After five months of playtesting, I’m finally calling Grave (more or less) done. This game offers a minimalist D&D-inspired rule set for soulslike fantasy adventures, built on Ben Milton’s tried-and-true Knave. Like Knave, it only offers hints of an implied setting, so it works best when paired with “Old School Renaissance” (OSR) adventure modules and bestiaries. I encourage hacking it to meet your own needs, so (again, like Knave) it’s available for free as both a PDF and a Microsoft Word document made with free Google fonts. If you’ve been following Grave’s development, you can also see more detailed release notes on the game’s Itch.io page.
I included some “Designer Notes” throughout the text to help explain why some rules have been altered from Knave (which is one of my favorite features of Knave itself), but I ended up cutting a lot of those notes for the sake of brevity and ease of use. For the most part, those notes offered alternate rules that deviated quite a bit from Knave, but all that extra text was cluttering an what I wanted to be a concise adaptation of an already well-playtested and broadly recognizable system. If you’re interested in tinkering a bit more—and potentially making the game feel (arguably) even “more soulslike”—do read on.
The Prepare to Die variant
One of the most noticeable deviations from Knave is that Grave characters and monsters have fewer hit points. I considered this a necessary corrective for the stamina rules making for slightly longer combat turns, so fights wouldn’t drag on. Truth be told, though, I think HP totals in D&D-ish games tend to get out of control at higher levels anyway, and would prefer to go even further in correcting this in my home games.
Next time I run Grave, then, I intend to aim for a tighter HP range and slower growth by giving characters Constitution defense + level hit points. I am confident this would pace fight scenes more to my liking, but I didn’t do it in these rules because (a) I didn’t feel like changing too much from Knave, and (b) my playtesters really liked rolling for random HP, and it was important to me that they have fun.
The GiantDad variant
Grave keeps Knave’s armor and defense rules because they’re simple, and the stamina economy adds some steps that could slow things down with more complex rules. It always felt weird to me to use “armor” like an ability score for all defense rolls, though, even when we understood it narratively to describe dodging. (We played with only player-facing rolls.)
If you don’t mind a bit of added complexity, and want an arguably more soulslike feel, consider defending using Dexterity to dodge and/or Strength to block. Instead of using armor like an ability score, it absorbs a limited amount of damage on a hit, as in The Black Hack. Each type of armor grants as many “armor points” (AP) as what it currently lists as its armor bonus (1 for cloth, 2 for leather, 4 for chain, 6 for plate, +1 each for a shield and helmet). When the wearer takes damage, subtract from AP (if any) instead of HP. AP refresh automatically given a few minutes to hammer out the dents between battles, but anytime AP reach 0, the armor is damaged or broken (or, if using Knave item breakage rules, it loses 1 quality).
The second edition of The Black Hack uses a different model for armor that would be just as easily adapted: PCs get 1 armor die for each point of armor bonus, and may set one aside to mitigate all damage for a hit, attempting to roll them over the armor bonus after combat to see how much the armor can be repaired. This wouldn’t be my go-to rule, though; I fear that blocking entire hits makes PCs too durable in a game in which they’re already nigh immortal.
The Auto Lock On variant
Confession time: I don’t actually like rolling to see if an attack hits, then rolling separately for damage. It slows down otherwise fast-paced combat scenes, and it’s boring when you miss. I kept it in Grave because my playtesters liked it, it’s familiar to Knave players, and it is tied to the item breakage rules (which occur on a natural 1 or 20 roll on a d20). I much prefer Into the Odd combat, however, where you simply roll weapon damage and subtract a flat armor score. The only problems with that approach is that it renders ability scores irrelevant, which feels unlike the soulslike experience. Here’s how I might split the difference.
Instead of rolling a d20 to see whether an attack hits, skip right to rolling the weapon’s damage die. By default, weapons deal d6 damage across the board. Halve the bonus of leather, chain, and plate, and remove the additional bonus from clothing and helmets, so characters might have 0–3 armor (+1 with a shield). Especially heavy weapons, however, like two-handed weapons, deal damage based on the wielder’s Strength, jumping up a die step every 2 points. Similarly, especially precise weapons, like a bow or rapier, deal damage based on the wielder’s Dexterity. You can’t wield a maul at all until you reach +2 STR, or a longbow until you reach +2 DEX, at which point these weapons deal d4 damage. At +4 STR/DEX, it jumps to d6 damage, all the way up to d12 damage with a +10 ability bonus.
When attacking, you can spend stamina to roll extra damage dice, taking the highest result; a weapon is damaged/broken if such a roll is still entirely absorbed by armor, and armor is damaged/broken if every die in such a roll exceeds the armor resistance.
When defending, before the attacker rolls, you may spend 1 stamina to attempt a DEX save vs. ranged attacks, or a STR save vs. melee attacks (provided you have a suitable weapon or shield). If you succeed your save, you dodge the attack. As in original Knave rules, the attacker’s weapon is damaged/broken if you defend with a natural 20, and your armor is damaged/broken if you defend with a natural 1.
The Stamina Cap variant
By and large, my playtesters mostly only allowed themselves a small handful of stamina points so they could lug around as much useful gear as possible. One player in particular, a dedicated spellcaster, routinely carried around 11 or more stamina, which really helped demonstrate how broken and some spells could be with that much stamina on hand. If your group has multiple players interested in that kind of thing, it can lead to a lot of tokens being passed around the table, and it may end up trivializing some major enemies. I tried to account for this by making spells like Dying Star more costly to cast at higher levels, even beyond stamina costs, but it might also be worth capping stamina at 10 just to rein in power levels. That’s still enough stamina for a character who never invests in Constitution to cast a level 9 spell, or for a character with +10 Constitution to cast a level 9 spell and some other spells, depending on how much stuff they carry around.
I personally would feel bad doing this to players who absolutely love micromanaging their inventory to maximize spellcasting potential, but I can certainly see the appeal in giving it a try.
The Stamina Bar variant
Having stamina only refresh when resting in a safe haven dramatically changed play: It encouraged me as a designer to allow more potent uses, which in turn made it worth considering using for purposes other than spells. It also ended up almost-but-not-exactly providing something like a D&D “spell slot” economy, where you can only cast a limited number of spells between rests, and fewer of those can be high-level spells, but in a way I personally like much more than spell slots. This solution is, however, pretty unlike how soulslike games tend to conceive of stamina as a quickly-refreshing resource.
If you prefer to try faster-refreshing stamina, give players only 1 stamina for every 2 empty item slots—so, half as much in total. Refresh stamina as soon as PCs are out of combat, or skip a turn in combat. As a result, a PC could only cast a single level 9 spell if they are walking around nearly naked, so you might want to combine this with the Focus Points variant, below.
The Focus Points & Mana Points variants
Between souls, HP, stamina, consumable items, ammunition, deaths, and item breakage status, I figured this game left players tracking (more than) enough currencies and statistics. To keep things neater, I made stamina usable both for casting spells and for pulling off extra-special stunts. A sort of odd side effect of this, however, is that it makes dedicated spellcasters among the most durable characters in the game, as they’re highly incentivized to invest in Constitution. It’s not game-breaking by any means, but it does eschew tradition.
If you want to encourage spellcasters to invest in mental abilities over physical abilities, or you just don’t want to deal with stamina capacity fluctuating with inventory contents, you might instead give PCs as much “focus” as their Wisdom bonus, and have that be functionally identical to stamina. (This was actually my intended first approach, with the “stamina equals unused item slots” as the alternate rule, but David Perry, the creator of Knave Souls, convinced me to change it, and the players really dug it too.)
If you want to really differentiate “physical” and “mental” characters, call this “mana” instead, and use it exclusively for spells and magic item effects, with stamina still based on unused item slots and usable only for physical stunts.
Have you run Grave? Have you hacked it at all? Let me know how it goes! It’s (more or less) done, as I say, but something tells me I may not escape the urge to level it up further.