Lazy Worlds & Settings

For May’s Fanzine I needed something to fill the gap between when the previous adventure ended and the adventure featured in that issue started. With the recent posts about Lazy GMing I decided to take the lazy way out but it had some interesting spin-offs.

I started with a suggestion along the lines of have the characters do a few random encounters between adventures. I then thought, I hate random encounters why am I saying this?

I then came up with a table with ten entries and three columns for a person, a action and a motivation. So three dice rolls creates a stub of an adventure or a scene for the characters to walk in on. This seemed good. The results would be something like Farmer + Accuses + Murder but most GMs could work with that. The person column went from Village Elder to homeless beggar. So we had 10 people x 10 actions x 10 motivations for 1,000 possible random things going on in a village.

I not got a bit enthusiastic about this. These are so open to interpretation that they could be hack and slash encounters…

Farmer: You killed by son now I am going to kill you!

(farmer hefts his scythe and advances)

Player: I prepare Shockbolt

Or they can be nice situations to role play out. The random event, of itself, does not impose a play style.

For the GM a plot hook or random event is not really much help if they have been told role play an entire village or string of villages.

Random Villages

Using the same basic mechanism of 3x1d10 rolls I produced a table with three columns. The first was the first half of the village name, the second the last half of the village name and the last the villages primary industry. I thought primary industry was important. Once you know that it is easy to imagine all the supporting industry. If the place is known for leather working then the farmers are likely to have plenty of cows. Leather requires stitching and that requires thread. Already, we have fields of cows, a tannery, possibly old folk spinning thread in the village square. Where there are cows there are butchers. We can now start to give the players a picture of village life and give people employment.

The really curious thing was how I filled in the first two columns, the name.

I seem to be developing a bit of a thing for east Asian culture for fantasy. Here is a short list of things that I think are almost universally cool in RPGs. Himalayan style mountains, Tibetan style monks, Genghis Khan style hordes, Kung Fu Monks, Jungles, Ninjas, Pirates, ‘Lost Temples’ and finally dragons. All of those are features of this Asian culture. It also breaks the mould a bit of traditional fantasy being almost exclusively medieval European in style.

What you lose in moving away from the standard form is knights in shining armour.

This move to the east was never explicit or intentional. My regular RMC game is set in the Forgotten Realms, in the Dales region. All my online games through have a distinctly oriental feel and it is getting stronger with every iteration.

You can imagine that the name parts in these lists ended up as things like Phu, Dai and Ngu.

On my to do list is build my own setting. It has been there for a while. I am filing away copies of these things in my setting folder. I think there could be a future RMu fantasy Asian setting bubbling away somewhere in my subconscious.

But Wait…

The ‘random encounters’ so far have a village name, industries, actors, actions and motives but if the heroes are going to have a variety of side quests here the typical GM is going to want some more assistance.

I have been playing with Geomorphs recently. A geomorph in RPG terms is a fragment of a map, a bit like a jigsaw piece but one that it doesn’t matter which way round you use it. You can even flip them over and it will still fit. Most RPG geomorphs are for dungeon layouts but a few create towns and villages.

In the fanzine I have provided three Geomorph dice. You have to print them out and do a bit of cutting and gluing but at the end of it you should have three paper or card d6 with each face holding a section of map. I have included one here so you can see what I mean.

If you take the images and use an editor to flip or mirror image the images you can create 6d6 each of which can have four orientations. That is a massive amount of variations. In the example village I used three images in a triangular formation with the bottom image half way along the two above it.

The thing with visual maps like this is that they are open to interpretation. In the bottom corners of the 2 face above I can see a couple potential churches, one a western looking church and the other a ziggurat style one. The 6 looks like a market but is that a bandstand?

What started out in the fanzine as a one liner of give the characters some random encounters ended up taking about a quarter of the entire magazine and with random people, places and maps.

