Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Building Bhakashal - Playtesting, House Rules and Combat Criticals

From a game design perspective I have at least one significant advantage over many other game designers, it’s not knowledge, skill, style or intuition. 

I run a D&D business, my meat and potatoes is after school D&D programs. Before the pandemic hit I was running 2 games a week with 10 participants between them. When the pandemic hit my business took off, and for the last year I’ve been running 7 concurrent games a week with over 30 players between them. 

That’s a lot of D&D!

In addition to honing my improvisation skills to a fine edge, this has also given Bhakashal a secret weapon: playtesting.

I have had the opportunity to test out game mechanics extensively. Not just with one group, but with many. My “home” group (my son and his friends) is usually my first stop. I can try anything with them, and I have! They are all gamers and brutally honest, so I usually get a fairly good sense of whether or not something will work just running it past them.

Then I can take it to my after school program (if the rule is appropriate for kids) and try it there. I don’t introduce new rules to every group, it’s useful to introduce a new rule to a few of my groups and not to the others, to see how it impacts the game. 

The procedure for this is fairly simple. I introduce the new rule, explain it with an example, and if everyone is amenable we run it in-game for a few weeks. Most rules apply equally to the NPCs/Monsters, so anything that makes the game more deadly makes it more deadly for everyone. More than one house rule has been ditched because the players decided it was too much of a risk. If the players don’t like the new rule we drop it and I decide if it might be a better fit for another group. 

I have play-tested all of the major rules systems for Bhakashal in this way. Some more than others of course, but it has allowed me to ensure that the systems work, and to see how they work at the table. 

Critical Hits

One of the first times I “questioned” Gygax’s design decisions was the section in the DMG about critical hits. Gygax was fairly clear that “heroic” fantasy doesn’t fit with broken bones or sudden, massive damage. However, every single table I’ve ever played at wanted critical hits. It’s one of those experience based observations that reminded me that Gygax was a brilliant game designer, but he didn’t get everything right.

So I wanted a critical hit system for Bhakashal. However, there are a number of known issues with critical hit systems based on “20’s” and “1’s”:

  1. They have static odds, you roll a natural “20” 5% of the time, a natural “1” 5% of the time. So there is a 10% chance of a critical on any attack.

  2. Criticals are not class specific, every class has an equal chance of getting one.

  3. Your odds of getting a critical never improve.

  4. Criticals are a bit dull after a while, double damage is fun, but it’s the same thing every time.

I’m sure others have things about criticals they don’t like, but these were the main complaints I’ve heard at the table over the years. Bhakashal’s system for criticals deals with all of these problems and a few others by adopting a threefold approach.

A. Combat criticals

B. Weapon criticals

C. “Lasting damage” criticals

A. Combat Criticals - It’s odd where inspiration hits. I was musing on how to execute criticals for Bhakashal and all I really knew was that I wanted to do something different than the nat 20 critical. Then one day I was browsing through the 1e PHB and reading over the monk entry, and I took a closer look at the monk’s “roll over” system for stunning. If a monk rolls 5 or more over what is required to hit an opponent with an open hand attack, the target is “stunned” for 1-6 rounds. 

There it was, like a rare gem lying at the bottom of a lake, ripe for the plucking. 

One of the design principles of Bhakashal was to BUILD on what is already there in AD&D rather than reinventing the wheel completely. And the game had given me exactly what I needed, a mechanic for criticals that WASN’T based on a natural 20 or 1 so it addressed problem 1. 

It was tied to the required “to hit” roll for the PC/monster/NPC so it was class specific, those classes with better “to hit” rolls would get criticals more often. That sorted problem 2. 

Your odds for rolling a critical change with your level, you improve at your ability to get critical hits. That sorted 3. I considered allowing a roll over critical on a roll with bonuses, but quickly rejected that, as AD&D is a game of cumulative bonuses, and by mid-level’s criticals would be happening all the time. So in Bhakashal it is based on a natural roll. 

Not bad for a first pass.

That just left me with the variety issue.

So I spent some time researching critical systems, Warhammer in particular had a nasty one, a bit TOO nasty for my taste, but between that and other systems I managed to put together a list that was long enough to create some variety but not so long as to make the game too complicated.

Here is the list:

The attacker gets to choose their critical result on the table, these are a mix of criticals that impact weapons, move the target around, neutralize various combat stats (e.g. AC, targeting, initiative) etc. Note as well that “double damage” here means doubling the base dice damage, not the damage with bonuses included. 

I sat with that for a while, and ideas started to come to me. One big signal that a game design decision is a good one is that it inspires other ideas. And this one started to inspire me.

First, I decided to give fighters (“mercenaries” in Bhakashal) and monks (“spartans” in Bhakashal) a saving throw against any critical effect against them. Fighters are the forgotten child of AD&D in many ways, their abilities and advantages are baked into the game mechanics that all classes use, so they don’t seem very interesting on the surface. A critical system gave me a vector to give them a class bennie that would be useful in combat.

