Problem-Solving Combat: Example in Cunning Knave

Spoilers for my players!

I've run three sessions of my first draft of Cunning Knave, and they've gone quite well. Only in the third session did we end up in an unambiguous combat situation, so I had an opportunity to see how the Problem-Solving Combat rules felt in play. I want to provide a summary here to give some concrete examples of what I'm talking about in Problem-Solving Combat: Breaking the Cage of "Roll Initiative", which includes part of the rules used here.

Imperfect memory has altered some things and some rough edges are smoothed over - don't take this as an exact log of events, but a combination dramatized play report and idealized example of Problem Solving Combat using Cunning Knave, with some commentary about how I adjudicated things on the fly.

I wrap up with a continuation of my thoughts on this style of combat from my initial post, which I think doesn't quite stand on itself enough to get my point across. I may follow this up with a third post on the topic, focusing on advice and procedures for generating and evolving interesting combat situations, for players to sink their problem-solving teeth into. And I intend to eventually release Cunning Knave into the wild as well.

https://www.adventure-in-a-box.com/medieval-articulated-puppets/

Problem-Solving Combat: Breaking the Cage of "Roll Initiative"


I don't want to take the stance that this is an objectively better way to do things, but there's something in the water (maybe hydrogen, maybe oxygen?) that makes humans write toward that stance. I could go edit through everything and make sure I'm not, but that is a recipe for not actually publishing any blog posts. So take this as a blanket disclaimer: This is what I've found works for me, to evoke the kind of engagement I want with and from my players, compared to how I've seen and played other game systems run by other GMs. If it sounds good to you too, cool, see how you can integrate it into your games, and look forward to the indeterminate future when I release some public form of Cunning Knave.


The Cage of "Roll Initiative"


D&D-like combat rules are a black hole for what I find fun about OSR style gameplay. 

Yes, we all plan ambushes when we can, and try to out-think enemies.

But when we do Roll Initiative, a cage comes down over each player, trapping you in a very well-defined set of options - to the death.

Having default types of actions within combat discourages creativity. And If a player spends too much time thinking of a clever plan (which is harder than it should be since it's restricted within the framework of the combat rules), they're pressured into taking one of the default actions.

Strict turn order discourages teamwork. If one PC calls for the retreat, the enemies will likely act before the rest of the PCs can, which in the majority of cases means there's a good chance that one or more won't be able to get away. This fact pre-emptively discourages fleeing, along with plans involving more than one PC, across the board.

Yes, there are things like 5E's Help action, but that's almost worse - it converts a good idea (how are you helping?) into a mere modifier for a future action someone else is able to take, instead of, like, actually doing something interesting.

"But making combat deadly and standardized - even boring - helps push players to avoid it altogether, a central tenet of OSR play! And it's easier to ensure it's deadly by making rules that ensure it's deadly." This proposition isn't incompatible with combat being a Bad Idea. It's just that when we inevitably do end up in combat, I don't want to leave the "OSR style challenge" mindspace and shift into a Roll Off.

Of course all of this probably sounds familiar to anyone who groks Powered by the Apocalypse games. It's something I've always found that PbtA and OSR games have in common; an emphasis on presenting qualitative, rather than quantitative problems, in an unrestricted solution space. This is certainly true of OSR gameplay in general, but when it comes to combat, the vast majority of OSR rulesets seem to hew very closely to the wargame-rooted systems of the original games.


Wat do?


I think, if nothing else, Problem-Solving Combat can be distilled into a handful of guiding principles that can apply to most any RPG, and that's probably all you need.

  • Don't Roll Initiative - Just describe the situation and ask "What do you do?"
  • Don't Enforce an Order - Let everyone discuss a plan, team up on actions or establish a group tactic, then call for the rolls that make sense, in an order that makes sense.
  • Don't Just Attack - Use enemies to do interesting things that threaten the PCs.
  • Don't Stay Still - Present new challenges as every round evolves the situation.
  • Don't Stay Abstract - Concrete details are opportunities to seize.

It's tempting to say "well, if you want to treat combat the same as you do non-combat stuff, just don't distinguish it. Use the rules from non-combat stuff for combat stuff." I think, at least for me, this is a trap. Having a discrete mode signals to the players that their lives are at stake. And it is still nice to have some kind of framework for arbitration, rather than leaving it completely freeform. A procedure, for guidance, something to keep hold of as you navigate the dizzying tactical infinity.

