping nasty feet of the small goblin horde. The lizard can’t do anything and so retains its combat roll for potential reaction (which will be lost if nothing triggers it by the end of the round).

Finally, the magic-user and torchbearer act. The chanting ceases and the spell goes off. Traditionally this would require the goblin captain to make a saving throw versus spells, which is what I am going to go with here, but in some ways I might prefer a magic-user roll versus target magic defense (which should be lower than the combat defense number based on HD unless the target is magical in some way). But whatever, the referee is just going to break the elegance of the system and make a saving throw for the goblin captain, because I have not thought enough about this part of the system and do not want to accidentally homogenize spell casting and physical combat. The captain rolls 18, making the save. Unfortunate, but it happens. The torchbearer is doing nothing, cowering next to the magic-user, maintaining the light source and reserving his action for potential self-defense.

Next round. If the fighter was not already exposed up in melee, the magic-user might opt to spend the hold portal spell for a blast of acid maleficence, but in this case that is deemed too dangerous, so no spell casting is declared. Initiative is rolled. The fighter is prone and so gains no combat bonus to initiative. (Another discovered rule!) The fighter fails and will act after the monsters, the magic-user and thief succeed, so they will act first. The magic-user defers, not having a spell to cast, and being too far away to throw a dagger (referee ruling). The thief takes the backstab shot (had the lizard been in melee by this point, the shot would no longer have backstab bonuses and instead would be subject to whatever penalties are involved with shooting into melee; probably random target determination). The thief’s combat roll is 1d20 + 2 (combat bonus) + 4 (backstab) = +6 versus 10 + 5 (lizard threat level) = 15. The roll is 16, +6 is 22, which is enough to hit, dealing 1d6 + 1d6 (backstab bonus) + 1d6 (hit margin more than 4) – 2 (lizard armor) = 4 + 5 + 4 – 2 = 11 damage. The lizard is now at 9 HP. (Yes, traditionally the backstab is a multiplier, but I prefer additional damage dice. The overkill bonus is another new rule.) The lizard rears up in agony.

Monsters turn. Still prone, the fighter remains dangerous but looses her attack bonus. The goblins drop their bows and set upon her with cleavers, hacking and chopping. The fighter rolls 1d20 to defend (no bonuses, because prone), versus target number of 10, four times (the monsters are opting for separate attacks rather than ganging up). First roll is 11, successfully defending. Fighter is opting not to count this as her action so that she can attempt to regain her footing and thus get back her attack bonus when her turn comes around. Second three rolls are not so lucky however; 3, 7, and 9. The fighter is thus damaged by three goblins, 1d6 each, for 5, 4, and 6 damage. Her heavy armor subtracts 3 from each of those rolls, leading to 2 + 1 + 3 = 6 damage, leaving her with 2 HP. Can the captain or lizard get off an attack here? I am going to say no, but melee threat rules probably need to be more formalized, because I could see it going either way. Since the captain and lizard are still bottlenecked, their actions are held for reactivity.

Now the fighter acts. She could try to fight from prone (no attack bonus, no fancy maneuvers, no potential cleave), or use the combat action to stand up. Had the goblin mooks not already used their combat roll to stomp all over her, this would have the potential of damaging her, but in this case there is no chance of damage on either side and the roll is just to see if she can regain her footing. 1d20 + 0 (remember, no attack bonus because prone) versus 10 (goblin threat level). The roll is 12, and she throws off the chopping and cackling goblins, ready for another round (but a bit worn down, at only 2 HP).

Round three. Magic-user starts to cast maleficence at the captain (only a single target, limiting overall damage potential, but safer). Fighter and magic-user succeed on initiative. Thief fails. So the order is fighter, magic-user (torchbearer), monsters, thief. The fighter attacks the mooks surrounding her, and the combat roll is 13 + 3 (attack bonus) for 16, which is enough to hit a goblin (target number being 10, the 1-1 HD not contributing). Hit margin is more than 4, adding an extra die of damage. Damage roll is 5 + 2, running one goblin through, and allowing another attack against a nearby goblin if desired, with a +1 bonus (cleave). Thus another combat roll is made, this time 5 + 3 (for attack bonus) + 1 (for cleave) = 9, which fails, resulting in the goblin hitting the fighter, d6 damage = 5 – 3 (for fighter armor 3), dealing 2 point of damage to the fighter and slaying her. The three remaining goblins hoot with glee. The magic-user’s spell is still going even though he won initiative, and will resolve at the end of the round.

