New primitive D&D campaign

Right now it seems that my primary source of rpg amusement this winter is a new campaign of primitive D&D with challenge-based adventuring techniques. As many of the youngsters I’ve been playing rpgs lately moved towards university studies I had to think up something new to attract new gamers to my group. We have plenty of boardgamers, computer games and Magic: the Gathering players here in Sonkajärvi, but the teens do not usually play roleplaying games independently of my influence, it seems.

Click for the whole episode

I’m having lots of fun with the campaign so far (three sessions in at this writing), so I’m thinking that I might write the sessions down as adventure notes. Not that I particularly recommend using ready-made modules in this sort of play (all of this stuff I write about was mostly improvised, after all), but if anybody is interested in how I run a fantasy adventure, looking at the resulting module might prove illuminating and even spark some ideas for others. Thus, the first part of the adventure, Roots of the Blood Alders.

The reason I chose to run a traditional fantasy adventure campaign to break in new players was manyfold:

  • Tony Dowler’s How to Host a Dungeon came out at Gencon and proved a rather delightful pastime which inspired me to look into running a game using the sort of dungeons that game creates. Ultimately my plan didn’t quite develop in that direction, but that was the first spark.
  • Challenge-based D&D adventure is historically a central style or roleplaying, and I want to teach the kids about that history. It gives them a good basis to understand and appreciate other things later on.
  • This sort of D&D is actually pretty easy, quick and fun to play, so it works well as long as the players are on board with the challenge aspect. It also works well for pick-up gaming, which is important, as I’m running the campaign by simply traipsing to the local game night and playing with whoever’s interested.
  • Running a tad longer D&D campaign is important for me, personally. My last grand fantasy campaign ended after some great moments in a bit of a whiff in -04 or so, partly because the group couldn’t keep the creative agenda together, mostly because I needed to devote more time to other games and, most of all, living up here instead of Helsinki. I’m really excited to be playing this sort of game again after four years, using everything I’ve learned since then.

I was for the longest time going to run the campaign with Tunnels & Trolls, being that I had gotten my hands on the new 7.5 edition, but at the last minute I got cold feet and switched to primitive D&D. The foremost reason for this was that T&T proved too challenging to tame and realize for me at this point – the idiosyncratic dungeon weirdness that’s typical of both D&D and T&T is something I can’t really handle, so in practice I always need to rework these games into something more serious, something with stronger flavour. With D&D I can do it, but I ran out of time with my T&T houserules; I have them stored somewhere, though, so perhaps I’ll come back to it later on.

The rules of the exercise

Primitive D&D, as I’ve explained before, is the practice of playing D&D from memory and without a pre-conceived system in mind. Naturally enough, the system this time has become slightly different from what I ran last time I did this sort of thing. It also has a couple of solid rules principles I figured out beforehand, just because they were something I knew I’d want to have.

