Sunday, November 7, 2021

House Rules for New Face to Face Elspeth's Letter Campaign


I'm starting up a new face to face campaign with a co-worker and some people from the neighborhood. I'm using (play testing) Elspeth's Letter, a stretch goal in the form of an alternative campaign premise from my last Kickstarter. It is going to be released soon in expanded form with full art as the inaugural issue of my new zine Pale Echoes that presents alternate frames in the waking world for dreamlands campaigns. The basic idea is that one of the players is the godchild of Elspeth. They receive an inheritance of Elspeth's house, which includes a ticket to the dreamlands by using the memories of a dead dreamer (Elspeth). 

These rules are close to Swords & Wizardry in some way, but really they're an amalgam of three things: Gus' HMS Apollyon Rules for stat modifiers and the death save, Errant for inventory, Jorune: Evolutions my evolving Jorune hack for the general 2d6 mechanic, and White Box for the idea of white spaces.

Generally speaking, my idea here is that I control the setting and world of the dreamlands. Players do not have any input on that. That is my domain--and I am relying on an asymmetry of knowledge. (Indeed no one in this group has ever read my zines or blog!) But about the dreary waking world, my stance is that I know little beyond some barebones elements I'm contributing about a town near Elspeth's house. If I knew these players better I might even suggest a session 0 where we designed the waking world together. Instead I'm choosing to use "white spaces" (a concept from White Hack) during character creation that allow the players to contribute elements of the setting for the waking world. 

To be clear, I threw these rules together hastily. They represent a compromise between keeping things familiar enough for players who have played recent versions of D&D and my own predilections. They are just a set of house rules for what is likely a temporary return to face to face gaming. They aren't like my work on Jorune: Evolutions, where I'm trying to come up with a system that works from the ground up to do what I want it to do.


Roll 3d6 down the line. Swap one roll if you want to. 

Strength: How physically powerful you are
Wisdom: Attunement to spiritual things (NOT how "wise your choices are")
Intelligence: Facility with book learning (NOT how "smart you are")
Dexterity: How agile or dexterous you are
Constitution: How hardy you are
Charisma: Your leadership ability (NOT how "persuasive your in speech in game is")

The crucial point of the NOTs is that you are not to play your stats, and in particular, you are not to try to use them as a basis to make bad decisions or play suboptimally in the game. 

In the spot for bonuses and penalties next to the state:
If you rolled 6 or less write -1 next to that stat
If you rolled 15 or more write +1 next to that stat

For each +1 or -1 you have on a stat give your character an adjective. So if you rolled 5 on dexterity, you might be lumbering or butterfingered. If you roll 15 on charisma you might have gravitas. This is solely for flavor. 


Most versions of D&D have various races you can play. In this game, all the player characters are human. There are no other “races” to play in the waking world. Other kinds of playable beings may or may not be unlocked as a result of your adventures in Wishery.


Fighter: Violence is your specialty. Choose your flavor of fighter--this will affect your class-related skills. Perhaps you are a mercenary, knight, soldier, swashbuckler, pirate, etc. HD 1d8 Damage with weapon: 1d10. Armor allowed: any.

Magic-User: You are a master of the occult. You can cast powerful enchantments but are not much use when it comes to the arts of war. Perhaps you are a diabolist, enchanter, witch, gentleman scholar, etc. HD 1d4. Damage with weapon: 1d4. Armor allowed: none.

Cleric: You are blessed by a god or divinity and may perform miracles. You also possess some fighting ability. Perhaps are a monk, divine, savant, miracle worker, preacher, paladin, etc. HD 1d6. Damage with weapon: 1d6. Armor allowed: any.

Thief: You possess a rare set of skills, such as stealth, sleight of hand, and lock picking. You strike from the shadows. Perhaps you are a con-man, assassin, spy, specialist, etc. HD 1d6. Damage with weapon: 1d8. Armor allowed: light. 

Age of Life

Pick an age of life. One player, Elspeth’s godchild and heir, must be a youth. All others may choose an age of life as they prefer. Write this age category down in the line for age on your character sheet

Youth: You have the vitality and hunger for experience of youth. You are adaptable and learn quickly like a sponge.

  • Saving Throw 8
  • + 10% on all experience points gained

Adult: You had a trade before becoming an adventurer. Your skills my come in handy.

  • Saving Throw 10
  • Choose a former profession. Add +1 to any roll that falls within that skill set. Begin with the tools of your trade.

Aging: You had another life before becoming an adventurer. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but you bring more to the table than your younger comrades.

  • Saving Throw 12
  • -10% on all experience points gained
  • Choose a former profession. Add +1 to any skill or ability roll that falls within the skill set of that profession. Begin with the tools of your trade.
  • Begin with one loyal companion. It could be a hunting dog, trained monkey, horse, fastidious butler, bodyguard, thug, or apprentice.

Saving Throw

You have only one saving throw the value of which is set by your age of life. It works like this: If your hit points reach zero or lower, roll a saving throw on 1d20. If you roll equal to or higher than your saving throw, your character is saved, return to 1hp. Whenever you make a saving throw, increase your saving throw number by 1.

Stat or Skill Checks

To make a stat or skill check roll 2d6 and add your modifier. 

Normal: 6- failure 7+ success 
Challenging: 6- failure 7-9 partial success 10+ success
Difficult: 9- failure 10+ success

We use a freeform skill system. For skills that your character isn't trained in make a roll with a -1. (Highly specialized skills cannot be used if untrained.) If are trained in a skill roll without modifier. If you are skilled add +1 and if you are a master add +2. Unless you are a thief, your starting skills are limited to those fitting your class and former profession. For class specific skills treat the modifiers this way: Levels 1-4 trained, Levels 5-8 skilled, Levels 9+ master. Use your description of your class to specify your skills. Any skills that fall under former professions are at the trained level. 

What would normally be saving throws in old editions of D&D are instead difficult or challenging stat checks. So a saving throw against dragon breath would require a dexterity check at difficult level to take half damage. If it was a young dragon, or I was being a softie, perhaps it would be challenging dexterity check with full damage on a failure, half damage on a partial success, and no damage on a full success. 

Most downtime actions use a 2d6 mechanic modified by a stat bonus. They are, in effect, often (although not always) stat checks.

Note 1: You can learn and improve skills through my system of downtime activities.

Note 2: This is a bit simpler than the challenge rating I use in Jorune: Evolutions, which involves two different categories of rolls and a difficulty modifier. I want to see if this simpler system works. On the whole I prefer the rules to be simpler where possible. 

Former Professions

If adult or aging choose a former profession, from this list or anything you can think of. The setting in the waking world is a dreary faux Europeanish setting that spans anachronistically medieval Europe to the renaissance and beyond, with a sprinkling of magic, divinity, and the occult. So, any profession that could fit with that very broad vibe will be admissible. Write down your former profession on your character sheet.

Some will want to use this choice mainly to add flavor to their character. But it can also be used to add some skills that wouldn’t normally come with your class. For example, want to be a bard? Be a troubadour turned fighter, thief, or cleric, depending on what bard aspect you want to emphasize. If a cleric, since you can settle the details of your faith too, make it a god of song and you magic can all come through performance! Or if you want to be a ranger, choose a fighter with a past career of woodsman. Want to play a spellsword? Be a magic-user with a former profession of duelist. The tools of your trade and how the skills might work can be decided together at the table. 

Astrologer/Fortune Teller
Charlatan/Snake Oil Salesman
Peasant (i.e. farmer)
Gambler/Card Sharp
Grave Digger/Ditch Digger/Stevedore
Scholar/Natural Philosopher/Historian
Rat Catcher/Poisoner
Squire/Apprentice/Indentured Servant

Determine How You Know One Another

In this game, you are a group of comrades who have come together around Elspeth’s godchild to pursue adventure and who work as a team. Everyone must have a tie to one other person in the group. What is it? We should probably wait to decide this together at the table.

Blood relative
Childhood Friend
(Former) Lover
Thrown together by circumstance
Shared trauma
Business partners
Met in a jail cell
Fought together in war
Common political cause/common enemy

The Death of Elspeth's Godchild

I probably don't even need to say this on this blog, but I will mention that Elspeth's Godchild does not have plot armor on this premise. If they die, then the player of the godchild designates another PC as the heir and they are now the inheritor of Elspeth's estate. If there is a total party kill, the estate has passed to an heir in the new group that is rolled up. (The player who dies may also opt to collectivize the estate to the group, if they do so then the group must pick a legal name for their adventuring party.)


Whatever the description of their class, all thieves possess the following skills. Every time you advance a level assign an additional +1 to two of these skills. Every time you acquire a level you will add two more +1’s. Unlike other skills (including other skills from your class description), the maximum plus you can have to any one thief skill listed below is +3 rather than +2.

Climb Walls
Pick Pockets
Pick Locks
Find/Remove Traps
Hear Noise
Read Languages


Choose Your Deity: This is the mystical source of your power, usually a god or religious principle of some kind. I do not have a pantheon for the dreary waking world, so you may imagine any deity or mystical power you like. Here are some very generic types of deities if you would like a list:

Art or Craft

Name your deity. Answer the following questions (more will come up over time in play). What does your holy symbol look like? What do miracles granted by your deity (spells) look like in action? Think of one rite, sacrament, or holiday associated with your deity.


If you are a magic-user, select three spells contained in your starting spell book from the Old School Essentials List: two first, and one second level spell. Of first level spells you may book may contain only one of the following (objectively best spells): light, sleep, and charm person. I do not have a view about how the dismal magic of the waking world works. Think of your spell book as a way to contribute to this aspect of the setting.  The spell book is not a little black book that you write your own spells in it. It is a significant magical text that is known in the game world. Name and describe the spell book that contains them. It has a title and appearance, and embeds the spells in some broader subject, speculation, art object, or discourse. Also decide what the spells you have selected look like in action. To acquire new spells you will need to research them in downtime or to learn them from spell books you acquire.


We are using a slot-based inventory, which is influenced by Ava Islam's Errant.

In hands: Two slots
Handy: Four slots
In pack: Six slots

Anything that is in hand or handy can be used without spending an action. Anything in your pack you must take an action to get out. You can fill a slot with a bundle of four small items of the same or related things. (I.e. quill + bottle of ink, 4 flasks of oil, etc.) Jewelry, clothing, and knick knacks do not fill up a slot. A slot can also hold 100 coins.

You get the following items based on your class. If you have a former profession, also write down the tools of your previous trade.

Fighter: Chain Armor (AC 15), melee weapon, and either shield (+1 to AC) or missile weapon
Thief: Leather Armor (AC 12), melee weapon, missile weapon, thieves’ tools
Cleric: Chain Armor (AC 15), melee weapon, holy symbol
Magic-User: Spellbook and either melee or missile weapon

A note about weapons and armor. Rather than using different damage for different weapons, and only allowing some classes to use certain (more damaging weapons), we’re going to use weapon damage by class. So, you can imagine the weapons you use to be just about anything. We are using ascending armor class so higher is better as in 5E, with the normal 1d20 + attack bonus roll to hit a target number set by the armor class.

Fighter: Weapon damage 1d10; Armor allowed: any
Thief: Weapon damage 1d8; Armor allowed: leather
Cleric: Weapon damage 1d6; Armor allowed: any
Magic-User: Weapon damage 1d4 Armor allowed: none

In addition, pick one starter pack:

Scholar: Pack, scroll-case with 3 rolls parchment, ink, quill, charcoal, small mirror, candle in holder, matches
Explorer: Pack, Lantern, 2 flasks oil, matches, rope 50’, caltrops
Specialist: Pack, 3 torches, matches, rope 50’, mallet, 5 metal spikes

Experience Points and Advancement

We will be using the experience tables listed in Old School Essentials. You will receive experience points for the following things.

• Each character will receive 200 experience points for your first session in a new place of adventure in Wishery. (There will be experience points awarded for other exploration related goals to be introduced later when the opportunities are uncovered.)
• Each character will each receive 600 experience points for accompanying Elspeth’s barge on its funeral procession. You will receive these experience points only if the barge completes the procession and goes over the falls intact.
• Your party will receive 1 experience point for each gold piece worth of treasure you bring back from Wishery to the waking world. This be divided between the characters on the adventure. So if there are four players and you retrieve 600 gp worth of treasure, you will each receive 150 xp.
• These are the only things you get experience points for. Note that you get no experience points for combat. Violence is an important tool at your disposal, but it does not provide any reward in itself.

When you gain a level, you acquire one more HD of hit points. You may add a +1 bonus (or cancel a -1 penalty) to one of your stats at 4th, 7th, and 10th level. The maximum stat bonus is +2. 

Attack bonus progression works like this:
Fighter: +1 AB on even levels. Max +6.
Cleric and Thief: +1 AB on odd levels starting at 3rd level. Max +4.
Magic-User: +1 AB at 4th, 7th, an 10th. Max +3.  

Otherwise, except for thief skills mentioned above, you advance as per old school essentials. Note that advancement in other forms is also possible through the robust system of downtime activities that will you to acquire skills, craft splendid items, research magical spells, do non-magical research, build institutions, and the like. 

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Using Landmarks in Wilderness Travel

 I've been continuing work on my Jorune: Evolutions ruleset. Recently I've been working on wilderness exploration rules. One thing I've been thinking about, spurred on by some of Gus L's recent dungeon theory, is how different the role of "the map" is in wilderness exploration and dungeon or adventure site exploration. The size of the hexes means that the kind of navigation of a concrete space involved in dungeon crawling doesn't apply. There are some approaches to wilderness exploration that chase that level of concreteness by using "zoomed in" sub hexes that allow one to establish a more concrete topography, or that abandon hexes altogether, using a ruler to map movement across a fairly detailed map. Personally, this doesn't work for me for two reasons. 

The first is that it makes the construction of the map a daunting task. I now need to not only assign a type to the hex, and stock it with features, but construct sub-hexes with detailed topography and geography that allow me to locate those features in the hex. This basically ensures that I will never be able to prep a sizable map. 

But this is connected with a second issue about the point of navigating space. Why is the navigation of space interesting in a dungeon crawl? Having read Gus' reflections and run many years of location-based adventures in the retro-game style, I can think of three reasons. These don't apply to every location-based adventure in the mode of dungeon crawl, but I think the best feature all of them.

  1. Players engage in meaningful choice vis-a-vis navigation of the space as part of an economy of risk and rewards. They decide whether to push further at risk of random encounters, or whether to turn to the left towards the ominous clanking sounds, or whatever it might be. It sustains meaningful choices.
  2. Another way the navigation of space matters to dungeons is the way factions inhabit the space. We might think of this is the social dimension of space in the dungeon. Factions operate in different areas, which they often "hold", and they have interests in other areas, some of which opposing factions might hold, or which are otherwise inhospitable. This means the players enter into a current unstable equilibrium or conflict space that is intimately connected to the spatial layout of the location. People in one part of the space want things from other parts of the space, and the players can interact socially with this nexus of often opposed desires.  
  3. Another thing is that in a good dungeon, space is part of a puzzle to be solved. One figures out how to get from A to B optimally, for example, finding a quick way to lower levels, or learning how to directly access some place that could previously only be reached laboriously, or finding the way into some sub-level or hidden area. This is a satisfying achievement.
It's hard for me to imagine how trying to zoom in on a map of an appropriate size for extensive wilderness travel is a good way of capturing this. I'm not saying it's impossible, I'm just saying it would require some set of systems that it's hard for me to imagine. Even with "zoomed in" topography, you still probably never going to get to a place where players are making tactical choices about what route to take on each day of travel. 

But I think you can capture a decent amount of it if you lean in to the abstraction and "zoomed out" scale of wilderness travel. To get 1. you need to some regular way to represent risk and rewards trade-offs in wilderness exploration. In the dungeon this is provided in part by wandering monster checks, which happen at the level of the turn (or every 3 turns). It's important that it happens per unit of movement so that there's a tradeoff with exploring the map and hazarding encounters. In the wilderness you want something similar. 

So it's better if you don't have 1 check per day, but rather a mechanic that says: want to explore another hex? OK, roll the encounter die then. Similarly, it would be good to build in other choices that the parallel the dungeon like the choice whether to "search" for "hidden" features, i.e. explore the interior a hex in exchange for hazarding encounters. It's also good if you have mechanics for forced marching that require you tradeoff extra movement for acquiring exhaustion. 

Similarly, it's good if you have an encumbrance system that forces choices about what to carry, with rations and acquired loot being the obvious things about which you must make tradeoffs with adventuring gear. So you'll need rules for starvation and foraging too. It would be good to build in some choices about when you start looking to make camp, and probably about how good a camp you can get set up. 

Number (2), the social dimension, is easy. What we want is a hexmap as a social space of factions in opposition that want things from other places on the map. This is less a matter of rules and more about hex stocking. But we'll certainly want to use reaction rolls for wilderness encounters and have explicit rules about parlaying to make that option salient to players.

Number (3), about space as a puzzle to be solved is harder in a "zoomed out" wilderness map. What could it mean? Do we introduce a system of easy travel from some hexes to other hexes? Shortcuts built into the flow of the hexmap? That might work. But in this post I try something different instead, leveraging something unique to wilderness travel, namely mechanics about getting lost, to create an economy of known landmarks to navigate by. By creating archipelagos of landmarks to uncover in a sea of wilderness, the party can learn through exploration how to create routes from one destination to another and make tactical choices about movement. 

Instead of aesthetically pleasing maps that mix a medley of different terrain types, the system in this post works best for the exploration of discrete wilderness regions that is a single base type of terrain. Mirkwood Forest; The West Trinnu Jungle Lands; The Mermist Swamp. Hexes are differentiated not primarily by terrain type, but rather by landmarks that are treated as icons on the map. Furthermore, this is not a system for traveling across friendly lands or for one-shot journeys from point A to point B. It's written for play that begins and ends in a safe home base, from which multiple sallies into the perilous wilderness can be made, so that learning the terrain over time has major advantages for the group. It also will work best with a shared electronic map resources like Hexographer or Hex Kit that allows for easy placement and deletion of hexes, although you could certainly make it work with a few sheets of blank hexpaper too. 

A lot of the rules here are widely used. The innovation, I think, comes mainly in terms of the use of landmarks. But someone has probably already thought of something similar, so feel free to link below. Note that these rules presuppose 2d6 stat and skill checks, with a max positive modifier of +2 and max negative modifier of -1. 


The gear you carry on a mission is a resource. Jorune: Evolutions uses a slot based encumbrance system that tracks how many significant items you are carrying. It is important that you list items on your character sheet in the order of accessibility, with lower numbers being more accessible than higher numbers.

Clothing, jewelry or knick-knacks, and your pack do not fill slots. Armor, on the other hand, does occupy slots: (Light 2 , medium 4, heavy 6). Small items of the same kind can be bundled in 4s. Each brace of ammunition counts as one slot. Large or bulky items occupy two (or more) slots.

  • 10 + Str Mod + Size Mod items or fewer: unencumbered
  • 11-15 + Str Mod + Siz Mod items: encumbered
  • 15-20 + Str Mod + Siz Mod items: heavily encumbered
Animal Encumbrance:

  • Thombo/Horse: 20 Slots Unencumbered/21-25 Slots Encumbered/26-30 Slots Heavily Encumbered. Carrying a Rider=10 Slots. 
  • Bochugon: 40 Slots Unencumbered/41-50 Slots Encumbered/51-60 Slots Heavily Encumbered. Carrying a rider=10 slots.

Encumbered: Reduce travel movement by 1 hex. -1 to physical stat checks, physical skills, and combat rolls. Make a stamina check after a day of travel. On a 6- acquire one level of exhaustion (§2.7)

Heavily Encumbered: Reduce travel movement by 2 hexes. -1 to physical stat checks, physical skills, and combat rolls. Test stamina at -1 after a day of travel and at the end of each combat in which the character participates. On a 6- acquire one level of exhaustion.

Travel Speeds

All travel is represented by movement across a hexmap representing a wilderness region to be explored. Travel speeds are measured in hexes. There is base travel speed depending on your method of travel. Note that everyone must employ a certain mode of transport to benefit from the higher travel speed. Travel speed is not variable by terrain type, since we assume a single base type of terrain. In regions where movement is easy, hex sizes are assumed to be larger (3 miles). In regions that are harder to move through, hex sizes are assumed to be smaller (1 or 2 miles depending on how hard the terrain is). 

Base Land Travel Speeds:

  • On Foot: 5 Hexes
  • Bochugon: 5 Hexes
  • Thombo:  6 Hexes
  • Horse: 7 Hexes
  • Encumbered: -1 Hex
  • Heavily Encumbered: -2 Hexes

When the party has exhausted its movement on foot, the party may choose to continue pushing further. For each hex the party moves into, each character must test stamina or acquire one level of exhaustion. When mounted, the mounts make the check instead of the humans. For each exhaustion check after the first, roll a wound check for the mount to see if it dies.


It is possible to face exhaustion when encumbered, starving, engaging in forced marching, or hard labor. In such circumstances, test stamina. On a 6- you acquire a level of exhaustion. Each level of exhaustion fills 5 equipment slots. When the character surpasses extremely encumbered, their character can go no further without rest.

To recover a level of exhaustion, you must camp and have access to whatever can address your condition (sleep, food, etc.). Upon wakening test stamina. On a 7+ remove a level of exhaustion. Some forms of exhaustion, including exhaustion from wounds, cannot be recovered through camping.

Travel Roll

Upon entering a hex, one player makes a travel roll (1d6). The travel roll is a version of Necropraxis' Hazard System. It is heavily influenced by Ava Islam's reworking of the overloaded encounter die for Errant

  1. Encounter
  2. Sign
  3. Mishap
  4. Flora or Fauna
  5. Local
  6. Discovery
More on the travel roll in another post. For now, it's enough to know that each of these results will have their own table. We all know about encounters. Signs are traces that foreshadow an encounter. If an encounter or sign is rolled in the next hex, then there is an encounter with whatever left the signs discovered in the previous hex. Mishaps are little travel difficulties that accumulate if multiple mishaps are rolled. Flora and fauna are animal encounters or the discovery of limilates or other interesting plants. Local is some region specific event or phenomenon. Discovery means stumbling across some notable feature of the hex. 

Hex Features and Landmarks

Most hexes will have 2-3 features that are like the layers of an onion, representing the more and the less obvious notable features in a hex. (I'm influenced here by Hot Springs Island.) These features can be landmarks, resources, anomalies in UVG's sense, adventuring locations, and so on. Landmarks are the anchors of exploration. They generally represent easily identifiable terrain features that allow one to locate oneself clearly on the map. In easily navigable terrain, all hexes will have a landmark in them. In more difficult terrain, like trackless wastes or dense jungle, perhaps every third or fourth hex will have a landmark in it. 

Features are always discovered in a fixed order from most to least obvious. This means that in traveling across already encountered hexes, one will sometimes stumble upon something previously undiscovered. If there is no feature left to discover in a hex, then when a discovery is made, the Sholari announces that the hex is fully explored and this is noted on the map.

Note that not all keyed features of a hex are landmarks. This might be because the feature is more difficult to find in the hex or because the feature is found in multiple hexes. If they're not landmarks, they're things in the hex that are not good resources for navigating by. 

Exploring a Hex

The party may opt to use one movement to explore a hex. Doing this gives them a very good chance of discovering a feature of the hex. If there is a landmark in a hex, then the landmark is always the first discovery. In fact, the first search will automatically reveal any undiscovered landmark in the hex (no roll necessary). 

If there isn’t an undiscovered landmark remaining in the hex, the party rolls an exploration die to see if they turn up anything through their search. In doing so, they hazard an encounter. If they roll a discovery, then the party uncovers the next feature of the hex in order. Once again, if they roll a discovery when no features remain, the Sholari will inform the party the hex is fully explored. 

  1. Encounter
  2. Sign
  3. Flora or Fauna
  4. Discovery
  5. Discovery
  6. Discovery
There are some instances where a landmark is so obvious that it can be identified by anyone passing through the hex,  and so does not require a discovery roll to uncover.

Getting Lost

Each day the Sholari makes a secret survival skill check for the relevant wilderness type to see if they get lost using the wilderness survival skill of the mission member with the highest score. This is a 2d6 check modified by skill level in the relevant type of wilderness (untrained -1/trained +0/skilled +1/master +2). On a 6- they become lost. Since no one starts higher than skilled, and since becoming a master in a skill is not easy, this means that people will often get lost. (This is an intentional design choice that emphasizes the importance of uncovering landmarks, more on which shortly.)

If lost, the Sholari will dice to see in which hex of the day's travel the party goes off course. The Sholari will then roll 1d6 to see which way the party moves out of that hex. (Note there is a 1 in 6 chance that becoming lost has no ill effect if they end up moving in the intended direction.) All further moves after that point reorient the hexfaces so that the erroneous direction is treated as the intended direction. 

Suppose the party goes awry in a particular hex, intending to move north. This in the normal key:

Suppose the Sholari rolls 6. Instead of Moving N the party goes NW. For the remainder of the day's moves, the Sholari moves the party using this reoriented hex key for movement. 

Note that if the party stops traveling for the day before that hex comes up, then they do not become lost. 

While lost, the Sholari will refer to the hexes on the shared player-facing map as though the party were moving along the intended route, while tracking the real location of the party on the private Sholari map. If the party is lost on a second day, the Sholari will repeat the process, starting from the party's erroneous orientation and then swiveling the departing hex face once again by rolling 1d6.

The party can definitively realize it is lost in two ways. The first is by succeeding at a survival skill check for a new day after camping, representing the fact that they realize they were not quite traveling in the right direction the previous day. The second is when the party fails to reach a known landmark they expect to reach along their intended route. At this point the party may move using the regular hex key with any moves they have left from their current location and try to find their way back to terra cognita.

When the party enters a hex with a landmark they have previously discovered they stop being lost. As long as they have not been lost for multiple consecutive days, the party will be able to reconstruct their movements, and the Sholari may now tell the party the hexes the party moved through while lost on the normal map, and will place any landmarks they discovered along the way on the map.

While lost, if the party believes themselves to be in hexes they have previously explored that do not contain a landmark, they may try to locate themselves by exploring the hex to try to discover features with which they are familiar. In such circumstances, rather than revealing the next new feature of the hex, the Sholari should first give them features from the hex key they have previously discovered. If it's a unique enough feature found solely in that hex, then the Sholari may declare them no longer lost.  

If this sounds complicated, I provide an illustrative example at the end of the post. I promise that it's not as complicated as it sounds in play. Also, if it's not already apparent, discovering landmarks to tether your wilderness travel is utterly crucial in this system.


If the party wishes to camp in the wilderness, the mission member with the highest wilderness survival skill rolls a check for the group in their effort to find a suitable camp site. In inclement weather, this check receives a -1 penalty. For the result, consult the following table:

  • 6-: Uncomfortable camp: Party takes disadvantage on their grit roll and receives -1 on stamina checks to recover from exhaustion.
  • 7-9: Suitable camp: Party rolls for grit in the morning as usual.
  • 10+: Choose 1
    • Comfortable camp: Party rolls for grit (hp) with advantage in the morning and receives +1 on stamina checks to recover from exhaustion.
    • Hidden camp: As a suitable camp, but the party does not check for an encounter during the night.
Note that one may make a camp at any point in the day. If the group sets up camp and still has moves remaining, they may explore the hex or hunt and gather. They may also try to find a better campsite, expending a move to have a different player roll a second wilderness survival check in the hopes of finding a better campsite. The party may repeat this process as many times as they have moves.

Hunting and Gathering

At the cost of one hex move, and a roll of the travel die, the party member with the highest survival skill may test survival to hunt and gather. If the terrain is lush they may add +1. If the terrain is barren -1.

  • 6-: the party comes up empty handed
  • 7-9: one half the party (rounding up) need not consume rations for the day
  • 10+ no one in the party need consume rations for the day

Starvation & Dehydration

If when the party camps, they do not have sufficient rations for everyone then someone must go hungry, or the party must ration their food spreading the effects more evenly. If someone goes hungry they make a stamina check. On a 6- they acquire one level of exhaustion. On subsequent days they test stamina at a cumulative -1: on a 6- they acquire another level of exhaustion. Levels of exhaustion acquired in this way go away when the exhausted individual eats a full meal and camps for the night. Each meal eaten removes one level of exhaustion, at a maximum of one per day.

Rationing spreads the check to more people but gives a bonus to the check corresponding to the number of people with rations.

  • Two people splitting 1 ration: each checks stamina at +1
  • Three people splitting 2 rations: each checks stamina at +2
  • Four people splitting 3 rations: each checks stamina at +3


We're sorely in need of an example of travel using landmarks, and the procedures for getting lost. Suppose the Sholari's map of a certain region of the West Trinnu Jungle Lands looks like this (I used Hex Kit as the program):

Let's suppose that off the bottom of the map that white is grasslands, and so a change of terrain where the map ends. Keep in mind that the "blank" hexes each have their own keys with 2-3 features to be discovered, some of them significant. All that is represented on the map visually are the landmarks. Let us suppose through exploration, the players have uncovered this many of the landmarks on the map:

The players are now planning an expedition. They are marching on foot beginning in hex 0610. They are not encumbered and so have a base move of 5. They would like leisurely to travel on to the NE to hex 0710 with its unmistakable brown fens. Then they will continue NE into hex 0809 and 0909, before turning north to end up at the Great Gate in hex 0909, where they can take the extra time to make a nice camp or further explore the hex. The next day they're hoping to cautiously strike out  into terra incognita in the unexplored hexes around 0908, because they have heard that skull dungeon is somewhere to the east of the Great Gate. In short, the players are being cautious, using two known landmarks to navigate, and giving themselves time to make a nice camp and do a bit of exploration. Let us assume they also have one PC with them who is skilled (+1) in jungle survival. The following narrative focuses solely on movement and so I pass over the adventures they have along the way as a result of their travel rolls, encounters, and so on.

At the start of the day, the Sholari rolls a jungle survival roll 2d6+1=5, which means the party will become lost somewhere along the way. Since the party is only traveling 4 hexes today,  the Sholari rolls 1d4 to see what move they go off track. The Sholari rolls a 2. So the party moves into hex 0710 with the brown fens successfully, seeing the landmark they expect there. But with the next move, they go off track. The Sholari rolls 1d6 to see which they move with 1=North. So instead of moving into hex 0809 they move into hex 0709. They then continue straight into hex 0708. (They do not discover the muadra encampment in the hex, because they didn't roll a discovery on their travel roll and did not choose to explore the hex.) They then in their last move turn what they believe is N, but is in fact NW, ending in hex 0607. Arriving in the hex, they do not see the landmark they are expecting to find there (the Great Gate) and so realize they are lost. 

The Sholari no longer pretends they know what hex they are in. They tell the players they are lost and do not know what hex they are in. They deliberate about what to do. They know they are within 3 hexes of the brown fens 0710, and quite possibly within 2 hexes, depending on where they went awry. They have one move left for the day. They reason that they have enough rations for two days, and a very good chance of making their survival roll the next day (72%). Their plan is to explore the hex they're in to see if they can uncover a landmark or some feature that might be familar, and then make camp for the night. Their search discovers a feature rather than a landmark and some adventure is had before they make camp.

The following day, they make their survival roll and head due south from their current position, exploring each hex as they move through it. They move to hex 0610 and explore it, turning up a previously unknown features. They then move south to hex 0609 and explore again, this time finding something that sure seems familiar from their previous explorations--a small copse of a rare limite (a psycedelic herb), lit by the unearthly light of glowferns. The Sholari then reveals to them where they are in the map. The party breaths a sigh of relief and uses their last move to return to the brown fens in 0710 to deliberate about what to do next.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Google Plus Mixtape Track 02: Super Band Play Culture

I was on Google + for five years with you. We shared practices, theory, and bits of wonder, frozen starlight, passed gleefully from one outstretched elfin hand to another. I have learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons with you in rewarding and novels ways. But now Google + is gone. So I made you this mix tape. I think you'll recognize some of the songs. I hope you like it.

This is Track 02 of my google mixtape series. Listen to Track 01 here.

More than anything, I would say the OSR scene on Google+ was a play culture. People played a lot of games with one another. Since to be on OSR Google+ you had to be really into roleplaying, most everyone who played was also a high-caliber DM with a blog and a campaign (or two) of their own. Groups on G+ were like "super bands", composed entirely of the most engaged single member of other groups.
This meant that being a player allowed for immediate influence and transmission of techniques from one game to others. Someone who had an amazing experience in John Bell's Necrocarcerus or Miranda Elkin's Nightwick Abbey campaign as a player would turn right around and put those practices to use in their own campaigns.

Google+ had an excellent set of tools to enable this process. When G+ introduced "communities" that allowed you to moderate subgroups, this allowed for a centralized platform where people could communicate directly with their players easily. Since events were integrated with Google+, you could schedule a google hangout, slap a glorious picture and a description on there, invite all your players (or whomever you wanted), and even get a reminder for the event. It was also like having an easier to use campaign blog integrated with your social media scene, since you could post campaign hooks, session recaps, NPC pictures, and so on to your community.

Since folks in the OSR scene were mainly on Google+, it meant that all the amazing long-running campaigns of the OSR had their own G+ communities. Google+ wasn't just a social media platform; it was a storehouse of living campaigns. When Google+ was dying, I found it unbearable that all these intensely shared worlds of play would vanish. All the posts about NPCs, all campaign hooks, all the giddy post-game exchanges between players, all the houserules, all the downtime activities, all the richly imagined information about the world--gone in a digital heartbeat.

There was an app called Google Exporter that allowed you to download a community if you were a moderator. So I set about offering to export people's communities for them. In the course of doing that, I learned a lot about what different people were doing. In the final twilight hours, I picked a few campaigns and took the opportunity to interview players who had played in them. My two criteria for picking the campaigns, were these:

  1. The campaign had to be long-running OSR game. 
  2. It had to be a game where everyone who was playing knew that something special was happening. 

This topic is related to, but distinct from, track 01, which was about flailsnails. Some of these campaigns began as flailsnails affairs, slowly settling into a non-flailsnails mode as regular players starting coming back and the occasional new players rolled up characters from the campaign world. Other campaign began as  independent non-flailsnails campaigns, and briefly opened their doors to cosmic interlopers at the height of the flailsnails fad, before returning to their homegrown ways. Yet others came after flailsnails was more or less moribund, or simply never participated in the planes-hopping shenanigans. The role of flailsnails was, I think, as an accelerator of the play culture in general. It helped to build a pool of available players with connection with one another. One might play with someone else in a flailsnails game, and then get an invite to the non-flailsnails campaign they were starting up as a DM. Flailsnails built connections between people and greased the wheels for G+ play. But the point is, these established, long-running campaigns are not, in the main, flailsnails games. They are a different, if related, part of the G+ OSR scene.

Given the super band phenomenon, one thing I found when I started to look into it, was that you could trace influence from one campaign to another, in an evolving set of DMing practices, house rules, settings, and in some cases, publishing ventures. In fact, I've come to think of this super band play culture as the hidden infrastructure of the G+ OSR scene. A lot of the visible facades--blog posts, published rulesets, adventures, publishing outfits--were supported by these hidden networks of transmission. So, for example, David Lewis Johnson's Gathox Vertical Slum, a visible product you could buy and consume, was invisibly influenced by the fact that Johnson played in Robert Parker's Savage World of Krül campaign. Similarly, Gus' HMS Apollyon Player's Guide was influenced by the experience Gus had playing in Brendan S's experimental Pahvelorn campaign, which led Gus to rewrite entirely the rules for his HMS Apollyon campaign. What you, the DIY enthusiast or consumer, see is the end product of a fermenting process that begins with experience as a player in other people's games that often passes through the author's own campaign, finally crystallizing in the public sphere as some numinous object.

In the next few tracks on the Google Mixtape I will be talking about these games in groups of influence. We're going to start with perhaps the best known Google+ campaign: the Hill Cantons. In later tracks we'll branch off into less well-known territory. I couldn't be more excited to tell you what I learned about these glorious G+ campaigns, many of which you've probably never heard of, even if you were on G+. But they were all influential in their way, and tracing the lineages is interesting.  Here is a preview of future tracks on the Google+ Mixtape. I may add some tracks if I get the chance to interview some more groups.

Track 03: The Hill Cantons
Track 04: Savage World of Krül
Track 05: Swords of the Inner Sea
Track 06: Pahvelorn
Track 07: HMS Apollyon

Monday, July 26, 2021

Throwing Bones

A bunch of us have launched a new co-authored review blog Bones of Contention. The introduction to the blog is here, and you can read the first review in my series, Ludic Dreams, here. I review two new zines from Zinequest 3 that presents systems for tracking NPC relations and ongoing shenanigans, A Small Entanglement of Flowers and Entanglements, and A Tangled Web. 

I'd like to say something about why we launched the blog and how we're thinking of the collective project. We launched the blog out of a sense that there was a problem with the culture of criticism and reviews in the retro-gaming scene. One basic problem with reviews that we face in our little DIY corner of the hobby is that most reviews happen in the form of boosterism, where people share stuff on blogs and social media because they're excited about it. Since this is a small scene, where almost everyone knows almost everyone else, at least at some vanishingly small degree of separation, this often involves friends lifting up the work of friends. Which is great, but it has its obvious limitations. Critical reviews in this mode are rare. If you give over your blog or a twitter thread to write a random critical review of something in this space, the results are hurt feelings (why did you give over your space to single me out?). So game design don't improve through criticism. 

Another problem is one of time. It would be nice to review things regularly. But who has the time, especially if one is also writing material or designing games, not to mention holding down a day job, and all the rest? Similarly, it would be great if more reviews were written as a result of playtesting. How can you have an adequate view of a game product without playing it? Again, problems of organization and time make this unrealistic, especially if you're running a home campaign already. 

Of course, there are some dedicated review sites (especially Questing Beast and Ten Foot Pole) that have been going for a long time that devote huge amounts of time and energy solely to reviews. But they are single-authored and so convey a single point of view. This point of view is often quite valuable, but it's just one established voice. So it would be nice if there were some new perspectives entering the conversation too. Another more politically delicate problem with some of these sites is that they are trollish sites (like Prince of Nothing) or have unmoderated comment sections that through the charming magic of the internet sometimes devolve into flame wars and trollish behavior (i.e. Ten Foot Pole). This makes retro-gaming a less welcoming space than it should be and does absolutely nothing to improve critical discussion and evaluation. 

Our solution to these problems is to create a dedicated review site that avoids boosterism for substantial reviews. Instead of being single authored, we draw on a large enough group of people to keep reviews coming, and do at least some playtesting. Our goal is to try to get at least one review up a week. We also tried to include a diverse group of people as reviewers who have interesting perspectives on games, most of whom are authors in their own right. We tried to include people who would be likely to present thoughtful and interesting reviews that might foster fruitful conversations. If you head over to the blog and meet the Skeleton Crew (as we're calling ourselves) you'll see some of the people involved. They're a group of people whose work I have respected for years, and with whom I'm very excited to be working.  

The idea isn't to create a single school of design, but rather for each contributor to maintain their own independent series of reviews from their own perspective. We will collaborate on some reviews, like our first review of the Isle of the Plangent Mage, but for the most part people will be selecting things to review and writing the reviews on their own. In short, the collective in question is a collaboration between otherwise independent reviewers. Don't think of Bones of Contention like this:

This is not our goal 

Our goal instead is to try to write reviews that provide information about and give visibility to products, but also say something interesting about retro or classic game design (for authors and DIY enthusiasts), each from our own perspective as authors and designers. We're also moderating comments in order to avoid the trollish comments and flame wars. I have moderated the comments here for a long time, without any loss in quality. (The worst thing to ever happen was I deleted a strange thread of comments in which Kent was making fun of a shirt I was wearing. On a typical day, the only thing I delete are solicitations for vampirism and sorcery.) 

Anyway, check the blog out here and give it a follow in your reader, RSS feeds, on blogger, or however people are reading blogs nowadays. 


Monday, July 19, 2021

Through Ultan's Door Returns to Print


At long last, Through Ultan's Door is back in print. All issues (1-3) and Beneath the Moss Courts are available in Print + PDF on my Big Cartel store. Get them here. What's more, for a limited time you can buy this glorious 24x18 inch poster from Huargo of the White Jungle that hangs from the bottom of Zyan. It is an appropriately lurid fever dream of a poster, which takes inspiration from Jimmy Cauty's justly famous Lord of the Rings Poster:

You can also find PDFs of Through Ultan's Door and Beneath the Moss Courts at both DriveThruRPG and 

I will mail zines and posters as I am able. Since I now have a thermal printer and no longer have to stand in line at the post office, it's much easier for me to fulfill orders. So I hope they will ship within 48 hours. 

I also fulfilled my last rewards for the Kickstarter this morning. So it seems like I've come out the other end without having bungled things, although there were a flurry of snafus this morning! 

As always, if you want to join the mailing list for the zine, just drop a note to throughultansdoor AT gmail DOT com. 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Injury and the Abstract Combat Round


Let me give a natural description of how combat works in D&D. Each person gets to make (at least one) to hit roll against an enemy per round to see if they can damage them. How high they have to roll to hit depends on how well-armored their enemy is, because being well-armored protects one from injury. If they do hit, they get to roll to see how effective their blow was by rolling damage. Different weapons do different damage, since some are more deadly than others. These weapons injure people more seriously in the way that getting hit by a sword (or a chainsaw) is likely to injure you worse than getting sliced by a switchblade. Inexperienced characters are easier to kill because they "can take" or "withstand" less damage than more experienced characters who have many more hit points and "can take" many more blows.  

Here are two common dissatisfactions with D&D style combat. The first is that there's something weird about how you can stab Lancelot with a knife 24 times with no chance of killing him. It suggests video game thinking, as if he had a life bar that could be "full" or "empty", a life bar that grew with each level, and shrunk eat time you got hacked with a sword. (Indeed, it may well have been the source of that video game thinking in part.)

One might object to this on grounds of realism. This might be a big deal for you. It might be hard for you to maintain suspension of disbelief with all these stabbings. Or, you may be into military simulations, and think this is missing out on the fun of simulating combat. Personally, I happen to not need that much realism in combat to sustain my immersion in the fiction of the game, and I'm not into military simulations. My objection to this picture is rather an aesthetic one, both a repulsion to the aesthetic of the life bar, as well as to the associated picture of people taking and dishing out endless beatings, like when the Hulk fights Thor. 

The second objection is to gameplay and the role it grants violence. Standard D&D makes fighting weirdly predictable, even with swingy D&D dice. As a seasoned player, I can weigh the odds, and engage with confidence that I have a big HP cushion to count on, sauntering into a fight with confidence that it'll be four or five or ten rounds before I need to reassess. 

We might want a game where the stakes to violence were potentially higher. Where death or actual injury with consequences were constantly hazarded by fighting. We might want this for a variety of reasons, for example, if we wished violence to play a different role in our game, or if we thought it would be more fun if things stayed on the knife's edge--at least when knives were involved. 

The Old School Fix

One old school reply to at least the first aesthetic objection is to emphasize the abstract combat round. In old editions of D&D (OD&D for example), a combat round lasted one minute. During that one minute all kinds of swashbuckling, ripostes, presses, and close shaves get abstracted down to a couple of rolls. Elaborating on this abstracted round, we might say that hit points and damage are equally abstract, and that they do not consist literal stabbings and such, but represent an abstract combination of luck, grit, pluck, fortitude, situational advantage, and skill that have to be overcome for a side to prevail in the course of a fight. Armor makes it harder to prevail against someone in this way, and being better at fighting makes it easier.

I think this is aesthetically much better than the picture on which every successful roll is a literal blow that lands on your opponent. But in conversation recently, Anne Hunter mentioned that although people say this all the time, no one playing retro-games really thinks about it this way at the table. This struck me as true. I got curious why. Here are some speculations.

(1) The names of things are misleading. You roll "to hit". That sure sounds like a sword swing connecting. Furthermore, only if your blow "hits" do you do "damage". That sure sounds like injuring someone. Spells that give you back hp have names like "cure light wounds" "cure moderate wounds", etc., and are described as "healing". That sure sounds like it's making literal wounds vanish! 

(2) There are mechanics that only make sense on the picture of actual individual swings and actual wounds. For example, for every single shot you fire with a bow you mark off a single arrow. So every shot is literally firing a single arrow. This suggests strongly that a hit really is getting hit by a specific arrow. Or again, in old editions of D&D, i.e. AD&D 1E, if you lose hp then you need to recover it slowly by resting for days (1-2 hp a day) in the way that suggests recovering from actual injuries. 

(3) But I think the biggest culprit here is how as players and DMs we describe combat and enter into it imaginatively. aPhilotomy is a proponent of the abstract combat round solution. Here is a nice quotation from Philotomy's OD&D Musings about the importance of giving the right descriptions of combat in order to support the abstract combat round approach to hp.  

I agree with Philotomy that we need to change our descriptions if we're to have an abstract combat round approach to hp. But I'm skeptical that merely sprinkling in DM narrated description now and again is going to get people out of the concrete headspace. 

The problem is that when I, the DM, ask you at the start of a round, as the rules require, "What are you doing this round?", it's utterly natural for you to say, "I'm going to stab him with my sword." And then you roll to see if your proposed action succeeds, and then if it does succeed, you roll further to see how effective it is. So if you hit, you naturally imagine yourself as in fact stabbing someone, and you imagine them as taking more or less damage from being cut by your weapon. 

Ron Edwards call this sequence of description and dice rolls, "fortune at the end". The idea is that you appeal to fortune after you have fully described what you are doing. The fortune shows you if the described action succeeds, and if it does, how effective that action is. He contrasts this with "fortune in the middle", where you describe a general goal, but then roll and narrate what actions you perform to fit the outcome of the die roll. I'll come back to "fortune in the middle" in a little bit.

The point for now is that the "fortune at the end" kind of sequential ordering, when combined with the names for the rolls and the variable weapon damage, really pushes players to imagine that their character is trying to stab their opponent all right, but the opponent turns aside the sword (if the player misses), or that the player's character does in fact stab them (if the player hits). I mean, that's what you were trying to do, and you either succeeded or failed with your binary to hit roll followed by a damage roll based on how lethal your weapon is, right? So naturally, that's how you'll be imagining the situation. There's a constant pull away from abstraction if we enter into the situation imaginatively, as we are constantly invited to do by the rules.

The point is that these three things, the language, nuances of the rules, and the structure suggested by the sequences of declaring and then executing actions, and the way this invites us into the shared imaginative space, all work against the abstract combat round type of approach to hit points.

The New School Fix

Suppose we eschew the abstracted combat round and stick with the surface logic of striking blows in D&D. What can we do? John Bell in conversation pointed out to me that Justin Alexander interprets the strange ability of heroes to absorb so many more stabbings in a different way. Individual blows really are individual blows and damage really is damage. But your hit point total represents your general fighting capacity, and damage is indexed to that. It's true a sword is (potentially) twice as effective as a dagger against Conan, but given his honed instincts, training, and the luck he makes for himself, the best you're going to do with the first eight sword blows is scratch him. He's just that good. By contrast, for a 1st level recruit, a sword will still be twice as effective as a dagger, but a single blow from a sword might very well kill them. Here's a nice quote: 

I think this makes a kind of sense, and it's probably about as good as you're going to get while sticking with the logic of individual blows and effects suggested by a straight reading of D&D's mechanics. It's true that it has a couple of problems, like why can the cleric heal a grievous wound for the peasant, but not more than few scratches for Conan? Better fighters need bigger miracles? 

But the real issue for me is that it doesn't address my objections. This is not to say it doesn't work--it basically works, it's just if you want what I want from a game it's not going to satisfy. It leaves the endless pounding aesthetic in place, and leaves combat (starting at mid levels) in that weirdly predictably not-very-scary space. Again, I'm not saying you can't die with this kind of hp inflation, you can, but combat's got a weird "we've got this" type logic most of the time. 

By the way, I facetiously called this a New School fix, but the truth is that this is, arguably, to a certain extent how even OD&D is handling things from Supplement I forward, basically as soon as variable weapon damage gets introduced. Certainly there's a ton of this kind of thinking in AD&D 1E. So it's an especially clear statement of a rationale for something that's not very new after all.

Making it Abstract FOR REAL

My proposal is to fix the problems I mentioned so that we might take the abstract combat round more seriously. I'm going in the "old school fix" direction, although it takes me is to place where we use certain narrative practices that are not very well entrenched in retro play. I'd also like to try to make combat more a space of real injury and also stretch the peril characteristic of low levels to cover a lot more of the progression curve. I'd also like to stay away from the superheroes trading blows upon blows aesthetic. 


Let's start with language. Let's make it more abstract. Instead of calling it "to hit roll" let's call it a "combat roll". Instead of a "hit", let's call it a "success". So you "succeed" or "fail" at your "combat roll". Instead of "rolling damage", let's call it "rolling effectiveness", or "rolling effect". If you succeed at your combat roll, then you roll to see how effective that was success was. 


Here's a  bit of language that bleeds into more significant rules. Instead of calling them "hit points", let's follow Logan Knight (at one stage of his development) and call the counter ticking towards death "grit". The basic idea is that grit will track some abstract combination of honed instinct, resolve, situational upper hand, minor wounds, and the like. Think about grit as a tracker leading towards actual wounds. (If you are familiar with Apocalypse Worlds and Blades in the dark, think of it as a "clock".) When the grit tracker is depleted then actual wounds and death ensue (knives in bellies). If you haven't read Logan Knight's original post on Flesh and Grit, as well as his more evolved rules here on this I recommend you do so, as my whole approach takes inspiration these, and mechanically speaking, just ring a couple of changes on them. In fact an even better version is in Ava Islam's Errant here and a post where she unpacks her reasoning here.

To make this work, we need to distinguish mechanically bonafide wounds from the kind of thing grit tracks. We can have real recovery rules for wounds, but a different recovery mechanic (more like long rests in later editions of D&D) for grit. I'll present a system below drawing on Knight and Islam's approach. 

Keep Grit Dice Low

We'll need to keep grit low throughout the duration of a campaign if things are to stay on the knife's edge. In Jorune: Evolutions, you can only gain a Grit Die (GD) through what I used to call "Big Ticket Sandbox Advancement", and now call Signature Achievement Advancement (diegetic accomplishment of some task that makes you a badass). Since signature achievements are hard to accomplish, characters will likely remain at 1 GD for a while. Also, the system maxes out at 4 GD as the most a player can ever get. So we'll never get into superhero range, although 4 HD could arguably represent a Conan figure pretty well.

Ditching Variable Weapon Damage

Let's also decouple "effectiveness" from how big a blade a weapon has. In other words, let's ditch variable weapon damage and go back to OD&D pre-supplement 1's flat 1d6 for damage. This will help a lot with abstraction and is exactly what Jorune: Evolutions does. Variable weapon damage probably does more than anything to push us to imagining combat rolls as concrete blows that injure our foes to a greater or lesser degree. (There are other, more interesting, ways to differentiate weapons that I discuss here.) 

Sundry Rules Modifications

Perhaps we can handle the ammo question the way Gus L does (and many others) with a usage die for ammunition. This will drive us towards abstraction and away from arrow counting. With different healing rules for grit and real injury this will smooth over the "cure light wounds" difficulty. 

Describing Combat

Now for the harder bit: how to describe and imaginatively enter into combat. The most interesting change will be in how we describe and think about combat narratively by replacing "fortune at the end" with "fortune in the middle". 

Players will still be asked what they want to do at the start of the round. They still say what their character is going to be doing in combat that round, like trying to kill someone or attacking with a sword. But combat as it actually unfolds will be described differently. I think we need to bring the players into combat imaginatively in a different way to make this work by asking them the right kinds of questions as DMs. 

I'm thinking of the way even in retro gamist heavy play, DMs will often ask a player to describe how they kill someone, giving narrative control over the moment of victory to the player, asking "What does it look when you take them out?" Here I'm envisioning something similar but re-centered on an abstract understanding of grit. 

Suppose the player succeeds at a combat roll and rolls a 6 (max) on the effectiveness die. The DM might say, "Wow, that was pretty effective. Tell us how you're gaining the upper hand." Or, supposing the grit counter has ticked low for the enemy as a result of the roll, we could go with the more melodramatic: "Tell us how we know that the hour of your enemy's doom is approaching." 

This will encourage players to enter into a space where they think of the struggle of combat as leading up to grievous injury, rather than consisting of a mechanic series of blows. It may also add a bit of (welcome) flavor to what is famously kinda dry combat in OSR games. 

Now, to make this work, the rule will have to be that the player may not describe the opponent as suffering a (real or serious) wound when all we're talking about is the loss of grit, since that hasn't happened yet. Furthermore--and this is the really tricky bit--there needs to be an understanding that what is described doesn't constitute fictional positioning with mechanical benefits. There already are mechanics for combat in place.  

So, for example, the player can't say, "I split his breastplate and give him a gash from shoulder to rib." That would be a wound, so the DM might say, "Well you didn't wound him yet, so let's say you actually dent his breastplate, and you hear him groan and gasp in breath as his ribs bruise." Players will pick up on this soon enough and it will effect how they imaginatively enter the combat space, "I beat him back and the best he can do is frantically parry my blows".

A harder case: what if they say, "I strike him hard, and he tries to parry, but the blow knocks the sword across the room"? The problem is that some weapons and unarmed combat have rules for disarming people, and so this is already covered by the rules elsewhere. They can't get that condition "for free" through narrative control. You don't want players "double dipping", both gaining the benefits of an effective blow that significantly advances the tracker towards wounds and death, and also gives them further mechanical benefits. Trust me, if players have this power in a gamist space where they're required to "try to win" it's not going to work. 

As a DM, I would redirect this description in a "yes and" way, "Amazing. But he's not disarmed per the rules, so he dives for his weapon and retrieves it, sweat forming on his brow."   

Whether as DM you allow the cinematic narration to bleed into tactical advantage via fictional positioning will be delicate. Probably you can't stop it altogether, and you'll just have to use your judgment and not let it get too far. For example, take a still more subtle case. Suppose a player describes bashing against someone and driving them back towards a canyon behind them. It's a judgment call whether you redirect that in a "yes and" sorta way. 

If you allow it, it will have tactical consequences, for example, about the possibility of someone trying to grapple the foe and toss them over the edge in later rounds. But the flip side is that opponents can wriggle out, or gain some fictional positioning, when they score effective attacks too. So it's a two-way street and given the right dynamics at the table, this might be pleasing.  

What I would say is that it's a judgment call, and something to be worked out in practice. Generally speaking, my advice would be that the DM should use the abstraction and narrative flavoring to try to keep separate directly mechanical effects from narrative descriptions via gentle "yes and" redescriptions where necessary. 

This approach will work best with theater of the mind play, where tactical maps are used (if at all) only roughly to indicate where people are at in a fluid situation. This approach requires a degree of abstractness that is a poor fit with five foot squares and the like. The mantra is to make combat mechanically abstract, as a counter towards wounds and death, and then allow narrative descriptions to shape the space of our shared imagination by asking questions that lead away from the concrete narration of trading blows. 

The System 

Here's a first pass at implementing the approach I've been outlining in this post for a particular game, Jorune: Evolutions. A classless OD&D inspired sword and planet game. 


  • To attack in Jorune: Evolutions make a combat roll, which is 1d20 + Modifier (Strength for Melee, Aim for Missile Weapons) against the target's AC. 
  • If you tie or beat the AC this is a success
  • On a success, you make an effectiveness roll which is always 1d6. 
  • Subtract the effectiveness roll from the opponent's grit, which is a tracker towards wounds and death. 

Wounds and Death

Grit never falls below 0. When it reaches 0, the target makes a Stamina check, which is 2d6 + their stamina modifier. (These are like deathblows in the video game The Darkest Dungeon if that helps you, except that the blow that takes you to 0 also induces one.) Note that starting stamina modifiers range from -1 to +1 and never go higher than +2.

6- Target slain.

7-9 Target wounded.

10+ Only a scratch. 


The wounded target receives a -1 for the duration of combat to all rolls (including future stamina checks, effectiveness rolls, etc). 

Consult the effectiveness roll of the attack that wounded the target. 

(1)-(3) The target gets to describe the wound received.

(4)-(6) The attacker gets to describe the wound dealt.  

Such descriptions can have consequences for healing, and also fictional positioning, although for mechanically speaking, the total effect is -1 to physical rolls. 

Here's a chart:


All GD can be recovered with a full night's sleep. Whatever your grit score upon falling asleep, roll all your GD afresh as you would normally upon wakening.  

Wounds on the other hand heal more slowly and perilously. The penalty to rolls persists until proper healing can take place over downtime. 

During the Adventure

If a party member is wounded, reduce overland travel for the wounded by 1 hex per day for each wound they received. Having to camp in the wilderness with wounded party members is not a good situation. When the party makes camp for the night, the person with the highest medical score must check to treat their wounds:

6-    The wounded must check vs. stamina or acquire an infection
7+   No infection

Infection: Open a three step infection tracker and give it one step. On three steps the character dies. Each night a further stamina check must be made. (There are limilates and the like that can help with recovering from infection.)

6-    Add a step to the tracker
7-9  Remove a step from the tracker
10+ Remove two steps from the tracker

During Downtimes

Resolving Infection

If the party has not yet camped, when the party returns to the village, you should first test for infection by having the member of the cohort with the highest medical skill make a check as above. (The party may also recruit an NPC to treat the wound if someone has a relationship with the NPC.) Resolve the rolls for recovering from the infection all at once using the above rules with one exception. 


If the character reaches three steps on the infections tracker while at the village, the player can opt to undergo surgery. The person with the highest medical skill in the cohort then makes a medical check. 

6- Death
7+ Recovery with permanent injury

The player may decide what the permanent injury is. It must have a mechanical effect of some kind, and needs to fit the description of the wound. 

Rest and Recuperation

Once it is determined that the character will live and whether they have suffered permanent injury, the character must rest. They may not go on missions or perform downtime actions for 1 week for each wound received. If they underwent surgery, add 2 additional weeks to their recovery. During this time, the player of this character can play with their alternate character during recovery time. (Here modest troupe play makes these injury rules workable and perhaps even fun as a change of pace).