Monthly Archives: July 2016

Circumplex ability scores

On G+, Ian B. has regularly mentioned his house rules for ability scores. Whenever he has, I have been impressed by the elegance of his approach. He views the six ability scores as divided between physical and spiritual domains and encoding several underlying properties: power (strength/charisma), finesse (dexterity/intelligence), and durability (consitution/wisdom). Further, each individual ability score has application to many other concepts, including character class, saving throws, weapons, and social caste.

Recently, he posted an extra-thorough description of the system. I thought it would be a shame if the exposition was buried in a G+ comment thread rather than easily available using web searches, so I am publishing it here as a guest post. Below the horizontal rule are Ian’s words, used with permission, lightly edited for blog post form. Find the original text in a comment on this G+ post.


Image from Ian

I arrange the attributes in a circle. In the upper half (left to right) are Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity. these are the physical abilities. In the bottom half reading from right to left is Intelligence, Willpower, and Charisma, These are the spiritual attributes. They reflect the nature of the physical attributes above them. This makes it very easy for players to identify the role the attributes play because they can compare the more abstract spiritual quantities to more physical representations.

[Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I renamed Wisdom Willpower. It made sense in OD&D because the first three abilities represented the native ability of the three classes (which is why they were tradeable). So Strength might as well be called Fighting-Man Ability, Wisdom could be called Cleric Ability, and Intelligence called Magic User Ability quite easily. The other three abilities were discrete supporting abilities common to every “figure” (and characters were still really figures on the battlefield in many senses in that first version). But when people started thinking the names of the attributes were significant and they started having their own application outside that of the character xp gain (that is, in Greyhawk), then you started getting confusion over what Intelligence and Wisdom meant to many people. This avoids the confusion by what I mean when I say Willpower.]

Actions taken to the left of the diagram involve the use of physical or spiritual force. So wrestling might involve a contest of Strength, whilst an argument might involve a contest of Charisma to see how well it sways people emotionally.

Actions taken to the right of the diagram involve the use of physical or spiritual finesse. Such as accurately hitting a target or negotiating an agreement.

Very few intentional actions can be taken using the middle of the diagram (Constitution and Willpower). Mainly they provide the intrinsic resilience of the character (the ability to endure physically and spiritually). They boost both hit points and spell points respectively.

Each Saving Throw maps directly to a characteristic (even though this does mean adding an extra one), which provides a bonus. They are:

  • STR: Paralysis and Petrification
  • CON: Death and Poison
  • DEX: Blast and (Dragon) Breathe
  • INT: Magical Devices (formerly Wands & Staves)
  • WPR: Spells and Magic
  • CHA: Fear and Charm

Where multiple saving throws might apply characters may select a specific one by reacting appropriately. For example against a wand of paralysis they could seek cover from the wand wielder (INT), dodge the caster pointing the wand at them (DEX), attempt to actively resist the magic itself (POW), or passively resist the effects of the magic (STR). (Brendan here: note the POW intrusion from RuneQuest.)

Each of the primary six adventurer classes is directly connected to each of the characteristics as their prime requisite.

  • STR: Fighter [melee specialist]
  • CON: Ranger [missile specialist]
  • DEX: Tomb Robber/Dungeon Explorer [still flipping between class names because I don’t really want to use Tomb Raider] (Brendan here: presumably this is the thief class analogue.)
  • INT: Warmage [D&D magic user]
  • WPR: Sorceror [closest analog is the 5E Warlock. I may just change the name to Warlock since Mages normally use sorcery rather than wizardry (which is something quite different)]
  • CHA: Demon Hunter [D&D cleric except without a divine connection; they use antipathetic magic rather than the sympathetic magic of magic users]

This not only strongly affects abilities central to the class but because abilities increase each level (and a random prime requisite increases every odd level they get the maximum boost in their prime requisite). Incidentally I start PCs off at 2nd level (“normal” people have a level of between 1 and 4).

Player character generation is also tied into the characteristics, with players either selecting or rolling their Birth Caste, which gives a bonus to the related characteristic.

  1. STR: Military Caste (2/3 [depends on culture])
  2. CON: Peasant Caste (5)
  3. DEX: Artisan Caste (4)
  4. INT: Religious Caste [ie Educated] (2/3)
  5. WPR: Outcaste (6)
  6. CHA: Aristocratic Caste (1)

“(#)” indicates hierarchy rank. Note that 95% of the people in the wold belong to the Peasant Caste and may actually serve in other castes. So a common soldier is Peasant Caste (albeit more privileged by their association with sharp pointy things), whilst a knight would be Military Caste.

