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Friday 18 March 2022

The Other OSR—Knave

Knave is a toolkit designed to do Old School Renaissance roleplaying. Written by the author of The Waking of Willowby Hall, the earlier Maze Rats, and host of the YouTube channel, Questing Beast
Knave is very much a retroclone of Dungeons & Dragons, but with significant differences. The most obvious of which is that Knave eschews both Classes and Races. There is no default Race, but every Player Character in Knave is a “tomb-raiding, adventure-seeking ne’er-do-well who wields a spell book just as easily as a blade.” The latter is the obvious difference—a Player Character can cast spells as easily as he can wield a weapon. In addition to this, Knave provides a systematic means for handling Attributes and Attribute bonuses, actions and Saving Throws, defences, and more. Despite these changes, Knave is designed to be compatible with Dungeons & Dragons and its various iterations, so that the Game Master can run numerous scenarios and settings using its rules.

A Player Character in 
Knave looks like a Player Character in Dungeons & Dragons. He has the six requisite Attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Five of these cover aspects as you would expect. Thus, Strength is used for melee attacks and physical Saving Throws; Dexterity covers agility and speed; Constitution to resist poison and sickness; Intelligence for handling concentration, recall, using magic and more; and Charisma for interacting with NPCs and hiring henchmen. The difference is that Wisdom, in addition to covering the usual perception and intuition, actually handles ranged attacks! It is a radical change, but it means that Wisdom can be used as a more active attribute and that ranged attacks are associated with perception, and also it shifts some of the traditional emphasis in other retroclones away from Dexterity.

Each Attribute has both a bonus and defence. The bonus is equal to the lowest value rolled during character creation. This is done using three six-sided dice, in order, as is traditional. Thus if a player rolled three, four, and five, to get a total of twelve, the bonus would be three. The Defence for an Attribute is the bonus value, plus ten. A Player Character also has a Level—though of course, no Class, which determines the number of eight-sided dice rolled for Hit Points; a number of item slots representing what he can carry, equal to his Constitution Defence; and an Armour Defence value, determined by the armour worn without any modifiers.

To create a character in 
Knave, a player rolls three six-sided dice for the six Attributes, noting their Bonus and Defence values, and then rolls for Armour worn, and a piece of dungeoneering gear, and two pieces of general gear. In addition, he can roll or choose various traits, including physical, face, skin, hair, clothing, virtue vice, speech, background, misfortune, and alignment. The process is relatively quick and easy.

Frederick Bellini
Level 1
Hit Points: 7
Armour: Gambeson Bonus +2/Defence 12
Helmet: None Shield: None
Weapon: Cudgel (d6)

Strength 09 Bonus +1/Defence 11
Dexterity 11 Bonus +2/Defence 12
Constitution 09 Bonus +2/Defence 12
Intelligence 16 Bonus +4/Defence 14
Wisdom 17 Bonus +5/Defence 15
Charisma 13 Bonus +3/Defence 13

Physical: Short Face: Bony Skin: Tanned Hair: Oily
Clothing: Perfumed Virtue: Honourable Vice: Cowardly Speech: Flowery
Background: Herbalist Misfortune: Robbed Alignment: Law

Torches (5), Lockpicks, Lens

Knave uses a throw of a twenty-sided die against a standard difficulty. If the player rolls sixteen or more, his character succeeds at the action. When it comes to opposed Saving Throws, this can be rolled by the player or the Game Master. For example, if a Player Character casts the Web spell, which shoots thick strands of webbing from his wrists, at a thief who has just robbed him, the player could roll and add his character’s Intelligence Bonus against the thief’s Dexterity Defence, or the Game Master could roll against the Player Character’s Intelligence Defence adding the thief’s Dexterity Bonus. The option here is whether or not the Game Master and her players want to play Knave with player-facing rolls or use the standard method in which both players and the Game Master roll as necessary.

The option is also included to use Advantage and Disadvantage, as per Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Typically, this will come from the situation or the environment, but it could also come from any one of the several Traits rolled or chosen during character creation. The mix of these underlie who or what a character is and so bringing them into play encourages roleplaying.

