Dread Fury and d100 Combat

Happy the blest ages that knew not the dread fury of those devilish engines of artillery, whose inventor I am persuaded is in hell receiving the reward of his diabolical invention, by which he made it easy for a base and cowardly arm to take the life of a gallant gentleman; and that, when he knows not how or whence, in the height of the ardour and enthusiasm that fire and animate brave hearts, there should come some random bullet, discharged perhaps by one who fled in terror at the flash when he fired off his accursed machine, which in an instant puts an end to the projects and cuts off the life of one who deserved to live for ages to come.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Continuing my posts on building a d100 game system for an upcoming fantasy Renaissance campaign. The focus here is combat, and mundane weapons and armour (I will get to magic in a future post). Starting with a bit of combat philosophy, I will look at damage and how it is mitigated by active and passive defences, initiative, and actions in combat. I will end with my design choices so far.

What is Combat in Roleplaying Games Anyway?

There have been conflict resolution procedures in most roleplaying games, starting from the first edition of D&D. Because combat involves chance and opposing wills, its outcomes are uncertain, so combat can take the game in unexpected directions. Which is part of playing to find out what happens.

One framing for combat in roleplaying games is Combat as Sport versus Combat as War, where combat as sport might be a “fair fight”, and combat as war has a much more adversarial relationship between players and GM, where all sides seek asymmetric advantages to win at minimal cost (just as you would in the real world). I will add another axis to this, labeling one end of this axis “Combat as Fail State”, and the other end “Combat as Speed Bump”. Speed Bump combat is a combat that you power through in as few dice rolls as possible – maybe only one roll, in order to get back to whatever the game is focused on. Combat as fail state means that gameplay seeks to avoid combat at all costs, as the risk of character mortality is so high.

A quick diagram and some contestable examples. The closer you are to the point where the X and Y axis overlap, the more time the game system devotes to combat as the default mode of play.

Different groups of players will have different preferences for what they want in combat. Different games or campaigns can also have different expectations set in session zero. For a Night’s Black Agent’s campaign, I promised my players boss fights, but I did not promise that they would survive them.

For a d100 renaissance game with gunpowder weapons, I think a key design consideration is how lethal firearms will be in the setting and rule system. On the whole I think that combat is an expected element in most d100 games, and they fall more at the realistic Combat as War side of the graph. This may be due to the early Runequest (RQ) combat rules being derived in part from the authors experience of medieval reenactment combat in the Society of Creative Anachronism. It is a lot harder to think of hit points (HP) as plot armour when the rules say your character took a critical hit to the head. So you get a more visceral feeling as you play, unlike in D&D where you can feel immune from consequences due to HP bloat.

Damage, Special Damage, and Wounds

I will compare and contrast a few different d100 games, splitting them up into chunks. These are of necessity, brief descriptions of rules that often detailed at length in game books, so many of the quirks and subtleties of each system will be glossed over:

