Monthly Archives: February 2013

Dungeon World bag of holding

Image from Wikipedia

Dungeon World has some excellent, interesting magic items. There are very few simple +1 style items, and most of them have clever drawbacks. My only (minor) complaint is that I think the collection would benefit from more consumable or impermanent items, which lead to interesting resource management and also militate against accumulating lots of permanent enchanted items as a campaign progresses.

As an example, consider the DW version of an old classic, the bag of holding. This item is a huge boon, because it allows one to worry less about encumbrance and thus be more likely to have the tools needed for a given situation. This version has a nice twist: you can’t always find exactly what you want, or at least not quickly.

Bag of Holding – 0 weight

A bag of holding is larger on the inside than the outside, it can contain an infinite number of items, and its weight never increases. When you try to retrieve an item from a bag of holding, roll+WIS. ✴On a 10+, it’s right there. ✴On a 7-9, choose one:

• You get the exact item, but it takes a while
• You get a similar item of the GM’s choice, but it only takes a moment

No matter how many items it contains, a bag of holding is always 0 weight.

Yes, this includes some player narrative control, but that’s easy enough to fix if you don’t like it. Here’s a version I might use with OD&D.

When you try to retrieve an item from a bag of holding, roll 1d6. You find:

  • 1-2: junk from the inter-dimensional nexus (ask referee)
  • 3: something similar that you have never seen before
  • 4: something similar that put in previously
  • 5: what you were looking for, but it takes a full turn
  • 6: what you were looking for immediately

That could probably be tightened up a bit, but you get the idea.

The quoted item description above is from DW page 333 and is creative commons licensed. Dungeon World can be found at RPGNow.

Favorable and unfavorable saves

Swords & Wizardry collapsed all the saving throws into a single number, with some class-based modifiers. For example, clerics get +2 when saving against paralysis or poison, and magic-users get +2 when saving against spells. The traditional saving throw categories do provide atmosphere (death ray, dragon breath), but are somewhat cumbersome and nonintuitive.

One thing I’ve been doing recently is using “most favorable” or “least favorable” save numbers for cases where the choice of what save category to use is not immediately clear. If it seems like something the class in question would have some competence with, the character gets to use the most favorable. Where this has come up most is for the saving throw involved in carousing-like activities.

I have previously discussed simplifying saving throws by deriving them directly from character level. Here is another approach. Rather than have one column of saves per class, as S&W does, or use the more complicated multi-save system as did the original TSR editions, why not have two progressions by level: favorable and unfavorable. All classes would reference the same values, but would differ as to which number was used by situation. This method would require two numbers, but would avoid needing any class-based or situational modifiers.

Putting this idea into Third Edition terms, combat oriented classes would use the favorable numbers for direct physical situations, whereas magic-users would use the favorable numbers for resisting sorcery or mental effects.

Saving Throw Competency by Class
Class Favorable Unfavorable
fighter fortitude reflex, will
magic-user will fortitude, reflex
thief reflex fortitude, will

The cleric does not fit quite so neatly into the 3E classification. A cleric should probably have favorable saves when dealing with demonic or undead threats, for example, but not necessarily for situations that require general toughness. Classes like the cleric would be easily handled by this proposed dual number system, without needing to spell out the types of threats beforehand.

Bifurcated Saving Throws
Level Favorable Unfavorable
1 – 3
4 – 6
7 – 9
10 – 12

These numbers are derived from the OD&D fighter best and worst saves. I chose the fighter because A) the fighter is the most fundamental class and B) fighter saves improve every third level rather than the less frequent schedules of the other classes. The resulting pattern is also quite nice and easy to remember, as the two numbers always differ by 4 (20%) and always improve by 2 every tier (once a player has written down 12/16 they never even have to every consult the table again as long as that basic rule is remembered).

All classes would use the favorable number for the 0 HP death save.

I am aware that some people think that saving throws should be collapsed into ability checks, but I do not think that is the best approach for a level-based game, as improving saving throws should be a reward for longterm successful play, not a trick of the dice at first level. See here for more on my philosophy of saving throws.

