Elf System Basic Rules (Pre-Alpha)

Posted: 2018-10-13
Last Modified: 2022-11-12
Word Count: 2961
Tags: elf-game rpg
This was the core engine for the "Elf Game" I keep threatening to write. I passed this document around my gaming group in 2018 and won some praise for the document. (They were less sanguine about its intended use.) Except for a little cleanup, I've left the text alone. Maybe someone can do something with it?

The “Elf System” is a set of lightweight rules for table-top role playing games. It vaguely resembles The World’s Most Popular Fantasy Role-Playing Game and its many, many successors. All players but one takes on the role of protagonists (a.k.a. “player characters” or PCs) in a collaborative story. That last player takes on the role of Game Master1 or GM to portray all the antagonists and incidental characters, called non-player characters or NPCs. The GM also devises situations that the protagonists find themselves in. For more about this type of game, see Wikipedia.

“Elf” stands for nothing, save the title of The Elf Game and by extension the term “elfgame” to refer to a table-top fantasy role playing game.

Dice

In the Elf System, each regular player needs only one twenty-sided die (d20). Two d20s can sometimes prove useful.

The GM will only need percentile dice (d100)2 to generate random results. Some tables will require a third d10 or d20 (d1000 or d2000).

Tasks and Tests

In an Elf System game, players roll dice only in interesting situations3, when both success and failure keep the story going. Usually the GM uses his best judgement on the logical consequences of the player characters’ actions.

The GM Sets a Difficulty Factor

When either success or failure are possible, and both paths have entertaining consequences for all parties concerned, the GM will set a difficulty factor (DF) from 1 to 19, or possibly more. The GM may keep the DF secret.

The Player Rolls a Die and Adds Modifiers

In most circumstances player rolls their die and then adds any relevant modifiers for ability, training, or circumstance. The GM is final arbiter on what bonuses are “relevant”, but for the most part these should be obvious from the rules.

Special Rule: Advantage and Disadvantage

For most tasks most players will roll a single die. Two exceptions:

The GM Compares Die Total and Difficulty Factor

The GM then compares the total of die result and modifiers to the DF:

If the results of a “tie” are not obvious the GM may offer the player two or more of these options:

  1. Success With Effort: Expend a resource to help the action succeed. A resource is either an in-game item the character owns or some intrinsic pool of points the character can spend.

  2. Success At Cost: Accept a negative consequence to let the action succeed. A negative consequence makes this task or a future task more difficult, numerically or narratively.

  3. Failure With Benefits: Let the action fail for some other positive consequence. A positive consequence makes this task or a future task easier, numerically or narratively.

  4. Momentary Setback: Let the action fail but allow the player to try again after in-game time has passed.

Combat

Characters in games fight a lot. The GM may choose one of the following ways to resolve combats, based on circumstances:

  1. Two characters attack each other and no other parties can or will interfere. The Duel mechanics provide the fastest and most expedient resolution.

  2. Multiple NPCs and (usually) at least one PC are trying to harm each other. An Exchange-Based Melee is simpler to run.

  3. If the GM and players prefer to know who does what when, they would use the Sequential Melee rules.

Other structures are possible, from an exact accounting of each second or fraction of a second to loose minute-long rounds where random card draws determines who acts when.

Duel

In a Duel, two characters attack each other with no other parties interfering.

Combat proceeds in rounds of roughly a second. Each round a player makes a test against the NPC opponent’s effective Threat Level. If the roll is a Tie, neither character is hit unless the player wants to convert the Tie to a success or failure. If the player succeeds, the NPC is Hit. If the player fails, the player’s character is Hit.

Optional Rule: Either party in the duel may opt to Defend rather than attack. If this rule is in play, at the start of each round each combatant lays a card face-down on the table that indicates whether they will Attack or Defend. (If using regular playing cards, a red card indicates Defend, a black Attack. Index cards with “Attack” and “Defend” work just as well, as long as no one can tell which is which from the back.) When both cards are down, each combatant reveals their choice simultaneously. The Defender has Advantage, but if they win the other party suffers no damage. If both parties Defend, roll no dice but proceed to the next round.

Exchange-Based Melee

Characters act more-or-less at the same time, but order isn’t important.

Combat proceeds in rounds of roughly five seconds. Each round has the following phases:

  1. The GM declares what each NPC appears to be doing, who they’re attacking, and any other events or conditions for this round.

  2. Starting with the player on the GM’s left, each player announces what his character will do this round.

  3. One or more characters may elect to Move that round. This may bring them into or out of the melee. See Ranges in Combat.

  4. Each player whose charater attacks an NPC makes a test against the NPC’s Threat Level.

    • If the test fails and that NPC is attacking the PC, the PC is Hit; otherwise, the PC’s attack fails.
    • If the test ties, both attacks fail.
    • If the test succeeds, the NPC is Hit.
  5. Each that scored Hits on one or more NPCs make tests to determine their condition, as specified in Damage to Characters. Note that NPCs do not suffer the effects of those conditions until the end of the round.

