Dig Deep

You never know what will inspire an idea, and this one came from watching an episode of Father Knows Best before driving to work. In this particular episode, good old dad tells Bud to use his charm when trying to apologize/ask out a girl. Now, Bud was already in the position of apologizing to the girl because of his so-called “charm”, so the interchange got me thinking about the value of putting extra effort behind a task.

In games, we often have characters making skill or ability checks of some kind, assuming they are putting forth their best effort to accomplish the task at hand. Maybe they are … but I suppose we’ve all been in the situation of “coasting” by on things we’re good at, or even of not trying all that hard to do something we know we’re bad at. There are times, though, when something must be done, and so we focus just a bit harder on success. In terms of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts strips, it looks something like this:

That tongue sticking out means Charlie Brown is digging deep and putting all his effort into it. So, how do you do this in a game?

The simplest way is to give the players a once a session or even “once per day” chance to really focus on a task or saving throw or maybe even an attack. For attacks and saving throws, you might give a +1 bonus, while for skill and ability checks, a +2 or +10% bonus. You could also just allow a single re-roll on a failed try at something.

So – what does this extra effort cost?

Maybe nothing. I’ve heard some supposed experts speak on the subject of will power, forwarding the idea that we all have it, but in limited supply. This “extra effort” bonus could just be a free gift to the players.

You could also make it a trade off. Maybe putting forth extra effort involves becoming fatigued for a period of time – say an hour. You could even split mental fatigue from physical fatigue.

If the group is touchy-feely, perhaps the player has to share an episode in his or her past in which they had to dig deep to do something, or in which they goofed off and really screwed up.

If you want to get really nasty, make players spend a few XP for that extra effort – not a huge amount of XP, of course, but maybe 10 or 25 points.

Oh – and make the player stick their tongue out of the side of their mouth while they’re rolling the dice. That I insist on!

Blood & Treasure 2nd Edition – Skills

Part of cover illustration by David Williams

From now until the game is released, I’m going to do some weekly posts on how the 2nd edition of Blood & Treasure is shaping up.

Blood & Treasure was designed to be rules lite and options heavy, and that isn’t changing in the new edition. My goal is to take nothing out of the game, but to, wherever possible, correct old mistakes and streamline old rules to make them easier to understand and play. That brings us to subject #1 – Skills.

Or tasks, as I prefer to call them. I thought the old system was pretty easy – to whit – if a character is unskilled at a task, roll 1d20, beat 18 and succeed. If a character has a knack (such as an elf searching for secret doors), roll 1d20, beat 15 and succeed. If a character is skilled, roll a saving throw to avoid failure at the task. That way, the skilled – such as thieves climbing walls – get better at tasks as they advance.

Apparently, though, it caused some confusion for people, specifically the saving throw idea. So, how do we adjust?

As follows:

To perform tasks outside of combat, one need only tell the Treasure Keeper (TK) what they wish to accomplish. If the TK thinks the task can be accomplished without much difficulty, he merely tells the player they were successful.

If success is in doubt, either because of the degree of difficulty of the task, or conditions that would make success unlikely, the TK can require a task check.

To make a task check, the player rolls 1d20 and adds to this roll the relevant ability score modifier (see table below) and any bonuses they might have for their race, class or other circumstances.

If the roll is 18 or higher, the task check is a success. If the roll is lower than 18, it fails, with the consequences of the failure determined by the Treasure Keeper.

If the task is one in which a character class is “skilled”, they add their level to the task check.

The ability scores associated with various tasks are as follows (though note that the Treasure Keeper may rule that under some conditions a task might be modified by a different ability score.) …

What follow that is a list of possible tasks, and the ability score that modifies them, such as acrobatics modified by dexterity or swimming modified by strength.

Several tasks rely on using tools. Trying to perform these tasks without the proper equipment should be done at a -2 penalty.

The key thing to remember about tasks checks is that if it seems reasonable that a character can do it, there is no need to roll dice! Save the rolling of dice for difficult, dangerous or dramatic tasks.

Here’s where the options kick in. For those who like the 3rd edition approach, I have an optional simplified skill points system:

Skill Points (Optional)

If your players would like more control over their character’s skills – and you want them to have that control – you can allow them to spend “skill points” on the various tasks in this chapter, each point spent giving them a +1 bonus to use those skills in play.

