Design Diary: Grave Knave

I recently wondered aloud whether I’d be better off rethinking my soulslike game Exhumed as a Knave hack, especially given that my earliest pre-playtesting version of Exhumed unwittingly looked quite a bit like Knave. (I ended up using much of those rules in in a Fallout hack instead.) Now, I know the smart move is to playtest some ideas that might make Exhumed work without totally redesigning it, and play Knave as written before I start messing around under the hood—but once I get an idea, it’s hard for me to stop thinking about it until I take some notes. I should probably also try David Perry’s soulslike Knave hack in progress, Knave Souls—and you should, too, if you’re into this kind of thing!—but we have different enough aims that I wouldn’t feel like I’m just reinventing the wheel by doing my own thing. (I mean, no more so than anybody else making yet another old-school-D&D-inspired fantasy game, anyway.) So, here are some early ideas on what I might change in Knave if I were to use it as the core of my soulslike adventure game.

Advancement: In Knave, you tend to start with abilities around 1–3, advancing up to a maximum of 10, adding +1 to 3 abilities each time you gain a level. In Exhumed, I prefer not to have a cap to abilities or levels, but to reinforce the “power corrupts” theme in the advancement system. To that end, I’d likely only have you gain +1 to a single ability of your choice each level, but advancing your level or any ability over 10 makes your character creepier and more imposing, and gradually puts you at greater risk of losing yourself. Keep at it long enough, and you may end up on the wrong end of a boss fight against the rest of your party. As for when you level, currently I have advancement cost more at higher levels (1,000 souls × current level, as opposed to Knave’s 1,000 XP per level) to encourage purposeful escalation in the power and rewards of “bosses” scattered around a sandbox map. (I still have to write guidelines for GMs to that end, though.)

Stamina, linked to inventory: In Knave, you get a number of item slots equal to your Constitution Defense (i.e., 10 + Constitution modifier), with items tending to take up around 1–3 slots. I may just keep that as is, but I’m toying with the idea of introducing a currency that links inventory management, stunts, and spell casting. (It is effectively the “breath” subsystem from Levi Kornelsen’s Mechanisms for Tabletop Roleplaying 2.) Basically, you get as many “stamina tokens” as your Constitution score. You can carry as many items as your Strength Defense, but instead of heavier items taking up multiple inventory slots, heavier and bulkier items require you to invest tokens to carry them comfortably (in addition to taking up 1 inventory slot). If you have some tokens you haven’t invested, you can spend them to cast a spell, add a maneuver to an attack, or react to someone else’s action when it’s not your turn. (I think it’s best to not let players spend tokens to just make extra attacks on their own turn, given how much that’s limited other uses, but maybe that could be an option for especially lightweight weapons, or something that costs 2 tokens to do instead of 1.) You regain 1 token if you don’t do anything especially strenuous on your turn, and all your tokens after you rest awhile.

Focus, instead of stamina: Alternatively, if Constitution is already pulling too much weight by governing HP and inventory, I could see using Wisdom to govern the currency used for spells and stunts, perhaps called something like “focus.” (I’m not sure what else Wisdom would be good for, given that I’m not likely to use it for ranged attacks, as Knave does. It just feels like too much of a departure from both tradition and other soulslike games for my tastes.) I could use focus in addition to stamina, technically, with one used for physical stunts and heavy gear, and the other used to power spells and magical items, but I worry too many currencies at the table (in addition to HP) would be cumbersome, and just lead to one or the other being a dump stat half the time. I would regret losing out on the give-and-take between equip load and extra energy, but if I don’t use focus, I may need to consider what else Wisdom is good for.

Hit points: I’m likely to keep HP totals lower and less random, in keeping with the level of control you have over advancement in soulslike games. I’m currently thinking 5 + Constitution + level might work—but if Constitution is also linked to stamina, I worry a bit about making it the stat everyone has to raise. Hopefully tying inventory size to Strength would help mitigate that; tying the token economy to Wisdom would surely help even more. We’ll see.

Stunts: If I use stamina or focus tokens as above, the only change to the stunt system from Knave would be that you there would be two ways to perform a maneuver and make a damaging attack on the same turn: give up your advantage on a roll, or spend a token. If I do not introduce a token system, though, I think I might want to alter the stunt system to encourage more risk-taking and creativity during combat. For that, I’d go back to the stunt system from my pre-playtest drafts of Exhumed. That system was borrowed from Raising the Stakes, but still resembled Knave somewhat: To attempt a stunt, you can either give up your advantage on a roll, or accept a commensurate risk. On a failed roll, the risk comes true. Creative risks are always welcome, but generally it’d be fine to just state you’re vulnerable from being overextended or out of breath for a moment, granting a bonus to the next attack against you. I could potentially see still using this stunt system even with stamina/focus tokens, where “lose a token” is a default risk, but I am wary about making this more complex than it needs to be.

(Incidentally, in my earliest drafts, this stunt system was supposed to supplant the need for any kind of token-based action economy or stunt system, even for spell casting. That is, you’d get an action or two on your turn like any other old school fantasy game, and if you wanted to push your luck and do anything fancier, you opened yourself up to risk—and spell casting always counted as opening yourself up to risk of draining your magical energy or triggering a magical mishap. I abandoned this approach in large part because I wanted to see a more dynamic order to fights, with combatants reacting to each other frequently and everybody needing to stay on their toes, and I wasn’t sure how out-of-turn actions would fit with this. I miss the simplicity and directness of this system, though, and often think about whether I could somehow use it to replace the token economies entirely….)

Spell casting: In Knave, casting a spell requires holding a book in both hands, can only be done once per day per spell, and sometimes involves a contested save with the caster’s Intelligence versus some appropriate Defense by the target. Exhumed spells are a bit less powerful, I think, or magic is a bit more common. As such, casting requires an empty hand or an appropriate spell casting implement, and isn’t limited to once a day. The stamina/focus cost should be sufficient limitation, I think (but if I end up not using a token-based system, I’d consider the “spell as stunt” approach described above). In addition, I think Intelligence might only be the ability used for when using wizardry, with miracles using Wisdom, and witchcraft using Charisma; having all magic related to a single stat has made it a bit harder to divvy up spells during play.

Spell capacity: In Knave, each spell is represented by an object—the book containing it—so your inventory size is effectively your spell capacity. I’ll consider this approach, but for now I’m operating under the assumption I’ll be using a model more common to OSR and soulslike games, where spells are a thing you know and/or prepare rather than a thing you carry. To that end, I might say that you can know as many spells as your Intelligence Defense, and have as many spells as your Intelligence ready to cast at any given time. Or, alternatively, there might be no limit to how many spells you can learn, but you can only have as many combined levels of spells prepared as your Intelligence Defense, or something like that. Exhumed doesn’t currently assign levels to spells, but I could see assigning an ability score requirement to spells, and having that effectively be their level.

Tricks: In my attempts to make every ability score potentially relevant to every character, I’ve been considering having spell capacity actually be more like the number of “tricks” you can learn—whether that means magic tricks or more mundane tricks of the trade. This idea came from an Exhumed playtester who felt like having spell slots was a waste for his warrior, and so suggested putting something else in those slots. These slots could be filled with spells, but could also be some other technique requiring special training—e.g., how to pick a lock, how to forge a sword, how to speak another language, etc. I do worry, though, that this may cause a bigger problem than it solves. I usually prefer to just say, “Yeah, you can do that” to most things characters attempt, and it’s especially easy to do that in a setting where you pick up all kinds of knowledge by absorbing souls by the thousands. And I’m honestly not sure how many other tricks of the trade I could come up with that feel relevant to the setting. (You don’t really need forgery skills after the fall of civilization, for instance.) My current plan is to not bother with this, then, but I’m noting this here just in case it blossoms into something better later on.

Death: When you die in Exhumed, it runs the risk of losing your soul permanently. Having a strong personality staves off the inevitable. If you die as many times as your Charisma Defense, you lose your character permanently. There are items that can reset your death count, but they’re rare. I’d also seriously consider skipping the “unconscious at 0 HP, dead at -1 HP” rule from Knave and just having death at 0 HP.

Attacks: Into the Odd has spoiled me for combat—I’m much less patient now for separate to-hit rolls and damage rolls, especially if I’m going to introduce rules granting out-of-turn actions. I’d like to skip to-hit rolls entirely, but that raises a question of how to make ability scores relevant to attacks (maybe by giving weapons ability score minimums equal to the number of inventory slots they would occupy?), and would necessitate a new item breakage system. Alternatively, I could keep to-hit rolls and use static damage (which I find duller for some reason), or say that damage is the difference between the rolled result and the target’s Armor Defense (which may be more mental arithmetic than I want to take on myself, let alone impose on players). I’ll think on it if I do adapt this after all. I might also consider adding traits to weapons to give combat some more texture, even if only as suggested maneuvers or effects, with players able to suggest their own on the fly.


So, let’s take stock for a moment. What would I gain from making Exhumed more Knave-like?

  • A more heavily playtested base system
  • Much greater compatibility with lots of existing game materials
  • A slightly broader audience (figuring that “generic OSR compatible” would reach a few more people than “inspired by an unusual OSR game, but not actually compatible with that game or anything else”)
  • A system for tracking equipment breakage (which I had wanted earlier, but would be tricky to do in the system I have now)
  • Room for broader character specialization (including more varied spell-caster specialization) thanks to more ability scores to focus on
  • An action/stunt system that I know works (because I’ve seen it used elsewhere)
  • A much more obvious process for GMing enemies in combat (which is still something of a puzzle for me when running groups with a token-based action system)

There’s not much I’d lose, but it’s still stuff I am hesitant to let go.

  • Feeling like my time building a more unusual system was well spent up to now (i.e., let me just admit up front that I’m not immune to the sunk cost fallacy)
  • A (potentially) more tactically involved action system
  • The enforced simplicity that comes from only a few ability scores, emphasizing the player’s intellectual abilities (which always felt very true to soulslike games in my eyes)
  • Never having to do mental arithmetic with hidden modifiers (instead just using the dice results as rolled)
  • Very significant and intuitive advancement rewards thanks to ability score numbers being equal to die rolled (e.g., a 6 in Strength means rolling a d6, and getting to roll a larger die is a much bigger boost to chance of success in that system than +1 on a d20)

There is technically a third option—adapting the action point system I’ve been working on to fit Knave somehow—but I’m unlikely to do that. The main reason I’m looking at another system at all is that the issues with my action economy have got me thinking about how to go back to the drawing board with a more traditional approach. I’ll see how I feel, though, after I try my next round of playtest alterations—and after I try Knave, of course.

2 thoughts on “Design Diary: Grave Knave

  1. The Stamina/Inventory system sounds super clever, I’d love to see that laid out as a module for Knave even if not used for Exhumed.

    Yeah I’m definitely falling prey to over-designing the combat system; I’m sure there’s room for two soulslike Knave hacks, especially if Exhumed is light enough to actually run 😀

    1. Really, I’m mostly cribbing that from “breath” in Mechanisms 2 (https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/145957/Mechanisms-For-Tabletop-Roleplaying-Set-2). It was originally so central to my design that Exhumed was at one point called “Dying Breath” (but then I wanted to call it “UNdying Breath,” and then someone reminded me that there is already an RPG called “Undying,” soooo….). Anyway, there are some great little modular rules in that series.

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