Big Damn Dragons

Dragons are like Gods, beyond good and evil, armour class and hit points.

This is just an idea that popped into my head this afternoon. Its completely unbalanced and unfair, assuming Dragons have a power level on par with a natural disaster made of flesh and malice.

In combat a Baby dragon flips a coin:

  • Heads, it bites someone in half. They die.
  • Tails, its swipes someone into a terrain feature, hard. They are knocked out.

Adult dragons come in dice sizes, d4, d6, d8, and so on up to Tiamat the mother of dragons who rolls 1d100. Smaug is a d12. Ancalagon the Black is a d20 or d30.

For adult dragons, the die roll is the number of enemies the dragon kills each round. Heroes die after NPCs. If the dragon uses its breath weapon, roll the die again for extra damage. Dragons usually breathe fire in the first combat round, and when they get angry.

NPCs must make a morale check when a dragon breathes fire. If your game system has forgotten to include morale rules, the NPCs automatically fail the morale check and flee in mortal terror.

Only critical hits hurt dragons. Only heroes can score critical hits on a dragon. The actions of nameless NPCs never hurt dragons. Each time a dragon is hit, flip a coin:

  • Heads, the angry dragon uses its rage to power its breath weapon on the next round.
  • Tails, the dragon moves to a safe location, taunts the heroes, then destroys a terrain feature (forest, bridge, ship, town, lake, mountain, etc), or places something or someone of importance to the heroes at risk.

If a dragon rolls three tails in a row from critical hits, it flees the scene, seeking a safe place to rest and heal up.

A baby dragon dies on one critical hit. Other dragons need to take critical hits equal to the maximum number they can roll on their die. So a large d12 dragon needs 12 critical hits to be slain.

If the dragon was flying when slain, anything its corpse crash lands on is destroyed.

When you kill the big damn dragon flip a coin:

  • Heads, the dragon curses you as it dies, this is deep magic from the time before time and not even a wish or divine intervention will change your doom.
  • Tails, the dragon’s foul blood spills out, blighting the land for dragon size die roll centuries, and it might poison the victorious heroes as well (dodge the poison or die in agony in 1d3 days).

If you survive to reach the Dragon’s hoard, roll the Dragon die to see how many lifetimes worth of treasure you loot.

Building a d100 Roleplaying Game

Changed the blog theme for the first time in about a decade. I need to figure out a better widget for displaying a menu of past posts.

This post is the first of several on the topic of building a d100 roleplaying game for use in a campaign I plan to run. The design process is one where I take different bits of rules from different d100 games that I like, and stitch them together into what is hopefully a coherent design for maximum game fun at my table. This is me working through my preferences from existing games, plus my judgment about what will work for my established group of players, rather than me trying to design a new d100 game engine from scratch.

First, my reasons not to just run with a published d100 game that I already own:

  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th Edition: A bit too tied to the setting, and I am not convinced the core combat/magic rules are robust enough without buying a couple of expansion sets.
  • Zweihander: Too fiddly, too pretentious, and I’m still annoyed at how much the author spammed their work on the roleplaying forums I read (before he was perma-banned).
  • Basic Roleplaying System Reference Document: Too limited and bare bones in detail – it looks a lot like it was published to prevent any kind of retro-clone OSR flowering in d100 that might get too close to Chaosium IP. Not that this stopped…
  • Cthulhu Eternal Open Game License: While I am not planning a jazz age horror game, there are some good ideas in here.
  • Elric!: I probably ran into random armour points for the first time in this game, which I think is a good way to deal with the players wanting to stack every single bit of armour they can find (which leads to an arms race with GM adversaries to keep combat interesting).
  • Flashing Blades: not a d100 game, but I would be silly not to take a look at the first game to focus on this swashbuckling era. I think I have the ubiquity engine’s One for All lying around somewhere too. 7th Sea 2E is too much of a narrative game to be useful.
  • Basic Roleplaying: the big gold book is packed full of tools for building your own d100 games. Lots of different mechanics to mine here, even though its overall presentation is a little dated compared to the new toolkit systems on the block. The Blood Tide setting could be worth picking up for some piracy and nautical rules.
  • Mythras: my group played this in its Runequest 6 edition, and while there is a lot to like in the game, my group never wants to play with its action point system or menu of 50+ combat special effects again. The Fioracitta setting could be worth picking up for ideas.
  • Revolution 100: another system full of interesting ideas, but I find the text presentation of these ideas hard to parse in places, and ultimately the skill list is too truncated for the kind of game I want to run, and that my players want to play. Its take on extended conflicts is best in class.
  • Runequest: The second edition was one of my first roleplaying games, and I will love it forever. The current Runequest in Gorantha edition is wonderful, but a bit fiddly around the edges. I really don’t fancy running its complex Strike Rank system online. I prefer its take on passions – with risk when you invoke them – to the “Mother may I?” bonus seeking of Mythras.
  • Clockwork and Chivalry: while it is a renaissance setting that my players want, I am not keen on always evil witches, witch hunting, and religious violence, which look like core elements of this setting.
  • Mothership: the new hotness of indie gaming with a fresh take on d100 games. If I wanted to run a short 8-12 session campaign, I would be using this as the base game engine, even though the original game is focused on space horror.
  • Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition: The latest evolution of d100 from Chaosium – in some ways showing what could have been with the latest edition of Runequest if they had not tacked backwards towards the 2nd edition for reverse compatibility. Pulp Cthulhu also has useful ideas to borrow for a swashbuckling game.
Cover of the “Big Gold Book” from Chaosium

I also plan to borrow a few mechanics from non-d100 games, which I will discuss in the relevant sections. Rather than try and cover everything in one epic blog post, it makes sense to break it down into shorter posts. In the rest of this post I will write about character ability scores (aka attributes or characteristics – I use ability because it is a shorter word), and in the next post I will discuss skills.

The Eight Ability Scores

Where D&D uses the six ability scores of Strength (STR), Constitution (CON), Dexterity (DEX), Intelligence (INT), Wisdom (WIS), and Charisma (CHA), the d100 family of games usually has eight ability scores of STR, CON, DEX, Size (SIZ), INT, Power (POW), Education (EDU), and either CHA or Appearance (APP). POW is not a replacement for WIS, and represents aptitude for magic, psychic, or other super powers, plus Sanity (SAN) in Call of Cthulhu.

Ability Score Scale

Most d100 games follow D&D and have a 3-18 scale for most of the ability scores for human characters. The exceptions being INT and SIZ with a 8-18 range. Call of Cthulhu 7E adjusts these scores into a d100 scale by multiplying them by five.

In most cases higher scores are always better, the exception being SIZ, where being small could boost stealth, allow you to squeeze through a narrow gap, or hide inside a small space.

Random or Point Buy

The traditional random rolls for ability scores are 2d6+6 for INT and SIZ, and 3d6 for the other six ability scores. So “mean norm the average ranger” will have 13s for INT and SIZ, and 10s or 11s for the other six ability scores. Elric! (1993) is a more high power system, all eight ability scores are rolled 2d6+6. Non-human PCs can have different scores, eg in Runequest 2, a Great Troll would roll 4d6+12 for STR, but only 2d6+2 for INT.

