Non-rule Rules in my Campaigns

Someone asked on Enworld about informal conventions and customs in people’s games that go beyond the mechanical rules of the game system, and it occurred to me that I actually have quite a lot of those. Might as well share the list here:

  • My campaigns are set up to be about exploring the world, not the characters. Adventures are expeditions by the party, not personal stories. Players are free to drop in and out of the campaign without disrupting the campaign too much. As long as three players make it to the game, we play.
  • When making characters for the campaign, there’s only two hard rules they have to follow: Every PC must want to go exploring dangerous places, and has to want to cooperate with the party for this. Antisocial loners who are reluctant to go on adventures are simply not viable for the campaign.
  • Create characters with the assumption that they will probably die in some dark hole from an accident or getting stabbed by a nameless critter and that you might go through two, three, or even more characters before the campaign wraps up.
  • Since PCs are replaceable and to some degree interchangeable, backstory is something that the players can create to help deciding on their characters’ personality and stats. It won’t normally be relevant in play.
  • When players want to take an action against other PCs, (attacking PCs or messing with their possessions) the offending players have to openly state the actions their characters are contemplating. It is then up to the defending players alone to decide if the offending PC goes through with the action or not. If the defending players decide on on, then the offending players have to accept that their PCs decide not to do it.
  • My role as GM of the campaign is to facilitate the game for the players. I try my best to provide a world that has places to explore and treasures and wonders to find, and villainous NPCs who are doing their villainous things which the players can choose to try to topple and drive out if they want to. I’ll describe what the PCs see, answer questions about the world, and try to make NPCs react plausibly to what the players are doing, given the resources and powers I’ve written up for them.
  • As GM, I don’t have a stake what’s going to happen in the campaign. I describe the situation to the players, the players state what they want to do, we run that input through the mechanics of the game, and I interpret the output of the dice to describe the new situation. I just run the game computer, I don’t plot or conduct the adventures.
  • Everyone can die. All NPCs and monsters have their stats fixed, and the game mechanics and dice decide which attacks and spells succeed and what effect they have. If the big bad dies in the first round or the party gets wiped, that’s the story that is playing out.
  • I will always try my best to make anything that could potentially kill a PC visibly look like a real threat. I want players to always make a conscious choice to put their characters into mortal danger. It will never appear suddenly without warning.
  • Retreat or surrender are almost always an option. (Though the players still need to work to pull it off.) Encounters are not dialed in to ensure the players can win.
  • The requirements for progress on character advancement are objectively stated as standard mechanics of the game, or defined at the start of a quest. Progress points are gained when those requirements are met, in the specified amounts.
  • Any die that falls off the table automatically counts as failure against the player’s favor.
  • Only the GM can call for a roll. Players can not announce a roll.
  • Every roll that will lead to an immediately visible result for the PCs is rolled in the open.
  • For random events like Wandering Monster encounters or a rotten bridge collapsing, the roll is a single die with the probability of “1 in N”. The standing rule is “Something always happens on a 1”. What is going to happen on a 1 is specified before the roll is made. The die is rolled by a player. (Which makes it clear that what happens is not the GM’s personal preferred outcome.)

I want a Fantasy Wargame

For a while now I’ve been thinking on and off how fun it would be to play a fantasy game where the players are going on a campaign with whole armies under their command.

Each player playing as one of the captains of each company that make up the army (and one general), with several hundred or even a few thousand soldiers under their command. Played on a big country-sized hexmap where the players have to send out scouts to find enemy forces and maneuver their troops to engage them in favorable terrain. With sieges and managing supplies to feed the troops. And of course hero units like sorcerers, priests, and champions, and special enemies like giants and dragons.

Do such games exist? I am sure they have to.

Anyone heard of one of those? And any that could be recommended?

The Actual True Size of Athas

A few years ago I created two reference images to illustrate how large the Tablelands of the Dark Sun setting really are. And they were wrong. There’s different maps of Athas that show different scales, and the one that I used back then more than doubled the real distances between any two places.

These two images are based on the hex travel map from the original first Dark Sun box, which agree with the statement in one of the books that the journey from Tyr to Urik is 170 miles (if you follow the road).

As you can see, the entire region is about the size of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, though that includes many of the truly barren wastelands surrounding the inhabited areas.

DIYRPG on Lemmy

Inspired by Marcia B. and Idle Cartulary writing about DIY Elfgames, and people on Mastodon reminiscing about the Google Plus days, I got the idea this morning to try set up a Lemmy instance for just these types of things. Sharing new creations and vague ideas of any kind related to game mechanics, campaigns, and adventures to see what other people think of that and talking about RPG design in general in ways that you can’t really have on Mastodon or Discord.

