Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Adventure Site: Lumber Hulk Loggers

Here's a small adventure site/scenario. Plop it onto your hex key on the edge of a forest or something.

[ Click here for a PDF version that nicely fits on two pages. ]

There's a big mechanical contraption. Usually I hate stuff that forces too many assumptions about technological levels on your setting, but what can I say, when inspiration strikes, you follow it.

There should always be consequences for players' actions - this scenario teaches them that indirectly, as the villains are a dark mirror of the players, adventurers turned murderhobo with human consequences.

Conversion notes

AC is ascending, with unarmored AC at 11. To convert to Swords & Wizardry ascending AC, deduct 1 from all AC and to-hit values. To convert to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, add 1 to all AC values. To convert to B/X descending AC, subtract all AC values from 20.

Gold standard. MV refers to full movement rate, so divide it by three to find regular combat movement speed. Skills (Climb, etc.) are assumed to be as per LotFP (from 1 to 6). If you don't use skills, replace Architecture/Tinker with Intelligence modifier and a +2 bonus for Dwarves.

Lumber Hulk Loggers

A trio of bandit bosses has taken over the village of Ashton and is extorting it for all profits from the village’s lumber production. Apparently, the group was an adventuring party hired to retrieve “the Lumber Hulk”, the village’s ancient and poorly-understood dwarven tree-cutting contraption, from the forest after it was overrun by twig monsters. However, the adventurers stole the contraption for themselves and used it as a weapon to hold the village hostage. With their plundered wealth, they’ve hired callous mercenaries to watch over the enslaved villagers. One of the villagers managed to escape and is promising Ashton’s gratitude to whoever can rid them of the evildoers.

Ashton is divided into the main village and the lumber camp, a few hundred feet apart. At any time, the village proper houses 40 able-bodied men and women, watched over by 8 cold-hearted mercenaries. Most of the mercenaries man small watch-towers hastily built from wooden planks. Two ex-adventurer bosses will be lounging about the village, usually Ogden and Selby. All wealth in the village has been gathered up by the bandits. One or two houses are crushed remains. Loud rumbling and buzzing emanates from the adjacent forest. If the villagers see the player characters approach, they will stare with uncertain expressions on fatigued faces, as the party might well be nothing but fresh mercenaries.

Camp: At any time, 20 able-bodied villagers are working in the lumber camp, sawing up wood that is being cut down by the dwarven contraption. One of the three ex-adventurers operates the Lumber Hulk - usually Yavor, the dwarf. 6 mercenaries keep watch on small wooden watch-towers. It is hard to hear anything here due to the noise from the machine.

Villagers (60): HD 1-1, AC 11, MV 120’, ML 7, Atk (+0) axe d6 or improvised weapon d4.

Mercenary (14): HD 1, AC 13 (leather), MV 90’, ML 8, Atk (+1) spear or bow d6. 1d6 gp.

Yavor Scarscalp, Dwarf 3: HD 3d8, AC 15 (mail), MV 60’, Atk (+2) battleaxe d8. Yavor understands the Hulk the best. If an enemy takes control of it, he will attempt to climb on its back and remove the crystal (see ‘power slot’). Pouch containing gems x 5 of total value 1200 gp (topaz 500 gp, tourmaline 500 gp, carnelian 100 gp, obsidian 50gp, blue quartz 50 gp).

Ogden, Cleric 3: HD 3d6, AC 15 (mail), MV 90’, Atk (+1) mace d8. Ogden has lost the favour of his god due to his evil deeds, but does not know it and will not find out until he attempts to cast cure light wounds and the spell fails. 1150 gp, holy symbol worth 50 gp. Slaying Ogden and returning the holy symbol to a temple will result in a blessing.

Selby, Magic-User 2: HD 2d4, AC 11 (robes), MV 120’, Atk (+1) staff d4, spells: charm person, hold portal. It was Selby’s idea to turn the Hulk on the villagers; they despise him the most. Leather case with 90 pp, potion of detect magic.

The Lumber Hulk: Hull points 5 (any hit deals 1 hull point of damage for every 10 points of regular hit point damage), AC 16, MV 60’, Atk sawblade 3d6 or claw 1d6 + grapple.

