Tag Archives: Hexagram

Brewing Potions

The Love Potion (from Wikipedia)

Magic-users (and, to a limited extent, clerics) can brew potions. The same game systems also apply to creating poison (for thieves) and incendiaries (for fighters). These items have no special use requirements, though some classes are better at creating them than others. For example, anyone can imbibe a potion of gaseous form brewed by a magic-user or coat a weapon with poison created by a thief.

To brew a potion, a recipe is required. Every recipe specifies one or more special components that are required, in addition to mundane ingredients and procedures. There may be more than one recipe for the same potion (each making use of different special components). Recipes can be discovered in play much like scrolls or purchased from specialists such as apothecaries (who tend not to share the secrets of their livelihood) or sages (who often charge ungodly prices).

Potion recipes have a level, just like spells. In order to brew a potion from the recipe, the character in question must be able to cast spells of the equivalent level. Potion components cost 500 GP and one week per level (so a second level potion would cost 1000 GP of ingredients and require two weeks of work). Like magic research, brewing potions may be done during downtime punctuated by adventuring, as long as too much time (by referee ruling) does not pass. Characters do not need to spend money separately to establish a laboratory. It is assumed that as items are created, the character naturally accumulates the paraphernalia required, and this is abstracted into the cost of ingredients.

Fighters and thieves should use the magic-user spell progression to determine if a given character is skilled and knowledgeable enough to create a particular item. Costs are identical (500 GP for level 1 poison, etc). The only significant difference is that each “brew” of poison results in 1d6 doses (unless otherwise specified in the recipe). Different poisons may also have different application methods (also by recipe), so one poison may be contact, one poison may be injected (i.e., for coating a weapon), another poison may end up being a beaker full of gas that may be hurled like a grenade. Mutatis mutandis for fighters. In addition to incendiaries, fighters can create (or oversee the creation of) siege engines and siege works. Schematics for these work exactly as other recipes, and are rated similarly by level.

Note that though the ability to brew potions is available to characters of any level (given appropriate class), the costs involved (along with the fact that spending GP results in XP) means that characters that craft several items (be they scrolls, potions, or something else) will naturally end up becoming higher level, with no other constraints required.

Optional rule: cross-class brewing. One kind of class may create the type of recipe items appropriate to another class (assuming a recipe and special components are available), but the the costs are doubled due to unfamiliarity and the crafting is only successful on a d20 roll less than or equal to the intelligence score. Upon failure, the components are not wasted, but another week must be spent (and another check made) until either the brewing is successful or the task is abandoned. In any case, the spent GP results in XP (learning from failure!).

I’m thinking that maybe each class should begin with one basic first level recipe (love potion, healing potion, minor firebomb, and minor poison, perhaps).

(In Hexagram, provisionally, the ability to brew potions comes with the alchemy trait, the ability to brew poison comes from the assassination trait, and the ability to craft incendiaries or do siege-work comes with the ranged combat and melee combat traits, respectively.)

Ghost traps

Sapphire image from Wikipedia

Ghost traps are items (most commonly gems) that have been enchanted to serve as prisons for spirits and incorporeal undead. Clerics of any level may create ghost traps with hit dice capacity no greater than their level. Ghost traps may contain no more than one spirit, even if the trapped spirit has hit dice less than the capacity of the trap. When occupied, a miniature version of the spirit can be seen leering within the gem, seemingly contorted and tormented.

To create a ghost trap, a cleric must have a gem of value equal to the desired hit dice capacity multiplied by 100 GP. For example, a 3 HD ghost trap requires a 300 GP gem. In addition, hit dice capacity * 100 GP must be spent on ritual components, and the whole process takes 1 week. There are some situations described below where a ghost trap is destroyed. In these cases, the gem crumbles to ash.

To use a ghost-trap, it must be strongly presented within 10′ of the spirit (this is a standard combat action). If the spirit fails its saving throw versus magic, it is imprisoned in the gem. A trap may also be thrown, but if the spirit makes its saving throw, there is a 1 in 6 chance that the gem will be destroyed when it hits the ground. Turned spirits do not get a saving throw and may be automatically imprisoned. All classes may use ghost traps, though clerics may set them as traps that will trigger when spirits draw near. An attempt to trap a spirit more powerful than the capacity of a given trap will automatically fail, and there is a 1 in 6 chance that the trap will be destroyed.

Trapped spirits may be released at any time, though they will generally be quite unhappy about having been imprisoned (-2 reaction). Releasing a spirit has a 1 in 6 chance of destroying the trap (otherwise it may be used again). Trapped spirits may speak telepathically with anyone touching the gem directly, will generally beseech any holder for freedom, and may promise all sorts of rewards (probably all lies). This contact is one-way, however, and it is impossible to communicate with a trapped spirit without using magic (see the magic-user ritual below).

Though only clerics can create ghost traps, many magic-users prize occupied ghost traps, as they believe that they are valuable currency in the land of the dead, and can also be used in arcane researches. Magic-users can also conduct rituals to communicate with trapped spirits. This requires 1d6 * 100 GP worth of components, and requires a saving throw versus spells. On a saving throw roll of 1, the spirit is released (or some other suitable magical mishap occurs). If the magic-user succeeds on the saving throw, the spirit will answer 1d6 yes/no questions to the best of its ability, and will be unable to lie.

(Though I know about Skyrim soul gems, the inspiration here is more Ghostbusters.)

(In Hexagram, the ability to create ghost traps comes with the banishment trait.)

Hexagram Treasure Overview

Excalibur the Sword (source)

There are two major categories of treasure: mundane and wondrous. Mundane treasure includes money, valuables, simple machines, NPC favors, and other such things. The most important quality of mundane treasure is that it is not connected to character traits in any meaningful way. There are no prerequisites for use. A sack of money can be used by a squire just as easily as by a powerful sorcerer.

Wondrous treasure is not necessarily more potent than mundane treasure (though it often is). The defining quality of wondrous treasure is that use is dependent upon character traits. Some traits may also be primarily concerned with using (or even creating) wondrous items. All wondrous items have a rating, from 1 to 6, which relates to a specific character trait. There are traits on every path which relate to different kinds of wondrous items.

