Posts Tagged ‘So You Want to be a Hero’

The Levels of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda

I think I’ve mentioned before that I consider the original The Legend of Zelda an almost perfect example of a game design. The game flows beautifully, challenges the player, and provides lots of rewards for exploration.

It’s also one of the finest dungeon crawlers of all time, despite a surprisingly small number of clones to its name.1 Despite clearly adapting the wilderness/underworld model of tabletop roleplaying, Zelda doesn’t adapt the experience/level model.

The original Dungeons & Dragons leveling scheme has four elements:

  1. Increased hit points.
  2. More spells/skills.
  3. Magic items.
  4. Money.

In D&D, these are presumed to be gained by trekking across a dangerous wilderness and completing more and more challenging dungeon levels. Just so in Zelda.

Zelda takes the brilliant step of combining the effects of leveling with the completion of dungeons. In the middle of each dungeon, you gain a magic item which is (usually) key to your progress. At the end of each dungeon, you’re rewarded with additional “heart containers,” or hit points.2

But what about wandering the wilderness to gain a few levels and gain an edge on the monsters? Zelda‘s got you covered there, too. Additional heart containers can be found in out of the way places on the overworld map. And some magic treasures (like the equivalents of +1 swords) can be obtained only by exploring the wilderness.

I admire the elegance: one reward halfway through each dungeon that you can put into play immediately, with an increase in power provided at the end of the level. Plenty of cherries for players intent on scouring the map. There’s both an economy and completeness of design that only a few games have, even those from the early eras of video gaming.

I’ve often thought of incorporating a variation of Zelda‘s leveling scheme into one of my games. Much as 3:16 requires a successful mission to advance, I’ve considered making a full exploration of a dungeon the key to leveling in one of my own fantasy heartbreakers. Here’s an excerpt from something I’ve been playing with:

In order to gain a level, a character must check 8 experience boxes and fill one experience line.

An experience box may be checked by:

  • Rolling the same number on every die on a core roll.
  • Finding a cache of treasure unguarded by monsters. (Doesn’t count if you killed them.)
  • Killing a monster.

An experience line is a special accomplishment, such as:

  • Defeating a special monster.
  • Completing a small dungeon.
  • Completing a level of a large dungeon.
  • Performing a deed of legend.
  • Being recognized by a non-player character authority figure in some significant fashion, such as knighthood.



  1. Most of them developed under the same brand.
  2. The game coined the brilliant metaphor of hearts and half-hearts for these, which you can see in this very site’s logo.

Little Hearts Like the One in Me

“Hello, my name is Jimmy Pop and I’m a dumb white guy,
I’m not old or new but middle school, fifth grade like junior high.”

– The Bloodhound Gang, “Fire Water Burn”

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Jeff and I

1984. My uncle leaves a party. I ask my Mom where he went.

“To play Dungeons & Dragons,” she says. I ask her what that is.

“A game like Conan,” she tells me, barely, I think, understanding herself. “Your uncle’s the Dungeon Master. He decides what monsters the heroes fight.”

1985. On a trip to Barbarian Books and Comics, my father buys me a set of polyhedral dice, cast in translucent red plastic. To me, they look like magic gems.

1989. My friend Jeff and I are rapt in front of the secondhand EGA monitor. We are being asked to make the most important choice of our lives.

Hero's Quest character class selection, 1989

Jeff's upstairs room, 1989

We pick thief, and give him a little bit of magic. Just like that guy in the books I found in the back of Barbarian.

1994. Wheaton Plaza, the food court, half mall and half strip. We’re deep in the midst of planning our great fantasy novel, about a city at the center of time. We start to talk about how to make a roleplaying game out of Dune, and Jeff passes something amazing across the table to me.

D&D Rules Cyclopedia

D&D Rules Cyclopedia

I’ve seen it before, of course. Ads in the back of comic books. Maybe when I helped my uncle move, and he gave me his Uncanny X-Men comics. I open it, and there’s a girl, there, dark hair and a bandanna. The heading says “thief.”

Rules Cyclopedia Thief

Rules Cyclopedia Thief

1994. Barbarian Books has moved into an abandoned Photon Battlefield.1 The D&D books are in the back, now. But there’s something else. Different. Softcover, green marble, with a single red rose.

Vampire: The Masquerade

My Future

I open it, and fumble around. There are a lot of dark-haired girls. And then I’m reading, flipping, and there’s a kind of vampire for every book I’ve read. For Interview with Vampire. For The Dracula Tape. For Doctor Strange.

I spend the entire night trying to recreate the art in my precious hardcover sketchbook.

And when I sleep, I see the city. No longer Lankhmar of the shattered temples nor Imryrr in its opium dreams. I see wet asphalt and grainy reflections and the stain of blood.

Jeff doesn’t even recall that book the next day.

2000. Elkton Hall, the University of Maryland. In the underground garden of a mafia boss, Marek the thief-mage triggers a trapped door. The ornate pipework fountain behind him bellows steam and rises, revealing itself to be the apparatus on the back of a gigantic robot.

“You bastard,” Marek says, or maybe Jeff does. He and Mike put down tiny d6s to show where they’re standing on the map. I put down the red d20 my father gave me so many years ago.

“That’s where he is,” I smile.

