30 September 2013

My Experience with the OSR

I "grew up" (literally and metaphorically) playing Basic Edition with a little 2e mixed in and various rules-lite homebrews, ranging from completely rules-less shared storytelling type stuff to variations of D&D.

After a lapse of playing, I got a group together, and we got a Pathfinder game going. Well, long story short, it sucked. There were so many rules, character creation took sooooo long, and the zeitgeist of Pathfinder at the time was totally "dm-as-frustrated novelist" (meaning the DM writes a story and leads the players through it).

I felt like I had to prep so much stuff, boring stuff, statblocks, stories, npcs, blah blah blah. I worked so hard, and the game was no fun. Just little minis moving around a board.

If I'd wanted that, I could have played Monopoly.

Frustrated, I started looking around the Internet for what had gone wrong with my game, and stumbled upon the Old School Renaissance. Here were people that had "grown up" with the loosey-goosey old systems I had, playing dungeoncrawls and sandboxes. People who had kept the flame alive, while I had forgotten.

They reminded me that rules don't make it realistic or fun - the DM is better positioned to make common-sense rulings at the table than any game designer in their office could be.

They reminded me that prep doesn't have to be onerous - oldschool games rely heavily on improv, random tables, and because they have so few rules, statblocks are simple. A monster entry can be "Goblin, 1HD, AC5, they don't like tall people". That's enough to riff on or run a combat.

Most of all, they reminded me that the game is about the players and their choices. The DM is there to run the world, to make it interesting, and present interesting choices and opportunities.

Freed from rules, freed from onerous prep, freed from crafting a story, I was free to run the game the players wanted - whatever that might be. I was free to spend prep time on what matters - making a living world to present to the players.

I was free to fall in love with D&D again.

7 September 2013

Mortal Wounds and the Double-Kill: Towards Descriptive Damage

Something I've been wanting for a while is a *descriptive* damage system, as opposed to a simply numerical one. My reading in SPADA II about how damn resilient the human body is to damage has brought this to the forefront of my mind again.

One of my main goals with this experiment is to make the results of a combat more "role-play-y". This isn't about realism, it's about getting players to really be able to imagine what their character is going through. A result like "his thrust pierces your mail - your belly is all wet and sticky" seems a lot cooler to me than "he hit you for 5 damage". Currently, I rely entirely on my own imagination to generate results on the fly, but I always find random tables help with spurring inspiration.

I've included a bleed-out mechanic that adds a certain tension to combat and post-combat medical attention. I had been working on something when I came across this on Metal vs. Skin, which is a pretty elegant solution. I think I'm going to go with what I'd been working on (detailed below), but Metal vs. Skin's is pretty cool, and worth checking out.

So, what I've come up with here is pretty complicated - I'm working on simplifying it. I don't think many people will find this useful because of that, and that's fine. I'm mostly just spitballing here.

The game I'm running right now is a low-magic, low-combat game where fighting should bring devastating consequences for one or both parties, and for that kind of game, I think this might work well.

I'll be playtesting this over my next few games and refining it. If any combat comes up...
Hit locations
  • legs 1-2
  • torso 3-5
  • arms 6-9
  • head 10
Wound levels (i.e. severity) 

Use this table to interpret your damage rolls (explode your damage dice, so on a natural 6 roll another d6 and add that total. Continue in that fashion until you don't get a 6.).

1-3: Flesh wound (no mechanical effect, risk of infection, still requires treatment or risk increases a lot) - 1 wound level
4-6: Serious flesh wound (will bleed out without treatment) - 2 wound levels
7-9: Severe wound (bone, tendon - bleed out and disability without treatment) - 4 wound levels
10-12: Mortal wound (major organ or arterial involvement, dismemberment or decapitation - rapid death without rapid treatment) - 8 wound levels
13+: Instant death ( heart pierced, spine severed, brain stem destroyed, head cut off)


If you take more wound levels in one round than your Con score, you immediately collapse and are hors de combat.

Bleed-out time

Once you're wounded, you start the bleed-out timer.

