Designing a OSR Heartbreaker – The Framework

I my last post I stated, that I wanted to a D&D retro-clone heartbreaker, and so I do – and have actually done – and with this design diary I want to reflect upon my design choices and bit by bit reveal the rule set.

At first I have for the last few years been playing D&D becmi,AD&D 1st, AD&D 2nd, D&D 3,5, D&D 4th, D&D Next play test and Legends & Labyrinths (still eagerly awaiting the printed book and the complete rules) – beside a slew of other games from the Nordic countries and from the Indie-movement and some more classic games.

From D&D to D&D

Playing the different versions revealed some serious differences in the D&D-editions. They have all the same core mechanic (roll a d20), but the resource management and the structure of the play were quite different. In older versions of D&D (becmi, 1st, 2nd), you can expect not to be fully healed after one or more days of rest, however you can expect spells to have powerful long-lasting effects. In newer versions you at more or less fully healed every day and in some instances during the day (D&D 3,5; 4th). Secondly you have multiple resources to spend each day in each encounter making it more and more necessary to have multiple encounters a day in order to challenge and exhaust the players’ resources. – this for instance make journey based games difficult, as you need to present the players with multiple encounters a day or some really difficult wandering monsters in order to make a dent in their armor. These are just minor aspects but they do point towards a greater problem.

With third edition you needed magic items, and they became a part of the levelling. Even though there many things I like about the third edition (and it’s successor 3,5), I was not satisfied with the magic item necessity. Magic became an everyday thing. a necessary thing even. – and I do like to play low-magic and with strange and weird magic items, rather than yet another +weapon.


Worse was prepping. I have been playing a lot of different modules – last we played Spelljammer and before that Dragonlance – and when I play with the older systems (pre-1990) most of my prep-time is just reading the module and checking a few spell, monster abilities and magic items. No biggie. When I play post-1990-modules I spend a lot of time structuring events, studying the module text in order to structure all the intricacies of the plot, and then I look up spells, monster abilities and magic items. When I prep post-2000 materials I spend my time on studying the encounters, noting spells and their effects, stacking modifiers, and even worse when it comes to D&D 4th, where I really have to plan the encounter with different types of monsters, their physical positions, terrain and so on and on.

Prepping went from reading the module to studying the module text to planning combats. – However planning combats is more accounting and bookkeeping than just preparing tonight’s game, and it takes me a lot longer to do. More work with the fiddly things and less with just the story. This is to me one of the major differences and weaknesses with D&D 3,5 and D&D 4th (for even though the rules are somewhat different in these two versions, the structure of the game is more or less the same: planning combat).

Encounter Structure

This is where I want to claim, that D&D is doing it wrong – or rather this is not, what I want my D&D to do, and thus I need something else (either going back to pre-2000 D&D or going for D&D Next, that seems to do, what I want D&D to do or designing my own D&D).

I do not want a scenario-structure that is based on encounters, and especially not encounters predestined to be combats. D&D (in my opinion) is not about combat but of exploration (of caves and cellars, of outer planes and isolated villages, of old castles and forbidden islands), and of the meeting with creatures as you explore said places, and I want a D&D-system that can handle exploration and the meeting with other creatures.

Exploring and Quick Combats

I want a D&D-game where I can explore, and the emphasis is exploring rather than killing and looting. As a consequence I want a D&D-style game where combat is quick, and by quick I mean measured in real-time, i.e. the time spent at the table rolling dice battling monsters. Somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes is optimal, and better 15 minutes than 30, and combat does not need to go beyond three combat rounds.

To Sum Up

The purpose of my designing a D&D-clone is to recreate the D&D experience from some of my earliest years. Yet designing that will not make me any younger, so the design must also be able to suit my interests. Thus the retro-clone that I am designing must have the following parameters: (I will explore these parameters in detail in later posts)

  • Focus on exploring (dungeons)
  • Quick combats (15-30 min, 2-5 combat rounds)
  • System must support talking with monsters
  • Combat is choosing exciting actions rather than tactical actions
  • Combat must be a theater of the mind
  • Drifting is a feature
  • As few tables with modifiers as possible
  • A slower progression (than D&D 3rd and 4th)
  • No detailed character creation

To be continued …


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.