Monthly Archives: September 2012

Difficulty mode

Dürer, Death and the Landsknecht

In addition to the background / reward dyad, another important game parameter is lethality. Next to incentives, lethality is probably the single most important determinant of how a tabletop RPG plays, because lethality is another way of saying risk. What do setbacks potentially involve? Is it possible to lose the game? Any consideration of lethality must also consider healing, because that is the other side of the coin. In D&D, the exact same dungeon and hazards can be made either very difficult or trivial, depending on the scarcity of healing.

This is a hugely controversial issue among fantasy gamers, as can be seen regarding the discourse around options for self-healing in 5E and the differing reaction to the idea of healing surges in Fourth Edition. Many old school games also use variations on the “healing surge” idea (though they are usually called something else).

Because lethality and healing are so important to how the game plays, I believe they should be explicit choices at the start of any campaign with clear options, though there is no reason to force any particular style. But what is it that is actually being selected? The thing being selected, which both lethality and the availability of healing are in service to, is how difficult the game is. This single choice will go a long way to make sure that all players (including the referee) are on the same page regarding the nature of the campaign.

Hit points in Hexagram, in any mode, are not persistent beyond any particular session. Instead, HP are rolled when required by the difficulty mode, the details of which are summarized in the table below. A character’s hit dice total is what matters; hit points are situational. I believe this reinforces the abstraction of HP, which is required for any lightweight system. In addition, I have been actually using this method of re-rolling HP in several different incarnations and have had nothing but good luck with it. It also greatly simplifies HP recovery, obviating the need for bookkeeping (the guidelines for when to re-roll take care of that).

Difficulty Modes
Mode When HP is Rolled HP Recovery Death
Very easy Each combat N/A Impossible; instead, a setback occurs
Easy Each combat N/A Only on TPK or if left behind
Medium Start of session 1d6 post-combat 0 HP, saving throw for unconsciousness
Hard Start of session Magic healing causes aging 0 HP, saving throw for unconsciousness
Very hard Start of session Magic healing causes aging 0 HP, no save

For the easy modes, why re-roll HP per combat rather than introduce some recovery mechanism? One, it is easier. It keeps the focus where it should be, on the conflict, rather than on the resource management (which by hypothesis is not of interest). Two, it adds uncertainty to combat so that it is not the first resort in all cases, and prevents the HP total from feeling like a fixed buffer against damage. This method is somewhat reminiscent of the Carcosa dice conventions, but keeps the type of die used for the HD fixed (d6) which prevents overly wild swings in possible HP totals.

This is essentially a way to do tactical gaming within a more traditional fantasy game framework without any secondary abstraction or rule system sitting on top of hit points. “Hits” are, of course, assumed to be blocked, or flesh wounds. Diegetically, any kind of sword to the gut event would be something that a character would get a saving throw to avoid. Note that this does not require higher-level abstraction like “luck” to enter into hit points — every hit can still be a hit, just not a good one.

Is using the idea of difficulty modes pejorative to different styles of play? I don’t think so, and there is some value to calling a spade a spade. It seems important to emphasize that the same rules framework, with appropriately tailored incentives, can be used for games focused on player skill and for games focused on other things. When I do play video games, I often play them on easy or normal mode, and almost never on hard mode, because I am not interested in building the type of skills most video games reward. Rather, I want to experience some other aspect of the game, like graphics, or art direction. I think that many people feel the same way about RPGs.

This design allows the game to work on all modes without assuming healing magic. One may include magic items or spells that perform healing, but they will not be very important in the easy modes (because you will be re-rolling your HP before the next encounter anyways), and are otherwise problematic in the hard modes (see healing & aging). Healing being problematic is required so that the tension and resource management required for a hard mode game are not undermined. Resurrection magic is of course important to perception of risk as well, but I will cover that in another post.

Incidentally, my current OD&D game is essentially on hard mode.

Balance & trade-offs

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Balance is really important to me when it comes to game design. What is that, you say? OSR heresy! It’s true though. The principle that I operate under is that nothing should be obviously optimal or suboptimal outside of specific circumstances. Everything should require meaningful and feasible trade-offs.

The common discourse about balance is about something different, though. It usually focuses on power balance between PCs in order to facilitate spotlight sharing. In general, I assume that characters of different levels may be adventuring together (based on either PC mortality and replacement, or from new players joining the campaign). Once you assume that different level characters will be working side by side, this kind of balance goes straight out the window (and good riddance, too).

