Stealing Mechanics


Early D&D was deeply reliant upon other products. The original D&D largely expected you to have Chainmail or a familiarity with it. Gygax advocated strongly that referees borrow the game board from Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival. Both of these were much more integral to the early form of D&D than a lot of people realize or recall. Let’s explore that a bit, and see what we can bring to the table nowadays as well!

Subsequently, there was also the arrival of early third-party products designed to interface with D&D in new ways. Though Judges Guild had produced compatible modules and advice already, things began to pick up with advent of discrete third-party mechanical expansions, which were arriving on the scene in earnest by the beginning of the 1980s. The Armory marketed d30 dice and tables to use with them as an enhancement of the D&D (and other games!) mechanics. Similarly, the Rolemaster series of supplements, prior to becoming a fully-realized game unto itself, was designed as an expansive system for improving AD&D (and other games!) through modularity and granularity. These were popular in their own right, especially as role-playing games rapidly gained steam and popular awareness in those heady early years. Many players relied on these sorts of supplements to add mechanical flexibility, complexity, or interest to the game. Many folks remember simply preferring how one did something over the “stock” D&D method.
Conversely, on the other side of the coin we have things like B/X and BECMI D&D, where these additional external bits like Chainmail and Outdoor Survival were stripped from the end product and were no longer expected to be core elements of a complete D&D experience. In a similar vein, especially when compared to the sometimes confusing and contradictory original edition and the comparatively complex AD&D edition, B/X also pared down a lot of mechanics and trivialities in the actual rulebook itself without losing cross-compatibility. It made for a simplified, streamlined D&D experience that maintained enough of the randomization and interest to avoid losing the essence of D&D.
The moral here is that D&D has always been tinkered with, gaining and losing mechanics as folks saw fit. It’s a classic element of D&D as a hobby outside of actual at-the-table play; to tweak and add and change and invent. And on that note, over the years I have encountered some things that I believe fit well with D&D. These aren’t core mechanics, necessarily; rather, I think of them as situational mechanics – things which could elevate a given campaign or adventure or encounter. These are things I feel we can bolt on to add interest at the table; to afford a unique experience that makes a bad guy or a location or an event memorable for players, for example, or perhaps could help mechanically reinforce the desired tone of a given campaign or one-shot.

Dungeon Crawl Classics 

First up, let’s lift liberally from DCC by Goodman Games.
1. The Funnel – Has there been anything as fun as the DCC funnel to start a game in, uh, ever? You skip that nonsense about starting in a dusty old tavern getting a lofty quest from a stranger, or being hired to kill some rats by a farmer, and you dive straight in to the thick of it. What’s more, you stop any attempts at agonizing over the perfect character and their contrived backstories and you actually develop the character(s) you come to play at the table through a shared experience. Thanks to leaving the fates of like a half-dozen characters (each!) entirely up to the dice, you end up with an unexpected result by the end of the first session and a relevant piece of character development where your once-and-former commoner ends up a certified adventurer. This is a great way to start off a lot of OSR campaigns, because rolling up six characters is incredibly easy – it’s not like there’s any shortage of online generators!
2. Dangerous Magic – This is often pretty baseline in my games because it fits the tone I want to invoke. Magic is weird and mysterious and dangerous and costly. Sometimes you gamble and you lose. Sometimes you stick your fingers into the mechanisms of the universe and the metaphorical gears cut them right off. I love having magic keep its mystical and unknown nature, where spells going awry can happen and the consequences such an error can carry could be considerable indeed. Casters make spell checks for spells. In DCC by default this is 1d20 + Int modifier + Magic-User level. You’re rolling against 10 + (2x Spell Level). Failure results in consequences. Higher level spells are therefore more dangerous to cast, but as you advance, lower level spells are less dangerous to cast. Personally, I do not apply this to clerics – I feel like their faith is enabling their gifts all by itself, and the punishment for failure is not “losing some hit points,” it’s your god abandoning you, stripping you of power altogether, and possibly cursing you. It doesn’t come up too much. Or at all. People playing clerics usually want to be clerics, and gods work in mysterious and byzantine fashions with alien motivations.
3. Magical Advancement – If you play a magic-user in DCC, you don’t just pick a new spell out of the PHB when you level up. Magic is weird and fickle and the mind of a wizard is a fertile and bizarre landscape where the branches of the cosmos take root and grow or recede on their own terms. Magic-users randomly roll on a table to generate newly-learned spells each level — or they can choose to learn magic they’ve witnessed or discovered since the last time they leveled up. A wizard cast fireball at your meat shield? Maybe you can learn fireball assuming you meet the other prerequisites. A warlock put you in a coma with sleep? You might be able to figure out sleep all by yourself. Steal a great mage’s tome of spells from his cold, dead hands? The world is your oyster. Of course, just because you saw someone else web an ogre in place doesn’t mean it makes sense to your strange, wizard brain. You roll some dice! You make that same spell check roll, in my games, for congruity of mechanics reasons.
4. Big Ol’ Dice, Big Ol’ Tables – Just like Rolemaster and the Armory before me, I think that there are occasionally situations that can be improved by some big, strange dice rolling on big, strange tables. It adds interest. It adds a little bit of the sense of “well, you don’t see that every day,” when the DM reaches down into a dice bag and pulls out a d24 or a d30 or a d60. If the purpose of the roll is not clear to the players, it can heighten drama, too! Terrorize those fools with the unknown.

