Playtest Review: Exhumed

Every time I’ve run Exhumed—an RPG built on the Into the Odd rules, and inspired by Dark Souls—it seems to have worked more or less like I intended. Playtesters familiar with soulslike games tell me it manages to evoke the same feel, and players new to the genre assure me it’s still interesting and accessible for them too. The version I’ve been playtesting is certainly playable, then—but that’s a low bar. I’m playtesting it because that reveals what needs to be fixed, and I’ve certainly found plenty to fix.

It’s possible—okay, probable—that I’m over thinking how much needs to be fixed. Just this week I stumbled upon multiple versions each of three complete, playable games, totaling over a hundred pages, but I haven’t done anything with them because I’m too much of a perfectionist. I don’t want to bury this game when it’s so close to where I want it to be. I’m hoping it will give some perspective to try to explain what I’m thinking to somebody other than myself, though, and see if the ideas still make any sense out loud. And I hope anyone who happens to read this is as big a game design nerd as I am so you might find it interesting too. 

Fair warning, though: This is gonna get wordy. I’m sorry. It is my way.

Exhumed as of now

I’m feeling fine about the (intentionally sparse and largely only implied) setting in my rough playtest document; it’s the rules that give me pause. Here are the basics of those rules as of now.

  • Character abilities are like Into the Odd: A simplification of D&D’s ability scores, ranging from 3–18, but only for Strength (STR), Dexterity (DEX), and Willpower (WIL). There are no classes, but in a departure from Into the Odd, spells and heavier items are only be usable if you have high enough abilities, with milestones unlocking new capabilities at 10, 13, and 16 STR and WIL.
  • Rolling dice works like Into the Odd: You only roll when attacking (roll a weapon damage die) or trying to avoid a threat outside combat (roll a d20 on or under an ability, called a “save” in Into the Odd). An enhanced attack rolls a d12, and impaired attacks roll a d4. There is no “to-hit” roll for attacks; if you get into a fight, you are probably going to get hurt.
  • Actions are where it really differs from most old school RPGs: You start with 2 action points (with an additional point at 10, 13, and 16 DEX). You can spend AP on your turn for whatever you want (as long as you don’t repeat any action twice), spend on others’ turns to react to their actions (e.g., dodge to mitigate an attack, or counterattack and hope you have better reach), hold to maintain ongoing effects (e.g., carry extra heavy stuff or concentrate on an ongoing spell), or augment any action so it has an extra effect (e.g., hit an enemy so hard you deal damage and knock them down). You get 1 AP back each round, or all your AP if you don’t spend any on your turn.
  • Spells are categorized in 3 traditions (wizardry, miracles, witchcraft). You can cast any spell you know as often as you want as long as you have sufficient actions, meet the Willpower requirement, and equip a staff or other focus appropriate to the spell’s tradition.
  • Health is equal to a character’s STR score, and unlike Into the Odd, there’s no ability score damage—at 0 HP, you die (and probably resurrect looking a little worse for wear).
  • Advancement requires spending souls (which are also spendable as currency), and grants +1 to an ability score and +1 level. At higher levels, you run the risk of going bad and becoming an NPC.
  • Monsters have the same array of stats as player characters (including HP equal to STR and spellcasting ability limited by WIL), but the GM has slightly more simplified rules for spending enemy AP (i.e., just act once on their turn, and spend from a shared pool of 1 AP per enemy to use special moves and cast more powerful spells).

There’s a bit more to it, but that’s the relevant stuff for the purposes of this review. 

Things to address

I’m not sure that absolutely every item in this list demands a fix, but here are the things that have come up in playtests as potentially problematic.

  1. Actions and turns are still a little tough to explain. People are really digging getting to spend AP in creative ways, but it’s not always clear when you get to spend them, and the three states (available/held/spent) take some getting used to. That said, the rule is basically an expansion of “effort” in the well-established Stars Without Number, so maybe if I just dial back frequency or uses, it won’t be so confusing.
  2. Defending still doesn’t feel worth saving AP to spend later—even after improving it for the latest playtest, nobody ever did it, preferring to save AP for attacking. This suggests to me that either defending needs to be even more effective, or—more likely—PCs need to be a lot more fragile, especially given how easy death is to bounce back from. I’ll probably lower HP somehow, perhaps by decoupling it from STR.
  3. Rounds can be tough for players to track (in terms of when they end and everybody gets their AP refreshed) when everybody varies in how many actions they each get.
  4. Refreshing AP feels slow to some testers, who recommended either giving it all back every round or having DEX affect AP refresh rate instead of total AP. Nobody has ever chosen to skip their turn to regain all their AP, so I see no reason to include it as a special rule anymore.
  5. Combat vs. small groups of enemies went way longer than intended, which I think is a function of minor enemies having too many HP (5 enemies with 10 HP each, plus their leader with 15). That, in turn, is arguably an issue with HP being coupled with STR, or with enemies being written up the same way as PCs.
  6. Combat maneuvers see the target roll rather than the one trying to pull off the maneuver—e.g., if you attempt to trip or disarm someone on your turn, they roll, not you, and your stats are irrelevant. I like it fine for Into the Odd, but I get why it confuses Exhumed playtesters. It raises the question for me of whether all rolls should be player facing, especially since managing enemy AP is plenty of work on the GM side.
  7. Advancement milestones sound simple enough on paper, but they’re far enough apart that gaining levels kind of slows down play as players struggle to figure out how to allocate ability points. Making HP equal STR (and giving nothing equivalent to DEX or WIL) also means it’s the only ability that gives an instant return on investment when leveling, which leads to a lopsided team favoring one stat—another reason to consider decoupling HP from STR entirely, and just leave STR governing weight capacity.
  8. Passive item effects that only come up periodically might be something to use sparingly. One player spent a level’s worth of souls to buy a belt buckle that should have affected every enemy’s attack rolls for the rest of the game, and we both promptly forgot to ever use it.
  9. Sharing spells between everybody who could learn them did please some players, but it bugged other players, and it definitely slowed down play significantly. I am not a fan (in this case) of spells being actual items taking up inventory slots (partly because I like STR governing carrying capabilities and WIL governing spell capabilities, partly because I want “magic items” to feel different and special), but I may want to continue experimenting with diegetic explanations for why only one person can learn a found spell.
  10. Equipment damage is only kind of hinted at in the rules. I broke my own unwritten rule for it in my last playtest because I realized at the time it was too easy to permanently damage something and leave a player feeling screwed over in the first scene of the game. I wonder if I should be more explicit about how to handle this, or leave it to GMs to decide how harsh they want to go.
  11. Enhancing/impairing attacks doesn’t typically occur to players; it’s only come up when I realize it should be relevant. I wonder if I should make explicit to players the guidelines I use as GM to rule on this so that players feel more empowered to suggest it themselves, especially given that some fights demand exploiting weaknesses to enhance attacks.
  12. Rolling low on enhanced attacks really isn’t fun, especially if you go out of your way to establish an advantage. I had one player experience this repeatedly. Yeah, the odds were on his side, but it’s a swingy mechanic. I might consider changing how enhanced attacks work to be more like the new Electric Bastionland rules expanding on Into the Odd—roll a d12 in addition to whatever you would roll otherwise, and take the highest result.
  13. Heavy item capacity is currently phrased somewhat confusingly: The way I do it now, players assume they can’t carry any heavy items at all unless they have 10 STR, and that the STR-based milestones are a hard limit. I should consider swapping it to explain that you need to hold an AP for each heavy item you carry, but STR-based milestones let you carry a few heavy items without holding AP for them.
  14. The working title of the game is kind of boring, but it does the job. I hope someone suggests a better one. I’m still considering using the working title of the scenario I’m working on as the title of the game itself, but I have a hard time even taking myself seriously when I say “Black Crown of the Damned” out loud unless I’m actively pretending to be a talking corpse. (I’m also sensitive to the history of using ‘black’ as what appears to be a negative adjective, like in ‘black magic,’ even though I specifically meant it like ‘charred,’ which doesn’t have the same ring to it. Like most names I come up with for this game, the more precise term ‘Blackened Crown’ is, of course, already taken by a metal band.)

I’m kicking around a lot of different ideas about how to approach these issues, but let’s focus on the most potentially disruptive ones. Maybe I’ll talk myself out of them!

Experiment A: Reframe actions & turns

From day 1, this game’s action system has been based on the premise that every action costs 1 AP. I’ve changed a bit about how you can spend those AP—notably, introducing limits so players can’t instantly spend all their AP as attacks to kill a boss before the boss gets to act—but when you can act on others’ turns with ease, it’s tough to internalize what your turn really represents.

