One of the distinctions that divides fans of different editions of D&D is the question, 'How long is a melee round?'
Some lexical detective work is needed to figure out what D&D originally intended. Back in 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson explain (in the Underworld & Wilderness Adventures expansion) that a 'turn' is ten minutes and there are 10 1-minute melee rounds in a turn.
Gygax retained the 1-minute melee round for 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, justifying it like this:
The 1 minute melee round assumes much activity – rushes, retreats, feints, parries, checks, and so on. Once during this period each combatant has the opportunity to get a real blow in (1st ed. AD&D Players Hand Book, p39)
The 1-minute round seems to have its roots in the wargaming superstructure that D&D emerged from. One minute allows a squad or battalion to move, line up, fire, generally 'take their turn'. Combat in wargaming is typically all-or-nothing, so in that 1-minute of action you might completely eliminate your opponent.
Adapting this to tabletop RPGs produces a high level of abstraction. You're free to imagine a lot of cinematic business going on surrounding your solitary 'to hit' roll or spell. But it leads to absurdities. An armoured warrior can only manage short bursts of energetic combat, but combat in D&D can easily last 10+ melee rounds, especially in a 'cleric fight' (a fight between well-armoured characters with low damage output). That's 10+ minutes of huffing and puffing in quilted doublets, thick leather jerkins, mail hauberks... Impossible.
While Gygax was working in minutes, Eric Holmes was tasked with presenting Basic D&D (1977) and unilaterally decided that the time frame for combat should be in seconds rather than minutes:
Each turn is ten minutes except during combat where there are ten melee rounds per turn, each round lasting ten seconds (Basic D&D Blue Book, p9)
Now that ten round fight lasts just under two minutes: much more realistic.
Subsequent editions of Basic D&D - the 1981 beautiful edition by Tom Moldvay and the 1983 ugly edition by Frank Mentzer - retain this 10-second melee round.
Moreover, Basic D&D charted the path that other RPGs followed. For example, Runequest defines fantasy roleplaying for non-D&D folk and hit upon a 12-second melee round.
The melee round is 12 seconds long. One complete round of attacks, parries, spells, and movement happens during ascenario. (Runequest 2nd ed, p14)
12 seconds is long enough for it to eat your shield
Then, in the 21st century, 3rd edition D&D switches to the 6-second melee round, which has been the standard ever since. Take that, Gygax. Holmes is vindicated!
A round represents about 6 seconds in the game world. During a round, each participant takes a turn (5th ed. D&D Players Hand Book, p189)
There are arguments to make both for the combat round as minute or handful of seconds. The 1-minute-round moves combat towards 'theatre of the mind' with a lot of improvised 'business' going on around the decisive blows. Tasks like picking up weapons, unsheathing swords, notching arrows, drinking potions and finding spell components are easy to fit into this stream of activity and don't penalise the character.
But if you find such protracted combat unlikely, the 6/10-second-round offers a more moment-by-moment approach that suits tactical combat better, where facing and flanking matters; where you forfeit your action if you're caught unawares, if you have to ready your weapon; where it matters where you are standing and who you can see and whether you can reach somebody in time to hit them.
But is it really likely that an armoured warrior can hit someone 6-10 times in a minute - or even twice that if they are high-level? Can archers really fire 12-20 arrows a minute, minute after minute? Can you really cast 6-10 spells in a minute, with combat going on all around you? The fast melee round seems to credit PCs with incredible vigour.
Real Life Comparisons
A medieval longbowman at the Battle of Crecy (1346) was expected to fire 12 shots a minute. That involves drawing and firing a longbow, which most people would find pretty punishing to do just the once. On the other hand, it didn't involve much aiming: longbows work because they drop a swarm of yard-long steel skewers onto the enemy, willy-nilly. And of course, this could not be sustained for more than a few minutes.
A shortbow might be fired 20-30 times a minute, but, again, no one could sustain this.
All of which favours the 10-second melee round more than the 6-second one, which allows a bow to be fired up to a dozen times.
Moreover, how many arrows actually get fired in a 1-minute round? If the round assumes lots of 'shots' which only pin the opponent down or harry them, but include a couple of 'true' or 'effective' shots that have "the opportunity to get a real blow in", it's reasonable to assume an archer fires at least half a dozen arrows per minute, probably twice that. An archer with a quiver of 20 arrows will have fired all of the after a couple of 1-minute melee rounds.
Jogging speeds in minutes and seconds
Usain Bolt's world record is to run 100m in 9.58 seconds. That's about 200ft in 6 seconds or 330ft in 10 seconds. The average jogger covers 70ft in 6 seconds or 120ft in 10 seconds or a whopping 730ft in a minute.
Now if we halve that 'jogging speed' for someone running in heavy clothing, carrying adventuring gear, in a darkly lit tunnel, over uneven and slippery floor, you probably get 35ft in a 6-second melee round or 60ft in a 10-second round and let's say 360ft in a minute. But it's even worse in heavy armour, carrying a sword, trying not to get killed. Even if we assume adventurers are trained to run around in armour, 35/60/360ft per round has to be the maximum and a more likely distance is 20ft in 6 seconds or 30ft in 10 seconds and 180ft in a minute, which is walking speed.
1st Edition AD&D (PHB p102) allows unarmoured characters to travel 120ft in a 1-minute round, which suggests a very cautious sort of walk. Halve that for characters in metal armour, which is a weary shuffle.
D&D 5th edition has an unencumbered human traveling 60ft in a 6-second round, which is rather speedy, more like an actual jog along a smooth pavement. Basic D&D (Molvay or Mentzer) has unencumbered characters jogging 40ft in a 10-second round and lumbering 20ft in metal armour, which is comparable to AD&D speeds. Holmes Basic D&D allows 20ft movement in a melee round, 10ft if armoured, which is almost immobile by comparison.
One of the less-remarked aspects of the development of D&D through the editions is how much faster everyone is now.
A combat minute in Forge Out Of Chaos
Indie RPG Forge confesses its derivation from D&D (especially 1st edition AD&D) in myriad ways, but its adoption of the 1-minute melee round is one of the clearest. After all, who would come up with such a profoundly un-intuitive gaming convention on their own?
But Forge imports some ideas from other RPGs that sit uneasily with the abstract 'melee minute'.
For example: armour. D&D treats armour as an impediment to hitting which works fine in a melee minute, where it's assumed your opponent takes lots of swipes against you and armour merely shifts the odds of being hurt in your favour. In 1978, Runequest took another direction, with armour deducting from dealt damage, which works well with its more simulationist 12-second round, in which combatants deal each other single bone-crunching blows.
Forge tries to have it both ways. Armour makes you harder to hit (in an abstract, when-you-average-it-all-up sort of way) but also absorbs the damage dealt (in a specific that-blow-didn't-get-through sort of way).
However, Forge usually inhabits the theatre-of-the-mind world of AD&D combat, where miniatures and battle maps are optional because positioning and facing barely matter. In Forge, you're either attacking an enemy's DV1 (including shield and Awareness bonus) or DV2 (no shield, no Awareness bonus) and there's nothing more specific than that. At least AD&D perversely factored in whether you were making a flank attack on someones shield-side or not (forgetting, temporarily, the rushes, retreats, feints, parries, checks, and so on of a melee-minute).
But then Forge also forgets its melee-minute time frame when it obsesses about the range of magic spells and invites you to 'pump' spells to increase the range. Who cares what the range is when the spell is being cast in a busy minute in which you can dash over 100ft to get close to someone? Back in Holmes Basic, when a Magic-User might jog 20ft and an armoured Elf lumber 10ft, spell range mattered.
Forge bases movement on the Speed (SPD) characteristic, determined for PCs using 1d4+1 (2-5).
'Yards' is an oddity: all the spell ranges are in feet. It's probably an unedited error and I'm always happy to enforce the convention that yards apply outside the dungeon but once you're underground, all yards count as feet.
