A brief taste of the feast to come. All the spells are written, the layout is done, and we are just messing with some final details. Update: it is done! Get it here for free. Four samples:
[Earthquake] Mood of Gravity
By smearing the face with mud, dust, or jagged rock shards, the sorcerer’s soul fuses with a greater earth spirit, binding the emotions of the sorcerer to the movement of faults deep below. For the duration of the spell, annoyance and minor pains result in tremors while wrath and great pain yield proportional restlessness of the earth. When the spell ends, the sorcerer becomes numb to the experience of any emotional intensity until the spell can be prepared again.
The sorcerer must prepare a dish from flesh of a four-legged animal, spiced well and thoughtfully. Upon speaking the magic words, and consuming the food, the sorcerer grows to the size of the animal consumed, persisting in that size until passing the animal’s remains. Only the sorcerer’s body changes, and upon the spell’s end there is a 1 in 6 chance of the sorcerer permanently manifesting some physical aspect of the creature, such as goat horns, horse hooves, or cat eyes. If the animal consumed was of a kind to lay eggs, the sorcerer will lay an egg within 1d6 weeks, birthing a creature of wonder or terror.
[Fear] Beacon of Terror
By prostration, tracing forbidden signs on the ground, and slapping the ground three times, the sorcerer causes an infinitely high beam of light to spring forth from the ground like a pillar rising to heaven. For any creatures of level four or less witnessing the radiant beam, taking any action other than fleeing the beam pillar requires succeeding at a saving throw. When the spell ends, the beam flickers out, but if the beam was called under open sky there is a 1 in 6 chance of attracting attention from spirits of the air, dragons in transit, or a flock of giant eagles.
[Message] Sending of Bats
During the dead of night while in a cave, earthy hollow, or dead tree, the sorcerer invokes the ancient pact of Chirops, which obligates bats to serve as envoys for the wise. In 1d6 turns, a colony of bats prostrates themselves around the sorcerer to receive a message, which the colony will then carry to a destination or recipient provided by the sorcerer, to sing the message thrice in a harmony of bat voices. There is a 1 in 6 chance the bats will be the size of condors—bat champions—only willing to serve following negotiation of terms.
Here is a JRPG rules hack. I think this one is tighter than my previous attempt, and may even be playable as is.
First chose a base chassis (B/X D&D, Old School Essentials, Labyrinth Lord, whatever), and then apply the following rules modules.
Every player character gets a signature weapon. Fighters get sword (because fighters are the magic sword class). For other classes, choose a non-sword signature weapon (or determine randomly): 1 axe, 2 bow, 3 crossbow, 4 dagger, 5 mace, 6 spear, or 7 war hammer. Adventurers can use weapons afforded by class or signature weapon, and attack with advantage when using a signature weapon. (This list of possible signature weapons matches possible magic weapons from the classic treasure tables; if you choose some other kind of weapon, such as revolver, you might want to modify the treasure tables accordingly.)
Rather than traditional spells, adventurers draw power from magic crystals called homunculiths. Replace magic weapon plusses with homunculith sockets (so a spear +2 means a spear with two homunculith slots). Any character can use magic afforded by a slotted homunculith if the character can use the weapon and can supply the necessary magic points.
Magic-users can slot a number of homunculiths in various magical paraphernalia equal to character level. This can be hat clips, belt buckles, cane handles, whatever (describe the slots; the stone has to go somewhere, and has to be visible). Working homunculith slots into equipment requires a haven turn or downtime action for a magic-user. Only magic-users can make use of homunculiths in magical paraphernalia. Characters that would otherwise begin with spell slots start with one randomly determined homunculith.
Determine treasure using the treasure tables with some degree of strictness, but: replace magic scroll results with spell homunculiths, replace magic ring results with nexus homunculiths (used to summon daemonotheurgic entities; see below), and read arrow or bolts as bow or crossbow with homunculith slots (by bonus), respectively.
Since hit points come from hit dice, magic points must come from magic dice; adventurer MD by class: fighter = d4, thief = d6, magic-user = d8. (Generally, classes with high HD should have low MD and vice versa, so infer MD for other classes based on that principle.) Determine MP total similarly to HP total (so a third-level fighter gets 3d4 MP). Additionally, use the MD when determining damage from magic that calls for dice (so magic-users roll with pools of d8 and fighters roll with pools of d4). Characters recover spent MP during haven turns/downtime.
Choose a spell list. Determine the spell associated with each homunculith randomly. Ignore results with “summon monster” type effects (because nexus homunculiths handle summoning). You could use the traditional spells, the spells from Pits & Perils, Wonder & Wickedness, the spells I drafted as part of my previous JRPG Basic musings (black magic spells, white magic spells), some other source, or some combination. Here is the list of spell names from Pits & Perils: Bolt, Call, Calm, Cure, Fade, Fear, Find, Foil, Gaze, Glow, Heal, Hide, Know, Link, Load, Mend, Mute, Null, Pass, Rise, Ruin, Send, Stun, Ward. Determine the MP cost of each spell randomly by rolling 1d6. Once determined, the cost is set (so it is possible to discover a better homunculith with the same spell).
