Wednesday, July 31, 2019


I have a problem with Clerics.

At a purely game level, they don't add a problem-solving strategy to dungeon-crawling. While there are certainly approaches to game design that encourage a huge range of available classes (3rd Edition, Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, and GLOG, for example), I contend that classes revolve more about generalized player strategy, with a secondary element of game-interaction preference. The more general the structure of classes in the game, the greater the amount of the game open to participation by all players: hyper-specialized niches leave players with naught to do much of the time. Given that, the classic trio of Wizard, Thief, Fighter provides a range of strategy and interaction:

Maximilien Robespierre
Famously not a fan of
clerics either.
  • Fighters provide a simple, brute-force approach to problems. They are best equipped to tackle situations with violence, in the sense of both dealing and resisting. Because of their greater toughness, they can take more risks than their companions. Their abilities are always "on".
  • Wizards are for lateral thinking approaches. Their toolbox of spells opens them up to possibilities beyond the purely mundane. While later editions (and, to be honest, their origin in Chainmail) situates them more as artillery, they ideally serve to create new opportunities for the adventuring party. Their powers have finite uses.
  • Thieves (which is a bad name, more on that later) are the finesse problem solver. They show up to the dungeon with a broader collection of skills than the fighter but less diverse than the wizard. In a sense they are a middle ground between two extremes, something made explicit in 1975's Tunnels and Trolls' Rogue class. More recent iterations have turned this archetype into an "Expert" with less attention granted to breaking-and-entering-type skills.

So where does the Cleric fit in this continuum? She classically can wear armor like the Fighter, although her attack bonus and weapon selection are reduced in comparison. She can cast spells like the Wizard, but her spell list tends to focus on resolving problems currently plaguing the party (dead, injured, poisoned, de-leveled, etc) as opposed to problems that can be approached proactively in the dungeon. She doesn't even fit thematically since her spell list, weapon restrictions, and inspiration are largely drawn from Christianity while she mostly exists in a polytheistic, Christ-less milieu.

On the other hand, a lot of problems in the dungeons seem like they might require a cleric. Healing aside, the cleric is the primary means of curing various ailments including disease, level loss, ability score drain, and death. She is often responsible for dealing with special foes like the undead or the infernal. Since undead, in particular, will not break off and flee and often arrive in great numbers, the magical power to provoke them into fleeing can be particularly potent.

Painting of Destruction of Religion Images (Icons) in Zurich, 1524 / Creative Commons
i·con·o·clas·tic (adjective): characterized by an attack on cherished beliefs or institutions.
I'd like to jettison the cleric. It usually fails to be evocative while at the same time needlessly gating the opportunity for other classes to Get Weird through devotion. You can even see it in other people's Cleric classes: Paladin is a devoted Fighter, Inquisitor/Vampire Hunter is a devoted Specialist and Warlock is a devoted Wizard, leaving the Cleric as a devoted...all of the above? Delete cleric, let everyone get the chance to worship the Above and/or the Outside. And those party problems that Cleric helps resolve? I have a post I've been working on about that. Hopefully, I'll have it done soon. But first, something others might find useful.

To ensure that there really isn't something of value lost I've produced a survey of OSR cleric classes. At some level, I find all of these interesting and valuable even if I don't want an explicit "priest" class in my game. Partially what has made them interesting is that they've focused on some specific element rather than being a generic healer class, a great example of addition by subtraction. Enemy mostly focuses on the turn undead element. Historical are more low-powered and less supernatural and thus tend to be more social. Beholden are more often instead called "warlocks" but really a warlock is just a cleric whose church isn't tax-exempt. Altered are most like Dungeons and Dragons clerics but or distill it differently. Finally, there are a couple Alternative classes that sorta fit the role of a cleric but aren't really "priest-like".

Enemy of The Adversary

  • Nick's Antimagic Cleric makes explicit their nature as agents of Law, in opposition to Chaos' manifestation in the form of magic. They can identify, dispel, and resist magic.
  • Sabers and Witchery's Hunter is fictionalized around hunting down the unnatural. She can smite evil, gather information, and Turn the undead and the infernal, but casts no spells. The magus class can also turn and gains access to traditional clerical magic.


  • Dan's Priest gains a diverse Bless, the ability to Turn Undead, use relics (clerical consumable magic items), and specialization via holy order.
  • Box in a Box of Box Full of Boxes wrote an ascetic that leans a little towards Sufi-ish non-Western holy men even as it very clearly is inspired by the D&D monk. It nonetheless has a lot of appropriate flavor for a more historically-based divine character than the extremely-specific crusading priest archetype.
  • Courtney Campbell's notion of bonds for divine abilities to represent a connection to the Classical greek gods. Tsojcanth does swaps out Turn Undead for a different power depending on god.
  •  Jeff Marches' Priest is a GLOG cleric that's far more historical and subtle than most. It only gains miracles as its 4th template, before that rebuking the unholy and tending the flock.
  • Hawk of Store Brand Danger has a GLOG Acolyte that is an engine for generating Boons for the party through various means, plus a few plausibly-not-supernatural gifts.  