  6. Each player whose character is being attacked by an NPC they did not attack that round makes a test against the NPC’s Threat Level to defend against each of their attackers. (Most NPCs has the same Threat Level for defense and attack.)

    • If the test ties or succeeds, the NPC’s attack fails.
    • If the test fails, the PC is Hit.
  7. Players whose PCs were Hit make tests to determine their condition, as specified in Damage to Characters. Players apply the effects of these conditions.

  8. Players and GM apply the effects of conditions imposed during this round. NPCs and PCs that are Knocked Out, Dying, or worse are out of this fight. Remaining combatants begin the next round.

  9. Each player neither attacking nor being attacked makes any tests for their action(s). Exception: if a player character is Hit while casting a spell or performing some other long action, the action automatically fails.

Sequential Melee

Before the combat begins, players determine their Initiative by rolling 1d20 and adding any bonuses to speed or reaction time. NPCs use their Difficulty Level as their Initiative.

Combat proceeds in rounds of roughly five seconds.

Each round has the following phases:

  1. The GM declares what each NPC appears to be doing, who they’re attacking, and any other events or conditions for this round.

  2. Each character acts from highest Initiative to lowest. Ties go first to each PC however the players choose, then to each NPC in whatever order the GM chooses.

    • When a PC attacks, the player makes a test to succeed. If the test succeeds the NPC is Hit. If the test ties or fails, the NPC suffers no harm.

    • When an NPC attacks, a player makes a test to defend. If the test fails the PC is Hit. If the test ties or succeeds, the PC suffers no harm.

    • A character may elect to Move instead of attack. See Range in Combat below.

    • When a PC performs any other action, resolve as normal.

  3. Each player attacking an NPC makes a test to attack their target. If the test ties or fails, the PC’s attack fails. If the test succeeds, the NPC is Hit. Note that NPCs do not suffer the effects of attacks until the end of the round.

  4. Each player being attacked by an NPC makes a test to defend against each of their attackers. (Typically an NPC’s has the same Difficulty Level for defense and attack.) If the test ties or succeeds, the NPC’s attack fails. If the test fails, the PC is Hit.

  5. Each player neither attacking nor being attacked makes any tests for their action(s). Exception: if a player character is Hit while casting a spell or performing some other long action, the action automatically fails.

  6. Players and GM apply the effects of conditions imposed during this round. NPCs and PCs that are Incapacitated, Knocked Out, or worse are out of this fight. Remaining combatants begin the next round.

Range in Combat

To simplify movement and ranges, each character exists within one of the following distances of each other:

  1. Close: Either character can punch or strike each other with their bare hands (or analogous limbs).

  2. Short: Either character can take a step or two and strike the other.

  3. Middle: Either character can throw something at the other but cannot swing or poke at each other.

  4. Long: Either character could only hit the other with a sling, bow, gun, or similar weapon.

  5. Very Long: As for Long, but either character would need to be a pretty good marksman to hit the other.

A character that does nothing but move for a combat round can change distance by one step relative to one or more other characters or objects.

Range is transitive, up to a point. For example, if A is in Close range with B and B is in Close range with C then A is in Close range with C. But if A is in Short range with B and B is in Short range with C than A is probably but not necessarily in Short range with C. A and C could be in Close range. Or B is a very large creature or object relative to A and C; A would have to jog around it to see C, and vice versa.

A rough map can clarify complicated variations. Absent a map, assume characters in Melee are within Short range of each other, unless

Damage to Characters

Most attacks inflict physical trauma called Lethal Damage. A few attacks, intended to stun or knock out a target, do Stun Damage. Attacks which inflict other conditions will be noted as such.

Damage to NPCs

When an NPC is Hit, a player makes a test against the NPC’s Wound Threshold, adding any damage bonuses to the total. For most humanoids, the Wound Threshold is 10 + Armor Bonus.

Damage to PCs

The character’s player rolls a d20 and adds any Armor Bonus. The Difficulty Level is 10 + the attack’s total Damage Bonus.

Conditions

Rattled

Each time a character is Rattled, they take a cumulative -1 penalty to all tests until the end of the following round.

Stunned

A Stunned character takes a -5 penalty to all tests for the remainder of combat. Characters recover from being stunned after a few minutes of rest. If a character is already Stunned or Wounded, they are Knocked Out instead.

Wounded

Each time a character is Wounded, they take one Wound Point (WP). Each Wound Point imposes a cumulative -3 to all tests until the character heals. If a character has already reached their Wound Limit (2 WP for PCs, 1 WP for average NPCs) their condition worsens to Dying.

Knocked Out

A character who is Knocked Out is unconscious and incapable of taking any action for the remainder of combat. They will awaken naturally after 10 + 1d10 minutes, in the Stunned state. Medical attention or magic can revive them sooner. If they were previously Wounded, they remain Wounded with all Wound Points.

