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 errantrpg.carrd.co. 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 errantrpg.carrd.co. 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 anydice.com 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.

Friday 19 February 2021

Errant Design Deep Dive #4: Renown & Experience

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 errantrpg.carrd.co. Also, we have a Discord server now.

Diving right in today, we'll be talking about Renown & Experience.

Renown & Experience

I think I just renamed levels to renown because I had renamed classes to Archetypes (because I wanted to emphasize that they weren't narrow expressions of function-as-profession like conventional naming schema that Fighter or Wizard or Cleric imply, but rather broader expressions of purpose; The Violent can be a barbarian or a paladin or any other dude whose primary expression is, well, violence) and races to Ancestries (I am not going to go into all the reasons why "race" is a fucking bullshit word to describe fucking dwarves and elves and shit), and so being a pretentious designer git I decided to rename levels to Renown. Once I did that I was like "oh shit this should actually measure Renown" and so I added the roll under to test Renown. It was originally a 2d6 roll back when the max Renown was 10, but I dropped it down to a d10 when the level cap was reduced to 9.

As for why the level cap went down to 9: I had the standard "XP thresholds double per level" to begin with, but really didn't like the fact that that meant the level 1-2 and level 2-3 had the same amount of XP needed to advance. I fiddled around until I eventually landed on some numbers that I liked, with the amount needed to advance to the next level being 2000 + 2*the last renown threshold. Under that formula Renown 10 would have been 1,022,000 XP which is an ugly number I didn't want in my game. It was a happy coincidence that I ended up discovering all of the Archetype abilities had smoother scaling across 9 levels then they did across 10.

But the big design question here is why: XP for Waste? XP for Gold is old faithful, but when I came into the scene a lot of people (I have forgotten specifics; I feel like Gus may have been one of them?) were doing XP for Gold Spent systems, as a way of investing further in the world. This is what I adopted initially, but two things usually ended up happening:

1) characters would buy all the best mundane gear they needed and then be set for life, pretty much. This had a sort of doubling effect on character power growth as they both got the boost from levelling up and from making their gear better.
2) After that they would pretty much just literally throw their gold away on carousing in order to get the XP they needed.

So the system was already halfway towards XP for Waste already. I just pushed it a bit farther, and in a little of a souls-like direction, with a tension between spending a resource as a currency or spending it as experience. 

Adding in the caveat that items breaking or investments becoming unusable through threat was kind of an attempt to integrate "fail forward" ethos into Errant.  It gave some more mechanical weight to the Quality mechanics around item degradation. It gives another incentive to make large cash investments in things like businesses and domains because they can eventually turn into a passive means of XP whenever they become threatened, and is a better way to scale XP into the late game as eventually the XP requirements become high enough that you can't very efficiently reach them via carousing (the way the XP rules interact with Downtime systems is one of my favourite parts of Errant and the thing I am most proud of as a designer, but we've got a few deep dives to go before we get there [and I have to add the downtime procedures up onto the carrd still]).

As I put it in one of my very early drafts of Errant
The rule by which PCs gain XP for their investments coming under threat is there so as to not discourage players totally from investing in the game world, and also naturally creates an escalating cycle of stakes by which the things the PCs own come under threat, so they must ensure their safety, thereby in the process earning more things which can later come under threat. At higher levels, PCs will find that having their ships or castles be destroyed or come under attack is the fastest way to gain XP, since wasting the amount of wealth required to increase in Renown becomes near impossible through traditional forms of debauchery. You can only throw so many lavish parties before people stop showing up.

I also like the XP for Waste rules as a kind of accidental form of genre emulation; combined with the mechanics for carousing (the primary mechanical form of wasting provided to players), debt (what players are likely to get into when they carouse), and lifestyle expenses (when downtime turns end, halve any remaining money) it creates a play experience where players will get a large score from an adventure, and then immediately blow all of the cash, starting out the next adventure with nothing or significantly in debt, having to scrape by in order to scrounge up the resources needed for the next adventure. It manages to maintain a tension to the resource management aspect of the game that often disappears once your player character's accumulate enough wealth, while also providing a real impetus as to why characters need to keep adventuring.