Nexus homunculiths are bound to summonable daemonotheurgic entities. Generate the entity linked to a nexus homunculith by rolling on a table of monsters, and then adding an elemental aspect: 1 fire, 2 ice, 3 lightning, 4 radiance, 5 shadow, 6 slime. For the table of summonable monsters, collect all the monsters in your rulebook of choice with HD of 6 or higher, crossing them off as adventurers discover homunculiths. Give each daemonotheurgic entity a name. Attach an action die to the daemonotheurgic entity. By default, this is d6:
Special (make this up when creating the entity)
Summoning an entity costs 1 MP. When summoning an entity using a nexus homunculith, determine entity HP using remaining entity HD.
Roll the entity’s action die to determine actions each round after summoning. The summoner can override the action die using a command, but this requires spending an action. Commanding the special attack will cause the entity to depart afterwards. The action die determines the monster’s action but the summoner’s player determines all other details, such as targets and so forth.
When determining summoned monster HP, roll the monster’s remaining HD and leave the dice on the table as they fall (or record the numbers per die). When the monster takes damage, the player may decide to which die the damage applies. If a die total is reduced to zero or less, remove the die and ignore any excess damage rather than process the spillover damage. Restore removed dice during downtime recovery. Healing a summoned monster allows rerolling some number of remaining HD rather than adding HP directly or restoring removed monster HD.
At the end of each combat round, spend 1 MP or the entity departs.
A wolf tears an adventurer from horseback, leaving the adventurer at 1 HP. A mind flayer death-lord looms over an unconscious adventurer with brain drill raised high. Some decisions confront the referee. Have the next wolf attack the unhorsed? Crack open that skull?
Ruthless actions can sometimes feel like an arbitrary referee choice, even if demanded by best move game logic. Considering the integrity of the imagined world, objectives other than pure ruthlessness may make more sense. For example, in the wild predators often attempt to separate the weak from a herd, withdrawing from combat with a prize, rather than following the completion-oriented impulse of reducing all opponents to zero hit points. In the context of a game, however, avoiding scorched earth can sometimes read as a pulled punch.
Conversely, the strongest game move can sometimes feel like the referee (rather than the integrity of the game world) has personally decided to kill your character in particular, even if it really does make the most sense in the game world context, unless the referee makes decisions in the same way for all opponents. This is because, as a matter of psychology, given incomplete information people infer intent from behavior. Also suboptimal.
Ideally, there will be some ruthless opponents, some merciful opponents, some strategic opponents, and some inscrutable opponents. As a referee, it is all too easy to fall into patterns. You might find all your opponents acting like they are playing battle chess or that adventurers keep getting captured.
Below are several approaches to determine opponent ruthlessness impartially.
Generally speaking, my principle is to follow the thread of imagined necessity until some aspect becomes uncertain and then call for a roll. And that is the way I would see deploying any of these approaches, probably transparently and with the player rolling the dice.
Situation-Agnostic Behavior Table
Vindictive sadistic gleeful viciousness
Continues attacking the adventurer with intent to kill
Changes target, attempts to attack a different adventurer
Attempts to capture or restrain adventurer
Maintains hostility, but switches to display of aggression/intimidation
Objective met, cautious retreat (maybe something spooked the opponent?)
Make a reaction roll, using whatever system your base game chassis provides. Here are the classic outcome bands from B/X (page B24):
2 Immediate Attack
3-5 Hostile, possible attack
6-8 Uncertain, monster confused
9-11 No attack, monster leaves or considers offers
12 Enthusiastic friendship
You would need to reinterpret these dispositions relative to the question of whether the opponent fights with maximum intent to kill or not, but that should be an easy exercise for the reader, and has the advantage of reusing a system.
Call for the player of the threatened adventurer to make a charisma check. Failure means focused fire, attack to kill, whatever. Success within four points means continued attack but letting up or switching targets. Success by more than four points means the opponent has made a point and is looking for an out. Set the DC (if that is a thing in your ruleset) based on how mean the opponent is.
In addition to persuasiveness, charisma also represents force of personality, confidence, and so forth, attributes that may dissuade attackers both animal and intelligent. There were cougars in the hills where I grew up, and if you encountered a cougar the best approach was supposedly to stand still and make yourself as big as possible. I never had to test that, but I imagine that standing tall in the face of a wildcat would take some charisma.
In preparation for running a Symbaroum game, here is an overview of the system, particularly the player-facing side.
First, an oversimplified summary in D&D terms:
HP = strength score (sort of, with little to no improvement over time)
Attack rolls are dexterity checks
Ability checks are roll-under (1d20 <=)
There are no classes or levels
Archetypes (and associated occupations) provide recommended packages of starting abilities (which are sort of like feats)
Spend XP to learn or improve abilities
Using magic causes corruption (basically: spiritual damage with varying degrees of transience)
Another ability score determines how much corruption a character can absorb before bad things start to happen (basically: spiritual HP)
There you go, if you have familiarity with some version D&D you should now have a working grasp of Symbaroum basics. Read on for more detailed comparison.
