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Category Archives: Game Design

[Circumflex] Social Status as a new ability

I think I am overdoing this whole thing a bit. The whole project was supposed to be a clone of basic D&D with Harnic furnishings. And I am still working on it.

To be fair, right now I am mostly trying to figure out the details for spells and invocations. I converted the spells from the HarnMaster rules, even though in some cases I had to really put them through the wringer to make them fit. Some of them basically are completely different spells, aside from their names. And well, I mostly was converting them for the names anyway. Still, it is kind of a bitch figuring out all those small details like range or duration.

It doesn’t help that sometimes I get other ideas that I then put in. Last week I decided to use the whole idea of starting money as social status in the game. So I now have a new ability.

It makes more sense to me, because the whole society in the setting is stratified and sees things like that as important, but I now have to integrate this ability in the rest of the rules. And already I encountered a problem with one of my players. I tried to bounce the idea of him, and he was generally for it, but then expected SOC to be a variable quantity. Which also makes sense, but not if I treat it as a D&D-like ability. SOC in the case of my rules needs to be static and show the heritage of the character instead of his current social status.

In other words, SOC is the social class the character starts with, and it modifies how much money he/she receives at the beginning and… well, yes, then what?

There should be effects that are based on this quality. It might modify reaction rolls in certain situations. An Earl is more likely to be favorable to a character if that character is of noble birth. As will an innkeeper.

And even if a low born character raises through the social strata, he/she still might be stuck with the disadvantage of a low birth.

“Yeah sure Sir Ered is the champion of Olokand, but he was born a commoner! We don’t associate with commoners!”

But well, that is one effect.

Some other ideas:

  • Social Standing determines the caller/leader of the group (from Planet Algol)
  • social standing gives access to better weaponry (specifically knightly weapons can only be purchased by people of sufficient standing)
  • SOC might also allow for bonuses on other social interactions, it might give bonuses on training rolls (because people might want a noble client), and on carousing rolls.

Speaking of that… I might have to create my own Harnic carousing table. Oh, and speaking of tables, I have to create a “random extremity” table which I already referenced on my “Death and Dismemberment table”.

Sometimes it feels I started with a 30 piece puzzle, only to find at piece 100 that the puzzle has grown and not even halfway done.

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[Circûmflex] HP dynamics

Sometimes it is quite interesting what comes out when I just change something small, and then think it through again.

I added one version of the Death and Dismemberment table to the game as an alternative to the original rules. Neither “Death at 0hp” nor “At Death’s Door” really seemed to work for me.

My players naturally gravitate to At Death’s Door. Most of them have played Baldur’s Gate before. They would feel cheated if I told them they died at 0hp. But I think it is cumbersome.

Of course then I replaced it with a whole table and a roll instead of a simple bleeding out rule. Go me.

But adding this table gives an interesting dynamic to the game.

So lets have a look at it. With the rules as I currently have them:

  • hp indicate how much fight a character has in him/her; a character is fine as long as he has positive hp, damage at this point does not cause wounds.
  • if a character falls to 0 hp or below a roll on the Death and Dismemberment table is in order. The character then suffers the consequences according to the table. This can be instant death. Or a very serious injury/lost limb. [I still need to rewrite the table for my own game]
  • A character can use his/her shield to soak up all damage from one combat turn at the cost of the shield (the Shields shall be splintered! rule)
  • A character can use his/her helmet or sturdy hat to turn a fatal blow into an injury instead, at the cost of the headgear and being taken out of the fight by unconsciousness (the Helmets shall be shattered! rule)

There was another idea I found, in that one could use the damage dealt under 0 as a modifier for the roll on the table. Meaning that a good roll from an opponent might make a fatality much more likely.

Here’s the thing though: this idea basically turns hp into stamina; and it provides some interesting player agency (sure you can soak that hit with your shield, but the next one might be worse…). Death on the other hand, only comes when either a roll says so, or when abilities are so degraded that life becomes impossible.

Still working on this one.