Each wound level moves you one space down the bleed-out track:
7 days / 1 day / 12 hr / 1 hr / 30m / 15m / 10m / 5m/ 3m/ 2m / 1m (6 rounds) / 5 rounds / 4 rds / 3 rds / 2 rds / 1 rd / Collapse (Death in 1m)

Once your time is up, you collapse. You now have 1 minute until death.

First Aid

After a battle where you get wounded, you're going to need First Aid. This is handled abstractly, and requires someone with some knowledge of First Aid. Fighters and Burglars are assumed to have knowledge of First Aid.

First aid is sufficient to stop the bleeding of any Flesh wound, Severe Flesh Wound, or Severe Wound. Move back up the bleed-out track if you receive First Aid for a wound.

For Mortal Wounds, surgical care is required.

First Aid requires:

5 minutes / wound level
First Aid Supplies

First Aid supplies consist of things like clean water, rags, splints (if bones are broken), knives, fire (for cauterization).

Surgical Care

Surgeons were known in the Medieval Era, and knew much, much more than many would think. See my recent article on Medieval Battlefield Medicine for more on that.

If you've suffered a Mortal Wound, you will die unless you receive surgical care. This requires 1d6 hours, a trained Surgeon (training to be a surgeon in the Medieval era was much like today - it took about a decade of combined classroom and practical learning), surgical tools, dressings, etc.


You can heal 1 wound level per wound per 2 weeks of rest, if you're getting proper medical attention. Otherwise, you heal 1 wound level per wound per 4 weeks.

Obviously, some serious wounds will never fully heal - a chopped off hand is not going to grow back.

Infections / fevers

For every wound (not wound level) you have that hasn't received prompt proper medical attention, you have a 1-in-6 chance of getting a serious infection in the next week. So, total your number of wounds and roll a d6 modified by your Con bonus. If you roll is equal or less than your number of wounds, you develop a serious infection, are feverish, and more or less useless.

For wounds that have received proper medical attention, you have a 1-in-20 chance per wound of developing a serious infection.

More to come on infections and disease, this is an area that I want to do a lot more work on, so this is very preliminary.

6 September 2013

Medieval Battlefield Medicine

It is generally believed that the Medieval Era was almost entirely ignorant of medical and surgical procedures.

This is simply not true.

By about 1400, medical knowledge included knowledge of the importance of cleanliness; suturing of wounds, blood vessels, and nerves; treatment of simple and compound (open) fractures, dislocations, amputation, cauterization to prevent excessive blood loss; anaesthesia; trepanning to treat skull fractures; gangrene and debridment of dead tissuel; etc. etc. Much of this knowledge dates to the Classical era, but some of it was developed during the late Middle Ages.

Medieval surgeons knew pretty much everything you need for battlefield medicine with the notable exception of antibiotics, transfusion, intravenous drips, and organ transplantation.

What does this mean? Well, if you can get to a surgeon and haven't lost too much blood, you're in OK shape. You might get an infection, and there's really nothing they could do about that, but if you don't (or if you survive it), you're likely to live.

Battle commanders of the Middle Ages were well aware of this fact. For instance, during the campaign that included Agincourt, the English army of 10,000 brought at least 24 surgeons - about one for every 400 men (incidentally, the current standard is about 1 surgeon for every 500-800 men).

By the 1200 or so, there were established medical schools you could go too, and the requirements for training were actually not that far from today's - you would take a 3-year college degree, a 4-year medical degree, then a year of practical study, and possibly another year of anatomy for surgeons.

The idea of getting your wounded Fighter to the Surgeon is definitely a lot less snappy than getting hands laid on by a Paladin or a Cure Light Wounds from a Cleric, but for a high-grit low/no-magic campaign set in a Middle Ages-like setting, consider having Surgeons available for hire in major centres to patch up serious injuries.

Regarding pricing, there's some evidence that medieval physicians and surgeons charged on a charge-what-you-can plan - i.e. make the wealthy pay through the nose, and give care away for free to the needy. So excellent medical care need not only be available to the wealthy.

Surgery will feature in my upcoming draft of a Descriptive Damage System, a gritty replacement for a hit point system that focuses more on roleplayable injuries and treatments.

