In Defence of Uncertainty

I read Marcia B’s blogpost earlier today about Randomly Generated Constant Damage and Prismatic Wasteland’s response regarding to-hit rolls or lack thereof, and feel the need to defend both to-hit rolls and variable damage, because I believe they are both necessary sources of uncertainty in violence / combat / etc.

Absolutely no shade to any of the authors who have advocated for this kind of thing, but whenever I have run games for my table who have absolutely no interest in the OSR blogosphere, the response I get back from systems like Cairn or Into The Odd that do away with to-hit rolls is that combat feels boring and predictable. This is obviously undesirable. I’m perfectly willing to concede that maybe I just wasn’t narrating combat hard enough as a referee, but frankly I think I’m pretty good at that, and way less so at crunching numbers, so really I should have nailed this style of resolution.

The best answer I can come up with as to why this might be, is that stripping away the possibility of failure leaves you with something without meaningful stakes, which seems at odds with how something as risky as engaging in lethal violence should feel. Combat therefore becomes a game of attrition as characters wail on each-other to roll the biggest damage number, whittling down each-other’s health-pools until one side loses. Of course, engaged players will still try and inject some drama into this, but asking them to do so feels unnecessarily burdensome - what’s the point in expecting agency when the outcome is already determined?

Constant damage I suspect would feel similarly rigid, but instead of eliding away the uncertainty of landing a hit, you’re making a predetermined judgment about how a player-character might act in combat. Keeping to-hit in this equation could at least still hold some interesting stakes, but there is still a fairly obvious issue in that by pre-determining a weapon’s possible damage, you create strongly optimal and sub-optimal approaches - a weapon that can only deal 1hp damage is boring and tedious, and a weapon that can only max damage is… boring and tedious for the opposite reason.

Ultimately, is this PC able to hit their target?” and how hurt is their target by the hit?” are both questions that I want to answer when I run combat. I’m not wild about being beholden to how Gygax ran things back in the 70s, but I do think there’s a lovely straightforwardness to how those questions are addressed in D&D, i.e. ‘if successful, determine the effect’. Of course, framing it like that opens up other potential ways of doing things - maybe you go PBTA style and do a single roll of 2D6 with varying degrees of success (miss, glancing, weak hit, strong hit, deadly?), maybe you omit HP and track damage completely narratively, or through an injury table? In all fairness, this is what Prismatic Wasteland was advocating for when suggesting adding Blackjack-style hit resolution, and their blog is full of neat ways in which to add layers of unpredictability back into pure damage-roll combat.

Ultimately for my old Cairn games, I went with something as unfussy as possible in the spirit of the text, while still allowing for the degree of uncertainty my table enjoys - make every attack roll a skill check. Ask the player to narrate how they attack - if they try and slide their sword between the plates of an enemy’s armour, roll dex. If they want to swing a hammer in a wide arc, roll strength, or if they want to try with a different stat, justify it narratively first. Passed the check? Great - roll a D6 to see how well you did. It worked great.

April 11, 2024

Antrin hexmap export

March 17, 2024

Antrin Playtest Report 1

This is the first playtest report for the RPG I’m currently working on, influenced by Scots folklore, Ursula LeGuin and Luke Gearing’s Wolves Upon the Coast. It’s still got a ways to go, but I recently invited a few friends to battle-test what’s there.


  • Change Stalker’ to Outlander’ per L’s suggestion. Stalker’ seems fine in text but doesn’t land right at the table.
  • Think about how players might want to play against their class / ancestry archetypes.
  • Shortbows and longbows are distinct. Mechanically? Ehhh not sure yet.
  • Barter isn’t the most intuitive thing in the world. Let players have coins if they find it easier to track. As there’s already a currency’ there, not too big a hassle.

The party, Mhairi (sídhe healer), Pim (urisk mystic) and Teaguy (dvergr outlander), start having met as crew on a Sprawlboat, a huge dvergic longboat that functions as a self-sufficient travelling settlement. Mhairi is trying to pay down her tab with the barkeep, and offers him some dried mushrooms which he accepts as a partial trade, but says he’ll call her tab settled in exchange for completing an errand. He’s heard rumours of unsanctioned tinkering in the lowest deck of the ship, a door or a hatch being constructed where it shouldn’t, and wants the party to check it out and report back.

