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.

Stronghold achievements

A Kingdom Death settlement phase

One dynamic I have noticed with XP = GP spent is that there is a great incentive for players to spend money primarily on short and medium term goals. This is largely positive, in terms of gameplay, as it results in PCs spending their GP quickly to gain levels, and thus needing to get back to adventuring to get more GP, which is a virtuous cycle from the perspective of generating adventure.

However, there is an implied endgame in many versions of D&D where adventurers build strongholds, accumulate followers, and possibly transition into a game of domains. Where do the resources for building a stronghold come from if adventurers continually squander recovered treasure? One could abstract this process, simply granting adventurers a stronghold at sufficient level, or expect players to think ahead, saving GP as necessary. In any case, most campaigns end far before adventurers attain such elevated levels, so an alternative and perhaps more practical approach would be to integrate domain game systems into lower levels.

Exploring this idea, I see an opportunity to both ground such as system in the party as aggregate, rather than the individual adventurers, and perhaps build the entire advancement system around the creation and development of adventurer bases. That is, rather than gaining levels from accumulating XP from killing monsters, recovering treasure, or completing quests, why not gain levels based on establishing strongholds? Mechanically, the highest level of stronghold possessed by the adventuring company could determine individual adventurer level as well. That is, to attain second level, the party must purchase a company clubhouse. Even if one were not inclined to push the idea that far, systematizing and simplifying the implied domain game in a way that is accessible to adventurers of all levels may be useful.

Below are draft details for levels 1 through 5. Levels 6 through 10 are haven, stronghold, cultural fountainhead, colony, and capital. I may similarly detail the later levels in a future post. (Cultural fountainhead needs a better name but is intended to represent building libraries, temples, archives, or something like that.)

  1. Tavern hangout (in lawful haven)
    Recovery: 5 GP per adventurer per haven turn
    Reputation: scoundrels available for odd jobs
  2. Clubhouse (in lawful haven)
    Adventurers possess their own private space in a haven.
    Requirement: 5000 GP purchase price
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: adventurers
    Habitants: at least one or two attendants or stewards, along with off-duty retainers
    Dangers: competing adventurer companies
  3. Hideout (in chaotic wilderness)
    A hideout is a small, unobtrusive lair liberated from forces hostile to civilization. Lawful hunters, trappers, and other travelers help ensure that the hideout is self-sufficient and provide regular news and exchange.
    Requirement: lair liberated from a faction of chaos
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: established freebooters
    Habitants: several stewards plus visiting traders, minstrels, or travelers
    Dangers: evicted faction becomes dedicated foe, monster attacks
  4. Outpost (in chaotic wilderness)
    An outpost is a fortification liberated from forces hostile to civilization. Once liberated, an outpost starts to acquire some trappings of civilization, including some permanently resident tradespeople. However, the area remains too isolated or dangerous for lawful settlers to call home permanently.
    Requirement: fortification liberated from a faction of chaos
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: serious mercenary company
    Habitants: several enterprising craftspeople or merchants, stewards, travelers
    Dangers: evicted faction, military assault, monster attacks
  5. Settlement (in pacified, previously chaotic borderlands)
    Settlements are small, fortified villages. A settlement is stable enough to attract enterprising settlers seeking opportunity or a new start.
    Requirement: pacification of nearby borderlands (several hexes in all directions if using a hex map), 5 notable triumphs such as pirate kings defeated or significant monsters slain, 50000 GP investment in infrastructure
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: governors or warlords
    Habitants: several permanent shops, traders, and craftspeople; several settler families
    Dangers: local lawful powers see the company as political risk

Adventurers must go through each step in sequence. Think of the collection of bases as an umbilicus stretching from civilization into the unknown. A hideout, for example, will only be self-sufficient through connections with the clubhouse in town. For this reason, adventurers retain all bases as they expand outward.

As the adventurers grow in reputation and stature, they naturally accrue a retinue and staff which enables and lives off the exploits of the company. The details of such organization may remain relatively abstract in terms of costs, though stewards, resident craftspeople, and so forth could be drawn from personages encountered by the adventurers during the game, such as rescued villagers or converted bandits.

