The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘design notes’

Legends & Labyrinths - The Rogue by Bonnie TangI’ve been playing and running roleplaying games for about 22 years now. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of new players come to the table for the first time. This has been particularly true in the last couple of years as I’ve been running an open table. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in watching all these new players, it’s this:

Nothing hooks them like character creation.

Some people swear by pregens, but I’m here to say that it really isn’t the same thing: Creating a character fires up the imagination. It gives them a sense of ownership in the game. It gets them thinking about all the cool things that they’re going to do with that character. If they’re the type of people who are going to get excited about playing an RPG, then character creation is going to hook them.

This is only true, however, if character creation is accessible to them. This requires three things to be true:

  1. Character creation must be quick.
  2. Character creation must be fun.
  3. Character creation must be comprehensible.

If you’ve got a character creation system that takes 60 minutes? That’s not newbie friendly.

If the bulk of character creation is balancing equations or juggling spreadsheets? That’s not fun.

If your character creation system requires decisions which are only meaningful if you’ve already read and understand large chunks of the 200 page rulebook? Those decisions are confusing, meaningless noise to the new player.


Legends & LabyrinthsThis last factor — the ability for new players to comprehend the decisions they’re making during character creation — is why Legends & Labyrinths came really, really close to having a character creation system in which ability scores are generated in order.

Ultimately I decided that the nature of the six ability scores are clear enough that new players can make meaningful decisions — Do I want my character to be stronger or smarter? Faster or wiser? — even if they don’t necessarily understand all of the finer mechanical implications of those choices.

But this, in my opinion, is near the limit in terms of the types of decisions you want new players making. Anything more than that and they begin to bog down. Why? Because people want to understand the decisions they’re making. And in seeking to understand those decisions, more and more of the game mechanics need to be explained to them. At a certain point, this transitions from “acceptable prelude to playing the game” and becomes “why are we still performing this boring chore?”. The creative impulse is lost.

(Besides, if they don’t understand it, then the decision is meaningless anyway and you should be automating it anyway.)

Which is why Legends & Labyrinths doesn’t feature a point-buy method. I’ve seen new players tackle those systems, and it always bogs them down. Arranging six stats according to which ability score you want to have the best score? Acceptable choice. Deciding whether you want a 15 Str or 16 Str, and how does that comparative benefit of that choice affect the Dex and Int scores you can afford to purchase? It’s meaningless noise without a deeper understanding of the system.

Okay. So why not give a standard array and have them assign it? That’s a more balanced approach, right?

Well, to boil it down: It’s less fun.

I understand (and perhaps even prefer) the experience of crafting your character. But new players tend to interpret “rolling the dice” as “playing the game” — so when the first thing you do during character creation is to roll some dice, it gives them the sense that they are immediately playing the game. (Keep character creation short and you can sustain that feeling.)  There’s also a reason why we enjoy gambling: The observation of an uncertain outcome is exciting.

This aspect of turning character creation into a unique mini-game is something the Arneson and Gygax did well, and which I feel more games would benefit from. (This is particularly true because, if properly developed, I think this could give many RPGs a form of enjoyable solo play.)

On top of that, rolling for ability scores is a rote activity. It gives a concrete task that requires no decision-making (just pick up the dice and start rolling them). It gets the ball rolling on character creation and cuts right through any dithering. You wanna play? Great. Here’s 4d6. Roll ’em.

As a final tangent, there was another reason I considered “roll ’em in order” for Legends & Labyrinths: It adds a distinct aspect of “discovery” to the character creation process.

In improv theater terms, the system is mechanically making an offer. It’s providing a creative seed that gets your creative juices flowing by demanding extrapolation and explanation: Why is this guy strong? What forced him to become quick-witted? What sort of person do these stats belong to? Effectively, an offer like this jump-starts the creative process.

(It can also make the next decision — what class do you want to be? — into a fait accompli, which may be undesirable for experienced players, but can be great for the new player.)


Okay. Now take that level of thought and apply it to every aspect of character creation.

In this I was heavily influenced by Delta’s “Magic Number Seven”. To sum up a really great post:

  1. Working memory capacity for most adults is in the range of 7 +/-2 objects. Short-term memory capacity is also 7 +/-2 when memorizing strings of random digits.
  2. Beyond these limits, mental functioning rapidly drops off.

