Old school (or not)

30 June, 2008 at 10:59 am (game design) (, , )

I created a fantasy game and played a session with Gastogh and Nakano. Here’s the somewhat updated rules. The combat rules were inspired by Tunnels and Trolls (which I have never played or read).


Starting characters have 10 points to divide among hit points, power and miscellaneous. 10 points creates potentially somewhat exceptional characters, but not powerful ones. (A random orc has at least 12 points in it.)

Hit points

All characters must have at least 1 hit point. More will be useful. At least 2 is recommended. Hit points are temporarily reduced in combat, due to some poisons and generally hurting oneself. They can be healed in town (or other fairly calm and pleasant location) at one hp per day, assuming a skilled healer is present. Otherwise one hp per week.


Power is used notably in combat, but also whenever something needs to be rolled. It is the generic competence and heroism of the character. Roll a die with sides equal to the power attribute. If you don’t have a d7 nearby, use a d6 instead (and so on). Using a die roller can get past such problems.


This is the actual meat of the system. Misc points need not be assigned at chargen and the unassigned ones can, at GM’s discretion, be assigned once adventuring. Use one point to get any of the following and feel free to develop new ones and get them okayed by the GM and other players who care.

  • A cohort: Character built on half the PC’s points. Reasonably loyal, wants money, slows advancement.
  • Followers: 3 characters, all built on one third the PC’s points.
  • Backstabbing: When attacking from surprise roll power twice. (E.g. d6 power => 2d6 when attacking from surprise.)
  • Archer: +2 power when using ranged weapon from distance.
  • Brawler: Suffer no penalty for fighting unarmed.
  • Tough: No penalty for being unarmoured.
  • Spellcaster: Start one school of magic as detailed below, with single spell known. Additional points give new spell each.
  • Hunter/Gatherer: Support one person in wilderness that contains sufficient food and water (not in desert, yes in forest). Additional points support one person each.
  • Heirloom: Start with a powerful, potentially magical toy. Negotiate details with the GM. Selling it is bad form.
  • Contact: Know a potentially powerful ally who can be negotiated with for favours, information and missions/quests.
  • Healer: Offer skilled healing: Stabilise someone dying due to loss of hp, allow recovery of 1 hp per day in good conditions.
  • Fast draw: Once a round change weapon without spending the entire round doing so.


In addition to the above starting characters have d6 copper coins, food and drink for 3 days, a knife, some clothes, tools for making a fire and a short pice of rope. Maybe some camping equipment. Also, each character can pick two options from the list below (selling these is bad form):

  • A poor weapon. If ranged, ammunition for 3 fights or one extended fight is included. Shield may be included but does not change the statistics in any way.
  • A poor armour.
  • Torches, rope, a ten foot pole.
  • A lousy horse not trained for war.
  • Spellbook or other magical implement.
  • Other stuff you get by asking the GM.


Each character has a profession/trade/class, which tells what kinds of stuff the character can generally accomplish. A scholar can know ancient lore, a woodsman can climb trees and track, and so on. It generally gives no mechanical benefits. (Namely, mercenaries and soldiers do not get extra power in combat.) The purpose of professions is to offer a way of knowing if the characters can or can’t do a particular task.

Actual rules

Character generation was above. In actual play the rules should be used in combat and maybe in other situations where there is risk involved and the outcome of events in uncertain. These rules do work for negotiations and playing hide and seek and whatever else, but using them for that is completely optional. I didn’t.


All characters take a -2 penalty (minimum 1) to power in combat unless they are sufficiently armed. Poor weapon from chargen qualifies. Gauntlets or a stone do not. Sharpened stick is an edge case. All characters take 1 extra damage during a combat round if they are not armoured and take any damage.

Process and example

I am assuming two sides fighting against each other. Example: Three goblins (3hp, 3 power) against two adventurers (3 hp, 2 power and 3 hp, 6 power). All are assumed to have proper equipment (of poor quality, but proper none the less).

