Let Thrones Beware: Hope vs. Fear

This week’s blog post is all about how Let Thrones Beware is a game predicated on hope. But before I begin writing on that, I want to take a moment to talk about how thrilled I am with the discussion that last week’s blog post touched off.

One interesting bit of feedback that was very universal was that describing Let Thrones Beware as Traumatic Fantasy didn’t send the right signal. As a matter of fact, the connotations of the term seemed to be that it would focus on the exact sorts of topics I’ve explicitly disavowed.

Obviously that’s not going to do, so coming up with a new description is something that I will need to ponder over the next little while.

 

Hope v. Fear

And with that, it’s time to the actual topic of today’s post. In writing Let Thrones Beware, I deliberately set out to make a game about hope. The real world is chock full of dangerous events and bad actors. It’s not always true that the good side wins. Designing a game and setting that centred around hope and the potential for good to triumph was something that I felt was important to me. A game of escapism in which evil is formidable, but through struggle, good will triumph.

Some Examples

In much of the media we consume, the protagonists are confronted with a rising evil. An ominous danger that threatens to radically alter (or even destroy) life as they know it. In the classic computer game Baldur’s Gate, your character struggles to defeat Sarevok, a villain with designs on becoming the new God of Murder (sorry for the spoiler, but the game’s 20 years old). In the Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship journeys to the fires of Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, in order to prevent Sauron from regaining his full power (you’ve had over 70 years to read this one). This arc is prevalent outside of fantasy: in Die Hard, everyone’s favourite Christmas Movie, McClane races to stop a group of sophisticated criminals before they clean out Nakatomi Tower and murder all the hostages to cover up their crime.

A common theme in all of the above is fear. Fear of a dangerous new threat, that if left uncontested, will see a vile, violent plan through to the end, with tragic repercussions for everyone involved.

What’s Different About Let Thrones Beware

I’ve written that Let Thrones Beware is a game about hope – so what exactly does that mean?

For starters, it means that evil has already won. There’s no rising tide to thwart. The fiction describes the Kingdom of Man’s invasion and the destruction of the civilizations of the indigenous species. It describes Man’s enslavement of the conquered and it’s subsequent thousand-year rule. It describes the apocalyptic destruction of Man’s empire, and the frenzied flight to safety of those natives who were fortunate enough to be outside the maelstrom.

All of these events would be fascinating stories to explore, but they’re not what Let Thrones Beware is about.

Instead, the heroes of Let Thrones Beware exist hundreds of years after the fall of the Kingdom. Man is gone, vanished from existence, but the aftershocks of his empire’s annihilation have served to arrest development and stop progress. Life, especially in the Deep Wood, the focal point of the adventurer tier, is hardscrabble. Restricted to tiny refuge villages hidden in remote clearings, the denizens of the forest struggle to survive. Bandits and ruffians, seduced by the opportunity for easy profit or starving, prey on travellers who venture from behind the protection of ramshackle walls. Unnatural horrors lurk between the trees, feeding on those desperate or crazy enough to brave the mist between the trees.

I’ll readily admit that all of this sounds quite grim; where, you might ask, is the hope? As I wrote earlier, evil has already won. Depressing as all this might be, it represents the nadir. A party of brave heroes can confront this darkness, breaking it’s shroud and restoring light to the world.

Of course, this fiction wouldn’t be anything without supporting mechanics, and there are two of particular note that I’ll mention here.

Chapter Track

The first is the Chapter Track. This GM tool allows the table to chart the progress of the heroes throughout each chapter of their campaign. Succeed at an adventure and the heroes advance on the chart – the light shines more brightly. The domain grows as more people are attracted to the safe haven the heroes have created.

The players receive a domain enhancement (which, at the Adventurer tier, could be as simple as a blacksmith moving to town – and as significant as adding a new kingdom to a growing alliance at the Legend tier).

Fail at an adventure, and the the heroes falter, receding down the track. Their domain shrinks as it’s inhabitants flee the growing danger.

