Kaendorian Magic

Some years ago I had already be thinking about how the supernatural abilities of Apocalypse World could be translated into a fantasy magic system. It had informed how I had been thinking about magic in Kaendor, but when the Inixon campaign ended up running in D&D 5th edition I didn’t want to bother the players with significantly altered spell lists. Offering none of the regular D&D character races had already been a significant change and I didn’t want to cause too much chaos for players who thought they were going to play D&D. But it turns out that my interpretations of AW powers maps very well to the Forged in the Dark rules.

The Wyrd

The concept of Wyrd describes the infinite and eternal web of connections between all beings and all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the world together. (Yes, not original, but if you steal, steal from the best.) Everything is connected to everything, and affects everything else. The Wyrd is a weave of fate, but it is not immutable nor inevitable. The Wyrd merely shows how being have been affected by other beings in the past, and will affect other beings in the future. The Wyrd shows where everyone’s steps are leading if they stay on their current paths. It can show what decisions people will make and what actions they will take in encounters that lie ahead of them if they don’t change their way of thinking. The Wyrd does not dictate what mortals and spirits will do. It only shows the paths they are on, both in body and in thought.

All beings sense the Wyrd, even if they are not aware of it. To most people, it is simply intuition, but wise ones know to trust the feelings in their guts. Spirits perceive the Wyrd just as they see, hear, and smell the world around them, which gives them the ability to sense both the future and the past. But it is an infinite number of futures that could lie ahead, and pasts that could have led to this present. Though most spirits pretend otherwise, the pasts and futures they see within the weave are not infallible.

(Wyrd is a Germanic term, while I am going for a more Indo-Iranian style with the setting, so the exact term might still change.)

Changing Fate and Fated to Change

Characters can use their connection to the weird to get a subconscious impression of the causes that led to a situation and the likely effects of an action about to be taken. This ability is open to all characters, regardless of whether they have any education or experience in magic. This covers the options to push yourself, assist another character, or lead a group action. It can also be used to resist and suffer only less severe consequences than would normally have followed from a failure or partial success.

When using any of these options, characters are listening to their intuition to give themselves an advantage in a tense situation, or advise others about things that feel like they would be important to overcome an obstacle. When using such actions to add additional dice to an action roll, characters are opening themselves up to the effects of the supernatural world that is usually kept out of their minds.

On Planet Kaendor, this replaces stress from FitD in the form of strangeness. Strangeness is mechanically identical to stress, but translated into terms that are more in line with the fiction of the setting. Any time characters reach 10 points of strangeness, they are affected  by a permanent change, which works the same way as trauma caused by stress. A change adds a new aspect to the personality of a characters. Players are free to choose how much and how often they want the changes to impact their characters’ behavior and actions, but any time they do, their character gains XP towards learning new special abilities.

Characters can have up to three changes. When characters get their fourth change, they either join the folk of the forests or turn into a ghoul, depending on how much they have been exposed to sorcerous corruption. (Player’s call.)

Characters can always try to reduce their current strangeness as a downtime activity. Many practitioners of magic use meditation rituals or prayer to calm their minds and ground themselves in their mortal nature. Though characters can choose to do whatever helps them keeping their minds from gradually unraveling. Characters who don’t take such actions after an adventure and have already gained a first change continue to accumulate strangeness even back in the comforts of their homes. (This works just like vice, except that there is no risk to overindulge.)

I am currently very much considering that changes will give characters additional options for special abilities to learn during character advancement. Changes don’t have to be negative things, and thinking more like spirits could be regarded as a beneficial transformation by many sorcerers. Having changes can also be used as a factor for determining the effect level for actions like Consort and Sway, reducing the effect when talking to ordinary mortals, but providing increased effect when talking with normally inscrutable spirits.

Rituals

When characters use the Attune action, they are attuning their minds to the Wyrd. Through the Wyrd they can sense the connections between all living things, and connect their thoughts to those of the spirits to see what they have seen, hear what they have heard, and rely on their ancient wisdom to make sense of the sensations. Divinations like these are the most common form of rituals.

Rituals can also connect to the minds of other people, altering their memories or giving them ideas that are not their own.

Alternatively, characters can attempt to make a bargain with a spirit or compel it to perform a service. Almost all magic that doesn’t fall into divinations or charms is of this kind. What services spirits can perform depends on their powers, but most commonly it relates to controlling the natural forces of the environment. Sending a demon to attack or abduct an enemy is also a possibility, though.

Performing rituals exposes characters to strangeness, the amount of which depends on the scope and strength of the desired effects.

Alchemy

While alchemical substances are inherently magical, working with them is a regular trade using the Tinker action and not relying on the Attune action. As alchemical creations are important components in many rituals, most sorcerers and shamans have at least some basic knowledge in the alchemical arts, and the nature 9f their work leads many alchemist to have a rating of one or two dice in the Attune action.

One of the most important alchemical substances is iron. When using implements made of iron, they have the standard potency against spirits. Items made from bronze, like most weapons and tools, only have limited potency when used against spirits.

Performing alchemy does not expose a character to strangeness.

Forged in the Dark Probabilities

The Forged in the Dark system from Blades in the Dark uses an action resolution system that is very similar to Apocalypse World but also slightly different. Just like in AW, all rolls are made with d6s and the possible outcomes are failure on a 1-3, partial success on 4/5, and full success on a 6. But instead of always rolling 2d6 and adding the appropriate attribute modifier to the result, FitD has you roll a number of d6s equal to the attribute rating and taking only the number from the highest dice as the result for the roll.

Usually I really don’t like dice pool mechanics (though I make an exception for Star Wars). I think my main objection is all the counting of dice, but in this system you don’t even have to do that. All you have to do is to look if you see any 6s, and if not if you see any 5s or 4s. There’s also a critical success if you have multiple sixes, but that still only requires you to tell the difference between “one six” and “multiple sixes”. This is stupidly simple. And still you get all the benefits from a dice pool system. Did any other games do this before? Did it take four decades of RPGs for someone to think of this?

