Good reviews

A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.
—Murray Kempton

What makes a good review? This is my take, and is unapologetically opinion. There are plenty of useful reviews out there that fail to hit all these notes. But these constitute my ideal. This post was prompted and informed by several Google Plus conversations (here and here, at least).

Constructiveness

Reviews of tabletop RPG products generally concern finished products, so why bother with thinking about improvement? The ship has already sailed. First, focusing on constructive feedback forces the reviewer to really think about why something is a problem rather than just following feelings. Second, writing constructive reviews helps avoid snark. Third, providing constructive feedback reveals reviewer priorities and biases concretely. Simple criticism is often underspecified. For example, if a reviewer says that the monsters were too generic or too simple, the reader has to infer the meaning of generic or simple from past experience or make their own best guess. If the reviewer says that the monsters would be improved by adding attack routines and combat weaknesses, then the reader knows that the reviewer is specifically looking for tactical complexity in monsters and can weight the review accordingly.

Thesis

The best reviews use the review form to express a more fundamental idea, rather than simply evaluate a product. I imagine this criteria may be somewhat controversial. I understand preferring a focus on functionality and simple facts. However, reviews have audiences beyond just immediate buyers. They also inform future creators, including creators other than the original product’s author. For example, when I discussed Courtney’s Megadungeon zine, I framed my review around the idea of presenting a megadungeon piecemeal using the zine form. I make no claims about how insightful that particular thesis is, but that is what I mean by more fundamental idea. Someone else might run with the baton you provide. Reviews shape the form in addition to describing and evaluating.1

Focus on value

Price is what you pay, value is what you get.
—Warren Buffett

Apart from ease of use, which is in some ways a measure of future opportunity cost, when I review something, I try to pay attention only to the value. I do not see the role of a reviewer as to judge whether product X is worth Y dollars. First, who knows what the cost will be in the future? For example, maybe a product will get new pricing (such as becoming pay what you want), be included in a bundle, or go out of print and become scarce. Second, I lack the info to evaluate how the value I see might match up to any particular reader’s resources. One person’s extravagance is another’s impulse purchase. On reflection, while writing this post, I decided that it may be useful to include how much I paid, and when, for commercial products, as that makes it easier for a reader to make a judgment and also makes the source of the product clear. So when I get a chance I may go back through my reviews and include that information. And that serves as a nice transition to considering free copies for review provided to reviewers by producers, and the attendant incentives.

Absent conflict of interest

The best reviewers do not accept complimentary copies. I believe Bryce buys all the modules he reviews (“I bought this stuff and read it so you don’t have to”). Consumer Reports buys the stuff they test (“Our shoppers pay full retail and purchase all the products we test to generate our ratings from the same places consumers do; we accept no sample products for testing”). I would never review something I was given a free copy of for purposes of facilitating a review. A commitment to this principle has been in the about section of Necropraxis since before it was called Necropraxis. I think this helps to maintain editorial independence.

For a given individual reviewer, of course ethics can outweigh incentives, but in the ideal case the incentive will be absent. I need to know more about a reviewer to have a sense of whether the incentive will matter compared to a case where there is no incentive. Similar concerns justify why people often prefer to pay for a fee-only financial advisor, because conflict of interest is less likely. I don’t think this is a categorical taint, but it is a factor that must have an effect in aggregate. I believe a norm against accepting free copies for review would be beneficial.

The scene is small enough that there will always be some degree of nepotism in reviewing materials created by friends. This problem is different than the appeal to material self-interest inherent in free review copies, but is related, and is probably harder to systematically combat in a small hobby scene, but we can still try. I disclose in a review if I feel this is a potential factor. All I can say here regarding this principle is to do your best and perhaps try to put on a slightly more critical hat when reviewing something by a friend or acquaintance.

Absent numerical ratings

Numbers, or star ratings, when applied to reviews, are heuristics, designed to help the reader avoid deliberative thinking. Tabletop roleplaying products are way more complex than Uber rides, and Uber rides are about the most complex product or service that I think might benefit from using such heuristics. I prefer drawing attention to particular strengths and weaknesses, with explanations, rather than just providing numbers. Numerical ratings provide only an illusion of objectivity, unless they are tied to specific definitions, but even then I think ratings are more likely to get in the way of actual consideration.

Absent snark

Good reviews are entertaining, because who wants to read hobby material of any kind that is boring? Trashing someone’s work for the shit-stirring is the low road to entertainment, and can be particularly tempting when writing a review, as the mindset of reviewing is generally critical. As a writer, snark can be easily confused with wit. Unless you are Nietzsche or Wilde though, your snark is probably not witty.