Primordial Forces

The second is the concept of Primordial Forces. Let Thrones Beware is a game about overcoming evil – evil so complete and all encompassing that it has manifested as malevolent entities. Four such forces exist: Despair, Disorder, Greed, and Malice. Each of these forces opposes the efforts of the heroes, interfering in their adventures. Each strives to thwart the emergence of light. As the heroes progress through an adventure, they have opportunities to reduce these Primordial Forces. These manifestations can be brought low by making positive choices and overcoming evil foes.

Primordial Forces have agency in game. As GM, you can classify a particular encounter as one being advanced by these forces. When you do such a thing, the Force itself can exert influence. For example, if Disorder champions a combat walls and structures may collapse, opening pathways that enemies can traverse. The Force is reduced, or even eliminated from the adventure, if the heroes triumph in such an encounter.

Next week, I’ll continue this discussion by examining the tragedies wrought by the coming of the Kingdom of Man.

 

Try it for Yourself

As always, you can download the playtest packet and try it for yourself. Visit drivethrurpg to download the beta and introductory adventure for free.

Let Thrones Beware Free Open Beta

The Let Thrones Beware Free Open Beta is officially on!

I’m excited to announce that the free open beta of Let Thrones Beware is officially a go!

Let Thrones Beware is a role-playing game about rediscovering hope in a traumatic fantasy world

Despite its strength, the eternal Kingdom of Man is no more, accidental victim of the very power it wielded to conquer your world. Bowed but not broken, those who survived the Kingdoms brutal thousand-year occupation fled to the far corners of Ceyenus.

Despite your freedom, there is danger. Horrors stalk the Deep Wood in which you and your kin shelter. Isolated, vulnerable villages quake in the darkness, hoping they are overlooked by what lurks in the trees.

Despite the danger, you must end Age of Despair. The rebirth of Ceyenus awaits and now is the time for you to step forward and restore what was lost.

Features of Let Thrones Beware include:

  • A setting that challenges heroes to restore their world, shattered and broken by an otherworldly invasion
  • A universal resolution mechanic that uses attack/counter/interrupt powers
  • Gridded tactical combat and abstracted non-combat systems
  • A codified adventure cycle where success and failure have meaningful effects on the campaign
  • Stronghold and Domain management
  • Mass combat
  • Character portability between tables

You want to take a look at this if…

  • … you enjoy tactical combat, but dislike having nothing to do in between taking your turns
  • … you want a mechanically interesting non-combat resolution system
  • … you enjoy gradated success in games, but want a tactical component to your gameplay
  • … you like character building, but dislike item treadmills and fiddly feat choices

Game Principles

  • All players are equally capable of affecting the game narrative, no matter the combination of choices they make
  • Choices must be purposeful; a decision must have a significant mechanical impact, otherwise the details should be considered fluff and left to the player to define
  • The game should run on a unified mechanic that is simple, but allows for progression as characters develop
  • Combat and skill challenges must be crunchy but fast to run – and easy to adjudicate

This open beta includes the Let Thrones Beware core rulebook, a printable character sheet, and Bells of War, an introductory adventure for your table.

Download the free open beta now!

Playtest 007: Adventures and Primordial Forces

It’s been a few months since I’ve last posted about the Let Thrones Beware playtest. How’s it doing, you ask? Great, I’ll reply; and then I’ll go on to explain some of what we can expect in the 007 iteration (no British spies will be included). There are two major highlights for today’s post: Bells of War, a Let Thrones Beware adventure and Primordial Forces.

Playtest Addition: Bells of War: A Let Thrones Beware Adventure

Bells of War is an introductory adventure for 3-5 players (plus GM). It is intended for groups who are new to the system, and was designed with several goals in mind:

First, Bells of War serves as introduction for everyone at the table to the core concepts, mechanics, and style of Let Thrones Beware. Through a series of encounters, players will learn how the non-combat and combat challenge system works. GMs will learn how (and why) the system works the way it does, how to build effective and challenging encounters, and how to respond to player decisions.

Second, Bells of War establishes the groundwork for a long-term campaign spanning the hero, champion, and legend tiers of play. Primordial forces, mythic foes, and settlement management are all introduced to the groups who complete this adventure.

