Friday, June 9, 2023

What's in Drakken? Designing Bespoke Games for Campaign

[Note: the game QuAD RPG has been changed to Drakken]

I am going to just share an article on my design rationale and choices for my new game Drakken RPG,.

Drakken came out of the fact that my wife and kids are dissatisfied with some of the quirks of BECMI Dungeons & Dragons and Basic Fantasy... especially the slow Thief Skill progression. When I ran my first session of the Drowned World Campaign, I got a bad reaction on how poorly those skills performed. I tried replacing them with the pips system from Lamentations of the Flame Princess to make it easier, but that still starts PCs with abysmally low success chances.

Nor did my Skullduggery Die improve things, The Paradigm of the low chance of success for Thieves was baked into the core of any OSR game that includes the thief. And ones that do not are rare.

So I sat and thought about their frustrations and asked myself "given that I want this to be high fantasy with a liberal dose of anime silliness, is D&D working as a system to give the PCs the stories my campaign brief expected?"

Well... no.

So how could I "fix" the game in a way that it gave the experience I was looking for?

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG might have worked for most of it... the skills for thieves are a little generous, and the warriors are a blast. Using their mechanics for my Drowned World PCs might have worked... but its magic system, and its lethality made it a dubious option.

What I wanted was:

  • Simple
  • Fast
  • Low reliance on dice
  • Accomodates a lot of non-standard classes
  • PCs feel competent,  but not superheroic
  • Magic that is powerful, but limited and dangerous.
  • Different gods produce radically different clerical powers.
  • Took as little possible time for administrivia and planning. 
  • Compatible with my OSR material. 

It seemed like I might have to customize the game a fair way from vanilla D&D...

Time to Build a Custom System

As I went down my list of possible base systems, I found myself thinking about Venger Satanis' Crimson Dragonslayer d20 system. Characters feel heroic and competent. It was baked into the off-handed way Venger handles thieves and warriors in the system:

Thieves can do all the usual Thief Abilities…climb, find and remove traps, listening, hide in shadows, move silently, pick locks, and pick pockets. If it’s a routine usage, abilities are automatically successful as long as the attempted action is narrated. Trickier tasks are usually narrated and rolled (see Skill Checks below). (Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise, p.191) 


Epic Acts of Awesome can be attempted instead of a standard action, like an attack. Epic Acts of Awesome aren’t about doing the impossible, but doing what is possible in an awesomely epic way. For example, swinging through the jungle on vines while shooting cannibals with your blaster. Normally, you’d have Disadvantage on that type of stunt. However, if the attempted action is crazy, wild, or fun enough to push it over the edge, you can bypass Disadvantage and roll normally. (Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise, p.194)

Yeah. those are fun, but maybe a little too vague for my taste. I didn't necessarily like the rolling mechanic behind it, and I felt the warriors deserved a little better than they got.

So why not steal ben Milton's rolling mechanic for Knave? It is math-wise pretty consistent with the OSR, and in this case I am only using it for the edge cases and moon-shot tasks. Roll a d20, add your level, apply penalties and hit a 15 is mechanically simple enough, if used sparingly.

I decided to lump all the skills into the Skullduggery class feature idea that I had generated during my world-building exercise... but it is needlessly complicated compared to what I had in mind; just stick to that "beat 15" plan, where it is needed. 

After some thought,  though, I realized this still didn't feel right. Adding a range of graduated success where 15 was the threshold for an unmitigated success seemed better. A qualified success or a moderated failure sounded like a good addition,  so I created a Talisanta-style graduated success table  foe "Skill checks." Players could still get some of what they were hoping for with a qualified success on sn 11-14 that way.

I liked the vaguely of "Skullduggery" opens up a world of possibility for thieving acts not covered by the OSR core skillset; running a con, cheating at cards, and sabotaging an egine can all be considered part of Skullduggery.. Here is my iteration:

A character with the Skullduggery ability can pick pockets, palm objects, sabotage machines and traps, jimmy latches, pick locks, scale walls, set traps, and similar feats of sleight of hand, legerdemain, and stealth.

Normally, characters with Skullduggery automatically succeed at tricks like these. If they are trying something exceptionally high risk, they may need to make a Skill Check. Using Skullduggery against PCs always needs a Skill Check at Disadvantage. 

My take on Mighty Deeds  Was also pared down and simplified to make it successful more often and versatile.

Many warrior-type characters have the Mighty Deeds ability. When trying actions in combat such as pulling bookshelves down on foes, dropping chandeliers, swinging into foes on ropes, etc., they can do their Combat Die in damage just as if they had attacked with a weapon.

When using a weapon, a character with this ability may choose to shatter a foe’s weapon, blind, stun, disarm, trip, shove, or otherwise debilitate their foes. To do this, they have to hit their foe with an attack roll, and choose to do half damage. The enemy may get a Saving at the GM's discretion, especially if the target will be permanently injured.

A character with Mighty Deeds can attack multiple foes (up to half their level) ^at once instead of trying another special Combat stunt, but deal half damage if they do so,

Outside of combat, Mighty Deeds allows PCs to automatically succeed when smashing in doors, breaking open containers, and performing great, but plausible feats of strength. 

I also felt that Crimson Dragonslayer, and my most-played OSR game, Swords & Wizardry are right about single saving throws; they add some edge and take away complexity. But the 20 - Level of CDSd20 is a little excessive. I decided to subtract the PC's level from 17. That way the base number for a successful save is 16 - usually the hardest saving throw for 1st level D&D characters.

