Moldvay Basic and Cook Expert – 40 years and still going strong

It’s already two months late, but everyone else seems to have missed it too. The first printings of the Basic and Expert rules by Tom Moldvay and David Cook were done all the way back in January 1981.

And what a game they made!

After I started playing D&D when 3rd edition came out, I went for many years before I ever even heard of something that was occasionally mumbled about in the background called B/X or BECMI. And it completely stayed under my radar until six years ago when I took my first actual look at it, having it filed away as “that D&D light version where elf is a class”.

From the way that I remember it, the oldschool revival seemed to have started very much as an AD&D thing (though Basic Fantasy was actually the first retroclone) and that was a game I had tried getting into but bounced off very hard. But in the later years, when the return to older games morphed more into a forward evolution of those old concepts, B/X really seems to have established itself as the primary focus and reference point for oldschool roleplaying. Hard to say how things will be in another 40 years, but I am quite confident that this game will be staying with us for a long time to come.

Balancing of Treasures in B/X

Since I first discovered the actual Basic/Expert game almost exactly six years ago, I’ve taken out the Basic rules a couple of times for relatively short games, but never really got into any of the Expert material. I also did not make much use of the wandering monsters and morale mechanics and mostly ran it pretty “modern conventional”. And I certainly did not use the random treasure tables. When I started work on my next campaign, I made the choice to try to really understand all the rules as they are written and follow the procedures as they are presented by Moldvay and Cook, to see how that plays out before I start making significant changes. It’s a game that is meant to be highly flexible and customizable, but it’s generally a bad idea to start making modifications to something before you understand what the default setup does.

A line of thinking that I encountered in the wild over the years of listening to the words of the elders, is that the tables for wandering monsters and generating randomized treasures are the main reference for how you set up dungeons with appropriate challenges and corresponding amounts of rewards. I’ve seen discussions about how some magic items are more valuable in Basic or AD&D because of the greatly different chances of them appearing in treasure hoards, and how this is indicative of the original assumptions how the games would be played and why some classes have different advantages with the rarity of those items in mind. I’ve long had my doubts about that and suspecting that that very little actual thought went into the creation of these tables and the resulting chances for certain encounters and rewards. And when you look at how the tables are constructed, this really seems very likely. On the wandering monsters tables, there are 20 entries, each with the same 1 in 20 chance. On the same table, you have 1 HD creatures appearing in numbers of 1-8, and 2 HD creatures in numbers of 2-12. This is not adjusted to be roughly equal in challenge on average. The magic item tables in Basic are just alphabetical lists numbered from 1 up, all with the same chances. The Expert tables are a bit more elaborate using a d100, but in the end all potions have either a 3% or 4% chance. I think these were all just eyeballed without any thought to intended play or adjustments for balance.

But I still was quite surprised when I scoured the texts again, and discovered what exactly Moldvay wrote on these topics.

Treasures are determined randomly or chosen by the DM. The DM should always determine the contents of a large treasure hoard before play in order to determine how best to hide and protect the treasure from theft, and if magic items are present.

 

The DM may choose treasures instead of rolling for them randomly, or may choose a result if rolls give too much or too little treasure. The choices should be made carefully, since most of the experience the characters will get will be from treasure (usually 3/4 or more). It will often be easier for the DM to decide how much experience to give out (considering the size and levels of experience in the party) and place the treasures to give this result.

The method advocated here is to start with the total amount of XP that characters will be able to make in the dungeon or dungeon level as a choice by the GM and work backwards from there. One quarter of that amount should be in the form of enemy encounters, and the remaining three quarters in the form of treasures. Or to get the same effect, just populate the dungeon with whatever monsters you want to use, then calculate the XP for defeating all of them, and multiply that result by 3 to get the appropriate value of the treasures you should distribute among the creature lairs. The treasure tables seem more to be intended to be used when you don’t really have an idea for what treasure you might want to put in the dungeon and to give you some suggestions. But since the tables don’t know how many of the creature lairs will be of creatures that have treasure hoards or not, this can’t get you that rough 3 to 1 ratio for XP except by pure accident.

For my setting, I have a lot of custom creatures (though most of them are plain reskins), and I had been thinking about how I would assign treasure types to all of them. But I don’t think I really should bother with that. I don’t believe the treasure tables and treasure types have much logic behind them I could figure out and apply to my own creatures. It’s always only been eyeballed to look good enough.

Another small detail that I noticed is that something that I considered a new house rule of mine is actually tucked away in the text already.

Treasure is normally found in the lairs of monsters, but may be paid to a character by a high level NPC for performing a mission or job.

The basic formula of “you’re treasure hunters, so go hunt treasure for the sake of hunting treasure” never really worked for me as a basis for compelling adventures. I thought that carrying a rescued prisoner back to town for a 500 gp reward is mechanically the same as carrying a big gem from the dungeon that is worth 500 gp, so players could get the same amount of XP for this. Turns out this was already suggested 40 years ago.