2005. My apartment, after she left. After I made her leave. It’s dark, and we can hear the Georgia Avenue traffic. Jeff and Angela and I are crouched around a red-foil book, exploring rain-slick streets not so different from the one outside. Tori Amos is on the stereo.

Vampire: The Requiem

My Present

“Who was she?” Angela says, as Frankie the waitress, hungry young vampire and terrifying lost girl.

Her only friend, London, smokes his cigarette. Jeff shows us he’s doing that by sucking on the end of a Pepperidge Farm Pirouette.

“She played bass,” London says. Frankie’s eyes don’t leave London’s. Angela’s don’t leave Jeff’s. He coughs. “She had dark hair.”

2007. DC, anywhere. Pick a spot and I’m there, saying goodbye to someone, something. Those books, green marble and red foil and always with the roses, they’re leading me away. I kiss Jeff. I kiss Angela. I stare at Hope a long moment and I don’t kiss her. I pack two dark-haired cats in the back of a rented SUV and I drive away from everything I knew and towards everything I’ve been imagining.

Leaving DC

Leaving DC

2008. I don’t measure time in years anymore. I measured it in word counts, and now books.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

My uncle and my father

My uncle’s just died. I’m stuck in an Atlanta suburb but I spend a lot of time on the phone. My Mom reminisces about how he and my Dad used to play in the woods, calling each other Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

2010. Books have given way to stories, features, something called “sprints.” Every day I walk through a dusty warehouse past the original proof for that old green book cover.

I go home, I mess with the necessities of life, and then with my partners. And we sit down side by side to work.

I’m writing my own little book about fantasy roleplaying, and the concept art’s coming in. Fighter, magic-user, combat scene… I leaf through it.

There’s a woman with a bandanna over one eye, dark hair flowing behind her shoulders. She’s got a reckless grin on her face and a knife with three eyeballs skewered on it.

I crop, it, clean it, and I do the only next thing. I send it to Jeff.


  1. A Lazer Tag arena by any other name.

A simple ritual magic system for classic Dungeons & Dragons

For an upcoming game, I wanted a simple ritual magic system to let magicians and clerics stretch beyond their spell lists. Note that this assumes a magic point pool where MP = Wisdom + 1d6/level.

Do your spells need more power or pizazz? Rituals allow adventurers to perform magic beyond the abilities of a conventional spell.

Planning a Ritual

The power level of a ritual is based on the amount of labor it saves.

A round An encounter An adventure An invasion
An adventurer 0 1 4 8
A party 2 3 6 12
An army 4 5 8 16

That power level is modified by preparation that goes into the ritual.

Modifier Preparation
-1 An hour’s incantation
-2 A night’s preparation
-4 A week-long ordeal

The cost is 1 MP per HD of targets effected. MP costs can be absorbed from non-caster ritual participants. For example, a fighter can provide MP to a ritual being cast by a cleric.

If a living sacrifice is used, roll its HD. The total can be subtracted from either the power level of the ritual or the MP cost. This is a very unheroic thing to do, but is noted to shed light on the modus operandi of those ubiquitous demon cultists a hero must smite on their adventures.

Performing a Ritual

  1. Declare the caster and all willing participants.
  2. Perform all preparations.
  3. Determine the power level modified by preparations.
  4. Determine the MP cost.
  5. Make any sacrifices.
    1. Subtract the total HD sacrificed from either the power level or the cost.
  6. Subtract the MP cost from the willing participants’ MP totals.
  7. Roll 1d20.
  8. If the roll is under ((power level + Wisdom) – caster level), the ritual succeeds. Otherwise, each participant must save against a backlash determined by the DM.

Another (back)stab at a thief

The Thief

The Thief

The Thief, by Max Brooks

The thief is centered, well-meaning, and devoted to the common good, spreading enlightenment by the lightening of purses. Not without commercial skills, however, the thief has a nose for gold and a touch to match.

Where other adventurers laugh in the face of danger, the thief smiles at the back of danger’s head, then cracks it with a blackjack.
Prime Attribute: Dexterity, 13+ (5% experience)
Hit Points: Constitution + ((1d6 + 1)/level)
Attack Modifier: -1

Armor/Shield: The thief may wear any armor or shield, particularly when trying to get out of town disguised as the fighter. To use thief abilities, however, a thief must be wearing armor no heavier than leather.

Weapons: Thieves may use any weapon, but use of their thieving abilities restricts them to one-handed weapons (including one in each hand) or a short bow.
Swashbuckler: So long as the thief is wearing ‘light’ armor (no heavier than leather), is not using a shield, and is not using a large weapon, the thief gains a -2 bonus to AC.  Also, when using two weapons the thief gains a +2 to hit.

Second Chance: When an ordinary adventurer would fail at any of the following activities, the thief may make a saving throw roll with a +2 bonus to succeed.

  • Avoiding traps
  • Climbing
  • Running across difficult terrain, like broken ground or rooftops
Surprise Attack: Most characters surprise on a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6. If this fails, the thief may make a saving throw to surprise anyway. In addition, any successful attack the thief makes during the surprise round automatically inflicts a critical hit. This is known to hurt.
Find Treasure: On a roll of 1-2 on 1d6, the thief can find a hidden cache of treasure.