Simplifying Dungeons and Dragons

by Mike Shea on 7 June 2007

One of the great joys in my life recently has been my ability to continue in one of my favorite nerdly pursuits, playing tabletop Dungeons and Dragons. I've been playing D&D since I was sixteen with the original AD&D 2nd Edition. They're on D&D 3.5 now, a much improved and simpler system for D&D that does away with stupidity like armor classes that go into the negatives when they're getting better and a serious lack in power.

Currently, D&D is mainly built around a single concept; the "difficulty check" or DC. Basically, any time you want to perform any action, whether it's kicking open a door, picking a lock, wooing a bar maiden, or stabbing a 20th level drow vampire in the chest with a +5 wooden stake, you perform a difficulty roll. The player performing the action rolls a 1d20, a single 20 sided die for you non-nerds, adds any modifier like they're skill, an attribute, or an attack modifier, and sees if that total number is greater than the DC of the action. If you're trying to stab that vampire, you roll 1d20, add all your attack modifiers, and check it against the vampire's armor class (AC) which is, really, just a DC like anything else.

I probably ended up making that sound more complicated than it is. Everything has a DC. You roll a 1d20, add a modifier, and check to see if its higher than that DC. If you're trying to woo that bar maiden and she's pretty street smart (DC 15), you roll 1d20, add your charisma modifier, add any skills in wooing you might have, and see if its higher than 15. If it is, you just wooed your way into saving a few copper for the room for the night.

After D&D 3.5, Wizards of the Coast came out with a new miniatures-based strategy game called D&D Miniatures. I love the minis. I buy tons of them on Ebay at the cost of a couple hundred bucks a year. I have plastic shoeboxes full of them and three shelves of a book shelf filled with my favorite ones. All of the favorite monsters with whom I grew up are there including Pit Fiends, Balors, Black Great Wyrms, Liches, Vampires, Orcs, and even the Demon Princes. AD&D 2nd edition was in a phase where talking about demon princes was frowned upon. Nowadays no one cares, so little Orcus and Demogorgon figures are just fine.

D&D Miniatures takes the concept of the D20 roll against a DC and builds a whole game around it. All damage is rounded to the nearest five. All non d20 rolls are either converted to d20 or just turned into static numbers. It makes it really easy to have some fast combat in a more war-gaming environment.

Unfortunately, it's a bit more like Magic: The Gathering, another nerd hobby of mine, than it is like D&D. The mechanics are D&D-like, but the game itself is about random booster packs of monsters so you can build a team and fight other nerds. There's no story. There's no in-game advancement. There's no treasure. There's no role playing.

Over the past few months I've pondered how to turn the mechanics of full bore D&D 3.5 into the simplicity of D&D miniatures without losing advancement, treasure, storylines, and roleplaying. In doing so I came up with a few house rules; some I use right now and some I'm still working on. One of the fellows in my D&D group, a great guy and veteran D&D player named Chris, told me about a game system called True 20 that removes any other die rolls than a 1d20 but still includes advancement. Unfortunately it removes hitpoints for some crazy health monitoring system that I didn't care much for. Call me old fashioned, but I like knowing that a 20th level raging barbarian has 300 hitpoints and that's a lot.

So without a published system for merging the best parts of D&D Miniatures with D&D 3.5, I am working on my own set of house rules. Here are a few rules that I'm pondering, some of which I am using for monsters just to speed up the time it takes me to roll up a monster.

  1. All damage rolls are converted to static numbers. 1d4 = 3, 1d6 = 4, 1d8 = 5, 1d10 6, 1d12 = 7. Once modifiers are added, the damage roll is rounded up to the nearest 5. For example, a 12th warrior (+4 strength modifier, +2 weapon specialization feat) swinging a +2 longsword (+2 damage) would be 1d8+8 which converts to 15. 1d8 = 5 + 2 + 4 + 2 = 13 rounded = 15..

  2. All skills are converted to level. Skill checks turn into level + attribute modifier + 1d20 matched against a difficulty check DC. A 12th level rogue picking a very hard lock would roll 1d20 and add 12 for level plus 5 for dexterity and match it against DC20 for a very hard lock.

  3. All saving throws are simply the level or hit dice of the creature. A level 18 fighter has a save of 18. This is one with a lot of controversy. I'm not sure this really works when the will save of a fighter is the same as a wizard. Still, its a good simple rule for saving throws.

  4. Instead of paying attention to attribute scores, pay more attention to the modifiers. All starting characters get +6 attribute bonus points and can spend no more than 4 on any attribute. At level 8 and 16, they get one more point. Any magical item that boosts a stat instead boosts half the number of bonuses. Something with +4 strength, gives a +2 strength bonus.

  5. Complicated systems like Grapple and Turn Undead are converted to easier ones. Grapple is an unarmed attack roll. Turn Undead is 4 points of damage per level to an undead creature with a DC of 11 + 1/2 the caster level for 1/2.

  6. Gold and experience are earned at 300 to 600 per CR of each defeated monster. To keep leveling fast for games that don't happen that often, I will double or triple the experience. Essentially characters should level every four to eight encounters.

  7. Base power on magical weapons and armor should be +1 every four levels. Level 4 characters should have +1 gear, level 8 should have +2, level 12 should have +3, Level 16 should have +4, level 20 should have +5.

These rules may oversimplify the game a little bit, but they might do a lot to speed up combat in a game that is already very combat heavy. Ideally I want to spend an equal amount of time on the story and non-combat encounters as I do in combat. Currently we spend a lot of time sorting through player hadbooks and monster manuals looking up the stupid arcane rule for how "shaken" works. I'd rather have all of that out front so we can just focus on having fun and rolling dice.

I'm hoping to see a new version of D&D soon that includes rules for drastically simplifying the basics of the game, essentially turning every character and monster into a Pokemon character with one of four abilities to choose from per round and some very basic statistics for things like hitpoints, armor class, attack modifiers, and spell casting difficulty checks.

In the mean time, I plan to refine these rules over and over and, perhaps some day, inflict them on my poor gaming group. I'll do that just as soon as I wipe them all out in my next horrific adventure: The Inner Sanctum of Irae the Lich Queen.