Further, the Internet attention economy and social media feedback loops incentivize snarky reviews. In the short term, and maybe even in the long term, snark will probably get your blog more views. It might even be a road to low-rent celebrity. However, I would rather be respected by a small number of people for civility than known by a large number of people for being a clown. Of course, good reviews will honestly point out shortcomings or problems and avoid pulling punches, but there is always a way to do that without snark. Given the social dynamics and the technological affordances of the Internet, I am probably spitting into the wind here, but mean spiritedness and snark are the bane of thoughtful discourse.

Basis: play versus perusal

For RPGs in particular, it is also helpful to be explicit about whether the review is based on using the material in play or simply reading the product. Reading a product for inspiration or entertainment is a perfectly legitimate use of a game product, but the review reader may be looking for something else.

Consideration of format

I am a book snob. I like the physical objects, and poorly bound books make me sad. This means that, generally, I avoid print on demand books for anything other than small booklets or pamphlets. If it is hardcover, I want stitched bindings. I realize that others may have different concerns, but if I was reading a review, I would always like to know whether a hardcover book was produced using a traditional print run using offset printing and whether the book has a stitched or glued binding.


One of the more thoughtful professors I have had so far in grad school provided a template for writing reviews of academic articles in one of his classes. Though the task of reviewing an academic article differs from reviewing products in several ways, I think this template could still be a reasonable starting point. A functional review can often handle each of these points with a single paragraph.

  1. Description. Restate the core idea or main function of the work in your own words. Mostly avoid evaluation here. This ensures that you understand the author’s goal and potentially reveals misunderstandings earlier rather than later. In an RPG product review, it might be reasonable to foreshadow the overall evaluation either in a topic sentence or final transition sentence, but minimize judgment. If you have an idea around which you are organizing your review, here is where you provide an overture.
  2. Praise. List strengths. If there are no strengths, why are you even bothering? Deciding to review a product at all is a form of curation and publicity. There are no RPG products that are so bad that trashing them is a public service.
  3. Major shortcoming. Discuss the biggest problems. If possible, explain potential fixes. Keep this to one, or at most a handful, of issues, and prioritize.
  4. Minor shortcomings. Here is where you can unload on everything else. Again, explain potential fixes. This often works well as a list with bullet points.
  5. Conclusion. Tie everything together and summarize the overall judgment. Here is where you can best most effectively unfurl your opinion flags.

1. Tangentially, I think the same thing is true of good session reports. A good session report has a thesis beyond just a chronological list of what happened in play. Grognardia was particularly good at this. But that is a topic for another post.

Game designers are overrated

OD&D Afterword

At the end of the final OD&D booklet, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gygax and Arneson wrote: … why have us do any more of your imagining for you? There are several reasonable objections to that sentiment. When I want bread, I usually buy it from a baker rather than baking my own. There is nothing wrong with outsourcing, even within a creative hobby like playing old school D&D. While acknowledging the value and legitimacy of dividing labor, there is still something special about doing your own imagining for roleplaying games, which are particularly easy to customize, especially compared to other forms of art and entertainment.

This may be obvious conceptually, but gamers, even within our DIY-obsessed corner of the hobby, often behave in ways that belie an attitude valuing imagining things yourself. People, myself included, buy and read innumerable, often trivially different, takes on core rules, spell systems, adventure modules, and so forth. People also create, share, and hack, of course, but sometimes I still wonder about the balance between these activities. Why so much consumption and passive behavior, compared to play? The play is, after all, the thing. While some amount of learning and consumption may be required for play, the claim that people buy and read more than needed to play seems obvious and uncontroversial.

Black Hack v2 (this might be a mockup)—Kickstarter

This general tendency is one reason why I have been impressed by the community that has developed around the Black Hack, which is currently soliciting funds for a second edition. I can take or leave many ofBlack Hack’s specific rules, despite having similar design priorities. I value concision, ease of use, quick character generation, lethality, modularity, limited bookkeeping, and so forth. So does the Black Hack. However, I also already have systems that I like which solve most of these problems, so why bother with yet another system? For me, the Black Hack is like reading someone else’s collection of battle-tested house rules, maybe a few of which I might experiment with and adapt.

But that is exactly the point: the Black Hack has some useful mechanical ideas, for sure, but it also emphasizes, through its style, through its attitude, through its confidence, that designing these games and playing these games lie on the same plane. No pedigree, training, or extensive experience is required, once you have the basic idea. Traditional fantasy games, those in the DIY D&D or OSR traditions, are robust. There is minimal danger of breaking the game if you accidentally award too much XP, try out a new rule for shields, or replace spell memorization with magic points. Most of those dragons were unbalanced encounters anyways, so as long as you have good communication within your group, making sure that everyone is on the same page about game expectations and shared fictional reality, the rules only need to remain within very broad parameters perform their duty. And further, some adjustment will almost certainly make any rule set work better for your own group.

Is it hypocritical to plug yet another system, crowd funding for a second edition no less, in a post about doing your own imagining? Perhaps. Being a book snob, I am glad the second edition will be printed using offset printing rather than printed on demand1. Stitched bindings is a stretch goal, unlocked at 1200 backers, which is unreached at the time of this writing. So, back the project if you want to help create nicely bound books, or if you want more house rules to read, or if you want some more random generators. From my point of view, however, the most valuable return on the continued success of the Black Hack is an influential rule set and brand carrying the torch of making the game your own rather than following others and deferring to established creators.


1. “We’ve vowed never to do POD because of the quality issues, and our final stretch goal is to get stitch binding on both books – I think the regular hardback has a high enough print run to make stitch binding affordable at the moment, with the stretch goal to get the collector’s book stitch binding. We’re doing everything we can to get them as high quality production finish as possible!” (David Black, direct message.)

Share reviews

A couple days ago, LS/Beloch, of the Papers & Pencils blog, started a conversation (public thread) on Google Plus about what concrete, immediate actions people can take to foster a functional OSR community. People had a lot of ideas, which he then summarized. It is a good list, and worth checking out if you missed it.

I want to highlight one particular suggestion, and add to it. Specifically:

The number 1 thing the OSR needs is more reviewers. People who do the hard work of finding new stuff that nobody has ever heard of, reading that stuff, and getting into the nitty gritty of what is good and what is bad. Bryce Lynch of 10′ Pole is a great model for how to do this right, but there’s more stuff being produced than he can parse on his own.

Personally, I was surprised at the number of people that mentioned wanting more reviews. I write them sometimes, mostly as a systematic way to prompt myself to get familiar with a product, but I rarely feel like many people pay attention to them, especially since, I think, I am not primarily a reviewer and my blog is not primarily a review outlet. I post more about other topics, such as rules hacking, necromancers, and Dark Souls. This means that any readers I have probably come here primarily for things other than reviews. This is true for most gamers writing about, or evaluating, the content other people create.

I can only think of two dedicated review outlets for DIY D&D/OSR products: Bryce Lynch’s Ten Foot Pole and Ben Milton’s Questing Beast YouTube channel. Being so focused on a single topic or function is a good way to distinguish yourself, but it is also a lot of work and I doubt many other people will step up to create and regularly update comparable review outlets. There are, however, lots of people who post reviews with some regularity, either as G+ comments or on blogs, even if that is not the focus of their output. For example, Ram also regularly posts reviews, but that is not the main subject matter of his blog either. This means that people, especially those that might be most interested in many of these reviews, rarely see them.

There is something you can do to help make this situation better. If you come across a review someone else wrote that you think is useful, insightful, or impartial, consider sharing it to a relevant G+ community or other fan-specific outlet, such as a subreddit. I rarely share my own reviews this way because it feels like spamming someone else’s space. Such sharing will help people interested in the material find the relevant reviews and avoids the problem of ulterior motives in self-promotion. If someone other than the review author shares the review though, this serves as weak form of peer review. Just sharing a review to your own social media feed is probably less useful. People looking for, say, modules or supplements to use with DCC are more likely to see reviews if they are posted to DCC-specific outlets.

Unless the review is snarky clickbait. Burn that shit down and bury it in the poisoned ground.


(This is an expanded version of a comment I left on LS/Beloch’s original thread.)

Gehennum

Some time in the 90s, when I first went online looking for info about playing RPGs, I remember joining a listserv called something like world builder’s digest. Or maybe it was just called world building and I had digest mode turned on; I no longer recall.

The advice and work done on that list were mostly top-down, with little attention paid to directly gameable content. The ideal was to work out all the details of your world starting with fundamentals such as geology, cosmology, and history. Then, work your way into the specifics such as economics and ecology, making sure that everything made sense and would stand up to the stray player with a geology PhD.

With hindsight, I no longer think this is a particularly effective way of building settings for tabletop roleplaying games, to put it mildly. But it was a first exposure, and this sort of conversation flowed then more sluggishly online than it does now, and there was considerably less diversity of thought.

