Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Empress core rules - Sections 4-5

This material is a bit more general.  Section 4 covers the hazards of adventuring that aren't strictly combat-oriented, while section 5 provides rules for experience and character creation.

4. Adventuring

4.1. Damage

Once the character reaches zero hit points, that character is incapacitated.  They are seriously wounded, and cannot do anything except communicate, and perhaps slowly drag themselves along the ground outside of combat.

When a character reaches -4 HP, he or she is in critical condition.  At this point, the character should make a Fortitude save every round.  Once there are three failures, the character dies.  Also, at -8 HP, death is immediate.

Optionally, the GM may allow a motivated character (or certain kinds of nonhuman entities) to continue to act even when they are incapacitated.  This requires a Will save with a -4 penalty.  This save must be reattempted to continue if any further damage is received, and a character acting in this manner will receive an additional point of damage every turn of activity.  Once a character is critically injured, he or she is truly unable to act, and no saving throw will suffice.

4.1.1. Injuries

If the GM wants a grittier game with more consequential injuries, then have a character attempt a Fortitude save every time damage is taken on his or her initial hit die.  On a failure, an injury occurs, with a small chance of being a serious injury.  When a character is incapacitated and every time he or she takes damage afterwards, an injury occurs, which is serious if the character doesn’t save vs. Fortitude.

The effects of injuries have the potential to be incredibly diverse.  At this point, you’re going to need a whole bunch of additional tables full of gruesome medical descriptions.  That’s beyond the (current) scope of these rules.  Right now, we’re just pointing the way.  There are a lot of other games out there that have tables for this sort of thing, and it wouldn’t be hard to adapt them to the mechanics of Empress.

4.1.2. Attribute damage

The only major change here is what happens when an attribute drops to zero or less.  If the attribute is Toughness, Reflexes or Dexterity then he or she is incapacitated at zero points, and critical condition below that, with the usual ways of dying and being stabilized.  At -4, though, the character immediately dies.

When Intellect, Nerve or Perception drop to zero or less, the character loses his or her mind.  This can be treated with great difficulty before the character reaches -4, at which point only a miracle will suffice.

If Charisma drops to zero or less, the character is not fit for civil society, and risks conflict just walking down the street.  This condition is not final in the same way as with the such drastic losses with other attributes.  At -4 or less Charisma, however, the character’s appearance will provoke an actual stress event in onlookers.

4.2. Healing

Most damage is healed pretty quickly.  Every character has a value called their healing rate.  This is equal to level plus Toughness modifier, with a minimum of one.  When a character rests for ten minutes after losing hit points, he or she regains an amount equal to his or her healing rate, with a maximum amount equal to the amount lost since the character’s last rest.  After this, am unwounded (see below) character can regain his or healing rate in hit points for every hour of rest.

A character who is incapacitated, however, heals more slowly.  Such a character is considered wounded, and HP are regained at the rate of one per week of rest, until the character reaches 1 HP.  If the character went critical, he or she is now considered grievously wounded, and the rate is instead one per month until 1 HP is reached.  Magic can speed things up drastically, of course.

Unless the situation dictates otherwise (such as for fatigue or loss), attributes heal at the rate of one point per day.

If rules are developed for specific injuries, then those rules will have to cover recovery and healing for them.  In all likelihood, rules for recovering from injuries will be as individualized as their effects.

As with LotFP, attribute damage is healed at the rate of one point per day.  Attribute fatigue, however, is recovered from at the rate of one point per turn.

4.3. Reactions

To determine random reactions when characters meet, roll 2d6 on the table below.  But if characters have time to interact, add Charisma modifiers (the lowest of those to significantly interact).

Table IX: Reactions
modifier to next roll
2 or less
12 or more

Note that a character may attempt to press his or her case, changing the reaction of the other party.  When the situation doesn’t warrant role-playing, or the GM isn’t sure how the other party would react, the GM may choose to simply re-roll the NPC reaction.  This should be performed exactly the same way, except the roll is modified based on the prior reaction, as reflected by the table above.

Another way to think of reactions is that they adjust the reacting party’s default reaction relative to an average reaction roll.  In other words, an “indifferent” reaction roll will not affect an NPC’s default reaction at all, while an “unfriendly” result would worsen it by one “step.”  This is much the same as saying that the reaction is relative to possible reactions, but it can be helpful when attempting to apply succession modifiers.  The succession modifier should not be based on the relative reaction so much as the NPC’s absolute mood.  So a “helpful” reaction might make a hostile guard become receptive, but the next reaction roll should probably receive no modifier instead of the +3 for “helpful.”

