Monday, April 22, 2024

Leaner, Cleaner ... still Mean. Lethal Fighters 3.0, now using X-in-6 rolls.

 After more work, and a very helpful feedback session on the NSR Discord, I come back to you now (at the turning of the tide?). My Lethal Maneuver rules to make Fighters more bodacious still use the same logic, but they've moved from the d20 to a simple X-in-6 roll on 2d6, measuring 0, 1, or 2 Successes. This sets it apart as a distinct, plug-and-play subsystem that is simple and feels distinct from normal to-hit rolls (this is meant to be fairly system-agnostic, something you can plug into most OSR-adjacent systems that might like a cooler Fighter). There are various little changes, too, but I think this is the best iteration yet among my recent proposals. 

If you're familiar with my recent posts, you can probably skip down past the "Terms" section, but I've fleshed things out there to clarify what I'm up to. The actual procedure, once you get into it, is pretty lightweight. To reward you for making it to the bottom of the page, we'll look at some specific examples, with pictures.  Ooooh shiny.  

Also: I removed the bit about slaughtering many much weaker foes with a single dice roll. I still love that idea, but rather than keeping it in and adding complexity to my Lethal Maneuvers (where it becomes an all-or-nothing storm that kills a ton of mooks or just gets you hurt) - instead, I suggest simply adding multi-attacks as a separate Fighter ability. Doing so makes fewer changes to the normal combat loop. So, to build a more generous version of the ol' Swords & Wizardry multi-attacks rule....

+ All Fighters may make multiple attacks per turn (equal to the Fighter's level) against targets with HD at or under 1/2 the Fighter's level (round up).

+ Also, all Fighters may make Lethal Maneuvers (see below).

When facing diverse foes, the Fighter must choose whether to spend their action attacking a foe once, attacking much weaker foes multiple times, or attempting a game-changing Lethal Maneuver. (Simple) choice is good for game design. 



Combat Stunt: a maneuver to gain positional or contextual advantage in combat, but without causing direct damage to a foe. Often, Stunts will inflict the Staggered condition on a target. Stunts must make fictional sense (per GM determination). Any character may attempt such a stunt; doing so takes a combat Action and is resolved per your system’s normal task resolution procedure (e.g.: PC rolls an Ability Check; target makes a Reflex Save, etc.). If your system does not include a procedure that you like for resolving combat stunts, you can use the X-in-6-chance maneuver roll described below (but only rolling once for binary success/failure). 

Lethal Maneuver: a stunt that causes direct harm to its target, beyond and with more narrative specificity than mere HP loss. These include Maiming Strikes and Killing Blows. Only PC Fighters may attempt Lethal Maneuvers. Lethal Maneuvers must be attempted in melee - not by ranged attacks. Like other stunts, Lethal Maneuvers must make narrative/contextual sense (per GM’s discretion). Players should clarify intended results with the GM before rolling. Such maneuvers require risky engagement at intimate range - if an attempted maneuver is failed or poorly executed, the consequence for the PC can be very dangerous.

Staggered: a target unable to fight to their full potential; mechanically, an NPC target at 1/2 max hp or lower, OR that has been affected by a suitably discombobulating combat stunt. Often, an affected character may recover by taking a suitable action. The Staggered condition makes a target more vulnerable to special Lethal Maneuvers by Fighters. Per GM discretion, Staggered targets also may grant advantage when being attacked via normal to-hit rolls, and/or suffer disadvantage when attacking. NB: by treating targets at 1/2 hp as Staggered, at least regarding Fighters’ Lethal Maneuvers, the rest of the party can whittle down foes to help ‘set them up’ for a Fighter’s attempted maneuver). Teamwork! 

Maiming Strike: sever the ogre’s hamstring; hew off the giant scorpion’s stinger; stab out the cyclops’ eye; cut off Sir Ronald’s guilty sword-hand. These maneuvers (semi-)permanently change the target’s abilities, imposing the Staggered/Maimed condition, and (as narratively appropriate) limiting or preventing use of certain special abilities. If poorly executed, the attempting PC 

Killing Blow: these risky, one-shot maneuvers kill or incapacitate the target (player’s choice) with a single flourish of arms. 


Before attempting a Lethal Maneuver, check the Fighter’s level relative to the target’s HD. A Fighter’s predatory, intuitive gaze can read the battlefield well; after the start of combat, a Fighter may freely assess (free action) how a foe they can see ranks relative to them.

Vs. Much Higher HD ( foe w/ 6+ HD beyond own level): 

  • may attempt a Maiming Strike against a Staggered target
  • May not attempt Killing Blows

Vs. Higher HD (foe 2-5 HD beyond own level): 

  • may attempt a Maiming Strike against a Staggered target 
  • may attempt a Killing Blow against a Maimed target 

Vs. Equal HD (foe +/-1 HD): 

  • may attempt a Maiming Strike 
  • may attempt a Killing Blow if the target is already Staggered/Maimed

Vs. Lower HD (foe 2 or more HD under own level):

  • may attempt any Lethal Maneuver


Roll 2d6 and check each die for Success (result will = 0, 1, or 2 Successes). 

Nat 6 = always succeeds; Nat 1 = always fails.

+1 to roll vs Staggered/Maimed foe;

+1 to roll vs poorly armored foe [AC 12-] (or otherwise highly vulnerable, in GM’s judgment); 

-1 to roll vs heavily armored foe [AC 18+] (or otherwise highly resistant, in GM’s judgment)

Target Number (d6) vs.:

+ Much higher HD foe … 6 

+ Higher HD foe … 5+

+ Equal HD foe … 4+ 

+ Lesser HD foe … 3+

+ 1/2 HD foe … 2+ 


0 Successes: on a Maiming Strike, reduce your own HP to next lower threshold (Full, 1/2, 1/4, 0 hp). On a Killing Blow, reduce by two thresholds. 

1 Success: reduce your HP as above, but accomplish your maneuver and inflict your normal combat damage. 

2 Successes: accomplish your maneuver and inflict your normal combat damage.

Once per day, the Fighter may declare their shield destroyed/sundered, negating one hp-threshold consequence (wholly absorbing a Maiming Strike consequence, and limiting a failed/complicated Killing Blow consequence to a single HP threshold lost).


