Minimal System

We finished up a run of Through Sunken Lands in the OSR/Lab group and we rooted around for another system to tackle. A few of us have been interested in Warlock! and so I offered to run. Warlock! is inspired by Warhammer Fantasy, but unlike many “retro-clones” it really isn’t that much of a clone. This is evident by the lack of what we might call standard attributes. Stuff that you would expect to see in games modeled on a system that has never been clean and easy to play. But Warlock! I think is trying to provide a thematic experience without the trappings of the original.


We are playing the Warlock! Traitor Edition. I am not entirely sure what the difference might be or the significance of “Traitor”. It does not play into any of the system as far as I can tell. For resolution, the game has you roll a d20, add your skill, and try and meet or beat “20”.

Quick aside: Years ago when working on one of my older designs, called Twilight’s River, I used this method though with other modifiers as well. I found it refreshing to see another designer doing it. I am sure others have, but I had not seen it.

There are no attributes or other modifiers. If the roll is opposed, the two characters involved simply roll and high roll wins. A draw is a draw or if that does not make sense, the game tells you to re-roll. The GM can add a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the circumstance. I am not as comfortable with this, though I have used it at least once.

Luck – Each character has a luck pool they can draw from. If a roll fails, the character can roll their Luck instead, This would be a d20+ Luck to determine success. Succeed or fail, luck is reduced by 1. It is reduced each time Luck is used and there is a diminishing return to the use of luck. In the first session, Luck may have been used once? In subsequent sessions the players used it more. Luck refreshes between sessions. We had a situation between sessions 2 & 3 where a battle was ongoing. After some discussion we decided to wait on the refresh until the battle was over. This worked out.

Combat – Initiative is simple. Either the characters and GM determine which side goes first, or you roll 1d6. I have chosen to use the 1d6 method and it works well for combat with more than two sides. In our last action scene there was a horse-headed demon, the characters, and a group of mercenaries.

You roll your attack and if you hit, you roll damage. Armor is a fixed number that reduces damage. However, when you engage in combat it is an opposed action. The winner of that roll, rolls damage.

Going back over the rules, I realize I have missed a few things in play. Initiative is a case of IGO/UGO. Each side has a character go and then the next group has a character go. Plus the above combat rule, but I will work them in as we progress in sessions.


Each character is defined by their community (human, elf, dwarf, and halfling), though the game points to a human-centric world view. You can choose a career, but there are rules provided to roll for a career. With enough experience you can move to an Advanced Career. This emulates the original source material. Skills are chosen by assigning a tiered bonus of 6, 5, or 4 to the skill. You get some extra skill points to bump these up.

During play, you can only gain skill bumps in your current career skills and your lowest career skill, provides you a modifier in your career / professional skill. This can be a bit confusing, but basically the lowest career skill you have, let’s say Survival for a Rat Catcher, provides you a Profession skill, in this case Rat Catching, equal to the lowest career skill. If your Survival is lowest and its +8, your Rat Catcher skill is +8.

Stamina and Luck are rolled at character creation. Stamina increases when your career skill, i.e. Rat Catcher, increases. If you have a base stamina of 17 and your Rat Catcher goes from 7 to 8, your stamina goes from 17 to 18. Experience is awarded from 1 to 3 EXP each session. Each point of EXP increases a skill bonus on a 1-to-1 basis. Characters are improving 1 to 3 skill bumps every session. I like this aspect of progression. It is simple to use.


The setting material for Warlock! is minimal and encourages you to do your own setting and backdrop. I pulled on some mythology, Welsh and Finnish, and made the “Empire” based loosely on historical Sweden rather than the Holy Roman Empire. The game takes place in some outmarches, Lake Country, where two old kingdoms have fallen on hard times. In this way there is not too much “imperial” interference, though the potential for gaining the empire’s attention is there.

We have a human beggar and dwarf miner who had been (prior to play) kicked out of a city because they were accused of helping spread the plague. They come to a crossroad and find one of the crow cages has a living person. They remove her from the cage and she asks them to help her home village of Luunken. The woman dies and they bury her nearby. They do decide to visit the village, finding it in the midst of battle. The companions save the children and then save the village witch.

