Guest Post by J. Comer: On Playing Altars & Archetypes

Graham Jackson’s roleplaying game Altars & Archetypes (mentioned here on Cirsova) first came to my attention on a list of other rules-light free RPG downloads.  Its rules file, six to eight pages at best, was encouragingly short, and I eventually got my local game group to try it in 2012-3. As I’ve recently run the game a second time, and as there is very little online about playing it, this essay seemed like a good idea.  The game itself is available here:

http://livingfree.wikidot.com/altars-archetypes

The game’s simplicity shows in character creation.  Characters are a series of ‘archetypes’: Highwayman, Beastmaster, Alchemist, Hunter, etc.  Each is a broadly read set of skills: a Thief can pick locks and fence gems but isn’t able to fight or cast spells; a Soldier can fight or fortify a spot, but doesn’t know how to make potions, etc.  Each archetype a character has is one die: d6, d8, d10, d12.  Anything not represented by an archetype defaults to d4.  One die for each character is initiative, so fighters need a high initiative die.  In other words, this is the same idea that’s behind Savage Worlds or Throwing Stones.

https://rpggeek.com/geeklist/71238/item/1790871#item1790871

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savage_Worlds

The rest of the rules are easy to follow. Roll for combat. Higher number wins and the difference is the damage inflicted. The GM sets the difficulty for any task, and players roll an appropriate die: use your Acrobat archetype to leap from stone to stone in the river, but your Diplomat to negotiate safe passage.  Experience points allow you to add new dice archetypes, or improve the ones you do have.

How did this work out in practice when I ran two multi-session games of A&A on my sword-and-planet setting, called Pendleton’s World? Some things were obvious.  The armor system of the game (double damage unless you wear armor!) was easy to replace by stating that armor absorbs damage. The Action Point system (add a d4 by spending an action point) wasn’t useful and players ignored it. Combat is deadly, since players start with 10 health points and can lose 4-5 in one blow. The assumption of the game is that healing is easy to find, and that it works fast. I had to allow this, even though ‘real’ medicine doesn’t heal wounds so quickly.  Other rules (half damage from improvised weapons) seemed to work well.  When allowing characters to buy up from d12 to d20, however, the GM needs to impose intermediate steps.  Two characters with d20 archetypes nearly broke the game.  For the curious, d14, d16, and d18 can be found at Gamescience:

Adding crunch is pretty easy: if you want a psi stat, or magic points, just add them.  Encumbrance? Lists of monsters?  Chances of encounters?  This is the Mr/s Potato Head of RPGs, and the price is right.  For a beer-and-pretzels game, the system is hard to beat.

The game itself was also simple enough, though the setting took some getting used to. Two players were so creeped out by the horse-analog species being a huge human-like primate that their characters ended up walking almost the whole game.  The four player characters (three humans: a wizard, a hunter, a shaman, and a warrior-princess of the mole-folk) were sent on a quest to find an ancient ‘knowstone’, a relic engraved with scientific knowledge by a long-gone civilization.  

I had made changes to the adventure, following the advice of a friend.  There was more semi-magic (remote seeing, added strength, etc) for the Rhuthuok shaman PC. I slipped in a Burrower (mole-rat hominid) male as a potential mate for the Burrower princess player character.  And I made the bandits who were scheduled to attack the party a hit squad, headed by a monk jealous of the PCs, who wanted the secrets of the knowstone for himself.  While this did not produce ‘character-driven’ adventures, as Powered By The Apocalypse tends to do, it did make the adventure much less of a ‘tour of Jim’s made-up world’ and more of a story whose characters had motives beyond ‘kill the ugly people and take their stuff’.

The story began with the departure from Vokherkhe, the huge monastery university where so much happens in my vision of Pendleton’s.  The PCs were attacked by predators, then entertained by a drunken, lecherous nobleman. The princess’ air of command enabled her to prevent a massacre when the noble’s subjects revolted.  The players then climbed into a mountain range with the help of a map stolen from the noble’s library, and found another party of adventurers dying from a ‘cursed’ tomb (which had deadly mold growing all over everything).  After a long argument about how to dispose of the bodies, the party climbed to the tomb, decided not to go in, and climbed down (This group had problems, but decisiveness wasn’t one!). They found the cave of the knowstone as a Neanderthal food-gathering party approached over a glacier. By making offerings to the wolf-spirit, the players appeased the Neanderthals, and then fled.  They were attacked by bandits, whom they defeated (those d20s again!) and returned to the monastery with drawings of the ancient stone.  