Now the monsters go. The mooks and lizard will charge across the bridge and attempt to get to the magic-user before the spell goes off. Though the thief lost initiative, he is able to take a shot at the leading goblin since he has a missile weapon (and is not in any danger doing so because all the enemies are currently only armed with melee weapons and so cannot shoot back). He hits and kills one of the charging goblins, who plummets into the chasm with a shriek. Two mooks, a wounded lizard, and an unwounded captain (who stayed on the far side of the chasm) remain. The referee rules that the charge by the monsters was slowed by the successful arrow shot, and thus they are not able to attack this round, or disrupt the spell (some formalization of these movement rules would probably be welcome, as this feels a bit arbitrary to me). The spell goes off and the captain fails his save, taking the full 2d6 acid damage (which ignores armor). The damage roll is lucky, 5 + 6 = 11, burning the face and half of the chest off of the captain, leaving a smoking corpse with protruding ribs and a sickening smell. In their bloodlust, the mooks don’t notice their leader fall (otherwise, they would need to pass a morale check at the beginning of the next round).

Back to initiative. The thief succeeds, the magic-user fails, the fighter player takes over the torchbearer (and fails). So the order is thief, monsters, magic-user, torchbearer. The thief takes this opportunity to hide, and climb partly up the walls of the cavern. He makes his stealth (or hide, whatever) check. (Hiding would not have been an option had he been in melee or if the captain on the other side of the chasm was still alive.) The monsters act, only two able to bring offense to bear on the magic-user given the narrow confines of the passage. The referee dices to see which, and it is one mook and the lizard. The magic user rolls defense, brandishing a dagger, attempting frantically to keep the monsters away. The player opts to not attempt a counterattack, as that would consume the magic-user’s action, and the player wants to attempt to break from melee and flee. Unfortunately, the two rolls go badly for the magic-user, 3 and 9, and both enemies hit. The magic-user is unarmored, and takes the full brunt of gnashing lizard teeth and goblin cleaver, for 3 + 4 = 7 damage, which kills him.

The torchbearer attempts to flee, but fails his combat roll and is cut down by cleavers during the next round (which I won’t bother detailing). The thief waits above as the monsters feast on the corpses, and then slinks away once the coast is clear. And so ends this example combat.

Note that one could easily swap in a different system for determining surprise (or many other aspects of this combat), without substantively affecting the underlying dynamics. For example, a roll less than or equal to dexterity could be used for initiative rather than attack bonus versus monster threat level.

I am not entirely satisfied with how ranged combat was handled here. Should the goblins have automatically been able to force defense on the fighter? Similarly, should the thief have been able to take a bow shot as the mooks were crossing the bridge? It makes sense fictionally, but could also be represented with initiative bonuses, perhaps. In that case though, the group of monsters should probably be partitioned into two groups, ranged and non-ranged, which starts to increase the complexity in a way that seems like might be a hassle at the table. Distances seem important for the charging actions, and I am not sure the way I modeled that above is best.

The first melee attack of the goblins against the fighter could perhaps have used helping rules, which would have used a single combat roll with bonuses and extra damage on a hit. This might make sense to overcome armor, but I would want to make sure that expected damage (taking everything into consideration) does not yield a consistently optimal strategy. I think that is beyond the scope of this post, though.

Monologic combat

Dore - Don Quixote (source)

Dore – Don Quixote (source)

The traditional D&D combat system is sometimes criticized as being “whiffy,” which means that missed attacks are frequent and frustrating. The idea is that, especially when there are a large number of players, it kind of sucks when your turn comes around, you finally make your attack roll… and miss. Nothing happens and then you need to wait for the next round before you can do anything.

Now, I do not believe this is a major problem with old school D&D, particularly where combat is often something to be avoided or stacked in your favor prior to engagement, and where HP totals are relatively low, even for powerful creatures, leading to quick resolution. The occasional miss, miss, charm spell… save made (nothing happens), miss, etc sort of combat happens, but is rare. This is obviously a bigger issue in a game like Third or Fourth Edition, where combat is more of the focus, but in a game focused on exploration and creative problem solving, it is less important. With that caveat out of the way, might there be a way to make old school combat even faster and more interesting by taking this complaint seriously? Here is one method.