Next, I thought about natural 20’s and 1’s. I had decided from the beginning that I didn’t want a “critical fail” option. Missing your target is enough of a failure in a deadly game like D&D, adding some sort of whiffle to the process was unnecessary. Given the amount of posts I’ve seen recently that suggest you shouldn’t describe critical failures as incompetency on the part of the PC, I think this was the right decision. 

Still, there is a lot of inertia behind the idea that 1’s and 20’s should mean something. So I decided that this would be a good place to introduce some weapon and armor criticals. On a natural 1 in Bhakashal your weapon takes a “-1” to hit until it is repaired. If it takes enough damage this way to reduce damage by the max amount that the weapon can deal (e.g. for a dagger that’s 4 hp) then the weapon breaks.

Similarly, if you roll a natural 20 against an opponent, their AC becomes 1 point worse until the armor is repaired or the monster/NPC is healed (if they wear no armor). 

AD&D is a game of small cumulative bonuses and penalties, these sorts of small modifiers don’t seem like much, but they accumulate. This system makes armor and weapon upkeep important, and given that criticals happen 10% of the time, it actually impacts play meaningfully. I was giddy at the elegance of this, as it used both 20’s and 1’s and addressed the need for a weapon and armor damage system in one move. Another sign things were on the right track.

There was still something incomplete about the system, and it took reading Talislanta to have the penny drop. 

In Talislanta when the attacker rolls sufficiently high on a d20 with bonuses they can trigger whatever critical effect they want. So for example, if your opponent is near a cliff’s edge and you want to push them off? Roll sufficiently high in Talislanta and you can do that. Essentially the PC states the critical they want, and if they roll high enough, they get it.

The disadvantage of the system is that it requires the PC to come up with a critical effect, and in my experience some players love this, some players have no idea what to do when they roll a critical

Bhakashal’s system solves this problem handily, if the player has no idea what critical effect to use then they can pick one from the table, or roll it off the table if they so choose. However, if they have an idea, then the ref can look at the existing criticals to “calibrate” their request, and Bob’s your uncle. 

The spillover benefits to this system are well worth it, players pay much more attention to “to hit” rolls in combat as they know they might get a critical. They pay attention to the rolls of other players as it helps them to calibrate what they will need for a critical. They also pay attention as they are curious to know if a critical has been achieved and what it will be. They take a perverse pleasure in seeing how a monster’s critical upon a PC will play out, will they be knocked down, disarmed, blinded?

Also, as the HP of your opponents go up, criticals become more important. You are not very likely to kill that giant with your first sword strike, however, you may be able to blind them, or knock them down, or set up an opponent for their attack, etc. Roll over criticals have made my players more tactically minded and changed fights with high HP monsters from wars of attrition to coordinated tactical assaults. 

And it has revived interest in fighters as well. Fighters are the most likely to get criticals on this system, as they have the best “to hit” matrix of all the classes. Giving them a wider range of options in combat has only served  to draw more players to them as a class. Win win on that.

But perhaps the final signal that I was on the right track came when we introduced the system to my home game where the PCs were around 6-7th level. One of the party fighters attacked a group of low level “mooks” and got a critical, they chose an extra attack, and got another critical, and by the end had a string of 5 attacks in a row from criticals. I realized that this system allowed me to emulate the “multiple attacks per round against 0-level opponents” rule from AD&D, the “mook rule”, one of my FAVORITE 1e rules, and I hadn’t even set out to do so. 

Now I was cooking with gas. And I thought I was done, but then I looked at the weapons tables…

B. Weapon Criticals

One thing I have always loved about 1e AD&D is that weapon choice matters, weapon speed, WvrsAC adjustments, length, space required, weight, variable damage, all of these factors make weapon choice important. And, as the fighter gets the greatest number of initial weapons and gets new weapon proficiencies fairly quickly, they get the most benefit from the system.

However, the weapons table in 1e also hinted at something more. Certain weapons allow you to dismount, disarm, set against charge, etc. I saw a vector to exploit here that would add to the differences between weapons, and give them another tactical dimension. 

And the mechanic for it was already there, the “roll over” critical. In Bhakashal when you roll 5 or more than your required “to hit” roll, you can opt for a combat critical (described above) or a weapon critical. Bhakashal associates a critical effect with each weapon, which makes weapon choice even more interesting. Here are a few examples of weapon criticals:

Bludgeon - Weapon knocks opponent prone or back 10’

Charge – Weapon does 2x damage if used from a charging mount

Cleave - Weapon does full dice damage

Dismount – Weapon dismounts a rider. 