Forge also lacks any rules for encumbrance (but I offer house rules), so we have to assume these distances apply to unarmoured, unencumbered characters. If SPD 3 is the human norm, then adventurers are moving around much faster than in AD&D. If we apply AD&D logic, then characters in non-metal armour lurch about at 3/4 this speed and metal armour in 1/2 this speed. Nonetheless, if you've got SPD 5 then, even in plate mail, you will cover an impressive 170ft in a melee minute, much faster than AD&D.
(I'm not even going to get into the whole conceptual muddle about whether SPD is supposed to represent reflexes or brute strength, the latter of which matters more for hauling yourself across a combat zone in armour.)
If you can cover this sort of distance in a melee-minute, you don't worry too much about the range requirements of bows (which Forge also dispenses with) or spells. You just jog until you're close enough to your opponent and ZAP!
Does anybody use melee-minutes any more?
Gary Gygax ported the concept of the melee-minute into AD&D and Forge cloned it in an unreflective moment, but neither game really gets to grips with the implications.
Gygax links his melee-minutes to another of D&D's defining concepts: Hit Points. What does it mean for a high level character to amass Hit Points sufficient to endure any number of sword blows? They haven't increased in literal physical toughness, but rather
such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the "sixth sense" which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection (Dungeon Master's Guide, p82)
In other words, some 'hits' in combat aren't even 'hits' at all. They're like the lost lives of a cat. The axe whistles through the space where your head was a moment ago, but some instinct made you duck. You lose Hit Points, representing pushing your luck, but you're physically unharmed.
Yet, in another mood, Gygax is devoting pages in the Dungeon Master's Guide (e.g. pp52-3, 64, 69) to tactical movement, as if he were offering rules to a skirmish game with the action paced out in heartbeats, forgetting that all this is redundant in a rules set where, each minute, characters move great distances ("rushes, retreats") and the 'to hit' roll represents shaving away your opponent's luck rather than actually stabbing them.
You can see why later editions of D&D followed Holmes down the heartbeat route of melee-moments rather than melee-minutes. Yet it leaves D&D with the preposterous institution of Hit Points, now bereft of its only justification, that a damaging 'hit' in combat doesn't necessarily involve any physical contact.
If D&D can't square the circle of melee-time, then I can't 'fix' Forge's hybrid concoction either.
In Forge, Hit Points are calculated from Stamina and don't balloon as you gain experience: a 'hit' in Forge is clearly something that leaves cuts and bruises. You use binding kits to regain your Hit Points, which you wouldn't do if all you'd lost was some good luck. In Forge, armour absorbs damage: if the armour deteriorates, then surely the axe did hit you! The long melee-minute loses its rationale.
If I convert to the 'melee moment' approach - and I like the feel of Holmes' 10-second melee round - then all of Forge's spells last way too long and there's no point in 'pumping' them for extra duration (although extra range might become relevant again since unarmoured SPD 3 characters would only move 60ft per round or 30ft in plate mail).
We can at least be consistent about the melee-minute approach.
There doesn't seem to be anything to be done about the weirdness of two-handed swords which get swung once every two minutes. The convention comes from Holmes, with his snapshot 10-second rounds. Gygax did away with it in a moment of lucidity, but Forge ports it straight back in because it's really hard to make yourself remember that your melee rounds last an entire minute!
Keeping track of arrows fired during a melee-minute seems irrational. In that space of time, an archer will fire almost all her arrows, then gather up the fallen ones to fire again. To represent depletion, just house rule that the archer's quiver goes down by 1d6 arrows every round, representing shafts that cannot be easily recovered. Then, at the end of the battle, the archer gathers them all back, minus a few lost or broken ones (perhaps, reducing the total stock by 1d6).
In this sort of time frame, combatants can reach just about any area of the battlefield that their (rather large) movement allowance permits. Forge is onto something by treating tactical positioning as a simple DV1 (they saw you coming) vs DV2 (they didn't, or they're engaged in combat with somebody else). Place your miniature wherever you want to be on the battle map at the start of each melee minute. Or dispense with miniatures altogether!
OSR dungeoncrawling without miniatures? I think I'd better think it out again...
In Forge Out Of Chaos, Divine Magic (as previously examined) is straightforward: 10 skill sots and zap: you're imbued. Pagan Magic is different. Once upon a time the gods bestowed it on mortals, but no longer (what with them all being dead or banished). Instead, mortals have figured out how to make magic work without the assistance of divine patrons. It includes quick'n'dirty 'Attack Magic': Beast Magic (animal powers), Elementalism (everything from fireballs and flying to water breathing) and Necromancy (creating and controlling undead and, naturally, curses).
This makes Pagan Magic a bit like fantasy world technology. It's the manipulation of impersonal (super)natural forces through intelligence, applied technique and special tools. It's much more bespoke than Divine Magic and you can bend it till it breaks. It's also less reliable and can backfire.
Return of the schematics
'Schematics' are tables that introduce variable elements for every spell: is the duration as low as 2 minutes or over 10? does the enemy get a Saving Throw at +2 or at -2? Divine Magic enables you to use of spare spell slots re-rolling already-acquired spells in the hope of improving their variables.
Pagan Magic adds a few twists to this. First of all, Mages can choose to sink more than the basic 10 skill slots into their Magic skill. Each extra slot adds +1 to a die roll on the schematics for each spell. So if you invest 13 skill slots into Magic, you get a +3 bonus to spread among the schematics for each of your spells.
You will need it, for several reasons. Unlike Divine Magic, Pagan Magic lets you acquire spells that are a level higher than your skill. This means, with 1st level Magic you can learn 2nd level Attack Spells. However, you get a -2 penalty on every roll on the schematics for a spell that's higher than your current level. The extra investment offsets this.
(Of course there are other reasons to be cautious about learning higher-level spells. They cost a lot of Spell Points to cast. A typical Mage has 20-25 SPTS and a 1st level Elementalist spell costs 9 SPTS to cast; a 2nd level spell costs 18 SPTS, which will just about clean you out.)
These spells come with Harmful Side Effects (HSE) and every spell forces you to roll on the HSE schematic to see what happens when you cast it. You probably get 'nothing' but HSEs can include taking damage every time you cast that spell, spending extra SPTS just to cast that spell or finding yourself unable to perform magic for a period after using the spell. Higher level spells are much more unnerving.
The rules fail to clarify a couple of points. Presumably the mystical, un-healable Damage is 'actual' damage (it comes off Hit Points directly, ignoring armour). How long does the Mental Exhaustion last? Minutes, hours or days? That's harder to call, but most of the durations used in Forge's magic system are in minutes, so let's assume that's what is meant.
If you're going to use that extra-investment bonus on any schematic, I think HSE will probably be the one.
The other thing Pagan Magic can do is crank up the intensity. 'Pumping' a spell means spending extra SPTS to get a better-than-normal result. The exact result depends on the type of Magic you specialise in.
As you can see, you get a big boost to range or damage when 'pumping' Elemental spells, whereas Beast spells get a better boost to duration and chance of success. Necromancy's in the middle.
The precise cost of 'pumping' a particular spell is determined by another schematic. This schematic is a tempting candidate for that extra-investment bonus, since the cost typically varies from as low as half-as-much-again to outright doubling the base cost of a 1st level spell in SPTS. However, the costs of 'pumping' a spell don't go up with levels: 'pumping' a 4th level spell cost the same as 'pumping' a 1st level spell, so you might be happier bearing the cost with high level spells (you'll have tons of SPTS by then anyway).
Before you get carried away and run around 'pumping' every spell for extra damage or tougher saving throws, a warning: there's a chance any 'pumped' spell blows up in your face. The chance of this is a whopping 25%, plus 5% for each extra 'pump' you risk and plus/minus 5% for each difference in level between your skill and the spell itself. So if you've got 2nd level Magic and you pump a 1st level spell 3 times, you've got a 30% chance of it going BOOM (25% + 10% for the 2 extra pumps - 5% for the difference in your favour).
Remember how you could invest extra skill slots in Pagan Magic? Well, they reduce your vulnerability to backfiring spells:
So if you invested 3 extra skill slots in your Magic skill, you not only get a +3 bonus on the schematics, but you deduct 10% from the chance of spells backfiring when you 'pump' them. Sweet.