Games where, practically speaking, 2 or 3 weapons are pretty much always the best choices, are a failure in my mind (at least in that dimension). The three dart per round AD&D magic user is a really good example of this (why would they use any other weapon?), as are weapon specialization rules in virtually every game that uses them (because such rules create a structure that destroys the possibility for interesting trade-offs). (For an example of weapon specialization rules that don’t suck structurally, consider something like weapon tricks that require setup time but have interesting side effects, like entanglement or stunning.) The whole AD&D variable damage weapons system is something of a mess, because it requires so many other fiddly subsystems to be operating (weapon speed, weapon length, weapon versus armor type, damage type) in order for the whole thing to not collapse into two or three optimal choices (long sword, long bow, two-handed sword). Some people might criticize the traditional spell list in this manner too, but I believe they are misunderstanding the use of many spells.

This does lead to several interesting corollaries. First, it reinforces my desire for a logarithmic power curve. I want PCs to develop, both for interest and adventuring incentive, but broadly rather than deeply, and in a way where the top level characters don’t totally outstrip the beginning level characters. Higher level characters should have more options, and more staying power, but scary monsters should always be scary, tricks should always be tricky, and traps should always be devious. There have been good arguments made that medium and high level D&D play models a different kind of protagonist than low level play, but it seems to me that barring some cosmetic mechanical similarities, these different tiers are actually different games (or they are just smoke and mirrors using scaled difficulty mechanical illusionism). I was just in a FLAILSNAILS game where one of the PCs “outgrew” the setting because he advanced above some level. This seems like something of a flaw in the D&D level model, at least as commonly implemented.

Second, how is a great power not automatically better than a lesser power? For example, a +1 sword is in all dimensions always a better option than a mundane sword (barring something like a curse, or an angry previous owner). The answer is that a great power is not automatically better than a lesser power if it is not of unlimited use. Go ahead, give a party of first level characters a scroll of meteor swarm or time stop and watch them agonize over when to use it. Make using power cost something.

Hexagram Backgrounds & Rewards

Image from Wikipedia

Proposition: character background is one half of something that is completed by game reward structure. The reward structure dictates what the game is about and what the characters are doing (e.g., recovering treasure, slaying monsters, etc). The background should be appropriate to (if not explain) why they are doing these things.

Background is often either ignored or hand-waved (“yes, yes, you’re the fifth duke of so-and-so, we’re going to kill orcs, get with the program”). That works well for some games, but if you want to include background at all it seems to make sense to have it work in service to the proposed future course of the campaign. Further, I think it would be interesting to make this more systematic, and have character background and reward structure all feed into the setting design procedure.

The traditional game is mostly silent about character background. Some editions have a “secondary skill” table which is basically a way to determine what kind of peasant or tradesman a character was before becoming an adventurer. That’s okay for determining what mundane skills a character might have, but it doesn’t really connect to the rest of what goes on in a game. I’m also not thinking of background here as a method to blend archetypes (as I think that is handled adequately by the path, prototype, trait features), though it can be used to justify such blending if desired.

In addition to setting the reward structure of the game (which is the primary system purpose), background has the secondary use of giving players a bit of information that can be useful for role-playing and have some diegetic consequences within the campaign world (the fifth duchess of so-and-so should have some knowledge about noble houses if she grew up with her family). Background can still provide minor mechanical resolution bonuses (+2 bonus to relevant tasks) and thus serve the same purpose as past profession or secondary skills. I was influenced by Jack Shear’s “leading question” background structure (see here and here), but have tailored potential options more closely toward particular campaign foci.

Here’s the default background table, suitable for treasure hunting and picaresque adventures.