What about adventurer death? New adventurers begin at level one, increasing one level for each session survived until they reach the current company level. Or, if that is too much bother, players could just make a new adventurer at the current level. Such parvenue adventurers would still need to accumulate gear and renown in the eyes of players.

The Ryuutama engine

A while back, I posted about the OD&D game engine. I think that post was helpful to me at the time for understanding how OD&D the game worked at a mechanical level. As I have been reading and enjoying Ryuutama recently, a similar exercise may be informative. This exercise may also provide a good intro to Ryuutama for players familiar with traditional D&D.

There are several broad, generally applicable rules systems: travelers, incentives, journeys, setting, combat, and the ryuujin. I will only focus on the first four of those systems here because they seem most integral to the core engine.

Travelers

These are the rules for player characters, which Ryuutama calls travelers.

Travelers have three major mechanical underpinnings: classes, type, and ability scores. Class in Ryuutama is more like background in many other games, and provides a set bundle of skills. Example classes are merchant, hunter, and farmer. Travelers get one class at first level and another at fifth level (max level is 10). Type, however, is more like what class means for other games, and can be one of attack, technical, or magic, which map, respectively, to the traditional classes of fighter, thief, and magic-user. There are four ability scores: strength, dexterity, intelligence, and spirit. Ability scores are measured in dice, with d6 seeming to be about average, d8 being one step higher, and so forth. Travelers also have three state variables: hit points, mental points, and condition (a value that fluctuates daily and is sort of like mood).

The major resolution system is the check, which involves rolling two ability dice (sometimes both are the same ability), adding the results, and comparing the sum to a target number (like a difficulty class in D&D terms). For example, accuracy with a blade (basically, rolling to hit, which is based on weapon type) is DEX + STR. Trapping, a hunter skill, uses DEX + INT. Target numbers range from 4 up. The text labels 7 as a little difficult and 12 as very difficult, to provide some orientation.

  • Class: artisan, farmer, healer, hunter, merchant, minstrel, noble
  • Type: attack, technical, magic
  • Ability scores: strength [STR], dexterity [DEX], intelligence [INT], spirit [SPI]

There are a few other details such as favored weapon, carrying capacity, and so forth, but the rules mentioned above are the foundational components. You can check out the full character sheet as well.

Incentives

Similar to most traditional fantasy games, characters increase in power through gaining levels, and gaining levels requires XP. Concretely, increasing level improves an ability, provides some extra HP or MP, and provides a few other perks depending on which level.

Ryuutama awards an amount of XP each session based on the highest topography target number (more on this in a moment) encountered, the single most powerful monster defeated, and for each benediction (GM-PC power) the referee used.

I like this approach overall because it rewards seeking out challenges and requires minimal bookkeeping. It is generally relatively easy to recall the single most powerful monster and there is no need to track the exact number of orcs or whatever. Further, though the marginal benefit may be small, the game will always reward tackling a more powerful monster or more dangerous environment within a given session.

Journeys

The journey procedure is a loop that the party engages to move from one fictional place to another. In sequence: condition checks, travel checks, direction check, and finally camping check. The final three checks all use terrain + weather as the target number. Each traveler makes a separate condition and travel check, but the mapper (one traveler designated by the party beforehand) makes a single direction check for the entire party. A single camping check applies to the entire party as well. The travel check is kind of a big deal, because failing it halves the traveler’s HP (which is about as important in Ryuutama combat as it is in traditional D&D combat, though the halving procedure suggests quite a bit more abstraction in Ryuutama compared to what many players assume about HP in D&D).

For each of these journey checks you end up rolling a pair of ability dice (added) versus an objectively determined target number; for example, grasslands = 6, deep forest = 10, strong wind = +1, and hard rain = +3. So, travelers journeying through deep forest in the hard rain will be rolling against a target number of 13.

Setting

Travelers journey between places and encounter things. What determines the details of towns, what lies between them, and what challenges relevant to the travelers exist?

