Shadow Vale: The System

Posted: 2022-06-17
Word Count: 3806
Tags: rpg

As mentioned previously, a setting I’ve been musing on seems to cry out for a custom system. While I’m Cepheus Atom as a primary inspiration, I’m also adopting bits of of AFF2 and other systems as needed.

Many rules are To Be Determined at this point, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

Note: This system uses only six-sided dice, abbreviated D.

The Setting, In Brief

The “Shadow Vale” is a barren, brutal wasteland situated between the seemingly idyllic Supernal Realm1 and the prison pit known as the Infernal Realm2. Collectively Shadow Vale and the Realms are (for now) called “Otherworld”. The world more closely fits the “sword and sorcery” genre than high fantasy. Think Mad Max meets Norse Nidhvellir meets D&D’s Dark Sun.

Most of the sapient denizens of the Shadow Vale are of “The Folk”, extremely hardy and possibly semi-divine beings who can die by violence but not old age, disease, or even privation. All of The Folk have innate “magical” powers (see below), but normally don’t use “spells” as such.

PCs would probably start in the Shadow Vale struggling to survive monsters, mysterious ruins, and their similarly desperate peers. They might eventually venture into the Supernal Realm or, if they’re very unlucky, the Infernal Realm. Jaunts to mortal worlds might provide a change of pace in long campaigns, but Otherworlders regard bullet wounds the way mortals regard splinters3 so ultimately mortals wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

Characters

Attributes

The primary top-level characteristics are as follows:

HEALTH
(points) A single pool of points whittled away by physical trauma, fatigue, and use of magic.
FATE
(difficulty) The inverse of AFF’s LUCK score. Only PCs have FATE.
NUMEN
(modifier) A measure of a character’s spiritual power, described under Magic, below.

The method for determining HEALTH and FATE is to be determined, but I’m leaning toward random generation. Starting HEALTH is at least 20, starting FATE around 7, and starting NUMEN is between 1 and 3.

Skills

Here I’ll borrow from Cepheus Atom and define a few orthogonal skills, e.g.

Splitting ranged combat from other combat means that one can specialize as a brawler or a sniper but not both.

In addition, PCs may gain unranked Specialties which grant a +2 bonus. For example, someone Specialized in Swords fighting with a sword would gain +2 to their Fighting skill. A Specialty may also reflect specialized knowledge, e.g. a Specialty in Botany to reflect knowledge of plants.

Equipment

Player characters start with some basic survival equipment, a weapon of their choice, a shield or light armor, and some amount of currency based on useful metals rather than gold or silver.

PCs will need limits on how much they can carry. I’m thinking something like 10 or 12 items before Encumbrance rules kick in. A backpack might make carrying easier but accessing harder. Small items like coins and ammunition might count as a single item, while armor might count for two or three slots. The type of item may matter, e.g. one slot may be able to hold:

In Earth terms, Shadow Vale technology lies somewhere in the Iron Age with some inevitable anachronisms.

Weapons

When a weapon hits its target, the attacker rolls for damage. The specifics of damage rolls are yet to be determined, but I’m thinking that standard damage is one die plus a bonus for the weapon, e.g.

Most weapons are close combat / “melee” weapons. Arrows and thrown weapons aren’t as effective because The Folk and their opponents don’t bleed or take critical damage like Earth creatures do. Right now I’m thinking that, when rolling most ranged weapon damage, roll two dice and take the smaller value. This may be offset by the base damage from a longbow, crossbow, or arbalest.

Shields

Against ranged attacks an “average” shield adds +2 to the Difficulty. A “tower shield” would add +3 to Difficulty, while a buckler would grant no bonus.

A shield of any size grants a +2 bonus to Fighting checks. Note that close combat is an Opposed Check, so if both parties have a shield the bonuses may cancel out.

