Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Combat in Pits & Perils (Part I)

In Pits & Perils, attacks require 9 or better on 2d6, which is difficult to achieve and may seem to slow combat.  Furthermore, hit probabilities don't improve with level (except for enemies), and some have wondered why.  The latter is easy enough; combat is difficult and enemies dangerous and/or terrifying under the best of circumstances, the way it should be, we think!

The rest is dealt with in this post, keeping in mind that P&P was always conceived as a miniatures game:       

(1) Access to armor and weaponry is a genuine measure of battle prowess, something we often forget.  The ability to employ a bow at range or use a large weapon for extra damage is an enormous help, especially for those, like magicians, who can't!

(2) Movement matters.  Not only can fast fighters outrun their enemies, they can also maneuver across the battlefield to provide timely assistance to their friends as shown:

Zen can move 50' per round, so she can 
easily outrun these heavily armored orcs and rush to the aid 
of her friend (Sir Rupert) in his distress....

Using miniatures can really make a difference here...

(3) P&P also rewards good strategy with a few easy modifiers to attack dice, like adding +1 when outflanking an opponent, and since rolling 2d6 yields an 11 point spread, this grants a substantial advantage and, equally important, players need to think about where they position themselves, making combat an authentically tactical experience, as shown in the example below:    

Otto and Rupert (left) have smartly isolated this orc, 
so they each get the outflanking/outnumbering 
bonus (+1), and since Rupert is a true fighter, he attacks 
at +2!  Zen (right) is bravely holding off the other 
orcs, a fine tactical choice since she can fight ambidextrously against both of her terrible foes!  

Of course, this applies to enemies as well, so players must be especially vigilant!  By the way, this is probably much closer to real-life combat than more "advanced" systems...

(4) Finally, the acquisition of magical weapons is a huge boon, especially given the aforementioned 11-point spread, so hit probabilities will improve over time, and magical items are a deliberate and expected part of any character's advancement, even when combat otherwise remains very difficult! 

At its very heart, Pits & Perils is a war-game, albeit one that emphasizes role-play extensively, and using miniatures is the ideal way to tap its strategic elements.  But even when they are not employed (their use is completely optional), these rules provide several ways to keep things fast, furious, and lethal! 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Elven Magic in Pits & Perils

In Pits & Perils, elves cast spells like a 1st level magician, meaning knowledge of 3 spells and 2 spell points.  But unlike their human counterparts, they don't gain additional spell points with level or improve their utility (duration/effect) when higher levels are finally attained.  This is a matter of balance, as elves can wear armor and fight with any weapon, including the magical variety, and would easily outshine (human) magicians if these restrictions weren't otherwise put in place.

In short, these limits balance elves without arbitrary level restrictions for the class, something other systems have struggled with given the greater power of most magic.

All elves are naturally magical regardless of profession or lot in life...

However, elves are seen as being innately magical, and may even detect the presence of magic in a way that human's can't.  So how do the rules reconcile this with the stated limits of elven spell casting?  Simple answer: That's up to the referee!  However, the referee might consider the following:

Elves are naturally magical, so their power (spell points) comes from within and is, therefore, limited by a body's capacity to store the tremendous energy even a single point represents.

Humans, on the other hand, are not naturally magical and must wrestle the same energy from the surrounding world, which is nearly unlimited, although still very hard to do.

Thus, an elf's greater magical utility is also their greatest limitation.  But consider this: Every elf is an accomplished spell caster, while very few humans can ever master these mysteries, although any who do can become powerful indeed.

So why can't elves do this?  Simply put, elves seek harmony with nature and refuse to impose their will upon it, and what humans see as a convenient source of power, the elves see as careless and foolish meddling with the universe itself, which can be a good way to frame racial relationships within a game.

Still, the immortal elves are powerful in their own right, and this might be reflected through the following:


Elves can spend 3 hits in place of 1 spell point, but only in desperate circumstances.  These might be allowed to function at the elf's full level for duration/effect.


Elven magicians (not fighters) can choose to specialize in their initial spell selection.  Instead of learning new spells with level, their existing ones improve as a human magician. 

