I’ve been wondering aloud for months about how (and whether) to fix the rules for my soulslike game, Exhumed—but learning that its working title is taken by yet another metal band may have been the final straw. (“Titles that inadvertently turn out to be taken by metal bands” may be the only consistent thing in the history of this game’s development.) So, for the fifth session of my ongoing playtest campaign, I tried something different, and turned Ben Milton’s Knave into an undead abomination called Grave. It is quite unfinished, but you can see the version I ran here. (Edit to add: Updated here after a third session.)
I am still sorting through my notes from that session and how I want to edit the game for our next session, later this month. Player feedback indicated combat ran more smoothly than the previous rules, which honestly puzzles the hell out of me: fights were longer, misses were more common, and not a single fight ended by reducing enemies to 0 HP. (They finished one with a mind bogglingly improbable use of a single-hit-kill artifact, but the other two ended when I called them early—one with, “Okay, you’ve got these guys trapped, let’s skip to the end,” and the other with a morale roll and general fleeing.) I can think of a couple reasons why this might have still felt smoother to them, though:
- Everybody there was more familiar with modern D&D than any other system, so rolling to-hit on a d20, followed by a damage roll, felt felt easier to them than Into the Odd style attack rolls (no to-hit, just damage roll minus armor value).
- We used 100% player-facing rolls on both offense and defense, so one of them picked up the dice for every single roll.
I’m going to lean into these and see what I can do next time to speed things up. The easiest changes I can think of are to reduce hit points across the board, using six-sided (rather than eight-sided) hit dice, and to have enemies deal static damage, rather than rolling for their damage. And I have one other idea that’s not easy, per se, but I think might make the game work more like how I want: PCs only get one action per round, and dodging or blocking an attack counts as that action.
Or, in other words: If you don’t succeed at your initiative roll, you are in trouble.
But! There is a way around this problem. Every PC has a stack of Stamina tokens to spend on spells and stunts—one for each empty item slot in your inventory, to give wizards and thieves a good excuse to travel light. In the last session, the spellcasters used their Stamina, and there were a couple good combat stunts (which admittedly take more creative thinking on the fly), but most Stamina went unspent. You can also spend Stamina to jump initiative order, but nobody used it for that last time. I suspect we’d see a lot more of that kind of use if your options after failing your initiative roll are either try to avoid being attacked and hope next round goes better, or show some hustle to try to hit them before they hit me. Or even, show some hustle to block an attack against my ally so they can use their action to get off a powerful spell. I see a lot of options for fun tactical maneuvering.
I can, of course, see some risks with this rule: It might add unnecessary complexity and overhead, and there’s a scenario where somebody gets to do nothing but dodge for a whole fight. I’m not terribly worried about these risks right now, though. Having to track an unequal number of rolls for players each round (due to players making both the attack rolls and the defense rolls) felt cumbersome as it was, and this would reduce that. Plus, most players tended to have more than enough Stamina. I think it’s worth a try, at least.
I have a couple other ideas that I think would make the game feel more soulslike, and might help make Stamina even more generally useful. For one, it might make sense to allow PCs to make an extra attack (maybe only with an off-hand weapon) if they spend that weapon’s weight in Stamina. And also, it might make sense for PCs to defend not by rolling and adding their Armor bonus, but by adding Dexterity (to dodge) or Strength (to block); armor would instead provide damage reduction, perhaps by ticking off quality points, using Knave’s item degradation rules to implement something like Black Hack 2nd Edition’s approach to armor. And finally, the players dug the idea of writing out a suggested stunt for each weapon, which could help lower cognitive load, encourage more stamina expenditure, and still leave room for imaginative, out of the box thinking. I want to avoid springing too many new rules on them at once, though.
By the same token, as I try to make the game more soulslike, I want to remember to keep it OSR-like. To that end, one thing I know I have to fix is the spell list. I would’ve been better off using Knave’s “100 Level-less Spells,” or the spells from Wonder and Wickedness, I think. Instead, I tried to port over my spell list with only slight adjustments from Into the Odd standards, resulting in severely underpowered magic. Yes, it’s easier to cast spells more often in this game, but that still probably shouldn’t result in a level 4 fire attack that deals a fraction of the damage of the level 3 Fireball you can find in a dozen other books. I’m using Knave because I want to get some use out the wealth of homebrew D&D material out there, so I need to spend some time making sure my rules adjustments don’t make that impossible.
Whatever the case, we’ll get to see how it goes when we playtest on the last weekend of April. Feel free to comment if you have any suggestions on hacking Knave or editing the draft for next time!
Editing the next day to add: If you are interested in the idea of hacking Knave to run stuff inspired by Dark Souls, I also strongly recommend checking out Knave Souls, a different approach that has some stuff I really like and want to try out sometime.