Encumbrance and Treasure

I am not usually someone who does any kind of accounting for fun, so dealing with treasure and equipment generally is done very quick and simple in my campaigns.

The encumbrance system is almost taken directly from the one created by LS at Papers and Pencils, which I really like. (Yes, when you post mechanics on your website, sometimes there will actually be people using it.) The treasure system is my own creation, as far as I can recall. It’s a slight variant of the one I came up with for tying character advancement to loot in Barbarians of Lemuria.

Encumbrance

Encumbrance works very simple. All items have a weight of either 1, or 2, or none. Characters can carry a number of items equal to their Strength score with no penalty. They can carry a number of items equal to twice their Strength score while being lightly encumbred, and up to three times their Strength score while being heavily encumbred.

Characters who are lightly encumbred have their movement speed reduced by one category and have all the penalties for wearing medium armor. (Limits to using certain skills and spell point cost for casting spells.)

Characters who are heavily encumbred have their movement speed reduced by two categories and have all the penalties for wearing heavy armor.

If an object is so large and heavy that it would take both hands to hold and carry, it counts as two normal items and has a weight of 2. Objects lighter than a dagger are not counted towards encumbrance. It’s left to the GM to decide when a larger number of smaller objects counts as one item. A pound or half a kilo of stuff probably is a good limit.

As they are likely to come up often, a quiver with 12 arrows, food for one day, and water for one day should all be treated as having a weight of 1 each, regardless of how they are stored.

To track encumbrance, a good idea is to have an inventory list in which all the rows are numbered. You can then mark at which row the limits for light encumbrance, heavy encumbrance, and maximal load are reached, based on your character’s Strength. For items with weights greater than 1, simply cross out the line below it. When you get over any of those limits, you simply see it immediately as the list passes over the marked lines.

Treasure

The standard unit of wealth is “1 treasure”. A treasure could be many things, but generaly has a weight and a value of 1. A small bag of silver coins being the standard example. But it could also be jewelry, gemstones, golden cups, or whatever. For special occasions you can also have special treasures which weigh nothing or have a value greater than 1. The huge diamond from the crown of the high priest may easily have a value of 5 or 10, while a gold ring with a saphire might have a weight of none. But these are not usually found lying around in ruins or in the pockets of bandits.

There are no price lists. As long as you have at least one treasure with you, you can get whatever weapons, shields, food, rooms, and other small expanses you want. If you have no treasure with you, you’re broke and have to either get some valuables somewhere or get creative in acquiring equipment and supplies. Greater expanses usually cost 1 treasure. It could be a mount, a lavish feast, a cart, or other mundane but expensive things. Armor is more expensive and costs 1 treasure per point of Armor Class bonus (an AC +4 armor would cost 4 treasures).

Magic potions also generally cost 1 treasure each and are probably one of the most common expenses. More powerful magic items don’t come with a fixed price. They are almost always given as rewards, taken from defeated enemies, or stolen from treasure vaults.

RPG Review: Primeval Thule

Primeval Thule is a Sword & Sorcery campaign setting that was released last year for Pathfinder, D&D 4th Edition, and 13th Age. It is set in the “Pre-cataclysmic Age” of Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu, which has been the backdrop for the worlds of many Sword & Sorcery stories and RPGs, like Conan and Kull, Barbarians of Lemuria, and Atlantis: The Second Age. Primeval Thule adds a fourth mythic continent to this famous group, which takes the form of prehistoric Greenland. In the world of Primeval Thule, is a place very different from the one we know today. A vast tropical island covered by lush jungles and home to many strange beasts.

133780As someone with a passing interest in geography and geology, the map of Thule is quite interesting. For one thing, all the maps have west “up”, which I find pretty clever. Greenland is so far north that the difference between the axis of the Earth and the magnetic pole becomes quite significant and any compass would be pointing to a spot off the northern coast of Canada. Which seen from Greenland is in the west. A somewhat odd thing though, is that the map seems to be based on the geography of the rock below the modern Greenlandic ice and all the fjords and clacial valleys would not be existing yet before the coming of the ice. But hey, this is a pulp fantasy setting, so it’s not like that would actually hurt the world in any way. Another nice touch is that even though you’ll recognize all the islands of the northern Atlantic, Iceland is missing. Because Iceland is geologically speaking a very recent addition. By which I am saying 16 to 18 million years old, which was long before the evolution of the first apes. Scientifically widely incorrect, but I still like the idea.

