Category Archives: Rules

Old-timey Morale for 5e


Dungeons & Dragons had a lovely feature missing from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and some of its successors: morale.  By this I mean a mechanism by which the Dungeon Master could determine if an antagonist was willing to fight it out to the bitter end or choose the better part of valor. A mechanism transparent to the rest of the players and therefore fostering a general feeling of trust in the DM as a fair arbiter of the rules. The evil henchmen didn’t doggedly stick to it because the DM wanted to whittle down your hit points and force you to expend resources. They did so because their basic stats and the dice said so.

An old copy of the Basic D&D Creature Catalogue says you simply roll two six-sided dice and compare the result to the “morale” stat listed for a given creature.  Second Edition used two ten-sided dice and a broader scale. Personally I like to use a twelve-sided die in my Type V campaign. It’s one of the few times that die is used, and my players are learning to associate it with morale checks.  If the die roll is greater than the creature’s morale check, it bugs out.  When is the check called for? Whenever the narrative seems to justify it. A few times I’m likely to pull out the d12:

  • A creature first takes damage (and hadn’t been expecting to)
  • A creature is reduced to under half its hit point total
  • A creature witnesses an ally fall or flee
  • A creature witnesses half its allies fall or flee
  • A creature is subjected to explicit intimidation

These are more-or-less in keeping with the rules available from the battered old Red Box of my youth. While this basically works out fine, one big missing factor is a direct translation from the Basic D&D to 5th Edition D&D creatures.  We could compile an exhaustive listing of all the newer monsters and their closest Basic Edition analogs, but the return on investment seems out of whack.  Instead perhaps we rattle off a few well-known creatures and their morale values as points of reference for winging it. Keep the improvisation of stats to prep-time whenever possible, of course.

  • 5 – Herd animal, Rat
  • 6 – Kobold
  • 7 – Normal dog, Sprite
  • 8 – Bandit, Elf, Orc, Small White Dragon
  • 9 – Ghost, Goblin, Treant
  • 10 – Dwarf,  Elemental, Grizzly Bear, Hobgoblin, Troll
  • 11 – Archon, Huge Red Dragon War dog
  • 12 – Beholder, Berserker, Golem, Skeleton, Zombie

Modifiers can apply, naturally, such as when there is a particularly charismatic or renown leader present, bolstering an adversary’s confidence. Or if a player character just decapitated the same renown or charismatic leader. Common sense, as always, is welcome when adjudicating rules. Doubly so with old rules home-cooked into new systems.

Getting Ready to Homebrew 5th Edition


It’s a bit early, what with the Player’s Handbook not having shipped, but with Wizards of the Coast having released a 110-page PDF of the new Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules and a Starter Set box with a neat litle adventure, we’ve got a pretty good amount of material to get off the fence, set aside our hipster indy RPGs for a while, and return to the mothership for a while.

I understand that it’s cool to disdain Dungeons & Dragons. Perhaps even more so if you are a long-time pen & paper roleplaying gamer. There are myriad reasons for this, ranging from the compelling and legitimate to utterly petty and childish. I don’t care whether you’re ironically or unironically against Dungeons & Dragons of any particular flavor. In my mind, every RPG you play is just D&D with house rules. Some house rules make the game more simple, some make the game more complicated. Many change the core themes of play. But if I were playing with your group, I’d tell my wife and kids that I was heading out to play some D&D with my friends. So when somebody releases a new system under the Dungeons & Dragons trademark I go and check it out. Out of habit, perhaps. Perhaps because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every version of Dungeons & Dragons so far. At least when I first picked it up. Unlike other brands in the hobby, Dungeons & Dragons never seems to lose its shine and appeal until it’s been played a bunch.

Which brings us to the new & shiny version. From the material we’ve seen, 5th edition is bringing a few interesting new elements to the classic game. In part this is meant to reconcile the play styles of several older editions. This has fans of older versions seeing spectres of newer versions. It has fans of newer versions seeing hobgoblins of older versions. They’re correct in many of the particulars. Aspects of 1st and 2nd edition AD&D are present. Aspects of 3rd edition are present. Elements of 4th edition are there, too. New character background, bonds, and inspiration mechanics even tie in material that I associate with independent pass-the-talking-stick storytime games. Depending on how well the full system ties all these together will have a huge impact on how fun the game will be to play, how well it will facilitate DMs running the game, and how well the brand will fare going forward.

One of the important roles of a Dungeon Master has always been to adjudicate the rules, to decide how they should be interpreted and implemented in a particular story, to create new rules to deal with unforeseen circumstances, and to ignore rules that are deemed counterproductive. This has been the case since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson killed their first orc. The result is that every Dungeon Master and his group ends up playing a different version of the game than every other group. Each has his own house rules, a kind of informal set of precedents and traditions that help players predict how the story will work. In some groups, magic swords glow constantly. In some group, magic weapons only glow with held by a person. In others, they don’t generally glow at all. I’ve seen play groups general hundred-page printouts of their campaign’s various house rules.

The first house rule I expect to implement is related to the following blurb, as presented in the Basic Rules PDF on page 31:


It is my long-held belief that, in most editions of Dungeons & Dragons, spellcasters have to be handled with care by both the player and the DM. They have to walk a tightrope between being fragile and being stupendously overpowered. A Wizard or Cleric can frequently render other characters superfluous. They can slay many enemies, circumvent many perils, and generally solve most problems and adventurer might face with no assistance from other characters. In a game where the spotlight ought to be shared and every player would like an opportunity to save the day every once in a while, this is problematic. The rule quoted above grants a Wizard the ability to pick any two spells he wants when he gains a level. Depending on the story at hand, some spells have the potential to bypass entire adventures, throwing a wrench into the Dungeon Master’s plans and depriving the whole group (including the Wizard’s player) of hours of entertainment.

A simple solution: remove the free spells when a Wizard gains a level. If you want new spells, look back to the ancient tradition of raiding some other Wizard’s spellbook or scrolls. This can be somewhat problematic if you start a Wizard character; which cantrips and 1st level spells should he have access to? If starting a Wizard at a higher level, the list of commonly-available spells would need to broaden as well.

This can also be an issue for Clerics, who are generally understood to know how to pray for whatever miracles their deities are willing to grant. The Basic Rules PDF grants Clerics access to every Cleric spell in the book the moment they are powerful enough to cast them. They are limited almost entirely to what they player has the foresight to prepare in advance. If we end up finding that Clerics are as potent in 5th edition as they have been in Pathfinder or 3rd edition, it may be a good idea to come up with a “common book of prayers” that any Cleric of a given faith would have access to. This may require coming up with a “researching a spell from scratch” system that I’ll probably base on whatever the rules for making magic items are.

The second house rule will be to modify the combat maneuvers from the Battle Master archetype found in a leaked closed-playtest document and make them the model for improvised actions by anybody, not just a subset of Fighters. I suspect the final published version of the rules will do something similar anyway, so folding this house rule into the proper rules should require a minimum of fuss and muss.

Also, no feats. If there’s one thing I grew to detest in 3rd edition, 4th edition, Pathfinder, and other Dungeons & Dragons clones, it’s feature creep, trap options, and general bloat through the “feats” system. I was tickled to see them considered optional by default.

The Riddle of Steel

In their rage, the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield, and we who found it. We are just men, not gods, not giants, just men. And the secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle.

Several months ago I came across an oddly-named archived thread from 4chan’s /tg/ board. It was entitled “Pike To The Dick,” and for some reason I went ahead and read the thing. Turns out there was a pen & paper RPG published several years back called the Riddle of Steel. Its rules were of such a nature that reading a series of posts showing people playing it did not immediately make a whole lot of sense. I was intrigued, and pressed onward, reading additional archives and jumping in on an ongoing thread or two before running a handful of my own.

A little subculture had appeared on /tg/, where instead of the usual neckbearded “elegan/t g/entlemen” prattlin on about Warhammer 40k, Magic the Gathering, and feuding over Dungeons & Dragons variants there were a bunch of (presumably still neckbearded) “fech/tg/uys” with at least a passing interest in historical european martial arts putting on mock battles using this funky out-of-print game system. I got it in my head to try and learn the rules well enough to maybe actually expose my regular playgroup to it once our then-current campaign was at a good stopping point or our DM needed a break.

This is somewhat problematic. Any fair review of The Riddle of Steel as published by Driftwood Publishing would be incomplete without bringing up at least the following points:

  • It is out of print. It isn’t in-stock at your local gaming store, it was never available print-on-demand, and online retailers don’t appear to have it in stock either
  • Even if you obtain an electronic copy, you will likely find the rules to be rather poorly organized. It follows the time-honored tradition of starting with character creation rules, then moving on to how the world works in general and some information about the presumed setting of the game, but inserts the rules for combat maneuvers into the midst of character creation, leaving the actual combat rules for a later chapter, and the rules for combat recover to a later chapter still. The section on magic may as well be spot-welded onto the side of the book, as the mechanics of spellcasting and how it relates to character creation, don’t appear until even later, after rules for things like overland travel, falling, have all been discussed. It was so tangled I made a wiki so I could learn it as I cross-referenced things rather than try to wade through the book front-to-back.
  • Several key aspects of making the game playable are heavily reworked by later books. The Riddle of Steel Companion book overhauls how skills should work, making them much more conceptually accessible. The Flower of Battle clarifies and expands the combat system, reworks initiative, and greatly expands the number of arms and armor available in the game. Of Beasts & Men provides a number of useful stat blocks for stock NPCs and some rules to help deal with non-humanoid combatants (the core rulebook had no rules for determining hit locations on quadrupeds like horses or dogs, which one might reasonably expect to see happen in a fantasy RPG). Each in turn has some serious flaws that I won’t get into at the moment. Suffice to say that the authors seem to have a habit of getting outreaching themselves a bit.
  • Oh dear god the art and layout… The only good thing I have to say about the art and layout is that there are some very nice depictions of a variety of melee weapons in the Flower of Battle, and about ten good pictures total in the rest of the books combined.

