A draft for a magic system for stories

After quite some time I am finding myself drawn back to writing and one thing I quickly noticed when going over my notes again was that my ideas for magic were really not that interesting. I’ve been reading Elric and Hellboy and played a lot of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and one thing I really like about all of them is how the magical elements in them are windows into a much larger reality of alien weirdness and religion. I also think that the only topics worth writing and reading about are the basic existential questions of what you want, what you should do, and who you ultimately want to be. In a world dominated by immortal spirits that inhabit and empower nature and a single force that is both the source of light and magic, these two fields lend themselves to blending seamlessly together. To decide what you want to do and to be, you need to understand how you are connected to the rest of the world around you. And there really isn’t a lot to explore with a magic system in which sorcerers replace the natural instincts of animals and tendencies of plants and the elements with their own stronger will. It’s easy, practical, and reliable and doesn’t overlap in meaningful ways with philosophy and cosmology. There is nothing mythic about it.

So I went back to the drawing board to take the ideas about what magic can do that I already had and weave them into a more metaphysical framework of spirits and reality. The end result was a magic system with no spells. Elric and Hellboy have no spells where someone waves a hand and says a magic word and a bolt of lightning shots out or someone turns into a chicken. There aren’t spells in Kane or Thief, nor in Indiana Jones, and very few in Conan. Yet they are all full of magic. Slow magic and indirect magic, that often is tied to objects or spirits and doesn’t just jump out from a sorcerer’s mind.

The basic idea for magic is that all things in the world have energy, which is the source for both life and also magic. The most simple form of magic, if it can even be called that, is Alchemy. Everyone can do it if the right ingredients are known and properly used without any special power required. Alchemy is not just the brewing of potions but also the making and wearing of amulets that ward off various spirits simply because they are made of substances that these spirits avoid. Alchemy is the secret knowledge of substances that can be used to do miraculous things. There is no real line between occult alchemy and commonly known herbalism.

Life force and magical energy is in everything and connects everything, making the whole world with all its creatures, spirits, and landscapes into one. Spirits are automatically aware of these infinite connections but people can also learn to sense their presence. Through this awareness they gain moderate abilities of telepathy and precognition and a stronger ability of persuasion and dominance over others. How strong these powers of Perception and Persuasion are depends on the Personal Power of the person. Partly it is confidence, but since all things and beings are connected through their life force “power resides where men believe it resides”. Overpowering an opponent through combat, cunning, or any other display draws some of the opponents power to the victor and he gains even more power if his accomplishments are recognized by many people. But not only people can gain power. Beasts can too, as well as objects. Relics or the weapons of great heroes become powerful themselves and add their power to whoever is wielding them. Both those who lead and those who use magic greatly seek these Items of Power.

While these things and abilities are magical, the highest form of mortal magic is Summoning. Those who practice this high art are known as witches, shamans, and sorcerers. To summon a spirit, a person has to draw its attention through the use of alchemical substances and sacrifices and mentally calling out to it. Often considerable personal power is required to make a spirit come, and even greater power to subjugate it to ones will. Anyone can perform a summoning but the risk is great for those who lack the power and knowledge of alchemy to controll them. Spirits can be made to perform services for the summoner, but they also can do much more than that.

Once summoned, a spirit can grant a summoner its powers through Possession. Anyone lacking sufficient power and experience with spirits can easily fall under the complete control of the spirits they summoned. But those who are experienced and strong enough can control the spirit inside them and use its powers for themselves. The most commonly summoned spirits for possession are minor elementals that allow a summoner to breath fire, survive at the bottom of the sea, or open the ground beneath the feet of their enemies. Experienced summoners can summon such minor elementals in a matter of seconds and then release them again, but it’s always a considerabe risk and an exhausting battle of wills. Beast spirits can be summoned to allow a summoner to change his shape into that of the beast, but this can also be used against enemies who lack sufficient power to control the spirits and become permanent thralls to them, cursed to remain beasts forever.