Primeval Thule reads a lot like an honest attempt to merge Dungeons & Dragons with the Prehistoric Sword & Sorcery of Robert Howard, much more so than even Dark Sun. But my feelings about the result are a bit ambigous. Thule is inhabited by humans, atlanteans, beastmen, and serpentment, but also D&D races like elves, dwarves, and rakshasa. The elves I feel are done very well. They are in fact an alien race from another dimension that created a colony in Thule a long time ago and had several big wars with the local serpentmen and rakshasa. Which they did defeat, but ultimately they also fell into decline and were pushed back by explorers and conquerors from Atlantis in the south and are now almost disappeared. The center of remaining elven culture is a single large city which is increasingly falling into ruin and decaying anarchy, which I think integrates them very well into this type of fantasy setting. On the other hand, dwarves are just boring. They have a single small kingdom somewhere in the mountains, which is of no significance to the rest of the setting as a whole. It feels like the dwarves are only there because the rulebooks of the three games the setting is written for have them as a player character race. But they are just shoved into a back corner and then forgotten. Why bother then? I even saw a single case in which a village of halflings is mentioned. And that’s all. For any intents and purposes, halflings don’t really exist in Thule. I don’t think there was any mention of orcs or goblins and I am not sure if I’ve seen any instances of dragons and ogres. Other than that one dwarven kingdom, there isn’t really much D&D specific in the setting, which works quite well for integrating it with the Precataclysmic Age.

The book looks great, being in full color and the background of the pages of each chapter is tinted in a different shade, which makes it quite pleasing to look at. The art is also quite nice, but most of the time I had the impression that the images were ordered before the book was written and then put onto various pages pretty much at random. Often I saw a picture of an interesting location and wanted to know what kind of place it is, but couldn’t find any description on that double page or the one before or after it that would match it even remotely. That’s rather week and disappointing. In the pdf for the Pathfinder version all the maps are really blurry and often almost unreadable, which is just bad and should not be happening. The big continent map is better, but I can’t really say I am a fan. Even though Thule is supposed to be this wild and savage land, the map is absolutely cluttered with markers for villages and ruins, the majority of which doesn’t even have a description in the book and is just a name. As a result Thule feels very overcrowded and not really wild and unexplored at all.

Which brings me to my main problem, which is the geography chapter. On the plus side, the amount of great and evocative ideas for various kinds of is very high. There is tonnes of stuff that made me really think I want to have an adventure set there. But the problem is that each of these places appear to have been written and existing almost in a complete vacuum. Nothing is ever connected or related to anything else on the continent at all. You could easily take any place in Thule and drop it into any space of the map you want to. You could even drop them into pretty much any other setting. There are plenty of factions with various interests, and many of them are pretty interesting ideas. But again their interests are entirely restricted to a single place, which quite often is not much more than a short paragraph or two. Combined with the overcrowded map it just doesn’t feel like a living world. Despite all the flavor it is still somewhat stale and lifeless. That’s often good enough for one-shot adventures and mini campaigns, but in that case you probably don’t want to read a 280 pages book on the setting.

My opinion of Primeval Thule is that it is a great source of ideas for Sword & Sorcery campaigns, and in that regards it is one of the most interesting settings I’ve read. But as a campaign setting it falls somewhat flat and I don’t see myself ever getting excited to actually run a campaign in it. For people interested in learning about various types of Sword & Sorcery settings, I really do recommend it. But I would not expect to find something that is as compelling to start a campaign with like Dark Sun or Spears of the Dawn.

Witches & Warlords B/X clone?

Right now I am seriously considering making my own B/X clone. Does the world need another one? Of course not. But the amount of work is trivially small (I had the idea yesterday evening and it’s almost complete by now) and I am mostly interested in it for my own personal use. Since I am doing the work anyway and I got most of the ideas from other peoples B/X variants, why not put it all in order and make it available for free?

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I am normally not a fan of D&D at all. I think AD&D is the most terribly designed and messily written RPG I’ve ever seen getting any widespread response, and while the d20 system of 3rd edition cleaned up the mess and straightened out the math, it actually made the rules even more needlessly complex and overdesigned. (Took me over 10 years as a GM to come to that realization, though.) But Basic really does have a very nice charm that just doesn’t stop calling to me. It’s very small, very simple, and mostly works very well, and it also has huge numbers of fans active in creating and sharing their own variants and content. There are only two things in B/X which I really don’t like, which are the mindbogglingly insane rules to calculate a hit and the magic system. Fixing attack rolls and Armor Class is easily done. (So easily I can’t understand why it took 25 years to chance it!), which leaves only the magic system.

Magic in D&D is a classic case of what I consider disassociated mechanics. Spell plots and spell preparation are game mechanics that exist only as mechanics without actually representing anything in the fictional world of the game. The books occasionally try to somehow come up with an explanation why it works that way in this specific kind of fantasy world, but it never really feels truly belivable to me. And it’s a major obstacle that keeps D&D from being a generic system for campaigns set in any average fantasy world. Being very pleased with the attempts done by Spears of the Dawn in this regard, I checked out Stars Without Number (a B/X sci-fi game), from which it takes most of its rules. It looks really great and with a few tweaks would be what I’d use to run Star Wars or Mass Effect, and it’s also free. The magic system of SWN is actually a completely different one and seems to be based on the psionics rules from the D&D 3rd edition Expanded Psionic Handbook, which is my favorite magic system ever written. But the XPH rules are a bit too complex compared to the simplicity of B/X games and what Crawford did to make it simpler seems really very good. Add to that a number of ideas from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the bestiary from Basic Fantasy and there is already something really nice looking taking shape.

