A total noob explores BECMI: Part 1 – Abilities and classes

About a week ago I stumbled on a forum thread in which some veteran fans went through all the setting material of the Known World/Mystara setting, which had been the default setting for the B/X and BECMI editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Knowing nothing about that world I took a peek out of curiosity and quickly got very much interested. I had some vague familiarity with some retroclones based on it, mostly Adventurer Conqueror King and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and even though they looked very well made, they just seemed very weird. Very much unlike D&D as I had known it for the 10 or so years before I left it behind me.

But now I got myself really interested in that old game, mostly because it seemed pretty rules light, and the amount of complicated rules had always annoyed me the most about AD&D and made me leave behind 3rd Edition/Pathfinder and look for greener pastures. And I really hate the magic system so much that I never want to run any edition of D&D again and only play it if someone else is GM and wants to run it. But I am still very much interested in how that game really worked and what I can learn from it about running rules light games and how to make dungeon exploration as exciting as the tales I often read. So I got myself the original Basic and Expert rules as pdf and went ahead to really learn how that game actually works and was supposed to be played.

116578The first impression where so interesting that I thought about making this a series of post for other people like me, who really don’t know anything before 3rd Edition and perhaps a bit about AD&D.

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Why clerics in D&D can use heavy armor

This is something that I always thought to be somewhat odd, and I think many of the people I played with did too. Why are clerics in D&D the third best frontline fighters? (Excluding self-buffing shananigans from 3rd edition which simply make them the very best.) Heavy armor is not something one would usually expect from a priest. Shouldn’t he be dressed in robes like a wizard? In 3rd edition, only three of the standard classes get proficiency with heavy armor, the other two being fighters and paldins. Why do clerics get it?

clericarmorI’ve been reading and dabbling in the old Basic Rules these past days, and considering the whole design paradigm of the game, I think it makes perfect sense. Clerics can fight in heavy armor not because it’s their speciality, but because there is no reason for them not to wear it. The way armor proficiency works in 3rd edition is the opposite of how it originally was. The older editions worked by a logic that all characters can do everything unless there is a reason why they could not. Wizards don’t wear any armor because it interferes with their spells, and thieves don’t wear heavy armor because it limits the mobility they need for sneaking and climbing. Cleric spells are not restriced by armor and they usually don’t try to be extra stealthy or do any fancy acrobatics. So why shouldn’t they be wearing the best protection they can get?

When later wearing armor became something that needs a speical ability to use, clerics got that ability simply because they always had been wearing heavy armor. Even though under the new logic of the game it didn’t really make any sense anymore.

Why I love published adventures. And why I don’t use them.

I’ve recently found an old piece on Hill Cantons about an exchange with Rob Kuntz, who was among the people who working on Dungeons & Dragons in the early years. In it, Kuntz is quite outspoken against published modules, which he regards as clearly a step into the completely wrong direction which turned the game into something very different from what they had thought to be the spirit of D&D.

I have always thought that the DM’s route to any fantastic achievement in such literature was through a very personal course, most certainly inspired by reading and study or other such related matter, but not actually “implanted” or done for them.

I first thought of this as a highly negative and overly criticizing view bordering on being elitist and snobbery, even though I am not really a fan of published adventures myself. But that had me wondering how I actually have been using modules over the 15 years that I’ve been running games. I am one of those rare and elusive people who actually got into RPGs without anyone to introduce me to it and teach me how it works, and worked myself through the rules the hard way. There was an introductory scenario which I used for the first shaky steps and then tried to start a real campaign with The Sword of the Dales using the 3rd edition rules which had just been released a few weeks before. Some years later I did run City of the Spider Queen, which we thought was very cool (because we were young and stupid), and was the only time I’ve ever seen characters of 11th level or higher. But as far as I can remember, that really was it as far as running published adventures went.