When attempting a task, the player rolls 1d20, adds their skill bonus, ability modifier, bonuses for race or circumstances, and attempts to roll an 18 or higher to succeed.

The number of skill points available to a character to spend at each level depends on the character’s class. Multi-class characters add their class’ skill point totals together.


For those who instead prefer the way old editions handled such things, I have a system inspired partially by the rules for finding secret doors and partially on the original (pre-Gygax) thief class that has been making the rounds in the OD&D blogosphere of late.

Simple Task Checks (Optional)

If you would like to keep task checks extremely simple, you may use the following system:

If characters attempt something at which they are untrained, roll 1d6. On a roll of 1, they succeed.

If they are attempting something at which they excel due to their race, such as elves finding secret doors, roll 1d6. On a roll of 1 to 2, they succeed.

If they are attempting something at which they are skilled due to their character class, consult the following table:



If the task is more difficult than usual, the TK can rule that it must be rolled on a larger dice, usually d8 or d10.

Note that this system does not take into account ability scores, which may disappoint some players.

So, three options on handling skills in Blood & Treasure taking up about a page and quarter in the rule book. As a game master, I would probably let the players use the standard system, and would use the simplified system for monsters and NPCs.

As always, I’d like to hear the opinions of the readership, especially those who are interested in Blood & Treasure.

Next time, I’ll discuss what I might do with saving throws in 2nd edition Blood & Treasure

IQ – A Different Way to Allocate Skills and Abilities

Caveat #1 – This isn’t necessarily a post about D&D-style games. I say necessarily, because it could probably be adapted, but it isn’t intended to be a new rule for the old game. It’s actually not intended to be a new rule for any game – just a thought experiment.

Caveat #2 – Since I’m a D&D guy from way back, the language used will probably be cognate with D&D language – old habits die hard.

Caveat #3 – IQ, or “intelligent quotient”, is the term I’m using because one tends to speak about “IQ points”, and this scheme uses points. In truth, I’m using IQ in a way that has little to do with the real thing.

On to the idea …

Characters have ability scores to measure their raw physical (including mental) abilities in a variety of general endeavors. Strength, dexterity and the like. Among these is intelligence.

Raw intelligence might be considered to be one’s ability to figure things out on the fly, and could influence dice rolls concerning that endeavor. It would also, though, form the basis of learning – i.e. skills.

Skill also impacts one’s endeavors, on an individual basis. So, while raw dexterity generally impacts one’s ability to dextrous things (thus a bonus or penalty on a dice roll), skills would apply only to individual endeavors that might be influenced by dexterity, such as moving silently or picking pockets.

How skilled can a person be? Here’s where a points system comes in, and we’ll call these points IQ points. IQ points are allotted over time to any number of endeavors that a character trains in. How many IQ points does a character have? That would be based on raw intelligence. Perhaps, if we used a scheme like D&D, IQ would equal intelligence x 10.

Each possible endeavor a person can become skilled in – from picking locks to fighting with a broadsword to shooting an arrow to programming a computer or casting a magic spell – would be given a level equal to the number of IQ points devoted to it. This level would be cross referenced with a difficulty level when attempting an endeavor to find the chances (on a dice roll) of success. I think the old “turn undead” table would be a pretty good starting place for this, though one would have to play with it a bit to get it quite right.

How does one devote IQ points to endeavors? Practice, practice, practice!

Characters must devote a certain number of hours per day to an endeavor to devote IQ points to that endeavor. Here’s where the system would need quite a bit of thought and fine-tuning applied to it, and honestly more than I shall do here. Remember, this is at this point a notion and a thought experiment, not a fully-formed system.

We might suggest something like this – each hour of practice per day gives a person a 1 in 6 chance of achieving a higher level in that something, up to a maximum of a 5 in 6 chance, at the end of the week. Beyond level 5, this becomes a chance in 8. Beyond level 10, a chance in 10. Beyond level 15, a chance in 20. If a person manages to achieve a higher level, they allot a point of IQ to that endeavor and record their higher level on their character sheet.

