The one person who has more illusions than the dreamer, said Oscar Wilde, is the man of action. The old D&D Illusionist proves him right which, because Wilde was being facetious, also proves him wrong. That's Illusionists for you. They're tricksy.
After investigating the Ranger and the Assassin, the Illusionist is the last class for me to take a look at. What about Druids and Paladins and Monks, you say? Well, Szymon Piecha did a fine job on adapting them for White Box so I might review his creations in the future but I don't propose to alter them. Salvatore Macri offers a revised Illusionist in Swords & Wizardry: WhiteBox Heroes but his version is really the OD&D Illusionist, barely altered. I want to take a closer look at that then suggest another approach.
The Illusionist is an odd D&D class in many ways. For one thing, it doesn't emerge from the collaboration of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson nor (like the Ranger) from one of their gaming groups. It was developed by a Boston-area gamer named Peter Aronson and submitted to the Strategic Review, TSR's in-house magazine-cum-newsletter, and published in 1975. When Dragon Magazine debuted the following year, Aronson submitted a revised Illusionist with new spells and higher levels, bringing it into congruence with the development of Magic-Users in the OD&D supplements.
Aronson's original Illusionist, adapted from Strategic Review, Winter 1975
Aronson's creativity is greater than you would think. The idea of specialist Magic-Users had not been hinted at in OD&D - the spell categories of conjuration, evocation, alteration, etc. had not yet entered D&D's vocabulary. The original rules concluded the Phantasmal Force spell with the gnomic remark that would rock D&D tables with a million heated arguments over the next decade:
damage caused to viewers of a Phantasmal Force will be real if the illusion is believed to be real
Aronson takes this idea and runs with it, developing a whole grimoire of spells based around illusion, concealment and manipulating the senses.
The idea is all the more peculiar for lacking any real antecedents in literature or legend. Who are the famous fantasy illusionists?
Well, Loki I suppose....
But that's the Loki of modern comics and movies. The Loki of legend is certainly a shapeshifter but not an illusionist. How about literature? There's the scene in Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf adds foam-white horses to the flood that sweeps the Ringwraiths away at the Ford of Bruinen.
This example is ambiguous though: has Gandalf added an illusion to the very real flood, or has he invoked the spirits of the river to take visible form?
Folklore and legend feature many wizards, witches and fairies who can appear to be other than their true form, from the 'Loathly Lady' of Sir Gawain and Uther Pendragon taking the form of the Duke of Cornwall to seduce Cornwall's wife Igraine through to Shakespeare's Puck who disguises himself as a milking stool and gives Nick Bottom an ass' head.
Here again, it's not clear if Puck is an illusionist or a shapeshifter. Does he really become a pony, a roasted crab and a three-legged stool or does he just make people think that's what he is? Does Bottom really have the head of an ass or is that a true illusion? In D&D terminology, is this polymorph or phantasmal forces?
In contrast, other types of magic-users - necromancers, demon-summoning conjurors, scrying clairvoyants, potion-brewing alchemists - are so much better-attested. The Illusionist is very much a product of D&D fandom and I suspect Aronson's inspiration lies less in fantasy and more in science-fiction, especially comic book characters like Mysterio and Star Trek episodes like The Menagerie (1966).
Indeed, the whole idea of the 'illusion' as a subjective reality as opposed to magical alterations in objective reality brought about by shapechanging seems rooted in the assumptions of modern psychology (and ultimately Rene Descartes' dualism) rather than myth and legend.
Wherever the idea came from, Aronson's Illusionist gives a real focus to what D&D fans were already doing - creating new spells - by proposing a Magic-User sub-class drawing upon an entirely different spell-set from the original. In D&D 5th edition, all mages can specialises to some extent or other in different 'schools' and Aronson set this project in motion.
Or was Len Lakofka first with the fire-wizard Pyrologist in his 1975 fanzine Liaisons Dangereuses?
Because Peter Aronson redrafted his Illusionist with a determination to make it compatible with official rules as they evolved, Gary Gygax didn't have much work to do adapting it for AD&D in 1978.
One of the charming features of Aronson's Illusionist is the absence of power creep (compare and contrast, Joe Fischer's Ranger); in fact, Aronson unduly punishes his Illusionist, concerned that he's created something overpowered. Gygax brings the XP requirement down to be less than standard Magic-Users while raising spell slots to match Magic-Users. The spell lists are those from Aronson's revision in Dragon #1, with a few shuffles (for some reason, Ventriloquism is level 2 now).
Gary Gygax raises the Dexterity requirement to 16. Sixteen! This seems to be an expression of Gygax's delusion that high attribute requirements represent some sort of limitation on a new class, rather than just empowering them even further.
See what he's doing with his left finger? That's 16 Dexterity in action!
In bringing back the Illusionist for Swords & Wizardry: White Box, Salvatore Macri leans heavily on Aronson's original version. The attribute requirements drop back to 15, the XP progression, while not as punishing as Aronson's original, is still higher than a standard Magic-User, although the spell slots are the same as a Magic-User's. The spells are Aronson's originals, sometimes with a bit of tidying up (e.g. Light and Darkness are no longer two spells, but rather a single reversible spell).
Truly, Swords & Wizardry delivers that OD&D experience. However, Charlie Mason's White Box seems more willing to go beyond OD&D (such as the inclusion of fey monsters) and Szymon Piecha is much more radical, treating White Box as an opportunity to explore what OD&D could have been rather than faithfully recreating what it was.
The Illusionist for White Box
Minimum attributes are out, for starters. Szymon Piecha wisely ditches that colossal Charisma requirement for his Paladins and I'm following suit. So what if Illusionist spells are all fiddly and take a lot of manual dexterity to cast? If you're a clumsy Illusionist, you'll have your own problems. I'm not imposing a rule that, in effect, gifts all Illusionists fantastic Dexterity-based bonuses.
Then we have the spells. Now I'm all in favour of Referees and players creating new spells for their campaigns. They can be judged on a case-by-case basis. But I'm not a fan of whole rafts of new spells being created, whole-cloth, for new classes, without some solid justification. Instead, I ask myself, isn't there some other way of getting this result without composing a new spell book in its entirety?
I'll give Druids a pass, and not just because Szymon Piecha includes their spells in Expanded Lore. Wilderness adventures have always been an feature of D&D, but the spells have always been intensely 'indoors' in their theme, with little reference to plants or animals and an assumption that a 10' wide barrier blocks any conceivable approach. A set of 'outdoors spells' is a valid contribution.
A whole new set of illusion-themed spells, though? Couldn't we do that differently?
Why not give Illusionists exactly the same spells as Magic-Users - but their spells are all illusory versions of the standard Magic-User ones...? An illusory web, an illusion of a wizard locked door, illusory elementals and fireballs that deal illusory damage?
Not all spells can be illusions, but I think Illusionists should still be able to manipulate feelings and emotions so charm person and sleep still stand, while the various detect spells would be part of any sorcerer's collection. The spells that have to go are the ones that alter the real world in a non-illusory way: Alter Time, Animal Growth, Dimension Door, Disintegrate, Fly, Knock, Levitate, Move Earth or Water, Passwall, Plant Growth, Reincarnation, Telekinesis, Teleport, Transform (rock, mud, flesh, stone), Water Breathing.