So, I’m considering switching it to something more familiar to players with traditional RPG experience: On your turn, you can take an action and move a few steps; and optionally, you can spend AP to get extra actions on your turn, to augment actions, or to react to actions on others’ turns. If you skip your turn, you get all your AP back, but otherwise, you’re stuck with just that 1 action per turn.

Functionally, this is almost exactly how things work already, but framing it differently might help players understand how it works in practice. It might also make them more likely to hoard AP if they see it as a special resource to only spend as needed, rather than a thing that’s spent every time they do something. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I do think it would speed up play, though. 

I did say this is almost exactly how it works now, though. The change would introduce two significant other changes to play:

  1. Defending might be even less likely, as you’re not regaining AP at the start of every round, but another action at the start of your turn.
  2. Holding AP might become less likely, too, with fewer AP to go around. That might not be a bad thing, though—that is, after all, just how “effort” works in Stars Without Number.

I may give this a try next session just to see how it works. 

Experiment B: Ability scores run 1–10

Making stats range 3–18 is an artifact of starting from Into the Odd, which keeps it as an artifact of D&D. If I decide I don’t need this constraint, it could introduce a few interesting possibilities.

  1. Advancement rewards become more frequent and predictable with closer milestones on even numbers (6, 8, and 10 instead of 10, 13, and 16).
  2. Combat maneuvers could be handled like attacks: Roll a die with as many sides as your relevant stat (e.g., a d4 if you have a 4, a d10 if you have a 10) over an enemy’s stat to pull off the maneuver. You could still best even powerful enemies by figuring out ways to enhance your roll to a d12 (and only “boss” enemies would have stats over 12).
  3. Derived statistics feel a lot more manageable on a 1–10 scale than a 3–18 scale. Saying “you can know as many spells as your WIL” is a real limitation when your WIL starts around 3–5, as it would for most characters; it’s a lot less pressing when WIL starts around 8–10. (not that I’d necessarily introduce that rule, but it’d be interesting to have the option.)
  4. Other games I have in mind for down the line fit this ability score model nicely (e.g., a game inspired by Fallout, whose stats always range 1–10). This really shouldn’t impact my decision, but I’m trying to be completely honest with myself here about why this idea appeals to me.

I did call this experiment “disruptive” for a reason, however: It also requires rethinking how rolls to avoid danger should work, as “roll under the stat on a d20” feels a lot less reasonable on that scale. In fact, it makes it a lot harder to imagine a reason to use a d20 at all (other than some overwhelming sources of damage), which strangely might be a deal breaker for me. I really like using every die in the set, and that d20 roll especially helps evoke a certain tactile (and, I admit, nostalgic) aesthetic that I would be sad to lose. I’ve considered a few ways a d20 might still be used regularly:

  • Knave style ability checks are built for this scale: Roll d20 + your ability vs. the enemy’s ability +10. A personal goal of mine for this project, however, is for roll results to just be the number shown on the die, as much as possible. (Defense values subtracted from attack rolls get a pass because it’s usually only 1–2, and rarely 3, which isn’t too bad.) When you have a potentially complex action economy, any extra steps you can cut out of each roll can noticeably speed up the game and prevent those extra rules from feeling too clunky.
  • A d20 range with partial success could also work with this scale: Roll on or under your ability for a full success, or the enemy’s ability +10 (but over your ability) for a partial success. The GM has enough to deal with already with enemy AP, though, so I’m hesitant to add to the cognitive load with rolls requiring extra, creative improv calls.
  • Overwhelmingly enhanced attack rolls might skip right past a d12 and onto a d20. “Enhanced” rolls are for when one side has the high ground; an overwhelming advantage is when one side is a giant made of stone. This change (especially coupled with the lower HP) would make bosses especially deadly … unless you save some AP to defend.

Really, though, the simple solution is to just handle “saves” like attacks and combat maneuvers: Roll the die matching your ability over the enemy stat (or 3 by default). I probably need to think a bit further about what other knock-on effects such a change might have, though.

To be honest, I’m not sure what my next step is for this one. Revising the game around this before my next playtest (in a couple weeks) is no mean feat. I may try Brad Murray’s scaffolding testing technique (“a piece of a game can be tested without the presence of the whole game”) just to see how it feels, if I can find some time and some willing guinea pigs.

I want to have a plan for a few things just in case this doesn’t work, though, so for future reference:

  • Have players roll on or under their own stat when executing and when trying to resist combat maneuvers. 
  • Decouple HP from STR. Make starting HP lower all around—probably 3 for minor enemies, 5 for most PCs.
  • Keep thinking about how advancement milestones are placed. Could they be on even numbers over 10, raising from 3 to 4 (or even 5) milestones, or is that overkill?

Experiment C: Mechanize narrative details

I’m working on another game system, and the concepts from it are seeping into this one from time to time. One of those concepts might actually fit here, though. Rather than putting the burden entirely on the GM to identify when attacks are enhanced or impaired, I could tell players that they can enhance an attack (or impair one against them) by exploiting a relevant detail already established in the ongoing narrative. And, crucially, I could spell out that one use of an action is to establish new details.

This is kind of “RPGs 101,” but I find it can still be helpful to spell it out for many players—especially players coming from newer editions of D&D that don’t really emphasize fictional context in the rules. I don’t want to have to create an extensive list of conditions and modifiers; I want players to use common sense. If you have the high ground, for instance, go ahead and enhance that attack! If you don’t have the high ground, then hey, maybe it’s worth spending an action point to get it!

I wonder, though, if I’m just adding extra rules jargon that fits in some other game, but doesn’t need to be in this game. Maybe I’ll mention this in my next playtest to see if it encourages different behavior, but it’s low on my list of things to worry about.

Closing thoughts

This is an embarrassingly long post. 

My hope, though, is that all this public navel-gazing will compel me to actually finish this game, and that getting all this verbosity out of my system now will result in a tight, concise rules text in the end. 

Please feel free to hit me up with questions or comments, and wish me luck.

9 thoughts on “Playtest Review: Exhumed

    1. This is one of those changes I was really nervous about doing because I too worried it would feel distracting or artificial, but it went surprisingly well in play. I will probably experiment with this a bit more, but I added that limitation for a couple reasons:

      1. When you spend multiple AP at a time, it represents a everything you are doing in that single moment. If you’re making an attack with a dagger, you’re already presumably getting as many quick swipes in as you can, represented by a single d6 roll; if you’re making an attack with a mace, you’re getting in one slower attack, also represented by a single d6 roll. You CAN make an extra attack if you are dual-wielding (as each of your hands is doing a different thing), but otherwise, you can only do stuff that would be feasible to accomplish at the same instant as an attack, like charging someone. This concept DOES break down, however, when you allow spellcasting and attacking at the same time, so I’m not 100% sold on this approach for fictional reasons. There is a mechanical reason for this in addition, though….

      2. Before I made this rule, if the PCs won initiative, they won the fight, unharmed, period. Even against a boss. They would just pile all their AP into as many attacks as possible. Now, there are other ways to mitigate that, though each introduces its own issues: I could build enemies to have more HP or armor, but for reasons noted above, that would make fights unacceptably long for my purposes. I could give more enemies attacks for different ranges so they wouldn’t be helpless as PCs pick them off from, before enemies can close to counterattack, but that’s a lot more work on the GM side. (I probably will need to make rules for “how to make a good boss” eventually whatever the case.) I could introduce something like action/attack speed, limiting how many times you can spend AP on something in a turn, but that’s really more fiddly than I want—this game is supposed to move FAST.

      For now, I thought I’d experiment with this approach, but I’m still thinking through options.

  1. Another possibility for turns and action points—which I’ve been kind of nervous about even considering—is to basically have “phases” in which everybody acts simultaneously, but the ones winning initiative get to declare their actions first if they so choose (see: https://spellsandsteel.blogspot.com/2018/10/phased-real-time-combat-solution-you.html). This might require rethinking how enemies’ AP works, though.

    For instance, let’s say there’s a group with PCs Ash (2 AP), Sun (3 AP), and Oath (3 AP), and a group of enemies with 6 AP between them:

    Round 1:
    • PCs win initiative. Ash rushes into battle (-1 AP, down to 1) and uses the momentum to smash an unsuspecting enemy with an enhanced attack (-1 AP, down to 0); Sun casts a spell to attack from afar (-1 AP, down to 2); Oath hangs back with a great shield raised in defense (hold 1 AP, down to 2), ready to react in case defense is needed.
    • The enemy Ash attacks tries to counterattack with a spear, hoping their attack lands first with their superior range (-1 AP, down to 5); the enemy Sun attacks tries to dodge (-1 AP, down to 4); 4 other enemies surge forward to attack Sun and Oath (-4 AP, down to 0).
    • Oath reacts by blocking the enemies’ path with shield raised (1 AP, plus still holding 1 AP), preventing Sun from being attacked.

    As round 2 starts, Ash and enemies are out of AP, raising the question of whether everybody regains some now or at the end of the round (and how many), and whether it would be unfairly asymmetrical for enemies to only use AP when they act in reaction to others’ actions. I still have things to think about. It’s an interesting alternative, though.

  2. I’ve read your blog post and read a bit of the rules for Exhumed. I find it an interesting game-design experience and I hope you’ll tell us more about what’s working and what’s not later. I am curious about the AP thing. Also I might use your list of spell/object for my own game someday, thank you ! Not saying much more because it’s late here.

  3. Just had another playtest tonight—part 3 of the ongoing campaign I’m testing. I might write up some things as their own post, but for now, I just wanted to get some quick thoughts down:

    “AP” ARE ACTIONS: We tried “experiment A” above. One returning player liked that it encouraged her to think about AP differently, and used an AP to defend for the first time ever during play (after being reminded it was an option—and it was definitely the right call here, even though she got killed anyway). The other two returning players felt like having that action being effectively “invisible” on the table made it harder to track what you’d done, though, and I felt the same. I think that if part of my concern with every action being represented by an AP may have just been that it feels like a lot to track at the table, though, and I might be happier if I could just figure out a way to do it with fewer game pieces. Maybe next time, I will just have everybody use a d6 to track current AP, and when you are holding AP, you could rotate it 90ª.

    MILESTONES NEED TWEAKING: I kept the 3–18 ability range, but adjusted milestones to be at 12, 14, and 16. Starting higher definitely worked as intended, as especially evident in the thief’s player saying she was able to focus more on the stuff she wanted to use on her character sheet rather than spells just because they were available. It does feel weird that you could be casting the most powerful spells in the game by level 5 (with a soft cap at 10), though, so I am considering adjusting where the upper milestone falls. I kind of want to try a milestone on even numbers 12–20, even though it might be kind of nutty—anybody who actually raises a stat to 20 would get to carry around 5 heavy items, or take 7 actions per round, or … force me to reexamine what WIL gives at milestones. I wonder if instead of unlocking all novice, adept, and master spells, at WIL milestones, you might instead increase your capabilities with spells of a single tradition. (Like, congrats, you’re at 12 WIL, choose to cast either novice wizardries, novice miracles, or novice witchcrafts. Hey, you’re at 14 WIL, choose to either cast novice spells in another tradition, or adept spells in the one you already know. And so on.) And this leads me to consider that I might reexamine how other milestones work, too, rather than just offering a straight +1 heavy item capacity or +1 AP every milestone. I’ll think on it.

    UNHEALTHY IS THE NEW HEALTHY: Lower HP went over pretty well. (I just made it half STR rather than decoupling from STR.) It encouraged one player to actually use the defense rules (intelligently, at that), it resulted in a PC death that nevertheless still took multiple attacks (against only 4 HP!), and it enabled a combat scene against six enemies (with clever positioning and spell use) to wrap up in a single round. These are all desirable for the kind of pacing I’m shooting for, so I am glad.

    “ALLIANCES” ARE WORTHWHILE: I’ve been experimenting with something not in the rules text—”alliances,” akin to Dark Souls “covenants” and Into the Odd “guilds,” offering an alternative track for advancement with narrative implications. I had to take away some goodies from one character whose alliance needed very badly to be nerfed because a mistake I made with it was interfering with playtesting efforts, and that nerf led to some frustration (I basically gave one PC 9 levels worth of ability upgrades at level 1, which … man, what was I thinking?), but the general concept is otherwise working pretty well. This campaign is borrowing some alliances from Cold Ruins of Lastlife, but I think I should put my own rules for this right into the draft text soon.

    That’s enough for tonight. I’ll update the shared draft text again soon. Thanks to anyone following along.

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