The Softer Side of Fantasy

June 13, 2018 at 8:35 pm

Have you got it do you get it / If so how often
Which do you choose / A hard or soft option?
—“West End Girls”, Pet Shop Boys

Recently I have been revisiting some of the fantasy stories that helped forged my vision (and many of the founders of the RPG industry) of what a fantastic world could be. Conan, Elric, Jirel of Joiry, and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are the heroes that started me down a path I’ve never truly left for decades.

But one thing I’ve noticed reading them today is how sketchy they seem compared to the kinds of fantasy produced for the more ‘modern’ market. The worlds are much less fleshed out, magic works in undefined and rapidly changeable fashion, and the sudden inclusion of anachronistic elements like historical figures, aliens, or high technology are shrugged off as par for the course. These aspects may seem dated and lazy to some readers, but they really capture the ‘wonder’ of fantasy from my introduction to the genre.

Contrast these stories to the popular series of today, which are often categorized as ‘hard fantasy’ (a tear I assume lifted from sci-fi-fi). Since I could not find an accepted online definition of ‘soft fantasy’ (incidentally, a term that rapidly turns into an NSFW google search), lets start with Wikipedia’s take on on hard fantasy: “ Hard fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literature that strives to present stories set in (and often centered on) a rational and knowable world.“

In practice, this gives us the obsessively detailed back-stories and histories of the George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire or the highly-codified magic structure of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. When it comes to magic in hard fantasy, Brandon Sanderson (Wheel of Time, Mistborn, and more) has an interesting take here. While this level of detail can be satisfying, you run the risk knowing too much about a world, like spoiling a magic trick by learning how its done. In a gaming sense, you never want the marvelous to feel mundane or reduce all the world’s miracles into mechanics.


Beyond the Bounds

One way to inject wonder into an otherwise rational fantasy universe is to disrupt the standard power levels. Like when Q would appear on an episode of Star Trek, the normal rules of power and probability were thrown out the window. This doesn’t always mean the players face an adversary of who far outclasses them. It could be a place where magic has explosive side effects or doesn’t work at all, or waking up the size of their miniatures and being forced to navigate a world drastically out of scale.

Even non-mechanical shifts can add wonder and break the hold of a hard fantasy structure. What if they land on a shore where all the natives have two heads, and must debate every action with themselves? Or coming upon a tribe of wise, philosophical kobolds dedicated to preserving the knowledge of age-old dragons. Understanding the rules of a world creates expectations, and breaking the rules can create new ways of reacting and make things seem fresher.


Context crashing

Like any mature market, fantasy stories and games are now broken down into categories and subgenres, and most tend to stick in their own silo. Not so in the older days. Sword and sorcery stories threw everything in the same pot, and rarely concerned themselves with internal consistency. And early D&D took the same approach. As far back as the Blackmoor supplement, the Temple of the Frog featured an alien overlord with access to ray guns and an orbital satellite.

You may not want to have games were cowboys on Triceratops wielding AK-47s chase your players down dungeon corridors , but occasionally breaking context can create interesting situations. Many fantasy universes are built over the wreckage of technological apocalypse, and strange artifacts can spur interesting adventures. Traveling through space or time can give players a memorable change of pace, and do not have to destroy your games. Even Pathfinder (one of the most exhaustive of hard fantasy rule-sets) has a crashed spaceship under a mountain in their official setting.

A GM should not have to be completely orthodox to their setting and its assumptions. If you want to have a society where the ruling powers are intelligent predatory birds, and the sapient bipeds are barely-functional food sources, so be it. Its a fantasy, don’t be afraid of the fantastic.



In gaming, the rules themselves often get in the way of the fantasy. By trying to cover the most important interactions, they by nature create a ‘rational and knowable’ universe. That is why they are there.

But that doesn’t have to be the end of it. Mechanics may explain the ‘how’ of a situation, but not the ‘why’. If a plane-hopping bounty hunter levels a Colt 45 at the player’s wizard, it will still have to roll to hit and do a set amount of damage. Simple description can go a long way in bringing wonder to what is (under the hood) simple game mechanics. In a psychic dream world, a PC’s intelligence might be the aspect to use to determine their ability to move or maneuver, but the players don’t need to know all the details. Or the squid-men overlords of a ruined seaside temple could simply be re-skinned sea elves. Its the story that’s important, not the statistics.

That said, feel free to ignore the rules when they don’t mesh with your vision. Laser beams can have any affect you want them to have. Your trickster god can turn missiles back on its attackers, regardless of whether or not there are rules for that. Players can walk easily through the ruins of sunken Atlantis, even if they can’t breathe water or survive the pressure of a mile of ocean above them.

We create and play fantasy games to go places and do things we could never do in our real lives. And while deep backgrounds and elegant metaphors make a solid basis to connect players to these worlds, they should not stop you from injecting fantastic elements that don’t quite fit inside their walls.

Or, in the words of Dr. Who, one of least internally consistent heroes of our time, “We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”

How do you use ’soft’ fantasy elements too mix up your games? Or do you believe that this kind of gaming is silly or frivolous? Let us know in the comments below.

Know your enemy —
making better fantasy foes

March 15, 2018 at 4:43 pm

“Balk the enemy’s power; force him to reveal himself.”

— Sun Tzu


There is no shortage of advice when it comes to creating villains for your fantasy campaigns like how to make them more memorable, believable, and worthy adversaries for your heroes. But what about their hordes of minions? The faceless multitudes that the PCs must fight there way through before even getting a chance to face the Big Bad.