If the spell backfires, it doesn't just fizzle out. You take damage based on the spell level and the number of 'pumps' you put into it, times two. If that 1st level spell backfires after being pumped 3 times, you will take 8 damage - 8 'actual' damage, which could quite possibly kill you.
If that wasn't bad enough, your spell component disintegrates too.
The only thing required for Divine Magic is a prayer, but because Pagan Magic is 'tech' you need special equipment for it: spell components. No components, no spell.
That's the component list for Beast Magic spells - the 'minor' ones (levels 1-4). 'Major' spells (levels 5-8) need even fancier gizmos. Since a Player Character starts with 30-180gp (good ol' 3d6 times ten), and you probably want a weapon and some basic armour, most Mages will start out their adventuring career with just a single spell component (i.e. that Manticore Spike for damage spells). They might 'know' other spells, but they're not able to cast them until they can afford the kit.
This gives starting Mages a very strong reason to go dungeoncrawling and provides the Referee with 'treasures' that players will appreciate: finding an Ash Wand, already "soaked in a mixture of blood from various animals," will be worth more to some players than a magic sword.
(Of course, maybe the campaign setting has Mage Guilds that kit out starting PCs with all the Ash Wands and Manticore Spikes they need, then extract the costs back from them with massive interest rates...)
Since components have a nasty habit of going BOOM when you 'pump' spells, wealthy adventurers will invest in spares! That's another reason why Forge really needs an Encumbrance system.
Forge's magic system was widely praised - indeed, it was its only saving grace, for many critics. It certainly offers players a lot to think about during character creation:
Once your character is up-and-running, you have to 'curate' your spell collection:
Curating your spell collection like this is very satisfying. It means that even if another player has a Mage with the same type of Magic, its unlikely they have the same spells as you and, even if they do, it's unlikely their spells have quite the same variables as yours. Your spell collection is your achievement and you can feel rightly proud of it.
The only problem with all this is for the Referee: throwing together a NPC Mage is not a trivial chore.
I'm a bit doubtful about 'pumping' spells to boost Duration or Range. Most spells last 10-20 minutes anyway and it's hard to think of situations where that's not enough but adding 5 or 10 minutes would make all the difference. Perhaps with Beast Magic, where pumping could add 10 or 20 minutes, you might enable a helpful shapechange spell to last a couple of encounters.
Boosting Range sounds like a useful thing, but in fact not so much. With it's weird 1-minute melee rounds (more about that nonsense in another blog), Forge characters can cover hundreds of yards in a couple of rounds, so there are easier ways of bringing a target into range than 'pumping' a spell. The range-boosts just aren't big enough to make it tempting in the absence of crunchy tactical movement in the combat system.
Types of Attack Magic: Beast, Elemental, Necromancy
Pagan Magic also includes Enchantment, which follows all the rules above but adds some tricks of its own. I'll cover that another time. Just now, I want to finish off with a comparison of the three schools of Attack Magic.
Beast Magic is certainly the easiest, costing just 7 SPTS per spell level; Necromancy costs 8 and Elementalism 9. This makes Beast Magic favourite if you rolled low in Power (hence, low in SPTS).
Each school offers similar offensive spells. There's a ranged spell that deals automatic damage, no roll 'to hit': Beast Magic's 'Spike' deals 1d6 damage, Necromancy's 'Skeletal Bolt' deals 1d8 and Elementalism's 'Ice Bolt' deals 1d10. You see the progression? There's a 2nd level version that deals twice as much damage and so on. Very balanced.
There's also a close combat spell that requires a successful roll 'to hit' (using your Magic skill against DV2 instead of Melee Weapons) but deals 'actual' damage, bypassing armour: Beast Magic 'Wounding' deals 1d6, Necromantic 'Pain' deals 1d8 and Elemental 'Fiery Touch' deals 1d10. The 2nd level iterations double this damage too.
This makes it tempting for Elementalists in particular to 'pump' their damage spell twice for +6 damage; 1d10+6 damage (Ice Bolt or especially Fiery Touch) has a decent chance of killing a humanoid character outright. 2d10+6 damage (2nd level Ice Burst or Searing Touch) will kill tougher things. Shame about the 30% chance of backfiring (35% for the 2nd level version) but if you invested extra skill slots in Magic, you could risk it. Let's face it, you will risk it.
Beyond this, the schools vary in content. There are defensive spells of different types and a whole bunch of utility stuff. Beast Mages can influence and talk with animals and acquire animal abilities (climbing like spiders, hiding like chameleons) and shape-changing powers; Elementalists can create fire and wind, walk on water or levitate; Necromancers can turn or create undead or imitate their powers and immunities.
Since you get a check to your Magic skill every time you cast a spell in a crisis situation (i.e. adventuring) and you're limited to casting spells until your SPTS run out (so perhaps 3 or 4 times in an adventure for starting characters), you're going to advance slowly in Magic at first. Higher-level casters can speed advancement by heavily using low level spells. Maybe consider buying some Vigoshian Root? A boost of 10-60 SPTS for an hour lets you go nuts with those Ice Bolts. Yes, it costs 30gp and yes, there's a 50% chance you will lose 0.1d3 Insight. But magic is all about trade-offs, right?
Necromancy introduces an interesting mechanic. Each time the Necromancer animates a new Skeleton (1st level) or Zombie (2nd level), they lose 0.1 Stamina permanently. As Stamina drops, so do Hit Points. Raising the undead is not to be done casually. The 7th level spell 'Life Drain' lets you reverse this, permanently stealing decimal points of Stamina from victims to replenish your own (which should be pretty far depleted by then). But remember 7th level spells require 13+ Insight and you will need 26%+ on your base Magic skill if you're ever going to advance that far.
If manufacturing undead is your thing, the 4th level spell 'Bestow Intellect' drains 0.1 Intellect from the Necromancer to grant created undead some dog-like autonomy. After that, you can teach them your skills, project your voice through them, deputise them to command your other mindless undead, generally have fun curating your collection of skellies and zoms.
Beast Magic has a less-thrilling variation, involving dominating animals to be your companions and bodyguards. The 2nd level spell 'Animal Domination' permanently drains 2 SPTS for each animal under your control; the 6th level 'Bestial Domination' works on giant animals but drains 5 SPTS each time. Unlike Necromancy, Beast Magic doesn't offer a way of regaining those Spell Points (except by going up levels in Magic skill, of course).
With the exceptions noted above, Attack Magic spells are all short-term, usually lasting 10-20 minutes. If you want permanent magical effects, you need to try Enchantment, which I'll look at another time.
There's certainly a good selection of desirable magical tricks here. Although cloned from D&D, the spell lists show clear attempts to introduce balance and allow rational progression. There's a heavy focus on combat and solutions to the sort of problems you face in dungeons. There's a lack of big area effect spells but that's an aesthetic choice: Attack Magic is low-key, personal, one-on-one. Elementalism is far and away the most potent, both as a combat option (so many damage spells, such big bonuses from 'pumping') and as utility magic (flying, talking to earth, scrying) and Beast Magic is very much the poor cousin (personal transformations, befriending beasts) but many players will be drawn to the interesting trade-offs involved in Necromancy.
There are things missing: no illusions, no plant-based magic, a dearth of information-gathering spells. Nonetheless, it's a spell list that compares very favourably with Basic D&D/1st edition AD&D. However, when Forge came out in 1998, 2nd edition AD&D had already expanded the roles of clerics and magic-users and the innovations to 3rd and 4th edition in the 2000s would bring choice, balance and rational progression to D&D spell-casters. As usual with Forge, you feel that, had it come out 10 years earlier, it would have been hailed as a valuable contribution to the evolution of Fantasy RPGs. A lot happens in a decade.
It's time to take a look at Forge's magic system. This is the only aspect of the game to attract universal praise. Ron Edwards identifies the magic system as "genuine innovation" and even Thomas Wilburn (who hates the game) admits that " the game has an excellent way of dealing with high-powered wizards."