What would I do differently next time? One problem was players stretching the archetypes. Enforcing them too strictly results in lots of d4 rolls, so compromise.  The idea of a fumble or critical success resulting from one player rolling the highest number and the other the lowest is an appealing one, and I think I’ll keep it.  And, as I said above, no more d20 superheroes!

I asked the players about how things had gone, after the game was done.  Two of them said that they had enjoyed the setting. One said that Altars & Archetypes’ system was too simple. He found that narrating an action so as to cause the GM to roll a lower difficulty die was more important than other strategies. (This narrativist approach pleases me.)  He also complained that characters progressed too slowly.  I found this odd, as shifting from a d8 to a d10 is a much larger power shift than progressing from being, for example, a 32-pt TFT character to being a 34-pt, or adding a level as a Ranger in AD&D.  Nevertheless, a short game such as the one I ran might choose to include more character progression.  

Recommended for lovers of simple, rules-light fun.  

Another A&A game is detailed here.

 

Big Monster Fight

Well, we may have found the solution to the balance issue we’ve begun to encounter in Gutters, Guilds, & Grimoires: bigger monsters.

Most of what we’ve fought has been fairly close to man-sized. Even the bigger things have been between bear and small elephant sized.

Last session, we fought something three stories tall.

Well, okay, some of us fought it, while many of us ran like hell.

We were completing a quest in someplace that was a pocket dimension, a moon, or some other part of the world (we never really figured it out), which meant freeing a celestial or demonic creature we called Jeff. We found Jeff in the middle of an abandoned village located between a fork in a stream surrounded by megalithic wards.

Since Jeff couldn’t talk (he could only sign yes or no), we had a hard time getting a complete picture of what was going on with him and the weird abandoned village. We found that he was trapped, the person who trapped him was nearby, we could free him, the villagers had not trapped him, he had not killed the villagers, he would help us if we freed him, and he would not hurt us if we helped him. We got a nice one point stat boost to luck for freeing him.

We set off to see if we could find the person who’d trapped him and we eventually found a wizard’s cottage. It was locked from the inside, empty, and had a hole in the roof. We dicked around way too long debating whether we should loot the cottage, wait for the person to come back, or decide that Jeff (or someone) had pulled the wizard straight through the roof of his own house.

Then we heard some crashing sounds.

Poking around the village was a thing described as being over 30 feet tall, having a three-eyed Cthulhu head and long spindly Salvador Dali Elephant legs.

Oh, right, I forgot to mention the other complication – the area was filled with obscuring mist and unless you had one of the sage torches with you, you could neither see in the mist nor were you safe from the mist folk who would tear you apart in four rounds tops. We’d left several torches lit along the path back to the mirror, but had only taken three with us. And the bridge across the stream consisted only of a series of rotting logs propped up by piles of rock, and several of the logs had already broken loose on the way over.

When the thing noticed us, we started running like hell. A few of us barely made it across. Others got swept down the stream a bit as the fell in, landing further down the shore out of the light and safety of the torches. Others eventually had to try to jump and swim for it, with most of the bridge gone, losing at least one torch in the process.

The thing used its tendrils to snatch up and try to eat people. Those who couldn’t get away ended up badly mangled and one was eaten. While they figured out that they could hurt it (a couple characters managed to cut off a few of its mouth tendrils and one guy even managed to tie its legs like an AT-AT) the thing was NOT going down easily and there was little indication that it was being more than really annoyed. After it had staggered a bit and fallen into the stream, the characters who’d stayed to fight saw more of them coming –they had just barely managed to convince ONE of the things that they were not worth trying to eat, but there was absolutely nothing they could’ve done once more of them showed up.

Eventually, everyone except for the character who was eaten had either run back or was carried through the mirror portal which we immediately sealed before they could come through. Hoping we don’t have to fight those things again any time soon.

The one really funny thing is that in the big battle against Lord Brinston’s armed guard awhile back, just about everyone in the party ended up with an open-faced helm, so everyone had really good head armor (4); were it not for those helmets doing damage reduction, everyone in the party who did not just run like hell would have had their heads popped off in no more than two hits and been eaten.

