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Making our favorite games even better
I thought I’d share some of the best sources that helped me be a better storyteller since the question has been asked a fair amount of times.
I’ve found that just picking up some good movies, comics, and a novel or two in whatever genre that matches a new game I’m starting as a GM really helps out with the creative process even if the sources are mined just for the “vibe”. As a player learning more about a genre helps with ideas for backstory and your PC’s personality within a society in that genre.
I highly recommend any DM or GM to interact with The Evolution of Trust to get a better idea of how trust works and to look into the Prisoner’s dilemma. Understanding how trust, environment, and choice interact with each other and how certain philosophies or outlooks can flourish in one environment and then fail in another. If you’re world building this is the key that will unlock better games for you.
The strategies that your players will attempt to use are predicated on the environment you create and how you respond to them and their strategies. If all the players are murder hobos then you might think about why the gaming environment is rewarding that tactic and how you might try and build a different tactic with your players. If your players trust you then this is easier to do. Sometimes it is easier to do by changing the game environment completely with a different campaign or game system while making small changes to the current campaign may work better for other troupes or for you.
Mining media for your games is an important skill and can broaden your own imagination. Having a grounding in the genre you’re running really helps to avoid tropes or throw tropes at players in unique ways.
I’m going to list by type of media some of my favorites chosen for how much they helped me tell stories which isn’t necessarily the same as how much I enjoyed the media but usually they are roughly congruent.
Frank Herbert’s Dune books are dense and full of politics and complex ideas and really useful for Amber or Scion as they deal with the “Big” as well as the personal. Frank wrote another series of books that are often forgotten beginning with Destination: Void which is an absolute bonanza of fertile ideas for the cruelly minded GM. I ran a one-shot of Destination: Void in a Mage game with Void Engineers teaming up with Sons of Ether to make a new type of spirit using kidnapped and mindwiped Mages that was wonderful. I used the core idea in a Paranoia game and in a fantasy setting with an AI in a crystal matrix influenced by Janny Wurt’s novels that really was fun.
Fred Hoyle’s Black Cloud remains foundational to me on the many possibilities that life and mind may form. The idea that our earthbound sort of life was the unusual one was mind blowing to a 10 year old which with Simak’s City which had life in the atmosphere of Jupiter helped me run some very fun Gurps: Space games. I see the trope of the universe zipping out any mind that groks the universe in this one too. I can’t remember if this novel had the universe get more complicated in response to enlightenment like physicists playing 20 questions in the manner of the participatory universe theory but that is a fun idea you can use in your game. Reality adapts.
Roger Zelazny’s Amber books are fun and witty showing a mastery of knowing when to go into detail and when to gloss over the unimportant. He can cover a hundred duels with inferior opponents with a sentence but wax on for a chapter involving the machinations of maneuvering an enemy to step into a trap. This is hugely important for a nascent storyteller to understand. Far too often I’ve seen GM’s waste a lot of time on combat that doesn’t really matter or move the story or in social situations that the GM would be better served with a casual waving on of time passing.
If running an SF/Fantasy Immortals campaign then Lord of Light is a must read especially if you’re like me and like to inject some down and dirty politics with your wannabe gods. Frost and Fire is probably the best book of short stories I’ve ever read. Donnerjack and Lord Demon were co-written with Jane Lindskold and provide very fertile and easily adapted cosmologies.
I’ve been hugely impressed by Hannu’s Rajiemi’s writing and in particular the first book in his trilogy The Quantum Thief. If you’re looking at a Singularity/Posthuman campaign you’d be hardpressed to find a better resource. Think of it as Neal Stephenson, China Mieville or William Gibson pushed out a few hundred years past cyberpunk.
Some of my first fictional exposures to African myth was Alan Dean Foster’s Carnivores of Light and Darkness, the Al Qadim D&D setting (middle east/northern African), and South of the Sun the Ars Magica Prester John setting.
It is really important to get beyond just European and North American based ideas if you’re going to be good at creating unique worlds for your players. In Psychology class, we’d talk about how weird and atypical Americans are in human history particularly white middle-class American college students who were the most studied people. Sociology and Psychology tend to assume that these test takers are the norm and sometimes find that about a third or more studies can’t be replicated when using a different more varied sample.
Frederik Pohl’s Starburst introduced me to Godel and my friends and I would use the mathematical language to encode short acronyms with each other. 600 equals getting a cab to go somewhere if I remember correctly.
The idea of a bodiless ghost being a soliton wave of energy was another idea introduced to me by this story that I’ve used in my games before I read about St. Jack the Bodiless in Julian May’s books. The core concept of Starburst ties in pretty well with Destination: Void except rather than trying to create artificial intelligence of a higher order to the idea was to put geniuses together away from the stresses of people in a spaceship to mine them for their ideas and creativity while they journeyed.
The tv show Eureka kind of steals this idea by putting the crew of a spaceship into a VR realm in their minds so that the scientists could spend their time inventing without the real world interfering too much.
