First update in two months!

Okay, here’s where I’ve been:

1. Playing Mutants & Masterminds to compare it to Dark Earth

2. Playing ACKS because it’s awesome

What I have learned:

1. Toughness saves are tedious, and, I think, less fun than good old hit points.

2. There is something to be said for giving players more control during character creation, especially in a deadly game.

Dark Earth, as it was turning out, had a whole lot in common with M&M.  That isn’t the direction that I want to go with it.

What I think I really want is an OSR game that is familiar to people who play d20-derivatives.

Does that exist already?  Is it fun?  :)

DE Playtest #2

My brave adventurers visited a goblin lair in today’s playtest, and (3 players and 7 henchmen) got snuck up on and pincered into oblivion in the very first room.  What did we learn?

1. I’m not wasting much effort keeping them alive.🙂

2. My goblin hordes are too dangerous to throw at 1st level characters, because:

3. Toughness saves favor the side that can obligate more of them: hordes are super-deadly.

4. Dungeon-crawling is really dangerous in a fantasy world where things like goblins are basically on par with normal humans.

We also tried out two new game options:

1. Point-based level progression (10 points per level, with various class features broken up to cost 1 each)

2. “Skill-based” magic system where each spell has a casting DC, with success meaning the spell is cast and a bruise is received, and failure meaning the spell fails, spell level +1 bruises are received, and an accumulating -1 casting penalty is received.

The point-buy system seemed to work well to achieve everyone’s character concept, and the spell system is interesting enough to keep trying.  I introduced it after being disappointed with how Basic d20 handled spellcasting with its point-buy system (5 pts for a level of wizard/sorcerer, etc), so I decided to try turning each spell school into a “skill”.  

So far, it’s an interesting take on spell casting, with a baked-in chance of failure and a cumulative “exhaustion” effect.  It allowed our mage to cast Sleep a total of 4 times on the same outing, with a couple failures to do the same.

I don’t think I’ll nerf goblins (I like having cunning slimy green cannibal humanoids underfoot), but I think today shows that 1st level characters should be hunting solitary monsters or small groups, cashing in bounties on thieves and bandits, and doing other menial stuff before taking on anything like, oh, 50 goblins.

Stone Age Adventuring

After reading this interesting post at Dreams in the Lich House, I commented about the possibility of a “Warrior – Hunter – Shaman” take on the “Fighter – Thief – Mage” triad familiar from D&D and similar games.

For Dark Earth, to create a Hunter class, I would simply change the thief skill list to:

Tracking – Trapping – Athletics – Searching – Perception

(basically just replacing “Lockpicking” with “Tracking” and “Acrobatics” with “Athletics”)

I would probably tweak the Mage to be extra-low-magic, possibly even granting spell points at a later level, or replacing magic entirely with something like “herb lore” and the ability to make various drugs and perform basic first aid, as well as accessing “ancestral knowledge” about creatures, plants, locations, and whatnot.

I would have stupid amounts of fun running a game like that.

Dark Earth Progression Tables

Just wanted to post these to document and share some of the design process for the game, and hopefully evoke some comments from other gamers and game designers.

Level Attack Damage Toughness Initiative
1 1 1 1 1
2 3 2 2 2
3 4 3 3 3
4 6 4 4 4
5 7 5 5 5
6 9 6 6 6
7 10 7 7 7
8 12 8 8 8
9 13 9 9 9
10 15 10 10 10
Level Attack Damage Sneak Attack Damage Toughness Initiative Stealth Rating
1 1 0 1 0 1 4
2 2 1 2 1 3 5
3 3 1 3 1 4 6
4 4 2 4 2 6 7
5 5 2 5 2 7 8
6 6 3 6 3 9 9
7 7 3 7 3 10 10
8 8 4 8 4 12 11
9 9 4 9 4 13 12
10 10 5 10 5 15 13
Level Picking Locks Acrobatics Disarming Traps Perception Searching
1 4 4 4 4 4
2 5 5 5 5 5
3 6 6 6 6 6
4 7 7 7 7 7
5 8 8 8 8 8
6 9 9 9 9 9
7 10 10 10 10 10
8 11 11 11 11 11
9 12 12 12 12 12
10 13 13 13 13 13
Level Attack Toughness Initiative Casting Initiative Spell Points Known Spell Levels Arcane Lore
1 0 0 0 1 1 1 + INT 4 + INT
2 1 1 1 2 1 3 + INT 5 + INT
3 1 1 1 3 1 6 + INT 6 + INT
4 2 2 2 4 2 10 + INT 7 + INT
5 2 2 2 5 2 15 + INT 8 + INT
6 3 3 3 6 3 21 + INT 9 + INT
7 3 3 3 7 3 28 + INT 10 + INT
8 4 4 4 8 4 36 + INT 11 + INT
9 4 4 4 9 4 45 + INT 12 + INT
10 5 5 5 10 5 55 + INT 13 + INT