  1. Bankrupt. Your business failed (due to incompetence or something else?) and you must now take up adventuring, perhaps fleeing creditors.
  2. Murderer. You killed someone in anger or passion, and ran rather than face justice.
  3. Antiquary. You are fascinated by the remnants of the past and obsessed with unearthing them. This obsession has overridden all past attempts at a normal career.
  4. Bandit. You survived as a parasite on society by waylaying others in the wilderness. Treasure hunting is a slightly more ethical (and potentially much more lucrative) alternative.
  5. Transgressor. You broke the laws of custom or purity. Was it forbidden love? Whatever the reason, you are no longer welcome in what was once your home.
  6. Deposed tyrant. You once had great power, but were overthrown (by the common people? or another lord?) and now have nothing but the equipment on your back.
  7. Burglar. You survived by stealing from those with more than you, generally by breaking into their abodes. The underworld is perhaps more deadly, but the payback is better and there are no guardsmen trying to throw you in jail.
  8. Instigator. You tried to change some aspect of your home or your society, but failed (for now). Did you fight against inequality, or perhaps for the honor of your caste, family, or tribe? In any case, you were exiled as a threat to the status quo.
  9. Survivor. You are the last of your town or family, the only one to escape some terrible disaster or disease. What caused the others of you kind to be no more? Was it due to the conscious actions of some other group or entity, or a natural disaster?
  10. Outlaw. You have been blamed for a crime (true or false?) and fled.
  11. Mercenary. You fought for those that paid you (perhaps as an adventurer’s retainer) and slowly accumulated enough money and equipment to be more self-sufficient. Who was your past employer? How do they feel about you no longer working for them?
  12. Slave. You were born into bondage (or perhaps kidnapped at a young age?). You escaped (or were freed). Does your past master still live? Are you hunted?
  13. Diabolist. You unleashed (or were blamed for releasing) a great demon. Did you do this on purpose or by accident? Was it a ritual you participated in directly, or was the demon released in some other way? Did you think you could control the demon?
  14. Farmer. You once tilled the land, but your crops turned to dust, either due to exhaustion of the land, corruption from some fearsome beast, or vile sorcery. Your family, if you had one, did not survive.
  15. Soldier. You were a professional soldier, but your unit is now disbanded. Was it destroyed in battle, or were you victorious? Why doesn’t your past lord require your services anymore? Were you good at soldiering?
  16. Orphan. You have survived on your wits alone for your entire life, living hand to mouth, but your ambition is boundless. It’s time to pull yourself up by uncovering the treasures of the past.
  17. Hunter. You survived on the edges of civilization by catching wild game and selling meat and furs. Your previous hunting grounds no longer provide the same bounty (why?) and you were forced to move on.
  18. Amnesiac. Your memory was lost (or stolen?) and you don’t know why. Your past is a blank slate. Is this a unique loss of memory, or part of some common pattern affecting many?
  19. Protector. You once were tasked with the guardianship of another. Were you a lord’s honor guard, a magician’s retainer, or something else? Your previous ward is, however, no more. Was it your fault?
  20. Apprentice. You once studied under a sorcerer, but now are on your own. Were you a failure at studying the dark arts, or are you now a journeyman, seeking the secrets of the ancients? Is your past master still alive, and are you on good terms? If so, the master may be able to help you from time to time, but may also want something in return.
  21. Surgeon. You once treated the sick, infirm, and wounded. That is, until a rich and powerful patient died and you were blamed, either for incompetence or intent. Who could you not save?
  22. Conscript. You once fought as a conscript in a war not of your choosing, and when you returned (if you returned), nothing was the same. Or perhaps you were originally from another land, but demobilization left you where you are presently?
  23. Ex-cultist. You once were part of a strange sect, but have since become disillusioned. Your previous home distrusts you because of your associations, but the cult itself is no longer your place either. What was the basis of the cult, and does it still remain? If so, how do they feel about ex-cult members?
  24. Exhumer. You released something that was once imprisoned. Was this a sealed crypt? Or maybe an ancient machine? Was the release accidental, or on purpose and perhaps due to greed?
  25. Daredevil. You do it for the excitement and the adrenaline rush. The treasure is incidental, an excuse and a method to fund future delves. Civilization does not provide outlets for your compulsions.
  26. Gambler. You lost it all. Maybe you still owe someone (or something) a great debt?
  27. Smuggler. You used to transport things (stolen goods? forbidden writings? slaves? intoxicants?) that people in power didn’t want transported. Your previous route is no longer open or profitable, for whatever reason, and the common trades are not for you.
  28. Compelled. Something that you don’t understand calls you to adventure. Perhaps it is just voices in your head, perhaps it is something deep below which has managed to find a way into your consciousness, or maybe it was the curse of a dying sorcerer.
  29. Con artist. You have pulled one too many schemes and need to skip town (again). Maybe you are tired of making your living off the gullibility of others, or maybe you just think the dark places will be more lucrative.
  30. Stranger. You are from another time or place. Perhaps you were locked in stasis and recently awoke. Perhaps you stumbled through a one-way cosmic door (was it a mirror? a portal? a machine that was meant to go both ways but failed?). No matter the cause, you are stuck in your present circumstances, a fish out of water.

The advantage to doing things this way is that it succinctly communicates the nature of the game while not closing off other potential game structures that may come into play later.

Short digression on Hexagram philosophy. I want to provide sensible defaults which fit the expectations of adventure fantasy gaming while making the different parts of the game (what the players do, what the referee does) fit together in the most efficient and effective way possible. You should be able to follow a checklist of things to do and end up with all the necessary things in place, even if you are unfamiliar with the traditional game structure. The system should also communicate the expectations to everybody involved. For example, the suggested procedure for referee prep will not include guidelines for heraldry if the campaign is about making the land safe for the living by killing as many zombies as possible (oh, and campaign focus can change partway through, and the game system will respond; more on that in a future post).

Okay, back to reward structures. Other possible backgrounds with associated reward structures include:

  • Curiosity: exploration, discovering new monsters, antiquities, mysteries
  • Slayers: destruction of a implacable threat (undead, demons, aliens)
  • Agents: missions, case files
  • Remnants: something was scattered that must be found (could be people)
  • Heros: rendering aid
  • Prophecy: the what is determined, but not the how or the who

Each one of those could have a table of backgrounds and guidelines for XP rewards, and may be mixed and matched.

I’m also thinking about presenting these parameters as explicit player game choices to be made at the beginning of the campaign, and as the campaign progresses. As in, everyone gets together and someone says, hey: let’s play an agents game. Shifting reward structures could also potentially be a player-initiated action. As always “player” includes referees, but using that particular word frames the issues in a way that invites player participation.

Rock, paper, scissors

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Read magic, as a spell, is often looked down upon. The primary criticism is that it seems like something that a magic-user should be able to do inherently. I don’t want to get into arguments about what a magic-user “should” be able to do, but I do want to talk a bit about why read magic is interesting to have as a spell that must be chosen and what this says about the design of the game.

First, what does read magic do? Here is the text (Men & Magic, page 23):

The means by which the incantations on an item or scroll are read. Without such a spell or similar device magic is unintelligible to even a Magic-User. The spell is of short duration (one or two readings being the usual limit).

So, read magic is the “key” that fits the “lock” of scrolls (most commonly) and even perhaps other magic items. I take that mention of “an item” to be a great suggestion to put instruction runes on all kinds of magic items (and even architectural features). As Talysman writes in his spell series post on read magic:

The Read Magic spell appears to have originally been a “gatekeeper”, blocking immediate access to something; in this case, magic scrolls or activation inscriptions on magic items. You can decipher magical inscriptions later, at great expense over several weeks, or you can cast Read Magic now — but that means devoting a spell slot you might prefer to use for something like Sleep. The intention, then, was that scrolls found in the dungeon would normally not be usable until much later, with Read Magic allowing you to bypass that rule.

That’s what makes read magic as a spell interesting. If you don’t have information about the dangers and obstacles that you will be facing, then picking your spells is much like rock, paper, scissors. Once you have done some reconnaissance of your target, you are then operating with more information, and can react appropriately, but that comes at the cost of time and perhaps alerting the denizens of the dungeon to your presence (an aside: this is also why the “15 minute adventuring day” is a feature, not a bug).

This is also an argument against including spells like magic missile, especially on the low-level spell lists. It’s not a strong argument, as the obvious rejoinder is that not all obstacles can be solved by combat (for example, read languages might be more useful if you need to figure out how to activate an ancient machine). But magic missile does lack some of the interesting trade-off inherent in a spell like sleep, which is incredibly powerful against enemies like orcs or low-level humans, but useless against undead. Magic missile is also less interesting because missiles are how fighters solve problems. Even fireball and lightning bolt don’t really have that issue within the structure of the game, as they attack enemies in novel ways (by area of effect and line of effect, respectively). [Edit: see also Talysman’s post on magic missile in response.]A number of other spells plug into other aspects of the game in ways that may not be immediately obvious. For example, read languages is not just about translation; it is the “key” that fits the “lock” of treasure maps (Men & Magic, page 23):

The means by which directions and the like are read, particularly on treasure maps.

Another example: charm person is not just about getting your way with some NPCs, it is also a way to obtain a retainer while bypassing the negotiation step and the reaction roll social mechanics. From Men & Magic, page 12:

Monsters can be lured into service if they are of the same basic alignment as the player-character, or they can be Charmed and thus ordered to serve. Note, however, that the term “monster” includes men found in the dungeons, so in this way some high-level characters can be brought into a character’s service, charisma allowing or through a Charm spell.

Thus, charm person is more properly understood (in terms of its place in the game) as a more reliable replacement for a high charisma. Almost every single magic-user spell in the 3 LBBs has this quality of being scissors to some situational paper.

This principle almost immediately starts to break down with later versions of the game, however. For example, Supplement I: Greyhawk includes the first level spell ventriloquism. Now, it’s true that use of ventriloquism could lead to some creative problem solving, but it is not clear to me how it fits into the structure of the game in the way that most of the original spells do, and thus also unclear why a magic-user might want to make the trade-off of preparing ventriloquism rather than some other spell.

Just like the equipment list, the spell list is potentially a valuable source of information regarding the types of problems that will be present and thus what the game is about.

Three hearts and three lions

Three Hearts and Three Lions, by Poul Anderson, is one of the core books of Appendix N. In terms of direct influence on D&D, 3H&3L would probably be in any top 10. Within can be found paladins that can fall from grace, trolls that regenerate and must be destroyed with fire, a multi-racial adventuring party, and sorcerers with unseen servants.

As a novel, I prefer The Broken Sword, the other Anderson book that is often held up as influential on early D&D. It has more fully realized characters and a more complete story. 3H&3L reads in some ways like an introduction to a longer tale. That being said, the writing is beautiful, unlike some Appendix N works, and it is filled with wonderful gaming inspiration and fairy tale atmosphere. Holger is also another example of the visitor from another reality as explorer of fantasy worlds.