The Hulk is a metal box the size of a shed with two mechanical arms, on four wooden wagon wheels, topped by a cockpit with a complex set of levers used to control the Hulk (see ‘controls’). There is an opening in front of the box that acts as an inlet for logs, and an outlet in the rear. On the back of the box above the lumber outlet is a hatch (see ‘power slot’). If the Hulk loses all its hull points, it can no longer move, though it can still attack.

Combat: The circular sawblade arm is used to cut down trees while the claw arm holds on to the trunk. The log is then inserted by the claw into the opening in the centre of the Hulk. Spinning wheels on the inside pass it through while blades cut it lengthwise.

The Hulk uses the operator’s Tinker or Architecture skill as its attack bonus (i.e. +1 to +6). A character that is hit with the claw must save vs. Paralysis or be grappled. As an attack on a subsequent round, the claw can insert the grappled character into the blades. A successful save vs. Death allows escape, but otherwise the outcome is death.

If the Hulk drives into a creature, it must save vs. Paralysis or be crushed by the wheels and take 2d8 damage. Driving into a wooden building will likely destroy it.

The cockpit’s cover grants +4 AC against ranged attacks. Reaching melee range under stress requires a Climb check at +2, but melee attacks against a busy operator are surprise attacks.

Controls: The first time a character operates the Hulk, and once per turn during challenging situations such as combat, a Tinker or Architecture skill check is required. On a failure, the operator loses control of the contraption, which starts at full speed in a random direction for d6 rounds, after which another attempt to regain control can be made.

Power slot: In the back of the Lumber Hulk is a metal hatch with the Dwarven text “EMERGENCY SHUT-OFF” painted in red. The hatch is easily opened by hand to reveal the glowing moonstone crystal powering the contraption. Removing the crystal under stress requires an Open Doors or Tinker check. Shattering it with a hammer or similar automatically succeeds, while an improvised blunt tool such as a sword pommel or axe butt requires an attack roll against AC 15. Edged weapons are ineffective. When the crystal is either destroyed or removed, the Hulk becomes inactive (no movement or attacks). The crystal is worth 3000 gp whole, or 300 gp if shattered.

Friday, 15 March 2019

OSR Class: Skeleton Adventurer

I guess the Trollkin class set my mind on the track of "slightly monstrous adventurers with death-avoiding abilities". I googled "OSR skeleton class" and found only this: so consider this class inspired by Necropraxis's. Essentially I've codified a bit more what it means to be an undead PC, and made the class rather more party-dependant.

The weird thing is, I don't even like monstrous PCs. Or perhaps I just don't like them being "core" options at the front of the book. I think the upfront choice presented to players should be simple. I see more exotic races/classes as something to be "unlocked" as the campaign progresses and more is learned about the world and alliances are forged - their availability depends on the PCs' actions in some way. Or for use in specific cases, like when a character becomes hopelessly lost in a necromantic dungeon.

Anyway, it's just your standard skelly. Fragile and misunderstood, dependant on others. Some weaknesses, some immunities. There is a bittersweet undertone to being brought back to “life”, because you know it’s not going to last forever.

Class: Skeleton Adventurer

 Choose either Fighter or Thief/Specialist. Your HD, Attack, Saving Throws and XP requirements are the same as that class. If you chose Thief/Specialist, you get their skills, but if you chose Fighter, you don’t get any special maneuvers they may have. Magic-Users cannot become Skeleton Adventurers, because their magic energies have a destructive interference with any necromantic aura that may be present in the environment.

Spooky: You creep people out, though they’re not quite sure why. When wearing concealing robes and a hood, you have -2 to reaction rolls from civil society. When not concealed, you will be attacked on sight.

Due to your hollow voice, the reaction penalty applies even when using sight-based illusions, but illusions that also have an auditory component will negate the penalty.

Brittle: You take an additional die of damage from bludgeoning and crushing attacks, e.g. hammers, wolf jaws, and falling stones.

Unliving: You do not not need to breathe, eat or sleep. You are immune to sleep effects (but not charm effects), diseases and most poisons. You gain no benefit from magical healing, but can repair yourself during downtime at the usual healing rate. Unintelligent undead will ignore you unless you attack. Also, you can feign dead perfectly.

Meatless: You are very light, weighing only about 10-20 pounds. When riding piggyback, you only take up two inventory slots (or the equivalent of two standard swords).

Turn Resistance: You are affected by Turn Undead as an undead of HD equal to your level, but get a save vs. Magic to resist a successful turning.

Well-Articulated: You can detach a limb to use as a club for d6 damage.

Reconstitution: When reduced to 0 hit points or below, you crumple into a pile of bones. You may can be rebuilt and brought back to unlife. An attempt to rebuild your skeleton takes one turn, and requires an Intelligence ability check (or Medicine skill check, if your ruleset includes it) to succeed, though the cost of failure is only wasted time. On a successful check, you return to unlife, but lose 1 point from your Constitution score.

After reconstitution, there is a 1-in-6 chance that a random limb is missing, but you can always scavenge other peoples’ bones to find a replacement.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Differentiating Spellcasters: Spell Orbs, Elven Mind-Palaces, and more

These are some of the kookier ideas I’m kicking about. The Elven one, I think, is a really flavourful and small change that makes them more Moorcockian/ Melnibonéan, which I dig. The Cleric change is something that makes sense to me fluff-wise, but I’m not sure if it might break the game too much - please let me know what you think. The Magic-User one is the most kooky, and has the biggest impact on how the game plays, so I've saved it for last. Any of these can be implemented separate of each other. As always, nothing is playtested until stated otherwise.

Clerical Miracle-Working

Spontaneous Casting: Clerics no longer prepare spells. They can spontaneously cast any spell they know, which “spends” the corresponding spell slot. As usual, sleep and meditation is required to recover spent spell slots.

Elven Sorcery

Casting: Elves are innately sorcerous. Instead of using Spell-Orbs (see Magic-User), spells simply emanate out of an Elf's hand, though they share the Magic-User's spell list.

Mind-Palaces: Instead of a spellbook, Elves carve their spells into their personal Mind-Palace, which exists in the plane of dreams.

Transcribing a new spell into their Mind-Palace requires a long and deep trance and the use of special incense and potions. In terms of time and gold cost, this is the same as for Magic-Users. However, unlike a spellbook, the Mind-Palace cannot be physically stolen or destroyed (although astral travel into the plane of dreams may enable one to vandalize an Elf’s mind palace, or steal spell formulae). An Elf’s Mind-Palace starts with only the Read Magic spell.

Preparing & Learning: Elves still prepare spells into slots, which is done during their nightly sleep/trance. Each time they gain a level, an Elf learns a new spell of a level of their choice and adds it to their Mind-Palace at no gold cost (though the time requirement still applies).

Magic-Users’ Spell-Orbs

Preparing: When Magic-Users prepare spells (which requires access to their spellbook), they create a one-use physical object for each prepared spell called a Spell-Orb.

Appearance: Assume a Spell-Orb takes up roughly one "slot" of inventory, or about the same space as a flask of oil. Most Spell-Orbs appear as glass balls with energies swirling inside them. However, they may also be any other sufficiently sized fragile and obviously mystical object: a charm made of sticks and bones, an unstable alchemical concoction in a bottle, or a latticework of herbs and crustacean legs joined with the mixed saliva of birds and the Magic-User. A Spell-Orb may be set into the tip of a staff for convenience.

(The reason Magic-Users often wear long robes is to conceal their Spell-Orbs within the myriad folds and secret pockets, in order to prevent assailants from snatching or destroying them.)

Casting: Using the Spell-Orb requires gesturing with it, which then triggers the spell and destroys the orb. Ranged spells require the orb to be thrown, though they cannot miss; they orbs transform mid-air into magic missiles, fireballs and so on, functioning just the same as any other spellcasting method.

Other characters may also use Spell-Orbs created by a Magic-User. Characters who are not Magic-Users, or Magic-Users of an insufficient level to cast the spell, can attempt to use them with a risk of failure. When you make such an attempt, roll your Arcana skill (1+INT in 6, Magic-Users have +1) with a penalty equal to the spell’s level. Example: if your Arcana skill is 4 and you use a 2nd level spell, you have a 2-in-6 chance of succeeding.

If the Arcana attempt fails with a roll of 6 on the die, the spell is a misfire: it is triggered but with its target or effect reversed (as deemed appropriate by the Referee). If it fails on any other number, the spell is not triggered and the Spell-Orb remains unused. A character who has failed to trigger a specific orb may not attempt to use that orb again, though it is still usable by others. Thrown Spell-Orbs (i.e. ranged spells) that fail to trigger merely fall onto the ground, but when hitting a hard surface have a 1-in-6 chance to shatter. When a fallen orb shatters, it triggers the spell, targeting the space it landed in. Fallen spell orbs can also be shattered by missile attacks (AC 17 to hit). 

Unused Spell-Orbs harmlessly disappear out of existence when the Magic-User recovers their spell slots. When the Magic-User dies, each of their active spell orbs has a 4-in-6 chance of dissipating harmlessly, and a 1-in-6 chance of exploding and triggering the spell, otherwise persisting and remaining usable by others.

Gaining new spells: Spellbooks work as before: each time they gain a level, a Magic-User learns a new spell of a level of their choice and adds it to their spellbook at no gold cost (though the time requirement still applies).

(Note that only Magic-Users use spellbooks and spell orbs, though all casters still use the system of spell slots.)


The physicality of orbs will help players unfamiliar with Vancian casting grasp the meaning of spell slots. In Vance’s stories, spells are living things that inhabit a wizard’s head through his concentration and discomfort. Now, they will be concrete things the character can hold. Also, this will make inventory management a factor for Magic-Users (particularly suited to slot-based inventory systems, and those with rules for item breakage). Allowing other characters to use orbs opens up new possibilities, but at a risk. As for shattering orbs, I’ve always liked how in Nethack et al. burned scrolls can explode, broken potions still apply their effects, and so on. It really ties magic into the environment, a real part of the world. (And, honestly, I kind of want to see someone try to jam a fireball orb down a white dragon's gullet.) Also, spell orbs once again harken back to certain concepts in Dave Arneson's early games, though I do not know how the mechanics there exactly worked. If you have good information on Arnesonian spell balls, please let me know.

Many systems try to take out the spellcasting system from D&D and replace it with something else, like spell points. None so far have produced better results in play than the original system.
I currently have no interest in redoing the entire spell system, or writing new spell lists, or most importantly, breaking compatibility with existing TSR & OSR materials. However “slots vs. spell points” is not the only parameter that can be modified in the spell system. There are at least the following parameters, off the top of my head:
  1. Casting spells - the actions required to activate a spell, and any restrictions to doing so such as “no armour”, and any side effects of these actions (magical mishaps, etc.)
  2. Preparing spells - when and how a character chooses the spells available for the adventure, or if they have all the spells they know available (spontaneous casting)
  3. Learning spells - whether a character knows all spells on their list, or knows a subset of it, and whether there is a maximum on the size of the known subset
  4. Spell resources - what is spent to use spells: spell slots and spell levels, spell points, HP drain, increasing risks, etc.
Of these, #4 seems to be the most often complained about, and most often modified. It’s also the one that needs the most work, and often breaks compatibility with existing spell lists, because translating spell levels to a shared resource doesn’t work too well. (It’s not really even the part that’s the most “Vancian” - preparation is.)

It appears to me that the other parameters - how to cast spells, how to prepare spells, and how to learn spells - are a much more fruitful area for modification. Changes to them have a much smaller interface with the rest of the rulebook - although they may still have far-reaching balance consequences during play (such as allowing Magic-Users to cast spontaneously).

With small changes like these to how your spellcasters learn, copy, prepare and cast spells, you can give them unique flavour without invalidating existing spell lists and compatibility with modules. The possibilities are endless. Imagine, for example, a druid’s spell slots each taking the form of an animal spirit when not prepared, or an elf who can only channel spells through weapon attacks, or...

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Ascending Damage & Dicing With Death

The rule

You no longer have hit points. You have a Wounds tally - the higher it goes, the more badly you've been hurt. You start at 0 Wounds. Whenever you are hit by an attack, you suffer 1 Wound. (This replaces HP damage. Damage sources that would deal multiple dice of damage deal one Wound per die of damage.)

You have a Maximum Wounds number from your class table (modified by CON - note that there are no negative ability modifiers, as per this previous post, so Max Wounds is always at least 1). If your Wounds exceeds your Maximum Wounds, you must Dice With Death: roll a d20. If the result is below your current Wounds, you die. However, if the result is above your Constitution score, you fall unconscious for 1 hour.

While above your Maximum Wounds, you must Dice With Death again each time you take further Wounds. Additionally, you have -2 to attack rolls and AC.

