Old-School Essentials as a D&D alternative for D&D

In just the last week, I had three encounters with people voicing their unhappiness with essentially the same  issue they see with “D&D”.  (By which I assume they mean 5th edition in particular.) I only now got around to watching Matt Colville’s video Why Are We Fighting? last weekend, but I think his previous video What Are Dungeons For? also talks about the same fundamental issue. Then there was the thread Structural Flaw of the D&D Combat System on Enworld on Monday, and then this morning I saw this post on Mastodon.

And every time I was thinking “This issue had been figured out 40 years ago. This is a solved problem!”

I wanted to write an article about why people should consider Old-School Essentials as a system for roleplaying campaigns about wilderness exploration a few weeks back, but gave up when I couldn’t get even just the introduction down to under 2,000 words after several attempts. But now seeing several people independently voicing frustration with what I see the same fundamental issue with “modern D&D”, I really want to tell more people about a possible great match for their needs that has been hiding right under their noses by preconceptions about “old D&D” and “dungeon crawling”. Yes, OSE is both that, but in my opinion the rules are also a fantastic system for combat light, high tension, interaction heavy, semi-freeform adventures about exploring strange and magical underground environments and journeys through fantastical wildernesses.

Background and Origin of the Rules

When Dungeons & Dragons came out in the 70s, it was considered a huge success within the sphere of an established wargaming hobby. But whatever qualities Gygax may have had as a game designer, he really did very poorly as a technical writer and editor. Both the original D&D game that was more a collection of reference tables for people who had been taught the game in person, and the greatly expanded AD&D game a few years later are among the most difficult games to get into just because of the big hurdle of simply deciphering what the explanations are trying to say. To make D&D more accessible to a wider audience, Tom Moldvay created the Basic Rules that were a drastically cut down version of AD&D with only four human classes, a single class for dwarves, elves, and halflings each, and only covered the first three experience levels. At the same time, David Cook put together the Expert rules that had the expanded class tables up to 14th level, more spells for higher levels, more monsters and magic items, and also the rules for outdoor scenarios. They both did a great job in creating a much more compact version of AD&D and making it vastly more accessible, and the Basic and Expert rules became a massive commercial success, now usually simply known as B/X. Two years later, the B/X rules got a new edition that was still mostly the same game, but also got the Companion expansion and later the Master and Immortal rules, which led to it being known as BECMI.

When WotC created 3rd edition and released it in 2000, the new game was very much an evolution of AD&D 2nd edition with the alternative BECMI system being largely forgotten and unknown to people like me who only got into D&D at that time. But the compact and lightweight nature of the original 1981 B/X rules made it particularly well suited to using it as the starting framework for heavy modifications and it became the default standard for OSR creators trying out more experimental things that drifted increasingly further away from the conventions of D&D during the early 2010. While the original Basic and Expert rules are still available as pdfs, getting print versions in good conditions after 40 years is of course getting only more difficult, and while having the Expert rules separate from the Basic rules is really quite useful when learning the game, it’s a bit inconvenient to have spells, magic items, and monsters in two different books.

Old-School Essentials was created to address both these issues by combining the material from both books into a single text and putting it back into print. But in regards to the content of the rules, OSE and B/X are identical, with the one exception that the books have the attack bonuses and AC values for using the modern attack roll system of “d20 + bonuses vs AC” listed in all tables and description, alongside the original TSR system of attack tables. So if you want to use the modern (superior!) system, you don’t have to make the conversion yourself as with other retroclones and have the numbers you need right in the book.

Roleplaying Dungeon Crawling

Now, finally (after 800 words) to the main subject of this article. What makes OSE an interesting alternative to modern D&D for people who have gotten bored and frustrated with the slog of endless and mindless combat and are looking for something that makes exploration fun and exciting and has a stronger focus on interacting with the environment and the people and creatures that inhabit it?

On a first look at the rules (it’s all available online as an SRD), OSE seems a really strange choice for that purpose. It’s all about dungeon crawling and the rules for PC actions mostly just cover combat and spells and almost nothing else. There are no skills and no rules for social interactions. And the XP system is all about collecting as much gold coins and possible. That sound more like a hack and slash dungeon crawler than a roleplayin game. This seems worse than 5th and 3rd edition in those regards, not better.

One of the issues raised in one of the two videos I linked to above talks about how WotC was very successful in getting D&D established as the game that can be everything to all people. And in the process, their editions turned into a game that isn’t actually about anything specific. What is D&D about? What is the goal? How are individual mechanics set up to further that goal? These games provide mechanics to do a lot of things, but they don’t have a structure. Borrowing a term from videogame design, they have no gameplay loops. That makes the rules flexible and easy to adapt to many different kinds of campaign. But in turn they lack mechanics that specifically support the kind of adventures you have picked from your campaign by providing structures that take work of the GM’s shoulders and help players to be more proactive. I believe that much of the burden on the GM when it comes to preparing adventures and moving things along, and what can make playing D&D feel like a slog that drags on to players, comes from this lack of mechanical support for specific adventure styles.