For every Sauron, there are thousands of orcs swarming over the land. And in between the Night King and a ragtag band of rangers stood numberless white walkers and their whites. What makes these creatures interesting? And how can they be a recurring element to your campaigns? What we can do to add depth and interest to these unsung cornerstones of heroic fantasy.


By the numbers

Every fantasy gaming system has a wide variety of monstrous races and other horrors to throw at player characters, but which ones make good ‘forces of evil’. One of the hallmarks of these minion races is that they are numerous, so any individual creature should not be overwhelmingly powerful. It should be strong enough to carry off small livestock or threaten someone’s life, but to get a lot of use out of the race requires them to be somewhat expendable.

They should also be flexible. If the enemy turns to stone in sunlight, or cannot leave its forest, its use as shock troops is limited. This is about more than creating an encounter, but a pillar enemy for your campaign world. And for that they should also be distinct, with some aspect that ties them together and ties them thematically to the greater goals of your storylines.


Four key questions

What if you want to create your own enemy race to menace your players and pillage the countrysides of your game world. First, you need to ask yourself a few key questions.

What do they look like? Not really a mechanical question for a game, but critical to how you tell the story. Are they humanoid? Do they resemble other races? Do they have distinctive features like horns, tails, or forked tongues? Some of these answers will have mechanical ramifications, and others might just be descriptive. Do they use tools and weapons like the common races, or do they treasure the same things? This could affect combats, and definitely affect what victorious PCs loot from their enemies.

Looks might also reveal things about their origins or affiliations. The drow must have shared ancestry with the forest-dwelling elves at some point. Or a race of dog-faced humanoids might have some mystical connection with mundane dogs. Pallor-faced creatures with deep sunken eyes might be related to the undead, or just aspiring to that condition.

Where are they found? This, too, adds more than just help in encounter planning. If your amphibious squid men slink back to their reefy redoubts after each raid, what does that say about them. Or if they roam seemingly at random, does that say something else? If your enemy race are the minions of a major villain, are they tied to their base of operations? Sauron’s orcs were headquartered in Mordor, but Saruman created his own for Isengard. Multiple groups or factions among them can add detail and interest to forces of evil.

What do they do? This is where things can start to get tricky. Evil stuff of course, right? But that is very broad range of activities. Are they merely enforcers of their master’s will? Or do they have ambitions and motivations or their own. Do they rob others of resources, or do they inflict damage as its own end. A zombie apocalypse is just about eating brains, but an infestation of doppelgängers has very different tactics.

And, on a more mechanical level, exactly how do they do the things they do? A tribe of orcs will do it with axes and force, but wily kobolds might set traps and undermine a community’s structure. For good or ill, a large part of most RPG campaigns is combat-focused. So having combat with your enemy of choice should be distinct.

The example that keeps coming to mind is the AD&D drow originally presented in the Descent into the Depths of the Earth modules. While they seem to be designed strictly to oppose PC power (magic items that disintegrate after looting, really??), they were distinctive, memorable and a lasting edition to the RPG landscape. Those drow had many distinctive powers and tools (hand crossbows!), that have challenged adventurers for decades.

Why do they do it? On some level, this is can of worms. But to avoid the whole ‘what is evil’ debate, and focus on what makes an enemy interesting and fun, understanding motivation is important. Mindless destruction, like a zombie apocalypse counts as a motivation, counts as a motivation. As does the hard-wired morality of demons and other netherworld denizens.

Here are a few more for your consideration:

  • Alien. Perhaps not even malevolent, but their motivations are unfathomable.
  • Commanded. Their leaders were ordering their actions, regardless of their own desires.
  • Insanity. Similar to alien, their motivations are based on a delusion or compulsion.
  • Mindless. Their actions are animalistic or basic needs driven.
  • Religion. Their beliefs demand they act in a corrupt or destructive manner
  • Resources. Their homeland lacks things they desire or need
  • Revenge. Driven by a real or perceived injury, they seek to punish others.

These are just few examples. For good or ill, the rationale for evil is very broad.


HEXercise: Making enemies

To put these ideas into practice, we are going to create an enemy race to use our in-house campaign setting for Heroic Expeditions. We call them the Sinder.

What do they look like? The Sinder are humanoids, slightly shorter and thicker than humans. Their arms are longer than ours, and they use them to assist running across broken ground. Their broad, flat faces are marked with ritual scarring. The most notable feature is that the Singer cover themselves in ashes, giving them an unworldly appearance. Their clothing and equipment are scavenged or roughly made, accentuating their primitive appearance.

Where are they found? It is rumored that the Sinder were ‘born’ in a volcanic range west of Ikara, but no civilized man has tried to seek out this birthplace. They can be found in the forested wilderlands west of Mesus and range all the way to the Bitter Sea. These rapacious creatures are nomadic, and constantly search for new areas to terrorize. As nomads, they adapt to the environment around them and stay until they exhaust the local resources or are driven off.

What do they do? In short, they destroy. The Sinder revere fire and love nothing more than seeing things consumed by it. They have very little in the form of culture or production, and what they do produce is made by slaves that they work to death or feed to the fire. They favor large, brutal weapons, preferably flails, and have developed cruel variations on the form.

Sinder warriors are reckless and proud, and do not employ complex tactics. The slave-catching Harook (see below) will work together to corral and immobilize potential workers.

Why do they do it? The Sinder believe that they have been chosen by their patron god Moar (the Living Flame) to scour and destroy everything that lives on this unworthy flawed world. When they have burned it clean, Moar will take his place in the center of the Heavens and create a new world for the Sinder to rule. Until then, his thirst for sacrifice is great and they must constantly appease it.