Some d100 games allowed you to shift up to three points around between your scores. In my Tarantium campaign I allowed a player to discard one die and reroll it, a maximum of three times when generating all eight ability scores.

Mythras has a point buy system. The default is 80 points, which gets you average scores of 10 in your eight ability scores, but allows you to min/max as you see fit within the constraint that INT and SIZ require minimum scores of 8. In my Tarantium campaign I increased the point buy to 84 points.

Philosophically, random rolls mean you get to discover the character you will play, while point buy lets you choose the character you want to play. For long campaigns my preference leans towards point buy. In Tarantium I let my players choose. One rolled, the other four went with point buy. For point buy systems, it is important for the GM to point out break points for derived characteristics, to avoid system mastery traps in character generation (eg, building a Mythras character with only two action points).

For a high power campaign, I might use a variation on Rafu’s matrix method, which mixes elements of choice and randomness. This has a three step process:

  1. Assign the numbers 1-8, each to one of the eight ability scores.
  2. Roll a pool of 8d8. From the pool, assign one die roll to each of the eight ability scores.
  3. Roll 1d8, in strict order, for each ability score.

This changes the base ability range from 3-18 to 3-24, average of 13-14 (not too far off Elric!), but I am okay with PCs being special snowflakes. The original mechanic used d6s as it only had to generate six ability scores.


Ability scores in d100 games are sticky and hard to change, often requiring significant time and money to train up. SIZ is usually the hardest to change, POW the easiest as using magic successfully might allow a check to increase it. A character maximum is usually three points above the highest possible rolled ability score, so for a 3d6 score, that is 21. In some d100 games injuries can permanently reduce an ability score.

In Tarantium I sometimes awarded increases by GM fiat, to represent training that the party got from their employers.

Derived characteristics

This is one of the areas where the different d100 game engines have significant points of difference.

  • Hit Points: these are “meat points” not “plot armour”, and are usually calculated on CON and SIZ, divided by 2. In Call of Cthulhu 7E, its divided by 10 or by 5 in Pulp Cthulhu. D100 games can have a mix of general HP and location specific HP. Mythras only has location HP. Average general HP is around 12, or 24 in Pulp Cthulhu.
  • Action Points: a Mythras score, based on INT and DEX.
  • Damage Modifier: a bonus to melee damage, based on SIZ and STR, usually represented by rolling a an extra die that is not the same as your weapon die (which I find a little clunky).
  • Spirit Combat Damage: a bonus to damage when fighting spirits. Based on POW and CHA.
  • Movement Rate: a critical score in Call of Cthulhu, where flight is often a better choice than fight.
  • Experience Modifier: In Mythras your CHA score can adjust the number of XP you get each game session. In Runequest the skills category modifier also adjusts experience checks.
  • Healing Rate: In Mythras and Runequest your CON score determines how quickly you recover lost HP, typically 1-3 HP per day.
  • Luck Points: A player resource to nudge die rolls in their favour. In Call of Cthulhu 7E these are generated randomly. In Mythras it depends on your POW score.
  • Magic Points: Fuel for spells, usually determined by POW. Magic Point recovery depends on how magic rich your campaign world is. In magic rich Runequest you regain 25% of MP every six hours. In magic-poor Tarantium, you regenerated 1 MP per day in a flying city, and 0 per day on the ground.
  • Strike Rank: Combat initiative. In Mythras its derived from DEX and INT, with a penalty for encumbering armour. In Runequest its based on DEX and SIZ, plus a modifier based on the weapon you are using.
  • Sanity: In Call of Cthulhu, your resilience in the face of cosmic horror. Based on POW x5. In my Tarantium campaign I used Areté (moral excellence) to represent moral corruption in a manner similar to SAN. I am not fond of the actual forms of madness that older editions of Call of Cthulhu inflicted on investigators, which were derived from older stereotypes of mental illness.
  • Encumbrance Points: no one likes encumbrance and fatigue mechanics, but in Runequest it is based on STR+SIZ, in Mythras its STR x2.
  • Skills category modifier: In Runequest modifiers to skills are based on a range of ability scores, eg Agility is derived from STR, SIZ, DEX, and POW, while Knowledge is derived from INT and POW. Usually a flat modifier of -5% to +15% to the base skill scores. Not needed in Mythras where base skill scores are determined by combining two ability scores or doubling one ability score (so a range of 6% to 36%).

Implications for Other Mechanics

High STR, CON, DEX, and SIZ scores make you good at combat. High INT and EDU scores make you a better skill monkey. High POW is needed to be good at magic. As is typical for older game engines, only APP/CHA play a major part in the social pillar of play.

Mythras makes you really consider your ability scores. There are no dump stats.

My Design Choices

First, I will use CHA rather than APP, as a personal preference.

Second, I will drop SIZ and replace it with Social Standing (SOC) and a heritage based Build score. By heritage I mean “race” in old game design language, and I want it to represent a nature/nurture/culture background choice for characters. Replacing SIZ with SOC will let me diversify base abilities for a number of skills away from CHA, INT, and EDU (which is a solid clue to how my pans for skills are shaping up).

Third, I will go with the d100 scale ability scores of Call of Cthulhu, rather than the 3d6 range. This will let me use the same experience based improvement system for improving both skills and ability scores. As to whether or not I go with point buy, or that 3d8 OSR mechanic, I will talk with my players first. 3d8 x4 will give a number broadly comparable to 3d6 x5 (with a median of 54 versus 52.5, and a range of 12-92 versus 15-90).

Fourth, Hit Points will be based on CON/5, STR/10, and DEX/10, which will give a level of HP equal to Pulp Cthulhu. I am leaning towards general HP only, no location HP, with a serious wound mechanic at 0 HP or loss of half HP in a single blow, or something like the stepped wound system in Mothership.

Fifth, Melee Damage Bonus will be based off STR and heritage build (75 for a human, non-human heritages may vary from 25 to 110). Options for implementation include the classic bonus die, a flat modifier, or stepping up the weapon damage die (ie d6 steps up to d8, then to d10).

Sixth, Movement Rate will be based off DEX and heritage build (as above). I mostly run theater of mind games, but if its needed for chase scenes its good to have it.

Other mechanical decisions will need to wait until I refine the campaign setting and expectations of play with my players. For example, I might make Luck Points only available to players who roll their ability scores randomly, while players who choose point buy get a different fate/destiny/free will mechanic to use.

Roleplaying Ruminations

The Nights Black Agents campaign that I have been running in the Coriolis setting is getting close to its finale. There are just two vampire djinn left to confront, and the party knows where both of them are, so there are perhaps just 3-4 sessions left, barring a TPK in a boss fight. So I am thinking a lot about the next campaign we could play. The stumbling block I keep running into in developing this campaign is partly setting, but mostly system.

