Thursday, 27 May 2021

Review: Deep Carbon Observatory (Remastered)

 From the drivethroughrpg:


The adventure is suitable for a lucky mid-range party, a stupid high-level party or an exceedingly clever low level party. It is difficult, with a meaningful possibility of character death. 

Players start in the town of Carrowmove, devistated by an unexpected flood, then travel  through a drowned land where nature is turned upside down and desperate families cling to the roofs of their ruined homes, hiding from the monstrous products of a disordered world, through the strange tomb of an ancient race, to a profundal zone, hidden for millennia and now exposed, and finally to the Observatory itself, an eerie abandoned treasure palace, where they will encounter a pale and unexpected terror which will seek to claim their lives.

Should you find them, and defeat their guardians, the treasures of an ancient culture will be yours.

At the final point of the Observatory is a glimpse of another world.


The basic setup of Deep Carbon Observatory is there is a strange underground observatory (more on this later) that was hidden at the bottom of a man made lake. The man made lake was formed by a dam built long ago, perhaps to hide the deep carbon observatory forever. The dam has recently broken flooding everything downstream, including a bunch of villages, and for the first time in what seems to be eons, the deep carbon observatory is exposed. 

On the surface Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) can seem to be a bit of a linear adventure. It's divided into three main parts: 

  • The beginning at the town of Carrowmore. 
  • Travel upriver
  • Exploring the Deep Carbon Observatory 
The town of Carrowmore is a chaotic place, basically a disaster relief area. It serves as an introduction where the players have the opportunity to encounter a bunch of different characters in different states of distress that potentially turn into competing parties who are trying to reach the DCO first. The adventure throws you into the thick of things this way and has you dealing with meaningful situations.

The river journey, which makes up about two thirds of the book is somewhat linear where the players are travelling up a meandering river encountering all kinds of things, including golems which ran the damn, people in distress due to the flooded landscape, and various strange creatures. They can become sidetracked multiple ways and learn more about the DCO as they do so. Additionally, they'll encounter the competing adventuring parties, the most prominent, the Crows.

The observatory is an adventuring site but one you kind of traverse going deeper and deeper until you arrive at the telescope at the bottom.

Despite it's linearity, DCO does what few other adventures accomplish or even really try. It gives a sense of the classic journey quest. I've blogged a bit about this before, there is a power in quests.

The closest thing I'd imagine DCO kind of plays out a bit like (I've only yet read it) would be Captain Willard's journey in Apocalypse Now. Where he's heading down the river in boat in the midst of the Vietnam war, heading into the heart of darkness to find the mysterious Colonel Kurtz.

There is the same sense of mystery, of journey, of danger, at the heart of DCO. All your characters may have reasons for deciding to explore down the river, trying to make it to DCO. But there is also that lingering sense of, we're doing it because it's there. Because it's strange. Mysterious. Powerful. Even if we don't quite know exactly what it is.

What makes DCO so captivating as an adventure, is that it tells the story of what happened not through words, but through encounters. Encounters that at times feel very D&Dish but also very strange. Kind of like a much darker version of Adventure Time. Patrick Stuart is really good at specificity, at detailing things in evocative ways that even if you've seen them before in other games, they feel unique and strange.

Even before you reach it, you know the DCO itself is powerful, as there are some powerful people also trying to get there first. Mainly, a rival adventuring gang called The Crows. They are probably more badass than the players' adventuring gang and if the players try to take them on unprepared or head first they're going to get slaughtered.

DCO is the best kind of adventure where it sets the board, the stage, and then lets you as the Referee and players move the pieces around. To riff off what happens. To try and subtly thwart the players in different ways. To make them consider their route, their approach to DCO and exactly what they are willing to do to get to it. 

It provides just enough of a goal and loose framework for the players (follow the river) to stop them from getting confused or lost. But has enough interesting situations that they come across to make them stop and evaluate how it'll fit into their goal.