The rules of Old-School Essentials all come together as a game that is designed with a very clear focus: It’s a game in which the PCs go into old ruins in the wilderness and face their many dangers to return with hauls of gold and other riches.

This does of course greatly reduce the possibilities of what kinds of adventures you can run with OSE. If you want to run a game in which dungeons do not take a central role and you are not interested in playing characters who are searching for riches in the face of great danger, then OSE does not have much to offer to you. But what the system of interdependent mechanics and procedures does provide is very strong support to make such explorations of strange undergrounds in mysterious wildernesses a game of great adventure in which the players are in charge of their fates and their choices determine what paths their stories will take. In many ways, I would even argue that OSE is a game for campaigns that are more similar to Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark than to the adventures and campaigns published for modern D&D.

Most of the quirks of early D&D need to be looked at in the context of adventures the game wants to produce and how this mechanic interacts with the other rules that make up the whole system. In most RPGs I’ve read over the years now, mechanic seem to be created to figure out what die to roll when a player wants to do a specific action. But the old B/X rules used by OSE are much more clever than that. You don’t just have mechanics to make dice roles for actions, you also have procedures that create situations and structure that give players the means to chart their own course instead of having to pick between two choices that the GM offers to them. All of these elements create a unified system in the strictest sense of the word, where every mechanic influences several others, and together they create results that you wouldn’t immediately expect if you just look at individual mechanics in isolation from the others. How this works is what I’ll be trying to explain in the rest of this article.

Credit goes mostly to Gus L’s Classic Dungeon Crawl series and Joseph Manola’s General Purpose posts. Everything about all of this I only know because they explained it.

XP for Gold is actually briliant

When I first heard that in older editions of D&D characters gained experience and advanced in levels based on the amount of treasure they collect around 2004, I thought that this was the dumbest rule that I had ever heard of. How is the amount of gold in your purse connected to getting better at swordfighting or learning more powerful spells? Getting better at playing lute from fighting monsters also doesn’t make much sense, but XP for gold seemed like a much more terrible mechanic.

What really is the purpose of XP? The reason why we want to reward certain actions and behaviors with XP but don’t give XP for others is to nudge the players to seek out opportunities to engage in those actions. When we are playing a campaign based on a premise that the PCs will have adventures similar to a certain type of fiction, then we want to create a lot of situations in the campaign that match that premise. OSE is a game about characters going into old ruins in the wilderness to search for treasure. By giving the players XP reward for collecting treasures and putting those treasures into old ruins, the players will automatically end up going to lots of dungeons and exploring them from top to bottom. And at no point do you have to make the decision as the GM what you want the players to do next. All you have to do is to make sure that there are several dungeons (could just be three) that have more than one path to explore them. The players are allowed to do anything they want and can think of, but by letting them know that they will be rewarded if they can bring treasure out of a dungeon,  they always know something that they can do next if there is currently nothing else pressing to them.

Another great thing about giving most XP for treasure but only little XP for defeating enemies (Moldvay recommends to aim for 3/4 XP from treasure and 1/4 XP from creatures when filling dungeons with content) is that it separates the questions of whether it is worth it to risk a deadly fight and whether they want to try getting a treasure they can see ahead. As Obi-Wan Kenobi once said “There are alternatives to fighting”. This is super important. By playing the emphasis on returning with treasure over defeating enemies in battle, you introduce the whole concept of stealing treasures through trickery rather than killing their guardians. This is something that gets completely lost in games where XP for defeating enemies is the default way to advance characters. As players, we always want XP. And if we only get XP by fighting monsters, we seek out fights with monsters. As many fights as possible. If a monster seems to strong to defeat it, then we probably plan to come back later when we’re stronger and get the XP then. Monsters not fought are XPs left unclaimed! And that is where the Murderhobo spawns as the only logical consequence.

In the OSE rules, it is assumed that monsters have their treasures stashed away in their lairs and don’t carry them on their bodies. You can sneak past the monster, lure it away, or distract it otherwise to get at its treasure without having to fight it at all. And perhaps even more importantly, wandering monsters that players run into in random encounters don’t have a treasure stash at all. This makes random encounters something you want to avoid. Random encounters have all the risk of losing health and spells and perhaps even characters getting killed, but don’t provide any meaningful rewards in the form of XP. In contrast, when combat is the primary source of XP, then random encounters are extra XP that come to you.

