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the time a much smaller company than Wizards of the Coast), and recreated Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, which had recently been replaced by Fourth Edition.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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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.

Kids on Bikes RPG Review

I love Dungeons and Dragons, especially running it, but jeez it’s a lot of work. And while there’s plenty of advice for taking shortcuts without sacrificing the game experience (such as this awesome article or the amazing and ever-popular Lazy Dungeon Master), sometimes I want to forget the maps, minis, and detailed NPCs and just sit down and play. Enter Kids on Bikes, the role-playing game by Jonathan Gilmour and Doug Levandowski.

I first heard about Kids on Bikes from this video by Matt Colville, one of my favourite YouTube channels. He wrote an adventure (if you can call it that) for the game and recommended we check it out. Right away the concept appealed to me: an RPG where you take the role of a small-town kid embroiled in a supernatural mystery? Count me in! E. T. was literally the first film I ever saw in the cinema, and I grew up watching The Goonies, Explorers, The Monster Squad, and Stand by Me, so the idea that plucky, unsupervised pre-teens can take on overwhelming challenges and even monsters is part of my DNA.

By the time I heard of the game, the Kickstarter was over, but I pre-ordered a PDF copy and downloaded it as soon as it was available.

I’ll discuss the mechanics in greater detail below, but the first thing that struck me is that this game assumes the players will be largely responsible for world-building.

This is certainly not unique to KoB. Fate Core, for example, also assumes players will have a hand in creating the game world. But Kids on Bikes has the players literally building the town from scratch. Everything from the name, location, size, era, industry and economy, landmarks, and rumours, are contributed by the players. Sure, the GM can decide which rumours are true or partly true, but they can’t discount the rumours entirely. The GM remains the boss in adjudicating mechanics, but world-building is collaborative and democratic.

As someone who prefers to run a sandbox game, with player choice as the main driving force of play, this aspect really appeals to me. I view my job as a GM primarily as entertaining the players, and that’s easier to do when they get to choose what they want.

The Mechanics

Kids on Bikes has a relatively simple dice mechanic. PCs have six stats: Fight, Flight, Brains, Brawn, Charm, and Grit. Instead of a number, you assign one of the six dice of a standard d20 set to each stat. The bigger the die, the better you are at that ability, from Terrible (d4) to Superb (d20). Whenever you need to make a roll to resolve an action, you roll the die for the relevant stat. You may get a +1 bonus to certain stats, based on you character’s age (children, for example, get a +1 to Flight and Charm).

(This system, by the way, is more or less identical to the system used in the Labyrinth board game and the My Little Pony role-playing game, both published by River Horse in the UK.)

Because the majority of your dice are going to be “low”, Difficulty levels (the target number for a stat check) are going to feel low as well, especially if you’re used to modern D&D. For example, you would only have a 50/50 chance of making a Difficulty 6 check, even if you had a d10 in that stat, (which the game describes as “above average” for that ability). So you can expect a lot of failed dice rolls.

Apart from creating drama, this expectation of failure is built into the design via “adversity tokens”, which you receive whenever you do fail a dice roll. You can spend them to buff later stat checks (each adversity token adds a +1 to your roll), possibly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat when it really counts (e.g. near the dramatic end of the story).

Another thing that makes it “fun to fail” is that failure is a matter of degree. The more you fail your roll by, the more catastrophic the consequences, ranging from a momentary setback to something that changes the “long-term arc) of the story, and in the case of combat, the degree of failure even determines who gets narrative control of the scene.

A real strong point of the design here is that failure is always described in terms of narrative drama. Rather than just declaring a roll a fail, the rules encourage you to craft the scene in a way that dramatizes the fail. Sure, you can do that in D&D too, but Kids on Bikes is clearly putting itself forward as a “storytelling game” rather than a “tactical combat game”.

Character creation

Mechanically, creating a character is a matter of assigning your dice (based on what you want to be good at and bad at), choosing two skills that give you a mechanical benefit (you get one for free based on you character’s age), two flaws, which are purely for role-playing, and some other background details. You can do this from scratch or select one of the many “tropes”, such as Brilliant Mathlete or Funny Sidekick.

