More HOWs Rules

Some more tweaks to Heroes & Other Worlds.

Weapons and Armor

Per the original Melee/TFT rules, summarized here.  I just like it better, and I know it will be hard for me to get used to Broadswords doing 2d6+3 instead of 2d6.

Wizards may wear any armor, but DX penalties are also applied to IQ for the purpose of casting spells.


Only being able to raise your skills and not your attributes is an interesting design choice, and makes it a lot more like D&D, but… I think a TFT-like needs a way of raising attributes.   For one thing, the min IQ on the most powerful spells is prohibitive if characters can never raise their attributes above their initial allotment. On the other hand, balancing the cost of attributes vs. the cost of skills is hard.  So my compromise position is

Every  time you improve or buy skills related to a specific attribute, you get a tick-mark of XP towards raising that attribute.  When you’ve collected tick marks equal to the attribute+1, the attribute goes up by 1. (The initial 5 points at the start do count towards this.)  You may also improve your attribute by directly training it at the cost of 100 XP per tick.

So it takes 10 tick marks from DX-based skills to raise DX from 9 to 10, then 11 to raise it from 10 to 11, etc.  This does allow for more advancement than standard Heroes & Other Worlds (though you could always adjust awarding XP downward a skosh or the costs upward if it worries you), but eliminates any trade-off between increasing your attributes and increasing your skills.  It may encourage people to specialize a little more, but that’s arguably a benefit.  Letting the initial skill allocation count toward raising attributes means there’s no funny business about remembering which were your initial skills and which you bought later: you can always look at a character and count how many points of skills it has for a particular attribute and so how much it’s raised over the base.  Improving the attribute directly is really only worthwhile if you’ve maxed out your skills, unless you’re desperate to improve it and are saving IQ slots for later.

House Rules, and HOW!

Although I’ve yet to play Heroes & Other Worlds, I’ve played a ton of The Fantasy Trip back in the day, so I’ve already started down the road of house-ruling a bunch of stuff.  Here’s my current list:

Criticals & Fumbles

In HOW, 3 is automatic hit and double max damage, 4 is automatic hit for max damage, 17 is automatic miss and dropped weapon, and 18 is automatic miss and broken weapon.  This is almost the same as TFT, which uses triple and double damage for 3 and 4, but HOW drops the 5 is automatic hit and 16 is automatic miss.

My proposed rule, which brings the chance of a special roll back towards what it was in TFT is this:

Triples are special.  A triple that is also a success (<= Attribute) is a Critical (max damage); a triple that is a failure (> Attribute) is a Fumble (dropped weapon).

So a roll of 12 that’s 4, 4, 4 would be a critical for somebody with adj. DX 12 and a fumble for somebody with adj. DX 10. I like this because it makes it more than just luck: the better you are the more likely to crit and the less likely to fumble (and the opposite if you’re clumsy or wounded).  This is one of the features I always admired about Runequest and its derivatives, though with much less math.

If you’re rolling more or less dice than usual, use different colors to be able to pick out the three dice that govern criticals and fumbles.

E.g. if you’re rolling 4/DX, roll three white and one red.  Success or failure is determined by looking at all four dice, but it’s only a critical or fumble if the three white dice score a triple, 4, or 17.

If you’re rolling 2/DX, roll two white and a red, and the white determine success or failure, while crits and fumbles are determined by all three dice being triple, 4 or 17.

This is way simpler than memorizing or looking up different numbers that indicate a crit or fumble for that number of dice.

Opposed Rolls

Without a degree of success mechanic, roll under stat vs. roll under stat can be a bit dull.  What’s the point of wasting an action shield bashing somebody if any character of  greater than average ST probably won’t go down?  One really strong character will almost never be able to knock down another .  I’ve seen enough football to find that a bit dubious.  A simple fix, employed by a lot of systems, is to make how well you succeed a factor in how hard it is for the opponent to resist.

As a result, I’m planning all opposed rolls such as grappling, shield bash, spell resistance, and the like be resolved by this:

In opposed rolls, whoever rolls the higher success wins, but criticals beat non-criticals. That is, whoever has the highest total on the dice, provided that’s still a success (<= Attribute) is the winner of the contest, but a critical success trumps a non-critical success.

Why higher?  Three reasons: One is my regular players just hate “low is better” systems.  It makes them mad when they get a high roll, start to cheer, and then realize in this particular system that was a bad thing.  They could probably be trained out of this, but why bother? Two is it’s less math than “How much did you succeed by?” systems.  Three is that I find it much easier to reason about the probabilities of the higher wins method.

What about criticals beating non-criticals?  Criticals are pretty rare in HOW, even with my expanded criticals rules, and it’s anticlimactic for somebody to score a critical only to be denied by very common case of the opponent rolling an ordinary success.

Opposed Rolls and Reactions

One of the problems that I had with TFT was that as characters progressed it eventually reached the point where they couldn’t miss except on a fumble.  Equally matched highly experienced characters just whaled on each other until one ran out of ST.  On the other hand, if one elected to defend, that defense couldn’t be broken.  There’s a fairly narrow range where the combats stay interesting and dynamic.

HOW addresses this, partially, by allowing “Reactions” as part of your turn: you can sacrifice your next turn’s move in order to Block, Parry, or Dodge an incoming blow (once per turn).  Since once you’re in melee with a foe you’re probably not planning on moving much next turn anyway, unless you’re going to disengage, most attack rolls will be opposed.1  That addresses the every-blow-hits problem with skilled opponents, but not the unbreakable defense.

Easily fixed:

Block and Parry are Opposed Rolls  against the original attack roll: you need to roll a success higher than the successful hit to block or parry.  Dodge remains unopposed. Eliminate the requirement that you can only React if you’ve moved < 1/2 MV.

This means that Dodging is superior… until you get cornered.  It also means that sometimes there will be no point trying to block or parry, particularly if the opponent is superior; this makes up for the TFT “Forced Retreat” rule that HOW dropped.  Instead of being able to push an opponent back whenever you did damage but took none, it puts the defender in the position of having to opt to retreat to avoid damage.  I think this will lend itself to more dynamic combat at the high end, with opponents trying to maneuver each other into positions where they can’t just safely dodge.

Multiple Reactions

Since you can only do one Reaction per turn, if you’re up against multiple opponents in HOW you’re in big trouble.  Also, Block and Parry are identical in HOW, so there’s no reason to ever use the one you’re worse at unless you’ve broken or dropped your weapon.  For a more cinematic feel, I propose:

You may Block and Parry as part of the same reaction, as long as they’re against different blows, whether from the same foe striking multiple times or against different foes. 


Movement rates in HOW are a little weird.  Basically, they’re like the movement rates in TFT halved.  So all characters have a base move in TFT of 10 hexes in 5 seconds, which works out to about 5 mph, somewhere between a walk and a jog.  In HOW an average DX character has a MV of 5, which is only 25′ in 5 seconds, or 2.8 mph…roughly a walk. Then both only allow you to do a half move and still attack, but in TFT that’s 5 hexes while in HOW it’s only 3 spaces…barely creeping along.  Running in HOW only grants a +1 MV, which takes you from a crawl to a doddle. Let’s get these up to a snappier pace.

First, let’s just change the TFT rate into 5′ spaces instead of 1 1/3 (?!) meter  hexes.  That gives an unencumbered character almost 6 mph pace, or roughly a jog.  Then we can interpret the 5 MV in HOW as a TFT half-move, allowing an attack at the end of it.  Walk up and attack seems pretty reasonable to me.  And what the heck, let’s add an option that lets you jog at the foe and smack him, re-purposing the Charge attack option to actually represent building up some momentum instead of taking a couple of deliberate paces.

You may move up to your full MV and attack (including with thrown weapons).  You may move up to double your MV and attack at 4/DX.  If you Charge (moving at least 3 spaces) with a pole weapon you get +1d6 damage, as long as the last 2 spaces (10′) are in a straight line.

The last bit about the straight line is lifted from TFT, and makes sense to me both physically and as a way of preventing players from just circling around a foe to qualify for the bonus damage.  The +1d6 damage is from HOW, and probably helps make polearms a little less uber.

What about those archers and spell casters?  Let’s grant them a tiny bit of maneuverability, too.

You may move up to your full MV and attack at range (spell or missile weapon), but if you move more than 1 space (5′) the check is 4/X.


I like having Charisma as an Attribute, since it’s patently obvious that being smart has very little to do with how well you can charm or persuade others, or your ability to see through others’ attempts to manipulate you socially.  For HOW I propose:

Charisma starts at 8, characters get an extra 2 points to divide among their attributes.  (Option 1: start characters with 7+1d4 and don’t give them any extra points. Option 2: start characters with 3d6 CH and don’t allow spending any initial points.)   The advantage of Option 1 is it prevents Charisma from being used as a dump stat and can be bolted on to an existing HOW/TFT campaign without severely disadvantaging current characters; Option 2 allows for a wide range of CH and eases translation from D&D-likes.

The following Skills are tested vs. CH instead of IQ: Act/Diguise, Bard, Charm, Detect/Tell Lies, Diplomacy, Merchant, Streetwise

Add a new skill: Investigate (3/IQ) which represents the ability to notice and reason about clues. Investigate can be used to try to detect lies (in place of Detect/Tell Lies which is now a CH skill) by analyzing and investigating inconsistencies in somebody’s story. Detect Lies is used to sense whether somebody is lying by their demeanor.

That’s the gist of the house rules I’m currently contemplating.  I have a couple more ideas percolating (e.g. I’d kind of like NPCs to have EN even if they’re not spell-casters, for the sake of symmetry, but I’ve yet to figure out how best to divide the ST score of the monsters between the two, or just go ahead and add EN at the expense of making them harder to kill), but nothing baked enough to be worth writing down.

  1. This makes HOW a little more like GURPS, or Runequest/BRP. 

Realism in RPGs Redux

When people badmouth realism in RPGs, they’re usually complaining about one of two things: unwarranted complexity or endless arguments over the facts of the matter.  Sometimes both, tossing in nobody actually wants it anyway, or it’s pointless to discuss realism in games where there are things like dragons and magic.  Reality, though, is the bedrock on which all RPGs lie, because the world and scope of action in RPGs is radically under-determined by the rules.  Players have complete freedom of action in a wide-open world, and in order to function they (and the GM) need some starting point: reality is what we’ve got.  It’s the jumping off point for making those decisions and interpreting the rules, even if it’s often filtered through the lens of genre1 or what would be playable and fun before a final determination is made.

Board games no matter how simple (Snakes & Ladders, Parcheesi), or complex (Advanced Squad Leader, or Drang Nach Osten) completely detail all the legal moves and all the relevant details at every point in the game.  In Monopoly there is no “Can I bribe the cop so I don’t go to jail?”  There is no cop, there’s just a square that you land on and the rules detail the consequences for landing on it.  You can’t elect to just stop for the night in the hotel you own at Marvin Gardens, and continue your trip next turn.  In an RPG those things are possible, and more.  Anything the players can conceive can be tried, and no RPG can possibly detail rules that cover every circumstance.  None of them even try, relying instead on the mutual ability of the players and GM to appeal to reality to either interpret the circumstances in light of the rules or come up with a ruling on the spot to determine the outcome in the case.

This process is so fundamental to the very nature of RPGs that a lot of people don’t seem to notice that it’s going on.  The people who scoff that it’s ridiculous to look to reality in a game where there are wizards casting fireballs don’t stop to think that if an alien who knew nothing about humans saw that happen in a game, it would be justified in assuming that’s something all human characters can do, until it found evidence to the contrary.  We humans see the same thing and know that there has to be magic (or the equivalent) at work because we implicitly compare it to the baseline of reality.  Even in a fantasy setting, we understand it to be Reality+, in this case + magic that follows certain rules; it does not follow that just because there’s magic in the setting anything goes.  A player in the setting would justifiably believe that if a fireball was cast, it was a wizard not a peasant or a cow what done it.

So What?

You might say, ok, so we perforce use reality as our yardstick of what’s possible where the rules are silent, but what about realism and the rules themselves?  Sure, we can assume that normal humans don’t throw fireballs, and elephants can’t fit in sock drawers even if the rules don’t explicitly spell that out, but is realism at all relevant where there are rules?  Can’t you say here are the rules and leave it at that?

Not really. First, rules require interpretation. They’re not self-executing, and the more they try to cover every edge case to avoid wiggle-room and misinterpretation the denser and more complex they get. Almost all problems from “rules-lawyering” arise from trying to force a favorable interpretation based on ambiguous language or over-literal reading. Almost every exhortation to “use common sense” and remember Rule 0 to prevent abuse is essentially advice to bear in mind you should use your reality yardstick in judging how to interpret a rule2. On the other hand rules that are very general and don’t try to tie down all the interactions with other rules often require a good deal of interpretation just to use them, in the form of judging the exact circumstances and how that changes the difficulty, or working out the consequences. Say you succeed on your Diplomacy check, what then? These sorts of rulings aren’t necessarily hard, but they almost always use your judgement, and that’s going to be based on what seems realistic given the circumstances. Because you can’t believe it would happen in the real world that a perfect stranger walks up to a king and skilfully persuades him to abdicate in the stranger’s favor, in a game you rule it doesn’t happen no matter how well the player rolled.

Second, where rules contradict reality it presents a problem for players. It makes the outcome almost impossible to predict unless the player knows and can remember the rule in advance (which greatly limits the complexity of the rules unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of time looking them up during the game). Without foreknowledge no player is going to realize that a house-cat could prove a deadly threat to a first-level D&D character, or that a hand-grenade cannot kill an average civilian in Champions. Those are just two examples extreme enough that I hope everybody agrees are unrealistic, but even arguably plausible rules can trip players up if it doesn’t match what they know or think they know.

Finally, there is a large aesthetic component to the rules of an RPG. A rule may be perfectly serviceable in terms of being understood by the players, giving them enough to go on to make informed decisions, even fun in practice… and still rub them the wrong way because it portrays a world the rules of which don’t line up with how they think it ought to work. This is particularly bad when the rules make things impossible that the player has actually experienced (e.g. rules that make it impossible for characters to be as educated and skilled as the players themselves are, because of the prohibitive costs of being good a multiple musical instruments or languages). Dismissing these player concerns with the straw-man argument that they don’t really want realism because if they did they’d want every single aspect of the game to be completely accurate to the point of mind-numbing tedium is silly.

But, but…

So what about the twin specters of over-complication and endless argument over what the facts really are?

As far as over-complication: Don’t. Realism can often be enhanced without additional complication (such as picking reasonable scales that your abstract measures of time and distance represent without changing the actual rules about table-top units moved per turn), but supposing you have a situation where there’s a genuine trade-off of complexity vs. being able to reason from what would really happen? Pick a point where you get the best bang for your buck. That may differ for different players or even the same player at different times, but you should pick the level of detail and fidelity to the real world that represents the best compromise between letting players reason about the game world based on real-world knowledge and being simple enough to be fun to play at the table. It’s a balancing act, but you don’t get better rules by completely ignoring the weight on the side of reality any more than completely ignoring the weight on the side of simplicity.

As far as endless argument: If the player is making a bad-faith argument to try to secure a momentary advantage in the game and happens to be using realism as a handy stick, you have a problem player, not a problem with realism. Deal with that by dealing with the player, not telling all the players that facts and common sense aren’t welcome at your table. Similarly if the player is overly-enthusiastic about details and fidelity at a level that you and the rest of the players just don’t care about, deal with the player; you can admit that his interpretation might be more realistic3 while sticking to your guns that nevertheless for game purposes the rest of you agree what you’re doing is realistic enough. Maybe you’ll reconsider later, if you can see a way to accomplish it without bogging the game down, but for now it’s time to move on. But if the player has a point, then I think it’s only fair to consider it… if that would require too much time to hash it out then and there, pick a ruling and move on (personally I try and go with the player’s interpretation if I can, or at the very least let them have a do-over if they relied on something about how the real world works that’s not true according to the rules or genre). You can consider the evidence and what if anything to do about it should the situation come up in the future some time when you aren’t interrupting the game.

The Principle of Least Surprise

Basically what it comes down to is that without being able to piggyback your game play on what you know about the real world, how people and animals and tools and the whole shebang behave, you can’t possibly play something as open-ended as an RPG. Nor would there be any reason to. Unless you can fill in the blanks with reality, RPGs are just under-specified, ambiguous, frustrating board games where going off the menu of responses or trying to learn about or interact with details of the setting that haven’t been flagged as relevant leads to random contradictory results. RPGs have to start from the position that real-world knowledge and reasoning work except in certain specified areas, where they conform to the genre or idiosyncratic details about the setting or rules instead. Realism in RPGs consists of reducing the friction between the way the game behaves and the way the world behaves to manageable, comprehensible amounts. Deviations from the default of “The player tries to do X? What would happen in the real world if you tried that?” need to be deliberate, and preferably well thought out. If you sweep everything under the rug of, “Well it’s a game, you can’t expect it to make any sense! Just have fun with it!”, don’t be surprised if many players don’t find it fun at all.

  1. Genre almost always trumps reality, since that’s the point of playing a particular genre, but is even more under-determined than the rules.  Rules are at least written to cover general cases; all examples from genre works do is offer specific instances of how the creator resolved things, often for dramatic reasons . Reasoning from genre almost always requires an extra step of analogizing to the current situation.  In any case, genre fiction itself starts from a baseline of reality, so it only really comes up where it differs from prosaic reality.  Nobody has to cite scenes from a James Bond film to convince anybody of the existence of taxicabs, only of the feasibility of equipping an Aston Martin with machine guns and bullet-proof shields.  When I say “real world” or “reality” in this, I’m going to mean “real world + the stuff that genre trumps” but I’m not going to say it every time. 
  2. Theoretically issues of interpretation could also hinge on things like how tedious or complex one interpretation could be compared to another, but in practice those tend to be resolved trivially, without even need to discuss the pros and cons. 
  3. If it is. If it’s not, you can say you disagree. 

Heroes & Other Worlds

Long, long ago, some time after the oceans drank Atlantis and before the rise of the world wide web, there were a pair of delightful little games of fantasy gladiatorial combat: Melee and, a bit later, Wizard.   They were written by Steve Jackson, and put out by a company called Metagaming.  We enjoyed them so much, they quickly replaced the  combat system we were using for Dungeons & Dragons (which was itself the “alternate combat system” described in Men & Magic, since the “real” combat system was Chainmail and we didn’t have a copy of that.)  Eventually Metagaming released The Fantasy Trip, also by Jackson, and I enthusiastically glommed onto that, while my brother continued using the homebrew that grew out of that original grafting of Melee/Wizard onto D&D.  Some time later, Metagaming went belly-up, and Steve Jackson tried to buy the rights to TFT back from Howard Thompson; Thompson wanted some ridiculous amount of money for it, so the deal never happened, and Thompson wandered off and that’s pretty much the last anybody ever heard of him.   Jackson went on to do a new, unconstrained version of his vision and what emerged was GURPS, but that’s another story.

I played TFT for years. That and the Arduin Grimoire were my fantasy jam. Eventually I drifted away because of slight dissatisfaction with some elements of the system, particularly at higher power levels, and the thrill of chasing something new.   (I gave GURPS more than a fair shake, when that came along, but… well, some other time maybe.)  Mostly I ended up playing home-brews, often heavily influenced by TFT and its class-less, level-less “be anything you want to spend points on” system. When decades later I encountered the OSR and people who had never given up on their old systems, and/or people who’d newly encountered them in the form of various retro-clones that provided copy-right friendly versions of long out-of-print editions, mostly of D&D, it never actually occurred to me to look for retro-clones of TFT.  It turns out, though, that there are several.  One in particular, Legends of the Ancient World,  by Dark City Games, deserves mention as a streamlined, stripped down version that compresses everything into 8 pages, and happens to be free.

A much more ambitious and complete (as well as more expensive) project is Heroes & Other Worlds, by C.R. Brandon, which has been described (paraphrasing) as TFT meets Moldvay Basic.  It’s a very impressive offering, with pretty substantial additional support, particularly a monster & treasure manual (The Tome of Terrors & Treasures… flipping expensive, though, even for 425 pages), and a supplement of extra spells (The Magi Carta, 190 pages)  both translations into HOW terms of OGL material, and several adventure and setting supplements (including a HOW version of my friend Rob Conley’s Blackmarsh setting Blackmarsh: Heroes & Other Worlds Edition).

I really dig Heroes & Other Worlds, although I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, both for the wealth of material that it provides and for the ways it has simplified some of the odder things in TFT, such as the way HOW eliminates the IQ minimums for learning various talents (in HOW called Skills).  No more minimum of 10 IQ to learn the most rudimentary form of martial arts; it may have made sense as a game balance technique to prevent fighters from using IQ as a dump stat, but it’s pretty hard to justify on any other grounds.  It also introduces some of its own new ideas, some of which are very neat indeed: I particularly like the notion of “reactions” that allow a character to Parry or Dodge at the cost of moving next turn, instead of taking a full turn (no attack) as in TFT, and the EN(durance) stat that allows for spell-casters with a lot of magical oomph who aren’t built like Conan.  HOW does introduce some of its own oddities, like Tridents being as good on the average wielded one-handed as Halberds with two, but you could easily change them back to the original TFT rules (available from David O. Miller’s Melee & Wizard site).

It is kind of pricey, as retro-clones go, and you might want to start by dipping your toes in Legends of the Ancient Worlds if you want to try a TFT-like for free… but HOW and its supplements represent a good deal of work by Brandon and I don’t begrudge him some recompense for the labor.  I’m looking forward to running TFT again in the near future, probably on a G+ Hangout some evening.  For me it’s like putting on a comfy old sweater in a way that D&D never really was.  Check it out.

Heroes & Other Worlds


How To Hexcrawl

+Joe Johnston released How to Hexcrawl: a nice little pay-what-you-want primer on running a hex crawl in Labyrinth Lord, or any other D&D-like, gathering together the rules and charts you might use as well as some advice.

What I want to talk about, though is how to handle checking for encounters. Joe correctly points out (p 20) there’s a contradiction in the rules, or at least some confusion, about the step-by-step procedure of rolling once per day’s travel vs what happens when you travel over multiple terrain types and the admonition against checking more than 3-4 Times per day.  He suggests 3 possibilities: roll based on the start hex, the last hex, or each time the terrain changes. Unfortunately those all skew the encounters one way or another.

I’d like to offer a fourth option:

4) Secretly roll 1d12 for the hour and 1 die  of any type (or flip a coin) for day/night.  At the appointed hour in the game day, roll for an encounter based on the current hex’s chance of encounter.   This prorates the chances exactly.  The only minor drawback, if it is a drawback, is you do need to pay slightly closer attention to what the in-game time is, though that shouldn’t be at all difficult since you already are dealing with the travel speed to traverse the hex.

N.B. How to Hexcrawl doesn’t mention it, but the assumed overland travel rate for most D&D editions is about 3 m.p.h. for unencumbered travelers, with an 8-hour effective travel day, which gets you the list 24 miles/day.  With 6-mile hexes, each hex of travel is 2 hours.  If you get in the habit of announcing the time of day as the party enters the hex (“it’s about 10 am when you get to the mountains”) it’s dead easy to tell if it’s time to roll for an encounter, and helps give the players a better sense of the passage of time anyway.   This suggests a nice variation, if you want to roll for travel encounters and then separately for night encounters while camped: roll a d8 to see which hour of travel the encounter gets checked and then again at night based on the terrain where they are camped.  Ideally you want to have a separate table, or at least adjust the results, for night encounters, since a caravan or troop of men are not at all likely to be traipsing through the woods in the dark.