Wednesday, June 13, 2012

B/X Compatible?

Looking over The Complete B/X Adventurer (as I put the new book together), I am of course struck by the awesomeness that sometimes spews forth from my brain (duh) and the creativity that spews from the pens of my artists (double-duh). It’s a nice little bit (or bunch) of “extra stuff” to throw into anyone’s B/X or Labyrinth Lord campaign…heck, it would probably work with BECMI or the RC or even the LBBs with minimal fuss and muss...and it’s neat enough to make me want to break out the ‘ol B/X books again and stop messing around with all these play-testing shenanigans.

But, but, but (isn’t there always a “but?”)…BUT then I went and opened up my old D&D Mine documents to look through my own “5E Variation” rules I’d been working on a couple months back. And the reason I was doing that was because I had a fantastic brainstorm of how to make the combat system into a simple, yet cinematic, D6 base system that still utilized levels and Hit Dice while cutting out all the extra dice rolling that goes into combat. And I wanted to see what I’d done with the combat system before so that I had something with which to compare the new idea…and, well, I couldn’t well remember what I’d thrown in the ol’ D&D Mine book previously.

[yes, yes, I’ll explain how this relates to the new book soon]

Let me take one more step off into a blue tangent before pulling this back and tying it all together.

I’m kind of tired of D&D combat. I know I’ve written about this before (to varying degrees) and certainly planned several blog posts (that I haven’t had a chance to write) on the subject, but I’ve been finding the base mechanics of D&D’s combat system unsatisfying of late. And I’m talking about the base system, found in pretty much all editions:

- Roll Initiative
- Roll D20 to attack
- Roll damage
- Subtract damage from hit points
- Rinse and repeat ad nauseum

Without active narrative, the system is pretty gutless. Against larger (or large numbers of) opponents, it can become tedious in the extreme…just a long series of dice rolling to see who wins the war of attrition. In the old days, fights could be sped up with judicious use of morale rules; later editions rely instead on critical strikes to help finish fights quicker. But those are just patches on a system issue.

Why should it take me 10 or 20 minutes to fight an orc? As we strive to get initiative from each other and then roll-roll-roll until we finally hit and then subtract a couple points and then roll-roll-roll, over and over hoping our luck (with rolling) will overcome our opponent’s armor class…just for the sake of a few coins in the creature’s belt pouch.

Recently, I’ve been participating in a play-by-post game using (slightly modified) Labyrinth Lord. As people who’ve tried PBP know, it can be sloooow going, even with the DM making the dice rolls. Our characters are 1st level, we’re in the middle of a dungeon delve…the usual fare, in other words. And I have found the only thing that makes the combats short enough to be bearable is A) the hefty attack/damage bonuses we receive (using the standard B/X ability adjustments) coupled with B) the very low (3-5) hit points (and AC) of our opposition. My character has a 16 strength and gains a +2 to attack and damage bonuses, meaning he hits AC 6 (average goblin) 50% of the time, often killing the suckers. But if I miss, then Ope! Got to wait till next round. And my character has one of the higher strength scores. Via PBP, a combat with half-a-dozen sprogs takes a couple-three days to play out.

And that’s just too long. I mean, heroes in stories (or movies) mow through runtlings like they’re reaping wheat, even when they’re not using “magic swords.” Even at mid-levels this kind of scene isn’t really possible in D&D, unless your character is ‘roided out (huge strength bonus) and/or armed with magic gear. Even then, if your opposition is “scaled up” (say, a handful of ogres) you get bogged down in the same tedium of attrition, unless your party contains spell-casters sporting beefy area-effect spells.

[which aren't very Sword & Sorcery might I add? Just as an aside...]

Look, I’m sounding harsher than I probably mean to sound…but when my imaginary character FINALLY hits someone in the game, I want the opponent to go down with a crushed skull, not hang around taunting me to hit it again. Assuming we're not talking about some sort of giant troll or dragon or something.

Which is why I started thinking up a whole new method of combat.

But then (as I wrote earlier) I started reading through my beautifully scripted Book 1 of my "new edition" of D&D and the very nicely written combat rules and I realized, gosh, not only would I have to over-haul everything to include this new “D6 system” in the book, but:

1) The already written, close-to-B/X-rules are pretty well done as is, and
2) If this really IS supposed to be “D&D,” shouldn’t it resemble D&D?

In other words, shouldn’t it include an Initiative roll, a D20 attack roll, and a damage roll (with said damage being subtracted from a hit point pool)? Isn’t that what D&D combat is all about?

And THEN I was thinking: wow, even though I do NOT plan on publishing my D&D Mine for any type of monetary gain, wouldn’t it be appropriate to make it at least moderately B/X compatible? Not just so other people will use it, but so that it can be used in conjunction with my other B/X books like the B/X Companion and The Complete B/X Adventurer?

[see, I told you this all tied together]

And now I come to the point of this post, in the form of a question: How compatible do you want your D&D “stuff” (i.e. books, supplements, retro-knock-offs) to be with your preferred version of the Original Fantasy Role-Playing Game?

I mean, you don’t need to use “kits” when playing 2nd Edition AD&D…you don’t need to add non-weapon proficiencies to early editions. Monsters in earlier editions are nearly all covered in 3rd and 3.5 edition books (with the possible exception of that three-headed monstrosity from module B3)…it’s not hard to convert back-and-forth between most editions. Plate mail and shield comes up AC 3 in all editions with descending armor class and a +3 dwarven thrower is always a +3 dwarven thrower.

Do you need your D20 roll to hit? For that matter do you need dice of unusual sidedness? Certainly it’s fun (and novel) to play a game requiring dice of different sides, but is it NECESSARY for the game to “feel” like D&D and not, say, GURPS Fantasy?

Those are not rhetorical questions: I'm looking for feedback.
; )

Hmmm…for a moment there, I thought I was going to end this post with my queries, but I decided I wanted to bring up one more bit of thought to consider:

When D&D was first published (in the format we now call OD&D, consisting of three Little Brown Books or LBBs), the rules presumed its participants would be using the Chainmail rules to resolve combat, though it presented an “alternate system” of combat. Over the years, the alternate has become the standard, all the way down to the 21st century (with a lot of add-ons and doo-dads). It wasn’t always the form of “roll D20 to hit, roll for damage” and who’s to say that is (or ever was) the best method of resolving small-scale skirmishes? At the time, it allowed players to use those neat new dice (Chainmail only rolled D6s) and the level of simplicity in OD&D allowed it to move pretty swiftly (roll, check table, subtract D6 damage from characters/monsters whose hit points had not yet been terribly inflated). But since then, those two (small!) pages of combat rules have suffered the most amazing amount of “rules bloat” I can find in any RPG published in multiple editions. How many pages are needed in 4E to provide a primer on combat in comparison to the game's original form? That’s kind of disgusting.

Okay, end last, back to the compatibility question (and thanks for your indulgence).


  1. My knee-jerk reaction is, OF COURSE you need the d20, initiative and the hit points. What is wrong with you?

    I realize that, even in the 1E game I am running, there are times I want to get through bits of combat faster. One thing I have done is if the bad guys are undead and the party has a cleric, or in my party's case two clerics, if they can turn all the undead, why bother having any of the fighters roll to hit? The turn will last a long time, as long as the clerics stay back, the fighters can just destroy them. Simply, ease, combat done.

    As for the main question about compatibility, I wouldn't stress how compatible it is. A good GM worth his/her salt would be able to mine what s/he wants from your product and use it however s/he sees fit.

    I hope that helps.

  2. As dragolite mentions, D&D has plenty of scene ending mechanics if the players (DM included) aren't having fun. For me the key is getting the players into a mindset where they just tell me what they want to happen. Then I make a call about an ability roll or a saving throw that fits and tell them what I will make happen if they fail. If they like the gamble, the whole combat could be over in one roll.

    Combat only grinds if you like grind.

    But to answer your question, everyone is going to have nonnegotiables that go with saying "we played X". For me without d20 it just isn't D&D. That's alright, of course. I like lots of games, and they all seem to have have their own dice and their own "I'll do whatever I have to to distance myself from D&D" mechanics. And that's what you play.

    If you don't want to play D&D, don't play it. No big deal. I myself am really looking forward to Dungeon World, and I know that those who play it, even though it strives to emulate "the world's most popular fantasy roleplaying game", would never suggest that playing Dungeon World is playing D&D.

    To recap: I need d20 to hit, hit points to deplete, and hit dice to mediate the whole operation. Otherwise I'll just crack out something fun and amazing from WEG.

  3. all i want from my "stuff" is: dont get in my way while i try to enjoy myself!

    i dont care how many dice i roll, how often, or which ones. if the result is a fun game i am happy. if it isnt't "stuff" gets changed/added/ignored anyway.

    how much you can change before the game stops being (recognisable as) d&d... go ahead and find out. ;)

    1. how much you can change before the game stops being (recognisable as) d&d... go ahead and find out. ;)

      That is a wonderful sentiment, and I agree. If it's going to be fun seeing how far you can push the game, then who cares if it's not D&D at the end of it?

  4. Lately I feel like I want to play a game with mechanics completely unrelated to D&D's mechanics. One of my group runs Savage Worlds now and then and I seem to like that. I'm also interested in how Dragon Age plays. One of the things I like about Dragon Age is that the attributes are your dice roll modifiers (0 through 4, I believe), instead of a number 3 through 18 that gives you a modifier. Anyway, I'd be interested in learning more about anything that has different mechanics, to step away from the D&D hegemony for a while at least...

    1. Dragon Age is a great little system. Modern in design, but old-school in feel. Alas, I have no feel at all for the assumed setting, but in terms of mechanics, I like it a lot.

  5. Oh, and one thing I learned from Savage Worlds is not to be afraid to make some opponents "mooks." Meaning, you don't have to explain to your players why it only takes one hit to take down an orc, just tell that that's how it works in your game, or even in a specific session. Another group of orcs might be tougher to take down in some future session.