  • Runequest 2 (1978): A hit means you roll weapon damage, and hit location, then subtract a fixed number for armour worn in the location from the damage roll. A PC has both general hit points and location hit points. Wounds affect both general and location HP. When general HP drop to zero, the PC is dead. When a specific location reaches 0 HP a character falls (legs), loses use of limb (arm), or has two turns until they die (abdomen, chest, or head). A limb hit for six more points of damage in a single blow is amputated. While this is a bronze age fantasy game, it includes the comment “A modern, high velocity, bullet, hitting a limb hard enough to put it out of action, will probably kill the owner of the limb by hydrostatic shock.” (RQ2 p.20) A critical hit (a roll equal or less than 1/20 of skill) ignores armour, while an impaling hit (a roll equal or less than 1/5 of skill) increases damage (eg a weapon doing d6+1 damage would do 2d6+2 damage).
  • Mythras (2016): Retains location HP, but drops general HP. Location HP are a bit higher than in RQ. When you drop below 0 HP in a location, Endurance checks are needed to avoid being disabled (limb) or incapacitated (head, chest, abdomen). The special effect menu has 40+ options you can choose from, but in my experience Choose Location, Bypass Armour, and Maximise Damage are selected 95% of the time by my players. Choose Location is a dominant strategy in special effect selection, as you can choose an already wounded location. This makes Mythras PCs more vulnerable to being quickly knocked out of combat than RQ PCs (an average PC has 4 HP in their arm, so four points of damage there is enough to trigger a karmic death spiral), unless the GM deliberately avoids hard moves against the PCs and has foes attacking in Combat as Sport mode.
  • Call of Cthulhu 7E (2014): Retains general hit points, but drops location hit points. A single wound that does less than half HP just reduces your HP score. A wound that does more than max HP in one blow causes death. Anything in between is a major wound, the character falls, must make a CON check to remain conscious, and if reduced to 0 HP is dying. A dying character needs first aid to avoid death. CoC PCs rarely wear substantial armour. An extreme success on an attack causes increased damage. Pulp Cthulhu (2016) doubles HPs and does not have major wounds, but does check to see if they are knocked out if they lose half their HP in one blow.
  • Clockwork and Chivalry 2E (2013): Similar to Coc7E, but you can keep fighting below 0 HP if you make a Resistance roll, until you reach negative HP equal to your starting HP score. This potentially doubles your HP, but with more uncertainty than Pulp Cthulhu. Major wounds are more specific than CoC7E, and are determined by rolling on a table, and range from cosmetic scars to temporary incapacity. Major wounds when below 0 HP roll on the Grievous Wound table, which can include instant death outcomes. Armour only provides half protection against guns up to their normal range, but full protection beyond that. Critical hits do maximum damage and ignore armour.
  • Delta Green (2016): Damage bonus from STR is a fixed modifier (from -2 to +2) rather than a die. Has general HP and no location HP, and at 1 or 2 HP you are unconscious, at 0 HP you are dead. Any time you are reduced to 2 or fewer HP, you must make a CONx5 test to avoid losing 1d10 from a character stat. A distinctive feature of this game, is the lethality rating for automatic and heavy weapons, where weapons have a 10-30% chance of being instantly fatal if they hit, regardless of HP. If the lethality roll fails, add the dice together to determine HP damage. For example, a heavy sniper rifle has a 20% lethality rating, and where a Rifle does 1d12+2 damage (3-14), the sniper rifle will do 3-20 damage if it does not land a lethal blow.
  • Mothership (2022): This game is not an evolution descended from RQ, and is a streamlined game focused on sci-fi horror (and a hefty does of “invisible rules” or assumed GM knowledge on how to run games). A character will have two wounds (three wounds if a combat specialist). Each wound has 10-20 health points. When you lose all of the HP for a wound, you roll on a wound table (different types of weapons have different tables). Armour is ablative, in that any penetrating blow destroys the armour. Armour ranges in value from 1 to 10. Weapons, however, can do anything from 1d10 damage for a Pistol, through to 1d100 damage for a Laser Cutter (which to be fair, is a one shot weapon with a one hour recharge), and some weapons inflict automatic wounds as well (such as 1d5 wounds for a frag grenade, which will kill most characters).
  • Basic Roleplaying (2008): A toolkit system like Mythras, by default BRP uses general HP, a major wound system, and PCs stop fighting at 0 HP and take a fatal wound. BRP treats armour differently, by default armour is rolled randomly (the equipment tables retain an option for fixed armour values). This acknowledges that all armour has weak spots (typically at the arm pit, groin, or eye slot on a human), and creates a wider range of damage outcomes.

How many hits can an adventurer take and keep fighting? My own preference is that a PC should be able to survive at least two normal blows, so that they have time to change what they are doing.