Dying

A Dying character is either unconscious or delirious, and badly in need of medical attention. They may take no action save one sentence of no more than five words spoken before they pass out. Without medical attention to stabilize their condition, a Dying character must succeed in a DL 10 Task every minute or move on to Dead.

Dead

A dead character is incapable of any action, ever again, short of a miracle.

Weapons & Armor

Weapon Reach

Each weapon is usable only within a specified distance. Most fit into the following categories:

Melee Weapons

Weapon Type Damage Bonus Reach Examples
Unarmed +0 S fist, knee, kick, head-butt
Short Club +1 S rolling pin, forearm-length of wood
Blunt Object +1 S beer mug, small sculpture
Sharp Object +2 S broken bottle
Short Blade +2 S dagger, knife
Staff (2h) +3 M quarterstaff, pole
Hand Weapon +3 M axe, mace, sword, short spear
Long Blade +4 M longsword, hand-and-a-half
Long Weapon (2h) +4 L zweihander, greatsword, greataxe, maul
Polearm (2h) +4 L glaive, halberd, long spear

Stun Damage

Weapon Type Damage Bonus Reach Examples
Unarmed +0 S (as above)
Short Club, Blunt Object +1 S (as above)
One-Handed Weapon (stun) +2 M flat of sword or axe
Two-Handed Weapon (stun) +3 L staff, other end of polearm

Blades, sharp objects, and pointy objects do Lethal Damage. Stun damage requires blunt surfaces and pulled blows. Unarmed attacks, short weapons, and staffs excel at stun damage.

Natural Weapons

All weapons below do Lethal Damage.

Weapon Type Damage Bonus Reach Examples
Small Beast +0 S dog, wild cat
Medium Beast +1 S jaguar, large dog, wolf
Large Beast +3 M bear, lion, tiger
Huge Beast +5 L elephant, rhino

Ranged Weapons

All weapons below do Lethal Damage.

Weapon Type Damage Bonus RoF Max. Range
Short Bow arrow +3 - Long
Long Bow arrow +4 - Long
Crossbow bolt +3 - Long
Heavy Crossbow bolt +5 - Long
Thrown Object (1h) +1 - Medium
Thrown Rock (1h) +2 - Medium
Throwing Axe/Knife (1h) +3 - Medium
Sling stone +2 - Long
Musket ball +3 - Long
Flintlock Pistol (1h) +4 - Long
Flintlock Rifle ball +4 - Long

Armor

Armor Type Armor Bonus Notes
Soft Leather +0/+1 +1 vs small sharp weapons only
Padded Cloth +1 layers of heavy cloth
Folded Paper +1 layers of paper, heavy esp. in rain
Hide +1 uncured hide with fur and padding
Hard Leather +1 boiled leather
Banded +2 metal bands sewn into heavy cloth
Brigandine +3 metal plates sewn into heavy cloth
Ring Mail +2 metal rings sewn into heavy cloth
Chainmail +2/+1 only +1 vs ranged weapons
Scale +3 overlapping metal scales
Half Plate +3 breastplate or curass + helmet
Full Plate +4 metal plates over everything

A Shield carried on one arm adds +1 to total Armor Bonus, or +2 vs ranged weapons.

Medieval metals provide only +1 protection against gunpowder weapons. Modern steel or ceramics provide full protection.

Appendix A: Probability Tables

DF d20 Disadvantage normal Advantage
1 2+ 90.25% 95.00% 99.75%
2 3+ 81.00% 90.00% 99.00%
3 4+ 72.25% 85.00% 97.75%
4 5+ 64.00% 80.00% 96.00%
5 6+ 56.25% 75.00% 93.75%
6 7+ 49.00% 70.00% 91.00%
7 8+ 42.25% 65.00% 87.75%
8 9+ 36.00% 60.00% 84.00%
9 10+ 30.25% 55.00% 79.75%
10 11+ 25.00% 50.00% 75.00%
11 12+ 20.25% 45.00% 69.75%
12 13+ 16.00% 40.00% 64.00%
13 14+ 12.25% 35.00% 57.75%
14 15+ 9.00% 30.00% 51.00%
15 16+ 6.25% 25.00% 43.75%
16 17+ 4.00% 20.00% 36.00%
17 18+ 2.25% 15.00% 27.75%
18 19+ 1.00% 10.00% 19.00%
19 20 0.25% 5.00% 9.75%

  1. We won’t inflict the term “Elf Master” on you. ↩︎

  2. Two distinct ten-sided dice to act as “ones” and “tens” digit. Don’t use the Zocchihedron. It’s silly. ↩︎

  3. We could claim that any game where the dice create annoying or frustrating situations isn’t really an Elf System game. But that’s the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. So we won’t. ↩︎