Monthly Archives: August 2013


The Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron (source)

I recently got the urge to read the Prydain young adult fantasy novels. I don’t know if I ever read them when I was younger, though I have fond childhood memories of the Disney animated movie (and a coloring book based on it). Looking at books like these as an adult can be hit or miss, as I found a while back when I attempted to reread the Narnia books (they didn’t hold up well at all for me). As a whole,

My favorite parts of the entire series are the descriptions of the Horned King and the cauldron-born in The Book of Three (which is volume 1 in the series). On the Horned King:

Astride the foam-spattered animal rode a monstrous figure. A crimson cloak flamed from his naked shoulders. Crimson stained his gigantic arms. Horror-stricken, Taran saw not the head of a man but the antlered head of a stag. The Horned King! Taran flung himself against an oak to escape the flying hoofs and the heaving, glistening flanks. Horse and rider swept by. The mask was a human skull; from it, the great antlers rose in cruel curves. The Horned King’s eyes blazed behind the gaping sockets of whitened bone.

On the Cauldron-Born:

“There are others to whom a sword means nothing,” Gwydion said. “Among them, the Cauldron-Born, who serve Arawn as warriors.” “Are they not men?” Taran asked. “They were, once,” replied Gwydion. “They are the dead whose bodies Arawn steals from their resting places in the long barrows. It is said he steeps them in a cauldron to give them life again—if it can be called life. Like death, they are forever silent; and their only thought is to bring others to the same bondage. “Arawn keeps them as his guards in Annuvin, for their power wanes the longer and farther they be from their master. Yet from time to time Arawn sends certain of them outside Annuvin to perform his most ruthless tasks. “These Cauldron-Born are utterly without mercy or pity,” Gwydion continued, “for Arawn has worked still greater evil upon them. He has destroyed their remembrance of themselves as living men. They have no memory of tears or laughter, of sorrow or loving kindness. Among all Arawn’s deeds, this is one of the cruelest.”

In addition to these passages, there are some enjoyable “dungeon” scenes in The Castle of Llyr (volume 3) involving an insane transmogrified alchemist stuck underground after enlarging himself with a potion (yes, that part is pretty much as good as it sounds, and reads like the transcription of a D&D adventure).

The setting and atmosphere are far more interesting than the characters or the plot. The characters can, in fact, be downright annoying. For example, the continuous exaggerations followed by broken harp strings from Fflewddur, the Jar Jar Binks antics of Gurgi, and the somewhat artificial girl-versus-boy interactions between Taran and Princess Eilonwy. It is perhaps unfair to criticize the characters of a children’s book for being childish, but, well, there it is. This is definitely not a flaw shared by many other books that arguably belong to the same genre, such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea stories.

The fifth book shows the progression from adventurer (in Taran Wanderer, volume 4) to domain level play (in The High King, volume 5) in a way that would be interesting to see in a tabletop campaign:

While the men readied their mounts and Hevydd set his forge to blazing, Taran led the companions to the neighboring Commots. His task became quickly known and each day brought its throng of herdsmen and farmers who needed no urging to march in the growing host following the banner of the White Pig. For Taran, days and nights merged into one another. In the marshaling camps astride unflagging Melynlas he rode among the gatherings of peaceful men turned warriors, seeing to their provisions and equipment, and bv the embers of watch fires held council with the new-formed war bands.

Rather than building a stronghold and watching the soldiers arrive, have PCs rally followers against some enemy or looming threat. (Quote above is from The High King, page 109.)

The most surprising aspect of Prydain for me during this reading was the depiction of the fair folk, which I had no memory of. They are mostly magical bearded small folk that live underground, and have powers such as turning invisible. They draw far more from the legends of little people than they do from the Norse Eddas. Like mainstream fantasy dwarves, they do concern themselves with mining and the crafting of beautiful objects. Unlike the mainstream, they are quite small (this passage is from The High King, page 178):

Hevydd the Smith marveled at their axes and short swords, pronouncing them sharper and better tempered than any he could make. For their own part, the Fair Folk seemed not the least uneasy; the tallest of Eiddileg’s warriors stood barely higher than Llassar’s knee, but the Fair Folk soldiers looked on their human comrades with the friendly indulgence they might show to overgrown children.

Perhaps the true test of stories like these, the Prydain novels have made me interested in the myths that inspired them, which include the Mabinogion and Welsh Triads. Prydain, it turns out, is the old Welsh name for Britain. In the process of investigating those primary sources, I also came across Celtic Wonder Tales, By Ella Young, the full text of which is available for free on

The books in the series are all individually very short, around 200 pages, and quick reads. There is enough mythological atmosphere to make them still worthwhile to an adult RPG player, I think, though as noted above there are aspects which may be somewhat simplistic. If you have kids, these novels would certainly make good “read aloud” candidates that you might also be able to get something from yourself.

