I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, June 30, 2019


You might be familiar with The Black Hack. It is an awesome, hugely successful, game that makes D&D a LOT easier by basically using just ability scores instead of, well, anything else really. Something in the vein of There's Always A Chance (TAAC) - which, by the way, inspired by an optional rule in Moldvay's Basic.

It goes like this: Want to attack? Roll under Strength. Reflex save? Roll under Dexterity. Test your knowledge of magic? Roll under Intelligence. Etc.

Here are the two editions of the game (affiliate links*):

* The-Black-Hack
* The-Black-Hack-Second-Edition

Anyway, the game gained a huge number of supplements from third parties (which the author was kind enough to allow) - The Space Hack, The Cthulhu Hack, etc.

I am obsessed with simplicity... or, even better, elegance. So, these days I've been thinking of making my own version for Dark Fantasy Basic. Not to replace the game, mind you - I just need some nuance in my games - but just to provide a simpler alternative.

So, "roll under ability" is pretty straightforward. Works great for skills, even spells, etc. Notice that, unlike modern D&D (where Strength 14 and Strength 15 get the same bonus), every single attribute point counts.

You can use this with a "blackjack" mechanic - you must roll as high as possible, but not TOO high. For example, if you have Strength 15, the best possible roll would be a 15. If you roll 2, you barely succeed, and if you roll 16, you fail.

There are some clear advantages to this method.

a) In ordinary circumstances, the player can immediately tell if she succeeded or not - without any addition or subtraction needed.
b) If there are special circumstances (such as opposed checks - see below), the player just tells the GM the number he rolled on the dice, without any addition or subtraction needed.
c) Someone with a high ability not only succeeds more often, but she also has better successes.
d) In addition to this, some numbers might immediately cause additional effects. Say, every roll of 11+ is a critical; this would mean that a fighter with Strength 15 would be significantly better than someone with Strength 10 because many of his hits would be criticals.

There are two main limitations.

1) Numbers are somewhat limited to the 1-20 range. You might have a Strength 25 dragon, for example, but that requires additional adjustments. I will ignore this for now. Notice, however, that because of points "c" and "d", above, a dragon with Strength 17 would already be very impressive.
2) Opposed checks - something the requires the roll to not only consider the PCs traits but also external circumstances (for example, an attack roll against AC etc.)

The last point deserves a better explanation.

If you use the "modern" D&D method, you would roll, for example, 1d20+7 and try to beat an armor class (AC) of 15 - you'd need to roll 8 or more on the dice.

However, how to do this if you need to roll under your Strength? Maybe you'd get a penalty to hit because of the enemy's armor. Maybe you'd need to roll under your Strength AND over the enemy's AC. Both solutions feel a bit clunky, since they destroy some of the clear advantages I outlined above.

The Black Hack has a simple solution: armor is just extra HP (the second edition adds some nuance).

But I also like Dexterity to provide some AC. How to do that? To be honest, giving some extra HP due to Dexterity would not be absurd, since HP are somewhat abstract anyway. Although it makes sense within the original idea of HPs, it has never been used in mainstream D&D.

Saving throws are another issue. In original D&D, saving throws are made regardless of your opponent's traits, but I really like the ideal that, for example, it is harder to ignore the poison of a super powerful spider like Shelob than an "ordinary" giant spider the size of a dog.

To solve all these issues, you could probably use some kind of opposed roll: it you hit with a roll of 12, you automatically hit unless your opponent has AC of 12 or more. If he has AC 15, for example, he would still need to roll and get a 13, 14 or 15 to succeed.

It does require some additional rolling, which I generally dislike... But seems doable.

There are even some ways to make an opposed roll without rolling for both parties... For example:

* Just compare the two abilities, give yourself a bonus or penalty accordingly, and roll 11 or more. If you have 16 and your opponent has 12, roll 1d20+4 and try to beat 11.
* Roll 1d20 and use the same result for BOTH you and your opponent, but call odds or evens before rolling (or decide it beforehand for all rolls). In the 16 versus 12 example above, you'd succeed in any roll of 13, 14, 15, and 16; anything else would be decided by odds or even (of course, if you roll 17, 18, 19 or 20, the result could be nothing happens").

Not the most elegant methods... but they work!

In short... I'm tempted. Let me know what you think.

*By purchasing stuff through affiliate links, you're helping to support this blog.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Fire & Blood (book review)

Okay, this one is going to be nasty, brutish and short.

I haven't written book reviews in a while, but I feel compelled to write this one.

Fire & Blood is the latest book from George R. R. Martin, of "Game of Thrones" fame.

I've read lots and lots of stuff from GRRM, and I really like it. All of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), the Dunk and Egg books (very good), but also lots of short stories, novellas, etc. To be honest, when I started reading ASOIAF I had to throw away a setting I as working on, just because it felt so lame when compared to GRRM's world-building.