Combat in 
Knave is kept simple. The Player Characters and their opponents both have a fifty percent chance of winning the Initiative, and attack rolls, whether using the Strength Bonus for melee attacks or the Wisdom Bonus for ranged attacks, have to be greater than the Defence value of the armour worn. Alternatively, if using player-facing rolls, the defending player would roll his character’s Armour Bonus to beat the attacker’s Defence value. In addition, Opposed Saving Throws can be used to do Stunts, such as stunning an opponent, knocking them over, disarming them, smashing armour, and so on. Stunts do not do damage though, although they can be combined with an attack attempt if the attacker has Advantage. This is instead rolling the two twenty-sided dice which is normal for Advantage.

Successful attacks inflict damage per the weapon’s die type, more if the defender is vulnerable to that type of attack. Critical hits—a twenty if using the standard rolling method, one if the player-facing method when attacked—smash the defender’s armour, reducing its Quality be one. When the armour’s Quality is reduced to zero, it is destroyed.

Magic in 
Knave is also simple. Spells can be taken from any Old School Renaissance or similar source or those in Knave can be used. All spells require a spellbook of their own and a spellbook takes up a slot in a Player Character’s inventory, and each spell from a spellbook can only be cast once per day, requiring a Saving Throw to do so. So literally, spells are a physical burden!

Further, spells cannot be copied, created, or transcribed. They can only be adventured for or stolen… Which begs the question, where did these spellbooks come from? What it does mean is that if the traditional Dungeons & Dragons spells are used, then the higher-level spells become valuable commodities! However, 
Knave offers its own list of one hundred Level-less spells, and these are interesting in that they shift magic from inflicting damage to having an interesting, often odd effect. For example, Catherine summons a woman wearing a blue dress appears who obeys polite, safe requests; Marble Madness fills the caster’s pockets with marbles and continues to refill the pocket over; and Snail Knight, which summons knight sitting astride a giant snail who rides into view ten minutes later and will answer most questions related to quests and chivalry, and who might aid the caster if he finds him worthy. The spells are fun, but very simply described, so the Game Master will need to adjudicate as necessary.

Knave also includes a decent equipment list—with the prices in copper pieces as the default coin in Knave, guidance for adapting monsters from the standard Old School Renaissance bestiaries, rules for morale and healing. Advancement is done every time a Player Character accumulates 1000 XP, Experience Points being awarded for accomplishments rather than for simply killing monsters or finding treasure. At each new Level, the player rolls for his character’s new Hit Points and increases the Defence and Bonus values for three of his character’s Attributes.

Knave a is a well presented, short, twenty-page booklet done on heavy stock paper, meaning that it feels rather pleasing in the hand. It could do with a slight edit for clarity in places and it is lightly illustrated. It is also underwritten in places, but that may be by design, since Knave does belong to the ‘Rulings not rules’ school and in many cases, such as the exact effects of spells, will come down to play and what happens at the table rather than from the pages of Knave itself.

Knave is designed as a toolkit, something for Game Master to build from as is her wont. For example, she might add rules for Races, such as adding their Traits and using them in combination with the Advantage and Disadvantage mechanic, or build a world in which Snail Knights go on quests (slow, of course, and always leaving a trail). However, beyond the guidance for spellbooks, there are no rules for including magical items at all, and perhaps what v needs is not necessarily more rules, but options. So not just one way to present Races, but two or three, not just one way to do magic items, but again, two or three. The point is, as a toolkit, the Game Master could do with a few extra tools.

Knave is a really easy system to pick up and play, everything it covers is boiled down to a few pages, and with a slight bit of getting used to, a Game Master could easily run any number of settings or scenarios, especially those from the Old School Renaissance. It does contain the lightest of setting elements, that magic is helpful and occasionally odd, but not hurtful—everyone has access to it if they can find a spellbook, that combat can be deadly—but does not have to be (though it will be), and then there is implied medievalism of the equipment and background traits. How much of these will come into play will depend upon both Game Master and her players.

Knave is an engaging piece of concise design, perfect for the Game Master and her players who want simple mechanics with scope for narrative outcomes, and the Game Master who wants simple mechanics she can build from to create the roleplaying game she wants.

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