Dual Wield – On a critical hit the second weapon also strikes, otherwise it is assumed to be blocking (one point AC bonus)

Remain – Weapon stays imbedded in opponent, does minimum dice damage each round until removed (e.g. arrow does 1hp per round until removed)

Again, fighters get these effects the most often, as they have the best “to hit” tables, so the system emulates weapon proficiency and hews to class archetypes. Anyone CAN get a critical with a weapon, but a fighter is most likely to do this. 

People complain quite a bit that fighters can be “boring”, and that they all look the same due to weapon optimization (e.g. most fighters take a bow, a longsword a spear/polearm and a blunt weapon like a mace or  a hammer). Adding weapon criticals to the mix led my players to make more tactical choices when setting up their weapons, and it has added variety and new interest to the class. 

Between A and B, problem 4 was solved, between combat criticals and weapon criticals Bhakashal introduces 34 critical effects to the game, meaning your combat need never be a slowly unfolding war of HP attrition. 

C. Lasting Damage Criticals

I thought I was done at that point, but one of the things that has bugged my players for years has been that in D&D you are either fighting fit or dead. You fight at full capacity until 0 hp, then if you dip below and are healed back you still need to rest for days to recover. Same for monsters, they fight full on until the last HP. Most of my players expressed an interest in a system that would create lasting damage from certain attacks, broken legs, severed hands, that sort of stuff.

Bhakashal uses a “location of hit” chart, and when the PC (or NPC/Monster) is reduced to less than a quarter of their total HP, they make a saving throw, if they fail, a location specific lasting damage effect is brought into play. So, for example, a fighter with full HP of 20 is hit on the arm with a mace and the hit brings them to 3 HP, they roll a save versus paralyzation, fail the save, and their arm is now broken, giving them a penalty to hit until it is healed.

If they are brought below 0 hp with a blow, then a save versus death is made, and if they fail that there is a lasting damage consequence as well, for example, if that fighter mentioned above was hit on the neck with an axe and reduced to -3 HP they would save versus death, if that save failed, the head comes off!

There is a tendency to think about these effects in terms of the PCs, but think about monsters for a moment. Say you are fighting a giant and they take a lasting damage critical on the leg, breaking it, now that giant can’t run away or chase the PCs, and they have another option.

One thing that using this rule forced me to do was to come up with rules for healing broken bones and such. There are no specific rules for this in AD&D, so I came up with something simple: whether a broken bone or a sprain, it will be healed when the target is back to full HP again, whether through natural healing (1 hp per day) or magical healing. 

The final link in this chain came from Bhakashal’s HP system, I have detailed it elsewhere, but it introduces an exhaustion mechanic for combat. As the fight continues, and more specifically the more damage you take, there are penalties. When you are reduced to between 3/4  and 1/2 of your total HP you take a one point penalty on EVERYTHING you roll, “to hit”, “saves” etc. When you are between 1/2 and 1/4 of your total HP you take a 2 point penalty, and between 1/4 and 0 you take a -3 penalty. These are small penalties, but they become very significant cumulatively, and they make combat even MORE deadly. D&D has a tendency to give out a lot of HP to PCs, and that can take the sting out of combat. Exhaustion and location specific criticals make combat deadly not by just cranking out massive HP damage, but by introducing penalties that impact combat, and survival, directly.

Rubber Meets the Road

I have playtested all of these systems for the last year with 4 different groups, 3 of these groups were 10-12 year old kids, so I know that these systems are easy to use. Roll-over criticals are dead easy, while they are figuring out their bonuses on a “to hit” roll I read the roll and check to see if they have rolled over by 5. They understand the system, and once they saw the critical table they started to think of their own critical effects. It took about 2 sessions to introduce the critical system and have them using it without prompting. People suggest that this sort of system is “too complex” for kids, but they don’t sit with their kids playing minecraft and watching them recite the stats for 600 Pokemon more or less at will. 

Complexity is a bogeyman, proper implementation and motivation (e.g. making the complexity useful) resolves complexity issues.

Of course, at first everyone took “extra attack”, or “double damage”, but then started to see that it was really best to take “extra attack” when they were at mid to high levels, as low level extra attacks are often misses, and that “double damage” was best chosen by PCs with higher base dice damage, weapons that had lower spans of 1 were less preferable to those that did “2-x” damage when choosing a double damage critical. That sort of thing. When you put a sufficiently rich but simple system in front of players, even 10 year olds, they figure it out and start to use it effectively. It’s a joy to see. 

The effect of this on the game has been entirely positive, players trying to do new things inspired by the criticals that are there, varying weapon selection as players mix and match weapon criticals, working harder to avoid combat where possible as violence in Bhakashal is quite dangerous, and when combat does happen, it provides the referee with an abundance of prompts to narrate fast, deadly and cinematic fighting that inspires and terrifies. 

