Hackbut – Core Mechanics – Saving Throws

Continuing on my discussion of Hackbut core mechanics, let’s briefly touch on saving throws. This one did not take a lot of poking around. To begin with, I have no nostalgic attachment to the classic saving throw categories. They strike me as obtuse and needlessly granular. I know the origins of the S&W unified save are primarily legal, but they represent a welcome streamlining in my view. So I decided to port them over into the KéK classes. This was a trivial exercise. If you want to do the same, simply use a base save of 15 minus level for fighters and thieves, and 16 minus level for magic-users and clerics. I also use the +2 save bonuses for the various classes as listed in WBFMAG.

That more or less covers saving throws for player characters. One last thing would be how to handle monster and NPC saves. Here, interestingly, WBFMAG and S&W proper diverge. The former has the basic guideline of using 19 minus HD, whereas the latter has a table listing a save value for each HD.

I had problems with both approaches. While convenient, WBFMAG’s monster save seems high in comparison to those of player characters. S&W’s solution requires a table lookup which is a no-go for me. So I decided to do a quick analysis of the S&W numbers and arrived at an average base save of 16 minus HD. Let’s call it a nice and easy to remember 15, incidentally making them save the same as fighters. This means low-level monsters save a little better than by-the-book S&W, and high-level monsters get off ever so slightly worse. I call it a wash.

As an aside, I could have also gone with Delta’s approach to saves, which in many ways is similar in spirit and mathematically balanced to a comparable level as S&W’s solution. The reason I did not go for it is that it maintains the various save categories which, like I said at the top, are just not something I feel I need in my game.

So that covers saving throws. The point of all of this is basically: a unified saving throw is a convenient and justifiable streamlining, easily hacked into your preferred classic D&D ruleset of choice.


Hackbut – Core Mechanics – Attack Rolls

In the previous post I mentioned using Target 20 and Homebrew Homunculus’s simple d20 skill system. I should probably also mention that although I use those basic KéK classes, I did stick with Swords & Wizardry’s unified saving throw. Between the three of them those cover all the “core mechanics” in the game.

I arrived at Target 20 mostly through a process of elimination. I knew I did not want to do any lookups during gameplay so the traditional attack matrices were out. The logical alternative baked into S&W and also WBFMAG is ascending armor class. However, as HH has pointed out, S&W’s base ascending armor class of 10 is mathematically incorrect. You don’t really notice it when you use it out of the box, but I ran into trouble when I tried to come up with a player-facing defense roll that would be mathematically identical to a referee-facing monster attack roll.

This left me with two options: adjust the AACs listed in CX on the fly by 1 point (violating my rule to remain fully compatible with the module), or use descending AC after all. This is when the appeal of Target 20 really became apparent to me. It is both 100% mathematically identical to the original game, and very easy to use at the table. You just need to get over the fact that lower ACs are better.

Incidentally, it is also trivial to rewrite Target 20 as a player-facing defense roll:

Defend: d20 + your armor bonus + opponent attack value + modifiers ≥ 20

Armour bonus: 9 - AC
Attack value: 9 - HD

However, after using this for one session, I came to the conclusion that rolling to attack as a referee is actually faster (and possibly more fun). I’d gotten so used to The Black Hack’s player-facing defense rolls that I thought they were essential to a smooth-flowing game. But the big difference is that attack and defense rolls in TBH are exactly the same procedure, so there is no extra learning involved for players. With my so-called clever defense roll, players now need to learn two procedures. That’s one too many.

This is getting long-ish so I will leave discussion of saves and skill checks to future posts. I’ll just reiterate that Target 20 is indeed the superior procedure for attack rolls in classic D&D. I recommend using it.


Hackbut – Overview

So, let me tell you about my D&D hack.

I put this together for my Castle Xyntillan campaign. After a 30+ session campaign using The Black Hack I decided I wanted to try a ruleset that would be closer in feel to Original D&D. In particular, I had grown weary of the roll-under ability score mechanic. What I did like about TBH, and continue to appreciate, is its simplicity and accessibility. So whatever I would switch to would ideally be of a similar level of complexity.

The obvious choice would have been Swords & Wizardry, because that’s what the megadungeon is ostensibly written for, although I believe Gabor Lux used another system to play-test it, and there are a few details, like intelligent sword stats, that don’t show up anywhere in S&W. But I wanted something a bit more light-weight, while at the same time maintaining full compatibility with the module’s contents.

I also considered using Old-School Essentials, but although its presentation is incredibly slick, believe it or not, I still felt it comes with overhead that I would then have to house-rule out. I wanted to be able to have one document that would contain all of the rules.

So, I decided to put together a full-fledged hack of my own. The trigger, if I recall correctly, was reading the Kazamaták és Kompániák basic classes. I really liked the level 6 ceiling on those. It nicely matches the level range of CX and I prefer a low-level game anyway.

Not feeling like re-inventing the wheel, I looked around for a game to use as a chassis. Ultimately I went with White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game. It’s small but comprehensive, and therefore makes for easy copy-pasting and adapting.

So those are the two basic building blocks of what is now titled “Hackbut”, my classic D&D rules kit-bash: WBFMAG provides the rules framework, and KéK provides the classes, although I did overwrite quite a bit of both. Other key elements include Delta’s Target 20 for attack rolls, and Homebrew Homunculus’s simple d20 skill system for, well, most all other situations that need resolving through dice.

There is a lot more to be said about the various components that make up Hackbut, but I’ll leave that for future posts. The point here was mainly to say that if you are in the mood for putting together your own D&D hack, consider picking up WBFMAG. It’s an excellent place to start if you want something that is fully compatible with the old editions but easily adaptable.


20 Quick Questions: Rules (Hackbut)

Answers to Necropraxis’s 20 questions about the rules of my upcoming Castle Xyntillan campaign. I’ll be using a kit-bash of rules mostly from OD&D and B/X (largely via Swords & Wizardry and Old-School Essentials) which I’ve dubbed “Hackbut”.

  1. Ability scores generation method?
    3d6 down the line, swap two
  2. How are death and dying handled?
    Save vs death at 0 hp, success means you are unconscious and at 1 hp, failure means you’re dead.
  3. What about raising the dead?
    The raise dead spell is in play, and handled as per old-school essentials (OSE) OD&D. It’s a 5th level cleric spell, which means you would need to find a cleric of sufficiently high level to cast it (7th level) which is unlikely anywhere in the immediate area of the campaign. However, the dungeon also contains a very small number of items that can raise someone from the dead…
  4. How are replacement PCs handled?
    It’s recommended to bring a few retainers — these can easily be promoted into a class by assigning 250 gp worth of treasure to them if they are 1HD. 0-level “normal humans” (non-combatants) require an additional 125 gp 1000 gp. Any other replacement PC can be rolled up and can join the party at the earliest possible moment.
  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
    Individually rolled each round, winning initiative means you act before the opposition, losing means you act after.
    Group; roll 1d6 at the top of each round, on a 4-6 the PCs go before the opposition.
  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
    Crits do max double damage. Fumbles give the opposition a free attack or might cause some other mishap which requires an action to recover from.
  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
    Helmets are assumed to be part of any armour worn. No specific benefits.
  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
    Yes, target hit when firing into melee is determined randomly, odds possibly adjusted for relative size.
  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
    Running will more than occasionally be a wise decision.
  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no?
    No. Undead drain attributes. Hitting 0 in an attribute means you’re lost and become undead yourself.
  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
    Yes. Save-or-die is on the table.
  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
    Pretty strictly, but abstracted into a slot-based system.
  13. What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
    No requirements other than returning to a safe haven and spending roughly a week of downtime there. Spells are acquired automatically at level-up.
  14. What do I get experience for?
    XP is gained by recovering treasure, and by spending treasure frivolously carousing.
  15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
    Primary means of locating traps and other secrets is through description. Dice rolls are used when outcomes are uncertain or when a player insists they want to expedite things and handle them abstractly.
  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
    Retainers are encouraged and probably necessary to be successful, given the somewhat limited carrying capacity of characters. Each retainer has a morale rating which is rolled against when things get dicy. Failure means the retainer would very much like to terminate the expedition. Morale only ever goes down. (For more details see the rules in Castle Xyntillan.)
  17. How do I identify magic items?
    The primary means is to empirically test the item yourself, or convince some hapless retainer to do it for you. NPCs in town are able to identify potions and items for a fee.
  18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
    Some magic items and potions are for sale in town.
  19. Can I create magic items? When and how?
    Yes, you can. It will cost a significant amount of time and money, and might require specific ingredients or components for which a quest is needed.
  20. What about splitting the party?
    Good luck, have fun.

Updated 15 September 2020.