The Fall of Magic

J.R.R. Tolkien,  Rivendell

J.R.R. Tolkien, Rivendell

Some divide the fantasy literature from which D&D sprung into two broad categories: Tolkien or Howard. I appreciate both, but my Lands of Khos campaign will look more to Tolkien and his predecessors. An age undreamed of precedes each, but their sense of what has been lost differs. For Howard’s Conan the past is unfathomable, mysterious and of an equally amorphous moral fiber as his present Hyborian Age. With Tolkien’s Third Age, even victory over a clear Manichean blight was accompanied by a sense of loss about what too was passing away from Middle Earth.

I’ve run enough old school fantasy RPG games to feel both thrill and anxiety at what sometimes follows the first steps of campaign’s long road. For the short arcs and one-shots of the myriad small-press RPGs I’ve reveled in the past fifteen years, I’ve learned to welcome character decisions that can’t be taken back. For the long-form sandbox campaign I have in my mind’s eye, however, I want to be careful about the “toys” I place within. Maybe I’ve simply read too many threads about Rings of Invisibility or Brooms of Flying and such. I want the PCs to be able to utterly transform their Age but am wary of adding permanent elements to an ongoing campaign that might bring harm to the overall endeavor by taking focus away from the characters and putting it on their toys.

Hence, “The Fall of Magic”. The Elves of Khos have almost entirely “gone west” to their Feywild and magic is passing away from this world. This will reinforce themes of loss and decay as well as create escape clauses for my mad experiments.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Along with traditionally consumable items like wands and “potion growlers,” most magical items will have one of the six classic polyhedral dice ascribed to them, e.g. “Helm of Telepathy (d10)”, Gauntlets of Ogre Power (d20). Each time an item is activated, the assigned die size will be rolled and if it comes up a “1” or “2” then the die size will be decremented one size until it reaches a d4. When such a diminished item is risked further, on a “1” or “2” result its magic will depart and the item will either break or be inert. The default activation time will be one turn or one use as appropriate, but might vary according to the nature of the item. Even magical weapons and armor will need be “called upon” and stoked to power before a fray.

I was in a campaign several years ago that used a form of this rule to track ammo. Rather than having 20 arrows and having to account carefully for each single arrow, people had, for example, Arrow Quiver (d12) and would roll at the end of a combat to determine whether their ammo had diminished sufficiently to decrement their quiver to a “d6”.

I asked on Twitter about the origins of this kind of a mechanic and heard back that Confrontation had a form of it, that Logan Knight and James Young later used it to track torches at their tables & that David Black’s The Black Hack may have been the first published old school FRPG to use something similar. Apart from the aforementioned campaign, I think I re-discovered it elsewhere.

I’ve not considered it much, but it occurs to me now that so long we’ll be taking the time for such decrement checks, some other result (4s?) might result in a “flare” and/or a side-effect for some items as one finds with house rules or systems where magic is unpredictable (Dungeon Crawl Classics excels in this kind of thing).

The “breaking weapons” element in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild game received mixed reviews. Players seemed to either enjoy or dislike the feature. It wasn’t implemented exactly the way I might have chosen, but I appreciated its design intent & thought it was mostly successful. Facing a given conflict, I liked having to choose whether to end it quickly and with less risk by using a superior weapon or to “keep my powder dry” by charging in with a humble Moblin club.

I felt the draw of this kind of design aesthetic recently while watching a playtest of Agon 2nd Editon. Deciding moment by moment, situation by situation, whether to exhaust a resource or reserve it and increase one’s risk of loss is powerful.

When at its best, two hearts of good old-school role-playing are managing resources and putting meaningful decisions into the hands of players. I hope to infuse more of both by basing my game in a world where magic is dying.

Incidentally, while far from the old school (closer to freeform academy), the Fall of Magic is a stellar RPG, a favorite of mine, and one I hope to to return to. It’s a game that evokes for me that Tolkien-esque sense of loss of a world which is passing away.

Every House Rule a Resource or Relationship

I finished up a run of the Legacy RPG recently and am taking a break from GM’ing while I prep my B/X campaign. I am playing in a couple ongoing games though. The first of these is Ryuutama, which has me pondering resource management and travel rules, the second is Primetime Adventures, (our fifth series there?), which again has me thinking about the power of PC/NPC relationships in tabletop role-playing.

I like house rules because I dig hacking games to my own preferences and to those of the other players at the table. I enjoy the process of experimentation whether or not the ratio of success to failure is any better than 1:1.

A lot of the players in my community are interested in playing role-playing games “as written,” whenever possible. At least at first. Especially when it comes to old-school dungeoneering. Either they are around my age, want to revisit the game they played in their youth and have since discovered that they never actually played the game as written forty years back or they’re younger and are interested in the possibility of experiencing some “uncut taste” from a mystical “Golden Age.” In spite of my hacker core, part of me feels the same way. And what if my additions are nothing so much as baking soda?

There are convincing arguments that the "Golden Age” of old-school RPGs is all about adding and subtracting things. Tinkering with the form. Others have covered that thesis well.

I ultimately had several pages of house rules for the multi-year Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign I ran. It probably got to be a bit much for some of the players, but a lot of “extras” seemed a decent fit for that game with its various spell effects, critical and fumble results tables, etc. For a B/X game, I suspect fewer house rules would be preferred. Again, for the players I know and for initial sessions in particular.

Reading through The Nightmares Underneath recently, I was struck by its rules for developing social institutions for the civilized settlements adventurers return to. In TNU, as explorers spend coin at these institutions, the organizations grow in potency and become increasingly able to offer specialized goods, information and services. These rules, along with recent episodes of Daydreaming About Dragons and an old Against the Wicked City post (the hirelings bit in particular), got me thinking about ways I might add various game states and conditions I want to the campaign by adding them to the world itself rather than always to a house rules document. Employing exception-based design as games like Magic: the Gathering do, players get the benefit of a “purer” and simpler ruleset, but I get the house-rules I might want to try out. By tying game states to an NPC, a resource or an institution, one might gain richer world-building as well as further incentives for characters to explore, seek status & develop communities inside the fiction of the game. I’ll post in the future examples specific to my Lands of Khos setting, but here is a single case for a common hack:

Max HP at First Level

This house rule increases the survival rate for new PCs. It’s a long way to second level in Classic D&D. At 5 XP per giant centipede, many GMs consider this hack almost essential either to manage player frustration or to keep the game from dark comedy in a game that might otherwise be rules-as-written. Even Moldvay Basic nods towards a similar option where “the DM may allow a player character to roll again if the player has rolled a 1 or 2 for the number of hit points…” (B6). Max hit points at 1st level serves the secondary function of niche-protection. A Fighter with 1 h.p. doesn’t much feel like a character that can protect the others in their party relative to the high CON Cleric who starts with 7 h.p.

One could simply add this rule to a house rule document or mention it during character creation. It’s popular, common & few would bat an eye and/or feel they were being denied the hardcore mode of the original “old school.”

Some might though. And from what I’ve been reading and listening to lately, adding even this simple and typical house rule represents a missed world-building opportunity to create a relationship and/or a resource.

Nate Marcel.  Blood Caster,  mixed media on paper. From  The Nameless Grimoire , 2017, Metzger, Johnstone

Nate Marcel. Blood Caster, mixed media on paper. From The Nameless Grimoire, 2017, Metzger, Johnstone

What if everyone rolls their hit points and you get what you get? Or you at least employ the Moldvay option so there’s a slight chance a struck character yet survives? Now you’re playing on “Hurt Me Plenty mode.” The grognards and grogs-at-heart will smile.

But you, clever and secretly soft-hearted DM that you are, know there’s a Blood Caster named Zora who dwells in the forest somewhere near the keep where the campaign begins. You placed her there in this world. Zora is more-or-less on the way to one of the most likely destinations for adventurers. There are rumors about Zora among the keep’s villagers. They say she can bring you luck… for a price.

Zora wants something from the nearby Cave of the Unknown. If you swear you will retrieve it for her, she will quickly perform a blood sacrifice and you will receive Zora’s Boon. Zora’s blessing lasts for three days and nights and grants a PC one-half their HD +1 temporary hit points (i.e. 3, 4 or 5 hit points) every morning they wake. These daily temporary hit points are gone once lost, cannot be healed and represent a narrow miss or lessening of any damage otherwise received.

Consider how many birds may be felled by this design stone relative to “all PCs get maximum hit points at 1st level.” Should they decide to attend to the rumors about Zora and having met her, they agree to her terms, they’ve improved their chances to survive a single dangerous encounter each day as if they had near maximum hit points or better. They’ve gotten to speak with an enigmatic and hopefully interesting new associate. They’ve made a choice and expressed something interesting about their character; maybe the 3 hp acolyte of Freya is offended by something in Zora’s terms and decides to forgo her blessing! As a DM, you’ve eliminated a house rule and are playing closer to “rules-as-written.” Moreover, by making these hit points temporary you’ve thrown a wrinkle into the classic dilemma of the 5-minute adventuring day; Zora’s boon is time limited. The magic-user’s Sleep spell is exhausted, but should the party head back to the cave entrance and camp there or should they press on while they’re still under the aid of Zora’s sacrifice? Choices…

Unlike a house rule which, if changed, may exhaust both a GM’s memory and a player’s patience, Zora can always move along if you decide the “rule” is not quite right for your table. Or that it was fine while the PCs were 1st or 2nd level, but the extra hit points have outworn their welcome. On the flip side, the relationship with Zora holds the potential for further benefits and dangers, further experimental game states. "Zora the Blood Caster” contains more latent possibilities than a hit-point house rule. Zora can take care of herself, but she’s also a resource and a relationship that might be threatened in-game. More choices.

A popular modern house rule, All Shields Shall Be Splintered, operates under a similar design principle - how can we increase the survival rate for old school low-level D&D player characters while giving their players’ more choices?

Gary Gygax had his own list of house rules and began many of his campaigns at 3rd level. This may have been his way of molding the games he ran to the preferences of the players at his table. Some of his players may have tired of the ultra-high mortality inherent to playing 1st level characters rules-as-written. It’s a great house rule to that end! I wonder whether by examining every house rule through the lens of possibly converting it into an in-game resource or relationship, we might serve our own tables as well.