Dungeon World weapons

The weapons system in Dungeon World is perhaps the best (for my purposes) that I have seen in any published RPG. It uses a tag-based system to distribute effects between the various weapons. Thus, they become distinctive while offering interesting trade-offs. Best of all, it looks like it could be dropped, unmodified, over a flat d6 or class-based damage system in D&D. Dungeon World itself assumes class-based damage.

It’s not perfect, as there are some items that are just plainly suboptimal other than cost (such as elven arrows versus normal arrows), and I’m never satisfied with cost being the main differentiator because it is not really much of an obstacle in a game about treasure hunters (DW is by assumption less coin-heavy than traditional D&D though, so maybe it works there).

Below I have reproduced the DW weapon rules, since Dungeon World is creative commons licensed. Hence the legitimacy of this cut-and-paste job. Thanks to Adam and Sage for making their work available in this way. In the published book, this material is on pages 324 through 326.

For other weapon systems that try to approach the problem similarly, see:

General Equipment Tags

These are general tags that can apply to just about any piece of gear. You’ll see them on armor, weapons or general adventuring tools. Applied: It’s only useful when carefully applied to a person or to something they eat or drink.

  • Awkward: It’s unwieldy and tough to use.
  • +Bonus: It modifies your effectiveness in a specified situation. It might be “+1 forward to spout lore” or “-1 ongoing to hack and slash.”
  • n coins: How much it costs to buy, normally. If the cost includes “-Charisma” a little negotiation subtracts the haggler’s Charisma score (not modifier) from the price.
  • Dangerous: It’s easy to get in trouble with it. If you interact with it without proper precautions the GM may freely invoke the consequences of your foolish actions.
  • Ration: It’s edible, more or less.
  • Requires: It’s only useful to certain people. If you don’t meet the requirements it works poorly, if at all.
  • Slow: It takes minutes or more to use.
  • Touch: It’s used by touching it to the target’s skin.
  • Two-handed: It takes two hands to use it effectively.
  • n weight: Count the listed amount against your Load. Something with no listed weight isn’t designed to be carried. 100 coins in standard denominations is 1 weight. The same value in gems or fine art may be lighter or heavier.
  • Worn: To use it, you have to be wearing it.
  • n Uses: It can only be used n times.


Weapons don’t kill monsters, people do. That’s why weapons in Dungeon World don’t have a listed damage. A weapon is useful primarily for its tags which describe what the weapon is useful for. A dagger is not useful because it does more or less damage than some other blade. It’s useful because it’s small and easy to strike with at close distance. A dagger in the hands of the wizard is not nearly so dangerous as one in the hands of a skilled fighter.

Weapon Tags

Weapons may have tags that are primarily there to help you describe them (like Rusty or Glowing) but these tags have a specific, mechanical effect.

  • n Ammo: It counts as ammunition for appropriate ranged weapons. The number indicated does not represent individual arrows or sling stones, but represents what you have left on hand.
  • Forceful: It can knock someone back a pace, maybe even off their feet.
  • +n Damage: It is particularly harmful to your enemies. When you deal damage, you add n to it.
  • Ignores Armor: Don’t subtract armor from the damage taken.
  • Messy: It does damage in a particularly destructive way, ripping people and things apart.
  • n Piercing: It goes right through armor. When you deal damage with n piercing, you subtract n from the enemy’s armor for that attack.
  • Precise: It rewards careful strikes. You use DEX to hack and slash with this weapon, not STR.
  • Reload: After you attack with it, it takes more than a moment to reset for another attack.
  • Stun: When you attack with it, it does stun damage instead of normal damage.
  • Thrown: Throw it at someone to hurt them. If you volley with this weapon, you can’t choose to mark off ammo on a 7–9; once you throw it, it’s gone until you can recover it.

Weapons have tags to indicate the range at which they are useful. Dungeon World doesn’t inflict penalties or grant bonuses for “optimal range” or the like, but if your weapon says Hand and an enemy is ten yards away, a player would have a hard time justifying using that weapon against him.

  • Hand: It’s useful for attacking something within your reach, no further.
  • Close: It’s useful for attacking something at arm’s reach plus a foot or two.
  • Reach: It’s useful for attacking something that’s several feet away— maybe as far as ten.
  • Near: It’s useful for attacking if you can see the whites of their eyes.
  • Far: It’s useful for attacking something in shouting distance.

