Category Archives: Rules

Supernatural magnitude

(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.

Sigils, sages, and libraries

Art of alchemy, cropped (source)

As a referee, I often place runes or sigils on items or locations. Such sigils can encode spells, clues, or other relevant local information. I have used several different systems for decoding sigils, including the classic read magic spell, time-consuming intelligence checks for wizard-type characters, and probably several other methods. Below is a generalized approach for handling sigils that reflects my current approach and should be broadly applicable.

Any sorcerer can interpret sigils by spending a dungeon turn, which reveals the domain of magic unfailingly. Sorcerers that know any spells of this domain interpret the sigil fully, but otherwise learn only the domain and a scrap of additional information. If the sigils contain a spell, sorcerers that fully interpret the sigil may spend another dungeon turn to cast the spell, if desired. Full interpretation entails general knowledge of potential spell outcomes, including any risks, though exact details may remain shrouded. Most enchantments, including those bound to objects, require sigils.

Given writing materials, a literate player character can spend a dungeon turn to record details of sigils, for continued investigation during a future haven turn. Rough tracing or copying is insufficient, so only literate player characters can record sigil details. If literacy is unclear, perform an intelligence test or save versus magic to determine if a given character is literate. Assume non-specialist retainers are illiterate.

Given records of sigil details, and access to a library or archives in a haven, a sorcerer can research the meaning of the sigils as a haven action. Roll 1d6 to determine if a haven contains a library or archives if this is undetermined, with 1 indicating the presence of a library. Access to the library may require payment (reasonable default: 1d6 × 100 GP) or subterfuge. Player characters other than sorcerers lack the knowledge to use a library effectively but can instead consult a sage if one is available.

Roll 1d6 to determine if a sage resides in a particular haven. If a sage is unavailable, in most havens elders will be able to direct player characters to the nearest haven with a sage. Sages can interpret sigils within their domains of knowledge fully, though they lack the ability to cast spells. By default, a sage has a 50% chance of relevant domain knowledge (note any domain known for future reference). All sages can determine basic properties of sigils, such as domain of magic. Sages charge 100 GP for basic information, plus a rider based on how valuable the sage considers the resulting details. Sages survive on their reputation, and so only charge for information they judge valuable. Sometimes, gathering local curiosities for sages from inconvenient locales (1d6 hexes distant) will suffice for part or all of the fee.

The sorcery rules in Wonder & Wickedness use sigils to manage semi-permanent magical effects. Such sigils can be interpreted as described above.

Whenever a player character spends a dungeon turn, remember to make a random encounter check (or roll the hazard die if using the Hazard System).

State of the art

Old school, smooth ride (photo credit)

There are several rules trends that I have come to see as evolutionary improvements. That is, there are a few rules that seem to be simply superior approaches to solving certain game design problems, at least most of the time. Below is a list of rules I would place in this category. Improvements are always relative to some goal, so I have organized this post around the game design problems that the various innovations address. Many of these ideas have older pedigree, and the innovation may be in application to traditional fantasy roleplaying games rather than pure invention.

Though simply superior is a strong claim, and of course there are exceptions, I think anyone writing or hacking rules, especially for OSR or DIY D&D type games, should think carefully before ignoring these developments.

Goal: make chargen fast and easy

Even in games heavy on characterization, quicker character generation is advantageous. Who wants to spend a full session on character generation, especially if people must make decisions which will ultimately influence play minimally?

  • Determine starting gear randomly rather than shopping. Ideally, the possible starting gear packages will be varied and evocative while still always being gameable. For example, a butterfly net made of silver thread for catching fairies rather than just bedroll and torches. This set of tables for OD&D starting gear by class could be more evocative, but for sheer utility are still one of the tables that see the most direct use in games I run.
  • Support fully random character generation. Players who prefer to make all the choices themselves can still do so, but random characters are invaluable for the casual player or the player who needs a replacement character quickly. For example, see the one-click total party kill online character generator.

Fast character generation also makes lethal consequences more tractable.

Goal: minimize bookkeeping

Resource management adds weight to a game, in both good and bad ways. Not all games demand complex resource management, but I think it is better to let the nature of the game determine rules requirements rather than neglecting the consequences of encumbrance due to the hassle of using cumbersome mechanics. There are simple systems which yield benefits for gameplay similar to complex calculations of weight carried.

