Monthly Archives: July 2014

Dark Souls magic

Almost all of the Dark Souls rules are somewhat applicable to the tabletop context, but the magic systems seem especially so suited. There are three magic systems: pyromancy, miracle, and sorcery. There are “classes” associated with each, but any character can level into the various kinds of magic by increasing the appropriate stats. Each magic requires a characteristic implement be equipped in order to cast spells of the given type. Each interacts with PC stats in a slightly different way, and the number of overall spell slots, which must be divided between all types of magic, is controlled by the attunement stat. Spells must be prepared (“attuned”) at bonfires, which is the equivalent of downtime or recovery in D&D, and may only be used a limited number of times before resting again.

Pyromancy is the simplest type of magic. There is some intimation that it is more primal and less sophisticated than sorcery. It is often associated with swamp dwellers, symbolic of exclusion and the primitive. There is a similarity here to the distinction WotC D&D makes between wizards (pseudo-academics) and sorcerers (wild talents, magic by lineage). Pyromancy power is not affected by any stats, other than the slots from attunement needed for spell preparation, and their power is dependent only upon the strength of the pyromancy flame used, which is the characteristic implement.

A pyromancy flame can be upgraded independently by spending souls, which, remember, function like both GP and XP. Most pyromancy is simple attack magic, fireballs and so forth, though there are also a few defensive spells, such as iron flesh and flash sweat (which increases defense against fire damage). From a game perspective, pyromancy gives players a way to get access to magic damage by dumping souls into an upgraded pyromancy flame and a few pyromancies without needing to increase level at all, assuming a PC meets the (very low) attunement requirement to be able to prepare any spells at all.

Sorceries are more academic, and higher precision. They often have intelligence prerequisites, and spell power is affected by intelligence. A character that wishes to be a competent sorcerer must dedicate a number of levels to the sorcery-oriented stats. The characteristic implement is the catalyst, often depicted as a wand or staff. Unlike pyromancy flames, or weapons, catalysts cannot be upgraded. You must find better ones.

Though there are several attack sorceries (such as soul arrows, which are basic “magic blasts” that also have the useful function of tracking enemy movement to some degree), there are in addition many utility and misdirection spells, such as aural decoy (which lures enemies away by creating a sound elsewhere), fall control (as feather fall), and hidden body (basically, invisibility). I have been playing a warrior and have only dipped lightly into sorcery so far, so I do not have much direct experience with these spells beyond soul arrows, but for a combat-oriented action RPG, there are a surprisingly large number of spells that seem to enable non-combat creativity.

Miracles are the province of the cleric, and are mostly, by default, as in D&D, defensive or restorative. However, the miracles a character has access to depends on which covenants are formed. For example, if you join the gravelord servant covenant, there are miracles that call giant phantom blades to attack your enemies. This is a fascinating system, reminiscent of “clerics of specific mythos” in 2E D&D, but much more dependent upon action during play. Further, a covenant comes with clear, objective factional duties and restrictions. I do not fully understand exactly how this affects gameplay, but what I have seen of the periphery makes the covenant system one of the most interesting aspects of Dark Souls design, and one that has been highly influential over my conception of clerics as servants of immortals in the world of The Final Castle. Beyond this contextual aspect, miracles work similarly to sorceries, requiring attunement at bonfires, and dependent upon the faith stat for power. The characteristic implement, which must be equipped to call a miracle, is the talisman.

This system design engenders several different kinds of trade-off. First, there are the advancement decisions about which stats are increased during level up. While strictly speaking it is possible to grind souls and increase everything, in practice this is tedious, and further unnecessary to be successful*. If you are just playing the game to explore and overcome challenges, you will naturally need to choose between physical capability and the various kinds of magic. This mode is also more applicable to the tabletop context, where grinding dynamics are minimized or nonexistent. Second, there is the cost and availability of various spells. Third, when you set out from a bonfire, you must divide your available attunement slots between spells. If you have four slots, for example, two could be miracles and two could be sorceries.