The attribute rating a character can have for anything can range from 0 to 4 dice, but there are fairly simple ways to get another 2d on top of that. You could even get higher than that through situational modifiers, but here I’ve only taken it up to 6 dice. Starting characters probably have some points in about half of the 13 ratings, and it’s always up to the players which of their abilities they want to use. When you get attacked by enemies, nothing says that you have to cross swords with them to end the fight with a Skirmish roll. You can also end the fight by talking them down with a Skirmish roll, or make a daring escape with a Prowl or Finesse roll. It will lead to widely different results coming from a success or failure, but if you have the same ratings in the different abilities, the mechanics make no difference between them. And you can always chose to get a bonus die to any roll by adding to your character’s stress level. So if you don’t want to, you barely ever have to make a roll with less than 2 dice. Though if for some reason you want to make a roll with 0 dice, you roll 2 dice and take the lower number as your result.

Reading about the probabilities for 2d6 on Jeff’s Gameblog had me wondering how the actual odds are really looking for Forged in the Dark rolls, and I came up with this. (I don’t know how to easily calculate for two or more 6s for critical successes, but they are really just a slightly stronger versions of full successes on a single 6.)

A result of 4 or 5 is a partial success, which means that you do the thing you wanted to do (an effect), but you also suffer a negative complication (a consequence). This can mean that you effectively get both a success and a failure at the same time, but the consequence can also simply be that you get a weaker version of what you intended to accomplish.

When rolling a single die, there is only a 50% chance of a full failure, which means a 50% that you get at least some success at what you tried to do. When you go to 2d, you’re already at 75% to get some kind of success. Above that, the probability that you just straight fail at your attempted action quickly becomes negligible. However, the chance to just get a full success with no negative consequences does not improve nearly as much.

In this table, I added the chance for a partial success both to the odds for a failure and a full or critical success. This is the table that matters when you’re asking yourself “How much do I need to do what I want to do?” or “How much do I fear the possible consequences?” And I find the result very interesting. If you have invested some of your advancement points into an ability and take the stress penalties for an extra dice or two, the chances that your character succeeds at doing what you wanted to do are very high. But the odds that you will have to deal with a consequence starts at an extremely high level and always stays significant.

Overall, the odds for the possible results are hugely different between 0d and 6d, or even just between the more commonly encountered range of 1d to 5d. But regardless of what you roll, the partial success result in the middle means that you always have a good shot of getting what you want with your actions, but never rest assured that it will go smoothly. I think that’s actually brilliant for making a game always exciting.

Forged in the Dark

Looking over my older posts, I’ve started talking about Barbarians of Lemuria some five years back, and been thinking about how to combine elements of it with aspects of Apocalypse World basically since I first learned about that game two years ago. Both are pretty rules light, and while they are both presented with quite distinctive settings, the mechanics have always struck me as having great potential for a very wide range of campaigns. They are both rules systems that have mechanics to figure out the outcome of uncertain situations when the PCs try to do something in the face of opposition from other people or the environment, which they do quick and painlessly and then are out of your hair to let you go on with the developing story. I really like this approach to what an RPG should be and do.

Some kind of hybrid of the two games has long been a vision of an ideal game for me, but since I have little personal experience with both BoL and AW, cobbling something entirely new together never seemed like a real option. And the way my groups form, getting a number of players together to play the weird homebrew system of a GM they never played with never really had any promise of success.

When I was looking into fantasy games based on the mechanics of Apocalypse World, there were really only two that have any popular presence. The first of course being Dungeon World, which I found to be very disappointing as it is an attempt to recreate the experience of D&D adventures with different dice rolling mechanics instead of doing anything with the very different approach to what a campaign can be that is promised by the Apocalypse World rules. And the other one is Blades in the Dark.

This game had been recommended to me by some people in the past and I had taken a look at it some time back. I don’t recall what I had been looking for back then when I took a peek, but I remember that I mostly looked at the setting, which is very post-apocalyptic Victorian steampunk. It’s basically Thief and Dishonored the Roleplaying Game, which really is cool, but at the time made me write it off as not being useful to whatever I was trying to do. I also remember seeing it has only three attributes, which made me go eww… Which turns out was a real shame.

Because looking at the system again from a mechanics focused perspective, it really strikes me as the closest thing I have yet encountered to that idealized blend of Barbarians of Lemuria and Apocalypse World, I had been dreaming of. It’s of course not exactly the game that I want to run for my next Kaendor campaign. There are all kinds of peripheral rules in this game about the gang of the PC’s increasing their reputation in the underworld, fighting for turf, and dealing with the police putting pressure on their activities, which really wouldn’t have any place in my campaign. But the core mechanics for making characters, character advancement, task resolution, and character durability is really solid.

While it’s not necessarily being more compact than Apocalypse World, it is much more straightforward and easy to grasp, even though at first there seem to be a lot of new mechanical concepts and principles you have to dig through. And Blades in the Dark really is quite a big book that doesn’t scream rules light. But I tried to write down the basics of character creation and action resolution as a simple introductory handout for new players, and I managed to get it all on only two and a half pages. (Excluding the rules for running a criminal empire.) That’s really quite impressive.

The Basics of the System

Characters in Blades in the Dark are really very simple. They mostly come down to 12 action ratings and 3 derived attributes. But these are not like attributes and skills like you see them in most other skill based systems, where you add your attribute scores to your skill rank to determine what dice you roll. Instead you have twelve basic actions, which in other games would be skills, or moves in Apocalypse World. Anything that PCs might do that has a chance of failure and negative consequences falls under one of these twelve actions.

  • Attune (do magic stuff)
  • Command (order people around)
  • Consort (chat with people)
  • Finesse (climbing, jumping, picking pockets, …)
  • Hunt (tracking, trapping, …)
  • Prowl (sneaking)
  • Skirmish (fighting)
  • Study (inspect or research a thing or person)
  • Survey (observe people or places)
  • Sway (convince people of things)
  • Tinker (work with machines)
  • Wreck (break stuff)

These actions are not methods or techniques, but arranged by outcomes. Skirmish is the action for the vast majority of ways that you can fight, regardless of weapons, armor, fighting style, and so on. Sway can be debating, deceiving, seducing, pleading, or whatever else you can think of to make people change their mind with your words. I can’t really think of anything to do with Prowl other than sneaking past people without being detected, and Study and Survey do overlap quite a bit, but I can’t really think of anything that might come up in a game where you need any other category of action as a player. Characters have a rating for all these actions that goes from 0 to 4.

