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Back in Black

“Simpler and Better,” Part 1 of 2   by Kenton Kilgore
If you’ve only ever played 40K, it might come as a surprise to you that there were no hard-and-fast rules for First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: as a matter of fact, the game didn’t have “rules,” it had “parameters.” Dungeon Masters (at least all the ones I met back then in the Golden Age of AD&D) tweaked the “rules” to some extent: some didn’t allow certain character classes; some didn’t use certain spells or magic items; some introduced new monsters or new ways of running combat, character creation, etc. Back me up on this, old-timers: didn’t every group you ever game with have some version of “critical hits?”

In re-starting (or should that be, “starting anew?”) my 1st Edition AD&D campaign, I wanted to fiddle with the rules to make the game itself better and easier to play. Why? Well, “better” because some parts of 1e AD&D were, frankly, lame. “Easier to play” because I’m a busy guy, my veteran players are just as busy (if not more so), and as for my new players, some have only played 4e, some have never role-played at all. The graybeards aren’t going to have time for anything too complicated, and the newbies won’t get it.

To many gamers, “better” and “easier to play” are contradictory objectives: how many times have you heard a 40K lifer complain that every iteration after 2nd Edition has been merely a “bland, dumbed-down version for kids?” They can’t possibly imagine that a game that’s uncomplicated can be any good. I argue the opposite: any idiot can make something more complex than it needs to be—what’s difficult is making something easy to use, yet enjoyable. 

Thus, in retooling the game for my group, I adopted the motto “Simpler and Better.” I looked over the rulebooks—specifically the Players Handbook (PHB) and the Unearthed Arcana (UA)—and made a number of changes. First, I’ll discuss the changes I made to make my home version of AD&D simpler; in the next article, I’ll describe what I did to make it what I feel is better.


The 1e Players Handbook and Unearthed Arcana, with their original artwork

Characters Simplified
It’s funny how time changes your perspectives: if you take a fresh look at some things that you used to love, you might not find them that cool anymore. For example, when the Unearthed Arcana supplement first came out in 1985, I thought it was the best thing that had ever happened to AD&D since its creation. Now, I think it’s a mess. It would be very easy to not use UA at all, but it still has some good stuff that I want to keep in my new campaign. 

Races. The PHB gave AD&D players the option of humans, half elves, high elves, wood elves, hill dwarves, gnomes, halflings, and half-orcs. UA added grey elves, wild elves, valley elves, dark elves, mountain dwarves, grey dwarves, and deep gnomes; it also had some stuff to flesh out the differences among the various types (Hairfoots, Stouts, and Tallfellows) of halflings. 

That’s a lot of choices, but so what? How many varieties of elf do you need to have in a game? Are there really that many differences between grey elves and high elves, or between wood elves and wild elves—and could anyone besides Robert De Niro portray those in a role-playing game? I think not. Hill dwarves vis-à-vis mountain dwarves—aren’t we just splitting hairs? And unless the DM was running an Underdark campaign, you probably didn’t want to play somebody (dark elf, grey dwarf, or deep gnome) that’s allergic to something as basic as, say, sunlight. Having a lot of choices isn’t all that when the choices are bad (Drow as PCs? Srsly?), trivial (the aforementioned halflings), or never used (did anyone ever actually play a svirfneblin? Me, either).

For my new campaign, I’m keeping the races to:

  • Humans
  • Elves (High- or Wood elves)
  • Half-elves
  • Halflings
  • Dwarves
  • Gnomes

Why no half-orcs? Because it’s been my experience that half-orc player characters (PCs) can be trouble: they don’t get along with other demi-humans, especially elves (which most of my current players favor); they usually have low Charisma scores (which don’t help when dealing with non-player characters); and some gamers view playing a half-orc as a license to be a dick—particularly if the half-orc PC is also of evil alignment. So “no” to half-orcs, and, by the way, “no” to evil PCs: if you want to play a tusked extra from The Two Towers who gets his jollies by pulling wings off pixies, you can game with some other DM.

Classes. The PHB presented clerics, druids, fighters, paladins, rangers, magic-users, illusionists, thieves, assassins, monks, and bards; the PHB also gave options for psionic characters. UA gave us cavaliers, barbarians, and thief-acrobats; it also expanded material for druids and rangers, and gave rules for fighters specializing in weapons.


The cavalier (left) and the barbarian (right) were cool classes--a bit TOO cool, actually

First to go from my new-and-hopefully-improved campaign were cavaliers and barbarians: once you have those, coupled with paladins and rangers, why would anyone want to play a plain-old, “boring” fighter? In my new campaign, if you want to be a “cavalier,” buy some plate mail, a horse, and a lance; if you want to be the next Conan, get some chainmail and a big axe. But either way, you’re still a fighter and not some hyper-specialized subclass. 