David Brin’s Earth and Existence are must-reads for near future hard SF adventures. David’s ability to predict future potential realities is a bit eerie. For more space opera campaigns I cannot recommend more his Uplift series in which humanity uplifts dolphins and chimpanzees to sentience before expanding to the stars and discovering a vast intergalactic set of civilizations built on the idea of mature spacefarers uplifting other species to sentience. We are unusual in that we uplifted ourselves and thus the other species call us the “Wolflings.”
Speaking of Wolfing that is the name of a story by Gordon R Dickson that isn’t anything amazing by itself for its writings or even general plot but it has given me a lot of story ideas to use including probably George Lucas. There is a weapon that is basically a lightsaber that you can extend in length which focuses the blade smaller like a cone and that you can retract to almost a small buckler shield. This weapon I’ve used in many of my space campaigns from Amber (Courts of Chaos), Traveller, Mage, and Gurps: Space.
Imagine if you could make a lightsaber that was as thin at the tip as a smallsword but could stretch across a room and burn a small hole through an enemy and then quickly shrink it down to an arming sword shape to dispatch a nearby foe before quickly making a small shield to block a blaster. Now imagine dual wielding and the Tower Fechtbuch or I33 sword buckler combat with weapons and shields that can switch back and forth between swords and shields at will.
The other idea I’ve borrowed from Wolfling, Star Trek, and Larry Niven’s Protector books is of various types of humans being spread across space or in the case of Star Trek seeded. I had a game in which an ancient race had made the earth a garden planet (look up hydrogen wall and Alice) and would periodically sample hominids to use as a base creature for manual skilled labor on a thousand worlds. So, when the PC’s leave earth on the first FTL (see E.E. “Doc” Smith) they end up finding a series of worlds with divergent hominids going back to Homo Erectus to neanderthals who all evolved differently over the past million years as the precursors have disappeared leaving their tools and pets behind.
In a fantasy game, I used this idea as the basis for elves, dwarves, giants, mermaids, and other races as humans who adapted to different environments as they gated from world to world. All dragons were in the beginning brown in that campaign with different dragons evolving on different planets and the big story of that campaign was learning that the brown dragon was from the homeworld of the dragons which had been isolated millennia before during a war with the Titans/Joten and now almost no one knows what brown dragons are. For another take on this check out Titan by John Varley.
Going back to Gordon R. Dickson check out the Childe Cycle particularly Soldier Ask Not and Dorsai! for military games, Young Bleys for understanding a good villain, and Necromancer for time travel.
Julian May’s The Many Colored Land and the rest of the books in the series are great fun books to read while also being fertile ground for storytellers. You have a Celtic-Germanic myth, time travel, psionic powers, sex, hybridization, and in the later series, you have telepathic coercers working for the mob and eventually galactic war between augmented cybernetic superminds and the poor aliens who welcomed us into galactic civilization. It also involves a long thread about redemption with the tale of Abaddon. I don’t want to ruin the series by providing too much more.
Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio series is another world that covers different types of humans and evolution but it is his Songs of Earth and Power which is a true wonder. I read them originally in separate stories but the newer version has them packaged together. Religion, fairies, the Serpent Mage, evolution, magic, reality hacking worlds, and this is YA enough to give to precocious young storytellers and readers. If you’ve played the Strange by Monte Cook Games I wouldn’t be surprised if it was influential in the making of that setting.
C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire series is one of my favorite SF stories as an origin for a fantasy setting with an excellent magic system. If you’re wanting to build an innovative magic system then read Janny Wurts and C.S. Friedman. If you’re wanting to delve into the mind and the alien wrapped in humanity in a hard SF setting then read This Alien Shore.
If you’re writing, designing, or running a game with swords or things that can cut then you would be well served learning about proper edge alignment and cutting techniques from Mike Edelson’s Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application.
Moonheart by Charles de Lint provided a key chunk of my first Mage campaign and his other stories influenced my horror games and some of my lighter campaigns. He opened the way for urban fantasy to become more popular with authors like Neil Gaiman and Jim Butcher following later.
Robert A Heinlein’s Lost Legacy among others was very influential in how I have villains and villainous organizations operate in my games particular Mage and the Technocracy. The villain Nehemiah Scudder is another threat worth reading about.
Honorable Mentions include Raymond E Feist’s Midkemia series particularly the character Pug which remains the rare compassionate and caring human wizard who achieves great power but is still a good person without being an avatar or angel et cetera. Pug stands in stark contrast to DragonLance’s Raistlin Majere who was mostly selfish and cruel like an 80’s incel when he arrives into his power.
Another of the rare “human” wizards are Ged from Ursula K LeGuin’s Earthsea books and the bard Arithon and Jaric Firelord from two of Janny Wurts’s series. Too often you see the powerful lose their compassion in games, movies, and books unless they are somehow “other” such as Superman or Gandalf both of which are aliens in a world of men.
Planetary by Warren Ellis is entertaining with a lot of different settings and shows really how to delay certain reveals to later points in your campaign. Don’t tell your players everything at once. Warren Ellis has a whole suite of great comics from Transmet which is great for a more fun wild story in the far future to Injection which I highly recommend for those trying to inject a “rational” system of magic in the modern day. Global Frequency I just outright stole from for a set of one-shots when I knew that some players were going to be absent. In the comic Trees, aliens come to the earth and don’t recognize us as sentient.
