Mid-length arcs in our D&D campaign

edited April 2012 in Actual Play
I've been feeling an inspiration to write a bit about our D&D campaign again. The main inspiration is the momentous adventure arc we just finished on Wednesday, I think it'll be interesting to see how it was structured over multiple sessions. Something that gets often de-emphasized in discussions of old school D&D is the importance of the campaign-level structures; one of the big hooks of the game is that it has insane depth over the span of multiple sessions, and this is something that it's easy to miss if you only ever play one-shots and such fragments.

Here's a quick session-by-paragraph log of our last eight sessions, through which this most recent series of events developed:

We played in Iisalmi at the local Irish pub. The party was at loose ends after the two-session delve into gnomish mines that was finished during the last session. Time was spent in figuring out the next escapade. I used the opportunity and introduced Insidious, a simple 1st level adventure with an abandoned manor and some necromancerly action. Chaplain Rolf, a 1st level player character who had been striving to make good with the local bishopric, got word about the little town of Sheridan Springs and the rumours about the dark doings in the woods. The party decided to ride out and see what's what; this would be a perfect continuation of the low-level adventuring spree that had helped level up folks over the last half a dozen sessions. In the Sheridan Springs the party met the remarkably high-level inn-keep (8th level - I run these as written, even when AD&D adventures produce ludicrous inflation like this), the pathetically helpless sheriff and other villagers. They quickly figured out that the source of the town's trouble was not the mysterious monolith, but rather the abandoned manor of the last burgomeister. Some initial scouting was accomplished, as well as a stirge encounter.

We played at my place here in Sonkajärvi - preferred location in terms of amenities, but difficult for the guys from Iisalmi. A couple of the hardcore players visited a few times over the week (over high school skip periods and such) to prep the actual session with some quick scouting of the less interesting locations in the manor, which left the actual session well-positioned for immediate action. The manor in Insidious was a trivial stroll for a party with 1 3rd level Fighter, 2nd level Adventurer (ranger-ly bowman sort) and 4th level Sage (cleric, mostly) in addition to the 1st level guys. It was consequently a rude surprise when the party discovered that the necromancer who'd dug himself a hideout underneath the manor was 10th level and hooked up with the typical AD&D set of combat magics. The Fighter was charmed and retrieved with great difficulty, and the second assault almost ended up with a total party kill, and would have if not for the very powerful combat cleric Juanita - his blessings of sacred strength and unearthly vigour (healing, that is) combine to make him nigh unstoppable. The 3rd level Elf (eladrin, actually) brought in to replace the charmed Fighter lost his paladinhood (and half his xp count) when he didn't stop Juanita from bashing the necromancer to death with his bare hands after he'd taken everything the wizard could throw at him. Afterwards the party found the wizard's spellbook, a great treasure for players who have slowly gotten ever more interested in setting up real magics of their own. The wizard's name was established as "Voldemort". Significantly, the first ever relic was generated in the campaign: the house rule is that a leveled character's prized possessions have a [level]% chance to turn into relics on death. The skull pendant of Voldemort proved to be a significant relic which the Elf Varaniel took for his own after the murder.

(Hmm, this is a bit dense. I'll have to condense more. A lot happens in these sessions, and obviously I'm myself only too interested in the layers of minutiae.)

The next week I talked with the player of Varaniel the Elf over a solo session, and we established that his character is totally using Voldemort's reliquary to help him in his spell research. (Varaniel was not always an Elf - he turned into one by stepping through a certain self-dissolving planar portal, so he doesn't yet have the magical abilities one would assume from an Elf of his level.) I revealed to Timo (the player) that yeah, I'd rolled on it and obviously what we had here was Voldemort's horcrux (also known as a phylactery, y'all). I haven't read much Harry Potter myself, but Timo's intimately familiar, so he appreciated the metatextual development. We amiably figured out how the horcrux would influence Varaniel's actions over the downtime, establishing that he would soon escape into the night with his mysterious new manservant "Gregor" (the guy just popped up uninvited a few weeks after Voldemort's death), who also happened to be a wererat. Varaniel himself was convinced that he was questing to find a shortcut to magical power, even if we knew as players that he was subtly influenced by Voldemort's pendant and the sly Gregor. As it happened, Varaniel hired some guides and travelled under inspiration to the wilderness north of fantasy-Holland. His target: Death Frost Doom.

Played in Iisalmi, at Sipi's (probably the most influential player in the campaign) place. A slow beat session, as the players continued taking on quick small fry adventures. They've been waiting for the campaign's highest level character Hans Krüger to start his Italian campaign, and nobody else has had really major ambitions at hand, so the adventures have been smallish lately. Neither Timo nor Peitsa, the players of Varaniel and Juanita, were in the session; they're the second and third dominant players in the campaign, so without them the adventure was truly small fry. The players had a map they'd secured from the "Haberdashers" thieves guild in the Skull Mountain 15 sessions back, and for some unfathomable reason they thought that the ambush and hideout locations on the map would still be current after everything that happened, so they went out to wander in the wilderness after long-outdated info. Long story short, they stumbled on an almost-related wilderness cave full of wild animals (the Singing Caves OPD), got half the party killed and executed a traitor for cowardice before wrapping up on the session. Ill-prepared and foolish an expedition, as they're wont to start sometimes.

We had another short solo session for Varaniel the Elf the next week. Varaniel continued his journey and entered the extremely baroque horror set that is Death Frost Doom. I've been waiting for the chance to run this place, and now I'm getting to do it several times as Varaniel goes first and... well, let's not get ahead of the logbook. Varaniel and Gregor were quite self-satisfied at finding the ancient Duvan'Ku shrine they were looking for. Varaniel was fearless despite the great psychic pressure of the place. I knew myself that Gregor was obviously enough a loyal servant of the mighty Voldemort, and this entire expedition was for the purpose of resurrection and nothing more. Varaniel almost managed to kill himself with purple lotus powder, but survived to sleep in the DFD cabin. Again, miraculously no major ill effects.

A session in Iisalmi, at the pub. Timo was missing again (he's been having scheduling difficulties), but the rest of the core crew was, as well as others. The players were at loose ends after the foolish Singing Caves expedition. I'd written a quick sketch of a one page dungeon myself the day before, so I offered that to them, warning them that if they wanted to hear the hook, it'd be really stupid and impossible to take back once I provided it. Curiousity killed the cat in this case, as the party learned of the Prometheus Initiative: a bunch of Pythagorean loonies/cultists asked them to travel back in time to steal fire from the neanderthals half a million years back, all so that they'd avoid a 1/6 chance of the entire campaign world turning into Carcosa in the machinations of vile time-travelling snakemen. (They had a time-travel system sort of like in Assassin's Creed - cheesy stuff all around, but played with pathos.) Peitsa wisely didn't take Juanita, his powerful 4th level Sage on this trip, but rather a 1st level character. A very successful cavemen adventure ensued, but ultimately none of the four adventurers who were sent into the past returned; they succeeded, but at high cost. The more significant facet of the session was, however, that Juanita now noticed that Varaniel the Elf was missing: he'd left their joint library/laboratory on a mysterious journey, which alone wasn't that noteworthy, but Juanita also finally noticed that Varaniel had taken Voldemort's spellbook with him! Peitsa was completely flabbergasted at the betrayal, and immediately started preparing an expedition to chase the traitor/victim. (There was strong suspicion of mind-control magics here, of course - it's not like the players can't put one and one together after somebody hits them on the head with a chalkboard.)