But the real meat of creating your character is the list of questions which determine each PC’s relationship to the rest of the group. There are three versions of this section, depending on how much time you want to spend on it. Personally, I recommend going the whole hog and doing the Complete Questions. With so few numerical stats, backstory and relationships are the real bulk of a Kids on Bikes PC.

It’s entirely possible the characters won’t be friends, and this isn’t the kind of game that assumes you never spilt the party.

There is no levelling up, though as your character ages, you will get different bonuses and possibly learn new skills.

Running the game

And that’s basically it as far as mechanics, apart from Powered Characters, discussed below. As so much world-building is in the players’ side of the rulebook, the GM information is rather light. If fact, whereas the Player-friendly section of the core rules runs to over 40 pages, the Information for the GM section is only nine. And that includes the general advice that pretty much every RPG includes, like “these are only guidelines”, etc. (Combat is barely 3 pages, including a chart and an “example”).

Partly this is because the players have a nearly equal share in the narrative. Whereas in D&D and similar games, the DM describes what is happening and asks the players “what do you do?”, Kids on Bikes assumes the players will describe much more of the world around them, not just their own character’s actions and reactions. In fact, when I ran the game, I had the players open the narrative, picking where the action started, and I reacted to them.

But beyond that, this is certainly a game where the GM is meant to “wing it” and think on your feet.

So is this a good game?

I certainly think so. But it is a game that will appeal to certain kinds of gamers, and, I think, it has nothing to do with the genre. I’ve always felt you can reskin nearly any game system to nearly any other genre, within reason. So if the concept of playing a Stranger Things RPG is the only thing about this system you like, you may want to use a different system.

The real audience for this game will be groups where everyone at the table is creative (and confident in their creativity), no one is obsessed by mechanics (because there are hardly any), willing to fail, and to make failure a compelling narrative, and willing to compromise when it’s not their turn to take control of the story. This game will not appeal to power gamers and “optimal” players, or anyone who loves complex mechanics, and it might not be great for players who are too shy to pitch their own ideas to the table.

For GMs, you have to be willing to let go. It will especially appeal to GMs who want to let go, share the burden of running the world, and instead adjudicate and facilitate the world. I’ll post a “campaign diary” of my experience running the game next, but for now suffice it to say that this was the most relaxed I’ve ever been as a GM. The Players do all the work!

Appendix: Powered Characters and “Modules”

When I first became aware of Kids on Bikes, the idea of “powered characters” (an NPC with some kind of supernatural power) was pitched as an option, and that was my impression when I read an early version of the rules. The finalized version presents Powered Characters more as a “core” part of the game. However, I basically ignored this aspect of the game, as I wanted the mood to be more Goonies than Stranger Things. However, I have sketched out a powered character in case I want to introduce her in a later session, or (especially) if the players want to go down that route.

Powered characters are basically NPCs, but each aspect of that character, from their personality traits to their super power, is controlled by another player. You can “activate” and control the aspect of the character assigned to you, even if your own PC isn’t present in the scene.

It’s a clever way to add someone like Eleven (and let’s face it, that’s what inspired this part of the game) without making any one PC overpowered. However, I imagine this could cause a fair few arguments among certain groups. Imagine if the “optimal player” wasn’t in control of the super power, and constantly berated the player who was for “not using it right”. That’s some noise I wouldn’t want at my table.

The Deluxe edition of the rules also includes a series of “modules”, including the one Matt Colville contributed. Because of the collaborative nature of the game, these are “modules” like you’d get in D&D. There’s not really story, nor can there be, because it’s up tot he players to come up with that. Instead, they’re sketches of settings: small towns where a game of Kids on Bikes might take place. And they are pretty good, too, and surprisingly diverse, showing off the wide variety of tangents this game can take. However, I personally have no intention of running them, because that thing that really sold me on this was getting the players to come up with their own town.

However, it is good to read through them, both for inspiration and to make sure your own game has all the necessary pieces.