When the players decide to engage an enemy in combat, an attack rolls is made as normal. If it hits, damage is dealt (or an effect happens, depending on the circumstances). If the attack misses, however, the enemy succeeds in damaging the PC. “Automatically.” Automatically is in scare quotes there because of course it was not actually automatic. The player first needed to engage the enemy, which put the PC in danger, and then the roll went badly. Either the enemy takes damage or the PC takes damage, driving the eventual conclusion in one direction or the other on every action. HP being abstract, this of course does not mean that someone is physically being wounded (though it could), but instead that one side is getting the best of it for that particular combat turn.

Since what we really care about here when making at attack using this system is the threat level of the enemy, not the enemy’s armor or defensive skill specifically, the target number should probably be based on enemy HD or level rather than using a traditional armor-based AC number (though the actual fictional meaning of AC has always been a bit ambiguous). 10 + HD seems like the natural, intuitive value. This means that when a first level fighter (assume no attack bonus, for simplicity) attacks another first level fighter, the target number is going to be around 11, leading to a roughly even chance of the either combatant taking damage (5% in one direction or the other is irrelevant, and in any case the numbers can be adjust to make this work in any mathematically desired way). Armor is probably best represented as damage reduction (light = DR 1, medium = DR 2, heavy = DR 3), given that monsters never make attack rolls directly. At most, an enemy forces a PC into a position where they must defend themselves.

And how exactly might that work, given that monsters don’t make attack rolls per se? The simplest answer is that each combatant takes an action and resolution happens as necessary. If this results in a PC attacking and then defending themselves from other enemies as well, it seems like that would work, though combat rolls could also be limited (perhaps to one per round, or something based on level). This could make being surrounded particularly dangerous, if you can only defend against one attack (the others would presumably just deal damage minus armor). The benefit to a proactive versus reactive combat roll is of course that you get to choose your target, rather than having your hand forced by a particular enemy.

How to handle some other common cases using this system might not be immediately obvious, but are not too difficult to figure out with a bit of thought regarding the underlying dynamics. What about missile weapons, for example? If it is possible for foes to engage each other with missile attacks, the player makes a combat roll. On success, the enemy takes some damage, assuming that makes sense in terms of what the PC is doing (the PC would need to be armed with a missile weapon to actually deal damage over distance). On failure, the PC takes a shot to face (or whatever).

This is partially inspired by Dungeon World and Numenera. However, this is not just a port of either of those systems. Dungeon world involves more mechanical choices depending on move details rather than using a separate mechanic to represent combat abstractly. Numenera uses a system for lowering the target number rather than stacking bonuses, which requires understanding how various powers and situational actions can be used to do this. Neither of those approaches are bad, of course, and though their player-focused design has informed this system, the end results are a bit different.

There are a few other details that would probably need to be nailed down to make this fully functional. There are also a few additional features that I think would work well as added tactical options, but I am going to leave it here for the sake of comprehensibility.

Edit: I wrote up an example of a potential monologic combat.

Dark lords of Necropraxia

I don’t even know what this is, but certainly it is something.


darkseid 789121-byrne_darkseid_d___k copyThe overworld of Necropraxia consists of the moon, ruled by Darkseid, and an orbital weapons platform directed by Lord Vader. Both lords occasionally intervene on the surface, but generally prefer to work behind the scenes and rarely deploy their forces directly, beyond the occasional bombardment from outer space. Darkseid is slowly expanding his mining operations over the entire surface of the moon, and has constructed many transportation gates to the surface to facilitate his eventual invasion. He abandons his lunar complexes regularly, however, which are quickly taken over by other, often nameless, things.

