Gaming material


The Three Fairies

Recently after a week in London for work I took a trip back to the area of Britain where I grew up, in particular Wiltshire, where I spent a couple of years of my childhood. I think I lived there for about four years from the age of about 6 to about 11 (the details are hazy, as there were many moves in that time and also a period in New Zealand). In addition to some maudlin wandering along the rivers and fields of my youth, I also did a fairly intensive tour of some of Wiltshire’s prehistoric sites. I visited Avebury, Stonehenge, Old Sarum, Silbury Hill and by accident a bunch of ancient stones called the Rollright stones. I also spent the better part of a day at Salisbury Cathedral, which is a beautiful building.

The Rollright Stones

I visited these on the way to Salisbury from the Tolkien exhibition in Oxford. At the time I visited unfortunately English Heritage were holding some kind of local event where local schoolkids could fill in some of the missing parts of this stone circle, which was unfortunate because their efforts were woeful. There was also a sculpture by David Gosling, The Three Fairies, which is the picture at the top of this post. These stones were typical of the kind of things you find in this part of Britain, just random ancient structures sitting at the edge of someone’s field, carrying five millenia of wear and largely unknown except to the locals. Set in the sweeping hillside of golden harvest corn under a flint sky the stones are both mundane and majestic, an unprepossessing memory of a time before any religion or ideas that we know.

Holy spaces

Salisbury Cathedral and the spire

I had the pleasure of visiting Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday morning, which meant I had the opportunity to hear the choir and the morning service. The inside of Salisbury Cathedral is a stunning and majestic monument to the hubris of the ancient christian church, and also to its sense of awe and holiness, and it is easy to spend a long time lost in here, fussing over its tiny details and occasionally stepping back to enjoy the grandeur and stillness of the huge hall. It is not thronging with visitors as are some great Cathedrals, so it still maintains a sense of being a working church rather than a relic. In the afternoon, wandering around the main hall again, I was able to listen to the choir practising for the evening service, which simply added to the feeling of being in a working place of worship rather than a tourist trap.

The original spire supports

Despite it not being a tourist trap, I paid for the tour of the spire, and took a precarious and occasionally disturbing climb up to the top of the original tower, to look at the archaic machinery of the spire. The spire is the tallest in England, and was built about 800 years ago, so it is something of an architectural miracle for its time. Although it was strengthened and repair work was done by Christopher Wren, much of the internal structure remains the same as when it was built, even using the same wooden supports and the same material in the arches, which is a little disturbing when you’re standing 70 m above the ground being told that the whole thing is being held together by the work of some engineers 800 years ago. It’s also very impressive to think about the risks they took and the effort they expended to venerate their god. A god, it should be remembered, that is quite new in the world, and which supplanted much older gods whose own holy sites are scattered around the town where Salisbury Cathedral was built.

Approaching Avebury

Avebury

After Salisbury Cathedral I visited the first of these old holy sites, Avebury. This is a massive circle of stones that forms part of a religious complex about an hour north of Salisbury. The stone circle runs around a whole small village, and within that larger circle is a smaller circle. Along the road to Avebury serried ranks of stones point the way to the circle itself, forming a kind of avenue leading up to the town. All around the town are old burial mounds, one of which is open for visitors to enter, and at a little remove from the town is Silbury Hill, a 32m tall artificial hill built out of chalk by the neolithic fanatics who lived around here. The whole area has the feeling of a religious complex, like a Mecca or Rome for ancient pagan ideas. In the museum at the centre of the stones we learn all about what we know about these religious beliefs in the Old Gods – which is nothing. No one knows anything about why they were built or even, to a great extent, how, and the entire enterprise of archaeology is one of speculation and wonder. It is certainly easy to wonder at these stones – by modern standards dumping a big stone in a paddock is hardly an effort, but standing silent and inscrutable in their crumbling glory, ordered according to some religious codex that defies comprehension, they hold a sense of splendour and awe. It’s easy to imagine that there is something about this land that we don’t know, something these stones could tell us if we only knew how to ask. But we don’t, so they stand there grimly defying both our science and our philosophy, warning us that our own human heritage is a mystery to us.

Stonehenge in the summer

Stonehenge

Stonehenge is the apotheosis of these religious wonderings, of course, but when I was a child it was a pretty naff place, just a bunch of hard-to-reach stones that were kind of disappointing when you got up close, and you weren’t even allowed to touch them. Later, when I lived in Britain in 2008 I visited again, but this time there was a car park and a weird stupid tunnel that led you “back in time” to the stones, and they didn’t really impress at all. But now they are much better presented, and I was able to approach them by walking parallel to the old neolithic way, seeing them first on the horizon and then closer and closer as I marched up the hill. I had a map of the layout of the neolithic monuments that surround the stones, including the Avenue, which may have been part of some ancient ceremonial arrangement. By the time I reached the stones themselves they had taken on their full height and splendour, and even the hordes of visitors could not detract from the sense of being in the presence of something mystical and special. They’re huge, they’re impressive, they are a complete mystery to us, and they stand there slowly crumbling on a time scale humans cannot comprehend, reminding us that once we were so incredibly wild and primitive that we held strange worship of strange constellations on windswept hilltops. Under perfect summer weather it was possible to imagine myself back in time, looking at these stones as a visitor to a religious ritual, and to imagine that in their own way they were as awe inspiring as Salisbury Cathedral would have been to its congregants 5000 years later. The people changed immeasurably over that time, but their passion for worshipful displays of piety obviously did not.

Imagining ancient worlds

Spending two days wandering through all these stones and ancient sites inevitably focused my mind on role-playing worlds, and I began imagining the neolithic world as an adventure setting, perhaps using the Mutant system or some free-flowing variant of WFRP3. This would be a great world for adventuring, a small and narrow world to explore intimately, rich with forests and stocked with natural hazards, where any stranger is a threat and people as far away as what is now the next county would be considered threatening strangers. A landscape dotted with strange and powerful monuments to dark and ancient gods, where magic is in the hands of priests and witches who serve the spirits of the earth and the stars, and perhaps have no allegiance to humankind at all. Or perhaps the worship of these spirits really was connected to the cycles of the earth, and the priests of that ancient time, had they wished to, could have enacted some foul rite at Stonehenge and turned the world on its axis. In that world the best weapons would be clubs and stone arrows, and with such paltry gear to enhance themselves all adventurers would be stripped down to just raw talent and their urge to survive.

When I returned to Japan I prepared and ran a one-shot set in this world, which I will report soon. I think it’s an excellent world for adventuring, as well as for tourism, and if you do visit these ancient sites I think you, too, may find yourself inspired to imagine yourself as an adventurer or a priest in an ancient, mysterious world where nobody knows anything, and nothing is what it seems.

A few tips on travel

If you are going to go through a couple of these sites, I recommend buying a visitor’s pass at the first one – I think mine was about 33 pounds, which will almost cover the cost of the museum at Avebury, entrance to Old Sarum and Stonehenge, but more importantly gives you priority access at Stonehenge so you don’t need to book a tour time. I visited Stonehenge by car, although I assume there are buses from Salisbury and other nearby towns, but it’s worth noting that you don’t go straight to the site – you park perhaps 3 km away and then either walk or catch a bus to the site. The bus will drop you off halfway if you ask, and then you can walk over the fields to the stones themselves, which is what I did and which I think is better.

