Above the summit of Le Bonnet de l’Evêque, dentelated with scaffoldings, rose that second mountain—a mountain on a mountain—which was the Citadel La Ferrière. A lush growth of red fungi was mounting the flanks of the main tower with the terse smoothness of brocade, having already covered the foundations and buttresses, and was spreading polyp profiles over the ocher walls. That mass of fired brick, towering above the clouds in proportions whose perspective challenged visual habits, was honeycombed with tunnels, passageways, secret corridors, and chimneys all heavy with shadows. Light, as of an aquarium, a glaucous green tinted by ferns already meeting in space, tell above a vaporous mist from the high loopholes and air vents. The stairways to hell connected three main batteries with the powder magazine, the artillerymen’s chapel, the kitchens, cisterns, forges, foundry, dungeons. Every day in the middle of the parade square several bulls had their throats cut so that their blood could be added to the mortar to make the fortress impregnable. On the side facing the sea and overlooking the dizzying panorama of the Plaine, the workers were already stuccoing the rooms of the Royal Palace, the women’s quarters, the dining and billiard-rooms. To wagon axles mortised into the walls were attached the suspension bridges over which brick and stone were carried to the topmost terraces, stretching between inner and outer abysses that filled the stomachs of the builders with vertigo. … Hundreds of men worked in the bowels of that vast edifice, always under the vigilance of whip and gun, accomplishing feats previously seen only in the imagined architecture of Piranesi. Hoisted by ropes up the face of the mountain, the first cannon were arriving and being mounted on cedar gun-carriages in shadowy vaulted rooms whose loopholes overlooked all the passes and approaches of the country. There stood the Scipio, the Hannibal, the Hamilcar, satin smooth, of a bronze that was almost gold in hue, together with those that had been cast after ’89, with the still unproved motto of Liberté, Egalité. There stood a Spanish cannon whose barrel bore the melancholy inscription Fiel pero desdichado; and several of larger bore and more ornate barrel, stamped with the seal of the Sun King insolently proclaiming his Ultima Ratio Regum.
— Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of this World, pp. 66-67 in my copy
To infuse a fortification (shield, cuirass, wall, gate, citadel, or other similar fortress) with the resolve and quintessence of a beast, sacrifice the beast using a ceremony of fabrication. The sacrifice must be proportional to the scale of the fortification. Prior to the completion of the ritual, the referee will indicate whether the scale of sacrifice is insufficient, uncertain, or sufficient. If the sacrifice is insufficient, and remains unbolstered, the ceremony is unsuccessful and the shaper must save to avoid curse or haunting. If the sacrifice is uncertain, the shaper must save to determine whether the sacrifice is sufficient, thus rendering the ceremony successful.
If the ceremony is successful, the character (both strengths and weaknesses) of the beast is shared by the fortification. The fortification will not fail when facing a challenge against which the beast would be strong.
If the infused fortification is subject to a supernatural challenge, there are two options. In the first option, the spirit of the beast defends against the threat in a spectacular fashion, but then departs the mortal world, leaving the fortification bereft and mundane, but standing and solid. In the second option, save versus the threat to see whether the spirit of the beast remains. On success, the spirit defends against the threat and remains. On failure, the spirit is overwhelmed, flees, the threat is unturned, and the fortification is greatly damaged, near collapse. A save is required to avoid curse or haunting. Player chooses which option to deploy.
Saves depend upon the active underlying system chassis. Something like a save versus magic would be a reasonable default.
A wolf tears an adventurer from horseback, leaving the adventurer at 1 HP. A mind flayer death-lord looms over an unconscious adventurer with brain drill raised high. Some decisions confront the referee. Have the next wolf attack the unhorsed? Crack open that skull?
Ruthless actions can sometimes feel like an arbitrary referee choice, even if demanded by best move game logic. Considering the integrity of the imagined world, objectives other than pure ruthlessness may make more sense. For example, in the wild predators often attempt to separate the weak from a herd, withdrawing from combat with a prize, rather than following the completion-oriented impulse of reducing all opponents to zero hit points. In the context of a game, however, avoiding scorched earth can sometimes read as a pulled punch.
Conversely, the strongest game move can sometimes feel like the referee (rather than the integrity of the game world) has personally decided to kill your character in particular, even if it really does make the most sense in the game world context, unless the referee makes decisions in the same way for all opponents. This is because, as a matter of psychology, given incomplete information people infer intent from behavior. Also suboptimal.