The other major philosophy in my current home system is that spellcasting and fighting abilities for the basic classes are at opposite ends of the spectrum. So if your class gives your d10 hit points (a fighter) then you would get d4 spell points. The reverse is true for a magic user. [It used to be offset slightly to match the initial D&D spell allocations (for instance an average cleric had a 50% chance of being able to cast a first level spell each day (1d6 spell points and costs 4) which was a nice compromise between early editions I thought, but I want to get players using their casual abilities more.]

The hit points die is also the base physical damage a class does (although it actually works out closer to the types of weapon the class can actually wield. For example a mage with a +1 Strength bonus could wield a shortsword in one hand rather than just a dagger. [Bonuses from abilities always increase a die roll – bonuses from magic are always added to a die roll.] A fighter armed with just a dagger is still only going to do d4 damage although they are much more likely to cause it. On the other hand at the upper end of the scale it can start getting complicated as fighters trade damage boost for increased utility with the weapon.

Tactical Hazard Die


NES Dragon Warrior

The current unreleased working version of the Hazard System uses six potential outcomes which are then interpreted relative to the current turn type. The four turn types, from most abstract to least abstract, are Haven, Wilderness, Dungeon, and Combat. The six outcomes, mapped to the sides of the 1d6 Hazard Die, are 1) Setback, 2) Fatigue, 3) Expiration, 4) Locality, 5) Percept, and 6) Advantage. This unifies the set of potential outcomes so referees need learn fewer exceptions. Additionally, the order roughly ranks the outcomes from most negative (Setback) to most positive (Advantage) taking the perspective of player characters.

Previous versions of the Hazard System only used the Hazard Die for Haven, Wilderness, and Dungeon Turns, not Combat Turns. This makes sense genealogically given that the Hazard System was adapted from the Overloaded Encounter Die which was inspired by traditional random encounter checks. However, there are uncertain outcomes that require dice resolution during combat regularly, such as initiative, so perhaps the Hazard Die can subsume the resolution of uncertainty at all levels of abstraction.

It is not hard to find analogues in combat for most of the Hazard Die outcomes. For example, Setback could mean that reinforcements arrive or the opponents act first. Fatigue could be general attrition, such as all engaged combatants taking a point of damage. Locality could be any kind of change on the battlefield, such as a door being locked or a table overturned. Percept could be information telegraphing an opponent’s future strategy. Advantage could be an additional move per player character or a forced morale check for the enemy.

This set of outcomes does not replicate the probabilities of initiative in the same way that the wilderness travel or dungeon exploration applications of the Hazard Die replicates the chance of having an encounter. As described above, opponents have only a 1 in 6 chance of acting first, compared to the traditional 50/50 odds. Whether this is a problem will depend on how one sees the purpose of initiative. If the point of initiative is to inject some regular uncertainty and tension into combat, then it seems like the set of abstract Hazard Die results should serve the same purpose while also increasing combat dynamism through variety of events.

Another benefit I see of overloading the initiative die is that some other aspects of combat, such as morale, which are easily overlooked but quite beneficial to the dynamics of play, can be potentially built into regular game procedures. I am not sure if a 1 in 6 chance of opponent morale check (on the Advantage Hazard Die result) is the best way to do this but it seems promising. Are there any other combat events that deserve a place in the Combat Turn Hazard Die interpretation guidelines?

As with most systems that replace bookkeeping with probabilities, such as tracking ammo abstractly, there are absurd edge cases. What if your torch runs out on the first turn in the dungeon? What if you run out of arrows immediately? I see three solutions to this sort of problem: 1) use rulings based on fictional appropriateness, 2) use illogical results as a kind of oracle demanding explanation, or 3) make the system more complex to handle such edge cases reliably. I lean toward option 1 and away from option 3. In my opinion, it is no particular shortcoming in the system to rely on the referee to determine whether it makes sense fictionally for reinforcements to arrive in any given instance. Illogical results can also just be ignored occasionally given that doing so just falls back to the traditional mode which works reasonably reliably.

More concretely, my current play test interprets Combat Turn Hazard Die outcomes as:

  1. Setback: opponents act first or reinforcements arrive
  2. Fatigue: combatants engaged in melee suffer 1 point of damage
  3. Expiration: some or all ongoing effects end (such as burning oil)
  4. Locality: the battlefield changes in some way
  5. Percept: players gain some clue to opponent strategy
  6. Advantage: players choose extra action or forced morale check

(Post image is only mildly relevant, but hey it’s combat right?)


Symbaroum starting background

Thistle Hold from Symbaroum core book

Thistle Hold from Symbaroum core book


  • There are two commonly known frontier outposts, Thistle Hold, commonly known as Beacon after the 300 foot tower topped with a constantly stoked bonfire, and Moors, a newer shantytown established by itinerants about a day’s travel from Beacon.
  • Citizenship in Beacon is a luxury. Non-citizen workers live outside the palisades and must leave by dusk. Invitations from established citizens or purchased credentials allow visitors to remain within.
  • Moors is much smaller than Beacon, mostly made up of tents, and is reputed to be much more dangerous.
  • Both border the great primordial forest Davokar. The forest shrouds the ruins of the ancient empire Symbaroum.
  • Barbarian custom and law forbids venturing more than several days into the forest. The exact taboo varies from tribe to tribe. Adventurers on the frontier take this restriction with various degrees of seriousness.
  • You begin at the Broken Spokes coach house, with roads going to both Moors and Beacon.

