Monday, August 7, 2017

Narrative adventures at the Green Dragon pub

A speculative sketch, loosely inspired by the the (rumored?) gaming style of Prof. 
M. A. R Barker of Tekumel fame.

What if other great world-builders took this path?

A game and story at the Professor's table

Professor T--'s group meets at the Green Dragon pub at least once a week. They play a curious game, which resembles more a story or a piece of theatre, inspired by German "free" Kriegsspiel, and best described as a sort of guided adventure in an imaginary realm.

Materials required are: plentiful supplies of paper (exam booklets are common), pens, pencils, common dice, and occasionally chess pieces and chequers, to mark the places of all the participants in a combat.

Each of the players brings a notepad and a sheet of paper dedicated to their "character". On this sheet are many notes, including the character's name and particulars, their salient characteristics, story and lineage. There is also space for lore regarding the history of each kindred, intermixed with notes on quirks, such as the dwarfs' ability to light fires wherever needed, and snippets of common knowledge, including fragments of elvish legend. Room is set aside for lists of gear and other trinkets that the character carries. We have seen characters described as elves, dwarfs, burglars, woodsmen, rangers, knights, hunters, and wizards, among many others!

The professor also arrives with several notebooks, closely filled with extensive notes, glossaries, and background materials, and many maps and sketches.

When play begins, the professor outlines an intriguing situation, continuing an adventure that clearly started some time ago. Each player replies with their preferred course of action, and the professor then responds with whatever happens next, prompting another player to reply, and so on. Journeys, skirmishes, traps, discoveries, and many curious encounters are all resolved by discussion, plain common sense, and the turns of the story. If the players are wise and attentive, they will usually overcome such difficulties. If they are foolhardy or proud, then their situation will deteriorate.

From time to time the outcome of some action is at issue or more than reasonably uncertain, and then the professor will call for a roll of the dice, and perhaps consult one or more of the many small tables scattered among his notes. One table, labelled "Luck or Craft", is often referred to, thus:

2-3... Horrible
4-5... Poor
6-9... Tolerable -- well
10-12... Marvel. elvish! [sic]

When the dice roll, ones are to be feared, and called "the evil eye". Sixes are highly prized, and sometimes called "the crown".

A thoughtful player who demonstrates the great resolve (or skill) of their character, is sometimes permitted to roll three dice and tally the best two.

Brief and intense fights take place from time to time. Such skirmishes rarely continue for more than a few "turns", with the rare exception of protracted battles. The professor is not sentimental about armed combat, and such scenes are short and deadly. The players will usually prevail (although combat always involves rolls, and so an element of risk), but if they misjudge their position, challenge dreadful foes, press their luck too far, or succumb to blood-lust, even the strongest will fall, memorably.

Another curious table, much used, is kept at hand during such battles:
5... goblin, spider, wolf
6... orc or grt. goblin
7... man-at-arms, grt. orc
9... troll, giant, fell beast
10... capt., wyrm, wraith
12... drake, horror

Now and then, the professor will make a "secret roll" of his own design, to judge how things go by chance, or to see if the characters blunder into, or across, something unseen, or are taken by surprise, or put in an interesting situation by happenstance.

Character may indeed be dazed, poisoned, wounded, enchanted, wearied, and so forth, and must make note of these effects and bear the consequences until the matter is resolved.

When the adventure (or chapter) is concluded, it is time to rest, tend to wounds, and divide any treasures found.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reviews - Tiny Dungeon and Dungeonpunk

Two low-cost games show the potential, and limits, of rules-lite and free-form RPGs.

Tiny Dungeons

Tiny Dungeon, by Brandon McFadden, Smoking Salamander Games, is a rules-lite, well-produced fantasy RPG that relies on an extremely simple dice mechanic. In fact, there are only three kinds of test, a standard test, a test with advantage, and a test with disadvantage, and consequently exactly three probabilities to roll for. Adventurer characters are also simple, having a race, a short list of Traits, a Weapon Proficiency, and a fixed number of Hit Points. Weapon Proficiencies and Traits confer advantage on tests, neither armor nor weapon type have any effect in combat (a hit is one Hit Point), and that's pretty much the game.

