Saturday 18 December 2021

Collaborative Subsystems

I am overdue to reply to Josh for an answer to this question by almost a fortnight.

This is something I began thinking about explicitly after Prismatic Wasteland wrote their post on freeform spell systems. There were a number of reactions to that post about how people feared it would take up too much time, be too complex, and drag the game to a halt as it focused on one player as they had to navigate a subsystem individually; my lockpicking system I think also received a similar critique, with someone commenting that it seemed boring for other players at the table as they had to wait for one person to make a bunch of decisions. People made references to a lot of things like Shadowrun's Decker system or DCC's spell lists/mishaps that had caused similar experiences.

This was honestly pretty surprising to me because in about half a decade of playing with freeform spell systems and my lockpicking subsystem and all other varied manner of subsystems, I had never run into this problem before. What was the difference? I have an anecdote that I think might be pretty illustrative.

A few years ago in a session I ran, the party was at a masquerade held by some fucked up nobles and one of the characters was manoeuvred by one of the NPCs into playing a game of chess with slaves as the pieces (a piece that was "taken" involved the actual person being killed). We busted out an actual chess board to play out the scene, and despite the fact that this was supposed to be a fairly emotionally charged moment, it completely drained the energy out of the room: me and the player I was playing chess against stayed at the table, along with two folks who spectated and occasionally gave suggestions for moves, while everyone else dissipated to grab snacks, go to the bathrooms, chat in the hallway, etc. until we resumed normal play.

Then, about a year ago, when I was running Tower of the Stargazer for my new group, I noticed there was a room in which a ghost challenges a player to a game that the group is supposed to actually play out, with the text suggesting chess. Having read reviews of the module I'd noted that other people had shared my experience bringing chess into a D&D session, with this particular choice in the module being pretty widely acknowledged to not lead to a fun time. I decided to swap it out for Connect Four and set up a room in which all the other players could spectate (this was an online game). The resultant game of Connect Four, which involved every other player commenting with suggestions for next moves and pointing out where I was setting up, ended up being one of the most tense and hype moments of the campaign thus far. Essentially I ended up playing a 5 v 1 game of Connect Four, but the resulting player engagement was super high.

Of course, the difference between the two situations was the level of "backseat participation" they allowed for. This, I think, is the main difference between subsystems like freeform spells or my lockpicking minigame vs the Decker problem in Shadowrun or the huge spell tables in DCC. The latter involve a player looking up a bunch of things and rolling a bunch of dice on their own. By comparison, the individual subsystems that the Archetypes in Errant have are all quite mechanically straightforward: all they involve is choosing how many of a particular resource (in the case of the Deviant or the Zealot, with Jettons/Favour) or which one of a particular resource (in the case of the Violent and the Occult, with Feats and Sorceries) they want to use, and then making basically one roll. In that sense they all share a similar structure, which helps to offset the complexity of having asymmetrical subsystems.

The difference mostly comes about in terms of the effects that these subsystems have and the kinds of parameters they define for the players to define those effects, all of which are incomparable across each other. And when it comes to the subsystems which have freeform effects (within certain parameters) like those of the Deviant and the Zealot, I find that often times everyone at the table is participating actively in terms of making suggestions of what kind of Miracles the Zealot could perform or what Wagers thee Deviant could be making. All in all, the amount of time spent negotiating these effects is probably as long as it would take to look up a spell or an effect in a book, but that time is spent actively talking and engaged at the table. It also helps that this process is basically congruent with the basic procedure of the game, which is "talk about ways resources can be leveraged for solutions, use those resources, and then maybe make a roll." Freeform effects like these aren't dissimilar from the way items are used in OSR games, where they don't have defined effects but instead have any number of potential creative applications they could be put towards.

In the case of subsystems where options are defined, like those of the Violent or Occult, or even things like the lockpicking systems, I find that the collaborative dynamic of the whole table contributing potential options persists. When someone is picking a lock and a player declares their next move is going to be a Tap, after I say whether or not that move is successful I've noted that everyone else at the table usually chimes in to point out what the next moves could be, like "Oh, so the next move is either Twist or Turn," or "oh then it has to be Twist since Turn failed." I think what helps in these cases is that, like Connect Four, these subsystems present a number of finite states with the available choices transparently arising from those (e.g. in the case of the lockpicking system, there's three moves, three actions that need to be taken, and no two actions can use the same move in a row).

In take away, that's my solution for maintaining player engagement even while dealing with a number of asymmetrical subsystems: keep "backseat" engagement high. I do this by either using systems that employ free-form prompts (within certain parameters) or finite states, while keeping the actual "mechanical" overhead (in terms of discrete dice rolls or operations that have to be performed) low. It helps when these subsystems can be integrated into the normal procedure of play (in OSR games "inform > talk > decision > roll; Slayers does a similar thing wherein every class has a unique subsystem for player but everything hinges off a core mechanic of "4+ on a dice roll is a success"). Of course, the corollary of this is that its incumbent on the group to create a table culture that encourages active participation and collaboration in terms of brainstorming problem solving so that these subsystems continue as an extension of that, and you want to be wary of the tipping point where "backseat participation" turns into "backseat gaming" which generally isn't fun for anyone.

Saturday 9 October 2021

Errant Anti-Archetypes

Junk Food

The archetypes in Errant, I think, are pretty comprehensive of basically any class or character concept you could think of. This is intentional. Creating classes and subclasses for RPGs is the potato chips of game design: satisfying, but substantively empty.

But sometimes you just wanna eat potato chips damn it.

I've been long mulling over a fifth archetype for Errant. I confess, I have a soft spot for psionics, so even though such a character could be easily and readily handled by The Zealot archetype, I've been turning the idea over in my head. I've been particularly inspired by Lexi's approach to the class.

But of course, adding a fifth class would break the "rule of fourths" motif Errant has going on, and the correspondence between Attribute to Archetype. So, may as well come up with 3 more then?

Other concepts that aren't covered by the base four archetypes are harder to think of. Perhaps an archetype to fit generic monstrous characters, like dragons or werewolves? I've done a take on Vampires before which I enjoyed.

Coming up with two other possibilities was challenging, until Nick suggested a Fool type character, someone who succeeds by failing, who is unlucky in the luckiest ways. So similar to The Deviant's narrative-bending abilities, but distinguished by their lack of skill, rather than their ampleness of it. This made me think of the idea of anti-archetypes, which reward you the lower your attributes are.

If we can acknowledge that this activity is indulgent and totally pointless, we may as well have fun with the absurdity. Each of these archetypes is dependent on the use of a licensed and trademarked Hasbro gaming product: these should be acquired through scrupulous means, and any unauthorized and inappropriate use of fine corporate wares will result in immediate and lifetime banning from the fine game of Errant forthwhith. 

An image that oozes integrity.

The Freak

You're a misbegotten defect of nature. If you're a monster, you're a piss poor one.

Your PHYS must be 9 or lower to select this Archetype. If your PHYS ever increases above 9, your Archetype switches to The Violent.

Damage Die: d8

Jenga: If you want to draw on any of the powers traditionally associated with whatever it is that you are, make a pull from a Jenga tower. For each successful pull, you can use a power once (e.g. if you're a dragon, one pull might allow you to fly, to breath fire, to whip your tail, etc.). 

