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 Evan 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 Krüll
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).

Monday, March 8, 2021

Downtime Activity: Gathering Intelligence and Spying

Often players will want to gather intelligence about something during downtime from other people. This can take many forms, from gossiping over drinks, to the use of stool pigeons, or casing a joint, or more daring activities like spying or going undercover. The DM has a strong interest in enabling this activity, because good intelligence is an opportunity to introduce hooks that interest players, and also allows meaningful player choices. 

These downtime activities takes inspiration from Robert Parker's masterful Savage World of Krül rules, with which Robert ran one of the legendary games of G+. I will have more to say about that game on another occasion. For now I just want to let you know that the basic idea (although not the details) of these rules came from Robert's wonderful system of downtime activities. 

A note on hiring people to do things. The general thrust of downtime activities has been no "outsourcing". But my thinking has been evolving here. The new principle is "if you want to do something right, do it yourself". I also try to fold in the whole issue of "hirelings" into the system of cultivating relationships with people. You want lackeys. FINE. Build the relationship. 

Gathering Intelligence (Rumormongering)

Suppose a player wants to chase down some information about something, like a group, or location, item, etc. This is the downtime action for them. 

The player first specify what they want information about. They next specify the group from whom they want to try to learn something. The DM will say whether that group might know something or whether there's no point in talking to them about. (There is no such thing as wasting this action by asking the wrong people.) The player will then say how they go about trying to elicit the information. 

Do they share war stories and buy the mercenary outfit free rounds of drinks to learn about a certain enemy they've faced? Or maybe they want to track down rumors about a traveling caravan by bringing trade goods to an outpost?  

The player may also use this downtime activity to turn up something interesting, in the spirit of "Dm throw something fun my way." In that case, they no longer have to say what they're trying to learn about, but they still have to say who they're trying to get the information from and how they're doing it. 
To perform the downtime action, spend 1d6 x 25 gp and roll 2d6. Apply modifiers from the following list up to a max of +3:

  • Add 1 for each relevant relation (at the level of acquaintance or higher) you have who might help you chase down information with the relevant community
  • Add 1 for each relevant fictional advantage you have, for example, being well-loved by a given faction you are gathering information from, or having some juicy gossip they'll love to hear.
  • Add 1 for each additional 100 GP you spend to grease palms.  

On a 6-: no useful intelligence gathered. 

On a 7-9: the player turns up real information, but the DM has the option of inserting some sketchy material, either by making the information somewhat ambiguous or misleading, or by mixing truth with a bit of outright falsehood. The DM shouldn't say whether they have or have not exercised this opiton. 

On a 10+ solid intelligence.

One problem you might have with this system is that the players will know from their roll when the intel might be shaky. But I like the idea that players have a sense when there might be something dubious about the information they got. 


Sometimes you don't just want to chase down information. You want to infiltrate an organization, or case an establishment, or spy on an ambassador. This is he downtime action for you.

The player first proposes a target to spy on and a goal in terms of what they're trying to learn. They say how they will be pursuing that goal. 

The DM then sets a tracker to get the relevant information. The tracker, will usually consist of successive layers of information to be unlocked, but sometimes it might just have a single payoff at the end. The tracker should be longer the more involved and difficult the job is. 

If all you want is to case a joint, then it's likely a one step tracker. If you want to infiltrate the inner circle of a mob boss or king, the tracker might have 7 steps. (You could also use a modified version of this system to handle sabotage or assassination. Instead of information, the result would be the desired outcome.)

Spend 1d6 x 50GP on expenses for the operation (more if high society infiltration is involved). Then roll 2d6 and add the following modifiers up to a maximum total of +3. Here's a version for Jorune and for D&D.

Jorune Version:
  • Add disguise skill modifier if relying on a false identity. 
  • Add culture skill if relying on high society, etiquette, or specific cultural knowledge.
D&D Version:
  • Add 1/2 your assassin level (rounded up)
  • Add 1/3 your thief level (rounded up)
For both Jorune and D&D: 
  • Add +1 for each relevant contact
  • Add +1 for each fictional edge you would have given the details of your plan and your capabilities

6-: Failure with complication. No progress on the tracker. Roll on the Spy Troubles chart below to see what complications have arisen from your failure.
7-9: Success with complication. Advance one step on the tracker. Roll on the Spy Troubles chart below to see what complications have arisen from your failure.
10+: Success! Advance one step on the tracker.

This kinda generic chart is written with infiltrating a powerful organization in mind. You might need custom tables for different sorts of jobs.

Spy Troubles 1d10

  1. Bad reputation. Other people have seen you with the organization, and you are starting to get a bad rep with factions that don't like it. This may be hard to shake. 
  2. Mixed up with the wrong people. You learn that someone you know or love is somehow mixed up with this organization in a way that troubles you and may, possibly, threaten your cover. 
  3. Expensive proposition. Owing to a looming disaster, you suddenly need to come up with a lot of funds to keep the operation going. 1d6 x 100 GP or no further progress is possible on the tracker.
  4. All the wrong friends. Someone from the organization is getting too close for comfort. Maybe like an affectionate puppy they followed you home and now know something about you, or maybe they romantically propositioned you. Whatever it is, they are trying to insert themselves into your life in a way that is risky. The DM may bring them in during a session to introduce complications.
  5. They are getting suspicious. You slipped somehow and someone is harboring suspicions. Unless you take care of the problem, for example by doing something to prove your loyalty, or discredit the suspicious person, a second spy troubles result will result in serious trouble (50% frozen out, 50% cover blown).
  6. Moral quandary. To prove you bona fides you must do something your character would rather not do. The DM will tell you the choice you face. If you choose not to do it, no further progress on the tracker is possible. The DM may or may not allow clever workarounds.
  7. You're not the only one! You and another spy have made each other. Their purpose is not the same as yours. This is a delicate situation that may need to be addressed. Until it is resolved, further spy troubles involve the DM picking a result that is produced by the rival spy.
  8. Blackmail. Someone knows what you are doing, and is trying to shake you down. Pay your level x 100 GP per session until the tracker is completed. Or maybe they want something more interesting.
  9. Frozen out. Someone got suspicious and you are now frozen out. Ghosted. No further progress possible.
  10. Cover Blown. You've been made! The group stages a confrontation. This could be anything from a kidnapping to a bitter discussion. You can play this out, or make a second custom 2d6 roll to see what the result is, given the nature of the organization. 

Procuring a Spy

Suppose a player wants to do this, but doesn't want to spy themselves. In order to procure a spy, they must first do so through cultivating a relevant relationship. Normally, you can only get someone who you can trust and is able to do the job if you have cultivated a relationship with the person through downtime activities. 

The player must spend a downtime action trying to recruit someone and setting up a mission. Roll 2d6 with the following modifiers to see if they're willing to take the job. You may proposition as many relations as you want for a single downtime action. 

  • Acquaintance -1
  • Associate +0
  • Friend +1
  • Intimate +2
  • Dangerous Mission -1
  • Very dangerous mission -2
  • Double pay +1
6-: No thanks.
7+: Yes. 

The cost is twice their level x 100 GP per downtime, and triple their level if they are an assassin. If they are 0 level, then it costs 50 GP. 

Have them make a roll each downtime as if they were a PC, with a -1 penalty. (You can still apply modifiers if they have the relevant skills, but the max positive modifier is +2.)  If you want a job done right, then you have to do it yourself! Generally, the DM should involve the PC who is hiring them in any problems that result from spy troubles, i.e. they come to the PC for help with the problem, and in the worst case scenario (cover blown!) the organization has a 50% of tracing the rat back to their employer. 

Friday, March 5, 2021

Animal Terror

In response to my last post, Gus wrote that a good test for a grappling system is how it handles animal attacks. This post is about using grappling and unarmed combat rules to model animal attacks. I also explain how we might use it to model animal taming. 

Gus' further elaborated his point by saying that a bear should be able to tear any PC to pieces. Part of his complaint about my system was that it didn't seem to deliver this result. I demur from his proposed test only a little. Think about the above cover Savage Sword of Conan, where Conan grapples desperately with some great beast. The design space I'd like to be in is one where a Conan, an advanced adventurer (4 HD) at the outer limit of human strength (+2), can try something like this, but only by stepping onto the knife's edge, i.e. at great peril. But I agree that animal attacks need further treatment, and I also propose some emendations to my grappling system at the end of the post to address his critique.

Animal Terrors

Creatures that pounce are frightening using these rules because they can ignore PC armor and get past bigger weapons. This already gives them a real edge. Here are a couple of further animal tags that I've developed for truly fearsome predators. If you have other ideas, drop them in the comments. 

Maul: In grappling, automatic damage from natural weapons is not subject to disadvantage. Furthermore, on a success and the choice to wound, a mauling attack has advantage. 

Drag: In grappling, on an immobilize result, the attacker can drag the victim half of their move. Good for hauling someone back into a cave, or snatching them up into a tree, or the air, or pulling them underwater.

Ferocious: In grappling, on a successful opposed grapple roll, the attacker choose to may deal damage against all who are grappling with it. (This makes it dangerous to try to mob the creature.)

Constrict: In grappling, one may deal damage to immobilized foes. One may grapple 1 foe of the same size, or up to 3 foes of smaller size, by grappling them on successive turns. 

Swallow: With 2 successive immobilize results, the animal may swallow the opponent. A swallowed opponent takes 1d6 damage a round. They can only be freed by slaying the beast or otherwise cutting it open.


Sabre Tooth Tiger

If we return to Conan vs. the smilodon from the comic at the top, we might stat it out like this (this is also a glimpse of part of what a statblock might look like for Jorune: Evolutions).

Sabre Tooth Tiger HD4 AC:Lt Str+2 Agl+2 Sz:L Mv18 ML7 Special: Maul, Ferocious

When this animal pounces on a normal sized PC,  they'll get one stab at it, and then will face a grapple with an opponent that has a +3 to their grapple check (+2 for strength, +1 for size). On a (very likely) success by the sabre tooth tiger, they will face a damage roll with advantage. Even on a failure, they'll take 1d6 damage. Devastating in a system with low hp and no variable weapon damage.

Conan has a strength bonus of +2. In the picture he has a close weapon drawn. So, although Conan is overmatched and will suffer a lot of damage, it is not impossible that he will prevail. Right on the knife's edge! 

Giant Python

Giant Python HD3 AC:Lt Str+1 Agl+0 SizeL MV9 ML6 Special: Constrict, Swallow

This is a nasty bugger. It can immobilize and constrict multiple foes by attacking each in succession. It can also choose to swallow immobilized foes. I think this would be a lot of fun to run.  

Animal Taming

These rules can also be used to simulate animal capture and taming, the breaking of horses, and so on. In the absence of a trap or a limilate (poison, drug) that might sedate the beast, the only alternative is to try to wrestle the animal into submission, bind it, get it to accept a saddle, etc. 

To capture a beast, the party must immobilize it for 3 successive rounds of melee, using multiple grapplers to bind it: a net, shackles, rope, a saddle, etc. Keep in mind that multiple grapplers add to the total modifier on the opposed grapple check. 

To break a rideable beast, use the same system but allow the grappler to test against strength or agility. Treat an immobilize result as staying on the beast. If the beast wins they will always break the grapple, throwing the rider as if the beast had chuko (i.e. for 1d6 with disadvantage damage). On the subsequent round after throwing the rider test the animal's morale. If they fail they will flee, and if they pass they will melee attack (trample) the rider. On three successive immobilize results, the beast is broken and will accept the saddle--at least from this rider. 

Revisions to the System

Gus made some other helpful suggestions, having playtested related grappling rules (my rules are based on his, but have not yet been playtested). He suggested that I make damage from close and natural weapons automatic and not allow them to be nerfed by immobilizing a foe. If you grapple with a bear, you just will get mauled. Wayne Roberts also suggested being able to use agility (i.e. this system's dexterity) to wriggle out of grappling. I liked that suggestion too. Here are the changes in bullet point form, followed by a restatement of the rules. 

  • You can now choose to test against agility instead of strength, but if you do the only option you can take if you win is "break grapple"
  • If at the end of a round someone has a close and natural weapon, and they haven't done damage yet, they can automatically do damage with disadvantage if they want to.
  • If you have a close, or natural weapon, or know brazz juju, if you opt to wound you can do 1d6 damage without disadvantage.
  • I've also added much needed rules for attacking grappling foes with melee or missile weapons. 


A player can only grapple a foe that is at most two sizes larger than them. On their turn, a PC who can close with such an opponent can initiate a special grappling attack sequence. It works like this:

  1. If the opponent subject to the grapple attack is armed, they may melee attack the grappler as they close. 
  2. The grappler rolls to hit as though the opponent is unarmored. 
  3. If the attack hits, the two are now grappling. Neither may act for the rest of the round except to resolve the grapple.
  4. The grapplers now must make an opposed check using either strength or agility (2d6 + Mod). If one side is a size larger they receive advantage (+1), and if two sizes larger they receive great advantage (+2). Tied results are a stand-off. 
  5. If testing strength winner chooses 1: damage, disarm, immobilize, or break grapple. If testing agility the winner may only break the grapple.  
    • Damage: If unarmed, do 1d6/3 points to your opponent. If armed with a close or natural weapon, or using brazz juju, do 1d6. One may draw a close weapon for these purposes, provided one drops any other weapons one was carrying. One cannot otherwise draw a weapon while grappling.
    • Disarming knocks a weapon far enough away that it can't be used by the grappled foe (1d4x5 feet away).
    • Immobilizing the foe allows others to melee attack them without danger of hitting the grappler, or to join the grapple on them without needing to make an attack roll.
    • Breaking grapple ends the grapple. 

      6. If either side still has a close or natural weapon at the end of this sequence, and hasn't done damage yet, they deal 1d6 damage with disadvantage to their opponent. 


Multiple Grapplers

Once someone is grappled, other people can pile on by using their attack to grapple as normal. 

  • If they are immobilized then no addition attack roll is needed.
  •  Each additional grappler adds a bonus of 1 to the grappler with the highest bonus to the grapple check (strength or largest size). 
  • When multiple people grapple a single foe, then they can tie up the foe with two immobilize results on subsequent rounds if they have a rope or other bonds handy. 
  • If a single grappler wins against multiple foes and chooses to do damage, they may select to whom to apply the damage.   

Making Melee or Missile Attacks into a Grapple

This is a dangerous business. If the grapplers are of the same size you have a 3 in 6 chance of hitting each. If one grappler is a larger size, you have a 4 in 6 chance of hitting them. 

New Grappling and Unarmed Combat Weapon Proficiencies

Note that these unarmed proficiencies can be combined and stack. For example, someone might use chuko to reverse the strength bonus of an opponent, and when winning the grapple, use braz juju to inflict 1d6 damage with disadvantage on them.

Mantis Boxing

This is a catch-all standing in for many different techniques, from brutal street brawling learned in the gutters of Ardoth to disciplined martial arts like mantis boxing.

  • Those proficient in brawling do 1d6 damage with disadvantage in unarmed melee combat. 
  • This proficiency does not affect grappling. 


This elegant fighting art involves using your opponents strength against them to toss them like a rag doll. 

  • Those proficient in chuko turns the strength bonus of their opponent into a minus for the purpose of the grapple check. 
  • When winning a grapple check, they may opt to break the grapple by throwing their opponent 10' and doing 1d6 damage with disadvantage.
  • This proficiency does not affect unarmed melee combat.
Braz Juju

This ancient vicious fighting style involves coiling about your opponent like a serpent and inflicting the maximum pain. 

  • Those proficient in braz juju who win a grapple check and opt to damage their opponent do 1d6 damage.
  • This proficiency does not affect unarmed melee combat. 

Secret Fighting Techniques

It is rumored that there are other fighting techniques suited to the specific capabilities of different post-human species, but they are either obscure or positively proscribed in Ardoth.