Star Wars AnniversaryAfter a freak accident in a research and development project, Vader and his starship were transported into orbit over Necropraxia. Lord Vader surveys the lands below from an orbital platform while he builds an artificial moon battle station and second moon, the Death Sun, which is designed to use newly discovered Necropraxian technology to channel energy directly from the sun. The chief scientists in his entourage believe that given control of the arcane resources on the planet below, a gate could be opened back to Vader’s original universe. The only problem with this plan is that those resources are currently under the control of other dark lords.

dracula Christopher Lee-DRACULA,PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) tumblr_mzex947QRr1spnykgo1_1280 copyThe surface of Necropraxia is the location of most active conflict, with the various dark lords in constantly shifting alliances. The seeming center of the world is mythistorical Transylvania, the domain of Count Dracula, which transects space and time, and is riddled with portals and doors to other places. Though Dracula’s military forces may seem limited compared to many other lords, the rocky landscapes and deep defiles of Transylvania are easy to defend, and the count is one of the least expansionist of the great dark powers, content to lurk within his realm, making temporary alliances only as needed.

hero-envy-doctordoom04The land of Latveria is ruled by Victor von Doom. One day, soon now, when his dark schemes come to fruition, he will march across the lands Necropraxia and all will bow before his rightful rulership. That is, if all those pesky adventurers stop getting in the way.

skeletor blog_skeletor_has_the_powerSkeletor, during one of his many attempts to seize the power of Castle Greyskull, disturbed some fundamental cosmic constraint and was flung, along with the castle, to Necropraxia. He has carved out the domain Terminia around Castle Greyskull, which he still has been unable to conquer. He seeks adventurers to venture into the depths of the castle and disable its defensive systems and guardians so that he may take full control of its power. He cares not about any treasure or minor technological weaponry recovered in the process. Rumor has it that the true power of the fortress can only be mastered by the possessor of the great power sword, which was split into two halves and lost. When the time is right, and Skeletor feels he has accumulated enough power, he plans to open a gate to Horde Prime and force all the other dark lords to bow to his inevitable supremacy (backed, of course, by interdimensional vampiric might of Hordak).

Magneto_Ascendant_Vol_1_1 copyIn New Utopia, Magneto’s realm, the vast majority the human population live as slaves to serve the superhuman mutant upper class. Actually, there are few mutants in Necropraxia, so Magneto has had to settle mostly for wizards, because at least they have some apparent powers, and thus a claim to superiority over mundane humanity. The psionically gifted are particularly welcome in New Utopia, and magneto regularly sends out undercover missions searching for worthy citizens.

bryagh Flight_of_Dragons_BryaghThe last of the surface realms is barely a realm at all, but instead a great smoking wasteland, presided over by the chaotic preeminence of the dragon Bryagh. His ruined lands were once rolling hills, but are now blasted with craters from his rage. The few civilized enclaves are tightly walled, and armed with great surface to air siege weapons. Despite the danger from dragon attacks (Bryagh has a preternatural nose for treasure, and will attack caravans and adventurers whenever possible to augment his glittering hoard), there is a strange attraction to living in this land of peril, it being one of the few states not ruled by the iron fist of a dark lord.

Lucifer_Liege_Luc_Viatour copyThe underworld is divided between Lucifer and Hades. Both claim dominion over the afterlife. Cast down from Heaven for hubris, the fallen angel Lucifer, the Morningstar, found himself in the depths of Necropraxia, a land already claimed by the older god Hades. Lucifer quickly rallied other fallen angels, demons, and those bored by Hades’ unchanging court to wage war for control of everything below the surface.

sean-opry-0004 copyThough Hades was taken by surprise by this radiant upstart, the Plutonian forces rallied, and a stalemate currently reigns, with a vast no-man’s land separating the domains of two underworld powers. Hades has the advantage in power, but the ambition of Lucifer is without limit, and he dreams of uniting all the dark lords (or at least their armies if the lords won’t submit), and leading the combined forces of Necropraxia in a siege on Heaven to redeem his wounded pride.


While discovering Necropraxia, I noticed the slightly disquiting fact that there were absolutely no women dark lords. Though there is no arguing gender politics with my twelve year old self, as partial recompense here is a list of some badass evil overlords who are also women.

  • Kitiara the Dragon Highlord
  • The wicked queen from Snow White
  • Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty
  • The Wicked Witch of the West
  • Soulcatcher and The Lady from The Black Company
  • The White Witch of Narnia
  • Morgan le Fay
  • Kushana from Nausicaa
  • Queen Bavmorda from Willow
  • The Queen of Hearts from Wonderland

Thanks to folks from G+ for helping me augment this list a while back, and also for suggesting a few of the pictures above.