The system is mostly what I have called “monological” in the past. For example, players roll to defend rather than opponents rolling to attack.
Symbaroum formal game terms below are in bold. Though I have a few planned house rules, to improve the general usefulness of this post, all of the following info applies to the official rules as written, to my knowledge. I make no claim to completeness—for example, I have ommitted mention of races—but these are the most central rules in my opinion.
Generation: 2d6+3 per attribute, in order or arranged to taste (yields scores in the range [5-15])
Test: roll 1d20 <= score value (often adjusted by an opposed Attribute)
Test outcomes are generally binary (success or failure)
Adjustments are penalties or bonuses applied to the player character Attribute score rather than to the roll; for example, if a player character has a score of 12, a -3 penalty means that the player must roll less than or equal to 9 for success
Accurate versus Quick
Persuasive versus Resolute
Discreet versus Vigilant
Strong versus Strong
(The default attribute generation method is assigning values from a default set or point-buy, the numbers for which result in similar expected values)
Default set: [15, 13, 11, 10, 10, 9, 7, 5]
(M = 10, SD = 2.96)
AC/Armor Class (⇒ Defense)
Symbaroum uses Defense tests (performed by players) rather than opponent attack rolls
Three levels of armor: light 1d4, medium 1d6, and heavy 1d8
Impeding penalty to Defense tests: light -2, medium -3, heavy -4
Roll the armor die to decrease incoming damage from physical attacks (opponent damage values are static, so rolling for armor replaces what in D&D would be the referee rolling monster damage)
Attribute test: Accurate, adjusted by opponent’s Quick
Then you roll damage, based on weapon, just like D&D—see the weapons entry below—but for referee-controlled combatants armor is static damage reduction (no armor die)
Some Abilities allow the use of other stats in place of Accurate for attack rolls (this is one of the few bits of system mastery you probably need to maintain combat effectiveness, if you care)
Classes (as in Fighter, Cleric, Thief, etc.)
Rather than classes, Symbaroum provides a starting Archetype (representing the classic three of Mystic, Rogue, and Warrior), each of which is further specified by Occupations (such as Duelist, Theurg, Ranger, and so forth)
Initial Archetype & Occupation provide recommended packages of starting Abilities
Player characters start with one of the following two options:
Two Abilities at Novice level and one Ability at Adept level
Five Abilities at Novice level
On each turn, a player character may perform one of the following:
1 Combat Action + 1 Movement Action
2 Movement Actions
Dying (★ will be house ruled ★)
Zero Toughness → unconscious & dying
Each turn: Death Test, three failures → dead
Death Test: 1d20
1 = recover with 1d4Toughness
2-10 = success (no change)
11-19 = failure
20 = immediate death
HP (⇒ Toughness)
Toughness = Max(10, StrongAttribute)
(So the HP equivalent is basically just the same as an ability score, but with a minimum of 10)
Toughness almost never increases—there are a handful of Abilities which will increase toughness slightly—so Symbaroum has a much flatter power curve in this regard compared to all versions of D&D
Combatants act in order of Quick scores (highest first)
Levels & Advancement (★ will be house ruled ★)
There are no levels; player characters spend XP to learn or improve Abilities
Each ability has three tiers: Novice, Adept, and Master
Learning and improving Abilities:
Novice level (new Ability): cost = 10 XP
Novice → Adept: cost = 20 XP
Adept → Master: cost = 30 XP
(So the full cost of learning a new Ability and improving it all the way to Master is 60 XP.)
Magic Items (⇒ Artifacts, p. 186; ★ will be house ruled very slightly ★)
Using an Artifact first requires Bonding, which imposes permanent Corruption (generally one point)
Activating an Artifact’s power imposes some temporary Corruption (generally 1d4 points)
(See Corruption Threshold below)
Spells (⇒ Mystical Powers, p. 119, p. 176)
Mystical Powers work much like Abilities—with Novice, Adept, and Master levels—but learning a Mystical Power outside of a tradition (also handled at the rules level as an Ability) imposes one permanent point of Corruption
Casting a spell (using a Mystical Power) causes 1d4 temporary Corruption
Advancing in the ranks of a mystical tradition can mitigate this cost (Corruption is the mechanical system resource that replaces spell slots or magic points)
See Corruption Threshold below
Weapon damage works similarly to D&D
Damage: Heavy 1d10, Long 1d8, Single-Handed 1d8, Short 1d6
Projectile: crossbow 1d10, bow 1d8, sling 1d6
Long weapons provide an initial free attack versus opponents armed with shorter weapons
(There are a few other properties of specific weapons which work relatively intuitively)
XP (★ will be house ruled ★)
The text about XP is more guidelines than rules, but the expectation seems to be that surviving a scene involving challenge is worth 1 XP for each player character
Rules Without Direct D&D Analogues
Symbaroum also has a handful of rules which lack direct analogues in D&D:
Derived stat: Strong / 2, round up
Combatants that suffer damage equal to or greater than Pain Threshold in a single hit experience some additional deleterious effects
Derived stat: Resolute / 2, round up
Capacity to tolerate Corruption is the primary player character resource that constrains use of magic
When total Corruption—permanent + temporary—equals or exceeds the Resolute score, the character turns into an abomination (worse than character death, because this essentially creates a new hostile monster)
Temporary Corruption dissipates at the end of each scene
(★ may be house ruled ★)
Tolerating Corruption also constrains the use of Artifacts as doing so requires Bonding with the Artifact, which imposes some permanent Corruption (generally one point)
I have been playing Octopath Traveler now and then recently on the Nintendo Switch. Octopath is a throwback to—or perhaps celebration of—JRPG style games with several particularities, one of which is a turn-based combat system built around attack type vulnerabilities and combatant initiative. Playing Octopath has prompted me to think about how to apply similar systems to tabletop roleplaying games without requiring overly complex mechanics. Below I first explain the Octopath combat system, in slightly simplified form, and then discuss how to apply a similar system to OSR (or what have you) style games.