Armor

Armor absorbs damage points, rather than deflecting hits as in That Other Game. Shadow Vale armor tends to be a hodgepodge of metal plates and padding, so the wearer must roll a die after each hit to determine how much damage the armor actually absorbs.4 Armor also imposes a penalty on Fighting checks, although a Specialty with Armor can compensate. We’ll rate the “completeness” of armor as follows:

Type Roll Avg Range Penalty
Light 1D-4 0.50 0..2 0
Medium 1D-3 1.00 0..3 -1
Heavy 1D-2 1.67 0..4 -2
Full 1D-1 2.50 0..5 -3

(Yes, it would be simpler to have armor absorb a constant number of hits from 1 to 3, and make that also the Penalty value, but unless players absolutely rebel I’d like to try this.)

Other Equipment

Most equipment assists in a skill roll or otherwise enhances abilities. At some point I will have to enumerate some examples, but for now assume equipment grants a +1 to +2 bonus.

Materials (Optional Rule)

One feature I may add is that weapon quality and damage depends on the materials:

  1. Natural materials like wood, hide, bone, and stone are easy to craft but yield inferior weapons and armor.
  2. Brightmetal a.k.a. Otherworld silver has some uses in alchemy and ritual magic. Some pure Brightmetal daggers and shortswords do exist, mainly to fight creatures immune to everything else, but Brightmetal bends and breaks easily. Alloys are stronger but less effective; Brightmetal plating combines the best of both but wears off with use.
  3. Redmetal a.k.a. Otherworld bronze is a common metal for utensils. Unlike its Earth counterpart it’s often found as veins of usable metal. Like Earth bronze, though, it makes usable but inferior arms and armor.
  4. Orichalcum, a reddish-gold metal, is rare and mostly found in ornaments. While far too valuable for weapons, its ability to block or channel magic makes it ideal for anti-magical armor plating and magical artifacts.
  5. Graymetal a.k.a. Otherworld steel requires a long refining and forging process, but results in durable and resilient weapons and armor. It’s the default for all hand weapons, arrow heads, and armor.
  6. Darkmetal, a black metal that catches the light eerily, originally comes from the Infernal realm. While no stronger than Graymetal, it deals damage that doesn’t heal normally to all corporeal Otherworlders including Paragons. It also interferes with Magic. Powdered Darkmetal is an insideous poison that requires special treatments to purge. For that reason it’s banned in the Supernal Realm and shunned in Shadow Vale.
  7. Skymetal, a rare bluish-white metal that glows faintly, comes only from the Supernal Realm. It can cleave or shatter Graymetal, not to mention Otherworld flesh and bone, but it’s also far denser; a Skymetal dagger is as heavy as a Graymetal longsword. It’s the only other thing besides Darkmetal that can harm a Paragon, and for that reason the Supernal Realm registers each weapon or piece of armor forged.

Generally, armor from a higher-ranked material blunts or breaks weapons from lower-ranked materials, and vice versa. I’m thinking that every time a weapon pierces superior armor or armor is pierced by a superior weapon the inferior weapon or armor loses a point of armor or damage bonus. The choice of material also caps a weapon’s damage bonus or armor’s maximum damage absorbed.5

As noted above, these materials double as currency. Graymetal coins are the default currency6; Redmetal slugs are equivalent to “copper pieces” in other games. Brightmetal and Orichalcum, while rarer, have very specific and limited uses in Shadow Vale and are thus more commodity than currency.

Experience

How (or whether) characters gain and use experiece points, depends on whether this game ends up as a serious campaign-oriented RPG, a beer-and-pretzels single evening break, or something in between.

For now, assume each adventure nets 1-4 experience points (XP). Players can spend them as follows:

FATE increases or decreases as it it used; see below.

Rolling Dice

Players and GMs roll dice in the following circumstances:

  1. A Skill Check to determine the success of their character’s action.
  2. A Surprise Check to notice a sudden and unwelcome change in circumstance moments before it happens.
  3. A Fate Check to avoid a wholly random negative consequence. NPCs cannot perform Fate Checks; they automatically fail.
  4. In Combat a Damage Roll determines damage done by a weapon, and an Armor Roll determines how much damage armor absorbs.