Active Defence – Dodge, Parry, Block

One of the dynamic features of d100 games is that they include active defence options, as well as passive defence from armour (and in Mythras, shields). A PC usually has the option to parry with a weapon, to dodge a blow by movement, or to block with a shield. Parrying risks damage to the weapon, which can cause it to break. Dodge only works if the blow can be reasonably avoided – if you are stuck in place, or next to a cliff, or trying to dodge a house sized object, then dodge is unlikely to work. In Mythras, the equivalent to Dodge, Evasion, leaves you prone on the ground, which is only delaying the inevitable.

In CoC7E, you can fight back when attacked. If your roll is better than your foes, they take damage. You do not get bonus damage from extreme success when fighting back.

You have to go to a completely different game, Usagi Yojimbo, to find the classic defence mechanism of taking a few paces back out of range of the enemy.

The problem of shields

Compared to D&D, shields are amazing in d100 games. In RQ2, you could roll to block an attack with your shield, absorbing 8-16 points of damage depending on the size of the shield. One of the effects of increased protection from shields, is to increase the number of rolls between opponents in combat before a decision is reached, which increases the time required to play out a combat scene.

In Mythras for example, a heater shield blocks all damage on a location the shield is blocking, giving the shield. The difference between maille armour (six armour) and articulated plate (eight armour) is only two points. While this reinforces the dominance of the Choose Location effect (to avoid locations covered by the shield), it can make the Sunder effect useful to batter the shield down over several blows. A d10+2 Glaive with average damage of 7.5 a blow would break a six armour/12 HP heater shield in eight blows. In RQG, shields take 1 HP of damage each time a blow penetrates them, so it will take 12 blows to render a medium shield (12 HP) completely ineffective, but that first blow needs to do at least 13 damage.

The problem for a renaissance game, is that in history shields were abandoned as the quality of steel for armour and weapons improved in Europe, and combatants equipped themselves with two-handed weapons.

One solution is to just say that gunpowder weapons ignore all shields. I also like the “Shields shall l be splintered” house rule (you sacrifice a shield to negate all damage from one attack), but that does not make sense for the renaissance buckler shield, which is entirely made of metal, and is more of an aggressive deflecting device than a passive blocker. A roleplaying solution is to just say that people have stopped using shields, so its not an option for PCs.

Passive Defence – Armour

Armour is generally treated as passive damage reduction in most of the d100 games I have examined. The renaissance was a period of incredible change in armour, with older styles being superseded by improved plate armour that was both thicker and made of softer metal in order to be proof against pistol and musket fire. As muskets improved, heavier muskets with larger powder charges could penetrate almost any armour, so even proof armour was mostly abandoned by the mid-17th century in Europe (the Polish Hussars being a notable exception).

I am going to look at how three game systems represent the armour worn in the renaissance: Basic Roleplaying (BRP), Mythras, and Clockwork and Chivalry (C&C).

  • BRP: Full Plate grants 1d10 Armour Points (AP) or 8 AP in a fixed AP game. Half Plate grants 1d8 AP, or 7 AP. A heavy helmet would add +2 AP. While its not exactly on the list, I think a leather buff coat with lobstertail helmet and a metal breastplate, could be treated could be treated as Hard Leather with a Heavy Helmet for 1d6+2 AP or 4 AP.
  • Mythras: Articulated Plate provides 8 AP. Half Plate is 5 AP. A combination of buff coat and plate armour is 3 AP in areas only protected by the buff coat (arms) or leather boots, 8 AP in the head and torso.
  • C&C: Full plate grants 5 AP. Half Plate grants 4 AP, and Medium armour (buff coat, breastplate, and lobstertail) grants 3 AP.


The Renaissance is also a time of change in weapons – if there was ever an era for a Gygaxian polearm list on the equipment chart, its the Renaissance! Its a feature of the game, rather than a medieval stasis bug, and of course, in a fantasy Renaissance you can make some decisions to mix anachronisms together. There were, however, compelling reasons to adopt gunpowder firearms over traditional longbows and crossbows:

  • Muskets were cheaper than military crossbows, which were complex machines
  • Deadly wounds could be inflicted at long range against opponents in the best armour
  • Logistics was easier – shot can be quickly made in the field and is lighter to carry than arrows
  • In siege or urban warfare, a firearm user does not need to expose themselves to return fire
  • Less strength or fitness was needed to use a musket
  • Materials for muskets and shot were not in short supply (unlike Yew trees in England)
  • People preferred shooting them.