The classic RPG combat dilemma is this: complex fighting can be slow, and in a  multi-player game like D&D this is a recipe for boredom, simple fighting is fast and easy, but gets dull with repetition. I see endless complaints on Twitter about D&D fighting “taking too long”, speeding it up by changing monster HP or just hand waving things, like it’s a chore to play what should be the most exciting part of the game. This was a red flag that D&D combat doesn’t do the trick for many people.

In Bhakashal, combat happens for about 1/3 of the table time, you can go for 2-3 sessions without any fighting, you can have fighting every few sessions but for very little of those sessions, or you can have fighting for several sessions in a row. Most fights last 3-4 rounds, not that long, but every roll is a big deal, and every fight a risk. We have had a few mult-session combats, fights that spanned more than one session. We had a three session fight between a party of 8 PCs and 6 displacer beasts. That was epic, a hand was bitten off, a henchmen of 1 year of play was mauled to death and the party monk subdued a displacer beast he now has as a pet. They will talk about that fight for years to come. 

In Bhakashal, fighting never takes “too long”. 

Bhakashal has resolved the classic dilemma of complexity versus playability, by muting HP progression, introducing described damage, lasting damage, exhaustion, combat criticals, weapon criticals, WvrsAC adjustments, grappling rules and segment based deterministic individual initiative, combat is easy to run (easy enough for 10-12 year old players), fast (fights rarely last more than 3-4 rounds), deadly, tactical (presenting options and flexibility), unpredictable and handles large groups easily.  

Game on.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Building Bhakashal - "Balanced" Encounters and Scaling the Game

One of the things I get the most pushback about when I discuss TTRPGS is the idea of NOT scaling the encounters to the party. 

Boilerplate disclaimer - I am not suggesting that my way of playing is “better”, “best” or that other ways of playing are “worst”, or “wrong”. This is not a normative post but a descriptive one. 

And of course, it isn’t strictly true that encounters in our game are not scaled. I don’t send first level parties up against ancient red dragons, so there is clearly SOME SENSE of level appropriateness to the game. However, this fit is LOOSE, and it is helpful to dive in a bit and discuss this looseness of fit to see how this actually works at the table.

The key observation here is that I don’t generally create encounters with the party in mind. I create an environment, a situation, a set of factional relationships, an encounter or element, but I do not look at the characters and use their stats and information to guide what I put into the encounter. 

To be clear, this is 100% antithetical to current approaches towards D&D and related games. You are expected to weave the PC’s backstories and goals into the adventure, to ensure that “everyone has a chance to shine” in the session, to “advance the story”, to “hit story beats” and ensure that the “challenge” of the encounter is calibrated to the PCs. I do none of these things when I put together encounters or parts of the setting.

To address the first question that is no doubt in the minds of many, do I have a lot of TPK’s? And the answer is, no, I do not. Do my players fail more often than they succeed? Again, no. Do my players complain about the fairness of the game given that I don’t scale encounters to the party? Also no.

So there is clearly something up. I don’t use any “CR” calculations, I don’t scale encounters to the party, I don’t even have the party’s abilities in mind when I create the encounters. So how does this all work?

  1. Focus on the Group - First off, the focus needs to shift. Stop thinking about this as “how do I, as the ref, scale my encounters for the party to be fair and fun”, and replace it with, “How can I fairly signal to the party the threat level of what they are encountering so they can make the decision about whether or not to take the risk and engage”. It’s a very different kind of question to ask. The “job” of the ref is to create the game world and have it respond to the players, not to calibrate the game world to the PCs. The job of selecting which challenges to engage with, and how to engage with them, is ENTIRELY up to the players. 

  1. Game versus Storytelling - It is helpful to think of D&D as a GAME, not a “shared storytelling experience”, and the point of a GAME is not to tailor the difficulty to the players, but to enable the players to engage with the game, whatever level of difficulty is chosen.

  1. Provide Options - Another way to shift the thinking about this is to start asking another question, “Have I provided a rich and varied enough game world that my players have a range of options, of differing degrees of difficulty, to choose from?” One of the reasons “balance” matters in TTRPGs is that there is an expectation that the players will choose to play whatever is put in front of them. If you don’t have a choice then it’s a bit churlish for the ref to create an encounter they know you can’t handle and you can’t avoid as “that’s what we are playing tonight.”

  1. Shared Responsibility - Groups that play in this sort of game will fairly quickly learn that it is THEIR responsibility to gauge the difficulty of encounters and then decide whether to engage, parlay, flee, etc. The party decides if the adventure is too difficult, the party decides if it is time to cut losses, the party decides if they have what they need to win. Not the ref. This sort of shift in perspective is hard for many people as they are attached to the idea that the ref has a responsibility to guide the game to achieve a particular kind of “story”. For me this is exactly the problem, the ref isn’t responsible for your good time or for creating any kind of story, fun is a GROUP responsibility, and the player’s part of that relationship is to decide how to engage the game world in any given encounter.