XP for treasure creates a kind of fiction in the game that is very different from post-Dragonlance D&D. In this game the PCs are treasure hunters, not monster slayers. And this allows you to present them with enemies that are actually scary instead of having to limit the dungeon to only monsters that do not pose a real threat. It’s now a survival game in which it makes sense to sneak past enemies and run away from them, and doing so can actually be an efficient way to gain XP faster than a form of failure and giving up.

Encumbrance is important

Encumbrance is one of the most hated mechanics in RPG. And for good reasons. Having to add the weight of each item you pick up to your total and subtracting the weight of every item you use up or throw away is a lot of bookkeeping. And inevitably there will be mistaken and then you have to do a full weight count of every item on your character sheet all over again. This sucks, this is terrible. And people are completely justified to not want to deal with it. Thankfully, there are much better ways to track how much stuff characters are carrying and how much it slows them down by making weights a little bit more abstract. Because having travel speed affected by how much gear the characters carry is serving an extremely important function in the greater exploration system. I believe people not bothering with calculating encumbrance because the rules in the books are too annoying was the first loose stone that made the entire complex exploration system of D&D collapse and disappear in later editions.

In the dungeon exploration and wilderness travel rules of OSE, random encounters are checked at specific intervals of time. The amount of random encounters a party will have depends on how much time they spend in a dungeon or how long it takes to reach the destination of a journey. And this depends entirely on how fast the party can travel. Ideally, you always want to travel as fast as possible to minimize the amount of random encounters. But a light load with no speed penalty really doesn’t let you carry a lot of things. You need your weapons and your armor. You also need food and water. You will need torches, lamp oil and arrows. You probably also want to have someone in the party having a rope or two, and crowbars, sledgehammers, shovels, and so on. Also sleeping bags and tents. And on top of all of that, while you are exploring the dungeon and make the journey back to the surface and then home, you’ll be increasingly loaded down by all the heavy treasures you collected.

If you bring too much, you get too much slowed down, have lots of random encounters, and might die. If you bring too little and things don’t work out just as planned, you might run out of supplies necessary to survive and will have to make detours or take greater risks. Perhaps you could leave things you no longer need in the dungeon behind to make more room for treasure you want to carry home. But then, who knows if you’re really not going to need them during the return journey?

There are no correct answers to these questions, and that’s what makes encumbrance such a brilliant mechanic in the exploration system. It creates constant tension and permanent doubt, and there are infinite possible combination for your characters loadout. It is also what will create situations in which the characters are dangerously low on certain supplies and force the players to go on unplanned side adventures to get water or stumble around blindly in the dark. Or at least have the party race through the tunnels in panic as their last remaining torch keeps getting dangerously low. Exploration as an adventure does not work without encumbrance.

Also, the amount of gold character need to gain new levels at the higher levels increase exponentially and pretty soon reach ridiculous levels. Even if the party has a bag of holding or two, the hauls at higher level get so big that it can take dozens of mules to carry all the stuff in one go. And the mules can also help a lot with carrying all the supplies that players might want to bring on a longer journey. Of course, you can’t take all these mules inside of dungeons and when left alone any bandit or griffon passing by can just snatch them up and be on their way. So the players probably will have to hire mercenaries to guard the supply train. And maybe get some retainers to look over the mercenaries while their PCs are gone inside the dungeon for hours on end.

Reaction Rolls and Morale Checks

The reaction roll is something that has disappeared from D&D long ago and I absolutely have no idea why. I assume its part of the fallout of the Dragonlance transformation that turned RPGs from players developing campaigns through their actions and choices as they went into a medium of adventure writers and GMs narrating a written out stories to the players. But together with dropping XP for treasure but keeping XP for defeating enemies, dropping the reaction roll is one of the main things that creates the murderhobo phenomenon and makes it pretty much inevitable.

In the OSE rules, monsters and NPCs encountered in a room or as wandering encounters have no default disposition towards the PCs. When the type of the creature or its placement really only allows for one plausible reaction of the monsters, then that’s what happens. For example an ancient crypt in which the dead bodies have risen as zombies. What else could they do but attack the living and try eating their brains? Or randomly encountering a group of guard looking for intruders into the castle? Of course they will tell the PCs to drop their weapons and get arrested. But those situation are generally rare and meant to be the exception. Normally, when creatures are encountered in rooms or wandering, a reaction roll is made.

Now as much as I praised Moldvay and Cook for making the D&D rules more accessible and easy to comprehend, the explanation of the different results for a reaction roll are super vague. There’s really only one or two words for each number with no elaboration on how that might look in practice. It’s also not quite clear how a character’s Charisma modifier to reaction rolls is supposed to be applied. (But I do have an idea how you can do it.) But having spend some time with that section of the rules, I think the following is really just the only thing that makes sense for what was originally intended.