Iconoclasm by Calvinists circa 1525-1527
Really though churches and gods are great in the game. It's clerics that are the problem.

Beholden to Strange Powers

  • BrianDM's Marked for Whitehack gain shifting Marks (glowing eyes, horns, etc) from their patron that work with the games Group system, more or less getting advantage on a particular ability score where it might help. They can beseech their patron for information, and they gain several supernatural gifts as they level.
  • Logan Knight's Mystic was the first set of rules I saw for clerics that diverged radically from the crusading knight archetype. They are quintessential theurges, gaining power from worshiping weird corrupting beings. They gain a handful of thematic abilities but most of their puissance comes from asking for miracles and hoping. Using their patron's power is risky, and Logan detailed a handful of creepy beings in his unique gross style.
    • The author of the Swords and Scoundrels adapted it for the GLOG.
  • Mateo, formerly of gloomtrain, now hex culture created a warlock that is quite similar. He explicitly uses the reaction roll for the PC's bargaining with their patron.
  • Brendan's Shaman predates Logan's Mystic but is similar conceptually. Each patron has several special powers it bestows if the shaman can meet the DC. Essentially a more structured and reliable mystic.
  • James Young recently wrote a cleric that can access several different patrons, each with a set of observances and a few miracles.
  • Oblidisideryptch wrote up a GLOG Warlock that has seen several additional patrons. It gets its magic dice from the patron, accruing debt that has to be repaid via various tasks but can sacrifice health to boost their spells far above everyone else.
  • red_kangaroo at Library of Attnam posted the Cultist of the Thousand Gods Heresy and a sequel. The cultist is a GLOG class that worships one of several weird evocative beings each of which bestows different gifts or rituals.

Altered Spell Mechanics

  • Arnold's GLOG cleric focuses on ritual and divination. It contains an expansion of his previous Faith Dice idea. It fits this category least but it doesn't really fit in any of the others.
  • Talysman of Nine and Thirty Kingdoms proposed Clerics without Spells some time ago. It breaks down all Cleric spells into 6 categories of effect (Healing, Protections, etc) and using the reaction roll to manifest the effect.
  • Skerples' Generic Cleric for GLOG doesn't do much new but it effectively captures the archetype.
  • Lexi's GLOG Cleric is a bit more like WotC clerics, with godly domains that grant a suite of powers. Hers explicitly involves creating splinter heretic sects.
  • Josh at Rise Up Comus has a Devout class that has a pool of Faith points used to smite, heal, or perform a miracle. Each miracle is chosen by the DM at casting from a list associated with each god but which is identical to a Wonder and Wickedness specialty.

Alternative Attempts to Resolve the Cleric Problem

  • Arnold's Poet works more like a bard or skald but could fill the role of support caster in a pinch. It was inspired by the notion that it should be the PC in need of healing that spends the action to reduce the use of cleric as healbot.
  • FT&F's Humans are the strangest thing on this review. The PC race represents the metaphysical Mundane. Large groups of humans cause magic to stop working. They can Turn Supernatural as a racial feature, and they gain access to miracles, a small chance for anything to happen. These are all explicitly traits of all Men and correspond to their position as creations of divine Law.

First Circle by Shahab Alizadeh
Everyone should get the chance to be changed through the worship of the unfathomable.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Spiritualism: A new discipline for Stars Without Number

Mark Gabriel
    Stars Without Number Revised is a fantastic game by Kevin Crawford of Sine Nomine that has one of the more interesting Dungeons and Dragons-adjacent psionics systems. Most such mechanics are very beholden to Gygax, Marsh, and Kask's original, even if they improve on it significantly. Others are far too enmeshed with awful 3rd Edition-ism, like True20's Adept. Various OSR creators, such as Lexi, Spwack, and Marquis, have taken the concept in less cumbersome and more interesting directions, but none of them really scratch the itch. 

    SWN Revised's version, on the other hand, really does. It gives each discipline a signature, recognizably-psionic power immediately and then every other power is a purchased extension for that. Telekinesis, for example, lets the Psychic move things with their mind, and with investment, they can make themselves fly, create walls of force, generate psionic weapons and armor, or shield themselves from the vacuum of space. All of these are logical extensions of the core power. It also dispenses with power points by replacing them with a very small pool of Effort that's spent in a regular patter, it has a built-in means of pushing oneself, and it works as both a full class and with the game's sorta-multiclass Adventurer. Six disciplines appear in the core book and it seems ripe for creative additions.