OD&D dungeon monsters

Pages 10 and 11 of The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (OD&D book three) contain tables for the determination of wandering monsters in the dungeon, one for each dungeon level, down to level six. These tables have eight to twelve entries each. In addition to containing information about implied setting, this collection of monsters functions in a certain way with other rules elsewhere in the game. While OD&D is robust enough to work just fine if other monsters are used, these linkages, and the roles that these monsters serve, are still interesting to consider.

Special monster attacks and defenses interact with equipment and character abilities. Monster defenses require special weapons to overcome. Silver weapons are required to damage lycanthropes, magic weapons are needed to combat gargoyles and many kinds of undead, acid or fire is needed to fully destroy trolls. Monster attacks can be resisted by certain defenses or cured by particular resources. The antidote to poison is the fourth-level cleric spell neutralize poison, petrification can be fixed by the sixth-level magic-user spell stone to flesh, elves are useful for resisting ghoul paralysis, mummy disease (which impairs recovery) can be handled with cure disease, basilisk gaze attacks can be reflected with mirrors, scrolls of protection are useful against entire monster groupings. And so forth.

Another pattern to note is that most levels draw monsters from the same set of categories, though not all levels have examples of monsters from every category. For example, magic-users only show up on levels two and deeper, and giant animals only appear on the first four levels. All the monsters in a particular category may not just be palette-swapped, but they do tend to broadly share qualities such as types of attack and vulnerabilities. The most common wandering monster categories seem to be: fighters, magic-users, undead, humanoids, giant animals, dragon types (though only on the deepest two levels). This is important because these categories communicate threat information to players that can be used profitably against more powerful variants of the same monster type.

The content triumvirate of monsters, equipment, and spells work together as a set of interconnected, opposing relationships. Monsters have strengths and weaknesses, which can be defended against, or exploited by, the tools available to players, which include those aforementioned categories. Replacing these elements with new, custom content is a common method of constructing a unique and surprising campaign setting. By no means do I wish to suggest that this is inadvisable. It may even be necessary to engage or challenge experienced players. However, it is probably worth considering these game mechanical relationships and making sure that similar dynamics exist within new collections of monsters as well, rather than making every creature entirely unique and unpredictable.

See also, regarding interactions between game constructs:

Attack wands

A while back, I wrote these wand rules, which have been active in my Vaults of Pahvelorn OD&D game. I still like them just fine, but they are a bit more complicated than needed, and several of the flourishes (such as the final strike), have never actually been used, and could probably be removed without much loss. Below is another, simpler system for wands in traditional fantasy games that I think might be an improvement. It preserves the same basic dynamic of allowing magic-users to target an enemy’s save versus magic (which is a proxy for “magic defense”) rather than armor class.


Ace of wands (source)

Ace of wands (source)

The power of a wand is measured by damage die size, and follows the progression of d4, d6, d8, d10, d12. Wands cost 100 GP per die size and can be replenished or improved as a downtime action for 100 GP per die increased. All wands inflict damage of a specific elemental type, which is determined upon creation, and elemental damage may have additional effects depending on circumstance. Common elements include fire, ice, and lightning.

Wands may be used to attack a single enemy in sight within 60 feet. Damage inflicted is determined by rolling the wand die. The target then makes a saving throw, and decreases damage taken by the margin of success. If the wand die comes up 1, the wand die size decreases. If the wand was already at d4, it becomes exhausted until replenished.

For example, a magic-user buys a wand of fire d8 for 300 GP. This wand may be used to make any number of ranged fire attacks until the damage die comes up 1, at which time it becomes a wand of fire d6. The wand does fire type damage and thus may also ignite flammable materials, melt frozen objects, and so forth.

As an out of turn reaction, no more than once per turn, the wielder of a wand may counter another wand attack. Though no damage is dealt in either case, both wand dice must still be rolled to test for wand exhaustion.