Like most ASOIAF fans, I was eagerly waiting for the next book in the series (a little less eager every year, and a lot less interested after the TV show ended awfully).

Anyway, I found Fire & Blood on a sale and decided to try it...

The book is written "in-universe" by a scholar studying old documents. It starts with the conquering of Westeros by Aegon Targaryen. This is probably the best part in the book - it deals with wars, dragons, alliances, backstabbing... All the thing ASOIAF fans would love.

As for the rest of the book... GRRM once said this to Rolling Stone (in 2014 maybe):

Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs?

Well, Fire & Blood spends a lot of time discussing tax policy. Worse, it feels like it does so from a modern point of view. Good kings, it seems, are those who can rule medieval kingdoms with a modern mind: make roads, tax the rich, allow women into "universities" (apparently the university of Bologna had more success than dragon-riding kings to achieve that; oh well, I guess at least they got the church to legalize incest...), make reasonable laws for divorce, etc. Unfortunately, they are too primitive to agree on any simples rules for succession, so they must war against each other all the time.

But the book is not all about medieval kingdom administration. It contains plenty of sex and violence, maybe more so than the ASOIAF books, and lots of dragons (certainly a lot more than the ASOIAF books).

This doesn't make the book any better; on the contrary. The sex is often gratuitous (apparently GRRM thought it was a good idea to use a sex-crazed dwarf as one of the three main narrators narrators for fun and color; it wasn't). You can easily become desensitized by the violence, as it becomes more and more commonplace (ordinary peasants rip a baby to pieces for no reason in one scene) and there are not many interesting characters to root for (or to hate; everyone is kinda dumb and evil). And the dragons become a lot less impressive once you seem a bunch of them waltzing around with references to piles of dragon shit.

After the conquest, the main part of the book is the "Dance of Dragons". The legendary war of ASOIF is disappointing. Heirs die like flies, important allies change side for no reason, and both sides are so evil (and kinda dumb) that you only hope they find someone better for the throne.

The book doesn't take itself seriously. It spends many paragraphs planing a tour that never happens. The narrator continuously mention possibilities or sources just to tell you they are false or exaggerated (while I continuously asked myself "what's the point?"). It also contains a scene in which a character makes a seemingly absurd decision after reading a mysterious letter. The contents? "We will never know". If you don't find this irritating, well, maybe you could like this book.

What about the world-building? It doesn't add much to ASOIAF. The economical and political systems of Westeros seems to revolves mainly around prostitution. There are some new characters like Elmo, Kermit, and Grover (no, really), but nothing like the cool, nuanced characters of the original books. Some parts of the book had been published before, abridged versions. I think I liked the abridged versions better.

In short... not my favorite GRRM book.

What to read instead?

If you like ASOIAF, try Tales of Dunk and Egg; it has a similar feel to the ASOIF stories, while being shorter and lighter in tone. The comic book versions are also very good (unlike the comic book adaptations of ASOIF, that seem to have a wrong tone).

If you like GRRM's writing, he has lots of great books. I am a big fan of Dreamsongs, a collection of shorter stories.

If you like GRRM's world-building, A World of Ice and Fire is very good. It is written as a manual, not a story, but it is often a better read than Fire & Blood. It is also a beautiful book, full of great art... and, honestly, makes a great RPG setting out of the box.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Personalyzed armor

One more attempt at "fixing" armor; a bit different from encumbrance armor, but the basis is the same. Hope I am not repeating some old post...

The goals:
* Armor should be suited to your character. Stronger characters can carry more armor.
* No arbitrary class restrictions ("wizards cannot wear armor", etc.).
* As your level rises, so does your AC.
* Armor should follow a simple formula rather than an arbitrary list not-quite-historical armor types.

Here what I can up with.

Light, medium and heavy armor are three different categories (light/medium/heavy), but with no fixed AC. One person's light armor is another person's heavy armor, etc. You can also be unarmored.

You can also have No/Light/Medium/Heavy encumbrance, but with no exact correspondence. For example, you can have light armor but be heavily encumbered (specially if your carrying lots of backpacks etc.)

Rounding: there is no need to round any numbers; it your strength is 15, half of it is 7.5, so 7 is smaller than 7.5, and 8 is larger, etc.

AC is 10 plus Dexterity modifier.

Light armor
Anything that weights less than your one fourth of your Strength. The AC bonus is equal to the weight. You still get your Dexterity modifier.

Medium armor
Anything that weights less than your one third of your Strength. The AC bonus is equal to the weight. You still get your Dexterity modifier, but it is reduced by one third.

Heavy armor
Anything that weights less than your one half of your Strength. The AC bonus is equal to the weight. You still get your Dexterity modifier, but it is reduced by half.

