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Back in Black

“Simpler and Better,” Part 2 of 2 by Kenton Kilgore
In Part 1, I talked about how, as I resurrected my 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons campaign,  I was trying to simplify the rules for my relatively-clueless new players and my heinously over-scheduled veterans. In this part, I’ll summarize changes I made to hopefully make the game better and more fun. 

Better Character Races
As I mentioned last time, I took a long and critical look at the various character races available in the Players Handbook and Unearthed Arcana supplement. I ditched the superfluous and often-unbalanced sub-races (mountain- and grey dwarves; dark-, wild-, valley-, and grey elves; deep gnomes and halfling variants) and the repugnant and often-troublesome half-orcs. 

It was a start, but it didn’t fix some of the problems I saw. The most notable problem was that elves seemed to get all the goodies: cool and very helpful special abilities, preferred weapons, and a wide range of class choices. Elves were the favored sons (and daughters) of 1e AD&D; other races were red-headed stepchildren. In tweaking the character rules, I made sure to make things a bit more even so that each race would be just as interesting—and desirable to play—as the others. 


Yeah, whatever....

Special abilities. For most of the player character races, I didn’t mess with the special abilities that were already in place. I did, however, put some effort into making humans and half-elves more desirable to play, because under the original rules, there wasn’t much incentive to play either if you could take the same class as another race (especially if the Dungeon Master ruled that there were no class level limits for demi-humans, something that many DMs, including me, did. More about that later).

To make playing a human more attractive, I cribbed an idea from somewhere (maybe the 3e PHB?) and ruled that humans learn skills very quickly: any human character, regardless of class, got a 10% bonus to experience points, which could be combined with the 10% bonus for exceptional abilities that some character classes have. Now there was a really good reason to play a human instead of a demi-human: you wouldn’t have infravision or bonuses when fighting giants or moving silently when not in metal armor, but you’d sure advance faster. Similarly, humans start off at 1st level with the same number of non-weapon proficiencies as demi-humans do, but receive two non-weapon proficiencies instead of one when they attain more through gaining character class levels.


It just got better to be a human or a half-elf in my campaign

Because of their half-human heritage, I let half-elves gain a 5% experience point bonus, regardless of class, which could be combined with some classes’ 10% bonus for high ability scores. I also let them have two extra non-weapon proficiencies at 1st level, to reflect them having “a foot in both camps,” as it were, drawing on their dual heritage. Without tweaks like that, why would anyone play a half-elf when they could play a full-blooded elf?

Preferred weapons. Under the original rules, elves got +1 “to hit” with bows (not crossbows) and short- or longswords. For the new campaign, I extended this bonus to dwarves using crossbows, hammers and axes; halflings using daggers and slings; and gnomes using daggers and darts. I gave half-elves the option of +1 “to hit” with either bows (not crossbows) or longswords/shortswords, but not both. Humans did not get preferred weapons. I also ruled that demi-humans may use these preferred weapons regardless of character class: the only way you take a dwarf’s axe away is to pry it from his cold, dead fingers! 


Also, don't try to toss him, either

This new ruling is more fair, makes playing something besides an elf more interesting, prompts one to choose archetypal weapons for their character’s race, and helps makes half-elves more distinct from elves.

Character class choices. In the PHB and UA, certain races (especially elves) had more choices than others when it came to character classes available to them.  Also complicating things was that demi-humans had, depending on their race, various limits on how high they could advance in their class. All this was, again, too much favoritism and too much hassle. 

In my new campaign, there are no level limits, and each race (except for humans and half-elves) has a “favored class” that gains them a 5% bonus on experience points, in addition to bonuses for high ability scores. Only humans may choose any class: other classes are restricted in their choices, as shown below:
 

 
Dwarf
High Elf
Wood Elf
Gnome
1/2 Elf
Halfling
Human
Cleric
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Druid
No
No
Yes
Yes
Yes
No
Yes
Fighter
Favored
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Paladin
No
No
No
No
No
No
Yes
Ranger
No
No
Favored
No
Yes
No
Yes
Magic-User
Yes
Favored
No
No
Yes
No
Yes
Illusionist
No
No
No
Favored
No
No
Yes
Thief
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Favored
Yes
Assassin
Yes
No
No
No
Yes
Yes
Yes
Bard
No
Yes
No
No
Yes
Yes
Yes

As you can see, all races may be clerics, fighters, and thieves. Each race (except for half-elves and humans) has a choice of five classes, one of which is a “favored class” that most tend to gravitate to. While half-elves have no favored class, they have more choices (8) than other demi-human races: this reflects their human heritage.

