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Sunday, June 9, 2019

Some Recent D&D Thoughts

I am thinking a lot lately about D&D. What I like about it, and what I don't. Me being me, this means old school D&D (or it's clones). I have been giving serious thought to writing my own version of B/X to give to my players, maybe edit down the text only version of B/X Essentials (now Old School Essentials) to add a few sub-systems I like, subtract a few bits I don't. The only downside really is that they'd have to be rewritten for every single campaign I run. Different settings get different setting specific rules, but maybe a core?

I say B/X, because my Ostschild campaign was B/X and it was dead easy to hack those rules, add some AD&D if I wanted, or whatever. AD&D is what my “Colonies of Avalon” and my “Lost Atlantis” games were and I learned there were quite a few AD&Disms I just don't care for. For the last couple of decades at least, maybe longer, I have been hacking and house ruling my games pretty significantly, and I was really the only one that cared about the rules. I was the guy running the game, and my players, which usually included my wife and kids, trusted me to know what I was doing, and mostly could not have cared less about the actually rules. I dropped a lot of stuff over the years I thought was needlessly nit-picky. I pulled in stuff from other editions, or stuff I found online and thought was cool, or just stuff that I made up; not to mention the house rules that everyone just seemed to know from time immemorial. Critical hits on a natural 20 doing double damage, for instance, are so common many people think they are actually in the rules. EGG hated the concept (or so he said publicly, having never played with him I couldn't say), but they were, and are, everywhere. Where did we learn them? Who knows.

One of my players was recently frustrated by the fact that there isn't really any reason to play anything but a Human in 1st edition AD&D. She plays a Gnome Thief/Illusionist and I think has never played old school D&D before. My initial reaction was like “Duh, it says right in the book this is a humanocentric game”, but coming from where she was, I get it. WotC really took a lot of effort to balancing the races (and classes) in 3e (and beyond). AD&D does a pretty decent job at showing the various advantages non-humans get, but is fairly poor at pointing out the disadvantages, and they do not cancel each other out balance wise. In many ways I agree with EGG about the humanocentric game (also in the way he thought that fighters were the class people would want to play).

I have been considering stripping out all of the non-Human PC races. Over time D&D has consistently increased the number of PC races (really species) that are playable. I'd like to go the other way. Elves and Dwarves and Gnomes, if not Halflings, are folkloric creatures and should stay that way. Half Orcs and Half Elves have their own issues, on the one hand species this alien to each other probably should not be able to interbreed, on the other, at least for Half Orcs, it implies a tragic and disgusting backstory of rape.

I might consider creating new classes for human characters that are essentially reskins of the missing demihumans, or I may not. While the B/X Elf gives us a good “Fighting Wizard” class, what do the Halfling and the Dwarf bring?

I would not create the same issues by giving different mechanics to different “races” of humans either. A human is a human is a human, all the same flesh and bone. I might create a different set of skills based on social class, or place of origin, but those are pretty campaign specific. I might even come up with backgrounds a la 5th edition for that, why reinvent the wheel.

I have also been thinking about the class archetypes. In my recent “Colonies of Avalon” campaign the party Cleric has been a particular annoyance to me. I don't dislike the player, I wouldn't play with him if I did, but his character's class irritates me. He has a different view than I do on how Clerics are meant to be played. I always picture them (and as NPCs usually play them) as medieval crusader knights, like the Templars. He plays his character as a support healer, essentially a combat medic. We rarely see anything other than healing spells, which I find sad. Mona used to play this way too, I guess, but at least she fought on the front line, and spells for healing came after combats. I have tried over the years banning multiple preparations of the same spell, removing cure X wounds spells from the game and replacing it with spontaneous healing by removing a prepared spell and getting X number of dice (d6 or d8) where X equals the level of spell you are giving up, giving Clerics spell slots they can use as desired to cast any Cleric spell of the slotted level. Nothing really seems to work with Clerics not just taking advantage of healing spells. 

The other issue with Clerics is their Turn Undead ability. I hate to agree with Mike Mearls on this, but it really is just an “I win” button for Clerics. It takes what should be a frankly terrifying encounter and negates it, which I find both boring and frustrating as a DM. Any encounter with Undead creatures that a Cleric doesn't have a reasonably good chance of simply turning, is probably one the party can't win anyway, and should flee from. I would consider just stripping it entirely from the Class, but taking a core class ability away from it would likely incite player riots.

I have seen some suggestions for fixing either of these issues on various blogs and the rework of the Cleric in “Lion & Dragon”1 is pretty interesting; but the best suggestion I have seen is to simply remove it from the game.

That leaves us with an issue; if people rarely want to play Clerics, nobody wants to play a Magic-User (and why, oh why, couldn't Gygax have named this class Wizard or Sorcerer, or any other damned thing). Glass cannons, one shot wonders. Can't wear armor, poor choice in available weapons, weakest hit points in the game; melee combat is not an option. Only getting a single spell at first level always seems to leave them cowering behind the lines, often wasting good casting opportunities, just because they know they'll be done, absolutely useless to the party the moment they cast their lone spell. Sometimes (depending on the exact system of D&D being used) they will provide some largely ineffectual missile fire.

I have played a single classed Magic-User in every edition of D&D that has been out since I started playing (1981) up through at least mid level, I have been that guy. I could offer advice to the other players, but mostly I was taking cover and providing a little bit of missile fire. 

I have seen games where the party Magic-User blasted through his spell right away, that tends to lead to the ten minute adventuring day.

Fixes? I have seen very few. One suggestion that all Magic-Users get a cantrip or two, non-damage causing, they can cast at will makes them seem more mysterious and magical. It may have been the same place I saw the idea that Read Magic and Detect Magic should just be a class ability, which is useful. I might go ahead and make Identify a class ability (or skill) too. I am not sure any of this makes the Magic-User a more attractive Class to be though.

I have posted about the Thief in the past, and I guess my thought on this currently is to go with something like Lamentations of the Flame Princess's Specialist Class, you can do almost anything with them.

In the end most players I know like playing Fighter Classes, as God and Gary intended. I played in an online game last night where we were all Human Fighter types (actually all Human Bushi, it was a White Box Eastern Adventures game) and we were all essentially the same mechanically (weapon choice made some difference) and were differentiated mainly by the way we role played our characters. It was some of the most fun I have playing in a D&D game in a very long time, with the caveat that I rarely get to play D&D, as I am generally DMing.

I rather enjoyed the simplicity and even the lethality of a White Box game, but I am not real sure I could find players for a campaign, nor am I sure I'd like the difficulty set that high for a campaign. B/X seems to be hitting the sweet spot for me right now.

Not sure where I was going with this, I just wanted to get these thoughts down and sorted. It looks like “Colonies of Avalon” is over, the group has split up, and it's mostly my fault, although completely not game related. I want to have friends and play D&D, but my depression and anxiety, especially since Mona died, have made it harder and harder to keep having any social life at all.


  1. Sorry for your loss and for your depression/anxiety. It’s hard to enjoy a good RPG (let alone run one), when you’re dealing with real world hurts and challenges.

    I would like to hear, if you don’t mind, more about your issues with “AD&Disms.” I’ve recently considered returning to 1E play (or something very much like it) and I’m looking for comments from experienced DMs on the things they dislike (and the whys, if possible).

    RE clerics: I’ve removed the ability to memorize more than one spell per day. Also, I no longer allow clerics to access the full spell list (they have to choose they’re prayers like a wizard chooses her formulae). Because of the usefulness of clerical turning, they remain a valuable member of the party, but the lack of healing magic keeps them from ending up as the “party medic.”

    RE magic-users: still working on it.

    1. This comment got lost in a sea of spam, sorry I have not replied before now. Most of the AD&Disms that I refer to are the common issues that people gloss over, ignore or replace with bit from other games. The needlessly fiddly bits like weapons vs. AC, or the outright silly stuff like alignment languages. I don't recall exactly what was on my mind when I wrote this, but there's plenty of AD&D to subtract and not much to add.