Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Move Die and Tactical TotM Combat

I have a confession to make. I'm not a real OSR gamer. For most of my life I though AD&D was what people took Ritalin for. I started gaming in the 90s with a bunch of random systems. A mish-mash of abortive World of Darkness campaigns, some games in a system I think was called Don't Look Back(?), and I game I ran loosely set in Middle-Earth where action was resolved with a d6 roll and an ass-pull - those are the highlights. I was a gamer for sure, but I came at it more from the angle of freeform storytelling than tactical wargaming. I find it odd to call it table-top gaming because tables were hardly ever involved. So all this gridmap miniatures 40' of movement crap? That stuff and me are like oil and water - fine in isolation but together they're an ecological disaster.

I want what miniatures combat it trying to achieve, without actually using miniatures. I want tactical combat in with movement and positioning, without actually moving anything into a position. I want theatre-of-the-mind combat, without numbing-of-the-mind boredom. I want choices, and I want them to matter. And hey, I think I've found a way to do it.


This system relies on the Move Die mechanic.

A combat round is divided into seven phases  which happen in sequence: initiative, declaration, movement, melee, missile, magic, and mundane.

1. Initiative: one side or the other in a combat situation can be described as holding the initiative. Usually this can be determined by circumstance - ambushers hold initiative over the ambushed, defenders hold initiative over invaders, and those who can see hold initiative over those who can't. In an ambiguous situation, the high roller on a d6 holds the initiative. Re-roll ties.

2. Declaration: combatants who DO NOT hold the initiative declare what they want to do this round. This is movement and action, like "the orc is going to run up and try to chop Bargle's head off" or "the goblin is going to climb the ladder and pull the lever to open the wolf-pen." Then the combatants who DO hold the initiative declare. Like "Bargle is going to try to keep away from the orc while muttering the incantation for Magic Missile," or "Michael Fightersen is going to try to engage with the orc and keep it away from Bargle."

3. Movement: if the movement part of your declaration DOES NOT contradict anyone else's - congratulations! You do it. The goblin climbs to the top of the ladder. If your movement DOES contradict another combatant's, if there is no possible way you could both get what you want from your declaration, you'll have to get your move die and roll for it.

3.1: Get your Move Die: all combatants with contradictory declarations pick up their Move Die. Now adjustments have to be made for the circumstances. If you're trying to do more than one thing that contradicts another combatant's declaration, step down your move die one size for each thing after the first. In the example above, Bargle is trying to do one thing, keep away from the orc. Sometimes the things you're doing may be implied. This is the case with the orc - it may seem like it's just doing one thing (running up to Bargle) but in fact it's doing two things (also avoiding Michael Fightersen) because there's no way it could achieve the intention of its declaration without avoiding Michael Fightersen. This is because of Michael's specific declaration - if Michael had just said he wanted to run up to the orc, then there wouldn't be a contradiction: Michael could run up to the orc whether or not the orc had reached Bargle.

3.2: Roll for it: all combatants now roll their adjusted Move Die. Add an attribute bonus if it seems applicable. The high roller achieves their intention. In the case of a tie, the initiative holder is considered to have rolled higher. For example, if Bargle rolled a 3 and the orc rolled a 4, the orc would reach Bargle. Sometimes a low roller can get what they want as the result of someone else's high roll. If Michael Fightersen rolled a 7 in the above example, then Bargle would get to keep away from the orc, because that was Michael's intention. There are, however, also special considerations. If circumstances would give you some advantage in what's you're trying to do, after rolling you can say "A-ha" and explain how those circumstances give you an advantage, and if the referee judges it as fair then you may re-roll your Move Die. If Michael had rolled a 2 instead of a 7, he might say "A-ha, but Michael is wielding a spear, the longer reach of which would help him keep the orc at bay." This seems fair to the referee, so Michael re-rolls and gets a 1 (he shouldn't have gone into a fight carrying all those golden idols). However special considerations can also be used offensively - if circumstances would give you some disadvantage your opponent can say "A-ha" (saying "A-ha" is mandatory) and explain how those circumstances could keep you from achieving you intention, and if the referee judges it as fair you must re-roll your Move Die. Bargle might say "A-ha, but last round I o'erthrew yon tables and chairs, surely such difficult terrain would hinder any attempt to engage with my person!" and the referee might reply "Fair enough, but please stop talking like that," and re-roll his die, getting a 2. Another special consideration is extra effort - you may choose to sacrifice your main action for the round to re-roll your Move Die. Each player (including the referee) may only bring up one special consideration per round.

