Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Levels and the Old-School Brain...

Level matters in role-playing games.  It speaks to how powerful a character is, how much damage they can suffer, and how many spells they may cast.  Ditto for monsters.  If you want a side-by-side power ranking, level gets you where you need to go and helps the GM build challenging but fair adventures and assign rewards appropriately...

And yet the first (and arguably the best) games might not have been all that concerned with level even when they otherwise embraced the concept.

Now I'm talking about OD&D here because for all it might have gotten wrong (errors of omission more than anything else), its approach to characters and levels was pretty much spot on - even if it wasn't expressly highlighted in the rules.  Level, for all its undeniable importance, was always secondary to what old-school enthusiasts often frame as player skill vs. character skill.  And its implications go far beyond simple gameplay...  

More than anything, OD&D saw characters as a mind capable of asking questions, solving problems, and working together as part of a team.  Class, with all its necessary power, seasoned the soup and gave everyone both the practical skills to survive and a specialty to further distinguish themselves.  But ultimately, it was the cleverness and strategy of the players that overcame the odds and led their characters to victory.

When a 5th-level character died, a 1st-level hero took their place.  A neophyte walking alongside more powerful companions.  A novice character among seasoned professionals going up against objectively more powerful adversaries.  How on earth was this even supposed to work?  Or be fair?  Or survivable for that matter?  The answer lies in the fact that the party was never expected to fight everything, and when they did enter into hostilities, clever strategy was just as important as high marks in the level department.

Superior parties always tried to set the conditions of battle.  And they never, ever took on a fair fight.  Hell, if they could get riches without fighting, they'd do it.

None of this had much to do with level.  At best, in encouraged strategy, especially when working around limited power.  The earliest games took this as a given.  As long as you had a mind capable of solving problems and contributing ideas, you had at least half of what you needed to succeed.  Level was just another resource in the party's toolkit... 

And, of course, there were hirelings.  Even an oaf with a 3 charisma got one, making the typical party more of an expedition complete with porters and men-at-arms.  This approach put lower-level adventurers in charge of a fighting force, which was in keeping with the hobby's early self-identification as wargaming.  And think of the power a low-level character had with even one armed fighter under their command.  Seriously.

Note: OD&D made men-at-arms expensive to find but cheaper to maintain.  By way of example, a heavy footman could be had for 100-ish GP and maintained for a mere 3 GP per month in upkeep.  But in a game where the rules are just a guide, locating one might be simpler and less expensive.  At any rate, a relative inheriting their kin's wealth could easily afford to take on some hired help depending on the circumstances involved.

Oh, and relatives inheriting equipment and/or magic items already enjoyed substantial advantages from the go, greatly improving their chances of survival.

Relatively low-powered (and interdependent) characters leading an expeditionary force underground, avoiding danger, and setting the conditions for battle?  Sounds like old-school gaming to me - and sounds like challenging fun!  The earliest games assumed a mode of play that allowed anyone to get involved.  Bring your brains and your hirelings.  Challenging adventures await those willing to put cleverness and strategy ahead of level alone...   


  1. I find that this is one of the most difficult concepts for players raised in a 3.5+ edition world to grasp. Because of the skill system, solutions are done with a roll rather than role-playing. I know I use a mix of both during games.

  2. Exactly. I can describe several situations, where a player didn't even bother to think. And yet, at the conclusion of the game session, a rogue (seriously) wanted to conduct a fast-talk roll to con a wizard, who probably should have just fireballed the reject.

  3. As I have said before, and been laughed that, the solution cannot be found on the character sheet. There may be modifiers to the situation on the character sheet, but the actual solution is not on the character sheet.

  4. It's a role playing game so sometimes playing the part means not solving the problem because the character just wouldn't even if the actor/role player can. On the other hand the script/character sheet says I'm a genius when I the actor ain't so roll a dice for the most intelligent appraisal and execution of a scene/round/turn.

  5. >>> Level was just another resource in the party's toolkit..


  6. I'm actually playing through a solo dungeon crawl right now using one of the retroclones. This is my first time playing a traditional early-style crawl, and my survivability has gone WAY up by learning to avoid fights rather than seek them out.

    I think the lesson struck home when my party took serious damage fighting 13 rats in exchange for 16 exp each. It's DEFINITELY more a game of "avoid fighting if you can until you manage to find loot" than 3e+'s "do 10 fights and level up".