Group Initiative and Spell Declaration

While I am a very big fan of Basic Fantasy, one of the things in which I believe it needlessly departs too much from B/X is the move away from the original group initiative. Which perhaps might have been a decision based on uncertainty about what you could get away with with the OGL and old TSR content back in the day when the first retroclones made their appearance.

Group initiative is a system that I really love. One of the main reasons is that I have always struggled with asking and recording every player’s initiative count and sorting them into the correct descending order, while at the same time everyone was chattering excitedly about the combat that has just brought out. On paper, this step seems like a trivial mental task, but it’s one of the situations where my ADD overwhelms my brain and I mentally freeze up. It’s stressful and it takes long, which only makes the players chatter more among each other, creating more distraction and more stress, which makes everything even worse. Group initiative neatly avoids this entire problem by reducing it all to me and one player rolling a d6 and the higher number goes first.

The other nice thing, which is even more significant, is how group initiative speeds up play. If you used the common “each player takes a turn in order” system, you’ll have seen countless times how this plays out: One player takes five minutes to decide what he wants to do with his turn. The other players get bored and find other distractions to keep themselves occupied while they wait. When the player finally makes his turn, the next player is totally surprised that it is his turn now. He has no idea what happened during the last three players turns and now has to spend five minutes taking up the completely new situation of the fight and then start pondering his options. Repeat for the next hour until the four goblins are dead. That does not happen with group initiative.

The Basic Combat Sequence
  • 1: The party and the enemies roll 1d6 for initiative.
  • 2: The side with the higher initiative takes their turns.
    • 2a: Morale checks are made if needed.
    • 2b: All characters do their movements.
    • 2c: Characters who want to make a ranged attack do it now.
    • 2d: Characters who want to cast a spell do it now.
    • 2e: Characters who want to make a melee attack do it now.
  • 3: The side with the lower initiative takes their turns.
    • 3a: Morale checks are made if needed.
    • 3b: All characters do their movements.
    • 3c: Characters who want to make a ranged attack do it now.
    • 3d: Characters who want to cast a spell do it now.
    • 3e: Characters who want to make a melee attack do it now.

In this system, all players have “their turn” at the same time. The moment when the most significant decision for the round has to be made is 2b/3b All characters do their movement. If and how you want to move really depends mostly on what you plan to do after that. But unlike with sequential initiative, all players have to think about their choice at the same time. Whichever player comes to a decision first performs the movement first. While this happens, the other players still have a bit of time to think about their own choice. The whole thing only takes as long as the slowest player needs to think. Not as long as the thinking time of all players combined. The actual execution of ranged attacks, spells, and melee attacks is really quite fast and uncomplicated in comparison.

There is however, one major hitch with this whole setup, on which Moldvay Basic, Cook Expert, BECMI, and Rules Cyclopedia are all in disagreement. Which is the handling of casting spells:

In Moldvay Basic, things are simple and just as I described them above.

However, Cook Expert, which is an addendum to Moldvay Basic and expands and adds to it. “The caster must inform the DM that a spell is being cast and which spell will be cast before the initiative dice are rolled. If the caster loses the initiative and takes damage or fails a saving throw, the spell is interrupted and lost.” Thankfully, the explanation here is very clear on how it is supposed to work. But I do not like it. It negates the neat feature that all players think about their actions at the same time, and instead you have everyone at the table wait on that one wizard player to decide if he wants to cast a spell before initiative is being rolled for that round. It also makes our poor vulnerable d4 HD wizard a target for all enemy combatants and introduces a considerable chance that the spell will be lost with no effect. Given how few spells the poor guy has to begin with, that is just sad.

Things get only messier with later editions, though. In BECMI, the combat sequence is printed in both the Players Manual (twice) and the Dungeon Masters Rulebook, but they are numbered differently. The Players Manual begins with Step A: Roll for initiative. The Dungeon Masters Rulebook begins with Step 1: Intentions: The DM asks each player what the character intends to do in the coming round, followed by Step 2: Roll for initiative. Bad, bad editor! As far as I am able to tell, the topic of the players declaring their intentions is never brought up anywhere in the actual text of either book, so there is no explanation of how it affects anything. My guess would be that the idea of declaring stuff before rolling initiative was thrown out during development, but that one line in the combat sequence in the DM’s book was not properly deleted before printing.

The Rules Cyclopedia doesn’t mention declaring any intentions anywhere. But it does still mention how spellcasting can be interrupted if the caster is being injured.

