Horror’s Harvest: Invasion of the Body Snatchers for D&D (Campaign Diary)

Chris Perkins wasn’t always a professional game designer working on Dungeons & Dragons for Wizards of the Coast. Once upon a time, he was just a player and Dungeon Master, not unlike you and me, and way back in those dreamy halcyon days of AD&D Second Edition, he used to submit adventure modules to Dungeon magazine. And his modules took no prisoners.

For about eight months I’ve been running Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) at my FLGS. I have a party of 6 PCs (two mages, two thieves, a cleric, and a fighter) and their pet bird-person (which is a long story I’ll get into in Part 2). They are currently travelling through my campaign setting, en route to a large city where they hope to sell all the random loot they found in the first adventure. (Old-School D&D awards XP for treature, but they can’t get the XP until they convert the statues, fine goods, and other valuable loot into gold pieces.)

They were nearing a small town at a crossroads, and as they had been on the road for a while, having a series of random encounters, I thought I’d put something interesting in this town. A problem to solve, a monster to kill, a group of innocent villagers to rescue from the clutches of evil. Enter Chris Perkins and Dungeon magazine #38 (November/December 1992).

Originally designed for the Ravenloft setting, this module, titled Horror’s Harvest, is basically Invasion of the Body Snatchers for D&D. The PCs come to a small village (called Delmunster in the original module) to investigate a meteorite. It turns out the meteorite was the seed of a doppelganger plant which is slowly taking over the town, turning the villagers into mind-controlled podlings.

I’ve wanted to run this module since I first read it. I love the eerie atmosphere, the mystery (and the fact that the players have to roleplay to solve it), and the unapologetic deadliness. Perkins is no lightweight. If you run this module (and I think you should), be prepared for character death, possibly a TPK (even in 5E), and make sure your players are too. Having cautious, tactical players who don’t take “encounter balance” for granted will really help keep the body count low.

How I seeded the module

Strictly speaking, I didn’t have to seed the module, as the party were going to pass through the village anyway (it’s on the main road). I did, however, give them some general knowledge about the place, such as anyone might know (there are no knowledge checks in Old-School D&D, so you can just tell players things you want them to know).

The village is called Trifurc (literally “three-fork”), because it is located where three major roads meet. It is famous for its claret wine. It’s technically in a forest, but the villagers cut back the trees to make room for their grapes.

I had thought about having them see the “falling star” during their journey (they usually set a watch at night), but they were actually clearing out a ghoul lair on the relevant night. During that particular adventure, the party’s Paladin fell to a ghast wielding an apparently magic warhammer. The player rolled up a new character (3d6 down the line) and got a cleric. He chose to be a cleric of Vecna.

I decided this was a good opportunity to seed the meteorite, so I asked the player if he’d like to be investigating the falling star. It would give his character a reason to be in the area and to be travelling to Trifurc. The player agreed, but being a follower of Vecna (god of secrets), chose to keep the info and his true affiliation to himself. Little did he know, he was already sowing the seeds of paranoia and mistrust that would spell doom for the entire party.

What I changed

I have never run someone else’s module exactly as written. I’m not really sure you’re supposed to (though if you do, I’m sure that’s fine too). Like many Gamemasters, I freely adapt any and all material to suit my players, my setting, and my own tastes.

I’ve already pointed out that I changed the village name, and I’m not running the Ravenloft setting, but rather my own homebrew world, which is more traditional faux-medieval-European. The area the players are exploring is loosely inspired by post-Roman empire Italy: the distant memory of a fallen empire, no real unified “kingdom”, but lots of competing city-states, mostly run by rich, powerful families, and a highly organized religion whose clergy is nearly as rich and powerful as any of the secular rulers.

The party is ultimately headed to the city of Bard’s Gate (whose name is taken from Frog God Games’ Lost Lands setting, though in my world it’s kind of a stand-in for Medieval Florence), and Trifurc is located in a disputed area which is claimed by both the rulers of Worms (inspired by the Burgundian kingdom in the Nibelungenlied) and those of Eastwych (also taken from the Lost Lands).

So the first thing I had to do was change the NPC names in the original module from the Eastern European style of Ravenloft to something Medieval Italian. (Rewriting all those names, btw, was a much bigger endeavour than I anticipated). I also removed the module’s original hook: a random NPC wizard who offers to pay the PCs to recover the crashed “comet”. As the party was going to pass through Trifurc anyway, I figured all I really had to do was make the place seem “odd” enough that they may be inspired to stop there long enough to investigate.

Then there were a few random additions. Firstly, I didn’t settle on running Horror’s Harvest until I had begun designing Trifurc, and I preserved some of my original features. Using the random tables in Matt Finch’s excellent Tome of Adventure Design, I was creating a place famous for its wine (as mentioned above), and for a breeding a strange milkable hybrid horse-cow, which I dubbed the equibous. To tie into Lazy Litch’s Woodfall setting, which I’m hoping to run soon-ish, I had the town lit by special lanterns, inside of which were trapped fairies.

Most of my work regarding the layout and districts ended up going out the window when I chose to run Horror’s Harvest, because I simply substituted the original map of Delmunster. I opted to keep the fairy lights, because the exploitation of fairies as a free light source is linked to the royal house of Worms (the “kingdom” antagonist for Woodfall), and is both a red herring (it has nothing to do with the doppelganger plant) and a seed to get the party to explore Woodfall. If they survive. The equiboi became a mere bit of “flavour” (and thoroughly disgusted my players, when they learned of it).

Day 1: Let the nightmare begin

The party rolled into Trifurc at about mid-day. They were travelling with a caravan, and technically serving as its armed guards.

The first thing they noticed was that Trifurc is much smaller than they expected (indeed, my original design was for a larger town; the Delmunster of the original module is really a mere hamlet). I handed them the map – Perkins’ original map, with a few mark-ups.

They wanted to head for an inn first.  In the module, the inn was called the Giggling Gargoyle, but I renamed it The Mare and Goblin, as denoted by a painted wooden sign showing a small green humanoid milking what appears to be a claret-coloured horse.

Inside the inn, they encountered the corrupt staff (basically as Perkins wrote them, but with changed names). The casual species-ism (humans looking down on non-humans) exhibited by Francesco, the main proprietor prompted the party’s halfling thief to gift a dose of poison he had crafted from ghoul livers (idea taken from The Black Hack Second Edition btw) to Stump, the Inn’s halfling serving lad and whipping boy, in case he wanted to “teach Francesco a lesson”.

Meanwhile, the cleric of Vecna went to talk to the Ludovico brothers (two teen rapscallions who fancy themselves monster hunters). He paid them a few gold pieces for information regarding the meteorite, and they promised to return the next morning to give him a full report.

Then the party met Ludo, the travelling musician, and the first podling (person enslaved by the doppelganger plant) to cross their path. They were thoroughly creeped out by his demeanour. Altogether we got more than an hour’s worth of solid roleplay, during which time the party learned:

  • There was either a lightning storm or an isolated boom (depending who you ask) ten days ago.
  • One villager died of a mysterious disease about a week ago.
  • Another villager, a little girl, seems to have the same disease, and others may be affected.
  • No one is tending the grape vines (viticulture is one of the most labour-intensive forms of agriculture, but the vineyards are empty).
  • A rival caravan pulled into the village a few days ago, but disappeared mysteriously in the night.

They also learned from the halfling that the innkeepers are crooks who rob their clients, that the townmaster is a snobby recluse who rarely comes out of his manor house, and that he has the same servants as his father and grandfather before him.

The party also met “Mad” Rupert Morteni, who screamed about werewolves and then ran around the village, shouting “They’re here already!” (a quote from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers film, intended as a clue). Part of the original module, Rupert is another red herring, and, as the party soon learned, has been shouting this nonsense for years and years (he was cursed by fairies while hunting them for lamp fuel when he was a teenager, and it serves him right).

The party wanted to stock up on some road supplies, but didn’t want to roleplay a shopping trip, so they each coughed up 5 gold pieces and sent their two hirelings, Mutt and Jeff, to Volpone’s Emporium. Then they took a walk around the village, after securing rooms and asking Stump to make sure Francesco didn’t steal from them.

The party’s dwarf fighter was formerly a baker. She had collected some elderberries from an animated elderberry bush (the berries were actually used as missile weapons against the party), and stayed behind to bake a pie. Francesco actually agreed to this, because the village’s current baker is terrible. Her baking is known as “the bane of Trifurc”, and she once accidentally gave her husband food poisoning (or was it an accident?), a detail from the original module.

As the party toured the village, they found it suspiciously quiet, apart from Rupert’s shouting, and they began to wonder if everyone was dead. The dark elf thief decided to peak through a randomly chosen window – and found himself face-to-face with the village gossip, Ezra Kourkouas, who gave them all quite an earful. This altercation attracted the attention of a small group of soldiers, led by Sir Alexander Sosius.

The soldiers were from Worms, and are not normally stationed in Trifurc, nor were they planning to stay long. The Signeur of Worms (who secrectly styles himself King), sent them here to “show the rabble to whom they really owe allegiance”.

Through good roleplaying, the party manage to talk their way out of trouble (aided by a good reaction roll and the fact that the soldiers don’t particularly like the Trifurc villagers). Unfortunately Sir Alexander hasn’t been in town long enough or paid enough attention to be of any real help, so the party moved on to visit the sick girl, Lotta Gravidius.

The original module makes it clear that Cure Light Wounds won’t heal podlings. However, I ruled that, though it wouldn’t break the doppelganger plant’s Mind Bondage, it would heal lost hit points. The plant would then continue devouring its podling immediately. In this way, the plant could “double-dip” on its feeding. My my real motivation for the change is exemplified by how the scene played out.

When the party called on Lotta, she had 1 hit point left and was unconscious. The cleric healed her back to full, at which point she woke up and immediately began exhibiting the unnervingly flat, emotionless, yet peculiarly optimistic demeanour that the party was already learning to fear.

Attempts to interrogate her were futile. She declared she wasn’t sick and that nothing odd was happening in the village. She then repeated the refrain which the players already knew to be the calling card of whatever evil force was taking over the village: “I hope you’ll stay, at least a few days. It’s such a friendly village.” It got to where you could almost see the players shudder when they heard those words.

While “healing” Lotta, they learned that the village Priest, Father Brume, had locked himself in the church and wouldn’t attend to anyone. So the party made the church their next port of call.

In the foyer of the church they found the body of Umburrow, the first podling, who had attacked the priest’s acolyte with a shovel (he was formerly the gravedigger). The priest clubbed him to death and then locked the church doors. All this happened a week ago.

While examining the body, it collapsed like a deflated balloon, long sucked dry of all its internal organs. I had the players make saving throws, and only the dark elf succeeded. Everyone else ran screaming into the village, unable to face their horrific discovery for the next hour.

This attracted the soldiers again. They investigated and also failed their horror saves. It was at this moment that Rupert returned, pointed a finger at the PCs, and screamed “Murderers! Assassins! You’re next!” Then he ran off again. The players now really hate Rupert.

Tune in next time to see how a simple passeggiata causes all hell to break loose.

So I finally started running OD&D (Campaign Diary)

I’ve wanted to run Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) pretty much since I read the rules a couple years ago, though my exact plans for running it have evolved quite a bit between then and now. For one thing, I have discovered retroclones, which caused me to abandon my earlier attempt to run OD&D using Chainmail combat rules. Another of my early plans was to run the game using just the first three booklets for, say, levels 1 to 3. Once every character had reached level 3, I would introduce material from the Greyhawk supplement. But then I discovered James Spahn’s amazing White Box material, which retools some of the Greyhawk classes in a “WhiteBox” style, meaning you can have thieves, paladins, rangers and druids, etc., without having to “move up” to Greyhawk or Swords & Wizardry Core Rules if you don’t want to (and I don’t want to).

I’m once again running this game for my kids (aged 8 and 5, both already experienced gamers, though this is the younger one’s first time at actual D&D). They are each running two characters. We rolled down 3d6 down the line for their stats. My 8yo got a mediocre elf fighter (11 Strength) and a decent elf thief (13 Dexterity). My 5yo got a decent human cleric (13 Wisdom) and an excellent elf magic -user (16 Intelligence). Their hit point rolls were so low that I caved and let them have max hp at first level (later I found that Swords & Wizardry Continual Light also uses this rule, so I feel better about it).

For the adventure, the goal is to reach Rappan Athuk (my kids want to fight the poop monster). The problem is, you have to be at least level 4 even to venture into Rappan Athuk (and probably higher to survive the wilderness around it), so we needed an “introductory adventure”. I chose Bill Webb’s 1975 (so named because it demos the style of play common for that era of the game). I intend to do a full review of the adventure once we’ve finished it, but for now I will say it’s tricky to run and has a lot of “fill in the blanks” for the DM (and thus demands a lot of prep), and I kind of wish I had gone with Matt Finch’s Grimmsgate or James Spahn’s White Box Trilogy instead. But the kids are enjoying it, and they’ve survived their first major combat – against my expectations – so I thought I’d write up our progress so far.

The adventure centres on a map, a literal treasure map, showing the way from the starting town to a dungeon site, and this map is given to the players as a handout (which is very cool, especially as I’m running theatre of the mind; it gives them something special and tangible). This map is literally the DM’s map without the numbered encounter areas, and has the path clearly marked, so it’s more hand-holding than I would normally like in a game, but works well for kids, and several encounter areas occur between visible landmarks, so it doesn’t actually give too much away.

Due to some very good starting gold rolls, the party has a mule, a wagon, and a handcart, in addition to the usual adventuring gear. Because of the handcart, and because mules are really pack animals, they don’t get a bonus to their travel pace, but neither are they encumbered, except the cleric, who is wearing chainmail and carrying a shield (and even he has a movement rate of 9, which would give him 30 ft in a combat round).

In the first session, the party procured the map from a caravan trader in town, purchased some additional adventuring gear, and set off first thing the following morning. They chose not to hire any torchbearers or henchmen.

Not far from town, they came to their first landmark: a black stone obelisk atop a small hill. This is clearly shown on the map, so they parked their wagon, cart, and mule and hiked up the hill to explore. The stone had an inscription at the base which was meant to be in a forgotten language, but the magic-user had prepared the Read Languages spell for the day (remember, though they’re young, this isn’t their first time at the rodeo), so I had to make something up. I ad-libbed something about commemorating the army of light that chased the followers of Orcus from the land. It was then that I decided to change the adventure’s final dungeon from the tomb of a High Priest of Set to the remains of the original Temple of Orcus in the Rappan Athuk origin story. Perhaps the temple was repurposed by priests of Set in between; I’ll decide when we get there.

Next they encountered their first treasure drop: a full set of leather armour, just lying in the tall grass. The description of it is purposefully mysterious, but its just ordinary leather armour in perfectly good condition. However, they decided to leave it where it lay. I think they thought the rightful owner would come back looking for it soon.

After that ther came upon the ruins of a small building, really just two walls at right angles with no roof. They didn’t know it, of course, but it was the hideout of three bandits.  They didn’t bother exploring the ruin, however, and the bandits preferred easier prey, so the party moved on until dusk, and set up camp in the open plains.

That night they drew a random encounter: two bandits. I decided these were two of the three bandits from the ruin. They left one behind to guard the hideout and hoped to take the party in their sleep. The party had set a watch (again, experienced players), but the bandits surprised them, firing arrows at the thief, who was on watch, and one of the bedrolls, which turned out to contain the magic-user. They missed on the thief but hit the mage for 2 hp.

The party won the next initiative, but only the thief was ready to attack, so he threw a dagger and severely wounded one of the bandits. Then the party sued for peace. I made a reaction check and found the bandits were willing to negotiate (now that the party was awake, they no longer fancied their chances). They told some half-true story about being hungry and having to steal to stay alive. The party bought it and felt sorry for them, giving them a trail ration each. (I considered having the bandits mentioning their friend back at the hideout in an attempt to finagle more rations, but decided they would rather keep their number secret… in case they should meet again!)

Natural healing in OD&D is slow, and clerics don’t get a spell at first level, so I use the “binding wounds” house rule, where if you take ten minutes to clean and bind a PC’s wounds, they can recover 1d4 hit points. My 5yo rolled a 1 on his d4, so his magic-user was still 1 hp down, but that’s not bad. The rest of the night was uneventful, and that ended the first session.

In our second session, the magic-user prepared Shield (even though I shouldn’t have let him have that spell, as it’s in Core Rules, not White Box), and the party set off in search of the next landmark on the map, which looked like a cave, but turned out to be a big rock with a burrow at the base. Only one person could fit into the burrow at a time, so they sent the fighter.

This area is basically another treasure drop, but you have to do some searching to find it. There is no searching mechanic in Swords & Wizardry or OD&D, apart from the one for secret doors. The mechanic I use for searching an area for treasure is based on old AD&D modules, particularly the ones written by Gary Gygax, where the PCs must spend a certain number of ten-minute turns searching. The more carefully hidden a treasure, the more time it takes to find it.

After one turn of searching, they found a valuable mug full of strips of parchment. They also noticed there were coins scattered on the floor of the burrow, amongst the dirt and excrement and crawling beetles. The fighter crawled out and let the thief have a go, and he spent another full turn gathering all the coins. Meanwhile the mage examined the strips of parchment and discovered it was a spell scroll, though it would take several days of careful work to lay it out in order and stick it back together (just as well, as it’s a high level spell from the Complete Rules).

Next, they pressed on towards a gorge, crossable by a log bridge. The map clearly showed a cave near the “bridge”, and the path headed right to it. This was their goal for the day. Before they reached the cave, however, they came upon the abandoned wagon of a travelling wizard. The wagon had a broken axle and the wizard was long gone, but the thief cautiously inspected the inside, finding the wizard’s travelling cloak, which still contained three copies of the Shield spell. So that was a good find.

When they reached the gorge, they discovered that the cave was on a narrow ledge, too narrow for the wagon, mule, and handcart. The fighter and thief climbed down the ledge and easily discover a concealed door (they’re both elves), but were too cautious either to explore the cave on their own or leave their wagon et al. unattended. So they announced their intention to wait for random passersby and ask if they would watch the wagon for a while.

They didn’t meet anyone, and night fell. But before they could make camp, they noticed the light of a campfire coming from behind the concealed door. Smoke from the fire disturbed a swarm of flies, which flew up and became an Insect Plague centred on the cleric. The party had to run in terror for ten minutes before the flies let them alone, and even then the swarm hovered around the mouth of the cave, preventing the party returning to collect the wagon and mule. They had no choice but to set up a hasty camp in the open. Luckily, there were no further encounters.

In the morning, the party went back for their stuff and found an old woman digging a hole in the dirt. She asked them to go find some shovels and help her dig for treasure, which they could transport using “This mule and wagon I found”. (The mule was calming munching grass, still attached to the wagon, apparently unperturbed by last night’s insect plague.) After some animated role-playing, they managed to convince the woman that the wagon was theirs. They offered her 2 gold pieces to watch it while they explored the cave, plus a share of the treasure. I rolled 2d6 for her reaction and got a friendly acceptance of their offer.

So the party took the narrow path down to the ledge and came once again to the poorly concealed door. I asked if they were going straight in, but my 8yo said no, they would examine the door first. They found six brass bells tied to the vines, a primitive alarm system. They then spent a full turn disabling it. One PC held a bell in both hands to stop it clanging while another carefully cut the vine with a dagger. They decided to keep the bells as treasure, one each and two for the lady with the shovel.

Inside the cave they found the remains of a fire. 30 feet in the light from outside failed and the cleric (the only human) had to light a torch. The tunnel forked here, and the party chose the passage on the right.

At this point I was sure we were heading for a TPK, because this was the lair of an ogre and its “pet” black bear: both 4 Hit Dice monsters. When they stumbled into the den, neither side was surprised, so we went straight to initiative.

This adventure was written for the Core or Complete rules, so I frequently have some tinkering to do to bust it back to White Box. One thing I have to do is re-roll monster hit points, because White Box uses a d6 for all hit dice, but Greyhawk and later versions use d8s for monster hit dice. The original White Box game also has all weapons doing a d6 for damage, so I have to rework monster damage rolls as well. Thus, the adventure’s ogre with 22 hit points and 1d10+1 damage turned into 12 hit points and 1d6+1 damage. The bear had 9 hit points and did not have the claw-claw-bite attack routine.

The party won the first initiative. The fighter and cleric closed into melee range, even though I warned them that they couldn’t attack until the next round. Then the thief attacked with his sling, hitting the bear. In the spell phase, the magic-user cast Shield, buffing his AC. As the ogre and bear were in melee range of two targets, they didn’t need to move, so they attacked. The bear missed the cleric, but the ogre hit the fighter, reducing him to 1 hp (at which point I was glad I let them have max hp). I allow “return blows” to melee attacks (a rule I carry over from Chainmail, and it takes the place of opportunity attacks), so the fighter and the cleric each got to make a melee attack. The cleric missed, but the fighter hit the ogre for 3 points. The party one the next initiative and I advised my 8yo that, as there were no opportunity attacks, she could use her movement to withdraw from melee. The cleric decided to withdraw as well, even though he hadn’t taken a hit, and we moved onto missile attacks. This time the thief and the mage both made attacks, the mage throwing darts, both hitting for 1d6-1 damage. At this point the bear was nearly down, and the ogre was surprisingly hurt. However, I rolled a morale check, and they elected to keep fighting (it was, after all, their home).

The monsters won the next initiative and closed into melee range (neither had any missile attacks). When the party went, the thief dispatched the bear and the mage took more points off the ogre (I rolled morale for the ogre again, and again h chose to fight on). In the melee phase, the fighter missed, but fortunately the ogre missed his return blow (and I did not even fudge that roll!). The cleric no longer had a target, so he bopped the ogre on the head with his torch (he hadn’t had a hand free to draw his mace) and the ogre went down.

Now, obviously I had to nerf the monsters in order to “White Box” this encounter, but keep in mind I only altered them to balance them within the White Box system. If I were using Core Rules, for example, the fighter would have had 9 hit points instead of 7, and would have had a similar chance to withstand a 1d10+1 blow. Considering, though, how worried I was about this combat before it took place, I’m now wondering if White Box combat is “easier” than combat in later versions of the game. It will definitely be something I keep an eye on.

In any case, with the threat vanquished, they bound the fighters wounds, restoring 3 hit points (she’s at 4 now), and then spent a solid hour picking through the ogre’s den looking for treasure. One thing I love about Bill Webb’s approach to treasure is that it contains very little in the way of coins, but lots of stuff. That stuff is actually quite valuable, but the players have to realize that themselves, based on the description. Sometimes its obvious, like lace gloves sown with pearls. Sometimes it’s more subtle, like a wooden box of ground cinnamon. After each turn of searching, I would read out more things they found, and they would decide whether to take it. Spoiler alert: they took everything, because they’re kids and they’re hoarders. Thank the gods they have a wagon and a mule.

And that concludes our second session. They have one one tunnel to explore, but there are no threats in it. Then we will get to see what the party decides regarding the old woman’s cut of the treasure, and whether they will leave their mule and wagon behind. The adventure assumes the party will cross the gorge at the bridge, but it’s literally just a fallen tree, so they would have to go on foot. And there’s at least a week of travel beyond it, at least by my reckoning (the adventure doesn’t give a scale; that’s one of the blanks for the DM to fill in). So I suspect they will head along the gorge, looking for a place where it levels out and can be crossed with vehicles. If they do that, I have decided they will run into my homebrew OD&D adventure, which could delay them quite a bit, if they chose to follow it as a side quest. The good news is, I wrote that adventure to lead to Rappan Athuk as well, so they will still get to fight the poop monster. And then they will die.

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).]