Play D&D for free, part 2: retroclones

On my first post on the subject of playing Dungeons & Dragons for free, I stuck implicitly to living systems; that is, the current editions of games in print and supported by their publishers. For D&D this means Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (5e), published by Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), and Pathfinder, published by Paizo.

My advice was to stick to the free materials, which for 5e the is Basic Rules, available as a free PDF, including DM guidelines, and the free content on D&D Beyond, which includes the whole of the Systems Reference Document (SRD). I neglected to discuss Pathfinder, which also has a lot of free content available to download. And as these two systems are the Big Beasts of fantasy role-playing, they are likely to be the first ports of call for new gamers.

The major drawback of sticking to this free content is that you won’t have access to the “complete” game. For example, the Basic Rules pdf limits players to the four “core” races (dwarf, elf, halfling, and human) and the four “core” classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard), with one customization path or “archetype” for each (meaning it isn’t really customization at all). D&D Beyond’s free content gives you access to all the races and classes in the Player’s Handbook, but sticks to one archetype for each class, and only a limited selection of backgrounds and feats. While feats are optional for 5e, backgrounds are actually an essential part of character creation, so this is a significant omission.

There is, however, a way in which you can play a “complete” version of D&D (that is, have access to all “core” game mechanics) for free: play a retroclone.

For those who have never heard the term, a “retroclone” is an independently-produced ruleset which recreates an earlier edition of a popular role-playing game, usually with some refinements or additions. Pathfinder itself could be considered the first retroclone, as it was produced by Paizo (at the time a much smaller company than Wizards of the Coast), and recreated Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, which had recently been replaced by Fourth Edition.

Because retroclones make use of the existing Open Gaming Licenses, any changes to the original rulesets are made less for copyright reasons and more for the preferences of the producers and their intended audiences. For example, many Zero Edition (or Original Dungeons & Dragons) retroclones have much clearer wording and organization of the rules than the original 1974 game (which was notoriously opaque). Another common innovation is to allow ascending armour class (in which a higher armour class is better) as the norm or at least as an option. There have been several ways things like stats, abilities (and “skills”, if they are used), combat, etc. have been handled in D&D over the years, and the author(s) of a particular retroclone tend to pick their favourite one or suggest a personal house rule as the standard option.

Some retroclones are as pricey as the current versions of the game. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, a 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons retroclone, retails for $70, although this is excessive, and mainly due to artwork and binding, still, many popular retroclones, such as Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess will cost you at least a little cash, even for just the pdf. [EDIT: Both LL and LotFP are available as free, text-only pdfs (no artwork).]

However, if you divide Old School D&D into the three categories of Original, Basic, and Advanced, there is at least one free retroclone for each.

There are several “Original D&D” retroclones. I discover new ones all the time. My personal favourite remains Matthew Finch’s Swords & Wizardry, which comes in four versions, all of which you can get for free. White Box, my absolute favourite RPG ever, is a clone of the original three booklets in the first ever printing of D&D. (Unlike that original printing, White Box makes perfect sense and is a pleasure to read.) This version is no longer available on the Frog God Games website, as it has basically been replaced by Swords & Wizardry Light, which is also free, and pretty much the same game except it allows the Thief class and only has rules for levels 1 to 3. The next step up is Swords & Wizardry Core Rules, a close second to White Box, in my opinion. This version clones the rules as they stood after the Greyhawk supplement was published in 1975. It is, on balance, probably the best version of the game. It has plenty of options and mechanics, but not so many that it becomes, well, Pathfinder. And finally, there is Swords & Wizardry Complete, which clones everything you would find in the original rules, all five supplements, plus anything you might have pulled out of issues of Dragon Magazine. Personally, I only own this one for the monsters. You can never have too many monsters. I would never give this many options to the players in an Old School game.

Swords & Wizardry is, in fact, so popular that it has its own “clone”, White Box, by Charlie Mason, published by Seattle Hill Games. The pdf of this is also free, and could be a good alternative if you want to play a White Box clone but don’t want to play Swords & Wizardry Light.