  • Approximate encumbrance. One significant item per point of strength or some flat limit are both well-tested. Abstract encumbrance rather than bothering with details such as weights, which probably requires players to use a spreadsheet or other computerized prosthetic. See the Lamentations of the Flame Princess encumbrance rules (2013 Rules & Magic, page 38, free no-art version; still too heavy for me, but usable) and Papers & Pencils (making encumbrance work) for the recent ground zero of usable encumbrance rules. Historically, Dragon Warriors (by Morris and Johnson), back in 1985, used a flat limit of ten significant items, with minor adjustments based on character strength.
  • Overload the encounter die or use a hazard die for timekeeping and event engine. Winter can be a potential downtime event outcome (with a nod to Torchbearer) as can various other events. This makes a setting live without requiring complex tracking or Tolkien-style world building on the part of the referee and builds such fictional developments into the core gameplay workflow.
  • Randomize the exhaustion of consumables, such as with a Black Hack style usage die, event engine outcome, or overloading an action test (such as attack roll or ability check). The illogical edge cases are easy to handle. Similar rules have been around at least since the Necromunda ammo roll1, and probably earlier, but have only become popular in D&D type games over the last few years (see archive of this 2011 intwischa post).

Goal: maintain tension at desired level of difficulty

Low level D&D is a sweet spot for dungeon exploration games. One easy way to maintain this tension is to keep hit points low and have zero hit points mean death, as the rules of OD&D and B/X dictate. However, low HP and death at zero can be more punishing than many groups desire. Witness the wide variety of house rules to increase the survivability of first level characters, even among hardcore old school players. For example, max hit points at first level is a common house rule and Lamentations of the Flame Princess has minimum hit point thresholds (2013 Rules & Magic, page 7, free no-art version).

Goal: develop content that will see play

This includes character options, powers, and abilities. For player-facing rules, this generally means removing level gates on powers. In-fiction requirements, in contrast, such as locating an ingredient or seeking out a teacher, create concrete goals and prime adventure, as opposed to the more abstract idea of just get more gold and at some point 9th level will roll around.

Goal: minimize numerical inflation

(This has some relation to developing content that will see play, as flatter power curves mean balance violations are less mechanically shocking.)

Goal: keep content fresh

Are these referee techniques or house rules? Either way, I am including them here.


Thanks to people that suggested commonly used house rules when I asked on Google Plus (private share; opt-in here).


1. Thanks to Paolo Greco for mentioning this a while back.

Mettle rules graft v0.1

This is a hack that integrates an alternative partial-success d20 resolution system and replacement health system. The original posts on some of these ideas:

The primary design priority is fluent ease of use.

For me, this is essentially subsystem playtesting (for my ongoing, slow-burning Hexagram project), but I think this could be useful as a mod also.

(See the downloads page for a PDF version.)


Necropraxis Mettle Rules Graft

Start with something like B/X D&D, Labyrinth Lord, or Lamentations of the Flame Princess and then suture in the following systems and rules. This is a draft playtest document and I assert no compatibility.

Tests

  • Resolve uncertain actions using the test procedure (1d20 +modifier), interpreting the result as follows:
1 2-9 10-15 16-18 19+
Hindrance & Catastrophe Hindrance Progress & Hindrance Progress Progress & Triumph
  • Tests replace attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws
  • If the unmodified result is 1 or 19+, ignore the modifier

Basics

    • Moves are actions with predefined sets of potential test outcomes (see combat, below, for examples)
    • Add proficiency bonus to class-relevant tests given proper equipment
      • Weapons for fighters, lock picks for thieves, wands for magic-users, and so forth
    • Proficiency bonus follows 5E: = ceiling(level / 4) + 1
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
+2 +2 +2 +2 +3 +3 +3 +3 +4 +4 +4 +4 +5 +5 +5 +5 +6 +6 +6 +6

Gear & Equipment

  • Characters have 25 gear slots: 5 panoply, 4 hand, 6 belt, & 10 pack
    • Panoply slots correspond to hit locations: 1 head, 2 legs, 3 arms, 4 abdomen, & 5-6 body
    • The 4 hand slots are primary (left, right) & secondary (left, right)
    • Place any additional gear in burden slots (burden imposes penalties)
  • Each gear slot has a uses track with up to six boxes
    • The uses track represents wear and tear or uses remaining
    • Gear determines the max uses: quiver of arrows (6), sword (3), and so forth
    • When the number of marked boxes equals the max uses, gear is broken, ruined, or used up