The Traits list is interesting and well-chosen, and would offer a variety of ways to make a character, although the race list is close to what you might expect of a generic fantasy. The low-key magic is interesting and essentially freeform. The Spell-Touched trait confers the ability to cast a variety of minor magics at the GM's discretion, while a Spell Reader can read spell scrolls to greater effect (though the scroll contents are also up to the GM).

Since there are only three probabilities, it's fair to ask why the system doesn't use the same dice roll with an "easy, standard, hard" target number, rather than adding or subtracting a die to generate advantage or disadvantage, but in such a simple system, this hardly seems difficult. One consequence of this system is that a standard test has a reasonable chance of success, which makes it harder for characters to hide effectively (since creatures have a fair chance of spotting them), and also more likely that combats will be decided not by skill but the higher Hit Points.

The PDF is well-designed, with engaging, somewhat cartoon-style artwork, and there's room in the short document for a scenario, as well as some GM advice. Given the scope of the rules, the system might not carry you through a long campaign, but there's certainly enough there for a few adventures, with few barriers to engagement or fun.


Dungeonpunk, by Eric C. Medders, is a free-form system that presents itself as fun and easy, but lacks coherence when it comes to figuring out how you actually play. The tone and approach are intriguing, but sometimes the details matter.

Dungeonpunk, much like Sword & Backpack, takes a freeform approach to the rules. Characters have a class and a brief description, and are backed by 5 all-purpose Destiny Points. The essence of the system is: roll high good, roll low bad, 1 fumbles and 20 crits. There's a lot to like in a system with no modifiers, ever, where the roll is considered "'outside' the game itself." But what is a "high roll" or a "low roll"? There are no guidelines, not even something like the rough chances, to help eyeball the probabilities. Furthermore, some rolls are against a Difficulty Class (DC), a target number, whereas in other situations you simply look at the number on the D20 and take it from there. So when do these apply? In combat, there's mention of an attack and defense roll, but then the result seems to be a matter of comparison: highest roll wins. In which case, why does the scenario at the end use a system by which the players score so many hits per points rolled on the D20?

Now, in line with the punk aesthetic, the Game Master section advises you to "Make the game up as you go", but although punk is brash and anarchic, it's also tight and fast, and this approach comes close to getting bogged down in a mix of GM say-so and uncertainty. On the one hand, it's liberating to be able to write instead of roll a character, but what we're looking for with freeform is a set of clean procedures and mechanics that can serve the moment and also provide a flexible frame for resolution, and Dungeonpunk isn't quite there yet.

Unlike Tiny Dungeon, the Dungeonpunk PDF is a simple text document with a handful of stock-art images, and its clarity further suffers from a lack of proof-reading and consistency (at one point, for example, the text mentions a "Plot Roll", which sounds fine, except the term is never explained). Nevertheless, if Dungeonpunk was tighter and clearer, it could potentially offer a lot more depth of play over time, because freeform provides space for elaboration and development from a simple set of rules.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Excursion - framework for light, multi-genre gaming

Excursion: a short journey or trip, especially one engaged in as a leisure activity.

This contains nothing really new in terms of options that other rules posts have tinkered with, but it's based on the idea of a set of rules that abstract most aspects of a specific RPG into generic qualities (position for task resolution, impact for measuring effect, character strengths and weaknesses). In theory, this means you could pick up any interesting scenario for another system, abstract the relevant aspects, and play through: an excursion.

The Characters

For each player character, list:
  • Type: the highest level of class, profession, or calling.
  • Brief: a short description, the kind of character you're playing ("A better swordsman than poet"), with a few lines of history.
  • Strengths: mechanically, the character's significant skills and attributes/characteristics (about five).
  • Weakness: if your idea of a character encompasses weaknesses or flaws, add one.
Seasoned, or simply lucky, player characters have 10 "STAT" (current status) points.