The only version that actually does what it seems to want to do it Cook Expert. But as I said, I really don’t like that procedure. So here, finally, is what I consider the best way to do it:

  • If a character has moved during the movement phase, he can not cast spells during the spellcasting phase. (“spells cannot be cast while performing any other action such as walking or fighting.” Moldvay Basic.)
  • If a character got hit or failed a saving throw during the enemy phase of the round, he can not cast spells during the party phase of that same round. (Assuming the enemies rolled higher initiative than the party.)
  • If the party and the enemies roll the same initiative number and the movement, ranged, spell, and melee phases of both sides happen simultaneously, and the character gets hit by a ranged attack, he can not cast spells during the spellcasting phase. Both PC and enemy spells all go off at the same time.

In this take on the rules, spellcasters can never be interrupted and lose a spell that they already started to cast. Which is fine with me. Not being able to cast a spell when there’s a perfect opportunity is already annoying enough, given how few spells wizards have and how it makes waiting for exactly the right moment a big part of its efficiency.

Planet Kaendor House Rules for Basic Fantasy

You know what the world really does not need? Another B/X retroclone. Well, I think it kid of does, but I know that nobody wants to see it. So instead, I am simply going to present my own adjustment to Basic Fantasy. BF has always ranked among my favorite retroclones of choice because it’s very close to the original B/X by Moldvay and Cook while at the same time using the sane rational system to attack rolls and armor class. I know the later is trivial to slap on any iteration of D&D, but I am petty about my hate for a resolution mechanic that is objectively bad and done wrong, so that’s counting a lot to me. BF is also very cleanly laid out and easy to read, and the whole thing is free so you can just hand out pdf copies to anyone you like.

Below is a list of all my modifications to Basic Fantasy that reflects my own impressions of actually having read Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, Moor, and Smith, rather than going by the grimdark Heavy Metal Album cover interpretation of what Sword & Sorcery is really about.

Characters
  • Roll 3d6 six times to generate six ability scores, but assign the six numbers to whichever attributes you like.
  • There are no racial modifiers and adjustments. PCs from all peoples just use the character classes as the are.
  • Characters get the maximum possible hit points at 1st level.
  • The character classes are warrior (fighter), thief, scholar (magic-user), and wilder (see below). Characters can be warrior/scholar or thief/scholar as by the Basic Fantasy rules for elves. (The XP to gain a level are the same as the XP for both classes combined, and the character gets whatever hit dice, attack bonus, and saving throws are better, as well as all spells and thief skills for the level.)
  • Maximum level for all PCs and NPCs is 10th level.
  • The thief skills all use a d20 instead of a d100 (since it’s almost always 5% steps anyway). They also start with considerably higher success chances at 1st level, but increase slower to be again identical to the odds in Basic Fantasy at 10th level.
  • The wilder class has the XP requirements and attack bonus as a warrior, d6 hit points, the thief skills move silently, climb sheer surfaces, hide in shadows, and hear noise, as well as track, and exceptionally good saving throws. (Based on the B/X halfling class.)
  • All characters can use any weapons and armor. Scholars can cast spells in light armor, thief/scholars can cast spells in medium armor, and warrior/scholars can cast spells in all armor.
  • Characters can establish a stronghold at any level. Money is the only limiting factor.
Equipment and Encumbrance
  • Encumbrance is counted in the number of items a character carries instead of pounds. If the number of items is greater than the character’s Strength score, the character is lightly loaded. If the number is greater than three times the character’s Strength, the character is heavily loaded. (Light armor counts as 2 items, medium armor as 4 items, and heavy armor as 5 items.)
  • Up to 100 coins count as one item.
  • Shields provide a +2 bonus to AC instead of +1.
  • The default metal for weapons is bronze. Special blades made from iron function as silver weapons for the purpose of harming creatures resistant or immune to normal weapons.
Experience
  • There are no adjustments to XP based on prime requisite ability scores. (Neither 5% nor 10% makes any noticeable dent in the advancement speed and are just a cause of confusion and errors.)
  • XP for defeating enemies are based on the original numbers from B/X. Characters also get one XP for every gp worth of treasure they bring back from a ruin. (One of the few thing that Basic Fantasy really got wrong.)
  • Reward money for completing tasks in ruins also counts as treasure for calculating XP. Turns out this is not a house rule but a default mechanic of the game.
  • Magic items also count as treasure for calculating XP.
Combat
  • Combat is done using the B/X initiative system for group initiative. (The other thing Basic Fantasy really got wrong.)
  • Poison attacks do not kill instantly. Instead, a poisoned character makes a saving throw against poison every round or takes the indicated amount of damage. Once one of these saving throws succeeds, no damage is taken and the poison ends.
  • Energy drain works just as it does in B/X. You get hit, you lose one level.
Magic
  • Spellcasters do not have to announce the spells they cast before initiative is rolled for the round. (A rule that only exist in Cook Expert, but not Moldvay Basic, BECMI, or the Rules Cyclopedia, and really complicates things.) Spellcasters who were hit in the first phase of the round can not cast spells in the second phase, but otherwise act normally.
  • Spellcasters have separate “preparation slots” and “casting slots” in equal numbers. Spending a casting slot to cast a spell does not remove it from the preparation slot. The same number of spells can be prepared and cast as by default, but spells are not forgotten after casting.
  • The Scholar spell list combines magic-user and cleric spells, but does not include a range of different spells, such as cure light wounds, continual flame, raise dead, magic missile, fireball, fly, ice storm, and wall of fire, to make magic a more elusive and mystical force.

