Thursday, December 19, 2019

Combat System, Some Assembly Required

At some point, the PCs are going to fight something. While combat may or may not be a fail state, it's going to happen regardless. Traditionally, this has involved a complicated minigame with rules and procedures entirely unlike those found outside it. A move and an attack are an assumed default in most D&D-alikes. Special tricks are always a pain to adjudicate, initiative is always a hassle, and it always takes too long if it gives you very many options at all. The way many choose to play is then ultra-light and heavy on adjudication, in contrast to the method chosen by the world's largest RPG and its imitators, which are cumbersome and, well, still heavy on adjudication. Some of the more popular OSR games, like the GLOG, attempt to bridge the divide by giving PCs a limited number of options while hard-capping endless growth.

I want to try to create a set of rules for running Shadowrun using Knave, tentatively called Crave unless I can come up with something better. It wouldn't be strict by-the-book Catalyst Game Lab Shadowrun, but more a pastiche or reimagining of it, both because of the needs of the system and also because I simply don't like some of it. But to make it work would require some reworking of some basic assumptions of old school games, which typically focus on gritty early modern adventures. In that vein, here are some ideas that I've been noodling and discussing on the discord but are as yet untested. I just needed to get everything out of my head an on a sheet. Hopefully, someone else might find something useful. Some or all of this may need to work itself in any eventual hack.

Covered in this post: Intentional Surprise, Weapons, Automatic Fire, Range as Armor,  Locations and Cover, Death and Dismemberment, Stamina and Fatigue, Actions and Initiative, Stunts, Maneuvers, Unarmed Attacks, Ripostes, Monster Magnitude, and Signature Techniques

Klaus Pillon

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

An Idea For Useful Languages in RPGs

Languages are never fun in tabletop roleplaying games. People have come up with numerous ways to handle them, and their methods become especially absurd in games where languages are handled by leveled skill points ("Sorry, professor, but I can't learn Spanish until I go shank some goblins and steal their loot."). LotFP has a linguistic skill, for example, that you roll to determine whether or not you know a language; max the skill and you know everything. AD&D had "alignment languages" and people the first part of that term was even worse than the second. Some effort has been made to at least make the languages interesting. Meanwhile, most people just dispense with languages entirely. Here's a proposal.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Skill Checks for OSR Games

I can already feel my 7 or 8 readers cringing at the title. OSR style games tend to try to avoid the very idea of skills. From goals of simplicity to theories of gameplay, the concept has a very contentious history. I don't like skill systems in general.  They are cumbersome at best, troubling intrusive and game-breaking at worst. What I've done, instead, is sorta universalize something that was already going on in early D&D and made more explicit how to apply and adjudicate it in various situations. It'll be quick, I promise.

Shadowhaxz0r on Deviantart

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Pendragon Character Traits and Passions

Chris Perkins (not the WotC one, so far as I am aware) of From The Sorcerer's Scroll wrote about utilizing Pendragon's Traits in a Dungeons and Dragons context. It's an interesting idea to generate a bit of personality in ordinarily-quite-plain PCs. The first post laid out the basics of rolling these traits like ability scores and then modifying the base number according to some assumed racial traits.  The second post lays out famous traits and trait tests, a sort of continuation of the old idea that acting against your alignment produces an alignment change, but in typical 5e with trait checks and DCs and an overabundance of detail. The final post lays out passions (Hate, Honor, Hospitality, Love, Loyalty) and feeds both traits and passions into the nascent storygamey Inspiration mechanic.

Chris surely finds this useful but it is far more than I'd ever want in D&D. I'm not interesting in mandating certain character behavior, or mechanizing role-playing, or creating a new mechanic for my players to have to grok. But I still think some of the ideas he lays out can be utilized in an OSR brew. And like 50% of all OSR content, it breaks down as an add-in to character generation: Player Characters start as a tabula rasa. They don't have, nor should they have, detailed personalities or backgrounds. Any detail in that direction should be created and noted as smoothly as possible; in other words, something ripe for random generation.

The fun part is that this is an element that I'd leave entirely in the capricious hands of the random number generator. The specifics will never appear written down, the requirement to make thirteen additional 3d6 rolls will never make an appearance in my game, and the existence of its biases will be known only by me. If I want more knavish characters generated, I can slightly alter the balance of traits by changing a single number upward and from then on vices will appear more often than virtues. If I want to (and I plan to do this) weigh traits according to player character races, that is a slight addition to hard code and a slightly larger addition to make dynamic and from then on I can make Dwarves trend towards lustiness and piety, for example, while Elves might be indulgent and honest, and because the number crunching is done in secret there doesn't even have to be the appearance of balance.

That's what I've done with this little button here. It generates 3d6 scores for each of the 13 Pendragon traits, judges which ones are interestingly different from average, and then feeds out the top 3. It's also a lot heavier than it probably needs to be, code-wise, but that's because I intend to incorporate it into further character generator randomness. I didn't bias it either way, so heroes are as likely as villains.

Finally, a major reason I made this is that I want to work on my programming skills, something spurred on by Spwack's and Saker's own random generators. In that vein, I'll try to explain what I did and why below.

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.

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 pattern, 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 witch 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.

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.

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.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Adventuring Complications

[Update: I've revised and refined this idea here.]

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.