New Monster: Sinder
Common natural humanoid (1 space)
Encounter Group 2d
ST 14
DX 10
IQ 6
MA:  5
AD:   2 (rough hides)
Damage:   By weapon (commonly morningstar, 2d+1)

Harook are the slave-masters of the Sinder. They are slithers (ST13) and quicker (DX12) than average, and are more likely to speak additional languages. They wield two-handed flails with barbed hooks on the end )also called Harooks) they use to entangle and bring down their captives.

Hurn are the shock troops of the Sinder, known for their immense strength (ST16) and the flaming pitch-filled flails they wield. Hurn are prone to fits of ecstatic destruction, and will often spend as much effort destroying objects and buildings as they do on their foes.

Pyrophants are the ‘chosen’ of Moar and have been given the divine gift of fire. Usually horribly scarred and burned, the Pyrophants have ST10 (SA14), and DX 9. They are Adepts with an IQ8+1d and can only cast fire spells. Their Staff is flaming, and will do an additional 1d fire damage on critical hits. Those rare few who are capable of casting Fireproofing delight in immersing themselves in fire.

New Specialty Melee Weapons

Weapon Damage ST Cost Enc Notes
Harook 1d+1 12 $120 2 Can use Entangle special attack
Hurn 2d 14 $200 3 +1d fire damage, Critical failure does fire damage to self

Skin & Bones

February 27, 2018 at 4:56 pm

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

― Pablo Picasso


It should go without saying that writing an RPG makes you think a lot about rules. Is a rule fair? Is it consistent? Is it too cumbersome? These questions and more were constant companions. One stood out more than all the others, though. And that was, ‘does it even need a rule?

Role-playing games were revolutionary in how open-ended they were, where players could do anything and take the story wherever they wanted. And that leaves a game designer with a choice, try to cover every situation with rules or trust that the GM can just ‘wing it’ when the player decides to swing from a chandelier and throttle the blackguard with his legs.

More than the well-trodden ‘rules vs. rulings’ debates, this is about adding complexity to a system where it may not be needed. If there is a spell that shoots red balls of force from a wizard’s hands, would you need a separate spell that shoots yellow sparks of power from their forehead?


Skin deep

Rules are the bones of a game, the structure that holds everything together. But the surface is just skin, the individual elements that make every game world and adventure unique. And these can be changed and tweaked to fit each gaming group’s personal taste. As long as the bones are strong, the skin take on as many different forms as the imaginations of the players’ can conceive.

When we were writing Heroic Expeditions, the goal was always to create systems that would work in various situations rather than rules that addressed specific circumstances. Rather than detail a number of specific skill Aspects, we created a few categories of skill difficulty, and left the rest to an individual GM to detail. If a player wished to become a master brewer (for example) that is role-playing decision with limited mechanical ramifications, but a clever GM should feel free to allow it to come into play wherever appropriate. If the villain tires to poison their ale, would the master brewer not notice a shift in the hop balance?

Similarly with Attribute tests. If a character wishes to do something that is not expressly covered by the rules, the GM can simply have them make an Attribute test at a level they deem appropriate. This should get them through the vast majority of player surprises.

If a campaign leans heavily on a specific aspect — seafaring in a pirate campaign, or scavenging in a survival game — the GM might want to detail a few specific Aspects from these general categories and their mechanical effects. For example, in an underground campaign the GM might want to add Mundane Skills specifically for orienteering, fungi-cultivating, or spelunking.

In the case of magic, we created the idea of visual effects to cover the many variations an Adept might want to put on their spells. If they want their Mage Bolt to be crystalline daggers that shatter on contact, so be it, If they would rather their summoned guardian to be the spirit of the grandmother, make it so.

Their could be mechanical ramifications to these choices, if the GM and the player think they would add value to a game. An Adept’s blast might be actual flames that could set flammable things alight, but might have limited affect against fire creatures or inflammable objects. Or a particularly horrific visual effect might scare off skittish creatures, but would be ineffective against those without fear or conscious thoughts.


Risk and reward

This can lead to abuses, where an opportunistic player tries to inject positive benefits into situations but argues against any penalties. In these circumstances, its important to remember that the effects are designed to differentiate the character and serve the story, not to squeeze another +1 out of a damage roll.

What works for players is just as valid for the Game Master. Monsters, traps, and magical items can be re-skinned just as easily. If the group leaves the planned path and wanders into a trackless swamp, and the GM wants to have them assaulted by frog men, simply use statistics for goblins. For added color, allow them to use their tongues to entangle as whips and you’re done.

The rules should never constrain your choices, but empower your ability to adjudicate conflict. If a GM sees an item that’s a potion or a bomb, but would rather see it as an egg, then its an egg.

A potential drawback of designing this way are a perceived sameness of character types, as some players focus on the mechanics of the abilities and thus see all warriors wielding melee weapons as the same. But we’ve always looked at characters as much more than their damage die or best Attribute test. There is also the risk of creating loopholes within these rules-light categories that might have unintended consequences or be abused by players.

But if the alternative is a 500-page rulebook and a shelf-load of supplements required for every game, its a risk we’re willing to take.


Necromancers: Skinning the dead flesh

To illustrate, let’s say we want create an archetypical necromancer Adept for Heroic Expeditions. You could create a number of Aspects and spells for raising minions and controlling horrors, but you would just end up with more rules and more complications. But would that make it better? We think not.

Within existing rules, a necromancers would undoubtedly focus on summoning spells, and perhaps even use the Conjurer Spell School Specialization from here. There are many flavorful visual effects they could employ from using a giant leg bone as their Staff, or having ghostly hands reach up from the dirt for Slow Movement or Stop spells.

