Conan Wore Armor, Dammit

    • Recently, in our D&D sessions, I decided to resurrect the idea of a continuous initiative system. Continuous initiative means just that – it is continuous – and does not have a one person acting per combat round order.The order is determined by how high the initiative values are (like normal) but then instead of going back to square one after all have moved, the higher initiative combatants may be acting multiple times over low initiative value combatants. This fundamentally changes combat.

      Part of my reasoning in trying this out was because we have a number of house rules which we agree on (me as the referee and the players) and its fun to try new ideas out and see which ones stick. The other part is that if the players ever wanted to create a character like Conan the Barbarian, as it is, the game system would completely punish them for this choice.

This is a much simpler (and therefor probably workable) approach to the idea of continuous combat rounds that I talked about previously in Fluid Combat Rounds Rules, but that’s not what I want to talk about.  What I want to grouse about for a moment is the notion that in order to simulate Conan, you need rules that don’t penalize characters who go around in nothing more than a loin-cloth. Recursion King is hardly the first game designer to have that notion.  For instance Clint Black at Pinnacle Games proposed rules that he called Pecs and Pulchritude for giving people armor based on Toughness and penalizing their Parry scores for armor, even going so far as to name one of his example characters Konan.  [update: Clint objects that I make it sound like his intention was to mimic the Conan stories and that he failed, when that wasn’t his intention at all–his P&P optional rules were just intended to fulfill the request of a fan who was looking for suggestions on how to make gear count for less and character abilities count for more.] At one point it was even a common objection to D&D–armor was too important, so it wasn’t even a good simulation of its source material like Conan.

When it comes to the Conan stories, that’s just dead wrong.  Conan wore as much armor as he could afford given his circumstances (in terms of both personal wealth and what was available in the culture he found himself in), up to and including full plate (when taking the field as King).  Indeed, in the very first story he appeared in, his survival was attributed to the fact that he managed to don at least some armor before the assassins got to his sleeping quarters.  Even much earlier, when he had barely left Cimmeria, he wore a helmet while among the Aesir and a point was made both of it saving his life and how many other tribesmen might have survived fighting the Vanir raiders if they had taken similar precautions.  Robert Howard, and Conan, appreciated the value of armor.

Even in the movie with Arnold, which was shall we say extremely loosely based on the stories, Conan armors up when it comes time to have a big stand-up fight at the end instead of skulking around stealthily.

So where did the stupid notion of Conan fighting naked against guys equipped with chain or better come from?  I blame the comics by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith.  Despite the fact that quite a few of the stories were close adaptations of the Howard stories, the depictions of Conan, particularly on the cover, tended to have him wearing barely anything at all.  Partly it’s because most of the comic stories are set very early in Conan’s career, when he’s a penniless theif or a pirate, rather than a mercenary captain or king, and partly because, well, half-naked muscular men is somehow an important selling point for action-adventure comics, for reasons that probably don’t bear too close examination.  It’s those pictures that seem to have been seared into the public consciousness, to the point where even in our hobby people who set out create rules to emulate the feel of Conan stories seem to think the first thing they need to do is make armor less important.

No, what you need to do to a system to make it suitable for Conan-style action isn’t to reduce the relative value of armor, but make it possible to survive battles while lightly armored as long as you’re facing lightly armored foes.  You want a career of piracy or being a desert raider to be possible, while still leaving the heavily armored Aquilonian knights kings of the battlefield.  That is something that D&D and the retro-clones could use some tweaking to adjust, since the armor means you get hit less abstraction makes its lack just too dangerous even against identically armed and armored opponents.  Possibly you could adjust the charts so that they reflected armor on a relative instead of absolute scale, but it’s getting late and I’m not sure I can specify exactly how that would work.  Still, I’m pretty sure that, at least as far as Conanism goes, what you don’t want to do is let the fighter wearing nothing hit so many extra times that his expected damage per round is the same or almost as the fighter in plate attacking him.

