Sunday, June 30, 2013

Weapons Free a modern combat RPG

Weapons Free is the codename for the game now published as Saints & Sinners. It's a fast action thriller RPG designed to leverage tactics, planning and speed above all else. The game plays fast without sacrificing any detail or character building aspects that will keep you busy session after session of adventuring and training.

Looking for heart stopping action as your party enters a room and you feel as every round goes off taking your enemies down? Want to know if your sniper is capable of taking that long shot? Feels like your light machine gun isn't playing it's role as a support weapon?

With area of effect fire and team work mechanics you can easily apply the effect of your SAW or the whole team's firepower on a particular target. Suppress the enemy while other players move around for a flank attack.

With its innovative initiative and round mechanism the game brings out the excitement of close quarter battle. Weapon skill is both aim and speed which your character can trade in for advantages at close range, and initiative isn't just a random roll, it's a skill check against your character's attributes. The better your character gets over time the better the odds. Live out encounters in which every second counts. Win initiative by a half second and take that shot that saves your buddy's life!

You can get Saints & Sinners,  as pay what you want from drivethruhRPG.

Join the Saints & Sinners to stay up to date with playtests and releases.

Night vision benefits

I seriously underestimated the value of night vision in modern warfare. Last Friday's playtest showed that I did not put enough emphasis on such a benefit. Attack and defense rolls were not sufficiently influenced by night vision or lack of as well as the usage of laser dots.

Visual aids help aim considerably. Three points I'll have to adjust for are :

  • Night vision
  • Laser dots
  • Tracer bullets

Night vision makes it easier for your character to see movement, pin point the enemy and thus aim. There is a reason why it's not permitted to export advanced optics from the US; not letting enemy troops have such an advantage. Being in the dark is a great advantage and something I under estimated in the rules.

The use of laser dots to see were your bullet will hit is also a valuable asset I failed to add modifiers for. An iron sight assault rifle should be less effective than a laser dot. Same applies for tracer bullets, although these will require a period of adjustment represented by increasing bonuses as fire is adjusted to the target.


  • night combat will suffer penalties mitigated by night vision
  • advanced sights will add aiming benefits
  • tracer bullets will add bonuses to sustained fire the longer it is kept up

Image Source

Establishing ROE

Pilla: Colonel, they're shooting at us! Colonel, they're shooting at us!

McKnight: Well shoot back!

What's the point of winning initiative if your team isn't sure it can open fire? Last Friday's playtest showed the impact of not establishing rules of engagement. During an encounter the squad was approached by armed men, but they weren't sure if they could fire just yet. The teams had the initiative, had the night cover and had night vision, but it still took buckshot on one member to have them open fire on the hostiles. What went wrong?

Usually in dungeon crawls it's pretty simple, we're here, they're there, shoot first ask questions later. But, for example, +Keith Bailey told me just last week about an adventure in which he made party members approached from opposing ends of the passage. They ended up killing each other because they didn't take the precautions necessary.

In the fast paced settings of urban warfare this can occur quite often. Making the "kill them all let God sort them out" tactics from fantasy RPGs very dangerous. Taking care not to shoot friendlies is a serious concern. This seriously impacts the value of initiative, since having initiative in most games is only valuable if you get to fire first. More so if characters have only split seconds to tell between friend or foe, should minute long conversations between players be allowed?

Have you had friendly fire in your games? How do you handle determining between friends or foes? 

The Tenkar Test

Back in January, +Erik Tenkar posted a list of things he wanted from an OSR ruleset. It's a list of seven points I've reproduced below for clarity. I keep them at the top of my RPG bookmarks as "The Tenkar Test".

I'm no sure if there is such a thing as "objectively good RPG design" when it comes to RPGs, everyone has their own personal opinion, and everyone has different tastes. But Erik is nonetheless someone who knows games. It is my opinion that his breadth and depth of experience gives this list an objective view of game design needs. Applying them certainly has lead to easy and quick games that are fun to play.

Without further delay I leave you with the 7 things Erik wants from an OSR ruleset, aka "The Tenkar Test"

Thanks Erik for laying it out so well, your points have been most helpful!

The Tenkar Test

1 - A front end as crunchy as the players want it.

2 - A back end easy enough for the DM to run with minimal reference to charts, tables, monster descriptions, spells and the like.

3 - Whittled down to it's core, a DM should be able to run the game with a 8 x 11 sheet of paper.

4 - Players should have everything on their character sheet that they need to play a session.

5 - Spells should be simple enough to explain in 2-3 sentences.

6 - A unified skill mechanic.

7 - There should be a Player's Section and a DM's Section in the rulebook.

Coolness under Fire

I see coolness under fire replacing initiative in my modern warfare game. Characters have to roll against their mettle attribute. Those that roll less than or equal keep their cool, the larger the margin of success the more in control the character is. A failed roll indicates a hesitant and slow to respond character.

How does this unfold in actual play? Characters have a set of attributes, you know strength, dexterity, etc. One of such attributes is mettle which represents the strength of character and is basically your average off the mill 3d6 roll. A coolness check is done by rolling 2d10. If you roll less than or equal to your character's mettle you have "right of response". That is, you might not necessarily act first if you decide to yield, but when things unfold you will be able to interject before anyone else.

Mettle is also an attribute that can be increased, so battled hardened soldiers will respond much better than green troops. They will also frighten less. When taking suppression fire they will remain cool and react even if their options are limited. Greener troops will hide and hope for the best. A character who is strafed close to his position will have to succeed in a mettle check or be suppressed.

Leadership and morale are elements that also affects mettle checks. They can't improve each soldier's mettle, but they can facilitate the roll with certain bonuses and manage to rally your unit into responding to the enemy and turning the tide of the attack.

Overall I see coolness as a better value than random initiative because it factors in the strengths (or weakness) of the character, allows combat experience to create a better response under fire and allows for team work and leadership to come into play.


Image source

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Aiming with Tracer Bullets

Had a blast playtesting some combat rules last night with Oliver and Russel, thanks guys for your input. Your experience supplied excellent feedback! Doing some post session analysis I think I missed up on some things. One of them was using tracer bullets to aim machine gun fire or using bullet impacts to do the same. That  was not considered during the usage of the M249.

