Making RPGs live up to their promise

I’ve been running campaigns for 23 years now, but it’s only been in the last ten or so since I really started to think about roleplaying games and the process of running them conceptually. There’s been a lot of discourse about what games like these actually are and what makes them tick below just the immediate surface level of specific rules since the early 2010s, and following other people’s thought on the subject has taught me a lot of things that are now widely considered to be common mistakes and bad practices. There’s been a lot said and written about how to not run a bad campaign, but to this day I still really don’t have much of a clue how to actually run a great campaign.

For the last couple of years, my focus as a GM has been primarily on the Classic Dungeon Crawling approach of early D&D in the 70s and early 80s. This is a style of game that is highly structured and procedural as RPGs go, taking place in dungeon corridors and on wilderness hex-maps somewhat reminiscent of board games, with a gameplay that largely revolves around exploring the environment and trying to work out solutions for one obstacle at a time as the players move from one clearly confined area to the next. In a good dungeon or wilderness crawl, things get a bit more complex with useful tools being scattered around the environment that can help with solving the obstacles in complete different areas and multiple possible paths to progress through the environment, but that’s still basically it. It’s a relatively simple form of game in which you mostly just have to create dungeons with good variety of obstacles and then simply follow the procedures spelled out by the rules. It does not require any further thoughts or preparation on dramatic arcs, tension, or narrative pacing. It’s much more of a puzzle game than a narrative thing, and as such relatively foolproof. All the tension and drama is focused on the moment and the scene, but the scenes do not have to come together to constitute a an ongoing, coherent narrative.

However, in recent weeks, I’ve become once more interested in roleplaying games in which the player characters are assuming the role of protagonists in an unfolding story. Which is what I believe is now commonly assumed as the general concept behind the term of roleplaying games and really took off in the mid 80s. Games like these don’t really have the underlying structure of dungeon rooms and wilderness hexes that you can follow through the entire campaign. It’s more about story and story can be anything, and as such there really is no step by step flowchart that you can follow for creating a campaign. And most advice on this subject that I’ve come across over the years I’ve felt to be vague and nebulous and not really helping me in any way. (There’s probably still a lot of things I learned gradually in the form of small bits and pieces, but I don’t remember any big moment of sudden insights or understanding.) I think that there’s actually a fair number of really decent pieces of advice around about things that you really shouldn’t do as a GM because they are counter productive and only cause more problems than they are mistakenly believed to solve. But compared to the many pieces of “do not do those things!”, there seems to be very little around in the way of “do these things!”.

I really am no experienced expert on this subject on running great story-focused campaigns in RPGs. The whole reason I’ve started thinking about this problem is because I want to return to the world of narrative roleplaying games and feel that my old approach from when I started running games is severely underwhelming and I should be able to do way better than that. And in situations like these, when I can’t find any good guides that answer my questions and have to work out something by myself, I always find it really useful to first start by making a list of the things I already do now. This post is me sharing that lists with others and explaining what I mean with the different points.

People always say that there is no wrong way to play roleplaying games, and I guess perhaps there is some truth to that. If something works for people and they are having fun with whatever they are doing, I’m really not going to try telling them to stop and do things the way I think they should be done. But even if there is no wrong way to play, there absolutely is bad advice on how to run games well. And a lot of very widespread and common practices that still get promoted as the default way to run campaigns by the writers of many rulebooks are such bad advice. They are practices that I think nobody should ever adopt, but which just keep hanging around because it’s the way that new gamemasters are still first introduced to running games. The frequency at which you still encounter people in the wild defending railroading and illusionism as actually useful devices to make it easier for GMs to stun their players with amazing scenes is just baffling. When anyone first tells new people about roleplaying games and what makes them such a cool activity, it’s nearly always about how you can play characters who are free to do anything and go anywhere, and how your choices create a unique story as the GM has the NPCs and the world react naturally and logically to whatever you can come up with. This is the promise that RPGs make to players, and I think that we all should expect these from any campaigns we play and don’t accept any campaign that doesn’t. Because what’s the point of all of it then anyway?

The Player Characters are the Protagonists

This should be completely obvious and go without saying. But when you look at any published adventures or campaigns, this is almost never the case. Adventure writers typically want to write out a decent story in advance, and since they pretty much know nothing about who the PCs are going to be and how they would react to things that are going to happen, the stories are simply written to revolve around NPCs instead. Typically villains who do their villain thing and have a tragic backstory, but occasionally an allied NPC who turns out to be a missing princess who needs the help of the PCs to reclaim her kingdom from the villain. And that’s one of the many reasons why almost all published adventures are really bad. Who wants to play in an epic campaign about a great struggle and play henchmen? That’s not what the roleplaying game medium is promising to us! That’s not how people pitch their campaigns! Whatever the story of the campaign turns out to be, it should be the story of the PCs and their deeds. They are the center piece all the events that happen during play are about and they should be the stars of the show.