Its a common formula to the best of adventure fiction, your Cowboy Bebops and your Fafhrd's and Gray Mouser's, stories of fiscally irresponsible, perpetually down on their luck adventurers that, if they're lucky, might fail upwards into positions of power.

Quoting from that same early draft:
XP for wasting gold is meant to replicate picaresque swords & sorcery stories where our he roes often seem to be in a state of constant destitution. Which is not to say that in these stories the characters never earn money, but that we don’t focus on them when we do. Deprivation drives desire, and desire is at the heart of conflict, tension, and drama: all the things we want from a good story. We don’t read stories about Conan when he is a king during peace time, but we would read a story about Conan deposed from his throne and his quest to recover it.

Thursday 18 February 2021

Errant Design Deep Dive #3: Items and Equipment

 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 errantrpg.carrd.co. Also, we have a Discord server now.

Today is a look at the most sacred and profane cow of OSR play, inventory/equipment management. Today we'll be talking about Item Slots, Exhaustion, and Encumbrance, Weapons & Armour, Depletion & Supply, and Economy. Whew, that's a lot to cover. That's not all though: at the end is a special reveal of a new project in the works for Errant 

Item Slots, Exhaustion, and Encumbrance

What is there to say about item slots that hasn't been said before? They are the de facto  way of tracking inventory limits in most OSR and OSR-adjacent games now and the world is better for it. My first encounter with it was Matt Rundle's Anti-Hammerspace Item-Tracker way back when. For the longest time I made my players write down the location of every individual item in their inventory on their body, but I have now pared that down to just Hand & Handy slots and assume everything else is in a backpack. I also used to have some truly ridiculous fractional items floating around in my item lists; things taking up 1/3 or 1/7 or other dumb amounts. My players rebelled and I standardised to items either being 1 (or more) slots, 1/2 slot, 1/4 slot, or 1/8 slot. Recently after reading Anne's excellent posts on resource management I ditched the 1/8 slot.

I think once you have item slots its pretty intuitive to put other things other than items in them. I put in "exhaustion fills a slot" as a rule very soon after reading Knave, and its an approach that has recently seen much success in Mausritter; Errant doesn't go as full bore into using item slots for conditions as Mausritter does, but the idea of physical exhaustion "taking up" the space you could carry something else in feels fairly straightforward.

Encumbrance levels, as being separate from carrying capacity, was something I did not give very much thought to back in my days of playing the ultra-lights: you can carry this much stuff and do stuff, and if you carry more stuff you can't do stuff. I didn't see the need for granularity beyond that.

When I finally began to dive into the design of B/X though I began to see how so many of these little granular rules that many of the more minimalist takes on classic D&D pared away created the design space for so many of the classic gameplay experiences everyone in the OSR-sphere was talking about and that I wanted to access. Greater encumbrance means slower movement rates, which means you use more torches, and have more wandering monster checks to get across the same distance; you're more likely to have greater encumbrance coming out of a dungeon than you are coming in, since you're laden with treasure, but you're also likely to be bloodied and low on resources, meaning you're less capable of being in a fight if one occurs, and might not have enough torches to get you all the way through to the end. God forbid you have to run from a monster and ditch some of your treasure to be fast enough to get away in a chase. Having granular encumbrance levels rather than a binary "encumbered or not" creates multiple decision points, thereby enabling a wonderful economy of risk vs reward to be measured.

Of course the actual mechanics as written for doing so in those games have always been a little clunky, so my goal was to try and emulate that same interactions but with cleaner rules. In many ways I feel like Zzarchov Kowolski's description of Neoclassical Geek Revival as a "take on classic RPGs to the extent that none of the original mechanics survive" also sums up the ethos of Errant quite nicely.

The specifics of the encumbrance mechanics in Errant have changed many many times, notably because the rules around handling armour and calculating movement speed have had many changes and these three systems are fairly interconnected, but the two main things that its always done is: reduce movement speed (in combat) and increase event dice (in travel and exploration) if you're carrying more than your item slots, which I think ends up replicating the effects of its implementation in B/X and other editions but in a cleaner way.

Encumbrance also adds to the DV of certain physical checks like climbing or swimming, as well as checks for The Occult to see if they can retain their spells. This used to be a function that was related to armour, but it makes more sense to me as a function of encumbrance, especially since there's no weapon or armour restrictions for the Archetypes in Errant; magic users should always travel light and be dignified, carrying stuff is for patsies. 