[Circûmflex] Gods, and what happened to Alignments in my homebrew system

I always found Alignments in RPGs to be a stupid idea. At one point I went through my houserules and deleted all mentions of evil or good out of them. At least the lawful-neutral-chaotic axis was a bit nicer to handle. But I never really liked them. On the other hand it always seemed such a big part of specifically D&D that you couldn’t just let it go to waste. Or at least I told myself that.

Circûmflex of course is supposed to hew closely to old school rules, but I also want to use it as a chance to create a system that I personally would want to play with. It helps that the setting is too complex to be easily mapped onto the classic alignment system.

Funnily enough, this is because the whole setting has its roots in what most likely was an early D&D campaign. In 2003 N. Robin Crossby republished Lost Gods: The Libram of the Nushenic Pantheon. This is a fascinating little book, with an introduction by the author about its contents. It turns out that the pantheon described in there was the one used in the author’s private role-playing campaign. The original libram was published in 1978 as a handout for the players of this campaign. The lessons of this campaign were later used to construct Harn, and one of the things that were transferred were the characters of some, but not all of the gods described in this booklet. Originally there were 18 of these gods, 6 each in good, neutral, and evil pantheons. When Harn was created these were changed. Some of the gods were simply dropped (the ninja god Shii), others had their aspects melded with each other (Harnic Halea is a mixture of Halea, the goddess of self-interest, and Hedoni, the goddess of pleasure). Some elements were used in other ways: people familiar with Harn might recognize the name of Tave-K’vier, the God of Cruelty and Depravity, as curiously similar to the name of an important cleric of Ilvir [1].

When everything was said and done the original HarnWorld featured material on a eminently gameable pantheon of 10 gods, with curiously divergent areas of influence.

Technically the goddess Peoni is the goddess with the largest mainstream appeal. She is the goddess of fertility, homes, healing, and most other civilized stuff that is important but not really immediately relevant to player characters. And so it appears that even in places where some of the “evil” religions hold sway, most don’t actually want to mess with the Peonians too much. After all, one might need some food for troops, or bodies to raise.

Both Larani and Agrik are just different philosophies on how to deal with Peoni and her followers. Larani wants to protect the meek, Agrik wants to rule them. Both religions get on like a house on fire with each other, meaning lots of dead and ruins.

One of the interesting things here is that there is yet another war god in the pantheon, Sarajin. Srajin was the war god of the neutral pantheon in the Nushenic Libram, and was basically transferred like that to Harn. His philosophical position is that fighting is glorious. Unsurprising then that he is the main god of the Northmen.

(Oh, did I say another? There also is the largely undefined Kelenos/Kelana who is revered in some parts of the south. So far he was not really fleshed out, and it might be that he is just Sarajin with another name, but who knows? I might have to stat some invocations for him though)

Many of the other gods are specific to certain classes: Halea is the goddess of merchants and hedonists.

Siem is the god of dreams and the elder people (the god of the elves AND dwarves).

Save-K’Nor (how are you supposed to pronounce that?!) is the god of wisdom and riddles. (basically the god of wizards)

Ilvir is the god of wild, sorcerous beasts. (a bit of a wild card, but basically the god druids would go for on Harn)

Morgath is the god of death and undeath (god of bad guys and undead)

Naveh is the god of murder (the god for assassins and thieves)

Now, this pantheon is of course kind of weird. It only resembles a proper pantheon with a lot of squinting, and by taking into account extra material about minor gods and demons published in various places, but it certainly gives an interesting dynamic to the world. For one,  it is not even a pantheon so much, as it is ten interlocking pantheons with their own hierarchies and churches.

Over time more has been written about this particular oddly misshapen bunch of gods, enough actually to see it as a functional unit even. The original Gods of Harn supplement already did a lot of work for that, giving a broad overview of both the mythologies and the churches of the gods. But the best way to understand it was the Summa Venariva supplement, a history textbook for a fictional world, in which the development of the religions involved are traced in a way to make the whole thing understandable.

But what does all of this have to do with alignments?

Well, in the broadest sense the religions of Harn are moral compasses that tell their adherents the why and how of their morals. Being godless is possible (Gargun in general are godless for example), but others pay at least lip-service to what their gods tell them. Now this does not mean that players have to follow these ideas, but they should let their decisions be informed by them.