Turns out the mercenaries were there to steal the village’s cauldron on behalf of a being known as Noita or The Noita. The Noita has appeared once (in Session 2) as a murder of crows who coalesce into a humanoid form. In Session 2 the characters witness the Noita appear and a sudden storm comes up to fill the cauldron with rain water.

The characters have been trying to sabotage the ritual, but they do not prevent the ritual from occurring. The players had decided to try a more subtle approach, which included putting horse poop in the cauldron. The villager is transformed by the cauldron into a horse headed demon that attacks the mercs. In the chaos, the characters free the other two villager prisoners and grab the cauldron. I allowed the dwarf character to push the hot cauldron because they had calloused hands.

In Session 3, the characters escape with the last villager (one had run off in fear) and one of the mercs who has a conscience. They return to the village and as the village witch is preparing to put the cauldron back in the ground, the characters rest and then go back searching for the final missing villager.

They find her and some signs that there has been some frostbite damage to some nearby trees. By the end of the session, the characters have gone back into the woods and searching around for what might have caused the tree damage.

We are (I think) having a third player join the game in the coming week.

12 responses to “Minimal System”

  1. Maybe a year or so ago I was looking pretty closely at various versions of Warhammer–I read the first one and Warlock! cover to cover and skimmed some others.

    The Career system is what drew me. On paper it seems perfect for grounding characters in a socioeconomic place-and-time, something that many games of its fantasy adventuring ilk do not do well. However, neither WFRP 1e or Warlock! (the games of this sort I’d play if I were to) have risen to my “to play” pile, and I think it’s because I’m skeptical of careers after the first having real situational impact beyond being a grab-bag of skills and numbers.

    For example, my Rat-Catcher becomes a Mason. How does that happen in the fiction? What does it mean with regards to the other characters, who are off becoming Mayors or Witches and stuff? And if it all just happens in-between sessions when I spend XP, how is that handled in play?

    Questions like that made me feel more anxious about play than excited, but I *am* very excited to see how this all shakes out for your group. From the write-up you have lots of interesting things going on already.

    Question–are miner and beggar the characters’ careers?

    • Games that frame skill packages as professions have always left me a little puzzled. Often character creation leaves you with the sense that this is your active societal role. But then the adventures always seem to imply that you must have abandoned your profession for a life on the road seeking fortune and glory. But then, as you point out, what does it mean to gain another professional set?

      It seems to me that games have struggled a bit with how the characters live. I was surprised to see that The Fantasy Trip heavily implies that your character has a day job, and that adventuring “too much” might jeopardize that job. It’s as if delving the Caves of Doom or The Ancient Tomb of Agragoth is a weekend hobby.

      I was taking a look at the recent reprint of Call of Cthulhu 2e and noticed that it very clearly states that scenarios do not happen back-to-back and that the group should discuss how the players personal lives develop between scenarios. It doesn’t say much about how to do that or how make use of it.

      So, I think there’s a point where you kind of have to take the reins and just decide what you want to do with those professions. Are they the now? Are they the past? I’m very interested in playing the Zweihander derived game Flames of Freedom and have definitely been thinking about this issue.

    • @Jesse – I think the comparison to CoC is interesting. You cannot pursue Cosmic horror on a reporter’s salary after all. But the fiction rarely is affected by day-to-day life.

      In the game currently the characters are on the road and their professions are something that has been set aside. Some of that is on me in providing potential parts of the situations where those professions might come into play.

  2. Yes, the current characters are a beggar and a miner.

    I think one solution to the problem of the fiction matching the off-board play is to establish space in the setting where these careers exist. And then put that into the prep. In addition, the players should think about the directions their characters want to go.

    All that said, you do have control on how quickly the characters improve, so use your experience handouts strategically. And there is the opportunity to allow the characters some down time, to do normal job things if the game is long form.

    If you are focusing on a single, narrow situation that won’t even take the players to the threshold of career change, then this is not an issue.

