Sunday, April 12, 2020

Game Review: Knave

Game Review : Knave

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Questing Beast logo
© Ben Milton
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Ben Milton
Publisher: Questing Beast Games
Game Engine: OSR Dungeons & Dragons
Market: DrivethruRPG

I am a huge fan of Ben Milton. When I first started looking at ways to make Dungeons and Dragons faster and more enjoyable, he quickly became one of my favourite sources for both RPG theory and product reviews for small press role-playing games. I have bought both of his games, Maze Rats and Knave because I appreciate his channel and want to support it, even though I don't have the funds to become a patron.

I wasn't sure what to expect of Knave, because I honestly didn't like Maze Rats. It wasn't a bad game, just not my cup of tea. So, I was not sure if I would be getting a product that I would use, or if I was just giving back to Ben. It advertised itself as an OSR compatible game, however, and so I was hopeful that I Knave would be my speed. Not only was I not disappointed, but Knave impressed me with its innovations.



Knave's DNA is primarily D&D - both old and new. A Knave Character sheet will look familiar to most D&D players. There is Armour Class and Hit Points. It uses the standard array of six attributes and  rolls them in order randomly.  The game's unique rolling method delivers attribute scores between 11 and 16 start, weighted heavily to lower numbers.

What these numbers mean is slightly different from in standard OSR D&D, however. The statistics can go as high as 20 as the character levels up. The statistics are conceptualized as both a defense rating and a bonus. The Defense is equal to the classic D&D Attribute. The bonus is the defense -10 rather than using the curved bonus table in standard OSR games.  At first these bonuses seem high, especially as attributes and hit points increase with levels, but aside from the six attributes, hp, and AC, there are no other character statistics. Without an attack bonus, proficiency, skill points, ThAC0, saving throws, or similar statistics, Attribute increases are the only way characters advance in terms of numerical precision.

The majority of rolls a character will make work on a universal target number. Characters at first level begin with a 30% to 40% chance of success on most checks, possibly higher for the things characters are well-equipped or statistically well-suited for. By 10th level, characters will have a 75% rate of success on rolls related to the Attributes they have raised to 20. Rolls can also be modified by an advantage/disadvantage system.

Overall, Knave characters feel pretty much on par with an equal-levelled Basic Fantasy or OSRIC character, despite the very different numbers... and this is what really impresses me about Knave: it strips D&D down to its barest bones, removing almost all surplus mechanics, and builds something very different with that skeleton.

Knave definitely shows strong influences from another indie/ OSR game that I very much enjoy: Index Card RPG (ICRPG). In many ways, Knave takes some of the best innovations bundle.  As in ICRPG, Knaves they are competent enough to try anything for which they have an appropriate item. A Knave with lockpicks can pick locks; a Knave with a spellbook can cast the spell within; a Knave with a battleaxe can split skulls. An abstract slot-based encumbrance system determines how much an Knave can haul around. Unlike ICRPG, Knave abandons class altogether, as the gear-based ability sysyem renders them irrelevant.

Also, like ICRPG Knave's magic system does away with spell levels and simply reduces spells to single-line descriptions to be interpreted by the GM. Each spell consumes precious item slots, and requires a roll to cast effectively.  Although, Knave does away with ICRPG's spellburn and Yog Crystal system in favour of simply stating that once a character fails a spell roll, the spell cannot be used for the rest of the day. Unlike ICRPG or any other lightweight OSR game I have seen, however, Knave offers 100 spells and guidelines for easy conversion of D&D spells of any edition into Knave.

However, where Knave goes off on its own to experiment with its own style of play and tools.

Good Points

Knave has a lot to offer to someone either as a standalone RPG or as a set of rules to pillage for one's own homebrew game. I want to talk about some of the major stand-out features here.

Player Facing Option

Aside from just wanting to give Ben some of my shekels for his amazing YouTube channel and his newsletter, this was the big selling point of Knave.

For those not up on the lingo, a "player-facing" game is one where the bulk of the dice rolling is made by players. When a roll is critical to the success or failure of a PC, only the Player gets to roll. This strips the GM of the power to fudge the game, while giving the Player a sense of personal ownership over results.

I love player-facing games for the environment they foster at the table. They encourage ownership if the game by the players, and tend to encourage them to take more interest in how their actions create narrative.  Some good examples of player-facing games include the Cypher System (Numenéra, The Strange), Powered by the Apocalypse (Dungeon World, Ironsworn), and the 2017 version of PARANOIA.

Dungeons and Dragons is not well designed to work as a player-facing game. In fact, player-facing systems are philosophically at odds with how D&D and the role of the DM was originally conceptualized. Some die rolls, like NPC reactions, Morale, and Random Encounters don't mesh well with the way D&D is typically played.  However, it is not impossible to do.

