Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Making +1 Swords Feel Magical

I had a disagreement with my colleague Tom Kilian recently. I said that +1 swords were boring. In almost all of my previous  D&D games, the little scribbled +1 would fade into a long string of bonuses from other sources (base attack bonus, attribute bonus, feat bonus, etc.). I'd forget that I even owned a magical sword. And when a +2 sword came along? I'd throw the +1 sword onto the ground like day old bread for ducks. 

Tom disagreed. He protested: "I've never been bored with +1 swords! A +1 can be really useful. And they all have a little extra, you know? They point towards the north or float in water. And they have a history you can uncover."

And I thought, whoa, wait, hold on. That does sound cool. 

So I still might not be in love with set-it-and-forget-it bonuses, but I could tell Tom was investing more into standard magic items as a GM than I was.

Let's fix that.

Make treasure lore-full

Darrell Sweet

First things first. The standard treasure lists found at the back of your DMG are about as flavorful as a saltine cracker soaked in room-temperature water.

This is boring: “You find a longbow, artwork that costs 500 gold, a gold ring worth 100 gold, a +1 sword, and 1000 gold coins.”

This is much cooler: “You find an elven bow made of yew and strung with a strand of elf hair. A portrait of a portly burrower with a mayoral hat in a golden frame seems like it would carry a hefty sum. A golden signet ring is marked with the house sigil of three apples. A dwarven sword, short but wide, carries runes that name it Death Cleaver in the dwarven tongue. Lastly, a treasure chest overflowing with silver and gold of different mintings. Most bear the seven stars of the Andantine Isles, but dwarven coins from under the mountain bearing the hammer and sickle are mixed into the hoard as well.”

Dark Souls isn't everybody's cup of tea, but the way that it delivers its lore through a steady drip-drip-drip of item descriptions is fun. (I wrote a bit about this here.) To discover Dark Souls lore, you have to read through the ancient texts like a real life loremaster (through your item menu, hoping that some invader isn't about to shank you).

If you're a GM like me, I bet you are positively vibrating at an opportunity to tell the players some dope shit you've written in your world - some bit of lore you love but can't deliver organically. Guess what motherfucker? Your players want treasure. Give it to them that way. Like giving your cats a pill wrapped in salami. 

When describing treasure, specify:

  • The materials of construction
  • The people who crafted it
  • The artistic embellishments
For example: "The sword has runes running down its blade in Aklo, naming the blade 'Tailbiter.' The hilt is shaped like a peasant boy fighting a dragon."

Make magic active

Sara Kiplin

So the core of my complaint is that it doesn't feel magical to write another +1 bonus onto my sheet. 

Let me quote a GLoG principle that I like a lot:

> GLOG Design Rule #3: Never use small, passive bonuses. They're boring, easy to overlook, potentially confusing, and often lead to synergy. Use active abilities instead. (What Extra Credits calls "incomparables".)

What would a +1 sword look like if it didn't provide a passive bonus?

Just brainstorming, here are three options.

1. Activate the bonus

When you unsheathe and cry out the name of a magic sword, you add +1 to attack and damage for the rest of the battle. 

> Earthdawn had this concept of weapons that leveled up with you as you learned their lore. Learn a weapon's name? Learn who created it? Fight a battle against the weapon's chosen enemy? Each of those unlocks another power. I think that's pretty cool. I like this option because it evokes that feeling.

At the same time, this is still just a +1 weapon. Sure, there's maybe a little choice of "Do I cry out the name?" that's interesting if you're doing a stealth mission, but this is kind of like the Dodge feat from 3E. I forgot to invoke it 75% of the time. It wasn't active vs passive, it was "forgotten" or "goddammit, if I had said he was my Dodge target, he would have missed, goddammit, not again." 

OK, let's try again.

1a. Activate the BIG bonus

When you cry out the name of a magic sword, your next attack is a critical hit. The sword must be driven into a campfire and rest, like a human would, before it can use this ability again.

> OK, well, I'd probably remember to use this bonus if it was big enough. A critical hit is a nice level - one solid strike, maybe enough to kill a big beast. Making it 1x/day with a Dark Souls-y way to refresh it? That's fine.

2. Additional damage dice 

This sword deals +1d4 damage.

> A passive bonus? Josh what are you doing? Well. I think that rolling an additional dice feels different in a kinesthetic way. If a normal sword does d6 damage, but I'm rolling 1d6+1d4? That feels physically different at the table. I remember I have a magical sword because I have to pick up a whole other dice!

...Still, maybe a little boring.

3. Invulnerable sword

This sword is all but invulnerable to harm. It can hold open a dragon's jaws, or prop open a crushing trash compactor room, or dipped in acid. It cannot be destroyed by conventional means.

Even so, it is light as a feather. It only takes up one pack slot, if stowed. 

Moreover, if you learn the sword's name, it has a special property.

> I think this one is my favorite. An item that is straight-up immune to damage is great for OSR puzzle solving. Assuming you can retrieve it, you can use it to trip traps, bypass obstacles, and get up to all kind of shenanigans. 

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Songs of Power for the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game

This blog post is about an alternate magic system for the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game. The magic system is derived from the Rogue-like game Sil.

The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game and Sil are my two favorite licensed Tolkien games. Both are defunct, simple, and don't get the love they deserve.

I don't know why I spend my time on these things, either.

Songs of Power

For every +1 bonus you did not assign during character creation, your character can learn two of the following songs of power. 

To sing a song of power, roll the dice and add your Magical bonus against Δ 7. 
  • If you are successful, pay the Endurance cost listed in parentheses after the song’s name. 
  • If you are unsuccessful, you have attracted the Shadow’s Gaze. The GM immediately makes a random encounter roll. 
  • If you roleplay by speaking or singing a stanza at least four lines long that feels appropriate to the setting, either reduce the Endurance cost by 1 (minimum 1) or reduce difficulty to Δ5.
  • If involved in a fight, you can only sing a song of power when a missile could be fired. You cannot sing while engaged in melee. 
  • Most of the songs provide benefits for the entire fellowship, but a few require you to target a specific enemy or ally. In this case, you must be able to see them and they must be able to hear your song.
Song of the Stars (1 per round)
You sing a song of hope kindled in the darkness. As long as you sing, the fellowship is immune to fear.

Song of the Trees (1 per ten minutes)
You sing a song of the trees of Valinor, and a little of their light shines through the ages. As long as you are carrying a light source while singing, you cannot be ambushed by enemies.

Song of Slaying (1 per round)
You sing a song of battle and glory. While you are singing, the entire fellowship gains a +1 Offensive bonus against a particular type of foe (wolf, goblin, troll, etc.). This bonus increases by +1 every time your fellowship defeats that type of foe, up to a maximum of your Magical bonus. This effect lasts as long as you sing.

Song of Silence (2 per ten minutes)
When you make a Magical check to sing this song, failure does not attract the Shadow’s Gaze. Instead, you lose 4 Endurance instead of 2.

You sing a song of hiding and shadows. The next time the GM rolls for a random encounter, they roll two dice and take the most favorable result. If possible based on the results, your fellowship will go unnoticed.

Song of Smithing (5)
While camped, you sing a song of the fires of creation. Your campfire becomes as hot as a forge. You or another character in your fellowship can turn raw materials into crafted items, as if you were at a full-fledged forge, even if in the wilderness.

Song of Freedom (2 per ten minutes) 
As you travel, you sing a song of unbarred gates and wandering feet. While you sing, members of the fellowship have a +2 bonus to rolls to dodge traps, pick locks, or endure elements.

Song of Staying (4)
You sing a song of protection, laying a hedge around a character. That character gains +2 Defense bonus for the next five rounds, as if they were carrying a shield. This bonus does not stack with a physical shield.

Song of Sleep (4)
You sing a song of peace, that makes your enemies powerless before you. The target of this song may be any normal creature (man, elf, troll, goblin, animal, etc.). Roll the dice and add your Magical bonus vs Δ9. If successful, that creature falls asleep, and will not take an action unless they are attacked.

Song of Mourning (4)
You sing a song mourning the woes of the world. If you sing for a watch, the entire fellowship regains Endurance as if they had rested for the night. You do not benefit from this healing, as you take the burden of these sorrows on yourself.

Song of Sharpness (5)
You sing an iron song, causing swords to thirst for blood. Choose one melee weapon. It deals double the amount of wounds for the next three rounds.

Song of Mastery (6)
You sing a song of doom that makes your enemies powerless before you. Roll the dice and add your Magical bonus vs a Δ determined by the most powerful enemy set against you. If successful, all foes are routed and attempt to flee from you.
Δ 6 - Normal animals, like wolves or bears
Δ 8 - Evil animals, like wargs or spiders
Δ 9 - Mannish ruffians, goblins
Δ 11 - Uruks, trolls, mannish warriors
Δ 13 - Wraiths, un-dead
Δ 18 - Demons


I have made several magic systems on this blog. 

- Magic in Wilderland

- Magic in Wilderland part 2

- Earthsea-esque Truespeaking

Sometime, just for fun, I think I'll make a retroclone of the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game with the licensed property stuff hacked off. 

Again, I don't know why I spend so much time on this stuff.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Two mistakes

Cats give you a brainworm that makes you love them. How else do you explain letting a little yelling claw monster into your house?

Just look at her. The little terror.

Here are two monsters that operate on the principle of making people feel things. 

Hybrid animals 

Hybrid animals are made by wizards. They are almost never an end to themselves, but merely a product of magical experimentation. It is better to figure out how hybrid Clone + Reincarnation spells operate on animals before you try it on yourself. 

A few of these hybrid animals have escaped the magical laboratories where they were hatched. With no natural predators, their populations have exploded. They are an ecological disaster

The Owlbear

You've seen these before. And you hate them.

Owlbears emit a pheromone that generates intense feelings of loathing to anyone within smelling distance. Rangers and elves have learned that owlbears are nearby when they begin to get that gnawing feeling of dislike, with the pheromone just on the edge of their perception. When they think "You know who I really hate? Owlbears," they know it's time to take action.

HD 5
AC 13
Attacks 2 × claw (1d8), 1 × bite (1d8)
Morale 9
Alignment: Neutral
XP 175
Number Appearing 1d4 

Bear Hug: If a victim is hit by both paws in the same round, the owl bear hugs for an extra 2d8 automatic damage.

I Hate Owlbears: If there are any visible owlbears, any attack or spell cast must include an owlbear as a target.


Awww! Look at it! It's making a face! Wow, it's just like a little people. Ha ha, it's scratching me! How cute! I'm going to name it "Ramen Noodle."

Owlcats emit a mild toxin through their claws. Anyone scratched by an owlcat feels an intense feeling of affection towards all owlcats. Gnomes are immune. This has no practical combat effects, but does compel many people to keep owlcats as pets. No matter how poorly tempered the owlcat, infected people frame all actions of the owlcat in cherubic terms.

Owlcats favorite food is the glue used in bookbinding. They love to pull apart books to lick the spines. They are ruinous in libraries.

HD 1/2

AC 15
Attacks - 1 hp (claw), inject toxin (no save)
Morale 6
Alignment Neutral
XP 1
Number Appearing 1d12

Saturday, January 14, 2023

In search of a better gazetteer

These two books are the best RPG gazetteers that I know of. 

Example 1: Stephen Biesty's Cross-Sections Castle

(My colleague Dwiz also wrote on this.)

Example 2: Kingdom of the Dwarfs 

Everything below this point is pointless onanism. Read on at your own risk.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Natural-language game design

My favorite RPG rules are written in naturalistic language

What do I mean by this? Well, the easier it is to speak in-character about an effect, status, or ability, the more naturalistic the game's language.

Not Naturalistic: I have 1,000 experience points. I am level 1. 

More Naturalistic: I have 1,000 gold. I am a veteran.

The concept of experience points and levels probably doesn't exist inside the player character's mind, whereas gold and class titles do. The less a player has to double-think between the fictional universe and the game mechanics, the smoother and more enjoyable I find the experience. The more that a player character says exactly what the player would say, the happier I am.

This isn't just a criticism of dissociated mechanics like experience points and levels, though. Sometimes rules are written with so many clauses and sub-clauses, trying to prevent possible misuse or misinterpretation, that they become a complicated legalese. Sometimes rules are written in a "secret code" that takes up less space on a page but is nonsense to the uninitiated. When rules are written in a baroque way they work against their own clarity. 

(This is one of my most crucial critiques of 5E. The language of the rules seems to be written in such a way that it is trying to avoid the most diabolic interpretation.) 

Get this shit out of my rulebooks

So how do we move the needle from non-natural to natural-language rules?

Diegetic names for abilities

Bad: My character has a feat called "BFG," which lets them have a gun that does 6d6 damage.

Better: I'm packing a Yamaha Raiden assault rival. 

In a game like D&D, spell names are diegetic. That is, they exist inside the fictional universe. A character casting magic missile might say, "I'm casting magic missile," and everyone versed in arcana would say, "Yes, that is the spell we call magic missile." By contrast, feat names are not diegetic. If Drizzt shows up with two scimitars, someone wouldn't say, "Ah, he has dual wielder" in character. You might say Drizzt is a dual wielder, or knows how to dual wield, but the names "Dual Wielder," "Elemental Adept," or "Tavern Brawler" are not in-universe terms. I mean, hell, in D&D even class names might not be diegetic. If someone is a monk, would you call them a monk, or do those monk levels just represent them being agile or a bar-room brawler? 

Natural language rules provide diegetic names for character traits.

  • Consider making your class your actual job. A bard is a graduate of the College of Bards, having been trained to harmonize with the Ainulindalë and re-sing parts of the world. A fighter is a knight given the hereditary rights to demand a Trial by Arms and to wear armor.
  • Give all maneuvers or abilities diegetic names. Give them a history. Instead of "Displacing attack," consider "Tenkar's Bullrush," which is a specific martial technique developed by Tenkar during the Orc and Goblin War of Year 1001. 
  • Tie traits to life events and in-universe places. If you can change the elements of your spells, perhaps you were "Born Under the Sign of the Wheel." If you can ride large creatures, perhaps you were trained by the "Dragon-riders of Qarth."

Avoid abstract mechanics

Bad: I lost 3 HP. On the classic scale of 1-22, I am 19 healthy.

Better: I am Injured by the serpent's bite.

If you whisper the word "hit points" on an RPG forum, someone trips over themselves rushing to type the following: "HITPOINTS DONT ACTUALLY SIMULATE REAL DAMAGE ITS LIKE LUCK AND EXHAUSTION FROM A BATTLE READ THE BOOK ACTUALLY FOEGYG"

OK so sometimes hit points are abstract. An arrow to the face would kill you, but taking the maximum amount of an arrow's damage won't, so getting shot with an arrow and suffering the max of 6 damage is only being grazed by the arrow. But then what does the spell Heal do? Why is it called Heal if it just refreshes your luck? What if you fall and take 12 falling damage? Are you just getting, like, tired by hitting ground? And what if you're playing a game where a human can gain 100 hit points and survive 1,000 foot falls?

The conversation around what hit points represent is this Gordian knot of abstract mechanics. 6 damage represents a significant wound, enough to kill a normal person but probably won't kill a trained fighter. 1,000 experience points represents an a-ha moment for an untrained person but is obvious to master of the craft. Joey has 10 Strength and is weaker than Tammy who has 15 Strength. You can't use the terminology "hit points" or "experience points," and you wouldn't say "Tammy is about 15 out of 20 Strong" but your character understands what these abstract mechanics represent.

Natural-language rules avoid abstract mechanics in favor of more concrete one-to-one representations of the fictional world.

  • Consider making abstract mechanics more concrete. A wizard doesn't have 6 mana, they have "six bound daemons, each of which may be commanded to perform a single spell."
  • Consider defining what certain game procedures mean in the fiction. For a dice pool system, every dice rolled is a single swing of the sword. Every red defense dice rolled is a piece of armor. Every black defense dice rolled is your character dodging out of the way.

In-character language for abstract mechanics

Bad: When a dragon has lost 50% of their total hit points, they can use their breath ability twice per turn.

Better: When a dragon is bloodied, they can use their breath ability twice per turn.

OK, so some rules are abstract. There's nothing wrong with that. But the more in-character language you have to talk about them, the better. This lets you describe the flow of the rules in in-character terms.

Natural language ties abstracted mechanics to the fiction they're simulating. 

  • Choose flavorful terms for game concepts. Instead of saying "dungeon turn," consider a word like "watch." It's easy to say "I only have the strength to cast one spell per watch." A "first level spell" might be a "spell of the first rune." 
  • Consider providing in-character terms for milestones that are referenced frequently. If you can deal either 1 or 5 damage, you can call 1 damage "a hit" and call 5 damage "a critical hit." Have a list of class titles. A 1st level fighter is a veteran, a 5th level fighter is a lord. 

Use associated mechanics

Bad: I can cast a spell once per encounter.

Better: I can cast a spell once before I must rest and pray to my god.

Even better: The limits of this magic allow me to cast it only once before the sun next crosses the horizon. Once the sun sets, I can cast it once more. And then again once the sun rises.

"An associated mechanic is one which has a connection to the game world. A dissociated mechanic is one which is disconnected from the game world."

In Exalted, there is the concept of scenes. A magical effect might last for the rest of the scene, whether it's two rounds or two hours of fiddly combat. This adds to the narrative, cinematic flow of the game. 

In Gubat Banwa, gameplay uses a grid. A enemy combatant might be six squares away, but your effect only targets someone within a range of three squares.

Terms like scenes and squares facilitate easy play at the table but can be fiddly to transform into in-character concepts. Not impossible, just requires some double-think. 

Natural language rules use in-universe times, distances, and restrictions.

  • Tie game concepts to fictional space. If a square is 5 ft., consider using distances instead. If a dungeon turn is 10 minutes, consider using time.
  • Provide in-character justification for narrative abstractions. If spells only last until the end of battle, you can explain the physics of magic being tied to the ebb and flow of mana. Magic isn't science. Spells might last a minute or ten minutes or all day.
  • Discover unique ways to challenge characters by drawing these diegetic limitations to their natural conclusions. If a spell can only be cast once a day, why? Is it tied to the mana of the sun? Can some spells be cast only once a month? Once a year?

Human-readable crunch

"But wait! I like crunchy games! This is all well and good if you wanna play FKR or something, but leave my feat trees alone."

Oh gentle reader, I don’t think anything here precludes crunch! But I think there's a path to a better crunch - a human readable crunch instead of crunch that feels like a punchcard for a steam-powered computer.

Here, take these two examples from Gubat Banwa and Lancer. Both 4E inspired, grid-based, build-a-thon slugfests. But one rule block feels like it's written as example code in a Khan Academy tutorial and one feels like you're explaining what happens in the game's fiction.



Natural language explains mechanics in a way that makes sense to normal people.

Fewer numbers

Bad: I have a +2 to Survival. I’m pretty good at survival. 

Better: I am Trained in Survival. 

Numbers are a sticky wicket. They are definitely human readable but they are difficult to talk about in-character. 

Fate allows you to say your skill's adjective instead of the number

Fate attempted to provide adjectives for their skill ranks, which is admirable, but I can never remember if +4 is Good or Fair or Superb or... It is just easier to say "I have a +4 Survival" than to say "I am Great at Survival." 

Let me give 5E some credit here. "Advantage" and "disadvantage" is simpler to calculate and more naturalistic language than calculating infinite +1s from different bonus sources (proficiency, magic, shield, feat, item, ad nauseum). Proficiency is another good gloss of having in-character language to describe a numerical bonus.

Natural language rules use fewer numbers and rely less on math.
  • A +1 sword is a boring magic item. You factor it into your attack bonus and forget it. It hardly feels magical. A sword that is invulnerable is more memorable and relies less on numbers. Use the sword to prop open a closing gate, hold open a dragon's mouth, fish something out of an acid lake, etc. 
  • Consider removing countables. Instead of having 20 HP, you might have each attack = 1 Wound. Each Wound removes something from the character sheet. Instead of having 1 gold = 1 XP, an entire golden hoard might count as "Treasure." Each recovered Treasure allows you to gain a level.
(One of my future projects eschews numbers completely.)


None of this means that I don’t like games with some of these "bad" elements. His Majesty the Worm has more than a few! But a few unnatural-language rules are easier to navigate around than many. My preference lies at the “natural language” side of the sliding scale, and I try to get there in my game design.