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Fixing 4e Maths

It’s ok everyone, you can relax. I’ve done it. I’ve fixed the D&D 4th edition combat maths. Listen, you may say this is a 13 year old game and other people already fixed it and is it really worth wasting your biannual blog update on such triviality. But I know you won’t, because you were brought up better than that.

The Problem
Monsters get harder and harder to hit as characters level up. And missing all the time isn’t fun.

The Problem, part 2
The underlying “monster maths” of 4th edition has monster defences increasing by +1 per level. The attack abilities of player characters increases by +1/2 per level, but further bolstered by magical weapons and characteristic increases. The trouble is, there’s not enough magic weapons and attribute increases to keep pace with Monster Armour Class.

The 4th edition DMG2 provides a handy guide on when PCs would be expected to have different levels of magic weapons, hidden away in a side bar talking about running a low magic game. However, even when you add this in, the player characters’ ability to actually hit their opponents still falls away. See table below. Also a graph, because why not.

The Objective
It’s a commonly quoted RPG “fact” that games work best when a character succeeds around 60-70% of the time: you’re more likely to succeed than not, but failure is frequent enough for an interesting level of uncertainty. So I want every level to even out at a nice neat 60% hit chance.

There are, of course, other modifiers to this. Some characters will opt for a weapon that gives a +3 proficiency bonus, rather than +2. Some parties will have Leader types (Clerics, Warlords) whose abilities may give bonuses. Rogues will often seek out Combat Advantage, which gives them another +2 to hit.

But on the flipside, some monsters have AC above this baseline (e.g. “Soldier” types have +2 AC). Other monsters will take advantage of cover, darkness or stealth to make themselves harder to hit. So, on balance, a 60% baseline feels like the right spot to aim for – and, as you can see above, appears to be where the designers were aiming 4th edition at least for the first 10 levels or so.

The designers of 4th edition were pretty clever cookies, so they did introduce a fix themselves, via Expertise feats which gave bonuses to hit. The general feeling among players of the game, however, was that this was a feat “tax” – requiring PCs to have these feats just to keep pace, which meant it was a non-choice. I’m inclined to agree, which is why I’d rather bake the numbers into the core system and let players use feats for more interesting choices.

The Fix

So after all that preamble, with my loyal reader on tenterhooks, here’s my fix:

  • Attribute advancements: the 8th level attribute increase now happens at 7th level. The 14th level attribute increase now happens at 15th level.
  • Inherent bonuses: every character gets inherent attack bonuses as an ability, so they don’t need magic items to help them keep pace. However, these come on a bit faster and harder than the 4th edition DMG2 suggested.
  • Magic items: I’m going to assume that, yes, higher level PCs do have magic weapons (or holy symbols, or wands, or whatever). However, the minimum expectation here is pretty low. I like a game where a magic item is treasured, not replaced as soon as the next treasure horde throws up a +4 Flail of Gurning
  • Feats: the expertise feats are gone. Indeed, any feat that gives bonuses to hit and therefore upsets my delicate maths is probably going to get a long-hard stare

Hey presto, maths fixedo!

No. I’m not doing a graph that shows a straight 60% line running across into the horizon. Also, no, I’m not doing this all the way up to level 30. I’ve shown you the principle, levels 21-30 are your home work.

The only remaining question is how to handle that inherent bonus. Do you make it apply to all powers? Or do you have a different bonus for Melee, Ranged, Magic? I’m inclined to go with the first: 4e already encourages characters to specialise fairly narrowly, so further incentives to become a pure hand-to-hand specialist just aren’t helpful. I think I’d rather just lean into the now defunct feats, and give every character an “Expertise” attribute which adds to all attack rolls. For old times’ sake…

UPDATE: Maybe 60% baseline is too high? If so, easy fix…

Simple 4e character sheet

I’ve done a bit more tinkering on a simple character sheet for use with D&D 4th edition (in Excel. Of course)

My philosophy for character sheets, in priority order, is:

  1. Usability – the character sheet should make it easy to find the critical info, contain the important info, ignore the trivial
  2. Clarity – clear fonts, strong labels, colour-coding if it helps
  3. Immersion – as the primary user interface, the character sheet should help the player understand the game and what it’s about

So, for example, I love those fancy highly stylised character sheets that really sell you on the theme of the game…but only if they also tick my boxes for Usability and Clarity.

I’m pretty sure I’ve shared this before (or an earlier version), but this character sheet for 4e is designed to be used alongside Power Cards, so doesn’t include any of that information. But it does contain pretty much everything else you need on a single page (that can also be folded into a booklet if you like)


Do let me know what you think, in comments or on Twitter @thedicemechanic

Spectaculars: A Call for Heroes!

The world is beset by flying criminals, super-strong hoodlums, and unknowable threats. Who can protect the every-day citizens of Spectacular City? Who can keep us safe in the face of such terrible challenges?

The world needs heroes. The world needs YOU!

It’s happening folks. I’m actually going to run an online game. And it will be the fabulous, new SPECTACULARS!

Where & When

Roll20, one Wednesday per month, 9pm to 11pm (UK time)
Hangouts for video/chat
(not streaming, the world isn’t ready for my level of talent… )

Players: 3-6 per session (although episodic nature of the game means there is scope for players to drop in and out). No experience necessary, but this is a light-ish system with strong emphasis on narrative.

Style: Spectaculars is a comic book superhero game, and the default tone is fairly traditional four-colour supers. However, there is scope to make it slightly grittier, so that’s a discussion I’ll be having as part of Session 0.

Session 0: Wednesday 19th February, 9pm-11pm

The first session will be a chance for us to come together and discuss what we want the game to look like. In particular, it will cover the following ground:

1. Choose the Issue.

I’m offering a choice of two of the four Issues provided in the Spectaculars box.

Streetlight Knights

Explorers of the Unknown

Streetlight Knights is a spectaculars series themed around street-level heroes, organized crime, gang wars, and intrigue. This series hearkens back to comic book stories of defenders of Bad Neighborhoods, shadowy vigilantes, sinister crime lords, assassins, secret societies, and the struggle between the lawless and the heroes who would stand in their way.