On the other end of the scale, while permitting an open solution space, even the Move systems of PbtA games is too rigid a framework for my taste (for OSR style gameplay).

There are also systems that present combat as an open-ended challenge, but reduce them to a single roll. But Combat is such a rich source of interesting problems to solve that this seems like a loss.

So, like I do, I wrote a hack. Here is an excerpt of the WIP, which I'm calling Cunning Knave.

Combat in Cunning Knave

[For context, "Resolve" is essentially both Level and HP (Monsters' Resolve is their HD), and PCs begin with 1 Resolve. You can assume the system is otherwise very similar to Knave, for current purposes.]

If violence has become inevitable, a round of Combat begins.

The referee will describe the situation and what the enemies appear to be doing. The players are then free to discuss and plan any course of action, with the referee clarifying feasibility and likely consequences of failure, but not exact difficulty or potential complications.

Once the plan is clear, the referee will then call for any Rolls that are necessary for each PC’s actions in an order makes sense, applying advantage or disadvantage where relevant. Players may clarify details before rolling to attempt to gain advantage or negate disadvantage.

Just like outside of combat, very good plans or straightforward actions don’t require Rolls. And any intent can be attempted; disarming or capturing, driving off by intimidation, de-escalating to parley, retreating, and any approach can be utilized, not just attacking with weapons but utilizing other items or aspects of the environment, perhaps gaining advantage.

Once all the effects of the current course of action have been resolved, a new round begins; the referee will describe how the situation has changed, and the players may discuss their next actions.

Each round of combat should result in significant changes to the situation; combat is chaotic and quick and should not last more than a few rounds, often resulting in surrender or retreat after two or three. Try to avoid a straightforward exchange of blows, instead presenting a challenge unique to the type of enemy, their equipment, and the environment that might not be resolved by simply attacking or defending.

Attacking


A physical attack requires an Opposed Roll against their Armor Target. A success reduces the enemy’s Resolve, usually by 1, but potentially more with particularly effective plans. An enemy at 0 Resolve is at the PC’s mercy, possibly dying.

Damage


Failing a Roll to attack, or taking particular risks in a hostile encounter may result in the PC being attacked. If a PC is attacked, they make an Armor Roll. A failure causes damage, depleting their current Resolve, usually by 1.

Traps and other types of incidental harm may also be considered an attack, and in certain dire circumstances, a PC may take damage directly with no chance to resist with a roll.

Attacks are usually physical, but could be mental or even emotional. These would trigger an Ability Roll other than Armor, such as Charisma or even Resolve itself.

At 0 Resolve, the PC is out of action until they can be safely attended to.

Death


Wicked foes, traps, or other environmental hazards may outright kill a PC while they are out of action or otherwise helpless, if their companions cannot prevent it. If there is some chance that they could avoid certain death, the referee may call for a Resolve Roll to survive. If this is successful, the PC survives, but also takes a Dire Wound, which fills an Item Slot and reduces Resolve by 1, permanently.

Attacking foes directly is very dangerous. Look for safer ways to exploit the particulars of your enemies, equipment, and environment. 


I'll be following this post up with a concrete example of combat from a playtest with further commentary, and possibly a third with some more procedural advice on how to turn combat into a series of interesting challenges.

Related Resources


As with a lot of RPG blogging in this day and age, none of this is revelatory or original; I've just felt compelled to assemble a particular combination and reinterpretation of stuff I've ingested over the years. Among those influences:



I encourage you to comment below, rather than elsewhere. I even welcome "But this one system here does this one thing like you want!"