Saga is a must-read for entertainment but for a storyteller, it opens up a setting with a war between magic and science and a multitude of worlds and species. Well fleshed out characters and an overarching story with clearly defined story arcs under the umbrella of the love child between two species at war. Players will probably benefit the most with reading this for a little help getting a good backstory.
Beasts of Burden is a solid series over the decade involving talking dogs and cats. I’ve run a few different games with sentient animals including one inspired by Cliff Simak’s short stories bundled in City.
Hellblazer and John Constantine are pretty hard to beat for a mainstream comic book involving magic in a superhero world (DC). I’ve read at least a few hundred issues.
The Unwritten, Fables, and Ever After are fertile ground with a multitude of worlds with fictional leakage, reality hacking, and many excellent bad guys. Where are fables have become real. There is also a pretty good video game based on it. Not all the offshoots are created equal though.
Harbinger and the rest of the Valiant Universe provide solid stories and characters in a universe that strives to make sense despite being weird and containing wildly different character types. If you’re looking to make a game world with a lot of different play types and power sources then you would be well served to look here. Living alien body armor and African voodoo Loahs in the same world as psychic greek Buddhist monks from the time of Alexander the Great and CEO’s capable of taking over small nations.
Check out Paper Girls for a wild run with some young heroes traversing time and universes. Good for ideas on how to run a campaign with younger PC’s.
For fantasy, it is hard to beat Rat Queens for a good raunchy and wild time in a D&D style setting. There are two different runs with slightly different stories. I particularly like the Lovecraftian plotline and the orc side issue.
For world building, it is hard to beat Monstress. I really want to make a game in this world and I’m sure I’m not the only one. It is still new so not a whole lot has been revealed but if you’re wanting to build a world in a magic setting this is the comic to read.
If you’re going to run a superhuman game in the last century involving war then one of the two Uber series is the comic for you. During World War II the Nazis discover how to create super humans capable of leveling cities and deploy them shortly before the Allies started winning. It is violent, depressing, and gory like war would be with superhumans involved.
The Wicked and the Divine is an easy world for a storyteller to steal a campaign from. It is a normal modern world in which people become gods for two years and then die. I think this would be great for new players because they don’t know what they’re doing and neither do their characters compared to settings that demand the players know a lot to be able to function.
Garth Ennis’s The Boys is the kind of comic to read when you want to overturn everything that is the normal superhero setting. It is NSFW! I heard it is going to be made into a tv show which would be hard to manage.
I was growing the most as a storyteller in the mid to late 90’s so it probably isn’t too big of a surprise that that is the era with the most movies for me to recommend. I will just make a short list as there is Wikipedia, IMDB, and rotten tomatoes to explain them.
Dark City is the movie I recommend most as a source of inspiration for a new GM running a solo adventure. It may also be my favorite movie which is a hard thing to pin down but it is wonderful if you haven’t seen it. Dark City had the unfortunate fate to come out at the same time as the Matrix. In that era, SF movies didn’t have a deep bench of fans that bought movie tickets and everyone was talking about the Matrix. The Thirteenth Floor and Existenz had a similar problem.
Fallen with Denzel Washington is another movie that makes for a great solo campaign as a police detective goes toe to toe with a spirit/angel/demon that can possess what it can touch. Great for ideas on how to build tension and how to reward investigation and problem-solving. Sometimes you can’t swing a sword and win a fight.
Incredibles and its sequel are just great films for running a supers game and for running kid characters with middle-aged parents.
Excalibur was my first big fantasy movie and it still has a magic that is hard to beat. Patrick Stewart in plate armor should be enough of a draw for any of my younger friends but the Merlin in this is my core base when I make a cunning and powerful good magus in my imagination. The Princess Bride I watched a few years later and is also a favorite fantasy epic.
Hard to beat Babylon 5 for SF settings and for being one of the first tv series that had short, medium, long, and series-long story arcs written by JMS and Harlan Ellis mostly it had a lot of famous director’s like Neil Gaiman. As I’ve grown older I’ve rewatched the series a few times and while the first season remains the weakest I no longer see the Shadow War as the best part of the series and lean with the fifth season with Lando as the pinnacle of the show and G’kar as the character who developed the most. Delenn is my favorite woman/alien on TV as a character and is arguably the core of the show.
Rome is a gorgeous show filled with politics and intrigue. Absolutely one of the best shows and highest production values ever made. If you’re going to make or run a political game then you’d be well served by a bit of “Even you Brutus?”
Game of Thrones is probably up there with Lord of the Rings when people think fantasy worlds and both the books and the tv show are well made and entertaining. Read or watch this series to learn how to be ruthless as a GM.
Dark Matter is just “sci-fi” or SF lite but it is a great example of how to throw a bunch of characters into a world they know nothing about and just try and wing surviving it. Fun show to watch while surfing the web on your phone or reading a novel. This is an example of something that isn’t a pinnacle of storytelling still being a totally valid source for ideas.
Microprose’s Darklands taught me how to make campaigns that last centuries. I had a world in which I had three different campaigns and it was only at the end of the third that the players realized that all three campaigns were on the same world separated by time and geography as the heroes of the third campaign get helped before the gates of hell with an artifact that their PC’s in the first campaign had recreated. Two of the PC’s in the first campaign had retired upon having a child so the now elderly child who grew up on a different continent was the protector of the crown that opened up the way to hell and prevented the devils from attacking them.