    Between re-reading the Book of the New Sun with its enigmatic witches residing nearby to the Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence in the Citadel, thinking about Dune and its Bene Gesserit sisterhood, posts in the OSR about witches, playing Dishonored, and even discussions about how low-powered the original Star Wars trilogy is, (Emperor Palpatine is running around casting an electrical variant of burning hands and Obi-Wan's most famous trick is suggestion) strange, cult-ish magic users have been on my mind. What unites all of these is that witchers are something more fundamental and primal in a setting that had seemingly passed beyond such things. In a science fiction setting, witches wouldn't be needed as herbalists and midwives, and they wouldn't face myths and persecution for being in league with Satan in a generally atheistic setting. How then to capture that feel of unsettling mystique? Dungeons and Dragon's Vancian magic is perfectly fine for its intended purpose but I wanted something a little more mysterious. With the tools available in the core book, particularly telepathy and precognition, you could probably build something close, but then you obviously couldn't build a Medium Adventurer. So here's a witchy discipline for characters who want to know more than they should and use it to get what they want.

    Several people on the OSR and SWN Discord servers helped with inspiration or critique. Thank you all.

Click for PDF


    Spiritualism grants access to extrasensory perception to perceive and alter both their own and others’ spirits. Closely related to the concept of “auras” or “souls”, spirits are reflections of the individual’s physical form but magnified and distorted by their desires, beliefs, and feelings. Mediums can alter their perceivable presence, alter other living being’s spirits, and eventually duplicate their own.
    Psychics utilizing spiritualism are known as “mediums” for their most infamous power, the ability to channel the spirit of the dead. Not every medium can access that power, but it remains the most impressively obvious display over the abilities. That their powers work entirely on a non-visual level grants them much mystery, and their subtle and coercive nature would engender great fear if their extents were widely known. 
    While representative of a more medieval worldview, changing the discipline such that it interacts with the brain’s bioelectrical wiring and referring to tulpas as “thoughtforms” would give it a suitably -pulp sci-fi gloss, essentially engaging in Van Eck phreaking of the brain.


Core Technique—Open Third Eye

    The Medium can access extrasensory perception that grants her greater knowledge of living creatures. Called the third eye and classically pictured on the center of the forehead, it sees the spirit or aura of living beings. The spirit is an exaggerated and impressionistic reflection of the target, although as she gains in skill she can glean a greater amount of information from it. This perception is unusually focused in that the psychic cannot generally "look around” with it. Instead, she can focus on a specific target and Commit Effort as a Main Action to activate it. Her eye stays open as long as she likes but focusing on a different target requires a new action. While it is active she struggles to see anything physical, especially if it moves.
Level-0: The adept can see the spirits of living beings and can see their longing. That which the target covets most is apparent. Long-held desires are more obvious than immediate lusts.
Level-1: The image of the spirit is now clear enough to the psychic's practiced eye that she can gather a good deal about their true physical form. Mundane deceptions, both disguises and intentional lies of commission, are apparent.
Level-2: The psychic can now detect traces even after a spirit has left. Following a person who has moved through an area recently is trivial, and sustained presence or contact is obvious.
Level-3: The target's spirit is now a truer representation of the target than their physical appearance. Magical invisibility or psychic glamour no longer hides or disguises the target. If she focuses on the location of someone hidden, they are revealed.
Level-4: While seldom leaving obvious signs, sins of the target mar their spirit. Those who knowingly break the Authority's divine plan are marked by their iniquity. Guilt, penance, and reconciliation leave no sign.

Astral Projection


    For most, the spirit is bound to the body. Mediums, however, can temporarily detach their spirit from their corpus and walk it about. It is invisible to anything that cannot see spirits and incapable of effecting the world in any way, and it cannot utilize psychic powers but is otherwise identical in ability to the psychic. Astral Projection can be performed as a Main Action that required the Commitment of Effort for the day. If the psychic possesses Tulpa Independence, their body retains some awareness as per that power; otherwise, they must sit helplessly for the duration. If she is attacked in this state, either to her body or her spirit, the effect is immediately negated.

Channel the Dead


    The most infamous power of the Medium, Channel gives the psychic the power to interrogate spirits of the departed. It requires a relatively intact piece of the body and Effort Committed for the day as a Main Action. Spirits start to fade upon death and thus may not remember minor details or specific numbers unless they were truly important during life. She can commit additional effort to extend the effect but it otherwise allows her to ask a number of questions equal to her Spiritualism rank after which the spirit departs forever.

Tulpa Independence


    Through effort of will, a Medium can create a facsimile of her own spirit, known as a "tulpa". This entity resides in her mind, quiescent until called upon. It lacks the capacity of speech or the use of psychic abilities but is all other was identical to the Medium. In situations where the psychic is not consciously present, such as when asleep, or utilizing another power, or rendered unconscious, her tulpa can take over, leaving her capable of nonPsychic actions. Activation is an Instant Action that requires a Commitment of Effort for the day.

Astral Sight


    To the vision of the trained Medium, spirits shine like a beacon. Using a Main Action and Committing Effort for the scene, a psychic can use Open Third Eye even through static physical barriers. The psychic chooses which direction they peer and the GM tells them the approximate appearance and quantity of the spirits within 100 meters. Dynamic barriers, like flowing water, and magical barriers of any sort block this vision.