If the NPC has prior dealings with the characters, or a good reason to react in a specific manner, then reaction rolls may not be called for. This table is only meant to resolve uncertain situations.

4.3.1. Some words about “social rolls”

There is generally some concern in the OSR community about “roll-playing” replacing role-playing, so there is some disdain for using dice rolls to resolve social interactions.  While this author regards this as being a concern worthy of wariness, he would not rule out all such mechanics.  

Specifically in Empress, there is an ethos that, hopefully, resolves a lot of these concerns.  Our approach is that the GM can always fall back on the reaction roll here to resolve any uncertainty in social interactions.  This roll only needs to be modified by the character’s Charisma attribute and the NPC’s current disposition without considering any other situational factors.

The reason for this is because of the way we interpret the reaction roll; the result is projected within the range of possible responses that the GM can envision.  For example, if the PC is making a stupid excuse to a guard for why he or she was sneaking into the royal chambers, even a helpful reaction isn’t going to let the character off the hook.  In that situation, the best that could happen is that the guard would treat that terrible explanation as a joke, giving the player another chance.  Pushed too far with ridiculous explanations, the guard will be forced to take the character in as a formality despite thinking that no harm was intended.

Where the situation leaves little room for uncertainty, no reaction roll is called for.  If these are the elite guards of the God-King, pledged to slay any being (even an insect) that intrudes upon His inviolate presence with its profane existence, then a winning smile just isn’t going to have any impact on what happens next.

The value to this mechanic is that introduces uncertainty for the GM.  There’s plenty of reason to permit for some variability in how NPCs react to PCs.  It accounts for the fact that the dispositions of people, and their particular preferences, can vary wildly, and it’s taxing to expect the GM to always account for this.  In addition, it makes it a lot easier for a, let’s say, less-than-suave player to role-play a conniving mountebank, without invalidating the importance of the player’s own contribution to the dialog.

4.4. Poison and drugs

Poisons and drugs have a lot in common.  First of all, a character, when exposed, must roll a saving throw versus Fortitude.  This may be modified by the dosage.  Second, the character will typically take damage to attributes, and that damage will be half if the saving throw was successful.  The amount of damage is proportional to the intensity and quantity of the agent.

In addition, if the saving throw was a failure, then the character may suffer additional debilitating effects.  This usually boils down to incapacitation or death.  Both poisons and drugs have an onset period, and a period of activity, which mean exactly what they sound like.  A successful saving throw also halves the effective period of activity.

The primary difference between drugs and poisons is that the attribute loss from drugs is treated merely as fatigue, and is thus recovered much more quickly.  A character can still be incapacitated or killed due to loss of sufficient magnitude.  This is essentially the same as overdosing.

Attribute damage can target one or more attributes.  And some drugs can also slightly improve attributes, although these drugs may have mildly toxic aftereffects (treat as a non-lethal toxin that does a little attribute damage).

4.5. Illness

For a character to acquire an illness, he or she must first be exposed, and then fail a Fortitude saving throw.  The saving throw can be modified based on the degree of exposure and virulence of the pathogen.  If the character fails the saving throw, he or she will acquire the illness.

At this point, there are two basic kinds of illnesses: chronic and acute.  A chronic disease is easy to understand; if it is acquired, the character will roll for attribute damage as dictated by the illness.  These lost points will not recover so long as the character is ill.  Most illness of this sort lasts for a varying period of time (e.g. 1d4 days for a common cold).  Other diseases, once acquired, remain indefinitely.  Some of those are curable with medicine, and others can only be addressed by magic.

Acute diseases are nastier, but if the patient survives, they go away on their own.  In this case, the character rolls a saving throw, possible modified, at some regular interval.  If he or she fails, then he or she must roll damage for certain attributes, as determined by the disease.  On a success, damage is halved, and after three successes, the illness fades.

If and when an illness ends, the character may heal any attribute damage as normal.

4.6. Encumbrance

LotFP has a great system, so my changes are few.  Two-handed objects don’t count as an extra encumbrance level, but they do count as three objects, and like mail armor, carrying one sets a minimum encumbrance level of one.  Very bulky objects, like a large hiking pack, would count as six objects, and establish a minimum encumbrance level of two.  

For instance, a bucker should count as one object, a medium shield as three, and a large shield as six.

Also, to find out the encumbrance level of armor, multiply the Coverage by the Protection.  If the resulting value is 18 or more, the encumbrance is one.  If the product of Protection and Coverage is 36 or more, the encumbrance is two.

