A Manola-esque cut-down spell-list for Knave

Joseph Manola has an article on “game-enhancing” and “game-ruining” powers. By “powers”, he largely means spells, but also magic item effects. He presents a list of some types of powers that game-enhancing — that “facilitate creative and intelligent play” — and some that are game-ruining — that have the potential to short-circuit many kinds of interesting play.

A “game-enhancing” example:

Levitation: Slow, vertical-only flight. Allows for all kinds of ingenious problem-solving but requires careful set-up, not particularly useful in combat, and generates hilarious mental images, especially if you allow levitating characters to be moved horizontally by party members pulling them along on ropes from below!


And a similar but “game-ruining” one:

Unlimited flight: Trivialises too many kinds of obstacles and opponents, especially if it comes with perfect manoeuvrability as well. If you want to give your PCs access to flight, try to build in some serious limitations.


I have taken Manola’s article, turned it into a checklist for filtering spell lists, and applied it to the Knave spell list. I’ve also made a few cuts and changes for idiosyncratic reasons that aren’t on the checklist. It’s my list, after all.

I’ve done this for my games, which are low-level, low-fantasy, and rules-light via Knave. The resulting list is going to be utilitarian, it’s going to lack much of the magic from fiction, and it’s not going to be perfectly compatible with published modules. But it’s likely to work for me with most of what I do. If you are not me, or you are doing something else, it might not work so well.

First, my checklist:

  • Does it overlap with a key ability of another class? If so, cut.
    • (Knave is classless, so this doesn’t matter here, but in games with classes niche protection is important — otherwise, why have classes at all?)
  • Is it a direct attack spell? If so, cut.
    • (They’re boring, overlap too much with combat skills and weapons, and well known for contributing to the “quadratic wizard” problem.)
  • Is it something that can be duplicated by other reasonable, portable means, using the technology of the campaign setting. If so, cut.
    • (If magic replaces equipment planning, why bother with equipment?)
  • Does it greatly weaken, or outright negate, the most powerful and meant-to-be-frightening threats in my games, in particular undead? If so, cut.
    • (I’m very, very into undead. But many D&D editions, in particular OSE RAW, give Clerics powers that wreck them easily.)
  • Does it allow resurrection or straightforward access to the mind of a dead person? If so, cut.
    • (A key thematic element in the metaphysics of all my games is that death is the end — once you’re properly dead, you’re gone.)
  • Does it allow mind control, mind reading or lie detection? If so, cut or at least severely constrain.
    • (Mind control can kill the social element of play, while mind-reading and lie-detection can slice through mysteries with little effort or interest)
  • Is it otherwise Manola’s list of bad things (unlimited flight, unlimited intangiblity, mobility-while-still-attacking)? If so, cut or at least severely constrain.
    • (See Manola’s article for individual rationales)
  • Is it simply too powerful for low-level Knaves to use safely, given the general feel of my worlds? If so, move to greater magic list (and give it a risk you run whenever you cast it).
  • Does it provide a versatile building block for use in adventuring tactics, gambits, or plans? If so, try to keep. (narrow and restrict it if necessary to achieve that)

Second, the spell list, with commentary of what I’ve cut and why, is on its own page.

Finally, do you want a diegetic rationale for having such a limited spell list? For Knave, I say this:

In theory, magic can do an infinite variety of things, but in practice the vast majority of what you try achieves nothing at all. Scholars and seers and holders-forth-in-lecture-halls promote general theories of magic, not of which hold water beyond a very narrow scope. Most spells have been handed down from the distant past and at best been tweaked by modern practitioners. And you, as a Knave, are a pretty borderline practitioner.

So, anyone got thoughts?

(My main concern is that the resulting list is dry and utilitarian. But, then, the Knave list was dry to start with, partly because it’s so short. The best way to fix this is probably to add concrete detail of supernatural character — not just “An object of any size is pulled directly towards you” but “Four ghostly hands grip and object and pull…”, not just “L+1 objects are strongly magnetically repelled from each other” but “L+1 objects are possesed by animals spirits and write in disgust and pull away from another…”. That will take more space, but will make for better spells.)

I value playing rpgs over reading rpgs

A while back, David Perry said on Twitter “… I think we should not place the act of playing a game/content on a separate, higher plane of value than the act of reading and appreciating it on an individual level.”