  1. Focus on Combat - Cultivating this approach will cut down SIGNIFICANTLY on your party’s tendency to KILL ANYTHING THAT MOVES. One of my after school D&D players once captured this sentiment perfectly when he said, “Why shouldn’t I kill that guard, what’s the worst that could happen, he’s only a zero level guard”. When the party expects that all challenges will be manageable they tend to drift towards just taking out anyone that gets in their way. Why wouldn’t they? They know that the encounter is beatable, so slaying enemies is simpler than trying to negotiate or create an alliance. Take away the net of “balance encounters” and watch how fast your players will change their tune. Sure, that guard is very likely beatable, but there are going to be plenty of cases when that isn’t true. Removing “balance” from encounters was one of the most important steps in removing needless combat from my game. 

  1. Accepting Failure - Failures or “setbacks” are often considered to be a problem with game design, as, the argument goes, players do not enjoy a game where they fail, the fun is in the rousing successes. I think this is both short sighted and fundamentally flawed. Part of what makes the successes sweet is precisely that the road to get there was hard. 

  1. Game Mechanics - Another reason for excessive focus on “challenge ratings” and encounter balance is the nature of the game mechanical rewards for adventuring, e.g. experience points. If you tie experience (XP) to defeating monsters, then defeating monsters becomes the focus of the game, and “challenge rating” becomes important as it has an impact on whether or not  you can secure that loot. 1e AD&D solved this particular problem by disconnecting XP from monsters. Yes, slaying a monster gets you XP, but by far the most significant contributor to XP is loot. So it becomes both feasible and recommended to AVOID combat where possible and look for clever solutions to get to that loot. In a situation like this, it’s not about the ref calibrating the encounter to the party, it’s about the party weighing the risks and rewards of trying to circumvent the monsters to get to the loot. 

  1. Surprise! - One of the most pernicious impacts of scaling encounters is the inevitable sameness it produces. If you know that encounters are going to be scaled to the party, it becomes much easier to guess what you will be encountering. Low level groups fight endless hordes of low level mooks, mooks+wizard or mooks+ evil priest becomes the template. Nothing wrong with either, but removing the “balance” restrictions frees up space for novelty.

  1. Ease of Play - When you have a “challenge rating/ encounter difficulty is on the ref” mindset, encounters become a maze of estimations and calibrations in order to ensure that the encounter is indeed, “balanced” for the party. It puts FAR TOO MUCH weight on the ref to ensure that things turn out “properly”. Once you abandon this idea, then you let the encounters run as they may, and let the players decide how to address any concerns that come up.

  1. Risk and Reward - Another benefit of losing the focus on encounter balance is that you will start to see a change in the kind of encounters the party has. Sometimes they will have a cake-walk, other times a reasonable challenge, and sometimes they will get their asses handed to them. The excitement that this will inject into your campaign might just shock you. When the players AND the ref are not sure how the encounter will go, whether the players will be challenged or not, the game takes on a new level of engagement. When you can’t predict, the excitement comes back to the process. And some sessions they will KICK ASS, and get some much needed confidence. In other sessions they will have their asses kicked, and it will remind them to be wary. What makes this all work is that you can’t predict what will happen. If they are ALWAYS getting their asses kicked it isn’t fun, if they always dominate it isn’t fun either. Removing the shackles of “balanced encounters” will free your fun.

An Example

As with most things, examples help to show how this is supposed to work. Here is one from my Tuesday night after school D&D game.

My Tuesday group rolled up new 1st level PCs last week after wrapping up a one year campaign with their last characters. All of them but one decided that they wanted to run druids, the last one decided on an illusionist. Now, I have expanded the druid spell list considerably for my game, but the basics remain the same, 1-8 HP at first level, two weapons, light armor only, bad “to hit” and “saving throw” numbers at 1st, etc. 

Normally the first order of business is to get the PCs set up with a patron, but the lads decided they wanted to “free form” adventure for a bit before being tied down to a particular patron. So they went to the local tavern for food, drink and people watching. 

Now, as a ref in a sandbox campaign, this is all good. They don’t have to engage with the hooks I provide, and I was ready to give them a patron, but that can wait. So they went to the Black Boar tavern and had some food and drink and listened to the locals discuss local things. 

At this point I rolled on the rumor table, and the following came up, 

“...a day worker harvesting Brogah blossoms was found dead in the fields of House Hyin, she was torn to pieces...” 

So that was the bit the party heard. They asked a few questions of the locals who were talking about this (they were all day laborers and were lamenting that the employer wasn’t going to investigate what happened), and then they decided to go to the Brogah fields at night and see what they could find. 