One of the things that I find most interesting about the various challenges presented over the course of Holger’s quest for the sword Cortana is the fact that, despite being a fearsome warrior, with a few exceptions Holger overcomes most of his foes by cleverness. I don’t want to spoil the details, but the basic idea is that Holger is not trading blows and reducing his enemies to 0 HP (most of the time). Instead, he tricks them, frightens them, uses kryptonite against them (well, not actual kryptonite, but hopefully my meaning is clear). This is how characters can game encounters that are above their level. It works well in the context of a game and it works well in the context of how fairy tales work structurally.

Despite the many tropes of D&D that were drawn from 3H&3L, fairies are notably different than the Tolkienized elves of D&D. They are less sympathetic, for one thing, and have a fascinating Christian gloss, being called Pharisees by mortals. The recent 4E cosmology partakes of Fairy-Land in some ways, through the Feywild and Shadowfell, but the atmosphere is still subtly different. The Feywild is primal nature, and doesn’t quite have the fascinating twilight ambiguity that I like so much about Anderson’s realm of Faerie. Combining the Feywild and the Shadowfell into one thing might approximate the feel, but Fairy-Land is an expression of mythic geography and is thus part of the world (you can walk to it) in 3H&3L. For example, on the lands of Faerie (page 38):

Though the sun was hidden, the night he had feared was not fallen. He could identify no source of light, but saw almost as clearly as by day. The sky was a deep dusky blue, and the same blueness pervaded the air as if he rode under water. Grass grew long and soft, with a silvery hue overlying its pale green; white flowers starred the earth. Asphodels, Holger thought. But how did he know? Here and there he saw bushes of white roses. Trees stood alone and in copses, tall, slim, milky of bark, their leaves the color of the grass. The slow wind blew through them with a tiny ringing sound. He couldn’t gauge their distances well in this tricky shadowless light. A brook ran close by which did not tinkle but played, an endless melody on an alien scale. Phosphorescence eddied white and green and blue over the water.

The Pharisees themselves are not noble savages in silk that are more in tune with nature as elves are often portrayed. Instead, they are dark mirrors. Consider this faerie knight (page 39):

The stranger came over a ridge. He bestrode a tall horse, snowy white, with flowing mane and proudly arched neck; yet the beast was subtly wrong to look at, too long of leg, too small of head. The rider was in full plate armor, his visor down so that he showed no face; white plumes nodded on the helmet, his shield was blank and black, all else shimmered midnight blue.

For sustenance, they take tribute from mortals. The logic of fairy tales mostly obtains, but they are not completely removed from the requirements of mortals. They are also the slavers of the fairies (this can be seen in The Broken Sword as well) and have goblins as menial servants. 3H&3L, page 41:

Faerie seemed a wilderness, hills and woods and uncultivated valleys. Holger asked a much subdued Hugi what its inhabitants lived on. The dwarf explained that they magicked up some of their food and drink, and got some from other realms in the Middle World tributary to them, and hunted some among the weird beasts which prowled their domain. All of them seemed to be warriors and sorcerers, their menial work done by slaves taken from the goblins, kobolds, and other backward tribes. Further questions revealed that the Pharisees knew not old age or illness, but were said to lack souls.

And on the masters of Faerie, along with a great example of an OD&D stronghold encounter (page 43):

The castle gates opened and the drawbridge came down, noiselessly. Trumpets blew again. A troop rode forth with banner and scutcheon, plume and lance, to meet him. He reined in and waited, his hand tight around his own spear. So these were the masters of faerie.

The were clad in colors that seemed luminous against the twilight, crimson, gold, purple, green, but the hue of each garment shimmered and flickered and changed from moment to moment. Some wore chain mail or plate, argent metal elaborately shaped and chased; others had robes and coronets. The were a tall people, moving with a liquid grace no human could rival, nor even a cat. A cold haughtiness marked their features, which were of a strange cast, high tilted cheekbones, winged nostrils, narrow chin. Their skin was white, their long fine hair blue-silver, most of the men beardless.

The Pharisees are not exactly agents of Chaos, though they do seem quite willing to assist the witch Morgan, if for no other reason than to ease their boredom. Here is Alfric speaking, on page 47:

‘You mortals know not how tedious undying life can become, and how gladly a challenge such as this is greeted. ‘Tis I should thank you.’

I would be very tempted to replace the B/X elf class with a Pharisee class, which would probably be similar to the elf in my recent alternate take on races post. Basically, details as elf, but can be turned as undead of similar HD. Vulnerability to iron as specified. Perhaps limited to a custom list of enchantment and charm spells, drawn from AD&D or Second Edition for variety. I’ve seen the elf done by limiting to druid spells before, but after reading 3H&3L, I find the enchanter archetype more appealing and appropriate.