What I really like is that there are twelve equal actions and only one of them is combat. Hunt and Wreck can also be used for violence in some situation, but that’s not their primary purpose. Treating fighting as equal to all other actions is something that really appeals to me and makes it a very inviting system for games where fighting is not the main event of adventures.

Unlike Apocalypse World, where you always roll 2d6 and add your attribute score to the result, Blades in the Dark has you roll a number of d6 that is equal to your rating, plus and minus additional dice for various circumstances. (If you end up with less than 1 die, you roll 2 dice and take the lower one.) The die with the highest number is your result for the roll, with a 6 being a success, a 4 or 5 giving you a success but also negative consequences, and 1 to 3 being only the bad consequences with no success. I’m not generally a fan of dice pools, but picking the highest number out of only up to 6 or 7 dice at the most with no additions is really quick and painless.

While there are attributes, they are not very similar to attributes in other games. Instead the 12 action ratings are grouped into three groups of four, resulting in four Insight actions, four Prowess actions, and four Resolve actions. The attribute score is simply the number of actions for which you have a rating of 1 or higher, resulting in a score of 0 to 4, which increases over time as you put a first point into the skills of that group. Attributes are mostly used when you roll to reduce the severity of negative consequences from a failed or partially successful action roll, and for tracking which action ratings you can improve when you get XP.

Characters also start with 1 special ability selected from a long list of options, and probably gain a new one that can also be freely selected every 1 to 3 game sessions.

And that is mostly it. There are of course a lot more bells and whistles regarding items, wealth, the injury and stress mechanic, but attributes and special abilities are more or less all the character creation and character advancement for this game.

Action Resolution

Taking an action in Blades in the Dark work the following way.

  1. The player describes what his character is trying to do.
  2. The player declares which of his character’s action ratings he will use for the roll.
  3. The GM judges the positioning for the action, which is the potential severity of the consequences should the action roll fail or only be a partial success.
  4. The GM judges the effect if the roll will be a success. Based on the approach the player described, the GM decides if it should result in the ordinary outcome for such an action, or the result will be of limited or greater magnitude.
  5. The player can decide to push himself to get an extra die for the roll, and another player can decide to assist and also add an additional die.

Basically this come down to what happens in most games with a GM who isn’t a jerk. The player ask “Could it work if I…” and the GM replies “Yes, but the chance is…”. Then the player might take it and make the roll, but could also decide that he really wants a greater effect than the GM declared and change the action to something more daring that also results in a worse positioning by increasing the danger resulting from a failure. Or the other way around, the player might decide that the danger is too high and instead change the action to something with a better positioning and accepting a reduced effect.

To keep things simple, there are only three categories of position: Controlled, Risky, and Desperate. And only three categories of effect: Limited, standard, and greater. This is easy to follow without any math involved. Do you want risk high or low danger and do you want to go for high or low reward? It’s not always a simple trade-off. Sometimes things are so much in your favor that you only have the low risk of controlled positioning and the expectation of a greater effect as the outcome. Or things look extremely bleak and you can only expect a lesser effect even though the positioning is desperate.

But these things don’t come down to only luck. Players have quite a lot of room to control the damage a failed action roll leads to. At any time, a player can declare that the severity of an injury or complication resulting from a roll is reduced by one category. The GM can say “You fall from the roof and badly hurt your leg. Is it broken?” And the player can decide to reduce the damage and say “No, fortunately it just seems sprained.” You can always do this, but it comes at the expanse of added stress. And when a character reaches 10 stress during an adventure, the character has some kind of mental breakdown that takes him out of the adventure and leaves a permanent mark on his mind. You also gain stress when pushing yourself or assisting another character to add additional dice to an action roll. Stress can also result from exposure to the supernatural, just like it does in Darkest Dungeon. Injuries will heal, but damage to the mind sticks around. So you might not always want to reduce the severity of your injuries or complications.

Forged in the Dark

The really neat thing that I found out today is that there is an SRD for the system that contains most of the rules that are not specific to the Duskwall setting of Blades in the Dark. It does not include the seven playbooks (character templates in PtBA games), but simply has all the special abilities put into a big single list from which GMs can put together their own lists for different character archetypes in their campaign. The SRD even has a template to make your own playbooks, and I think it has everything you need to fully recreate the ones from BitD. (Not sure what difference it makes, but there surely must be some copyright considerations behind this.) The only other thing from outside the setting chapter I’ve found to be not included are the four types of undead in Duskwall, but again the mechanics for making your own are there.

There also is of course a license to make your own stuff with the material from the SRD and using the Forged in the Dark label for it. The License is extremely generous and only requires you to include an attribution to John Harper and One Seven Design and not claim any official connection or endorsement by them. The Duskwall setting remains copyrighted, but everything in the SRD is fair game. And that’s all there is. Which I think is really cool.

Nothing set in stone yet, but right now I really want to give this a try for my next campaign. Aside from the criminal empire rules, this seems like a really well rounded system not just for fantasy but in general, and I think you could run a campaign even with just the basics. I can absolutely see myself making up some new rules for paranormal investigation, but I don’t think that’s even necessary to start a campaign. Really looking forward to trying this out.

The Other Guys

Some other great characters who don’t really fit the general adventurer type but still end up in them.

Doctor McCoy (Star Trek), snarky starship doctor.
Vir Cotto (Babylon 5), good-hearted aide to a horrible diplomat.
Samwell Tarly (Game of Thrones), scholar conscripted into an undead-fighting army.
Tali’Zorah (Mass Effect), starts as an apprentice engineer.
Zayne Carrick (Knights of the Old Republic), failed Jedi apprentice.
Anna Volovodov (The Expanse), nurse, charity worker, and Methodist minister.

(What is it with all these doctors?)

I also remembered last night that I’ve been at this place before. Four years ago I already wrote a couple of posts about turning high fantasy adventures into the opposite direction of murderhoboing. In A Case for Hope and Heroism I was still thinking about making slight adjustments for how adventurers could be part of their world, but it came out of the same general idea.

