Continuing on my post about Adventure Gaming, here’s a real-life account of some. Sami Koponen is this Finnish rpg hobbyist I’ve befriended during the last couple of years, who visits me now and then in my northern exile here in Upper Savo. Usually we spend a weekend or so either playing roleplaying games or complaining about how difficult it is to get to play. This time we had quite an excellent run, though, with three separate game sessions during two days. My zombie game and Sami’s game-in-development about losers got a work-out; they’re both dirty narrativist narrative story games (yeah, those three qualifications each mean a different thing, properly speaking), unlike the real star of the Saturday evening, “primitive-D&D”.


“Primitive-D&D” is my name for a D&D variant with ultra-condensed rules further structured via play. In other words, the group just steps up to play some D&D without defining an edition or even having a rulebook; furthermore, the GM acts as the gatekeeper of the rules, defining and explaining the rules as they’re needed. The idea is to get a game going in a functional manner without any other textual basis than the general, shared adventure game tradition all participants are more or less familiar with. A rather suitable idea for what to play for a one-shot or if you don’t have rulebooks for whatever reason. Or if you like making your own homebrew variants of D&D. Or you just like weird rpg exercises; primitive-D&D could be considered as another “roleplaying kata”.

I say “ultra-condensed” instead of “simplified” when characterizing the rules of primitive-D&D because the point is not to rules-lighten the game; whatever level of D&D rules detail you as the GM are comfortable with and can transmit to the players (insofar as they are rules the players need to know) is suitable, at least if the rules in question are actually necessary for the game. In my own case this means minimal amounts of feat knowledge from the 3rd edition, for instance, as well as taking great freedoms with the less elegant parts of the rules such as tables. Whatever works.

My Primitive-D&D

As I was the Game Master of our session, I got to define the rules. Because this was the first time I played primitive-D&D, I had no immediate idea what my rules-concoction would look like. In hindsight I’m rather surprised that I didn’t have feats, but did have spells; if you’d queried me about it beforehand, I’d have certainly claimed that I’d drop them both or neither if I had to make an ultra-condenced version of D&D. Anyway, here are my rules:

  • Character creation is done in relation to the adventure at hand. I imagine that this’d be different if we did a campaign, but in this case the players customized their class choices and equipment to the scenario.
  • All characters have the six standard attributes, rolled in order with 3d6. An attribute modifier is calculated by deducting ten from the attribute. [Notice how using the original 3d6 distribution instead of 4d6-pick-the-highest effectively eliminates the necessity of using the 3rd edition formula for the modifier; the highest attributes between our three characters were at 14, supplying a modifier of +4.]
  • Each player names a character class for his character. Choices are fighter, thief, cleric and wizard, as well as anything else the player can explain conscisely. Characters can multiclass without penalties. There are no feats or other character customization choices. [I started the characters at fifth level for our adventure.]
  • Players list equipment for their characters on the character sheet. No money or weight considerations, but the equipment needs to be accepted by the GM.

That’s it for the character generation. The game itself was ran in the normal adventuring mode: I as the GM introduced the situation, the players chose how to play their characters, and I told them when to roll the dice and for what reason. These were the rules of conflict resolution:

  • If characters tried to do something risky or difficult, I assigned a difficulty rating in the 3rd edition ballpark. If there was clear opposition by another character, the characters rolled against each other. If the resistance was passive or otherwise uninteresting, I just added ten to the NPC’s score and let the player roll. I assigned the difficulties in rough lumps of five points, but then modified them for various environmental things and such a couple of points at a time.
  • The characters always got the bonus from a suitable ability, as well as a bonus equal to their class level, but the latter only if the class suited the situation. If the class was only almost suitable, the character got half the class level. if a character had several suitable classes, the bonuses stacked. Also, any useful equipment tended to give either a +1 or +2 bonus.
  • Dice were never rolled until I’d assigned the difficulty level and the consequences of success or failure. The player could back out of the roll if he didn’t like the stakes, or he could try to renegotiate them with me. In both cases I’d narrate the result, sometimes adding consequences if the roll was especially good or bad.
  • Combat worked like the above, except that there would be an initiative roll to find out who got to act in what order. If somebody took a hit I usually assigned a “stay-up check” based on Constitution. The difficulty for the check depended on the kind of damage the character took by failing their dodge. Failing the constitution check took the character out of the fight and possibly affected their recovery time later on; success still left the character with a “wound”, practically a -2 to just about anything they tried.

Other rules that came up:

  • When a player wanted to know what his wizard character could cast as a spell, I had him roll some skill checks in the above vein to whip up the magical effect he needed. However, later on I also had the same character prepare a list of the spells he wanted to cast in the upcoming battle climax of the game. In the latter case the player listed how many different spells he wanted and had to roll against a DC determined by the spell list.
  • Social rules were used pretty extensively to figure out how NPCs reacted to the efforts of the PCs. The difficulty of each roll was greatly affected by the substance of what the characters were trying to communicate, but not by the player’s delivery (which was impeccable, most of the time; we got rather into the game as it progressed). At one point, for instance, a character was trying to convince his dead father to not go fight the giant; as the player’s argument wasn’t persuasive from a cultural standpoint (he was arguing about fear to a fearless undead, I think), I told him that the difficulty had a +10 for a bad argument. The player fixed the argument after a successful bardic knowledge check (his class, that) and got rid of the inflated difficulty.
  • Experience was apparently handled in a goal-based manner. Now and then I as the GM would declare that a given character or the whole group would get an experience level if they succeeded in achieving a given goal. The goals themselves were chosen by the players and my declaration was after-the-fact, whenever I got around to noticing that the player had committed to achieving something. The class where the level would be was either the best class of the character or something suitable to the situation. It seems that each character gains around 1-2 levels per session by this method.

Certainly the above rules carry more than a passing resemblance to my own current homebrew D&D rules as well. I haven’t played the game for five years or so, but I still fiddle with it now and then, so I didn’t have any particular difficulty making on-the-spot judgements of how things should work in the game. It is also interesting to note the points where the system differs from or resembles old, simple D&D editions. Especially the combat system is actually quite fascinating, I wonder why the original D&D ended up with the hitpoint system. Fighters are also much more butch in this system compared to, say, 3rd edition D&D: as they actually get their class level as a bonus for martial endeavours they have a good chance to win initiative, say, or survive a blow. The same holds true for Constitution, which is not very exciting in D&D (even if it is effective); in our game it was used for all kinds of cool stuff, like surviving a building falling down on the character.

Hmm… this is getting a bit lengthy, so I think that I’ll save the actual play account and the scenario proper to another post. I still want to discuss the techniques of gamist adventure gaming, which is a rather misunderstood, yet very enjoyable pastime. I’ll also try to write up the scenario I used in our primitive-D&D game to illustrate the business of GMing a gamist adventure scenario. This is getting to be a bit of a lost art here and there, largely because the majority of gaming materials these days are rather confused about the topic.


8 Responses to “Primitive-D&D”

  1. Johannes Kellomäki Says:


    I’ve enjoyed reading last two entries. In August I begun a campaing labeled “adventure roleplaying” with our group. What I had in mind was something pretty light hearted and unserious in tone, episodic (prepared scenario by scenario) in structure and gamist in the sense that character customisation and minmaxing would be part of the fun of the campaing. I also thought that I would be an auteur GM and set the table for my players so they could just enjoy the meal. I communicated these ideas to my players and everybody thought it’d be cool to play something easy going like this.

    We ended up with our most narrativist campaing ever. Strange? Not at all: When the pressure to create something seriously artistic was lifted off the group, we were all eager to explore and experiment and seize the moment so to speak. The stuff I visioned to the campaing, is still there but – thanks to player input – we have drifted to a style where narrativist dilemmas pop up all the time. I still prep scenarios but I’ve become very easy going about them and I modify my GMing according to player input. In other words I’ve abandoned auteurism contrary to my original vision.

    So, what I’m trying to say here, is that adventure gaming suits all creative agendas just like you wrote. I also think that adventure roleplaying is a great genre-framework (in terms of setting and color) for a group because it is so familiar that it frees the group to try out something new on other aspects of the game. Our fantasy campaing about bronze age thieves has become a campaing about thieves figuring out their life philosophy and loyalties and a campaing about the conflict between idealism and realism (Waltari rocks!).

    On ypur post abput primitive-D&D: Isn’t über-strong GM problematic if you run a gamist game?

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    That’s a rather interesting development, Johannes. I’d like to see a more detailed description of your experiences. This is the long-term Harn group you’ve told about before? Perhaps you could write about this on one of the Finnish forums in more detail?

    As for an auteur gamemaster in a gamist game: it’s not really problematic as long as the GM does not abuse his power to destroy the challenge elements. The simplest method of making it work is to simply consider the GM as a referee or adjucator, not an active participant in the challenge environment – his job is to present the challenges and play them fairly, not to resist the players himself. Being a gamemaster in a gamist game most often does not mean an adversial relationship to the players; it more resembles the position of a coach, often you’re rooting for the players to win over the opposition while having very limited means of affecting the situation yourself. It all hinges on having a clear understanding of the difference between being all-powerful in determining the resolution procedure and fictional background, and being all-powerful in terms of overriding the accepted system of the game. The former is very common and functional, the latter not so.

    Our primitive-D&D session last weekend worked on the above basis, so perhaps it’ll be clearer once I get around to writing down the scenario and principles of GMing I used then. It was nothing special in terms of adventure gaming history, but considering the sorry state of the current literature it might well be worth reading.

  3. Johannes Kellomäki Says:


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  8. Venger Satanis Says:

    So, there’s a name for it… primitive D&D.

    I’ve been moving towards that type of game for years. If you want to see my codified version, the Crimson Dragon Slayer D20 PDF is free on DTRPG.

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