Forge splits magic into two broad types: Pagan Magic (aka Sorcery) and Divine Magic (clerical stuff). In fact, all the magic is ultimately divine in origin, being passed onto lesser races by the gods. The difference is that Divine Magic is still a direct gift of the remaining (albeit imprisoned) gods, while Pagan Magic covers mystical forces that mortals have learned to master without the gods' ongoing assistance.
When you sink those 10 skill slots into the Magic skill, you must make a decision: Divine or Pagan? This is particularly important for dimwit Ghantus, who normally have to spend twice as many slots to acquire any skill at all. Since Divine Magic is granted directly by a god and doesn't reflect on the caster's own intelligence or education, Ghantus can learn Divine Magic for the standard 10 slots rather than a nearly-impossible 20.
Let's take a look at Divine Magic this week.
Knights of Berethenu and Warriors of Grom
There are a few downsides to Divine Magic compared to Pagan Magic. You cannot spend extra skill slots to be better-than-normal at Divine Magic: Berethenu and Grom give you what they give you and that's that. No taking a chance with higher level spells: at 1st level Magic you get 1st level spells and that's all. You cannot "pump" the spells either, pushing your luck for better outcomes as Pagan Mages do. Finally, advancing in the Magic skill requires acts of servitude to the god (tithing for Berethenu, personal trophies for Grom) and, as usual, there's a clerical code which, if broken, strips you of your godly powers for ever more.
You get a number of spell slots equal to your Intellect (let's say, 7) and you could fill them with different spells, giving a typical Divine Mage 7 starting spells. First level Divine spells cost 7 Spell Points (SPTS) to cast and a Mage typically has 20-25 SPTS (2d10, doubled), with Kithsara lizardfolk having a half dozen extra SPTS because they are, you know, very mystical. This means you will cast 3, maybe 4 spells before running out of magical juice.
Rather than knowing a wide spread of spells, it might be better to start with a smaller selection, say 3, that you are really good at. This is where the 'schematics' come in. These are tables that determine the variable factors for each spell: its range and duration, how much damage it causes or heals, etc. Instead of learning a new spell, you can use up a spell slot to re-roll on the schematics for an old spell and take the better of the two results, or three results if you use up a third slot to re-roll yet again.
Going up a level in the Magic skill earns you a bunch of new SPTS (around 15, typically) but also grants you a new set of spell slots. You will use some of these to acquire spiffy new high level spells, but you might use some of them to re-roll your old lower level spells, gaining a +2 bonus for each level higher you are than the spell you're trying to improve.
This encourages Mages to develop a honed and curated set of spells, with optimal characteristics for range, duration, damage, etc. It also means that, as the blurb on the back of the book promises: "No two mages are ever alike!"
The higher level spells cost more SPTS to cast (14 for 2nd level, 21 for 3rd level and so on) and also have minimum Insight requirements (8+ for 2nd level, 9+ for 3rd, and so on). If you think the 8th level spells look mighty fine, remember that they cost 56 SPTS (OK, you probably have 120 by that point, over 150 if you're Kithsara) and you need an Insight characteristic of 14 (ah... that's a problem).
Berethenu Magic: a paladin by any other name
The 1st level Berethenu spells give you a flavour of what this god offers. There's Determine Magic (a pointlessly verbose alternative to the D&D stalwart, Detect Magic), Courage (it's Remove Fear), a Lesser Cure (that will be Cure Light Wounds then) and Minor Turning which lets you turn lesser undead, like Skeletons and Zombies, just like a D&D cleric. Protection (which grants a good Armour Rating) and Protection from Undead (which outright repels undead attacks who fail a Saving Throw) have obvious roots in D&D.
Most of these spells have variable Range and Duration and it's not really worth re-rolling these. With its one minute melee rounds (why? why? more about this maddening idea in a future blog), Forge de-emphasises tactical movement, so range is rarely a crucial factor. Even a pretty rubbish 1st level spell will last 11 minutes, which is good enough for most combats.
The higher level spells really just introduce more exciting versions of these effects. At 2nd level Armour grants someone a bunch of magical Armour Points (5 is disappointing, 30 would be amazing!) and that's a pretty significant power. More spectacular healing magic becomes available along with spells that boost Attack Values and Parrying, confer immunity to various horrible conditions and the 5th level Immobilize is our old friend Hold Monster with an even more prosaic name. At 8th level, Resurrection makes its appearance (for those Berethenu Knights with 14 Insight), but that requires the permanent sacrifice of a point of Stamina whether it works or not.
This is a functional set of spells that definitely offer an edge in combat, a solution to undead pests and some healing that's faster and more potent than binding kits and Healing Root. It's very dungeon-orientated: everything is for combat or the aftermath of combat. There's nothing like Commune with Deity (understandable, perhaps, since the deity is burning in Mulkra), no spells beyond Determine Magic to answer questions, provide guidance or inveigle clues out of the Referee. Even though Berethenu is god of Justice, there are no spells to detect lies, punish wrongdoers or bind people to their promises. But that's fantasy heartbreakers for you. Their myopic focus on breaking down doors and killing monsters is a virtue if that's all you want to do. But it's a spell list crying out for a bit of elaboration.
By the way, notice how, by making turning undead a spell that some Divine Mages will know but others won't, Forge preempts what D&D went and did with clerics?
Berethenu Knights have a final power, to convert their Hit Points into extra SPTS. They gain 7 SPTS from doing this - enough to power a 1st level spell. At 1st level of Magic skill, this drains 12HP. Since a typical character has 15HP, you won't be doing this often. But by 5th level, once the cost has dropped to 8HP for 7SPTS, it might be tempting in order to pull off a crucial spell.
Grom Magic: putting the laughter into slaughter
Grom's Weapon summons a magical weapon to hand; it's a good weapon too: +1 actual damage, cannot notch, cannot be dropped. This is one of the few spells worth re-rolling to get a good Duration.
Termination is an odd spell. It grants you a high score in the Final Blow skill that you use to decapitate an opponent reduced to 0HP or less, rather than letting them bleed out. Few people bother with this skill, since it's easy to coup-de-grace your enemies once the battle is over - or just leave them to die in agony. But every now and then you need it, such as when enemy Berethenu Knights are healing fallen comrades as fast as you can chop them down. If you learn this spell, you probably want to re-roll it so that it works reliably.
Proclaim is that rare beast in this game: a cultural spell. Grom Warriors are supposed to gather yearly in a big rally and boast about their accomplishments. This spell lets you boast alone. Why would you bother with it? Well, for campaign reasons, like setting off on a journey far from home! A rare concession that there might be stuff going on outside the dungeon.
High level spells keep the focus on mayhem: blinding people, poisoning them, shattering weapons, demolishing armour, gaining extra attacks, ogre strength, all good stuff. There are more spells that duplicate rarely-bothered-with skills like Gaze Evasion and useful skills like Melee Assassination. There are even some helpful spells, such as empowering and repairing your own armour. While Berethenu Knights are raising the dead, the 8th level spell Vengeance turns the Grom-ite into a berserk killing machine that attacks friend and foe alike.
The focus on dungeon skirmishing is less out-of-place here. But since Grom is god of War, it's strange there are no spells for leading armies, staging ambushes, routing infantry or spreading plague. Moreover, there's a lack of sneaky spells. The focus is on the straightforward berserking champion, but surely Grom Warriors can be devious assassins as well. It would be nice to have spells for heroic leaps, surprise attacks, disguising yourself as the enemy and laying traps.
With Grom and Berethenu you get the clear impression of a designer wanting to make clerics 'cool' but impatient with all the 'religious stuff'. What you get are two species of a$$-kickers. In his article More Fantasy Heartbreakers (2003), Ron Edwards ponders why the authors of these indie games were all so indifferent to religion, concerned only with "what must a cleric avoid doing in order to get his healing spells back or when a character gets a minor bonus." D&D 5th edition, with its divine domains and clerical metaphysics, looks back at Forge as across a vast gulf. I'll give some thought to Forge's own take on fantasy mythology in another post.
