Weirder Fantasy

So, my Monday group has been talking a bit about a post by Ken on running a low-magic, restricted race and class (Human only, Fighter and Thief only) setting. A bunch of my thoughts on “low magic” and what feels magical have appeared on my blog (e.g. Niven’s Law and Low Magic) but I want to offer some further comments.

  1. I’m in favor of streamlined, quick systems in general, though you can take it too far. E.g. Systems which boil down to one roll for everything are usually too bland; it often ends up feeling like it makes no real difference whether you do something clever or stupid, expected or unexpected, genre-plausible or not: you end up rolling pretty much the same either way.
  2. Rare != weird or wonderful. It doesn’t matter if it’s the only one in the world, a +1 sword is still dull. Even if something is ubiquitous in the setting, it can still give the players a thrill (e.g. space-ships in an SF game).
  3. Whether something counts as wonderful or prosaic is entirely based on the players’ experiences, not the typical inhabitants of the setting.  A peasant in a no-magic setting might be completely freaked out if somebody actually casts a spell like Levitate; the player of that peasant won’t be.  Even if the player roleplays it well, experience with other fantasy outside the campaign is going to color whether the player feels awe.
  4. Finally, to Ken’s specific idea about a fantastic dungeon in a decidedly non-fantastic world, unless the characters spend a lot of time outside the dungeon, contrast makes little practical difference.  I’ve only played a few sessions in Monteporte, but all of them were so far down in the megadungeon the outside world might as well not have existed except as a source of back-story.

This isn’t to say that I’m against the idea of low-magic settings or stripped down character options, but I think to accomplish Ken’s stated goals, it’s best to concentrate on achieving them directly.  The bullet  points are Ken’s goals, followed by my commentary.

  • Focus play on exploration, rather than tactical combat.

Players are goal oriented. E.g. in D&D if you stick closely to OD&D xp (award XP for gold, minimal XP for killing things), or you directly award XP for exploring new areas, players will naturally shift their focus to exploration.  Of course, you have to make the exploration itself interesting, with new and startling alien vistas, things to interact with and decisions to make.  Resource management can be a big part of this, if you can do it in a non-boring way.

  • Focus the players to find different and creative solutions to challenges poised by having such limited options.

I find this to be more a matter of the GM’s openness to out-of-the-box thinking than limiting the mechanical options available to the players.  At worst having lots of mechanical options acts as friction, where play slows down for the players to review their options and make sure they haven’t missed any application of mechanics before they start poking at the problem space with off-the-wall thinking.  Limiting mechanics can help there, but it doesn’t actually spur the players to creative solutions unless the GM is willing to consider them. I’ve seen plenty of minimalist games bog down with the GM shooting down all the options until the players come up with the solution the GM is looking for.

  • Highlight the sense of danger and weirdness with regards to the dungeon.

This is best done by making the dungeon dangerous and weird in comparison to the things the players are familiar with, ignoring whether it would seem weird simply in comparison to the rest of the world or the characters’ expectations.  Eliminating PC MUs and Clerics helps establish a certain Conan-esque baseline for the world, but they won’t automatically ooh and ahh if they finally encounter an NPC capable of casting Magic Missile or even Sticks to Snakes.  A related point is that in order to establish a contrasting baseline it’s more important how the NPCs behave than what the PC options are.   Even if you have a stereotypical anything-goes group of oddball PCs (lizardman, elf, gnome, ninja), as long as the rest of the world treats them like a freakshow you get much the same effect.  In Rob’s game playing an elf feels special because the NPCs treat elves like they’re special, even though it sometimes seems like half of all PCs are elves.

  • Magic items become highly prized.

Useful and bizarre magic items are highly prized even in high-magic settings; worthless or dull ones aren’t, even if they’re unique.  Even if you can buy a +1 sword or a healing potion in Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, a collar that you can wear around your neck that lets you detach your head and fly it around is something the players will covet, (Not a random example, this was something that turned up in my Friday night GM’s game a bunch of years ago, and that particular bit of foolishness is still remembered fondly.)  Boots of elven kind that just add 5′ to your speed, not so much.

One last thought.   Consider a world (like our own in olden times), where superstition is rife.  People will leave milk out for brownies, put horseshoes over their doors for luck, even burn people alive for witchcraft.  Is there anything actually to be gained by having it be a no-magic world and telling the players that while their characters probably believe it, it’s all a bunch of hooey?  Or is it better to leave it open whether things like charms against the evil eye work, or they need to be careful when travelling through the forest at night lest they meet a Will o’ th’ Wisp or troll? Or even better to have a world where such things are absolutely possible?