When an adherent of Peoni kills a person he/she should know that this is wrong. When an Agrikan does it he/she should know that his deity likes that. When a Navehan does it he/she should know that the deity demands it.

Players can go against this of course, but they will have to resolve with their own ideas why they don’t fit into their own idea of “normal”.

This gets around the usual problem with Evil alignments in RPGs: nearly no real person will ever see themselves as evil. But they will do stupid shit if they believe their deity demands it. And some will try to do good, even if their deity demands really stupid stuff.

 

[1] Crossby in his notes does not seem to be aware where the name of this entity was used again

[Circûmflex] Going Berserk

olav_trygvasons_saga_-_uvaeret_hjoerungavaag_-_g-_muntheWell. At first berserkers were just a fighter variant in the draft.

I decided to cut down the classes to the four core classes, but I wanted some variety. After all clerics in Venarive have 10 or more choices that should play differently, wizards have at least 6 convocations, and the specialist… well, that class is basically built to be modified. Yes, I made the thief into the specialist. I think it fits better in a setting that actually takes care to note how many clothiers are in a city.

And of course the fighter is kind of boring otherwise. Oh, sure, a fighter can be basically every fighting hero ever, but it might help to point out what can be done with them.

So varieties it is. There is a more tribal Barbarian Warrior (if you know Harn you might know that this might be necessary), there is a Gladiator (because Agrikans dig their spectacles), and I was thinking about making knights and rangers into further sub-varieties. And then there is the berserker.

It really needs to be there.

Harn, like many fantasy worlds, has fjords. And fjords, for some reason I do not quite understand, contract vikings with alarming regularity.

Of course it is better explained than in other places, after all CGI published Ivinia, their version of fantasy Scandinavia soon after the first edition of HarnWorld, although it is quite odd that all the place names in Kethira seem to made up from fantasy languages, but Ivinian names show Germanic elements…

But anyway. Low fantasy middle age style game. I so totally need berserkers.

After getting some inspiration from various places I came up with this:

Berserker: can enter berserker rage at will during combat. If dealt damage in combat and not in berserker rage, must save against spell or enter rage.

Well, ok, this was longer originally.

But that comes from my realisation that berserker rage might be useful for other effects as well. Some of the invocations for different gods I am converting from Harnmaster cause berserker rage. So right now it is under the heading “Adventuring”.

Berserker Rage: Berserkers can enter this state at will. Some potions, spells and invocations can also cause people to enter this state.
While in this state the berserker has +2 to hit and damage with melee weapons or unarmed, but also -2 to AC. The berserker ignores all non-fatal injuries until after rage subsides or the injury turns fatal, whatever comes first. Berserker rage only ends when no further attack is possible within 1 combat round, or if Save vs. Spell is successful. Afterwards, the character is exhausted, taking a -2 penalty to all actions until rested for at least 1 hour, in addition to the effect of all wounds.

That is… a bit more complicated as a rule than what I was going for. On the other hand this is one of those situations that might come up.

Still, I hope that it will actually be a nice effect in game. It should give this choice for players: yes, you can enter that super state that makes you better at fighting, but people also can hurt you better, and you can’t necessarily stop fighting when you want to.

Note that the rules does not specify what attack is not supposed to be possible, just that none need to be possible.

The injury that is mentioned in the rules is a variation on the Death and Dismemberment chart that was popular a while ago. But I should get to that at a later point.

[Circûmflex] Slaughtering Holy Cows

A person with no fighting skill has a 50/50 chance of hurting someone with no armor at all.

A person with one level of fighting skill has a 50/50 chance of hitting someone with minimal armor.

A person with ten levels of fighting skill has a 100% chance of hitting someone with no armor, and a 90% chance of hitting someone with minimal armor.

Scale up and down as needed.

You know, one of the things I loved about 3rd edition D&D, when I made the switch from AD&D 2nd edition, was how easy refereeing fights became. I never liked THAC0, and I found it a bothersome quirk of an otherwise easy to understand system.

In hindsight the problem was that I was introduced to RPGs through DSA, and there combat is done via attack rolls and defense rolls. It had problems of its own which made combats last way too long (a fight between people with low attack and high defense could take hours), but at least everyone intuitively grasped the concept.

And then 3rd edition came along and it all became easier. +1 AB vs. AC 1 was exactly 50%, what could be easier?

When I look at older editions of D&D this always has been the case. It has been hidden away under weird formulations and strangely formatted tables, but if one actually bothers to do the math you can reduce the whole combat section of D&D to 3rd edition’s formula of

d20 + Attack Bonus > 10 + Armor Class

The differences were in the details. And a lot of those details were brought over from other games.

Why exactly has early D&D armor class that gets better the lower it gets?

Well, it was like that in a Civil War naval game Dave Arneson played, and he brought it over into D&D.

Why did it start at 9, and not at 10?

Because all the characters the rules cared about were at least level 1, and had as much fighting prowess.

Speaking about fighting prowess: why did it take until 3rd edition to straighten out that?

Pre-3rd edition rules had weird quirks in there that might have been intentionally designed like that, but which ultimately didn’t matter.

In AD&D the fighter stays at +1 attack for two levels, then gains +1 at every further level.

In 3rd edition each level of fighter gains +1 on the character’s attack bonus.

In my opinion this makes the whole process more streamlined, because now the fighter becomes the baseline for combat progression. I actually am thinking of going even further and making the first level of clerics, wizards, and specialists into +0, to show that no, they really aren’t specialized in fighting. (which might be better, because I already increased their chance for multiple spells a day)

So here we go, the homebrew I am building will use attack bonuses and ascending armor.

Fighters now gain +1 per level, the others are slightly more useless in a fight.

[Traveller] Transhuman Traveller (Part 1)

Transhuman Space

The last few months I have been thinking about welding together the GURPS Transhuman Space and GUPRS Traveller Interstellar Wars settings into a more or less coherent whole. And then to convert it to Mongoose Traveller because I like the ruleset better. Why should I have it easy after all?

Transhuman Space is a very interesting setting postulating how life might be at the end of the 21st century, in a world where most changes that affected mankind have been more or less revolutionary, but not catastrophic. There hasn’t been any really large war, disaster, or plague, humans haven’t all of a sudden learned to use Psi-powers, aliens are not known, at least none that are extraterrestrial in origin. The setting is limited to the solar system. This does not mean the things that happen are not quite amazing. It basically takes all the developments of the last few years, extrapolates a hundred years into the future, and then runs with the results.
Interstellar Wars on the other hand is a Traveller setting/milieu. It describes the time from the first meeting of Earth and Vilani at the end of the 21st century, to the ill-fated Rule of Man.

Notice something? Both are quite nicely overlapping in parts of the setting. The Transhuman Space setting has a timeline that goes roughly up to the first meeting of the two races according to OTU history.

Interstellar Wars has a bit of a problem with the fact that it’s description of Earth in that time is rather bland and unimaginative. That is rooted in the origins of the system in the 1970s, and the fact that this early history was originally part of another game (Imperium).
So, what I am going to do is try to weld both of them together. Oh, and try to update both settings to our current real life timeline while I am at it. TS was published in 2002, and therefore is fairly recent, but they still miss the mark on a few things. IW, despite the fact that it’s groundworks were laid earlier, is actually a bit better: it just never goes that deep into detail about the solar system.

So, lets see…

[Labyrinth Lord] The Unseen Shadow

I was going to use this in the PBEM game I was doing right now.

The Unseen Shadow
A strange phenomena appears to you as you investigate the workbench in the old forgotten dwarven smithy: situated in the middle of the large stone table, just over the edge, is a sword’s handle that by all means appears to be levitating in thin air, with a finger’s breadth of air between itself and the bench. As you investigate further it appears to be a whole longsword invisible to the eye, except for the handle and a barely noticeable disturbance of light where the blade should be.
The invisible blade is a weapon of duergar manufacture made as a tribute to the inhabitants to the castle above the dungeon. This one seems to have been forgotten or lost when the workmen of the smithy were driven off or killed. The blade is invisible (except via magic) and attacks as a +2 weapon. A small engraving in dwarven runes only traceable via touch proclaims this to be the “Unseen Shadow”.

