2400 devlog: Legends

2400 devlog: Legends

Legends is the one (and likely only) “lo-fi hi-fantasy” entry in the 2400 series, an homage to D&D that might actually fit into a unified 2400 setting (if you squint hard enough). You can find it in the full 2400 series on Itch.io, and on its own and in the 2400 bundle on DriveThruRPG.

Legends probably looks like quite a departure for a “lo-fi sci-fi” series, so I’d like to take some time here to talk about how it came to be, and how to integrate it into a broader 2400 setting setting if you’re so inclined.

Influences

We’ve seen a number of really well done 24XX fantasy games, including the 1400 lo-fi hi-fantasy series, Wardens, Dungeon Soul, Keen, Planar Punk, a 1420 Beasts & Barrows, 74/00, and more. Still, I figured that if the world can support eleventy million D&D clones, it can fit some more minimalist takes on the genre too.

My introduction to D&D — and RPGs at large — was the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the early ’90s. I’m sometimes a little jealous of folks who came of age in the Planescape or Eberron eras (much more flavorful settings, from what I’ve seen), or with earlier editions of D&D like the Basic/Expert “B/X” books (whose procedures still inspire a great deal of independent design today). I loved RPGs, but it didn’t take me long to bounce off THAC0 and toward other games. I gravitated back to Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition years later, having been away from the hobby for the 3rd edition/Pathfinder era. I actually enjoyed “4e” quite a bit as a player, but it would be a nightmare for me to DM or design for, so I don’t really count it as much of a design influence.

When I think about what I love about D&Dish fantasy, then, my influences are much more recent, especially John Harper’s World of Dungeons, David Black’s The Black Hack, and Arnold K’s The GLOG. They distill the familiar concepts and archetypes I enjoyed from the source material in a way I find much more approachable. I especially appreciate how they conceptualize classes in terms of simple special abilities with just a bit of flavor, but still feeling broad enough to slot into any D&Dish setting, like The Black Hack’s thief always having a dagger on their person, and World of Dungeons wizards drinking quicksilver to cast spells.

At the risk of sounding self-absorbed, I must confess I also looked back at my own minimalist fantasy game Hit+Die for inspiration. This was a close precursor to 2400, so you may recognize tidbits that turned into 2400 more broadly. Now, with Legends. you can see me recycling bits for the talent and incantation lists. The rest of the incantations list was inspired by what I thought of as the most essentially D&Dish spells, cross-referenced from The Black Hack and Knave, though I had to cut a few for space limitations. (Sorry, Grease!)

Finally, I should be citing Chris McDowall’s Electric Bastionland (also available in hardcover) as an influence in all these devlog posts, but I’d be especially remiss in leaving it out from the devlog about the fantasy game. The back page of every 2400 game is basically a bunch of spark tables, an inspirational/oracular tool I learned from Chris’s excellent blog. That two-part locations list on the back of Legends? If you dig that, you’ve got to check out Chris’s work, including his new sci-fi stuff in Ask the Stars.

Characters

Those influences represent a big range in how characters are built, and my own 2400 series throws in a few more. No surprise, then, that I wrote Legends a few times before ending up on this approach to character creation.

The “everything’s a skill” approach: On my first take, I broke everything down into narrow skills like Hand-to-hand and Climbing. This was my initial approach for 2400, too, in Inner System Blues. I like that level of skill granularity in modern and sci-fi settings because you can communicate a lot about a character’s history and capabilities with just a little information.

Unfortunately, as I reminded myself while working on Legends, I get a little overwhelmed when you combine a long list of skills and items with additional character upgrade options, like magic spells and qualitative talents. (If I ever revise Eos, it may end up with broader skillsets for this reason.)

I could’ve left out talents entirely — just had a big skill list, plus spells that are rated like skills themselves — but I decided that would fail to evoke what I love best about D&Dish classes in those influences cited above. Classes aren’t just niche protection and quick starting packages, but evocative powers and permissions that encourage you to play towards fun, familiar archetypes.

The “D&D abilities as skillsets” approach: My next step was to collapse the list of character attributes down to only a few skillsets: a set of D&Dish set of ability scores. I did say I wanted familiarity, right?

Reading over it, though, I feared that array might not really work with the way I personally run 2400. I couldn’t imagine rolling “Wisdom” much in a game that encourages radical information-sharing, nor “Constitution” in a game that conceptualizes rolls as based on player characters’ actions more than their reactions. 

Ultimately, I felt I was on the wrong side of just D&Dish enough versus too D&Dish, at least for my tastes. Into the Odd is on the right side of that line for me, and it only has two ability scores familiar to D&D players, so I thought I might be able to satisfy my needs with something similar.