Yet there's no denying that Berethenu Knights and Grom Warriors (perhaps, especially Grom Warriors) are fun fellows down a dungeon and, so long as that's where we keep them, their essential incoherence doesn't emerge. If you want to use Forge for a more conventional Fantasy RPG campaign, something with politics and cultural differences and ethical issues to resolve, then can these two clerical killing machines be made relevant? "A good question," as Maz Kanata says, "for another time.".
Equipment lists were features of RPGs right from the outset. In D&D, they stayed fairly standard, offering distinctive dungeoncrawling tools like 10' poles, mirrors, torches, tinder boxes and garlic buds.
Forge follows the conventions of D&D slavishly: the equipment list is a clone of that presented in D&D, streamlined somewhat with the non-dungeoneering stuff left out: no barges or galleys, no different types of horses, no barding or saddles (despite the presence of Mounted Melee skills and rules), no tapestries, no songbirds. The only list that gets expanded is musical instruments (an oddity) and varied prices for different sizes of armour (a rare oversight in AD&D). The armour follows the canonical D&D progression from padded to leather and studded leather, ring mail to chain mail and ultimately plate armour.
Ron Edwards (2002) finds some comedy in the reverential repetition of the D&D tropes in games like this: "we older role-players memorized the weapons-list in the 1978 Player's Handbook through sheer concentration and fascination, such that its cadences took on a near-catechistic drone."
But really, if it ain't broke, why fix it? The 'Miscellaneous Supplies' section of Forge's equipment list reads like a template for an adventure in itself: bedroll, grappling hook mallet, mapping supplies, mirror (small), rope (100' coil), spike (iron). There are promising first novels and movie screenplays that could be reduced to a list like this and if it doesn't get you through a dungeon then it's hard to imagine what else will.
Forge even adopts D&D's immemorial mechanic for determining your PC's starting funds: rolls 3d6 and multiply by 10 to get your gold piece allowance.
Some differences and distinctions emerge at this point: the prices. In general, things cost twice as much as in D&D and, down at the cheap end, the price hike is even bigger. For a D&D fighter with 100gp, you could buy ring mail (30gp) and a broadsword (10gp), maybe a shield (10gp) and short bow (15gp) with a quiver full of arrows (1gp plus 12sp) and you've still got over 30gp left to invest in backpacks (2gp) and those miscellaneous supplies.
Good luck getting mileage like that in Forge. The ring mail alone is 90gp, the sword 25gp, the bow 25gp, the backpack 5gp: only the shield holds its old value at 10gp. Starting Forge characters are going to have to scale back their expectations. With those weapons, leather armour (30gp) just about breaks the bank; sir might prefer economical padded armour (10gp) if he wishes to avail himself of the miscellaneous supplies (all in for 25gp). For AD&D characters, padded armour is a badge of shame, the sort of thing you wear when there are rust monsters about. In Forge, it's the new normal.
And did I forget to mention spell components? Minor Damage spell components cost 35-60gp, depending on the school of magic. And those are the cheap ones! Maybe re-think that broadsword...
I don't mind the new economics. The last blog pondered what is supposed to motivate adventurers to seek treasure in a game where gold doesn't equate to experience. Here's a partial answer. Players will have to make several dungeon delves before they are rich enough to equip themselves in line with their aspirations. The diamond an Elementalist needs for Minor Protection Spells costs 280gp; a suit of plate armour costs 800gp, 1200gp if you're a Ghantu. That should keep you busy.
It's interesting to try to map this economy onto the real world. Back in the '80s, Paul Vernon wrote an excellent series of articles for White Dwarf called Designing a Quasi-Medieval Society for D&D. Vernon constructs D&D economies around the 'Ale Standard' and calculates that, since a small beer costs 5 copper pieces in AD&D and 50p in the real world (HA-HAH! yes, this was 1982), we can conclude that a copper piece is 10p, a gold piece is £20 and work up from there. Vernon points out how pricey lanterns are at £240 but reminds us that fantasy economies are inflationary: gold is cheap because dungeon-robbing adventurers keep flooding the market with it.
In AD&D, a pint of ale costs a silver piece, 10 coppers, so £1 - I'm not sure why Gary Gygax decided to make ale twice as expensive as beer (historically it was, if anything, the other way round) but ale turns up on the Forge price list too: a pint of ale costs 10 silver. I can't find anywhere in the Forge rulebook where it breaks down the currency, but judging from other prices it seems there are 100 silver to a gold piece. Let's say a pint of ale these days costs £5 (it's cheaper in Wetherspoons, I know, I know). If 10 silver equates to a fiver, then a Forge silver piece is 50p and a Forge gold piece is £50.
Rolling 3d6 x10 for your gold, this means Forge adventurers go into their careers with a start-up fund of £5000, on average!
Let's try some conversions. £40k for a suit of plate armour? That's like buying a good car, which seems about right. £1250 for a broad sword seems a fair price. £100 for a dozen arrows will make you more careful with them in future. £5 for a bowstring will give you twice the reason to curse when it snaps. £100 for hiking boots is pretty reasonable and £150 for fancy clothes makes me think Forge's tailors need to get unionised. £750 for a lantern is steep. Paying £1750 for that Manticore Spike to cast Beast Magic Damage Spells - and that's the cheapest of the spell components - makes you wonder if kids from poor backgrounds ever become Mages.
You can calculate some other costs from this. A night's accommodation would cost 1gp, 2gp for somewhere fancy, 3gp for somewhere luxurious. You could eat in a cheap tavern for 10sp, or pay 1gp in a classy restaurant. The price list suggests a pint of wine costs £150, which suggests wine is a luxury in Juravia!
Bind those wounds
One distinctive feature of Forge is the availability of binding kits (3gp, £150) usable by anyone with the Binding Basic Skill. These can be used to heal 3hp lost to ordinary wounds.
There's also Healing Root (6gp, a stonking £300), which heals 1d4 HP lost to any sort of damage.
This makes Forge adventurers much less dependent on clerics in the party for in-dungeon healing. If you've got the money to load up on this sort of first aid, you can patch yourself up after most fights. And speaking of patching up...
Repair that armour
Another distinctive feature of Forge is the system for repairing armour using the Field Repair Basic Skill. A PC with that skill must own a Field Repair Case (10gp, £500) and use repair kits specific to each type of armour to do the work: a padded armour repair kit costs 50sp (£25), a chain mail kit costs 150sp (£75) and a plate mail kit costs 5gp (£250, wow!). There are no shield repair kits - the rules on p22 imply ring mail repair kits work for shields.
The repairs are automatically successful: the kit gets used up and the repairs take 2 minutes per AP restored (p37). This means sewing up 10AP damage to a leather jerkin takes 20 minutes; riveting 40AP damage to a plate breastplate takes over an hour and a half. This is an invitation to Wandering Monsters, but if the tinkerer is repairing everyone's armour, the work could take several hours. Time for those Mages to get some sleep and restore some SPTS (5 per two hours of sleep, maximum 20 per day).
This lends a delightful rhythm to a Forge dungeoncrawl: fight monsters, rest up and fix armour, fend of Wandering Monsters, then press on.
It seems wrong, however, that all of the damage to armour can be repaired as long as the repair kits last out. Can you really restore leather armour reduced to 1AP tatters and shreds to its 20AP pristine glory, just by spending 40 minutes on it? Is two hours of labour enough to rebuild an entire suit of plate mail?
It's tempting to house rule this. Field Repair can restore armour to the bracket above its current status, but no higher. This means that, if you have a suit of chain mail (5AR, 50AP) and it takes 27 damage (now 2AR, 23AP), you could repair it up to 40AP (4AR) but no higher. The remaining work has to be done in a proper workshop by someone with the Armourer Skill.
This introduces inevitable deterioration into armour, no matter how many repair kits you bring along. This is an important consideration because, in the absence of any rules for encumbrance, wealthy PCs could theoretically load up with hundreds of repair kits.
What, no encumbrance?
There's no encumbrance. Quite early on, D&D wedded itself to a persnickety system of tracking encumbrance down to the smallest gold coin: chain mail is 300gp encumbrance, a broad sword is 75. A PC can carry 500gp without penalty and higher Strength extends this threshold. Everyone hated the constant book-keeping and delighted in magic armour (50% encumbrance) and bags of holding to bung the loot in and forget about it.
