Reflective Revision: Treasure, Encounters, and Combat

June 7, 2019


As before, I'm using this as an opportunity to discuss some of my design intentions and considerations as I work through proofreading the rulebook of my retroclone.  Obligatory link to the main file.


Today, I'll be finishing up the core rules with treasure, encounters, and combat.


There really isn't a whole lot to be said about mundane treasure.  It's valuable, and it has no intrinsic use other than as money.  That said, it's not unheard of for players to keep stuff as trophies, as gifts for NPCs, or just otherwise as something that they won't be using as a monetary asset.  Enabling that sort of play is more fun and interesting than finding yet another pile of coins, so I did include a couple of tables for that in Appendix I (Treasure Generation), although I would personally recommend also using -C's treasure book as another source of inspiration.


More interesting, perhaps, was my inclusion of some basic rules for magic item creation.  As I've said before, it's rare for me to play in or run games that go into double-digit levels.  The source rules for magic item creation are pretty strict about needing to be high level and still having pretty shitty chances of making something worthwhile.  That's boring.  At the same time, having clear and firm rules for making magic items would turn them from something fanciful into something formulaic, which I don't want to do, either.  The general wisdom in the OSR seems to be that PCs should be able to do all sorts of weird and wondrous things if they "quest for it" (apologies for not remembering where I first encountered that particular phrase, but the sentiment is perhaps best captured in the rule book for Dungeon Crawl Classics, chapter 6), and I'm a fan of that.


To that end, I looked through what rules there were in the source book, as well as looking at the 3rd edition SRD and Lamentations of the Flame Princess (that being the only OSR book that I noticed including a magic item creation system).  Putting all of that together with some of my own thoughts, I came up with a baseline for setting the direct time and cost requirements for consumable items, but I left the details of formulation and execution up to the individual GM to decide, and permanent magic items don't even get that much.  That might seem like so little as to be worthless, but it felt like trying to do more would be imposing too many elements of my personal settings onto what's supposed to be a generic rules basis.  Even allowing for how unlikely it is that anyone else will actually run this system, that's not a hollow concern because I don't run every game under the exact same set of assumptions.  Low fantasy swords-and-sorcery is my main squeeze, but I like to mix in faerie tales, horror/weird fantasy, or high fantasy stuff at times, too, and the ways and means of making magic items in each type of setting should be different to find with the overall themes.  Writing out a complete system would be untrue to myself.


Moving on to encounters, I'm actually not a huge fan of that word.  I use it because it is the common parlance of TTRPGs, but I feel like it implies a limitation to moments of (potential) conflict between the PCs and NPCs.  Even worse is commonly people talk in terms of preparing "combat encounters" or "social encounters", which is a toxic mindset that is ultimately railroading by another name.  I may prepare encounters where the NPCs will be hostile and violent towards anyone else, but that's not because I want to have a combat encounter; it's because those are the NPCs that should be there and they are behaving in a way that makes sense for them.  This is a subtle but huge distinction, since it still allows players freedom in how they'll react, whereas preparing a combat encounter means I've already decided that there will be a fight.  But I digress.


The point that I'm trying to get at is that encounters should be about dramatic moments for the PCs.  Often, that will involve NPCs, but that is not an inviolable requirement; traps, puzzles, moments of tension, and cinematic sequences akin to Quick Time Events in video games can all fulfill the same purpose.  The key is to select the option that makes sense in context and provides the players with meaningful choices in how to deal with it (which should often include the option to just not deal with it at all!).


That all said, the majority of encounters should be with NPCs, unless you're talking about something like a specific trap-based or puzzle-based dungeon.  Beginning an encounter with NPCs has to start out with at least one side noticing the other.  In the WotC editions, the Perception skill (or Spot/Listen before it) makes a mess of this because of the ever-escalating nature of skill roll results in those games.  The world ran perfectly fine for about 25 years with a flat base chance and situational modifiers.  Not only is it a cleaner and simpler approach which yields bounded results, it allows the players to influence the odds by being active in taking specific actions (like approaching from downwind, deciding to work through difficult terrain to remain under cover, or wash off the filth from mucking around in a dung pile for magical seeds) instead of just throwing around bare numbers that they developed separate from play.


I used a 3-in-10 check for surprise instead of the traditional 2-in-6.  Aside from being ever-so-slightly less likely to result in surprise (30% vs. 33.3...%), this allows for more granularity in modifiers, is consistent with the source rules (reducing further conversion overhead), and gives an excuse to use more different types of dice (which is a superficial concern, perhaps, but it's boring to just try to do everything with a d6).