  3. I’ve played in and run four long Warhammer campaigns (mostly with 1e) and grappled with the career rules every time. Careers are wonderful starting points and provide wonderful ready-made NPCs, but once the PCs take up a life of adventuring, progressing into new careers rarely fits.

    So we probably need to either (a) change how we approach careers or (b) not play classic adventurers (murderhobos, farmboys destined to become dragonslayers etc.).

    Three ideas:

    a) Create “adventuring careers” (probably based on the game’s four base classes, i.e. warrior, ranger etc.) to *reflect what an adventurer could learn on the road* (which does not include fancy professional training). I did this in my last Warhammer campaign and it worked, though it meant dropping the career system except for character creation and NPCs.

    b) Allow only careers which could reasonably be picked up *while* adventuring, e.g. “mercenary”, but hardly the coveted “assassin” or the useful “jailer” etc. The classic mega-module “Enemy Within” includes some opportunities, most notably boat captain and associated careers for a section of the (largely railroaded) adventure taking place on the river Reik. I could not make this work to our satisfaction — it resulted in a tug of war: the players tried to maneuver to get into some “attractive” classes (C’mon, I’ll fight at the tavern and that makes me a pit fighter, no?) and I felt I had to shoot them down as unbalanced / implausible. Not a healthy dynamic. Maybe not Warhammer’s fault, I dunno — “Mother may I” has been a problem I’ve encountered quite a few times.

    c) Integrate lots of downtime into the game (maybe by letting d6 years pass between adventures?). Then let the players narrate what their guy did before opportunity struck and the old gang went adventuring again. This is just an idea I’ve been toying with but I don’t actually know how – or even if – this could work in practice.

    (I’m probably mentally stuck here, given that most of my Warhammer epxerience dates from my illusionist days. I’m relieved that’s over but I still have a lot to learn before I can confidently tackle incoherent classics in a productive manner.)

    • You’re making a lot of sense to me, or at least, I feel a lot when I read what you’re saying. Maybe the crucial term is “adventurer,” in the sense of necessarily being disconnected from daily or ordinary life. Without tagging that concept as necessarily broken (I love plenty of adventurers, and one of my most well-regarded games is about nothing but), perhaps the distinction is a bit binary: you are either a person with a life and career, and not “an advevnturer” even when you’re in an adventure; or an adventurer who has no life or career, even when you’re not adventuring at the moment. It seems related as well to the gaming artifact of considering “an adventure” to be entirely separated from ordinary people’s concerns.

      That seems pretty binary, and in the conceptual space called “fantasy role-playing,” maybe it is. But it might not have to be. For example, in the game Dust Devils, inspired by extremely dark/horrible westerns, one’s character is more-or-less an adventurer, insofar as they really can’t function well in ordinary society, not even the rough-and-tumble ordinary society of the literary and cinematic American West. But their defining traits are named I Used to Be … and Now I am …, e.g. one might say, “I used to be a sheriff,” and “Now I am the town drunk,” or whatever. So perhaps there’s room for considering fantasy versions of a different approach to [social and everyday life] + [available for climactic violence].

  4. This may go onto the list of unwelcome comments I’ve made, but I hope not. I asked Sean if it was OK and he said yes, with no need to preview it.

    So: my suspicion is that in your fantasy GMing, there isn’t any system. Whether it’s Against the Darkmaster, Stormbringer, Rolemaster, Warlock, et cetera, however many different shapes of dice may be used, however detailed or broad-brush the procedures may be, however magic gets cast – it’s irrelevant. The same things seem to happen, the same plot beats hit on schedule, hook-problem-twist-solution, the same little bit of damage gets exchanged …

    We’ve talked about it for years now, regarding so much RPGA training to deliver a reliable and “balanced for fun” experience, a little bit colorful, a little bit amusing, and a little bit dramatic, which surprises no one and cannot be sourced if some participant were to do something terrible the next day. I know you understand all of this – obviously, considering you’re the person who helped me to understand it.