Five Ancient Kingdoms impressions

Five Ancient Kingdoms, print edition

Five Ancient Kingdoms, print edition

Five Ancient Kingdoms is an Arabian Nights flavored game with the scope and presentation style of OD&D. Mechanically, it uses a Chainmail-inspired 2d6 resolution system. It manages to pack a tremendous amount of content into a very small word count. Five Ancient Kingdoms is probably on my short list of good intro RPGs (along with the Pathfinder Beginner Box and Lamentations of the Flame Princess).

My reaction has been almost entirely positive, but there are a few aspects that I am critical of, so let’s get them out of the way first. Yes, I suspect that “Dragon Master” was used because JB wanted to write DM, but do we really need another term for game master? “Opposite sex” language is used in the romance rules, and that is unnecessarily limiting. There are no indexes, and no “appendix N” or recommended reading section (something that a pseudo-historical setting like Barica could greatly benefit from). There are a few places where rules were hard for me to find (for example, how damage against PCs works is in the Hit Dice section rather than the Damage section). The numerous passages with “as explained in book X” would benefit from page numbers.

On to the good stuff. The entire game is approximately 150 digest sized pages in three saddle-stapled booklets. This is bigger than the OD&D three little brown books, but not by much. I find the rules as written to be very similar to how I have come to house-rule my own OD&D game. Some examples. Death is handled with save or die at zero HP (though 5AK also leaves survivors of the death save with a major wound). HP are rolled anew each session. Encumbrance is not quite as simple as my one item per point of strength, but it’s not too bad (it uses a simple list of penalties based on commonly carried or equipped items).

The core is built around four classes that you will probably recognize: hero, magician, saint, and thief, though the abilities are balanced between them slightly differently than in the traditional game (mostly for the better, I think), and all without resorting to weapon and armor restrictions. The best martial weapons (sword and bow) require training to attack without a penalty, and this is handled mostly at the class level, which is a decent way of distinguishing the hero class.

As mentioned above, the resolution systems are based on Chainmail, and use 2d6. In fact, the entire game only uses six sided dice (though results of 1 are always treated as zero, to simulate something like the d20’s natural 1). There is no AC as such; instead, attack target numbers are 6 + HD + armor (which is +1 for light armor and +2 for heavy armor). The attack roll is 2d6 + melee bonus, which is class based (+ HD for heroes and + half HD for all other classes). There is no initiative, and attacks are handled in order of attack roll (highest first). This seems extremely elegant. I have been leaning towards something similar in my own systems recently, with HD as attack bonus (and, potentially, as AC too).

Monsters don’t have HP, and instead take “hits” (which are the equivalent of what would be a hit die worth of HP in trad D&D, just without the randomization). PCs do have HP (and monsters use the familiar 1d6 damage per hit against them). This sounds somewhat complicated, but it is clear in the booklets, and I imagine the streamlining works well in practice (though it also means that monster danger is a bit less variable). Armor also has a limited per-session ability to negate several hits. In terms of system, the only significant lack I see is an absence of something like an ability check to resolve arbitrary actions (something like roll under an ability score with 3d6 would work).

In addition to expected mechanical features, PCs also have a motivation, which is rather freeform (but many examples are provided), and motivation interacts with a number of subsystems, including XP (for example, achieving a milestone appropriate to motivation can vault PCs instantly to the next level). Characters have the option to push actions based on their class and motivation, which allows relevant actions to be attempted with three dice, take two best, but with a greater chance of catastrophe. It reminds me of this stunt system I proposed a while back, though JB’s version is only usable for class- or motivation-relevant tasks. The XP system is rather overcomplicated for my tastes, but then I am sort of a radical minimalist in this area (I really don’t want to bother tracking things like +1000 XP for the first time an artifact is used properly). The romance rules look promising, though they require players to disclaim some amount of PC control (there are chances to become smitten with an NPC, for example). This would add an interesting twist to standard D&D adventures, and romance is certainly integral to the original Arabian Nights tales.

In only six digest-sized pages, JB has managed to craft elegant subclass and feat systems (though his feats are called advantages, which is actually a much better name; I’ve always disliked the use of the word feat for granular abilities in third edition and after). There are 8 subclasses provided, and they work by swapping out base class abilities. For example, the mountebank is a thief subclass with minor magical abilities. The trade-off is fewer thief skill points in exchange for having the basic spell casting abilities of a first level magician, though the mountebank’s skill with magic does not improve. Advantages include things like smart pet, ogre-kin, and tracker. There are 36 advantages (a D66 table, actually), and they are each described using no more than a few sentences. The text suggests gaining an advantage at levels 1, 4, and 8. Both of these systems could probably be easily hacked into your clone of choice.

Magic is also handled somewhat untraditionally. Magicians use a spell casting roll, which is 2d6 + level (+1 for exceptional intelligence), versus a target number of 2 * spell magnitude (which is what would be called spell level in many other games). Saints call “miracles” using a per-adventure slot system, which is more or less Vancian, though miracles do not need to be chosen beforehand. The spells themselves are mostly recognizable variations on traditional spells (charm, illumination, beast speech, and so forth), though there are a few notable additions (such as the second magnitude gale), and some of the spells have had their power adjusted (for example, sleep only works against “passive/non-hostile targets”). This is somewhat important, because the roll-to-cast system target numbers make casting spells very easy (if you do the math, the only way to fail casting a first magnitude spell, even as a first level magician, is to “zero out,” which has a 1 in 36 chance). It seems like even casting high level spells would rarely fail; consider an 8th level magician casting the 5th magnitude cloud of death: 2d6 + 8 >= 14, which is approximately 72% chance of success (and spells are not exhausted when cast). I would seriously consider increasing the spell target numbers, perhaps to 7 + magnitude rather than 2 * magnitude, though I would like to see the original system in play first.

The setting itself is pretty generic, and mostly consists of Hyboria-style renaming of historical cultures and features (Salama rather than Islam, Rhyma rather than Rome, Bagdabha rather than Baghdad, and so forth). There are no maps, but the monster cosmology has been carefully crafted to reflect the source myths. Equipment is almost identical to the three LBBs, though, which is perhaps a wasted opportunity for introducing more Arabian aesthetic (why not janbiya rather than dagger, for example?). All illustrations are by Henry J. Ford, from Andrew Lang’s version of the Arabian Nights.

The discipline required to fit the entire game into this structure has resulted in a very streamlined, concise game. The organization could perhaps be slightly improved (I found myself hunting around for various rules clarifications while writing this overview), but the system itself is well written and simple enough that I don’t think this would be a problem in practice after running a few actual situations. You can buy Five Ancient Kingdoms in print at B/X Blackrazor (Paypal link in the upper right). All booklets are also available in PDF from RPGNow (Men & Mettle, Magic & Monsters, Dragon Master Secrets, intro adventure: Sorcerer Island).

Edit: added links to the other PDFs after they went live.

Gravity Sinister Gameplay

mage avatarFirst order of business: I have a real name now for the JRPG Basic game, Gravity Sinister. The blog tag will be shortly updated to reflect this, though I’m not going to bother changing previous post names. Hope that’s not too confusing.

This part of the rules took a surprisingly long time to write, despite the simplicity of the underlying idea, and I suspect it will still require more polishing (though I don’t expect to modify the approach in any substantial way). The structure formalizes the idea of a referee turn, which has a slightly different manifestation in each turn type, but should hopefully be easy to understand, and make the time cost of actions (at all time scales) salient.

In addition to having an easy to remember, generalized approach to gameplay at all levels of detail, the method described below has some interesting corollaries, such as automatically and mechanically increasing danger by taking a separate referee turn per group if the party splits.


Gameplay consists of turns. A turn can represent a very short time, such as an exchange of blows during combat, or a longer time, such as a week of recuperation in town between excursions. There are four such levels of detail: haven, travel, dungeon/exploration, and combat/tactical. The game moves between these kinds of turns as appropriate, moderated by the referee.

The basic turn structure is similar at all four levels of detail. Everyone playing the game gets a turn (including the referee), and then the whole process repeats, perhaps at a different level of detail depending on the fictional events. Sometimes (for example, during combat) turn order matters, but often it’s enough to just make sure that everyone gets a “go” before the next round starts. The rules for the different turn types explain when order matters and how to handle it.

The referee takes a turn during every round, just like other players. Referee turns work a bit differently than player turns, as the referee has to manage the entire fictional world. In combat, the referee’s turn is to act as the foes (attacking, running away, pleading for mercy from the PCs, and so forth). During exploration and travel rounds, the referee’s turn includes making random encounter checks. During haven turns, the referee updates the state of the world at large.

It is suggested that all dice (even random encounter checks) be rolled in the open and transparently with regard to underlying mechanics. There is no reason to hide the fact that an area is dangerous from the players, and rolling dice in the open will increase the sense of impartiality, which is important for a fair and challenging game.

Random Encounter Checks

Many referee turns require rolling for a random encounter, and the process is handled the same way irrespective of the turn type. The referee rolls a die (by default, 1d6), and a random encounter happens on a roll of 1. Other die sizes may be used to reflect differing levels of danger (thus, 1d4 or 1d3 might be used for a very dangerous place, as the chance of rolling a 1 using those dice is higher than with 1d6). If party members separate, the referee will need to alternate between the various player groups, and will take a separate turn for each (thus increasing the danger).

Combat Turns

Combat turns are used for handling fighting, pursuit, and other situations where minute to minute or even second to second actions are important. Turn order in encounters is managed using initiative, and acting prior to enemies in a given round offers several benefits.

Characters not yet in melee may make a ranged attack or engage in melee. Retreat from melee is more involved, and is covered in combat positioning. In addition to attacks, any conceivable action may be attempted; success or failure is adjudicated by the referee, and may require various attribute checks as appropriate.

The referee may take multiple combat turns, to represent different groups of NPCs acting at different times, but will usually only take one turn for ease of play. During this turn, the referee takes actions for all NPCs involved in the combat.

Exploration Turns

Exploring dangerous, unknown areas is handled using exploration turns. If an area is well known, or safe, don’t use exploration turns. Instead, jump to the next fictional situation where one of the turn types applies.

Each player takes an action for every exploration turn. In many cases, the entire party will take the same action (such as move to the next area), but this is not required (some characters might stand guard while others try to force a door, for example). Character actions during exploration turns are expected to be careful and deliberate; it is thus appropriate for players to ask as many questions as desired about the environment and situation before deciding on an action. All players should declare their actions before the referee’s turn.

The referee’s exploration turn is used for making a random encounter check, which represents the dangerous environment reacting to PC incursion. Random encounters usually take the form of encounters with the locations’s denizens (for example, a patrol). Random encounters may also be used to represent countdown timers for events like slowly-flooding tunnels. Referees must either prepare beforehand for potential random encounters or improvise as necessary.

Some exploration actions include:

  • Searching an area carefully (with the search skill)
  • Forcing a door or breaking open a locked box (with the force skill)
  • Picking a lock (with the open locks skill)
  • Moving cautiously to an adjacent area

Many of these actions correspond to basic skills, but player options are not limited to those covered by the skills available. Other actions should be adjudicated as necessary by the referee, perhaps using ability checks.

Examining a specific feature in an area is often not a full turn action. For example, opening a cabinet might not require a full turn (unless it is locked and needs to be forced). The exact length of an exploration turn is not important. Turns are just an abstraction to encapsulate the chance of complications arising.

Travel Turns

Overland exploration is handled with travel turns. Generally, there is one turn per day and one turn per night, though rough or dangerous areas may require more turns per day or night. Resolve travel turns much like exploration turns. The referee should first present various movement options, including any landmarks, and then all players declare an action. Players may either travel to a new area, or search the current area for hidden features. The referee makes a random encounter check on her turn, just like with exploration turns.

In the common case, the travel round following a day is a night. If PCs do not rest every other travel turn, they become exhausted. Players may choose to travel during the day and rest at night, or vice versa. Different kinds of encounters may occur during the night. Night encounters are often more dangerous, though this depends on the specific area, and they may also offer different kinds of reward.

Players may decide to explore any feature discovered during travel in more detail, and it may be appropriate to switch to exploration turns in such cases, as determined by the referee. Just as with exploration turns, if the party separates, the referee should take a turn for each group, increasing the relative danger.

Haven Turns

Haven turns represent time spent away from adventure, usually in a refuge like a town or stronghold, where PCs can recover, gather information, recruit retainers, and perform other such actions. Like other turn types, exact durations are usually not important, but a haven turn most often represents several days or a week of in-game time. Haven turns may only be taken when PCs are in relatively safe, protected areas. In addition to a standard haven action, PCs may re-roll their HP, to represent rest and recovery, taking the new roll if it is higher than the previous total. Specific classes may have special options for haven turn actions, such as crafting items.

Taking a haven turn is not without cost, as, like with all other turn types, the referee takes a turn during every haven round as well. During the referee’s haven turn, the state of the game world is advanced. Active situations are processed and dungeons are restocked. Doing this thoroughly can often take time, and thus is best handled between game sessions. This will give the referee a chance to think about the repercussions of PC action on the wider world, and generate more adventure locations if necessary.

Death Frost Tower

The Lamentations module Death Frost Doom recently featured prominently in my Vaults of Pahvelorn game, as recounted here and here by Gus. In the process of adapting the module to Pahvelorn, I made a number of changes, one of which was to replace the cabin in the graveyard with a tower. While I understand why a cabin was used in the original, I decided that a tower would fit better the atmosphere of my campaign. I suspect this might be true for many D&D games, so perhaps my map and sketch will be of use to others as well. Apologies for the smudged ink (I should get better pens). The W characters represent windows. You can also see the chimney marked in the southeast portion of every level (directly above the stove on the ground level).

Using this map requires two minor changes to the key as printed in the module:

  • Harpsichord moved from I to J
  • Trapdoor to dungeon moves from F to G

I also added these notes to my version:

  • Area G (kitchen, first floor): servant’s entrance to the west, heavy iron portcullis and masonry blocks rigged to be dropped to seal this entrance. Double iron doors worked in the iconography of Orcus lead to the north chamber which contains a trapdoor down to the catacombs.

This map is released under the creative commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

Death Frost Tower

Death Frost Tower

Here’s a cropped version of the sketch minus the map for showing to players:

Death Frost Tower

Death Frost Tower


Games With Others

Image from here and here

Image from here and here

Pearce’s blog, Games With Others, has become one of my favorites. It blends streamlined mechanics with evocative psychedelia. Here are some highlights:

  • Simple character sheet that has guided character creation and rules crib sheet.
  • How to approach OD&D (and why incompleteness can be a virtue).
  • From Random Minor Deities: “The local game has a few major deities. Worshiping them is generally what the bad guys do.”
  • Using Apocalypse World countdown clocks as tools for sandbox games.
  • Psionics for older D&D following the attack roll paradigm.
  • Dungeon Genesis: “Abandoned buildings left unused for too long grow grow weedy, dusty, strange. The angles twist and the geometry buckles under the barometric pressure of anti-life. Among the dust and cobwebs, traps blossom. … Sewers have to be regularly patrolled, newly-budded secret doors smashed and burned. … Dungeons swallow adventurers and belch out orcs.”
  • Rules for kluges.
  • Ghostland: “If a ghost is a ghost of pleasure it may desire nothing more than to fill its cavities with dirt and may try to do the same to you, not because it wants to hurt you, but because it needs every open place within you to be packed with dirt because that just feels so good.”
  • Ghostland is Coming to End You: “At a tavern back in town, you hear talk of a second moon approaching the town. That night, the moon draws close enough that you can see a face on the moon and the mouth splits wide to swallow the church spire. The next morning, no one but you remembers anything. The church spire is gone and all the clergy have weird mismatched eyes (one tiny, one enormous and rolling) and their heads are on at weird angles. Pointing that out is extremely impolite and if you keep asking about the church, someone is going to get so offended they come at you with a cleaver.”

Highly recommended.

Edit: I have been informed that the image is Backbaird (バックベアード) from Shigeru Mizuki’s GeGeGe no Kitaro.

Contest 2013

NIN Closer video frame

NIN Closer video frame

UPDATE: deadline extended to november 10th so that it doesn’t step on Santicore’s toes.

My second blogging anniversary approaches. My first post was on august 21 of 2011. I was just in the process of discovering the OSR, following a return to tabletop RPGs after a 10 year hiatus. I started playing tabletop RPGs again via Fourth Edition D&D with some coworkers.

To mark two years, I am holding a contest. The brief: create some game content inspired by the Nine Inch Nails song The Becoming. The song is about transformation, and maybe growth.

The deadline is Halloween, october 31 november 10. See below for details and guidelines.

First place will will earn you one item from the following list:

  • A print product of your choice from the LotFP store
  • The Numenera core book
  • A Vincent Baker game (Apocalypse World, for example)
  • Rafael Chandler’s Teratic Tome in hardcover
  • One of the non-set items from my bartertown page

Second place will earn you a PDF of one of the first place options or a bartertown item.

The Becoming (listen to the “Still” version here):

I beat my machine it’s a part of me it’s inside of me
I’m stuck in this dream it’s changing me I am becoming
the me that you know he had some second thoughts
he’s covered with scabs and he is broken and sore
the me that you know doesn’t come around much
that part of me isn’t here anymore
all pain disappears it’s the nature of my circuitry
drowns out all I hear there’s no escape from this my new consciousness
the me that you know used to have feelings
but the blood has stopped pumping and he’s left to decay
the me that you know is now made up of wires
and even when I’m right with you I’m so far away
I can try to get away but I’ve strapped myself in
I can try to scratch away the sound in my ears
I can see it killing away all my bad parts
I don’t want to listen but it’s all too clear
hiding backwards inside of me I feel so unafraid
Annie, hold a little tighter I might just slip away
it won’t give up it wants me dead
goddamn this noise inside my head

(Lyrics are copyright Nine Inch Nails and used without permission in the spirit of fan remixes.)


  • Submission must be explicitly creative commons Attribution-ShareAlike licensed and must (obviously) be your own original work.
  • There is no minimum or maximum size. I might get bored when reading something long though. I’m interested in seeing lairs or adventure locations that could easily be dropped into someone’s games. I think these offer good scope for creativity, and would also be useful to other people. Something like a new class, collection of spells on a theme, or piece of art would all also be appropriate.
  • Any stats should be roughly compatible with games like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
  • Don’t quote the song directly.

I will judge submissions based on the following criteria, in order of importance:

  1. “It’s not like advertising. ‘Hey come to this world and have fun’. It’s more like otherness. Like a shard of something else poking through. That is what good RPG art should be. An incursion from, or relic of, some other place. Presenting itself so vibrantly and powerfully that it leaves puckers in the skin of reality that won’t heal. Like finding something in your drink that won’t dissolve, sliding around in the bottom of the glass. An idea rolling around in the back of your brain long after you picked it up. Something you can’t quite forget.” (source)
  2. Effectively realizing the theme of metamorphosis.
  3. Game aspects: interesting puzzles, creative streamlined mechanics, etc.

Assuming anyone bothers and I get more than a few entries, I’ll compile my ten favorite submissions into a free PDF supplement. Please email any submissions to brendan at this blog’s domain (no www).

Skills & languages

There is a discussion on Google Plus about determining languages randomly and how this might change the dynamics of the reaction roll to potentially include PCs other than just the one with the highest charisma. Here is a simple system based around that idea, which also incorporates other, general skills. This approach was influenced by the method of language determination in LotFP, the DCC skill system, and Numenera (which I am currently reading). This is not part of any larger rule set, and was written to easily integrate with any old school fantasy game.

PCs begin with 1 skill slot, plus one additional slot for each language or intelligence bonus (depending on the base system). An additional skill slot is added every time a level is gained. The number of slots is kept intentionally low to begin with for ease of use, but referees may begin characters with a larger pool of skill slots if desired. A character’s native language does not require the use of a skill slot.

Determining Skills & Languages. When confronted with a situation where speaking a language or having a skill would be advantageous, a player may make an intelligence check. If successful, the player’s character speaks the language or has the skill. Otherwise, the skill or language should be noted in a list of missing skills or languages (the character may gain training in these absent skills at a future time, but may not gain access to them using an intelligence check in the moment as described here). If the intelligence check is a critical failure, the PC in question simply does not have aptitude for the language or skill and may not attempt training of that language or skill in the future. Note this on the list of absent skills. This is essentially a way of retroactively determining part of a character’s past without needing to plan it beforehand. Further explanatory backstory can be developed if desired, which can be good fodder for detailing aspects of a setting that had hitherto been ignored.

Skill Scope. The scope of a skill should be slightly beyond the immediate task at hand and should be something that a person within the game world would recognize as a field of study or training. “Carpentry,” for example, rather than “building things.” Characters may take the same skill more than once if desired (pending successful intelligence check), and each time the skill is taken is recorded as a degree of specialization. Some referees may prefer to limit skills to one degree of specialization in order to encourage skill diversity. Consider requiring literacy as a separate skill for settings where learning is rare and precious.

Using Skills & Languages. Having access to a skill or language gives a character a basic level of competency which does not require any die rolls. For example, a character that speaks a given language can communicate in that language without any chance of failure and a character trained in carpentry can build a chair given wood and tools. Skills also allow you to make related ability checks using two dice, taking the best result (each degree of specialization adds another die).

Development Through Play. It is suggested that the skill and language lists be allowed to grow organically along with the campaign events. The PCs will naturally end up speaking languages and having the skills relevant to the challenges faced, so there will be no confusion at character creation about what languages will be useful. This is especially useful if the referee does not know or has not decided such setting details at that point. That said, players with a strong character concept may preselect particular skills at the time of character creation (referees may still prefer to require an intelligence check). Mechanically, by preselecting skills, players gain predictability of character competence (which can be used for creative planning) in exchange for giving up flexibility during play.

Random Languages. One benefit, from a game standpoint, of determining languages randomly in this way is that the character with the highest charisma in the party may not be the character that speaks a particular language. This makes the reaction modifier of all PCs potentially relevant. Be sure to use the charisma modifier of the interlocutor when making any reaction rolls. As a referee, consider rolling to determine if a group or creature encountered speaks a new language, if you have not already determined that part of the setting. Consider making languages based on location rather than race (as is commonly done in fantasy games), as this will make every town encountered potentially foreign. This can be used as a method to help develop a setting through play much like characters are described as developing through play above.

Training Skills. Players may spend their downtime action between sessions to gain training in a skill. This may require paying for training or locating a teacher, especially for more obscure or esoteric skills, as ruled by the referee. The process is otherwise the same as checking for a skill during play: make an intelligence check, and so forth. Failures may be retried, but this requires another downtime action between sessions (and may require further expense or teacher reaction rolls; teachers may become frustrated with students that are slow learners). If the intelligence check is a critical failure, the PC in question simply does not have aptitude for the language or skill and may not attempt training of that language or skill in the future. Note this on the list of absent skills.

Numenera point buy stats

Black Monolith

Black Monolith (source)

Numenera might have the first point buy system for stats that I don’t hate. Usually, I find such systems extremely tiresome because 1) I don’t care much about fairness in starting stats and 2) it takes way too much time and effort to shuffle the numbers and I’m lazy.

The Numenera approach works for me because you get a default profile by class (so Glaives have slightly higher physical stats, for example) and then only six points to distribute between them. The number of options is small enough that it is quick to distribute the points, and the end effect is similar to more fiddly approaches like the old D&D method of trading 2 for 1 or 3 for 1 to improve prime requisites.

It helps that there are only three stats (might, speed, and intellect), rather than D&D’s six. I don’t think the method is directly portable, but the design is still elegant. Aside: might, speed, and intellect are basically the 3E save categories of fortitude, reflex, and will repurposed as stats.

Inconsistent or unknown

In a comment on a Monsters & Manuals post, knobgobbler wrote:

One of the reasons I won’t GM for my regular Saturday group is because I KNOW those guys will pick apart anything I run… ‘Oh! that aqueduct wouldn’t work that way!… and ‘Oh! You’ve got the physics of that all wrong!’ I’m really reluctant nowadays to run anything for self-proclaimed ‘gamers.’

This experience is alien to me. Anything like aqueduct mechanics is a mystery, from the PC point of view. Sometimes I will know why the (for example) aqueduct works the way it does, because that will be something that I have thought about, and sometimes I won’t (it’s obviously impractical, not to mention boring, to think over every fictional thing beforehand).

In either case though, if a player ever says something like “hey, that doesn’t make sense!” the response would be: yeah, that’s kind of mysterious, do you want to investigate, and if so how? If I already know some backstory, then the player can figure it out through adventuring, and if I don’t, then we can figure it out together.

House rules

Necropraxis House Rules PDF

Necropraxis House Rules PDF (click to download)

I have finally compiled my most frequently used house rules into a PDF. Click on the thumbnail image to download the PDF.

Some notable changes (probably only of interest to my immediate players):

  • Save to retain spells for magic-users is no longer active, mostly because we always forget to do it in practice. I still like the idea, though LS has informed me that adopting this rule in his own game has seemed to have made a particular magic-user PC dominant.
  • Scrolls now require only 1 week to craft, irrespective of the spell level (GP costs are unchanged). What this means in practice: players can make one scroll as a downtime action.
  • I managed to restrain myself and only sneak in one new house rule in the process of writing this document, which is sustaining spells (to replace traditional durations). This is from my recent work on magic for JRPG Basic.

Not currently present, but likely in some future update:

  • Poison rules. I still haven’t figured out a method that I am happy with, mostly because I would like something that makes thieves better at using poison than other classes. 
  • Attack progressions. I’m currently using this attack ranks system, but I’ve come to feel that it is a bit cumbersome and the starting probabilities are maybe too generous. Possibilities that I have been considering: use the MEN ATTACKING table exactly as presented on page 19 of Men & Magic, but give fighters an additional flat +1 to hit, or switch to using hit dice as attack bonus (I floated this idea once, but the reaction from players was not enthusiastic).

Following are the house rules in HTML for easy reference, in both quick and detailed forms.