The Observatory 

I want to spend some time talking about the observatory. It's kind of hard to explain. It's a downward facing telescope built into a giant stalactite in a cavern. It uses the strange properties of a type of moth that can distort space to peer into the earth through various layers of rock. Sounds weird? It is.

The strange (presumably underground) race that built it is even stranger. They seem highly intelligent and advanced in a technological sense. Overall what makes the observatory so interesting is that it really gets fantasy science/technology. Most fantasy science/technology tends to be some device powered by some magic crystals or some such thing. Basically a magical machine with a magical power source with magical powers. It doesn't feel scientific or technological, more just a handwave excuse to have some magical device.

DCO is different. It feels scientific. The principles it uses to work are reasonings based off the natural properties of this strange moth that can distort space. It feels technological in the sense that it's a device which is taking advantage of a discovered natural law in an intelligent manner.

This is what makes it so terrifying as a player. You begin to realize that whomever built the DCO is smart. Whether codified or not, they have some sense of scientific theory and principles, unlike everyone else in the fantasy setting. They are operating under an entirely different paradigm of thought. They are taking advantage of things in the setting in ways that even you, as a player, are probably not thinking of.

The DCO feels more like a Lich lair than any lich adventure or lich themed thing that I've ever read. There's a sense of cold intelligence to it, a sense of rationality, and at times, cruelty. 

You never meet the builders of the DCO (presumably the drow like race detailed in Veins of the Earth). You do get to meet the horrific giant they left behind in the DCO though.

But you really get a sense of them, these drow. That they're like how the drow were originally imagined before Drizzt Do'Urden became a thing and kind of ruined them. They're a race of highly, highly intelligence, highly cruel elves who live under the earth and you hope that's where they stay. As they are as capricious as they are inhuman. 

The Art and Layout

The art is by Scrap Princess. It's pretty amazing. That dark evocative scribbled look but also emblemic of classic D&D things and slightly cartoony. 

It's horrifying but at the same time if it were smiling almost like an adventure time character?

The layout is pretty good. Or well good in the sense that it's a book you can totally use at the table and a lot of attention has been paid to making it useable at the table. Aesthetically, it's a bit jarring, kind of Patrick Stuart doing his best at making a very useable book.

  • Best quasi linear adventure I've ever read. Really nails the format.
  • Rival adventuring party an awesome idea that can really turn things up to 11. First time I think I've seen it used so well.
  • Actually making an adventuring site feel ominous and kind of terrifying.

Buy if....
  • You want to run a cool medium length adventure that's dark but also weird and humorous at times (there is a giant platypus monster) and not just grim-dark.
  • You like adventures where you're going to have to make moral choices in tough situations. 
  • You're new to DMing. I think it would make a decent starting adventure. Make sure you read it over maybe twice but it's general linear journey is easy enough to grasp for you and your players. It's going to get a bit messy but that's part of being a DM.

  • I think now, after the kickstarter, it's only available in PDF. EDIT: apparently you can buy a print version here while supplies last.
  • It's not suitable for all ages.
  • It does take some time to fully read and digest although is definitely laid out nice enough to run at the table. You will just want to read it all first though.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

Theming leveless spells

I like level-less spells. I find using them and allowing them to scale in power by the discretion of the Referee and player to be a really elegant way of having magic in OSR games. For my ruleset I use the 1d100 level-less spell list from Knave by Ben Milton.

I like to use the Knave set of spells because they're also very utility focused. They allow the caster to do interesting things, but mostly to overcome situations and manipulate environments rather than do damage in combat. I like for fighter type classes in my games to be the class that is really good at combat, the specalist/thief type to be okay in combat but better at skills, and the magic-user to be really weak but good at random problem solving.

However, I do find that using a level-less spell list like this of simple spells tends to make magic seem a little bland or pedestrian. At first I was going to use some kind of spell name generator to theme a characters spells but couldn't find a good one.