One of the things that stuck out to me from Moldvay's Basic rules was the use of initiative rolls for encounters in general, instead of just for combat (I can't comment on whether Holmes's Basic did that or not).  Granted, I think the example of play was inconsistent about that, so it's entirely possible that it was a mistaken presentation of the intended rules, but I always thought it was a fantastic idea.  Furthermore, the 2nd edition rules are explicit about "waiting for the other party" being something which impacts initiative rolls without being clear on how that works (since actions need to be declared prior to rolling initiative, it sounds like you're rolling to see how soon you can hurry up and wait).  I kept the idea of rolling for initiative at the start of an encounter and added the provision that a "waiting" party can interrupt anyone going after their place in the initiative order.  This is pretty similar to the idea of holding your action (which comes up in a handful of OSR books), which I believe is otherwise absent in either 1st or 2nd edition rules.  Whether the interruption happens before, simultaneous to, or after the triggering act is left ambiguous on purpose, since the situation should dictate the most sensible order of resolution.


The text on random encounters is kept brief because I don't think there's a whole lot to be said about them.  Perhaps the two points that they model "sundry events" and that they "never reward XP" are worth highlighting.  I like having some environmental effects in my random encounter tables.  This helps bring the world to life, can foreshadow the creatures in the area (although you should never count on random dice rolls to do things in a dramatically-satisfying way), and almost always ratchets up tension for the players because their minds start racing with thoughts of what the effects might signify.  If random encounters with NPCs could reward XP, adding those effects would feel like ripping off the players.  Instead, I have no reservations about such indulgences.


Action trials are rather obviously a rip-off of 4th edition skill challenges, further modified via Matt Colville's suggestions.  I do add my own touches regarding automatic successes for (most) expenditures of limited resources and allowing an action to count as multiple successes, but I doubt either of those are novel ideas.  The point about being limited to using skills that the PC is trained in is largely echoing Colville's thoughts on niche protection for large groups.  When I run for less than 3 PCs, I'm open to letting them use untrained skills with disadvantage on the roll, though it'd have to be taking some action that'd be sensible for a general layperson.  For the most part, hearing that they'd have disadvantage on the roll makes the player try to think of something else (even though it's about 50% odds or better to pass if they have at least a +1 modifier, that's not intuitive).


Combat starts out with a recap of initiative, expanded for the greater range of common considerations when you're thinking specifically about acting in a fight.  I'm just mentioning it because I've always found it interesting that an open charge results in acting slower than a measured approach.  I understand the logic behind it (it's not that you're acting slower but rather that you're not doing anything to stop the opposition from acting sooner), but it always catches my eye.


Actions are mostly standard fare.  I prefer the term "swift action" to "free action" or "bonus action" because it's clearer that it's something which is just done quickly in the course of doing something else.  "Bonus action" sounds like a completely separate thing which you can do as a bonus (and the term also puts mental pressure on players to always try to do something as a bonus action, since it feels bad to waste a bonus, which I dislike); "free action" sounds like something with no cost at all, which can open the door for senseless attempts to do nigh-infinite free actions every round.


I brought in the nonstandard movement and difficult terrain rules from 5th edition pretty much wholesale.  It's a clean approach, and really, it's what the more complex rules of the past more or less amounted to in the majority of cases anyway.


The attack bonus table is first of my mechanical changes to combat, and I don't mean that just because of switching to ascending AC (I will always argue that the difference between "roll+bonus vs. AC", "THAC0-roll vs. AC", or "roll+bonus-AC vs. target number" is trivial, but I also recognize that subtraction is more difficult psychologically than addition).  I gave Warriors a little boost to their attack bonus, setting it equal to their level instead of level-1.  In the greater scheme of things, this isn't much of a difference mechanically, but it has two clear impacts.  First, it underscores that Warriors are better at fighting than everyone else by having them be the only group to start with an attack bonus (and, given that I do most of my play at low levels, they are often the only group getting an attack bonus).  Second, it effectively gives Warriors a +2 bonus (more or less) to their stats for the purposes of attack rolls, as compared to the source rules.


The rules for attacks of opportunity for movement are consistently messy.  Original, basic, 1st edition, and 2nd edition all have haphazard references to them without any sense of clarity of when they happen and if any modifiers are involved.  3rd and 4th edition lead to "sticky" fighting or "tar-pitting" (wherein engagement leads to standing still and slugging away at each other until someone runs out of hit points), which is particularly amusing since shifting in 4th edition was supposed to be about allowing movement that doesn't provoke attacks of opportunity.  5th edition does a weird thing where attempting to kite with a reach weapon is actively harmful to only the character with greater reach unless perks are involved.  I took the approach that seemed to make the most sense to me; direct advances and withdrawls are safe, but any other movement while engaged grants a single attack at +2 bonus per 5 feet of movement.  That allows for dynamic positioning to evolve over the course of a fight while also allowing for a character to actually hold a choke point or guard an ally.