More modern games like the Harebrained Schemes Shadowrun games are a lot of fun to play, inexpensive to play, and some of the mods are very good. Older games like Psychonauts or LA Noire are still worth checking out for puzzle ideas or detective games.
The Dragon Age series is good fantasy fun with a surprisingly deep setting. The first game is more strategic while the second has a stronger focus on the personal and the third shows a more strategic perspective as the leader of a large organization rather than a ragtag band of heroes.
Civilization by Sid Meier is dear to my heart and that is how I learned about world history as a kid. I ran a Palladium Transdimensional RPG with mutant centaur-like Mongols because I played Genghis Khan in the first Civilization game. Learn about other peoples and how tech and society fit together and you’ll make better settings.
Witcher 3 goes far beyond the previous installations and is the best game which I’ve played that you control just one character. Fantastic setting.
Star Control 2 was the inspiration for my first Gurps: Space campaign with some elements of Traveller RPG which taught me hexadecimal and the idea of antigathic medicine as an 8-year old whose second PC ever died during the process of making the character. Looks like they are making a new one which I will have to try out just for nostalgia’s sake. You’re a spaceship on adventure visiting new solar systems in the game and get to upgrade your ship and learn the importance of diplomacy with aliens.
Don’t hesitate to try out other settings or systems for ideas.
I started out with AD&D, Gamma World, and Traveller as a little brat and in middle school moved on to TMNT, Beyond the Supernatural, AD&D 2nd Edition, and Talislanta.
In high school, Shadowrun, Ars Magica, and Amber Diceless ruled the roost and I even in one nearly fatal experiment tried out the World of Synnibar which almost clobbered one of my mates in the head after I tripped and fell forward with the book. That gamebook should be read for how NOT to design a game but it did give me a few ideas despite the system.
As an adult, I ran a very long World of Darkness campaign focused on Mage: The Awakening and continued playing Shadowrun, Amber, and Ars Magica.
Recently, as a father and having moved to a different city I mostly just read rather than run games but with Monte Cook’s “No Thank you, Evil!” that has changed giving me the opportunity to run games for my little boy.
If I was going to run a game today it would be in Bruce Cordell’s The Strange. The Cypher system is remarkably similar to a system and setting that I was working on for years but much more polished and easier to run. The Strange is closely aligned with my old Amber/Ember and Mage games and is a great setting with lots of possibilities and the same is true of the Numenara setting.
Shadowrun is a wonderful setting and I’ve loved running and playing the pen and paper games and the old and new video games in that setting but the mechanics are just not conducive to my style anymore. I’d recommend reading material for running games in any setting.
Gurps has made well researched and put together gaming books for years and if you are running a game it doesn’t hurt to pick up one of their sourcebooks that might tie-in to the genre or setting your running your game in.
Ars Magica is the setting to check out if you’re wanting to run a fantasy or grounded medieval game. When Wizards of the Coast owned D&D and Ars Magica at the same time they put out joint products and I would recommend getting Ars Magica books if you’re running a D&D or Pathfinder game. The lead designer for 3e was the lead designer of Ars Magica so a lot of ideas have already cross-pollinated.
Magic: The Gathering and On the Edge were great one-on-one games and Jyhad: The Eternal Struggle and Illuminati by Steve Jackson Games were a blast if you could get a few people together that were devious and had the natures of sneaky cunning weasels…so most gamers!
I was dead tired once running a fantasy Gurps game and just used some mana to decide on a terrain type that the PC’s were traveling on and then modded some creatures of that type to the game and made it through the game with no prep at all just winging it with some magic cards I visited while taking bathroom breaks so no one had a clue. Just have fun and use what you can. The players loved all the combat since I normally ran more intrigue and social games so they thought I was inspired instead of exhausted.
If you’re a new storyteller I hope I’ve given you some ideas for media to watch to help expand your repertoire and if you’re an older storyteller or player I hope this was an enjoyable walk through memory lane. Feel free to comment and leave your favorite media below.
I hope this blog post gives you a good idea or encourages you to try out some new media for gaming ideas. Thanks for reading.
<Edit> I just found a really unique to me house rule called Variant Shared Turn Combat on Reddit on the Unearthed Arcana subreddit and I’m amazed at the production value and quality ideas.</Edit>
The above diagram is a depiction of the OODA Loop which is a tool for understanding how people make decisions. Many of the ideas I will be presenting use this framework and come from my homebrew game I’ve been designing and redesigning for years that works very well when transferred to D&D 5e.
With the OODA Loop you have four steps: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.
The general structure of combat in the PHB 5e on page 189 is as follows:
There are many ways the DM can handle showing combat whether with miniatures, physical or virtual maps or overlays, or purely via imagination and description.
I prefer if possible to use the fog of war during the initial setup and not let players know things they can’t perceive if possible. Having a second map or description available just to the DM can make it easier to show the movement of NPC’s in the fog of war for the DM that the PC’s do not know about. It can be fun to flank the PC’s and get the PC’s to think about flanking especially with mounts or vehicles in play.
