Blog Posts

Everything I Ever Wanted in an RPG

burning wheel
dungeons and dragons
tomb of annihilation

This post builds on Features of Burning Wheel That I Enjoy(ed?), listening to Burning Beards actual play podcasts, working on my own OSR hack, and dragging myself into preliminary iterations of a game by Phil Lewis (see my interview of Phil concerning Wrath of the Autarch).

I enjoy RPG sessions in which the characters face a situation with no clear solutions. They prod around the edges to form an intent. And then they dive into the execution.

Quick Recap

In our Tomb of Annihliation game, we had four fantastic sessions that built on each other. In the first session, the characters waged a three way battle with Assassin Vines and a Red Wizard and their entourage; The PCs routed the Red Wizard.

In the second session the PCs tracked the fleeing Red Wizard, and pieced together where he was going. They scampered ahead and set up an ambush; A rather quick affair.

For the third session, they prepared an ambush for the next wizards, but did not have an opportunity to spring the trap. Instead, they concocted a grander plan. And set that in motion. And the fourt session became one of my most memorable combat-oriented game sessions.

Reflecting on Those Four Sessions

Digging into these 4 sessions we had an initial situation—challenging and dire. Emerging victorious though battered, the characters pounced and flipped the situation. With clear intentions, they disposed of one threat and gleaned information to prepare them to address an even greater threat.

They laid out a trap, and when their prey didn’t spring the trap, the PCs shifted plans. With some social engineering, they partnered up with the Red Wizards. All while setting a second, potentially more dangerous, plan in motion—Silence a T-Rex and lead it into the wizard camp as a vanguard to a larger ambush.

Encouraging This Behavior

I want a game that encourages this behavior: planning, risk taking, stacking the odds in your favor, and rewarding risk taking.

Of those, I want a game that rewards risk taking. I also believe it to be important that the players establish the kinds of risks they are looking to takeOSR games rewarding XP for treasure which is guarded by monsters creates a great dynamic. Fighting will gain you XP but it is more dangerous and far less lucrative than swindling those monsters out of their gold.

Defining Rewards

For the Tomb of Annihilation game, I’m just telling the players when they level up. No one tracks XP, because I’m lazy and don’t want to reward characters for combat. For this game, the reward is intrinsic; Play the game for its own enjoyment, knowing that every so often the GM shall bequeath a level upon thine characterIntrinsic rewards are far stronger and meaningful than extrinsic rewards.

I reward the players for risk taking by rolling with their hair-brained ideasI adjudicated extended spell durations and how silence works in 5E because a silent marauding T-Rex is way cooler than a noisy T-Rex. But I want to talk about system rewards.

System Rewards

5E has two system awards: XP and InspirationI suppose magic items could be viewed as rewards as well. With XP you gain levels and abilities to face more and more difficult challenges. With Inspiration, you gain a momentary advantage.

First, lets talk about XP. By default, defeating monsters, completing quests, disarming traps all garner XP. However, you could chose to modify how you award XP. In OSR games, you get XP for defeating monsters and for gaining treasure (1 XP per GP). By explicitly defining the conditions for XP, you can incentivize different styles of play.

Imagine if you reduced the XP for 5E monsters to ⅒th of their normal value, and rewarded 1 XP per 10 GP gained? How might that shift incentives? What style of game might emerge?

What if you only gave XP at the end of the session for playing to your Bond, Ideal, Trait, and Flaw? How would that shift your game? Fight all you want, but unless it tracks to a Bond, Ideal, Trait, or Flaw, you won’t get XP.

What would it mean to gain XP and level based powers that may or may not map to the acting on your Bonds, Ideals, Traits, or FlawsAn astute reader will see that these questions are pointing to design decisions of Burning Wheel?

Second, let’s examine Inspiration. At it’s core, Inspiration looks like a good idea. Play to your Bonds, Ideals, Traits, or Flaws (BITFs) and gain Inspiration, which you can use for advantage on a dice roll. This system echo’s Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits(e.g. BITs).