My own preferences for a setting that emphasized the weird and dangerous would be to make magic and supernatural creatures real, and potentially lurking around any corner, but have most magic be dangerous and mistrusted, while certain types of superstitions be well-known and effective.  I think it’s weirder and scarier when, say, the players feel the need to seek a church-yard when they fear they’re pursued by fey creatures than when they know for a fact that since they’re not in the dungeon those sounds were at worst bandits.  Dungeons can be a higher concentration of weirdness and danger, making them strange and spooky places. but leeching that stuff from the world at large in hopes of increasing the impact by contrast doesn’t really pay off  But that’s me.

TFT Spell Costs vs. HOW Spell Costs

So, a quick analysis of spell costs in TFT vs, HOW.  They’re mostly the same, except that all the TFT spells that have a continuing cost have had that cost folded into the casting cost and the duration replaced with IQ + Spell Skill Level in turns, which is a pretty huge power-up.  E.g. something like Blur which in TFT costs 1 to cast, and then another 1 for each turn thereafter costs 2 in HOW and lasts for at least 9 turns, assuming you have the minimum IQ needed to cast it and 1 skill.   The summoning spells become particularly deadly, since it takes only 3 to summon a wolf to fight for you for at least 10 rounds.  Even the optional “lasts until you roll a 6 on a d6” variant is much more powerful than the TFT version.

This seems a little weird to me… for one thing, it’s likely to be more complicated in play. In TFT you’re pretty careful about having too many spells going at once, since it drains you quickly.  In HOW you can easily have a bunch, and have to track how long its been since each was cast, or roll a d6 for each if you’re using that variant.  It does make it a bit more like D&D, where spell durations are fixed, or at most adjusted for your level, but other than giving a big boost to spell-casters I’m not sure I see the advantage.  The tactics involved in deciding how long to spend your ST (or EN in HOW) on maintaining a spell are pretty interesting, in my opinion.