While this might be kind of a harsh penalty for just carrying stuff (having a full inventory will increase the DV by 2, a full 10% less chance to do something), I will note that it can be largely obviated by just dropping your backpack and the things you're holding before you attempt something strenuous: this is a behaviour that I personally feel is so instinctual its automatic for me in my everyday life, but adventurers never worry about it. Personally I feel like this could lead to some interesting situations also where players are likely to get caught without a bag after shoving open a door and finding an angry group of critters on the other side, who they must now content with while their equipment is all strewn about all over the place.

Weapons & Armour

Armour is a doozy in terms of its design history in Errant; I'm not really sure where to begin. Armour, as I stated in an earlier post, was one of the first things I started futzing with back when this was still a Black Hack hack. Aside from just giving armour points (e.g. an ablative pool of damage reduction that decreased before hp did), I also kind of become obsessed with armour representing damage reduction and damage avoidance at the same time, so I had armour give a DV to attack rolls (back when there were attack rolls) equal to half the current amount of armour points, which meant that as you took damage and your AP decreased your AC decreased as well. On top of that, you took a quarter of your maximum total AP (not whatever your current AP was) and added it the DV for physical and spell retention checks. It was finnicky as hell.

When I ditched attack rolls I ditched the AC functionality and just kept armour as giving AP, though I was still keeping that ugly "quarter of max AP to physical checks" rule. 

I am not actually sure what prompted the switch from AP to the Blocks system that we have in place now. I think it was when I wanted to differentiate shields from other pieces of armour, and so I made them impair damage by a certain number of steps. From there I think I just realised armour was cooler, more active and engaging if you had to make a conscious decision to use it; it also provided a justification for the piecemeal armour system I was using, as blocks require narrative justification as to how you're blocking an attack with a particular piece of armour. I still had the very ugly "quarter of max Blocks to checks" rule for a little bit until I did away with it and replaced it with encumbrance quite recently.

I also like the way Blocks interact with the Quality rule: as you use more blocks to impair damage, an enemy rolling max damage becomes more likely (or inevitable if you reduce their damage to 1), which means that as you use your armour it is more likely to degrade.

Nick once asked me why I had weapons abstracted into 3 categories while I seemed to go into such careful and minute detail to individual pieces of armour. For one I like the piecemeal feel of individual armour pieces and what it does to the setting: you never buy a pristine shiny new suit of armour, your fucking boots wear out and your helmet breaks and you steal replacements from the body of the dude you just killed. My players were constantly finding random suits of armour or armour pieces and replacing their old ones and distributing them amongst themselves, ending up looking like little mismatched dolls wearing bric-a-brac assemblages of bloodstained armour.

The second is that, in my opinion, weapons have several orders of magnitude more complexity in all their myriad effects and applications, which is why I feel like its better to keep them more abstract. In situations like this, I feel like trying to specifically catalogue the differentiations between every type of weapon by tags or what nots actually decreases complexity instead of increasing it; keeping it abstract leaves a lot of room for player ingenuity and common sense reasoning from the guide to prevail. 

Dealing with plus bonuses to weapon was something I struggled with for a while; I run mostly published material so plus weapons show up a lot. Just keeping the flat increase to damage mathed out weird: a +2 dagger, which is a light weapon and thus has -1 damage, would do +1 damage. Plus I wasn't fond of the having to do any kind of addition, as a weird personal hang up. I played around with plus weapons enhancing damage by that many steps, but I realised that giving out enhancement as bonuses on things could skew things quickly because of how quickly they can add up, leading to a disproportionate advantage; plus, I like to save enhancement and impairment as rewards for players making clever use of tactics, planning, and their environment, not something they can just get without having to do anything.

I settled on plus weapons letting you maximize damage a set amount of times because again, I think active abilities are better than passive ones (both in terms of being more engaging and not having to constantly remember to add or do something), and because of the way it (along with the gambit mechanics, which we'll talk about soon) incentivize the asymmetrical nature of combat (Errants have piddly amounts of hp compared to monsters, and because of auto-damage will quickly be outmatched in a fair fight) to be about getting as many tactical advantages as possible, making your damage die as big as possible, and then using abilities like true strikes or combat dice to capitalize on your now huge damage die. From there it was just about giving armour a fairly equivalent effect.