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Just Some Advice for Running Low-Prep RPGs

From a sophomore GM of mostly old-school style games.
  • Top priority: Run what excites you, the GM. The game runs on your brain, so that energy influences every aspect of the experience. In its absence the game will fall apart sooner or later.
  • Don't expect your first (or 50th) game to be like Critical Role.
  • But if possible, watch/listen to an Actual Play video/podcast for the game or module to get familiar with its content, (one way) how to present it, and ways the players might respond.
  • Make your first games "one-or-more-shots"; a one-time thing with the option for a followup session. Don't worry too much about wrapping things up neatly; it's tougher than it seems.
  • Run a ruleset and module that's well-organized and easy to reference at the table. If it isn't and you still want to run it, reformat it in Google Docs and print out reference sheets. Prime example of a well-organized and presented ruleset: Old School Essentials. Examples of easy-to-run modules: Tomb of the Serpent Kings, Fever Swamp, Through Ultan's Door.
  • Have a discussion about expectations at the start of (or before) the game: what kind of game it will be, how it might differ from games the players have experience with, the "verbs" (what kind of activities you expect the characters to get up to), the tone, content notes. Discuss and use safety tools if there's any question of whether they might be helpful.
  • If you're interested in old school style gameplay, which generally emphasizes exploration and creative problem solving over satisfying storytelling or crunchy tactical combat, check out Principia Apocrypha for a bunch of advice. 
  • Part of why I like old school style games is that they're generally low-prep. Rules are usually simpler, you're not writing a grand, sweeping tale with a personalized character arc for every player, you don't need to know the population of every village in the kingdom or the name of every god. You're just some broke knaves in a dirty hole trying to get find treasure to pay for some armor so you don't get killed as soon as you set foot in the next hole. When the stakes are low, so is the prep; a little goes a long way.
  • Unless you definitely want a super-detailed world and/or plotted-out storytelling, you can cut down on prep with liberal use of random tables to fill in circumstantial details on the fly. In combination, they can even produce situations that are more interesting than you'd think to come up with on your own anyway. A superb, cheap, comprehensive source for random tables is Maze Rats (also a great rules-light old school style RPG)
  • My favorite note/prep organization app is workflowy.com - I'd be helpless without collapsible, draggable, hierarchical, nested notetaking. That said, it's not exactly effortless to reference or edit while running.
Normally I wouldn't think topost on such a basic/ubiquitous topic, but a local group is getting together soon to discuss GM prep, and I was taking notes to bring up for it. Suddenly, content!

I encourage you to comment below, rather than elsewhere.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About The OSR

Regardless of the wishes of the OSR's prominent proponents, whatever they might be, the term OSR has become irrevocably applicable to a plethora of interrelated but distinct concepts. Necropraxis held a survey in 2018 where respondents rated how much they felt "OSR" referred to eight separate meanings. But eight is (necessarily for the purposes of a survey that folks will actually complete) reductive, compared to what I think the term encompasses, or rather, is applied to by individuals.

As they say, "ask a hundred people what "(the) OSR" is and you'll get a hundred different answers". So here's my stab at putting those hundred answers in one place. Though, this list sprang from my own mind, so I'm just one of those hundred. I'd love to know if anyone's done a similar analysis that identified aspects that I missed here.


Kircher's Tree of Life

I'm aiming to take a mostly-objective stance here; this is meant to be a resource for disambiguation and a reference point for other discussions. Any strong opinions I have I will be put forward in a separate post. This isn't particularly well-polished, barely more than my initial thoughts as I was formulating them (else this would never see the light of day as I tweaked it into oblivion). Likewise I'm not putting much effort into researching historical accuracy, so let me know in a comment if I have details wrong or have more context to share.

The only tidbit of opinion I'll express here, in the chance that I never feel comfortable participating more deeply in the discourse, is that in talking about changes in the RPG space, please, PLEASE try to use more precise language around what exact aspects of the OSR you're discussing. You don't have to use these terms, but I expect many disagreements and confusions to dissolve once all participants actually know what each other is talking about. Because it's not an atomic thing. It's a vast, amorphous concept, whether or not we want it to be.

Mothership: Backgrounds and Memories

Mothership House Rule: Spacer Backgrounds and Recalling Memories

Backgrounds


Unless you're playing a one-shot, Mothership characters could use a bit of grounding, as it were. Here's a table to generate crappy backgrounds for roughneck spacers.

Where did you grow up?