When characters take action, the referee will assess the relative position, in terms of strengths and weaknesses, the chosen approach, tactics, and other advantages and disadvantages:
  • Firm (3) - slight risk.
  • Strong (5) - an element of risk, but with sound skills, preparation, and tactics. A well-armed warrior attacking a goblin skirmisher; a competent engineer completing an emergency repair.
  • Balanced (7) - a substantial risk or danger that tests the character's abilities. A challenging combat; piloting an aircraft in a storm.
  • Weak (9) - a considerable disadvantage or danger. Attacking a strong monster head-on; tampering with a complex mechanism with makeshift tools.
  • Desperate (11) - relying on sheer luck or chance for success. Leaping across the chasm as the bridge falls; charging the dragon.
Roll the given number or greater on 2d6 to avert failure (a miss, loss or damage).

In combat, allow a minor move or adjustment, and a major action or attack (a charge is both, but it takes the initiative). The character that seizes initiative through action or planning goes first.

Other kinds of action, like magic or supernatural gifts, are also handled by position and the scope and type of powers the setting and scenario permits.

[Note: position here refers to a combination of readiness, situation, and approaches. As such, position matters more for resolution than character type or ability scores. A warrior wielding a great-sword is at a disadvantage in a narrow passageway, but strongly positioned on open ground, regardless of sword skill and STAT. And if you happen to have a d20 around, there's no reason you can't use that to set target numbers using the rough chances.]

Handling Impact

In many situations, such as combat, actions also have impact, which may affect a character's STAT.

Opposing NPCs have variable STAT points: rabble have 6; toughs 8; worthy antagonists 10; and monsters have 14, or more.

A character with exhausted (0) STAT is incapacitated at least, and minor opponents will be removed from play.

Damage, from weapons or other impact, reduces STAT based on relative impact, which takes both the weapon type and armor or other protection into account:
  • Superficial: 1 - feet and hands; a handgun against power armor
  • Light: 1d3 - knives; shots against ballistic armor
  • Solid:1d6 - sword blows and bullets against unarmored
  • Heavy: 1d6+1d3, etc. - heavy weapons

Healing STAT follows as a short rest (1), first aid (1d3), and skilled medical attention (1d6).

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Looking at BRP Worlds of Wonder "Magic World"

Recently, the Tinkerage has been looking at the original "Magic World" supplement from the Basic Roleplaying Worlds of Wonder (WoW) set (Steve Perrin and Gordon Monson). This is not to be confused with the later Magic World (2012) by Willis, et al., although both titles share the same BRP roots. But the earlier Magic World is well worth considering, especially as an excellent, light version of the BRP ruleset for fantasy gaming.

Magic World extends on and requires the core WoW Basic Roleplaying booklet, but the system is a minor masterpiece for quick, ready-to-play rules. These days, it's hard to find in print, and the gamer inclined to research this online will have to dig into the wayback machine archives.

Magic World has about the quickest character generation I've come across in the BRP line, almost as fast as Basic D&D. A player can choose to simply roll the characteristics and then start play with the default BRP skills and scores. Or, they can select from one of four professions: warrior, rogue, sage, and sorcerer. Each profession provides some prior experience and skills, which are usually a sum, or multiple of the average, of several characteristics (for example, warriors pick up three weapons at the average of STR, CON, and DEX x 5%). Although these may seem like class descriptions, there are no restrictions on eventual cross-training, and each profession suggests a variety of possible backgrounds. Even the sage is a viable scholar-adventurer, who may be anything from a healer, to a merchant, to an elf-friend. One can imagine rolling-up a Magic World adventurer in relatively short order, selecting a few professional skills, and filling in the default skills as the game goes on. A character will be relying on good initial rolls for good skills, but that's where a little player skill, a willingness to play a character rather than an optimized build, comes in.

Compared to a modern system the line between skill and skill description is sometime blurry and requires some interpretation. The "Cut Purse" skill, for example (DEX x 5% for rogues), includes "skill to Pick Pockets, Cut Purses, Remove Brooches, etc.," which could all be rejiggered as "Thievery" or "Sleight" on the character sheet.

The magic system is compact but robust, with each spell having its own percentile chance to cast (like one of the magic systems in the BGB). Unlike the BGB, Magic World spells are relatively effective (dealing1d6 damage per magic point/level, for instance), so starting sorcerers don't feel under-powered.

Finally, the combat system, although simple, includes scope for critical hits and fumbles.

Recently, reading through Roan Studios' The Bay of Spirits setting book, which is beautifully illustrated but lightly stated out only for D&D, the thought occurred that the ideal would be a compact, robust ruleset that would make it easy to generate characters and play in (almost) any fantasy setting. WoW Magic World seems to fit the bill, and it's interesting to speculate what might have been if this version of Magic World, revised and clarified, had been the basis for Chaosium's later releases.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Tomb of Swords - mini-scenario

The tomb is ancient, the grave, according to local legend, of a prince of the Ellfolk who was a master of the iron sword. Some folk tales say the sword was the prince's wife, one of the shape-shifting fey. If he was wounded, the sword danced above him to protect him, but she could not parry the death that found him, when he drowned crossing a river in a raid.

The place is called Tomb of Swords, and untold adventurers have gone down into the dark, seeking that enchanted blade, and few have returned. Now, the lord's youngest son has gone missing in the same place.

A pair of quarrelsome gargs are camped in the passageway under the standing stones, but they are mere vagrants, newly arrived, and have no interest in the deeps of the tomb.

Beyond them are the outer chambers. Patient adventurers, searching carefully, will find exquisite mosaics, scenes from the prince's life: the hero fighting the enemies of his clan; the hero drinking from the cup of peace when the battle is over; the hero and his sword-wife; the grieving fey laying him in the tomb with sword, helm, and shield, and a golden cup.

The horror lurks in the inner tomb. Every sword, every hero that ever perished in the tomb, takes the form of a roiling, black mass of dust and bone, grasping a hundred corroded swords. Mad, red eyes sometimes wink in the cloud. The sword-ghost cannot be harmed and will never relent. It is possible to parry the rain of blows with sword and shield, and the ghost will not pursue those who flee beyond sight to the standing stone.

The sword-ghost will not attack any mortal with empty hands.

Only one of the Druit gods could defeat this thing in battle or dismiss it by magic. But if a mortal could find the cup of peace and offer a draught from it, then perhaps the many tortured spirits trapped here could be freed.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Advanced Fighting Fantasy damage matrix

A while ago, in a review of Advanced Fighting Fantasy, I mentioned that the weapons damage and armour matrixes (seven digits in a row) are the least elegant part of an otherwise elegant combat system.

Is there a better way to do this? One method would be simply to roll d6, plus any modifers, for damage, which would probably result in roughly the same average damage, but perhaps lose some of the fine balance of the current damage system.

Is there a better way to represent the damage and armour table on the character sheet?

Some simply write out all seven damage values in order:

S. Sword: 1,2,2,3,3,3,4

But note that damage values only ever change by one point, and so instead of repeating figures, we could generate something like this:

S. Sword: 1 [2] [4] 4

What does this mean?

  • The left-most number is the minimum damage: that's the damage from a roll of 1 on the die.
  • The numbers like this [4] are the rolls on which damage increments by one point.
  • The right-most number is the damage on 7+, the maximum.

To use this damage profile, roll the die and check the result against the sequence. For each increment value in the table the roll is equal to or greater than, add one point to the minimum damage, and of course, if the result is 7+, use the maximum damage.

Hence, a sword profile is:

Sword 2 [2] [6] 5

This one takes longer to explain than to read. Is there yet a better way to set it up?

Friday, December 2, 2016

Magic in Arihmere

Inspiration for a loose magic system that avoids the spell-lists and spell-points approach, and is best suited to rules-light, skill-based, or free-form gaming.

On Magic

No one learns magic to become kindly and wise, or to save the kingdom. As nobles rely on land, treasures, retainers, and swords for their power, wizards rely on spells and secret knowledge, which they guard just as fiercely. Hence, there are no colleges of magic or schools for sorcery. Wizards hoard their knowledge, and choose their apprentices carefully, never revealing the whole of their learning.

Magic can do terrible and strange things, certainly, but it cannot alone rule the peasants, reap the harvest, or lead men into battle. For this reason, magic does not claim kingdoms or domains, although the aristocracy often seek out the wise for counsel and aid.

Although there are almost as many traditions of magic as magicians, certain principles are constant:

  • Nothing will come of nothing. A wizard cannot create something from nothing, or effect change without consequences. Hence, a wizard cannot conjure flames out of thin air, although magic can persuade a smoldering ember to spark and leap and burn.
  • Sympathy generates effects; follow the nature of things. Acquiring a personal item makes it easier to follow or charm someone. Dropping a grain of sand into a lock makes it impossible to open, touching a flint to a blade can make it razor sharp.
  • Magic is not orderly. Magic disturbs nature, and hence a spell cannot be recited by rote and expected to work in the same way every time. The effects of a spell cannot be calculated exactly, and all spells must be part invention and circumstance. By the same token, all charms are mutable, and no magic cannot be undone, although the right way may be obscure and surpassingly difficult.
  • Terrible powers have terrible consequences. The more powerful the magic, the sharper the peril. A spell of bear-form may lead the caster to becomes solitary and bearish. A spell for viewing from afar may make the caster obsessed with spying. The Fell Lords know well the price of the hunger for power.
  • There is always another way: wizard's deceive nature, and even where one spell fails, another trick may suffice.
  • No spell is perfect or entire.

Using Magic in Your Game

First, a character must have the second-sight (which means they can always see ghosts and the fey, by the way, and are not easily fooled by appearances) and they must have some schooling in practical magic. It helps to have been an apprentice, or belong to a tradition (witchcraft, sorcery, and so on).

Second, each magician should have at least one study: an area of magic that they have devoted care and attention to. Studies are individual, like skills. Smoke and fire could be one area of study, or luck and chance. A witch might study curses, or the ways of the deep woods (the language of beasts and plants included).

There are, of course, far too many spells to enumerate or list, but when the time comes to cast a spell, an appropriate study always makes bringing a spell to mind more likely.

In terms of working magic, spells fall within at least four categories: tinkering, tampering, bending, breaking. All of these categories show how hard a magic is to accomplish:

  • Tinkering: anything that could seem like exceptional skill or luck: the knot that won't slip, the herb that heals and just happens to be at hand, the object that disappears as though by sleight.
  • Tampering: spells that manipulate probability or temporarily subvert the natural order. The lock that springs open, or the buckle that slips in combat. Easier if the magician can leverage natural conditions (the icy ground becomes deadly slippery, a horse shies, the door jams), luck (the dagger that is not found in a search), or unusual facility (throwing the voice to trick pursuers).
  • Bending: Distorting or temporarily suspending the laws of nature. Drawing a flame out of dry wood, assuming the looks and manner of another individual, lulling a target to sleep or friendship, raising a breeze or a mist, soliciting the opinion of a tree.
  • Breaking: Magic that sets aside nature; things impossible by all other means. Speaking to the dead, causing an object to take flight, stepping into another mind or dream, changing form.

In play, magic should be like any other character action: the player should specify the magic and the effect the character wants to achieve. The GM should decide on the difficulty (from tinkering, which will be of medium difficulty, to breaking, the most difficult) and rule if the spell is possible, based on the character's intentions and study. Bending or breaking spells usually require some study.

When the spell is cast, it takes effect, and the results are described. There are no magic points to consider, but there are always the consequences of magic. In Fighting Fantasy, for example, a failed spell might require a Test for Luck to avoid some dangerous fallout.