Hexagram Path of Guile Draft

The path of guile is about using misdirection and cleverness. The primary mechanic behind most path of guile traits is the saving throw, as many of them focus on avoidance of bad outcomes (climbing is the avoidance of falling, stealth is the avoidance of being noticed, tumbling is the avoidance of gravity, etc). Most tasks associated with the path of guile may be attempted by all characters (though a few cannot be attempted without training, like picking complex locks or interacting with some ancient technology), but characters with path of guile traits have several important advantages.

Tasks that benefit from guile traits make use of the general saving throw, which in most cases is a character’s worst saving throw value (considering all five saving throw categories). Characters with guile traits, however, use their best saving throw value for these tasks.

Additionally, characters with points in guile traits may size up and prepare for a situation before actually attempting to use a guile trait. The roll happens after the preparation is complete, but before the character must decide whether or not to actually attempt the task. In other words, the player will know that something will be successful or not before trying (and presumably will not try if it has been decided that the task will fail, though the time spent preparing is still expended).

For example, a character may be confronted with a sheer mountain face. They could spend some time carefully examining the obstacle, and then make their roll. The sizing up and preparation only remain valid as long as conditions do not change. Thus, if a character is halfway up a cliff when enemies begin firing arrows, another climb saving throw will likely be required to avoid falling.

In the climbing example, all characters would be able to attempt the action, but they would not be allowed the benefit of the sizing up procedure, and they must use the standard general saving throw rather than the best general saving throw. They must roll their saving throw after taking action, and let the dice fall where they may.

If you think that such knowledge would not require a full turn, consider if the task itself is really deserving of a check at all. Is this something that anybody would reasonably have trouble with? Is the chance of failure an interesting hazard within the context of the game? If the answer to either of those questions is no, the action should just succeed.

At first glance, it might seem more logical to use ability checks as the basis for guile traits rather than saving throws. However, that would make ability scores too important, and greatly increase the variance of starting competency. By using saving throws, improvement is gradual and level-based.

I’m on the fence about the name of the perception trait. That really is the correct name, but I’m tempted to call it listen just to distance it from the 3E perception skill. I’m also still on the fence about including the last chance trait at all. So let me know if you love it or hate it.


  1. Perception. Save +T to notice details such as noise behind a door.
  2. Stealth. Save +T to move without being noticed.
  3. Devices. Save +T to manipulate small mechanical devices.
  4. Climb. Save +T to climb a sheer surface.
  5. Assassination. +T surprise attack damage dice. Poison use.
  6. Tumbling. Save +T to avoid falling damage if < T x 10'. Free unarmed parry.
  7. Antediluvia. Save +T to utilize artifacts from before the deluge.
  8. Tracking. Follow trails left by creatures. Poison extraction.
  9. Last Chance. T + level % chance to pass a failed catastrophic saving throw.

Perception. This allows characters a better chance to notice details, such as listening for movement behind a door or searching a room for secret doors. Using the perception trait in this way always requires 1 exploration turn (10 minutes). Note that this trait should not be used to decide which clues or details to reveal. Instead, it is a measure of a character’s thoroughness. Perception also grants a saving throw to avoid surprise (though this only works for the character, not companions as well).

Stealth. Save +T to avoid detection when hiding or moving silently. A situation may be sized up for stealthy action beforehand. Hidden characters may attack with surprise.

Image from Wikipedia

Devices. Save +T to pick a lock (requires tools), manipulate a mundane mechanical device, or disable a small mechanical trap (such as a spring-loaded poison needle).

Climb. Save +T to climb sheer surfaces. Note that no saving throw is ever required to climb something like a ladder, unless under great stress. A climb may be sized up.

Assassination. +T to hit for attacks from surprise. If such an attack is successful, T extra damage dice are rolled. In addition, characters trained in assassination may apply poison to weapons without danger to themselves.

Tumbling. Save +T when falling up to T x 10 feet for no damage. On a failed save, falling damage is halved if the distance fallen is less than T X 10 feet. Additionally, tumbling grants one free unarmed parry per turn (which does not stack). Tumbling also includes general training in acrobatics (see skills and ability checks).

Antediluvia. Save +T to activate or use artifacts from before the deluge. Some such artifacts require a successful check for every use, some require only one check to decode, and some are totally incomprehensible without a minimum degree of antediluvia.

Tracking. Save +T to follow the path left by others previously. Tracking also allows up to T doses of poison the be extracted from poisonous monsters up to T hit dice in strength.

Last Chance. T + level % chance to succeed on a failed catastrophic saving throw, which includes things like dragon breath, poison, or the gaze of a medusa. Last chance may not be used for trait saving throws. For example, a 15th level character with last chance 2 will have a 17% chance to succeed on a failed saving throw. (Thanks to Ed Dove for the name suggestion here.)