Towards the end of the game the teams were making a quick exit from a town on a stolen pickup. They were driving through streets, markets and alleyways using their night vision goggles and shooting anything that got in their way opening fire with their M249. On various occasions they strafed and strafed. I realize now that the usage of tracer bullets should have improved the gunners precision after each strafe, right? So he lights them up, misses, then comes back again with better aim. The moving truck they were on added some complexity to the shot, but the tracers should have given a good feedback on how to adjust aim.

There is also the aspect of visible weapon impact. During one of the turns they end up in a plaza with an enemy occupied building. Soldiers begin to pour out and take positions on a balcony. The first M249 sweep misses and comes low from their target. Regardless of tracer usage, at that short range and with night vision goggles the impact of those bullets should have been clearly visible against the wall (dust and wood flying off), allowing the character to adjust up on the second sweep and get a bonus.

So rules will be modified to consider fire impact adjustments. Sustained MG fire with tracers or some way to clearly see were the bullets are hitting (impacts that cause visible debris: dust, glass, water) will add bonuses on the next sweep roll.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

2d20 game mechanics for warfare RPGs

This post puts forward a preview of the game mechanics used in a modern combat RPG I'm working on. These game mechanics are an evolution of the mechanics used in Itza and Imperium & Maleficium, prehispanic and medieval fantasy RPGs. They focus on solving certain issues that I see arise with modern weapons and tactics.

Whereas combat in medieval settings is more a one to one thing, modern warfare with their rate of fire and range turn combat into a one to many engagement. Your character's firepower is such that the classic, one attack roll to hit falls short of the required dynamics.

To overcome this I've written up some new rules that address issues with initiative, movement, rate of fire and area coverage.

Complex modifiers
- Movement : Movement is life on the battlefield. Movement is not seen as an action, instead it is a modifier to actions. Movement is something your character does as it performs actions, it adds fatigue and drops the fire precision.
- Rate of fire : Rate of fire is a modifier to hit. Putting a lot of fire in an area is a means to increase the odds of hitting hidden or unknown targets in it.
- Aim : Aiming a weapon increases the odds of putting a bullet on the target.
- Cover and Visibility: Cover decreases the odds of being hit by a bullet. Even cover that is not solid makes the soldier harder to see and thus harder to shoot at. This requires the shooter to spread the fire into an area and thus reduce the odds of hitting the target.

Complex activities
- Many attacks (actions) per round : The amount of actions a character can take during a round are not a fixed arbitrary number. They are variable and depend on the amount of actions the player wants to take (to a certain limit set by the character's dexterity). The more actions the character takes, the higher the fatigue and the greater the penalties that will be suffered on future rounds.
- Suppression and cover fire : This is a type of fire applied to an area with the intention of not letting the enemy in the area fire back. Hitting the enemy is a goal, but the main objective is psychological, stopping the enemy from taking action and enabling friendly units to move into a more favorable position to engage the enemy.

2d20 abridged rules

Combat Round

The combat round is a ten second span of time during which actions are taken. The amount of actions a character can take depend on the character's movement rate and endurance. Actions add heart load to the character, the more actions the higher the heart rate and the more prone the character is of running out of breath. The end of a round signals the recovery of fatigue, but not necessarily the end of the attack or action the character is currently undertaking. A round is simply a unit of time to measure character fatigue. The start of a new round may or may not require an initiative roll.


Initiative is a check against the character's mettle attribute. This is performed by rolling 2d10 and adding. The result must be equal or less than the character's mettle attribute. The better the roll the cooler the character is during the round and the quicker the response to combat events.

Initiative is not necessarily rolled at the start of every round, instead it is rolled when a confrontation starts. A confrontation may span over the time frame of a round or more.


Movement is the activity that sets the base fatigue level for the character. Fatigue works based on the character's heart rate. The faster the character moves the higher the base heart rate will be and the less actions it will have available before running out of breath.

Movement also affects combat. A character that's moving will be able to aim less, but at the same time will become a harder target to hit. Unless of course the character runs straight into the firing gun.


Attacks are resolved by two 2d20 rolls, one for the attacker and one for the defender. The dice on each roll are added and compared. A hit is scored if the difference (called delta) between the rolls is less than 10 plus modifiers (called delta t, t for target).

For example:
Attacker rolls 2d20 : 4, 8 = 12
Defender rolls 2d20 : 11, 4 = 15

The attack hits since the delta = 15 - 12 = 3 which is less than 10 (delta t).

delta - the difference between the attack roll and the defense roll
delta t - the required difference to score a hit

Delta must be less than or equal to delta t to score a hit.


Both delta and delta t can be adjusted by various modifiers. Delta is adjusted by aiming and weapon precision, in general any activity that increases or decreases weapon precision. Delta t is adjusted by target movement, rate of fire, cover and visibility, in general any activity that increases or decreases character exposure.

As an attacker you want a high delta t, delta t means the odds of the target getting hit. Modifiers that add to delta t are good for you as an attacker. Modifiers that affect delta are good if they reduce delta, delta means the precision of your bullet. The smaller the delta the more precise the shot.

Delta modifiers


Aiming decreases delta by making the shot more precise.
Aiming a weapon subtracts 2 to delta
Aiming a weapon with a scope subtracts 3 to delta
Aiming a weapon with a high power scope subtracts 4 to delta

Shooter movement

Moving increases delta by making the shot less precise.
Walking adds 2 to delta
Running adds 4 to delta
Sprinting adds 6 to delta


Range increases delta making the shot less precise the further the target is.
Weapons will provide a range modifier to delta.

Delta t modifiers

Rate of Fire

Weapons will provide a delta t modifier for different rates of fire. Higher rates of fire put more bullets in an area and increase the odds for a hit. This increases the exposure of the units under fire. Rate of fire increases delta t and makes the target more probable to hit, a good thing as an attacker. Although it may also add some aiming penalties due to recoil.


