Category Archives: Rules

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).

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.


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?

Light quantity

Torch image by C. Borysiuk (CC license)

Torch image by C. Borysiuk

Playing yesterday evening using the Hazard System led me to think about light resources again. On paper, I have something about coverage where the number of light sources needed depends on the size of the party (a candle provides coverage for one party member and a torch or lantern provides coverage for 3 party members). This works okay but I am not happy with the calculation step and though it is easy to do initially I also think the details about the number of light sources required tends to get forgotten as play progresses.

The Hazard System does a good job of making sure that illumination matters at a base level, but the model remains slightly too complex to easily handle the relation between party size and resources needed. It is, however, interesting for party size to deplete resources more quickly because that is both intuitive (one of the main downsides to increasing the number of people working on anything is the cost in resources) and provides an engaging tradeoff when players are deciding whether they want to recruit more retainers. This framing seems to naturally suggest a mechanical solution. Why not build the resource requirement into the abstract depletion step and not worry about details regarding which PC is holding what? First pass:

Light required = party size / 3, round up.

When the hazard die indicates light exhaustion, to maintain illumination consume a number of light resources equal to light required number. This can be torches, oil if characters have lanterns, etc. Zero light sources means total darkness. Less light sources remaining than light required but more than zero means some general penalty to actions that need illumination (and the next light exhaustion hazard die result = total darkness unless more light resources can be obtained before then).

(The writing could be improved, but I think that is mechanically coherent.)

This “light required” value is probably a good general measure of party size for other purposes as well at the “dungeon exploration” resolution of play. It could also be used for the number of rations that should be consumed when the Hazard Die indicates fatigue (as requiring each character to consume a full ration at this resolution of play is not entirely satisfying for me). This measure should probably have a more general name, though, if it is going to be used multiply. “Party magnitude” sounds overly technical. “Maintenance” rating perhaps?

Mechanizing alignment

Image derived from Wikipedia

Image derived from Wikipedia

Adam M. recently posted a good piece on deferring the choice of alignment. The idea contained in that post, as I understand it, is mostly narrative; rather than pick an alignment at first level and try to live up to it through character actions, instead make alignment depend upon low-level character actions. Presumably this would then matter somehow during the mid-game or stronghold phase of play, though the post is light on details.

Traditionally, alignment did have several mechanical effects, though only a few of them seem like they would regularly see play. For example, evil or chaotic characters should be affected by spells like protection from evil. However, these effects are few and far between, may not add enough to play for the management hassle, and anyways were largely eclipsed by the way alignment came to be interpreted as something like personality in AD&D and after.

If one is going to defer the choice of alignment, however, why not leverage incentive psychology and make attaining alignment an achievement? One could build something like a skill or feat tree with criteria, either level- or action-based, for gaining status within law, chaos, or whatever moral/allegiance structure underlies the fictional world. Action guidance could be provided by taboos or restrictions, the violation of which might cause an aligned character to fall down a rank. Alignment ranks could also be prerequisites for certain powers or faction benefits in a way that is mechanically transparent to players. Such transparency would make alignment motivational rather than descriptive.

Weapons of unusual size

Young Guts from Berserk

Young Guts from Berserk

Hexagram characters begin with stats rated from 0 to 3, using the arrays I originally developed for Gravity Sinister. (There is a random determination table for players that do not like to bother with making choices.) Then, each level, including first, players choose one stat to improve. The same stat cannot be improved two levels in a row. The max character level is 10, which means that the highest a stat can be naturally is 8 (3 initial + the 5 for every other level increases).

Among other benefits, characters with higher strength scores can wield ever more obscenely scaled weapons. There are three size categories beyond standard: huge, giant, and colossal. They require, respectively, strength scores of 4, 6, and 8, to wield effectively. (Category names are subject to adjustment.)

For normal weapons, strength adds to melee damage, up to +3. Larger weapons can express strength beyond this limit. Huge weapons allow up to +5, giant up to +7, and colossal up to +8. (In general, the max bonus is one less than the ability threshold for the next largest weapon category.) For simplicity, there are no special encumbrance considerations for oversized weapons. Each counts as one significant item. They do, however, cost more to repair (an additional 1d6 * 10 SP per exceptional size category).

Larger weapons retain any type benefits. Thus, a giant axe can express up to +7 melee damage from strength and also provides a sunder bonus to damaging enemy equipment. Oversized missile weapons apply strength to damage rather than perception, but are fixed at +4, +6, or +8, depending on the size category. For example, a huge elephant gun deals +4 damage even if the wielder has 5 strength. Such weapons still use perception for attack tests.

