Conan the Hunter Was Ruined By Its Obsession With Gods

I did a live read of Conan the Hunter in my Discord channel rather than blogging about it regularly, but I’m going to put a summary of my thoughts here so it can be collected with the other Conan posts. Most of the post is gonna be summary, though, just so the series review will be complete by itself.

Conan the Hunter feels a lot like Conan the Bold. It’s deep into the Flanderization of Conan, but still gets pretty close to being a decent popcorn book (is there a more accurate equivalent term for “popcorn movie” as applies to books, seeing as how you don’t eat popcorn with books usually?). Unfortunately, it’s got one particular obsession which grinds hard against the themes of the character as laid down by Robert E. Howard’s originals, the books is bad in direct proportion to how often that obsession shows up, and that obsession dominates the narrative more and more the deeper you get into the book. For Conan the Bold, it was an epic fantasy struggle of good against evil in which Conan was the prophesied champion of the world against an evil space god whose minions sought world domination for the next ten thousand years, in stark contrast to the Nietzschean relativism of Conan. For Conan the Hunter, it’s the obsession with religion and gods providing salvation, in stark contrast to the Nietzschean anti-theism of Conan.

Conan the Hunter begins in Brythunia’s capital city of Pirogia. The Brythunian princess has been killed by an evil sorceress as part of a conspiracy to place a would-be usurper on the throne, and a thief involved in the scheme is looking to pawn the late princesses’ jewelry for cheap off to Conan, who doesn’t know where it came from, then set him up to take the fall for the murder, simultaneously throwing suspicion off of the conspiracy and collecting a reward for catching the princesses’ killer. When the guards arrive, Conan successfully resists arrest and sets out to track down the thief and make him pay for the set up. So far, so good. We’re not exactly embracing Conan’s philosophical depths, but neither did half the Robert E Howard stories.

Then, while Conan is hiding out in the hut of his latest paramour, she fetches a healer for the injuries he sustained while resisting arrest, and that’s where the trouble begins. The healer is a priest of Mitra, which is fine, but he’s also a D&D Cleric who casts Cure Moderate Wounds on Conan using his holy symbol, and who must collect payment for an offering to the local temple of Mitra or else the spell won’t take effect, which is not how regular Cleric spellcasting works but does sound like something an amateur GM might come up with to explain why Cleric services in town charge a fee. It’s a functional (if uncreative) explanation for a D&D game, but Hyboria does not work that way. In Hyboria, this is plainly sorcery, and while you could have a sorcerer who’s a good guy in Conan, you wouldn’t expect Conan himself to just accept it like it isn’t even a big deal. Conan hates sorcery, but here the author seems to be importing the arcane/divine magic divide without even thinking about it, interpreting Conan’s spite for sorcery exclusively as spite for arcane magic (later in the book Conan will muse to himself that he doesn’t like getting entangled with priests and wizards, which might suggest that he does indeed more-or-less equate the two (as he should), but then the problem is that Conan doesn’t raise even the mildest objection to this sorcerer casting a spell directly on him).

This is the seed of the god-obsessed plot tumor that will eventually devour the book, but for now, it’s a pretty minor complaint. Conan’s blase acceptance of sorcery is out of character, but the idea of a sorcerer of Mithra who can heal people with supernatural speed is hardly unimaginable in Hyboria. Conan tries to track down the thief, and he gets chased by guards into a sewer, fights a sewer monster dianoga knock-off, and ends up breaking into the palace in hopes of catching the thief while collecting the reward for identifying the princesses’ alleged murdered to the guards. The action scenes here are all pretty good and if the book had been able to stick to this, it would’ve been a solid B.