Supporting the Old School

My copy of Labyrinth Lord arrived today from Amazon, and it looks nice. Labyrinth Lord, you’ll recall, is one of the retro-clone projects that attempts to recreate D&D free of copyright impediments by using only new text plus what’s been released as part of the OGL, and itself is an OGL Product. I have to admit, I have the PDF, as well as the PDFs of the Basic & Expert D&D that it’s based on, so there was no real reason for me to purchase it, except to show my support of the concept and reward Daniel Proctor, whose baby it is, for jumping through all the hoops necessary to get it carried by Amazon.

Unfortunately, I don’t know when I’ll get to play it, since I’m really the only fan of this stuff in my current gaming group. We played a couple of sessions of Basic D&D shortly after Gary Gygax died (I posted recaps earlier), and nobody was particularly enamored of the rules or the tone. Having had that experience and done a lot more reading and thinking about the retro movement since then, I could probably GM something a lot more to their taste while still nominally using the rules and the old school feel, but if I’m the only one who’s really fired up by the idea… my time is probably better spent prepping stuff that they’re clamoring to play.

Still, I might manage to sneak in a game or two some day with some unsuspecting relatives or something…

Welcome to the Jungle! We Got Fun and Games

RPG Diehard talks about a sandbox session that Ripper X tried to run that went poorly:

  • On paper, a complete wilderness adventure sounds great! Wandering around blind, not knowing where in the hell you are going, or really what you are looking for. In actual play, this was SLOW!!!! So slow that I was getting bored, and it was all the same thing. I thought that it would be fun, but plotting a coarse and deciding of where to go that day is frickin boring! I don’t know if it was my fault, or if I did something wrong, or what. I thought about it! I really did. How can I spice this up? But with such a large map to explore, I really couldn’t prep anything or describe a scene more clearer then what I was. I really didn’t want to spend too much time talking about a day where nothing happens. I did give the place a lot of sounds and smells, but the players weren’t all that interested, and I kept failing my random encounter checks.

    His post serves as a cautionary tale about what to avoid in a sandbox campaign. It seems Ripper X was a little too wedded to the sandbox concept and could probably have been a bit more liberal with his random encounters (as in, fudge the die rolls so they actually happen, or adjust the rules so you’re rolling more frequently) without infringing too much on the spirit of the game. Moreover, it’s important to note that sandbox games are defined by their lack of a linear plot — but not necessarily their lack of story. Time spent exploring should be time well spent; the PCs should learn something important about the area, uncover a villain or stumble across a previously unknown map feature.

I’ve got some more suggestions for making sandbox play work better, in addition to Diehard’s eminently sensible ones:

  1. The single most important thing you can ask yourself prior to running a Sandbox session is “What’s the PC’s agenda?”   Knowing that lets you know where to concentrate the bulk of your preparation.  It’s absolutely true that you can’t put enough initial work into a large-scale area to cover every contingency and every path the PCs might follow (some settings might evolve to that point over years of play, but it’s unrealistic to try to start there), but you really shouldn’t have to.  Why are the PCs exploring the Isle of Dread?  Are they searching for treasure?  If so, then give them a map, diary, or guide… some reason that they’d embark on this dangerous expedition with some hope of success. (I seem to recall that The Isle of Dread uses both of these.)   Decide what’s on the map or in the diary, and that will tell you what landmarks they’ll be looking for and where to put obstacles for them to deal with.  Feel free to change the published map by deleting or adding information to highlight obvious routes to explore or approaches to take (e.g. if there’s a native village on the map, mark them as “Friendly” if they are a place where the party can get further information about the island.)Are they castaways? Then you can assume that they’re going to be interested–at least initially–in the bare-bones stuff of survival: building or seeking shelter, acquiring food, and so forth.
  2. Change your understanding of encounters.  In a lot of games (D&D in particular) “random” encounters are combat encounters–they don’t necessarily turn out that way depending on the PC and the reaction table, but they have the potential; things that don’t pose a threat to the party are generally deemed unworthy of notice. The standard chance of encounter (e.g. 5-6 on a d6 per 3 hexes traversed or whatever) is geared towards that understanding.  But if you really want the characters to feel like they’re exploring without the feeling that each day brings nothing but MFJ* you need to provide more points of interest–and ideally decision points–than that.  You should be thinking in terms of # of Incidents (info/decision points) per day, say by rolling a d3 and saying they’ll hit that many things to ponder during the day’s explorations.  Roll an additional die to see if one of those encounters is a “wandering monster”, otherwise pick it off a list of things you’ve prepared.  Some things might include:
    • Spoor:  signs of one of the monsters from the chart for the area.  This might warn them of the presence of something particularly dangerous before they actually encounter it, or provide them with the opportunity to stock their larder.  A successful Tracking roll (or whatever, depending on system) can turn this into an encounter with that creature if they desire.
    • Vermin:  some non-dangerous but potentially annoying vermin (mosquitoes, leeches in the stream they’re trying to cross, etc).
    • Game: something they can eat if they can hunt or trap it.
    • The way is blocked: some natural feature that will require a skill roll or some role-playing to traverse; it could be a ravine, or a swiftly running stream, a gigantic fallen tree, a huge mound of stinging ants, or whatever.  They must either backtrack (costing them, say, 1 hex of movement for the day) or do something to get over it.
    • Notable Feature: some unusual feature of the local terrain that’s worth describing, or better yet interacting with.  E.g. A waterfall with a hidden grotto containing the bones of an adventurer and some treasure, a volcanic fumarole, a ravine with a rotting rope bridge, a road-side shrine to a long forgotten god.
    • Hazard: a feature that poses an active menace to the party as soon as they encounter it, e.g. quicksand, an erupting geyser, a dead-fall trap left by native hunters, etc.
    • Clue: something that points the party in the direction they need to go, or furthers their agenda in some way.  E.g. a trail blazed by prior adventurers, a short stretch of paved road indicating the direction of the Lost City, a brief glimpse through the clouds that usually shroud the mountain top of a tower, etc.
    • Setback: somebody gets sick (not seriously enough to be deadly) from some fruit or perhaps the water, some rations have turned moldy or been stolen by monkeys, some piece of equipment was lost through a hole in a pack (or maybe it’s those darn monkeys again), somebody twists their ankle and their pace is halved for 1d3 days.
    • Good Fortune: they discover something fortunate (not counting a clue), such as a medicinal plant that heals 1d3 of burn damage, or a small cache of adventuring equipment (some still usable) left by previous adventurers.
    • The Drums! The Drums: evidence that the party is not alone on the island, or even that they’re being watched.  Nothing like a little PC paranoia to up the tension.
    • and so on.  If you’re good at improvising, you can come up with this stuff off the top of your head, but given some prep time anybody should be able to review various stories and movies to come up with a fairly long list of incidents that can liven up an otherwise dull “No Wandering Encounter” day.

    The important thing to remember is that just because you’re trying to run a “sandbox” adventure where the players are free to follow their own agendas and you’re not going to hem them in or lead them by the nose doesn’t mean that as GM you don’t have the authority or responsibility to give them stuff to interact with in the world, even if it isn’t spelled out on the Encounter Tables in the module.  If anything, the opposite: if you’re going to make them play out day-to-day tasks like exploring a jungle, you have to make sure that the exploration itself is interesting.

That’s not to say that if you follow this advice, your Sandbox sessions will always go well.  Sometimes it just doesn’t work.  Either it’s not a good fit for the players, or the party, or it just doesn’t “gel” and the players flounder around ’til they’re begging to be gaffed with Ye Olde Plot Hooke.  At which point, I say Go For It.  If the only way to get things moving forward again and have the players start having fun in the session is for a crazed wizard to show up and Bamf them to a dungeon, so be it.  The Sandbox is a certain approach to empowering players to have fun, it’s not a substitute for it.

* More Fine Jungle

Shields As Ablative Armor

  • I’m considering allowing the shield to act as ablative armour. One thing historical shields frequently did was shatter. A strong blow with an axe or a sword could cleave a shield, splintering the boards. Viking duels often had a three-shield rule, allowing each combatant to enter the contest with a shield on his arm and two spares in reserve. (I believe this was seen in “The 13th Warrior”, but it’s been a while since I’ve watched it, so my memory could be faulty.)