As magic systems go, this one is pretty fuzzy and it is so by design. Mechanics and rules are not something I am interested in and it’s also a magic that is not intended for magical battles. Witches, shamans, and sorcerers are not people who throw around spells when convenient but are defined by their occult knowledge of the supernatural realm and mostly practice their magic in consulting spirits in hidden seclusion. It’s not what you’d usually come up with for a game, but for stories I find it much more interesting.

5th Edition Sword & Sorcery

With the basic framework for my next Ancient Lands campaign in place and wanting to use the opportunity to give the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons a try, I’ve sat down to think about ways to give the sandbox a proper Sword & Sorcery feel. Here are my general ideas for running a D&D campaign to go adventuring like Conan, Elric, Jirel, and Kane:

Maximum Level

I think that the higher level spells of D&D don’t fit with Sword & Sorcery. There are two options to deal with that. Either cap all PCs and NPCs at 10th level and allow no further progress, or if you want to run a longer campaign with even more powerful PCs remove all the spells from 6th to 9th level from the spell lists. Since many spells can be used to greater effect with higher level slots, spellcasters above 10th level still increase their magic power and of course also the amount of spells per day. (You could also put the cap at 8th/4th level or 12th/6th level if you want the cutoff point higher or lower.)

Giant Animals

Even though they are not terribly common in most stories, few things scream Sword & Sorcery to me like giant reptiles and giant insects. Probably because they are mostly unheared of in other types of fantasy. Huge bears, tigers, and apes are also great and similarly rare in other fantasy. In addition to giant sized normal animals, 5th edition also has ankhegs, behirs, bullets, carrion crawlers, owlbears, remorhazes, and wyverns which are also all very nice fits.

Monstrous Humanoids

There are good number of really bestial humanoids in the monster manual like ettercaps, ghouls, gnolls, harpies, hags, minotaurs, yuan-ti, and also grimlocks. I would mostly rely on these for humanoid opponents instead of the usual goblins and orcs which are still very humanlike in both appearance and behavior.

Dens of Debauchery

I think for Sword & Sorcery the taverns need to have a strong character and be given a good amount of detail that goes beyond “table, beds, barkeeper”. Taverns are were a great amount or even majority of social interactions will take place and are the best location to show off the rowdy life of adventurers and scoundrels. Taverns or the halls of kings and warlords should be presented as loud and crowded and stuff should be happening there. NPCs spying on the party or trying to steal from them or attempt assasinations, and of course the occasional bar fight. Taverns should not feel like the game menu screen.

Carousing and Long Rests

I got this great idea from Beleriphon at the Giant in the Playground Forum: The Dungeon Master’s Guide has an optional table for carousing and waking up the next morning with possibly interesting results. In the spirit of Conan, Fafhrd, and Gray Mouser, carousing is the perfect situation for the characters to level up at the end of an adventure. They are back at their current place and are enjoying the spoils of their exploits. I would even go a step further and make it mandatory for characters to go carousing to gain the benefits of a long rest from a night of sleep. Or a late morning and noon of sleep. Even with a bad headache, the heroes are then back to their full strength.


Sword & Sorcery games are exactly the type of campaign for which Inspiration exists. The DMG recommends aiming at giving each character inspiration once per play session but I think that’s severely underusing it and making the whole mechanic superflous. It only grants advantage on a single roll. That’s really not much. You can give characters inspiration much more than that. And in Sword & Sorcery you should!


When a player does something balls to the wall awesome that is daring and reckless but sounds really cool, give the character inspiration to one of the dice rolls involved in that action. Don’t be stingy. In a Sword & Sorcery campaign you want the players to try crazy cool stuff as often as possible.

Weird Dungeon Architecture

Almost all dungeons I’ve seen in fantasy RPGs feel very much like being either castles, abandoned basements, or military bases with natural cave walls. For Sword & Sorcery this is not enough. Sometimes the adventure does lead the party into a normal castle or a well maintained prison, but most of the time, dungeons in Sword & Sorcery are magical and unnatural places that have only passing resemblance to the normal world outside. Even when they are small they are Mythic Underworlds. In my own campaign, which is a very animistic world with lots of spirits, I actually make the entrances to these dungeons portals into the Spiritworld.