  • #72
    A third solo session was played for Varaniel the Elf last Tuesday. Varaniel descended into the maw of Death Frost Doom. He was very brave, perhaps confused, and immeasurably confident that his magical career was in high bloom. Gregor the henchman encouraged him but did not display any overt knowledge of this vile place. Varaniel followed the susurrus unerringly, and as it happened, the preserved head of Voldemort, the amulet and spellbook enabled the pair to pass into the holy of holies in the temple. (If you don't know this adventure already, you should - an OSR classic if there is one.) There Varaniel made a fatal mistake: Timo totally expected a double-cross from Gregor the henchman, and he was totally within his rights to not "play stupid", but he was surprised by the magical curse of the high altar, and by the timing of the assault. Gregor the wererat knew that one of them would have to die for Voldemort to live again, and he didn't intend to be it. Unfortunately Varaniel's one huge flaw as an adventurer and hero has since session #8 or so been his attrocious Stamina (Strength), which at 4 was far from sufficient in resisting the wererat as he sacrificed the elf on the altar to fulfill the foul ritual that would allow Voldemort to live again.

    (In case it's not entirely obvious, the reason for the entire sacrifice ritual in Death Frost Doom is arbitrary GM setup: I decided before session 68 that one possible ritual manner for Voldemort to achieve his resurrection would be a murderous sacrifice in the ancient Duvan'Ku temple. Voldemort had been slightly associated with Duvan'Ku interests through sessions 66-67, so it seemed natural to me that he'd harken back to the closest place of power in this way. This is, of course, constructive rationalization in that I've long been looking for a sufficiently attractive McGuffin to get the players to this accursed place. When the opportunity arose, I grasped it.)

    Last Wednesday's session here at my place. The entire session was a tense chase as the party (including a new character Timo rolled up, as he didn't want to bring his still-charmed 3rd level Fighter) tracked Varaniel's journey from fantasy-Bavaria to fantasy-Holland and further into the wilderness. They met and befriended the rangers who'd escorted and left Varaniel to die earlier (I skipped this detail above), and in general figured out his destination. (I didn't seriously want to keep them from the actual adventure site, of course, but in the end it was not that hard to find witnesses to the passing of the extremely rare ethereal high elf in an entirely human campaign setting.) The party travelled up to Death Frost Doom, explored the surface features and learned from the local crazy hermit that a pair sounding like their quarry had descended from the mountain just two days ago. The players decided to not meddle with DFD anymore (they'll be back - oh yes, if I and my McGuffins have anything to say about it), as they were intent on capturing Varaniel and retrieving the dangerous, blashemous and spell-full spellbook of Voldemort. The chase ultimately took them over the entire fantasy-Holland, climaxing in Amsterdam, where the party located Varaniel-cum-Voldemort just a day before his ship would depart the harbour for faraway lands. Unfortunately three of the five player characters got distracted in Amsterdam (an entirely foolish affair that would become an urban legend under the name of the "Night of the Red Carnelias"), which meant that Juanita and Yoreel (the 3rd level adventurer) assaulted the lion very much under full strength.

    (This needs its own chapter.)

    The Momentous Finale

    The rest of the session took something like 15 minutes of fictional time, consisting of minute-long combat rounds. The fight was a 10th level AD&D wizard and a 3HD wererat against a very strongly built, slowly developed 4th level clerical saint and a 3rd level ranger. Unfortunately Yoreel left his four fighting dogs outside the inn, as the players attempted a stealthy assault. They were uncertain at this point about what, exactly, had happened to Varaniel the Elf; as far as they knew they could reason it out. Alas, Voldemort was in full control of the body, and Gregor the wererat totally obviated the surprise by slipping out of the common room and hastening to warn his Master of the approaching adventurers. Voldemort hated Juanita with the fury of a truly evil villain, of course - his last death was slow and agonizing, as the merciless cleric bashed him to death unarmed.

    A Stinking Cloud prepared for the assault pretty much confirmed to the players that Varaniel had Voldemort's repertoire and intent to kill; Juanita made the fateful decision to dash through the cloud instead of retreating, and took Yoreel with him as well. Gregor the wererat Feigned Dead (cast by Voldemort) within the room to surprise the party. As the cloud's poison took hold, the fight seemed pretty much lost, but Peitsa is seriously experienced in our style of play at this point, so he didn't give up. Juanita bullrushed the wizard despite his heaving nausea, failed horridly (blind from the burning gas, not too surprising) and stumbled over furniture. Voldemort took him with a Shocking Grasp which didn't fell him due to his unnatural constitution. (Juanita has a second heart from his dobbelganger union in session #4 or so, I think - extra hit die that saved him here.)

    Our combat system has evolved into a pretty baroque thing through the campaign, and the players stroked it for all its worth. To cut the story short, Juanita took two Shocking Grasps and fell massively into negative hitpoints, but bulled through with lucky constitution checks (the system resembles some d20 applications in that falling to negative hitpoints merely causes save-or-die and save-or-fall checks in combat - ordinarily lethal, but the players were pushing all sorts of mechanical crack here) to break the wizard with his bare hands, like he did the last time. (Juanita has that hideous might as a combat saint - he was rocking Strength 43 at this point, I think. Enough to literally rip apart the scrawny wizard when he finally got his hand on him.)

    The fight itself took just five minutes of fictional time, but the "death opera" at the end took another eight rounds or so: the wererat Gregor surprised Yoreel from behind on the third round of combat and then threw himself on the utterly exhausted Juanita when he saw Voldemort being broken. Gregor managed the unthinkable and got through Juanita's holy rage, ripping his throat fatally before Yoreel put him down. Although the combat was practically done (the players didn't know for certain who was dead and who wasn't, they just knew general visual details such as who was standing), we continued in combat rounds to see whether Juanita might survive even this ordeal with his unnatural blessings of healing.

    I've never played through a death opera like this: the point of the rules system I've made is to ensure that the higher your character's level (and the more investment you presumably have on the character - everybody starts at 1st level in this campaign), the longer and more convoluted is the process of death. The player can give up at any point, of course, but if he's willing to dash it out and keeps succeeding in various rolls, it can take dozens of various consciousness checks, first aid checks, stabilization checks, and other such medical drama for the situation to resolve. In this case we spent something like an hour establishing whether a beloved character, one of the two most important in the campaign, would die, or live with merely crippling wounds.

    The most amusing highlight of the death struggle was probably when Juanita critted massively on a willpower check and I gave Peitsa the choice of either a vision of Harry Houdini (Jesus Christ's fantasy counterpart, that is - the divinity Juanita serves) or a spontaneous swap of character classes into Ascetic, a new class that I've been trying to sell to the players and that would fit the character's fictional background better than Sage. Peitsa foolishly chose the vision, without realizing that Harry would not help him - the bastard son of God merely offered redemption, telling Juanita that he had done more than any single mortal man should need to, and that he was now ready to perish and rise up where the angels dwell. Juanita unfortunately denied Harry despite the risk to his immortal soul.

    Ultimately Juanita succumbed to death despite Yoreel's inept attempts at helping the man with his torn throat (unable to swallow anything - established early on and one of the many critical factors that went into his death). The rest of the session was quick at this point, as Amsterdam's peace patrols arrived to confiscate everything and anything. Yoreel will be entangled for 4 months resolving the mess, although we did establish that he will ultimately get everybody to believe the essentials of his story. The players are probably the most pissed at the fact that the Republic confiscated Voldemort's spellbook and other personal effects, not to speak of dear Juanita's personal gear; the poor guy had broken his cloister rule and escaped from the bishop's direct command last summer, so he was still legally considered the Church's ward.

    Repercussions and insight

    That entire arc was just hilarious to play through as it spontaneously evolved. The death of Juanita was the most important event to happen in the campaign in a long time, it's the first time a high-level dominant character dies. Juanita had on-going spiritual concerns in the world, now the players need to figure out whether his fears regarding e.g. the Dullahan's influence in fantasy-Bavaria or the Duvan'Ku sightings in fantasy-Holland are something to be ignored. The library he financed and built in Funkelstad is going to devolve to others who need to determine whether they're interested in pursuing the magical arts and hidden mysteries in the same way or for the same reasons as old Juanita.

