Thursday, April 4, 2013

What I Want in a D&D / Clone Rule Set

Tomorrow night I'll be running my first session of D&D since moving to NY. Six players have RSVPed - a mix of friends, internet acquaintances, and listserv respondees. It will be an interesting mix of newbs and experienced players.

I've been struggling for some time with what ruleset to use. Hands down, my personal favorite flavor is original D&D. It's easy to learn, play, run, and customize. It also has an undeniably attractive weird mojo. Materially, the game itself is like an artifact from another world. OD&D is part utility, part enigma, part oral tradition. AD&D has similar characteristics, but it's impractically heavy for me. Right now I'm facing the prospect of refereeing mainstream gamers who may come to the table with certain expectations and may want to peruse rulebooks between sessions. So I'm thinking OD&D may be pretty much out, because the books themselves may be too confusing for normal players, and, most importantly, they're difficult to get copies of.

So maybe it's retro-clone time. Here are some of the features I would want, and why:

Separate race and class
This makes homebrewing easier because you don't have to reinvent both race and class to do something new. I also like the bizarre non-canonical combinations some players pick, but that I probably wouldn't consider myself.

Ascending AC
In my experience, this is simply easier to play at the table. After much thought and experimentation, I can't think of any compelling reason to stick with descending AC once the decision is made to stray from primary gygaxoarnesonian sources.

Concise and separate player's handbook
Separating player and referee material into separate books is ideal. I want monsters, spells, and magic items to all be new and mysterious - I don't want to encourage players to meta-game off of this type of referee material. Physically, a simple digest-sized player's reference < 24 pages is just plain practical. Character generation, advancement tables, and the basic rules of play. That's all. This is one of the things I love abut OD&D and AD&D - self contained player's handbooks.

Streamlined encumbrance system Delta's stones. This is simply better and more playable, and doesn't detract from OD&D mojo in my opinion.

Free or cheap
Obvious... I can point prospective players to a website so they can download the rules.

Parsimonius ability modifiers
Over time I've developed a severe, and probably irrational, allergy to extreme ability modifiers. Anything more than +1 annoys me. Conversely, negative modifiers annoy players. I love OD&D because it really holds back on modifiers, and makes any + something special. After experimenting with various approaches, I've found this stingy approach to modifiers makes for a more intense and fun game. Players quickly get jaded to piling up + modifiers. And for players it just sucks to have to always take -1 or -2 off your rolls if you have a low Str or Dex score. OD&D is king of modifier parsimony.

Digest size books
Just an aesthetic preference, I guess. It can't be denied, however, that small books are more practical.

No specific setting, but definite flavor
Another aesthetic preference. Early TSR editions are a perfect model.

Lacking any one or two of these wouldn't necessarily be a deal breaker, but it would be nice to have all these features in one place. The best option, in my opinion, would be to make customized player handbooks for each campaign world. LIKE THIS. I'm working on this for my Myceaxe setting, but it's not quite ready yet.

So what to do for tomorrow night? I emailed the players to recommend downloading S&W Whitebox, but this still lacks many of the above features. Additionally, I have been extremely frustrated with S&W in general because of the constant rule changes between printings. I bought some of the physical books a while back, but the most recent printings have lots of little rule changes (in the wrong direction) that make them incompatible with my physical books. It's driving me crazy, and has lessened my interested in S&W, even though I think it's basically a great game.

Instead of blogging right now I should be working on my Myceaxe PHB.


  1. >>"Over time I've developed a severe, and probably irrational, allergy to extreme ability modifiers. Anything more than +1 annoys me."
    Why is this? Why shouldn't physically impressive adventurers be permitted advantages in fights and so on? Is it just modifiers or do you more generally not want to distinguish between say PCs with a 13 Int and a 17 Int?

    I allow players with high stats to argue for appropriate but unwritten advantages, particularly for the mental stats.

    1. It's all relative, it's all scaled. If positive modifiers are rare across the board, +1 is quite unusual and heroic. Gygax went further in his OD&D house rules and made modifiers class-specific, e.g. only fighting men could get the STR bonus. Believe me, I've played this way. It works. If only one or two PCs in the party are adding +1s they definitely stand out. This especially when games tend to be low level with a glacial pace of level advancement (like mine, for better or worse).

      As well, I do regularly use xd6 ability checks, which reward high ability scores in a class-neutral fashion.

      To specifically answer your question, I am generally annoyed by pile-ups of modifiers - by the larger and larger numbers they produce, and by the excitement this escalation removes from finding +1 anything. I like +1 anything to be unique and fabulous. For instance, if a fighter is already getting +2 or +3 from a high STR, the value and mystery of a +1 blade is somewhat diminished.