There’s probably a huge range of options to do that which someone could write a book about. (Note to self.)

Uncertain Outer Planes

Even though Planescape is great and could be seen as Sword & Sorcery in its own quirky way, I think the standard outer planes of D&D don’t really work with a more mainstream kind of Sword & Sorcery, particularly the good planes. Everything from Pandemonium to Gehenna could work really well, but being able to open a gate and walk among the gods and angels in Elysium and Celestia just doesn’t fit a Sword & Sorcery game.
One approach that I could see working quite well would be to have Heaven and the Hells to be very different in nature and not be analogous and matching opposites of each other. Heaven can be an unknown place unreachable by mortal magic while the hells are open to visitors and demons very willing to answer mortals and listen to their offers of bargains. Or if you want to go down that route, there could be no Heaven, only numerous Hells.
In my campaign the only two other planes are the Spiritworld (Feywild) and the Void (Astral), which can not be visited but is the home of demons.

Few Magic Items

Sword & Sorcery heroes rarely carry more than one or two magical items with them and often don’t have any enchanted weapons or armor at all. If they have something it’s usually protective items that directly counter specific abilities of magical creatures. And alchemy. Lots of alchemy. If you want to give players a good amount of magical help in a Sword & Sorcery campaign, go nuts with potions.

Quick and Dirty Fishtank

A fishtank is very much like a sandbox, but instead of large map with numerous dungeon at the center it’s all about a cast of interesting NPCs and competing factions for the players to clash with. In a way, this is more challenging for a GM as a dungeon with a vague origin and original purpose is muc easier done than a handful of NPCs with interesting goals and motivations. And you still have to build lairs and strongholds for them anyway.

While working on my own plans for a new fishtank campaign this winter, I noticed that I’ve actually taken a very convenient shortcut. Following the great advice of “Good artists borrow, great artists steal”, the entire main framework of my fishtank is simply the old D&D adventures Against the Cult of the Reptile God and The Elfwhisper and the excellent storyline of the Bloody Baron from The Witchet 3 all set in the same town.

All three adventures are pretty linear designs, but at the core they really are starting situations with a problem that the players are supposed to fix somehow. The D&D adventures expect the players to go to the lair and kill everything, but the videogame at least offers a good range of different linear paths to chose from. (Which only shows how bad even most better published adventures are. This is the one aspects in which videogames can not come close to the potential of RPGs.) There are really quite a lot of adventures for D&D and Pathfinder that have some really cool setups at the start. Even with a typical dull Pathfinder railroad, the initial setup is often very much salvageable and usually the best part of the adventure.

If you want to set up a small fishtank, simply grab three or two adventures that you think look cool and take the NPCs with their goals and motivations and the dungeon floorplans and put them all down on the same map. And all the heavy lifting i basically done with that. To make things a bit more interesting and complex, think a bit about how those important NPCs might know each other and how their plans might put them into conflict. Maybe add some embellishments here and there, create a handful of new NPCs and minor dungeons, and you get a decent fishtank pretty quickly.

5th Edition Spell Lists for the Ancient Lands

This is a continuation from my last post on houserules on D&D 5th Edition for the Ancient Lands setting. It’s something of a draft as I am still not completely happy with it, particularly the witch spell list being much longer than the shaman spell list. But I think overall this is pretty much what I’ll be going with to give the game a try in my setting.

Ranger Spells

The ranger spells are largely based on the standard ranger spell list but I removed a number of spells that seemed to flashy to me.

