Most of my adult life I’ve advocated for roleplaying game player-characters as heroes of the story; not necessarily super-heroes immune to trials and setbacks, but not disposable bit parts. In my misspent youth D&D consisted of rolling up characters, sending them on adventures, watching them die from bravery, folly, or sheer bad luck, and rolling up a new character. As a result of this style of play I never became invested much in any characters (let alone their overall story), knowing they might easily meet a gruesome end; roll up another character and start again, because that’s how we figured you played the game in a pre-Internet Age without a worldwide roleplaying community and videos to show us how it’s done. The roleplaying games I enjoyed in college – the Star Wars Roleplaying Game in particular – demonstrated how cinematic heroes could really develop over their story-lines and provide players a thrill beyond characters simply surviving the latest encounter. Players invest themselves in their characters and the game. Nobody likes to lose early on, even if they get to start over again (while everyone else is ahead, no less). Nobody likes to spend time creating a character – imbuing it with their aspirations, background stories, and associations with other elements in the game world – only to have it die needlessly at the hands of a kobold with a rusty dagger (and some high to-hit and damage rolls from the gamemaster). I intended my own D&D house rules to give low-level characters benefits reflecting their status as heroes of their own epic tale, not cannon fodder to survive or die gruesomely in a grinder.
To this end I found tools and guidance from the OSR.en the OSR first emerged reprints of classic D&D titles weren’t as readily available in PDF or print-on-demand as they are today; so folks created their own in the spirit of those games, sometimes with reference to the originals, and, like most gamers, adding their own innovations to suit their particular play style. I’m certainly not creating my own OSR game (though I’d briefly considered years ago)...I’m just compiling some house-rules B/X D&D rules variants and resources for my personal use incorporating systems I feel streamline play somewhat but primarily bending things toward heroic characters (even at first level). To that end I’ve incorporated a few elements from OSR games that work for me, notably Ascending Armor Class (AAC), a standard combat bonus based on level instead of reading off a table (which works well with AAC), and the concept of “splintered shields,” sacrificing one’s shield to absorb all damage from a blow.
I also added a host of personal house rules with the intent of boosting first-level characters’ abilities to focus more on story and character development rather than sheer survival. Rolling ability scores uses the roll 4d6 and keep the best three. Starting hit points consist of a character’s Constitution score plus any CON bonus, plus the maximum possible point for the class-based hit point die (with those relying on the piddly d4 rolling a d6); subsequent hit point rolls upon gaining new levels use the standard hit point die plus CON bonus.
Rather than using a roll-under-ability-score mechanic for basic skill tests (I never quite liked roll-under systems, preferring to aspire to high rolls...), I devised a system based loosely off the “Monster Reaction” table. Results range from exceptional and simple failure to marginal, clear, and extraordinary success. To see if an action succeeds, a player rolls 2d6 and adds the character’s relevant ability score bonus; in some cases (see below) the character’s attack bonus also applies (rather than using level as a bonus). This ties into my revised system for spell use and thieves’ abilities. Magic users and clerics start with a number of spells equal to those available to their level plus a number equal to their Intelligence or Wisdom bonuses; they can use these any number of times per day (limited to once per turn) but must roll on the “Ability-Based Task Success” table mentioned above. The spell could outright fail, but might also succeed with exceptional results, or critically fail and potentially backfire. A similar mechanic governs clerics turning undead (with the undead’s level as a negative modifier) and thieves’ abilities. I realize third edition D&D had a far better, revised “skill” system, but for all I like Ascending Armor Class – an aspect of that d20-based skill mechanic – I don’t like it in my B/X style game. To that end I’m not using the advantage/disadvantage die mechanic currently in vogue, though I like the concept.
(I suppose I should tangentially address one concern that comes to mind: why don’t I use the current, commercially available 5th edition of D&D rather than some ancient edition brought back to life with a hodge-podge of house rules? It’s not like I haven’t tried. I own both box sets released for the game, but for the life of me they don’t engage me with their full-color flash, modernized rules, and walls of text, and yet-another overhaul of the rules. I vaguely recall several occasions where I seemed determined to learn the rules, but stopped after a few pages when I realized something just didn’t work for me. Besides, you can’t teach old dinosaurs new tricks. Besides, I’ve spent my lifetime adapting to the uncomfortable, often unpleasant “new tricks” society requires of us...and don’t want to do it for an experience that’s supposed to be fun.)
My resources include more than just rules: low-level random encounter tables, starting equipment options, some of Moldvay’s basics on adventure theme and design, text of interesting online resources I’ve found (though many remain lost in the vast, swirling cacophony of the internet). I’m still tinkering, of course; it’s what gamers do, whether for roleplaying games, wargames, even board games. Some elements above – notably the “Ability-Based Task Success” table result ranges, my starting hit point calculations, and the spell system – have gone through multiple revisions before this relatively final point.
Right now this is all hypothetical with the delta variant still plaguing some communities (including ours) and maybe another winter resurgence. I have and still undertake some solitaire B/X D&D adventures, most using Ruins of the Undercity and the D30 Sandbox Companion; these both test my game system adjustments and offer some mild satisfaction in the roleplaying game arena despite what is creeping up on two years of isolated, pandemic precautions.