It’s that time of year again: Memorial Day has come and gone and school is out, or soon to be. Maybe you spent a bit too much preparing for a party, or have found yourself at loose ends with the changing of the seasons, or need to save up to be able to take that vacation you’re planning. For whatever reason, the idea of dropping a decent chunk of your paycheck on a new sourcebook is…well, not your top priority. Well, fear not, because we at Cannibal Halfling Gaming know what it’s like to be at loose ends. Let’s take a dive back into the vault for a cheaper, but no less entertaining find in a set of mechanics entitled “Knave”, a cheap, short, and easy to understand ruleset that allows GMs and players to convert nearly any OSR, and more importantly, multiple games into a single cohesive system.
To describe Knave requires a quick explanation of what it is meant to standardize or convert from. Old School Revival/Renaissance games popped up after Wizards of the Coast released their Open Gaming License, inspiring people who were fans of the first edition to produce their own retroclones, and there’s a pretty widespread release of them. Knave, while not a new setting, acts as a set of conversion tools for all of them to operate under, with an eye on the design of modern, rules-light systems that are more player facing than traditional D&D and with a greater emphasis on “low fantasy”. It still requires the background and worldbuilding from existing systems, or that a GM and players use their imagination to build a setting, but its simplified and rebalanced rules allow it to adapt a great deal in order to pave the road there.
First and foremost, Knave strips away the concepts of Classes and skill levels entirely. As they phrase it, “Every PC is a Knave, a tomb-raiding, adventure seeking ne’er-do-well”, and a player’s role is based pretty much entirely on their stats, and their equipment. Stats are along the same lines of the six standard made famous by the original D&D model (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, Charisma), but your modifier is decided by the lowest number of 3d6, with your opposed save score being that value plus 10. For example, if you roll a 5, 3, and 2, that characteristic modifier is +2, while the static save DC is 12. Furthermore, the characteristics act as catchalls for all actions your characters might want to do, and they’ve been rebalanced to prevent the typical “dump stat” syndrome that players commonly stray into (a tendency that admit I am myself guilty of).
Wisdom takes the place of Dexterity for ranged weaponry, but Dexterity is still vital to the tasks of “not getting hit” or “falling off the treacherously slippery bridge”. Charisma, long the dump stat for everyone except for the bard and sorcerer, is responsible for how many henchmen you can coax along to join you for the task of carrying away the loot you have discovered. The broad overview of characteristics is so general that it becomes very troublesome to even attempt to minmax, even if the fate of the dice makes that difficult to begin with.
As for equipment, it is assigned to players in random rolls at character creation, along with two days of rations and a weapon of your player’s choice. The randomness of this selection is supposed to be a starting block of what your character is to become, and this randomness on the tables is carried over to other aspects of character creation: their appearance, past life, virtues and vices, and even their alignment are all dictated by random roles. To me, this took on shades of Zweihander, another gritty low fantasy RPG, but where it differs is that Knave is far more flexible at letting people make their characters what they want to be.
Gear might be what you start with, but there is nothing that prevents you from trying new things. It’s also easier to build your character towards what you might have had in mind to start, while still building off of a background that roots you into the world. Equipment has been streamlined too, and has been rebalanced into what a medieval economy would typically take: copper pieces. The item list takes up a single page, and is listed in this currency. Gold and silver exist, and are more compact…but it is rapidly apparent in setting that you are working with higher denominations, and it is outright stated that gaining things such as property and ships likely comes more in the form of favors, or more political currency rather than coin.
The overall mechanics stay mostly in the realm of oD&D as well: 1d20 + your characteristic modifier vs the opposing DC. But the creator clearly has been taking cues from modern D&D by including the Advantage and Disadvantage system, which greatly speeds up the process of deciding how circumstance ought to effect the next roll. This can be in direct combat (attacking against an armor class), stunts to gain the advantage (trying to shield bash someone over a cliff vs their Strength or Dexterity), or the general tasks of bartering, pickpocketing, orating, and carousing that typically follows a party around.
Magic may be the most affected mechanic in the Knave toolkit. As previously mentioned, there are no classes, so the concept of spell progression and levels doesn’t exist. Instead, spells are considered items as “spellbooks”, and while players are able to copy, steal and transcribe spellbooks that they find they must be carried around with the caster (as the character’s Constitution determines how much they can lug around, people who want to be magicians can no longer skimp out there).
Alternately, Knave proposes other ideas for how to make spells interesting: having them act as runestones, or specific focuses that the caster needs in order to work, and proposes a very low magic adjustment: that every use of a spell uses up the item, meaning that it is lost until it can be found again or copied, making high level spells an extremely valuable commodity of their own. If players don’t want to work from the spell lists from another system, Knave provides a list of 100 spells, all which are designed to scale in power along with the character who uses them.
The document itself is fairly short, coming in at seven total pages. For all of that, there is a lot of meat on the bones, and a lot to unpack in such a small product. In my mind, the greatest monetary saving value the Knave possesses isn’t its low price ($2.99 at DriveThruRPG), but it’s sheer adaptability. It is meant to transform the adventures of several different systems into one level playing field. Do you love an OSRIC adventure? Fit it in! Do you want to go for a turn into Lamentations of the Flame Princess in the same universe? Knock yourself out! Have you stumbled across a collection of over 300 modules for GM’s to try? Get at it! There is a wide breadth of material for you to plug and play into the universal adapter that is Knave, even if the GM wants to run a completely original setting. As the saying goes, “Poor artists copy, great artists steal” and your have the chance to add your own ideas over the shoulders of the giants you are standing upon.