Obscure Spirit


    Advanced control of one's own spirit allows the psychic to draw it inside themselves. Since intelligent creatures rely to some degree on unnoticed recognition of other's spirits, this renders the Medium effectively unnoticeable to anyone not specifically interested in looking for people which includes those in combat. Upon Committing Effort for the day, as long as they take no aggressive actions, creatures with spirits simply fail to notice the psychic. Since the spirit is hidden in their eyes, the Medium can use no powers that require eye contact while this is active.

Spirit Whisper


    The Medium isn't limited to seeing spirits; by pressing upon other spirits, she can instill her words with supernatural persuasiveness. With a failed Mental Save target regards her as a good friend and is unusually, but not suicidally, suggestible. This mental clout requires that she first gain eye contact and then Commit Effort for the scene, after which the target will only remember any unusual actions if actively questioned.

Sever Possessor


    While modern apothecaries may claim otherwise, Mediums know that diseases are caused by spiritual pollution: they can see the parasites. Diseases, possessions, and madness are all apparent to their Third Eye. With the Commitment of Effort for the day, the psychic can strip these corruptions from the target, healing them, and can choose to retain the interloper. The Effort is Committed as long as the Psychic chooses to hold the contaminant, and she can later inflict it upon another with eye contact and a further Commitment of Effort for the scene.

Terrifying Presence


    Further refinement of her abilities allows the psychic to gain a frightening aspect. With the Commitment of Effort for the day as a Main Action, the Medium becomes terrifying to all foes in sight. Lesser humanoid foes of less than the psychic's level suffer 1d6 damage and must move at least 60 feet away. Worthy opposition can roll a Mental saving throw to resist the compulsion but still take damage as long as they remain in range. Expired creatures appear to have had a heart attack.

Tulpa Sapience


    Her tulpa takes on an independent life, operating as a secondary mind within the Medium's own. Since it doesn't have to deal with the operating of a body, it is focused entirely on perception. This tulpa-mind grants the Psychic enhanced recall, equivalent to a +1 to Know, as well as rendering her immune to surprise as long as she has Effort Committed. Even asleep, it watches. Since it reflects her own mind, it can be sacrificed as an Instant Action to negate--and thus automatically succeed on--any Mental saving throw, although this exhausts Tulpa Sapience for the day.



    With great effort a will, a master Medium can temporarily displace the spirit to take control of their body. The psychic must make eye contact with the target, spend a Main Action focusing, and Commit Effort for the day. The target can make a Mental saving throw to resist. Failure allows the psychic to define the target's action for the round in lieu of taking an action themselves, unless they have Tulpa Independence and unspent Effort, in which case they can choose to take basic, non-psychic or spell actions with their PC. This effect lasts as long as the psychic chooses to keep the Effort Committed. Suicidal actions break the effect.

Tulpa Reincarnation


    The master Medium unconsciously leaves seeds of their spirit in those she touches. Upon dying, she can choose to permanently possess a living humanoid who has been the previous target of her Medium powers. If the target has fewer HD than she has levels, this happens automatically, regardless of range. If not, the target is entitled to a Mental Saving Throw, failure meaning that the Psychic dies. Tulpa Reincarnation doesn't gain her any special knowledge of the newly inhabited creature. Effectively their species/race becomes that of the target and she is transported to their location. If it's unclear if any such creature is available, choose randomly from nearby humanoids.

Yuri Shwedoff

Additional Information



The concept of "tulpa" is incorrectly believed to come from Buddhism. Instead, it arises from 20th-century occult beliefs, who in typical Western religious fashion mish-mashed Eastern religious beliefs (Tibetan Buddhism), with their own existing occult beliefs. In this case, it's the "egregore" from 19th-century occultism, which was a collective thought mind constructed by a group of people, which has been compared to the modern concept of "meme". Tulpas, or "sprul pa", may have had a physical existence, according to practitioners, while tulpas (or "thoughtforms" as there are often also translated) are believed to be entirely mental creations. Modern chaos magicians take it even farther, referring to such ideas as "servitors" and recognizing them as intentional, not-real things, that nonetheless are helpful by focusing and anthropomorphizing will, sort of.
It's all quite complicated and I don't claim to be even remotely knowledgeable on these subjects. Instead, they serve a purpose as popularly understood signifiers that aren't ever meant to represent real-world beliefs. If you'd rather use "thoughtform" or "servitor" for this class concept, by-all-means do so. They might even be more appropriate for a science fiction or fantasy setting.

Occult Sisterhood

Initially inspired by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood of Dune, mediums are either going to be outlawed and feared occultists or too-useful-to-outlaw sanctioned psychics. Don’t have an occult sisterhood of mysteriously-puissant puppet-masters in your setting? The best thing about hidden groups is that they don’t have to exist until you need them. Your new power players have a secret goal:
1.        Realize the culmination of their breeding program.
2.        Spread their rites beyond the reach of the inquisitors.
3.        Integrate themselves into the Imperial Apparati and render themselves indispensable.
4.        Root out the infiltration of the vaylen/cacogens/thalusai who are secretly replacing/subverting the powerful.
5.        Find the body of the Empire’s founder for its secrets.
6.        Hunt down the spirit parasites imprisoned on this planet, that influence men to atrocity.

Thursday, July 11, 2019


The Mechanic

A character starts with two Titles: background and origin. One of these is probably race or species if that is relevant to your game. Each title has a name (class, race, specialty, background), one or more bonuses (probably a class ability, some hit points, and a save improvement), and a deed.

To "level up" meaning gain a new Title, the character has to accomplish a deed matching to each of their Titles, checking them off one-by-one, at which point they write down a new Title and Deed and remove the check from all. Each deed has to be distinct and any particular situation can only apply to one Deed of the player's choice, with the DM having veto power.

DMs might cap the number of titles to control the "maximum level" of a campaign. They instead overwrite the old trait of their choice. The PC is replacing knowledge and tricks as the old bits fall away.

Update (7/15/2019): Lexi of A Blasted, Cratered Land has taken this and adapted it for her own rules hack Mimics and Miscreants. It hews closer to traditional class systems than shown here.

Luke and Obi-Wan in Episode 4.
From apprentice...

A Fictional Example

Obviously, I designed the deeds around what Luke actually did in the movie, but this can still help you understand the idea in practice.
Luke Skywalker has "Peasant (Tatooine moisture farmer): Travel beyond your frontiers," and "Hotshot Pilot: Engage in a dogfight," written on his character sheet, each with some bonuses and ability. Upon meeting Obi-Wan and becoming a PC, he writes down on his sheet "Jedi Apprentice: Use the Force to do something impossible," which he manages to accomplish very soon when he impossibly blocks the remote's zap with a lightsaber blind. Going off planet is far beyond his frontier and the tie fighter attack is a dogfight. So by Yavin IV he has leveled up and gained whatever bonuses that he worked as appropriate for Jedi Apprentices. Ding.

After Apprentice, he wrote down "Big Damn Hero: Do whatever it takes to save others." Which he accomplished on the Deathstar run, after achieving dogfight in the battle above the Deathstar and frontier upon arriving on a jungle planet. But since he applied "destroying the deathstar" to save others, the use of the Force to aim the proton torpedo can't be used for it too. However, he quickly snags it when he impossibly draws his lightsaber out of the snow to free himself and defeat the Wampa. Ding. He writes: "Jedi Knight: Fight a peer using your lightsaber."

Snowspeeder Battle suffices for a dogfight and heading to Yoda on Dagobah (or solo hyperspace travel) for a new frontier. He's already lifted things with his mind but manages to convince his DM that the (impossible) escalating series of Force feats he does under Yoda's tutelage qualify for Apprentice because they are different enough from the lightsaber pull earlier. He runs to his friends despite being entirely unprepared in hopes of saving them. Finally, he (lightsaber) duels with his father. Ding. He writes "Jedi Master" and it's deed on his sheet.

He heads to Jabba's palace to save his friends. Boba Fett is a peer and he uses his lightsaber. Speeder bikes are close enough to dogfight. Death Star was never marked for frontier before, which is nice because it gets marked now. Endless impossible force uses are demonstrated, but invading the mind of Jabba's majordomo qualifies. Finally, in the duel with his father, he achieves "Jedi Master: win without fighting." Ding.

By the end Luke is (and has a marked on his sheet): Peasant, Hotshot Pilot, Jedi Apprentice, Big Damn Hero, Jedi Knight, and Jedi Master.

Luke Skywalker in Episode 6. master.


For your game of choice, it's probably best to sprinkle a few samples into your game to demonstrate the themes, aesthetics, and direction you want for your game, and then work with your players to define the rest as you go. Titles can be drawn from the various early game level titles, from the least egregiously dumb 3rd edition classes, or from this awesome generator. Write out a couple for each PC race, a few for whatever the PC might have been up to or whatever starting skills they might have, then a few more to define the setting (Defiler, Gladiator, Templar, and Psion, for example), all with a deed and an ability so that players can quickly pick two and play. Don't force them to create it all from scratch before game 1.

Deeds are a little more complicated to come up with and will ultimately involve a back and forth with each player. Players should probably be able to accomplish about 1 per session but that's ultimately down to how fast you want the characters to level, just like you determine by how much treasure you hand out.

In LotFP, Fighters gain about +6 total to their saves (across all categories) in their first 10 levels or a bit over half per level per category. A +3 save improvement for each Title distributed as desired will be roughly comparable. Most human characters are similar. Demi-humans advance faster. Hitpoints obviously vary more by class. For OD&D-based games, it's a simple +3 to saves and +3 or 4 hit points.

Class abilities are what will really get your players excited. You can cut and paste class features around, hand out spell dice, add attack bonus and a hit point or two (if you just wanted to play Fighter anyways), basically anything from GLOG, abilities from the many random class advancements, really whatever you want. Titles aren't classes, you aren't defined into them, and you have to act like a Title before you can claim its abilities, so write down what makes sense for your PC.