Exactly how wondrous items interact with character traits varies by item. Some require a minimum level of a certain trait in order to function at all. For example, a certain magic sword may be inert (that is, function as a mundane sword) for warriors with less skill than 3 in melee combat. Other items may require a successful trait check (less than or equal to the trait value when rolling a d6) before the item can be used, or even per use. For example, an antediluvian gauntlet may allow reaching into stone as if it were water, but only with a successful antediluvia trait check.
The wondrous items related to the path of battle are magic weapons, which are governed by either the melee combat trait or the ranged combat trait (depending on whether the item in question is a melee weapon or a ranged weapon). The wondrous items related to the path of guile are antediluvia (artifacts left over from before the deluge). The wondrous items related to the path of wonder are spell formulae, potions or potion recipes, magic devices, and scrolls. Though anyone can use a potion, it can also be reverse engineered. Thus, potions straddle the line between mundane and wondrous treasure.
As wondrous items are keyed to specific traits, not paths, characters with points in the necessary off-path traits can potentially make use of any kind of wondrous item. For example, a sorcerer with melee combat 3 can make use of a potency 3 sword just as well as a character on the path of battle (though it would have been more costly in terms of experience for the character on the path of wonder to develop that martial skill). The most complex antediluvia might only be usable by a character on the path of guile (based on the cap for off-path traits), but other less complex items are usable by any character with the appropriate trait.
One method for placing wondrous items: roll d6 to determine if there is a wondrous item; on a 6 there is. Then, roll another 2d6 and take the lowest number to determine the potency or complexity. Finally, roll on the following table to determine the wondrous item type.
  1. Potion
  2. Antediluvian item
  3. Weapon of power
  4. Scroll
  5. Magic item
  6. Spell formula
All wondrous items should be unique to a given campaign. Though not all wondrous items need have drawbacks, they should all have quirks and idiosyncrasies. Some wondrous items may have no direct adventuring use, only being able to generate strange seemingly useless effects. Few wondrous items are both of unlimited use and without potential drawbacks.

I am building a system for generating campaign-specific wondrous items as part of the referee scenario design process.

Sorcerer Patrol

Being a sample Hexagram campaign (consisting of rewards and backgrounds).

Talisman of Saturn

There are three types of people in the world: naturals, trained magic-users, and everyone else (the bulk of humanity). Most people just don’t have the talent, instruction, or mental fortitude to dip their hands into chaos, the raw substance of creation and potentiality, and make their will manifest. A small portion, however, with study into ancient mysteries, can learn to work magic. An even smaller portion shape reality whether they want to or not. These are the naturals. They can be some of the most potent wonder workers, if they don’t go mad or destroy themselves and those nearby.

In their worst form, naturals are raw chaotic wounds on the flesh of civilization. They are dangerous, and need to either be trained or destroyed. That’s where the player characters come in, as agents seeking out these wild wonder workers. The catch? Most of the time, those best equipped to destroy or train sorcerers are themselves magic workers. However, after the great disaster, sorcery is forbidden and great college disbanded. However, small cells of the academy continue to operate behind the scenes. Think wizardly X-Men.

Short digression on mechanics for experience. I’m playing around with another variant experience system, which I will use in this post. Rather than 1000 XP required per level, 6 XP are needed. This scale is influenced by more recent games like Vampire and Apocalypse World, and “6 XP per level” obviously fits Hexagram stylistically, and allows me to present XP similarly to any trait.

However, stylish elegance is not enough; the system needs to work structurally as well. The major thing that I like about the more granular D&D method (with thousands of XP required per level) is that XP can be awarded impartially (by treasure value or monster hit dice) and small XP rewards can still provide a sense of progress even if major objectives are not accomplished. So, is that possible with a more compressed XP scale? I think it probably is, assuming that rewards remain objective and are awarded communally (XP acquired per session is totalled and then divided among surviving PCs).

It should be easy enough to translate back to the 1000 XP per level system that was outlined previously. Multiplying all rewards by 100 would work, though it would result it slightly slower progression. The previous treasure hunter reward paradigm can also be done using this system: spend 166 (round up to 200) GP to gain 1 experience point.

Let’s look again at this particular campaign idea to see how rewards might function.


  • Neutralize a wicked sorcerer: 5 XP per sorcerer level
  • Recruit a sorcerer: 10 XP per sorcerer level
  • Recover of an item of power: 1 XP per item level
  • Destroy dangerous item causing chaos pollution: 1 XP per item level
  • Discover the seclusium of renegade sorcerer: 1 XP per sorcerer level
  • Destroy a beast of chaos: 1 XP per hit die
This list of rewards is rough, incomplete, and probably needs some numerical adjustment; I just want to get the basic ideas down. More suggestions for reward-worthy “sorcerer patrol” tasks are welcome.

(Item levels range from, you guessed it, 1 to 6, and will be covered in a future post.)

  1. A natural, you were trained by an academy cell and feel indebted.
  2. You began as a “special skills” operator for an academy cell. You slowly pieced together the nature of your employer and were forced to make a choice: be disappeared, or join fully. Do you welcome this new role, or rue the day you came across the wizard hunters?
  3. Though not a powerful sorcerer yourself (you may know a spell or two), you are fascinated beyond measure by all things arcane. What led to this obsession?
  4. An ex-soldier, you began as a mercenary employed by a cell and worked your way up to full membership. Why are you interested in this line of work as opposed to other mercenary jobs?
  5. Someone you care about needs an infusion of sorcerer blood to remain stable or healthy. Are they sick in some way, or perhaps a natural themselves?
  6. You craft items of power from the bones of sorcerers. How did you develop this skill?
  7. Just being around sorcerers is a high for you, never mind when they actually cast spells. You crave that experience over all others.
  8. Wizard suprematist. For now you work within the contraints of the academy, but one day you will write your own laws. What experience in your past shaped your confidence that the wielders of magic are destined for mastery?
  9. Sorcerophage. That’s right, you eat sorcerers; you like finding the wicked ones best, because few object to killing them. Why? Is it a religious thing? Do you get power from it? Do your superiors know?
  10. You believe that naturals corrupt the flow of magic power for everyone else and are a danger to trained wizards. They must be controlled or destroyed for the safety of all practitioners and mundanes. What formative experience cemented this point of view?