How do illusory spells work? Well, just like the real ones, but if they 'kill you' you merely pass out for a while then wake up with all your Hit Points restored. If you touch an illusion with a disbelieving mind, you can save vs spells to dispel it. Since illusory monsters fade away when killed and illusory damage disappears, enemies may realise what's up sooner rather than later.
All of this is to make Illusionists rather weaker than standard Magic-Users, so let's balance them out. Let's give them spell-slots as if one level higher, so a 1st level Illusionist gets two first level spells rather than one and a 2nd level Illusionist gets access to second level spells. A few more illusory spells, in effect.
Two spells at 4th level, spell slots maxing out at 5 rather than 4 at 1st level and 4 rather than 3 at 2nd level: that's a lot more spells, sooner.
I'm giving Illusionists a power of 'Minor Glamour' to alter their own appearance at will or alter the appearance of anything they hold in their hands, while preserving the basic size and shape. To keep the fey element, this glamour always retains something of the Illusionist's true form: clothes the same colour, voice unchanged, a distinctive piece of jewellery, the same beard.
Lastly, I want to connect Illusionist to Arnold Kemp's Trauma & Insanity rules: Illusionists gain a point of Trauma if someone disbelieves in one of their illusions. That should keep them pleasantly unhinged.
The Gnomish Thief-Illusionist
AD&D introduced the option for demi-humans to multiclass, but White Box follows OD&D in making the Elvish Fighter-Magic-User a single class available only to Elves rather than a hybrid. Following this approach, I offer Thief-Illusionists for White Box Gnomes, a devastating combination of illusion magic, thievery and backstabbing. Beware.
Reflections: Hello rancour, my old friend
If the early years of D&D were riven with friendship-dissolving rows about whether anyone should be allowed to play an Assassin, the second most common and tearful disagreement was over what exactly you could get away with regarding illusions.
For example, if an Illusionist conjures an illusory bridge over a chasm and his companions believe it's a real bridge, can they walk over it?
The answer to this seems to be a hard 'Nope' and yet someone wrote into a RPG magazine (I think it was White Dwarf) asking this and similar questions, so back in 1979 you weren't an obvious cretin for finding this confusing.
People don't seem to raise these questions any more. I guess that D&D has evolved, there's a body of consensus and that concepts that were confusing 40 years ago are more easily grasped today. It's like Einstein's relativity theory. Back in 1919 at a meeting of the Royal Society, the famous and brilliant physicist Prof. Eddington was asked if it were true that only three people in the world understood Einstein's theory. Eddington paused then responded with lofty humour: "I'm just wondering who the third would be..."
Yet today, a bright High School student could give you the gist of it.
Allowing Illusionists to cast illusory versions of conventional spells would have been divisive and opened the door to power-gaming back in 1975. Today, though? I think we can work out what do with an illusory cloudkill or an illusory wall of fire, an illusory lightning bolt or animate dead. And there's often a huge advantage in not killing your enemies with your spells. It's much more subtle than your standard fireball.
Nizam al-Mulk died in 1092, a Persian vizier. He was also the first person to be assassinated. As in, professionally murdered by the Order of Assassins, or Asāsiyyūn. Nizam was traveling to Baghdad on a litter and the assassin approached him disguised as a Dervish (I suppose, a Cleric?) and stabbed him to death.
Farewell, Nizam. You were a good vizier but you crossed Hassan-i-Sabbah, the Master of Assassins
The last blog was in praise of WHITE BOX RPG. I've become fascinated with Original D&D (OD&D) and the origins of familiar character classes. Salvatore Macri ports across the OD&D classes into Swords & Wizardry: White Box Heroes, but I feel Szymon Piecha does a much better job with White Box: Expended Lore.
Heroes is a pay-nothing PDF and Lore is pay-what-you-like
Salvatore takes the OD&D or AD&D classes and tidies them up a bit then projects them across into White Box's simple format. For example, he converts laborious d% rolls into clean, crisp d20 checks. But Szymon is more innovative: he deconstructs the classes entirely, then rebuilds them to fit into White Box's minimalist sensibilities: out go minimum attributes, gradated abilities, different dice rolls for different skills. You can do a thing or you can't.
There's a lot to love about this approach. Every dice you're not rolling is a decision you're making instead. Do we need a complicated table telling us the exact percentage change that a Ranger can pick up a 3-day-old trail outdoors or if the monster goes through a door or up a chimney? Isn't it better to say that the 1st level Ranger has a broadly 2-in-6 chance of following any trail and leave it to the Referee to adjust that, if the trail was left by 100 Orcs through mud or a single Elf over volcanic rock?
And minimum attributes for classes, don'tchahate'em? They're intended to be limitations, making the class harder to qualify for: "Sorry, Joe - without a Constitution of 15, you just can't be a Ranger. Maybe an ordinary Fighter for you, eh?" Except it doesn't work that way at all. Players end up rolling up their Rangers, with or without the Referee's connivance, and once you actually have a PC Ranger, that minimum 15 Constitution isn't a limitation at all: it's another advantage, above and beyond the powers conferred by the class itself.
Away with this foolishness. Give me all-or-nothing powers or else the simple roll-a-d6 that Charlie Mason used for Thief powers in his version of White Box. Abolish minimum attributes - bring to an end the discrimination against asthmatic Rangers and stammering, squint-eyed Paladins.
Szymon's supplement inspired me to adapt a few classes he omitted: the Ranger (last week), the Illusionist and, this week, the Assassin.
Because I came to D&D through Eric Holmes' Basic Set D&D (1977), I was surprised to discover the Assassin in the AD&D Players Handbook (1978). I thought it a novelty. But in fact it goes back to the origins of the hobby, to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign in his basement in Minneapolis. It was there in the original 3-book 'White Box' D&D set (1974, as a NPC class) and appeared as a PC class in the Blackmoor supplement (1975), representing a sort of anthology of Arneson rules and lore.
I welcome contentions that Guy of Gisborne is really a Lawful Ranger determined to bring down the Chaotic bandit Robin.
The Arneson/Gygax Assassin from Blackmoor is a striking creation. With 1d4 Hit Points, he's no warrior: Gygax ups this to 1d6 for AD&D and lets Assassins keep accumulating them all the way to 16th level, making Assassins one of the tougher high-level characters.
The Original Assassin has to be of Neutral Alignment. I suspect this reflects the idea that the Assassin kills out of a sense of professionalism rather than malice. It's not an idea that stands up to close scrutiny. Perhaps uncomfortable with defining 'Neutrality' as 'murdering for money', Gygax extends the Assassins' alignments to any Evil in AD&D.
The Blackmoor Assassin class
Other features of the AD&D Assassin are there from the start: Thief skills at 2 levels lower, the instant-kill assassination table for targets you surprise or take unaware, the use of poison, disguise, learning Alignment Languages, fees and the imperative to kill your boss to get past 12th level. AD&D tries to introduce some balance: reducing the chance of assassinating a peer-level character or monster from 75% to 50%; reducing the base chance of being detected in disguise from 5% to 2%; for some reason reducing the Intelligence requirement from 12 to 11.