Weapon List

The stats below are for typical items. There are, of course, variations. A dull long sword might be -1 damage instead while a masterwork dagger could be +1 damage. Consider the following to be stats for typical weapons of their type—a specific weapon could have different tags to represent its features.

Ragged Bow
near, 15 coins, 2 weight
Fine Bow
near, far, 60 coins, 2 weight
Hunter’s Bow
near, far, 100 coins, 1 weight
near, +1 damage, reload, 35 coins, 3 weight
Bundle of Arrows
3 ammo, 1 coin, 1 weight
Elven Arrows
4 ammo, 20 coins, 1 weight
Club, Shillelagh
close, 1 coin, 2 weight
close, two-handed, 1 coin, 1 weight
Dagger, Shiv, Knife
hand, 2 coins, 1 weight
Throwing Dagger
thrown, near, 1 coin, 0 weight
Short Sword, Axe, Warhammer, Mace
close, 8 coins, 1 weight
reach, thrown, near, 5 coins, 1 weight
Long Sword, Battle Axe, Flail
close, +1 damage, 15 coins, 2 weight
reach, +1 damage, two-handed, 9 coins, 2 weight
close, precise, 25 coins, 1 weight
Dueling Rapier
close, 1 piercing, precise, 50 coins, 2 weight

OD&D deluxe reprint

Image from

Wizards of the Coast is reprinting OD&D! From the site:

Each booklet features new cover art but is otherwise a faithful reproduction of the original, including original interior art.

If they play their cards right, they will release a hardcover compilation and then PDFs at staggered intervals. If that’s a real wood box, I’m sold. And who am I kidding? I’m pretty sure I will pick one up even if it’s not.

The only real downside: Chainmail is not included.

OD&D moves

Here are the rules for my dialect of OD&D, restated in Dungeon World* style moves.

  • Hack and slash: d20 attack roll, look up result by class on attack matrix
  • Volley: d20 attack roll with a ranged weapon, modified by dexterity
  • Defy danger: roll a saving throw as appropriate to the situation
  • Discern realities: X in 6 search roll, takes one exploration turn
  • Parley: 2d6 reaction roll, modified by charisma
  • Last breath: at 0 HP, save vs. death (success = unconscious, failure = death)
  • Encumbrance: take -1 per # of items beyond strength score to most rolls
  • Make camp: rest for a night; if uninterrupted, regain 1 HP
  • Undertake a perilous journey: roll wilderness random encounter checks
  • End of session: mark upkeep costs, roll for events
  • Level up: this is part of end of session for me
  • Carouse: spend treasure to get XP; this should happen prior to level up
  • Supply: other than standard purchases, thieves also have streetwise
  • Recover: re-roll hit dice (generally at the beginning of a session)
  • Recruit: 2d6 reaction roll modified by charisma and market supply
DW moves that don’t seem to have good equivalents:
  • Defend
  • Spout lore
  • Outstanding warrants
  • Bolster
I would like a more formalized system for defending, but so far all I have is that shield bearers grant a +1 AC bonus to their employer (I don’t think this particular house rule has stuck though). Some D&D referees use intelligence checks as a sort of spout lore move, but I tend to be more descriptive. Players tell me what they examine, and I provide details as appropriate. Outstanding warrants seems like a good way to ensure that actions have consequences, and I’m going to think more about how that might apply to D&D. Bolster allow PCs to get bonuses to certain kinds of actions by preparing during downtime. Not bad, but doesn’t seem necessary.
Encumbrance is an awkward fit for a move, but it does have system weight in both DW and OD&D, so it seems reasonable to include it in the list. The equivalent of the end of session move in my OD&D game really encompasses all of the downtime actions between sessions, including level up and carouse.
Now, I’m not claiming that “moves” are just a different way to talk about things that we already do. They actually do function differently. For one thing, Apocalypse World uses a single resolution system when it comes to dice (roll+STAT) while OD&D uses a plethora of resolution systems. But there is some correspondence between the two models, and probably far more than is often acknowledged by the two schools of play.
The game concept of moves in Apocalypse World is commonly misunderstood by old schoolers. Moves are not equivalent to actions or powers. They are not a menu of things to do. Instead, they represent when the rules kick in to resolve uncertainty “in the fiction” (to use the terminology popularized by AW).
* Apocalypse World (AW) and Dungeon World (DW) are used somewhat interchangeably.

