A Deck of Many Things: Using AD&D's Mixed Bag of Rules and Loving Them

I've posted at length about adjusted-to-hit AC Type; Weapon Speed Factor; Miniature Movement; Segments and Surprise and covered (I hope) how we've resurrected these mysterious and archaic things from "those old books" and brought them to vibrant life in our campaign. This time I'm going to talk about miscellaneous rules in the DMG and PHB that make the game "hard" and why I use them.

One of the most revered magic items in my campaign of nearly 4 years is a golden suit of weightless plate mail +3, lined with crushed red velvet and bearing a simple phrase in golden thread inside the back of the collar, which reads: "The Castle".

It is held in awe by the party because it is the only suit of magical plate mail they've ever found and unlike most magical armor (which is half the weight of non-magical armor) the Castle is truly weightless.

But there is another special thing about the Castle. It has no drawbacks. It is purely beneficial, which is something wonderful in the world of AD&D.

The hardships of the system (if wielded properly) ensure that the party must cooperate as a skilled team in order to survive and progress. The thief cannot beat the Paladin in combat, but the Paladin cannot climb the wall to the demon's treasury. The Paladin can bring down the Ogre, but is powerless to carry all the gold without the Magic-User's floating disk. And so on.

A limitless number of Achilles Heels can bring even high-level characters down with a single roll. An even broader assortment of limitations prevent abuse and what modern gamers term "Munchkinism".

Let's talk about some rules that can be beneficial to your game even if they seem thorny at first glance.

System Shock

The PHB calls out system shock: ANY TIME the character is affected by unnatural/magical aging (or) petrification (or) polymorph, they must make a system shock roll or die. Harsh but vital. Haste and Potions of Speed force the fighter to run this risk. So does Resurrection and Wish. Without this check to powerful magics the campaign becomes a world where everyone is always hasted and magic-users are altering the fabric of the planet without consequence. Use it unrelentingly.

Not that long ago, the party (in my game) convinced their organization to resurrect their 6th level magic-user, cuz you know, 6th level magic-users are totally worth it. The 16th level NPC cleric finally relented and took the risk, aged, and failed the roll (which I made in the open) for system shock. The organization traded a 16th level cleric for a 6th level magic-user and the party lost its source of easy healing.

Sometimes painful moments make for great stories.

Level Cap for Non-Humans

Lots of discussion on this over the years. I support it for a host of reasons. While dwarves and elves may scoff at magically aging a year or two, they still have to make their system shock checks, so that's not the reason for me. Although I LIKE the idea of a human-centric world where the shortest-lived sparks burn the brightest, that's not a mechanical "reason". If you run a demi-human you get a suite of powers at first level that can help you live as long as your race allows...and you get to multi-class, which is what you should be doing anyway. Multi-classing is huge. Elf-blooded magic-users casting spells in armor without penalty. That's as old school as it gets. And I fully embrace and allow it because that character's awesome perks come at a cost and hey, who really cares? He's probably going to die before level 10 anyway. Seriously though, none of those reasons are the "real" reason. I could use them to help bolster my position but the truth is I use level caps b/c those are the rules. I have no interest in endlessly tinkering with the system. I prefer to spend my creativity on the setting, the adventures, the NPCs, new monsters and magic items and so on. I play AD&D (as much as possible) as written and springboard from those words as intended.

I also use the racial min max for ability scores because I am racist against elves and dwarves and hobbits, erm, halflings. I prefer my players to play human races, of which there are many.

Final note is that I do not enforce the gender caps on ability scores. Unlike the above, which supports my bias toward human characters, the gender rules serve no purpose. I use racial min max for males as the rules for both sexes.

Crushing Blow

Item Saving Throws are fantastic! They add real tension without often generating negative experiences. And they ground important attacks and events by putting objects (not just PCs) at risk. Most of the time, valued possessions such as magical armor get enough bonuses (+2 for being magical and an additional +1 for each enchantment level) that the roll seldom fails. Lesser (and therefore more easily replaceable) gear fails more often and sets your players up for the drama of each roll.

It's good to have this chart in front of you to remind you to call for saves. I force a save vs Crushing Blow each and every time a giant strikes a character. When they fall into a pit, there's an Item Save for that too. Which items have to save? Use DM fiat. Typically a shield or armor, but maybe the backpack. If the pack fails, then everything inside also has to save. I provide players with the Item Saving Throw Matrix so they can handle it in short order.

And yes, we HAVE had a character die when the pack failed vs fire and then all the oil flasks inside also failed. She exploded in flame. It was a memorable moment. The PCs now typically carry only 2 or 3 flasks.

Spell Costs

I don't like things that slow the game down. Making abstraction of spell components is fine for me, so long as the casters don't run amok. Components with costs of 10 gp or more require the caster to erase the money from their character sheet at the time of casting, which keeps them from casting certain spells out of hand. Here's a handy list of spells, accompanied by the component and the cost in GP for that component. This is how I prevent abuse. Note that if you fail to enforce costs (especially costs such as magical aging: which requires a system shock check) magic-users will probably destroy your campaign. Casting spells from this list is also a nice treasure sink for the campaign.

First Level

Bless holy water 25

Ceremony varies. See UA p. 32 ?

Create Water a drop of water ?

Enlarge careful of abuse. See DMG p. 44

Find Familiar Incense + Herbs 1,000

Identify Pearl 100

Wizard Mark diamond dust 100

Write magical ink 500

Second Level

Augury crushed pearl 100

Charm careful of abuse. See DMG p. 43

Fool's Gold powdered gem 10

Heat Metal careful of abuse. See DMG p. 43

Scare undead bone 100

Spiritual Hammer war hammer 1

Third Level

Animate Dead human flesh ?

Clairaudience tiny horn 100

Detect Lie gold dust 10

Flame Walk powdered ruby 500

Glyph of Warding powdered diamond 2,000

Haste Aging 1 year

Melf's Minute Meteors gold tube 10

Non-Detection diamond dust 100

Secret Page will-o-wisp 500

Sepia Snake Sigil powdered amber 100

Wind Wall exotic feather 10

Fourth Level

Abjure holy water 25

Divination sacrificial creature ?

Evard's Black Tentacles bit of giant octopus tentacle 10

Exorcise holy water 25

Illusionary Wall rare dust 400

Magic Mirror silver mirror 1,000

Minor Globe of Invulnerbility crystal 100

Otiluke's Resilient Sphere diamond or gem 100

Rary's Mnemonic Enhancer ivory + rare ichor 200

Spell Imunity same as protected spell ?

Sticks to Snakes Sticks

Stoneskin diamond dust 100

Fifth Level

Commune holy water 25

Dismissal **foreknowledge item ?

Dispel Evil holy water 25

False Vision emerald dust 500

Golem special. See UA p. 39 ?

Magic Font holy water font DMG p. 114

Magic Jar large gem 100

Plane Shift ingredient depends on plane ?

Rainbow holy water + diamond 1,025

Summon Shadow smokey quartz 10

True Seeing rare oinment aged 6 months 100

Wall of Force powdered diamond 10,000

Sixth Level

Blade Barrier The AOE is stationary. DMG p. 42

Contingency quicksilver + ivory + rare monster 400

Death Fog strong acid 20

Death Spell crushed black pearl 1,000

Ensnarement Special (see UA p. 60) ?

Forbiddance holy water 25

Globe of Invulnerbility crystal 200

Guards and Wards rare blood 200

Heroes' Feast rare fermented honey 50

Legend Lore ivory + item of value to caster 100 ++

Otiluke's Freezing Sphere diamond 1,000

Phantromas' Caustic Creations strong acid + rare animal part 400

Repulsion ivory and ebony 100

Spiritwrack special + powdered ruby 6,000

Transfuse rare blood 200

Tenser's Transformation potion of heroism 1,500

Transmute Water to Dust diamond dust 500

Word of Recall very, very dangerous. DMG p. 42

Seventh Level

Alter Reality Aging 3 years

Banishment **foreknowledge item ?

Drawmij's Instant Summons gem 5,000

Duo-Dimension ivory 500

Exaction material from the proper plane ?

Forcecage powdered diamond 1,000

Holy Word only works on caster's home plane

Limited Wish Aging 1 year

Mordenkainen's Magnificent Mansion ivory + marble + silver 150

Mordenkainen's Sword platinum effigy 500

Regenerate holy water 25

Restoration Aging 2 years

Resurrection Aging 3 years

Sequester rare monster part 500

Simulacrum ice statue + ruby + special 5,000

Succor (cleric) special item 5,000

Vision something valuable to caster ?

Wind Walk fire + holy water 25

Eighth Level

Anitpathy/Sympathy crushed pearls 1,000

Binding special. See US p. 63 ?

Clone flesh from target ?

Demand hair from target ?

Otiluke's Telekinetic Sphere diamond 1,000

Permanency Lose 1 point CON (PHB p. 91) ?

Serten's Spell Imunity diamond + diamond(s) 500 + 500 ea

Symbol powdered black opal & diamond 5,000

Trap the Soul gem 1,000 per HD

Ninth Level

Energy Drain spectre or vampire dust 1,000

Gate Aging 5 Years

Shape Change jade circlet 5,000

Succor gems (once per month) 5,000

Temporal Stasis powdered gems 400

Wish Aging 3 years

Zero HP Bedrest

My players have a saying for when their characters reach zero hp. "I've been First Editioned." I love that they say this. Getting first editioned is a pain in the ass, but it underscores the way AD&D is meant to be played: with a stable of characters, rotating them in and out of play for various reasons and therefore mitigating a portion of the pain when one of them dies.

Zero HP is meant to create a truly painful penalty for overreaching during the adventure. Folks presume that low HP in D&D is meaningless, that whether you have 2 HP or 50 it's the same. But, if enforced ruthlessly, the zero HP rule changes this. Players swiftly realize that being completely incapacitated even after being revived with Cure Light Wounds sucks. They can't move, cast, defend or even speak at length.

When they complain I tell them, "You were just run over by a truck and you should be in the ICU (or dead) but instead you're barely conscious on a cold dungeon floor. Be grateful."

Now days, my players get nervous when they run below half HP. They talk tactically about whether to press on or retreat to town. Zero HP is a big deal. It is the penalty box for being too brazen.

To help with the down-time, there are usually hirelings or henchmen or NPCs for players to run if they find themselves suddenly incapacitated (or dead).

I strongly recommend this rule because of how it changes the way players behave. It also makes a ring of regeneration a pass-around super-powerful magic device because I rule that if the ring brings you to full HP, the need for bedrest is neutralized and you're good to go. Even that is great for drama. 1 HP per turn in a dungeon has been a nail-biting experience.

1 HP Per Night of Rest

Hand in hand with the above, is the precious rule that under the BEST of circumstances, characters should get only 1 HP per night of rest (and none if the rest is disturbed or uncomfortable). This rule is at the top of my list. It makes the power of the cleric and the paladin REAL and precious. It makes every HP in every battle count. It encourages smart, tactical planning instead of repetitive gate-crashing. It works wonders for player cooperation. It's cruelty is good medicine for your game. Players do not like this rule. But if you love your players they will understand at a subconscious level that this is BTB, that these are the rules and that you are not their enemy. At some point they might even realize that the cruelty of those rules is the reason they've been having so much fun in your campaign for years. And this is because eventually, they will rise above these rules though magic items and spells and they will feel genuinely transcended above the dirty masses of your world. AD&D is not the story of a hero. It is the story of the lucky few who beat the odds and BECAME heroes.

Shields vs Multiple Attacks

Low AC got you down? Did you know that a Small Shield is only good vs 1 melee attack per round? (PHB p. 36) Medium Shields are good vs up to 2 attacks per round and Large Shields are good vs up to 3. I typically let the player choose which attack to use the shield against. Often they will use it against the bite or whatever they see as most dangerous. If you run shields as written, they aren't just part of a static number, they're a movable bonus the player can add to their AC vs the attacks that matter most.


Why not just always carry a large shield then? Because it weighs so much! Encumbrance is another rule that many DMs discard. My group does not. We make the best effort at being accurate. This is helped by the excel character sheet I made that auto tallies the weight of armor, weapons, supplies and gear. If you don't know how much something weighs, don't look it up, just guess and come to a consensus. Even ball parking the number, the PCs quickly understand how little they can carry, especially if wearing heavy armor. The need for pack animals and other expeditionary aids is increased. The believably of your world goes up. The advantage of spells like Tenser's Floating Disk skyrocket. If you want your players to take your adventure seriously, you must force them to think as if the situation was real. When it becomes apparent that you are accounting for detail, they will begin thinking in detail and you will then reward them for it.

You: "But, Anthony, notating the weight of my gear is too much work."

Me: "You are a player. I am a DM. Let me tell you about work. Let me tell you about spreadsheets and what I keep track of and how much time I spend on prep. Your job is not to simply show up and play your character. Your job is to DM your character. Run it with the same pride and attentiveness that I bring to the world and the adventures. Because only then are you a participant in creating the experience. And, on top of that, you'll have my thanks and appreciation."

Incremented THAC0 for the Fighter

Anthony, it's so hard to hit monsters in AD&D. I always miss!

Well, you can do what I did, use to-hit-AC-type adjustments AND utilize the option on p. 74 of the DMG: modify the to-hit progression for fighters so they advance 1 point every level. I did this. And then I extrapolated for all the classes. Keep in mind that I did not modify the velocity of progression, only the increments at which that velocity was tracked. Therefore, since clerics leap from THAC0 20 to THAC0 18, it's safe to put a 19 in between those two steps. And I did so. It's a subtle change that doesn't overly affect balance and allows for a slight increase to the frequency of level-up perks. You can see my modifications by downloading my DM Screen here.

Mind Blast Saving Throws

In the Monster Manual, the mind flayer gotz the mind bullets. Mind Blast is the only psionic attack that can affect non-psionic characters. When it happens, the saving throw is a product of the PC's INT+WIS and I added this save to the character sheet so that play never slows even for the rare occasion that it's necessary. I'll talk more about this when I get to psionics.

XP Cap & Level Training

These things might seem onerous to anyone that has not used them religiously over an extended period of time. Here's what I can tell you about how they impact the mechanics of the game.

First, I don't allow new players to start characters above 1st level.

Pshaw! H-h-how could that ever work, Anthony?

It works because of the character stable and the notion that there is more than one party functioning in the world doing tasks of different levels. It also works because characters die regularly. It further works because I don't penalize the XP of low level characters who go adventuring with higher level characters so long as the higher level characters are PCs and not NPCs.

If you enforce level cap in this way, you will see noobs rapidly shoot up in the shadow of an experienced party and, often, you will see level-cap help to unify or help normalize the levels of the group. I myself was actually surprised that it worked this way, but here's an example.

Level 5 fighter is only 1,000 XP from level 6. Level three fighter is at bottom of three (having just trained) and needs a full 4,000 XP to level. The party takes the treasure from their next adventure to town and the XP for each character comes in at 4,200 XP.

With level cap, the 5th level fighter gains only 1,000 XP and finally levels up. The extra XP just slide off him and he'll start at bottom of next level after training. But the third level fighter enjoys almost the full amount of XP: 4,000, and she shoots straight up to level 4 in one session. Unfair? Hardly. You are playing AD&D. It is a lethal system filled with death. And it's great for PCs to be similar levels. They are not going to be the same level. But you will find that this matters much less in Old School than it does in modern systems anyway.

Training costs are, of course, ridiculous. You have to tone them down or the party won't be able to pay for all members to level. I myself use the cost of training as is, but substitute SP for GP and it works out fine. Besides, I'm already taxing their hauls, enforcing tithes, charging them with sages, hirelings, research and so on. There are treasure-sinks a plenty.

1 GP = 1 XP

This is a critical rule in AD&D and if you don't use it, the party will never level up, plus you will drive all the wrong behaviors in the party and cause limitless frustration.

Remember, the system is incredibly lethal. HP recovery is hard. Zero HP rules are brutal. How does it make sense then that most XP should come from killing monsters?

Monster XP is a consolation for having won the fight. But the things that give you power are brains and money. If you can get the money with brains instead of brawn, you're so much the better. Potions of Treasure Finding make sense. Scouting and planning make sense. Leveling up is no longer a painfully slow process if treasure is the throttle and you just scored a massive hoard through brain power.

But Anthony, that's so much money!

No. Not really. Not really at all. To better understand the buying power of treasure and what it means as status in the world, I think of 1 SP as 1 $USD. A single GP is therefore $20 and a platinum piece is a Benjamin $100.

A 6,000 GP jeweled crown is therefore worth $120,000. Whereas a real jeweled crown might be worth millions. In the ranks of millionaires and billionaires, your adventurers hauling piles of gold to town will still only classify as "wealthy"...and the money will go fast. When they divide the spoils among 5 or more party members, pay all the bills and then try to build a fortress they are going to need millions of GP to even begin to classify as "rich".

It is my opinion that magic items are too easy to come by in many campaigns while proper monetary treasure is far too difficult. Treasure stinginess bogs down progression and enhances the pain of character death. Plentiful treasure (combined with infinite demands for spending) make level-loss to undead, character death and many other things easier to swallow.

Thirst for treasure is not really a silly abstraction, it is founded on the real principal that kingdoms are built out of wealth...and kingdom building is what high-level AD&D is all about.

Treasure as XP is the foundation of balancing your game. The characters will literally need tons of it. So don't be shy. Consider how quickly you could spend a million dollars if you had it. Then consider how quickly you would NEED to spend a million dollars if you wanted to rub elbows with the rich people living in your neck of the woods...or had to pay for enormous legal or medical bills. Money goes quick so make sure your hoards are worth the trouble.

That's it for now.

Next time, Psionics.

520 views1 comment