I understand the various impulses behind this, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea.

I associate writing-rpgs-to-be-read with the hobby’s nadir in the 1990s, when non-gaming writers churned out splatbook after splatbook with no understanding of play implications. It lead to a hobby with little value to me. I don’t want to see that happen again. The world is different now, of course, with online play and online ways to meet potential players, but the structure of the problem remains.

(One factor in my view of this — I get very meagre enjoyment from online play, even with offline friends. It just doesn’t give me the same payoffs as face-to-face does.)

And this is a risk, because the reading-rpgs hobby is naturally robust, while the playing-rpgs hobby is much more fragile. It’s easy to buy and read rpg books; it’s hard to find good players, harder to find good GMs, and hard for busy adults to find time and space to play. Anything that moves rpg materials away from supporting the act of play is, consequently, risky to the playing-rpgs hobby.

Another problem is that people who read and theorise about rpgs, but don’t play them (or don’t play the kinds of rpgs they theorise about), can also damage the online discussion of rpgs. It’s very easy for them to get lost in theorising, compared to people who encounter the reality of actual play on a regular basis. And they might have good ideas… but odds are they will have an unusually large number of bad ones.

It follows from the above that we might need to place the playing-rpgs hobby “on a higher plane” in order to protect it.

I’m sympathetic to people who might be excluded from the discussing-rpg-online hobby because of this, because for whatever reason they can’t play with any regularity, but in the end I discuss rpgs online, and read online discussion, for my purposes, not theirs.

(Edit: A good related article, which Pandatheist on Twitter reminded me about, is Jason Manola’s RPG books as fiction.)

What next for prep guidance goal-method cards?

About a month ago, I started talking about structuring GM prep guidance using goal-method cards. Those ideas had a more positive response, in multiple forums, than just about anything I’ve come up with before.

I’m not sure where to go with this next, though. Some people have suggested crowdsourcing a very large set, but at the moment I’m more interested in slowly refining the set that I actually use. That way, I can vouch for any examples I put up.

Nothing to stop someone else crowdsourcing such a collection, of course.

tSoY-style Keys in AD&D 2e

Over on Monsters & Manuals, noisms dug some optional per-class xp rules out of the AD&D 2e DMG:

Fighters get XP for “defeating” enemies

Priests get XP for successfully using their powers, casting spells to further their ethos, and making stuff

Wizards get XP for casting spells to overcome “foes or problems”, researching things and making stuff

Rogues get XP for using their special abilities and, er, treasure

This sounds similar to (and was probably a direct ancestor of) “Keys” in the Shadow of Yesterday. There’s a pdf of that at http://downloads.darkon.info/pdf/tsoy.pdf — the list of standard Keys starts on p27.

I’ve had good times with Keys, but I’ve only used them in the kind of games (like tSoY) where we leap from scene to scene, resolving big conflicts in a single roll, and so forth. In a turns-and-rooms D&D game it would be harder to make them sing.

D&D 5e’s art and design is not all bad

I don’t like the presentation of D&D 5e. I particularly don’t like the art. If you’ve read There is an aesthetic that I want and a way I want to feel, this may not surprise you. But I can see its properties support the aims and desires of the creators and their audiences.

The key challenge for 5e is appealling to a very wide audience. It’s going for the broadest possible market share, and has a wide range of player groups who consider it “their game”. It’s not a niche-niche game, at least not compared to LotFP or Vampire or Burning Wheel.

And of course its owners want to get money out of it, or at least to maintain brand value that they can use elsewhere. And the fan base has diverse interests and values

First, some simple good things that are compatible with the aesthetic I’m describing:

  • Diverse ethnic and gender representation
    • (e.g. they represent “human” by a black woman who looks tough and is not sexualised)
  • The organisation of the text, the typography, and the graphic design are all very clear.
  • Their way of describing rules is very precise and consistent. It’s too precise, and too detailed for my liking, but there are advantages to pedantic precision.