    We've been speculating about the emotional tone of character death before, and for now it seems that the campaign survives despite Juanita's death. I would say that this partially because Peitsa is a tough guy, he's totally sold on the machismo of old school D&D; as he himself says, he's been waiting for this to happen for a while, and he's laughing at death just the same now that it happened to his main man. (I don't know if Sipi, the player of the other dominant character, would take death as well.) Another reason for why we could take the death as an exciting opportunity and a momentous change is that the system as I've developed it truly does make a grim epic of the death of a character with any levels, really. It is a consensual process, and even if death will claim a character against a player's wishes, he'll at least have a certainty and assurance of exact and ponderous process that truly affirms the death. There is no arbitrariness in it, in this system you can trust that your character won't die arbitrarily.

    The above arc of events with Voldemort the 10th level necromancer is a good example of the kind of shit we get up to over a long-term campaign. Individual story lines weave in and out of focus over time, and an organic landscape is built out of the choices and developments that happen in play. Voldemort is far from the only "recurring villain" we have on the table at the moment, for instance, and there are things happening in the world that I can easily latch onto adventure modules and throw at the players whenever I feel like.
  • Oh, I forgot to emphasize that we lost two long-time PCs over this arc: Varaniel the Elf was not played nearly as much over time, but the character originated sometime <#10 session, too, even if he spent most of his arc wasting away from supernatural AIDS before turning into an eladrin. We're constantly forgetting this other victim because Peitsa's character has just been so overwhelmingly important in many adventures that everybody's flabbergasted now that he's gone ;)

    In general I'm pretty happy with the death rate lately. Over the last eight sessions detailed above the players have managed to lose an average of one character per session, roughly. Good to keep a cull up, it motivates smarter play in the future.
  • Sounds pretty cool. I've never ran any campaign for quite as long as 73 sessions (impressive!), but I've been in some long-running D&D games and I agree, there is a certain level of interest and depth that you can only reach after you've been playing a while.

    I also find, like you seem to have, that playing with differing player sets and splicing in solo sessions adds a bit of variety and depth that a game which only happens when everyone shows up sometimes lacks, I feel.
  • Eero,

    I just spotted this thread due to a link you posted in your latest OSR D&D thread. I'm curious if you've written any more on your "high-level character death" effects, given your house rule system.

    For instance, some of the established details you describe (such as the Yoreel's story will be believed by everyone, and the fact that Juanita couldn't swallow anything) seem rather tangentially-related to standard D&D hit point-attrition combat. How does this all work, and how did these house rules come about? Did you have this vision for high-level characters being hard to kill from the start, or did it evolve organically?
  • I had the notion of being hard to kill from the start. To be specific, I don't really appreciate the increasing contrast between death from HP damage and death from a failed save: at low levels the two are relatively similar processes and risks, while at higher levels characters can shrug off enormous fictional concerns (brutal violence, falls from great heights) if they target hitpoints, while simultaneously being fragile in an extremely swingy way against another range of fictional threats (poison, magic). Even the strongest character just saves once against a slightly better number, which won't affect the result as long as you roll low.

    For me it works much better for the saves and hit points to work hand in hand: insofar as we have a vision of D&D where being higher level makes you harder to kill and more likely to survive, it befits us to make the mechanics work this way as well. Meanwhile we also want to preserve the possibility of instant death for even high-level characters. How to bring this about?

    My solution relies on the notion that experience levels are a measure of dramatic logic: low level characters are realistic and relatively similar to bit players of the fantasy world in terms of the rules they follow, while high-level characters are more likely to survive unlikely odds in a way that mostly reminds me of dramatic conceit. The big hit points don't measure how tough you are, they measure how much special protagonist treatment we as players are willing to provide you. The slow character development from low to high level causes an interesting ambivalence, as play shifts in nigh-imperceptible steps from realistic to cinematic conceits.

    This being the background theory (we'd see an entirely different solution if I believed character advancement to be about in-fiction experience), my choice is to degree that a failed save does not cause death, but rather merely a "cross" on the character sheet. A cross in turn is difficult to remove, and it is often accompanied by horrid critical injuries; having more crosses than your level is instant death. Thus, in effect, all characters can survive their level in failed death saves. 0-level characters die on the first save as usual.

    (If you understand the "crosses" as sort of strategic-level hit points that are always = to character level and only heal on the scope of multiple sessions, and don't protect you from losing an eye, then you're on the right track.)

    It's significant to note that I always withhold the opportunity to declare their character dead to the player: they do not need to go through the saving roll and cross procedure unless they want to. This makes sense in that often players agree that their character deserves to die, or it makes sense for them to die here, or they don't want to see how the GM mutilates the character in a desperate situation that is unlikely to turn to life anyway.

    Also, it's important that my system treatment unifies the systems and currencies of hit points and saving throws: hit points do not protect you from death, they protect you from critical strikes that cause saving throws against death. So it doesn't matter whether you're endangered by a great fall or poison, the system is theoretically the same: some DCs are established, saving rolls are made, crosses are suffered, etc. As I've explained before, the role of hit points is to "take the hit" instead of the character so they don't need to do this saving throw thing. They work against all threats that are ambiguously martial in nature and don't explicitly "pass through HP" as e.g. poison and magic do.

    As for how this system can still be instant death: a sufficiently failed save (remember, degrees of success in my universal dicing logic) may trigger a follow-up save if the situation warrants, and the same fictional situation may also cause multiple saves (and therefore multiple crosses) to occur if the fictional positioning causes the character to be stuck in the situation long-term. Thus a character who falls into a pool of lava and does not instantly get dragged out will be dead, no matter the level. We do attempt constructive invention, thought, so that if there is a way to get a character to temporary safety after taking a cross, we execute it: the intent is that crosses ideally happen "in lieu of death", utilizing some dramatic coincidence where possible; the character's ability to avoid death by taking crosses instead is a dramatic ability after all, as discussed above.

    The sort of "death opera" we had with Juanita is an emergent outcome of this system: the character was relatively isolated, and grievously injured, while still having a bunch of crosses unfilled. A few initial bad rolls established that the injury was, indeed, grave, so we were stuck watching him bleed to death beyond the aid of most available doctoring. This took a while, as the player refused death until it was obligated by the system; he spent the turns of action attempting various types of meditative religious practices in the hopes of spontaneously unlocking some healing magic to save himself. (Not absurd for a character who is specifically a saint - or a cleric, as D&D has it - capable of just such miracles.)

    Regarding the fictional detail of torn throat, that came about through the constantly active fictional positioning system. In other words, it's a detail that I described earlier as result of a powerful attack by the wererat on Juanita. The actual play of the game is a constantly evolving morass of fictional ideas that turn into important details unexpectedly; for instance, this mention of a bloody attack on the throat might not have signified a messed-up esophagus until that was established by a later recovery saving roll attempted by Juanita - failure in that solidified the idea that this injury was indeed grave and life-threatening, which in turn gave the referee basis in an improvised ruling that Juanita would have trouble swallowing.

    Yoreel's aftermath, on the other hand, mostly relied on the credibility and assertiveness of the player's story, and the available physical evidence of events, combined with their charisma check in explaining it to the magistrates. That was not directly mechanically related to the fight itself, but rather a separate issue dealt with immediately afterwards. (The guards arrived mere minutes after the fight.)
  • Very interesting, Eero! And the logic makes perfect sense to me.

    How are the "gruesome injuries" established? For instance, is a torn aesophagus part of the trials of a tough adventurer, but a loss of, say, his sword-arm out of the question?
  • Hit point damage is generally not tactically or strategically significant, so it's described any which way the mood strikes. Critical hits, however, are: when you're hit "for real", whoever has the vision at the time narrates (often the GM, but not necessarily) the injury. The seriousness depends on the fictional positioning: basically you give them whatever makes sense for the enemy's attack vector, as bad as can be. So if the enemy is attacking with sharp claws, make it a ripped throat, whatever.

