Author Archives: The Dice Mechanic

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!)