It is possible to take the sleek ultra-modern design of Pathfinder Beginner Box (which is essentially 12 years worth of refined D20 Dungeons and dragons stripped to its barest form) and meld it with the obsolete old school editions to create ONE GAME to rule them all.
I shall attempt, in this series of articles to emulate the methods of many madmen of human history who attempted to create something new by combining diverse things: Basic, Expert, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons combined with Pathfinder Beginner Box (and elements of Core Pathfinder) to create the perfect fantasy role playing game.
Beware, O Gentle Reader, lest I continue this series with a Part 2: Integrating the Power of 4E. To the fifth edition and beyond…
Or something like that. This project is about using the Pathfinder Begginner Box as a basis to build a retro-classic game of D&D. The goal is to play a Temple of Elemental Evil mini-campaign levels 1-8 (or thereabouts, we may stop before the nodes) as close to the original as possible, using the most modern “gamer friendly” system out there. There are some things that annoy me about every version of D&D (with the exception of first edition – she was a saint!) so I will be surreptitiously changing some things based on my preferences alone, but most of these house rules are designed according to a scientific determination of categorically superior game design.
First up, character creation
Pathfinder Beginner Box uses the classic “roll 4d6, drop the lowest and add them together” and then has the player assign them to whichever ability they choose. To be more traditional, it is better to write the scores down in the order they were rolled – strength, dex, etc. After the first roll, the dm should assure all players that there are plenty of chances to increase their scores ahead, and that rolling completely average was ok. The benefit of this is that many players discover a concept for their character as the ability scores unfold.
Then the player can switch any two ability scores around. By switching them around after they are rolled, the character concept has had a chance to grow and now it can be fine tuned with some ability score swapping. Now the character can formally choose race and class, and alter the ability scores per the racial modifiers. The last step, straight out of the original basic rules, is that the player may, if they choose, subtract 2 from one score and add 1 to another. In this manner the ability scores can be tweaked into practically any character concept.
Skill and feat selection should be done as quickly as possible. Some players may want to spend more time delving into some of the options (like feats for human fighters) but most characters should take the default. The reason for this is that the default choices offer the quickest route to play, and that if an inquisitive or wise player wants to leaf through the book and change some choices later on, that is ok. For skills, the points can be distributed down the class skill list, and the player can then spend whatever are left over, if any. For feats, only fighters and humans need to spend much time here, and power attack-cleave is the obvious option.
It angers me that feats were included in the Pathfinder Beginner Box, and I would assign them rather as class options at each applicable level. They are one of the ways that characters are customized, and are an innovation of new school character design, but it is an imperfect design – with many possible pitfalls and paralysis of choice by the large numbers. AS class options, done in the manner of rogue talents, they are easier to handle. The only saving grace of the Pathfinder Beginner Box is that there are so few feats, but this exacerbates the problem that it is even more likely to offer sub-optimal picks, like a wizard taking power attack for example. Feats as class options at each applicable level is the way to go.
Finally, I would like to have seen the characters roll for wealth, and would house rule the chart straight out of the 1e PHB which matches up just fine with the equipment costs found in the Beginner Box. One last house rule I was sorely tempted to add, was to change modifiers so that a 15 was +1, 16 was +2, 17 was + 3, and 18 was +4. The only reason I didn’t was because it was easier to go along with what was printed in the book, and I felt like the players might balk. In the end, the modifiers do not affect the Old school vibe of the game, so I left them alone. For now.
Group initiative. Both sides roll d6, winner goes first. If it is a tie, whichever side has the highest initiative mod goes first.
During its turn each combatant can do a main and minor action. Attack, move, charge, cast a spell are all main actions. Take a step, stand up, drop prone, quaff potion are all minor actions. Double move is a full round run action.
These rules, added to the core combat rules of the Pathfinder Beginner Box, brings combat closer to its original mechanics, and allows for gridless, miniatureless play, since exact distances are not as important as general positioning. The original rules featured combat turns of 1 minute apiece, and no one wants to return to that. Even while playing 1st edition, we house ruled that combat was quicker, generally around 15 seconds or so. We used miniatures then and still do today, but the placement on the table is more of an overview rather than precise positioning, though that can be accomodated when needed.
Turns fly by when players can focus on getting from A to B, instead of thinking of 2 or 3 separate actions they need to “fill up” to have a full turn. State your action, make a roll, and move on to the next. Having group initiative also facilitates this method of play, by having the next person around the table alerted that their turn is coming up by the actions of the guy next to him.
Finally, a 20 is always a critical hit, and a 1 is always a critical fail. We do not use “confirming critical threats” because that is stupid. This rule is for EVERY D20 rolled in the game, whether it be in combat, or a skill or ability check or anything else. A 20 is always wild success, and a 1 is always a humiliating failure. In combat, we use the critical hit and miss deck, published by Paizo, who also publish the Pathfinder Beginner Box.
There are a few other rules I would like to add over the coming campaign. One idea is to do away with the skill advancement system altogether, and instead have characters start out with their class skills only. Then, during play, whenever a natural 20 is rolled during a skill check, that skill goes up a point.
If this campaign achieves the heights where an assault on the lower levels of the dungeons, an “expert” set of levels 6-8 would be a possible expansion. I envision every class “specializing” at level 6, where fighters can choose to become weapon masters, paladins, or rangers. Clerics can become druids, avengers, or monks, etc. I would also like to add halflings, and some other “half” races.
Decades of egg-headed nerds have raged over every single rule in the dungeons and dragons game to the point that each is as hard and polished as a diamond. At its CORE, the dungeons and dragons game retains its essence throughout every version, and over the years, the trend has been mostly to refine and perfect the game. Mechanically the game is as close to perfect as it is likely to ever get. House ruling the Pathfinder Beginner Box with elements of classic “old school” design ethos creates a great game of Old School Basic.
You can read about the weekly game using this system as we adventure through the Temple of Elemental Evil. And watch for more articles in this series as the campaign grows.