... now with 35% more arrogance!

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Behind Custom Races

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at custom races and their variants. What was I thinking?

What’s a Race?

Most modern versions of class-and-level exploration fantasy games have moved towards a standard formula: Ability Scores + Race + Class = Character. There may be a few additional steps in some games (Feats, Skills, and Backgrounds.) Every single step is necessary, and every single step makes the final character better in some way.

I reject that approach.

Races aren’t necessary. You could play elves and dwarves without any rules for race at all, but by just saying “I’m an elf” and acting like an elf. The rules come second. Races are built on class combos. In a sense, the race doesn’t exist at all, but is the name we give to that combo. The culture is then built around that concept.

Level Limits

In exchange for having access to two classes more or less simultaneously, the race by default can’t advance as far in either class. I based races on OD&D elves, limited to M-U 8/F 4 in terms of levels. I generalized this to Primary 8/Secondary 4 so that you can swap in other classes to make new races.

Orcs, you will notice, are basically the inverse of elves, with Fighter as the primary class. Since bookish magic-users seemed like a poor fit for the orc concept, I created a custom class, Shaman, as a better match.

Racial Abilities

I split racial abilities into two types, innate and cultural, for two reasons:

  1. To shift the focus to cultural abilities, which have fewer limitations;
  2. To allow cultural ability swaps for more variety (“raised by dwarves” granting dwarven cultural abilities to non-dwarves.)

Innate abilities are usually paired with disadvantages, to make them less of a focus. In fact, I’m tempted to increase the limitation, requiring any strong ability to be paired with a disadvantage. Players should not be taking races as part of a build strategy to get bonus abilities.

Exceeding Limits

Fantasy races are restricted to two classes at the start and have level limits, but I stated that these are perceptual limits. No non-human can become a name-level Fighter because humans don’t want to be ruled over by non-humans. No elf can be a 9th level M-U because humans think of themselves as better at everything and impose this lack of confidence in non-human abilities on the non-humans. No dwarf can become a druid because dwarven culture doesn’t have druids. No halfling can become a 5th level fighter because humans don’t think of short people as intimidating.

However, I hinted at a procedure for breaking those restrictions as part of role-playing. Characters can attempt to persuade NPCs to train them in a “forbidden” class. Characters can make the local population feel confident in their ability to excel.

The process is the same for all cases: do something to win over the NPC or the general population and make a reaction roll. In the case of level limits, roll every time the character increases in level, or once a year after hitting the level limit. On Good or better, they break the limit.

Creative Commons license

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Custom Fantasy Races: Variants

A continuation of my thoughts on custom races. The previous post focused on pure non-human races, but that idea can be expanded.

Human Sub-Races

Because “race” in fantasy RPGs is not really about biological differences, but tweaks to character concepts, we can use races for barbarians or other outsiders to the core human cultures. Define languages and other cultural abilities first, skip innate abilities, and limit the sub-culture to one combat and one magic-using class, with one of those as the primary.

Starting characters must begin as one of these two classes or any non-combat (talent) class. Level limits are the same:
  • Primary Class: Level 8
  • Secondary Class: Level 4
  • Non-Combat Classes: Unlimited
However, class and level limits are not biological, but perceptual. Since sub-cultures are in actuality human, characters from sub-cultures can switch to any class available to the core culture once they have lived in that culture for a while and found training. Level limits can be exceeded once the character is no longer seen as an outsider (a Good or better reaction, checked every time the character while living/adventuring in one area, or once a year after hitting the level limit.)

If there are custom classes unique to a human sub-culture, the same rules apply to characters from the setting’s core cultures trying to switch to that class. Characters must learn the native language of a culture before they can gain the approval and acceptance of a sub-culture, however.

Lineages and Cults

Within the central civilized area of a setting, there may actually be “fringe” groups that operate within the core culture. For example, descendants of a family line may be known for their special skills and talents, or a cult may teach its members a jealously-guarded secret talent.

Because a lineage or cult is part of the main culture, there are no class or level restrictions on characters that start with that background. However, the lineage/cult can still be treated as a fantasy race.
  • They may have a secret or private language,
  • They may have special training (cultural abilities,)
  • There may be an innate ability restricted to their bloodline or cult members,
  • There may even be a custom class restricted to their family or to cult members.
Innate abilities should be rare. If the ability is restricted to a bloodline, it cannot be learned, but cannot be lost, either. If it’s restricted to cult members, it will be lost if the character breaks away or is expelled from the cult, but on the other hand, it can also be learned if a character joins a cult and proves their loyalty (Good or better reaction, rolled once per level gained after becoming a cult member.) Custom classes can also be made available to former outsiders after joining a cult or being made a family member through adoption or marriage.

Half-Human Races

The offspring of a human and non-human, or a true race that resembles the hypothetical offspring of a human and non-human, has the same primary class and secondary classes as its non-human “parent” race, but adds tertiary classes, which are any classes otherwise closed to their non-human parent. The level limits are:
  • Primary Class: Level 8
  • Secondary Class: Level 6
  • Tertiary Classes: Level 4
  • Non-Combat Classes: Unlimited
If the non-human parent’s secondary class was a Cleric/Priest variant and the pure Cleric/Priest class is normally closed to non-humans in the setting, a half-human race adds Cleric as another secondary class.

Mixtures of two non-human races get more complicated. Basically, all classes open to either parent race are available, but the level limit is based on the average of the level limits for both parents. If both parent races treat a given class as a primary class, the limit is Level 8. If one treat the class as primary and the other treats it as secondary, the limit is Level 6. If only one parent race has access to a class, the limit is Level 4.

Innate abilities for half-races should be half normal strength, at best. Disadvantages are at half strength unless both parent races have the same disadvantage. Cultural abilities will be based on the culture the character was raised in.

I may still have some things to say about custom races in the future.

Creative Commons license
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Custom Fantasy Races: Thoughts

I’ve been reconsidering my method for creating custom fantasy races to create easy to understand rules for Liber Zero. Here are my thoughts so far on the steps to create a custom race.

Step 1: Pick Classes Available

Each fantasy race is defined by one combat class and one magic-using class, one of these being the primary class. Starting characters must choose one of these two classes or any non-combat class based around talents (for example, Thief or Apothecary.) They cannot choose any other class, and if they are magic resistant, they cannot choose any magic-using class.

Standard maximum levels for each class are:
  • Primary Class: Level 8
  • Secondary Class: Level 4
  • Non-Combat Class: Unlimited
Exception 1A: Shorter Than Human

Combat classes for races that are shorter proportional to human height modify the level limit:

Proportional Height Primary Class Secondary Class
3/4ths Human Level 6 Level 3
1/2 Human Level 4 Level 2
1/4th Human or less Level 2 Level 1

Exception 1B: Clerics or Priests

Some settings define Clerics or Priests as part of the hierarchy for human religions. If so, pure non-human races may be forbidden from starting or becoming Clerics/Priests. Variant classes like Shaman or Diabolist might still be open, however.

Step 2: Add Innate Abilities

Each race may have one strong or two weak innate abilities, such as:
Ability Weak Version Strong Version
Winged Flight full Move Move x 2
Swimming half Move full Move
Burrowing Move/6 Move/3
Climb or Other Move/3 Move/2
Boosted Sense Torch Range/2 Torch Range
Resist Heat, etc -1 damage/die half damage

A second strong innate ability, or an ability that duplicates a 1st to 3rd level spell effect, requires a disadvantage, such as:
  • Physical Vulnerability (double damage from heat, cold, poison)
  • Attack/Defense Penalty (in bright light, dry conditions, etc.)
  • Slowed Movement (in daylight, on land, etc.)
  • Reaction Penalty (shift reaction one category worse for one major group)
  • Shorter Than Human (reduce combat class maximums, as per Exception 1A above)
  • Inherently Unmagical (unable to begin as a magic-using class)
All forms of Magic Resistance are usually paired with Inherently Unmagical.
  • Save as Level + 4
  • Immune to One Spell
  • -1 Damage/die from Any Magic
The exception would be using an innate magical ability as countermagic to resist an opposed form of magic.

Optional Step 3: Cultural Abilities

All non-human races are allowed to take their native language for free. Depending on setting, other languages that are related to or corruptions of their native language may be included.

Non-human cultures may also have iconic talents. These may be:
  • Mundane professions, like hunter or sailor,
  • bonuses to attack/defense in specific situations
  • talents that resemble Thief abilities or other talent-based classes
There is no limit on how many professions may be tied to a given culture, other than reasonableness. Bonuses or talents are bundled together and limited to what would be appropriate for a 1st or 2nd level non-magical character class.

Characters who are raised by a foreign culture (elves adopted by human parents, for example,) will not have the cultural abilities of their race, but may have any cultural abilities of their adopted culture. They will not learn their native language as a “free” language, but can learn it as an additional language if their intelligence is high enough.

Special Cases

Human subraces, “half” races, monster races, and other variations on fantasy races will have to wait for a follow-up post, but will all be close to the guidelines above. Above all else, custom fantasy races should follow the basic principle of changing the feel of a character, rather than being a way to optimize or supercharge a character. They should always limit character options in some way while providing only a small benefit.

Creative Commons license
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Blog Post of Note: Whither the Dungeon?

Justin Alexander asks on his blog Whither the Dungeon?. The subtitle is "The Decline and Fall of D&D Adventures", although I should mention he specifically means "knowledge of how to run adventures". Although indirectly, I suppose the trend he describes affects the quality of adventures as well, as the people writing adventures now are those who never learned how to run adventures, so they don't know what to include or how to present it.

I wonder, though, if there is some additional reason for the decline of adventure writing. But perhaps that is a topic for another time.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Travel Spellbooks

Related to the topic of emergency spell casting is the idea of “travel spellbooks”. These are spellbooks that are small enough to take into dungeons.

I never liked this idea.

Forget about the size factor. Yeah, I imagine spellbooks to be pretty sizable things, about the size of a shield… but there were portable books in the Middle Ages, mostly prayer books. More important is the way it redesigns the way spells are imagined to work.

Magicians aren’t supposed to be prepping spells in the middle of an adventure. They have a limited number of spells they can “take with them”, so to speak. If magicians have full access to every spell they know, there’s less of a challenge for the player, They aren’t making strategic decisions in advance and hoping they picked the right spell. And it makes the class more powerful compared to other characters. Would you let Fighters have access to a “travel armory” to refresh their arrow supply or swap ineffective weapons and armor? Or a “traveling merchant” with an infinite stock of equipment so they can buy some holy water and garlic in the middle of the dungeon which they just found out is swarming with vampires?

Also, if travel spellbooks exist, why aren’t all spellbooks travel spellbooks? Why bother with two sets of spellbooks? Why have scrolls, which is a sanctioned way for magicians to have extra spells, if they’re just going to have infinite spells anyways?

But there may be a way to have “travel spellbooks” without throwing out the existing spell system and class limitations. Let’s look at the two extremes: scrolls vs. spellbooks, to see where the travel spellbook would fit between the two.

  • Cost 100 coins per spell level
  • Weigh no more than a dagger
  • Contain a single spell
  • Are consumed when used
  • Can be used quickly (1 or more rounds)
  • Cost 1000 coins x (2^Level) per spellbook
  • Weigh about the same as a shield
  • Contain all spells of a given level.
  • Are not consumed when used
  • Take longer to use (turns or hours)
A travel spellbook should be somewhere in the middle, in terms of cost and weight, and have at least one limitation from each extreme.
  • Cost 200 coins x (2^Level) per spellbook
  • Weigh about the same as two scrolls
  • Contain a single spell
  • Are not consumed when used
  • Take longer to use (2d6 x Spell Level turns)
  • (Use the Emergency Spell Casting rules to speed this up at the risk of variable results)
This makes a travel spellbook a way to have a small number of refreshable spells, but because of cost and weight, still enforces the need for players to make strategic decisions.

Creative Commons license
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Emergency Spell Casting: Comparing Approaches

The Kernel in Yellow has posted a response to my emergency spellcasting article, so I thought it might be worthwhile to compare the two approaches and discuss tailoring things to your needs.

First: the blogger appears to have come to old school play via 5e, in contrast to my background in OD&D and 1e. Background influences your models when making new material. Consider the way we each used “spell slots”, for example.
  • For 5e players, spell slots are a resource to be used. So, The Kernel in Yellow’s approach is to require one spell slot per emergency casting and allow additional slots to be “spent” to improve the spell.
  • For me, “spell slot” is an artifact of the way we’re talking about the spell prep process and cannot be “spent” for any reason. So, I treat casting from a book as spell prep and ask "Should there be a difference if the caster were already ‘full’ of prepped spells?’
Another example is the way we handle ingredients. In 5e and even in 1e, spell ingredients are pre-defined and necessary. If you stick to that model, then you would want a way to handle finding ingredients in an emergency, as The Kernel in Yellow does. But in OD&D, almost no spells need ingredients when cast. I, however, assume there are untracked, undefined ingredients used during downtime.

Then we get to casting time. Do you start with regular spell casting as your model and balance emergency casting by making it slightly longer, but still viable as something you could cast in combat? Or do you start with spell prep times, normally undefined, and try to define them?

The tables we each use diverge a lot more. I don’t have a “spell does nothing” effect on my table, and the range of effects aren’t that extreme. 97% of the time, spell casters are going to get more or less the effect they want unless they rush things. Backfires are pretty difficult to get without divine intervention, as is the double-strength maximum result of Fantastic. Kernel in Yellow’s table is aimed more at penalizing emergency casting at least part of the time, to prevent it from being the go-to choice for spell casting. Plus, that Fireworks result is pretty extreme, causing the caster to lose 1 to 4 additional spells.

A side note: since I allow learning new spells via Read Magic, some “emergency” spell casting is really going to be experimenting with a spell the caster has never cast before. Sometimes, the spell will be unique and of little use anywhere but in the dungeon. This is one reason I didn’t want to lean too hard on penalizing spell casters who cast from spell books.

A lot of the differences can be summarized as “My model is spell prep, Kernel in Yellow’s model is spell casting.” With the second model, your design question is going to be “Why don’t casters always cast spells from spell books?” Your answer will probably be “because the results are usually bad,” and you’ll work to balance it against ordinary, “safe” casting. With the first model, my design question was “What happens when you try to prep a spell in a dungeon, instead of taking your time at your home base?” My answer wound up as “It will probably be a little unpredictable, but not much. Mostly, it’s just annoyingly long, so people rarely do that.”

You’ve got to decide which route you want to take: giving players a boost and then balancing that, or giving them something that adds to the rich background details.

Creative Commons license
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Emergency Spell Casting

A recent conversation on Twitter got me thinking again about casting spells from spell books. Some people treat spell books as big, expensive magic scrolls, allowing casters to cast spells from them, but with the spell disappearing from the book when cast. I don’t treat them that way. I won’t go into all the details, because it’s something I’ve talked about many times.

But… I do like the idea of casting spells with spell books, an emergency spell-casting procedure that takes longer than a normal prepped spell to cast. Only spells the caster knows and could prep for casting can be cast this way. Here is my current thinking on rules for handling this.

Step I: Ingredients

If spell prep for spells in your campaign involves burning things, pouring libations, ritual sacrifices, or any other physical components, the caster needs to have these handy, or scavenge around for them. The easiest way to handle this, to me, would be to set a monetary value of ingredients needed and materials available. For example, spells might require 20 coins worth of common ingredients per spell level, and casters can spend a turn in any non-empty room to scavenge: roll 1d6, 5+ means 20 coins value has been found, otherwise add 1 to result for number of coins worth found. Inhabited rooms might double or triple the value found, magic labs will multiply by 10.

Step II: Casting Time

GM rolls casting time in secret: 1d6 x Spell Level, in turns. Players say how long they chant and perform rituals. If they don’t meet the necessary time, the spell is a miscast If they meet or exceed it, it is a success.

Step III: Spell Effect

GM makes a reaction roll: 2d6 on Spell Effect Table for a successful cast, but only 1d6 for a miscast. If the caster would not be able to prep the spell (in other words, doesn’t have an empty spell slot for the spell being cast,) shift the result up one line, making the spell effect one category worse. A blessed caster shifts the result down one line, making the spell effect one category better.

2d6 Roll Effect Detailed Explanation
0 Major Backfire Random spell and random target.
1 Backfire Random target, benefits are reversed.
2 Minor Backfire Random target.
3-5 Fizzle Half normal strength.
6-8 Weak 1 point weaker.
9-11 Normal Standard spell effect.
12 Strong 1 point better.
13+ Fantastic Double normal strength.

I’ve talked before about randomizing spell targets: everyone rolls a d6, and the GM rolls a d6 for the spell. Anyone whose roll matches the spell’s roll is affected. On this table, a major backfire randomizes the spell as well; easiest way to do this is to roll 2d6 and subtract 7 from the result, then count backwards or forwards on the list of spells to get the replacement.

A fizzled spell does half damage, lasts half as long, travels half as far, and is otherwise half strength in every way. A fantastic spell effect is the opposite, doubling strength in every way. A weak or strong spell decreases or increases damage, duration, distance, and so on by a tiny degree, but never as low as half the minimum or more than the 1.5 x maximum effect.

Notes on Time and Cost

Time above is given in turns, so that whether you use ten-minute turns, one-minute-turns, or something else, the rules will automatically scale to whatever you use… as long as normally a prepared spell requires one turn or less to cast. If you have adjusted either casting time or prep time so that it is not based on this assumption, you may have to throw in an extra multiplier to make sure emergency casting takes longer than standard spell casting or spell prep.