  • I’m not using the traditional attributes for the character. Instead, I have Body, Wits, Learning, Will and Charisma. This is mostly because I’ve come to a complete breakdown with the classical D&D attribute scheme personally, insofar as it comes to really making sense of the system as something used in a fantasy adventure game. Strong but frail characters and other D&D mainstays of physical caricature simply don’t do it for me, so I combined Strength, Dexterity and Constitution into one attribute that describes how body-proficient the character is, overall.
  • Attributes are rolled 3d6 in order when creating the character. Later on, each time the player makes an attribute check (there are no other checks, so this is quite often), he makes a little mark besides the attribute he used. Between sessions we take the attribute with the most checkmarks and roll a check of d20+checkmarks against the current attribute score; success gives +1 to the attribute and erases the checkmarks from that attribute, failure gives -1 to the attribute. In other words, the attributes develop in use.
  • The characters start from third level. The character classes are freeform, the player just names the class and describes what it entails. The characters get a +1 per applicable class level to attribute checks. The first couple of levels define the cultural background of the character.
  • Each character may have one special ability per character level. So far these have simply been skill proficiencies – in the first couple of sessions I had these give a +4 to an attribute check, or if the character had two applicable ones, a +6. I changed this for the third session into getting rerolls – each proficiency allows the player to roll an extra d20 in attribute checks. The change was because the actual skill bonuses mess with my difficulty rating scheme and made the game too easy for the characters. The new system is also simpler.
  • Events are resolved in a traditional task-based conflict resolution, with the GM adopting a neutral refereeing role. I imagine that the great majority of roleplayers would recognize my methods in this regard. The attribute checks are made as [attribute value]+d20+[modifiers], where the modifiers are the occasional +2 or even +4 for when the character has some particularly useful equipment or does things especially smartly. The target numbers for the roll come from a simple mental table of mine:
    Difficulty TN
    All but certain tasks; usually these are not rolled, but sometimes it’s easier for the pace of the game, and the above attribute improvement rules reward doing checks, so the players don’t complain either. 10
    Easy, routine stuff. Usually I give this TN to anything I find a given. Good for building character confidence, too. 15
    Moderate, the default difficulty I give to anything that is quite achievable, but not something an untrained amateur would approach with confidence. 20
    Challenging tasks that really require a professional to have a real chance of success. 25
    Difficult things that only the characters specialized in this sort of thing should really try. 30
  • I make heavy use of graded successes and failures – whenever the dice are rolled, I declare the difficulty of the roll before the check, but often I only declare possible bonuses or maluses from especially good or bad checks afterwards. The grades are at 5-point intervals, so I do a lot of stuff like having a knowledge check against difficulty 20 and answering one question per 5-point interval the player manages to beat.
  • As far as experience points go, each level requires the level in xp. Characters start with 6 xp, get to 4th level with 10 and so on. The characters get one xp whenever they set a goal and accomplish it, or take a risk with serious flair. I also run with local tradition in this, which at this point seems to mean that I always give a xp point to whoever helps me collect the characters into a crew and takes them to adventure (essentially, the group leader); I run the game with non-explicit adventure frames, so the beginning of each session consists of us figuring out how come these characters decide to go on adventure with each other. Another constant is that whenever the characters come out of the dungeon, they get xp for the trip.
  • I always make a point of reminding the players about the purpose of play, mostly because the crew is still shifting each session and I need to explain everything anyway. But even in the middle of session, I make it clear that the game is about challenges and overcoming them with smart play – you’re always winning as long as you’re doing interesting stuff in the fiction and getting away with it, but I won’t hesitate to put characters out of commission if the luck turns against them or they bite off more than they can chew.
  • There are probably other rules, too, but I’m not going to bother with figuring them out before I need them. A lot of the play runs on localized adjucation, which basically means that I make a ruling, often making a small subgame out of it. In the last session we had a character try to force open a sewer grate with just a dagger, for example, which I ended up handling as a balancing act of patience: I allowed the player a strength check about forcing the grate every hour of game time, with the difficulty going down by five points after each hour; how long he’d take with the grate and whether he should have bothered with it at all were tactical considerations in the situation.

Readers of my blog probably recognize how a lot of this stuff is straight from my long-term fantasy adventure musings, some of which I scribbled down last winter. In that regard this is not quite pure primitive D&D, as my preconceptions and long developed plans guide the substantiation of the system. On the other hand, there is certainly a lot of improvisation and natural development here as well, as I draw in more rules when I need them, and develop default methodology into formal rules. Nothing written down apart from the character sheets, though, at least yet.


I’ll write later about our actual play experiences and other things of note concerning the campaign. We’re currently playing every Friday, unless there is no sufficient crew to play. Last session ended quite darkly for the player characters, with two getting enslaved and one having to choose between taking a dangerous adventure job or getting poisoned; the girls didn’t like the high-stress stakes, but perhaps they now understand the style of play better and are more careful with their characters going forward…

3 Responses to “New primitive D&D campaign”

  1. Capt_Poco Says:

    Teenage girls? And the party shifts every session? You must have an uncanny ability to keep everyone on the same page (aka skill with setting up a Social Contract). Care to show the rest of us mortals (and would-be GMs) how its done?

    I ask only because Social Contract is traditionally one of the hardest parts of the GM’s craft, second only to improvising.

    Impatiently awaiting actual play logs…. 🙂

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    That’s actually a pretty good topic, I’ll take that up in my next report about the campaign. I’ll write about it when I get a suitable moment of free time and inspiration.

  3. Pick-up Party Play « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] 20.11.2008 — Eero Tuovinen My snazzy topic here comes directly from a reader comment here. Captain Poco wants to know how I’m doing with a constantly shifting player base in my Alder […]

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