Designing magic: Make learning the magic more engaging

(This is part 1 of a 3 part series about designing magic for tabletop roleplaying games. When I publish parts 2 and 3 I’ll link them here.)

Unfortunately, Harry Potter remains the best cultural touchstone when discussing learning magic. This is unfortunate for several reasons, but the one I’m focusing on today is that the way that they learn magic in Harry Potter is boring.

A lot of the time it comes down to rote practice.

Try doing the spell again.

Make sure you can swish and flick properly.

Pronounce the words properly.

A gif of Hermione saying It's leviOsa, not leviosAR
It’s a good meme, but boring to play out.

Sometimes the spells themselves are so interesting that they push the lessons to be very engaging. One of the more popular posts on this blog was about the 3 best spells in Harry Potter (and why they are the three best spells).

But if you’ve got a story (or in the case I am interested in, a roleplaying game) where magic needs to be learnt, the actual process of learning the magic should be engaging and interesting.

If your game is set in a magic school, then learning the magic should be engaging to play in and of itself.

Well it just so happens I have been writing a game about learning magic, set at summer school for kids from non-magical families who have suddenly found out they’ll be going to magic school at the end of the summer.

Title banner: Welcome to Camp merlin

I have an underlying theory of magic that I am using where spells are like magical spirits called into service of the magic user. It’s not brand new, I’ve seen it before in various games. What is new is how I connect that to learning the spell.

First the magic user must coax the spell into making an initial connection with the user. This allows the user to cast the spell once on that day. If the magic user wants to cast that spell again, they must wait until a new day and then coax it again.

However, if the magic user can link with the spell, then they will be able to cast the spell once per day without needing to coax it every single time.

The template works well as long as the acts of coaxing the spell and linking with the spell are engaging.

I’ll show you an example spell so we can discuss the linking and coaxing.

True Glue. 
Duration: 1 minute. 
Instructions: Touch the tips of your index fingers together and True Glue will drip from their meeting point until your fingers part. 
Effects: True Glue is a perfect adhesive, it is impossible to break its binding. True Glue does not dry out when applied to only one surface, and takes 1 second to bind when touching two surfaces.

I’ll talk another time another time about the actual magic and why I think this sort of diegetic spell is interesting, and also about the casting instructions. For now though I’ll focus on how to coax and link this spell.

To coax True Glue the character must player must choose an obviously false viewpoint (eg. the sky is green; water makes things dry; ice is hot etc.). Then they must refuse to abandon that viewpoint despite any and all evidence to the contrary. The other characters must actively refute and challenge the viewpoint with substantial arguments and evidence.

To link True Glue the character chooses two awkwardly sized, shaped or weighted items, They must then hold them, one in each hand, as though they were glued to their hands for the next six hours.

Both of these are tied to the nature of the spell. When coaxing the magic user must fix their point of view in place. When linking they must fix an object into their hand. This connects them to the spell, which is all about fixing two things together. The player is trying to entreat a magical being with their actions.

So what do I think is good about this design?

  • They’re thematically linked to the spell
  • The coaxing generates inter-character discussion by default
  • The linking causes clear problems that the players will have to solve – how will I eat? etc.
  • They are diegetic – you could use dice rolls to support this gameplay but it probably doesn’t need it
  • It shifts the core question of the game from whether or not the characters will succeed to how they will succeed. This is good for a game about kids learning magic which will be tonally lighter than most games.

I’m not claiming to have re-invented the wheel here. Followers of the Goblin Laws Of Gaming will have seen the Δ glog classes before, which focus their advancement on performing diegetic actions rather than accruing xp.

So I think this format makes learning magic more engaging than most tabletop roleplaying games I’ve seen, and certainly more engaging than most of the magic in the benchmark for magical learning, Harry Potter.

Poster style front cover of a game titled Welcome to Camp Merlin - A summer camp for non-magical children in need of magical education in preparation for schooling. The image shows a wizard who has cast a spell on a fox wearing boy's clothing. The wizard says 'Hocus Pocus!' whilst the fox says 'Yikes! If only I had attended Camp Merlin!'

How I’ve adapted this system for Welcome to Camp Merlin

Each morning at the camp, the kids get to choose which spell they want to learn. The camp counsellors show the children how to coax the spell as an activity. Then they have the afternoon to attempt to link the spell – doing so also allows them to stitch a badge onto their camp uniform.

There are also several magical creatures that the children are taught about, as well as an array of magical locations and encounters in the forest surrounding the camp.

Follow the development and release of Welcome to Camp Merlin by:

Welcome to Camp Merlin is now available on DriveThruRPG and itch.io

A rubbish drawing of a bird made in paint that looks very vaguely like the twitter icon. The bird has a speech bubble 'I say ttrpg and nerd things'
But you can still follow me on twitter @coppersandboars

And follow my itch.io KingBim – head over there now to download my previous game about playing jedi-esque characters, Laser Monks in Outer Space, for free!

Using linguistic false friends in your games

In linguistics there are sometimes words in two different languages which sound like their meaning will be obvious, but actually they aren’t.

Some false friends have very separate meanings. The English embarrassed and the Spanish embarazada (pregnant). They might cause some miscommunications, but most of the time it will be obvious that an error has been made.

Some are trickier. Je passe mes examens is not French for I pass my exams. It means I take my exams. This is a particularly tricky one because the meanings are quite far apart, but are used in the same context, so the error can go completely unnoticed.

One I hear a lot from Greek-speakers using English is the word costume – they will use it to mean outfit or suit. For instance ‘The astronaut’s costume’ or ‘The groom’s costume’. Costume is a false friend here, it sounds like the greek word κουστούμι (koustoúmi), and some of the uses are the same, but often it is different. It’s not as bad as passe/take because it’s on easy to spot error with a vey close meaning.

So false friends are words that you expect to have one meaning from your own cultural/linguistic context, but actually have a different meaning.

A false friend can be worse than a terrible translation, in that all participants can think their has been no miscommunication, and walk away from the conversation with completely different understandings.

D&D 5e false friends

D&D 5e has some magical false friends in its spells. These are spells which someone might expect to have one effect from the gaming/fantasy context, but actually have a different effect.

Chill Touch sounds like it is a melee spell attack that does cold damage. However, it is a 120ft range spell attack which does necrotic damage.

Dimension Door sounds like it would create a door though which you can pass to another dimension. However, it’s a 500ft teleport.

Thunderwave sounds like it will release a wave of energy outwards, with the caster at its epicenter. However, it is a cube of energy placed adjacent to the caster.

Misconceived Thunderwave vs the actual Thunderwave

How to use this in your game?

It’s easy enough to allow the players to miscommunicate if your game has language barriers.

The hard part is avoiding that ‘gotcha’ feeling.

The players have to feel like they (or their characters) made errors. And not because you tell them what the errors were that they made.

For instance, the players are searching for a dragon. They talk to some local Gnomes using broken Dwarvish, and the Gnomes tell them that a terrible scaled monster called ‘Dracusa’ lives in an abandoned castle in the hills. So the players think this is the dragon and head off to the castle.

But Dracusa is a false friend. Dracusa is actually a medusa. Or Dracula. Or both. It doesn’t matter what you choose, as long as its not a gotcha. So how do you avoid the gotcha?

  • Give the players the option to spend time and/or money on getting a better translation.
  • Layer in clues that it might not be a dragon. Describe wild sheep and goats roaming the nearby countryside. Abandoned farmsteads but no fire damage.
  • Drop hints of the real nature of the creature. Bats and mist for Dracula, life-like statues for medusa.
  • Most importantly, don’t mentally commit to the moment of the twist. If the players send out a shapeshifter or a familiar to scout ahead, let them spot the mistake if its reasonable.
  • Make the situation with the real monster complex. The medusa is sobbing; Dracula is tutoring some orphans in the castle’s library.

You can also do false friends with spells (as evidenced by d&d 5e) and magic items.

A classic example occurs in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, where the characters can find an alien gun. Because the alien physiology and design expectations are different, the way you expect to hold the gun is backwards, leading players to often shoot themselves in the face. A cautious player would avoid this by experimenting on the pistol with care.

Which direction does this gun fire? To the left or the right?

One last example is location names. This is not really a false friend, but it serves as a good example.

We don’t know exactly how Iceland got its name, but we assume its to do with the frigid climate.

Greenland, which is more more cold and more icy, has a much more pleasant sounding name.

In the Saga of Erik the Red, we learn that Erik was exiled from Iceland and founded a settlement in Greenland, calling it Grœnland, precisely so that it would be more attractive to settlers.

In the summer Eirik went to live in the land which he had discovered, and which he called Greenland, “Because,” said he, “men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name.”

The Saga of Erik the Red, chapter 2 (read the whole saga here)

So it’s not really a false friend, but it fits this general category of ‘linguistic trickery which might waylay an ill-informed player character’.

Laser Monks in Outer Space is released! Free on itch!

Laser Monks is an ultralight tabletop roleplaying game where you play as space-paladins with Laserblades and superpowers.

The core of the game is about adhering too, or rejecting, the Laser Monk creed, known as The Path.

The Path is Peace

The Path is Compassion

The Path is Moderation

You can get it for free on itch.io by clicking the image below.

https://kingbim.itch.io/laser-monks-in-outer-space

I made Laser Monks for the Ultralight Game Jam, which had two design rules:

  • the game’s rules can fit on four or less pages in an A5 format
  • the game uses a single dice type for all resolution mechanics

I interpreted these restrictions even more tightly, and decided that the rules, including the character sheet and character creation, were going to fit on 4 pages of A5. The game has a simple dice pool system and only uses D6 dice.

The left half of the character sheet, which includes the character creation rules. The right half, not pictured, has advancement and injury rules and the space to track them.

During playtesting, the players had fun with the ‘draw your Laserblade’ rules.

There is no mechanical effect, it’s just kinda neat

Laser Monks also includes an easy-to-run setting. I think it would take a GM about 15 minutes to read the setting and prepare a game session from it.

And I released the whole game under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license (except the front cover items).

If you play a session, let me know how it went via my twitter or in the comments here.

Coppers and Boars First Blog-iversary

It’s been a year since I made my first post, which was about Character progression in games. The blog started out as a way to crystallise my vague roleplay game thoughts into coherent and communicable ideas. The majority of my posts are game design theory, tips or insight.

I think the best three are

I feel like I should insert a picture now to break up the wall of text.

My 10 most played games on Steam. League of Legends is mercifully absent.

The other main purpose of the blog was to push myself to do things, to make things, rather than to just think about them. I’ve put more effort into making things this last (blogging) year but a lot of them never came to fruition. I don’t really like publicising things prematurely, but here’s a roundup of what I’ve been up to.

  • I worked on a ‘mon style game, first back in June ’21, most of which is documented on the blog. I revisited it again in December/January but I found that the game was pulling itself in two directions. One direction was a rules-light PbtA/FKR game, and the other was a miniature combat skirmish game (my friend Becca_3D makes some seriously good minis for 3d printing based on ‘mons). Unsure how to resolve the internal tension, I put development on hold, hoping that time away from the idea would bring clarity. I did make a post about minimalist modular magic for 5e using a lot of the ideas I had developed though, and I have an excellent list of mon ideas and powers waiting in the wings.
  • In September/October I revisited some of my old notes on a collaborative project set in a magic school, and got it to a playtest-able stage. And then didn’t playtest it because my collab partner was busy. Speaking of which, they have a rat-themed tarot deck on KS, check it out.
  • I worked on a soulslike game for the Better Soulslike Tabletop Jam, which fell apart due to timing issues with my collab partner, but at least I got a post about the qualities of a soulslike game out of it.
  • I’ve also made a few useable tools for GMs on the blog

I’ve actually been working on something that I will definitely publish

Laser Monks in Outer Space has its core rules written, has been playtested and has been (mostly) formatted.

It’s a game about the pull of the dark (which is really about the pull of doing what is easy rather than what is right) and the difficulty in following a morally founded, but restrictive creed.

I’m making it for the Ultralight Game Jam, so the rules (including the character sheet) can fit on just two pages of A4.

The rules are going through what is probably the penultimate revision, following playtesting last weekend and preceding this weekend’s test and likely subsequent revision.

However, there is one thing that will absolutely not change: the rules for laserblades.

So far this has resulted in the following fine additions to my collection:

When Laser Monks in Outer Space comes out (some time in the next two weeks) it will be free. I’ve already started thinking about what I’ll do next, especially over the summer holidays and beyond. I’m thinking about Zinemonth 2023 of course (KS doesn’t support my country so that’s always been a non-starter).

Quietude on the blog has generally meant I’m working away at something with more scope than a blogpost but I might change that during blog year 2.

If you survived to the end of the post, here are some of the bloggers I’ve read the most during this year. I’m limiting myself to 5 ‘cos I have to draw the line somewhere. Consider this a Joesky tax.

What does ‘balanced’ mean?

This causes many disagreements and misunderstandings.

Here’s a list of some of the things that balance can mean in games. Lots of the examples are 5e, mostly because its a good lingua franca.

I’ve written each explanation from the point of view of somebody who agrees with that concept of balance.

The scales of justice are constantly being rebalanced.

Balance in Character Creation and Character advancement

Balanced means there are no ‘trap’ or ‘God’ options

If the game designer has written a list of options, you should be able to pick any that fit your character without there being a correct or best answer (a God option). Example: D&D 5e has a Sharpshooter feat that is widely considered to be extremely good for a ranged attackers against low AC targets, so the feats are not balanced.

There should also never be a situation where an option looks like it will be a good way of achieving something but turns out to be bad at that thing (a trap option). Example: 5e has a feat called Savage Attacker that looks like a good way to increase your damage per turn, but is mathematically outshined by almost every other fighting feature. It’s a trap for inexperienced or maths-averse players.

Obviously nobody expects absolute mathematical equivalence between options, but there needs to be some level of parity, or they are not balanced

Balanced means that there should be good niche protection

Niche Protection is the idea that a character should be good at the thing they are meant to be good at, and that others should not outshine them in that area. Example: If I made a rogue to be the super sneaky dark-and-edgy character, but then the Monk chooses the Way of the Shadows subclass, then they will be stepping on my niche. It’s not their fault, but the games fault for giving them the option. When I chose to make a rogue, I thought I would be the sneaky one. A game that is unbalanced will have poor niche protection or unequal niche protection, leading to over-versatile character options.

Often the best stories involve unbalanced encounters, such as the Battle of Thermopylae

Balanced means that characters may be created unequally, but the game systems or expectations render that inequality moot

Troika! has a high level of entropy. At character generation, players roll dice to determine skill, stamina (HP) and Luck. They also roll on a table of 36 backgrounds. Some backgrounds are stronger than others and some are stranger too. If a player happens to roll low for their skill, stamina and luck, then their character is weaker than others, but that is fine. Characters die when they go below 0HP, and initiative in combat is randomly determined every round in combat. Some rounds you might not get to go, and sometimes you get to go twice before anybody else! Weak characters are fine because the game embraces the randomness wholeheartedly. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. It is balanced due to the game expectations.

In Mausritter you roll 1d6 for your HP and 1d6 for your starting money. This can leave some characters with 1HP and 1 Money, whilst others have 6 HP and 6 Money. This is balanced by the game systems, as you look up your HP and Money on a table, and read off your starting equipment. A 1HP, 1 Money mouse starts with Magic Missile and heavy armour. A 6HP, 6 Money mouse starts with a felt hat and perfume.

Balanced means there are no ‘feels bad’ options

Feels bad means that something happens which makes the player feel bad. I know that’s a tautology, but its the best definition I can think of. I once ran a 5e game (last time I’ll bash 5e, I promise) where a player picked the Ranger class, because they wanted to do all this cool woodlands survival and travel stuff, and the name suggested the class would support that. However, the Ranger’s class abilities and spells minimsed this element of the game and the player felt bad, to the extent that they retired that character to play another class. WotC has acknowledged the ‘feels bad’ of the Ranger design with their Ranger, Revised. It is not balanced because it makes people feel bad. This is almost a ‘trap option’ problem, but the main problem was that the player saw the cool stuff other players could do and felt bad that they couldn’t do their own cool stuff. Here balance was not inherent to the mathematics of the class, but how people feel about it.

…high levels of player dissatisfaction and its ranking as D&D’s weakest class by a significant margin.

Wizards of the Coast on the reasons for the Ranger, Revised

Balance in Encounters

Many disagreements here come from one core clash.

My rpg isn’t the same as your rpg.

Heck, my rpg isn’t even the same as my rpg.

My current game is a gritty OSR sandbox realpolitik dungeon fest. My previous game was a TNG-era Star Trek slice-of-life thing.

The Retired Adventurer wrote about Six Cultures of Play, a taxonomy for comparing games and their contrasting expectations. This is highly related to the classic discussion of Combat as Sport or Combat as War. Depending on the game in question, several different expectations for balance exist. They are all valid, but they are not all valid for all cultures of play.

Are your protagonists Heroes or Adventurers?

Are they even protagonists?

LIGHTNING ROUND *thunder noises*

Balanced means that protagonists should survive except in narratively-appropriate situations, such as bossfights and moments that speak to the inner nature or journey of a character

So you can die whilst fighting Darth Maul but it shouldn’t happen whilst fighting battle droids. Unless the character was disrespecting the threat of the droids in a fit of hubris, or the character was fighting off many droids to allow their allies to escape to safety.

Balanced means that protagonists should survive unless genre expectations make survival unreasonable

The distinction with the prior concept is that we are more concerned with playing the world than playing the story of the characters.

Balanced means that protagonists have a reasonable chance at guessing the danger level of an encounter

You shouldn’t be blindsided by a sudden un-telegraphed spell, boss fight or tough enemy. In Skyrim if you go to High Hrothgar early, it is a challenge to deal with the troll in the mountain pass. Its not a balanced encounter because there is no fore-warning, it’s significantly harder than previous enemies and its on the main path you are supposed to be taking. [I do think it is a fun and memorable encounter, but not a balanced one.]

Sometimes a lack of balance is the entire point of an encounter.

Balanced means that protagonists should survive unless they really mess up

This is a very ‘combat as sport’ view of balance. When I ran Humblewood there was one PC death when the Barbarian didn’t rage, the healer had kited out of healing distance and the party split focus on different targets.

Balanced means that careful and thoughtful protagonists have a decent chance at survival

My current game, Old School Essentials, which has been running once a week for about 10 months, has had 6 character deaths. This is low for OSE because I am using injury rules for PCs that go below 0hp, not instant death. About half of the protagonist deaths have been due to carelessness and about half have been from fights that went south. Every fight that went south was an avoidable (or postponable) fight.

Balanced means that there are no ‘feels bad’ encounters, and that all deaths feel earned directly from player error or character decision

Expectations are really important. My OSE players know that going into a creepy forest runs the risk of lethal encounters, and so they won’t feel bad dying to them. If I was running some sort of Hogwarts game then they would expect to be able to sneak off into dangerous Forbidden Forest, just like in the books. If the were then eaten by giant spiders, they would feel bad. The genre expectations (boarding school mystery) and the world (Hogwarts) told the players that they would face mild peril at worst. The game would not have been balanced because the death would not have felt earned.

To Summarise

Balance is an awkward concept to employ. Are we talking about encounter design or character options? Are we concerned with following the story of our characters, or the world, or emulating a genre? Is combat meant to be war, or sport, or a puzzle?

Balanced is a relative term.

Something cannot be inherently balanced, it must be balanced relative to out expectations.

So often we talk about balance without stating what we consider those expectations to be.

Link here for my twitter

What D&D class would Robin Hood be?

What does Robin Hood do and how does he do it? My understanding of Robin Hood comes mostly from three sources – listed in the order I first saw them.

Amalgamating these sources tells us that Robin:

  1. Steals from the rich and gives to the poor
  2. Is an outlaw who hides in a secret base in the forest
  3. Leads a band of Merry Men
  4. Principally opposes the Sheriff and Evil Prince
  5. Is highly skilled with a bow (thought still capable with a sword)
  6. Is a member of the nobility
  7. Is a fox

I’ll be looking at the 5e player’s handbook and the Old School Essentials system reference document (available online here). OSE matches the 1981 Moldvay edition of D&D.

Robin Hood in OSE

OSE has six classes in the base game:

  • Cleric
  • Dwarf
  • Elf
  • Fighter
  • Halfling
  • Magic-User
  • Thief

The Cleric and Magic-User can be discounted as Robin Hood does not do magic. He is also not an Elf, Dwarf or Halfling. So the only reasonable candidates are the Fighter and Thief.

The Fighter gets more HP, can use all types of weapons and armour and can make a stronghold at any level. Robin’s base in the forest could be a stronghold, and the Fighter allows him to use a bow and a sword.

The Thief can also use a bow and a sword, and can establish a Thief Den (which could also be the secret forest base), though they can only establish it once they are 9th level. The thief get’s increased hit-chance and damage against unaware targets which it is attacking from behind with the ability Back-Stab – which does work for arrows, despite its name and therefore fits with Robin. The thief can’t use heavy weapons or shields which is fine, and gets a bunch of skills relating to exactly the type of skullduggery that we expect from Robin Hood, including:

  • Climb sheer surfaces
  • Hear noise
  • Hide in shadows
  • Move silently
  • Open locks
  • Pick pockets

So the Thief fits pretty well with Robin Hood, as long as we ignore the Roll Languages and Scroll Use features, which are unlocked at higher levels.

Robin Hood in D&D 5e

Robin is not a Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Monk, Sorcerer, Warlock or Wizard.

He could be a Fighter, Paladin, Ranger or Rogue.

The Paladin is the biggest stretch. The reasoning is that a Paladin is defined by an oath, and the oath to ‘rob the rich and give to the poor’ is quite central to Robin. However, the mechanics of the Paladin are centered on melee fighting and divine magic. Additionally, there is minimal mechanical support for the oath the Paladin takes, and so the Paladin fails to emulate the idea of Robin Hood.

The Ranger could fit Robin’s ‘lives in a secret base in a forest’ concept, they start with a longbow, and they can take the Archery Fighting Style at level 2. While this is not the rules as written, a GM could reasonably allow the Favored Enemy to be those working for the local sheriff.

Much of the Ranger’s abilities would be fine with Robin, even if they do not directly support the archetype. Extra attack, Vanish and Hide in Plain Sight both work well, and Primeval awareness and Natural Explorer are fine.

Of the subclasses in the PHB, Hunter would be fine, as there are options that fit with the idea of robin as a ranged menace and a swashbuckler.

The big issue is that Rangers get spells, and Robin is not magical. Whilst the spells could be flavoured as feats of skill, especially ones like Hunter’s Mark, the class ends up leaning too far into the whole ‘woodsman’ concept.

Both the Fighter and Rogue fit Robin better than the Ranger (there is some nice symmetry here with OSE).

Robin as a 5e Fighter

Nothing in the Fighter’s kit is a problem for Robin Hood – its basically a big list of buffs to your fighting. Both the Champion and Battle Master are viable as subclass choices too. The Champion gets improved critical hit chance, which fits with the idea of Robin as a devastating archer, whilst the Battle Master has combat maneuvers, which fit with Robin as a scrappy outlaw eternally fighting against larger organised forces.

There is no support for stealing and sneaking around, and nothing for the idea of leading a band of Merry Men. However, the Fighter gets a lot of ability score improvements, which can (using variant rules which I’ve never seen anybody not use) be traded for Feats. Inspiring Leader, Lucky, Martial Adept, Mobile, Sharpshooter, Skilled and Skulker are all viable for Robin, and can go some way to supporting the leadership, sneaking and shooting elements of the character.

If Robin has Dexterity as a primary attribute, then he can shoot and swing a sword. Making Charisma a high scoring attribute will help too.

So Robin as Fighter-as-fine, but is Robin-as-Rogue better?

The County Flag of Nottinghamshire

Robin as a 5e Rogue

The 5e Rogue starts of with Expertise, doubling proficiency bonuses for 2 skills, and again gets proficiency at 6th level. This goes a long way towards rounding out Robin as a character from the very start. The Rogue gets lots of support for sneaking, and is a capable fighter, so the expertise can be spent on rounding out Robins leadership, daring acrobatic feats or woodsman-ship. Or it could double-down on his thievery with stealth and slight-of-hand.

Sneak Attack, the Rogue’s big thing, leaves me in two minds. It feels unsporting of Robin Hood to start a fight with a sneak attack, and I’m not sure every Robin would do that. It also encourages the rogue to dip in and out of combat to get new sneak attacks which is unbecoming of a major antagonist. But it’s not that detrimental, these are minor gripes.

Most of the Rogue’s other core features are about dodging and sneaking, which is fine, but the Thieves’ Cant can be reflavoured as a dialect used by Robin and his Merry Men to communicate surreptitiously whilst near the forces of the Sheriff. The Thief archetype works well for a Robin who sneaks into castles and loots chests, but the Assassin actually fits Robin better. All of the disguise and infiltration abilities fit the concept of Robin sneaking into an important event before whipping back his hood to reveal himself, much to the irritation of the Prince or Sheriff, before a snappy fight ensues wherein Robin rescues Maid Marion or steals the Prince’s coronet etc.

(Throughout this I didn’t mention the nobility element of Robin Hood, as that is easily handled by choosing Noble as a background.)

King John hunting a stag with hounds

Summary

In OSE Robin should be a Thief or maybe a Fighter.

In 5e Robin should be a Rogue (subclass Assassin) or a Fighter.

Class structures can be limiting. If we could get the Oath from the Paladin, matching it with some forestry skills from the Ranger, some fighting skills from the Fighter, and the Rogue’s expertise and sneaking. Multi-classing would be doable. A total mess, but a doable mess.

However, the class structure is not so limiting that we’re left with no options for Robin Hood. In fact, we are left with two options in both systems. I don’t know if that is a win or not. I do know that it would be easier to represent a pre-defined character idea in skill based system than a class based one.

Also I have twitter, where you can follow me for occasional hot takes, blog updates, and highlights from the rpgs I am running.

Example hot-take below.

There is no light side of the Force

In the original Star Wars trilogy, and in the Prequel trilogy, there are no direct references to a light side of the Force.

The dark side is mentioned once in A New Hope, and several times in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

The closest we get is in Empire when Luke asks Yoda:

But how am I to know the good side from the bad?

The Prequel trilogy also has several references to a prophecy that states that Anikan will ‘bring balance to the force’.

But even though the dark side is explicitly referred to, there are no direct references to the light side.

The Sequel trilogy breaks with this.

Han refers to ‘the dark side and the light’. Kylo Ren says he feels a ‘pull to the light’. Maz tells Rey that the feeling of the light has always been there. Leia tells Han that there is still light in Kylo Ren. The Force Awakens’ trailer also mentions ‘the dark side and the light‘.

But if we ignore the mess that is VII-IX, and if we ignore the countless references to the light side of the force in video games, novels etc. then we reach a reasonable conclusion.

There is no light side of the Force.

Part of my mournfully under-used x-wing miniatures collection.

How can there be a dark side and not be a light side?

The original alignment system in D&D was threefold

  • Lawful
  • Neutral
  • Chaotic

From the release of Basic D&D in 1977 (the same year that the first Star Wars movie was released), a two-axis system was preferred. Characters still fell on the lawful-chaotic axis, but now fell on another three part axis

  • Good
  • Neutral
  • Evil

Combining them leads inexorably to these alignment chart memes

I’m lawful good, but if the breadbin is full I resort to chaotic neutral.

I propose that the Star Wars Force alignment chart should look like this:

  • The light side of the Force
  • The Force
  • The dark side of the Force

The Force occupies a position of neutrality, maybe even true-neutral in dndspeak. This matches with the dialogue in movies I-VI and also fits with the way that the Jedi act in the prequel movies. Their dogma and rules get in the way of their ability to do good. And it fits with the idea that Anikan’s love (for his mother, and later for Padme) leads him to the dark side.

And, like rhyming poetry, it fits the ideas from Return of the Jedi, where the Emperor wants Luke to strike his enemies down. He wants him to stray from the neutral path of the Jedi. Killing in anger, even killing someone who has done bad things, really bad things, is not the Jedi way. Luke argues with Yoda in Empire – Good Luke wants to go and save his friends, even if it is a trap, whereas Neutral Yoda believes that fear-of-loss is a path to the dark side. In fact he told Anikan as much in Phantom Menace.

The challenging part of the ‘no-light-side’ interpretation of the Force is that it feels skewed and off-balance. We expect there to be a good/evil dichotomy (maybe with neutral in the middle).

I’m fine with that.

But what does that mean for D&D alignment?

What would a setting look like if it was devoid of certain cosmic alignments? Or if there were no Good deities? Or no Lawful ones?

Sidenote: The best alignment system

The Magic: The Gathering colour pie is the best alignment system.

In fact, excellent settings have been built just from tinkering with the colour combinations.

Ravnica is fuelled by this

What does an organisation look like if it is red/green? A wild clan obsessed with raw and primal nature.

A green/blue organisation? Biomancers, playing God whilst creating hybrids and mutants.

Green/black? A death cult living in the sewers, fungus and necromancy and questionable food for the masses.

And so on.

Play Worlds, Not Rules – What is a world and how do I play it?

The Free Kriegsspiel Revival (FKR) is all about putting the world before the rules. The idea is that you play out the events of your game and refer to rules only when (and indeed if) needed.

I’m deliberately using the term ‘games’ as it is not specific, but typically we are talking about roleplaying games and wargames.

An FKR game can be contrasted with games where you use rules as a matter of course and then transition into free-play only when the rules do not cover the interaction.

This all leads to the big mantra of the FKR:

Play Worlds, Not Rules

What is a world?

Contrast Game of Thrones with the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale (both of which star Mark Addy).

The Game of Thrones setting is a very gritty and grim place. Protagonists have all sorts of vile and cruel punishments laid upon them. Noble houses vie with each other for dominance, whilst backstabbing, assassinations and familicide are all par for the course. Heroic and noble intentions count for nothing. Realpolitik, and chance, will determine your fate.

A Knight’s Tale is set in a light-hearted and anachronistic version of 1300s France and England. Protagonists are injured whilst jousting, socially embarrassed and, at worst, put in a pillory. Nobles vie with each other for reputation, whilst dancing, flirtations and jousting are all par for the course. Our protagonist succeeds through his honour, sportsmanship and his hopefulness. The friends he made along the way determine his fate.

Both of these are worlds. Both worlds could use the same ruleset if they were run as a roleplaying game, just as many, many groups play D&D 5e and have wildly different experiences.

These are pillories – and the point where the protagonist is in one is the Act 3 low-point. Not exactly The Red Wedding, is it?

Playing the World

To make either of the worlds work, (regardless of the rules) the GM would have to make decisions so that the game have the desired feeling.

That is playing the world. Every single time the GM makes up a PC, or a quest, or a location. Every time they speak in character. Even when they describe the weather, they are playing the world.

The GM does it every time they make a decision (conscious or unconscious) so that the game has the desired feeling.

Whenever the GM puts that desired feeling before the rules-as-written (or even the rules-as-intended) they are playing the world, not the rules.

The non-GM players are also playing the world all the time. Every character decision, piece of dialogue, throwaway action. Every puzzle, problem or conflict that is solved is (or should be) done in a way that fits the world.

I recently read that the ISS will de-orbit in 2031, which makes me feel mournful.

Further examples of different worlds

The world is not just a planet – games set in Earth’s medieval period, and in the present day, are in different worlds.

The world is not just a time period – games set in 1944 New York and 1944 Berlin, are in different worlds.

The world is not just an approximate location – two games set in King Arthur’s court, but where one focuses on the intrigue and romancing of the nobility, whilst the other focuses on an elaborate heist by some near-do-wells to steal Excalibur, are in different worlds.

The world is all-encompassing. It is genre, tone, location, character traits, aesthetics, story beats: It is everything that makes a fiction.

The world can even change from session to session.

Season 7 Episode 4 of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (Take Me Out To The Holosuite) sees the protagonists take on the crew of a Vulcan starship in a game of baseball. It’s a classic sporting underdog story. The previous episode sees the crew’s therapist help a turncoat former(?) spy manage his panic attacks. Episode 8 of the series (The Siege of AR-558) centers on a gritty battle to hold the line in a war against an overwhelming foe.

These episodes follow the same characters in the same time frame, but vary wildly. They are all in Star Trek, but they are in different worlds.

Sometimes, worlds overlap within a given installment.

The Star Wars original trilogy has three main worlds. I’m not talking about Tatooine, Dagobah and Bespin.

  • World 1 = The Rebellion against The Empire – it’s the world of the Death Star, hidden rebel bases, secret plans and dogfights
  • World 2 = The Criminal Underworld – it’s the world of Jabba’s Palace, bounty hunters, cargo smuggling and greasy alien bars
  • World 3 = The Force – it’s the world of Ben Kenobi, lightsabers, Darth Vader and searching your feelings

This is something that Fantasy Flight seemed to understood – they made different core rule books for each world, designed at supporting that world, so that the world and the rules were in less conflict.

The three worlds overlap often. A great example is during the first Death Star run, which puts the rebels vs empire conflict at the front. Luke can only succeed because of help from the criminal world (via Han Solo) and the Force (via Ben Kenobi).

The story has masterful command of the three worlds that define Star Wars.

As a GM, and as a player, (or as a wargamer) the FKR tells you to strive for understanding of the world of your game. Put the world first, and use the rules only when it feels right.

Play Worlds, Not Rules.

Further Reading

All of the above is my interpretation of ‘Play Worlds, Not Rules’. Some other folks have views, and some of those are below.

Some qualities of a souls-like ttrpg

  • Story-light, lore-heavy
  • Map exploration with loops (Jaquayed dungeons)
  • Deliberate and punishing combat
  • Gameplay mechanics that interact with death
  • Boss Fights
  • A dark/grim overall tone
  • Git Gud – player skill/knowledge increase more important than gear/levelling up

If only I could be so grossly incandescent!

Solaire of Astora

It is entirely possible to make a game with all of these qualities.

But if a game has enough of these qualities that it continues to feel souls-like, then it is still souls-like.

Everyone’s experiences of a game are unique, so this is really my list of qualities for a souls-like game. Yours might differ.

Meta

It was revealed last week that the new Dark Souls ttrpg will use a version of D&D 5th edition.

This is a very odd pairing.

Odd enough that not one, but two ttrpg game jams have sprung up in response.

Predictably, I am working on an entry.

House Rules for Chess with kids

I introduced my Chess Club (comprising of eleven-year-olds) to several variants of chess.

The children instantly broke up into three groups of 4 and started playing Bughouse chess.

That’s chess where if you take an opponent’s piece, you can pass it to your teammate to play as a reinforcement in their game.

I need pieces! Give me pieces!

repeatedly overheard during the club

The next day’s club, with different kids, was not so uniform.

  • One pair played Horde Chess, where a full set of black pieces faced off against 36 white pawns
  • Another played Alice chess, with two boards next to each other. Pieces teleport between boards after every move
  • They then played Atomic chess, where all the pieces explode when taken.

They two kids asked me if they were allowed to combine Atomic chess with Alice chess.

It’s a little sad that they felt the need to ask permission, but the answer was

Absolutely! That sounds amazing!

And it was amazing.

Every so often they had some rules question about the new interactions, and I mostly gave them two possible options and allowed them to choose the more fun ruling.

Chess with mods

And then there were these two boys.

I noticed they each had a bishop stacked on top of a castle on their board.

They told me the piece had to alternately move like a bishop and then alike a castle on each of its turns.

Their knights were atomic and would blow up.

They decided the king could do castling any time it was in a line with a castle.

These two boys got it. I mean really got it.

Each new game they played had new and different rules that they made up without hesitation.

For once the games weren’t simultaneous attempts at an early scholar’s mate.

Relating this to ttrpgs

In tabletop roleplaying-games, (in my experience) most groups house-rule as a matter of course.

It’s nice to be reminded that tinkering with gameplay doesn’t have to make a thing more balanced, or pure, or focused.

It just has to make it more fun.

Further reading

My previous posts about kids-at-play

Shut Up and Sit Down’s video on chess variants.

Wikipedia article called List of chess variants