Every combatant chooses one of the following actions during each round: Fight, run (screaming recommended), or do something else. Both sides can choose a goal related to positioning (like “We hold the door so only few can come in at a time.”), assuming the group considers them sensible. Specific targets to attack are not selected (but see surprise below). Example: People would choose positioning now, but this combat obviously takes place in a flat room with no interesting features. Every combatant fights.

All combatants who actually fight roll power. Both sides sum their totals. If the combat totals of both sides are equal, every combatant takes 1 damage. Otherwise one side is winning and has the higher result. Example: Goblins roll 3, 2, 2 for total of 7, adventurers roll 1 and 4 for total of 5.

The winning side achieves whatever positioning it was doing and deals damage to the losing side. If NPCs are losing, the GM chooses the order in which they take damage. NPC is reduced to 0 hp, drops and the next takes the remaining damage until all damage is dealt. If PCs are losing, players can divide the damage among their characters as they will (default: Everyone takes equal damage, rounded up if no agreement is reached). Any character reduced to 0 hp is dying and requires skilled aid within a few hours or dies. Example: Player chars take a total of 2 points of damage. Both take 1. Another round: Goblins roll 1, 2, 1 for total of 4. Players roll 1 and 6 for total of 7. One goblin (GM’s pick) takes 3 damage and falls.

Miscellaneous actions include combat magic, sneaking, shooting burning arrows at the oil pit, toppling statues to crush enemies, and so on. It is resolved after normal fighting. Magic and other tasks requiring concentration can be interrupted if the magus takes any damage.

Any fleeing character gets away if it has any hp left at the end of the round, unless pursued as per positioning (or after combat by other means).

A list of ways to spend a round

  • Fight
  • Run
  • Change/draw a weapon
  • Cast a combat spell
  • Keep watch over a handful of people
  • Wake up
  • Get up
  • Prepare heavy or improvised weaponry for use
  • Give an item to someone

Sneaking and surprise

To remain undetected a character must have two benefits: The character must be hiding and not actively searched for. “Hiding” means that the character must be hidden from sight, not make loud or uncharacteristic (wrt the situation) noises, have masked scent of approach from downwind when that is relevant, and so on. Active searching means exactly that and takes great attention. A guard watching a door qualifies. A lone guardsman at night in a forest can only keep a small section of the woods under active attention; two or more sneaks can surprise one guardsman. Keeping watch is a misc action in combat and prevents active participation in the fight.

A group of characters, or part of such a group, can do a surprise attack if they are undetected as per above. The benefits are simple: The surprising side can select the order in which their targets take damage. This is also true when the PCs are being surprised. It may hurt. Additional benefits: Opponents are often unarmed or sleeping or mounted or have some other reason for wasting actions.

Ranged weapons

Weapons are of 3 types: Melee, thrown or ranged. Melee weapons do good and reliable work at melee range. They can be thrown at -2 power. Thrown weapons work at short range. Round of fighting involves throwing such and preparing more to be thrown or using one in melee, which destroys the weapons or means losing it, requiring an action to equip a new weapon (or being quite good at drawing weapons or fighting at -2 penalty or being a skilled brawler). Ranged weapons work at long range (thrown ones do not), at short range and at melee with -2 power lost as thrown ones are.

It takes a successful positioning or relevant spell to move from long to short range or from short to melee.


There’s two kinds of magic: Combat and noncombat (ritual) magic. Combat magic usually takes one round to cast. It takes effect at the end of the round. Noncombat magic generally takes at least an hour to use, but often much longer.

Combat spells are either instantaneous or have duration of single combat (few minutes of noncombat). Combat spells should do damage or buff or curse. Ritual magic varies greatly, up to permanent and world-shattering events.

Schools of magic

All mages must select one school of magic. It defines the way they acquire magic, the magic they can acquire, the way it is used and the price for it.