  • There is a 3% chance that the creatures see the party and immediately charges at them and try to kill them.
  • There is a 25% chance that the creatures have a problem with the PCs being there and will threaten them to leave the area, try to rob them, or otherwise make demands on what the players will have to do to not have it devolve into a fight.
  • There is a 44% chance that the creatures are undecided on what to do and wait to see what the PCs are doing next, perhaps followed by another roll with a modifier based on the PCs behavior.
  • There is a 25% chance that the creatures want to avoid a fight and will try to negotiate with the PCs or retreat from the area to avoid violence.
  • And finally there is a 3% chance that the creatures see the PCs as welcomed guest and offer to provide information and assistance as it is within their means.

Say the PCs run into a group of bandits and the reaction roll makes them friendly. The bandits could mistake the PCs as new member of their gang or visitors they were expecting. Or they could assume the PCs have come to see their leader and join them. Or they are having a problem and think the PCs are another group of bandits and they could join forces to deal with the threat and split the spoils. Imagine the players encounter an ogre in his cave and he offers them pieces of his roasted halfling over the fire? That would be a very interesting situation for players to respond to.

Morale checks have lingered around much longer, but I’ve never really seen them given any real attention. Even back in B/X they were listed as optional, but they really serve a very important function. The idea is that under certain conditions, there is a chance that a group of enemies will panic and flee from a fight. The first morale check is made when the first member of a group goes down, killed or otherwise incapacitated. That’s when things suddenly become very real for everyone involved. Another check is made when a group has lost half its members. At that point, it’s generally becoming clear that the remaining ones probably won’t be surviving either. I personally also like to make morale checks when the leader or a particularly big and impressive ally of the group is killed. When a group of 12 goblins and an oger is two goblins down and the oger falls, that’s a very good reason for the goblins to reconsider their chances, even if their group is only one quarter of their fighters down. Successful morale checks of course don’t preclude the fighters to to make an informed rational decision that the fight is not worth to continue and order an organized retreat, or to offer their surrender. It just means that they don’t start blindly running away in terror.

What these two mechanics bring to the table should be very obvious. Not only is it not desirable for players to fight everything in the dungeon and the wilderness, most of the time they might not even have to and still can continue on their path without having to retreat back. It also provides many great opportunities to have interesting unplanned interactions with NPCs during explorations.

As GM, you could of course always decide what reaction towards the PCs randomly encountered creatures will have. But in my experience, in the heat of the action when all the players are looking at you eager to hear what happens with the things they just encountered, it’s just overwhelming tempting to always go with the default option that takes the least effort and can sprung into action immediately. “They attack.” By having the reaction roll as part of an established procedure for every encounter, you have a tool that always makes you at least take a moment to consider your options before settling on the easiest one. If the roll gives you a reaction and you have no clue how that could possibly work with that creature in that situation, you still always have the option to pick yourself how it should logically react. But having a dice roll always make a suggested outcome first is a very useful tool to have.

OSE might be worth a look

At 4,000 words, this is still only a look at the surface of what makes these 42 year old rules an interesting option for GMs and groups that think generic modern D&D can be a slog with too much mindless combat that takes way too much work and time to prepare for. I’m still not really happy with how this has come out and I am sure there are many more intricacies that would be worth mentioning, but I don’t think I’m going to get it much better than this in any reasonable time frame. If any of this sounds interesting and you want to know more in a lot more detail, I recommend again the Classic Dungeon Crawl series by Gus L I linked to above. He does a much better job at it, but also takes considerably more than 4,000 words.

This has to be the most ridiculous adventure premise I’ve ever seen

The D&D adventure Journey to the Rock has a reputation of being really bad. It’s not as infamous as The Forest Oracle or Castle Greyhawk, since it’s just really bland and forgettable, but it’s really bad.

The party takes one of three different paths to get to the Rock. So they’ll only get to see one third of the adventure. Because when they reach the Rock itself, it only has a single room inside. Which is a giant empty room. 240 by 350 feet with a 350 feet dome. On one wall are seven chests and four statues. The statues will attack the party, but only if the party is strong, has most of its hit points, and most of their magic still available. Otherwise they are just normal statues. There is a stupid puzzle and if the players pick the wrong chest, they are teleported out the door and have to go back empty handed. If they pick the right chest with the MacGuffin, the quest giver will teleport them back to his house. That’s the whole adventure.

But it has backstory! Which is just ridiculous.

Many thousands of years ago, a great magical city was under attack by forces of Chaos, and when things started to look desperate, the rulers decided have two of their best escape the city and go into hiding until they could continue the fight. To make sure one of them could not reveal the identity of the other if captured, the two were given their mission secretly and not told who the other person was. But the two would be able to find each by being given two halves of an amulet that would make them both immortal and grant them great magical powers to fight Chaos, but whose magic could not be used by anyone else.