While Conan’s closing in on the thief, cutaways introduce us to the king’s supporters on one side and the evil conspirators against him on the other. The king is a pretty standard good ruler for the book’s 1994 release date: He uses trade and diplomacy to bring peace and prosperity to his people, but uses force when necessary to prevent potentially belligerent neighbors from thinking he’s ripe for invasion. He’s a mix between standard Brythunians and some kind of hillfolk ethnicity. Having a biracial good king is kind of a blow struck against the race essentialism of Robert E Howard’s Hyboria, but only kind of, because the setting is ludicrously bio-essentialist but does not have a hierarchy of uber- and untermenschen. Gundermen are naturally adept with wielding pikes and Argosians are natural born sailors and that is racist and weird, but neither of them is especially superior to the other. Racial mixing also explicitly does not weaken races in Hyboria. The book implies that the king’s racial heritage informs how others view him but that his abilities are his own, which is very much a cry of defiance against the bioessentialism of Hyboria, but also it’s only implied, not stated, and it wouldn’t actually be out of place at all if it turned out that race mixing between Brythunian hillmen and the mainstream Brythunian ethnicity happened to produce a race of level-headed diplomats.

The king has three primary allies. The first is a hillman named Kailash, the king’s main bodyguard. It’s not totally clear how long they’ve known each other, but they were clearly friends before the king became king. The second is a captain of the town guard named Salvorus, a hero of the border skirmishes who’s been beating up on raiders from rival nations who’re probing for weaknesses, and got rewarded with a cushy job in the capital. Salvorus is loyal to the king, but spends most of the book as a gullible pawn of the conspiracy. The third major ally is that Cleric imported from D&D, who goes to the palace to report that he’s received a prophecy of an evil sorceress laying a curse upon the king, which indeed she has, slowly killing him.

With his queen (his connection to the Brythunian royal bloodline) and princess dead, the royal line is strictly speaking extinct, so if the king dies, it’s not clear who succeeds him, but the smart money is on a fellow named Valtresca, the general of the Brythunian army (apparently this iron age military has a supreme leader who is not the king, which goes unexplained but is not relevant to the plot so we don’t have to worry about it). Problem is, Valtresca is secretly evil, and the conspiracy against the king is trying to put him on the throne. An evil courtier Lamici (also a eunuch, something which never impacts the plot – the king seems to be monogamous, so why does Brythunia even have eunuchs?) is super racist and wants Veltresca on the throne because Valtresca is ethnically a pure city Brythunian (well, allegedly – racial purity is mostly a myth, but it’s not clear if the author knows that, and it doesn’t come up in any case), the thief Hassem is presumably in it for the money, although the book never really says for sure, and the evil sorceress Azora wants to spread misery and chaos throughout the world, and getting rid of a good king to replace him with some belligerent power-monger will hopefully get the entire region embroiled in war sooner rather than later.

Conan is captured while in the palace, an internecine disagreement between Valtresca the general and Hassem the thief leads Valtresca to try and tie him off as a loose end, so he beats Hassem senseless and orders Salvorus (the guard captain) to take him to the dungeon for execution on the morrow. Hassem attempts escape and poisons Salvorus, then goes on an evil villain rant to the imprisoned Conan about how Valtresca is totally going to usurp the throne, before Salvorus turns out to be alive, stabs Hassem in the back, releases Conan, and then collapses. Then the book remembers that it wants to have a Cleric in the party and has Conan meet up with the priest from earlier only to then immediately backtrack to right where they were before, in the dungeons standing over the poisoned body of guard captain Salvorus. There’s a Cleric now, though, who heals the captain just in time for Valtresca to show up with a bunch of guards and try to tie off all these loose ends at once. Conan and Salvorus fight the guards (including another captain, a hulking brute mini-boss), Valtresca and Salvorus both die, and Salvorus asks Conan to protect the king from the conspiracy with his dying breath. Conan, indebted to Salvorus for saving him from Hassem, takes up the quest.

This probably seems like we should be heading towards an immediate climactic confrontation with the evil sorceress now. And indeed, we definitely should be. We are halfway through the book, and most of what stands between us and the climax is stuff that should’ve just been cut.