Fighting big monsters should be very different than fighting small and medium sized monsters, and it shouldn’t just be reflected in hit points. PCs typically won’t even be able to hit most locations on such creatures (I’ve always thought that if a DM has something like a dragon go toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow, with the PCs he’s running the encounter wrong). A big monster should keep its vital locations out of reach as is reasonable. Really big monsters absolutely should have subparts which could be crippled or destroyed; definitely makes things more interesting than the old Critical Existence Failure at 0HP.

Game Name Ideas

My friend is trying to put a name to his game.

It’s more difficult to come up with an alliterative pairing that captures the feel and nuance of a system than one would think.

It needs to capture –

  • an urban feel
  • really gross and gritty “why is everything covered in wet coffee grounds?” perpetual low-level adventuring
  • job-based class system, focusing on a mix of martial and non-martial urban professions, largely in the lower class of society
  • very low magic, but what magic there is is absolutely terrifying
  • almost complete absence of vanilla fantasy stock monsters in favor of mutated horrors
  • A vaguely Dickensian feel, what with all the chimney sweeps and rat-catchers.

Here are a few posts about the game and system:

https://cirsova.wordpress.com/2016/12/15/a-case-for-perpetual-low-level-adventuring/

https://cirsova.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/when-a-plot-related-pc-dies/

https://cirsova.wordpress.com/2016/10/17/im-probably-in-the-best-dd-campaign-ever/

http://thebonehoard.blogspot.com/2016/10/strigastadt-play-report-vii.html

 

Monsters Vs. Mobs

In my experience, mobs have always presented the bigger threat to PCs than big-bad monsters. There are a number of reasons for this, some mechanical, some psychological. Why does this seem to be the case?

First of all, adventurers are usually prepared for a monster. They have often heard of the monster they will soon fight and have taken precautions based on the information they have gathered. Indeed, the reason they might be in a specific location is for the sole purpose of finding and dispatching said monster.

When fighting the monster, there’s often an economy of force which the adventurers are able to match 1/1 or better, whether it’s in terms of damage, overall hit points, or most significantly, perhaps, number of attacks.

One large monster will typically get to make 1 attack for every 3-6 attacks it receives; even if it is doing more damage and hitting more often, PC tactics can often compensate for hits and spread damage in an effective manner to minimize irrecoverable losses.

Mobs are different story. Even if the players are prepared for a big fight, they may not be prepared for handful of mooks that are waiting at the mouth of the dungeon to take the treasure the heroes just recovered.

The PCs’ economy of force may be matched or reduced. Mobs will often be attacking at a 1/1 ratio or better; the man-to-man fighting will also prevent use of certain tactics which the PCs might more effectively use against stronger foes who are fewer in number.

Oftentimes, the most devastating party losses come at the hands of a mob AFTER defeating a large monster. Why? Players assume an air of invulnerability after successfully dispatching single dreadful foe, but are brought low in an evenly matched fight when forced to fight one-on-one with few or no assists from fellows.

Does this jibe with the ‘heroic’ notion so woven into D&D?

I think it does.

Many iconic heroic battles throughout history and literature consist of 1-v-1 fights or one or a few heroically holding off a much larger force until they are wiped out.

On one hand you have Beowulf & Grendel or David & Goliath, while on the other, you have Benkei at the bridge or the Spartans at Thermopylae. One advantage of a game like D&D is that the game isn’t over for the player when the guy or guys left to cover the others’ retreat finally succumbs to the tides of battle. They can just roll up a new character. Of course, this doesn’t work if you’re building a fictional character franchise – Conan can’t be killed by mooks (though he and many other pulp characters have come close to being brought down by them many times). But I don’t think that characters dying to mobs is necessarily antithetical to pulp-style heroics, since those heroics draw heavily on earlier literary heroic traditions, ones where heroes DO die.

And when a character makes a heroic last stand,  that character is gonna be remembered.

Now, there ARE mechanics that do give PCs an advantage over mooks in ways that reflect those scenes of one character killing dozens. Fighters get extra attacks against single hit-die opponents. 1HD monsters and most human opponents should fall into this category. Mid-level fighters have a decent chance of cutting through several such opponents each round! Can they get overwhelmed? Absolutely! Lots of mobs are going to be tougher than 1 HD, but then that’s not like a hero being overwhelmed by mooks, is it? That’s more being overwhelmed by not one but several monsters.