A particular creation that made an impression on me from the time I spent reading that list was a setting called Gehennum, designed by one Brett Evill. It was notable to me as a fantasy world that was explicitly designed to buck faux medieval expectations, which even then could sometimes seem bland. (I had no idea at the time that something like Tekumel already existed.) The focal area was an archipelago which drew more from the pacific islands than European mythology and expectations. The body of content Brett wrote about Gehennum also stood out as relatively well-written, especially by the standards of mailing lists about roleplaying games, as filtered through teen memories. In his own words:

In designing Gehennum, I tried to disengage players’ defaults. To do this, I rejected several of most conspicuous standard assumptions, and replaced them with vividly different premises. For example, Gehennum is tropical and oceanic, the Gehennese are not of a European racial type, there are no horses…. I have been different for the sake of being different, which is not in general something I admire. But I have also tried to make Gehennum interesting and good.

For whatever reason, this list and setting came to mind today and I did a few web searches to see if any of that material was still online. Indeed, it looks like Brett still has a site about Gehennum up (copyright mark 1991):

http://gehennum.wikidot.com/

Unfortunately, the link to the map image on that site seems to be dead, but I am glad the work is still online, despite the lapsed time. I was unable to find any listserv archives, but I may just be misremembering the list name.

Streaming matters for trad play

Midcentury, many educated people thought that hanzi, Chinese writing, was an albatross holding back Chinese modernization and economic development. This included many Chinese, in official capacities. Imagine, prior to modern computer character set support and fonts, how difficult it must have been to transmit documents written in Chinese efficiently. Mao himself, in the early fifties, directed that the government should begin a process to transition written Chinese into some sort of phonetic system 1. This attempt was unsuccessful for a number of reasons, but some historians have argued that it was actually the fax machine, with its easy transmission of complex visual printed material, that helped preserve written Chinese as a practical, everyday means of communication in the modern world. (More citations to be added the next time I am near the relevant books, if I remember.)

What does this have to do with tabletop gaming and streaming? I have previously written that games can be transmitted through both culture and text. Earlier, Jeff Rients made a related point, focusing on personal creativity rather than cultural transmission:

My advice to anyone currently fretting over which edition or retro-clone or whatever they should use is to just pick one. It doesn’t matter which one. No matter which one you pick D&D isn’t there. It’s your job to take that text and turn it into D&D.

As it would be unreasonable to expect new players to turn such a text into D&D completely unassisted, where did they look? Older game texts are weak when it comes to explanation of what people actually do when playing a roleplaying game, especially when gameplay has many emergent properties, so in practice new players have historically learned from experienced players. That is, they tap into broader cultures of play.

Once people started to talk extensively about games online, this provided a vector for communicating methods of play. Easy sharing of recorded videos and streaming provided another, even broader vector of transmission. Literally: broad-casting. Whether or not you in particular enjoy getting information from YouTube, Twitch, and similar platforms, or think that watching people play D&D marks the decline of civilization, it should be clear that the medium has enormous cultural penetration and influence, especially when it comes to learning how to do something. If you are as yet unconvinced, just look at esports and video game streaming: League of Legends (check out those sportscaster voices!), PewDiePie (who reportedly earns more than $10 million per year from entertaining people by streaming video games), and so forth.

I am uncertain how causal the fax machine was in helping preserve traditional Chinese writing, but the principle of technology facilitating the transmission of complex cultural practice should be clear. Streaming affords a unique opportunity to broadcast cultures of play. Such transmission should be, based on historical experience, especially valuable for games that live more in cultures than in texts, such as OSR games (or whatever your preferred term is).

Online traditional roleplaying culture has unlocked the unboxing/reviewing and opinionating video achievements. Those are useful. There are even some recorded play sessions with nontrivial production values, such as I Hit It With My Axe.  But they lack, at least so far, the communities of enthusiasm that surround successful streamers. Where are the MissCliks, Critical Role, and Adam Koebel of the OSR? Where are the trad entertainer-educators?


1. Mills, H. (1956). Language Reform in China: Some Recent Developments. The Far Eastern Quarterly, 15(4), 517-540.

Mettle rules graft v0.1

This is a hack that integrates an alternative partial-success d20 resolution system and replacement health system. The original posts on some of these ideas:

The primary design priority is fluent ease of use.

For me, this is essentially subsystem playtesting (for my ongoing, slow-burning Hexagram project), but I think this could be useful as a mod also.

(See the downloads page for a PDF version.)


Necropraxis Mettle Rules Graft

Start with something like B/X D&D, Labyrinth Lord, or Lamentations of the Flame Princess and then suture in the following systems and rules. This is a draft playtest document and I assert no compatibility.