    With my houserule, you get the usual -1 to your AC with a shield. However, any time you take damage, you can opt instead to say your shield absorbed the force of the blow. The shield is shattered and must be discarded, but you don’t take any damage from that hit. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s valuable

I like this so much, I’m considering swiping it for my Savage Worlds Haunted Realm campaign.  Only instead of automatically negating one hit worth of damage, I’ll let you spend your shield on a soak roll as if it were a Bennie.  (Obviously that would only apply to attacks where you got to use your shield in the first place.)

I think that would add color, a tiny bit of historical verisimilitude, and not draw out combats too much…after all if you’ve just sacrificed your shield, in future rounds you’ll lack the shield bonus.  I worry a little that it will devalue getting an awesome damage roll, but since it just uses the existing Soak mechanism it’s just one more chance to avoid going down…and if the roll is that good chances are it’ll reduce the number of Wounds but not be able to eliminate them entirely.

Spell Books and Spell Variety in Savage Worlds

In the real world magicians (or people who thought they were magicians) had spell-books full of spells and bits of magical lore that served as textbooks for learning and performing magic. If you wanted to cast a spell, say to cause someone to fall in love, or to protect against curses, you’d look it up and perhaps find several variations, differing in ingredients or circumstances. You might have to try several charms before you found one that was effective.

For the Haunted Realm campaign, I’d like the most common form of magic to work more or less like that, but Savage Worlds’ core system relies on magic users having a handful of powers, with it being quite expensive (costing an Edge) to add to the list of powers known.  Even in old editions of D&D, while magic users had to walk around carrying big books of spells, they were mostly blank; the maximum number of spells your spell-book could have per level was about a dozen, a dozen-and-a-half.

I also wanted to address the fact that even though the Fantasy Toolkit has plenty of suggestions for utility spells, the limited array of spells an SW magic-user has would discourage anyone from taking any that they didn’t foresee using almost every session.

Fortunately, Cliff Black published an answer to most of my needs in Shark-Bytes Issue 2, in an article about Arcane Rituals in SW.  Although it seems primarily aimed at settings where nobody (or no PC) has a AB:Magic, it’s readily adaptable to higher magic settings.  The basic idea is that SW powers can be cast as ritual magic, where instead of costing power points they take a lot of extra time: 10 minutes for the first PP worth of spell, doubling for each PP after that.  So, e.g. Healing which costs 3 PP has a casting time of 40 minutes.  Rituals are cast out of books or scrolls, and can be cast by anyone who can read them.  Each ritual has a penalty associated with it based on how widely applicable it is (so a spell that provides armor only against undead would be, say, -2, while a spell that provided armor good against anything would be -4).  For powers that have duration, the ritual is cast on a focus–with what the focus must be defined in the ritual e.g. a human shin-bone for the Avoidance of Death armor v. undead ritual–and thereafter whoever holds the focus benefits from the power.  There are also rules for learning  rituals by rote so you don’t need to consult a book (up to Kn:Rituals/2 rituals can be learned this way), and Quick & Dirty casting of rote rituals in combat time (with severe penalties).

So first of all, I decided to adapt this to the Haunted Realm setting.  Rituals would be allowed, and anybody with access to the secondary sources can cast them, and those with Knowledge:Arcane can learn up to K:A/2 rituals by rote.  Powers cast on foci will only last until you let go of the focus, and the focus has to be wielded in an inconvenient manner (e.g. Tybald’s Water Breathing requires that the focus be a pearl, and you have to hold it in your mouth; Avoidance of Death requires that you hold the human shin-bone tightly in your left hand); this is to prevent Rituals from being used to equip an entire party with cheap magic items. Quick and Dirty casting is banned altogether, to avoid devaluing standard spells that have to be bought with Edges.  If you want Feather Fall as a ritual, you’re going to have to cast it on a focus and carry that focus around carefully.  Each ritual has to be crafted or at the very least approved by the GM, and most secondary sources containing rituals would be discovered during play.

Which leads finally to rituals as cast by professional spell-casters, with their thick tomes of knowledge and arcane libraries.  I decided to tweak the Arcane Background: Magic to specifically accommodate this, coming up with:

Arcane Background: Scholastic Magic

Arcane Skill: Spellcasting (Smarts)

Starting Power Points: 10

Starting Spells Known: 3

AB: Scholastic Magic works the same as AB:Magic from the core rules, with the following addition.  Due to the many years scholastic mages have spent in an academic setting, studying the theory and practice of magic, and the long hours in the library taking copious notes, Scholastic Mages possess a Grimoire of rituals and magical principles and experiments they’ve performed.  Armed with their Grimoire, given time Scholastic Mages can alter the trappings of their Powers and invent new Rituals.  To alter the trappings of an existing power, the Scholastic Mage must spend 1 minute (10 rounds) thumbing through the Grimoire and make a successful Knowledge:Arcane roll (not Spellcasting), the GM may apply penalties for doing this under adverse conditions; the Mage must also give the resulting spell a name.  Alternatively, the Mage may attempt to alter the trappings on the fly from memory, applying a -1 to the casting roll per PP of the spell.

To invent a new Ritual, the Mage must spend 10 minutes and make a successful Knowledge: Arcane roll: a success indicates the Mage has cobbled together a ritual with a UM of -2 (hardest and most general), each Raise makes the ritual one level more specific (+2 to the UM) while still being suited to the situation at hand, and again the Mage must name the ritual.  The Mage may retry for a better (more specific) result, but a roll of a 1 on the Kn:A die (regardless of the Wild Die) means that the Mage has exhausted his current resources and may not try again for the same Power this session.  A botch (1 on both dice) means there was a subtle flaw in the Mage’s reasoning and the the Mage believes he has a good result, but the ritual will have an adverse side-effect of the GM’s choosing. (If you’re rolling in the open and can’t trust the players not to use their meta-game knowledge that the ritual is flawed, the botch means that the flaw is in one of the Mage’s rituals, but not necessarily this one; at a time of the GM’s choosing one of the Mage’s rituals will have an adverse one-time-only side-effect).

The Mage picks the Power and trappings, but the GM will determine what the specifics of the Ritual are and what focus is needed for ongoing spells (the focus must be something that is available or reasonably obtainable given the current circumstances–the Mage is specifically trying to figure out a Ritual that he can use, so it’s not fair for the GM to thwart a success by requiring an impossible to get item).  Rolls to devise a new ritual may be cooperative (as long as all participants have Knowledge: Arcane) and may be enhanced by research in collections of books with a bonus based on the size of the library consulted but a penalty of +1 day or a +1 on the roll, doubled for each additional +1.  Once a Ritual is devised it may be recorded by the Mage, either on a scroll or in the Grimoire; this takes 1 hour.   To find and cast a particular Ritual once recorded in the Grimoire requires 1 minute and a Knowledge: Arcane roll (just as changing a trapping); newly devised Rituals may also be memorized once recorded as long as the Mage has a “slot” left.

Because a Mage’s Grimoire represents a life-time of careful experimenting and note-taking, and is highly personal, they are nigh irreplaceable.  Mages may keep a duplicate copy somewhere, but they have to update it by hand; this takes an 8-hour day if they do it after each adventure, a week (or more at the GM’s discretion) if they do it less frequently than that.  If they ever lose their Grimoire(s) completely, it will take 2d6 weeks with access to at least another mage’s Grimoire or a small magical library before they can use it to alter trappings on their own powers, and 2d6 months and access to a large magical library to replace the information sufficiently to begin crafting new rituals.


The AB:Scholastic magic is intentionally pretty similar to being a Weird Scientist with the Gadgeteer Edge.  It would be perfectly reasonable to separate out the Grimoire as its own Edge, just like Gadgeteer, but since I wanted this to be the standard way magic is done in the Haunted Realm setting I didn’t want to make mages spend an extra edge on it.  It also will usually take a bit more time than Gadgeteering, since (at least for a new ritual) you have to first devise the ritual (10 minutes) and then cast it (10 minutes, doubled for every PP of the spell) vs. 1d20 minutes (at minimum) for something that can be used instantly once created.

