Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Veterans of the Rusty Blade

Every now and then, I'm compelled to circle back to the early 2000's, to the vast open deposit of D20 material and start poking through it once more for salvage. "There's so much here," I think as I pry apart compacted layers of feats with a geology hammer, "so much meticulously crafted work, all free for the taking. There just has to be something I can make from it." 

As is usually the case, the affair begins with The Core Elements Toolbox, an obscure 2005 work by James D. Hargrove and Butch Curry that tried to distill the d20 SRD down into an intense liquor of fast easy role-playing. It doesn't quite work at that goal, for reasons I can't fully articulate, but that may be why I keep coming back to it, trying to figure where the fix needs to go. Which leads me to searching for material in the standard SRD's (core D20, D20 Modern, D20 Future and the "true romantic" SRD derived from original Blue Rose). And it's usually around True Romantic that the fatigue starts, since even that lightened version of the system is a lumbering mechanical behemoth compared to the systems I generally prefer, and I start to doubt if anything D20 can be redeemed.

So then I bounce out to Mocrolite20 to get some breathing room. Which is refreshing at first, but by laying bare the core bones of D20, Microlite rather starkly forces me to (again) realize the central problems with that whole school of design. Mechanical character optimization and min-maxing as a primary mode of play, lunk-headedly linear resolution and modelling, and constant roadblocks and speed-bumps to player initiative built in to the system by deliberate choice. Somehow, the whole manages to be both burdensome yet insubstantial, a expansive act of running in place to look busy.

Unsurprisingly, I always end my latest D20 tangent frustrated and jumping to some other project to clear my head of the affair. What I'm saying is, this is why I re-wrote Searchers of the Unknown over the weekend. So here's Rusty-Bladed Veterans.

Click the image to download the PDF

There's a lot to like about SotU, but I perceived issues with it. The language was overly casual, and thus at points unclear. And while the stated goal was B/X style play, it introduced several eccentric elements leading to a much more combat-focused experience. Because I'd just been trudging through D20, it was clear that the original writer of SotU had carried over a few D20 assumptions upon creating it. All of which were things I wanted to change. Additionally, I aimed to make the rules thoroughly compatible with B/X resources without conversion; I wanted to be able to send a party generated with the rules through B2 The Lost City using every line of the adventure's text as written. Also, I wanted to be able to run standard B/X classes alongside those characters, if it so happened old-hand players showed up for such a session.

On top of that, I threw in some elements from other SotU hacks I liked, the clever spell-casting system from Microlite20 and a means for characters to learn spells from scrolls (which weirdly I had assumed was already part of the original SotU; wonder where I picked that notion up).

I'm really pleased with how Rusty-Bladed Veterans came out. I dare even say I'd prefer using it over full B/X, since by putting all characters on the same starting foot it eliminates a lot of the disorienting disparities players have traditionally had to deal with (thief skills in particular come to mind, and demi-human abilities), doubly so for new players. Plus I prefer magical abilities earned as a consequence of play rather than as preordained advancements. I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out at the table.

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