The Scholar class for Planet Kaendor

As I am falling again deeply into the B/X hole, I have once again found myself having to deal with the question what I want to do about the issue of Clerics. Planet Kaendor is ultimately my own take on Sword & Sorcery, and with the passing of (many) years, I am seeing more and more the meaning and relevance of the typical conventions of this particular style of fantasy. Early on, I was all in for various (A)D&D-isms, like having elves and gnomes, goblins and gnolls, dragons, powerful elemental magic, other planes to visit, and a classical pantheon of gods. That’s all long in the past by now and I’ve fully accepted our Lord and Savior Robert Howard into my heart. And I really find myself enjoying the abstract magic of Moorcock and Smith much more than magic missiles and fireballs.

Finally getting a good picture of what I want gods and spirits to be in my setting (I never had really made a decision on this aspect in all the years), it’s really become clear that clerics don’t have a place on Planet Kaendor. Temples and priests are cool, as are barbarian shamans, but a clear separation of arcane and divine magic just doesn’t make any sense in the context of the supernatural forces that shape the setting. (Which will be the topic of a different post.) My main concern had been how the game would change if you no longer have clerics in the party who can cast healing spells and the players will only rely on healing potions. But when you look at how much healing spells they can actually provide in B/X, it’s really not that much. No spells at all at 1st level, and even well along into a campaign at 7th level, it’s still only two first level spells and one fourth level spell. And you might want to sometime cast other spells than just cure wounds as well. So I think when you’re not too stingy with healing potions as the GM, there should be no real disruption from the lack of clerics.

The most interesting alternative approach to priests that I’ve seen is from the Conan d20 game, which is build on top of a D&D framework. It only has a single full spellcaster class called the scholar. What spells they learn and how they present themselves in public is entirely up to them. Sorcerers and witches are obviously scholars, but so are priests and shamans. They don’t get their magic powers from their gods, but through the same arcane study as everyone else. Priests may claim that they get their magic powers from their gods, and might even believe it, but except for rare cases of divine intervention, it’s all their own doing. That’s an approach I feel is right for Planet Kaendor as well.

The Scholar class is really just the default magic-user with a different spell list. In any other regard, it’s really identical, including hit points, attack chances, saving throws, and number of spell slots. I’ve never been a fan of spell slots as it’s too obviously a game mechanic and not an abstraction to represent a plausible magic system in game terms. But I really don’t want to work out a completely new magic system myself. The most convenient solution for me is the one that was introduced in the 5th edition of D&D. Casters really have two separate sets of “preparation slots” and “casting slots”. You prepare spells as you would always do, but when you cast them they don’t disappear for the rest of the day. You’re still limited in the number of spells you can cast by your casting slots, but you’re not limited to cast a spell only once per day, or forced to prepare it in two slots if you want to be able to cast it more than once. It solves the weirdness of spells being forgotten without actually requiring any modifications to the classes themselves.

Since I want to cap character levels at 10th, the list only goes up to 5th level spells, but of course you could always expand it to 6th level spells as well. It’s mostly spells from Basic Fantasy, which are almost identical to B/X, but I also included a few from OSRIC as well.

1st level spells
  • Cause Fear
  • Change Self
  • Charm Person
  • Command
  • Darkness
  • Detect Magic
  • Entangle
  • Hold Portal
  • Light
  • Protection from Demons
  • Read Languages
  • Remove Fear
  • Resist Cold
  • Sleep
  • Spider Climb
  • Ventriloquism
2nd level spells
  • Blindness
  • Charm Animal
  • Detect Demons
  • Detect Invisible
  • Detect Thoughts
  • Invisibility
  • Knock
  • Locate Object
  • Mirror Image
  • Fog cloud
  • Phantasmal Force
  • Resist Fire
  • Silence
  • Sorcerer Lock
  • Speak with Animals
  • Slow Poison
  • Stinking Cloud
  • Web
3rd level spells
  • Clairvoyance
  • Darkvision
  • Dispel Magic
  • Growth of Animals
  • Haste
  • Hold Person
  • Invisibility, 10′ radius
  • Protection from Demons, 10′ radius
  • Protection from Normal Missiles
  • Slow
  • Speak with Dead
  • Striking
  • Suggestion
  • Water Breathing
4th level spells
  • Bestow Curse
  • Charm Monster
  • Confusion
  • Growth of Plants
  • Hallucinatory Terrain
  • Polymorph Other
  • Polymorph Self
  • Remove Curse
  • Shrink Plants
  • Sorcerer Eye
  • Speak with Plants
5th level spells
  • Animate Dead
  • Cloudkill
  • Conjure Elemental
  • Contact Higher Plane
  • Dispel Demons
  • Feeblemind
  • Hold Monster
  • Insect Plague
  • Slay Living
  • True Seeing