Beyond that, say you wanted to make their summoned creatures skeletal abominations in guardian, wolf, or even dragon shape. You could give them invulnerability (arrows) to reflect that, but could open them up to the optional clerical rebuke undead power (shown here) or perhaps they are just more mindless than the normal summoned creatures, and must be actively directed by their master.

For that matter, the Gm could create necromantic versions of most monster, from skeletal elephants to zombie unicorns. Zombies would not gain immunity (arrows), but would perhaps trade slowed movement for additional AD.

The idea is to create the image of a necromancer, without the need to rewrite a series of rules to make it so. Re-skinning over solid bones can save you time, increase your options, and help you make better games.

Do you re-skin elements in your games? Have you had successes or unexpected disasters? Did hew overlook the key to re-skinning success? Let us know in the comments below.

Bennie for your thoughts

February 16, 2018 at 1:13 am

“Only criminals and bloodsuckers reward bad behavior.”

–Ted Nugent


There many ways to encourage players, from experience awards and treasure to narrative controls. Players who are clever, or play their characters well and embrace the story should be rewarded.

The methods we like provide the players with an immediately useful benefit that they control. Like bennies in Savage Worlds or Action Points in d20, a quick boost to a die-roll gives immediate positive reinforcement to a player and provides encouragement to the whole table. But what does this do to the power balance of game?


Reward Requirements: What to give them for

The first question you need to answer is that exactly are you rewarding. Some systems just give out these ‘rewards’ for each rise in power level, or achieving story goals. That seems pretty arbitrary and really not the reward we’re looking for. Others suggest giving them out for coming up with clever solutions, finding important clues, deep character interaction, or comical table-talk.

I’m as enthusiastic (and as guilty) about funny non sequiturs as the next gamer, but It seems like not the most productive thing to reward. I suppose if a character makes a particularly clever observation… but otherwise it becomes just another distraction for the table.

Moving the game forward and embracing a PC’s personality on the other had, those are things most games can use more of. Hopefully it will be more than rewarding a good die roll, but a choice the player makes that makes the game better.


How many to give

Many games suggest giving out in-game rewards at the beginning of each session. If you’re going to be using this mechanic a lot i can see that, because you don’t want players to just to hoard them. And, rewards are better when they are earned. But if it is mechanic you want to use, you should not make them too rare. Everyone at the table should have a chance to earn them each session, and not feel like using them is too risky.

I ran a Savage Worlds campaign where I left a bennie out on the table, ands allowed the players to reward one their own each night. It could’ve been easily abused, but the players took it seriously, and were more judicious about it than I usually was.


What they be used for

Typical uses for in-game rewards are for boosting actions, avoiding damage, powering abilities, and re-rolling tests. Some games even allow using these rewards for narrative control over the world at large. This can be open to wide interpretation, but can add interesting wrinkles to your games. A clever player might add an interesting physical element to a game (a rain barrel at the base of a building they wish to jump off), or a social one (they served with the bartender is king’s guard) that add depth and involvement with the players. It can also be easily abused, so you will have to trust your players.

In general, in-game rewards should provide an immediate boost to a player’s actions, or mitigate a risk. It might just be me, but I don’t like mechanics that roll back time or replace outcomes. Re-rolls or stopping damage are great for player success, but I’m always slightly bothered by failure the never happened or the wounds that miraculously disappear.

I prefer rewards that are used to add to a die roll, or even penalize an opponent. Usually on something that is resolved immediately. Being able to recover some level of wounds is also helpful. Or even gaining an additional actions, or being able to act before their opponent are good rewards. The more rewards you plan on giving, the more volatile your game will become, as these benefits throw off most games balancing systems.


Swing dice and HEX

To put this idea into practice, we decided to come up with an optional in-game reward system for our own Heroic Expeditions. We call them Swing Dice. Briefly, swing dice can be awarded to players at any time and can be used to add a die to a test, or lower an opponent test by a die.

A Swing die can be rewarded to a player for any reason a GM chooses, but the most common reasons are:

  • Solving a conflict in a clever or surprising way
  • Uses character knowledge or skills to advance the story
  • Performs a heroic or exceptional task, or makes a sacrifice to benefit the group
  • Plays the character’s personality (or Drawbacks, if using the optional system) to their own detriment.

A swing die (all dice in HEX are d6) can be used at any time, but must be declared before the result of an opponent’s test is known. Alternately, a swing die can be used to recover 1d Stamina or 2ST, change their Initiative position, or take an additional action in a round.

If the GM desires, a swing die can be used to make a narrative statement by the player ’true’ in the game world. This should be something small (the baron pays 1 copper each for rat’s killed in the sewers), and not contradict something already in the world. One could also be used to allow a character to have a low-cat mundane piece of equipment, or know a piece of common knowledge.

A swing die is only usable in the session in which it was given, and can not be carried over into later sessions.

This system is compact, easy to manage, and rewards good play without disrupting long-term game balance. And hopefully, makes sessions more engaging and fun for both players and GMs.

Do you think in-game rewards add value, or just complicate your games? Did we overlook some aspect that drastically changes how rewards are given? Or do you have a system we could all learn from? Let us know in the comments below:

Drawbacks & Disadvantages —
do they belong?

February 8, 2018 at 4:31 pm

“Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.”

—Marcus Valerius Martial

The pitch for virtually every role-playing game ever written is “create a hero and live out their adventures.” But how much of that role is ever really lived? How often do we simply push our PCs through the mechanics or the story — facing the risks and reaping the rewards — compared to trying to emobody the character?

In fairness, many of the stories. movies, and other media that inspire these adventures don’t often have nuanced characters. Sometimes a hero is just a hero, but other times you might want to play it a little differently. Luke Skywalker’s robot hand never seemed to provide any problems, but Jaime Lannister’s golden one is a bit more of hindrance. And for many players, having a weakness or a flaw can provide a window into their motivations, and perhaps be the spur that drives them to become heroes in the first place.

How do drawbacks, disadvantages, and hindrances affect your gaming sessions? Did we overlook a choice that you use to make characters memorable? Let us know in the comments below.


Class Consciousness: The Wizard

February 2, 2018 at 10:06 pm

“Sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.”

― George R.R. Martin

On the surface, it would seem, it should be quite easy to replicate the structures of a class-based “magic-user” in a skill-based system like HEX. But the truth is more complex.

The Way of the Wizard

A class-based spell caster in a traditional Vancian system has a much more structured advancement, with increasing levels of power doled out in predetermined increments. HEX is much more fluid, and allows a magical Adept more choice in how they choose magic, and even how magic they want to wield.

Vancian magic places a strict hierarchy on spells, doling out spells in set amounts at set power levels. In HEX, a wizard powers magic with their own stamina, and they can choose which of their spells to cast at any time. In addition, the higher Intelligence required for powerful magic creates opportunities to access Aspects that might be as powerful as their spells.

But the point of these exercises are to streamline the process, and give new players guide-posts on their path of advancement. So grab your grimoires and let’s get to it.

Wizards in the early days did little beyond their spells, and we will follow that method. Most of our Attribute points (4) will be put into Intelligence, with some into Dexterity (2), and the rest increasing Stamina rather than true strength. This will them weak, but they will not be carrying heavy armor or weapons to affect their abilities.

For Aspects, the package only has Literacy and Arcanist, and leaving one point for an additional Universal Aspect. Spell choices are balanced between attacks, defenses, and battlefield control. As the Wizard gains experience, most of their advances will improve Intelligence to gain more powerful spells, Stamina to fiuel them, and Expertise to gain a broader vairiety of spells. Feel free to trade out any of these choices for spells you prefer, or Aspects that make sense for the character.

Wizard Package and Path
Wizard Package
+2DX, +4IQ, +4SA (2). Starting Aspects: Literacy (1), Arcanist (2), Diplomacy (1). Blur, Staff, Bolt, Detect Magic, Light, Vigor/Weakness, Sleep.

Wizard Path:
1. +2 SA
2. +1 IQ (Flight)
3. +2 EX (Stone Flesh, Telekinesis)
4. +1 ST
5. +1 IQ (Lightning)
6. +2 SA
7. +1 DX
8. +1 IQ (Spell Shield)
9. +2 EX (Telepathy, Hammertouch)
10. +2 SA
11. +1 IQ (Iron Flesh)
12. +2 EX (Remove Thrown Weapon, Fireball)
13. +2 SA
14. +1 IQ (Staff of Power)
15. +1 DX
16. +2 SA
17. +1 IQ (Dissolve Enchantment)
18. +2 EX (Unnoticeability, Conjure Elemental)
19. +1 EX (Dissolve Enchantment, Enchant Weapons/Armor)
20. +1 IQ (Long-distance Teleport)

New Aspect: Arcanist (U) — IQ10
Cost: 2
Type: Professional
Prerequisites: Literacy
This is the knowledge of the mechanics and theories of magic. Figures with this talent can read magical tomes and understand magical concepts. While it does not confer spellcasting ability, it allows a figure to recognize spells being cast or persistent visible spell affects. The check is 3/IQ, and spells of IQ 15 and above adding -1adjIQ to the test.

Alternate Wizard Packages

From at least the first edition of AD&D the class of wizards became splintered into subclasses of specialties. Players wanted to excel at one type of magic, and were willing to be penalized in other areas for it. In HEX, you could simply choose to focus on type of spells, but that does not offer the same character-building scheme as a D&D style specialty wizard.

There have been many methods of breaking down ‘schools’ of magic and determining their opposites over the years. Most seem cumbersome and a little arbitrary. This breakdown may be just as arbitrary, but aligns well with the spells used in HEX and the types of wizard that players like to create.

Conjuration involves control over portals and planes, summoning creatures to fight for you or making walls appear at will. Opposed by Evocation.

Enchantment is the magic of the mind, from tricking it into believing implanted images to near total command of others. Opposed by Transmutation.

Evocation is the manipulation for pure magical energy, from shooting lightning from your fingers to dispelling powerful curses. Opposed by Conjuration.

Transmutation is using magic to alter the physical world, including healing wounds and taking flight. Opposed by the mental magic of Enchantment.

All other spells form the common arcana, the practical magic that all wizards access equally.

For a complete breakdown of HEX spells and their schools, click here.


Optional Aspect: School Specialization (U) — IQ12

Cost: 3
Type: Professional
Prerequisites: Wizard
Some wizards focus on one type of magic to the exclusion of others. A specialist wizard gains +2IQ in casting spells of this this school, and gains one free spell for their specialty each time they take an IQ advance. However, a specialist wizard is barred from taking spells for their opposing school.

Class Consciousness: The Cleric

January 2, 2018 at 6:32 pm

“In the war of magic and religion, is magic ultimately the victor? Perhaps priest and magician were once one, but the priest, learning humility in the face of God, discarded the spell for prayer.”

― Patti Smith

Of all the ‘classes’ that have been handed down to us from the RPGs of the 70s and 80s, the Cleric — or Priest — class has always been difficult for people to wrap their heads around.

The original cleric of D&D was loosely based on medieval crusaders and horror movie vampire hunters, and other systems like Runequest tried to make them more shamanic. But they always seemed to end up as a mish-mash of healing, support, and second-tier warrior. And then, of course, The Fantasy Trip ignored divine power altogether and left the priesthood as simply an occupational skill.

One of the problems, for me, is that role-playing games are self-centered by nature. The players create heroes and go on adventures to seek glory and treasure for themselves. A cleric, by definition, serves something more important than themselves. Any glory or gain must be shared with their patron, and the character ends up overshadowed.

Arbitrary strictures on choices (no bladed weapons) and artificial moral boundaries (like alignment) always put clerical characters at risk of losing their abilities, as not even their power belongs to them.

Later version of D&D and many other RPGs have tried to address this, giving religious characters options reflecting many kinds of patrons, and choices as varied as the broadest pantheon. This often lead to the opposite pole of overwhelming complexity and confusion.

In Heroic Expeditions, virtually any character can serve a god, and their choices of Aspects and Attributes can reflect that god’s attitudes. The Priest (and Theologian) Aspects are reflections of temporal power and authority, not magic. Magical power comes from within, regardless of what inspires it. A character’s faith, and adherence to it, is left as a role-playing concern.


The Road of the Righteous

Cleric Package and Path
Cleric (Wizard) Package:
+2ST, +2DX, +4IQ. Starting Aspects: Axe/Mace (4), Priest (2), Literacy (1). Starting Spells:Vigor/Weakness, Acuity/Confusion, Clumsiness/Deftness, Refresh, Healing.

Cleric Path:
1. +1 IQ (Bless/Curse spell)
2. +2 Expertise (Shield)
3. +2 Expertise (Physicker)
4. +1 DX
5. +2 Stamina
6. +2 Expertise (Charisma)
7. +1 DX
8. +1 ST
9. +1 IQ (Remove Thrown Spell)
10. +2 Stamina
11. +2 Expertise (Destroy Creation, Dispel Illusion)
12. +2 Expertise (Theologian)
13. +1 IQ (Megahex Avert)
14. +1 DX
15. +2 Expertise (Diplomacy, Courtly Graces)
16. +1 IQ
17. +1 IQ (Master Physicker)
18. +2 Stamina
19. +1 IQ (Death spell)
20. +1 IQ (Revival)

That said, what if you wanted to build a warrior priest in the mold Saint Cuthbert? It would require a balance of Aspects and spells, as well as Attributes. But it can be done.

To allow any level of magical prowess they will have to built as a Wizard, which will limit the choices of Aspects. Traditionally, clerics used heavy (if blunt) weapons, and that will require Strength. A fair amount of IQ will be need to access spells. Dexterity can not be overlooked, but since spells cannot be cast in iron armor we won’t have to overcome extreme DX adjustments. Let’s start with 2 points in ST and DX, and 4 in IQ.

The gives us 12 points for Aspects and Spells. They will need a weapon, and Axe/Mace (4) seems thematic. They should have the Priest Aspect (2) and Literacy (1). Their beginning spells will include Vigor/Weakness, Acuity/Confusion, Clumsiness/Deftness, Refresh, and Healing.

One of the most iconic abilities of these ‘classic’ clerics is their power over the undead. If this aspect is important to you, you could house-rule this as part of the Priest Aspect.

New Aspect Aspect: Rebuke Undead (Priest)

A figure with the Priest Aspect may attempt to Turn or Command the Undead. This task costs at least 3 Stamina and takes a full action. The figure rolls 3/ST in competitive test against the Undead. If they succeed by more than the opponent, the undead creature is cowed by the Priest, and can not move within 1 MMH of the priest. For every additional 3 Stamina the Priest wishes to spend on the attempt, roll one less die in the test. A figure with the Theologian Aspect always rolls one less die to Turn of Command undead.

For each point the Priest wins the contest by, an additional undead creature is cowed. And if the Priest succeeds by 5 or more, one creature can be destroyed.

The typical skeleton or zombie has 8ST, and may be easily turned by our cleric, but more powerful undead like a wight (ST12) will be much more challenging.’

Alternate Cleric Packages

The only truly common ‘alternate’ cleric from the early days of class-based RPGs is the druid. Frankly, it has veery little in common with the cleric presented here. I may have to give them a treatment off the own.

Cloistered (or Pacifist) clerics might be a viable alternative package, though. It would start with +3 DX and +4 IQ, and +2 Stamina in lieu of ST gain. They would rely on their wizard Staff instead of heavy weapons. They would also use defensive magic like Shock Shield and Stone Flesh over armor. Social Aspects like Diplomacy and Charisma would be taken earlier, and Universal Aspects like Lore and Academic would replace more martial skills.

Are there aspects of the ‘classical’ cleric that we have overlooked here, or do you have a better way of bringing this kind of character to life in a skill-based system like HEX? Let us know in the comments below.


Class Consciousness: The Thief

December 14, 2017 at 9:26 pm

This thief was an artist of theft. Other thieves merely stole everything that was
not nailed down, but this thief stole the nails as well.”

― Terry Pratchett, Sourcery


As we discussed in the previous Class Consciousness entry on Warriors, character classes are a simple way of codifying a PC’s advancement to greater levels of power. While some players might rather invent a character from whole cloth, others prefer having a structure to hang their ideas on.

The Thief ‘class’ has been at gaming tables since the Greyhawk supplement of original D&D, picking pockets, hiding in shadows, and stabbing backs since at least 1975. Later softened to Rogue, the class exemplified stealth, cunning, and agility.

While its core abilities usually revolved around breaking and entering, lurking, and pilfering, many types of characters were categorized as thieves. Con-men, Tomb raiders, thugs, and swashbucklers often ended up as thieves.


The Crooked Path

Thief Package and Path
Thief Package:
+1ST, +4DX, +2IQ and 2 Expertise. Base Aspects: Melee weapon, Ranged Weapon, Detect Traps, Remove Traps, Silent Movement, Climbing, Thief.

Thief Path:
1. +2 Expertise (Alertness)
2. +1 DX
3. +2 Stamina
4. +2 Expertise (Streetwise)
5. +1 IQ (Recognize Value)
6. +1 DX
7. +1 Expertise
8. +1 Expertise (Acrobatics)
9. +1 DX
10. +1 IQ (Stealth)
11. +2 Stamina, or +2 Expertise (Sly Cut, above)
12. +2 Expertise (Assess Value)
13. +2 Expertise (Master Thief)
14. +1 ST
15. +1 DX
16. +1 IQ
17. +2 Expertise (Master Mechanician)
18. +2 Stamina
19. +1 IQ
20 +2 Expertise (Disguise)

To create a Package for the basic Thief in Heroic Expeditions, we will focus on the skills and abilities that began with D&D. Aspects are very important to a Thief, so they will need a fairly high IQ, Dexterity is also critical, and Strength can not be completely overlooked if we want our thief to survive. Let’s start with 4 points in DX, 2 in IQ,1 in ST and the last point in Expertise. This will give out thief the capability to carry iconic weapons like the rapier and short bow, and hit with reasonable accuracy in light armor. It will also give us the points to start building up our Aspects.

Starting Aspects should include a melee weapon (1-2), ranged attack (2), Detect Traps (2) Remove Traps (2), Silent Movement (2), Climbing (1), and of course Thief (2). Depending on the style of thief you want to play, you might want to take Streetwise, Recognize Value, or a specialty weapon like whip.

The thief’s Path will include increases in DX to improve their success with their Aspects, as well as IQ to access more complex skills. Expertise will be a handy way to maximize their Aspect pool, as only a Bard or Spy would need Aspects beyond IQ 13.

As they progress along the Path, a thief will want to take Alertness, Acrobatics, Mechanician, Assess Value, Stealth, and Master Thief. Master Mechanician is also a goal. If a thief takes a more social route, Charisma, Streetwise, and Disguise might be substituted for lock and trap Aspects.

A cornerstone of the Thief class throughout D&D’s history was the back-stab, or sneak attack. HEX creatures do not have large hit point pools like those games, and combat is run very differently, but if you wanted too replicate that feel, you could house rule something like this.

New Aspect: Sly Cut
Cost: 2
Type: Combat
Prerequisites: Stealth
A figure with this Aspect that attacks an unaware opponent (through Stealth, Ambush, or Surprise) with an aimed attack gains either +4adjDX on the attack or removes 4 AD from the defender. Only one of these can be chosen, and the choice must be made before the attack.

Another old school aspect we always liked was Theive’s Cant. Depending on your campaign world. You might want to have a secret Language Aspect for it that only thieves can learn.

Alternate Packages: Thief

Bards are often considered thieves. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons even required several levels of Thief to become a bard. Bards might not be as skilled at Climbing or Removing Traps, but they will have Charisma, Bard, Diplomacy, Mimic, and Courtly Graces. A Bard would begin with 3 points in DX, 3 in IQ, 1 in ST and 2 additional Expertise.

Advanced Aspects would include Master Bard and Disguise. A bard might also consider learning a spell or two, like Dazzle or even Control Person.

Swashbucklers are also commonly lumped in with thieves. ST is more important to them than other types, and they require less IQ points. A swashbuckler would start with 2 points in ST, 4 in DX, and 2 in IQ. They would need the Sword talent, Weapon Training, and Acrobatics. Depending on their style of play, they might to take Charisma or Sex Appeal as well.

Their path would include DX increases, IQ raises to 12, Expertise to expand their Aspects and Stamina to survive their exploits. Silent Movement, Running, Climbing, and Stealth are among their standard thief talents, along with Fencing, Weapon Mastery, and the Two Weapons Aspect. Swashbucklers like to be the center of attention, and may consider Leadership Aspects was well.

Are there iconic thief builds you would like to see for HEX? Did we overlook some obvious aspect of a thief? Join the conversation and let us know below.


Class Consciousness: The Warrior

December 6, 2017 at 8:11 pm

Every class, as a class, is almost sure to have more defects than qualities. As soon as you put men together, they somehow sink, corporatively, below the level of the worst of the individuals composing it.

― Aleister Crowley, Magick Without Tears


One of the core precepts of role-playing games is that characters have ‘classes’ that define their abilities and track their improvement over time. From the very beginnings of Dungeons & Dragons to the newly released GURPS-inspired Dungeon Fantasy, classes have been an easy way for players to define their creations and guide their choices.

On the other hand (and the RPG spectrum has a truly Kali-esque number of hands), games like The Fantasy Trip, Savage Worlds, and our own Heroic Expeditions have no classes, or a very simplified class structure. HEX divides characters between Explorers and Adepts, depending on whether they focus on magic or worldly talents.

I have always felt that class structures were too restrictive, and force players into trenches that make making a PC unique more difficult, but that is simply taste. Classes provide real values, especially to new players. Classes not only give characters a foundation, but also built-in goals and motivations to increase their power.

Classes (or Professions, Careers, etc.) can also ground a character in the world they are playing in. A Knight character is probably part of a feudal system and will have obligations and restrictions based on that, whereas a Red Wizard of Thay will have a very different community and codes of conduct.

These benefits can gained in a skill-based system without adding all the mechanical restrictions of classes. For HEX, we’ll call them Packages and Paths. Let’s take a look at a few, starting with warriors.


The Way of the Warrior


Warrior Package and Path
Warrior Package:
+4ST, +4DX, +0DX. Base Aspects: Melee Weapon, Shield, Ranged Weapon or Thrown Weapon.

Warrior Path:
1. +1ST (ST13)
2. +1DX (DX)
3. +1DX (DX14)
4. +1IQ (IQ9)
5. +1ST (ST14)
6. +2 Expertise (Weapon Training)
7. +1IQ (IQ10)
8. +2 Expertise (Warrior)
9. +2 Expertise (Horsemanship, Running)
10. +1D+X (DX15)
11. +2 Expertise (Range Weapon Training)
12. +2 Stamina (SA16)
13. +2 Expertise (Weapon Mastery)
14. +1ST (ST15)
15. +1ST (ST16)
16. +2 Expertise (Veteran)
17. +1IQ (IQ11, Tactics)
18. +2 Expertise (Expert Horseman)
19. +2 SA (SA20)
20. +2 Expertise (Leadership)

The warrior (all the way back to the Gygaxian fighting man) has always been a character class that relied on strength and power, and focused its efforts on weapons and armor. One might be tempted to load a Warrior Explorer in HEX with a high ST and cut loose— especially considering the ST requirements of some of the heavier weapons.

A high ST warrior can do a lot of damage with a large weapon, but without DX they will not be able to hit often, and even less if they wear heavy armor. These will need to be balanced. Only a basic intelligence is required for most weapon skills, and can be improved with experience.

Given that, our basic Warrior package would start out putting 4 points in ST and 4 in DX, and none in IQ. This will give a human a ST of 13, and the capability of using all but the heaviest weapons. An 12 DX would hit around 75% the time unarmored, and would hit roughly 37% in leather armor and carrying a large shield.

Base Package Aspects would include Sword (or Axe if preferred), Shield, Bow or Crossbow, or Pole Weapon and Thrown Weapons. This would leave a point or two to customize your base warrior, giving them Literacy, Horsemanship, Seamanship, or even Sex Appeal to set them apart.

The Warrior Path would improve ST by 1 quickly, to allow them to trade top to even heavier weapons. DX improvements would be equally important to offset armor choices. Stamina increases are helpful to withstand prolonged combats as well. Once you’ve reached ST14 and as much as DX15, a warrior will want to improve their IQ to gain new Aspects.

Important Warrior Aspects include Weapon Training and Warrior, as well as physical Aspects like Running, Swimming, and Alertness. A warrior may want to learn a specialty weapon like Cestus or Naginata.

A Warrior’s advanced Path (40 Att points or more) should still include moderate increases to ST and DX, but will probably focus more on Aspects. Improving IQ will allow them to gain Fencing or Weapon Mastery, Tactics, and Two-weapon fighting. Depending on their role in the campaign, they may want to have Expert Horseman, Courtly Graces, or even Strategist.

This path shows that even a straightforward Warrior PC can be advanced through 50 Attribute points with little difficulty and without becoming overpowered.


Alternate Packages: Warrior

Almost as soon as Warrior classes appeared, variations on the concept followed. The holy paladin, the wise ranger, and the thrill-seeking Swashbuckler are as much a part of fantasy gaming history as the fighting man himself. And, they are just as easy to create in a skill-based game like HEX.

Rangers rely on Aspects more than a standard Warrior, and will need a higher IQ. Their base package would be 3 points in ST and DX, and 2 points in IQ. Base skills would include Sword (or similar weapon), Bow, Animal Handler, and Naturalist, leaving points for Alertness or additional physical skills like Swimming, Running, or Climbing. Rangers typically use lighter armor and weapons, and will rely less on ST and more on DX.

As they increase in experience, their Path will include increasing DX to 15 or so, and IQ up to 12. Additional Aspects would include Woodsman, Silent Movement, Veterinarian and Weapon Training in their favorite weapon. As they become mighty heroes they will acquire Aspects like Expert Naturalist, Stealth, and Fencing. They might even learn a few spells like Trailtwister or Control Animal.

Paladins are the martial arm of a church, and are held to a high moral standard. They are usual strong warriors, but they have divine gifts that might be seen as magic. If you want to use paladins in your campaigns, you might allow them to bypass the restrictions against iron and magic. Their base Package would be 4 points to ST, 3 to DX and one to IQ, but they will need to improve IQ faster if they wish to use magic.

Their initial Aspects would include a Weapon, Shield, Charisma, and perhaps Priest. You might want to consider a One-point Aspect like ‘Ordained Warrior’ to reflect their place in church hierarchy. Their Path may take them down the martial route of Weapon Training and Warrior, or a more social route of Diplomacy, Courtly Graces and Theology. As they gain experience, they will want gain spells like Detect Enemies, Vigor, Refresh and Healing.

Launching the Expedition

November 30, 2017 at 6:40 pm

I’ve also regarded a sense of humor as one of the most important things on a big expedition. When you’re in a difficult or dangerous situation, or when you’re depressed about the chances of success, someone who can make you laugh eases the tension.

—Edmund Hillary


What were we thinking?

This seems like a pretty valid question. In a world with hundreds of RPGs of different genres and complexities, why create another one? I guess the answer is personal taste. We loved the simplicity and action-focus of old school RPGs like The Fantasy Trip, but wanted to take advantage of nearly 40 years advancement in how these game are actually played. To capture the original spirit of those first generation games, but add in better organization, streamlined systems, greater consistency, and easy to use mechanics.

Those RPG pioneers loved seriously complex tables and intricate subsystems a lot more than they liked continuity or proof-reading. We wanted to play, and tried not to let the game get in the way.