The rationale

Dying and initiative seem to be the two topics that I re-tread over and over, no matter the system I’m playing. I recently realized that “Health” as the number of hits to kill a PC from my earlier post (which replaces rolled damage) would pair perfectly with an ascending damage system. That is, one where you tally up the damage you’ve taken on your character sheet, instead of subtracting from your hit points tally.

In the regular D&D system of HP and damage rolls, there is uncertainty at first, followed by certainty: first, you take variable amounts of damage, but once you’re at 0 HP, you’re dead (or unconscious or whatever it may be). The mechanics move from dynamic to static as play progresses. On the other hand, this proposed system of static damage (1 Wound per die) makes things… well, static and predictable at first. But Dicing With Death makes the next phase dynamic and uncertain. It flips the script of the adventure around, as it were: the uncertainty of rolling is moved to the later, higher stakes part of the game. As the adventure progresses and resources dwindle, uncertainty goes up. And, thematically, that makes sense, right?

(By the way, there exists a third system that differs from both the “dynamic to static” and “static to dynamic” systems. It’s the “static to static” system where a hit is a hit and death is death. Such a system was used in the very early days of the proto-D&D game which was based on Chainmail. Characters simply had “hits to kill” - so instead of having two hit dice, you could take precisely two hits, and then you were dead. For example: "Ogres are killed when they have taken an accumulation of six missile or melee hits in normal combat". As mentioned in the previous post, these “hits” were only later expanded into the more incremental system of hit point rolls and damage rolls, when players complained about dying too quickly. And that’s where hit dice get their name.)

I have always been fascinated by mechanics that add uncertainty at the point of (near-)death. Uncertainty means tension. However, damage rolls are not tense, because they’re routine and average out in the long run. They’re only tense when you’re very low - if you have 6 HP, then the trap’s 2d6 damage roll is the difference between life and death. But up until you get to that threat range, the damage rolls don’t matter, and you might as well just take the average result every time.

"Death spiral" systems, i.e. ones where your fighting capability falls linearly as you take damage, are bad for a different reason. They remove uncertainty up front: whoever gets hit first has probably lost, and the result of a fight is decided and obvious from the beginning..

Essentially, what I have done is extended the relative space of play where a single roll decides the fate of a player character. However, I haven’t made things more lethal overall. In fact, I’ve given players slightly more resources - first they lose their health, and then they get complications, while still having a chance to survive. You could perhaps call it a safety cushion, but the important thing is that the risk is real (unlike, say, 5th edition’s death saves which make it virtually impossible to die). At the same time, I’ve given players more rope to hang themselves with (which is always more fun). In an HP damage system, getting knocked out can be sudden (and double damage critical hits exacerbate the problem), but after it happens there’s nothing players can do about it that. But here, if they’re badly wounded and dicing with death, they always have the option to keep fighting and exploring. If they don’t want to retreat, it’s their own choice.

Compatibility & benefits

D&D with static and ascending damage might look very different to the D&D you know. However, it should be reiterated that this is all entirely compatible with existing materials and modules. When you play a module and it says you take 3d6 damage, you instead take three Wounds. The majority of the time there’s no maths involved in conversion - in fact there’s less maths than when playing normally.

Apart from cutting down on maths and redundant rolling, the Wounds tally system also has a logistical benefit. Character sheets get worn down more from erasing than they do from writing on them. When you play with descending HP, you have to erase a number and write a new one every time you take a hit. When you check a box each time you take a Wound (unlike HP, the maximum number of Wounds is small enough to reasonably be represented as checkboxes on the sheet), you only need to use an eraser when you get healed. And healing is a less frequent occurrence than taking damage. Therefore, you're saving trees by playing this way!

Optional rules

Though these reduce the elegance of the system, I may add them later to tweak the lethality once I see how it works out in playtesting. As always, everything is just theorycrafting so far, unless otherwise stated.

Critical Failures: When you Dice With Death, if you roll exactly your current number of Wounds, you suffer an additional Wound from internal bleeding (and must, therefore, Dice With Death again).

Adrenaline Spike
: One exploration turn after any combat or chase in which you have Diced With Death, your adrenaline runs out; you must Dice With Death one more time, unless you have been healed down to your Max Wounds or below.

Static damage & different weapons

  • Daggers have a -2 penalty to hit against defenders armed with long weapons. (That means things like swords, spears and polearms.) This does not apply to unaware targets or those who are otherwise unable to defend themselves. 
  • Two-handed weapons and crossbows are Devastating. On a natural 20, they deal an additional Wound. Other weapons don't get to do that. 
  • Unarmed strikes and improvised weapons (torches, thrown rocks, etc.) only deal damage on a successful Open Doors roll (2+STR in 6).
  • Fighters get some other neat bonuses to make up for losing the bigger damage dice - more details on that in a later post.
  • Leader monsters and monsters in modules listed with maximum HP may be counted as one HD higher (take 1 Wound more to kill than normal). For example, if a den of goblins (HD 1 = 1 Wound) is lead by a chieftain with 8 HP, then count the chieftain as HD 2 when determining Wounds to kill it.

Bonus: Other potential uses for “roll-between” mechanics

 Notice how when you Dice With Death(tm), you're trying to roll above one target number but below another? Just spitballing, but:
  • When you hit with a two-handed axe, if the attack roll is below or equal to your Strength score, you sever a limb.
  • When you hit while dual-wielding light weapons, if the attack roll is below or equal to your Dexterity score on your attack roll, you deal double damage.
  • When you are parrying with a lighter weapon, if the opponent’s attack roll misses but is above your Strength score, your weapon is flung from your grasp. Otherwise, if the attack roll is below or equal to your Dexterity score, you get a free counterattack.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

OSR Class: Trollkin (Half-Troll)

[ click here for single-page PDF version ]

You’re probably not really half troll, but have some portion of troll blood, or are merely the result of a curse or potion misuse. You look like an abnormally tall, gangly, lumpy, warty human. People view you as a freak, but not a monster - at least until they see your severed head talking.

Hit Dice & Attack: as Fighter

Saves: as Fighter, except Breath is 1 worse and Poison is 1 better

Experience: 3,000 XP to 2nd level

Troll Blood: You regain 6 HP at the end of each hour, unless hungry.

Lumpy: You have a +1 bonus to AC, but you are unable to wear armour other than leather.

Monstrous Hunger: You must eat two rations each day, instead of only one. You can smell meat and rotting corpses inside a room through the door, and you can eat things that most people couldn’t (or wouldn’t).

Troll Weakness: You take one additional die of damage from fire or acid (so 1d4 becomes 2d4, 6d6 becomes 7d6, and so on), and you cannot use your Limbs Shall Be Severed ability for 1 exploration turn thereafter. If you are hit with an attack while you are surprised and holding a torch, you must save vs. Breath or take 4 damage from the flame.

Limbs Shall Be Severed: Starting at 4th level, when a melee attack would kill you, roll to lose a random body part instead. d5: 1 = left leg, 2 = right leg, 3 = left arm, 4 = right arm, 5 = head. That part is now severed, and you are at 1 HP rather than dead.

If you rolled a limb, it falls off dead from your body, and grows back after 1 day.
If you rolled the head, your body drops dead, while your head is still alive. You still have your senses, but you cannot move or act except for attempting to bite anyone holding you for 1d2 damage. Your body grows back after 1 week.

When forced to roll for a lost body part additional times, you die if you are just a head, and you also die if you roll a limb that’s already missing.

Image: CC SA 3.0 by

Friday, 8 March 2019

Random LotFP Class Generator

Random class generator
Random LotFP class generator. Credit to Emmy Allen for the numbers: (used with permission)
Lamentations of the Flame Princess is an OGL game by James Edward Raggi IV.

Changes I made: Rolled the "Fighter Tax" into the Fighter's attack progression. Rolled being innately Chaotic together with being unnatural and harmed by holy water. Did not include the Fighter's "max HP at 1st level" feature. Added an interest rate for high XP cost combinations. HD d12 costs 400 instead of 300 XP.

THE _____________________ :

[class goes here]

All that we leave for you is to come up with the name for your class. Leave your suggestions in the comments below!

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Making the case for limited ability modifiers in OSR

D&D B/X is, I would wager, the most popular basis for OSR games. Therefore, B/X style ability modifiers are the most common. In case you didn't know, ability modifiers in B/X range from -3 to +3 and are determined like this:

Score Mod
3 -3
4-5 -2
6-8 -1
9-12 +0
13-15 +1
16-17 +2
18 +3

Nice, unified and symmetric. Except of course when it's not - only positive modifiers affect languages known, and reaction adjustments from Charisma only go from -2 to +2, and ditto for initiative adjustments from Dexterity. But we'll get back to that.