Players do NOT roll dice in the following circumstances:

GMs roll for NPCs in similar circumstances, although some rules under consideration may reduce the amount of die rolling the GM does.

Skill Checks

For now, we’ll assume skill tests use 2D + Skill Rank + modifiers vs. a GM-defined difficulty level like Cepheus. Skill tests may be unopposed, against a fixed difficulty number, or opposed, against another character’s dice roll. A 2 on the dice always fails; a 12 on the dice always succeeds.

Surprise Checks

Surprise checks work just like Skill Checks, above. They happen only if the character is about to be surprised by an ambush, trap, or other sudden event, but has a brief window to spot the trap before it’s sprung.

Surprise checks usually use Fighting. The GM may allow a Sensing check to spot a sniper, Hunting to avoid an animal lying in wait, or even Influencing to warn the player of an impending faux pas.

Fate Checks

When misfortune strikes a PC, the GM may allow the player to make a Fate Check. The player increases their FATE by one then rolls 2 dice. Rolling above FATE means misfortune is averted. Rolling at or below FATE means misfortune strikes. Nothing modifies a FATE roll; it’s pure luck.

For example, a PC steps onto a concealed pit trap, either because of a failed Skill Check or failing to even look. The GM offers the player a Fate Check. If the Fate Check succeeds, the GM rules the PC grabbed onto the edge of the pit; if it fails, the PC falls onto the spikes below.

In my current pre-alpha draft, FATE only decreases when one “Accepts Fate”, i.e. pass up a chance for a Fate Check.

Combat

Combat proceeds in rounds, during which all attacks are considered more or less simultaneous. To this end, each combat round progresses in the following phases:

  1. Statement of Intent: The GM declares what NPCs appear to be doing. Each player then states what their character is doing, in any order (e.g. clockwise around the table). If necessary the GM and players may write their intentions secretly, then reveal simultaneously.

  2. Ranged Attacks: Each character making a ranged attack makes an Unopposed Sensing roll to hit their target. The difficulty is based on distance, visibility, target’s speed, etc. The GM and players should note which attacks succeeded.

  3. Melee Combat: All characters attacking with a weapon at close range (e.g. swords, spears, etc.) pick a target and make an Opposed Fighting check against their target’s corresponding Fighting roll. The one with the higher score hits; if tied, neither takes damage. Again, note which characters get hit.

  4. Hits: For each successful Hit, roll for weapon damage, roll for and subtract armor protection, and deduct the rest if any from the target’s HEALTH. If HEALTH goes to 0 or below, the character loses consciousness (or worse).

Injuries

If the character loses more than 1/3 of their HEALTH in a single hit or takes more damage than they have HEALTH, they take a Injury. A random table determines the nature of the Injury, but in general each Injury imposes a penalty on some activities until the Injury is healed.

Healing

The Folk recuperate quickly after eating. One of The Folk always regains 1 HEALTH an hour after eating one unit of food. A substance called Elixir restores HEALTH instantly, but only for The Folk.

Injuries take longer to heal, depending on their type and severity. (The Injury Table lists each Injury’s healing time.) A Healer7 can shorten the healing time, but the patient must rest for the duration.

Magic

NUMEN defines both the maximum bonus to a dice roll and the limits of The Folk’s instinctive magical abilities:

Artifacts

PCs and NPCs may also wield Artifacts created by dedicated artificers of the Supernal Realm and Shadow Vale and/or outsiders with an incomprehensible power called “science”. Artifacts typically break rules for equipment and magic.

And so on.

Sorcery

For campaign play, I may add a complementary “Sorcery” system that requires slow rituals and preparations but yields more powerful effects. This system may allow PCs to create Artifacts, with difficulty.