Encumbrance: None/Light/Medium/heavy
* None: If your current encumbrance is smaller than one third your Strength. You get a +1 bonus to AC,  sneaking around, acrobatics, etc.
* Light: If your current encumbrance is smaller than half your Strength. You have a harder time casting spells. You might get an AC bonus if you're a monk, etc.
* Medium: If your current encumbrance is smaller or equal to your Strength. You have a harder time casting spells, sneaking around, etc.
* Heavy: If your current encumbrance is larger than your Strength. You have an even harder time casting spells, sneaking around, etc., and your speed is reduced.

In short:

Weight (= AC bonus) Dex modifier
No armor 0 100%
Light Armor smaller than Str/4 100%
Medium Armor smaller than Str/3 66%
Heavy Armor smaller than Str/2 50%
Weight Special
No encumbrance smaller than Str/3 +1 AC bonus
Light encumbrance smaller than Str/2 affects spells
Medium encumbrance smaller than Str also affects Dex
Heavy encumbrance larger than Str also affects Speed
The result

The results are pleasing, but not ideal. Take a look at this chart; it uses the rules above and assumes that "no amor" gives you a +1 bonus to AC (which is only true if you're unencumbered):

There are some problems. Medium armor is often useless if you have high Dexterity, for example. A simples fix would be allowing your full dexterity bonus to medium armor:

Anyway, it's a matter of fine tuning. And there is LOTS of fine tuning to do. For example, under this system you have good reasons to avoid wearing the heaviest armor you can.

But maybe even HAVING light/medium/heavy armor is one step too far. Encumbrance alone might be enough. Once again, this might be too complex for the types of game I play, but I cannot help playing with the mechanics of the game. But maybe I can come up with a mechanic that is even simpler. Let's see...

Monday, June 10, 2019

Dark Fantasy Characters

Here is my latest effort for Dark Fantasy Basic (and all RPGs, really; it's pretty system-less): Dark Fantasy Characters.

Once more, the cover is by the awesome Rick Troula.

Dark Fantasy Characters is a collection of tables to inspire the creation of characters. It includes tables meant for player characters, non player characters, or (frequently) both. You can also use this book to generate characters for stories, comic books, etc.

The focus is on dark fantasy tropes: flawed heroes, terrible villains, corrupting magic, ominous ruins and damned wastelands.

This is system-less book, to be used with any game of your choice (except for one table). It is especially suited for medieval dark fantasy games, such as my own (Dark Fantasy Basic).

It includes tables such as:

Names: 100 names plus 20 surnames and particles.

Ability scores: Generate six ability scores by rolling 3d20.

Backgrounds & specialties: More than 80 options to flesh out your characters.

Dark Secrets, Flaws: Two different tables to give a dark twist to your PCs and NPCs.

Grievous sins: Reserved for the worst villains.

Here is a taste for you:

Dark secrets are not only for villains, but also for tragic heroes. Even PCs may chose a dark secret if they want. If the secret is revealed, the character might be shunned, cast away, or even hunted down. Hirelings and followers may have dark secrets if the player characters get unlucky while hiring them.

Family. Your family is made of criminals, monsters, tyrants, or traitors.
Crime. You committed a heinous crime that would scare away even your allies.
Trauma. You (or someone close to you) has been the victim of unspeakable acts. It haunts you.
Birthright. You could rightfully claim a position or thing that is currently into a powerful usurper’s hands.
Curse. There is a dark prophecy about your future. It may manifest repeatedly (everyone you love will get hurt, etc.)
Addiction. You cannot be trusted near a bottle of alcohol (or other dangerous substance).
Debt. You owe someone, big time. He or she will come to collect eventually.
Cult. You are part of a secret cult. It is secret for a reason.
Sin. You committed acts that, while not criminal, would get you shunned if discovered.
Insanity. You have bouts of madness, or even hallucinations, that you think you can control.
Disease. You have a terminal or infectious disease.
Pact. You made a deal with a dark entity, and now you have to fulfill it.
Knowledge. You know something that puts you in danger.
False identity. You are not who you say you are.
Enemy. A dangerous foe is searching for you.
Disgusting. You have a (mostly harmless) habit that would make people disgusted.
Fraud. Your stories about your deeds and skill are greatly exaggerated.
Suicidal. Your bravery hides a strong death wish.
Artifact. You are hiding a dangerous object that you are not willing to throw away.
Bond. You have a deep affection (or loyalty, etc.) for someone that most people see as an enemy.

I am selling it for half the intended price (i.e., or $0.99) to benefit "early adopters" and to see if I can get new people into the the fold.

Who knows, this might become an entire series, if people enjoy it. Dark Fantasy Locations is already half written... Dark Fantasy Magic and Dark Fantasy Religion are probably next.

Dark Fantasy Monsters, you say? Well, I got something even better in the oven...