Forge just never mentions encumbrance at all. The Speed characteristic on p5 makes no reference to how weighed down you are: with SPD 3 you can run 180 yards/minute (a stately 6mph), in or out of armour; with SPD 5 you're covering 340 yards (12mph, fast for a jog but slow for a sprint).
Look, I get it. Encumbrance is boring. Just wear the best armour you can afford or are allowed (if you're a Mage) and shove all the treasure you find into sacks and leave the bean counting to the nerds.
And yet, it's not good enough really. Once they have a bit of money behind them, players will want to load up on armour repair kits and binding kits. Why carry two when you can carry twenty? More than twenty? How many more? Is there even a limit?
Without going down the road of weighing up every single item, we can propose a quick house rule. PCs can carry big items (armour, shields, weapons, quivers, 100' coils of rope, lanterns, rations, some spell components) with metal armour counting as two big items; there are also small items (repair kits, binding kits, most spell components, daggers, iron spikes, torches, water skins). You can carry a number of big items equal to your Stamina and a number of small items equal to your Strength. Sacks and backpacks become big items when full (Referee's judgement when that happens). Too many big items and your Speed drops by one for each excess; too many small items and you count as carrying an extra big item.
If you want to go further with this, you can put small items equal to your Strength into a sack or backpack to make them all count as a big item.
It's not perfect, but it imposes a sort of limit on PCs. A PC with Strength 8.5 and Stamina 7.5 could carry 6 big things (metal armour, shield, sword, quiver, bow, that makes 6) and 8 small things. If she puts 8 repair kits into a backpack, that counts as a 7th big thing. That leaves 8 slots for other little things, like half a dozen torches, a tinder box and a binding kit.
The final addition that Forge makes to the classic D&D accessories is the avalability of magical herbs. This sort of thing was already a big feature of ICE's Middle Earth Roleplay (MERP) and it's tempting to extend the list here with homegrown additions. But the starting set covers most occasions.
I've already mentioned Healing Root, which is worth stocking up on for the 1d4HP healing it offers. Jilda Weed has a gooey sap that stops a character on zero or negative HP 'bleeding out' - very useful, as my players discovered recently when they didn't have any!
Kimaran Root increases your strength by +.5d10 (anything between +0.5 and +5.0, on average +3.2) for 1d4 hours, but with a 75% chance of removing -0.1 from your Stamina permanently. Vigoshian Root similarly adds 10d6 SPTS (average 35) for an hour, with a 50% chance of reducing Insight by -0.1d3. Both of these boosts are great (especially, perhaps, the Vigoshian Root) but players will be loathe to use them too often with those costs.
Peysha Mold glows in the dark for 12 hours: not as bright as torches but (if you care about that sort of thing) much less encumbering.
Ginseng offers a +4 bonus to Saving Throws vs Disease for 5-30 minutes. Emerki offers a similar bonus against Mind attacks for 1-6 hours and Mikonris against Poison for 10-60 minutes..
Other plants are more situational. Garlic counteracts the Intellect-draining effects of the Duvadin (an invsible parasite) and Brye Leaf counteracts the poison of a Mevoshk (12' long snakes with a paralysing venom).
The philosopher Epicurus claimed that "skilful pilots gain their reputation in storms and tempests." This is a pretty good template for RPG experience systems: you endure terrible things and you get better at the things you used to succeed.
Some ancient history
D&D originally bunched a whole load of applied skills together as a 'character class' and, when people found these templates too narrow and prescriptive, offered variant classes and sub-classes with different proficiencies. You're a thief who likes killing people: welcome, assassin! A druid who likes nature spirits: greetings, druid! Non-weapon proficiencies (NWP) started appearing in 1985, with the Unearthed Arcana expansion that made a lot of Dragon Magazine material canonical. NWP became a major feature of AD&D's 2nd edition in 1989. However, NWP always sat awkwardly with AD&D's class system. They're really different approaches to doing the same thing and they get in each other's way.
Meanwhile, D&D's glamorous cousin Runequest (1978) went a different way. Runequest abandoned character classes (well, almost: Shamans and Rune Lords inserted themselves) and defined PCs entirely by their skills. The system, which acquired a life of its own as Basic Roleplaying (1980) and undergirds Call of Cthulhu (1981), shames D&D with its simplicity. All skills (from swinging a sword or parrying a blow to tracking trolls or leaping chasms) are values on a 0-100 scale and you test them by rolling d%, looking to roll equal to or under your skill. Succeed and you get an 'experience check' against that skill. At the end of the session or adventure, roll d% for each checked skill and if you roll higher then the skill increases.
The point about rolling higher is important. Starting PCs have low skills and fail most of their rolls but if they succeed then they are very likely to improve: if your Sneak skill is 10% you will fail 9 times out of 10, but if you succeed you check the skill and you only need to roll higher than 10 on d% for it to increase. Conversely, experienced characters succeed often but find it hard to improve: with Sneak 90% you rarely fail to be stealthy but you need to roll 91-00 to increase the skill any further.
Almost all later RPGs took a position somewhere between these poles. Rolemaster (1980) offered classes AND skills, with the skills multiplying with every expansion. Later games often offered character classes as mere templates, enabling players to invest in a coherent and thematic set of 'class skills' and perhaps penalising out-of-class skill choices by making them more expensive to acquire or improve or else privileging in-class skills by having them advance faster. This maintained the convenient 'meta' of character classes ("I'm a fighter" and "I'm a rogue") to speed up character creation and simplify adventures while allowing players to customise their PCs. In many '90s RPGs, character classes were replaced by factional allegiances that worked in the same way. For example, Vampire: the Masquerade (1991) offered signature powers for different Clans then allowed the players to put together any permutation of skills and abilities.
How Forge does it: Basic Skills
Ron Edwards (2002) points out that 'fantasy heartbreakers' like Forge invariably claim to be "innovative" when in fact they are just reinstating alternative systems from the beginnings of the roleplaying hobby. There's nothing new under the sun, and Forge really just reinstates Runequest/Basic Roleplaying. However, even when rules aren't original, they can still be elegant. Forge takes familiar materials but puts them together well.
Forge PCs have a number of skill slots equal to the sum of their Intellect+Insight - 15 on average. Basic Skills can be bought which confer unvarying advantages, as opposed to Percentage Skills which confer a chance of success with the possibility of failure. They are more like abilities than skills. If you know Binding you can use binding kits to treat wounds; if you know Horsemanship you can attack at a penalty while mounted. The Exceptional Characteristic Basic Skills let you add +1.0 to a characteristic; Exceptional Intellect and Exceptional Insight cost 2 slots because they recalculate the number of skill slots you have.
There are some oddities here. History is a Basic Skill which means the Referee will give you any information you need about the history of an area, no roll needed. Similarly Hunting gives you a flat 50% chance of foraging food for the next 2-5 days in exchange for 6 hours of hunting and reducing traveling rates by a quarter. Most games would make these Percentage Skills, with the possibility of failure but also the option to improve them.
These Skills reflect Forge's assumptions. It's a game of going down dungeons and killing things, not making long wilderness journeys or researching historical mysteries. Activities outside of the dungeoncrawling paradigm are marginalised, expressed as "yeah you did it" abilities that move the plot along. Why should a failed History roll mean you never hear about the dungeon? Why should a failed Hunting roll mean you struggle to reach the dungeon?
Ron Edwards finds this truncated perspective laughable, pointing out that, for heartbreaker RPGs, dungeon adventuring is "not only the model, but the only model for these games' design - to the extent of defining the very act of role-playing." But the thing is, I don't mind about that. If I'm going to play a dungeoncrawl game, I want a dungeoncrawl system. Forge's laser-like focus on creating characters for dungeoneering is only a flaw if you believe this RPG ought to have loftier ambitions. But why should it?
Movin' on up: Percentage Skills
With Percentage Skills, we're on familiar territory. The skill's score is your chance of using it successfully on d% and, once used successful and checked, you try to roll above the skill to improve it with experience.