In other words, we are generally pretty good at holding somewhere between 5 and 9 objects in our mind at a given time. Any more than that and it becomes increasingly difficult (or impossible).

In terms of character creation, this is significant because it places an upper limit on the number of options that we can simultaneously consider. Basically, for any decision point you have during character creation, new players shouldn’t need to decide between more than, say, 9 objects.

(Experienced players can deal with more options for a couple of a reasons. First, long-term memory is more flexible. Second, our experience with the system allows us to “chunk” it out: If you can take 30 options and break them into 5 usable groups, then you can choose between the five groups (easy) and then choose between the six options in the group you’ve chosen (also easy).

For example, the experienced player can say: “I want to play a martial character.” By applying this filter he limits his decision to 5 classes: Barbarian, fighter, monk, paladin, or ranger. New players, on the other hand, don’t have the deep understanding of the system necessary to apply that filter. So you either need to find some way to apply it for them or reduce the number of options.)


It starts from the very top: Legends & Labyrinths breaks character creation down into eight steps:

  1. Roll Ability Scores
  2. Pick a Race
  3. Pick a Class
  4. Select Starting Equipment
  5. Calculate Saving Throws
  6. Calculate Combat Scores
  7. Calculate Skill Modifiers
  8. Character Description

This breaks the process down into a manageable number of “chunks”. (Depending on how you count, the total process of character creation actually takes something like 25-40 discrete steps. If you simply presented that as a list, it would be impossible to get any sense of “how character creation works”.)

Now, let’s take a look at how many options each major decision point has in Legends & Labyrinths:

  • Ability Scores: 6 (Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Cha). Perfect.
  • Races: 6 (Dwarf, Elf, Half-Elf, Halfling, Half-Orc, Human). Perfect.
  • Classes: 6 (Barbarian, Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, Sorcerer, Wizard). Perfect.
  • Alignment: 9. Manageable, and we also attempt to “chunk it” by deciding each axis (for two choices of 3 options each).
  • Armor: 9. (7 armors + 2 shields.) This is also chunked into light (3 options), medium (2 options), and heavy (2 options).
  • Weapons (Melee): 10. A little high. In practice, however, I think players will generally focus on their best proficiency which breaks the list into two manageable chunks — simple (4 options) and martial (6 options). There’s also natural chunking between one-handed (5 options), two-handed (3 options), and double weapons (2 options).
  • Weapons (Ranged): 10. Same principle as the melee weapons — a little high, but with natural chunking to give a manageable decision tree.

Of course, the “Rule” of 7 is not the only consideration in designing the game. That’s why there are 10 melee weapons and 10 ranged weapons: It’s a little high according to the “Rule” of 7, but it’s also important to give a range of options within each proficiency group.

Similarly, I obviously made no effort to limit the range of adventuring gear available to 7 items. Limiting some options only serves to eliminate essential utility. On the other hand, understanding this led me to emphasize the “shopping trip” nature of adventuring gear on page 108 of the rulebook:

For the wandering adventurer, having the right tool for the job is often the difference between life and death. Take the time to peruse the equipment list for anything that might prove useful on your current venture. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box: Look for ways to use equipment in unusual and clever ways.

On that page you’ll also note that I “chunk out” a couple of short checklists of “essential equipment” — one for individuals (6 options) and another for the party as a whole (6 options). Coincidence? Not really.

(I put together the full list of “necessary supplies” and found that it “felt too long”. After a bit, I realized that the “Rule” of 7 applied and found a way of chunking it out into two smaller and more manageable lists.)

It should also be noted that the “Rule” of 7 can also apply in other areas of a game system: For example, 3E features only three types of saving throws. In addition to providing a universal coverage that was lacking in previous editions, this is also a more manageable number than the 10 categories of saving throw presented in 1st Edition. So, particularly for a neophyte DM, it’s much easier in 3E to figure out what type of save should apply in an unusual situation.

Legends & Labyrinths


Let’s take a peek at the Black Book Beta character sheet for Legends & Labyrinths:

Legends & Labyrinths - Beta Character Sheet

(click for PDF)

Like the rulebook itself, this is a work in progress. (I’m not particularly happy with the skill section, and there are some other sizing and spacing issues that need to be tweaked and resolved.) But this should give you some idea of what I’m aiming for.

As with many elements in Legends & Labyrinths, one of the key hurdles I had to avoid in developing this character sheet was what I came to call the “illusion of simplicity”. For example, I had a long struggle with the illusion of a character creation process so simple that you just “rolled ability scores, picked a class, and then started playing!” It’s a seductive vision, but it never actually existed. (And there was a reason it never existed.)

These “illusions of simplicity” served as siren songs. If, as a game designer, you pursue them you’ll end up handicapping your game. The idea that your life would be easier if you didn’t need to buy shoes bumps against cold, hard reality when you start talking about lopping your feet off with an axe.

In the case of this character sheet, the illusion of simplicity I struggled with was the classic sheet from the BECMI Basic Set that had indoctrinated me into roleplaying 20 years ago. Wouldn’t it be great if your character sheet didn’t have anything on it except character name, alignment, class, level, ability scores, and saving throws?

But the reality was that the BECMI sheet achieved its simplicity by not including some key forms of utility.

On the other hand, I also didn’t want (or need) the spreadsheets-of-doom which so many character sheets have become.


The solution I eventually developed was the concept of “layers”. For example, here’s the hit point section:

Legends & Labyrinths - Character Sheet Inset (Hit Points)

The iconic heart gives you a clear, pictorial reference. Collectively, these distinct graphical shapes keep the sheet from turning into a gray haze. It also gives you a large palette for keeping track of your current hit points.

The top layer contains the “most important” info. Below they you have secondary info that you’ll want to have for easy reference, but not on a frequent basis: Your max hit points. Any temporary hit points you’re currently benefiting. A place to track nonlethal damage. And a place for noting damage reduction if you’ve got it.

As a different example, here’s the saving throw section:

Legends & Labyrinths - Character Sheet Inset (Saves)

This is pretty basic: Once again you’ve got a distinct shape conceptually grouping these stats together. The top layer contains the total saving throw bonus (the key information you need to reference during play), while the layer below that lists the various modifiers that build that top layer stat.

What I like about the sheet is that, when you look at it, the top layer of information “pops out”. In play, it feels like you’re using a much more streamlined character sheet because of that — but you’ve also still get access to all that additional information when you need it. (And I think this will be even more true as we tweak the spacing and layout issues.)


I also feel its important for a character sheet to contain more than just game mechanics. That’s why the right hand column is given over to description. This is broken into three types:

First, the “Symbol-or-Sketch”. This has vanished from most modern character sheets, or it gets buried somewhere on the second or third page.  But having this space on the front of the character sheet for my old school campaign has evoked all kinds of evocative doodling and drawing. (I think there’s something about having that blank space right in front of you during play that encourages players to start filling it up. If nothing else, it’s a good space for taking notes.)

Second, concrete requests for information. Height, Weight, Age, Gender, and the like. This establishes a fairly standard scaffold to start hanging your character on.

Third, an invitation to create in bold strokes. The boxes for “Distinguishing Features” and “Personality Traits” are deliberately open-ended. You can put pretty much anything you want in there (or ignore them entirely). But the idea is to lay out a few bold ideas. I find that, particularly for new roleplayers, writing down a few key words like “impetuous” or “always lying” or “loves to grin” is often the best way to jump-start a character.

Those of us who like multi-page biographies and character studies, of course, are still free to tack on as many supplementary pages as we like. But I’m a big fan of taking new players, handing them a character sheet, and letting them pour their imagination onto it. When it works — when those new players invest themselves in the role they’ve created — you can create a gamer for life overnight.

The streamlined system for character creation in Legends & Labyrinths is the first part of that process: It allows new players to take control of creating their first character (without feeling overwhelmed by endless details for which they have no context). And then, hopefully, this character sheet seals the deal by putting the non-mechanical elements of character creation front-and-center: Inviting them to start thinking of their character as more than just a collection of numbers.


Peter Nicolai Arbo - Gizur and the HunsYesterday I talked about how subtle mechanical shifts can have a large impact on gameplay. But if a change as small as shifting create water from being a 4th level spell to a 1st level spell can have such a large impact on how the game is played, it follows that one could deliberately create such effects with shifts in mechanics or emphasis.

Which brings us to a chapter in Legends & Labyrinths that I hope will prove to be completely subversive for modern gamers.

Chapter 10: Companions and Allies returns henchmen and hirelings to the heart of the game. It brings them back in from the cold and reverses their exile to the cruel hinterlands of gaming manuals everywhere.

It does this in three ways:

First, it gives them a place of primacy. Not just an entire chapter to themselves (instead of being squashed into a single sub-table of the Equipment chapter), but a chapter in Part I: Characters.  This is very much a declaration that your companions and allies are part of what defines your character. (Consider that the other chapters in this section are basically summed up as Character Creation, XP, Ability Scores, Races, Classes, Skills, Movement, Hit Points, and Conditions.)

Second, all characters are inherently and mechanically endowed with companions. At 1st level everybody gets a contact. At 6th level, every PC begins benefiting from the equivalent of 3E’s Leadership feat. (Dropping every character’s 1st level feat and replacing it with Leadership also helped me fix some balance issues with multiclassing in L&L.)

Third, mechanical detail. The process of attracting followers, hiring men-at-arms, and the like is not left as a complete tabula rasa. Like everything in Legends & Labyrinths, these mechanics provide a light framework for DMs to work within — but I honestly believe that such frameworks make it far more likely that certain aspects of the game world will be used.

In my old school campaign, I’ve seen that (a) having rules for hirelings front-and-center in the process of character creation and (b) making hirelings a tangible, mechanical part of defining a PC has a profound effect on how people approach the game. I’m hoping that a similar — albeit more subtle — approach in Legends & Labyrinths will have a similar effect.


First, and most importantly, I think it’s a viable and entertaining form of play. While there’s much to be said for the intensity of solo play focusing exclusively on a single character, there’s also a reason why The Sims was such a popular game.

Second, I think it sets the stage for a more sustainable form of high-level play. Even if the various contacts and followers a PC accumulates are not actively adventuring with them, they will be begin to enmesh the PCs into a wider web of obligations and connections. This type of widespread engagement with the game world is, in my experience, a key factor in avoiding the 15-minute adventuring day at high levels.

Third, even if the PCs aren’t actually employing hirelings, I think a little emphasis on play-with-henchmen also encourages superior encounter design. Basically, henchmen are a way of introducing mixed-level parties. And when you’re designing for a mixed-level party you can’t engage in the kind of lop-sided, mutual-assured-destruction of fetishized-balance encounter design. You have to use a larger number of more varied opponents. And those types of encounters result in better gameplay in general (mixed-level parties or not).

Fourth, hirelings and henchmen are a great way of supporting non-standard and under-sized play groups. And being able to support groups like that can be a big help when you’re trying to establish an open gaming table.

In large part, Legends & Labyrinths replaces the complicated variety of the 3rd Edition’s combat maneuvers and special attacks with a streamlined stunt system. But how much tactical interest are we sacrificing with those combat maneuvers? And is the stunt system just replacing one form of complexity for another?


The process of resolving a stunt is simple:

  1. Define the effect of the stunt (which determines the DC).
  2. Perform the stunt by making the appropriate action check.
  3. If successful, the target of the stunt may attempt a stunt save to negate its effect.

What makes the stunt system simple is specifically that the DCs are hard-coded. It turns it into a substantive part of the combat system instead of the “beg the GM for a nice DC” negotiation that many stunt systems boil down to.

What makes the stunt system work is a divided workload: On the one hand, we use an action check to determine whether or not the character successfully leverages whatever skill/ability they’re using to perform the stunt. (This encourages — but doesn’t mandate — characters to perform stunts within their areas of expertise.) On the other hand, we allow the target to make a saving throw to negate the effect. (This prevents high-level characters from being just as easy to pratfall as a low-level character.) By dividing this workload, we avoid the problem similar systems have had in which the DC calculation become difficult-to-balance calculus: Add up all your stunt factors, then divide by the performer’s HD before multiplying by the target’s HD, then modify according to difficulty factors before blah blah blah…


But does the result offer the same tactical versatility as the detailed special attacks offered by 3rd Edition?

Well, let’s talk about that.

(Note that the base DC for all stunts is DC 5.)

Aid Another: The stunt DC is +5 per +1 bonus. (A +2 bonus requires a DC 15 check instead of DC 10, but the mechanic is open-ended. The simplicity of +5 per +1 playtested much better than work-arounds which attempted to maintain the DC 10 = +2.)

Bull Rush: Forced movement +1 DC per 1 ft. So if you wanted to push someone 10 ft. over a cliff, it’s a DC 20 stunt check.

Charge: We left basic charges in the game as an optional rule. (Surprise rounds are hamstrung without them.) But there are quite a few ways to use movement to apply a bonus to your attack roll using the stunt system.

Disarm: Forcing an opponent to drop an item is a DC 15 stunt.

Feint: There’s not specifically a way to deny your opponent his Dex bonus to AC, but you can use a Bluff stunt to apply a penalty to his AC.

Grapple: L&L includes a simplified grapple system. Instead of being a complete departure from the rest of the combat rules, L&L’s grapple rules just modify them using a single, simple mechanic that’s easy to remember. In play it’s surprisingly not that different from the advanced grapple rules of 3E, but you won’t have to keep flipping the book open every time somebody tries to grab a monster.

Overrun: This one, I’ll admit, is missing functionality. We briefly playtested including “helpless” in the stunt system, but it was badly busted. The closest you’ll get is just using a forced movement stunt to shove them out of the way as you continue moving.

Trip: Prone is a +10 DC stunt.

So, from a tactical standpoint, we’ve found that the stunt system effectively replaces most of the existing combat maneuvers.

“Okay,” you say. “That’s all well and good. But all you’ve done is duplicate functionality the game already has using a slightly different system. Big deal.”

But, of course, the stunt system can do much more than that. And you can actually do any of these actions using any action check (assuming you can explain how the action check will provide the desired result). For example, you can trip people by making a melee attack roll… but you could also shoot them in the leg (ranged attack roll) or aim a cone of cold spell to create a sheet of ice under their feet (Spellcraft check) or throw them down (grapple check) or force them to leap aside by threatening to run them down (Ride check) or yank their feet out from under them with a lasso (Use Rope check) or anything else you’d care to imagine.

So we basically hoover up all the existing functionality of the 3rd Edition maneuvers into a simple superstructure that’s both (a) simpler than the functionality it’s replacing and (b) capable of adding much more functionality to the game.

Legends & Labyrinths


A couple days ago we had a class preview by taking a peek at the fighter. Let’s go ahead and preview the races… all of them.

Legends & Labyrinths - Race Preview

(click for PDF)

Yup, that’s the entirety of Chapter 5 there.

The artwork in this chapter is by Larry Elmore, used under license. His artwork opened the doors of fantasy roleplaying to me, and I can’t think of a better way to capture the iconic images of the core races. (With that being said, I made a couple of “risky” choices in here and it’ll be interesting to see how people respond to them.)

One semi-interesting thing of note is that, in writing this chapter, I very specifically did not want to give humans primacy by placing them at the top of the chapter. Instead, I wanted them to appear in their proper place in the alphabetical order. But when I got to the actual layout, I ended up with a space at the bottom of the first page that was too small to fit dwarves into. I initially planned to fill it with some generic artwork (with the intention of possibly replacing it with a “fantasy line-up” as a commissioned piece of art). But then, when I tried to place the entry for humans later in the chapter, I either ended up with a page filled with white space or crunching a whole bunch of races up into a space that was too tiny for them.

Eventually, it just made sense to use the humans to fill that white space on the first page and embrace a consistent approach of “1 race per page”. It still leaves more white space in this chapter than anywhere else in the book, but sometimes you just have to embrace what fate is telling you.

As I mentioned in the class preview, I decided to go with a Gang of 6 character classes and then matched this with six character races: Humans, Dwarves, Elves, Half-Elves, Halflings, and Half-Orcs.

Here, too, I had seriously considered sticking with either the “classic three” (humans, dwarves, elves) or “classic four” (throwing halflings in there). But getting half-breeds into the mix, in my opinion, establishes an important “conceptual beachhead” in the pastiche fantasy-land at the heart of the game.

So… half-orcs to fill the role of “bruiser” and “outcast” that isn’t well-covered by the other races? Or half-elves, like halflings, out of respect for their Tolkienesque roots?

Eventually, I decided that including both would (a) provide some nice variety within the general type and (b) balance the game evenly with six races and six classes.

I am aware that this means only gnomes are excluded among the core D20 races and that, therefore, I run the risk of being classed among the “gnome haters”.

But that’s a risk I’m just going to have to take.

Legends & Labyrinths




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