Explorers of the unknown is a spectaculars series themed around super science, exploration, and incredible threats of inhuman proportions. This series hearkens back to silver age stories of astronaut families, inventors, mad scientists, alien invasions, and artifacts of
unknowable science and incredible power.

Think… Batman, Daredevil, Dark Champions

Think… Fantastic Four, JLA

2. The Setting

Next, we’ll complete the first two pages of the Settings book. This asks us to collaboratively agree a number of background details, covering:

  • In what City is the Issue set (real or fictional)
  • Why is this City special?
  • Name some of the details of the City – the bad neighbourhood, the quiet suburb, the iconic skyline feature
  • How do super powers heroes fit into the setting – how common are heroes and villains? How do the public, media and authorities feel about powered heroes?
  • What’s the tone? How often do superheroes die? (and yes, this last one has a game mechanical impact)

3. What kind of Team are you?

Each Issue gives two different options for the type of Super-team:

Streetlight Knights

Explorers of the Unknown

Mentors & Wards

This team is composed of heroes whose crime-fighting identities are linked to a single mentor. Examples include Batman and his family of related heroes and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The mentor hero can be a Narrator character or it can be one of the heroes on this team’s roster.


Your team of heroes is a family, whether tied by blood or simply by tight bonds of fellowship and love. Examples from popular comics include the Fantastic Four, the Titans, the First Family (Astro City), and the Incredibles.

Neighbourhood Watch

This team is made up of heroes who band together to protect a particular neighbourhood or district within a city. Examples from popular comics include the Defenders, the Birds of Prey and the Outsiders.


Your team is full of the brightest and boldest minds, heroes who showed great promise in making their mark on the world even before they gained their powers. Examples include the Avengers, the JLA and the Authority.

4. What kind of Hero are you?

Each player will pick one of the starting Archetypes (there should be enough for one for everyone). If we’re struggling to choose, I’ll just deal them out at random!

Streetlight Knights

Explorers of the Unknown


As a crime-fighting hero, you patrol the streets to dispense your own brand of justice. You use stealth and combat prowess and wear a costume designed to stoke an emotional response in villains.


You are an artificial being, a life form that was made, not born. Though independent and sentient, some still question if you are truly alive.

Street Sentinel

You have declared yourself the guardian of your neighbourhood, a protector of the people who will do what it takes to keep the streets clean. You stand up for your neighbours, friends, and co-workers when the authorities can’t or won’t.

Energy Battery

Your body stores a particular energy, using it to fuel your powers. This energy suffuses your every cell, and you become more than just container for that energy; you become that energy.

Soldier of Fortune

You are a soldier who answers to no one. You have all the training and trappings of a member of the armed forces, but ply your trade keeping criminals off the streets.


You are a hero, but others see you as a monster. You have been changed by your superpowers, and not entirely for the better.


You are a trained fighter, usually specializing in an esoteric fighting style or archaic weapons. You live according to your own warrior’s code and hone your skills to prepare for the fight against evil.

Super Soldier

You are a warrior whose physical strength, stature, and physical capability well exceed the normal human maximums. You were trained for combat and are a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield.

Teenage Hero

You may be young, but you’re not too young to be a hero. Experience is the best teacher, so you don a costume and hit the streets, fighting crime while most of your peers are doing homework.

Power Armour Pilot

You wear a suit of powered armour that turns you into a walking tank. Your superpowers are the result of the suit’s


You are a fast-moving hero, racing around the battlefield, running circles around your enemies. While you might have super-powered speed, you may also simply use your powers to stay in perpetual motion, bouncing around so that your enemies have a hard time tracking you.


You are a creator, someone who looks at the technology of the world and uses it for the forces of good. Your superpowers are your inventions, and you are constantly tweaking them, upgrading them, and redesigning them.

5. Complete Character Generation

I plan to use a character sheet I’ve designed to capture all the key information for the heroes. Spectaculars comes packaged with lots of lovely bits, including character tracking pads, but these aren’t actually great for online play for two reasons:

  • They’re double-sided
  • You actually need two sheets: the Archetype sheet and a Hero tracking sheet

So I’ve come up with a single-sided sheet that combines both the Archetype and Hero tracker into one (and is sized so I can drop the image files of the Power, Identity and Team Role cards right onto the sheet). Think I need to make the Hero Name a bit more prominent though…

Spectaculars Charsheet

The steps in character generation are:

  1. Read through the character questions and special ability on your archetype sheet. Keep them in the back of your mind for now.
  2. Draw 5 power cards. Choose 1 to 3 powers from these five and/or the basic powers: Energy Blast, Flight. Signature Weapon, Strength, Toughness
  3. Note down your “Hero Points per Conflict”, the minimum number of Hero Points you have at the start of any conflict scene. This is 5, minus 2 for each Power you keep after the first.
  4. Draw 3 identity cards. Choose one to be your non-superhero ID
  5. Choose a team role
You do your best work when attacking from afar, lobbing ranged attacks down on your foes.
You bring out the best in your fellow heroes by watching their backs and pointing out opportunities for success when they arise.
You manage the battlefield, using your powers to slow and stall your enemies to lessen the pressure on your allies.
You combine tactical advice with confident reinforcement to keep your teammates fighting long after they would otherwise have fallen.
You like to get up close and personal, making sure your enemies know who is dealing out the pain.
You work well alongside your fellow heroes, coordinating with them to keep the momentum on your allies’ side.
You coordinate your allies and look for openings in your enemies’ defenses, giving your team a tactical edge.
You get in the faces of your enemies and remind them that to ignore you is to invite punishment.
  1. Go back to the Archetype sheet and answer the questions there.
  2. Give yourself a name

And that’s it. There’s more stuff around your Aspiration, Turmoil and Origin, but those are left until after the first session, giving you a chance to play with your Hero a bit before nailing down those important decisions as to who exactly they are.

Session 1

The final step will be to agree a regular date for the ongoing monthly sessions (e.g. 3rd Wednesday of every month). And then… Up, up and away!

Interested? Send a Twitter DM to @thedicemechanic and I’ll organise an invite to Session 0 on Roll20, Wednesday 19th February.