While I have purchased and perused more RPG game systems in the last decade than in the previous three decades of gaming, I find that I largely come back to a small number of familiar game engines when I start to turn soft ideas into hard mechanics and future game content. The most frequent game choices are D&D (both 5E and OSR inspired), Basic Roleplaying (Runequest, Calll of Cthulhu), and Traveller (or Stars Without Number), with their respective d20, d100, and 2d6 based mechanics. Because I have internalised these rule sets, I find it easy to think of tweaks to make a game closer to my ideal, where games like Cortex or Genesys would be a lot more work. I seem to flip flop every few days as to which of these I like more. So my hard drive has accumulated several dozen campaign outlines in a partially developed state. Which I don’t mind doing, as it keeps the brain busy in the evenings I am not reading or playing video games.

My players liked the investigative abilities in the GUMSHOE system, they did not like the general ability point spends, so my long awaited copy of Swords of the Serpentine is not going to get immediate use when it lands here.

A new factor that I have run into, is that my players are happy with remote gaming. This is partly driven by the cost of petrol, as well as trepidation about in-person gatherings in a pandemic, which is fair enough. This is a factor which suggests that in terms of system, I should choose a familiar system, so that no one burns energy learning a new game, or a simple system, which takes as little time as possible to resolve scenes. My own proclivity for house rules slightly diminishes the utility of the dedicated online play fora that could speed up some admin and information display stuff. For the most part we make do with Zoom. It also means that a more mission focused setting, as opposed to varieties of sandbox or explorer-crawl play, might be better for play. For one reason or another, our online sessions are usually closer to three hours duration, rather than the four hours in-person pre-pandemic.

So I wrote a few bullet points down in my notebook today to try and do some structured analysis to help with the whole “what next” decision. First, I am arbitrarily going to split the roleplaying campaigns I GM into two broad modes of play:

  1. Picaresque adventures. While random fun stuff happens on the way, in general the player characters are enjoying positive feedback loops and growth in agency within the setting, and power within the game system. D&D is the ur-exemplar for this mode of play.
  2. Horrific experiences. While the grimdark will be relieved by moments of tension breaking humour, in general the player characters are suffering negative feedback loops and diminishing resources. Call of Cthulhu is the ur-exemplar here.

Second, are the two bits of world design that the setting hangs off:

  1. Genre. Partly this is flavour and fluff, but it is a short hand way to communicate to players what the campaign is all about. Just saying “Space Western with Jazz Samurai” or “Firefly meets Arabian Nights” tells you a lot in a few words.
  2. High-concept. I link this to the end goal for the campaign. Its also encompasses the system elements that follow, unless you want a cognitive dissonance game, where the setting says “you should do X” but the mechanics say “you actually do Y”.

Third, is the game system stuff, which again I am going to just divide into two mechanical chunks:

  1. Procedures. These are the nested loops of play in the game, whether its combat, exploration, or inventing new flavours of ice cream.
  2. Characters. These are the vehicles for player agency in the game, with hooks to interact with all the procedures, and links to the setting concept.

For mode of play, given the state of world events, my players have expressed a preference for less grimdark experiences, eg Dark Sun got the hardest hard no for a campaign pitch that I have ever had from a player. So I need to make sure there are hopeful or noblebright elements in the setting, plus some picaresque elemnts.

Genre is something I think we are all flexible on in our group, although modern or recent history settings can have problems, eg anything about the frontiers of the “wild west” that ignores genocide or slavery. We are largely in this for some escapist elfgame fun with old friends.

High concept is going to be fine, as long as I can express it in a good elevator pitch that covers the big three questions (what is it about, how is it about that, and what the heck do the players do with that?). Four ideas that tend to keep recurring for me:

  1. Mass Effect. The party is a special forces team, investigating an ancient mystery, with faction politics chugging away in the background as a potential danger. I could do this in a fantasy setting as easily as a sci-fi setting. Symbaroum could be a good fit here.
  2. Dragon Age Inquisition. The party is a unique snowflake team, investigating a recent mystery (eg death of a VIP), with faction politics as a constant hazard. The Vehmic Court of the Holy Roman Empire is a recurring idea here, with the PCs as members of the secret force for justice against rogue magic users.
  3. Vienna 1946. An ancient city, occupied by the victorious powers of a great war, who are now rivals. The party has a background linked to the defeated power, and try to survive in the city, without getting too entangled in great power politics. Could also be a dieselpunk Shadowrun 1920s.
  4. Casablanca 1942. An ancient city, a neutral outpost of spies and smugglers, where the party have fled as exiles while a great conflict burns in distant lands. The party must engage in local politics in order to survive. Could riff off products like Ptolus or Blight.

The first two concepts can happily borrow from two great video game franchises. I am fairly deft at setting up hub and spoke regions for players to explore, a mini-sandbox within the wider mission framework. The latter two ideas are variants on the Pavis and Big Rubble supplements for Runequest, where a town base is situated immediately adjacent to both a dungeon and a wilderness area. I think the urban fantasy elements are recurring because part of me wants the campaign to settle on one area and focus on it in detail, with less abandoning of a region once all the adventure juice has been sucked dry.

Before getting into some system specific ideas, I did some reflecting on my core traits as a GM. In no particular order:

  • Faustian. I love tempting players with devils bargains. Some of my players like rejecting them. Which is fine. There is always someone willing to take a bite of the apple. I might also be partial to a bit of villainous monologuing.
  • Front-loading. I always do a lot of campaign prep before session zero. Partly because I like a touch of homebrew and houserules, so I need to tell the players that in advance of character generation (because system mastery traps are bad), and partly because I like exploring the logical implications of setting conceits (eg how fast does a flying city need to travel in order to not to run out of food). I could do better for individual session prep, which I rarely spend more than an hour on.
  • Improv. I am good at making stuff up on the spot. I could be a lot better at taking notes about the stuff I make up. This has been reinforced by the longer breaks between game sessions that have been a feature of pandemic life.
  • 2+2 = 4. I love it when the penny drops for one of the players, and in a sudden spark of imagination they connect all the dots that have been present and realise who the real greater scope villain of the setting is.
How many pistols does one hero need? Image from

System, I was going to write more, but I had a conversation with the players, and they chose d100, with the proviso that it not use the action economy or combat effects from Mythras, and that there be a higher rate of experience and character growth than in the Runequest 6 “Tarantium” campaign. More on that in the next post. They also gave me some solid preferences for building the setting:

  • Yes to renaissance. We are still talking about exactly what that means for a non-historical fantasy game.
  • No to steampunk, or Flash Gordon. Which rules out Spelljammer and a bunch of other ideas I was playing with.
  • Yes to ambiguous factions and mission focused play rather than a big sandbox. A while back my players said I shouldn’t try designing all the factions myself, so I hope they are still on board for helping out with that.
  • No to having an explicit big bad.

Mothership Hack

Inspired by the Mothership sci-fi horror rpg, I have been thinking about how it might play in a more heroic tone for a science-fantasy game. While it is a d100 system, its quite different from the BRP engine, in that Stats are more important than skills. A skill is a bonus of 10-20% added to a Stat. Key to the arrangement of mechanics in Mothership, is that failed Stat and Save rolls give your character stress, and critical failures (a double roll above the Stat/Skill level, e.g. a 99) trigger rolls on the Panic table, which is full of dangerous complications.