Kailash, the king’s bodyguard, believes Conan’s and the priest’s story about the conspiracy, and the priest breaks the evil sorceresses’ curse on the king. Conan’s job isn’t done yet, though, because the sorceress can always call up another demon to finish the job so long as she’s still alive. The priest’s healing has bought the king time, but only killing the sorceress will permanently save him, so Conan’s on the hook to do that in order to fulfill his oath to Salvorus. Conan, Kailash, and the priest set out to confront the evil sorceress in her secret lair in the city, a ruined temple to some god named Talgor who never shows up in any other Conan story.

This could’ve been a perfectly good climax, but instead the priestess teleports (literally teleports) halfway across Hyboria all the way to Shem, leaving Conan, Kailash, and the priest Madresus to clear out an empty dungeon, and this is where the trouble really begins. The final boss waiting at the end of this dungeon, having been vacated by the actual main villain, is instead a demon she summoned. When the demon is defeated, the demon’s boss shows up. Conan and Kailash are dominated by the demon and turn on Madresus, and then the actual literal god Talgor shows up to stomp the demon lord because of an unrelated grudge. It’s a literal deus ex machina.

Madresus is able to figure out where the evil sorceress has gone, so the party sets out across Zamora and into the deserts of Shem to chase her down, and if it feels like this post is really starting to drag on that’s because the book really starting to drag on. The evil courtier Lamici shows up to kill Madresus, Conan and Kailash chase him across the desert to the witch fortress out in the deserts of Shem, the evil sorceresses’ role as main villain is usurped by an evil sorcerer from eons ago who’s been revived and then impregnates the evil sorceress with an evil sorcerer baby which magically reaches the third trimester overnight and it’s exactly as jarring and fetishistic as it sounds. The final assault on the witch fortress ends with Kailash and Conan overcoming some traps and some gargoyles, getting split up during the gargoyle fight, and Kailash confronts the evil sorceress while Conan confronts the new sorcerer guy who came out of nowhere. Kailash is seemingly killed by the sorceress, only for the sorceress to be killed by the gargoyles because she wasn’t properly whitelisted as not-an-intruder. Conan kills the sorcerer. There is absolutely no reason why the sorceress couldn’t have (seemingly) killed Kailash, the stupid whitelist mishap couldn’t have been cut, and the sorceress couldn’t have gone on to confront and be killed by Conan afterwards, which means there’s no need for this evil sorcerer to come out of nowhere.

For that matter, the entire trip across the desert and fake-out final dungeon with the demon lord could’ve been cut completely. Instead, the evil sorceress could just have a secret fortress in the Brythunian countryside, evil courtier Lamici could’ve killed the party Cleric in the palace immediately after the Cleric healed the king, and Conan and Kailash could’ve gone to fight the evil sorceress the next day. This also solves the problem where the narrative goes out of its way to insist that the king is still in danger, only to have the party spend the next month tracking down the evil sorceress to the other side of a desert, where the original conspiracy plot is forgotten and instead a totally unrelated plot about hyper-rapidly breeding an army of evil sorcerers to menace the world pops up, complete with a brand new unrelated villain to take over the role of big bad.

Removing the fakeout final dungeon and skipping directly to the fortress assault at the end also gets rid of the bizarre deus ex machina moment where some random god shows up to save Conan – Conan the barbarian – from a demon lord. This being the same Conan who tells anyone who asks him about gods or prayers that Crom does not answer prayers. He gives Cimmerians the strength and wit to fend for themselves and then ignores them.

This isn’t even the worst intervention of a god. Madresus, the Cleric, has an old mentor guy he meets with at one point for an entire chapter’s worth of exposition dumping on exactly what kind of evil sorceress he’s confronting and how he’s the last of an ancient order who wiped out this particular kind of evil sorcerer thousands of years ago but now they have returned. It all has so little impact on the plot I didn’t even bother to mention it in the summary, but this mysterious mentor figure later on shows up to save Kailash from the witch fortress once it starts collapsing, after he’s seemingly been killed along with the two evil sorcerers. And then it turns out that this mysterious mentor figure is Mitra in person. Just showing up to spit on the themes of Conan super directly for a bit, not even in a way that affects the plot at all, Kailash could’ve just been slightly less injured and been able to stagger out of the collapsing fortress under his own power, but instead we’re shoving another deus ex machina in there.