Tests

  • Resolve uncertain actions using the test procedure (1d20 +modifier), interpreting the result as follows:
1 2-9 10-15 16-18 19+
Hindrance & Catastrophe Hindrance Progress & Hindrance Progress Progress & Triumph
  • Tests replace attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws
  • If the unmodified result is 1 or 19+, ignore the modifier

Basics

    • Moves are actions with predefined sets of potential test outcomes (see combat, below, for examples)
    • Add proficiency bonus to class-relevant tests given proper equipment
      • Weapons for fighters, lock picks for thieves, wands for magic-users, and so forth
    • Proficiency bonus follows 5E: = ceiling(level / 4) + 1
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
+2 +2 +2 +2 +3 +3 +3 +3 +4 +4 +4 +4 +5 +5 +5 +5 +6 +6 +6 +6

Gear & Equipment

  • Characters have 25 gear slots: 5 panoply, 4 hand, 6 belt, & 10 pack
    • Panoply slots correspond to hit locations: 1 head, 2 legs, 3 arms, 4 abdomen, & 5-6 body
    • The 4 hand slots are primary (left, right) & secondary (left, right)
    • Place any additional gear in burden slots (burden imposes penalties)
  • Each gear slot has a uses track with up to six boxes
    • The uses track represents wear and tear or uses remaining
    • Gear determines the max uses: quiver of arrows (6), sword (3), and so forth
    • When the number of marked boxes equals the max uses, gear is broken, ruined, or used up

Magic

  • Spell slots = level + 2; each slot has uses = proficiency bonus
  • During haven turns, cast spells from grimoires
    • Other magicians can tell when spells are active
  • After casting a spell, magicians can cause effects using the invoke move
    • +INT for black magic, +WIS for white magic
    • To add proficiency bonus when invoking, equip a focus, such as a staff or wand
    • When invoke test outcomes include hindrance, mark a spell use

Combat

  • Peril—such as monster attack—results in death unless an action forestalls such fate
  • The block and dodge moves replace opponent attack rolls
  • The endure and suffer moves replace taking damage
    • Mettle = level +CON
    • To mark mettle, mark a number of hearts = opponent threat (HD, level, or whatever)
    • If directed to mark mettle when none remain, make the suffer move to avoid death
    • Dying characters expire at the end of the current round
  • Sprain and fracture conditions disable the relevant hit location
    • 1 = head, 2 = legs, 3 = arms, 4 = abdomen, 5-6 = body
  • If a character is already bleeding and the condition comes up again, the character bleeds out and dies
  • Armor bonus applies to the endure move
    • Light armor = +2, medium armor = +4, heavy armor = +6
    • Proficiency: fighter = heavy, thief = light, wizard = none
    • Characters are burdened if wearing armor without proficiency
  • Two-handed weapons provide advantage for strike, shields provide advantage for block
Approach Moves Strike Shoot Maneuver
Prerequisite Melee equipment Weapon & ammo Situational
Modifier +STR +DEX +STR or +DEX
19+ 2 hits 2 hits Attain objective & 1 hit
16-18 1 hit 1 hit Attain objective
10-15 1 hit & mark use 1 hit & mark ammo use Attain objective & mark use
2-9 Endure Mark weapon use Endure
1 Endure & mark use Mark weapon & ammo use Endure & mark use
Avoidance Moves Block Dodge Endure Suffer
Prerequisite Melee equipment Unburdened
Modifier +STR +DEX +Armor +CON
19+ 1 hit Position & 1 hit Recover 1 Recover 1
16-18 Position Sprain
10-15 Mark use Position & lose balance Mark use Fracture
2-9 Endure & mark use Endure & lose balance Mark use & mettle Bleeding
1 Endure & mark use Endure & mark use Suffer Dying

Devilspawn

Image from Dorohedoro

Looking back through one of my notebooks, I came across this monster. Along with some of the details, I like the format, so it seems worth a post.

  • Devilspawn are a pale echo of Satan’s majesty
  • They cannot speak the truth
  • They sometimes believe they are truly Satan
  • Attended by animals that speak or speechless, beast-like humans
  • They have forked tongues
  • They can grant spells if bound or through mystical covenant
  • Will claim the fallen as additional attendants, mutating them slowly

And roll 1d6 each for detail, attendants, power, weakness, and motive:

Detail

  1. Wields a weapon of crimson devil metal, magical and always hot as a furnace
  2. Solid black eyes
  3. Crippled legs, but floats always several inches above the ground
  4. Wrapped in silken cords
  5. Mouth extends to ears
  6. Glorious multicolored enameled plate armor

Attendants

  1. 1d6 horses with lizard heads that speak and drool or vomit lava
  2. 2d6 moths the size of hawks that gibber constantly and have long, corrosive, hollow tongues
  3. 1d6 floating silver cages containing vicious birds of paradise that mock the weak
  4. 2d6 naked, filthy humans with filed teeth that can climb like spiders, mad and grinning, fitted with collars and leashed
  5. 2d6 naked, beautiful humans clothed only in faceless, eyeless helms and metal gauntlets fused to the skin
  6. 2d6 naked humans, half starving and half obese, carrying rusted weapons