Miséricorde from Wikipedia

Hexagram Path of Sorcery Draft

Image from Wikipedia
The spells trait is the support for Vancian magic. Note that the total number of spell slots is much limited compared to the traditional game, but spells are also retained with a successful save, making spells closer to at-will as the sorcerer gains levels. However, 1s cause spell fumbles (this also explains why cities aren’t lit with continual light spells).
Existing spell lists may be used if desired (for familiarity and quick start), but guidelines for creating unique spells will be built into the process of scenario creation, which happens as the game unfolds, and does not need to be determined beforehand (this also makes the spell list potentially unique to every campaign). As for all traits, max T is 6. The word “rank” is used to measure spells, but that is just so I’m not using the word level to refer to two different things in the same paragraph.

A number of these traits build on ideas I have had before, such as Vancian magic variants and counter-spells.
Banishment is the implementation of turn undead. Thus, characters like clerics and paladins are prototypes that mix the path of steel and the path of sorcery, which is as it should be.
The magical devices and magic research traits still need work. Magic item manufacture is probably part of that, and is related to the setting guidelines for magic items, which are not yet finished.

Magical affinity was developed for an earlier version of Hexagram, and will likely also be featured in some form.

The Path of Sorcery

  1. Spells. T spell slots for prepared spells.
  2. Aegis. +T floating bonus to magic saves and counter-spells.
  3. Magical devices. Use or create enchanted items.
  4. Scrolls. The creation and use of inscribed spells.
  5. Alchemy. Prepare magical concoctions usable by anyone.
  6. Magical research. Create new spells.
  7. Banishment. Turn away undead or force demons back to their home.
  8. Thrall-binding. Summon or create sorcerous minions.
  9. Supplication. Call on favors from demons, spirits, and other powers.

Image from Wikipedia

Spells. T is the number of spells slots which can be used for prepared spells. 1 spell rank requires one slot. The maximum spell rank (called spell capability) which may be prepared is character level divided by 2, rounded up. So, for example, a third level character with spells 3 could prepare one second rank spell and one first rank spell. That same character could not prepare a third rank spell, however, as that would require spell capability 3 (and thus character level 5 or higher). When a spell is cast, the character makes a saving throw versus magic. If the saving throw succeeds, the spell works and is also retained for later use. If the saving throw is a 1, the spell fails and a magical mishap occurs (see magical mishaps section). If the saving throw fails but isnot a 1, the spell works but is wiped from the sorcerers consciousness and may not be cast again until it is re-prepared. Similar spells vary based on their source and have incidental effects in addition to primary effects (such as a blast of cold air or a crackling of static electricity). These effects act as a kind of signature. When learning a spell from an specific external source, the incidental effect is also preserved. For example, if a character learns the spell Flashy Blockade, discovered by Manikelme, players should write Manikelme’s Flashy Blockade on their character sheet along with the incidental effect (which in this case might be a cloudy roiling of smoke around the sorcerer’s feet). There may be other Flashy Blockades with different incidental effects. More importantly however, sorcerers who have learned a particular version of a spell gain advantages in resisting the spell (+2 saves, -1 damage per die, +2 at counter-spell attempts). Thus, sorcerers are hesitant to share their knowledge, because it makes them more vulnerable to potential enemies. Though the number of prepared spells is limited by mortal consciousness, sorcerers may prepare further spells for use by encoding them on properly prepared material receptacles (see the scrolls trait). New spells may be located during play in books or on scrolls, fetched by demons (see the supplication trait), or invented (in which case the spell will bear the character’s name and have a unique incidental effect; see the magical research trait).

Aegis. Magical attacks can’t be dodged like blades, but they can be resisted or countered with practice. +T floating bonus to saving throws versus hostile external magical effects. This bonus may be applied to companions nearby in lieu of the self. Multiple sources of magical aegis do not stack. In addition, aegis allows sorcerers to attempt counter-spells, which may be used once per turn in response to enemy spell casters. The character makes a save versus spells (modified by the difference in spell capability between the two casters). Unused aegis points may also be used to help with this save. Upon success, the spell is temporarily countered (that is, the effect is cancelled, but the spell is retained by the enemy spell caster). If the countering sorcerer is willing to expend prepared spells, the spell may be permanently countered (that is, the enemy may not use it again without re-preparation); an equal number of spell slots worth of prepared spells must be expended for a permanent counter. On a natural 20, the spell may be torn from the enemy’s consciousness and hurled back at its caster. On a natural 1, a magical mishap occurs in addition to any other negative effects from the original spell.

Flying Carpet from Dark Classics

Magical devices. Many magical devices require esoteric knowledge to operate. Save versus magic +T to activate or understand a device. Some items may cause disastrous effects upon save fail or fumble, or may curse users without training who attempt to use them. Sometimes, a check is only needed once, after which a device may be used any number of times, and sometimes a check is needed for every use (this depends on the item in question). Some items require a certain level of arcane master to even attempt to make sense of, and these devices will specify a minimum magical devices score. Magical devices does not only apply to portable things like wands, but also potentially to large immovable things.