  1. Asteroid mining station, among microgravity miners
  2. Itinerant labor ship, among career spacers
  3. Orbital junkyard, among weary shipbreakers
  4. Deep space waystation, among opportunistic scoundrels
  5. Agricultural station, among countless algae vats
  6. Military base, among bored marines
  7. Terraforming station, among vast cooling towers
  8. A subterranean moon city, among colorless apartment blocks
  9. A failing surface colony, among fatalistic family
  10. An industrial factory station, among lethal machinery

Where did you spend most of your life before your current career? (Roll again from above)

Why did you go there? (if the same result: Too poor to leave)

  1. Dragged along when parents had to change jobs
  2. To break away from your family
  3. Ran out of money while traveling to somewhere nicer
  4. Accepted a Company contract position
  5. Socially exiled, forced to leave
  6. The ads for it were so nice...
  7. Following a good friend and/or lover
  8. Relocated by The Company
  9. Kidnapped into forced labor by a crime syndicate
  10. As a refugee from disaster

Recalling Memories


Either at the end of a session, or once per session when things are calm, you can relieve 1 Stress by recalling a memory from your past.  Set in one of the places from your background, recall a specific person, place, thing, or event that stood out against the static of a generally shitty spacelife. How did it impact who you are today?

Conceptual Status: Caution - Only Preliminary Playtesting


Freya's Prospect from the 2010 AvP game apparently?

Commentary & In My Campaign


These are part of a game structure to support doing something weird (as is my wont) with Mothership: using Emmy Allen's The Gardens of Ynn as the alien-ness in this space horror game.

One of the main threats in Ynn is attacking the visitors' "Sense of Self"; eroding their personality and personal identity. In order for that to be effective in a game only a few sessions in, the characters need a personality and identity to erode in the first place. Mothership is pretty minimal in terms of PC identity, hence these backgrounds, and a method of the players filling in bits of their characters' sense of self, via recalling memories (incentivized by a free point of stress relief).

Related Resources


Dan at Throne of Salt does a ton of bespoke Mothership content



I encourage you to comment below, rather than elsewhere.

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Dungeon: MOON COLLEGE OF THE SPECTROMANTIC OCULARIA


The majority of this dungeon came to me over a couple of days, lots of interconnected ideas around a central theme. I was aware of the Pamphlet Jam started by Nate Treme of the "Highland Paranormal Society" (some really cool stuff over there; I particularly like his recent Bad Frog Bargain one-pager). So as impetus to actually Make A Thing, I decided I'd cram all these ideas down into the pamphlet format. I also love self-imposed constraints to stimulate creativity.

The format necessitated a lot of paring down to the core components of what I'd generated. At the same time, I didn't want it to feel too simple, like a maze on the back of a cereal box. The core is still a fairly rigid puzzle, but there's room to turn it into more than a one-shot.

So it's still more of a puzzle dungeon than a toybox dungeon (though I'm keeping toybox as a descriptor since there is leeway for the Ocularia and other elements to be used beyond their nominal key-and-lock progression). To use the vidya game analogy, this is more similar to an old-school Zelda dungeon, or Myst or other traditional adventure game, than the "systemic" design of Breath of the Wild, which more closely embodies an OSR design philosophy that all but demands lateral thinking by default.

Keeping the "extra" stuff in also made it, for better or worse, a bit of a study in information density. It may be possible to run on the fly, but there are some intricate relationships between bits of the text that want to be read and correlated thoroughly.

I'm considering expanding this into a larger product, bringing back some of the discarded pieces, better visuals (maybe some commissioned art?), a bit more elbow room for exploration and player-generated shenanigans. So it would be interesting to redeem these sins of information design in a less cramped, format. At the same time, I'm a bit burned out on the concept and ready to move to other things, so... we'll see.

This is also the first thing that I have created entirely and then "published". I have not created many dungeons, and finished much fewer. I've read recent discussion that we should default to setting a price for things we make, so as an experiment I have made this PWYW. It feels surreal for someone (edit: now two!) to have given me money for a thing I have made. I think it's the first time? Anyhow, I encourage you to download it first, see what you think, and then PWYW.