Then there is Chris Gonnerman’s Iron Falcon, also free as a pdf, still available and supported, and more complete than either S&W White Box or S&W Light. It does include things like the Thief and Paladin classes, and tons of spells and monsters, so it is probably more comparable to S&W Core or Complete, but unlike those games, it includes some free adventure modules, which can actually be played with any OD&D retroclone (or even the “real” OD&D), with little or no modification.

When we talk about “Basic D&D”, we usually mean either the early 80s boxed sets (called Moldvay Basic after the editor of the Basic Set – again, levels 1-3 – or B/X because I it contained only the Basic and Expert rules) or the later BECMI, which stands for Basic, Expert, Comnot panion, Master, Immortal: the six sets of rules that take you from levels 1 through 36, and eventually to a godlike status that transcends character levels.

I don’t know of a BECMI retroclone (which isn’t to say one doesn’t exist, just that I don’t know about it), but there’s a very popular free B/X clone, Basic Fantasy, Chris Gonnerman’s more well known game. If you’ve heard of one Old School retroclone, chances are this is it. Everything for this game, including lots of adventure modules, is available as a free pdf, and even the print versions are dirt cheap. [EDIT: As above, Labyrinth Lord is also free in an artwork-free pdf.]

And finally, there is OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation), a 1st Edition AD&D clone, also by Matthew Finch, and also free.

So if you’re willing to go Old School, it is definitely possible to play D&D for free, without sacrificing any of the core options or mechanics, and you don’t even have to homebrew your own adventures, thanks to Chris Gonnerman!

I fully expect that a lot of readers will not be pursuing these options, however. One reason is, none of these games are (or, legally, could be) branded Dungeons & Dragons, and I expect that makes a big difference to prospective new players. Make no mistake, all of these games are Dungeons & Dragons. There is nothing about them that does not ring true to the authentic D&D experience. But just as audiences rejected the “imposter” Uncle Fester in the first Addams Family movie, a lot of players might reject these games (even though, like Uncle Fester, they turn out not to be imposters after all). If you get your friends psyched up to play D&D and then whip out a pdf of Swords & Wizardry, they may feel they’re not getting “the real deal”.

Of course, Pathfinder solved this problem, mostly by tacitly allowing their customers to call their product “D&D” colloquially. The one time I played Pathfinder, it was because someone asked me if I wanted to play D&D. I only found out they meant Pathfinder after I had already said yes. And check out this video series in which they are clearly playing Pathfinder, but frequently call it “D&D”.

But the major stumbling block will be that all these retroclones are exclusively Old School, and therefore might not appeal to gamers whose expectations are informed by Modern D&D. If you were inspired to play by watching Critical Role, you might be disappointed that you can’t play a “goliath barbarian” or a “tiefling bloodhunter”. If you were intrigued by stories you heard from Pathfinder players, you may feel let down when you can’t be a “kitsune alchemagus death priest” or whatever OP bullshit they allow in that game.

And that’s perfectly understandable. There are a million ways to play D&D, and the game is broad enough to accommodate everyone’s fantasy. But if yours can fit the Old School mold, don’t overlook these retroclones as a way to get a memorable gaming experience for hardly any cash.

[EDIT: If you are interested in a more complete list of retroclones, visit Tenkar’s Tavern (you should visit it anyway, as it’s a great blog).]

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Just do it: how I started homebrewing D&D (and how you can too)

The first time I ever played D&D was as a dungeon master, and I was running a completely homebrew adventure in a completely homebrew world. Yay me, right?

Wrong, because it’s actually not that hard. If you’re reading this, I’d say there’s a 99% chance you can start homebrewing too. So roll percentile dice!

In gaming terms, homebrew is anything you create yourself, either alone or with your group or other amateurs. It can be a setting (as large as a complete world or as small as a village where the party can rest before exploring the next adventure site), a new in new game mechanic such as a class, race, feat, weapon, or spell, an adventure, or even a whole campaign. Tal’Dorei is Matt Mercer’s homebrew setting (though if I bought it and used it, it wouldn’t be mine).

There are three DMs everyone goes to for advice on gaming: the aforementioned Matt Mercer, Chris Perkins, and Matt Colville. Mercer obvs homebrews both his adventures and game world, but the other two don’t.

Chris Perkins is probably my favourite adventure designer in the history of the game, and definitely my favourite of the current WOTC staff. But as far as I know, he has never run a homebrew setting. He once tweeted that it’s easier to play in someone else’s sandbox than to build your own. And he’s right.

By contrast, Matt Colville runs in a completely homebrew world but, regardless of how much he tweaks and alters them, exclusively runs pre-written adventures. He once said in a video that there are enough good pre-written adventures out there for you to play D&D for four hours a day, every day, for the rest of your life, and never run out of adventures to run. And he, too, is right.

So why homebrew at all?

Homebrew is cheap. Homebrewing something costs you time and effort, but tends not to cost money. This is a great advantage if you haven’t got a lot of money to spend, or you’re new to the hobby and aren’t sure you’re ready to commit a lot of financial resources to it.

Homebrew is your fantasy. If you think back to when you first heard about D&D and decided you waned to play it, you probably had a mental picture of how the fantasy world would “look”, what kind of things you’d find there, what kind of adventures would happen. If that metal picture matches up well enough with the official setting, (currently the Forgotten Realms), then that’s fine. But if it doesn’t, then homebrew is your chance to make a world that does.

This applies to any aspect of the game. For example, I love the idea behind the Tyranny of Dragons series: a dragon cult is attempting to bring Tiamat into the Material Plane? Awesome! Unfortunately, those adventures suck. They’re railroady, they fail to make good use of dragons and draconic monsters, and the final fight with Tiamat is underwhelming. Pretty much anyone could steal the idea and make a better adventure, which is precisely what I recommend you do.

Homebrew is easier to run. The art of gamemastering is the art of improvisation. No matter how thoroughly you plan and prepare, you will at least occasionally have to improvise when the players do something you didn’t expect. But it’s a lot easier to improvise when it’s your content to begin with. Even if you haven’t built the area the PCs are trying to explore, you probably have a rough idea of what you would have put there. If the players try a tactic against your Big Bad that you didn’t expect, you probably have a good idea of how they would react, because they’re your creation. You don’t have to re-read their description in the overlong tome that is most published adventures, at least in 5e.

Homebrew is easier to write than you think it is. I was really nervous, making up my first adventure, especially because I had never even played before. But having done it, and succeeded at it, I’m convinced this is something basically anyone can do.

In the first ever edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax wrote that “your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors” to building a campaign. Time is something we all must struggle with, but the fact that you are interested in playing a tabletop RPG at all indicates you have enough imagination. So with that in mind, I thought I’d talk about how I cooked up an adventure as a rank amateur, and give some advice on how you can do the same.

1) Steal!

Ever since the Romantic Period, we’ve had this idea that everything has to be “original”, but before the early 19th Century, originality was not a criterion of good art. Homer didn’t “make up” the Odyssey; it was a traditional tale, as was the Iliad. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. And every one of the dwarves in The Hobbit, not to mention Gandalf himself, comes from the Norse Eddas.

And these are great works of literature. But a D&D game is not meant to be a great work of literature. It’s meant to be a fun game to play with your friends.

If you want to be really clever, steal from sources you know or suspect your players won’t know. But don’t feel self-conscious about stealing something obvious if you have to. Sure, your players may realize your adventure is just The Hobbit, but think about it: here’s their chance to find out what would have happened if the party went North around Mirkwood instead of through it. And they’ll be ripping their characters off from Lord of the Rings no matter what you run.

When I created my first adventure hook, I ripped off Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven: a young peasant asks the party to help defend her village from brigands. Other encounters and areas were inspired by the Norse sagas, a book called The Satanic Mill that I read in middle school, and even an old D&D module called Temple of the Frog, which I hadn’t read at the time, but knew featured a swamp and giant frogs.

And you can steal more than just stories. I used the free visitors’ map of my city’s botanical gardens to run my Haunted Forest. It was a mini hex crawl, so the players never saw the map. Points of interest were already numbered, so I just populated them with encounters.

My whole campaign setting is an amalgam of Beowulf and the film Dragonslayer. NPCs can be based on characters from films, books, comics, whatever. Anything you need to run the game, you can probably borrow from somewhere. There’s no copyright at the gaming table (unless you plan to stream it).

My only caveat is to steal from sources you already know and love. It’s too much investment to check out a new film or novel on the off-chance it could prove useful. You might he hate it, in which case you’ll have wasted your time.

2) Don’t write a script. Another way homebrewing is not like writing a novel is that you are not in control of the protagonists. This is one of the most important lessons of DMing. Player choice and player agency are the main selling points of the game. As soon as players feel they have no choice, or that their choices don’t matter to the story, they still disengage and get bored.

So if you catch yourself thinking “and then the PCs will do this”, stop. You don’t know what the PCs will do.

Many great adventures have a beginning, middle, and end, but the trick is not to make the next segment of the adventure depend on one course of action or one outcome.

For example, in my first adventure, I took what I later realized was a big risk with my adventure hook. The PCs were supposed to stop the town drunk from beating up the locals on market day. This display of prowess would prompt the peasant girl to ask them to come defend her village. But what if the PCs chose not to fight the bully? What if they lost?

An issue like this can be fixed any number of ways. The easiest is probably to make sure more than one NPC can give the adventure hook. They might give it a different spin or flavour, but the essential information is the same: where the party needs to go, what they need to do, and how much money is involved.

Almost any element of your adventure should have more than one potential connection to the rest of the adventure. This sounds complicated, but there’s a “zen” shortcut: don’t plan a linear adventure. Your beginning (the adventure hook) and final boss fight will be special, pretty much necessary bookends, but instead of designing a logical series of steps to connect them, just think of a bunch of cool stuff that you might like to see happen (or better yet, that your players might like, if you know them well enough), and stick them in wherever they fit. As you’re fleshing them out, you can think about ways they might lead to other parts of the story, but the exact path the PCs take through your adventure is ultimately not up to you.

3) Don’t write a novel. If you’ve read a published adventure, but haven’t written one yet, you may well assume your homebrew adventure has to read just like the professional ones do. But unless you are planning to publish it, there’s absolutely no reason to be that wordy. Don’t write pages of , lore and backstory, unless you need it to run the game, and never write more than you absolutely need.

My first adventure took the party from 1st to 5th level (I knew that Lost Mines of Phandelver did that, so I assumed that was a normal thing). It started with unarmed combat, featured two sections of overland travel (one through a swamp and one through a forest), a home base and two small villages which were adventure sites, two additional wilderness adventure sites (ruins and a bog), an optional side-quest dungeon, and a final, 3-level dungeon featuring an adult red dragon.

And to run all this I used 22 pages of handwritten A5 in a notebook. Sounds like a lot, but Lost Mines of Phandelver is 64 pages of printed A4.

I didn’t write any lore. I just knew it, because I’m the one who made it up. I didn’t write down villain motivations for the same reason. I didn’t have any “boxed text” descriptions of rooms or areas. I just ad-libbed it. Because I could. I was my world. I already knew it all. I didn’t write down monster stats unless I changed them from the standard version, and even then I only wrote down what was different.

Not everyone will need the same kind of notes. If you aren’t good at ad-libbing descriptions or villain monologues, go ahead and write them out. Just don’t write anything you don’t need. You will save time, effort, and space. The beauty of a homebrew adventure is it’s lean. Trim all the fat!

4) Play to your strengths. We all have skills and aptitudes in real life. Find ways to use yours to enhance your game. If you’re naturally artistic or good at crafts, augment your game with custom maps, miniatures, sculpted terrain. If you’re a good artist, draw the locations, NPCs, and monsters, so the players can literally see them. These touches can transform what looks like a pretty standard dungeon-crawl into a memorable experience your players will be talking about for a long time.

I suck at art. Absolutely suck at it. So I focus on story, structure, character and motivation, etc. I have also read a lot of medieval heroic literature, and I have a good memory, so I have a big pool of obscure fantasy content to draw from. I would love to add some visual flair to my games, but until I can afford to get someone else to do it for me, that’s just not going to happen. So I focus on what I can do well.

5) Play to your tastes. Everyone at the table needs to enjoy the game, but you’re justified in prioritizing your own tastes a little higher than everyone else’s, because of the amount of work you are doing. I find it takes 2-3 times as long to prep a game as it takes to play. So if you’re planning a 4-hour session, you can probably expect to spend 8-12 hours prepping it. It’s hard to motivate yourself to do all that work, let alone to sell the game to your players at the table, if you yourself are not into it.

That’s why I run a homebrew world in the first place. I tried running in the Forgotten Realms once, but I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm I needed to run the game if it was going to take place in that world.

Of course, you can homebrew an adventure in an existing world, but taste applies here too. The classic monster choice for low-level parties is goblins or kobolds. Personally, I prefer undead, so I use zombies and skeletons. And because I like my minions to match their boss, I tend to have necromancers or greater undead like liches as my Final Boss. But that’s my game. Use what you like. Your game has to excite your players, yes, but it has to excite you a little more, because you’re doing all the work. And if you’re excited, it will be easier to get them excited.

6) Let the rules inspire you. The reason I put two overland travel sections in my first adventure was because I loved the Movement and terrain rules, and wanted to try them out in my game. That was also why I made one of the travel sections a swamp: it’s difficult terrain, and movement is restricted. The forest, though “haunted”, was inhabited, and had some usable paths, so terrain was not as difficult, but it had a higher likelihood of random encounters.

When you’re reading the rules (especially the monsters), pick out the things you definitely want to use, and find a way to use them. Design encounters with opportunities for cover, or use monster that grapple, if you like tactical combat. Write an adventure that focuses on oozes, if you think those are super-cool (one independent game designer has actually done this). Do you like the rules on encumbrance? Put them in your game. Like skill checks? How about a whole section full of physical and mental obstacles. No monsters, just skill challenges. Using your favourite monsters and mechanics will make your adventure unique, and keep you engaged while writing it and running it.

And, finally,

7) Give your players what they want. This would seem to contradict some of my earlier advice on following your own preferences, but you do have to balance your taste with your players’ expectations. The game, after all, belongs to all of you.

I never would have made a dragon my final boss, at least not my first time out, but it was requested by a player (and the player was my daughter).

It’s easy to forget, but you should try to make time for a conversation about the kind of game everyone wants to play. What experiences they want to have, what monsters they want to fight, high or low fantasy, how deadly they want it to be. You won’t be able to please everybody all the time, but having these things on your radar will help steer you. And sometimes working that player-requested monster in leads you to a cool adventure you wouldn’t have written of your own accord.

This advice isn’t complete, and it focusses mainly on writing a homebrew adventure for personal use (not for publication), but when I think back to how, as a first-time player, I managed to run four PCs from 1st to 5th level without cracking a single punished module, this is what I got.

I may write about my experiences with other aspects of homebrewing (monsters, settings, entire campaigns) in the future.

Want to OSR your 5E game? Play with kids…

…or beginners. Basically anyone who doesn’t own their own copy of the Player’s Handbook.

Imagine this: it’s 1974. You have heard about this new game, Dungeons & Dragons – a whole new kind of game – and you want to try it. You’ve shelled out your $10 dollars (which is like $50 today, so you’d have to have wanted it pretty bad) and got your little fake wood box with the white label, containing three badly-written booklets which attempt to explain how to play this game, the likes of which the world has never seen.

Now imagine that you manage to drum up some people to play with (the rules suggest “from four to fifty players”, but let’s assume it’s closer to four). Unless they’re every bit as eager to play this as you are, and also have ten bucks to throw around, you are likely to be the only one with a copy of the rules. Which means two things: 1) congratulations, you are the Dungeon Master (called a “Referee” back then), and 2) you are probably the only one who really knows how the game works.

Now flash forward to 1978. You have just bought the first edition Player’s Handbook, which claims to “provide all of the truly essential information necessary for the game”, but doesn’t even tell you how to roll stats or make an attack. That material, and much more, is restricted to the Dungeon Master’s Guide, to be published the following year. Why? Because “considerable enjoyment and excitement in early play stems from not knowing exactly what is going on.”

Not knowing the rules of Dungeons & Dragons is a classic part of the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Now, I wouldn’t blame you if reading this has already given you pause. Am I actually suggesting that players knowing the rules of D&D is a bad thing? And the short answer is: yes. But here’s the long answer:

While it isn’t bad for the players to have a firm grasp of the most relevant game mechanics, knowing all the mechanics can have several effects on the game which some DMs may find undesirable (I certainly do).

One such effect is that it creates rules lawyers. All the players knowing all the rules doesn’t stop the DM being able to modify, eschew, or otherwise house-rule certain game mechanics. If they’re good players, they’ll remember Rule 0, and if changing the rules becomes a problem, or you think it’s going to be, you can always let your players know this is what you’re doing (choosing the level of detail you go into).

Although Rules Lawyers are my least favourite type of “problem player”, this is, admittedly, a small issue, because not every fully informed player will become a Rules Lawyer, and at the end of the day, Rules Lawyers don’t actually make the rules. Still, you are far less likely to get players like this when they haven’t memorized the entire PHB.

The bigger issue, for me, is that the rule books can be limiting. Going back to our hypothetical 1974 players: if you’ve rolled up a fighter, you know you have a weapon and that you can, presumably, use it. If you’ve rolled up a magic-user, you know you have that one spell you can cast, and more or less what that spell does. And regardless of your class, you know what equipment you’ve bought.

So now you’re creeping through the dungeon, looking for god knows what (treasure, probably). And when something – anything – happens, you all have to figure out how to respond to it. And not everything that happens in a dungeon – especially an old-school dungeon – is a cue for combat. Read up on old school dungeon crawls. Most of the tales involve the PCs running away.

So when you’re presented with an obstacle, encounter, or other situation, you have to generate a solution. It may well involve your weapons, if you have them, or your spells, if you have them, or any of your equipment, or terrain features, or things lying around. But whatever you do, the main component is probably your own ingenuity, and that of the other players.

And there’s no limit to that ingenuity, because there are no mechanics involved. There are no skill checks or ability checks, no rules for using various pieces of equipment in novel ways. Each situation is unique, and requires a unique solution from the players at the table.

This is a hard way to play, because the onus is on the players to propose their actions out of their own imagination, and then on the DM to figure out how to adjudicate their actions in a fair way. It’s far easier to play a game where the actions are spelled out for everyone. This is what you can do, and this is how you do it.

If we contrast the “rules-light”, 1974 approach to Fifth Edition, we find the ten Actions in Combat. These are prefaced by the following text:

When you take your action on your turn, you can take one of the actions presented here, an action you gained from your class or a special feature, or an action that you improvise... When you describe an action not detailed elsewhere in the rules, the DM tells you whether that action is possible and what kind of roll you need to make, if any, to determine success or failure” [emphasis mine].

There is also the the Improvising an Action sidebar, which specifically states “The only limits to the actions you can attempt are your imagination and your character’s ability scores“. But these brief reminders can easily get lost in the meatier descriptions of game mechanics, and the ten suggested actions in combat quickly become The Only Ten Things You Can Do in Combat, just as the 18 Skill Checks become the only 18 things you can do the rest of the time.

Of course, not every player will treat the rules this way, and it was certainly not the designer’s intention that they do. But there’s basically zero chance of this happening of the players don’t know the ten actions in combat in the first place. Most of the time, when combat starts, they will want to attack or cast a spell. But they might say they want to wait and see what happens. Tell them they can ready an action. They might want to try to disarm or restrain or otherwise subdue an opponent. Good opportunity to explain grappling.

I once had a new player decide to toss a rope to another PC, then run circles around an enemy guard, wrapping his legs up in the rope and restraining him. This was not something he had read in a rule book. He hadn’t even read the PHB. It was just something he came up with in his own mind.

Easy enough for him to suggest, but to adjudicate it, I had to call for a to hit roll to toss the rope, a strength check to hold the rope, the dash action to wind the rope, and a contested athletics check to resolve the grapple. And it took more than I’ve round to get it done. But that’s my job as DM: figuring out how to resolve player actions. I even awarded him inspiration for coming up with the idea.

And that, to me, is how you play D&D.