    (Note that this is not about establishing objective injuries at the moment, but rather about establishing cinematic impressions that turn into objective facts later, when examining the injuries or bodies. Was a throat ripped out, or was it just a deep scratch that nicked the artery? I will only know this a posteori, once we've seen whether this injury proved fatal, and how fatal. There's plenty of leeway here; it's one of the main principles I hold in D&D that there is a gray area of injury between "I've got hitpoints" and "I'm dead", one that many D&D applications fail to recognize.)

    Loss of sword-arms and such is definitely a possible example of an injury when you're hit by a critical injury and fail the saving throw. As I explain it to the players, failing a saving throw is a "little death" - a normal 0-level human would have already died, but because we're playing slightly heroic individuals, they merely lose a leg here, or maybe "just" take a gut wound that might fester later but isn't an immediately crippling deal.

    It is notable that when it comes to grievous injuries as a result of critical strikes or other saving throw situations, the range of possibilities is large, and not all outcomes are nearly as bad as others. This is because D&D doesn't traditionally have particular grievous injury mechanics, so I haven't had any inspiration for making my own or porting something. Seems to work just fine essentially by fiat: you want to clip a hand off him, let's say that's what happens. Basically once you've lost a saving throw, your life is already forfeit by the rules, so anything less than that is merely gratuitous fate you should be grateful for.

    Thinking about it, there is a bit of fair play involved in this process: the narration of the injury has to leave the character in a legitimate position to continue struggling, at the very least. This is basically just a pacing device: if we know that this guy can take three crosses before dying, and they only just got their second, then it would not be fair play to describe an outcome of a saving throw that is still basically dead. Taking the cross is like using a fate point in WFRPG, except maybe we don't stretch the likely outcomes of a situation quite as far.

    The important point is that gruesome injuries will only happen as outcome of instadeath traps and magic, or after your hitpoints have been reduced to zero, or with lucky critical hits in combat. So these injuries should not be compared to the soft consequences of injury in ordinary D&D (lose some hitpoints, narrate in ways that don't leave scars, use healing magic, rinse and repeat), but rather to the grim finality of death you get in those: this just seems superficially grimmer because there is less clean death and more "he just got his arm sliced clean off, but you can see by the eyeballs that he's still fully conscious".
  • Eero,

    An excellent overview!

    So what kinds of things require "saving throws against death"? In standard D&D, it's always well-defined situations (poisons, particularly nasty traps, spells, magical items, dragon breath, etc), although I believe some versions have a rule that when you suffer more than half of your hit points in one blow (or something like that), you have to make a saving throw vs. death.

    In your house rules, do saving throws against death come up when someone rolls an extraordinary amount of degrees of success on an attack, or any other relatively routine circumstances?

    Is it possible for a character to lose all their hit points and die without ever encountering a saving throw, for example?
  • Dying without a saving throw is not possible in practice, except by player accord in obvious situations we don't feel the need to play through. Losing all your hit points doesn't even injure a character per se - the only consequence is that attacks start causing automatic "critical" strikes that cause real injuries and saving throws. (So instead of rolling for hp damage we establish a save DC for the opponent to pass or die.) To allocate serious injury is to require a saving throw, and hitpoints usually prevent doing this as long as they're available to protect the corporeal sanctity of the character.

    The other way to come up with "critical" hits that cause saving throws and may kill characters is to ignore HP in some way. As we know, poison and various magic attacks in D&D traditionally ignore hitpoints as a form of protection. Sufficiently overbearing combat performance manages this as well: a 5th degree success in an attack (or "success and 4 stunts" as that may be equivalently phrased - normally equivalent to rolling 20 points over enemy AC) may be directly cashed in for a critical strike that does not cause hit point damage, but instead injures the target. This usually drops an opponent out of combat, as only the most exceptional individuals are up to continuing active resistance after they've taken a real injury of any sort, but technically it's possible, and player character heroes manage it from time to time. (Much hinges mechanically on whether the attack was delivered by e.g. fist or sword - it's much easier to take a full blow from the former and remain standing, which is represented by an easier will check to remain in fight.)
  • Interesting.

    So what happens if a character has no hit points remaining, takes a "deadly blow" (which requires a saving throw), and succeeds the save? No effect, close call? Or something else?

    Sounds like fun, in any case! I may port this into D&D next time I play it in one form or another.
  • A successful save generally equals "close call", except that it may incur temporary modifiers. Specifically, all saves during a single combat or other stress situation, success or not, increase the DC of further saves by +5. (With some very tough higher-level characters this cumulative penalty becomes quite significant, as they are tough enough to reliably shrug off a clean blow from e.g. an ordinary sword. Repeated blows will still take them down unless they have some actual immunity instead of just generally high save bonuses against physical harm.)

    (The difficulty class of a given death save depends on what causes it, just like the consequences of failing. Thus e.g. a bare-fist attack has base DC of 15 modified by whatever, while an edged weapon is at 20 and a heavy weapon at 25. This sort of "implicit" or "hidden" weapon statistic is more elegant for me than ordinary weapon lists that are copied to the character sheet - much easier to have equipment on the sheet be mere declaration of fictional positioning, and the GM then tracks these sorts of rules elements in a generalized way.)

    Individual attacks may of course have effects on successful saves as well. As a rule of thumb, any effect that is incurred on a successful attack check (e.g. poison effects of poisonous snakes, which usually occur on a hit in D&D) happens regardless of whether the target took HP damage or a saving throw.

    As you probably remember, the context of all this rulesy stuff is an oral, refereed tradition, so the deep details tend to shift around. For example, I've been flirting with incurring on-going performance penalties in combat even for successful death saves. It's a solid hit from a weapon after all, fictionally speaking, so even if the character remains standing and essentially uninjured, it would make sense to turn on the death spiral at that point. (D&D usually doesn't do negative modifiers due to combat fatigue, as you know. I do occasionally, but generally it only comes into play due to literal fatigue after several minutes of combat, not because somebody took HP damage.)
  • So, if I get hit by an enemy in combat:

    * If I have enough hit points remaining, we just subtract them and count it as some kind of close call, like in regular D&D.
    * If I run out of hit points, I have to make a saving throw, based on the lethality of the weapon.
    * If I fail the save, I'm seriously injured (and accumulate one "saving throw check"), unless I'm out of these "saving throw checks", in which case I'm dead.
    * If I pass the save, there's no real effect (except potentially increasing the difficulty of future saving throws + optional combat penalties).

    Is that about right?

    It sounds like a D&D character in your game can take a lot of punishment, under normal circumstances! For instance, if I'm a third-level character, in order to die I first have to get hit many times (so as to expend all my hit points), then get hit again three more times (and fail my save each time).

    Of course, it sounds like the nature of those serious injuries encourages characters to "give in" and run or surrender well before that point, which makes things more interesting.

    Under what circumstances does taking damage/injury call for a saving throw despite the character having hit points remaining? Is it just for death traps, poison, and similar effects, or does it come up in something like a routine toe-to-toe combat?

  • Interesting, sounds like your game is very different from by the book Old School D&D at least in terms of power levels of characters unless I'm misreading something. Your 4th level cleric sounds like a much more powerful character than a typical 4th level B/X D&D character with that strength of 43 and the hard to kill rules. Is that the case and do you have rewards built into your system beyond just leveling up?
  • Is that about right?
    That's about it, yes.

    And yeah, characters are somewhat stickier than in orthodox D&D. I would not characterize it as being powerful, necessarily, so much as there being more shades of grey between "I'm fine" and "I'm irrevocably dead". We don't abide by the degenerate practice of resurrection magic, and the realism of debilitating yet non-lethal injury appeals to us, so it makes sense to make it so that most fights end with characters in somewhat ambiguous state between life and death. This enables more leeway in saving beloved and tough characters by taking good care of them post-injury; as orthodox D&D does not practically speaking have injuries, you end up lugging around dead comrades in the hope of resurrection, which is somewhat too morbid and videogame-y for me.