Power

  1. Turn into a cloud of moths at will
  2. Conjure fire at will and invulnerable to fire
  3. Paralyze mortals from the waist down (save to avoid, and each dungeon turn to recover)
  4. Take form of nearby person, gains their abilities (50% chance of success to use)
  5. Steal prepared spells from the minds of magicians (save to avoid)
  6. Immune to cutting or stabbing

Weakness

  1. Slowed by mirrors
  2. Courage (will not face the bold directly)
  3. Unable to harm same or opposite gender (determine randomly)
  4. The color blue
  5. The scent of flowers
  6. Hounds

Motive

  1. Eat the flesh of cats
  2. Walk under the sun
  3. Sex
  4. Gaze upon Satan
  5. Wine
  6. Eat the flesh of devils

Spell book dilemmas

Image from Wikimedia commons

Magic systems can treat spells more like things one knows or more like things one has. That is, skills versus possessions. This is not a pure dichotomy, and various systems draw from both approaches. There is, however, a fundamental trade-off in moving along this continuum from magic as skill to magic as possession. A skills approach leads to more focused, mechanically simple, and niche-protected characters within a party. A possessions approach leads to more flexible, mechanically complex, and interchangeable characters within a party.

Skill versus possession makes the biggest difference in systems that strictly regulate skill development through acquisition of levels. Traditional D&D and similar games generally work this way. I think a more fine-grained system, such as Burning Wheel skills that develop based directly on fictional actions, would also exhibit this dynamic, but it probably would make less of a difference. In the options below, I assume skills and possessions function close to traditional D&D.

I am thinking about magic systems right now, so this is more a descriptive post to help me organize my thoughts than a proposal for a particular approach. I am curious about pushing the magic system closer to the possessions end of the spectrum while still maintaining distinctiveness between magic-using characters within a party.

Option 1: Pure Skill

In this approach, knowledge of a particular spell is like a learned skill. Characters learn new spells only by engaging character improvement mechanics directly (such as level-up) rather than through fictional actions (such as picking up a wand). Sharing spells between player characters is either impossible or costly. (See also this older post on strict spell learning.)

Perhaps surprisingly, playing B/X by the book treats spells mostly like skills for magic-users (see page B16 and this post by Alex). Magic users gain new spells on level up and there are no other rules for learning spells apart from the expensive spell research rules in the Expert rules, which require 1000 gp per spell level and seem to be intended for newly invented spells, not other spells in the existing catalog (see page X51). Apart from the research rules, spell memorization in B/X is fictional logic wrapped around a resource management fire and forget game mechanic.

Pros: simplicity, high character distinctiveness within party

Cons: can feel more like super powers, collecting spells through adventuring less emphasized

Option 2: Spell Learning

One method that takes a step toward spells as possessions is having a set of spell book rules that include systems for learning spells outside of character improvement mechanics. A magic-user can only memorize spells from a personally written spell book. This spell book or books can contain any number of spells, but copying a spell into the book requires a special action and perhaps some cost, to prevent the easy replication of spells within a party, which would give all magic-users access to the same spell list. Then, magic-users choose which spells to prepare from the book, up to level-based limits, during downtime.

AD&D popularized this approach. The AD&D rule for attempting to learn a spell is to make a percentile chance to know spell check, which is based on intelligence (AD&D Players Handbook, page 10). Characters that fail this check may never learn the spell in question. This naturally leads to spell lists unique to each magic-user. In my experience, players hate rolling to learn spells with the possibility of never being able to learn a particular spell, so though this system has some nice emergent properties, it can be a difficult sell.

Some more recent systems, such as ACKS repertoires and 5E spell slots, seem like variations on this approach, but constrain which known spells are available for actual use in play. Such constraints provide a small brake on the tendency for magic-using characters to accumulate spells without limit. Though these systems often seem superficially logical (at least to me), they also are rather complex to explain and can require extensive bookkeeping. For example, the 5E approach to spell books requires players to manage separately the spells in the book from the spells available to cast (5E Basic Rules, page 30) and spell slot implementation is, on reflection, nine different kinds of mana/spell points for for players to manage.

Pros: spell book atmosphere, moderate character distinctiveness within party, magic-users adventure to collect more spells

Cons: bookkeeping, higher chance of copying spells between player characters, often less player influence over the kind of spells learned

Option 3: Possession Plus Access Skill

Magic could also be entirely located within a possession but require a skill (or something like a skill) to use the possession. That is, a character would need something like a necromancy skill to use necromancy type magic items but such as skill would grant access to all such magic. (One could make the taxonomy of magic as fine-grained as desired to increase the likely distinctiveness of magic-using characters.) Though only intended to supplement the primary method of casting spells for characters, the traditional rule of only allowing characters belonging to the magic-user class to use stereotypically wizardly items is a crude version of this kind of approach.