However, I did use a lot of other adventures. The last game that I ran was based on Flight of the Red Raven by Paizo, using a different rulesset, being set in a homebrew setting, there was no winter and ice, I made my own dungeon, created my own encounters, the jinn was an oni, and the Red Raven was a completely different guy. But the idea why the party went to that dungeon and what situation they were encountering there, that was pretty straight up taken from Flight of the Red Raven. I started that campaign with an adaptation of The Automatic Hound and Depths of Rage from Dungeon magazine. A blend of The Disappearance of Harold the Hedge Mage and Raiders of the Black Ice was plannes for later. I also did Escape from Meenlock Prison with an earlier group, which I think that was the best game I’ve ever ran. So yeah, I do love them and get a lot of use from them.

But I think this approach actually matches very well with what Kuntz said. “Inspired by reading and study or other such related matter, but not actually “implanted” or done for them.” That the related matter was a published RPG adventure and not a novel or book doesn’t really change anything in my view. There are plenty of other published adventures I very much love. Master of the Desert Nomads, Rahasia, Night’s Dark Terror, and Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, and The Styes, to name a few. And Savage Tide has just full awesome all over it. But I never use the floorplans. I don’t use the NPC stats and I rebuild all the encounters from scratch using creatures that fit my setting and are of a difficulty that works well for the particular group of PCs I am currently playing with. Most of the time I actually use a different game edition or even an entirely different game.

So yeah, I think I am kind of in agreement with Kuntz here. Published adventures, as they are, are pretty much unusable for the kind of games that I run and I wouldn’t advice any new GM to run them out of the book. What I am getting out of them is really the description of adventuring sites, the motivation and goal of the antagonists, and the outline of their plans to achieve their goal. Everything else I can do myself, and even though I don’t consider myself a great GM, I can do it better myself. Not because the writers of published adventures are all total hacks who don’t know anything, but because only I know the level and composition of the party and the setting in which the campaign takes place. Publish adventures cannot account for this. And what I really would love to see is adventures that don’t even try. Just give me the setup, the location, and the antagonists plan. That is really the most difficult part of creating a good adventure for a group. Leave all that number stuff to me, that part is easy once you know what you’re trying to do.

B/XoL: First draft (mostly) done!

My first draft for the Barbarians and Explorers of Lemuria hack for Barbarians of Lemuria is (mostly) done. You can take a look at it here.

The one part that is still missing is the section on how to deal with doors, light, thirst and hunger, and so on but I’ll be doing that in the following days. If you have any thoughts or suggestions for this hack, please share them in the comments.

B/XoL: Converting D&D creatures to Barbarians of Lemuria

The Legendary edition of Barbarians of Lemuria doesn’t come with a lot of creatures and most of them are pretty unique and unusual. Though my own goal with B/XoL is not to recreate Basic D&D but to take inspirations from it, Dungeons & Dragons is a great source when it comes to monsters. I think between BECMI and AD&D, there are way over a thousand of them.

Having looked at the creatures from the BoL Legendary Edition and the D&D Basic Set, I’ve come up with a couple of guidelines how to convert creatures from one game to the other:

Attributes: In the older editions of D&D, monsters don’t have any specified ability scores. However, starting with 3rd ed. they do, and the SRD is a good reference for them. Since the Lifeblood of monsters is not affected by their Strength score, we can simply ignore Constitution, and Wisdom always had almost no relevance to anyone but cleric, so we just need the Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma scores and convert them to Strength, Agility, Mind, and Appeal.

BoL says that an attribute score of 0 is human average, 3 is the maximum for new characters, and 4 or higher would be truly legendary. This is very convenient for us, as in D&D 10 is the average for humans and 18 the absolute maximum that only very few characters have. So we can simply make the conversion of 8=-1, 10=0, 12=1, 14=2, 16=3, 18=4, and so on. (Most animals would have a Mind attribute of -4, insects of -5. A Mind score of -3 is the minimum to understand languages and talk, if the creature is able to.)

Lifeblood: Having used some reference creatures that are pretty similar in D&D and BoL, I think the most practical formula to calculate the Lifeblood of a creature is simply 1 HD=5 LB. This is not modified by the creatures Strength score, as it would be for NPCs.

Protection: For protection, the different classes of armor can be used as reference. No meaningful protection = 0; fur or light hide = 1 (d3-1), thick hide = 2 (d6-2), scales = 3 (d6-1), thick scales = 4 (d6), extraordinary armor = 5 (d6+5).

