A unified d20 mechanic, old school style

One of the things that attracted me to 3.x edition D&D was its (seemingly) streamlined core d20 mechanic. Rather than cobbling together a mish-mash of different dice mechanics for different aspects of the game, 3.x pulled almost everything together under the umbrella of one simple system: roll a d20 and add in all relevant modifiers, hoping to beat a target number that rested on an ascending scale of difficulty.

I liked this a lot. The  old system — especially  the descending Armor Class combat rules, where lower ACs were better, and a positive bonus  to your AC thus lowered it rather than raising it — had never made much sense to me. Sure, I used it for years, and became quite adept at calculating THAC0 scores on the fly. But intuitively, it never bought into it. Every time I tried to explain it to a new player, I’d see my own confused first-time player self looking back at me. And I’d wince inside, just a little.

So, the new-fangled ascending AC system was a big hit with me. I daresay, in retrospect, it was the main selling point of the new edition. And to be fair, I still think it’s pretty good.

But, as I’ve drifted back into an old-school mentality, I’ve wondered what an old-school version of the unified d20 mechanic that incorporates descending ACs (and other difficulty numbers) would look like. Two of the old-school games I’ll be reviewing in the near future — Kevin Crawford’s Spears Of The Dawn and Stars Without Number — give a glimpse.

It works like this: players roll a d20 + modifiers (including an ascending class & level-based “to hit” rating) + the target’s Armor Class, hoping to score a total of 20 or higher. It’s an elegant way to maintain the old school’s descending AC scheme without creating too much confusion, or requiring new players to consult a table of values or calculate their THAC0. Lower Armor Classes, when added to your roll, simply make it harder to score a 20. The really good ACs (the negatives, that is) would actually subtract from your total.

My hat’s off to Crawford here.

But Crawford’s games only use this mechanic for combat, and rely on other types of dice for other systems (notably, d6s for skills). But it could be used in a more across-the-board kind of way.

I’d use it for thief skill checks, saving throws, undead turning attempts, etc., as well as for combat. Every challenge would be rated from 9 (the easiest) to -9 (the hardest). The goal, as above, would be to score a total of 20 or higher on a roll of 1d20 + modifiers + challenge rating. New players, or players whose only exposure to D&D has been 3.x or 4th edition, would feel right at home using a d20 for pretty much everything except rolling damage. No more worrying about which combat or saving throw table to consult.

I’m giving some thought to homebrewing a system similar to this for use in converting my current 3.x game of animal PCs to a more old-school rules set. If it plays well, I could write it up and release it for public use. Of course, I’d make a few changes to avoid ripping off Mr. Crawford too much. But the rules are open content…

Posted in General Remarks | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

House Rule: Human Multi-classing in old-school games

One of the design  priorities of the early editions was crafting a human-dominant world. But I’ve often questioned the game-design choices made to accomplish this goal.

The  supposed strength of humanity in old-school D&D — its racial ability, if you will — was its flexibility. Human characters, alone among the other racial choices, could advance to unlimited levels in any class. Other races were restricted in both the classes they could join, and the levels to which they could advance in those classes.

But this led to interesting contradictions. The one that always stood out to me was that elves, supposed masters of magic and the wild places, could only advance to about 9th – 11th level in the magic-user class, and couldn’t be druids in most early versions of the game. And humans, supposedly the most flexible of the races, could not multi-class at all. Instead, they had to use a clunky “dual-classing” rule that required them to abandon one class completely, and focus exclusively on a new class.

So, the most flexible race in the game could only be one class at at time, while the supposedly less flexible demihuman races could multi-class freely, albeit in racially-restricted combinations.

This never made any sense to me. My house rule always  struck me as an easy fix, and served me well in older campaigns.

The rule is simple, assuming a human-dominant fantasy world is what you want: humans can freely multi-class in any combination to unlimited levels (barring other restrictions like alignment and ability scores). Demihumans can multi-class, too, but only in their racially-defined combinations, and only up to listed level limits. However, I’d allow elves unlimited advancement in the magic-user class, to reflect their arcane heritage.