Example: Sir Boris devotes five hours of practice per day to fighting with longsword and shield. He has 50 IQ points total. At the end of the week, he has a 5 in 6 chance of achieving “level 1” in fighting with longsword and shield. If he succeeds on his roll (which is likely), he achieves level 1, and allots 1 IQ point to “longsword and shield”, leaving him 49 IQ points to devote to other endeavors or to improving at “longsword and shield”.

Of course, experience is the best teacher. Anytime a character attempting an endeavor during an adventure – i.e. fighting with longsword and shield against a hobgoblin rather than just training against another pupil or his teacher – he has a chance to increase his level. After the fight (or attempt or whatever), if the character was successful, he or she has a 1 in 10 chance of increasing their level right there on the spot. If they were not successful (but are still alive), they have a 1 in 100 chance of increasing their level. One might also rule that the task being attempted must be equal in or greater in difficulty than the character’s present level of skill in order to have a chance to increase their skill – thus master’s at fighting cannot easily improve their skill at fighting by picking fights with those who are less skilled – no challenge, no improvement!

By devoting hours of study, one can spend their IQ on a given endeavor and achieve a certain level (with a maximum level as well) that must then be maintained by devoting a lesser amount of time per day or week to maintenance. If we divide the levels of mastery into broad bands, say something like the following …

1-5 levels = Novice

6-10 levels = Veteran

11-15 levels = Expert

16-20 levels = Master

… we can thus assign different training requirements to maintain one’s level of skill. We could say to maintain novice level, one must devote at least one hour per week to training. To maintain veteran level, one must devote at least three hours per week to training. To maintain expert level, one must devote at least one hour per day to training. To maintain master level, one must devote at least two hours per day to training. “Devoting hours” means studying, training, practicing, etc. Since one’s time is limited, the ability to maintain numerous skills at a high level is also limited.

Example: Sir Boris above has one level in “longsword and shield”. To maintain that level, he must devote one hour per week to training with longsword and shield. He can devote addition training time to attempt to increase his level with longsword and shield, but one hour of training will always be devoted to nothing beyond maintaining his current level.

When one does not practice as they should, they lose one level in that endeavor, and thus free up an IQ point. They might re-train themselves in that same endeavor and regain the lost level, or they might decide to devote their training to something else. A wizard who used to think illusions were the way to go might let his practice with illusions lapse, and instead devote his time and training to conjuration.

And thus the system. One gets better at things by training and actual experience “under fire”, but is limited by their overall intelligence (i.e. ability to learn) and the amount of time they have to maintain their skills. One would have to work out the details to make sure the system functions properly, but it could provide a very “organic” way of building living, breathing characters that change over time. Introduce training costs (which might vary from one endeavor to another), and characters have a reason to go out into the world in search of gold.

Using Skills to Evoke a Setting

While OD&D did not have a skill system, it did have skills. They were very focused skills that probably emerged from game play within a dungeon – “find secret doors” and “find traps” rather than a generic “search” skill, for example. OD&D saving throws were similarly specific, with “Save vs. Dragon Breath” being much more evocative than a generic Reflex save. When I wrote Blood & Treasure, I tried to use a similar system in naming skills, keeping them dungeon-centric to evoke memories of the old game and to create a certain dungeon-exploration-atmosphere in the game.

This got me thinking about using a similar structure in making similarly simple games that are meant to be evocative of a period or a genre. Take Star Wars for example. Are there certain tropes in Star Wars that might translate into interesting skills? Maybe “Bad Feeling About This” to handle something like an intuition that the adventurers are heading into something wrong or dangerous. “Swing Across Chasm” might also be appropriate, and I’m sure there are some lines in the movie about R2-D2-oriented actions that could work as well. The point would be that asking a player who is blanching about a course of action to make a “Bad Feeling About This” check would put them into the Star Wars mindset. A Star Trek-inspired game might have skills like “Analyze Spacial Anomaly” and

One can also think of things done more in a particular genre or show or movie than in other genres or shows or movies. You may not need a “Translate Ancient Dialect” check in your average spy game, but in an exploration genre, it makes good sense.

So – for those readers who like to play along at home – how about  throwing out a few genres or franchises with a list of trope-inspired skills for them. They can be a bit comical, but should be skills that would be useful in a game.

Dragon by Dragon – June 1976 (1)

Who drew it? Couldn’t find it in the issue.