Defense: Here it’s starting to get a bit fuzzy. Based on the creatures in the Legendary Edition, there are two hrd rules that are always obeyed: Defense is never lower than Agility, and never lower than 0. Other than that, there seems no consistent rules. Some creatures have an additional increase of Defense of +1 or +2, but that increase seems mostly arbitrary, though I think it’s somewhat more common with very powerful creatures than with weaker ones.

Initiative: The new Mythic Editon of BoL removes the Brawl combat ability and replaces it with Initiative. As I don’t have this edition I am not certain how it affects creature stats, but I would assume that in most cases Initative is simply identical to Agility.

Attacks: Here I have not been able to find any kind of consistent rules. The bonuses to attack and the amount to damage really seems to be entirely at the discretion of the gamemaster. There is only a single creature in the Legendary Edition that has a bonus of +5, and most are between +1 and +3. However, powerful characters can easily reach a Defense score of 7 (3 agility, 3 Defense, 1 shield), which means any attack needs a +4 bonus to have any chance to hit them at all. (And even then the chance is just 3%). So if you’re playing a campaign where characters reach that high Defense scores, feel free to give the bigger monsters attack bonuses of +6 and higher.

Damage: Damage appears to be more closely tied to the overall size and strength of the creature. 2d6 is already pretty high and only a few giant sea monsters get more than that. Since the Lifeblood of characters doesn’t really increase in BoL, I think it’s generally best not to go beyond this. If you want to make the monster nastier, make it hit more often instead.

A final thought that is currently bouncing around in my head is that one could potentially increase the average amount of treasure a creature has based on it’s Lifeblood (which with these conversions would be based on Hit Dice), but I think that may start to get too much into developing a full XP system, which I don’t really want to. My main motivation to add treasure to the game is to encourage the players to face monsters and dangers without a lethal fight during adventures. The search for treasure should not be the main reason to go on the adventure in the first place. I think that should still be motivated by some kind of basic background story. When Conan goes thieving, it’s usually not to get some bags of coins, but because he is looking for item specifically. But when you’re already in the place, why not make a few little detours to grab some bags with gold too?

B/XoL: Hacking Barbarians of Lemuria for treasure hunting

Here’s an interesting idea I’ve been pondering all day. Using Barbarians of Lemuria to run an oldschool campaign in the spirit of the old Basic and Expert rules of Dungeons & Dragons. I really quite love the style of adventures that is presented by this version of D&D, but I am just really not a fan of the game at the most basic level. The entire combat system and magic system just isn’t to my liking. BoL on the other hand is pretty close to ideal to what I want out of a rules system.

However, it could be argued that even Basic D&D and BoL are build on fundamentally different assumptions that make them highly incompatible with each other. The main difference is that D&D is build entirely around the assumption that the players want to get Experience Points and treasure, which make them more powerful and better equipped. On the other hand, BoL does not have any XP or treasure, and equipment is extremely limited.

But I think I’ve found a neat and very effective solution to this problem. By default, characters in BoL advance by finding some treasure of indeterminate value during the adventure, and at the end the players describe how they drink and gamble it all away in true Sword & Sorcery fashion. Depending on how creative and “heroic” the players describe it, their characters get between 1 to 3 Advancement Points, which they can use to improve their characters abilities. Instead of doing this, it’s trivially simple to not give the players AP based on the story they tell, but at the rate of 1 AP for every 10 treasures they spend. A treasure could be anything; a sack of coins, a golden idol, a big gem, some fine silverware, or whatever you want to think of. In practice it doesn’t matter. When the heroes search a vault or a fallen enemy, the GM can either describe what they find or simply say that they stuff 2 treasures into their pockets. They still don’t get Advancement Points for beating an enemy like in D&D, but I think it’s really the XP for treasures that makes the old editions of D&D so fascinating.

Another important element of the Basic and Expert rules is that players need to ration their supplies and have to judge how much food and treasure they can carry at the same time and how much it will slow them down between destinations in the wild. (Don’t want to find out in the middle of the dessert that you should have better taken one more skin of water instead of another bag of gold.) That will take some more thought, but I might get back to this somewhere the next days.