One feature of older d100 games, is that the difficulty to learn a weapon was in part handled by requiring a minimum STR and DEX score, eg in BRP a longbow requires STR 11 and DEX 9 to use effectively – in history it was noted that longbows required years of training, constant practice to maintain skill, and good physical condition to loose volleys of arrows in battle (and after a long campaign archer strength might be debilitated by disease). This could be reflected in base skills of varying levels for different weapons. Overall I prefer the Mythras approach of calculating base skill levels (adding two ability scores together) as it generally results in higher minimum skills for PCs.

The transition away from “proof” armour that could stop musket balls, was driven by the physics making it easier to increase the power of muskets, but armour ran into weight limits of what could be worn even by fit, trained, professional soldiers.The problem is that if you just boost the raw damage of firearms, to ensure they penetrate armour, then in any situation where the PCs are not wearing armour, a hit from a firearm will kill them in one shot.

Keeping things simple, I am going to consider only three weapons across three game systems: Basic Roleplaying (BRP), Mythras Firearms Supplement (Mythras), and Clockwork and Chivalry (C&C). The weapons of comparison are the rapier, the flintlock pistol, and the flintlock musket. Remember that weapon damage interacts with character HP, and armour, so while C&C weapons have more damage dice, C&C characters can fight at negative HP. This is very much an apples to oranges comparison.


  • BRP: 1d6+1+damage bonus damage, base skill 15%, 15 HP for parrying, STR 7 DEX 13 minimum to use.
  • Mythras: 1d8 + damage bonus damage, base skill STR+DEX, 5 AP and 8 HP for parrying.
  • C&C: 1d8 + damage bonus damage, STR 7 DEX 13 minimum to use.

Flint Lock Pistol

  • BRP: 1d6+1 damage, base skill of 20%, one attack every 4 rounds, range of 10, STR 7 DEX 5 minimum to use, and malfunctions on 95-00. The value of primitive/ancient armour is halved against firearms (round up).
  • Mythras: 1d8 damage, base skill STR+DEX, four actions to reload (less one with Rapid Reload combat effect, but with a typical PC having three actions you get a faster rate of fire per five second combat round than the other two game systems), range 10/20/50, ignores four points of armour.
  • C&C: 1d6+2 damage, Range 5m, 3 rounds to load, STR 9 DEX 7 minimum to use

Flintlock Dueling Pistol (bonus weapon because C&C has a lot of firearms)

  • C&C: 2d4+1 damage, range 10m, 2 rounds to load, STR 9 DEX 9 minimum to use.

Flintlock Musket

  • BRP: 1d10+4 damage (1d8 as a club), base skill of 25%, one attack every 4 rounds, range of 60, STR 9 DEX 5 minimum to use, and malfunctions on 95-00. The value of primitive/ancient armour is halved against firearms (round up).
  • Mythras: 1d10 damage (2d6 as a club), base skill STR+DEX, four actions to reload (less one with Rapid Reload combat effect, but with a typical PC having three actions you get a faster rate of fire per five second combat round than the other systems here), range 15/100/200, ignores five points of armour.
  • C&C: 2d8+1 damage (d6 as a club), range 30m, 4 rounds to load, STR 11 DEX 9 minimum to use.

The Apples to Oranges Comparison

So let us compare weapons to armour, against typical HP for a normal (average damage) and a special success (maximum damage), in each system. Assumptions include average HP based on CON 11 and SIZ 13, no melee damage modifier. There are no buffs to attack or defence from magic, nor any use of luck mechanics.

Interpreting the box colours: Green (no damage), Yellow (damaged, but no chance of being knocked out of the fight), Orange (some chance of being knocked out of the fight), Red (almost certainly knocked out of the fight).