Yeah, everyone else does the whole “review every issue” or “review every page” thing, so why the heck can’t I?

Other than Great Britain and Iceland finally ending their codfish war (such a terrible waste), the first issue of The Dragon (formerly The Strategic Review) was probably the big highlight of June, 1976. So what does this little gem contain?

We have an article by Fritz Leiber, the man himself, talking about his wargame Lankhmar and giving a brief tour of Nehwon. Leiber closes this article with a bit on houris. Here’s an adaptation for Blood & Treasure (you know, the game I haven’t actually released yet).

Every hero (4th level fighter) attracts a houri as one of his followers provided he has a charisma of at least 15. The houri requires upkeep to the tune of 100 gp per month. As Leiber explains, a houri is so “slimly beautiful” that she “make all men their helpless slaves and intoxicate even a Hero to madness”. In play, this works as follows:

– Houris have 1d4 hit points (i.e. they can be killed by a dagger). They wear no armor, and may only wield a dagger themselves.

– All 0 or 1 HD male humans, demi-humans and humanoids within 10 feet of a houri must pass a Will saving throw or move directly toward the houri, rapt with fascination and unable to attack her (unless they are attacked by someone else, in which case the spell is broken).

– All higher level male characters within 10 feet of a houri must pass a Will saving throw or have their effective level cut in half.

Sounds like a useful follower to have, but heed the Mouser’s warning – “Women are ever treacherous and complicate any game to the point of sheerest insanity.”

Larry Smith provides a guide to running the Battle of Five Armies using the Chainmail rules.

Wesley D. Ives provides a task resolution system, as he informs us that a “more standardized system is needed” than DM’s just making it up as they go along. New School and Old School were clashing even back in 1976.

The system works by determining randomly a type of dice (by rolling d% and adding the attribute to be tested), from d4 to d12, rolling it and multiplying it by the attribute to be tested to find the percentage chance of success.

So, let’s say I want to jump across a chasm. This involves strength, and my dude has a strength of 13. I roll d% and get a 35. I add 13 to 35 and get 48, which tells me I need to roll a d8. I roll it, get a 5 and multiply that by 13, giving me a 65% chance of success. See – much easier than saying “roll under your strength” or “roll a save vs. paralyzation” or “roll 1d6 – you succeed on a 1 or 2”. Thank goodness for systems.

James M. Ward asks whether Magic and Science are compatible in D&D. Of course, he thinks it is (else it would be a pretty boring article). He introduces a race of people called the Artificers who use a trio of interesting high-tech items.

Lee Gold delves into languages. She notes that humanoids have a 20% chance of speaking Common, which makes much more sense than 3rd edition allowing dang near every sentient creature in the multiverse speaking Common (and thus negating the point of even having languages).

Jake Jaquet tells the tale of “The Search for the Forbidden Chamber”. Check it out for a picture of the infamous “Greyhawk Construction Co. LTD” and a Recyclesaurus.

Len Lakofka presents some miniature rules that were apparently going to be used in a 64-man elimination tournament at GenCon.

The creature feature presents the ever-loving Bulette (pronounced boo-lay, except not really), with an illustration that is really quite good. The reproduction isn’t perfect, but it’s a nice action shot featuring three armored warriors (God, do I prefer realistic armor to some of the fantasy nonsense that seems to predominate these days). The stats note that its mouth has 4-48 pts and its feet 3-18 points – i.e. 4d12 and 3d6. It took me a minute, but I finally realized this was the damage they dealt.

The description notes that it is a hybrid of armadillo and snapping turtle, and that, when full grown, they can dwarf a Percheron (a draft horse that originated in the Perche Valley of northern France of course – man, don’t you guys know anything?)

Mapping the Dungeons is a neat little feature, presenting the names of active DM’s. The FLAILSNAILs of its day, I suppose.

Joe Fischer gives tips on mapping a wilderness. He uses colors for the terrains and simple symbols for features – triangles for hamlets, squares for towns, circles for cities and crosses for fortresses. Circle any of these for ports. Article has a nice Conanesque barbarian illustration as well.