Octopath Traveler Combat System
Along with basic combat stats such as hit points, each opponent has two attributes that drive the combat dynamics: a shield score and a list of attack type vulnerabilities. For example, Sand Lizardman 2 has a shield score of 2 and is vulnerable to swords, knives, ice, and dark. Hitting an opponent with an attack type belonging to the list of vulnerabilities temporarily decreases the shield score by one for each hit. If the shield score falls to zero, the opponent breaks, which drops the opponent from the upcoming initiative spot and decreases the opponent’s defense while broken. A broken opponent regains all shield points and acts at the next point in the initiative sequences, meaning the best possible outcome, from the perspective of the player, is to force all opponents to skip every other turn. In other words, breaking an opponent effectively stuns the opponent through the end of the next round. Generally, the most effective offense involves breaking as many opponents as possible, because doing so decreases the number of overall opponent attacks and increases the player’s overall damage output. As such, doing a smaller amount of damage using a damage type corresponding to a vulnerability can be just as important as doing a larger amount of damage, especially if the hit is timed well.
The combat system is asymmetric between player characters and opponents. That is, player characters have no damage type weaknesses and never break, though opponents can, using special abilities, inflict a variety of status conditions—poison, silence, blindness, sleeping, and so forth—on player characters. Some conditions can limit player character action possibilities or temporarily prevent a player character from acting entirely, in ways that will likely be familiar to players of other JRPGs. For example, silence prevents casting spells, blindness decreases weapon attack accuracy, and so forth.
This setup is simple, but leads to surprisingly engaging gameplay and tactics. First, the system dashboard presents the upcoming initiative order, so the player can always see which opponents represent the most immediate threats and concentrate fire correspondingly. Second, the number of vulnerabilities per opponent is always apparent, but the particular vulnerabilities are only revealed (by opponent type) after being exploited, or revealed by using a skill (such as the scholar skill analyze). Third, maintaining party capacity to deploy a wide variety of damage types, and timing attacks well, greatly increases combat effectiveness. Missing the capability to deal one or more damage types risks confrontation with enemies that that will be unbreakable. The full list of damage types is swords, polearms, daggers, axes, bows, staves (the weapons) and fire, ice, lightning, dark, light, wind (magic, accessible via skills mostly).
Each of the eight characters starts with one of eight classes: cleric, scholar, merchant, warrior, dancer, apothecary, thief, or hunter based on particular character story background. For example, Cyrus is the only character that begins with the scholar class. Each class provides access to a particular type of damage through weapon proficiencies and skills that the player can unlock by earning and spending job points (a secondary form of experience points). For example, the hunter class can use swords and axes while the thief class can use swords and knives; further, the thief has access to basic fire magic early on through skills. The player can gain access to secondary classes through jobs discovered at various shrines hidden throughout the game world. At any given time, the active party can have at most four members, so the player can configure access to damage types by choosing the active party character roster and by assigning secondary classes to characters after discovering various jobs.
As a concrete example, at this particular moment my active party is Therion (thief), Cyrus (scholar), Ophelia (cleric), and H’aanit (hunter) with secondary classes assigned to Cyrus (as thief) and Ophelia (as hunter). This allows my party to deal the following kinds of damage, by member:
Here I have plentiful access to damage from swords, knives, staves, axes, bows, and most magic. This party lacks the capability to easily deal dark, wind, or polearm type damage. (I have ignored the boost system intentionally for the purposes of this post, though using boosts is quite important to tactics in Octopath due to how applying boosts allows the player to increase the number of hits for a particular damage type.) The following short video shows how this works for the video game in practice:
Below I suggest a number of slight system modifications for implementing a similar system for OSRoWHY games. After deciding upon the basic structure of rules to apply, most content details could probably be handled easily enough by rulings.