Hexagram Ability Scores

Image from Wikipedia

Following my recent general discussion about ability scores and their role in tabletop RPGs, here are the actual Hexagram rules. Let me know if I have left out anything important that you think belongs in a section about ability scores.

Ability scores help define characters by quantifying strengths and weaknesses. They affect the game directly in two ways. Each ability score provides a small bonus or penalty. For example, an exceptional dexterity (greater than 12) grants a bonus of +1 to missile weapon attacks (or -1 for a score below 8). Additionally, the referee may call for ability checks to resolve some situations. To succeed at an ability check, you must roll less than or equal to the score in question on a d20.

Ability checks may be used to impartially resolve outcomes that are not covered by other, more specific rules. Ability checks are also used to determine how long something takes under trying conditions even if it is assumed that the action will be ultimately successful. In rare cases, bonuses or penalties may be levied on the check due to situation. Because of the large variance of the d20 roll, treating abilities as five points lower or higher when adjusting difficulty is suggested, but the unmodified score should be applicable for most situations where an ability check is useful.

Character path need not be determined by ability scores. For example, it may seem like a character with an average or low dexterity is unsuited for the path of guile. However, a character that focuses on using antediluvian technology may be better served by a high intelligence! A warrior who aspires to lead soldiers rather than stand on the front line with sword and shield may be better served by a high charisma!

Further, ability scores do not have enough mechanical weight within the Hexagram system to determine success. They should more correctly be looked upon as a tool to tell you something about your character as an individual, with minor system effects to keep the abilities salient without being overwhelming. Your wits and creativity as a player are far more important than your character’s ability scores. Feel free to try counterintuitive ability score / path combinations; such may lead to idiosyncratic and memorable characters.

Ability Scores
Ability Modifies
Strength melee weapon damage
Dexterity ranged attacks
Constitution hit points per hit die
Intelligence using antediluvian technology
Wisdom saving throw versus magic
Charisma social reaction

All modifiers are a penalty of 1 if the score is less than 8 or a bonus of 1 if the score is more than 12.

Strength is physical power. It allows you to hit harder and so modifies melee damage rolls. Potential strength checks include:

  • Shifting a heavy statue
  • Forcing your way out of a grab
  • Winning a tug-of-war 

Dexterity is agility, quickness, and reflexes. It helps with aim and so modifies ranged attacks. Potential dexterity checks include:

  • Catching a falling vase
  • Remaining standing on ice
  • Slipping out of a grab or restraint

Constitution is endurance, stamina, and toughness. It modifies hit points per hit die. Potential constitution checks include:

  • Resisting the effects of a toxic swamp
  • Holding breath
  • Recovering from an affliction

Intelligence is reason, cognition, and analytical skill. A strong intellect helps with manipulating ancient technology. Potential intelligence checks include:

  • Recognizing an ancient script
  • Identifying the basic purpose of an antediluvian machine
  • Repairing a simple mundane machine

Wisdom is intuition, willpower, and magical acuity, and thus modifies the magic saving throw. Possible wisdom checks include:

  • Throwing off a minor curse
  • Engaging in psychic combat given a psychic link
  • Noting the presence of hedge magic

Charisma is leadership and force of personality. A high charisma inspires devotion and trust, and thus modifies the social reaction roll. Possible charisma checks include:

  • Having a lie believed
  • Staring down a thug
  • Calming a panicked prisoner


Time-based tasks may require more than one successful ability check to complete. For example, pushing a heavy box through a door while under attack by enemy archers. The longer it takes, the more shots the archers will be able to get off. Some such tasks may allow multiple characters to contribute, at the cost of being unable to take other actions at the same time (such as return fire).

Ability checks may be opposed. For example, to resolve arm-wrestling, two characters might each make a strength check and compare the degree of success (that is, the number by which the check was made or failed by). Best of three is recommended to resolve such head-to-head conflicts.

It’s not always necessary, however, to determine everything by checks, especially if nothing interesting is at stake. The above arm-wrestling example could just as easily be resolved by comparing strength scores directly.


Ability checks are never used to resolve a potentially fatal situation. Instead, saving throws are used in such cases. It is important to use saving throws because they improve with level and thus reward extensive play. Several of the example ability checks above may seem like they are resolving life or death situations (like the holding of breath), but what they are really doing is postponing the necessity of a saving throw. Ability checks will often buy time, one of the most valuable resources to adventurers.


Ability checks are never used for gathering situational information. All obvious features are communicated directly by the referee. Locating hidden features, however, requires further explicit character action. For example, if there is a room with a map concealed beneath a rug, the referee will only describe the rug. If characters do not look under the rug, they will not find the map. Players may also opt to perform an abstract search, at the cost of spending time (this often has potentially deleterious consequences, such as encountering enemy patrols, and so is wise to avoid when possible). See “searching” in the adventuring procedures section, and note that characters on the path of guile gain bonuses to such abstract searching (though time must still be spent).


Image from Wikipedia

For Hexagram, after some consideration, I have decided to preserve the classic six ability scores, with normally distributed (that is, 3d6) ranges, though with decreased direct mechanical weight. The classic scores are easy to understand, provide enough dimensions to make characters seem unique, aid in developing a character’s personality, and provide a convenient resolution mechanic (the roll-under ability check) for many supplementary tasks.

Intelligence and wisdom can sometimes feel like they cover the same space, though. In the first version of the game, intelligence and wisdom were prime requisites (for magic-users and clerics, respectively) and gave a small bonus to earned experience for those classes. The only other effects were bonus languages from intelligence, and some loose roleplaying guidance. Thus, the only thing we can really say about these ability scores at this point is that intelligence has more to do with book learning and wisdom with spiritual connection (to deities, or perhaps the cosmos at large).

Moldvay (and, obviously, AD&D) started to attach more mechanical consequences to ability scores, and this expanded (or perhaps more thoroughly pinned down) their meanings. I’m not really interested in the complexity of AD&D ability scores (especially with the beginning of optimization tendencies associated with racial bonuses, exceptional strength, maximum spell level, minimums required for classes, and all that), so I’m going to stick with Moldvay for discussion purposes. Intelligence and wisdom maintain their experience bonus function as prime requisites, but wisdom also affects saving throws against magic (following the now mostly standardized +1, +2, +3 bonus progression). This already starts to create some extra confusion though. If intelligence is the thing used by magic-users, why is the save versus spells affected by wisdom?