If duration, damage, or any other mechanical effects need to be determined, use the scaling for Sorceries, except that damage/healing effects are d8s. 

You can make a number of pulls per day equal to 20 minus your PHYS.

If the tower collapses, you lose control of yourself. The Guide gains control of you as a hostile NPC and can use your powers at will, until you have fully rebuilt the tower. Once your tower has been rebuilt, the number of pulls you can make that day resets.

The Fool

Everything you touch, you make worse. But everyone else is left to clean up the mess.

Your SKILL must be 9 or lower to select this Archetype. If your SKILL ever increases above 9, your Archetype switches to The Deviant.

Damage Die: d6

Bop It: At the start of a session, play a solo game of Bop It until failure or until you have successfully completed 20-SKILL commands. Create a list of all the commands you successfully completed, including how many of each command.

At any time during play, you may declare a command from your list and remove it. The command affects anything you wish, in a way that is generally beneficial to you and detrimental to every one else. 

You may change a number of commands on your list to any other possible Bop It command equal to your Renown,

The Oaf

You've never had a single thought inside your head. You've had plenty outside it, though.

Your MIND must be 9 or lower to select this Archetype. If your MIND ever increases above 9, your Archetype switches to The Occult .

Damage Die: d4

Scrabble: Pick the die that is closest in number to 20-MIND. If you've got weird dice, use them. Better yet, use a digital roller you Luddite.

Pick a target, roll your die, and pull out that many Scrabble™ tiles. Compose a sentence, or as close to one as you can get, with those tiles. Whatever that sentence is becomes true of the target until you compose a new sentence.

If the result of your die roll is below your MIND score, step the die down one step. Your die resets to its original size every day.

If your die is stepped down into nothing, you can let everyone in the room say a sentence about your character. Those sentences become true of your character forever. Your die resets to its original size.

You can add a number of prepositions and conjunctions and other filler words to any sentence you compose equal to your Renown.

The Lout

A face not even a mother could love. You're so wretched, you make other people actively worse by your mere presence.

Your PRES must be 9 or lower to select this Archetype. If your PRES ever increases above 9, your Archetype switches to The Zealot.

Damage Die: d6

Operation: For any living creature that you can see, you can attempt to pull out any piece from an Operationboard. You can make a number of pulls equal to 20-PRES per day.

You create a strong influence, compulsion, or feeling in that creature corresponding to the area you removed the piece from. If you removed the Adam's Apple, for example, you might compel the creature to yell or shout something of your choosing. If you remove the Wrenched Ankle, you could make the creature run away.

Once a piece has been removed, it remains outside the board. You can return a number of pieces inside the board equal to your Renown per day. All pieces return to the board each day.

Sunday 19 September 2021

Memory Problems


When I first started running OSR-style games with The Black Hack (1st edition), I found it almost impossible to track torches. Or ammo. Or random encounters. I really wanted to be able to track those things, I wanted them to be things that mattered in my game, but I found it difficult to meaningfully implement in my sessions in a way that I don’t now. In retrospect, this can, I think, be attributed to three related rules from TBH.

There are 2 important types of tracked time - Moments (rounds) and Minutes (turns). Moments are used during combat and fast paced scenes of danger and Minutes are used when exploring and adventuring. A GM may advance the clock as they need substituting Minutes for Hours, Days or even Months should the adventure require it.               

The GM should roll a d4 every 15 minutes of real world play (you are paying attention, right?) A result of 1-2 means the players will encounter a randomly generated creature or distraction in the following Minutes (turn).

Any item listed in the equipment section that has a Usage die is considered a consumable, limited item. When that item is used the next Minute (turn) its Usage die is rolled. If the roll is 1-2 then the usage die is downgraded to the next lower die in the following chain.

 The very first problem lies with the turn rule: minutes is an ill-defined concept, by design obfuscating exactly what span of in-game or real-world time constitutes one ‘minutes’. It is left solely to the provenance of the GM to choose what constitutes a ‘minutes’ and when and how to advance it.

The second is the disjunction between minutes and random encounters. While in classic D&D random encounters and turns are yoked together, in TBH they are separated: random encounters are entirely dependent on the amount of real-world time that has elapsed (is this supposed to be used even when the characters aren’t in a dungeon?). Yet it still retains a vestigial connection to the turn structure, as the encounter occurs in the next ‘minutes’ after it has been rolled.

Item usage faces a similar problem, as again rather than tracking a numbered supply or duration in turns (e.g. a torch lasts 6 turns), you have to remember when you use an item that the next time the GM decides to move to the next ‘minutes’ that you’re supposed to roll the items usage die.

Looking at these rules now, with an understanding of turn-based exploration play, they are perfectly serviceable as a rules light distillation, but with no experience in that style of play, these rules left me adrift.

I didn’t understand minutes, so I basically didn’t track time at all except for in combat. Without a turn structure, it became impossible to actually even consider when a torch had been ‘used’ and when to roll its usage die. Ammo was a clearer case, just roll usage die after combat, but it was a toss-up whether I would remember to ask players to roll their ammo usage die. And random encounters, there was absolutely no way I would be able to keep track of when every 15 minutes had elapsed. I tried setting timers on my phone, but without setting it on an intrusive ringing noise it was easy to overlook, and a complete hassle nonetheless.

The problem with these rules, to me, is that they rely so heavily on a GM remembering things extemporaneously. Instead of tracking 3 things at the same time (turns, wandering encounters, torches all in one procedure) you have to separately remember to advance ‘minutes’ when appropriate, keep track of when 15 real world minutes have elapsed to make a random encounter check, and remember to call for a usage die check the turn after an item has been used. Being a GM constantly threatens cognitive overload, and having to keep track of so many things is a sure-fire way to ensure that most of them get left by the wayside.

Notably, there was one consumable resource that always managed to stay relevant in my TBH games and that was food. This was because I ran my campaigns in a hex map, and so it was very easy to note that each time players moved from one hex to another, they had to roll their usage die for food.

What the hexes provided, and what a traditional turn structure provides (one in which a party performs a set amount of actions, or moves a certain distance before a turn ends, a new turn begins, a random encounter is rolled, torch duration reduced, etc.) is what Josh describes as a speed bump, a moment in the game where there is a structured pause that allows the GM/Players to check things over.

And of course, to reduce the memory load of bookkeeping even further, we can think of something like the overloaded encounter die, where the result of the die will tell you when to tick down a torch’s duration, or when the party needs to rest. Rather than the GM needing to keep track of how many turns have elapsed, the GM just has to remember to do one thing: roll the die at the start of each turn.

Given this, we can conceive of a three-tiered model of how much a given rule demands of a GM or player’s memory.

Extemporaneous > Speed Bump > Automatic

This is not to say that Automatic rules are better than Speed Bump rules which are better than Extemporaneous rules, but rather that they ought to be considered when designing rules. If we consider a typical modern D&D game actually, we can see these 3 types of rules in the 3 most common rolls of the game: skill rolls, attack rolls, and damage rolls.

Skill rolls are pretty much extemporaneous, as its totally up to the GM’s discretion when to use them, but they remain easy to remember and use because 1) it’s the core mechanic of the game and 2) it is still pretty clearly defined what actions trigger using them. More importantly, the GM’s memory is cued to apply this rule because it will happen in response to something, rather than them having to remember off the top of their head with no prompting.

Attack rolls are speed bump rules: you roll the dice, then you check to see if you’ve hit. This pause allows additional complexity to be added to the rules in the form of critical hits/failures or special attacks/feats/abilities, because they can all be inserted into that ‘pause and check’ phase after you’ve rolled when you’re trying to see if you successfully hit.

Damage rolls are usually pretty automatic: whatever number is rolled on the dice is then subtracted from the enemy’s HP without need for any other consideration, except in cases where there’s things like resistances of vulnerabilities to consider.


I discuss all this because recently I was faced with a bit of a design dilemma around Errant, namely the fact that during combat I always forgot about the Quality rules (which is that when a weapon rolls min. damage, it loses 1 point of Quality, and when an attack is blocked by armour, if that attack rolled max. damage on any of its dice, that armor loses 1 quality per max. damage die). Back when I still used attack rolls, this was less of a problem, as I attached Quality loss to crit successes/failures, but since switching to auto-damage rolls a la Into the Odd the rule is only applied sporadically, and usually only when a player reminds me.

If we look at our previous memory model it’s easy to see why this is the case, as the Speed Bump nature of attack rolls naturally gave us a chance to check for Quality loss, as well as the fact that they’re tied to crits, which are something D&D players are conditioned to look out for. One could make sure to pause and check every single time damage is rolled to check for Quality loss, but 3 factors pretty much guarantee that this won’t happen: 1) you’re stopping to check only for a single effect 2) that only occurs very rarely and 3) that only has a minimal mechanical effect.

I was discussing this problem and possible solutions with my cohorts; having some sort of combat flowsheet/cheatsheet was suggested, as well as making watching out for Quality loss a formal player responsibility, but ultimately this just offloaded the memory problem from the GM to the players.

Ty, however, suggested something which led to the solution I settled on.

Full size here

So put formally, the rule is something like this:

REACTIONS: Whenever any die rolled as part of an attack rolls a 1, the target of that attack may immediately make an action.

This new rule fixes the problem by essentially creating an effect that has a really significant mechanical effect, thus incentivizing remembering and checking for it, and then by tying Quality loss to the same trigger.

While it may on first glance seem like this only solves the problem of remembering when weapon Quality degrades, without addressing armour Quality degradation, it actually still does this due to the rule that “damage that is impaired down to dealing 1 damage counts as dealing maximum damage”. So the interaction of these two rules leads to a tactical consideration: if you use enough blocks to impair damage down to 1, you get a reaction, essentially allowing you to trade armour Quality for action economy. I find this interaction really pleasing because it makes sense on both a mechanical level (trade one resource for another) and a diegetic one (by blocking an enemy attack, you get a chance to counter-attack). Also, because using a block is deliberate decision already, and that I always ask my players whether they’d like to use a block any time they take damage, there’s already a Speed Bump moment there that lets us remember to check if armour Quality degrades.

Now, aside from alleviating the memory problem, what I find really interesting about this new rule is how well it meshes with other parts of the system; I really feel like I stumbled into something that unlocked the greater tactical potential of the rest of the combat design.

For one, like I said in my conversation with Ty, this rule adds a really pleasing sense of dynamism that is often missing from traditional D&D combat. Attacks of Opportunity are often seen as a common fix for this problem, but paradoxically I find it makes combat even more static by discouraging movement. However, I feel like this new reaction rule really mimics what we see in great fight scenes in movies and whatnot, where it’s often about who has the initiative, who can seize it, counter-attacking and taking advantage of gaps in an opponent’s attack to seize an opportunity. That it presents a flexible action, rather than just allowing the targeted character to counter-attack, adds to this, since they could feasibly choose to run away, cast a spell, throw sand in their attacker’s eyes, or even attack someone other than the person attacking them.

Second is how it plays with the enhance/impair system. I’ve talked before about how combat in Errant is designed around using fictional positioning in order to accrue enhancements, and then capitalizing on that increased damage die with abilities such as The Violent’s feats or magic weapon’s true strikes, causing a multiplicative effect. The reaction rules plays into it by adding a new dynamic: enhancing damage means you’re less open to counter-attack, and consequently finding ways to impair your opponent’s damage gives you more chances to attack. However, now when one tries to parlay the advantages of enhancing damage by adding more damage dice through feats, poison, or other abilities there’s a risk reward angle to consider in that the more dice you add, the greater the chance of rolling a 1 on those dice become; if you aren’t able to finish your enemy off with that one big strike, they’ll get a chance to respond. 

This comes into play in a way that I really enjoy with The Deviant’s sneak attack ability, which allows them to roll two damage die when attacking an unaware target; with their base damage die of d6, this means that there’s a ~30% chance that the target will be able to respond right after the sneak attack if they haven’t been killed. Granted, I usually rule that attacking an unaware creature also leads to an attack being enhanced 1 step, but this incentivizes the player to seek out as many sources of enhancement possible when making a sneak attack, ensuring their kill is as clean as possible. You get a nice probabilistic chiasmus too, where a single damage die is swingy in terms of damage, but less likely to roll a 1, while multiple dice have a bell curve for damage, but more likely to roll a 1; diegetically this might represent a more reserved attack vs more wild attacks, but it adds an interesting dimension when designing monsters for the GM to consider.

Third is the pleasing symmetry it causes among the archetypes. The Occult already has their retort ability, which allows them to react to spells cast by other creatures by casting spells of their own, my take on the counterspell ability. The Violent, meanwhile, has feats that also allow them to respond to actions taken not on their turn, and are now the character least likely to be counter-attacked due to their large damage die. Essentially, the reaction rule has created “acting out of turn” during combat a significant tactical arena, and two of the existing four archetypes have emerged as having greater capacity to do that. The Deviant and The Zealot, on the other hand, have abilities that favour greater pre-planning, so we essentially end up with two archetypes that are more “reactive” and two archetypes that are more “proactive”, which also dovetails nicely with The Violent and The Occult having stronger offensive capability whereas The Deviant and The Zealot are geared more towards utility.

Summing Up

So, two big main take-aways in terms of design lessons from this post I guess.

First is to consider the role of memory, especially in terms of the cognitive overload demanded of the GM, when designing your rules. Some rules are designed to be fringe and referenced only when needed, but for the core design, think about ways of making sure the rule will actually get remembered at the table.

Second, and this is really broad, but note where the gaps and flaws are in your design, what isn’t working as tightly as it could be. By addressing these problems, especially with positive rather than negative solutions (e.g. adding in new rules rather than removing rules that don’t work) you might find something new and exciting in your game that you hadn’t even seen before.



Saturday 1 May 2021

On The Ecology of Gold & Dragons

 Gold became the standard coin of trade first primarily for its metallurgic qualities, but it remained so because of its supra-natural qualities. Gold, you see, must constantly remain in circulation; the movement is essential to counteract the malign will of the gold itself.

Gold is a heavy, lazy thing; it pulls itself towards the ground, and desires above all else to nap lazily in a cool, dark place, perhaps with a stray sunbeam warming its back, in a large pile of its kin. The subtle whispers it trickles in the ears of mortals, the sapping light it exudes, the way it pushes its weight all the way down to the boot heels of those who carry it, causing them to drag their feet, all compel those who carry gold disturbed from its slumber beneath the earth to return it to such a state, till eventually they lay all gathered somewhere in an enormous pile.

Two curious things happen when a concentration of gold is formed in this way. One, fearing that its slumber be disturbed again, it sends subtle vibrations through the air which induce a kind of monomania, causing heady fools to rush to discover and uncover it. Many will be drawn by this call, though inevitably violence will erupt and only the most brutal and deranged will lay claim to the prize. This is the first part of the selection process.

Upon finding such a cache, the victor naturally appropriates it in order to gain great power in the world of men. This involves, of course, some levying of the gold in trade, such that it moves again, but for the gold this is a small and necessary sacrifice; in the scale of its lifespan, this stage is but a speck. For the gold-mad inevitably build around themselves great fortresses, and send out others to bring back yet more gold, while they lay languorously and covetously on their pile, basking in the joys of accumulation, and stirring only on the occasions where yet more aurum is to be added to the pile.

Eventually the great lord or queen or viscountess or whatever she be passes out of public view, recedes into herself, till she seems to die. In yet another act of influence, her followers will be compelled to act with wanton destruction in burying their great ruler with their wealth, denying themselves the myriad use-values they could obtain. Here is where the gold begins its work in earnest.

On the still, barely living body of its soon to be guardian, it exerts its changes; fashioning the corpus into that of an eternal, living weapon who will ensure the gold shall never again be disturbed.

The gold will send this creature out to rescue more of its kin, such that their joys may be magnified by each other's presence. It will ensure that the beast lives as long as they do, and that as it ages they continue their work upon it to make it ever more fearsome. If the gold finds itself continually under threat, it may yet call out for and create even more dragons, who all by slumbering upon the same pile, gradually merge into an even greater monstrosity.

A Note on Playing Dragons

One of the things that strikes me every time I read Beowulf is the twinning of the hero and the dragon; the dragon emerges when Beowulf is at his most dragon-like, and he must become ever more a dragon in order to defeat him. 

This applies to your standard D&D characters even more readily, I think, whose power grows in proportion to their material accumulation until they are literally possessive of abilities that allow them to go toe to toe with a dragon: in game terms, judging by AC, HP, and amount of damage that they can put out, the actual mechanical difference between them is negligible.

People always urge you to play dragons as if they are insane, though like most appeals to the pathological this is using tired ableism as a stand-in for actual characterization and motivation; some slightly better writers may pick a specific type of mental illness as a stand in, such as narcissism, or obsessive-compulsion, but this again lacks specificity.

If you actually want your dragon to come off like a terrifying, unpredictable, anti-social creature, as a DM you already have the perfect model right in front of you: your PCs. If we assume that all dragons were in fact once adventurers, this makes even more sense. 

Take the worst, murderhobo-ey aspects of the PCs, the strange bizarre affect that comes from a character inhabiting a world that they know is fictitious and can actually have no lasting consequences on them, and multiply it ten-fold. Better yet, pick a specific PC in your group and do your best impression/caricature of them.

If you've got a multi-headed dragon, play the entire party. Fuck making them all different colours with different breath weapons: make one head a fighter, another a magic-user, a thief, a cleric, so on and give each head super-charged class powers.


Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory, vol. 32, no. 3, 2004, pp. 347–372.

"Gold Fever" by Benton.


Sunday 14 March 2021

Brief Brainworms: Megadungeons

 First of all, I think the prefix "mega" is unnecessary and has done harm to the artform of what I'll call instead a tentpole dungeon. It conjures images of 600 page tomes with long room keys that are off-putting to read and play. What we call megadungeons used to just simply be referred to as "dungeons", a setting for a campaign which, due to its ever-changing and expanding nature, holds capacity for infinite play. 

Making one of these is much easier than it sounds, and is not too distinct from the kind of worldbuilding most GMs do now. Instead of putting everything above ground, put it underground into a dungeon. If you have a city, make it take up 3 big dungeon rooms instead. Draw 5 rooms, give it a theme, and you've got a quarter of a level or a sublevel. Making and running a megadungeon is easy. 

I don't know where I read this but there's an observation that the term "Dungeon Master" exists because, in the early days of the hobby, it meant what it says on the tin: Gygax had Castle Gygax, Arneson had Blackmoor, every Dungeon Master had a unique, personal dungeon that was theirs, that they were master of. To be a Dungeon Master is to create your dungeon. 

This isn't much of a post by me about megadungeons, though, as it is a curation of my favourite OSR content that addresses megadungeons.

The first and most important is the first three pages of 0e vol 3 (the rest of vol 3 as well as the DM sections in B/X are also indispensable though).

I'm posting Ben Milton's review of Courtney Campbell's Megadungeon zines because I think they're a useful resource but can not personally endorse purchasing Courtney's works because of his views and associations. I also think the way Ben phrases some points here are also worthwhile, notably

Crawling through a megadungeon is like crawling through the Referee's mind.

Edit: I've decided to add the most relevant quote from Megadungeon here.
If you run a megadungeon campaign like an adventure path, then it immedi-
ately becomes a tedious slog of combat after combat. If you try to run it like a
sandbox, the structure of the megadungeon itself works against you. Not only
can you not see the other areas of the sandbox, most other actors within the
dungeon have plans who's scope likely excludes the characters. Who cares
what happens into the depths, when they are trapped in the mythic under-
world? Megadungeons are not designed to facilitate player driven goals that
are necessary for a sandbox to function.
There are elements of strong game structure in megadungeons, particularly
revolving around encumbrance, time and light, movement and vision. These
don't make any sense in adventure paths and are frequently less useful in
sandbox games. 
These are important because they provide weight to the idea of the Megadun-
geon as an inimical place. If you go 120' forward, You've caused a hazard die
roll and resources available have decreased. Every step has a cost, and trying
to get something—anything!— of value out this place is hard, because it pulls on
you, weighing you down, refusing to let you leave. 
It makes it mean something to the players. Territory explored is not only
revealing the map; it's gained knowledge, that allows you to descend deeper in
the depths of the mythic unknown. It is compiling this knowledge that empowers
the player to engage in every more risky challenges in the depths. 
Megadungeons are mostly empty, because they are a stage. 
And us, the players. 
It must serve three functions. It must obstruct and confuse characters in a way
that challenges the player, it must be mostly empty so it can hold the emergent
drama between players and dungeon actors while exploring, and it must
contain treasure at intervals to provoke a reward response in players. 
What happens is that while the players explore, they quickly become aware of
other groups of monsters or players that are moving through the same dungeon
area as they are. Most are not immediately hostile, but everyone in the
dungeon is an opportunist. Fights against equally powerful non-player charac-
ter parties are often fatal, but after they've fought a manticore, it might be a
different story. It's likely they think the same about you. These relationships and
rivalries persist from session to session. It is a sea filled with pirates and sharks.
And since the door only opens once each week, you're stuck dealing with who
you run into this session, while you're trying to accomplish your goal, meaning
things usually go one way. . . or the other. 
Sometimes, there are dragons. 
Have you ever been hunted as a mouse? If your character survives to tell the
tale, it will be memorable. If they could slay such a beast? Unforgettable.
So, no. Not like a sandbox or adventure path. Yes, more focused on some
unusual rules. More like an emergent adventure that challenges the player
themselves. A fun game to play with a rotating group of friends. Friendly rivalry.
Sort of like a party game with dares. You know—a Megadungeon!




Tuesday 23 February 2021

Errant Design Deep Dive #6: The Deviant

For the duration of Errant's Kickstarter I will be doing a series of posts where I go through Errant, more or less in order, diving into the design of the game and its inspirations. To follow along, I suggest reading the relevant section being discussed at Also, we have a Discord server now.

Today we'll be discussing the second of Errant's archetypes: The Deviant. This is an interesting one because I had been increasingly growing dissatisfied with the design of The Deviant as of late, but as of about a week ago gave them a complete and total redesign. I'll be explaining my thought process behind this. But first, a quick digression to an aspect of combat I didn't cover in the last blog post: Rolling for Initiative.

Rolling for Initiative

So: the GM rolls a d6; the player also rolls a d6, but before they do, they announce whether the sum of the results will be odds or even. If they call it right, they win initiative; if they call it wrong, they lose initiative.

For anyone even vaguely familiar, they'll realise this is a variation on side initiative inspired by the popular Japanese street gambling game Chō-Han. I don't have much to say about this except for the fact that, despite being mathematically equivalent to regular side initiative, this feels so much better because players are invested in the outcome of the die because they made a decision. Victory is so much sweeter and defeat extra bitter; a player who makes an incorrect call is lambasted, while the player who calls it correctly is a hero. I also love the weird superstitions players develop around it: "always odds/evens" or "keep calling odds/evens until it happens."

That's all, digression over.

The Deviant

So what you may immediately notice, if you're following along on carrd, is that the version of The Deviant posted there is quite different than the one pictured above.

Ever since I started playing RPGs, both tabletop and videogames, the thief/rogue type character was always my favourite. As a designer, I have noticed ever since my very early drafts of Errant, a tendency towards bias creeping in as my version of this class always ended up a little (or a lot) overtuned. This is something I tried to be conscious of, but even after balancing in the obvious ways (they used to be able to get absurd levels of backstab damage) I soon found that the class was unbalanced in other, subtler ways that made me grow to dislike it more and more.

The first is that I had decided that the sort of "design niche" of The Deviant is that, while casters like the The Occult and The Zealot broke the laws of reality diegetically, The Deviant broke them extra-diegetically. That is to say, they messed with the rules and systems of the game itself. This gave them a sort of Puckish fourth wall breaking trickster vibe akin to your Deadpools and your Bugs Bunnies and so on. While I liked this idea in practice, they way the interacted with certain core elements of the game like Event Dice, inventory depletion, and so on both made the game much easier, disrupted the natural rhythm and pace of the game, and made many things harder to keep track of in terms of book-keeping. I managed to simplify some of those issues out (for example, instead of saying "light sources have 1 extra burn" on the Alchemist ability, I made it "ignore the first Burn result on an Event Dice"). But this still didn't solve the second, larger problem.

The Deviant gets too much for too little.

In the Kickstarter I say class abilities are designed to be "Active, not Passive". The Deviant breaks this design point entirely: almost all their mastery abilities give passive bonuses; they reduce the DV of checks related to their skills passive, and if they have mastery they change the position and impact passively as well. A few passive abilities here and there are fine but it is the fact that cumulatively, the weight of all these passive abilities add up with no primary active ability to balance them out.

The weight of my dissatisfaction with this design grew, compounded by the some twitter dialogue on what is "broken" about the thief class in traditional D&D, but I didn't have a solution and felt like it was a bit too late in the process to start fucking with as core a component to the game as one of the classes.
At the same time I was still brainstorming different mechanics that might make me like The Deviant. 
I wanted to lean more into their "storygame-style narrative bending mechanics" niche, while also giving them an active resource they had to manage tied subsystem disconnected largely from the core mechanics of the game like every other Archetype did, all while making said system feel, in terms of game feel, distinctly related to the flavour of The Deviant and asymmetrical in terms of play to the other Archetypes.

Reading Rogue 2e and The Treasure At The End Of This Dungeon Is An Escape From This Dungeon And We Will Never Escape From This Dungeon really helped inspire and clarify my thoughts on what I wanted from The Deviant.

So, this leads us to the new Deviant. They still get a small DV reduction for having Expertise, and they still get improved Position & Impact for having Mastery; the weight of that is offset by the fact that at mid levels they are no longer trivially auto-succeeding every check passively now. I think of the justification for improved Position & Impact being that someone who is a master in stealth, for example, is naturally going to be more effective when they succeed and less disastrous when they fail; think the difference between a paladin in chain mail bouncing down the stairs alerting every guard in earshot vs a guard catching a quick glimpse of a shadow and Skyrim style going "huh, what was that?" before going to investigate. All of the mastery abilities have been pared down now too: they still give passive bonuses that change the way some mechanics work, but these bonuses are now small, the mechanics they influence not core, and they only get one little ability with Mastery rather than two.

The big mechanic is the introduction of Jettons as a resource (Jettons is just a fancy french word for poker chips: I picked it instead of just saying chips because I didn't want people to think of the food, and because I think the smug french pretentiousness fits the character of The Deviant more).

Jettons both allow The Deviant to continue to be better at checks then everyone else, at the cost of a resource, but also allow them to do boastful, betting, gambling style wagers in order to pull off impossible, nigh supernatural displays of skill and proficiency, though they are just as likely to have the attempt spectacularly blow up in their face. The devil's bargain mechanic introduces a push your luck system that reinforces both the gambling and cockiness type feel of the mechanic. Special thanks to Elias for suggesting that The Deviant get some Jettons back on a successful devil's bargain, as it both wonderfully encourages risky behaviour, and also helps balance the amount of Jettons The Deviant gets in between downtime turns: when I had Jettons reducing the DV of checks by 1, it felt like they got too few, but if I increased each Jetton to reduce the DV of checks by 2 they got too many and were too powerful; fiddling with the total amount of Jettons The Deviant got would either leave me feeling like they had too few for checks but too many for wagers, or vice versa, but having them reduce DV by 1 but get the occasional "refund" ends up striking the perfect balance.

That has been my second deep dive of the day. Tomorrow (hopefully) I will be covering two Archetypes, as well as two magic systems, for the price of one, as we cover The Occult and The Zealot.

Errant Design Deep Dive #5: Combat & The Violent

 For the duration of Errant's Kickstarter I will be doing a series of posts where I go through Errant, more or less in order, diving into the design of the game and its inspirations. To follow along, I suggest reading the relevant section being discussed at Also, we have a Discord server now.

This week we're taking a look at the first of Errant's four archetypes, The Violent. But before you can understand the nature of a warrior, you must understand the nature of war, and so we are first jumping ahead and breaking down the basics of Errant's combat mechanics, namely four key topics: Attacking, Health & Damage, Enhance & ImpairGambits, and Movement. Brace yourself because not only is this one going to be long, it's going to have math!