Now, just to be clear, the rumor table entry is exactly as it is quoted above. It says nothing about what killed the laborer. That’s left to the ref to improvise when and if the encounter happens. If I was concerned with encounter balance I would have looked for some appropriate 1st level monster to engage with. Instead, I went to the random encounter tables and rolled on them, with the expectation that whatever I rolled had to meet a few criteria, it had to be small enough to be able to enter the fields repeatedly without being noticed, it had to be deadly enough to slay someone without significant difficulty, it had to have claws or teeth, it had to be fairly aggressive and violent, it had to prey on humanoids and it had to have some degree of stealth. Anything that fit these requirements would work.

So I rolled and got “three wererats”, and that was the encounter.

Now, as any D&D player will tell you, three wererats is a TPK territory encounter for four first level PCs. The threat of lycanthropy, the resistance to non-magical weapons, 4 HD, most first level parties would be destroyed by three wererats, particularly if surprise is involved (and they surprise on a 1-4). So the “balanced encounter ref” would drop this result and re-roll it rather than running an “imbalanced” encounter.

Not this guy.

So the party went to the fields and started to poke around at night. As it happens they were surprised by the wererats, and all three descended on the party. Three to hit rolls, one was successful, and did 3hp of damage, not enough to kill the PC, but enough to reduce them to 2 hp. 

Then we rolled for initiative. The party was lucky, and attacked first, discovering that their non-magical weapons were ineffective against the wererats. 

That produced howls of fear from the players. How were they going to defeat three monsters that are immune to non-magical weapons when none of them had magical weapons? 

Not my problem.

They decided to wade into an encounter without knowing what they would be fighting, and in this case it was something that is hard to defeat. Now their job was to triage this situation and figure out how to survive. 

That’s what makes it exciting, they know there is no safety net, no fudging, no “ref saves  your ass”, it’s ALL ON THEM and they are DEEP IN IT. This is the beating heart of exciting old school play. 

So they got creative. 

They fled in different directions, risking attacks of opportunity against each of them, two of those hit and did enough damage that the PCs had 1, 3 and 4 HP left, with one of them at full HP with 6. Still, they got their distance. 

Then two of them tried for entangle spells, as they were in a field, one didn’t cast fast enough, but the other did, and snagged all four of the wererats. One made it’s save and was slowed 50%, the rest failed and were entangled. They considered setting the plants on fire to burn the wererats, but decided against it as they might set the entire crop on fire, that wasn’t the goal.

If this were a “scaled” encounter, they would just attack whatever they found as they expected to be able to win, because they know I don’t scale encounters, they also don’t know if they will be able to win using any one particular method. So they consider that setting the plants on fire might burn the whole crop to the ground, as fire might be the only solution they have. In short, they have to THINK about what they do as success is not guaranteed.  

Now, at this point they could have bolted, the entangle spell would have slowed or held the wererats long enough for them to flee and find the city watch, or just flee the area to avoid the wererats. 

Nahhh. They wanted to defeat the wererats and gain the repute (and loot!) that came with it. Then one of the players realized that the Shillelagh spell makes a club or staff into a +1 weapon, so they could damage the wererats. Honestly I had forgotten about the spell, so it was a surprise to me as well. One of the PCs also had a net, after some quick debate they decided he would throw it on two of the wererats, cast Shillelagh on a staff and a club, end the entangle spell then attack the wererats as they emerged. 

It was a crazy plan, if either of the wererats who left the entangle hit one of the PCs it would likely be instant death at their HP totals. They knew it too, but this was the only way forward at this point.

Devil take the hindmost and all that.

So the entangle was dropped and two of the wererats came forward to attack. The Shillelagh wielding druids stepped up and initiative was rolled. The party won, and two Shillelaghs were swung, tagging both wererats solidly.  Fortunately the next two wererat attacks missed. The next round found two more hits with the now-magical clubs, both doing damage. 

Round three happens, one of the freed wererats tags a PC for 5 HP damage, reducing him to 1 hp. The Shillelagh’s swing and another hit, and one of the wererats falls, bloody, to the ground.

Now the morale rules from 1e kick in, the wererats are taking hits and giving few, two of their group are caught up in a net, one was down and the other was being beaten quite effectively with a magical club. Morale was rolled, the wererats failed, and when they emerged from the net they fled. The last wererat was now outnumbered and they managed to subdue it without killing it. 

It was seat of the pants all the way, and they had no idea what to do when it started. On paper it was a TPK in the making, and to survive it they had to get smart and take risks. What I find particularly fascinating about all of this is that:

  1. They LOVED this encounter

  2. They almost died

  3. They had to be creative to succeed

  4. This encounter never would have happened if I “balanced” encounters in the game.

Of course, a few bad rolls or strategic mistakes and this all could have went south into TPK territory. But, honestly, that would have just made for a terrific story, “hey, remember that time we all rolled up druids and were SHREDDED by wererats? Good times man.”

