My edition of D&D

The beholder is not amused!Recently it was announced that Monte Cook is working for WotC again. And of course the rumors that they are already working on D&D 5th Edition flared up again. But that’s not what I want to write about today.

Sometimes I think about what would I have done if I was in charge of the development of D&D. Luckily I am not in that position so I can freely think about what I would like to design and play instead of worrying about what the fans would like to see. Because – you can trust me on this – I love to slaughter sacred cows. Zwinkerndes Smiley

Let me start by a disclaimer: I haven’t been a fan of D&D before third edition and while OD&D in form of the retro clones has a certain charm for me, there are many other games I prefer.

So while I would probably base my “Stargazer Edition” of D&D on OD&D, I would include a lot of the changes from D&D 3rd Edition. Or let me rephrase that. I think I would take D&D 3rd Edition and remove all the meat from the bones so that something as light as OD&D or perhaps Microlite20 remains.

At first I would remove the feats and streamline the skill list. The D&D 3.5 skill list was already a great improvement about the one in it’s predecessor. When I think about it, the way the skill system works in D&D 4th Edition is not so bad. Your skill rank is always half your level plus 5 if it’s one of your “trained” skills.

As the next step I would get rid of attributes but keep the attribute bonuses. In my opinion the attributes in D&D 3.0, 3.5 and 4.0 have just been kept for nostalgia’s sake. It worked great in games like Mutants & Masterminds and True20, so why not in my “Stargazer Edition”.

The three Saves and the Base Attack bonuses actually worked well enough, so I’ll keep them around. See, it wasn’t so bad, it almost didn’t hurt. Smiley mit geöffnetem Mund

Ok, let’s start slaughtering some sacred cows now, let’s change the way armor works. I always didn’t like the idea that armor makes you harder to hit instead of reducing the damage your character takes. So let’s fix that. This is actually done quite easily. Each character gets a Defense value which is 10 plus your Dexterity (remember, we replaced the attributes by their bonuses). This is what your opponent needs to roll to actually hit you. Armor worn reduces damage and heavy armor may even reduce your Defense making you easier to hit.

The next sacred cow to be killed are classes. Instead of classes I would prefer the players to be able to pick and choose from various background options. These can grant you access to certain abilities, magic etc. – they are basically your build-your-own-class toolbox. This allows for much more organic characters.

Magic is another touchy subject. I never was a friend of Vancian magic and I didn’t like the way D&D 4th Edition made use of Powers either. I would probably try to design a spell-point based system or follow an even more radical approach.

Back when I was still in school I read many of the Dragonlance novels by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. In these novels casting magic always drained sometimes even hurt the caster. So why not design a system in which spellcasters use their hitpoints to power spells? Of course this limits the power of magic and might feel out of place in high fantasy settings but I like the idea a lot.

My edition of D&D would probably use feet and yards instead of squares and move away from tactical miniature combat. And instead of including rules for every situation I would prefer to keep things light and encourage GMs to come up with their own solutions.

Last but not least I am actually not sure if levels are even needed. But I might actually keep them around just for nostalgia sake. Yes, even I can be nostalgic. Smiley mit herausgestreckter Zunge

The result of this thought experiment, the so-called Stargazer Edition of D&D would probably almost be unrecognizable for some, but I believe it would still retain a lot from D&D. I haven’t actually started working on something like that, but it’s one of those ideas that crop up from time to time again.

So what do you think about my ideas. Am I sacrificing too many sacred cows? Am I totally nuts or do you believe I am on the right track?

Disclaimer: No cows (sacred or otherwise) have been harmed during the production of this post.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

21 thoughts on “My edition of D&D”

  1. I’d get rid of skills, to be honest. Leave that to player skill and DM ruling. Maybe use a d20+ability for things instead.

    I like the idea of using hit points to power spells. It’d be interesting to see how well it’d work. I even have no objection to eliminating character classes, so long as it doesn’t become bogged down with too many choices. Talents would be a way of doing it, keyed to professions or background.

  2. If I was in charge of D&D I would revamp the rules so that infiltration-style missions are complex and fun again instead of being shallow skill challenges between encounters. My (house ruled) 1st edition games were always closer to Metal Gear Solid than any computer RPG.

  3. Way back in 1994, I tried a system exactly like you’re describing, where armor absorbed damage and made you easier to hit. While it’s more realistic, it turned out to not be as fun as I’d imagined. One of the problems was that heavily armored characters were totally immune to certain creatures and attacks. It was also hard to run certain monsters with that system. You can still find my old rules online in archived form at the following link. After 17 years! I guess nothing on the internet ever goes away.

    1. Most roleplaying games out there use armor as damage reduction and it works fine. I doubt it’s impossible to get it to work in a D&D-like game. One problem might be that characters in D&D get insanely powerful pretty fast, so that theoretically they could jump from orbit and survive or get trampled by a million bulls without getting hurt. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing the system you wrote back in the day. By the way, have you had a look at the AC as damage reduction rules in Unearthed Arcana for D&D 3.5?

  4. All great ideas. For my own Home Brew Hack, I’ve been really considering killing off the the ability scores and just use the modifiers. Let’s face it 90% of the time it’s the modifier that is important and not the score. Wouldn’t be too hard to tweak the remaining mechanics.

  5. If that is what you are looking for in D&D, might I suggest Neoclassical Geek Revival. It sounds exactly what you are looking for, its “plug and play” and most importantly its free.

  6. Dude. Its already out of print.

    It was called Role Master.

    In role master your role percentile to hit, and based on your armour you took a varied amount of damage\crits. Heavy armour, tended to take damage… Light armour, less damage, but greater risk of crits.

    No feats..


    Skills… (way too many actually)

    The system was class based, but really your class determined how hard it was for you to ‘buy’ capabilities. Like HP, or bonus to hit, or skills, or spell lists.

    1. Excuse me, but I beg to differ. I have played Rolemaster over several years and it’s not what I had in mind when I wrote my post. And even if I had something like RM in mind, I would have picked HARP because it’s much more lightweight than Rolemaster. And as far as I know you can still get Rolemaster in print. I think they call it Rolemaster Classic now.

  7. I’ve always felt that different versions of D&D were basically meant to be different crunch approaches to the same fluff. So I think that the hitpoint-based spellcasters would be kind of out. Only for D&D specifically, though, and it could totally would work for other games, or even just an option for spellcasters – sacrifice HP for some bonus to your spells.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the 4e-style skills, and the mix n’ match powers. If you were of a crunchier mindset, I might suggest a Mutants & Masterminds hack.

  8. What you described is the OD&D type system I would play. Trimmed way down to promote role playing.

    I would use the abilities as modifiers, a short (maybe 8) skill list, backgrounds that broadly define what a character can do, or at least what reasonably they can do to start, and way less heavy armor (or big penalties)

    Microlite20 uses the ‘Casting Magic Costs Hit points’ system. I haven’t tried this, but seems like it could provide some real grit.

    I’d keep some Feats/Talents, but limited. Need a way to develop characters abilities to keep players interested.

  9. Moo! There goes another sacred cow!
    I like your suggestions Michael! I don’t play any iteration of D&D because it’s far too “crunchy” and rules-heavy for me and my crew. I much prefer Fate and HeroQuest!
    If I was to do a new edition, I’d look to the Players Option: Skills & Powers supplements for inspiration. I think AD&D Second Edition will always be my favourite version of D&D. 🙂

  10. Some of the elements you describe remind me of the Iron Heroes game, which was a d20 variant. In IH, armor worked as damage reduction and Defense was 10 + Dex bonus + a level-based adjustment. Magic in IH is rare and dangerous, so it might not have suited high fantasy; a friend described it to me as a “Saturday Night Special,” a weapon that is potentially as dangerous to the user as to the target. I also am not a fan of Vancian magic, so I’d prefer to get away from that…and 4e still has pieces of it, though it’s extended Vancian magic to Vancian “maneuvers” in that 4e has daily powers for every class.

    At first glance, I’m not sure I agree with getting rid of classes entirely, but I recall seeing the hybrid class rules in 4e, so I wonder if that might be a testbed for 5e class rules. One benefit of the class-level system is that it tends to be relatively easy for a new player to jump in.

    With the assumption that 5e is continuing the 4e attempt to bring gaming more into the mainstream, I’d predict that the class-level system would stay pretty much intact. Definitely the level system, though the hybrid class system might be in play for the most part. I’m not sure about which way levels will go, whether to the classic level 20 cap or further toward the “typical” MMO cap of level 50. I would not expect skills to move back toward 3e, and I think they’ve been simplified about as much as possible, so I’d expect to see little change to skills.

    I’d love to see the base attribute scores go away and just keep the modifiers. The base scores are never used any more, aside from character creation and level-up benefits, both of which could be adapted to use the same bonuses used by the rest of the game.

  11. Many good thoughts there!

    I absolutely agree about how armor should work. Levels would be ok, but I’d reduce their importance a lot. Players should have feel that they do well because of their character’s skill, not because ‘it has a million hitpoints’. And it’s true there’s no need for attributes themselves. I’d like attributes to be on same level with skills though, which is difficult to do in D20 system.

    I’ll have to say I’m very, very much affected by savage worlds; I feel like I wneed ant to compare everything to it. If damage rolls would explode, no armor would make you perfectly protected from something. Iron Heroes is a D20 game that uses DR for armor (which Bob seems to have mentioned). The trick is that armor is in dice rather than static value. It is another option to solve it. Or then anyone can just use an option to attack weak spots, which is more difficult but gets at least partially through armor.

    I actually like some kind of classes. But they wouldn’t have to be as rigid, they could be some kind of packages, and you could start with a few levels in such a package or one level in a few.

    Too many special abilities are out, I’ve played an epic 3.5E character and I didn’t remember half of it’s features. nd I agree, goodbye to Vancian magic. I like fatigue/damage option for casters, but a penalty to casting roll depending on spell’s difficulty is also good, possibly reducing it with spending time.

    System has to be unified – 4e does good job in this,although it takes it possibly a bit too far, especially because disarming etc. options are gone.

    But in the end, the game should still feel it’s D&D. I think it would need a lot of testing to get a result that is satisfying in every way.

  12. I meant to write this a few weeks ago but kept putting it off, due to work and such.

    My D&D Edition:

    1) FUDGE, with some FATE stuff thrown in

    2) an “Ability Level” trait that is a Fudge Scale, the difference between two character’s scales being used as an offset to various rolls. It also sort of fills in for TWERPS “Strength” in some areas. Last, it also fills in for D&D Character Level, with D&D level 1 being Ability Level 3. Using the D&D Cyclopedia going up to 36th level, I’m doing 1 D&D Level = 1/3 Ability Level (so that takes you up to an Ability level of 15).

    3) WRM/RAG professions as Fudge Attributes. Only I’ve got 5: Warrior, Adept, Genius/Scholar, Expert/Rogue, Socialite/Diplomat. Multi-class? Just buy up more than one. Very focused single-role characters? buy down the others, and use those points to boost your primary role. Fairly generalist? keep them at equal levels. I’m toying with making it a requirement that the total cost of Attributes be 0 (so everyone you raise, you have to lower another one). That means they’re really all relative to your Ability Level.

    4) Skills are borrowed from the MERP/Cyberspace skill list, and if you have it, it’s a +1. If you have multiple skills that apply, it’s still a +1. I’m toying with them being cheap Gifts/Flaws (1 pt), so you can also have it as a -1. 1 pt each.

    5) Skill Groups (again, look at MERP/Cyberspace skill lists) are also available as +1 Gifts/ -1 Flaws. Probably at 3 pts. So if you have the Skill and the Skill Group, you’ve got a +2. That’s as far as it goes for skill type bonuses.

    6) I’m thinking about taking some things from “Strands of Fate” for building up special powers and advantages, Spell Lists, etc.

    I want it to be something where you can easily take any Old School D&D based product, or even a 3e-ish d20 product, and fairly easily use it “as is”, just obeying a few notes. I’m already planning to run a few introductory old-school 0e adventures with it, after I get the last details of the spell costs worked out. That’s really all I’ve got left to figure out: how to handle Fighters vs Mages vs Clerics in terms of paying for “spell” ability, and then also balancing that against characters who have innate magical abilities/mutations/super-powers. Then write it all up.

    How appropriate: my anti-spam CAPCHA word (in the form fill-in to post this): Fudge

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