Eventually all the people of the city were banished to another dimension and the city itself was forgotten.

One half of the amulet was hidden away in a secret chamber in the Rock. The forces of Chaos learned that one half of the Amulet was hidden in the Rock but couldn’t get to it, so they laid a spell over the entrance that would prevent its owner from going inside.

Now this millennia old immortal wizard decides he needs to get his half of the amulet from the Rock to find the other immortal who escaped from the city so they could start finding a way to rescue their people from that other dimension. And to break the barrier that has been preventing him from going inside the Rock himself, he hires 6 to 8 adventurers of 1st to 3rd level.

Actually, his servant hires them. The wizard himself never comes out of his laboratory and does not reveal anything about who he is, what the amulet is, and what he needs it for to anyone. The players will never know any of that and it has no relevance to the adventure at all. Which is a good thing, because it makes no fucking sense!

As in the opening credits of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the person producing this should have immediately been sacked. And the person responsible for sacking him should also have been sacked.

I do like the cover, though…

My Plans for Aumaril and Wilderness Exploration Rules

People who’ve been following what I write for some time might know that I often come up with plans for grand ideas but rarely have anything finished to present later. Since I don’t have any money at stake with all this elfgame stuff, that’s fine. And it’s rare that I actually abandon anything I’ve been working on completely. Much of stuff that I create is tinkering with mechanics and concepts and it’s always a learning experience that helps me increase my understanding of the material. And nearly all of it kind of just goes into a drawer where I let it sit for some months or a few years while my attention is on other things, to get pulled out again at some later point to continue tinkering with it. So while it might be pretty early to make any kind of announcement yet for what I am currently working on and nothing might come out of during the next year or so, my current plans for a rules system and campaign setting are actually just a new phase of the same things I’ve been working on for nearly 10 years now. I am constantly getting better at it and feel like I am making great progress, but with increasing experience comes a better understanding of how far away the goal has actually been all along. It’s a bit like fusion power research, I guess.

With a lot of talk, confusion, and general uncertainty about the licensing situation of D&D type games in the last month, plenty of people have come out with the opinion that this is as good a time as there’s ever been to just go through with their ideas of what a perfect game system should look like and make it happen. Though in full self-awareness of how much interest and use such systems might actually see, the old term of fantasy heartbreakers immediately made it back into circulation. It’s not going to be the next Dungeons & Dragons or the next Pathfinder, and most likely not even the next Swords & Wizardry. This is something you do just for the fun of it and maybe to use for your own campaigns, and perhaps, if you’re lucky, it becomes popular enough that some people will take bits and pieces as house rules for their own campaigns. And in this mood and environment, why the hell not? I’ve been collecting quite some house rules myself over the years which I already put together as the Yora Rules, and there’s a number of things in B/X that I would personally have done very differently.

So I’m gonna do this!

There are actually three connected but separate things that I want to make:

  1. A revision of the classes and combat rules of B/X (like attack rolls and saving throws) mostly intended for my own personal use.
  2. A set of new rules and mechanics for a streamlined wilderness exploration system that makes wilderness travel and resource management simpler and faster, and a system for maintaining a fixed home base to serve as treasure vault, supply depot, and winter camp. I think this one actually has potential to be a successful (free) product.
  3. A campaign setting for my own next campaign in which I’ll use and playtest the new rules above.

At this stage, these are really more general plans for a playtest than specific plans for a product. These are plans to develop something, which depending on how things work out, could at a later point lead to releasing something.

OSRIC and OSE already set great examples for how you could replicate the structure of AD&D and B/X even with the OGL 1.0a, and with the new Creative Commons license for the SRD 5.1, I feel that all of this is both perfectly within both the letter and spirit of the law.

The Rules Revision

I started RPGs with D&D 3rd edition just when it came out and later played some Pathfinder for a while. It was fine back then because it was what I knew, but when I became curious about this oldschool roleplaying stuff I spend a while with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, as a more accessible way to get into the AD&D mechanic, but since I discovered the Basic/Expert rules eight years ago, I’ve been a huge fan of those rules ever since. That is, at least in general terms. I’ve never been able to actually understand the TSR system for making attack rolls and the saving throw categories seem quite nonsensical for someone who was first introduced to Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. That’s why I always only actually ran Basic Fantasy and Lamentation of the Flame Princess and more recently Old-School Essentials, which all let you make attack rolls like in the d20 system. But I’m also quite a fan of some changes made to the B/X rules by Stars Without Number and its various descendants.