    It's important to understand that this system doesn't mean that you can take your level in post-HP hits before going down for the count: the vast majority of time characters are out of a given fight after they take their first cross for the fight; sometimes they're out without taking a cross. The issue of whether a character is currently combat-worthy, right this minute, is resolved by a separate will save simultaneously with the injury save that indicates whether the character is seriously injured (that is, whether they suffer a cross mark or not). These two issues are technically completely independent of each other: a given character might go down from the pain and exhaustion at a strike that in hindsight (after the fight, when inspecting injuries) proves relatively minor, or a character might indeed take steel to the gut and keep on fighting in desperation or rage.

    The intent of the "cross system" of avoiding death is that a given character is for the most part out of the adventure after their first cross - the rest of the matter is just about getting them out alive during the retreat phase. Only the toughest and most fanatic characters will take a cross-worthy injury and actually continue delving the dungeon. The actual idea with the crosses is that they're tracked over multiple-session spans of time, and presumably amassing more of them would then deter a player from over-working that one character: instead they'll send the character off to recover for an extended period of time (as in, real-time months) in the hope of reducing the crosses a bit.

    And of course passing out during a fight, or being established as "too weak to stand up", is effective death if the party does not manage to organize a retreat to save the injured characters. Players may insist on seeing what the orcs do to their characters until the end, but the sensible ones just ask the referee whether their character might ever be seen again. A quick 1/20 luck check answers that, and so we don't need to delve deeper into what the monsters do with the unfortunate living captives. (Except of course where the enemy might preserve the character for a while - we've had captives ransomed from various sorts of primitives now and again, it's not impossible.)

    As for how critical hits are established during an "ordinary fight", the standard ways well established in the system are to reduce enemy HP to zero, or to pass their armor class so overwhelmingly that you pass their HP as well - 4 extra successes over AC, or equivalently an attack check result 20 points over AC. It is not unheard of to get critical hits in other ways, but it's a very serious matter to allow it at any point: hitpoints are the single most important cinematic conceit in D&D, so any stratagem that bypasses the full-body protective force field (figuratively speaking, you understand) that they afford is serious business. Striking a mythic weak spot (a proverbial Achilles' heel) of an enemy might qualify; a surprise assassination strike obviously does (an advantage my system has: there is no mechanical ambiguity whatsoever in one-shotting a strong enemy with assassination methods); some characters might have special combat techniques that occasionally allow them to "bypass HP" and deliver a direct critical strike - these would usually have some sorts of limits, e.g. the attack might only work against an enemy with less than N hitpoints, or whatever.

    Hitpoints are a very important, very central resource and feature of D&D. I have no desire to make bypassing them a routine feat.

  • Interesting, sounds like your game is very different from by the book Old School D&D at least in terms of power levels of characters unless I'm misreading something. Your 4th level cleric sounds like a much more powerful character than a typical 4th level B/X D&D character with that strength of 43 and the hard to kill rules. Is that the case and do you have rewards built into your system beyond just leveling up?
    Yeah, this is somewhat the case. I would not call the progression more powerful than 3rd edition, but it may be somewhat more powerful than some of the older editions of the game. Most of the "insanely overpowered" wibe that some people get from our campaign doesn't come from actual objective power-level, though, but rather from a few philosophical principles that seem somewhat rare in modern D&D (despite being less so in the past, in my understanding):
    • The game is systemically more dynamic and chaotic than almost any by-the-book D&D: baseline 0-level characters can have ability-derived bonus differences of up to 10 points against each other, for example, so a fortunate 1st level character can already be the match of a higher-level character in some narrow ways. The dicing is more chaotic as well: a large margin of victory will give you exponential advantage (e.g. rolling 20 points over AC in combat is a save-or-die effect), and natural '20' and natural '1' both have special rules that increase the swinginess. So it's not so much that characters are powerful, but rather that rolling the dice sufficiently often produces exceptional successes and failures occasionally.
    • There is no philosophy of character balance, and specifically no requirement for level to correlate with character competence. I do uphold an analytical leveling system that would make Monte Cook proud, but the limits on what characters may accomplish by fictional positioning and secondary venues of advancement are rather loose in practice: it's entirely possible for one 3rd level character to have just a bunch of extra hitpoints and +2 to attack bonus in comparison to a 1st level character, while another one sports five extra feats, bunch of expensive equipment and useful allies, all gained by accomplishing deeds in play. For a while we had an unlucky 1st level character who'd amassed sufficient ancillary resources to be comparable to a 2nd or 3rd level character, all without managing to level.
    (Regarding the high strength score of Juanita the combat cleric, it is certainly exceptional. In some ways it's less significant than the equivalent in e.g. AD&D, though: insofar as the ability scales we use relate to fiction, the relation is more of a linear one than the massive qualitative jumps you get in the forms of D&D where a giant might have Strength 20. In the local system 43 is in the "lifts wagons above his head" territory, and in practical terms it translates into about +25 in combat bonus - not insignificant, but roughly equal to what a say 5th level Fighter might expect to have by skill and human-level conditioning alone. Besides, Juanita could uphold this "strength of Samson" blessing for only minutes at a time, and he had fair chances of breaking himself bodily by the over-exertion.)

    As for character improvement (I hesitate to call it "reward", as we don't follow a Pavlovian model of play) outside of leveling, the basic principles of the system are simple: you get numerical baseline bonuses for leveling (more hitpoints, more attack bonus, etc.), while all special skills and abilities and tricks and spells and such come solely from seeking and finding them in the fiction. In practice this means that characters tend to do some training in between adventures to learn new feats and such. The system is held in check by a rough guideline: if a character levels and has less feats than their level, they get to pick a new one that they're assumed to have learned along the way somewhere. Likewise the referee may request a player to reduce a character's feats to = their level if and when the feat-collection gets out of proportion; the idea is that characters should have roughly as many feats and special powers and other such privileges as they have level. (The need for feat reduction hasn't happened so far, but I reserve this power in case it comes up.)
  • edited June 2013

    (The need for feat reduction hasn't happened so far, but I reserve this power in case it comes up.)
    That's interesting. Would there be a fictional justification for the loss of a feat (a corollary to the idea that learning a new feat is justified by the fiction that the character must have been working on the new feat "offscreen" the whole time), or would the fiction stay the same while the mechanical advantage vanishes? Learning a feat seems easier to explain than losing one for a few reasons. (e.g. How do you decide which one? &c.)

    More generally, is there always a fictional explanation for every mechanical change on the character sheet as characters level up?
  • Generally speaking the treatment of fictional justifications falls into two classifications in our character development system: when the system analytically mandates a change in character, a "soft" justification is required, while sometimes a "hard" justification mandates a mechanical change in character spec. The soft and hard fictional justifications are treated very differently:

    A soft justification is used when we know a priori (before observing the fictional situation, that is) thanks to an established rule that a character is changing. For example, at the end of a session of play all characters get an ability improvement check (a chance to gain a +1 to one ability - as with many other things, abilities are more variable in our system than most versions of D&D). The fictional justification for this is "soft", meaning that players may or may not proffer a narrative justification, but one is not required; should the player desire to generate a justification, they have ample freedom in devising one, insofar as we understand that the purpose of this storytelling is in grounding this event. The default justification for the ability improvements is traditionally general and vague: experience, conditioning and tempering of the adventurer may or may not reflect on his abilities over time. Whether a player provides justifications or not does not affect the mechanical process.

    A hard justification, on the other hand, is something that requires mechanical response. A character who obtains a spellbook and studies it is a classical example of a hard justification: the fictional events provide a strong argument for the character learning some new spells, so denying this mechanical advantage would be difficult and require counter-argument of the same jurisdiction. A hard justification needs to be solid in fictional terms: it has to be established via the processes that the game uses for establishing legitimate facts about the fiction. The situation is the same when a character wants to e.g. swing from a chandelier: you can only do this if there is a chandelier present in the fiction, but if one is present, you cannot be denied on merely procedural or mechanical grounds.

    Now, it would be simple if the logic of character development was either entirely analytical (like modern D&D - you can plan your 3rd edition character 20 levels in advance because nothing that happens in the fiction actually affects the key statistics) or entirely realistic (like any "learning by doing" system). In a hybrid system, which I believe D&D to be, we sometimes encounter somewhat peculiar situations. For example, feats: characters are guaranteed a certain minimum access to feats via analytic processes (gain a level, check your number of feats, add one if < character level), but we also acknowledge that it is possible to construct hard fictional justification for your character gaining a feat in play. For example, if we have a feat that represents a specific sort of skill or background, a character who positions themselves to become the sort of person who has this skill has a hard justification for adding that feat to their character sheet: if your character factually is a barber, how could we refuse the Barber Feat from you?

    As for losing feats: as I intimated above, I've never had to use this "panic lever" I established for the feat economy - it seems to be merely a theoretical worry that players would run around amassing ludicrous amounts of feats instead of doing something interesting (sure, give me a sufficiently maladjusted bunch of geeks and that'd probably be exactly what they'd try to do, though). As this feat reduction has not been attempted in practice, I can only speculate on how it would go. My expectation would be that I'd advice the few players who'd have excess feats at the time (usually about one third of the players end up with characters who have a couple feats over their character level, while the rest mostly get their feats from the default progression) to remove the most useless ones, and then we would not provide much in the way of soft justification for the disappearance: the general explanation would suffice - namely, that the game assumes only a certain degree of complexity from a character of level N, and therefore extra backstory gets constructively ignored until and unless the character gains a sufficient level of badassitude to warrant having e.g. five feats instead of just one. If a more specific justification were desired, I'd imagine that they would mostly fall into variations of "my character has been away from his occupation/hobby/lifestyle for so long that he's forgotten much of what he once knew."
  • Eero,

    I don't know if this the best context, but I'd love to hear how you handle initiative in your D&D game. Is it similar to standard D&D initiative, or has it similarly been adjusted from its original purpose?
  • Right, initiative. There are traditionally two initiative systems in D&D. One is individual initiative, one is group initiative; both have their virtues. My system predominantly uses individual initiative, but it switches to different degrees of group initiative at appropriate times. Here's how I do it:

    At the beginning of combat all characters get their initiative scores from a Wits+d20 roll, same as any Ability checks. Fighters get their level as a bonus to Initiative due to their combat experience. Initiative is usually tracked by a single player on a piece of paper, but some sort of tokens might be used as well. The basic principle after this is simple: the combat "round" moves from highest Initiative towards lowest, so that everybody gets a "turn" to act. Initiative stays the same for the next round, and the rounds continue until the combat ends. In fiction this process doesn't map to chronological time; all action in combat is assumed to be roughly simultaneous anyway. Rather, having your turn before another player represents literal initiative (in the face of a situation you start moving before somebody else does) and efficacy (you deliver your action with more certainty, and therefore finish it first). Combat rounds are roughly one minute long in the fiction (as in AD&D, but unlike many other versions), although this is a descriptive measure, not prescriptive (that is, what we describe happening in combat usually takes anything between 15 to 200 seconds per round). Where characters have unaccounted for time (the actions the mechanics allowed them for a given span of time are noticeably incommensurate with how long that time lasted), the assumption is that the character took surprisingly long either deciding what to do, or hesitating out of fear, or reorienting after the action.

    As for what you can do on your turn, it's similarly simple and traditional: a single action such as an attack, declaring full defense (in lieu of attacking, improve your defenses), whatever. Footwork is assumed to occur during rounds and turns all the time anyway.

    So far so good, this is basically the simple D&D procedure at its simplest, excepting the bonuses. As with most other mechanics, my goal is to have the basic routine be basically the same as it ever was in D&D. The differences come up in elaborations. I'll list some features:

    Superior initiative

    This was our first and most basic advanced initiative rule, I think I introduced it almost right away at the beginning of the campaign.

    Because of how I view initiative, I wanted there to be some simple and elegant way to depict what superior initiative actually means in concrete terms. This rule needed to be simple yet universally applicable, so no special feat or class feature. Not overpowering either, though.

    What I ended up with was the notion that at the beginning of each combat round the single character with the highest initiative may declare "double action": they would take their normal action for the round, then reduce their Initiative by 10 points, and also have an action at their new Initiative score. Thus a character would be able to act twice during one round.

    Because I assume that individual combat rounds correspond to "bouts" of melee (a single clash of arms, from whence the combatants have to retreat a few steps sooner or later to catch their breath and reorient), this rule of superior initiative makes perfect sense: the character with the highest initiative is simply the one who acts first to initiate the next bout, so of course they're going to have an edge: they're effectively surprising their enemy, who are still not ready to continue the fight.

    The general effect of this rule is that overall initiative tends to even out during a combat: a character who dominates with over 10 points will find it a no-brainer to take that second action, as they've lost nothing significant by doing so; a character who leads by less than 10 points might sometimes pass on the double-action, as doing it has little advantage against a single opponent: you get a turn, they get a turn, you get a second turn, but then on the next round they're now higher in initiative order, and thus you've actually not gained an extra action. So usually the superior initiative rule is only invoked when somebody has actually clearly superior initiative in comparison to other combatants.
  • edited July 2013

    The basic system allows an individual character to act once per round; this represents a sort of baseline human capability for processing events and making decisions under pressure. In addition to this it is assumed that each character is capable of e.g. reacting to dangers (defending themselves) and following orders given by legitimate leaders.

    Actions in reaction to events happening before or after your Initiative are possible; this is a necessary logical consequence of how the system is structured, as otherwise characters would just have to stand and take it when something unexpected happens. This might just about be justified when a lower-initiative character is suprised by something that happens before their own turn (they were slower, after all), but what about when your turn already passed and something happens then? No, it seems evident that the system has to account for two types of action: the moments when your own initiative allows you to act actively, and then all the various sorts of other things you might do in combat in reaction to events.

    A player may declare at any time that their character is reacting to something that somebody else is doing. This costs initiative points: whatever your initiative is now, we deduct X points from it, and that's your initiative score from then on. How much is deducted depends on what exactly it is that you're doing: the more natural the action is, the more sensible it is to assume that your character has a trained or natural reaction to act, the cheaper it'll be.

    An example of a free reaction is using your AC to defend against attacks; because AC is traditionally "passive defense" in D&D, we do not assign it an initiative cost. We could, it would make a certain sense to have in-coming attacks erode your initiative; as has been discussed, ours is an oral and organic system, and this just isn't a step we'd have taken so far.

    Using shields is an excellent example of a trade-off that has developed from my dissatisfaction with D&D shield rules (that measly +1 to AC or whatever just doesn't reflect the tactical importance of a shield to many types of combat); the way we play shields now is that a character with a shield may "block" an attack actively provided suitable positioning (facing, the in-coming attack is the right type, the shield is wielded, etc.). When you declare a block, you pay 2 Initiative for the right to react (reacting to other people disrupts your own concentration, that's why your initiative pays for reacting), and make an opposed defense roll - it's just like an attack roll, and the math of my system basically makes this a comparable score to AC. If you roll better than your AC, then that defense score is used instead of your AC when resolving that attack.

    In some situations we have also had two different types of shield block: you pay 2 initiative to block before the attack roll, and 5 to block after the attack roll but before the damage roll. This doesn't always make sense (when the attacks are fast and simple, etc.), but if you remember that our combat rounds are 1-minute long and each "attack" represents a bout more than a single stroke of a sword, it's not that unreasonable to allow a character to focus their efforts on the most lethal assaults.

    Shieldless characters may attempt to parry or dodge actively as well, although this is usually something that requires a pretty specific background or training or so on - basic sorts of dodging and parrying are already assumed by AC, so doing these actions actively requires extraordinary justification. Being a ninja or similar, usually characters start to worry about active defenses around level 3-5 (when everybody tends to start rolling over AC pretty routinely, friends and enemies both; as is the case in D&D, attack bonuses outrace AC).

    Reacting may, of course, be used for many other things aside from blocking: catching falling friends, activating pre-prepared magic, riposte attacks, whatever makes sense. The basic philosophy is that because few actions are instant, a reaction bridges the conceptual gap between the moment somebody begins their declared action and the moment they finish; sharp enough characters may successfully intercept the action by using a reaction.

    Opportunity attacks

    The clever corbin realizes by now that my system has opportunity attacks: they're simply attacks declared as reactions. Generally speaking an opportunity attack is only possible in immediate melee, when the opponent somehow ignores their defense. Typical reasons are surprise (say somebody attacks them from behind, and you utilize the confusion to push your attack as well), stupidity (they try to e.g. drink a potion in combat) or desperate maneuvers (they attempt to run around you to reach some goal).

    Opportunity attacks normally cost 5 Initiative as reactions, and are performed like ordinary attack actions. Usually it's well worth the price, especially when the opponent's AC is also somehow impaired.
  • Between-rounds actions

    Continuing with my exegesis of what "combat rounds" and "initiative" and other basic concepts mean, I soon stumbled upon the notion that there necessarily exists a point of time in combat in between combat rounds: if my conception of a combat "round" is that it begins with the first charge and ends when the combatants separate for a breather (even if it's just to gasp a few words of a curse before attacking again), then it is obvious that there exists a "between-rounds phase"; it's that time when characters speak to each other and do whatever things are possible to do in between bouts of melee.

    (I speak of melee in my reasonings a lot, but this same logic scales to other forms of combat to certain degrees. An archery duel of some sort might be argued to mostly consist of downtime between bouts, for example.)

    There are a few important actions that are specifically taken between combat rounds. Note that any party to the combat may interrupt these actions by declaring that the new combat round begins; this forces characters to either not take their intended actions, or take them during the round (which may be suicidal if you have enemy combatants in immediate melee contact). This "declaration of round" is probably limited by some factors (e.g. current initiative), but I haven't needed any so far except some plain common sense (if you had time to drink your potion, then surely your enemy has time to swap weapons).

    Anyway, let's look at a few typical between-rounds actions:

    Drinking potions and switching weapons are typical examples of maintenance actions that occur between bouts. You don't attempt to rummage through your backbag or whatever in the midst of melee, with somebody attempting to kill you: if you need some special equipment that is not immediately at hand, the only choice is to either get out of immediate melee (that is, survive until the bout ends) or have somebody shield you so as to break the melee contact. Ignoring this plain common sense is grounds for opportunity attack by enemy, obviously.

    Communicating anything longer than single-word shouts is impossible in melee, but possible in certain other forms of combat. In melee you need to wait until between rounds, at which point you may talk to your friends or enemies (usually until one side or the other declares the next round).

    Retreating from melee or entering one is something that is usually done between rounds. The enemy may pursue, of course. In skirmish situations it is not unusual for there to be several separate melees of 2-5 participants each occurring within relatively close distance from each other simultaneously. A character retreating from one skirmish and entering another is pretty much by definition doing this in between rounds, because the round ends (for them) when they lose immediate melee contact with their current enemy. Obviously enough, a character charging into a new melee may win or lose initiative with their new foes, all depending on relative initiative scores when the new round begins.

    (As can be seen here, many fictional elements that might be characterized as "surprise" in certain other forms of D&D are subsumed under the concept of initiative with us. More on this below.)

    Observing the battlefield is an important action that may be done in between rounds (for initiative) as well as during (as an action). It's an opportunity to e.g. ask the GM what the enemy is, how many they are, where they are, what they're doing, how they're equipped, and so on. (You might remember that I run a very strict fog of war: characters will normally gain relatively limited knowledge about what is happening in a battle, unless they specifically keep their head and observe events. Most of your attention is naturally focused on the immediate dangers right before your eyes.)

    Morale checks for NPCs and monsters are normally made between rounds.

    Reorienting (rerolling your initiative) may be done in between rounds, but if the enemy does not reorient as well, you lose your next round (that is, you won't get your normal action at your initiative; reactions are possible normally). This would actually be my preferred juncture for reorienting, although traditionally we've done it during rounds as well; I'll probably establish the necessity for declaring reorientation in between rounds (as opposed to during a round) the next time I play the game.

    An important action in between rounds is spellcasting: a spellcaster declares their intent to release a memorized spell (other types cannot be cast in combat rounds) in between rounds, and then actually executes the spell on their next turn during the round. This special type of action timing is obviously there to cater to the D&D timing features regarding magic and interrupting it with force of arms; it may be justified in fiction by stressing that casting spells is not "instant", but rather takes 10-30 seconds even at its quickest.

    Actions between rounds may cost initiative, and often do; switching weapons is -2, rummaging for equipment is -5, running a "long" distance (basically, anything that takes over 5 seconds) to reposition on the field costs variable amounts... I'm sure you can figure this out by now.


    A separate "surprise round" is the normal way to do surprise in D&D. Our system works sort of like that, except the logic behind it is different.

    When characters are surprised by initiation of aggression, there are different degrees of surprise depending on the fictional situation. This affects your initial Initiative score. For example, a prepared attacker triggering their own ambush when they feel like it might get to "take 20" for their Initiative, or they could get a bonus die to their Initiative roll, to represent their better preparation and orientation to the beginning hostilities.

    On the victimized side, a penalty die is appropriate when an attack comes unexpected. For completely flat-footed characters their Initiative is set to zero to begin with, which in practice means that their first round is necessarily lost in reorienting (rerolling their initiative).

    All in all, various degrees of surprise normally mean that the attacker has superior initiative for several rounds (meaning extra actions), and the defender might have such a bad initiative score that they need to reorient to get out of it.
  • Forced bout

    The logical consequence of the aforementioned elaborations is that sometimes a combat round does not end cleanly: for example, if the combat is wrestling, it's quite possible that neither party is willing or able to "end the bout" in the way I assume in my definition of a combat round. A large melee in closed formation may be similar.

    In these situations the GM asks the involved parties at the end of the round (when everybody has had their actions) whether they'll end the round, or force the bout to continue. If a party is in position to force the bout to continue, all involved characters lose 10 Initiative (and possibly 1d6 hit points if the GM judges the combat sufficiently exhausting), and regain their actions: the round essentially continues for "another round".

    (The assumption by the way is not that a combat round cannot end during active wrestling. Rather, we assume that when a combat round ends in the middle of a wrestling bout, both parties stop for a few seconds to get their strength back. Thus it is possible to end a round in the midst of wrestling, but only by mutual choice.)

    Even a forced bout will end once all involved characters are out of initiative or completely exhausted; the combatants forcibly separate as their bodies give way, or retreat under the power of pure instinct.

    Characters outside a forced bout may, of course, react to the bout extending. Usually the fictional time-span of an extended bout is noticeably longer than an ordinary round, so it's even possible to have other, separate skirmishes run several combat rounds for each round of such a forced bout. (This phenomenon of separate clocks also comes up when we end up running other sorts of differently time-scaled combat simultaneously. These are obviously rare and weird fringe cases.)

    Attacking initiative

    As can be seen, Initiative is a pretty important resource at our table: you can take multiple actions with it, you can react to actions of others with it, and so on. Naturally it's also possible to attack an opponent's initiative score by assaults that specifically distract or confuse. This might be accomplished by an appropriately described attack action, stunting, or various spells and other special effects.

    (Yes, this could develop into something exploitable. Because the rules for this are relatively rarely used so far, it's firmly in the referee's purview to watch over and fine-tune the elements. I'll be happy as long as it's not trivial for 20 peasants to spam some sort of distraction attacks to immobilize a professional soldier, but it is feasible to cleverly confuse an opponent to get a jump on them in appropriate situations. As with everything else here, these ideas develop in use.)

    Running out of initiative and reorienting

    Many of the above features drain initiative scores. Characters who fall to zero initiative are said to be disoriented or flat-footed, etc.; they're uncertain about the quick events and momentarily distracted. This is a dangerous state: it allows opportunity attacks against the character and disallows reactions.

    Initiative may be improved by the action of reorienting: the character simply rerolls their initiative score in the hopes of getting a better one than what they've currently got. This usually takes an entire combat round to accomplish, unless the enemy specifically lets you catch your breath. Disoriented characters take a penalty die to reorienting, which is yet another reason to avoid the state.

    In terms of action economy it is easy to see that reorienting is generally a good idea whenever you think that you can surpass the current initiative scores of all of your enemies; you're essentially spending a turn now to get a turn on the next round before the enemy, which amounts to the same thing excepting certain timing details. Of course enemies may attempt to cleave onto your moment of reorientation in the heat of combat, so you can't always take a moment just when you'd want to.

    Commanding in combat, NPCs and monsters

    One important form of reaction in combat is taking commands: when a character is part of a clear chain of command (this can be established over the long term, or PCs can craft a plan that involves specifically following the commands of a more seasoned fighter), they may react to commands. The most important use for this feature of human psychology is that characters can cause others to act on their own initiative count this way. This is quite useful with henchmen and lackeys of various sorts, as zero-level mooks by default don't get initiative scores at all; they act last in a round, and reacting always disorients them. By commanding such characters in combat, a more on-the-ball character can increase their effectiveness.

    Commanding itself is usually a -2 or -5 initiative reaction action for the commanding character, or an ordinary action for complex commands, although there are ways around that (a Fighter feat "Tactician" being the core one, as it provides a free mental action every round that may be used for e.g. commanding).

    Monsters usually get one initiative per monster type in combat. This is mostly a simplifying conceit, as is usually the case in D&D that uses individual initiative. Individual monsters are broken out of this simplified order as becomes necessary during combat. (This might sound like a paperwork nightmare, but it's actually not that bad as long as the scribe is on board with the system - mostly it's just adding and deducting points on a list, and reordering it now and then.)
  • Group initiative

    In some rare situations individual initiative is not the most appropriate way to do things. I am technically open to swapping to group initiative on a round-by-round basis whenever it makes more sense, although in practice this has become more rare as the initiative system has matured and e.g. commanding groups of fighters in closed formation has become conceptually more clear.

    Group initiative, when it is used, is not rolled; fictional positioning determines it. Usually it's the attacking party that has initiative in these situations.

    It would certainly be interesting to develop a D&D initiative system relying on group initiative as its basis, as a sort of counterpart to this 3rd edition branch we've got here. However, it seems that such doesn't really get an opportunity to flourish when individual initiative has developed into such an intricate construction.

    Exceptional enemies

    Certain sorts of enemies are clearly subhuman in terms of initiative: their perceptions, reaction speed or speed of movement are such that the aggregate effect amounts to a very low initiative. For example, zombies and various sorts of jellies and oozes generally always act last in combat and do not make reactive actions at all. These usually have a nominal Initiative score at 10, just in case a character manages to get so low they're actually even more confused than the brain-dead enemy.

    Some enemies obviously also have superior initiative due to superhuman traits. The ordinary rules pretty much cover the consequences of that.

    Multiple actions in combat

    Action economy is the true key to victory in these types of games. This is why initiative is so useless for many games: a vast majority of time it matters little whether you act first or I act first, as long as we both get to act once for each action of the other. Obviously enough my changes to the 3rd edition initiative system have made it much more dynamic in this regard. (Dynamic chaos seems to be a trend in my D&D reworking: I take away stultified cornerstones and replace them with wobbly "see fictional positioning to determine the particulars" principles.)

    However, multiple actions is something that I take very seriously, for obvious reasons. There are two types of "extra attacks" that have been traditionally sampled in our game, and I try to keep a tight rein on evaluating both in how they're used and whether they're beneficial; I know well how D&D has been broken down historically by various types of extra-action shenanigans.

    The first type of extra attacks that we adopted was the "flurry": a character attacking with suitable armament and skills in an appropriate situation could stunt to assault multiple opponents at once, or in sequence. Sort of like the 3rd edition cleaving rule, or monk flurry class trait. These extra attacks occur immediately on the same initiative count, as they're all part of the same exceptional action.

    The second type are various sorts of opportunity attacks, which I've discussed above.

    The logical consequence of all the mechanical concepts introduced above is a third type of extra action that might be termed the mechanical holy grail of combat-oriented characters in this mechanical framework: is it possible to gain the ability to pay Initiative score to gain extra actions (not just reactions, but a real action)? How much would it cost?

    Note that the "exceptional initiative" rule I introduced first is already this exact thing, it's just limited severely by requiring a character to use it at most once per round, and requiring a character to have the highest initiative among the combatants.

    At this point we're pretty sure that there exists a high-level combat paradigm that sort of resembles Exalted combat rules up there in the exalted sphere of 6-10th level combat: perhaps certain types of fighting men may achieve an ability to use the "pay 10 initiative to act" freely and without limitation. The implications would be huge: fights could routinely end on the first round, initiative would rule paramount (excepting similar advances in defenses etc.) and the ordinary actions in initiative order would pale in significance next to the notion of burning initiative to act three, four, five times per round.

    (Note the consequence of allowing extra actions of any sort by spending initiative: because reorienting yourself is itself an action, a character who can trade initiative for extra actions has a steady way of maintaining superior action economy by simply reorienting themselves every round, thus gaining more initiative to burn.)


    As can be seen, this stuff can get relatively intricate. The important point to remember is that what we see here is an organically grown system that degenerates elegantly towards simplicity when complex features are not desired. I do, however, derive great joy out of how this system focuses on the psychological facets of combat-readiness in favour of robot-like "first you hit, then I hit" round-robin. I would not want anybody to get the impression that we're in an uncontrolled process of rules-obscura akin to Rolemaster here :D
  • Fascinating, Eero!

    Thank you for the lengthy write-up. I especially like how your approach allows a "tiered" approach to surprise (as opposed to more typical all-or-nothing D&D surprise).

    I'm curious if you've ever considered making initiative something that *increases* every round. For instance, increase the initiative costs of all the various options (maybe even double them), or introduce initiative cost to, for example, getting hit. In exchange, each character can add a certain number (maybe based on a mental attribute, or their level of experience) to their experience every round.

    It's interesting because you can now differentiate between combatants who are naturally very quick (for example, in your system, a quick combatant with a good initiative roll seems to have little reason not to take two actions in the very first round of combat), and those who are better at gaining advantage over time: a veteran might accumulate more points per round and therefore eventually gain a second action later in the fight, if they can last that long.
  • I haven't thought of doing it that way, no. Could work. The specific feature you mention (an experienced combatant retaining their even keel and garnering an advantage over the fight) though is already reflected by the erosion of initiative that happens over several rounds: a more skilled fighter generally speaking has their tricks for managing their initiative; either they get to reorient in some cheaper manner (the secret super-option for the "Tactician" feat, which is secretly the strongest Fighter feat in the crunch landscape as it currently exists), or they lose less initiative (a typical side effect of various fighter specialties is enabling various sorts of reactions to be cheaper), or they cause their opposition to lose initiative even faster. So it's not so much that the better fighter gains more initiative, but that they lose less, and sooner or later their opponent dips below their score (which effectively gives you an extra action in terms of action economy, as you probably know if you're familiar with this sort of initiative logic).

    My first impression is that I wouldn't desire to make increasing initiative an universal property, as it'd be counter-productive for my goal of keeping the basic application simple: my combat system is nigh-standard for a first-time player who just wants to declare an attack when their turn comes around, and I desire retaining this property. However, something like "add your Fighter level to your initiative at the end of every round" seems like a fine candidate for a feat!
  • Ah, of course!

    I forgot you had the whole Feat-ecology going on at the same time.
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