Hooks, common local traveller knowledge:

  1. The patron of Moors, House Erebus, is hiring small mercenary companies as privateers.
  2. The Ordo Magica outpost in Beacon seeks certain artifacts and information from Davokar.
  3. Local rangers from Beacon have discovered ruins which require special talents to navigate. Inquire at Beacon’s barracks.

Traditions and corruption

2016-07-08 19.15.49 copy

Personal photo of Symbaroum core book

Several different traditions of magic coexist in the world of Symbaroum, including wizardry, witchcraft, theurgy, and sorcery. All forms of magic entail the risk of corruption, but the risk can be decreased somewhat by following the rituals and practices of a given tradition. Each tradition grants access to a set of spells and casting these spells in the traditional manner avoids some of the dangers of raw magic.

Wizardry is highly codified arcane knowledge as set down formally by the Ordo Magica. Learning wizardry requires long, systematic study and extensive formal training.

Witchcraft follows older ways from the great forest Davokar. The witches serve as spiritual advisors to the barbarians living on the outskirts of the great forest Davokar. Many Ambrians are highly distrustful of witchcraft and see witches as little different than demon-worshipers or sorcerers but witches have elevated social positions within their own tribes.

Theurgy channels the power of the gods, most commonly the sun god Prios. Covenants with other lesser-known powers are becoming more common following the exodus.

Sorcery is the least formal of all the traditions, though there are many secret lineages. Some sorcerers come to the art by pact with occult beings while others discover ancient proscribed treatises and are self-taught. Despite the dogma of the Ordo Magica, sorcerers do follow rules, just highly idiosyncratic rules. To someone trained in one of the other traditions of magic, sorcery can seem pure chaos. Sorcery is forbidden according to the law of old Alberetor, but that has less force in the frontier of Ambria.

Characters on the Path of Wonder choose a tradition before play. Other characters with Magic stat greater than zero may enter into a tradition during play. Characters may not belong to more than one tradition.

When a character casts a spell within the bounds of tradition, there is no immediate chance of catastrophe or abomination, though the character accumulates a point of corruption for each spell cast. Once the number of corruption points equals the character’s magic stat, however, the safeguards of tradition become less able to control the mystic power unleashed. Characters reset corruption points to zero during each Haven Turn. See the Hazard System for details about Haven Turns.

If a character casts a traditional spell when corruption is equal to the Magic stat, there is a chance that they are unable to control the arcane power. Reality objects to being ungently used and reacts proportionally. The spell caster must make a Magic Test or acquire a permanent stigma, a physical mark of arcane corruption. Determine stigma randomly.

Casting a nontraditional spell when corruption is equal to the Magic stat follows the same rules, but failing the Magic Test results in a catastrophe in addition to a permanent stigma. This is why untrained magicians are so feared and traditionally punished with exile or death. The Ordo Magica is often blamed for any magic disaster and so is particularly harsh in hunting down and punishing renegades.

Once a character has accumulated a number of stigmata equal to their Magic stat, their humanity hangs in the balance. The next time that character would acquire a stigma, instead they are fully transformed into an abomination. At this point, the player must make a new character and the abomination becomes a monster under the control of the referee.

Characters with Magic stat greater than zero and no tradition may still learn and cast spells or use enchanted objects following the magic rules, but have none of the safeguards against corruption that the traditions provide. Attempting to learn a spell outside of a tradition and failing also causes either a stigma or a catastrophe (the player may choose).

Spells marked as rituals take a full Dungeon Turn to cast. See the Hazard System for details about Dungeon Turns. Other spell can be cast as a combat move.

The four magic traditions and the progression from stigmata to abomination are based on the Symbaroum setting.


They came from gates in the sky

To Alberetor in golden chariots the Gray Knights came. Queen Korinthia greeted them as emissaries of the sun god but they were not emissaries, they were conquerors. After many bitter years of war, the Queen fled north over the Titan Mountains with the remnants of her people to the barbarian lands bordering the endless primordial forest Davokar. Alberetor remains a blighted ruin presided over by the inscrutable Gray Knights. Though the church of Alberetor has always paid respects nominally to all immortal offices, in practice the sun lord Prios came traditionally to be exalted over all others. Because the order of Prios welcomed the knights from the sky, this hierarchy has become contested. North of the Titan Mountains, the Queen founded the new realm of Ambria. The nobles of Ambria have now turned their attention to incorporating or eliminating barbarians and subduing the forest itself, which shrouds the ancient mysteries of the lost civilization Symbaroum. Explorers of the forest depths report weird happenings far beyond the mundane dangers posed by unknown, hostile wilderness. Ambrian adventurers seeking fortune in the opportunities created by these upheavals, concentrated in the border town of Thistle Hold, are divided regarding respecting or exploiting unknown Davokar.