Third, this adventure is a template for anyone who’s interested in designing their own quest for Let Thrones Beware heroes. The challenges, decisions, and structure of the quest contained herein are representative of the system. Following the example set out by Bells of War will allow you to construct balanced adventures that challenge players and take advantage of all of the functionality Let Thrones Beware has on offer.

Playtest Addition: Primordial Forces

Primordial Forces are a new addition to Let Thrones Beware. The Kingdom of Man’s invasion, enslavement, and eventual destruction has left Ceyenus a fractured, broken world . The Primordial Forces of Trauma are the anguish of Ceyenus manifested. Four forces exist: Malice, Greed, Despair, and Disorder. Each of these forces stands in opposition to the heroes and their efforts to repair the world. Mechanically, each Traumatic Force provides the GM will a set of obstacles and complications that are inserted into combat and non-combat challenges. The ability of the Primordial Forces of Trauma to influence Ceyenus will be reduced as players progress through an adventure combating evil and righting wrongs.

Future iterations of the playtest will introduce new options for the players. Heroes will be able to align themselves with Heroic Primordial Forces that seek to bring Ceyenus back into balance: Hope, Compassion, Love, and Harmony. As characters gain experience, their connections to these Heroic forces will deepen. This will provide them with advantages which they can exploit to counter the machinations of Trauma.

 

Playtest 006: Domains, Mass Combat, Mythic Foes

August has arrived, and with it, the 6th revision of the Let Thrones Beware Playtest. This iterative build refines the campaign cycle, adds preliminary domain management and mass combat, provides additional adversaries, and introduces new, uniquely dangerous mythic foes.

Playtest 006 Updates: GM Options

Non-Combat Challenges

Non-combat challenges have been provided more depth with the addition of background and foreground components and blockers. These components will make resolving non-combat challenges much more interesting, as heroes have to contend with a variety of new complicating factors.

Domain Management

Domain management is a new way for players to make their mark on Ceyenus. The heroes success or failure at resolving adventures manifests as changes in the campaign track; advances along the track allow the heroes to construct new enhancements (e.g. basic buildings such as a smithy or a stable at the adventurer tier). These enhancements provide additional resources to the heroes whenever they undertake a new adventure, and will allow the heroes to field a larger army when it comes to the ultimate battle between good and evil.

Mass Combat

Mass combat is the capstone of the campaign cycle. Depending on how well the heroes advanced the campaign track, the nefarious villain behind everything may launch an invasion. The heroes will assemble an army of allies based on how well they performed, and the pitched battle that results will determine the fate of the Deep Wood.

Adversaries

Two new adversaries have been added – one another faction in opposition to the heroes, and one something new entirely.

Mythic Foes

While most of the foes heroes face are surmountable with grit and determination, there are some opponents that cannot be defeated by mere force. These mythic foes pose significant danger, and can only be defeated by the heroes with significant preparation. In fact, if the heroes confront these foes without research and adequate preparation, they will quickly find themselves in an unwinnable situation.

Cult of Man

There exist secretive groups that seeks to discover the vile magics harnessed by the Kingdom to further their own goals. Venerating relics, unholy artifacts, and the bones of the dead, the Cult of Man seeks to uncover ancient secrets that hint at unleashing untold power. The Cult comes with a full compliment of adversaries of all types.

Playtest 006 Updates: Player Options

While 006 doesn’t include a significant change to heroes, it does add one new item. Much like how each class has a special feature that provides additional utility in combat, each background now comes with an ability useable in non-combat challenges. This will help differentiate the different backgrounds from each other and will help make background selection even more of a meaningful choice.

Playtest 006 Downloads

Player Packet

Playtest 005: Character, Combat, Adversaries

Holy cow, somehow it’s already June: that means it’s Playtest 005 time! This packet contains a multitude of improvements for characters, the combat system, and remade, challenging adversaries

Playtest 005 Updates: Characters

Death to Ability Scores

One of the most dramatic changes for 005 is the elimination of ability scores. I’ve looked at several different ways of making generalization and hyperspecialization equally viable options for characters, but nothing was satisfactory.