Learning: From books and tomes and scrolls, by natural talent, through mentoring, as a natural ability (can’t learn more magic), by a deal with spirits, by dissecting ancient artifacts, …

Source of power: The fabric of reality, the very bones of earth, the deep oceans, the darkest shadows, death itself, …

Method: Chanting and drawing patterns into air, by brewing potions, by drawing (suitable) energy from the surroundings and releasing it, by inscribing actual runes on targets, by self-mutilation, through extreme concentration, commanding spirits, crafting magical objects, …

Price: Live sacrifices, lengthy preparation ahead of time, self-mutilation, hostile spirits waiting for the opportunity to strike, slow transformation into an undead of other monster, paralysing headache, …

The above should be mixed (and more created) so as to create flavourful and not too powerful mages. Namely, magic from reading is fairly hard to improve and can be powerful in other ways, natural magic can have quite low price (if any), crafting potions and such should be able to achieve great results as it is takes foresight and resources to achieve. Source of power should create mages such as elementalists and necromancers. The fabric of reality as a source of power should be more-or-less limited to book mages and those similarly limited. It is boring.


  • Healing: Ritual. Casting time one hour: Roll power, target heals 1 hit point but not above the roll or normal maximum. Two hours: Roll power four times, take the best. Target heals 2 hit points but not above the roll or normal maximum. n hours: Roll n^2 times, take the best. Target heals n points but not above the roll or maximum hp.
  • Strength: Combat. Casting takes one action, target gets +2 power to fighting. Duration: One combat or few minutes.

Some foes

Orc: 5 hp, power d6, armed with javelins, spears or axes, possibly poisoned to do 1 damage every hour for d6 hours. Sees in dark.

Hellhound: 10 hp, d6, can have nasty poison or unhealing bites of fiery bites or whatever. Sees in dark, through smoke and flames, good sense of smell.

Human soldier, professional: d4, 5 hp.


Characters get 1 experience point for every gold piece they acquire through adventuring and spend. The characters must divide the gold they spend and hence the experience they gain. Source: Brian’s Trollsmyth.

Once a character has a number of exp equal to current point value +1 (starting characters are worth 10 points and hence need 11 xp), they get one extra point to use as they will. It must be used immediately on power or hp (no justification necessary or can be transferred into misc points which can be used at will. Such expenditures must be explained. Downtime is a good generic explanation.

One silver piece is worth 3d6 copper pieces. One gold piece is worth 5d20 silver pieces. These ratios are specific to a town or other similar economic unit. They will likely change as time passes, too.

Food and drink for a day is worth a copper. A poor weapon is worth 10 to 15. Equipment of quality is priced in silver (or even gold). Gold is rare. Outside towns and such people usually trade goods for goods or favours. Money is not frequently used, but is generally accepted.

(I will accept criticism and advice on pricing things, but I also am too lazy to do research.)

Items of quality, perhaps of magical nature, are another assumed reward. Such weapons give bonus to power when used in combat (and may do something interesting, too). Armours reduce damage taken, but never below 1, so they can’t completely negate it. Healing potions work like the healing spell, varying parameters, foul taste.

Running and playing the game

The point of the game, for characters, is to get rich and powerful. For players it is to come up with imaginative solutions to presented problems. Avoiding fair fights is recommended. For game master it is to create a problematic situation, often a dungeon, and to adjudicate how the fiction works once players get their characters involved in it.

To be explicit: There is a lot of rules material focused on combat. This material is not very interesting to play with. The point is to allow characters who shine at combat and to heavily discourage attacking superior foes, while encouraging attacking inferior foes.

Skills it takes to run this game

Running this game actually takes preparation. I’m not used to preparing games. Namely, I think the following should be prepared ahead of time: The general nature of the problem, the motivations of key figures and groups, the resources they have and the information they have. Vague idea of a map is useful. Should a dungeon be involved, mapping it to some degree is advised. At least as a flowchart with some notable things placed where they should be.


An interesting dungeon should be constructed as follows: There should be internal schisms or outright fighting among the residents. It should be possible to negotiate with intelligent residents and to use the unintelligent ones. There should always be at least three ways to get to any place of importance, though some should be hidden or dangerous. This is a variant of the three clue rule, most recently written about by the Alexandrian.

Random encounters, dynamic dungeons, or other means of discouraging player characters from simply doing hit-and-run tactics, on foe at a time, are advised.

Getting player characters into the adventure

Some GMs may want to prepare several adventures. (Using prepublished adventures takes preparation.) Some will want to only prepare one. I recommend the following methods of getting player characters into the adventure:

  • I have prepared this adventure. We’ll play it or some other game. Here’s the plot hook.
  • As above, but replace the final sentence with “Come up with a plot hook.”
  • Schrödinger’s dungeon: Have the adventure be where the player characters go to. Take care to not nullify player choices; that is, if they specifically want to avoid an adventure or an encounter, let them have a fair chance of doing so, if it is at all reasonable. This is to avoid railroading.

Random, unrelated stuff

My sister shall, as of this autumn, be studying biology in the university of Jyväskylä, where I also study mathematics.

I will (very probably) be offline starting tomorrow, ending near the end of the week.


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A mediocre session and some inn-fighting

22 June, 2008 at 12:43 pm (game mastering, persistent fantasy)

I played my current default fantasy game with Gastogh and Cryptic. It featured a desert, a disguised lizardman thingy, wereanimals and a slayer of beasts, as well as an old acquitance, Martoh the summoner, this time buying a slave (and not opening a gate to hell).

The session was mediocre. It kinda fell flat. The reason probably was that I did not tie the characters together well enough and that there were only two players, hence creating much faster gameplay than I am used to. (I should run a game for only one player just to get practice at faster-paced gaming.)

Characters and such are on the persistent fantasy page when I get around to adding them. Gastogh’s character has an amusing trait.

Some rule changes

Characters can be tied to another. Such characters are written in square brackets on the list and are treated as though their player is not present. Another named character on the list must have a trait that keeps the tied character with them, as a pet, prisoner, cohort, or whatever. The tied character is not considered an active entity, most of the time, unless gameplay provides a change to break the ties.

Also: If there are less than four players, then only three oracle entries should be generated. This requires testing.


A card game by Wizards of the Coast. We played twice (I did not win, bleh). I’d say the game is somewhere between Munchkin and Fluxx/Uno, closer to the latter. It does not reward system mastery (knowing the cards by heart) significantly and has a great deal of luck involved. It fits my preferences far better than Munchkin, mostly because it is less fiddly. The game needs dice or similar to be used as hp indicators. D20 is also needed for attack rolls and some other stuff.

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Help me buy something

21 June, 2008 at 9:48 pm (meta)

Phil held a contest. I won. Now I have 15 dollars to kill in DriveThruRPG. Current wishlist: http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/wishlist_public.php?public_id=169703, which is a list of things I might spend this virtual money on.

I’m taking further recommendations. Also, if something there sucks, tell it. For something to be interesting it needs to cost at most 15$, in addition to being interesting. New game systems are interesting if they are

  1. Fantasy games that do something in different and interesting ways.
  2. Generic games that are very clever.
  3. Other games that are extremely clever, to the point of being famous for it, which means that I have heard of them (and decided to not use any virtual money on them, as likely as not).

Other stuff should be as system-neutral as possible. The following are interesting:

  • Theory, game mastering and so on.
  • Worldbuilding that is about building a world to be good for gaming, not only realistic/genre-appropriate.
  • Interesting in some other way I can’t name right now. Good luck finding one of these.

In other news

I have two AP reports to write, which will not happen because I am lazy and have other things to do (like playing some Warlords Battlecry 3 for a change and travelling around and occasionally work).

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Process of play

4 June, 2008 at 12:42 pm (rpg theory) ()

What matters

In my opinion (and this is definitely an opinion) what actually makes different gaming styles different is what the participants do. The core activities. This also means that I consider running a game and playing in one to usually be different games entirely; being good at one does not imply competence in the other.

I am specifically discussing about games in play; what the books say may or may not be tightly linked to this, assuming such books even exist. Some books are designed with very specific style of play in mind, while others are designed to be flexible (saying that one of these is inherently better than the other means that one is simplifying the issue).

Process of play

The way I think about this is to think about the play itself as a process. It is useful to also consider some activities that live on the fringe of the play, like campaign preparation, session preparation, character generation and note-taking, especially if the notes are shared.

It is also useful to treat certain subprocesses as distinct processes. This allows arbitrary accuracy by zooming on the interesting subprocesses, such as resolution and character generation and preparation, and ignore whatever is considered boring or obvious.

Example process: persistent fantasy

I’ll embrace the idea of subprocesses here. On the most abstract level that still carries some information, the process is

  1. Design the game
  2. Discover, create and compile a suitable random generator
  3. Blog about steps 1 and 2.
  4. Play a session.
  5. Record the session, the characters, the setting and the list.
  6. Go back to 4.

That is quite high-level. I think the fourth step could use a bit more analysis, so I’ll create another process chart for it.

  1. Get a number of players to actually play the game.
  2. Explain rules to any who are not familiar and want to know them before play.
  3. Invoke the random generator (or reveal whatever has been generated in advance).
  4. Note the characters that enter play because they are on the top of the list.
  5. Generate remaining characters.
  6. Build the starting situation.
  7. Add characters to the situation.
  8. Play.
  9. Update characters that have changed.
  10. Consider any feedback that is offered.

Here it would be possible to elaborate on a number of steps, but 8 probably is most in need of it.

  1. Participants weave their characters and other fictional entities together.
  2. Play produces complications.
  3. Players use the fiction and the rules to mostly advocate the success of their characters.
  4. Play produces complications.
  5. Game master guides play so that the complications are resolved (if they are interesting) or ignored (if they are boring).
  6. Complications are closed or are not immediate enough to demand being adjudicated in actual play.
  7. End play.

The interesting part is that there are several different lenses that all provide different and often useful insight. Here’s another one, again on the subject of play.

  1. Game master describes a scene. (Sometimes player, often everyone throws ideas around and GM integrates them).
  2. The same is done to other characters that are not in any other scene, in arbitrary order.
  3. Game master or player makes some situation dynamic; that is, some entity takes action.
  4. Other participants react if something controlled by them is in the scene.
  5. 3 and 4 continue until the scene ends, the GM takes the spotlight to another scene or there is a suitably strong conflict and dice get involved.
  6. The ending scene happens.
  7. End play.


Actually these processes do not work well in one dimension (line). A flowchart would be sufficient to cover most processes, though great detail might demand using the third dimension (more are never needed).

My gut reaction is that it is impossible to create a unique presentation for a game as a flowchart. The reason is that there are severa, congruent processes that feed on each other; for example, the scene-by-scene consideration and the complication-by-complication approach. Neither can be reduced to the other and even further breaking them down would not lead to same elements; a complication might happen and be resolved inside a scene, or might encompass several. Further, different players have different roles and adding all of these to a single chart could face similar problems. (I am unwilling to even try constructing anything resembling a formal proof, so all this handwaving must suffice. Please do disprove these musings if you can.)

Different ways of slicing play

These are all examples. The probability that I am missing something big and important is very close to 1.

The way fiction is created is one fruitful focus. It is closely tied to observing who adds to the fiction and how, which is where Forge theory is useful. Some generally useful steps include who frames scenes and how much do they define, can players assume details not mentioned by the GM and is character and setting background generated in play or before it (or after it). Other patterns are how detailed information is conveyed; long boxed text-like descriptions, or upon request, or not at all; and are very important elements lavished with detail.

The way spotlight moves around presents another interesting object. Who gets to actively play, how are different players handled, how does seating and such affect it all, and so forth.

I am most interested in the way the story is formed. Namely, what I called complications, but what could also be called story (or plot) threads or elements or seeds. For example, when a villain escapes, a new story thread is opened, as it is assumed that the villain does not simply disappear. The way these story threads are generated, intertwined and resolved is of great interest to me.

The way mechanical resources move around in play is worth some attention. Some games have very formalised ways of moving resources around, others far less so. On the formal side there are such games as Rune, D&D 3rd (and 4th even more so), Capes and Universalis. They benefit most from analysis on the resource level. Work on this subject has already been done by John Kirk in Design patterns of successful rpgs.


All flowcharts can be analysed as graphs. Petri nets seem particularly interesting, but I’d have to read a lot more on those.

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