Solo Skald |||

Thoughts on Scarlet Heroes

I played Scarlet Heroes when it was fairly new and decided to revisit it recently after a few years away. Now that I have a lot more solo experience, that gives me a lot more context for examining the game in a sort of retrospective.

What Scarlet Heroes really is

Sine Nomine (the imprint for Kevin Crawford) publishes a bunch of games all roughly based on B/X D&D as a chassis. Crawford adds a bunch of really useful material and mechanics to make the system work in different types of settings and styles.

In particular, Scarlet Heroes is an OSR-ish game designed for one player, plus optionally a GM. It uses its own Red Tide setting, but it’s designed to be easily adapted to other settings. As noted above, I don’t really love the Red Tide setting as it feels a bit too Orientalist for my personal tastes at this point, although it’s a far cry from the travesty of Kara-Tur and I feel like Crawford tried to do something good here. His approach to the people traditionally considered monstrous races” in D&D feels a lot more nuanced than other games of the time, and perhaps even better than official D&D still does.

A group of adventurers studying a map Art by Joyce Maureira, used with permission

In any case, other than the forgettable lore, SH includes an early version of the tags that would be honed so well in his later works Stars Without Number and Worlds Without Number. Crawford also published what I think was the first version of his faction rules for this game and setting as well. One other thing: the art (I think all of it, but certainly the vast majority) was placed in the public domain by Crawford and the artists, which I cannot overstate how much I appreciate. I have some pretty unorthodox opinions about intellectual property (TL;DR it’s bullshit), and this really works for me.

Mechanical changes

Scarlet Heroes uses the traditional six attributes, with modifiers that mostly range from -2 to +2 (although +/- 3 is possible at the very extreme ranges). The game does not use race as class, but instead has the typical D&D races (humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings), plus the Shou (basically, goblins and orcs and the like). While the approach here leaves something to be desired, as I wrote above it was a strong effort in a better direction. The old-school four classes (Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User, and Thief) form the other half of the main equation.

The game also has a trait system for those particular backgrounds, skills, and aptitudes that set them apart” from other characters in the same class. These aren’t pre-defined, although there’s a handy table of suggestions. Some classes and races give characters extra traits, although in many cases you can write or interpret these as you wish. These traits get a numeric rating that the player then adds to checks and saving throws but not to combat. I really like this approach; it’s not unique to SH or anything, but it feels like a good blend of narrative openness and mechanical structure. With very few exceptions, these trait ratings are capped at 3 so they don’t overwhelm the entire game.

During play, anytime a character needs to roll for something that isn’t combat, they roll 2d8, add their most relevant attribute and an applicable trait raiting, then compare to a difficulty (11 is average). Saving throws work almost the same, except the character level is included and there’s a bit about the difficulty of the roll. Attack rolls work the way they used to work: roll a d20, add the correct attribute, an attack bonus, and the target’s armor class, trying to hit 20. Yes, it’s descending armor class, that’s right. No THAC0 charts needed, because that’s in the attack bonus. It amounts to the same thing, of course, but it seems easier to grasp, I think.

Damage dice

The damage dice provide the main mechanical change that enables solo characters. You read them as a range: a damage roll of 1 does no damage, 2-5 does 1 point, 6-9 does 2 points, and anything more does 4 points. Then the target’s identity matters: if the damage is done to the hero, it comes off HP - meaning that a hit that looked like 8 on the dice actually only does 2 damage to you. But if the damage is done to other creatures, it comes off HD, meaning that if you roll a 2 on your damage die, any 1 HD creature goes down, and a 3 HD creature is down to 2 HD overall. This basically scales your character to act on par with a whole group in traditional D&D.

Additionally, every hero gets a fray die” (though its size and usage varies a little bit between classes) that you can roll every turn and apply as damage to some enemies, regardless of what your main attack does.

I’ve tested this with a few different games, and it works fine for pretty much any older D&D derivative. That makes sense as Crawford designed it as a resilient system for B/X-ish games. It even scales fine in Searchers of the Unknown!

Solo gaming

This section of the book has some basic oracles and guidance for three different kinds of adventures. Your mileage may vary, but the oracles are fine and serviceable. There are general oracles (yes/no, how far away, adjectives and motivations) as well as lots more for NPCs, reactions, personalities. I don’t find them particularly good, but they’re not particularly bad. If you’ve got your own oracles that you like better, you can use them with no troubles. This is a good place to tweak things for other settings.