However, I came across the idea of using grimoires in the Hark A Wizard supplement by Zzarchov Kowolski. In it he details that it made his game more interesting because grimoires containing spells tend to be evocative and give something for the Wizard players to track down to learn new spells. If you'v ever played Call of Cthulhu, which he cites as an inspiration, you know what this is like. He listed a bunch of samples:

I liked this idea, liked it a lot where for each grimoire I would randomly select a Knave spell. The grimoire itself would theme the spell. Like for example, if I randomly selected Adhere to be found in Constellations of the Western Pole (celestial themed), I'd probably making a ruling that whenever you cast the spell the object you are casting it upon is covered in a glowing luminescent fluid that swirls and is like some unknown state of matter and causes things to get stuck to whatever touches the object by some unknown force of attraction. 

If you found a different grimoire with the same adhere spell, it would be described in a totally different way and have a different manifestation. I found this also fit very well with how I liked to portray magic in my game. Where magic is something very dangerous and esoteric that mad hermits, outsiders, insane people, and power hungry occultists, pursue. Magic-user player characters aren't natural born wizards or have learned it in a school. They have stumbled across an esoteric, barely comprehensible grimoire and are largely self-taught.

I further combined this with the additional idea of blasphemies as presented in Broodmother Skyfortress Jeff Rients,

His grimoires included the concept of a blasphemy. Basically some truth that would be horrifying to the people of the setting. His game was set in early modern Europe so they were generally about religious things.

While I liked this idea, I found the religious based blasphemy's didn't really pack the punch I wanted. I wanted the players not just their characters to feel shocked or trepidations about them.

Out of this, I came up with the idea of having each grimoire including a occult truth. Basically some fundamental hidden truth about the world or society. That no matter how outlandish would immediately become true about the setting of the game upon that character reading the grimoire and learning it's spell. If the occult truth was that society was secretly run by shapeshifting lizardmen, then boom! That was now true for the setting, and the players might want to become a little more suspicious of their rich patron the Duke. If the occult truth was that exposure to moonlight caused gradual madness, then boom! The players might want to make sure they're sleeping in tents and avoid those wandering about with a lunatic grin. And the players might be a little more hesitant about reading whatever grimoire that they come across. Where they have to ask themselves are they willing to risk messing up the setting for an extra spell? 

So overall I ended up combing all these ideas into something like the following example grimoire:


Titles: Proverbs of the Unknown Philosopher, The Eternal Mountain, The Quivering Reed

Description: This simple chapbook is composed of reed paper pages in-between sandalwood covers bound together by small leather hoops. Written delicately within using a stylus and black squid ink are the 36 proverbs of the Unknown Philosopher. These simple kaons have driven many a hermit to madness and are said unlock the innermost door.

Language: Japanese, Sanskrit 

Occult Truth: All beings (including player characters) reincarnate up or down the great chain of being upon death. It is possible to trigger memories of other lives.

Random Spell: 

Champion: a champion from another dimension is summoned. It is able to answer most questions, and may aid you if it finds you worthy.

Manifestation: the champion appears as a warrior monk with black marble skin and ruby red eyes. They have taken a vow of silence and cannot speak but can convey things through gestures. They respect those who are exhibit calm and mindfulness in all matters. 

Monday, 17 May 2021

Impressions: Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells

Sometimes when reading some OSR related something I'm more interested in skimming it or reading it fairly quickly to get a sense of what it's about, what I can use it for, and possibly most of all, what ideas I can steal from it. Then as something I intend to use wholesale. Instead of writing up a full objective review I type up my impressionistic, often opinionated thoughts on it. This entry is one such rambling.

Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells

This system is comprised of two books. Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells (SS:SS), and it's Addendum. 

The main book is a fairly well put together roll under system that is pretty streamlined and elegant. It feels like something that's been playtested and come about from a homebrew ruleset where someone has simplified the rules into a nice simple set that uses a lot of OSR conventions such as usage dice.