BRP Assumption: average armour rolls with heavy helmets (+2).
Assumption: first special effect is choose location Arm, which has 4 HP, second effect for a critical success is either Maximize Damage or Bypass Armour.
Assumption: weapons are at normal range for armour penetration (ie armour is halved).

Now after the gunpowder weapons have been fired, I will look at what the second blow does, with the following assumptions: (1) Pistol switches to Rapier, (2) Musket switches to two-handed club, and (3) the first hit was an ordinary success doing median damage.

The first number is the damage from the first blow, the second number is the damage from the second blow.

Some observations:

  • BRP is the most lethal system for the first blow, as its special success results for double damage occur 20% of the time.
  • C&C is the least lethal system for the second blow, in part because the Musket does such low damage as a club (d6 compared to 2d6 in Mythras).
  • Mythras is the most lethal system for the second strike due to the cumulative impact of injury to a specific location. While it looks like full plate armour can entirely prevent a lethal first strike, if you chose not to go with Choose Location as your first critical success effect, and went with Bypass Armour and Maximize damage, then a pistol hit against an arm knocks a foe out, as does a musket hit against an arm, leg or head location.

Ultimately, I am not happy with any of these three systems. All three are a bit too dangerous to PCs who are expected to fight, and I think my group wants a long term campaign that is closer to “combat as sport” where they do not have to obsess about ensuring min/max combat and survival skills for their PCs. I think my main solution is to go with a general HP/serious wound approach, dropping hit locations, and to then buff HP to a range where all PCs will have 20-30 HP (which also ties in with the desire to use The One Ring journey and fatigue system). A high CON score still remains useful for mitigating serious wounds. I might use a Mothership approach, where gunpowder weapons inflict an automatic serious wound if any damage penetrates the armour, even just 1 HP. Another armour penetration mechanic not used by any of these systems, is the all-or-nothing approach, i.e. any firearm shot that penetrates armour inflicts full damage, with no reduction.

Initiative and the OODA Loop

For an online age, speed of resolution of actions becomes more important, because everything takes longer to resolve online. This is a reason for dumping the Mythras combat effects, or RQ strike ranks, and going for a set process when special or critical hits are scored.

The players want a swashbuckling game, which means the game system needs to allow creative exploits that are dependent on the situation and the environment. Rather than specifying all of these in detail ahead of time, I assume that as an experienced GM I can make judgements as the game progresses, offering fail forward or success with a complication where needed.

While I do find the Fast/Slow initiative/action system in Shadows of the Demon Lord interesting, my key decision here, is to adopt a Dr Who initiative system:

  1. Intent – players choose their actions.
  2. Talking actions are resolved first – even if its just witty repartee, and not a social skill check.
  3. Running moves – this can include the party agreeing to a campaign loss in order to flee the combat with their wounded comrades.
  4. Doing moves are resolved – this can include swashbuckling moves, operating machinery, opening or closing doors, or using a utility item such as an alchemical potion.
  5. Combat – anything involving attacks and damage is resolved last (eg firing an artillery piece is a combat move, not a Doing move).

If it is not clear from the established narrative who should act first, resolve actions in DEX+INT order.

How Many Actions per Round?

Assuming the five second timescale of most d100 games, my preference is one attack action per player turn, per round of turns, unless some special resource is expended, or PC skills are over 100%. I am not planing on including magic that allows “haste” or multiple actions. The Dr Who system has a stacking penalty for multiple actions and I will have to think about how that plays out in d100 (a -20% cumulative penalty feels okay). Because of the way CoC7E opposed skills work, PCs getting to split their skill for multiple attacks will be rare until they get their skill up to 200%.

Other Design Choices

Fire magic and gunpowder do not play well together. Allowing mages with fire spells to trigger explosions in gunpowder weapons or powder magazines is fun and exciting the first time it happens, and dull as ditch water once it becomes an “I Win” button for all future combat encounters. So the first rule of magic in a game with gunpowder is that no one has fire magic.