This method does give the magic-user more combat options (though without completely avoiding resource management), and as such may not be appropriate for all campaigns. It is possible that the costs might need to be adjusted, but this will likely depend at least partly on other elements of a particular campaign setting. In the past, I think I have erred in setting the cost of consumable items too high to be attractive to players. Consumables need to be relatively cheap to seem worth it. Just expensive enough to seem like an actual expense, but not much more. In comparison, the prices in the Expert rulebook seem kind of out there: who would spend 10000 GP for 20 arrows +1 (page X52), even at high level, especially if magic items are sometimes found during adventures or if a party magic-user has access to a renewable attack spell?

Six sided die progression variation

1d6-1, 1d6, 1d6+1, 1d6+2, 1d6+3. These dice expressions have the same expected values as the polyhedral version given above, but smaller deviations. This method is thus slightly more consistent, but also has the potential for zero damage in the first case. That could be removed by specifying that minimum damage is one, at the cost of slightly increasing the statistical complexity (expected damage becomes 2.67 with deviation 1.49 compared to 2.5/1.71). The d6 chain also has a lower upper bound.

Expected wand damage
Rank Polyhedral Six-sided Expected damage
1 1d4 1d6-1 2.5
2 1d6 1d6 3.5
3 1d8 1d6+1 4.5
4 1d10 1d6+2 5.5
5 1d12 1d6+3 6.5

Optional capacity below d4

There are states less than d4, which are d3, d2, d1. These all count as a single step together for purposes of replenishment, however, so 100 GP is sufficient to bring a wand back to d4 if it is at any of those lower states. This variation would be appropriate for those that desire wands to be always at least a little bit useful.

See also

Torchbearer grind record

In Torchbearer, on every fourth turn candles go out and PCs gain a condition, on every third turn lanterns go out, and on every second turn torches go out. (Conditions are things like hungry, angry, and dead.) This is called the grind. I found that I wanted a nice record sheet that had this stuff on it, so that I could mark turns as they passed and know what was happening without needing to think about whether the turn was divisible by two, three, or four (and also because a record is nice to have).

So I made a grind record sheet, and here it is.

(The image below is kind of low-res, but if you click on it, you will get a PDF.)

Necropraxis Torchbearer grind record

Necropraxis Torchbearer grind record

Saving throws by HD

A shortcut that I sometimes use for monster saving throws is 1d20+HD >= 16 (because who wants to be bothered looking at the fighter save matrix all the time?). The number 16 may seem arbitrary, but it is easy to remember one constant, and using that value has some nice properties with regard to the resulting probabilities by HD. You can also grant specific monsters bonuses or penalties on the fly as appropriate without jeopardizing impartiality, as long as the bonus is set before the roll happens, though I personally do not go more than +2 or -2.

Recently, I have been considering using ability checks directly for saving throws (I know, this is not new, Castles & Crusades, etc). The way I usually do ability checks is a d20 roll less than or equal to the stat in question, as described by Moldvay (page B60). Rolling under a single target number with no modifications in the common case is about the simplest resolution system possible (even though it does mean that rolling low is better, which some people find confusing). One potential downside to this method is that the target numbers are hugely variable based on chance during character creation.

Thinking about these two systems together (1d20+HD >= 16 and just using ability checks as saving throws) made me think that perhaps I could combine these two approaches without relying on improvised DCs. What I came up with does require using ability score modifiers, rather than just relying on the full score, but that is probably more familiar to most people by now anyways. It would probably work well with both the B/X bell curve progression (13-15 = +1, 16-17 = +2, 18 = +3) or the 3E linear progression (12-13 = +1, 14-15 = +2, 16-17 = +3, etc).

Here is how it works:

  • PC save versus monster: ability check vs. 10 + monster HD
  • Monster save versus PC ability: 1d20 + monster HD vs. 10 + PC level
  • PC save versus dungeon hazard: ability check vs. 10 + dungeon level

For the purposes of these rules, HD values with additive components are always collapsed (so HD 1+1 is treated as 2). Using the ability modifier rather than the full ability score makes the chances less variable, addressing one of the issues with using the older roll-under style of ability checks as saves. The way I am thinking about this right now, the saves (as ability checks) would not improve with level (because I am interesting in seeing how that affects play), but level (or half level) could easily be factored in if you don’t mind one extra term. It might also be reasonable to have PCs gain some bonus for checks directly relevant to class (magic-users versus magic, thieves versus traps, etc). This could be operationalized as a flat bonus (perhaps +2), adding level to the roll (for games that have significant power gain with level increases), or rolling two checks and taking the best result (for games that prefer less numerical inflation).