For Hexagram, intelligence is intellect and rationality, while wisdom represents intuition, willpower, and magical acuity. As both spiritual and sorcerous archetypes walk down the path of wonder, wisdom is probably the ability score most associated with wonder workers, and gives a small bonus to saving throws versus magic. Intelligence helps with utilizing antediluvian machines (and more mundane devices, too).

The mental ability scores are further complicated by the player/character split. All tabletop RPGs that I can think of involve some puzzles that the player must solve independently of character abilities. There may be some aspects of the game that you can use mental ability scores on digetically (for example, an intelligence check to recognize the origin of an ancient inscription). This varies by edition and specific gaming group, but even Fourth Edition requires the player to reason about, for example, tactical positioning, which is almost certainly something that an 18 intelligence PC would be better at than the player. This is not a problem; if these things are games, there must be some way for the player to play them.

Further, one or the other scores often do double duty as a perception or situational awareness ability in games that don’t have a separate perception skill. It looks like Fifth Edition is going in this direction. I don’t believe this serves the game well, and in Hexagram ability checks are never used for gathering situational information. All obvious features are communicated directly by the referee. Locating hidden features, however, requires further explicit character action. I call this THE PERCEPTION RULE.

For example, if there is a room with a map concealed beneath a rug, the referee will only describe the rug. If characters do not look under the rug, they will not find the map. Players may also opt to perform an abstract search, at the cost of spending time (this often has potentially deleterious consequences, such as encountering enemy patrols, and so is wise to avoid when possible).

One common modification to the traditional ability score spread and paradigm is to collapse similar ability scores together. For example, to have a single body score in place of strength and constitution, or a single mind score in place of intelligence and wisdom. Microlite goes this route, as does X-plorers and Adventure Fantasy Game. One downside to this approach is that it can make different characters seem very similar to players that look to the numbers for some idea of what makes a given character unique.

Ultimately, many different levels of ability score resolution could work, and none will truly reflect the multifarious aspects of a fully realized person. For example, is it worthwhile to differentiate between bodily agility and manual dexterity? White Wolf games use a nine-fold division into physical (strength, dexterity, stamina); social (charisma, manipulation, appearance); and mental (perception, intelligence, wits). Skills & Powers (D&D 2.5) provides two subscores for each of the classic six: strength (stamina & muscle), dexterity (aim & balance), constitution (health & fitness), intelligence (reason & knowledge), wisdom (intuition & willpower), and charisma (leadership & appearance). Certainly, there exist real people with high intuition but low willpower. For my purposes though, I think the six-fold division strikes a nice balance.

Another common modification is to collapse saving throws and ability scores into a single system. There has always been some level of confusion over what exactly saving throws represent. Is a saving throw versus wands a dodge? If so, why doesn’t dexterity provide a bonus? Further, some early products used the term saving throw in a more general way, and allowed saves versus ability scores. In a game without levels, ability checks as saving throws seems like the way to go, but in a game with advancement, the saving throw has an important separate function, which is to reward successful play. You can’t just make a character with a high save versus poison (like you can potentially with constitution). You have to earn it.

Also, divorcing the saving throw from randomly determined ability scores is important to game fairness: remember that a beginning PC may have a constitution score of anywhere from 3 to 18 (if used as a saving throw, that’s a huge range of variation for surviving a potentially fatal hazard). That entire range should produce a viable and playable character. Saving throws even the playing field in terms of catastrophic risk, while allowing interesting character variation. If the game does not include the possibility of catastrophic risk, this is not a concern, but if it does, the game design of the saving throw is very important. Thus, ability checks cannot be used in place of saving throws. I call this THE SAVING THROW RULE.

One final cosmetic note. The original ability score order was strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, charisma. The reason for this order is that the first three are the prime requisites, in the order of class importance, fighter being the default and most general class (strength), followed by the magic-user (intelligence), and finally the more specialized blend of the first two, the cleric (wisdom). As I’m not using experience modifiers by prime requisite, and am interpreting all of the ability scores more diegetically, the later physical / mental order is more appropriate (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, charisma).

My next post will cover more literally the ability score rules for Hexagram, and how ability checks work.

Difficulty mode

Dürer, Death and the Landsknecht

In addition to the background / reward dyad, another important game parameter is lethality. Next to incentives, lethality is probably the single most important determinant of how a tabletop RPG plays, because lethality is another way of saying risk. What do setbacks potentially involve? Is it possible to lose the game? Any consideration of lethality must also consider healing, because that is the other side of the coin. In D&D, the exact same dungeon and hazards can be made either very difficult or trivial, depending on the scarcity of healing.

This is a hugely controversial issue among fantasy gamers, as can be seen regarding the discourse around options for self-healing in 5E and the differing reaction to the idea of healing surges in Fourth Edition. Many old school games also use variations on the “healing surge” idea (though they are usually called something else).

Because lethality and healing are so important to how the game plays, I believe they should be explicit choices at the start of any campaign with clear options, though there is no reason to force any particular style. But what is it that is actually being selected? The thing being selected, which both lethality and the availability of healing are in service to, is how difficult the game is. This single choice will go a long way to make sure that all players (including the referee) are on the same page regarding the nature of the campaign.

Hit points in Hexagram, in any mode, are not persistent beyond any particular session. Instead, HP are rolled when required by the difficulty mode, the details of which are summarized in the table below. A character’s hit dice total is what matters; hit points are situational. I believe this reinforces the abstraction of HP, which is required for any lightweight system. In addition, I have been actually using this method of re-rolling HP in several different incarnations and have had nothing but good luck with it. It also greatly simplifies HP recovery, obviating the need for bookkeeping (the guidelines for when to re-roll take care of that).