Within the setting rules are guidelines for creating the world at a high level, towns, scenarios, and events. These rules are more elastic than other systems and read more like a set of suggestions than a tight set of procedures, though there are worksheets for each (town, world, scenario, event) with prompts, along with the invitation to maybe work through the process collaboratively with players. For example, the town worksheet has spaces for representative building and specialty goods.

Though not explicitly stated procedurally, several aspects of the rules gesture toward the idea of building up the world organically as journeys unfold, while leaving space for some more traditional lonely-fun referee world-building. There is a grid map sheet that players could fill in as travelers journey. The rules suggest an option where all the players design the town for the next session at the end of the current session and place it on the map, indicating what interstitial areas the referee should focus on in preparation.

Ryuujin

The ryuujin (GM-PC guardian angel) rules also seem important for running a game of Ryuutama in the expected mode, due to how they support the referee intervening in a limited way to shape the story. However, the ryuujin rules are tied less tightly to the core engine, as far as I can tell, apart from the XP reward for using benedictions as noted above, and so I will end here. See this post for a bit more on the ryuujin rules, if you are curious, and also the ryuujin character sheet.

Into the Borderlands review

Into the Borderlands is a hardcover compilation of the training modules B1 and B2, both originally published in 1979, along with conversions for fifth edition D&D. There are several intro essays reminiscing about experiences with these foundational modules, including one by Mike Mearls, currently manager of research and design for D&D. The early modules are scans rather than newly typeset and there are two printings of each original module, showing some minor textual and presentation differences. The conversion for fifth edition includes new black and white accompanying art and some expanded encounters. The original modules are classics for a number of reasons that I will avoid discussing much, but if you are curious some good places to start are the reviews over at Dungeon of Signs (B1 and B2). Also, check out this essay related to B2 on how limitation can help foster creativity.

Physically, the book has a stitched binding and, though on the large side in terms of width, feels solid and pleasant to hold. Though I can see this being only a collector’s item for many people, it would be usable as an actual game tool also. Apart from players only familiar with 5E, most potential customers probably already have copies of B1 and B2, if not physically then in PDF (drivethru links: B1 and B2). Because of this, the value that this product should add, for anyone other than a pure collector, must be over and above the simple information content of the original modules. The high-quality form factor definitely delivers on part of this.

Unfortunately, there are some weaknesses too. First, I noticed several typos, even just limited to the first few pages1. Second, the original module scans are a bit grainy compared to my older printing of B2. Third, while it is hard for me to really evaluate how useful the 5E conversion would be to a referee only familiar with that edition, from my vantage it does seem to waste some space. For example, who needs to be told in a stat block that siege weapons are immune to psychic damage? Fourth, this is a matter of taste, but I find the new art to be somewhat uninspired. The book also feels repetitive, given the multiple versions of the same module, and the 5E conversion further recycles a lot of text. This is somewhat baked into the product concept though, so take it more as a comment and less as a criticism.

There is so much potential in representing classic modules such as B1 and B2. However, the book for the most part ignores this low-hanging fruit. The three stocked examples of B1 dungeons are a step in the right direction, but there are many other unexplored possibilities. Goodman could have included alternative maps of Quasqueton, such as these beautiful examples from Dyson (one, two). Or, what about some creative play aids, such as maps annotated with content or player handouts? There could be essays about how to creatively flip some conventional assumptions, such as considering the keep as the target of heists. A discussion of adapting modules to local campaign worlds, along with possibly an example reskin, would have felt right at home and maybe even made the book a touchstone for thinking about integrating modules. For an example of creatively using the framework provided by B2, consider this idea about replacing the caves ravine with the Stonehell mega-dungeon ravine.

Overall, I am glad the book was made, and am continually impressed by the physical quality of Goodman volumes, but I wish that the compilers took more care with the finishing details for the text. I hope that Goodman continues the Original Adventures Reincarnated series with other classic TSR modules. That said, the product could have been so much more.