In the big picture, these rules will still be B/X. But with the amount of house rules I already made and some other changes I think would be big improvements to the game, it just seems convenient to do a fully new writeup for everything that I can hand to players and also share publicly. Some of these changes seem quite radical as they throw away a presumed “balance” that Gygax and Moldvay created for different classes. But it’s by now pretty well known that there was no precise fine tuning and diligent play testing for the exact values in the tables, and they just made up numbers that looked right. (If anything does break, it will show up during play tests and can be fixed later.)

  • Attack rolls and Armor Class as in d20-system games.
  • Saving throws are Physical, Mental, Evasion, and Magic.
  • All classes advance at the same XP scores as fighters.
  • Attack bonuses and saving throws increase linearly with levels.
  • No restrictions on weapons and armor.
  • Spellcasting is restricted by encumbrance instead of armor.
  • Spells are not lost after casting. (Though still limited in uses per day.)
  • Encumbrance based on number of items instead of weights.
  • Ability checks are rolled with 2d6 against a target number based on the ability score.
  • In dungeons, 1 turn covers exploration of “1 area” instead of a distance of corridor.
  • Encumbrance increases the requirement for rest turns instead of reducing exploration speed.
The Wilderness Exploration Game

While the rules for character advancement, combat, and dungeon exploration in the Basic rules are already pretty nice as a rules light version of D&D, it’s really the Exploration rules that always keep me coming back to this game. I remember when West Marches by Ben Robbins was first making its rounds and it always seemed like a really cool approach to set up a sandbox campaign. I later was greatly inspired by Joseph Manola’s The long haul: time and distance in D&D about approaching adventures as months-long expeditions into the unknown, interrupted by spending months cooped up in winter camp. More recently, I’ve read Gus L’s series on Classic Dungeon Crawls that emphasizes the survival game aspect as being essential to making the exploration of dungeons an engaging mode of play, and the whole time I was thinking “Yes, but what if we apply all of this to the outdoors?!”

I feel the wilderness has always been overshadowed by dungeons and by city adventures, but my own mental images of amazing fantasy worlds are filled with trees and mountains from horizon to horizon. And pondering on the ideas of the three wise men above, I’ve become convinced that there can be absolutely fantastic campaigns in which the wandering around in the wilderness can be the main attraction, rather than just the connecting transition space between different adventure sites. To make such a campaign work, there needs to be a clear campaign structure, as well as a set of easy to use tools for the GM to make it happen.

As campaign structure goes, the concept very much follows the West Marches and the original Basic rules: The game begins with 1st level PCs in a small frontier town that is relatively close to several ruins and caves that are home to various creatures and hiding ancient treasures. At first adventures are relatively short, with the travel to the sites being quick and probably uneventful and dungeons being fairly small, and all the PCs being back in the town after 3 to 5 hours where they get XP for all the treasures they recovered. Dungeons with more dangerous creatures and greater treasures tend to be farther away from the town and descend into greater depth, leading to increasingly longer adventures that eventually won’t be able to be played in a single go.

At this point it becomes strongly encouraged for the players to have more than a single character to deal with scheduling. If players A, B, C, and D go on a longer adventure with characters A(1), B(1), C(1), and D(1), the adventure can’t continue until all four players can come together at the same time with the GM again. If player C can only play every second week (maybe), but players A, B, and D want to play more often, they can go on another adventures with their character A(2), B(2), and D(2), and maybe also take along two other players with their characters E(1) and F(1)? If the campaign is about uncovering the secrets and mysteries of the wilderness instead of the personal stories of individual PCs, this way of playing multiple PCs is perfectly viable and it increased scheduling flexibility immensely. It also makes long healing times and characters working for weeks or months on creating magic items and similar things more viable. Just because one character is out of action for the game doesn’t mean all the other PCs have to sit around and fiddle their thumbs while they are waiting.

The Expert rules recommend that characters should start going on longer journeys deep into the wilderness and away from civilization around 4th level, which I think remains a good guideline. But I also think that this is actually the perfect time for PCs to start establishing their own stronghold. Not as barons ruling over their respective towns and villages (which isn’t really much of a group activity anyway), but to have a new forward base camp for their exploration deeper into the wilderness. It’s a place where they can stash their newly found treasures in their vault (and get XP for said treasures), have a supply depot with food reserves for months, can set up fully stocked shops for armorers and alchemists, and a garrison for the hired mercenaries who guard the vault and stay with the pack animals and supplies while they go down into dungeons to explore. It can also serve as their winter camp when the whether makes campaigning nearly impossible for several months of the year.