Difficulty Modes
Mode When HP is Rolled HP Recovery Death
Very easy Each combat N/A Impossible; instead, a setback occurs
Easy Each combat N/A Only on TPK or if left behind
Medium Start of session 1d6 post-combat 0 HP, saving throw for unconsciousness
Hard Start of session Magic healing causes aging 0 HP, saving throw for unconsciousness
Very hard Start of session Magic healing causes aging 0 HP, no save

For the easy modes, why re-roll HP per combat rather than introduce some recovery mechanism? One, it is easier. It keeps the focus where it should be, on the conflict, rather than on the resource management (which by hypothesis is not of interest). Two, it adds uncertainty to combat so that it is not the first resort in all cases, and prevents the HP total from feeling like a fixed buffer against damage. This method is somewhat reminiscent of the Carcosa dice conventions, but keeps the type of die used for the HD fixed (d6) which prevents overly wild swings in possible HP totals.

This is essentially a way to do tactical gaming within a more traditional fantasy game framework without any secondary abstraction or rule system sitting on top of hit points. “Hits” are, of course, assumed to be blocked, or flesh wounds. Diegetically, any kind of sword to the gut event would be something that a character would get a saving throw to avoid. Note that this does not require higher-level abstraction like “luck” to enter into hit points — every hit can still be a hit, just not a good one.

Is using the idea of difficulty modes pejorative to different styles of play? I don’t think so, and there is some value to calling a spade a spade. It seems important to emphasize that the same rules framework, with appropriately tailored incentives, can be used for games focused on player skill and for games focused on other things. When I do play video games, I often play them on easy or normal mode, and almost never on hard mode, because I am not interested in building the type of skills most video games reward. Rather, I want to experience some other aspect of the game, like graphics, or art direction. I think that many people feel the same way about RPGs.

This design allows the game to work on all modes without assuming healing magic. One may include magic items or spells that perform healing, but they will not be very important in the easy modes (because you will be re-rolling your HP before the next encounter anyways), and are otherwise problematic in the hard modes (see healing & aging). Healing being problematic is required so that the tension and resource management required for a hard mode game are not undermined. Resurrection magic is of course important to perception of risk as well, but I will cover that in another post.

Incidentally, my current OD&D game is essentially on hard mode.

Hexagram Backgrounds & Rewards

Image from Wikipedia

Proposition: character background is one half of something that is completed by game reward structure. The reward structure dictates what the game is about and what the characters are doing (e.g., recovering treasure, slaying monsters, etc). The background should be appropriate to (if not explain) why they are doing these things.

Background is often either ignored or hand-waved (“yes, yes, you’re the fifth duke of so-and-so, we’re going to kill orcs, get with the program”). That works well for some games, but if you want to include background at all it seems to make sense to have it work in service to the proposed future course of the campaign. Further, I think it would be interesting to make this more systematic, and have character background and reward structure all feed into the setting design procedure.

The traditional game is mostly silent about character background. Some editions have a “secondary skill” table which is basically a way to determine what kind of peasant or tradesman a character was before becoming an adventurer. That’s okay for determining what mundane skills a character might have, but it doesn’t really connect to the rest of what goes on in a game. I’m also not thinking of background here as a method to blend archetypes (as I think that is handled adequately by the path, prototype, trait features), though it can be used to justify such blending if desired.

In addition to setting the reward structure of the game (which is the primary system purpose), background has the secondary use of giving players a bit of information that can be useful for role-playing and have some diegetic consequences within the campaign world (the fifth duchess of so-and-so should have some knowledge about noble houses if she grew up with her family). Background can still provide minor mechanical resolution bonuses (+2 bonus to relevant tasks) and thus serve the same purpose as past profession or secondary skills. I was influenced by Jack Shear’s “leading question” background structure (see here and here), but have tailored potential options more closely toward particular campaign foci.

Here’s the default background table, suitable for treasure hunting and picaresque adventures.


  1. Bankrupt. Your business failed (due to incompetence or something else?) and you must now take up adventuring, perhaps fleeing creditors.
  2. Murderer. You killed someone in anger or passion, and ran rather than face justice.
  3. Antiquary. You are fascinated by the remnants of the past and obsessed with unearthing them. This obsession has overridden all past attempts at a normal career.
  4. Bandit. You survived as a parasite on society by waylaying others in the wilderness. Treasure hunting is a slightly more ethical (and potentially much more lucrative) alternative.
  5. Transgressor. You broke the laws of custom or purity. Was it forbidden love? Whatever the reason, you are no longer welcome in what was once your home.
  6. Deposed tyrant. You once had great power, but were overthrown (by the common people? or another lord?) and now have nothing but the equipment on your back.
  7. Burglar. You survived by stealing from those with more than you, generally by breaking into their abodes. The underworld is perhaps more deadly, but the payback is better and there are no guardsmen trying to throw you in jail.
  8. Instigator. You tried to change some aspect of your home or your society, but failed (for now). Did you fight against inequality, or perhaps for the honor of your caste, family, or tribe? In any case, you were exiled as a threat to the status quo.
  9. Survivor. You are the last of your town or family, the only one to escape some terrible disaster or disease. What caused the others of you kind to be no more? Was it due to the conscious actions of some other group or entity, or a natural disaster?
  10. Outlaw. You have been blamed for a crime (true or false?) and fled.
  11. Mercenary. You fought for those that paid you (perhaps as an adventurer’s retainer) and slowly accumulated enough money and equipment to be more self-sufficient. Who was your past employer? How do they feel about you no longer working for them?
  12. Slave. You were born into bondage (or perhaps kidnapped at a young age?). You escaped (or were freed). Does your past master still live? Are you hunted?
  13. Diabolist. You unleashed (or were blamed for releasing) a great demon. Did you do this on purpose or by accident? Was it a ritual you participated in directly, or was the demon released in some other way? Did you think you could control the demon?
  14. Farmer. You once tilled the land, but your crops turned to dust, either due to exhaustion of the land, corruption from some fearsome beast, or vile sorcery. Your family, if you had one, did not survive.
  15. Soldier. You were a professional soldier, but your unit is now disbanded. Was it destroyed in battle, or were you victorious? Why doesn’t your past lord require your services anymore? Were you good at soldiering?
  16. Orphan. You have survived on your wits alone for your entire life, living hand to mouth, but your ambition is boundless. It’s time to pull yourself up by uncovering the treasures of the past.
  17. Hunter. You survived on the edges of civilization by catching wild game and selling meat and furs. Your previous hunting grounds no longer provide the same bounty (why?) and you were forced to move on.
  18. Amnesiac. Your memory was lost (or stolen?) and you don’t know why. Your past is a blank slate. Is this a unique loss of memory, or part of some common pattern affecting many?
  19. Protector. You once were tasked with the guardianship of another. Were you a lord’s honor guard, a magician’s retainer, or something else? Your previous ward is, however, no more. Was it your fault?
  20. Apprentice. You once studied under a sorcerer, but now are on your own. Were you a failure at studying the dark arts, or are you now a journeyman, seeking the secrets of the ancients? Is your past master still alive, and are you on good terms? If so, the master may be able to help you from time to time, but may also want something in return.
  21. Surgeon. You once treated the sick, infirm, and wounded. That is, until a rich and powerful patient died and you were blamed, either for incompetence or intent. Who could you not save?
  22. Conscript. You once fought as a conscript in a war not of your choosing, and when you returned (if you returned), nothing was the same. Or perhaps you were originally from another land, but demobilization left you where you are presently?
  23. Ex-cultist. You once were part of a strange sect, but have since become disillusioned. Your previous home distrusts you because of your associations, but the cult itself is no longer your place either. What was the basis of the cult, and does it still remain? If so, how do they feel about ex-cult members?
  24. Exhumer. You released something that was once imprisoned. Was this a sealed crypt? Or maybe an ancient machine? Was the release accidental, or on purpose and perhaps due to greed?
  25. Daredevil. You do it for the excitement and the adrenaline rush. The treasure is incidental, an excuse and a method to fund future delves. Civilization does not provide outlets for your compulsions.
  26. Gambler. You lost it all. Maybe you still owe someone (or something) a great debt?
  27. Smuggler. You used to transport things (stolen goods? forbidden writings? slaves? intoxicants?) that people in power didn’t want transported. Your previous route is no longer open or profitable, for whatever reason, and the common trades are not for you.
  28. Compelled. Something that you don’t understand calls you to adventure. Perhaps it is just voices in your head, perhaps it is something deep below which has managed to find a way into your consciousness, or maybe it was the curse of a dying sorcerer.
  29. Con artist. You have pulled one too many schemes and need to skip town (again). Maybe you are tired of making your living off the gullibility of others, or maybe you just think the dark places will be more lucrative.
  30. Stranger. You are from another time or place. Perhaps you were locked in stasis and recently awoke. Perhaps you stumbled through a one-way cosmic door (was it a mirror? a portal? a machine that was meant to go both ways but failed?). No matter the cause, you are stuck in your present circumstances, a fish out of water.