The Players decide what their Characters do

Again, this is also something that should be completely obvious. But you don’t usually see it in any published adventures, and GMs tend to use those as templates and reference frames when creating their own campaigns. Typically adventures seem to be designed as a sequence of scenes, with the general things that happen in each scene being planned out before the adventure even starts. These scenes are going to happen in a general order of events, though occasionally there will be passages in which a handful of scenes can be played in any order. And in the end it will lead to a final scene in which the PCs face the villain, defeat the villain, and then somehow the villain’s army are no longer a threat. For a structure like this to work, it has to be really obvious what the players need to do in each scene to progress to the next one. Until the players do that specific thing, the story can not continue. And players know that. Typically they have no interest to waste everyone’s time doing stuff that will go nowhere, and so they simply do the very obvious thing that they are supposed to do to continue. Those aren’t choices. That’s not the players making decisions that affect what happens in the story and where the story goes. That’s the players being spectators who roll dice to make the narrator continue with the story. This is not why anyone is excited to get into roleplaying games.

Roleplaying games are completely unique as a medium because they can have stories that develop based on what the players do and decide. Books and movies always have the same stories, and videogames let you pick one of several paths that all have already been written in full. (Sandbox games that have no written story are the notable exception.) Yes, of course you can use roleplaying games as a medium to tell the players a story. But when you got a group of players together and they all learned the rules for a complex game, then why would you choose to do that if instead you could have a game in which the players create a story through their choices? The pre-written adventure completely wastes the unique possibilities of roleplaying games and does not fulfill the promise of the medium. In my view, that makes them inherently inferior and using this format is choosing to play something that is less fun and rewarding than it could be.

The Players decide where their Characters go

This point does overlap with the previous one and is kind of a subset of it. Do not only let the players decide how their characters respond to situations they encounter face to face, but also give them the freedom to choose which of the main areas of the game world they want to investigate further and which of the local conflicts and problems they want to engage with. And also very importantly, give the players full freedom to simply walk away from things when they feel things get too dicey or they have a change of heart about the righteousness of the things they had gotten involved in. Saddling the horses at night and high tailing it out of there to let all the insane idiots fight each other to their own demise could be presented as a proper resolution to an adventure with the PCs taking the moral high ground or saving themselves from a tragic unstoppable doom they were unable to prevent. It does not have to be framed as the players abandoning the adventure halfway through. If the players hear about events elsewhere that interest them, or get caught up in a situation that completely distracts them from what they were originally working at, don’t discourage them and try to get them back on track. At the end of the campaign, the story of the PCs does not have to make for a good novel with clear buildup and resolution and good pacing. When playing an RPG, it’s the tension and drama of the current scene that matters. Let the players chase after whatever has them excited right now. Don’t make them feel obliged to see through everything they started to the end. Cowardly fleeing into the night can be the conclusion to their story. The story they created, with the conclusion they made happen.

The Players choose who they side with or against

Something that had been troubling me for a long time is how you can make any preparations for a campaign so that it will be ready to start playing immediately after the players have made their characters. I’m not a fan of the generic Elfgame Fantasyland in which the players start killing rats and goblins because that’s the kind of things that beginning heroes do out of compassion, and that means it can well take a couple of weeks or a few months to have enough content ready to unleash the players on. And unless you’re thinking ahead to the next campaign with an established group of players while the previous one is still going, you can’t have such a delay between character creation and starting to play. And when you’re recruiting a completely new group of players, you have to have your pitch ready before you can even announce that you’re looking for players. I need to have the campaign played first and then I can start asking who would want to play in it. That means custom tailoring a campaign to the motivations of the party of PCs is not an option.

Then how can you plan ahead what kind of factions you set up in the game world that will be allies and enemies to the players? What if the players think their allies are idiots and they don’t think their enemies are deserving of being stopped and destroyed? The answer is: You don’t. Simply populate the game world with NPCs who are faction leaders, control access to resources, or can provide information and services useful to the players. And then let the players decide who they like or hate, who they trust and who they want to stop. Don’t designate a specific NPC to be the wise guide to the party or the main villain of the campaign. Wait and see which NPCs the players respond to the most and make them appear more frequently and prominently in the future. This way the players will end up with their favorite NPCs as their main allies, and have their most hated NPCs as their main rivals and central villains of their story.