005 completely eliminates ability scores, replacing them with a single Roll Bonus that characters include on every roll they make. This is quite beneficial,  as balancing challenges and designing opponents that are equally challenging for generalists and specialists was a frustrating experience, and that dilemma is no-longer a problem.

As it turns out, removing ability scores was an exceptionally simple process, and the game isn’t appreciably weaker for doing so. This reinforces that DTAS was the right choice!

Class Refinements

Playtesters using the previous version suggested that two classes, the Rogue and the Oracle were in tricky spots with respect to their class features.

Rogue

While the Rogue’s Penetration skill was effective in damaging opponents,  it didn’t work with the rest of the party very well. Sure, it did direct HP damage, but if everyone else still had to carve through armour, meaning that the Rogue’s ability didn’t do a very good job of contributing to the fight.

Consequently, Penetration has been scrapped as a class feature, in favour of a new mechanic that allows the Rogue to initiate an engagement with an interrupt, as a cost of two powers, when in combat situations where she’s got Edge. This transforms the Rogue into an automatic damage machine, and meshes it well with the rest of the party.

Oracle

Out is the ability for the Oracle to allow hp transfer to allies while engaging. The heal capability has been transferred entirely to powers. This helps eliminate duplication within the class (why bother taking the heal archetype and it’s powers when you can auto-heal for free?)

In place of the autoheal is a similar ability that increases an adjacent ally’s Resistance by one, up to its maximum. This encourages the Oracle to be front and centre in the fray, and giving free Resistance rather than allowing a transfer from Reserve to HP is a huge tactical advantage for frontline combatants.

Playtest 005 Updates: Combat

Desperation

Totally new to Let Thrones Beware is the Desperation mechanic, which is designed to encourage combat to end quickly. No more combats stretching on for hours. Desperation begins at Composed, and over four rounds, climbs until it reaches Frantic.

In order to streamline combat, the old Edge mechanic has been pulled out. No longer will you have to round dice up or down, depending on the result. In its place, combatants will add or subtract the Desperation value (+1 through +4). This saves time versus figuring out how to modify each die. Further, it also encourages teamwork and collaboration, as the boost is much more significant than previously available.

Initiative Stack

The Initiative Stack is another new system introduced in 005. The old roll+Response stat was quite cargo-culty in design. It went a long way in pigeonholing characters in initiative order. There’s no reason that an equally encumbered Knight shouldn’t be as fast as a Rogue, for example.

In the new system, which has its own detailed post here, the heroes will bid combat powers against their adversaries, with the side who has the highest total initiative score going first.

Playtest 005 Updates: Adversaries

I’ve punched up adversaries in 005! I added a little description to adversary, and they’re now hooked into the Desperation system.

As Desperation increases, the tactics that your foes employ will change. Where once footguard would strategically crowd together, they will break apart, each fending for themselves. Brigands, initially confident in their ability to cut down any foe will grow less sure of themselves.

Their powers too, will change. Ranges will shrink and damage will grow. Foes will gain additional effects as they grow more desperate to defeat the heroes.

 

Initiative Stack: Making combat order a meaningful choice for players

The Initiative Problem

I continue to churn along in the development of Playtest 005. One of the things that struck me the other day is just how dull and meaningless the current iteration’s initiative system of Tier Die + Response score is. It’s almost entirely luck-driven, and there’s nothing about it that would lead players to make interesting decisions. Plus, it shoehorns characters into acting in a relatively similar order every combat.

A Solution

After mulling this over for a little while, I was struck by a bolt of inspiration, and after a day or so of furious tinkering, emerged from the darkness with a brand new initiative system! The intent of this revision was to make determining initiative a meaningful decision for the players. The party can virtually guarantee that it will act before the baddies they face, but there will be an immediate impact in terms of reduced capability in the first few rounds.

How the Initiative Stack Works

Each adversary the players face has an initiative modifier: arranging these from lowest (typically minion opponents) to highest (fast, mobile enemies) before the fight provides you with the Initiative Stack.

To determine when they go in each combat round, the heroes first decide among themselves the order in which they would like to act. It might make sense for the nimble Rogue to go first in one combat, but in the next, the party may wish to get its heavily armoured Knight into position right at the outset. This decision is made by the party, and the GM has no role to play. Once the heroes have determined their combat order, they as a group exhaust combat powers (as many as they like), totaling the Force Score of the powers they have bid to form an Initiative Stack of their own.

The order in combat is determined by comparing the values of the competing stacks. The side with the highest-valued stack goes first, the largest value is removed from the stack. This done, another comparison is made, and the next-highest value is removed. This continues until the full order is determined. Once determined, initiative order does not shift for the remainder of the combat.

Players begin the first round of combat with all powers chosen for the purposes of determining initiative order exhausted.

 

An Example

In the above Stack, the heroes have committed to winning the initiative, and have exhausted five powers to try and make sure they go first. In the first comparison, their stack has highest total value (9 vs. 8), and Sue acts first. The heroes remove the rightmost value from their stack, and another comparison is made. This time, the adversary stack is largest (6 vs. 8), and so the Sargent is placed next in initiative order. The adversary stack is reduced, and another comparison is made, identifying Bill as the next to go (6 vs. 4). The comparisons continue in this manner until the order of one side is full determined. At that point, the remainder of the other side is appended to the initiative order.

These comparisons leave us with the following combat order:

 

Playtest 5: How the Campaign Cycle Pulls Your Game Together

With playtest 4 out the door, it’s time to start discussing new features that will appear in playtest 5. Today, the campaign cycle!

 

What’s the Campaign Cycle All About?

The campaign cycle is a way to organize your Let Thrones Beware games with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. The cycle is broken up into three distinct chapters (Adventurer, Champion, and Legend), one for each Tier the player-characters reach.

 

Overview

Each chapter focuses on a particular threat which, when resolved, leads into a more ominous threat in the subsequent chapter. In your default setting, the Adventurer chapter is about bandits plaguing the Deep Wood, led by a fearsome bandit queen. This leads into the Champion chapter, focusing on stopping a fanatical death cult that has infiltrated the highest levels of the Baronet’s court. Finally, in the Legend Tier, Heroes confront the otherworldly forces manipulating the cult which threaten to annihilate all of Ceyenus.

 

Campaign Chapter

Each chapter  is separated into adventures. Three’s normal, but you could do just one if you want to rush, or nine if you’ve got the time. At the end of an adventure, the GM adjusts a villain track depending on their success or failure measuring how well the evil plan progresses. The heroes also get to base-build when they finish an adventure, expanding the town, fortress, or country in which they reside.

Each campaign chapter concludes with a climactic battle between the heroes and their allies and the chapter’s villain the forces that the heroes can marshal against evil depend on the base-building they have accomplished over the course of the chapter. Finally, the heroes engage in a ferocious duel against the villain, and when victorious, transition to bigger and better things.

Playtest 004: Character archetypes, more powers, and more choice!

I’m very pleased to announce that the Playtest 004 documents are complete and published! There are many new and exciting things included in this latest iteration of the Let Thrones Beware playtest, and the changes are sure to be a hit at your gaming table.

 

Playtest 004 Changes

Character Creation

I’m most excited about the pile of new options for character creation; the game’s approach to building your character has been significantly revised! Under the 003 rules, your character was completely determined by your choice of species, background, and class. Every character with same three choices would be mechanically identical. Under the newly revised system, your character will select between two different class archetypes, providing you with options to make your experience more diverse. The number of starting powers has also been boosted, and rather than being predetermined, they’re now for you to choose. Players now get to choose their starting competency and weaponry, providing even more choice to tailor your character.

 

Combat Powers

Combat power effects now have an associated secondary attribute, which determines whether the effect triggers or not. This determination is an easy process; simply swap the power’s attribute for the secondary, and if your Force Score still exceeds that of your victim, the effect fires. This change is being implemented in order to make stat diversification a more attractive alternative to focusing entirely on a single stat.

 

You might want to take a look at this if…

  • … you enjoy tactical combat, but dislike having nothing to do in between taking your turns;
  • … you enjoy gradated success in modern games like Fate and Dungeon World, but want a tactical component to your gameplay;
  • … you like the character building of D&D 4e, but dislike the item treadmill and fiddly feat choices; and
  • … you like the simplicity of D&D 5e’s advantages, but want a game with more parity between player characters.

Playtest Downloads

It’s time to fight: Looking at Adversaries

Let’s look at adversaries for a moment. Adversaries come in different types; minions, who automatically perish after an engagement, but trigger a condition if they win. A sentry minion who loses an engagement dies. Sentry minion that wins triggers an alarm. Minions also have a free ‘commanded’ ability.

Standard adversaries are regular foes; high damage, low hp for quick, punishing fights that emphasize tactical play at melee and range. These are the meat of any combat encounter, and generally are the hardest hitters.

Commanders are elite foes that can deal tremendous damage and issue commands to minions once a turn as a free action. There’s an incentive to target Commanders first, otherwise the heroes may find themselves in real trouble. Commanders generally have a power that allows them to spawn new minion reinforcements.

Last, legendary foes need more than damage to beat: e.g. Medusa’s reflection in the bronze shield or the fire that was used to seal the Hydra’s wounds. Heroes must identify and overcome weakness in order to defeat a legendary foe, and identifying the weakness is a quest unto itself. Kicking down the door and assaulting a Legendary adversary will result in a “heroes wanted” shingle going up at the local inn.

 

Every adversary belongs to a grouping; the Marauder, Knife, Sargent, and Hatchet are all brigands, for example. Grouping isn’t just a label, it has mechanical impact. Every adversary belonging to the same grouping shares a common tactic. In the case of brigands, it’s “Strike and Fade.” Each of them is able to make an additional move after winning an engagement. This makes brigands highly mobile opponents, unlike militia, whose “Form the Line” tactic shuts down forced movement when two are adjacent.  Immediately, the two types play differently in combat; brigands are going to move all over, and militia are going to try and link together.

Adversaries also have strategies. These are effects that apply across groups and are applied based on the most common adversary in the fight. If the players are up against 4 brigands and a criminal, the brigand strategy, “Encirclement” applies. If there were more criminals, it would be “Emboldened.” The strategy applies to all adversaries in play so that lone criminal also has access to Encirclement.
Encirclement means that any adversary may move off one side of the battlefield and reappear at the opposite after a round. If Emboldened was in play, each round more than half the baddies win an engagement, two new criminal minions are added. By combining different tactics and strategies, fights take on a radically different feel even when sharing many of the same adversaries.

A brand new playtest packet is now available

Hey heroes, exciting news! The Adversary, Obstacle, and Hazard document is done and uploaded, marking the completion of the first full playtest package. It’s now possible to run a full introductory adventure using the published materials.

 

Why you might want to take a look at this if…

  • … you enjoy tactical combat, but dislike having nothing to do in between taking your turns;
  • … you enjoy gradated success in modern games like Fate and Dungeon World, but want a tactical component to your gameplay;
  • … you like the character building in D&D 4e, but dislike the item treadmill and fiddly feat choices; and
  • … you like the elegant dice rolling system of D&D 5e’s advantages, but … 5e

 

What’s included

On the player side, this release includes everything you need for five races (Echthroi, Ipotane, Fey, Formian, and Insectoid), four backgrounds (Criminal, Noble, Merchant, and Guard), and four classes (Knight, Oracle, Rogue, and Hedge Wizard). All this in addition to the combat and skill equipment, competencies, and influences you need to be the shining hero you know yourself to be.

For GMs, this packet includes a host of helpful advice, three different adversary types (brigands, condemned, and criminals), a number of non-combat challenges (as well as an online generator to dynamically create new challenges on the fly), and three different hazards to incorporate into battlefields.

Looking to the future

The next revision (004) is scheduled to include additional competencies and class options (we’re ultimately aiming for two distinct archetypes per class), additional adversaries, an expansion of the non-combat challenge system to include actions in the foreground and the background, and a change to the combat power system that will link power effects with non-core skills.

 

GM Content

GM Playtest Packet (160 downloads) Adversaries, Obstacles, and Hazards (128 downloads)

Player Content

Character Playtest Packet (231 downloads) Character sheet (181 downloads)