After some heroic struggles, I did get it set up and here it is: DIYRPG

As you can see, there’s nothing really there it. Just the infrastructure set up. I went into this without having any specific plans on how the whole thing should be structured and if there should be any particular rules to be established in advance. This is all still to be determined and open for future changes, based on what people think of it going forward. Registering an account on DIYRPG should be open to everyone, but being a federated Lemmy instance, you can also access it with any Lemmy account from any other instances. And if you make an account on DIYRPG, you can also use it to access all other instances.

Right now, what is needed is a couple of people to get the thing started. I’ve not yet created specific communities that will sort posts and threads into different categories, as I am looking for people sharing their ideas on how it could be structured. I started a thread on just that topic, which everyone can contribute to here.

Some Thoughts on Kaendorian Gods and Religion

One aspect of fantasy worlbuilding that I’ve always been struggling with, other than naming things, is the entire aspects of gods and religion. Which I think I am not alone with. I noticed several years ago that most fantasy settings, especially for RPGs, usually tend to have a lot of gods, but no traces of religion. Having a number of gods with names, areas of influence, and perhaps even iconography does not make religions. What do people actually believe? What do they do? How do faith and the gods actually impact life and society? And most importantly, how does it come up in play? The only case I can think of as actual religion in a fantasy world is the Chantry in Dragon Age, and that’s pretty much Christianity with slightly altered window dressing.

For Kaendor, one of the themes that I like to have well integrated at the foundational level of the whole setting, is the idea that in this world, people are not at the top of the food chain. They are not made in god’s image and they are not made the masters of the natural world by divine decree. Some ways in which this manifests is that most of the world is uninhabited and barely explored, that there are ruins of inhuman civilizations that were much larger and more powerful than society in the present, and that there are many huge beasts and strange spirits which will simply crush any people who don’t get out of their way fast enough. Nature does not care about the concerns of people, and in the end it always wins in every contest about control and mastery of the environment. I feel that this aspect also needs to be very visible in the relationship of the people with the divine powers, and that acceptance of that position in the natural hierarchy needs to be central to the religious beliefs.

Since it is central that people are not created in the image of gods and are not in any way comparable to gods, the gods can not factually have the appearance of a person. I think even depictions of a deity as a person should be rare and untypical. Maybe have depictions of important events in which the divine influence of the deity is represented by a radiant figure appearing in the background or handing something symbolic to an important mortal hero? But no stories of gods walking among people in humanoid form and having conversations with them. Instead, I think gods should primarily be cosmic forces. Like the deity of storms, the deity of knowledge, the deity of plant growth, the deity of hunting, and so forth. They are forces that are present and active in the environment and in daily life and that will do their thing that is their nature, regardless of how it affects people and their needs and desires. The gods do not love people. They don’t care about people. They might not even take notice of people.

Religion in Kaendor is not about serving the gods or about hoping for rewards or help from the gods. Religion is first and foremost about not getting in the way of the gods. They are impersonal forces active in the environment regardless of the presence or activities of people. Understanding these forces and what they do is the most important thing to not get accidentally crushed by them. But instead of being fatalistic and simply hoping to evade an inevitable doom one more day, the religion of the people of Kaendor is also about making use of the benefits and opportunities that are created by the actions of these divine forces. Religion is about living with the patterns of nature to avoid the many dangers of the natural world and to make the most of what it has to offer. Religion provides the framework by which people put abstract concepts about the environment and society into concrete actions that they can practice in everyday life. And it is widely understood to be that way by most people. Religious customs and rituals are not things demanded by a deity because it furthers a divine plan or because it pleases its vanity. They are simply sensible things to do.

Religion in Kaendor is less about faith and much more about practice. Which really isn’t that unusual for many great religions throughout human history, though it tends to seem really strange from a Christian perspective, which really is more of an outlier in that regard than the typical norm. Though spirituality does exist in Kaendor, particularly among priests. To many people, the various gods are not simply the abstract, impersonal spirits of natural or social phenomenons. They are also exemplars of different ways to approach life in general. By framing the various problems and challenges of everyday life in the context of growing crops or a hunt, priests believe that it becomes much easier to find the right answers and solution. In that regard, the cults of the various gods are very much like different schools of philosophical thought. With each philosophy claiming that their view of life and the right way of living is being exemplified by the way in which their respective deity manifests itself in the world. Emulating the gods is the path to happiness and prosperity.