Ideally, there will be some ruthless opponents, some merciful opponents, some strategic opponents, and some inscrutable opponents. As a referee, it is all too easy to fall into patterns. You might find all your opponents acting like they are playing battle chess or that adventurers keep getting captured.
Below are several approaches to determine opponent ruthlessness impartially.
Generally speaking, my principle is to follow the thread of imagined necessity until some aspect becomes uncertain and then call for a roll. And that is the way I would see deploying any of these approaches, probably transparently and with the player rolling the dice.
Situation-Agnostic Behavior Table
Vindictive sadistic gleeful viciousness
Continues attacking the adventurer with intent to kill
Changes target, attempts to attack a different adventurer
Attempts to capture or restrain adventurer
Maintains hostility, but switches to display of aggression/intimidation
Objective met, cautious retreat (maybe something spooked the opponent?)
Make a reaction roll, using whatever system your base game chassis provides. Here are the classic outcome bands from B/X (page B24):
2 Immediate Attack
3-5 Hostile, possible attack
6-8 Uncertain, monster confused
9-11 No attack, monster leaves or considers offers
12 Enthusiastic friendship
You would need to reinterpret these dispositions relative to the question of whether the opponent fights with maximum intent to kill or not, but that should be an easy exercise for the reader, and has the advantage of reusing a system.
Call for the player of the threatened adventurer to make a charisma check. Failure means focused fire, attack to kill, whatever. Success within four points means continued attack but letting up or switching targets. Success by more than four points means the opponent has made a point and is looking for an out. Set the DC (if that is a thing in your ruleset) based on how mean the opponent is.
In addition to persuasiveness, charisma also represents force of personality, confidence, and so forth, attributes that may dissuade attackers both animal and intelligent. There were cougars in the hills where I grew up, and if you encountered a cougar the best approach was supposedly to stand still and make yourself as big as possible. I never had to test that, but I imagine that standing tall in the face of a wildcat would take some charisma.
I have been playing Octopath Traveler now and then recently on the Nintendo Switch. Octopath is a throwback to—or perhaps celebration of—JRPG style games with several particularities, one of which is a turn-based combat system built around attack type vulnerabilities and combatant initiative. Playing Octopath has prompted me to think about how to apply similar systems to tabletop roleplaying games without requiring overly complex mechanics. Below I first explain the Octopath combat system, in slightly simplified form, and then discuss how to apply a similar system to OSR (or what have you) style games.
Octopath Traveler Combat System
Along with basic combat stats such as hit points, each opponent has two attributes that drive the combat dynamics: a shield score and a list of attack type vulnerabilities. For example, Sand Lizardman 2 has a shield score of 2 and is vulnerable to swords, knives, ice, and dark. Hitting an opponent with an attack type belonging to the list of vulnerabilities temporarily decreases the shield score by one for each hit. If the shield score falls to zero, the opponent breaks, which drops the opponent from the upcoming initiative spot and decreases the opponent’s defense while broken. A broken opponent regains all shield points and acts at the next point in the initiative sequences, meaning the best possible outcome, from the perspective of the player, is to force all opponents to skip every other turn. In other words, breaking an opponent effectively stuns the opponent through the end of the next round. Generally, the most effective offense involves breaking as many opponents as possible, because doing so decreases the number of overall opponent attacks and increases the player’s overall damage output. As such, doing a smaller amount of damage using a damage type corresponding to a vulnerability can be just as important as doing a larger amount of damage, especially if the hit is timed well.
The combat system is asymmetric between player characters and opponents. That is, player characters have no damage type weaknesses and never break, though opponents can, using special abilities, inflict a variety of status conditions—poison, silence, blindness, sleeping, and so forth—on player characters. Some conditions can limit player character action possibilities or temporarily prevent a player character from acting entirely, in ways that will likely be familiar to players of other JRPGs. For example, silence prevents casting spells, blindness decreases weapon attack accuracy, and so forth.
This setup is simple, but leads to surprisingly engaging gameplay and tactics. First, the system dashboard presents the upcoming initiative order, so the player can always see which opponents represent the most immediate threats and concentrate fire correspondingly. Second, the number of vulnerabilities per opponent is always apparent, but the particular vulnerabilities are only revealed (by opponent type) after being exploited, or revealed by using a skill (such as the scholar skill analyze). Third, maintaining party capacity to deploy a wide variety of damage types, and timing attacks well, greatly increases combat effectiveness. Missing the capability to deal one or more damage types risks confrontation with enemies that that will be unbreakable. The full list of damage types is swords, polearms, daggers, axes, bows, staves (the weapons) and fire, ice, lightning, dark, light, wind (magic, accessible via skills mostly).