    What I mean by system being irrelevant doesn’t concern the various games’ design, but instead, your role as “the GM” which guarantees how matters have turned out and what’s next, and thus obviates its relevance. I doubt that you actually want to do this, or actively sit down to make sure of it … but who knows, maybe once you’re in a chair and happen to be GMing, then it becomes The chair and The GM, so that every well-trained response is simply too strong or feels too right (and skilled) not to do.

    Am I misperceiving this entirely? Help me see it.

    • I do not think this is unwelcome at all. In fact I find it illuminating. And not entirely wrong. I think I can see where my situations hit certain beats, prefer games where those beats work seen to work best, and look for a certain kind of story to emerge from the chaos.

      If I were to sum it up, my thoughts and your thoughts, I’d say I do not always leverage system to challenge the character/players in ways that would enhance the shared experience.

      A couple thoughts I have:

      I do have a casual style in terms of GMing. Which is odd considering how much I (tend – been working on that) to over prep. But I do think I am open to things going sideways or in different directions than I may have considered. Now whether that is how it comes across in my GMing is another question.

      I also have a conversational style of GMing. Its a conversation until outcomes need to be outcommed. Then the system engages. From my POV.

      Some of what you described is technique: the little bit of drama and little of humor, are not about system or situation, more about the way I describe a particular scene. I don’t think those create a disconnect between fiction and system in themselves. But an overreliance on those techniques might do so.

      If folks I have GM’ed have thoughts, I’d invite them to comment here. Its absolutely welcome and I don’t take it as a negative at all.

    • Of course PLAY is the thing. If we can arrange that with an eye toward critical self-examination, that might provide useful data.

    • One thing I wonder, Sean, is how far ahead you’re thinking in terms of how you expect things to go? Not that I mean that you’re planning things to work out a certain way, but just in terms of expectations. Your use of the phrase “going sideways” implies that you have some kind of throughline in mind, and I wonder to what extent, consciously or subconsciously, any expected throughline is affecting how you GM.

  5. Sean said above: “If folks I have GM’ed have thoughts, I’d invite them to comment here. Its absolutely welcome and I don’t take it as a negative at all.” and I thought I should honor the invitation.
    You (meaning Sean) asked for player thoughts and I’ve tried to remember the few times I was a player in a game you did run. They are only a few and as I don’t have much experience with playing games multiple times with different people running them I can’t really judge what is the influence of the game/system (I think I only ever have played some version or other of D&D with you) and what is the influence of the person running it or the chemistry of the group sitting down to play. So what I can describe is mostly about how I felt about the way play developed, filtered by a lot of time, which means there are not many details I remember. I think one of the games was a “one shot”, the other time we played through a somewhat longer adventure. Neither of the games seemed life threatening to the player characters. It felt like the premise that player characters don’t operate alone and often the “teams” are balanced (having unique abilities that complement each other) really meant in D&D you character could only die if they were very unlucky. Adding to that all those rules about “not being quite dead even if you are” that seem to be a part of D&D and I was left with the feeling the games did have no bite.
    I do think in the shorter game the characters started at a higher level, making their survival more likely, so maybe it is not a really good example. In the longer game characters started from scratch but developed very fast (or at least it seemed so to me). We were only two players and I think both player characters were some kind of fighters. While the PC for shorter periods were on their own they often were backed up by others (NPC’s) that were conveniently skilled in magic or healing and. That at least was my impression.
    I remember how I thought “somebody doesn’t really want anything too bad to happen to our characters, that is sweet, but I’d rather have a fair game”. I also wondered at one point if things or people we should find were kind of moving to places where we couldn’t miss them after a couple of not so good rolls and / or character decisions. I never said a word about it though, so I feel I’m partly responsible for the “cozy and comfy” experience. The suspicion that the games were somehow “rigged” even if I couldn’t really place the finger on it stayed with me both times (both times it started after a fight that felt less deadly than I thought it should).
    Personally I do prefer people and games that do trust me to be able to take hits and that do challenge me and my player characters, even if that may mean that said characters may die and I will enjoy the game from the sidelines.

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