Urban adventures

This doesn’t literally mean in a big city” but really focuses on adventures that take place in communities: Run an urban adventure when you want your hero to deal with their fellow humans.”

That said, the suggested basic plots are very focused on crime. Only two of the eight are something other than crime, which starts to feel repetitive unless you’re playing a detective or similar investigator. (As a warning, some of this material, along with the oracles, may touch on your own limits. There are crimes that I don’t want to deal with in a game, and some of them are listed here.) The mechanic easily turns into a roll and write” situation if you’re not careful: generate a few details, determine success or failure on a check, and note the results.

The hero and the enemy each have Victory Point totals, and if you get to 10 before they do, you can have a big climactic action scene to try to wrap up the case. That honestly feels a bit arbitrary and clunky to me. Why 10? Why not 12, or 8, or whatever? Or why not some fictional trigger? I played a lot of these with SH in the past, and when I tried it again last weekend, I rapidly found myself running through the scenes so quickly that it turned into a board game of sorts. That’s partly on me, obviously, but the game mechanics sort of pushed me in that direction.

Wilderness adventures

I ran myself through a wilderness adventure recently and this worked really, really well. I could quibble about some things (e.g. weather events came up more often than I’d like) but they’d all be small details. This is where the solo gaming structure that SH presents reaches its zenith. It works just as well for adventuring existing hex maps as it does for exploring (and thus creating) new ones.

In essence, this is a procedure to move into a new hex, optionally generate it, then roll for encounters, events, and features. Importantly, the events and features have a dynamic threshold: every hex that doesn’t have one makes it more likely that the next one will. This really helps that feeling you sometimes get in procedurally-generated exploration where the dice just keep telling you things are empty.

Much like the oracles in general, the only thing I might change would be adding some more features or tweaking some terrain events to fit a setting. With that in mind, I expect to use it again.

Dungeon adventures

The setup here takes a fairly narrative approach to generating the location, having more in common with Perilous Wilds than with the detailed maps generated by using the procedures in the Dungeon Masters Guide for most (all?) editions of D&D. We’re not generating the next room or hallway, but the next interesting location in a given direction.

The structure provides guidance on how to handle goals, alarms, and retreats, as well as lots of relevant oracles and random stocking procedures. The dungeon inhabitant details” oracle that felt a little flat. It includes statistics for unique or unstatted foes, ranging from Vermin to Boss, tied to the Encounter results when generating the dungeon. Some guidance is given on adding special abilities, but it’s not a lot and so the enemies also feel very boring. I think just adding more abilities more often would fix this, or you could just use a traditional random encounter table instead.

Much like the oracles, this part is okay. It’s not my favorite approach to generating dungeons on the fly, but it works for what it does and it’s somewhat flexible. In the future, I might experiment with different approaches to generating the actual encounters so that they’re not so samey, and the odds for encounters / treasures / hazards / features could use some tuning to have fewer empty rooms. I’d also bring in some sort of dungeon dressing” random tables to help with visualization.


All that said, the procedures are from 2014 and so it seems entirely logical that they feel a bit dated. Crawford has refined his approach over the years in many ways, particularly regarding combat damage; WWN takes a different approach, for example, by using shock damage”. The solo gaming section is still useful but GMs may want to take some time to freshen or tweak things a bit.

I’m not sure I’ve seen similar combat mechanics anyplace else, though I’d love to know about them. This works fine if you like D&D-style combat and it’s one of the two things people rave about when praising Scarlet Heroes.

The Red Tide setting does not work for me personally. This is fantasy Asia with enclaves or outlying regions with fantasy Norse, fantasy England, etc. That approach will always lead to problems, even if it’s super easy for players to grasp. In fact, I think it leads to problems precisely because of that, as it often devolves into whatever tropes or stereotypes we’ve absorbed about the emulated culture. But I do like the idea of something that isn’t fantasy Western Europe” by drawing on other human cultures and traditions. Red Tide is a good effort but the execution didn’t quite match the goal.

As noted, the oracles are okay and provide a good starting point for tweaking to match your setting. The adventure generation procedures are the other thing people rave about, but I think they could use a refresh. They’re best viewed as a framework that you can supplement with more dressing, motivations, and enemies.

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