HelgaCon OD&D Postmortem

The last event at HelgaCon last weekend was my OD&D game (Original Edition Delta house rules), and I thought was a whole lot of fun to play through (the scenario is posted a few entries below). We played for 4 hours, and played through 7 encounters in that time (including PC generation, 1 TPK, a second round of PC generation, scenario reset, and a short lunch break). One thing I was really looking forward to is having a group of really sharp, deeply knowledgable gamers bang on my Original Edition Delta, and see what came out of it for gameplay implications. I'll have a post for detailed rules tweaks later on, for now here's the most major points.

What Went Right

1. Not Having Clerics. I love, love, love not having to deal with clerics in my game anymore. In some sense D&D finally feels "true" to me in a way that it never did before. I don't have to worry about gods, I don't have to worry about church hierarchies, I don't have to worry about Bible-themed spell lists distracting from the pulp-like fantasy, I don't have to watch auto-magical full healing over every day's rest. I had one player ask "What gods are there in this game?" and I was pleasantly surprised at what tumbled out of my mouth: "You don't know; it's a mystery." When was the last time you could say that in a game of D&D? And isn't that what magic, fantasy, and the occult are all really supposed to be about - a sense of wonder and mystery?

2. Combat Sequence. In OED I've got a fairly ironed-out combat sequence, in which everyone moves and attacks in order around the table. No attack-of-opportunity "interrupts", no add-on threats on spellcasting, no special charge mechanics, no individual initiative, etc. Importantly, the first round is no-movement, but any other attacks are permitted, which results in an initial phase of missile-fire and spellcasting, before the hand-to-hand fighters crash into melee. (Or occasionally melee is immediate, as we discovered, if attackers pop up right next to you.) This is unique and a bit surprising to players, but it was quickly processed, and again it feels "right" in the way I'd always imagined D&D, without ever seeing it happen in play before.

3. Weapon Rules. I've got a very short, lightweight set of modifiers for each class of weapons in OED (inspired, but massively pruned, from what appears in the Greyhawk supplement). I feel like it did exactly the job I wanted; it provided a morsel for thought for each weapon choice, quickly digested, and satisfying for all involved. It also gave rise to some "emergent behavior" with the following addition: The week before the game, I thought to establish that readying any new weapon takes a full round, with the exception of blades in a scabbard (dagger, sword, two-handed-sword), which can be drawn and used to attack in the same round.

Now, one of my superior players put this together with the no-move-in-1st-round rule (see above) and realized that it would be beneficial to carry a sheathed sword and dagger, and be able to draw-and-throw the dagger in the first round of each combat for free. Now, obviously, the dagger has minimal damage and a short range, and I don't think he ever actually scored a hit with it. But when I think about all the gymnastics that, say, 3E had to go through in an attempt to make knife-throwing viable (feat trees, prestige classes, etc.), this unexpected product of a few simple weapons rules made me very happy indeed.

What Went Wrong

1. Mutually-Assured-Sleep. Okay, so now you've got the sleep spell. When running OD&D I give everything a saving throw, which I thought would fix a lot of problems (see here, item #4; the no-save language didn't appear until Supplement I). The scenario I was running was for 3rd-level PCs, and the master villains were a cabal of 3rd-level witches (magic-users). Thus, almost everybody involved took sleep, which I didn't think would be that much of a problem, since it only affects 1d6 3rd-level figures, and it's also getting a saving throw.

But, to a large degree this turned into an exercise in sleep-fighting. Whoever got initiative (which was the witches, each time) would throw out a sleep spell. And every time I rolled the d6 for number affected (out of the 6 PCs in the game), it came up a "6" (afterwards I tested the die I was using, and it did pass the fairness test stipulated here). The saves are pretty tough at this level, too - while something like "death ray or poison" is given an easier saving throw, sleep just counts as regular "staves or spells" (about 25% success at this level); the first time this happened, the whole party failed their saves. Result: Instant TPK. (On top of all that, sleep also has a pretty long range of effect, as was noted by the later party trying to figure out some defense against it.)

Now, to a certain extent this was a perfect storm of unfortunate dice rolls for the party. In a second encounter, they were able to recover even when the sleep spell took down all but one of them (thanks to some fairly liberal waking-up rulings). But nontheless, it's pretty doubtful that a spell that everyone has to use (at this level, at least) is reasonably balanced.