Yet, I find it clunky and awkward rewarding InspirationIf a player plays to a curse or madness, I hand out inspiration like candy at Halloweeen. I pile on inspiration because the player adds complications to the story. The primary reward mechanism of 5E, XP encourages fighting and defeating creatures. During these combats, BITFs are a bolted on design afterthought.

Gaining and using Inspiration is not critical to the game. Inspiration helps make tasks easier, but the difficulty of tasks is low enough that inspiration is a “nice to have” feature. If each roll in 5E resolved a conflictAn example of a single roll to resolve Beat a 15 with a Strength (fighting) skill check to overcome the goblins, inspiration would be far more crucial to the game—I’d need to make that one roll count.

Instead, 5E focuses on moment by moment, blow by blow, skill checksAn example is a single attack roll to deal some damage to a creature; Rarely enough to remove it from combat. Another example is most spells require an upfront saving throw, and then provide one each round to shake off their effects. The impact of a single successful action is less, you chip away at the hit point totals.

Closing the Circle

Out of the box, 5E rewards diving into combat and defeating monsters. That is how you advance. It also rewards, in bursts of efficacy, playing towards what should be your character’s motivations and drivers. It would be somewhat trivial to shift rewards towards accumulation of treasure and ensure that ever tougher monsters guard ever more lucrative treasureThough you may want to look at the XP progression.

I’ve been thinking how I might shift the mechanical reward structure of 5E. I concede that the level advancement tightly couples to ever improving combat prowess, which creates a disconnect. Why should playing to your BITFs about pacifism increase your combat prowess?

I guess it may be time to dust off Burning Wheel and give it a roll. Burning Wheel’s advancement system requires taking risks. For those risky tests, success requires spending Artha—an analogue to 5E Inspiration.

Aside from the intrinsic fun of a game, Burning Wheel’s tight rewards and advancement feedback loop models the kind of RPGs I look to play.

Medieval Demographics Made Easy

response to other blogs

Joining me in this experiment of hosting S John Ross’s Medieval Demographics Made Easy is Rob Conley. Seriously, go read Rob’s post, as it provides greater context.

In late October 2018, S John Ross put out a call to host Medieval Demographics Made Easy. I answered that call, and am putting up a copy Medieval Demographics Made Easy by S John Ross.

Following-up on Character Attachment

dungeons and dragons

This blog post is a follow-up to Premature Character Attachment Disorder as well as conversations on reddit/r/rpg and

How do character creation, binary-vs-wounding HP, and morale systems interact?

Nestled in my blog post is what I consider the important point:

I suspect that players view the time it takes to make a character as directly proportional to the perceived durability of their character; Dice and random elements are less likely to take out of play a higher durability character than a lower durability character.

If your game has a long character creation (or you put a lot of time into your charatcer creation), make sure you understand the durability of your character. As written, characters in OSR games are not durable, 5E characters are more durable, and Burning Wheel characters are more durable than both.

Yet, OSR games telegraph this fragility. You die at 0 HP (or somewhere close to 0 HP). Prior to that, you are at full efficacy. Note: In some variants, critical hits do not do additional damage. That is a feature.

D&D 5E obfuscates durability. You die if: damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum; Or you die if you drop to 0 HP and then gain 3 failed death saves before stabilizing (and you can gain failed death saves by when you sustain damage). At low levels, the specter of instant death looms—Especially when you include critical hit damage. As in all editions of D&D, until you hit 0 HP, you are at full efficacy.

Burning Wheel, you die when you sustain a Mortal Wound and you don’t have—or choose to not spend—a Persona Artha. For someone to inflict a Mortal Wound on your character they’d need to typically get 5 successes above the number of successes you got; And your armor would need to fail you as well. Along the way, as you sustain minor injuries, you lose dice from your dice pool, and must make Steel tests.

The design decision of binary-state HP is a valid design decision. It is hard to enter into a proverbial death spiral—Where hurt compounds on hurt, and its hard to take action. It remains incumbent on the player to assess, based on murky information, whether they should press on or bow out.