I also would like to say that D&D is not supposed to be simulationist and works just fine as is. I offer my system to people who like a little more complexity and options in their battles and to add a bit of tactical confusion and surprise. There are some changes that can make things very different in your game as it shifts priority away from Dexterity towards Wisdom but I think that is actually more balanced.
I have not playtested this at all with D&D so if you’re interested in trying it out and letting me know what you think that would be awesome. Please just leave a comment about your experience. If I forgot something obvious please let me know as well. It is easy to make mistakes on this kind of thing.
1. Determine Surprise:
Nothing changed in this step.
It is important at this point to go over what each PC perceives prior to Initiative so that they can form an idea of what is going on based on their personal perspective not that of a Player who can see much more. So, if an ooze is slinking behind the wizard and the wizard doesn’t know they obviously won’t be casting a spell at it. This encourages a bit of roleplaying so the very perceptive Rogue who sees the ooze approaching his ally can take a free action to yell “Behind you Mage!” after stabbing the Orc in front of her which might confuse the Orc while alerting the wizard so they may change their mind and cast burning hands in front of them rather in front.
The DM also needs to keep in mind what the NPC’s perceive and how they react. Experienced soldiers used to working in tandem with each other are going to be much more difficult to deal with than expert duelists used to working one on one or a mob of amateurs.
Here things start to depart from the PHB 5e rules.
A big change here is that in my system Initiative is how well you observe your environment and process information rather than in the PHB which focuses on how fast you can move your body. After all, why would Dexterity have anything to do with how fast and well you can observe a combat, make a decision, and say “Shazaam!”? It makes a lot more sense to use Wisdom here to represent a combination of perception, common sense decision making, intuition, and actions and reactions especially those actions that don’t have any real physical component.
D20 + (Wisdom Modifier) + Proficiency Modifier/Die
For diceless Initiative just use the PC/NPC’s Proficiency Modifier and have an automatic 20 for the roll. For more variable Initiative use the optional rule for Proficiency Dice in the DMG on Page 263 which replaces, for example, the +2 Proficiency Modifier with a +1D4.
One could even use both in a game depending on the situation. Use the variable Initiative when surprise, “boss” battles, or unusual combat is happening and for the more normal lineup of good guys here and bad guys here just use the diceless version instead.
The reasoning behind using Wisdom here instead of Dexterity I provided above and my reasoning for using the proficiency bonus is that handling and reacting to combat is a matter of experience.
For example, take a reasonably healthy and elderly Special Forces combat veteran and mentally they will be able to process a combat situation faster and in a more capable fashion than a novice character with world-class Dexterity. Leveraging that experience to process the OODA Loop is a big part of improving decision making and thus performance in combat be it social, mental, or physical and you can substitute talent only so far when competing against old age and treachery.
Once you have everyone’s Initiative totals you can either post them for all to see or you can keep them to yourself.
The highest Initiative total provides the number of Combat Phases in this Combat Turn.
Rogue: 30, Ooze: 23, Wizard 22, Orc 22.
Thus, there are 30 Phases in this turn.
If two characters are acting the turn or movement during the same phase both actions take place at the same time. Thus, you can have both characters stab each other in the heart and this happened quite commonly in history or characters charging each other would meet at some point in between the two warriors rather than one warrior charging across the battlefield while the other sits there.
Any action that would take place at 0 Phase or when the combat phase is in the negatives all happen at the same time. Thus, a character who used their entire move before swinging a sword would have their action take place on the 0 phase along with any other characters.
At this point starting with this highest phase the DM has the characters decide what they are going to do in a descending fashion phase by phase allowing the characters to have started their round and have their action/s take place during or after their phase depending on the type of action.
Each action, maneuver, spell, or movement takes place during or after the round/phase the character scored in the Orient step of Combat.
Remember you still have only the actions you can do just like in the PHB even if you still have leftover Initiative after you attack or cast a spell. If you don’t use it up with actions or movement you lose it. So, if you attack during phase 15 and don’t want to move you don’t get more attacks to do later unless you have the extra attacks feature.
I am going to introduce a term called tempo which has various definitions depending on the martial tradition or master but in this case, tempo means how long it takes to complete an action. Each action has a tempo cost which tells you how much later the action actually takes place in since your Initiative score is simply how fast you were able to process the combat situation not the time it takes to perform an action.
Some martial masters have used the idea of hand, body, foot, and feet to describe combat, reaction, and initiative. This means that the tempo of moving your hand is fast, moving your body is a bit slower, moving one foot is slower than that, and moving both feet is the slowest. In other words, swinging a sword at an opponent in measure is faster than moving your torso/body back to dodge or forward on an attack. Moving a foot forward or back takes even longer and moving both feet is the slowest. In other words, it is faster to thrust a blade with just an arm movement vs an arm movement plus moving the body forward with the arm vs the arm, the body, and a foot forward such as when lunging vs the arm, body, and both feet in a shuffling strike.
To put this in perspective it takes longer for a warrior to walk 30 feet and swing a two-handed warsword than it does for the rogue to move 5 feet and backstab with a sgian dubh knife even if the warrior rolled a higher Initiative score which is how things stand now.