A simple version of this that might work well is to take specialist rules and turn them on their head. Rather than assume generalist magic-users have access to all spells, with specialists giving up access to several schools of magic in exchange for increased power with a focal school, instead assume that generalist magic-users have no access to any spells other than those of known schools. In this way, proficiency with a school of magic would become similar to proficiency with a class of weapons, as implemented in 5E D&D.

Pros: concrete magical atmosphere

Cons: requires a skill system for acquiring access to spell schools, somewhat nonstandard, spells within school easily shared between characters

Option 4: Pure Possession

On the far end of the spectrum, the ability to cast a spell could entirely depend on character possessions. The way to get access to the fireball spell is to find a wand of fireballs (or whatever). There are various ways to place some restrictions on exchangeability, such as 5E attunement or traditional class features, but such rules often feel artificial, obviously twisting setting elements to solve a game problem.

Into the Odd uses this approach. There are not really any spells in the traditional sense and instead magic powers reside in arcana, which any character can use. I believe some arcana require something like a will save and many are consumable.

Perhaps surprisingly, given how this can sometimes lead to magic feeling like technology in a game context, it is actually closer to how magic often works in mythology and fantasy fiction. For example, Robert Howard’s sorcerer Thoth-Amon derived most or all of his magic from the serpent ring of Set. Arguably, magic in Vance’s dying earth stories sort of works like this, as non-magician characters sometimes memorize spells, though it is possible that such characters still have some sort of special talent or skill. For game purposes, this would be close to a pure gear approach.

Pros: simplicity, flexibility

Cons: characters feel less like archetypal wizards, low character distinctiveness within party


There are probably many other variations, but I think these examples illustrate some common approaches and the trade-offs that come with choosing a particular place on the rules continuum.

It is worth noting that these dynamics exist across classic classes as well, with thieves being more skill based and fighters being more possession based. For example, only thieves know how to use lock picks while fighters can usually trade weapons, though various approaches to proficiencies and so forth can change how this works. However, distinctiveness feels more important to me for magic-using character types than for mundane character types. I suspect this is true for others as well. (Explaining this feeling is perhaps a topic for another post, hopefully written by someone other than me.)

Maybe relevant: grimoires for OD&D

Mechanical audience

The audience determines how your work is received and evaluated. Similar to perspective in photography, it is impossible to be neutral in this regard. You must decide the audience you wish to address to have any idea what successful communication would look like. This is true because the knowledge an audience already possesses will constrain how you can communicate and shape how they will interpret your work. Some obvious examples include jargon (hit points, tactical infinity, carousing), cultural landmarks (orc, cosmic alignment, tiefling), intended use (self-contained game versus supplement), and received wisdom (XP for GP incentivizes creativity, XP for GP is unrealistic, extensive prep leads to deep fictional worlds, extensive prep is the sign of a wannabe novelist). Jargon can be redefined, new landmarks introduced, and received wisdom challenged, but only if you have some idea of your starting line.

I want to highlight one particular dimension of audience knowledge that seems to often be invisible to both creator and audience. This dimension is whether the audience is expecting a procedure that will yield content or expecting fully instantiated content. That is, does your audience expect a monster generator or a monster manual? Reusable tool or catalog of content ready to use? This also corresponds to the parable of teaching a person how to fish or giving a person a fish. More generally, the tension here is between flexibility at the cost of incompleteness and completeness at the cost of builtin assumptions. A tool without a catalog may seem unfinished while a catalog without a tool may seem inflexible or imposing unwanted world-building. An audience will often evaluate your work based only on the dimension they care about.

This may seem straightforward at some level but can manifest in subtle ways. For example, what determines whether an audience responds favorably to a freeform magic system? Such a system is generally a set of rules or constraints which players must use to create spell effects during play; this places players of magic-using characters into the role of spell authors. However, many players may just want some spells and would rather avoid being put into the role of spell author, at least for that kind of content in that context.

One practical takeaway from this principle is simple. To broaden the utility of a game product, make sure that it is useful for players that want a cooked fish dinner and for players that want manuals for how to go fishing. That is, if your product is a generator, such as a method for creating monsters, take that generator and flesh out a catalog of content. Do some heavy lifting for those that want something off the rack. This will have the side benefit of testing your procedure more than I suspect many tools, at least in DIY land, are actually tested. And, if your product is a catalog—bestiary, spell list, populated dungeon with backstory—think about the principles or sources of inspiration that you used to craft that catalog and create a procedure that can help others create similar content.

