Author Archives: Brendan

Traditions and corruption

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Personal photo of Symbaroum core book

Several different traditions of magic coexist in the world of Symbaroum, including wizardry, witchcraft, theurgy, and sorcery. All forms of magic entail the risk of corruption, but the risk can be decreased somewhat by following the rituals and practices of a given tradition. Each tradition grants access to a set of spells and casting these spells in the traditional manner avoids some of the dangers of raw magic.

Wizardry is highly codified arcane knowledge as set down formally by the Ordo Magica. Learning wizardry requires long, systematic study and extensive formal training.

Witchcraft follows older ways from the great forest Davokar. The witches serve as spiritual advisors to the barbarians living on the outskirts of the great forest Davokar. Many Ambrians are highly distrustful of witchcraft and see witches as little different than demon-worshipers or sorcerers but witches have elevated social positions within their own tribes.

Theurgy channels the power of the gods, most commonly the sun god Prios. Covenants with other lesser-known powers are becoming more common following the exodus.

Sorcery is the least formal of all the traditions, though there are many secret lineages. Some sorcerers come to the art by pact with occult beings while others discover ancient proscribed treatises and are self-taught. Despite the dogma of the Ordo Magica, sorcerers do follow rules, just highly idiosyncratic rules. To someone trained in one of the other traditions of magic, sorcery can seem pure chaos. Sorcery is forbidden according to the law of old Alberetor, but that has less force in the frontier of Ambria.

Characters on the Path of Wonder choose a tradition before play. Other characters with Magic stat greater than zero may enter into a tradition during play. Characters may not belong to more than one tradition.

When a character casts a spell within the bounds of tradition, there is no immediate chance of catastrophe or abomination, though the character accumulates a point of corruption for each spell cast. Once the number of corruption points equals the character’s magic stat, however, the safeguards of tradition become less able to control the mystic power unleashed. Characters reset corruption points to zero during each Haven Turn. See the Hazard System for details about Haven Turns.

If a character casts a traditional spell when corruption is equal to the Magic stat, there is a chance that they are unable to control the arcane power. Reality objects to being ungently used and reacts proportionally. The spell caster must make a Magic Test or acquire a permanent stigma, a physical mark of arcane corruption. Determine stigma randomly.

Casting a nontraditional spell when corruption is equal to the Magic stat follows the same rules, but failing the Magic Test results in a catastrophe in addition to a permanent stigma. This is why untrained magicians are so feared and traditionally punished with exile or death. The Ordo Magica is often blamed for any magic disaster and so is particularly harsh in hunting down and punishing renegades.

Once a character has accumulated a number of stigmata equal to their Magic stat, their humanity hangs in the balance. The next time that character would acquire a stigma, instead they are fully transformed into an abomination. At this point, the player must make a new character and the abomination becomes a monster under the control of the referee.

Characters with Magic stat greater than zero and no tradition may still learn and cast spells or use enchanted objects following the magic rules, but have none of the safeguards against corruption that the traditions provide. Attempting to learn a spell outside of a tradition and failing also causes either a stigma or a catastrophe (the player may choose).

Spells marked as rituals take a full Dungeon Turn to cast. See the Hazard System for details about Dungeon Turns. Other spell can be cast as a combat move.

The four magic traditions and the progression from stigmata to abomination are based on the Symbaroum setting.


They came from gates in the sky

To Alberetor in golden chariots the Gray Knights came. Queen Korinthia greeted them as emissaries of the sun god but they were not emissaries, they were conquerors. After many bitter years of war, the Queen fled north over the Titan Mountains with the remnants of her people to the barbarian lands bordering the endless primordial forest Davokar. Alberetor remains a blighted ruin presided over by the inscrutable Gray Knights. Though the church of Alberetor has always paid respects nominally to all immortal offices, in practice the sun lord Prios came traditionally to be exalted over all others. Because the order of Prios welcomed the knights from the sky, this hierarchy has become contested. North of the Titan Mountains, the Queen founded the new realm of Ambria. The nobles of Ambria have now turned their attention to incorporating or eliminating barbarians and subduing the forest itself, which shrouds the ancient mysteries of the lost civilization Symbaroum. Explorers of the forest depths report weird happenings far beyond the mundane dangers posed by unknown, hostile wilderness. Ambrian adventurers seeking fortune in the opportunities created by these upheavals, concentrated in the border town of Thistle Hold, are divided regarding respecting or exploiting unknown Davokar.