Peter Aronson adds four more levels onto the illusionist, as well as a few extra spells (1st – ventriloquism, mirror image, detect illusion*, color spray*; 2nd – magic mouth, rope trick, dispel illusion*, blur*; 3rd – suggestion, phantasmal killer*, illusionary script*, dispel exhaustion*; 6th – mass suggestion*, permanent/illusion* (no – the slash doesn’t make sense to me either), shadow/monsters III*, programmed/illusion*, conjure animals, true sight*; 7th – astral spell, prismatic wall, maze, vision*, alter reality*, prismatic spray).

The spells marked with an asterisk are detailed in the article, in case you wondered who invented phantasmal killer. Lots of classic spells here. Alter reality apparently works like a limited wish, but you first create an illusion of what you want to happen, and then the … spell description cuts off.

Lin Carter and Scott Bizar present “Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age”, which reminds you of how important wargaming still was to the hobby then. I think wargaming is pretty basic to the experience, really, which is why I threw some basic rules into Blood & Treasure for mass combat. I’m hoping to test them out this weekend with the daughter. She doesn’t know this yet – so keep it under your hat.

Gary Gygax (you might have heard of him) gives rules for hobbits and thieves in DUNGEON!, a game I so completely regret getting rid of I’d like to punch myself in the face.

“Garrison Ernst” (pseudonyms are as much a part of the history of this hobby as dice and beards) presents a chapter of “The Gnome Cache”, in which he gives an introduction to Oerth and its place in the cosmos. Oerth is a parallel Earth with the same basic geography as Earth, it claims, save Asia is a bit smaller and Europe and North America a trifle larger. It is peopled by folks similar to ours, with similar migrations, but it separates from Earth about 2,500 years ago. He also explains the difference in scientific laws (i.e. magic vs. technology) and that nobody knows what lies in the Terra Incognita of Africa and across the Western Ocean.

It might be fun to draw the nations of Oerth on a map of Europe. We’ve all heard that Gygax’s campaign was originally set in a fantasy North America, but here he says Europe, so perhaps Europe it should be.

Larry Smith now chimes in with the three kindreds of the Eldar – the Silvan (or Wood Elves), the Sindar (or Grey Elves) and the Noldor (or Exiles, the greatest of the elves). Apparently they all have a chance each game year of crossing the sea to the land of Valar – that would be a fun house rule to spring on players of elf characters.

“Say Bob, roll d% please”

“Okay … got a 9”

“Sorry Bob, your 6th level wood elf just went to the land of Valar. Roll up a new character.”

The wood elves can advance as fighters as far as they want, but are limited to 2nd level magic-user spells and may not use wands or staffs and have a 10% chance of going to Valar each year. Sindars are the regular D&D elves (and have a 25% chance of going to Valar each year). Noldor are uber elves with no level restrictions and with a 150% bonus to ranges and effects of spells. They have a 5% chance of going to Valar after performing a great deed.

Which begs the question, why would you ever play a non-Noldor elf?

Note: Totally digging the art in this issue.

Not a bad issue. Lots of goodies. I like the houri bit for fighters, the elves going across the sea is fun, and you get some neat hints about Lankhmar and Oerth from the guys who invented them. Worth the read.

The S-word in Blood & Treasure

While I’ve been scrambling to finish NOD 12 by the end of the year, Blood and Treasure and Space Princess have been simmering on the back burner. B and T is about 80% complete – all the monsters, spell and magic items converted, classes written, basic rules finished – and is mostly waiting for some info on high level play (strongholds, wargames, magic research) and a sample delve. Space Princess needs some modifications to the rules (fairly minor) and a formal writing down of the sample delve. They’ll probably both be available in January of 2012.

In the meantime, here’s a look of how non-combat actions can be resolved in the game (i.e. skills, one of the dirtiest words in Old School gaming). Also, a preview of the game’s iconic thief.


The concept of “heroic tasks” covers everything from climbing a sheer wall to riding a dragon. Brushing one’s teeth or stepping over a puddle do not qualify as heroic tasks, and characters can do these and most things automatically, without rolling any dice. Accomplishing very difficult (or almost impossible) tasks, on the other hand, does require a player take dice in hand and roll to discover his character’s fate.

For each of the heroic tasks described below, the conditions of the task are described as either “easy” or “difficult”. If somebody meets the definition of an easy task, they need not roll dice to see if they succeed. Success is assumed.