Magic

  • Spell slots = level + 2; each slot has uses = proficiency bonus
  • During haven turns, cast spells from grimoires
    • Other magicians can tell when spells are active
  • After casting a spell, magicians can cause effects using the invoke move
    • +INT for black magic, +WIS for white magic
    • To add proficiency bonus when invoking, equip a focus, such as a staff or wand
    • When invoke test outcomes include hindrance, mark a spell use

Combat

  • Peril—such as monster attack—results in death unless an action forestalls such fate
  • The block and dodge moves replace opponent attack rolls
  • The endure and suffer moves replace taking damage
    • Mettle = level +CON
    • To mark mettle, mark a number of hearts = opponent threat (HD, level, or whatever)
    • If directed to mark mettle when none remain, make the suffer move to avoid death
    • Dying characters expire at the end of the current round
  • Sprain and fracture conditions disable the relevant hit location
    • 1 = head, 2 = legs, 3 = arms, 4 = abdomen, 5-6 = body
  • If a character is already bleeding and the condition comes up again, the character bleeds out and dies
  • Armor bonus applies to the endure move
    • Light armor = +2, medium armor = +4, heavy armor = +6
    • Proficiency: fighter = heavy, thief = light, wizard = none
    • Characters are burdened if wearing armor without proficiency
  • Two-handed weapons provide advantage for strike, shields provide advantage for block
Approach Moves Strike Shoot Maneuver
Prerequisite Melee equipment Weapon & ammo Situational
Modifier +STR +DEX +STR or +DEX
19+ 2 hits 2 hits Attain objective & 1 hit
16-18 1 hit 1 hit Attain objective
10-15 1 hit & mark use 1 hit & mark ammo use Attain objective & mark use
2-9 Endure Mark weapon use Endure
1 Endure & mark use Mark weapon & ammo use Endure & mark use
Avoidance Moves Block Dodge Endure Suffer
Prerequisite Melee equipment Unburdened
Modifier +STR +DEX +Armor +CON
19+ 1 hit Position & 1 hit Recover 1 Recover 1
16-18 Position Sprain
10-15 Mark use Position & lose balance Mark use Fracture
2-9 Endure & mark use Endure & lose balance Mark use & mettle Bleeding
1 Endure & mark use Endure & mark use Suffer Dying

Spell book dilemmas

Image from Wikimedia commons

Magic systems can treat spells more like things one knows or more like things one has. That is, skills versus possessions. This is not a pure dichotomy, and various systems draw from both approaches. There is, however, a fundamental trade-off in moving along this continuum from magic as skill to magic as possession. A skills approach leads to more focused, mechanically simple, and niche-protected characters within a party. A possessions approach leads to more flexible, mechanically complex, and interchangeable characters within a party.

Skill versus possession makes the biggest difference in systems that strictly regulate skill development through acquisition of levels. Traditional D&D and similar games generally work this way. I think a more fine-grained system, such as Burning Wheel skills that develop based directly on fictional actions, would also exhibit this dynamic, but it probably would make less of a difference. In the options below, I assume skills and possessions function close to traditional D&D.

I am thinking about magic systems right now, so this is more a descriptive post to help me organize my thoughts than a proposal for a particular approach. I am curious about pushing the magic system closer to the possessions end of the spectrum while still maintaining distinctiveness between magic-using characters within a party.

Option 1: Pure Skill

In this approach, knowledge of a particular spell is like a learned skill. Characters learn new spells only by engaging character improvement mechanics directly (such as level-up) rather than through fictional actions (such as picking up a wand). Sharing spells between player characters is either impossible or costly. (See also this older post on strict spell learning.)

Perhaps surprisingly, playing B/X by the book treats spells mostly like skills for magic-users (see page B16 and this post by Alex). Magic users gain new spells on level up and there are no other rules for learning spells apart from the expensive spell research rules in the Expert rules, which require 1000 gp per spell level and seem to be intended for newly invented spells, not other spells in the existing catalog (see page X51). Apart from the research rules, spell memorization in B/X is fictional logic wrapped around a resource management fire and forget game mechanic.

Pros: simplicity, high character distinctiveness within party

Cons: can feel more like super powers, collecting spells through adventuring less emphasized

Option 2: Spell Learning

One method that takes a step toward spells as possessions is having a set of spell book rules that include systems for learning spells outside of character improvement mechanics. A magic-user can only memorize spells from a personally written spell book. This spell book or books can contain any number of spells, but copying a spell into the book requires a special action and perhaps some cost, to prevent the easy replication of spells within a party, which would give all magic-users access to the same spell list. Then, magic-users choose which spells to prepare from the book, up to level-based limits, during downtime.

