Thursday, 18 August 2016

Meditations on the right D&D system - how to choose?

I have recently felt a yearning to settle on a proper system as a lens to express and think D&D through.

The ones that are floating through my mind are B/X, Swords & Wizardry, 5e, DCC and Fantastic Heroes & Witchery.

For pure nostalgia, B/X is the one. And also why I am not feeling it for Labyrinth Lord. I don't really see what it is supposed to offer as a new iteration of BECMI when simplicity+nostalgia is a driving force? Less nostalgia and with little better solutions to make up for it that I can tell.

5th edition is the easy choice. It is modern, streamlined, easy to run. But its strength is also its weakness. It is so very tight and balanced - meaning every tinkering has a consequence (although far less than 3.5 or 4e). This sort of system also creates an expectation of balance, 'fair progression' etc. These may be valid concerns, but I'd like a system that flips players into a world where these concerns are trivial. This concern is contradictory to my concerns about retroclones I will address below.
5th edition also has the advantage of being our current system. And my group is hard to change. Funny enough, 5e's simplicity compared to 3.5 has shown my group that stuff like feats and such aren't really that important. I think convicing them to go even simpler could be doable.

Swords & Wizardry has appeal as a simple and streamlined system. And highly modular when you want extra complexity which is a big plus. And it has a small feature I wish it had more of - modern mechanics in the name of simplicity - its save mechanic and offering an ascending AC.

This alone could be enough to make me jump in, but to be honest, I want more of it. I love the idea of whitebox - simplest chassis possible, with just a few modern mechanics to simplify further and all the room in the world for the modular extensions you need and no more.

I just wish for a system willing to go even a bit further with modern mechanics that simplify. OD&D still has quirks that create toil that comes across as unnecessary from a modern perspective. XP bonus for prime requisites, gold for xp, the Thief as a whole, etc.

DCC is high on my list as something built on the same chassis, with modern mechanics on top - the fact that these mechanics are specifically servicing a pretty awesome genre and style of play is an extra plus. But it does seem to me that it goes a bit too far and is not quite so well executed at times. DCC 2nd edition I would play without hesitation.

Fantastic Heroes & Witchery, despite having plenty of bloat and poor organisation, appeals to me for its unabashed D&D-how-it-should-have-been quality and attitude of "can do" whenever you want something more than the basic approach. Racial classes (as opposed to race-as-class) is brilliant and should  be standard all across the D&D-sphere. And it is unabashed in taking in modern mechanics where they are simple and make sense - multiclass, xp progression, ascending AC, unified saves, streamlined attribute modifiers.

Conclusion:

FH&W and DCC seem like the best bets for Old School games that could also pass a litmus test of modern sensibilities for simple and balanced mechanics that don't try to reinvent the wheel.

Basically, if FH&W was organised differently, I'd run it, swear by it and disavow all else. But dumping a 425 page manual on the table does not convey "it'll be simple. don't worry." And the organisation of it is a bit of a mess as well, with classess spread throughout the book and such. I love that it wants to do so much, but it makes it a hard sell. I long for a more modular  FH&W.

My dream version of FH&W is a boxed set with booklets. One for character generation, one for spells and magic, one for rules in general, a Science-fantasy booklet, a Monsters booklet and a DMG booklet. This I could sell to my group with ease.

Alas, the next-best thing is probably DCC. Also an enormous book, but far more coherently laid out. The entry requirements are not steep - Maybe  FH&W is not either, but it does give an impression of being so (and these matter, unfortunately). I could probably sell this and we'd have loads fun. Even though secretly, I'd be wishing we were playing FH&W.