On the condition that you do not roll all this stuff in front of the players there is no reason for them to ever know that they are ‘between’ adventures at all. If the GM is good at improv, and most are, there is great potential to turn some of these little hooks into full blown side quests.

So this is my contribution to Lazy GMing, a thousand random villages, villagers and adventure hooks.

Plan A

When I have tried an ‘ideas gathering’ set of posts in the past what has happened is that because there is no real structure in place there are almost too many options. Once discussions become circular we stop making progress.

Another problem is the transient nature of blogging. Ideas soon drift down the list of articles and away into oblivion.

So to Plan A

I am going to hammer my way through a conversion of White Star to create something that is extremely basic but both reminiscent of Spacemaster and actually playable. This will be the Navigator RPG.

Navigator RPG will be a Pay What You Want game on DriveThruRPG so you can pick it up for free or make a voluntary contribution. It is also a Creative Commons Share Alike product so no company can ever own the intellectual property and restrict its use.

The rules will be extremely modular with the intention of swapping out core rules for optional rules. In fact this swapping out of rules will be essential.

Yesterday, in my free time I wrote the Introduction, The start of the character generation chapter, rolling stats section, stat bonuses and I have just started the Species chapter. I have a pretty heavy schedule for the next 10 days or so but by early May I hope to have Species, Professions and Skills completed.

This may all sound rather egocentric. It is just me, my ideas, my opinions and my game. Why would anyone what to play my idea of a overly simplified Spacemaster?

Because it is easier to criticise something that is already there. I don’t really have to create anything new in doing a conversion from an existing game to a game with Rolemaster principles. We all know the ‘Rolemaster way’ so where there is a mechanic that could be more rolemaster then it is easy to apply that.

In addition, the design philosophy is that every single section of the rules will be replaced. I am providing just three or four races or species. Anyone can create new species, replace the provided species or anything in between. We know races are going to be primarily a collection of stat modifiers and resistance roll modifiers. You could start creating a bunch of new races now because you know what the options are going to be.


There a few other things I have been working on. When I release Navigator RPG, on the same day, I am going to release three other downloads. The first will be a compatibility license.

This isn’t particularly exciting but what it does do is send a signal to the indie RPG developers that Navigator RPG is open for business.

The second is an Art Kit. A selection of art, backgrounds, spaceships, weapons, figures and so on. This is to make it as easy as possible for an independent developer to produce great looking supplements. The Art Kit exists already but it only contains three pieces of art. By the time of its release it should be a few hundred pieces strong.

The final download will be a document template for at least Word and inDesign. This is so that anyone can create a supplement and it will look and feel exactly like an official release.

That may not sound every exciting but the three, the license, art kit and document template are the three requirements to create a Community Content Programme [CCP]. You will have heard a great deal about CCPs on the ICE forums. This game will have all the required criteria to have a CCP.

Here is a curious thing…

This game will be OSR, Old School Revival. When it is listed it will be found on DrivethrRPG under HARP/Spacemaster and OSR/Old School Revival. So? There is only one other OSR community content programme and that is Zweihander. What this means is that most places where the Zwei CCP shows, Navigator RPG will show too. You have to like a bit of standing on the shoulder of giants.

Navigator RPG

So I have been thinking about my Spacemaster idea from last week. There are a few threads I want to pull together today.

Cepheus vs Whitebox

There are two potential ‘original sources’. The first, as pointed out by Egdcltd was Cepheus. This is basically Traveller with the serial numbers filed off. So the core mechanic is 2d6 + skill and roll over target number.

The Cepheus Light rules are a complete set of Sci Fi rules and cover everything from character create to starship combat and planet building. Those rule weigh in at just under 170 pages.

Whitestar by Whitebox on the other hand is a D&D in space game OSR build. It is closer to the original sources as Rolemaster was D&D house rules so this would be Spacemaster as Whitestar house rules. As a d20 system the conversion to d100 is simple and logical. The rules as sold are 134 pages all in including setting, starting adventures and the game rules.