1. On the copyright page: 5E Edition (note redundancy). In Mearls’ essay: “It was the first D&D adventure I read, thought it would be years before I ran it” (thought should be though).

B2 room 12 fan art by Evlyn

Eidolon mode

Ryuutama mechanizes a limited degree of referee fudging through a conceit where the referee plays a character called the ryuujin. In translation, this means dragon person, and represents an entity somewhere between minor deity and guardian angel. The ryuujin exists within the fictional world, but in practice stays mostly offscreen. It is actually a character though, with a record sheet, life points, powers, level, and so forth, though the applicable rules for a ryuujin are different than those for player characters.

Mist dragon summon from Final Fantasy 4 (SNES)

In Final Fantasy 4, the character Rydia is a caller, a kind of magician that can summon Eidolons, or Call Beasts, to fight for the party. In Final Fantasy 6, espers are powerful magical entities that once defeated can be summoned. Systems exist for summoning in many Final Fantasy games.

Can you see where I am going with this?

A similar structure could be used for a powerful supernatural ally such as a bound demon, sandestin, or summoned creature. For players used to a more limited scope of narrative influence and narrower tactical challenge, the ryuujin rules can seem to be something between easy mode and cheating. However, that interpretation may be more driven by tone rather than mechanics. With slightly different flavoring, and possibly exposing more aspects of the ryuujin record sheet to the party as a whole, similar rules could support access to something like summoning an esper. Consider also the possibility for something like a mech or titan form (Attack on Titan, Voltron, etc).

Mechanically, Ryuutama gives the ryuujin several capabilities, including benedictions and reveils. Benedictions are powers that a ryuujin can use by spending life points and have effects such as rewinding a small amount of fictional time or declaring a particular check to be a critical success. Some benedictions create obstacles for players, such as increasing monster power or allowing an enemy to run away without needing to satisfy any conditions, presumably in support of guaranteeing certain story elements. In a reveil, the ryuujin appears in dragon form and saves the players in some specific way, such as manifesting to take the damage intended for a player character. Even when representing something like a summoned ally more under the control of players than is the ryuujin, the entity could maintain a degree of autonomy, also causing complications for players occasionally.

Evangelion / Voltron / Attack on Titan

Some of the ryuujin rules are attempts to mechanize a limited degree of referee discretion while maintaining some impartiality. Others are explicitly for rescuing and assisting the travelers, essentially decreasing the stakes in pursuit of the intended tone, which is low-arousal, calming, and heartwarming (honobono, in Japanese). However, with a slightly different set of priorities, similar rules could mechanize access to limited supernatural heavy artillery that players could deploy a few times per session.

Deadlift playtesting

The DIY D&D scene has many strengths, but there is notably little discussion about playtesting. This is particularly surprising when viewed abstractly, as people pay a great deal of attention to usability concerns such as layout, stat block efficiency, and creating procedures that, in isolation, are easy to use. The one page dungeon contest exemplifies this concern. When I write about playtesting here though, I mean testing the effectiveness of a more extensive product, such as a larger module or ruleset, rather than an isolated mechanic, procedure, or bit of content such as a player character class. In particular, I am most interested in intermediate level products, such as adventure modules or significant subsystems, rather than rulesets or retro clones, which in the context of the community most players are already relatively familiar with. The definition of adventure module should be relatively obvious, but for significant subsystems consider the supporting rules in Veins of the Earth or Cecil H’s Cold Winter.

This came home to me again somewhat recently when I decided to run a large module by an experienced traditional D&D adventure writer that had been written within the last few years. The identity of the module is unimportant here; the main point is that it was written with access to recent collective community knowledge. I like the content of the module, which while somewhat vanilla is creative enough to be inspirational for me, and the game itself went well, but throughout I felt like I was fighting the product, often unsure where to find the info that I wanted. This was despite being a reasonably experienced referee and spending a couple hours beforehand skimming the module and making some notes for myself.

A while back, I noticed that Vincent Baker’s Seclusium claimed that the product could, with 30 minutes of use, produce a wizard’s tower significant enough to do honor to Vance as inspiration.