Of course, to many people, simply practicing sensible customs or getting well meaning advice from priests on how to reflect on their own troubles and behavior is not the kind of divine aid that they are looking for. What they desire are more personal gods who will listen to their pleas and grant them concrete blessing and rewards for their worship. And there are many powerful beings that are open to such relationships with mortals, though priests would say that these are not true deities. This space is the realm of spirit and demon cults. Cults are very common everywhere where people live. Usually these take the form of small shrines to a spirit of a local river, mountain, or ancient tree where people will leave offerings or make small sacrifices to ask for good growing conditions for their crops or protection from predators from the surrounding woods. These gestures of gratitude to local nature spirits typically are practiced side by side with the rituals and ceremonies happening at the main temple of a town or village and might even be officiated by the temple priests on certain holy days.

Much more unusual are cults that take the form of secret societies that practice their own rights completely separate from the temples in private and often hidden sanctuaries. These cults are typically led by a single high priest who is in regular direct contact with the spirit or demon that the cult worships. They bring tribute and sacrifices to their god on the promise of concrete rewards, often wealth and power, and that the god will use its great magic power to help the cult with its earthly goals. Many of these cults have had long relationships with benevolent local spirits that have been of great benefit to their villages. But othersĀ  have pledged themselves to the service to far more dangerous and insidious beings to further their own selfish malicious plans, often blind to the fact that they are aiding a being much more ruthless than themselves.

Dungeons & Dragonbane

While I love Dragonbane precisely because it’s not Dungeons & Dragons, while still providing mechanics and content to represent similar kinds of fantasy worlds, there are a few things from D&D that I really love and want to carry over into Dragonbane anyway.

Reaction Rolls

I really love the B/X reaction rolls. It’s one of my favorite game mechanics. Any time the PCs encounter creatures or armed people in the wilderness or a ruin, and their disposition hasn’t already been determined by previous events, roll 2d6 to see how they react to seeing the party:

  • 2: They see the PCs as enemies and attack.
  • 3-5: They are hostile and threaten attack if the PCs don’t leave or surrender.
  • 6-8: They are uncertain and observe what the PCs do.
  • 9-11: They don’t want trouble and will avoid confrontation.
  • 12: They are friendly and might offer information or assistance.

PCs approaching a brigand camp might be mistaken for bandits who want to join or expected reinforcements and told to come inside. A troll might be friendly and offer to share his roasted dwarf. Lots of interesting situations that can happen if you don’t start encounters without the expectation that it obviously has to be a fight. And once the players get used to it, it changes how they approach creatures and people who haven’t spotted them yet.

Morale Checks

Plenty of armed and dangerous people might be willing to risk the chance of getting killed and to accept that some of their allies will get killed. But it is extremely rare for people to stay in a fight where their own death is certain and there’s nothing to be gained from it. Most fights should end with the losing side making an effort to escape with their lives.

But when you decide as GM that the enemies will break off the fight at a specific moment in the action, the players might always suspect that you were going easy on them because some PCs would have gotten killed if the enemy had fought on a bit longer. And that creates the expectation that you’ll probably do it again if their PCs are getting in real danger, and causes frustration when their character’s don’t get saved by a fortuitous enemy retreat.

Making a dice roll in the open solves all of that. Make the dice decide when the enemy loses morale and then stick to what the dice said. I like to roll when the first enemy is killed (or looks to have been killed), when the enemy leader is killed, and every time the enemy group is reduced by half.

Roll 2d6 against a morale value between 3 and 11 works for B/X, and I think it should work just as well for Dragonbane.

Random Encounters

Dragonbane already proposes to make a roll for a random encounter once per shift when in the Wilderness. I would also make a roll once per stretch while inside dungeons.


I really like the concept of having the PCs travel to ancient ruins deep in the wilderness with a group of camp followers. Not exactly sure how to implement that yet, but that’s something I want to have in my campaign.

Divine Sites

The BECMI Companion rules introduced the concept of Clan Relics. Powerful mystical objects that allow their keepers to activate a number of divine spells and create a magical ward that keeps away undead and demons. The idea was to let nonhuman settlements have access to the powers of a cleric in a game system where only humans could be of the cleric class. While there is no such thing as a cleric class in Dragonbane, I still really love the idea that there are powerful magical sites associated with particular deities or divine spirits that provide mystical protection for settlements that grow around them, and draw pilgrims who seek the special blessings of the shrine or temple. The priests tending to such a site don’t even have to have spells of their own.

Domain Lords

The Expert Rules imply through their mechanics and recommendations for designing a setting a world in which there is little centralized authority, and the typical social structure that is encountered consists of a lord and his soldiers in a keep providing security for a few small villages in the surrounding area. I always thought that was really cool and evocative, and something that should mesh very well with the tone and presentation of Dragonbane.