This campaign abstract is derived from the default setting of Symbaroum.

Personal photo of Symbaroum core book

Personal photo of Symbaroum core book

Hexagram Symbaroum prospectus

I am going to start running a campaign soon, within the next week or two. I plan to run sessions both in person and online within the same setting and sharing the same fictional timeline. All player characters from both in-person and online games will likely belong to the same adventuring company.

For rules, I will be using the current beta version of my Hexagram ruleset. It should be recognizable to anyone that has played in one of my games before as it incorporates the most recent unreleased version of the Hazard System as the engine. The player character advancement system is slightly more freeform than traditional D&D but should be easily approachable. Advancement has been significantly streamlined even compared to previous playtest versions of Hexagram and the Final Castle. Experience points will be gained from building relationships with factions or personages rather than recovering treasure.

I will be using the setting from the Swedish RPG Symbaroum as my starting point, though I will be dialing up the elements that remind me of Slaine and dialing down the elements that seem like Tolkien through a Swedish lens. In particular, the witches and barbarians of Symbaroum remind me of the Drunes and their people. I will be reimagining the nature of the Dark Lords and the civilized religion of the sun god Prios to make them less black and white. I chose Symbaroum primarily because I like the art but also because the setting provides a set of factions and personages that should ease my prep work. I may also incorporate some elements from Gavin‘s excellent Wormskin zine, though my vision of Symbaroum and the great forest Davokar is far less fey than Dolmenwood.

Session structure will follow the excursion format, meaning consistent player attendance will neither be necessary nor expected. I have a core of regular players that I will give precedence to regarding session seats but based on my experience there will also often be openings for others. I will post about specific scheduling and availability on Google Plus. This will NOT, however, be a Flailsnails-friendly campaign. Over the summer, I plan to run 8-10 sessions after which I will assess the rules for any needed modifications and the campaign for continued interest.

I considered running the Adversary’s Dungeon scenario I posted about recently but decided that I did not want to run a tentpole mega-dungeon campaign this time. There will, however, still be plenty of dungeon exploration. Further, I think the Adversary’s Dungeon concept would require a significant amount of upfront effort in preparation to run the way I would prefer and one of my main goals for this campaign is to minimize my initial prep overhead.

More details about the setting and rules forthcoming.

Conditions versus hit points

One rules variation I have been considering recently is replacing hit points with conditions. This is by no means an innovation, as many games have used conditions to manage character health or similar concepts, notably Apocalypse World, Burning Wheel, and probably several obscure RPGs from the 80s that I have not heard of. The goal of such condition-based systems is often to avoid hit point inflation or decrease the abstraction inherent in hit points.

The major obstacle for me in using a condition-based system is that it becomes hard to differentiate between major and minor harms, unlike with hit points where such outcomes can easily be modeled by the quantified differences between something like a die of damage and a single point of damage. Additionally, hit point systems are more familiar to tabletop gamers, and learning a new approach requires effort.

I was considering three major conditions: demoralized, wounded, and dead, giving player characters two free hits before going down. When a character suffers major harm, the player must choose one unmarked condition to mark. I imagine the general order would be demoralized first, followed by wounded, and then dead. For minor harms, I was considering recording hash marks over the major conditions, with six such hash marks leading to suffering the major harm indicated. I expect that minor harm would not generally accumulate enough to trigger suffering major harm given how I have seen RPG sessions play out, but minor harm could nonetheless provide some weight to otherwise meaningless tradeoffs (such as exploring the wilderness without having food to eat).

However, I wonder whether the complexity of this system is worth requiring players to confront an unfamiliar system. Additionally, three named conditions do not generalize to non-player characters or monsters very well, requiring referees to track a variable number of hits for some opponents anyways. My current version of this approach has inflicting harm being implemented by marking a hit on the opponent, which essentially lets hit points in by the back door.

This post might read as if, on reflection, I am leaning against this new approach in favor of just implementing some more traditional hit point system. However, I think the numerical approach of hit points does make players more likely to reason quantitatively about character capabilities rather than think creatively about problem solving. Further, there is a suggestive element of demoralization or taking a wound that seems valuable beyond suffering 1d6 damage, even if there are no direct mechanical consequences (though there could always be diegetic consequences, such as trying to bluff in a negotiation with an opponent while nursing a wound recently acquired).

Spell attunement

2016-05-02 19.28.37 dark souls 3I want spell rules that:

  1. Do not require regular spell preparation (to decrease complexity)
  2. Avoid locking players into a very small spell list (for variety)
  3. Support acquisition of new spells through adventuring

Several other rule sets have systems that feel to me like they were built to satisfy similar goals. ACKS (2012) differentiates between repertoire, which are the spells available for casting, and formulae, which are all the other spells that a mage has access to (in something like a library). Mages in ACKS can swap spells in the repertoire with formulae, but only at extremely high cost (ACKS core, page 67):

An arcane spellcaster who already has a full repertoire of spells may sometimes wish to replace one spell in his spell repertoire with another of equal level. It costs 1 week of game time and 1,000gp for each spell level to replace a spell in the repertoire with another.

D&D 5E (2014) uses a similar approach where there is a difference between known and prepared spells but then adds an additional layer of complexity with spell slots, which are different in 5E than in previous editions, and function essentially as level-rated mana or spell points. To learn a new spell, 5E wizards must write the spell in a spellbook, which serves a similar function to formulae in ACKS, though there is only cost involved in the initial copying step, not when making the new spell available for preparation (5E Player’s Handbook, page 114):

For each level of the spell, the process takes 2 hours and costs 50 gp. The cost represents material components you expend as you experiment with the spell to master it, as well as the fine inks you need to record it. Once you have spent this time and money, you can prepare the spell just like your other spells.

Abstractly, both systems represent two pools of spells, essentially online and offline. I find both systems somewhat cumbersome to use and difficult to explain.

The traditional approach, probably represented most paradigmatically in AD&D (1978), also uses spellbooks as collections of offline spells, along with a complicated host of intelligence-based limits and checks to learn new spells (AD&D Players Handbook, page 10):

Acquisition of Heretofore Unknown Spells: Although the magic-user must immediately cease checking to determine if spells are known after the first complete check of each spell in the level group, or immediately thereafter during successive checks when the minimum number of spells which can be known is reached, it is possible to acquire knowledge of additional spells previously unknown as long as this does not violate the maximum number of spells which can be known. New spells can be gained from captured or otherwise acquired spell books or from scrolls of magic spells. In the latter event the scroll is destroyed in learning and knowing the new spell or spells.

Actually following all the AD&D procedures results in nicely differentiated magic-users that can acquire new spells from adventuring, but the overhead is rather high and the various rules are scattered all over at least the Players Handbook. The AD&D approach also warmly embraces and rewards high-maintenance spreadsheet-assisted play, which is not what I am looking for.

Below is an approach I have been working on, encoded in two rules: Attune and Scribe. The rules are written in cryptic Hexagram style, but for D&D application, replace Magic rating with class level or your favorite determinant of spell capacity. The transaction cost of swapping spells between equipment slots and spell slots is represented by magic ink, the cost of which needs to be squared with the other relevant economies of gameplay.

(For anyone that does not catch the allusion, this approach is inspired by Dark Souls.)

Attune. To attune a Spell, consume a Spell Scroll and add the Spell from the Scroll to the list of Attuned Spells. Attune no more Spells than the Magic rating. For example, an Adventurer with Magic rated 3 may attune no more than three spells.

Scribe. To scribe a Spell Scroll, consume magic ink, add a Scroll of an Attuned Spell to the Gear list, and optionally remove the Spell from the list of Attuned Spells. Like all items, each Spell Scroll occupies one Gear slot.


The Adversary’s Dungeon

Following is a background sketch for a potential campaign.

The rapture has come and gone. Any chosen departed. From below came the Adversary, no longer constrained to the Dungeon, to claim tyrannical dominion of what remained.

Though eternal, hubris afflicts the Adversary. Clever magic applied with savvy and sacrifice casts the Adversary back down into the Dungeon. Even the Adversary is part of existence and so subject to fundamental relations properly deployed.

So organized, the world staggers through cycles of evil and reprieve. When imprisoned, the Adversary cultivates temptations and treasures below. Invitation from those above alone is how the Adversary can return.

Inevitably, memories of past horrors fade and once vigilant guardians become complacent. Some come to doubt the existence of the Adversary below and ridicule the old rituals. Beliefs notwithstanding, opening the Dungeon’s gates requires only will and black magic.

Though deep seals prevent the Adversary from emerging fully even once the gates fail, lesser monsters are not similarly constrained. First as a trickle, then as a torrent, they come, messengers proclaiming by their rampage the Adversary’s impending arrival.

Again the gates are open. Strongholds stoke sentinel bonfires to keep the monsters at bay. Danger challenges the fellowship of humanity as alliances agreed in times of plenty crumble. As armies are tender fodder for greater monsters, only infiltration has any hope of success in reaching the inner sanctum. From the Adversary’s broken body renewed Dungeon gates may be fashioned.

To close the doors and renew all seals, venture below and defeat the Adversary. Or, seek wicked wages by breaking the seals to earn the Adversary’s acclaim and gratitude, inaugurating a new long night.

If the walls can bleed of course they can heal

My friend mentioned in this post wrote up her reflections on refereeing for the first time and even sent me the map sketches. Below the divider are her words. This could be an interesting case study for designers interested in what is useful to a new referee. And it sounds independently like a pretty great scenario.

When my little brothers (12-year old twins) told me they wanted to play when they came to visit me this past weekend, I was both excited to be introducing a new generation to the game I have recently come to love, but also more than slightly terrified at tackling the elusive role of DM.

I wasn’t too concerned about embellishing on the setting or the scenario, nor was I concerned with the edition rules and stats we would use since I planned on throwing most of them out anyway. I was more so worried about the behind-the-scenes mechanics of being a DM in real-time. Ultimately, how could I make this an epic one-shot with a climactic finale, without it feeling forced or coerced or like the players lost autonomy?

Naturally, I reached out to a DM friend, and he sent me this.

I found Michael Prescott’s dungeons to be quite inspiring for dungeon stocking and Dyson’s maps gave great suggestions for layout. The DM Information gave me the language I needed to conceptualize the concerns I had, and gave a really great straight forward and concise guide for how to build a dungeon without any waffling. I didn’t use any of the rolling systems for NPC creation or dungeon stocking, but the suggestions were inspiring.

What I ended up with was a mötley crüe of a game inspired by what I thought were either the most interesting or the most straight forward elements from the other DMs. I drew up a baby map, drew a picture of the town, and wrote up a short and dirty little summary of the key things the players may or may not encounter. Did it look or play like a 5e game? Heck no. But with a few exceptions it worked for me, and designing my own game gave me the peace of mind to improvise mid-play knowing I wasn’t going to miss anything “important.”

The game ended up looking something like this:

Scenario: The Athenian authorities are concerned with the sudden halt of raw silver deliveries from one of the most bountiful mining sites in the land. They are willing to pay handsomely for any adventurer who can get production going again. Upon arriving at the island, players learn that silver shipments have stopped because the miners are refusing to enter the mines. For the last 3 weeks, anyone who has entered is never seen again.

village copySetting: 4th/5th Century BCE Greece, in a mining town on the island of Thassos. Options to explore included the marina, the little mining town, a set of miner barracks outside the entrance to the mine, and of course – the mine itself. In hindsight, grounding the game in non-fiction was probably the best decision I made for players with little to no exposure to fantasy/sci-fi. I knew they’d have at least a basic understanding of ancient Greek mythology and folklore, so the ideas and objects they’d encounter would have natural affordances for future action without requiring too much exploration or coercion.

Special Monsters: This was by far the most fun. Following naturally from an ancient Greek setting, the players would eventually find out that the mine was having problems because recent activity disrupted the centuries-old prison of Phobos (God of Fear) and Deimos (God of Terror), twin sons of Ares and Aphrodite. Their sister – Adrestia (Goddess of Revenge), had lured them to the island and captured them in a tomb in retribution for the fear and terror they had caused her as a child. In search of strength, Phobos and Deimos had been luring miners into their prison and turning them into undead acolytes (complete with eyes sewn shut and ominous chanting- terrifying imagery for 12 year olds!)

Setting up the monsters as part of the story in this way was both limiting and freeing. On the one hand, since the monsters were there for their own reasons, they didn’t necessarily have to kill or even fight my players (thanks, Brendan ☺). This gave both the players and me the flexibility to have an ending that played out however it wanted to. However, this setup also relied on the players getting the information they needed beforehand to make that choice. Overall, this ended up working really nicely. The players got the information they did, and formed lay theories to fill in the missingness. This lead to an ending that was as much of a surprise to me as it was to them.

I had hidden some crawling claws and shadows in storage alcoves in the mines, but no one explored these. Also, a swarm of spiders came into unplanned existence from a bleeding cave wall when one of my players seemed to have decided he would rather mine for silver all day than finish the quest 😉

dungeon copyMap: Super simple. The most complex thing was the final room where Phobos and Deimos were imprisoned. I took inspiration for this room largely from the great hall in Michael Prescott’s map, “The Chain of Heaven.” The room ended up being a 180-foot cylindrical cavern mirrored in silver ore, with a hole 90 feet up where the miners had originally broken through and disturbed the prison. At the base of the cavern was a shallow pool surrounded by an earthen ledge. Otherwise, the map had 2 other larger rooms and a few alcoves connected by hallways, and I suppose the town and marina count as part of the map too. Note to self for the future: long hallways leading simply from A to B with nothing in between are a waste of time and space.

Stock: I decided to keep the role-playing and potential combat areas separate, allowing for information gathering in the first half of the game, and exploration/combat in the second half. In hindsight, the game probably would have been more complex and interesting if these things were mixed, but for the sake of story telling and introducing players slowly into game mechanics, it worked pretty well. I also kept treasure to a minimum given this was a one shot game.

Marina/Mining Town/Barracks: This is where the players could gather information. There were 5 main sources planned, and the players ended up getting 4 of them. A marina keeper directed them to important folk in the town. The last two men out of the mine (one of whom went mad) gave them the run down on the last thing they saw before fleeing the mines. They spoke to Bion, the local philosopher and historian, about the Gods. Finally, they spoke to a miner’s son, who swore he could hear his father’s voice from the mine at night.

map copyMines: Nothing too exciting in any of the other rooms except for a bunch of abandoned miner tools and the monsters that no one found. The walls of the mine bled if axed. The first main obstacle in the prison was the 90-foot drop to the bottom. Also, the pool couldn’t be looked at directly without risking mind-control, but indirect looking via the mirror-like silver walls revealed two glowing human-heart-shaped orbs at the base of the pool. There were 4 doorframes around the perimeter of the cavern, behind which were small alcoves. In the event of a pool disturbance, these alcoves filled with apparating undead acolytes who didn’t attack unless provoked, but chanted menacingly about a choice that had to be made. At one end of the cavern was a large sacrificial platform, upon which were a golden gong and a black dagger. Both the gong and the dagger were ornately carved in patterns unrecognized by any of the party, but seemed weathered and tarnished with age. I had originally intended a blood sacrifice with the dagger to wake Phobos and Deimos, and a ringing of the gong to summon Adrestia, but of course – neither of these things happened and Adrestia still showed up!

Compared to some of the games I’ve played as a player, this is really sparse stocking. I was worried about that before we started, but it actually worked well for a 3 hour game with young and brand new players because 1) it allowed for a focus on building a transporting story more than a game with treasure splitting, repetitive combat, and/or undirected information seeking would have allowed, and 2) the sparseness afforded elaboration on all the elements in an environment together– everything in the room had a purpose, and it was up to the players to figure out (or, in some cases, tell me!) what that shared purpose was. If I were doing this again, I’d say this amount of stocking is just about right.

Mechanics: In terms of game mechanics, since my players were brand spanking new to the game and I was already worried enough about keeping the dungeon straight, I knew I’d want to keep them as simple as possible. This meant getting rid of alignment and 5e backgrounds. We didn’t track movement. Skill checks were only used when whatever they wanted to check was unexpected and I needed a few extra seconds to invent something plausible. I actually found structuring combat with initiative was really helpful. The players got super excited about how they were going to kill the thing, so being able to go through a list systematically was a good way to keep things straight.

In hindsight, I wish I had simplified even more. Even the skills-only character creation process took nearly an hour and already had one of my players thinking DnD was complicated. If I could go back, I would consider getting rid of race and skills and just using the appropriate ability checks for skill checks.

Final Details: The best lesson came in the form of a logical anomaly in play. I accidentally made the opening to the final prison much smaller than would have been possible given other information they had. My mom pointed this out, and as I’m wracking my brain for a semblance of a plausible explanation for this anomaly, my brother turns to my mom and says, in a tone only a 12 year old can pull off, “DUH!! If the walls can bleed of course they can heal!” Not only a perfectly plausible explanation- but way better than anything I would have come up with! I somehow managed in my shock to put an all-knowing DM smile on my face as the players moved on to break down the wall. The moral of the story – it’s often best to just shut up for a second and let your players do the talking.

Overall, DM’ing was a fantastic experience that I would love to do again. While it was a bit nerve wracking to get started, once I had hooked on Phobos and Deimos the rest kind of fell into place and I ended up with this cute baby dungeon that I was quite literally giddy with excitement to have the players explore.

I loved seeing the different personalities of my players, and listening as they elaborated with such creativity on the tasks I had designed for them. My one brother was super into role-play and kicked ass at getting information out of people. Unfortunately he also had a penchant to jump into situations without thinking, which lead to near death quite a few times. Luckily, my other brother had the most ingenious ways of using his spells to make combat virtually irrelevant, and it was absolutely hilarious hearing my mom use vicious mockery to kill a swarm of spiders.

Oh, and the players loved it ☺ My brother bought his first set of polyhedrals the next day, and we played a second game that night!

Game Notes

A marina town in ancient Greece on the island of Thassos, a mile or so south of a silver mine. Rumors are that the Gods had spited the mine, as miners had mysteriously been disappearing and random wails of the men who worked there can often be heard at night.

The miners refused to show up to work in protest, so the Athenian authorities promised significant reward to anyone who would enter the mine to appease the Gods. They were losing a lot of money from the stalls in the silver trade.


NPC – Marina Keeper (Trechus the Keeper) – repeats the intro.

If asked: Says that it seems to have started about 3 weeks ago, when two miners (Nilus and Kittos) ran out of the mine in Terror. Nilus has gone mad and is being housed in the infirmary. Kittos hasn’t left his side since the incident. From that day, anyone who has entered the mine has not returned. They called in Bion the local theologian to


Bookshop, Infirmary, Market, Bar, Inn

NPCs – Nilus, Kittos, Bion
Nilus wailing: The pool! OH the Horror, Oh Phobos, Oh Deimos, my fear, my terror!

