I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Monday, May 11, 2020

Minimalist D&D?

So, I finally feel the urge to create my "minimalist D&D". Blame the fact that currently all of my games are online, and and I dislike the endless dice-rolling even more over the internet (dice rollers didn't help much, really).

I'm calling it Dark Fantasy Hack for now, because why not.

Bear in mind that, to be honest, I don't want minimalism "per se", but efficiency.

If that requires clarification, I'll give you some examples.

The six basic ability scores could be easily reduced to five, four, or even three without losing much. However, I'm not interested in doing that because I think the familiarity of having the same ability scores you already know beats the ease of having fewer. Likewise, I could reduce the four basic classes to three or even two, but unless I can get rid of classes altogether I don't se much reason to do that since I believe the basic four classes to have some interesting balance. And saving throws? Easily reduced to two or even one, but if you can use the six ability scores you already have, you're not adding too much complexity.

Basically, I want to cut redundancy instead of reducing everything to the "essentials". Maybe it is the same thing. So let's just say I want to write my version of D&D in 20 pages instead of one or two.

Anyway, here is a poll I made on Facebook (BTW, if you are on FB and want to talk about games, feel free to add me).

This is something I created on a whim, so there is stuff missing. I added "damage rolls" and "initiative" after creating the poll, because someone suggested it. I didn't say "feats" or "multi-class" because these are already optional in 5e. So this is not comprehensive or precise... but it can give you a rough idea.

So, spell slots are the first to go (with 159 votes IIRC). I agree. We already solved this issue.

Now, skills is an obvious one, although I was reluctant at first.

I say its obvious because there are already optional rules in the 5e DMG that do away with skills in favor of ability scores and classes. In addition, skills were often unimportant (except for thief skills) in old school D&D.

I was reluctant because Dark Fantasy Basic is skill based, and for me there is something so EASY about making classes through skill combination... "Spells + nature" make druids, "Combat + nature" make rangers and barbarians, etc.

Well, you can do the opposite and replace skills with classes. The important thing is that you have SOME method of customization for different characters.

Initiative we've discussed briefly before. I think it is completely unnecessary. That might deserve a post of its own.

Level and HP, well, these two are hard to do. Possible, sure, but they are really close to the "core" of what D&D is in the first place, IMO. Giving levels and HP to single figures is basically what separated D&D from wargames at the beginning of the hobby. They could certainly be replaced - for something like "wounds" and "character points" - but it sees that if you've got to replace them with SOMETHING, instead of simply cutting them out, I'd rather stay faithful to D&D.

Damage rolls are pretty redundant, IMO. 5e already calculates average damage for monsters, do the same for PCs. Critical hits are there to add some variety. So, 1d8+3 becomes 7 damage (a critical hit becomes maximum damage: 11 points).

Then we've got classes and ability scores. Also tricky. Seems to me that you can have classes but no ability scores - OD&D seems easy to play without them, for example. B/X too. Them you have games like Knave without classes, relying solely on ability scores. But, you've got to have some customization, in one way or another, to differentiate PCs.

In short, most of these things are easy to cut, but we've got to keep at least some semblance of skills OR ability scores OR classes to allow for some customization - as we'll see.


  1. Heroic Fantasy by Graham Spearing, my favorite spin on the Black Hack, uses Aspects to customize classes. You get two at creation and gain more as you hit certain levels. This helps cover skills and backgrounds in one step. It's a rather narrative element for an Old School game but it's elegant and rounds out a character.

    1. I had never heard of this game, sounds really interesting! Will check!

  2. In my homebrew minimalist game, I started with BX rules, eliminated table look-ups wherever I could by using Target20 & similar formulas. I then built +1 or +2 "bonuses" into those formulas to account for PCs being "heoric", and eliminated Ability scores. I did keep 5 skills: Athletics, Handicraft, Search, Stealth, and Knowledge, all based on (d6 + bonuses) >= 6 to keep the "flavor" of BX. Each class (with BX race as class) has a few "specializations" for customization, and gets a +1 on a couple of appropriate skills. Thieves & Halflings gain +1 to a skill of choice at even levels, while other classes only get a new +1 at levels 6 and 12. If you are at all interested, I'm happy to share a pdf of my current rules (more like a DM screen than a full-on rulebook).

    1. @Duke Nidalap: Sounds like a fun system! I'd be interested in taking a look if you have a public link.

      As for the main post, I love running minimalist systems, so I'd take Dark Fantasy Hack for a spin if you put it out. For your list of things to cut, I'd separate the idea of Levels and Hit Points. Maybe you already have, but they are lumped together in this article. Since Levels are more of a tracking tool and Hit Points are a concrete resource you manage, they serve different functions. Cutting out Levels seems pretty easy. Cutting out Hit Points seems awful, since it's the top priority resource players manage.

    2. @Duke Nidalap: I agree with Tyler, this sounds really interesting, feel free to leave a link here so more people can take a look!

      @Tyler: thanks! Yeah, I see what you mean, but I have a hard time ditching levels. Usually, players want some sense of progression, and levels seem more straightforward than "character points" from games like GURPS, for example.

    3. Honestly I wouldn't want to ditch levels either. Just trying to consider things from different angles.

  3. Thanks for the interest! I freely admit that I've borrowed or stolen almost all of it, it's just my spin. I've been using these rules for almost 2 years now, but I keep changing things as I read or think up new stuff. I updated a couple of things and made a fresh copy for a google drive link at the end of this comment. But I do have one requirement: Please give it a good read and let me know what you think? Feel free to e-mail me directly. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for sharing :)

      I skimmed through them. There's a lot to unpack!

    2. I have to take a deeper look, but my first impression is: AWESOME! I really like what you did with classes, and how brief an to-the-point everything is. Great stuff!

  4. Classes, Skills and Ability scores have all the same role: Specialization of the Character. So from that 3, you can choose one and build from there (building around class will probably make the starting decisions more important, and doing it around skills will allow for more "mix")

    Equally, Levels are redundant with HP, as they either govern How much HP you have or, if you're a wizard, how much Spells.

    Your entry inspired me to actually write an attempt in my blog, so come around if you want https://alchemistnocturne.blogspot.com/2020/05/minimalistic-d-how-many-abstractions.html

    It could be probably done the other way around: Ditching HP, Attributes and Skills and making the game with only Classes x Levels x Spells; with monster hits take away HD straight, Fighters getting better AC, Wizards getting Spells and Thieves using their own Spell List

    1. Thanks for the link, cool stuff!
      Yup, exactly. I think D&D must have SOME means of customization, but having skills + class, + abilities + backgrounds is a bit redundant.