After that decision, I think the fundamental call for an era of online play, where three hour sessions have become the norm for my group rather than four hour sessions, is how much time do I want to spend on combat? I think that both the micro-management of Mythras, and attack/dodge/parry/block of RQ, are simply going to eat too much game time. So something closer to the opposed check and fight back mechanics of Call of Cthulhu fits better – and the fight back can be described as the ripostes and counter-strikes of rapier play.

For dual wield weapons, borrow from 13th Age and have the secondary weapon hit on rolls of 2, but also fumble on a roll of 22 as well as 99 and 00. (so 12, 27, 92, etc are all hits if under the general skill level required). This includes shield bash. I will figure out how to handle bucklers when I build the equipment list.

Armour will be fixed values (because its faster than making AP rolls), with the best plate armour having a maximum of seven AP (so a d8 damage weapon can hope to do some damage). Armour imposes no penalties to skill use, except through the fatigue system.

Use CoC7E success levels, so an Extreme success (one fifth of base chance) inflicts increased damage, while a Critical success (01% chance) ignores armour. I am still thinking about the increased damage. Just maximum damage on one die will be plenty if its combined with the armour penetration rule below.

Gunpowder lethality will be represented by having any penetration cause a serious wound. For non-gunpowder weapons, I will do a pass for damage consistency, eg one-handed martial weapons should all do d8 damage, and not have a spread between d6 and d10. I will have to sit down for an afternoon with the weapon and armour tables I build, plus expected PC HP levels, and do a few white box combat tests. Part of session zero will be getting the players do some PvP with their character builds to see how it all works.

Reversion to the Sword

A couple of ideas in relation to roleplaying games:

(1) the idea of a culture deliberately abandoning gunpowder weapons and reverting to the sword, as happened in Japan.

(2) social implications for magic users based on medieval cultural practices of war.

…and a few notes from my Dragon Age game.

Reversion to the Sword

I’m inspired by Noel Perrin’s Giving up the Gun: Japan’s reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879.  Japan had a culture which encountered firearms, quickly adopted them, and had the industrial skill to manufacture and improve on the imported technology.  After some trial and error, firearms became crucial weapons used in battle.  Yet, after unification under the Tokugawas, Japan largely gave up the use of firearms for 250 odd years.

A few key points here:

(1) Someone has to want the use of firearms to be given up

(2) They need enough power to make this happen

(3) There needs to be no external threat requiring firearms to be dealt with.

Japan had a unified government (2), which was based on a Samurai social class which was distinguished by skill in traditional weapons.  Firearms were easy to learn, affordable, and any peasant with an arquebus could kill a veteran Samurai at range.  So the potential threat to the social order motivates (1) and the Japanese disarm both firearms and other weapons held by the peasants.  As an island nation, Japan was able to isolate itself from external influences (3) and it took a long time before anyone outside Japan was motivated enough to go and take a look.  The real history is probably more complex than that, and Perrin’s work has had strong criticism for simplifying history to fit his views, but its a good basis for a narrative.

For a cliched fantasy setting, the traditional feudal class of western Europe would stand in for the Samurai, but I can also imagine that miracle wielding Priests and sorcerous mages would also stand opposed to the spread of firearms (“I spent thirteen years learning how to cast a fireball, and that buffoon learns how to fire a handgonne in three weeks”).  Having multiple centres of social power opposed to firearms would make it harder to reintroduce them.

So, people know firearms existed, and probably have a name for them that the elders know, and they are largely not around anymore, except possibly as a prerogative of the higher social estates, or for agents of the government.  If not an island nation, or otherwise isolated by distance and harsh wastelands, perhaps the realm is a very large Empire – one so old and powerful it has no peers or rivals to challenge it.  Another alternative might be that there is a Dark Lord ruling the realm, and they have forbidden the use of firearms, even if this is sufficiently contrary to reason to ensure the Dark Lord’s demise when the forces of good invade with their Boomsticks.  One side-effect of being a post-firearms society, is that you could have other post-medieval technology around without it being too out of place.