If you go to Avebury, plan to make a decent day of it. You can walk from the stone circle to nearby Silbury Hill in about 30 minutes, and then from Silbury Hill to a burial mound (I forget the name) that you can enter – when I visited there were two drunk hippies in the entrance who had put candles in every room and were singing plaintive songs, which quite suited the mood, but YMMV. It’s a bit of a walk from Avebury to here and it is possible to get lost – the road goes through some pretty tangled and run down areas that may leave you thinking you’re going the wrong way – so if the weather is bad you may want to drive somewhere nearby (but I don’t know where the parking is). Also there’s no point in thinking an umbrella will be any use – the wind is intense. So just don’t bother bring one, get wet or wear sensible clothes. I would not recommend visiting in winter!

If you visit Salisbury Cathedral I strongly recommend timing your visit to start or end with a service, but be aware that you can’t tour the cathedral during the Sunday morning service, so you’ll have to satisfy yourself with a visit to the magna carta and a circuit of the cloisters. I strongly recommend the tower climb but you should be aware that there are parts where the climbing is a little bit disturbing and their strategy for getting you out if you have an agoraphobic freak out is really disturbing, so if you have a strong fear of heights it’s not a good idea to go. If you’re unsure, check some pictures online of what you might expect to see. I am not good with heights, and this climb had me a little bit shakey at times. But if you are confident you aren’t too bad with heights, do it – it’s great. A good strategy for a Sunday at Salisbury Cathedral would thus be: visit for the beginning of the service to hear the choir; then get a coffee; then visit the magna carta room; then tour the cathedral a bit; get lunch; climb the tower; finish touring the Cathedral; take a break; listen to the choir practicing; stay for the evening service or bail. The lunch at the refectory is surprisingly pleasant given the circumstances, and it’s a nice environment, and on Sunday they do a solid British Roast, so you can make a good day of it.

Also be aware that English Heritage and the National Trust are different, and most of the ancient sites are managed by English Heritage, so if you want a membership to enable you to get into all these sites for free then that’s who you should join – National Trust mostly just manage those boring old country houses.

With that advice I hope you are prepared for a couple of days enjoying the Old Gods and the New!

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We’ve all been there: Your PC is up against a much weaker opponent, deploying your primary power or skill, but in the crucial moment the d20 roll comes up low for you or high for the opponent, and you once again find that your best power failed you when you were sure it would work. This happens all the time in D&D because the d20 has a flat distribution and that means that low rolls are just as likely as high ones. Although this means on average you might expect your best power to work, unless you are absolutely obliterating your opponent you can’t rely on the dice to turn up even in the ballpark of where you need them to be. This is also a problem in Cyberpunk (d10) and Warhammer 2nd Edition (d100). I have always found it really frustrating, because if use a peaked distribution we can be fairly confident that the dice will roll around about the middle of their distribution more often than the edge. I have complained about this many times, but I have never bothered to see how big a difference a peaked distribution would make to the flow of the game. So here I compare the easiest peaked distribution, 2d10, with 1d20 as a basic die structure for D&D. I have chosen 2d10 because the average roll is about the same as 1d20, and its most likely value is close to the basic DC values of D&D, which are abut 9-11.

Method

For this analysis I have conducted three basic calculations, on the assumption that a PC (the “attacker”) is in a challenged skill check with another PC or enemy (the “defender”):

  1. Comparing the probability of success for the attacker for every die roll on a 1d20 and a 2d10 basic roll
  2. Estimating the total probability of success for the attacker across a wide range of possible skill bonuses, and comparing these probabilities for 1d20 and 2d10
  3. Comparing the probability of success for a highly skilled attacker against a low-skilled attacker, across a wide range of defensive bonuses

For objective 1 I have performed the calculations for attackers with skill values of +0, +4 or +8, against a defender with a bonus of +4 or +0. The specific pairings are shown in the figures below. I chose +4 because it is the basic bonus you can expect for a 1st level character using their proficiency bonus and their best attribute, and +8 as a representative high bonus. For objective 2 I have calculated total probability of success for attackers with bonuses ranging from -2 to +10, against defenders with skill bonus of +0, +4 or +6. I chose +6 because this is the typical bonus you expect of a 5th level character who is working with their proficiency and has sunk their attribute bonus into their top attribute. For objective 3 I have compared a PC with a +6 bonus to a PC with a +0 bonus, for defense bonuses ranging from -2 to +10.

Probabilities of success for any particular die roll are easily calculated because the distributions of 1d20 and 2d10 are quite simple. Total probability of success is calculated using the law of total probability as follows:

P(success)=P(rolls a 1)*P(defender doesn’t beat 1)+P(rolls a 2)*P(defender doesn’t beat 2) +…

I have presented all results as graphs, but may refer to specific numbers where they matter. All figures can be expanded by clicking on them. Analyses were conducted in R, which is why some axis titles aren’t fully readable – you can make them bigger but then they fall off the edge of the graphics window. Stupid R!

Results

Figures 1-3 show the probability of success for every point on the die (from 2 to 20) for 1d20 vs. 2d10. In all figures the 2d10 is in red and the 1d20 in grey, and a grey vertical line has been placed where the probabilities of success are equal for the two die types.

Figure 1 shows that the 1d20 has a better chance of success for all die rolls between 2 and 15. That is, if you have a bonus of +0 and the defender has a bonus of +4, you are better off in a 1d20 system for almost all rolls. The point where the probabilities for 1d20 and 2d10 are equal is a die roll of 16. This corresponds with the defender needing a 12+, and all die rolls after this (17-20) correspond with the defender needing to get a high number on the downward peak of the 2d10 distribution. It may seem counter-intuitive that the 1d20 system rewards you for rolling low, but it is worth remembering that the comparatively low rolls – below 10 – are less likely on a 2d10, so although if you do roll one you are less likely to succeed than if you had a 1d20 system, you are also less likely to roll one. We will see how this pans out when we consider total probability of success, below.

Figure 1: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +0 bonus and defender +4

Figure 2 shows the probabilities of success for an attacker with +4 and a defender with +0. In this case we expect the attacker to win on a wider range of dice rolls, and this is exactly what we observe. Now the point where 2d10 is better for the attacker than 1d20 corresponds with dice rolls of 8 or more – in this case, dice rolls that the defender needs to get 12 or more to beat. We see the same process in action.

Figure 2: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +4 bonus and defender +0

Figure 3 shows the probabilities of success for an attacker with +8 and a defender with +0. Now we see that the 2d10 is more beneficial to the attacker than the 1d20 from rolls of 4 and above – again, the point beyond which the defender needs to roll 12 or more.

Figure 3: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +0 bonus and defender +4

These results are summarized for two cases in Figure 4, which gives the odds ratio for success with a 1d20 compared to 2d10 at each die roll. The odds ratio is the odds of success with a 1d20 divided by the odds of success with a 2d10, calculated at the given dice roll point. I use the odds ratio because it is the correct numerical method for comparing two probabilities, and reflects the special upper (1) and lower (0) bounds on probabilities. The odds ratio grows rapidly as a probability heads towards 0 or 1, and reflects the fact that a 10% difference in probability is a much more meaningful difference when one probability is 10% than when one probability is 50%.