Forge has a few contributions of its own. In Basic Roleplaying and similar systems, everyone gets access to every skill, many of which start with lowly scores (e.g. Stealth 10%, Disguise 01%) to which skill points are added. In Forge, if you don't select a Percentage Skill then you simply cannot do it at all and the ones you select have a starting value set by the sum of two characteristics (e.g. Blind Fighting is Dexterity+Awareness), which is a modest figure (average 15%).
This makes for simplicity at the risk of absurdity. What, I didn't select Climbing so I can't even try to climb the castle wall? Without Hiding I cannot even try to hide myself from that patrol - I have to just stand there, out in the open?
In the context of '90s and early C21st RPGs, this is maddening stuff. In the context of Old School Revival RPGs, it's less of a problem. OSR emphasises Referee judgement over rules and skills. Let the Climbers roll their skill (baseline Dexterityx2%) and give everyone else a lesser chance (baseline Dexterity%) as you see fit. Forge also lacks a system for scaling skill success against difficulty level: what about smooth walls and observant guards? The Referee is invited to raise or lower skill chances based on the situation. For OSR Referees, this is plain sailing.
In Basic Roleplaying you check a skill for improvement the first time you succeed at it, but in Forge you check it every time you succeed at it. You could end up with a LOT of checks , especially in a skill like Leadership that a PC might use at the start of every combat encounter or Open Locks that might be used dozens of times.
This partly gets round one perennial problem in percentage skill systems: the Lockpickers' Queue. This is a phenomenon where, faced with a locked door or chest, the party members with the worst lockpicking skills try to open it first, with the expert lockpickers stepping in only when everyone else fails. Why? Because the poor lockpickers might succeed by fluke and, if they do, they get to check their skill and are very likely to improve it; the experts are almost guaranteed to succeed and don't need the skill check so badly: they're likely to fail to improve. It's a clunky insertion of meta-knowledge into roleplaying behaviour. In Forge, you can check a skill multiple times, so the expert has an interest in using his skill successfully because, with enough checks, he should manage to raise it a little.
Some of the Percentage Skills raise problems.
Tactics is a skill you may use every round in combat to boost your DV2 against flank attacks. Since there's no penalty for using it, PCs will use it every round. Does that entitle you to dozens, maybe hundreds of checks? Not quite. You only get a check when the skill is used significantly, when there's "something to gain from it" (p20). The rulebook doesn't clarify but presumably to gain a check in Tactics you have to boost your DV2 on a turn when you suffer an attack against your DV2. I'm not sure whether it should be an attack that misses as well. Either way, you're rolling this every round but only checking it when you get attacked - grr-r, book-keeping...
Better, I think, to treat Tactics like Leadership: it's a roll you make at the start of combat, if it succeeds it gets a check and the benefit lasts for the entirety of the encounter.
Missile Evasion lets you add your Awareness bonus (if you have one) to your DV2. This is another fiddly skill and, in any event, the rule that missiles attack DV2 ought to be scrapped. What should Missile Evasion do instead? The rule as-written means that, when you get shot at, you can try to hike your DV by a couple of points. One option is to make it function just like Giant-Fighting: possession of the Skill adds +1 to your DV against these attacks and a successful roll adds +5! Another option is to make Missile Evasion a Leveled Skill that benefits your DV1 against missile attacks you can see coming.
Then there's Jeweler: why is this even a Percentage Skill at all? If History is a Basic Skill ('You're a historian: you know the history') then why is Jeweler something you have to make a skill test to do, instead of just automatically identifying gems ('It's a big diamond, probably worth 500gp')?
The answer is another of Ron Edwards' "unquestioned assumptions": you find jewels in dungeons but you don't find historical curiosities. If we take this skill at face value it means that when PCs find jewels and fail to evaluate them, they're just 'Jewel #1' and 'Jewel #2' and have to be randomly assigned at the end of the adventure. Players get their jewels evaluated when they sell them: 'Cool, Jewel #1's worth 500gp!' or ''Drat! Jewel #2's worth 5gp!' There's a merry lottery to this, but rational players will sell the jewels en masse and split the gold they got for them, which raises the question of why it's worth evaluating jewels in the dungeon at all!
It would make sense if Jeweler was a skill at cutting and polishing gems to increase the value of jewellery (say, by 20%). Or if jewels lost 10% of their value when converted to cash unless a PC Jeweler had previously evaluated them. Otherwise, this Skill needs to be reassigned to the Basic Skills to be worth investing in.
A similar case could be made for reassigning Plant ID and Track ID to Basic Skills. If someone's got the skill, they should be able to tell peysha mold from jilda weed. The idea of having the skill but rolling badly and failing to recognise a herb that's on every PC's shopping list is absurd.
One step at a time: Leveled Skills
Leveled Skills are the smartest feature of Forge's three-legged stool and, if the game needs further development, then all the skills should probably be revised as Leveled Skills. It's just the best system the game offers. It's characteristic of fantasy heartbreakers that they don't try to present a unified mechanism, retaining instead D&D's 'diff'rent rules for diff'rent rolls' approach, but Forge comes closer than most to the d20 system D&D evolved into in 2000, just 2 years after Forge was published.
Leveled Skills start at 1st level and go up, potentially to 12th level, possibly higher. They are mostly combat skills like Melee Weapon and Missile Weapon, Melee Assassination and Missile Assassination, Backstabbing and Brawling, but they also include Magic. The level translates directly into your Attack Value (AV) and the level of spells a Mage can cast.
Leveled Skills also have a percentage score that usually starts at a characteristic multiplied by 4 or a pair of characteristics doubled (so averaging 30%). This gets checked in the same way as Percentage Skills but increases in the opposite way: you have to roll under the score on d%, so it starts difficult but gets easier and easier as the score rises. When it hits 100% you go up a level and the score drops to its base level again, minus 4%. Eventually it drops to 0% and at that point you cannot increase it any further.
This means an average character who starts with a skill at 30% will get to 8th level in the skill then be unable to advance any further. The Elvish racial benefit of adding +25% to the Magic Skill doesn't just mean the character advances faster (Joe Average Elf starts at 55%) but has a higher level limit (14th!) before the base score drops to 0% or less.
If the game were to be revised,it would be a good idea to gives each race a +25% bonus to a particular Leveled Skill, giving them a head start and extending their potential in the future.
You can probably tell, the Leveled Skills mechanic intrigues me. I like the way your starting score also contains the limits of your ultimate advancement; I like how you start improving slowly then speed up, but when you go up a level you drop to a lower starting point and have to struggle longer before advancing.
But what about the loot?
In D&D, treasure is really important. Loot equates to experience points, so the thrill of finding a sack of gold or a string of pearls is the excitement of knowing this brings you closer to your next level-up.
In skill-based RPGs like Forge, this connection is broken. You increase skills by using them, not acquiring money. But why, then, are adventurers venturing into dangerous dungeons if it's not for hidden treasure? Surely there are safer and more certain ways of increasing your skills - like military service, for example. What's their motivation?
One point needs making and that is that the de-emphasising of treasure can be a good thing. In converting a D&D adventure to Forge, I halve the treasure, maybe cut it even more. No need for chests filled with thousands of coins.
Money still has a use in Forge. Mages have to buy spell components and most of these are priced beyond the reach of starting characters. You go down into dungeons to get the money to access your full spell list. Armour and weapons are more expensive than in D&D and, unlike in D&D, they break and have to be replaced. Purchasing extra binding kits and armour repair kits makes for extra resilience down in the dungeon.
Nonetheless, adventurers quickly have more money than they know what to do with and they gain no benefit from it in terms of their powers and abilities. It's tempting to house rule tuition costs before a PC can level up a skill (say, 100gp times the square of the new skill level, so getting from 1st to 2nd level costs 400gp, from 2nd to 3rd costs 900gp, and so on).
The Rules for Forge are summarised on the website. This post is about how they work in practice and whether they need tweaking. The PC Races are a whole other matter and I'll consider them on a later post.