In terms of popularity Cepheus is a Pay What You Want game that has achieved Silver metal status. Whitestar is also PWYW but is a Gold metal product. The PWYW is important as you only get metal ratings if you actually pay for the PDF/book and most people don’t pay when they can have the PDF for free. If only 1% paid then the actual number of downloads would be in excess of 10,000 and 50,000 respectively. Whatever way you cut it Whitestar appears to be four or five times as popular as Cepheus.


Over in Zweihander-land I have been running some collaborative projects. In principle it works like this. I suggest a title, I set up simple shared project management board where people can list the content they are working on and can then list when it is all completed. I then do the page layout and put the book on sale. Profits are shared on a pro-rata basis using page count as the unit of measure.

It works, and works well with that group of developers because there is a real sense of helping each other out. It is very non-competitive. I would go so far as to say it is very supportive.

The most important thing is to leave your ego at the door.

I am not entirely sure if the Rolemaster community could pull off the same level of collaboration. To be fair Brian, Egdcltd and I managed it with the 50in50 adventures so it is possible. Creating an entire game system is a little harder as there will always be the tug of war between simplicity and complexity. That question has never been suitably answered. That is in part why I mentioned right from the start RM2 rather than Rolemaster in general. I find RM2 fans are more open to simpler games because at the start RM2 was a rather simple game.

What’s in a name?

Finally, I have been tossing names around recently and I have rather grown to like Navigator RPG. It is a bit of a nod to Shadow World. If you use a Sci Fi type font it looks quite cool. Also, just as important there is no Navigator RPG at the moment. I say at the moment as there used to a game a Gamma World retro clone but the last update on their blog/site was eight years ago and the game never made it onto Drivethru or RPGnow.

Thinking About Square One

Unless you have been living in a monastic cell for the last decade you cannot have failed to be aware of the OSR movement. You can be forgiven for not knowing what the R in OSR stands for but that is par for the course. It could be Old School Revival or it could be Renaissance or quite simply Old School Rules, who knows and frankly who cares.

The OSR movement is about trying to capture that feeling of simpler times from the 1980s RPGs but that is a pretty fuzzy idea and as such it encompasses a lot of vagaries. For example Zweihander is a thoroughly modern game but also considers itself a Warhammer retro clone and markets itself as OSR game. Curiously the DrivethruRPG categories it puts itself in are “d100 / d100 Lite”, “Old-School Revival (OSR)” and “Other OSR Games”. I don’t really know when something becomes ‘Lite’ but Zwei is a 700 core rulebook and already has multiple supplements of additional rules and is growing.

OSR often means D&D Basic/Expert set clones or AD&D 1st Ed. clones. We have seen above that Warhammer retro clones also qualify.

By every measure RM2 should qualify as an OSR game, but that is not where I am going with this.

Square one in Rolemaster terms was as a set of house rules for D&D. If there is one thing that the readers of this blog are good at is House Rules, we propose them by the bucket-load.

In my opinion RMu is moving ever further away from its D&D roots. This is not a bad thing. If you try to be too D&D then you may was well play D&D. There are enough previous editions of varying complexity to satisfy most tastes.

What I was thinking was more along the lines of a “gateway drug”. An original set of house rules for OSR D&D/clones that fix what we know to be the original flaws in the system like the implied DB associated with different armours.

I don’t want to stomp on ICE’s toes but how about a Sci-Fi OSR game. SMu is so far in the future I find it hard to envision it ever existing. Anyone with a RM2 Creatures and Treasure has all the conversion rules they need (these are also in the download vault over on the forums if you don’t have the original C&T).

Furthermore, I would quite like to put all the rules under the OGL license or even better a CC license so it will be perpetually free. I don’t have time to write it all right now but I think I could set up a shared development infrastructure (I know that sounds complex but it really isn’t). What it would entail would be a Trello shared board which would be used to control the project management and documents stored on the cloud, probably google docs so anyone can dip in and work on the project.

