Breaking the Basics

Breaking the BasicsFor the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the most basic rules. The fundamental stuff, which forms the building blocks of most OSR games. How could they be changed to better serve the type of game I want to run? So I’ve been tinkering, and talking with folks on Google+, and I’ve got some ideas for what I’m going to do in my next campaign.

Or, put another way, I’ve decided that the OSR isn’t an obscure enough niche for me. I want to push myself further and further away from what anyone else is doing, until I’m the only one who likes anything that I do.

Saving Throws

Saving throws have two basic functions within the game. First, they serve as a kind of safety net. If the players make a mistake which should result in some dire consequence, a saving throw may allow them to get off easy. Second, saves are a good way to handle attacks which bypass armor or hit points. They’re a defense against the indefensible.

For both of these functions, the game works best when a saving throw is more likely to fail than to succeed. Players should be afraid of making mistakes, or of attacks which bypass their normal defenses. Yet by level 7, about half the saves in LotFP are in the single digits.

I don’t actually see why saves should improve at all as a character levels up. Why not give each class a set of saves, which just never change from what they are at 1st level?

Not only would this better maintain the sense of danger that should come with a saving throw, but it creates an interesting opportunity. Saving throws have always been a fairly static thing, tied strictly to a character’s class, and typically improving only as they level up. Because of this, the difference between them communicates a lot about what each class is.

For example, fighters traditionally have a very good poison save, and a very bad magic save. From that you can infer that fighters are hardy, but weak minded. And, if saving throws never improve from their level 1 values, then we don’t need to give them any room to grow, and we can make the differences between them more dramatic.

All of that being said, I could see myself allowing saving throws to improve once at level 10 or so. I think it could be fun to have something to look forward to that is so far down the line.

Battle CatArmor Rating

I’ve said it many times before: rolling dice is not inherently fun. We should roll dice only when all potential results of the roll will produce interesting gameplay.

The hit roll, in combat, is a good example of this. There are two results: a hit, or a miss. Hits are interesting because something gets closer to being dead. Misses are interesting because they create an opportunity for the tables to be turned. If two foes are racing to see who can deplete the other’s hit points the fastest, the winner will probably be whoever misses the least.

So the potential for any attack to miss is interesting…but it’s not that interesting. Slugging matches where two sides roll attacks back and forth are probably the most boring situation in D&D. So when both sides repeatedly miss over and over again? That’s just excruciatingly dull.

Worse yet, it’s actually pretty common. Most OSR D&D variants make it fairly easy to get a character’s armor rating up so high that only one or two results on an unmodified d20 roll will be a successful hit.

To fight this, I’ve dropped the base armor class in my game down from 12, to 8. This means the target number for a hit roll will be between 8-15, rather than the 12-19 it is in RAW.

Of all the changes I’ve been considering recently, this is the only one I’ve already implemented in my game. It would be cruel to ask my players to raise their saving throws back up, after they’ve worked so hard to get them down. This change, however, is just a flat 20% increase in the number of hits across the board. So far, everyone seems to like it.

I could even see myself pushing a little further, to a base armor rating of 6. For now, though, 8 is working out pretty well, so I’m going to stick with it.

Speaking of Armor Rating…

I have made one other modification to armor, shamelessly pilfered from a game I played with Brendan of Necropraxis.

Players may wear up to 3 pieces of armor. Each piece counts as a single encumbering item, and can be pretty much anything. A character wearing a cape, a helmet, and a codpiece would count as fully armored, even if they were otherwise naked. Of course, improvised armor (“I put the pot on my head !”) is going to come with complications. (“Okay, but you’ll need to use one hand to hold it up high enough that it doesn’t cover your eyes.”)

Armors available in the early part of the game all provide +1 to the wearer’s armor rating. This means the best  you can get for awhile is +3. +4 if you use a shield.

Eventually, players may be able to afford masterwork pieces of armor, or they may find them in dungeons. Each of these grants a +2 bonus. So, once you’ve got 3 of those, you’ll have a bonus to your armor rating of +6, which is equivalent to plate armor in LotFP.

Functionally, this isn’t all that different from the way the system works in RAW. Mostly I like it because it makes encumbrance easier, and encourages more whimsy in your character’s armor.

It does have the slight drawback of making it easier to be a caster in full armor. However, I’m not terribly worried about that, because I intend to make magic users more fragile in other ways.


Guy got deadHit points & Damage

Nobody loves random character generation more than I do. It’s a great way to give the player a set of tools, which they then have to learn how to use on the fly. But what if we did the opposite of that? What if hit points were not random at all?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve rolled up my fair share of 1hp fighters, and I’ve liked it. But if you throw too many random numbers together, it starts to feel meaningless. If I roll 1d6 for my hit points, and you roll 1d6 for your damage, that’s just a straight-up 50/50 chance that I’ll live or die. A coin flip with extra steps.

What I’m thinking is that Fighters start at 8 hit points, and gain 3 each level. Specialists start at 6 hit points, and gain 2 per level. Magic Users start at 4 hit points, and gain 1 per level. And, lastly, all damage is rolled using a single d6.

Now, I’m a pretty dumb guy, but the math on this seems pretty interesting to me. In the first combat of the day, the fighter has literally 0 chance of being taken out by a single hit. They can afford to be a little bold. Specialists could be killed by a single hit, by the chance is low. So they can flirt with combat, but they shouldn’t over commit themselves. Magic users, with their measly 4 hit points, have that 50/50 chance of dying, and so will stay back out of the way.

The way hit points progress reinforces that first level experience. For every 2 levels the fighter gains, they can survive a single max damage hit. The specialist needs 3 levels to get the same. The magic user gets a little more survivability over time, but will always be in serious danger around combat. They need to get to level 4 before they can reliably survive even a single hit, and to level 10 before they could survive a second.

For the record, the cap on damage at 1d6 extends to spells as well. I had originally thought I might eliminate all damaging spells entirely from my next campaign, pushing the MU into a support role. However, I think it could be interesting to allow the MU to learn damage spells, so long as those spells obey the same damage limitation as everything else.


3d6Ability Scores

And now for the real blasphemy: no more ability scores.

I’ve been feeling for a long while that nobody really knows what they want to do with this hallowed old mechanic. Every system seems to run them slightly differently, but in the end it always boils down to the same basic thing. They add small bonuses and penalties to a variety of actions. The only difference is in what actions those bonuses and penalties are applied to, but whatever they are, it’s always underwhelming. Unworthy of the pride of place Ability Scores have in the character creation process.

I understand the appeal of keeping them. It’s the first step in creating any new character, and so ostensibly fundamental to the game that the first words in the LotFP core book are instructions for rolling Ability Scores. For many “roll 3d6 down the line” has become a sort of secret OSR handshake. It’s emblematic of the difference between modern and OSR D&D: no fluff, no hand holding, it just is what it is.

But despite all that emotional significance, I just don’t think they earn their keep. They take time and space which could be put to better use, either with a more interesting replacement, or simply by speeding the whole character creation process up by their absence.

Of course, if you use roll under checks, you’re probably thinking I’m fuggin crazy right now. Roll under checks _do_ make ability scores work. They are an elegant little mechanic with a lot of merit to them, but I don’t use them.

As to what I’ll replace ability scores with, I haven’t got it entirely worked out yet. My thought is to make a little table of bonuses the player can have to specific tasks. Basically doing the same thing ability scores did, but with more focus, and less unused fluff.

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3 thoughts on “Breaking the Basics”

  1. I typically enjoy breakdowns of basic rules, and this was no exception to that. Question on damage dice, how do you see differentiation between a powerful monster and a much weaker mob dealing a hit? My first thought is that an owlbear striking for the same damage as a lucky kobold would be rather disassociating.

    1. I’ve played in games before where all damage is rolled on 1d6, and it has worked out very well. The scariness of big monsters comes from elements other than raw damage output.

      For example, I might say that if you get hit by an owlbear, the owlbear gets an automatic grapple attempt with you.

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