Though this system is designed with big weapons in mind, it would be easy to adapt to enchanted weapons that would only serve worthy warriors (that is, those strong enough or with large enough attack bonus for D&D), and so could be another way to explain and manage the traditional restriction that only fighters can use magic swords.

For AD&D (1E and 2E) ability scores, use the strength damage bonus rather than the Hexagram strength ability. For something like D&D 3E or 5E, use the ability modifier. The mappings are not perfect, but they should be good enough. Some other rulings may be required, given that HP quantities in 3E or 5E are higher that the OD&D standards I tend to assume, so adjust accordingly.

Edit: though above I noted that there are no special considerations regarding encumbrance, I am not fully convinced that is the right way to go. I think as written there may be insufficient incentive for diversity of weapon choices (that is, anyone with high strength would prefer an oversized weapon), which is perhaps uninteresting. I will need to see how this plays at the table, but one potential modification would be for each extra size category to count as a significant item, though I am wary of slipping graduated encumbrance in via the backdoor.


Pursuer's Ultra Greatsword from Dark Souls 2

Pursuer’s Ultra Greatsword from Dark Souls 2

Guts from Berserk

Guts from Berserk

Monster Hunter concept art

Monster Hunter concept art

Cloud from Final Fantasy 7

Cloud from Final Fantasy 7

Saw spear from Bloodborne

Saw spear from Bloodborne

Monster Hunter concept art

Monster Hunter concept art

Bow from Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter concept art


Firelink Shrine from Dark Souls

Firelink Shrine from Dark Souls

In the Afterlands, also called the Quiet Lands, the dead no longer hunger. They abide, mostly content, eternally. Following the Great Conjunction, after death many mortals began to find themselves aware again after death in that spare place. The Afterlands is far in the Southwest, beyond the deserts, and is marked by crisp air, green rolling hills well suited to sheep, and skies so blue they seem to go on forever. Not all dead find themselves waking from life in this place, and none know where the others go, if anywhere. The borders of the Afterlands are marked sporadically by a low, broken stone wall of no more than several feet in height, like the remnants of some previously proud fortification.

Some of the undying dead preserve a sense of self and memories by continuing the habits and practices of life, though to persist they no longer truly need sleep or sustenance. However, those undying dead that neglect such needs slowly lose individuality, becoming more inert, contemplative, and complete in themselves. There are exceptions to this majority. Some feel a nagging lack of completion, unsatisfied by eternity, and journey back into the world seeking what fortune still remains. Others have a consciousness not suited for long reflection, and go mad, hungering for lost vitality. These few hungry dead are driven from the heart of the Afterlands, either east across the desert, or into the caves deep below.

The living are welcome in the Afterlands, as long as they do not cause too much trouble. The pace of undying life is languid and the atmosphere is peaceful, though dangers remain for travelers. After death, emergence in the Afterlands happens in a multitude of ways. Some rise from ponds, at first confused by the water and lack of breath. Some sit up from shallow graves, surrounded by rich loam. Some wake in the warm embrace of cremation ash, flesh already stripped from pale white bones. Many undying dead have found meaning in cultivating these places of emergence. They tend cremation gardens, dig graves, plant tombstones, and inscribe guest lists of those likely to arrive soon using long quills dripping with rare imported green ink.

Adventurers wishing to know an aspect of their uncertain fate may visit the Afterlands and seek out a future ungrave. The undying cultivators know this service is valuable to mortals, and further that it is only valuable if it is valued. Thus, they take payment for this service. By seeking out an ungrave, an Adventurer will wake upon death as a skeleton in the Afterlands, bereft of all gear, but retaining memories and experience.

Though the conjunction of the material world with this afterlife is strongest in the realm now known as the Afterlands, pockets of afterlife can be found scattered across other lands. Afterlands expatriates sometimes tire of the exploration life and decide to settle down, but for whatever reason choose not to return to the lands west of the sands. Such emigrants may build and tend their own cremation kilns or ungrave cemeteries. Given that they are often mistaken for the hungry dead, such establishments are usually hidden. It is possible to stumble upon them or seek them out given knowledge of the signs. An Adventurer can even dig their own ungrave with a Gravedigger’s Shovel, or leave an offering at the ash pits surrounding a cremation kiln. Such ungraves work just like those in the Afterlands, though they lack the permanence of the true Afterlands.

Gravedigger’s Shovel. To make a temporary ungrave, spend a Haven Action and dig a shallow grave with a Gravedigger’s Shovel. A gravestone slowly rises from a properly formed ungrave. After use, a Gravedigger’s Shovel becomes a mundane shovel. Cost: 200 SP.

