I suppose that "another hack of Knave" may not be what the world needs most right now, but it was what I needed to satisfy some specific design considerations for a new mini-campaign. My kids asked me to run a sandbox for them. I'm already a busy man and already running a separate game for the grown-ups, so I resolved to rely on existing material as much as possible for our little sandbox - which meant that compatiblity with published D&D(ish) material was important. And that, of course, means Knave - Ben Milton's now-famed rules-light engine for gaming with just about any OSR resource in print.
That being said, I didn't want to run Knave without some tweaks. As follows, here were some design issues I had in mind:
+ I really like Into the Odd's faster and usually whiff-less combat, though there are aspects of it that I think I'd like to tweak, too. Could I modify combat in Knave to make it a bit faster, while keeping things I like?
+ As this little sandbox is just for two kids, I'm looking at running quite a small party of PCs. How could I optimize survivability and competence for two characters, while perhaps adding even fewer bells and whistles than Scarlet Heroes' rules for solo/duo parties?
+ Knave is notably classless, relying on inventory, but one common response when hacking the game is to add 'knacks' or light class-ability systems. How could I boost character diversity a bit with a minimum of added fuss?
+ Finally, I like monsters with special abilities. I like how Into the Odd bakes them into the critical damage after HP = 0, but I dislike how this means many special abilities never get 'shown off' before a monster dies, and in fact there is a bit of a predictable pacing to combat (first, you most likely only lose HP, then you are in serious trouble). How could I highlight unique monster characteristics without adding a ton of fuss (and, preferably, retain ItO's "don't blame me, blame the dice" feature for GMs?).
Well, here's a quick look at what I whipped up. It's basically Knave as-is, with a few key modifications, using ideas inspired by Whitehack, Into the Odd, Scarlet Heroes, and Low Fantasy Gaming.
So. All rules remain RAW unless specified:
1) During character generation, pick 2 Tags reflecting a background, skill, or notable feature that might improve your PC's performance. Write the tag next to one of your Ability Defense scores; when you attempt a Saving Throw using that score, you can roll with advantage (roll 2d20 and take the better roll) if your Tag is relevant (for example, one of our new PCs is a cat-person, and has "Dexterity: Cat-Person" and "Wisdom: Cat-Burglar"; the other PC has "Dexterity: City Guard" and "Constitution: Plague Survivor"). This is basically yoinked from Whitehack.
2) During character generation, decide whether your character is a RAZOR or a SCYTHE (thus giving my rules edgy flair and an excuse for that terrible name, Shave).
- RAZORS gain an extra 2 Ability score Tags, bringing them to a total of 4 tags. As rare as Saving Throws may be, they'll typically roll them with +Advantage.
- SCYTHES have the 'cleave'/'plow through enemies'/whatever ability: when you drop a foe in combat to 0 hp, you may immediately make another attack at another target adjacent to you (melee) or in range (missile).
This all assumes, of course, that everybody in the game can be kind of a fighter, kind of a rogue, kind of an arcane caster, etc. You just make one tweak for a little signature specialty up front.
[EDIT - forgot to mention - I started characters at level 2; my intent is that everybody gains 1 more new Tag when they level up to level 5]
3) During combat, players roll to hit as normal. When a PC hits, they don't roll damage; they automatically inflict the MAXIMUM damage for their weapon. If a character ends up with a weapon or effect that inflicts multiple dice of damage, max out one of the dice (PC's choice) and roll the other(s). [This roll to hit, but not to damage approach is meant to make the gradient of enemy armor classes feel more meaningful than it often does in Into the Odd, and allows the frustration of not always hitting, but it also simplifies combat by removing half of a PC's rolls - while making these lone characters quite powerful when they hit. Consider that a SCYTHE character with a d8 sword fighting a crowd of goblins can mow through the whole crowd adjacent in one round - so long as he keeps rolling hits...I like this balance of competence that still depends somewhat on luck.]
4) The monsters use the normal combat rules - they roll to hit AND for damage. I also had hirelings roll for damage, too. It's just the PCs who get to be awesome.
5) Added to that, however, I imported Low Fantasy Gaming's approach to monster critical hits. Every monster type has a special attack feature that triggers on natural roll of 19 or 20. This 19+ feature might just be 'max damage for its weapon' or it might be something like "Save or Die" or "lose a limb" or all kinds of exotic stuff in-between. This brings the special attack effects that I love in Into the Odd, but it spreads their potential and threat all throughout the combat, from the very first round - while remaining rare enough (10%) that you'll probably be ok.
SO HOW'D IT GO?
Great! We just tried these rules out today and had a good time. The rules got out of the way but allowed dangerous, tense combats (most of our rules engagement was with Knave's famed inventory management system, which turned out to matter a lot ... at session's end, they even had to negotiate inventory slots to bring a deceased hireling's body home to his vilage).
I'm running a setting that is vaguely inspired by late Carolingian society near the Mediterranean. My little sandbox includes several villages from Raging Swan Press, a number of the individual lairs in Forgotten Caverns of Archaia re-purposed across my landscape, the Barrowmaze, Saltmarsh, and a number of factions to wheel and deal with in good time. The characters have just ship-wrecked on the shore of the West Kingdom while fleeing plague and banishment in the Eastern Realm. After being nursed back to strenght in a coastal fishing village, they're ready to stretch their legs and gather some loot in their new home.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR REDTOOTH RIDGE
Today, we started out with the Advanced Adventures module "Redtooth Ridge." [Affiliate link] We got about half-way through the module before the players beat it back to the village with inventory slots filled with treasure and a dead hireling's body. They are being paid to recover an item stolen from a dryad. With two hirelings in tow recruited in the fishing village, they headed up the Redtooth Ridge and encountered a snacking ogre. Rather than fighting, the PCs successfully struck up a conversation with the beast. Not a bad idea, since they were able to reach a diplomatic solution - he'll let them wander about his plateau's ruined mansions if 1) they kill lots of the mites and pesties he loves to snack on, and leave the 'snacks' for him, and 2) they take out the goblin 'allies' he's getting tired of humoring. None too soon, as the goblins ended up ambushing the party and the ogre; one PC got pretty low in HP before they drove off the goblins.
Taking their temporary leave of the ogre (thank goodness; his funny voice was hurting my throat!) the PCs began their exploration of the plateau's main ruined mansion. They found a bunch of classy antique furniture and dragged some outside to haul back home later. Unfortunately, this extended effort provoked a random encounter - two wolves that wandered in to interrupt the process! However, the PCs ran inside and barricaded themselves in the ruin - then decided to throw an old mouldering goblin corpse they found outside. The wolves took this 'gift' and ran off into the woods with it.
Next was the looting of an old libary chock full of giant rats. One of the hirelings was swarmed and bitten to death before a PC used an Auditory Illusion spell to scare the rats off with a deafening dragon's roar! Then, an almost-fight with zombies before the PCs retreated back upstairs, a sip from a magical fountain (which turned out to be a bad idea, as the dice weren't with the player - he lost 1 permanent HP) and finally a fight with two ghouls in a ruined chapel. Now loaded with loot up to their max inventory, the party decided to head back to the fishing village with their 'winnings.'
They then chartered a cart to take them to a larger village, hired 4 more men-at-arms in the village's taverns, and are headed back to complete the job on Redtooth Ridge. The story continues!
Success for my trial run of Knave, and success for my small design tweaks too. I guess it wasn't too close a SHAVE!