Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Gary Gygax’s Whitebox OD&D House Rules

At the beginning of our World Oranj Whitebox OD&D game I started picking through various common house rulings in order to put together my own initial set of house rules. My personal list is based on rules I use in Classic D&D games (currently, Labyrinth Lord) and also on rules I've read about but never tried (see the excellent house rule lists by Philotomy and Delta). During this exercise I paid special attention to Gary Gygax’s house rules, which I attempt to compile here. The topic of Gygax’s OD&D house rules pops up on a regular basis in game forums, and some of what I summarize here will be old hat to many readers. My goal was to sift through the chit-chat and identify some of the specific rulings originating from Gygax himself. An important caveat is that Gygax was constantly tinkering with his house rules, meaning that any reported house rules should not be considered the final word.

I found two main sets of Gygaxian house rules. The one that is most frequently discussed in game forums appears to originate from Robert Fisher, who compiled the list after questioning Gygax about a game run in 2005 (someone please correct me if this citation is inaccurate). The rules were:

    * Only use the three little books - none of the supplements.

    * Ability scores rolled as best 3 out of 4d6. Arrange scores to taste.

    * All PCs get 1d6 hp/level. HP rolls are rerolled on a 1.

    * Fighters get +1 HP/die. All PCs get +1 HP/die if Con > 14.

    * Fighters do +1 damage if Str > 14.

    * Dex doesn't affect AC. (It does affect missile attack "to hit" rolls.)

    * PCs start at 3rd level.

    * PCs are unconscious at 0 hp. They can go as low as level +1 before death. (e.g. a 4th level fighter can be brought as low as -5 hp and just be unconscious.) A healing potion or cure spell restores them immediately.

    * 1d6 for surprise. 1=1 round. 2=2 rounds. 3 or more=no surprise.

    * PCs must declare actions before initiative. Casters must declare the specific spell being cast.

    * 1d6 for initiative. A tie means simultaneous combat.

    * A casting caster who loses initiative will lose his spell if hit.

    * No training necessary to gain a level.

    * To acquire new spells casters must find scrolls, spellbooks, or a friendly higher-level caster.

    * Clerics don't need spellbooks. (The original books can be read to imply that they do.)

    * Gary IDs most magic items immediately (charging large sums of money when they return to town to rest & recuperate for this service). (This is because the players are anxious to get back into the dungeon & don't want to bother with in-town adventures.) Potions must still be tasted to ID, though. Unusual items require a trip to the striped mage.

The second set of rules comes from a forum posting that Gygax himself made in 2007:

    * STR > 14: +1 to hit and +1 to damage if a Fighter

    * INT > 14: +1 1st level m-u spell

    * WIS > 14: +1 1st level cleric spell

    * DEX > 14: +1 to AC, and +1 to move silently

    * CON > 14: +1 HP per HD (same as a Fighter class gets, +2 if a Fighter)

    * CHA > 14: +1 (positive) on reaction checks

    * HPs: Characters are only unconscious at 0 HPs. For each level a character may have a minus HP total equal to the level, so a 1st level PC is dead at -2, a 2nd level at -3, etc.

    * When taking damage allow -1 HP per character level (from a GenCon XL report posted by Gygax)

Another quote directly from Gygax (ENWorld, September 2006), shows that he maintained the 1st level cleric spell house rule:

"I run three-booklet OD&D now and again myself, adding some house rules to make 1st level PCs a bit more viable and allowing Clerics a spell at 1st level if their Wis is 15 or higher."

Gygax's house rules are interesting because most of them make characters stronger: the ability modifiers are all directly or indirectly positive, it’s harder to die, clerics don’t need books, magic items are instantly identified, no training to level-up, etc. One of the big advantages for players is the -1HP damage reduction per character level (!). Overall, Gygax seemed to be fairly liberal in giving out little bonuses to player characters.

These bonus-oriented house rules strongly imply that Gygax felt that by-the-book Level 1 characters in OD&D were too vulnerable. The main reason to implement most of Gygax's house rules would be to decrease mortality and make the characters slightly more powerful. A small number of gamers – almost exclusively experienced retro-role-playing enthusiasts - enjoy high-mortality low-level D&D play because of the special kind of challenge and excitement it offers. I like this kind of gaming myself. In my experience, however, most casual role-players are bummed out by seemingly random or premature character death. Gygax seemed to be interested in accommodating this latter group.

Gygax’s house rules are also interesting from a game evolution perspective. We can outline character strength in early D&D thusly:

    * Original OD&D: Low baseline, low positive modifiers.

    * Gygaxian OD&D: Low baseline, medium positive modifiers.

    * Classic D&D: Medium baseline, extreme negative and positive modifiers.

Having played Classic D&D since the early 80s, I now find myself increasingly preferring the Gygaxian OD&D model because it seems to be the most fun for my current players, and therefore for myself, the DM. It decreases low-level mortality to a manageable level where there's an exciting tension but players are not so cautious as to make the game tedious. It focuses on “+” modifiers, which are psychologically more fun for players (e.g. nobody likes having to take -1 or -2 to their to hit roll every single time). Also it's mechanically simpler and faster than Classic D&D because players don’t have to juggle multiple “-“ and “+” modifiers.

In general, I think it’s better to start with a lower baseline and add to it, as opposed to starting with a higher baseline and being forced to subtract. This goes for many things, including rules complexity itself. It’s just more fun that way…


  1. It seems to me that most of these house rules were meant for con sessions. Nice collection thou!

  2. @Mátyás H

    Good point - these rules were from latter-year con games. I doubt Gygax ran a regular 3LBB OD&D campaign since the 1970s. It would be nice to know how many of these rules may have originated from Gygax's 70s games...

  3. Great list. We've been tweaking our own game with many of the changes meant to slightly improve survivability.

    I am suddenly intrigued by the idea of ditching negative modifiers in "classic"-type D&D. I may have to look at this, perhaps removing the first tier of negatives in the 6-8 score range.

  4. If I'm reading the Gygax post correctly, the "When taking damage allow -1 HP per character level" rule is just a restatement of the "For each level a character may have a minus HP total equal to the level" rule.

  5. > Gygax felt that by-the-book Level 1 characters in OD&D were too vulnerable. The main reason to implement most of Gygax's house rules would be to decrease mortality and make the characters slightly more powerful.

    Oh, I don't know if that's the only conclusion/reason there could be. They also make game more fun, more variations between characters, more chance for "uber" char you love and cherish, more stuff to do, less dicking around in town recovering from wounds, researching spells, id'ing items.

    Although, you're overall point still rings true.

  6. Having low powered characters can mean the players are responsible for making the smartest decisions. Planning ahead can help insure survival, but swinging a blade is a dangerous thing, and if an orc can kill you with one blow, that's way different from video game violence, where one can get hit dozens of times and keep going, WoW characters are god-like in that way.

    An open-ended D&D game would allow for players to decide to skip the dungeon and head for the village and get "real jobs", but instead they head into the dungeon and risk death for bigger gains.

  7. Damn, this is fantastic (sorry, a bit late to the party).
    : )

  8. A year late to the party, but I just saw this.

    For the rules that I had collected--if I recall correctly--those were mainly from a weekly oD&D game that Gary was running in 2005. One of his players was posting updates to Dragonsfoot, and then questions were asked of him and Gary to clarify points.

  9. Your interpretation of Gygax's "-1 HP per character level" rule is incorrect. It's not damage reduction, it's how many negative hit points a character can reach before dying.


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