If I weren't such a fan of Whitehack I'd probably use it as overall I prefer roll under systems. Or to put it another way I'll probably combine elements of this with Whitehack as there are some things I think it does more elegantly and the two make for good companions. I like Whitehack overall but feel it has a lot of fiddly bits that come over from B/X where this system feels much more streamlined and to embody design philosophy of the OSR a bit more in some ways.

The Addendum book I'd suggest to anyone really. It's kind of a GM guide with tons of random tables and alternative rules. It's nice to flip through and anyone could probably find something useful for their game.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Using a language tree instead of a language skill system

I've always struggled about what to do with languages in OSR games. They always seem like a binary thing. The players find some writing in an ancient tomb detailing something about it. It's written in ancient Greek or elven or whatever. If the players know the language, great, they get that interesting little bit of information. If they don't then they don't get that information. 

But what if the information is necessary to solve some kind of puzzle in the dungeon? Do you just give it to them? Tell them to leave the dungeon to go find a translator? Fudge a dice roll? And what about learning new languages? How do you know which one to choose? And who wants to have their character spend time learning a new language?  No one. Or at least in my experience no one.

Still, there is something very appealing to having that ancient tomb writing being in a a dead somewhat spooky language. Or having the random peasant only able to converse in Dutch. To making the players work a bit to uncover the information or struggle to communicate.  

For a while I used Lamentations of the Flame Princess' approach to language. When a character comes into contact with a language they don't know they make a 1d6 skill roll to see if they know the language. If it's successful, they know the language and add it to their sheet. If they fail then they don't know the language and add it to their sheet as one they don't know.

While this isn't bad it still left a bit to be desired for me. It felt like your character just happens to suddenly know a language. Additionally, most times, one person would just put a few points into languages and then be the official translator for the group as they'd always be the one to suddenly know the new language. Overall, it's a good solution but didn't feel super organic to me. 

If one character knows one language wouldn't it make it easier to know another language like it? Like Italian and Spanish? What if there was a way to see how close languages are to each other, or how they evolve from each other... like some kind of tree...

Then it basically hit me. This is, in fact, a huge part of the field of linguistics.

I could just use a language tree in my game to track languages, their relation, and how easy/hard it would be for a character to read a new language.

To begin I created a simplified tree. I like my games to be set in a quasi early modern era, European centric, world, so I'm using real world languages. Create one with fantasy languages for your own setting if that's more appropriate. I'm going to use the following:

In it I have 22 languages (the white blocks). These languages would be all the languages I'd use in my game. If a module or something used a different language I'd just substitute. The players know up front how many there are and what they are. 

All players know whatever common language they are using (generally whatever the language is of the country they're located in) plus one additional language for their ethnicity. Spellcasters I also usually give an extra language to. If I have four players that's a usually a good 5-6 languages among them. Not bad. I'd then circle them on this chart. 

If a player wants to read a language they don't know already then I'd navigate to it on the flow chart counting the nodes. So to go from Dutch to Czech is four steps. I would then apply a penalty of 4 of some kind to their roll to see if they could read it. So maybe something like they have to roll under their intelligence but do so by adding +4 to the die roll. The exact mechanic doesn't matter. Just have it scale per nodes traversed. 

I would make them do this roll every time they wanted to read a scrap of writing in a language they didn't know. Maybe sometimes they're able to piece together what it's saying in Czech based on similarities to their own language and bits of pieces they may know of it. Other times, what it's saying is to difficult or complex for them to discern. But if they know Russian, it's likely to be easier.

Regardless, by having it all mapped out it makes it easier to quickly determine how hard it is going to be to read a certain language. It also kind of makes sense intuitively where languages that tend to be in a close region, and which are similar to one you speak, you stand a greater chance of being able to read. And if a language is from an entirely different group with no line to it, you're going to need to find someone who knows a language from that group. 

Having the languages presented this way also allows a player to be strategic when learning a new language. They could go for an entirely new language group like Semetic and learn Arabic which would allow them to potentially read four new languages that they could not at all before.

In this manner I think it strikes a balance between allowing players to read different languages they come across as well as encouraging them to have their characters learn new languages. 

