Sunday, October 3, 2021

3.5 OSR Style?

Let's just say you found yourself flipping through a more recent version of the game (as I did out of necessity for a past post) and found yourself missing parts of it...sort of

You wouldn't just pick it up as is though, after all, the more you read, the more you remember why you moved on. But you've learned so much since then. You could apply old lessons to the new. This is a topic that appears regularly on gaming forums -- how to play modern versions of D&D, OSR style.

Some say you can't.

But of course you can.  

For the purposes of this post I'm going to focus on D&D 3rd Edition (specifically 3.5.) 

The 3.5 Core Rulebooks to my eyes today

  • First off, the font is really small and harder for my aging eyes to read. This isn't helped by the fake lines in the background and the gold, full of words over sketches, first page of every chapter. Note to designers -- Stylized is good, readability is better, find the balance.
  • Art is mostly good, Lockwood, Reynolds, hard to go wrong. But, in this edition we begin to see hints of the super-colorful, silly armor, not very medieval or sword & sorcery looking style that is prominent today.
  • Physically, I like the way they feel. Solid. Dense.
  • The Monster Manual is very cool (great monster art and the last monster manual to have such, coolest Dryad, coolest Minotaur -- and I love the fact that a Minotaur does 3d6+6 points of damage with it's great-axe, such a beast would!) but feels crammed, yet the stat-blocks, surprisingly, aren't nearly as bloated as they came to be later on, especially with Pathfinder.
  • Books switch back and forth between 2 and 3 column layout, I love the 3 column aspect of that.
  • The DM's Guide was the last good one. Many useful tables and tons of Traps.
  • Expanded Psionics is a nice book that makes me wish magic worked that way, but too dependent on crystals and new-age type stuff.

Things that came to bother me about 3.5
  • Iterative Attacks. Without a doubt, the worst aspect of this edition. These weren't just extra attacks, they were extra attacks with a diminishing chance to hit. Which means, you have to roll them separately. Take a look at the multi-armed Marilith Demon -- Primary longsword +25/+20/+15/+10, and 5 longswords +25, and a tail slap +22. That's 10 attacks! But if she moves and attacks she only gets 1. Now, I expect a Marilith to enjoy some benefit from having 6 arms, but not at the expense of my fun. Now, in all fairness, iterative attacks is mainly a high-level problem, and I never even sniffed the higher levels, but the closer I got, I could see problems brewing on the horizon.
  • Too much "building" your character. I despise this. As much random determination as possible -- that's what I like!
  • Over time, way too many feats. This happens to almost all RPGs though. People want more options and eventually those options ruin the game. And they're hard to ignore.
  • Lots of useless and/or redundant skills like "knowledge this and knowledge that" and then there's the "perception" super-skill.

What I like about 3.5
  • Fort, Reflex, and Will saves. These are as iconic to me as the original five categories and can easily be reversed to the old school roll-over method (not a huge fan of the modern, goal-post moving, DC systems.)
  • Prestige Classes. Logical. Paladin, for example, should be a Prestige Class.
  • Options. Even though you had to "build" a character, two 1st level fighters could be quite different from each other.

Anyway, how I would OSR 3.5
  • Gold for XP. Keep some monster XP, maybe cut it in half or a third and/or use a slower XP progression table like the slow option in Pathfinder. As with any D&D, you never need to hit the really high levels.
  • Random skills. Yep, a little work would be needed here. Create random tables for each class based on their class-skills list. You get so many rolls on the list every level-up, each skill you roll goes up 1d4 points. One of the results would be "roll on the general skill list." How cool would this be!? Doing this with feats would be a little trickier, due to feat trees and such.
  • Or...eliminate skills all together.
  • Some feats would have to be simplified, re-written, or just done away with, like two-weapon fighting. And only core rules feats allowed, no splat books.
  • Mostly ignore monster feats and skills unless they're already baked in to the stats or vital to the situation. Seriously, I never utilized monster feats. I kept things as basic as possible. Check out how I wrote 3.5 monster stats:
  • Now that Naga also had spells which I recorded below that, but you get the point. I found monsters to be pretty tough in 3.5 (unlike 5th Edition.) 
  • Completely ignore Iterative Attacks. If anything, just turn them into extra attacks with the same bonus as the first one. The above mentioned Marilith would get 6 attacks at +25 to-hit whether she moved or not. And she can use any of those attacks to parry by rolling equal to or higher than a successful incoming attack. Done.
  • OK, wait a minute, +25 just sounds ridiculous! Another problem with 3.5. Reign is armor class and restore "to-hit" based on hit dice.
  • Completely ignore CR (challenge rating.) Tough traps and monsters can be anywhere for anyone to encounter. Learn an old-school trick -- run away!

Back when I ran 3.5, I pretty much played the way I always did, focusing on tough dungeon crawls. I've always ignored the extra bloat in monster stats, even back in 1st edition when certain monsters (mainly powerful ones) had class levels. It was too much work looking up or listing what spells and abilities this gave them. All in all, 3.5 is an excellent game at lower levels, and with some tweaks, it's just as fun as any OSR system. After all, OSR is more a "style" than a ruleset. Would I run it now? I could. But truth be told, my mind has moved on to other innovations & mechanics.

Anyhow, just thoughts. Carry on.

And check out DATE OF EXPIRATION to experience a dungeon unlike anything you've ever seen before!


  1. Castles and Crusades comes to mind as a means of OSR-ing 3.5, but you must already be familiar since you have a char sheet. The variable skillpoints per level and wildgrowth of feats was one of the worst excesses, but I'd also rein in the spellcasters, which came to dominate D20 like never before. And multi-classing unless its by 1e principles.

    1. There's a lot to like about Castles & Crusades and every so often my mind drifts to that system. It kind of feels like an alternate universe's 3rd edition.

  2. There is also Melan's own revision of 3rd edition, called Sword & Magic - you can find it on his old website. It seems pretty close to C&C, he cut out feats and almost everything else, married it to a very 1st edition feel. I have been trying it out, and it runs very well. Certainly he packs a lot into a few pages:

    1. Considering the author, I have no doubt it is good stuff!


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