Sometimes, heroes just need to run away. Plenty of pulp S&S stories start with the hero running from a fight that they know they can’t win, usually involving a large number of mooks who are after them. The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.

A Case For Perpetual Low-Level Adventuring

I’m a fan of the knife’s edge of low-level adventuring. I even dummied up an OSR system called HALLS (High Adventures for Low Levels System) based on the premise of a B/X-like system that caps out at level 4 but allows for a handful of XP sinks. I don’t think what I was doing scales well, however, and the vast amounts of XP required to level up in HALLS put a bit of a drag on that play-reward feedback loop that makes levelling such a focus of gaming.

I really think that the system my friend has cobbled together, loosely based on Warhammer Fantasy RPG, really manages to capture what I was unable to with the D&D based HALLS – a system that allows for constant and continual character development/improvement while maintaining that rain-slicked precipice feeling of the first few levels. Almost every session, we’ve been able to gain enough XP to put a point in something, but every adventure has a substantial amount of risk that doesn’t require massive scaling of monsters, NPCs and treasure hoards. Even my character, with whom I’d only missed a couple sessions over the course of maybe 20 now, while incredibly good at doing what they did (throw knives, steal things, do massive damage, and plan really great parties) I always had to stay cautious, because two solid hits would kill me; when I stopped being cautious, two hits killed me. It’s a system where you can’t afford to get cocky.

The new character I rolled up, though substantially weaker in many regards, was not so much weaker than the rest of the party that I was a load; on the contrary, my new character held his own and killed a cultist or two before fleeing to the back ranks after taking a crossbow bolt to the shoulder.

The way the system calculate character HP (grit), 1d4+3 + CON mod (max 3) + Profession mod (max 2), you’re never going to get a character who take a lot of solid hits. Weapon damage is all d6 based with modifiers (usually -1, occasionally -2, sometimes +1, very rarely +2). Armor reduces damage rather than detracts from to-hit rolls (allowing for a minimum of 1 ‘ping’ damage). You end up with combats where most characters can take at least 2 hits, 3 or 4 if a few are glancing, but you don’t have those long, drawn out mid-to-high level combats where everyone is slowly whittling away at dozens of HP in 1d8 increments.

The relatively low HP means you can throw weak-to-average monsters or opponents at the players, and it will ALWAYS feel like a challenge. Foe creation is incredibly quick. A monster statblock would consist simply of Grit, Movement, Melee, Ranged, Init, and a base save.

A human mook would be something like this:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 10, Ranged: 6, Init: 0, Save 10

Let’s keep him simple by giving him a sword that does a flat 1d6 damage.

  • The mook could take 6 damage; any damage putting him below 0 would force a roll on the dismemberment table (for mooks, it’s easier to go with ‘not killed by the wound’/’killed by the wound’).
  • The movement of 5 translates to whatever scale you’re using. 5′, 10′ squares, 5 yard, 10 yard hexes, whatever – he moves five of them.
  • To hit in melee, he’d have to roll equal to or under 10. To hit with ranged, he has to roll equal to or under 6.
  • No mods to initiative, and if a situation forces a saving throw, he has a 50/50 chance to save.

Now, let’s try something more interesting; a spitting spider dog:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 12, Ranged: 10, Init: 1, Save: 10

On the surface, it’s not much different. And that’s good! Because it means it’s easy to create new, weird things. But players will be terrified of it, because it’s a spitting spider dog. Instead of biting, the spitting spider dog might use a ranged attack that will incapacitate a victim with saliva. The target would get to make strength check at disadvantage when their initiative came up to break free. I just came up with that monster completely on the fly; took me 2 minutes thinking of something weird and gross that we’d probably run into in the setting. We’d probably fight half a dozen of them; if we got lucky, we’d get away with some scrapes, bruises and one or two broken limbs.