Monday, 10 May 2021

Impressions: Neoclassical Greek Revival

Sometimes when reading some OSR related something I'm more interested in skimming it or reading it fairly quickly to get a sense of what it's about, what I can use it for, and possibly most of all, what ideas I can steal from it. Then as something I intend to use wholesale. Instead of writing up a full objective review I type up my impressionistic, often opinionated thoughts on it. This entry is one such rambling.

Neoclassical Greek Revival 

Overall it's a roll high + add modifiers d20 type OSR game with your basic stats, although named slightly different. 

It feels like a home-brew rule set in both a good and bad way. Good in that there are some ideas in it that I've never seen anywhere else before. Bad in that it has the sense that it was developed over years, choices and crunch piling higher and higher in a bloat that is a bit more crunchy than I prefer in my OSR game. It also seems a bit more combat rule orientated than I prefer. Still I will give it kudos for:

  • Very flavorful traditional fantasy racial classes that actually make them interesting beyond the 5edition type stereotypes

  • Uses a funnel to generate characters (it's not unique to NGR but any system which uses a funnel gains +1 respect).

  • The easiest and most sensible multi-classing system that I have ever seen.

  • Trademark item that can become signature magic item as the character levels and adventures

  • Bard character who is actually socially focused

  • A system that encompasses things like stealth and trying to influence someone in a robust manner

  • Weapons have tags that define how they act

  • Robust inventory system where you have containers like sacks and 'slot' based inventory.

  • Cool use of grimoires

  • Several different ways of gaining XP that go beyond gold for XP. Things like milestones and exploration/travelling.

For the amount of ideas in it, the rule book is surprisingly short at about 100 pages, which is good in my books. I'd rather read a short 100 page rule book than a 500 page overwritten behemoth. The rules do feel a bit terse in the sense that I had to read things a few times before understanding them and you'd definitely have to have played RPGs a bit to probably not get lost. 

Still, I'd probably recommend it. It's something I'm probably going to loot the ideas from more than actually run as is, but oh boy is there a lot to loot and a lot to think about. Overall it does seems like a well thought out system, if a bit different from most of what is out there, and slightly overburdened. I feel like another edition of this book with better explanations and examples of some things would go a long way.

You can tell it began as a home brew rule set developed over years of play. You get a sense of what playing at that table would be like and what has really worked for the GM.  I wish more people would publish their home brew sets like this. It makes the hobby stronger and kind of gives insight into what actually works at the table, even if it's not exactly the type of table you'd run. 

Thursday, 6 May 2021

Creating monster behavior instead of monster abilities

 In my last post I talked a bit about in the past I've often tried to include more complex combat rules to make OSR combat more interesting, but players rarely engage with them.

One of the biggest reasons for this I felt was because combat in OSR is inherently reactionary. Players don't really plan to get into combat and I find don't plan extensively for it. Most times monsters are obstacles and you never know what you're going to run across. Getting into direct combat with them tends to be the worst solution to getting around the obstacle they represent because combat uses up a lot of resources and is often high risk.

As a result, if they do get into direct combat, I find most players are just content to spend a few turns slogging away at the monster, preforming attack rolls back and forth, trying to do as much damage and kill it as quickly as possible in hope they can get lucky with the dice rolls. Either defeating it, or deciding after a few turns to cut their losses and run away to come up with a better plan. Or well, this is often how combat goes if what they are presented with is kind of your average combat encounter. Fighting some bandits or a troll or something.

There is nothing wrong with this at heart, but I do think it is good, every once and a while, to try and do more to make combat interactions interesting. Previous editions of D&D have sought to make combat more interesting primarily by giving monsters more unique and interesting abilities. This tended to end up with bigger and bigger stat blocks with 4th edition being the worst:

Where it basically turned D&D into a miniature game (and a pretty decent one if that's what you're into but I am not).