When your typical chance of success on a roll is around 20-50%, players are encouraged to avoid making rolls by interacting with the fiction in a slow but steady way – which works fine until you get jumped by monsters. Stress is used for experience, as you reduce stress gained in adventures, you turn that into improved Stats, Saves, and Skills. So for those who take great risks and survive, there are also good rewards.


For this hack, I think five Stats are needed:

  1. Speed (SPD): use this for tests involving perception, initiative, movement, and quick reactions.
  2. Strength (STR): use this for tests involving brute force, endurance, ignorance, and intimidation.
  3. Intellect (INT): is used for most skill tests in stressful circumstances unless another Stat is more compelling in the situation.
  4. Psionic (PSI): used for tests involving psionic talents or “sufficiently advanced” technology. In a fantasy game I would call it Power (POW).
  5. Warrior (WAR): used for combat tests and warfare (yes it could have been COM for combat, but COM makes me think of Comeliness in the old AD&D Unearthed Arcane. CON for conflict would also work, but is close to Constitution, perhaps BAT for battle as an alternative?).

For a non-horror game, I think the Stats should be higher than in Mothership, so I would let players assign Stat values of 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60. Mothership has Stats cap out at 85, so with the customisation options below, you do not want starting Stats higher than 60.


Mothership is not to different from BRP, except what might be Endurance and Dodge are merged into Body. Keeping with just three saves:

  • Chaos: used to resist mental harm from psionic (or magic) attacks, and to perceive true reality. In Mothership this is called Sanity.
  • Will: used to resist loss of control over your actions from situations involving fear, passion, and other emotion surges. In Mothership this is called Fear, but I think Will or Willpower covers a wider range of situations, especially if you want to insert Runequest or Mythras style passions for the PCs.
  • Body: used to resist physical harm, including from disease or invasive organisms. Could also be called Thews if you want to lean into Sword & Sorcery genre.

Assign the scores of 20, 30, and 40 to Saves for a horror/pain level similar to Mothership, or fudge the numbers up 10 to 20 points for a more heroic tone.

Wounds, Mana, and Fate

Mothership uses both Wounds and Health for tracking physical harm, with each Wound having 10+1d10 Health, and most characters having two Wounds. Any time you lose enough Health to cross a Wound threshold, you roll on a Wound table for potentially painful complications.

For my hack, I want a bit more certainty around Health, so Health is determined by 10 + STR divided by 10 (round up) for each Wound point.

Mana is the pyschic or magical equivalent of Wounds, and Essence is the equivalent of Health. Unlike Health, you are burning Essence points to fuel any PSI talents that you are using.

When you burn a point of Mana off, you get complications like nose bleeds (minus Health), migraines (plus Stress), conditions that impose disadvantage on checks, or a permanent increase your minimum Stress score.

For my hack, Essence is equal to 10 + INT divided by 10 (round up) for each Mana point.

Fate is a heroic resource to keep PCs alive, and Luck is the equivalent of Health/Mana. You can spend Luck at any time to manipulate fortune before making a roll (e.g. spend a luck point for Advantage) or after a roll (spend luck points to nudge the die result).

When you tempt Fate, however, flip a coin. If it lands the way you call it, there is no effect. If not, you make a roll on the Doom chart of horrible fates for heroes. Perhaps you get cursed by the Gods, lose a few points off a Stat or Save, or have the GM draw a Major Arcana card from a tarot deck to interpret what happens next.

For my hack, Luck is equal to 10 + SPD divided by 10 (round up) for each Fate point.

Character Customisation

Keeping this really generic, although you could customise archetype packages for genre/setting. Each player can choose three of the options below for their character, but each option can only be selected once:

  1. +5 to all Stats.
  2. +20 to one Stat.
  3. +10 to all Saves.
  4. +25 to one Save.
  5. +1 Wound.
  6. +1 Mana.
  7. +1 Fate.

Having specific trauma responses to stress and panic is a bit harder to make generic. I might cut them entirely for a heroic campaign, or build a unique one for each PC based on discussion with the player.


Not much to say here, as the skill list should be tailored to the genre and setting. Broad or apprentice level skills should be +10% to checks, defined or expert skills should be +15%, and specific or master skills should be +20%. Adding in some perks or stunts for Master skills is quite appropriate. Skills greater than 20% might make sense if you campaign is aiming for transhuman or demigod power levels.

So Militia Training is +10% to WAR checks, while Melee Weapons is +15%, and Long Spear is +20%. Perhaps your hero might acquire and learn to wield a Spear of Destiny at +25%.

For our science-fantasy game you might have Psionic Training at +10% to PSI checks, Telekinesis at +15% and Soul Blade at +20%. Perhaps you character learns alien secrets and learns to manifest the Dual Soul Blades at +25%.

Mythras or Call of Cthulhu have some good packages of skills, and while Mothership only hands out a few skills at the start, for a more heroic level of play I think you could give out more skills to starting PCs, e.g. two Master, two Expert, and four Trained skills.


I would be temped to take the list of Vices from Blades in the Dark and have players pick one for the PC to indulge in to reduce Stress in downtime actions.

Stress Pool Mechanic

Back in November I promised a more mechanics focused article on some of the systems I was exploring. Edits since the original post are in bold.

I have read my way through a few more D100 variations, including the playtest kit for the Revolution D100 system I backed on a European crowd sourcing platform. While RD100 tries to marry the aspects/tags of Fate systems with the gritty simulation of D100, its just not quite working for me in the way its set up. I took another look at Fate, and yes its still a thing of beauty, but I still can’t quite get my head around it.

I skimmed through various powered by the Apocalypse systems, and finally kinda got it after reading a couple of blogs explaining the Dungeon World game (not DW itself though, that still had me going “huh?”). On balance, I think the attention paid to writing style, communication about play style, and adherence to fiction is what makes AW and its followers the best change in roleplaying in a very long time. The simple 2d6 die roll just doesn’t grab me (compared to the escalation mechanic in Dogs in the Vineyard which had me going “wow” once it sunk in). Reading these games makes me feel like an old curmudgeon at times, just not able to keep up with the hipsters. Its a pity I missed playing Sprawl at Christmas, that might have given me a few more clues.

I read through some finished Kickstarter deliveries for SymbaroumNumenera, and Shadows of the Demon Lord. All solid D20 games, but not quite what I am looking for. Numenera in particular stands out as a game that promises a particular style of gameplay (exploration), but builds characters good at doing something else (combat).  SOTDL I think would provide me with a better than D&D5E experience, should I ever desire a short three month D20 campaign. I glanced at 13th Age again for long enough to remind myself that something about stacking Hit Points up to high totals just makes my teeth itch and gorge rise these days. Still waiting for 13th Age in Glorantha to troll off the Kickstarter production line. For some OSR vibes I looked at Planescape – I think I would have really enjoyed that setting 25 years ago, but I never came across it in my university gaming crowd.