    And I like it better.

  7. I've always been a strong advocate for the "use your brains" approach over the "just roll your skill" approach, and I think a great idea well-executed ought to prevail over considerations of level, so I appreciate your thoughts on OD&D. What I hadn't considered was how this directly mitigates the problem of 1st level characters adventuring with higher level parties. Thanks for the perspective!

  8. The converse of this can be frustrating as well. When I do play something like Pathfinder, I have a great idea, and the GM says "roll your skill." Uh, my character sucks at that skill, so much for my great idea.

  9. When I started playing D&D I sat down and rolled up a first level character to join in a campaign that had been going for a couple of years. The other players knew the rules that I was just starting to learn and the other characters were more experienced, and that made sense to me. I and my character were both neophytes, and the other players taught me the rules while the other characters helped my character survive to make level. (Well, actually I went through several before I got one that lived long enough to level up. But it's the thought that counts.)

    The one time I tried to play in later edition D&D I was told to make a character of the same level as the rest of the party and ended up with a spreadsheet of feats and abilities and I never did figure out how any of it worked. The other players ran my character as an NPC, essentially, telling me what to do and when to roll what kind of dice. I lost interest in that game after a couple of sessions.

  10. The original LBB was written by wargamers and it shows. For instance you can replace every instance of "character" with figure and the rules still make sense. Essentially it's still a game of the player generals moving figures around the tabletop. Even Greyhawk continued in this vein, with the Tricks & Traps section mostly dealing with methods of fooling the players (so perhaps they may make the wrong strategic decision in a dungeon crawl). Gygaxian roleplaying was very much about the gamemaster setting challengers for the players. Skill te=st were intentionally tied to obstacles that didn't matter (hence the reason for OD&D thieves is that you need OD&D thieves to deal with inconsequential traps that litter the dungeon chests that were there to give thieves something to do).

    However whilst it was common for the Midwest founders to play this way, other people did it differently. They wanted to know what their characters were capable of. Hence the evolution of characteristic tests to see if the character could carry out the will of the player. [Note that player skill was still important and the source of genius for the character; it didn't make sense to do something risky when you knew that there was a 50% chance of failure, with possible dire consequences.] California, unsurprisingly given the existence of Berkley there, was a hot bed of such ideas (which they eventually published as the Perrin Conventions which eventually led to the creation of Runequest).

    Gygax after his first visit there actually commented in an APAzine that they "were playing the game wrong." For one thing he was definitely against testing characteristics because it did not account for level (in a later AD&D module he used saving throws where most others playing the game would have used a STR or DEX check). Level was actually quite important to him because it determined the capability of the figure. It was the single most defining characteristic of the figure used for judging capability (and was often the judgement of the appropriate level of adversary through the level of dungeon mechanism [hence most of the Tricks & Traps expansion in Greyhawk being about tricking the players as to what level their character was on (by sloping passages and elevator rooms), or forcing them into a lower level (by slides or pits or cliffs) than they were comfortable on.]

    [Personally I think this is one of the big advantages of OD&D - once you have level and class most of a character (as far as the game is concerned) is defined. Which makes it easy for working out the capabilities of an NPC. More customisable games (such as later editions or Runequest) needed a stockpile of pregenerated opposition to run effectively as a sandbox (hence the increased reliance on the specific adventure quest/module where the opposition could be determined ahead of time).]

    Personally I'm in favour of character-based play informing the player's skill. Because almost no one I have encountered consistently roleplays their characteristics (for example), and has it affect what their characters do. [There is also the collateral problem of how to play a character smarter than you; one solution on one-on-one play is to alter the descriptions to suit the intelligence and wisdom of the character, but that only really works for one-on-one play.]

    But yes, unless you are a thief disarming a trap (which is actually contrary to the idea of player skill being able to solve the problem presented by the trap) a skill roll shouldn't give the solution to the problem. It should indicate how effectively the character can put the player's idea into play. So a simple Diplomacy roll won't provide a solution, but it may make people listen to and consider your idea where they might not otherwise be inclined to.

    As always YMMV and this concept of player versus character was one of the earliest holy wars in the game (usually dependent on how people originally encountered it).

  11. What a WONDERFUL write up. I could not have said this better. Thank you.