All of that should serve to scare anybody away from this game, and any of them may have contributed to its commercial extinction. I don’t really know the backstory on that, but I’m pretty sure nobody went from rags to riches publishing the Riddle of Steel. But if you can look past all these flaws, I find it to be a diamond in the rough:

  • The Spritual Attributes system replaces experience points, FATE tokens, aspects, etc. as a mechanism for character advancement, utility tool for ensuring that player characters are effective when dramatically appropriate, and guidance system for keeping characters true to their concept. In this game, you specify as part of your character sheet, what is important to you and what your goals or loyalties or passions are. When acting in accord with one or more of these (or at least actively trying to), you have access to additional dice. When acting in accord with one or more of these, you reinforce these attributes and are rewarded with points that you can later use to improve your skills, proficiencies, and other attributes. You don’t get more effective by killing goblins; you get more effective by killing goblins for a reason that is valuable to your character. Or by grabbing somebody important to you and running away from the goblins. Or by joining up with the goblins to exact revenge upon your enemies.
  • Several layers of abstraction that are common to RPGs are thrown to the wind in this system, particularly in regards to combat.
    • Most games either make attacks and damage so abstract that the distinction between “I punch him in the face” and “I kick him in the balls” are purely narrative and stylistic, or that attempting to make such a distinction is penalized (because you clearly are trying to game the system in some way to your advantage). In the real world, two people wouldn’t attack each other at random locations. They would deliberately attempt to cut at each others’ heads and hands and so forth. The Riddle of Steel system doesn’t penalize called shots; it requires them.
    • Most games take an approach that generally requires that antagonists take turns. I attack you, you attack me. Taking D&D as an example, it is see a fight as two people standing five feet away from each other, waiting passively for their turns to act while the other wails away at him. In The Riddle of Steel, you only have the initiative if you take it, and once you have it you only relinquish it when you get wrong-footed by your opponent’s defensive actions. Just as you must actively select and perform offensive actions, you much actively select and perform defensive actions.
    • Ain’t no such thing as hit points. Every successful attack incurs some degree of blood loss, pain, and shock, and may cause its recipient to fall over, drop a held item, or fall unconscious. For particularly successful attacks, this can include dismemberment, broken bones, or instant death. It’s a good thing you were actively defending.
  • It has a dice-less character creation system that requires prioritization. If you want to make a character that has excellent skills and great social standing and tremendous proficiency with weapons, you are going to need to sacrifice some of your core attribute points and take a couple of fairly severe flaws. This isn’t just a point-buy where you can bump up your attributes by taking a fist-full of inconsequential drawbacks. You have to choose on a scale of A to F where you prioritize your race, social standing, attributes, skills, proficiencies, and your gifts or flaws. Contrast this with systems like Shadowrun or GURPS, and tRoS feels like it’s practically immune the min/max syndrome common to point-buy systems
  • While there are no character classes as such, the skill packages system does a fairly tidy job of getting you a number of conceptually-appropriate skills for your character. Distinctions between the skill set of a knight or a soldier or a highwayman are clear and functional. There is nothing to prevent overspecialization, but it isn’t a terribly rewarding practice either; if you pick two skill packages that have the same skill listed, you get the skill at a slightly better rating, that’s it.

From the fech/tg/uy deathmatches on 4chan, I was under the impression that this was an exceptionally lethal, brutal system. Having played it for two months straight, I can report that this is only partially true. The Riddle of Steel suffers from overly-effective armor. If you have a character that stands a reasonable chance to take down a knight in a suit of mail with a full-faced helm in a protracted duel, you are likely able to slay an unarmored man outright. I don’t know know what a good fix for this would be, but the stereotype of an armored knight wading invincibly into battle against lesser-equipped rabble and taking all comers is quite possible here.

If there’s a single game that I would love to see get the thoughtful attention of a good editor and a thorough playtest to work out some kinks, it would be the Riddle of Steel, hands down. Perhaps a kickstart project is merited?