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, July 06, 2020

Minimalist D&D III - Ditch EVERYTHING but abilities... and SOME features!

Continuing this discussion...

I know, this doesn't sound old school. Original D&D had little use for abilities. Nor does it sounds revolutionary - there are plenty of RPGs that do something similar.

But I'm truly considering ditching everything but abilities and "features" in the next version of my game ("Dark Fantasy Hack" until I can think of something better).

Abilities are the 6 characteristics EVERYONE has: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. You could probably cut one or two but familiarity makes things easier.

"Features" are SPECIAL powers - something only a few characters have.

Let's start with 5e.

"Three d20 rolls are at the heart the game’s rules: the ability check, the attack roll, and the saving throw" - source.

Notice that skills fall under ability check in 5e.

Even tough the three rolls are somewhat different, the mechanics are similar - you get a bonus from abilities (usually -1 to +5) and another bonus from proficiency (usually +2 to +6, or 0 if you are not proficient). Two modifiers with similar ranges and similar functions.

Turns out that they are redundant - just double one of them and you're good to go.

I'll explain, using this 5th level Barbarian as my example (source):

Attack rolls - all attack rolls are made with Strength or Dexterity. Add your proficiency bonus if you're proficient with the weapon you're using. This is mostly a softer way of saying "wizards shouldn't use swords", an idea I dislike. In 5e the concept is mostly useless since a wizard with a sword is usually better off using his cantrips even if he is proficient.

In our example, all his attack rolls are +6 to hit. Which is the same as doubling his +3 Strength bonus.

Skills - it's pretty obvious that skills do not function exactly as intended. The DMG gives you a good alternative for not using skills (just choose two abilities to be proficient with). Which is very similar to saving throws. In facts, the abilities they suggest are often the same they suggest for saving throws, but not always (Constitution, for example, has no skills, so it isn't an option).

If we're using skills, the +2 to +6 bonus is obviously too low - something WotC seems to notice by creating multiple instances of "doubling" it, although not enough (just let anyone take the "prodigy" feat and it will fix my issue with the game). In addition, the DMG (and multiple house rules) suggest in some circumstances you can only roll if trained.

In short, skills shouldn't be a small bonus, but something much more significant. In Dark Fantasy Basic, for example, your "top" skills scale with level. So, a level 12 fighter has +12 to attack (and maybe +8 to athletics, for example), on top of ability scores.

I should probably stop here an write entire post about skills later.

Anyway, in our example, we got good athletics (+6, which is double his Strength bonus). He's got +2 in nature - which means the wizard often beats him in the wild. Shouldn't be the case. Same for survival.

And animal handling... cleric beats the barbarian when dealing with animals. His intimidation (a skill I'm not sure should exist) is decent. With his +4 bonus, the hulking barbarian is probably as intimidating as the skinny bard with a lute.

Notice that he COULD have chosen animal handling, but perception, etc., is way more useful.

Saving throws - each class gets two. In this case, Strength and Constitution, both +6. As you can see, in both cases the bonus is identical to what you'd get by doubling the ability bonus (+3 in both cases).

What about the other saves? Doubling the bonus would make him better in Dexterity saves (which makes sense for Barbarians, IMO). Which is a thing barbarians NEED - which is why he gets "danger sense " at level 2. Not exactly the same, but a feature that could be ditched by just doubling the Dexterity bonus.

Charisma would get a small boost, Intelligence a small penalty, making the distinction between 8 and 12 more significant, which I like. Wisdom in unaffected.

As you can see, arbitrary picking two saving throws doesn't not get us any big benefits. Needless complication for no discernible gain.

(BTW, saving throws as written also creates baffling results such as barbarians getting more resistant to dehydration, but not starvation, as they level up. High level barbarian will still survive a 100-foot fall unscathed...).

What else the barbarian got? 

Well, a couple of unique features of course. These are cool and should be kept, most of the times. Others, not so much. Let's see.

- Proficiency in all weapons: unnecessary, as seem above.

- Proficiency in light and medium armor: this is more complicated, but I think a barbarian should be able to wear ANY armor. However, he wouldn't be able to take full advantage of his Dex and Con. Take a look at this post for some ideas.

Skills: see above.

- Rage: yeah, that's the barbarian main feature. Keep it.
Unless... Well, rage is +2 damage at this point. Double the strength bonus to damage, you'd get +3 instead... But anyway, let's leave that to another post.

- d12 for HD: So, he got more hit points. The lowest HD possible is a d6; a d12 grants him an average of 3 extra HP per level. You guessed it: just double his Constitution modifier and you get the same effect. I have a even easier formula, which I'll discuss later (basically, multiply his Constitution by 6 and divide by two and you'd get 48 HP, pretty close, and easier to do).

BTW, did you realize barbarians get 1d12 HP peer level, and fighters 1d10? Well, fighters have "second wind". In practice, the results are similar.

So, most of the "chassis" for the class are unnecessary. Do we even need classes at this point? Or would a collection of features (extra attack, rage, etc.) suffice?

What about races? Those are features.

Backgrounds? Those are features.

Spells? Features.

More and more, I'm convinced ability scores + features would be enough to do everything we need.


  1. I love this post and have thoughts that may help condense the encumbrance system that you've been mulling about for a while, but it gets fairly abstract, so I need to think of how to actually describe it in text. I am basically trying to think of a means to make a means to assess how encumbering an item is to a character, and allow for a way to assess how physical ability (read STR and DEX ability bonuses can be applied to a score). It involves laying out the encumbrance slots in a 12xn grid of some form such that the fractions can be easily assessed. It may be that the solution is to just calculate numbers ahead of time and compare, but I like visual representation to be also valid.

    As far as "do we need classes", I think it could be interesting to put class features into a feature tree concept grouped with your 4 class discussion. One can take all the skills in a single class tree, or cross branches to get a hybrid class (paladin or the more mystical barbarian, or even monk characters arise from combining the fighter and cleric feature trees in the fighter and cleric skill tree for example.)

    Of course the question with the above point is that are "no longer D&D". I define D&D as the beggar to king story ala Conan the Barbarian more than anything else, but that's personal taste.

    1. Thanks Sean!

      Yeah, I'm always thinking about encumbrance. My current method is even simpler than some of the stuff I've written before. I'm thinking something like Str+Con/4 "slots" to be unencumbered. But I'll share my "minimalist D&D" doc soon.

      About classes, yes, I want something like that: a list of feats - and a few feat trees - for you to pick and choose.

      At this point, I'm not sure we are in D&D-land anymore bt... as long as we're having fun we'll be ok! :)

    2. Apparently my original reply got eaten. Let's try a more summarised version.

      Every item has a "bulk" determined by the number of slots. This shows how difficult it is to move around. If you want to move an object, you have to be able to commit an equal number of slots to the effort to move it. If you store an object for transport, it costs 1/4 the slot cost (perhaps this changes for particularly large objects, but a solid starting point. Any factor that reduces the umber for transport means that a character can actually carry all the equipment they can use.

      When it comes to using weapons in combat (though this could work for any physical activity), as mentioned previously, you have to commit an equal number of encumbrance slots to the object to be able to use it. At that stage, one is only using strength to hit. If you add double the object score , you add half the dex bonus,triple your full dex bonus.

      Lets say that to start slot score for using an object as a weapon correlate to around half the max damage of the object hitting the target. Light weapons use 2-3 slots, Medium weapons 4-5 slots, Heavy weapons = 6-7. Balanced objects (weight evenly distributed) have an even number of slots (lower end of the range) but use a 2 dice roll (ex 2d6 Great Sword). Shaft weapons that are top heavy use a damage dice of 2*(# of slots-1), but have a feature to knock over targets on a crit (and cost time to correct on a critical miss).

      Lets take my favourite example of STR 24/Con 24/Dex 20 Barbarian with a Great Axe, as that is the largest numbers for this calculation.

      Using the previous paragraph a Great Axe does 1d12 costs 7 slots to use. If the Barbarian is medium and Endurace uses STR+CON slots, they have 48 slots (may vary base on size).

      I would say that if we want to use bonus as (score - 10) I would suggest that using attribute to AC should be a 2:1 ratio (and that in the case of Monk/Barbarian let Dex and Wis/Con combine to 1. Something to decide if you cost 1 or 2 encumbrance slots)

      In any case if we use the above adjustment, this Barbarian unarmoured has +12 to AC. This costs 12-24 encumbrance slots, leaving the character with 24-36 slots.

      In any case this means that the barbarian can treat a Great Axe as a Light weapon for 21 slots, bringing them to 3-15 free slots. This means that they can get +24 to hit at the current method (so they can do massive amount of damage (no missing, and at worst case ~50% crit chance against the heavily armoured character, but they can likely not be doing much more than just hit things).

      Looking at this I would recommend the 2:1 trade off for stat to AC. This means that your Barbarian can be super accurate (reckless attack for average die roll of 13.8 or ~14 so they are critically injuring most things they hit), but they can basically not carry much else.

      From this basic thought experiment:

      1) Recalibrate the scaling of adding Dex Bonus to to hit (1/4,1/2,3/4,1)

      2) AC may need to be adjusted (perhaps the base is 12 vs 10, and then your idea of stacking advantage to get static bonuses instead of more dice allows for one to get critical hits)

      Anyways, I hope some of this is useful for you!

    3. Yeah, that's interesting, thanks! I certainly think "bulk" must be considered in addition to weight. I lie the diea of being able to play with Str/Dex depending on what you're carrying, etc.

      I rewrote my bit about encumbrance, now unencumbered is Str+Con/3. A beginning "3d6 in order" character can carry about 7 items with no penalty (for 5e, maybe something closer to 8 or 9 items). Each "slot" is about 5 pounds, but armor is a bit lighter than 5e (as historical armor is, IIIRC). So, a lot less detailed than what you're proposing, but I'm sticking with minimalism for this one.

    4. Fair enough! A lot of that post started with "I want regularly used items to be in a reasonable number range, and a visual means for unloading your pack before a tricky stunt". The rest is just the consequences of those design goals, especially as it relates to armour/full attack bonus.

      It isn't minimalist, I agree, but I think it solves my 3.5 issues of changing numerical bonuses if you keep the 5e method of no stacking effects (have stat boosts just double slot numbers, with enlarge shifting + scaling numbers).

  2. man I did a very similar entry yesterday hahah but the executions were way different.


    I'm not familiar with 5E, but a way I've devised to make saves is just rolling under the most appropiate ability.

    This makes saves very easy to pass, but you can either make that attacks drain scores (petrification reduces your cha by 1d6, THEN you save by rolling under cha)
    Make it so you always save for half effect, and making it so even half the effect is already terrific.

    1. Hahaha, great minds and all. Interesting stuff!

      I've considered "roll under" for a long time, and, for old school games, I think it works fine, with a bit of tuning as you've mentioned.

  3. Interesting ideas, but the doubling of the ability mod only works on lower and mid levels and only with decent modifiers.

    If you have a character with a -1 ability mod, would the skill be -2? Your barbarian would be? At, say, 10th level he'd have a +3 Nature skill by the book.

    Another example, with feats and a good roll on ability scores a High Elf can easily have 20 INT by 4th level, getting him a +10 bonus to all related skills with your rule of doubling. That's a +15% bonus at that level.

    At level 1, a Mountain Dwarf can have a +4 STR mod which translates to a +8 "skill" in your system, where he has a +6 by the book. That's a 10% difference.

    In the end I guess it's a nice system if you have a decent ability mod, otherwise most characters will be better off with the proficiency bonus.

    I'd expect characters to be more specialized.

    Concerning your example of the barbarian being as intimidating as the bard: You can always use a different ability mod for skill rolls. Let the barbarian intimidate with STR and it's all good. Those characters would use different methods to intimidate, I'm sure.

    1. Yeah, I'm not suggesting you play 5e as written by ditching skills and doubling modifiers. What I'm saying is that 5e could have been written to be a lot simpler with a few minor changes.

      (Take your dwarf, for example; +8 does seem a lot for level 1, but is not a lot better than +6 to hit with a feat like Sentinel, etc., or fighting styles, action surge, etc. In any case, if all modifiers were doubled, I agree you'd have to limit abilities somehow)

      I will share a doc soon with these ideas in orderly fashion to better illustrate that.

      About intimidation and strength, well, it's a common fix, but I'm not entirely convinced. It kinda makes Cha even less useful. But anyway, that might be a different discussion; as I've said, I'm not even entirely sure that intimidation should be a skill:


  4. This sounds similar in many ways to Shadow of the Demon Lord. It uses the ability score minus 10 to be the ability modifier, and the characters start out super plain, with few features, but then gain features along the way. It's not as minimalist as (I think) you're going for, but it might be useful as inspiration if you haven't read it.

    1. Yeah, that's a great reference. SotDL is an AWESOME game, and a big inspiration. I might write a review soon to point to the parts I'd like to be different, but overall I really love this game.