Character visibility will reduce delta t by making the target more difficult to hit.
Modifiers are as follows:
Clearly visible : -0
Vaguely visible : -2
Hardly visible : -4

Cover and Shields

Both cover and shields provide a delta c (c for cover). Any attack that hits (delta less than or equal to delta t) but who's delta is greater than or equal to delta c hits the cover or shield first instead of the character. The hardness of the cover or shield will determine if the attack hits the character or not. See damage roll below.

For example a soldier is behind a brick wall. This gives him a delta c of 4. The soldier already has a delta t of 10, so any attack roll with a delta of 10 or less will hit the target, but any attack with a delta between 4 and 10 actually hits the wall in front of the target. The wall's hardness will determine if the bullet is stopped or not. The GM rolls for bullet damage and wall soak as if it were normal damage. See damage below. A bullet that exceeds the cover's soak roll will continue onto the target with the remaining momentum. It will then try to go through the target's armor and body.

Armor and Damage

Armor (shields and cover included) have potential to absorb momentum from the ammunition. This is represented by a armor soak roll. The damage of the ammunition is represented by a damage roll. When a character takes a hit a soak and damage roll are made. Each die on the damage roll is compared to a die on the soak roll. Dice are not added, but rather compared in descending order. A damage die does damage if the value is greater than the soak roll. All damage rolls that exceed their corresponding soak rolls are added to obtain the total damage.

If the ammunition hits a shield or cover first the shot must first roll against the shield's or cover's soak and then against the body armor if any.

Any damage that penetrates body armor will damage the character. Characters have hit points and stamina points. Stamina works as a damper for damage. The soldier's pain threshold is an amount of stamina points that are deducted from the weapons damage on every hit. If there are still damage points after subtracting the pain threshold value these points are done as damage to the character's hit points. For example a character with a 5 pain threshold takes 8 points of damage from a bullet. The stamina takes 5 of these points and three pass through to the character's hit points.

Cover Fire

Cover fire is the action of putting a lot of fire power on an area with the intention of not letting the enemy fire back. Cover fire provides a delta t modifier for shock (delta s). Any attack who's delta falls above delta t (considered a miss), but less than or equal to delta s has the potential to shock and scare the soldier. A mettle check must be done to remain cool. For example a weapon, given it's ammunition type has a delta s of 4. A soldier fires upon an entrenched enemy unit. The roll gives a delta of 12, not enough to beat the required delta t of 10, but it's still below 14 (delta t + delta s, 10 + 4 = 14). No enemy is actually hit but they're all intimidated and take cover.

Mortar Fire

Mortar rounds have an area of effect. Mortar rounds will hit a spot and those around it will be affected by the blast. The mortar gets a 2d20 roll and everyone in the blast radius gets a 2d20 roll. The mortar round applies delta t modifiers depending on distance from blast.

Blast radius:

60mm HE - lethal 20 m - modifiers : 10 m +2 delta t
81mm HE - lethal 34 m - modifiers : 15 m +2 delta t
107mm HE - lethal 40 m - modifiers : 20 m +2 delta t
120mm HE - lethal 60 m - modifiers : 20 m +4 delta t, 40 m +2 delta t


A Marine squad is patrolling through the forest on a search and attack mission. The point man comes under fire. The GM rolls for the attacker's AK-47 (10 + 17 = 27), they have automatic initiative due to ambush.  The player rolls for the point man (20 + 16 = 36), delta = 9 (36 - 27) the attack hits (delta <= 10).

The GM rolls damage for the AK-47 (3d12 : 10, 8, 3). The player rolls for the body armor (3d10: 8, 8, 4). Comparing one by one in descending order: 10 vs 8, 10 wins; 8 vs 8, tie; 3 vs 4; 4 wins. The armor stops two of the three damage dice. The 10 passes through and does 10 hit points of damage. The point man's pain threshold is 4, this takes 4 stamina points away and 6 hit points of damage are done to the character. Since this is more than 25% of the total hit points the player must roll and endurance check (2d10 vs 13 endurance). A 14 is rolled, the character fails the check and falls to the ground. He's still alive, but unconscious.

Behind the fallen Marine the M249 lights up. The character operating it yells, "Contact, to the left, high, by the rocks", as he moves to take cover behind a tree. The man behind him throws a smoke grenade at the rocks. The last member of the fire team opens up with his M4 on the rocks. The fire team comes under fire again as it moves to cover.

As the team moves to cover they enjoy a -2 to their delta t. Small delta t is good as a defender, bad as an attacker. The enemy rolls 2d20 : 8, 29, and 16 vs the players 32, 38, and 22. The corresponding deltas are 24, 9, 6. Since they're a harder target to hit (-2 to delta), values have to be 8 or lower to obtain a hit. Only one of the soldiers is hit.  The damage is rolled (3d12 : 7, 6, 6) vs (3d10, 9, 7, 5). Only the last 6 beats the armor's 5, all other rolls are soaked by the armor. The character suffers 6 points of damage, 4 go to stamina loss and 2 create a slight flesh wound (less than 25% of total hit points). The slightly injured soldier makes it to cover.

The GM rolls 2d20 for the smoke grenade position (10) and the player 2d20 for the shot itself (16). The delta is less than 10 so the grenade lands pretty much were it was needed and will begin to block the vision.

Now we resolve the machine gun fire. The player with the machine gun (M249) rolls 24 vs the GM's roll of 29, 21 and 23 for the attacking enemies (the GM rolls secretly so not to reveal enemy numbers). To determine if the attack hits the difference between the rolls (delta) must be less than delta t (delta to hit) after modifiers ( 10 + modifiers). Any roll who's difference is less than or equal to this new modified value is a hit.

The M249 has the following modifiers:

  • to delta t -4 for low visibility (visibility modifier, bad for the attacking Marine, good for the enemy)
  • to delta t +2 for automatic fire (rate of fire modifier, good for the attacking Marine, bad for the enemy) 
  • to delta +6 for moving while firing, (bad for the Marine, good for the enemy)
  • delta s +3 (delta shock), any roll that does not hit, but is up to 4 above delta t causes fear

Total delta t modifiers is -2. The required delta to hit is 8 or less (10 - 4 + 2= 8, base delta t plus modifier).

The total delta modifier is +6.

The delta for the rolls are : 5, 3 and 1.