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…

Back when I finished the Inixon campaign half a year ago, I wrote that I am done with Dungeons & Dragons and that it just isn’t what I am looking for in a game. I neither like the baggage of assumptions about the world that players bring to a new campaign (to no fault of their own), nor the encounter and XP treadmill. But even back then, I did leave myself a door open that I wouldn’t rule out running a game using some variant or another of the Basic/Expert edition. The mechanical problems are mostly something specific to the d20 system that no tweaks and overhauls ever manged (or even tried) to solve, and the worldbuilding baggage comes from the AD&D tradition. When I actually read B/X for the first time six years ago, the thing that stuck out to me the most was how different it all felt from all the D&D I had known.

When I was taking a break from the whole Bronze Age and Sword & Sorcery fantasy for a while, I always knew that I would be coming back to it. Do something that feels more like Conan and Elric than my last campaign, with stronger influences from Morrowind and Barsoom. My plan was to either go with Barbarians of Lemuria or some kind of PtbA hack. But here I am, and that thing is starting at me again.

Come on… You know you want to…

Exploration System, Part 2: Practical Encumbrance

Encumbrance in D&D has always ranged from bad to terrible. The idea behind encumbrance is actually great. The default assumption for the first decade or so had been that the party enters a dangerous place, gets their hands on valuable stuff, and gets back out again, preferably with their loot and without anyone dying. When wandering monsters are a thing (look forward to part 3) and fighting battles is a negligible source of XP (look forward to part 4), then getting in and out quickly is of the essence. The longer it takes you, the greater is the risk of anyone dying with no benefit in trade. So as you keep delving deeper into the dark unknown, you are using up some of the tools and supplies you have brought with you, but at the same time get weighted down by the treasures you find. Which leaves you with two choices. Slow down and risk fighting more opponents and reducing your odds of being able to run away. Or reduce your weight, either by choosing to leave some of the treasure you’ve found behind, or by dropping some of the equipment that you hopefully won’t be needing on your way back to the surface. Hang on to all your potentially life saving tools and weapons as you slowly crawl back to the exit, or make a mad dash to safety? Or play it safe and leave some of your hard fought for rewards behind? This is a real question that players will have to face. There is no right answer which two out of these three you should choose and will greatly depend on the constantly changing situations. To me, this is one of the big things that make exploration adventures so exciting.

Random Encounters, XP for treasure, and Encumbrance are really a single unified system. They really only work together as a unit. When you ditch one of them, the other two stop serving any purpose as well. And I think most of the time, Encumbrance is the first one to go. Because the way D&D handles it is just so annoyingly tedious that almost everyone very quickly, if not immediately, decides to just not bother with it at all. Whether you calculate your character’s equipment load in pounds or in coins, every time you pick up an item or drop an item, you have to adjust your current encumbrance load value. And inevitably you will sometimes forget it or make mistakes, requiring to make a complete recount of all your inventory and calculate all the different weight again. Nobody thinks that’s fun. To really do that, you need to keep your inventory on spreadsheets, and playing the game with everyone having a computer open can’t be the way to go. So out the window Encumbrance goes, making the whole exploration system pointless.

But there is a solution, and it is brilliant in its simplicity. It also isn’t mine. This idea is taken pretty much straight from Papers and Pencils. I don’t really add anything significant to it, I am just aligning it with my exploration system here. What this system does is to say “calculating loads by weight doesn’t work because nobody uses it, let’s drop the idea of doing it ‘realistically’ and use a much simpler system of inventory slots”. Yes, it’s a greater degree of abstraction, but as I always keep saying all of the numbers in these mechanics are make believe anyway, and a system that people would want to use is always better than a system that always gets ignored.

The basic, and really very simple idea is that any items have a weight that is either “insignificant”, “significant”, or “especially heavy”. Insignificant weight means the item has an encumbrance value of 0, significant weight means it has an encumbrance value of 1, and especially heavy items have an encumbrance value of 2 or higher. To assign an encumbrance value to an item, my rule of thumb is round up the weight in pounds to the nearest multiple of 10, then drop the last 0. Items with a weight below 1 pound have an encumbrance value of 0.

The amount of items a character can carry is as follows:

Speed Max. Load Effect
Unencumbered STR x 1
Encumbered STR x 2 Speed -10
Heavily Encumbered STR x 3 Speed -20, disadvantage to Str, Dex, and Con

And that is the entire system. But you can even simplify this even more by setting up your inventory sheet in the right way. I recommend making a dedicated inventory sheet like this, but you can try squeezing it into the inventory space on your character sheet.

