Old School Modern – Creating some New Fantasy RPG Rules
You’ve probably realised I’ve been on an Old School binge since before Christmas, trying out various RPG systems in my hunt for a set of rules which will hit my old school sweet-spot – replicating the vibe and feel of white box D&D and AD&D 1st edition, especially playing the old Judges Guild Wilderlands campaign, but using rules which exploit the modern rules innovations of the past 10+ years, including the cool narrative things a lot of modern RPGs are doing.
What I’ve been looking for is a very simple ruleset which allows me to pretty much use old school material with little or no modification (stats, spells, scenarios, magic items, equipment, etc), and which replicates the structure and feel of white box D&D or AD&D 1e and the old school tabletop experience – the same kind of dice, minis if you want them (but not mandatory). I want it to use the “good ole” D&D terms – the same attributes, hit points, levels, experience points, alignments. It needs to have the narrative flexibility of games like HeroQuest, where you can simply say “I try to do this” – whatever “this” happens to be – and the rules support it, but the narrative element needs to be “diallable” – you can use it as much or as little as you like. It needs to be a solid “game system”, ie not rely on GM fiat for resolution. It needs to cope with character personality, alignments, social, mental, and physical conflicts, contests, but to do so “invisibly”, behind a very simple mechanic. That simple mechanic needs to be fractal, so you can unpack it to do all manner of sophisticated stuff, but you don’t have to. And, finally, it needs to be very simple – no more than a few pages for the system, easy to learn in a single sitting, use without reference to the rules.
Well, yesterday I decided to have a go at rolling my own. I’ve been writing settings and scenarios for years for publication, but I’ve never actually sat down and designed a roleplaying game. So I guess it’s about time. 😉
I’ve got about 6000 words in the past day or so: the core mechanic, basic D&D-style classes, how to handle most in-game events, and so on. I ran off a character sheet in Excel (you can see a PDF here – tentatively dubbed Monsters & Magic, because, well, it’d be rude not to alliterate), and converted our Dungeon World characters from last week to give the system a test drive, which we did this afternoon.
We finished an hour or so ago, and had a blast. We started with the PCs – minus Xiola Zenwaith, the elven wizard who fell in battle with the hill giants and dire wolves at the climax of the previous (Dungeon World) session – recovering in their hidden cave outside the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, had to avoid hill giants and dire wolves searching for them, and snuck into the caves beneath, encountering carrion crawlers, troglodytes, and orcs.
First realisation: a bug in the system was making it way too lethal! Dungeon World‘s “difficulty level” allowed 1st level players to handle the Steading; the new system is as unforgiving as D&D, but also had a glitch in the “one roll” design that made damage potentially very high, to the extent we lost Shamira Sunfire, cleric of Mitra, to the carrion crawlers quite early on, and almost lost Pook i’the Hood to an orc ambush slightly later (although dousing torches was a foolish idea!).
I’ve fixed the lethality – essentially capping weapon and attack damages to the maximum for the weapon you’re using – and the old D&D 0HP = death rule has been replaced with the AD&D negative HP = bleeding out rule, which is less harsh but still flavoursome. The XP awards seem to feel reasonably okay – maybe a bit generous, but nothing too tricky right now, so I’m keeping them. The PCs had 2 fights and several skill challenge type events, plus, after losing another PC (the cleric!), there are now just 3 of them; a total XP award apiece of 400-500XP felt not too high.
The action system is agreeably crunchy while being very flexible and able to narrate whatever you want, although I still need to simplify the “special effects” rules and sharpen the “failure is interesting” focus somewhat – it’s still a bit too binary (there were a few “you fail *CLUNK*” moments when things threatened to grind to a halt), and the ripostes were again a bit too lethal, but I’m polishing it. The “critical hit” special effect was very cool – Gramfive the Grim chose to slash off one carrion crawler’s paralysing tentacles in lieu of doing full damage, which felt very tactical, removing its special attack in exchange for prolonging its life a bit.
The “mental damage” rules worked very well, though I need them more granular – the bard terrifying the orcs with a brandished (and suddenly lit) torch was extremely effective, possibly too much so!
We left the scenario with the party in the tunnels and warrens deep beneath the Steading, having encountered some orc guards. We discussed leaving for civilisation to rest up and maybe recruit some new PCs – but for now we’re going to proceed another session in “stealth recon” mode to see if more intel on what Nosnra is up to can be gathered before hightailing it back across the Howling Hills to Haghill. We’re aware that G1 is now way overpowered having switched from Dungeon World to a more D&D-emulating ruleset, but we’re also keen to keep the narrative flow without breaking out into metagaming just yet. The City State and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy await!
Back to Mindjammer, The Worm Within, and Burn Shift tomorrow – but hoping to playtest Monsters & Magic more next weekend. Hopefully then I’ll have something to distribute to you good people for comments! 🙂