Name Cost   Duration (turns) Notes HOW costs  
IQ 8
Blur 1 1 M 2
Detect Magic 1 I
Drop Weapon 1 I cost 2 if str > 20 1
Image 1 I 1
Light 1 1 day 1 *
Magic Fist 1 * I 1-2 damage per 1 *
Slow Movement 2 4 2
Staff Special P
IQ 9
Aid 1 * 2
Avert 2 1 M 1
Clumsiness 1 * 3 -2 DX per 1 *
Confusion 1 * 3 -2 IQ per 1 *
Dark Vision 3 1 hour 1 *
Darkness 1 * M cost +1 ST/mh, +1 ST/turn
Detect Life 1 * I 1 *
Fire 1 P 1
Reveal Magic 1 1 M 1 *
Summon Wolf 2 1 M 3
IQ 10
Dazzle 3 I 3
Detect Enemies 3 I cost +2/mh 1 *
Far Vision 1 5 minutes
Lock/Knock 2 I/P 1 *
Shadow 1 12 1
Shock Shield 2 1 M 3
Speed Movement 2 4 2
Summon Myrmidon 2 1 M 3
Trailtwister 4 1 day
Trip 2 I cost 4 if > 30 STR 1 *
Ward 2 1 day
IQ 11
Control Animal 2 1 M
Create Wall 2 12 2 *
Destroy Creation 1 I
Illusion 2 12 2
Persuasiveness 2 1 M per minute
Reveal/Conceal 2 I/P 1
Reverse Missiles 2 1 M
Rope 2 12 2
Silent Movement 1 1 M 1
Sleep 3 Special several hours, or til hit, or shaken awake (2 turns) 1
Staff to Snake 3 6 renewable 1
Summon Bear 4 1 M 5
IQ 12
Analyze Magic 4 I
Blast 2 I
Break Weapon 3 P
Drain ST * I 1 ST to wizard/5 drained
Eyes-Behind 3 1 M
Fire, 3 Hex 2 12 2
Fireball 1 * I 1-1 per 1 *
Freeze 4 2d6 only on str <=30 4
Invisibility 3 1 M 4
Mage Sight 2 1 M 3
Magic Rainstorm 4 12
Repair 6 P 2
Shadow, 3 Hex 2 12 2
IQ 13
Control Elemental 3 1 M per minute
Control Person 3 1 M 3
Curse 2 * P until remove thrown 3
Fireproofing 3 1 M 2
Flight 3 1 M 4
Image, 4 Hex 2 12
Open Tunnel 10 P 1 *
Slippery Floor 3 12 2
Sticky Floor 3 12
Stone Flesh 2 1 M 3
Stop 3 4
Summon Gargoyle 4 1 M 5
Telekinesis 2 2 M
Wall, 3 Hex 4 12 4
IQ 14
Dispell Illusions 5 I 4
Explosive Gem Special
Fresh Air 2 1 M per minute
Glamor 10 P
Illusion, 4 Hex 3 12 3
Lightning 1 * I 1d6 per 1 *
Remove Thrown Spell 2 I
Spell Shield 3 1 M 4
Summon Giant 4 1 M
Summon Lesser Demon 20 12
Telepathy 4 1 M
Weapon/Armor Enchantment Special P
IQ 15
Astral Projection 10 1 hour
Calling 5
Create Gate 100 P 50 per side
Giant Rope 5 12 4
Hammertouch 1 * 3 2 *
Image, 7 Hex 4 12 3
Iron Flesh 3 1 M 4
MegaHex Avert 3 1 M 2
Pentagram 5 1
Shadow, 7 Hex 3 12 3
Summon Small Dragon 5 1 M
Teleport 1 * I per MH 5
Unnoticeability 3 1 M
IQ 16
Create/Destroy Elemental 5 * P cost +1 str per str of elemental 8
Create/Destroy Elemental 10 I destroy any str elemental
Death Spell 1 * I cost as much as lesser ST 1
Fire, 7 Hex 4 12 3
Illusion, 7 Hex 5 12 4
Long-distance Telepathy 12 I 5 words to any, or 30 seconds between wizards who know each other
MegaHex Sleep 8 Special several hours, or til hit, or shaken awake (2 turns) 6
Staff of Power 10 * P four weeks @ 10 STR/day
Summon Dragon 5 2 M
Trance 10 I
Wall, 7 Hex 6 12 6
Write Scroll 0 P 4
IQ 17
Blast Trap Special I 6 for 1+1, 12 for 2+2, 24 for 3
Cleansing 20 * I per hex, up to 7
Dissolve Enchantment Special I 100 if greater, 50 if lesser
Expunge Special P 125 ST/day for 3 weeks
Geas 10 P wish/dissolve enchantment to remove
Insubstantiality 4 2 M 4
Little Death 1 * Special cost +1 per day, until runs out = dead
Little Death (part 2) 4 Special if willing
Little Death (part 3) 10 Special if unwilling
Remove Cursed Object 20 I
Spellsniffer 2 1 M
Summon Demon 30 12
IQ 18
Control Gate 10 P 50 to destroy
Lesser Magic Item Creation Special
MegaHex Freeze 12 2d6
Shapeshifting 20 P cost 10 if cast on self 8
Wizard’s Wrath 1 * I 1+1 per ST 1 *
IQ 19
Long-distance Teleport 20 I 10
Revival 50
Zombie 5 * cost +1 per ST you give zombie (must be at least 2)
IQ 20
Greater Magic Item Creation Special P
Posession Special I 10 to prep, 20 when it goes off if it succeeds, 5 if save is made
Word of Command 3 I

D&D To HOW Stat Translation

This is just a quick recap of translating D&D attributes into their Heroes & Other Worlds equivalents, if what you care about is how much the attribute adds to the chances of success on a roll.  See my previous post on Bell Curve vs. Linear for a deeper explanation of the probabilities involved.   It seems to me that chance of success is probably the best way to look at it, since that’s most often what you’re going to be directly testing, at least in HOW.  There are other things the attributes are good for (e.g. carrying capacity for STR in D&D), but they seem to me to be relatively minor compared to adjustments to your chance to hit, say.  In D&D, particularly old D&D, attributes are much less important than in HOW: the difference between a 12 and a 9 in Basic D&D is almost purely cosmetic, and even the difference between a 3 and an 18 is no more than the difference between a 10 and a 13 in HOW when it comes to applying the bonuses to a d20 roll.

old D&D New D&D HOW
2-3 8
4-5 8-9
3 6-7 9
4-5 8-9 9-10
6-8 9
9-12 10-11 10
13-15 12-13 10-11
16-17 14-15 11
18 16-17 11
18-19 11-12

If the HOW column shows a range, use the lower number if you’re at the lower end of the D&D range, or the higher number if at the higher end.  Flip a coin if the number is exactly in the middle.

