A couple of months ago, a reader reached out to be to say that he had created a new tabletop game, and he hoped I would consider an article on it. We had a good conversation about it, and I agreed. History of the Classes has involved a lot of design critique, which is related to but (in my head if nowhere else) different from a review. Seventh Sphere Publishing plans to crowdfund through Kickstarter later this year, running from 18 October to 19 November. The core rules are available for free on the Open Legend RPG website.
Art by Stephen Najarian
The rules open with an explanation of the core mechanic. In Open Legend RPG, you have a base d20, and to that you add dice from your attributes. Compare the total result to a Challenge Rating (in D&D terms, a Difficulty Class). If it’s greater than or equal to the CR, success! If not, you either succeed with consequences or fail forward in some other way.
Fail-forward/success-with-cost is a nigh-universal element of modern tabletop games that are not D&D or D&D-derivatives. I have sort of complicated feelings about it. This has a lot to do with coming from an explicitly D&D paradigm, though. Lots of things that involve dice rolls in D&D have no particular effect on failure (or, for saving throws, no effect on a success, because for no particular reason Gygax moved one kind of roll to the defender), but – for one party or the other in the exchange – “nothing happens” is a welcome success outcome. It’s less great for out-of-combat rolls, but not all situations have built-in tension, and trying to make every situation tense means tension can never ebb. Some games have solved this with only rolling the dice when things are tense, but that too has its problems. I’ll be paying attention to how Open Legend handles this.
The examples shown here are various outcomes of a Perception roll. Success-with-a-twist allows the demon to disarm the character before the start of combat, while failing forward gets the hero dragged off silently into the darkness. A couple of things about this: first, these outcomes map nicely to Dungeon World’s 7-9 and 6- outcomes – Use Up Their Resources and Separate Them. Secondly, I would be alarmed to see a single failed Perception roll result in a full takedown of a PC, especially if the PCs can’t pull off a single-roll takedown against an NPC. One failed roll ends a player’s agency, and now they need rescuing? I know a lot of players that would find that to be a serious dealbreaker, because the gaming community as I know it has a lot of issues around failure, risk, and stake-setting (not a vampire thing).
Coming back to this after finishing the article: this makes a lot more sense in the context of the system’s overall sometimes you will lose dynamic. If you’re reading this article in some sort of rational order, unlike the order I wrote it in, I comment on this element more extensively below.
I’m going to digress a little more. Looking back to 4e D&D’s skill challenges, one of their core problems is that they punished failure harshly, so PCs who had any amount of bonus less than the best in the party were potentially screwing the whole group just by participating. (Again, I write this not yet knowing how Open Legend may respond to this issue elsewhere in its design.)
Coming back to this section after reading more later on – the GM’s rolls don’t include success-with-consequences or fail-forward. The text says this is because the players find it satisfying for nothing to happen when a GM’s roll fails. This is true as far as it goes, but it’s only a fraction of the real reason to do things this way: the GM can’t frame interesting success-with-consequences or fail-forward outcomes that affect the GM’s characters. There’s no sense of tension if the same person poses the challenge and resolves it.
There’s also a lot more guidance on success-with-consequences and fail-forward outcomes. If the designer lifted these from Apocalypse World, and I’m not saying that’s what happened, this would be the outcome (and that’s a good thing, in my view). The only item on the lists that I think it a mistake is failure granting false information: the player knows it was a failure (because they saw and announced the die roll), but has to play as if their information is good. Basically, this isn’t so much failing forward as wasting some time on leading the PC back to interacting with the real consensual reality, rather than their false branch.
Okay, now I see that there is also an advantage/disadvantage system, because they recognized the best piece of gaming tech in all of 5e and lifted it like any right-thinking human, robot, or Brent Spiner would have done. When D&D Next released advantage and disadvantage, I had a lot of concerns about how you could sometimes get a feature that gave advantage all the time in a common situation, so you no longer needed to think creatively. It looks like Open Legend agrees with that concern, because ad/disad here carries a numerical rank. With Advantage 2, you roll two extra attribute dice (not the d20, notably) and discard the two lowest results out of your whole pool.
I talked to the designer about this a bit more. He explained that it was a matter of independent invention, which is also good. (But I think it’s fine for games to steal mechanics from one another – you can’t copyright a game mechanic, thank God.)
Characters have nineteen attributes, of which three are Physical, four Mental, three Social, and nine Supernatural. You’ll start play with a 0 in more than half of these, at minimum. Again, not looking ahead to the rest of the system, this appears to have some dubious results. Hitting things with an axe requires two or three good stats, which also serve you well in a lot of non-combat situations. Casting spells is necessarily going to divert a bunch of points, and the sample spellcaster builds are spread pretty thin. It’s hard to imagine the flow and conflicts of a tabletop game in which Logic is as widely useful as Might or one of the types of magic.
The great part about this is that a “character class” is the system’s guidance for how to get to an archetypal endpoint, not a discrete element of the rules. Characters grow however you want them to grow, and if you’re willing to spend what it takes, you could combine any possible list of powers. It’s a breadth/depth tradeoff, a classic design approach – and one that always runs into issues of how to challenge the specialist without crushing the generalist.
All of these stats result in one or more dice that you add to checks. It’s a dice step table that is different from but reasonably similar to Earthdawn’s; the comparison becomes more apt when you take into account that all dice explode on their maximum values. What’s interesting about this is that the system as I’ve seen it so far doesn’t reward values far above the Challenge Rating, which you usually see in an exploding-dice system, so it may avoid the Unexpected Instant Death syndrome of Earthdawn’s exploding dice – but if you’re interested in avoiding that, why make dice explode?
These attributes generate four defensive stats: Toughness, Evasion, Resolve, and Hit Points. It’s weird to me that Toughness and Evasion are both 10 + one stat, but Resolve is 10 + the sum of two stats. Maybe the cost of Resolve-targeting effects is higher than the cost of Toughness- and Evasion-targeting effects (which are probably mitigated by Hit Points, while Resolve probably causes unmitigated loss of agency)? Or maybe the game expects the sum of your Presence and Will to be about even with your Fortitude alone? It’s curious.
Oh! No, it’s because you add your Armor value to Evasion and Toughness, but not to Resolve. That makes sense.
You could reasonably have anywhere from 10 Hit Points up to 34 or so at the start of play. This too is an interesting note: the suggested Ranger archetype has the lowest starting hit point total out of the twelve archetypes, while the Paladin has the most. Since I haven’t yet seen the combat system or the damage dice, I don’t yet know how fragile this really is.
Now that I’ve read more, I’ve come back to this to say: the ranger starting with 13 hit points is very fragile indeed, and any lucky attack could take you out. On the other hand, the ranger archetype has Agility 5, functionally shaving 5 damage off of every attack that targets Evasion. More on this later.
Next you pick six points worth of feats, from a list of fifty-seven feats priced between 1 and 9 points (the nine-point feat is the end of a leveled chain, and obviously not intended for early-game use). Most feats seem to cost 2 or 3 points. Now, for the most part these feats don’t carry a lot of thematic heft. They’re here to accomplish something in the mechanics. This only jumps out at me because 5e is a bit different on that point, and D&D Next’s Specialties (long may we mourn their passing) even more so – they tell you something about the character that is easy to communicate in-play, without doing a ton of creative work on your own. These are the other kind: for many of these feats, they’re not trying to influence the story of who your character is, just how the mechanics flow for them. That’s perfectly fine, I’ve just gotten used to the D&DN/5e style over the last four years.
Your character’s stats, then, are a fairly bald collection of numbers and feats. The same is true of characters in every game – it’s just noticeable here. Let me be clear: this is totally fine. It just means that players and GMs need to shoulder all of the thematic load. For what’s almost a more extreme case of the same thing, look at the WaRP engine (the rule set of Over the Edge). That ultralight system builds characters on four custom traits, rated 1-4 (at creation, they can go higher later). Aaand… that’s the deal. It works great for characterization, so there’s no reason Open Legend can’t do the same. I would offer the same lesson to 4e D&D DMs – story, theme, and roleplay don’t have to suffer, you just have to put more energy into bringing them to the table than with other games.
There are some interesting things going on in the feats, but I’m skipping deep analysis here because it’s a fifty-seven-item list and even I balk at such verbosity. (It is now appropriate to scoff.) I do want to mention one of them, though, because it ties back into an earlier question. The Battlefield Defender feat grants a damage bonus equal to your margin of victory over an opponent in a particular kind of contested roll. This is at least one huge chance for Unexpected Instant Death Syndrome, when one side’s d20 explodes and the other side’s… doesn’t.
I’m skipping blithely past two chapters that I plan to come back to, but if I were reading this in hardcopy rather than a website, that’s what I would do at this point – I know just enough terminology to start wondering how it fits together in the game’s hardcore road test.
Combat starts with initiative, and so does my commentary. It’s a fairly standard high-to-low countdown from the result of an Agility check. There are two unusual embroidering pieces, though: surprised characters have a separate initiative track, essentially comprising the “slow” side of the round. You count down initiative for unsurprised characters, and once all unsurprised characters have acted, you do the same for surprised characters. These two decks of initiative orders stay separate.
Secondly, you can reroll your initiative by drawing a new weapon. I don’t really get what purpose this serves, since it’s more work than letting someone delay to whatever later point they want, it’s not universal in the fiction, and I don’t specifically know how it fits in with being surprised. Anyway. EDITED TO ADD: Open Legend’s rules are still gradually evolving, and this particular piece has just been removed as a result of feedback.
Combat uses the same as the core mechanic I described above. There’s a really nice wrinkle on success-with-consequences, though: when a PC rolls a failure, the player and the GM both choose one consequence to apply to the other: a modest amount of damage, a bane (I’ll come back to banes, but for now it means “a status ailment”), or the character takes a 10-foot move without provoking opportunity attacks. This is a really nice encapsulation of a 7-9 roll in a PBTA game. Instead of nothing happens on a miss, more things happen on a miss, some of which might be awful for you.
The next piece of the rules is where things get a little weird. In Open Legend, you’re not spending currency to attack with magic, and you can try all kinds of different things with your weapon attacks to target more creatures, use alternate stats, whatever. What this means is that, in essence, every attack is an ad-hoc, at-will move. Sure, you can attack a single creature, with a melee weapon, in order to do damage. Or you could attack two or more creatures (at a scaling disadvantage), apply a bane to one or more creatures, invoke a boon to one or more creatures, aid an ally, or take an extra move. That versatility is great! It also means you might be checking a chart and figuring out optimal risk every round. I’m concerned about decision paralysis here, though in truth it’s not as bad as its chart makes it look.
I mentioned that you can choose to affect one or more targets. All it costs you is a scaling amount of disadvantage. The system is the same for attacks, boons, and banes. I like this bit a lot, though I’m worried about on-the-fly decision-making. There’s a push-your-luck dynamic here, certainly; it looks like you roll once and apply that result to all targets, so even with a huge pile of disadvantage you could get lucky and murder everything.
We learn here that, in essence, you can use Agility to attack someone’s Evasion defense and Might to attack someone’s Toughness defense. Supernatural attacks are melee, area, or projectile, and that determines how they’re resisted. Damage on any of these is the Attack Roll minus the salient Defense; if you deal 10 damage or more, you also inflict a bane for free. Note that weapon type has no direct effect on damage, only on determining whether you’re making a Precise (Agility) attack or a Forceful (Might) one.
I’m not sure how else to put this: hanging the attack and damage exchange on a single roll with exploding dice is a terrifying proposition. Any attack might take you out, because there’s no limit to how high a roll could go. Certainly when that d20 explodes, somebody has a bad problem, and that problem is worse than most critical hits in D&D.
It’s super important to note that because boons (like banes) can be used every round, a character with the Heal boon can heal a downed character every round.
As I read, though, I am getting the impression that this is not only deliberate, it’s Open Legend’s defining feature: combat is short and swingy. If you win, recovery is incredibly fast – unless you’re using the lethal damage rules, all hit points return in 10 minutes, and as I mentioned there are no attrition currencies. The game puts limits on what you can do concurrently, not what you can do in the span of a day. You’re as good rolling out of bed in the morning as you’re going to be before you crawl into bed at night. (Again, assuming you’re not using lethal damage rules.) The story never slows down for recovery, and (unlike in D&D) you don’t need to build the adventuring day around four or so encounters. I know a lot of people who are looking for exactly that in their games. There’s more detail to combat, but I wanted to state that clearly: this game is doing something very different, and if (like me) you were approaching it something it’s not, you’re going to have a tough time.
Action economy is familiar to D&D 4e players – major, move, and minor – except that you can take any number of minor actions, but not more than one of a given type. Thus you can only take one Sustain action per round, which is a huge control on boons (beneficial and utility effects) and banes.
There are also Focus and Interrupt actions. Focus actions are comparable to 3.x’s full-round actions, something that takes up your whole turn. They include disrupting attacks (ways to disrupt an enemy’s ongoing boons), superior attacks (to pick up advantage 1), and charges (to move a lot and attack with disadvantage 1). Interrupt actions let you spend your next major action to do something right now, such as Defending or Improvising a solution to a sudden problem.
Boons and Banes
Boons and banes are all of the active effects that a character can throw out, through whatever means. The game essentially doesn’t distinguish between magically bolstering an ally and using your natural presence to do the same – you just build the die pool for the roll accordingly. Boons and banes are limited by attribute minimums, and the effect specifies which attributes can be used to generate it and which defense the roll targets.
Again, I’m not getting into details here, because they’re quite substantive lists. I’ll just say that I’m impressed with the depth of variety and the creative use of balancing mechanics. The effects here express a lot of iconic ideas from D&D in a templated way, and reading these sections may be the most important piece of understanding how the whole system fits together.
Running the Game
There’s a major piece of the game’s overall design going on here: an extensive section on what happens with the PCs start losing, and when they finish losing. I don’t know about you folks, but I almost never see PCs lose fights in D&D. In Open Legend, that is just going to happen. The d20 is waiting there, like a land mine, to murder you and everything you love, really fast. You’re going to lose sometimes; how do you respond to that? What deals are you willing to cut to avoid a total wipe, or the villain delivering a finishing blow to your friend? The rules compel this to be a different kind of game; fortunately, that seems to have been their plan. They know that a lot of the most interesting things only happen during or after a serious defeat. The GM needs to engage with that idea, and the players (if they’re only familiar with other fantasy adventure roleplaying games) need their expectations tuned appropriately.
I’m going to be chewing on what I’ve seen here for some time to come. I love the system’s flexibility and transparency – there’s a ton of great room for creativity to use various attributes to solve problems. The game doesn’t fully avoid rules lookups during play, but a full list of boons and banes is a damn sight more compact than, say, the Player’s Handbook’s chapter of Spells (79 pages). Open Legend is pitched as a setting- and genre-neutral open-source RPG, and it’s comparatively easy to see how little tweaking it would take (pretty much just the equipment list) to make this into military sf, pirates of the Spanish Main, or noir gumshoes on the mean streets.
So do a better job of checking your expectations at the door than I did, and look into what Open Legend RPG has to offer.