In the Dragon Heresy game from last week, the GM had us eventually match up with Loki himself. He’d kidnapped Santa Claus, you see. We challenged Loki to a game of musical chairs. Yes, really.

A few things bore mentioning that were of interest to me. None of these were Dragon Heresy specific, just observations.

One of the players was reaching for her dice saying “I shoot him” with an arrow. Fortunately, that was never resolved. Were I the GM, it would not have ended well; either that, or Loki would have just waved his hand or phased around the shot at least the first time. But frack me, it’s Loki. Taking a pot shot at the Asgardian god of Mischief is an offense punishable by “it takes three days to find all the pieces of you squashed on the floor.”

The GM had us make a single die roll, and Loki rolled the lowest; we beat him on the first round, and thereby saved Yule/Ylir/Christmas. Afterwards, she expressed some disappointment that the contest was over that quickly.

It is likely she hadn’t statted out Loki fully; certainly she didn’t give him the kind of bonuses and proficiencies he should have had relative to a 1st level character . . . or maybe she did. If the Divine Mr L had Proficiency of +6 and a stat bonus of +7 or so, it’s a lower bound of 14. We all did roll very well.

I suggested to her that for things like this where you don’t want luck to completely dominate, you can tame the variability of a flat-roll 1d20 with several methods:

  • Roll 3d6 instead of 1d20, which will tend to actually center around 10, meaning the proficiency and skill bonus would prove the most important
  • Give Loki advantage: he’s a god for goodness’ sake
  • Break it up into two rolls, which will favor the one with the highest bonuses due to averaging. First roll is to realize the music stopped, which would be a Perception check. Loki almost certainly has high WIS and CHA, so on the average he’d probably be among the first to hear it’s time to lunge for chairs. THEN a Dexterity or even Acrobatics or Athletics roll, but made with disadvantage if you rolled a lower Perception check than Loki. Or just apply the margin of victory or defeat relative to Loki’s Perception check to the roll to grab a seat.

That last one is nice, in my opinion, because it’s multiple attribute dependent. You’ll want someone good at WIS and STR or DEX rather than just one; that should prolong the contest.

I also noted that there were, in fact, rules for a ritual exchange of insults (flyting) in Dragon Heresy on page whatever. Would have been apropos.

Gaming Ballistic was one of the hosts of the RPG Breakfast Club this past Sunday. It’s a live podcast also rebroadcast on Anchor.

Topics covered in the ‘cast were: Introducing Kids to RPGs/Marketing, and Introducing children to RPGs,Expanding the audience in general, and possibly pricing books and pdfs in the industry.

My voice is very quiet, for some reason.

https://anchor.fm/…/episodes/RPG-Breakfast-Club-Ep–1-e2urf1

Look for more episodes each week!

Unarmed Lethal Combat

Unarmed combat is a bit of the bastard stepchild of D&D games, and deservedly so . . . at least relative to weapons. While a dagger does 1d4, at least in Fifth Edition (and therefore in Dragon Heresy), unarmed strikes do a single point of damage, modified by your Strength bonus. That can be non-trivial, of course: a strong unarmed blow by a STR 18-20 will do 5-6 points of damage, equivalent to a weaker person (STR 10) with a 1d10 weapon.

Monks, of course, subvert this with their martial arts damage: their strikes are weapons. Equivalent to daggers at low level, and versatile longswords at high. That’s cool. It also puts most of the focus where it should be: fists are, by and large, inferior weapons relative to purpose-built killing devices. Having an unarmed blow do 0-2 points of damage (1d3-1, for example) makes sense.

Problem is, that makes all combat lethal: why do only one point of base damage when you can do 2d6? Worse – from a reality perspective – is the concept of beating the snot out of someone with a fist or sword somehow being “non lethal” or “subdual” damage, where it doesn’t hurt much. One of the selling points of Dungeon Grappling is that it enables some quality unarmed combat, and interesting bar brawls that don’t have to be lethal.