To give you a bit of comparison for what a PC looks like, my character who died looked something like this:

STR: 7, Con: 11, Dex: 18, Int:11, Cha:11, Luc:11

Grit: 7, Move: 4, Melee: 6, Ranged: 17, Init: 5

That 17 in range meant that I was good enough at throwing knives that I could attack at disadvantage every time to ‘buy’ an additional d6 damage (for 1d6-2 + 1d6), and the Init 5 meant I could make that attack twice per round whenever I rolled a 3 or higher on a d6 for initiative (0-7, where 8 or higher gets a second attack on the modified initiative roll -8; so, if I’d rolled a 4, I’d attack on 9, then again on 1). Now, I was a bit of a fluke, because I a)had a 17 natural dex that I bought to 18, and poured all of my XP into maxing out my ranged skill profession mod (combat skills can’t be modded higher than +8, and you have to have the advanced profession that allows you to reach those caps). But that’s what a character with nearly 1200 XP looks like (session XP was usually in the neighborhood of 70). Yes, I’d point-by-point built a killer who could put a knife through someone’s throat and skip off into the crowd before the guards showed up, but certainly wasn’t going to be able to take more than a couple blows. In a previous fight, she took a crossbow bolt to the arm; like most folks who take a crossbow bolt to the arm, she was done – time to hide behind the wall and hope her friends could finish the fight without her. The most I could’ve ever got my grit up to was 10, which would’ve taken a classes that would let me raise my Con by 2 and my Grit by 2 (possibly requiring anywhere between 400 and 800 XP depending on how I ultimately went about it). But that could’ve been the difference between suffering broken ribs and the disemboweling she ultimately succumbed to.

Every fight was life-or-death. It was exhilarating!

My DM is working on codifying his core rules into a consultable player’s guide. I’m hoping to convince him that this will be a worthwhile marketable system and offered to help him put together something if he were ever interested in commercially publishing it. I’ll admit, I had a few issues getting used to it at first, but I have a hard time imagining enjoying another system as much.

When a Plot Related PC Dies

Last Friday, my character was killed in a near TPK fighting against fungal hounds and a fungal goat; the party had been cornered in a sewer tunnel and picked apart; if I’d left them behind, I probably could’ve survived (I’d previously gotten out of a worse-looking scrap by doing parkour over the heads of nearly a dozen two-foot tall demonlings; hey, Cecilly was an acrobat with 18 Dex). But I didn’t, and we almost all died. One of the two surviving characters stopped berserking just before he killed the other.

It really sucked losing Cecilly; I don’t know what equivalent level she’d be in D&D (we’re using a levelless system), but she had nearly 1200 XP sunk into stats, classes and abilities in a system where we’ve averaged about 70 XP a session. Superficially, she was a lot like my previous character (a quirky waif from the streets), but while Elyse would hide at the first sign of danger, Cecilly was a combat monster; she could hit with ranged attacks on anything lower than an 18, and could roll at disadvantage for an extra d6 damage*. Plus, she was fast enough with her knives that she could almost always get two attacks per round. In a party as large as the one we frequently roll with, though, losing her combat strength is not a game changer. The fact that she had become a plot relevant PC in a high-casualty sandbox game is.

Much as I loved playing Elyse, she was as unimportant as she was weird and creepy. Cecilly, on the other hand, had become the “face” of the gang we’d started, was largely responsible for recruiting, managing finances, planning expansion and enterprise, and had connections with nobles, street people, and various revolutionaries. A couple PC gang members from early sessions as far back when we were still associated with the Blackbirds are either on the lam or dead. With Cecilly dead, there are only two “heavies” in the gang being run by players interested in the gang stuff, and those players don’t have the in-game connections with their current characters**.

So, what does this mean for the game? New opportunities, of course! A couple players had been uncomfortable with doing gang stuff, but for the longest time, a majority of our group (myself included) were both loving the River City Ransom hijinx and considered fighting street gangs for turf was less dangerous that mage owls, mystic mice, grease dogs, fungal beasts, deep ones, golems, feverlings, demonlings, human faced centipedes, and bone beasts.***

The new character I rolled up was a “zealous” member of the watch; he ended up helping solve the murder mystery by helping in another bloody fight against cultists where we managed to take one in alive. The irony was, we realized, that none of the characters who ended up solving the mystery were ones who’d been particularly invested in either the gang or the mystery the gang had staked its reputation on****; “so, the people who thought we should come down here are both dead; we should honor their memory by solving the mystery!” With half of the NPC gang members killed after an extraplanar demon invasion during the night of a festival and two thirds of the PC gang members dead or in hiding, it looks like the Stone Cats are on their way back down after a brief, meteoric rise. Perfect opportunity for the party to go legit.