Back then, I lined out nine points for how high fantasy campaigns could possibly be less confrontational and focused on violence:

  • The heroes seek to restore peace and order over destroying evil.
  • The heroes get involved when witnessing injustice.
  • The heroes aim to be examples to others.
  • The conflicts have sources that won’t go away by killing the enemy leader.
  • Mercy and offerings of peace will pay out in the long run.
  • Violence can help to get out of a tight spot but will always mean more trouble down the line.
  • The antagonists have various reasons to fight and at least some of them can be persuaded to change to other methods.
  • Heroes will sometimes fail, but having tried is what matters.
  • The heroes give and risk more than can be reasonably expected of them.

I think all these points still apply when you have a party of player characters who don’t qualify as traditional adventurers. Certainly a line of inquiry to follow.

The more I think of it, the more I feel like a campaign like this should be run with a system based on the core principles and mechanics of Apocalypse World. (Or something else, but I’m somewhat familiar with AW.) The main thing on my mind to start with is the choice of basic character attributes. Having stats like Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution wouldn’t really reflect the defining traits of such PCs.

What I think most probably should be an attribute is Courage. That’s what it would be all about in the end. Though I am not fully certain what this would mean for characters with a low Courage score. I also think that something like Sanity in horror games is a bad idea, because fear and panic is something that the players feel for their characters. Not something that the GM tells them their characters are feeling. Courage might run into similar issues, depending on what such an attribute would be used for.

Persuasive is also a no brainer. And I think Athletic would also be a good one, for when you have to rely on your strength, endurance, and agility to do what is needed.

But, being a game of high fantasy, I feel that a combat system still is a must. Not necessarily something that you’d want to use, but something that the situations will sometimes require.

This is all a very long way from being anything like an actual game, but I’m feeling quite motivated to see where this could be taken to.

I used to want to be an adventurer, like you…

Since my last D&D campaign wrapped up, I’ve been thinking about where to go with fantasy campaigns in the future. The campaign always felt the most fun and entertaining to me as GM, when it was the least like D&D, and I didn’t really enjoy running it during the parts that were conventional dungeon crawling. These past weeks I’ve been spending a good amount of time with researching and working on ideas about fantasy campaigns that are not either “kill lots of monsters to get rich” or “kill lots of monsters to stop the Dark Lord”.

This hasn’t been a completely new thing for me, as I’ve been coming back to the questions of what fantasy RPGs could look like if they are not mostly fighting for the sake of fighting. But after running D&D 5th edition with a group of mostly other D&D GMs as players, and often talking with them about how certain things worked out, it’s become really noticeable for me how much “kill lots of monsters” is baked into the most fundamental assumptions of most fantasy RPGs.

One new idea I was pondering was to make a campaign that is all about exploration, revolving around characters who are explorers driven by curiosity instead of greedy treasure hunters or killers for hire. Almost everything that is written about exploration in RPGs really is about mechanics for overland travel and wilderness survival. Which to me isn’t exploration. That’s a resource management minigame. The remaining part about exploration is discovery of wondrous places, things, and phenomenons. This can be a very considerable draw and player motivation in videogames, but visual art to be experienced at your own leisure doesn’t translate to a almost entirely verbal group activity. To really play a roleplaying game, you need interactivity and you need a story. And exploration and discovery in itself is not a story. They are elements to support and embellish a story, but the story itself still needs to be about dealing with obstacles. “Exploration” is not the answer. It’s something that I definitely want to be a major part of future campaigns, but I think it does not work as a simple replacement for “treasure hunting” to achieve the shift that I want.

After making the choice to step back from exploration as the main goal and focus, I had some talk with other GMs and players about what a fantasy campaign could also be, which led me to looking at and thinking about games like Blades in the Dark, Pendragon, Ars Magica, Legend of the Five Rings, and Call of Cthulhu. Which all are very much not dungeon crawling games. And something they have in common is that the player characters generally don’t fall into the category of “adventurers”. There is fighting in these games and there are plenty of ancient abandoned places, but adventuring is not the profession of most PCs. Now I don’t have any interest in playing an anthropomorphic toad in a waistcoat that drinks tea and debates human rights with a giant talking mushroom. Or even a nobleman discussing strategy and the justice of their fight against evil neighbors in a throne room. I still want the adventure, with spooky caves and weird monsters. But perhaps stepping back from the idea of the PCs being full time professional adventurers might be a step into the right direction. Instead of facing constant violence and threat of death as a way of life, it can be an extraordinary event in the lives of the PCs? And something that is dispreferable, not just ethically but also mechanically.

Okay, now after this very long preamble, I come to my actual point: I’ve been browsing though my favorite works of fantasy/adventure fiction to look for characters who could make interesting templates for PCs in a fantasy RPG without really fitting into the adventurer category.

Princess Leia (Star Wars), politician, diplomat, and rebel leader.
Lando Calrissian (Star Wars), smuggler, gambler, and scoundrel who tried going straight becoming a resource magnate.
Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), ignorant, self-interested rentier.
Sallah (Raiders of the Lost Ark), wealthy man in Cairo who knows stuff.
Naomi Hunter (Metal Gear Solid), Rhodesian doctor of genetics and ambiguous morals.
Olga Gurlokovich (Metal Gear Solid), which is cheating because she’s a hardcore badass, but her involvement in the adventure is very interesting.
Dandelion (The Witcher), who embodies every single cliche about bards but is still a great guy.
Shani (The Witcher), medical student.
Cedric (The Witcher 2), trapper and trader who probably does not participate in the terrorism of his associates.
Khan (Metro), Madman? Prophet? Wizard? Ghost?
Nux (Fury Road), cannon fodder.
Tanda (Serei no Morbito), physician.
Ginko (Mushishi), Exorcist? Pharmacists? Witch doctor?

The very first thing I notice with these is that more or less all of them are supporting characters, who provide primarily moral support to heroes who are legendary masters of combat. Indiana Jones isn’t really that known for his amazing fighting skills, and Bilbo counts as protagonist on grounds of being the point of view character, but I think you see what I’m getting at. (Ginko is clearly the hero of his story, though.)

