Better Combat

My non-combat resolution system works great, it does a wonderful job of keeping everyone at the table immersed in their characters and the fantasy world they are playing in.  There is no faster way, however, to pull them out of that world than when weapons come out and combat ensues.  Suddenly you've gone from deep role-play and vivid imagination to a series of bland dice rolls with lots of misses.

I'm currently running my low-level group through Keep On the Borderlands and they have just begun to explore the Caves of Chaos.  The castellan told them of an Ogre harassing and killing his men along the roadway north and he needed someone to go deal with the problem by bringing back its head.  While the group was buying supplies, the blacksmith's 16 year old apprentice, "Wort", a randomly rolled level 0 fighter-in-training (who happened to have extraordinary strength and constitution @ 18 & 18 respectively) decided to join up with them for the promise of adventure.  So we have a Fey Elf, Demon Hunter (Cleric mod), and an iron-pumping teen fighter.

The group arrived at the caves in the evening and decided to setup camp in the grove just outside the Ogre's cave, which they just so happened to explore first the following morning.  I've been trying hard to incorporate my non-combat system into combat as much as possible.  I honestly don't ever want to fully remove combat rolling because I think you get into a place that no longer resembles D&D anymore and you've got to maintain some semblance of stat-based attack and defense.  But, there is quite a bit of bending you can do to make things far more cinematic.

As soon as the Ogre was alerted to the group's entry into his cave, he came stomping out to see what was going on giving enough time for the group to realize that some huge "thing" was coming for them.  Ogre's (and most of the early level creatures) are pretty stupid anyway compared to my PCs so it seems fair for the creature to forget any sort of intelligent ambush tactic.  In many cases, I skip the surprise round because there is usually a party that is clearly being more careful and methodical than the other.

The elf immediately cast entangle causing the tree roots from above to grab hold of the Ogre's arms.  The monster failed his saving throw, so he was unable to move his upper body for the rest of the round.  He could still kick and hop though, so keeping your distance from his lower body became important.  The demon hunter had found a Valerian dagger (dagger +1) during his last adventure (Valeria is an extinct kingdom of sea worshippers - think Atlantis) and wanting to use it badly, decided to climb the vines and swing onto the beasts shoulders.  The demon hunter has very good dexterity, and since the Ogre couldn't move I arbitrarily assigned him a d100 70% chance of success, which he succeeded.  In this position, the Ogre could not fight back against the attackers slashing at his neck and head.

The elf later did the exact same thing while the fighter apprentice slashed at the monsters knees with his longsword.  The Ogre failed his save a second time and the fighter landed the killing blow with a d8 result of 7 + 3 (str bonus).  The whole thing was very cinematic and took surprisingly few dice rolls to complete.

A few moments later, when the Ogre's goblin friends became alerted to what was going on in the room below them, a couple brave ones began climbing down a make-shift rope latter to attack the heroes.  The players had the brilliant idea to have Wort shake the bottom of the ladder, throwing the creatures off and instantly killing them by getting dashed against the rocky cave walls.  They then used their torch to burn the trapdoor, the smoke filling the goblin chamber above and causing the creatures to flee.  All this without a single combat roll.

Visualizing the battlefield with all its nuances is key to running combat encounters this way.  When you minimize the transition to and from combat, I think the suspension of disbelief can keep going strong in players' minds.  A brilliant idea to kill or disable your enemy before the dice even start rolling I think is wholly in the spirit of classic D&D.  The player characters were only level 2, 1 and 0, they really had no business taking on a level 4 Ogre along with 12 goblins at that stage of the game, but using their heads they were able to not only able to minimize the risk, but neutralize it entirely.  Nobody lost a single hit point.

I used to run combat with bland dice rolls: "roll for initiative", "you missed, he missed, you hit, he missed, you hit, etc".  I've learned along the way that it doesn't have to be like this at all, not even close.


Custom Classes

I reject codified custom classes in D&D, even for classic D&D (looking at you B/X Blackrazor).  I just think that this mimics modern D&D did with all of its silly and limited skill, feat and class lists.  I don't want a book to tell me who or what I should play, or what the right way is to play it.  I want my imagination fueling my character.  Having said that, I love players that think creatively when designing a class.

