So as the result of some kickstarters and FGG's ongoing work for the Pathfinder RPG and Swords & Wizardry they release Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks. I must say Bill Webb's illustration on the front cover is a little scary! :)
Bill is a great guy, I've met him a number of times now thanks to PaizoCon. He has done a lot of great work as head of FGG and supporting old school gaming in a mainstream sort of way. The book of dirty tricks includes tons of tips (and tricks obviously) for running a RPG in the 'old way'. There are tons of devious things a DM/referee could use to spice up some dungeon crawls. The little booklet is valuable for all of this alone. What I want to write about today are Bill's houserules that he has graciously included in the booklet. I don't want to 'review' it because I feel like it's a little too subjective. I want this to instead be commentary on the houserules and talk about why I like some ideas vs others and why someone might want to use them. I've broken down the commentary by section. Anyway, enjoy. :)
Experience PointsBill goes the typical route I think most OSR players are familiar. It's not just a matter of killing monsters, you ideally want the treasure more than anything. Any arguments about gold = xp aside, this is pretty standard. What Bill does that not everyone does is make it so XP is gained by spending gold. There is a sort of common sense to it I suppose. I think it matters on the type of campaign. In Bill's games I assume the characters are always going dungeon-crawling. What's the use of 100k in gold but to spend on frivolously? Other types of campaigns however, may have the players wish to use it on building a stronghold or otherwise. That sort of thing isn't ruled out in Bill's explanation but the focus seems to spend it on "wine, women, and song". Bill is pretty stingy on monster XP though. Killing even strong monsters results in paltry XP. Even the base values for S&W are pretty low to begin with, so we're really only comparing pennies to nickels in the view of the huge XP requirements for leveling. It takes the old school mentality of "takes forever to level" a little bit more heavily. I'm not sure if this is a good thing but it's certainly a valid style.
Attributes and BonusesThis section isn't terribly surprising if you are familiar with the Whitebox version of Swords & Wizardry. In fact, a lot of Bill's houserules seems derived from the Whitebox rules, which really means it's derived from the original three booklets of OD&D. It is nice though, keeping the bonuses restricted to a +1 or -1. It does take the 'fun' out of getting lucky with an 18 in strength, but overall S&W favors player skill over character ability, so it's not a big deal. I'm already used to S&W Complete so I don't see myself using this, unless I was going strictly Whitebox S&W anyway. I suppose I just prefer degrees of 'better'.
Table Dice RollsThis one is short and sweet. Do you roll in front of the players or not? It's a tough one. I surely admire the practice. It makes things more transparent, and the DM certainly feels more like a 'referee' in this case. Bill points out its more often that a DM 'cheat's in favor of a player than otherwise. I agree completely. I've don't this more often than I'd like to admit. I don't like ruining fun with player death, but that is a very new school mentality to get over. I saw do this if you can be brave enough and the players understand this. There is no safety net, play carefully.
Damage Rolls and the Value of Magic WeaponsHere is another OD&D(Whitebox)-ism. Using d6 for all weapon damage. I do like it, though I don't use it myself. My players are too used to the varied weapon dice to change. I agree, 6 damage is enough to kill someone. The only real issue I have is that a dagger isn't nearly as dangerous a weapon to say, a dragon or storm giant, as a sword would be. That isn't reflected well. I have a feeling my thought process is similar to what spawned the weapon vs size table from (I think it was) AD&D and the first instance of varied weapon dice. Still, if I were running Whitebox Bill's specific listings in this section would be apt. I do like giving magic weapon bonuses to attack rolls AND damage. I thought it was always this way, so go figure that. I don't use double damage on criticals in S&W either, so I'm with Bill on that one.
Hit Points vs Rolls to HitBill is right to say this one gets the most controversy. I gotta say I'm still wrapping my head around it. I disagree that getting more hit points and better attack bonuses is "double-dipping". Double-dipping what? If we think leveling up means a character is more resilient, can't that also mean they are better at fighting? I can see the merit in this though. Having static attack bonuses that don't increase except through magic gives another level of 'grit' to the game and levels the playing field a bit. It does favor thieves' backstab as Bill says but I feel it stifles the Fighter a bit by only giving a very marginal fighting advantage. "It's still tough to bust through plate armor even with 70 hp", except that some monsters' attacks may be better than others. A dragon claw is surely more dangerous than a mace. A dragon is much more likely to pierce through that armor than the mace right? I've tried a few mock-battles, but I don't think I've done enough to see how much it impacts the game. Bill does allude to it making fights a little longer. I suppose if you were righting something with a -1 AC (meaning an 18 or better for a fighter) you only ever have a 15% chance to hit it each round and you are still whittling away at a large amount of HP assuming you are only doing on average 8 points of damage. I'd be afraid of the quick back-and-forth swing-and-miss rounds just to resolve combat. Anyway, I may need to test it more, but I don't figure I'll adopt this in my game unless for a special occasion.
Travel and Getting LostPretty straight forward stuff. Similar to any other 'traveling' rules you may find in another RPG book. I suppose if you didn't already have a favorite you could use this just fine.
Food and WaterPretty straight forward stuff here too. I don't know how much it is needed if you follow existing rules (and ration weights). It does seem a little more strict on keeping track, which would be useful in making the game more realistic. I'd just be afraid of slowing the game down. I think I'll tentatively use it in my next campaign... we'll see.
Surprise, Initiative and Melee Order, and Spellcasting in CombatNothing really new here that isn't already described in S&W rules. Might be interesting for a Pathfinder group.
Hit points, Death and Dying.First level max HP, kind of a no-brainer for practicality's sake. No one wants a fighter with 1HP. Bill seems pretty generous with raise dead possibilities which may or may not match your campaign assumptions. His way of dealing with when a character dies with negative HP makes sense. I may use it but it seems everyone has their own little variation. I sometimes prefer that a character dies when he has negative HP equal to his CON score or half of it. Character with 18 CON dies at -18 for instance, or -9.
Doing Things Rather than Rolling DiceThis final topic is huge and I support it 100%. I think most OSR games support this. It a damn shame games like Pathfinder/3.5/4E threw this out the window. I do like that Bill describes how in the 70s he let thieves into his game by letting the thief automatically detect there was a trap, but they still had to describe dealing with it. I may include that in my game, and leave the disarm trap skill check to be for things a player can't help. The player may say they are using a thieves' tool to do something inside of a mechanism but to be sure they don't accidentally hit something (like the game Operation) we need a skill check roll. I do enjoy the tables Bill has provided, showing a great number of door mechanisms to use for secret doors and the like. Will definitely be making use of this.
Overall, like most houserules people talk about, it comes down to taste. Some of what Bill does is great and I want to incorporate. Other stuff just bounces off the backboard. It's always good to check out other folks' houserules though. It can often spark your own ideas on how to do things. Again, the houserules are just a part of what is in the book of Dirty Tricks. There is plenty of useful advice and resources included that I'll probably keep my copy close at hand while running TESC.