  • Death & Dying: save or die at 0 HP, success means unconsciousness.
  • Encumbrance: carry 1 significant item per point of strength, -1 cumulative penalty per extra item.
  • Two-Handed Swords: damage is 2d6, take highest result.
  • Dual Wielding: +1 to attack.
  • Burning Oil: 1 round to prep, ranged attack, 1d6 fire damage per round (save ends).
  • Falling: 1d6 damage per 10 feet fallen, save for half damage, save or die if falling more than 50 feet.
  • Suffocating & Drowning: 3 failed constitution checks followed by save or die every round thereafter.
  • Healing & Recovery: re-roll all hit dice at the start of every session.
  • Spell Duration: one non-instantaneous spell may be maintained indefinitely.


Death & Dying

When reduced to 0 HP, make a saving throw. Success indicates unconsciousness, failure indicates death. Unconscious characters may be revived after combat with 1 HP.

Healing & Recovery

After spending time to recuperate in town, re-roll all hit dice. This will generally be done at the start of each session. This rule was inspired by Empire of the Petal Throne.

Melee Weapons

Weapons do 1d6 damage by default. Two-handed swords deal higher damage on average (roll 2d6 and take the highest result), but require both hands to use and so prevent the use of a shield. Dual-wielding two single-handed weapons is also an option, and provides +1 to the attack roll. Rules for two-handed swords and dual-wielding were borrowed from Philotomy (

Burning Oil

Burning oil does 1d6 fire damage and requires the target to make a saving throw. On success, the fire goes out and will do no more damage. On failure, the fire keeps burning and will do another 1d6 damage (and require another saving throw) during the following round (repeat this procedure every round until the fire is extinguished). In addition to the per-round saving throw, a burning creature may opt to spend their turn trying to put out the fire (this grants an additional saving throw). Flasks of oil may be lit beforehand and then thrown (this takes two actions, one for prep and one for throwing) or thrown unlit and then ignited by a separate action (such as a thrown torch), requiring a second attack roll. In either case, the two actions may be taken by separate characters if situationally appropriate. A natural attack roll of 1 indicates that the attacker has fumbled and doused themselves in oil instead (if this oil is already burning, follow standard procedure as outlined above). A flask of oil is significant for encumbrance purposes.

Spell Duration

Any spell that is not instantaneous may be sustained indefinitely. Only one such spell may be sustained, and if another spell with duration is cast, the previously sustained spell ends. Sustained spells also end if the caster becomes unconscious.


Magic-users of any level may scribe scrolls. 100 GP per spell level and one week of work are required. Scrolls of spells that are level higher than can be prepared may be scribed, assuming that the magic-user has access to a spell book with the spell in question. For example, a first level magic-user can create a scroll of fireball (a third level spell) for 300 GP in one week. A scroll is significant for encumbrance purposes. The crafting rule was inspired by Holmes Basic.


Adventurers may carry a number of significant items equal to their strength score. For each item beyond this limit, there is a cumulative penalty to all physical rolls (attack rolls, saving throws, and so forth). For example, a character with a strength of 9 may carry 9 items without penalty, but if that same character carries 12 items, there will be a penalty of 3 (12 items – 9 strength = 3) applied to physical rolls. Significant items include things like a sword, a scroll, a potion, a quiver of arrows, a coil of rope, or a book. Insignificant items include things like a coin, a sack, a ring, or a fishhook; a pouch of up to 100 insignificant items may be carried without using an encumbrance slot. The only special case is armor, which takes up one encumbrance slot per category (light = 1, medium = 2, heavy = 3). This rule was inspired by LS (


1d6 damage per 10 feet fallen, up to 5d6. Save for half damage. Additionally, if falling more than 50 feet, a save versus death must be made to avoid instant death.


Every round during which a character is unable to breathe (such as when under water), a constitution check is required. Three failures means breath can no longer be held, and the character’s lungs are exposed to the environment. For example, this might mean that gas is inhaled. If underwater, this means that the character is drowning, and every round thereafter a save versus death must be made. Failure means the character has drowned and is dead.


1 XP is gained for each GP of treasure spent. This is the only way to gain XP.

Spell Interpretations

Continual Light (cleric 3)

Each magic-user or cleric may have only one continual light spell active at a time, but continual light otherwise bypasses the normal spell duration rules (that is, another spell with non-instantaneous duration may be sustained along with the continual light).

Raise Dead (cleric 5)

A raised character must make a survival check (using the percentage as determined by constitution score). Failure means the character is not raised, and can never be raised. If the check is successful, the character is restored to life but also loses a point of constitution permanently. Further, life and death are not to be trifled with, and there will almost certainly be some other consequence to tampering with the order of things.

Sleep (magic-user 1)

A saving throw applies.