THE BASICS OF BX D&D: 25 Answers For 25 Questions From Someone New to BX (Part I)

Moldvay Basic (1981)

These questions were from a Reddit post found here. I thought it would be good to answer them as a way to explore my own thinking on BX D&D. And since they come from someone who was getting into Old-School Essentials, I thought this collection represented a base level of what people struggle with/need help understanding. Perhaps you'd like it to try it too. My answers are in basic red.

RULE QUESTIONS

'1) Number of players in a party. The book states 6-8. I already have a hard time pleasing my five 3.5 players. What is your experience? What would be the ideal number of players for you to be comfortable running the game? What would be the absolute maximum you cannot possibly imagine having at the table?

I think there is some debate as to if "players" mean people or total PCs. I have run satisfying BX games with 2-10 players. When playing with 2-4 players, they really do need extra bodies in the form of hirelings and torchbearers. 6-8 is a good sweet spot. 10+ players require the DM to have good table management: move fast around the table, quick decisions making ability. 

One good mix, I've found is 3-4 players with 2 characters each. It starts to promote that sorta "troup-style" play where players have a rotating cast of characters. And it lessens PC death.

2) I don't mind being limited to STR, INT and WIS to lower when trying to pump up other stats at character creation, but is there a reason it is these three in particular? Perhaps some of you just lower any chosen stat in your games?

The historical reasons behind this one have been recently pointed out by a poster in Grognardia, my take hereThe other aspect is that in ODD, there were only three classes-- fighter, magic-user, & cleric whose prime scores were STR, INT, & WIS.

I really like Delving Deeper's take that you can use every 2 points over 10 of WIS to count toward your prime req when determining XP bonus. It gives WIS scores a little more impact in the game that we IRL ascribe to good wisdom. However, I appreciate the cleverness of Moldvey to just dispense with the Gygxaian complexity and just make the rule basically: lower by 2 to gain +1.

One other reason, Moldvay might have excluded DEX, CON, & CHA from this is because maybe they knew that AC bonus, HP bonus, and high retainer count/reaction bonus were important and really should not be touched (?).

3) Is there a reason saving throws for magic rods or staves are not included in the wand section?

Saves have always been open to interpretation. I've interpreted wands to also be rays emitted from devices aimed at a single target (like magic traps) where rods & staves tend to have more area of effect or passive effects.

I think the best way to think about save-throws is as a way to describe your game. For instance, if you were running a BX game based on a very fantasy gothic interpretation of the Catholic Church-- I'd make your saves the Seven Deadly Sins.

4) Alignment langage. How do you make it work in game? I can sorta get how chaotic people or even lawful people could speak a different jargon (or sign), but neutral? Have you used this mechanic and how to do so?

I use alignment languages as a way to roughly communicate if there is no other common language. But it is very difficult to communicate complex ideas: 

chaotic can only communicate in terms of destruction/change; lawful can only communicate growth/stability; neutral can only express cycle/nature/balance. 

These languages are in part divine and are known when a PC starts with or even switches alignment. Like tuning into a radio frequency.

At the table, I make players communicate their ask to the goblins to me the DM, only in destructive terms for instance. Then make a ruling on how the goblins react or call for a reaction roll. This should make for difficult precise communication that is open of miscommunication & mistakes--- all great role-play flavor.

5) Are the languages written under the demihuman classes automatically learned by the player? It seems very OP to have a total of 6 languages at level 1 (for the dwarf and elf) which is not even counting their intelligence bonus. Have I misunderstood the rules? Wouldn’t it be a little more realistic to give them common, alignment, elvish/dwarf + perhaps ONE of the three extra (chosen by the player)? What do you think or do?

This will only be OP depending on how important you make languages in your adventures and campaigns. I don't find it very disruptive. And there are plenty of other monsters they might not understand. Also at 4,000 XP from level 1 to level 2, elves can have a little extra.

6) Elves being immune to ghoul paralysis. Any reasons for that? Why no other monster paralysis (not even a paralysis bonus in general).

