Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Fewest Rules

How little do you need to game? I don't mean diceless games or improv theater or anything. What I mean is if you're going to game somewhere inconvenient, say a cave ;), what can you get by with if playing your favorite rpg?

How many pages do you need to run a game?

I remember having a camping expedition that required hiking into the Sierras and back in to a small lake. I was DMing 1e and I made myself some traveling rules.

Though I doubt you could tell it from my room, or my life, I seem to have some kind of efficiency fetish; I like things doing more with less.

That's one of the reasons I loved the randomizing chart in the back of the Lone Wolf gamebooks. It was a grid filled randomly with numbers from 1-10 and the idea was that you would close your eyes and pick one out with a pencil. No dice needed! Perfect for mountain D&D. So I preceded to make similar charts for all the die types. A fact which much amused ze Bulette and Marcus on our recent trip. ( Just wait, one day you'll lose a die down a gully and you'll see! haha).

You can see me d4 diceless randomizer in the pic below. I don't think we ever really used them; seem to recall the players bringing their own dice.

Anyway, on my recent trip I was surprised at how little I really needed to play my slightly tweaked version of Swords & Wizardry. And I want to push in that direction, streamlining and eliminating what I don't need.

Before you answer the question of how many pages you'd need let's make two qualifications 1) you haven't memorized anything through sheer dog-headed persistence. I mean I'm sure there are grognards out there that have all of 1e's charts memorized. But let's limit it to what a newbie DM on their first or second session might remember. And 2) lets assume that play will involve consistent levels. In other words if it isn't a starting party, at least everyone will all be near the same level.

Okay, it took me forever to remember the AC of leather armor, so I'm going to want a list of armor classes. I also don't remember all the weapon stats including ranges and rates of fire, so I want that. And . . . not much else.

See, I know that 1-2 level characters have the same chance to hit, and they have the same chance to save. (If you really have something odd, discrepancies can be written on the character sheets.)


How about monsters though? Oh, this is what surprised me with how easy it was. A monster gets a to hit bonus equal to its HD. So a 2 HD creature adds +2 when it rolls to hit. Its challenge level, barring special powers like paralyze, is its HD. How many experience points are they worth? A 1HD creature has 15xp and it doubles every HD after that. So if you remember 15 and can multiply by two, you're good to go. How much treasure should a monster have? The core rule book recommends 2-3x xp which you just figured out. Are you seeing a pattern here? If you know a monsters HD you know all you need to know.

Well, except maybe attack damage, movement rates and saving throws. If you're familiar with S&W you may notice I tweaked the saves in the chart below to follow a linear progression. I know this is probably breaking some powerful hoodoo that protects high level monsters from mighty adventurers, but right now it doesn't seem important enough to make me need to lug around a rule book just to jump a 3HD creature's save by 2 instead of 1.

Super elegant, but that leaves us with attack damage and movement rates. So I might want a creature reference sheet with some exemplary monsters. If I need a monster that I haven't prepared in advance and not on the sheet, I'm confident I can extrapolate. Something like this:


What else? How about spells? You'll most likely only need to know the spells your players can use. In a beginning campaign first level spells will go a long way. Most of them are self explanatory. You might just need a list of names with notes for those that need it- maybe a digest-sized page.

You might even tweak the spells to make them easier to remember. The one spell that always had me digging out the rule book is sleep. Here is the chart I would consult:

And here is my house rule tweak:

Does that mess things up? I doubt it. It only shifts the curve for creatures of 1 HD or less, and not by much. And the benefit is that I'll never need to look it up again.


What else? I don't need them but I'd probably want all my spurs to help improv. Hireling Traits, Spell Like Effects, Outdoor Encounters, etc. That adds a few pages but provides me with a ton of support and possibilities.


One page dungeon with encounter tables and maybe some rumors.

  1. Starting Equipment
  2. Armor Class/Weapons Stats
  3. Cleric Spells/Magic-user Spells
  4. Creature Reference Sheet/Custom Monsters
  5. Hireling Traits/Spell-like Effect
  6. Outdoor Encounter/Minor Malevolent Effect
  7. Dungeon map/encounter tables/rumors
I'm actually trying to work this package up, but I'm estimating I'll need 5-8 U.S. letter size pages or less. And I don't mean micro font, that's with 12 point font.

You might be able to make a mid-level pack/high-level pack with spells and monsters for those level ranges and take whichever one you needed for a particular party.

I have images of laminated plastic pages and DMing while floating in the Salton Sea, or from under a waterfall! Buwhahahah.

What do you think? I'm guessing some of you must have crafted your own traveling D&D kits.


  1. "How many pages do you need to run a game?"

    1 side of 1 sheet, with my Spectral Index on it, and at least 1d12 (2d12 is preferred).

    My Players would need their character sheet, and at least (1d4, 1d6, 1d8, and 1d12).

  2. you can get by without ANY rules! (but it depends on the system you play. not sure if it is possible with d&d)

    when i last played with my nephew and my father i didn't use any (cause i didn't have any with me). all relevant stuff was on the record sheets of the players (5 stats, attack/parry, hp, mp(if you had any), armor, weapon damage), equipment/encumbrance was ruled by common sense and i handled magic like this:

    me: pick a domain of magical proficiency.
    my dad: cities.
    me: nice choice, but i only prepared a short wilderness adventure, so it might be a bit useless.
    my dad: ok, nature then! (the crafty git!)

    so i let him cast any spell he could think of involving "nature". he told me what he wants to achive with a spell and i told him if that is possible at all, what he has to roll and how many magic-points it would cost him. worked incredibly well.

    i didn't have a d20 with me, so we used 3d6 instead. not perfect, but close enough.

    my adventure ideas were written down on 2 sheets of paper (with only 1 tiny chart (4 results) for random encounters), the players each had 1 for their characters. 2 pens. 3d6. that's all we had.

    and it was enough. :)

  3. Telecanter:

    I don't know if this will help, but I offer the following for your monster summary page:

    With Regards,

  4. Great post! Thanks for sharing! Gotta get me a small ring binder now...

  5. Very cool. I'm also interested in efficiently packing for games on the road, though I'm not playing D&D at the moment. Most of my road games are Risus (ultralight anyway), Buffy (fairly easy to minimize), and Gurps (which is more of a challenge but not too much different from you described above). I do hope to play S&W/D&D in the near future, so I'm going to pocket your suggestion for later use.

  6. That's really neat. For similar reasons I'm planning to make a digest-sized booklet of all my house rules for the game I run. We always used separate, full sized sheets before than that's a pain to keep track of even with a binder but a booklet is harder to lose.

  7. Thanks for the comments folks. I'm realizing I sort of framed this blog post wrong-- it shouldn't be "the fewest rules" because as several of you pointed out, in the end we don't need any really, but designing rules when possible to be less cumbersome.

    So for example, Flynn you seem like your barking up the same tree as me, but I wonder is there a pattern in that damage column? I know making a progression linear is really limiting, but maybe doubling or doubling every two steps? Anything that would unchain me from the charts.

    Another idea I had following this general principle is why have monsters with bonuses or minuses to their HD? Is making a wolf 2+2 really changing the game in an important way? If not you could just make it 2 and have simple lists of monsters by HD. I think eventually that would be easier for you to remember monster stats and even get a hang of what parties of what levels can handle. Internalize challenge ratings so to speak.

  8. I can use that Sleep tweak immediately, thanks.

    For purposes of discussion here, I'll repeat myself a bit - I really like Chgowiz's Reference Sheets for WhiteBox. Digest sized and at 20 pages, I suppose I could fold it and put it in my back pocket. With the parameters you laid out here though (new to DM'ing, consistent levels) much could be left out of it. If you're shooting for 5-8 8x11.5" pages, this is pretty much that already due to its digest size. I know how DIY you are, but you might want to get a copy if for no other reason than to use it as a nice template for where to cut next. The undead turning table for example, looks like a nice subject.

  9. Oh Crap, I forgot about turning! Not many clerics in my campaign yet. I'll have to take a look at that chart. Thanks Bulette.

    One of the reasons I wasn't all that excited about the reference sheets is that it replicates charts (like to hit) that you don't even need. But I'd like to look at it. Is it even available anymore?

  10. I have a "2d6" system of my own devising that I roll out whenever an impromptu gaming experience is desired. It handles pretty much everything except magic, and there I can just hand out some spell points and low level spells on the fly.

  11. Ah, they seem to be gone from RPGNow. I'll see what I can find out.