Sunday, May 29, 2011

Burrows & Dragons (Swords & Wizardry)



This article was inspired by a number of different sources: an excellent thread on RPG.Net, the innate simplicity of the S&W White Box rules and (of course!) the amazing universe created by Tolkien in The Hobbit. That’s the important distinction here: Burrows & Dragons is a small attempt to simulate the elements within The Hobbit, not in Lord of the Rings. Orcs, wood elves, mountain giants, lost troves of magic items, riddle-loving dragons, greedy dwarves, stupid ogres…err, I mean… trolls, “professional” thieves, wizards (not Istari)… all these elements are in. The One Ring, Sauron, Noldor, the Maiar – among other things – are out.

I feel that S&W (and OD&D) is perfect for this adaptation, although I borrowed some modern design material for the Tricks & Cunning mechanics (again stolen from the RPG.Net, especially from Benjamin “Bailywolf” Baugh’s great ideas).

I hope you enjoy. Now, time to sort out those damn Leadership rules for Pathfinder…


Burrows & Dragons – A Small Hobbit-Hack for S&W White Box


All the references below are for the S&W White Box rules.

Ability Scores: Only Fighters get Strength bonus to hit and damage rolls.

Classes: I’m using fighting-man, magic-user, elf, dwarf and halfling (or hobbit). Of these only the elf class deserves additional explanation. Elves in B&D use the cleric’s advancement table (XP, HD, Spells and Saving Throws) and saving throw bonus (+2 against poison and paralysis), together with the White Box elf’s abilities hereditary foes, keen detection and languages. The B&D elf uses the cleric spell list and all his spellcasting is based on songs.

I’m doing this alteration because 90% of the cleric’s spells easily fit the “white magic” feel of elven magic (dealing mostly with healing and protection). Turning undead is now a first-level cleric spell. The B&W elf class (and every other classes, see the next rule) can use any type of weapon.

Class Based Weapon Damage: Use this excellent variant from the Akratic Wizard. The type of weapon used isn’t important (except if it is a magic weapon) as we see even Gandalf (a magic-user) wielding a sword.

Hit Points: They’re really an abstract mechanic here, a combination of vigor, morale, luck and the blessings of the Good Powers and the Woods (that’s why, after all, elven magic “heals”). To better represent this, I suggest three new rules.

First: if you declare – before rolling Initiative – to be protecting someone, then all attacks that hit your charge deal damage instead to you (if you’re adjacent to him). This rule can also be used with mounts, followers or animal companions. This also helps “heroic sacrifices”, a fitting theme for Tolkien’s world.

Second: HPs recovery. If you’re below ½ your HP total, follow the normal rules. If you’re above that mark, you recover 10 hit points after a good night of rest or a feast (accompanied by good music). Special locations (like Elrond’s House) allow you to recover 10 hit points always, doesn’t matter how badly wounded you’re. 

Third: morale. Once per battle, one player character can attempt to motivate his companions with a song or inspiring words (this requires an action). The result is that all listeners recover 1d4 hit points (you may add +1 if the character’s Charisma is 15+). If a powerful enemy is near the Gamemaster may require a Charisma check.

Thievery: Because of Bilbo, I believe that there should be some subsystem for specialized or professional “work”. Instead of a thief class, I’m using Lord Kilgore’s Thievery rules (of which I’m great fan). The fact that they use solely d6s is definitely a bonus. You can find them here.

Tricks & Cunning: Ok, this is where I’m putting my life at risk (to Old School standards at least). All character in B&D possess to ability to use tricks, cunning words and a little cajoling to survive an encounter. This tactic should be as valid as any other action, like attacking or casting a spell (and that’s why I’m putting a mechanic for it).


In The Hobbit we see Gandalf using this trick against the trolls and Bilbo using a similar tactic against Smaug himself. Cunning should then be a compelling mechanical option (what it shouldn’t do is to replace good roleplaying and dialogues). In fact, I would suggest a ruling for employing T&C tactics: the player must always roleplay the action and the Gamemaster is entirely free to grant a bonus of +1 or +2 for good acting (but never a penalty).

All characters possess a Tricks & Cunning value (or T&C bonus). Fighting-man and dwarves have +0; magic-users and elves start also at +0, but gain a +1 bonus at 5th level and then +2 at 10th level; hobbits have +1 at 1st level, increasing to +2 at 6th level and +3 at 10th level. A Charisma of 15+ adds +1 to your T&C, while a value of 8 or less imposes a –1 penalty. Thievery adds another +1 at 4th level and a +2 at 9th level (so, if you’re a hobbit with thievery and Charisma 15+, you can reach astonishing +6 at 10th level, enough, maybe, to deceive the Necromancer).

During any encounter, you can use your T&C bonus in an attempt to manipulate an intelligent target that can understand you. This requires at least one round of talking. You can attempt three types of T&C: lying, confusing/misleading or flattery. The results are:

Lying: The target of a successful lie will believe the false information to be real, but will not ignore common sense or previous knowledge of which is adamantly certain;
Misleading: The target of a successful confusion or misleading attempt will stand fascinated or mentally stunned for some time (a good rule of thumb is 1d4 minutes/combat rounds), probably repeating some type of action it was already engaging; or just stand still musing and ruminating.  It will not ignore a visible foe or eminent danger that it’s aware of; it will not act suicidal.
Flattering: The target of a flattery attempt would probably see the player character in a new light. It will not change its original intention (more roleplaying is required for that), but it can accept a little delay or change of plans (for example: instead of killing right now the player character, it can kept him as a slave or take him to its lair, to properly cook the “helpless” adventurer).

A T&C check is very simple: roll a 1d20, add your T&C total bonus. If you’re trying to lie to the target, you must score equal or higher than his Intelligence score; if you’re trying to confuse him, use his Wisdom; if your intention is to flatter him, your target number is his Charisma. Powerful monsters (HD 9+) inflict a  –1 penalty  to any T&C check.

A special rule (taken from the Doctor Who RPG): if you declare a T&C action, you always go first in the initiative order. You “talking” attempt always trumps physical actions. If multiple targets are going to use T&C, the talker with the higher Charisma goes first.

Now a special limitation: you can attempt only one type of T&C check against the same target per encounter. For example: you can try to lie only once to a goblin in an encounter; if you fail, you can attempt either to cajole or mislead him. After your first failed T&C check, further checks suffer a –1 cumulative penalty. If you meet the goblin another day, these penalties are removed (unless the Gamemaster rules otherwise).

Common sense (as always) overrules any T&C mechanic. If a player character attacks an orc and, in the following round, attempt to flatter him, he’ll obviously fail.

Player characters of 9th level or higher should impose a –1 penalty in any T&C done against them.

An Optional Rule: In the normal system above even player characters can be the target of T&C “attacks”, though usually only major NPCs possess such skills (or think about implementing them). If you believe that this is too heavy for your group, I suggest giving them an “ablative” armor against these “social attacks”. A player character can ignore 1 T&C check (before it is rolled) per game session if he has either Intelligence or Wisdom 15+. If he sworn an oath, he can ignore an additional T&C check provided that it goes against his oath.

For example, “I shall never again doubt a dwarf” will imply that any attempt to convince this player character that a dwarf is lying is doomed to fail. Any player character can only have one oath at a time and he should always follow it completely – if he fails to do it, he can never sworn another until he atones (Gamemaster’s call).

The player character must declare his intent to ignore the T&C attack before it’s rolled. An ignored T&C attempt is treated, for all effects, as a failed check.

Another Optional Rule: Any powerful monster or villain (a dragon, an orc-king, the Necromancer) can, once per encounter, attempt a unique Dark Will check. This is a special T&C “attack”, only available to Greater Evils and important monsters. The monster rolls a 1d20 + 1 for every 5 HD it haves. If the check exceeds a player character’s Charisma, his morale is severely shaken and his will is diminished by the monster’s presence.

Reroll that character’s Hit Points, but use only d4s. The result is the number of Hit Points possessed by that player character until he leaves the presence of the villain (if the result is higher than the present HP total of the character, just remove 1 HP for each full HD possessed by the player character – to a minimum of 1 hp).

Spellcasters so intimidated by Dark Will can’t cast spells against the responsible villain. Dark Will can be attempted only once per adventure.

If the Gamemaster allows, a 9th level character can attempt to counter a Dark Will attack, saving his ally, by losing his next action and succeeding at a Charisma check.