50 Games in 50 Weeks: Searchers of the Unknown

Aug 17 2011

Books, a public domain imageAs part of RyvenCon, I decided to stretch myself a little and run a game in a system I’d never tried before: Searchers of the Unknown.

Some background is in order: No edition of Dungeons & Dragons has ever been released for free. Moreover, copies of early versions of the game are increasingly impossible to find, except at sky-high prices.

Searchers of the Unknown is one of several projects aimed at releasing a free version of the mechanics of early D&D, in this case 1st Edition. While other systems aim at completeness, SotU aims for brevity: the entire system fits on one side of one page of paper.

Many things are missing from that system, of course, including spell lists and monster lists. But it contains all the basics, and you can easily create spells and monsters with a little imagination. Indeed, there are several free supplements, including Spellcasters of the Unknown, which follow the same format and provide options for wizards and such.

Why would you want to play 1st Edition D&D? Simplicity. Your character sheet consists of 5 numbers, total. And one of those numbers is derived from another.

How does it work, in practice? Surprisingly well.

For one thing, the minimal mechanics practically force role-playing. When you always use the same attack roll, and each weapon is differentiated at most by the die you roll, a slugfest becomes boring within 5 minutes. You have to leap and parry and swing from the rafters or you’ll die of boredom.

Moreover, the system is easy to teach and learn. I and my 2 merry players were playing within 15 minutes, and that’s including a full explanation of all the rules.

The players did point out that the various weapons are differentiated only by die size, meaning there’s no reason to carry a d8 weapon when you could carry a d12 one. We agreed that a rock-paper-scissors mechanic would alleviate this: medium weapons get a +1 on attacks against enemies wielding small weapons, large weapons get a +1 against medium, and small ones get a +1 against large (representing the ability to dodge in and around a big, heavy weapon). But that’s a quibble.

Contrasted to later editions of D&D, in which the rules focus on combat, SotU isn’t about combat. It’s about exploration and adventure. It felt much easier to focus on the larger story, and let the mechanics step in only when needed to resolve a question.

(That may also have been caused by my awesome players.)

SotU is not for everyone, obviously; it requires more imagination from the players and the GM than more mechanics-heavy editions like D&D 4E. That’s nothing against those systems; it’s just a different approach, one well worth exploring.

Download Searchers of the Unknown and Spellcasters of the Unknown for free.

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