For people attempting a difficult task, dice must be rolled, and failure imposes consequences.

The actual dice to be rolled and the number needed for success depends on whether the person attempting the heroic task is unskilled, unskilled but has a knack or skilled.

UNSKILLED: An unskilled person can succeed at a difficult task by rolling 1d20, adding the relevant ability modifier, and trying to equal or beat an “18”. Alternatively, you can simply roll 1d6 and attempt to roll a “1”.

KNACK: An unskilled person with a knack for something (such as an elf’s knack for finding secret doors or a gnome’s knack for listening at doors) can succeed at a difficult task by rolling 1d20, adding the relevant ability modifier, and trying to equal or beat a “15”. Alternatively, you can simply roll 1d6 and attempt to roll a “1” or “2”.

SKILLED: A character skilled at a heroic task improves his chances of success as he or she advances in level. A skilled skill check is made by rolling a saving throw, modifying the 1d20 roll with the appropriate ability score modifier.

The type of saving throw depends on the ability most associated with the heroic task. Saving throws made to accomplish a heroic task are modified by their associated ability score, not the ability scores that normally modify saving throws (see Saving Throws above).

Strength: Fortitude
Dexterity: Reflex
Constitution: Fortitude
Intelligence: Will
Wisdom: Will
Charisma: Will

In some circumstances, a Referee can alter which ability is associated with a heroic task, and therefore which type of saving throw. Such is the power of being a Referee!

If a heroic task you are attempting involves more than one difficulty, a -2 penalty per extra difficulty is applied to the dice roll. For example, riding a mount during combat is difficult, and therefore requires a skill check for success. Riding an untamed flying mount that has been frightened during combat involves four different difficulties, and thus imposes a -6 penalty (-2 per difficulty beyond the first) to the skill check to avoid failure.

[Note – just a sample of the more “old school” heroic tasks here – there are more in the game]

Adventurers tend to get themselves into trouble, either by breaking into a monster’s home and stealing its loot or by failing to pay the king’s taxes on said stolen loot. This means that they might end up in the king’s dungeon or maybe on the wrong side of a portcullis with thousands of angry kobolds rushing towards them.

EASY: Bending bars is only easy if the bars are made of a weak metal, like gold, or very rusty iron bars. Using a tool might make bending bars an easy task as well.

DIFFICULT: The following difficulties force a character to attempt an action check when bending bars:
• Bending normal metal bars
• Bending bars one inch or more thick

FAILURE: The bars do not bend.

NOTE: Adamantine bars cannot be bent.

When a wizard wants to hide their treasure for all time, they might put it behind a massive metal door with a dozen locks trapped with acid, or they might put it behind a door that blends into the wall. Of course, they might do both.

SKILLED: Elves have a knack for finding secret doors.

EASY: Finding a secret door is never easy.

DIFFICULT: The following difficulties force a character to attempt an action check to find a secret door:
• Secret door is built to resemble the surface of a wall, floor or ceiling (i.e. all secret doors).
• Secret door is hidden using magic.

FAILURE: The secret door remains a secret.

NOTE: Finding a secret door does not necessarily mean opening a secret door. Many secret doors require special catches to be tripped (a book pulled from a bookshelf or a wall sconce pulled down, for example). Characters who cannot figure out how to open a secret door may have to batter it down (see Battering Doors above).

When an adventurer finds themselves hunted in a hostile dungeon or fortress, hiding might come in handy.

SKILLED: Thieves and assassins are skilled at hiding anywhere. Rangers are skilled at hiding in the wilderness. Halflings have a knack for hiding.

EASY: Hiding one’s entire body behind a solid opaque object.

DIFFICULT: The following difficulties force a character to attempt an action check to hide:
• Hiding behind a translucent objects (no, you cannot hide behind a transparent object!)
• Hiding behind an object smaller than you are.
• Hiding behind a non-rigid object, such as curtains.
• Hiding in nothing but shadow (counts as two difficulties)
• Hiding while under observation (requires a distraction)

FAILURE: You are noticed by an observer.

NOTE: If wearing camouflaging clothing (i.e. green in a woodland, black when hiding in shadows) you may receive a +2 bonus to your dice roll.