Each of the eight characters starts with one of eight classes: cleric, scholar, merchant, warrior, dancer, apothecary, thief, or hunter based on particular character story background. For example, Cyrus is the only character that begins with the scholar class. Each class provides access to a particular type of damage through weapon proficiencies and skills that the player can unlock by earning and spending job points (a secondary form of experience points). For example, the hunter class can use swords and axes while the thief class can use swords and knives; further, the thief has access to basic fire magic early on through skills. The player can gain access to secondary classes through jobs discovered at various shrines hidden throughout the game world. At any given time, the active party can have at most four members, so the player can configure access to damage types by choosing the active party character roster and by assigning secondary classes to characters after discovering various jobs.
As a concrete example, at this particular moment my active party is Therion (thief), Cyrus (scholar), Ophelia (cleric), and H’aanit (hunter) with secondary classes assigned to Cyrus (as thief) and Ophelia (as hunter). This allows my party to deal the following kinds of damage, by member:
Here I have plentiful access to damage from swords, knives, staves, axes, bows, and most magic. This party lacks the capability to easily deal dark, wind, or polearm type damage. (I have ignored the boost system intentionally for the purposes of this post, though using boosts is quite important to tactics in Octopath due to how applying boosts allows the player to increase the number of hits for a particular damage type.) The following short video shows how this works for the video game in practice:
Below I suggest a number of slight system modifications for implementing a similar system for OSRoWHY games. After deciding upon the basic structure of rules to apply, most content details could probably be handled easily enough by rulings.
I would first assign each character and monster type a speed score to determine place in the initiative order. For player characters, this could either be by class, by dexterity, or by some combination of class and dexterity. For a game where ability scores are less influential overall—such as OD&D—I would probably start with class (magic-user ⇒ 1, cleric ⇒ 2, fighter ⇒ 3, thief ⇒ 4) and provide +1 for exceptional dexterity and maybe +1 for weapons that seem agile. For a game where ability scores are more influential overall—such as B/X, AD&D, or 5E—I would start with dexterity (12 or less ⇒ 1, 13-15 ⇒ 2, 16-17 ⇒ 3, 18 ⇒ 4) and provide a +1 for class competency (perhaps +1 for fighter-types and +2 for rogue-types). In this and all following examples, combatants with higher speed scores act earlier. Keeping the scale of speed scores around 6 will decrease the difficulty of manual handling. The referee could determine opponent speed by ruling, assuming an average of 3 or 4 and adding or subtracting a point or two based on whether the opponent seems like it should be quick (pixie ⇒ 6) or slow (ogre ⇒ 2). For a more predetermined approach, or for people who appreciate some degree of textual deference, the movement stat is available (1974 OD&D Monsters & Treasure, p. 4, Move in Inches; 6 ⇒ 1, 9 ⇒ 2, 12 ⇒ 3, 18 ⇒ 4, 24⇒ 5, 25+ ⇒ 6).
I can see several potential ways to accomplish the practical tracking of initiative order, including index cards with speed values or a simple sequential game board of 12 spaces—six spaces for the current round, six spaces for the following round—with tokens for each player character and type of opponent, numbered according to the current and following rounds—something like 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 1.6, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.5, 2.6. Using a game board in this way would more or less replicate the way Octopath presents the initiative order. The referee could also just perform a countdown from 6 for each round—perhaps a countdown would be easier if playing by video conference—but would need some way to keep track of opponents that have been broken. My guess is that index cards would work best overall, but it would require some play testing.
HD seems like a reasonable stat from which to derive something like a shield score. My first pass might be HD / 2 (round up). The division is simple enough to do mentally—HD 5/6 ⇒ shield score 3, for example—and ensures that enemies are likely to break before being defeated, all else equal. In a more involved system, such as AD&D or 5E, the HD or challenge rating might work as the shield score verbatim. Another approach that appeals to me given OD&D assumptions: encounter table dungeon level ⇒ shield score; this would maintain a rough connection between monster strength and shield score but also naturally scale up weaker monsters on lower dungeon levels without otherwise engaging in numerical inflation.