There are two columns for items. One for items with significant weights that add to encumbrance, and one for items with insignificant weights that don’t. On the left side you have all the rows numbered. When you now put all your items with significant weights into the left item column, and make them take up as many lines as its the encumbrance value, you no longer have to calculate anything. Your current load value is right there to the left of the last item on your list. To make things even easier for you, you can mark the lines that match your Strength score times 10, 20, and 30. In this example, the character has a Strength score of 13, so he is unencumbered with a load up to 13, encumbered with a load up to 26, and heavily encumbered with a load up to 39. The line below 13 items is marked green here, the line below 26 items marked orange. When you add or remove items on your inventory list, you immediately see when your current encumbrance category changes. The column with the items of insignificant wight doesn’t matter, I just thought it fits conveniently in the place where it is here.

Next to the numbers, I added another column as a recently added new feature. In this column you can mark if the items are part of your Arms, Exploration Gear, or Travel Gear. If you keep them sorted like this, it becomes trivial to say “I put down the backpack with my heavy travel gear and continue forward with only my arms and my tool pouch”. Again, no new calculations are needed. In this example we immediately see that the Arms and Exploration Gear cross below the green line, but stay above the orange line. That means when I drop my backpack with my tent, food, and spare clothing, my encumbrance will be Encumbered.

I did play around a bit with an idea of keeping track of various pouches and sacks characters might be carrying, but that just ends up disrupting the neat simplicity and easy of use of this system. So again, I just said eh!, and went for the more abstract option that requires the least amount of bookkeeping and rearranging your inventory. Though I admit I still don’t have a perfect idea what to do when characters go into a dungeon with empty space in their Exploration Gear pouch that later gets filled with treasure that they pick up. Right now, this still requires you to move an item from the top of your T-items to the bottom and adding the new item as an E-item. Maybe this can be improved as well, but I think so far this is a really damn good inventory management system, far better than anything you find in almost all versions of D&D.

Exploration System, Part 1: Setting the hex-scale

While working on my wilderness setting it became obvious that running it would require a solid and easy to use system for overland travel. There are tables for Travel Pace in the Player’s Handbook and additional rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to deal with overland travel in 5th Ed., but just like the tables and mechanics in 3rd Ed., I find them very impractical to use in actual play. If you use them rarely, it’s difficult to remember how it all works, and if you use them frequently it’s way too much calculating and eating up too much time. I plan this to be a series that will put together a complete system that is easy and fun to use and covers all the relevant aspects that are part of wilderness travel. Which is movement speeds, resoure management, encumbrance, random encounters, and weather. All of this will be based heavily on the 1981 Expert Rules by David Cook. Those are a really good start and reference point, but they can be improved and require some tweaking to work with 5th Ed.

I have a long and very conflicted relationship with hex maps, which I attribute primarily for my distaste of hexcrawl campaigns and my appreciation of pointcrawls. But using hexes to measure distances and treating hexes as discrete areas are completely different things, and my dislike of the later is no reason to completely discard the former. One reason I don’t like hexmaps is the amount of time it takes me to make anything good looking. Another is the way in which it makes the players interact with the fantastic imagined world. Filling in little white hexes with as you move along really feels just plain wrong to me. But when you just want to measure distances and see whether the movement is along roads or through plains or not, then you can simply add a hex grid overlay to any existing map. In most situations, you are going to need separate maps for the players and the GM anyway. I recommend the GM-map with all the secret locations marked on it getting a hex grid overlay, while the player map does not. But ultimately, what made me decide to use hex grids for this system, was the issue of parties getting lost. This seems quite important for a system intended to be used in a giant forest without roads, and I just can’t think of any way in which this could be handled on a point map.

Using a hex grid to measure distances for a journey has been a long established tool, but neither 3rd nor 5th Ed. are designed for it. When you try to convert movement rates to hexes, you always keep ending up  with the party traveling 1/2 hexes over a full day, or 3/4 hexes. Which I think defeats the entire purpose of measuring distances in hexes in the first place. So I made the decision to not attempt doing that and instead begin the entire design process by creating a system in which movement can only ever happen in full hexes and everything else will be tailored to fit on top of that.

I decided to use the Travel Pace table from the PHB as reference, which has speed always being either fast, normal, or slow, and the terrain either being regular (easy) or difficult, with difficult terrain taking double the time to cross than easy terrain. 3rd Ed. also had terrains that would take 1/4 or 3/4 normal time to cross and while that may seem more “realistic” it really makes things needlessly complicated. All of this is pure make believe anyway, somewhat inspired by reality, but completely disconnected from it. Two types of terrain is enough, and I also don’t consider it to be useful to account for the different walking speeds of smaller and larger creatures. While there are significant differences in running speed that matter in tactical combat, when travelling an entire day we can simply assume that smaller characters have the natural stamina to walk at a faster pace to keep up with the walking speed of larger characters. Stamina is also the reason why horses generally don’t travel further in a day than humans. The important difference is that a horse can carry all your heavy supplies with ease without being slowed down by them as you would. So three movement speeds and two types of terrain it is. And I think there are really just two practical ways this resulting table could look like.

Simple System

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 6 hexes 3 hexes
Normal 4 hexes 2 hexes
Slow 2 hexes 1 hex

PHB System

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 8 hexes 4 hexes
Normal 6 hexes 3 hexes
Slow 4 hexes 2 hex

In the Simple System, we have movement speeds in the ratios 3:2:1. The Travel Pace table gives movement in miles per day, but these are in the ratios 4:3:2, which I replicated in the PHB System table.

The next question is now “how big is a hex?” I tried out different hex sizes, and again there are only two solutions that really make sense and get close to the distances in the Travel Pace table in the PHB. The following tables show how much distance would be covered when traveling the number of hexes given in the previous tables.

Simple System, 6-mile hexes

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 36 miles (+20%) 18 miles (+20%)
Normal 24 miles 12 miles
Slow 12 miles (-33%) 6 miles (-33%)

PHB System, 4-mile hexes

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 32 miles (+7%) 16 miles (+7%)
Normal 24 miles 12 miles
Slow 16 miles (-11%) 8 miles (-11%)

Both tables happen to have 24 miles for normal pace in easy terrain, which is exactly the same number as in the Travel Pace table. Using the Symple System with the speed ratios of 3:2:1 and and 6-mile hexes, we get significantly more miles covered at fast speed and fewer miles covered at low speed, when compared to the distances given in the Travel Pace table.

In contrast, when using the PHB System with speed ratios of 4:3:2 and 4-mile hexes, these differences are much smaller. Exactly one third the difference we get in the Simple System. So when it comes to replicating the Travel Pace table from the PHB as closely as possible in full hexes without fractions, this one is the clear winner.

But in the end, I am still going to go forward into creating my additional travel mechanics using the Simple System with its speed ratios of 3:2:1 and 6-mile hexes. As a simple matter of practicality. 6-mile hexes are quite probably the most commonly used size for hexes by far. There are a huge amount of existing resources out there that have hex maps at the 6-mile scale. And there are other reasons why 6-mile hexes are really good. In contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever come across any map that uses 4-mile hexes.

Yes, if you would start from scratch in a vacuum, 4-mile hexes are clearly the better choice. But when dealing with hex maps in D&D, we are looking back at four decades of established customs and existing resources. And I really don’t want to muddle with that.

xkcd

My ideas for sea travel hexes aren’t worth a separate post, so I am adding them here:

While movement speed on land appear to be somewhat plausible when compared to reality, speeds for water travel are completely fictional. The numbers in the PHB seem considerably too low, but then you also get the complication that ships being propelled by wind depend on the wind conditions to move and because of the way sails work, going in a straight line is generally not the quickest path to get where you want to. Creating an even halfway decent approximation of ship speeds is way more complex than it would ever be worth it in a game like this, and so whatever system you are using will be a very basic abstraction.

For the same reasons that I prefer the 6-mile hex for land travel, I also like to go with the 30-mile hex for sea travel. 24-mile hexes would have more flexibility if you would want to have ships with many different speeds, but I am satisfied with ships being either “fast” or “slow”, with no further differentiation.

Speed is determined by the vessel and the water and wind conditions. Favorable Conditions means that the wind blows in the right direction at a good strength, or that the boat is going down a river with a significant current. Unfavorable Conditions means that the wind is weak and blowing from a bad direction, or that the boat is going up a river against a significant current. Average Conditions simply mean that the wind is neither particularly good or bad, or that the river does not have a significant current.

Ships out at sea can travel for 24 hours per day. By the PHB, rowboats are 50% faster than river boats. But a sailed river boat requires less work to move, so you can travel for more hours until it gets too dark. I say the two cancel each other out and the total distance per day comes out the same.

Water Travel

Speed Favorable Average Unfavorable
Boat 6 hexes (6-miles) 4 hexes (6-miles) 2 hexes (6-miles)
Slow Ship 3 hexes (30-miles) 2 hexes (30-miles) 1 hex (30-miles)
Fast Ship 6 hexes (30-miles) 4 hexes (30-miles) 2 hexes (30-miles)

From what I was able to find out, doing 36 miles rowing downriver is quite realistic, and for the sake of abstraction we’re ignoring that actual rivers aren’t straight. And again, the reality of travel speeds are much more complicated than this. This is the speed characters with light encumbrance would do in easy terrain. Since most wilderness in my campaigns isn’t easy and supplies for a long trip can easyily mean having heavy encumbrance, this is very good.

Going upriver would only be 2 hexes per day. Which is also what you get when travelling on foot through difficult terrain with heavy encumbrance. Since a long expedition is probably going to haul a lot of stuff with them and most wilderness will be difficult terrain, doing such a trip by boat isn’t going to be any faster or slower than doing it on foot. No change when going up the river, but huge advantage when going back down totally justifies the use of boats to travel deep into the wilderness for me.

Trade Goods as Treasure

This is one of these “I made this, so I might as well share it” things.

In my setting, travelling merchants are supposed to be a really big deal. And I also enjoy the players having to deal with encumbrance. Making exotic goods into a type of treasure that can be found is the sensible thing to do.

In my encumbrance system, weights are rounded up to the next multiple of 10 and then divided by 10. So the average weight for an item with an Encumbrance load of 1 is around 5 pounds. (Equally, the encumbrance limits for characters are divided by 5 to get the number of items that can be carried instead of the weight in pounds.) The quantities listed in this table have been chosen accordingly and the resulting prices and container capacities are based on the numbers from the 5th Ed. Player’s Handbook. If players come across these goods and want to take them as treasure, the only relevant number at that moment is how much they can carry while staying under the Encumbrance limits. Players won’t be trading in silk by meter but by encumbrance unit.

For the sake of simplicity, the numbers for kegs and barrels of ale and wine are rounded to easy number. The actual values for any of these goods are completely made up anyway.

Item Quantity Price Encumbrance
Sack of grain 30 lb. 3 sp 3
Sack of flour 30 lb. 6 sp 3
Pouch of salt 5 lb. 2 sp 1
Pouch of ginger 5 lb. 50 sp 1
Pouch of cinnamon or pepper 5 lb. 100 sp 1
Pouch of cloves 5 lb. 150 sp 1
Pouch of saffron 5 lb. 750 sp 1
Keg of ale 20 l 10 sp 4
Barrel of ale 200 l 100 sp 40
Keg of wine 20 l 20 sp 4
Barrel of wine 200 l 200 sp 40
Bottle of expensive wine 1 l 100 sp 1
Keg of expensive wine 20 l 2,000 sp 4
Canvas 6 sq. yd. 6 sp 1
Cotton cloth 20 sq. yd. 100 sp 1
Linen 12 sq. yd. 600 sp 1
Silk 24 sq. yd. 2,400 sp 1
Iron 5 lb. 5 sp 1
Copper 5 lb. 25 sp 1
Tin 5 lb. 100 sp 1
Silver 5 lb. 250 sp 1
Gold 5 lb. 2,500 sp 1

 

Wilderness Adventures for characters of level 4+?

Common wisdom appears to have it that parties in B/X transition from pure dungeon adventures at 1st to 3rd level to the wider world of wilderness adventures after reaching 4th level. The Expert Set adds rules for characters of 4th to 14th level and rules for wilderness adventures. And of course B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands are the most classic dungeon adventures and X1 The Isle of Dread was the first D&D hexcrawl. So obviously it must be true. Basic characters stay in the dungeon, Expert characters expand outdoors.

But I’ve come to wonder whether this really is the intention behind the way rules are split between the Basic and Expert Set. My suspicion is actually that the choice to split the rules into multiple sets was done with the intent to introduce both players and GMs to the rules gradually and not overwhelm them with everything at once. Which I think might have been a pretty good choice. The original Basic Set was a total of 60 pages. The Rules Cyclopedia comes to 300. That’s a lot of stuff to digest in one go before you feel confident that you know what you need to start playing. If you want to teach the basics of the game, you do need the dungeon, but outdoor adventures are indeed something that can, and perhaps should, wait for a bit later. Once everyone who is completely new to the game has got the hang out of the basics. By putting level 4 to 14 into the next set, the amount of spells that players (and GMs) are exposed to is much easier to overlook and you also get a collection of monsters that for the most part wouldn’t be absurd to face for a new beginning party. (Looking at you here, Dragon.)

I suspect that the separation of content was done as a teaching aid, primarily for GMs. It’s not so much that adventures change at higher levels, but that GMs can expand once they have become familiar with the basics. When you look at the Expert Set it says that “now” new paths of adventure are open, but does not do so in the context of character level. It is “now” that the GM has access to these expanded rules of the game. The Rules Cyclopedia does not touch upon this whole subject at all, from what I was able to tell.

Another strong piece of evidence, as I see it, are the modules B10 Night’s Dark Terror and X1 The Isle of Dread. Terror is a Basic module for characters of 2nd to 4th level while Isle is an Expert module for characters of 3rd to 7th level. Both begin at Basic levels and continue up into Expert levels and they are both wilderness adventures. The creators of these modules clearly did not write under the assumption that “you have to be this high” to go on adventures in the wilderness.