Ghouls are a great low-level threat so will frequently appear in dungeons. This is a little extra protection again losing an "expensive" (in XP terms) character. I am sure there is also a sorta mythological connection somewhere too, although I have not found it.

7) SO much money! For my 3.5 games, I tend to hold back on gold, because magic items + characters' abilities quickly become too OP. Now, I cannot do that for OSE, since the amount of gold is practically equal to the amount of XP they get. At first, I thought that the gold used for XP would be ‘destroyed’, literally converted in experience. But it appears it is not so… So, what do they do with all this money? Basic weapons, armor, and gear (which are relative luxuries at character creation, quickly becomes cheap for a player that needs 2000 gp to get a level. Are stronghold building and hirelings the only end to a PC’s massive treasure? (aside from magic users and cleric who can use money to create spells and magic items). Taxing the adventurer's gold might be a start.

Do tax! You can't walk around in a roughly feudal society with generally no standing in said society and expect people to let you carry around lordly sums. I also use a couple of other nice rules I picked up:

1. PC can pour gold into improving their gear, weapons but if they lose that stuff in a risky endeavor then they gain XP they "banked" in it. So, if the wizard threw their fancy gold and jade studded cloak over a basilisk's head, then they'd gain the 500 XP for the torn to shreds cloak

2. PCs can invest in carousing to convert gold into additional XP at a risk.

3. I do think given people's time constraints you should wait to long to bring in domain play to lower levels. Have clerics build shrines for instance then maintain them for additional benefit. Fighters can seek titles and thieves can seek gangs. Let wizards make wands for 1st level spells at 3rd level or so, but make them expensive.

4. Also try to break, tear, ruin, and sacrifice equipment and also make players qualify where they are sleeping and how they look. This is important for social standing.

5. Here is my downtime sheet which has additional things on it.

8) BTW, I wonder what the magic-user, who cannot wear armor nor use weapons, could do with his starting money if the player gets lucky with his 3d6 x 10 gp. Should I make him pay for his spell(book)s? It does not seem fair for M-U to pay for a class ability, but nonetheless, how much would cost a unique spell anyways? From what I can see, there is no price list on the magic items' menus. The M-U could use money for research, but it is a question I have for every class actually. It does not botter me that much that magic items are not priced in the book: I'd rather have players earn/find the magic items than paying for it. But then again, what to do with all the XP money ?

If a MU got 180 gp on the starting gold roll, I think the best thing to do is get some retainers (OSE p126). And that also goes for other classes as well.

9) Magical research : I like the idea, especially in the cleric’s case, to be able to craft spells. I now wonder how it is to be done. It seems like a hard thing to create ‘balanced’ magic, especially when the OSE spells are not so many (to help estimate the power/level of a spell. Do you have examples of PC created spells? 

I never had PCs do this, but I would just start out maybe asking for altered versions of current spells and build from there. Alternatively, you could just let them go with whatever they want and alter it later if it seems overpowered.

10) Turning the undead. I found it hard to comprehend at first, can you please tell me if I got this right : we roll 2d6 first to see if we are able to turn anything, depending on the monster(s)'s HD (and look at the table provided at page 23), then we roll 2d6 a second time to see how many creatures' HD are actually affected by the turning, right ? And you can try once per encounter?

Yes.

11) Strongholds. I like the idea, of course, but I wonder how it is actually done. Plus, it seems like an awesome mechanic for video games, but here, we have potentially 6-8+ people at the table, all of which may become eligible to build strongholds. Unless they all come together to build a mega keep, how exactly do we help each one create their own little world while still being part of a party? (Especially since it is one of the fighter’s class attribute to be able to build a stronghold from level one if he/she has money). Any examples from your games?

Strongholds are an awesome mechanic and no videogame still does them well. They should be aspirational for your players-- a mark on the world. I have often thought about what I can do to push this aspect of play into lower levels. 

The stronghold can be added to by all players, but certainly one would have to be designated as the lord. However, it could be used as a base of operations to launch other lower-level characters who grow into their own stories. Because by the time players get to traditional domain-level play, they often would retire those characters.