So in these settings what roles do firearms play for players?

  • potential macguffin to drive the plot of an adventure (find and rescue/destroy the gun, gunpowder, gunsmith, book of gun lore, etc)
  • possession is a symbol of favoured status in the realm
  • or possession is a sign of rebellion against the realm/membership of a criminal gang, cult or clan of ninjas
  • a character element – demonstrates the character is not a good member of a social class opposed to firearms
  • a potential reward/power-up gained through adventures
  • possibly a long term goal to research/engineer the lost technology
  • if the bad guys have firearms, then they can be painfully scary bad as the lead slugs penetrate enchanted mithril like a hot knife through butter
  • weather is important … firearms don’t work so well in the rain
  • if gunpowder is hard to find/expensive, then as a scarce resource decisions about whether or not to use it to kill an Ogre should be interesting decisions for the players to make.

Magic and War

I was reading Richard Abels Cultural Representation and the Practice of War in the Middle Ages (Journal of Medieval Military History, Volume VI, 2008) which, inter alia, looked at how medieval knights reconciled chivalric literature/culture (how war should be fought) with the brutal realities of combat (how war must be fought if you are to survive it).  Keeping in mind that in any given society there will be multiple cultural interpretations of correct behaviour, I thought it interesting to think a bit about how magic users, as an estate/social class like knights, might perceive warfare and how it should be approached.

One approach is for the mages to adopt attitudes similar to the medieval church, being inclined towards peace rather than war, and moderating the practices of war to minimise non-combatant suffering and collateral damage to (for example) libraries, laboratories and isolated towers where mages live.

Honourable, unremarkable and shameful behaviour:

  • honourable behaviour is that which enhances reputation (martial glory, should involve a degree of risk to the wizard concerned)
  • unremarkable behaviour is the normal day to day actions that do not attract comment (if a magic user is busy being a magic usurer and concentrating on material profit, its unlikely to be viewed as honourable behaviour)
  • shameful behaviour (cowardice, oath-breaking, black magic etc).

Circumstances and context play a role here.  A mage who kills prisoners who have just been captured and are still in armour, when the prisoner’s friends threaten to attack, is unlikely to be thought to have engaged in shameful behaviour.  The mage who takes their prisoners off to a secure location and then sacrifices them to a demon, is probably going to be thought ill of.  If the cultural group has some vilified enemies (heretics, orcs, demon-worshippers, etc) then harder methods may be used against them than against more honourable opponents.

For medieval knights, there is a strong connection between honour and prowess (being a good warrior in battle).  If mages share this view, then honourable action for a mage in battle involves using their magic to great effect, not hoarding their spells for later use.  A key difference here, is that in most game worlds, mages are “squishy” and non-users of serious metal armour.  So a mage takes big risks on the battlefield, one stray arrow and ten years of college education goes down the drain.  Looking at examples from Joinville’s Life of St Louis, Knights would discuss honour mid-battle, when trying to determine if going for help or running away was an honourable course of action. Running away and leaving your comrades behind is nearly always going to be seen as shameful action, which is a potential problem for squishy mages.

Where a mage differs from some medieval knights, is that they will be literate (although after about the 12th century literacy was getting common among the higher nobility, in part because you needed it if the lawyers were not going to rob you blind).  This means a mage is quite capable of correcting the course of history by making sure that the written account of a battle shows that their conduct was honourable (“I did not teleport away until after the standard fell and the King was captured…”)

One reason for the raiding and looting that occurred in medieval warfare, was that “war must pay for itself”.  Wars were often funded on the basis of expected profits from invasion. Fortunes could be made in minutes after a successful battle (When King Jean the Good of France was being squabbled over by various parties as to who had captured him after the Battle of Poitiers, he is alleged to have said “Gentleman, I can make you all rich!”).  So nobles at war paid for their troops with a mix of cash, loot, chickens and promises.  A mage is going to expect at least the same.  A mage serving as a mercenary is probably after hard currency, or perhaps first choice of the relics captured on campaign.  A mage fulfilling feudal obligations probably has customary limits to that obligation, perhaps 40 days service in the field.  A knight would expect to have their horse replaced by their Lord if it was killed in battle, a Mage will expect similar reimbursement for alchemical expenditure, loss of apprentices, harm to familiars, etc.