Speaking of Bar Brawls

Reality aside: during the Tavern Chat last night, I got into a fun discussion with Smokestack Jones about the requirement for nonlethal unarmed combat in games. Especially cinematic fantasy games like D&D variants. A spot of fisticuffs in a bar, perhaps adding grappling, perhaps not, is a staple of the genre. Reality aside – and we’re talking elves and half-dragons and hobbits here, so yeah, reality aside – having entertaining unarmed combat is kinda important.

We compared a few other game mechanics. He mentioned one (whose name I forget) that used two tracks: wounds and bruises. Well. That reminded me of wounds and vigor from Dragon Heresy, but mechanically, vigor is all the defenses and luck and not getting hit that you do in a fight, not shrugging off blunt trauma and non-lethal blows.

We also talked about Champions/Hero System, where if you rolled a 6 on the dice, you took 2 body, 2-5 was 1, and 1 was none – so every STUN attack had a bit of a body component to it. That made all kinds of sense to both of us too.

So. An alternate wound track. Spill-over from non-lethal to lethal damage. Good, good. Nice concepts here, well tested in other games. Oh, also: ideally, no extra rolls. Extra rolls slow things down.

I’ll mostly talk about this for Fifth Edition, as it’s what I’m most familiar with. I’ll refer to Swords & Wizardry as we go. Continue reading “Unarmed Combat in D&D”

Fight Like You Train; Don’t Waste Your Time

Roland Warzecha has a new Patreon video out; it will likely be publicly available sooner or later. It was shot at the Berlin Buckler Bouts over the last few weeks. In it he emphasizes the similarities between weapons used in the off hand, and shields are definitely a weapon.

But in it, he really emphasizes how the motions you use with a center-gripped shield[1] are essentially the same training as with the primary-hand sword. “The shield-fighting is really no different than fighting with two weapons.”

So if you swapped out the shield for an axe or sword, there are only mild differences. Slight stuff due to the character and balance of the weapon.

But this is a gaming blog, so what does that mean for RPGs?

This suggests that a “one-handed weapon” skill with reasonable defaults would apply to swords, axes, and the use of the Shield (Buckler) skill. And that much of the training that at least we do (most of the stuff I learn is based on Roland and Arthur’s fighting style, obviously, as they’re our head instructors), we’re using the tools in a way where we more or less train “right-hand weapon,” and “left-hand weapon,” with emphasis on primary-hand sword, and secondary-hand shield, but it translates fairly well to sword-and-axe.

It does help that my own teachings emphasize symmetry of ability (OK, 50 cuts primary hand with the axe. Next, 50 cuts to the pell off-hand with the axe. Repeat for 2-4 angles of cut!). But really, what you’re doing, what works, etc is very similar.

In GURPS, at least, including most of its variants, there’s been recent discussion on a “Melee Weapon” Talent, with everything appropriate defaulting from that, in one way or another. I find this credible for most things (I find it less credible for knife-fighting, but that’s mostly because in my experience knives are utterly unforgiving and utterly quick, so it may be credible still, but at the extreme edge of penalties to be bought off). I mention that D&D handles this easily, and why it mattered recently, below.

In any case, there are some neat and subtle points in the video that I think lend some degree of support to reducing the number of skills. Much as Hans-Christian Vortisch published an article collapsing many Guns skills into “Guns (Longarm),” I think that at least for the right framing: “Reach 1 weapons,” or “1H Reach 1 Weapons” that such a thing fits in with two things:

  • It fits well with how folks wish to build characters in GURPS: put most of the points in one skill. It’s efficient, and effective. It’s how all the Dungeon Fantasy RPG characters tend to be built.
  • It fits well with how real people are going to apply and learn their skills. In a combat, adrenaline-filled situation, you will not wish to flip back and forth between two vastly different mind-sets and physical stances/procedures. That way will introduce openings to get you killed.

More commentary and pictures below the break.

Continue reading “Weapon Defaults, Sword and Shield, and Roland Warzecha”

This is going to be a bit of a meta-post, in that I’ve been trying to work around an idea about running defensive-oriented combat in RPGs ever since I published the related article Unpacking Failed Attack Rolls in GURPS.

In it, I note in the On Guard! and What’s the Point? sections that RPGs tend to prioritize attack over defense, while the practice of fighting with sharps and other potentially-lethal activity tends to bias towards setting up a defense and actively working to maintain that, and then open up an opening into which you can strike freely, with no consequence to yourself.

This is for a pretty simple reason: Attacking is fun. It’s also an outgrowth of the abstract nature of Hit Points, which can easily be reframed as something exactly like maneuvering for position, until you can land that fatal blow that reduces the target to 0 HP or fewer (this is very much a D&D-ism, but has application elsewhere).

I’m going to muse on this for a bit, and see if I can come up with a good way of making a “defense primary” mechanic that doesn’t actively suck. I will do it in GURPS first, and then see what I can do for Dragon Heresy.

I’m ultimately not sure that this will work. “Proactive defense!” sounds great in theory, and it’s a fighting style that can be observed, but we’re playing a game here, and games prioritize and emphasize action, not reaction or even positive defense. Folks “spam the Attack button” because it’s fun, and a mechanical system is going to have to go a long way to help those defenses become exciting, and emphasize the “victory” of achieving superior position on the foe.

Armor Class has DEX modifier in it; that’s a bit of ‘proactive defense.’ Hit Points have long had that mix of “defenses and active exertion” that we’re trying to capture here, and the more abstract games probably subsume a lot of what I’m talking about. GURPS has a series of maneuvers or options that somewhat enable this (Evaluate, Feint, Defensive Feint, Wait, All-Out Defense, Defensive Attack, Retreat, Defensive Bonus) that do allow one to prioritize defense. Mostly I’ve not seen these used, but they’re there. Might be something as simple as my favorite game design maxim: “Use what’s there.”

Stay tuned. I hope to think this through in a series of posts. Some of which will be inevitably “Game X already does this.”

If you don’t have a Cleric in your party, specifically one with Turning, you might not need this. But if you do, or just want to make the standard 250-point Dungeon Fantasy RPG characters work a bit harder to kill undead in Hall of Judgment, consider the following.

What follows inevitably contains spoilers. Continue reading “Cooler Undead Encounters for Hall of Judgment”

Rebuking and turning undead that still cling to a semblance of life is pretty much a fantasy RPG staple. It’s been part of Dungeons and Dragons since nearly the beginning – I believe Arneson added it as a foil to “Sir Fang,” and Gygax fiddled with it or dropped it in his games – there’s a nice history here at Hidden in Shadows by DH Boggs.

But this is an article about GURPS, specifically, the Dungeon Fantasy RPG, Powered by GURPS. It assimilates all of that old-school inspiration, plus more from rogue-like games and “stomp the bad guys!” games like Diablo III, and hones GURPS into a fairly high-power dungeon delving game. Characters start pretty optimized, begin at 250 points, and the social and in town aspects of the game are somewhere from “minimized” to “absent.”

It is ridiculous fun, and as I learned at GameHole Con 2018, is digestible by beginners if presented properly.

But about those clerics…

Turning in Dungeon Fantasy RPG

Let’s start off with as factual a description as I can bring to bear. This is important because as it turns out, I completely biffed it when it came time to run it at GameHole.

Even so: this turns it into a matter of degree rather than a binary “I win,” but some of the observations from GameHole still exist.

As a cleric with the Turning power (Adventurers, p. 21), anything “undead” and “truly evil” can be repelled by you if you Concentrate. You must win a Quick Contest of Will between yourself and each foe you might turn. This is impacted by the Rule of 16 (Exploits, p. 8). You add your Power Investiture, plus a bonus for the oomph of your holy symbol if you have one that’s +1 for blessed and +2 for High Holy. Another factor in favor of Clerical Awesomeness is that as written, Sanctity level doesn’t hinder the ability, so in an area of Low Sanctity (which is pertinent to the Hall of Judgment example), your Turning is still at full burn.

On the down side: Rule of 16 means that you’ll never roll vs higher than 16 (unless you’re very good and you foe is also very Willful), and you have to actually buy Turning, which is a 24-point opportunity cost.

It’s a 3d roll, and if your bad guys are anything but a Lich, Spectre, or Vampire (who all have Will 15 to 18, which is to say, “adventurer-class”) you’re looking at Will in the 8-10 range for our bad guys, and the distance they have to keep from Mister Cleric is going to be on the average about 6-8 yards, and that’s enough to keep the entire party more or less safe. On a good roll, say a 5 or 6, you’re looking at keeping the bad guys up to 15 yards away from you.

So What?

Part of the issue here is that Turning is pretty much designed to neutralize the impact of fodder undead, and what I’m complaining about is mostly that it does it too well. There’s also the fact that I made a few errors along the way in running it: in particular I play a lot with GURPS Powers: Divine Favor (still the best Clerical Powers system in existence). There’s a power in there called Protection from Evil which basically grants True Faith (the basis of the Turning Power), and an enhanced version gives a roll vs Will+10. So my cleric was rolling vs Will-24 to turn undead vs foes with Will-8 and Will-10.

In the end, I slapped on a -5 penalty for Low Sanctity (see above for why this is wrong), which for one of the groups made the usual roll vs Will-19; you can see, though, that for the pre-gen in question (Will-14, Power Investiture 5) that it made little net difference. Forgetting the Rule of 16 would have brought the radius in by an average of three yards.

So my errors were in magnitude but not in exists/don’t exist. Even so, I feel that the 24 points of Turning is a bit too much oomph as written. Continue reading “Turning Undead: “I win!””

I got a quick bit of feedback on using Conditional Injury in actual play. Recall this article was not playtested, and mostly theoretical. Granted I was musing on it for years, but it never really got a good stress test. So someone wrote me with one:

Dingo (Discord Forums) wrote:

A lot shorter than planned and got a ‘longer’ fight expected which I’ll do a proper play writeup for; but regarding the Conditional Damage it worked really well. It encouraged superior fighters to allow themselves to take more risks because being hit for low-damage hits wasn’t as threatening as before where 7 hits alone was enough to have you suffering penalties; there were a lot more all-out attacks and all-out defenses to set up counterattacks. It felt, to put a word to it – a great deal ‘meatier’. A 3v1 fight of one skilled fighter with just DR 1 on the torso involved a lot more hits than before without worrying about an instant escalation. Weak hits were still dangerous due to failed-HT rolls potentially making injury condition worse, but in practice this meant that the immediate danger wasn’t HP (a limited resource) but shock penalties, stunning, and knockdown – both attacking and defending these became priorities. Jabs to the face (using Defensive Attack) became a very effective tactic in the 3v1 for the trained fighter. So all in all, a good fun fight that didn’t cause the GM panic of ‘well it could end in 3 hits’.

Interesting. I’d not have figured that.

This report suggests that the GURPS Death Spiral has perhaps been tamed a bit. Risking more wounds, rather than fewer, wasn’t really a design goal. But then, it wasn’t not a design goal either. Some of the emergent behavior, such as more strikes to the face looking for knockdown and stun, are outstanding results, the kind of emergence one hopes for. An increased use of All-Out-Attack (I will take a minor wound in order to deal a major one!) seems more accurate for a game that tends to have to remind GMs that mooks, unskilled mooks, will not do the math on defending like players do. They want to hit you, and will happily fling Telegraphic All-Out or Telegraphic Committed (+8 and +6 to hit, respectively for the Determined option) blows to do so.

So this is a good report. I still have to do my Designer’s Notes commentary on the article; hopefully I’ll get to that today.

Ooo! Follow-up comment by Dingo (Discord Forums)

yeah it quickly became very appropriate to approach the fight less from ‘put hurt on the opponent’ and instead shift to ‘control your opponent’. The player I was testing it with wasn’t so confident with the grappling rules as to put that entirely in scope (It’s what we’re gonna add in for the next test to see how it comes together); but quickly made realizations like the importance of hits that risk stunning, or in a group fight – the fact going for more dangerous hits can be worthwhile if you’re confident you can handle the backlash.

