Koru: Harm system

So in my upcoming setting + game, one of the ideas is to take inspiration from my favourite games. I wanted to create a health and injury system that was less abstracted than plain numerical values (i.e., hit points).

I’ve drawn ideas from:

  1. Apocalypse World
  2. World of Darkness
  3. Torchbearer

The basic idea is this: Harm has a spread something like this on your character sheet:

  • [] Want
  • [] Strain
  • [] Fatigue
  • [] Injury
  • [] Illness

When you take Harm from any source, you check the first (or next) box in the sequence. So if you haven’t checked anything yet, you mark Want. If you already had Want checked, you’d check Strain. This represents how much your character can take or bounce back from external sources of trauma. For a while you can just get a bit winded, tired or dehydrated from fighting monsters. Eventually, though, if you don’t recover, you’re opening yourself to far worse consequences (i.e., injuries and illnesses).

Recovery

Recovering from each step requires greater time and resources. For example, to recover from Want, you need to have some food or water in your inventory or at least a turn (in combat) to catch your breath.

  • Want: you just need to catch your breath, eat or drink to replenish yourself. Takes only a moment.
  • Strain: you are emotionally or even mentally drained or upset to some degree and need to calm down, try to relax and collect yourself. Takes a few minutes.
  • Fatigue: you are physically drained and need rest. That means doing nothing strenuous for, say, an hour. Like a Short Rest in D&D 5e.
  • Injury: requires medical or magical attention. This is serious, like a bleeding wound or a broken bone. Requires a longer period of time to recover from an injury; say, at least 8 hours. Like a Long Rest in D&D 5e.
  • Illness: requires recurring, persistent medical or magical attention over a longer period of time. This is very serious: infections, fever, disease and such. Takes a much longer time to recover: a week (at least).

These timings are for a more “heroic” feel and if a group wanted more grittiness or whatever, they could make them take much longer. An Injury could take a week and Illness a month, if you wanted.

Death

If ever all of your Harm boxes are full and you take more Harm, then you die. Plain and simple.

Bonus Boxes

Age

A character’s age plays an important role in Koru. Amongst other things that it determines about a hero, it also affects how much Harm that they can take.

This is handled by applying extra “boxes” for Want. Youths have two extra Want boxes. Prime aged characters have one. Elders have none.

Having multiple checks in a type of Harm has no effect on recovery times.

Armor

Armor provides an extra box for Injury. Thicker, more effective armor just lasts longer, in game terms (Koru will use the “Usage Die” mechanic from the Black Hack).

Other protection and abilities

Some of these Harm boxes will increase depending on other factors, such as enchantments, good equipment or even special abilities. A Shaman, for example, who is an expert at healing, can grant other characters an extra temporary Illness box (if the right conditions are met).

Conclusion

I have yet to play-test these rules, but I’m liking how they look on “paper”.

Metal Music & Me

I am a closet metal fan.

– Jon Gries

Yup, that’s me too. I especially worry about “real” fans finding out for some reason. I mean, this scene here is me but with Metal Music (and its fans):

Seriously, I don’t know how much more of a lame, straight, married with kids suburbanite white guy I could be. Perhaps if I only ate white bread and rice and wore pastel polo shirts.

As many troubled, socially rejected teens I embraced Heavy Metal. It was an outlet for a lot of aggression and anger. Instead of getting into fights, I blasted Metallica.

Fast forward almost 20 years. I was re-introduced to Metal. It began with Doom stuff, like Candlemass and Saint Vitus. This has led me down a crazy path and now I happily listen to stuff by bands like this:

Immortal
Immortal

Strange how I skipped over groups like Slayer and Pantera and jumped right into seriously hard stuff like Watain, Celtic Frost (well their non-glam/hair stuff, LOL) and even an all-woman Black Metal band called Astarte. Going back to stuff like Slayer and Pantera has been weird (I used to think that they were SO HEAVY).

Anyway, the point of this post is not to impress (hahaha) but to express my shame: I’m a crappy Metal fan.

I don’t have long hair. I live in the Suburbs. I don’t go to concerts. I don’t do anything to live the “lifestyle”. I’m a nerdy white guy who secretly listens to Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth while I think that no-one is looking.

Ah that feels better. Carry on.

… \m/

Failing fairly

There are a lot of articles out there about how Referees (DMs, GMs etc…) handle failure in roleplaying games. I’d like to think that mine is a bit different and provides something new.

This is not some “white room” theory: this is from my 15 years of accumulated experience as a Referee. It has served me well.

I’ll dive right in and tell you what my ideology is. While it is applicable to any game, it is mostly useful for games with more “swingy” mechanics, such as a D20.

Note: if you are the type of player who feels that immersion is very, very important, then this article is not for you. Also, this isn’t a rigorous methodology or checklist that I use every time I assess a dice roll. It’s a bunch of general guidelines, most of which a lot of people do anyway.

In my opinion you should only call for a dice roll:

  1. …if there’s a chance of failure
  2. …if failure will be interesting
  3. …if you understand the intent
  4. …if you know the consequences
  5. …if you can contextualize

Read up on these items below:

1. …if there’s a chance of failure

Some would say that there’s always a chance of failure. But if a very competent character is attempting a rather mundane task and there are no obvious complications then why bother? Just say that they can do it.

This can keep things moving and improve pacing. It also makes PCs appear more competent.

Unless the scene is a battle or other intense conflict, I usually hand wave a lot of mundane tasks, especially if the difficulty rating is “easy”.

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2. …if failure will be interesting

What makes failure interesting? If it adds further complications or increases the tension in some way. This isn’t always easy to explain. Let’s try this: if the consequences of failure are “nothing happens”, then screw it.

It’s like the old beginner mistake: making the players keep rolling until they actually succeed. Why slow things down or stagnate the flow?

Unless there’s the PC is chasing someone, fleeing from someone, trying to escape a hazard (eg., rising lake of lava), being shot at or is in a big hurry, I won’t bother have them roll.

Alternatively, make them roll to see how well they did the task. No matter what they roll, they’ll succeed; the result will dictate how well (a “failure” means that it just took them longer, there’s a flaw, they missed something, something external goes wrong etc…).

banana peel

 

3. …if you understand the intent

This may be super obvious, but the idea is that if the player wants to perform a task, and you, the Referee, are not entirely sure what their intentions are… ask them. Find out why they’re attempting this task. Sometimes this little bit of clarification can go a long way and avoid misunderstanding or worse: frustration.

Making intent clear will also aid you in coming up with the consequences of failure.

Analogy

The PCs were having a tense debate with an underworld contact in a cramped secret room surrounded by goons. One player suddenly said that he wanted his character to pull out his weapon and smack it down on the table. Everyone was confused and started making assumptions about his intent. Did he want to start a fight? Was he trying to intimidate the NPCs?

The Referee called for an Intimidation check because she assumed that he was trying to bully the NPCs into doing what he wanted. He failed his roll and the NPCs all drew their weapons, ready for a fight. The player then explained that while this was going on, the party thief could resume her task of pick-pocketing the guards because he was providing a distraction. But that wasn’t what the Referee thought was going on (she would have called for a different skill check and might have described a different outcome on a pass or fail). Had intent been made obvious, the scene would have ended very differently.

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4. …if you know the consequences

This is also possibly immersion breaking to some play styles.

When a player wants their PC to perform a task, and intent is obvious, try to figure out the consequences of failure before they roll.

You could even explain it to the player out loud. I try to give them a couple (2-3) of possible outcomes. This might be difficult to do in the heat of the moment, but I think that it is worth it. That way there are fewer nasty surprises and the player can change their mind and try something else if it sounds like the risk isn’t worth it.

This is easier to do if you know what their intentions are.

Analogy

A player wanted to gaze into a crystal ball in the dungeon of a mummy lord. I asked her why she was looking into it and what she was hoping to find. She told me that her PC was looking for clues about where the mummy hid his treasure horde, to see what his evil plans were or otherwise a clue on how to defeat him.

I explained that they needed to make a save to resist the evil soul-sucking powers. If they failed, they would be mesmerized and see something that would really shake them up. On a really bad roll they might get noticed by a lost soul who will try to possess or devour them (this wasn’t a huge surprise at this point because the party could see ghostly faces in the crystal).

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5. …if you can contextualize

Okay so the PC failed their dice roll. What happens? How bad are the consequences?

To me, this depends on the skills/abilities of the character. If they’re really competent at this sort of task, then I’m more forgiving of a failed roll. Conversely, if another character who is less skilled fails at the same task, it is far worse for them if they fail.

This is the meat of this article and it’s especially useful for D20 games: make failure different for different characters depending on their skills.

This tends to make players happy because it acknowledges their character’s talents and abilities. A competent character will fail more gracefully than one who isn’t.

Analogy

Two characters are driving cars in a high speed chase scene. One of them is a professional race car driver (very skilled). The other is a rural person who is barely competent (poorly skilled). They both fail their drive checks by the same degree (on a D20 roll, they both rolled a 1).

Failure for the more skilled character: they lose control over their vehicle and it spins around and comes to a stop (perhaps knocking over a few garbage cans). They’ve lost some time and are inconvenienced.

Failure for the less skilled character: they mis-judge their control over the vehicle and crash, their vehicle rolls over and catches fire.

natural_20_dnd_04

Bonus: think about who f***ed up!

This varies from system to system, but the basic assumption is that a character’s skill is tested against an opposing force or passive difficulty. The player must must randomly determine if their character’s skills are good enough to overcome external challenges.

Ever since I started playing most Referees have interpreted a failure or a miss (in combat) as the PC making a mistake, messing up or missing their target (example: they miscalculated, they fumbled and dropped their tool, or their sword swing went wild and whooshed in the air). It’s never because of external forces: it’s always been the character’s fault (example: the information in the book was actually false, the lock had extra security measures in place, the opponent parried the blow).

The thing about combat is especially frustrating to me in games like D&D where a being’s defensive ability is abstracted a little into a passive defence value (not an opposed combat roll). Armor Class (AC) means that you’re harder to hit because of your Dexterity and your actual armor. When an opponent misses their attack roll (can’t beat your AC) it doesn’t necessarily mean that their attack went wild like an inept buffoon: it meant that the attack was dodged or it glanced off of some chain mail.

I play these games for fun escapism: to pretend to be someone who is, if not remarkable, more competent than the real me. I feel disappointed when the luck of the dice makes my character seem inept, unskilled, clumsy or even stupid.

High skill and ability doesn’t mean that you’re only good when you succeed: it means that you can recover well from a failure.

A skilled person, when they’ve made a mistake or if their solution didn’t work, will adjust their strategy or approach and try again. An unskilled person will just give up (or fail so disastrously bad that they just can’t try again).

To be clear, the other option is still valid (sometimes people just mess up: OOPS). My issue is when it happens all of the time. Every time. In a fantasy game about escapism and heroics.

A matter of tone

Many Gamers, especially Referees, enjoy a good critical fumble chart. I’d argue that they’re great in very grim-dark and/or comical campaigns. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, for example, is perfect for this sort of thing. Also 0-level Funnel games like Dungeon Crawl Classics.

But I don’t think that it matches the tone of every game or campaign out there. Would you see James Bond, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Wolverine slip on a banana peel and chop their own leg off in a serious rendition of their genres?

The same applies to misses. In a super hero game in a very clean, PG campaign world where the PCs are better than the rest of humanity, failure shouldn’t be horribly gory or over-the-top slapstick. I mean, not really, unless everyone wants that.

Keep the tone in mind when you narrate a failure.

Conclusion

So that’s basically it. I think that point #5 is the most widely useful to all Referees out there, especially in games like D&D. Try it out and I’m sure that your players will be happier, even when they fail.

 

 

Status of the Lounge

After the A to Z Challenge, which was fun but quite demanding (but less so than I expected), I decided to take a break for a little while.

I also got really tired of social media and fora (message boards) and I’m trying to quit them to be more productive. My goal right now is to finish some RPG products (modules, mostly) and sell them on online PDF game distributors.

The following projects have completed first drafts and are being assembled into second drafts:

Conquerors of the Cosmos

This is an adventure module for Crimson Dragon Slayer. It is an homage to certain media from the 1980s: stuff like HeMan, Thundarr and Sectaurs. Right now it is a bit linear, so I’m working on making it more like a point crawl. This will hopefully get published through Korthalis.

The Warlock’s Curse

The title logo of this project is the featured image for this post. A 5e and Dungeon World compatible module set in Fantasy Romania. A lot of Ravenloft and Castlevania themes here. Included will be the Hydra Tome: a self-contained generator for unique and cool hydras.

King of the Grey Isles

The focus of my contribution to the A to Z Challenge. This will be a location-based adventure for 5e and Dungeon World. Gothic and Weird Horror, but very open-ended.

Island World

A Dungeon World hack long in the making. Was originally going to be focused on the aboriginal people of the Pacific ocean, but due to cultural sensitivity controversies over the last few years, I’m reluctant to do so anymore. The peoples in this book will definitely be non-white islander types but I won’t be naming names very much out of fear of being blacklisted or worse.

I will be creating art for all of these. My time that would have been spent on pointlessly browsing the internet will be used to develop these products. I’ll occasionally advertise their progress here on the Lounge.

Please stay tuned! Conquerors of the Cosmos is first in line because I’ve made promises to Venger that I’d get it done sooner than later. It’s been a year in the works: progress has been slow with a new baby in the home.

Y is for Yeuthania #atozchallenge

The third member of the Maidens (the other two being Cadaveria and Necrotia). Yeuthania is a powerful Necromancer who, like many others, is drawn to the potent arcane nature of the...

The third member of the Maidens (the other two being Cadaveria and Necrotia). Yeuthania is a powerful Necromancer who, like many others, is drawn to the potent arcane nature of the Grey Isles.

She is responsible for the creation, empowerment, maintenance and upkeep of the Isles’ many abominations, such as the Ettin and the Wights serving the Janissary. Yeuthania spends most of her time among the ruins or the crypts under the palace. Occasionally she captures one of the Lemures for her morbid experiments.

This woman is insatiably curious; ever exploring, observing and experimenting. In another age she would have made a fine scientist, albeit a cruel and heartless one.

She is frequently at odds with Cadaveria and her coven: their realms of sorcery often conflict and they often dispute over who gets access to the unholy sites ripe with magic at rare parts of the month or year.

What is Yeuthania’s relationship with the Grey King?

  1. Wife: her marriage to the Grim Monarch was arranged; the Clerics of the the Dark Light wished for a union of their order with House Grey Isle. She couldn’t care less about the King, but has always been thrilled to have complete freedom to pursue her morbid research. She has a vested interest in protecting the Grey Isles from intruders; the place is a veritable goldmine for those of her kind.
  2. Sister: she is the King’s twin. Resentful of being denied the crown by virtue of her gender, she has kept herself occupied by study of the dark arts. Occasionally she aids the enemies of the Grey Isles because she wants her brother to fail. She would be pleased if he died and would assist any conspiracy to remove him from the throne (as long as she can take it for herself once the blood has been washed away).
  3. Mistress: Yeuthania was the first of the King’s secret lovers. In reality, she used the King to access his incredible library; she wanted to learn necromantic rituals to resurrect a deceased loved one (lover? husband? child?). In time she actually grew to care for the man, but as irony would have it, her new feelings of affection were too late: he had become smitten with another (possibly Cadaveria, if the nature of her relationship to the King is a Mistress as well). Regardless, she was eventually able to distract her love-sickness with study and ritual.
  4. Daughter: Yeuthania resents her family immensely when the King and Queen split. It felt like a betrayal. For years she has been secretly taking control of all Undead creatures on or around the Grey Isles. She is the true Lady now: the King and Queen are entirely delusional about their sense of control. Ultimately, the Isles have chosen those two as rulers and Yeuthania might one day find herself betrayed by the very land that gave her such potent magic…

Yeuthania Zombies

The necromancer’s trademark creation is a formidable minion. It resembles a grey, ash-coated corpse of a drowned being bearing a single glowing rune on it’s forehead. Its eyes are smoky black pits.

These Zombies can extend their arms to over 10 feet away and their  grip is bitterly cold and strong.

As they pursue their quarry, they always maintain a closing proximity; no matter how fast or far their targets flee, when they look back they’ll find the monsters just as close (or closer). They bend reality in this way through fierce necromantic sorcery.

Yeuthania Zombies feed via a long, hollow tube that extends from the grotesque hole that passes for a mouth in its face. They have the life-draining abilities of a Vampire.

Such Zombies have the regenerative properties of a Troll and can only be permanently destroyed by total immersion into the Lake surrounding the Grey Isles.

X is for Xanthic Sigil #atozchallenge

Of those who visit the Grey Isles, painters, poets, writers, scholars, philosophers, playwrights, actors and muses are special targets for another form of horror: the Xanthic Sigil.

The lush, melodramatic atmosphere of this dreaded place is enough to fuel even the most sterile imagination. Those with a creative flair, however, will likely witness this phenomena and be forever changed if they allow themselves to be overcome by their own curiosity and obsession.

The Sigil will first appear to them in a subtle but eye-catching way: as a detail in a painting or sculpture, in an otherwise benign page of a book or as a piece of jewelry on a standout person at the palace.

Afterward, on their first night on the Isles, they will dream of the Sigil; it will appear important and portentous. The next day, they will see the symbol in other, similar places but no one else will notice or even perceive it at all.

If the individual inquires about the symbol, or begins to research it in the palace library, they will be at risk of obsession. They must pass a Wisdom saving throw or several frenzied hours will pass in their quest for knowledge and satisfaction.

The Xanthic Sigil will come to represent forbidden desires, unfulfilled promises, tormenting regrets and a pervasive, inexplicable angst. Others will notice that the character has unknowingly decorated themselves with the symbol somewhere on their person: drawn or painted onto their clothing or jewelry, usually.

The only way to overcome this obsession is to leave the Grey Isles for at least a week. Even while they’re gone, the fascination will persist and the Sigil will haunt them in other places. After a week of abstaining from this pursuit (requiring a Wisdom save each day), they will be free.

If left to pursue this emotional situation, they will find that the Sigil itself is a great source of power: it stands in for any foci needed for arcane arts of any kind, and replaces any required components for rituals. A character can even forego sleep to instead obsess over the Sigil: while they will heal one less Hit Die per long rest, they only require half the normal minimum number of hours needed.

If 2 weeks go by for a character who deliberately obsesses over the Xanthic Sigil, they will be visited by a cloaked and masked figure (that no one else can perceive in any way, even through magical means). This being will follow and watch them for hours, causing great disquiet and fear in the character (disadvantage to all checks requiring mental or emotional focus). After 1d6 hours, the player shall be told by the Referee that their character is suddenly keenly aware of their dark fate: they are doomed.

The character will die of terror. In a fortnight they will arise as a Wight of Kharkossa, in another plane, to serve in a nightmarish court for eternity.