 

Odds Ratios of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10, for two attacking cases

In this case I have shown only the case of an offense of +4 and a defense of +0, and an offense of +8 vs. a defense of +0. I used only these two cases because the case of +0 vs. +4 has such huge odds ratios that it is not possible to see the detail of the other two cases. This figure shows that for an offense of +4 and a defense of 0, the 1d20 has 2-3 times the odds of success at low numbers, but also much lower odds of success at high numbers. Effectively the 2d10 smooths out the probability patterns across the die roll, so that you get less chance of success if you roll poorly, and more chance of success if you roll well, compared to a 1d20.

Figures 5 to 7 show the total probability of success for 1d20 and 2d10 in three different cases. The total probability of success is the probability that you will beat your opponent when you roll the die. This is the probability you roll a 2 multiplied by the probability your opponent rolls greater than you, plus the probability you roll a 3 multiplied by the probability your opponent rolls greater than you, up to the probability you roll a 20. I have calculated this for a range of attack bonuses from -2 to +10, against three defense scenarios: 0, +4 and +6.

Figure 5 shows the total probability for 1d20 and 2d10 when rolled against a defense bonus of 0. Probabilities of success for both 2d10 and 1d20 are quite high, crossing 50% at about an attacking bonus of +0 as we would expect. The 2d10 roll has a lower probability of success than 1d20 for bonuses below 0, and a higher probability of successes for bonuses above 0.

Figure 5: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +0

Figure 6 shows the total probability of success for 2d10 and 1d20 against a defense bonus of +4. The ability of the 2d10 system to distinguish between people weaker than the defender and stronger than the defender is clearer here. At an attack bonus of -2 (vs. defense of +4) the 2d10 system has about a 10% lower chance of success than the 1d20; conversely, at attack bonus of +10 (vs. defense of +4) it has about a 10% higher probability of success. Both systems have an approximately 50% chance of success at a bonus of +4, as we expect.

Figure 6: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +4

Figure 7 shows the total probabilities against a defense bonus of +6. Again we see that the 2d10 system slightly punishes people with a lower bonus than the defender, and slightly rewards people with a higher bonus.

Figure 7: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +6

These results are summarized as odds ratios of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10 in Figure 8. Here the odds ratios are charted for the full range of attacker bonuses, with a separate curve for defense bonus of +0, +4 or +6. Here an odds ratio over 1 indicates that the 1d20 roll has a better chance of success than the 2d10, while an odds ratio below 1 indicates the 2d10 roll has a better chance of success. From this chart you can see that for all offense bonuses lower than the defense bonus, the 1d20 system gives a higher probability of success than the 2d10 system. As the defense bonus increases this relative benefit grows larger.

Figure 8: Odds Ratio of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10 across a wide range of offense bonuses, for three defense bonuses

 

The odds ratio curves in Figure 8 raise an interesting final point about the 2d10 system vs. the 1d20 system. Since the 1d20 system has higher probabilities of success at low offense bonuses, and relatively lower probabilities of success at higher offense bonuses, it should be the case that the difference in success probability between a skilled PC and an unskilled PC will be smaller for the 1d20 system than for the 2d10. That is, if your PC has a bonus of 6 and is attempting to do something, he or she will have a higher chance of success than a person with a bonus of 0, but the relative difference in success probability will not be so great; this difference will be more pronounced for someone using 2d10. To put concrete numbers on this, in the 1d20 system a PC with a +6 bonus trying to beat a defense of +2 has a 65% chance of success, while a PC with a +0 bonus has a 39% chance of success. In contrast, using 2d10 the PC with the +6 bonus has a 72% chance of success, while the PC with the +0 bonus has a 34% chance of success. These greater relative differences are important because they encourage party diversification – if people with large bonuses have commensurately better chances of success than people with small bonuses, then there is a good reason for having distinct roles in the party, and less risk that e.g. even though someone has specialized in stealth, the chances that the non-stealthy people can pull off the same moves will be high enough that the stealth PC does not stand out.

This effect is shown in Figure 9, where I plot the odds ratio of success for a PC with +6 bonus compared to +0 bonus, against defense bonuses ranging from -2 to +10, for both dice systems. It shows that across all defense bonuses the odds ratio of success for a PC with +6 bonus is about 3 times that for a person with +0 bonus when we roll 1d20. In contrast, with 2d10 this odds ratio is closer to 6, and appears to grow larger as the defense bonus increases. That is, as the targeted task becomes increasingly difficult, the 2d10 system rewards people who are specialized in that task compared to those who are not; and at all difficulties, the difference in success chance for the specialist is greater than for the non-specialist, compared to the 1d20 system.

Figure 9: Odds ratio of success for bonus of +6 vs. +0, in both dice systems, against a wide range of defense bonuses

 

Conclusion

Rolling 2d10 for skill checks and attacks in D&D 5th Edition makes very little overall difference to the probability distribution of outcomes, but it does slightly change the distribution in three key ways:

  • It increases the chance that a high dice roll will lead to success, and reduces the chance of success on a low dice roll;
  • It lowers the probability of success for PCs targeting enemies with higher bonuses than they have, and raises the probability of success for PCs with higher bonuses;
  • It increases the gap in success chance between specialist and non-specialist PCs, rewarding diversification of skills and character choices

The 2d10 system does not change the point at which the PC has a 50% chance of success, but it does reduce the probability of criticals. It is worth noting that with a 2d10 system, the process for advantage requires rolling 4d10 and picking the best 2 (rolling 3d10 and picking the best 2 actually reduces the probability of a critical hit). Some might find this annoying, though those of us who enjoy dice pool games will be happy to be rolling 4d10. For those who find it annoying, dropping advantage altogether and replacing it with +3 will likely give the same results (see e.g. here and here). But if you like rolling lots of dice 4d10 choose 2 sounds more fun than 2d20 choose 1.

I don’t think that switching to 2d10 will massively change the way the game runs or really hugely unbalance anything but it will ensure that when you roll high you can have high confidence of success against someone of about your own power; and it will ensure that if you are the person in the party who is good at a task (like picking locks, sneaking, or influencing people) you will be consistently much more likely to do it than the rest of your group, which is nice because it makes your shine really shine. So I recommend switching to 2d10 for all task resolution in D&D.

A final note on DCs

The basic DC for a spell or special power used by a PC in D&D 5e is 8+proficiency level+attribute. This means that against someone with proficiency in the given save and the same attribute bonus as you, they have a 60% chance of avoiding your power. I think that’s very poor design – it should be 10+proficiency+attribute, so that against someone with your own power level you have a 50% chance of success, not 40%. It could be argued that 40% is reasonable since people often take half damage on a save and the full effect of a spell is quite serious, but given wizards have few spells (and most other powers are restricted in use), this doesn’t seem reasonable. So I would consider adding 2 to all save DCs in the game, regardless of whether you switch to 2d10 or stay on 1d20.

 

And she will come from India with a love in her eyes
That say oh how my dark star will rise
In rented gear two thousand years we waited for a man
But with a whispered plea she’d die for us all tonight.
And she will come from India with a gun at her side,
Or she will come from Argentina
With her cemetery eyes that say
Oh, how my dark star will rise,

And she will rise.