They are people you wouldn’t pick as backup when planning to go into scary holes in the ground or face savage foes in battle. (Except Olga and maybe Lando.) But they all do end up in circumstances where this becomes a necessity and handle themselves very well, often ending up participating in the resulting violence.

What could a campaign look like in which all of the player characters are people like these? Where they are not following around a master swordsman, gunslinger, or elite special agent? Really more a hypothetical concept at this point than even work in progress, but a direction I really want to follow further.

It makes me think that perhaps some kind of Apocalypse World hack would be really well suited for such a game. While there a piles and piles of those, strangely enough almost none of them are high fantasy games. The only notable exception is Dungeon World, which I think completely dropped the ball by trying to recreate the experience of D&D. What’s the point of playing D&D adventures with mechanics designed to be a full anti-D&D? Unfortunately I am not familiar with the ins and outs of AW hacks, and the one that is the most similar to my idea is an example of what specifically not to do with the system. So I don’t feel like I should be the one to make it, but it certainly would be neat to have one.

AW moves in BoL campaigns

I believe that is the lamest title I’ve ever used for a post. But it does get across what’s inside: How about implementing some of the moves from Apocalypse World in Barbatians of Lemuria?

Now there is already a Sword & Sorcery conversion for Apocalypse World that basically just replaces all the names with S&S terminology, and simply using that for a fantasy campaign is an option that I did serious entertain some time back. But as cool sounding as it is, AW is a very strange game, compared to which BoL seems like a much “safer” choice for introducing new players to a new setting. Bur many of the concepts and principles of AW are quite fascinating and I’ve long been wondering how much one could adopt them for running other systems ad well.

The core mechanic of Apocalypse World is the move. There is no initativr system, instead players simply announce when they want to do something, and its up to them to share the spotlight, with some moderation by the GM if it becomes necessary. Hostile NPCs take their turns as reactions to the players making a move. Or more precisely, a reaction from NPCs or the environment is part of the various moves that the players take. If one player wants to push on the stage and take four moves in a row, he also can expect to be the target of four reactions and consequences, and with the way character endurance works you usually want to spread the return fire among the party. (In adition, the rules make it very clear that if the players are paralyzed with indecision, the GM can just throw a reaction at them at any time to shake up the situation and get the action moving again.)

It’s a pretty interesting system, and while the existing combat mechanics of Barbarians of Lemuria make the combat moves of Apocalypse World non-applicable, some of the more interaction oriented moves should be quite easy to incorporate. Both systems use 2d6 for rolls, with an attribute modifier that usually ranges from -1 to +3. AW generally requites a 7 to succeed and BoL a 9 before any other modifiers are applied, and a 10 in AW and a 12 in BoL results in a greater than normal success. This makes importing AW moves into BoL very easy.

In AW, characters can read a charged situation, that is any situation that looks like it could lead to conflict, and ask verious questions about useful information about the situation from the GM. Using this action in BoL, a Mind roll of 9 would be a success and allow the player to ask one question. A roll of 12 would be a mighty success and allow the player to ask three questions. These can be things like “Who is really in charge here?”, “Who is the most dangerous person present?”, “Where would be the best escape route?”, “What do these guys really think of us?”, and things like that. If the roll is a failure, the player still has to ask one of these question, but the answer will reveal a new complication that wouldn’t have been present if the player had rolled a success or not rolled at all.

There is also the move to read a person. The mechanic is the same, but the player can ask things like “Is that guy telling the truth?”, “What is that character really feeling?”, “What is he going to do next?”, and “What does he wanting me to do?” These are things that players might already ask in most campaigns, to which the GM would probably either reply to make a suitable attribute or skill check, ot that the character can’t know that. In games like D&D, where the core if the gameplay is the overcoming of obstacles with the powers and resources the characters have, GMs will probably go mostly with the later option, and when a roll is allowed, failure would simply mean that the player learns nothing or gets false information. BoL is not really a game like this, and letting players have generous access to information to make individual scenes more dramatic and exciting seems like fair game to me.

A third move that I feel should fit quite well is seducing or manipulating a person. In BoL, that would be an Appeal roll. On a 12 the roll will be a mighty success and the character will go along with what the player wanted. On a 9 and a regular success, the character agrees if the player offers something of comparable value in return. If the toll fails, the attempt will come to bite the player in the ass. Maybe now, or maybe much later. It could turn out to be something that no longer matters when it happens, and the NPC might still give the player what he asked for.

The beauty of these resolutions is that they provide an easy mechanic for failing forward. One of the biggest killer of momentum and cause of games stalling is when players come up with an idea or a plan, but a random die (or a GM who set an impossible target number) determines that “nothing happens”. From a gameplay perspective, nothing is the worst thing that can happen. It’s better to either give the players what they want, or something that they didn’t want. Either way, the situation has now changed and the players need to think of a new best idea for a new problem. Not of a second best idea for the old problem.

Apocalypse World also allows all player characters to perform a kind of basic divination at any time. Basically the player asks for some kind of useful hint related to the current situation  andthe answer from the  GM could be basically anything. In return, the higher powers ask something about the character. The player than has to share something of the character’s backstory or personality, or make up a new addition on the spot. The GM will then file away that information to maybe be exploited in some way at some point in the future. On a success the information will be vague, and on a mighty success something really useful. On a failure, something unexpected and bad will result. It’s definitely one if the weirder elements of Apocalypse World. (But by far not the weirdest.)

I am really wondering if this could also be incorporated into BoL. I could see it as a cantrip that could be performed by any characters with at least 1 point in the Magician career. That would make it unavailable to many player characters, but it also would contribute to making sorcerers dangerous and strange even to their allies. Really not sure if it’s a good idea, but I think it sounds too fun not to try it out.

If at fourth you don’t succeed… (and why system does matter)

Last month I finished my fourth campaign in which I tried to bring my ideas for a Sword & Sorcery wilderness setting to life. While the campaign was overall a great success, and by far the longest of the four, the way the setting came to be actually realized in practice was not at all what I had been aiming for.