I would first assign each character and monster type a speed score to determine place in the initiative order. For player characters, this could either be by class, by dexterity, or by some combination of class and dexterity. For a game where ability scores are less influential overall—such as OD&D—I would probably start with class (magic-user ⇒ 1, cleric ⇒ 2, fighter ⇒ 3, thief ⇒ 4) and provide +1 for exceptional dexterity and maybe +1 for weapons that seem agile. For a game where ability scores are more influential overall—such as B/X, AD&D, or 5E—I would start with dexterity (12 or less ⇒ 1, 13-15 ⇒ 2, 16-17 ⇒ 3, 18 ⇒ 4) and provide a +1 for class competency (perhaps +1 for fighter-types and +2 for rogue-types). In this and all following examples, combatants with higher speed scores act earlier. Keeping the scale of speed scores around 6 will decrease the difficulty of manual handling. The referee could determine opponent speed by ruling, assuming an average of 3 or 4 and adding or subtracting a point or two based on whether the opponent seems like it should be quick (pixie ⇒ 6) or slow (ogre ⇒ 2). For a more predetermined approach, or for people who appreciate some degree of textual deference, the movement stat is available (1974 OD&D Monsters & Treasure, p. 4, Move in Inches; 6 ⇒ 1, 9 ⇒ 2, 12 ⇒ 3, 18 ⇒ 4, 24⇒ 5, 25+ ⇒ 6).
I can see several potential ways to accomplish the practical tracking of initiative order, including index cards with speed values or a simple sequential game board of 12 spaces—six spaces for the current round, six spaces for the following round—with tokens for each player character and type of opponent, numbered according to the current and following rounds—something like 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 1.6, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.5, 2.6. Using a game board in this way would more or less replicate the way Octopath presents the initiative order. The referee could also just perform a countdown from 6 for each round—perhaps a countdown would be easier if playing by video conference—but would need some way to keep track of opponents that have been broken. My guess is that index cards would work best overall, but it would require some play testing.
HD seems like a reasonable stat from which to derive something like a shield score. My first pass might be HD / 2 (round up). The division is simple enough to do mentally—HD 5/6 ⇒ shield score 3, for example—and ensures that enemies are likely to break before being defeated, all else equal. In a more involved system, such as AD&D or 5E, the HD or challenge rating might work as the shield score verbatim. Another approach that appeals to me given OD&D assumptions: encounter table dungeon level ⇒ shield score; this would maintain a rough connection between monster strength and shield score but also naturally scale up weaker monsters on lower dungeon levels without otherwise engaging in numerical inflation.
Finally, and perhaps most substantially, the referee would need to determine the types of damage and corresponding opponent vulnerability lists. There would be worse places to start than the 5E SRD damage types; I could also imagine many quirky taxonomies based on close readings of whatever your favorite game text is. Particular vulnerabilities could be intuited by ruling easily enough. Does an opponent seem to have some form of elemental affinity? Cold-related monsters are obviously vulnerable to fire. For some reason, slimes and oozes seem to me like they should be vulnerable to lightning. Skeletal or chitinous monsters seem naturally vulnerable bludgeoning. In OD&D, giant type monsters roughly correspond to the fair folk, so a vulnerability to iron could be mythologically appropriate. What about all of the weapon types? The vulnerability list could be a way to effectively smuggle in a weapon versus armor table, and would make weapon choice most relevant when confronting man-type opponents (to use the OD&D terminology). I imagine polearms or spears being particularly effective agains larger monsters and missile weapons particularly effective against flyers.
A ruling-based approach like this would probably be enough to get the system off the ground, and the referee could build up lists of vulnerabilities through play rather than trying to frontload it by taking a spreadsheet approach. Additionally, think about how you describe details of opponents to players and how your description can gesture toward vulnerabilities; this is a way to expose game surfaces to players through the diegesis or fiction rather than being excessively or indecently mechanical. You could let the players build up a deck of monster index cards representing what the player characters have learned through play, which then would do double duty as initiative tracking prosthetics.
Such a system could easily plug into various other subsystems. For one example, morale: trigger a morale check if 50% or more of opponents are ever broken, defeated, or captured at any given time.
On Twitter (!) recently, @BrianBloodaxe brought up level drain, which reminded me how I ran it in OD&D for Vaults of Pahvelorn. What follows is a slight refinement of my previous approach, which I based originally on ideas from Talysman (of the 9 and 30 kingdoms blog).
In my revision of this method, adventurers lose levels without losing any XP. Adventurers continue to accumulate XP as normal, and gain back all lost levels, along with the benefits of a new level, upon reaching the next level threshold. The adventurer can also retrieve the benefits of lost levels by confronting, and defeating, the particular violating spirit. Additionally, an encounter with the abyss changes, hopefully temporarily, the adventurer’s relation to world of sunlight, joy, and the living, represented by a randomly determined abyssal disturbance—see table at the bottom of this post. An adventurer drained to zero rises as a hostile spirit with the sole purpose in unlife of opposing the adventuring party. As with partial drain, the adventurer’s humanity can be restored by defeating the violating spirit, though in this case the responsibility of doing so would fall to other adventurers.
This approach has several consequences. First, the player loses no progress, in an absolute sense, as accumulated XP remains. The adventurer’s individual effectiveness decreases, but only transiently. Second, the ability to regain levels by defeating the violating spirit presents a particularly salient all or nothing dilemma for players in the moment of the original confrontation, as continuing the fight to victory would immediately return drained levels while fleeing to regroup would—at least temporarily—lock in the lost levels. Third, the disturbance shifts gameplay ambivalently, providing both handicap and potential utility, at least for a player that approaches the disturbance creatively.