The Players pick which Causes to pick up

Similarly, let the players decide on their own which of the larger issues they encounter in the game world they want to focus their attention and efforts on. There is nothing wrong with having some factions fighting for goals that are clearly noble or evil, but it should also be fun to have several conflicts going on where there could be a story about the players supporting either side. Say you have a charismatic preacher stirring up the peasants to rise up in rebellion against the duke and his soldiers. There could be a story about the PCs joining the peasants to overthrow the monarchy and establish an Anarcho-Syndicalist Commune and dealing with opportunists who plan to subvert the rebellion to make themselves the new lord. Or there could be a story about the PCs coming to the aide of a besieged peaceful duchy that is being threatened to be taken over by an evil priest and his fanatic cultists. Both stories could develop from the same initial setup, depending entirely on how the players perceive and interpret the situation when they first encounter it, and how their first interactions with representative of the factions play out.

Just create a social environment for the game world that has a handful of different factions that have different backgrounds, goals, and methods that puts them at odds with each other. And then let the players decide among themselves which factions they think are deserving of their help and which ones they think need to be stopped. The players need to work out what kind of party they want to play before they make their individual characters, so that their characters have similar ideas about where they stand morally, but that’s a discussion that might take five to ten minutes and is part of the character creation process. If the players think the Necromancer King is super cool and they want to become his undead lieutenants and conquer the great valley of the elves, awesome! If this is a choice that the players make themselves on their own initiative without being prompted that this is what they are supposed to do, it will make all the adventures that follow from it all the more amazing. Worst case scenario the players decide to play goody-two-shoes and decide to ally themselves with the oppressed peasant faction. The players might assume that this is what they were supposed to do, but even then there’s no harm done.

The Player Characters are the Champions of their Cause

Once the players have decided what cause they want to pursue, let their characters be the leading figures who are driving the efforts of the struggle. If they want to see the evil king toppled, led them become the leaders who are uniting the various existing groups of rebels. Don’t relegate them to ordinary soldiers who are getting send on missions that are decided by their higher ups. This goes back to the first point of letting the PCs be the protagonists of the campaign. Let them be the Luke Skywalkers and Princess Leias of the campaign. Let them be the people whose actions and choices will determine the outcome of the struggle. Let them be the heroes.

The Antagonists of the Story are within the Player Characters Means to challenge

However, letting the players be the champions of their cause and heroes of their story does not mean that the PCs have to be the most powerful important people in the game world. They only have to be the most important people in their story. And the story of the campaign could very well be one small part of much larger events that are affecting the greater world. Take for example The Seven Samurai. It’s set in a world of constant civil wars with raiding armies and roaming bandits destroying and plundering all the villages they come across. There is a tale happening somewhere in that world about one warlord rising to the top, defeating and subjugating all the other warlords, and establishing a strong state that cracks down on the bandit problem. But The Seven Samurai is not that story. The heroes of that story do not have fight and defeat all the warlords and their armies to be victorious. They are just seven samurai with no resources and there is no way for them to win the civil war for the control over all of Japan. But that is not their story. Their story is about destroying a gang of some 30 bandits raiding a single unprotected village. This is a threat that the seven samurai are perfectly able to deal with and win against. Great warlords and their armies exist in this world, but they are not the antagonists of the story. When creating adventures for a party of PCs, I think this is something very useful to keep in mind. Look at what kind of opposition the PCs could possible be able to deal with and let them encounter factions (or sub-factions of greater organizations) that are within that scope. Create faction leader NPCs who are of a power level both in game terms and social standing who the players could realistically achieve victory against. They can’t defeat the armies of the great God Emperor and overthrow him, but they might be able to defeat one company of soldiers that occupies a frontier town and slay its commander in battle. If you frame the adventure as a fight against this specific commander and his company of soldiers, instead of focusing on the God Emperor conquering the known world, then defeating them can be an amazing and heroic great victory for the players.

Failure is always an Option

“Well, well, well. If this isn’t the consequences of my own actions.”

When we are dealing with a campaign that does not have a pre-existing script for which scenes are happening in which order and with what outcomes, then any way that a given scene ends up playing out is just as workable as any other. As GM, you are right there at the table as things happen and you have the mental capacity to put yourself in the heads of the NPCs as they are being confronted with events and situations they did never anticipate to happen. No matter how badly things go for the players, nothing will force the story to stop or get caught in a dead end because the story is not written yet. If plans fail spectacularly, battles are lost, cities fall, or major allies get killed, simply roll with it. Yes, in many situations it will feel bad for the players to be faced with failure. But every failure the players experience only reinforces the understanding that every victory and success that follows later was not a given, but the result of their own work. When the players miscalculated and their plans shouldn’t work out, let them fail. When the dice say that a PC or important NPC receives a fatal wound, let them die. This is drama! The players might not be happy about it in the moment it happens, but in the long term, it is these defeats, setbacks, and tragedies that make the campaign memorable and dramatic. Try to be objective and disinterested when making calls on what happens next. Don’t kick their characters down the stairs when you think it would be dramatically appropriate in the situation, and don’t catch them when they slip and fall because it would upset them. Let the players and the randomness of the dice be in charge of the fate of their characters. The game is being played not to tell your story to the players, but to let the players create their own story. If they fail to discover important pieces of information to properly set up their plans, or misinterpret the information that they have, then these failures are on them. Those are mistakes they could have avoided and as a result they have taken risks that they could have seen coming. Let them feel the pain of their own mistakes so that they can truly enjoy the pride of their successes.