It's probably a good idea to write down whatever you did to accomplish each deed on the back of your sheet both to ensure that you aren't just doing the same thing over and over and because it will be fun to one day look back and read a tale of your adventures, written one deed at a time.


Crimson Cutlass is a very old game that demonstrates what could have been if Gary and Dave's game hadn't taken off and is full of interesting ideas. Good luck finding much about it online. I hope this mechanic manages to better capture the feel of Appendix N and other inspirational literature better than the level 1 pig farmer to level 20 demigod seen in standard D&D.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Adventuring Complications Condensed

A few people commented on my last post, and one of them, Skerples, mentioned that it could be condensed. And it's true, it totally could be condensed for ease of reference. But OSR is a niche within a niche so I'm going to try to explain my reasoning whenever I can in order to make my blog as approachable as possible.

That said, long paragraphs aren't convenient for reference purposes. For pure readability, I can take a cue from Sean McCoy from his work on Mothership. In a fascinating thread about the layout process, he laid it out like this:
The rule is: can this prose be bullet points? Can the bullet points be a table? Can the table be a diagram? Can the diagram be map? Can the map be an illustration?
Mothership is a great looking game and this is good advice. So I'll apply it to Adventuring Complications. One thing that probably bears mentioning about this whole mechanic is that this is strictly for situations where the DM doesn't deem the task impossible or trivial. It only applies when they have both a chance of success and a meaningful chance of failure.

For any risky (not impossible, not trivial) task for which being prepared can render a complication easy, rate it on scale from 1-3 (moderate, challenging, extraordinary?) and compare it to the resources the players can bring to bear. If they have sufficient kit, they pass unhindered. If they lack kit, assess consequences.

Complication Kit Required Consequences
Extreme Heat Water Protections from the sun Avoid exertion Gain 1 fatigue per missing kit per day. Each time you gain fatigue this way, make a saving throw or halve current and maximum hit points until the fatigue is recovered.
Extreme Cold Dry winter clothing Sturdy Shelter Hot food As above
Pick Locks A turn of careful work Training Special tools Roll under dexterity to unlock else jam Lock jammed Lock jammed loudly
Disarm Traps A turn of careful work Training Special tools Roll under dexterity to disarm else click Roll under dexterity for click Save or suffer trap
Climb Wall Inspection of the whole route Climbing gear Adequate time Roll under constitution in order to scale/pass the current obstacle. Succeed or fail, take 1 fatigue for each bit of missing kit. If a PC's fatigue causes them to exceed their limit, take damage as if falling 10' per missing kit.
Swim Free of bulky attire Hands are empty Training or practice As above
Bend Bars / Lift Gates Assistance from person or tool Assistance from person Assistance from person Roll under strength in order to lift/bend the current obstacle. Succeed or fail, take 1 fatigue for each bit of missing kit. If a PC's fatigue causes them to exceed their limit, take damage as if falling 10' per missing kit.
Disguise Study target's mannerisms Wear appropriate attire Conceal face Require successively more difficult reaction checks to maintain the disguise.

This isn't a universal resolution mechanic and I wouldn't use if for such a thing. I laid out the types of obstacles for which I would use this in the last post but it's worthwhile to look at a few cases where I wouldn't use it to illustrate why.

When I wouldn't use Complications:

When randomness is important

I don't want sneaking to be deterministic. The tension of being discovered / not knowing works better as a gamble. But it still should involve player choices. Heavy equipment and animals are more commonly found among established PC groups so lower level parties will tend to be more adept at stealth. "Large groups" is purposefully vague as a handful of orcs will tend to be louder than a mob of halflings.

Move Stealthily / Hear Noise

Roll 1d6. On a roll of 1 (or 1-2 for perceptive monsters, Elves, and Thieves), the other party is detected. This works for both PCs sneaking by monsters and monsters sneaking up on PCs. For each of the following that is true, add +1 to the chance-in-six:
  • Anyone in the sneaking party is wearing heavy armor.
  • Any large or noisy animals are present among the sneaking party.
  • The sneaking party is a large group.

Monsters breaking down a door
Jeff Easley's cover for the 2nd edition Dungeon Master's Guide

When it's already a failstate with consequences

Un-sticking a door happens when either no one has the capability to unlock it or you've jammed it through failure at picking it. It can also happen when it's been spiked on the other side. Since it already represents failure of a sort it should default to a gimme in order to not punish twice for bad rolling. It's always loud; you bring a thief when you want to do things quietly.

Unjam a Door

Roll under strength. Roll a noise check, which is an overloaded encounter die that ignores non-monster results. It cannot be done quietly.

When it is an essential function of a class

What fighters do is fight. All the ways of complicating fight mechanics: shoves, trips, disarms, etc., should be available to every fighter and they should be better than everyone else at them. Ability scores differ between characters and I don't want strong wizards outshining average fighters. But they shouldn't be limited to fighters. There's no reason that other classes shouldn't be able to attempt them, which limits the utility of something like DCC's Mighty Deeds Die. This means that they should all be tied to attack bonus, the one trait where fighters are king.

