Category Archives: Rules

Vulnerabilities and Breaking Opponents

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

Image source: Sand Lizardman 2

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:

  • Therion: knives, swords, fire (skill)
  • Cyrus: staves, knives (thief job), Swords (thief job), fire (skill), ice (skill), lightning (skill)
  • Ophelia: staves, axes (hunter job), bows (hunter job), light (skill)
  • H’aanit: axes, bows, lightning (skill)

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:

OSRoWHY Implementation

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.

Humanity Restored

Dark Souls Remastered (source: Polygon)

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.

Dark Souls 3 (source: YouTube)

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.

Men & Magic (p. 16)

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.

Frodo marked by the abyss (source)

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)

  1. Your shadow detaches during combat and either fights for you or fights against you—50% chance each.
  2. Touch chills water—1 turn to freeze a small quantity—and breath is permafrost.
  3. Speech from self and others nearby is muffled to a whisper.
  4. Develops an unerring internal compass for, and scent enticing to, poisonous creatures.
  5. Unlocked dungeon doors open upon approach and close on passing.
  6. Vision becomes dim except by moonlight, under which the character can read lost languages with a 1 in 6 chance—one try per text.
  7. 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.
  8. Light sources near the adventurer provide only half illumination and the adventurer can extinguish mundane light sources by starting at them (takes one turn).
  9. Skies become overcast in a matter of hours wherever the adventurer goes.
  10. 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.

Team Actions

Grenadier Miniatures, kit 2004—Hirelings—working together hopefully?

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.

Eschatologies

Philosophia Reformata (source)

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.

Click image for new result (opens a Google Sheets spreadsheet)

Since (1d4)

  1. As long as anyone can remember
  2. Terminating the previous cycle of empire
  3. Three generations past
  4. Yesterday and ongoing

Cause (1d6)

  1. Reckless wicked sorcery
  2. Final war
  3. Primordial monsters unchained
  4. Divine judgment of human hubris
  5. Imprudent excavation
  6. Extra-dimensional incursion

Obtenebration (1d8)

  1. Smoke and noxious gasses
  2. Boundless fog
  3. Extinguished sun and endless night
  4. Perpetual eclipse
  5. Storms of blood, slime, or ash
  6. Snow and ice
  7. Submarine: drowned world or under the ocean
  8. Inhospitable void: wilderness is outer space or Ptolemaic firmament

Monsters (1d10)

  1. Embodied divinities
  2. Restless dead
  3. Inscrutable giants
  4. Avenging angels
  5. Possessed animals, people, or objects
  6. Fears and nightmares made flesh
  7. Mass delirium, lunacy, or madness
  8. Gigantic, fecund fauna and flora
  9. Legions of hell
  10. Robots

Redoubt (1d12)

  1. None remain
  2. One final, fortified settlement
  3. Arc designed to preserve humanity
  4. One small village strangely untouched
  5. Isolated walled towns
  6. Underground bunkers
  7. Dungeon level one: waste above and underworld below
  8. Abandoned castle
  9. Wizard’s seclusium
  10. Ship run aground
  11. Small nomadic camps
  12. Huts clustered around a lighthouse, bonfire, or hoard of lanterns

Doom (1d20)

  1. Restless fault lines
  2. Ancient war machines unleashed
  3. Colossal monsters rampage
  4. Pestilence
  5. Plague of locusts
  6. Vanished sun
  7. Falling stars
  8. Land of the dead annexes the realm of mortals
  9. Invasion of extra-dimensional beings
  10. Flood
  11. Sky flooded by the parching rays of nine incessant suns
  12. Armageddon bombs
  13. Volcanic eruptions and rivers of magma
  14. Poisoned, blighted land
  15. Sunlight turns mortals to stone
  16. Reign of Satan
  17. Feral beasts
  18. Season of dragons
  19. Drought, famine, and mass starvation
  20. Playground of gods

I release the contents of this post under the Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC 3.0) license. It is available as a PDF for ease of offline use and printing; see downloads page.

5E stat line basis

Unnecessary prolixity (from Basic Rules)

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.

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