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 and modified by remoteness 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. We’re not applying remoteness penalties because if you’re currently learning from speakers of the language it doesn’t matter whether it’s really unusual that you’ve met some. 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. 

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.


Homebrewery – a tool for easy 5e formatting

Just ran across this tool for easily making pdfs and web pages in the style of the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook. Very useful if you’re writing D&D 5e home-brew material, or really any home-brew stuff that you want neatly formatted and don’t mind the D&D house style

For instance, here’s a link to one of my blog posts, basically just plopped into the Homebrewery with some minor fixup of the markup:


Check it out.

Tracking Individual Initiative

Despite what I said a while back about group initiative (was it really almost a year ago?), in our DCC game we’ve been using individual initiative, both ’cause that’s how DCC is written and ’cause it has some little flavorful fillips to it that make it more interesting.  In DCC only Warriors increase Init bonus as they level, and two-handed weapon wielders use a d16 for Init instead of d20, both of which I quite like.  But that means that I need to track individual initiative, so I came up with the following.  Instead of using the traditional count-down (Does anybody go on 20?  19?  etc.) I’ve made up a 3×5 card for each character with vital stats like AC, saves, etc. and I go through the count-down once, putting the cards in order of Init.  I make one more card for the monster init, and an extra card representing the end of the round just to remind me if I need to check things like spell effects wearing off or random encounters.

I’m ashamed it took me so long to come up with something like this, because it works perfectly.   Nobody ever gets missed, and there’s never any hesitation about what comes next.   It’s fully as fast as my old stand-by just go around the table I use when I just can’t be bothered with init. I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with this, but all of the discussions I recall and printed GM aids I’ve seen involve writing the character names on a list and either updating the init numbers and skipping around the list or redoing the list when init is rolled…which unless you’re using a computer at the table isn’t so slick.  The one drawback I can see, besides the need for index cards or scraps of paper, is that if you roll for init every round putting the cards in order could be a drag…you’d essentially do one pass to order the cards and one pass through the cards to carry out the turn.  I still think it might be worth it, but for a system like DCC where the init is rolled only at the start of combat, there’s no such problem.


The Tomb of Horrors and Player Mindset

Stuart Robertson talks about his group’s experience with the infamous Tomb of Horrors back in 1987 over on G+.  Spoilers abound, so don’t read that or this if you care.  The gist of it is that after the players lost a bunch of PCs in the initial false entrances, and the party got down to about half the original PCs they gave it up as a bad job.  Stuart then goes on to complain about The Tomb of Horrors being badly designed by the lights of this (perfectly reasonable) Gamasutra article.  The following is my reaction, which got a little long for a comment.

Honestly, if you lose any PCs to the fake entrances, your group isn’t nearly paranoid or prepared enough to have any chance with the Tomb of Horrors. I mean, in one case the group marches into a corridor with cobwebs thick enough to obscure the ceiling without a care in the world as to what might be lurking above, in the other not only don’t they send anything ahead capable of triggering the trap nor react quickly by retreating during the slow count to 10, but despite being 10th-14th level nobody has Rock to Mud, Disintegrate, or Stone to Flesh prepared or the equivalent in items.

A lot of the traps in the Tomb aren’t particularly lethal for a character of that high level (e.g. 1d4+1 d6 of damage), especially since the party should always be pretty close to full health: the Tomb has no wandering monsters, even in the area around it, or any time pressure from plot events, and characters of that level typically have access to a lot of healing. There are some nasty exceptions, but a 10th level Cleric can Raise Dead twice a day, so it’s not like most of the deaths in the Tomb need be irrevocable.

I have some quibbles about specifics of the Tomb (like I think preventing Passwall from being one of the spells that can get you out of the sealed fake corridor is kinda cheap), but I think if you see it as a series of uninformed choices you’re just not used to the style of play. Players have lots and lots of ways, mundane and magical, of gaining information to turn blind choices into informed choices…which is why some but by no means all of the tricks and traps specify certain divination/magic tricks that won’t work.  That’s not random: I think the clear presumption is that the players are going to be moving carefully through the tomb, casting various detect spells on anything that seems suspicious and poking and prodding everything from a safe distance. I dare say most of the decisions in the Tomb are actually dilemmas: how many resources to expend to turn it into an informed decision. Relatively few are “weighted” (in the Gamasutra sense of being balanced between pros and cons): if you can figure out a safe path, there’s usually no reason not to take it.

Obviously it’s not a style of play suitable for everyone, but that doesn’t make it badly designed. One of my favorite memories of dungeoneering when I was a lad was finally beating my step-brother’s death-trap dungeon (not Tomb of Horrors, but same basic idea, heavily inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark)… The character I had that finally beat it was pretty powerful and equipped with a ring of regeneration, but I was soloing it, so those kind of balanced out.   In role-playing terms there was a reason the forces of good needed the treasure the dungeon guarded, but at this date I can’t recall at all what the treasure was or its significance, while I clearly recall the feeling of getting it and getting out again and even the details of some of the ingenious traps. I’m not ordinarily a challenge-based player, and it’s not something I’d want to do every day, but the satisfaction of completing it and being the first of the various players who’d attempted it to succeed was a thrill like no other


Running Sailors on the Starless Sea

So I’ve run my holiday-themed re-skinning of Sailors on the Starless Sea twice so far… the most recent time, last Friday, ended in a TPK. Everybody had fun, and wanted to play some more DCC, but I think it pointed out a gotcha in the scenario that I’d want to address before I ran it again for some other group.  Spoilers ahead if you haven’t played it.

Specifically, if the players skip the Charnel Ruins… and both my groups wanted to because of how foreboding it was, though the first reconsidered after a bit… then when it comes time to meet the Leviathan, they’re screwed. Unless they’re willing to make a human sacrifice (fat chance, at least with my typical players), even if they chum the waters to distract it, they need to spend at least 2 rounds in the water (if they can even swim) both coming and going from the ship with the Leviathan getting 6 attacks per round… what actually happened Friday is they ended up fighting the Leviathan on the deck of the ship and losing. Which is fine: fighting the Leviathan straight up should be a losing proposition. But that means that there need to be either more ways around it or the single way that’s there needs to be on the main path.

Sailors on the Starless Sea is a very linear adventure: after the choice of the initial approach there are a couple of side areas, but no real branches.  That’s not necessarily bad for something that’s supposed to be a short adventure, but it means sticking the key to completing the adventure in one of the few skippable side areas is a problem.  That’s compounded because once they meet the Leviathan there’s no retreating and regrouping or exploring what they might have missed: it’s deliberately set up so if they don’t have the censer they’re stuck either halfway across or 50′ from the far shore if they come up with the chum-the-waters trick.  IMO, that’s pretty mean, and not really in keeping with the best Old School principles of letting the players pick their fights and routes.  I also think the set up gives perhaps unfortunate psychological pressure on the players to hurry along to rescue the villagers instead of poking their noses into everything the way a more “let’s loot the ruins” party would.

Having said all this, I think there’s a pretty simple fix: since the Leviathan basically acts like a gate that requires a key, make it so you can’t open the gate without the key.  Take away the candle at the top of the menhir, and make it so that lighting the censer (or sacrificing a victim) both summons the ship and placates the Leviathan.  That way if they make it that far without getting the censer, they can figure out they’re missing something… and if they don’t immediately, then if they swim out to the ship the Leviathan can attack the swimmers while they still have a chance of retreating.  It also makes the mosaic a better clue, since the action depicted in the mosaic of using the censer while standing on the menhir now matches how you’re supposed to deal with the Leviathan.

A more radical fix would be to have the Leviathan’s blood-lust be sated as soon as each tentacle seized and dragged somebody off; then even if the party just bulls through they won’t lose more than 7 characters.  It’ll hurt, but at least it might be enough to finish the module, particularly if you have a lot of players.