In addition, a character’s Agility is penalized an amount equal to his or her encumbrance level, minus one, as are Stealth rolls.

4.7. Fatigue

If necessary, fatigue can be represented in the game by a kind of Toughness.  Unlike normal attribute damage, these points recover at the rate of one point per ten-minute turn.  Whenever the GM wants to apply fatigue, the characters should roll a Reflexes or Fortitude save (depending on whether the effort is more cardio or more strength-based).  Magical or mental fatigue causes reduction of Nerve, saving on either Will or Mind.

If the save succeeds, the character only loses half the number of points, rounded up.  If the GM wants to resolve fatigue over time, the rolls can be made for individual points, success meaning that the individual point is not lost.  Or, if that is too burdensome, roll at the end of the activity, and decide how many points should be lost on failure.  

One special aspect of fatigue is that penalties to Toughness or Nerve modifiers are actually applied to all activities.  The reason we tie the losses to Toughness and Nerve is because it is possible to die (or mentally snap) through excessive fatigue.

4.8. Psychological distress

Occasionally, there will be situations where the characters might conceivably lose control of themselves.  For the most part, these sorts of things can be subject to role-playing, but sometimes rules may be required.  This is often due to the effects of magic, but it could also be the case for a character with a phobia or addiction.  It can also be caused by unpleasantness such as torture, backfiring magic, and terrible tragedy.  These are called stress events.

In these situations, the character should attempt a Will save, which can be modified based on the severity of the stimulus.  On a failure, the character should lose control of his or her behavior, and also take 1d3 Nerve damage.  Even if the character is somehow prevented from acting upon impulse, the damage occurs.

If the cause is magical, the duration and the exact behavior is prescribed.  For natural causes, the effects generally last a few rounds (fall back on 2d6), but this may vary by the cause.  The exact effects always depend on the situation.  It is recommended that they are rarely too extreme outside of extreme situations.  For instance, even a grotesque monster is unlikely to cause retreat on a failed save, but it could cause the character to be surprised for one round.  On the other hand, a character who fails the Will save during torture is likely to give up at least some concealed information.

4.8.1. Trauma

If the roll to save is a natural 1, or fails by 10 or more, then the character suffers a trauma.  In this case, there are three effects, as follows:

  • Nerve damage is 1d6
  • the character loses control and becomes irrational
  • the character will develop a long-term psychological disorder (i.e. “insanity”)

The loss of control is up to the GM for interpretation.  To give some inspiration, roll 1d10 and consult the following:

Table X: Irrational loss of control
response to fear
response to desire
Completely catatonic
Indulge dangerously
Indulge completely
Confused and ineffectual
Paranoid hoarding
Highly destructive
Paralyzed by guilt

This loss of control typically lasts for 2d6 turns.

The precise form of insanity that a character suffers from depends on his or her Nerve modifier at the time of the trauma.  First, roll 1d4: on a 1, use insanities from one lower Nerve modifier, on a 2 or 3 use insanities for one’s actual Nerve modifier, and on a 4 use insanities for one higher Nerve modifier.  Then, consult the following table, and roll 1d4 for insanity:

Table XI: Insanity
Nerve modifier
roll 1d4
+2 or more
Phobia: Fear caused when confronted with object of phobia (GM choice)
Subdued: Lose 1d3 Charisma
Doubtful: Lose 1d3 Perception
Reckless: When planning goes on more than ten minutes, the character must make a Will save every turn to refrain from charging ahead
Addiction: Must make a Will save every day denied addiction or attempt to indulge
Depression: For encumbrance purposes, character counts as always carrying 1d4 extra objects
Unstable: All loss of control becomes traumatic, but only causes a new insanity on a critical failure
Recurring Nightmares: Make a Nerve save every morning or suffer 1d3 loss of Perception and Agility
Destructive impulses: One of the character’s Hooks is replaced with a destructive impulse, like kleptomania or pathological lying, and another is replaced with the desire for nobody in their life to know; character must make a Will save to refrain from taking advantage of easy opportunities
Psychosomatic: The character develops all the symptoms of a severe physical problem, such as limb paralysis, blindness, Tourette’s Syndrome, etc.; every morning, the character must roll a Will save to avoid suffering this syndrome for that day
-3 or less
Paranoid delusions: Character believes something that is very untrue (GM decision); two of the character’s Hooks change to reflect these new impressions of reality
Unstable personality: The character’s personality changes completely, replacing potentially all of his or her hooks; future trauma will cause this to recur, but each new personality should have one more insanity than the prior one

Getting rid of insanity requires role-playing, and the handling of that is at the GM’s discretion.  Playing the insanity should be left in the player’s hands as much as possible, but if the GM feels the player is neglecting this, he or she can either penalize the character (i.e. withdrawal) or take direct control of the character’s actions.

