Fixing D&D 2nd Edition

On the Dungeons & Dragons OSR (old-school renaissance) subreddit, someone asked for everyone’s house rules, so I wrote up mine for 2e. The idea (mine, not the original poster’s) was to fix the game by filling in holes, modernizing certain aspects, and generally making it faster and more fun in as short a space as possible. I managed to keep my D&D 2nd Edition house rules to four pages.

2nd Edition D&D was a great game, but there was a clear imbalance. Spellcasters got access to a new level of spells every odd-numbered level. Other classes didn’t get anything nearly so exciting.

The only features fighters got were weapon specialization, extra attacks, and elevation to lordship. Thieves similarly lacked advancement, apart from regular improvements to the same old skills. And neither had much they could do in combat apart from attack.

So I set out to create some simple tactical options for combat and a few carefully chosen extra features, mostly for fighters and rogues. They’re short enough that I decided to post them here as well. They include simplified versions of some rules I’ve posted here previously.

Ability Scores

Roll 4d6; drop the lowest die–unless you got more than one 1. This is your CHA. Roll 5 more times and assign these to abilities as you like. If no score is at least 15, raise your second highest score to 15. You can swap CHA with another score to make CHA higher but not lower.

Strength gets attack and damage bonuses at lower scores (see below), but adventurers do not get percentile strength without magic.

  • 14: — attack/+1 damage
  • 15: +1 attack/+1 damage
  • 16: +1 attack/+2 damage
  • 17: +2 attack/+2 damage
  • 18: +2 attack/+3 damage
  • 18/01-50: +2/+4
  • 18/51-75: +3/+4
  • 18/76-90: +3/+5
  • 18/91-00: +3/+6
  • 19: +4 attack/+7 damage, etc.


PCs start at 3rd level with 2d3 hit points. Hit points/level (from 1st to 9th) are: warriors 4, wizards 2, priests 3, and rogues 3 (plus CON bonus). Attack bonus (20 – THAC0) replaces THAC0.

Experience points are awarded for successful milestones (half of what is needed to advance to the next level) and for each gold piece spent. At 4th level, new experiences of adventuring boost your lowest ability score (one only) by +1. At 9th level, you gain +1 to any ability. At 18th level, you gain +1 to INT, WIS, or CHA.

Warrior classes features

All warrior classes get the following features:

  • Steely nerve–At 6th level, you are immune to non-magical fear, phobia, and morale problems. You get advantage (per 5e) in checks for magical fear and similar effects.
  • Multiple attack–At 7th level, you get an extra attack at disadvantage (per 5e), which becomes normal at 13th. Specialized fighters get this at 1st and 7th and a third attack at disadvantage at 13th, which becomes normal at 17th level.
  • Grand charger–At 16th level for a fighter or paladin, and 10th level for a ranger, you can go on a quest to find a (semi-intelligent) fantasy mount, such as a griffon or giant panther.
  • Sense unseen–At 18th level, you can uncannily detect creatures within 20 feet that are invisible or otherwise naturally or magically hidden.

Paladin features

Your ability to detect evil intent begins at 5th level and is limited to 1 foot per level. Your aura of protection begins at 8th level. You can cure disease (and become immune to it) at 11th.

Ranger features

You pick your species enemy at 3rd level. Dual-weapon fighting ability begins at 4th level. You cannot build a stronghold; at 9th level, you become a forest warden and begin attracting followers, one per level, starting with a mundane animal.

Fighter features

  • Warrior’s instinct–At 3rd level, if you use a shield, you can spend a point of luck to block an attack on yourself or someone within 5 feet of you after you know what damage it would do. Or, instead of luck, you can sacrifice your shield, damaging it until it can be repaired by an armorer. If you are not using a shield, you can spend a point of luck to act as if you had an action readied for the round; this is not an extra attack.
  • Battle cry–At 8th level, you develop a battle cry that, when shouted as you close for melee, gives heart to all allies within 30 feet, including you. You each get advantage on your next attack in the current combat (once per combat).
  • Horde bane–At 11th level, when facing at least three of the same type in melee, you treat creatures of 2 hd or less as if they had just 1 hp per hd. At 16th level, 4 hd or less.
  • Defiant Spirit–At 15th level, you can draw on your heroic spirit to cut the duration of magical effects on you in half and make saves against magic with advantage.
  • Unparalleled prowess–At 20th level, you can spend a point of luck to turn any successful hit into a critical hit or any miss into a normal hit.

