‘New School’ Contributions to ‘The Game’

(Note:  By ‘The Game’, I mean Dungeons & Dragons in all it’s editions, variants, clones and simulacra).

I was reading a post over at Delta’s OD&D Hotspot about the simplicity of monster stats in OD&D (Original Dungeons & Dragons, for any readers who may not know what I’m talking about).  OD&D fit dozens of monsters on a single page, whereas 4E and Pathfinder use a minimum of one page to describe even the simplest monster (Pathfinder Beginner Box manages to squeeze two monsters per page).  It got me thinking a bit about my affinity for ‘old school’ rulesets…essentially OD&D and the more recent retroclones.

I spend a great deal of time here creating material for the Pathfinder Beginner Box, but I don’t think it’s any secret that I’d rather be playing Swords & Wizardry or one of the other clones (not that I’ve had a chance to play the BB yet, either 😦 ).  Yet despite my preference for ‘old school’, I think ‘new school’ games like 3E/Pathfinder, and even 4E, have made some important contributions to The Game, contributions that ‘old school’ games could benefit from:

  • Ascending Armor Class: Probably the biggest contribution to The Game, in my opinion.  Many ‘old schoolers’ swear by descending Armor Class, and that’s fine.  Play the game you want to play.  But no one will ever convince me that descending AC is in any way superior to ascending AC.  Ascending AC is what D&D should have been using from the get-go.
  • The Big 3:  Fortitude, Reflex and Willpower.  The five saving throws of old school D&D work well enough, but the three saving throws of 3E/Pathfinder are more elegant in my view.  The big 3 cover pretty much every conceivable situation, are a little easier to improvise with and can be easily rationalized (should you feel the need to rationalize your D&D).  It’s a case of less being more (of course, Swords & Wizardry’s single saving throw is even more elegant).
  • Creature Size:  OD&D kind of alludes to creature size, but later editions make great mechanical use of it (often too much use, imo).  However, better definition of creature size is something I think OD&D could put to good use and actually make monster stat blocks a bit more elegant.  Add one more column to the monster chart detailing each monster’s size category: S (small), M (medium/man-sized), L (large), H (huge) and G (gargantuan).  For those that don’t now, in OD&D most weapons and monsters do a single d6 of damage.  However, certain larger monsters, like giants, might do 2d6 or 3d6 damage per attack.  It would be quite simple to tie a monster’s damage to it’s size class:  S/M creatures do 1d6; L creatures do 2d6; H creatures do 3d6 and G creatures do 4d6.  A creature’s movement rate can also be tied to it’s size.  Thus, with a single letter designation you impart a great deal of information:  how large it is, how fast it moves and how much damage it does.
  • Feats:  As I’ve discussed before, I generally like the addition of feats to The Game, though I think feats in Pathfinder core tend to to be too complex, not to mention that there are simply too many of them.  OD&D (and the retroclones) could benefit from the addition of a few simple feats.  It would add a bit of character specialization/differentiation and  increase survivability at lower levels without dramatically increasing the power curve or adding significant complexity.
  • 4E Power Uses: I don’t like 4E powers per se, especially that every class has ‘powers’.  But, I do like the idea of at-will use, once per encounter use and daily use, as applied to spells.  Why not allow a magic-user to cast magic missile as many times as they want in a day?  More powerful spells, like charm person or sleep, can be limited to once per battle or once per day.  Going through the spell list and deciding which spells fall into which category would be tedious, but once done it would be a rather elegant solution to the problem of wizard utility at lower levels and it would flatten the wizard’s power curve at higher levels.  Granted, the idea needs a bit of tweaking to work with old school concepts, but I think it has some potential (another project to work on some day).

I guess my ultimate dream fantasy heart-breaker would combine the elements I like best from both the old school and the new school (something they claim to be doing for 5th edition…we’ll see about that).  I’ve tried a couple times to create my own Frankenstein-ish dream version of The Game but haven’t really been able to get a handle on it yet.  Maybe someday I will.

In the meantime, game on!


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4 Responses to “‘New School’ Contributions to ‘The Game’”

  1. David Jenks Says:

    I think secretly we’re the same person. 🙂

    Your list matches mine almost word-for-word. It’s eerie reading your blog sometimes.


    My only contribution to your list is regarding Skills, which I think is a….good (maybe not great, but worthwhile)….addition to the newer editions.

    I think 4th edition’s Skill list is great. It’s comprehensive without being overblown and consolidates the skills that need to be whittled down (Athletics in place of separate Climb/Swim and the greatly improved Stealth over MS/HiS, I’m looking at you). ….Note, I’m NOT a fan of the skill challenges and all that BS, I’m talking specifically about the actual list itself.

  2. edowar Says:

    It would probably surprise some ‘old schoolers’ that there are some things that 4E does simplify, if not simpler than OD&D, then at least simpler than 3E/Pathfinder. Skills is one of those things. PF core uses around 30 skills, whereas 4E uses about 15 or so skills.

    PFBB uses about 17 skills, but they’re still tied to the core skills, so they couldn’t consolidate, say, Climb and Swim into a single skill called Athletics.

    All that said, I have mixed feelings about skills. While they are a handy, quantitative indicator of a character’s capabilities (i.e. they tell you what your character is ‘good’ at), in many ways they also limit creative play. For one thing, players may feel they can’t do certain things because their character doesn’t have the right skill, or aren’t very good at a particular skill. And there’s also the tendency for things to devolve into ‘roll-playing’ instead of ‘role-playing.’ See my post On Traps to get an idea of what I mean by that.

    If skills are to be used, I personally feel it should be a relatively limited number of very broad skills. 4E sort of heads in this direction, but not far enough, IMO. Microlite20 does a great job of this, though I think maybe it could benefit from adding a couple more skills (easily done, though).

    And there should be an overriding rule: skill rolls shouldn’t replace role-playing, ever. For example, deactivating a trap shouldn’t come down to a dice roll, but should be part of a creative plan on the part of the players.


  3. David Jenks Says:

    I don’t disagree with you, particularly on that overriding rule. 🙂

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