5th edition has toned it down somewhat:

But it still kind of remains that in both cases the are both describing monster abilities. Little special attacks and actions the monster can do.

While I do think this adds some variety to combat, I find it also tends to lead to strategic bloat. Where combat is thought about in a purely strategic abstracted terms. Like, if monster does X, then I need to do Y. If I'm at position in Z in the imagined space and want to react in Y manner I need to do B. You begin to move further away from imagined narrative elements to miniature or board game like elements. 

The best way I think to counter this is to not think about monster abilities but think about monster behaviour. Abilities are things they can do. Behaviour is more holistic, concerned with why they are doing the things they do, their motivation. This may seem like I'm making monster design into a amateur theater class but I find the following method works very well.

Creating Monster Behaviour

First we start off with a basic monster name, description and stat block. I'll use a goblin from OSE for illustrative purposes:

Now, to begin, it's not too bad. It's kind of got some behaviour encoded into it through having them attack dwarves on sight and hating the sun. However, it's kind of all mixed up in other information about it including abilities, the composition of the encounters you'll have with them, and how they can differ from combat encounter to combat encounter . What I try to do to really define a monsters behaviour is pull from a list of different key words.
I try to make these keywords very action orientated, where they describe behaviour. I try to use more verbs, adverbs, than adjectives. I'll then use these keywords to describe monster behaviour in a short sentence. So:

Small grotesque humanoid with pallid earth coloured skin and glowing eyes.
AC 13
3 HP
1 attack 1d6
SV 14

ALWAYS attacks dwarves.
AVOIDS the sun at all costs.
COMPASSIONATE towards creatures smaller than it. 
NEVER attacks alone, even if you can't see the other goblins.

Right away I find this presents a much stronger sense of how the monster actually behaves and gets the GM thinking about how it would strategize and attack in battle. 

Like maybe it has the bravest among it attack first halfheartedly, and when everyone is focused on it, the others attack from behind or slink out of hidden holes.

Or maybe it attacks with it's pet rats scampering all over, nipping at the characters toes. Or they simply throw spiders they breed at the players. 

Maybe they attack the players at twilight outside in overwhelming numbers and if the players can figure out they avoid the rays of the sun they can learn to escape them.

It also tends to create a variety of monster abilities so the players don't just see goblins and automatically assume they're going to have daggers and attack in a group or something, maybe one has a poisoned dagger. There are many ways a goblin might fulfill it's behaviour of always wanting to attack a dwarf.  Maybe it hates dwarves so much it runs at the nearest one and jumps on him trying to bite him (bites which carry infection) in a suicide charge. Maybe it waits until the party is sleeping before trying to stab the dwarf to death in his bed. Maybe it hides in the shadows and tries to drive the dwarf to fury by mocking them continually. 

In all these cases I find it pretty easy to riff off of the monsters behaviour when described this way. I think this is because when you understand how a monster relates to the things in the world around it, you understand what it's likely to leverage in combat. Just like you kind of know if the players discover they have a cheap supplier of vials of oil they're ALWAYS going to carry them and leverage them in combat via oily moltov cocktails, creating a slippery floor, creating fire arrows, etc. 

Monday, 3 May 2021

My players never use combat rules

If there is one section of the rules that I see a lot of OSR authors blogging about and trying to find new ideas or solutions for it's combat rules. I think generally for the following two reasons: 

  1.  The fighter in most OSR rulesets seems lackluster. Wizards have spells. Thieves skills. Fighters, just are good at well, fighting. 
  2.  Combat in OSR rulesets tends to be abstracted. It can turn into a slog fest where both sides just trade blows until one side dies. 

 I know I've spent more than my fair share of time coming up or tweaking combat rules. In general most tweaks to combat rules tend to take two different approaches: 

  1.  Improve the fighter: give the fighter the ability to preform signature moves that change what is being done beyond just trading blows. This could be something very specific like a fighter who has some kind of ability to trip enemies with their spear. To a more freeform 'maneuver' ability like Dungeon Crawl Classics mighty deeds where the player rolls a deed dice and if comes up a certain number they get to perform some kind of special maneuver in addition to their attack. 
  2.  Improve the tools of the trade: grant special maneuvers to the weapons themselves where the fighter is an expert at using the tools of his trade and to make the weapons themselves more interesting. For example a pole-axe can attack from farther away, a mace reduces an enemies armour. 