4.8.2. Horror

For true mind-bending horror (e.g. the appearance of a Chaos God, the slaughter of one’s family, etc.), the stakes of the stress event are higher.  The character will only be free from effect if his or her saving throw was a critical success.  On a normal success, 1d3 Nerve is lost, and the character is stunned for 1d6 rounds.  On a failure, the character suffers trauma (i.e. 1d6 Nerve is lost, an insanity is obtained, and the character loses control from 2d6 turns).  On a critical failure, however, the character loses his or her mind, and is effectively out of the game as though he or she lost all Nerve points.

This should be reserved for very special occasions.

4.9. Lingering injuries

The abstract nature of EofIQ, not to mention the entire line of OSR/OGL games, tends to elide over things like the long term effects of injuries, and wounds that won’t heal, like ruptured eyeballs and severed digits or limbs.  For the most part, these are reserved for unusual effects of special traps, monsters and magic items.

There are a few good reasons for this.  First, it adds a layer of bookkeeping to the game; not only must one keep track of existing injuries and their effects, but their occurrence must be constantly rolled for.  Second, while such debilitating wounds may be realistic, their net effect on play is to make character’s unusable a bit sooner than if they were to outright die.  In the meantime, it doesn’t really make anything more fun.  Finally, if the campaign is set in a fantasy world with healing magic, these effects wouldn’t really be permanent, anyway.  So what’s the point?

However, there are also a number of reasons that the GM might want to allow for lingering injuries, when the mechanic is not overused.  In general, it might still be desirable to employ it in limited situations, but in those situations, it might be useful for making things more interesting.  And for those occasions, it’s better to have a system ready to go, rather than make-up a set of one-off rules.  Unless you like that sort of thing (some people really do).

One reason to incorporate lingering injuries is when access to healing magic exists, but that access is not immediate.  In such cases, characters may need to contend with missing eyes and shattered limbs until they can visit the High Temple, or whatever.  Or, for whatever reason, there might be some kind of prevalent special effect that causes a lingering injury, such as a magic (or just a nasty non-magic) shackle that hobbles its wearer.  Also, from time to time, players might try to shoot out their opponent’s knees, smack them upside the head from behind, or otherwise inflict some specialized injury.

If these injuries are allowed to occur spontaneously, then the player should roll a Fortitude save if the character is wounded, and again if grievously wounded.  For the first case, the character receives a Minor Injury on failure.  In the second case, a Minor Injury occurs on success, and a Major Injury occurs on a failure.  Every time a character receives more damage when in such a state, roll the saving throw to avoid an injury.

If an attack is attempting to inflict such an injury, then it is treated as a special maneuver i.e. -2 to attack, target gets a Reflexes saving throw to avoid the effect.  In addition, it is treated like a normal attack that does damage, and the effect will not take place unless damage is inflicted.  This is to achieve a Minor Injury.  To achieve a Major Injury, the attack is penalized -4 to hit, and must achieve at least three points of damage.

Here are examples of different kinds of injuries:

4.9.1. Minor injuries

  • Broken arm: Arm unable, -3 to do anything with arms for 1d3 months
  • Broken leg: 1/2 movement speed and -4 to do anything with legs for next 1d3 months
  • Broken rib(s): -2 to all physical activities for 1d3 months
  • Concussion: Immediate KO for 1d6 turns, -1 to all rolls for 2d4 days
  • Damaged eyesight: -1d6 Perception and Dexterity for 1d3 weeks
  • Damaged hearing: -1d6 Perception and Charisma for 1d3 weeks
  • Severed finger(s): -1 Dexterity, forever
  • Severed toe(s): -1 Agility, forever
  • Nasty facial scar: -1 Charisma, forever (+1 for intimidation)

4.9.2. Major injuries

  • Severed hand: -3 Dexterity if on-hand, -1 otherwise; two-handed activities impossible
  • Loss of eye: -2 Perception and -1 Dexterity, permanently
  • Punctured voicebox: Retain a damaged voice or total loss of speech (Fortitude save)
  • Severed/mangled limb: Permanently “broken” arm or leg
  • Brain damage: -1d6 to Perception and Intellect
  • Broken back: Loss of control of lower body means character is always prone
  • Face demolished: -1d6 Perception, -2d6 Charisma (+2 for intimidation)

5. Character development

5.1. Character creation

Creating a character in Empress is pretty simple.  Although we take a reasonably old-school approach by starting characters at low-level with few decisions to make, we do not go so far in this regard as the Original Game and many of its mutant offspring.