One takeaway I had from a binge of reading focused on mechanics for corrupting characters (hello Blue RoseCall of Cthulhu, Vow of Honor and many other titles) was that its pretty much an established conflict gauge with little scope for novelty or exploration of new boundaries for moral choices.  I did try playing around with more of three-pointed triangle gauge, but it just felt a bit too complex. This led me to the idea of corruption as a shared party element. Something that all the characters (and players) have a stake in. More on that in a bit (see Husk below).

I looked at Pendragon again, and thought, what if I treated magical power the same way Pendragon treats Glory. Something you gain in big lumps, +50, +200, +500, etc. Then when you cross a threshold, say 10,000, you ascend to a new tier of magical power. Still thinking about whether this is just a recolour of experience points, or whether it is both permanent XP and a one use resource for game stuff.

At Kapcon I got to run a couple of dice pool game systems. The Paranoia system was pretty simple (Roll stat + skill D6 + computer D6, 5+ is a success, a 1 on the computer die is a fumble) and lots of fun in play. I also ran a fantasy hack of the Cortex Plus system from Firefly. This was slow – too much time was spent assembling the dice pool. I also looked at FFG’s Edge of Empire, where the unique dice are pretty, but my brain gets tired trying to read the results – definitely a dice pool system where you want a computer application to eliminate all the success/failure ties for you.

I read The Clay that Woke by Paul Czege. Its an evocative setting, playing Minotaur servants in a crumbling city run by decadent humans. While I grasped the broad thrust of slef dsicipline versus giving in to anger, the actual mechanics were fiddly enough to make me skip forward to the story fluff. The Gaean Reach has been a teenage flashback guilty pleasure, an rpg based on Jack Vance’s Demon Prince books. If I ever want to run a vengeance focused game, I’ll be looking at this again.

Among a huge pile of Bundle of Holding stuff a couple of titles have stood out over the last six months: Spears of the Dawn (a game set in a fantasy Africa), The Books of Days/Gates/Law (a D&D 3.0 fantasy Egypt, which had me salivating for sand and Pyramids).

In my to read soon pile are: Mindjammer, Colonial Gothic, Blood Red Sands, Urban Shadows, Starfare, Nefertiti Overdrive, Cold Steel Wardens,  Witch, and Starvation Cheap.

The Husk of the Broken God

But I should get back to actual mechanics. Lets start by assuming this is done with some form of roll-under-skill D100 system with doubles (33, 44, 55, etc) as special success (or failure with consequences if > skill).

Going back to the shared conflict gauge for the party. My central idea is that the party are all connected to a fragment of a dead God. I refer to it as the Husk for short. The Husk is like a mana battery and a spell book. It gives the PCs “moves” that are not available to ordinary mortals, it can help fuel their magic, and attempt high risk actions. The more you tap on the slumbering Husk, the greater the risk of arousing and empowering the fragment, to the point where it attempts to take over one of the PCs. So its “corruption” but with a “tragedy of the commons” element. Even if your PC is pure and honourable, if the other PCs keep calling on the power of the dead God, your PC could be the one who gets hit by the possession attempt.

Mechanically it could work like this:

  1. The Husk has a pool of D10s. Green D10s for “sleeping power” and Red D10s for “roused power”.
  2. A player can take one or more D10s when making a skill check. This is done on a “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission” basis.
    1. To discourage the first player from grabbing all of the available dice, the GM can assemble a failure with consequences roll from the dice used. For example if a player with 50% skill rolls a 53% with their inherent skill check, and gets results of 40, 60, 7 and 6 on the four Husk dice, then they can build a success (43%) but the GM can also build a special failure (66%).
  3. Green D10s generate an extra singles die – increasing the chance of a special success. If you get a special success using a Green die, convert the Green D10 into a Red D10.
  4. Green D10s are exhausted when used, refresh at the end of the scene (but see 6 below) or if a PC makes some kind of in-fiction appropriate attempt to subdue or control the Husk.
  5. Red D10s generate an extra tens die – increasing both overall success and special success odds.
  6. If you get a special success using a Red die, convert a fresh Green D10 into a Red D10. If no fresh Green D10s are available, convert an exhausted one. If all the dice are now Red this triggers something like a possession or manifestation of the dead God.
  7. Red dice are not exhausted when used.
  8. For each die you grab for your skill check, reduce the power cost of special ability use by one.

Needs playtesting and polish, but its a work in progress.

The Stress Pool

Now to my idea of a Stress Pool. This idea came to me when I was thinking about fatigue systems. RD100 has a book-keeping heavy one that requires you to track at least two gauges (stamina and strike rank), and trying to get players to accurately track penalties for their characters is a hard ask. So here is my Stress Pool idea:

  1. For each beat in the scene, add a stress marker into a pool shared by all the PCs.
  2. A player can try to reduce stress by blowing an action on an appropriate in-fiction move (e.g. in a battle they might remove their helmet to get fresh air, in a salon they might withdraw from debate to grab another drink).
  3. A player can also exploit stress in a risky move – with player/GM agreement on what is at stake if things go wrong.
  4. For each stress marker used the player rolls a penalty D10 as a Disadvantage – both increasing their chance of failure, and of failure with consequences. Alternately, a player can ask for pain – with each stress marker being a damage roll against them (use the highest die rolled, rather than combining all of them I think)
  5. Stressful failure is worth XP (the reward for success in a scene/episode is Power, which unlocks new abilities, XP improves your skill at using those abilities) with the XP gain being equal to the number of penalty dice used. If you use two stress dice in one scene and three stress dice in another scene, that is +3 XP not +5 XP.
  6. Should the Stress Pool reach 10, the GM has freedom to impose something “interesting” on the party, resetting the Stress pool to zero (or half?).

Tone could vary a lot – stress failure could result in blood and pain, or it could be more in the nature of picaresque comedy or slapstick humor. As a shared resource though, the players are all in competition for the XP reward. Needs playtesting and polish, but it would let me side step all those annoying fatigue systems by simply having the players invoke it in game fiction when they justify why stress is hitting them.

Now I wonder if anyone else has done anything quite like this? Its been another week of “snap”, with that idea I had for building an ancient Alexandria-like adventure city with the name Iskandar, well John Wick had the same idea for his 7th Sea kickstarter. I have also been ruminating about a setting focus of just-before-the-fall Golden Age like Atlantis/Numenor, and look what turned up on Indiegogo this week: Chariot: Roleplaying in an Age of Miracles. Not that I would ever quite want to go down the new age crystal road this journey is taking with my own design, but its another example of ideas being cheap, finished product being hard work.

Next post, I’ll try fleshing out some more setting focused ideas on Halflings.

Kapcon 2014

The bad: I had to cancel the Grand Strategy game.

The good: Asterix and the Deep Ones was popular, with 16 players over three sessions.

Cancelling the Grand Strategy Game

It is sad to cancel a creative project, but I have had to do this before and will do so again. I would not be doing a service to anyone by trying to run a game which will not provide the fun that it was intended to offer. Before Christmas there were only three signups. With a week to go there are only seven. Unfortunately, Grand Strategy games require 5+ teams to be balanced (or just two teams), and for teams to ideally have 3+ players to allow team dynamics to unfold within the larger framework. While I could have spent all my spare time over the next week building a new design for a smaller number of players, I think I was better off spending the time on polishing “Asterix and the Deep Ones”.

So, any lessons learned?

Promotion – the Kapcon organisers have spent quite a bit of effort to promote the game, I pushed it through my own networks, and the website had enough information for anyone interested in the game to suss out if it was their cup of fun or not. I have only had one potential player contact me to ask questions about the game. I don’t know how much interaction the LARP GMs have with potential players, but I suspect it’s a bit more than that.  Still, I could have pushed the game harder, and made more of “recruit friends to join your team”.

Competition – Kapcon offers half-a-dozen or more tabletop sessions, and a LARP in head to head competition with Pax Vicky. Potential players have voted with their preferences, and it is not for what I am offering in that timeslot.

Con structure – one of the reasons the “Grand Strat” works at BOD, is that it has traditionally been given a flagship evening slot on Friday or Saturday night. I get a captive audience, which gives me certainty that they critical mass of players will be present. It was made clear to me years ago that I was never going to get the only such slot at Kapcon, as the Friday and Sunday nights are for social mixing, and not gaming. While I could attempt to run my own event in Wellington, the lukewarm indifference that has greeted my posts about grand strategy games on makes me suspect that I’d just end up losing money on the hall hire.  I have to admit to recognising a self-fulfilling prophecy here, because I don;t get positive feedback for my ideas on NZRAG, I don’t read or post there very often … which means I don’t get feedback or promotion opportunities.

It’s too weird – globally what I am offering is a rare type of hybrid game, it’s a mix of giant tabletop boardgame and LARP, and I have only ever run into one other group of gamers who do these games outside New Zealand. So the design community is very small, there are only a few people I can really talk to about these games, and most of them live in London. It is also a type of gaming which has no commercial product on offer, and a limited online presence – it is very hard for potential gamers to learn about this kind of game, or to give it a try and end up wanting more.

Opportunity cost – designing and building a grand strategy game takes me 4-5 full weekends over a 6-12 month period as I iterate concepts, design rules, build maps, playtest, revise, and then finally print and assemble the game (praying for a sunny day with no wind as I glue stuff together). This is a lot of time I could be spending on other projects. There is also a financial cost, I have spent close to $3,500 on my last two designs, and while some of that cost (laser printer, toner, tokens) is available for future games, it is still a lot of money for a hobby. Setting up and running the game also consumes an entire day at the convention, and for 2014, I could have been somewhere else entirely different from Kapcon, having a good time with one of my other hobby groups.

Structural flaws – the boardgame nature of the Grand Strat is such that there is very little scope for improvisation (by players or GMs), it is not a game that can be winged on the night, unlike a table top RPG. It is also hard to walk into a game five minutes before it starts – as we like people to read the rules in advance and to make decisions a week before the game begins.  The bespoke nature of the game, a complex set of rules that might only be used once, means that if there is a major flaw in the game, it is difficult to fix quickly. A mistake can cascade through the system, wrecking the game economy and spoiling player strategies. So Grand Strats are high risk/high responsibility games to run, and it’s rarely the player’s fault if things get derailed (I have only had one player deliberately undermine a Grand Strat game, and one do a table flip after a game has finished).

Agency – the team nature of the game may discourage players through lack of a strong character to identify with and role play, and the fact that the player’s desires must be subordinated to the group’s plan if the group is to prosper in the game might also be off-putting to potential players. I do have a good reason for having abstract replaceable characters – character death sucks (I tried a few variations on death mechanics but nothing ever worked in a fun way).

Is it still worth it?

Running these games has always been a peak experience for me. It’s not often that I am the centre of attention and it’s a nice buzz when things go well. I have learned a lot about game design from organising and running these games. I have found, however, that this learning translates into ever increasing amounts of work to get everything right for future games, and a lot of frustration when the games do not go well. The minimum amount of work for a game is pretty formidable, compared to a table top game, where I can get by with a sketch map, half a dozen PC sheets, and about an A4 of sketch notes. It would be really hard for me to offer more than one or two games a year – the group in London manages about four a year, but has a different team designing each game – and this makes improving the design of these games a slow process.

So, it might be time for me to move on from Grand Strategy games, and find something else to do with my time, or perhaps just have a year or two off until I can find the old joy again. Maybe I should just go back to writing LARPs, which is where all this started 20 years ago.  A different tack, would be to drop the fantasy, and go for a hard core historical game – World War one could be viable as its the 100th anniversary of it starting this year.

Asterix and the Deep Ones

This went well, with lots of laughter.  In the first game I had five players (Asterix, Getafix, Obelix, Fulliautomatic and Unhygenix), in the second game I had four players (Asterix, Getafix, Obelix and Cacophonix) and in the last game I had all seven characters in play (add Vitalstatitix).

Using a known IP made character identification really easy.  Using the Call of Cthulhu quickplay system was okay … but one of my conclusions is that traditional game engines with their multiple tiers of Characteristics, Attributes and other character qualities are just a bit too much (a friend described being given three pages of character sheet for a game at Kapcon, which is two pages too many).  I could have easily run things off just the straight characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, etc).  Giving everyone 90% in a combat skill was a good decision, made the combats true to the original comics, and giving almost everyone low SAN scores made crazy stuff happen – mostly delusional beliefs that the PC was a significant historical character (Cleopatra, Julius Caesar etc).  I used luck points in a blunt force way, everyone had 90 and you sent them to change the d100 roll. So if your skill was 50, and you rolled 62 (fail), you could spend 12 luck points to make it a success.  No one actually ran out of luck.  I treated magic potion as giving the Gauls first strike, a bonus die in combat, and increasing the damage bonus die to 1d6. As per the comics I toned down the blood, and had knock outs and tweety birds circling around heads.

  • Asterix – the leader/straight man of the party, no major schtick but usually the person making the talk/spot rolls.
  • Obelix – the superhuman strength schtick came in handy many times – carrying boats overland, menhir volley attacks, etc
  • Getafix – had the ability to brew potions that could almost anything (restore sanity, dreamless sleep, and water breathing were the ones people came up with), the drawback being you needed a side quest for ingredients and it took time to boil water.  I deliberately started Getafix with 10 SAN because after the first night of bad dreams and flashbacks to things a young Druid did in old Egypt, he was always motivated to find the source of the dreams.
  • Cacophonix – a strong roll, as any threat to sing would always cause the group to react.  One Cacophonix managed to ninja past 100 Deep Ones to rescue his Uncle Malacoustix, and another Cacophonic managed a critical success on a sing roll to wow the surly villagers into enthusiastic applause.
  • Unhygenix and Fulliautomatix – not quite so strong roles, but good to have in a fight, and high potential for comedic barbs between each other and Cacophonix, Unhygenix’s fishing skills were also useful for the investigation.
  • Vitalstatistix – perhaps the weakest character, unless they exerted their authority over the Gauls.