Update: Since Tim Knight asked, I’m including a little more of the reasoning behind having the D&D stats represent such a tight range of HOW stats… is a stat over 12 in HOW really superhuman?

D&D stats add comparatively little to your abilities.  Even in the more generous editions, an 18 is only a +4 bonus… which is +20% on a d20 roll. Starting from a base to-hit of 50% vs. unarmored foes, that gives you a 70% chance of landing a blow.  In HOW a score of 12 gives you a 75% chance of landing that same blow.

There are other ways you could look at it.  For instance, as a straight roll under stat to see if you succeed, an 18 is 90%, which is equivalent to a HOW score of 14.  But by-the-book D&D never employs rolls like that. Instead, where stats matter at all, it’s almost always as the tiny (+/- 20%) bonus.

The systems have pretty different underlying assumptions of competence, but it seems to me that matching bonuses as I did tends to minimize “system shock” where translating a character from one to the other makes it vastly more or less likely to succeed at tasks than in its home system.   A beginning HOW character is much more likely to succeed than a beginning D&D character; they’re much closer in competency to a mid-level D&D character, even though HOW being a much more deadly system overall tends to make them feel comparatively fragile.  E.g. a beginning thief in D&D has only 15% chance of picking locks or 20% of picking pockets compared to the 50% a 10 DX thief has in HOW. The one thing that D&D characters get a lot better at over time is taking multiple blows, though I haven’t yet tried to factor in the difference between armor as DR and armor as deflection

Bell Curve vs. Linear

Here’s a handy little chart showing the difference between a linear distribution like rolling a d20 and a bell curve distribution like 3d6 when it comes to rolling versus a target.  The first column is the d20 roll, the second is the approximate percent chance of rolling that or less on d20. That’s pretty obvious, but the next column is what the target number would be on 3d6 to have that chance to succeed (i.e. roll target or under).  So a 50% chance is right in the middle of the curve at 10… but by the time the target is 12 you’ve got a 75% chance of succeeding.  Next we have columns for a d20 skill roll/Basic Attack Bonus (as in 3e or 5e).  The final four columns show THAC0 (to hit AC 0) and what level you would have to be to have that chance of hitting an unarmored person, using the D&D Rules Cyclopedia as a reference point.  Hitting an unarmored person is the standard we’re using because that directly translates to scoring a hit in Heroes & Other Worlds/TFT (and similar games like Runequest) where armor reduces damage from a successful hit but does nothing to make success less likely.

From this you can see that, for instance, having a 13 DX in HOW is like being a 10th level Fighter, at least in terms of being able to land a blow.  (On the other hand, a 10th level Fighter in D&D can sustain multiple times the damage a HOW fighter could, so you can’t just translate back and forth quite that easily.) Another thing to pay attention to is the s20 skill column, where you can see that in terms of stat bonus, a D&D score of 18 is equivalent to DX 11 (if 18 is +3 as in original D&D), or maybe DX 12 (if 18 is +4 as in later editions).  Using the stat bonus in D&D is much more common than a straight roll-under against the stat.

Still, I find thinking of things this way as instructive.

Roll Under Rules Cyclopedia
d20 Approximate % 3d6 d20 skill/BaB THAC0 Fighter Cl/Th/D MU/Normal
0 0.00% 3,4 -11
1 5.00% 5 -10
2 10.00% 6 -9
3 15.00% 7 -8
4 20.00% -7
5 25.00% 8 -6
5 25.00% -5
6 30.00% -4
7 35.00% 9 -3
8 40.00% -2
9 45.00% -1
10 50.00% 10 0 10 1 1 1
11 55.00% 1 9
12 60.00% 11 2 8 4 5 6
13 65.00% 3 7
14 70.00% 4 6 7 9 11
15 75.00% 12 5 5
16 80.00% 13 6 4 10 13 16
17 85.00% 7 3
18 90.00% 14 8 2 13 17 21
19 95.00% 15 9 1
20 100.00% 16,17,18 10 0 16 21 26

Here’s an Anydice page with the 3d6 info, and just for the heck of it, the 1d20

Link to

Overland Travel Rates

The following are some hopefully useful templates (mostly based on Delta’s discussion of the rates in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide).  They show the cost to enter1 a hex on the overland travel map, with a key to how many hexes a party can move in a day based on the degree of encumbrance (for travelling on foot) or type of mount.  The assumption (following the DMG) is that roads and trails do not speed your travel enough to track, but they do allow you to pass over worse terrain as if you were on clear terrain.  That doesn’t completely match up with the way, say, the Cook Basic D&D works, but it’s easy enough to increase the rates on roads if you’re really inclined.