Depletion & Supply

So, originally I had consumables like torches and rations on a usage die like they are in TBH. Even after I switched to using the Event Die system, I was still using usage die, treating rolls of 3, which called for light sources to burn, as a prompt to test the usage die. This was ultimately two layers of randomness, one of which was entirely unnecessary, as well as making consumables last forever. I instead gave them a depletion value which ticks down on a roll of the event die when it is called for. This had two added benefits: for light sources, I could use this depletion value to represent illumination, with how many ticks a light source had left representing how bright it was; second, I could give spells a depletion value to track how long they lasted as well.

The Supply idea is very obviously taken/inspired by Five Torches Deep, though The Wandering Gamist's critique of that system inspired me to make some changes to make it less disassociative:

1. Supply replenishes item on a slot to slot basis. That is, 4 supply take up a slot, and 4 supply is needed to replenish a 1 slot item; 2 supply for a 1/2 slot item, and 1 supply for a 1/4 slot item.
2. It's not tied to any attribute: you can buy supply so long as you have the money and so long as the local economy can handle it (we'll talk about that in a minute).

Two things I like about the supply system.

1. It smooths out the decision making process of item selection over the course of an adventure rather than frontloading it at the beginning. You still have to decide what specific items (torches, rations, potions, etc.) you're going to buy, as well as how much supply you want to bring on the trip, but during the adventure you're making moment to moment decisions prioritizing what's important: another quiver of arrows, or more food to eat. Coupled with restricted item slots, it forces constant evaluation and short and long term decision making over the course of an adventure: do I spend this supply to replenish something now, or save my supply but lose that item forever. A character can still choose to buy multiple quantities of an item that can be resupplied, of course to mitigate this a little, but that's still a choice that they're making and it comes with the drawback of losing the flexibility of supply.
2. It allows me to have a generic option for rolls of 3 (depletion) on the event dice in the situations where rations or light sources aren't pertinent for the adventure. I ran into the latter one quite often: "Ok, we rolled a 3 on the event dice, which means light sources burn, but you guys aren't using any cause this dungeon is lit so nothing happens." Nothing happens is the worst thing to say as a Guide; now I always have the failsafe of "ok, reduce your supply by 1."


The quality and breakage rules have remained largely unchanged since the earliest versions of the game: it used to be that quality decreased on your weapon on a crit fail attack, and quality decreased on your armour on a crit success attack against you. I've just changed that to be when you roll minimum damage and when someone rolls max damage against you. Besides creating another form of resource to track, it also, as a result of Errant's XP for waste rules also becomes a fairly decent source of XP at low levels.

(I will talk about the XP rules tomorrow but if you want to get the skinny check out this ancient twitter thread)

Settlement sizes were introduced in the game as part of the carousing rules in downtime, to determine how much money you could spend while carousing per downtime turn. Reading this post by Rick Stump, however, made me want to expand on the economic aspect of my game more, though I couldn't track it as intensely or granularly (nor would I want to) as Rick does because my game abstracts things like precise weights of items or being specific quantities of individual items like torches and rations (abstracting that mostly by supply).

Thankfully, having an abstract resource known as supply is very useful when trying to create a simplified system for simulating inflation, since supply is one half of the economic see-saw from which inflation arises. 

I like the inflation rules because it provides an associative limit to the amount of supply players can buy, it encourages players to travel to bigger settlements as they rise through the ranks (or make use of the infrastructure rules in the downtime section to increase the size of the settlement they're in over time). It also scales into the late game when trying to equip large expeditions to clear areas of wilderness.

Once settlement sizes and economy/price levels were integrated into the game, it was a short leap to also give items a rarity rating to determine what could be bought where; it was something I had planned to do a while for my home game, but fleshing out this system gave me an excuse to integrate it into the system.

Whew, that was a much longer post then these usually are. Thanks for sticking around (or scrolling) to the end. Here is your reward.

The GanHoggr Approacheth!

The Goose King squats in his great longhouse atop the barrows of his ancestors, feasting nightly on the most succulent turf, rich foreign wines, and the finest lettuces. In the swampy dark outside his kingdom burns and suffers. Supply for the King's swollen armies strip the land of fodder, leaving the meadows and pond untended bare and those who tend hungry. Raiders, beasts and brigands descend on the hall and hamlet, now unprotected due to the levy. 

Even the spiteful gods of the geesefolk have no patience for misrule and while their punishment is cruel it is also sure. 

The GanHoggr comes! 

The great gander of the Claymarshes, despoiler, land devourer, sword-blessed terror bird, maimer of champions, curse of the wrathful stars. The GanHoggr's scream again rips the night in contemptuous accusation, sounding the Goose King's failure, and the dawn of an age of ruin.

Gus L., inscrutable genius that he is, has decided to go even further from his original Goose King illustration and write a short adventure in the style of his recent releases like Star Spire or Broken Bastion for Errant. This is in addition to the free adventure module for backers that was unlocked as  a stretch goal as part of the Kickstarter campaign: Curse of the GansHoggr will be released as a free adventure for the whole entire internet.

And with that, I officially sign off!

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Errant Design Deep Dive #2: Core Procedures

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 errantrpg.carrd.co. Also, we have a Discord server now.

Today is a look at the core procedures of Errant, which are Event Dice and Negotiations (I am passing over Reaction Rolls because a) you know what their deal is b) they tie into negotiations anyhow). Plus, a bonus digression on what the hell is the difference between a Rule vs Procedure?

Event Dice

The inspiration here is clearly, unashamedly, the excellent Hazard System by Necropraxis. There is not much to say about the idea of the overloaded encounter die that hasn't been said before; it is frankly a wonder that anyone was able to play a proper meaningful dungeoncrawl before its innovation. The fiddliness of square by square movement per turn, encounter checks every other turn, resting every 6th turn, keeping track of exactly which turn your torch burns down, it boggles the mind. 

I had experimented with various methods of doing so; first there was the rules provided in The Black Hack; roll an encounter check every real world 15 minutes or whenever the players are noisy, roll the usage die every turn. Of course, I would never remember to check when 15 minute real world minutes had elapsed, and the game provided very little definition of what a turn was. For people who were already familiar with the structure of Old D&D that latter point was likely not a problem, but TBH was my first proper OSRish game and I was fumbling in the dark. I eventually landed on a "turn is like 1 dungeoncrawl-y type action" and printed out turn trackers, but even this was quite fiddly. I think it was with the patreon releases of Knave that I looked at the Hazard System proper for the first time, was instantly converted, and never looked back.

Hazard die provide the entirety of the game-play experience with the meaningful gameplay structure present in combat and often lacking elsewhere. The play-structure of combat is radically intuitive to anyone who has played any type of board or card or most any game: its your turn, you get to do one thing, you decide what to do, then you pass the turn to someone else. The hazard die just expands this throughout the entire game. 

A turn immediately creates meaningful decisions because it forces a constraint; you can only do one thing, and therefore not all of the other things, before the turn ends and something else happens. It creates a clear responsive structure, where one side (the players) gets to do something, and then the other side (the Guide) does; there is no remembering to roll an encounter check or counting down a torch, the game by its structure tells you what to do and when. If classic play D&D is about making meaningful decisions, then the turn is the most natural structure for gameplay to take: a turn is the unit of meaningful decisions.

So many problems of modern D&D play fall away when you take this approach. The "everyone makes a skill check until someone succeeds or everyone fails", the "nothing happens" approach to failing a skill check, these all go away if every action takes a turn.

Two notable changes I've made with Event Dice from the Hazard System.

First: multiple event dice can be rolled. This primarily occurs if party members are encumbered. Rather than reducing the speed at which this forces players to move through the dungeon, such that moving between an area takes two turns instead of one, encumbrance increases the number of event dice that are rolled. This abstractly represents being slower, noisier, and clumsier. The math works out exactly the same, to be honest, in terms of how many actions are accomplished to how many event dice are rolled, but I think it makes it easier to still keep the unit to 1 turn = 1 action then messing about with 1 turn = 1/2 or 1/4 of an action. This idea was originally inspired by this post by Goblin Punch, about encumbrance increasing the chance of a random encounter.

