Play Old-School Rules-Light D&D

Sometimes, the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons just seems too complex. Perhaps you want to play something less elaborate for a change, or find aspects of the rules too restrictive. You may want to use a simpler RPG to introduce new players. Special lightweight D&D editions are nothing new, and I’ve recently discovered another of particular interest.

Searchers of the Unknown is a single page implementation of Dungeons & Dragons, based on the original 1970s D&D game. There are no powers, feats or skill points in Searchers of the Unknown. Nor are there prestige classes, paragon paths, or magic item lists. In its search for simplicity, even spellcasting classes are omitted. The entire rules weigh in at 900 words, fewer than D&D third edition uses to explain grappling.

Old-school, rules-light

The concept is this: If old D&D monsters required only six statistics (AC, movement rate, hit dice, hit points, number of attacks and damage), why can’t a player character be as simple? A sample statblock is 67 characters long, including character name: Humphrey the bald (AC 5 MV 6 HD 3 hp 14 #AT 1 D 1d10 with a voulge).

Character generation consists mainly of choosing armour and weapons, with no character classes and all characters taking d8 hit dice per level. Heavy armour offers better AC (as in old D&D, low AC is better), at the cost of significantly reduced speed. Heavy armour also penalizes initiative and physical skills. Race, class and so forth are descriptive and have no mechanical advantage.

Combat starts by rolling 1d10+AC for initiative (remember that low AC means heavily armoured). Attacks roll 1d20, and try to roll under the opponent’s AC plus your level. HP are fully restored between battles. Morale is used as in old D&D, where monsters may flee if outnumbered. Oddly, the morale check is 1d10 to beat the monster’s hit dice, meaning 10HD monsters and up will never flee.

Skills roll 1d20 and aim for under the character’s AC+level, while saving throws and skills unaffected by armour are under AC+4. Traps, spells, falls, etc, deal 1d8 damage “if it looks like it could kill a man”, 2d8 if it could kill a horse, and 4d8 if it could kill an ogre. Spells usually come in scrolls which any PC of sufficient level can read; inventing spells is left entirely as an exercise to the DM. Level up adds 1d8 hit points, with the interesting feature that all hit dice are rerolled and the player takes this result if it’s higher than his current hit points.

So what’s so good about it?

A few things about this game particularly interest me.

Morale helps to cut the fight short when the heroes are clearly winning. You can do this in 3E or 4E, but there are no rules for it, so I feel like I’m breaking balance.

Rules-light combat can run faster. In D&D 4E, a combat turn includes a standard action, move action, minor action and managing status effects. With Searchers of the Unknown, turns are faster so you see faster results, and players don’t have to wait as long for their next turn. Monsters have fewer hit points, which avoids long, dull slog-fests.

Rules-light also makes it easier to add new game material. Try creating a character class for D&D 4E, where a class is fourteen pages long. Adding character classes to Searchers of the Unknown can be done quite easily. This manner of experimentation is how character classes originally came about. You have a lot of freedom to invent game elements (monsters, magic items, spell effects) without heavy prep time or rules balance knowledge.

It’s possible that old-style D&D has an appeal that more elaborate current D&D lacks. This is more subjective, and harder to pin down without play.

Leave a comment if you’ve played this game or have insight into a rules-light or oldschool D&D variant.

Comments (10)

Mad MAx Jr (September 18th, 2009)

Thanks for posting this JD. I think I’ll print a dozen of them to leave at the hobby store. Looks useful for people who want to be playing in five minutes instead of writing off the entire first session as chargen.

Olan Suddeth (September 18th, 2009)

No doubt, there is a lot to be said for old school gaming. I love the skill system in d20, and 4e offers some amazing combat enhancments… but I find myself always going back to houseruled 2nd edition for the bulk of my D&D gaming.

Then again, I may just be an old codger.

Tetsubo (September 19th, 2009)

I want a rules system to handle everything that isn’t my story. I want a turn key mechanics system. If I need to know how a certain widget works, I just want to turn to the correct page and read the answer. I don’t want to spend every game adjudicating every interaction of the players and the world they live in. Not to mention consistency. You aren’t judging similar situations in different ways over time. So why I can understand the attraction of a ‘rules light’ system, it isn’t something I am interested in.

Alex Schröder (September 19th, 2009)

In 2006 I started gaming again after a ten year hiatus. I started with M20.

Tetsubo (September 20th, 2009)

Oddly, while hitting some yard sales yesterday, I found a copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. For $1. So maybe I’ll enjoy reading a single book version of D&D.

DR (September 20th, 2009)

Rules light does not mean you have to adjudicate every action. In many ways by having a rules heavy system you do just as much if not more so, because now there is a “rulebook” now you have to play the part of rule enforcer. Rules light system, if it sounds good go with it! If it propels the story forward, go with it. Rules heavy system… can bog the story down.

Tetsubo (September 21st, 2009)

But you risk tossing consistency out the window. Will you make that same call the same way you made it the first time? The twelfth time? I would rather just flip to the pertinent page and have the game mechanics deal with it. You also risk that each game will handle the same rule judgment differently from table to table. Moving from GM to GM may mean having to essentially relearn the game each time.

Example: Cars pretty much function the same from vehicle to vehicle. If each one was custom built driving each one would be an entirely new experience. Interesting? Yes. Vastly annoying? Also yes.

I just want to get in, turn the key and drive.

Geordie Racer (September 27th, 2009)

I’m currently playing in an online play-by-post game using SOTU and loving it:

Check it out !

Tavis Allison (September 27th, 2009)

I’m playing in an online Searchers of the Unknown game at the OD&D 74 proboards - clicking my name above should link to that subforum specifically. I find it to be enormously fun and particularly well-suited to play-by-post, since conflict can be resolved so quickly. In general I find this fast resolution the greatest thing about old-school systems; I am happiest when the process of gathering intelligence on potential foes, planning how to attack them, and dealing with the consequences thereof takes a bigger chunk of play-time than the fight itself.

JM (March 19th, 2010)

Tetsubo is a perfect example of high intelligence and low wisdom.

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