So, right now, character creation should be really simple.

1. Generate abilities (i.e. STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA) on the following table

3d20 Roll Chance (%) Ability Score
03-05 0.12% -5
06-09 0.93% -4
10-14 3.49% -3
15-20 9.70% -2
21-27 24.07% -1
28-35 29.50% 0
36-42 24.07% 1
43-48 9.70% 2
49-53 3.49% 3
54-57 0.93% 4
58-60 0.12% 5

2. Choose your class: Fighter, Thief, or Mage.

3. Choose 1 suit of armor, 3 weapons, and 9 other items (12 if you choose “no armor”).

4. Play!

Initiative is rolled each round as in ACKS, and Toughness saves occur on the following table:

Toughness Roll Damage Effects Additional Effects from Lethal Damage
15 + Damage Unscathed
10 + Damage Bruised
5 + Damage Stunned Injured
Damage Staggered Disabled
< Damage Unconscious Dying
1-2 1 1-3 Arm -1 STR
3-4 2 4-6 Leg -1 DEX
5-6 3 7-9 Chest -1 END
7-8 4 10-12 Head -1 INT
9-10 5 12-14 Head -1 PER
11-12 6 15-17 Face -1 CHA
13-20 07-20 18-20 Bleeding Wound +1 Bruise/Round, starting at the end of round received.
Unscathed No effect. Staggered As Injured and Stunned and may only take move or standard action until end of next combat round.
Bruised – 1 to Toughness (cumulative). When Toughness = -10, gain Unconscious & Dying conditions. Disabled As staggered, but becomes Dying if character: moves all out, attacks, or otherwise performs a strenuous action.
Injured Roll on Injury Table & apply effect. Unconscious Helpless; all further damage taken is Lethal.
Stunned As Injured and -4 to all rolls until end of next combat round. Dying Endurance throw (DC 10) or die. Repeat at start of each turn (DC 10 + 1 per previous attempt). If successful by 10 or more, stabilize to Disabled and Unconscious.

That’s the spine of the Dark Earth system.  Another thing to streamline play: characters “take 10” on their d20 rolls every time they sneak (switching to half movement speed), giving them a passive “stealth rating” that listeners or searchers need to “hit” in order to notice them, like an armor class.  This is recorded on the character sheet right by your armor class: silence in the shadows protects you better than any steel.

Apologies for the table-dump; hopefully they won’t dominate your Reader!

Next play-test session is this Sunday.  Is there anything you’d like to see tested?

1st Playtest Session for Dark Earth

So, I finally had the opportunity to play-test Dark Earth last night.

The Toughness mechanic seems to work as expected, but there is some streamlining to do, naturally.

The original “Stunned” condition in the damage chart caused the injured party to lose their next turn, and this was thrown out as too harsh, considering that with the Toughness mechanic as-is, accumulated damage makes you more likely to take more damage.  Likewise, the “Bleeding” condition can now be reduced by 1 at the start of each turn with a successful toughness save.  A single bleeding wound is unlikely to kill an opponent, but accumulated bleeding wounds will drop an opponent really quickly — but maybe not before they get their revenge.

Also thrown out were rolls on the Injury table for 0th-level/minion opponents.  For hordes or swarms, this is simply too much bookkeeping.  So any 0th-level opponent or creature now dies from any failed Toughness save.