Then, some things incompatible with my aesthetic, but that have other benefits:

  • Colourful, attracts the eye
  • Generally controlled and competent — doesn’t ever look very clumsy
  • Consistent with what a lot of people like – cf many video games, comics, and their associated fan art
  • Implies a fairly wide range of possible settings, in both environment and costume
    • (this is common to most generic system, and I find it off-putting — FATE and Hero Quest have the same problem)
  • Inoffensive to the vast majority of people [1]
  • Broadly suitable for children, even in the eyes of fairly censorious parents.
    • (And most adult owners will be happy for their children, of any age, to flick through it. So it can go anywhere in the house)
  • Not upsettingly gory or painful for almost anyone.
    • (Issues around this are killers for a fair few people. And even I, despite my commitment to things with extra tubes, won’t watch e.g. Saw or The Human Centipede.)
  • Possibly the background pattern has some anti-piracy value, making copies harder to print, or at least more expensive [2]


[1] Exception is a certain class of bigot. But I think most of us can live with that.

[2] Though may be a problem for people with limited vision? Though a comment on Stack Exchange suggests probably not.

Some notes on fixing BX D&D

As Patrick Stuart notes, BX D&D is core to the OSR. It has clarity, it has concision, and it is very clearly “D&D”. It has a clear modern presentation in Old School Essentials. Sadly, it has some serious problems. Here are some fixes. Maybe later there will be more.

First, up the amount of gold needed to advance in level is absurd, unless you want advancement to be ponderous. I’ve mostly concerned myself with how to meet that demand, but if you read my articles about it you’ll find links that suggest other solutions. (the comments on those links are often good).

Specifically, look at the intro to Tomb of the Serpent Kings“Treasure amounts are balanced around the idea that 200gp is enough to level a single character”. That’s likely to be my model going forwards.

If you’re not writing adventures for others, I’d suggest you (a) give more than one xp per gp or (b) rescale all the level charts so they give the pace you want.

It’s not clear at all, in OSE or otherwise, how thief skills relate to the (obvious) ability of non-thieves to do those same things. James  V West has about twelve ways to fix that — start reading at http://doomslakers.blogspot.com/2019/01/once-again-with-thieves.html.

Requiring “Read Magic” to use scrolls is excessive. Give Read Magic as an unlimited-use ability to all Magic Users — http://doomslakers.blogspot.com/2020/03/read-that-magic.html.

PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1b — Addendum to “Momentum and the Rollercoaster”

Previously, I talked about Baker’s idea of the “rollercoaster” that is Apocalypse World, whereby “real things, the dice and stats and so on, … give momentum to the fictional things”. I found his description pretty opaque [1], but managed to summarise it as “real-world actions are triggered from events in the fiction that are potentially interesting, and those actions make those fictional events more interesting”.

Mark Diaz Truman has since refined that a bit for me. He says Baker is talking about explicitly narrative momentum, a kind of energy in running game whereby a story is moving forwards. That doesn’t have to mean “following a pre-written story” [2]; it just means creating something that the players recognise as a story. As Mark puts it, it manifests as the “sense of making decisions that close doors and open other doors, of moving toward conflicts and decisions instead of just sitting and talking.”

In most games, the work of maintaining this energy lands on the GM, especially outside combat. PbtA rules, by contrast, often create momentum directly. Mark — “the moves themselves generate momentum. Even when you [trigger] a move and “things go smooth” a good move will generate new information and options that will pull you down the path of the story instead of just succeeding or failing on a test.”

In other words, the rules provide opportunities, building blocks, playing pieces, from which the the MC and players can build a story. And they put on pressure, rule out some things, make other seem natural or inevitable. This is often true even on 10+ (or 12+) results — PC successes can still have messy side effects.

As an example, Mark points to the basic move “Escape” from his Urban Shadows:

Continue reading “PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1b — Addendum to “Momentum and the Rollercoaster””

PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 2 — (Possibly) Graceful Collapse

In a previous post, I talked about a claim Vincent Baker made about Apocalypse World in a recent article. Here, I’m going to discuss another one.

In Section 4, Baker claims that PbtA games “collapse gracefully inward”. I.e. forgetting a few rules, unless they are from a small core set (e.g. the conversation structure) will have only minor effect on the game experience.

Questions that come to mind:

  1. Is that true?
  2. Is it more true than for other kinds of games (e.g. those that fall under Baker’s “D&D”, “point-buy”, or “Forge” design approaches? I.e. is this distinctive about AW (and, by extension, PbtA games in general)

I discussed those questions online, and concluded that Baker is right, with some caveats.

Continue reading “PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 2 — (Possibly) Graceful Collapse”