False Conclusions are the Fault of the Players

As the GM, you are the connection between the senses of the characters and the minds of the players. The players do not have direct access to what their characters see, hear, or feel, or what common knowledge they have about the world they inhabit. For the players to make reasonable and meaningful decisions, it is absolutely vital that they can have complete trust that the GM is transmitting these pieces of information as accurately as possible with no attempts to manipulate them into false conclusions or foolish actions. The players have no means of any kind to detect or confirm if there’s any kind of trickery or deception going on at this gap between their characters’ minds and their own thoughts. There is nothing clever about tricking players into believing or doing anything by intentionally giving them false or incomplete information at this interface. That’s just plain out lying to your players. And being a dick.

(General GM Advice: It’s always possible that the way you describe something to the players can result in the players getting a different image in their mind than what you’ve been imagining yourself, without any malicious intent involved. This is something that just happens on occasion. The players don’t really have a way to notice a discrepancy between the two mental images. But when you as the GM notice that the players are trying to do something that seems really weird and nonsensical, there is a very good chance that they are making reasonable choices based on wrong information about the current situation. When that is the case, it’s your duty as GM to confirm that everyone is on the same page. It’s your misleading description that caused the situation after all. The easiest way I found to do this is to simply ask the players what they believe their plan or action is going to accomplish. This will usually make any existing misunderstanding very obvious.)

Closing Thoughts

Of course, this is not a comprehensive guide on how to properly set up a campaign for greatness. As I said in the opening of this post, I’m not really sure how to run great open-ended campaigns either and I’m digging into this whole topic precisely because I am trying to discover how. But in my opinion, all these points that I made should make every campaign more interesting and fun compared to not doing them.

I am eager to see how these things will work out for me when I try to apply them in practice.

Appropriate scope in player-driven campaigns

After writing the previous post, I was checking back on a thread at ENworld that I started two months ago about how to let players take charge of where a campaign goes without telling them their characters’ goals and objectives but still getting some kind of great coherent and continuous story rather than just scattered, small scale one-shots. It led me to a conclusion that I think really deserves to be put here as a post as well.

As it turns out once again, system matters.

And having recently found a new skill based fantasy game that I actually like the looks of, I am feeling that the main error I made going into this entire thing was to approach it from the perspective of a party of 1st level D&D characters.
The level based system of D&D means that if you want an NPC of a given class to be really good at one of the abilities of its class, you also have to raise all the other abilities of that class to the required character level. That means if you don’t want to cut out two thirds of the game like in an E6 campaign, you’ll end up with an NPC population with a very broad range in power levels from the generic classless 1 HD guardsman to the 10th, 15th, or even 20th level high priests and court wizards. As such there is going to be a huge gap in power between new starting PCs and the top 20 movers and shakers of the setting. (Of course you can start the campaign with PCs with 100,000 XP, but in a game where XP are meant to be earned and representative of accomplishments, this always feels hollow to me and any further level you gain unearned as well.)

In skill based systems, all the individual skills advance separately and characters can just be really good at their specialization without having to be overall amazing in all the fields of their archetype. Which to me means a much easier time to have new starting characters with zero advancement be people of status and reknown and who are capable of contributing meaningfully in the big events of the campaign region.

I think the real takeaway from this is that the PCs have to be the most important people on the stage. They are supposed to be the protagonist of the story and the campaign is supposed to be their story.
Which doesn’t mean they have to be the strongest people in the game world, or even the strongest people in geographical area in which the campaign takes place. But they have to be real contenders for control over the environment and community in which the scenes of their story take place. In a game about street gangs fighting over turf in the harbor alleys at night, the PCs don’t have to be able to fight and defeat the knights of the castle or the sorcerers of the magic school. But they need to be able to stand up and challenge the biggest baddest bastard in the harbor. No equal to him in combat power, but able to have a real shot at winning a fight if they can corner him alone and all jump him at once from the shadows. And they don’t have to be able to do it right away, but it needs to appear to be plausibly within reach in the foreseeable future.

That’s when you really can let the players get proactive. The conflicts that matter in the scope of the campaign and the narrative stage it takes place on need to be at the scale of the PCs’ abilities. Of course you can have a campaign about ordinary townsfolk trying to survive in a city that is getting torched by barbarians. But in that campaign the conflicts that the players would be dealing with would not be about defeating the barbarian king in battle and driving out the invaders. That would be the story of a very different group of protagonists.