As a concrete example, my own book, Wonder & Wickedness, is primarily a catalog—spells, sorcerous catastrophes, and enchanted items. Though I do discuss principles briefly, I could probably improve the book by adding more explicit procedures for building spells and so forth.

Ryuutama miscellany

Following are a few miscellaneous mechanical ideas gleaned from Ryuutama which may be worth adapting or hacking into your D&D-alike edition of choice.

Initiative is AC

At the start of combat in Ryuutama, each player character rolls initiative, which is DEX + INT. Recall that abilities are dice, with d6 representing average, so this roll is something like 2d6 or d6+d8. The value obtained both determines order of action and defense value (basically, AC). An equipped shield provides a minimum defense value (7 for small shields and 9 for large shields). This makes both initiative and shields more influential without contributing to numerical inflation (as happens with the arms race between AC bonus and attack bonus for many versions of D&D).

In addition to equipping a shield, player characters can use an action to re-roll initiative, taking the new result if it is better. So, a bad initiative roll does not spell doom, though it can slow a player character down (which seems appropriate for initiative).

Initiative also controls retreat

Even among those woke to the virtues of morale checks, in my experience it is easy to slip into fighting to the last combatant. This may play into the reasons for retreat rules either being somewhat complex or perhaps just untested. In any case, the Ryuutama approach here is both simple and surprisingly harsh when followed to the letter, given the suggested heartwarming tone. The rule is that travelers can retreat if the sum of their initiative values is equal to or higher than the sum of enemy initiative values. This means that once enemies gain an advantage, it may become very difficult, or even mathematically impossible, to run away.

That math may be less than ideal, depending on your intention for combat dynamics, but I like the idea of using initiative to manage retreats. Another, slightly more flexible approach for Ryuutama along similar lines—that I may use the next time I run Ryuutama—would be to have the entire party make a new group initiative check to determine whether running away is possible. This would hold out a sliver of hope, even if several travelers were down and the sum of enemy initiative values was high.

This is even easier to hack into another game if using side-based d6 initiative, though it is a bit more random. When the player characters win initiative they can simply declare retreat and it happens, as long as there are no obvious fictional constraints such as a bridge being out. Similarly for monsters. Then, if one side or the other wishes to pursue, chase rules would come into play.

Battlefield abstraction

Ryuutama battlefield (PDF here)

As in many classic JRPG video games, combatants are either in the front or rear rank. Combatants in the front rank may be targeted with either melee or ranged attacks while combatants in the rear rank may only be targeted with ranged attacks. Any area effects attack all combatants in the front ranks, either allied or opponent. If all the combatants in the front rank are defeated, the remaining combatants in the rear move into the front, meaning that it makes sense to maintain several frontline defenders if possible, though one will hold the line.

This is elegant (and plays nicely based on my limited experience so far). The structure maintains enough tactical complexity to model offensive and defensive fighting without resorting to bonus math; further, it requires minimal bookkeeping. I was originally somewhat wary of the structure feeling artificial and constraining tactical infinity, but in practice our fictional battlefield and the tactical schematic coexisted without conflict. This approach could be lifted verbatim, I think, into a B/X game.

Ability checks draw on two abilities

In Ryuutama, any ability check uses two abilities. In all versions of D&D that I am familiar with, ability checks use only one stat, such as strength. Using two abilities leads to a surprising degree of mechanical richness, however, and would be particularly easy using the ability bonus scale of B/X, which is 13-15 = +1, 16-17 = +2, and 18 = +3. This, two relevant 18 stats yields only a +6 bonus, well within the scope of modern bounded accuracy approaches. This would be most straightforward when using roll high versus DC style ability checks but easy with roll-under checks too (just allow the bonus of one ability to increase the value of the other ability, for purposes of the immediate check).

Condition modulates poison etc

Traditional D&D often uses save or die for poison. This works well enough, but requires some care on the referee side. It is, however, abrupt. Many alternative approaches soften the blow by providing various additional buffers, such as having poison do damage or applying other effects. Generally, this makes poison either a mere distraction or an additional thing to track.

The approach in Ryuutama is to make poison, and other similar conditions, only affect travelers with condition less than or equal to some set value. (Condition in Ryuutama is sort of like mood and travelers re-roll it each day.) The effect of poison in Ryuutama is to decrease strength by one die type. A D&D analogue might be disadvantage to attack rolls and physical ability checks, with the modulating factor probably being HP; for the threshold, something like 25% or 50% max HP might work. Though this certainly makes poison less immediately terrifying than save or die, I kind of like it.