This book has lots of good individual scenes, but its pacing is atrocious (especially in its second half, when it seems like the climax of the original story is yanked away so that an entire second Conan story can be shoved in to meet wordcount requirements) and its obsession with gods and priests drags the book down every time it comes up, which is unfortunately fairly often and at a couple of crucial points in the plot.

Was 2021 A Good Year For Movies?

Just before the apocalypse, I tossed out a blog post about how 2019 was a good year for movies, cleanly beating out 2015, 2016, and 2017, and getting a less overwhelming but I would say still decisive win over 2018. 2020 was an absolute trainwreck of a year for movies, of course, with the frontrunner being…what, Birds of Prey? New Mutants? Wonder Woman 1984? Sonic the fucking Hedgehog? These are movies that would usually struggle to make it into the top five, and they’re fighting for first place. I have no idea what the final top five movie would even be. Monster Hunter? Mortal Kombat Legends? Onward? We’re basically just grabbing something out of the garbage and shoving it onstage to make sure the live action Mulan doesn’t get it. Maybe we should give fifth place to Xiran Jay Zhao’s YouTube video about why Mulan 2020 is bad. Maybe we should give first place to Xiran Jay Zhao’s YouTube video about why Mulan 2020 is bad.

What about 2021, though? Can it compete with 2018 and 2019? Does it at least hold up to 2015, 2016, and 2017, indicating a recovery from the damage the pandemic did to the film industry? Our standout films of the year are definitely Dune and Encanto, and I think that combo holds up well against the one-two punch of Joker and 1917 that pushed 2019 so high in my estimation. Spider-Man: No Way Home even provides solid competition to Endgame in its fan-service-done-well niche. 2021 also provides a pretty standard share of solid popcorn movies to round out the top five: Shang Chi, Black Widow, The Suicide Squad, No Time To Die. I’ll even call out Free Guy and Jungle Cruise as being fun even though they’re not top five material in this or any other year, but I think it’s worth noting when even the bad films are good enough to pass ninety minutes if (for example) you want to hang out with your little sister for an hour or two while she’s visiting for Christmas.

Still, the top five contenders for 2021 are a bit weak compared to what we’ve had in years past. 2017’s also-rans included Wonder Woman and Lego Batman, 2016 had Rogue One and Zootopia, 2015 had the Martian.

Most years have one stand-out film, and 2021 had both Encanto and Dune. On the other hand, the trailing films compare pretty poorly to most other years and get absolutely pulverized by 2019’s top five contenders, like Knives Out, Endgame, Toy Story 4, Detective Pikachu, the Lego Movie 2, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. Overall, I think 2021 in film holds up well against most other years, and might even be joining 2018 and 2019 in The Best Three Years Of Film Which I Have Bothered To Investigate Even A Little Bit, just on the strength of Dune and Encanto, but it’s doing so as a clear third place behind the other two.

Gravity Falls Has Terrible Dating Advice

In Gravity Falls S2E16, Roadside Attraction, one of the show’s twin protagonists, Dipper Pines, is trying to get over an unrequited crush on a significantly older girl. His friends recommend he try to date someone else, and his great uncle Stan, a professional con artist, gives him vague and confusing advice about talking to girls that eventually gets boiled down to the three Cs: Confidence, comedy, and something else that starts with C. Stan also advises Dipper to practice flirting with lots of different girls, particularly since they’re on a road trip and he’s unlikely to ever see any of the girls again. Dipper takes his advice and sees initial success, but it so happens that every girl he’s talked to shows up at the final roadside attraction on the trip, stumbling across him on his latest date and demanding an explanation. Dipper runs away, leaving them all fuming, one thing leads to another, and they end up fighting a drider. Dipper learns a valuable lesson about respecting women and erases all the phone numbers/email addresses he collected.

