Tag Archives: D&D

OLD SCHOOL IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL (PART 2)…

Wizard

As mentioned previously, I am both a middle school CTE teacher, and adjunct professor, so I’ve been pretty busy, lately, especially as I am also responsible for the school yearbook, which is finally done, hallelujah! So the game club has had another couple of sessions since my last post, and provided me with some interesting perspectives on what it must have been like for my first game master, a college guy named Warren, who worked at the Waco children’s home I lived in, way back in the day.

But before I get in to that, I’ll finish up on the house rules discussion started in part 1.

MAGIC & MIRACLES

While INT and WIS bonuses do have a purpose, I’ve always found it odd that they didn’t have an impact on spell casting in B/X. So, while I stick to the rules for most things magical in the game, I allow Wizards a bonus spell and spell slot based on their intelligence bonus. A small boon, but one that makes being an intelligent wizard a bit more advantageous than extra languages and XP bonuses.

Clerics get the same, but only after they pick up their first spell at level 2. I like the idea of an Acolyte not having access to Miracles (what I call cleric spells) at first, especially as they have the combat skills and weaponry to make up for it.

I also use a ‘cantrip’ type rule based on something I once read on Philotomy’s OD&D Musings blog (which is, sadly, no longer online). Basically, while holding a stored spell, the Magic-User may manifest small ‘special effects’ related to it, by making an Intelligence test (see below). For example, if holding fire based spell, a MU might use some of that stored energy to light his pipe with his finger. A person holding a Charm spell could get a +1 to their rolls on personal interaction, and a person with a sleep spell could use a small smidgen of that energy to make a nearby orc guard drowsy and easier to surprise.

Finally, I allow Magic-Users to make scrolls at 1st Level. A simple little rules change that allows them to: a. get more bang for their buck out of their limited spell repertoire; b. make them spend those hard earned coins; and c. gives them a reason to use weird spells, like Ventriloquism, which they would normally ignore due to limited spell slots.

ATTRIBUTE/SKILL ROLLS

I’m not a big fan of tacking skills systems onto D&D. I like to keep my games fast and loose, without a lot of extra information to keep track of, especially for the players. In addition to that, I find that a lot of mechanical cruft tends to make the players think, well, mechanically. During the 3E and later editions, it drove me to nuts watching players spend more time staring at their character sheets looking for mechanical answers to problems, than trying to imagine the situations their characters were actually involved in and come up with solutions based on that.

It is much simpler, and flavorful, in my mind, to assume that most characters can use their basic attributes to accomplish most basic tasks. For specialized tasks I defer to the class system. A fighter, for example, would be the one to call on to analyze a tactical situation, while a wizard would be versed in legends and lore, and the cleric would be your go-to guy for ecumenical questions. Basically, if the player can justify it, I let them roll for it.

In addition, I allow the players to have a ‘background’ profession, that represents their life before taking up their adventuring career. Anything from blacksmith, to banker, to beggar, to simple farmer. But, to save time and present a sense of mystery, they don’t define that at character creation. They basically come up with it on the fly, as the game goes on, developing the character’s past as they go, and grow. So if they come upon an ancient forge in the depths of a cave, one of the players might say “this reminds me of my youth as a blacksmith’s apprentice.” At that point, they have justified the ability to make skill rolls for that background and better defined their character’s in the process.

Of course, this is all down to DM fiat, and I will quickly nix any attempt to combine backgrounds for every occasion in a random hodgepodge of ‘memories.’ You say you were a glass-blower’s apprentice? Don’t think so, you already said you were a blacksmith’s apprentice.

I do encourage memories to build on each other, however. For example, you say as a blacksmith’s apprentice you worked in a village near a dwarven enclave, so you could recognize basic dwarven runes? That fits, you can roll to see if you can read that runic inscription carved in the wall. You say you had a real problem with Ankeghs in your area when you were a farmer? Well, I’ll give you a roll to remember best how to fight them

As for how the skill rolls work? Simple. I’ve already mentioned how I like bell curves, and attributes are generated using 3D6, so that is what I use for skill rolls. Roll 3D6, add your attribute, and try to score 21+. Again, I an easily make this roll easier or harder, depending on the situation, by adding or subtracting dice from the roll, just like thief skills.

COMBAT

B/X covers weapon & shield, and two-handed weapons already, but what about two-weapon fighting? Again drawing from Philotomy’s well, I like to allow characters with a 13+ Dexterity to gain a +1 to hit when using a weapon in each hand.

STONES

Encumbrance is burdensome to most adults, much less middle schoolers, so I’m going with the Stones System. Smaller numbers. Nice medieval flavor. What’s not to like?

[SARCASM] THAT’S ALL? [/SARCASM]

Yeah, it took two posts to lay out the changes, but these are minor and few in number, relatively speaking. There are folks who make a lot more extensive changes to the RAW, and with farther reaching consequences. The Attribute/Skill rolls aren’t even discussed in B/X, left as something that DM’s had to figure out on their own.

Next post will be about the kids and their games so far, with a little reflection on how things compare with my middle school games…

OLD SCHOOL IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL (Part 1)…

I design games, but that’s not my day job. These days, my mild mannered, not-so secret identity is that of a Middle School Technology and Game Design teacher. I also run the after school Tabletop Game Club, initiating young’uns into the mysteries of games that don’t require a tablet, phone or computer (and, yes, that logo is a modified version of Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop logo, that I made for the club).

Recently, I was asked by some of my club kids to run D&D for them. A couple had heard of it, and one had played an abortive game of 5E, but they were really curious about the old B/X set that I have sitting on the bookshelf behind my desk, and really interested in knowing how it was done ‘back in the day.’

Now, at first I was hesitant. I had already gotten the ‘Parent Concerned over D&D’ letter earlier in the year, for teaching my game design students about the historical context of the game. We didn’t play the game in class, I simply taught them how it not only influenced modern game design, but (along with Star Wars) moved fantasy and science fiction from the backwater kingdom of the nerd and into the mass media arena of popular entertainment. I did use it to teach them how procedural generation worked, why we use it, and where it originated, using the random dungeon, wilderness and encounter tables, but having them generate content is a far cry from having them play the game.

Still, class is class, and game club is game club, so I told them I’d run it for a little while, until they got the hang of it, and then let them take over.

WHICH VERSION TO USE?

There are dozens of versions of D&D out there when you count the originals, retro-clones, neo-clones, restatements, etc., but one thing was certain: no matter which version I used, we were going back to my old school (no Steely Dan reference intended): descriptive based play, with minimal rolling, and a healthy dose of DM fiat (or ‘Rulings not Rules,’ as the kids are calling it these days). In the end, though, I went with my favorite version: B/X.

Now, to get the full effect of the rules differences, I initially planned to run it RAW, but that was quickly abandoned as an absurd idea, since that really isn’t how the game was played. Ever, as far as I can tell. The beauty of the Basic series over the Advanced series was that it wasn’t locked into Gary’s vision of an FRPG Rosetta Stone that was to be strictly adhered to. It was a crazy DIY toolbox in the spirit of the original 1974 version, which is probably why, even though we added bits from the Advanced rules into it here and there, we stuck to the boxed sets as our primary rules source.

That being said, I didn’t want to go overboard until what we were playing was an unrecognizable Frankenstein’s monster of a game (even though the kids would never know, as they don’t have to know thing one about the rules to play). So I stuck with the few house rules I consistently insist on, to cover the few warts the game presents for me.

THIEVES & THEIR SKILLS

I have a real dislike for percentile rolls. I understand that it is the best way to represent chance in the most direct fashion, but the thing that bothers me about it is the ‘ones’ die. If there were ever a perfect analog example of video game ‘Pixel Bitching,’ that is it. You already have the pass/fail of the Tens die (50% chance, did I roll over or under a 5?), but that isn’t the end of it, as you have to now pass a second die roll (I have a 55% chance, I passed the tens roll, now I have to roll under/above a 5 on the ones die). I don’t find missing my roll by a percentage point to be particularly dramatic. In fact, I find it highly annoying.

And B/X D&D makes it worst by starting off thieves with a ridiculously low probability for passing their rolls (except for Climb). So to remove traps, I have to roll a 1 on one die, and a 0 on the next. And even at level 3, when characters are finally hardy enough to actually have a better than average chance of surviving the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, the poor thief still has to roll a 2 or less on one die, and a 5 or less on the other. And in exactly that order.

Never have the ‘wages of sin’ been more clearly demonstrated then by the B/X thief, who is usually the first to die in the performance of his ‘profession.’ A perfect example of this can be found on page B59, as Black Dougal fails to find a poisoned needle trap, fails his save, dies, and has his body unceremoniously looted by his former party members, all in quick order.

BECMI is even worse in this regard, as it takes the 14 level stretch from 10% to 99% and extends it over 36 levels! Thieves show almost no improvement for level gain as a result. I hated playing thieves in BECMI.

I prefer a single roll, with simple numbers. Multiple dice are okay, so long as they are summed in some way, to create a nice bell curve. I like bell curves, because I like the idea that there is a middle level of ability where the apprentice goes from failing most of the time, to succeeding on average, and then becoming even more capable as they rise in level, as opposed to straight increments of success, as given by a single D20, or the grinding progression of the percentile rating. So I converted the probabilities for Thieves skills to 2D6 (with the exception of Hear, which remains 1D6).

This progression, which is loosely based on the original percentile progression, solves my problem and allows for a couple of other considerations, which help to make the thief more interesting for the player, and the DM.

First, the new progression provides the proper range to allow thieves to apply Ability Bonuses to their rolls. A Level 1 thief with a Dexterity bonus of +2, would need to roll an 8+ to succeed, for example. And I can determine which ability applies on the fly. So if they are picking a lock, and I determine that bypassing this particular lock is more about brute strength, they apply their Strength bonus instead.

I can also make the task easier or harder by adding or subtracting D6s to the roll instead of messing about with +/- modifiers (especially fiddly percentile ones). A particularly fiendish lock, made by a master gnomish locksmith for a special door, might reduce the number of dice rolled to 1, requiring a level 5-9 thief (depending on Dex bonus) to open! Or, if a thief is trying to hide in large, dark cave, with lots of nooks, stalagmites, and other cover, I might allow them to roll 3 dice, so the average roll becomes 11, giving even a 1st Level thief an average chance of success.

Besides changing the progression system, I also treat most Thief skills as a kind of ‘Bonus Saving Throw.’ Because I expect thief players to use their descriptive skills to find things, we rely on that first and foremost. I even allow them to find things that normal folks would miss, without need to roll. For example, if the thief player says, ‘I’m checking the underside of the door handle,’ I would reveal any visible things, like needles, and even some things others wouldn’t notice, like a dark resin like substance (contact poison) on the underside.

If they fail to check for a trap, say walking over a pit without knowing it, they get to roll their Find/Remove Traps skill to ‘notice’ it at the last moment. If they fail that, normal saves apply. This takes some of the weight off of the descriptive play, by allowing the thief to walk around without checking every square foot of floor in fear. Very useful, especially for new players, who are just getting the hang of things, or old hands who are comfortable relying on their character’s ‘intuition,’ especially at higher levels.

Is that Magneto’s helmet, in that chest? What kind of crazy campaign is this DM running?

NEXT…

The post is getting long, but in the next one, I’ll detail a couple of other, shorter, changes to the system, and relate how my Middle School group handled their first foray into The Lost City…