The main goal is to provide a rules system that works well with the Ancient Lands setting I’ve been working on for a while. Which in turn is greatly inspired by the stories of Robert Howard and Fritz Leiber, but also Kane by Wagner and The Witcher by Sapkowski. With additional influences from Dark Sun, Skyrim, and Dragon Age II. (And Star Wars, because everything is better with Star Wars!) Barbarians of Lemuria would be a good game of choice and it is a very nice game. But I have to admit that I really have a great appreciation for class based systems. Leveling up by distributing advancement points after every adventure isn’t really my preference. Sorry, BoL. Yes, there are already OSR games based on Sword & Sorcery, like Crypts & Things and Astonishing Swordsment & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. But AS&SH is still based on AD&D and Crypts & Things seems to be unavailable, and they both cost money! It’s not that they are very expensive, but when we’re all putting together our own packages of house rules, you want to have a quick peek at what others are doing and nab a variant system or mechanic here or there. And I am not going around spending even just 10€ every two week to flip through a pdf in 20 minutes and decide that there isn’t anything interesting for me in it. That would add up very quickly. (And to be frank, while AS&SH is the tidiest version of AD&D I’ve ever seen, it doesn’t really make any changes to make it more of a Sword & Sorcery game.)

And so that’s why I am going to make my own B/X variant.

benderWith owlbears and spriggans!

War Cry of the Flame Princess: Poison

I retroactively added this post to the WCotFP series.

I am really not a fan of poison that instantly kills a character dead on a single failed saving throw, but I neither can say that I am very fond of the various mechanics from d20 games to deal with poison.

snakeAnd completely out of the blue I suddenly had this idea for how one could possible handle poison in OSR games (and probably a wide range of others as well). It’s so simple that I am most likely not the first to come up with it, but that actually makes it a good argument for and not against it.

When a creature gets hit by a poisonous attack, it needs to make a saving throw against poison or take X amount of damage. At the begining of its turn, a poisoned creature has to make another saving throw or take another X points of damage. Once it successfully makes a saving throw against the poison, it takes no damag and the poison ends.

The strength of the poison is entirely defined by the amount of damage it deals. The difficulty of the saving throw is always the same (no penalty to the saving throw against very strong poisons) and the duration of the poison is always as long as it takes to make a successful safe. So you only need to remember the amount of damage done by the poison and nothing else. You don’t even have to take count of how long the poison has already been acting. Poisons that deal higher amount of damage are more difficult to survive simply by the fact that you might run out of hit points before you even get the opportunity to make a third or fourth attempt at shaking it off. Even if you survive, a high damage poison still leaves you a lot more crippled than one that deals little damage. And if you’re already injured and unable to take much more punishment, even a relatively weak poison might still kill you.

Since saving throws against poison in B/X are usually save or die, the chance to succeed are pretty good, even for 1st level wizards. The chance that you take damage three or four times before making the save are very low at any level and at high level getting damaged even twice won’t be very common. So because of that, the amount of damage dealt by the poison has to be pretty high. I think a good rule of thumb might be that the poison should deal at least as much damage as the primary bit or claw attacks of the creature. In case of a small creature that relies primarily on its poison, it should be even considerably higher than that. I wouldn’t even bother with anything under 1d6. The highest number I use with my monsters is 3d6 for wyverns, and that’s because I am always very generous towards players when it comes to poison. If you want really nasty ones, you could easily go up to 4d8 and beyond.

The complete and really short history of the Ancient Lands

My progress on creating the Ancient Lands setting for the last two years has always and regularly been slowed down to a crawl by two major obstacles: Making good names for all the people and places, and creating a good historic background for the world. History always seemed very important to me because I’ve seen it used for such marvelous effect in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games. Not because there were so many fascinating tales that are exciting to hear about, but because historic events explained why all the major groups have grudges at each other and which encounters between two or more people are powder kegs with lit fuses before anyone has said a single word. It explains which subjects are touchy and where you need to tread carefully when attemting to negotiate, and also which buttons you need to push to get two people to kill each other. Dwarves hate elves? So what? That’s not very interesting. What do you do with that? Giving some hint why they feel that way makes a huge difference.