It’s Clobberin’ Time!

Credit: Vigilante image by David Lojaya, Inventor image by Des Taylor, from the Spectaculars Digital Creators Art pack

Because that character sheet includes pictures from the game itself, figure I should just clarify the following:

Spectaculars Created and Owned By: Rodney Thompson
Original Graphic Design: Brigette Indelicato
Original Icon Design: Daniel Gelon and Brigette Indelicato

Spectaculars, its characters and distinctive likenesses are the property of Scratchpad Publishing, LLC. This material is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or unauthorized use of the material or artwork contained herein is prohibited without the express written permission of Scratchpad Publishing. Spectaculars ©2019, 2020, Scratchpad Publishing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Visit http://scratchpadpublishing.com for more information.

Graphic Design, Icons, Art, and Product Identity usage Licensed with permission under the terms of the SPECTACULARS CREATIVE USE LICENSE.

Spectaculars: the review

(Edited 20/4/2020 to correct “Issue” to “Series” when referring to the campaign, and “session” to “Issue” for each individual adventure. Oops.)

Spectaculars is the brand new superhero RPG by Scratchpad Publications, the label under which former D&D fifth edition designer, Rodney Thomson, has been producing games since leaving WotC a few years back. I missed out on the highly acclaimed Dusk City Outlaws when it Kickstarted back in 2017, which offered low-prep heist action. As a big fan of the superhero genre, there was no way I was going to miss out on his next offering when Spectaculars came to Kickstarter in 2018.

It arrived last week and its fair to say I wasn’t disappointed.


Behind the Mask

Components 1Spectaculars comes in a big euro boardgame-style box, chock full of cards, pads and dice. The boardgame analogies don’t end with the contents, as the rulebook is kept relatively slim (just 60 pages, in the same large square shape as the box). You can see Rodney’s experience in designing board games as well as RPGs shining through, as the rulebook only contains the essential rules to play, relying on the other components – primarily several decks of cards covering Powers, Secret IDs, Complications, Team roles – to pull their weight in detailing the rules that apply to each Components 2element.

No extensive lists of abilities here: if you want to know what an Energy Blast does, look at the Energy Blast card. Not great for GMs who want to know the ins and outs of every single rule in the game, but makes for much more accessible rulebook and suits the low-prep, high player-trust intent of the game.



Incredible Tales of Urban Warriors, #273

As you know, I’m usually about the crunch. But in Spectaculars, where the numbers you roll against actually come from is pretty interesting, so I’m going to start there. And as a story-led game, it all begins with the “Series”.

Series is Spectaculars’ name for a campaign, which reflects the game’s extremely strong tone towards emulating superhero comic books. This is worth emphasising: this isn’t just a superhero RPG, it’s a superhero comic book RPG. Throughout the game, Spectaculars provides comic book examples to illustrate each of its key elements, which makes it really clear what they’re referring to and helps fire your imagination. The box comes bundled with four ready-made Series, made up of around 12-13 “Issues”, which are provided on tear off pads and is an element that feels like a legacy boardgame as much as an RPG. As you play the Issue, you will mark up the sheets to reflect how your game went, creating a lasting record of your campaign as well as making it unusable for repeat play (no biggie – us kickstarter backers have it all on pdf to reprint and replay!). Not only does each Series describe a unique campaign story, it also has a distinct tone, which is reinforced throughout the game.

  • The first few pages of each Series provide the available Team types (e.g. for the urban heroes Streetlight Knights series, you pick either Mentor & Wards (e.g. Batman and his extended family) or Neighbourhood Watch (e.g. Birds of Prey). The tear-off Team Roster tracks the members, the team’s reputations and gets you started with three hooks: what brought you together, your mission, and what could happen if you fail.
  • Next, you get a bunch of hero Archetypes specifically suited for the theme and tone of the Series. These get you thinking about who your hero is and what their powers represent. Each Archetype also gives one special ability – e.g. the Speedster gets to bump up their initiative, going earlier in conflict scenes.
  • Finally you get the GM content: a few Villain sheets, which give the template for the first baddies the heroes will have to face, and around 12 Scenario sheets – the “issues” – each designed for a single session and requiring just a few minutes read through to prep.

One cool thing is that as you progress through the Series, as well as getting new Scenarios and Villains, you also occasionally get new hero Archetypes, so if a hero falls by the wayside for whatever reason, you get interesting new options as the story progresses. E.g. after Issue 2, Streetlight Knights introduces the Investigator and Pulp Hero archetypes, and after Issue 11, you get the Secret Agent.


Origin Story

So, you’ve picked your Series, your Team and your Archetype – what next? Powers. Draw 5 Power cards, choose up to 3. Your first is rated at 80%, then 70%, then 60%. If you pick fewer, you get more Hero Points which let you do cool things. Again, the Series gets involved, with powers chosen from a deck made up of 25 common powers and 15 Series-specific. You won’t get a Utility Belt in a cosmic superhero game, nor will you have magical Healing in your street-level investigations. They’re rounded off with 5 basic powers – Strength, Energy Blast, Flight, Toughness and Signature Weapon – which you can pick instead of drawing at random.Secret_ID

Next, you draw an Identity card, again a mix of generic and Series-specific. These give you not only your job, but also your skills.

Finally, you choose a Team Role, which gives you a special ability which can be triggered by spending Hero Points, and gives you a sense of your tactical speciality within the team. Huntress and Nightwing are both street-level acrobatic martial artists, but while Huntress might use the Artillery role to do extra damage with her crossbow, as Tactician, Nightwing’s battlefield awareness can help teammates use power stunts more often.


The Mechanical Mayhem of the Machine Master!

Now we have some numbers. For the core mechanics, roll d% under your ability. Add Boons and Challenge dice to complicate things slightly (turning the basic d% into something more like FFG’s funky dice pools).