AD&D popularized this approach. The AD&D rule for attempting to learn a spell is to make a percentile chance to know spell check, which is based on intelligence (AD&D Players Handbook, page 10). Characters that fail this check may never learn the spell in question. This naturally leads to spell lists unique to each magic-user. In my experience, players hate rolling to learn spells with the possibility of never being able to learn a particular spell, so though this system has some nice emergent properties, it can be a difficult sell.

Some more recent systems, such as ACKS repertoires and 5E spell slots, seem like variations on this approach, but constrain which known spells are available for actual use in play. Such constraints provide a small brake on the tendency for magic-using characters to accumulate spells without limit. Though these systems often seem superficially logical (at least to me), they also are rather complex to explain and can require extensive bookkeeping. For example, the 5E approach to spell books requires players to manage separately the spells in the book from the spells available to cast (5E Basic Rules, page 30) and spell slot implementation is, on reflection, nine different kinds of mana/spell points for for players to manage.

Pros: spell book atmosphere, moderate character distinctiveness within party, magic-users adventure to collect more spells

Cons: bookkeeping, higher chance of copying spells between player characters, often less player influence over the kind of spells learned

Option 3: Possession Plus Access Skill

Magic could also be entirely located within a possession but require a skill (or something like a skill) to use the possession. That is, a character would need something like a necromancy skill to use necromancy type magic items but such as skill would grant access to all such magic. (One could make the taxonomy of magic as fine-grained as desired to increase the likely distinctiveness of magic-using characters.) Though only intended to supplement the primary method of casting spells for characters, the traditional rule of only allowing characters belonging to the magic-user class to use stereotypically wizardly items is a crude version of this kind of approach.

A simple version of this that might work well is to take specialist rules and turn them on their head. Rather than assume generalist magic-users have access to all spells, with specialists giving up access to several schools of magic in exchange for increased power with a focal school, instead assume that generalist magic-users have no access to any spells other than those of known schools. In this way, proficiency with a school of magic would become similar to proficiency with a class of weapons, as implemented in 5E D&D.

Pros: concrete magical atmosphere

Cons: requires a skill system for acquiring access to spell schools, somewhat nonstandard, spells within school easily shared between characters

Option 4: Pure Possession

On the far end of the spectrum, the ability to cast a spell could entirely depend on character possessions. The way to get access to the fireball spell is to find a wand of fireballs (or whatever). There are various ways to place some restrictions on exchangeability, such as 5E attunement or traditional class features, but such rules often feel artificial, obviously twisting setting elements to solve a game problem.

Into the Odd uses this approach. There are not really any spells in the traditional sense and instead magic powers reside in arcana, which any character can use. I believe some arcana require something like a will save and many are consumable.

Perhaps surprisingly, given how this can sometimes lead to magic feeling like technology in a game context, it is actually closer to how magic often works in mythology and fantasy fiction. For example, Robert Howard’s sorcerer Thoth-Amon derived most or all of his magic from the serpent ring of Set. Arguably, magic in Vance’s dying earth stories sort of works like this, as non-magician characters sometimes memorize spells, though it is possible that such characters still have some sort of special talent or skill. For game purposes, this would be close to a pure gear approach.

Pros: simplicity, flexibility

Cons: characters feel less like archetypal wizards, low character distinctiveness within party


There are probably many other variations, but I think these examples illustrate some common approaches and the trade-offs that come with choosing a particular place on the rules continuum.

It is worth noting that these dynamics exist across classic classes as well, with thieves being more skill based and fighters being more possession based. For example, only thieves know how to use lock picks while fighters can usually trade weapons, though various approaches to proficiencies and so forth can change how this works. However, distinctiveness feels more important to me for magic-using character types than for mundane character types. I suspect this is true for others as well. (Explaining this feeling is perhaps a topic for another post, hopefully written by someone other than me.)

Maybe relevant: grimoires for OD&D

Ryuutama miscellany

Following are a few miscellaneous mechanical ideas gleaned from Ryuutama which may be worth adapting or hacking into your D&D-alike edition of choice.

Initiative is AC

At the start of combat in Ryuutama, each player character rolls initiative, which is DEX + INT. Recall that abilities are dice, with d6 representing average, so this roll is something like 2d6 or d6+d8. The value obtained both determines order of action and defense value (basically, AC). An equipped shield provides a minimum defense value (7 for small shields and 9 for large shields). This makes both initiative and shields more influential without contributing to numerical inflation (as happens with the arms race between AC bonus and attack bonus for many versions of D&D).