So to have a rich environment for complex interactions between characters from different cultures or factions and get some ambiguity into the conflicts, you need to have a history for the setting. But try as I might, I’ve never been able to come up with anything but a few general ideas, never really making any progress with the setting. But now I’ve sat down to sift through the sources for some ideas I might be able to adapt. And realized there isn’t really anything either. Elric might be an exception (I’ve read only two random stories), but in Sword & Sorcery he is always the exception. But when I look at Conan, Kane, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and the early stories of the Witcher (not very far with the novels yet), there actually isn’t really anything either. Two of the best Sword & Sorcery RPG settings, Dark Sun and Planescape don’t have any history at all in their original (and true) incarnations.

And now that I think about it, the history elements from the games that inspired me are extremely brief as well. The story of the Krogan in Mass Effect is the most complex and difficult of them all, but it is also very, very short. The Salarians needed super soldiers to defeat the seemingly invincible Rachni, discovered the Krogan and gave them space ships and advanced weapons. After the Rachni where defeated the Krogan didn’t want to stop conquering planets and give back the weapons. So the Salarians created a bioweapon that could drive the Krogan close to extinction within a generation (annihilating them would be inhumane) and the Turians used it. Now Krogan civilization is a shadow of what it once was and the Salarians refuse to make a cure and let the Krogan population grow again. The Krogan are pissed, the Salarians and Turians have no regrets, and while many others sysympathize, the idea of the Krogan increasing their numbers doesn’t sound very appealing either. There are other old conflicts like that in the setting, but those are even much more simple. But the really great thing about them is that we don’t really know the name of a single person who was involved in those events or any planet where something happened. There also is no date or any numbers of populations or worlds. Because none of that really matters to understand the current situation and why Krogan are always hostile to Salarians and Turians. In the stories of Conan, everyone fears the warriors of the Cimmerians or the Picts, but we’re never really told anything about specific wars or battles in the past. Conan fought in the battle at Venarium when he was young, that is all we have. And I now feel confident that I don’t need any more than that either.

So here I present the complete and very short history of the Ancient Lands.

  • Many centuries ago fey races from the Spiritworld built great castles in the world of mortal creatures and they often took elves and lizardmen as slaves, so the other primitive peoples hid deep in the forests and mountains.
  • At some point the shie began to abandon their castles, letting them fal into ruin and leaving their abandoned slaves behind. Some slaves understood the farming they had done in the fields of their masters or had seen them work with bronze, and as they faded back into the wilds, the basics of these arts spread among the other savages.
  • Humans had been hiding in the most impassable mountains far out of sight and never been taken as slaves. They also avoided the elves and lizardmen, so they did not learn about metal and farming until thousands of years later
  • In one great city of the naga, a group of lizardmen slaves secretly worshiped the Sun and gained the magic power to face the naga sorcerers and start a rebellion. The rebels defeated their masters and created the Mayaka kingdom.
  • The Neshanen elves discovered the secrets of naga sorcery and learned to use the power of demons for themselves. The druids of the Falden thought it to be too dangerous and tried to destroy them and the ongoing conflict of the two groups has led to many wars between Falden and Neshanen armies.
  • Naga and Neshanen sorcerers are constantly trying to steal each others magical secrets and burried magic treasures of other Ancients for as long as anyone can remember.
  • Eventually human Vandren came down from the mountains to trade with Falden and Takari and many Vandren became mercenaries for Falden chiefs. Some generations later three half-elves started a monastic order based on the equality of all people, with no distinction between clans and no slaves and masters. It quickly grew to include Vandren, Falden, Ruyaki, and kaas.
  • A warrior monk of the order decided that he had enough of trading great amounts of goods for every small piece of metal for their weapons and armor and take control of some mines for the order. That worked out really well and for the past hundred years their ships have been cruising the Inner Sea to take over any town that has something which they want but would be too expensive to buy, recruiting whoever wants to join their army. The sages of the order do not approve at all, but their opinion has stopped mattering to the warrior monks a long time ago and many of them have never been to any of the original monastery towns.
  • In the North Falden and kaas clans have been fighting for control over copper and tin mines for a very long time, and very often they are trying to drive each other out of the region entirely. When they think their rival clans are getting too strong and could become a threat, they raid each other for loot with which they can pay allies to fight at their side. (Which doesn’t mean that kaas are never raiding other kaas or Falden never other Falden, but kaas and Falden never ally with each other.) Since the Falden have the most trouble with the warrior monks, the kaas have a quite high oppinion of them.
  • The Demon Hunters are mostly Takari who have special mystical training to fight demons and sorcerers and always travel the Inner Sea to fight and destroy them. That makes Takari very unpopular with the Neshanen and enemies of the naga. Since the Mayaka also hate the naga, they sometimes are trained as demon hunters as well, as do some Vandren. However, since they use sorcery to destroy demons, the Falden Druids see them as no better than sorcerers who use demonic magic for their own benefit.

That should provide enough hate to last for countless stories and adventures. No need for a timeline or the lives of any specific heroes.