A character can under this system postpone their action or be indecisive. For example, a pikeman could see cavaliers and their horses charging towards him and plant her pike and ready themselves for the charge postponing their attack until the cavalier comes in range. Should the cavalier stop rather than coming into range the pikeman could charge forward instead or drop the pike and draw the loaded crossbow at their side and fire thus allowing more flexibility than the current system at the cost of more complexity for the DM and players to handle.
Actions and their Tempo:
For a second attack, the action takes place after the first one and any movement has subtracted from the initial Initiative. Starting Initiative of 10 and a heavy strike for on phase 7 and a second heavy strike for -3 for an attack on phase 4.
If the character is not Familiar, Proficient, or Expert with the weapon then add +2 to the Initiative Cost.
Heavy and Light Weapons have that trait listed with all others without that trait being regarded as Medium below.
Heavy Weapon Attack (Melee or Ranged): 3 Initiative Cost.
Medium Weapon Attack (Melee or Ranged): 2 Initiative Cost.
Light Weapon Attack (Melee or Ranged: 1 Initiative Cost. (Most Unarmed Strikes)
Loading a Weapon: 5 Initiative Cost.
Cantrip: 1 Initiative Cost.
Spells: (1 + Spell level) Initiative Cost.
Innate Spellcasting, Legendary Actions, and Special Abilities: 1 to 5. (DM should quickly decide based on the complexity and potency of the ability or power or the complexity of the situation.)
While the spellcaster is making magic they are vulnerable just as if they are Concentrating on a spell…because they are concentrating on the spell they are casting. This means not only does it take awhile to drop a major spell and thus adds difficulty to the tactical landscape it also means it is even more important to protect the big guns because if they take damage and lose concentration it can be the difference between an easy encounter and a deadly one.
For example, the Cleric has an Initiative of 15 and is casting a 6th level spell so their spell begins on Phase 15 and ends on Phase 8. If they get hit with a barrage of arrows and Magic Missiles they could lose Concentration and have their spell fizzle out. The spellcaster doesn’t lose the spell slot if they lose Concentration because they weren’t able to marshall the magic before getting distracted.
This can give a quick character a chance to use Arcana to recognize the spell the big baddie is casting and yell for the Archer to shoot the Wizard before they drop a Meteor Swarm on them. It also makes Counterspelling a bit more fun which counts as a Reaction below so it only has a 0 IC.
Skills, grappling, and non-combat actions like help, search, ): DM may add or subtract depending on the complexity of the skill use. This represents the simple automatic speed that develops from increased competency at a task. Picking a lock when you’re an expert and under pressure in combat is much faster than if you’re not an expert.
Unfamiliar: 4 Initiative Cost
Familiar: 3 Initiative Cost. (Jack of All Trades, Remarkable Athlete, or my house rule linked above.)
Proficient: 2 Initiative Cost.
Expert: 1 Initiative Cost.
Walking (base movement): 3 Initiative Cost per 5 feet
Dash: 2 Initiative Cost per 5 feet.
Sprint: 1 Initiative Cost per 5 feet. (Dash without gear, weapons, or any substantial encumbrance such as dropping everything and running for your life from the greek fire armory that a mage dropped a delayed blast fireball inside.)
Breaking up your move:
Walk 15 feet for a 15 Initiative Cost then cast a spell and use the remaining X (15) feet to get back undercover on the 0 Phase.
Use Object: 1 to 5 Initiative Cost based on the complexity of the object. Opening a stuck door may take longer than pressing a button.
Mounting: 10 – Dexterity Modifier
Dropping Prone: 1 Initiative Cost.
Standing up from “Prone”: 10 – Dexterity Modifier
Disengage: 1 Initiative Cost.
Dodge: 0 Initiative Cost.
Free actions: 1 Initiative Cost.
Quick Look Around: 1 Initiative Cost. Let’s the character get a quick scan of the environment for obvious things that don’t require a roll. Since things change dynamically during the round this can be important.
Reactions like Opportunity Attacks: Usually have a 0 Initiative Cost and take place at effectively the same time as the action that caused the reaction such as a Shield spell blocking an arrow.
Bonus Actions: Can take place before, after, or at the same time. For example, a Shield Master could do a shove before they do their attack or after. A Two-Weapon fighter could thrust forward with both daggers in simultaneously on the same phase or one after the other.
Using the earlier example: Rogue: 30, Ooze: 23, Wizard 22, Orc 22. Thus, there are 30 Combat Phases.
Starting with the highest Initiative Score have the highest scorer decide what they want to do. So, the Rogue at Phase 30 would say I am probably moving 5 feet forward to stab the Orc after a quick look around. On Phase 29 the DM would tell the Rogue that an Ooze is slouching towards the Wizard but about 30 feet away. The Rogue has to decide whether to tell the Wizard and alert the orc or move forward and backstab the orc. She decides he should be fine and walks toward the orc and sneak attacks. So, the DM would go through Phase 28, 27, 26 (sneak attack with sgian dubh a light weapon -1 IC) and on Phase 25 rolls for damage and kills the orc. Now on phase 24, she yells at the wizard “Behind you!”.
On phase 23 the Ooze starts sliming up to the Wizard but is 30 feet away. It will have closed five feet by phase 20. The Wizard on phase 22 panics and flings a firebolt cantrip at the Ooze without thinking and hits without killing the ooze. The cantrip had a cost of 1 IC so on phase 21 the Wizard turns and walks toward the Rogue keeping an eye on the ooze. Both the Wizard and Rogue move back to keep their distance from the creepy looking Ooze which decides to Dash on its remaining move to close the distance.
The DM would map out the movement as the phases would drop one by one. Any remaining movement would be used during Phase 0 for all three creatures.
The next round would start with either a new roll if the DM thinks the situation is very different like new creatures enter the combat arena or dynamically in a different “scene” or if the situation is relatively static just reuse the same totals from the previous rounds.
Hope this gives you some ideas on how to spice up your combat! Keep in mind that this system does penalize movement and powerful spellcasting the most. It does encourage more active protection of your spellcasters when they are casting spells and makes it a bit harder to unleash the big guns when not protected by the tanks/front line.
D&D House Rules:
The idea for this House Rule grew out of my original idea to develop Half-Elves as more of unique and variable race given their hybrid status. An Half-Elf raised among rural Humans is going to be culturally different than one raised in a cosmopolitan planar city like Sigil or raised among the Fey Lords in the Feywild or in the forests of Silvanesti. That is just the cultural differences which wouldn’t take into account variations in biology. A Liger is very different than a Tigon despite both being half lion and half tiger. I also remember a version of D&D that had a whole lot of options at character creation using a GURPS style point system. Anyway, before I digress any further here is my idea. The addition of Character Focus below is not enough to make the pc’s substantially more dangerous and can be easily countered by having important NPC’s partake as well. It is really for flavor, roleplaying, and differentiation between PC’s. Using these traits as a guide it should be fairly easy for a player and a gm to invent their own character foci too.
Before I go into Focus I just wanted to highlight a character trait that should actually have a big impact on pc’s in your game.
Advantage of the Majority: This trait is free to all members of the dominant race, sex, religion, or caste in a given region. The character is more likely to blend in and not attract attention and enjoys many privileges from having easy access to foods, gear, weapons, and armor for their size and shape to having the right to vote or wield certain weapons or wear certain clothes or colors. The character’s advantages may be invisible to them and should the character go into an area in which they no longer have this background applied to them they may find things to be very strange and have a hard time adapting. In most worlds this applies to human PC’s.
Each PC gets access to one Character Focus that shows a key part of who they are and what they spend their down time doing. A Rogue who is well connected in a legal merchant guild is going to roleplay differently than a Rogue who is a Savant with thieves tools. A Paladin carrying his father’s shield blessed by Brennan the demigod of protecting children is going to have a different feel than the Paladin Weapon Specialist.
Well Connected: Based on your character’s background you have a wide range of contacts giving you an “in” and respectability within that field or organization and a constant source of general information that can be turned towards specific information at a price. A guild member will know the gossip in the guild and a secret or two and easily find themselves well ensconced in a new city and probably find a few leads on guild and adventure work. A criminal knows the major players in the shadows and recent critical events from the point of view of the underworld. A noble knows that Baron Schwine has the finest hawks in the Marches and recently decided that he would pay a fortune to the noble adventurer who brings him a griffin egg. A travelling Sage who was well connected would be welcomed upon arrival at Candlekeep. At GM discretion the PC can have advantage on certain social or investigative rolls involving their social circle and can use the group’s influence in certain social interactions with outsiders. A lowly street gang member is easier to intimidate by a made thief of the Guild than a random no name thief. It is wise for the Well Connected PC to share time, knowledge, and money on her contacts even if it is just a drink or lunch or an hunch. The more lubricated the contacts the better the gossip flows back. The difference between a well connected Noble and a Noble with just the background would be that the Noble knows the daughter of the Duke and has maybe exchanged words once or twice but can’t get invited to her party while the well connected Noble who had never met the daughter of the Duke could in an afternoon of conversation at a local Baron’s luncheon find themselves with an invitation upon arrival back home. The DM is encouraged to have random NPC’s recognize the PC and to have heard stories about them throughout the game. The PC just knows people who know people.
Wealthy: The PC starts with an additional 100 gold pieces or adventuring equipment worth an equivalent amount, or tradeable goods worth at least 250 gold pieces that would need to be sold a sizable distance away and includes an hireling and a mule and wagon for overland travel or part of a cargo hold for overseas travel. The Wealthy PC would of course be wise to hire protection on such a journey. Wealthy PC’s tend to attract wealth but need to spend it as well and don’t take well to modest lifestyles. A Wealthy PC knows how to act and dress higher status and knows the best inn in Waterdeep before she had ever been there. If the PC’s want to sell a minor magical item legally the wealthy PC might know who would be interested and who would be able to afford it. The DM is encouraged to have money flow in the direction of this PC and the PC is encouraged to spend freely and often.
