Naked Dungeons & Dragons*
*Full disclaimer, no actual nudity is featured in Naked D&D.
DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS
I keep hacking and messing around with the various parts of D&D. My friend Wind keeps telling me to stop playing it and try Dungeon World instead. On one hand, he’s completely right—the game I want is one of exploration and adventure, one of social interaction and puzzle solving. There are probably 30 games better at doing what I want than D&D.
On the other hand, one of D&D’s strengths is its versatility. Really it’s more of a system of mini-games and as such can have other mini-games easily added. It’s also a brand name—it’s easy to get enough players at the table when you’re playing the famed Dungeons and Dragons. But it’s a little harder to get people excited about Risus or Runequest, despite how excellent those games are.
So I keep hacking away at Dungeons and Dragons, trying to pare the engine down to what I want it to be. Though I have long considered myself an OSR gamer, I’m now transitioning to 5th Edition. It does almost everything I need and since I tweek like crazy anyway it’s just as good a place to start.
There are 5 things that bother me about traditional D&D games/retroclones. For many, these are features, not bugs, but I’m sharing this in case any one else has a similar feelings.
The more you play, the harder this is to deal with. You see statues of people turned to stone, and it’s pretty sure there’s a Medusa (or similar creature) around. Even if your character has never heard of Gorgons, it’s super hard to pretend like you don’t know what they are.
Or the party is split. You are exploring a cupboard when the other members get jumped by a party of orcs. You tell the DM “I hear the commotion and run back.” There’s nothing wrong with this, but I wonder how it would be to play a character who knew exactly what you know.
In order to deal with this, I turned the game into Portal fantasy. The players began simply as themselves mysteriously transported to an unknown realm. Each of the players knew everything that their characters knew, and vice-versa. This is kind of gimmicky and not really a long-term solution but it did work.
(For a different approach to this, I think the institution of either LORE or KNOWLEDGE skills, or a LORE based class who could provide a conduit of facts from the DM would also be cool.)
The lack of character sheet meant there wasn’t metagaming based on “Oh you have a high Charisma, you can do the shopping.” It still doesn’t address the issue of perfect knowledge but I’m still trying to figure that out. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments.
2. TIME-OUT POWER
We all know the situation: The DM says “There is a camp of rogues ahead of you. Some are sleeping and others are eating.”
The game then pauses for 15 minutes while every possible course of action is discussed. Part of the great draw to this game, of course, is that optimization of options. But it loses some of the thrill and immediacy that an actual battle would entail. Even as each initiative is rolled, players dither. “I use my dagger! No I shoot my bow. Oh wait, I drink my potion.” This is fun too, but it can make even a small skirmish last way too long. And the lack of immediacy, the absence of a visceral thrill is noticeable.
I bought some timers and used them for countdowns. I think they can be used in lots of different modes, though I’m still figuring out ways to fully explore their utility. Sometimes when the PC’s were in a room, I’d just turn over the one minute timer to create tension.
Although the times start at 30 seconds, for anything smaller I just did a count.
3. NO STAKES
Dungeonmaster: “A tide of goblins swarms down from the trees!” Simon, the 3rd level fighter replies, “I draw my sword and get ready for them.”
Laura, the 2nd level dwarf, asks “You’re just going to stand there?”
Simon shrugs. “Why not?” I have 18 HP and a good armor class.”
You get the idea. There are no stakes and the fight is simply a tensionless mini-game. This happens in a lot of the online D&D adventures I’ve watched, especially Harmonquest. It seems the conflict is how cool do you win the battle, rather than do you survive at all. I want an experience that is more immersive, more immediate, and more innovative.
In the past, I’ve pared down the magic and houseruled the hell out of the game. But for naked D&D, more was needed. My players began with a D20 and nothing else. No graph paper, no minis, no character sheet. I kept track of their successes and failures but the idea was to keep their focus on the world around them, not the sheet in front of them.
I made 4 cards for each player, granting them more options (all taken from the Player’s Handbook). When combat ensued, I counted to 5 and if they hadn’t thrown a card in, they were considered dumbfounded and did no action.
It’s not a perfect system but it worked okay and can be further tweaked pretty easily.