13th Age

You didn’t think DCC would be our only option to rob and borrow from wholesale, did you? The 13th Age RPG from Pelgrane Press is also a great place to borrow mechanics!
5. The Escalation Die – Anyone who can watch the escalation die click up one grade without feeling the tension ratchet up with it is probably dead and needs immediate help. The escalation die mechanic adds danger to critical situations, making combat or contest more deadly and ensuring most things are resolved faster, for better or for worse. This mechanic makes for a fantastic element in boss fights and can be used as both a running bonus/reduction to rolls or a summoning timer/doomsday countdown or a ton of permutations in between. Once you read up on how 13th Age is employing these dice you are bound to come up with a lot of uses for the escalation die, as well as a ton of triggers for the escalation to occur in the first place. Maybe it only works within the lair of the beast, meaning cautious players might want to draw it out and lure it elsewhere. Maybe it only applies to whoever holds the high ground or is infusing themselves with the raw energy of an arcane device. Maybe players can force it to increase or decrease by a step based on their actions. There’s a ton of possibility for this mechanic.

Shadow of the Demon Lord

Like the previous two games, there’s a link between this lovely dice mechanic donor, Shadow of the Demon Lord by Schwalb Entertainment, and the D&D we’re adding it to – meaning it should fit in with little fuss.

6. Boons and Banes – In D&D as it stands we have bonuses and penalties that add or subtract fixed amounts to your roll. In D&D 5th Edition you also have advantage and disadvantage, where you roll two d20s and take the higher or lower respectively. In Shadow of the Demon Lord, boons and banes are d6s you add or subtract from your d20 roll to meet your target. They stack and they cancel each other out, so you could have four d6s to add to your d20 roll if you have four boons, or you could have a boon and a bane and end up with nothing to add or subtract because they cancel out. It adds more randomness, more dice to add to play, and a bigger range of possible ease or difficulty on rolls.

The Black Hack

Lastly, we’re taking a mechanic backwards from a game that some people think moved D&D forward in a lot of ways. The Black Hack by David Black and Square Hex streamlined the vast majority of D&D and distilled it down into a booklet-sized game. Nowadays there’s a wildly expanded second edition full of all sorts of additions and options to enhance play, but you can still play it right out of a tiny booklet.

7. Usage Dice – Every time you use an item that would normally be consumed (a flask of oil, for example) after some use, you instead roll a usage die. If you get a 3 or higher, you successfully use it and will roll again next time. If you get a 1-2, you successfully use it but next time will roll on the next smaller die size. If your item starts out as a large die (say, a cart full of food is a d12) then you probably will get to use it freely without worry of conservation for awhile. Eventually, though, you’ll roll a 1 and end up with a d10 for next time. Still, probably good for awhile. But that’s gonna come up with a 1 or a 2 sooner or later and now we’re down to a d8 for next time. And so on. Once you hit the smallest die size (d4 by default, d3 if you wanna play with DCC dice!), any 1-2 result permanently exhausts the consumable: your flask is empty, the cart has been stripped of its foodstuffs, or a torch burns out. This takes away having to manually count torches and such. You can simply have players roll for their torch usage die every turn of dungeon crawl while you roll for random monsters and events. Maybe their torches all happen to go out when the kobolds stumble upon them searching for a hidden door?

I don’t necessarily use these mechanics all the time, or together, but they’ve all made appearances. Houseruling additional mechanics to add to the flavor of a session, event, or game is often a great way for tables to take control of their games and have more fun. Sometimes specific games benefit more from this than others; for example, usage dice and funnels in B/X can be a great way to deal with inventory a little less and start out on a strong foot, but you might not necessarily want to add spell checks to magic missile. And that’s okay. Maybe the idea of adding more dice to the pile you already deal with is unpleasant to ponder. That’s cool too. There’s room for all these mechanics at the table, but the ones that don’t apply to your table right now can stay in the toolbox. It’s just a great way to modify gameplay in ways that suit the experience and the group – and you decide what those are.

A couple of options I like, though, in case you wanna try some on for size:

  • B/X with Magical Advancement rules from DCC
  • B/X with Dangerous Magic rules from DCC, especially for high level spells
  • B/X with the Usage Die mechanic from Black Hack
  • B/X with a Funnel start from DCC; I don’t even bother with level 0 for this, just randomly roll up a few level 1 characters and go
  • Any boss fight with an Escalation Die mechanic from 13th Age
  • Literally anything with weird dice tables just so I can roll weird things
  • 5th Edition with the Boons and Banes from Shadow of the Demon Lord

Let me know what mechanics you like to borrow from other games in your OSR/D&D games here or on Twitter. I’d love to have more mechanics to scavenge!

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6 comments on “Stealing Mechanics

  1. wereoctopus

    Some more scrounged mechanics:

    * I wrote about adapting Troika's initiative system for 5e, have yet to playtest it though. Similarly the weapon damage rules are a great fit for BX as a more textured alternative than variable damage dice.

    * It hasn't come up yet, but I intend to use Whitehack's auction rule for chases, gambling, and other extended skill checks in my 5e game. Every participant secretly rolls 1d6 and adds it to the relevant ability score or other stat. Then participants make bids. Then once bidding is over, in order from high to low bid, participants must roll 1d20, trying to get above their bid but below their d6-adjusted stat. First person to succeed wins the auction. You can bid nothing and win by default if everyone else loses. Naturally in a chase or whatever, each time you make/raise your bid you narrate how your character is taking greater risks to win the contest.

    * I use BX rules for monster/NPC morale and starting disposition in my 5e game, adding the Cha mod of the most attention-drawing character at the time.

    * In the vein of Fate, spending Inspiration in 5e to propose something improbable about the game world, eg. a particular npc is your cousin once removed, or there's a chandelier to swing from in a crypt (a chandelier in a ballroom wouldn't require the spending of Inspiration). Obviously not for every game.

    * Boggle dice. I have yet to figure out how to use these, but my wooden childhood set are so pleasing to hold and roll….

  2. Saker Tarsos

    Love seeing other people as interested in lifting mechanics as I am!
    Some suggestions:
    -Dynamic Initiative Makes fights a lot more variable and interesting than just the most dextrous PC going first most of the time. That gets old pretty fast. Also the first page is a great example of visual design. (it's made for 5e but can be easily hacked for OSR)
    -No matter what game or setting I run, James Raggi's Summon spell is lurking somewhere, waiting for the players to find and misuse.
    -Make sure your game has some kind of morale system, it adds a sorely needed missing component to RPG combat. I like to use the one from Lamentations.

  3. Dungeons and Possums

    The disappearance from the recent editions of D&D is one of the worst and most lamentable oversights in the gaming world. What a tremendous letdown! Gotta have that in there for sure.

    Never tinkered with initiative! I really should consider it. I think that's always been something my groups have just been cool with, and never been much of a hurdle time-wise to cause me to revisit. Now I wanna break it! ;)

  4. Cross Planes

    I don't know if you know this, but SotDL's Boons and Banes was Rob Schwalb's plan for Advantage/Disadvantage for 5E. But they went the published direction and he took it with him.

  5. Dungeons and Possums

    I absolutely did not know that! Thanks for the insight.

    I am not nearly good enough at math to know the statistical ranges involved, to even begin to imagine the mathematical model for success/fail and balancing around it. But I think Wizards must have wanted to avoid having players and DMs keep track of handfuls of banes and boons, add and subtract, and then roll the d6s and count them up. Overall 5e has made it clear that it wants to minimize the varying sorts of modifiers in D&D. I guess I can see why they opted for that.

    I like Schwalb's gimmick, though.

  6. M-and-D

    Stars Without Number Encumberance. Players can carry half of their dex score as items that they can reach for as a free action. The rest goes in their pack, which is equal to the player's strength score

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