Asterix and the Deep Ones v3

All three groups followed a similar starting pattern:

  • interact with the Roman bridgebuilders and the Gaulish Ferryman
  • find out that something (the Deep Ones) is dismantling the bridge each night
  • head into the village, noticing the barren fields
  • interact with the Britannic owner of the brand new fish and chips shop in the run down village
  • head to Malacoustix’s villa
  • explore the villa, get trapped by storm/nightfall
  • bad dreams, SAN check, sleepwalking episodes

After that the groups went in different directions, although most interrogated the village Chief at some point.  For pacing, after two hours I would introduce Deep Ones, and in the last half hour I brought in Old Mother Hydra.  All three groups ended with escape/rescue/massive property damage moments of success.  Looking at the map – I didn’t need the murky swamp (where clues to the missing Boars could be found).  People seemed to spend about half an hour at each location, so it was one destination too far. Perhaps if I had placed the swamp right next door to the village?

I have had a request to run this again at CONfusion in August (depending on whether or not it clashes with Pennsic).  I am now thinking about Asterix in Atlantis as a possible name for the next game (apparently there is an Asterix story set in Atlantis so I will have to check that out).  Or I could call it The Secret History of Asterix.

Fallout: Australia

A riff on the Fallout computer games, but set in Australia. A bit Mad Max in places. Fairly traditional, in that there was a quest to get a dingus to save a village, but a bit awkward in that the Thug PC more or less had to ignore the Thief NPC (who had stolen his stuff), and we all had to ignore the fat that we knew that a bad guy had bribed the Thug to derail the mission.  It was okay, but we ran out of time before we could get to the Sydney Opera House with the weather machine.

Enter the Avenger

This was a fantasy Kill Bill. The idea is that one player takes the role of the Avenger, and the rest of the players take the role of suspects, the Avenger’s intuition, and the gory details of the avenging.  The prompt notes were superb, I wanted to steal all of the character/city descriptions for use elsewhere.  The player in charge of the avenger never changes, so it can be exhausting for the player, and its painful for everyone if they get struck by indecision.  Each confrontation with a suspect is roleplayed, but the rule is that the Avenger can never be defeated.  I had fun playing a couple of bad suspects.  Fun, would play again.


Nod is a city which can only be entered on one night of the year.  Enter, stage left, a barbarian seeking revenge!  Another story driven system, like Enter the Avenger, but in this case the other players had more agency (the avenger could be defeated).  There were a range of pre-gen characters, such as The King of Worms, the Apothecary, the Cutthroat and the Potentate.  Different characters had different areas of authority over which they could control the description of and the associated NPCs, and a big thing they could do a major plot twist/reveal around.  This was a round 7 game so we were all tired and struggled a bit.  I enjoyed linking things together and getting other players involved in new scenes.  I enjoyed playing the Castellan, getting everyone into the castle for the big show down, and I described the Castellan as an Iron Vizier, articulated steel in velvet, dedicated to preserving the status quo. My plans were foiled by the Cutthroat using a plot twist to reveal themselves as the real Potentate.  Fun, would play again.


As usual, I skipped the flagship LARP.  I did get to the post-con drinks for the first time and it was a pleasant wind down and a good chance to catch up with old friends.

Thought-terminating Cliches

I was running through a few Wikipedia entires today, and clicked through to “thought-terminating clichés”, which is part of the entry on the Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.  This was originally a 1956 book on the psychology of brainwashing in China.  The wiki entry has a nice bullet pointed list, which when I looked at it, my brain went “That would be handy for designing cults in roleplaying games!”

The eight criteria are:

  • milieu control
  • mystical manipulation
  • demand for purity
  • confession
  • sacred silence
  • thought-terminating clichés
  • doctrine over the person
  • dispensing of existence

Milieu Control

Isolating the individual from society and controlling their information and communications.  Armies do this on boot camp, but any suitably remote farmstead, castle or monastery will do.

Mystical Manipulation

Manipulating experiences to boost the credentials of the leadership, to emphasise the special nature of the group, or to reinterpret accepted truth (no really, it is the Illuminati behind everything).  Get them tired, do the ceremony at night with poor light, throw in a few psychotropic drugs, and babble some bollocks about midichlorians.

Demand for Purity

Use of guilt/shame as a control device, a world view that has no shades of grey, and requires conformity.  Mixing with outsiders is discouraged.  Special uniforms or other markers of belonging to the ‘elect’ can help here, as would markers of shame/guilt.


Sins are confessed to mentors and monitors, allowing their exploitation by leaders.

Sacred Science

The group possesses the ultimate truth!  No questions!  No disputes!  People outside the group do not know the truth.  The group leader, the holder of the truth, is above criticism.

Thought-terminating clichés

The group uses words/language in ways the outside world does not understand, or uses a code (Voynich Manuscript we’re looking at you!).  The jargon contains cliches that prevent critical thinking about the groups ideas.  Complex issues are reduced to simple buzzwords or phrases.  Twitter is perfect for them.

Doctrine over the Person

An individual’s experiences and knowledge are subordinate to the Sacred Science, and wrong-thinking (such as confessions made to monitors) must be reinterpreted until it conforms with the groups norms.

Dispensing of Existence

On one level, the group gets to choose who lives and who dies.  On another level, it chooses who it admits to the group and whether or not the Sacred Science is shared with new group members.  Those who do not share the Sacred Science are doomed to heck.  Those who leave the group become non-persons, less than human, people whose existence is to be denied.

Of course, there is no reason to restrict using this to just designing evil cults, you could also use it for “good” groups, such as Paladins.  Having recently watched the first four Star Wars movies again, an awful lot of these apply to how the Jedi order treated Annakin Skywalker.


Sins of the Father: the influence of D&D on weapons and armour in FRPGs.

D&D – an early 1970s design, influenced by the perceptions of wargamers using rules developed in the 1960s.  Almost fifty years later this still influences the way designers automatically approach the mechanical integration of historic arms and armour into RPGs.  Meanwhile our understanding of how medieval arms and armour work has been improved by several generations of scholarship and experimentation.
The two big ones:
Armour – better armour is assumed to reduce your ability to move.
Weapons – characters can choose from the full kitchen sink.
Two smaller ones:
Horses – near complete failure to integrate mounted combat.
Archery – short range snipers.
Many fantasy rpgs have a scaling movement penalty that feels intuitive, leather is little or no penalty, chain mail (hereafter referred to as maille) is a moderate penalty, and plate is a big penalty.  It feels obvious, that leather is light, and that wrapping sheets of metal around your body should slow you down.

This is wrong.

People move about as fast in plate as they do in maille or leather (especially when they’re running for their life).  The crucial factor here is exactly how the weight is distributed across the body, and to a lesser extent how the armour moves while you are moving.  The weight of a full hauberk of maille armour is carried mainly from the shoulders, and the skirt tends to swirl when moving (slapping the inside of the thigh/knee in a way that can cause injuries long term).  The weight of a full set of plate armour is more fully distributed around the body – much more of the weight is carried by the hips (just like modern backpacks) – and when strapped tight the armour remains in close fit contact with the body.

 This allows someone in plate to move pretty fast – unless the straps come undone.  Speaking from personal experience, forgetting to tie your straps and having your greaves angle themselves so they point into your shinbone brings you to a screaming halt. Literally.
At the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, Vikings were able to run approximately 12 miles (as the google crow flaps) in maille armour.  Yes they arrived at the field in a state of exhaustion, but they were able to do it.  There are accounts of knights in plate armour doing cartwheels and being able to vault into the saddle.  Many illusions about the limitations of armour are based on misconceptions caused by surviving examples of tournament armour, which is a bit like assuming cars for the highway should behave like cars designed for racing.
Movement on a battle field is far more constrained by your formation (a phalanx moves more slowly than a skirmish line) than it is by your equipment.  Modern reproduction armour is only a rough guide, as it can actually be heavier than medieval versions (although the use of modern materials such as stainless steel or titanium compensates for this), as its designed to be litigation proof in the USA rather than being designed to keep you alive in one battle.  Given the characters in RPGs rarely move in formation, armour should not really limit their movement ability in game.
This raises the obvious question, why would you wear maille armour if you could wear plate, and the historic answer is that you didn’t.  In the 14th century armies in Europe transitioned from wearing full suits of maille armour to full suits of plate (which incorporated small amounts of maille for the body portions the plate could not be tailored to cover).  Most maille suits had there metal recycled for other uses, which is why there are so few of them today.  You might keep wearing maille if you were too poor to affords to upgrade, or if you were too far away from a centre of armour manufacture that could make plate armour.

Let me also just say that nearly every rpg in existence underrates the protective quality of armour made from padded cloth.  You are far more likely to encounter historical armour made from layers of cloth than you are to find leather armour (although water hardened leather is pretty good if you do not have access to metal).
Now, do you want to know what is actually the most exhausting form of armour to equip?  Its the shield.  Don’t believe me?  Try this.  Load 20 kilos of books into a backpack.  Go for a half hour walk.  Unless your physical condition is near death you will not find this too stressful.  Now grab a 4-5 kilo pile of books.  Hold them with your arms fully extended.  After ten minutes of this you will be in a world of pain (unless you are some kind of neo-barb who does manual work for a living).  Shields are also primarily effective when used in formation.
While rpgs often spend a lot of effort detailing encumbrance penalties based on weight, and bean counting a round by round cumulative exhaustion as combat is resolved, they do not usually devote much attention to what really exhausts people: heat and lack of water.  We also don’t spend a lot of effort restricting the flow of information to people in fully enclosed helmets, but that’s a story for another day.
D&D presented a list of almost every weapon ever used by anyone in medieval/renaissance Europe (going a little overboard on the polearms when Unearthed Arcana was published).  Yet the effort to assemble this exhaustive list was almost a complete waste of time.
In play, most people made a simple choice – they equipped the weapon that did the most damage.  This varied a little depending on whether or not you had a shield.  The fact that close to 70% of all randomly generated magic weapons were swords may have also influenced decisions – when was the last time you saw a +5 Glaive?  Part of this was the deliberate decision in D&D to conflate ‘chance to hit’ with ‘chance to penetrate’ armour.  So why have 100 weapons when 80% of players will choose from the same 2-3 weapons? 

What is happening here is that the cultural and socio-economic context of the weapon is ignored.  here are some of the factors I have become aware of:

  • Legality: people were often required to own weapons and armour (a contrast with weapon control laws of today)
  • Socio-economic status: weapons as symbols of social standing, ritual uses in religious ceremonies, judicial weapons, and duelling
  • Metal scarcity: its hard for a modern person to understand just how valuable worked metal was in the middle ages, many weapon designs are based on farming implements, allowing rapid conversion, because some people could not afford actual weapons
  • Hunting weapons: while they might be improvised for military use, they also varied from low quality peasant weapons to ornate displays of noble wealth
  • War weapons: use relies on specific role in the field, formation or other tactical combination.

As a rough rule, changes in weapons and armour are driven by improvements in materials technology and construction techniques.  As armour improves, weapons change to be able to penetrate the improved armour.  Weapons that cannot penetrate armour cease to be effective weapons, although may be retained in a ceremonial role or as a social status symbol.  A simple example: one-handed swords cannot slash through plate armour, although they can thrust through weak points.  A two-handed sword, however, can cut through plate armour.  Trying to mechanically represent thrusts and slashes in rpgs tends to fall into the ‘too hard’ basket so if a sword could possibly penetrate armour it generally gets a blanket ability to do so. 
Anyhow, it should be no surprise that when medieval armour improved to full plate, the weapons that were used when armour was maille were abandoned and replaced by modified versions that could thrust more effectively, or by two-handed weapons that could have more effective power transferred to the point of contact.  Once the big two handed weapons were in use, shields largely vanished – why carry around something that won’t seriously impede a blow directed against you, and which prevents you from carrying an effective weapon?
Game mechanics are often driven by niche protection (whether of formal classes or informal roles created through player skill allocation), and the preservation of fantasy icons like the ranger equipped with two weapons.  The reason why dual wielding is bad, is that you are losing a significant amount of protection from not having a shield, dividing your concentration between two weapons, and both your weapons are likely to be unable to penetrate plate armour.  Its marginal in a 1:1 duel or small brawl, but if you take rapier and dagger onto a battlefield where your opponents have pikes its not going to end well.
Physics make lances the most dangerous weapons on the battlefield prior to the deployment of gunpowder weapons. Force = mass x acceleration squared.  But horses don’t fit in dungeons.  They also make armour movement penalties a moot point, as the weight is carried by the horse.  Large numbers of medieval weapons simply don’t make sense until you realise they were designed to either be used from horseback, or against people on horseback.

So why do so few rpg combat systems allow mounted combat to be effective.  From a design point of view, either all PCs have to be mounted, or all have to be infantry, a 50/50 ratio simply doesn’t work.  Players spread out to far, the people on horseback chase off after interesting things, leaving the plodders to guard camp or brew tea.  Horses also do not scale well in damage absorption, and having to buy remounts is annoying.  Its almost like any society which develops flying carpets never manages to develop the stirrup…
Note the arch in archers.  Imagine an archway.  Thats how archers work to maximise the distance they can shoot.  They’re not actually all that good at the kind of point blank fire you expect from an uzi, and which you see displayed in movies.  Battlefield archery also relies on mass volley fire aimed, not at individual targets (because it takes time to aim, and rate of fire is crucial in determining effectiveness), but at other masses of men (and horses).
In summary
What does this say about game mechanics?  A lot of its in the way equipment tables are presented to players, the focus tends to be on weight and then either armour value or weapon damage. 

Weight is irrelevant in my opinion: you can only wear one suit of armour, and you can only equip one weapon at a time.  Keeping a spare weapon is reasonable, but no medieval soldier carried a golf bag of weapons onto the field. 

Players will also start from an optimal DPS level they want in combat, and work back to the weapon choices that support this, with a tradeoff to survivability where shields are concerned.  Its also reasonable to assume that players will quickly identify weapons that are incapable of penetrating the best available armour and will rapidly unequip them.

Anyhow, I have some ideas about a followup post on relative weapon damage and armour mitigation values, but that can wait another day.