The conflicts that make up the story of the campaign need to be on the same level as the PCs. If the conflict happens at a scale way above the PCs’ abilities, then the players can only be spectators but not drive the story. As a background context a conflict that is way above the PCs’ heads can work very well, but that can’t be the conflict that the players get to primarily interact with.

Setting Expectations

A pun. I’m so clever.

Apparently there are still people who protest vocally when someone mentions that System Matters. Even though it should be totally obvious that it really does. Having recently started to get into the rules and mechanics of Dragonbane, I’ve been considering running my next Kaendor campaign with this system. I’ve really been a lot into the West Marches style of wilderness exploration for the last six years or so, especially since I really started to understand the Classic Dungeon Crawling structure that all the mechanics of B/X are designed around. OSE is a great way to let new players take a look at the game without having them to try understand the attack roll mechanic (which I still don’t understand to this day), and Shadowdark has some interesting new ideas to bring to that table. And both are a shiny new, or at least contemporary thing that new players have interest in to give a try. But all of these have a big problem for me and that is that they are still D&D.

And D&D has some really odd and specific assumptions about the game world that are hard wired at the most fundamental level and you can’t really replace without changing the whole premise of the game, regardless of edition, retroclone, or hack. The big ones for me are the linear level progression and the magic system. (Alignment is also stupid, but that one is actually easy to remove.) The are the main reasons why Barbarians of Lemuria has always lingered at the edge of my vision (it’s a bit too simple), why I kept looking at every new fantasy adaptation of Blades in the Dark, and why I really wanted Forbidden Lands to somehow work for my needs (it’s a bit too complex).

While I’ve been jumping from game to game in the hope to finally find the game that I want for my fantasy campaigns for many years (and in the end still always ended up with versions of D&D), Dragonbane now seems to be the most promising system I’ve come across yet. Maybe it finally is the one. I’ve been thinking for the last week about how a Dragonbane campaign set in Kaendor might look like, because the West Marches and Classic Dungeon Crawling structures simply don’t work in a system without XP. This had me reexamine the very question of how to complete the sentence of “You play as an X who does Y” for such a campaign. And finding an answer for that that works with the mechanics of the game significantly changes several quite basic assumptions of the Kaendor setting.

There are three things that stand out for me as making Dragonbane a fundamentally different game from D&D derived systems that require quite different things from the game setting to work with it. The lack of XP to incentivize certain behaviors like searching for treasure or looking for fights, the lack of character levels that creates a mechanical hierarchy of all the NPCs and PCs, and the lack of a distinction between sorcery and priestly magic.

Though many groups reportedly have stopped using XP in their D&D 5th edition games and simply give PCs new levels when the GM thinks it appropriate, it’s still a fundamental aspect of the game, and one that is central and does a lot of heavy lifting in B/X. The promise that hauling treasures from dungeons will get the PCs XP on their return is what allows players to be proactive and take charge of the campaign. They know what their characters are after (treasure) and where it can be found (dungeons), and they have the tools to go and claim it. Go out gathering information on old ruins with potential treasures, pick one to get to, and decide which obstacles to challenge and which ones to avoid. If the game does not have a mechanic that ties character advancement to their treasure hauls, then players have no incentive to randomly check out any dungeon they become aware of and poke into every little crack and hole they find. This means the idea of adventurers as treasure hunters does not work, and with that dungeon crawl as a core campaign structure does not work either. Exploring dungeons can still be part of the game, but it would be to find one specific thing in the dungeon instead of exploring as much of it as possible. Anything that isn’t the Thing can be left behind, and after finding it the PCs can just leave.  A hunt is quite different from an exploration. And because of this, I think making the game focused on a story is probably mandatory. (What I think that could look like while having the players be in charge of the campaign will be a later post.)

It probably wasn’t originally intended when D&D was first designed as  pure dungeon crawling game, but having PCs advance in discrete levels which increase all their abilities at a somewhat linear rate, and having monsters defined similarly by their Hit Dice, created a hierarchical ladder of power for all the inhabitants of the game world. One that is inherently quantified through the game mechanics. Since all creatures in the game are meant to be a credible threat to PCs at some point in the game, newly made PCs start almost at the very bottom of the ladder, just a step above rats and goblins. And at some point it became commonly established that the character progression provided by the rules also applies for NPCs that inhabit the game world, and that there would be 15th level fighter and 17th level wizards out there who could single handedly take out entire armies by themselves. And logically these NPC heroes would be important powerful leaders of the game world whose deeds shape history. Logical and reasonable, but this means that new 1st level characters are nobodies. And 5th level characters are probably still nobodies who don’t appear on the radar of the great and mighty. This greatly limits the kind of stories you can tell in a newly started campaign, or you would have situations where the great heroes of the realm do nothing and wait for random nobodies to solve the great crisis, or the PCs grow to great power in a matter of weeks, though it took the great heroes decades to do so. There is of course always the option to just start a campaign at a higher level, but to many people like me, getting what is supposed to be an award for accomplishments for free feels unearned and takes the fun out of playing at higher levels and continuing to advance further. In a skill based game you cab of course count all the skill ranks of PCs and NPCs and put them in a sorted list (though Dragonbane NPCs only have two or three out of 30 skills listed in their stats). But a character with 16 in a dozen skills and just 5 in combat can still be hopelessly outmatched in a fight with a character with 14 ranks in combat. Different characters can have different skills rise at completely different rates. Having an NPC reach maximum ability in one area does not automatically raise all the other abilities as well. This feature means that a newly made PC can start with a 14 in a few important skills and quickly raise them to 16, and already be in the same league as the great masters in the respective field. While still being very far away from having reached maximum advancement. To me, this opens all kinds of doors to have PCs start the campaign as important heroes of fame who walk in the halls of kings without having to skip over a major part of the character progression.