In addition to equipping a shield, player characters can use an action to re-roll initiative, taking the new result if it is better. So, a bad initiative roll does not spell doom, though it can slow a player character down (which seems appropriate for initiative).

Initiative also controls retreat

Even among those woke to the virtues of morale checks, in my experience it is easy to slip into fighting to the last combatant. This may play into the reasons for retreat rules either being somewhat complex or perhaps just untested. In any case, the Ryuutama approach here is both simple and surprisingly harsh when followed to the letter, given the suggested heartwarming tone. The rule is that travelers can retreat if the sum of their initiative values is equal to or higher than the sum of enemy initiative values. This means that once enemies gain an advantage, it may become very difficult, or even mathematically impossible, to run away.

That math may be less than ideal, depending on your intention for combat dynamics, but I like the idea of using initiative to manage retreats. Another, slightly more flexible approach for Ryuutama along similar lines—that I may use the next time I run Ryuutama—would be to have the entire party make a new group initiative check to determine whether running away is possible. This would hold out a sliver of hope, even if several travelers were down and the sum of enemy initiative values was high.

This is even easier to hack into another game if using side-based d6 initiative, though it is a bit more random. When the player characters win initiative they can simply declare retreat and it happens, as long as there are no obvious fictional constraints such as a bridge being out. Similarly for monsters. Then, if one side or the other wishes to pursue, chase rules would come into play.

Battlefield abstraction

Ryuutama battlefield (PDF here)

As in many classic JRPG video games, combatants are either in the front or rear rank. Combatants in the front rank may be targeted with either melee or ranged attacks while combatants in the rear rank may only be targeted with ranged attacks. Any area effects attack all combatants in the front ranks, either allied or opponent. If all the combatants in the front rank are defeated, the remaining combatants in the rear move into the front, meaning that it makes sense to maintain several frontline defenders if possible, though one will hold the line.

This is elegant (and plays nicely based on my limited experience so far). The structure maintains enough tactical complexity to model offensive and defensive fighting without resorting to bonus math; further, it requires minimal bookkeeping. I was originally somewhat wary of the structure feeling artificial and constraining tactical infinity, but in practice our fictional battlefield and the tactical schematic coexisted without conflict. This approach could be lifted verbatim, I think, into a B/X game.

Ability checks draw on two abilities

In Ryuutama, any ability check uses two abilities. In all versions of D&D that I am familiar with, ability checks use only one stat, such as strength. Using two abilities leads to a surprising degree of mechanical richness, however, and would be particularly easy using the ability bonus scale of B/X, which is 13-15 = +1, 16-17 = +2, and 18 = +3. This, two relevant 18 stats yields only a +6 bonus, well within the scope of modern bounded accuracy approaches. This would be most straightforward when using roll high versus DC style ability checks but easy with roll-under checks too (just allow the bonus of one ability to increase the value of the other ability, for purposes of the immediate check).

Condition modulates poison etc

Traditional D&D often uses save or die for poison. This works well enough, but requires some care on the referee side. It is, however, abrupt. Many alternative approaches soften the blow by providing various additional buffers, such as having poison do damage or applying other effects. Generally, this makes poison either a mere distraction or an additional thing to track.

The approach in Ryuutama is to make poison, and other similar conditions, only affect travelers with condition less than or equal to some set value. (Condition in Ryuutama is sort of like mood and travelers re-roll it each day.) The effect of poison in Ryuutama is to decrease strength by one die type. A D&D analogue might be disadvantage to attack rolls and physical ability checks, with the modulating factor probably being HP; for the threshold, something like 25% or 50% max HP might work. Though this certainly makes poison less immediately terrifying than save or die, I kind of like it.

Stronghold achievements

A Kingdom Death settlement phase

One dynamic I have noticed with XP = GP spent is that there is a great incentive for players to spend money primarily on short and medium term goals. This is largely positive, in terms of gameplay, as it results in PCs spending their GP quickly to gain levels, and thus needing to get back to adventuring to get more GP, which is a virtuous cycle from the perspective of generating adventure.

However, there is an implied endgame in many versions of D&D where adventurers build strongholds, accumulate followers, and possibly transition into a game of domains. Where do the resources for building a stronghold come from if adventurers continually squander recovered treasure? One could abstract this process, simply granting adventurers a stronghold at sufficient level, or expect players to think ahead, saving GP as necessary. In any case, most campaigns end far before adventurers attain such elevated levels, so an alternative and perhaps more practical approach would be to integrate domain game systems into lower levels.