While I do think these two ideas are not bad solutions. I find players still don't engage with them much. And you can absolutely forget about players using various 'modes' of combat. Such as fighting defensively where you get some kind of bonus to your defense at cost of your attack. I have played several editions of DnD and can maybe think of 1 or 2 occurrences where someone actually remembered these modes of combat, or specific combat maneuvers from the rulebook and used them. I'm glad that OSR seems to have largely done away with them. 

As for the solutions OSR rulesets tend to provide. For solution 1 I find players will use combat maneuvers only if the combat situation really prompts them. They tend to not think of them as signature moves and more just a response to the situation they are being presented. So, if you present them with a fight against a bandit they won't think of using a trip attack. However, if you present them with a situation where they are fighting a lumbering troll with long spindly legs, they are maybe more likely to think, hey if we trip this guy, the fight will go better. 

As for solution 2, I find players rarely engage in micromanaging their inventory or combat 'builds'. They tend to just pick a weapon and armour type, and stick with it. I think this is partly because most times you don't know what kind of things a dungeon is going to contain. Yes a mace may be better against armoured opponents, but if you don't know if your next combat encounter is going to contain heavily armoured opponents why bother bringing along the mace? I find players hate micromanaging their inventory. I know I hate it. Even if I have room for multiple weapons, I'm very unlikely to bring along extra ones just in case I come across that one enemy type it's good against. 

 I find the commonality between these two things is that combat in OSR style games tends to be very reactive. The players are simply reacting to what kind of combat encounter they are presented. If you don't present them with an interesting one they'll simply just default to trading blows until hopefully, as quickly as possible, one side is dead. If things go bad for them, then they'll just try to run away.

 Now, I do think it's very valuable to have some kind of general rule for combat maneuvers where the players know that yeah, they don't just have to attack, they can jump on the giants back or throw sand in the knights eyes or something. That there is an easy way to resolve such things. In my games I tend to use ability checks. 

 I also think it can be valuable to give a fighter some kind of defined combat 'theme'. Like, hey, your guy is from the mountains up north, he's really good at fighting giants, tripping them and jumping on them. Or your guy used to be a gladiator, he's good at fighting dirty. These kind of backgrounds or themes get players thinking about their characters and I think go further for them actually making up or using some kind of signature move than just giving them a mighty deed ability. 

 Additionally, I think one of the things about the fighter class that only really becomes apparent in play, is that if all the other characters are shit in combat by having low attack scores (as is the case in most OSR rulesets) the fighter really does stand out and feel empowering even if most of what their class is about is simply that their attack bonus increases +1 every level. IT doesn't seem flashy on paper, but I find in practice when the players do get into combat the fighters really shine and are the ones who are actually taking down enemies. I've gone back and forth on combat rules over my years of playing, adding, removing, tweaking, revising. In conclusion the only things I find that have really stuck are: 

  1.  Make the fighter actually good at combat and the other classes shit. This is most commonly done by having the fighter be the only class whose attack bonus increases every level. If nothing else do this.
  2.  Make sure everyone knows that they can respond to a combat situation in ways other than trading blows. Want to swing off a chandelier? Cool, you can. Want to jump on the giants back? Cool, you can do that too. 
  3. Give the fighter a theme. Your fighter was a gladiator? Cool, He's really good at fighting dirty and throwing sand in people's eyes. Your fighter was a legionary? Cool, he's really good at using his tower sheild to protect others who fight alongside him. 
  4. And probably most forgotten thing of all. If you want your combat to be interesting. Don't make more combat rules. Make your monsters and the combat situations your players find themselves in more interesting instead.