The first place to start is by rolling up attributes.  The right way to go about this is 4d6 for every attribute, dropping the lowest die.  The player gets one mulligan if they don’t like their rolls.  After that, they gotta live with it.  Write the final scores down on the character sheet.

The next decision to make is vocational.  The GM tells the player how many levels to take for his or her character.  At the start of a particular group, all characters might well start at level one or two.  Once things are underway, however, the GM will likely let newcomers or players who just lost their characters to start at the same level as everyone else, or at least at the same level as the lowest level member of the current party.

If the character has any Specialist levels, then the player must allocate the skill points.  Remember that up to one point per level may be spent on improving any saving throw by one.  Record the player’s choices on the character sheet.

If the character has any Mage levels, then the player must select a tradition for each level (probably the same for both, but you never know).  The player can also select spells such that the total levels are equal to three plus the character’s Intellect modifier.  The spells may be higher level than the character, but that will make them hard to cast.

It is assumed that a character starting the game with Mage levels will have access to some kind of tutelage.  A Mage’s player and GM should come up with a suitable description of this patron.  Characters who take up wizardry later in life must find their own teachers in the game.  Spells and patron should be recorded on the character sheet.  Details for how to do this are given in the section on magic.

For equipment, starting characters get 100sp, which they may spend as they like, choose the best prices between urban and rural sources.  Record all equipment and where it is on the character sheet (including any remaining money).

At this point, it should be possible to compute and record the character’s other statistics, like saving throws, various modifiers, equipment-based statistics (like damage and Protection), etc.  Don’t forget to roll for HP, and keep track of individual hit dice.

The player should select one perk for his or her character based on one of the character’s initial class levels.  A list of these is given below.

Finally, the player should select four hooks for his or her character.  Write these down, plus any sorts of details about the character like background, description, etc.  At this point, you’re ready to go.

5.2. Experience and levels

The rules for experience points (XP) and level progression are actually quite a bit simpler in Empress than in most OSR games, but they are also pretty distinct from most mechanics.

5.2.1. Character hooks

Every character is able to choose, at the time of character creation, four character hooks.  These are motivations and objectives of the character, and the character is able to raise his or her level faster by fulfilling these goals.

Hooks are usually pretty simple.  There should be some risk, sacrifice or difficulty in fulfilling a hook, but it need not entail a life-or-death situation.  Players should be given some latitude to come up with their own hooks, but the GM is given final say.

The sample hooks listed below can be used as-is for new characters, or just as guidelines for what is reasonable.

Table XII: Hooks
condition to satisfy
earn a sizeable amount of wealth (100 sp per level)
earn more wealth than anyone else in the party
get away with stealing something of value to both victim and self
selflessly and successfully risks or suffers for others
dispense justice to sinners
[unusual thing] seeker
find an instance of [unusual thing]
survive a close brush with annihilation
successfully deceive others
participate in a convincing personal drama
resolve a touchy situations without violence
start a fight with someone tough and win
solve a mystery
redresses an insult
comply with one’s ethical code at some cost (must specify code, subject to GM approval)
creates a chaotic situation that doesn’t cause harm to self or allies
gain social status
command respect or fear from others
comes up a with clever idea that works
makes progress on one’s quest (must specify quest, subject to GM approval)
upsets an authority more powerful than the PC
inflict lasting harm on someone who doesn’t deserve it
keep anyone new from learning a secret despite a risk of discovery

In addition, players may swap out one hook with another upon gaining a new experience level.  The swap should be justifiable by the actions and experiences of the character. Fulfilling hooks

During play, if a player believes that his or her character has fulfilled the objectives of a hook, then the GM should be notified.  If the GM agrees, then the player can mark the character as having checked his or her hooks.  A character can only get one check at a time, and this mark is cleared at the start of the next game session.

5.2.2. Obtaining experience

At the end of every session of play, players should be awarded XP.  As a baseline, a character should be awarded one XP per three hours of play or fraction thereof.  Thus, a session of up to three hours should earn a single XP, with two XP for a session just over three hours to six, etc.

If a character has checked his or her hooks, that character earns an additional XP.