Cycling multiple attacks per round (where everyone does their first attack, then everyone does their second attack, etc.) is a headache, and the distinction in the source rules for multiple attacks with a single source vs. single attacks from multiple sources is even worse.  We're doing side initiative and using 1-minute rounds, so we're not looking for a 1-to-1 representation of dice rolls for everything that happens.  Just let people attack on their actions.


Unarmed combat has been objectively horrible in every edition that tries to be fancy with it.  It's with good reason that OSR books usually just treat it the same as weapon-based combat when they single it out at all.  As for special maneuvers (grappling and shoving/tripping are called out explicitly, but I think the implication is clear that this could also work for things like attempts to disarm), I like the idea from 5th edition of being able to resist them either through tanking or avoidance, thus the victim gets to roll their choice of a Fortitude or Reflex save.  At the same time, it's the sort of thing that should be influenced by the difference in skill level between the combatants, so I modify the save by the level/HD difference between attacker and defender.  It's a pretty simple system, and I like how the results with it have gone.


Mobbing is kept as in the source rules, because I think it's an interesting tactic which has a simple mechanic to it.


Subdual damage is almost always annoying to do as a meaningful choice and too easy to do in a simplified way.  I prefer it to be a meaningful choice, so I went with the least annoying approach that I could think of (50/50 split, -4 to hit if using a weapon, and the target is KO'ed long enough that the fight will end before they wake).


The distance penalty for ranged attacks was taken pretty much straight from Delta's blog.  As an aside, if I decide to try buffing crossbows to be more competitive with bows, it'll probably be granting them less of a distance penalty.


25% cover and 90% cover were dropped from consideration because they're more hassle than they're worth.


The source rules are unclear about whether a caster can move after finishing their spell or not.  I decided that they can.


Saving throws are a big chance on the surface but aren't really a big change in practice.  Most of what I did was to take the existing saving throw categories and average them to their general equivalents in 3rd edition.  Thus, Fortitude is the average of save vs. poison and save vs. petrify, Reflex is the average of save vs. breath and save vs. spell, and Will is the average of save vs. wand and save vs. spell.  Beyond this, though, I did switch the range of Reflex saves between Wizards and Rogues.  This way, each group has a flavorful theme to their saves; Priests are good at Fortitude and middling at Reflex/Will, Wizards are good at Will and middle at Fortitude/Reflex, Rogues are good at Reflex and middling at Fortitude/Will, and Warriors start out bad at everything but improve frequently enough to end up being the best at everything.


Damage types, multipliers for resistance/immunity/vulnerability, and conditions are all standardized in a way similar to 5th edition.  I added the "drained" condition for energy drain, similar to what was in 3.5th edition, because I felt like it was the best compromise between reduced paperwork, scary penalties, and avoiding feeling like the player was being cheated/taxed out of something they'd earned.


The turn undead table is based strictly on target HD now.  Decoupling it from specific types of undead facilitates applying it with custom creatures, I believe, and it's not hard to just say something like "ghouls are turned as if 1 HD higher" if you really want to keep that caveat.


Death by accumulated damage keeps the (optional) death's door rule from the source rules.  I've always liked that rule, since it adds a little slack against marginal "random" deaths without reducing the deadliness of clear deaths.  Plus, it's hardly a free escape from death; the victim can easily be slain before being healed, and they're pretty useless afterwards until they have a chance to retreat and recover.  I find it interesting that OSRIC has more or less the same rule, since I always thought 0 hit points = death was the standard in 1st edition, but maybe I'm wrong about that.


The lingering poison rule in the source rules always felt unclear to me.  I put in my interpretation of it.


Taking out the entries for magical fire and lightning in the object saving throws table had two purposes.  First, it became an easier table for me to include.  Secondly and more importantly, I felt that treating the fire from a 3rd-level Fireball and a 7th-level Delayed Blast Fireball (or the electricity from a 1st-level Shocking Grasp and a 6th-level Chain Lightning) as being the same thing never felt right.  Saying that the element is what it is but a magical case of it imposes a penalty based on the spell level feels lot more sensible.


The only potential highlight in talking about playing on a grid is the explicit statement that the grid is an artificial simplification that need not be adhered to.  This is something that is sorely missing in most rules, and forcing yourself to think in terms of grid squares (or hexes) is incredibly limiting.  The grid is a tool, not a scripture.


Well, there you have it.  If anyone actually reads through all of these Reflective Revision posts, I'd love to hear about what you thought about them.  I might continue the series (for my sample adventures, at least, if not for the whole of the appendices) if it was actually interesting, but doing this felt so self-indulgent that I don't think I'd want to keep doing them if it's just for my own amusement.


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