Monster: A Naturalist Mimic - The Carcass Crab

The Carcass Crab

HD: choose or roll
     1: Squirrel, ermine, etc. Dmg: 1x1d2, 2x1d2
     2: Fox, wildcat, etc. Dmg: 1x1d4, 2x1d2
     3: Wolf, badger, etc. Dmg: 1x1d6, 2x1d2
     4: Goat, boar, etc. Dmg: 1x1d8, 2x1d4
     5: Deer, horse, etc. Dmg: 1x1d10, 2x1d4
     6: Bear, etc. Dmg: 1x1d12, 2x1d4
     7+: More formidable monsters Dmg: 1x1d12, 2x1d6
AC: As Plate (thick chitin)
Attacks:
     1xBite (damage as above) & if 5HD+ decapitate on crit if Gripped
     2xClaw (damage as above), and Grip
MV: 30' sideways scuttle (can only attack with 1 claw unless it moves 20' or less)
NA: 1
Treasure: HDx10x1d10 gp "pearl"

The Carcass Crab has elbowed its way into a very particular evolutionary niche. Most often found in areas of lush wildlife, each resembles a dead animal (usually a mammal), lying on its side, head missing, chest rent open, ribs protruding. The chest is in fact its wide maw; the ribs sharp teeth, jaw hinges capable of opening up to 120 degrees. The legs jutting out from either side are cleverly camouflaged clawed arms, used to grip victims if they narrowly escape the initial snap of the maw. It's real, multiple crustacean legs remain tucked under it, out of sight.

Completing the effect is the very real blood and viscera of its most recent kill, flies buzzing. The blood attracts further prospective victims: largely scavengers, but often curious predators. Even if it's too big to swallow whole, the crab will attempt to bite off its head (likely curious and sniffing near the mouth already), and consume the rest at its own pace. More agile escapees likely soon give up on piercing its hard shell.

Larger specimens may attract intelligent prey due to regurgitated weapons and armor, or its eyes, between rib-teeth, resembling shiny black orbs; perhaps the jeweled pommels of daggers, abandoned after the kill? A special gland, colloquially known as the Treasure Sack, accumulates smaller indigestible objects and material. As the crab grows, precious metals form pearl-like agglomerations, typically worth HDx10x1d10 gp.

The crab will molt multiple times during it's life as it grows fat on easy prey. Each phase resembles a slightly larger animal, maintaining verisimilitude. Its thick chitinous shell is detailed with fine ridges, mocking glossy fur, if a bit matted. Most phases appear headless, likely due to it being much easier to mimic asymmetrically than a full head.

Characters have a base 1-in-6 chance to notice something is wrong from outside of bite range.


Conceptual Status: Warning - Untested but Play-Ready



Commentary
Mythic Underworld creatures are all well and good, but rarely can I resist considering how something resembling them could be plausibly evolved. The absurd degree of mimicry that real-world insects achieve almost makes me accept traditional mimics as-is, but having been exposed to enough biology (see the wonderful Endless Forms Most Beautiful for some truly mindblowing revelations about how life works that I, at least, didn't hear about in school), I fail my save to suspend disbelief.


I encourage you to comment below, rather than elsewhere.

Long live the Blogosphere!

Souls-like Knave Hack Alpha

Here's a thing I've been working on recently; side project sixty three of eleventy seven. Yeah yeah, too much design, not enough play, I know. Get used to it.

This is a Souls-like hack of Ben Milton's lean Old School ruleset Knave. Bits of how Knave works are really suitable to emulating the digital games, such as stat-building and tight equipment management.

Conceptual Status: Warning - Unfinished, Untested, Ungrounded Notional Design

It deserves a more interesting name, but this certainly gets the idea across.
Feel free to comment on the doc with suggestions!

Gameplay Assumptions
Note that, in service of emulating the digital games, this is much more of a mathfinder-style thing than my usual fare. While Knave is created for and suited to Old School Style gameplay, Knave Souls embraces aspects of its inspiration in ways that don't always align with that set of principles.

The most notable differences: Combat is the central focus and more Sport than War, with a crunchier action system to support rich decision-making in that context. Character stats are upgraded early and often, and building and optimizing stats and inventory loadout are major factors. The world, environments, and options for progress may be less open-ended, but also more dungeon-like. The Referee and group must decide the amount and nature of play outside of combat encounters.

Development Progress
I have no real intentions of making a big production out of this and no firm plans to proceed with developing it, so feel free to rip out and reuse bits as you see fit. It will likely return to the backburner while I get distracted by shinier things. But the next step might be to run some solo combat simulations to root out the most obviously broken parts in the stat/combat system.