Final confessional: Gunfire in the distance, occasional strange sounds, a young woman talking to the video in English that the mutants can barely understand because it is so ancient and rich with the accents of a different world. She is dark skinned, wearing a shroud of tattered cloth covering her hair, her teeth and skin perfect in a way that the mutants viewing the video cannot imagine – she is beautiful in the way all the ancients seem to have been. She is talking about being driven out of her home south of the river, of running out of London and then being corralled back in again – the viewers gasp, was this ravaged city they live in once called London? –  telling the phone that the world is ending, her refugee camp is under attack, they have broken through. As she talks, urgently, low and fast, her voice a stream of lyrical, barely comprehensible English from the Time That Was, they watch in appalled fascination. This is the whole world they never knew, failing before them, and this wonderful mysterious dark-skinned beauty their only tether to it.

She goes on. No one knows what’s going on or how it started, the monsters are everywhere. She knows she cannot last much longer, the city is infested with them and they are so strong, they hunt at night and in the day and the great ones are invincible. She will run, but maybe one day someone will survive, and will want to know what happened. She’s going to leave her phone here with the charger so maybe some survivor in the future can find it and see what happened. She looks urgently over her shoulder one more time, then at the camera with a look of such yearning and loss that it reaches through the phone, across time and into their hearts in the Ark. Then it snaps to darkness.

Fearful flight: Video taken running over rooftops, with fire exploding in the background and screaming down below. Shaking camera as someone runs, a woman’s voice screaming close to the camera. It’s the same woman’s rich and mellifluous voice, but now it’s panicked and yelling in between gasps and heavy breathing. The video might have started with the intent to document what was happening but she has already forgotten that mission as she yells to her friends and screams and pants. Her friends are yelling back and to each other, an indefinite number of other voices further away as they all run across the sloping, red-ochre tiles of the old city. At one point the camera stops and everything lurches as the woman looks down into a gap between houses, where things move and hiss. She steps back and jumps, just covering the distance with a clattering of tiles, then jerks the camera around to show a small group of other running and leaping over the gap. She turns the camera back but jerks it as from behind there is a sudden, blood-curdling yell and someone screaming “They got Johnny!” She gasps but has no time for tears, suddenly jerking the camera left and down behind a stone outcropping on the roof. The rooftops and streets around darken suddenly as a huge shadow sweeps over, roaring, and fire explodes in the street across the road. The shadow slides past with a kind of sinuous, threatening elegance, and from further away they hear other men yelling, screams and weapons fire. She starts up and runs again and suddenly the gunfire is closer. From almost on top of her they hear the heavy chatter of machine gun fire, rough male voices yelling “Down, come down!” then the camera cuts out as they clatter into a dark stairwell.

Mushroom cloud: A shaky video starts with a howling wind and rattling, then steadies, it’s resting on some kind of railing on a high tower. Far away the sky is erupting into a mushroom of smoke rising high into the azure blue of a perfect clear day. Stretching from the horizon to halfway towards the camera is the grey mass of a city, and there are millions of fires sprouting from various places in the middle of the city, smoke haze blanketing the lower parts of the sky below the mushroom cloud. A woman is talking, describing how they had to nuke the city to stop them. It’s the last stand, they’re doing it up and down the country, she says, and then shifts the camera right after a brief flash, to show a more distant cloud beginning to sprout on the horizon. As it rises, after a still moment, there is a distant roar, and then the back of the cloud lights up with a flash from over the horizon. “That’s Southampton, maybe more beyond. We didn’t have a choice.” Then the sound of crying as the wind washes gently by, and the two mushroom clouds rise slowly higher.

Urban horror: The same woman’s desperate sobbing in darkness, then the camera shifts and we are looking from behind a rubbish bin at a long street full of trapped cars. It’s twilight and many of the street lights are broken but the car lights are on and it’s possible to see silhouettes and movement in the light of the cars. People are running from the cars, moving between them, and grey men are leaping across the roofs, jumping onto people and dragging them down and ripping and tearing. Somewhere out of sight there is a deep roar and a much larger figure – familiar now to the mutants – leaps onto a car, screaming in rage. Its scream paralyzes people, who turn and collapse in horror and allow the grey men to catch them. The woman sobs and the camera shakes, then behind her we hear someone saying urgently, “Kara, we have to go! Come, come! Run!” Then the camera jerks and they run into darkness.

I am up to session 6 of a short campaign using Mutant:Year Zero, a post-apocalyptic RPG from the Free League, a Swedish mob whose games I had never heard of before I stumbled on Mutant. This game is apparently 30 years old – I’m playing the 30 year anniversary edition – and I guess it must have been available only in Swedish for most of its history, because I’d never heard of it or the Free League before. Which is a shame, because Mutant:Year Zero is a brilliant RPG, and the Free League’s work is a really refreshing and much welcome addition to the role-playing world.

Mutant: Year Zero is set in a post-apocalyptic earth, with the players taking the role of mutants, a mysterious group of humans with strange mutations that give them a kind of limited impact super power. The mutants are clustered together in an Ark, a safe haven in a world of decay and destruction, and from the Ark the mutants venture out into the ruined outer world (called the Zone), looking for artifacts left behind by the Ancients, the people who ruled the world before the apocalypse. There are no humans in this world, just mutants and threats. The world is a really decayed and ruined place, so even finding something like an old bicycle or a pistol is a huge achievement, and when the mutants start the game they will have nothing better than a hammer or slingshot made out of old scrap, probably no armour and only their wits to help them survive. From there they build up their own supplies and develop their Ark, while (perhaps) simultaneously learning the secrets of the apocalypse.

Character creation

Character creation is a simple process of spending points to buy ranks in four attributes and 13 skills. You choose a character class from a choice of eight, each of which has a unique skill that only they can use. Character classes are well suited for the environment, including archetypes like Dog Handler (who has an actual dog that can do stuff), slave (who is super tough) and stalker (who finds secrets in the Zone). You also get to choose talents, some of which are unique to your class, and you roll up a single mutation to start with. Mutations are fairly exotic things, ranging from being able to explode with spores that do damage or hide your escape to being able to read minds. Mutations are triggered with mutation points (MPs), with more MPs being spent to get bigger effects. All PCs start with one MP, but it’s dangerously easy to get more. Finally, there are no hit points in this game – you take damage directly on your attributes, which means there are four damage types, and there are mutations and conditions which can do damage to all of them. Attributes range from 1 to 6, skills will be generally no more than 3 at start.