Posted in General Remarks | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Bunnies & Burrows: The best Old School RPG you’ve probably never heard of

I’m currently DMing a 3.5 campaign in which all the player  characters are nonhuman animals.  We meet every two weeks, and most of the group seem to be enjoying themselves a great deal.  The party consists of a black bear fighter, a wolverine barbarian, a wolf ranger, a rabbit cleric, a raccoon rogue, and a snake sorcerer with a half-elf familiar. There’s also a DMPC who’s a German shepherd paladin, the figure who brought the party together. So far, they’ve tangled with zombie rats, kobolds, a greenspawn leaper, and a forest fire. The last session left them in the company of a grove of owl druids who might be able to help them with a mystery that’s been brewing under all the action.

They’re still low-level right now, but things are already getting too rules-heavy for my taste, and many of theirs, as well.  Naturally,  I’ve been knocking around ideas for converting the game to a simpler, more old school-ish rules engine. And while  there are many good D&D clones to choose from, the entire campaign has made me nostalgic for an old game I’ve never played, but that has always intrigued me.

I’m talking, of course, about Bunnies & Burrows, an rpg inspired by Watership Down, and published in 1976, two years after the original Dungeons & Dragons.  To my knowledge, B&B is the only role-playing game ever published that focuses on nonhuman animals as player characters. Sure, there’s the excellent third-party 3.5 supplement The Noble Wild: An Animal Player’s Handbook, which my current campaign is making extensive use of. But it’s still only a supplement, while the original B&B is a stand-alone game.

Now, in B&B, you can’t play any old animal. In fact, you have to  play a rabbit. And everything in the game is defined from a rabbit’s-eye point of view, including the scaling of non-rabbit creatures. This, I gathered, is an aspect that hurt the game’s popularity, as many people scoffed, “but what do rabbits do?” (I suspect many such people never read Watership Down or watched either of its animated adaptations).

If you can accept that limitation, B&B is a pretty cool little rules engine. It has some similarities to OD&D, such as the use of character classes, saving throws, and the rolling of attributes with a 3d6. This is hardly surprising, given the time period and state of the RPG hobby in 1976.

But B&B also has its own unique core mechanic, a percentile-dice-+-chart-referencing system that in some ways foreshadows the original Call Of Cthulhu RPG.

Player rabbits in Bunnies & Burrows have eight ability scores, each generated with the roll of 3d6 — Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma (any of this sound  familiar?), Smell, and Speed. Each of these ability scores is associated with a specific character class. A rabbit’s level in a particular class defines her level of proficiency in a set of skills also associated with the class’s prime ability score.

The eight classes are Fighter (Strength), Runner (Speed), Herbalist (Smell), Scout (Intelligence), Seer (Wisdom), Maverick (Dexterity), Empath (Constitution), and Storyteller (Charisma). Some of these classes mirror their OD&D counterparts and do pretty much what you’d expect, but the interesting thing is that while a character must begin as one of the classes, they’re  not limited too much by their initial choice. Levels in a given class provide characters with a bonus to their chart-reference standing, and so each rabbit begins at level 0. It’s expected that they’ll focus on their starting class for a while, but it’s very easy for them to gain levels in other classes.

Level advancement works on an honor and assessment system, rather than on points. Basically, if a rabbit spends a lot of time during an adventure making successful attribute checks, the GM can decide it’s enough to earn her a new level in the class associated with that attribute. This means that a Fighter who makes a lot of successful Smell-related tasks can gain a level of Herbalist. Just like that.

There’s no cumbersome, arbitrary multi-class system in Bunnies & Burrows, no level limits or class combination restrictions. Characters are limited only by their inherent talents and growing knowledge pool. B&B is the first RPG to have free-form multi-classing rules. This probably owes to the fact that all PCs in the game are members of the same race, so the designers didn’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about assigning races and classes. But it’s still neat, and years ahead  of its time.

