So I find myself in a weird place in this hobby. For years I played a regular weekly campaign, over a decade, going from 3.5 to pathfinder to 5e, until life and work got in the way a few years ago. Since then it feels like life keeps opening the possibility for rpgs to re-enter as a major part of my life as new people discover the hobby and new ways to play become viable, but then there’s the other obstacles that have popped up in the last year or so too…
But where I am now is playing 5e occasionally with adventure league players (fun times, but we all know how restricting that is) and introducing people to the game with Knave. This blogs’ main author has brought up the game before, and has even gone so far to introduce his beefed up hack, Brave. Knave has given me a great opportunity, it’s nearly removed the barrier of entry to play. It’s dnd where you can sit down without any understanding of the rules and keep up with everyone else. While other games are similarly simple, knave also has the benefit of feeling more like regular classic dnd than most. People I never thought would be interested in the game finally understand just what us nerds are doing, it’s great.
This leaves me with an interesting situation: I have people who want to play more, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to teach them “real” dnd, but I’m noticing the limits of the game. It’s not really built for the campaign. As a Referee it’s the perfect system, but nearly all of my players wanted more toys to play with, they all wanted class features and spells. For a player to really get invested in a long term adventure they’ll want to see their characters grow and improve, they will want to see their stories unfold—and I find that having mechanics to reflect that helps drive a story home helps out new players especially, it’s easier to be reactive than active.
Now, you can build off Knave, like the aforementioned Brave and others like that, adding simplified classes, making rules for more complicated situations etc., and that's all great, but it’s tricky work, since everything you do is making the game more complicated you risk ruining its strengths. The extra rules are best put to use giving players ways to flesh out their character and make them feel unique, things for the players to work toward. That is to say, things they will need lots of money to spend on or will require adventuring to procure, and perhaps most trickily, protecting characters they’ve grown attached to. Let’s break down the challenges for each.
The first things players often wish for is character classes or other ways to mechanically flesh out their character and customize them to make them feel unique. There are issues with this in that not only does this inherently make a game more complicated, but it often can limit the player’s imagination—creating boxes where before there were none. That’s not to say it’s a trap, but anyone who has played 3.x has probably noticed how certain choices, particularly in combat, are really restricted to characters that are built around doing that action, like riding a horse, or tripping an opponent (side note—another problem with complicated character building is it almost always fleshes out combat in far more detail than anything else, further defining a player's solution to problems with violence). As with most things, making your character your own truly happens without mechanics, but for nearly every person I’ve played with, they wanted a mechanical starting point.
The second issue is that after a few adventures, characters should often have achieved their primary reason for going on adventure (financial stability for example) and kind of need new goals and options to drive them further. In 3.x this was done with character building: a character grew in power and mechanical complexity with levels to the extent that many wanted to keep playing just to see what a high level adventurer could do (this has always been a factor, but wizards really put it center stage for 3.x and 4e). Older editions implied a domain level of play of ruling fortresses commanding troops. Definitely interesting, definitely not for everyone, definitely needs more attention. Again, many players don’t need the game to manufacture reasons to be invested in their character, but even self motivated characters need things to do.
The third one is tricky, maybe because it affects the whole game—how lethal is your game? Knave is about as lethal as dnd gets (low hp compared to most editions and death at 0 hp, so clearly there is room to play) the nigh-unkillable characters of 5e could be seen as the other end of the spectrum for these purposes. The question is what to aim for. I’ve found that a lot of players see starting with a character with one hp and death as losing right out the gate, and as a result from it prevents them from investing in the character, and therefore the game. I think to encourage new players in a long term campaign, they should feel like their characters are up to being adventurers, but at the same time there is never a point in throwing the players into a situation where they can’t fail. I say it's tricky because there are so many ways to deal with this, and so many tastes.
Now all this time there has been a tool I feel that I’ve left in the toolbox, one that I haven’t heard much from elsewhere: the magic items. Knave characters are already defined by their equipment, it actually feels the most natural to create a character progression that way, but classic dnd items aren’t built to do that. The items would need to be built so that choosing equipment is like choosing class or spells—except maybe better. Like let's say that you turn sneak attack into a dagger, or smite into a longsword, maybe rage into fur armor. In knave what you can carry and equip is limited—it’s not like you’ll be a magic item x-mas tree like in 3.x, and no matter how much loot you’re being choked with, you can’t have it all.
The other big benefit of putting the bulk of character bonus on equipment is that new players only need to learn what they’ve been given, and refs can control what that is—and how much control the ref wants to have is on them. You can bridge the complexity, and allow choice at the same time. The player doesn’t need to choose between 200 feats, just 4 elemental swords. Once they get a hold on that though, they can start questing for the abilities they want. However, I wouldn't have them available for purchase, for that path leads to ruin.
One last idea that springs to mind is the issue of lethality. Not only can magic items be used to tinker with it directly, they inherently create new failure states, things for the characters to lose other than their lives—losing your character’s +5 holy avenger is “merciful”. Not only that, but inheriting magic items not only acts as a catch-up mechanic for new characters, but also as a way to keep the old character’s memories alive.
I’m not saying adding in classes and other rules to beef up a game of knave is bad, just that a lot of heavy lifting can be done by enticing players with the right loot. Now if we just had the right loot...