Heirloom: The PC has one very expensive and valuable piece of property that they inherited and treasure. They would never sell the item or allow the item to be taken from them. It could be a mastercrafted sword or a suit of half plate worn by a famous Paladin ancestor that inspired the PC to take on the adventuring life or even a minor magical item passed on by a loved one when they died. It should be an item that would grow in power with the PC and their legend. One cannot picture Raistlin Majere without the Staff of Magius even if the only magic he could do with the staff was a light spell at 3rd level. Torvald’s father’s battleaxe soaked in the acidic blood and soul of the adult black dragon he had slain and from that day dealt acidic damage on his foes and later slew a demi-lich forming a strong antipathic resonance against the undead. The DM should find some sort of excuse or work with the player to make the heirloom scale and remain a key part of the PC as they become more legendary. Torvald after all had passed up on some pretty looking axes with heavy enchantments on them when they arrived in Sigil.
Weapon Specialist: The warrior has a favored weapon that they spend inordinate amounts of time mastering to the exclusion of a vast chunk of their social life. With a specific weapon type the PC has a +X added to their attack with X representing the number of normal attacks they can do in a round. At first level this would be a +1 bonus but a fifth level fighter would be +2 because they have two attacks. When the PC increases their bonus they gain an additional favored weapon.
Acrobatic Defender: +1 bonus to AC as long as the character has freedom of movement.
Shield Specialist: The character adds their Proficiency +1 to their AC when using a Shield instead of the +2 to AC a Shield normally provides. Whenever an attacker misses the Shield Specialist by more than 10 they open themselves up to a bonus action called a shield bash which is an attack that uses the shield and does 1d4 + Strength damage. A Magical Shield provides the AC bonus to the attack and damage rolls just as if the Shield was a magical weapon.
Elemental Affinity: PC is resistant to a type of energy damage like acid, fire, cold, or thunder. The PC gains a +1 bonus to Skill rolls involving the element and +1 damage when using weapons or magic involving the element. For example a PC with a fire affinity would have a talent for starting the camp fire, wielding a flaming sword, or casting a fireball. More exotic resistances are possible with DM approval and PC background such as being a Fire Priest’s acolyte or being a distant descendant of a race resistant to that type of energy.
Magical Prodigy: The PC is extremely talented with a school of magic and gains an extra cantrip and an extra level 1 spell slot for that school. For those without a spellcasting class they gain just a cantrip. Should the Prodigy ever get trained in a spellcasting class and gain a level they would then gain access to the extra level 1 spell slot.
Studious Spellcaster: The PC has worked very hard to learn how her magic works and how to stretch her capabilities. Her Spell save DC has a bonus of +1 and she learns 1 additional spell at character creation.
Battlemage: The PC is talented with combat spells and cantrips. The PC adds their Dexterity Modifier to their Spell Attack Modifer for combat magic that needs a spell attack roll.
Savant: Character is extremely proficient at the basics of a skill or tool or instrument. The Savant counts a roll of 7 or less as a 7 with any tasks involving that skill.
Attractive: The attractive PC has advantage on social rolls with someone who finds them attractive at the DM’s discretion based on the social situation at that time. The PC spends an inordinate amount of time focused on highlighting their beauty or handsomeness at least from the point of view of the Weapon Specialist. The PC might be reluctant to undertake tasks that might diminish their attractiveness like crawl around in a sewer. A troubadour, artist, or actor can really leverage their attractiveness when performing and often earn more pay than other entertainers of greater skill.
Gifted Healer: Any use of a Healer’s kit or Herbalist’s kit or magic to provide aid to an injured or otherwise hurt individual gains the injured character a bonus hit point per die rolled.
Fleet Footed: Speed increases by 10 feet. The PC spends much of their spare time running or swimming and can also run longer distances as well compared to less focused characters.
Green Thumb: The PC has a special knack with plants and has advantage with all rolls using an herbalism kit or Nature rolls involving growing or tending plants. Plants just seem to be brighter and healthier around them. Sentient and semi sentient plants react positively to the PC who has Advantage on any social rolls involving plant creatures.
Tough: Has an extra 2 Hit Points at character creation and an additional 2 HP per level afterwards.
Sentinel: +5 bonus to passive Perception rolls. Pick one sense and have advantage on all rolls using it.
Well Traveled: Familiar and comfortable with different cultures and races the PC has a very cosmopolitan view of the world. The PC is unlikely to make a faux pas when interacting with exotic beings, foreigners, nobles, and rustic folks and counts a 5 or lower as a 5 with all skills they are proficient in that involve interacting socially or involving academic knowledge of them and their traditions. Common among traveling sages who can become quite valuable to leaders and merchants hoping to begin diplomacy or trade with little known peoples. Well traveled PC’s gain an extra language and have an easier time learning new languages as they can learn without the need of an instructor if they are immersed in an area with the language and culture. Their training time is also cut in half.
Darkvision: A PC of a race that doesn’t have this trait gains Darkvision of 60′. It may be as a result of pact with infernal or fey beings or as a result of an ancestor from another race or from exposure to wild magic or even an experimental potion.
D&D House Rules:
Here are pdf’s of the articles I contributed to for Hermes Portal an ezine for Ars Magica by Atlas Games.
If you’re interested in more check out Hermes Portal which has 1 through 15 issues downloadable for free.
Check out my blogroll on the right and check out Sub Rosa which is continuing the tradition of high quality Ars Magica articles.