Once I got rid of cavaliers, there was no more fiddly “weapon-of-choice” rules that UA had saddled paladins with. To keep them in line with fighters and rangers, I let them use the weapon specialization options presented in UA. There—that was easy.

Thief-acrobat? Assistant Jungle Guide Patrick Eibel used to play one back in the day: I think the character pole-vaulted all of once in several years of gaming, and he never tight-roped walked, either. Monks? I thought they were more suited to an Oriental Adventures setting, so out they went. Psionics? Too weird, too sci-fi, and too much hassle.

So for the new campaign, the classes are:

  • Cleric
  • Druid
  • Fighter
  • Paladin
  • Ranger
  • Magic-User
  • Illusionist
  • Thief
  • Assassin
  • Bard
“Ah, wait,” you might say. “You said ‘no evil PCs’—but in First Edition, assassins had to be evil.” I removed that requirement—more about that in the next article. For bards, I streamlined the version presented in the PHB—again, more about that next time. 

As far as multi-classing, rather than the complicated lists of combinations that the PHB and UA gave, I ruled that, within certain limits, a demi-human can pick one main class (cleric, fighter, magic-user, or thief) and one other main class or a sub-class not of the same class as the main one. Thus, cleric/fighter is fine, cleric/ranger might be okay (depending on if the demi-human in question can be a ranger), but cleric/druid is not okay. Nor can anyone combine classes with bard: a bard’s a bard, and nothing but a bard. Details to come in next month’s article.

Other Stuff Simplified
Money. I adjusted the exchange rate so that 100 copper pieces = 10 silver pieces = 1 gold piece. Yes, I know that 2nd Edition AD&D did that too, but not everything about 2e was crap (just most of it). In doing so, copper and silver are actually worth something, and the conversion rate is easier to remember. I also did away with electrum pieces: everyone knows what copper and silver looks like, but who has actually ever held anything made of electrum? Me, either. Hell, for the longest time, I thought electrum was some b.s. made-up element like adamantium.


Look--electrum pieces! They can go to the same place I sent the evil half-orc PCs

Encumbrance. In the new campaign, I’ll only be counting each PC’s armor, shield, and heaviest weapon, reasoning that pouches, sacks, torches, rope, etc., add minimal weight and bulk. If PCs are carrying lots of weapons, arrows, coins, etc., then I’ll factor that in for encumbrance.

Experience. I’ve never required PCs to train between levels, and I’m not going to start now. Training is strictly done OTJ (on the job). 

The Moral of the Story, or How Any of This is Applicable to 40K
In games, simpler really is better, especially if someone is just starting out or doesn’t have a lot of time to devote to playing. Some old-timers still go off on how much “better” 2e 40K was, but I was there too, and 2e 40K was a colossal, overly-complicated PITA that you couldn’t pay me to go back to. No matter how much some of those older gamers might sneer, I prefer what they call the “dumbed-down, kid-friendly” versions (3rd, 4th, and 5th) that came afterwards.

Given that 40K definitely has hard-and-fast “rules” instead of AD&D’s squishy “parameters,” there’s not much that you or I can do to make the actual playing of 40K simpler. However, you can still apply the “simpler” principle if you’re introducing someone to 40K. For example, there’s no use in going into minutiae and telling your new gamers about every variant of Space Marine army out there (“You could play Salamanders or White Scars or Crimson Fists or Imperial Fists or Space Sharks or Howling Griffons or Silver Skulls or Blood Ravens or Raven Guard or Angels of Vengeance or…”). Limiting the discussion to Ultramarines, Space Wolves, Blood Angels, Dark Angels, and Black Templars is probably more than enough choice for a newbie. If they want to learn more about Space Marines, they will, in good time.

Similarly, you don’t have to go into detail when describing the 40K universe: folks who aren’t yet (or never will be) hardcore fanboys like you and me don’t need to know about the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Adeptus Arbites, the various Ork klanz, or that there used to be these guys called Squats. Whenever I explain the 40K setting to non-gamers, I tell them, “There’s the human empire, protected by the Space Marines and the Imperial Guard; there are Chaos Space Marines, who used to be good-guy Space Marines but turned traitor and are now trying to destroy the empire; and then there are various aliens who fight the empire, the Chaos Marines, and everyone else.”

Next time, I’ll discuss how I made what I consider to be improvements to AD&D.
 

More Black in Black

Posted June 2010
 

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Fighting Tigers:
Codex <> Tactics <> Gallery <> Allies and Enemies <> Tales of the Tigers

Other Pages:
Main <> What's New <> Site Index <> The Tiger Roars <> Themed Army Ideas
Events and Battle Reports <> Campaigns <> Terrain <> FAQ <> Beyond the Jungle