The advantage to doing things this way is that it succinctly communicates the nature of the game while not closing off other potential game structures that may come into play later.

Short digression on Hexagram philosophy. I want to provide sensible defaults which fit the expectations of adventure fantasy gaming while making the different parts of the game (what the players do, what the referee does) fit together in the most efficient and effective way possible. You should be able to follow a checklist of things to do and end up with all the necessary things in place, even if you are unfamiliar with the traditional game structure. The system should also communicate the expectations to everybody involved. For example, the suggested procedure for referee prep will not include guidelines for heraldry if the campaign is about making the land safe for the living by killing as many zombies as possible (oh, and campaign focus can change partway through, and the game system will respond; more on that in a future post).

Okay, back to reward structures. Other possible backgrounds with associated reward structures include:

  • Curiosity: exploration, discovering new monsters, antiquities, mysteries
  • Slayers: destruction of a implacable threat (undead, demons, aliens)
  • Agents: missions, case files
  • Remnants: something was scattered that must be found (could be people)
  • Heros: rendering aid
  • Prophecy: the what is determined, but not the how or the who

Each one of those could have a table of backgrounds and guidelines for XP rewards, and may be mixed and matched.

I’m also thinking about presenting these parameters as explicit player game choices to be made at the beginning of the campaign, and as the campaign progresses. As in, everyone gets together and someone says, hey: let’s play an agents game. Shifting reward structures could also potentially be a player-initiated action. As always “player” includes referees, but using that particular word frames the issues in a way that invites player participation.

Hexagram Path of Guile Draft

The path of guile is about using misdirection and cleverness. The primary mechanic behind most path of guile traits is the saving throw, as many of them focus on avoidance of bad outcomes (climbing is the avoidance of falling, stealth is the avoidance of being noticed, tumbling is the avoidance of gravity, etc). Most tasks associated with the path of guile may be attempted by all characters (though a few cannot be attempted without training, like picking complex locks or interacting with some ancient technology), but characters with path of guile traits have several important advantages.

Tasks that benefit from guile traits make use of the general saving throw, which in most cases is a character’s worst saving throw value (considering all five saving throw categories). Characters with guile traits, however, use their best saving throw value for these tasks.

Additionally, characters with points in guile traits may size up and prepare for a situation before actually attempting to use a guile trait. The roll happens after the preparation is complete, but before the character must decide whether or not to actually attempt the task. In other words, the player will know that something will be successful or not before trying (and presumably will not try if it has been decided that the task will fail, though the time spent preparing is still expended).

For example, a character may be confronted with a sheer mountain face. They could spend some time carefully examining the obstacle, and then make their roll. The sizing up and preparation only remain valid as long as conditions do not change. Thus, if a character is halfway up a cliff when enemies begin firing arrows, another climb saving throw will likely be required to avoid falling.

In the climbing example, all characters would be able to attempt the action, but they would not be allowed the benefit of the sizing up procedure, and they must use the standard general saving throw rather than the best general saving throw. They must roll their saving throw after taking action, and let the dice fall where they may.

If you think that such knowledge would not require a full turn, consider if the task itself is really deserving of a check at all. Is this something that anybody would reasonably have trouble with? Is the chance of failure an interesting hazard within the context of the game? If the answer to either of those questions is no, the action should just succeed.

At first glance, it might seem more logical to use ability checks as the basis for guile traits rather than saving throws. However, that would make ability scores too important, and greatly increase the variance of starting competency. By using saving throws, improvement is gradual and level-based.

I’m on the fence about the name of the perception trait. That really is the correct name, but I’m tempted to call it listen just to distance it from the 3E perception skill. I’m also still on the fence about including the last chance trait at all. So let me know if you love it or hate it.