After applying the +6 delta modifiers the rolls become 11, 9, 7. The first two are misses since they're above the required delta t of 8 to hit, but they're still in the shock margin (11, 8 + 3 (delta s)). The delta s is 3 so any delta less than or equal to 11 (delta t + delta s = 6 + 3 = 9) causes fear. The first two soldiers fall prey to suppression. The last one takes a hit from the M 249 and dies (damage and soak rolls omitted).

The GM dictates that enough time has passed to signal the end or the round (10 seconds). The next round begins, characters add up fatigue (omitted for clarity) and start a new round.

Fire team A has turned the ambush around and is now pinning the assaulting group behind the rocks. Enemy strength is unknown. The point man is down and a medic is coming up to aid alongside fire team B. Fire team C has moved to the trees and is now looking for more hostiles uphill.

Fire team C sees movement along the rock uphill and yells "Contact!". The players roll initiative using 2d10 against their mettle attribute. They have values between 14 and 15 so they need to roll below that. Two of the team members succeed with the check, one fails and the team leader succeeds exceptionally well by rolling a 7. He's in total control of the situation and notices that the enemy has not seen them and is putting their attention on fire team B and the medic taking care of the casualty. He signals his men to take aim with their rifles and wait for his command. As they enemy sets their aim on Fire team B he orders them to fire. The enemy is taking cover, that gives them a -6 to their delta t, but the use of the ACOG sights gives the fire team a -4 bonus to delta. The GM and players roll dice. They need to beat a delta t of 4 by rolling less than or equal to 4 (10 base delta t - 6 cover modifier = 4). The GM rolls 18 for on of the enemies and one of the players roll 26, that's an 8 point difference, minus the ACOG modifier gives a 4 (8 - 4 = 4). Just enough to hit the enemy under cover. Damage is rolled as before and the enemy takes a serious wound. The two other players fire at the enemy, one misses and the other hits, once again injuring the enemy (rolls omitted for clarity).

With one group seriously injured and bleeding out and the other pinned down by the constant hammering of the SAW and assault riffles the enemy begins a retreat. They pull back between the trees and run away. Fire team A moves up to pursue. As they reach the top the see the enemy running through a clearing in the forest that leads to a local village. Assessing the distance at some 450 meters the team leader calls in fire support.

As FO  he calls out the following command to bring down two 60 mm rounds on a span of 50 m


The player rolls for the rounds

First round

Player roll 7 + 10 = 17
GM Roll 18 +14 = 32

Delta is 15, way to high to score a damaging hit. The second round is rolled for.

Player roll 1 + 18 = 19
GM Roll 11 + 7 = 18

Near direct hit with a delta of 1. The GM puts the enemies some 6 to 8 meters apart, four of them take a direct hit and the remaining 2 are over 10 meters from the blast center. Their modified delta is 3, still an deadly blast for them too. Damage is rolled for the blast using 2d10, the blast can't be stopped by the armor (concussion and frag damage rolls omitted). All enemy forces are neutralized.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Realism vs Realism

There are a great deal of views as to what realism is in an RPG. It is this great variety that causes confusion and conflict when discussing realism in a game. People end up talking about two different things or have two perceptions of the same thing.

I'd like to look a two "realisms". One, does the item work like it should in real life. Two, does the succession of events unfold as it should in real life.

The first, although important, is of little concern to me in this article. Does the weapon really work that way? Does the bow shoot as it should? I'm expert on a few subjects, but for each there's a multitude of subjects I'm totally ignorant about. "Good enough realism", is good enough because I wouldn't know any better, just as many players wouldn't know any better either. Adding more realism that adds complexity to the mechanics and does not convey a more realistic bow to someone who has seldom if ever shot a bow is a total waste of resources.

The second type of realism does concern this post. It's regarding the succession of events and how players interact with the setting, characters and creatures in the adventure. How actions are sequenced, task resolution done and encounters resolved. These thoughts stem not only from my initial thoughts on game design a year ago, but also the recent conversation about action thrillers and their presence (or lack of) in RPGs. Simply put, detailed mechanics do not promote the fast action play required for action thrillers. But wait, not only detailed mechanics, mechanics in general are "flow stoppers" for fast action thrillers regardless of detail. Forget weapon damage, armor detail, wounds, hit location charts, and all that fancy stuff. There are two things that are real flow stoppers in games: initiative and movement.


Initiative is the main thrill killer in most games I play. I'll roll with it, have done so for years, but it isn't something I will put in new games. Imagine if Jason Bourne is fighting his way out of trouble, kicking ass left and right, round ends, he fails the next initiative roll and gets beaten to death.

I'm moving away from initiative rolls every round. I see initiative as the power to decide, not the power to go first. Sometimes waiting for the other's response is a good thing. So for me initiative is being able respond quickly to battlefield challenges, not necessarily act first.


Movement is another thrill killer. In many games it is bound to a few options and surrounded by a set of rather complex rules that limit, rather than empower the character to take action. There are fixed movement phases mixed with fixed action/attack phases and this limits the actions a player can take and the places a character can be in when an attack is done. It's very similar to chess, move, attack, etc. There's no attack as you move.

I'm moving away from these chess like rules. I want the bishop to attack as he dashes through the chessboard, I want the knight to strike as he jumps over friendly pawns. Thus I'm seeing movement not as an action taken during the turn, but as a modifier to actions. Movement affects your aim. Movement fatigues you, the more you do the more difficult it will be to do other things. Simply put, your character is running out of breath.

I expect to see new possibilities when making changes to these two elements. Already the rework on initiative and movement has open up new possibilities to me. Particularly in modern warfare games. Modern warfare was something I felt uncomfortable tackling due to the limits of the aforementioned game dynamics. A more fluid succession of events opens up the possibility of a fast paced, more interesting modern warfare RPG.

Image source

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tracer rounds work both ways, die rolls too!

As a GM every time you ask your players to roll to hit you're a dead give away on the enemy strength. In fantasy settings with bows and arrows and close range combat this isn't much of an issue. If the enemy is close enough to attack you he's close enough to be see, unless some magic is in use.

