Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Customizing My B/X D&D Experience

My son and I have been gaming on and off recently, occasionally testing the waters of intro roleplaying games between Pokemon card game duels and an occasional board game. We’ve enjoyed Hero Kids, though each adventure requires a good deal of prep, whether I’m printing and adapting an existing scenario or devising my own (with the requisite maps). We’ve also tried the forgotten Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game – a wonderfully simple yet entertaining intro roleplaying game experience that capitalizes on the popular Japanese license – which I’m enjoying for its very basic, read-aloud scripted scenes and simple combat system printed on the various Pokemon cards. Both games still hold some potential for several more play sessions, especially if I can wean everyone off Hero Kids’ maps. At some point, though, I’d like to transition to something a bit more mainstream that also caters to my own gaming urges. So I’m re-evaluating my current views regarding Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons, as many of you know, my preferred version of D&D and, despite my general explorations of the Old School Renaissance, my preferred OSR game. I’m looking to make it more comprehensible for a seven year-old and provide a more heroic (read” less-deadly”) experience for characters.

I’ve already established a few house rules to help make characters, particularly low-level ones, more hardy and decided on a few mechanics to make the game more intuitive for gamemaster and young players. Players roll 4d6 and keep the highest three for ability scores, assigning them as they like. They use the same rolling scheme to determine starting gold pieces (though I’m tempted by the idea of pre-determined equipment kits for simplicity’s sake). I’m using Ascending Armor Class (AAC), which requires me to figure out combat bonuses by class and level based off the “Character Attacks” table and rework the “Monster Attacks” table to reflect a flat combat bonus (pretty much +1 for each hit die up to 9); though once that’s done, it’s far more intuitive during the game. Despite my urge to streamline everything, I’m sticking with the standard five saving throws instead of condensing them into one; averaging scores at the different levels for each class just seemed like too much work; my current B/X character sheet has spaces for five saving throws anyway.

Aside from relying on my good judgment as a player and game designer, I’m also integrating some elements I’ve encountered in my sojourns among the numerous OSR games I’ve seen, some of which I’ve casually perused and others I’ve scrutinized in more detail. Among many other influences on the roleplaying game hobby, OSR games have explored a host of alternate approaches to classic game mechanics. One of the core elements I’m changing based on OSR conventions is AAC and the resulting reliance on a “combat bonus” instead of a chart referencing character/monster level with the target’s armor class. I’ve examined some other issues before at Hobby Games Recce: how OSR games overall have influenced my preferences for B/X D&D, how to integrate skill mechanics, making spellcasters more effective (particularly at lower levels), and how to make shields more effective in combat. After some consideration I’m house-ruling my B/X game with some additional adjustments:

Starting Hit Points: I adjusted starting hit points to increase character survival rates at lower levels. Each character begins with the maximum hit points as if rolled on one die level higher than their class hit die plus any ability score adjustment; i.e., a fighter who normally rolls 1d8 for hit points starts with 10 hit points (the max on a 1d10) plus any adjustments. Upon gaining a new level, characters roll their usual hit die to increase their hit points.

Shields should matter.
Shields: I’m tackling two issues with shields...the meager +1 bonus to Ascending Armor Class they offer, and the notion of “sundering” shields to negate hits. I decided to allow for small shields like bucklers giving a +1 bonus and larger shields, like the traditional knight’s heater shield, providing a +2 bonus. The larger shields would also cost more, probably twice the 10 gold piece cost of the standard small shield. While I don’t care much for encumbrance rules, I’m considering penalizing characters with large shields by requiring an entire round to drop or re-arm themselves with it or simply making them lose a round if they fumble a combat roll (essentially knocking them off balance from the larger shield). I’m still debating whether to allow characters to destroy or “sunder” their shield to negate all damage from one attack. This gives players another option during combat other than just sucking up damage; it also means they need to spend more gold pieces on a new shield if they want to regain that protection.

Skill System: I’ve waffled over various mechanics to resolve “skill” uses...essentially anything someone wants to attempt not covered by other rulings (like thief skills, clerics turning undead, folks looking for secret doors, etc.). I’m not a fan of “roll under” systems like ability score checks. I considered giving everyone a 1 in 6 chance of succeeding at anything – essentially requiring them to roll a 6 – yet factoring in ability score modifiers; that didn’t seem to have the granularity I’d like. So I settled on a 2d6 roll on a table similar in spread to the “Monster Reactions” table: 2: exceptional failure; 3-5 simple failure, 6-8 marginal success, 9-11 clear success, and 12 extraordinary success. All rolls adjusted by the relevant ability score modifier. Once again, this skews toward character success, though with some gradations to liven up results.

I want my spellcasters to feel like this.
Spells: I’ve dithered over ways to make spell-casting more effective at lower levels. Part of the overall limitation comes from magic users only having one spell to cast each day at first level, a huge limitation given their prohibitions against armor and most weapons. So I changed two elements: the number of spells magic users and clerics start with, and the number of times they can cast spells each day. I decided spellcasters begin the game with a number of spells equal to the usual number of spells at first level plus their Intelligence/Willpower ability bonus. For example, a first-level magic user with an Intelligence of 16 (+2) would begin the game knowing 3 spells (all at first level). Afterwords characters gain new spells at the normal rate. They may use spells any number of times each day, but must roll on the “Ability-Based Task Success” table each time they cast them; this may result in the spell failing outright or giving varying degrees of success (such as “marginal,” which minimizes any impact, or “extraordinary,” which maximizes its effect). One aspect of Hero Kids I particularly like is how magic has no limitations on it. The game gives spellcaster characters a magical ranged attack and a few other effects they can use at will throughout each adventure. In our Hero Kids games the magic user feels just as important as the fighter; I want to port that to my D&D game.

I’m resisting using the advantage/disadvantage die mechanic introduced in D&D fifth edition, just as I am resisting defaulting to that latest iteration of D&D for our core game rules. Although it’s the most popular roleplaying game today and enjoys a vast community of players, I prefer having control over something with which I have greater familiarity; I don’t have time to read my D&D fifth edition intro box rules, nor do I want to invest in the core rulebooks. Like many gamers before him, my son’s initial foray into D&D – however you define it, with whichever edition – will contain enough iconic elements that he can, should he choose, move on to enjoy whichever version he encounters in the future...or any other roleplaying game that catches his interest.


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