There are several rules trends that I have come to see as evolutionary improvements. That is, there are a few rules that seem to be simply superior approaches to solving certain game design problems, at least most of the time. Below is a list of rules I would place in this category. Improvements are always relative to some goal, so I have organized this post around the game design problems that the various innovations address. Many of these ideas have older pedigree, and the innovation may be in application to traditional fantasy roleplaying games rather than pure invention.
Though simply superior is a strong claim, and of course there are exceptions, I think anyone writing or hacking rules, especially for OSR or DIY D&D type games, should think carefully before ignoring these developments.
Goal: make chargen fast and easy
Even in games heavy on characterization, quicker character generation is advantageous. Who wants to spend a full session on character generation, especially if people must make decisions which will ultimately influence play minimally?
- Determine starting gear randomly rather than shopping. Ideally, the possible starting gear packages will be varied and evocative while still always being gameable. For example, a butterfly net made of silver thread for catching fairies rather than just bedroll and torches. This set of tables for OD&D starting gear by class could be more evocative, but for sheer utility are still one of the tables that see the most direct use in games I run.
- Support fully random character generation. Players who prefer to make all the choices themselves can still do so, but random characters are invaluable for the casual player or the player who needs a replacement character quickly. For example, see the one-click total party kill online character generator.
Fast character generation also makes lethal consequences more tractable.
Goal: minimize bookkeeping
Resource management adds weight to a game, in both good and bad ways. Not all games demand complex resource management, but I think it is better to let the nature of the game determine rules requirements rather than neglecting the consequences of encumbrance due to the hassle of using cumbersome mechanics. There are simple systems which yield benefits for gameplay similar to complex calculations of weight carried.
- Approximate encumbrance. One significant item per point of strength or some flat limit are both well-tested. Abstract encumbrance rather than bothering with details such as weights, which probably requires players to use a spreadsheet or other computerized prosthetic. See the Lamentations of the Flame Princess encumbrance rules (2013 Rules & Magic, page 38, free no-art version; still too heavy for me, but usable) and Papers & Pencils (making encumbrance work) for the recent ground zero of usable encumbrance rules. Historically, Dragon Warriors (by Morris and Johnson), back in 1985, used a flat limit of ten significant items, with minor adjustments based on character strength.
- Overload the encounter die or use a hazard die for timekeeping and event engine. Winter can be a potential downtime event outcome (with a nod to Torchbearer) as can various other events. This makes a setting live without requiring complex tracking or Tolkien-style world building on the part of the referee and builds such fictional developments into the core gameplay workflow.
- Randomize the exhaustion of consumables, such as with a Black Hack style usage die, event engine outcome, or overloading an action test (such as attack roll or ability check). The illogical edge cases are easy to handle. Similar rules have been around at least since the Necromunda ammo roll1, and probably earlier, but have only become popular in D&D type games over the last few years (see archive of this 2011 intwischa post).
Goal: maintain tension at desired level of difficulty
Low level D&D is a sweet spot for dungeon exploration games. One easy way to maintain this tension is to keep hit points low and have zero hit points mean death, as the rules of OD&D and B/X dictate. However, low HP and death at zero can be more punishing than many groups desire. Witness the wide variety of house rules to increase the survivability of first level characters, even among hardcore old school players. For example, max hit points at first level is a common house rule and Lamentations of the Flame Princess has minimum hit point thresholds (2013 Rules & Magic, page 7, free no-art version).
- Rolling on a death and dismemberment tables allows zero hit points to matter without leading to instant death. Somewhat counterintuitively, death and dismemberment tables make characters more resilient. Just make sure that all players are comfortable with the degree of gore on the tables used. Here are some examples: Robert Fisher (date unknown), Trollsmyth (2008), 9 and 30 Kingdoms (2010), Hack & Slash—collected PDF—(2011), ACKS mortal wounds table—image search—(2011), Hill Cantons (2012), Goblin Punch (2014), Ten Foot Polemic (2017), Coins & Scrolls (2017). See also the older 1E Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play critical hits tables.
Goal: develop content that will see play
This includes character options, powers, and abilities. For player-facing rules, this generally means removing level gates on powers. In-fiction requirements, in contrast, such as locating an ingredient or seeking out a teacher, create concrete goals and prime adventure, as opposed to the more abstract idea of just get more gold and at some point 9th level will roll around.
- Spells without levels. See also Better Than Any Man, Vaginas Are Magic, and the GLOG approach to spells.
- Magic item creation from level one, such as Holmes scroll creation rules.
Goal: minimize numerical inflation
- Replace bonuses or penalties with 5E-style advantage and disadvantage—rolling multiple dice and choosing the best, or worst, respectively.
(This has some relation to developing content that will see play, as flatter power curves mean balance violations are less mechanically shocking.)
Goal: keep content fresh
Are these referee techniques or house rules? Either way, I am including them here.
- Deploy your monster, but never speak its name. (With a nod to the similar advice in Apocalypse World.) In other words, avoid relying on the symbol to do heavy lifting for you. Show rather than tell.
- Add a random table of special abilities, quirks, or details to content elements (areas, monsters, spells, whatever). Even simple quirks can distinguish an otherwise familiar entity. These orcs have rhinoceros horns in their foreheads. For example, each devilspawn will be somewhat unique, while participating in an underlying core idea. Of course, cosmetic details have a way of developing utility.
- Re-skin monsters.
1. Thanks to Paolo Greco for mentioning this a while back. ↩