One of the medieval writers on warfare and its customs wrote “call no man a soldier if he does not know how to set fire to things”.  While the chivalric ideal of warfare emphasised noble deeds of arms against other knights and nobles, the knights of the middle ages understood that warfare as it was actually practiced involved rape, pillage and destruction.  Now any decent mage should have a fireball spell, so that means they can do the practical side of destruction easily enough, and perhaps mages are effective at intimidating reluctant peasants into revealing where their food stocks have been hidden.  But after consideration of the dirty necessities, what particular actions would a mage engage in, in order to enhance their reputation – which is why the knights are seeking deeds of arms, as reputation increases their status among fellow knights and the chance of rewards from the King.

If the mages in our fantasy reality have a code of conduct similar to the chivalric code, then we can expect a degree of adherence to that code. For example, picking up on an element of Samurai culture, for formal duels and battles between mages, you could have a cultural tradition of introductions.  In this case, the introduction involves telling your opponents your true name.  So if a mage flees the battle, their enemy has the ability to use their true name to easily find them through scrying magic or to work up a more effective curse or voodoo doll.  Thinking a bit further about dueling  would it be possible for mages to engage in a “martial sport” of a magic tournament, which provides a warlike training setting, competition for prizes, but is expected to be sub-lethal in outcomes (but not guaranteed).  Perhaps mages have an expectation of ransom from other mages, or a tradition of servitude for a set period if taken prisoner.

One important element of deeds of arms, is that they are public.  People see you doing them.  So if a mage is deployed in skullduggery, or the magical equivalent of electronic warfare, opportunities for public recognition and renown are slim.  Effective results may convince the King to reward, but a large pile of bodies with your signature singe marks on them is undeniable evidence of your prowess.  This suggests to me, that on a battlefield a mage is likely to add a few twists to their spells, to make them showy.  “The blue fireball, your majesty, the one that toasted their champion, that was my spell, as you can see it turned my fingernails blue…”

My Dragon Age Campaign

My “Secrets of Samaria” game has been running for almost three years now.  One current frustration is that the player’s characters have just about out-levelled the available rulebooks, and the third set has been “Coming Soon” for about six months now.  On the whole the Dragon Age system is a simple old school system.  Where its creaking a bit is from the combination of high hit point totals and a system where armour reduces damage. Now that most of the party has either high defence or high armour scores, its getting harder and harder for me to challenge them.

On the whole, the players still seem to be having fun and are interested in uncovering the next few “secrets”. It has been very worthwhile for me, seeing them get a clue, then cross-reference it back to stuff that happened years ago, and figure out the connections, back story, probable NPC motive, and then proceed to formulate a cunning new plan.  So in that sense the year or so I spent thinking and writing up background before the campaign started has paid off very well.

I have found that social interactions really eat up time.  The players blitzed a dungeon level in less time than it takes to do the formal introductions for a Clan Ball in the Eleven Capital of Trion.  On the other hand, the players do enjoy the social stuff, but I did not plan ahead, having three major social challenges for the party prior to the dungeon.  That took eight sessions (including travel time to the city), which with fortnightly games was over four months real time.  I can improve a bit there.

Anyhow, the players have started figuring out all of the major factions and what their goals are, they just have to make some decisions soon about who they will ally with long-term in order to prevent the Dragons from setting the whole world a fire in a few game years…

… so I am starting to plan story arcs that can bring the campaign to a satisfactory conclusion, but there is probably one-two years left at least.  My brain is starting to turn towards future projects though, possibly something involving Runequest VI.