The fact that Dragonbane has only a single magic system in which any character can learn access to the spells of the three magic schools has a huge impact on the presence of the supernatural in the Kaendor setting. My approach had long been that there are no clerics in Kaendor and while I had considered letting mages have access to healing spells, I eventually decides that priests are instead people with no magic power of their own, but can command the magic of sacred holy sites on which their temples are build. It’s a concept from the D&D Companion Rules that allows the nonhuman peoples to have priest magic in their towns without the ability to have cleric characters, by essentially giving an ordinary person access to a powerful magic item that is locked in place inside the town. It’s a cool concept, but when any PC can learn access to the Animism school and the healing spells, then the whole concept becomes redundant. It even means that any witch or sorcerer could learn healing spells and there’s nothing inherently divine about them. Which I think suits me quite well. But I still will have to fully reconsider the role of magic spells in society if I want to run Kaendor campaign with Dragonbane.

Untested Character Creation Houserule for Dragonbane

I like to give old D&D shit for apparently throwing random ideas for rules and mechanics at the wall to see what sticks, and then keeping some around for decades even though apparently nearly everyone ignores them. But I do really like the idea of starting character creation with randomly rolled attribute scores and players then having to work out a way to turn that into a character that is fun to play. There are plenty of character types that can make for great additions to a party of adventurers and produce interesting situations in play with their peculiar traits, but which you would never choose to make when creating stats from scratch because it would obviously be an inferior choice.

I don’t usually believe in forcing the players to their enjoyment (strange, this German expression doesn’t seem to exist in the English language), but not letting the players choose their character attribute scores is one thing where I make an exception, if the rules system for the campaign is suited for it. (I wouldn’t do it with D&D 3rd ed.) But there really is the chance to get a character with just crappy attributes, or which is really only suitable for a character type the player just doesn’t care about. Which is why you almost always have some limited degree of customization for the rolled attributes.

In Dragonbane, the rule for creating attribute scores is 4d6 keep best 3 in order for six attributes (the same as D&D, it’s a Fantasy Heartbreaker). Players can then chose to switch any two of the numbers with each other to have a bit of flexibility. Once the attributes are set, they determine the starting rank for all 30 skills. The players then select 6 skills from a list specific to the characters profession as trained skills, and between 2 to 6 of the remaining skills depending on the character’s age. Trained skills have their starting rank doubled.

The Houserule: Players can switch two of their atrributes with each other for free. For each additional score to be moved, the character looses one of the age-based free trained skills.

A player who makes an adult character (6+4 trained skills) and wants to rearrange four of the rolled attribute scores would have only two free trained skills to select after picking the six profession-based trained skills.

This seems like a decent trade to me. With Dragonbane’s skill and advancement system, giving up trained skills in character creation means that you’ll have a somewhat slower start by starting with fewer skill ranks in total, but you’ll have more starting ranks in the main skills for your character concept. And doesn’t close off any future developments for your character. But just one trained skill fewer can easily cost 4 or 5 skill ranks in total, which is not insignificant.

If you really want to play a fighter even though your Strength and Agility both came out really low, you can. But placing a price on it might be an incentive for players to take some time to consider to perhaps create something interesting and fun from the weird attributes they rolled.

Some Dragonbane Advancement Statistics

Dragonbane is a skill based system in which you advance your character by using your skills during adventures. When you use a skill, you mark it, and at the end of the adventure you roll a d20 against your current skill rank. If the roll exceeds the current rank, the skill advances by one rank. It’s a neat system that justifies having a roll under dice mechanic as the default action resolution. And in practice it means that it’s easy to raise low skills quickly, but it gets increasingly slower to advance skills a character is already very good at.

I was curious about how long it would take to get a skill to it’s maximum rank of 18 and calculated the following numbers. On the left is the starting rank of each skill and at the top the rank you are aiming to reach. The field where the row and column line up shows how many adventures it will statistically take to get to the respective new rank.