I believe I first had the idea for a Bronze Age Barbarians & Dinosaurs setting some six years ago after reading Robert Howard’s Conan and Kull stories and Edgar Burroughs A Princess of Mars, and remembering my old affections for Morrowind and dinosaur books.

The first attempt was Ancient Lands, which I ended up using in a short lived Pathfinder campaign. Not being happy with the result I tried reworking it as Lands of the Barbarian Kings for the low-level E6 variant for D&D 3rd edition. Still unhappy with the results, I brought back the same basic ideas when I got interested in rules-light oldschool RPGs as Ancient Lands (v.2), first for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and later Basic Fantasy. After that campaign I threw a lot of material and ideas out once again to get a better focus on the elements that really mattered for my core concept in the form of Green Sun. Which I wanted to run in original B/X, but convenience at the moment led to me giving it a shot with D&D 5th edition instead. Which again, also didn’t really lift of, ignite, or whatever other metaphor you want to use.

Some of the players actually really tried to dig into the setting that I had outlined in a basic overview file. Which I really did appreciate, but at that point, the events of the campaign and goals of the party had already set the future adventures down a pretty clear path. And I didn’t feel like I wouldn’t be able to keep the great quest coherently together if we were to set out to new unrelated detours. Maybe it would have been possible to do, but at that point I was already clear on not wanting to run D&D 5th edition any more than necessary. Keeping a straight heading towards the ultimate goal of the party to conclude the campaign and then start over with something else seemed the much preferable option to me.

Looking back at all the campaigns now, it seems pretty obvious why each one only brought a slight incremental improvement towards realizing my concept, but never making an actual breakthrough. Each time, for reasons of convenience, I ended up running some variant of Dungeons & Dragons again. And at the heart of all the sweet, sweet awesome ideas I have for a Sword & Sorcery campaign in a Barbarians & Dinosaurs setting, is that I want it to be specifically not like Dungeons & Dragons.

I don’t have anyone to blame for this but myself, but still, curse the tyranny of market leader!

At first I was genuinely thinking that my ideas should work with D&D without problems. Dark Sun did it, right? (I’m not sure, I never got to actually see Dark Sun in any kind of prolonged action, and lots of settings look much better on paper than in play.) Going from regular Pathfinder to E6 with limited classes and my own bestiary seemed like a sufficient solution. Looking around on my site, it’s actually been almost exactly two years since I had great ideas for trying make the setting concept work better with Apocalypse World. But at some point I got interested again in the dungeon and wilderness exploration system of B/X and thought that would work just as well. That I thought 5th edition could be a suitable substitute when response to a B/X campaign invitation was muted is just my own damn fault. I got seduced by the warlock class.

I think the problem is not just strictly with the mechanics. D&D and it’s derivatives all circle around the permanent hunt for XP and climbing the ladder of level advancement. And the way the combat systems are designed, they are really made for lots of smaller fights rather than the occasional big ones. It’s also, which might be even more important, that playing D&D brings with it huge amounts of expectations from the players. And as a GM, I am always very conscious of not acting like the kind of jerk GM who tells the players how to play the game correctly, even if I had something else in mind for how the tone and dynamics should play out in action. I understand the role of the GM to be an entertainer, not a conductor. I make it possible for the players to play their story, I don’t direct them to play my story. With the group I had for the Inixon campaign, the players really were interested in exploring the world that I had prepared, which makes me feel that I am at least on the right track with my ideas. But I just never could consider telling them to stop playing like it’s D&D. I invited them to play D&D and they joined the game being excited to play D&D. That’s just not something you do as a GM.

But now the campaign is concluded (actually concluded and not just sputtered out and abandoned), and while it wasn’t the epic grand finale that you always imagine to get, it still ended with fighting a giant snake on the roof of a tower rising above a ruined city, it’s shattered body being slain by arrows and magic bolts, in mid-transformation into a sorceress after being blown over the edge by one of the warlocks. That’s still pretty metal.

After having distracted myself for a couple of weeks with the preparation for a Star Wars d6 campaign (which still has to wait until later this year), I am still drawn back to the lizard infested jungles to once more try it better. I had considered Barbarians of Lemuria several times over the years, but with the many lessons learned from the Inixon campaign, I now feel more certain than ever that I really should go through with this. It’s a rules light game that is very quick to set up and easy to learn, giving it a very low entry barrier for new players. And if any players bring existing assumptions about a BoL campaign with them, it’s probably something like Conan the Barbarian, which in this case suits just fine. Maybe it will be a bit of an uphill battle to get even just three or four players together for that, but I now feel that this will be necessary to make the setting concept work, and there are no easy shortcuts around that. D&D is no longer an acceptable substitute.

I’m done with Dungeons & Dragons (again)

This week I finished my D&D 5th edition campaign that I’ve been running almost weekly over nearly five months for a total of 19 games. This has not only been the longest campaign I’ve been involved with, but also the first one that actually reached its conclusion. I think it’s also the best one I’ve ever run by a considerable margin. My experiences from running campaigns on and of over the many years since the 3rd edition was first released, but also the many theories about gamemastering that I’ve learned about in the seven years since I started this site finally came together in a way that made me feel like I actually knew what I was doing, and that things turned out more or less as I had intended. And in the process, I think I learned even more from this campaign than any other I’ve ran in the past.

So all taken together, this really was a huge success.

But one important thing I realized in the final third or so of the campaign is that D&D really is not the game for me. I feel like I am done with Dungeons & Dragons, but also with dungeons, as well as dragons.

One of the reasons is the particular style of fantasy that D&D is both build upon and it perpetuates through the mechanics of its rules. D&D fantasy is fantasy that does its primary worldbuilding through establishing mechanics and standards for how things work and how beings behave. It’s a form of fantasy that is structural and rational, with clear rules that everyone can understand, leading to expectations that players automatically bring to the game. It is the opposite of being magical, wondrous, and elusive, which to me defeats the overall purpose of fantsy. Everything becomes systemised, quantified, stiff, and bland. I do have some fond memories of The North of the Forgotten Realms, and think there’s some really cool sounding ideas about the less popular lands in the distant east. Dark Sun looks really cool with really great concepts, and there’s something unique and compelling about Planescape. But when you play campaigns in these settings, you’ll always be playing D&D, and players looking at everything through the D&D lense, trying to analyze their situation and formulate their plans by D&D logic.