1st level

Animal Friendship
Cure Wounds
Detect Magic
Detect Poison and Disease
Fog Cloud
Hunter’s Mark
Speak with Animals

2nd level

Animal Messenger
Beast Sense
Lesser Restoration
Pass without Trace
Protection from Poison
Spike Growth

3rd level

Conjure Animals
Plant Growth
Protection from Energy
Speak with Plants
Water Breathing
Water Walk
Wind Wall

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5th Edition Classes for an Ancient Lands Campaign

Whether the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is really suitable for a campaign in my Ancient Lands setting mostly comes down to the character classes. My approach to magic and supernatural or superhuman abilities is quite different to that of generic D&D from the recent past, but on a closer look the classes from the Player’s Handbook actually would need very little work to be perfectly suitable. By and large, simply removing some of the options was all it takes to make the classes into something that is perfectly appropriate for my setting.

These are the classes I intend to use for my new campaign next year:

Barbarian: No changes.

Druid (Shaman): Only Circle of the Land archetype. Looses Wild Shape ability, gains Bardic Inspiration, Song of Rest, and Countercharm as the Bard class.

Fighter: Only Champion and Battlemaster archetypes.

Ranger: No changes.

Rogue: Only Thief and Assassin archetypes.

Wizard (Witch): Only Divination, Enchantment, Illusion, and Transmutation archetypes. No spellbook, spells known as sorcerer.

Maximum Character Level: All PCs and NPCs can only advance to 10th level.

Multiclassing: Unrestricted.

Feats: No feats. (It’s an additional level of complexity I don’t want to bother with.)

Spellcasting: All spellcasting uses the Spell Point variant.

Spells: The spell lists for rangers, shamans, and witches will have to get some considerable changes, but that’s somehing that is going to take a bit longer and will be covered in a separate post.

So I was looking at Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

And it actually doesn’t look bad at all. I played 3rd edition and Pathfinder for 12 years or so until I started looking at other fantasy RPGs and quickly got fed up with the excessive complexity, option creep, and power curve of d20 games. I’ve been toying and playing around with various AD&D and B/X clones since then and quickly lost interest in 5th edition after about the second playtest version. I’ve not even been looking at it with my butt since then.

dungeons-and-dragons-players-handbook-5th-edition-cover_largeBut recently I notices that several people writing about RPGs, who describe a play style very similar to my own, seem to be running 5th Edition as their system of choice and I got a bit curious when seeing forum threads about how people are feeling about the game after two years of playing. And the things that were praised by people who like it sounded quite intriguing, so I finally gave the finished game a first actual look.

My first impression was that the character classes once again have way too many class features, but when I actually read through the descriptions it turned out to actually be not nearly as bad as in Pathfinder for example. Most classes get something at each level, but mostly it seems to be pretty minor things that don’t look like they’d introduce a lot of option creep. There are some things about the races that I used to find aesthetically unpleasing, like giving characters lots of ability scrore bonuses with no penalties to counter them, but since then I’ve moved away from the idea of 1st level characters being perfectly average people. Now I think even first level characters should already be heroic individuals in a completely different league than the common rabble.

A similar thing is going on with hit points. 5th Edition characters get a lot of hit points. Hit points per level have been bumped up again, but more importantly the ability to heal damage during short rests by rolling your amount of hit dice pretty much doubles the amount of damage characters can take every day. And if I got this right, all damage is healed during a long rest. Perhaps, calling it damage isn’t really that accurate anymore. Getting hit certainly doesn’t represent a significant injury if the points can return completely within an hour without any magic.

Overall, my impression is that low-level characters in 5th Edition are much more like what used to be mid-level characters in previous editions. No more zero to hero. You start as heroes right from the beginning.

What quite impressed me is the combat rules and skill system. Having played 3rd Edition for over a decade almost certainly helped a lot, but I think I got a pretty good grasp on the complete 5th Edition combat, exploration, and interaction rules within just half an hour of reading.

I am still not a fan of the spell slot system, but it’s much less annoying than it used to, with spells not disappearing after they are cast. Have not looked at all the classes yet, but they all seem to work much more like the sorcerer from 3rd Edition. And the DMG also has an option to convert them all to spell points, which looks quite decent. There also is only a single cure wounds spell whose power depends on what spell slot you use for it, similar to how most psionic powers worked in the Expanded Psionic Handbook. This is something I really like as it reduces the amount of pretty much duplicate spells and makes magic more flexible.

