Scarlet Heroes As An Overlay

One of my favorite parts of writing OSR material is the sheer flexibility of the framework. Fans of the genre might argue over which of our favorite systems does a particular thing better, or which rules might suit us best, but when it comes down to it there’s very little in the genre that can’t be made to work with all the rest. Any GM savvy enough to know that there’s a difference between B/X and AD&D is savvy enough to do conversions on the fly. People swap parts from different systems in and out without batting an eye.

I kept this in mind when I was building Scarlet Heroes. The game is stand-alone and requires nothing but the 128-page core book for play, but it needs to be able to stretch. Let’s be honest- most of the people who might get this book already have a favorite system. They like that system and they’re going to keep playing that system. So what do I offer them that’s going to be useful, that’s going to really help them get more mileage out of the material they already have and love? I need to offer them an overlay, something they can lay down on top of their existing system to open up a fresh style of play.

Scarlet Heroes relies mainly on reinterpreting standard old-school stats to produce a different play dynamic at the table. The most fundamental changes are in the way it treats damage differently for PCs and NPCs and the way in which it reads damage dice.

In Scarlet Heroes, damage dice are rolled exactly as you would expect for an old-school game. Swords do 1d8, fireballs do Wizard-d6, dragon claws do 2d6, and so forth. Unlike in standard OSR games, however, the dice are read differently. A die that rolls a 1 does no damage, 2-5 inflicts one point, 6-9 inflicts two points, and 10 or more inflicts four points of damage. Thus, a 1d4 dagger might inflict 0 or 1 points, while a 1d10 polearm could inflict as many as 4 points.

These points are subtracted from the hit points of PCs- and from the hit dice of NPCs. A mighty-thewed fighter who swings well with that polearm could do up to 4 hit dice of damage to his target, hewing down an ogre in a single stroke. Against a mob of enemies with comparable ACs, that same blow might lay out four common bandits, or a fistful of wretched kobolds.

This damage differential turns even a 1st level PC into a fearsome engine of destruction. A 1st level fighter in Scarlet Heroes with 8 hit points can now endure eight blows from most weapons and every time he strikes he’s laying low at least one or two petty foes. Heroes can now handle the kind of combat situations that would normally require a party of several adventurers to survive, simply because they’re taking much less punishment and dishing out far more pain.

Of course, this isn’t the only adjustment in Scarlet Heroes, and other tweaks such as the Fray die, heroic initiative, character traits, and Defying Death all combine to give a properly Conan-esque patina to any hero. But these adjustments all fit smoothly into the play of most other OSR systems. As the Kickstarter launch draws nearer, I’ll be talking more about these tweaks- and about the GM tools the book provides for generating the kind of excitement such heroes deserve.