If the cost of entering a hex is more than a single day’s allotment (e.g. on heavy horse in a swamp with no road), you can either say it’s impassible, switch to a smaller scale map and have the party slog through taking multiple days, or make the minimum rate of travel 1 hex per day or 1 hex every other day.

While these have been derived from D&D, they are non-system specific, and are released under a CC-BY license (that is you can use them any way you want, but you should credit me somewhere)/ Enjoy.





  1. This is by far my preferred approach, since it means no tracking of partial hexes. It also matches the way Outdoor Survival worked, which was the original source of the all the D&D movement rules…and by extension almost everything that came after. 

Chaotic Caves Hexmap

This is a hexmap version J.D. Neal’s Chaotic Caves map from his The Chaotic Caves supplement for Basic Fantasy, released under the OGL, which is basically a nice, simple, hexcrawl retroclone of The Keep on the Borderlands.  C.R. Brandon released a version reskinned for Heroes & Other Worlds.  Since I was kind of irritated by the square grid in the map, I ripped it out and replaced it with a hex grid to approximately the same scale (1 hex = 1 mile, instead of 1 square = 1 mile). If I have energy I might even go as far a coloring it, though even doing this much took way more time than I had hoped.  (If there’s a truly easy way to just lay down a hex grid in GIMP, I couldn’t find it.  The otherwise nice hexGIMP plugin I found assumed that you wanted to hand-place all the hexes… and Hexographer has pretty much the same assumption: you can import an image to trace over it, but just imposing a simple hex grid of a particular size?  Forget about it.  I ended up just creating custom graph paper at the right scale and combining the images in Paint.NET, having had my fill of GIMP for the evening.)

You can get the free PDF version of the Basic Fantasy edition of The Chaotic Caves here.  The HOW pdf version is available from C.R. Brandon’s Lulu store (and is somewhat inexplicably more expensive than the print version of the BF edition on Amazon, but it does save you any headaches converting from D&D to HOW).

Anyway, enjoy!  Naturally, this version of the map is also released as OGL-licensed, but if you think I’m going to add the complete text of the OGL itself to the image, fuggedaboutit.

Chaotic Caves map by J.D. Neal, with hex grid added

Chaotic Caves map by J.D. Neal, with hex grid added

HOW to Sacrifice a Shield?

C.R. Brandon, In a recent post on his blog, entitled Sacrifice,  talked about some of the changes he’s contemplating for the revised edition of Heroes & Other Worlds.  I left some thoughts on them on his blog, but I think blogspot ate the comment.  Or maybe it’s just stuck in moderation.  So herewith:

Not really thrilled with the idea of a shield-splintering rule, and particularly not with reducing all the types of shield into one. The availability of choices in arms and armor is, in my mind, the good type of complexity: extra choices in the down-time when you’re equipping your character but not a lot of extra decisions weighing down each combat round.  If I were to create a rule about damaging shields, it would be something like if you block a critical hit, then if the hit does 8 more damage than the shield’s AR (enough to knock you down if it had gotten through), the shield stops the blow but is broken. This actually keeps the choice about whether to risk the high probability of breaking your shield, since in HOW you get to see the attack roll before committing to a shield block as a reaction…and a crit from anything heavier than a dagger is very likely to do the required damage.

Or maybe the even simpler, if you roll to block with your shield and roll a fumble, it breaks.  No real decision there, but it does produce broken shields that occur naturally  as part of fighting with them.

As for the other changes mentioned:

Eliminating All-Out Defense

I’m against it.  I see it as important in offering a somewhat practical way to do a “fighting retreat.” In fact I just realized that by-the-book HOW gives you no real option except stand there and take it, and then hope to win initiative next turn and succeed in your 4/DX check to disengage. So, I’d be in favor of liberalizing it back to the TFT rules that as long as you forgo attacking, you can choose Defend and make attempts to hit you use 4/DX (i.e. it would no longer count as a reaction, but instead be an alternative to attack).  That way you at least stand a better chance of surviving until you can win the init and attempt to disengage. (If you don’t win the init then even if you disengage the enemy can just follow you and you’ll have already forgone your attack.)

Eliminating Berserk Attack

Wouldn’t actually miss this, though there probably ought to be some way of throwing everything you’ve got into attacking and damn defense.  Still giving up armor protection never really made that much sense.  Maybe it would work better as your attack is 2/DX, but attacks on you that turn are also 2/DX?


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