6 3 6 10 15 23 34
7 1 5 9 14 21 33
8 3 7 12 20 31
9 1 6 11 18 29
10 4 9 16 28
11 2 7 14 25
12 5 12 23
13 2 9 21
14 6 18

In theory a skill rank could be as low as 3, but that takes a score of 5 or lower in the respective attribute (1% chance for that) and the skill also not being trained at character creation, so I didn’t bother with starting ranks lower than 6, which makes the table much smaller and more readable.

The highest a skill can start at is 14, which requires an attribute score of 16 or higher (13% chance for that) and the skill being trained. And even then it will take you a statistical average of 18 attempts to get it to its maximum rank of 18.

Of course, there are 30 skills in the game and you’re not going to use every one of them each time you play. So for many skills, especially those that aren’t the focus of your character, getting them to very high ranks of say 16 or higher should take a very long time. The risk of a character reaching a point where advancement pretty much stops seems to be very low.

First Impressions of Dragonbane

The new Dragonbane game by Free League was released a month ago and yesterday after work I spontaneously got the idea to give it a look, as the pdf is only €23. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of it, but I am intrigued by what I got.

Dragonbane is released as a new edition of the old Swedish RPG Drakar och Demoner, which apparently was a pretty big deal with Swedish players back in the 80s. But looking at the rules that we got now, I wonder how much continuity actually is there in the mechanics, because I feel I recognize almost everything from either recent D&D editions or Free League’s Year Zero system. The original game was apparently based on Basic Role Play, which I think is the engine of RuneQuest, but I don’t really have any experience with that.

First of all, this is a very slim game. The main pdf is only 116 pages and the actual rules are all on just 59 pages. I absolutely consider this a rules light system like B/X and Barbarians of Lemuria, though slightly crunchier than the later.

The Core Mechanic and Skills

While it feels quite similar in scope and purpose to B/X, it is a skill based system rather than a class and level based one. As the core mechanic to do pretty much anything, you roll a d20. If the number is lower or equal to your skill rank, you succeed. If it exceeds your skill rank, you fail. Being a guy raised on the d20 system, rolling under instead of rolling over always seems a bit weird, but in this case it really simplifies things in several areas. You don’t have to make any additions or subtractions to the number on the die for every roll and you don’t have to ask the GM for the target number for each specific roll. Your skill is at 14, then just don’t roll over 14.

It also is a neat part of the character advancement mechanic. If you use any skill during an adventure, you mark it on your character sheet. At the end of the adventure, you roll a d20 for every skill that you have used. If that d20 rolls over your current rank, the rank advances by 1. This means that when your skill rank is low, it will go up pretty frequently, but once it is high it will only increase more rarely. This way to you stop being bad at things you do often quickly, but it also can take a long time to actually max out the skill.

Skill checks can also be rolled with either a boon or a bane. Which are really just advantage and disadvantage from D&D 5th ed. Roll two d20 and pick either the better or worse one as your result.

Creating a Character

The first step in creating a character is to roll attributes. These are the same as in D&D and rolled in order with 4d6 keeping the best 3. The attributes determine the starting value for all your skills which will be from 3 for a score of 3, and a 7 for a score of 18. They also determine your Hit Points (equal to Constitution), your Willpower Points (equal to Willpower), and maximum load (equal to half Strength).

The second step is choosing is your character’s kin. The default ones in the game are pretty much the standard generic fantasy peoples plus wolf people and duck people. The character’s kin provides a single special ability that takes Willpower Points to use.

Next is profession. There are 10 professions that each provide the character with another special ability and also have a list from which you have to select six of your trained skills. The skills you select as trained have their starting rank doubled.

Characters’ age works pretty much like in Year Zero: Young character get a +1 to Agility and Constitution but only 2 free additional skills to pick as trained (regardless of profession), while old characters have penalties to attributes but get 6 free additional skills to pick as trained. (Adult characters just get 4 free trained skills.)


The basic mechanic for combat feel a lot like the d20 and Year Zero systems. Each character gets one action and one movement per round. However, there is no armor class. If you succeed on your melee combat skill check, you hit. If the target of your attack has not yet acted in the current round, it can use its action for the round to immediately make a parry or dodge check to negate the hit. You have to decide to dodge or parry before damage is determined. So I guess the decision depends on how scary the attack looks and how many hit points you still have left. This is the one part of the whole game where I really have no idea how well this actually works out in practice. But characters low on hit points being forced to give up more of their actions to negate hits could actually be a pretty interesting and cool way to represent fighters becoming less effective in combat as they are getting hit. Unlike D&D where you’re at full fighting capacity as long as you still have any hit points remaining. I’m really curious to see this in action.