Exploring this idea, I see an opportunity to both ground such as system in the party as aggregate, rather than the individual adventurers, and perhaps build the entire advancement system around the creation and development of adventurer bases. That is, rather than gaining levels from accumulating XP from killing monsters, recovering treasure, or completing quests, why not gain levels based on establishing strongholds? Mechanically, the highest level of stronghold possessed by the adventuring company could determine individual adventurer level as well. That is, to attain second level, the party must purchase a company clubhouse. Even if one were not inclined to push the idea that far, systematizing and simplifying the implied domain game in a way that is accessible to adventurers of all levels may be useful.

Below are draft details for levels 1 through 5. Levels 6 through 10 are haven, stronghold, cultural fountainhead, colony, and capital. I may similarly detail the later levels in a future post. (Cultural fountainhead needs a better name but is intended to represent building libraries, temples, archives, or something like that.)

  1. Tavern hangout (in lawful haven)
    Recovery: 5 GP per adventurer per haven turn
    Reputation: scoundrels available for odd jobs
  2. Clubhouse (in lawful haven)
    Adventurers possess their own private space in a haven.
    Requirement: 5000 GP purchase price
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: adventurers
    Habitants: at least one or two attendants or stewards, along with off-duty retainers
    Dangers: competing adventurer companies
  3. Hideout (in chaotic wilderness)
    A hideout is a small, unobtrusive lair liberated from forces hostile to civilization. Lawful hunters, trappers, and other travelers help ensure that the hideout is self-sufficient and provide regular news and exchange.
    Requirement: lair liberated from a faction of chaos
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: established freebooters
    Habitants: several stewards plus visiting traders, minstrels, or travelers
    Dangers: evicted faction becomes dedicated foe, monster attacks
  4. Outpost (in chaotic wilderness)
    An outpost is a fortification liberated from forces hostile to civilization. Once liberated, an outpost starts to acquire some trappings of civilization, including some permanently resident tradespeople. However, the area remains too isolated or dangerous for lawful settlers to call home permanently.
    Requirement: fortification liberated from a faction of chaos
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: serious mercenary company
    Habitants: several enterprising craftspeople or merchants, stewards, travelers
    Dangers: evicted faction, military assault, monster attacks
  5. Settlement (in pacified, previously chaotic borderlands)
    Settlements are small, fortified villages. A settlement is stable enough to attract enterprising settlers seeking opportunity or a new start.
    Requirement: pacification of nearby borderlands (several hexes in all directions if using a hex map), 5 notable triumphs such as pirate kings defeated or significant monsters slain, 50000 GP investment in infrastructure
    Recovery: free each haven turn
    Reputation: governors or warlords
    Habitants: several permanent shops, traders, and craftspeople; several settler families
    Dangers: local lawful powers see the company as political risk

Adventurers must go through each step in sequence. Think of the collection of bases as an umbilicus stretching from civilization into the unknown. A hideout, for example, will only be self-sufficient through connections with the clubhouse in town. For this reason, adventurers retain all bases as they expand outward.

As the adventurers grow in reputation and stature, they naturally accrue a retinue and staff which enables and lives off the exploits of the company. The details of such organization may remain relatively abstract in terms of costs, though stewards, resident craftspeople, and so forth could be drawn from personages encountered by the adventurers during the game, such as rescued villagers or converted bandits.

What about adventurer death? New adventurers begin at level one, increasing one level for each session survived until they reach the current company level. Or, if that is too much bother, players could just make a new adventurer at the current level. Such parvenue adventurers would still need to accumulate gear and renown in the eyes of players.

The Ryuutama engine

A while back, I posted about the OD&D game engine. I think that post was helpful to me at the time for understanding how OD&D the game worked at a mechanical level. As I have been reading and enjoying Ryuutama recently, a similar exercise may be informative. This exercise may also provide a good intro to Ryuutama for players familiar with traditional D&D.

There are several broad, generally applicable rules systems: travelers, incentives, journeys, setting, combat, and the ryuujin. I will only focus on the first four of those systems here because they seem most integral to the core engine.

Travelers

These are the rules for player characters, which Ryuutama calls travelers.

Travelers have three major mechanical underpinnings: classes, type, and ability scores. Class in Ryuutama is more like background in many other games, and provides a set bundle of skills. Example classes are merchant, hunter, and farmer. Travelers get one class at first level and another at fifth level (max level is 10). Type, however, is more like what class means for other games, and can be one of attack, technical, or magic, which map, respectively, to the traditional classes of fighter, thief, and magic-user. There are four ability scores: strength, dexterity, intelligence, and spirit. Ability scores are measured in dice, with d6 seeming to be about average, d8 being one step higher, and so forth. Travelers also have three state variables: hit points, mental points, and condition (a value that fluctuates daily and is sort of like mood).

The major resolution system is the check, which involves rolling two ability dice (sometimes both are the same ability), adding the results, and comparing the sum to a target number (like a difficulty class in D&D terms). For example, accuracy with a blade (basically, rolling to hit, which is based on weapon type) is DEX + STR. Trapping, a hunter skill, uses DEX + INT. Target numbers range from 4 up. The text labels 7 as a little difficult and 12 as very difficult, to provide some orientation.

  • Class: artisan, farmer, healer, hunter, merchant, minstrel, noble
  • Type: attack, technical, magic
  • Ability scores: strength [STR], dexterity [DEX], intelligence [INT], spirit [SPI]

There are a few other details such as favored weapon, carrying capacity, and so forth, but the rules mentioned above are the foundational components. You can check out the full character sheet as well.

Incentives

Similar to most traditional fantasy games, characters increase in power through gaining levels, and gaining levels requires XP. Concretely, increasing level improves an ability, provides some extra HP or MP, and provides a few other perks depending on which level.

Ryuutama awards an amount of XP each session based on the highest topography target number (more on this in a moment) encountered, the single most powerful monster defeated, and for each benediction (GM-PC power) the referee used.

I like this approach overall because it rewards seeking out challenges and requires minimal bookkeeping. It is generally relatively easy to recall the single most powerful monster and there is no need to track the exact number of orcs or whatever. Further, though the marginal benefit may be small, the game will always reward tackling a more powerful monster or more dangerous environment within a given session.

Journeys

The journey procedure is a loop that the party engages to move from one fictional place to another. In sequence: condition checks, travel checks, direction check, and finally camping check. The final three checks all use terrain + weather as the target number. Each traveler makes a separate condition and travel check, but the mapper (one traveler designated by the party beforehand) makes a single direction check for the entire party. A single camping check applies to the entire party as well. The travel check is kind of a big deal, because failing it halves the traveler’s HP (which is about as important in Ryuutama combat as it is in traditional D&D combat, though the halving procedure suggests quite a bit more abstraction in Ryuutama compared to what many players assume about HP in D&D).

For each of these journey checks you end up rolling a pair of ability dice (added) versus an objectively determined target number; for example, grasslands = 6, deep forest = 10, strong wind = +1, and hard rain = +3. So, travelers journeying through deep forest in the hard rain will be rolling against a target number of 13.

Setting

Travelers journey between places and encounter things. What determines the details of towns, what lies between them, and what challenges relevant to the travelers exist?

Within the setting rules are guidelines for creating the world at a high level, towns, scenarios, and events. These rules are more elastic than other systems and read more like a set of suggestions than a tight set of procedures, though there are worksheets for each (town, world, scenario, event) with prompts, along with the invitation to maybe work through the process collaboratively with players. For example, the town worksheet has spaces for representative building and specialty goods.

Though not explicitly stated procedurally, several aspects of the rules gesture toward the idea of building up the world organically as journeys unfold, while leaving space for some more traditional lonely-fun referee world-building. There is a grid map sheet that players could fill in as travelers journey. The rules suggest an option where all the players design the town for the next session at the end of the current session and place it on the map, indicating what interstitial areas the referee should focus on in preparation.

Ryuujin

The ryuujin (GM-PC guardian angel) rules also seem important for running a game of Ryuutama in the expected mode, due to how they support the referee intervening in a limited way to shape the story. However, the ryuujin rules are tied less tightly to the core engine, as far as I can tell, apart from the XP reward for using benedictions as noted above, and so I will end here. See this post for a bit more on the ryuujin rules, if you are curious, and also the ryuujin character sheet.

Eidolon mode

Ryuutama mechanizes a limited degree of referee fudging through a conceit where the referee plays a character called the ryuujin. In translation, this means dragon person, and represents an entity somewhere between minor deity and guardian angel. The ryuujin exists within the fictional world, but in practice stays mostly offscreen. It is actually a character though, with a record sheet, life points, powers, level, and so forth, though the applicable rules for a ryuujin are different than those for player characters.

