Six aspects of legacy D&D that should make a comeback

Many bloggers have posted on the topic of what features they hope to see in Wizards of the Coast’s next edition of D&D; the act of reading them tends to lead viewers to consider their own opinions about what they would like to see, based on their gaming experiences from prior editions. Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to wait for D&D Next if a dungeon master wants to create a better game now; the challenge is found in importing those game elements or mechanics and making them work within whatever version of D&D a given DM may be running.

What follows is my own completely unscientific list of old-school D&D features or aspects that seem to be missing from the current edition, which I’m toying with to see if they may have a part in my next game, whenever that might start.

1. Put the ‘secret’ back in secret doors. This concept is geared toward moving from single-roll resolution mechanics to old-fashioned guesswork connected with role-playing. Older gamers - or younger OSR exponents - will note that prior to the skill rolls introduced in D&D 3e, the mechanics behind finding a secret door or compartment were pretty basic: a 1 in 6 chance for just about everyone but elves, whose chances were 1 in 3. Of course, finding a secret door didn’t imply that it was automatically open; opening the door usually required players to engage in the setting by describing exactly how and where the heroes were searching for a trigger to the door. My players were always seeking hidden studs, loose or false stones, pivoting torch sconces, pressure plates and such, any of which could be manipulated individually or in combination to open the door. Proponents of the 4e mantra of “getting to the fun” seemed to have replaced that part of game play with a not-so-engaging Spot or Perception roll. For us, though, it was fun to guess at how villains would conceal these secret entrances and compartments, and the happiness players experienced after out-smarting the villains was worth the time we “wasted” while role-playing the search.

2. Bring back the level titles. In D&D 1e, the character level advancement tables featured titles for every class at each level, usually up to level 9, but as high as level 15 for assassins or level 18 for monks. For example, a first-level fighter could call himself a veteran; a third-level fighter could call himself a swordsman. If players and DM agree to take each other at their words, this little mechanic can be useful in determining the relative power of an NPC; even if the titles aren’t used by NPCs, titles can help players feel like they’ve earned a promotion, with a new job title, when they earn new experience levels. We had a lot of fun with the titles during our 1e days.

3. Bring back the concept of building strongholds and gaining followers. As the Athenaeum has discussed before in this post, the idea of heroes settling down when reaching “name level”and building a stronghold is connected with D&D’s wargaming roots; the idea was that, when a hero reached a level of power that enabled command of troops, that hero’s player could then use any of a number of miniature wargaming rulesets to resolve the clash of forces larger than the skirmishes so common to D&D, while still moving the D&D campaign story forward. As described in that post, the adventure leads connected to a hero claiming, clearing and defending a territory can far outweigh the bookkeeping efforts associated with running a dominion.

4. Let the DM decide how much treasure and magic items are available in the campaign. While the idea of treasure parcels helped eliminate the danger of unbalanced “Monty Haul” campaigns, it also scripted the placement of wealth and magic,  basically mandating the number and power of all magic items carried by the party from level 1 to level 30. Treasure parcels certainly made it easier for new DMs to run balanced campaigns, but they also, by merit of their official rule status, discourage DMs from running campaigns in a cash-poor or low-magic settings. Some of our most enjoyable games involved settings with very little in the way of magic items – the players loved the way their heroes, equipped with nothing more than normal equipment, overcame supernatural foes. As one player described a non-magical sword he named Windsplitter to an NPC: “Windsplitter isn’t magic by itself – the magic emerges when I wield it.” That level of heroism appears absent in later editions, when Windsplitter would be replaced with a magic blade or disenchanted/re-enchanted as a new item as the owner gains levels.

5. Have a fun resolution system for weaponless combat. Few would argue that the weaponless combat rules presented in D&D 1e were cumbersome and slow. But a series of class guidebooks published in support of D&D 2e offered an optional system that was a great deal of fun in the 1980s and 1990s. Appearing in both the Complete Fighter’s Handbook and the Complete Priest’s Handbook, the system was based on a simple table. The table listed the heroine’s attack roll, and a corresponding weaponless combat move the heroine successfully executed if that roll hit (along with base damage and a percentage for knocking out the opponent). For every additional weapon proficiency slot spent on weaponless fighting (the first being spent to learn the skill in the first place), the heroine could choose to execute more moves, based on how far away they were on the table from what she rolled. Thus, a character spending just two slots beyond the first (a first level fighter began with four slots, by way of comparison) could choose the move she rolled, or any move listed plus or minus two moves from the attack roll; for example, a successful attack roll of 16 (plus or minus 2, due to 2 additional slots spent) allowed the player to choose any move listed from 14 to 18: elbow shot, side kick, head bash, vitals/punch or vitals/kick. Mechanically, it wasn’t much different from rolling longsword damage, but it made the combats more colorful, and the players were thrilled when they knocked a foe unconscious.

6. Add training between levels. The 1e rules required heroes earning enough experience to advance to the next level to locate and pay a mentor to train her for a number of weeks before the new level could be used in play, or before any more experience could be earned. In practice, this meant that heroes often had to go on adventures to get enough gold to pay the mentor, all the while gaining no experience.

I’m not advocating the return of those rules.

I will advocate the idea of heroes obtaining some training at key points in their careers, however. In a 4e game, for example, spending some game time in training may be appropriate for heroes about to enter the paragon or epic tiers of play; it’s a nice way of explaining where all the major character changes came from.

What aspects of legacy D&D do you think are missing from the current (or may be missing from the future) game? Please consider sharing your thoughts in a comment to this post.

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7 comments on “Six aspects of legacy D&D that should make a comeback

  1. rstacey says:

    Amen to all of these, especially the return to the concept of adventurers building a stronghold and managing a domain.

  2. Alric says:

    I miss the domains, too. Endless supply of leads for highly motivated adventurers from those things…

  3. WolfCut says:

    Here’s my six:

    1. Build strongholds and gain followers and run dominions.
    2. Weapon speeds.
    3. Cap hit dice around 9th or so level though some classes were exceptions (w.g. monk).
    4. Training
    5. Resurrection roll and system shock
    6. Raise dead needs to be punitive

    • Alric says:

      System shock… now those were the days. None of this three chances to save and all that. Weapon speeds were great, too – it gave people a reason to wield a dagger or shortsword. I concur with your choices.

  4. vbwyrde says:

    I think this is the key concept for me:

    “… Proponents of the 4e mantra of ‘getting to the fun’…”

    The problem here is that the definition of what is fun depends on the type of players and GM involved. Those who enjoy the Role Playing aspect more than the Gamist aspect are going to have a completely different answer to that question, as you demonstrate. 4E is geared toward Gamists. So for the designers what is “fun” is rolling the dice to fight in the combat. But for others the fun is hidden inside the improvisational theater of Role Playing. While it may be true that the original D&D did not specifically facilitate Role Playing, the fact that the rules were simpler somehow managed to allow for it more handsomely than the later editions, in my opinion. When D&D E1 came out I enjoyed it very much because of it’s open ended aspects, and the statement in the Introduction to the effect that “these rules are just a starting point – GMs should continue on from here and create their own rules”, which I did, along with many other homebrewsters. My original adaptation is still basically intact after 3 decades, and somehow I find that satisfying. Not the least because I’ve always been at least equally interested in the Role Playing aspect as the Gamist aspect of RPGs. Oh, anyway, I’ve started rambling, haven’t I? Ok, enough then… but thanks for the interesting and thoughtful post.

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