Balance redux

Anything that is a threat to PCs can also potentially be used by PCs creatively.

This is why balance is unnecessary in an open-ended game.
I don’t think game fairness (which is really what we are talking about when we talk about balance) depends upon being able to defeat foes. A threat could be totally impervious to PCs and still useful to them. Consider the hypothetical invincible monster (such as, for example, the Dungeon World version of the Tarrasque). All you need to do is figure out how to get the paths of your other enemies to cross with the Tarrasque, and it will do your dirty work for you.
The same is true, of course, for even the most devious traps or the most deadly hazards.


Magic-user spell, level 1, range 120′

Counter-spell may be cast in reaction to any spell being cast, even if the caster has already taken an action, as long as the enemy caster is within range. Any save against the targeted spell may be re-rolled once if failed. Counter-spell must be cast, however, before the first save is rolled. Counter-spell has no effect against spells that do not grant a saving throw. Though counter-spell is a first level spell, it may be prepared using any level of spell slot. The level of spell slot used grants a bonus to the saving throw re-roll (thus, the extra save granted by counter-spell prepared using a first level has a +1 bonus and counter-spell prepared using a third level slot has a +3 bonus). Scrying magic (such as that provided by a crystal ball or ESP spell) allows a counter-spell to be cast at greater range.

Variation: counter-spell is not a spell, but rather a reaction that any magic-user can take at the cost of a prepared spell, much like how clerics in 3E can substitute a cure spell for any prepared spell. Rules otherwise as above. I can’t decide which is better. On the one hand, magic-users are the planning class, and should thus maybe need to plan for counter-spells. On the other hand, spell casting enemies are not that common, so there is a risk that the option would never be taken.

See also this earlier approach to counter-spells.

Magic save as magic defense

The Enchantress (source)

The Enchantress (source)

Many spells allow a saving throw to avoid or mitigate spell effects. This saving throw is a property of the spell target that represents how good they are at throwing off the effect of magic. Thus, it is in effect a magic defense stat (much like the “will” defense in 4E).

Now, I already have magic-users roll a saving throw when they cast a spell to see if the spell is retained. Why not roll the retention save and the monster save together? One minor problem is that the player wants to roll high on the retention save, but wants the monster to roll low on the defense save. However, this is easy to address; just subtract the monster save from 20 to get a new target number.

For example, say the target of a spell has a saving throw versus magic of 15. That means they have a 30% defense against magic. Also assume that the caster has a save versus magic of 15 (and thus a 30% chance to retain the spell). The player rolls 1d20. Above 5 and the monster is affected (30% chance preserved). 15 or higher and the spell is also retained. This is a quick and easy single roll spectrum system that uses all the default game numbers.

The one minor hack that I would add is to have the magic-user apply spell competency* as a bonus to the roll and spell level as a penalty to represent spell difficulty (at first and second class level these modifiers balance out, so no math is required until a magic-user reaches third level). This makes the all-in-one saving throw more like a direct “spell roll.”

* Spell competency = the highest level of spell that the magic-user can prepare. This is usually equivalent to experience level divided by 2 (round up). For example, a fifth level magic-user has a spell competency of 3.

Escape or Initiative

In my previous necrology post about Satyavati, Hedgehobbit brought up a rule from The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures regarding when it was appropriate to call for an initiative roll. The situation involved a PC approaching something carefully that they knew to be dangerous, presumably ready to turn and flee at any moment. Under what circumstances is it appropriate for a threat to engage a PC in combat? Hedgehobbit suggested that the rule was if within 20 feet, roll initiative, otherwise compare movement rates to see if the PC can outrun the monster.

The actual text (from page 20 of TU&WA) is:

There is no chance for avoiding if the monster has surprised the adventurers and is within 20 feet, unless the monster itself has been surprised. If the adventurers choose to flee, the monster will continue to pursue in a straight line as long as there is not more than 90 feet between the two.

