Sunday, September 18, 2022

Let Me Tell You About My Fantasy Heartbreaker

So now that it is out into the world, I want to tell you all a bit more about the creation of Deathtrap Lite.


When I created the game, it was a sudden brainstorm. I was tinkering with the 7-UP system Stephen Smith had created for his World of Weirth setting. At the time we had been playing the campaign for a year, as an add-on to Low Fantasy Gaming. The idea was to have a skill system that was robust, freeform, and that could allow a character to develop organically outside of the leveling system.

It was a good system, but it had a few bugs.

We'd agreed that the system needed an overhaul, because my fellow players were cautious about using it in many circumstances. The probabilities it produced were less favorable than ability checks, and we were often confused about when it would be used.

While I was writing up my recommended tweaks, I saw that I could build a whole role-playing game system out of the engine without too much difficulty. It just needed even more tweaking... (I wonder how many man-made horrors started with this line of thought.)

I began doodling up a rules-light system with a single unified mechanic based on Stephen's 7-Up system, and renamed it "Over Six" after it started to deviate quite a bit from source. It was like a compulsion. I couldn't stop tinkering with this engine, and at the end of a week and a half of scribbling in my spare time, I had a complete game system written.

Once I had the game engine, it seemed a shame not to have a game. So, I decided to write an OSR-inspired game with it. I rearranged the combat system a bit to work using standard OSR monster stat blocks. I replaced my NPC interaction rules with something that strongly resembled the 2d6 NPC reaction rules used in B/X clones.

By the end of the second week, I had a game that was compatible with almost all OSR adventure modules, monsters, and spells, but was mechanically distinct.

But, why on Earth would you want to play it?

As is, it was just another fantasy heartbreaker. I had to set my mind to using what made it unique to also make it more than just an offbeat retro clone.

Making it Stand Out

At the end of the day, that is the question whose answer makes a game worthwhile. If you're not going to clone exactly an old D&D edition to let people have a nostalgic experience, you have to add something cool and new.

And, if your experience isn't going to be exactly what someone's looking for, it also helps if you have something hackable. To that end, I thought long and hard about where my mechanics or my design might be useful to people in a way where they can pull it out and then toss it into their own game.


I had a few ideas about using some of my own unique Magic and Alchemy systems, and adapting some of the more interesting elements have the magic system of Knave or Maze Rats, which I have thoroughly appreciated.

Small But Deadly Touches

I had a few little ideas I wanted to incorporate, as well. I wanted to use alchemy and medicine as a replacement for the cleric in the game. This led me to the idea that if you removed clerics and druids from the game, food became more important.

Some of the things that made life easier in Dungeons & Dragons, such as magical healing and magically conjured food could be given some drawbacks to cut back on hand-waving of things that actually make the game more challenging.

I'm particularly proud of my approach to magically-created food. I decided that it would be possible, but characters who eat it must save or gain magical corruption. Corruption is usually not a problem except when interacting with outsiders or performing magic. However, extremely bad saves against corruption can mutate a character, and an excessive amount stored up transforms a character into a magic-wielding aberration called a dreugh.

Madness and Addiction

Likewise, the game's equivalent to healing potions are addictive: making excessive use of them hazardous. Without any other easy source of magical healing, characters have to really think before they rely on Magic to take care of injuries.

I took what I thought were the pretty solid madness rules from Low Fantasy Gaming and tweaked them to be progressively more distracting and disorienting for a character. I connected them to a stress mechanic that I felt was a little more realistic than the sanity mechanics that usually show up in OSR games.

Characters can remove stress during downtime by doing things to blow it off, such as carousing, partying, visiting festivals, reading, spending time with family, etc. Madness is formulated as a stuck thought that distract and drives the character. Players are not required to role play out their character's madness, but gain a bonus for doing so as an optional rule, which can be ignored if it is outside a player's comfort level.

I also made the cure for madness and addiction a fairly realistic one. Time with family, volunteer work, religious service, and counseling from an ecclesiastical caregiver who stands in for a psychologist.


A huge part of what I did to make combat more interesting in Deathtrap Lite was at a system of wounds that can be triggered:
  • on the first time a character above first level is hit in combat
  • when they lose more than half their hip points in a single blow
  • if they take more than 15 hit points in a single shot
  • or when reaching zero hit points.

Wounds have rated severity, requiring different levels of care to be treated. This means that a character whose taken a pretty severe injury is going to slow down the party and need a lot of care to get out of the dungeon. It helps make hit points feel more like the measure of skill they are meant to be, as they're connected to whether or not a character is injured, but don't leave you with a binary "fine or dying" setup.

Enriching Underserved Play Elements

All of this is good and fine, but doesn't amount up to enough to make it unique. Which is when I had my brainstorm. I wanted to create a role-playing game that added something useful to the often neglected pillar of exploration, and also provided some TLC to the often ignored or underused dungeon trap.


Traps were totally reimagined. I blend a few elements of first edition mechanics, second edition mechanics, third edition mechanics, and some of my own unique twists based very loosely on how skill challenges were presented in D&D Next. I also introduced the concept of catastrophic damage. When a character falls off a cliff, is caught in a cave in, starts drowning, or is hit by a trap that is meant to do serious bodily harm, it doesn't attack just their hit points, nor does it do a flat number of hit points.

Instead, based on the grade of damage caused, a character can suffer a fraction of their maximum hit points, and a wound.

  • Serious catastrophic damage can causes a character one half of their maximum hit points plus a light wound on a failed save.
  • Severe catastrophic damage takes a minimum of one half of maximum hit points and a light woind on a successful save, or can take away 1/2 of a character's maximum hit points and cause a severe injury on a failed save.
  • A successful save against lethal catastrophic damage will take away 2/3 of a character's hit poins and result in a severe wound, or instant death on a failed save.

This means that a character with 20 or 30 hit points still has to worry about everyday traps, because even a simple booby trap meant to deter is going to take away 10 or 15 hit points and leave them limping and vulnerable if they fail they're saving throw.

Of course, in real life there are very few death traps peppered through treasure vaults and dungeons. They are more of a trope of fantasy than they are a reality. So I wanted to create a world in which traps made sense.

A Setting That Makes This All Make Sense

This is how I came up with the idea of the world of Mondas. In this campaign world, humanity purged almost all other sapient life. Taking some beats from both the better versions of Warhammer and Simon R. Green novels. Elves were forced to back to the fairy world, dwarves forced deeper underground, and fairies banished back through their trods.

Being forced to leave their ancestral homes, most of these creatures left booby traps to gain revenge on the humans who they knew would come to loot their lairs. Fairies that remain have seeded the wilderness with curses and terrible traps to punish humanity and keep them afraid inside the walls of their cities.

On top of that, humaniy's technological advancements have attracted the machine-obsessed, verminous Gremlins into their cities in numbers never before seen. Gremlins will turn derelict buildings into deathtrap-riddled nightmares for fun.

Alien Invasion

But, the heart of a good dark story is to take the everyday and make it brutal and dangerous. That's when I got the idea for the Tzwa, a race of aberrations from another world who the fairies, gods, and spirits that mankind has banished once kept away.

These psychotic aliens enjoy taking people's homes, businesses, and churches and turning them into labyrinths full of lethal traps and killer robots. While people are isolated, confused, and terrified, the Tzwa perform alchemical experiments on living subjects, often leaving gelatinous half humans or strange oozes behind.

I actually wanted to give oozes a lot of love, as I feel there and neglected monster as well. So oozes, jellies, slimes, and puddings get two pages worth of stats, and a connection to a menace that will make them both common, and a warning sign.


Is also creates a world where it makes sense that the gods have turned their backs on humanity. After all, humankind became mad and genocidal for a period in their history. Now the religion that remains is built on ensuring that The madness of the crusades never occurs again

Travel in a Savage Wilderness

I also wanted to give some love to wilderness survival and exploration. These are fields that I think Dungeons & Dragons has repeatedly failed to do well, and most retro clones seem to want to hand wave.

I started by taking some inspiration from Hot Springs Island. I created clear rules for hex crawling that included exploration options. I also create a system for determining how quickly characters are moving based both on terrain and what they are doing.

I simplified the getting lost rules from the Rules Cyclopedia as well.

Taking a little inspiration from Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City by Luca Rejec, I created a system for traveling groups where they track their supplies, food, and water using and abstract measure based on Depletion Dice. Dangerous encounters in the wilderness might include flash raids, animals being attacked, or terrible weather can force rolls or even automatic reductions in the depletion dice. This way, play your characters don't just have to worry about hit points, and monsters in the wilderness aren't just attacking players.

I also give some advice in the book on creating tension during hex crswls by making sure that their characters can't simply hunker down. And rules for good resource management and the benefits of hiring trained teamsters.

Overall, I feel that I created good, streamlined tools for overlay and travel and that don't turn it into a painful accounting exercise but still give resource management real weight in the game..

I honestly feel that there's a lot more to be added, because this is the place where I've had the most inspiration and done the most tweaking after experimenting with it at home. And that final edition of the game, I think that would be the place there the game is most expanded.

Some Thoughts

Deathtrap Lite was an idea that I just had to get put of my head. It took me only two weeks to write, but a year and a bit to test, tweak, and edit. I couldn't think about anything else for weeks. Now that it is finally out, there is so much more I would love to do with it. But first, I need to see better where it is working and where it's not.

I am hoping that a year or so in the wild will help me hone it to a fine edge. After that, I hope to create a neater, more elegant version of the game. When I do, I will take a page out of Hankerin Ferinale's book - specifically ICRPG, and make sure early adopters get a complimentary copy of the finalized edition.

Get it on DrivethruRPG

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