The AD&D Assassin gets much more cultural consideration, with the structure of Guilds and a by-hook-or-by-crook approach to replacing your superiors rather than the good, clean duel promised in Blackmoor. If Blackmoor Assassins are noble Ninjas or James Bond, then AD&D Assassins are just nasty gangsters.
The biggest difference is poison. Blackmoor Assassins have a 50% chance of being detected using poison and onlookers attack them with a fury, gaining +4 to hit and +4 damage! This is absurd and Gygax corrects it in AD&D to a cumulative 10% chance of being detected and a range of responses (20% normal attack, 50% call the watch, 30% do both).
The tiptoe assassin from the Players Handbook (1978): what a scene! how long is his arm???
None of this is really satisfactory. The disguise rules suck, since they involve fiddly calculations using the Intelligence/Wisdom of onlookers. The Assassination Table is very unbalanced and whole campaigns were wrecked when a PC Assassin bumped off a Final Boss, Key NPC or fellow-PC with a single dice roll. Then there's poison... The Blackmoor rule that turns onlookers into psychotic super-berserkers is silly, but Gygax's tame revision doesn't really get round the problem. Here, again, Assassin PCs can kill monsters, NPC and their companions with a single attack.
More generally, the Assassin ushered in a new era of intra-party conflict in D&D and the unending debate about playing evil characters and running evil campaigns. Lots of Referees banned Assassins or ruled that they were a NPC class (as indeed they were originally introduced to be).
A White Box Assassin
Salvatore Macri's Assassin in S&W: White Box Heroes is the original Blackmoor version, tidied up. Fiddly percentage rolls are now clean d20 checks. Disguise is simpler and a bit less certain. The class only goes to 10th level, like most White Box classes. The cultural stuff about Assassins Guilds and their kill-or-be-killed promotion system is gone. Most importantly, the Assassination Table is used (it is implied) only as a shorthand for resolving a mission, rather than a tactical action to kill individual monsters or NPCs as they are encountered. However, Assassination matches the old Blackmoor probabilities and Poison induces preposterous Blackmoor-style berserk attacks.
I like what Macri's done here, but I want to go further with revising the White Box Assassin.
Let's start with Assassination itself. Why the fiddly percentage/d20 system? Charlie Mason treats Thievery as a d6 check in his White Box so let's use that here. That gives 1st-3rd level Assassins a 2-in-6 chance of passing an Assassination test, going up to 5-in-6 by 10th level.
What does Assassination actually do? Let's say a successful test means the Assassin's plot has succeeded: they are 'in position' to kill their target. But they still have to do it. In dungeon-style adventures, Assassination positions the Assassin for a Backstab. In other contexts, it lets the Assassin construct a trap or deliver poison - but the target still gets their saving throw. You can only make an Assassination test against a target once. If the damage doesn't kill them or they make their saving throw, you cannot use the skill again against them.
It makes sense for Assassins to use the same skill to construct, detect or remove traps. To be fair, 2-in-6 is every character's chance of detecting and removing traps in White Box but Assassins will get better at it. Constructed Traps will either deal 1d6 damage (like an attack), deliver Poison (and a saving throw) or immobilise the target for 1d6 rounds - but of course you don't know if your Trap is going to work until it gets triggered and you roll your d6.
Let's get rid of Thief skills. Why should an Assassin have these skills outside of the context of ambushing people? If a pocket must be picked, hire a proper Thief to do it.
Similarly, let's make Disguise a Feat. Human Assassins get to choose a Feat at 1st level (in Szymon Piecha's Expanded Lore) so you can still have that skill if you want it - but it can use the simple, blunt d6 range of the Assassination skill: 2-in-6 is fair odds for a starting character. This isn't Mission Impossible.
So if Assassins can't thieve or disguise themselves and don't auto-kill their enemies, what can they do?
Backstabbing. If Thieves roll their damage twice on a successful backstab, let's have Assassins roll three times. Pow! Take that! Now the Assassination skill serves a fresh function if it lines you up to deliver an attack like that - but you still have to hit (with a +2 bonus) and the damage might not be enough. There's no auto-kill here but there is a strategy.
Then there's Poison. Arnold Kemp's Insanity & Trauma house rules come to the rescue here. Blackmoor turned bystanders into psychotic vigilantes in the presence of poison; AD&D had them lamely calling for a constable. Instead, let's punish the companions of the Assassin by forcing them to acquire Trauma whenever the Assassin produces her poison kit. This leads to something better than retribution, which is discussion. The decision to use Poison has to be weighed up against the harm it does to your party's unraveling nerves - as I explain in an older blog.
Half-Orc Cleric-Assassins are part of AD&D lore. Blending these two classes is one of the few things that Half-Orcs were good for in 1st edition. Salvatore Macri introduces Half-Orcs in S&W: White Box Heroes. It's a bit clumsy, with arbitrary limits to Wisdom and Charisma, restrictions to being Fighters or Assassins and a +1 damage bonus to compensate along with Elves and Dwarves as 'Hereditary Enemies' (which would be true for full-Orcs but it's not clear why Half-Orcs should share this antipathy...).
Szymon Piecha doesn't explore Half-Orcs except to list a racial bonus (add damage bonus to missiles too, good at breaking down doors) which suggests he's following the Swords & Wizardry template.
I've put together my own Half-Orc template, taking the Macri/Piecha model but removing the arbitrary limitations on Wisdom and Charisma and the intrusive penalties for reactions - but adding in a Trauma problem for their adventuring companions.
I've added the option for the infamous Cleric-Assassin, only in the style of White Box Elven Fighter-Magic-Users; i.e. a single class with high XP requirements that gives you the benefits of both classes, but limits advancement (in this case to 6th level: I don't want these guys getting 5th level spells like Raise Dead/Slay Living).
"Lonely men are we, Rangers of the wild, hunters - but hunters ever of the servants of the Enemy; for they are found in many places" - Aragorn, The Fellowship of the Ring
"Lonely men are we..." These days, we all relate. The Great Separation has fallen upon us and a chance conversation prompted me to investigate RPGs online as a way of bringing my friends together. Since we are all the greenest neophytes when it comes to this medium, the game has to be the simplest sort - and that set me off exploring the wonderful world of D&D retro-clones.
Top row L to R: White Box, Swords & Wizardry, Swords & Wizardry: White Box, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy
Bottom row L to R: Blueholme, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Dark Dungeons, Old School Essentials, OSRIC
There's a whole other blog out there reviewing and reflecting upon these things, which are affectionate (or obsessive) interpretations of the old D&D editions: Holmes' Basic, Moldvay/Cook, Mentzer's BECMI, 1st edition AD&D and even 3rd edition. All made possible (or given a loose legitimacy) by Wizards of the Coast's Open Gaming License (OGL, 2000). This prompted fans to create new versions of "the first fantasy roleplaying game" so long as they stayed clear of its distinctive creative properties. In practice, we are surrounded by delightful homebrew versions of early D&D, some with exemplary art and production values, others embracing an amateur/underground aesthetic.