Of course, there are stats for non-rabbit animals (including humans!), but they all play the role of monsters in B&B. The game contains no guidelines for playing, say, dogs or owls. Humans are statted to dragon-like levels of hit points, and armed with modern weapons, pretty much making them the most fearsome creatures a rabbit will ever run away from.

The core mechanic is a collection of tables on which the rabbit cross-references their Attribute level against a target number, and derives a percentage chance of success.  She then makes a percentile dice roll, hoping to score less than or equal to her chance of success. This is a mechanic very similar to Call Of Cthulhu‘s resistance table, except that each Attribute (and thus, each character class) has its own chart.

And the best part of Bunnies & Burrows is the rewards system. Rabbits don’t earn experience points or collect treasure. They struggle for food, shelter, and sex. The more experienced a rabbit gets, the better her chances of getting more of those rewards, eventually being able to found her own warren, populated largely by her offspring and their mates and children.

This system, in my opinion, was B&B’s master stroke. “But what do rabbits do,” you ask? They fight for survival in a world full of big scary creatures who want to eat them. And if they make it to the end, they get to pass on their genes and wisdom to the next generation. This is Natural Selection, The Roleplaying Game.

The drawback is that the rules are poorly organized, and often needlessly complicated. In fact, the authors admit as much, explicitly, at least once in the book. And the game is too limited in scope, I think, to facilitate the kind of animal-PC campaign I’m running right now. While B&B does have some rudimentary magic-like rules in its Herbalism, Empath, and Seer classes, they’re not robust enough to handle the kind of magic that D&D  players would expect. Converting from 3.5 to old-school Bunnies & Burrows would require porting over and designing a completely new magic system.

On it’s own terms, though,  B&B is a brilliant, charming little game that does exactly what it was designed to do: evoke the spirit and ambience of Watership Down. It remains one of the core inspirations and  influences on my own conception of animal as PCs.

And oh yeah, it was the first RPG with martial-arts rules. Get yourself a copy, and learn the secrets of Bun Fu.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

So, where was I, again…?

First things first… I haven’t abandoned this blog. Meatspace commitments overwhelmed me for a few weeks, but now that the holidays are here, I’ll have a bit more free time to devote to blogging… and gaming.

So, hello again to the handful of you who might stumble in here on a failed Search check.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Advanced Basics: Labyrinth Lord review, Pt. 2.

Reading the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion from Goblinoid Games forced upon me a self-revelation: as noted in Part 1 of my review, I’ve never actually played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Ever. Not even once.

All those years I only thought I was playing AD&D, but all along I was actually just using bits and  pieces from it to house-rule a game of Basic D&D. And I’m beginning to suspect that a lot of other gamers did exactly the same thing, without ever knowing it.

Knowing this now, accepting it, I can confidently say that the LL Advanced Edition Companion is the perfect tool for anyone who wants to recapture the feeling of the old days, when they, too, thought they were playing 1st Edition, but really weren’t.

Everything you remember is here: the separation of race from class, along with multi-classing rules, that allowed you to make a game where every elf or halfling or dwarf wasn’t identical to every other PC of their race;  “new” races like the half-elf and the gnome; “new” classes, too, like the paladin, the ranger, the druid, the illusionist (always my favorite), and the assassin.  Expanded equipment lists. A whole bunch of new spells, monsters and magic items.  At first glance, the AEC looks like a re-creation of the 1st edition you thought you were playing.

But look closer. There are  no elaborately detailed combat rules. No expanded range of Armor Class. No six-segment rounds, no tables for adjudicating weapon type vs. armor type.  There are some familiar-looking “options,” though — expanding the alignment concept beyond Law-Neutrality-Chaos to include an axis of Good-Neutrality-Evil; granting fighters a d10 instead of a d8 for Hit Dice. Spells are formatted like the “basic” game, listing only the name, level, duration, range, and effects description.  The more attention you pay to detail, the more this looks not like a wholly-different “advanced” version of the game that noobs graduate into, but a supplement of new tools for the basic version. It allows you to keep the rules you had before, and jump right into the fun with the only stuff that really matters: races, classes, monsters, and magic.

