Category Archives: Rules

Fight off, dodge, or block

Some Dark Souls dude

Some Dark Souls dude

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

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

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

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

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

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


Resolve Monster Actions

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

Defenses

When monsters attack, to the defending player ask:

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

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

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

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

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


Suffer Damage

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


Notes

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

Playtest results

Scavenge Dungeon Move

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

Scavenging and Moves

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

Monster Parts as Incentives

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

Monster Parts and Improving Weapons

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

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

Determining Degree of Scavenge Success

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

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

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

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


Dungeon Move: Scavenge

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

Stonehell: Prepare to Die blocking and dodging

Knight blocking (image source)

Knight blocking (image source)

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

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

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

Knight dodging (image source)

Knight dodging (image source)

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

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

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


Reaction: Shield Block

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

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

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

Reaction: Dodge

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

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

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

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

Action: Recover Stamina

To recover stamina, spend a combat action.

Playbook cue:
Spend combat action.

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

Condition: Out of Stamina

Make all physical rolls with disadvantage.

Blocking and dodging are impossible.

Stamina recovers automatically following combat.

Summoner and Pyromancer playbooks

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

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

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


Summoner Spells

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

Charm

Bind a neutral or friendly creature as a minion.

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

Minions resist commands that are suicidal or anathema.

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

Previously charmed creatures become hostile when liberated.

Summon

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

Choose: careful, reckless, or named.

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

Reckless could summon anything, even a duke of hell.

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

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

Ward

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

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


Pyromancy Spells

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

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

A pyromancy flame occupies a hand slot.

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

Fireball

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

Flaming Weapon

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

The enchantment persists as an expiring resource during exploration.

Stonehell: Prepare to Die weapons

Dark Souls zweihander (personal photo)

Big sword from Dark Souls 1 (personal photo)

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

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


Starting Weapons

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

Two-Handed Weapons

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

Dual-Wielding

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

Critical Hits

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

Strong Attacks

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

Parrying Counterattacks

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

Sneak Attacks

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

Blunt Weapons

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

Enchanting

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

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

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

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

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

Bleeding

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

Poison

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

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


Melee Weapons

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

Missile Weapons

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

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

Bows must be wielded with both hands.


Weapon images are from Dark Souls 3.

Stonehell: Prepare to Die playbook overview

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

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

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

My first Dark Souls dude, with a shield

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

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

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

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

Weapons

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

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

Armor

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

Attack Bonus

Edit: the weapon upgrade rules replace the attack bonus.

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

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

 

HP Pool

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

1d12 + 1d6 + 1d6 + 1

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

Carrying Capacity

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

Magic

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

Minions

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

Advancement

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

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

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

Ability Bonuses

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

Score Bonus
13 +1
16 +2
18 +3

Roles for common adventurer jobs

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

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

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

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

Common Roles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactical Hazard Die

Dragon_Warrior_NES_ScreenShot3

NES Dragon Warrior

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

Traditions and corruption

2016-07-08 19.15.49 copy

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.

 

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).