Except, uh, that’s bullshit. Gruncle Stan has his redeeming qualities, but none of them really apply here, so we can safely assume that he’s sleazy with women and would’ve encouraged Dipper to be the same, playing the field long past the point where it would’ve been disrespectful to do so. But the narrative acts like Dipper actually did this – he never even got within the same zip code of it. The one interaction with a girl we see outside of montage is a thirty second mildly flirtatious conversation that ends with her giving him his email. Even if we’re really generous with time compression for the sake of a twenty-two minute runtime, this is one conversation that ends with an invitation to a date, not even an actual date, let alone some kind of real commitment. Just because Dipper has been invited to go on a first date with one girl doesn’t mean he’s not within his rights to go on a date with another girl, or even that he’s obligated to tell the first girl (who he’s shared all of one conversation with) about the second.

If Dipper’s done anything even close to wrong, it’s that he doesn’t text or email any of the girls, when accepting their numbers/emails might suggest an intention to communicate more, but 1) his lesson-learned moment at the end is erasing them all, so apparently that’s the opposite of what the show wants from him, and 2) even that’s pretty presumptuous. If it were a boy giving his number to a flirtatious girl and later acting like he’s entitled to communication, we wouldn’t hesitate to call him self-centered and controlling.

Particularly since Dipper wasn’t even particularly flirtatious in the one interaction we actually see entirely. He suggests she pose for a funny picture and then he pretends to drop her phone, which is kind of dickish and the girl would’ve been justified in being mad about that, but instead she takes it in exactly the spirit Dipper intended it and gives him her email address with only a subtle prompt – an email address which Dipper goes on to ignore, so even if she felt that gentle nudge was obligating her to give away contact information she didn’t want to, Dipper never even used it.

Even when Dipper does accept a date from recurring character Candy, who he has no interest in (Stan convinces him he shouldn’t be picky – the one piece of truly bad advice Stan gives to Dipper), he’s showing poor judgment but hasn’t done anything wrong. Candy is the one being more intimate than Dipper is comfortable with (although we can’t hold Candy at fault either, because Dipper has been pressured by someone else entirely into pretending this is what he wants).

It’s realistic that a twelve-year old would lack the maturity to recognize that he hasn’t made any commitments and therefore can’t be held responsible for breaking them, and that his twelve-year old would-be dates would likewise lack the maturity to recognize that just because they feel jealous doesn’t automatically mean that feeling is Dipper’s fault, but the narrative doesn’t treat this like Dipper being buffaloed into thinking he’s done something wrong when he hasn’t. It acts like Dipper has been dating all of these girls steadily without telling any of them he’s seeing other people, or has been making out with them before riding off into the sunset to do the same thing at the next stop, or that he’s directly lied to them about how seriously he’s taking the relationship. The episode wants to make a point about pick-up artists being scummy, but the problem is that actual scummy behavior would be out of character for Dipper, so instead this is an episode about how if you ever crack a joke to someone, they now own you and you’re not allowed to talk to other people without their permission.

Using Poker Hands in TTRPGs

Every now and again, the idea of using poker hands as an RNG for a TTRPG comes up, usually in the context of some kind of western. How would that work?

Five Card Poker

The most obvious way to do this is to just deal out a full five-card poker hand to each player, then let them play a hand whenever they make a check. A better hand is more likely to succeed. After playing a hand, they discard it and draw an entirely new hand.

About 50% of all poker hands are a single, and about 43% are a pair, so you would probably want the standard TN for something anyone could accomplish to be Jack-high, and the TN for most things that you would expect to require expertise to be a pair of Jacks. Your odds of getting two pair or better are about 7%, which is pretty close to a critical hit on a d20. It’s unlikely, but not so unlikely that you don’t usually see one or two in every session. A three-of-a-kind, straight, flush, and full house are all much more rare but still common enough that you’ll very probably see them happen over the course of an entire campaign, loosely comparable to rolling triple sixes on a 3d6, which does happen now and then. Once we get into four-of-a-kind and especially a straight flush or royal flush, we’re getting into territory that’s technically possible but unlikely to come up even once across an entire mid-size campaign.

