Tuesday, February 12, 2019


At some point, when you have been playing someone else's OSR system, you’ll reach a certain critical mass of houserules, fixes, adjustments and everything else, where it’s more of your own content, and less of the source material. For me, the gateway drug of GLOG and GLOG-alikes lead to it, but whatever the case: you’re now an OSR game designer, whether you like it or not. At this point, there is really only one viable option - slap a different name on it, and keep going.

Credit Konstantin Vavilov


DIE TRYING is only a few steps removed from Owlbear Stew, and shares a lot of content. Everything that fits into the family of GLOG will slot in perfectly, and it's OSR compatible. It uses the same races and most mechanics. Spellcasting, wizard schoolsspells, workings, and multiple other magical accoutrements are carried across. The Character Interestifier plays a part, as do some weird superpowers. In fact, any time in the past few months, if I've seen an interesting table or bizarre class mechanic, it's been added to The List. What is The List? It's the list of things each new character may have done before they became an adventurer. But I'm getting slightly ahead of myself. With all of these things that are clearly not mine, there are a few things that distinguish Die Trying from your average GLOGalike or OSR hack. For starters:

No classes.

None. Each new character generated is given a random selected appellation, but this has no impact whatsoever. What they do receive is three rolls on a nested 2d20 table (The List) of weird events that have impacted them. Whether providing useful skills, unique abilities, training in the mystic arts or "merely" a failed career, all pretty much guarantee that each new character is unique. As Ian put it in in his rather illuminating* (for me) review, each new character is created "lacking" something important. No one receives a neat package of interlocking abilities. Everyone is a mess of loose ends, and I think that's wonderful. Sometimes, just sometimes, you might end up with a demigod aasimar with 18+3 Charisma (that's a story for another time), but characters like that are exactly as rare as they should be. The other difference Die Trying has is:

No levels.

No levels, and no experience points (as you'd know them). Instead, each seperate stat improves individually. Rolling a critical success, an enhanced critical failure (see below) or missing a check by one grants a checkmark next to that stat. Once you have the requisite amount, it improves. Defence can only be improved by acquiring better armour, and hitpoints improves every time you are injured or almost die, but apart from that, using an ability gives you a chance to improve it.

<sidenote> Enhanced critical failures also come from Owlbear Stew. Critical successes grant experience as-is, but critical failures do not. Instead, the DM produces a likely consequence of said crit fail, and the player has a choice: if they suggest something worse than the DM's idea, then they gain the experience. Otherwise, it's just a critical fail </sidenote>

There are quite a few other ways to acquire these checkmarks, or Xs, and anyone that has read Owlbear Stew will recognise a few of them. Showing up to the session, being selected as the MVP, having had the most dramatic moment of the session, and being the character with the fewest Xs all grant an X anywhere on your character sheet. Anywhere. There are a few other, more important ways to acquire these free-floating Xs: oaths and ideas.

Swearing a binding oath in return for an XP reward is a long-standing and highly effective mechanic. It links players and NPCs together, brings interesting decisions to the forefront and forces some difficult choices. Importantly, breaking any oaths removes the possibility of swearing more until you atone. Your word is your bond, and people will just know if you are a scoundrel. You can still say the words... but they'll just ring hollow, and I like that.

Quote: Create a unique, interesting, simple and/or effective solution to a problem. This grants an X anywhere on the sheet. In my opinion, the above four traits are the hallmark of effective lateral thinking, and that is what the game is about. Is the game about combat? Then combat provides XP. Is the game about being sneaky and overcoming challenges and getting loot? Then gold recovered from dungeons provides XP. Is the game about making friends and enemies and exploring stories. Then... something provides XP, I'm not really sure, but the point stands. In Die Trying, the X system links back to my personal mantra of what it means to be OSR: Play The Damn Game!

One issue that stems from having stats improve according to their rate of being used, is that it can encourage players to roll dice when they don't need to, or preferably, be attempting to avoid them. As Type1Ninja puts it "good plans don't roll". However, compare the 15% chance of acquiring an X for rolling, with a 100% chance for having a good plan.

Another OSR issue - being able to place your Xs anywhere on the sheet might seem at first glance to allow "builds", with all the problems that entails. However... this hasn't seemed to be an issue in practice? Players will place Xs where they need them, and next to what parts of the game they are interested in. Some will shore-up weaknesses, others double-down on strengths, or merely try and twist my brain with their creative placement next to items, abilities, Trauma and peasant followers. One slight quibble is that free-flowing Xs acquired during combat can distract a player from the gameplay. An easy fix: if an X isn't placed within three seconds, leave it until the end of a session or in-game rest. 

One particular design decision that I'll take far too long to talk about here was the Save mechanic. Saving throws were an invention that provided a second chance for heroes to survive almost certain death. Save is also the GLOG stat with the highest level cap, and starts the lowest. It is modified by Charisma, which has something interesting to say in terms of how the universe/destiny looks after those deemed "lucky" and "important". Hence, it more or less functions as a measure of how heroic a character is. In order to reinforce this, the Save stat in Die Trying is more difficult to acquire than other ordinary stats. There's no benefit for missing by one. Critical successes grant a permanent +1 to that specific type of save (Save vs. Fear, Mutation, Falling, In-Laws etc.) but not to the base stat. Instead, Xs to Save can be granted from:
  • Clearing a small dungeon
  • Clearing a large dungeon floor
  • Saving the life of an ally
  • Funerals for dead allies
  • Going carousing
  • Per achievement on dead/retired characters
Save is a measure of heroism, and these are the things that are heroic in nature. If you were to use Die Trying for a different setting you would change those to whatever behaviour was deemed to be that of "heroes".

There was a funeral shortly after. Credit wr3cking8all

Progression and Abilities

In short, Die Trying does not provide hard-and-fast rules for earning new abilities. However, remember that some Xs can be placed anywhere on your character sheet. If added to your race, consider allowing some race-as-class abilities. To your name? How wacky would that be? I've used them for reducing the sting of negative traits, but more importantly, allowing them to be used offensively. Combine two traits ad-hoc, then cement them with three Xs into a solid ability. Get beaten up, and learn that move to get revenge. Slaying enemies and getting trained in combat is linked to the modified Notches system. Players should always be able to discuss any particular abilities they want, and how they might go about finding them. Parties that complete major quests should immediately receive an ability linked to their recent endeavour. As Arnold K mentioned recently, "a character made out with a mermaid and now he can hold his breath for +2 rounds". That kind of stuff is good. Characters can teach other players their abilities using the new Haven system (post inbound), and I think that's just cool.

And finally, if all else fails, and there are three Xs sitting in the middle of a blank section of character sheet, you can always roll 1d100000 and see what you get (table is 0.39% complete at time of writing. We can do it!)

How it has gone

For the most part: pretty damn well. Characters have lived, breathed, strived, died and been rerolled. The instant character generation has played a good part in bringing vibrant, interesting characters to the forefront. The tension between the various "incomplete" characters has been intriguing and resulted in a lot of gameable moments. I haven't tried it with brand-new players yet, but I'm very excited (and somewhat nervous, considering how important it is) to see how that goes. I've also yet to see whether it can hold up over a longer campaign, though I believe that should help some of the quibbles and issues with abilities smooth out of the way.

Let me know if you are interested in joining in as well! I'll be running playtests from now until- well, the end of time, probably!

If you need a character sheet for meatspace play, this is the one I'll be using in about two weeks time. I've found smaller sheets work better, to a point, and this has plenty of open space for weird X placement!

"DIE TRYING is a transmedia storytelling project that blurs the line between platform and experience and transcends traditional narrative frames." I mean, I'll take it!

26 Nov 2019: Die Trying v.2

  • Magic system overhauled, blogpost incoming here, firmly built on magic words. This is the big one.
    • Wizards etc. now receive a number of magic words to create spells out of. They can do this from scratch, separating and combining words as needed
    • MD is always expended, unless it is imbued into an object
    • Magic users now have more flexibility, more potential power, less numbers to track, and less staying power
    • Spells are all arbitrated by the DM. Guidelines are included, will be expanded
  • Ability stream-lining, particularly non-combat and clerical
  • Some equipment adjustment
  • Still to come: skills revamp and/or removal

Monday, February 4, 2019

Domains, Altars, Statues and Runes