This new stronghold not only serves as an alternative for the starting town for launching new adventures deeper into the wilderness, it also functions as a generator for new adventures. Ben Robins recommends that the PCs should be the only adventurers exploring the West Marches, but the players don’t have to be the only people establishing a new outpost on the very edges of civilization. There can also be the keeps of aspiring new barons, mining camps, bandit camps, and of course endless hidden lairs of evil cults. Not to mention monsters like giants and dragons making their homes in the area. All of which could have a problem with the PCs setting up a new base near their own turf. Or potentially become allies to share resources and information, and aid each other in times of attacks.

The critical importance of random encounter in dungeon explorations is well enough known, but the same mechanic can also do an incredible amount of heavy lifting when it comes to the wilderness. Nearly everything that can be encountered in the wilds or on the road is either going somewhere or coming from somewhere. After the encounter has played out, there’s usually an option for the players to either follow the creatures to where they are going, or to follow their trail to where they came from. This is a fantastic opportunity to introduce new sites to the sandbox. People probably have noticed that the numbers of creatures encountered in the wilderness often goes into the dozens, and in the case of some lairs even in the hundreds. These numbers are not for a group of four PCs being suddenly ambushed by an entire army on the march. These are numbers for populating keeps, camps, and lairs. These groups are what you find when you follow the wandering groups of monsters back to their homes. And they don’t have to be hostile. The same reaction rolls for random encounters in dungeons can be used when approaching a stronghold in the wilderness. Which I think has the potential as an amazing tool to create a wilderness area that is a living space where players can discover the unexpected and the GM has fantastic opportunities for very freeform and improvisational play.

As I mentioned, a campaign like this also needs tools. The following are mechanics that I’ve already dabbled with to make running such adventures easier. Some of which overlap with the changes to the basic game mechanics mentioned in the previous section. Most of these are things that the Expert rules already cover, but I feel they are clunky and inconvenient to use. All of it can be done better without dramatically changing the outcomes.

  • Item-based encumbrance.
  • Simple rules for water and food rations.
  • Mechanical consequences for lack of food and water.
  • Rules for disease(?)
  • More robust rules for hunting and foraging.
  • Travel speeds that map exactly to 6-mile hexes with no half hexes or third hexes traveled per day.
  • Simple rules for river travel speed.
  • Rules for tracking.
  • Wilderness exploration turns analogous to Dungeon exploration turns.
  • Stronghold and lair generator tables.

The final piece for my upcoming campaign during which all these ideas for new rules and mechanics will be playtested is the setting. I like the sound of Aumaril, and I checked that it isn’t already used by something else. And it’s different enough from Arduin and Amalur to not seem like a knockoff.

Aumaril is a world dominated by severe weather and many volcanoes. Volcanic activity covers the sky in ash every few decades that can cause brutal winters and ruin harvests, but on some occasions have tipped the climate to a point of causing ice ages that can range from centuries to tens of thousands of years. The world only emerged from four thousand years of winter fairly recently, which destroyed the civilization of the fey, reduced the kingdoms of the giants to barbarism, and diminished the empires of the serpentmen to a shadow of their former greatness. As the ice retreated and forest returned to the northern lands, mortal barbarians migrated from the south to make them their home. In recent generations, these first mortal empires have fallen into chaos and decay, and many people are fleeing deeper into the wilderness to try their luck among the abandoned ruins of the fey and giants, and things much more older than even the ancients.

While civilization is centered around three old empires that have seen much better days, and could be interesting places for adventures in their own right, these are not the actual setting where the planned campaign takes place. The adventures of the PCs cover the vast wilderness of forests and mountains that still cover most of the world and remain largely unexplored, but have many ancient ruins from the previous age and civilizations that have long since disappeared. I am an unashamed fan of the 70s and 80s Sword & Sorcery style that gratuitously blends together traditional medieval fantasy elements with weird and alien environments from science fiction or prehistoric Earth. Mushroom forests, dinosaurs, and giant insects are totally my jam, as are evil sorcerers in giant black towers covered in skulls. Which I think has never been executed better (at least stylistically) than in Morrowind. I’m not leaning as much towards the camp or melodramatic, but I still think this is a really cool aesthetic that can be just as well suited for more down to earth fantasy adventures.

One thing that really excites me about this setting is that it’s being populated by various intelligent creatures that have been created for D&D pretty long times ago, but never really seen much breakout success or prominent appearances. In addition to the very human-like Aumarilians, who are greatly inspired by various cultures from the Hyborean Age and the Elder Scrolls, the other major peoples are chitines, derro, fey’ri, grimlocks, locathah, quaggoths, raptorans, and stone giants. Goliaths seem to have become quite popular in 5th edition, and of course yuan-ti have always been famous.

This part of my great creation probably won’t see any kind of proper release as some kind of book, but I guess I’m probably going to share various bits and pieces about it here as the actual campaign develops.