But this raises the question: How do you add in skills? If your gunslinger is real good at shooting, how does that get reflected in this system? The most obvious way to do it is by allowing them to draw more cards to make a hand out of, but working out the probabilities on that is a huge headache and the value of additional cards goes down the more of them you already have. If you want a narrow range of power between the weakest and strongest characters in the game, that can still work, but even a fairly mundane wild west game wants a deadshot to be much, much better at shooting than a shop keep with broken glasses, so this extra cards approach only works if every character in the game must be a gunslinger with more-or-less the same skills or else if you’re willing to have a game where characters draw 20+ cards to assemble a poker hand out of when they’re using their best skill. At that point, you don’t really feel like you’re playing poker at all.

The second most obvious solution is to convert the poker hand into some kind of total number, to which your skill bonus is added. The problem here is that it’s hard to find a conversion that works across all poker hands. For a single or a pair, the answer seems obvious: Just add the cards together. This way a pair is, on average, worth twice as much as a single. Here’s the problem: Two pair (a hand with four cards to add together) is much more common than three-of-a-kind, and four-of-a-kind is less common than every five-card hand except the straight flush and royal flush. To make the convert-to-number method work, you have to give special conversion methods to most hands (although not the most common hands, at least) to make less common hands more valuable. For example, with two-pair sevens and threes, instead of just adding 7+7+3+3 for 20, you might add 7+3 and then multiply by 1.25 and rounding down for 12. Since three-of-a-kind is on average worth 1.5x a pair, having two-pair be worth on average 1.25x one pair is mathematically sound, but also now you have multiply things by 1.25. Then you have to find some similar conversion for the straight, flush, and full house that all give average results between three-of-a-kind and four-of-a-kind, even though four-of-a-kind is only 1.33x the value of three-of-a-kind. Or you can add a multiplier to four-of-a-kind beyond just adding all four cards together, at which point you’ve sacrificed what little consistency this system had.

The best way (of these three that I’ve thought of, anyway) to incorporate skill bonuses into a poker-based RNG is to have skill bonuses just promote the kind of hand you have. If you have a pair of sevens and a +1 skill bonus, your hand is now two-pair of sevens and some other card that is lower than sevens. With a +2 skill bonus, it becomes three sevens. With a +3 skill bonus, it becomes a seven-high straight. With a +4 bonus, it becomes a seven-high flush. With a +5 bonus, it becomes a full house, sevens over something else.

Two things you’ll notice about this system: First, it’s possible to get normally impossible hands through skill bonuses. If you get a pair of twos with a +3 skill bonus, you now have a two-high straight, which is normally impossible. If you have a pair of sixes with a +4 bonus, it becomes a six-high flush, which is normally impossible because the only way for six to be the highest card of a flush hand is if it’s a straight flush. This is weird, but doesn’t really impact anything. Just roll with it.

Second, we only ever care about the number value of one card in any hand. For two-pair, we only care about the value of the higher pair. For full house, we only care about the value of the triplets. For a straight, we only care about the highest card of the straight. This makes things simpler to resolve anyway. Instead of having over a hundred different combinations of a full house each of which represents a minutely different TN, a full house represents the same two-through-ace scale as every other hand. Jack is the default difficulty, but minor circumstantial bonuses or penalties can nudge the difficulty up to a Queen or down to a ten or whatever.

Hand Building

Another way to do this is with hand building. That means that when you make a check, you don’t discard your whole hand. You discard only the cards used to make the check. You can play a single card to get it out of your hand, taking a dive on whatever check you’re making to try and build up a stronger hand. If you’ve got two-of-a-kind, for example, you could hold onto that and junk other cards until you’re able to get three, or two-pair, or a full house, or something. Building a flush would mean taking a dive on a lot of checks, but it’d be much, much easier to build a flush than to draw one straight from the deck. In fact, it’d be easier to build a flush than a straight, since each card you replace when building to a flush has a 1-in-4 odds of building your flush, but only a 2-in-13 (or slightly worse than 1-in-6) odds of building your straight. Actually, the odds aren’t quite 1-in-4 or 2-in-13, since the cards you’ve already drawn from the deck affect the odds in ways that vary depending on exactly which cards are in your hand, but the basic math still works out: Drawing a flush straight from the deck is less likely than drawing a straight, but building a flush when you get to select which cards to replace will usually go faster than building a straight.

And this also encourages players looking to get rid of junk in their hands to find skill checks that don’t matter so they can safely take a dive on them. This leads to players interacting with the mechanics instead of the narrative, attempting tasks which are challenging enough to warrant a check but which have nothing to do with anything just to manage the abstract, game mechanical resource that is the cards in their hand. Proper game design should be making mechanics and narrative harmonious, so we’ve definitely gone off the rails here.

Hand building sounds interesting, but really only works in board games where you can tightly control when checks are called for in order to guarantee that all checks are relevant and you can never safely take a dive. Then hand building is about minimizing the damage of getting rid of junk, rather than wasting time with actions that totally negate the damage. Unfortunately, the open-ended nature of a TTRPG makes it basically impossible to prevent players from finding things to do that call for a skill check while having no real consequences for failure. They can try to play a fiddle and the worst that’ll happen is they aren’t very good, try to chat up the ladies at the saloon and the worst that’ll happen is they’ll get slapped in the face. They can even throw out some junk cards on activities that could hypothetically cause great harm, but won’t do so except for catastrophic failure. They can try to swim a river to get rid of an unneeded seven of clubs, and while they won’t make it to the other bank, they’re probably not going to straight up drown unless they play a two.

Texas Hold ‘Em

The last RNG idea I’m going to look at here is Texas Hold ‘Em. Each player gets a hand of two cards, and there’s a river of between three and five cards shared between them. With a seven-card hand, the odds of a pair or better are 82%, which means you can make pair of Jacks the base TN for challenges that an ordinary person might struggle with but will probably be able to manage. The odds of three-of-a-kind or better are 15%, which is a pretty good spot for something that experts can manage easily but ordinary people will struggle with, which means you have two pair in between if you need more granularity in the “routine for experts, tough for ordinary people” space. A flush has about 5% odds, making it the natural 20 of the system, and even a four-of-a-kind is not so unusual that you wouldn’t expect to see it once or twice in a campaign. Only the straight flush and royal flush are so rare as to be unlikely to come up across an entire campaign.

On the one hand, it’s good that more hands are coming up. There’s more granularity in the scale of TNs, since more of the potential results are actually achievable, compared to the five-card probability spread where singles and pairs totally dominated the space with only 7.5% of the entire scale left over for anything better than a pair. With seven cards, we have TNs that are 80%, 40%, 15%, 10%, and 5% likely to be hit, and then four more TNs higher than that which are mostly the domain of people with skill bonuses, although an untrained person can still hypothetically hit them. This is a pretty good spread. It gives you room for characters with bonuses ranging from -1 to +3 where each step on that scale is a big deal, so you’d expect this to be the kind of game where you probably don’t level up much, which makes sense. You don’t usually get zero-to-hero stories out of the old west.

The problem is that it’s kinda hard to do the Texas Hold ‘Em thing with three different rounds of revealing cards on the river for every single check. Probably you’ll just put five cards on the river all at once, and then replace them all once a check is made. You could replace just one card, with a first-in, first-out system so that the card that’s been in the river the longest gets removed, but then you get into all the problems with hand building and the bizarre meta-gaming behavior it encourages, with people trying to make useless checks to get the river moving when it’s bad, and trying to avoid all checks to keep the river still when it’s good.


I don’t have one, particularly. I just had a string of disconnected thoughts about how to do some kind of poker-based RNG for a TTRPG, and since I have no plans for any game along those lines any time in the future, this blog post was the only outlet.