Revising the class options has shaken up many things. Dwarves can now be magic-users: if that sounds too weird for you, recall that fairy tales and Norse myths abound with dwarves who can work magic or enchant items. High elves can be magic-users (which they’re very good at) and fighters, but not druids or rangers; wood elves can’t be magic-users, but they can be druids or rangers. This makes more of a distinction between the two types of elves. 

Gnomes didn’t have a lot of character under the old rules, being sort of like dwarves but not really, so I decided that they were the most magical of the “little people.” Now they can be illusionists (their favored role) or druids (gnomes are very in touch with nature). Halflings, of course, are best at thieving, but I also allowed them to be bards (halflings have a love of songs and dancing, stories and books) or assassins (which I redefined, as I mentioned before, as a class that specializes in killing by stealth, rather than being one that kills for money). 


"Simmer down, dude, I was not hitting on your woman--honest!"

The original rules gave options for characters changing classes (called dual-classing) or having two (or even three) classes at a time (multi-classing). I kept the PHB’s ruling that only humans could dual class, and that only demi-humans could multi-class. To simplify and improve multi-class combinations, I said that:

  • Player characters could have only two classes—three was just too much; 
  • That one class must be a “main” class (cleric, fighter, thief, or magic-user [if permitted by race], but not bard); and,
  • That the other class could be another “main” class or a subclass of another main class, but not of the first class taken. 
Thus, a half-elf could be a cleric/fighter, or a cleric/ranger, or even a cleric/assassin, but could not be a cleric/druid (main class + same type of subclass) or a ranger/assassin (two subclasses). 

Better Character Classes
Having revised “who” could be which class, it was time to look closer at “what” each class did. As I did with the races, I culled out classes that I thought were superfluous or unbalanced. One was thief-acrobats; my friend Pat used to play one, but if memory serves me correctly, he rarely used tumbling, only used pole-vaulting once, and never used tightrope-walking. 


If anyone needs to tightrope walk in my campaign, I'll consider
it a Dexterity check...a very difficult Dexterity check

I angsted for a while before finally deciding to remove barbarians and cavaliers: I really liked both classes back in the day, and some of my players had memorable characters using them (my wife’s PC, Lady Fea Thalionar, the elven cavalier with the unicorn mount; my friend Pat’s barbarian Keric Quicbrand, who lives on as a Space Wolf Lord). The problem with barbs and cavs was that they were too good: once you had them in addition to paladins and rangers, there was no point in playing a fighter unless your PC’s stats sucked; you wanted them to be dual-classed; or they were something other than human, elf, or half-elf.  So, reluctantly, I took barbarians and cavaliers out of my campaign.


I've never been a big fan of monks

Also gone were monks, who fit better into an Eastern Asian-themed setting.  However, I didn’t ban the monk so much as make them—along with the samurai, the ninja, and all other classes and races from Oriental Adventures—a special option for someone who really, really wanted to play one. In my new campaign, playing a monk is like being at a restaurant and ordering something that isn’t on the menu: you can have it, but you have to ask for it.

As for the remaining classes….

Clerics have, since the game began, always been treated primarily as walking boxes of Band-aids (how often do gamers shout, “Medic!” when they need the cleric to heal their characters?) and secondarily as back-up fighter/magic-users. I decided that clerics’ roles needed better definition: in my campaign, they must be either “priests” (who serve a single god) or “shamans” (who serve multiple gods). 

A priest’s greatest duty is to his or her deity: priests carry out that deity’s will, and all other concerns are secondary. Priests must have the same alignment as their deity, are extremely limited in their spell selection (compared to shamans), but have special abilities granted to them by their gods, and may use spells or weapons normally prohibited to clerics. A shaman’s greatest duty is to his or her people: shamans intercede with whichever god of their pantheon is needed to benefit the shaman, their associates, and/or the shaman’s followers. Shamans may use any spells and abilities granted to clerics, and may be of any alignment. Or, to put it another way, priests are specialists, shamans are not.