The system

Mutant uses a unique and savage dice pool system which incorporates a huge element of risk into skill checks, along with a vicious death spiral mechanic. You roll a dice pool composed of two types of dice, attribute and skill dice. All dice are d6s, so you need to make your dice pool with two colours of dice – in the set that comes with the game you use yellow for attributes and green for skills. Any 6 is a success, and if you roll a 1 on your attribute dice that can become damage. Once you roll the dice you can make the decision to either take the result you rolled, or push the roll. Pushing means that you can reroll any dice that show no 1s or 6s. This means you can get a success even if you failed on the first roll. However, once you push the roll any 1s do damage on the attribute associated with your skill. When you push the roll you also get MPs equal to the number of 1s you rolled, so there is a benefit to taking the damage. This means though that every skill check can potentially kill you (if it is tested using strength), knock you out from fatigue (for agility) or render you useless with confusion or doubt. It also means that you become worse and worse at everything the more you make skill checks. Worse still, the GM is advised that failure should always come with a cost, so if someone rolls a dice pool and gets no successes the temptation to push it is really high – and there is great pleasure for GMs in punishing PCs who fail. The dice pool mechanic is further enhanced by adding gear dice, black dice representing the benefit of using equipment. These can get you more successes but any 1s rolled on these dice will damage your gear if you push the roll, so pushing your roll when using your favourite artifact will eventually break it unless you can get a gearhead to repair it (also a roll with a push/fail risk!)

Damage taken to attributes can be recovered with four hours of rest and consumption of a specific resource, or connection with friends (some relationships are established inside the party to help with this), but early on in the campaign the resources required are quite expensive and rare, which makes resting a costly business. The whole thing is finely balanced – at least early on – to ensure that the players are constantly on the edge of their seats, and always eagerly scrounging more stuff, but most of all always considering the risk of their next action. The game is heavily loaded with risk and decay, which makes it a really good mechanic for a living-on-the-edge post-apocalyptic setting.

Combat

Combat works pretty much on the lines of the skill system. You need at least one success to hit someone, though your opponent can defend and if they get more successes than you they can damage you. Damage is usually just 1 or 2 points per weapon, straight onto your strength attribute, with armour as a (pretty ineffectual) soak. Extra successes on your attack can be used to do extra damage or other effects like disarming your opponent, knocking them down, gaining initiative, etc. However to get extra successes will likely require that you push your attack roll – which means you damage your own strength, so one pushed roll and one hit and you can be out of combat. If your strength drops to 0 you take a critical hit, which can be fatal but most likely means you have penalties until you heal. But this combination of pushing rolls and taking damage against an attribute that can have a maximum value of 6 means that combat is absolutely lethal. Most fights only last 1 or 2 rounds and end with the entire party badly damaged, either from injuries or from pushing their rolls. I think someone has been reduced to 0 and taken a critical hit in every session so far, and there have been several fights where the PCs have been super close to TPK – in one fight a PC unleashed a huge wave of mutation powers to kill an opponent out of desperation, but their mutant powers backfired and killed them too. It’s that kind of game.

The speed and lethality of combat means you can get through a lot of fights in a session, and you can get a lot done. Where other systems might have a dungeon crawl that takes sessions to complete, in Mutant you can do an entire lair in half a session. Combat is fast and deadly and a lot of fun.

The Ark

Another excellent aspect of the game is the development of the Ark. During character creation the players also develop their Ark, describing its structure and main inhabitants and assigning it basic levels in four attributes (Warfare, Technology, Culture and Food) which determine how well the PCs can do things like defend the Ark, understand artifacts they find, obtain food, and read and write. As the PCs adventure they find artifacts, which they can choose to use or to hand over to the Ark to be stored in the Dawn Vault. If handed over, these artifacts add to the Ark’s attributes, slowly improving it. The players can also select projects to improve the Ark – things like a defensive wall or a farm or universal suffrage – which further improve the Ark. As the campaign unfolds the PCs and the Ark develop together, until the Ark goes from a desperate hard-scrabble hideout carved from the corruption to being a real home for the PCs. This mechanic is very simply set up but very effective, and the way the Ark and the PCs interact with each other to support each other’s development and achievements is really great. Seeing your players debating whether to set up a tribunal or a secret police force (or cannibalism!) is really fun.

The campaign arc

The book comes with a campaign idea and some adventures related to it, which you can choose to follow if you like. This involves uncovering the secrets of the apocalypse and the truth about the Ark and the mutants who live in it. It helps to explain a strange point made at the beginning of the book, which is that the mutants who live in the Ark don’t remember how they got there and can’t have children, and look up to a mutant called the Elder who used to offer them guidance in their new world. This means that the Ark is a kind of stand-alone setting, much younger than the apocalypse, so it’s as if the PCs just sprang into being (it’s as if a group of god-like beings just created them from nothing!) The campaign arc answers these questions, and can also tie into an amusing-looking spin-off called Genlab Alpha. However I didn’t really like the campaign arc, so I have dumped it and decided to keep the apocalypse kind of mysterious and go my own way. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it – it seems like it would be perfectly playable and very satisfying (and challenging!) to complete, and it doesn’t necessarily interfere with the other tasks like exploring the Zone and building up the Ark, which are where the real fun lies. I guess I just don’t like being told what to do, or maybe I had my own vision of the apocalypse that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. However, if you don’t use the campaign arc you’ll probably find yourself running – as I have – into trouble explaining who the PCs are and why they’re there.

Good points

This is an excellent game. My players have all exclaimed multiple times at how much they love the simple, high-risk system, and how exciting the whole thing is. The Ark development is enormously appealing, the character classes really are evocative of a post-apocalyptic game, and the constant resource-scrabbling and the nature of the threats you meet really help you immerse yourself in a post-apocalyptic worldview while you’re playing. The simple, speedy nature of the rules means we almost never argue over rules – there’s the odd aside along the lines of “isn’t it weird that they decided this” but nothing more, really – and the entire system can be memorized, pretty much, because it’s all so simple. It’s a very big difference from the other system we’re playing at the moment, Shadowrun, where we often get bogged down in complex debates about stupidly complicated rules. There also aren’t many ambiguities, so you can play through almost without checking the book, unless you need to remember something numeric (this usually only happens in the Ark development phase). Somehow this game has managed to incorporate some fairly robust resource management, stronghold development, character development and high pace adventuring within a very simple, very easily learnt package. I really cannot sing its praises enough!

Some bad points

Besides the limiting nature of the mutant definition and the campaign arc, the main flaw with this game is the simplicity of the rules themselves, which sometimes lend it a bubblegum, comic, not-so-serious feeling that is both slightly out of whack with the context, and also an inducement not to take the game too seriously. We’re having fun with this at the moment but it limits the appeal of the system for other worlds, and I think it could also undermine it over a very long campaign. The game isn’t ultimately suited to a long campaign unless you really exploit some of its less-explored details (like relationships between PCs), because the simplicity of the rules means that there is not much sense of character development, and nothing gets bigger or more complex as you go on – your mutant powers don’t grow, and really all that happens is you get a new skill point or a largely not that great new talent. In a more rich and detailed system there would be new powers or better hit points or something, but you don’t get that here. So I think it might become a bit sterile over a long campaign. However, we’re 6 sessions in and still loving it.

Other Free League products

I’m kind of amazed that this game came out 30 years ago, since it feels much more like an early-noughties indie game than a game developed when the industry was new and still at its height. I’m also very impressed by the quality of the work – the artwork and writing are top notch, it’s well laid out and organized, the order of presenting information – the way of thinking – very logical and clear, and everything very nicely packaged. I subsequently bought another game by the same company, Coriolis, which is like a more mature version of the system set in space, and it is really a stunningly beautiful book with what looks like a very rich and playable system. I’ve also jumped into a kickstarter for a fantasy version of the system, called Forbidden Lands, which looks even more beautiful. I have wanted to play high fantasy for a long time but I simply can’t find a system I like, and I think it’s possible that a mature and richer version of Mutant: Year Zero could do the job. With the benefit of being well written, beautifully packaged, and well structured by an experienced and excellent game development company – how did I miss them for so long?