Faust image from Dark Classics

Scrolls. Spells may be partially cast and then bound to a material receptacle, needing only a final command to activate. This is much like preparing a spell, but requires valuable components to be expended in the process of preparation. Costs are 100 GP and one day per spell level. Note that the form of “scrolls” need not be paper (though that is common); scrolls may be made of any material. Choose a description for scrolls that you create taking this trait. Add the read magic first level spell to your spell book when you first take this trait. If you do not have the spells trait, you may still cast read magic between sessions with proper ritual preparation (one day required per scroll).

Alchemy allows sorcerers to prepare potions, which are like scrolls, but limited to personal effects. Any such spell known (of level T or less) may be brewed as a potion. Additionally, specific potion-only formulae may be discovered in play. Potions can be imbibed by any character for effect. Potions are not as reliable as scrolls, however, and have a chance of expiring before use. A potion brewed just prior to an adventure will not have a chance of failure, but any other potion will have no effect on a d20 roll of 1. Costs are 100 GP and one day per spell level. Potions usually consist of approximately 8 oz of liquid, and must be fully consumed for effect. Any effect takes 1 turn (10 minutes) to manifest and is thus most useful while exploring (as potions are too slow to take effect if consumed during combat).

Magical research. Create spells up to rank T. [Still working on this one, but I’m pretty sure it will be a trait separate from spells.]

Banishment. Turn away undead or demonic creatures. Max HD creature affected = T + 2. Total HD affected = Td6. May only be attempted once per target. If the max HD affected is 5 greater than the actual target, the creature is destroyed or banished.

Thrall-binding. Many sorcerers rely on minions to do their bidding, called thralls. This trait controls the number of such creatures that can be controlled at one time. Choose a thrall type. Possibilities include necromancy, golem-crafting, minor diabolism, or something of your own devising. The type may give minor benefits and weaknesses (example: undead are immune to mind effects but vulnerable to holy water and turning). Max total hit dice = T, divided as desired. For example, if T = 6, three 2 HD thralls may be controlled. AC for all thralls is +T (e.g., six 1 HD thralls will all have +6 AC). Attack bonus is also +T, but must be distributed between thralls (e.g., six 1 HD thralls might each have +1 to attack). Additional special abilities (such as flying) count as one HD (so a 5 HD poisonous minion would count as a 6 HD minion). Creation or ritual costs (in GP) are 1 HD: 100, 2 HD: 200, 3 HD: 400, 4 HD: 800, 5 HD: 1600, 6 HD: 3200. Sorcerers must find formulae diegetically (or perform magical research) to learn how to summon/create and bind a given type of thrall. Any number of thralls may be created or summoned (as long as the costs are paid), but thralls in excess of T will be free-willed, and almost certainly hostile and malevolent. Sorcerers must spend an action to give their thralls commands during combat, but thralls will continue any actions to the best of their ability without direct guidance. Sorcerers may take control of monsters that fit their thrall type with a successful saving throw versus magic. Note that perhaps more than any other type of sorcery, thrall-binding is considered chaotic and must be concealed when in civilized areas. (Thanks to Paul from Dungeonskull Mountain for the term thrall-binding.)

Vision de Saint Jean a Patmos from Dark Classics

Supplication. Some sorcerers bargain directly with powerful entities from other dimensions. These may be demons, genies, saints, ghosts of past heroes, or beings totally beyond human comprehension. The kind of entity dealt with should be declared when the trait is taken (and may affect the type of information the entities have access to). Supplication requires performing complex rituals, of which there are several kinds. The cost to perform one lesser ritual is generally T x 100 GP (and T days worth of preparation and performance). Treasure rituals result in the equivalent of a treasure map of level T (see treasure section). Divination rituals may be used to pose questions, the complexity of which is dependent upon the ritual level (and must be adjudicated by the referee; the 2d6 reaction roll is recommended). Spell rituals can be used to acquire a spell of level T. Lesser rituals may be attempted at half cost, but then require a save versus magic for protection from the (usually hostile) entity, as well as a reaction roll for the degree of service ultimately rendered (the charisma modifier applies). Entities dealt with using supplication rituals may be summoned fully for direct intervention in the sunlit realms, but such is extremely dangerous, and is usually the last resort of the hopeless or insane. Thus, supplication is more commonly used for divination purposes. Such greater rituals require T x 1000 GP and T weeks of preparation and performance. When the entity arrives a saving throw versus magic is required for protection for the sorcerer (companions are not protected, and other means must be used if such protection is desired). Services rendered may be determined by a 2d6 reaction roll, and additional means to garner favor (such as sacrifices) may be attempted, but nothing is guaranteed when dealing with greater rituals. Such entities, when summoned, may choose to stay or return as they see fit (many demons would like nothing better than to trick mortals into opening such doors). Characters that begin with the supplication trait may start with T x 100 GP worth of ritual components (which may not be redeemed directly for money).