Some thoughts on Fightin’ and Dungeonin’

Tue 12
Posted by at 9:04 pm. Filed under: Design Notes

I’m coming at this project really from a graphic accessibility perspective as much as from a game design perspective. That’s mostly due to my day job, obviously. I’ve been pitching Old School Hack to people mostly as a pastiche of “Game Design that I Like”, not really as anything terribly original or innovative spawned by mysterious reservoirs of theory and creativity. The game is proudly derivative, in fact, that’s something of a design goal.

But foolishly, the only real thing I’m building from the mechanics ground up is the combat system, so it’s very clear to me that that’s the shakiest part of the game as yet, and is going to require a lot of extensive playtesting to get right. And of course, in many ways, that’s the most important part, and possibly a deal-breaker for a lot of people if it doesn’t read well.

My design goals for the combat system are:

  • Something that plays fast and allows lots of room for narrative interpreting on the part of both the DM and the players.
  • A system that offers a reasonable variety of strategic approaches for each player, no matter the class you play, but allows you to really shine if you play towards your class.
  • Does not require miniatures or mapping if you don’t want it (but is perfectly extensible towards it if you do).

Obviously the system is based around the fundamentals of dice rolling to hit followed by damage against hit points. For the most part, player characters in the basic system (the first four levels) have five hit points. The “average” monster usually has five hit points as well (with groups of mooks having a hit point apiece and “big heavys” having ten or fifteen). The basic damage dealt is always a single hit point, but player characters can usually pump that to two and on rare occasions up to four if the situation is right.

I’ve been starting out the design process with this sort of abstraction of the math to give myself a general idea of the range of rounds that a fight lasts, how many hits a monster can soak, and so on. As it stands, what I currently have seems to meet my design goals, but only just barely. I hope that refinement comes easily.


I like Monte Cook’s Ten Design Assumptions for Making a Dungeon. I think it covers the basic criteria for building the mythic set-pieces to go adventuring in. It makes me firmly realize that though D&D was built on the shoulders of a diverse array of fantasy fictions, it really is placed in a very unique fantasy world unto itself, designed explicitly for an atmosphere of exploration and danger.

Old School Hack makes no bones about clearly presenting to the players a singular place for just such adventuring, known in the game as the Visible Threat. There are Diversions as well, and mechanics for the more abstract Invisible Threat, the driving force behind the visible one and the general narrative spigot from which most of any sort of conflict in the Basic game is derived. But in every game, starting right off, there it is: the evil tower over the horizon, the strange cave from which trouble stirs, or the old Mausoleum whose crypts extend further than mere burial would require. The locals know about it, and the players are expected to deal with it. If they don’t, then it grows.

The Visible Threat is build off of a modular model, and it’s meant to be extendible. My plans for the next set of the game broaden the exploration, stretch the edges of the map, and allow for more complicated and competing plot lines, but that first dungeon can always be added to and built upon.

What do you think?