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

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Minimalist OSR

Some random musings on the topic...

When I wrote Dark Fantasy Basic, I was creating a kind of homage to Moldvay's Basic* (as you can see from the cover). This book is one of the best ever, IMO.

On one hand, I was trying to make it simpler, by cutting XP tables, many saving throws, etc. On the other, I was is trying to expand it with character customization (skills, feats, etc.) and additional levels. 

In the end, I wanted to you keep a similar size (about 60 pages), which I achieved, but not without cutting monsters, dungeon-building, and DM advice (which I ended up including in my other books).

I was not especially interested you making a "minimalist Moldvay", since the game was simple enough for me already.

Since writing it, however, I've written quite a lot about "minimalist D&D", usually within the context of 5e - a game I consider unnecessarily complex. 

However, I was browsing through the OSE SRD the other day and I got instantly hooked by the simple classes (in case you don't know, Old School Essentials is a fairly faithful clone of B/X, which you can get for free*). They are wonderfully terse - and you can still find some easy ways to make them simpler.

Basically, you can just Target 20 the whole thing so each class is a couple of paragraphs.

Well, the fighter is already a couple of paragraphs and tables. Same for the wizard. The thief is, once again, a bit more trickier. The hardest thing to convert to Target 20 is the climbing skill. Should climbing be a thief skill? It's debatable. But - what if we stick to Basic and make EVERY skill a thief skill?

In Dark Fantasy Basic (like in B/X) every PC becomes better at fighting as their level increases - regardless of class. Classes such as the thief get some minor "magical" abilities in B/X, and potentially in DFB too. DFB does the same for thieves' skills - everybody can become a better thief as their level rises.

But I've added more skills - such as nature etc. - for rangers, barbarians, and so on. Now I'm thinking that is not strictly necessary.

What if we only have these three "skills" - let's call them Warrior, Expert, and Spellcaster - instead of the usual ones? 

Art by Rick Troula.

Like in DFB, the Fighter is 100% warrior, plus 2/3 expert and 1/3 spellcaster. In practice this means a 9th level fighter has +9 to attack, +6 for "expert stuff" (see below) and +3 to cast spells (consider that +3 is a small bonus for such a high level PC).

Conversely, the wizard could be 100% spellcaster, plus 2/3 expert and 1/3 warrior.

And the thief Would get 100% expert, 2/3 warrior, and 1/3 spellcaster.

But we could play around with this idea a little bit. The total bonus, as you see, is level x2 (so our 9th level fighter has a total +18 bonus; +9 for warrior and +9 to divide between expert and spellcaster).

So maybe we make the thief 100% expert, plus 50% warrior and 50% spellcaster. A 10th level thief gets +10 for "expert" stuff, +5 to attack and +5 for spells. An the cleric might have, I dunno, 70% warrior, 70% spellcaster, and 60% expert. A "witcher" class would be balanced between warrior (100%) spellcaster (50%), and expert (50%),

As long as the total is the same.

This doesn't require math. Instead, just give the PCs two points per level to distribute among Warrior, Expert, and Spellcaster. The maximum rank they can get is equal to their level. The minimum should be level/4 (or something).

Expert stuff would do everything that isn't combat or spellcasting. That means climbing, yes, but also deciphering languages, nature, backstab, leadership, etc. With one caveat - you only get to add it if you have the adequate "expertise". It would be equivalent to 5e' proficiency bonus. Some feats would allow you to double it, etc. Animals would be expert at hunting, hiding and so on, a goldsmith NPC would just be good at his job.

Of course, we would add a perk or two to warriors and spellcasters. Maybe add you warrior rank to HP, or twice that much. Spellcasters get more spell "points" or something, in addition to the bonus.

A PC would look like this:

Aurelius (level 7)
AC, HP, etc.
Str +3, Dex +2, Con +2, Cha -1, Int 0, Wis +2. 
War 7, Exp 4, Spl 3
Expertises: stealth, nature.

So, when attacking, we would get a +10 bonus (+7 from warrior, +3 from Str). When sneaking, he'd get +6 (+4 from expert, +2 from Dex).

I wrote this on a whim. But I think it might be enough to build a minimalist OSR game. And, come to think of it, if you tweak the numbers right, you could even make it almost 5e compatible...

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  1. Warrior, Rogue e Mage could be a good inspiration for you! Give it a look!

    1. I remember seeing it a long time ago... looked cool! Will take another look.

  2. I'm chasing the same dog as you. For me the main thing is to remove the combat and saving throw matrixes, and make it so they are intuitivelly tied to level or whatever.

    1. For STs, I think just adding your level to your roll is good enough. The same goes for combat, if you're a fighter; otherwise we'd have to make it half level, or 2/3 level, etc.

  3. I keep trying to get something similar to work for my homebrew. Bounded accuracy is the problem. I can't get a bonus of lvl + attribute modifier to be compatible with it, and I quite like bounded accuracy.

    1. I like bounded accuracy too. It is not an easy thing to solve. I'm going back and forth with the solutions, but haven't found a perfect one yet. But I'm nearly satisfied in letting ability scores do all the work (so, a Str 18 character gets +8 to attack and that's it).

    2. I think the question is what existing content (i.e.: NPCs/monsters) you want to be compatible with -- 5E or old school?

      As you know, 5E combatants are more likely to hit across different levels/CR's, but have more HP. Old school accuracy/AC varies more (though AC not that much more) so you can have fights where 1 or more sides have trouble hitting the other, but characters have fewer HP. (Also, in old school, one typically encounters more monsters so maybe the total enemy HP evens-out?)

      WotC has a simple conversion of old school monsters to 5E, but there's no real good cross-reference between CR and old school HD, is there?

      I suppose one could go with bounded accuracy in 5E scales and just convert OS monsters to that scale, leave the HP and damage where they are, and just field more (but not too many more) monsters, etc.

    3. Well, right now I'm leaning towards OSR - the public is more open to new ideas, etc. Conversion is not impossible, the main difference is indeed HP (5e doubles expected damage and HP, more or less).