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.
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
...like 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.