So, what to do? Part of me wonders if I should instead use PCs of level 4+ for more "heroic" convention play (a lot like the classic tournament module range; and a lot like Arneson's very first campaign using Chainmail rules for "Heroes" as a basis). Perhaps I should rule that sleep uses the easier saves for "stone" or "polymorph/ paralyzation", since the effect largely resembles those (and that may be the easiest preliminary fix). The least desirable option would be to change the spell effect (level?) from the OD&D original source. Or, I could just decide not to worry about it and look at this particular game as a result of extreme dice rolls against the party. This one I truly don't know about.


  1. Well, if you made sleep non-selective (that is it sleeps everybody in the target area) then once you can close to melee it's no longer as much of a threat unless it's a whole bunch of 1st level types against a 5HD caster. Then it's a matter of making sure you get surprise so you can close before they get a chance to cast...

  2. The issue here is giving save-or-die magic against d6 enemies to a first level magic-user. In some ways it's more effective than save-or-die magic he gains later such as Finger of Death because the enemies he faces at the higher level have much better saves.

    We assume that one adventurer of level X is the equal of a monster of X HD. So one witch is the equal to one 3rd level PC, or one dragon is the equal to one 14th level PC, or whatever.

    So at 3rd level he has a spell that can kill 1d6 peers, 25% chance to save. But by 14th level his spell kills one peer, 80% chance to save. I'm just throwing numbers out there but that's close enough. Other spells available like Mass Charm and such could be used to affect more than 1d6 peers but their save chance is still the 80%.

    The lower level magic-user is a ton more effective relative to threats against him. Think about what he can use when Sleep runs out of effectiveness with higher HD enemies. He might be able to keep up with the save-or-die on a group but he can't affect their saves!

    Making area spells so they don't identify friend or foe as jamused suggested would be great. There isn't much literary precedent for someone slamming down a big spell and keeping friends out of it. Often the magic-user gets caught in his own juice. That would give a reason to use more precise spells that aren't as powerful.

  3. I just wanted to let you know I'm really enjoying reading your blog. The OD&D insight is particularly enjoyable as I'm tweaking Swords & Wizardry to fit my own vision of D&D.

  4. Alas! Poor Stubby Fingers, we hardly knew ye...

  5. Man, a lot of cleric hate in the blogs lately.

    I do try to run a game where a cleric (or any class really) is not necessary. I give lots of heal potions anyway. But the existance of Gods, that actually do things like grant spells, adds a lot of flavor to a world. I don't know how you can just kick the gods out.

    Sleep spells can be a pain, especially at lower levels when your group of orcs or whatever are all you can throw at the party so the fighters can have fun. That prick wizard just knocked out 7 of them! Hooray, big fun...

  6. Nerf sleep.

    Give it a fast recovery to make it defensive. Enough time for a quick getaway to escape a deadly encounter; not enough time for systematic throat-slashing.

  7. Sounds great. I’d love to play in a game with this kind of pulpy feel, even though I really like the presence of polytheistic religions in my D&D in general. Sleep has always been a problem, alas.

    Side note- Nellisir! Good to “see” you!

  8. Sounds like your party didn't have a single elf. Suddenly the racial immunity to sleep effects is a viable racial ability.

  9. Sounds like your party didn't have a single elf. Suddenly the racial immunity to sleep effects is a viable racial ability.

    There were several. Elves do not have sleep resistance in OD&D.

  10. I just discovered your blog and am totally surprised to get here 8 years after its inception?! Quite an achievement to have missed this gold nugget of insight.

    I am reading all of your posts in chronological order and it is totally awesome!

    Now on to the meat of this comment:

    "No attack-of-opportunity "interrupts""

    How would you judge if someone tries to break away from melee? I always give a free attack.

    And by you rulings, can a single fighter block a corridor and chop up minions one by one?

    1. Glad you could join us, thanks so much for the kind words! :-D

      I must admit that I've never liked the free-attack rule, it's always felt unbelievable and a bit of a time-sink to resolve; if it comes up someone's turn, then they're free to run without penalty. Except: They certainly get no attack themselves, so the opponent is one-up on attacks from the last round anyway. And the runner must have their back to the opponent if they choose to chase.

      If there's just one fighter in a standard 10' corridor, then enemies can rush by them pretty much freely. Two fighters can block a corridor, however.