4 September 2013

Noisms is a Great Guy, Whatever Our Differences

Some of you may have followed the spirited and at-times-heated debate between Noisms (of Monsters and Manuals fame) and I regarding rigid vs. flexible round lengths recently.

I just wanted to put out there, though, that whatever our minor differences may be, I've enjoyed Noisms blog over the years and we actually have a lot of common ground. I'd go so far as to say we agree on more than we disagree.

In that spirit, I thought I'd share and comment on some stuff I've really like from his blog, as a sort of peace offering.


I couldn't agree more with all of this. Especially the bit about recreating basic monsters - I realized some time ago that the "stats" of a monster are almost irrelevant. What they look like, what they want, what they do, how they think - that's the meat and potatoes of a monster entry.

One of the main monsters from the megadungeon I use for one-offs and con games "stat block" would look like this (using the BECMI rules):

1 HD (4 HD queen)

That's it. That's the "stat block". They're a 1 HD monster, their leaders are 4 HD. But what makes them different than a goblin or a skeleton is their "skin".

These little guys live in swarms. They're made of shadow made flesh. They hate light and their feces are darkness. Their lair houses a queen and bajillions of inky black eggs. No light can penetrate their lair - too much of their light-sucking feces adorn the place.

Stats don't matter much.


Leaving aside the one-minute round as a can of worms that doesn't need to be opened again, everything else in this post is rock solid.

The comment that most deaths of heavily-armoured men were execution-style slayings of men who had fallen or been thrown to the ground is something that plays right into my current thinking about damage and grappling.

Currently, as I play things, unless you bleed out or suffer a mortal wound, you can keep fighting. Bleeding out takes much longer than most fights (unless you've suffered many wounds), and mortal wounds are exceptionally rare for an armoured man.

Thus, the main way to actually kill someone is to throw them to the ground, and murder them while they're more or less helpless. Just like at Agincourt.


For a quick and dirt mass combat system, this would work just fine.

I've dabbled off and on with something similar, but it would probably end up being a little more complicated than this, and that definitely gives this system the edge for a game where mass combats don't come up too often.


I love noun verbing noun encounter tables, and I think this is one of, if not the first, that I came across.

I similar tables as one of the main encounter tables in the wilderness regions of my ongoing campaign.

2 September 2013

Noisms and D&D Combat

Passages in italics are quotations from Noism's post D&D Combat is More Abstract Than You Think, which kinda got me riled up, so I apologize in advance for the acerbic tone.

...it's important to remember that the D&D combat rules evolved in a context of a 1 minute combat round: in OD&D and AD&D 1st edition, the combat round is a minute in length.

OK, but 1-minute rounds are just stupid. Just because it was in 0e or 1e doesn't mean it made any sense, or that it's good game design. There's any number of things in the old editions that are stupid and that have been houseruled away by generations of gamers.

One of the big parts of the OSR is our willingness to deconstruct the rules and modify them to suit us, not point to them as gospel.

...the famous idea of Gary Gygax's that a D&D fight should resemble the sword fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisborne in the Errol Flynn iteration.

Firstly, the notion that Errol Flynn-style combat is worth emulating is far from a universal notion. It bears no similarity to reality, it has no real risk or danger, and is extremely ill-suited to a dice-driven system like D&D.

That kind of combat exists for one purpose only: advancing the plot of a film. It's more the kind of combat you see in a story game, where the relative advantages and disadvantages in the fight reflect and comment on the dialog of the characters, and no-one gets hurt or dies except for maximizing the dramatic effect.

It is literally the exact opposite of old-school D&D combat, which is random and messy - people die and get hurt with no consideration for what that might mean for the "story". The dice reign supreme, as opposed to the story.

D&D combat bears exactly zero similarity to that style of combat, and that combat bears exactly zero similarity to real life (except that there are humans, and they have swords). That Gygax said that says it was his inspiration says little about his knowledge of combat or game design.

So much for the idea of Errol Flynn combat.

You're rolling to see if, over the course of 1 minute, you manage to wear down your opponent's defences, either through actual physical damage or moral 'damage' or exhaustion or whatever.