4. ALL OBSTACLES AS FIGHTS
D&D is a rulebook full of weapons, fight rules, feats that maximize fighting skills, classes that tell you how good they are at doing damage. Battles and conflict and fighting are an integral part of the game.
This isn’t a bad thing! This is pulp fiction distilled down to it’s finest.
When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.Raymond Chandler
But it is a bit one note to constantly have gun men menacing the PCs. There is more that can be done here.
Riddles! Logical puzzles. Mysteries. Social obstacles. The list of options here is really quite infinite.
I prepared a few riddles for this adventure. I’ve used word searches before as well. I would happily use a maze under the right circumstances. Things that work really well, in my experience, are a)timed (immediacy) and b) require the actual players to work together.
5. SAME-OLD MECHANICS
I’m not saying D&D is boring, because (to me) it’s not. But as much as I love rolling d20s, I think there is room for all kinds of other elements.
There’s a reason why the first snow of the year is an amazing, magical moment but the twelfth snow is just annoying. Scarcity makes things more interesting. Unpredictability can be a virtue in and of itself. So while I’m all about rolling dice, it is fun to throw new elements into the mix.
I added a lot of new elements for this first round of naked D&D. In addition to using the timers, I tried a lot of other things. About two weeks before game night, I soaked some paper in hot turmeric water so that all my handouts would have that faded look.
There were no Hit Points so I used a Wounds system instead. After some experimenting, this is how I would do it in the future.
5 life is full health. 1 Wound and nothing happens–you’re just winded. 2 wounds and you’re moving at half-speed. 3 Wounds and all rolls are made at disadvantage. 4 Wounds and you’re unconscious. The character(s) carrying you are now at disadvantage. 5 Wounds = death.
* Luck Points
The Wound System was fairly unforgiving. To mitigate the merciless death spiral, the characters earned luck points every time they rolled a natural 20 in a non-combat situation. (They rolled a great many skill checks.)
Luck points were based on the feat in D&D 5th edition, with a few extra powers involving the power to grant more time and to avoid wounds.
One of the discoverable things were potions. I found the bottles and brewed the potions before the game. I wanted it to taste not entirely pleasant and not entirely a known flavor, so I brewed a big batch of pandan tea. I also mixed up a few alcoholic shots if anyone was interested in that. I added a bit of food coloring to some of them and created a random chart for what the potions did.
In the end, only one player found potions. For the most part, they helped him but toward the end he rolled that he was drunk and was not much help in getting past the final obstacle. Still I think the physical presence of potions was a lot of fun, for me as DM at least, and I’d make more next time.
* Magic Scrolls
Another discoverable thing were Magic Scrolls. I wrote up some nonsense doggerel and if the player read one, something magical would happen. To simulate this I had them roll a Rory’s Story Cube and then just ad-libbed based on the result. (I’m thinking it might be cool to play a wizard with the same ability. They just get another dice to roll and choose from as they go up levels.
As discussed earlier, 5 wounds equals death. But that’s the end for the player. One player got very unlucky, but then as a ghost he possessed the player who was drunk on magic potions and helped him to survive.
A FUNNEL THAT IS NOT A FUNNEL
I used a difficulty chart of rolling d20 and 6=qualified success, 11=great success, 16=excellent success. Then I added 3 challenges per attribute. All of them had to roll Dexterity checks, for instance, to leap over a chasm. If they rolled an 11, I noted it on their character sheet. Thus by the time the adventure was done, the players had generated stats for their characters.
In addition to the potions and scrolls, there were items scattered about. One player found a guitar and became (to his disgust) a bard. Another player found food and became a halfling. The character who found the most gold became a dwarf.
Some players would chafe at the lack of choice and race and/or class, so this isn’t something I’d always do. But it was neat to play for 4 hours and have a character generated from that session.
I started calling this Naked D&D because it was meant to be a form of Dungeons and Dragons that was stripped down to essentials. As you can see, if you’ve read this far, I ended up adding far more than I took away. So it’s not accurate to call this naked, not really by any metric. But somehow “Change of Outfits D&D” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Anyway, if you enjoyed reading about this adventure, please let me know! If you have any suggestions to make it weirder, let me know!