Some examples. A magic-user casts a sleep spell on a group of orcs, which have 1 HD each. The monsters roll 1d20 + 1 (from the HD) versus a target number of 11 (10 + PC level). An adventurer touches a yellow mold, which squirts out a deadly cloud of spores. As written in the rules, a successful saving throw versus death ray is required for the adventurer to survive. Using this system, the save would be dexterity versus a target number of 12 (10 + yellow mold HD). As you can see from these examples, weaker monsters and lower level PCs have slightly improved chances compared to the traditional saving throw progressions, but that does not bother me.

At first glance, this looks something like the Third Edition approach to setting DCs, but I think this method is a worthwhile simplification, and it opposes known, objective values (ability modifiers, levels, hit dice) rather than needing to make any kind of determination about whether something should be a “hard” DC or an “easy” DC. This is a system that you can use entirely based on the HD value listed for a monster and the ability scores and level written on a PC’s character sheet. As such, it is easy to graft on to virtually any traditional-style fantasy RPG, as long as the game has ability score mods and hit dice listings for monsters.

This leads me even further toward the (perhaps slightly idealized) position that all you really need is HD and AC to specify a monster (along with a few interesting abilities, of course). And for monsters that are not humanoid, 10 + HD is a reasonable guideline for ascending AC as well.

See also:

Torchbearer primer for D&D players

Torchbearer cover (source)

Torchbearer cover (source)

Unlike D&D, Torchbearer uses a dice pool system for task resolution. When making a test, a number of six sided dice is rolled equal to the stat or skill in question, with bonuses causing extra dice to be added to the pool. Three or less on a die is a failure and four or more is a success. Every roll is versus an obstacle number (essentially, a difficulty class) which is set based on the number of factors involved in the particular test. Factors may be set by referee ruling but are also explicitly listed in the rules along with most stats, and the lists of factors seem to be rather comprehensive.

A PC’s character sheet is made of an array of stats which include many terms similar to those found on a D&D character sheet, such as stock (which means race), class, will (which stands in for the mental ability scores), health (which stands in for the physical ability scores), and skills. However, there are also a large number of other game constructs which may seem more opaque to a D&D player, such as traits, wises, a belief, a goal, an instinct, and several others. It is important to emphasize that these are not merely descriptive. For example, acting on a belief during a session earns a PC a special kind of resource at the end of a session (called a fate point) which can be used in several ways. Triggering an instinct allows a roll that does not cost a turn. And so forth. I admit that the diversity of systems that a player has access to for augmenting rolls in specific contexts is a bit bewildering, but I suspect it becomes more tractable with experience. That said, these are systems that players will need to learn how to use to be maximally effective.

Torchbearer uses a turn structure heavily. As written, D&D does, too, though in the case of D&D, turns are often hand-waved in practice, with dialectical narrative quickly taking over. Within an adventure, every test or conflict costs one turn. PCs earn a condition for every four turns that pass. Conditions are similar to a health track, and include hungry, exhausted, angry, sick, injured, afraid, and dead. Most of these conditions can be recovered from explicitly with skills, equipment, or spells. Rations, for example, can be used to eliminate the hungry condition. Light sources deplete as turns progress (torches in two turns, lamp oil in three turns, and candles in four turns). Light sources also only explicitly cover a set number of PCs, and any PC not covered by a light source has test obstacles increased. (I will almost certainly find a way to use a similar light coverage rule with D&D at some point.)

In addition to turns during the adventure phase, there are several other phases, including camp and town. Camp and town phases are used for different kinds of recovery. After three adventures, there is a winter, which affects the next phase (either town or adventure). Resources are more dear during the winter, but there are also several special opportunities available to PCs for learning and improving skills. Adventuring in the winter is more dangerous (conditions are earned every three turns and exhausted, injured, or sick can all lead directly to death). The important takeaway here is that time moves forward in a structured manner directly tied to game mechanics.