During a moment of sudden frenzied violence in yesterday’s Shadowrun adventure our wizard character Adam Lee deployed an indirect mana attack spell for a grand total of only 2 or 3 points of damage. Immediately afterward our opponent – a russian Shadowrunner mage – dropped an indirect attack spell on me that something like 8 points of physical damage even though I have a monumental full defense dice pool, decent armour and good body. This prompted me to declare that “Direct spells are shit!” Today I thought I’d check this statistically, and see if I can identify some guidelines for using direct and indirect attack spells. There seems to be a general consensus that direct spells are better against people with heavy armour and high body, and reliably deliver damage while indirect spells have bigger upper limits. Is this true?

This post assumes the reader knows the Shadowrun 5e rules.

The difference between direct and indirect spells

Direct spells use the force of the spell as a limit on the spellcasting check, and target either body or willpower only. So for example our wizard Adam Lee, with a 14 dice spellcasting pool, will be making a challenged check against the body or willpower of the opponent, which will typically be 4-6. In contrast, indirect spells use the spellcasting skill with the same limit against the opponents defense (Intution+Reaction, no limit). Any net hits then do damage as a weapon with damage Force and AP -Force. So it appears that if you can get through the defense you can do a lot of damage, but high dodge opponents will be a challenge for this spell.

In practice it looks something like this: with a direct spell Adam can expect an average of about 5 hits, while the target can expect 1-3, so Adam can expect to fairly comfortably deliver 2-4 damage at a low risk of drain. With an indirect spell Adam will also get 5 hits, but the opponent will be likely to get 3-5 hits so perhaps half the time Adam won’t hit, and when he does hit he will get 1 net hit. But that net hit is added to the force of the spell, so e.g. with a Force 6 spell he might do 7 damage that is then challenged by the opponents soak with AP-6. If the opponent has body +armour of 17, this means the opponent rolls 11 dice, gets about 4 hits, ends up taking about 3 damage – so it seems like it levels out in these kinds of scenarios, but that the direct spell is more reliable. Is this correct?

Comparing effectiveness using average hits

I ran a brief comparison of the average damage to be expected from Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spell using a basic excel spreadsheet. Here I calculated the average hits for each spell, the average defense, calculating damage for the indirect spell only if the average spellcasting hits were bigger than the average defense hits, and then using average hits from the soak check to further reduce damage. I did this for a target with defense pool 10 and with body values of 3, 5 or 8. I ran the analysis for spells of force 3 to 8.  For each level of force I calculated the minimum armour value at which the direct spell did more damage on average than the indirect spell. This is the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell. For example at Force 4 the direct spell is better against anyone with armour higher than 7, largely because the net hits from the indirect spell attack are so low (due to the Force-based limit) that it can’t do much damage.

My first interesting discovery was that this armour threshold is independent of the target’s Body – it is approximately the same for all three simulated Body values of 3, 5 or 8. This surprised me, because I thought the direct spell would really lose out against higher body, but ultimately this doesn’t matter. I also found that as Force increases, the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell really skyrockets. Figure 1 shows this for a target with Body 5 and defense pool 10 (it is approximately equivalent for other Body values), and you can see that for a Force 8 spell the target needs to have armour of 23 or more in order for the direct spell to be better than the indirect spell. This is because a force 8 spell has 8 acc, 8 damage, and AP8 – it shreds through anything except the scariest armour, and in fact this spell is basically as good as the best sniper rifle in the game.

Armour threshold for effective direct spells by spell Force

So my first finding is that while in theory direct spells might be useful against heavily armoured foes, they typically are only better than indirect spells at very high levels of armour, and if you’re playing a mage capable of spells of force 6 or higher you are unlikely to be meeting the kind of armoured foes against whom you need to deploy your direct spells.

When is an indirect or direct spell better than a gun?

Next I conducted a few rough calculations to see when either of these kinds of spell is better than a good old fashioned lead injection. For this I posited a street samurai with a 14 dice pool to hit using a Colt America L36, which is Acc 7, dam 7P, AP1. Can’t go wrong with those stats! I compared it to Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spells against a couple of targets: one with defense pool 7, and total soak of 12 or 20; and one with defense pool 12,  and total soak of 12 or 20. I found that in all cases the indirect spell was better than the gun at Force 6. This was independent of the total soak or defense pool. In some cases the direct spell was simply never better than a gun, but interestingly for the higher defense pool against the higher soak, even a Force 4 direct spell was better than a gun.

The reason for this is that as the Force of an indirect spell increases its damage increases even more. Assuming you can hit on average, even the thinnest margin leads to increasing damage with increasing force, and the damage increases by more than the force. For example, against someone with defense pool 10 and soak 12, the average damage of the indirect spell ranges from 0 at force 3 (it doesn’t hit) up to 8 at force 8. At higher force values, damage increases by 1.3 – 1.5 for every unit increase in force. This is because the increased force simultaneously increases damage and decreases armour, so even when the force-based limit is well beyond what your mage can expect to roll on average (e.g. Adam Lee expects about 4-5 hits on average, so any spell of force 5+ applies a higher limit), you still see your damage increase.

This means that in general, as you increase the force on your indirect spell to make it do more damage, you also raise the threshold above which a direct spell of the same Force would be any use. And you make your spell increasingly better than a gun. And it appears that Force 6 is the sweet spot beyond which a readily-available and relatively dangerous gun is no longer better than a spell for a relatively beginnerish mage.

Direct spells as one-shot killers

There is a way to make a direct spell a one-shot killer, though: cast it at low force and Edge it. Remember, Edge adds 3 to your dice pool, sixes roll again, and you get to ignore limits. This means that a Force 4 direct spell has no upper limits, but is defended against by a very small dice pool. Adam Lee, Edging the spell, will likely get 10-11 hits, with no upper limit on how many he can get, but the target having to roll just 3-6 dice to defend. Chances are this will do 7-9 damage, which brings a single target perilously close to death. A similar indirect spell is much less likely to achieve this, because the defensive dice pool is larger and has no limit.

This strategy is especially effective against targets with very high dodge, because it ignores dodge, and it’s particularly effective for GMs to deploy against PCs since the NPCs don’t need to save up their Edge for later. If the opponent is protected by a mage they may get some counterspelling, and they can Edge the defense, but even then it is likely that by pooling all of that together they will still have a smaller dice pool than the attacker. If there is no mage in the party then even Edge is going to be of little use, and the spell is going to cause a lot of trouble. This is especially true for those mages who have both a stun and a physical damage direct spell in their arsenal, since they can choose the spell to match the target – a troll street samurai deploying Edge will likely still only get 6 dice to defend a stun attack. Note that Edging an indirect spell to make into a killer is less effective, since the real power of indirect spells lies in their high damage rating and armour piercing, so they are at their most effective when cast at the kind of Force ratings that do not put crippling limits on the caster’s success.