But what can each skills or power do? Anything. This is very much a free-form game in the style of HeroQuest or Fate – if you can provide the explanation, you’ve at least got a chance of doing anything you like with any ability. In addition, each power has a special Power Stunt which is usually limited by how often you can do it (e.g. with Phasing, you can ignore damage from an attack). DazzleThe default use of powers is the “attack”: roll against the power’s % rating, and if successful you inflict the value of the roll in damage. Similarly, skills can often be used for mental attacks. However, if inflicting damage doesn’t make sense, you have other options such as stopping movement (e.g. Elastic Body power) or adding challenge dice (one effect of which is to reduce the damage of an attack, e.g. Forcefield power).

This is a great, flexible system that makes superheroics very dynamic and character-driven. It does require players to have a degree of creativity to ensure narrative options make sense, but the GM can actively influence things with the Boon and Challenge dice.

“So, Anton, you want to Sneak Around behind the gangsters and ambush them? It’s pretty dark down that alley, have a Boon die to help you!”

“Oh, Zara, using Throw Money at the Problem to bribe the gangsters? Again? Have 4 challenge dice, they’re still flush from last time you did that…”

So far, so good. A relatively simple, narrative-heavy, rules-light superhero game. Cool, but nothing spectacular (oh, please). What gives it that extra bit of hero magic, is the story structure around the mechanics.


I must stop Nefario, but Steve is waiting for me at the Prom!

Spectaculars uses a few different tools to help emulate comic books and reward players for doing so. Each Issue provides core scenes for the GM to run: any other scenes are created by the players using Interludes. Typically, these are used to gather more information, uncover clues or progress a personal goal. They are intentionally highly free-form: Spectaculars won’t tell you the PCs need to go to the Municipal Museum to find a clue as to Anubis’ evil scheme. The clue is (potentially) wherever the PCs want to look, the fun comes in determining what the obstacle is and how they overcome it. It requires a GM to think on their feet, but it’s entirely in keeping with the genre, again. And generally, each Interlude should have a simple, one-roll resolution, which keeps things fast and light.

Even more interesting are personal Interlude scenes. After the first Issue, every character should write their origin story, and gain an Aspiration and a Turmoil. I love that these aren’t included from the start, as this feels in genre – starting with the superhero and rounding out the character later. Then, before the opening scene of subsequent Issues, each Hero can frame an Interlude scene reflecting their Aspiration or Trouble, and earn that PC an extra XP advancement and a Continuity Token. This really helps tie character back-story into each scenario, in a way that really reflects the comic book genre. But with each Interlude recommended as being no more than 5 minutes, it shouldn’t get in the way of your traditional four-colour action.

As for that Continuity Token, it can be used to create Back Issues and Retcons. A back issue is a flashback scene to an earlier comic that gives you some information or advantage that relates to your current problem. A retcon establishes a new fact about a setting element, character or villain. Again, entirely in genre, and pure fuel for player creativity.

Jack, the yobbish wannabe-celebrity hero, needs information from the oily boss of a huge gambling corporation. He spends a retcon token, and establishes that he is in fact sponsored by them, with their logo proudly emblazoned across his super-suit. Now, getting that meeting is no problem. Whether he can get anything out of it, however, depends on Jack’s diplomatic skills. Oh dear…


You call that power, Megalad? Let me show you TRUE power!

And there’s more. The 40-page Setting Book contains key locations (Super-Science Lab! Crime Syndicate!) and major NPCs (Media Personality! The Agency Chief!) that crop up in most major comic book series. You fill this out collaboratively, building the world as you progress through the Issues.

Reputation tracks with the Media, Public and Government influence events throughout the Issues: maybe a high Public reputation helps calm some riots, or a high Government reputation brings unexpected help from on-high.

The Experience tracker awards Story Advancements as each hero engages with the Series and their personal Aspirations and Turmoils. Benefits range from traditional (extra skills, more hero points, improved powers) to transformational (new costume, mutation, take on the Mantle of the Bat!) – with a fifth and final Retirement advancement for heroes that reach the end of their story (giving a boost to your next character, which could represent a continuation of the previous character’s story as a clone, AI creation or even your former nemesis turned to good).

Lasting Repercussions are story-based consequences from the events of Issues, enriching the developing narrative for individual characters. For example, if a science-based hero helped defeat the Mad Scientist villain, they might gain “Vengeance of Dr Mystery”. Now, every future time they meet, Dr Mystery will get a growing bonus to attack their new-found arch-enemy (and in turn, granting the PC the option of a Nemesis advancement, giving extra hero points for any scene where the villain appears)

Complication cards help GMs add features to conflict scenes that split the heroes’ priorities. ComplicationDo you spend your turn trying to defeat The Devastator, or tackle the fire that just erupted in the nearby apartment block (and earn a Hero point for doing so)?!

With four Series included in the box, plus clear guidelines on how to create your own (and a digital creator pack that means you can be absolutely certain fan-made stuff will be hitting the internet soon) you have enough content for at least 50 sessions of fast, furious, story-driven superhero fun. With the exception of those lucky people with twenty year D&D campaigns, this ought to be more than enough for anyone. At around £1 per session, that seems like excellent value to money to me.


Oh Captain Wonderful, however can we thank you?

I am super-excited by this game. I do love crunch, but from many sessions of the likes of Champions, Mutants and Masterminds, DC Heroes etc., I felt there was something missing from superhero RPGs – an over-emphasis on the mechanics of super-fights, but not enough on emulating the genre itself. I always thought HeroQuest would be an excellent basis for super role-playing, and in some ways Spectaculars is this game, only more so. This game has provisionally leapt to the top of my extensive SHRPG pile, with it’s vivid four-colour art, episodic super-heroic action, and genre-reinforcing structure.

Caveat: I haven’t played Spectaculars, so this review is based purely on a read-through and my usual over-enthusiasm for any RPG that includes cards and components (see also, my unnecessarily large WFRP3 collection). But I am absolutely dying to give this game a good run through, and not just a one-shot, but a campaign. So watch this space…


Will The Dicemechanic actually organise an Online Campaign of this incredible new game? Find out in the next exciting issue of Spectacular Super-Tales!!


Spectaculars cover art featured at the top of the page is by David Lojaya. Ah, sod it, the whole team deserve credit for this great game, so here it is.

Spectaculars Credits

And just look at that list of names. Designer of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Designer of Fate. Designer of M&M and Icons. Designer of Dungeonworld. Plus some prominent streamers/producers – let’s hope this game gets some internet air-time soon!


Multi-speed leveling – Example

What would different XP tracks look like in practice?

My last blog post looked at the idea of having characters level at different rates. I called this asymmetric at the time, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. I mean, they’re all getting XP for the same things, so it’s not truly asymmetry – it’s just they advance at different speeds.

I thought I’d throw out a worked example, to show what it might look like.

Take the D&D5 campaign, Curse of Strahd. The rear blurb announces this is for character levels 1-10. I immediately decide this means, by the end of the adventure:

  • Adventurers will be around level 10
  • Farmboys will reach level 12
  • Veterans will reach level 9
  • All characters will be equal level around level 7

So I create an XP table with the following key points in place

Adventurer Farmboy Veteran
1 0
2 300
3 900
4 2,700
5 6,500
6 14,000
7 23,000 23,000 23,000
8 34,000
9 48,000 64,000
10 64,000
12 64,000

Then, it’s a relatively simple job of filling in the blanks. First I make a couple of general assumptions:

  • I want Veterans to start at level 3, and to be ahead of the Adventurers at every level up til they hit 7 together.
  • I want Farmboys to be around 1.5 levels behind Adventurers until 4th level, and to have a fairly even progression throughout
  • I can broadly split the difference for Veteran level 8
  • I want to share as few leveling milestones as possible, to increase the chance of characters leveling at different times (and sharing the joy this brings!)

Using those two assumptions, my modified table now looks like this:

Adventurer Farmboy Veteran
1 0
2 300 1,000
3 900 3,000 0
4 2,700 6,000 600
5 6,500 10,000 2,000
6 14,000 15,000 8,000
7 23,000 23,000 23,000
8 34,000 29,000 42,000
9 48,000 36,000 64,000
10 64,000 44,000
11 53,000
12 64,000

Basically, the farmboy has progression increase by just 1k per level, with 2,000XP from 2nd to 3rd, 3,000 from 3rd to 4th. It takes a slight jump in the middle, to align with my desired parity level at 7th, but then resumes at 6,000 for 8th, 7,000 for 9th and jumps slightly at the end with 11,000XP for 11th to 12.

Other Considerations: Hit Points and Death Saves

As I said before, probably the main difference between levels if you’re not a spell-caster is just the number of hit points you have.  I suggested you might tweak Death saves to even this out, but I think you can do a bit more than that just to even things out.

  • Farmboy: you have to fail on 4 Death Saves to be killed. However, after the parity point, you get -2 HP per level
  • Veteran: you have to fail on 2 Death saves to be killed. However, after the parity point, you get +3 HP per level.

I’m sure you could do a lot more to tweak this further, including reducing the number of skills Farmboys start with and even tinkering with Hit Dice. But for me, this does enough to make things interesting without introducing too many new rules (and possible imbalances!)

Asymmetrical D&D Parties

I knocked this up quickly this morning on Twitter, and decided I felt so strongly about it, I’d drop it into a quick blog post as well.

The party is the core of most Fantasy RPGs. While I understand there are some people who hate the idea that someone in the party is more “powerful” than them, modern RPG thought tends to lean more on ensuring everyone can contribute *something*, everyone has a clear niche and that one player or character isn’t completely over-shadowing the rest. As long as you do this, mixed power levels work fine (just look at the Avengers).

For me, AD&D’s asymmetrical party was a feature, not a flaw, and allowed different PCs to shine at different times. How could you introduce that into the likes of D&D5e without completely messing it all up? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Make sure the combined party level averages out to suit the adventure. A group of adventurers of L3, L4, L5, L6, L6 should be fine for an adventure targeted at 5th level PCs
  2. Probably don’t vary by more than a couple of levels. While asymmetry is cool, you don’t want the lower level PC to be totally ineffective and/or vulnerable to insta-kills. Having said, playing a single session as a Level 1 character hiding at the back could be a fun roleplaying opportunity!
  3. I’d build asymmetry into the structure of the game, so everyone knows what they’re getting into. Think about the planned leveling arc of your campaign. Note the maximum level you expect characters to reach. Create 3 XP/milestone tracks:
    1. Farmboy goes slower at first, but accelerates, reaching Max+2 by end of campaign
    2. Veteran goes faster (maybe starts a level or two higher) but gains much slower, ending at Max -2 by end of campaign
    3. Adventurer progresses normally.
  4. Ask players which XP track they want to use for their character. You may need to negotiate a bit to get the right mix OR…
  5. Apply the XP tracks to specific classes, not PCs. Maybe every Wizard is on the Farmboy track. Maybe every Paladin is a Veteran. That can really add some campaign world flavour, reinforcing the fact that, e.g., the most powerful individuals in Tolkienripoffia are all Rangers

This model ought to work really well in D&D 5e, because of how the mathematics of the game have been structured. While HP and special abilities do advance quickly, basic competence and Armor Class are fairly static. So a lower level character will have reduced damage output, but their chance to hit and skills will rarely be more than a point or two different to their higher level colleagues. (indeed, one might argue this is the greatest flaw in my proposal – in 5e, for non-spellcasting classes, the only real difference is just the PC dying quicker)

And while this is ideally geared towards a full campaign, there’s no reason the approach can’t be taken in shorter adventures. E.g. in a 3-4 session one-shot, the Farmboy levels up every session, the Adventurer levels in session 3, Veteran never does.

Addendum: Death Saves

Quick extra thought. The XP track could also influence the Death Saves. The Farmboy needs 4 unsuccessful death saves to die; the Veteran only 2.Provides a bit of balance to the disparity in HP, and highlights that the Farmboy is destined for greater things, whereas the Veteran, who has been there and done it, feels the inevitable fate drawing ever closer…

D&D Basic Rules Re-write

Back in December 2018, I made the bold assertion that I could edit a chapter from a popular RPG down to 50% of its word count. Why would I make such a foolish assertion?

My own writing can be incredibly verbose. My university dissertation came in at three-times the targeted 10,000 words, and is so tedious I’ve barely been able to read it in the 25 years since. My increasingly rare blog posts are frequently gushing lakes of word soup. If words are my stock in trade, I’ve always favoured quantity over quality.

And yet, ironically, my day job is writing. But my business writing is always accompanied by strict space restrictions. Over the years, I’ve adapted my writing style to communicate often complex business concepts in highly prescriptive word limits. Believe it or not, I’ve become pretty good at it, despite what the indulgent word splurges of this website might suggest.


Why? And how?!

In recent years, it’s become increasingly clear to me that the average big-release RPG is seriously over-written. I first noticed it in Fantasy Age, a delightful and relatively simple RPG by Green Ronin. That’s a book that clocks in at just 144 pages, and yet never states any rule once when three times is better.

Conan Swimming

I saw it in Modiphius’ excellent Conan RPG, with its detailed and entirely unnecessary explanation of what the Swimming skill does. And it’s all over Pathfinder 2, with masses of repetition that suggests either each character class is designed to be printed and handed out to players separately, or the writer negotiated a strict, no-cap by-the-word contract.

So this is the context to my claim. And, after nearly 12 months of prevarication, I got down to it. The twitter poll decided the text I would tackle: the D&D Basic Rules, the free PDF of the fifth edition rules published by Wizards of the Coast.


My basic rule was, as much as possible, to keep the structure, headings and format. This wasn’t a rewrite, it was purely editing what was there. It should also read as prose, not purely a list of instructions. It took a little over 2 hours to reduce the word count by 45% in a first sweep. A quick review of which sections had been reduced the least, and I mopped up the remaining 5%. Last night, I took out another 0.5% just to be tidy. So there, less than half a day’s work. Done.


The results

So, without further ado, here it is, arranged in two columns: the original text on the left, and my edit on the right.


I hope you’ll agree this works fine. You may prefer the original, but I’d argue that the rules are equally clear without the additional explanations the base text provides. And while flavour text may make the original easier to read, I think the fact it’s half the length more than makes up for this.


A conclusion. Of sorts.

The RPG designer, Dennis Detwiller, of Delta Green fame, has noted that as much as some people complain about big expensive glossy books, publishers use this format because the market clearly favours it: big glossy sells. I think this is probably true. The price of printing a few more pages may be more than balanced by the increased shelf real estate in your Friendly Local Gaming Store (especially where books are competing on the basis of spine not cover art).

It’s just a shame that the price of this format is generally more quantity, rather than quality. Tight writing isn’t dead. Indie games excel in delivering punch in the shortest page count possible. Black Hack and Cthulhu Hack are works of genius. King of Dungeons, by the Smart Party podcast’s Baz Stevens, compresses the essence of Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age into a pocket digest whilst adding huge amounts of colour and flavour. But where an ever-growing catalogue of RPGs are competing for shelf-space, perhaps having more pages is a necessary evil to get your book into gamers’ hands?



The D&D Basic Rules are nothing to do with me. They’re owned by Wizards of the Coast and I have not been given permission to replicate them. I don’t claim to own them, and you can get the originals directly from the WotC website (just enter D&D Basic Rules into your internet search engine of choice).

I’m hoping what I’ve done constitutes fair use, and that WotC don’t send me a cease and desist for repeating copyright material. But if they do, I’ll be taking this down immediately, because this was nothing more than a proof of concept.

Dragonmeet Report, 1st Dec 2018

Hello dear readers,

Long-time no speak. How are you doing? Having just spent an exhilarating Saturday in West London, I thought I’d tell you all about it.


So what’s a Dragonmeet? Anything it wants to, who’s gonna argue with a fricking DRAGON?!

Ahem. As well as being a terrible joke, Dragonmeet is the UK’s largest RPG-focused convention. Taking place annually around 1st December in West London, it’s a good place to buy things, meet friends, catch a live “Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff” and, of course, play games.

Was lots of gaming, more than ever this year, as evidenced by fact there were 4 RPG rooms, as well as a dedicated Pathfinder room, Demo room and usual open gaming space. It’s always a tiny bit chaotic, certainly less well structured than the (much larger) UK Games Expo, but in a way that better reflects the UK RPGing community – cobbling things together that kinda work since the 1970s!  Want to play an RPG? Write your name on a piece of paper on a board. Morning bookings went up at 8.30am for 9.30 start, with Afternoon and Evening bookings going up later. I thought this meant they’d put Afternoon sheets up during the Morning games, thereby giving more people a chance to play. Not a bit of it. They waited til Morning games had finished, and then put them up, which meant at 13.45 there was a huge mob gathered around the boards, blocking people from entering the main floor entirely. It’s often been said that there’s no perfect system, but there are definitely some that are less perfect than others.

Having said, one thing that worked really well was the staggered start. By having doors open at 8.30, morning games start 9.30 and trade hall open 10.00 it meant that there was never the same massive queue that we’ve become used to at the start of the day. The rain probably helped, but credit where it’s due, getting in was slick and easy.


Trade Hall

I’m not entirely sure, but my guess is there were fewer generic games sellers in the trade hall and more arty-crafty and indie stands. Cubicle 7, Pelgrane, Chaosium and Modiphius had dedicated stands, Leisure Games had a big slot, Mindjammer Press had one right by the entrance, and after that it was mainly bits and pieces. I wonder if clashing with Pax Unplugged in US had anything to do with this?

I bought a couple of key rings for the kids, a bleeding unicorn candle for the Missus, and nothing for myself. I asked the Twitterati to recommend a soft-cover or small format RPG that I could sneak home, but in the end I ran out of time. In any case, I think being allowed to attend at all, as well as a pricey stay in the smallest hotel room I’ve ever seen, was probably as much as I could ask for at a time of year when money is always a little tighter.

I was also pleased to see that some people really went out of their way to try and SELL ME STUFF! Admittedly, none of them were RPG publishers, but it’s progress. I like to hear people who are passionate about their stuff and it certainly makes me more likely to buy.


D&D4e Sci-fi hack

The most exciting thing about Dragonmeet, of course, was my 4e sci-fi hack making its public gaming demo. Indeed, this was actually the first time I’ve GMd away from the friendly audience of a home group. I am a naturally arrogant confident person, but I certain felt the faint tremor of performance nerves as my 3pm time-slot approached.

Getting to a game by trusting people would find their own way actually worked fine, much better than last year’s “shouty man with no microphone calling games out one-by-one”. Only slight downside was the fact that they changed my room without telling me. Dragonmeet organisers emailed a note to GMs 48 hours before to say where we’d be playing and giving us a chance to proof read the sign-up sheets. Surprisingly efficient!

Come 2.40pm, I spent 5 minutes talking to different people to see if I could go up early to set up. Eventually, I got a yes, and discovered I was literally the last to set up, everyone else had just done it without asking – that’ll teach me, typical Lawful Stupid. Still, I had 15 mins to settle my nerves, get all the maps, minis, tokens, character sheets etc. out. Got organised, then went down to collect my GM sign-up sheet as required… and then discovered that my room had in fact been changed. Luckily I had some very helpful players, who assisted me carrying everything across to the new room. But not the start I wanted.

Game itself went very well. I’d dialled up the aliens’ combat abilities, and it certainly made things more interesting. Overall, though, it went almost exactly the same as my previous playtest.

Adding information on how each PC felt about the other characters worked well to encourage some light role-playing. Having specific objectives for each character worked particularly well, giving each player something to focus on but without unduly interfering with the overall scenario.

One issue I have is the middle encounter, to which both groups so far have responded identically. The intent of the encounter is to present overwhelming force and encourage a fighting retreat. But no-one likes to retreat, and I guess there is a D&D mindset in particular that says “Every encounter is balanced, so every encounter must be beatable”. Literally the only way I could get them to run was to stop marking down kills, and just say for every one they knocked out, another filled the gap. Which was a bit clunky and railroady, but it was this or TPK or run out of time.

As it was, I had to squeeze the 1 RP encounter and the boss battle into the final 50 minutes, which was tight. As with previous, there’s an entire area that wasn’t explored, and its just as well because there wouldn’t be time, but it’s a shame, because the unexplored section offered something just a little different. Need to think about this – one option is to remove the middle encounter entirely. Need to give this a bit more thought…

We finished at 6.55pm and were the last group in the room, but felt it went well. Three of the players wanted to keep their character sheets, which I hope is a good sign, and everyone seemed engaged for the full 4 hours. In my mind, at least, I’m absolutely convinced that 4e works brilliantly for this sort of game. I’d go further – I think it works better for this than it does for fantasy. Now as a campaign, it would be trickier. For a one-off, the fact that what appears to be a gun is in fact a class-based power isn’t an issue. In a campaign, when people want to start picking up cool equipment and trying different weapons out, it doesn’t work so well. But then, it’s the same effect-based paradigm that Hero System offers, it’s just a disbelief you need to suspend to make the mechanics work.

Side note: 4e characters are enormously resilient. These 6th level characters had around 50hp, but also with just 5 minutes rest they could each heal around 90+ damage. So I guess one needs to be figuring damage on the basis that you’re inflicting c. 40 damage per PC per combat just to be a threat. My aliens weren’t quite doing this, so more work to be done (indeed, more damage was probably inflicted by exploding aliens acid blood than anything else!)

What looked cool

I flicked through WFRP4 on the Cubicle 7 stand.  It looked pretty enough, but I’ve got enough huge RPG rulebooks for now. Apart from this, I really didn’t see anything especially new on show. It’s a real shame neither WotC nor Paizo really support Dragonmeet. Pathfinder Society does at least run games there, but nothing from D&D Adventurers League, which is a shame. It’s not my bag, but it says something about the UK if we can’t even get the largest RPG in the world to show their face.

My New Project

I’ve proved 4e works as a brilliant sci-fi game, so I need a new project. So I’m going to rewrite a chapter of an RPG in 50% of less word count. That’s all. RPGs are just too damned wordy, it’s time to do something about it…

Britt the Warlock renegotiates…

For several adventures, the party hadn’t been entirely comfortable adventuring with Britt the Warlock, someone whose power explicitly came from a relationship with an angel from the higher planes. Sure, Britt was a powerful ally with all manner of cool powers, but the fact she only got her powers because of some shady agreement with an extra-planar entity made them feel a bit uncomfortable.

Tori the Bard was sure that Britt could find lots of deities who would be more than happy to give her otherworldly power, with just a bit of praying and none of this patronage nonsense. It would be the easiest deal in history, she said.

Sovrin the Wizard wasn’t sure about that. He was pretty suspicious of any deal with Outer Beings like this, and it was about time Britt took back control. Sovrin felt really strongly that no patron was better than a bad patron.

On the other hand, Pragmat the Paladin, whilst concerned about some of the onerous requirements of patronage, felt Britt’s actions showed a close alignment with the morals and ethics of the rest of the party. Even if another patron could be found, who knows what conditions they might impose on Britt? He struggled, as ever, to come to a decision. Both ways had their merits.

Things were much clearer for Mona the Cleric. Angels were a good thing. Stick with angels, stick with Warlock power, why change a good thing? And Banck the Fighter? Well, as usual, he saw it simply. Without Britt’s eldritch blasts, the party would be a lot weaker. Weaker meant fewer kills. Fewer kills meant less XP. And he couldn’t support that.

After much debate around the campfire, they finally decided to have a vote on it: let Britt keep her patron, or leave and find another source of power. Predictably, there was no way to separate the two sides. However, they had forgotten about Boris the party donkey. As the voters put down their arms and prepared for more pointless arguing, Boris wandered up and nonchalantly pissed into the circle of adventurers. And as his golden stream jetted onto the ground, the foul-smelling fluid rebound with such force that it splattered Mona and Banck where they sat. As the two yelled out their urine-soaked rage, Britt was clear. This was a sign. She would take back control.

# # # # # # #

It took many days – many, many days – but eventually Britt returned from her hidden Warlock’s Tower. She was haggard and pale, exhausted from long hours communing with her patron. The deal was done, documented here in 500 rolls of finest calf-skin parchment.

Well, no, of course Iye-Yu, her mighty angelic patron, wouldn’t accept an unconditional departure. The patronage came with an agreement, with commitments, and those commitments couldn’t be easily unravelled. Plus, if everyone thought it was easy to get out of patronage – why, they’d all try it! And Iye-Yu couldn’t be responsible for that sort of message.

So, here it was: a binding legal agreement stating that Iye-Yu was no-longer Britt’s patron. Now, in return, Britt would need to find another soul to pay for the one she still owed Iye-Yu. Or she could give up the one she’s got, but that might limit her ability to find patronage elsewhere. Also, until such time as Britt found a new patron, she’d still have access to her Warlock powers. It’s possible those powers might be changed, or Iye-Yu might decide they didn’t work against certain opponents any more, and Britt no longer had any say in that. But she kept the powers, so that was good right? It also meant she could keep on fighting, so Banck would still get his XP. Well, mostly. Result!

Now Sovrin wasn’t entirely happy with this. This looked like Iye-Yu would actually have more control over Britt’s actions, not less. That didn’t look like taking back control. Britt had negotiated out of patronage, by agreeing a lesser form of patronage where she didn’t even get a say. What sort of stupid deal was that?

As for Tori, she felt Britt had mucked things up completely. Britt shouldn’t have negotiated at all. Iye-Yu was lucky to have any kind of relationship with Britt – after all, Britt’s ancestors had been some of the most powerful heroes in the world, just a couple of hundred years ago. Britt was a catch. She should just walk away. There are loads of deities looking for supporters. Who cares if we all earn less XP for a while, eventually she’d level up and then we’d be back on the XP Gravy Train. And sure, they wouldn’t be the same powers you have now, but they’d be better powers, without all the restrictions of this stupid patronage that Britt was clearly suffering under at the moment.

Mona was also unhappy. You had a good thing, why throw it away? You’ve got to find and handover someone’s soul for Gods’ sake, and those things don’t grow on trees. Not willing ones, anyway. Why go to all this trouble to get something that is worse than what you have right now? It’s the very definition of stupid.

Pragmat thoughts it was ok. I mean, it was a compromise, of course no-one would get what they wanted.

The party turned on Pragmat in a murderous fury. No-one likes a smart arse…



Runequest in Glorantha: Home-brewed

With the launch just this week of RCQ – Runequest Glorantha – the “true” successor to the much loved Runequest 2, many of my geeky chums are once more venturing to Genertela to explore the deep mysteries of the cults, runes and deadly combat from back on the day.

So what better time for my dear friend Stephen (@smginnessuk) , GM of our Runequest 2 campaign, to share his house-rules for elevating an aged system for a more enlightened gaming age…


I played my first game of Runequest in 1978.  I played it almost exclusively until it made it to third edition.  My lack of enthusiasm for the new edition, the stuttering publication of that edition along with a distancing of the game from Glorantha, and several life events meant that I rarely played the game between 1987 and just a few years ago.  That did not mean I stopped reading stuff or buying almost everything Glorantha that I could put my hands on.

I did play a lot of other games, including a variety of other Gloranthan related systems: Mongoose Runequest, Design Mechanism Runequest, Hero Wars, HeroQuest.  When I came back to RQII I fell in love with its simplicity all over again but there were things that rankled me, especially when I no longer had the copious amounts of free time to play, or to manage the detail of the second edition. Not to mention having been spoiled by modern systems that accommodate narrative gameplay and give agency to the players.

Now Chaosium just releasing a successor to RQII, I thought before I read the shiny new PDF that this would be a good time to show others how I adapted RQII and imported things from other iterations of Glorantha to allow me to play Runequest now.  This is my first real attempt to do this and it will change and adapt to my players responses, its inability to cope with at the table situations and new cool ideas that I come across.

The main changes I’ve made fall into three categories:

  • Character design
  • Running the game
  • Heroquesting

The latter two will follow in a day or two. But, to kick things off…

Character Design

Characters are rolled and written up using pure RQII, just like I did it in 1978. Statistics, modifiers, spells and skills. I add the the previous experience rules to get more experienced starting characters, but that is as far things go there.

I do not use the old character sheet, but have designed my own, one based on the Heroquest way of doing things and designed to put the key information front-and-centre in a way that really supports play at the table.


Skill Groups

This is where things start to change a little. Skills are organised into three key skill groups.  This is often narrative background things like “Pavis born and bred”, “Initiate of Orlanth” or “Experienced scout” with all of a character’s skills organised underneath those.  Each group is then assigned a skill level based on the best five skills in the group.  The skill groups have threshold numbers: 15%, 30%, 50%, 70%, 90% and 120% which I assign the titles used in the Robin D. Law’s King of Dragon Pass game: Fair, Good, Very good, Excellent, Reknowned and Heroic.

All skills that fall into the group are then treated as operating at at least the threshold skill level.

The upshot is that a character with Good “Pavis born and bred” can tell the GM at any time that someone born and bred in Pavis’ dusty streets should be able to find a decent short cut to Gimpy’s and use 30% as a chance for that.  The player might then list “Pavis backstreets” at 30% on the sheet and, if successful, give it a tick for later experience checks.  It is a way of providing a broad base to skills and allowing players to more effectively play the character they envisaged without having to think of every little skill they might need.


The other aspect of skill groups is that once five skills within the group have advanced beyond the next threshold, the threshold goes up and so every skill goes up to the threshold.  E.g. a Good “Initiate of Orlanth” has just raised his broadsword attack to 70%.  Within this skill group, he already has Spot Hidden at 85%, Riding at 80%, Evaluate Treasure at 70% and Camouflage at 75% (all skills the player and GM agreed fitted within this skill group).  As broadsword attack was the fifth skill in this group to get to 70%, the skill group is now Very Good and all skills within it – including any new skills the player comes up with in play that fit within this this group – will be at 70%.

This reflects the idea that during down time, when they are living their lives rather than adventuring, characters maintain and update the skills associated with that life.  Initiates of Orlanth will find themselves using skills that such initiates use on a regular basis.

Next-up: Running the Game (coming soon!)