Mist dragon summon from Final Fantasy 4 (SNES)

In Final Fantasy 4, the character Rydia is a caller, a kind of magician that can summon Eidolons, or Call Beasts, to fight for the party. In Final Fantasy 6, espers are powerful magical entities that once defeated can be summoned. Systems exist for summoning in many Final Fantasy games.

Can you see where I am going with this?

A similar structure could be used for a powerful supernatural ally such as a bound demon, sandestin, or summoned creature. For players used to a more limited scope of narrative influence and narrower tactical challenge, the ryuujin rules can seem to be something between easy mode and cheating. However, that interpretation may be more driven by tone rather than mechanics. With slightly different flavoring, and possibly exposing more aspects of the ryuujin record sheet to the party as a whole, similar rules could support access to something like summoning an esper. Consider also the possibility for something like a mech or titan form (Attack on Titan, Voltron, etc).

Mechanically, Ryuutama gives the ryuujin several capabilities, including benedictions and reveils. Benedictions are powers that a ryuujin can use by spending life points and have effects such as rewinding a small amount of fictional time or declaring a particular check to be a critical success. Some benedictions create obstacles for players, such as increasing monster power or allowing an enemy to run away without needing to satisfy any conditions, presumably in support of guaranteeing certain story elements. In a reveil, the ryuujin appears in dragon form and saves the players in some specific way, such as manifesting to take the damage intended for a player character. Even when representing something like a summoned ally more under the control of players than is the ryuujin, the entity could maintain a degree of autonomy, also causing complications for players occasionally.

Evangelion / Voltron / Attack on Titan

Some of the ryuujin rules are attempts to mechanize a limited degree of referee discretion while maintaining some impartiality. Others are explicitly for rescuing and assisting the travelers, essentially decreasing the stakes in pursuit of the intended tone, which is low-arousal, calming, and heartwarming (honobono, in Japanese). However, with a slightly different set of priorities, similar rules could mechanize access to limited supernatural heavy artillery that players could deploy a few times per session.

Catastrophe magic

This is a magic system I have been testing. It is general enough that I think it should be easy to use with other traditional fantasy games, if you like, given a small amount of adjustment to the system you are using.

This is a roll to cast system. You need to decide on a set of known or prepared spells for a character. Then, the die outcome will take care of the resource aspect of spells. You also need a resolution system that provides five levels of outcome. You can think about these outcomes as levels of player character success or as augury into the fictional world. The five outcomes are:

  1. Principle intensified
  2. Principle
  3. Principle & corollary
  4. Corollary & decline
  5. Catastrophe & decline

The principle is the basic spell effect, the thing that the sorcerer is generally attempting to bring about. The principle intensified is the critical hit version of this. The corollary is an unintended side effect that generally complicates the magician’s life but may occasionally be useful. Decline represents a decrease in future spell potential or magical energy. The simplest implementation of decline is, following a Vancian approach, forgetting the spell. And finally, catastrophe is a total misfire which may have personally deleterious effects. This set of outcomes means that something magical always happens but the potential corollaries and catastrophes should make players think twice about playing with arcane fire.

To resolve the casting of a spell, I use an ability check, similar to the approach described here, with intelligence for black magic and wisdom for white magic.

For an approach closer to classic d20, consider the following:

Let target = 10 + spell level. Then, roll 1d20 and add spell bonus (something like one-half level, rounded up). Interpret the result as follows:

  • Natural 20: principle intensified
  • Target + 4: principle
  • Target: principle & corollary
  • Below target: corollary & decline
  • Natural 1: catastrophe

Further, you need a way to determine what each class of outcome means for a given spell. Writing new spells with extensive corollary and catastrophe tables is wonderful but by no means necessary.

Ideally, catastrophes are specific to individual spells, but lacking specific catastrophes, you can fall back to some general outcomes, such as these:

(I am sure there are others available too.)


Hacking a spell to support this system can be easy. For example, here’s a hack for the classic spell magic missile:

  • Principle intensified: +1 extra missile
  • Principle: as written
  • Corollary: an additional missile targets something non-animate (determine randomly)
  • Catastrophe: determine target of each missile randomly (friends and foes)

For many spells, it is feasible to rule on potential corollaries and catastrophes in real time. I would just clarify with the player what the potential scope of outcomes would be and confirm intention to cast the spell prior to the roll.


See also: