Death Slaves of Eternity 0-Level Party Generator

Hear ye! Hear ye! Ask and you shall receive! Roll up your Death Slaves of Eternity on Purple Sorcerer 0-Level Party Generator! Last night I gave John Marr  a file with the 0-level Occupations from Marzio Muscedere’s Death Slaves of Eternity module, and today Purple Sorcerer’s 0-Level Party generator has it in the Occupation Source list!

It’s a great list for generating occupations that have a more Sword & Sorcery/classical feel than the late-medieval-ish standard occupations chart from Dungeon Crawl Classics itself, so you don’t really need to be planning to use Death Slaves of Eternity as your funnel, though you should consider it, because it’s a good adventure.

The only thing missing if you’re using Death Slaves is the circumstances of arrest entries, for space reasons, so the GM will have to look up your profession and tell you what the circumstances are, but that’s a pretty minor price to pay.



DCC Alternate Luck & Healing Rules

The 2016 Free RPG Day Goodman Games packet included an adventure for the upcoming DCC Lankhmar, but what I want to talk about is the downloadable packet of pregens for the game, which includes two fascinating new rules to make DCC better fit the setting.

The first is a rule for Fleeting Luck, which adds a sort of free-wheeling easy-come-easy-go luck economy to the game.  Each session every character starts out with one point of Fleeting Luck that they can spend as if it were regular luck (including Thieves getting their Luck Die when they spend a point); every time a player rolls a natural 20 the character gets another point, and the GM is encouraged to hand them out for cool or foolish actions or roleplaying that is evocative of the setting.  There’s no limit to how high the pool can grow, but whenever anybody rolls a fumble at the table (except on rolls where 1 isn’t a failure, such as roll-under luck checks or rolling init) everybody loses all their Fleeting Luck and starts over at 0.

That’s actually a pretty brilliant way of keeping it flowing instead of hoarding it to unleash on the big-bad at the end of the adventure.  Luck as used in DCC is actually one of the only such point economies I can get behind, since it’s really something that you can think about in character.  Even in our world people absolutely do feel lucky or unlucky, or pray for luck when taking a risky action. It’s still a tiny bit meta since you know if you have it or not, but that’s still way better than Fate points or the like.

The other Lankhmar-specific change that would work well in any Sword & Sorcery setting is Luck as Healing.   This is basically a DCC “second wind”: once per battle you take a full round (you can still move, but that’s it) to “examine your wounds” and find out they’re not as bad as they look by spending 1 Luck point and getting back your HP die + Stamina mods (min 1).

After battle, once per day you can spend time recuperating: after 1d3 turns (not rounds) binding up your wounds and resting, you can spend a luck and get your HP die + Stamina mods + level. If you drink a “restorative” (basically a non-magical potion or strong spirits) while recuperating you get some additional HP, depending on the restorative: in the free adventure there’s an example of Eevamarensee Emerald wine, which restores MAX  Hit Die for the class + Stamina Mod + Level.  I presume this is instead of rolling the normal HP die, and is still limited to once per day: that is it’s only effective in conjunction with recuperation.

For some this might smack a little too much of D&D 4e healing surges or the 5e “take a knee” mechanics, but I think it offers significant advantages over both.  For one thing, it doesn’t require tracking a new (and somewhat mysterious) resource: it’s just Luck, a pervasive part of DCC already and something that has significant uses outside of healing. For another, it’s quite limited. If you’re using the Fleeting Luck rules, the only way to get more except at the beginning of a session is to get out there and adventure: holing up and licking your wounds for a couple days isn’t really an option, unless you’ve got a whole lot of luck to spare.  I’d actually suggest limiting it further and saying once you’ve recuperated you can’t spend any Luck on healing until you’ve taken more damage, even if you get in a new battle or wait until the next day.  There’s only so lucky you can be once you’ve examined your wounds and found them not as dangerous as they first seemed, and then taken the time to bind them up.

Since I’m currently running a DCC Swords & Sorcery game on hangouts, I’m thinking of adopting these rules immediately.  My players probably need some help if any of them are going to make it out of the crypts in Death Slaves of Eternity….





A Ready Wit In Their Every Tongue

“I have entertained in all the courts of Europe and speak a ready wit in their every tongue!” – The Court Jester

Let’s talk about languages in D&D-likes.  Generally speaking, languages receive short shrift in D&D.  The core rules, dating back to the days of White Box D&D, default to assuming that there is a “Common Tongue” spoken by all humans and most demi-humans, and then individual racial tongues like Elven, Dwarven, Dragon, and the like, plus the somewhat controversial “alignment tongues” (which apparently Gary Gygax originally conceived of as being like the way Latin was the language of the church, or the Black Tongue was the language of the creatures of Mordor).  While this is easy enough to revamp into languages specific to your setting, whether that’s Spanish, French, and German or Hyrkanian, Aquilonian or Kushite, the other thing that most D&D-likes share is that languages are extremely hard to know and acquire, in most cases with a hard limit based on your Int.  For instance in AD&D, the number of extra languages you could even know ranged from 0, for Ints 8 and below, capping out at 7 for those with a whopping 18 Int.   Other versions limited it even more severely, for instance in Basic D&D and its descendants such as Dungeon Crawl Classics your number of extra languages is the same as your Int bonus: 1 to 3.

That’s all very well for adventures where talking is limited to the occasional parley with creatures in the dungeon or perhaps trying to eavesdrop on their plans, but it seems to be the product of a view of language acquisition heavily influence by the difficulties of learning through formal classroom instruction where you need to be quite clever and diligent to make any headway at all.  Worse, though, is that it’s not very similar to Appendix N fiction at all, where well-traveled characters can rattle off a list of the tongues they speak, or surprise their captors by knowing full well what they’re saying. Granted, pulp fiction may make language acquisition quite easy, and perhaps there’s something to be said for having a common tongue means that there are more opportunities for roleplaying conversations since you don’t have the language barrier stopping you all the time.

One interesting exception to the above is Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  In keeping with its early-modern era default setting, it makes knowing multiple languages a snap.  Or at least the possibility of knowing more languages. In LotFP, whenever the player needs to know if the character speaks a language for the first time in the game, you roll a d6.  If you roll less than or equal to 1 plus the character’s Int modifier (with some extra mods for distant/exotic languages), the character actually knows the language from having learned it some time before play started.  You only get one shot at knowing the language, though, and if there are rules for learning a language once it’s been established it’s not part of your background I couldn’t find them on a quick scan.  I think that’s pretty darn neat, if you don’t mind the slightly Schrodinger aspect of having the skill be indeterminate until needed.

An aspect that few of the D&D-likes deal with, except the 3e-derived ones with ranks for every kind of skill, is fluency with particular languages.  You’re either fluent or you’re not, with possible modifiers based on your Int as far as whether you’re literate (including in your native tongue).

Naturally, I have a proposed rule to address these shortcomings (to the extent you perceive them as such for your particular setting).


Chance You Already Know the Language.

When you need to determine if you’ve learned a language some time in your past, the base chance is 1 in 6, plus the better of your Int or Cha/Personality modifier (this isn’t book learning so being able to get along with others is a good way to pick up the language from strangers).  Apply the remoteness modifier to the result.

Remoteness Modifier
Local (from the nearby area) 0
Exotic (from a distant land or a non-human race) -2
Dead (few living speakers) -3
Magical (arcane) Can’t already know

If the result is negative, whether because of low Int/Cha or it’s a remote language, for every negative 1 bump up the die-size by one. So a -1 chance on a d6 becomes 1 chance on a d8, a -2 on a d6 becomes a 1 on a d10. This way even the stupid and or shy have some chance of having picked up extra languages in the course of living.

How Well Do You Know the Language?

Language knowledge is rated from 1 to 6 on the following scale:

Level Fluency Learning Period
1 Broken/short phrases Day
2 Halting/sentences Week
3 Fluent (heavily accented)/prose Month
4 Fluent (vaguely foreign)/compose poetry Season
5 Eloquent (native accent)/identify dialects Year
6 Expert/Imitate dialects

Characters always know their native tongue at level 5.  Otherwise roll a d6 when first determining if you already know the language, modified by the better of Int or Cha but not modified by remoteness (if you’ve learned from speakers of the language it doesn’t matter whether it’s really unusual that you know some) and that’s how well you know the language from prior exposure.  Minimum level is 1.

Learning a New Language

When you’re exposed to a language you begin to learn it or improve your understanding. When you’re in a situation where you’re immersed in using the language daily, such as traveling with a caravan, spending time with a foreign city, or adventuring with a native speaker you can see if you improve your skill in that language. I recommend only allowing one roll per calendar period, to avoid bookkeeping hassles1. Roll the same die as when seeing if you already know the language, without any remoteness penalties, once per period: on a 1 you advance to the that level in fluency and the period between rolls changes to the one for the next level you’re trying to learn. For example, if you know nothing about the language you would roll every day you plausibly are practicing until you got a 1 and became able to speak the language, albeit brokenly. To progress to being able to speak haltingly, you would now roll once a week until a 1 came up, then once per month to attempt to become fluent albeit heavily accented, etc. If you have significant down time you can skip steps:  e.g. if the referee says three weeks later, your ship arrives at the port you can make 3 rolls to see if you went from nothing to level 2 at whatever language the sailors are speaking: you don’t have to roll day-by-day to get to level 1 first. If you fail, you get the next level down anyway.  (After a week you’d likely have succeeded in reaching level 1 anyway, even with a penalty, and after three weeks it’s virtually certain.)  Yes, that means with a big chunk of downtime you can get pretty good at one particular language with no risk of failure.  That’s OK, it’s not meant to be a gambling game, just a helpful way of figuring out how long it takes you to learn a language while taking into account some of your attributes, and that doesn’t require that you track anything except whether you’ve made a roll this calendar period.

  1. that is, check each day, and each week, and each calendar month, each time only checking one language that you could plausibly be improving based on your current circumstances, instead of trying to track per language how much time has elapsed since your last check. While  YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT, there is a practical limit.  Looking at a global campaign calendar is way easier than per character per language timesheets. 

Conan and the Ambiguous Text

There is a big ambiguity in the Conan Role-playing Game rules mentioned on the ZeFRS site that the referee will have to resolve before trying to play, which is that modifiers to the die rolls call for shifting the columns to the left or right,  but there are two kinds of columns on the resolution chart and apparently no consensus by the fans of the game exactly how they’re used.


Specifically there are small columns corresponding to individual numbers, except at the extreme edges of the chart where they become ranges, and then there are larger groupings of the numbers together into bands of five.  It’s pretty clear that when you roll against a particular talent, or attack by subtracting the defenders Move from your Fighting, you’re looking up a particular number in the column… but when you then shift that right 2 or left 1, do you just go to the next number left or right, or the next big band left or right?  While shifting number by number is simple and seems obvious, it produces really tiny changes in the die rolls needed for success. E.g. even being completely blind is only a -6 shift, which would take marginal success from, say, 72% to 54% and great (red) success from 10% to 7%.  And that’s the largest penalty there is in the reference guide.  More typical penalties and bonuses of 1 or 2 columns barely budge the needle. It would have been simpler and completely unambiguous to describe the modifiers as adding or subtracting from the rating itself, instead of shifting columns. Plus interpreting a shift column as a “band” means the dark vertical lines are there for a purpose more than just a visual aid to keep which column you’re looking in straight.  In addition when using bands for shifting +/- 6 to an action is actually the largest modifier the chart can support, making it quite natural to say that attacking a bound foe (the biggest bonus) is +6 columns and attacking while blind (the biggest penalty) is -6.

Despite that, I suspect the original intent was probably just shifting the rating up or down, firstly because it would have been really sloppy to write up the rules without discussing the difference between the minor and major divisions on the chart if the major divisions were critical to using it. Secondly, having the shifts be by the minor rating columns allows more leeway for stacking modifiers, such as fighting from a lower position and in the darkness. But since tiny modifiers aren’t worth the mental effort, and I think attacking a helpless foe ought to give you a bigger bonus than a paltry 18%, if I were to play I’d probably choose to interpret column shift to mean the big bands.

If you’re doing that, though, you have one more nicety to address, which is when you shift a band where in the band do you roll?  Are you shifting the minimum necessary to fall in the band (closest column to original), the maximum (farthest), smack in the middle, or proportional to your position in the starting band?  Personally I’d go with the last interpretation, so that if, say, your rating is 9 (second highest in the 6-10 band) if you shift left by 1 you’d look on column 4 (second highest in the 1-5 band).  Similarly, shifting right by 1 from 9 would take you to the 21-25 column (second highest in the rightmost band). That way you keep the relative ordering of the characters: If Anna has Dirk 10 and Beryl has Dirk 9 and they both get a -3 shift for fighting with two weapons, Anna is still better than Beryl (rolling on the -1 column instead of the -2 column).

Doing this tends to make stacking modifiers pretty irrelevant: you hit the limit of the chart pretty quickly.  If that bothers you, you could make it so that once you reach the extreme left or right band each additional shift is one column within the band.  Since the columns themselves are in groups of 5 that even makes a certain amount of sense, but it does add extra complication.  As D&D 5e’s advantage/disadvantage rules show, it can be really liberating to not have to care whether you’ve accounted for every conceivable bonus.  In fact, that suggests an alternative way of doing it, which is to ignore the chart of the exact modifiers and count anything that gives you a left shift as one band left, anything that’s a right shift as one band right, and if you have both they cancel regardless of how many are stacked on one side or the other.

The Box

Conan Role-Playing Game Unboxing

Here’s some photos of the old TSR Conan RPG that I just won on eBay. This is actually the first time I’ve bid on something like this, so I’m pretty excited.

The game is by Dave “Zeb” Cook, and uses a universal chart resolution system based on the TSR Marvel Super Heroes system. You can get a free version of the system, with the Conan IP stripped out, called ZeFRS (Zeb’s Fantasy Roleplaying System). Like MSH (also free), it’s pretty elegant if you don’t mind having to roll  and look-up on that one chart all the time, though unlike MSH Conan uses a roll low percentile system.  Still, it would be pretty easy to reverse that if you wanted to create a new chart.  It seems silly but I know my players are always disappointed when a roll of 99 turns out to be bad.

The Rules

(32 pages) Pretty much everything you need for an RPG, from back in the day when they could fit it all in 32 pages: Introduction with “what is roleplaying”, Combat, Movement, Dangers and Perils, Magic, Living in Hyboria, Improvement and Ultimate Goals, Refereeing Adventures in Hyboria, Creating Hyborian Adventures, and An Adventure in the World of Hyboria.  The core mechanic is a simple one: decide what Talent is being tested, look up its rating on the resolution chart, and roll to see whether you get a fail (white), or higher degree of success (green, yellow, orange, red).  For opposed actions you first subtract the opponent’s talent score before finding the column on the chart.  Modifiers come from shifting columns left and right rather than changing the die roll.

Character creation is by point-buy1. Interestingly, you don’t really have attributes in Conan. Instead you have a number of talents grouped into six pools: Prowess, Fighting, Endurance, Knowledge, Perception and Insight .  Your rating in the overall pool is the sum of your talents in that pool, divided by 10 and rounded down.  You can use the pool rating both as the default if you have no applicable talent and if it’s better than your specific talent (putting points in a talent will never make you worse than if you used the default).

Just glancing through it, one unusual feature of the system is that whenever combat begins or a new combatant enters the fray, there’s a roll so see if you’re “caught off guard” and get some number of extra actions. This differs from traditional surprise rules because you can be caught off guard even when you’re facing off against your foes with weapons drawn, and even if you’re the one initiating the violence: it’s really a test of reflexes, not awareness, and quite in keeping with the Conan stories. In fact they quote a snippet from one of the stories when introducing the rule.  Bits from the stories are interspersed throughout the text to justify what comes next.

Another interesting bit is that even if you haven’t won extra actions through catching a foe off-guard, you can attempt multiple actions; instead of a standard penalty, though, you roll on the resolution chart to see if you can, and if you fail to get a “Red” result (the highest possible on the chart) not only does the second action not come off, but you have a significant penalty for the rest of the current turn and the next.  Since the chance is quite low, 8% – 15%, I’m not sure whether it would come up in play except as a desperation move.

The World of Hyboria

(32 pages) is a brief compendium of what’s known about the various lands and peoples of Hyboria, oddly presented as if it were the notes of a fictitious professor Ervin Howard Roberts.  I say oddly because the introduction, after talking about Professor Roberts’ notes, goes on with a perfectly clear biography of Robert E(rvin) Howard, Conan’s creator and a bibliography of the then-in-print Ace collections of the Conan stories edited and supplemented by L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter.  I guess the fiction is a wink at the prevalence of “these are a bundle of notes unearthed about the adventures of this fellow in a far off land/time” as a framing device for pulp stories such as Burroughs’ John Carter or  Akers’ Dray Prescot series, but Howard never really went in for that.  His approach was typically more mythical, a long-lost ancient chronicle of a still more ancient time: “Know, o prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas…”  and so on.  The World of Hyboria is useful, in that it keeps the referee who wants to run a Hyborean campaign from having to scour the stories taking notes on what’s known about the various lands Conan visits, and often has direct quotes from the stories which helps with the flavor,   What’s lacking, though, is much by way of directly gameable info, although it does have stats for a number of dangerous creatures as well as some examples of famous NPCs like Thoth-Amon and Valeria of the Red Brotherhood.  Still, stitching these together into some kind of adventure is pretty much entirely up to the referee.

Reference Guide

(15 pages) lists specific information for each Talent and Weakness you can take, as well as a random hit location chart, a list of combat modifiers, another copy of the resolution chart from the back cover of the rules book, an equipment list, the table for specific wounds (when you roll a Red result on fighting), a list of languages and, unusually, a chart of jewels and their typical values.  I supposed when you’re treading the jeweled thrones of the world beneath your sandals you’re going to want to know the cash values.

Master Reference Sheet

(4 pages) contains a summary of pretty much every rule you’d need to consult at the table, some errata for missing talents, and succinct advise for the referee.






Map of Hyboria

Huge and colorful wall map.  Torn between wanting to frame it and maybe wanting to actually use it some time.

Character Folio

Weird useless four-page character brochures: too slick to write on on the outer (character) sides but not slick enough to be erasable, with room for recording a single adventure and its gleanings in terms of fame and treasure on the insides.  The mad-libs part at the top where you fill in your character’s story with the name and occupation of father and mother, where you were born and what you learned as a youth (you have to take at least 1 point in the talent of your father’s occupation) is kind of neat and evocative, but I have trouble picturing these actually getting used except as a template for what you need to write on your sheet of paper.

Two sets, which would be enough for four characters to each have a single adventure if you cut them apart. You could photocopy them, I suppose, but even so you’d only need one master.

Other Stuff

Apparently the boxes originally came with two ten-siders and two crayons for coloring them in, though my box only had one crayon left.  No big, since nowadays every gamer I know has ten-siders and to spare.


I’m really happy with this purchase, and somewhat to my surprise I’m actually tempted to try running a game instead of just mine it for ideas for my DCC Sword & Sorcery campaign. I can definitely see some people I play with digging this unified approach and ability to design a character over the more particular everything-is-a-separate-subsystem mechanics and random character generation of D&D and its successors like DCC.

  1. though naturally people have come up with random generation methods if you can’t stand the fiddliness of point-buy or just want to be surprised. 

Armor as Damage Reduction?

An obvious refinement in handling armor in RPGs is making armor reduce damage instead of the original D&D reducing the chance of taking damage.  Intuitively that’s what armor does, right?  It doesn’t make you better at dodging, it just reduces how much you get hurt when you get smacked.   A lot of pretty good games over the years have taken that tack, including one of my favorite combat systems, the microgame Melee that formed the basis of The Fantasy Trip and later on GURPS.

The thing is, the phrase “roll to hit” is a misnomer.  It’s really roll to hurt.  We don’t, except in some special circumstances, really care if the blow missed completely or hit the armor and bounced off.  What we want to know is if the blow actually hurt enough to bring the foe closer to defeat.  From there it’s easy to see that the “space” of possible results from an attack are basically the same whether you treat armor as reducing the chance of rolling for damage or reducing the damage once rolled: the target isn’t hit at all, the target would have been hurt but for armor, and the target is hurt. Editions of D&D with rules for “touch attacks” only needing to beat the AC of an unarmored man make this explicit… really any attack that would have hit an unarmored man but didn’t beat the AC of the target can be presumed to have hit but failed to penetrate the armor1.

In fact, the only real difference between the two approaches is that armor as damage reduction introduces an extra oddity that usually needs to be addressed. In the standard D&D AC system armor can make it unlikely that a blow scores a wound, but a blow that finds a chink in the armor can be just as deadly to an armored man as an unarmored man: an arrow to the eye slit2 will kill a knight just as dead as a peasant. In contrast, in systems that use armor as DR it’s often the case that once you have a reasonable amount of armor, it becomes literally impossible for a single blow to kill an average man.  If an arrow does 1d6 and chain armor stops, say, 4 points, then a first-level fighter with at least 3 HP can’t ever be killed with a single arrow.

To compensate for this, DR systems almost always add further complication.  Typically they include “critical hits” that introduce the possibility that if you roll well the damage is then multiplied by some factor large enough for weapons to once again pose a deadly danger to the average man.  Others will introduce things like differentiation between weapons that can pierce through the armor and weapons that will bounce off, so an arrow or warhammer might be more dangerous to a heavily armored fighter than a club or saber, or  add “called shots” so that if you want to actually hurt a knight in plate armor with your arrow you have to take a penalty to the roll representing aiming for the eye slit. Which is all well and good, but wouldn’t actually be necessary if you hadn’t introduced the complication of damage reduction in the first place.  It’s several extra steps to get back to “against heavy armor you need to get extra lucky or good if you want to do significant damage.”

When I was younger I used to heavily favor such complications; it’s only comparatively recently that I’ve come around to preferring the simpler “chance to hurt” abstraction.  I still enjoy me a good critical hit, but I like ’em like Dungeon Crawl Classics or Arduin, where they are used to add a big dollop of flavor with results that are more specific and usually much grittier than a straight double hit point damage.  In a system where damage is usually abstract: 3 points, 4 points, 8 points, it’s nice to have the occasional “your ear is torn off” or “your forearm is shattered” as long as it doesn’t become something you have to calculate every blow.



  1. and when it comes to simulation, that’s probably a more accurate representation anyway.  Most of the time if you’re hit while wearing armor you won’t take the same wound that an unarmored person would take, except shallower. If it didn’t find a weak point in your armor chances are you won’t take any damage at all, what damage you do take will often be in the form of a bruise or broken rib instead of a gash or hole in your flesh. The only game I can think of off-hand that did that level of  simulation was CORPS, which took the physics-based intuition even farther and made armor reduce some damage, and then convert some of the remaining damage into less lethal concussion damage.  Of course, at the level of abstraction Hit Points represent you could/should simply interpret differing amounts of damage as representing different levels of wound anyway, but if you’re doing that there’s even less reason to care whether “no damage” is a 13 on the to-hit roll vs AC 14 or a 10 on the to-hit roll vs AC 10 but a 3 on the damage die against 4 points of DR. 
  2. a reasonable interpretation of rolling high damage against an armored knight, even if there’s nothing explicit in the mechanics dictating that’s where it hit. 

Shields Shall Be Splendid!

The following presents a house rule for handling shields that makes sense to me for a more Sword and Sorcery than high medieval setting.

In most D&D-likes, shields are an afterthought.  The bonus for carrying a shield is +1 or maybe +2 on a d20, which seems a little strange considering the prominent place shields have in actual history. There have been some attempts over the years to “fix” that with house rules, such as the nifty “Shields Shall Be Splintered” rule offered by Trollsmyth, giving the player an incentive to carry a shield in order to sacrifice it to avoid damage.

Still, that’s not that much of an incentive, particularly if shields are hard to come by in the middle of an adventure.  There’s also another potential problem if you’re trying to run a campaign set in a period more reminiscent of the ancient world than the late medieval/early renaissance age of heavy plate armor, and particularly if you want the pulp Sword & Sorcery feel of something like a Conan comic.

If you want your combatants to look like this


not this


not this



not this


then the standard D&D-like rules could stand to be improved.

You can of course make it so the heavier armors just don’t exist in the setting, or are prohibitively expensive, or forbidden by law or custom except to certain social classes and only in certain situations, or lean heavily on encumbrance rules (no pun intended)… but doing so tends to make the characters like front-line fighters that rely on heavy armor in games more fragile…sometimes a lot more fragile.  That’s not always a bullet you want to bite for an aesthetic preference.  Another approach some people use is to either tie AC directly in to level, making armor irrelevant, creating some sort of swashbuckling class or option so certain characters can opt to use less armor without getting chopped to pieces or even provide “chainmail bikini” bonuses based on DEX or even CHA for a particularly Red Sonja comic-book take.

Here’s an alternate take: Make shields provide the bulk of the defensive bonus, with armor only being a secondary bonus unless you’re fighting without any shield.  Here’s a chart of how this would work for an ascending AC game, with values based on Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Shield AC bonus Check Penalty
Off-hand Weapon/improvised 1 0
Buckler 2 0
Targe 3 -1
Roman Scuta 4 -1
Heater 5 -1
Kite 6 -2
Greek Hoplon 7 -2
Tower 8 -3

Using a shield and armor within 3 bonus of each other provides AC equal to the better of the two, plus 1. Using shield and armor more than 3 different, like full plate and a buckler, or leather armor and a tower shield just provides the better of the two bonuses. The Check Penalty is the worse of the two, minus 1, regardless of how close in bonus they are.

Using these rules, all the AC bonuses and check penalties stay the same for existing characters if they like, but there’s the option of shedding a bunch of armor to increase mobility and fit in better with actual historical shield/armor mixes such as Hoplon plus linen linothorax or just greaves and helmet, or targe and leather or hide, or even fantasy comic book targe or buckler and chainmail bikini.  The bonuses are chosen with an eye on providing even min-maxers an incentive to keep to vaguely plausible combinations, even if plausible includes the likes of Frazetta’s Conan or Frank Thorne’s Sonja.

I think doing shield and armor this way allows for a wider variety of Sword & Sorcery or even anime setting tropes with minimal changes to game balance.  If you’re not using DCC, you might have to adjust the bonuses and penalties if you want them to work out to the same as the existing combinations, but the changes should be slight.