I actually like Seclusium quite a bit as inspiration, and want to avoid making this about criticism of that particular product, but I think that the best products should aspire to that level of usability, assuming a reasonably competent operator.

These two experiences together suggest to me a kind of instrumental playtesting that I think may be particularly effective in improving the usability of game products for gaming, which is timed prep starting with minimal specific product knowledge but assuming general familiarity with the base game or style of game. This is in contrast to what seems to me as the ideal of the indie scene, which often focuses on beginners and whether a game can stand alone from roleplaying culture in general, explaining itself to a completely naive reader; hence, the ubiquity of sections on defining a roleplaying game. While that general pedagogical focus has a place, it does not solve a problem that I have, and further I think there is a good case to be made that the larger, more mainstream games introduce the basic idea of imagination-driven fantasy gaming reasonably well and are also more likely to be a new player’s entry point. Instead, what is more relevant to me, and I suspect others consuming such intermediate-level content, is whether this particular dungeon (or whatever) will be easy for me use use as a busy person with a pretty good handle on B/X D&D (substitute your favorite flavor).

More concretely, I suggest that to playtest a product, find someone willing to run it from a dead start, strictly limiting prep time to one of 30 minutes, 1 hour, or 2 hours. Then, get a list of the questions the playtester had of the product that went unanswered. This kind of info is mostly separate from issues of creativity, inspiration, or aesthetics, which the community is already effective at criticizing and fostering (see 10 foot pole reviews, etc). For easy shorthand, call this the deadlift approach to playtesting: start from the ground, do the thing without the blue sky assumption of perfect conditions, evaluate the outcome, and report back.

Catastrophe magic

This is a magic system I have been testing. It is general enough that I think it should be easy to use with other traditional fantasy games, if you like, given a small amount of adjustment to the system you are using.

This is a roll to cast system. You need to decide on a set of known or prepared spells for a character. Then, the die outcome will take care of the resource aspect of spells. You also need a resolution system that provides five levels of outcome. You can think about these outcomes as levels of player character success or as augury into the fictional world. The five outcomes are:

  1. Principle intensified
  2. Principle
  3. Principle & corollary
  4. Corollary & decline
  5. Catastrophe & decline

The principle is the basic spell effect, the thing that the sorcerer is generally attempting to bring about. The principle intensified is the critical hit version of this. The corollary is an unintended side effect that generally complicates the magician’s life but may occasionally be useful. Decline represents a decrease in future spell potential or magical energy. The simplest implementation of decline is, following a Vancian approach, forgetting the spell. And finally, catastrophe is a total misfire which may have personally deleterious effects. This set of outcomes means that something magical always happens but the potential corollaries and catastrophes should make players think twice about playing with arcane fire.

To resolve the casting of a spell, I use an ability check, similar to the approach described here, with intelligence for black magic and wisdom for white magic.

For an approach closer to classic d20, consider the following:

Let target = 10 + spell level. Then, roll 1d20 and add spell bonus (something like one-half level, rounded up). Interpret the result as follows:

  • Natural 20: principle intensified
  • Target + 4: principle
  • Target: principle & corollary
  • Below target: corollary & decline
  • Natural 1: catastrophe

Further, you need a way to determine what each class of outcome means for a given spell. Writing new spells with extensive corollary and catastrophe tables is wonderful but by no means necessary.

Ideally, catastrophes are specific to individual spells, but lacking specific catastrophes, you can fall back to some general outcomes, such as these:

(I am sure there are others available too.)


Hacking a spell to support this system can be easy. For example, here’s a hack for the classic spell magic missile:

  • Principle intensified: +1 extra missile
  • Principle: as written
  • Corollary: an additional missile targets something non-animate (determine randomly)
  • Catastrophe: determine target of each missile randomly (friends and foes)

For many spells, it is feasible to rule on potential corollaries and catastrophes in real time. I would just clarify with the player what the potential scope of outcomes would be and confirm intention to cast the spell prior to the roll.