A final note on the effectiveness of attack spells in Shadowrun

Above I found that a 14 dice attacker with magic is only more effective than a 14 dice attacker with a basic pistol at Force 6. This is a big problem for magic, because Force 6 will cause physical damage on the caster unless they have a very high magic attribute, and for an indirect attack spell to be significantly better than a gun it will need to be Force 8 or 10, at which point any human mage will be risking very large amounts of physical damage that cannot be healed. I think this under powers magic a little relative to the other fighters in the game, unless the PC is somehow carefully balanced to make sure that it can be super good at resisting drain and casting spells, probably also with a high Body. One way to get around this could be to relax the limits on Magic attributes, allowing them to become 7 or 8 in basic characters, which means that a combat mage who really focuses on that aspect of their character could be able to sling around Force 7 or 8 spells without suffering physical damage. Another option could be to drop the rule that drain can become physical when the Force exceeds the Magic attribute – it means that Force 8 spells are still high risk but not fatal. This is particularly important because Force acts as a limit on spellcasting rolls, and if you can only cast Force 5 or 6 spells you are suffering a significant reduction in maximum attack capability compared to say a street samurai (7 with a katana) or a sniper (8 with some rifles). I think in general the rules on limits may be a problem for high level characters – when you have a limit of 8 on the number of hits you can roll, but your opponent has 30 dice in dodge and no limit, you’re simply never going to hit, and fights are going to become very long and boring as people trade blows that never hit or only barely hit and do little damage. I think a quality that allows you to increase accuracy, or some other property for higher level characters, might be useful. At the moment wizards have the ability to exceed all limits by casting high Force spells but in reality they never will – a Force 10 spell will carry a large risk of serious injury for a wizard. I think it would be more exciting and make wizards more dangerous if they did not face this extreme risk. Remember that wizards have low initiative and weak armour (in general), and everyone aims to gank them, so it would be nice if they could be more able to take these risks in the one round of combat where they’re still alive.

Another possibility is that mages just aren’t that powerful in Shadowrun, and that it is better to play a mage who is good at a single material thing (e.g. shooting a pistol) and give him or her moderate background magic for support – healing, armour, that sort of thing. But even then, a PC who can get a maximum of +3 to your armour for a short time is not an especially great contribution to the party, especially if their shooting is good but not top notch. I think a few things here need to be tweaked to make mages more dangerous at the extremes of their range.

 

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Art after the fall

I have just begun GMing a short post-apocalyptic campaign using the Mutant: Year Zero system. Before adventure begins the system requires the PCs – who play mutants – generate their safe haven, which is called the Ark. This is a brief description of the Ark from which the PCs will begin their adventure.

Zone location

The near zone

The Ark is in the middle of a giant collapsed city, which is bisected by a winding river that was no doubt once a beautiful sight, but which has turned into a deadly, torpid sewer. The Ark is north of the river, a few kilometres away from a pair of towers that face each other menacingly across the width of the river. Stories and legends warn the PCs not to cross the river, or even to go close to it – but for now these stories are irrelevant, since as much as possible the PCs avoid even venturing too far from their Ark, let alone to the far side of that stinking ditch.

The Ark

The Ark is an old football stadium, its bleachers still largely intact and its entryways roughly boarded up and barricaded against the dangers of the Zone. Sometime during the collapse a blimp crashed into the stadium, and the ripped and torn fabric of the blimp has since been stretched out and converted into a partial roof over the stadium, stretching over the fantastic arcing sculptures that formed the original design of the stadium roof to turn the whole structure into a kind of giant tent. The People live in evacuation tents and simple makeshift shacks around the edge of the pitch, with the pitch itself devoted to a few patches of poor quality farmland to grow potatoes and pumpkins. Some people also live in tents and improvised structures on the bleachers, the lower parts of which have been torn up and long since used for firewood or building material. The tunnels and walkways under the bleachers where fans once congregated in between games have been converted into storage spaces for scavenged food and weapons, extra living space, and mushroom farms. Near the entrances they have been hastily barricaded in hopes of slowing down attackers who breach the entryways. The bosses have also carved out their domains in these dark spaces, usually in corporate boxes overlooking the pitch, connected to bars with windows looking out on the blighted zone. They and their closest sycophants live here, lording it over the People however they can.

In the center of the pitch is the old gondola of the fallen blimp, which rests now under the central arches of the stadium. This gondola is the residence of the Elder, who grows sick and weary of this world and rarely ventures out. A straight path leads from the entrance to the gondola across the pitch to the tunnel by which the Home Team used to enter the grounds. If one follows that tunnel to the changing rooms of the Home Team one will find the area has been sealed off and turned into the Dawn Vault, where relics of the Ancients are stored and the Chroniclers live their careful secluded lives.

The Bosses

There are several gangs in the Ark, but it has not yet descended to the anarchic state in which all people must pick sides and pick up axes, so there are also many independent individuals, and the bosses, though they jockey for power, have not yet fully stamped their authority on all the People. Nonetheless, some bosses are becoming increasingly active in jockeying for power, and some actively speak against the Elder. Some key bosses are:

  • Pieces, a bureaucrat who has repeatedly foiled the plans of the other bosses, either in defense of the Elder or in the furtherance of her own convoluted interests. No one trusts Pieces, and often she is infuriating, but she also has a unique power to sequester resources, and some say she alone still holds influence over the Elder as he slides into senescence.
  • Jared, the hated kingpin who rules his minions with viciousness and spite. Nobody wants to deal with Jared, but some number of the People recognize his leadership style may triumph, because he is willing to cross any boundary, and trash any tradition, in the pursuit of power
  • Bloody Jack, the revolutionary, a PC, who alone thinks of the future, and preaches visions beyond the hard scrabble of daily survival. Bloody Jack commands only a small faction, but she is also more willing than other bosses to take risks outside the Ark, and may yet be able to unite the independent forces amongst the People in pursuit of a new vision. The other bosses watch her, and act against her schemes where they can.

The bosses in the Ark have set up their lairs in the old bars and rooms in the levels under the bleachers of the stadium, laying down barriers to block hallways and building throne rooms in old abandoned changing rooms. They gain power by asserting control over a section of the higher bleachers, and grabbing the pure water that flows there. As the Elder weakens and food supplies run low, the power of the bosses grows, as does their conflict, and the independent members amongst the People begin to think about which boss to side with when the food runs out.

Population

The Ark has a population of 174 people at the beginning of the campaign.

Water Source

The Ark’s water source is the Tarp itself, the covering of battered blimp-cloth that drapes over the roof of the stadium. Every morning mist condenses on this tarp and runs down to drip into the high bleachers, and when rain falls it drains across this tarp and onto the bleachers. Here the People have set up a complex system of buckets and plastic containers to catch the water, which they run down to large vats held under the bleachers on the higher levels. Some bosses have sectioned off parts of the bleachers for their own use, giving them control of pure water, but other areas are free for anyone to grab water to trade for bullets and grub. No one has developed a perfect method for catching this water, and some runs down the bleachers onto the grounds itself, where it is captured and used to grow food in the scrappy allotments around the central Gondola of the Elders. The bosses hoard water and watch those farms greedily, knowing that one day they will need help, perhaps in a dry spell, or after a heat wave, and the boss who cuts the best bargain will gain control of the Ark’s only renewable food supply. Other bosses – and some independent folk too – run missions into the area around the Ark looking for food from the Old Times, but this food is growing rare, and as the easily accessible remains of the ruins dry up everyone in the Ark begins to worry about where their next meal will come from and what they will have to pay to get it.