And the Legends approach: Once more, I collapsed the skills down to an even smaller number, akin to the ones used in Data Loss — Strength, Speed, Reason, and Presence — each corresponding to a class archetype. Data Loss’s “Will” skill seemed out of place as the key skill for clergy, who might describe their ability more in terms of deliberate humility than wilfulness. I still wanted theirs to be a social stat, though, and thought “Presence” could cover a range of demeanors.

Earlier drafts of Legends had more classes — including rangers, bards, and wizard school specialty options — but I decided to focus on a core set with more talent options apiece. My hope is you would read these not just as “the list of talents,” but as templates and examples to make your own classes and talents. (And if you want to go that route, I strongly recommend checking out the Eos devlog for even more explicit talent templates.)

Oh, and finally, D&D fans may raise an eyebrow at the lack of “races” (a term I’m generally leery of when I see it used in fantasy games). I did want to make it easy to include fantastical beings, though, so I adapted a shortened version of Xenolith’s species characteristics. You should be able to use them to make folk resembling elves, halflings, dragonborn, or other options as it pleases you. It’s up to you whether Magical, Unsleeping folk are widely known as “elves,” or these are entirely unique to one character, or some folks just cast Light the way others have perfect pitch. Your setting, your call.

Magic

Like a lot of 2400 subsystems, my magic rules are highly open to interpretation. Mages and clerics alike can learn and cast from the same shared list of “incantations,” but with a couple subtle differences. Taking a page from D&D-alikes, mages cast with “reason,” gaining spells from study and research; clerics cast with “presence,” channeling miracles through prayer and divine favor. Plus, casting spells puts a mage and their allies at risk of “side effects,” while working miracles puts only the cleric themself at risk of hindrance from the exertion required to channel divine forces. 

I leave the specifics of “side effects” up to you. When I run this myself, it means having a mage in the group prompts me to pull out my favorite “magical mishaps” tables from games like Troika and Aetherway. On a 3–4 roll, the mage’s player gets to decide whether it’s their own character or an ally’s whose eyeballs fall out. 

Also, I suspect I might have phrased something better, but I struggled to figure out how to do so succinctly: “Artifacts” (a.k.a. magic items) in Legends that contain spells might require you to roll Reason to use them (if made by mages), roll Presence to cast them (if they’re divine relics), or might require no roll at all if it makes sense for them to have an “always-on” effect. Casting a magic bolt might require you to roll in combat to avoid getting interrupted, while wearing bracers enchanted with a boon may grant a help die to all Strength rolls, all the time.

I also left intentionally vague the question of how common are spell books and magic items are. In my game, though, I’m usually only rolling a d6 on the treasure table, if anything at all — or even rolling a d20 and saying treasure only comes up on results of 1–6. Getting an honest-to-goodness magic sword is a pretty big deal. If you want incantations, spend your spare time studying or praying, and put it on your wish list for after you finish that next quest.

Encounters

My goal in designing 2400 was to make a system that’s so rules-light, so guided by common sense and open to interpretation, that it would be trivial to “convert” material to it. I can’t say for sure how well that works for others, but I plan on using Legends for a bunch of adventures originally written for D&D and OSR games. “Converting” stuff basically comes down to the first sentence of the GM rules:

Describe characters in terms of behaviors, risks, and obstacles, not skill dice.

You do not need to record a creature’s hit points or armor class or what have you. Instead, as the GM, you need to think of the following:

Behavior. What does it want, and how would it pursue that? When players look to you to gather information on the creature, this is what will help you improvise.

Risks. How it can hurt others if threatened? If there’s a conflict with that creature, this is what you will telegraph to the players about what they’re risking by rolling.

Obstacles. What, if anything, might make it impossible to overcome a dangerous creature in a single roll? If the answer is “nothing,” then the creature can be defeated in a single roll, albeit at some risk. If the answer is “a thick hide, akin to heavy armor,” then advise the players that they’ll need heavy weapons or clever tactics to hurt the thing. 

And, of course, if the creature presents no risks and no obstacles, the players don’t need to roll — but the GM might want to remind the players that this is a defenseless creature that poses no threat. Which brings us to one other point…

Every sapient being on the “encounter” table — that is, everything that you could actually converse with, that isn’t just a magical construct or the equivalent of a wild animal — has a name. They aren’t stand-ins for every being in the setting that looks like them; I imagine there are a lot of different dragons (but in my setting, they tend to have palindromic names). I just wanted to make it really clear that even bandits and monsters can be people too, so maybe don’t just stab everybody you meet.

Advancement

The advancement rules are crammed onto the back page for a couple reasons. First and foremost, I wanted more space under “Rules” for combat guidance, knowing how D&Dish fantasy adventures tend to lean (even as I hope I the rules and encounters list encourage other solutions). A close second, though, is that I know many groups won’t ever use these advancement rules — or any advancement rules at all.

When people see a game that fits on a page, I think most assume it can only support very brief play — one shots, maybe a few sessions. And to be fair, the “advance after every job” (or quest) approach of most 2400 games can indeed pretty quickly max out characters who have only four skillsets, like this one.

That said, I do mean for 2400 games to be able to support multi-session arcs, at least a decent ways into a double-digit number of sessions. You can get a much longer list of character upgrade options by combining 2400 games (as suggested in the final section of this post). You can pace out advancement much more gradually by using advancement rules from Resistors or Xot, or by only running multi-session quests in Legends (generally the higher-numbered items on the list, or anything with an open-ended “travel” goal that might see interruptions on the way).

I intend to write a dedicated piece on “Advancement in 24XX” at some point. In the meantime, if you’re looking for an option especially suited to fantasy adventure games, consider this spin on “gold as XP”:

When you have downtime in a city or settlement, you may spend coins to relax, reflect, or otherwise nurture your soul. Describe something you do that produces no other material benefits for adventuring — not buying equipment or paying for training, but hitting the taverns, donating to charity, building a new house for your mother, establishing a monument to a fallen comrade, or something else you find personally meaningful.

For every [certain number of] coins a character spends, their player gets a choice between increasing a skillset (d6 to d8 to d10 to d12), gaining a talent within their class (or another class, if they have its starting skillset at d8 or above), or gaining a new incantation through study (via Wizardry) or prayer (via Theurgy).

The “[certain number of] coins” is up to your group, depending on how quickly you want characters to advance. If you want something steady and easy to remember, perhaps it costs 5 or 10 coins. If you want this to scale as characters advance, encouraging taking on greater risks and bolder adventures, then characters start at level 1, gain +1 level each time they advance, and must spend 10× their current level to advance.

Combining with other 2400 games

You can run Legends as its own, self-contained game, completely divorced from the rest of 2400. But you don’t have to. Here are a few ways to pull in material from other 2400 games — or to pull Legends into a bigger lo-fi sci-fi universe.

For more character upgrades, adapt talents from Eos, species characteristics from Xenolith, and incantations from the powers in Project Ikaros and exploits in Codebreakers.

If you prefer narrower skills, you could pull in many of the recommended skills from Inner System Blues — or just take skills directly from the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition free Basic Rules. To take talents from another class, you must first increase a skill from that class’s skill list to d10.

  • Warriors get two skills from Hand-to-hand, Shooting, Acrobatics, Animal Handling, Athletics, Insight, and Intimidation
  • Mages get two skills from Arcana, Insight, Medicine, and Religion, and may use Arcana to cast incantations
  • Clerics get two skills from Insight, Intimidation, Medicine, and Persuasion, and may use Insight to cast incantations
  • Rogues get two skills from Acrobatics, Athletics, Deception, Insight, Intimidation, Performance, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth

(Note: I added Hand-to-hand and Shooting because those aren’t handled as “skills” in D&D, but they are in 2400. I removed History, Investigation, Perception, and Religion because they’re all really unlikely to ever get rolled due to 2400’s “only roll to avoid risk” rule and “be generous with information” principle in Emergency Rules. And I gave clerics Intimidation because their skill list is short, and I was raised Catholic.)

For a fuller explanation of 2400-style combat, check out Battle Moon, Emergency Rules, examples in the Combat in 24XX post, and sample “boss fights” in Data Loss.

If Legends shares the same setting with the rest of 2400, then it isn’t just a fantasy setting. What is it, then?

  • Maybe it’s an alternate timeline or parallel dimension in Tempus Diducit
  • Maybe it’s an experimental iteration of the simulation in Codebreakers.
  • Maybe it’s a VR world people elect to inhabit instead of meatspace in Inner System Blues or ALT.
  • Maybe it’s an isolated planet of settlers who forgot how to fly, like in Xot.
  • Or maybe there’s a reason “The Lord, DEUS” is named like a metamind in Data Loss. And maybe there’s a reason DEUS forbids offworld travel.

Up to you. After all, these are all in the same setting … unless they’re not.

Featured image edited from original by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann)

2 responses to “2400 devlog: Legends”

  1. […] I use the concept of “boss fights” (as in Data Loss) to model combat as a puzzle: a series of obstacles that must be overcome through logical steps, like the “Dragon God” boss fight in Demon’s Souls. Here’s how that exact battle might play out in a game of 2400: Legends. […]

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