And, for simplicity, I made Advantage and Disadvantage rather than multiple modifiers my M.O. for most mechanics. 

"Saigo at Mt.Hanaoka -
Kagoshima Rebellion"
by Tsuikoka Yoshitosh
Simple Characters: Class is King

I decided, like Crimson Dragonslayer d20,  I could just ditch ability scores. Where necessary,  I could make Skullduggery or Mighty Deeds stand in for high ability scores. A warrior with Mighty Deeds might get to bash in doors and lift portculli without a roll needed.

I wanted something you could just pick up and start playing. Making character generation a few simple decisions without needless rolling helps there.

Let's face it, the more you rely on rulings over rules, the less meaning Ability Scores have. And, for that matter, in most TTRPGs with classes your good ability scores will determine your class, characters are usually good at what their classes are meant to be good at. Why not just skip a step and assume PCs are good at what their class role needs them to be good at; why not skip a step and just assume a PC is competent in their field?

The class is the core of the character in that case, which definitely made sense when I was building the world around the classes.

I actually converted the Drowned World Classes first, and then made the four core classes used in D&D-derived games. As I had definitely established with the Drowned world Classes that the line between Race & Class was pretty permeable, I decided to imitate BECMI D&D and use race-as-class.  So I made an Elf, Dwarf, & Halfling class.

I took a page from D&D here and made dwarves' detection powers let them smell treasure, an let halflings use their luck to aid others.

More Streamlining 

While I was at it, I decided to add in some quality of life upgrades to this game.

I don't like arbitrary leveling systems. Milestones and the pop D&D plot points give you levels system that is inaccurately called "Milestone" both reward players for trying to read the GM's mind and meet his/her expectations,  rather than playing their characters the way that they want. XP is a pain... but it is fairer.

Of course, the devil is in the details: What gives XP determines how the players play. I like XP for gold, but it has consequences to playstyle. I find the fairest system I have seen is DCC RPG and Knave's which evaluates the reward based on the difficulty that the PCs had with it. In Drakken you get more experience if you had a hard time with a challenge and little experience for something you breezed through.  This makes it far easier to assess XP for traps, puzzles,  and meeting adventure objectives. If you want to award XP for gold you can reward XP for a treasure hoard based on  how painful it was to acquire. 

I decided to keep a modified version of the standard OSR NPC reaction roll and 2d6 Morale system, but with some adjustment.  They are simple and just work.

I also chose an inventory system like the one in Knave or the old Lamentations of the Flame Princesss: Grindhouse Edition. It's easy and it's fast.

"Minamoto No Yorimitsu Striking
at the Ground Spider
by Tsuikoka Yoshitoshi"
Hit Point Economy 

Hit points come and go easily in Drakken.  Like Crimson Dragonslayer d20. Clerics can heal nearly at will until they get an unlucky roll, and an hour or two of rest restores hit points. I did this because,  with the low hit points - and the fact that Magic-Users have to spend theirs, characters can be dropped to dying in one unlucky strike. With modern game groups being smaller than in the AD&D era, and 5e monsters being damage machines, PCs are still going to be pretty squishy, and the game loses surprisingly little. 

Having played CDSD20 and Cha'alt a few times, I knew this system would: 1. Make Clerics feel simpler, 2. Make the game faster, discourage the players from the two-hour workday  O'Dell of Dungeon crawling,  and 4. Embolden the GM to brutalize the PCs with hard, complex encounters.

Does it reduce tension? A little bit, but it makes us for it by keeping it fast, furious, and intense. And the natural 1 on healing rolls feels like Russian Roulette. 

Also, with monsters improving in combat ability, but non-warrior PCs not, Large swarms of mooks become terrifying. 

I wanted a game where the PCs felt tough, but not invulnerable,  and where the gods are important.  This manages both of those goals quite effectively. 


I try to share at least a few new ideas with each game release.  Here I have added two new takes on mechanics and a good chunk of new content.

I have added a punishing Death Save mechanic: failing Death Saves costs you levels. Each time you fail a Save while at 0hp to stabilize (not get back up - after 0hp you are a wrecked -) you lose a level, making the next one harder, as your saving throw decays with your level.

I also added a system of range and location tracking for Theatre of the Mind that I have used for years, but never shared.

I also was sure to toss in some  weird monsters and strange new magic items that will work immediately in an OSR game.

Self-portrait by Tsuikoka Yoshitoshi 


I decided rather than using standard fantasy stock art, I would use Tsuikoka Yoshitoshi's (1839-1892) woodblock art. He was the last great Ukiyo-e artist: a style that was bloody, action-packed,  and pulpy in its own rite. It was used to create easily reproduced prints depicting strange, heroic, supernatural or titillating tales from around Japan from the eighteenth through early 20th centuries.  It creates a fun, different art dynamic. I love Ukiyo-e,  and I am about sharing the awesome. 


I stripped the Drowned World material out of it for an initial release, as I wanted to offer a lightweight stand-alone game that I could share.  This one has everything you need to play a traditional OSR campaign like Keep on the Borderlands, give or take translated monster stats. 

It is available as a PWYW game on

With its ultra-simplified Setup,  Drakken RPG can be up and running in a few minutes if you have a module or a good random generator handy, but it is robust enough to support a campaign through to the mid-levels.

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