We decided to modify the magic system, too.  Now everyone has spell points equal to half their level, minimum of 1, and spells cost a number of spell points equal to their level.  This gives players access to new spell levels at 1st, 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th level, more like the d20 sorcerer.

Decisions were made about spells being acquired during downtime or during play, with the consensus apparently being that “downtime” or “off-stage” acquisition was easier and more fun than shaking scrolls out of a random table.  Currently, Intelligence affects the number of spells known and the rate of spell acquisition (with the “Spell Mastery” feat re-tooled to provide extra known spells), with Wisdom affecting the Save DC of all spells cast.  So far, it has produced an interesting divide between the “utility mage” and the “attack mage”, which I hope come to replace the “healer/blaster” archetypes.

My party of 4 with 12 henchmen took out a troublesome ogre in 7 combat rounds of tense skirmishing, losing 3 henchmen in the process.  On the way back to town, they took out 4 1st level and 9 0th level bandits in a single round, with a combination of fighter cleaving, a single sleep spell, and a fusillade of arrows, after winning the perception check to see them hidden and the initiative check once combat began.

So far, so good.  Next order of business is to produce a feat list appropriate to the game mechanic, which also allows the production of the familiar D&D character archetypes.

As it stands, each level gives you 2-3 feats, 1 from your specialty list (2 if you are an expert), and 1 from a general list.  20 or so feats should be sufficient for now, with the focus being on the “archetypal” feat trees like Turn Undead and skills like Alchemy or Lockpicking.

Things like Power Attack and going to need re-tooling, since Damage is way more deadly/important now, since it’s no longer merely moving you closer to 0 hit points, but also cumulatively increasing the chance of a “critical hit” (significantly failed Toughness save) that puts you down for good.

Interesting note: DE currently has nothing like weapon proficiencies and nothing like arcane spell failure chance for armor.  Everyone bought longbows and the heaviest armor they could wear without slowing themselves down.  I hope to keep the armor calculus (what should I wear?) focused on encumbrance, sneak penalties, and movement rate, rather than other magical concerns, although slowing down spell point regeneration according to armor worn has been discussed.

More to come soon!

Dark Earth Magic System

I haven’t posted in a while, but here’s my plan for Dark Earth‘s play-testable magic system.  For now it uses the spell list from d20 (converted using the rules below), but is also dependent on the Toughness save mechanic (as in Mutants & Masterminds) that I’ve imported into DE.

Right now, characters have the option of increasing their Magery value by +1 per level by taking a “Magic Use” focus, forsaking a “Fighting” or “Expertise” focus for that level.


A character has a number of spell points equal to their Magery value.

Spells are cast by expending these spell points.

Each spell has a level, from 1-5, indicating its power relative to other spells.

The spell levels also determine the cost, in spell points, of casting a spell:

1 1
2 3
3 5
4 7
5 9

Spell points regenerate at a rate of 1 per hour (1 per 6 turns).

Spells must be learned before they can be cast.

To learn a spell, a magic-user must study the spell for a number of hours equal to its level.

Once learned, a spell may be cast any number of times, granted enough available spell points.

When converting a spell from the d20 system, the following rules apply:

  1. Saves are made using the corresponding Dark Earth ability as the save bonus (Fort = Endurance, Ref = Dexterity, Will = Perception)
  1. Save DCs for DE spells are equal to 15 + the caster’s Intelligence + the spell level.
  1. Damage is converted by finding the maximum spell damage, halving it (round down), and subtracting 1.

Example: a single magic missile does 1d4+1 damage in the d20 system. Its maximum damage is 5. Half of this is 2.5, rounded down to 2. Subtracting 1 gives a final damage bonus of +1.


A spell may be cast when insufficient spell points are available, including spells of higher level than would otherwise be possible.

Doing so requires the magic-user to save against non-lethal damage equal to the number of spell points by which the cost of the spell exceeds the caster’s available spell points.

Any result other than “unscathed” on this Toughness save causes the spell to fail.

