OD&D A quick method for teaching and pickup games, which I've taken to calling "N'OC D&D"

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
Ever since last year, when the Retired Adventurer's Six Cultures of Play essay went viral, a seed of an idea has been growing in my mind. To briefly recap that essay and explain its relevance here, the author described six major "cultures" of RPG play, dubbed Classic (or Old-School), Trad(itional), Nordic LARP, Storygame, OSR (Old-School Renaissance), and OC/Neo-Trad. Rather than argue over the accuracy or usefulness of such a scheme of categorization, I simply wish to point out that some of these play-cultures (however fuzzy and permeable the boundaries between them may be, if we grant for the sake of argument that they do exist) place a stronger priority than others on the creation of the player character as a unique fictional persona, to be reflected in the game-rules as an equally bespoke mechanical "build."

This combination of persona and build has perhaps its strongest expression in the culture that the essay's author named "OC" (meaning "Original Character"). The concept of the "OC"—an original character which, due to context, needs to be clearly labeled as such—comes from fandom circles: fanfiction, fanart, and freeform (usually forum-based) roleplaying. Within some fandom circles, particularly where fanart and fanfic are concerned, there is sometimes a kind of mocking derision leveled at an artist's OC, to the point where in fanart, the stock phrase, "original character, do not steal," has been mutated into the parodic caricature phrase, "Donut Steel" (a "Donut Steel" signifying an unimaginative or derivative original character, ostensibly created by a very young artist, probably one active in the Sonic the Hedgehog fandom); whereas in fanfiction, an OC is widely viewed as only one step better than an open self-insertion and quite likely to prove a "Mary Sue" when all is said and done (endemic to most fanfic-writing fandoms, but it probably has its apotheosis in the Harry Potter fandom, if only because of the infamous "worst fanfic ever," My Immortal.)

Contrast this with 99% of tabletop RPGs, where the creation of an original persona is the de rigueur expectation, and a stark line is drawn between creating one's own unique character vs. merely importing a thinly-veiled expy of a beloved character from existing media. In RPGs, any derision is usually reserved for players who want to play Batman or Wolverine or Geralt or That Guy's Anime Catgirl Waifu with the serial numbers filed off, because such characters aren't original enough—exactly the opposite attitude to the conformity-to-canon valued in fanfiction or fanart circles!

But—and this is where the two preceding tangents come together—not all RPGs value "builds" equally, and indeed some games don't really permit players to make many meaningful choices about their characters' mechanics to begin with. This is often cited as an advantage of OSR play: if one happens to be playing a relatively simple old-school edition of D&D, like red box Basic, character generation is blessedly uncomplicated and fast! Roll your stats, pick from a very small number of classes (fighter, mage, cleric, thief, elf, dwarf, halfling), and go! Any unique characterization that you want to impart to your character can be handled entirely through the fictive, imaginative side of play, and the need to reflect such specializations mechanically often enough proves minimal. If a knight, a gladiator, a swashbuckler, and a samurai are all fighters, do we really need more mechanical distinction than "the fighter class" and maybe some different equipment selections and roleplaying choices to distinguish them? Not really, no.

So this got me to wondering: how far can I possibly take this idea?

The question of why I might want to take this notion to its logical extreme is easy enough to answer: character creation takes time. Even when I'm running a game using nothing but the '83 Basic Set, even when I'm surrounded by veteran players who all know the D&D game inside and out, character creation always somehow manages to eat at least twenty minutes at the start of a game. And if I'm going to run a sudden pickup game—an unplanned one-shot that I didn't know was coming and therefore couldn't possibly have made pre-generated characters for—well, I'd rather not waste any of that evening's limited time. This very phenomenon occurred just last night, as some friends gathered at my place for a New Year's Eve celebration, and we decided to play some D&D. Here, I thought, was a chance to test my little "hack"—and I'm pleased to report that it worked exceedingly well!