It’s not a gaming style for everyone, that’s important to realize. But note how it made things immensely easier for the referee. I just had to run the wererats, there was no need to delicately balance anything, or fudge results on the fly. They KNEW they could meet things well beyond their pay grade, and that’s exactly what happened. They took RISKS, and they garnered REWARDS. This was NOT a balanced encounter, but it was an exciting, tactically challenging and rewarding one to run and experience. And the players had a righteous sense of achievement, they met a foe that was more powerful than they were, and they defeated that foe fair and square. You can’t buy that sense of accomplishment, they KNOW I don’t scale encounters, so if they win at my table the win it THEIRS, not MINE.

So the next time you contemplate “balance”, or hear about someone who had to constantly “tweak” dice rolls and stats to make an encounter “survivable” remember that there is another way. Set up encounters and let the PLAYERS decide if they are up to the challenge or not.

Friday, June 11, 2021

 Building Bhakashal - Good Luck!

I have mixed feelings about luck mechanics in D&D. On one level I don’t like them, there is something to knowing that the dice roll is final that matters to the way the game is played. 

However, everyone has had that player, or that session, where EVERY roll goes badly.

In D&D, HP are essentially luck points, and they tend to skew high, whether because of house rules that bump them, reroll attempts on HP, minimums, averages, whatever. The classic AD&D model is low maintenance and does what it promises on the tin, it means you are more likely to survive as the hero should, but it doesn’t make you invincible out of the gate. By mid to high levels, however, PCs get a bit silly, a 10th level cleric with say 50 HP, or a 10th level fighter with say 80 hp, is hard to beat. 

HP in D&D are “passive” luck mechanics, you don’t have to do anything, they are just there. The problem is that they only apply to one thing, and players have a lot of rolls to make, to hit, saving throws, etc. 

I have met more than one player in my time that would have LOVED to take one of those “luck points”, in the form of HP, and add it to their “to hit” roll when they just miss. However, if you allow PCs to use as many of their HP as they want for this purpose, then at higher levels they will be able to guarantee certain rolls. That’s not what you want either.

What will work is a luck mechanic that is small but discretionary. I’ve toyed with many ways to do this. In Bhakashal, I have come up with two mechanics for this. Both are tied into level, so a brief word about that. In 1e AD&D level progression is uneven, classes do not level at the same rate. Over longer campaigns you see thieves level up fastest, then everyone else levels up pretty much the same except for paladins and monks. Bhakashal maintains that basic relationship.

However, Bhakashal changes the HP system. 

Table 1 - Hit Point Progression by Class


Starting Hit Points

0-level NPCs/monsters - do not gain further HP beyond start


A. Beastial/Cavaral/Chimerist/Conjuror/










C. Monster/Mercenary


All classed PCs and NPCs get 4HP per level from 2nd to 10th level. At 10th level HP progression stops. All monsters get 4hp per HD above 1.

Binding wounds and stabilizing the victim will stop HP loss, and HP are regained at a rate of 4 hp per day of rest.

So all 0-level guards, soldiers, bandits, peasants, etc. have 4 hp. All first level mercenaries have 12 HP, all first level justiciars, spartans and slayers have 8 hp, and all other classes have 4 hp to start. All 1HD monsters have 12HP. 

Then, all classes and monsters get 4 hp per level after that. The point of these changes is twofold, one, to cut out the HP bloat of AD&D at mid to high levels and to make the described damage / lasting damage system simpler to manage.

How does the Bhakashal HP system compare to the established AD&D HP system? The comparisons can be seen here, with traditional AD&D classes followed by their Bhakashal equivalent. For the traditional D&D classes I have listed average and max HP.















































































































A few immediate observations. 

For mercenaries, their HP is higher than the average for fighters until level 6, then it is lower from then on. Also, the mercenary HP is lower than the max, hovering around half, for all but level 1. 

For seers the HP are lower than the average from level 1 and half the max all the way down.

For spiders the HP are higher than average all the way through, but 2/3 the max all the way down.

Warlocks get the best deal of them all, their HP is the max all the way from level 1.

So the HP system for Bhakashal essentially cuts out the high end for all classes but the warlock, it is higher than average for mercenaries initially but not past mid levels, it is lower than average for seers, higher than average for spiders, and max for warlocks.

That’s all compared to 1e and done without adding in any CON bonuses or penalties.

Described Damage and Lasting Damage

Bhakashal uses a system where your damage is described rather than reported as HP. The description of damage is linked to how many HP you have left of your total. From full to 3/4 of your total HP nothing actually hits you, all of that quarter of your HP are luck, favor of the gods and dodging.

From 3/4 to 1/2 your total HP all blows are minor, glancing, nicks and such, and are located on your body using a location of hit chart. Also, you take a -1 on all your rolls at that point due to exhaustion, exertion, etc (the PC’s status is marked by flipping over a Jack and leaving it in front of the player).