Also very nice are the new monster stat blocks. The main stats are almost as short as in the old TSR editions but also have all special attacks and abilities written right below them in a way that makes them very easy to look up in the middle of fights. 3.5e and Pathfinder already put all special abilities into the stat blocks, but with the game being so complex you often had huge paragraphs that can take some considerable time to read and fully grasp. 5th Edition monster stats are much neater and tidier.

The main oddity that I noticed is the distribution of monsters in the Monster Manual. So far the only Monster Manual. Not sure if the Challenge Rating system is any better or worse than it was in 3rd Edition, but a very large portion of monsters seem to have been rated down by 2 points and now the vast majority of monsters is of CR 4 or lower. There’s a few CR 5 and 6, but beyond that point there’s really pretty much only dragons, demons, giant, and golems. Which is not necessarily bad. One big annoyance of 3rd Edition is that many cool monsters are so powerful that it takes a very long time until the party is strong enough to be able to fight them, and in pretty much all the games I ran and played, the group never reached a level where fighting giants, beholders, or larger dragons could be considered. Reducing the spread is certainly welcome. However, at the same time it raises the question why it would be worthwhile to have a 20 level game at all? I would have to see the game in action for a long time, but the first very basic impression I get is that there’s not really a whole lot new to come after passing 10th level. Though this isn’t exactly new or unique to 5th Edition. The very first Dungeon & Dragons game was conceptualized as basically a 10 level game, with characters who passed 9th level no longer really improving much in power and being expected to settle down as rulers and generals. The story how 6th level and higher spells ended up in the game is somewhat murky, but I’ve seen claims that they weren’t really part of the original concept and only thrown in without much thought.

All in all, I am quite intrigued by this game and I’m seriously considering to use it for my next campaign instead of going with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Though maybe I’ll feel different about it in a week or two. But still, I have to say that 5th Edition looks much more interesting and better than I assumed. It’s indeed pretty lightweight compared to 3rd Edition but also avoids the high fragility of low level characters in OSR games.

Kickstarter starts for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea 2nd Edition

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is getting a second edition and the Kickstarter campaign has started last week and is going until 30. November.


AS&SH was my first OSR game, performing the impressive feat of presenting the rules of AD&D in a way I was actually able to understand. I eventually moved on to B/X and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but it’s still one of my favorite games and it has a lot more to offer than just game mechanics. The same but more sounds like a pretty good deal to me. But I have to say the new art alone is enough to get me sold. Just look at the new cover!

I’ve not given any money to kickstarter projects before with money being tight, but now that I am starting my first regular fulltime job next month the situation has changed. And AS&SH is the perfect first thing to throw money at. It’s a bit of a gamble to give money for a yet nonexisting thing, but the first edition was already really good and I gladly do my part in having more really good Sword & Sorcery games on the market and inspiring people to give them a try or add their own content to what’s already out. (Which I think could still be a lot more.)

The Monster in its natural habitat

The current OSR topic of the week appears to be monster books. Which is one of my favorite topics and just for once I’m not a month late to the part. Just a day earlier, a new monster from Joseph at Against the Wicked City had me motivated to put a lot more effort into my own monsters. I9 got things like tar demons, giant hypnotic butterflies, and psychic flying tentacle monsters and there’s a lot more potential in them than just a stat block with hit points, damage, and perhaps two or three spells. And I am in agreement with the other writers who think that this is basically all that common RPG monster books provide.

I think that’s a general problem with RPG material, not just monster books but also campaign settings and adventures, and it has been so for a very long time. A question that you see brought up a lot these days, and very prominently and deservedly by Bryce at tenfootpole, is “how does this help a GM to run a game”? I think I am probably speaking for every fan of monster books in saying that what we are looking for are not stats and new mechanics. What we hope to find in such books are ideas to turn into great adventures and encounters that are thrilling and fascinating to the players.