Elves have a special relationship with magic, and the rules described above can help capture this without unbalancing the game or marginalizing human spell-casters.  Being virtually immortal, elves can see first-hand the danger of tampering with the cosmic balance, and this can be used to describe a campaign's unique cosmology, framing the relationship between mortal, power-seeking humans and the immortal elven race to the benefit of all! 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Way We Were...

Once upon a time, fantasy fiction was neither mainstream nor popular.  If anything, it got lumped in with the science fiction at the local book store (there were no separate isles then), hidden among the books with rocket ships on their covers or the cool, trippy artwork from our collective 60's hangover.  Fantasy buffs represented a subculture that didn't always identify itself as such, since there was little creative output to coalesce around beyond knowing that they liked it when they saw it. 

The man on the street had no idea who Conan was, and thought of elves as "those little guys who made toys for Santa."  What popular fantasy did exist took the form of translated fairy tales, which were, after all the original fantasy fiction, including the excellent films of Ray Harryhausen and various sword-and-sandal movies loosely based on the Greek Mythology taught in school because someone thought it was educational.

Popular conceptions of dwarves were more like this...sorry Gimli!

But there were no fine lines drawn.  Those who loved Conan also liked science fiction and probably enjoyed them in the same monthly periodicals.  They also liked those Hammer Horror films that dealt with the same fantastical themes.  In short, fantasy buffs took it where they could get it, and science fiction remained the dominant and most easily recognized genre within the fantastic, such that anything besides Tolkien was a sub-genre at best.      

When the first fantasy role-playing game(s) emerged, they weren't based so much on a coherent genre as they were on a mishmash of varied fantastic influences.  Thus, you had games based on the historical Middle Ages that depicted dwarves and elves as wearing pointy caps with curly-toed shoes because that's how they were shown in storybooks from the 19th century.  You had overt references to horror movies and unabashed sci-fi elements intermingled because it was cool, and the referee had just watched 2001!

These weren't devotees of any pure genre.  They were friends converting the medieval war-games they were playing into something fun, and medieval myth seemed a good starting point.  From there, they bolted on anything they could get their hands on, and there was a silly, beer-and-pretzels atmosphere that began to fade as gaming became more mainstream and sophisticated.

The hobby caught on, and people found out they were more properly classified as fantasy fans and/or gamers, and gaming itself became a recognized genre that began to influence mass media.  Forty years later, fantasy is a mainstream phenomenon with well-established conventions, but it's always nice to remember when it was still new, and we didn't have a name for what we were and what we loved!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Shall We Play a Game?

Our hobby is lots of fun, and we can all think of a multitude of reasons why.  And yes, good rules and playable mechanics are a big part of making it all happen.  But as fun as they are, rules are just a means to an end, and even if a lot of our games center around manipulating them, they aren't really what makes our hobby fun in any real (or essential) fashion. 

To underscore this point, and to find out where the fun REALLY is, we invite you to play a little game...     

So, let's imagine a system where every character is an ordinary person who can attempt any action available to an able-bodied adult by rolling 5 or better on 1d6.  And let's go on to say that they have 10 hit points and move 50' per round.

Combat proceeds as normal (we can fill in the blanks using prior knowledge of typical combat mechanics).  All attacks score 1 hit of damage and traps inflict 1d6, and possibly more, as determined by the referee and the circumstances.

Monsters are a unique creation of the referee.  Each has 1-20 hit points based on size and/or ferocity and move 1-10' per combat round as befits the narrative, and those having special attacks might inflict 1d6 hits, denoting really dangerous foes.

These young people know where the fun is...

Otherwise, everything else that happens is just decision-making, exploration, and/or role-playing.  A simple game.  Dull, and really kind of boring in light of what's out there.

Maybe, but not so fast...

Players would still identify with their characters as a proxy of themselves, and as they accomplish things in a game, they would come to form an in-game identity and esprit de corps.  More than that, though, they would enjoy exploring the game world, interacting with interesting people, places, and/or things and fighting for their very lives, which is never boring!  Especially once they've connected with a favorite character all their own.

And doing so requires few rules!

Could this use more meat?  Sure.  And might we add more detail about armor, weaponry, and other things?  You bet!  But would everyone still have fun playing and filling in its many blanks?  The answer here is a resounding YES all around... 

Which should tell us EVERYTHING we need to know about what really makes our hobby fun and exciting.  So, shall we play a game?