Combat: keep it simple
Combat is first up, as it should be in a good fantasy heartbreaker (see the previous post for a discussion of Ron Edwards' useful term). Forge seems to stumble onto a mechanic that's beautifully simple. All attackers have an Attack Value (AV) and all defenders have a Defence Value (DV). Both numbers are usually in single figures and might be in low negatives in the case of feeble PCs. If your AV is the same as the defender's DV, you need to roll 10+ on a d20 to hit. Each point of difference in the defender's favour increases the target by 1, in the attacker's favour lowers it by 1.
This is the sort of arithmetic a child can do in their head and it makes D&D's THAC0 convention (an innovation still 5 years away when Forge came out) looks like calculus by comparison. Yet the authors don't seem to have realised how simple they've made things and feel the need to include a D&D-style table so people can cross-reference AV and DV to find out their target number.
This is one of the "unquestioned assumptions" that Edwards finds so prolific in heartbreaker RPGs: D&D did it this way, so this is the way it must be done - consult your attack matrices!
By the way: don't forget the Leadership skill that adds +1 to AV for all allies. Someone needs to invest in this, despite its 2 skill slot cost.
Defensive Value: not thought through
DV is split into DV1 (adding your Armour Rating, your Shield Rating and your Awareness Modifier) and DV2 (just your Armour Rating); DV2 is used when enemies ambush you, attack from the flanks or the rear or use undodgeable area attacks or magical effects. Missile attacks are also supposed to target DV2.
Critic Thomas Wilburn spots a problem here straight away: "ranged weapons use the second value, which is always easier to hit than the first ... [but] it should never be easier to hit someone in a hectic combat situation with a bow and arrow ... than with a sword."
Leaving aside the contention that DV2 is always easier to hit than DV1 (if you have the Tactics skill it could actually be more difficult), Wilburn is right and the rule that "the advantage of missile attacks is that the character needs only to strike his opponent's DV2, making it easy to hit his enemy" (p45) is nonsensical. The advantage of missile attacks is that you are at a safe distance and get to attack your enemy while they are unable to attack you. Shields and dodging are perfectly effective against most missile attacks. DV1 should be used.
Once this house rule is in place another conundrum reveals itself. The rules (p45) state that only Armour contributes to DV2 and Awareness modifiers are ignored - but what about Awareness penalties? Characters with an Awareness of 4.4 or less have a -1 penalty to DV1, -2 at 3.5 and -3 at 2.8. What happens to that?
If you attack an inattentive/half-blind/day-dreaming character, it makes sense that it's easier to hit because their DV1 is so low. But if you sneak up behind them, should it suddenly get harder to hit their DV2, because their inattentiveness no longer applies? Surely, the whole point about being inattentive is that you're more vulnerable, not less, to attacks from behind?
I think we can house rule that DV2 ignores any bonus from Awareness, but it still retains any penalty.
Don't forget the Tactics skill that adds +1 to DV2 and lets you add your Awareness bonus to your DV2. Probably worth it if you have a high Awareness, especially when you think about what Backstabbing and Assassination can do (see below).
Actual Damage: big implications
Combat against armoured opponents is interesting. Most of the damage you deal is directed at the armour itself and a token amount - "actual damage" - gets through to lower the target's Hit Points. A lot of opponents will have scrappy padded armour (up to 10 Armour Points) or leather (20 AP) but combat becomes protracted when they have metal armour (50 AP for chain mail, 70 for plate armour). As the armour disintegrates,it offers less protection, so DV drops, making it easier to hit.
Actual damage is equal to the number of damage dice rolled, so a short sword (1d6 damage) deals 1 actual damage, but a spear (2d4 damage) deals 2 actual damage and a two-handed sword (3d6 damage) deals 3 actual damage. Watch out for the bite of a Manticore (5d4 damage, 5 actual).
Since a typical NPC has 15HP, a fight goes like this: you slowly chip away at their HP at first, but hit more often as their DV drops and, once the armour gives way, damage goes entirely to HP and the fight ends suddenly.
Actual damage makes a big difference in combat. Against a metal armoured opponent, you might never remove their APs entirely, so you probably need to defeat them through actual damage alone. That means you have to hit a typical NPC 15 times in a fight, but only 7 or 8 times with a spear and only 5 times with a two-handed sword. Even if you only swing that two-handed sword every other round, the actual damage output is still better than a normal sword that you swing every round. Ghantus who get to attack every round with two-handed weapons have a hideous advantage!
Things that boost actual damage help immensely. Rolling a natural 20 is significant: the damage is applied twice, once to the armour and again as actual damage in its entirety. A single natural 20 dramatically revises the odds in a fight. Yes, the attacker's weapon is 'notched' in the process; most weapons can take 2-5 'notches' before disintegrating but those deadly spears disintegrate on the first 'notch'.
Two skills are useful here. Backstabbing is used to make attacks against a man-sized or smaller target's DV2 (so someone else needs to engage the enemy front-on) and deals +1 actual damage for every two levels of skill (i.e. +1 at 1st level, +2 at 3rd, +3 at 5th). This lends itself to a tactic whereby one PC focuses on backstabbing and makes flank attacks on enemies being engaged by other PCs. Even the +1 actual damage for low-level backstabbing is significant. Great news: successful Backstabbing gives you an experience check to your Backstabbing skill AND your Melee Weapons skill, so there's no reason not to do it if you can.
Ironically, by making backstabbing a tactic you can employ every round so long as you're in the right position rather than a one-off benefit you gain when you sneak up on someone, Forge anticipates the way D&D 4th & 5th edition would reinterpret backstabbing.
Assassination comes in two flavours, Melee and Missile. This involves imposing a -5 AV penalty on yourself (-8 AV for missiles), but gaining +1 actual damage per skill level along with a 2%/level chance of killing a man-sized or smaller opponent outright. You can attempt this every round. You cannot kill larger opponents (or those with 50+HP) or undead outright but you still get the actual damage bonus. Also, you don't get the experience check to your basic weapon skill when you assassinate.
It remains to be seen whether Assassination is a broken skill; it's certainly something that PCs would be mad to ignore: it takes up 3 skill slots, compared to 2 for Backstabbing and 1 for ordinary Weapon skills. If you don't spend 10 skill slots on Magic, you would be well-advised to spend 8 on getting Backstabbing and both types of Assassination.
I also wonder about NPCs employing Assassination. Are players happy to have their PCs killed outright on a lucky roll? Or do the designers envisage that only PCs will ever employ Assassinate? You could house rule this by declaring that victims don't die instantly but drop to 0HP and start the process of bleeding out. For most NPCs, that's the end of the road, but PCs can expect their companions to save them.
Don't forget about crossbows. It's easy to miss (p33), but crossbows inflict only 1 point of damage to armour, with the rest being actual damage.
Finally, there are spells that deal actual damage. Beast Magic has Quills (p73) and Wounding (p74), both 1st level spells. Elementalism has Fiery Touch (p102), Grom Warriors have Minor Harm (p135) and Necromancers have Pain (p148), all at 1st level. You can see the value in "pumping" these spells for extra damage, even if its just +1 (Beast Magic), +2 (Necromancy) or +3 (Elementalism). Fights against armoured opponents are dramatically curtailed when these spells are in play.
This provides a broad template for Forge combat. You cannot beat two-handed swords against armoured opponents and spears are better than swords, but carry more than one because they break when 'notched'. Use Leadership to raise everyone's AV and Tactics to improve your DV2. If you can free yourself from opponents, engage armoured enemies on the flank using Backstabbing. If you have a high AV (perhaps you are a Berserker or just have a high Dexterity), then Melee Assassination becomes a valuable alternative to conventional attacks, especially against armoured foes. An archer hanging back and employing Missile Assassination can be decisive. Mages should select an actual damage spell and re-roll it until it's reliable; consider "pumping" it to end fights against armoured opponents that would otherwise drag out.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've adopted Forge Out of Chaos to pursue my nostalgia for old school RPGs.
The shoddy PDF rulebook available at drivethrurpg is missing pp 66-67, 82-83, 86-87, 126-127, 140-141 and 162-5. You can read or download these below: