They didn’t stop there. Here are some more variants of chess that the kids made up.
Train Chess is played exactly like a normal game of chess, except that every 8 turns, a train steams through the middle two rows and destroys any pieces in those spaces. Normally the center four spaces are heavily fought over, but in this variant, you don’t want your pieces hanging around there.
Often players move pieces to the middle rows expecting that they can move them out before the train comes. Then the opponent pins their pieces there or wastes turns with easy-to-deal-with checks, until the pieces in the middle die.
If your king is hit by the train, you lose.
It sounds like a really dumb variant, and it is, but its also good fun and worth a try.
In Double Chess you set up two boards end to end, and set the pieces up at as normal at opposite ends. Now there are lots of spaces between each army, which inflates the value of the queen, bishop and rook, whilst decreasing the value of the other pieces. To rebalance the game, pawns can double move for their first turn and their second turn. Pawns also promote when they get to the end of their board, ie half way to the opposing army. Additionally, queens, bishops and rooks all have to stop their movement after crossing the seam between two boards. Knights are weaker than usual, and end up just being defensive pieces, or protecting pawns as they advance.
Double HP Chess
Set up the board as usual, except on each space, place two pieces instead of one. Each piece now has two HP, as represented by the second piece.
This game was an interesting experiment but it didn’t really work as intended. It becomes quite impossible to snipe pieces and everything becomes a bit of a meatgrinder. Unlike the other variants here, Double HP Chess didn’t get any repeat play.
Not every experiment works, but negative results are still results.
Double Train Chess
Combine Train Chess with Double Chess. Those important middle two rows where pawns upgrade and rooks, queens and bishops have to pause becomes very dangerous due to the train.
Not a variant that the kids invented, but one that became quite popular. Two players play back to back with a judge administering the game. Like in Battleship, players can only see their pieces and have to guess where the opponent’s pieces are. It’s often easy to know where pieces are, as they take your pieces, but hard to figure out what pieces they are. I never played this variant, but the players all found it to be very stressful and intense.
Black’s view in a game of Battleship Chess
And the opponent’s view.
Sometimes the new rules didn’t work, but fun was had trying them out regardless
You can increase the longevity of a game by a lot with a little elbow grease
Nobody ever asked why there was a train steaming through the battlefield at regular intervals, they just accepted it because it was neat.
The spell which returns Voldemort to corporeal form in chapter 32 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Here are the other three best spells in Harry Potter.
The Unbreakable Vow
It’s a magically-binding promise from one wizard/witch to another, witnessed by a third.
If you break the vow you die.
It’s not clear from the fiction exactly why baddies aren’t using this to control people and are instead using the Imperius curse (a sort of mind-control), which can be repelled with training. Perhaps there is a component where the Unbreakable Vow just won’t work if the person making the promise is under duress. Of course, there are many types of duress, so even that doesn’t really explain it.
In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, an excellent fan-fiction in which Harry is raised by scientist parents, the Unbreakable Vow permanently siphons off a bit of magical potential, which is a good explanation for why they are not constantly used. (I think its the magical potential of the person to whom something is promised that is sapped.) In fact, HPMOR is a fan-fic that adds and improves on the original – everyone is more competent and magic is used to its fullest extent with minimal plot holes.
The Unbreakable Vow has some similarities with Gaes in D&D.
What makes the spell so good is the potential for high-stakes drama.
The Fidelius Charm
You make something, typically a location, unfindable. Not just hidden, but unfindable. It can only be found by the person you designate as the Secret Keeper.
The Secret Keeper can tell other people the secret, so that they can find it, but those people cannot pass the secret on again. Its a mechanism for limiting the passage of secret information, and was used in the Wizarding Wars to keep The Goodies safe.
The roleplay juice here is centered on who you tell the secret to.
People who trust nobody can’t use it.
People who trust somebody are now beholden to that person.
That person is the weak link in your chain. Did you choose the right person?
It also feels similar to magic relating to the True Names of things. If someone knows your True Name, they have power over you.
Like the Unbreakable Vow, the Fidelius Charm provides some good roleplay possibilities, mostly relating to drama.
I know it’s not an spell but the original list included a potion.
The Remembrall is a large marble-like ball with white smoke inside. If you’ve forgotten something, the smoke turns red.
As a kid I thought that the remembrall was a pointless gift. If I’ve forgotten something, at least tell me what it is!
As an adult I would love one. A magic item that means you never miss a deadline, you never forget to pay a bill – how many times have you rushed to barely complete something in time because you forgot about in entirely?
It’s a magic item of convenience – like a bag of holding.
In a ttrpg it would function as a mechanism to make sure that player knowledge stays aligned with character knowledge. As an excuse for the GM to aid the party without breaking the illusion of the game. It’s excellent not due to drama, but as a tool for the GM – in fact its a tool for the GM which the players probably think is a tool for them.
The DAQ Criteria
I’ve written before about the DAQ Criteria. We ask three questions of an ability (or item or spell etc.):
Is it Distinctive?
Is it Appreciable?
Is it Qualitative?
The Unbreakable Vow
There is nothing else in the Harry Potter world which can do this, however the Imperius Curse comes close
Yes, if a character acted based on an unbreakable vow it would be an appreciable, noticeable moment in a game (or in the fiction)
Fundamentally the spell applies a rather unique quality to the target.
The Fidelius Charm
It is unique, there is no other stated mechanism for the protection of dwellings like this
Yes, escaping to a secret location and knowing that you are safe (unless betrayed) is highly appreciable
It is distinct, nothing else does what it does
This is debatable. We see in the fiction that Neville’s Remembrall reminds him that he’s forgotten something, but he can’t remember what he has forgotten. But if the players can remember what it was that was forgotten, then it would be highly appreciable.
All the best spells in Harry Potter are linked by their qualitative and distinct natures. They are also all appreciable, but I think this is a secondary design concern to the other two. The longer I have thought about the DAQ criteria, the more I’ve thought that it would be very hard to make something which is distinct, qualitative and yet not appreciable. Furthermore, I think that anything which falls into that category is still useful as a game element for setting tone.
Shilling for myself
I recently released Welcome to Camp Merlin, a short (6-12 session) game about a group of kids at a magical summer camp.
When I was designing the magic in Camp Merlin, aimed to make every spell fit the DAQ criteria. Here’s the spell list below:
Shape Shifting – take the form of an animal
True Slime – a perfectly lubricant, completely frictionless
True Glue – a perfect adhesive
Slowing – slows target
Ranged Shove – pushes back target
Power Walking – can walk up walls/on water
Perfect Replica – makes a reflected copy of an item
Truth Food – you must tell the truth while eating it
Sense Mind – sense, but do not read, nearby minds
Liquify – liquifies the target
Misremember – edits a memory
Mirth – forced laughter
These spells, combined with the qualitative tasks that must be completed to learn them, several unique monsters (with sub-tables to vary the encounters) and a dozen static encounters around Camp Merlin, compose 80% of the game. Very content-heavy, with some GM guidance and very light rules.
Essentially, a Matrix Game combines the tactical infinity of role-playing games with control of an ‘actor’ – a faction, organisation or entity – as would be expected in a strategy game. They align with the play worlds, not rules philosophy of the Free Kriegspiel Revival movement, meaning that setting, and the rules/expectations of the setting, takes precedence over a dense system of rules.
A cobbled-together primer:
Matrix Games from a professional military perspective mapsymbs
Open Strategy Game is a term that Chris McDowell coined to avoid confusion with all the other things that ‘matrix’ means. I think I prefer it.
My first Matrix Game
Michael over at lizardmandiaries put out a call for players of his Matrixhammer, a matrix game/Warhammer Fantasy mashup.
We played-by-post over discord and I fully recommend you go and read his play report of the game from a referee’s perspective.
I was the Empire player with the forces below at my command.
My forces were camped at a hut beside a lake, it was midnight and an army of evil beastmen could be heard howling. They were about 2 hours travel away. My forces had to survive 6 hours until re-enforcements arrived.
Emotions are tricky
I want to preface everything I’m about to say by making something crystal clear – I think Michael did an excellent job of responding to the inputs that the other player and I gave him. I would absolutely play another matrix game run by him.
That being said, I did not fully enjoy the game whilst I was playing it.
There were some moments where my initial emotional reaction to the update was negative.
My rational brain had to step in and actively overrule those reactions.
After reading Michael’s play report, I am happy to say that my negative initial emotional reactions were founded on flawed premises, as my emotional reactions assumed certain things about the beastmen player’s actions that were untrue.
My after-the-event enjoyment of the game is much higher.
I think the root cause of my negative feelings was the high amount of hidden information in this scenario. Without prompting or suggestion from me, Michael seems to have identified it as an issue as well, as his next Matrixhammer scenario includes player arguments which are completely public for all terms. I think that is a good idea and would have mitigated the majority of the negative feelings I had, though he might not be doing it for that reason.
How I felt and what I thought throughout the game
Again, if you haven’t read Michael’s play report I recommend it. It’s a good read and it will provide useful context for the next section.
I was torn between setting up defensive positions and doing something sneaky. I went with sneaky and set up a flammable area nearby the hut, whilst keeping the area closest to the hut less flammable.
The Forces of The Empire make the are immediately near the hut fire-resistant, whilst making the area further outwards more prone to fire/the spreading of fire -The Halberdiers deposit dry leaves and twigs in the flammable area to act as good fire starters -The Riflemen deposit some powder in the flammable area for the same reason -The Wizard surges the lake water onto the fire-resistant area to dampen it
This was a success so I reasoned I would spend the next hour/turn fortifying, and the one after that triggering my sneaky fire trap.
At this point I was pretty pleased with myself for “doing a tactical infinity”.
I ordered fortifications on turn 2.
The Forces of The Empire make defensive preparations -The Riflemen make holes in the roof so they can shoot out from it -The Halberdiers use wood from the trees to create sharp spikes at the edge of the lake, facing towards the water -The Captain gives rousing speeches to each group of soldiers to steel their courage
I was told that my fortifications were a success, but that the horde had not got closer during the last hour.
…a very faint itchiness wafts briefly over your units skin. Your wizard senses some foul magics have occurred in the surrounding forests.
I inferred from this that a curse had been put on the surrounding area. I didn’t know what the curse was and wasn’t sure how to counteract it – I had a wizard in my forces, but he was tooled for elemental magic.
I decided that since I had another hour to prepare I would summon an air elemental who could take watch in case the pause by the beastmen forces was a trick.
The Forces of the Empire create an air elemental to act as a scout, and sends it to the edge of where they can see, within the flammable area -The Wizard summons the air elemental using his magic -The soldiers ensure its sanctity by singing hymns and prayers of the Empire -The Captain takes the plumes from the Halberdiers and gives them to the air elemental, so it can drop them as a signal if it sees any beast men
I found out that there was a large force of beastmen to my right and a smaller force to my left, and that they had started burning the forest. A helpful map was shared.
I decided that I would try to catch a large portion of the attacking force in my fire-trap. So far my emotions had been steadily positive.
The Forces of the Empire attempt to catch attacking the beast men forces in the flames. If they can split them by trapping some beastly forces with them on the inside of the fires (that is, in the flame-resistant area around the hut) whilst keeping most out then that is a bonus. -The Wizard keeps the flames at back until the right moment, then surges them forward -The ground is prepared for fire with powder and dry material, so it should spread quickly to the attacking beast forces -The air elemental will also keep back the flames before surging them on by adding air as fuel
My trap worked (combined with the other defenses) and the larger force of beastmen were caught in my flames, mostly perishing (but taking two halberdiers and a zweinhander man with them).
Another helpful map was shared.
I was feeling quite pleased with myself. I’d used the fire trap effectively and only had to survive for two more turns/hours.
I was concerned about the fire, though I remembered that I had constructed a fire break so my forces should be safe. I decided to put the effort of the turn into pushing back the remaining beastman force using smoke from the fire.
The Forces of the Empire will attempt to prevent injury from smoke inhalation, whilst making the smoke a problem for the remaining beastmen -The Zweinhanders will soak any available robes and tunics with lake-water to act as a mask/filter against smoke -The wizard will use fire magic to push the fires towards the remaining beastmen -The air elemental will push the smoke towards the beastmen. It will extinguish/kill itself with the effort if doing so will help.
The results mentioned that magical agents on both sides were trying to control the fires (the air elemental sacrificed itself in the process). Then the fires broke through and rushed over the hut, killing all the riflemen inside. The remaining forces fled the fire into the water, which writhed with demonic influence causing their skin to itch and crawl. They put damp rags over their mouths to protect from the choking smoke, which may have transmitted some illness in the process. Out in the lake, the wizard surged fire after the beastmen, who fell back. Another, smaller beastman force was revealed. Another map was shared.
When I got the results of the round, I was mildly grumpy. Those pesky emotions.
I had not expected that the fire could spread so quickly over the whole hut area, especially when I was vying for control of the fire too. I felt that the fire going against me was arbitrary, a throw of the dice on which too much had rested.
Let’s examine why that was not true. The beastmen’s goal for that turn was to burn my troops alive, and there was already a fire raging on 3 sides of the hut. Even if I was pushing the left half of the fire towards the beastmen, I wasn’t doing anything with the right half. It was a pretty even toss up between the two, weighted in favour of the beastmen.
So my remaining forces are in the lake water, which is seemingly cursed. I only need to survive another hour until re-enforcements arrive. So I decided to go to the eastern shore and have the wizard use magic to cleanse them all with fresh water. Michael kindly pushed me to suggest more than this, as it would be pretty easy to do and it was the last turn. I reasoned that the forces on the east of the lake must only be a rag-tag group as the main force died in the fire.
The Forces of the Empire leave the lake on the eastern bank and attempt to engage the beastman forces that the wizard sensed there -The Captain will lead the way to inspire his troops -The wizard will cleanse their soaked and probably cursed bodies and clothes by summoning fresh new water once they get on land -The halberdiers will attempt to form a spear wall, with the zweihanders on the flanks
The results ended with a battle, where my survivors fought a shaman, 6 raiders and 20 plague demons. Arrows rained down as a miasmic cloud engulfed the battle. The imperial forces won a pyrrhic victory, and the survivors (the wizard, the captain, a zweinhander and 2 halberdiers) were met by their reinforcements. The beastmen retreat to their camps to fight over who will be their new leader. And finally…
…those surviving men of the empire died of some rotting, delirious fever several days later after setting foot into that diseased lake….
Those pesky emotions again – I was quite grumpy at this.
My emotional reasoning ran thus. The surviving imperial forces had died due to the curse on the lake, which had happened in turn 2. They had been forced into the lake due to the arbitrary decision that the fire had consumed the hut on turn 5. So really, not matter what I did on turn 6 my soldiers could not have survived. It was a forgone conclusion and a wasted turn.
Of course, the fire-hut ruling wasn’t arbitrary, it was very reasonable. But at this point I still felt it was arbitrary as I hadn’t yet seen how decent a ruling it was.
And the lake wasn’t just poisoned by the curse on turn 2. The curse on turn 2 was amplified by the scavenging for dead animals that the beastmen had done on turn 1. And the nurglings (summoned demons) had poisoned the lake further when they travelled through it on turn 4. And the beastman player had devoted most of turn 6 to spreading clouds of sickness and defiling the humans with nurglings. And I had instructed the humans to wrap rags soaked in lake-water around their mouths.
So the stacking of plague was quite reasonable. I could have done a variety of things to mitigate it (for instance, praying to the imperial gods – even during the last turn.
Once I read Michael’s post and saw the actual details of the beastmen player’s turn, my emotions turned around.
I’m interested in seeing how the next matrixhammer goes. I think that there was too much secrecy in this instance, though it all matched the information our factions would have had. As I’ve already said, Michael’s next Matrixhammer will have all arguments completely public. I think this will improve the play-experience, and I look forward to seeing how it goes.
The matrix games discord is here for anyone whose interest has been peaked.
I’ve toyed with a few ideas for matrix games to run myself, most recently I’ve been considering running a game based on The Battle of the Five Armies from The Hobbit.
Once again I’ll be referencing Harry Potter a lot, as well as D&D 5e. Harry Potter remains the best cultural touchstone when discussing learning magic, whilst D&D 5e is the big ttrpg.
When I refer to casting magic, I mean the actual things that the character does to make the magic happen, not the results of the magic.
Magic can serve lots of purposes in a fiction. In Lovecraftian fiction it is dangerous and dark, something to be feared and avoided. In Harry Potter it is largely whimsical and a time-saving tool. In Mistborn (I recently read the first book and really enjoyed it) magic is a mechanical tool, mostly of oppression. You get the idea.
The the casting of the magic should reflect and support its themes within the fiction. Generally, it does.
Casting of Lovecraftian magic is esoteric. Casting is likely to involve strange words and dark rituals. Lovecraftian magic is very tightly themed.
Mistborn’s magic is mechanical – ingest the appropriate metal and then use it as mana for that branch of magic. Appropriate for a tool-like magic.
Harry Potter’s magic falls down here (with one big exception). Most magic involves pointing a wand and saying some pseudo-latin. This is somewhat whimsical but it’s core flaw is that it is boring. I’ve written at length before about the three best spells in Harry Potter and the best spell, Expecto Patronum, bucks this trend.
Expecto Patronum creates a glowing magical creature which brings warmth and happiness, and defeats the dark monsters which stand in for depression. To cast Expecto Patronum, the caster must bring to mind a powerful happy memory. This is great theming and moreover it is interesting, not just from a fictional position but from a ttrpg perspective.
Expecto Patronum is essentially acting like a storygame prompt. If a player were to cast the spell, they would need to explain their character’s happy memory to the rest of the players. The casting mechanism is engaging as it is directly supporting narrative development by the players.
This doesn’t directly support the whimsy of the setting, but the glowing animal companion bit does. And this spell is only relevant when depression-monsters are attacking – the darkness to which the whimsy is juxtaposed anyway.
It’s probably not worthwhile to make every spell this engaging in a game like D&D. I don’t want to have to improvise a new memory every time I cast magic missile, and I certainly don’t want my combats to be dragged out even longer than they already are.