An ability test and Thief skill system for B/X

I’m actually doing it. I’m making my own version of what I think the Basic/Expert rules should have looked like, with dice rolls that are intuitive and level progressions that are consistent, based on my first experiences with the d20 system. I’m probably not gonna use it, and it’s really just an exercise in tinkering around. I don’t think you would get a lot of interested player for a campaign by a new GM with his personal fantasy heartbreaker, but maybe when I have an established OSE campaign running the players might be interested in a less messy version of the rules which still really do the same thing.

It’s really just all the Yora rules put together. Mostly ideas that come from Stars Without Number, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Deep Carbon Observatory. But I also got some original ideas of my own. (Which I’m probably not the first person to come up with.)

Where I think B/X really can be improved is some kind of consistent system for ability checks. Hear noise and detect secret doors are a 1 in 6 roll. Thief skills are a percentage roll. Other actions are suggested to be handled by rolling a d20 under the characters most relevant ability score. It’s all over the place. The solution that I’ve come up with is none of the above.

To make a roll to see if a character succeeds on an action that seems plausible to work but success is not certain and there are meaningful consequences for failure, roll 2d6 against a target number based on the character’s most relevant ability score.

For characters with no modifier for the relevant ability, the target number is 7. (Right in the middle for a 2d6 roll, the most common result, and a chance to succeed of 58%, slightly above half.) This number is modified by the ability modifier.

Score Modifier TN Chance
3 -3 10 17%
4-5 -2 9 28%
6-8 -1 8 42%
9-12 +0 7 58%
13-15 +1 6 72%
16-17 +2 5 83%
18 +3 4 92%

This system replaces the Strength modifier for opening doors. (2d6 against TN 5 is about the probability of 1-5 on a d6.) If a task seems particularly difficult, you can tell the player  to roll with -1 or -2, and the majority will intuitively understand that this means 2d6-1 against the same target number as always. (The target numbers should be on the character sheet, like saving throws.)

The very same system to make rolls can also be used to roll for Thief skills instead of 1d100 roll under. This assumes that Thief skills are things that are simply impossible for anyone who isn’t a thief. Climbing walls too smooth to climb on, moving without making any noise, hiding with nothing to hide behind. These are things you can’t take a shot at and hope to get lucky without the special training of the thief class. (For hearing noises, I would go with letting a thief roll against the target number of either his Wisdom or Thief skill, whichever is lower.

If I were to make my own B/X hack…

    • Attack rolls are made with 1d20 + class level bonuses + equipment bonus against 10 + Dexterity modifier + equipment bonus.
    • The four saving throws are Physical, Mental, Evasion, and Magic.
    • Attack bonuses and saving throws increase linear with levels.
    • No prime requisite ability requirements and no XP modifiers for high or low scores.
    • Fighter, thief, mystic (cleric), sorcerer (mage), scout (halfling), warlock (elf), shaman, and scoundrel as character classes.
    • No mechanical impact from character background or origin.
    • Thief and scout skills use 2d6.
    • Spells are prepared with spell slots, but casting is limited by spells per day.
    • Encumbrance is based on number of items carried, with encumbrance limits deriving from the Strength score.
    • Heavy loads increase the number of rest turns in dungeons instead of slowing movement speed.
    • Dungeon exploration are structured around exploring one area per turn, instead of progressing a distance in feet.
    • Weapons and armor are not restricted by class.
    • Spellcasting and thief skills are limited by encumbrance instead of armor type.
    • Different rules for ships.
    • A strictly 6-mile hex based travel system that always results in distances in 6-mile increments.

Hit point increases in B/X

I somewhere saw people discussing the question whether the thief in B/X would be better having a d6 for hit dice instead of a d4, and one point that was brought up against that is that the thief gains new levels very quickly and as such has more Hit Dice than other characters with comparable XP, and that this would even things out already.

I’ve long felt that the speed of thieves gaining new levels has been greatly overstated, and so I went to check how the average hit points over time for the different classes actually look like.

Average hit points from 0 to 32,000 XP.

As can be seen here, a thief’s average hit points do get very close to those of a cleric on reaching 4th and 5th level, but the cleric almost immediately surges ahead again.

Average hit points from 0 to 640,000 XP.

And after those initial first levels, the gap between thieves and clerics only widens until 10th level when the cleric continues to gain only 1 hp each time compared to the thief’s 2 hp. Now a 6 hit point gap on average towards the end of the B/X progression is not that big, but at these small numbers that’s still +20% for the cleric. And a +50% for the fighter, compared to the thief.

Does that make thieves too fragile at higher levels? I don’t know, I’ve not enough experience at play at those levels. But I think this also shows that the thief’s faster level advancement rate does not negate the difference in Hit Die size to the cleric at all.