I wouldn’t go as far as noism and say that I’d be happy with a book that is nothing but pictures, but I can see where he is coming from. Monster art always has a huge impact for me, often considerably greater than the stats and the actual description text you get in most books. And I think D&D and all it’s descendants have been doing it wrong from the very start. I don’t blame the first Monster Manual, as it was a completely new thing and creators still had to learn what works and what doesn’t by trial and error. But shortly after we got the Fiend Folio, which could teach us a lesson that has still been largely ignored to this very day.

Hm, okay...

Hm, okay…

Most art in monster books is very much resembling zoological species identification guides. You get the creature from a front angle or slightly from the side, in a position that is at rest or ready to attack, with a focus on making it very easy to see its anatomy and all its distinguishing physiological features. Its a precise way to give the reader a good view at how the creature looks. But it’s also very boring and doesn’t really tell you anything about what the creature does, how it behaves, and in what situation the players might encounter it. The FF had images of this type for every creature, but it also had a lot of pictures showing some of the creatures in a fight with adventurers. And these action shots are always making the respective creatures so much more interesting than the portraits.

I assume that the intention is that the illustration of each creature is as generic as possible to allow GMs to imagine it in whatever environment and situation is appropriate for it in their respective campaigns, and this might also go for the description text. But I don’t think it works this way.

Much more interesting.

Much more interesting.

As I said above, the most useful presentation of a monster is something that inspires encounters and adventures based around the creature. That is what we pay for. Not a block of stats and abilities to be a moderate challenge for a group of four 15th level characters. Action shots are probably more expensive than portraits since the artist has to paint at least twice as much space and its much more complex work to get the full composition of creatures and environment right. But as I see it, it would be worth it. I gladly pay a bit more for monster books that inspire me by giving me ideas that I can work with. I buy the monster books that are around because there’s nothing else to get, but I almost always feel disappointed by them. Showing the creatures in action, in a context that suggests situations to steal for my own campaign, would be a good step forward. It requires much more effort from the writers, but that’s after all what I am paying for. Imagine a monster book with descriptions like those of Joseph and proper action shots for each creature. A book like that would easily blow everything else out of the water.

My thoughts on Crypts & Things

Just a couple of days ago I got very excited about finally being able to get a look at Crypts & Things, which I’ve often seen praised as a fantastic Sword & Sorcery take on OSR games.


But I have to admit that very quickly after starting to read, my enthusiasm for it went down very fast. Crypts & Things is not a bad game and it’s certainly more Sword & Sorcery than other OSR games, even more than Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. But my feelings on it are that it’s not a particularly impressive game and that it follows a concept of Sword & Sorcery that is exclusively Conan and Conan-clones, which is perhaps the dominating view among OSR players.

At ita base, Crypts & Things is Swords & Wizardry with a couple of variant rules and new mechanics. I’m very unimpressed with S&W to begin with and pretty much all the shortcomings I see in it apply to C&T as well. There are however a couple of nee ideas that I quite like. In C&T, bonuses for high ability scores are the same as usual, but penalties for low scores never get greater than -1.
The effect is almost the same of rolling 2d6+6, which I wrote about last month. This makes characters that are good at many things, but not really bad at anything, which fits Sword & Sorcery very well.

C&T has its own classes, of which the Fighter,Sorcerer, and Thief are pretty much as usual. Fighters get access to various weapon skills as they advance but the bonuses are so small that it just seems to add complexity for no real benefit. What I quite like however is that the thief’s skills are not exclusive to thieves. All characters can make a skill check based on their character level, but each class gets a +3 bonus to activities that fit their archetype. The barbarian is a new fourth class that turned out not to be another berserker as you usually see in D&D, but actually a lighter warrior with better wilderness skills. Filling the very same role as my Scout class for LotFP. Of course, I consider this a goo idea as well.

There are also five special classes including an elementalist but also lizardman and serpentman characters which can be used as NPCs or might be allowed for players in some campaigns.

Next there’s 11 pages of tables to create randomly generated character backstories.I’ve never been a fan of any such things.

A big difference to S&W is the spell list for sorcerers which consists mostly of magic-user spells and a few cleric healing spell. It’s still the regular D&D spells,which I find particularly unsuited for Sword & Sorcery. These spells are in three groups and classed as white gray,or black magic. They function very much the same but casting a white magic spells alerts demons that are close by and black magic spells can increase a character’s corruption. Interesting idea for a new mechanic, but I think this is an area where C&T falls flat to me.

Corruption is a cool concept in Sword & Sorcery, but in C&T it simply accumulates unti the character gets a mutation that seems mostly cosmetic. Kt feels overly bare bones to me.

Same thing with Sanity. You get insanity points as the game progresses and once you got too many the character goes mad and is out of the game.

Then there is also Luck, which is basically a regular action point mechanic with not much else to it from what I can see from my brief reading.

These are all concepts that are implicitly present in much Sword & Sorcery (particularly the hammy Clonan type) and that could be quite interesting to have in the game, but the mechanics presented here all strike me as very bare bones, bland, and also somewhat boring. I know I am a very tough customer when it comes to variant mechanics for simple games, but neither of these three makes me want to see it in action. I applaude the intend, but the execution isn’t doing anything for me.

All in all, Crypts & Things strikes me as a game that should work well and that I would play without complaints if invited to it, but I don’t really see anything in it that would make me want to run it instead of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. You can see that it’s made for Sword & Sorcery, but doesn’t seem to be any more suited for it than any other generic OSR game.

War Cry of the Flame Princess: Hit Points and permanent injuries

Like many people, I am not a big fan of having PCs be perfectly fine with 1 hp remaining and instantly dead when they are at 0 hp.

My approach to hit points is to not regard them as wound points but as stamina points. A succesful hit means that the target suffers minor scratches and bruises that interfere with its ability to succesfully deflect or dodge attacks and avoid serious injury. When a character runs out of hit points the extortion becomes too high and he slips, suffering a serious wound. It’s an abstraction like any way you can think of hit points, but I think it’s the best approach to have the fiction of the adventure match the rules of the game.

But the bigger challenge is how to handle the situation of a PC being reduced to 0 hp. I have a big dislike of the complex dice rolling and multiple modifiers of third edition and AD&D and I certainly don’t want to go through anything like the trouble of multiple successive rolls to stabilize and recover while having negative hit points. A much simpler approach is this:

When an attack deals more damage to a character than he has hit points left, the remaining points of damage are compared to his Constitution score. If the points of damage in excess of the current hit points is greater than the Constitution score, the character is dead. If not, the character is only unconscious for 10 minutes and permanently loses 2 points of Constitution. This loss of Constitution represents a lasting injury that neither surgery nor magic will ever fully reverse. While unconscious at 0 hp, any further damage will automatically kill the character. A character who regains consciousness is unable to fight or do other tiring activities until brought to 1 hp or more through resting or magic.

There are no saving throws or Constitution checks. Death and permanent injury are always automatic. In my past campaigns characters running out of hit points was always very rare already. Adding a significant chance to negate the effects only makes it even more unlikely that something bad will happen to a character. (Though running Sword & Sorcery dungeon crawls will probably increase casualties in my next campaign a lot.) I had considered to randomly determine whether the ability loss affects Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, or Intelligence, but with hit points already representing the ability to continue fighting I don’t think it’s necessary.

I like this solution since it’s both somewhat realistic in regard to actual battle injuries, and it also matches the habit of many Sword & Sorcery heroes to be left for dead with grievous wounds. As in Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars, being almost dead is nothing that a week of rest can’t heal, even if it leaves a lasting mark. With a Constitution score of 2d6+6, this gives a character about three to seven opportunities to cheat death before being too crippled to continue, though it might be worth considering retirement much earlier than that. It’s a lot more forgiving than the standard rules for death, but it’s still something that players really will want to avoid.