All spellcaster classes features

Spellcasters don’t have to memorize specific spells.

Wizard classes features

You can use Cantrip at will. In place of mundane spell components, you carry a staff, wand, or other sorcerous channel (which you must spend 1 day attuning to). Without it, you cannot cast spells (except cantrips). Fireball does 3d6 hp damage +1 hp/level of the caster.

Priest classes features

All priest classes get the following features:

  • Favor–You gain 1 point of luck each morning when you pray.
  • Minor miracle–You can spend a point of luck to find–or suddenly recall packing–one item or a few small items of a mundane sort, such as an hourglass or candles.

Rogue classes features

Lucky–At 3rd level, you start every adventuring day with 1 point of luck.

Rogues pick up their skills somewhat randomly. At 5th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th levels, the DM should offer two random choices of features you don’t already have:

  • Evasion–When you are hit in melee and after you know what damage it would do, you can spend a point of luck to evade the blow, but you end up several feet away… (1d12: 1=DM’s choice; 2-10=clock positions around opponent, 11-12=your choice).
  • Silver tongue–Given the opportunity, you’re so persuasive that you effectively have the ability of Charm Person by spending a point of luck. If successful, it lasts 1 day.
  • Coup de grace–If maximum damage from your backstab could kill a bloodied opponent, you can spend a point of luck, and, if you hit with a normal attack, kill the opponent.
  • Swashbuckler–Daring feats only cost you 1 point of luck instead of 2.
  • Viper strike–You can perform a backstab-style attack face-to-face, as long as it is the very first attack of a combat encounter. You create your own surprise.

Thief features

  • Jack-of-all-trades–Twice when offered a rogue feature, you can instead choose a fighter or warrior feature of equal or lower level.
  • The Big Score–At 20th level, you get a shot at the score of a lifetime. You define it.

Bard features

  • At 1st level, you can use Cantrip at will.
  • Your 5th-level feature is automatically silver tongue.
  • Once when offered a choice of rogue features, you can instead choose a fighter or warrior feature of equal or lower level.

Hero Dice

Adventurers earn a hero die that advances with them: 1d3, 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12.

  • Warriors get +1d to the hero die at level 4, 7, 10, 13, 16, 19.
  • Priests and rogues get +1d at level 5, 10, 15, 20.
  • Wizards get +1d at level 6, 12, 18.

Add the hero die to weapon damage. If the hero die roll is 3 or more, you get a point of luck.


The DM can award points of luck for good role-playing; and you gain it when you roll a 3 or more on your hero die.

  • Spend 1 point to reroll a die roll (keep either roll).
  • Spend 2 points to make a normal hit a critical hit.
  • Luck resets to zero overnight.
  • The DM gets luck when a player rolls a natural 1 on a d20. The DM can take a point of luck by also gifting one to a random PC. The DM’s luck never resets.


Armor class is ascending from 7 for none (the old 10 AC). Shields give +2 to AC instead of +1 (except for very heavy armor, which give such protection that shields offer little advantage; but shield sacrifice still works)

  • 9 – leather or padded (old 8)
  • 10 – studded leather or ring mail (old 7)
  • 11 – brigandine, scale mail, or hide (old 6)
  • 12 – chain mail (old 5)
  • 13 – splint mail, banded mail, bronze plate mail (old 4)
  • 14 – plate mail (old 3)
  • 15 – field plate (old 2) large shield provides +1 bonus
  • 16 – full plate (old 1) shield provides no bonus

The DM should roll 1d12 near the end of an adventure for meals, water, torches and lamp oil to see what was used, ruined, or lost. On a 1, that item is down to 3 uses.

Daring Feats

At 5th level, on a melee hit, you can spend 1 point of luck (warriors) or 2 points (all others) to perform a daring feat, such as:

  • You grab and throw a similar-sized opponent to one side.
  • You put yourself between an opponent and either an ally or something they are protecting.
  • You spoil the opponent’s next attack or attempt to chase you by throwing something.
  • You climb on top of a much larger opponent, making further attacks automatic hits.
  • You target a body part or item of the opponent: disadvantage on attack, -2 to damage.
  • You tuck and roll after a fall (up to your DEX score in feet) to avoid falling damage.


Each side rolls 1d20 and adds the number of characters on their side. Deal with readied actions first, then a chosen character from the winning side, then the opponent of that character, and so on, clockwise around the table. Those without opponents act at the DM’s discretion.


Each round of melee, you can take a +2 to attack (aggressive) or +2 to AC (defensive) or +1/+1 (careful). (Monsters don’t get this, because they weren’t recalibrated, but NPCs do.)

  • To attack, roll 1d20, add attack bonus and other modifiers. The result is the AC hit.
  • Damage is the weapon die + hero die.
  • Natural 20 is a critical hit: do maximum damage (including hero die).

On a natural 19 or 20 attack roll, choose an effect based on your weapon’s damage type:

  • Bludgeon/slashForce same or smaller size opponent back 5 feet (or unhorse them).
  • Slash/pierceRend opponent’s armor or hide for -1 AC.
  • Bludgeon/pierceDo +2 damage.

If you kill a creature with an attack that does 10 or more points of damage, you chop off its head, crush its skull or spine, or pierce it thru the heart or throat, etc., as appropriate for the weapon. This goes both ways, but PCs get the system shock checks mentioned below.


When reduced below 10 hp (or with any loss, if you normally have less than 10), you are lightly injured and get disadvantage (per 5e) on attack rolls and physical skill and ability checks. Monsters are bloodied when they lose half their hit points.

When reduced to zero hp, you are seriously injured. Make a system shock check to remain conscious and able to crawl. Either way, make a system shock check every round until you get help; if you fail, you die. If you take more damage, you die immediately.

Resting and Healing

If you have at least 1 hp, you can rest and recover.

  • Short rest–Rest 30 minutes: regain 1 hp per level (once per combat).
  • Good night’s rest–Regain 3 hit points per level.
  • Poor night’s rest–Regain 2 hp per level or even 1 hp per level.

If you were reduced to zero hp, without magic you would heal at 1 hp per week until you have 10 hp.

Falling Damage

Take 1d6 hp damage per 5 feet. Save vs half the height in feet (10 for a 20-foot fall).

  • If you fail but beat a system shock roll, you suffer a broken bone and are left with 1 hp, if the damage didn’t kill you.
  • If you fail both, you are reduced to zero hit points (see Injury, above).

Magic Items

Magic items are worth 5x their XP value in gold pieces. A great wizard can give a weapon a +1 for 1000 gp (maximum of +3) or add a magic weapon’s effect to yours by paying half its value.

Creating a Character the Old-fashioned Way: Procreation

A fun way to make player characters might be for each player to first generate their character’s parents as NPCs, and then the character inherits their abilities from them.

Use one of the less generous methods to create your character’s parents. Instead of rolling 4d6 and dropping the low die for every ability–or whatever other method you normally use–roll 3d6 seven times and drop the lowest roll. Assign these scores to the parents’ abilities and give the parents names.

Now select three scores from papa and three from mama for your character to inherit. If the resulting character doesn’t have any 15s or higher (very common in my tests), boost the highest score to 15.

Since this is essentially best-6-of-14, it virtually guarantees no bad scores. But it would be quite unlikely to get a particularly overpowered character.


Let’s say your first seven 3d6 rolls are 8, 13, 11, 13, 5, 8, and 11. You would drop the 5 and assigned the remaining scores to your father’s abilities. Then you roll 6, 13, 11, 14, 11, 10, and 13. You drop the 6 and assign the remaining scores to your mother’s abilities.

Now you have two parent NPCs. You get to inherit the best from each of them, or 14, 13, 13, 13, 11, and 11. Since none of these is at least 15, you raise the 14 to a 15 and assign these scores to your abilities.

Stop Playing D&D in the Wild West

It never ceases to amaze me how many D&D games ostensibly set in the Middle Ages are really set in the American Wild West. Most people don’t have a good grasp on medieval culture beyond knights and castles, so they imagine it was pretty much like the oldest thing they do know about: movies set in the American West of the late-1800s.

It shows in a lot of what they say and do. A lot of campaigns have latched onto the idea of “quest board” that looks a lot like a billboard (that is, a board for posting handbills) from the Wild West, complete with wanted posters. There are even scale miniatures for them.

It should go without saying that such things didn’t exist in medieval Europe, because hardly anyone could read.

Now, it should be said that everyone is entitled to do their adventuring in their own fantasy world, and it doesn’t have to mirror medieval England and France. But when people’s fantasy world sounds suspiciously like a cowboy movie, it starts to feel very silly.

There is often talk about a sheriff and a jail. Old West towns hired a marshal; the sheriff was–and still is–elected at the county level. They often call people “farmers”, but that term didn’t exist until much later.

How the Middle Ages Worked

At the foundation of society in the Middle Ages were peasants, who made up 90% of the populace. Peasants were either serfs (field laborers attached to a manor) or husbandmen (free field laborers) or yeomen (free land owners). People who lived in town were freemen called burghers. Above commoners were franklins (untitled landed gentry), then gentlemen and knights (knighthood is not inherited), then lords, then various nobles like barons and dukes, then various royals like princes and kings. While the aristocracy certainly became more complicated over time, there’s no reason to include counts, viscounts, baronets, and the like.

One important thing to remember is that virtually every male trained for war. Yeomen were required to practice archery. Burghers trained as footmen. The gentry and nobility either trained as knights or joined the clergy. Nobles weren’t the effete aristocrats of later times–they were warlords. They trained constantly for tournaments and by extensive hunting trips, where they camped in the forest and speared boars with lances. In a D&D world, they certainly would have gone monster-hunting.

If you want to inject some semblance of history in your campaign, the player characters should mostly be franklins with some yeomen and burghers.

The Manorial System

Essentially, every plot of land was part of some lord’s manor. Lords typically had several manors, each about 1500 acres, often scattered about so that no one lord owned too much contiguous lands. But where there were a few manors clumped together, they lord would have a fortified manor house or keep. Nobles would have castles. Knights would have just one or two manors (a knight’s fee or fiefdom).

A manor had a village attached to it. The peasants lived in the village and worked in the fields. The village had no walls and was also home to a blacksmith, miller, and perhaps a brewer. Many people brewed ale at home; those who sold it to the public ran a “public house”. Beer (which contains hops, while ale does not) kept longer and so could be sold away from where it was made. A village typically had only one oven, owned by the lord; this reduced the likelihood of fire. A villager’s cottage was generally one room, with a central fire pit, with the smoke filtering thru the thatched roof. If you were wealthy enough to have more than one room, you probably kept your animals in it at night.

Yeomen were the “middle class” of the peasantry. They had larger, nicer homes and servants of their own. Franklins sat above them on the bottom run of nobility–untitled but part of the landed gentry. It would likely have been difficulty to tell them apart.

Everyone who lived on a lord’s land owed him fealty and support during a war as well as rent and taxes. A lord would be expected to provide a certain number of archers, footmen, and perhaps half a dozen knights to liege–either the king or the a very high-ranking nobleman. Knights were obligated to serve 40 days a year, either in war or garrison duty (manning a castle) or retinue (traveling guards), as well as being available for councils to help advise in decision-making. Lords generally had a say in who married whom, since it affected the number of people whom he could count as his subjects.

In exchange, a lord provided security and protection from raiders and invaders, as well as traditional things like a certain amount of cloth each year for making clothing.

Towns & Cities

Towns grew up on major roads to provide a weekly market to the villagers. But only guildmembers could buy and sell. Shops in a town were workshops; there were no such things as stores and certainly no “general store” like in an Old West town.

The burghers who lived in the town still paid rent to the local lord (or to the town, which then paid the lord), so don’t think of towns like those in the Old West, being independent and isolated. Villages dotted the landscape every two or three miles, and towns were only 15 to 20 miles apart. Only the rich could afford horses and carriages, so these places had to be within walking distance.

People also commonly get the community size wrong. A village was only 75 to 150 people. A town might have 500 to 1500 people, while cities might be 2000 to only about 12,000, except for the capital of the kingdom. London itself never had more than about 70,000 people in the Middle Ages, but Paris had a couple of hundred thousand, and Rome and Constantinople might have reached half a million.


A very common thing to overlook in D&D fantasy worlds is the food. Before the discovery of the New World, Europe had no potatoes, tomatoes, corn (maize), pumpkin, peanuts, chocolate, coffee, chili or sweet peppers, or turkey. Nor was there tobacco or cocaine.