Negative spell points can be accrued in this manner, taking extra time to regenerate, as well as adding to the non-lethal damage of future deficit casting.


A magic-user begins play knowing a number of spells equal to half her Intelligence value.

These spells may be of 1st or 2nd level.

Our campaign sandbox.

To me, the essence of RPG world-building is the map, and I’ve come to like the 6-mile hex map (for ease of navigation).  A map allows players to get their bearings, imagine their surroundings, and know quite precisely where their characters are.  It gives them an idea of the economy of the game world, and when playing ACKS, it also lets them know just where the “borderlands” and “wilderness” are relative to their party and their starting city.  It also provides me with a peg-board for inserting pre-generated modules.  Consider the following maps:

Map #1: The Kingdom of Ervala

This is the regional map for the campaign, in 24-mile hexes.  On the city side of the red line is civilization, with the hexes against the red line being the borderlands.  Outside the red line are wilderness hexes.  These three hex types are important in ACKS for determining various things regarding land-holdings and strongholds.  At 17.35 you can see a unique icon: this is where I’ve placed the Temple of Elemental Evil in my campaign.  19.34 could easily be The Keep on the Borderlands, and Into the Unknown could be anywhere at all, really.

Map 2: The Radfell/Anda Region

And here’s a zoomed-in version of the above map, in 6-mile hexes, focusing on the area around Radfell (a Class III Market), and my slightly-modified Temple of Elemental Evil.  I’ve changed the religious nature of the temple to be in line with my campaign pantheon, but it’s otherwise right out of the box.

So there are greater and lesser sandboxes here.  The smaller, more detailed one, has the Temple in it, which should keep a party of level 1-2 characters occupied for many levels more.  If they should desire to branch out or go to the big city, or even buy a ship, the region is there for them to do so.  Idrana on the first map is a Class I market, and should have anything they might want to purchase.

Nothing prevents them from trying out the Temple, deciding it’s too tough, and seeking gentler pastures.  I’ve included a mine outside of Grunfelt that might be beset by bandits or goblins (or PCs), and if they so desired they could go deal with that for some extra gold.  I have made at least one competing group of NPC dungeon-delvers to shake things up for them if they get slow, but otherwise it’s just … a world.  They can do what they want in it, and I add detail and polish as I have time.

Parthia: The Kingdom of Night

Banner of Parthia

Parthia is a kingdom ruled by a vampiric aristocracy, established following a coup by a particularly composed and long-sighted clan of vampires.  They infiltrated the aristocracies of Eastern Varelia unknown centuries ago, and eventually gathered enough influence and prestige to wage open war against the Emperor, establishing the independence of their realms 200 years ago.  Their armies were smaller, as few would serve them, but they themselves struck in the night at the Imperial chain of command, sending their enemies into disarray and forcing a peace that secured their independence.  Following their success, all domains in Eastern Varelia were turned over to vampiric rule, with the mortal aristocracy sent into exile in the west.

The Parthian clans do not behave like other vampires, and never have.  The others are driven mad by their hunger for blood, but the Parthians have ever retained their senses and judgment.  They were quite deliberate in their plot for control, desiring to move away from the vampiric equivalent of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and towards a more pastoral arrangement.  They consider their mortal subjects their herd, and they are the shepherds.  The beating heart of this arrangement is the blood tax extracted from the residents of all Parthian domains.  In the interest of keeping the public peace, children and the elderly are exempt from the blood tax, and it is a testament to the cunning of the Parthian rulers that this has always been so.  The only others exempt from this tax are those that serve in the armies, so that they may be at their full strength.

The Parthian vampire lords are interested in maintaining this arrangment for a very, very long time, and so conventional taxes are significantly lower than in other domains.  As long as the blood keeps flowing, they are quite generous to their herd, and naturally fiercely protective of it.  Monstrous incursions and threats from bandits are dealt with in the dark of night, efficiently and with incredible brutality.  The mortal Parthian Guard (the standing army of Parthia) is tasked with keeping bloodshed among the populace to a minimum, for obvious reasons.  These elements combine to make the status quo under vampiric rule quite tolerable (if not always pleasant, on account of the mandatory ritual bloodletting).  It must be so, because the Parthians are branded with a tattoo in their youth, and denied the freedom to emigrate.  All ships flying the Parthian flag are crewed only by the Guard and the vampires.  Few other mortals ever receive permission to leave, and those almost always on state business, attending a vampire lord.  Slavery as such is forbidden by law in Parthia, and those who pay their taxes (both gold and blood) and stay inside the borders are seldom meddled with by agents of the state.

The Parthian Kingdom is not expansionist (at least, not on any human timescale), but maintains the Parthian Guard to see to its security in the daylight hours.  Guards who perform their duties well and demonstrate great loyalty are sometimes chosen to join the ranks of the vampires, as a demonstration of upward mobility in Parthian society.  This “tenure” is never mandatory, but allows Parthia to field an elite guard of vampiric fighters to serve as the vanguard of its nocturnal attacks.  This elite guard, in turn, is sometimes granted land to watch over in return for faithful service.

Otherwise, land changes hands in Parthia far less frequently than in other kingdoms, on account of an aristocratic attrition rate of around zero.  In the rare event that a vampiric domain-holder should be destroyed, it is customary that they have personally declared a successor already in the event of an unfortunate staking.  The king of Parthia is the original leader of the Parthian clan, indeterminably old, and has reigned since the coup he lead himself.  His council, likewise, has been with him since the beginning.  Parthia, as such, is a deeply traditional and fairly fatalistic society.  A mortal Parthian might aspire to wealth or home ownership, but land and titles are reserved for the immortal undead.  The Guard is not only a difficult but a dangerous place to distinguish oneself, and most Parthians are resigned to their lot as artisans and farmers who never travel far from home.  If a visitor asks them how they find life under these circumstances, they typically smile and wryly praise the low taxes.

Other nations find the Parthian arrangement unsettling, but the vampires’ dealings with other rulers have been mild and fair since their revolution, which has kept the peace so far.  Varelia still bears a grudge about its lost territory, and has an extensive network of safe-houses for Parthian refugees (and a good number of dedicated vampire hunters to deal with any attempts to take them back across the border).  The secret plans of Parthia’s rulers are the subject of much speculation, but their agenda unfolds under cover of night, too gradually to attract much notice.

Few mortals will live to see what the future holds for Parthia, but even now that future is being plotted in its windowless keeps, by those who live forever in the darkness.

Governance: showing how a nation is different.

It should be apparent by now that I am a big Paradox Interactive fan, and the idea of combining my grand strategy and RPG interests is pretty exciting to me.

So here are my ideas for applying a version of the “government slider” system from Europa Universalis III to RPG world-building.

The idea of the government slider in EU3 is that you have a set of opposed axes, such as “Land vs Naval”, and that moving in one direction along this axis gives you certain bonuses and penalties unique to that particular axis.  I don’t know exactly how I would implement such bonuses and penalties in ACKS, but I think these axes can still be used as a kind of quick “stat-block” to model the government of a nation or domain.

So when you are designing a kingdom, you can answer the following questions.

1. Centralization vs Decentralization

How much power is shared by the ruler with the vassals?

2. Aristocracy vs Plutocracy

What percentage of total wealth lies in the hands of the land-holding aristocracy?  How wealthy is the urban nouveau riche of traders and moneylenders?

3. Serfdom vs Free Subjects

Is slavery allowed?  Are non-slaves free to travel and work as they wish?

4. Narrow-Minded vs Innovative

Are the rulers (and public) traditionalists, comfortable with their way of life? Or are they desiring to strike out in a new direction (politically, religiously, or otherwise)?

5. Mercantilism vs Free Trade

Aside from taxation, how much does the aristocracy interfere with the economy?  Is their interference protectionist, dirigiste, monopoly-crushing, or what?

6. Offensive vs Defensive

Consider the total amount of money spent on military engineering and equipment.  What percentage of that goes to castles, fortifications, and other defensive works?  What percentage of that goes to siege engines and outfitting the army with quality equipment?