Your hit points represent you capacity to stay in the fight, which slowly gets reduced over time (the higher your level, the longer this takes).

I covered this in my recent post on Hit Points.

Hit points exist as a proxy for your defensive abilities, not your physical or mental stamina, or physical ability to absorb damage. The notion in (0e, at least) was that a single blow would kill a normal person about half the time - that is to say, you essentially don't have any HP, you are simply killed by a single hit and have a base 50% chance of "save vs. death".

This can be seen as an evolution from the Chainmail 1 hit = dead every time, no chance to survive. The move to D&D gave you a 50% save vs. death built-in.

So HP are, in a real sense, nothing. Trying to map them onto stamina or morale or life force or blood pressure doesn't work, as they're a statistical increase to the average life expectancy, nothing more.

And your movement rate, which seems absurdly slow, represents the fact that you are scooting around and manoeuvring for position while avoiding blows, missile attacks, what have you.

There can literally be no defense of 0e's absurdly low movement rates. There is no way you can slice them that makes a lick of sense.

They are most likely an error in the move from Chainmail mass battle to D&D single combat.

The fact that only one or two shots are permitted in a 1 minute round indicates that the archer is waiting to pick his moment to fire.

There's probably a reasonable middle-ground between 1 arrow every 6 seconds to 1 arrow every 60.

If you're taking a minute for an arrow, though, that's definitely excessive. Your odds of hitting are going to be much higher sending more shafts downrange than waiting for that "perfect chance" that may never come.

I would question why there really needs to be even an arbitrary length to a combat round of 1 minute.

Yes, and - as I said before - I agree. If you interpret D&D combat as you clearly do, then do away with rounds altogether. Just make an opposed d20 roll to see who wins.

What is the purpose of a combat round? It gives a chance for everybody to decide what they want to do and then act.

Well, it's supposed to give a way to direct a continuous action in discrete steps. As such, you need to know how long the step is going to be so you can plan your action.

It doesn't matter: there is no credibility to stretch because we are not dealing with a system which has to make sense in the way that a less abstract one does. We are not rolling dice 'to hit', despite the name: we are rolling to see how far we attrit (that is a word: I looked it up) the opponent.

If character A can attrite (I've always seen it with the 'e', but apparently both are used) character B by an average of 3 'units' per 10 seconds, then yes - it does matter one hell of a lot how long a round is. If character B has 10 'units' to attrite away, then he can last 4 rounds of 10 second, or less than 1 round of 1 minute.

I don't see how this is so hard to grasp...

Whether you're using a highly abstract system or a highly detailed one makes no difference, unless you're abstract to the point of story-gaming.

Another good reason for preferring abstract combat is just that realism may be something of a fool's errand.

It may be, but as I wrote before here, realism is to be infinitely preferred to not-realism (all other things being equal).

The short version, for the lazy, is that if the system isn't realistic, then the players need to master the system to make sensible choices. The more realistic the system, the more the players can leverage their knowledge of the real world.

For example, in reality, dropping a 25lb 10ft down onton someone's head would probably at the very least stun them, and possibly knock them out cold, maybe even kill them.

In D&D, it would have one of two effects: none, or kill them stone dead. Since that's not what would happen in the real world, a player needs to know the system well enough to understand that even though in the real world X would happen, Y will happen in the game.

I really like the idea of Western Martial Arts but I'm not persuaded that they are entirely realistic; until people start actually fighting to the death using these techniques, and agreeing that if they are injured they will only use medical techniques that were in use in the 14th century, I think that "what happens in a real sword fight" is still a matter of considerable conjecture and will likely remain so.

Sorry, but that's just ignorant. I don't really know what else to say to that.

Your ignorant, uninformed opinion based on literally nothing compared to 30 years of dedicated scholarship and experiment? It's easy to see where the weight of evidence is, and it's not on your side.

I mean, what would you think if I said something like (I seem to recall that your field is philosophy of law, or something related - apologies if it's not), "I really like the idea of the philosophy of law, but I think that scholarship in that field has revealed nothing and that everyone who has ever studied it has completely wasted their time"?

That's literally what you just said about students of historical Western martial arts.