When a target is getting hit, damage is rolled and then subtracted by its armor rating. This means actual damage might be quite low, which of course lines up with characters only having as many hit points as their Constitution score. A very different approach from D&D where hit points and damage just keep going up forever as characters advance to higher levels and face more powerful opponents. I like that.

When your character is out of hit points, a death roll is made where you need to roll a d20 lower or equal to your Constitution each round. Once you have three successes the character recovers, once you have three failures the character is dead. I believe this is exactly as in D&D 5th ed. There is an optional rule that a character recovering from being dropped has to make one more roll against Constitution and on a failure suffers a severe injury that causes penalties for a couple of days until it heals. This is quite similar to the critical injuries from the Year Zero system, but the severities of the injuries are much lower.

As in old D&D editions like B/X, there are three units of time. Instead of rounds, turns, and days, Dragonbane has rounds, stretches, and shifts which are the same concept, except that there are four shifts in a day. Once per shift, a character can rest for one round to recover 1d6 Willpower Points, or rest for one stretch to recover 1d6 Hit Points. When characters rest for a full shift, they regain all their HP and WP. But don’t remove their severe injuries, which is why I absolutely would use that optional mechanic to have some sense of characters actually getting injured in fights.

This also feels like a good point to mention Conditions. There are six conditions that mirror the six attributes. When a character is suffering from the respective condition, say Exhausted for Strength, then all checks for skills that rely on the respective attribute are rolled with bane, that is roll two d20 and keep the worse one. At a stretch rest, you can remove one of your conditions, and on a shift rest you remove all.


Unlike the other professions, the Mage does not get a special ability that uses Willpower Points to activate, but instead gets spells. A mage character is trained (double starting rank) in one of three magic skills: Animism is basically druid magic, Elementalism is Fire, Ice, and Stone magic, and Mentalism is telepathy, telekinesis, and divination. All mages can still learn any spells, but their rank in the other two skills starts much lower and they will probably have to deal with a lot of failed castings before they get their ability to useful levels. But at least you make a roll to advance a skill at the end of the adventure as long as you used it just once and it didn’t even have to have been successful.

If the skill check to cast a spell rolls a critical failure on a 20, the caster suffers a magical mishap. As with the severe injuries, these are way less dangerous as the equivalent mechanic in Forbidden Lands. Worst case, a demon is attracted to the caster and will show up during the next shift. What kind of demon and what it wants is left to the GM. No risk of of a dimensional rift opening and tentacles dragging the mage to hell any time you cast a spell.

Limitations of the Core Rules

The package of pdfs that I got is called the Core Rules. I have no idea if there are any other versions of Dragonbane or if there are any planned. But for what is being offered here, the term is very much appropriate. In many ways, this feels like a toolkit of core mechanics more than what most people would typically expect of a complete game. In this version, there are 49 spells and 14 sample monsters, and the five most generic humanoids to pick from (and one non-generic one). Certainly enough for a one-shot or mini campaign in a super generic Middle-Earth fantasy setting, but for anything more fancy than that, you will have to create your own custom content.

And the game seems to be intended to be that way. There are several mentions of more options possibly coming in future releases. There is even an open license that allows anyone to make and publish supplements for Dragonbane, though not to reproduce that content of the core game itself.

There also is really no Gamemaster section in the rulebook worth mentioning. It’s just the mechanics and assumed that anyone playing this game already knows what kinds of campaigns they want to run with it and how to do it.

Which I guess to a certain crowd is just fine. For people already deeply into B/X, OSE, and other games of that category, none of these things might be obstacles. Especially when you are looking for a generic system for which you would have to create the custom creatures of your homebrew setting anyway. And monster and NPC stats are really simple to begin with. Even simpler than in B/X.

I think this might possibly be just the game for me. It’s the purest example I’ve ever seen of what a Fantasy Heartbreaker might look like, with pretty much every single thing it seeming like it was more or less copied over from other games I already known and then welded together. But I really approve of what the designers chose pick for their pieces to turn into this game. From a mechanical perspective, there is not a single thing regarding character creation, advancement, skills, combat, or magic that I don’t like on my first and second read. But if this is all that Dragonbane is going to be, I don’t see it becoming a big breakout hit that will become hugely popular. I can see it getting a reputation similar to Barbarians of Lemuria and maybe with a big dose of luck, get a little time to shine like OSE had some months ago. And I guess that’s fine.

Since I read the whole thing only twice now, I don’t really feel like I could rate it in any way. But being such a light package, I also don’t think there is going to be a lot more learned from a third or fourth reading. I think all that’s left is to just take it for a spin and see how it plays out in practice. It seems like a game that should take very little prep work for adventures when it comes to crunch, so maybe I’ll have an opportunity to give it a try later this summer after I’ve moved closer to my new job and peak work season is over. Certainly looking forward to do it.