But at least they have fresh, rot-free water.

Development levels

At the start of the campaign the Ark is in a state of crisis, forgetting its past, with no hope for the future and little food. Only its defenses are in any kind of reasonable state, and even those need work. Its development levels are:

  • Food 2
  • Culture 2
  • Technology 2
  • Warfare 6

The ability to barricade the entrances to the stadium and the open area around it make it a highly defensible Ark, but the barricades are makeshift and in reality there are not enough People to guard all the doorways. The Ark needs brave souls to venture further afield, scout out the threats it might face, and bring back weapons, food and new tools. If someone does not act soon, the People will descend to barbarism and worse. The crisis will soon be upon the Ark, and the People cry out for help.

Help the Bosses do not give. What are the People to do?

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Thongor say smash!

Thongor say smash!

Late last year I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a simple and stripped down sword and sorcery RPG. The session report for that adventure is here.

Barbarians of Lemuria is intended to provide rules for sword and sorcery adventuring in the style of Conan, the Lankhmar series, and Thongor, in a light and easy to play style. The game comes with its own setting, the mythical land of Lemuria, which has a long tradition in fantasy writing and film and is also the name of a great southern continent that the Victorians imagined existed somewhere in the southern hemisphere. This land is mentioned in the Strange Tales fantasy magazine and is the setting for the books about the barbarian Thongor by Lin Carter. Barbarians of Lemuria expands on these vague historical and literary references with a map and setting information, so that in addition to rules for a quick and simple sword and sorcery RPG it comes with background information on a classic setting sufficient for running a whole sword and sorcery campaign.

The game is definitely light on rules and written for brevity and ease of use. In just 211 pages it manages to encompass all the usual RPG rules plus wargaming rules, setting, monsters, a brace of sample adventures, a random adventure generator, summary tables and character sheets. All the rules for task resolution and combat are squashed into 8 pages and are perfectly sufficient to cover most scenarios you need them for. Sample adventures are typically 2-3 pages including maps and background, and are really only rough sketches for a wide array of free form approaches to the general ideas laid out in them. Wherever possible the game attempts to capture the seat-of-the-pants risk taking approach to adventure from the sword and sorcery setting through loose rules and quick and dirty approaches to problems. For example, in the section on equipment they write:

… there are no rules for encumbrance. Heroes can go around with what they can carry. They live for the day. You never know what you will need on an adventure and you can’t take everything, so why bother? Use your hero points instead. That’s what they are for. If you want backpacks full of adventuring gear, a weapon for every occasion, three spare suits of armour and a pack animal to carry it around on, then play another game. If all you want is a breechclout and a sturdy blade, play on!

I think that might be the best encumbrance rules I have ever read, and it gives a good summary of how normally picky technical details like armour, healing and so on are handled in this game. It’s a game to unleash your barbarian on the world, not to fiddle with spreadsheets.

The rules are very straightforward. Your PC has four attributes and four combat attributes plus four careers, all of which are ranked from 0 – 3 at the start. Skills are resolved with 2d6+attribute+career vs. a target number of 9 with simple difficulty modifiers; combat is the same with combat attributes in place of careers. Careers are things like slave, noble, barbarian, hunter, priest etc. and offer a bonus equal to the rank of the career in attempts to perform activities that can plausibly be related to the careers. PCs also start with a boon and if they want flaws and more boons; these give a bonus or penalty die on the 2d6 roll (like advantages/disadvantages in D&D5e), and Hero Points that have a versatile range of possible uses to make your character more effective. Some of the boons are classic sword and sorcery – for example Battle Harness turns your loin cloth or chainmail bikini into medium armour without the combat penalties of medium armour, while Missing Limb is exactly that, and comes with the rule “the game master will penalize you where appropriate.” In combat weapons do d6 damage, sometimes with a penalty or bonus die, and armour absorbs a bit of that.

Those are the whole rules – now you don’t really need to buy the book. Unless you want to enjoy the full richness of the boons and flaws and the deeply entertaining magic system, which really makes this game stand out. Magic is divided into four levels: cantrips and level 1-3 spells. Wizards have about 10-14 arcane power to spend, and spells come at increasing cost, ranging from 1-2 points for cantrips up to about 15 for level 3 spells. Wizards can reduce the cost of spells by meeting requirements, such as visible technique or taking a wound. These requirements grow in seriousness as the level of the spell increases, until at level 2 they encompass things like human sacrifice and serious injury. Level 3 spells (which can include making mental slaves and causing earthquakes) require a permanent point of arcane power to be lost. The spells themselves aren’t described – they’re up to the players and GM to negotiate – but examples are given to help with deciding the appropriate level of the spell. Also different levels of spell recuperate lost power at different rates – cantrips twice a day, level 1 spells at midnight, and level 2-3 spells just once a lunar cycle. This means that a wizard can start the game with a stupendous amount of power, but can’t use it often across a campaign. In my adventure our wizard used a couple of cantrips, one level 1 spell, recovered some of those points at midnight, then burnt all remaining points on a single level 2 spell. This means that having started the adventure with 14 points of arcane power he finished it with 0 points, and would only regain 8 of them within a day – another four would take up to a month to come back, and the remaining two up to two months. He also finished the adventure with the name of a demon tatooed on his chest and arm, seriously wounded and guilty of human sacrifice – all to power a great spell that failed.

There are also similarly simple but flexible rules for alchemists (who build things) and priests (who get divine favour). It’s perfectly possible to play these classes together too, so you can be a priest of some dark god, conjure evil magics, and build fire oil all at the same time. Monster rules are simple enough that four or six monsters can be fit into a two-page spread, including pictures and descriptions, and they are super easy to grasp. This makes the game really easy to pick up and run with in a short period of time – we started at 1pm, created characters from scratch and got through the entire adventure by 5:30 pm or so, going at a leisurely pace with lots of description and fluff.

This light-hearted and concise approach to rules really forces GM improvisation and encourages players and GM alike to plunge into the heroic, fast-and-loose style of sword and sorcery adventures. With very little time devoted to calculation, dice rolling and rules-faffing (even when new to the game) there is a lot of time and space for players to describe and improvise their PCs actions, and lots of time also for them to make heroic failures, make mistakes and retry things or go on different routes through the adventure. It really is a very good rule set for sword and sorcery, and a really good example of a game in which the rules, the writing style, the graphics and the setting all work together very well. This makes it a completely useless game if you want to pick it up and use the rules for anything else – you’d need to do some significant work to make a different setting feel right – and definitely not a game for people who like lots of crunch and detail in their gaming. But if you simply want to get rolling on an adventure with a barbarian, a druid and a beastmaster, then this is the game for you. It’s a refreshing, exciting contribution to the RPG world and a great sword and sorcery game, and I definitely recommend testing out if you want to play a swashbuckling barbarian campaign in a classic setting.

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