Maybe this will help...
After browsing through OSRIC (2008), Blueholme (2013) and Basic Fantasy (2013) and rebounding painfully from Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC, 2012), I settled on White Box (2017).
A World without Ernie
White Box is a sort of retro-clone of a retro-clone. Swords & Wizardry was a game that took the Original D&D Rules of 1974-7 (which came in the titular 'white box') and tidied them up and rationalised them, creating a quirky antique version of AD&D. Marv Breig then came out with Swords & Wizardry: White Box, going for something even more stripped back and archetypal: 122 pages in small book format, detailing 3 classes (no Thieves!) and 3 races, levels up to 10, spells up to 6th level, all Hit Dice and damage dice are six-sided. Charlie Mason's White Box takes Breig's idea and makes it a thing of beauty: wonderful B&W illustrations in a professionally amateur style, adding in Thieves and some atmospheric fey creatures. It's a delight.
You can buy the inexpensive softback from Lulu (left and centre) or pick up the White Box PDF for pay-nothing from drivethrurpg (right)
What Breig and Mason have done goes beyond cloning D&D: it's more like an alternative paradigm. Imagine a world in which young Dave Arneson back in 1972 wants to show his Blackmoor game to a games designer who could publish it... but instead of heading up to Lake Geneva to show it to Ernest Gary Gygax, he drives down to Phoenix (for some reason) and shows it to public librarian Ken St Andre, the guy who would be inspired by the idea of D&D and appalled by the rules and created Tunnels & Trolls in 1975.
What would D&D have been like if the verbose, dictatorial Gygax had been out of the frame? What if freewheeling visionary Arneson had teamed up with someone who possessed Gygax's talent for systematizing but had a generous, romantic philosophy of gaming? That's what White Box feels like: D&D with the Gygax taken out.
It's a delicate aesthetic and easy to mishandle. Swords & Wizardry produced quite a few expansions for Breig's White Box but the distinctiveness seems to drain away. Salvatore Macri's White Box Heroes (a free PDF) adds in Thieves and the other familiar subclasses as well as Gnomes and Half-Orcs. There are some entertaining new classes (Tunnel-Fighter and Summoner) but too often the product feels as if it has directly ported across Gary Gygax's formulations from AD&D rather than approaching the game afresh in the style of Breig's S&W: White Box.
Simon “Noobirus” Piecha does a better job with White Box: Expanded Lore (a pay-what-you-want PDF). This expansion Mason's White Box introduces Bards, Druids, Monks and Paladins in a format that takes inspiration from the originals without being enslaved to AD&D. For example, every Druid picks two animals forms (one small, one big) that they can adopt once a day and in which they receive a bonus to Armour Class and a 1d6 attack. So simple yet so liberating.
Expanded Lore introduces a few things to differentiate and beef up flimsy White Box characters. Some are familiar, like the gradated bonus/penalties for attributes (-3 for a score of 3, going up to +3 for a score of 18) but others are more novel. Character classes get new abilities, like Magic-Users gaining familiars, Druids speaking with animals and Paladins having mounts while Fighters choose from a range of sub-classes. A lot of these powers used to be available when OD&D/AD&D characters reached a certain level or through learning a spell, but White Box now gives them away to all, free gratis. And why not?
Similar are the new Feats characters choose from at 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th level - and boring Humans get a Feat at 1st level too. These Feats are way more significant than the fiddly Proficiencies introduced in 2nd edition AD&D: being a 'Quick Learner' means you get a 10% bonus to all earned XP, 'Linguistics' lets you pick up another language, a Fighter can get a free attack after killing an enemy with 'Cleave'. Rules like this move White Box into a distinctive category of its own, offering fairly high-powered heroic adventuring with stripped back rules. It's a heady combination.
It's inspired me to fill in some of the gaps by offering my own White Box versions of the character classes missing from Expanded Lore, starting with the lonesome Ranger.
White Box Rangers, Revisited
As I mentioned, Salvatore Macri's Ranger sub-class for S&W White Box Heroes is really just the AD&D Ranger. So to construct an authentic White Box Ranger, I thought I'd do a bit of paleo-RPG research and unearth the original Ranger, the model Gary Gygax worked on to create the AD&D version.
The Ranger turned up in the summer of 1975 in the pages of Strategic Review, a magazine that TSR produced to promote its games in the days before Dragon Magazine. It was created by Joe Fischer, a player in one of Gary Gygax's D&D groups.
The Ranger is clearly a D&D analogue of Aragorn from Lord of the Rings: a wilderness tracker who is good at fighting 'giant class' enemies (orcs, ogres, etc) but can also use crystal balls, healing magic items and, at higher levels, cast spells from both the Cleric and Magic-User lists.
Like a lot of new classes designed by the players who would like to play them, the Ranger shows a very clumsy power creep. Two hit dice at first level? Gaining 4 XP for every 3XP earned - not only overpowered but fiddly as well since it would be easier to scale back the XP requirements by 25%! Then that massive damage boost against 'giant class' opponents, which turns out to mean all the humanoid monsters you routinely meet in dungeons. Aragorn is an exceptional hero, but Joe's Ranger class tries to make every high-level Ranger capable of the stuff Aragorn accomplishes in Tolkien's books.
The Fresh King of Gondor
When the Ranger turns up in the 1978 AD&D Players Handbook we see the tempering effect of Gygax's experience as a rules-writer. Double Hit Dice are still there, but only d8s, while regular Fighters have been promoted to d10s. This makes Rangers tough at 1st level, but their advantage diminishes as they progress. The ludicrous XP boost has gone, although Gygax reduces the level XP requirements slightly. Otherwise it's very similar: Gygax loves percentile tables with minor variables. Druid spells replace Clerical spells (since there were no Druids when Joe Fischer created the class in 1975) and the restriction to Rangers adventuring in pairs has been slightly lightened: groups of three Rangers can now adventure together, for some reason. Gygax extends the Ranger's alertness to surprising monsters as well as not being surprised.
I want to do a more thorough job than Gygax did editing Joe Fischer's ideas:
My table has Rangers advancing a bit slower than White Box Fighters at first, but overtaking Fighters (slightly) at the highest levels. I'm keeping the 2 HD at first level - six-sided Hit Dice in White Box - because it seems to be enshrined by tradition. However, at 3rd and 7th level they only get a +1 bonus to HP (and don't add Constitution bonuses either) so that advantage disappears in the mid-levels. The Saving Throws are rubbish. That's adapted from Salvatore Macri's treatment of the Fighter subclasses. They get the standard Fighter bonus of +2 vs Poison/Death however.
I'm giving Rangers the Druid spells from White Box Expanded Lore but there seems to be no reason why they should have Magic-User spells too. By way of compensation (and because the class only has 10 levels now), they gain access to these at 5th level, rather than 8th (Macri and Gygax) or 9th (Fischer).