In modern or futuristic combat, this is not the case. You may come under fire from a great distance and have only the general direction to which you can return fire. "You're taking fire from the tree line on the ridge", what does your party do? "We fire back at the attackers.", but wait, what attackers?

Rules like d20 require a target to hit. They're not very good at determining area of effect. So a burst of return fire or a barrage of suppressing fire would be hard to resolve. As a GM you'll probably have to ask the players to roll a certain amount of dice to see if their attacks hit. But that's a dead giveaway on the enemy force's size. Is the enemy just a sniper and his spotter? A platoon? A whole freaking brigade?

You'll probably end up putting a bunch of little icons on Roll20 as well, indicating the enemy combatants on the field. But wait, isn't that what camouflage is for? So they can't be seen and shot at? The game's combat mechanics is making you, the GM, give valuable information the players that their characters would not normally have in real combat situations.

I think opposing die roll mechanics are ideal for this, as they don't rely on a single die roll from the attacker (player). With opposing die rolls the attacker can set the degree of effectiveness of the attack with a single roll and the defender(s) can counter it, one by one. This allows the GM to secretly roll for the opponents, and in doing so hide the enemy force size from the players.

How do you hide enemy positions in modern or futuristic combat settings without having this interfere with the rules?

d20 Suppressive Fire

Nonexistent is a word I find fitting to describe it. I've been looking for d20 rules that work with suppressing fire and have found none. I've searched d20 Modern SDR and found no rules addressing suppressing fire. The word suppress actually appears a few times, one as in silencer for a gun and the others in the context of magic use.

D20 is very good at resolving to hit situations. Did you hit your target? Yes - No. It is very inefficient at solving "not hit" situations. Particularly massive fire "not hit" situations. Suppressive fire is one of them. The idea of suppressive fire is not to hit someone. After all they're all hiding from your bursts, right? But how do you solve the odds of the enemy sticking his head out just as your Gatling swings around? Or how good is your burst that it's close enough to keep the enemy pinned.

Dice pool mechanics have a way to solve this, but they're fuzzy. Not that I dislike them, I really enjoy playing dice pool games, but they lack that crunchiness I'm looking for. I don't want too many tables, preferably none. One or two die rolls to determine outcome and that's it. I do want some detail as to what is going on. I find d20 to be too "binary" if you will, its either hit or miss, with no in between.

As a player or game designer do you know a modern or futuristic game that handles massive fire well?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Tzitzimime, heavenly sent deamons

Tzitzimime are star deamons who devour men during eclipses. They have skeletal female bodies and wear skirts decorated with crossbones. These deities are worshiped by midwives and women about to give birth. The tzitzimime pay allegiance to Itzpapalotl (clawed butterfly) who ruled over the paradise world of Tamoanchan. Tamoanchan is the paradise for victims of infant mortality and also the place were humans were created from crushed bones and blood. 

The tzitzimime can appear as beautiful seductive women or as horrible skeletal figures with clawed hands and obsidian tipped butterfly wings. Either form is equally dangerous as they will attempt to get close to their prey before revealing their true nature and attacking.

Tzitzimime are feared mostly during solar eclipses, but they can walk the earth in search of prey on other less ominous days. All trecena days beginning with westward days (1 Deer, 1 Rain, 1 Monkey, 1 House, and 1 Eagle) will experience greater tzitzimime presence. During those periods of thirteen days the tzitzimime and the less deadly cihuateteo roam the land in search of victims. The five Nemontemi days at the end of the year count (365 days) are particularly susceptible to tzitzimime activity.

Tzitzimime are creatures very similar to vampires. They will walk the land preferably at night or during solar eclipses. They are stars in the heavens when they do not walk this earth and just like stars they shine, but have no warmth. When in female human form they will be most charming and beautiful, but their cold skin will give them away. The hold an enthralling aura around them, a type of brightness that charms people, particularly men. The few who have survived have told stories of being pulled into a sea of stars as they stared into their eyes. When not in human form they can appear in their harpy type shape, clawed hands and eagle type feet, butterfly or bat wings with obsidian tips. They are also known to shape change into large bats as well.

They can see perfectly well at night and in pitch black darkness and are so strong they can easily fly away with a full grown man. Unless killed and burned to ashes they will regenerate and be reborn again the next evening. Their bones are particularly powerful in magic rituals. As inhabitants of Tamoanchan, where mankind was created from crushed bone and blood, their bones have power to animate and even create human like creatures. These bones and to a lesser degree their ashes can be used to create animated humans, undead or golems.

Tzitzimime will not transmit vampirism with their bite, although they may hypnotize or drain the blood of a victim to make them their servant. The can grant nahual (werecreature) powers of the deer or vampire bat to humans who willingly or unwillingly accept such powers. These nahual powers will eventually overpower the soul of the human who they afflict and said person will become a willing servant to the tzitzimime. For such a reason characters having such powers, for more benevolent reasons, may be confused with their more evil counterparts. Dark deer with glowing red or yellow eyes are seen every so often in the forests and are said to be the evil servants of tzitzimime left behind to do their bidding until their return on the next thirteen day period when they once again walk the lands.

Image source:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The abstract vs realism quadrants

After pondering on abstract, simulationist and realism I came up with the following diagram that groups the abstract and the concrete, the real and the unrealistic and present rules, simulations and storytelling processes  as means to move around it.

The area is split into four quadrants. On the X axis we have the abstract vs the concrete. Moving along that line to the left we get more vague and less detailed concepts being communicated on the tabletop and more detailed (less abstract) ones being communicated as we move to the right. On the Y axis we have realism, more realism up, less realism down. By realism I mean plausibility, not if the event can occur in 21st century Earth, but rather if within the context of the game the event seems "right", if the outcome of an action seems coherent with player expectations and is "intuitive". It also has to do with how fluid the game feels, we don't live life in "stop motion", to us life is fluid and continuous. A game that is more fluid and stops less to check things imply feels more realistic than a choppy one in which game mechanics resolution consumes a great deal of the time.