Finally, and perhaps most substantially, the referee would need to determine the types of damage and corresponding opponent vulnerability lists. There would be worse places to start than the 5E SRD damage types; I could also imagine many quirky taxonomies based on close readings of whatever your favorite game text is. Particular vulnerabilities could be intuited by ruling easily enough. Does an opponent seem to have some form of elemental affinity? Cold-related monsters are obviously vulnerable to fire. For some reason, slimes and oozes seem to me like they should be vulnerable to lightning. Skeletal or chitinous monsters seem naturally vulnerable bludgeoning. In OD&D, giant type monsters roughly correspond to the fair folk, so a vulnerability to iron could be mythologically appropriate. What about all of the weapon types? The vulnerability list could be a way to effectively smuggle in a weapon versus armor table, and would make weapon choice most relevant when confronting man-type opponents (to use the OD&D terminology). I imagine polearms or spears being particularly effective agains larger monsters and missile weapons particularly effective against flyers.
A ruling-based approach like this would probably be enough to get the system off the ground, and the referee could build up lists of vulnerabilities through play rather than trying to frontload it by taking a spreadsheet approach. Additionally, think about how you describe details of opponents to players and how your description can gesture toward vulnerabilities; this is a way to expose game surfaces to players through the diegesis or fiction rather than being excessively or indecently mechanical. You could let the players build up a deck of monster index cards representing what the player characters have learned through play, which then would do double duty as initiative tracking prosthetics.
Such a system could easily plug into various other subsystems. For one example, morale: trigger a morale check if 50% or more of opponents are ever broken, defeated, or captured at any given time.
James of Mythic Fantasy takes aim at the doctrine of combat as fail state. I agree with the sentiment, especially contra the strong position that getting into combat always indicates poor playing. That said, combat can be tedious and boring, particularly if repetitious or lacking distinct circumstances.
This is engaging combat:
The D&D equivalent: showdown against 30-300 bandits with a fog spell and some tactics.
(I imagine someone may object that Ged’s spell is more powerful than fog cloud. Well, of course. Ged is the the future archmage of all Earthsea. You go to war with the army you have.)
(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.↩
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.
Resolve uncertain actions using the test procedure (1d20 +modifier), interpreting the result as follows:
Hindrance & Catastrophe
Progress & Hindrance
Progress & Triumph
Tests replace attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws
If the unmodified result is 1 or 19+, ignore the modifier
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
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.
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.
For me, the ideal hit point or vitality system for tabletop roleplaying games involves the constant threat of engaging consequences while also mitigating the disastrous influence of luck. Using OD&D and sticking to the three little brown booklets comes close to this ideal when run in a certain manner, but still perhaps gives luck too much influence at first level and creates too much of a hit point buffer at mid to high level. Put another way, I want a system that encourages players to always care about combat consequences but rarely if ever shanks without warning. And, of course, the system must be fluent, easy to use, plugged in to the core flow of play, and require minimal bookkeeping.
Playing Kingdom Death gave me some ideas regarding ways to build a combat system that better prioritizes these goals, and that influence should be clear in the following sketch. As written, it may be too invasive to just trivially drop into a game using a B/X type engine, especially given that it requires replacing traditional armor class with ablative armor, but I think it would be possible.
Before anyone gets all up in my business about the dynamics of real armor or wounds, I want to emphasize that realism is a relatively low priority apart from maintaining predictable fictional consequences, necessary for allowing creative problem solving. Instead, the point is to create rules that facilitate choices and consequences while reinforcing the overall feel of the kind of survival fantasy that is my preferred mode for tabletop roleplaying games. This system assumes the turn structure of the Hazard System.
Section of the Hexagram character record sheet relevant to armor and mettle
Rather than hit points, player characters have mettle, which can be both bound to hit locations (all player characters have this kind of mettle) or floating (for tougher characters, those with high constitution). Instead of taking damage, player characters mark mettle boxes. The hit locations are head, body, abdomen, arms, and legs. Each location has two points of mettle except the head, which has one point. Additionally, player characters have a number of floating mettle points equal to the constitution modifier. These points can absorb damage to any hit location.
Currently, Hexagram uses active defending—blocking or dodging—sort of like this, rather than resolving monster attack rolls versus player character armor class. The details of the monster attack step are less central to the mettle and trauma system, and any method to decide if an opponent hits a player character in combat should slot in fine here. Even just leveraging the saving throw system seems like it would be a totally functional system for determining whether a character risks taking some damage, bringing armor, mettle, and so forth into play.
