Failed a Save vs. Newschool

This afternoon, I will be violating the principles of my alignment (Neutral Oldschool) and participating in a Fifth Edition D&D game. Exciting to me is the fact that I will be a PLAYER, not a Dungeon Master. I am pretty sure that I have not been a PLAYER in a game of D&D since 1989 or 1990. I’m a little apprehensive, actually.

I’ve written before about my initial reading of the 5E Stranger Things Starter Set and how I was pleasantly surprised by it, but I haven’t mentioned how I picked up the 5E Player’s Handbook when I got invited to play with a group a friend games with. The PHB seems fine, and I’m sure that I will make plenty of use of it, but it is quite a monster. After the introductory sections (which I liked) I’ve basically been saying “Oh, for fuck’s sake” every four or five minutes as I slog through the races and classes and character creation. My impression was that this was the core game, the options added in the early years, and the mid-life Unearthed Arcana-type expansions all jammed into the PHB. Way too much stuff, and way too much depth for the too many things. Even the free PDF of Basic Rules seemed pretty excessive. I had honestly reached the point of “Well, I said I’d play and I guess I should at least check it out one time,” but I was expecting that it might be a one-and-done for me and 5E.

HOWEVER.

What I’d skipped over due to timing and the fact that I’ve been playing B/X two or three days a week lately is the Essentials Set. I’d bought it but not even opened it, then dove into the PHB because the session was getting close.

I wish I’d started with the Essentials Set. As a player who knows these sorts of games, I’d personally say that the Starter Set should really be called the “Introductory Set” and the Essentials Set should really be called “Starter Set” or “Basic Set.”

The Starter Set(s) use pre-generated characters and include only the spells and monsters used by those characters or in the included introductory adventure. The classes and races are described on the included character sheets, and there is no character generation included in the set at all. The Essentials Set is a stripped-down full game, with basic classes and a few of the options for each of them in a 64-page book plus an introductory adventure. The spell list is likewise limited, as are the monsters and magic items, but it appears that the Essentials Set is a full game that could provide a fair amount of gaming, similar to B/X’s or Mentzer’s Basic book.

I’m really looking forward to playing for a change. I love DMing and I love B/X but this is a great way for me to broaden my horizons a bit. Plus I think it will be a lot of fun to just relax a bit and run a single character for a session. Plus, I’m making a point to use my veteran purple dice from the mid-80s. Adventure awaits.

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Clerical Spell Progression

I’ve never been a fan of the spell progression for B/X clerics. They gain 3rd AND 4th-level spells when they reach 6th level, and then they gain 5th-level spells a level later. I’ve generally just gone with the spell progression from Mentzer BECMI, but that isn’t quite right, either, since it’s built for longer growth and includes spells higher than B/X’s limit of 5th-level clerical magic. So, in my endless quest to “fix” the cleric class, I now use the following:

Level1st2nd3rd4th5th
1
21
32
421
522
6221
7322
83321
93332
1044321
1144332
1244433
1355443
1455544
Kilgore’s Clerical Spell Progression

I am aware that some (or many?) claim that what I call “wonky” is, in fact, part of the “charm” of oldschool D&D. Though I am fully prepared to overlook a fair amount of stuff–including the Clerics vs. Undead table that I find to be ridiculous–I am not going to stick to BTB on this subject. Though I welcome any explanations about why the rules as written are superior, as I generally find that nothing makes me happier than being convinced that BTB is better. (Fair warning: I’m not going to be easy to sway on this…but I will listen.)

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Tokens

Almost all of my D&D for the past few months has been online, but I’ve also been doing some testing on the tabletop using a grid and my tokens.

I make these by gluing 1″ cut-outs from Magic: The Gathering cards onto wooden circles. Even though I like them a lot and enjoy the tactical nature of combat on the grid using B/X rules, we don’t use them too often. So it’s fun to break them out and runs some combat simulations.

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Thieves’ Abilities – Easy, Hard, and Very Hard

To state that the thief class is “controversial” in oldschool circles is an understatement. But, despite some reservations, I remain in favor of its inclusion in the game. The B/X thief, however, has what I perceive to be some significant shortcomings, the greatest of which are the low chances of success for the standard thieves’ abilities.

Take the cleric’s ability to turn undead–a definite skill-like ability not unlike the thief skills. The Clerics vs. Undead table starts with decent chances of success, 58% for skeletons, 28% for zombies, and 8% for ghouls. Rates then ramp up very rapidly, with automatic successes arriving at 2nd level. The The Thieves’ Ability table, meanwhile, starts with success rates mostly in the 10% to 20% range and they increase very slowly.

What I’ve done for the past few years is treat the Thieves’ Abilities table numbers as the chances of success in “challenging conditions,” giving a bonus when the conditions aren’t quite so harsh. Basically, the table rates apply to good locks, sophisticated treasure traps, open areas with few hiding spots, etc., while giving better odds when the lock isn’t quite so well-made, the trap isn’t nearly so well-hidden, or the area provides better opportunities to hide.

While I’ve tried various methods over time, the way I’m currently implementing this is to rate each challenge as “easy,” “hard,” or “very hard.” Actually, I also rate them as “very easy,” but generally won’t even require a roll for a “very easy” challenge, since it’s literally very easy.

  • EASY CHALLENGE – Double normal chance success
  • HARD CHALLENGE – Normal chance of success
  • VERY HARD CHALLENGE – Half normal chance of success

This makes it simple to let the thief do some thiefing without trying to explain away thief abilities as some sort of near-magical extraordinary skill. Sure, thieves are really, really good a moving “silently,” and that’s a lot better than sneaking like non-thieves are stuck doing. But it’s not a supernatural ability. High-level thieves might be the Batman, but they aren’t a mystical phantom.

I use the “easy, hard, very hard” scale for a lot of other stuff, too. Like opening or listening at doors. Searching for secret doors. Almost anything. Easy things have double normal success rates. Hard things have normal success rates. Very hard things have half-normal success rates. Very easy things are usually automatically successful.

I remain convinced that thief abilities could and should use 1d12, but I’ve resisted the urge to implement that. So far.

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Kilgore’s B/X Gets Play-tested Updates

All of the playing (and design work to support it) I’ve done over the past few months has allowed me to work in some of my house rule ideas, trial them in play a bit, and tweak them or discard them. One example is the archer class, which failed to deliver and was eliminated. Another is a new hit point/death system, which is still in trial mode and will probably be tweaked a bit as we get more experience with it.

It’s that experience that is always so valuable, and you can’t get experience if you don’t do. Some of my ideas have been in place for a long time but, due to limited play opportunities, they haven’t really had the chance to get used a number of times in diverse situations. My wonderfully large amount of play since the start of the pandemic has given me a lot of experience with many of my ideas, some of which were definitely not ready for prime time.

Things that I’ve used for some time have been adjusted or eliminated. Like clerical turning of the undead, for which I used a more Arnesonian-style method proposed by DHBoggs but eventually returned to B/X BTB after an undead-heavy campaign showed me that, while the alternative method looked nice and was definitely more of how I envisioned turning, it just didn’t deliver what we wanted in our game. So back to the book in that case, with plenty of actual use used to make the decision.

My current tinkering efforts are based on a formal separation of race and class in B/X and a skills/abilities/powers system. The projects are related, as I want to use them in combination to “balance” the classes and races a bit more to my tastes while not departing TOO far from the rules as written. It’s a tough line to walk, but hopefully I’ll be able to use the proposals in play enough to get it right.

Hats off to my players, who seem mostly okay with the tinkering. Part of that probably has to do with the fact that 90% of my house rules favor player-characters, but I’m grateful that they’re not too bothered when I say “Hey, by the way, today hit points work differently and I’m reserving the right to change it again tomorrow.”

In the end, I’m not sure what sort of game I’m going to have. I went through a similar phase with both 1e and 2e AD&D back in the day, and in both cases I eventually tired of it and went cold turkey BTB. Many of these tinkerings are based on things I did back then and I’m doing them for the same reasons, so I hope I’ve learned good lessons and can do it better this time instead of simply repeating past mistakes.

I have definitely failed my save vs. tinkering.

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Return of Magic Blast

Years ago, a hot topic on this blog and some forums I was in was the “magic blast” attack power for magic-users. I had originally proposed it in order to make lower-level magic-users a bit more fun for players as a magical version of throwing daggers along the lines of Harry, Ron, and Hermione going “Stupefy! Stupefy! Stupefy!” at the bad guys with their wands.

Surprisingly to me, it created a troll-sized controversy that just kept regenerating hit points. And, even though I tried to understand objections and keep an open mind, I never really grokked most of the arguments against it or understood the points of those who were telling me what the players of low-level magic-users should be doing instead.

We used it for a while but tossed it at some point. It never did seem to break the game or transform it into 4th Edition. In fact, the ease with which we both implemented it and discarded it indicates to me that it’s not a big deal at all.

I’m looking at it again. Currently, I have expanded the daggers-only B/X rules to also allow staff, sling, and club for magic-users, so slinging is a common tactic for magic-users in combat who aren’t casting a spell. Again, this doesn’t seem to have broken anything. And I suspect that the players of magic-user characters are having more fun than “I’m holding the torch” every round during a fight.

I am planning to use 1d4 damage (like a thrown dagger), requiring a to-hit roll (like a thrown dagger), requiring the availability of one hand (like a thrown dagger) for a wand or staff, and using the missile adjustment for Dexterity (like a thrown dagger). I’m going to go with sling ranges (40-80-161) and normal to-hit adjustment for range. I might go with a damage bonus (or automatic maximum damage) on a to-hit roll of 20, and I may increase damage a bit at high levels.

I have a few additional non-combat abilities I’m adding for the magic-user, also based more or less on things I’ve done in the past, but need to work out the exact details before implementing. In addition to my enhanced magical research house rules, I think I’m finally getting close to both making magic-users more magical and justifying their XP requirements, which I think are a bit excessive relative to the other classes.

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No More Archers!

I recently began using an Archer class in my B/X game, wanting a lite fighter type with d6 hit dice and Dexterity for a prime requisite. Going in, my biggest reservation about the class was that I wasn’t sure if it was distinct enough, and after some use I have decided that it just isn’t. Lite fighters who want to focus on missile weapons and get XP bonuses for high dexterity should just choose the thief class. No, the d4 hit dice are not ideal, but the lower XP requirements and the additional thief skills should help offset that.

While I’m not opposed to house rules and additional options, I also don’t want to stray too far from BTB without a compelling reason and I decided that this new class option just didn’t bring enough to the table to warrant it.

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Hit Points + Constitution

(Note: The lack of recent posting here is due to the amount of D&D I’ve been getting in lately. I’ve played more in the past six weeks than I have in any 6-week period since the mid-80s. No joke. It’s been amazing. I have a huge backlog of stuff to write about but I’ve been too busy playing and preparing to play to get any of it posted. It’s a wonderful problem to have. I’d apologize for the dearth of blogging, but I’m not sorry at all. Not one tiny bit.)

Like many, I’ve tried various methods to improve survivability in my D&D game, particularly for low-level characters which can be taken out with one or two good hits. I already implement a few things to tip the scales a little more in their favor, most notably 4d6-drop-lowest/arrange-as-desired (which helps increase the characters capability a bit) and giving maximum hit points at first level and re-rolling 1s for hit dice at every subsequent level.

My standard house rule for the past five years has been a combination of a typical “0 hit points is unconscious not dead” and a “save vs. death if below 0.” This has worked out okay, but I’ve never been 100% happy with the results and have been looking at various alternatives all along.

However, I’ve recently been using a new system on a trial basis:

  1. Hit points down to 0 represent fatigue, luck, heroism, and minor injuries
  2. Damage beyond 0 hit points reduces the character’s constitution score
  3. Character can save vs. (reduced) constitution to remain up and active
  4. Must save each time damage is taken with 0 hit points
  5. If constitution is reduced to 0, character is dead (no save)

This is a significant boost to survivability and gives the character a chance to get themselves out of trouble (or even keep fighting) even with no hit points left. It might be too significant, but I’m okay with giving characters the benefit of the doubt. The saves get increasingly harder as the constitution hits accumulate, but that should give most characters the opportunity to bug out before they pass out.

As far as healing goes, characters who haven’t taken any constitution hits recover their hit points with a night of good rest as long as they’re able to eat and drink properly. Characters who have taken constitution damage recover only half of their lost hit points. 1-3 constitution points can be healed per day of complete rest. Healing magic affects constitution before hit points.

Initial results have been good. I’ll stick with it for a while before deciding for sure.

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