12) Small sized weapons (and armor). What about them? What is an "appropriate to size weapon"? Do you need a smaller sword for your halfling? I see 3 possible interpretations :

  • In 3e, any weapons can be converted in damage and price so that smaller or greater races could use them. Yet, here, no damage or price conversion for that. So I do not see it as the B/X way.
  • In the OSE Advanced rules, in the 'attacking with two weapons" optional rules, it is stated that secondary weapons 'must be of small size (e.g. a dagger or hand axe)'. Thinking this way, halflings would only be able to use actual physical "smaller" weapons, like a short bow or a hand axe, and on the other hand would be forbidden from using longbows or two-handed weapons in general. So it would greatly reduce the number of damage a halfling could do (not so bad, after all, since they are a really strong 'fighter' race to begin with).
  • Perhaps it is up to you to translate a "human" weapon to a smaller size (kinda adapting the 3e way but not needing a conversion table. You would simply take a 1d8 sword and see it as a double-handed sword for halflings, a human shortbow would be considered an halflin's longbow, and so forth

What do you guys do to adapt weapons to the appropriate size?

Yup. Sounds reasonable to me. See already getting the hand of "rulings" over explicit rules.

13) Monsters attacks.

  • The rules state that there are 'alternative attack routines in square brackets', but I genuinely have not noticed any square brackets related to monsters' attacks. Regular parenthesis, yes, but no brackets. Is that a mistake from the book? Or have I missed something?
  • The rules state "the attacks that the monster can use each round", so does that mean that when the book states "2 claws (2d4), 1 bite (1d6)", each time it attacks, the monster deals (if it hits) 2d4 + 1d6 of damage? Or do you roll 2d4 twice, once for each claw? Do you roll for both claws and bite, or do you have a separate roll for each?
If the stat is Att: 2x claw (1d4), 1x bite (1d6), then I interpret it as 3 attacks per round and I will roll for each attack and its dmg. If the word or is used in the attack description, I will interpret it as a choice.

14) Why is movement in a dungeon (per turn) so slow? (I mean, the book gives a reason, but still). Is it specially designed to burn resources? Would it break the exploration balance to change the rate? If PC's are so careful, it makes you wonder how they can still get surprised by wandering monsters or fall into a track pit.

Essentially yes; If you change the rate you are changing the number of encounters and resource burn. PCs are being careful, but monsters are careful too and adapted to this mythic underworld enviornment.

Increasing the rate does alter exploration balance and player decision. Because if adjusted too high, players will realize they can just zip around the dungeon. The decision to go deeper is not longer fraught with peril. Saping the dungeon and game of tension.

15) Searching: if the characters have a base movement rate of x feet per turn (because they are being cautious), does it mean that to search a corridor, they have to take one additional turn, or do we search secret doors and traps 'as we walk', using the base movement rate in feet per turn and rolling during this time ?

Yes, to search is a different action than moving. In ODD the elf character's ability could be interpreted as passive. However it is an important, risk, and interesting choice to decide to stop moving and spend time searching (which can draw a random encounter).

I think the key is don't make searching for secret doors sadistic as in 1 door in a 150 ft long blank hallway. Instead try to place them, say, behind 1 of 4 statues. Have the statue indicate something to the player-- 3 look right, 1 looks left.

16) Evasion : I don't really understand the wilderness evasion table. How does a group of 4+ pursuers have fewer chances to catch up with the fleeing group? Shouldn't that be the exact opposite (the more the pursuers, the more the chance of one being able to outrun the fleeing side, right?). Is it because percentages are upside down? I still have a hard time remembering which lower rolls are better and which higher rolls are better...

Its all roll under and for me it makes sense that if the pursuer group is large, then they start to confuse themselves. Sometimes even chasing their own party members mistakenly.

17) Retainers: what is your experience with retainers? It is a very nice mechanic, but it seems that a party with average charisma may well attract a dozen retainers if not more at their side. Of course, this may not be possible depending on the game/area/dice, but still, the raw rules allow it. How do you manage that many NPCs at a time in a game/dungeon/fight? Have you done it?

I like them and way to encourage their use more. You might attract them, but you still have to pay for them. Either by gold or magic items. As a DM I try to make what they are motivated by at least a little unique. 

Really retainers can be run like NPC monsters (MV, AC, HD, Weapon) and very importantly loyalty rating. They also don't want to just blindly get themselves killed. And if they do die, well maybe someone comes looking for them... maybe that someone could even be a demon looking to gather a soul.

  


18) Encounter balance. (this one is also a rant)So, I know there is no real balance, but still. The dungeon encounter table (p. 204) gives a 2d6 wolf on a 1st dungeon level. 2 freaking d6 wolves ! It's outrageous! That's a potential 12 HD 4+1; twelve 19-hp wolves that can deal 8 damage each turn, killing one PC character each in one round! And don't hit me with the "oh, but they can always run away if they be smart", this is three times a TPK, and that is especially given for 1st level dungeons! By comparison, the table gives 2d4 bugbears on a 3rd level dungeon, or 1) less creatures with 2) less HP than the bloodthirsty dire wolves from the 1st level. It does not make sense at all. And I have not really read the rest of the encounter table, mind you. Rant over.

Seriously, how do you do it? How do you give your world a tiny tad of balance? How do you keep your low-level players alive with such random tables? They cannot escape everything, and OK, they know the OSR games will be deadlier, but having few to no clue as to how to give appropriatish enemies is tough. Do we just look at the HD and consider that a party of x members of Y level is able to kill about x creatures of Y HD?

Ooo! This question could be a whole book!

The first thing is to stop thinking that an "encounter", at some level, must always also be a winnable combat by the PCs. 

Only when faced with overwhelming odds, do players really pull out all the stops. Only when faced with overwhelming odds, do utility spells or gear start to really make a difference; position & environment make a difference; alignment language or high CHA matter because negotiation is a quick way out.

BX explicitly points out ways this "imbalance" is managed in-game (using OSE):

The ENCOUNTER REACTION ROLL (OSE p115): What does it mean if these 2d6 wolves are friendly or wary? What about an Ogre who is "neutral"? The encounter reaction roll helps the DM not initially start off the encounter as the NPC side being aggressive.

But this also requires the DM to make a determination of what these creatures want. Maybe the Ogre wants to get into room #5, but is too large. Can a bargain be struck?

The "BRIBE" (OSE p116): While listed under PURSUIT, there is no reason to think a gift of food, wine, or gold won't go a long way in distracting monsters-- intelligent or otherwise.

Once in combat, the "MORALE CHECK" (OSE p123) provides a way the combat might end due to the first death being inflicted on the enemy or 50% of the forces destroyed. My own house rule allows for a check when the "leader" is killed as well.

But to go back to the earlier point about a DM knowning what a creature wants, this allows combat objectives other than kill everyone as I outlined here.

19) 'Wishing for more wishes: this will result in an infinite time loop, putting the character out if play.' Is the game saying that characters asking for infinite wishes are doomed to an infinite time loop? This is perhaps my english missing the subtlety here, but I'm not sure of what to make of this.

The point is that when players attempt to subvert magic for an unfair advantage- the DM should take their words and actions to the literal worst interpretation. So getting more wishes because you are stuck in an infinite time loop is the worst way to technically get more wishes. 

20) What does ESP stand for exactly? Extra Sensory Perception >> [PART II]

2 comments:

  1. I remember reading somewhere (although sadly I can no longer remember where) that in Chainmail ghoul paralysis was a kind of morale/fear effect that elven troops were immune to, and that what probably started as a version of Legolas being unafraid of the ghosts of Men has mutated over editions into ghouls producing a kind of paralytic venom that elves are immune to.

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    1. This seems quite likely. I've always thought undead were pretty human-centric. Like I always though elven skeletons' hollow bones would sing the song of sleep. Or dwarven zombies should dig and dig and dig past riches and to the most hideous stuff in the earth and release it.

      I think there should be a sorta demi-human undead manual out there.

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