Jeff Easley (from 1e's Monster Manual II)

Let's say this is a lvl 4 Fighter going up against a Hill Giant (8 HD). Hopefully he's got the rest of an adventuring party just out-of-frame, to help whittle down the beast's HP halfway. Until then, he can't even try any Lethal Maneuvers at all, unless he comes up with some really creative non-damaging combat stunt to put himself in a better position (slip between the legs and climb up the back of the loincloth!??!). 

Let's say he does have some buddies out-of-frame, who pepper the giant with arrows well enough to drop it to half-HP. Now (if he's still alive), our Fighter gains the option to try to Maim the Staggered Giant. So, he proposes to hamstring the thing, hindering its movement and giving it the Maimed tag. He needs to roll 4s, because the Higher-HD foe (5+) is Staggered, so he gets a +1. He rolls twice, getting a 5 and a 1 (1 success). Our Fighter successfully hamstrings the Giant, but with only 1 success, he also drops down to his next HP threshold. He was at 11 out of max 16 hp, so he drops down to 8 hp - half his hp - the next threshold. Now that the Giant is maimed, though, he can try again next turn to launch a Killing Blow. However, it may be prudent not to do so - if he fails that roll, or even only gets 1 success, he'll drop himself down to 0 hp. 


Frank Frazetta

Who needs an armored torso when you've got a shield and a dope winged helmet? Frazetta's unfrazzled hero is (let us say) a mighty lvl 7 Fighter (I mean, look at those poised reflexes). He's been jumped by ... let's call it a Yeti, mechanically (5 HD). Silly Yeti. Our armor-eschewing S&S swordsman has two levels on his ambusher's HD, so he can attempt any Lethal Maneuver he wants, and he's got places he'd rather be. More importantly, he knows well the lore about these Yeti pass-guardians - knows, in particular, how they can grab a man in a terrible bear-hug, their wretched breath paralyzing even hardened warriors with fear while they rend a man to ribbons. Rather than risk suffering the beast's horrid attack, he's just launching a Killing Blow right at the start of combat. He'll roll 2d6, needing 3s to succeed. He rolls a 3 and a 4, impaling the thing's heart even as it charges him. The beast is dead. Had the Fighter rolled a 2 and a 4, he still would have killed the "not-Yeti," BUT he also would have suffered nasty consequences in the process - dropping two HP thresholds (those are nasty claws!). That might be worth sundering his shield to reduce, if need be. 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Update: Lethal Fighters, 2.0

 Here's an update to my recent ideas about flashy, risky, lethal maneuvers for Fighters. I got some great feedback (here, and on Reddit/Discord). Although I haven't agreed with or implemented all the feedback, the conversation has really helped me hone this further, and some feedback has led to significant tweaks.

Among the most notable changes: decisive maneuver attempts/gambits still risk serious consequences, but when triggered such consequences now involve HP loss down to set thresholds (instead of getting narratively maimed or killed, and trying to block that with armor or abstract points). Also, I have decided (for now...) to decouple such gambits from the normal to-hit roll procedure. In the initial version, I suggested that one could require two normal to-hit rolls and base the full/partial/no success results off that. As one reader pointed out, doing so makes such gambits significantly less appealing for low-level fighters who don't yet have attack bonuses and magic weapons equal to common, mid-range Armor Classes. As you'll see, I'm now proposing a more truly system-agnostic flat roll, still based on the PC's skill/training relative to the target's (measured as level vs. HD). But there are no longer any bonuses added to this flat d20 roll. This means that all Fighters of a certain level have the same chance to pull off the same maneuver against the same opponent. That might seem odd or limiting, but I'll counter that this is not out of place in a classic or OSR game. In Old School Essentials, for example, all Clerics of the same level have the same chance to turn undead; all Wizards of the same level know the same number of spells; and all Fighters of the same level have the same chance to pass a Saving Throw against Breath Attacks or other, non-magical hazards. The closer you get to OD&D or B/X, the less Ability Scores really serve to differentiate among different PCs. I've harnessed that, letting individual player creativity and daring shape which Fighters of the same level feel better suited to attempting dangerous stunts. 

A flat roll also makes this hack compatible with a variety of systems, no matter which bonuses they do or don't use for their normal hit rolls. Slap this atop Knave for a Fighter class, or plug this into OSE to enliven the watching-paint-dry B/X Fighter. Of course, this should change the tempo and feel of combat - and this still requires playtesting. But I think this is getting closer to something coherent enough to test.

 Here, then, is my "Lethal Fighter, Quadratic Wizard" 2.0.


Your game's normal combat to-hit rolls remain in effect. Foes still drop at 0 hp. Often, Fighters will want to stick with such normal attacks, which risk nothing on a miss other than a wasted action. 

Alternately, any character may use their combat action to attempt a combat stunt that does NOT directly deal damage. Use your system's regular procedure for task resolution. Examples: trip an enemy to knock them prone, parkour behind a foe to set up an advantageous strike, etc. Often, such stunts will incur advantage to follow-up attacks, or impose disadvantage on the foe's attacks, until the foe can act to change the situation. Stunt may be attempted against any foe, and in any situation, so long as the GM agrees that the attempt makes contextual sense. 

With the GM's permission, stunts may lead indirectly to damage against foes - for example, tripping an orc atop a castle rampart might cause it to fall to its death ("I didn't kill him. The fall killed him."). GMs may allow the affected foe a relevant Saving Throw to avoid such a fate. 

A foe discombobulated by a Stunt counts as STAGGERED. Enemies (not PCs) also count as STAGGERED when they are at 1/2 their max hit points, or lower. This tag becomes relevant for Fighters...


Fighters also have access to additional maneuvers and related abilities. 

Fighters are trained predators, swift to assess subtle signs of violent skill - or vulnerability. A Fighter may spend a combat action to determine whether any single foe in melee is currently at 1/2 hp or lower (and thus STAGGERED), and whether that foe's HD are much higher, higher, equal, lower, or much lower than their own level [NOTE: per the teachings of St. McDowall, I'm tempted to just give Fighters this information for free, rather than requiring an action].

Fighters (and only Fighters) may attempt Maiming Strikes and Killing Blows. These represent risky but skilled attempts to exploit momentary openings to change or even end a fight. If a Fighter's speed and skill beat their opponent's, such gambits can be very useful - but they require closing to dangerously intimate range, making the Fighter highly vulnerable should their maneuver fail. 

Accordingly, Maiming Strikes and Killing Blows can only be attempted in Melee - not with Ranged Attacks. 

MAIMING STRIKES are maneuvers in close combat that cause direct damage or ability loss, beyond simple HP loss (to inflict simple HP loss, make a normal to-hit roll as usual, which risks nothing but a wasted action on a miss). A Maiming Strike seeks to impose a lasting debility on a foe or to deny a specific ability to the foe. It is similar to a "called shot"; it is similar, too, to a combat stunt, but once affected a foe can not simply 'snap out of it' by standing back up, wiping sand from their eyes, etc.

Select Examples:

  • Slicing an ogre's wrist-tendons, granting Boon/Advantage to further attacks against it and imposing Bane/Disadvantage on the ogre's own attacks.
  • Shearing off a giant scorpion's tail stinger, so that it loses its venemous attack option.
  • Stabbing out the eye of a creature with a gaze attack. 
  • Blinding a cyclops, so that its further attacks count as vs. invisible targets. 
  • Crushing an opponent's groin, inflicting searing pain that hinders their further actions with Disadvantage. 

In each case, the maneuver differs from a regular combat attack because it has the potential to change the target's combat abilities, and/or impose mechanical penalties, that remain in effect for the rest of the fight. A Maimed foe automatically counts as Staggered for the remainder of the fight. 

KILLING BLOWS use the same idea, but they directly kill an opponent. Chop off the ogre's head. Slice the wicked Sir Rodney from collar to hip-bone. Pierce the dragon's underside and drive your spear into its heart. 

But such useful strikes are risky, and are limited by a Fighter's skill relative to their foe's.


When fighting foes with:

Much higher HD (6+ HD higher than level): the Fighter may NOT attempt Maiming Strikes or Killing Blows against this target. 

Higher HD (2-5 HD higher than level): the Fighter may attempt a Maiming Strike against a Staggered Target, or a Killing Blow against an already Maimed target. 

Equal HD (+/- 1 HD): the Fighter may attempt a Maiming Strike. Against a target that is already Staggered or Maimed, the Fighter may attempt a Killing Blow. 

Lower HD than your level: the Fighter may attempt a Maiming Strike or Killing Blow. 

Much lower HD (half your level or lower): the Fighter may attempt a Maiming Strike or Killing Blow. A successful Killing Blow affects multiple eligible targets up to the Fighter's level (a lvl 3 Fighter may kill up to three 1-HD targets, a lvl 6 Fighter may slaughter up to 6 3-HD targets, etc.). To attempt such a maneuver against multiple targets, use the "Lower HD" rather than "Much Lower HD" TN. 


To attempt a Maiming Strike or Killing Blow, run your idea past the GM, who will confirm whether the proposed maneuver would work in the current context and as envisioned by the player. Make sure both GM and player share an understanding of the possible outcomes. 

Then, the Fighter's player rolls 2d20, and checks whether they rolled 0, 1, or 2 successes vs these Target Numbers (no modifiers are added to the rolls):

Higher foe    TN 14+

Equal foe    TN 11+

Lower foe    TN 8+ including multiple Much Lower foes)

Much Lower foe     TN 5+ (for a single foe)

If a foe is very well-armored (ascending AC 17+), treat their TN as one category higher. If a foe is very poorly armored (ascending AC 12-), treat their TN as one category lower. If a foe is Staggered (and/or already Maimed), treat its TN as one category lower. 


2 Successes: you accomplished your intended Maiming Strike or Killing Blow! Also, inflict your normal weapon damage agains the target's HP. 

1 Success: you accomplished your intended maneuver, AND you inflict your normal weapon damage agains the target's HP -- but at great costIf you achieved a Maiming Strike, you also take damage that drops your hit points to the next-lower threshold (Full HP, Half HP, Quarter HP, 0 HP). If you achieved a Killing Blow, you take damage that drops you by TWO HP thresholds. (For example, a Fighter at about 60% of their max HP would fall to 1/2 HP (Maiming Strike) or 1/4 HP (Killing Blow). Writing down these threshold levels on the character sheet will speed up play. 

0 Successes: your intended maneuver fails, and you pay a great cost. Suffer damage to HP as described above. 

Ouch! These maneuvers are risky. But Fighters have a limited way to mitigate that risk. Once per day/overnight rest, they may narrate how their armor, cat-like reflexes, etc., saved them from one consequence (this fully absorbs the consequence from a Maiming Strike, but still leaves one "hp step" inflicted after a failed Killing Blow). If a GM allows players to "sunder" shields or helms from their inventory to ignore an attack's damage, a Fighter may also sunder their shield or helm to ignore one consequence-step from a bad maneuver -- but only once per day. 


As noted above, these still require playtesting, but I think they're now in a shape to allow it. I think what that will reveal is that this retains the value of all players' normal attacks - they can still kill off foes by dropping them to 0 hp. However, non-Fighter attacks are now helpful because they set up the Fighter to be able to pull off a Maiming/Killing attack more easily against a Staggered target at 1/2 hp. But the risk of losing a lot of HP at once should limit how often Fighters try these moves. I'm hoping this leads to 'signature moments' when Fighters really shine ... or really groan when the move goes wrong. Adding a simple but regular dimension of risk-reward analysis should enliven the Fighter, giving the player a sense of reading the flow of battle and always assessing whether or not to attempt a quick, finishing blow that ends a potentially dangerous threat. This also lets creative players narrate debilitating attacks that actually feel more consequential than just dropping HP off a monster. 

A pair of Fighters can work together -- if the dice cooperate -- to stagger, then maim, or maim, then kill, an opponent. Teams can experiment to find their own rhythms. Of course, different encounters will call for entirely new approaches.

Thanks for reading, and for any further feedback. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Dynamic, Lethal Fighter, Quadratic Wizard (feedback, please...)

I'm having some thoughts about a possible simple way to make Fighters exciting again without much rules bloat. Pray tell me whether you think it's worthwhile. Basically, it's a simple overhaul that lets Fighters (and only Fighters) maim or even one-shot certain opponents, but in a way that shouldn't nerf all combat, and which still gives non-Fighters important jobs to do in fights. 


Quite a few years ago, I was a player in a fun little Dungeon World campaign, and my PC was some sort of martial fighter-type character. During an exciting, dynamic fight, I told the GM about a special maneuver I wanted to try. In real-world German medieval longsword fighting, there was a rather nasty maneuver that involved closing in or opening up distance while using blade pressure to slice incisions around the opponent's wrists...a horrifyingly effective move that, obviously, would hamper follow-on strikes by said foe. Eww!

Anyway - I said that I wanted to attempt that maneuver against an ogre, so that it would have trouble hefting its big ax for the rest of the fight, suffer disadvantage, etc. The GM gave me the green-light; I rolled well (!) ... and ... the ogre took some HP damage and the fight continued as usual - with no extra mechanical penalty to the monster. Despite DW's vaunted narratvist "to do it, do it" mentality, things fell kinda flat that time. Now, I've run a fair bit of DW since then myself, and I'm sympathetic to the GM. There are other ways we could have adjudicated things, but one of DW's shortcomings as written is that it tries to combine the dynamism of PbtA fights with the book-keeping hit points of trad D&D ... and the result isn't always as successful as one might hope. 

I've long idly dreamed of a combat ruleset with true narrative dynamism but the precision of trad/d20-based rules. I tend to like any well-executed "combat stunts" system, for example. However, such stunts often (not always) are limited to things that don't directly cause damage - since, reasonably, the extant combat and HP-ablation rules are already thought to represent your best available efforts to damage opponents. 

Hmm. Well, my recent review of the Brimstone game rules got me thinking again about how I would try to combine dynamism with OSR compatibility. Think I did, and now I've got some rough ideas to share. I welcome - nay, I request - feedback. 


Here are some key assumptions/design pillars:

+ In a game centered around fighting monsters, Fighters should be a lot of fun to play. In reality, most old-school rulesets feature Fighters that are only slightly less boring than watching print-on-demand rulebook spines come unglued. Yes, I know that you can narrate what they do anyway but I can just play a freeform game if I want rules that don't match what actually happens very well. 

+ In combat, skill is even more important than strength or armor coverage. 

+ compatibility with printed OSR bestiaries makes Johnny a nice boy who gets invited to parties.

+ Fighters should get better at killing things impressively as they get more experienced. No, correction: Fighters should get much better at killing things impressively as the level of relative experience between them and their foes increases. In other words, fighting equal-level foes should always remain risky; but against lower-level foes, Fighters should be unspeakably terrifying in close combat. 

+ from a Gamist perspective, giving players meaningful choices attached to risk is a good design move. 

+ giving players meaningful ways to mitigate risk is also a good idea.

+ keep it as simple as possible. 


I thought at first about letting any character attempt these, but I think it's fitting to limit it to martial characters (then again, I'm also toying with a ruleslight approach in which all PCs are some form of Fighter or Wizard, but that's a side-matter...). 

So - please bear with me as I outline this idea in a series of definitions and rules. 

Bloodied = ripped off from 4e. When you're at 50% hp or less, you have this status. 

Staggered = you're having trouble in the fight. You automatically have this status when you're bloodied (which is important for what's to come - it means that even characters who DON'T do the cool lethal stunts still have a useful attritive role to play). But you can also get Staggered because somebody knocked you down, tripped you, threw Mordenkainen's Lime Mojito mixed with Alka-Seltzer in your eyes, etc. (normal, non-damage-inflicting "combat stunt" stuff). 

Maimed = you've taken some kind of specific, narrative damage that changes your fictional/mechanical abilities. 

Attritional Attacks = what you already know as "normal attacks in D&D." These involve a to-hit roll and, if successful, degrading the foe's hit points. As usual, if such an attack reduces a character/monster to 0 hp, they are taken out/killed. Cool. But why might we want more? 

  • because flashy killing blows are cooler.
  • because, sometimes, terrible things will happen if you don't kill the thing blocking the escape route RIGHT NOW. Or maybe Larry is a goner, for sure, if we don't kill the thing possessing him ASAP. 

Deadly Maneuvers = risky but highly consequential "stunt"-like maneuvers that Fighters can attempt. These are combat stunts that can also deal damage - nay, not just "reducing hp," but causing immediate, narrative-shaping wounds or even fatalities. You know: chop off the goblin chieftain's head. Slash around the ogre's wrists so it can barely lift its axe. Slice off the giant scorpion's stinger so it can't poison you all. That kinda stuff. 

Now, how to implement this in light of my earlier-listed ground rules?

Art by Justin Sweet. 
Realistically, this guy is either about to pull a successful Deadly Maneuver (or two), or he's going to die. 

There are 3 levels of possible Severity:

Severity 1: a Staggering blow, opening up Advantage on any further attacks. Note that this allows them to get up and rectify the situation: it's a contextual disadvantage, not a bodily effect. 

Severity 2: a Maiming strike, this Staggers the foe AND changes their abilities/capabilities; they become Maimed (you're actually crippling, imposing ongoing disadvantage and loss in ability for the foreseeable future - certainly for the duration of this fight, barring some magical means of restoration). The scorpion loses its stinger, the ogre can gets its wrists to support much weight, etc. 

Severity 3: a Killing blow; you outright kill/incapacitate the foe in a single, gory move. DEAD!

When a Fighter launches one of these moves, the GM compares the Fighter's LEVEL (skill/experience) to the target's level or HD. 

Against foes of HIGHER HD: the Fighter may only attempt a Staggering Maneuver. However, if the foe is already Staggered, the Fighter may attempt to Maim; if the foe is already Maimed, the Fighter may hazard a Killing blow.

Against foes of EQUAL HD (defined as within 1 level): the Fighter may attempt a Staggering OR Maiming blow. If a foe is already Staggered or Maimed, the Fighter may attempt a Killing blow. 

Against foes of FEWER HD: the Fighter may attempt a Killing blow outright. 

Against foes of HALF HD OR LESS: cut through them like wheat before the scythe! The Fighter may attempt a Killing blow that, if successful, affects a number of eligible targets up to the Fighter's level (that is, a Level 3 Fighter may Kill up to 3 1-HD targets, a level 6 Fighter may slaughter up to 6 level 3- targets, etc.). 

Justin Sweet
What it looks like when a level 6 Fighter pulls a Deadly Maneuver on a bunch of low-HD goons.

Well, that all sounds great! Why wouldn't a Fighter do this constantly? 

Yeah, because...

TO EXECUTE A DEADLY MANEUVER, declare your intention, and then roll TWO attacks. 

With TWO SUCCESSES: you accomplish the intended maneuver - the foe suffers your stated consequences!

With ONE SUCCESS: things got complicated. EITHER inflict one level of severity LOWER than what you intended, or carry out your intended maneuver, but the foe inflicts a maneuver of the same severity against you (wait, this will make sense below). 

With 0 SUCCESSES: Ugh. Disaster. The Foe inflicts the same maneuver, or one of equal severity, that you tried to pull on it. 

Now, you can just run this on top of extant D&D/OSR combat rules, using two normal attack rolls vs. target AC. I am tempted, however, to fiddle with an HD/level comparing TN system, but that, too, is a side-issue. 

So it's very risky to run these dramatic, decisive maneuvers. What makes them even vaguely worth attempting is that Fighters can mitigate bad results with an extended version of that ol' "shields shall be splintered" rule. 

HAUBERKS, HELMS, and SHIELDs may each be used to block 1 level of Severity that a Fighter would incur. This doesn't "break" the item, but it's used narratively to absorb the blow, and then can't be used that way again until after a solid night's rest. Also, a Fighter may buy-off Severity, 1-for-1, by paying the GM Doom Points. 

Normally, only PC Fighters can launch these decisive Deadly Maneuvers. But the GM may pay 1 Doom Point to allow a monster to initiate a possibly lethal Deadly Maneuver against a PC. 

Just to be clear, of course, Deadly Maneuvers always require fictional coherence to pull off. "I launch the sling-stone deep into the Gelatinous Cube, killing it DEAD!" Um, no. "I rake my mundane dagger across the Iron Golem's face, shattering its head into myriad fragments!" That's amazing, except for the bit where it won't happen. The proposed actions require vetting by the GM to ensure that they make sense and are allowable. 


Sorry, I haven't even playtested these yet (I'm in professor-grading-papers season, and things are a bit bonkers). I'd like to imagine, though, that these ideas, or something similar, could really distinguish martial characters, giving them a powerful and unique (but simple) set of mechanical options for doing amazing things in the fiction with solid mechanical consequence. This would help Fighters better "match" the coolness, complexity, and creativity of magic-users - especially because this system scales over levels; you're always going to be scared to fight bigger monsters, but it might be worth trying to behead the dragon if you're desperate ... and if you've got good mates who can help you whittle it down to Bloodied/Staggered status before you try. There, too, this lets all the normal combat actions and attacks matter - your non-Fighters are still doing things, and they'll still sometimes strike the final blows that reduce foes to 0 hp. But Fighters are now the pinch-hitters, the big guns, the ones who can step up to the plate when everything is going sideways, and do something that no other class could do to save the day with a single throw of the dice. You know, since it's not like the Magic-user would have been able to cast Sleep or anything...

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Gundobad Games is ... five years old!

Wow! This blog turns five years old today. 

On April 10, 2019, I released an introductory post and then, the same day, a discussion titled "If Only We'd Never Taken that Treasure: Some Musings on Archaeology and the OSR." I'm very grateful to you all for reading, responding to, and supporting the blog.  

Looking back over some personal highlights from the half-decade:

+ I offered a number of posts mashing up academic historical insights with gaming: for example, these have included entries about the late Bronze Age, patterns of societal collapse across history, the logic of feudalism, or a mini-series on why Merovingian Frankish Gaul would make an excellent basis for a fantasy sandbox campaign. 

+ I reviewed a number of game systems, adventures, and accessories. In my reviews, I strive to offer robust, thorough insight into the product under discussion, and to be as constructive as possible while always offering an honest and fair appraisal. I'm particularly pleased that I could help offer early publicity for some notable small-press items, including the now-famed adventure Black Wyrm of Brandonsford and the skirmish wargame Space Weirdos

+ I wrote some stuff to sell that I am proud of. Most prominent has been Brazen Backgrounds, my system-neutral character-background generator for Bronze Age (or other sword-and-sorcery) settings. Less polished-looking but still fun is my Hunters and Highwaymen: 30 NPCs + Story Hooks for Taverns, Highways, and the Deep, Dark Woods (affiliate link). I also wrote up a cooperative blackpowder skirmish game that I really love, though I've never got around to marketing it. This thing has been such a hoot that it has grown quietly in the background, providing the basis for our household's preferred way to run Mordheim-like games and, now, 40k science-fantasy skirmishes - we're currently several games into a little narrative campaign using this system for violence in a grimdark galactic future. 

+ I also wrote a bunch of other weird things and gave them away or described them here. These have included an ultralight, ultrafast, high-powered ruleset inspired by Tunnels & Trolls (but much faster); a set of playbooks for Apocalypse World-style PbtA gaming, but in a Dark Sun-inspired sword-and-sorcery setting; and yet another Knave hack. I offered some pithy (well, ok, not always) house-rules and tweaks for improving gaming, especially in the OSR sphere: my simple procedure for identifying found magic items without nerfing cursed objects or slowing down the game too much; a system for making it interesting to open secret doors in dungeons that lets GMs get away with showing the whole map to the players; thoughts on fun and simple mass combat rules; a semi-narrative overland travel system that we used to good effect for Night's Dark Terror and Isle of Dread; and a method for making historically coherent campaign-lore backgrounds and maps, without spending half your life working on a novel. This checklist for infrastructure in a faction's lair has seemed helpful, too. 

+ I offered detailed post-mortems on several campaigns, including B10, Night's Dark Terror, a highly modified, Iron Age, Isle of Dread-crawl, and others. I also experimented with running mystery-investigation adventures without a GM or a pre-set plot, whether solo or cooperatively -- and was surprised at how well it all worked out! Some of the ideas I was working on back in 2020 are now appearing (only by coincidence and independent evolution, I believe) in well-known storygames. 

+ As a wargamer, a modeler (but not a model...oh no), and a doodler, I indulged my creative hobby side with strange Warhammer kitbashes and scratchbuilds, fan art, big setting maps, etc. 

So. The blog is now 0.5% of a millennium old. To those who've been along for the full ride, thank you for being part of the journey. To those who've found me more recently and stuck around, thank you for your interest and engagement, which always encourages me to stick with it too. 

Happy gaming, everyone. 

Monday, April 8, 2024

[REVIEW] BRIMSTONE RPG - a "high action" OSR game and toolkit

Brimstone is a new RPG released by Francis Hage of the Steel & Sorcery small press. The game describes itself as "a fantasy roleplaying toolkit built to run games of high action, high adventure, high peril ... designed to be 'rules light, option rich'- to introduce as much tactical depth within as few mechanics and crunch as possible."

Brimstone assumes a late medieval/early Modern setting, something like that of Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (I don't think it would be too hard to reskin to other settings). Here, as in WFRP, your character may end up missing limbs, blown up by a blackpowder weapon's misfire, charred by a backfiring spell, or ruing the day they made one deal too many with nefarious cosmic powers. Unlike WFRP, however, Brimstone emphasizes capable, creative heroes who are just as likely to dish out serious hurt on their foes - and do so with flair. Offering almost cinematic action with OSR-compatibility and low mechanical complexity, Brimstone is not just a game about random almost-heroes dying in a gutter. Again, the game's stated goals combine high action with high peril

Overall, I found the game largely successful at meeting those stated goals (please note, however, that this review is based on reading, but not yet running, the game). Francis kindly agreed to exchange a review copy for a fair and honest review. The game is available in .pdf for $9.99 USD at (DTRPG links on this post are affiliate links, which help support this blog's activities at no added cost). There's also a free Quickstart version, which generously includes about half of the overall game. Even more generously, Francis has released this game under a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0 license, allowing private and commercial reuse or remixing of the rules. Nice. 

While reading, Brimstone briefly reminded me of bits and pieces of many other games: Old School Essentials-B/X, Dungeon World, Beyond the Wall, TravelerShadow of the Demon Lord, Savage Worlds, Scarlet Heroes, and even a faint whiff of Brindlewood Bay. To be clear, I don't mean that the game feels unoriginal, or that it closely mirrors mechanics from those games. Rather, Brimstone's design pushes beyond a vanilla heartbreaker's bare requirements, thoughtfully tackling a number of larger problems and opportunities recognized by some better-known games. The result still feels like a (well-done) fantasy heartbreaker, but it's also an inspiring and creative synthesis of many different ideas. 

This should be a fun game to run, so long as the GM is comfortable making subjective rulings on the fly (though the core rules, described below, set out a pretty straightforward range of basic parameters for those judgments). Alternately, for GMs looking for fun or quirky new houserules, Brimstone also offers a toolkit oozing with cool ideas. I do have one area of concern: the product's internal prose editing. But that can be fixed (and might be, too, given the author's activity so far). On the whole, this is a fun ruleset that offers much more than the next vanilla B/X clone. 


The rulebook's helpful introduction clearly lays out which sections you'll need to be familiar with before running the game. Beyond character creation, this only requires reading three extra pages to cover 95% of what you need in your first session. 

The game's core mechanic is simple and easy to adjudicate. Roll a d20 plus your relevant Attribute bonus, along with - in some cases - one (or, rarely, more) "skill dice." Each PC starts with several skills, which are freeform narrative tags tied to a die size. Using these skills in play (or training new ones) allows gradual promotion to higher die-sizes (for example, that measly d4 in Writing Blog Reviews could get leveled up to a mighty d12 someday). You get to add one relevant skill die when you attempt a basic check. 

The target numbers for checks, meanwhile, are straightforward: normally 12, the TN goes up to 16 for hard checks and down to 8 for easy ones. The book notes that you can do flexible things with this basic system, if you want to: for example, you could use the three-tiered TN system when a roll really calls for variable measures of success (beating the easy/normal TN but falling below the hard TN could, at the GM's discretion, qualify a partial success on a hard task). 

The Attributes (you add those bonuses to checks, too) are Fortitude, Finesse, Wits, Willpower, and Appearance. Were I to run this, I'd probably change up the names. Fortitude and Willpower make me expect Reflex, but nope - we get Finesse; Appearance is basically Ye Olde Comeliness score, which ... is not one of the old TSR-era rules I particularly miss (it's not Charisma; that's covered under Willpower). And finally, the game's hit points get called Vigour - but with both Fortitude and Vigour jostling for attention, I'd much rather see the game stick with traditional names that will get out of the way, and instantly communicate how they differ from each other (after all, the game uses Hit Dice, which you roll to calculate your Vigour ... see what I mean?). 

The skill dice system, and its intuitive rules for using and improving skills, really appealed to me. I was less into the rules for xp; the party gains "xp dice" which they roll as a pool after sessions to see how many xp they earned. I'd rather just grant set amounts of xp and avoid disappointingly low numbers sometimes rolled on large dice. 

Inventory is slot-based. Distances and measurement are treated loosely, with semi-abstract range bands. Works for me. 

Overall, the core rules look great, though they occasionally are a bit fussier than need be. The bits I don't like are modular enough to trim out with ease.  


This part is interesting! 

Over the years, I've run lots of OSR and PbtA (Dungeon World) gaming. When I run lots of OSR stuff, I miss the dynamism of combat and action in DW; when I run lots of DW, I miss the more objective, precise nature of OSR or d20 combat. 

Brimstone sort of merges both approaches, sticking closer to OSR mechanics but adding more room for really dynamic (and subjective) actions than one often sees in old-school sessions. 

The attack roll is a basic check, with some twists. Roll d20 plus your Fortitude or Finesse bonus, trying to match not an Armor Class, but a regular check's target number - again, this is normally 12, but drops to 8 or climbs to 16 for easy/hard checks. The GM can make a snap judgment about setting the target number, but the game suggests subtracting an OSR monster's descending AC from 20, and then using the nearest of the three TNs. 

Nothing too unusual so far. But the game adds a bunch of simple twists and features that really reframe combat. Quite a few games have used combat "stances" to boost offense/defense/etc. during fights. Brimstone follows suit, but applies its weapon-skill-die system to its "attack styles." Before attacking, players choose flexible, defensive, or aggressive ways to apply their weapon skill die on their round; alternately, they can apply the die as extra damage to adjacent targets (rather like Ye Olde Cleave ability). On defense, attacked PCs choose whether to Dodge (with Finesse) or Brace (with Fortitude and Armor), each of which triggers different effects on a Critical Success. 

The real twists come in with "Creative Attacks" and "Heroic Reactions." A Creative Attack is a lot like a "combat stunt" in various other games. However, where an OSR stunt is often restricted to moves that don't directly deal damage, these now also let you mutilate, spindle, whorl, blind, or otherwise disable a foe (the game offers the example of shooting out a cyclops' eye). The attack roll is made vs. Wits. Then, there are additional criteria for success:

For achieving the intended goal of the attack, there may be damage requirements to achieve the intended effect. A common number to use as a threshold is 5 damage to have a significant limb-impacting effect occur, although this could increase based on the size of the foe. A good rule of thumb is roughly 20% of the target’s maximum VIGOUR. The GM should advise the player on any requirements before they attack.

This will require GM rulings, often on the fly. But it allows for players to get around the normal, "vanilla" hp-ablation rules in D&D, letting them attempt the kinds of dynamic attacks that I like in (some) PbtA games. 

"Heroic Reactions" are defensive, triggered by enemy actions, but they allow further "narrativey mechanic-bending" behavior (at GM discretion). Basically, they let one PC in the party, per combat round, give up their NEXT action to take action in response to an enemy on their turn. Some very short examples given illustrate the range of options: in one, a demon attacks with a sword, and a player fires their blunderbuss to take them out. But in another short, one-line example, players are encouraged to "shoot a firearm to deflect an incoming projectile." I believe that latter example would require activating a Heroic Reaction, and then using it to attempt a Creative Attack. As this illustrates, clever players can use these mechanics to do all sorts of things that they normally wouldn't get to try in an old-school D&D game, all while using broadly OSR-based mechanics. 

That being said, I had to sit and pore over the short pages of combat rules for a bit to figure out how these things click together. It's not that the rules are really complex; they're quite simple. But they deviate from many common OSR practices just enough that I think some GMs and players could miss the intended point. I think Brimstone would benefit from one of those one/two-page "example of play" narrations that some rulesets include - something that illustrates what it looks like when a group of inventive players and a responsive GM play Brimstone the way the author intends. 


Apart from classes, by the way, the game provides each character with some flavorful color: backgrounds, past soul incarnations (!), "bloodlines" (think "race"/species). These are simple and feel narrative-gaming-infuenced, but they also offer just enough mechanical heft to still feel at home in an old-school dungeongame. They gave me faint "tasting notes" of the Traveler lifepaths; there's also a single-page, one-size-fits-all-backgrounds table akin to Beyond the Wall's tables for past ties between player characters. 

The classes are simple, but flavorful, creative, and fun. Each one gets a class-specific Vigor/HD die size  and a class-specific Initiative die. At level 1, each class starts with a base class ability, and then gains new class abilities at every even level (so, 5 times over the course of the game's levels 1-10 range). The classes are all pretty neat; as I outline them all briefly, I'll say a bit more about a few of them, to give you a sense of what's on offer. 

Barbarians' key ability is a "Constant Rage" power. Having recently run a Pathfinder 2e campaign, I think I winced a bit initially when I saw this, remembering fiddly conversations about when a PC's rage "triggers" and how long it lasts. Not here; in Brimstone, it's an always-on thing for Barbarians. In combat, any damage they take from any source other than allies gives them Rage points, which can be spent 1-for-1 as bonuses to to-hit, damage, or Fortitude save rolls (until the end of your next turn). As the game notes: "Jump into the thick of things. You don't want to have high ARMOUR -- maximize your incoming rage." This strikes me as ... a really elegant way to support popular stereotypes of a minimally armored, mightily thewed barbarian raging in combat. 

A further note on how some of the game's tiny details can work well together: the Barbarian's Initiative die is only a d6 (they'll roll this to try to beat the GM's initiative score to determine who acts first in combat). For comparison, the Fighter-equivalent rolls a d10, and the Thief-equivalent rolls a d12. So the Barbarian is relatively slow to activate; this offers some thematic reinforcement, it also interacts nicely with the Barbarian's Rage ability - they want to take some empowering damage on the enemy turn, and then retaliate in force on theirs! 

Entertainer: you're not just a bard, but a bard-like performer with a hovering gaggle of faerie spirits who've bonded to you and can share magic spells with you (though there's a caution: you need to keep talking to them, even though others can't see them, because they'll abandon you if they get bored. So the game pitches this character as a powerful person who appears to talk to themself routinely). Lots of flavor in this class. 

The Master of Arms is the game's Fighter. I really liked how Francis handled this class. It showcases how this game can take things to 11 while remaining OSR-compatible. The Master of Arms starts with an extra d6 weapon-related skill of their choice, that they can add to hit, damage, or FORT save rolls (this rather reminded me of DCC's Fighter Feat die). The also gain different "Feats of Flair" and points to spend activating them. These are free actions that don't take up your main action on your turn, and they let you do various narrative-bending, impressive things in combat (instantly load a firearm, dash a "suitably epic" distance to interrupt an attack against an ally, etc.). These look very fun, though a couple of them could be worded a bit more clearly (otherwise, GMs will just need to make some house-adjudicating). 

The Master-of-Arms - character class art

One of the abilities available to this class, "Counterstrike," stood out to me as a fun design choice. It lets you allow a foe's incoming attack to hit you automatically in exchange for a free attack back against them. Here's the hook: if your free attack KILLS the foe, the damage from their auto-hit against you gets negated. In other words, a warrior with this ability can size up wounded or weak opponents, then make a risky choice to try to take them out on their own enemy activation. This is the kind of small option that spices up combat with meaningful decision points without burying the game in too much crunch. I like it. 

The Scoundrel is Brimstone's Rogue/Thief. Their core ability = mysterious luck, expressed mechanically as the ability to change any rolled check to a 50/50 coin flip - even after a failed regular roll. You lose this ability (until you've rested) as soon as you fail a coin flip. The Scoundrel's various level-up options are juicy, handy things that empower fast, sneaky, well-equipped characters -- but without too much mechanical load or bonkers overpowering. 

Hunters are Rangers, of course, and their key feature is an animal companion. That trope can bore me quickly, but there's a twist here; your companion can talk to you, but only in one-word statements (Foe! Treasure! Left!). Fitting the pattern emerging here, the other class abilities are pretty simple but flavorful, and would be fun for an imaginative, engaged player who knows how to tackle a dungeon or wilderness with some good ol' OSR-style agency and problem-solving. 

Then we get into the Alchemist and several magic-using classes (Sun Priest, Moon Witch, and Wizard). The three magicians are aligned with the game's cosmic factions (Sun, Moon, and Hell); each has their own flavor and access to different spells. 

I'll just unpack the Sun Priest in a bit more detail. On the surface, they are your standard D&D Cleric, albeit limited in their daily spell/prayer choices to Sun- and Healing/Protection-related magic (the combined list for both spheres contains 25 spells, and the other kinds of spellcasters have their own, differently-themed spell lists). But there's a bit of a Gandalf vibe going on here, too; they need to use a magic staff, and their level-up abilities include things like returning yourself from the dead if you pass a Hard Save, or always being believed so long as you never tell a lie. There's an option to share your magic with an ally, or even to ask the Sun (cough cough the GM) for an honest answer to a Yes/No question, once per in-game week. 

This character, once again, is pretty simple, but it feels totally distinct from the other magic-using classes, which thematically express their own ties to rival cosmic forces. Spellcasters can also gain access to magical "keywords," which they may use as relevant to create their own spells, in consultation with the GM. 

The Moon Witch - character class art


We come now to another of the game's distinctive features. I noted earlier that Brindlewood Bay (of all things!) was one of the games I thought of while reading Brimstone. This piece - the "Souls" rules - is why. Brindlewood has a 'crowns' rule that a player may invoke as, essentially, a 'get out of jail free' card - it's a little piece of characterization you reveal to negate death or other horrible fate - and you've got a finite number you can take before your character is lost permanently.

Brimstone's "souls" rules are a bit like that (though I think Brimstone's version is more interesting). In this game, the implied setting involves a three-way cosmic conflict between the Sun, the Moon, and Hell. Here, human souls can be traded away for divine/cosmic favor - up to four times (that is, the human soul can be quartered, cut into four fractions). A character finding themself in a dire pinch may call out for aid to any of the three cosmic powers, offering to "sell their soul" - or more accurately, one quarter of it - in exchange for what amounts to a "limited wish" effect. 

I would have appreciated a bit more guidance/clarity on the limits surrounding this power. This is one of those cases where Brimstone reads like a distillation of one play group's extended experiences, but occasionally without the clarity of looking over their shoulder for a full campaign. I get the impression that players might bargain with their soul to escape death, or perhaps to achieve some really profound goal. The sky really is the limit here, but just note that this subsystem is going to require a thoughtful GM's adjudication. 

On the other hand, selling one's soul - as the phrase implies - involves a terrible bargain. You can only do it four times. Moreover, each time you do so, you roll on tables for the power with which you bargained (each one has their own table). These will impose a "vow" - sort of like the vows some systems require of their paladins - along with a punishment to be imposed should you ever break that vow. Note that if you've sold multiple portion of your soul, you will be burdened by multiple vows - and any incoherence or conflict between your vows is your problem to solve (I don't mean that as a criticism of the game; the intent here is clearly to saddle empowered PCs with some pretty significant, complicating, and potentially entertaining problems). 

Selling bits of soul to multiple powers is most likely to exacerbate conflicts, since the different powers' agendas are so opposed. Well, why would you bargain with multiple powers to begin with? Because getting a wish fulfilled by the Sun or Moon isn't guaranteed; you have to pass a check to pull it off. On the other hand, as the game notes, "Hell is always listening." You don't have to pass anything to gain infernal bargains. This means that the game's mechanics are constantly tempting players with great power that can be obtained at any time -- but usually at a pretty significant cost. I was intrigued by how thoughtfully, but simply, these rules model one of the great dilemmas in fantasy source literature (Faust, Moorcock's Elric, every classic Warhammer champion ever, etc.). 

Intriguingly, there's also a half-page of rules on how to combine magical artifacts with the Souls rules. Great artifacts can work like cosmic patrons, too, offering profound power to those willing to bind part of themselves. As the game notes, the most powerful (and demanding) of artifacts, ones that require up to 3/4 of a human soul to unlock their full potential, "will always tempt the wielder to give more, perhaps even giving them a free taste of what is to come." 

I didn't see a list of sample artifacts, but this is a juicy, juicy mechanical/thematic setup for the kinds of trouble I love offering my players' characters. [Oh - the author recently announced future plans for this system, including a zine supplement with material like ... sample artifacts!]. 


Brimstone calls itself a toolkit, right? It also includes rules for things like transport animals, mass battles, sea voyages and naval combat, fun and unpredictable blackpowder-weapon use, downtime, overland travel, afflictions, etc. 


Unfortunately, this is where I do need to offer a critical assessment. 

The layout and overall appearance of the book seemed quite good, but I had some issues with the book's organization and -- at the opposite end of the editing spectrum -- a need for better clarity and line-editing throughout (for context, this is based on the v1.1 version of the file). Happily, the author has already tackled some editing issues in a first update. I hope he'll do so again; this game is really fun, and it deserves a pass by a professional editor, if possible. 

I'm not going to belabor this point other than offering a few examples below (I will pass more detailed feedback on these issues to the author). I don't think this issue should make Brimstone hard to play/run, but it did make the game text frequently distracting as I read it. I noticed things like: consistently absent possessive apostrophes, some mis-spelled or inconsistently spelled words, use of the plural form "dice" instead of the singular "die," a pair of inaccurate page cross-references on p. 29, the occasional sentence that looks incomplete or incoherent, and a few important items not included in the table of contents.  

If these issues can be cleaned up, then Brimstone will be a very handsome-looking game indeed. 


If you're the kind of gamer who's already settled into B/X (or whatever) and sees no need for any more input from hacks or new games, then you probably don't need this (and you probably haven't made it this far in my review, anyway). But if you're the kind of gamer who pays any attention when something like Black Sword Hack or a new Whitehack edition hits the streets, then you'll probably find something interesting here, too. 

I mentioned in passing that the author recently announced plans for further development of this game. It absolutely deserves such development. What's already here is fun and imaginative, and shows a good sense for designing simple rules that pack a lot of thematic punch. I can't quite shake the feeling that more editing and a bit more explaining what the author means through some examples of play would help. This is clearly a labor of love from a specific table AND also a toolkit that can be useful for others, too. In its present form, the rich content creaks a little from rough presentation, here and there. But if this can be tidied up and developed further, then the future for Brimstone may be deservedly bright. It is already inspiring me to think about its "toolkit" options, and to revisit some of my own houserule ideas again. 

Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!