In OSR games, the point of no return is clear; Don’t get within one weapon strike of 0 HPSome incarnations in the OSR do not deal extra damage on a critical hit; In other words, playing the odds becomes far easier.. You have something solid from which to make a decision. In D&D 5E, that line is less clear— From the action economy, it often makes sense for your character to drop to 0 HP and let healing magic pop you right back up.*bleck*.

The rules for wounds should telegraph the impact of sustaining a wound. In Burning Wheel, you make a Steel test. Failure means you have one of four options: “Stand and Drool”, “Run Screaming”, “Faint”, “Drop to your knees and beg for mercy”. None of those are attractive options, but the rules inform the player “Something serious has happened. Right now, you can’t press on. Consider your options.”

Enter the Morale Check

With its fight to the death mentality, D&D 5E is a system lacking a de-escalation mechanic. You fight until one side collapses. OSR games bring front and center the rules for morale. Yet morale is something for non-player creatures.

I’ve introduced the optional DMG morale mechanics for non-player creatures. I like it, as it provides an unbiased and random mechanism to determine the response of non-player creatures. I’ve circled around adding morale related mechanics for player characters, but have held back—There is an assumption that characters are near super-heroic. They dive into the fray, unscathed (until they hit 0 HP) and fight ever on.

A tactical group should shift towards triggering morale checks; Hit hard early in the fight. Without a morale mechanic for PCs, they push fights hard; Again falling back to the “Oh well, if I drop to 0 HP, someone will shoot a bonus action heal my way, and I’ll be right back at it” mentality.

D&D has a long history of not forcing morale type checks on PCs—except for fear spells. Burning Wheel puts this front and center with Steel tests; PCs and NPCs alike.

And here-in lies the connection:

If you are interested in character durability—in building out and seeing a character play out over a long running campaign—then look to how game system supports this desire. OSR games provide clear, albeit stark, guidelines. 5E guidelines are more ambiguous.

Without a morale mechanic for PCs, players are left navigating the more convoluted death conditions (eg. things that take characters out of the game) without de-escalation mechanics such as morale and it’s sibling reaction rolls.


The solution? I’m looking for my game to provide tools in 5E that further telegraph that durabilityI’m not entirely certain 5E is the game for me. It is close, but the behind the screen DM-ing in 5E creates a far greater cognitive load than many other games I’ve run.. The Steel Thyself mechanic I introduced, honor’s player agency with their characters, while providing a mechanism to increase durability and draw attention to the subsystem that triggers when a character drops to 0 HP.

What are other options that you see? Is this a problem for your games? Drop me a line.

Premature Character Attachment Disorder

burning wheel
dungeons and dragons
open game content
steel test

This post builds on my previous posts: That One Session of Dwimmermount, Discovered an Unknown to Me Sibling of the Old School Primer, Do you prefer your RPG Combat as War or Sport?, Funerals for the Fallen, and some social media interactions. I also published a follow-up to further clarify.

Elaborate backstories and detailed campaign histories bore me; Its too much exposition. I prefer the “story” to happen at the table. In gaming, I seek the shared experience.I see the character backstory and detailed campaign history as analogue to an inside joke that people keep bringing up in the presence of outsiders to that joke.

The longer the character creation , the greater the delay in the players and characters adventuring, facing situations, and confronting adversity.The time spent in character creation, especially a shared character creation session, should either equal the enjoyment of an “adventuring” game session of equal length or should seed future game sessions with far more potential than the time spent creating characters. This is analogue to the time value of money economic principle; The value of a dollar today is worth more than the value of a dollar tomorrow. Also, consider that campaigns are prone to fizzling out, so don’t spend a disproportionate time preparing for a campaign.,I hold all of this in paradox, as I love Burning Wheel—The verbosity of character creation and working with the table to build out their shared vision. In part I see this process as communicating the expectations about the game and the campaign world; An exercise that may have greater importance for newly forming groups.

I suspect that players view the time it takes to make a character as directly proportional to the perceived durability of their character; Dice and random elements are less likely to take out of play a higher durability character than a lower durability character.