  1. Perception. Save +T to notice details such as noise behind a door.
  2. Stealth. Save +T to move without being noticed.
  3. Devices. Save +T to manipulate small mechanical devices.
  4. Climb. Save +T to climb a sheer surface.
  5. Assassination. +T surprise attack damage dice. Poison use.
  6. Tumbling. Save +T to avoid falling damage if < T x 10'. Free unarmed parry.
  7. Antediluvia. Save +T to utilize artifacts from before the deluge.
  8. Tracking. Follow trails left by creatures. Poison extraction.
  9. Last Chance. T + level % chance to pass a failed catastrophic saving throw.

Perception. This allows characters a better chance to notice details, such as listening for movement behind a door or searching a room for secret doors. Using the perception trait in this way always requires 1 exploration turn (10 minutes). Note that this trait should not be used to decide which clues or details to reveal. Instead, it is a measure of a character’s thoroughness. Perception also grants a saving throw to avoid surprise (though this only works for the character, not companions as well).

Stealth. Save +T to avoid detection when hiding or moving silently. A situation may be sized up for stealthy action beforehand. Hidden characters may attack with surprise.

Image from Wikipedia

Devices. Save +T to pick a lock (requires tools), manipulate a mundane mechanical device, or disable a small mechanical trap (such as a spring-loaded poison needle).

Climb. Save +T to climb sheer surfaces. Note that no saving throw is ever required to climb something like a ladder, unless under great stress. A climb may be sized up.

Assassination. +T to hit for attacks from surprise. If such an attack is successful, T extra damage dice are rolled. In addition, characters trained in assassination may apply poison to weapons without danger to themselves.

Tumbling. Save +T when falling up to T x 10 feet for no damage. On a failed save, falling damage is halved if the distance fallen is less than T X 10 feet. Additionally, tumbling grants one free unarmed parry per turn (which does not stack). Tumbling also includes general training in acrobatics (see skills and ability checks).

Antediluvia. Save +T to activate or use artifacts from before the deluge. Some such artifacts require a successful check for every use, some require only one check to decode, and some are totally incomprehensible without a minimum degree of antediluvia.

Tracking. Save +T to follow the path left by others previously. Tracking also allows up to T doses of poison the be extracted from poisonous monsters up to T hit dice in strength.

Last Chance. T + level % chance to succeed on a failed catastrophic saving throw, which includes things like dragon breath, poison, or the gaze of a medusa. Last chance may not be used for trait saving throws. For example, a 15th level character with last chance 2 will have a 17% chance to succeed on a failed saving throw. (Thanks to Ed Dove for the name suggestion here.)

Miséricorde from Wikipedia

Hexagram Path of Sorcery Draft

Image from Wikipedia
The spells trait is the support for Vancian magic. Note that the total number of spell slots is much limited compared to the traditional game, but spells are also retained with a successful save, making spells closer to at-will as the sorcerer gains levels. However, 1s cause spell fumbles (this also explains why cities aren’t lit with continual light spells).
Existing spell lists may be used if desired (for familiarity and quick start), but guidelines for creating unique spells will be built into the process of scenario creation, which happens as the game unfolds, and does not need to be determined beforehand (this also makes the spell list potentially unique to every campaign). As for all traits, max T is 6. The word “rank” is used to measure spells, but that is just so I’m not using the word level to refer to two different things in the same paragraph.

A number of these traits build on ideas I have had before, such as Vancian magic variants and counter-spells.
Banishment is the implementation of turn undead. Thus, characters like clerics and paladins are prototypes that mix the path of steel and the path of sorcery, which is as it should be.
The magical devices and magic research traits still need work. Magic item manufacture is probably part of that, and is related to the setting guidelines for magic items, which are not yet finished.

Magical affinity was developed for an earlier version of Hexagram, and will likely also be featured in some form.

The Path of Sorcery

  1. Spells. T spell slots for prepared spells.
  2. Aegis. +T floating bonus to magic saves and counter-spells.
  3. Magical devices. Use or create enchanted items.
  4. Scrolls. The creation and use of inscribed spells.
  5. Alchemy. Prepare magical concoctions usable by anyone.
  6. Magical research. Create new spells.
  7. Banishment. Turn away undead or force demons back to their home.
  8. Thrall-binding. Summon or create sorcerous minions.
  9. Supplication. Call on favors from demons, spirits, and other powers.

Image from Wikipedia

Spells. T is the number of spells slots which can be used for prepared spells. 1 spell rank requires one slot. The maximum spell rank (called spell capability) which may be prepared is character level divided by 2, rounded up. So, for example, a third level character with spells 3 could prepare one second rank spell and one first rank spell. That same character could not prepare a third rank spell, however, as that would require spell capability 3 (and thus character level 5 or higher). When a spell is cast, the character makes a saving throw versus magic. If the saving throw succeeds, the spell works and is also retained for later use. If the saving throw is a 1, the spell fails and a magical mishap occurs (see magical mishaps section). If the saving throw fails but isnot a 1, the spell works but is wiped from the sorcerers consciousness and may not be cast again until it is re-prepared. Similar spells vary based on their source and have incidental effects in addition to primary effects (such as a blast of cold air or a crackling of static electricity). These effects act as a kind of signature. When learning a spell from an specific external source, the incidental effect is also preserved. For example, if a character learns the spell Flashy Blockade, discovered by Manikelme, players should write Manikelme’s Flashy Blockade on their character sheet along with the incidental effect (which in this case might be a cloudy roiling of smoke around the sorcerer’s feet). There may be other Flashy Blockades with different incidental effects. More importantly however, sorcerers who have learned a particular version of a spell gain advantages in resisting the spell (+2 saves, -1 damage per die, +2 at counter-spell attempts). Thus, sorcerers are hesitant to share their knowledge, because it makes them more vulnerable to potential enemies. Though the number of prepared spells is limited by mortal consciousness, sorcerers may prepare further spells for use by encoding them on properly prepared material receptacles (see the scrolls trait). New spells may be located during play in books or on scrolls, fetched by demons (see the supplication trait), or invented (in which case the spell will bear the character’s name and have a unique incidental effect; see the magical research trait).