While I think that the D&D mindset is not my cup of tea and that other styles of fantasy are much better, this is something that I could live with and accept as something that comes with entertaining the players. As a GM, my job is not to get the players to play the ideal fantasy campaign that I would want to play, but to give them the opportunity to play the way they want to play. (There is only darkness and despair down the path of telling the players how to play the campaign right.)

The bigger problem, and I think ultimately the dealbreaker, is that D&D is build around certain structures that I simply don’t find compatible with where my strength in the preparation and running of adventures lie. I just don’t get dungeons.

And it’s not like D&D needs dungeons because they are in the title of the game and players would be disappointed if they don’t get them. The whole game is based around dungeons on the most fundamental level. The game needs dungeons, not just as locations within the story but as a structure in gameplay. D&D is a game of attrition. If the party is facing just one villain, even one surrounded by guards and minions, the fight will either be very short, or very lethal for the PC. Single fights are not meant to be difficuly, they are meant to gnaw away on the endurance of the party. To play the game as it is designed to work, you need environments where the players will be facing six, eight, or ten fights in a row. And that is just not something that works in the kind of stories that I can create. For situations that make sense to me and that I feel will be rewarding for players, it almost never makes sense to have more than two or perhaps three encounters before leaving the place to regroup for the next outing on another day. When I make larger dungeons, they always end up as huge piles of guard creatures that serve little narrative function. Classical dungeons also regularly have puzzles, but I almost never find situations in which the presence of a puzzle would make sense and wouldn’t be nonsensical. You also can have nonhostile NPCs and creatures, and I often include those, but they don’t contribute to the attrition that games like D&D need. I often feel like I do rationally understand how dungeons are supposed to work, how they are structured, filled with content, and the purpose they have in a game. I just find them somewhat dull and completely out of place in the kind of adventures that I know how to make compelling and fun.

So what then about simply forgetting about all that attrition stuff and embracing the unlimited freedom to make the way whatever I want it to be. Yes, that certainly is an option. But what would really be the point of that? The main thing that broke the camel’s back for me with 3rd edition was the abundance of new class features and special abilities that characters get at almost all levels. And that’s something that is still present in 5th editon. Not quite as heavily as in 3rd, but still very much. Way too much, I think.

D&D is ultimately a game about pursuing experience to get access to new abilities. At least in the editions of the last 20 years, but it’s been like that for spellcasters since the very beginning. D&D is a game about getting new special abilities. It’s a main element of what drives players forward, and the prospect of new abilities is what makes players pick their character concepts. The group I had for my last campaign was amazing. They all went all in, head first, with all the narrative freeform nonsense I presented to them. But even these players were constantly talking about the new abilities they were looking forward to after and between games, and they were always proud to tell each other what cool new tricks they just got when they reached a new level. This is something that is baked into the game. This is what the game is about. And I feel that when you run adventures for the group in which most situations don’t result in fighting, then what is the point of running D&D? I am feeling very confident that I am certainly able to run cool and fun adventures. But when I run D&D, I have to provide plenty of opportunities for the players to use their wide and always increasing range of cool special abilities, and I simply don’t see how to do that in adventures that are cool and fun.

Dungeons & Dragons is not for me. If a group of players I like to play with invites me to a game of D&D, I probably wouldn’t say no. As long as I don’t have to come up with adventures that provide something to be entertaining for the players, I have no problem with it, even when I think other games would be even more fun. But running D&D sets requirements and limitations for the GM that don’t work with my abilities as a GM and what I consider enjoyable about gamemastering. Perhaps if the planets happen to align and some unexpected circumstances arise, I might possibly run a B/X campaign or something of a similar type. They are nowhere near as burdened by special abilities, but in the end they are still games about large dungeons filled with monsters and puzzles. I much more see my future with heroic fantasy games looking like Barbarians of Lemuria. Or perhaps some Apocalypse World. But for now it’s Star Wars all the way. And not the Star Wars with the D&D class features, or the Star Wars with the funky dice. The original Star Wars d6 game, where all the dice you need are d6s, and all your character’s abilities are the basic skill rolls. Rules light rules at their best.

Exploration System, Part 2: Practical Encumbrance

Encumbrance in D&D has always ranged from bad to terrible. The idea behind encumbrance is actually great. The default assumption for the first decade or so had been that the party enters a dangerous place, gets their hands on valuable stuff, and gets back out again, preferably with their loot and without anyone dying. When wandering monsters are a thing (look forward to part 3) and fighting battles is a negligible source of XP (look forward to part 4), then getting in and out quickly is of the essence. The longer it takes you, the greater is the risk of anyone dying with no benefit in trade. So as you keep delving deeper into the dark unknown, you are using up some of the tools and supplies you have brought with you, but at the same time get weighted down by the treasures you find. Which leaves you with two choices. Slow down and risk fighting more opponents and reducing your odds of being able to run away. Or reduce your weight, either by choosing to leave some of the treasure you’ve found behind, or by dropping some of the equipment that you hopefully won’t be needing on your way back to the surface. Hang on to all your potentially life saving tools and weapons as you slowly crawl back to the exit, or make a mad dash to safety? Or play it safe and leave some of your hard fought for rewards behind? This is a real question that players will have to face. There is no right answer which two out of these three you should choose and will greatly depend on the constantly changing situations. To me, this is one of the big things that make exploration adventures so exciting.

Random Encounters, XP for treasure, and Encumbrance are really a single unified system. They really only work together as a unit. When you ditch one of them, the other two stop serving any purpose as well. And I think most of the time, Encumbrance is the first one to go. Because the way D&D handles it is just so annoyingly tedious that almost everyone very quickly, if not immediately, decides to just not bother with it at all. Whether you calculate your character’s equipment load in pounds or in coins, every time you pick up an item or drop an item, you have to adjust your current encumbrance load value. And inevitably you will sometimes forget it or make mistakes, requiring to make a complete recount of all your inventory and calculate all the different weight again. Nobody thinks that’s fun. To really do that, you need to keep your inventory on spreadsheets, and playing the game with everyone having a computer open can’t be the way to go. So out the window Encumbrance goes, making the whole exploration system pointless.