Second: choosing to rest causes you to roll an extra event dice the next turn, abstractly representing weariness, time elapsing in rest, and being an easy target/causing attention when resting. The reason for this is to force a proper decision between choosing to take the rest or choosing to take a point of exhaustion. In a game where your torches or other resources are counting down based on time, spending a turn doing nothing is consequential; however, in Errant torches and other consumables deplete based on the roll of the event dice. That means, barring a scenario where there is another time pressure, there is no reason not to rest, and it just becomes empty time. It leads to "well, you actually don't get to do the thing you wanted to do yet, cause you rest, but then you get to do it right after" instead of a proper decision point.


This system is lifted almost entirely wholesale from Nick, with the modification being mostly that checks are rolled using the core check rather than a 2d6 (and therefore the results for each action are tweaked). Nick is doing layout for Errant though, so technically this isn't plagiarism.

In many ways, this works on the same principle as I was discussing above around turns. A conversation consists of each side doing something in each turn, and you only have so many turns to get what you want from the encounter. For games based around balancing resource depletion, degradation, and deprivation against risk to extract the greatest reward possible (e.g. XP for money exploration games), this system is especially well-suited. Rewards require challenges and challenges require constraint.

I also think it is very cheeky and clever of me to put "having a conversation" as a core part of the game but not the rules for combat. Well done Ava, you have Expressed A Point Through Game Design.

Rules vs Procedures

So what exactly is the distinction between a rule and a procedure? I don't know if I have a clear-cut answer to that. I've stated that "procedures are not rules, but neither are they vague, general guidance. They provide a framework to structure the game." But in truth the distinction can get quite murky.

The inspiration behind most of those procedures is the various thousands of blog posts I've read over the past half decade in the blogosphere; Nick's post on his social system is a great example. Bespoke little systems and mechanics detailing how each individual had decided to come up with and deal with a situation in their own game. Essentially, a presentation of each persons "rulings, not rules" that they came up with, slightly formalised and polished and placed on the internet.

I talked earlier about how The Black Hack and other light minimalist rulesets I was drawn to had a lack of structure that made them hard to run for me, someone new to GMing OSR style games and with a lot of anxiety that I wasn't doing things the right way. The expansion of procedures detailing how to deal with different situations was in large part a way for me to alleviate some of my anxiety at the table while also exploring and figuring out my own individual style as a referee. I would see how someone else did something, tweak it to my own tastes, and then see how it worked at the table. 

One of the most interesting things I noticed about this process is after the first few times I had tried out a procedure at the table, which usually did involve me anxiously checking my notes to make sure I ran it "correctly", I would become much more relaxed and loose when running them, not doing so precisely to the letter of what I had written but enough to achieve the result I wanted. I've used many analogies for this process before: about how you need to know the rules for classical painting before you can go abstract, about learning the musical score so you can improvise, about how once you've internalised a recipe and properly learned to cook you don't need to follow it exactly and instead break it down its component steps and riff on it to achieve what you want with what you have. The core idea is the same: you need a bit of structure in order to actually be creatively empowered to do what you want freely. Developing these procedures provided me with, as Nick puts it in the above linked post, "a baseline which can be adhered to or deviated from in whatever way serves the game best."

I think that last part gets to one of the differences between a rule and a procedure. You can't change the base mechanics of a game (in this case, Errant's core blackjack check) without having knock-on effects on how everything else in the game works, but I often in play will adjust an element of the event dice to reflect the situation we're in (for example, saying the exploration turn is scaled up to an hour, and therefore a torch will fully deplete every turn instead of on a roll of 3; 3 will still lower supply). 

Another difference that is procedures can often be either prescriptive or descriptive. To take negotiations as an example, a player can explicitly say they're trying to make a Giving check, or they can just say what they're doing, I can say or think to myself "Ok, that sounds like a Giving check" and just run it as such. Same with defining actions per turn; I can either call out the start of a new turn and ask for an explicit action, or let players noodle about, and once they've done too many things and ask to do one more thing say "alright, but that's going to start a new turn."

Not every procedure meets both criteria; for example the lockpicking procedure is entirely prescriptive as players have to announce which of the three actions they are taking, but it does meet the first point. And event dice, while being a procedure, are enmeshed in the game's structure enough that removing them would definitely cause changes to the game (though it would still be playable).