Ultimately the fact victory comes down to a status game rather than a counter game meant you immediately had to shift tactics away from damage/attrition and instead towards control and disabling.
Especially if your opponent has a high enough HT that you can’t rely on Cumulative Wound severity increases without All Out Attack (Strong); one exchange against someone with 13 HT resulted in the player doing -repeated- Defensive Jabs to the face, solely waiting for a stun and outlasting their counterattacks. Once the stun hit – AoA (Strong) to the face over, and over, and over until they either were crippled from a sufficiently high damage hit, or recovered from stun (at which point it returned to jabs and defensive)

So really interesting stuff here, in that “go repeatedly to the face, and when stunned, ground and pound” is rather nifty because that’s exactly what you see in MMA fights with two skilled foes that are pretty tough, by dint of repeated experience.

When putting together some of the cities and towns in Dragon Heresy, I used an article by S. John Ross called Medieval Demographics Made Easy.

It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: a tightly-presented metasystem and consolidated research finding on the population of medieval towns, villages, and cities. It provides die rolls, tables, and other necessities to quickly understand how many of what profession are going to be in a given place, as well as talking about castles, agriculture, and more.

When S. John restructured his website, The Blue Room, it became convenient for him to offer this file to host on other blogs, and I asked if Gaming Ballistic could be one of them.

I intend to keep using this for Dragon Heresy, and I recommend it strongly, if for nothing else to avoid the trope of medieval villages that feel like 21st century suburbs and strip malls.

Enjoy!

Full File Here:

Medieval Demographics Made Easy (by S. John Ross)

Introduction to Medieval Demographics Made Easy, by S. John Ross
Introduction to Medieval Demographics Made Easy, by S. John Ross

Dragon Heresy is in the hands of backers at last, having shipped out all copies to those who backed the Dragon Heresy Kickstarter, and by this time tomorrow, I’ll have gotten all of the DH copies out to those that added it to Hall of Judgment as well.

As folks have received it, it is my sincere hope that they do as The Mixed GM did, and review it. His review is short, sweet, and to the point, which allows me to make some useful commentary along the way.

First Go Read The Review

“Now that’s a cover! (Please excuse my phone camera and lack of camera skills)”

He likes the cover. The art is by noted Western Martial Arts instructor and historian Roland Warzecha. He told me that he had so much fun embellishing and making the drawing that his wife (whom I believe is the warrior pictured) had to nudge him to stop spending time on it. Read about the details of the composition here on the Dimicator Patreon page.

“Honestly, it feels like a halfway point between 5E and the OSR.”

That, of course, was deliberately intentional. I like the OSR games for their speed of play, their reliance on the GM and player skill, and the open-endedness where rules are only invoked when needed.

I like 5E as a delightfully modular system that attempts – mostly successfully – to unify the basic mechanics of a very large amalgamation of various accumulated rules and ideas into a coherent whole. I’ve enjoyed the heck out of the 5E games I’ve played.

It’s also, as he notes, a hack – it adds a small number of subsystems (grappling, social standing, flyting) and rules tweaks (wounds/vigor, Threat DC/Hit DC, and Damage Reduction for armor) that I think add to verisimilitude and enhance epic play.

“Hopefully, the ‘X’ will be Kickstarted soon…”

I’ve been asked about this a few times by enthusiasts, much to my delight. Yes, I have further plans. Yes, Level 1 through Level 20 is already written.

But the art – all of which really ought to be new going forward – is going to be expensive, and I’d really like to see significant interest from the market at large before I do another big one like the Intro Set. I’d like the next book to be full-color hardback, with the same production values, just like the Intro Set was. That takes serious funding, which takes serious backer interest.

“Removed the Thief/Rogue Class”

It’s true that the thief/rogue is gone from the Dragon Heresy Intro Set! But perhaps not for reasons why you might think.

Thievery in general was a great way to get yourself outcast in Viking society. In Egil’s Saga, Egil, a loud-mouthed, distemperate and ridiculously effective fighter (berserker/barbarian, really) and raider, goes on a raid. His force gets captured, but by virtue of prodigious strength, he escapes (by lifting up the main pole of the longhouse that he’s tied within!).

They grab their weapons, some loot, and head back to the ship. Midway, Egil stops, and says that he cannot do this. He refuses to be so dishonorable as to steal. They go back, and I believe set the target’s longhouse on fire, and kill those who emerge.