See also:

Text versus culture

I contend that one of the major causes of misunderstanding in discussions of tabletop roleplaying games is differential prioritization of where rules should live. At base, games are bundles of practices that can be stored and communicated in various ways. For example, baseball in the United States started as a game played by amateurs using informal rules that lacked textual basis. A social club wrote the first baseball text in 1845: the Knickerbocker Rules. Tabletop roleplaying game rules can also reside ultimately in culture or in texts.

The community that developed around the Forge in the early 2000s is one influential example of prioritizing texts. The games developed by designers from the Forge and the subsequent Story Games forum tend to have clear, explicit procedures and written creative agendas. Critique often focused on potential disconnect between what a game text promises, either explicitly or implicitly, and what the game delivers. For example, Vampire: The Masquerade promised “struggle for humanity” but “always ended up as emo superheroes” (ref). This disconnect tends to be framed as a flaw or a sign of broken rules. In this tradition, to understand games one returns to the original text, tries to follow the procedures carefully, and then evaluates the outcome. For example, here is Luke Crane on Moldvay D&D and Ron Edwards, quite recently, on 4E D&D. A different community that exhibits strong textual fundamentalism in a different way is the portion of Pathfinder players concerned heavily with tactical game balance and character build optimization.

In contrast, some tabletop roleplaying game traditions deemphasize singular texts and are more likely to prioritize norms and expectations communicated informally. The community that developed around the old school renaissance seems closer to this approach on balance. People seem perfectly comfortable with a more distributed storage of practices, drawing from resources such as the old school primer, assorted blog posts, and recalled experiences. In this approach, no single text contains the full game and various aspects may lack textual basis completely. This is not just house rules, where players modify a canonical text to suit local group preferences, though house ruling is a part of how rules evolve culturally. Instead, the full game is more like a cultural tradition rather than a solid, defined, bounded artifact.

In terms of game design, both approaches have pros and cons. A strong textual basis serves as a shared landmark. People or groups that differ in expectations but share a specific, relatively explicit text, such as Apocalypse World, Pathfinder, or 5E D&D, might be able to communicate more effectively compared to people that lack such shared singular text, all else equal. Culture, however, is extraordinarily effective in social coordination, requiring little explicit deliberation to function. For example, norms are more influential in directly coordinating social behavior than laws, and when laws do come into play, few people other than judges and lawyers are familiar with legal details.

The major misunderstanding, as far as I can tell, is the idea that the choice is between system and individuals making things up rather than between prioritizing text and prioritizing culture. For example, in a classic Forge document, Ron Edwards writes, to characterize an objection to the importance of well-designed systems: “It doesn’t really matter what system is used. A game is only as good as the people who play it, and any system can work given the right GM and players.” And, from a DIY D&D perspective: “sometimes people just suck and redesigning the game won’t fix that” and “Reading the book is not and never should be essential.” Now, of course there is also an effect both of well-crafted procedure in text and individual creativity, but players (and cultures of players in aggregate) can differ on preference for textual versus cultural embodiment of rules.

Personally, I see the benefit of both approaches. I spend a lot of effort trying to effectively proceduralize rules that I develop, particularly for many of the less fluent aspects of traditional fantasy games, such as encumbrance, resource management, and bookkeeping, with the Hazard System being a more involved application of this kind of thinking. However, insisting that individual texts be highly pedagogical and entirely self-contained both creates strangely unmoored documents, seemingly unaware of their likely audience, and ignores the massive, brilliant social fabric to which we all belong.

That said, this post is more about facilitating communication than advocating for a particular approach to game design. People with a strong focused design bent might want to consider that games can be stored culturally, similarly to the way traditions develop and propagate more broadly. And, people who feel like they already know how to play and just want the text to get out of their way may find that trying to play some innovative or experimental games may suggest new techniques or even be enjoyable as completely self-contained games. At the very least, recognizing that people may differ on this preference might help prevent misunderstanding.

Credit to a post by Dan M. that helped me crystalize this idea and provided some useful language.

See also: game design as common law, though that post concerns a method to craft rules in the context of a particular group, rather than broader cultures of gaming.