Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Ruleset of My Very Own

(God, it's so banal.  The idea that you have such good houserules and mechanics ideas that you should codify them into a ruleset or a retroclone.  Vanity project slash fantasy heartbreaker slash no one is ever going to use this.)

(I just wanted to get that off my chest before I typed anything else.)

So here are my ideas for my very own ruleset.  I have typed up some design goals.  I want my ruleset to be:

Compatible. There are a lot of excellent modules out there, from TSR to OSR.  I want to be able to use those without any conversion.  It should also be modular enough that other people's houserules/retroclones can be applied with minimal/no tweaking.

Self-limiting. I want diminishing returns in all things. Other editions have had HP, attack bonuses, and damage that could scale indefinitely.  I want diminishing returns (and I even wrote an article about it).  HP should start to taper off early.  Then skill increases should begin to taper off.  Then attacks.  I want this because I want level 1 characters to stand beside level 9 characters and still be able to contribute, and I want level 8 characters to still fear 1 HD goblins.

Minimal. Whenever possible, consolidate 2 rolls into 1 roll. Whenever possible, adjudicate 1 roll into no rolls at all.  Complicated tables can often be simplified into progressions, which can often be simplified into formulas.  Spend less time fiddling with modifiers and rules, so that more time can be spent playing.

Simple. Rules should be easy to learn and use.  Steep learning curves are one of the biggest challenges facing tabletop RPGs, since they are such a huge barrier for potential players.  A simple game is easier it becomes to introduce it to new players and/or suggest it on family board game night (and even simple rules can offer tactical complexity and meaningful choices).  The game can only happen once the rules get out of the way.  And I say that as a person who fucking loves thinking about mechanics.

I typed up a character sheet.

Take a look at it, so I can start walking you through the ways it's different from B/X D&D.  I'll go right down the list.

Level is pretty much as you know it.  It is divorced from HD, though.  Level 1 characters have 1d6 HD.  Level 2 = 2 HD.  Level 3 = 3 HD.  But after that, you only get +1 hp per level.  Level 4 = HD 3+1, etc.

HP is rerolled every level, and discarded if it is lower than current HP.  You might not think this makes much of a difference, but it gives some beautiful average curves.

With the right ability score to ability modifier table AND capping the HD at 3, there's a very nice moment at level three where you can stop saying "add your Con bonus to every HD" and start saying "every point of Con higher than 10 adds to your HP, every point of Con below 10 subtracts from it" and it is exactly the same thing.  It just seems more granular, you know?  Every point of Con matters more, not just the ability bonus break points.  Every point of Con corresponds to +1 HP.  (This doesn't work if you use 3d6 for ability scores, only 4d4.  Weird, huh?)

Templates revolve around the idea that races and classes are just templates that are applied to the Basic Adventurer.  You can't be a Basic Adventurer (unless you're doing some level 0 bullshit), but it's what everyone is built from.  The Basic Adventurer gets 1d6 HP per HD, a +1 increase to attack every 2 levels (up to +4), and a save that increases by 1 point every level up to a maximum, similar to S&W.  And then templates just build off of that, by adding or subtracting stuff.

You get 2 templates at level 1, up to a maximum of 4 templates at level 3, at which point your PC is considered "full grown" and "totally badass".  Templates are measured as 25, 50, etc, which you can think of as percents.  If you see "Fighter 100", it means that the character is 100% fighter (and is at least level 3).  A 1st level fighter will read "Fighter 50".

I figure this choose-4-templates-as-you-level up thing will (a) give players a chance to "multiclass" from level one (if they want to be a Fighter 25 / Cleric 25), (b) make multiclassing (and monoclassing) dirt simple, and (c) some character concepts are easily expressed via multiclassing, so you could make a Thief 50 / Magic-User 50 and call it a Bard, and give it an appropriate spell-list.  Easy.

AC is ascending, has a base of 10 and a soft (non-magical) cap at 18, like god intended.

Injuries are cool.  Instead of dying at 0 HP, I just roll on the Big Table of Fun Ways To Probably Not Die (using subzero damage as a modifier) to see if you lose a hand or begin bleeding out.  Also on this table: instant death.

Save is also ascending and uses a roll-under mechanic, like making a stat check.  It's calculated from 5+level+Charisma bonus, because I figure Charisma also a measure of how much heroic chutzpah you have, and how much destiny wants to keep you alive.  But more on this later.

Ability Scores are rolled using 4d4.  Compared to 3d6, the average is 0.5 lower, and the spread is a bit narrower.  I think this is a good thing, because I intend to use a lot of roll-under ability checks, and an average success rate of 50% is marvelous, and important enough that I don't want to see any characters with 17s or 18s at level 1 (since 85% and 90% success rates seem excessive, don't they?).

I also think that ability checks should be used more, and saves a bit less, perhaps.  Use Con checks for drinking contests, use Int for seeing through illusions, those sorts of things.  Save the saves for important things, life-or-death-or-dragonbreath things.

Movement is something you've already seen.  It's based on race.  Humans have a Movement of 12+Dex, which is pretty analogous to the 12' you've seen listed as the base speed elsewhere.

Initiative is equal to your Wisdom score.  Whenever you are in combat and try to do something before a bad guy, try to roll under your Initiative.  Can you cast a spell before the orc gives you the chop?  Can you jump off the boat before the kraken grabs you?  I am using Wisdom instead of Dexterity because (a) I think Dexterity is an overloaded stat, and (b) acting before your opponent in a fight isn't necessarily about how fast you can swing your arm, but rather how fast you can think, react, anticipate, predict.  And that's the advantage the fighter with high Wisdom has.

Stealth is equal to half of your Dexterity score.  You try to roll-under it whenever you want to sneak up on someone.  I like this because I think that people will be more tempted to try sneaking around if they have it written on their sheet, instead of it being the expected purview of the Thief.

EVERYTHING USES ROLL-UNDER (except attack rolls and opposed stat checks, probably)
Saves, ability checks, movement, initiative, stealth, even AC can be used as a roll-under check.  Bonuses can be applied universally (Oh, you're cursed?  That's a -4 to all of your roll-under checks for today).  

You're probably already familiar with using ability checks to figure out if the PC can do some basic action.  But have you ever tried using these phrases when you're DMing?

"Roll under your Movement to see if you can get through the porticullis in time."

"So you're firing your arrow?  Roll under your Initiative to see if you can fire an arrow in the charging orcs eye before he reaches you."

"The great rosebeast opens it's bloom and sprays a cone of thorns at you.  Roll under your AC to see if you are hit."

(If you are raising your eyebrow at this last one, consider that asking someone to roll-under-or-equal to their AC to avoid an attack has the exact same odds as an anemic goblin attacking them with a -1 to his d20 roll.  If you say "roll under your AC with a -4 penalty", that's the exact same thing as a giant badger attacking with a +3 bonus.  Just think about the pros and cons and exoticism of this for a minute, okay?)

And the other great thing about using a lot of roll-under mechanics is that players can immediately look at their character sheet and calculate their odds of success.  If they see Stealth 9, then they know that they have a 45% chance to sneak up on the bastard.  Save 12 = 60% chance of success.

Compare to that +3 on your attack roll versus an AC of 15, what are the odds there?

Need to roll a 12 to hit, so that's 7-8-9 numbers on the die that will hit, so that. . . 45% chance of success.

Using roll-unders lets players see at a glance their odds, which helps them evaluate the situation and better informed decisions.

Inventory is measured in Inventory Slots.  You have a number of Inventory Slots equal to your Strength score, and a single Inventory Slot can hold something like a sword or three days rations.  You can exceed your Inventory Slots, but every item in excess gives you -1 to Movement. The number of items that you can immediately access is limited by half of your Dexterity score.  I wrote a whole post about this here.

There are a few caveats, like armor takes up a number of slots equal to its AC bonus.  So a wizard with 6 Str technically can put on that full plate (+6 AC), but anything beyond that (even a spellbook) is going to begin slowing him down tremendously.

Skills are measured in Skill Slots.  You have a number of Skill Slots equal to your Intelligence score.  Skill slots can hold more than just skills.  They can also hold the bonus languages you know, any weird techniques you've learned in strange places (like Kung Fu), or spells outside of your school (if you are a wizard).  Wizards who have 17 Int can pick up plenty of damn skills, languages, and exotic spells, but the barbarian with 5 Int will have to be a lot more choosy.  Does the barbarian want to learn how to speak Orcish, how to sail a ship, or how to throw his axe 100' with melee-level accuracy?

There is a strict philosophy of "Skills should not be useful in combat.  Use ability checks for that."  I don't want people choosing skills based on what they think will be most useful.  Climbing walls, stabilizing a dying comrade, sneaking up on a hill giant, etc, should all be ability score (or Stealth) checks.  Skills are by definition things that aren't directly combat-useful, so, because of their diminished importance, players will (hopefully) be encouraged to take skills like Dancing and Carpentry.  (Getting two random skills at level 1 will also help this, I hope.)

There is no skill list (although I still bet "Pick Lock" and "Forest Survival" will be popular choices).  There are no social skills.  Use roleplaying and Charisma checks for those.  (You don't have to talk in a funny voice, just tell the DM what sort of things you say to the dragon.)  It's trivially easy to pick up a new skill at Rank 1, just attempt it 3 times over the course of an adventure and then write it down when you get back to town/finish the adventure.

Skills are rated on a d20-roll-under system, like nearly everything else.  Marvelous.  It's actually a refined version of what I wrote down here.

This will be controversial: skills are not tied to level.  Skills are limited by level, in the sense that you cannot raise any skills to the maximum level until you are at least level 6.  Instead, you raise skills by using them at least three times, then you have a chance to improve them during downtime (similar to how BRP does skills).  The chance is diminishing, so you will have to be very lucky to max out a skill, even at level 6.  You might not be able to max it out until level 12 or something.  Maybe you'll max out Dancing before you max out Surgery.  Ha, just like real life.

And because there's no limit to how many skills you can test (and raise) per level, there is an incentive to use all of your skills all of the time.  I know you grognards are used to finding ways to extract a tactical advantage from commonplace things (like buckets of lard), but I think this sort of thing will really help neophytes pick up the "use fucking everything on your character sheet to eke out an advantage" philosophy.

MP is used to prepare spells, then the actual casting of the spell is "free".  It's pretty much the same thing that I wrote down here.  It's still Vancian magic (and is virtually indistinguishable for the first few levels), but it has the advantage of being (a) more flexible, and (b) way easier to teach to newbies, probably.

I also want to stop the whole quadratic wizard thing by tying spell effects to "what level you prepare this spell at" instead of "what level wizard are you".  If you want to cast a bigger fireball, prepare it as a level 4 spell instead.

This is probably the part of my kludge that is least compatible with OSR retroclone D&D.  I will meditate on it.

FP is Faith Points, and its what clerics use instead of MP.  I intend to differentiate it in a few different ways, like (a) clerics get more FP than wizards get MP, (b) prayers are less reliable than spells, since they might be ignored, and (c) you cast from a list of known miracles, instead of having to prepare spells ahead of time.

Other weird shit that I might include: I have no problem with wizards wearing armor (since armor has a bunch of drawbacks anyway, and fuck your tropes, because players will probably dress their wizard in robes anyway), people in platemail should automatically sink if they fall in water, wizards should all be forced to choose a sub-school like Necromancer, Illusionist, Elementalist, etc.  Similarly, clerics should have to choose a god.  And those choices should matter, gul-blangit!

Necromancers should have to spend a skill slot if they want to learn spells from the school of illusion.  Clerics of the water god should have a reduced chance of success if they pray for a flamestrike.

Anyway, aside from those small blasphemies, it's pretty much the same D&D you know and love.

Here's a sample of a finished character sheet, for a level 1 dwarven fighter.

I am now open for comments.


  1. Nice. A few observations:

    HP and Con: Wouldn't it just be easier to say "HP = Con/3 at level 1, 2*Con/3 at level 2, Con at level 3, +1 per level thereafter"? Doesn't it work out much the same?

    Saves and Cha: I like Charisma as divine favour/destiny/mana (in the original Polynesian/Jungian sense). This captures that very cleanly.

    "I also think that ability checks should be used more, and saves a bit less, perhaps." Yes. Ability checks are a really solid mechanic in OD&D that are underused.

    Initiative and Wis: I love it. Very cogent.

    "Roll under your AC to see if you are hit." A lot of good Forge-style stuff here. Sorry if that annoys you. But the principle of "the player always rolls for things affecting his character" is used in The Whispering Vault and some other new-school games, and I think it's a great way to go.

    1. Thanks for the feedback.

      HP and Con: Yeah, that actually could work. There'd be a lot less variation at levels 1 and 2, but some people might be into that. Especially since the spread is so different (4d4 vs 3d6), and HP will tend to asymptote differently since HP is rerolled every level.

      Nothing wrong with being a little bit Forgey. And I like players rolling more dice. It lets them feel more active (and the DM has enough shit to roll already). Honestly, I plan to use attack rolls alongside AC tests, just for variety, if nothing else. It feels different, you know?

      Thank you for the feedback.

    2. Hrm, maybe standard attack rolls for normal combat, and AC checks against, say, an arrow trap (or similar mechanical traps).

  2. For some ridiculous reason I never thought of a check vs movement as a check/save, thank you.
    MP spent to prepare spells is a decent idea, certainly so when tied to making spells more potent.

  3. Actually, I think you have some really neat ideas here. If you ever get this written up into a single document I hope that you'll post it for our perusal.

    On the inventory system, I take it that armor type doesn't automatically limit your movement rate. A fighter with platemail can still move 12+/turn so long as the number of occupied inventory slots doesn't exceed his Strength, correct?

    I've also toyed with the idea of creating a magic system closer to Vance's stories. My idea, a magic-user gets 1 MP each level, plus maybe a bonus for high Intelligence score. Then spells are broken down into two or three categories: Lesser spells (say spell levels 1-2), Greater spells (levels 3-5-ish) and (possibly) Legendary spells (anything above level 5). Lesser spells take 1 point to prepare, greater spells 2 points and legendary spells 4 points. This system is even more limiting than yours, but there are no spell level limits based on character level...a 1st level MU with 2 MP could prepare 1 Greater spell, if desired. Add spells from Space-Age Sorcery for flavor, bring to a low simmer, serve hot.

    1. Hmm. I didn't mention it up there, but I'm toying with the idea that each point of AC an armor gives beyond +3 also lowers your Movement by a similar amount. So Breastplate (+4 AC) gives -1 Movement, Full plate(+5 AC) gives -3 Movement.

      It's elegant because it doesn't rely on categorizing armors, just deriving a number from an already known number. If you know an armor's AC, you already know (a) how much inventory space it takes up / how encumbering it is, and (b) how much it will slow you down.

      Your system sounds cool. I'm all for finding ways to let low level casters play with powers beyond their ken. Usually with a fun li'l table of Cosmic Spell Fumbles.

  4. Putting your house rules together so that you can just send any players or potential players a link to it is great. And when I put together or update mine own, I like to look at others for house rules I might want to try. So I wouldn’t assume it is there because you think it is better than anything else. It is just convenience and sharing.

    1. This is true. Normally I vacillate between arrogance and self-loathing, but I must remember to tend to the intermediates as well.

      (I've already started writing it. 8 pages so far.)

  5. Cool! You have some great ideas. I really like the stuff about diminishing returns and wisdom as initiative. Diminishing returns might impact comparability though.

    Having just gone through writing my own d&d style game, Grimstone (maybe out by Christmas), I can say it's a lot of writing work and loads of fun if you like thinking about game mechanics. Yeah, it's crazy to write a d&d style game when there's so many good ones already available, but it's a great journey and I learned a lot about game design that I might not have learned any other way. Now I'm writing my own original system: Weird Roleplaying.

    Good luck with your project!

    1. Fuck yeah, diminishing returns!

      Compatibility should be pretty unaffected for the first 3 levels. But then it slows down, so a level 7 in my system might be like a level 5 in another person's. But yeah. You're correct, unfortunately.

      Game design is such a weird hobby. I wish you the best with your endeavors! May the weird be with you!

  6. I'm really liking these ideas. They all point at a style of play that I enjoy. Keeping the low lvl monsters dangerous is an important component for me.

  7. Interesting stuff. Nothing wrong with making your own Fantasy Heartbreaker ruleset either, right? That's what it's all about, when you get down to it: making your games *your* games.

    I just wanted to note that I kind of like the magic variant - level-less spells where "level" is just the amount of power you pump into them - and that it reminds me of Monte Cook and his Arcana Unearthed/Evolved alternate D&D rules, with "diminished" and "heightened" versions of pretty much every spell. Were you riffing on that, or is it just a case of "great minds"? 8^)

  8. Excellent stuff.

    Do you have any thoughts on damage resistance and armor?

    I'm looking at giving each type armor a different AC for Slash/Pierce/Blunt, as well as a different DR, to try to get into the meat of the whole mechanics behind the difficulty in hitting something vs the difficulty of doing it damage

    It's an extra complexity - 6 stats per type! - but I have an armor fetish and those sound like fun tables to make.

    You really get to start thinking about how different weapons and armors interact. Piercing weapons would be more affected by the AC as opposed to DR - ie the armor just stops the arrow. But if it gets through that means you've essentially avoided the armor, so it should not be affected by any DR. Except say, for some boiled leather, which the arrow can punch through anywhere (no affect on AC) but is slowed down. (A couple points of DR) Chain mail, for instance, should have no benefits if your being hit by a blunt hammer. Shit, it might slow you down and be a disadvantage. Think of full plate vs slashing, its probably actually easier to hit a guy with a slashing or blunt object if he's in full plate, its just damn near impossible to do any damage. If you've got a suit of full plate on you should be able to laugh at that town drunk swinging that chair at you, its almost impossible for him to damage you.

    This makes armor and weapon choices much more important, and makes AC more dexterity dependent. Also by giving blunt weapons what essentially amounts to a major advantage against many armor types (again, what should non rigid armor really do against a blunt weapon but maybe a point of DR) which allows you to lower their damage, which I think reflects reality. Or maybe making it non-lethal damage without some kind of "called shot" penalty.

    With weapons that have both piercing and slashing abilities you'd have to weigh benefits and choose how you want to attack: Do I want to try to stab this knight through his plate, which is hard to do but guarantees the possibility of massive damage? Or do I want to continue to just beat him with edge which can only do a little damage but will slowly wear him down?

    The big question for me is whether to put a minimum of 1 point of damage on any hit, or something like only do that on a natural 20. I think if you were wearing full plate you'd only be injured about 1 out of 20 times the drunk breaks the chair on you, and then only slightly, so maybe only on a 20. Or maybe that's just the magic of full plate and other armors can't DR that last point of damage.

    This all makes for the ability to fine tune creatures a bit better, too. It's really hard to hit that skeleton OR damage it with a piercing weapon, but a piercing weapon is the ONLY thing that stands to damage the vegetable brain deep inside the giant spongy moss man.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble, I absolutely dig what your doing here. These lean and logical rules are inspiring, and exactly the sort of thing I need to make room for my giant raft of additional weapon and armor statistics.

    1. I’d say to keep in mind that the attack roll, the damage roll, and hp are all very interrelated in D&D. Hp don’t really represent physical damage. A “to hit” roll doesn’t really represent a hit landing. It’s very abstract. So, the logic “armor should absorb damage instead of making you harder to hit” doesn’t really apply because “to hit” and “damage” is so abstract, the terms don’t really mean what they say at face value. Unless you heavily modify the system.

      (If I was using DR for armor in D&D, I’d be tempted to trade the Dex adjustment to AC for Dex-based DR. Unless you do the analysis to prove that the way the two affect the system is actually what you want to be modeling.)

      There are other games that have done that, of course. GURPS and Hârnmaster are a couple that I thought did it fairly well.

      My experience is that letting at least one point of damage through DR or some other mechanism is often needed in games with DR to handle the extreme case where a combatant simply cannot damage on opponent. That tends to happen more frequently with DR systems than otherwise.

      I really like the idea of the weapon versus armor factor. The fact is that armor was designed to be effective against swords and maces, warhammers, and pollaxes were designed to be effective against armor. I haven’t yet found a way to model that in D&D that was simple enough for me yet.

      I think the weapon versus weapon factor would also be something worth considering. I think Hârnmaster had a good mechanism. Although, for me, variable damage by weapon (after I adjusted the weapon damages a bit) does that a bit by giving weapons with greater reach an overall advantage. (Again, D&D combat is abstract, so greater damage is a fine way to model a reach advantage.)

  9. Great stuff. I fully agree with this, "I also think that ability checks should be used more, and saves a bit less, perhaps." It makes me wonder why you need a dedicated "Save" rule at all? That is, can you give some examples of when you would call for the CHA-based "Save?"

    1. I use Charisma to indicate force of personality and determination, so I'd use it for willpower, resisting despair, etc. I know that's normally associated with Wisdom, but Wis already has that association with perception and piercing illusions.

  10. Wow. The similarities between your system and the system I've been slowly building over the years are uncanny. I love it all. My hope is to do the same thing on my blog (started it about 3 days ago), and post my system's rules/overview for players and homebrewers to easily reference.

    I'm beginning to believe there is some deeper rpg design truth that we overly-zealous game designers are searching for. Who knows.

    Also, roll-under movement checks...BRILLIANT :)

  11. Did you ever post your rules anywhere? I'd love to see them.