Charlie Mason handles White Box Thief skills as a single ability called 'Thievery' that is rolled on 1d6 and successful on 1-2 at lower levels. This is simple and matches up with general skills at opening locks, breaking down doors and finding secret doors, which White Box lets all characters attempt with success on 1-2. So let's treat Tracking in the same way: it's easier to give a bonus or penalty to something as blunt as that.
The idea that wary Rangers are harder to surprise makes sense, so let's keep that as an extra ability. There's no need to extend to them the increased likelihood of surprising monsters. What's the rationale for that, especially when heavily armoured Rangers accompany armoured and noisy parties? However, I think I'll go back to Fischer's idea of the Rangers never adventuring together in groups of more than two.
White Box doesn't offer tables to roll up followers for high level characters and the old tables were invidious: with the possibility of getting ordinary fighters, or perhaps a pair of Unicorns, a Lawful Werebear or a Gold Dragon, a single dice roll could have momentous ramifications and offered a sore temptation to cheat. Best to let the DM decide or negotiate it.
Rangers don't get the Combat Fury ability that lets ordinary White Box Fighters attack 1HD monsters a number of times equal to their level. They don't get to choose a sub-class from Expanded Lore. But I'm going to offer them a bunch of Feats that replicate the original powers Fischer bestowed on them:
Since White Box PCs pick a Feat each time they reach an odd-numbered level (and Humans get a Feat at 1st level too), this offers plenty of opportunity to craft your Ranger PC towards the crystal ball-viewing, healing magic-using, orc-slaughtering and giant-toppling stereotype. But you might prefer to select from Charlie Mason's generic Feats instead:
This adds up to a Ranger who is a Fighter with tracking powers, hardier at low levels than ordinary Fighters but less effective against hordes of mooks at higher levels, able to use some Druid spells from mid levels onwards but let down by weak saving throws and a lack of martial Feats. If you want to, you can build this character towards the Aragorn stereotype; if not, you can develop her in a different direction. That's what I want from White Box roleplaying.
You might have noticed the Trauma exemptions for Rangers? These are based on my interpretation of Arnold Kemp's Trauma & Insanity rules. Rangers are not as brutal as Fighters: they gain Trauma from seeing companions die. But crossing the Misty Mountains in a snowstorm, they can do that. And they always volunteer to do look-out duties!
The last blog expressed my gratitude to Ryan Marsh, for turning me on to the Goblinpunch 'Death & Dismemberment' system for handling death in RPGs, specifically, what happens when player characters run out of Hit Points.
Arnold Kemp, who writes Goblinpunch, also created a 'Trauma' system, to allow hideous experiences to derange PCs, either temporarily ('breakdowns') or indefinitely ('madness').
Mental illness is of course a very serious real world problem. But we're not talking about the real world here. We're talking about the psycho-spiritual damage suffered by magical people in fantasy worlds who confront supernatural evil in underground labyrinths. They're not the same thing.
Goblinpunch seems to me to be a valuable addition to Fantasy RPGs, not least because it's simple and elegant. In a nutshell, every time you experience something deranging you gain a Trauma Point. Every time you gain a Trauma Point you have to pass a test by rolling a d20: if you roll equal to or less than your current Trauma Points, you suffer a Breakdown for a few rounds. At the end of your Breakdown, make a second test: if you fail you go Mad, but (by way of compensation) you clear your character sheet of Trauma Points. Trauma Points can also be 'worked away' by doing something non-adventure related (e.g. hanging out in Rivendell, composing songs).
I recently reviewed a scenario, The Dread Crypt of Skogenby, and praised its TORCHBEARER RPG for the way it focuses on the psychological stress of dungeon exploration. The Goblinpunch system strikes me as an elegant way for doing something similar for D&D, its OSR retro-clones and indie kissing-cousins like FORGE OUT OF CHAOS.
Madness currently features in RPGs like D&D only as an outcome of certain spells (Cause Fear, Confusion, Contact Other Plane) and monster effects that imitate them (e.g. an Umber Hulk's gaze, the appearance of a Mummy). Otherwise, PCs watch their friends being slaughtered, wade through battlefields and massacre sites, poke around in torture chambers and witness the summoning of demons and extra-planar gribblies, all without so much as a sharp exhalation of breath. Traditionally, D&D takes the view that, if it isn't removing Hit Points, then it isn't hurting.
I think 5th ed. D&D gives some consideration to madness. There are many tables out there to roll up types of madness, some imaginative and some more rooted in real world psychiatric classifications. However, all of these view madness as something arising out of exceptional circumstances. TORCHBEARER's contribution is the idea of "the Grind" that slowly shreds away the health and sanity of adventurers in these oppressive, hostile dungeon regions.
The first RPG that I was aware of to track mental health with the same rigour as physical health was CALL OF CTHULHU (1981), where the Sanity (SAN) attribute started somewhere in the upper quartiles and ticked down relentlessly as corpses fell out of wardrobes, eerie piping was heard on the wind and Great Old Ones materialised in the shrubbery. Significant SAN losses all at once triggered a breakdown and reaching 0 SAN meant permanent and irrevocable madness.
Fantasy RPGs don't need anything as burdensome as this. It can be assumed that PC adventurers are a psychologically hardy bunch with nerves of steel; moreover, they live in a rugged pre-modern culture in an age before anaesthetics and public sanitation. Most of them are accustomed to corpses, bodily effluvia, violent death and a sort of ambient filth that would leave you and me gagging.
Nevertheless, they have their limits. Venturing into an underground crypt or cave system is oppressive, seeing a friend hacked to pieces is deranging even for people who've seen friends die before and presumably no one ever becomes blasé about ancient red dragons or the manifestations of Demon Lords.
An interesting application that Arnold Kemp sees for his Trauma rules is compelling player characters to retire from adventuring. Arnold suggests that, whenever PCs are not adventuring and rest up in a place where they could conceivably retire, they need to make a sort of Saving Throw versus packing-it-all-in; they have to roll higher than their Trauma on a d20 and if they fail, that's it! They marry a nice girl or dutiful lad, buy a farm and start referring to themselves as an ex-adventurer!
Arnold sees his 'Death & Dismemberment' rules as toning down the punitive aspect of player character death, so this is a sort of counterbalancing mechanic:
PC retirement is a replacement for PC death, not an additional risk. I'm making death less likely in order to make retirement more likely. Retired characters are more interesting and more useful than dead ones. (And a lot less demoralizing.)
Whether you want mandatory retirement in your campaigns is a matter of taste. It depends for one thing on whether you are pursuing an imposed or emergent narrative. If, as GM, you have a story you wish to tell involving your PCs (an imposed narrative), then if key PCs give up on wizardry or knight-errantry to become turnip farmers, that rather scotches the GM's grand revelation that their twin brother is the vampire prince or that they are the Chosen One destined to free Demogorgon from the Abyss.
On the other hand, if you prefer emergent narrative, with plots arising from PC interactions with a well-stocked setting and/or mega-dungeon, then this sort of incident only ends one story to start another. Arnold provides an easy calculation to work out how useful retired PCs can be as patrons for new ones. You get something like a multi-generational epic series rather than a single-hero novel.
