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some house rules for old school essentials

After more than a year running OSE games, with a long-running Dolmenwood campaign still chugging along, I thought I’d jot down the house rules I found to improve enjoyment of the game at the table, along with some thoughts.

The three “big ones” have been so helpful both in refreshing the game for veterans, and in bringing along the 5e crowd, or true beginners, in one-shot games. In my experience, they smooth out and modernise some of the B/X kinks, help the DM make rulings faster, and give the players more tension when they roll dice.

Perhaps this helps someone.

The big ones:

  • Advantage and disadvantage: clearly the best idea in 5th edition. In OSE, I use it in a slightly different way. When making ability checks, do not give the +4 or -4 threshold modifiers. Instead, roll with advantage if the check is easy, and with disadvantage if the check is hard. More dice=more fun! Of course you may also use advantage if someone is helping someone else, but crucially, do not introduce the concept of a help action! Whenever this has been present in games I’ve run, or been a part of, players shrink from roleplaying and just say “can I help him/I take the help action” and so on. And that is lame. So help=advantage should not be instituted as a mechanical thing and should not be automatic. I have used advantage and disadvantage in hundreds of rolls, but only a handful have involved help.
  • “luck roll”. Similarly, as more dice=more fun, use open dice rolls with 50-50 chance to determine some narrative aspect relating to NPCs, or certain things that may or may not be in the world. Here’s what I mean. The party ambushed a group of sleeping kobolds, and assassinated all but one of them, whom they chose to interrogate. After searching a tent in the kobold camp, they found a pouch full of trinkets clearly used by the now-defunct shaman to perform some kind of ritual. In the interrogation, it became apparent that the kobold they kept alive was the cook. They asked him whether he knew what the shaman used those trinkets for. Poor Kamon the cook probably had seen them used, but whether he knew what they were for was indeed up to luck. So this was determined by having the interrogator roll 1d20. There was a genuine moment of tension around the table. When the player rolled a 9, and the kobold convincingly blurted out “I am only the cook! Trinkets are not in my recipes!”, the fate of Kamon the cook was sealed.
  • “Find secret doors” doubles as “spot hidden” and I will occasionally have a PC roll this if they cross something that they have an off-chance to notice without actively searching. It is essentially a very weak and light passive perception. This happens less than once per session. In general, be mindful of not having perception rolls: the players tell you where they look, and you tell them. I use “spot hidden” to for example give the off chance that an enemy hiding in a bush may have made some noise, or that the character looking over a lake accidentally notices the mist rising over a particular spot, and so on.
  • All rolls are open, I have almost no “screen” (thanks runehammer). Only secret roll is random encounters and rolls related to exploration (if they get lost, they won’t immediately know it).

The mechanical ones:

  • Declare spell in combat: have the caster declare that they will cast, but not what. Less punishing than “spoil your fireball”, but still somewhat balancing the very powerful OSE spells.
  • Fighter moves: from 2nd level, if a fighter rolls 15+ and hits, he can do a move (e.g. pin, grapple). Brought to the table by one of the players.
  • I do not use encoumberance, but rely on a “please let’s not be ridiculous” system. The party has to be able to move the amount of miles per day written on their character sheet.
  • Character creation: roll 3d6, but reroll 6 and below.
  • Hirelings are controlled by the PCs, but they have ethics and rules. They are people. Besides the loyalty check, they will also actively do things if the party behaves in a way they fundamentally disagree with. This has come into play with a friar the party hired…
  • XP: Combat is relatively rare (once every 2 sessions I would say), though danger is certainly not. XP is as a number, not as milestones, and characters level as described in the rulebook. BUT:
    • Monster XP doubled
    • 1gp looted=1 party XP, no XP for magic items
    • story milestones or figuring out puzzles results in big party XP. I levelled them very fast to level 2 (1 character death), now they go much slower.
    • Characters that die are replaced by chars of equal XP but not necessarily level.

We are on something like session 20 and characters are betwen 3rd and 4th level. I find it is important to get out of 1st level between session 2 or 3, but then players are more relaxed and advance along with the story. It helps that I have amazing players that don’t care much about stats, and the loot is interesting.

And finally:

  • Run morale, evasion and pursuit as written. Just a point of emphasis here, I cannot stress how important using monster morale, retreats and pursuit properly is to the whole feel of an OSE game. It gives the game such a dynamic feel.

Published by randomtableoftheweek

A D&D, OSR and other RPG enthusiast, who likes random tables.

3 thoughts on “some house rules for old school essentials

  1. As a 5e player, I’m curious about the retreat rules — how does that work? They say they want to retreat and they just escape? What if half the party wants to escape and half wants to stay and fight?

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    1. Combat in OSE is a bit different from 5e. You reroll initiative every round, and it is group initiative. The DM rolls one roll for the monster, a player rolls for the party.
      Before initiative is rolled, players and monsters declare retreats. So if a player (or an individual monster) wants to escape, this is declared.
      There are no opportunity attacks in OSE, so if you want to move away you just can. Often, there will not be a pursuit. If there is one, it then depends on the relative speed of the characters and monsters what happens next..

      https://oldschoolessentials.necroticgnome.com/srd/index.php/Evasion_and_Pursuit

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      1. Ah, I see. I was imagining the scenario of someone wanting to retreat, getting out, then just using that distance to fire back on the enemy or something. But I suppose if they choose retreat and succeed you just cut away to a new scene not even combat related anymore.

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