I was thinking one day, as I usually do, and I reminded myself of one my recently recurring statements: “you don’t need rules to roleplay”. My would-be players argued that you need explicit rules to differentiate classes, otherwise anyone can do anything, and I argued the opposite, that the playing of roles isn’t the function of the system, but the players. Take a basic example: You can play cowboys and indians or cops and robbers with no rules after all. Of course some basics will develop through play, like genre adherence, how you can’t claim to be bullet-proof or that you can’t escape even though your bonds are fake (a rule that I broke, since sitting in the bushes while everyone else gets to play is boring).
Developing rules through play was the norm back in the Chainmail days, and James Maliszewski tested this method in his Dwimmermount campaign to great success. So what is the bare minimum of rules needed to play a roleplaying game with pen, paper, dice and a Dungeon Master? I’m a minimalist, so let’s see how bare-bones I can get.
Introducing the Dielevel system
Named after it’s 2 major components, it has the following rules:
- everything is resolved with opposing rolls of the same kind if die
- the level of the character (or obstacle) is added to their roll
- you can take as much punishment as levels you achieved (hp=level)
- damage from all weapons and most magic is 1
- a new level is gained after every sufficiently lengthy and challenging adventure
And that’s it. The last rule is only needed in campaign but if I have levels (or HD) why not have a method of advancing? The coolest thing is the size of the character sheet: a single number, your level. I bet you won’t forget that from one session to the next! Of course if you read it and have some roleplaying experience, a few questions immediately pop into mind. But as all of them have several answers, they immediately become house-rules.
Some questions I can foresee:
What die to use?
The bigger the better, but use whatever you find. D6s are most available, White Wolf fans will have a ton of d10s around and in a pinch you can use 3 coins to simulate a d8.
If I use a d6, a 1st level character can’t hit a 7th level character.
As I said, the bigger the better, as that can greatly help with this issue. Or you could set a maximum over which nobody can roll and the levels just make the minimum higher. Or you could scale down the die type by level.
What happens if there’s a draw?
Whatever you want. Maybe draws always go to the players, to the defenders, or the attackers. Or the ones with lower level. Maybe winning draws is a resource for the players and when they run out, the enemies always win draws.
Is the level always added to the roll?
Maybe you can create classes that only add their level in different situations, like combat for fighters. Maybe you can only add your level to rolls if you are not hindered, so not when fighting in the dark.
Are only the levels added to the roll?
Maybe the thief gets a bonus +1 to climbing if he has the proper equipment. The paladin might have a magic set of armour that adds +1 to his defensive roll. You could add a +1 to hit for Obi-Wan having the high ground.
Is damage always 1?
That’s the basic mundane damage. Maybe getting set on fire causes 1 damage every round. Maybe falling damage gets multiplied with every 10 feet. The paladin from the earlier example might have a magic sword that adds +1 to damage. And magic is a topic all to itself.
What happens when someone reaches 0 hp?
Well technically 0-level characters (like kobolds) start with 0 hp, so nothing. But what happens when you go below 0? Maybe you die instantly, or just faint. Or faint unless you go below 0 by a certain amount (maybe your level) and die then.
What does “sufficiently lengthy and challenging adventure” mean?
That is completely up to the DM. Wasn’t that always the case?
But what about racial bonuses, movement speed or spells?
Well what about laser weapons, planar travel or psionics? Make them up yourself or use whatever rules you like. There’s only one system that contains a rule for everything and that’s called “everything every produced by the OSR combined”!
Sample fantasy house-rules:
Every character can only add their levels to specific rolls, according to their race and class choice. You can choose a total of 3 “skills” from the following (even if available, you can’t select the same skill twice):
Niche skills: skills like “sneaking:urban” or “detection:wilderness” give a full level bonus in their niche, and a half level bonus (rounded up) outside. A high level thief will still sneak exceptionally, but have a harder time in a forest.
Some skill explanations:
“gain spells”: you can choose 1 spell every time you gain a level. You can select from any of the magic niches you know (arcane, divine or nature). You can cast that spell from then on.
“craft”: you can create, detect, analyze and dismantle anything related to your niche.
“crime”: picking locks and picking pockets are part of this skill set, among other things.
“turn” & “control”: a number of HD equal to the roll result is turned away or controlled by the character, niche specifies type of target.
Using d12 for resolution is suggested, ties go to the players. Characters faint if their health goes under 0, but are only killed by a separate action.