Fourth, and most importantly in terms of the gameplay experience, you must wield the appropriate implement to cast a given spell. While encumbrance rules do not prevent you from carrying everything with you (an aspect of the game I find somewhat strange), they do prevent you from equipping more than a few items, and switching between items that are not equipped during combat is asking for a quick death. In practice this means that you have a primary and secondary equipped item in each hand that is east to switch between. The left hand is usually occupied by a shield and either ranged weapon or tool (such as the skull lantern). This leaves the right hand for (likely) a melee weapon and magic implement. The final result of all of this design is that it is impractical to ready more than one kind of magic on a given excursion. Fifth, and finally, casting a spell has a more or less lengthy animation and thus requires a trade-off consideration in terms of when you start to cast a spell, as enemies may take advantage of that time or your vulnerability.

* At least in single-player mode. If you are into PvP it is likely different. The fact that grinding souls might make a big difference in the viability of character power is part of the reason I have little interest in PvP.

Derived weapons

Following these system guidelines, here is a set of balanced, predefined weapons.

2DTH stands for “two dice, take highest” and 2DTL stands for “two dice, take lowest.” 3DTH is “three dice, take highest” and so forth.

One-handed melee

  • Axe (2DTL, sundering)
  • Dagger (2DTL, close)
  • Flail (2DTH, dangerous)
  • Javelin (2DTL, throwable)
  • Mace (2DTL, armor-piercing)
  • Spear (2DTL, reach)
  • Sword, arming
  • Throwing knife (2DTL, throwable)
  • Tomahawk (2DTL, throwable)
  • War hammer (2DTL, armor-piercing)

Two-handed melee

  • Chain scythe (2DTH, reach, dangerous)
  • Halberd (2DTH, long-hafted, sundering)
  • Maul (4DTH, heavy, crude)
  • Pike (3DTH, long-hafted)
  • Pole-flail (3DTH, dangerous)
  • Sword, claymore (reach)
  • Sword, two-handed (2DTH)
  • Sword, zweihander (3DTH, heavy)

One-handed ranged

  • Crossbow, hand (2DTL)
  • Sling (slow)

Two-handed ranged

  • Bow, short
  • Bow, long (2DTH, immobile)
  • Crossbow, light (2DTL, armor-piercing)
  • Crossbow, heavy (armor-piercing, slow)

The way this works out, the arming sword, two-handed sword, and short bow end up each being the default weapon (the mechanical result of not applying any benefit or flaw) within a larger category, which feels right to me. I am pretty happy with all of these except the long bow. I thought about “heavy,” but that does not quite seem to be an appropriate flaw to balance the higher damage. Something where the long bow could only be used with sufficient area to allow the proper stance would be best, so I invented “immobile,” which means that the wielder cannot both move and take a shot in the same round. It may still be possible to improve on that, however. The limited number of properties, especially per given weapon, seems far more approachable that my previous effort, while also prioritizing fictional logic.

You may note that there are a few different weapons listed that are still mechanically identical (such as javelins, tomahawks, and throwing knives). I do not necessarily see that as a problem, as they may have different tool uses outside of combat as well. I also added a few somewhat absurd items to the list (chain scythe!) because they are fun, and to show how the blending of properties can make stranger weapons both viable and different beyond just literal re-skinning, which I often find unsatisfying as a player.

Dark Souls zweihander (personal photo)

Dark Souls zweihander (personal photo)

Build your own weapons

Many systems for nuancing weapons function as an overlay for simpler base rules. Maces might gain benefits versus armored opponents, for example. This is a good approach as it is easy to understand and has reasonable face validity, but leads to problems of needing to come up with benefits for weapons that do not easily suggest advantages, such as the basic arming sword. This becomes especially clear when using d6 damage for all weapons. It is, in some sense, the inverse of the problem with AD&D variable damage. When the longsword does d8/d10 damage and maces deal d6, damage dealing capacity dominates. When all weapons deal flat damage, extra properties dominate.

In order to navigate these twin rules design hazards, here is an experiment that trades damage dealing potential for benefits, but uses a drop highest/lowest dice scheme to keep the expected damage bounded (no comments about 5E please; Philotomy did it first). Further, the effect of benefits is increased, because they need to really be clearly better within a given niche. A mace getting +1 or +2 to hit versus armor is just not good enough to justify the decreased effectiveness against all other types of opponents.

This is a mechanics-first approach to balancing weapon capabilities and power. Rather than looking at weapons naturalistically and applying special-case rules as necessary to represent weapon benefits, this guarantees a level of mathematical trade-off. It is meant to coexist with d6 hit dice as well, but could also be applied to a variable hit die (“Basic style”) approach, substituting class hit die for the d6. Rules have been phrased here in terms of the d6, however, for clarity.

Weapons begin with one of the following templates:

  • One-handed melee: 1d6 damage
  • Two-handed melee: 2d6 (take best) damage
  • Two-handed missile: 1d6 damage

Then, properties (benefits and flaws) may be applied by moving up or down the damage dice chain. Rolling multiple dice means the best (or worst) value is taken, depending on where in the dice chain the weapon lies. For example, a one-handed melee weapon with a benefit drops down to two dice, take lowest. Add another benefit and it would be doing three dice, take lowest. And so forth. Flaws may be added to move up the dice chain. For example, a one-handed long-haft (flaw) reach (benefit) spear does one die of damage (standard one-handed melee template) and the reach/awkward properties balance out. In essence, lower damage is a flaw and higher damage is a benefit.

This means that you could have a one-handed melee throwable, armor-piercing, sundering weapon, but you will be rolling 4d6 and taking the worst result for damage when using this swiss army knife monstrosity (assuming it has no flaws). There are some interesting corollaries from this system which you do not often see, such as the 3d6, take best two-handed long-haft pole-arm (meaning that it can only be used effectively with two hands and at reach, which seems just right).


  • Armor-piercing: +4 attack versus medium or heavy armor
  • Close: +4 attack following grapple
  • Reach: attack from the second rank
  • Sundering: +4 when trying to damage armor or shields
  • Throwable

Weapons acting within their area of specialty (for example, reach weapons at reach or armor-piercing weapons versus armor) never deal less than one die of damage.

(Rather than the +4 bonus, you could also use 5E style advantage.)


  • Crude: drops down one damage die step per level of target armor
  • Dangerous: wielder takes 1d3 damage on natural 1 attack rolls
  • Heavy: following a miss, an action is required to ready the weapon
  • Long-haft: may only be used at reach
  • Slow: requires an action to ready (or reload)

If using an approach like this, a set of basic weapons should probably be defined so that players don’t need to do any reasoning to figure out how a mace should be represented. There is no reason not to expose the underlying system for players that wish to “build” slightly more unique weapons as well though. The list of properties was kept intentionally short, based on my experience with weapon property systems, and should be taken as a set of examples rather than a comprehensive list. New properties giving bonuses to particular maneuvers (such as a bonus to disarm maneuvers for a weapon like a parrying dagger) could be added as needed, keeping in mind basic balance considerations.

A few weapons do not fit well into this structure, such as nets and whips. This seems less like a flaw in the system, though, than a sign that such items are not really weapons (that is, tools designed to deal damage), but rather things with more specific purpose that just happen to be useful in combat. It is probably better to give such items special moves that can be made in combat and design them outside of the strictures of these guidelines.

Public domain image from Telecanter

Public domain image from Telecanter

Dark Souls preliminaries

Channeler (source)

Channeler (source)

Dark Souls has captured my attention like no other video game before. The basics of the game are relatively simple. You have a set amount of resources, including health, a number of healing potions (called estus flasks), and perhaps some spells depending on your advancement and equipment choices. You set out from a bonfire to explore an area, collecting souls as you go. Souls are acquired by (mostly) killing enemies and (occasionally) found as treasure. If you rest at a bonfire, resources are replenished and all recurring enemies respawn. Bosses and mini-bosses (for lack of a better term) stay dead once killed. If you die, you lose all souls that have been gained from killing enemies (though not those found as treasure, which remain in your inventory until you convert them to actual souls that can be spent). You can reclaim any souls lost if you return to where you died before you die again. Souls can be used to level up (increasing your choice of any one stat) or as currency to purchase items.

These dynamics should seem extremely familiar, because other than a few nuances, they almost entirely replicate the OD&D game approach of recovering treasure to gain XP using a limited number of resources, such as HP and spells, which replenish between excursions. Every action you take is a balance between risk and reward. Do you want to go a little bit farther, risking the souls you have accumulated, or do you want to return to a bonfire to replenish resources (and perhaps level up)? Is now the time to challenge a boss, which, if defeated, will permanently alter the game world, perhaps opening up new areas?

Pinwheel (source)

Pinwheel (source)

The twin factors that make Dark Souls so remarkable are extremely tight gameplay and an aesthetic sensibility that manages to be both restrained (in an almost classical manner) and wildly creative. The style is primarily brooding European gothic, with plate armor, visored helms, western dragons, gargoyles, and so forth, but, as with many Japanese fantasy games, there is also a smattering of East Asian gear and many of the creatures have a vaguely Shinto demeanor.

Being primarily* a one-player, action RPG, combat is the main element of gameplay, and almost all PC capabilities and equipment are geared towards combat efficiency. That said, running away (or past) enemies is often a viable strategy, and, in addition, many dirty tricks are possible, such as knocking enemies over ledges or into the path of traps. Dark Souls combat is real-time and highly positional, though minimal reflex is involved. Combat is paced, almost languid. Almost all actions have very explicit animations, allowing the player to predict and react to enemy attacks and maneuvers once they are learned. This also extends to PC actions, such as drinking a potion or casting a spell. The time taken often exposes you to enemy attacks, meaning that every choice must be carefully weighed and could potentially have consequences. The game rewards careful approach and intelligent tactics far more than quick reaction times.

The regions (stages?) are topologically relatively simple, sometimes almost linear, but the connectivity between regions provides a much more vivid sense of extended world than many more open games, which often contain large amounts of open expanse that feel blank and under-detailed. Further, the connections between many areas are somewhat concealed, requiring careful investigation (though no pixel bitching). There are several areas, including some near the beginning of the game, that I did not discover for a long time due to oversight. Finding a new area to explore always felt like a major accomplishment, either by coming across a hidden path or defeating a gatekeeper boss.

Skeleton wheel (source)

Skeleton wheel (source)

Though the difficulty of Dark Souls is overstated (I am not very good at video games, and have been able to make considerable progress, though I have not yet finished the game), it does not coddle the player. I can imagine that this might feel frustrating to some people, but I have found it refreshing. There are no undo mechanisms, not even a way to reload an earlier saved game. Once you make a change to your character or the game world (such as by choosing which stat to increase during a level up), it stays changed. If you accidentally kill a friendly NPC (as I did with the first merchant I met), it stays dead. Congratulations, you just made the game more difficult. (In my case, I was unable to buy crossbow bolts until reaching a significantly distant area). Because of this design, defeating a difficult enemy or finding a way around a devious challenge feels all the more satisfying. Personally, I have maintained a strict embargo against looking up strategies online (with the exception of some mechanical issues, like figuring out how to aim the longbow), and would highly recommend this approach, as it makes investigating the world far more engaging.

Titanite demon (source)

Titanite demon (source)

This game is so amazing that this only scratches the surface. I would particularly recommend those interested in traditional D&D, especially OD&D, to give it a spin. Many elements will be recognizable, and, in addition, the design decisions that are different have been (for me) quite fruitful in inspiring ideas for tabletop games, both in terms of setting and game mechanics. You will need some patience to begin with, as you get used to the dying in order to learn how things work, though that passes relatively quickly. Don’t worry too much about which class you start with, as you will be able to level any character into any abilities. My current game (still the first and only character that I have created), is up to around 130 hours. It is the only video game that I have played where I expect to make a new character immediately after finishing the game to see how it plays with other advancement choices and perhaps tackling regions in a different order.

* There are some online features that allow other players to leave signs within your game or assist during fights, but I have not used them and based on my understanding they do not seem important to the experience of play.

Detect Magic

Detect Magic is a blog by Daniel Davis, just started this year. If I had to select an appropriate pigeonhole or tagline, I might say: “older D&D through the lens of Apocalypse World with lots of useful tools and also rules hacks,” though like all such summaries that sells it somewhat short. If those things are your bag (and they are certainly mine), I would recommend heading over there to check it out and maybe adding it to your regular reading list and/or blogroll. Old standby blogs are regularly slowing down or ceasing posts entirely, so it is always good to see new folks jumping in.

Here are some posts you might want to start with:

  • Faction wars procedure
  • Conquest: making control of territory a gameable thing
  • Fisticuffs: dueling or brawling for trad D&D using stakes setting
  • Pathcrawl: an interesting wilderness exploration procedure

Also many of the table sets are automated using Logan’s excellent generator of generators.

Combat and maneuvers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trade and arbitrage

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

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

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

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

Two approaches to ability scores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rise and fall of the Harbinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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