The Opposition

Otherworlders

The creatures of Otherworld are far more durable than their mortal counterparts. They fall into the following rough categories, in order of threat:

  1. Animals resemble those of Earths past, present, and speculative, save that, like The Folk, they can go for long periods without food, water, or rest. For some reason, most animals of Shadow Vale are either reptiles or giant arthropods.
  2. Monsters are unique and uniquely warped chimeras, often of unusual size and possessing one or two troublesome abilities. Hit them hard and often enough, though, and they’ll stay down for good.
  3. “The Folk”, a majority in the Supernal Realm and Shadow Vale, need food and sleep only to recover from injury and can survive any wounds as long as enough of their bodies stay intact. All PCs are presumed to be of The Folk.
  4. Infernals, some of whom lurk in the Shadow Vale, have substantial if not complete mastery over their physical form. Thus they can recover from any physical trauma except complete immolation. While they lack the magical abilities of The Folk, most have potent powers of illusion and mental influence.
  5. Paragons, the nobility of the Supernal Realm, are explored below.

Incorporeal entities – the nature spirits of the Supernal Realm, the ancestors and godlings of the Numinous Realm8, and the ghosts and wraiths of the Shadow Vale and Infernal Realm – lie outside this continuum. Psychic combat and certain magics can dispel them for a time, but nothing can permanently harm them. Likewise they can’t harm corporeal beings except through specific powers: a nature spirit’s control of its element, a ghost’s illusions and curses, and a wraith’s ability to drain HEALTH. In game terms they have NUMEN but no HEALTH.

Some rules I’m considering to simplify the GM’s job and/or make Otherworlders qualitatively different:

Mortals

Mortals are fragile; they’re hurt easily and die easily. By human standards, Shadow Vale is a desert. Normal humans would slowly succumb to cold, thirst, or starvation. Somewhat hardier creatures might survive the environment but succumb to physical trauma (or, rarely, old age).

The differences extend to weapons, armor, and other hazards. A modern Earth automatic rifle would critically wound or kill a mortal, repel and/or enrage a monster, whittle away at one of The Folk, and temporarily inconvenience an Infernal (or not). A common Otherworld sword or axe, meanwhile, might cleave through the most advanced mortal armor.

Ordinary humans are almost unheard of in the Shadow Vale, but “mortal” creatures do exist. The best known are the Goblins, enigmatic purveyors of strange weapons and tools who maintain secret portals between Otherworld and their own dimension called the Labyrinth. Despite a Goblin’s head-to-toe armored life support suit, an Otherworlder mace can crush them like a boot crushing a cockroach. Thus they are always polite … and always very well armed.

As of this writing I’m tinkering with rules to represent these qualitative differences and to make Shadow Vale beings play differently from characters in other RPGs. Some rules I’m considering:

Paragons

As Otherworlders are to mortals, Paragons are to other Otherworlders. They rule the Supernal Realm from a palace that floats in the sky. Supernal Folk are said to worship them as gods.

Even compared to The Folk they’re impossibly strong, impossibly fast, and nigh-invulnerable. Even Skymetal and Darkmetal can only weaken a Paragon, not kill them. Bury a Paragon under a landslide and he’ll eventually dig himself out, seemingly unharmed but very angry.

Inspired by the Amber Diceless RPG, I’m considering rules to make Paragons very different:


  1. Comparable to Asgard/Vanaheim/Alfheim in Norse myth and Thor comics, or Castle Amber in the Chronicles of Amber. ↩︎

  2. Pretty much the “Lower Planes” and/or Underdark of D&D, Apokolips from DC comics, or the Courts of Chaos in the Chronicles of Amber. ↩︎

  3. Those who read Gail Simone’s initial run on Birds of Prey may remember the panel where Big Barda barely noticed her numerous bullet wound, and asked for a towel to clean off the upholstery. ↩︎

  4. If the total roll is negative, treat it as 0. For example, if someone is wearing Light armor and rolls a 3, the armor absorbs 0 damage for that Hit. ↩︎

  5. Notionally its rank in the list above. ↩︎

  6. The idea of steel as currency comes, I think, from Dragonlance. I mean, why do we value silver and gold? Because they’re pretty? ↩︎

  7. Typically an NPC, although I might allow characters with the right Specialty to attempt a Learning check. ↩︎

  8. Otherworld’s equivalent of an “astral plane” or “spirit world”. ↩︎