While this is probably the smoothest system in any official edition - more unified than Original and Advanced D&D's jumble of adjustments, and less game-deciding than WotC D&D's gigantic -5 to +5 range, they're not the best choice for everything.

Negative modifiers can be problematic when you want to modify numbers that are naturally quite small. Rulesets will often include things like “you can hold your breath for a number of minutes equal to 1+CON”, which will then require special stipulations and minimums for negative modifiers.

Also, I have witnessed applying modifiers to dice rolls cause headaches to OSR hackers creating their own games using B/X as a starting point (often via Lamentations of the Flame Princess). ‘Esoteric Enterprises’ and other games by Emmy Allen use X-in-6 skills like LotFP, except ability modifiers are applied to skills - though they can never go below 0-in-6 (rolled as a 1-in-36 chance). Since skills start at 1-in-6, this means that a modifier of -3 or -2 is the same as -1, not to mention that a +3 is pretty massive. The WIP post-apoc game Ruinations by Brent Ault has gone through several iterations with its skill system, likewise attempting to include ability modifiers into skills, but trying to dampen their effect. At one iteration of the ruleset, skills were moved up to the d12, starting at 2-in-12, plus ability mods. Once again, anything below a -1 is not accounted for. The skill system was changed in a later version to a d100 where start skills at 20%, and have each point of modifier count for 5%, so a -3 modifier would give a 5% success rate. Which, you'll notice, is mathematically the same as a d20 roll with the modifiers applying in their usual way.

Basically, the d6 skill system is liked (by me and many others) for its chunkiness - adding a pip to a d6 feels much better than adding a handful of points to a d20 - but big modifiers and big chunks don't mix.

I'm going to suggest something to all hackers, tinkerers and homebrewers right now:

Ditch the negative ability modifiers from your game. Completely.

It's okay. Just because you're using B/X as your engine doesn't mean you NEED to have the same ability modifiers. It doesn't break compatibility. You still have the same scores, in the same range of 3-18, for when you take ability damage or whatever. You can still run Keep on the Borderlands even if there isn't some unlucky geezer running around with a -2 DEX. You still have HP, and XP, and AC. You can still use all the great TSR and OSR content out there exactly the same.

Then, squish down the modifier ceiling to one that you think won't break your maths too much.

Yes, it may be somewhat more fun for players to have wide variation in characters' abilities, and amusing to laugh at the one chump with a big negative modifier. But reducing modifiers to a range of, say, +0 to +2, opens up a lot more design space for a homebrewer. Never again will you have to worry about special stipulations when applying modifiers to a base number of 1.

(Btw, this pairs quite well with the static Health/Wounds mechanic I talked about in an earlier post - I'll just have CON modifier increase your starting Health at level 1, but more on that in a later post.)

As for precedents, there are already places where B/X et al. restrict adjustments from abilities to -2 to +2, like reactions, initiative, and XP adjustments - because a +3 would be far too large a modifier on a 2d6 roll, for example. Why not expand these limits to everything, thus truly unifying ability adjustments? A smaller range of ability modifiers that excludes negatives means doing less maths, a larger design space, and fewer special cases.

I propose the following modifiers, and will use them in my next game:

Score Mod
3-12 +0
13-15 +1
16-18 +2

Essentially, it's the B/X range but with negatives completely removed, and +3 squished into +2. You still have some characters (21.3%) who are very good at a given thing, and a few (4.6%) who are exceptional at it. The rest (74.1%) are just average. And that's okay. Now, your base Bushcraft (or whatever) chance will be either 1-in-6, 2-in-6, or 3-in-6. No special stipulations.

By the way: in the oft-referenced late Gygaxian houserules for OD&D, abilities modify things by +1 or not at all. And they modify very few select things. Constitution of 15 or more gives +1 HP per HD, and so on. In discussions of these rules it is often pointed out that they were made for convention games, and therefore do not represent how Gygax ran the game at home. It is true that many of the changes there improve PC survivability - which makes sense when running a quick convention game. However, the streamlining and restricting the effect of abilities does not necessarily improve PC capability - and in fact set a lower ceiling for it than those in B/X and AD&D. I'm not going to say "if it's good enough for Gygax...", I'm just including it for completeness and to show that it's okay to do things differently to B/X - as long as compatibility is preserved. Compatibility must always be preserved.