From 1/2 to 1/4 your total HP all blows are major and are located on your body using a location of hit chart. Also, you take a -2 on all your rolls at that point due to physical damage and exhaustion (the PC’s status is marked by flipping over a Queen and leaving it in front of the player).

From 1/4 to 1 HP all blows are critical, major damage, and are located on your body using a location of hit chart. You take a -3 on all your rolls at that point due to physical damage and exhaustion (the PC’s status is marked by flipping over a King and leaving it in front of the player). Also, the PC rolls a save versus paralyzation, if they fail, they take the lasting damage consequence indicated by the location of the hit. 

Finally, when a PC is damaged and brought to 0 HP or below an Ace is given to the player, the location of hit is determined, and they make a saving throw versus death or suffer the listed consequence for that hit location. They also lose 1HP per round while that Ace is in their possession unless they are stabilized by an ally. When they reach -CON in HP they are dead.

Breaking the HP totals down into increments of 4 allows this all to be done easily, as the 3/4 - 1/2 - 1/4 totals are easy to calculate. It also helps with the luck mechanic.

Bhakashal- Get Lucky!

Bhakashal has three options for a luck mechanic. Some prefer to play without any modification of results, some want something more aggressive. The three options give increasing levels of aid to the PC.

Option 1 - HP as Passive Luck

This is the standard AD&D option, your HP are your “passive” luck points. You don’t have to allocate or decide how or when to spend them, they are automatically deducted when you take damage. 

Option 2 - Spending Your Luck

In Bhakashal, you can “spend” up to 1/4 of your total HP to change the results of dice rolls. Let’s take an example from the table, a 4th level seer has 16 HP, so 4 of those can be spent to alter die rolls. So say the seer is fireballed by a warlock. The seer’s saving throw is a 15. Let’s say they roll a 13, they could “spend” 2 hp and make the save, dividing their damage in half.

Note that these HP can be spent at any time, as long as the PC has HP left. To narrate the spending of HP the ref can describe it as effort, pushing to avoid the blow/attack so hard that it is physically draining.

Option 3 - Try Again Luck - Re-Roll Results

Bhakashal’s third option allows a PC to re-roll ½ their level (rounding up) in dice rolls per adventuring day, but every time they do so they lose 4 HP. This is no guarantee of a success, however, as it is a reroll it means that you could change a result that was too large to change with option 2. 

Option X - Sharing Your Luck

One possible rule to go with option 1 or 2 is that you can share your PC’s  “luck”, either a daily reroll slot and it’s HP cost, or some of your “luck” HP, with another PC. 

Monsters and NPC’s

Of course, Monsters and NPCs also take part in whatever rule you choose. However, if you leave the decision up to the ref on when to alter their rolls it might seem unfair to the players. I also worry about my biases, I want to run an impartial game. So for me, it is always a roll to decided about this sort of thing, that way I know that the process is impartial.

For Bhakashal I recommend that you randomize this in some way, to your taste, eg

A.Roll a d4, the result is the point at which the NPC / Monster starts to modify failed rolls with luck:

1- When at full HP

2- When reduced to ¾ of total HP

3- When reduced to ½ of total HP

4- When reduced to ¼ of total HP

B.Every time the NPC / monster fails a roll, roll a d4, 1-2 use luck, 3-4 don’t use luck.

C.Use luck on failed rolls when below ½ HP.

D. Use luck on failed rolls after the first morale check


Checks and Balances

There are always costs to design decisions. The cost of having an active luck mechanic is that it can allow the PCs to escape the consequences of their actions too often. And it takes away the sting of a bad roll, which makes a good roll less sweet. 

So for some groups Option 1 is the best solution.

The cost of the “system of 4’s” for HP is that you miss out on variable HP and super high or super low HP PCs, it’s a bit disconcerting to have your HP capped, and to remove the possibility of a big roll.  I pondered this for a while and recalled how many people do something to boost HP, particularly at low levels.

The advantage of having a luck mechanic is that a parsimonious player can add that “pow” to a killing blow, or keep from dying one more time. The advantage of having a small impact luck mechanic is that it still leaves the possibility of failure, re-rolls fail, or you can have too few HP to spend to make the required change.

I’ve playtested this at three separate tables, we still have character deaths as re-rolls can fail, and HP can be too few to change the roll sufficiently, or luck can be all spent when the real problem shows up. The key is keeping the amounts small, Bhakashal's "system of 4s" HP claw back the bloat signficantly, making the Option 2 and 3 luck mechanics feasible. With this system the frequency of changing rolls is about right. And of course the ref gets to change rolls too.

What I’ve seen is that most players save their active luck for emergencies, some use it right away or on a whim. It has impacted player satisfaction with the game, but it hasn’t taken away the challenge. 

Between this and the Talislanta style player defined critical system, Bhakashal combat is kicking ass.

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