"Simulationist" on this graph is not a position, but a means to go from the abstract to the concrete. It is a process that fills in detail lost by the abstraction process. This can also be achieved by another process called storytelling. Simulationist is a process to fill in detail by which rules and dice mechanics come into play to "unbias" the GM or player by injecting randomness and binding things to certain constraints.  How well crafted these dice mechanics and rules are made influence in the player experience. The storytelling process on the other hand is less bound to randomness and so players and GMs may fall into certain habits and be biased, the are also less bound to certain constraints and free to improvise on the detail. This in turn can create uncertainty with the players and be counter intuitive. The GM may pull out some unexpected  outcome and break "realism".

It is important to note that neither "simulationist" nor "storytelling" add realism to a game, they add detail. If the detail added seems unreal, out of place or causes a choppy flow of the game it is not making the game more real, it is simply making the player experiences more detailed.

There are two types of concrete to consider. The one graphed on the diagram is concrete is the communication between the players. Inside the player's mind the process of going from the abstract to the concrete continues, as a player you begin to fill in more and more detail to recreate the event in your mind. For example an abstract statement from the GM like "The goblin swings at you and does 5 points of damage" will be reconstructed in your mind to a vision of the goblin sword your character's shield and armor, the place, the movements, swings, etc. A more concrete statement from the GM will give you less leeway as to what your mind can do, it narrows down your options as you reconstruct the scene in your mind. Less detail on the graph (games on the left) means more imagination leeway for you, more detail on the graph (games on the right) means less imagination leeway.

Up and down on the graph has to do with how well the communication process facilitates this reconstruction in the players mind. If the communication process begins to fall into the unreal area it will begin to cause issues with the player's reconstruction process. "Glitches" in this communication may make it less intuitive for the player to create a convincing reconstruction based on what's been communicated. For example a character attacks and hits the goblin, but then suddenly falls victim to an unexpected attack of opportunity. Although it all falls well within the rules the game, the player will be building this image of the attack in his o her mind and suddenly the attack of opportunity comes along and the player goes "hey what was that?". The attack is an unexpected and counter intuitive event that sets the player's mind off balance. It hinders the abstract con concrete process that goes in our minds when we are communicating.

This takes me to ask what is a good game and what is a bad game? There's a lot of opinions on this and some will comment that there is no such thing as an objectively better or good game. I do disagree with that. Independent of genre, simulationist or not, there are game properties held by some which make them better than others, that is objectively better. I believe a good measure of a game is how well the rules create a communication process between players which in turn facilitate the recreation process in the recipient's mind. Games on the bottom of the graph, quadrants 3 & 4 are not as good as games on quadrants 1 & 2. Those on quadrants 1 & 2 offer the same level of detail than their lower quadrant counterparts, but facilitate the reconstruction process by lacking inconsistencies that may hinder the player's mind from working up more detail. It doesn't matter if the rules offer more or less detail, in the minds of the players the abstraction of the game is reconstituted into a concrete experience much faster and easier with those above the X axis than those below the X axis.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Druid, are we playing it right?

Do you play the nature loving tree hugging druid or the representative of nature? A force that's neutral in a way very distinct from the center point between law and chaos, good and evil.

My recent research into Mesoamerican prehispanic cultures has got me rethinking the druid. The Aztec and Mayan gods were beings of good and evil as seen through our western eyes, but to them they were just representations of the different aspects of nature. The same gods that created also destroyed. Creatures with habits we would now relate to daemons lived in places known as paradises. They guided the sun through the skies and took fallen soldiers to heaven, as the Valkyries did, but they also came and devoured men on less fortunate days. These deities demanded tribute, sacrifices, sometimes food and items, sometimes animals and in some cases humans.

Unlike the many "codices" that remain from the conquest, the druids leave little record of their habits.

Julius Caesar, who led the first Roman landing in 55 B.C., said the native Celts "believe that the gods delight in the slaughter of prisoners and criminals, and when the supply of captives runs short, they sacrifice even the innocent." (1)
Doesn't seem too different from what the Aztecs did. Except there is written record of such activities like the image to the right shows (Codex Magliabechiano). So if the priests, these so called druids, behaved much like the Aztec priests. Shouldn't we consider that their gods, the Celtic gods, behaved in much the same way?

Itza (the prehispanic RPG I'm making) has turned out to be a rather brutal setting were blood is the currency of the land and war is the purpose of all men. I'm beginning to see the red below all that green, and I must say I like it. I think I'll be changing the way I play my druids and their gods. A more brutal type of druid that represents the true aspects of nature. One that sees life and death as part of a wheel that spins and spins, forgiving no one.


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Image source

Monday, June 17, 2013

Building my character's bow - Part 3 Combat

This article has been a long time in the making, but finally I can get around to show the new bow rules in Imperium & Maleficium (I&M). In my two previous articles The Range and The Damage I went over the design of the mechanics and weapon models. The idea behind such a rule restructure is to create distinctive bows depending on character attributes without adding extra rules and complexity to the game. I&M already has a fatigue system which will be leveraged to provide a distinctive rate of fire for each character based on their constitution. Instead of one or two attacks per round, characters get a number of attacks equal to their dexterity / 2. Attacks can be converted to parries and dodges in case of hand to hand combat, but at long range there's no risk of a sword swing, so all actions go into putting arrows in the air and stopping the enemy before it gets too close.

Meet our heroes. To the left the mounted archer. Of medium build the mounted archer is fast on his horse. Leading his mount with his knees he has both hands free to fire at his targets. He will approach the enemies, discharge as many arrows as possible and ride away.

To the right, the English longbowman. A lifelong training has produced one of the most powerful and feared bowmen of all times. Using a very heavy longbow the Englishman is able to deliver very heavy and deadly arrows to his enemies. His bow is strong enough to propel arrows through the heaviest of armors.

Last but not least, to the left the rogue. A woman of great agility, but low strength. Her skills are stealth and surprise is the key to her success. She's not very strong, but her agility allows for quick reflexes, good aim and a rapid rate of fire.

Each character has different strengths and weaknesses and faces different opponents. It makes sense for them to have different weapons. As a player you want to leverage the strong points of your character and find a niche were your character is most effective. To do so you need specially designed bows for each type of character and a set of rules that help you make the best of this during gameplay.

The mounted archer carries a composite bow, small and strong it allows him to lead the horse and fire at the same time. The Englishman uses a longbow, one taller than himself and with enormous pull. It requires all of his strength to fire, but delivers the deadliest shots. The rogue, not favored with strength must use her dexterity to her advantage in combat.

Let us give them attributes to work with (remember dexterity / 2 = number of attacks ):

Mounted archer
strength : 14
constitution : 15
dexterity : 13

With this dexterity the mounted archer can put up to 6 arrows in the air during a round. His strength isn't very high and his targets are usually not heavily armored. A lighter bow with heavy arrows would fit him well.

English longbowman
strength : 17
constitution : 14
dexterity : 13

The Englishman can put 6 arrows in the air during a round. Given his strength it is convenient to have the highest pull possible, thus the usage of the longbow. His constitution is high, but the workload of pulling that bow is also elevated. It is possible he will fatigue before the max amount of arrows deliverable by his dexterity.

strength : 13
constitution : 15
dexterity : 17

The rogue is quicker than all the rest, her dexterity grants her up to 8 arrows per round, but her strength only allows her the usage of bows of lesser pull. She'll gamble on aim and rate of fire. She won't be able to take armored targets, but that's not what she usually comes upon, and if she does she can pull a called shot to the head and take the target out quietly.

Now lets look at the weapons. Three heroes, three bows. One for the strong Englishman, one for the riding archer and one for the stealthy rogue.

The table below shows the bow pull vs strength as well as the damage at different ranges. To the right is the DynE value, an indicator of how fast a character will fatigue when using this weapon.

The Englishman with his 17 STR can take the heaviest bow with the 600 grain arrow. He will have 5 ranges, from 30 yrds to 200 yrds. Given the high DynE value he will be able to let off two arrows at best given his constitution of 14. If he required a faster rate of fire he can take a lighter 400 grain flight arrow and fire up to 3 times per round. Either arrow does formidable damage and the heavy 600 grain arrow can punch 2d10 HP of damage at 30 yards. Enough to break through plate armor.

The mounted archer lacks the strength of the Englishman and is limited to a 300 grain heavy arrow. The benefit is that the bow is much lighter with a DynE of 10 instead of 16 for the Englishman's long bow. This grants him the ability to shoot all six arrows in a round and since his targets are not as armored, the 2d6 damage of such arrows is enough to kill an opponent. He has forfeit bow damage and range for a considerable increase in fire rate.

Finally the rogue, with her low strength must concentrate on fire rate. She selects the light 150 flight arrow with a DynE of 7. Less than half the energy cost of the Englishman's longbow, this bow gives her an impressive rate of fire of 8 arrows per round. She can only fire effectively up to 60 yrds, but she doesn't need more. Her precision added to the flight arrow's +2 and +1 at such ranges (see range modifiers below) make her a deadly marksman. There are high odds she'll get a head shot with such precision and if she misses she still has 7 more shots in that round. Her damage is small 2d4, but enough to take out the lightly armored targets she meets in the city.

STRHuman 32” arrow shaft
light arrowheavy arrowArrow Weight (grains)30yds60 yds100yds150yds200ydsDynE





Range modifiers

30yds60 yds100yds150yds200yds
light arrow21000
heavy arrow0-1-2-3-4
clearancedirect10 feet30 feet +30 feet +30 feet +

The weapons, ranges, damage and attacks are:

Human 32” arrow shaft

Arrow Weight (grains)30yds60 yds100yds150yds200ydsAttacks


Mounted Archer3002d6+12d62d6-1

Englishman Flight Arrow4002d82d8-12d8-22d8-3

Englishman Heavy Arrow6002d102d10-12d10-22d10-32d10-42

The rogue as a fast and precise weapon with a +2 and +1 modifiers at 30 and 60 yrds. She does little damage, but fires very quickly.

The mounted archer also has a lower firing rate, but has a little more damage and can reach up to 100yds.

The Englishman has the heaviest bow. He can reach up to 200 yrds and attacks at short ranges are deadly even to armored knights. He can switch to a lighter, less damaging bow that gives him two more attacks at the cost of less damage and the extended 200 yrd range.

The rules provide weapons consistent with each character's attributes and gives you the player a way to differentiate your character from other party members. Thus creating a more personalized an unique gaming experience.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

The abstraction horizon, a point of no return for simulationists d20?

At what point does abstract become simulationist? What distinguishes something simulationist from something abstract? More so, given the core CPU in a tabletop RPGs is our brain and it's quite slow compared to a computer, can we call an RPG simulationist when compared to a video game? Compared to those, any tabletop RPG feels pretty darn abstract!

Abstract and simulationist games are usually placed on opposite sides of the scale, but do they belong there? Is abstract the opposite of simulationist? I believe it isn't. In this blog post I will defend the idea that rules light and rules heavy games can be product of the same abstraction level,. That the quest for more detail adds rule complexity, but not necessarily less abstraction and more realism. That "simulationist" games, if there is such a thing in tabletop RPG, can be attained with equivalent abstraction, but using a better crafted model.

Lets take a look at the following statement :

"Abstractions may be formed by reducing the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon, typically to retain only information which is relevant for a particular purpose." (1)

By this statement all tabletop RPGs are abstract. Some do put more math into play, but there's a limit to this given the computational power of our brain as compared to a computer. Particularly since this is meant to be a hobby and not work.

Now lets take a look at the following statement:

Abstraction uses a strategy of simplification, wherein formerly concrete details are left ambiguous, vague, or undefined; thus effective communication about things in the abstract requires an intuitive or common experience between the communicator and the communication recipient. This is true for all verbal/abstract communication. (2)

What's important to point out here is that both communicator and the recipient must have an "intuitive or common experience" for effective abstract communication. That means that either the abstraction is such that both intuitively interpret it the same or both know the "rules" of the abstraction so well there is no ambiguity in their interpretation (common experience).

Abstraction requires a certain amount of common understanding among players of what is being abstracted. That way the communicator and the recipients can fill in the gaps left by the abstraction process. That is, players fill in the details of the gaps left by the rules (aka abstraction process). Theoretically the larger the rules the less gaps the players should have to fill in.