Bargle lives!

4. Melee: resolve melee attacks as in your system of choice. If you become engaged with someone whom you didn't intend, you can still make a melee attack against them with whatever weapon you have to hand. Initiative-holders get to go first.

5. Missile: resolve missile attacks as in your system of choice. You can also take a snap-shot to resolve your missile attack before the movement phase, however doing so precludes you from taking any other movement. You can also declare that you are aiming at a target, which also precludes you from taking any other movement but gives you the benefit of aiming in your system of choice (a benefit which will probably be lost if someone closes in to engage with you).

6. Magic: resolve spells as in your system of choice.

7. Mundane: this is when all other actions happen. Resolve as in your system of choice.


There's intentionally a lot of room for interpretation in the rules. The best part about the light combat rules of old-school games is the room they leave for players and referees alike to be creative, and the last thing I wanted was for combat to become a checklist of special moves. But you can do a lot with the Move Die and some smart judgment calls. Want weapon length and tests for positioning like Burning Wheel or Mythras? Give your knife-wielder a penalty or disadvantage against a spear wielder, and then use this system to see if your knife-wielder can get inside his opponent's guard and pass the penalties to him. You can also use this system for grappling, disengaging from melee, driving your opponent to another battlefield location, fleeing and pursuing, etc. The only limitation I would stipulate is that movement contests should only result in advantages or disadvantages, and not directly in damage.

Also I made a decision with the special considerations rule to make it a re-roll instead of roll twice and keep the highest. If you like dis/advantage systems better it's an easy change to make, but in my experience re-rolling keeps the action moving instead of front-loading negotiating the fiction.

This looks fun..

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Fumble Number - A Move Die Hotfix

See, this is what I love about hacking together your own rules. You come up with a finely-tuned machine of a system that does exactly what you need it to, you release it to the world... and then you realise that there is a glaring fatal flaw. One so glaring and fatal that you have no idea how you missed it in the first place. So what do you do? Do you throw it away and start again? No! This is a BLOG,  there are no take-backsies. You come up with another tangentially related system to plug the hole. Which will probably need fixing tomorrow.

And the cycle continues.

Because in an incoherent game, every problem is actually an opportunity to invent new tools. I love incoherent games.

But this isn't a post about coherent vs. incoherent games. This is a post about a problem with the Move Die, and its solution... the Fumble Number.



But before we can get to the Fumble Number, we need to talk about the problem with the Move Die. And the problem is that once you hit a new Move Die, suddenly piling on a few more things doesn't matter any more. And at the lower levels of encumbrance that's good - it's a relief, "I may have dropped down a die size but at least now I can carry a couple more things without feeling guilty."

But once you hit that dreaded d4? Suddenly you have like ten "free" slots. There's no difference between carrying ten +1 broadswords of hyperbole and twenty. Or, more to the point, once you're carrying fifteen sacks of gold piling on another one isn't going to hurt. And it should hurt.

Because hurt = interesting choices.

Pictured: interesting choices.

  1. Your Fumble Number (or FN, for effin' aitch I rolled a nat 1) starts at zero. Every slot filled over your Encumbrance Limit increases your FN by one.
  2. Whenever you roll a d20 and the result before modifiers is less than or equal to your FN, something worse happens. You mess up. Your swing goes wide and your sword gets jarred out of your hand, or you stumble directly into the blades of that gore-encrusted trap you were trying to avoid.
That's it.

Obviously the sort of fumble is up to the referee, but my suggestion would be to go hard. Don't just settle for double damage, go straight to "you die". Just make sure to tell your player this before they roll.

To make it more exciting.


I want to make one thing clear - I'm not a fan of the critical fail. I think it's not good form to make your players' characters, and by extension your players, look stupid just because they rolled one particular number on a unusually large die. It's a totally random idiot ball. But the Fumble Number avoids this problem because the player chose to carry too many chalices out of the dungeon. Every fumble they roll is directly connected to a choice they made.

At the risk of getting too literary, what was once a story about random shit happening for no reason becomes a story about greed. "It was the golden idol that killed me."

Because it's always the golden idol.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Encumbrance and the Move Die

This is my attempt to make encumbrance easy to track, character specific, impactful to gameplay, and tangible to the game-players. I think it ticks all those boxes.

I call it the Move Die.

tell me these dice don't creep you out
Are these the creepiest dice you've ever seen? Let me know in the comments!


Characters have twenty slots for items, just like in Knave. Most things take up one slot, some things take up more, and some things you can bundle together. You can stuff 100 coins into one of those slots! But there's a hard limit. Twenty slots.

Unlike in Knave, you can fill up those twenty slots right from the get-go.

But characters have an Encumbrance Limit. This determines how much they can carry without having to step down their Move Die. If I was playing Knave I'd set Encumbrance Limit to the character's CON defense. For more traditional games I'd make it 10+CON bonus, and have it go up by 1 every even numbered level.

Here's how your Encumbrance Limit determines your Move Die:

  • Filled slots up to 1/4 Encumbrance Limit, Move Die = d12
  • Filled slots up to half Encumbrance Limit, Move Die = d10
  • Filled slots up to 3/4 Encumbrance Limit, Move Die = d8
  • Filled slots up to Encumbrance Limit, Move Die = d6
  • Filled slots over Encumbrance Limit, Move Die = d4 (as punishment)
 If your Encumbrance Limit doesn't divide easily by four, give yourself extra slots at the higher end of the list while still trying to keep the number of slots for each Move Die even.

So let's say you're a level 5 Fighter with a CON of 16. Your Encumbrance Limit = 10+2+2 = 14.
  • 0 to 4 slots filled, = d12
  • 5 to 8 slots filled, = d10
  • 9 to 11 slots filled, = d8
  • 12 to 14 slots filled, = d6
  • 15 to 20 slots filled, = d4
Of course this is only half of the magic. It's how you use the Move Die that makes it really sing.

This meme may not be funny, but goddamn if it isn't true.


You know how in some classic games you have to rest every 6 dungeon turns or the GM starts to sulk? Forget that noise. Now at the end of every dungeon turn in which you have taken an action like searching for hidden doors or deciphering ancient runes or banging the dents out of your helmet, you roll your Move Die. If it comes up a 1, you're too tired to move on. You have to spend the next turn resting. This means more time in the dungeon for resources to deplete and random encounters to happen.

This may make rests a lot more frequent, especially with large groups. I'm personally okay with that - I feel like larger groups should be slower and it balances out the advantages inherent to having a bigger team. If you feel like delves are getting interrupted too much, I like this optional rule: a player can ignore the need to rest by spending 1 HP.

I actually like that rule a lot. I think I'm going to make it official.


  1. Easy to track? Draw hard lines on your inventory sheet between the slots where you'd change Move Die, and write the size of the Move Die next to that line. Unlike with a change in movement speed you don't need to communicate the change to the GM - you just roll the new die.
  2. Character specific? Now the hearty adventurer can carry more without it wearing him out as much.
  3. Tangible to players? This is the big win in this system. An overloaded player will feel that they are slowing the team down every time they pick up that d4.
  4. Gameplay impact? This system adds a sort of push-your-luck mechanic to the interesting question of "what do I bring to the dungeon?" It also becomes a question of how much you can afford to bring. Players are also encouraged to be strategic with their delves, to bring more hirelings and to set up camps where they can leave items until they are needed.
So that's the basics of the Move Die!

"But," I hear you expostulate, "what about about combat movement speed!? You've done naught to address this glaring omission!" Well you could roll the die to see how many 5' squares you can travel in a turn. But I don't play with grids or combat maps. I play theatre-of-the-mind. And the Move Die gives you the ability to do dynamic, tactical theatre-of-the-mind combat really easily.

"How!?" You demand, your thundering voice rattling the crystal goblets carefully displayed in your glass-fronted armoire as the firelight glints like shards of molten steel in your narrowed eyes, "How can your puny dice-based movement system ever lift theatre-of-the-mind combat out of namby-pamby, wishy-washy mediocrity?"

I will show you. But there's quite a lot in it, so it's going to have to be the subject of a whole 'nuther post. Instead I'll leave you with an example of the Move Die in use on a home-made inventory sheet.

Please don't comment on my player's tiny handwriting.