I will cogitate a bit more on this idea and blog again on it next week. I think it has legs. I also think that between us we could create a perpetually free RM2 retro clone that will keep Rolemaster alive forever regardless of what happens to ICE in the future.

This week I am reading…

Sagas of Midgard!

Sagas of Midgard is another d100 system. They [Drinking Horn Games] refer to it as a Roll Over system. The core mechanic is nice and simple. The GM sets the target number taking into account any difficulty factors and the players roll the dice and add any bonuses they can muster. Roll over the target number for success, roll under for failure.

In combat they have a 01-05 critical failure and a 96-00 critical success, although this does not apply to skills.

I suspect that Sagas grew out of a set of simplified house rules for a d20 system, but this is not a D&D retro clone by any standards.

What I like about the system is the ‘sources of competency’. In Rolemaster we have Racial bonuses and DPs, culture ranks and then multiple levels worth of development. I would like to see changes but in principle I like the onion skin of race, culture, training.

Sagas of Midgard uses lots of cultural references to build the onion skin of your character. You start with your family name, each family comes with a long tradition or culture. If you are Erik Battleborn you get a bonus to melee combat. Erik Gunnarsson would get a bonus to strength based skill tests. For each bonus there is a related downside that we would recognise as a Flaw in Rolemaster speak.

Once you have your family name you get to choose a title. Each title confirs skill bonuses or special abilities that we would recognise as Talents. In the core rules there is a fair selection but I imagine that future supplements will add plenty of new titles.

The bonuses conferred from your family and title will typically add up to two or three +10 to +15 bonuses which can stack if you are trying to build a one trick pony or a PC.

Now you get to choose your god. Your god confers more bonuses and special abilities. These increase as your character improves over time. There are no levels, you are awarded skill points for heroic play and a running total of all the skill points earned by a character is used as a measure of your gods favour.

The next step is to spend your skill points. Starting characters get 15 skill points. It is the god you follow that sets your skill point costs. A follow of Thor gets cheaper combat skill costs as well as unique abilities they can by with axe and hammer.

A follower of Loki gains bonuses to dodging and a range of poison related skills.

Each god has a range of combat and magical skills available and they typically cost 5, 10 or 15 skill points so you get to choose either three minor abilities, one powerful ability or a 10 and a 5 point ability.

You now equip your character, give it a description and you are ready to play. You will note that there are no stats in all of this. My first character took 8 minutes to create if you exclude the reading time as it was the first time I had seen the rules.

As it is a player choice and point buy system you are guaranteed to get the character you want.

Criticals and Failures

Sagas of Midgard has some rather simple critical hit and failure tables. There are only half a dozen entries on each one but a nice touch is that at each level you have options such as dealing more damage OR knocking your foe prone. So although there are not many entries on the table they can play out differently and they increase player agency.

Monsters, foes and potential allies are also dealt with in a clean and simple way. Each entry in the bestiary has a base rollover number for its attacks, a total number of hits and then a short list of special actions or attacks. A Beorn for example has a base rollover to attack of 60, 20 hit points and can use either two claw attacks, a bite attack, a bear hug or go berserk. Each attack is fully described in terms of game mechanics.

Cool Adventures

All in all Sagas of Midgard is a single 178 page rulebook. You get character generation, a couple of magical traditions, bestiary and a really strong setting. What you also get are four fully developed adventures. Fully 20% of the entire rule book is devoted to starting adventures.

Each adventure is designed to least two sessions. As most groups of players seem to struggle to meet even once a week the starting adventures are going to keep you playing for a couple of months without any fleshing out or expansion.

