The cover of my Storm Kingdoms wip docupent

Diegetic Mechanics in TTRPGs

Apologies for the big words. But you know, I have to get some traffic to my neglected blog. By diegetic mechanics, I mean those mechanics pertaining to the collaborative fiction. Or simply, in-world. So how can mechanics be in the world if they are rules, you ask? Let me start with context and an example.

These last few months, I’ve been running a (yet unpublished) game I call Adventures in the Storm Kingdoms. It is my homage to the old Stormbringer game from seminal publisher Chaosium by way of experimentations in the Free Kriegspiel Revolution design space. I may write later how the game came from a long unfulfilled desire to retroclone Stormbringer 1st Edition, and how it surprised me and became an engine for Moorcockian multiversal heroic fantasy in a literary mode instead. The minimalistic game design work I’m doing on this game is teaching me how tabletop roleplaying games rules can come from the world, and why they don’t always need to be expressed in dice-and-numbers mechanics.

If you haven’t followed my link above about Free Kriegspiel, here is the tl;dr: players interact with the world as presented by a referee who adjudicates actions and applies whatever rules they feel necessary to simulate the world. Most FKR groups prefer simple rules and character sheets with few to no numbers on them, but neither of these is an obligation.

How an obfuscation spell made it all clear

It dawned on me last week, when one of my players wanted his character to call on a demon of Chaos to help escaping a haunted tower. James (the player) had previously defined the demon as The Mistress of the Hidden when Jo-Jo (the character) needed to turn invisible. We’d established that the price for the spell would be to hide something from someone in the future to please the demoness with some chaotic mischief. I could tell the whole story, and how it ended up retroactively explaining why another antihero couldn’t find his lantern (while the original reason was the item had disappeared from the virtual character sheet and we’d assumed it had been lost and we’d all forgotten about it), but the important part is: we collaboratively designed a set of magical rules that require neither numbers nor dice rolls.

Jo-Jo’s Mischievious Magic

When Jo-Jo calls upon the Mistress of the Hidden to misdirect or disappear, she must promise to repay the demon by causing mischief in the near future. The Mistress will state the price in advance (James and Eric can both suggest ideas, and they must agree on the price).
Jo-Jo doesn’t have to accept it, but no magic will take place is she won’t.
If Jo-Jo hasn’t paid the price for the last spell when she petitions the Mistress again, the demands escalate and the price becomes heavier and bloodier. The Mistress may refuse to work her magic, or even play a trick on the young sorcerer to teach her a lesson.

I am just writing this to illustrate my example, but this is more or less what I have in my mind — and as a half-decent FKR referee, I’ll explain the rule to the players when needed. I’ve also given titles to the demon, as the game requires to better define a spirit. She is the Mistress of the Hidden, Unnamed Duchess, First Spy of the Courts of Chaos, and lover of the Great Deceiver, Aronax the Black.

The List of Unpaid Prices

If the Mischievious Magic rules aren’t stated in the game (or even in my campaign notes), the situation prompted me to add one rule to AitSK: the List of Unpaid Prices. At any given time, the referee should keep in plain sight a list of what promised rewards and prices have been agreed upon by sorcerers and spirits. It functions as a reminder, but can also give inspiration to set up interesting situations and choices. I’m looking forward to see it work in play.

An icon of Arioch as a Melnibonéan youth with orange skin, a chaos star as a halo, and a bleeding heart in his right hand.The background shows black and white chtuloid chaos beasts with red eyes.
Arioch Icon by Tristan Alexander (used without permission)

RPG settings have tons of diegetic rules

If you have never stopped to consider the thought, look at how the worlds we play have many rules that don’t interact with the rules / system / mechanics. Wizards don’t have healing spells. Dragons fly despite physics. Megacorporations treat freelance street operatives like shit. These are all diegetic mechanics (or rules of the setting, if you like).

So my question is, why would any in-world rule have to be modelled by mechanics? Our magic rule doesn’t require any die rolls. It sure could have a bunch of them, with tables of modifiers and parameters and options, as detailed and headache inducing as you care to make them. It works just fine as is in our rules-lite context, but it would also work fine in Rolemaster.

So why do we play with all these dice pools and modifiers? Do we love late night arithmetics so much?

But rules make the world more real, Shirley?

People will argue that we need rules to simulate the world and/or genre we want to emulate.

Sure, you can give halberds a +1 Reach Factor, an extra Attack Die when grabbing at a mounted opponent’s plate armour pieces, and a better Penetration Quotient against quilted leather than it does have against chainmail. Oh, and don’t forget the rule for going under a halberdier’s guard and easily stab them with a shorter weapon!

You can also ask your players to trust you to take all these factors into consideration when they become relevant. You then are able to come up with rulings and/or odds of success that portray each given situation much better than any set of rules ever could, however detailed.

You’ll need to know what you’re doing, so maybe do some research on halberd combat, or use a table from Halberds & Helmets (okay I didn’t go and check how detailed Alex has made his weapon lists — probably not a lot, but you know what I mean). Or make your own list of science-fantasy weapons that explain what each of them are good for in plain language. Whatever it takes for you to feel comfortable adjudicating situations without slowing down the game to a crawl by looking up rules and modifiers every five minutes.

An ink sketch showing the Chaos lord Xiombarg in his female form, riding a skeleton headed bull demon
from a James Cawthorn sketchbook that I can’t seem to find online (sadface emoji)

More on the topic of diegetic mechanics

On this subject, I highly recommend a series of articles called Less Rules to Do More by Justin Hamilton of the Aboleth Overlords blog (I’ve actually asked him to riff of them in an article for KNOCK! #3). And for an example of how this could work, foremost OSR thinker Chris McDowall has recurring blog posts (and some modular games) about what he calls primordial gaming.

You can learn everything there is to know about Free Kriegspiel roleplaying by following the links in my Obliviax Oracle post.

Secrets of Shadoloo cover

Obliviax Oracle: my dive into FKR design

I could have explained what FKR design means in the title, but I wanted you to click through. And now if you dare leave before you’ve read the whole post, the Ancient Dread Curse of the Drained Device Battery will plague you and the children of your children. Sorry not sorry.

The cover of the Secrets of Shadoloo supplement for the Street Fighter storytelling games by White Wolf Studio
Reading further is the only way to know why I’m posting this pic

FKR stands for Free Kriegspiel Renaissance Revolution, a school of game design experimenting with the very roots of our hobby. Here is a couple links with attempts at definitions, in case this sounds like something you’d be interested in. If not, just assume that by FKR design, I mean super simple rules, tweaked and developed at the table.

I knew precious little myself about Free Kriegspiel games until I realised than my latest attempt at designing for short online sessions had fallen squarely in the FKR wheelhouse (thankfully no one in there was harmed). So I dived into blog posts and forum threads and Discord servers to hoover all the wisdom I could. I even proposed a segment about FKR design to Radio Rôliste (which we recorded a week ago) to have an excuse to do some more research.

Long intro short, I’ve been running two weekly games for about a month, and having an absolute blast. I really needed that freedom and creative mindset after running almost excusively 5E D&D for over a year.

Obliviax Oracle, the d20 to rule them all

Obliviax Oracle is how I call this two-page ruleset. My love of cheesy alliterations is only surpassed by my love of obscure Dungeons & Dragons monsters.

It is very simple. Let me quote the game text:

The referee describes situations; the players say how their characters react, asking for details as needed. When the referee is unsure of the consequences of a course of action, the table agrees on a question and a player rolls the d20 to get an answer from the table below. The referee interprets the result and describes the consequences. Traits, knowledge, items, favourable circumstances, etc. can add a bonus to the roll. 

That’s the whole of the game: a d20 table with a suggestion of what could happen for each entry. An oracle.

Click to read, or go see the whole game

The other page gives you rules you could have made up yourself — and I encourage you to do so! — for character creation (and death), as well as some random ideas to expand the ruleset as needed.

Because you certainly will need more rules, for chases, for magical duels, for divine intervention.

Make up the rules as you need them

Of course this all depends on the kind of game you’re running. One of mine is set in Andrew Kolb’s beautiful hexcrawl Neverland, so the exploration and encounters procedures are baked in (except maybe carousing but Jeff’s Gameblog has me covered).

All I had to do was to drop the characters in hex 01. Character creation was simplified to lower the barrier to entry for non gamers, but so far I haven’t had to come up with anything else yet.

The other game is World Warriors, a nostalgic look back at the Street Fighter Storytelling Game (ah, the 90s! do you reckon there is a place on Earth where White Wolf is still making weird license games?). For this one, I thought about character creation and combat, of course. And now, after about seven hours of play over three sessions, I have thoughts about written and unwritten rules, but that will probably be the subject of another post.

In the meantime, if you want to read what I’ve done with this game, I put everything I’m happy with in the Obliviax Oracle folder.

The Hit Dice Wounds System

Here’s an offering for you, D&D DMs, adventure game masters, old school referees: a wounds system where your hit dice are a pool to roll from every time you get hit. Use it, hack it, mock it. It’s your call!

I’ve used these rules for a few months in Lunchtime Dungeons, but they don’t gel with my audience. Most of my players are casual gamers – they love our sessions, but they don’t interact with the mechanics as much as gaming nerds would.

This is one of the challenges of this gig: I have to constantly remind myself than, even if I want an engaging game, I’m running Dungeons & Dragons in offices for team building purposes. I’m not designing for fantasy enthusiasts and practicing gamers. Maybe I need to frame that above my desk.

Bugbears wanna hit you. (Art by Dave Trampier.)

Hit Dice Pool and Wounds

But you aren’t reading this to listen to me whine about game design. Here’s how the HDW system works.

Fixed damage

For fluidity’s sake, these rules do away with damage rolls. (You can keep them if you don’t mind an extra roll, it’s really no big deal.) Below are the numbers I use, along with some weapons traits.

A modified attack roll of 20 or more is always a critical hit, and the damage is doubled. This makes even a knife a threat to moderately experienced characters, which I think if more interesting (i.e. lethal).

Arming sword (versatile) 6
Arquebus (2H, reload d4 turns, loud) 10
Bastard sword (2H optionally) 6/7
Blunderbuss (2H, area, reload d6 turns, loud) 7
Club 4
Crossbow (2H, reload 1 turn) 6
Dagger 4
Dane axe (2H, easy attacks vs shields) 9
Dart (small) 3
Flail (easy attacks vs shields) 8
Grenade (area, loud) 6
Halberd (2H, reach) 8
Hand crossbow (reload 1 turn) 4
Horse pistol (reload d4 turns, loud) 10
Javelin 5
Knife (small) 3
Long bow (2H) 7
Longsword (2H, versatile) 8
Mace, battle axe 7
Main gauche 4 (+1 to Defence)
Maul (2H) 8
Pistol (reload d4 turns, loud) 9
Polearm (2H, reach) 7
Quarterstaff (2H, fast) 5
Rapier (+1 to Defence) 6
Repeating crossbow (2H, reload d4 turns after 6 shots) 5
Short bow 5
Short sword, scimitar, axe 5
Siege crossbow (2H, reload 1 turn) 8
Sling 4
Spear (reach) 6
Throwing axe 4
Unharmed 2
Unharmed, monk 4+
Warhammer (easy attacks vs plate) 7
Whip (reach, strangling) 3

Hit Dice

Your hit dice are a pool. For example, using ‘classic’ B/X D&D rules, a 3rd level fighter keeps 3d8 on their character sheet; a 7th level thief has 7d4.

Optionally, hit dice can be spent and added to attack or damage rolls. (I’ve never used this rule or fear of confusing newbies but I would with gamers.)

Bugbears gonna wound you. (Art by Dave Trampier.)

Taking damage

When you are hit, spend as many HD from your pool as you want. Roll them, add their scores, and subtract the total from the damage: if the result is more than zero, read the result on the wounds table below. Meaning: you want to beat the damage with the total of the hit dice you choose to roll.
(Props to Emmy for inspiring the early version of this table with her horrible wounds rules.)

1-2: You will keep an ugly scar.
3-4: Painful blow. Save to avoid falling unconscious for 1d4 rounds.
5: Bleeding out. Roll one of your HD: you will lose it in that many turns.
Keep doing this until bandaged or healed or out of HD (in which case, you die).
6-7: Lose something. Roll d6: 1. Fingers (d4); 2. Hand; 3. Nose; 4. Ear; 5. Eye; 6. Looks.
Some rolls may be at a disadvantage.
8: Leg useless. Save to keep it when healed. Can’t run. Disadvantage to agility tasks.
9: Arm useless. Save to keep it when healed.
Disadvantage if needing both arms or if it was the dominant hand.
10-11: Head wound. Disadvantage to all rolls. Save or lose 1 memorised spell/spell slot.
12: Dead man walking, 1 + Constitution modifier rounds to live.
13+: Vital organs destroyed, instant death.

All the HD rolled are lost until you rest or get healed (see below).
When you are out of HD, read the damage directly on the table. Whatever the result, you must also save with Constitution or Wisdom or die.

Example: Holka is a 4th level dwarf. In a scuffle with a hobgoblin guard, she’s hit by a halberd and takes 8 damage. The player could roll three of her dice and have an excellent chance of shrugging the blow (the average roll for 3d8 is 13.5) but she decides to keep two in case she gets hit again.
Bad idea: she rolls 2d8 and gets a total result of 3. The referee subtracts the roll from the damage (8 minus 3 is 5) and looks at the corresponding entry on the wounds table. Holka is now bleeding out. This fight had better end soon.

Other sources of damage

Spells and other non-weapon attacks do fixed damage as well. As a rule, I would use the average value: a 5d6 fireball would do 18 damage for example.

In other cases, like with fatigue, life drain, poison, and other non-wounding damage sources, I just make characters lose hit dice from their pool.

Rest and healing

With six hours of uninterrupted rest, you get your spells back and recover a number of HD equal to half your level, rounded up.
In combat, magical healing recovers 1 HD per level of the caster.

Lunchtime Dungeons goes back to hit points

So I’m sticking with good ole HP and damage rolls from my games; the jury is still out about a wounds table vs. a simple roll to stay alive at zero HP. Maybe I’ll use the former in Lunchtime Dungeons and the latter in Dungeonsnack, which I’m trying to keep as minimalistic as I can. (I’m using it for demo purposes rather than full blown “team building with D&D” sessions.)

I really like the wounds system though, so I might use it in another game at some stage. In the meantime, it’s here for you to give your players a meaningful choice in combat – and see their characters lose a limb or two.

Cover for the basic rules of Old School Essentials

Learning from Old-School Essentials

I am currently working on translating part of Gavin Norman’s Old-School Essentials into French. I wasn’t aware when I starting writing this, but OSE is actually on Kickstarter right now! Let me tell you about it and explore some of the reasons why it is such an excellent game for ‘old school’ play, and particularly as a team building exercise.

Cover for the basic rules of Old School Essentials

A short history lesson

If you don’t delve the same internet dungeons as I do, you may not now about OSE (formerly BX Essentials) : it is a masterful rewriting of one of the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons. It was released in 1981 as two sold-as-introductory-yet-sufficient-for-a-lifetime boxed sets, the Basic and Expert boxes. These were the work of Tom Moldvay and David ‘Zeb’ Cook, who followed on the steps of the good doctor Holmes and his blue Basic box (another fascinating story – look it up or leave a comment and I’ll tell you). This edition is often called Basic / Expert, B/X Dungeons & Dragons, or sometimes Moldvay D&D (Tom and Dave collaborated on both boxes, but they each got the credits on one of them – and we seem to only remember the author of the Basic game). 

Games history digression over. I have a lot of tenderness for B/X. It was my first ever roleplaying game, the pit trap into the nerdy Wonderland where I’ve been living since I was eleven. But it is also a hell of a great game. Historically speaking, it was the first time D&D that had (mostly) cohesive rules that were (mostly) easy for beginners to understand. As I said above, it was also a self contained game that a lot of people chose over the more complex, more heroic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which was on the shelves at the same time. Oops, that was more games history — I’m not even sorry.

Things we can learn from B/X D&D and OSE

 I’ve used BX Essentials as a reference for my lunch break D&D sessions in the office since the beginning, and I have had many an occasion to swoon over the amazing work Gavin has done. Old-School Essentials takes it one step further with better organisation and even more clarified layout. There is a lot of learn from B/X D&D and a few more to learn from Old-School Essentials

The balance is exemplary. The game has enough rules to function out of the box, but it leaves a good few grey areas that the referee and players will have to cover with their own rulings, thus adapting the corpus to their own collective taste. It can easily be played like a board game at the start (with easily followed turns and procedures) while the newcomers ease into the role-playing aspect.
If you are a game designer, you probably remember more than one rules writing related headache. We constantly try to make our written rules concise yet detailed, precise yet entertaining. One thing I had never considered was redundancy. If you have worked at or with a publisher, or if you are one yourself, you know that paper costs money, and that some people shy away from rules book that look too think or filled with complex procedures. So concision is your friend, and even if you put in a lot of cross referencing in your work, you try not to repeat yourself, at all.
But going through OSE word by word as I was translating, I found quite a bit of redundancy, which I reckon happened because Gavin spent a lot of time deconstructing and reconstructing the rules to make sure every bit was in the right place. And sometimes, I guess the right place is several places. Because a rulesbook is both a learning tool and a manual — we want people to find the information they’re looking for in a few seconds.
From the team building point of view, B/X is a perfect basis for running Dungeons & Dragons as a team exercise. As I said above, it plays like a board game and doesn’t require any gaming chops or taste for the amateur theatrics (as Gary Gygax would have put it). As an old school game, it lets players focus on problem solving in the game world rather than on their character sheet. Most of the time around the table is spent planning, arguing tactics, and trying to convince NPCs to help.
Of course, I’ve tried to keep this all in mind when designing Lunchtime Dungeons. But I guess this is a post for another time…