In Critical Role, players describe how they character does their attack when the get a killing blow. Reserving engaging questions only for important moments (first time used, fight-ending moments, narratively crucial decision points) would be a good workaround.
It’s hard to provide a formula for making spell-casting more engaging, as it’s very dependent on themes and individual spells. But it is worth considering.
How I’ve made casting the magic in Welcome to Camp Merlin more engaging
I can broadly categorise my approach in three groups: positioning; character prompts; and telegraphing.
Shape Shift: Position your body so that your limbs are in the shape of the animal which you wish to become. Hold that shape for six seconds.
It’s not a strict ‘unable to cast in combat’ restriction, but it means the players will have to create the time and space to make the shape. If the player can also pose to show the shape their character for added whimsy.
Truth Food (food that makes the eater tell the truth): Whilst preparing food for consumption, speak aloud a truth that you have never told anybody.
This is a storygame-esque prompt, like the happy memory for expecto patronum. It also serves as a soft restriction depending on whether the character is around other people.
Sense Mind (locate nearby minds): Close your eyes, calm your body, and empty your mind of all thoughts.
Any other magic user can infer what magic you are doing by looking at you. In this instance, it also makes you vulnerable, so it’s a risky move in a game of cat-and-mouse.
(This is part 1 of a 3 part series about designing magic for tabletop roleplaying games. Get part 2 here. I’ll link part 3 when it’s finished.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 widelyconsidered 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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All of the above is my interpretation of ‘Play Worlds, Not Rules’. Some other folks have views, and some of those are below.
This is the blueprint for most fire magic. It’s what a 1st level fire spell would look like.
Each of the numerical elements – the radius of the sphere; the range; and the damage – can be increased.
Each increase in any of those three areas increases the spell level by one.
So a 1st level fire spell makes a sphere of radius 5ft, has a range of 120ft and does 4d6 fire damage.
A wizard can cast their 2nd level fire spell as any of the below:
A 5ft radius sphere, 120ft range and 8d6 damage
A 20ft radius sphere, 120ft range and 4d6 damage
A 5ft radius sphere, 240ft range and 8d6 damage
Under this system, wizards can modify their spell to suit the situation they are in.
If a wizard with access to 4th level spells wants to cast a fireball with a radius of 40ft, then it can either have a range of 120ft and deal 8d6 damage, or it can have a range of 240ft but deal just 4d6 damage.
A wizard casting fireball as a cantrip would use the 1st level blueprint, except they would halve two of the values. For example, 4d6 damage but only 60ft of range and 2.5ft radius for the sphere.
In fact, the numbers I’ve use keep the power levels approximately the same as Firebolt, Burning Hands, Fireball and Meteor Swarm in 5e.
Fire Magic status quo
Here’s a brief rundown of the fire magic spells in the player’s handbook. I’m only including spells where the main purpose is fire damage and which wizards can cast.
Explanation and details
Cone area of effect
3 attacks at up to 3 targets
5ft diameter sphere, move 30ft each turn, damage each round
20ft radius sphere
Wall of Fire
60ft long, 20ft high, 1ft thick
10ft radius, 40ft high cylinder, fire and radiant damage
Delayed Blast Fireball
20ft radius sphere, 1d6 more damage per round for 1min
20ft radius sphere, move 10ft per round, damage each round
40ft radius sphere, fire and bludgeoning damage
As they advance, wizards can use their fire magic attack to:
Do increasing damage to each target
Hit more targets at once
Hit targets which are increasingly far away
Most of the spells are fire damage in an area of effect, but some have their own gimmicks
Flaming Sphere, Wall of Fire and Incendiary Cloud all persist on the battlefield
Delayed Blast Fireball has a ramp up in its damage until it is released
There is a mildly annoying lack of symmetry.
There’s no 6th level fire spell for Wizards. They have Sunbeam but it only does radiant damage.
Most spells use d6s but not all of them.
Each spell takes roughly 1/4 of a page, so in all they take about 2.5 pages.
There is some functionality to the spells above which the modular system does not have. However, they can be patched on.
At a cost of 2 spell-levels, a fireball can persist for a minute, and can be directed to move 30ft every round as a bonus action. Creatures inside the fireball make a save at the start of their turn etc.
At a cost of 2 spell-levels, a fireball can be delayed for a minute, with the damage increasing by 1d6 for every round of combat that it is held for.
In fact, any desired functionality could be patched on.
The minor annoyances have gone since every level has fireball magic and it all uses d6s.
The modular version is also a lot more concise – perhaps half a page rather than 2.5 pages.
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