Being able to heal is still important function of clerics in my new campaign,
but it's not the only thing they do

As an example, one of the PCs in my current campaign is a priestess of Hanali, the elven goddess of love and beauty: she’s Chaotic Good (the same alignment as her goddess), has to have a minimum Charisma of 16, is forbidden to wear armor (too concealing), may have only a short bow and short sword (her goddess’ weapons), and knows fewer spells than if she were a shaman of the same level. She also has special powers and spells, granted by her deity, that allow her to easily persuade humanoids (goblins, orcs, kobolds, etc.), humans, and demi-humans to do what she wants (“Attack me? Wouldn’t it be better if we were friends—or perhaps more than friends?”). 

If she were a shaman of the elven pantheon, she could: be whatever alignment she wanted (not evil, however: I don’t allow evil PC’s in my campaign); not need such high Charisma; wear armor; use different weapons; know more spells—but not have the hoopy charm abilities granted to her by Hanali. 

Druids. I kept the options for Grand Druids and Hierophant Druids from Unearthed Arcana, and I also allow PC druids to be Neutral Good or True Neutral alignment (non-player character [NPC] druids can be Neutral Evil). Druids may also specialize in a particular element: earth, air, fire, and water. More about that in a later article on what I did for spellcasting.


Don't ever mess with druids. You have been warned.

Fighters, paladins and rangers stayed pretty much as they were as described in the PHB and UA. Without cavaliers, paladins were no longer a sub-class under them, and hence, could just use the simpler and better weapon specialization rules rather then the cumbersome “weapon of choice” rules that cavs had. One change I made to the specialization rules was that bow specialists no longer did double damage at point-blank range: it was nutty-cuckoo to let 1st-level characters be able to shoot twice per round and do 6-16 hit points each shot.


Ok, the helmet is a bit much, but the look is still awesome

Because just swinging a sword or shooting a bow can get boring after a while, I allow 1st-level fighters, rangers, and paladins to take a single “Fighting Feat”—more on those in a future article, but many of them are similar in concept to Eldar Exarch powers. Every time the fighter-type gains a new weapon proficiency, they can learn a new Fighting Feat. Pat’s new half-elf fighter/magic-user is already enjoying “Fast Shot;” his opponents, not so much….

Swiping an idea from 2e AD&D, magic-users will be able to specialize, but instead of spells being bundled into goofy-sounding (and difficult to remember) categories like “alteration spells” and “evocation spells,” the player picks something simpler and more organic, and I have final authority on whether a spell belongs in that category. For instance, a magic-user in my new campaign is specialized in fire spells: currently, the two fire spells she knows are Burning Hands and Firewater. There—isn’t that easier, and a lot more badass? 


Wizards know many things; how to share magic items is not necessarily one of them.

Illusionists? They count as uber-specialists. Details about how they—and magic-users—cast spells to come in (you guessed it) a future article.

Thieves. I loosened up the alignment restrictions on PC thieves: they can be any neutral alignment (Lawful Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, or True Neutral), Neutral Good (“I know this looks bad, but trust me when I say I’ve got a good reason for doing this…”), or Chaotic Good (“Rob from the rich, give to the poor!”). I just can’t see a thief being Lawful Good—can you? NPCs thieves can, of course, be evil. 

Thieves needed a little more oomph in combat, so, as I did in previous campaigns, I switched the “to-hit” tables for them and clerics. Thieves are now the second-best class at fighting, which is how it should be: a criminal—or one who hangs out in areas where criminals operate—needs to be able to fight better than someone who spends most of their time in prayer and contemplation.

As mentioned before, my vision of the PC assassin is not a killer for hire, but rather an expert in killing by stealth, much like the modern-day sniper. PC assassins cannot be evil, though, of course, NPC certainly can be (and most are). Because my campaign doesn’t use alignment languages (a clumsy contrivance), assassins cannot learn them. I also disregard the requirement in the PHB for an assassin to kill another assassin to attain 14 and 15 levels; I assume that several assassins of levels 14 and 15 exist.


"FREEBIRD!"

The original bard class from the Players Handbook was clunky: first you started off as a fighter; after a few levels of that, you changed to a thief; after a few levels of that, you switched classes again to become an actual bard. Dragon Magazine had an excellent revised bard, which my players and I used in a previous campaign; for this campaign, I thought we’d stick with the PHB version, but eliminate the need to do time as a fighter and a thief. In addition:

  • Bards are not required to have minimum Strength or Constitution scores. Bards do not receive a 10% experience bonus for having high ability scores;
  • Bards begin at 1st level (with one 6-sided hit die for hit points), and use the experience point table on page 117 of the PHB. At 11th level, bards have eleven 6-sided hit dice; every level thereafter, they gain an additional hit point;
  • Bards may not be multi-classed, though a human bard may decide to dual class (giving up barding—barditry?—to take up another class, or starting one class and then switching to bard);
  • We will disregard references to bardic colleges;
  • Bards fight, make saving throws, and have initial weapon/non-weapon proficiencies as thieves;
  • We will disregard references to bards being able to use magical items and books exclusive to druids, fighters, and thieves; and,
  • Bards may employ halflings as henchmen.
Making Other Things Better
Ability scores. In the original rules, each race (besides humans) has various minimum and maximum ability scores, the most pertinent of which is usually Strength. Furthermore, as regards to Strength, female characters always had a lower maximum than males, so that a female halfling, for example, could never be as strong as the strongest male halfling. 

While that might make biological sense (I suppose, although we never studied male or female halflings in any bio class I ever took), it also makes for a discriminatory game (anyone else reminded of the tedious debate about the feasibility of female Space Marines?). Seeing as how my current group of players numbers 5 women and 2 men (not counting me), I kept the racial restrictions on Strength score maximums, but ditched the limits for female characters. So in my campaign, a halfling will never have 18/00 Strength (the maximum for humans), but a girl halfling can be just as strong as a guy halfling. Realistic? No, but if I wanted “realism,” I wouldn’t be playing a game with “dragons” in its name, now would I?


"Not realistic," "Less testosterone than men," 
"Not what the game designers intended"...
Yeah, we've heard all that before

Another change I made was to require players to roll checks against their Wisdom score to spot hidden or concealed items, hear subtle sounds, etc. Why Wisdom? Because it’s my personal belief that in life, half of success is paying attention to details: a wiser person is in tune with their surroundings and thus, can make better decisions. In its beginning, 1e AD&D didn’t have any game mechanism for spotting stuff; many years later, a Dragon Magazine article suggested creating a new ability, “Perception,” to cover that. I decided to ditch Perception and make a high Wisdom something that any character, not just a cleric, would want.

Speaking of new abilities, Unearthed Arcana came up with “Comeliness,” a spin-off of Charisma, to measure physical beauty. In previous campaigns, I used Comeliness (as well as Perception), but dropped it in the current one. Charisma is the one of the lesser-used abilities, and Comeliness just makes it even less significant. 

Starting hit points for PCs. First-level player characters start off with maximum hit points. Don’t bother e-mailing me to tell me that was been done in other editions of D&D. Does it say anywhere in this article that all these ideas are original? No? That’s cuz they’re not. 

Money and weights. In the new campaign, each coin is assumed to weigh about 1/100th of a pound instead of 1/10th , allowing PCs to actually carry around some of that loot they take from the monsters. Accordingly, we’ll disregard all references in the various rule books to gold pieces for weights, simply converting them to pounds under the previous system. Thus, if a magic-user’s spell affects 1,000 g.p.’s worth of weight, we’ll treat that as 100 pounds, not 10. 


Treasure: now easier to carry! Or carry off with while the rest of the party is distracted...

Living expenses. When not adventuring, PCs will be charged living expenses to reflect day-to-day costs. Players need to declare what sort of lifestyle their characters enjoy:

  • Extravagant. The PC stays at the finest inns, eats the choicest meals, purchases only the best clothing, footwear, jewelry, etc. Extravagant PCs spend 100 gold pieces per level per month, but receive substantial bonuses when dealing with merchants and service providers and are often able to obtain goods and services not available to “the riff-raff.”
  • Average. The PC is careful with their money, balancing needs and desires, choosing a middle ground between high quality and low prices when purchasing goods and services. PCs with an Average lifestyle spend 50 gold pieces per level per month.
  • Austere. The PC is frugal to the point of being miserly. Living expenses are only 10 gold pieces per level per month, as the PC almost always chooses goods and services that cost the least. Quality (not to mention comfort, convenience, nutritional value, and good taste) are often sacrificed. 
Proficiencies. PCs receive weapon and non-weapon proficiencies as per page 12 of the Wilderness Survival Guide (WSG). PCs of Intelligence 8 and above may apply the “Possible Number of Additional Languages” (page 10 of the PHB) to non-weapon proficiencies from the WSG (pp. 12-17) and/or the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (pp. 23-29). Non-weapon proficiency slots may not be used for weapon proficiencies, but weapon proficiency slots may be used for non-weapon proficiencies. 

In addition, I ruled that PCs may improve their skill at non-weapon proficiencies: spending another slot adjusts the die roll modifier for that proficiency check by -2 (that is, in the player’s favor). There is no limit to the number of times that a character may spend slots to improve a non-weapon proficiency, but a roll of 19 or 20 when attempting to use a non-weapon proficiency always means failure. 

Hero Points. Good role-playing should be rewarded, but to the best of my knowledge, there’s never been an easy way to do that in AD&D. Some have suggested that good role-players should receive more experience points, but how do you assign x.p. values to role-playing? What would make one player worthy to receive, say, 100 x.p. as a bonus, while another player receives, say, 75? And once you get into mid-levels or higher, is an extra 100 x.p. here and there really much of a motivator, especially when your PC might need 20,000 more points to the next level?

I think not. Better, I believe, to make role-playing rewards something that players can appreciate and enjoy right away. Hence, “Hero Points,” which I’m certain is an idea I’ve swiped from either the Marvel Super-Heroes game (with its “Karma”), or a Dragon Magazine article, or both. 

Every time a player attends a gaming session, their character receives 1 Hero Point: it’s hard for most people to make time for gaming, so just showing up will get you something. For excellent role-playing in a session (DM’s discretion), the player’s character will receive 1, 2, or possibly even more additional Hero Points. A player may, at any time, spend 1 Hero Point to re-roll the dice for any action their PC is making; usually this is done for failed “to-hit” and saving throw rolls, poor damage rolls, or botched attempts at using an ability. Only one re-roll is permitted, and the second result will stand even if it was worse than the first. 


With Hero Points, it's right about NOW when gamers start appreciating the efforts they've put into role-playing

Players may only spend Hero Points on their PCs, and may not “share” points with or “loan” points to other PCs (including other characters they play) or NPCs. Players may not spend Hero Points to affect rolls made against them by monsters and NPCs: for example, a player could spend a Hero Point to re-roll his character’s attack against an opponent, but may not spend a Hero Point in an attempt to negate the critical hit the opponent made against their PC. 

I’ve used the Hero Point system in previous campaigns, and players like it, especially when they blow a saving throw and need a re-roll to keep their character alive. I’ve used Hero Points to reward players for thinking outside the box, figuring out a riddle or mystery, helping NPCs, or just cracking a great joke that elevates the whole gaming group. Some specific examples from the new campaign:

  • The fellow playing the elven assassin wanted his character to be distinctive, so instead of buying bows or swords (which he would have gotten “to-hit” bonuses with), he took a scimitar and a glaive as his starting weapons. I gave him a Hero Point for doing something atypical.
  • While hunting a monster that had been attacking merchants along a lonely road, the party was accompanied by a NPC fighter. The monster (which turned out to be a bugbear) ambushed and killed the NPC. The party’s cleric instructed the party to bury the NPC, and then she conducted a Ceremony spell over his grave to ensure that his soul would be at rest and that his body would not be disturbed. I gave her a Hero Point for role-playing her class the way it should be done. 
  • The party discovered a collection of maps, including one of the desert they were traversing. One of the player characters was convinced that the maps were purposefully left behind by previous travelers for the benefit of others. Instead of taking the maps, she copied them and left the originals for future travelers. I gave her a Hero Point for thinking of others.
Next time, I’ll discuss what I did to simplify and improve the magic system for my campaign. See you then!

More Black in Black

Posted July 2010
 

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Fighting Tigers:
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Other Pages:
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Events and Battle Reports <> Campaigns <> Terrain <> FAQ <> Beyond the Jungle