Kittos: The miners had recently broken ground into a cavern they hadn’t seen before – the cavern was larger than they had ever seen, and unusual for the rock formations found in the mine. Oddly, the cavern was basked in a pool of light seemingly emanating from the sparkle of more silver embedded in the walls than any of the miners had ever seen before. This was a great find, and since the miners get to keep a small portion of whatever silver they find, Kittos and Nilus thought they would be rich. Kittos was behind Nilus when they broke through, and could see the silver in the wall, but only Nilus looked in, yelled at the splendor of the room, and then started screaming in terror. Kittos yanked him back and ran out of the mine, and Nilus has been wailing these words ever since.

Info (if you can calm Nilus’ Horrors somehow): At the base of the cavern was a pool of water. The rubble from knocking through the wall disturbed the pool. When Nilus looked in the pool, his greatest fears and terrors ripped through him.

Bion: Knows the myth about Phobos and Deimos being coerced by their sister Adrestia to the island of Thassos, where she trapped them in a tomb to save her and her brothers (Eros and Anteros) from the troubles of horror.

Miner Camp

Miners are congregated out in the pavilion beside, playing games and drinking because they refuse to go in – you can talk to them and get more info if you really wanted to, but it seems they don’t know much except about the wails late at night, and this constant echo sound like chanting from deep within. Even the vermin have fled.

The son of one of the guys who went in swears he hears his dad in the wailing.


NPCs – Lots of Monsters: Cultists, Gods, Gross Hands

GONG – If they ring the gong on the big table, the room starts shaking, the cultists chant louder and the pool begins wavering, but then Adrestia appears and stills the pool.

DAGGER – If they offer a blood sacrifice on the tomb, they awaken Phobos and Deimos and basically die.



B51-duskA friend of mine who just recently started playing D&D wanted to run a game. Previously, she had played a session or two with me using LotFP and separately a number of organized games (mostly Adventurers League using 5E but also one or two Pathfinder sessions). She asked me to recommend a module, planning to use 5th since that is what she had books for and was most familiar with.

I had no immediate candidate because 1) there are not that many modules for 5th, 2) most of them are wordy or bland, 3) while recently more directly usable modules have been published such as Forgive Us they still require prep especially for a new referee that will need to deal with stat conversions to 5th, and 4) I believe the true potential of tabletop RPGs lies in personal creativity. So, mindful of information overload and the value of time time limitation, I suggested a compromise approach that I felt would be capture the best of both worlds while minimizing low-payoff preparation.

Following is the advice I provided.

Option 1: use one of Michael Prescott’s one-page dungeons:

Option 2: pick one of Dyson’s free maps and stock it by hand according to guidelines I will send momentarily:

Option 3: use one of Dyson’s adventures here:

For a guide to dungeon stocking, I sent a copy of pages B51 and B52 from Moldvay Basic. This is the single most useful short explanation that came to mind regarding what referees actually do for effective prep in D&D. In outline:

  • Part 8: Dungeon Master Information
    • A. Choose a scenario
    • B. Decide on a setting
    • C. Decide on special monsters to be used
    • D. Draw the map of the dungeon
    • E. Stock the dungeon
    • F. Filling in final details

I heard that she created a island scenario in mythical Ancient Greece and ran a session last night. I am hoping I can get her to write up a postmortem about how the game went and what was most useful as a new referee since there are a lot of opinions about decreasing the barrier to entry for new tabletop gamers but not so much thoughtful reflection on the experience of actual new players and referees.

Damage symmetry

Consider this house rule for traditional D&D:

When an attack roll misses, the attacker suffers damage from the defender.

This gives every attack roll the potential of loss as well as gain. Damage inflicted by the defender would be based on the equivalent of a basic attack as situationally appropriate. For example, someone attacking a dragon from behind and missing might take tail swipe damage.

How do you think it would change the game?