See, stealing is bad. But setting a house on fire and killing the men as they emerge? That’s perfectly cool.

In any case, I had to make some hard choices when reducing my overall manuscript from 750-800 pages for my full three-volume original intent to 250-300 for the Introductory Set. Certain classes had to go. Berserkers had to be there; too Viking to not be. I added Skald (bard) back during the Kickstarter.

But there just weren’t very many Viking thief stories, and for an Intro Set, I had to make choices. So Thief, Druid/Trevinur, Ranger, Paladin, and Sorcerer went by the wayside.

They exist, though. So do some very cool “explicit multi-class” options I wrote. Maybe in a Character Building expansion; that would add back the missing classes, and push the levels covered from 1-5 to include maybe up to 12 or 13.

Builds in the grappling rules from ‘Dungeon Grappling’

I’m glad he listed this as part of “The Good!”

Interestingly enough from an historical perspective, the Dungeon Grappling rules existed first as part of the Dragon Heresy manuscript. When I got advice that no one in their right mind would fund a three-volume set from an unknown guy (true advice, if hard to swallow), I broke out the unique grappling rules as my first product.

They improved over time, and honestly improved again when I modified them for the Powered by GURPS supplement Hall of Judgment for the Dungeon Fantasy RPG, and then were inserted back into Dragon Heresy, where they exist in their present form.

Grappling is now very intuitive and easily blends with regular combat. The way it should be.

FULL COLOR ART EVERYWHERE

Yeah. Won’t lie, I’m proud of that. And while he’s kind enough to ‘respect my IP’ by not publishing more images, here are a few more.

I really had a lot of fun specifying the art, and my art team: Juan Ochoa, Ricardo Troula, Christian “KrizEvil” Villacis, Roland Warzecha, Michael Clarke, Cornelia Yoder (cartography), Gerasimos Kolokas, Elizabeth Porter, John Blaszczyk, Gennifer Bone, Erin Arik, Dean Spencer, and Rick Hershey did amazing things with the book.

The Viking-ish world is baked into every aspect of the game, from class section to monsters

This is vital to the book, and to the world. I did everything I could – and given that the SRD is mechanics only, I had to do quite a lot – to ensure that everything tied to the world, to a viking/Norse feel, and had a reason. Even the Tieflings and other half-human, half-creature races, are tied to the world. There’s a reason that those exist (half-elves, half-dragons, half-fiends, half-Asgardians) and a reason the Dwarves have no half-human parts.

A Vigor and Wounds system that is a little deeper than just hit points

This bit was important to me, as it both makes being dogpiled quite dangerous, but it also resolves some weird edge cases. It’s also in keeping with the Gygazian notes on p. 82 of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, where he notes that it’s ridicuous for a high level combatant to be robust enough to only be killed by 10 sword strokes that land home, where a 1st level guy only takes one. Humans are fragile. With wounds/vigor, so long as you keep your wits about you, you can probably take most attacks as vigor. But once wounds start accumulating? Beware the death spiral, and consider strategic withdrawal.

Playtesting revealed this was a lot of fun, and produced an element of risk in fights that those that enjoy games like GURPS will recognize and enjoy. Anyone who has had to blaze through a foe with 150 HP in an unadulterated battle of ablation will appreicate it as well.

The Bad:  It is based on 5E, so if you hate 5E and 5E-based things with a burning passion, this may not be the game for you

This is simply true . . . but depending on what you don’t like about 5e, you might find I’ve addressed some of it. Shields are way cooler. All battles aren’t a slog of HP ablation. Grappling doesn’t suck, and is in fact pretty fun. Monsters that grapple are terrifying. Vikings.

There’s a lot to like here, even if I say so myself.

The Ugly: It has Tieflings. I don’t like Tieflings

I have no response to this except an image of gratuitous Tiefling art courtesy of Juan Ochoa.

Parting Shot

The Mixed GM’s review is considerably shorter than my response to it. He definitely hit the highlights: if you like 5e, there’s a world to explore, some fun rules tweaks, and it’s a very pretty and well put-together book.

I hope you are encouraged to pick up a copy and see for yourself!