For example, imagine a 4th level OD&D fighter—a “hero”—having 9000 XP at the time of original confrontation. In an encounter with a wight, the adventurer loses two levels. This means the character attacks, saves, and so forth, as a second level character. Values other than HD tend to change only every few levels, so the only effect might be a temporary HD reduction, though in this example case—going from level 4 to level 2—the improvement threshold for fighters is between level 3 and 4, so the adventurer would need to use different rows for both saves and attacks as well. The adventurer must accumulate 7000 XP to gain back lost levels the hard way (since 9000 + 7000 = 16000, the threshold for level 5), and upon becoming a swashbuckler would immediately jump in effectiveness from a 2nd level fighter to a 5th level fighter. A quicker, side-quest style, approach would be to track down the wight and defeat it—something that might require only a session or part of a session of play, depending on the particular circumstances. For magic-users, if I were using the traditional spell progression, I would mark the spell slots associated with the lost levels as tainted by the abyss, and improvise some sort of thematic corruption side effect for spells using those slots, rather than just decrease spell slots.
Level drain becomes more clearly a sort of PTSD from confrontation with the undead. Seeking out and confronting the violating spirit represents the adventurer facing, and overcoming, the fears associated with past experiences. Or facing the danger and faltering—the possibility of which makes potential overcoming more valuable. The experiences were shared by the player, the human at the game table, and the player presumably had some degree of involvement, making the imagined meaning consequential. In other words, the game mechanics and the imagined events dovetail, but avoid the bookkeeping and tedium associated with some other approaches to handing level drain.
Below are 10 potential disturbances. I have tried to design each to satisfy three constraints: consistency with the theme of undead trauma, an aspect that complicates the adventurer’s life, and an aspect that could have unexpected benefits, either due to randomness or creative use by players. Upon regaining levels, I would let the player decide whether to keep the disturbance or overcome that as well.
Abyssal Disturbances (1d10)
Your shadow detaches during combat and either fights for you or fights against you—50% chance each.
Touch chills water—1 turn to freeze a small quantity—and breath is permafrost.
Speech from self and others nearby is muffled to a whisper.
Develops an unerring internal compass for, and scent enticing to, poisonous creatures.
Unlocked dungeon doors open upon approach and close on passing.
Vision becomes dim except by moonlight, under which the character can read lost languages with a 1 in 6 chance—one try per text.
Gains sustenance only from consuming raw flesh and dining upon a creature provides an unerring internal compass for seeking out the creature dined upon, if it still lives.
Light sources near the adventurer provide only half illumination and the adventurer can extinguish mundane light sources by starting at them (takes one turn).
Skies become overcast in a matter of hours wherever the adventurer goes.
There is a 50% chance that conscious beings slain by the adventurer rise as wights or wraiths which are invulnerable to harm caused by the adventurer and also seek to do the adventurer no harm directly, but will make the greatest attempt to harm all those nearby or associated with the adventurer.
Somewhat related, a while back I created a list of 30 “marked by the grave” effects which could also apply, though the results in that list focus more on theme and less on ambivalent game mechanical effects.
Some actions are best thought of as occurring at the team level, as if an adventuring party itself is acting. However, in most tabletop roleplaying games the adventuring party lacks a record sheet—for many good reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. Only individual adventurers have record sheets. So how is the team to take an action? A proposal: to resolve the outcome of a team action, have the most effective and least effective team members both make a check. Interpret two hits as success, one hit as partial success, and two misses as failure, lack of progress, or whatever makes sense for the context in question1. Exactly which checks apply depends on the base game chassis. Ability checks are an obvious candidate, but so is something like the OD&D d6 search roll.
This approach has several attractive properties, including advantaging groups made up exclusively of experts, incorporating the influence of weak links while maintaining incentive for risk taking, being simple, and constraining the numerical range of outcome numbers—what the D&D 5E developers called bounded accuracy—which helps prevent numerical inflation.
For comparison, some other approaches include: having everyone role individually—which is sort of obnoxious—and battle stations—which is fun but inflexible. Taking a battle stations approach, different adventurers each perform a role appropriate to the task at hand, making ability or skill checks to determine overall team effectiveness. Battle stations systems are inflexible because they tend to be domain specific. For best results the system should dictate, or the referee should determine beforehand, the various roles, assigning them evocative, thematic names, and establishing the right game systems or checks to use mechanically. Battle stations take a lot of work to implement in a satisfying manner.
A sufficiently strong member can carry an entire team, but over the course of repeated tasks, even a strong character will stumble occasionally. Additionally, using two checks in this way maintains greater tension around a particular uncertain outcome, which seems more desirable to me than the everyone roll approach, which I see somewhat often. For example, everyone make an intelligence check to see if you know whatever. Given a moderately sized party, it is almost guaranteed that someone will make the roll, in which case why bother? The two checks approach I propose here makes individual adventurer skill, ability, or specialization matter but avoids making it matter too much.
1. This takes a 2DTH (or “advantage”) style resolution system and spreads it across two player characters. ↩
To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.
—Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
What follows is a roll all the dice apocalypse generator. I designed it primarily as a tool to help create atmosphere and structure challenges for a new campaign, but it could also be used for entries on an event table, if you like to watch the world burn and were so inclined. Just drop the 1d4 component, or replace it with some other determination, such as the changed color of sunlight in the brave broken world of tomorrow or the pattern of fissures spreading over the moon.
To sketch the outlines of an apocalypse, use the following six determinations. Since indicates for how long the apocalypse has obtained. Cause indicates what precipitated the apocalypse. Obtenebration indicates what conceals the ruined world from the view of mortals. Monsters indicate what still lurks in the wilds. Redoubt indicates where humanity endures. Doom indicates the immediate nature of destruction.
Or? Maybe your players found a portal. This is where it leads.
As long as anyone can remember
Terminating the previous cycle of empire
Three generations past
Yesterday and ongoing
Reckless wicked sorcery
Primordial monsters unchained
Divine judgment of human hubris
Smoke and noxious gasses
Extinguished sun and endless night
Storms of blood, slime, or ash
Snow and ice
Submarine: drowned world or under the ocean
Inhospitable void: wilderness is outer space or Ptolemaic firmament
Possessed animals, people, or objects
Fears and nightmares made flesh
Mass delirium, lunacy, or madness
Gigantic, fecund fauna and flora
Legions of hell
One final, fortified settlement
Arc designed to preserve humanity
One small village strangely untouched
Isolated walled towns
Dungeon level one: waste above and underworld below
Ship run aground
Small nomadic camps
Huts clustered around a lighthouse, bonfire, or hoard of lanterns
Restless fault lines
Ancient war machines unleashed
Colossal monsters rampage
Plague of locusts
Land of the dead annexes the realm of mortals
Invasion of extra-dimensional beings
Sky flooded by the parching rays of nine incessant suns
I am working on an adventure and trying to decide which system to use for stats. The potential options that have some currency in the collective psyche right now seem to be: the first gen retro-clones (Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord), Lamentations, DCC, Fifth Edition, and B/X Essentials. A stripped down 5E stat line seems like it may have the greatest reach and functionality of these options.
For personal use, the choice is largely irrelevant to me numerically, as I am comfortable ruling and interpreting on the fly for the most part. However, ease of use and discoverability are factors I consider when writing for others. The clones of TSR games (first gen retro-clones and B/X Essentials) are all mechanically equivalent, apart from minor differences in magnitude assumptions (traceable largely back to the different dice used by OD&D, the basic line, and AD&D). I suspect that it might be less intuitive for a 5E referee to upconvert from an OSR stat line than it would be for an OSR referee to downconvert from 5E.
I would avoid using the official style stat block, which sacrifices page real estate to standardization. For example, only a totally inflexible rules drone would need text to tell them that a trebuchet is immune to sleep spells or that a suit of animated armor is immune to being deafened. (Seriously 5E designers, WTF?) It seems most functional to select key stats and use 5E terms when the choice would be otherwise arbitrary.
Assuming 5E stats make the most sense in some form, I see two possibilities: 1) present a stripped-down form of 5E numbers or 2) present both “old school” and “new school” stats explicitly, but still tailored for concision. I suspect option 2 would be more accessible, but also less elegant. An example of option 1 (5E numbers, implicit conversion) might be:
Goblin. HP 2d6/7, AC 15 (lightly armored), proficiency +2, STR -1, DEX +2, WIS -1, CHA -1, stealth +6, challenge ¼ (50 XP), disengage or hide as bonus action, see in the dark
This is actually almost 100% of the information present in the official stat block. Even with super-vanilla goblins, weapon details would vary and so I see minimal benefit to adding them in the actions section (and of course I would rarely use super-vanilla goblins). Option 2 would have two subsections, prefaced with Old School and New School labels respectively, and probably take 2-4 lines for the full stats of a monster with medium complexity. While I like the no-nonsense approach of just calling out that categorization, you can probably imagine yourself what it would look like. In the process of writing this out, I am leaning toward option 1, if using 5E numbers is a given. Just doing a simple Labyrinth Lord or B/X Essentials presentation also remains appealing. I do like the ability to use the DEX, INT, and other stats as easy ways to call out agile monsters, and so forth.
Guidelines for conversion
DCC. 5E constitution, dexterity, and wisdom saves can serve as DCC fortitude, reflex, and will saves.
Descending AC. To get a descending AC value, subtract 10 from AC and subtract that from 10. (So: 18 ⟶ 8 ⟶ 10 − 8 ⟶ 2.) Starting with 5E values actually yields pretty good results from this procedure, compared to 3E/4E, due to the bounded accuracy design principle. It is also worth remembering that even if numbers are off by 1, that just means differences of 5%, which is unnoticeable in practice.
Old school damage. Ignore proficiency when rolling damage. So the goblin’s 1d6+2 damage becomes a flat 1d6.
(This post has a soundtrack: Ligetti’s Beyond the Infinite—link opens YouTube in new tab—used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also: click any image to expand it in a new tab.)
