Design Diary: One (more) foot in the Grave

Much to my own surprise, I think I’m about to finish Gravea variant on Ben Milton’s Knave, built for soulslike games. Today was only the second session I’ve run with these rules, but after the session, the players generally agreed that it’s pretty close to done. I shouldn’t be so surprised, though: The rules don’t stray far from Knave (which was extensively playtested itself), and the parts that do stray from Knave were basically ported over from another system that we’ve been playtesting on and off for months. The biggest issues from our previous session have been fixed, as far as we can tell.

The most worrisome issue for me was that fights were getting tediously long with so many HP. These sorts of results might be desirable in Knave, but Grave is intended to have more frequent and more involved combat, and the stakes for death are lower. I addressed this by reducing hit points for PCs and monsters across the board—PCs and monsters alike now use d6s instead of d8s for hit dice, or multiply their level by 3 rather than 4 to get their HP. As a result, we had multiple fights in today’s four-hour session where players got nervous their characters were going to die, and also multiple fights where the PCs won through a combination of creative thinking and reducing enemies to 0 HP. We were basically able to fit in two “boss fights” and a quick tussle with a swarm of really mean fish. It was just what I hoped for.

The other worrisome issue from the previous playtest was that, for the most part, the only players to spend stamina tokens were the ones casting spells. This was because stamina simply wasn’t useful enough to bother thinking about it. Its primary uses were spell casting and combining attack and defense rolls with stunts (like, “I deftly parry the blade, disarming them in the process”), but the latter use requires not insignificant creative thinking from players. I didn’t want to add other options because stamina was refreshed so frequently, and could be easily hoarded in large numbers. Your maximum stamina is based on your empty item slots—most players had 5–10 tokens—so I worried that players would be making rolls with advantage, dealing bonus damage, and taking extra moves on every single turn. This turned out to have an easy fix too, fortunately, in making stamina refresh only after a long rest, rather than after every fight. Players said they appreciated feeling like they had to think more tactically, and we got a nice mix of various different uses. Players also asked to do things that I apologetically had to veto, but everybody seemed to agree that if you could use stamina to re-roll failures or make extra attacks, you’d pretty much never use it for anything else.

Other design dilemmas from our previous session were largely wiped away by the conscious decision to just hew as closely to Knave as I could whenever possible, and cut extra rules or steps or variation anywhere else I could. Yeah, it would be more true to a soulslike game for armor to reduce damage rather than reduce the chance of getting hit, but it would also add extra steps to a combat system that already has a to-hit roll, a damage roll, and the option to spend tokens for extra effects. I threw some alternative rule suggestions into the designer’s notes here and there, but today reassured me that the game runs smoothly enough as-is.

To be sure, I could certainly playtest Grave more extensively. I imagine I’d uncover more insights with a different group, or from groups run by folks other than me. And if I were making a living off RPGs, I’d want to be confident the game was as good as it could be before I release it into the world. I’m not even planning on charging for this one, though, given how much of it is built on somebody else’s free rule set. I may go back someday and work it into something grander than an eight-page skeleton (ha ha) of a game, with an actual setting or scenario, or guidance for procedurally generating monsters and locations. But for now, it suits my purposes to just have those rules and know they’re easily applied to some other folks’ great content already out in the world. If you want to run The Cold Ruins of Lastlife with OSR rules instead of Dungeon World, or if you read Veins of the Earth and thought, “Ding dang, the Spectre of Bröcken sounds like Gravelord Nito mashed up with Great Wolf Sif,” then boy howdy, have I got an eight page PDF for you. Or, at least, I will pretty soon.

So where does that leave Exhumed, the soulslike game originally inspired by Into the Odd that I’d been playtesting before I turned my attention to Grave? I’m honestly not sure yet. It wasn’t doing what I really wanted it to, and if I need something even more lightweight than Grave—for one-shots, maybe, or folks uninterested in character builds—I’ll pull out the soulslike hack of Searchers of the Unknown I’ve been tinkering with this past week. (I’ll post more on that soon.) Plus, I think Into the Odd creator Chris McDowall may have inadvertently started creating the soulslike game I actually wanted in the process of making a fantasy mech wargame/RPG. (I’ll probably post on that soon, too.) I guess that means Exhumed is mothballed for now, but I seem to have a habit of hacking and re-hacking TTRPGs to run the same few video games over and over, so we’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll run some more Grave. Even as my group has swapped in and out both players and rules with some regularity, our campaign has developed a sort of internal consistency, and the implied promise of a conclusion in the very near future. They’ve gathered enough souls to fulfill either of a couple different prophecies; I’m eager to see whether they’ll choose to close the gates to the underworld, allowing the rest in peace again, or instead slay a demon prince and take his crown, leading an immortal army to remake the world in their image. Knowing them, they’ll figure out some way to pull off both, and walk away with a really nice jacket in the process. Players are crafty like that.

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