But there is a solution, and it is brilliant in its simplicity. It also isn’t mine. This idea is taken pretty much straight from Papers and Pencils. I don’t really add anything significant to it, I am just aligning it with my exploration system here. What this system does is to say “calculating loads by weight doesn’t work because nobody uses it, let’s drop the idea of doing it ‘realistically’ and use a much simpler system of inventory slots”. Yes, it’s a greater degree of abstraction, but as I always keep saying all of the numbers in these mechanics are make believe anyway, and a system that people would want to use is always better than a system that always gets ignored.

The basic, and really very simple idea is that any items have a weight that is either “insignificant”, “significant”, or “especially heavy”. Insignificant weight means the item has an encumbrance value of 0, significant weight means it has an encumbrance value of 1, and especially heavy items have an encumbrance value of 2 or higher. To assign an encumbrance value to an item, my rule of thumb is round up the weight in pounds to the nearest multiple of 10, then drop the last 0. Items with a weight below 1 pound have an encumbrance value of 0.

The amount of items a character can carry is as follows:

Speed Max. Load Effect
Unencumbered STR x 1
Encumbered STR x 2 Speed -10
Heavily Encumbered STR x 3 Speed -20, disadvantage to Str, Dex, and Con

And that is the entire system. But you can even simplify this even more by setting up your inventory sheet in the right way. I recommend making a dedicated inventory sheet like this, but you can try squeezing it into the inventory space on your character sheet.

There are two columns for items. One for items with significant weights that add to encumbrance, and one for items with insignificant weights that don’t. On the left side you have all the rows numbered. When you now put all your items with significant weights into the left item column, and make them take up as many lines as its the encumbrance value, you no longer have to calculate anything. Your current load value is right there to the left of the last item on your list. To make things even easier for you, you can mark the lines that match your Strength score times 10, 20, and 30. In this example, the character has a Strength score of 13, so he is unencumbered with a load up to 13, encumbered with a load up to 26, and heavily encumbered with a load up to 39. The line below 13 items is marked green here, the line below 26 items marked orange. When you add or remove items on your inventory list, you immediately see when your current encumbrance category changes. The column with the items of insignificant wight doesn’t matter, I just thought it fits conveniently in the place where it is here.

Next to the numbers, I added another column as a recently added new feature. In this column you can mark if the items are part of your Arms, Exploration Gear, or Travel Gear. If you keep them sorted like this, it becomes trivial to say “I put down the backpack with my heavy travel gear and continue forward with only my arms and my tool pouch”. Again, no new calculations are needed. In this example we immediately see that the Arms and Exploration Gear cross below the green line, but stay above the orange line. That means when I drop my backpack with my tent, food, and spare clothing, my encumbrance will be Encumbered.

I did play around a bit with an idea of keeping track of various pouches and sacks characters might be carrying, but that just ends up disrupting the neat simplicity and easy of use of this system. So again, I just said eh!, and went for the more abstract option that requires the least amount of bookkeeping and rearranging your inventory. Though I admit I still don’t have a perfect idea what to do when characters go into a dungeon with empty space in their Exploration Gear pouch that later gets filled with treasure that they pick up. Right now, this still requires you to move an item from the top of your T-items to the bottom and adding the new item as an E-item. Maybe this can be improved as well, but I think so far this is a really damn good inventory management system, far better than anything you find in almost all versions of D&D.

Turning any map into a hex map with GIMP

There are a number of programms out there that allow you to make a hex map out of hex tiles. I used one of them to make this map of the Savage Frontier five years back. However, I am not a fan of these maps, at least not as something to put into the hands of the players. I feel it creates too much abstraction in the minds of players that works against them mentally visualizing the setting of the game as an actual world. As a setting creator, I see even myself getting affected by that and it significantly hampers my work on the world.

But hexes are very useful as tools to keep track of the party’s position as it is moving through the wilderness. In most situations you want to have separate maps for the players and the GM anyway, so you can keep track of where hidden and unknown sites are located without giving it away to the players. You can also overlay a hex grid on top of the GM version of the map along with the hidden sites and other notes. The terrain type of each hex won’t always be completely clear, but that’s not really an actual issue. Make a best guess which terrain on the background image dominates, and when you don’t stay consistent between different occasions the players are passing through it nobody will notice.

Finding an image of a hex grid on a transparent background to simply slap on top of a map you have in Photoshop or GIMP has been a huge pain in the butt for most of this afternoon. But at least for GIMP I found a great solution to add a grid on top of any image.

  1. Open your image file of your map.
  2. Add a new layer: Layer > New Layer > Press “Okay”. Make sure the new layer is above the layer with the map.
  3. Open the Mosaic dialog: Filters > Distortions > Mosaic.
  4. Make sure Tile Geometry is set to “Hexagons”.
  5. Set Tile Size to your prefered size of tiles.
  6. Set Tile Height to 1 (to remove reflection effect).
  7. Set Tile Neatness to 1 (to make orderly hexes).
  8. Set Tile Color Variation to 0 (to make all tiles blank).
  9. Set Tile Spacing to 1 (or higher, if you want wider grid lines).
  10. Joints Color: This will be the color of your grid lines.
  11. Light Color: To remove shiny reflections on each hex, click on the color to open the “Light Color” dialog. Set the value for “A” to “0” or move the slider all the way to the left. Click “OK” to close the dialog. (You can’t disable the reflection, but this makes it completely transparent and therefore invisible.)
  12. Click “OK” in the Mosaic dialog to apply the grid to the player.

And that is the entire process. The tricky part is to find the right value for “Tile Height” to get the tile size that matches the scale of your map. But if the map has scale markings on it, move the view of the image to that corner of the map and try out different sizes in the Mosaic dialog until the hexes line up with it. (The “Preview” box has to be checked to see how the grid would look like with the current settings.)

The only issue I noticed is that with hexes of sizes below 20-30, the hexes tend to get a bit squashed as a result of the image consisting of pixels, but I think you’d get this with any other method to get a hex map as well, unless it uses vector images (which I doubt any map software does).