I'm hardly the first person ever to propose "classless" D&D. (Or winnowing down the list of available character classes to just one class, which is essentially the same thing.) The initial idea was simple enough: just make everyone a fighter, but let this alternate fighter class use all types magic items (including scrolls and wands and so forth); add to the game a new type of item, a grimoire (a book containing one or more spells that functions very much like a scroll, except that each spell contained within the grimoire may be used once per day rather than once only); and, bam, there you have it. A simple alteration to the Basic D&D game that obviates most of the process of character creation by tearing out 85% of the player-facing character class and advancement rules, and also the ability scores. Yep, you read that right—removal of the ability scores is also on the table! After all, if the game has only one character class, what purpose do the abilities serve? They were inserted into the game (as stated in D&D vol 1, Men & Magic), merely to "aid the player in selecting a role." If that choice is removed from the game, the scores can also be done away with, and the game remains uninjured for the loss.

A further bit of refinement led to the replacement of this altered fighter with a slightly broader "adventurer" class, which at present takes the following form:

The Adventurer

Weapons and Armor Allowed: any (as fighter)
Magic Items Allowed: all (as mage and cleric)

LevelTitleXP RequiredHit PointsTo Hit AC 0Pick Pocket/Open Lock/
Remove Small Trap
Make Saving Throw
1stRogue0710%20%30%
2ndMercenary2,0001015%25%35%
3rdFortune-Seeker4,0001320%30%40%
4thTreasure-Hunter8,0001625%35%45%
5thTomb-Raider16,0001930%40%50%
6thNoted Explorer32,0002235%45%55%
7thCelebrated Adventurer64,0002540%50%60%
8thFamed Hero125,0002845%55%65%
9thRenowned Authority250,0003150%60%70%
10thWorld-Renowned (Lv10)500,0003255%65%75%
11thWorld-Renowned (Lv11)750,0003360%70%80%
12thWorld-Renowned (Lv12)1,000,0003465%75%85%
13th World-Renowned (Lv13)1,250,0003570%80%90%
14thWorld-Renowned (Lv14)1,500,0003675%85%95%
15thWorld-Renowned (Lv15)1,750,0003780%90%95%
16thWorld-Renowned (Lv16)2,000,0003885%95%95%
17thWorld-Renowned (Lv17)2,250,0003990%95%95%
18thExpert Emeritus2,500,0004095%95%95%

Perhaps the most prominent tweak made here is the addition of a general thieving skill to cover those actions that dungeon-exploring adventurers might wish to employ but which aren't otherwise covered by any aspect of the OD&D or AD&D rules. (Basic stealth, for example, is already handled by the surprise rules, while searching and listening likewise have rules of their own.) After adding thieving to the class, it then occurred to me that a further simplification—converting attack rolls and saving throws from a d20 roll to a d% roll (while still keeping the underlying math intact)—might make things a bit more intuitive for a brand-new player participating in a pickup game. After all, "you have a 30% chance to make this saving throw!" is naturally going to be easier to grasp for the uninitiated than "you need to roll some number from 15 to 20 on this icosahedron!"

• • •

So: getting back to last night. I had this adventurer class done up and ready for playtesting, I had an adventure picked out (an abandoned foundry on the edge of a Scottish moor, now "haunted" by a necromancer with a limited capacity to conjure the dead, made up for by a knack for devious illusions and curses), and I had some friends and family at hand willing to play. I told them that they wouldn't be rolling scores to make a character on this occasion: just name your adventurer and equip them based on what you think their class would normally be. The only restriction was that the game was taking place in Victorian-era Scotland, and your characters were all private investigators hired by a paranormal researcher at the University of Edinburgh to look into some rumors of hauntings in the countryside. I gave them each a character sheet (already filled out for a 3rd level "fortune-seeker"), and it was off to the races…

In under two minutes flat, Fernando (a Spanish sell-sword), Gwyn (a Welsh bard), and Pamela (a New Jersey archer and safecracker) were headed onto the moors to hunt for ghosts, fairies, and witches.

And it worked. It worked like a charm. The game still felt like D&D—even removed from a fantastic-medieval setting, even absent character classes and ability scores and (of all things!) d20 rolls—because the game still played like D&D. And it played like D&D, because I was still using all the rules of D&D. Rather than resort to some microlite game (as laudable as the efforts are of Microlite 20 and 74, the White and Black and Macchiato Hacks, Knave and Maze Rats and "Here's Some F—king D&D" to reduce an entire robust RPG experience to a pamphlet or even a single page of rules), I was only interested in simplifying the mechanics on the players' side of the screen. After all, I've been refereeing OD&D for enough years now to know all the rules I need to know to run things on my side of the screen by rote, without ever having to crack open a rulebook most of the time.

Anyway, just thought I'd humblebrag about that, share my "N'OC" (get it? "No OC"?) hack, and share my experiences. As it turns out, all you really need for a game of D&D to feel like D&D is a dark dungeon to explore, and characters with hit points, an Armor Class (descending values aren't strictly needed, but they sure do help the vibe!), and at least one saving throw number. Who knew?
 

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It's very original! This feels almost like a JRPG where the character evolves individually over time and character classes have little if any relevance.

I do wonder if with everyone essentially a cleric/fighter/magic-user/thief, the teamwork aspect of the original game gets lost. As far back as Gygax the character classes were supposed to be incomplete to encourage collaboration.
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
It's very original! This feels almost like a JRPG where the character evolves individually over time and character classes have little if any relevance.

Hah. After the game, one of the players said that it felt like playing their Skyrim character, since they could switch from fighting with a sword to picking a lock to reading a spell out of a book on a dime. I would've guessed that meant that it had a distinctly "1st person Western RPG" vibe, but maybe it means that Western CRPGs and JRPGs have more in common than we usually suppose…

I do wonder if with everyone essentially a cleric/fighter/magic-user/thief, the teamwork aspect of the original game gets lost. As far back as Gygax the character classes were supposed to be incomplete to encourage collaboration.

That's not something that occurred to me, but you're right about the history of the matter. It'll take considerably more playtesting, though, before I think I can arrive at a conclusion. (Tentatively: it seems so far that players who equip their characters differently still play their character as if they really belonged to a more specialized class.)
 
Last edited:

MattW

Explorer
Interesting.

Teamwork is an essential part of most TTRPGs (and stories about groups). I wonder if - rather than classes - the characters will evolve into "5-man-band" team roles.
 

AnotherGuy

Adventurer
Ever since last year, when the Retired Adventurer's Six Cultures of Play essay went viral, a seed of an idea has been growing in my mind. To briefly recap that essay and explain its relevance here, the author described six major "cultures" of RPG play, dubbed Classic (or Old-School), Trad(itional), Nordic LARP, Storygame, OSR (Old-School Renaissance), and OC/Neo-Trad. Rather than argue over the accuracy or usefulness of such a scheme of categorization, I simply wish to point out that some of these play-cultures (however fuzzy and permeable the boundaries between them may be, if we grant for the sake of argument that they do exist) place a stronger priority than others on the creation of the player character as a unique fictional persona, to be reflected in the game-rules as an equally bespoke mechanical "build."

This combination of persona and build has perhaps its strongest expression in the culture that the essay's author named "OC" (meaning "Original Character"). The concept of the "OC"—an original character which, due to context, needs to be clearly labeled as such—comes from fandom circles: fanfiction, fanart, and freeform (usually forum-based) roleplaying. Within some fandom circles, particularly where fanart and fanfic are concerned, there is sometimes a kind of mocking derision leveled at an artist's OC, to the point where in fanart, the stock phrase, "original character, do not steal," has been mutated into the parodic caricature phrase, "Donut Steel" (a "Donut Steel" signifying an unimaginative or derivative original character, ostensibly created by a very young artist, probably one active in the Sonic the Hedgehog fandom); whereas in fanfiction, an OC is widely viewed as only one step better than an open self-insertion and quite likely to prove a "Mary Sue" when all is said and done (endemic to most fanfic-writing fandoms, but it probably has its apotheosis in the Harry Potter fandom, if only because of the infamous "worst fanfic ever," My Immortal.)

Contrast this with 99% of tabletop RPGs, where the creation of an original persona is the de rigueur expectation, and a stark line is drawn between creating one's own unique character vs. merely importing a thinly-veiled expy of a beloved character from existing media. In RPGs, any derision is usually reserved for players who want to play Batman or Wolverine or Geralt or That Guy's Anime Catgirl Waifu with the serial numbers filed off, because such characters aren't original enough—exactly the opposite attitude to the conformity-to-canon valued in fanfiction or fanart circles!

But—and this is where the two preceding tangents come together—not all RPGs value "builds" equally, and indeed some games don't really permit players to make many meaningful choices about their characters' mechanics to begin with. This is often cited as an advantage of OSR play: if one happens to be playing a relatively simple old-school edition of D&D, like red box Basic, character generation is blessedly uncomplicated and fast! Roll your stats, pick from a very small number of classes (fighter, mage, cleric, thief, elf, dwarf, halfling), and go! Any unique characterization that you want to impart to your character can be handled entirely through the fictive, imaginative side of play, and the need to reflect such specializations mechanically often enough proves minimal. If a knight, a gladiator, a swashbuckler, and a samurai are all fighters, do we really need more mechanical distinction than "the fighter class" and maybe some different equipment selections and roleplaying choices to distinguish them? Not really, no.

So this got me to wondering: how far can I possibly take this idea?

The question of why I might want to take this notion to its logical extreme is easy enough to answer: character creation takes time. Even when I'm running a game using nothing but the '83 Basic Set, even when I'm surrounded by veteran players who all know the D&D game inside and out, character creation always somehow manages to eat at least twenty minutes at the start of a game. And if I'm going to run a sudden pickup game—an unplanned one-shot that I didn't know was coming and therefore couldn't possibly have made pre-generated characters for—well, I'd rather not waste any of that evening's limited time. This very phenomenon occurred just last night, as some friends gathered at my place for a New Year's Eve celebration, and we decided to play some D&D. Here, I thought, was a chance to test my little "hack"—and I'm pleased to report that it worked exceedingly well!

I'm hardly the first person ever to propose "classless" D&D. (Or winnowing down the list of available character classes to just one class, which is essentially the same thing.) The initial idea was simple enough: just make everyone a fighter, but let this alternate fighter class use all types magic items (including scrolls and wands and so forth); add to the game a new type of item, a grimoire (a book containing one or more spells that functions very much like a scroll, except that each spell contained within the grimoire may be used once per day rather than once only); and, bam, there you have it. A simple alteration to the Basic D&D game that obviates most of the process of character creation by tearing out 85% of the player-facing character class and advancement rules, and also the ability scores. Yep, you read that right—removal of the ability scores is also on the table! After all, if the game has only one character class, what purpose do the abilities serve? They were inserted into the game (as stated in D&D vol 1, Men & Magic), merely to "aid the player in selecting a role." If that choice is removed from the game, the scores can also be done away with, and the game remains uninjured for the loss.

A further bit of refinement led to the replacement of this altered fighter with a slightly broader "adventurer" class, which at present takes the following form:

The Adventurer

Weapons and Armor Allowed: any (as fighter)
Magic Items Allowed: all (as mage and cleric)

LevelTitleXP RequiredHit PointsTo Hit AC 0Pick Pocket/Open Lock/
Remove Small Trap
Make Saving Throw
1stRogue0710%20%30%
2ndMercenary2,0001015%25%35%
3rdFortune-Seeker4,0001320%30%40%
4thTreasure-Hunter8,0001625%35%45%
5thTomb-Raider16,0001930%40%50%
6thNoted Explorer32,0002235%45%55%
7thCelebrated Adventurer64,0002540%50%60%
8thFamed Hero125,0002845%55%65%
9thRenowned Authority250,0003150%60%70%
10thWorld-Renowned (Lv10)500,0003255%65%75%
11thWorld-Renowned (Lv11)750,0003360%70%80%
12thWorld-Renowned (Lv12)1,000,0003465%75%85%
13thWorld-Renowned (Lv13)1,250,0003570%80%90%
14thWorld-Renowned (Lv14)1,500,0003675%85%95%
15thWorld-Renowned (Lv15)1,750,0003780%90%95%
16thWorld-Renowned (Lv16)2,000,0003885%95%95%
17thWorld-Renowned (Lv17)2,250,0003990%95%95%
18thExpert Emeritus2,500,0004095%95%95%

Perhaps the most prominent tweak made here is the addition of a general thieving skill to cover those actions that dungeon-exploring adventurers might wish to employ but which aren't otherwise covered by any aspect of the OD&D or AD&D rules. (Basic stealth, for example, is already handled by the surprise rules, while searching and listening likewise have rules of their own.) After adding thieving to the class, it then occurred to me that a further simplification—converting attack rolls and saving throws from a d20 roll to a d% roll (while still keeping the underlying math intact)—might make things a bit more intuitive for a brand-new player participating in a pickup game. After all, "you have a 30% chance to make this saving throw!" is naturally going to be easier to grasp for the uninitiated than "you need to roll some number from 15 to 20 on this icosahedron!"

• • •

So: getting back to last night. I had this adventurer class done up and ready for playtesting, I had an adventure picked out (an abandoned foundry on the edge of a Scottish moor, now "haunted" by a necromancer with a limited capacity to conjure the dead, made up for by a knack for devious illusions and curses), and I had some friends and family at hand willing to play. I told them that they wouldn't be rolling scores to make a character on this occasion: just name your adventurer and equip them based on what you think their class would normally be. The only restriction was that the game was taking place in Victorian-era Scotland, and your characters were all private investigators hired by a paranormal researcher at the University of Edinburgh to look into some rumors of hauntings in the countryside. I gave them each a character sheet (already filled out for a 3rd level "fortune-seeker"), and it was off to the races…

In under two minutes flat, Fernando (a Spanish sell-sword), Gwyn (a Welsh bard), and Pamela (a New Jersey archer and safecracker) were headed onto the moors to hunt for ghosts, fairies, and witches.

And it worked. It worked like a charm. The game still felt like D&D—even removed from a fantastic-medieval setting, even absent character classes and ability scores and (of all things!) d20 rolls—because the game still played like D&D. And it played like D&D, because I was still using all the rules of D&D. Rather than resort to some microlite game (as laudable as the efforts are of Microlite 20 and 74, the White and Black and Macchiato Hacks, Knave and Maze Rats and "Here's Some F—king D&D" to reduce an entire robust RPG experience to a pamphlet or even a single page of rules), I was only interested in simplifying the mechanics on the players' side of the screen. After all, I've been refereeing OD&D for enough years now to know all the rules I need to know to run things on my side of the screen by rote, without ever having to crack open a rulebook most of the time.

Anyway, just thought I'd humblebrag about that, share my "N'OC" (get it? "No OC"?) hack, and share my experiences. As it turns out, all you really need for a game of D&D to feel like D&D is a dark dungeon to explore, and characters with hit points, an Armor Class (descending values aren't strictly needed, but they sure do help the vibe!), and at least one saving throw number. Who knew?

I like it alot - thank you for sharing this. Just two questions:
1. How do you account for success of actions outside combat that are traditionally determined via ability or proficiency checks?
2. Did the Spanish sell-sword have anything distinct except background and language to the Welsh Bard to the New Jersey archer and safecracker? I'm referring to mechanics - for instance did the Jersey archer do an additional point of damage when using bow/arrow or the Welsh Bard cast spells as 1 level higher...etc
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
I like it alot - thank you for sharing this. Just two questions:
1. How do you account for success of actions outside combat that are traditionally determined via ability or proficiency checks?
2. Did the Spanish sell-sword have anything distinct except background and language to the Welsh Bard to the New Jersey archer and safecracker? I'm referring to mechanics - for instance did the Jersey archer do an additional point of damage when using bow/arrow or the Welsh Bard cast spells as 1 level higher...etc

1. The same way you account for them when playing OD&D or Basic D&D or AD&D normally (none of which have ability or proficiency checks as a core mechanic, nor need them to function). Either apply a rule that already exists (e.g. searching is roll low on 1d6, trying to persuade someone is a reaction roll on 2d6, etc.), adapt a similar such rule to the circumstances, or make a ruling based on your judgement and the circumstances (including both fiat yes/no, and deciding on a chance before rolling a die).

2. No. Just whatever the players were bringing to the table. All three had identical character sheets except for their names and equipment. (Though that sort of thing would certainly develop over the course of a long campaign, through the acquisition of magic items.)
 

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