I think that is a lesson that RMu could learn. Of course RMu wants to be a generic system for any fantasy world but lots of playable content from day one is a good thing. Sagas is heavily tied to the one setting, one world, one culture. That makes life easier for the developers. Having said that, their single mechanic could easily be turned to any setting. I think they are trading off the cool culture of the Vikings but a Dynasty of Pharaohs game would work just as easily or even a Gods of Olympus.

If you wanted to play RMu in a Viking setting then converting from Sagas to RMu would be a breeze. It seems like multiply everything by 1.5 and you are in the ballpark of RMu’s OBs and #hits. As these are both d100 systems a +10 or +20 just carries right across. If you wanted viking traditions, culture, the gods and their magic then Sagas of Midgard would be quite fun to play. If you just want a detailed drop in viking culture then I guess the HARN Jarin supplement would also serve, but wouldn’t be as much fun.

More Lazy GMing: Destination Spaces in My Against the Darkmaster Campaign

So now I have nudged the trajectory of my PCs wholly into an overland journey to the enemy-occupied Dwarven mountain city of Angrothrond, wherein the PCs expect to find armies of Orcs and Trolls, caverns of partially mined angril (a homebrewed substance similar to mithril) and perhaps a massive, inert stone golem and a slumbering Iron Dragon of Morgoth from the First Age of Middle-earth. Since starting this coming avalanche—the trickle of adventuring steps that should result in armies at war—I have been anxious to envision specifically what the PCs should encounter at this destination.

I’m not content to rest with the near-zero prep that unpredictable gamers have required of me for our discrete sessions. This is because I’m reasonably assured that the PCs will come to Angrothrond, and I should be adequately prepared to meet them there. And yet I’m still not sure how to build the location—or if I should construct it at all, even considering the new circumstances.

A game’s official materials often telegraph the intended experience. VsD’s Level 1 adventure contains what essentially is a “5-Room Dungeon”—always a quick and satisfying structure.

The first thing I chose to do was randomly generate half a dozen qualities for just as many areas in the surrounding countryside. This adheres to lazy GMing. But I have been wrestling, since then, with how detailed to make Angrothrond itself. I began to map it out. I sketched a side-view of the mountain with a rough estimation of levels, then I sketched a couple “overhead maps” of some components of the individual levels.

In my youth I never, ever did much with maps. Most of my GMing was “winging it.” My friends and I would be at someone’s house for the night, giddy on Pepsi cola and Reese’s Pieces. In between consuming VHS movies, my friends would insist I run MERP. I’d sit in a corner for a few minutes, dreaming and maybe jotting a few notes, then, when ready, I’d announce the beginning of the scenario.

When I did need maps—and almost always they were overland maps—I had Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle-Earth, a 1987 birthday gift to me from two neighborhood friends. I still have it, and I still use it, as you shall see in this discussion.

Fonstad’s Lonely Mountain

While playtesting Against the Darkmaster, I have been thinking a lot about GNS theory. For those who might not know, GNS stands for Gamist Narrativist Simulationist. These three qualities comprise all rpgs (at least, I have yet to find an exception), and individual rpgs might be described by where they fall among these poles or within a Venn diagram. Right now, I haven’t determined where VsD lands in a graph.

I do know that OSR games tend to land heavily in the Gamist portion of the diagram, and I believe that two evidences for this are the ease and speed of character creation—roll one up and try to survive!—and its preponderance of detailed maps—this is the space; interact with it. When a game moves into Narrativism, rules concerning improv acting enter play: Is there any kind of lever on the wall? (Whether the GM had intended it or not) Yes, and you notice a rusty iron grate directly below it; perhaps the lever operates it in some way? I think that VsD is supposed to bleed into Narrativism in an appreciable way—its intent is to emulate exciting high fantasy, after all, not necessarily the Simulationism of dungeon exploration—and player questions and Skill rolls, therefore, are likely to directly affect the game space.

How detailed should Angrothrond be, therefore? At first I tried to map it extensively. By the time I reached some lower levels, though, I felt like it was a useless task—who cares how many independent Dwarf homes are on this level! I wondered if I might save myself some time by borrowing a map. I have plenty of OSR dungeon maps, but using those for VsD simply would highlight the mundanity of Gamist play. Well, what about some true Middle-earth precedents? I don’t own any early MERP modules that might have the Dwarf structures. I looked up what Cubicle 7’s One Ring might be offering these days: some reviewers of Erebor: The Lonely Mountain were disappointed with the lack of significant maps, so that seemed like a hefty price for a mere curiosity of a PDF.

Fonstad’s Moria

But didn’t I have maps already? Turning to Fonstad I found not only maps but a Narrativist precedent. Tolkien’s Dwarven caverns are better described as immense underground cities rather than dungeons. Who cares about the placement of every single municipal feature in a town or village? Same with these places. In fact, Tolkien’s prose concerning underground exploration often involves hours—even days—of journey through a single passage, sometimes with just a few choices concerning passageways. It wasn’t until Tolkien’s characters encountered adventure features that he described the space with any tactical clarity.

So I think I shall do the same. Angrothrond will be defined by rough levels, and each of these will contain some major features to be more fully detailed as the Narrative requires. Thank you, Tolkien and Fonstad, for clearing this up for me!

Race as Class in Rolemaster Games

The other day I was looking up something in Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP), and I came across a passage I don’t recall reading before—ever before, even when I aspired to run MERP just last year!

Elves have certain advantages over the “mortal” races … , and in terms of a fantasy role playing game this is reflected by a restriction on how they assign their stats. Each Noldor Elf must assign his highest stat to his Presence, each Sindar Elf must assign one of his two highest stats to his Presence, and each Silvan Elf must assign one of his three highest stats to his Presence.

The rationale for this appears to be twofold. In Middle-earth, Elves are awe-inspiring, and the rules should reflect this. Also, Elves are inherently powerful. Later generations of gamers would begin to characterize Elven character features as “unbalanced” or “overpowered” (“OP”). MERP appears to make up for this perceived unfairness by necessitating that Elven characters need to boost what is usually regarded as a dump stat. This can be seen as a kind of “tax” or handicap for playing such a capable player. I instantly see the appeal in this stipulation and am looking for a way to adopt it into my Against the Darkmaster (VsD) campaign. 

In MERP—and now in VsD—nonhuman characters are further restricted by receiving, at the start of the game, fewer Background Points to spend on goodies. They also have class restrictions. For example, Dwarves can’t be Wizards. We see some of these tendencies in Rolemaster’s current d20 siblings, as well. But some of the first versions of D&D did something that always has struck me as quite elegant: when it came to nonhuman PCs, Basic editions decided that, in these cases, character “race” was its most important distinction. In fact, the character race was character “class.”

Class, of course, is what RM calls Professions, what VsD calls Vocations. Basically, Class is a character archetype or a description of the kinds of skills in which a character specializes. D&D character Classes seem to derive from early gamist considerations and the vaguely medieval milieu—which emphasizes a strict social structure—that D&D emulates. In this case, classes might be considered the hereditary training in which characters should specialize. RM should receive credit for being an early system to push against the rigid restrictions resulting from class. But the game did so by innovating a complex skill system ultimately adopted by D&D 3e.* In this conception, a Fighter might choose to be skilled at Picking Locks but at significantly higher cost than were she simply to improve a Weapon Skill. In other words, the Fighter was best built for fighting. He developed other interests at expense to his primary vocation.

Now, D&D and its progeny have come a long way from its sources in early fantasy literature to become its own thing. In a typical fantasy setting for D&D now, it’s perfectly acceptable to find nations of Elves, Dwarves, Halflings and more, all with guilds and specializations largely indistinguishable from their usually-more-numerous Human neighbors. But when I consider the literary inspirations for the genre, classed races don’t make much sense to me.

