Auteurship and RPGs

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If you don’t pay much attention to the video game world, or are just aggressively avoiding spoilers while you finish the game, you may not have heard much about the controversy surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending. To try to put it in a way that gets you up to speed without creating a spoiler: the point of view of a lot of angry players is that it was not just unsatisfying, but actively dissonant to the themes and tone of the entire trilogy up to that point. That is, it wasn’t good and, more importantly, it didn’t make sense. This video explains the controversy in extensive (and spoilery) detail.

Players on the internet are livid. Massive petitions have been made to try to get Bioware to change the ending, some to the point of rage-donating to charity. The blowback was sufficient to get the company president to issue a press release indicating that they’re considering acquiescing to the fan demands and changing the ending via DLC.

Whether or not the entire situation is overblown, the results are inarguable: we’ve reached a point in video game development where we have to seriously ask the question of whether interactive media are in some way democratic. Do consumers of a game have the right to, as a bloc, demand a portion of the artistic control of that game? Will major game franchises have to begin extensively focus testing their products not just for engagement, but for satisfaction? Does the principle of director as auteur in film translate to the lead designer as auteur in a video game?

And what does this have to do with tabletop RPGs?

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the first video game to create this controversy is an RPG. There has been more than one AAA game franchise where players were largely unsatisfied by the ending and didn’t petition for a change, but they were typically less customizable experiences. The problem for ME3 is that it succeeded too well at making the player feel invested and in control of the actions of a fully customized Commander Shepard, such that any ending that wasn’t note perfect would generate this problem on a lesser or greater scale.

It’s pretty similar to the potential fallout from a poor ending to a long-running tabletop campaign.

There are, to oversimplify, three major beliefs about the role of the GM in a tabletop game:

  • The Old School Renaissance (OSR) tends to think of the GM’s role as setting up a sandbox and then impartially arbitrating it in play according to player intentions and actions. The goal of the GM is not to tell a story, but to simply create an environment in which story can emerge naturally from player activities. The players have complete control of the progression of the game from the beginning of the first session, but must exercise this control via the medium of their character skills, clever play, and lucky dice rolls.
  • The Story Games movement tends to think of GMing as fundamentally democratic. A number of games like Capes, Fiasco, and Shock have no GM whatsoever: the power of the GM is distributed among the players based on various rules to govern narrative control. Even when there is a GM, his or her control of the flow of the game is often constrained by various mechanics, and the players have systems to seize narrative control outside of the in-world skills and actions of their characters.
  • The Storyteller mindset (which is not a movement) seems to make up most of the mass market, and is exemplified in nearly every module released (for any system) that is not a true sandbox. The GM is expected to not just set the stage, but provide a basic script for the direction the plot is meant to go. Player cleverness can greatly drift the story, depending on the creativity and improvisational ability of the GM, but there is expected to be serious GM (and mostly GM-only) effort to mold the game to feel like a story.

Presumably, an OSR campaign ending that felt completely out of tune with the rest of the game would result in players demanding to see the GM’s notes to prove that they’d missed something that was added fairly. A story games ending almost couldn’t be something that the majority of players hadn’t bought into, as democracy is assumed by the rules. But what happens if a long-running game in the standard storyteller mode ends on a complete misfire? Keep in mind that this is a style of play where “it says right here in the module that I have to…” isn’t necessarily encouraged, but is accepted. And I strongly suspect that the majority, possibly even the vast majority, of gamers still play this way, free of the game theory of the internet until it makes its way into a mass-market publication. It’s accepted fact that the GM models not just a world, but a world with an intended narrative.

Further, the motivation behind this is why the OSR and story games movements are ends of a spectrum rather than just two ways of limiting GM power. My sense is that a lot of gamers crave both a story and a sense of a world simulated in someone else’s head. They’d be unsatisfied with the pure sandbox method of play exalted by the OSR, desiring a much more thorough amount of story instead of the responsibility of driving the game’s agenda. But they’d be equally unsatisfied with a true division of GM authority among the group, as there’s a definite allure to having a single arbiter of reality to make victories feel earned. While I expect the middle to continue to absorb innovations from both OSR and story games camps, I also expect story-driven games with a single GM to be the norm for the foreseeable future.

So had Mass Effect been an epic series of tabletop modules instead of video games, how would the ending play out at tables around the world? Would players suck it up and quietly resolve to try to get someone else to GM next time? Would they be open about disliking it, but accept that it stayed happened? Or would they proceed to order their GM to tell the ending right, and they’re not leaving until he does? And would the last option come dangerously close to shattering the illusion of a world independent of the players’ own imaginations?

Someday, though probably not soon, we’ll achieve some reasonable approximation of the holodeck: a video gaming engine that can interpret a wide variety of player input and react to it with an AI sophisticated enough to respond more like a human GM than a rigidly programmed tree of options. The ME3 controversy may mean that, by the time we get there, it would be unthinkable to not have its core behavior skew much more toward the sandbox of the OSR or the player authority of story games. We could be on the verge of strictly limiting the power of the video game designer in a way similar to those espoused by tabletop theories, eliminating the ability to tell a story that takes away agency from the player. We could be on the verge of losing the core elements that give video games a chance of being acknowledged as art by the mainstream (in the same way movies are art) anytime in the foreseeable future.

But, given that a lot of tricks taken from movies tend to remove the fun of actually playing the game, maybe it’s just a good time to deeply rethink our principles of video game design, in the same way the OSR and story games movements are deeply rethinking the tabletop RPG.

Borrowing from Video Games: Mass Effect’s Military Effectiveness


The throughplot of Mass Effect 3 involves gathering War Assets to raise Military Strength: essentially, the ending of the game depends on how many resources you can throw at the enemy in the final battle. This creates an interesting shift in the mission structure of the game, as cash and experience are secondary rewards for many missions. The major reward is in an NPC, group, artifact, ship, or other resource that adds a few points to your total. Now, the actual system is somewhat opaque and one can’t trust the game’s feedback on how many resources is enough for the best ending, but it does work to good effect. I’ve spent two previous installments without taking much time to read codex entries in the journal, but I’ve read every word of backstory the writers wrote for each War Asset.

This reminds me of something I mentioned in my Technoir review:

There are few elements of player psychology more powerful than the act of putting something on a character sheet, and I have never seen a player get emotionally attached to an NPC faster than every player in my Technoir sessions got attached to the connections in what was basically a one-shot.

It should be pretty easy to take ME3‘s system of War Assets and translate that to virtually any game where players rely on NPCs or other resources for success. Historically, players are difficult to predict when it comes to NPC attachment and world engagement. You might bring out an NPC that you expect to be a cherished assistant for most of the campaign, and your players ignore him as inconsequential. You might try to get them interested in a particular area or project, and have them dismiss it and wander off. But what if you handed them a card with the resource’s name and a value on it? They may still decide to pass because of the effort or because they just dislike it, but they’re far more likely to take it seriously than something that they can assume is just color.

There are several ways to use this in play, in escalating order of complexity.

The first is to use it at a bare minimum: PC goals can be associated with requiring outside help. You might tell them the explicit number, or give them an idea of the scope and let them start assembling resources. Convinced the Duke, 20 points; bargained with the Thieves Guild, 40 points; took over a small stronghold, 60 points; and so on. The problem could be anything from defending a position, to finding out intel, to getting access to a cool toy: as long as you can quantify it as something that requires aid or resources the PCs don’t currently possess, you can hook it in.

The second is more complicated: allow resources to be improved once they’re acquired. For NPCs, this might be hooking part of their value into their friendliness to the PCs, and diplomacy or doing jobs for them can improve their value (as they’re willing to commit more resources). NPCs can also improve if they level up (likely related to the PCs giving them the opportunity). Inanimate resources can be improved by physically upgrading them: perhaps the defensive grid the PCs found isn’t a resource on its own, but it can grant a 20% improvement to any defense-based asset.

The third is to make values more complicated than a single number, and require resources to be allotted to different tasks (which could possibly expend them). You might give resources an offense and defense rating, a diplomacy and intimidation rating, a martial and magic rating, or whatever set of conflicting values make sense for the game. Players then need to arrange them to obtain multiple goals at the same time. The Knights of the Scroll could be used to increase the power of the assault against the orc fortress, but they might be more valuable contributing to the research project trying to find a ward against the necromancer’s oblivion field.

The fourth is to feed them fully into a tactical wargame. ME3 already features signature NPCs that add as many points as a whole squad, so it wouldn’t take much of a leap to treat them as hero units. Resource cards might include synergies to give the players ideas on how to effectively arrange resources into units. Then confrontations are played out in turns. And it need not be entirely war campaigns: a political campaign could have just as interesting an arrangement of resources, as could a massive research project.

The fifth is to turn the system from an add-on to the core of gameplay itself. Each PC is represented with his or her own card, an aggregation of smaller resources, or the very concept of PCs might be done away with and the players take on the role of dynasties or other major powers. All challenges in the game are about proper allocation of resources: can you direct enough at the problem to succeed without sacrificing something else?

Whichever route you choose, I expect most players are going to pay way more attention to the state of the game world when it’s hooked into quantifiable values that they can hold in their hands and think about tactically.


Instant Gratification vs. Phenominal Power

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I’ve been playing a lot of Mass Effect 2. Previously, I was playing a lot of Dragon Age. Bioware has crawled in and owned most of my free time for the last few months. It’s safe to say my thoughts on design have been influenced by what they’ve been soaking in.

Today, I’m brought back again to an aspect of the current level conundrum. Specifically, in how both games handle a fairly simple skill system differently as far as advancement:

  • In Dragon Age, each rank of an ability costs the same as the previous. It costs the same to go from level 2 to level 3 of a skill as it did to go from level 1 to level 2.
  • In Mass Effect 2 (unlike its predecessor), each rank of an ability costs more than the previous level. Going from level 2 to level 3 of a skill costs more than going from level 1 to level 2.

These two examples neatly sum up the dominant advancement methods in pretty much all RPGs. Some use both systems: the first during character generation for simplicity, the last during actual play (which is the core issue of the current level conundrum linked above). Others use one or the other exclusively.

They result in different player behavior when making characters in many cases. In my experience, there is little players enjoy more than rolling huge fistfuls of dice (or, in a non-dice-pool system, adding huge numbers to the roll). Or, in the case of computer games with increasing power unlocks, there is little that players like more than getting the awesome power at the end of a skill tree.

This behavior means that, in an equal-cost system, there is a substantial tendency for player skills to exist in only three states, no matter how many ranks each skill has:

  • Zero ranks, for skills the player hasn’t bothered with yet
  • One rank, for skills the player can’t use without at least one rank
  • As close to maximum ranks as the player can afford

Unless there is some other force at play (such as powers in the mid-ranks being better than at the top ranks, or some form of prerequisite or other limit), few PCs will naturally gravitate to an even spread of skills. It’s just more fun to bring huge chances of success or awesome powers to bear. The tendency is to max out as many skills as possible early, then max out the rest one by one during advancement.

The ME2/current level style of leveling scheme exists to counter this tendency. Games such as the Storyteller system will also indicate that a degree of simulationism is involved (to weight the difficulty of mastering a skill to that of the real world), but the primary impetus in play winds up being to offer a degree of instant gratification to counter the quest for phenomenal power.

Most games that use a stepped system of this kind award advancement points in small batches. In ME2, for example, each character gets 1-2 points per level, and skills cost 1-4 points for the respective ranks. Once a skill is rank 2, raising it will require spending at least one level with no advancement first. Perhaps not coincidentally, many skills unlock access to a new skill once the second rank is purchased.

A player is forced to choose to buy something lesser now, or wait for the bigger payoff. He or she also must consider whether a better chance at success or an upgraded power is worth multiple times as much as what’s gained from advancing a lower skill.

Ultimately, this is the reason to go with a current level system for experience: encouraging the conflict between gratification and power to create better-rounded characters. A flat-cost system will result in many players having few skills at median levels, unless other rules are in play to establish limits or ratios. Either result can be acceptable, as long as the system designer/GM knows and desires that outcome.

But systems that use flat cost for character creation and current level for advancement still punish the less system-minded players in any event 🙂 .

GNS in Video RPGs

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One of the core ideas of indie tabletop game design is the GNS principle/Threefold Model: as I understand it (probably not completely accurate), games can target three modes of play/preferred player styles. The styles are typically understood to be:

  • Gamist: The rules and systems are emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from using the game engine. Games that emphasize cool powers, complicated rules-based play, and tactics that are to some degree metagame are often considered gamist.
  • Narrativist: The story is emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from making your game feel like a book or movie. Games that subordinate actions or tactics that don’t support the story to those that do are often considered narrativist.
  • Simulationist: The physics and verisimilitude of the world are emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from treating the setting like a real world with real consequences. Games that have extensive rules designed to model reality that then ignore them if a result seems unrealistic are often considered simulationist.

These elements are often represented as a triangle, such that the more focus that is put on one element, the less that can be put on the others. A single game can rarely do all three elements well, as compromises to make an interesting game system work with a full-on realism simulator that still produces a satisfying traditional narrative tend to weaken all aspects.

I hadn’t really considered in great detail whether these elements applied to video RPGs, as most such games are forced by the limits of programming to favor certain elements over others, particularly as far as being unable to have true simulationism in the way a human-moderated game can have. However, after beginning to play Mass Effect 2 and see how different it is than its predecessor, I’ve begun to believe that there is a threefold model that can apply to video games that might be just as valid as the one for tabletop games, drawing on slightly modified principles:

  • Fun (Gamist): A game that focuses on fun is concerned with carefully balancing the game engine, skill systems, and challenges to ensure that the player is constantly having a fun and engaging play experience that is not too difficult or too easy. Most video games fall fully into this mode, but RPGs and some other genres may break away due to the other modes.
  • Entertainment (Narrativist): A game that focuses on entertainment is concerned with telling an engaging story that is almost as fun to watch as to play, and leaves players discussing its ramifications later. Many modern action, adventure, and roleplaying games focus on this mode to some extent, with varying degrees of compelling story.
  • Immersion (Simulationist): A game that focuses on immersion is concerned with creating a world that feels like a place people could actually live; barriers to travel are disguised and game elements are placed in logical rather than practical locations. RPGs, mysteries, and some adventure games strive for immersion.

Ultimately, like the tabletop model, strengthening one element weakens the others. A well-balanced and enjoyable gameplay experience often makes it hard to hide the game elements enough to create immersion. A fully-realized and entertaining story may make demands on game setup that reduces the fun of actual play. An immersive play experience often rejects the taking away of control from the player required to tell a good story.

Like tabletop GMs and designers, video game designers should be cognizant of what mode of play they want to support and support it consistently. A game will likely be far more memorable if it does one mode and does it well than if it is ambivalent about what style of play it wants to produce.

D&D Lite

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Originally posted October 2008

I got bored yesterday, and started to put together an unholy hybrid of D&D 3rd and 4th edition, Fate 2 and 3, Mass Effect, and the LARP system we were working on. The ultimate goal is to feel like D&D but be as easy to run as Fate, while being simple to convert when running 3rd edition modules.


Each statistic equals the total number of talents within the statistic. A character cannot have more talents within a statistic than his or her level+2.

New talents cost the character’s current level x 500 exp. Characters can always buy basic level talents, but must have at least two instances of a basic talent to buy the advanced talent linked to it (e.g., a character cannot buy the Defend talent Aegis until he or she has at least two instances of the Armored talent).

A character can choose to increase his or her level with a brief training session whenever at least one statistic is at least equal to the current level.

Characters gain a new skill rank each level. Characters gain a new craft rank every three levels. Skills and crafts must form a pyramid (a character cannot have a rank 2 skill without at least one other skill at rank 1, a character cannot have a rank 3 skill without at least one other skill at rank 2 and one at rank 1, etc.).

Characters are automatically proficient with light armor of up to rating 2 and simple ranged and melee weapons. Talents improve these proficiencies.

Starting characters have five talents, two feats, one apprentice craft, and three basic skills (or one intermediate skill and one basic skill).



The Defend statistic represents a character’s ability to avoid blows, move quickly, and roll with attacks to reduce their effect. Many that train in Defend become tougher, as well.

  • Armored: Increase the armor level you are proficient with by +1.
    • Aegis: If you still have armor levels remaining, a 6+ wound fills all your remaining armor levels instead of automatically incapacitating you.
  • Dive: At will, as an attack interrupt, increase your defense by 2 by going prone (requiring you to use a move to stand on your next turn).
  • Evasion: Add +1 to Defend vs. AoE attacks.
  • Intercept: At will, as a damage interrupt, treat an attack against an adjacent ally (from an attacker that could have attacked you) as if it had been an attack against you.
  • Mobility: Add +1 square of speed when in combat.
    • Dash: Once per fight, double your movement rate for one turn.
  • Rally: Once per fight, remove your least wound.
    • Revive: Once per fight, remove your greatest wound.
  • Riposte: Once per fight, gain +2 to attack an enemy that attacked you since your last turn.
    • Revenge: Once per fight, immediately deal an identical wound level to an enemy that just hit you in melee.
  • Rock: Once per fight, a wound rolls down instead of up.
    • Roll: Once per fight, a wound does not roll at all.
  • Shift: Once per fight, ignore movement penalties from moving past enemies.
    • Slide: Once per fight, move one square when an enemy moves adjacent to you.
  • Toughening: Add +1 wound level. Extra wound levels progress like armor (e.g., the first extra wound level is an Incapacitated, the second is a Crippled, etc.)
    • Immunity: Once per fight, add one to each wound level as extra armor. These levels disappear on your next turn, but any damage in them disappears as well.


The Strike statistic represents a character’s ability to land telling blows on an opponent, both in melee and at range. Most characters use melee or ranged weapons to use Strike attacks, but mystical characters can manifest their ranged attacks as arcane or divine blasts.

  • Double strike: Once per fight, you can attack two enemies that are within your range and adjacent to one another. Make one attack, and compare the result to both targets’ defenses to find the result.
    • Cleave: Once per fight, if an attack incapacitates your target, apply the attack result as an attack to an adjacent target that is also within your range.
  • Dual Wield: Once per fight, when wielding two weapons, you can make two attacks against one target (one attack with each weapon).
    • Florentine: When wielding two weapons, you may treat the offhand weapon as a shield.
  • Hit and Run: Once per fight, after an attack, you may move a number of squares equal to the amount your attack exceeded the target’s defense.
    • Charge: At will, you may attack a target within your basic movement rate (counting movement through threatened spaces normally) at a penalty equal to the number of squares moved.
  • Knockback: Once per fight, instead of attacking for damage, you may declare that you are attacking to force your opponent back. You can force the target to move a number of squares away from you equal to the difference between your attack and the target’s defense. The target can be knocked into hazards, traps, or falls (but may receive an Athletics check to catch himself at the edge).
    • Tide of Iron: At will, you may make a Knockback attack. Unlike the normal Knockback, you must use your move action to follow the target, remaining the same distance away. The target cannot be pushed into a hazard, trap, or fall.
  • Martial Arts: Treat unarmed and improvised attacks as simple weapons (i.e., roll 1d6 for attack instead of the lowest of 2d6).
  • Melee Critical: Once per fight, declare a melee attack an automatic 6 instead of rolling.
    • Melee Training: Increase your melee weapon proficiency by one level (from simple to military, or from military to superior).
  • Ranged Critical: Once per fight, declare a ranged attack an automatic 6 instead of rolling.
    • Ranged Training: Increase your ranged weapon proficiency by one level (from simple to military, or from military to superior).
  • Sneak Attack: Once per fight, against a target that is unaware of the character or threatened by another ally, make an attack at +1.
    • Twist the Knife: Whenever a Sneak Attack is successful, the character deals an additional wound of the same level to the target.


The Lead statistic represents a character’s ability to direct and support his or her party. The actual capabilities granted are determined by talents within this statistic, but even without talents, a strong leader is a morale boost to his companions: adjacent allies use the character’s Lead statistic as their own when resisting debuffs.

  • Armor of Authority: Once per fight, as a normal action, you or an adjacent ally may use your Lead statistic instead of Defend to resist all attacks until your next turn.
    • Iron Will: The target of your Armor of Authority also gains an additional armor rating equal to your Lead rating.
  • Bolster: Once per fight, you may use your normal action to heal an ally within line of site (or yourself) of his or her least wound.
    • Brink of Death: Once per fight, you may use your normal action to revive a character that was struck unconscious since your last turn. The target heals his or her greatest wound.
  • Inspiring Presence: For each instance of this talent, the area that is considered adjacent to you (for purposes of resisting debuffs and other Lead talents) increases by one square radius.
    • Bulwark: Once per fight, as a move action, any squares that are adjacent to you for the purposes of Lead are also adjacent to you for the purposes of reducing enemy movement (i.e., threatening). This protection stays in effect until you move again (or are forced to move).
  • Leader’s Standard: Once per fight, the character may add +1 to a statistic and +3 to a skill until his or her next turn. This statistic and skill must be chosen when this talent is purchased, and represents the character’s deity or lord.
    • Channel Authority: At will, the character may expend a use of Leader’s Standard to strike fear into the hearts of a group opposed to the character’s deity or lord. Make an AoE attack (and the character can charge the AoE normally) using the character’s Lead statistic instead of Control. Treat the results of the AoE as a debuff rather than damage.
  • Shield of Faith: Once per fight, as a move action, automatically cancel a debuff that is afflicting an adjacent ally or yourself.
    • Sanctuary: Once per fight, as a normal action, automatically cancel all debuffs that are afflicting all adjacent allies and yourself .
  • Strike True: Once per fight, make an attack against the target using Lead instead of Strike. Instead of dealing damage, your margin of success on the attack is a bonus to an adjacent ally’s weapon (as if it were magic, or of increased magic) for his or her next attack.
    • Lead the Attack: Once per fight, make an attack against the target using Lead instead of Strike. Instead of dealing damage, your margin of success on the attack is a bonus to the next attack of all adjacent allies using the same method of attack as you (ranged or melee).
  • Transposition: Once per fight, as a move action, you may switch spaces with an adjacent ally.
    • Direct the Fray: At will, as a move action, you may give an ally in line of sight additional combat movement to overcome threatened spaces and difficult terrain. The ally may move your combat movement in additional squares, but cannot move more total squares than his or her own movement rate.


The Control statistic represents a character’s ability to control the battlefield by distracting the enemy and damaging multiple foes. Characters can use Control with magic or any other explanation for how they are hindering foes and affecting an entire area.

  • Burst: Once per fight, your AoE describes a point-blank burst around you, with its size indicating distance in all directions (e.g., a 2×2 AoE becomes a 5×5 AoE with you in the center).
    • Hedge: Once per fight, you can cause an AoE to ignore friendly targets within its area.
  • Domination: Once per fight, you may make a debuff attack instead of a normal attack against the targets of your AoE.
    • Confusion: Once per fight, as an attack interrupt, a target you have successfully debuffed attacks one of his or her allies in range instead of one of your allies.
  • Dragonbreath: Once per fight, you may make an AoE attack that fills a straight line of squares with a length equal to the total area the AoE would normally fill. One end of the line must be adjacent to you.
    • Wall: When you use Dragonbreath, the end of the line does not need to be adjacent to you, only part of it.
  • Explosion: Once per fight, any targets wounded by your AoE are also pushed one square away from the center of the effect.
    • Vortex: Once per fight, any targets wounded by your AoE are also pulled one square closer to the center of the effect.
  • Frequency: Once per fight, you may adjust the energy or method of an AoE to an enemy whose weakness you are aware of. You attack at +1 against the enemy type targeted.
    • Pierce: Once per fight, you may cause an AoE attack to ignore physical armor.
  • Reach: Once per fight, as a ranged attack, you may make an AoE attack as if a distant square was adjacent to you. You may move the origin of your AoE a number of squares away equal to your Control rating.
    • Innate Reach: For each instance of this talent, you may automatically extend any AoE attack, as a ranged attack, one additional square (e.g., with one instance of this talent you may anchor your AoE two squares from you).
  • Zone: Once per fight, your AoE has a persistent effect on the targeted area, making it difficult terrain for the remainder of the fight.
    • Storm: When you create a Zone, you may spend your normal action each turn to renew the original AoE attack, targeting all individuals in the Zone with an attack equal to your original roll. If you cease to use this every round subsequent to the original attack, you can no longer maintain the effect.


Skills are useful abilities that anyone might possess but which adventurers rely on constantly. Skills have multiple levels:

  • Basic (+3)
  • Intermediate (+6)
  • Advanced (+9)
  • Mastery (+12)

Truly experienced characters may progress even further in their skills.


Academics is used when a character wishes to recall information from studies of the arcane, historic, religious, or other fields that makes sense for his or her background. Typically, the DC for useful information about a subject is equal to its level; a roll 3 lower than the target points the characters in the right direction, while a roll 3 higher than the target gives detailed information about the topic.

DC Challenge
3 Know something everyone knows
6 Know something commonly available but not commonly taught
9 Know something requiring extensive study
12 Know something limited to true scholars
15 Know something that’s a secret to all but a few


Athletics is used when a character wishes to climb, jump, swim, run, balance, or tumble.

DC Challenge
3 Run on an uneven floor, climb a ladder quickly, long jump 1 square
6 Run on a slippery floor, climb a knotted rope or easy wall quickly, swim in rough water
9 Run on ice, climb a rope or hard wall quickly, long jump half your combat move, reduce a fall by 10 feet
12 Climb a very hard wall quickly, swim in icy water
15 Climb on a ceiling, long jump your full combat move, reduce a fall by 20 feet


Heal is used to treat injuries and long-term disabilities. A wound’s Heal DC is equal to its rank (e.g., 5 for Incapacitated) plus the subject’s level. It takes a normal action to attempt to heal a wound: the target heals the worst wound that the healer successfully treated (e.g., if the healer rolled 5 against a level 1 target, the worst wound of Crippled or less would be healed). The level of the target serves a shorthand for the kind of attack that could wound such a character; wounds a lesser healer could easily treat are often simply ignored by a higher level character. Healers can also treat long-term ailments.

DC Challenge
3 A common toxin or illness
6 A serious toxin or illness
9 A designer toxin or virulent illness
12 A terrible venom or plague
15 A bane that few have ever survived


Perception is used to notice sneaking enemies. It can also allow the character to make out details too distant or too precise for normal people to notice.

DC Challenge
3 Hear whispers in your ear and read small print at arm’s length
6 Hear whispers five feet away and make out small details across the room
9 Hear whispers across a quiet room and identify a face across a battlefield
12 Hear nearby whispers through noise and track a falcon on a cloudy day
15 Hear whispers that should be impossible and track an enemy’s progress from miles away


Social is used to set the tone of a negotiation or conversation, typically as a contested roll with circumstance bonuses. In diplomacy, the winner can demand more of the loser. In a bluff, fast talk, or seduction, the winner can make an untruth seem plausible or out a single lie as the falsehood it is. Additionally, if the character’s Social is higher than his or her Debuff, he or she rolls 2d6 and keeps the highest when using taunts or intimidation to make Debuff attempts.

DC Challenge
3 Pass a white lie, get help from a friend, or stare down a peasant
6 Hide a single fact, get help from an acquaintance, or warn off a guard
9 Spin a web of lies, get help from a stranger, or make a knight afraid
12 Sell a mark on a dream, get help from a rival, or scare off a noble
15 Get someone killed, get help from an enemy, or give pause to a dragon


Stealth is used to hide, move silently, and tail targets without being noticed. This is typically done as a contested roll against a target’s Perception+4 (see Combat, below). Sometimes, stealth might be used to get a general idea of how noticeable a character is, or to maintain a disguise.

DC Challenge
3 Blend in with a crowd of the same race
6 Hide in the dark or thick woods
9 Blend in with a crowd of another race
12 Hide in broad daylight with a bit of camouflage
15 Avoid notice by standing behind the target at all times


Survival is used for tests of a character’s resourcefulness in both the wilderness and the urban jungle. It is used to know things about the terrain and environment, forage for food and scavenge for items, and to track targets. Sometimes, Survival will be used in contest with a target’s Stealth or Survival.

DC Challenge
3 Thrive in a garden or track a mammoth in the snow
6 Thrive in the forest or track a lizard on the sand
9 Thrive in the winter or track a deer through the woods
12 Thrive in a scrubland or track a goat across a mountain
15 Thrive in the desert or track a thief along a city street


Thievery is used for tests of guile and mechanical aptitude. When used to perform sleights of hand or to pick pockets, it is typically used opposed to the target’s Perception. When used to pick locks or disable traps and other devices, the difficulty depends on the complexity and danger of the device.

DC Challenge
3 Disable a simple trap or open a stuck door
6 Disable a tricky trap or pick a very simple lock
9 Disable a difficult trap or pick an average lock
12 Disable a wicked trap or pick a good lock
15 Disable a fiendish trap or pick an amazing lock


Crafts represent trades and professions a character might practice for money or to handle life’s little problems. Crafts typically have four ranks:

  • Apprentice (+3)
  • Journeyman (+6)
  • Master (+9)
  • Grandmaster (+12)

Characters may use crafts to create goods or earn money in play or downtime. Common crafts include:

  • Alchemist
  • Bowyer
  • Brewer
  • Carpenter
  • Engineer
  • Leatherworker
  • Locksmith
  • Lumberjack
  • Miner
  • Musician
  • Orator
  • Painter
  • Potter
  • Sailor
  • Scribe
  • Shipmaker
  • Singer
  • Smith
  • Stonemason
  • Tanner
  • Trapmaker
  • Weaver
  • Woodworker


Initiative and Surprise

If one group is trying to sneak up on another, as soon as they are within perception range, the sneaking group rolls Stealth plus applicable modifiers vs. the highest Perception+4 in the targeted group. This roll may be repeated once per round if the group moves closer but does not immediately attack. As soon as they are noticed, combat begins and the sneaking group acts first (in some cases, the sneaking group may lose initiative if they do not realize they have been spotted). Depending on the light, terrain, and state of the target group, combat may automatically begin at a certain point, forcing the attacking group to use combat movement to reach their targets.

If neither or both was surprised, initiative is determined with a coin toss or other 50/50 method.

No matter which group won initiative, after the first group acts, the second group acts, then the first group, and so on until the combat ends.

A group decides the order in which its members act. For player characters, this order can be based on player tactics, or simply proceed around the table.

Players can choose to forgo an action, but cannot hold or ready an action.

Movement and Actions

In combat, each turn characters receive a move action and a normal action. The character can forgo the normal action in order to take two move actions.

Move Actions

Most characters can move up to six squares (30’) with each move action; this is the character’s speed rating. Talents, race, and other abilities and conditions may modify this number. If the character uses two move actions, he or she may move double this speed as a double move. Diagonal moves cost the same as orthogonal moves, and a character can move diagonally around corners.

Enemies are considered to “threaten” squares to which they are adjacent. The first threatened square a character enters in a turn does not cost extra. Each additional threatened square through which the character passes costs 1 extra square of movement for each threatening enemy, and the character cannot enter squares that would cost more movement than he or she has remaining.

A character can move through an ally’s square but cannot end in it. A character can move through an enemy’s square with a successful Athletics check against the enemy’s Strike+4; this counts as moving through a threatened space.

Difficult terrain and barriers may require additional squares of movement (and Athletics checks) to traverse.

Some other miscellaneous actions may require a character’s move action.

Normal Actions

A character can use a normal action to make an attack (or multiple attacks with certain talents). Additionally, certain complex skill uses may require the character’s normal action.


Melee and Ranged attacks: If the character is wielding an appropriate weapon, he or she rolls 1d6+Strike against the target’s Defend+4. If the attack equals or exceeds the target number, it is a successful hit. See Damage, below.

Area of Effect attacks: By default, an AoE’s area must include at least one square adjacent to the character. Before making an AoE attack, the character can spend one or more normal actions (up to his or her Control) to increase the size of the AoE by 1 step per additional action spent. An AoE’s area is 1×1 squares (2×2 after one extra action, 3×3 after two, etc.), and affects all squares in this area unless modified by another ability. The character rolls 1d6+Control and compares this number to the Defend+4 of all targets within the area in order to calculate damage. See Damage, below.

Debuff attacks: A debuff is an attack made to weaken or distract a target. It can represent mystical curses, grappling, pinning down a target, or plain, old-fashioned insults and taunts; the type of attack determines the targets available and the weapon used. The character makes a roll of 1d6+Control against the target’s Lead+4 (or the target’s ally’s Lead; see Lead, above). If successful, the character chooses a statistic or skill. The target reduces his or her skill by the margin of success until the character’s next turn. A character can choose to expend a normal action to maintain a successful debuff in subsequent rounds, rather than rolling again, as long as the conditions that allowed the debuff are still in place.

Unarmed and Improvised attacks: When caught without a weapon, a character may punch and kick, swing or throw pottery and rocks, and, if a mystic, manifest unfocused magical energy. These are treated as ordinary melee or ranged attacks, but instead of rolling 1d6, the character rolls 2d6 and keeps the lowest die.


Characters have one level in each category (more with Defend talents). When an attack hits successfully, it deals a wound to the category equal to the amount the attack exceeded the defense. If there are no more wounds remaining at that level, it rolls into the next higher category that still has a wound level available. When the character has no more wounds in the Incapacitated category, or takes a wound that succeeds by 6+, he or she is knocked unconscious.

Armor provides extra wound levels that are the first lost to damage. Armor levels count from the bottom and wrap if they provide more than six points (e.g., Armor rating 3 adds an extra wound to the Maimed, Crippled, and Incapacitated levels while Armor rating 7 adds two extra wounds to Incapacitated, and an extra wound to all other levels).

All weapons do one wound level on a successful attack. When wielded by a trained user, military weapons roll 2d6 for attack (with either Strike or Control), and keep the best result from the two dice. When wielded by a trained user, superior weapons roll 3d6 for attack (again, with either Strike or Control), and keep the best result from the three dice.

When a character is wearing magic armor, he or she cannot be harmed by lesser weapons. Count simple weapons as 1, military weapons as 2, and superior weapons as 3, and then add the weapon’s magic bonus. If the total does not equal or exceed the armor’s magic level, the attack can only harm the character if it rolls 6+.

When a character is wielding a magic weapon, he or she bypasses lesser armor. Add the armor level to its magic bonus. If the total does not equal or exceed the weapon’s magic level, all damage from the weapon ignores the target’s armor and armor-related talents (such as Aegis).

Damage Track:
0 Scratched
1 Bruised
2 Hurt
3 Maimed
4 Crippled
5 Incapacitated


Simple Melee Weapons
  • Farming and Hunting Implements (Light Flail, Javelin, Scythe, Sickle, Spear, Wood Axe)
  • Light Blunts (Club, Mace, Quarterstaff)
  • Short Blades (Dagger, Long Knife, Shortsword)
Military Melee Weapons
  • Axes (Battleaxe, Greataxe, Handaxe, War pick)
  • Heavy Blunts (Heavy Flail, Maul, Morningstar, Warhammer)
  • Polearms (Glaive, Halberd, Longspear)
  • Swords (Bastard Sword, Falchion, Greatsword, Longsword, Rapier, Scimitar)
Superior Melee Weapons
  • Exotic (Spiked Chain)
  • Racial (Dwarven Urgosh)
Simple Ranged Weapons
  • Hunting Implements (Sling, Slingshot, Light bow, Thrown blade)
  • Initiate Mystical Tools (Orb, Symbol, Tome, Wand)
  • Mechanical Bows (Crossbow, Hand Crossbow)
Military Ranged Weapons
  • Adept Mystical Tools (Rod)
  • Martial Bows (Longbow, Shortbow)
Superior Ranged Weapons
  • Greatbows (Daikyu)
  • Master Mystical Tools (Staff)


Characters wearing larger armor than they are proficient with reduce their effective Defend score by the difference between armor rating and proficiency rating.

  • Layered cloth
  • Padded cloth or Flexible leather
  • Boiled leather or Flexible hide
  • Boiled hide or Light chain
  • Full chain or Brigantine
  • Ringmail or Scale
  • Banded mail or Breastplate
  • Full plate or Dragonscale

A character wielding a shield gains one extra Incapacitated level as armor. Any character may use a shield. This wound is filled before armor, and indicates the shield has been breached. The shield can subsequently be dropped and the filled wound level removed with no penalty: if the character re-equips an unbreached shield, a new and unfilled armor level is added.

Unarmored Casters

Comments Off on Unarmored Casters

Originally posted October 2008

I had this idea for a magic/psychic damage system while playing Mass Effect tonight and thinking about how to differentiate all the Roman numerated weapons where the rating doesn’t seem to matter much. As a side effect, any setting that uses it has an easy time explaining why casters don’t just run around with plate and broadswords. On the downside, it may be somewhat unwieldy for tabletop play, as it uses a chart and multipliers.

The basic idea is as follows (and you can substitute psionics or some such for magic in a space opera setting):

  • Magical armors, magical weapons, and pure magic attacks and defenses are rated on a more or less traditional scale: +1 through +10.
  • The magical number does not add directly to damage/resistance. Instead, the attacker’s magic number is divided by the defender’s magic number to serve as a multiplier for damage. For example, an attacker with a level 4 weapon does double damage against a defender with level 2 armor. Conversely, an attacker with a level 2 weapon does half damage against a defender with level 4 armor.
  • Besides being expensive, wearing magic armor and using magic weapons is hazardous to the wielder. Each swing of a weapon or hit taken while wearing armor unleashes a surge of raw mystic force into the bearer: powerful items emit coronal displays with each swing or impact. The bearer takes damage proportional to the magic rating (e.g., 5 damage per swing with a +5 sword, 3 damage per impact when wearing +3 armor).
  • Characters can inure themselves to this effect by building up a magical tolerance (functionally equating to character level). A character with tolerance 4 could use +4 or lesser items with no difficulty, the magic rolling off his or her back, but would still receive damage from +5 or greater items (though less than an intolerant bearer).
  • Magic users themselves would find their spells limited or even crippled by developing a tolerance to magic. Thus, they constantly find themselves being shocked by even the weakest of items, as their systems eagerly absorb the raw energy.
  • Thus, mighty warriors bear blades of singing magic and armor girded by mystical runes, but true magicians must rely on spells to approximate such attacks and defenses without the feedback effect.