People ate a lot of peas, beans, grain porridge, cabbage, onions, leeks, and lentils, as well as dairy products and eggs. They also ate a lot of nuts, in particular Walnuts, hazelnuts (AKA filberts), pistachios, chestnuts, pine-nuts and especially almonds. The peasants had little meat, and it tended toward rabbits, sausages, and bacon, while their betters got the roasts.

Tea and bananas and other exotic items from elsewhere in the world didn’t generally make their way to medieval northern Europe. And distilled liquor (whiskey) hadn’t been invented yet. The exotic–and very expensive–items that did were “spices” like black nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, saffron, mace, anise, garlic, tarragon, dill, and (in hard “loafs”) sugar.


Lastly, other common mistakes are imagining that modern items would be available. Medieval Europe had little glass; what windows existed were stained glass and leaded glass, both of which use very small pieces of glass set in leading. The lower classes had shutters to keep the weather out of unglazed windows (that is, windows were basically little doors).

Likewise, leather backpacks weren’t invented. Packs carried by travelers were typically either a leather or canvas haversack over one shoulder or a woven basket with shoulder straps. Another thing to note is the prevalence of barrels and casks in place of crates. While wooden boxes, trunks, and chests existed, barrels are much simpler and therefore far more common.


Many people may be shocked to learn that not only did clothing not have pockets–you carried a pouch or purse on a belt or shoulder strap–but Europeans in the Middle Ages didn’t even have buttons. Brooches and cloak pins are some of the most common items find in archeological digs from this period, but a lot of clothing was held together with pins until the 1800s (the origin of the term “pin money”). They did have belts, tho, often called girdles for both men and women, and they liked them very long and dangley.

Headwear was ubiquitous. The amount of uncovered hair in fantasy art and Ren fairs is strictly late-20th and early 21st century stuff. There were many styles over the years, so take your pick for your world, but the ubiquity of hats and hoods (often a cowl separate from the cloak, because England is a drizzly land) cannot be overstated.

Clothing fashion was rather dull, and we should be forgiven for preferring styles closer to the 15 and 1600s than to the 12 and 1300s. This is why they’re called Renaissance fairs and not medieval fairs. Even so, the biggest mistake remains full-length trousers.

Ankle-length trousers were worn in some parts of the world, usually in the form of loose-fitting pantaloons for thousands of years, but the style thruout Europe was tight-fitting hose until hose were separated into knee breeches and stockings.

Second to trousers is jackets.

Consumable Supplies–Including Potions

The old-school Dungeons & Dragons game of my youth was practically a survivalist game. It was deeply interested in how many torches, days’ rations, and such you were carrying. Today, not much thought is given to the bookkeeping aspects of the game–except among those who play in OSR (old-school revival) D&D clones.

Even in those, I suspect, most of the consumable supply question is hand-waved away. No one really wants to do bookkeeping but a bookkeeper. (Gary Gygax was a bookkeeper.)

But there’s an easy way to account for such materials: roll for it.

Continue reading Consumable Supplies–Including Potions

Luck & Danger in D&D

D&D has a mechanic called inspiration, which is a single point that can be used by the players to gain advantage on a given die roll. That mechanic is so weak that many tables ignore it.

The Conan 2d20 system has an interesting mechanic called momentum and doom, which are points you can use to accomplish things or improve results and points the game master can use to make encounters and predicaments more challenging. That particular system is too deeply integrated into the general mechanics of the game to be portable, but I liked the idea of it enough to try to create something more system-neutral.

My luck and danger mechanic has some similarities with both.

Continue reading Luck & Danger in D&D

Rethinking Initiative for Faster Combat

Something I never cared for in Dungeons & Dragons was the way initiative seemed designed to slow down combat for no good reason. The idea is that every combatant (or at least every player character), rolls to see where in the order of combat his or her action comes each round of combat.

In the old days, this is how Gygax managed bigger, slower weapons that did more damage versus smaller, faster weapons. Upon looking into D&D 5th Edition, I was surprised to find initiative still used at all. By 2nd Edition, everyone I know had abandoned it.

Continue reading Rethinking Initiative for Faster Combat

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