Aegis. Magical attacks can’t be dodged like blades, but they can be resisted or countered with practice. +T floating bonus to saving throws versus hostile external magical effects. This bonus may be applied to companions nearby in lieu of the self. Multiple sources of magical aegis do not stack. In addition, aegis allows sorcerers to attempt counter-spells, which may be used once per turn in response to enemy spell casters. The character makes a save versus spells (modified by the difference in spell capability between the two casters). Unused aegis points may also be used to help with this save. Upon success, the spell is temporarily countered (that is, the effect is cancelled, but the spell is retained by the enemy spell caster). If the countering sorcerer is willing to expend prepared spells, the spell may be permanently countered (that is, the enemy may not use it again without re-preparation); an equal number of spell slots worth of prepared spells must be expended for a permanent counter. On a natural 20, the spell may be torn from the enemy’s consciousness and hurled back at its caster. On a natural 1, a magical mishap occurs in addition to any other negative effects from the original spell.

Flying Carpet from Dark Classics

Magical devices. Many magical devices require esoteric knowledge to operate. Save versus magic +T to activate or understand a device. Some items may cause disastrous effects upon save fail or fumble, or may curse users without training who attempt to use them. Sometimes, a check is only needed once, after which a device may be used any number of times, and sometimes a check is needed for every use (this depends on the item in question). Some items require a certain level of arcane master to even attempt to make sense of, and these devices will specify a minimum magical devices score. Magical devices does not only apply to portable things like wands, but also potentially to large immovable things.

Faust image from Dark Classics

Scrolls. Spells may be partially cast and then bound to a material receptacle, needing only a final command to activate. This is much like preparing a spell, but requires valuable components to be expended in the process of preparation. Costs are 100 GP and one day per spell level. Note that the form of “scrolls” need not be paper (though that is common); scrolls may be made of any material. Choose a description for scrolls that you create taking this trait. Add the read magic first level spell to your spell book when you first take this trait. If you do not have the spells trait, you may still cast read magic between sessions with proper ritual preparation (one day required per scroll).

Alchemy allows sorcerers to prepare potions, which are like scrolls, but limited to personal effects. Any such spell known (of level T or less) may be brewed as a potion. Additionally, specific potion-only formulae may be discovered in play. Potions can be imbibed by any character for effect. Potions are not as reliable as scrolls, however, and have a chance of expiring before use. A potion brewed just prior to an adventure will not have a chance of failure, but any other potion will have no effect on a d20 roll of 1. Costs are 100 GP and one day per spell level. Potions usually consist of approximately 8 oz of liquid, and must be fully consumed for effect. Any effect takes 1 turn (10 minutes) to manifest and is thus most useful while exploring (as potions are too slow to take effect if consumed during combat).

Magical research. Create spells up to rank T. [Still working on this one, but I’m pretty sure it will be a trait separate from spells.]

Banishment. Turn away undead or demonic creatures. Max HD creature affected = T + 2. Total HD affected = Td6. May only be attempted once per target. If the max HD affected is 5 greater than the actual target, the creature is destroyed or banished.

Thrall-binding. Many sorcerers rely on minions to do their bidding, called thralls. This trait controls the number of such creatures that can be controlled at one time. Choose a thrall type. Possibilities include necromancy, golem-crafting, minor diabolism, or something of your own devising. The type may give minor benefits and weaknesses (example: undead are immune to mind effects but vulnerable to holy water and turning). Max total hit dice = T, divided as desired. For example, if T = 6, three 2 HD thralls may be controlled. AC for all thralls is +T (e.g., six 1 HD thralls will all have +6 AC). Attack bonus is also +T, but must be distributed between thralls (e.g., six 1 HD thralls might each have +1 to attack). Additional special abilities (such as flying) count as one HD (so a 5 HD poisonous minion would count as a 6 HD minion). Creation or ritual costs (in GP) are 1 HD: 100, 2 HD: 200, 3 HD: 400, 4 HD: 800, 5 HD: 1600, 6 HD: 3200. Sorcerers must find formulae diegetically (or perform magical research) to learn how to summon/create and bind a given type of thrall. Any number of thralls may be created or summoned (as long as the costs are paid), but thralls in excess of T will be free-willed, and almost certainly hostile and malevolent. Sorcerers must spend an action to give their thralls commands during combat, but thralls will continue any actions to the best of their ability without direct guidance. Sorcerers may take control of monsters that fit their thrall type with a successful saving throw versus magic. Note that perhaps more than any other type of sorcery, thrall-binding is considered chaotic and must be concealed when in civilized areas. (Thanks to Paul from Dungeonskull Mountain for the term thrall-binding.)

Vision de Saint Jean a Patmos from Dark Classics

Supplication. Some sorcerers bargain directly with powerful entities from other dimensions. These may be demons, genies, saints, ghosts of past heroes, or beings totally beyond human comprehension. The kind of entity dealt with should be declared when the trait is taken (and may affect the type of information the entities have access to). Supplication requires performing complex rituals, of which there are several kinds. The cost to perform one lesser ritual is generally T x 100 GP (and T days worth of preparation and performance). Treasure rituals result in the equivalent of a treasure map of level T (see treasure section). Divination rituals may be used to pose questions, the complexity of which is dependent upon the ritual level (and must be adjudicated by the referee; the 2d6 reaction roll is recommended). Spell rituals can be used to acquire a spell of level T. Lesser rituals may be attempted at half cost, but then require a save versus magic for protection from the (usually hostile) entity, as well as a reaction roll for the degree of service ultimately rendered (the charisma modifier applies). Entities dealt with using supplication rituals may be summoned fully for direct intervention in the sunlit realms, but such is extremely dangerous, and is usually the last resort of the hopeless or insane. Thus, supplication is more commonly used for divination purposes. Such greater rituals require T x 1000 GP and T weeks of preparation and performance. When the entity arrives a saving throw versus magic is required for protection for the sorcerer (companions are not protected, and other means must be used if such protection is desired). Services rendered may be determined by a 2d6 reaction roll, and additional means to garner favor (such as sacrifices) may be attempted, but nothing is guaranteed when dealing with greater rituals. Such entities, when summoned, may choose to stay or return as they see fit (many demons would like nothing better than to trick mortals into opening such doors). Characters that begin with the supplication trait may start with T x 100 GP worth of ritual components (which may not be redeemed directly for money).