Player characters can equip pieces of armor to any hit location. Armor is ablative, meaning that it reduces incoming damage. The protection offered by a piece of armor maps roughly to the traditional light, medium, heavy (or leather, chain, plate) scale with light armor offering 1 point of protection, medium offering 2 points, and heavy offering 3. Since player characters have five hit location slots, they can mix and match, for example by wearing a heavy visored helmet but a light, boiled leather breastplate. Equipped armor still takes a gear slot, so piling on protection comes at the cost of lower versatility. Additionally, player characters act at a disadvantage when wearing armor with protection higher than the strength bonus.
When a player character takes damage, determine hit location randomly, subtract armor protection from damage taken (minimum zero), and then mark off one mettle slot for each point of damage remaining. I assume that the magnitude of damage is generally around 1d6 (following OD&D flat damage). If at any point a player character takes damage and has no remaining relevant mettle, then the character is in danger and must roll for peril. This is the step that can potentially lead to serious consequences, including character death.
Hit location (1d6): 1 head, 2 legs, 3 arms, 4 abdomen, 5-6 body
Fractures disable the affected hit location. For example, a character with a fractured arm can no longer effectively wield a weapon using that arm. Healing fractures requires magic or taking a haven turn to recover (which would require retreating from a dungeon to town). Sprains work similarly but player characters can recover from a sprain by resting for a single dungeon turn (so, in effect, sprains only influence the current combat).
Other than being messy, gaining the first bleeding condition has no direct result. However, getting the bleeding result again, even to another hit location, means the character bleeds out and dies.
Injuries are tricky to handle well in tabletop RPGs. On the one hand, they can make characters much less fun to play even for players on board with working out the implications of player character hardship. On the other hand, a fictional consequence is almost always more engaging than simple HP attrition through both adding narrative color—fan of blood—and changing the context as appropriate—a tiled floor slippery with blood. Further, while permanently changing settings and characters through play is satisfying, ruining characters is generally not. You can’t lose an arm in Dark Souls, and if you did I imagine the common response would be to restart the game. That would be a hardcore lose condition. For this reason, the peril table includes immediate fictional consequences beyond something like HP loss, such as heavy bleeding or broken bones, but defers the possibility of permanent disfigurement, the control of which falls to players through the grit system, described below.
Bleeding and fractures count as trauma, and surviving trauma strengthens tough characters. Player characters that survive a trauma can mark a grit box during recovery in a haven. Characters have a number of grit boxes equal to the constitution modifier. When a player marks a grit box, they should note how the trauma has permanently marked the character. This could be a scar or something else, and is entirely up to the player, but should be fictionally appropriate to the particular trauma (this would be a good place to insert fantasy prosthetics if such are setting-appropriate, such as necromantic grafts or enchanted wooden limbs). In effect, grit slots are like unlockable extra mettle slots.
False Machine has some creative ideas for scars here.
This system feels mechanically quite perilous. A mettle slot is roughly equivalent to one hit point, meaning that on average marking 1d6 mettle slots (expected value: 3.5) results in peril for all hit locations lacking armor. However, five-sixths (83%) of peril results are non-fatal initially. Strictly speaking, a one-shot kill is still possible, but is statistically much less common than the OD&D case of 1d6 damage versus 1d6 HP, and could easily be entirely eliminated if desired (such as by changing the messy death result to unconscious and dying, with final death occurring at the end of combat lacking miraculous intervention). Also, the odds improve dramatically with some armor while still maintaining the threat of real consequences.
In terms of complexity creep, this system requires an extra roll to determine hit location if an opponent hit is successful. So, there is a small increase in complexity, but the overhead seems minimal, which I have confirmed in preliminary play testing. The peril step replaces what I would otherwise run as a saving throw versus death, and that is an uncommon occurrence. Tracking the mettle and hit location slots does require a little help from the character sheet, but that seems manageable (see the character record sheet excerpt above).
The combat system for my Stonehell Dark Souls game has drifted steadily away from traditional monster attack rolls toward monological combat (in short, players always roll, similar to Apocalypse World and Numenera).
Brief recap. In the initial December formulation, players chose between blocking or dodging (resolved using ability checks but also risking running out of stamina) or having the ref make a traditional monster attack roll versus character armor class. The trade-off was between relying entirely on ability scores or pitting character armor class against a monster’s potentially high attack bonus.