You could probably also allow Quick and Dirty casting without really unbalancing things. The penalties for Q&D casting are pretty severe, so most expensive spells just can’t be cast that way with any reasonable hope of success.  I was more concerned with getting the feel right, and I liked the idea of mages needing to spend time chanting and gesturing and drawing magical symbols on the ground, and as long as they have their standard powers for combats I don’t see much of a down-side to making the utility powers mildy inconvenient.  You could also choose to allow Q&D casting only for certain rituals at the GM’s discretion.

As for foci, I think you have to do something like the restriction I put that the spell ends as soon as you let go and holding it must be inconvenient enough to preclude some other activity, or else you’re going to get everybody in the party wearing various articles of clothing and jewelry with all the rituals the party knows cast on them.  Cliff’s original article, where the foci were essentially permanent until broken, pretty much assumed that the campaign would have a scant handful of rituals with foci that would be hard to obtain or perhaps immoble (where you might have an entire quest to obtain the scale of an Old One so you could cast the ritual, or the focus is a chalk circle).  To use it as I want to in order to open up scads of otherwise-not-worth purchasing spells is just an invitation to abuse, unless you limit it in some way.  One alternative would be to have the foci have a limited number of expendible Power Points, like Gadgeteering, but that’s more bookkeeping than I want, and I think could still be abused by players mass producing magical widgets.

Savage Worlds: Tips for Speeding Combat

Nothing Earth-shattering, just some handy hints to keep things moving along:

  • Use two decks for initiative. Have someone other than the GM shuffle the second deck while the first is in use, and at the end of a round when a Joker’s been played just swap decks. (If possible, use decks with different color backs, so that you have no problems separating out the cards when you have people on hold past the point where you reshuffle.)
  • Collect the initiative cards as people take their actions, that way the top of the discard pile always reminds you where the count-down is.
  • People who go on hold should flip their cards over and hang on to them until they act, so you can tell at a glance who’s Holding vs. whose initiative hasn’t rolled around yet, and who doesn’t need to be dealt a new card if they’re still holding at the end of the round.
  • If somebody dithers when their Init comes up, tell them they’re on hold and move on–when they make up their mind they can go.
  • Use physical tokens for Bennies and Wounds (I like to use White and Red poker chips, respectively) and to mark powers with duration (e.g. if somebody has the Armor spell on them, give them 3 tokens, like pennies or life-stones from Magic, and have them discard one each turn–when they’re out the spell’s over).
  • Similarly, mark Shaken characters with something easily visible; if using miniatures, I like to drop a little pipe-cleaner ring around the figure.  When you’re not using minis, another poker chip will do.
  • Roll the attacks for all the Extras (or all of them in a convenient clump) at once. SW is designed to allow for this; since they get no Wild Die, it’s easy to just roll one die per Extra.
  • When rolling to hit, remember that you never care how many raises you get beyond one. After applying any modifiers, just ask Does it beat the Parry?  By 4 or more? (For Throwing/Shooting it’s the range TN instead, but same idea.)
  • When rolling damage, you do care about the number of raises up to 4, but you can still simplify a little if you remember that you don’t care about any remainder so you don’t need to divide.  Subtract off the Toughness and compare does it beat 0? 4? 8? 12? 16?  Most people, even the math-phobic, can just see the answer.
  • Don’t look up rules during play.  (I know I said this in my Three Don’ts post, but it bears repeating.)  If you don’t know the rule off the top of your head, make something up that seems reasonable.  Make a mental note to review it later after the session.
  • If somebody challenges your interpretation, don’t argue.  Either stick to your guns or give in, but don’t stop for debate.  If what they’re proposing isn’t ludicrous, I’d say let them have their way.  You’re going to look up the actual rule later, so at most it’s going to affect this one combat, and Fast! Furious! Fun! trumps your guess as to fidelity to a rule you can’t at the moment remember.  Yeah, it gives your players a minor incentive to challenge you, but if you’re not playing with mature players who won’t abuse the system and you… well, you have bigger problems than that.