And of course, there is much murkiness sometimes. I mean, if a procedure is ultimately a set of instructions for how to run particular game states, all "rules" are procedures also. But I think there's enough of a distinction for it to be meaningful.

In general, Errant vol 1. contains the rules and the "harder" procedures which would change the way the game works if they were removed or changed: that's the core rules, event dice, inventory management, the classes, magic, and combat. All of this stuff can still be hacked and kitbashed of course, but I would say they form the base of the game. Vol 2 features the stuff that is more easily swapped out or around: rules for travelling overland, lockpicking, chases, mass combat, downtime turn actions, things like that. 

Though, that being said, the way Downtime Turn procedures interact with the rest of the game, particularly the XP rules, is one of my favourite things about Errant and I feel the game would lose much of its charm and unique identity if it didn't have those. But we will talk about those at a later date.

Sunday 14 February 2021

Errant Design Deep Dive #1: Core Rules

 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 errantrpg.carrd.co

So to kick this off we're going to be looking at Errant's core rules, namely checks, attributes, and position & impact.


Ok so, the core mechanic of Errant is to roll a d20 equal to or below an attribute, and above a Difficulty Value. This isn't exactly a revolutionary or innovative mechanic, a variation on the ever popular roll-under mechanic that might be dubbed "roll high, under" or "blackjack"; most people will probably attribute it to Whitehack, which is where I got it from, which uses the same mechanic for making attacks (regular skill tasks are just a straight roll equal to or under), and its since shown up in games like Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells. However, the path I took to get here is pretty illustrative of the design history of Errant.

Like so many nerds I got back into this hobby with 5e, back in 2014, and after a while I quickly found that the best and coolest shit anyone was making for D&D was in this strange 'OSR' community. I made this blog, cause that's what the cool kids were doing, and posted very little of note, all the while wrestling with 5e to try to beat it into the shape of these OSR games everyone was talking about, with little success. The inertia of "first system learned" prevented me from actually going off and playing a proper retroclone, plus everyone I played with played 5e. 

Eventually, however, I got tired of trying to work with something that didn't want to work with me, and resolved to find a new system. Co-incidentally, at the same time, The Black Hack came out, and like many other people I was completely wooed. The elegance and simplicity of the roll-under mechanic appealed to me, and its ultra-light nature was welcoming and accessible compared to what seemed the daunting inaccessibility of most of the retroclones of the day. Errant properly began life as a house hack of TBH, with me bolting on classes and making minor rules tweaks.

One of those very first tweaks that I made was to make modifiers apply not to the roll but to the stats: the Powerful Opponents rule in TBH 1e meant that you added the difference between your level and a monster's HD to your roll if it had more HD than your level. Positive modifiers were bad, and negative modifiers were good. I changed it to be more 'intuitive': if you added modifiers to your stats, positive was good and negative was bad. This seemingly innocuous house rule would have knock on effects.

The most popular blog post on here to this date is me hacking the TBH Powerful Opponents rule to represent variable AC. Eventually I started fiddling with this system enough, and trying to apply it to players, that I eventually ended up in a circumstance where, because I was adding a modifier to my player's STR score to defend, they became unhittable. After that session, I was looking for a solution, saw how elegantly Whitehack solved this same problem (ahhhh, roll above AC and equal/under score!) and switched to that for combat.

Around the same time, I like a fair few others, were coming out of the honeymoon phase with straight roll-under checks. Even with Advantage and Disadvantage, it didn't allow nuance in setting difficulty to different situations, and unfairly privileged characters with high stats.

I opted to use blackjack style rolls to deal with the first issue. One of the things I most enjoy about it is the ability to consider all the different situational factors at play when it comes to a check and allow them all to incrementally add to the difficulty, or vice versa for situational factors that can decrease difficulty. The way this is represented most clearly is in the use of navigation checks.

I know that these are functionally modifiers by another name, but the fact that you decide before you roll and don't have to do any futzing with adding numbers to the dice makes it seem easier and simpler to me. This is probably just perception/delusion on my end, but in the pursuit of subjective pleasure, perception is all that matters. It is still simpler than a similar DC style system a la 5e where both a target number is set and a roll is made with a bunch of modifiers applying to it.

Adding a Difficulty Value also goes some way to alleviating the problem of high stat characters, but I did a little bit of tinkering there also.