When it comes to high fantasy racial cultures, Tolkien’s Middle-earth must be the best referent. In considering that property, what character Class was Legolas? A Rogue? Well, he didn’t seem particularly thiefy. A sneaky and agile Fighter? Certainly, but how about a Ranger?

And Elrond? In The Hobbit he is presented as a kind of sage, but he also has survived many wars and battles. The point is that, in Tolkien, all Elves are free and all Elves are awesome. They live forever, with ample time to master any pursuit. Elves are essentially their own thing, not Rogues, Fighters, Rangers or even sages.

So what about Dwarves? Well, they’re Fighters, obviously. But shouldn’t they know something about locks? Okay, give them a bonus on those skills. Might they also be Rangers, though? Many are in a diaspora. They have to explore the mountains, too, prospecting for new mines and homelands.

Modern conceptions of Halflings have moved far from Tolkien’s Hobbits, but I think we’re still apt to class the diminutive folk as Scouts or Thieves. This probably is because Hobbits are inherently sneaky, and for this reason Bilbo was unfairly branded as Master Burglar. But the kinds of classes that the little people most likely are to produce are modern vocations—gardeners, millers, postmasters and, yes, Bounders, to name but a few. As a racial feature, I would give these guys a bonus Secondary Skill in a mundane profession.

For the precedent set by my fantasy literature, therefore, I’m attracted to “race as class,” and I have devised a chart for VsD. VsD seems to “balance” its Vocations by distributing 15 Rank Points among 5 different categories. For versatility, it also distributes as many as 150 points in bonuses among the individual Skills.

I must confess that I can’t find “balance” or structure in the latest RM race rules. Anyone have an idea how to construct race as class in that rules set? Might such a project be undesirable in that context?

*For the purposes of this discussion, I’m ignoring the “No Profession” Profession.

Using the ‘wrong’ skill

I was writing an adventure the other night and one of the challenges requires some combination of navigation, survival, region law, tracking or at the very least general perception.

The characters have an option of paddling up a jungle river with its inherent risks of crocodiles, water snakes and possibly hippopotami.

The could of course use the well worn track that edges the jungle. Then they face the threats of solitary big cats, snakes and wild boar.

Additional threats are also impoverished humanoids who have been outcast from their communities.

The point is that there is a lot that the characters may want to avoid or at the very least be aware off and not stumble into. The adventure is expected to be a second adventure for relatively new characters so they will have an additional level under them or if not then this journey will be enough to level them up. Just reaching their destination will be a story point for experience purposes.

I had always assumed that Perception was about THE most basic of skills. I saw on a discord server recently a discussion about leveling up and the advice was not to bother with Perception unless you were a Rogue or such. In my games Perception is probably the most used skill.

Something else I have always done is shift the difficulty factor if the character doesn’t have the ‘right’ skill. So an Easy tracking roll would be a Light Perception. A Medium Navigation test would be Hard Region Lore. If you don’t have Navigation or Region Lore and you are just relying on Perception to keep sight of the track or spot the right tributaries then that would go from Medium Navigation to a Very Hard Perception test.

Using this graceful downgrading it both rewards characters that have build a broad skill base while not making tasks impossible to beginning characters who may not have all the skills they would want.

I know this breaks the RMu similar skills rules. That uses a 0/-25/-50/-75 progression and combines two penalties so that the penalties mount up really quickly. Look at this example from A&CL.

Example: Perception and tracking are in the same
category, but different skills, giving a -50. They share
virtually the same techniques, as well as a similar
subject (the environment). The total penalty to use
Tracking in place of Perception, or Perception in place of
Tracking, would be -50.

A&C Law page 47

My method is much kinder on low level characters and a two step penalty often means just a -20 penalty. For higher level characters the risks tend to be higher and the challenges harder so that -20 turns into a more likely -40 as your more likely to hit Sheer Folly and harder.

It is also easier to work out on the fly. The greater the degrees of separation between the skill the character has and the ideal skill for the challenge then the more steps in difficulty. This eliminates another table lookup to boot.

It also makes it easier to write adventures where to do not know the level or composition of the party.

Looking again at difficulty factors

I have been thinking about difficulty factors this week. My default position is that I am a huge fan of using difficulty factors on skills.

I normally start with a defined difficulty factor so I know a cliff edge is Sheer Folly at the top and in the middle section it is Absurd and finally Very Hard as it levels off slightly.

With a base level in mind I tend to bump the level up or down a level for each complicating or mitigating factor. So the same climb at night goes from Sheer Folly to Impossible.

When there were multiple complicating factors I bump the level up additional steps. So We have our mountain and it is night and it starts to rain and then the wind gets up as well. This climb is now two steps beyond Impossible.

I handle good things in the same way. So the characters pull out ropes, pitons and hammers. I reduce the difficulty one step for this.

And there lies the dilemma. If they were two steps beyond Impossible (-100) anyway and then they use all this extra gear and it remains Impossible (-100) why bother? Ironically the extra gear would actually make a difference at the bottom of the slope where the added complications do not overtop the difficulty scale.

If you look at this from climbing up from the bottom it makes perfect sense, and you can almost hear the characters looking up and scratching their chins and saying “Aye, without the ropes and gear that climb in nigh on impossible in this weather.” It is only when they are a third of the way up that the climb gets even more difficult.

So far that is how I have always done it. Part of the logic has been laziness. Rather than having to look up or memorise a shed load of possible bonuses and penalties I can just walk up and down a difficulty ladder. The actual ‘rules’ that I am copying are well tested and established as this is how FUDGE deals with things, you just sum all the factors and shift the difficulty according to the final result.

All well and good until horses get involved.

If you horse has a MM penalty of -50, you as the rider only get a -25. The mounts penalty is halved and applied to the riding roll. This is an RMu rule. This leaves me with a bad feeling.

Imagine a short mounted combat that turns into a flight/pursuit.

  • Do I, as GM, roll the MM for the horse each round?
  • Does the Player roll twice, once for their mount and once for their character?
  • Characters starting at 3rd or 4th level can easily have a riding skill in the high 70s or more. Riding ‘impossible terrain or obstacles, for them, is on average a partial success.

If two rolls are required every round, one for the horse and then one for the rider, we need a double success. The first has a much bigger penalty but is a percentage action as a MM. The second roll has a small penalty but would be an all or nothing test. Failure meaning the character hits the deck at worst or cannot fight back at best.

I would frequently bunch rolls together, not rolling for every NPC but one indicative roll just to keep the action moving. If the PC is intentionally leading the party and their pursuers over hedges, along ridges and the like with the intention of dislodging the riders or injuring their mounts then you cannot aggregate these rolls. That would negate the player’s agency. So we are down to 20+ rolls per round just for the riding in a 5 v 5 pursuit, without any actual combat.

I don’t like the idea of the player rolling the horses MM. Eventually you will get a player who will argue that a two foot wall is not medium difficulty or when two walls come up in the same round as they are only 20′ apart then complaints about whether one jump is actually harder than two. (It is as the horse has to rebalance on landing and has fewer strides to adjust its pace and take off position.)

The last concern is that the riding skill penalties being halved mean that a +50 skill wipes out a -100 Impossible penalty. Players who want to play horse focused characters can easily start with more than that if you are starting at 3rd level. 6 Ranks bought, plus culture, plus knack, plus stat, plus professional bonus. Most situations will NOT be impossible, at least a partial success is more likely than not. There is little motivation for a horse loving character to spare the horses if he or she knows they can ride it out.

I suspect that what is irking me is that they have halved the difficulty factor. In effect they have created an entirely new scale. I don’t know if this is the only instance where that is used. It is the only one that I have come across so far.

Noone in any of my games has had a mounted combat yet but if I struggle with these rolls/rules I think I may need look at them again.