We had our fourth session of the Oghmanomicon Campaign yesterday. The player of the "party leader", aka the Oracle of Oghma was missing, so the other two dudes (his Monk bodyguard and their dwarven Ranger guide) went to rescue the poor sod, who got kidnapped by a bunch of ruffians and doppelgangers (who also stole their money). They also revealed what might come to be a recurring villain (I have no say over it. ie. I'm sticking with the principles of "Play to find out what happens.", "Don't plan ahead." & "Don't have a solution in mind.")
I had some ideas of how to handle this kind of player absence and I had some dungeon sketches and ideas in mind, but I mostly ran this out of my head. I forgot part of my prep at home, I didn't have any prep at all for some other locations, and the locations I did have prep for didn't get visited because the ranger was cautious and avoided any unnecessary conflicts and distractions, going straight for the Oracle. I also had to time it right, because we didn't have much time to play, and I was aiming for them to find the old sage by the end of the session. It went ok, although I could be happier with some parts.
What the session served well for, was trying out a few houserules. As Mearls writes here, you can't really know how well a house rule is going to fare until it hits the table. Maybe it sounds super-cool when you're alone at home, thinking, but when you're sitting behind the screen and playing, you suddenly realize it's better not to implement it.
Houseruling is not unlike game design in many ways. You're using the mechanics to change how people behave at the table and what kind of fiction the game produces. And it needs playtesting.
I already talked about house rules in this D&D game (one and two). Some of those I've tried, some I've discarded without even trying. It's a thing it progress. If I take everything I've written in those two posts and filter it through the actual play that got done between then and now, I could compress my "house rules" (parenthesis, because they're not all rules, but also principles and agenda) down to the following points:
1. I am definitely drifting the rules towards classic oD&D. Have been doing so since before I even knew what classic D&D was like. My chief three influences right now are Swords & Wizardry White Box, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the Rules Cyclopedia. Also a plethora of oldschool blogs and such.
2. I am going for the nostalgia value. Even if rules-wise I'm going for the 70's-80's version of the game, as far as our group is concerned, gaming started with 3rd edition in 2000. I'm trying to recapture that old feel, even up to including cheesy metal soundtracks.
3. In line with those, I'm doing the following:
I'm trying not to rely on books, if I need a monster, I'm going to stat it up myself (I kinda broke this mandate yesterday, because I didn't have all my prep), having simple monster stats (such as they were in oD&D) helps a lot with this. Same goes for magic items, spells, everything. The purpose is to recapture the sense of wonder and the unknown. I also want a world that's a little more naturalistic, more sandboxy, and not of the funfair ride sort.
3.1. Although 3.x/Pathfinder is far more codified, I'm still trying to go by the old school "Rulings not rules." mantra, although following it would mean throwing a lot of stuff out. I'll say a few more words about this in a follow-up post.
4. We're not using a grid. The grid always felt too rigid, stunted and far too prescriptive for my tastes. You don't really get a feeling for what's actually going on. The positioning/combat in my game tries to be descriptive instead of prescriptive. Although I think I might reintroduce the grid, because the main culprit for that stunted feel was not the Grid itself but rather Initiative, coupled with the Grid. Therefore...
5. No initiative rules. At least not the ones from 3.x/Pathfinder. The current rule of thumb I'm using is this.
a. I decide what my monsters are doing and stick with that decision. I ask the players what they are doing.
b. We all roll. I resolve the rolls from highest to lowest, describing the new situation. Things happen simultaneously.
addendum c. If you're doing something that doesn't require a roll and I need to know your "initiative", I will ask for an ability check instead, depending on what you're doing. If you're going for a better position (most of the time), that's a Dex check, for example.
addendum d. If you have the Improved Initiative feat you still get a +4 to the roll for purposes of determining which roll resolves first (but not as an actual bonus to the roll itself).
6. Hit Points are your Ability to Stay in the Fight. Actual play revealed that I will not be keeping player HP secret. But: all "damage" that comes before you hit 0 HP is not really damage. It's loosing your footing, being pressed, loosing heart, having bad luck, getting a few bruises and cuts, but it's all neglectable. The hit that brings you under 0 is the real wound, the one that seals the deal.
7. Death, Dying, Wounds and Conditions in combat. I already mentioned that only the hit that brings you under 0 is the real hit. For monsters, that means some horrible, mortal injury that kills them. For PCs, that will mean some brutal consequence, but never outright death. Dying still happens by the rules.
Furthermore, Critical Hits against PCs will not do "double damage" anymore, but instead impact a random condition. Hit in the legs? Slowed. In the face? Blinded. Bonked on the head? Dazed. Etc.
I might use this Critical Hit rule for monsters, too, but I feel it severely increases book-keeping, plus, the players have lots of effects, spells and abilities that impart those and other conditions already.
8. I roll the saves. I have index cards with PC stats. On them, I have their Save bonuses listed +12, written as Defenses. Poisons, monsters etc. have and "effect bonus" instead of a DC (Basically DC-10+d20). If the effect hits, I apply and describe its effect.
I'm pretty pleased with all of that so far and it seems to work in play, too. I might still change or add stuff and the game goes on, but I think that solidifies most of my changes to the ruleset.
Now, I'm still not happy with everything, to be true. But changing those other things would mean making a serious modification to the system, and that would trigger all sorts of chain reactions, bringing the whole building down. And in that case I would rather use another system altogether. As far as Pathfinder goes, I'm quite satisfied with this setup.