Making rules stick. In the past, I have sometimes had trouble getting combat house rules to stick because it is so easy to fall back on a familiar procedure, even when new rules result in more engaging outcomes and are advantageous to players. However, from the start of experimenting with the Dark Souls inspired active defense options, and across several groups of players with varying levels of tabletop roleplaying game experience, the active defenses seemed to remain top of mind. During the most recent session, players only ever defended actively, never letting the monsters make attack rolls, even with the risk of running out of stamina, which is punishing. I draw several lessons from this experience.
Choice prompts. First, the explicit choice prompt is an effective and low-maintenance way of communicating formal rules without needing non-referee players to read any rules (“zero homework” requirement). This is huge. Making such prompts habitual . This does place some constraints on potential rules, since the procedure must be fluent enough to survive being deployed all the time. That opposes complexity bloat which is positive more often than not.
Active options. Second, active options, assuming equal player effort requirements, have an advantage over passive options (such as submitting to a monster attack roll). Risking overgeneralization, I suspect this is universally true because players prefer a sense of control keeping all other factors constant.
Proposal. What follows is the procedure I am now considering, with parts that have not been play-tested in bold. Previously, armor class was a traditional passive defense score, but the approach below requires damage-reducing armor.
Resolve Monster Actions
Determine actions for each monster.
Match groups of monsters with defenders.
When monsters attack, to the defending player ask:
“Do you fight off the attack, dodge, block with a shield, or react in some other way?”
Resolve as specified below or by using the most relevant ability check.
Fight off.To defend using a melee weapon, roll the weapon’s damage and add the result to armor rating this turn, then suffer monster damage. In effect, this defends by comparing damage potential between player character and monster.
Shield block. To defend using a shield, make STR check (success → suffer no damage, failure → suffer ½ damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).
Dodge. To avoid monster attacks, make DEX check (success → suffer no damage, failure → suffer monster damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).
Add the damage from all monsters threatening a player character together, subtract armor rating from the total, and then suffer this amount of damage.
The fighting off procedure uses one roll per adventurer no matter the number of monsters. This means that the fight off option is more easily overwhelmed by multiple monsters, since the player character damage roll opposes multiple monster damage rolls added together.
Not needing to make tons of attack rolls for a host of enemies is a nice added bonus.
To simplify presentation for this post, I left out one small step, where player characters can intercede to block for an ally assuming the positioning makes sense fictionally. This can happen during the matching of monsters with defenders (step 2).
Blocking and dodging are an iconic part of Dark Souls combat. While I do not want to model Dark Souls combat entirely, I do want to inject some of that feeling while maintaining the randomness necessary for engaging B/X combat and also not changing the core combat engine or making it significantly more complicated.
The Shield Block and Dodge reactions replace the monster attack roll and so must be declared prior to throwing the monster attack roll dice. When a monster attacks, the referee should say to the adventurer player (paraphrasing): the monster is attacking you, do you want to block or dodge? and then proceed with the appropriate procedure.
The approach outlined below in essence allows the player to use strength or dexterity as their defense stat, instead of armor class. This also eliminates the effect of the monster attack bonus, and so will often, especially for particularly fearsome monsters, be probabilistically advantageous. The downside is that blocking or dodging risks running out of stamina, represented by a constitution check. This trades chance of near future danger for immediate benefit.
Characters that are out of stamina are sluggish and do not fight as effectively. They may not block or dodge and make all physical rolls, including attack rolls and ability checks, with disadvantage.
Blocking is more effective (even when the strength check result is failure the adventurer suffers less damage) while dodging consumes an adventurer’s per-turn movement allowance.
Some attacks are difficult to block (strength check success → half damage, strength check failure → full damage) or impossible to block (suffer full damage no matter what). Players must discover which attacks are able to be blocked through play. In general, this should follow common sense; don’t try to block a giant’s club.
Reaction: Shield Block
To block an enemy’s attack, make a strength check. On success, suffer no damage. On failure, suffer half damage (round up).
Also make a constitution check to avoid running out of stamina.
Make STR check (failure → ½ damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).
To avoid an enemy’s attack, make a dexterity check. One dodge can avoid multiple enemy attacks if fictionally reasonable.
Also make a constitution check to avoid running out of stamina.
An adventurer may not move after dodging on a turn during which the adventurer dodged.
Make DEX check and CON check (failure → out of stamina). Avoids multiple attacks.
Action: Recover Stamina
To recover stamina, spend a combat action.
Spend combat action.
(2016-12-08 Edit: recovering stamina used to require a successful CON check but I think that may be too harsh.)