Attacking, Health & Damage

Friends, I have a confession to make. Any claim I have to OSR cred is entirely a lie, for in truth: I am a powergamer. That's right, I, a min-maxer, a theorycrafter, a dirty little munchkin who has spent hundreds of hours on WotC and Paizo forums and trying to maximize the aDPR of hypothetical characters that I would never play (or no self respecting GM would ever let at their table). While I accept my fate of being cast into the gutters as the most maligned type of RPG player, it does give me a useful angle when approaching game design, as I have a fairly good eye for breaking down combat systems. And what this accumulated wisdom and knowledge has revealed to me is one inalienable truth:

Traditional D&D combat is fucking broken; specifically, separating to-hit and damage rolls. Now that I've dropped such a spicy take, I'm going to make you all wait before I justify my thesis. Now that's good writing.

As I said earlier, after a few misbegotten attempts I started using the Whitehack AV system for attack rolls. However, after reading Chris McDowall's post about Decisive Combat in Into the Odd/Electric Bastionland, I ditched attack rolls and switched to an auto-hit system. At the time, I had two reasons:

1) It was faster. My two big pet peeves when it comes to rolling dice are having to modify the result of a dice I've rolled after I've rolled it (e.g. adding or subtracting to the number), and having to roll more than once to accomplish one thing (e.g. having to roll to-hit and then roll damage when I want to attack something).

2) I was mostly playing with people who were either new to RPGs or had come from 5e. And one of the things I constantly told them to assuage their fears about high lethality or party asymmetry in levels was that "a 1st level character is just as useful as a high level character." 

This is a little bit of a white lie, but I think that for classic games the flatter, more constrained power scale does the game a lot of good; for Errant this is mostly achieved by non-scaling damage for every archetype but The Violent and an incredibly constrained HP range (max 20). While Errant, using a blackjack mechanic and having characteristics like item slots tied to attributes, meant that attributes mattered more than they do in an attribute/modifier system and consequently that higher level characters are always going to have an advantage with higher attributes than lower level character with lower attributes, the nature of player skill focused gameplay means that during exploration and travel characters with low attributes can obviate the needs for checks through clever gameplay, which does put everyone on a fairly even playing field.

Except for in combat.

The nature of combat in D&D is a system that is much more mechanically constraining field of play, with quite rigid quantitative mechanics that define a win-state (get enemies health to 0 or low enough that they surrender), with a heavily incentivized game mechanic being usually the optimal line to achieve that win-state (attacking). It is possible to cleverly roleplay your way out of a combat, but for the most part combat systems tend to prioritize flat tactics. Not only that, but the fail state of combat is the area where harshly adjudicated player death with no room for negotiation occurs most frequently.

Not only does this penalise lower level characters, it also penalises lower attribute characters (and the two are frequently overlapping) unfairly, placing too much mechanical impetus on attribute scores. I could solve this the same way that Whitehack does, with an attack value attribute tied to class and divorced from any attribute, but it was a solution I found inelegant. And it still creates a divide between the combat effectiveness of low level characters vs high level characters, particularly against high AC monsters.

Now of course, the counter-argument is that its okay for higher level characters to be better at combat, and I agree, but the question is to what extent. If I'm playing Monster Hunter with my friend, for example, and I have lower level gear on then they do relative to the challenge of a particular monster, even if my contributions to the fight are minimal, I am at least participating. But in an RPG, a character with poor to-hit rolls relative to the rest of their party is effectively not participating in a fight at all; missing just feels bad.

If your game has to-hit rolls that improve with level, you can not honestly as a GM make the oft-repeated OSR claim that "a 1st level character is just as effective as a higher level one" without lying. And as the GM-Player relationship is predicated on trust, I could not just lie to my players about that.

Now, to return to my earlier statement about Traditional D&D combat, based on the classic procedure of rolling to hit and then rolling for damage, being broken. And I say this for a simple reason:

Armour Class and Hit Points are the same thing.

This is not news to anyone who has done the kind of min-maxing I have. Mathematically, when you're trying to calculate your aDPR, you take the average value of all the dice you can roll for damage in a round, and then multiply that by a percentage determined by what AC value you're calculating your aDPR against (usually AC 20 is the benchmark). The most basic example of this is, vs an (ascending) AC 10 with no modifier to hit and doing a d8 damage, your aDPR is roughly 2 (4 being the average of a d8, multiplied by a 50% chance to hit).

AC is essentially a "hidden" pool of hit points that every monster has which fluctuates depending on the to-hit bonus of the character they are going up against. Each +1 to hit you have increases your damage by 5%, and each point of AC the monster has reduces damage by 5%. 

This, right here, I believe is the crux of why there is so much confusion about what HP actually is in D&D. When Philotomy was describing the paradigm where hit points are not just "meat points" but reflect the capacity of someone in a fight to avoid serious blows, establishing a fairly orthodox view in OSR scenes about what hit points are, which would later see codification in the Flesh & Grit system by Logan Knight that gained popularity, he was getting close to this point: hit points are essentially deflection points, not meat points (in terms of taking damage to your body). The range of damage that you deal reflects your accuracy: a 1 on a d8 is basically a miss, a whiff, a close call, while an 8 is a blow that seriously reduces your opponents capacity to defend themselves. Errant makes this distinction very clear: any damage you take to your HP is minor damage that can be healed with some medicine and a night's rest; once you reach 0 HP, any damage you take causes serious bodily injury.

The reason why this feels unintuitive, though, is that we apparently have AC there to tell us whether we hit or not: if we miss, that means a blow was deflected, and if we hit, that means we must have actually "dealt damage", whatever that means.

But of course, AC isn't AC: it's just a hidden pool of HP, masquerading as something else. 

OSR play is built around reliable resources, because without objective measures of how your basic adventuring capabilities such as torches, food, hit points, and damage work, there is no way for players to properly assess risk vs reward when engaging with the fictional world. You can change how reliable these resources are; damage traditionally is variable, and in Errant torches don't last for a fixed term but are tied to a 1-in-6 chance of depletion (with 2 strikes before they burn out completely) but what is important here is that the odds remain transparent to a player. They know that their damage range is 1-8 with a 50% chance to roll higher than a 4 and 50% to roll lower; they know that on average a torch will last about 12 exploration turns before fully burning out. They can make their informed little gambler's decisions or find ways around those rolls if the odds are unfavourable, but they always know what their chances are.

AC makes assessing the odds when it comes to assessing combat and damage opaque, to both players and Guides, especially because as I said earlier this "pool" of effective HP fluctuates based on the to-hit bonus of the person making the attack.

While mechanics like Armour in Into the Odd are a little better in that they represent an ancillary pool of hit points with a slightly different mathematical function in a clearer way, requiring only subtraction rather than percentile multiplication, I admit I still am not a fan: if something represents effective HP, just add it to the pool of HP! If the amount of HP it represents is variable, add the average value of it to the pool of HP! Having to assess two mathematical functions to ascertain your odds and capabilities in combat is just entirely unnecessary, at least for a game where intricate combat isn't the priority.

Using HP as a catch-all abstract pool for monsters to define whether they are particularly armoured, evasive, or just outright tough and able to take a huge beating allows you to use less rules to do more, reducing the mechanistic overhead you have to consider and allowing yourself to actually consider what is appropriate to the fiction.

To this end, here is the formula I've adopted for determining monster HP in Errant, since I am usually using pre-existing material from various versions or cousins of D&D: 

HP = Hit Die x 1/2 Ascending Armour Class

And yes this does mean that monsters don't have variable HP; I don't find personally that its ever added much for me.

So, in this example, a B/X goblin with an AAC of 13 and 1 HD has 6 HP (their average HP in B/X is 3). A red dragon, with AAC of 20 and 10 HD has 100 HP (average in B/X is 45 HP).

"But Ava," you may cry, "is this not just HP bloat?" to which I say no because:

1) The actual effective HP totals of the 45 HP dragon and the 100 HP dragon is the same when you factor in misses due to AC 


2) HP bloat isn't actually about HP totals; HP totals are just the most obvious symptom of it happening. HP Bloat is the length of time that a fight takes being artificially increased by the HP and damage capabilities of PCs and monsters inflating at roughly the same rate, with fights being predicated on eking out enough of an advantage via combinations of abilities/spells etc to break free of that roughly linear relationship. In Errant a PC will never have more than 20 HP (if we assume each blog roughly counts as 1 HP effectively, then an Errant fully decked out with the maximum amount of blocks you can have has an extra 26 HP on top of that). A dragon can still take out a party of errants in one round if it wins initiative. Regardless of high HP totals, fights remain quick and decisive one way or another.

Another concern that might be raised is that by making HP an all-encompassing abstraction for every situation, you limit design space; for example, in a game like Into the Odd that has Armour as damage reduction, you could have an ability, attack, or weapon that may be relatively weak on its own but bypasses armour. While its verging on a truism to say that making any design decision necessarily limits design space, I do think that these kinds of attacks or variable damage can still be modelled with the next big component of Errant's combat system.

Enhance & Impair

I find Enhance & Impair a really useful tool for allowing adjudication calls to take a greater roll in combat, where it is usually the one area of play in classic games where such calls generally take less importance.

To answer the question I raised at the end of the next section, Enhance & Impair in combination with abstract monster HP pools gives me a robust framework to reward player tactics and creativity: find an unarmoured spot in the dragon's scales, Enhance the attack! Manage to restrict the range of movement of an evasive creature, Enhance the attack! If you've got a magic dagger that says it strikes in the gaps of armoured opponents, I don't need to give it a tag that says "Ignore X points of Armour/AC" or whatever, I can just Enhance the attack! Same thing goes for Impair, obviously, but in reverse: I don't want to give you examples because I'm lazy.

This rule started out as a kind of mish-mash of the ethos of the rule in Knave where using the correct type of damage against a monster (e.g. a mace against a skeleton) let you roll two damage, and the Enhance and Impair rules as presented in Electric Bastionland: if your attack is Impaired you roll your normal damage and a d4 and take the lower, if it's Enhanced you roll your normal damage and a d12 and take the higher.

My initial version of this was making my players roll two damage die and take the higher and the lower. I found this kind of clunky and slow (this is what cemented my "roll as few times as possible for one thing" mantra) and then I realised that I could just cut out the middle man of the double roll and let my players roll a smaller die when Impaired and a larger die when Enhanced (if I ever ran physical games I would make some pretentious designer point about how this physically reinforces the game state to the players or something like that).

In an auto-hit system having the smaller die/larger die binary is essentially Advantage and Disadvantage by another function (remember: AC and HP are the same thing). I decided to make Enhance and Impair to work off multiple steps on a dice chain because, like I've mentioned earlier, I allow the freedom that more granular modifiers allow rather than the simple binary state of Advantage/Disadvantage systems: in the latter system, it doesn't matter if you've knocked a guy prone or blinded him or both, both will just give you advantage/a binary larger die, but along a dice chain I can say "prone or blinded is Enhanced 1, but both is Enhanced 2!". 

I like the way too that you can have multiple factors contributing to Enhance or Impair, such that it allows for the accretion of tactical circumstances, eventually paying off in the huge damage spike to a d20 or the womp-womp feeling of being reduced to only 1 damage. 

Finally, despite all of my warbling about transparent odds, I do think that a little unpredictability in combat is a good thing: Enhance & Impair allow for that sort of unpredictability, because even if you've got 10 HP and your enemy is swinging a d8, you never know if they might be able to leverage some advantage against you and bump up that die size. The reason I'm ok with this form of odds-obfuscation is that it still works along the same mathematical function (damage to HP) without introducing another variable that requires you to make a different form of calculation to get the proper derived value.


I'm linking this Mark Rosewater video because, apart from containing some great design wisdom, two of the lessons he lists apply directly to this section.

So, after a few permutations, starting with a variation of Stunts in Knave and then using James Young's Gambit rules for a long time, except instead of two attack rolls the attacker and the defender both rolled Saving Throws.

This, however, presented a problem. Gambits are the loose resolution mechanic for covering all the cool, fun, tactical, creative stuff you want to do in a combat. But, Gambits have a chance for failure, and at low levels a fairly significant chance for failure at that (for a long time I flip flopped on finding the right balance to set a monster's Saving Throw stat at for this: HD+5 felt too low, but HD+10 felt too high; the right number was HD+8 but I was too much of a coward to commit to an ugly number, but then I remembered Errant is a game built in fours so I finally committed).

This is especially problematic because attacking, the very easy option that a player is already mechanistically incentivized to do in a traditional to-hit system, always deals damage, and is therefore further incentivized.

I wracked my brain on what I could do, what mechanic I could create that would incentivize players not to attack, an ultimately futile endeavour, before I realised: instead of fighting the player tendency to attack, I should instead make attacking more interesting. Hence, the first of Mark's lessons:
Fighting against human nature is a losing battle (AKA don't change your players to match your game, change your game to match your players)
By building Gambits into the attack roll, not forcing them to forgo the most tactically sound option but instead do something in addition to it (at the expense of reducing damage somewhat, but allowing exactly how much to be a choice of the players) you actually incentivize your players to do all the cool shit.

Not only that, but, in combination with the Enhance & Impair mechanics above, a successful Gambit is more than likely going to put your opponent in a position where your attacks (and all your party members) are Enhanced against them; the short term damage trade off, if successful, results in an exponential damage increase. Especially if you capitalise on this situation by making use of Archetype abilities such as combat die (which we'll see soon below) which allow you to roll more damage die: now instead of just increasing a d8 to a d10 or what have you, you're rolling two d10s! Especially, as we've seen above, the disparity between PC HP totals and those of mid to high level monsters (who also auto-hit against players, lets not forget), judicious use of Gambits and other tactical advantages that allow you to Enhance your damage against enemies becomes the key to smart and effective combat play. This is reflective of lesson #13 from Mr. Rosewater:

Make the fun part the correct strategy to win

Or, to reformulate it for this case, by adding in all the cool, tactical, creative combat stuff into the dull, bog-standard, ol' reliable attack roll, we've made the correct strategy to win also the fun part.

It is also fun to trigger Gambit volleys, where an unsuccessful Gambit allows an enemy to counterattack, in which they attempt their own Gambit, which fails and allows another counter-attack, and so on and so forth.

Note that to resist a Gambit a monster has to make a check, and this is subject to the same Position & Impact rules as all checks do: while it states that a monster is allowed a counter attack, this is assuming the monster has a Fair Impact. They might make the check with Weak Impact and not be allowed a counter-attack, or a counter-attack that is Impaired; they might make the check with Dire Position and fall into an even more tactically disadvantageous situation, or with Shaky Position and not suffer the effects as badly. Considering the suite of options you have to define a Check allows Gambits to be an incredibly versatile tool for defining non-standard combat options.


Movement in combat is probably one of the parts of Errant I've tinkered with the most before I came upon a solution I linked. I knew I wanted to have movement rates in combat change based on the level of encumbrance a character had; encumbrance affecting number of encounter die accounts for the change in exploration movement, but the other half of the equation is that its linked to encounter movement as well, which becomes especially pertinent when you're being chased down a hallway while trying to carry a load of treasure.

My original way of calculating this was, like many of these rules are in their initial incarnation, very finnicky. It 30+SKILL to determine your Speed, minus 1 point for every item slot you had filled up to your limit, and minus 5 points for every item slot you had filled past your limit; you could move that many feet/yards in one move action in an encounter. This was rather laborious and confusing (does an encumbered item slot reduce speed by 5+1 for filling an item slot, or does it have the 1 for filling an item slot baked in?)

After I wrote an initial version of my chase rules, which involved taking your Speed score, dividing it by 10, and then rolling that many d10s to determine how far you moved, I decided to try to unify movement mechanics across these two areas, adding a movement roll into combat. I finagled with the formulas a little bit and settled on this for a while: 

Speed equals half your SKILL; subtract 1 point from your speed when half your item slots are filled, 1 point when all of them are filled, and 1 point for each additional item slot past that filled; roll a number of d10s equal to your speed, and move that many feet/yards in a move action. As a free action you can step a number of feet/yards equal to half your speed, but you can't step and move in the same turn.

This worked more or less fine for a while. At some point I tweaked the step and move values to give players a little bit more latitude: I made Step equal to Speed x 3, and move equal to Speed x d12. 

This worked, more or less, but I wasn't happy with the fact that it could give me all sorts of odd and fiddly little numbers like "you move 28 feet" which were kind of hard to remember when doing theatre of the mind (and so I would just round to 5 ft increments) and hard to place when using a grid (and so...I would just round up to 5 ft increments). So I decided to switch Speed to work in 5 foot increments and what happened next, well, I'll let these discord screenshots speak from themselves.

Despite this being a truly heinous assemblage of numbers, I was sure it could work so long as there was something on the character sheet that told you what dice to roll depending on your Speed score. However, in either the first or second session we played with these rules, I realised something incredibly obvious that I had overlooked.

For the dice that required you to subtract 1 from the result, you could roll a 0.

This totally threw off the balance of the ranges I wanted. I could have maybe resolved this by instead defining a d7 for example as a "d8 re-roll 8s" but, again, I hate rolling to do things more than once, and it just added more overhead to an already complex system.

I went in and tried to balance all the ranges again with different dice combinations. My results were...

Not something fit for human consumption. I resigned that I had given movement rolls the best shake I could at them, and decided to go for the much simpler non-random movement option (move = Speed number of squares), citing the many disadvantages of random movement.

But no good idea wants to stay dead forever.

I really don't know what it was that tipped me off that a singular d4 represents 5-20 feet of movement, which is the pretty standard "movement speed increment" in classic D&D (e.g. unencumbered being 40', encumbered being 20'), and that the step value that I had defined (Speed/4) matched up pretty perfectly with rolling d4s for movement, but that's the realisation I had and that's the system we're at now. This is especially clean because now you don't have to derive a second number for your step range off of your Speed: you use the same number, and either move that many squares, or roll that many d4s.

This system can very easily be hacked if you don't like random movement: a character can either Step their speed, or move 20' per point of Speed. This, for the reasons I talked about in that screenshot above, may in fact  be a better system. So why did I keep returning to this system that gave me so much trouble when an easier and perhaps better alternative was always right there?

Likely a good deal of it was ego and enjoying the challenge. But I do personally think that having randomized movement adds something to the game.

The problem with having set movement speeds like 30 or 40' feet, especially when most combats take place in arenas not much larger than that, is that everyone tends to very quickly "get" to where they need to get to in combat (fighters up in melee, casters and missile weapons further away) and more or less stick there for the duration of combat, making slight positional adjustments. This has led to a lot of people, and I think rightfully so, deciding that defined combat speeds doesn't introduce much tactical complexity for the mechanistic overhead, and abstracts it to Close/Near/Far systems like The Black Hack or Zone based combat like Break!! or 5E Hardcore Mode.

The reason this doesn't work for my particular brain however, because usually I'm running my players through a dungeon, and if I'm running my players through a dungeon I usually have a dungeon map with a grid available, and so I actually do know more or less exact distances in feet or yards between things; to suddenly switch to a different mode of measurement solely for combat alone feels like some jRPG fading into the combat menu style mode-shifting in a way I don't like.

Making movement non-deterministic I think is a simple change that shakes up the way players think about tactics; suddenly you're being forced to come up with different plans for if you don't make it to the enemy, or if the enemy doesn't make it to you. I think it adds back in some of the tension and randomness into combat that was removed when I took out to-hit rolls, but crucially adds it into a different area of the game. This has definitely resulted in some fun moments. I feel like my players saying to me after a session, "Oh man, if I hadn't made that movement roll things could've gotten bad," I'm at least half-way to doing something right.

The Violent

Wow that was a fuck-ton of words. Rather anti-climactic because I don't have a super lot to say about The Violent.

Ol' reliable they are. This is the class that has given me the least amount of design trouble and gone through the least amount of changes.

It started life as a fairly basic hack of a The Black Hack Warrior, with more or less the same extra attack progression we have here. They had access to Shields Shall Be Splintered, and a Fight Recklessly (advantage on attack rolls for advantage on attack rolls against you) and a Fight Defensively (the opposite) options, and that was about it. I felt sorry for them because they had no customization options so I gave them Feats, which I detailed in this blog post. Fight Recklessly and Fight Defensively became Smite and Grit, I removed the Shields Shall Be Splintered rule because it played weird with the Quality system, and I've tweaked the feats a little bit over time. I gave them the Sprint feat to start out with recently to give them the combat mobility necessary for a fighter. I also since that blog post have allowed them to use more than one feat a turn, in order to increase combo potential, but only allow them to use as many feats per turn as they have attacks, to keep the pace of the game quick and to keep feats balanced somewhat.

One little aspect of The Violent that is a little hidden is that they are especially well-suited for performing Gambits; the strategize feat (which has been tweaked slightly from the layout above) hints at this, but even out of the box The Violent with their d8 damage die and ability to increase damage via Smite has the highest chance of pulling off a successful Gambit; their multiple attacks allow them to press the advantage with multiple Gambits in a turn; and their combat die scaling off their damage die means that they can capitalize on the benefit that comes from getting Enhanced damage off the back of a Gambit better than anyone else.

Anyway, that's all for this one. Thanks for sticking around to the end of such a long post, and I'll hopefully have the next deep dive up sooner than I had this one.