One of the biggest misconceptions of Basic Dungeons & Dragons concerns its class system.  Most, including myself, will tell you that this was the biggest barrier to playing.  The idea that you could only play a fighter, magic-user, cleric, or thief seemed incredibly limited.  Race as class was an entirely different problem which I won't go over right now, but suffice it to say, it was hard to convince me that this game was anything but a seriously toned-down edition to the "real" D&D in modern iterations that gave you more options.

Obviously I now know better.  I know now that "classes" in old-school D&D are really just archetypes or simple templates to keep your imagination in check.  When making a character in Basic or 0E D&D, I always suggest to come up with a class that fits into one of the 4 archetypes listed at least as a basis to start from.  Sometimes classes can blur the line a bit.  For example, a "knight" class could be either a fighter or cleric depending on if you wanted a character that held to strong moral codes or not.  A "swashbuckler" or "pirate" could be classify as a fighter or thief depending on whether you envisioned the character focused on fighting or cunning more often.  Classic Conan in literature is probably more of a thief than a fighter, which I've gone over in a previous entry.

Thinking about classes in this way, you quickly realize that that classic D&D had far more flexibility than its modern cousins.  Freed from stat lists and restrictive prestige classes, you can literally come up with anything you want to play as long as the DM allows it.

One of my players loves playing a Demon Hunter in Diablo 3.  Now, good luck finding a B/X book with a Demon Hunter class, much less Diablo 3's version of it (not that I'd want that anyway).  So without someone sitting down for hours statting out the perfect class to fit the game, how do I achieve this?

First of all, throw out the idea that a character's class needs to be completely defined and planned day 1.  If a player wants to sit down with the basic Cleric template and let the game define and mold who his character is, great!  There's nothing wrong with that at all.  How many times have you said, "that class looks awesome!", then a few hours in you decide you want to be something different?

Alt-itis can be completely avoided in classic D&D because you don't have to put anything in stone during character creation.  It may be during session 22 at level 3 that he gets a series of lucky rolls against some troglodytes and his character suddenly "remembers" that his sister was killed by a troglodyte when he was 11 and he has a racial bonus against them.  Or perhaps the DM simply decides that this character has gained some insight into killing cave-dwelling monsters and will now have more success against them in the future.

Secondly, if someone does want to put some effort into defining his character early on, he can put as much effort into it as he wants.  Don't worry about finding a perfect balance.  Pick an archetype that fits most closely the vision of your dream class and then add 2 or 3 tweaks in the positive and 2 or 3 tweaks in the negative.  For example, I designed the Demon Hunter class mentioned above to use any weapon, but shuns armor heavier than leather and is penalized for wearing it.  He can turn evil planar creatures starting at level 1 along with undead, but his undead turning is weaker and fails more often than the standard cleric.  Also, he prays to and gains power from a god like a normal cleric cannot heal wounds, only cause them.

That's a great start at level 1, and even if he wants more specializations in other things like a particular weapon like a crossbow, I will allow him to work toward it by using such a weapon or skill during his sessions of play.  A player shouldn't get everything he wants at 1st level, he should set goals for how he wants his character to turn out.  Goals are not always reached when he hits a certain level either, it may happen during an interesting session where he did something impressive, or arbitrarily after putting a little more effort into character back-story.

Negative things can and should happen as well based on poor choices, or simply because the DM and player agree on something negative balancing out something positive that occurs.  This is a collaborative effort and neither the player or the referee should be able to hold all the cards when it comes to defining player class and character.



One of the biggest criticisms I've seen of D&D is its Vancian magic system.  The concept of a magic-user that has to memorize spells and can only cast a limited amount per day until he has rested and studied his spell book again.  There are many who attack it as being too limited and requiring adventurers to leave the "dungeon" too prematurely and often to rest and recover.  D&D 4th edition did a lot to try and fix the "problem" by letting players fire off low level spells as often as they wanted.  It seems many wanted things to be more "fair "so they could to be like a Jedi shooting off their powers left and right just like a fighter.

I would at least agree that, on paper, all of these old-school spell limitations sound pretty lame and limiting.  And I can certainly sympathize with someone who would want to change it if they didn't understand the mindset of the system.  First of all, trying to play with Vancian magic in a rules-heavy system like 3rd or 4th edition isn't going to work well.  These are games designed for "encounters", a painfully derivative word that has come to mean, "interesting things that happen" (as if nothing else in the game is all that interesting and therefore undeserving of a title).

In an encounter-based game you're not thinking about the big picture.  You're thinking about spaces to do "stuff" in, while the rest is sort of filler that needs getting out as quickly as possible.  In classic D&D, avoiding monsters and these "encounters" was actually more important and rewarding.  In classic D&D you're not supposed to run into the room with the dragon with swords drawn and blazing fireballs, you're supposed to find a way to get the treasure while avoiding the fight altogether.  You're supposed to outwit the dragon, not necessarily kill the dragon.  Afterall, the XP gained by killing the dragon was peanuts compared to the XP gained from a dragon's treasure hoard (where classic D&D rewarded XP based on gold piece value).

Killing mobs to get loot is so ingrained in peoples' minds these days from video games and superhero films, that it seems almost absurd to play an RPG of any kind where you're not doing just that.  It's hard for non-classic players to really understand this concept even if you try to explain it to them.  The level 1 magic user, with his one-use light spell becomes extremely important when a confrontation with a monster actually does happen.  The key here, and a running theme throughout classic D&D, was player cunning and wit, not sword and spell, overcoming challenges.  A classic player's character wasn't going to come out of a session alive if he didn't do or think of something pretty darn cool and out-of-the-box during the session.  That is something that has been lost in modern D&D where brute force, and less thinking, has become the rule of the day.

However... :)

That's not to say you can't tinker with magic in classic D&D to make it more interesting.  Other than a magic-user's wit and intelligence (which I'm not downplaying at all), he literally has nothing else to rely on during those early levels (where most characters live and die anyway).  I want to make these classes more interesting and more dynamic to play.  A house rule that I have been using in my latest campaign is for my players, an Elf and a Cleric, to be able to use their magic as a sort of fountain of power, rather than a one-shot blast.

The original house-rule I borrowed from someone else is to allow players to cast very minor versions of their spells for free.   So a magic-user could light his pipe or even start fire with his Fireball spell.  With Light, you could use it to send some "morse-code" styled signals.  Etc. 

My version of this house rule actually takes it a little further.  I keep a mental note of how much of a spell is being used throughout the day and to what degree.  Again, in the fireball example above, a player could decide to use his ability to "spark" some kindling perhaps 5-10 times a day, or instantly create a roaring fire for 1/2 the cost of a normal fireball.  It will require some creativity to determine just what you could do in a minor fashion for some of the spells.  I still haven't figured out how floating disc could be useful.  But a clever player could probably surprise me in the right situation.

In any case, the player is spending his magic energy pool in creative ways that count toward his spell limit that day.  I don't keep any hard rules for this, I just make a note in my head of how much he's used of his spell.  Yeah, I know this is like a "mana" pool for each spell use, and some grognards may think that's heresy, but I personally believe this hybrid system fits even better with Appendix N than what we got.

My main source for this comes from Gandalf, but you could find a lot of other examples as well in D&D-inspired literature.  Either because he likes being clever and subtle, or the physical drain is too much, very rarely do you see his full magical power being used.  Instead, he's constantly being creative with his magic to scare or fool the bad guys.  You can also see his weariness after using his magic, or in greater degree (eg holding the door shut from the Balrog and his encounter with the witch king) I like this approach more than the "bazooka wizard", that nukes everything in sight.  And I feel it has a lot of old-school flavor.  Magic-users can be far more versatile and creative and will never feel like they are useless after their spells have been used up after five minutes of adventuring.

Players will need to weigh the pros and cons to using their magic in one big shot, or in a lot of minor ways.  Using your magic to start the fire this morning means that you're going to be in a world of hurt when you face a group of zombies later that day.  Overall, though, this gives magic users far more options and freedom, something I think defines classic Dungeons and Dragons.