Costs are given in coins, which will be copper, silver, or gold, depending on whatever standard you are using for common equipment prices in your campaign. The assumption is that “material components” are used during spell prep, but not spell casting, and most spells have unnamed commonly available components.

If some spell levels have much higher ingredient costs, you can add a multiplier for different spell level ranges, for example:
  • Spell Levels 1-3: Standard cost (20 coins per level)
  • Spell Levels 4-6: High cost (100 coins per level)
  • Spell Levels 7-9: Very High cost (500 coins per level)
Creative Commons license
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Magic Item Charges and Reaction Rolls

This is an update to an idea in Wands Without Charges, eliminating the need to track charges in wands or other magic items. I’ve prettied things up in this nice little reaction table, which you roll the first time an item is used and on future uses.

2d6 Roll Charge When to Check Again
2 Drained Last use. No further rolls.
3-5 Weak Roll again before each use.
6-8 Normal Roll again another day.
9-11 Strong Roll again next week.
12 Full Roll again next month.
13+ Endless Never check normally.


A weak or drained magic item glows feebly, sputters, or otherwise indicates it’s about fail. If drained, the item will work that one time, but won’t work again. If weak, it can be used at least once more, but from now on, a roll must be made every time the item is used, ignoring Normal or higher results.

A normal, strong, or full charge does not have a feeble glow, sputtering, or other low charge indication. Because there are plenty of charges left, there’s no need for a new roll if the item is used again on the same day, week, or month, as indicated by the result. Ignore results higher than previous rolls; items never increase in charge, only decrease.

Players can tell the difference between low-charge (weak or drained) and high-charge (normal, strong or full) by observation or by casting something like Detect Magic, which will reveal either a weak or strong magic aura. They can’t distinguish anything more detailed without using Contact Other Plane or similar spell.

After rolling for the item once, make a note of the item name with a d, w, or m in parentheses after the first roll to indicate whether to check daily, weekly, or monthly.

Curses and Blessings

If a cursed character uses a magic item, or any character uses it in a cursed area, a Drained result becomes a magical backfire. Beneficial effects (Wand of Healing) are reversed. Harmful effects affect random targets, possibly even the caster. The item is also drained as normal, unless it is a blessed (Endless) item.

If a magic item is used in a blessed area, the charge level doesn’t decrease as quickly. The first time a lower charge result is rolled, ignore it. If the item is used again in the area and a lower charge result is rolled on that attempt, the item depletes as normal.

The same applies to a blessed character except when an item is used for the very first time. In that case, add +1 to the 2d6 roll. This prevents a blessed character from draining an item on the first try and also allows the possible Endless result. A magic item with endless charges is basically an artifact and will never be drained under normal circumstances. Curses can force a reroll, and artifact items might have mysterious demands that must be met to continue uninterrupted use.


Magic wands typically have more charges than other charged items. When a wand is first used, a Normal result is treated as a Strong result (check again in a week.)

Optionally, if a spell-caster has a spell prepared that duplicates the wand’s effects, the Drained result is treated as Weak instead. Once that spell is used, however, the wand loses that benefit.

Cantrip Wands

Cantrip Wands cast very low level magical effects, but have weaker magic. Shift all results one category worse: Fully-Charged cantrip wands check every week, Strong cantrip wands check every day, Normal cantrip wands check each time they are used, and any Weak result means the wand is drained.

Magic Staff

A magic staff is more powerful than a wand. The first time a staff is used, shift the results one category better: Drained is treated as Weak, Weak is treated as Normal, and so on. A Fully-Charged result is still treated as “Roll again next month”, however, unless the player is blessed as noted above.

Creative Commons license
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Blog Post of Note: Dungeons & Dragons at a Distance

Jon Peterson's Playing at the World blog has a post called Dragons at a Distance: Early Play-by-Mail D&D, which may seem especially relevant these days. One question I wonder about is whether anyone was running a mix play-by-mail/play by phone campaign back in the day. Regular long-distance phone calls would have been too expensive back then, but you could imagine someone handling exploration and negotiation through the mail, switching to phone when a combat breaks out.

These days, people do Discord/Skype/Hangouts/Zoom, but that generally requires scheduling a session. One could imagine handling a larger number of players via email, with players teaming up as their schedules permit for actual expeditions.