Attributes in Errant are rolled on a 4d4 instead of the traditional 3d6. Why? Well for one, a 4-16 range seems to me much more reasonable starting stats than 3-18. As well, on a 3d6, you have about a 19% chance to roll a score below a 7 or above a 14; on a 4d4, its about 8%. So the range is both more constrained, and the distribution skews more favourably towards average, playable stats. In a game where attributes matter, these are both important factors (Note: while the earlier version of Arnold K's GLOG used 4d4 for generating stats also, we seem to have arrived at this method independently). 

As well, there are only 4 attributes in Errant, rather than the usual 6. Having a reduced number of attributes tips things back in the player's favour somewhat, to counterbalance the reduction in effectiveness of lower attribute scores and Difficulty Values, as it means that each attribute has a larger impact; as long as you've got one decent score, which is almost statistically certain, your character will be quite effective, and the lower scores are easier to patch up via character progression than if they were spread out over more attributes. 

But why 4, versus the reduced 3 stats common to games like Into the Odd or Troika! I don't know if I can give a better reason than it just feels right; each attribute is important, but not too important, plus each Archetype is associated with a particular attribute (PHYS for the Violent, SKILL for the Deviant, MIND for the Occult, and PRES for the Zealot). 

One aspect of Errant I anticipate might not be super popular is the fact that attributes are not just important in terms of determining character's effectiveness vis a vis the core mechanic of the game, but also affect derived attributes. PHYS and SKILL are probably the two most impactful ones in this aspect, with the former tripling as both your amount of item slots and your HP total, while the latter determines your movement speed in combat. There is a design trend to decouple such characteristics from stats, and I can certainly see the appeal in saying "every adventurer has 10 inventory slots." 

However, I think that confronting deficiencies is a defining element of old school play. Just as your character is almost guaranteed to have one good attribute, so are they also likely to have one bad attribute. This forces a confrontation with the fact that your character has shortcomings, and is never going to be completely self-reliant. In order to overcome your flaws, you are going to have to engage with the world. Don't have enough inventory slots? Give some stuff to your team mate, or hire a porter. Too slow to move worth a damn? Get yourself a mount. Too broke to afford any of those things? Find someone to give you a loan (we'll get into Errant's debt mechanics later...). And of course, once you've got a loan, you're gonna have to scrounge up enough cash to pay it back, or do a favour for your debtor. By making characters bad at things, they are forced to engage with the game space beyond their character.

Position & Impact

The Position & Impact rules are very clearly inspired by Blades in The Dark, but even moreso by this post by Chris McDowall and this post by Dreaming Dragonslayer discussing Chris' post.

I used to have alongside Difficulty Value for checks Advantage & Disadvantage (because that's what all the cool kids were doing), as well as critical hits & failures and degree of success determined by how high above the DV you rolled.

I eventually thought this was all too fussy and scrapped it all anyhow. Advantage & Disadvantage seemed especially redundant alongside DV; why have two mechanics that affect how difficult a situation is? I used to justify it by saying DV represented the difficulty of the situation and Advantage/Disadvantage a character's capabilities, but I think this is very weak, and its more streamlined to have everything represented by DV. Plus, Advantage & Disadvantage go against Errant's "as few rolls needed to accomplish one thing" ethos.

Criticals and degree of success went by the wayside for being finnicky, little used, and not adding much to the play experience. However, there wasn't anything that came along to replace them until I read those posts.

What I appreciate about Position & Impact is, even though I myself very rarely explicitly find myself saying the terms during a game session, they force the Guide and players to properly consider the fictional positioning behind every roll, as well as reinforcing the fact that every check needs to have clear and communicated stakes. With Position & Impact, there is no pixel bitching or gotcha GMing or rolls that do nothing to change the game state; everything is clear, transparent, and consequential.

While these terms or clarifying rolls like this might be a bit different than the way traditional OSR games do it, it isn't anything fundamentally new to the genre: think of Position & Impact as functionally "critical success/failure" switches, or degree of success mechanics, except instead of being arbitrarily determined by the result of a die, it arises from a player's approach and method to their task.

Alright, that's gonna wrap up the first one of these posts for me. I'll be back tomorrow (hopefully) to talk about the core procedures of Errant. Till then!