First level B/X D&D and 0th-level DCC characters are the epitome of fragile characters: Dare to get attached to them, but accept the weakness of their mortal frame. You can make a low-level character in each of those games in 5 minutes or lessOr use Save vs. Total Party Kill’s OD&D PC generator, Holmes D&D PC generator, B/X D&D PC generator, LotFP D&D PC generator. For DCC use Purple Sorcerer’s 0-Level Party generator; Tens of thousands of these PCs have all met their timely deaths as the might or fortunate few survived.

Contrast B/X with Burning Wheel: a game with an involved character creation; You could rip through making a character in an 30 minutes, but I suspect character creation is an evening long activity for most.

In Burning Wheel, characters may appear fragile but player characters are difficult to outight kill“Burning Wheel is not a deadly game. More often than not, a character is injured and drops out of the fight. It’s uncommon for one to be killed outright. Which, again, is the exact intent of the rules.” — Burning Wheel Gold p488. Yes, you’ll get vexing injuries and carry those scars forward. But from those set backs you’ll be poised for further skill growth.

Turn now to 5E , with its character creation system somewhere between B/X D&D and Burning Wheel; 5E is closer to B/X than Burning Wheel. Roll up abilities, pick a race, class, background, trait, bond, flaw, ideal, and equipment. You can get a character done in 10 or so minutes, but I’d imagine most will take around 30 minutes to an hour.

Low-level characters in 5E are more durable than B/X characters. You need to fail 3 death saves or die from massive damage“When damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum” D&D Player’s Handbook p197. You also jump right back into action if you get a single point of healing.

Telegraphing Fragility

Consider that the HP mechanism, as in each D&D iteration, models a binary state: incapacitated or full efficacy. You’re either up at full capacity or you are down and in some editions dead.

Whereas in Burning Wheel, when you are hit, your effectiveness diminishes—you reduce the number of dice in your dice pool—and the system forces your character to make a Steel test, a kind of saving throw to see if your character keeps it togetherWhen you fail a Steel test you may choose to “Stand and Drool”, “Run Screaming”, “Faint”, or “Drop to your knees and beg for mercy”; These may look awful, but the Steel test moves the conflict from one state to another, driving the situation towards a resolution. Note: when you “Faint” you, the player choose when you wake, giving you some immunity to immediate death.

By design, Burning Wheel broadcasts the fragility of characters and D&D somewhat masks that fragility. There are short-circuits to the HP system in D&D— Save vs. Die, Save vs. Paralyzation, and Exhaustion.

How evident should a character’s durability and fragility be? The abstraction of Hit Points places a veil over the details of combat. What does 8 points of damage look like…to someone with 4 HP, 8 HP, 9 HP, 16 HP, 17 HP or 140 HPI liked the addition of bloodied from 4E and will often use that to describe 5E combat. Whereas in Burning Wheel when someone receives a B8 wound, you can look at their pain tolerance and translate that to the wound type. A B8 for a frail old human is traumatic, but for a mountain troll it may barely register.?

What to Do?

First, assess the expectations regarding durability. And push against those expectations to better understand. What is the role of combat in this game? How does combat support the goals of the players? Is there an assumed parity of rules between PCs and NPCs? When a PC has a crossbow pointed at a startled NPCs head—even though the NPC has 100 HP —what is their expected response? Does that response hold if the tables are turned?

Without Morale checks—the Steel tests of D&D—5E D&D easily devolves into a fight to the death. Every. Single. Time.Afterall, somebody’s got to drain character resources so you can have that big epic multi-hour combat where success remains uncertain.

For my games, I’ve added Morale checksWith the circular combat rounds instead of re-rolling initiative each turn, the procedure of when to check morale can easily get lost.. These checks are for non-player characters. See the 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide for these rules.

For player characters, add a Steel test, or some analogue. I’m partial to Whitehack’s special option:

“Once per battle, when an attack would damage [a PC], they have the option to save. A successful save reduces the damage by d6 hit points, representing an adrenaline rush that enables the character to shrug off some damage from a single attack (it does not heal any previous damage). If the save fails, however, the character takes full damage from the attack, and if she has HP left, she is still knocked out for two rounds. If she gets negative HP, she dies without another save.” Whitehack p19

Buried within that rule I see a Steel test. The player, now realizing the severity of this combat, presses their luck with a Saving Throw to avoid some damage. The consequence of failure is 2 rounds of incapacitationFor Wise characters, who spend HP for spells yet may only regain HP through natural healing, the above special option is critical, and plays to the delicate wizard fainting as blades clash. If you were already going to drop to 0 HP, Whitehack requires you to make a saving throw to avoid death. The above mechanic allows you to piggy back on that save vs. death and possibly stay in the fight.


Steel Thyself

As a reaction to taking damage, a player character may make a DC 12 Constitution saving throw. On a success, they may spend one or more Hit Dice to immediately reduce the damage. For each Hit Dice spent, roll the die and add the character’s Constitution modifier to it (minumum of 0). The character reduces the damage of the attack by the total of the the roll. On a failure, the character falls unconscious for 2 rounds. If the character fails their saving throw and drops to 0 hit points they also gain two one failed death save.

A player character may not use this ability again until they’ve completed a rest.


The above does not address all of the situations for Steel tests, but I believe pushes the spirit of a combat-triggered Steel test into 5E’s combat. Character’s spend one of their resources and assume some risk.


Ten Foot Polemic posted about honoring character death: give XP for performing funerals for the deceased.

“Take a dead character’s remains to a safe place with a church (or cultural equivalent) and you can buy their experience points on a 1:1 [gold]-for-XP basis.” from Funerals for the Fallen

In the case of a low durability game, consider bringing this into play.


I also add that there is a pernicious “level-up to unlock new features” vibe that I see in modern D&D and Powered by the Apocalypse games. Something along the lines of: “I want to see the mechanical impact of the character build I’ve worked through.” In the early days of our hobby, character death meant starting over at 1st level, or perhaps grabbing a hireling as your new PC.

Reviewing Top Content from My Old Wordpress Site

not quite gaming

With the deprecation of my old Wordpress site, I decided to gather up some information.

Top Content of 2018

Thus far I wrote 33 posts for 2018, totaling over 24K words. That Random Bonds Generator continues to chug along. Its nice to see Witchburner and Dwimmermount join the ranks of perennial favorites. This is the first year without a 2011 post in the top 10.

Top Content 2017

I wrote 34 posts in 2017, totaling over 35K in words. The first year when Translating Empire Strikes Back into Dungeon World Moves drops off of the list. Yet the The Mah Jong of Tichu continues to draw people to my site.

Top 2016 Content

I wrote 27 posts in 2016, totaling over 17K in words. A year in which no posts of 2016 are in the top 10; A pattern that continues. In 2016 I try to get some consistent gaming going, but schedules refuse to yield. A glimmer of opportunity emerges when I ran DCC for the first time, but it will take until 2017 for that kick into high gear. I’m starting to look towards running a drop-in game at my friendly local game store. I even write up an FLGS quick start.

Top 2015 Content

I wrote 14 posts in 2015, totaling over 10K in words. Like a Phoenix the The Mah Jong of Tichu surges back. I also setup some rules for running a 5E character funnel, akin to DCC’s 0-level character funnel.

Top 2014 Content

I wrote 24 posts in 2014, totaling over 13K in words. I pivot away from Burning Wheel and into Dungeon World; I would not stay long in Dungeon World, as 5E and DCC entered the scene. All the while, I keep eyeing Burning Wheel.

Top 2013 Content

I wrote 33 posts in 2013, totaling over 19K in words. The Random Bonds Generator for Dungeon World and World of Dungeons by John Harper have staying power; Showing up each year since. Also, in this year, I hosted a small game day. I never did revisit hosting another one.

Top 2012 Content

I wrote 83 posts in 2012, totaling over 51K in words. Why, hello Powered by the Apocalypse posts. This year has my widest variety of games in the top 10. To be fair, I’m grazing on every game I can find in 2012.

Top 2011 Content

I wrote 127 posts in 2011, totaling over 73K in words. If I were to re-publish Life During a Wartime - Random Village Generator, I suspect it would get a lot more attention.