Sunday, November 15, 2015

No levels, no wizards D&D

Well, I've been doing some more RPG soul-searching lately, and I've come to a rather odd conclusion.  I like the magic system in Victoriana, but the rest of the game is a complicated, disorganized mess.  I like the crafting system in Tephra, but otherwise the game is basically D&D 4th edition with a d12 mechanic—so it totally triggers my "nope" button.  I honestly can't see myself seriously running an entire campaign with either system.  WEG d6 would be too much work to actually bash into something that would fit my games, so that's kind of a dead-end too.

Then I thought, why the hell wouldn't I just use D&D and fix the things that annoy me about it?  That, at least, would be easy to do.  So let's tackle the two big problems separately.

Freaking Wizards, Man

D&D's magic system has two major problems.  It's over-powered at high levels, and it never really feels like magic.  Even back in the 70s, you had critics of D&D commenting that the magic-user was more like a dude who went into the dungeon carrying a duffel bag of weirdly specialized hand-grenades.

Then I encountered Beyond the Wall, an OSR variant of D&D that actually has a magic system in it that feels like magic from fantasy novels.  Magic is broken down into cantrips (weak, unreliable, kind of dangerous), spells (simple, reliable, not terribly powerful), and rituals (powerful, time-consuming, scale with the magic-user's experience level).   That's a good magic system right there.  Replacing D&D's nine levels of vancian magic with the system from Beyond the Wall would go a long way to making me like D&D in earnest again.

Classes & Levels

The other problem is one that I doubt I'll ever get over.  Much like feats, levels are something that players like and expect to get to play with, but I kind of despise.  I've lately come around to the idea that prefer skill-based advancement, but I have yet to find a system sufficiently simple (to give you some idea, I find BRP to be too complicated).

So, why not just use the skill system I wrote for Engines & Empires and Retro Phaze?  (Slightly modified, of course, into the d12-based system I'm using now.)

See, this idea has been stewing around in my head for a while now: what would D&D look like without classes?  There's no magic-user class, no thief class, everyone's basically a fighter.  Characters go into dungeons, encounter monsters, and occasionally come out of the dungeon with weird stuff.  Magical treasure.  Scrolls with spells on them that might be cast once, but which nobody any longer has the knowledge to learn permanently, never mind memorize and cast.

The implications of such a setting are, of course, intriguing.  They imply one of those post-apocalyptic worlds that old-schoolers love so much.   But more to my liking, they also mesh well with a curious fact of most adventure fantasy, namely that the heroes for the most part wield swords, not spells.

Then I got to thinking, hey, why not just ditch experience levels too and suppose that every player character is a "Hero" (i.e. a 4-hit die fighter), and instead have experience points go right into leveling up skills?

This would then create a variant of D&D which always remains on a mortal scale—the old-school variant of "Epic Six" that I've been searching for for so many years now.  The only major change I'd really have to make then is to re-write my technology rules to balance against Beyond the Wall's magic instead of D&D's.

This is just an oddball idea so far, but its chief merit right now is that it would let me open up the whole crafting technology thing again, getting away from the rather rigid tech class that I originally created back in the day to keep techs from stepping on the toes of mages and clerics.

In fact, I would probably want to create a system of tiered tech items to mirror the magic system: simple tools and toys, more reliable gadgets and gizmos, and then big infernal machines.  Holy crap… this could work…

EDIT: Wait a minute…

1 comment:

  1. "Then I thought, why the hell wouldn't I just use D&D and fix the things that annoy me about it? That, at least, would be easy to do. "

    How many times have I asked myself that same question, though not necessarily with D&D specifically?

    Now I'll have to check out BTW... I was just kvetching about D&D magic the other day...