Sunday, May 22, 2016

D&D Rules Cyclopedia light - for one-shots and/or new players

I agreed this year to participate as a DM for the Free RPG Day in Leipzig. The idea was to introduce newbies to role playing games. I was free to chose whatever I like to DM and I should aim for an hour and a half of play per session. It had been an interesting task to tackle and here is what I did.

1. Cooking down the Rules Cyclopedia

I somewhat know my way around the D&D RC and offering D&D was a no-brainer, being a big fan of the OSR and all. It also has all you need (and more) in one book, so that's helpful. With only one hour and a half of genuine play time per session, I'd have to ask myself what I really need at the table to give new players a hint of what D&D is about.

I wanted character creation in there, especially the 3d6 in order and there isn't a way around using ability scores, so that's the first thing to have. Next roll would be hit points and in an ideal world we'd be done with the rolling after that. But if you think about hit points, you'd have to think about classes and to be honest, using them was way too much effort. So the first thing that got cut was classes. It's 1d6 hp (+ Con-bonus, if there is any) and you are good to go.

By default the characters are citizens with some militia training, so they got saves and to-hit matrix of level one fighters, altered by bonuses, if they got them. And that's it. Ability scores with bonuses, the classic 5 saves, hit points and armor class. That's all I took from the RC.

2. House ruling the rest

I've DMed the Rules Cyclopedia for some time and tinkered with it quite a bit. One of the first changes I introduced was changing Charisma to Luck (like DCC does). Damn, this goes way back on the blog, so here you have my reasoning and some of the fire I got for it. Anyway, here Luck is just one of the attributes. If you think about it, every situation you used Charisma in could in its result just as well be explained as being lucky. It's a matter of perspective and I like that one more.

The second big change is another house rule I've presented in 2011 here on the blog: a variant of an Arduin Table concerning Character Aspects. Here's the complete thing (and here is the original post):

 Character Aspects (1d20)

1-2    Thin (-1 to Strength)
3-4    Choleric (-1 to Wisdom, +1 to Constitution)
5-6    Melancholic (+1 to Intelligence)
7-8    Nimble (+1 to Dexterity)
9-12   Normal
13-14  Serene (+1 to Wisdom)
15-16  Vivid (+1 to Luck/Charisma)
17-18  Brawny (+1 to Strength)
19-20  Fat (+1 Constitution, -1 Dexterity)

So right now it's:
  • 3d6 in order, re-roll one, switch two stats if you want
  • roll on the character aspects table
  • note all that down, note bonuses and saves
  • roll 1d6 hp (+ Con bonus, if you have it) and note it down, a 1 may be re-rolled
  • note base AC of 10

All it needed after that was some flavor, so everyone got to choose one occupation and one special ability the character has. Add name and what he looks like and you got a character. Even with a table full of newbies, 15 Minutes character creation, tops.

They were totally free to choose that special ability and whatever they choose was subject to a roll of sorts, so it might not work, but they should choose things that'd give them an advantage others normally wouldn't have. Worked like a charm. When testing for it I'd let them roll d20 + ability score + level versus 20 ...

... which brings me to another house rule of mine: high results are always good, low results are always bad. So tasks are always ability score + d20 (+ skills, if you have them) vs. a difficulty, saves are always target number or higher and attacks are always d20 + bonuses (if you have them) vs. enemy ac. Easy to explain, easy to handle.

Everything you could use as armor reduces your AC by 1 to 3 when you wear it. Could be a pot, could be a shield or some very heavy boots, even a wide cloak might give you some protection (obscuring the body and all that). Normal weapons do 1d6 (+ appropriate bonus, if you have it), small weapons do 2d6, taking the lower result, big weapons do 2d6, taking the higher result.

And now you are ready to play ...

I made an A6 character sheet for the players to use. It is in German, but you should be able to figure it out. As a matter of fact, if I've done this right, the visual presentation of the thing alone should be self explanatory. See for yourselves:

All you need to know with some room for notes on sweet little A6*
3. An argument for the original 5 saves and other commentary

Man, I do love those original 5 saves so much. Cooked down like that their purpose becomes quite obvious, I think. You have active rolls as tasks and they are descriptive with the ability scores. It's basically what you use to get it done. Then you have your passive rolls as the saves and they are descriptive about what you save against. They are what's happening to you.

Tell me what you want, but this totally makes sense to me. I wouldn't change a thing.

So what did I use as a scenario? It came down to that good old "You wake up in the dungeon"-schtick. No equipment to speak of (I allowed Luck rolls if they thought they might have something with them) and they only knew that they got drugged during a towns fair and brought ... somewhere underground.

They know each other and they have roughly an hour real time to get out of there before someone realizes they got out and it's Game Over. 25 Minutes and I got a game going with 5 new and fleshed out characters and a back story to play along with. The rest is player decisions, random encounters and reaction rolls.

As a map I found a big and somewhat complex dungeon, assigned 12 locations in it and rolled a d12 just before I described where they woke up (used this great map by Dyson Logos). I had the Rules Cyclopedia for the heavy lifting and the Dungeon Alphabet as a back up, a blank map to draw on and some miniatures.

In the end I mainly used what I had on my DM screen, the RC for the monsters and the board with the miniatures to illustrate what was going on. The rest was improvised and as random as possible. Didn't know where they'd wake up, didn't know what they'd encounter or the best way to get out there and great fun was had.

I pulled no punches and made clear that it's all very random and that the decisions they'll make might come with dire consequences. It's about player skill. The thing is, even with weak characters, if you make clear that the challenges presented are as much for the players as for the characters, people are good with. They see the character as an extension of themselves and not as a special snowflake.

Well, it was D&D in all it's glory. One more thing, by the way, since the D&D Rules Cyclopedia is a little bit out of print right now, I suggested Labyrinth Lord as a substitute. I'm actually willing to argue my case here, but either way, with what little I used from the RC it really doesn't make a difference.

How did it go?

Three most likely died and two were left with very slim chances of survival. Everyone had lots of fun, going by the laughter. And we ended up playing almost three hours before I called it a day, because when we first got to a point where I could have ended it, no one was there to replace the group and we kept going instead.

All of the players had played role playing games before, but none of them had played D&D in any version yet. So at least it held some novelty for them. But I'd really loved to have a complete newbie at the table or two. Just wasn't to be.

Anyway, another thing I took away from that session is that tension is everything with short games and/or one shots. Pick a player, give him something to think, go to the next one and when you come full circle, that first player better had an idea what he wants to do ... or it gets worse and he gets a bit more time to think. Keep them engaged, react to their input and spin it forward. Make their decisions count somehow.

And you will always have group dynamics. If you play with people you don't know and that don't know each other, you'll ideally have them on the edge of their seats the whole time, as people under pressure (even in a game) are really grateful for the help of others and if it's other players instead of the DM, you'll have a positive group dynamic even among strangers ...

I go on and on. Sorry about that. Point here is, D&D can be cooked down to it's bare bones and still work pretty well. I'd have done a little more for a longer game, but not much. A campaign wouldn't start much different, actually. If I'd have a group of people completely new to the hobby, I'd start right there. System mastery is key, nurture player skill and team work, go from there.

Should I do an English version of that character sheet? Maybe with some rules on the back?

The post about combat in The Grind, for those interested, should be the next after this one ...

* I used inkscape for the composition. The pictures all have public domain origins. The elements are isolated and changed (at least vectorized and cleaned). Not 100 % happy with sword and shield there, but it's what I could do in the time I had.


  1. I apologize if I'm being obtuse, isn't AC in the Rules Cyclopedia skewing low? Did you simply subtract AC from 20 or have another house rule I'm unfamiliar with?

    1. No, you are right, starting armor usually 9 and goes down from there. I start with 10 here because it's nice and round and it leaves a bit more room for people being creative about the armor they loot (one guy actually used a pot as helmet and a piece of wood as shield). Plus I always forget that it's supposed to be 9 ... but it works nonetheless :)

      That being said, I wrote a couple of posts a few years ago about chopping up armor in D&D a bit more (which is what I used here to some extent). If you are interested, it's here:

  2. Great read! I hope you do an English version!

    1. Thanks! I'm thinking about what I could fit on the back of that A6 page since I wrote I could do something like it. Chances are good :)

  3. Love it. I am basically tearingredients down and rebuilding a simplified game for my 7 year old and her friends. We're reducing things to adjectives and a lot of d6 dice.

    1. Nice! I think D&D is great for this. Hope I could give you a few ideas for yours.

  4. I'd like to see a version, looks like a good resource for beginners and one-offs. It might take a bit of editing but i think you can pare the basics to one page, I've seen similar treatments.

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