Knave offers a guideline for creating a player-facing experience, and points put how easy it is to re-conceptualize the math for almost any contest in D&D to put the dice back into Player hands. While the math is not identical between Knave and D&D, these guidelines could be ported over with no friction.

Traits Tables

Around 2/3 of page 2 of the incredibly text-dense (seven-page) Knave manual is dedicated to optional random tables to detetmine a character's non-mechanical characteristics. It includes some expected ones like Alignment, Physique, Background, and Clothes, but also some unexpected ones thst are very rich with ideas. Face, Skin, Virtue, Vice, Speech, and Misfortune allow you to quickly roll up a character with a detailed description, role-playing hints, weaknesses, strengths, and a sob story.

I love the contents of these tables, they are a wonderful mix of general, specific, common, and unusual to make it feel like you have a staggering range of possibilities.

Classless D&D

In the 90s I often had difficulties convincing players to have a good old-fashioned game of D&D. Many players preferred "new and better" systems that were class-free. Class was seen by many players of the era as a straitjacket on their creativity when they compared it to (allegedly) classless systems like Shadowrun and World of Darkness. Or they demanded we use a system like RIFTS that had literally hundreds of classes to choose from.

Personally,  I did not find classes to be a restriction, but rather a clever constraint that required me to think beyond the character sheet, or beyond the system to get a character I wanted.

Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition seemed to resolve this complaint mostly by offering a dizzying array of feats, races, alternate abilities, spells, and prestige classes that make characters feel infinitely customizable within the rules frame. It encouraged rules hacking in small, manageable doses. It came at the cost of an expansive library of books, option paralysis,  obsession over builds, generally more metagaming, and a much slower game, however.

Today's gaming crowd is happy with fewer options. I think the complexity level of 3rd and 4th edition, and the resultant slowdown in play was too high a cost for the modularity of the systems. The simpler D&D 5e, combined with a shift in gaming culture, seems to offers a happy medium. The eternal scoff I experienced when asking players to choose a class seems mostly gone.

But the problem of classes themselves has not.

By making character abilities solely reliant on the gear a character carries and the talents they hone with experience,  Knave creates a classless (if "gamey") system. It solves the problem of class in D&D neatly in a way that doesn't involve just piling more classes and class options on the characters.

Copper Currency Scale

Several of the OSR games that I have looked at recently use a different economic scale, preferring to treat coins of silver or copper as the base unit of exchange rather than gold.  While I am not a stickler for Authentic medievalism in my games, I find the strange economics of a gold-based currency in D&D has always been a bit jarring; especially if you assume that peasants live mostly by barter or exchanging goods for mere pennies.

A copper currency base just makes more sense, especially if you take just a little time and research to make even slightly more realistic values for goods as Knave does.

Simple Mathematics

Knave keeps its math simple.  Because attributes are the only significant source of die roll modifiers,  you don't need to keep track of a number of equations with moving parts. Keeping only positive modifiers, and a universal target number for the majority of rolls simplifies everything further.

Character advancement is handled with a simplified experience system, which values encounters at 50, 100, or 200 xp based on simple criteria. Why Ben Milton didn't pare it down further to a 1-4 scale like in DCC RPG is a curiosity, but the numbers are easy to track.

Spell Ideas

Knave's magic system is simple, and spells native to the game have no spell level. Instead, if a character has the appropriate spellbook, they can cast a spell. The majority of magic spells are a simple one-sentence description for the GM to use as inspiration for narratively resolving the effects of spellcasting.

What stands out in Knave is the sheer unusualness of the spells presented. There are dozens of odd, entertaining and fun spells on offer. A few of my favorites include:
Attract:  L+1  objects  are  strongly  magnetically  attracted  to  each  other  if they  come  within  10  feet.
Babble:  A  creature  must  loudly  and clearly  repeat everything you  think.  It  is  otherwise  mute.
Catherine:  A  woman  wearing  a  blue  dress  appears until end  of  spell.  She  will  obey  polite, safe  requests.
Marble Madness:  Your  pockets  are  full  of  marbles, and will  refill  every  round.
Snail  Knight:  10  minutes  after  casting,  a  knight  sitting astride  a  giant  snail rides  into  view.  He  is  able  to answer  most  questions  related  to  quests  and chivalry, and may  aid  you  if he  finds you  worthy.
Summon Cube: Once  per  second,  (6  times  per  round) you  may  summon  or  banish  a  3-foot-wide  cube  of earth.  New  cubes  must  be  affixed  to  the  earth  or  to other  cubes. 
I have already integrated a number of these spells into my game, and the comedic effect has already been worth every penny spent on the game.

Portability

Rather than offer a huge selection of monsters, or an exhaustive interpretation of spells from D&D source material, Knave includes a guideline for using D&D / OSR content in Knave. The standard D&D stat block can be used with practically no conversion, and minimal math. Knave characters, despite being simplified from their D&D equivalents,  tend to be pretty much on par in terms of ability.

Open Culture 

Knave is far enough removed from D&D that it doesn't require an OGL license. Instead, it is offered Creative  Commons  Attribution  4.0  International  License. This is as free and open a product that you can make in the Creative Commons system. It makes it possible to create almost anything for- or out of- the Knave system that you care to.

Growth Points

Extreme Minimalism

Like Maze Rats, Knave is not just stripped-down in terms of game structure, but employs an economy of language and design that is incredibly tight. Knave comes as a complete role playing game on seven pages in landscape orientation of small font across 3-5 collumns per page.

If I were planning on printing the game, rather than reading it off my tablet, this level of economy would be very welcome, indeed. And I definitely appreciate the care and effort it takes to edit a game down to this level. It almost seems foolish to me to call this a growth point, because Ben Milton has accomplished exactly what he set out to do in writing this manual.

There is, however, something to be said for the fripperies and vices of RPG design that have been stripped out of Knave.

Role-playing game books are as much artifacts as games. The art, sample adventures, and character sheets are there to offer inspiration, to suggest play-styles, and help the game connect to- and feel accessible to- the audience. This is a topic worthy of its own essay, and so I will limit myself a bit here, and revisit it later.

Suffice it to say that a traditional role-playing manual is as much meant to be enjoyed or experienced as it is meant to be a vessel for conveying rules. And, in the OSR it is also a means of supporting people in our community whose contributions we admire. I would have happily put down a few dollars more for an expanded edition of the game with art, layout, some monsters, and maybe a few adventures that show off what Ben Milton, as a game critic, finds most appealing, and that richly expresses his vision for a role playing game.

If you are reading, Ben, keep it in mind if you have the time. You could call it "Scurvy Knave".

The NPC Reaction Table is a Proud Nail.

I have always thought there is something deeply compelling on a philosophical level about the old 2d6 D&D NPC Reaction table. It teaches by its very nature that most people have no feelings about you at all. It is a good mechanic, and one we should not have lost in newer editions of D&D.

However,  in a game with as tightly unified and simplified mechanics as Knave, it stands as something of a Proud Nail.  Perhaps an alternate system built on the PCs charisma to generate a first impression might have been more consistent.

This is a minor gripe, all told. Knave brings its design A-Game to so much of the base OSR material, that seeing a part left untouched and outside of the unified mechanics of gameplay just seems strange.

Stunts in Need of Honing

Much like DCC RPG's Mighty Deed of Arms mechanic, Knave resolves fancy moves like disarming, tripping, shoving, etc. with a single die roll mechanic: the Stunt. However, in as simplified a system as Knave we have no clear idea what a monster being knocked down, or an enemy being demoralized looks like.

My own GMing intuition suggests costing enemies turns, granting advantage to allies or disadvantage to enemies seem like obvious outcomes for a successful stunt. I feel, however that fleshing out that section of the book with another paragraph would be very helpful.

Underdeveloped Magic System

The magic system in Knave is truly reduced down to its bare bones. A character can cast a spell for which they have a spellbook. Spells have no level or other requirements. A  character rolls to cast the spell, and if he fails, cannot cast that spell again that day. The level of the character casting the spell may modify the area if effect or duration. The GM controls access to spells to keep anything he or she might find game-breaking out until it is appropriate.

Knave includes no spells that deal (or heal) damage directly in order to side-step a lot of mechanical questions about magic.  It does not give guidelines for using spells to drop things on bad guys or slamming them against objects.  This becomes entirely DM Fiat, which I don't necessarily object to, but having a good rule of thumb for having heavy stuff dropped on you would have been handy to keep Knave feeling self-contained.

The magic section goes on at length (relatively speaking) about adapting classic D&D / OSR spells, including making use of spell levels by making them the minimum required level for a knave to cast them. This is unnecessary; spells already don't need or use levels in Knave. The fact that PCs cannot make spellbooks means the GM can set whatever bar for access to a spell that they desire. Including simply not letting players find it.

Conclusion

Knave is a stark seven pages of incredibly thought-out, innovative, and compact game design, punctuated by random tables and spells that show off an amazing creative flair.  It is designed to work with any OSR style D&D material with a minimum of fuss, while using much simpler and more direct math, along with some of the modern conveniences of more recent editions of  Dungeons and Dragons.

If I were asked to run a game completely by the seat of my pants, Knave would be my go-to game; It can be set up in seconds,  and run out of almost any module I have on hand with very little prep.

The magic spells and random character generation tables are tools that I am already using in my games, and would recommend them to most anyone else looking for fresh ways to make magic or characters more interesting.

As is, Knave is well worth its price, and I would happily pay more for a version with some new monsters, adventures, and a little more fleshing out of the magic and stunt systems.

I would also have loved to see some art and manual design that reflects Ben Milton's creative vision and expertise. He can talk at length about what is impressive and compelling about a book's design. Seeing that knowledge fully deployed would be of great interest to me.

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