Much too big (Berserk 1)
In the dark fantasy manga Berserk, the protagonist Guts wields a weapon called the dragon slayer. It is: too big to be called a sword, like a heap of raw iron. Preternatural versus mortal limits is a recurring theme in Berserk. It is a story of humans consistently transgressing cosmic boundaries, both of ability and morality. In this context, the name of the weapon, dragon slayer, has a certain literal meaning which may not immediately be apparent given the somewhat mundane rendering in English and the naturalism of many modern fantasy stories, where dragons are more like powerful, possibly intelligent, carnivores with strange biology. In Berserk, Dragons are dragons because humans can’t beat ’em. Dragon here is shorthand for higher being, creature beyond or outside of complete human understanding. As with narrative fiction, tabletop roleplaying games have a challenge regarding how to confront the supernatural. The two most common approaches, naturalizing the supernatural or protecting it from players by fiat to maintain danger and mystery, have drawbacks. Using fiat threatens the integrity of the game at a fundamental level, at least for the kinds of games I find satisfying, so I will dismiss that option immediately. I will argue that there is another way to approach the supernatural, though it may rely to some degree on referee artistry, perhaps being impossible to entirely systematize.
If there were any (Berserk 14)
What kind of weapon could damage impossible beings? An impossible weapon, or a weapon that would be impossible to use, might have some chance at harming an impossible being. Q: Could… this really kill… a dragon? A: If there were any… dragons. But you know, this ain’t even what you’d call a sword. It’s a meaningless slab of iron you can’t even lift… for killin’ dragons and monsters that ain’t even real. In this way, grasping the imaginary is the first step toward taking on monsters.1
In exploring this tension, Berserk seems to implicitly advocate for the possibility of transcendence. After all, time and again Guts triumphs over demonic, superhuman apostles using only human faculties and ingenuity, apart from the occasional dose of healing elf dust2. There is clearly some sort of categorical separation between the natural and supernatural in the world of Berserk, but humans, or at least some humans if you want to take an aristocratic stance, can, through enduring pain or sacrificing others, break through this barrier. Berserk is in this way metaphysically optimistic, with the caveat that the story is so far incomplete.
Dragons and humans (Berserk 14)
Traditional Dungeons & Dragons models the dichotomy between the natural and supernatural, at least in terms of combat, by differentiating categorically between magical and mundane weapons. The immediate system benefit of a magical weapon is a numerical bonus, leading to the sword +1, but what makes a magic weapon truly magical is the ability to damage creatures from the lower planes or insubstantial undead which are otherwise immune to mundane, physical attacks. Other systems apply hierarchies to damage. Rifts, to model the conflict of different tech levels, has mega-damage, which equates one point of mega-damage with 100 standard damage points. Lamentations of the Flame Princess introduces a hit point system for vehicle integrity, which equates one ship hit point with ten normal hit points. Plus-style magic weapons are unsatisfying due to ubiquity in mainstream D&D, coupled with general aesthetic blandness. Additionally, plus weapons completely fail to capture anything of the tension between mortal and supernatural in Berserk—and, I would argue, some of the most effective weird fiction.
Nosferatu Zodd wounded (Berserk 5)
The ship hit points approach has more promise. Humans can affect the supernatural, but only by dealing damage beyond some threshold barely attainable by human standards. This uses numerical order of magnitude to model supernatural hierarchy. However, using a system based on damage threshold is interactive in that it depends on many other system details, such as whether weapon damage is flat—like in OD&D where all weapons do 1d6 damage or whether a bonus from strength augments damage. The variability of damage available to adventurers will determine how accessible the supernatural becomes to a Guts-style assault. In OD&D, I might make one supernatural hit point equal to six normal hit points, which would make damaging the supernatural attainable to any mortal, but only with low probability, unless players can even the odds through creative play. This would be in keeping both with the themes explored in Berserk and the nature of OD&D.
Nosferatu Zodd wounded (Berserk 5)
In a game like B/X with variable weapon damage and the strength bonus applying to damage rolls, a threshold of 10 might be appropriate, though a damage threshold would make having an average or low strength score that much more of a disadvantage, a game feature which draws attention back toward the character sheet and away from creative problem solving. Additionally, increasing the importance of the strength score could create fairness concerns, though that is at most a minor problem for me. This might be an issue in a game that pushes 3d6 in order while punishing player mistakes lethally. Lamentations of the Flame Princess operates on a similar numerical scale without applying the strength bonus to damage, giving only the largest weapons—and firearms, possibly—any chance of wounding supernatural entities.
Using a damage threshold for affecting the supernatural has some other game benefits. First, it is in line with a general trend toward removing level-based gates on character abilities, such as spells without levels and finding ways to make the endgame, such as building strongholds, accessible throughout play. Second, a damage threshold increases the potential contributions of fighters in supernatural challenges without relying on semi-magical special move powers, facilitating a less super-heroic, or low-fantasy, tone.
1. There is a parallel here between Guts’ impossible sword and Griffith’s shining castle, an impossible goal for a gutter-born urchin.↩
2. At least, up until he acquires the Berserker armor, which is arguably supernatural, but Guts pre-armor serves my purposes here.↩