Teaguy quizzes a fellow dwarf from the lower deck about this, who confirms that this rumour is true, but they don’t know the function of the door or why it was built - on that, the party gather their things and prepare to head down to the bottom deck. They make their way down past the cargo and rowers to the bottom deck, which is damp, dark and uninhabited. Pim has a conversation with a glowing mushroom, who convinces Pim to eat it, gaining some mild hallucination and heightened senses as a result. With this, he senses a tinge of honey in the air the others are not able to pick up on.

Moving forward, they eventually find a door that has been crudely constructed into the hull of the ship out of wood and iron scraps. After discussing whether they should report anything first, Mhairi decides instead to just open the door, which leads out into a sweeping, grassy plain at sunset. Pim steps through the door and explores around its periphery, discovering it appears as a featureless one-sided portal suspended in the air on the other side, and deduces this is likely a doorway to the Otherworld.

Mhairi steps through the doorway, and discovers a river of flowing honey close by. She approaches and begins to collect the honey in a large jar. Pim comes over and drinks a little of it. Teaguy elects to stay back inside the ship, and readies a lasso in case either of the other two need to be pulled back to safety. He also spots a number of figures emerging from the honey further upstream, but is too far away to make out their features.

Teaguy alerts the other two of the figures, 5 mellwraiths, which are rapidly advancing on them, brandishing rusted old blades. Having failed a dexterity check at throwing the lasso, he runs in and looses an arrow at the mellwraith the closest to the other two, stopping it momentarily as the arrow lands squarely in its chest, rancid old honey gushing out of the wound.

The three make it to safety and block the door behind them, but not before they are set upon by three human figures in crude bronze masks, speaking a language none of the group understand but clearly furious at their intrusion. Choosing to flee, the assailants give chase, but do not go beyond the bounds of the bottom deck. They do however notice on their way back up through the decks of the ship that the crude carpentry visible on the door seems to be spreading to other parts of the ship.

March 3, 2024

Getting Hit

Getting whacked in the chest with a mace is going to fucking smart even if you’re wearing a breastplate, and attacks constantly whiffing because a PC or NPC has a magic number attached to their statblock is boring as shit. Armour class feels even more like a weird relic of the hobby’s milsim roots in 5e than it does in OD&D. Titles like Into The Odd have tried to remedy this by making armour a soak value, turning HP into a pool of abstract luck / stamina, and making every attack a guaranteed hit. As it turns out this is also really boring. Both systems rely heavily on the referee narrating the stakes instead of involving the players. This garnered a universally negative reaction at my table, so I went back and thought about how to make defending against attacks more enjoyable for my players.

In the end, I kept it really simple - Players roll to attack, and they also roll to defend. So far, it’s worked out great. Instead of rolling to hit for NPCs, I’ll announce an NPC action like the following: The orc lunges towards you, swinging his rusty blade!”, and then prompt the player to contest the attack. No farting around with the action economy - players can always contest an attack, unless they’re downed or incapacitated. This is straightforwardly just more fun and interesting than the GM rolling to beat a target number, and gives the players more moment-to-moment involvement.

As with a few other books and systems, I’ve split these moves up very roughly into Dodging, Blocking and Parrying, which play out as follows:

  • DODGE: Roll DEX, penalty in heavy armour, permits flanking attacker on success
  • BLOCK: Roll STR, requires weapon or shield unless attacker is unarmed, shields confer bonus
  • PARRY: Roll STR or DEX depending on weapon type, critical success allows immediate follow-up with attack.

There are caveats: This is currently only for NPC attacks, players who attack still roll against a difficulty score assigned to the NPC, as feedback from the table was that they generally enjoy rolling to hit. I may in future go back and revise this, possibly separating out attack and defense scores. Difficulty’ feels somewhat more intuitive than AC, even if their purpose is similar, but this means that PCs and NPCs are asymmetrical and thus this doesn’t really work for more wargamey’ play. It’s also potentially less fun for the referee, but at the end of the day, accommodating a fun time for players is way more important than design rigour’.

Ideas for future iteration:

  • Do away with NPC difficulty and just have all attacks be contestable regardless of who’s controlling. This could open up options for more wargame-style play, but the stuff I run is mainly pointcrawls and dungeons, so isn’t a priority just now.
  • Further bonuses depending on equipment - rapiers get parry bonus, naked dude covered in grease dodges better than knight in platemail etc
  • GURPS-style separate save values for blocking, dodging and parrying (terrible idea, do not do this)
  • Fuck everything and RETVRN to OD&D
  • Swap HP for wounds (my beloved)

December 11, 2023


The city of Raima is all you’ve known. It’s all anybody has ever known. An endless, enveloping sprawl of hard-angled concrete bathed in dull phosphorescent light, built upon itself in countless strata. Raima was not built for you or others like you, its intended occupants having vanished eons ago.

You are cybernetic drifters, vat-grown outcasts, gene-spliced mercenaries and robotic itinerants, looking to eke out an existence in the half-light and dark corners of a vast, strange and inhospitable city. Will you delve into the Old Beneath in search of technological relics? Will you search for a place to call home? Will you vie with or throw your lot in with one of Raima’s many formidable factions? Will you seek the mythical Surface above?

Welcome to REBAR, a roleplaying game set in the post-human far future, in an infinite, brutalist city.


REBAR is a roleplaying game / setting I’m currently writing heavily influenced by the works of Tsutomu Nihei, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne novels, video games by Heart Machine and many other points of inspiration, intended to help facilitate pen and paper role-playing in a distant, post-human future, amongst the ruins of an all-enveloping city. It’s using Chris McDowall’s Into The Odd and Yochai Gal’s Cairn as a base, and adds a few new wrinkles such as Troika!-inspired character backgrounds, combat proficiency / chance to miss, and swapping Willpower for Perception as the third character stat.

Currently the book is still deep in development and isn’t ready for playtesting yet as I’m still working out things like damage values, faction play, exploration, dungeon’ generation and a bunch of other stuff I’m hoping to include. As always, I’m hoping this will be a useful starting point for people to run their games in, as I’ve seen at least a few people asking about the best RPG to use for a BLAME!-style campaign.

I’m hoping to finish the initial manuscript for REBAR in the first half of 2023, and have it mostly ready to go by late 2023 / early 2024. I’m working with the ever-wonderful Jarett Crader of Mothership infamy and previously Exalted Funeral under his new label Space Penguin Ink, which is gearing up to publish a bunch of incredible RPG books this year and beyond.

I’m hoping I can share more on REBAR soon, for now - for now, here’s some words.

BACKGROUND - Chemical Drifter

You are a roaming sellsword carrying ramshackle armour and equipment. A steady microdose of hallucinogenic substances pumped directly into your cerebrocomputer enhances senses out beyond the physical and allows faint perception of the Datasphere. Your speech and movement is lyrical and delicate.

THREAT - Drones

Shambling, distended sleeve-corpses, pseudoflesh rotten and sloughing. Crude machinery and bladed steel are welded to their bones by unknown hands. Most faculties have been lost aside from base survival routines and a capacity for violence. Will attempt to drag any downed victims off, presumably to be broken down or modified. 1d4HP | 9 INSTINCT 1-2: Sleeping | 3-5: Alert, exploring | 6: Dragging off a victim

THREAT - Sentinel

An emotionless porcelain humanoid face atop a 9 foot tall suit of ornate plasteel armour fused with synthetic muscle. Piloted by a tiny, shrivelled biological humanoid encased in an amniotic sac embedded in the armour’s chest. They carry a long, angular glaive (1d6) for defense, and a lightrifle (1d6) for long-range engagement. Once their tower has identified a target, they will pursue tirelessly and kill remorselessly. A sentinel cut off from their tower will wander in search of a new host, their behaviour erratic. 2d6HP | 10 INSTINCT 1: Wandering aimlessly | 2: Singing in lamentation | 3: Searching for a tower | 4: Dormant | 5: Violent frenzy | 6: Pursuing target

FACTION - Sons of Helios

An army of Vat-Grafts, parthenogenically birthed from the blood of their father-god Helios, the self-proclaimed final human. Ornamental uniforms of gold and white mask any identity or individuality in their ranks, the Capsuleers swear unflinching fealty to Helios and his campaign of violent conquest, believing the entire city to be theirs by birthright. They view other Grafts as lesser, of impure stock, and other peoples of Raima as their property. As such, they are uniformly disdainful and often hostile of those outside their ranks.

Values: Conquest, purity, violence

FACTION - Rustbearers

Sleeves and biomachines that worship rust, and view decay as a virtue. They believe that as the creations of humans, the peoples of Raima should likewise perish in a grand and total return to nature. They often symbolically decorate themselves in rust, moss, ivy, fungus and bones. Guided by a small inner circle of scholars and philosophers, they are locked in a bitter and intractable ideological struggle with the Constructivists.

Values: Nature, decay, primitivism

March 15, 2023

What I’ve Been Up To

I realise I’ve kind of abandoned this blog for a wee while now. I’ve had a lot more energy to work on things as of recent, and as such have spent very little time soapboxing or pontificating. Things I’ve been working on are as follows:

Where Abundance Lies

Back from the grave and my main project for now, in which I’ve been learning how to code in Godot, with the aim of eventually completing an immersive sim in the same vein as STALKER. It’s a pretty massive undertaking. Link to devlog here

Carrion For Gulls

A module for Liminal Horror exploring an abandoned cargo ship adrift at sea. I had to abandon this for now, as it ended up succumbing to scenario bloat and general lack of direction. I’d like to restart this at some point, but I want to concentrate on other stuff for now, and come back to it when I can give the attention it deserves.


Grand campaign setting expressing my love for planetary romance sci-fi, science fantasy, post-anthropocene type shit. More or less a superset of the stuff I’m doing for Where Abundance Lies. I mistakenly tried to write a System(tm) for this, which was a dumb idea, and I’m probably going to just use Alight as a base instead. Going to rewrite it as a series of hexcrawls on different planets.

Venison // Hard Lads

Earlier this year, I took part in Violence Jam, a month+ long game jam where myself and a bunch of exceptionally cool and talented folks wrote material for Luke Gearing’s Violence roleplaying system - an extremely lean and brutal rule system designed to simulate the deadliness of actual gunfights. I ended up writing two entries for the jam: Venison, my main entry, a folk horror themed setting depicting 18th century poachers hunting for cursed meat in an enormous hostile estate. And Hard Lads, in which I had a go at tweaking some base rules in order to simulate a pissed-up fistfight in a shit British town.

I pushed myself to work a lot harder than my usual glacial pace to get Venison in on time, and while there’s a whole bunch of stuff I would have loved to include, namely NPCs and actual written locations, I’m still shocked by how much I was able to actually get onto paper. This was also when I discovered that, shockingly, Google Docs is actually totally fine for basic layout. I would love to revisit Venison at some point, and put out a more complete version that fully nails the English folk horror vibe I wanted to convey.

As for Hard Lads, I joked about doing Binley Megadungeon for it at some point. I think that shit pun represents exactly the level of thought I want to put into it. I also discovered that I’d unintentionally shared a title with a very similarly themed project by prolific Quake mapper Robert Yang. Such is life.

Next up

I’m going to continue on with Where Abundance lies. I’m having a hell of a time, and getting a lot further than I expected coding game logic, and I’m extremely motivated by trying to make a videogame that takes as many design lessons as possible from the little bubble of post-OSR roleplaying I’ve found myself in, i.e. rejecting core loop theory as principal design pattern and leaning hard into minimally-guided, emergent play. Decree will probably be my backburner project for if I get tired of videogame stuff. Other than that, I’m just excited about finally hitting a creative stride now that I have the spare time and energy to plough back into doing what I love.

October 20, 2022