This shares some properties with what I have called monological combat before, though it remains more firmly within the familiar D&D approach to combat turns. See also: monological combat example and monological save versus magic.

Some potential consequences I can see include:

  1. Encourage avoidance behaviors because attacking feels riskier.
  2. Decrease the sense of stasis caused by several misses in a row.
  3. Speed up combat by increasing average damage per round.
  4. Cut down hoards of unchallenging enemies quickly.
  5. Decrease the defensive value of armor.

Given a choice as a player, would you like to use this house rule? Why or why not?

Doctrine of proceduralism

Proceduralism is the degree to which a game relies upon explicit procedures. It is one of many different descriptors that can be used to understand and classify games. Other examples of descriptors include mechanical complexity, optionality, loci of narrative control, and so forth. My intent when I build game systems and content is to encode procedures efficiently into the process of play rather than adding rules overhead necessary for the desired relationships. That is, I want the procedures to feel like a part of the game that players sit down to play, not some cost that must be paid. This has been my intent especially with the Hazard System.

In my view, many game designs underweight the immediate cost of performing game procedures during play. For example, in early versions of TSR D&D, encumbrance is handled by measuring weight carried in coins and summing over all gear carried. Though the coin counting encumbrance procedure would probably have the intended effect if it were used, it is often ignored because it takes effort that does not seem to be play. Though individuals differ regarding their tolerance for such hassle, there seem to be few inherent benefits to adding purely transactional costs to the process of play.

Further, procedures are maximally effective when all players in a group comply, meaning that procedure effectiveness is often subject to the player with the least tolerance. In a traditional tabletop RPG, a conscientious referee can often take on an additional burden to mitigate the cost of procedures on other players, but this has its own drawbacks.

This is probably a domain-specific manifestation of general decision-making myopia. For example, people tend to underestimate the amount of time a future task will take even given domain-specific experience. (This is the Planning Fallacy.) In games, this tendency often comes, I think, from a designer focusing more on the desired outcome of a procedure and less on the effort or hassle involved in the practice of using the procedure.

To formalize different kinds of proceduralism, consider that a procedure may either feel like play or feel like work. Call the first kind of procedure intrinsic and the second extrinsic, mirroring theories of motivation. Intrinsic procedures are not always simpler. Instead, they focus attention and effort on the game processes that are most rewarding to the players. For example, more procedural combat rules may be more engaging due to the immediate stakes. That is, they feel like play rather than work or hassle. Procedural fluency then could be thought of as the overall balance between intrinsic and extrinsic procedures.

The definition above incorporates player taste. While my general sense is that heavier logistical procedures are almost universally experienced as aversive, there do seem to be some exceptions worth noting. For example, competitive players or those that value game mastery may appreciate highly extrinsic procedures as long as they can be used, respectively, to gain a relative advantage over other players or overcome game challenges effectively. Though there may be some fit effects between procedure and player personality, even entirely ignoring this nuance there seem to be many opportunities to make game procedures more generally fluent given that few tabletop RPGs pay attention to the concrete experience of procedures in play.

Though play testing could evaluate a game on any number of different dimensions, such as inter-player power balance, compliance with some aesthetic standard, or pedagogic efficiency, I believe that procedural fluency is a particularly good candidate for evaluation. Some questions that might help identify procedural disfluency include:

  1. Are players following the rules?
  2. What are players handwaving?
  3. Are players creating shortcuts?
  4. Do the shortcuts accomplish the same goal?
  5. Is the reward payoff disconnected from the procedure’s deployment?
  6. Do players not understand the intended impact of the procedure?
  7. Do the procedures feel like a drag outside of the game itself?
  8. Is the procedure designed to solve an extra-game problem, such as argumentativeness?
  9. Does the procedure require prosthetics such as spreadsheet software?

Finally, to distinguish this doctrine from the old “system matters” position, it is worth emphasizing that proceduralism is only one dimension of many that define a game and that the experience of a particular game arises from far more than just following the procedural rules.