Combat Maneuvers

Any time you want to do something clever in combat in addition to attack, roll two attack dice. If both hit, your maneuver succeeds in addition to damage. If both miss, an ironic reversal occurs that puts you at a disadvantage. If only one succeeds, the target picks whether to suffer the maneuver or the damage.

When both the actions and consequences are both binary

This works by extracting nuance from preparation or consequence and expressly creating a way to succeed with sufficient foresight (previously "taking 20"). If the action is purely an action or lack of action, and the consequence only a result or lack of result, it lacks the requisite degree of gray to make game-able.


Place something solid between yourself and the enemy. You're hidden. If you want to move, look above at Move Stealthily. If the enemy saw you before the concealment, they might still guess where you are. If there is nothing to hide you, you are spotted. Magic or special gear might provide ways to "wear" concealment.

When it can be covered without an additions

Large traps, or "room traps" are more than capable of being described, of handing out clues, of leaving evidence of their existence. They are obstacles more than they are foes. They can be deadly, but like a speedbump, they exist more to slow down and punish insufficient cleverness or patience than to evidence dangerous opposition. Give the player clues it exists and let them describe how they deal with it.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Adventuring Complications

I recently read a module that featured a climb up a mountain. What struck me while reading it was just how unequipped this game is to deal with long, complicated, and difficult-to-describe actions.

This shows up most dramatically with small traps like those found in treasure chests. Large traps are easy: a hallway lined with slots on the walls and a beheaded skeleton on the floor is a great way to signal the presence of something menacing and it's up to the players to figure out the trigger in order to avoid or neutralize it. Just use the 3 clue rule and it becomes a solvable problem. Small traps, on the other hand, occur in places where you can both expect traps and have difficulty in perceiving them, and which may have complicated mechanisms that are difficult to describe to the players. The game should never devolve to resolving issues like this with saving throws alone.

Longer complications, like travel in hostile environments, are handled little better. Games have attempted to express the hostility of hot or cold environments at times but have usually added so many additional mechanics they get inevitably hand-waved.

Leo in The Revenant
Just make this into an RPG.
Climbing, a seemingly obvious task that even children accomplish, provides a different set of problems. The most involved-and-still-interesting climbing mechanics are found in Patrick Stewart's Veins of the Earth. Every character can attempt climbs of varying difficulty: skill determines which types of climb are possible, while prep time determines how difficult it is, and those with points in the Climb skill can roll that too with a success with either passing. New checks are made whenever there are new climbing obstacles that weren't able to be studied from the previous inspection. Failure provokes a roll on a cascading table of bad effects. The alternative is the assumed default where characters can climb any surface, except for those they can't, which thieves can, and who may or may not need climbing gear, depending on the game, and probably a climb skill. Traditionally this has been managed with series of dice rolls, but rolling and rolling and rolling until failure isn't fun or interesting.

A key feature of all of these scenarios is that none of them actually require that the character have or do anything specific. People climb seemingly impossible heights without gear, search and find hidden mechanisms, and survive treks in extreme weather in real life. Many might suffer or even die, but those are consequences player characters face every day. The important element in all of them is preparation, in many cases meaning "adequately equipped", and taking time to accomplish it carefully. Since Dungeons and Dragons already demands that players make choices about what their character carries and a recognition of the passage of time it is more than equipped to handle this. So here's a proposal.

Complex, un-timed, and preparable complications are rated on a scale of 0-3. Call it challenge degree, if you like. Each degree requires the characters have kit to meet it without it producing consequences

Having access to the (deliberately undefined) kit usually means the character carries it with them. Usually, the kit required is obvious but by leaving it unspecified it allows for player ingenuity. It should turn these complications into problems that can be solved in a way that is both sensible and natural, to produce more opportunities for adventure, until the complication is satisfied and then fades into the background. This works particularly well for a game like Knave which shines a spotlight on inventory, but any game that limits what a character can carry should be able to use this.

The big bonus is that it reduces the need for cumbersome skill systems. Some below mention "special training" but there is no reason that this has to be a class feature, it can simply be something the PCs acquire in downtime.

This is inspired by audit inventory, an idea I've heard expressed but never read about. The idea there is that inventory isn't carefully tracked most of the time. It's only brought up when characters attempt to carry an unusually large object (treasure chest, body) or when they try to exert themselves like running away, and then sheets are checked to ascertain whether they are carrying too much. Way "too much" means can vary but typically something like Significant Items vs Strength. Speaking of, "Fatigue" written below refers to a placeholder that takes up a space in the inventory of your encumbrance system of choice. It doesn't do anything else but take up space, and PCs can only reduce it by 1 each time they sleep.