Distance will open or close dependent upon the relative speeds of the two parties, men according to their encumbrance and monsters according to the speed given on the Monster Table in Volume II. In order to move faster characters may elect to discard items such as treasure, weapons, shields, etc. in order to lighten encumbrance. 

Though initiative is not mentioned explicitly (in fact, as far as I know, initiative is not mentioned at all in the 3 LBBs), Hedgehobbit notes that “no chance for avoiding” does seem to imply that combat rules, whatever they are, become active if those requirements (surprise, within 20 feet) are satisfied. Now, in Satyavati’s case, no surprise dice were rolled (though I suppose that a perfectly still statue suddenly moving could maaaaaaybe be considered surprising) so strictly speaking this rule would not be relevant.

The rule “distance will open or close” is difficult to manage without a grid or doing extra math. I actually prefer Hedgehobbit’s version as originally stated. If a PC is within 20′ of something, the combat rules are potentially in effect. If farther than 20′ away, the pursuit rules are used (movement rates are compared directly).

This would have resulted in the outcome produced by the session, is easy to remember, allows players to reason about risk without introducing certainty, and seems intuitively reasonable.

The 20′ threat range could also potentially be derived from monster movement rates (movement divided by 4, round down maybe) so that faster monsters would be more able to force combat. It might also be reasonable to factor reach into the equation, so that an ogre (with a movement of 9) would have a 30′ threat range (9 / 4 = 2.25 + 10′ for reach = 3.25, round down to 30′ effective threat range). This also makes ranged attacks and missile weapons more dangerous, which is as it should be.

Necrology: Drona

During the previous Vaults of Pahvelorn session (February 3), there was another PC death. In fact, it came perilously close to a TPK. The setup was as follows: there were two chambers, one external (pictured to the south in the map) and one internal. The external room was a makeshift shrine to demonic invaders and was guarded by several fanatical savage worshippers and a priest dressed in demon-lookalike armor. These foes were dispatched quickly but without great stealth.

Following that fight, the party went through the door leading to the inner chamber, and encountered a black armored demon warrior (actually, these creatures have armor as skin, much like an exoskeleton). He was positioned behind a heavy table on the northern side of the room.

Both sides were aware of the other, so there was no need to check for surprise. We went directly to initiative, which the black armored demon warrior won. I asked the players where all the PCs were to confirm that no characters had stayed behind in the previous room, and they verified that everyone was in the 10′ x 20′ hallway leading to the chamber. The demon warrior then discharged an energy weapon, which was 4d6 area effect damage (save versus spells for half).

All PCs and retainers were in the weapon’s area of effect. The damage dice came up 16 in total, so even those that made the save still took 8 damage. The PC Drona (fighter 3) was killed, as were two retainers (Eraria’s apprentice Genk and Drona’s retainer Gillim). Given that this was combat damage that reduced them to 0 HP, the various characters also got the standard death saving throw that I use to determine if 0 HP means true death or just unconsciousness, and those three mentioned above all failed that save as well (if I recall correctly, Eraria and a few other characters were also reduced to 0 HP, but made their death saving throw and so were successfully revived after the combat).

Session as recounted by the player of Drona:

The party returns to the barrow, which looks to have been fortified since their last visit. Tarvis and Darulin foolishly step into a snare trap, and the party are ambushed in the entry way. They make quick work of the savages that attack them, and charm their leader. The party makes their way into the barrow, led by the charmed man. Entering the second level, the party is ambushed once more. They make short work of the fellows and continue South. Beyond that path leads to a room full of more savages. A sleep spell gets rid of most of the group, and Fitzwalter gets rid of their leader. Drona and Gillum run the rest of the sleeping fellows through. Beyond the final door is a short corridor leading into a small room. At a desk sits a demon, similar to tangle. He shoots the party with a crazy magical crossbow. DEAD!

Final thoughts. Engaging in a frontal assault robbed the party of potential surprise. Also, approaching in a tight formation exposed everyone to the demon’s weapon.

RIP Drona, fighter 3 (picture by Gus L)