Considering this, "simulationist" is commonly seen as the product of a process where we begin to fill more and more "information" or "detail" in a game, so less is left in the player's hands. We begin to call it a "simulationst" game one in which there are rules to arrive at greater detail. For example having 10 hit points and taking 4 in an attack is considered "abstract". While taking 4 hit points piercing damage to the head causing an arm wound is "simulationist". As simulationist players we seek to add more detail into a game when once there was a greater lack of it. There's a border, a horizon, after which we begin to call something simulationist. But what is this? The amount of detail or the amount of time required to resolve such detail? It certainly isn't realism as many games have lots of detail which aren't very real. For example the way bows and arrows work in D&D, which seem "real", but are very distant from real bows and arrows work.

Our brains are awfully slow compared to computers in regards to the amount of detail we can mathematically resolve. So we're limited in detail if we're looking for "fun" in a game. Unless you define "fun" as doing a hundred triple integrals to figure out if a sword hits or not. This sets an implicit and quite subjective limit to what players are willing to put up with in the name of fun.

Yet in this struggle between abstract and simulationist we fail to ask a key question about the model (the way something is represented, the "strategy of simplification"). Is the model we are using good?

What happens when we try to take a model from the realm of the abstract to the world of the simulationist without considering this? What is this in the first place? Well basically, there's reality, then we take detail away to make an abstraction and then we try to put it back again through "simulationist" rules.

To answer this lets look at what has gone on with D&D because they're trying to do this exactly. Add more detail (be more simulationist) on top of a basic set of rules which disregarded such detail in the first place. One such example is D&D's and d20 system's hit points. What are they? Life? Skill? Luck? A mixture of all three? Another example is the to hit roll. What is it? If you succeed with a hit roll, what does that mean? A hit? A hit that does damage?

Look at it like this. Back in the '70s a game builds an abstraction of combat based on rolling a d20. It has classes and hit points and a value called THAC0 that "improves" as the level of the character is increased. It was simple and fun to play. You roll the d20, hit or miss. If you hit you roll damage and if the creature reaches 0 hit points its dead. It was simple and it was fun.

With time players got more demanding and more stuff was added. Wound rules, skill rules, more and more detail. In a quest to become more simulationist more rules were added to reinject the information that had been removed by the initial abstraction process. These rules added more detail, but not necessarily more realism. Many rules that add detail to D&D today are questionably realistic.

But, there is information that once removed to achieve an abstraction can not be easily reinserted.

At what point did the game developers stop and consider the original abstraction? If the original abstraction was remade to remove less information in the first place then less information would need to be reinjected, leading to simpler rules. This would have meant a leaner, rules light AD&D. But it was not done. Instead layer upon layer of rules are added, editions built on top of editions. The latest of which trying to group together the best of all prior editions in a quest for a game for all.

Let us go back to what I pointed out as important. What's important to point out is that both communicator and the recipient must have an "intuitive or common experience" for effective abstract communication. Intuitive? Common experience?

For a moment let us see "intuitive" as OSR and "common experience" as rules heavy. The OSR sticks to the simple rules and understands how the game is played. They don't need complex rules because they understand the game intuitively. On the other hand "common experience" is the rules heavy player. For there is no other way to have people enjoy a common experience when they're geographically disperse and have never met. By writing rule upon rule you have a mechanism for many players who never met to have a "common experience" around a game. The rules convey the same experience to all players as long as they stick to the rules. By creating a modular system in D&D Next WotC seeks to customize this "common experience" for different market segments, but fails to address the underlying issue. The problem is not with the rules, those are the symptoms, the problem is with the abstraction in the first place.

This opens a new way to look at rules light and rules heavy. Rules light is not a product of high abstraction while rules heavy is a product of low abstraction. They're product of how the same abstraction is conveyed to different groups of people. Simulationist isn't opposite to abstract, it's not even on the same slider bar.

Simulationist or realistic are terms achieved not by less abstraction. All RPGs are by definition abstractions as they lack the full detail of the real life objects they are trying to represent. Simulationist or realistic are achieved by better models, better "strategies of simplification". Such models convey the abstraction in a more intuitive way to players and thus allow more detail to be "recreated" in the player's minds without the need of extensive rules (quicker). This greater detail is after all what players look for when questing for a realistic or simulationist game.

Why go beyond the abstraction horizon when you'll have to walk back the simulationist road to reconstitute lost detail? Isn't it better to build a game that is abstract, realistic and rules light at the same time by using a abstraction that holds on to the detail wanted by the players?

For example breaking the to hit roll into a two rolls, one to determine if weapon contact is made and another to determine if actual damage is done allows skill to be easily applied to the first roll. Removing some of the ambiguity involved in the classic d20 roll. When I "miss" did I hit and cause no damage due to armor protection or did I simply not hit the armor at all?

Thus it's my strong belief that you can build and abstract, simulationist and rules light game if the abstraction is well made. That is, abstract enough to enable fast play, but not so abstract that too much detail is lost.


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Friday, June 14, 2013

Character attributes and properties, to limit or to distinguish?

When you play your favorite RPG, how different do you feel your character is from other characters of the same class, but with different attributes? Do those attribute difference limit your character or enhance your character? For example is a low intelligence used to limit your spell use or is a high intelligence used to stimulate your spell use? Might sound the same, but it's quite different.

Is the impact of all attributes, regardless of class, important enough that your character feels quite different from one with a two point difference? Are attributes not relevant for the class used to distinguish characters of said class?

I'm concerned that many RPGs don't put enough emphasis on attribute use and end up with characters of the same class which are pretty much all the same. For example a magic user with 18 INT will look pretty much like a magic user with 17 INT and somewhat like a magic user with 16 INT. Simply because the magic user class focuses around intelligence and disregards all other values. So the magic users look pretty similar even when one may have 18 CON and another 13 CON. They both get few hit points, albeit 18 CON gives a bonus. They both get to set off a spell per round. They both have their handy dagger to attack with. So what really tells one character apart from the other?

In the quest for "balance" I find many RPGs tend to put a filter or veil on many attributes which are not directly related to the character class. Thus all members of a class seem the same, or lets say way more similar than their attributes gives them potential to be different from the rest.

Do you take steps in your game to leverage other skills in the character's attributes outside those relevant to their class?