Cremation Kiln or Ungrave Cemetery. For a small fee, an undying attendant will fashion a permanent ungrave in this Afterlands outpost. Cost: 500 SP per Adventurer Level. (Similar services in the Afterlands proper cost 250 SP per Adventurer Level.)

The gear of a fallen and abandoned Adventurer will generally remain together, either left on the corpse or taken by a monster, for at least a few Haven Turns. However, if not recovered promptly, all bets are off and items may sold, traded, lost, or destroyed.

Hexagram crafting

Several times over the past few years I have tried to create a Diablo style loot and gear generator that would work elegantly with a traditional tabletop fantasy game. This is hard, and I have not yet come up with something that I find satisfying. It is hard largely because I feel torn between writing something overly general and something overly specific. Ideally, such a generator should interface with the setting monsters, but then those need to be nailed down and the generator becomes less useful to any other setting that deviates from the setting implied by those monsters. That realization leads to a turn back toward generality, which tends to be too schematic and not particularly atmospheric.

VRA 1 mentioned the old 3E era tabletop supplement Diablo II: Diablerie which has such a generator. It is actually not bad. The prefix-item-suffix approach has potential and the volume of content alone is enough to create interesting sounding item names. Many (though not all) of the attached mechanics, however, are mostly just numerical inflation. Bonuses to attack, bonus HP, etc. It could be used, but would require so much at the table ruling and interpretation that it almost does not feel worth it.

So I have decided to try approaching the problem from a different angle. Rather than building the generator beforehand, instead I will build a game system that will build such a mechanism naturally as the campaign progresses. This sidesteps the problem of bland generalness versus specific atmospherics completely. The first time a component such as a mineral or monster part is used for crafting, a particular augmentation becomes associated with that component. Augmentations can either be taken from a list of examples or improvised using that list as guidelines to appropriate power levels. Harvesting monster parts takes one Dungeon Turn. The material and augmentation will also be added to the general gear generator table. I still sense a small amount of hand-waving here, but I think this is close enough to a workable mechanism that the remaining details will naturally reveal themselves through play tests. I can see this easily applying without fuss to just about anything, even things like gems, leading to an interesting gamble: sell that ruby for coin, or have it forged into some piece of gear?

Power inflation should be possible to keep in check through a combination of the always operative gear degradation rules (all items not made of adamant still have at least a 5% chance of being damaged during use depending on quality rating) and abilities that refresh only during haven turns. For example, I could see adding a lightning burst augmentation which would allow an adventurer to add a die of lightning damage to one successful attack per excursion.

Crafting is something you pay a Haven NPC to do for you during a Haven Turn. Though I would not say no to a player that wanted to take a crafting Expert Skill such as Smith or Brew, I am not going to include it as an option in the text because 1) I suspect (though am not sure) that it would feel suboptimal compared to skills usable within a dungeon and 2) really I am not trying to write Shopkeepers & Spreadsheets.

Specifically (now for the player-facing Haven rules):


Repair: To repair a Damaged item, pay a smith 1d6 × 10 coins. Once a particular repair cost has been determined, it will not change on subsequent Haven Turns.

Forge: To forge a weapon or piece of armor from special materials, pay 1d6 × 100 coins and consume the materials.


Brew: To brew a concoction from special materials, pay 1d6 × 100 coins and consume the materials.

Smiths and Alchemists can each carry out up to 1d6 tasks per Haven Turn.

Boons of Ares

One of the base features of the Copernican Sovereignty setting is that characters can form covenants with any god to gain access to the deity’s boons. Clerics begin covenanted, but other characters may opt to form a covenant during play (though no more than one), if they have an exceptional Devotion* (3 or higher). Each god has a specific set of aspect-relevant boons.

Here is a list of boons from Ares, war god.

  • Recruit: weapon becomes hovering minion (L1, A1**) until end of combat.
  • Withstand: cancel up to 1d6 incoming damage (reaction)
  • Smite: add 1d6 damage to successful blow
  • Fortify: a failed morale check becomes a success
  • Persevere: slain combatant fights for one extra round***
  • Arm: conjure a mundane weapon (persists until next resource result)
  • Ignite: wreath weapon with magic fire (persists until end of combat)
  • Encourage: allies inflict +1 damage this round due to war drums

Given the multitude of deities, it would be impractical to create boon lists for every potential god. However, they can easily be created as needed using the existing King of Life boons as guidelines.

* Devotion is one of the six abilities in Hexagram and is kinda sorta like charisma.

** L1, A1 means level 1, armor 1. Traditional equivalent stats are roughly HD 1, AC as light armor.

*** For best effect, the boon caller should shout Fight On!

Daniel Sharman as Ares in Immortals (2011)

Daniel Sharman as Ares in Immortals (2011)