7. Naval vs Land

Of total military expenditure, how much is spent on the navy versus the army?  Of total available manpower, how much is allocated to the navy versus the army?

8. Quality vs Quantity

How selective is the military when it comes to deciding who can serve?  Is there a large army from a universal draft (of poorly paid conscripts), or a small and elite standing army of (well-paid) crack troops?

Political variety under feudalism.

Most popular fantasy RPGs tend to gloss over the mechanical details of things like succession law, but world-builders and DMs have a number of interesting options when designing a feudal (or quasi-feudal) society.  Taking my inspiration from Paradox Interactive’s excellent Crusader Kings series, I’ve thought of some options for making your in-game monarchies more interesting and meaningfully different from each other.

A. Decide how gender affects succession 

1. Patrilineal – only males may succeed the ruler

2. Matrilineal – only females may succeed the ruler

3. Sex-Biased – both sexes may succeed, but only if there are no eligible members of the preferred sex

3. Equal – both genders may succeed equally

B. Decide how relatedness is determined

What defines the dynasty (the royal family)?  Are the children of both sexes considered dynasty members, or only those of one gender?  This is important for determining dynasty membership of children born from dynasty intermarriages.  If the child inherits membership from both parents, then they could inherit claims from both dynasties, while if they do not, claims to the other dynasty’s holdings would be considered illegitimate.

C. Determine the order of succession

There are a lot of options here (see wikipedia), but here are some possibilities:

1. Primogeniture – the eldest child of the ruler succeeds following the ruler’s death

2. Rota – the eldest sibling of the ruler succeeds

3. Seniority – the eldest dynasty member succeeds

4. Gavelkind – domain is divided equally among the ruler’s children

5. Elective – the ruler’s highest-ranking vassals select the next ruler

In my game world, the northerly kingdom of Ervala has a patrilineal primogeniture law, rooted in the traditions of their ancient clans, while the militaristic kingdom of Idalos follows a patrilineal elective law, having arisen from an alliance of smaller kingdoms (who selected a leader for their armies, now their elective king) centuries ago.  The Empire of Varelia also follows a patrilineal elective law, but it is not the highest-ranking vassals that choose the ruler, but all of the titled land-holders in the entire domain.  Although all titled nobility are eligible, in practice only the most prominent and powerful aristocrats are named Emperor, as the lesser land-holders wish to rely on them for support and protection.  Although succession is elective at the highest level, lesser Varelian domains predominantly follow the gavelkind law, making Varelia a patchwork domain of many smaller, warring states.

D. Choose a royal council

Running a kingdom is hard work, and Game of Thrones fans will know well that sometimes you can’t trust the one in charge to actually … be in charge.

In a game system like ACKS, where your character can end up in charge of a domain, who says that your henchmen have to actually be your land-holding vassals?  Why couldn’t your personal henchmen include, say, a trusted and charismatic chancellor who can keep your vassals in line for you while you go adventuring?

With that in mind, here’s some jobs you might outsource to (or augment with) a ruling council, taken right from the Crusader Kings.

1. Chancellor

The Chancellor is the ruler’s right-hand man/woman, with all the political know-how and charisma that the ruler didn’t develop while, say, dungeon-delving or carousing with the other aristocrats.

2. Marshal

The Marshal cares for and commands the domain’s armies.

3. Steward

The Steward deals with all the economic, taxation, and accounting business of the domain.

4. Spymaster

The Spymaster defends against assassinations, plots and carries out assassinations, and gathers information on enemies foreign and domestic.

5. High Priest

The High Priest ministers to the spiritual concerns of the ruling dynasty, as well as ministering to the populace, while acting as liaison between the ruler and the rest of the spiritual world.

E. Determine the domain’s relationship to religion

If there is a High Priest, that probably means a de facto domain religion, and in ACKS, the possibility of church domains within the ruler’s domain.  Do the church-held domains pay taxes?  Do they pay them to the domain ruler, or to a central church authority (or local patriarch)?

Follow steps A-E and you’ll have the seeds of abundant political intrigue, and a pleasantly differentiated landscape of monarchies and empires.

Next up: governance, or how to summarize rulership styles.