See, let's see. If Horatio the 1st level Street Mage goes home to recuperate and decides to pack in adventuring and get a 'proper job', with 270gp to his name he will have 270 RP and end up working as a henchman for some guild. Darjeeling the 5th level Thief might have the same idea, but he possesses 7000gp; with 35,000 RP he ends up as an accountant for the Thieves Guild and can fence goods for his old adventuring buddies at great prices.
The lure of retirement sets a different sort of challenge for players: if you want to keep your PC in play as an adventurer, stay away from places where they might feel at home, meet a romantic partner or simply unwind and relax too much: the Golden Wood of Lothlórien is to be feared indeed! Better to hang out in the wilderness and recuperate in frontier inns, like Strider.
More Character Differentiation
Fantasy RPGs traditionally differentiate characters by their physical resilience. We are used to 'tanks' who throw themselves into the forefront of combat. In contrast, frail mages, rogues and scouts hang back, mindful that the sort of threat that the 'tank' takes in her stride will clobber them completely.
Psychological sturdiness acts as a second differentiator: some characters might be more hardy than others when it comes to facing down the undead, contemplating extra-dimensional realities or coming to terms with emotional desolation. The character of Hudson in Aliens (1986) is a great example of the 'tank' whose tough-guy persona implodes as the situation unravels, in contrast to the quiet resilience of the women, Newt and Ripley.
Warning: certificate 18, strong language throughout
Arnold Kemp recognises that Wisdom (so often the 'dump stat') should be key to managing stress, with Wisdom bonus and penalties applying to Trauma checks. Feats or non-weapon proficiencies could also be adapted to stress: I suggest a bunch of these down below for the none-more-simple WHITE BOX rules but they adapt easily to Holmes, Moldvay, BECMI, and their OSR descendants.
There are many activities in Fantasy RPGs that ought to be really problematic, yet aren't.
Searching dead bodies and looting corpses is something PCs do (and many published adventures assume that they do) yet which requires, to say the least, a strong stomach and a flexible attitude towards ethics. It makes sense that fighters (who have perhaps served in armies and are acculturated to war) would do this; thieves would have few qualms... but clerics?
Then there's setting a watch - or just telling the bard to stand in the corridor and "keep an eye out" while the party occupy themselves with some grimoire or mystical gewgaw. Crouching in the shivering cold, peering into the darkness, waiting for something horrible to come rushing out at you - that's stressful. Again, I suppose Rangers will be used to it. But most characters will be left on edge by tasks like this even if nothing horrible happens.
Another feature of dungeon-based RPGs is testing magical items and potions 'to see what they do'? Can you imagine a more stressful chore? Who would volunteer to sip that potion or put on that ring, if you had the slightest idea of the poisonous and cursed variants out there?
Similarly, RPGs usually propose that, if you fail a saving throw, something horrible happens, but if you pass, you're fine. Yes, some saves are all-or-nothing but it seems to me that being poisoned isn't really like that. You might shake off the effects of a poison (or throw it up or bite the wound and suck out the venom) but your stress levels will go through the roof, as much out of a physiological response as out of emotional distress.
Then there's all the other stuff, the emotionally fraying stuff, like falling into pits, triggering traps, getting lost, the torches going out (that's a big deal in TORCHBEARER). And we haven't even talked about what it does to your mind to be petrified, polymorphed, raised from the dead...
Stress has advantages
Arnold Kemp proposed his Trauma & Insanity rules to be purely punitive, perhaps to offset some of the leniency he believed (I think, mistakenly) to be implied in his Death & Dismemberment rules. I think if you're going to burden players with an extra source of harm and a new variable to worry about, you need to offset this in some way.
One option is to let PCs call upon their anxiety to accomplish something. At the DM's discretion, players can forego making a saving throw and save automatically in return for acquiring a new Trauma point. If an effect doesn't normally allow a saving throw (e.g. the level-draining attacks of undead monsters), the player could be allowed a saving throw at the cost of gaining Trauma. These effects can't be combined - no purchasing a saving throw against a Wight's touch and then choosing to pass it automatically.
This appeals to me because, while I love saving throws as a tool for generating tension, I hate it when players fail a saving throw and suffer some fatal effect. I love the terror that Wights and Wraiths produce with their level-draining attacks, but I hate seeing players busted down a hard-won level by these monsters and it makes me reluctant to deploy them. However, here's a blog that argues in favour of traditional level-draining monsters.
Another option is to allow Trauma to be converted into Hit Points for the duration of some adrenaline-fueled effort. Once per day, for 1d6 rounds, a player can gain a pool of 'Stress Hit Points' equal to their current Trauma. These HP are the first to be lost to damage and they evaporate at the end of the adrenaline bust, at which point the PC gains a new Trauma point.
Lower level PCs will particularly benefit from this but it appeals to me as a GM. Adventurers make their way through a scenario with growing stress and anxiety, but if they arrive at the climax they can call upon that very anxiety to boost their flagging physical resources.
What causes Trauma?
As a DM, your decision about what causes Trauma and what doesn't sets the tone for the whole game. If you decide that PCs gain Trauma whenever they are alone in a dangerous place (keeping watch, scouting ahead) and whenever the party descends to a new dungeon level or crosses a perilous bridge, your PCs are going to have shattered nerves and will end up retreating from the dungeon before their Hit Points or spells are all used up. Maybe that's exactly what you want: a game where just being in a dungeon requires courage.
On the other hand, maybe you want old-fashioned derring-do, in which case PCs will only gain Trauma from being reduced to 0 HP, confronting demons or watching a friend die. They take corpse-robbing and getting lost and similar things completely in their stride.
Maybe you believe that magic should be inherently Traumatic to use and mages should gain 1 Trauma every time they cast their highest level spells. Or maybe only certain sorts of magic are stressful - perhaps illusions or necromancy?
Or should it be Traumatic for certain sorts of races or classes to adventure together: Elves with Dwarves, Assassins with Paladins, anyone with Half-Orcs?
Trauma could be used to punish alignment deviations, breaches of clerical behavioural codes or betrayal of Guild secrets.
Here are some of the Traumatic Incidents I'm considering for my campaign.
Trauma Checks, Breakdown & Madness
Every time you gain Trauma, make a Trauma Check by roll 1d20, add your Wisdom bonus/penalty. If you roll higher than your current Trauma, nothing happens. Otherwise you have a Breakdown for 1d6 rounds.
(I'm debating whether PCs should add their Hit Dice to the roll; Trauma strikes me as the sort of thing you should cope with better due to experience.)
When the Breakdown ends, make another Trauma Check. If you pass, reduce your Trauma by 1. If you fail, acquire a type of Madness and remove all your Trauma points.
These tables are new. I wanted to replace madness effects that took away players' agency in how they roleplay their characters (e.g. instructing a PC to run away or attack a stranger) with ones that are more open to interpretation. I also wanted to replace derangements that are clearly real world mental health problems with fantasy ailments that can have as much or as little to do with actual mental disorders as you wish.
Example: Yrsa the 1st level Druid has 3 Trauma and gains a 4th when she has to search corpses. She makes a Trauma Check and must roll 5+ to continue untroubled: she adds +1 (her Wisdom bonus) but rolls a 2 - failure. She experiences a Breakdown for 1d6 rounds (in this case, she is 'shocked' for 2 rounds) then checks again: rolling a 17, she avoids Madness and loses 1 Trauma, going back to 3 Trauma. If she had rolled a 1 she would suffer a derangement, either rolling or choosing. Perhaps she agrees with the Referee to suffer from alienation (Neutral) and loses her sense of smell - appropriate for a 1-point derangement but tough for a flower-loving druid! She loses all her accumulated Trauma in this case.
Getting your shirt together
Characters remove 1 Trauma for every week of rest when not adventuring. This can be combined with physical healing.
Some madness types disappear of their own (e.g. Fugue) but most need rest, spiritual care and some sort of counseling. This usually lasts 2d6 weeks. If the character goes Mad again, there is a 50% chance it will be the same type of Madness ('relapse').
Rules for Safe Havens: A Safe Haven is a location where a character feels at peace and secure: their home town or territory, surrounded by family, or perhaps a place of religious respect or personal affection. If a character removes their Trauma in a Safe Haven, they lose half (rounded down) their Trauma every week and recover from Madness if their Trauma reaches 0. However, at the end of each week the character must make a Trauma check based on their new score and if they roll equal to or under their Trauma they must retire from adventuring and become a NPC. A character in a Safe Haven does not have to take advantage of it. If they have no wish to retire, they can remove Trauma at the normal rate (1 point per week) and recover from Madness normally.
White Box tweaks
In my WHITE BOX campaign, I'm using the Expanded Lore roles for character classes. You can see how useful Bards become for helping the party cope with Trauma.
Similarly, Trauma-related variants for demi-human races:
And I'm adding these Stress-related Feats to the ones PCs can select at 3rd level:
The full document can be downloaded below:
After so many years playing RPGs, it's not often that you read something that offers you an original perspective, something you haven't given any thought to before. Such, for me, was Ryan Marsh's post Why I Made the Switch to Death & Dismemberment on his THAC0 Blog.
Ryan poses an important question about character death in RPGs and does so with such lucidity I shall quote him in full:
We really need to ask, “What purpose does death serve in the game?” Death is a mechanic, just like AC, so why is it needed? We could just as easily have characters always get knocked out, and come back to the game right after the fight. Is it to “punish” the bad players for making stupid decisions? I’ve found that many players play the game extremely smart, but bad luck can kill a character, so is that fair? If a character can go down in combat and get back up with no consequences whatsoever, do they have a motivation to play in a reasonable manner? Answering the question of “why” we have the mechanic in our game can give us an idea of what type of mechanic to use.
Building on Ryan's insightful question, some purposes for 'death in RPGs' might be:
"Punishing players for failure" is based on what Ron Edwards calls a 'Gamist' approach to RPGs. In this paradigm, the players and the GM are adversaries: the players win if they overcome the dungeon and the GM wins if they don't. The players are also, in a sense, competing with each other for the most Experience Points. Assuming the players all start with equally competent characters, then thoughtful play and tactical decisions in combat should mean that the 'best' players survive and prosper while 'weak' players see their characters die. There's something Darwinian about this.
It's hard to tell what D&D was like back when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were first developing it (although Ryan has a thoughtful post on this too). There's some anecdotal evidence that Arneson's Blackmoor campaign was grittier and deadlier than Gygax's Greyhawk campaign (from Michael Mornard, who played in both, and observes that Arneson used miniatures whereas Gygax's game resembled what we now term 'theatre-of-the-mind'). Gygax's PCs went on to reach incredibly high levels (Tenser, Mordenkainen, Robilar, etc) and some of them were played by his children. Yet Original D&D was firmly rooted in wargaming conventions and many people play Old School Revival (OSR) games as if an unforgiving dungeon and rapid character turnover were defining characteristics.
Whether or not that's the 'correct' way to play D&D in some canonical sense, it doesn't appeal to me. I'm DMing a megadungeon at the moment using White Box RPG (a retroclone of Original D&D) and the players certainly enjoy the sense of being 'up against' a tough dungeon, yet I don't care to be killing a couple of PCs every session. Life is distressing enough at the moment without that.
Moreover, it doesn't follow that, in order for the game to have winners and losers, characters have to die. Character 'death' can just be temporary defeat: you drop out of the session, lose any accrued treasure and miss out on experience points, but you'll be back as if nothing happened next session. I strongly suspect this is how Gygax played. It's fine from a purely Gamist perspective, but it's not very realistic, is it?
'Realism' has, I think, more to commend it and Ron Edwards calls this a 'Simulationist' approach to RPGs. Medieval battles with swords or bows are in fact dangerous and the wounds they produce are lethal. Hand-to-hand battles with wild animals have a high chance of causing maiming or death. Underground strongholds, vigorously defended by their heavily-armed inhabitants, are dangerous places to invade. If you want to do justice to this imagined reality then death has to be a frequent outcome.
Let's be clear, from a Simulationist perspective, D&D isn't very good and OSR-style D&D is particularly unrealistic. 'Hit Points' don't admit of injuries or maiming: you've either still got them (in which case you're fine) or you've run out (uh-oh). In real life, being poisoned isn't the sort of all-or-nothing affair that Saving Throws make it out to be. Armour doesn't make you harder to hit.
Nonetheless, imagined verisimilitude is important in RPGs. We feel that we are, in some sense, "really there" in the underground crypt. The idea that a character, on reaching 0 HP, simply "bamfs" away in a puff of smoke, to return unharmed next session, offends our need for immersion.
A friend tells me of his 4th ed. D&D campaign where characters frequently die but Resurrection is available (for a fee) in an uncomplicated way. Die - pay a sort of 'fine' - get resurrected. This is really the "bamf!" approach to character death being given a fig leaf of in-story realism.
'Creating tension' is a return to a Gamist perspective, but with an important concession: the GM is less like an adversary or rival player and more like the croupier at a roulette wheel. Every encounter is one the players can choose to gamble on, or they can walk away from the table with their winnings. Leave now, or explore one more room... The GM spins the wheel but has no preference one way or the other.
This makes character-death part of a "push-your-luck" mechanic. There's some evidence that this is how Gary Gygax saw the game, with players choosing a target in the dungeon and Wandering Monsters being a risk to be factored in. Here is Gygax offering advice on "Successful Adventures" in the 1978 Players Handbook:
Avoid unnecessary encounters. This advice usually means the difference between success and failure when it is followed intelligently. Your party has an objective, and wandering monsters are something which stand between them and it. The easiest way to overcome such difficulties is to avoid the interposing or trailing creature if at all possible. Wandering monsters typically weaken the party through use of equipment and spells against them, and they also weaken the group by inflicting damage. Very few are going to be helpful; fewer still will have anything of any value to the party. Run first and ask questions later…
Gygax envisions a D&D session as a get-in-and-get-out affair, where the players perhaps target a single monster or room then retreat afterwards to heal. If they want to push their luck by exploring further, well on their own heads be it! The Rot Grub Blog offers further thoughts on this as part of its 'Old School Review'.
Now that I'm GMing a big mega-dungeon, I can see the aesthetic at work here. Mega-dungeons offer players precisely these options to choose the rooms they enter and retreat when they want to - as opposed to one-shots like the Dread Crypt of Skogenby that funnel the players into a climactic encounter that may be too dangerous.
In practice it doesn't work like that. Players assemble for a solid RPG session, committing perhaps 3 or 4 hours or more. They don't want to ambush a room full of Orcs then call it a day. Yet if they are to stay longer in the dungeon, explore further, encounter more interesting foes and features, then the penalties for pushing your luck need to be scaled back. Yet D&D, especially OSR D&D with its flimsy first level characters, doesn't offer many ways of doing this.
Many house rules address this by staving off 'true death': a character on 0 HP collapses and 'bleeds out' and does not truly die until they reach some negative number of HP (say, -10). This creates further push-your-luck, as other players must choose between offering first aid to a fallen comrade or continuing to battle monsters. I used to use this system. It creates a sort of 'buffer' between life and death and lets players make more nuanced calculations about risk and reward. In a game like White Box it works well, since few monsters deal more than 1d6 damage, so PCs are not going to be reduced too far into negative HP by a 'killing blow'.
'Storytelling' is what Ron Edwards terms a 'Narrativist' perspective on RPGs. We gather together to tell a story, with varying degrees of collaboration. There are character arcs. There are themes. There are conflicts and they are resolved. Joseph Campbell's monomyth of 'The Hero's Journey' is often used to illustrate an engaging Fantasy RPG story:
In terms of the Hero's Journey, entering a dungeon is crossing the threshold and for the story to be meaningful the players must encounter 'death' in some form and either suffer it, embrace it or escape it - how else can they 'return changed'?
This of course is 'Narrative Death' and it's intensely meaningful. It might be heroic self-sacrifice or inevitable just deserts; it might be noble or tragic; it might draw out themes of love or honour or courage. What it is not, and should never be, is random or arbitrary.
The problem is that the Gamist elements of RPGs work against the Narrativist: bad dice rolls mean characters can die at inappropriate times, ruining the dramatic arc... good dice rolls mean they escape their dramatic fate, trivialising the story.
Of course, as Game of Thrones illustrates, sometimes surprising and inopportune deaths have more drama than the epic and symbolic ones. And the surefire knowledge that your character cannot die until his or her allotted meeting with destiny drains tension out of the game. Nonetheless, given the work players put into their characters and the investment they make, some Narrativist significance is needed for most character deaths. Mere bad luck won't cut it.
Death & Dismemberment
Ryan Marsh advocates the 'Dearth, Dismemberment & Insanity' house rules, developed by Arnold Kemp on the Goblinpunch Blog. I'll discuss the 'Insanity' rules another time, but here's my version of the system:
Hit Points represent your ability (skill and luck) to avoid injury. When your Hit Points reach zero you are vulnerable to lasting injuries. You do not collapse on 0 HP. You can carry on moving and fighting and casting spells on 0 HP. Your HP can never drop below 0.
Whenever damage of any sort would take your HP below zero, calculate its LETHALITY. This is a score based on a d12 roll, adding the excess damage inflicted and the number of Injuries the character already has:
A Lethality score of 10 or less indicates you take a minor Injury; 11+ means you suffer the minor Injury and also a more serious Injury along with a Fatal Wound. Really high Lethality scores indicate lots of Fatal Wounds as well as the serious and minor Injuries. You can roll 1d6 for the Injury location or choose based on the dramatic description:
Injuries have the following effects:
Example: Horatio is on 1HP and is hit by an Orc for 3 damage. He rolls 4 on a d12, scoring 6 Lethality (4 on the roll plus 2 for the excess damage). The location is 'head'. Horatio is on 0 HP and is Concussed. He carries on adventuring and, in another fight, is hit for 2 damage. He rolls 11 on a d12, scores 14 for Lethality (11 on the roll plus 2 excess damage plus 1 existing Injury) and the location is 'torso'. Horatio has a Fatal Wound (which another PC tends) and crushed bones: he rolls a broken spine and is paralysed. Horatio is now on 0 HP with 4 Injuries (his earlier Concussion, plus the Bleeding, the Crushed Spine and the Fatal Wound, which still counts towards his total even though he survived it).
These injuries last until the patient spends time in recuperation, for a number of days equal to the result of the d12 roll. Cure Light Wounds and other minor healing does not affect Injuries. However, Cure Serious Wounds or a Potion of Extra-Healing might remove a minor Injury; Cure Critical Wounds could remove a serious Injury or up to 1d6 minor Injuries; a Heal spell will remove all Injuries, including Fatal Wounds. If magic is used to remove Injuries it does not also restore lost HP: one effect or the other, not both.
Ryan sings the praises of this approach, which (I feel) reconciles the Gamist, Simulationist and Narrativist purposes of 'Death' in RPGs:
Characters don’t want to go below 0 because major injury can happen, so the fear is still there, but death is not assured. They still might bleed out over the floor, but the time frame is much quicker and desperate. I now have some heroes with some great war stories, and the wounds to show for it. Over time their characters are becoming richer, but also are becoming more mangled and might have to retire. My players love this system compared to the previous versions I have used and it is right for my table.
I like the idea of Dismemberment getting more severe as the Dungeon Level increases. Instead of everyone rolling 1d12 for Lethality, why not let 1st level characters roll 1d4, 2nd level characters roll 1d6, 1d8 at 3rd and 1d10 at 4th; only when they hit 5th level (and the 5th Dungeon Level) do characters roll 1d12. Perhaps at Name Level they should roll 1d20 (assuming they are up against 9th level foes). This causes the stakes to rise as the players progress to deeper dungeon levels while freeing poor 1st level characters from the very worst outcomes.
(This is perhaps more important in a game like White Box where higher level monsters have more HP but don't necessarily deal more damage. In AD&D where tough monsters deal colossal damage, higher level foes will generate more nasty injuries without any scaling. In the same vein, I ask PCs being treated for Fatal Wounds to make a saving throw vs death otherwise the first aid failed.)
I also like the idea of sacrificing shields or weapons to hold off injuries. A player should be able to choose for their shield or weapon to be smashed in order to soak some of the pain. In return for losing their equipment, the player does not have to roll a dice for Lethality (just add excess damage to existing Injuries). If the equipment was magical, the character might be spared taking any Injuries at all.
Example: Bru Preslap battles a dragon on the 5th dungeon level. He is on 2 HP and the Dragon bites him for 6 damage. Ordinarily, Bru would roll 1d12 for Lethality and add +4 (the excess damage) but he feels there is too high a chance of a serious Injury that would floor him. He sacrifices his shield, foregoes the die roll and his Lethality score is 4, which results in a maimed limb. The monster's bite shatters Bru's shield and dislocates his shoulder, but Bru fights on (on 0 HP).
You can download a short document with my version of these rules here:
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).
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 started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..
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: