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5E Do you need mechanical choices after 1st level to be D&D?

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
So I'm kicking together some ideas for an OSR-inspired 5e game I may run next year. Basically, I'm contemplating developing a new set of backgrounds, that are more mechanically rich than standard 5e backgrounds. Much closer to what you would get from picking a class at 1st level. PCs would pick race and background, and that's it. After that, there's no class development. When you level, you get more hit points (Hit Dice are either decided by the background, or will be a standard d10, I haven't decided) and proficiency bonus when indicated, but that's it. None of the backgrounds will have any sort of Vancian casting, some will have cantrips, some will have the ability to use 1 or 2 1st level spells at-will (much like Warlock Invocations, and not player choice.) The background abilities will, in general, scale with level (more damage, more inspiration or superiority dice, broader effect) but won't suddenly become drastically more powerful, change in function, or have new options open up.

The goal is to make character growth more organic to the story by tying in your mechanical advancement to the narrative. The PCs gain powers by finding items in lost dungeons, meeting and befriending mysterious swordsmen, or training with masters of their craft.

So, basic question, is there something fundamental to D&D that would be lost in such a scenario? Am I inviting my players to tie me up and kick me in the crotch for proposing such a terrible idea? Am I missing anything? (I have a bunch of supporting house rules for this idea, but I haven't posted them.)
 

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Wereox

First Post
Just curious, would it allow for any kind of multi-classing (or I guess multi-"backgrounding" since its not really classes per se)?
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
Just curious, would it allow for any kind of multi-classing (or I guess multi-"backgrounding" since its not really classes per se)?
Not any sort of explicit rule, but I'll certainly planning on letting the players discuss modifications with me to make their backgrounds what they want. Some sort of hybrid (a little of background A, a little of background B) is certainly on the table. I'm planning on making about 25 or so backgrounds, so hopefully they can't find something they like without too much modification.

Just as a reference, if you've ever played Talisman, I want the backgrounds to be somewhat like the classes in that game.
 


Nothing lost IMHO. We played B/X like that for years and had a great time. If the mechanical widgets aren't there stealing all the attention, then players may enjoy the adventures and focus on the environment. Another benefit of more organic character development is the increased focus on the present instead of theory crafting builds up to level 20. Sounds like fun to me.
 

Nope, not at all. D&D is what you make it. Sounds quite intriguing, although the parameters of scaled spell effects (assume also applies to eg lock picking skills?) may be a ton of work.
 

Wereox

First Post
To answer your question, IMO there is nothing fundamental lost. It sounds like an interesting and fun campaign.

...that said, it will also require a *lot* of work on the DM's part. It will be hard to use pre-made modules, suggestions, monsters etc. that depend on character levels, as your players won't have a standard set of abilities. It will be difficult to make sure your players are having an equally enjoyable and balanced time. I see a lot of adjustments and tinkering ahead, and a large time commitment to make it work, simply because so much of the "level" system is baked in. But if you have the time, go for it, and then tell us how it works!
This is exactly what I was thinking. You're going to have to make a huge effort in creating original material. You'd need to change/create monsters and rules to fit your version of the game.

But honestly, if you can work out the kinks, it sounds like it has the potential to be fun :)
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
To answer your question, IMO there is nothing fundamental lost. It sounds like an interesting and fun campaign.

...that said, it will also require a *lot* of work on the DM's part. It will be hard to use pre-made modules, suggestions, monsters etc. that depend on character levels, as your players won't have a standard set of abilities. It will be difficult to make sure your players are having an equally enjoyable and balanced time. I see a lot of adjustments and tinkering ahead, and a large time commitment to make it work, simply because so much of the "level" system is baked in. But if you have the time, go for it, and then tell us how it works!
I'm not overly worried about that, for a few reasons.

1) 5e has a combination of loose balance and high survivability that fits the concept. I can throw things that are a little too hard at the party and still expect them to pull through, although they may have to retreat.
2) A lot of the magic items I'm putting in the campaign are consumables. If the party feels threatened, they'll have the capability to nova if it's truly needed. (This also feeds into the resource management aspect of the game, something I'm trying to encourage for this style of play. Consumables can also be sold, and spending gold is the source of XP.)
3) The game is going to be a sandbox, on a fantasy archipelago. The bulk of the game will be sailing from island to island, and seeing what they find. Most islands aren't tremendously difficult at the shores...it's when you plumb the unknown interiors that you find giant beasts, cultists of the Leviathan goddess summoning demonic servitors, or portals to the feyspires of the ancient elven empire. The PCs won't get overwhelmed with challenges unless they choose to overextend themselves.
 


TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
I think all of your points are good ones, and I think your campaign idea is a great one! My only cautionary note, having run quite a few non-standard campaigns in the past is this-

Players will surprise you. The things you don't know of, yet, will surprise you. Just know, going in, that you will be forced to put in additional time and make additional adjustments. If you view that as an exciting opportunity, instead of a drudgework, then you should definitely proceed.
I have no problem with that. My strengths as a DM have always been NPC characterization, improvisation, and building interesting encounters. My weaknesses have always been maintaining campaign and plot continuity, and doing pre-game workups (I'm terminally lazy!). So I'm working on a game where I give myself lots of time to address my weaknesses in hopes of mitigating them. There's no overarching plot, the game is about a classic D&D trope of establishing your place in the world through exploration, looting, and building up connections with important people (or not-people). All of the major islands will be sketched out, and random generation tables will be in place for minor, random excursions. Since Vancian spellcasting isn't in the game, I'll be able to maintain some control of the character's abilities by judicious placement of powerful magic.
 

Saelorn

Hero
So, basic question, is there something fundamental to D&D that would be lost in such a scenario? Am I inviting my players to tie me up and kick me in the crotch for proposing such a terrible idea? Am I missing anything? (I have a bunch of supporting house rules for this idea, but I haven't posted them.)
The thing you describe in the post is different from the subject line of the thread.

There are plenty of versions of D&D where characters don't have choices after first level. There is no version where no character gains any additional powers after first level. For the versions without choices, those powers were gained at higher levels, but were set in stone and did not offer a choice.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
The thing you describe in the post is different from the subject line of the thread.

There are plenty of versions of D&D where characters don't have choices after first level. There is no version where no character gains any additional powers after first level. For the versions without choices, those powers were gained at higher levels, but were set in stone and did not offer a choice.
That's fair. Do you feel that the lack of having predefined powers granted at higher level is enough to make it not feel like D&D?
 

Saelorn

Hero
That's fair. Do you feel that the lack of having predefined powers granted at higher level is enough to make it not feel like D&D?
Personally, it wouldn't bother me. I mostly played Fighters, because I didn't want to experience the disappointment of never getting my cool power at level 4 or 10. I think that giving all important powers at level 1, and then having those powers improve over time, will let players focus more on the game at hand instead of what might happen in the distant future.
 

MostlyDm

Explorer
Sounds fantastic, though a fair amount of work as has been said.

I do wonder if the 5e framework is the best fit; A different rules framework might lend itself to this more easily. That said, I'm still running a BX/3.5E6 mashup that's 80% home brew and 20% recognizable D&D rules and its probably the most fun I've ever had running a game. I think 5e would've been even better than 3.5 as a starting point. So I think you can definitely do it. And it sounds really cool!

If you're ever interested in sharing more of your house rules, that would be awesome. You've piqued my curiosity now.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
Sounds fantastic, though a fair amount of work as has been said.

I do wonder if the 5e framework is the best fit; A different rules framework might lend itself to this more easily. That said, I'm still running a BX/3.5E6 mashup that's 80% home brew and 20% recognizable D&D rules and its probably the most fun I've ever had running a game. I think 5e would've been even better than 3.5 as a starting point. So I think you can definitely do it. And it sounds really cool!

If you're ever interested in sharing more of your house rules, that would be awesome. You've piqued my curiosity now.
Sure thing...here's what I have so far. I have more ideas for backgrounds, just trying to establish a template for now.

1) Every player chooses a race and a background from the list below. Class is not used. You level as normal, every time you gain a level you get a new Hit Die (always a d10, although some backgrounds get bonus hit points) and your proficiency bonus increases at 5, 9, 13, 17 like normal. Weapon, armor, skill proficiencies are all in the backgrounds. Ideals, bonds, and flaws you make up to fit your character, or you can borrow some from the PHB.

2) Some of the backgrounds are magical (they have cantrips and/or abilities like Warlock invocations), but no background gives you casting ability. Magic generally works this way:

-Arcana proficiency gives you access to arcane magic, which revolves around sympathy between words and materials. Arcanists are always searching for special reagents which can create more powerful effects, as well as the proper procedures to channel them. To make a fireball wand, for example, might require the heart of a fire drake, the wood of a charred oak, AND a scroll that tells you the magic words to bind the magical energy. Arcane magic is good for powerful elemental effects and manipulation of matter, but it isn’t good for affecting people’s bodies, minds, or changes to a larger area.

-Religion proficiency gives you basic knowledge of the Godrunes, the primordial language spoken by the 4 Creators (The Stormfather, the Sun Queen, the Drowned Earth, and the Mother of Monsters). These runes can grant you power over the flesh and souls of the creatures of the gods, allowing one to mend injury, bind or banish both the undead and the Mother’s demons, as well as bind enchantments to strengthen the will and the flesh of a willing party.

-Nature proficiency gives you knowledge of basic herb and animal lore, as well as simple binding chants that are a combination of sympathy and rune lore. (Basically, alchemists and hedge witches have Nature proficiency to make healing potions, restoration potions, etc.) It also gives you knowledge of the nature spirits that live in the Mirror Lands, the hidden home of the elves and other fey creatures. These spirits are often tricksters, but can give boons of magical totems and fetishes that can grant all sort of strange effects. Shapeshifting, weird teleportation abilities, and illusions are the sort of abilities granted by nature spirits.

3) The game is set on a group of islands. At the start of the game, the party starts on a small ship. Everyone makes 2 characters, and may flip between them during adventures. Your PCs and 4-5 NPCs make up the crew of the ship. Everyone has proficiency with sailing stuff, like tying ropes, knowing how to row a boat, etc.

4) Hit Points: Every time you level, reroll all of your Hit Dice. Maximize 1 die of your choice. Add your Constitution modifier times your level. If this number is higher than your current hit point total, make that your new hit point total.

5) XP is not gained from monsters. You gain 1 XP for every gold piece you spend on something non-essential to your adventuring. If you go to town and spend 1000gp, whether on a donation to the local orphanage or on ale and whores, you gain 1000 XP. If you buy upgrades for the ship or cargo to trade, that also counts. You can make money (and therefore XP) by trading, although it will probably be a little slow. If you buy 5 healing potions, or a new sword, or buy ink to scribe scrolls, that does not count towards XP.

Backgrounds

Swashbuckler
Description: An agile fighter type. Pretty basic, your typical pirate.
Weapon proficiencies: All simple weapons, all martial “Finesse” weapons, shortbows, hand crossbows.
Armor proficiencies: Light, medium, shields.
Saving Throw proficiencies: Dex, Cha
Skill proficiencies: Choose 4 from this list: Acrobatics, Athletics, Deception, Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Perception, Performance, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth.
You gain the following special abilities:
+2 to all of your main hand attacks when using a one handed weapon.
You may add your Dex modifier to any off-hand attack you make.
You add +1 to your AC if you use a shield.
3 times per short test, you can parry an attack. Spend your reaction and roll a d8. You can add that roll to your AC on an attack that hits you. If you roll a 7-8, you may make one attack against the creature that hit you (if you can reach it).
The first enemy you attack on your turn may not make attacks of opportunity against you.
Your speed increases by 5 feet.
 

Saeviomagy

Adventurer
Without some sort of currency for advancement, you might be in danger of having one character get all the abilities.

That said, there are a lot of natural currencies like time and money, and if your players are reasonable and mechanically aware, then it might never be an issue.

Just watch out for the archetype that I always seem to end up as in crpgs that allow that sort of advancement - the meisterthief swordmaster archmage.
 

Wik

First Post
I have a similar goal to yours for the long run, and honestly, I don't think D&D is the way to go for that end goal. Or, if you do, go with generic classes from UA 3rd edition - three base classes that level up as you go, and then you hand out abilities as the result of adventures.

Were I to do it, I'd have a Skyrim style game where PCs level up as they use abilities (and those abilities level up through being used)... and have "feats" that are gained each time a PC levels that are unlocked at certain skill thresholds.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
Just watch out for the archetype that I always seem to end up as in crpgs that allow that sort of advancement - the meisterthief swordmaster archmage.
Understood, no plans to run a Robert Jordan/Terry Goodkind campaign. :)

In all seriousness, attaching gold dependencies to pretty much everything is my plan. If the characters have enough gold to be comfortable and then use large amounts of downtime training (in the years), I'm planning some contingencies to make them less comfortable.

I have a similar goal to yours for the long run, and honestly, I don't think D&D is the way to go for that end goal. Or, if you do, go with generic classes from UA 3rd edition - three base classes that level up as you go, and then you hand out abilities as the result of adventures.

Were I to do it, I'd have a Skyrim style game where PCs level up as they use abilities (and those abilities level up through being used)... and have "feats" that are gained each time a PC levels that are unlocked at certain skill thresholds.
I've considered the idea of the UA generic classes, maybe bolted onto a E6 framework. But one of my main goals is to not use Vancian casting, but still keep the D&D identity and feel. I liked 5e better for that, and my current group is much more comfortable with 5e now rather than going back all the way to 3e.

The idea of leveling up abilities by use is something I've considered as well, but I don't know if I want to develop mechanics for it. I'm OK with the feel of using character level as a general proxy for skill use. Since they have relatively few abilities anyway, I'm assuming they'll get used.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
So, basic question, is there something fundamental to D&D that would be lost in such a scenario? Am I inviting my players to tie me up and kick me in the crotch for proposing such a terrible idea? Am I missing anything? (I have a bunch of supporting house rules for this idea, but I haven't posted them.)
No, mostly I think it would be fine. It sounds like you are just trying to merge the concept of class (i.e. a character's role in adventures + progressive abilities) into background, and give it the name of the second.

You may have some issues with the presentation, just because if you don't call them "classes" then you'll hear people complaining "but your game doesn't have classes!", while in fact it does... they are lighter classes than standard D&D, but your expanded backgrounds will cover just the same idea.

I definitely like your idea of trying to bind advancement with the story. Even within the strict classes structure of D&D you could do that, but then probably some players would feel "railroaded" too much, because probably this would take the form of restrictions in what a PC can choose at next level. In 3e Unearthed Arcana there was something similar: IIRC backgrounds were basically suggested level-up choices (or forced choices, if you decided to make them mandatory) based on what has happened to the character recently, including multiclassing/feats/skill choices. Doing something similar but based on items found and NPC met, as you suggest, is better.
 

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