Of course, if you're inspired to actually put it in play for some testing, I'd be delighted; please do report back.

Inspirations
This is yet another of a long line of Dark Souls-y RPGs and hacks thereof. A few that were influential to this instantiation:


There have also been many great pieces written about the intersections of RPGs and Souls-like gameplay that I'd love to assemble in one place, but my threshold for bloating this post has just been crossed.

I encourage you to comment below, rather than elsewhere.

Long live the Blogosphere!

Quintessential BX

Quintessential BX is a trimming and tweaking of Gavin Norman's B/X Essentials, itself a revision of Tom Moldvay and David Cook's Basic/Expert edition of the Original Fantasy Adventure Game. It includes a few refinements, additions, and options from myself, Gavin, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, such as ascending AC, a reasonable Encumbrance system, and various new options in combat. QBX is intended to serve as a solid base upon which to layer other, modular rules; it does not include classes, monster stats, or spells. These can be referenced from original or new sources, or created yourself. Season to taste.


Suitable for printing as a zine-style booklet

The primary differences from BX are ascending AC, consolidation of some fiddly bits like ability score adjustments into standardized modifiers, and trimming of some things I see as extraneous like prime requisite XP adjustments, extensive rules for water and air travel, and encumbrance by tracking the weight of every item (two new Encumbrance options are added).

Special thanks to Gavin for both taking on the endeavor of creating B/X Essentials, and for conferring with me on attribution. It should also be noted that Gavin is further refining, compiling, and re-branding B/X Essentials to Old School Essentials, and the new editions will include Ascending AC.

As a side note, this (along with the original version of Principia Apocrypha) also serves as an example of how one can wring decent-looking, printable zine-booklets out of Google Docs. I might eventually write up a guide and templates for what I've learned.

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Grotty PC Relationships

Your PC's relationship with the PC to your right:
  1. You're connected quite literally, by ten feet of chain, shackled to an ankle each.
  2. You're revolted by them, but somehow they're the only thing keeping your shit together.
  3. You're old friends, but always take credit for their accomplishments.
  4. You both know damning secrets about each other. Like, really bad.
  5. You stole their Wand of Self-Pleasure after finding them asleep with it in an alley.
  6. You both ripped off a crime boss in The City and owe them way more coin than you'd be able to earn in a lifetime of honest work.
  7. You discovered you both collect something gross, and have only confided in each other since.
  8. You were both somewhat accomplished adventurers, until the incident. One of you lost their shield-hand, the other half their face.
  9. You really look up to them. They always overlook you. Seriously, you're way shorter than them. But, figuratively, too.
  10. You're positive they covet your pig (loyal, obedient, and loving).
  11. They look very much like the face on a bounty poster you found. The others don't see the resemblance.
  12. You grew close in the trenches of The War. Very close. Whether you can even stand each other now is another question.

Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. The duo on the right were inspiration for R2D2 and C3PO.

Conceptual Status: Warning - Untested but Play-Ready

Commentary


I have vague intentions of running some fast, loose, funnel-style OSRish one-shots at local pub game nights. The system would be pretty rules-light, and character creation would be dead-simple and lightning fast to get into the gameplay ASAP. These would probably be on cards, along with two other character aspect cards, randomly selected.

I want these and the other related character aspects to...

  • Not be as boring as most PC relationship tables ("18: Siblings.")
  • Give the players something to grab on to RP-wise, when everything else is also random and they're plopped into a weird situation with little context
  • Give the players reason to interact among themselves in the absence of external pressure to do so, because this is where a big chunk of the fun of one-shots always seems to arise
  • Encourage a wee bit of PVP, or at least dramatic irony, which are likewise generally good in a one-shot
  • Naturally generate "leading questions" without forcing them
  • Establish an appropriately grotty tone and aesthetic for the flavor of modules I want to run, and that your characters are not Heroes
  • Let it be clear that they're free to lean-in to the Murderhobo instinct

Related Resources

Somewhat inspired by:



Do you know any other really good, flavorful tables for PC relationships?



I encourage you to comment below, rather than elsewhere.

Long live the Blogosphere!