This one is actually based, believe it or not, on a local legend from my home village. Or at least on something that claimed to be a local legend from my area.
I used to work in a cave that was situated right under a former castle/nowadays church, that had a genuine secret passage through parts of the cave.
We cave guides used to dig local history a lot (and all of us were kind of involved in it) and during one of my many exploits into the legends of the region I came upon an interesting book on local legends that claimed (in not even half a paragraph) that the existence of the secret passage (and the castle’s track record of failed sieges) was veiled by fabricated legends about a pact between the lords of the castle and the dwarves from under the hill. Obviously the dwarves gave the castle’s owners supplies and invisible swords.
That kind of stuck with me, mostly because it sounded so D&D to me, and because I grew up in the place and never had heard that story before, ever. I still think the author of that book might have totally fabricated the legend himself (not an unknown occurrence in local history) or heard it from someone with a very vivid imagination and some interest in old Germanic legends. Considering the cave was just 30km from Bayreuth, and with that from the place of the Wagner festival, I blame the influence of the Wagneranians.

Poker Chip Ideas

English: Poker Chips

English: Poker Chips (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bennies

The idea comes from Savage Worlds, a benny is a single token that can be exchanged at one point during the game for a certain effect. Every player (GM included) gains a certain amount of bennies per session. In my game I was thinking about giving it the ability to 1. soak damage for one attack 2. change 1 1 critically failed check into a normal failure 3. Reroll a check and keep the better. 4. Make a normal attack into a +1 attack (including counting it as magical/blessed) The GM has it’s own pool of Bennies and may use them for Monsters and NPCs, or award them to players for especially cool moments

Hit Points

I was thinking about using poker chips for these. Every player has an amount of chips in the size of his/her hp. When damage happens they lose those until they reach 0. Alternatively the GM hands out red chips for wounds. The kobold hits? Here’s three chips. This actually might work together. With the rules I have in place to soak damage (Shields shall be splintered! and maybe the Bennies from above) I might just assign the red chips, and if the character doesn’t soak the damage next round the amount of red chips gets taken from the hp chips.

Mana

The idea also would work with spell points or, if that ever happens in my games, power points. I guess it would be easy to keep track of those with chips. Of course I use straight Vancian magic, so most likely not.

Experience Points

Here’s an interesting idea: have the players assign the XP in the end. Just drop a load of chips with the right amount on the table and tell them they can divide the XP among themselves. This actually might be useful even during the game. Character does something freaking awesome? Have an xp chip.

[Labyrinth Lord] Spellslot System

Spellslot System (aka The Even-more-Vancian-and-a-bit-Pratchettian System)

When Magic users gain experience they gain a better understanding for the workings of magic and wizardry. Their mind becomes more capable of holding more and more spells of smaller sizes, or spells of larger size.

Magic users basically can exchange the spells they have memorized in between levels in a ratio of 2:1, meaning two spells of a lower level are worth 1 spell of the next higher level, and the other way around. This can also be used over multiple spell levels.

Example: So, the sorceress Linda (2nd level) just found a scroll with a second level spell and dutifully copies it into her spellbook. The next day she and her companions are in an area in which this spell might come in handy, so she does not memorize her two first level spells, but one 2nd level one instead.

Spells are fickle beings, a sort of memetic daemon that exists only to fulfill it’s use and then disappears (which is why magic users have to relearn their spells every time they have cast them). They also are a bit jealous of other spells and want to be treated right. A magic user can only ever safely learn a single spell once a day (so only one of each kind of spell) and it might feel cramped if the magic user doesn’t have a slot for this kind of spell yet. If this is the case the magic user is in Overcast state, which is a bit like carrying around an unsecured weapon. If the spellcaster fails any save during this time or loses hitpoints 1d4 spells are released randomly. If the fail is critical then all the spells are randomly released. In this case the GM decides what exactly happens.

Example: Linda prepared a web spell that was over her limit. The she and her companions are surprised by a couple of crafty kobolds shooting darts at them. The wound was only small, but smarted like hell.

“Ouch!” says Linda and loses concentration. All of a sudden glibbery white mass is sprouting all around her and her companions and keeps them from moving. Now they can hear the hollering and whistling of the kobolds as they prepare another volley of darts, and there is no way to run from them…

Random Spell Release Table

  1. all the spells just disappear in an explosion of shining light *poof*
  1. all the spells hit the spellcaster and everybody around (both friends and enemies), random determination of who gets hit by what
  1. half the spells hit everybody, the rest just disappears without any effect
  1. the spells cause 1d6 imps to appear out of thin air. They will hang around for another 1d6 hours and play the most imaginative and dangerous pranks possible
  1. the spells manifest themselves as magic daemons and linger around
  1. The spells manifest themselves as magic daemones and wander off somewhere else

Spell

This small creature looks like a whirl of energy, somehow similar to the spell it technically is. It gets bigger with spell level and can be baited onto a piece of paper and pergament, creating a scroll, or captured in a jar. If it attacks it will just use the spell it is made of as an attack and disappear into nothing.

My Frankenstein

I was not idle the last few weeks, I was just busy with other things and in places that didn’t have a good internet connection for blogging. Christmas, and work, and other stuff kept on interfering with that. I still worked on my own rules compendium. I renamed it from Gonzo to Frankenstein, because by now it feels less like improvised mayhem, and more like a carefully crafted body made out of parts of other bodies. It still looks weird.

At it’s core it still is OD&D (well, Labyrinth Lord), although the surrounding elements have changed. There is a certain mechanical orthodoxy that I like about the game, and I don’t want to change too much. I want this to be still recognizable as based on OD&D, that is why so far I tried to get around things like spell points or Ascending AC, both of which I find more natural and easier to handle. I did introduce Delta’s Target20 mechanism and a corresponding Fighting Ability score though, mostly because I find a single formula easier than looking up stuff in the tables. This, by the way, is also one of the reasons why no ascending AC so far: the Target20 mechanism uses descending AC beautifully. Also I would have to change ACs on all my monster statistics.
So far I have mostly added to the whole thing (classes, races, spells), purged a few things I did not like (alignments and a few spells connected with them), and then found a lot of optional rules that might come in handy once in a while. True, that does go against the idea of “Simplicity” and “Rulings instead of Rules”, but I try to keep them simple and mostly collect mini-games/subsystems for the sake of variety and ease of use.
That is what I am actually mostly going for: ease of use. Because I am the one editing this system, I slowly gain a good understanding of what different parts really do.

The chapter on combat gained a few more interesting bits, basic rules on how rule some specific combat situations, which all are just variations on a theme (it all boils down to “you get that bonus if you attack with that minus”). I know that this might keep people from really improvising in a battle, but they might show people what is possible.
It’s not like the whole thing is too long anyway. I cut down a lot of superflous stuff, made a few things easier to understand, and so on. The largest part of the whole thing right now is actually the endless lists of spells and psionic powers. I didn’t really want to cut too many of them  because I like variety. The amount of spells is a large part of the game in any case, and the characters don’t really need to read more than the ones they can actually use anyway.

I don’t want to allow players to gain more than a few whimsy spells from their guild, or whatever place they buy spells at. They will either have to research spells or find them on scrolls during the adventure. What sort of a wizards’ guild would just give out what amounts to spells of mass destruction to any PC just waltzing in anyway?

Anyway, so far the largest parts that changed are:

1. there now are 5 base classes that can be played by anyone without requirement and the psion is one of them, all other classes need requirements and/or special DM allowance

2. combat has become easier and has more options, the tables were replaced with a unified system which did not actually change anything mechanically

3. race-as-class now are called paragon classes (yeah, I stole that from 3.5) and cannot advance higher than a specific point, this doesn’t matter too much as multi- and dualclassing is available for all characters. Race/Class combinations are the normal way. I just noticed that my players all had played Baldur’s Gate before and had brought some ideas from there.

4. I reinstated the typical AD&D spell names

Still working on the whole thing. We finally might manage to play again next Saturday, so there it might get tested.