Extreme Cold

Tauntaun from Star Wars V: Empire Strikes Back
Some shelters are unconventional.
  • Wearing dry winterized clothing
  • Occupying sturdy shelter
  • Hot food
Consequences: Gain 1 fatigue per missing kit per day. Each time you accrue fatigue this way, make a saving throw to avoid halving current and maximum hit points until the fatigue is cleared.

Your typical European setting might have Cold-0 the majority of the year, so the PCs will never have to worry about it. Come winter it advances to Cold-1. At this point, the PC requires at least 1 bit of kit or preparation to avoid consequences. Having a fire at camp (assuming they have rations available) would cover hot food in my book but may be from less savory provenance. Travel into the mountain would require additional material, the construction of sturdier shelters, special clothing, and the like. I notably left out "fire" because it's the obvious way to dry out wet clothing in order to meet the first challenge requirement. Dungeons would count towards sturdy shelter so that particularly cold dungeons should stand out.

Extreme Heat

Image from Dark Sun
You know you've always wanted to run this.
  • Water
  • Protections from the sun
  • Avoid exertion

Consequences: Gain 1 fatigue per missing kit per day. Each time you accrue fatigue this way, make a saving throw to avoid halving current and maximum hit points until the fatigue is cleared.

The other pole of extreme cold, extreme heat can be used for desert-like settings or for hell (barring the cosmology of Dante). Since protection from the sun will be difficult to achieve while doing anything, PCs will be encouraged to travel at night. Since they want to avoid exertion, they will want to have animal transport even if it's not very fast. And obviously, they will require a lot of water. The point of each challenge should be to spur player action in ways that establish the setting. If the setting is a hedonistic paradise of abundance, nothing need be tracked. If the prevailing conditions are hot, then pushing players to deal with heat helps make an area feel different.

Small Traps and Locks

A character working on the door of a safe.
"Small" is relative.
  • A turn of careful work
  • Training in the detection and disabling of small traps
  • Special tools

Failure by 1: roll under dexterity to succeed anyways, otherwise hear a "click".
Failure by 2: roll under dexterity to be warned with a "click", otherwise make a saving throw or suffer the trap.
Failure by 3: make a saving throw or suffer the trap.

Yes, this means that the thief can spend a turn and unfailingly resolve all traps. JB argues that thieves shouldn't have to roll to do what their class does, anyways. The "click" refers to a method of trap activation where the PC triggers the trap but is notified before it activates, and if they describe a method of avoiding it that would work according to the DM, they experience reduced effect. In this case, if they describe an immediate action that would avoid the trap, they suffer no ill; otherwise, roll a saving throw as normal. Traps, by their nature, give fewer ways to meet the challenges and so require more nuance to the consequences.


A halfling rogue climbing from some 3rd edition book.
  • Inspection of the whole route
  • Climbing gear
  • As much time as required

Consequences: Roll under constitution once for each piece of missing kit. Fail once and take damage as having fallen 10', (or twice your level in damage if you have no falling mechanics) as you wrench your shoulder catching a ledge just below. Fail twice and taking half your hp in damage and crack a rib landing on a ledge below. Fail 3 times to fall all the way, however far that may be.

Time, in this case, is specifically left undefined. Climbing challenges come in two varieties: those that must be done quickly, and those that can be done carefully. By requiring inspection of the whole route, characters might be required to seek out alternative vantages, or use clairvoyant magic to see the route far above, or simply take their time and move from ledge to ledge. Since these are failures of proactive player action, they seemed more appropriate as ability checks than saving throws, but I could have gone either way. Constitution was chosen because climbing is about sustained exertion more than brief muscular force.

A portcullis.
Oddly menacing.

Lifting a Portcullis

  • Assistance from another person or tool
  • Assistance from another person
  • Assistance from another person

Consequences: Everyone rolls under strength to lift. Succeed or fail, take 1 fatigue for each bit of missing kit. If a PC's fatigue causes them to exceed their limit, they drop it at an inopportune moment and everyone involved must make a saving throw or suffer damage as per falling.

It's a big heavy thing. Have 3 other people help, or two others and a lever or other improvised assistance, and it's no problem. Lack of any of those and it becomes more challenging. This can be generalized for other feats of strength like the classic Bend Bars. The important part is that it provides a challenge for much of the party. Combine it with a threat that also requires the party's attention for maximum effect.


Cloud from Final Fantasy VII in disguise
Sometimes it's the only way.
  • Study the target's mannerisms
  • Wear appropriate attire
  • Conceal face
Consequences: Require successively more difficult reaction checks to maintain the disguise.

There's really no binary for whether or not a disguise works so lacking kit requires greater and greater degrees of persuasion. For some settings (mawashi) achieving the required level of kit isn't going to be possible regardless, while in others (niqab) the face concealment is integrated into the attire and so counts for both. It's important that kits create different objectives. Attire can be bought or stolen, but getting the mannerisms right requires extended close contact, instruction from someone familiar, or magical trickery. Concealing the face is most tricky, likely requiring hair-styling or wig, makeup, a veil or other obscuring headwear, a (fake?) beard, or various other additions to really sell the deception.