So, instead of things falling apart, significant PC character death allows for a chance to try new things in the story. Sure, we may wonder where things would’ve gone if we stuck to the gang of performers who were securing turf and were on the verge of getting a noblewoman’s support as benefactor. But now, we’ll have new opportunities opening up to pursue that we wouldn’t have had before. Plus, the players who are less comfortable with doing the gang stuff can have a chance to move the game in directions they’d like. In the meantime, I look forward to playing a character who will be less important.

*: The system has a pretty hard limit on PC HP, with the typical range being between 5 and 9. The upside of this is that our DM doesn’t have to worry about encounter balance and can simplify his monster creation process. He can throw a mob of something at us with 8 hit points and one unique ability, give it a description like “It has mushrooms growing in its fur, its head is a goat’s skull and the body of a dog”, and we’re terrified of it, even though we’ve fought several things before that are more or less the same mechanically. Even though my combat abilities were kind of an exploit, and some rounds did upwards of 15 damage, two solid hits from anything would, and did, kill her. The chances of getting a character with a +5 initiative bonus and that good a hit chance again are slim to none.

**:three gang characters are for real dead, including one who was our main contact with the less radical of the two revolutionary groups, and at least one or two characters are semi-retired because they can’t be seen alive on the inhabited side of town.

***: and our DM wonders why we’re unconcerned about the Deep Dwarves…

****: One player did have a character who was a gang heavy, but that night he was running his character who had been turned into rat to better serve the Rat King as a liegeman; he can’t adventure in the inhabited part of the city often, since he looks like a giant rat man, so this sewer dive was a rare excursion for him. Another player is relatively new to our group, so his character doesn’t have as much history with the group (especially since his first couple died).

Solutions to Bring Vancian Magic into Your OD&D/Holmes/Moldvay Game

I’ve written in the past how Basic D&D’s magic system isn’t truly Vancian. I’m not talking Vancian in the “Fire and Forget” manner which has become so reviled because it is so misunderstood. I’m talking Vancian in the sense that the flavors of the mechanics evoke the sense of one having to scrounge for and collect ancient lost and forgotten arcana at great cost.

In OD&D and (to a lesser degree) Holmes, Magic Users have access to all spells at levels they can cast at. There are even rules that imply they can simply go down to the spell emporium and buy a replacement spellbook at fixed cost to replace any spellbook they lost. In B/X, Magic Users only learn one spell/add one spell to their spellbook per level. In all of those cases, there’s no finding scrolls to learn new spells by adding them to your spellbook.

Shitlord: the Triggering settles on a hybrid of Holmes and AD&D that allows you to incorporate truly Vancian magic into your setting, and it arrives at the place that my own house-rules on magic were more or less heading.

S:tT uses Holmes’s Intelligence chart for chance to learn spells and minimum/maximum number of basic spells per level for its Bullshitter (Magic User) class. It specifies that “a beginning Bullshitter’s spell book contains as many of the eight basic first level spells as the newb character can know.” However, it goes on to specify that a MU would need to find and copy new spells into his spellbook. So, here is how it would work:

-At first level, the DM would select the MU’s INT guaranteed 1st level spells, then MU would roll to see how many of the other 1st level spells they know. Based on the wording, the rules imply that those spells are simply not in their spellbook, but they CAN be learned in the future if a)the MU finds the appropriate scroll, b)the MU has not reached the maximum known spells for their INT, and c)the MU succeeds on the chance to learn the spell.

-At third level, when an MU gains ability to cast 2nd level spells, instead of suddenly gaining access to a new spellbook full of all 2nd level spells that they either can or cannot cast, the MU can begin to inscribe 2nd level spells that he finds. Up to their minimum spells per level number, the MU would not have to roll to learn the new spell. Once the minimum number of spells per level has been reached, the MU would need to roll their % chance to learn the new spell.

While not flawless in its explanation (some of this is my own extrapolation), this offers a potential model, along with the necessary charts missing from Moldvay, of how to do AD&D-style Vancian magic in a Basic game.