This campaign abstract is derived from the default setting of Symbaroum.

Personal photo of Symbaroum core book

Personal photo of Symbaroum core book

Hexagram Symbaroum prospectus

I am going to start running a campaign soon, within the next week or two. I plan to run sessions both in person and online within the same setting and sharing the same fictional timeline. All player characters from both in-person and online games will likely belong to the same adventuring company.

For rules, I will be using the current beta version of my Hexagram ruleset. It should be recognizable to anyone that has played in one of my games before as it incorporates the most recent unreleased version of the Hazard System as the engine. The player character advancement system is slightly more freeform than traditional D&D but should be easily approachable. Advancement has been significantly streamlined even compared to previous playtest versions of Hexagram and the Final Castle. Experience points will be gained from building relationships with factions or personages rather than recovering treasure.

I will be using the setting from the Swedish RPG Symbaroum as my starting point, though I will be dialing up the elements that remind me of Slaine and dialing down the elements that seem like Tolkien through a Swedish lens. In particular, the witches and barbarians of Symbaroum remind me of the Drunes and their people. I will be reimagining the nature of the Dark Lords and the civilized religion of the sun god Prios to make them less black and white. I chose Symbaroum primarily because I like the art but also because the setting provides a set of factions and personages that should ease my prep work. I may also incorporate some elements from Gavin‘s excellent Wormskin zine, though my vision of Symbaroum and the great forest Davokar is far less fey than Dolmenwood.

Session structure will follow the excursion format, meaning consistent player attendance will neither be necessary nor expected. I have a core of regular players that I will give precedence to regarding session seats but based on my experience there will also often be openings for others. I will post about specific scheduling and availability on Google Plus. This will NOT, however, be a Flailsnails-friendly campaign. Over the summer, I plan to run 8-10 sessions after which I will assess the rules for any needed modifications and the campaign for continued interest.

I considered running the Adversary’s Dungeon scenario I posted about recently but decided that I did not want to run a tentpole mega-dungeon campaign this time. There will, however, still be plenty of dungeon exploration. Further, I think the Adversary’s Dungeon concept would require a significant amount of upfront effort in preparation to run the way I would prefer and one of my main goals for this campaign is to minimize my initial prep overhead.

More details about the setting and rules forthcoming.

Conditions versus hit points

One rules variation I have been considering recently is replacing hit points with conditions. This is by no means an innovation, as many games have used conditions to manage character health or similar concepts, notably Apocalypse World, Burning Wheel, and probably several obscure RPGs from the 80s that I have not heard of. The goal of such condition-based systems is often to avoid hit point inflation or decrease the abstraction inherent in hit points.

The major obstacle for me in using a condition-based system is that it becomes hard to differentiate between major and minor harms, unlike with hit points where such outcomes can easily be modeled by the quantified differences between something like a die of damage and a single point of damage. Additionally, hit point systems are more familiar to tabletop gamers, and learning a new approach requires effort.

I was considering three major conditions: demoralized, wounded, and dead, giving player characters two free hits before going down. When a character suffers major harm, the player must choose one unmarked condition to mark. I imagine the general order would be demoralized first, followed by wounded, and then dead. For minor harms, I was considering recording hash marks over the major conditions, with six such hash marks leading to suffering the major harm indicated. I expect that minor harm would not generally accumulate enough to trigger suffering major harm given how I have seen RPG sessions play out, but minor harm could nonetheless provide some weight to otherwise meaningless tradeoffs (such as exploring the wilderness without having food to eat).

However, I wonder whether the complexity of this system is worth requiring players to confront an unfamiliar system. Additionally, three named conditions do not generalize to non-player characters or monsters very well, requiring referees to track a variable number of hits for some opponents anyways. My current version of this approach has inflicting harm being implemented by marking a hit on the opponent, which essentially lets hit points in by the back door.

This post might read as if, on reflection, I am leaning against this new approach in favor of just implementing some more traditional hit point system. However, I think the numerical approach of hit points does make players more likely to reason quantitatively about character capabilities rather than think creatively about problem solving. Further, there is a suggestive element of demoralization or taking a wound that seems valuable beyond suffering 1d6 damage, even if there are no direct mechanical consequences (though there could always be diegetic consequences, such as trying to bluff in a negotiation with an opponent while nursing a wound recently acquired).