    2. Both points are fair.

      For the first, if there is to be only one distinction it should start high I think at at least 16 and not 13 for example. I can see how the bonus would stand out. For the second, yes the +1 sword does then becomes significant, although for me magical items are always artifacts, no +1/+2 magic weapons.

      I think it is a pity people play D&D with a base text other than O/AD&D. I use very little from those books yet consider them a stabilising core. The text is more important than the rules in way.

      Players need no rulebooks I would say. I can tell or give them what they need at the table. But if they want to learn about D&D they should read O/AD&D.

  2. Last time I ran OD&D for my friends, I used this one-sheet "PHB" and it worked swimmingly. I'm sure you could easily put together something like that. Anything not included is stuff you just explain in play anyways. Also, not that I didn't include anything about race. I just figured people could tell me what they wanted to be, and I'd give them one or two small benefits for their race. No one even brought it up, with the exception of one player who said he wanted to be a "black guy". I kind of liked how that worked out.

    Also, I have the Brave Halfling print-it-yourself S&W Whitebox PDF set. If you want it, just shoot me an email and I'll send it to you so you can print your own booklets, if you want to go that route.

  3. I think you're right on the money with S&W WhiteBox. The most recent version that Matt has posted is a "final" version as far as Mythmere Games is concerned. He's thrown it to the public to do what we wish with it.

    It's so easy to tweak that you'll be able to quickly work up your Myceaxe version. Not sure if the single save is an issue, but that's been remedied in the latest version too, with a table of modifiers to bring back the traditional 5 saves.

    Or, you can grab the free version of Delving Deeper and mash the two together as desired since both are OGL. Then cut it up and give the players just the parts they need. Oh yeah, don't forget to put it online for the rest of us too!

    1. Yes - I used the S&W:WB text file to generate my own PHB. The rough draft is pretty much done. I just need to proof it and mess around with figuring out the pamphlet printing thing. I've never made the pamphlet books before, so it might take me a few hours.

      Matt Finch deserves a lot of credit for posting the S&W text files - very cool guy.

    2. For the rough table copies I'm using for now, I did the "layout" right in Word, with the page size set to 5 1/2 x 8 1/2. Then I "printed" a copy to PDF, and finally printed those PDFs using the Booklet Printing option built right into Adobe Acrobat Reader. Nothing to it.

  4. This sounds like a job for Castles & Crusades! ;-)

    Seriously, it has:

    Separate race and class = CHECK!

    Ascending AC = CHECK!

    Concise and separate player's handbook = CHECK!

    Streamlined encumbrance system = CHECK...I think. I sort of ignore encumbrance, so I haven't really studied the C&C version of those rules.

    Cheap = CHECK! I think the C&C PHB is very reasonably priced!

    Digest size books = CHECK! This should be pretty affordable.

    Ability modifiers also seem to be pretty reasonable. The game has a definite AD&D old school flavor, and it's got a streamlined ability-based check system that you can use as little or as much as you want.

    Let me know what you think.

    1. According the quick start guide on the Troll Lord site, C&C uses B/X style modifiers (ranging from -3 to +3). OD&D (3 LBB) only gives +1 HP for high constitution and +1 to missile attacks for high dexterity.

      See here:

    2. I've always been curious about C&C, but given that I already own so many other sufficient clones I've never mustered the enthusiasm to pay for it. I would like to check it out sometime though.

  5. Well, I think some of your criteria can be fulfilled, but sadly I haven't come across a real OD&D replacement: most everything seems to be derived from a b/x or ad&d mentality.
    You *might* be able to get by with minimal work by using the Lamentations rules until your booklet is complete.
    Good: pretty simple class design, simple AC and weapon rules, a very nice encumbrance system, free and easy to download.
    Not as Good: B/X ideals are visible if you squint - Race as class, -3 to +3 modifiers (though bonuses to str only apply to hit, not to damage), thief class.

    I suspect that you'd probably want to remove or re-work some of the spells. I'm also not sure about the the skill system included: it's a nice take on a simple 'x-in-d6' system, but I don't know if that's something that you'd want to use.
    One day isn't much time to find a temporary stand-in!

    1. I agree LotFP is very good, but the whirlwind of pluses and minuses between the various clones has made me very indecisive.

      I finally ended up just bringing my old white box and passing around a chargen / house rule sheet.

  6. good summary - and very good point about negative mods. I'm running a DnDified hack of Ars Magica to avoid levels: it has a chargen page and a core mechanic page making a 2pp players' book, and it seems to be enough.
    Who are you on g+? Is there any chance I could play with you this year _before_ I go back to Ithaca?

    1. That's right! we were going to try and get a little OSR mini-con together for the dozen or so of us close by. Go IthaCon!

    2. Richard: Unfortunately I don't have any plans to get into G+ gaming. I'm too disorganized, and usually there's some important tactile stuff going on in my games including minis, and now a chalkboard at our new venue. Let's definitely get together when you get back to Ithaca!

      Koren: Yes, we should get real about this mini-con thing! There are a lot of cool gamers around here. Maybe we could aim for something this Fall...? I'll look into venues.

    3. Depending on size, the Enchanted Badger is probably the place to start. They are pretty awesome.

    4. Game store in Ithaca? Never heard of it, I'm afraid. Looking forward to meeting some local folks eventually!

    5. Enchanted Badger is great, but is getting very crowded. I considered running our current game there, but weeknights are packed and noisy. There's no way we could run a quality mini-con there. I am looking into getting space at Cornell, possibly for the Fall. I will contact you all.

    6. I'll be there in late july for a couple of weeks... come to Corning for bbq!
      At Cornell... if you know anyone in the southeast asia program it might be possible to use the kahin center (626 university ave)

  7. Also, despite the fact that it is from 2011, I just recently discovered this thing:

    It's pretty close, and free too.

  8. Swords & Wizardry Complete ticks off almost all of the points you list. The only ones it doesn't you can quickly amend/houserule with no fuss.

    Separate Players Handbook - S&W Complete is 1 single book or pdf. I printed out pages 7-33 for my players, that is all they need.

    The pdf is $10, hardback $35, but all the rules are available free on

    The encumbrance system is simple and easily jettisoned or replaced. I am using this one instead:

    Check it out!

    1. I've been curious, but I wasn't in the mood to pay for yet another version of S&W, especially given my irritation with all the changes between printings of Core an WhiteBox. Since it's free I will definitely give it a look. Thanks for the tip!

    2. I prefer S&W Core, but basically only because I'm not fond of the mish-mash 1e-esque Complete classes. Core is pretty much all skeleton, and you can bolt on whatever you like.

      If you want to get a little funky, Pars Fortuna is a variant S&W system that cleans up S&W a little (IMO) and adds a few new tweaks. I combine the two.

  9. Replies
    1. ACKS is totally great. I quite like most of the tweaks they've made to The Game. I wish they would generate a slimmed down core version and/or player's reference pamphlet. I'd be much more likely to adopt ACKS.

  10. The Blue Book of Dangers and Dweomers

  11. I put together a little booklet to hand out to players who don't have access to the OD&D booklets.

    You could make something similar.

    1. This is great, nice work! I am working on something similar, hopefully it will be done for the second session.

  12. Line-based encumbrance.

    One item per line (weapon, rope, pole, lantern, etc.); more than six lines is "encumbered", more than twelve "heavy encumbrance". Torches, flasks, etc. count as 1 item in groups of six. Backpacks hold five items and count as 2 lines. Leather or chain armor count as 1 item; plate as 2 items. I haven't decided yet how to handle coins in this scheme yet.

    1. @Pere

      I do this, but I map the number of items that can be carried without penalty to points of strength and don't distinguish between types of item (in practice, it tends to average out). Every item beyond the strength score causes a -1 penalty to pretty much everything (attacks, saves, etc).

      Coins are free within reason (as are small, trivial items). A smallish bag of coins would could as an item. Using a bit of common sense, I've found this system to work perfectly. Minimal math, and makes the number of things carried salient (due to the penalty) and encourages careful consideration of what to bring (preventing the "PC grab bag" phenomenon).

  13. I would go for Basic Fantasy RPG :)

    Separate race and class: Yes

    Ascending AC: Yes

    Concise and separate player's handbook: not, but since you get also open office documents you can easily do it

    Streamlined encumbrance system: no

    Free or cheap: better than this :), it's OPEN SOURCE, it's pdfs and open office files are free (as you can freely download both of them) and the print version is very cheap on amazon :)

    Parsimonius ability modifiers: almost, you get to +3 at 18

    Digest size books: no, but you could make them

    No specific setting, but definite flavor
    Another aesthetic preference. Early TSR editions are a perfect model.

    take a look at it :)

    1. BFRPG has definite merits, but I've already invested in tweaking S&W so I'll stick with that if I do end up going the house PHB route.


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