Finally, if time permits and the GM thinks it’s a good idea, the players can select an MVP.  That player adds another XP to his or her character. Awarding MVP

This is an optional mechanic, and the GM can employ it as desired.  The idea is that each player must nominate another player as MVP.  A nomination consists of naming that other player, and describing whatever it is that the player did to obtain the nomination.  The player with the most nominations is awarded MVP for the session.  If there is a tie, players who voted for those not tied for the win are asked to change their nominations to one of the tied parties.  If there’s still a tie, the GM breaks it.

The key to this exercise is that it’s uniformly positive.  The point is for each player to shine a spotlight on something that another player did which improved their experience.  It doesn’t have to be the “best” player, it just has to be the person, behavior or even moment that each player wants to highlight and in fact encourage.

This is not an opportunity to passively-aggressively criticize another player who didn’t do whatever a nominee did.  It’s not a even a forum for self-critique.  It’s not that Empress is averse to criticism; rather, it’s just antithetical to what the MVP award is about.  This award is about encouraging group cohesion while spreading good habits.  If it can’t stay focused on that, then it should be omitted.

5.2.3. Gaining levels

Every ten XP, a character gains a level in one class.  The class should be appropriate for either significant activities on the part of the character, or training that he or she is able to obtain.  Level increases occur between sessions.  A player may defer gaining a level if he or she is trying to obtain the necessary training for whatever class is desired.

5.2.4. Effects of going up a level

The effects of going up a level are class-dependent, as follows:

Table XIII: Experience benefits
hit die
saving throws
combat bonus?
skill points
magic slots
Fortitude, Reflexes
Willpower, Mental
2 x level for casting,
two for learning
Wits, any *

The hit die is the die rolled for hit points to be added for every level gained.  The player can roll or choose to take half the die max i.e. two for d4, three for d6 and four for d8.  The Toughness modifier is added to each roll.

The saving throws for the class are the ones that are decreased by one point upon gaining a level.  The specialist improves Wits, and can improve any saving throw of his or her choice (including Wits, again) at the cost of one skill point.

If the class the character gained a level in has a combat bonus (i.e. is a Warrior), the character improves his or her Attack and Power Modifiers by one, as well as his or her Initiative.

A character earning skill points (i.e. a Specialist) can spend them on increasing skill levels, spending no more than two points on a single skill for a given level.

A character who gains magic slots every level (i.e. a mage) adds both learning and casting slots.  At first level, the character adds his or her Intellect modifier to both.  A character earns twice his or her level in casting slots and two learning slots for every such experience level.  Note that casting slots are generally specific to one tradition, or a family of related traditions.

In addition, characters receive a class perk upon first level of every class, and once every three levels (including first).  Class perks are minor bonuses that are specific to each class.  For details, read on.

5.3. Class perks

Class perks are special talents and expertise that pertain to a specific classes.  For every three levels that a character gains in a class, he or she is permitted to select a perk.  Starting characters also get a perk from one of the classes they have levels in.  Thus, a character selects one perk at the start of the game for one of his or her classes, then gains one perk when the character reaches third, sixth, ninth, twelfth, etc. level in any given class.

Perks give characters small but consequential advantages that lend them a bit more individuality as they progress.  There are no hierarchical trees, level or attribute requirements.  Instead, the character simply selects a perk from a class-specific list.  

The same perk cannot be taken twice, but a character may take a perk of the same type with a different kind of specialization.  For instance, a Warrior could take the Special Technique perk for the disarm maneuver, and then take it again for a different maneuver, like grappling.

The following section details perks for the different classes.  The GM and players are free to come up with others that make sense and have a similar level of usefulness as the ones listed below.

5.3.1. Specialist perks Contacts

The character gains contacts in one community of his or her choice.  The scope of the community must be such that there is a shared culture, and many middle-level operators know each other across this social group.  When a character contacts this community, roleplaying is best if the character has already had several dealings with the local contacts, and unique identities have been established.  Otherwise, the GM could fall back on a reaction roll, or use the reaction roll to randomize things or expedite the plot.

For a friendly reaction, the community will offer useful help nearly without charge or obligation.  On a positive reaction, mild assistance is available for free, or something more useful at some cost.  One a neutral reaction, modest resources are available at a fair price.  On a mildly negative reaction, little to not help may be located.  On a hostile reaction, something bad will happen from reaching out.  Keep track of each such roll to affect subsequent reaction rolls. Persuasion [situation]

In the specified situation, if the character is able to interact with other parties, he or she receives a bonus of +1 to reaction rolls. Dirty fighting

This perk allows the character to perform the dirty trick special maneuver with a penalty of -1 instead of -2. Improve attribute

The Specialist can improve any attribute by one point.  There is no limit to the number of times a character can take this perk, even for the same attribute. Loremaster

The character becomes an expert of a specialized area of the Lore skill.  As a rough guide, this is the sort of thing that would be taught as an upper-classman university course (e.g. history of a single country during an age of at most two centuries).  For purposes of this (narrow) topic, the character is considered to have a skill level of six. Lucky

Whenever the character is specifically negatively affected by something that is a matter of pure bad luck (like an in-game die roll), then he or she gets a re-roll.  This can help or hurt bystanders, based on the situation. Jack-of-all-trades

The Specialist can choose to treat a level one skill as level four. If the character succeeds in the skill roll, then he or she cannot perform this feat again during the current session.  The character is otherwise able to try this ability again in the same session until such an attempt succeeds. Speed reader

It takes the character about one-fifth the usual amount of time to find useful information, or half the usual amount of time to study it.  These are both highly relevant to the Scholar skill.

5.3.2. Warrior perks Special technique [special maneuver]

For one particular special maneuver of the player’s choice (e.g. disarming, grappling, overbearing, etc.), the character receives a penalty of -1 instead of -2.  This doesn’t include the dirty trick maneuver, however, as that is the province of Specialists. Weapon specialization [weapon]

With one particular weapon, the character’s Attack Modifier and Power Modifier increases by one.  If the character selects a type of shield, it improves combat modifiers for the shield bash but also increases HC by one more.

If the weapon in question is particularly exotic or complicated, this perk is necessary just to use it without some kind of penalty.  Typically, such weapons offer some kind of advantage, like a bonus to perform some kind of special maneuver like disarming. Focused training [situation]

For one particular kind of adverse situation, the character’s penalties are halved.  For instance, a character who trains against attacks from the rear is only +1 to be hit by such attacks instead of +2, and a warrior who trains in fighting blind is only penalized -3 to attack.

Alternately, if the situation is already advantageous (like attacking from horseback), the character instead gets an additional +1 to AM/PM. Relentless

Such a character may still act when he or she should be incapacitated.  There is a cost, however; the character must make the usual death save that a character in critical condition must perform, when acting during an incapacitated state.  Failing three such saving throws results in death. Dual weapon [weapon combo]

The character is trained to use a particular pairing of weapons, one in each hand. Quickdraw [weapon class]

Drawing a specific kind of weapon doesn’t cost an action. Sentinel

The Warrior has a bonus of +1 to save against Wits for surprise attacks, or to detect anyone trying to sneak past him or her when paying attention. Indomitable

This Warrior has a +2 to Will saving throws due to his or her hard-headed nature.

5.3.3. Mage perks Learn spell

The character is able to learn any spell in his or her canon that he or she could cast.  The GM can rule against anything that should be limited, for whatever reason. Meticulous technique

This character receives +1 to Mind saving throws for avoiding mishaps. Expand horizons

The wizard adds a number of new learning slots equal to two plus his or her Intellect modifier, with a minimum of one. Extend capacity

The wizard adds a number of new casting slots in one tradition of his or her choice equal to twice his or her level in that tradition, plus Intellect modifier. Casting expertise (school and type)

When casting spells of a specific tradition and type (e.g. healing, illusions, divination, etc.) as specific for the perk, the character is treated has having one level higher for effect, including +1 to saving throws for casting. Indefatigable

The character receives a bonus of +1 to saving throws for resisting the fatigue, damage or stress effects of spell casting. Creative genius

The mage gains +2 to Mind saving throws when inventing spells. Study technique (school)

Learn a new open tradition of magic.

5.4. Zero-level characters

The idea of zero-level characters is in support of an approach championed by the game Dungeon Crawl Classics.  In this system, each player creates four zero-level characters for the first adventure, and the ones that survive become first-level characters.

The way to handle this is very simple.  Zero-level characters roll their attributes normally, but they are only level zero for their intended class.  This means the character’s AM, PM, Initiative and saving throws are all pretty lousy.  The character has no skills or spells.  However, the character may declare apprenticeship in one or another class, allowing the player to give the character one perk from that class (instead of getting it at first level).

HP are determined by taking 2 or rolling 1d4, and adding the character’s Toughness modifier (with a minimum of 1HP).  If the character survives to level one, the player may recalculate HP from scratch, or stay with whatever he or she rolled for level zero.  A character reaches level one as soon as the first adventure is complete.  Zero-level adventures should be designed for one or two sessions.

For the “true” old-school approach, start characters at level one.

5.5. Advantages and disadvantages

This section describes mechanics for starting characters with special advantages and disadvantages.  It is very much at odds with the OSR mindset to have this sort of thing, since PCs are actually intended to start off pretty generic.  So these rules should be considered optional.  

Note that these mechanics can be used for non-human PCs with special abilities.  So far, Empress has assumed that PCs are all human, but many (if not most) fantasy RPG settings allow for it.  

The way that advantages and disadvantages work is that the character can start off with special abilities (or weaknesses) in exchanges for an increase (or decrease) in the amount of experience points needed to gain each level; this is called a leveling modifier.  Note that this can have a substantial impact on character progression, and the GM will probably want to limit net leveling modifiers to between -3 and +3.

Note that attribute modifiers are not provided by this system.  Since attributes are rolled and not allocated by points, they are what they are.  Deal with it.  If Elves are supposed to be really smart and graceful, then you better roll high for those, or everyone will call you Valerian, the clumsy dumbass Elf.

The following table provides a set of examples that should act as guidelines for appropriate leveling modifiers.

Table XIV: Advantages and disadvantages

leveling modifier
+1 per two Perks
Spell-like ability
spell level + 1
Positive or negative prejudice
Reaction modifier
Natural armor
+(Protection x 2)
Innate skill
+(skill level / 2)
Natural weapon
+1 for 1d6 melee or 1d3 ranged
+2 for 1d8 sword or 1d4 bow
+3 for 1d12 melee or 1d6 ranged
Saving throw bonus/penalty
(bonus or penalty / 2)
-1 if rare or not severe
-2 if moderate and uncommon
-3 if moderate and common or severe and uncommon
-1 if mild
-2 if moderate
-3 if severe
Improvement of armor, weapon or skill
+1 for improvement every four levels
+2 for improvement every three levels
Improvement of saving throws
+1 for improvement every three levels
+2 for improvement every two levels
+3 for improvement every level
  • Start with 500sp
  • Talented and influential patron
  • Access to special resources, like a library
  • Small bonus in limited situations, like a +1 to visual perception
  • Special authority, like knighthood
  • Special perception, like ability to see in the dark
  • Bonus in certain situations due to motivation, like a +1 when fighting for family
  • Access to valuable resources, like a magical laboratory
  • Member of the highborn (nobility)
  • Owns a potent magic sword
  • Assisted by powerful magical patron
  • Extremely wealthy
  • Access to high technology
  • Member of distrusted group, like Roma in Europe
  • Minor impairment, like a missing eye
  • Illiterate
  • Cannot use non-customized forms of certain equipment without significant penalties
  • Highly distinctive appearance, like pointy ears and pupiless eyes
  • Marked as highly socially undesirable, such as member of hated species/ethnicity
  • Impairment such as running speed at 80% or -2 to most d20 rolls in daylight
  • Inability to learn: reading, sorcery, fighting, etc.
  • Completely unable to use certain kinds of equipment (like armor or horses)
  • Restrictive code of conduct, like a vow of poverty
  • Serious disability, like inability to walk, see, etc.
  • Marked as one who is an enemy to be killed on sight, e.g. character is an orc
  • Severe restriction, like an inability to touch metal or direct sunlight
  • All-consuming obligation, like service to a demanding god or slavery

Spell-like abilities are generally assumed to level in capability with the character, i.e. take effect as if cast by a mage of the same total level as the character.

Innate armor is assumed to provide total coverage.  If this is not the case, the leveling modifier is approximately the same at Coverage of 8, and halved at Coverage of 4.  You can interpolate the rest.

Vulnerability refers to something damaging to the character in some way.  The specific effects can vary, but a mild vulnerability would be the equivalent of a -1 reduction in performance of some kind or damage of some sort on an hourly basis.  A moderate vulnerability would mean a significant reduction in performance of -2 or -3, or some kind of damage on a minute scale.  Severe vulnerability would be something that may be able to immediately disable the sufferer, in some way or another.

Bonuses. penalties and improvements to saving throws are assumed to be for a single given saving throw.  Each saving throw modifier represents a separate advantage or disadvantage.

Improvement in any of the given abilities represents that the concept that the advantage would itself grow more advantageous as the character levels.  For natural armor, saving throws and skill levels, an improvement for every X levels means that the value in question goes up (or down, for saving throws) by one every time the character obtains X experience levels.  In the case of natural weapons, this means that the category of the advantage improves by one category (three general categories being given for natural weapons).

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