Value is handled more abstractly than you are likely used to from D&D. Instead of recovering treasure, calculating its exact GP value, selling it, and them buying things with the proceeds, everything is modeled as bonuses to a roll. To buy things in Torchbearer, you need to test Resources, and prices are handled as obstacles to a Resources test. Treasure is listed as a die value, and serves as a temporary bonus to a Resources test. After being used, recovered treasure is removed from a PC’s inventory. This makes it seemingly much harder to accumulate significant wealth.

Conflicts (which include, but are not limited to, combat) are team, rather than individual, based. One player takes the role of conflict captain, who serves as the coordinator (from a rules perspective) of the team. Every PC participating can help, but each team specifies only three actions (from attack, defend, faint, and maneuver) per conflict turn. The actions are assigned to different PCs if possible and revealed in sequence in opposition to the opposing team’s actions, leading to a kind of rock, paper, scissors dynamic. Specific skill tests to accomplish the different actions vary based on the kind of conflict in play. There are eight different kinds of conflict specified, and custom conflict types may be improvised as well. Just for one example, the Convince conflict uses the Persuader skill (for Attack and Defend actions) and the Manipulator skill (for Feint and Maneuver actions).

Each team has a disposition which is determined for the team as whole based on skill rolls, and then divided into individual pools of HP by the team’s conflict captain. Unlike HP in D&D, disposition in Torchbearer is separate from health conditions, determined by skill rolls, and per-conflict. This emphasizes its abstract nature and also changes the resource dynamic of HP. Conditions persist (and may serve as factors for test obstacles), but disposition (and thus HP) is determined separately for each conflict.

Advancement occurs in a much more fine-grained manner than in D&D, which hooks most character development into the process of gaining levels. Abilities and skills improve automatically after passing and failing a certain number of tests, based on the current rating (the P and F bubbles on the character sheet by skills are used for this purpose). Increasing character level occurs after spending a set number of fate and persona points. New levels grant abilities similar to what you might expect, such as more spells for magicians and various extra abilities for other classes, generally phrased a choice between two options. What this means is that the driver of character development is making tests and spending the metagame resources of fate points and persona points, not treasure recovery directly (in contrast to D&D).

It is worth emphasizing that I am not an expert in Torchbearer at all. This post is just as much a method for me to get a handle on the mechanics as it is to communicate them to others. (In fact, that sentiment could be expanded to cover the entire project of this blog.) There is a lot that I have not covered, but hopefully this will be a useful starting point nonetheless.

Players will likely be interested in the Torchbearer free PDF bundle, which includes a handout summarizing the conflict rules.

Strictly quantified movement

In what I consider to be “new school” D&D, movement outside of combat is often fluid and happens via negotiated narrative rather than explicit rules, whereas movement within combat is heavily systematized and makes use of explicit, quantified geometry using a grid. Options are strictly regulated by action type. Improvisation, based on referee ruling, is of course still possible, though the outcome of such ad hoc rulings must ultimately be represented within the geometric structure. Time is usually kept strictly within combat, but not outside of combat.

Old school D&D, in practice, often represents movement and action possibilities both inside and outside of combat via negotiated narrative and without much strict numerical quantification. PCs move through a hallway, into a room, enter combat, charge, retreat, and so forth, all without direct geometric reasoning. However, the older rulesets, as written, have a focus on logistics as seen in movement rates by armor type, chance of random encounter per turn of movement, light radii, escape, and other similar rules. This seems to gesture toward an almost inverted type of game geometry compared to the new school: heavily quantified movement outside of combat with narrative, fluid movement within combat.

Following this structure, old school D&D could be seen as more of a board game outside of encounters whereas new school D&D is more of a board game inside of encounters. Comparing aspects of RPGs to board games is often seen as pejorative, but such is not the intent here. Instead, I think it might be interesting to try taking this board game aspect of old school exploration movement more seriously. For example, a scouting, unarmored, stealthy thief, with a movement rate of 12 squares per turn, suddenly becomes hugely valuable in the sense of quantifiably being able to cover more ground per exploration turn. While this might be easier to do in person, with something like a dry-erase battle mat for dungeon movement, it might also be possible online using a shared whiteboard such as Twiddla or Awwapp. This approach could also be taken to wilderness exploration using an explicit player-facing hex map (which I have seen discussed before, but never seen in practice).