Sunday, November 11, 2012

Variants in Swords & Wizardry

When Gary Gygax took Dave Arneson’s original notes, and created what became OD&D, the first variant on the game was created, and despite AD&D’s original intention of formalizing inviolate rules structures, gamers have been creating variants ever since.

My own personal view of variants has been fairly retrograde for most of my gaming career, as I was always the sort of guy who wanted to play by the rules. Imagine my shock (and the consternation of my players) when I tried to play various games By the Book, and found that the experience was sometimes awful. There is a reason most games don’t work well by this approach; they really are not meant to work that way. That’s fairly bitter pill for me to swallow, as I always assumed that the intention of the designer was paramount, and that you couldn't really play the game and get the experience that was intended without following the explicit rules.

As might imagine, trying this approach with something like Rolemaster or Aftermath leads to disaster; I would assume the same to be true for Chivalry & Sorcery and the like. It certainly turned out to be true for D&D 3.5 and Exalted. So much so I was unwilling to even bother to try to play Eclipse Phase; however excellent the setting, the extensive rules made the entire enterprise more effort than it was worth, at least for me.

So one would think that when it came to my S&W campaign, set in the Wilderlands, that I would have few if no variants, right?

Dead wrong.

I have, to this date, so far:
  • Effectively rewritten the spells for Magic-users
  • Introduced an informal feat system
  • Redesigned Cleric spells and completely revamped the class
  • Completely changed the way that magic items worked, how they are created, and how common they are
  • Devised an alchemy system
  • Adopted the LotFP skill and encumbrance system
  • Introduced a revised weapon table, with substantial differences for many weapons
  • Adapted the Target 20 system for combat, but not skills or saves
  • Adopted the Basic/Expert Morale system
  • And made numerous other small changes

Why this sudden turn around? Really, it wasn't all that sudden. I had always been looking for a system that handled things in a way that I preferred, I just never realized that it would be Original D&D, aka Swords & Wizardry.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was reading of a play experience a gamer had with Dave Arneson, as chronicled at!/page2

“Magic was a tool, but our magic items were presented to us the way artifacts show up in Gamma World: you learn by trying and sometimes it doesn't work the way you hoped. You know that stat block in the book, toss it. My Staff of Power could do more and it could do less, so could potions. We didn't have 100% trust in our magical items "just cuz the book says" and they had a mystical appeal to them.

Dave told us more about this out of game with his home campaign. You know the coolness of Earthdawn's magic items in that you gain more powers as you learn about them? Yeah, Dave explained that every magic item should have a story behind its creation and creator. So I asked him point blank why the HELL wasn't all this cool shit in my freaking books? He smiled and said that back then they figured all people needed was the basic framework and they would add in and discover the rest as they played. Dave said the rules were never meant as the end point....only the beginning.” (emphasis added)

This is a point that is emphasized again and again in Original D&D; this is the base, and you, the DM, are the decider about what goes in, what gets changed, what stays out.

All the variants listed above will be the subjects of my next series of posts, but I want to emphasize certain ideas before I start posting away.

I implemented all these variants for a reason. That is, I mean to actually change what happens in play because of a rules variant – if it doesn't change something that happens during play then it's about as useful as tits on a boar.

In creating these variants, not only did I not worry about game balance, I hogtied it and shoved it out the window with a bullet in its head. Look, the only game balance you have worry about is the balance at your table, and this will vary with your play style and mix of players. If I need to change something because it’s too weak or too powerful, then I do it at the table on the spot. So if you intend to implement anything I describe, be aware that you will have to do the same. Caveat emptor and all that.

OK, why did I want to change any rules at all? I wanted a swords and sorcery feel, set in the Wilderlands but which was still recognizably D&D. I wasn't happy with the feel that some mechanics in OD&D/S&W led to, and so I made changes. More about that in the individual posts.

Much of what I intend to post over the next two to three months will be very crunchy, unlike my earlier posts, but I still intend to sprinkle other concerns in and among these posts.

First up: the new weapon table.