When I first skimmed over the AEC, I wondered what distinct twist Goblinoid Games had put on their retro-clone, because it sure looked like a mere rehash of 1e.  It was only when I started reading it in detail that I identified its genius, and its great strength: the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion caters to the way people actually used the AD&D core rulebooks, distilling the fun stuff we all loved  out from the arcane, obscure, and mostly-ignored war-game fiddly bits most of us ever used.  It focuses on what most people loved about the “old-school” experience, and worries not about achieving a by-the-numbers cloning of 1e AD&D.

And that is as it should be, because that’s how I would have used it anyway. Goblinoid Games rolled a natural 20 on this one.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Unsung Settings & Themes

One of the main things I do with new RPGs is figure out how I’d use them to homebrew something… a setting, a theme, an adventure, etc.  I always have one-off ideas, but there are a few that have stuck with me for years, too.  And I’ve avoided investing too much time in them since going 3.5, thanks to the mountain of paperwork that those rules pile on top of the already-daunting task of world-building.

But, the many simpler OSR options make the prospect realistic again. So, I’ll probably be using some consistent themes as ways of focusing my perspective on OSR games, and you can expect to them come up quite a bit on this blog.

First, I’m a sucker for Gothic horror, so Ravenloft remains my favorite old-school D&D  setting, warts and all. So, look for lots of stuff in that vein. Beyond that, in no order of preference, you’ll also see:

1) Divebars & Dragons: The fantasy of being a rock star is probably more common than the fantasy of being an elf… but why choose, when you can do both?  Struggling rock & roll bands have a lot in common with adventuring parties, after all: both will go on fool’s errands and dubious quests to dark holes for the promise of gold and glory.  So, just set up a campaign that has the all the window dressing of a standard pseudo-medieval D&D setting, but where the party is a band of musicians touring the countryside hoping to hit the big time. Where magic-as-technology exists only for musical instruments (cordless “electric” instruments that can be just as loud as their real-world equivalents but have magical effects, for instance). And where the music industry is controlled by dragons…

2) Heroes & Hydras:  Greek mythology always appealed to me a lot more than Tolkien.  And I’ve always wanted to either run or play in a setting inspired by these myths. Island-hopping instead of dungeon-delving.  Human characters related by blood to one of the gods, instead of the default array of demihuman races. And those gods often directly meddle in the heroes’ lives…

3) Colonial America, Twice Removed: I also loved Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series, but only because I already loved early American history anyway.  The fusion of fantasy gaming with this period has thus always intrigued me.  I once pitched the idea to a group as “the French & Indian War by way of Peter Jackson and Dan Brown.”  It didn’t take, but I still think it’s got a lot of potential.

4) Knights & Knaves: a chivalric setting full of jousting tournaments and questing knights in gleaming armor. Think Arthurian & Carolingian myths combined with Grimm’s Faerie Tales. All PCs are human, and all are warriors of some kind.  Magic is mysterious, menacing, and almost always beyond the PCs’ direct control.

5) Tooth & Claw:  from Aesop’s Fables to Kung Fu Panda, myth and fantasy are full of stories that feature wise, talking, and/or magical animals as either the heroes or the heroes’ allies.  Why not play these animals?  Thankfully, I’m actually running this campaign now, but it’s still in its infancy.  If it continues and grows, I’ll post more about it.

Now, I know that nearly all of these themes have been covered in some RPG somewhere.  But that doesn’t stop me from returning to these themes and thinking of ways to put my own twist on them.  So, that’s one of the things I’ll be doing with this blog, too.

Up next: Part 2 of my Labyrinth Lord review, this time covering the Advanced Edition Companion… and building a character with it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Primer: The Evolution of D&D

I had been researching and planning a post about the various editions and the differences between them, but it turns out that Eric Treasure at The Dragon’s Flagon saved me a lot of the work.

Thanks, Mr. Treasure!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment