Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hit Me Baby One More Time

To understand the place of the adventurer in B/X Dungeons & Dragons, one needs to first wrap their mind around the whole concept of the “normal man.”

The Normal Man (NM) is one of the many monsters listed in the Basic rulebook. The monster represents any non-adventuring human except for certain, specific types that receive their own monster description (for example, the Noble or the Bandit). A Normal Man is any human one might find wandering around the game world…the innkeeper, the minstrel, the blacksmith, a town guard, a goodwife…whatever. From sailors to soldiers to sages, unless they fall into one of the human sub-categories (bandits, berserkers, buccaneers, etc.) they are ALL simply “normal men.”

A normal man has 1D4 hit points. He or she has the lowest line on the combat matrix (needs a “20” to hit AC 0 or better) and does 1D6 damage in combat. They have the worst possible saving throws. They have no other special abilities. In fact they have no “ability scores” at all…I suppose if necessary to make some sort of ability check, a normal man would simply fail.

Compared to these mooks, adventures are people of heroic proportion.

I wrote earlier about the power of the magic-user…how a person that can kill with a magic missile, sleep an entire cadre of guardsmen, charm the king himself, or magically decipher the runes of a civilization that vanished thousands of years before (think Linear A people) should be rightly feared and respected. The other human adventurer classes should be accorded that same respect in the game world.

Let’s compare ‘em, just for fun:

The Cleric: Now if this holy warrior doesn’t inspire awe and respect, something’s wrong here. The average NM should be incredibly deferential and humble in front of the pious cleric…even if the cleric is only 1st level! Why? Well, for one thing, his faith and zeal makes him a fiercer combatant than any average person (D6 hit points, better saves, better attack matrix…even at 1st level). For another, the power of the cleric’s faith alone is enough to repel the Walking Dead. Skeletons and zombies cut through normal men like a hot knife through butter…and a 1st level cleric can make a cross out of two sticks and a piece of twine and send ‘em packing. Right there: actual physical evidence of the power of the gods. And by 2nd level? The spells of a cleric ARE miraculous. A normal man falls under an out-of-control wagon and is lucky to survive with his life (1 hit point)…the 2nd level cleric simply touches him and he rises in the peak of health! Resist cold? The 2nd level cleric can stand naked in a snow storm and not freeze off his fiddly bits. Bless? A cleric can make a non-magical weapon capable of harming the supernatural creature that’s been rampaging the village un-hindered. And these guys only get more powerful over time (resisting poison and spells that would fell the average NM, gaining more hit points and becoming more proficient at attacking and turning undead). Even an “average” Priest of the 3rd level can survive the greatest possible strike of the Normal Man (attack roll 20, maximum damage of 6, versus an average of 10.5 hit points). The normal man better be reverential!

The Thief: At 1st level the thief looks almost like any other urban Normal Man…but it’s just an act. Even at 1st level he has abilities that set him apart from the general populace. The thief’s cunning and grace makes him an excellent combatant compared to the Normal Man (better attack matrix), and his wit, luck, and powers of observation make him immune to hazards that the NM would suffer (better saving throws). In addition, the thief’s skills allow him to attempt stunts that no normal man could hope to accomplish…climbing sheer surfaces, becoming invisible in shadows, picking the most complicated locks. The thief is like a ninja assassin (+4 to hit and double damage from behind? Yowza!), and normal men should walk carefully (and with a bit of trepidation) around such dangerous men and women. Even the “average” thief of 3rd level can survive the most inspired attack of a Normal Man (attack roll 20, maximum damage of 6, versus an average of 7.5 hit points). The normal man is going to be whispering the rumors of the thief’s exploits around the tavern fire, while glancing furtively about to see if the shadows have shifted unnaturally in the firelight.

The Fighter: It goes without saying that the true fighter stands head and shoulders above the Normal Man. The average fighter will generally have as many hit points as any two normal men…that makes a fight with any two teamsters an “even” fight for any career warrior, Actually a better than even fight, as the fighter has a better chance of landing a telling blow (better attack matrix) and will often use weapons that deal more damage (1D8 or 1D10). Normal men should be cowed and intimidated by a 1st level fighter, quite frankly…they are battle-hardened veterans and a one-on-one fight will lead to swift death more often than not for the normal man. And their ability to fight a sustained combat simply improves as they gain experience. It is not a question of how many guardsmen it will take to subdue a 2nd or 3rd level fighter; it is a question of how many men will the fighter kill in the process of being subdued. How many souls is one fighting man (or woman) worth? Would three families giving up their husband/father be too many? Four? The average 3rd level swordsman has 13.5 hit points…by comparison FIVE normal men have a total of 12.5 hit points. That’s five men that could be planting fields, paying taxes, raising families. The fighter has swagger for a reason. The normal man would do best to step aside (with a bow of the head!) when the fighter strides through the town.

Remember, this is Dungeons & Dragons, not World of Warcraft. In the latter game, you create a 1st level character and find yourself a crippled infant in a world of Uber-Men. Most other players you meet are going to completely dwarf you in power, and the normal townsfolk you encounter? They often dwarf even the experienced players!

[why is this exactly? Actually, nevermind -- I really don’t give a shit]

Even Pathfinder has 8th level laborers and 5th level craftsmen and whatnot…what a bunch of crap. Because a 60 year old human seamstress should have the fighting ability to receive and resist multiple blows of my two-handed war axe? Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

Dungeons & Dragons, especially B/X D&D, does an excellent job of modeling the characters of proper heroic proportion, right from the get go. The mistake that many of us make (and I’ve been guilty of this as well) is down-playing how F’ing competent adventurers are, even at 1st level. They should NOT be treated as “amateurs” or “apprentices;” these characters are ALREADY a step ahead of their fellow humans. The fact that they get killed so quickly down in the dungeon is simply evidence of how dangerous their particular line of work is…and with a dangerous line of work should come ample compensation.

“Ample compensation” ain't just a matter of wealth; booty pulled up from the depths, the gold and jewels of lost treasure hordes already enables characters to live quite richly compared to normal folks (per the Expert rules, a two story house costs a couple grand in gold, and adventurers pull that out of a good-sized horde in a single evening…how long does it take YOU to earn enough money for a house?!). When asking people why they do the things they do, however, one of the reasons oft stated (right up there with money) is the status that their chosen career affords them.

Adventuring humans (clerics, fighters, thieves, and DEFINITELY magic-users) should be treated with deference, respect, fear, and hero-worship by the general population…and these feelings should simply GROW as a character gains levels of experience. Actions of PCs that affect the towns they visit (from rescuing people to off-handedly killing stable-boys in a Chaotic fit of mean-ness) should have the consequence of HEIGHTENING these feelings. There should never be a “what have you done for/to me lately” attitude when an adventurer holds the power of life and death in his (or her) hands…and adventurers DO hold that kind of power, compared to the 1D4 hit point Normal Man.

When the villagers ask adventurers to save them from a group of local bandits (a la The Seven Samurai) or fight a manticore or owl bear that has been terrorizing the town, it is not simply a matter of convenience to the populace. This is Life & Death to them…the average rampaging harpy will KILL A LOT OF PEOPLE before the normal men even ruffle her feathers…and a supernatural creature that is immune to normal weapons (like a werewolf or vampire) will absolutely run rampant over the town. Even if the town guardsmen have a “silver sword” or whatever lying around, the werewolf need only kill its Normal Man wielder and the population becomes sheep for the slaughter.

Normal Men need adventurers…adventurers are the only ones capable of holding off the threats of the fantasy world. Adventurers are the CHAMPIONS of the average human population, they should never be considered “lesser” to anything but a greater hero or champion (if one even resides in the region, which isn’t terribly likely). If PCs are having a hard time hiring porters or men-at-arms it’s due to the inherent danger of their expeditions (and the projected likelihood of survival) not any disdain or disrespect of the characters themselves. In the real world, if a group of mercenaries wanted to hire me to go to Iraq with them, I’d probably turn ‘em down, too…no matter how good the money they offered for me to “just drive the jeep.” I’m not trained for that kind of action!

ANYWAY…1st level demi-humans, with their superior abilities and racial talents, should receive an equal or even greater amount of fear and respect from the average human townie…at least dwarves and elves should; Halflings will probably be underestimated as usual (something I’m beginning to think is actually an advantage of the class). How their own demi-human community feels about them will vary depending on the campaign world, but if they can’t find high status in one place they should certainly find it in another.

SO THERE. Magic-users aren’t the only 1st level characters allowed to swagger (though as stated, they have plenty about which to swagger). ALL adventurers should all be allowed to strut, from 1st level on up to their level cap. DMs? We should give ‘em that. It’s a nice bit of gravy/reward…when adventurers get back to town, give ‘em priority at the inn/stable, a couple free drinks at the tavern, and the respect of any Normal Men they encounter.

: )


  1. A great post! And something I tend to forget as well.

  2. Now that's what I'm talkin' about!

    And the proper sense of power scale (1st level adventurer vs. normal human) can even be heightened by condensing the game to fewer levels ( These days, I'm of the opinion that as soon as the game gets above 6th level, you're dealing in mythical demigods, wire-flying wuxias, and four-color superheroes. Power levels that whole mobs of normal men can't conceive of standing against.

  3. Good points and a good post

    Funny enough it kind of linked to what I just wrote about my dislike of the thief class. Now in play I prefer the AD&D2 notions

    Man at Arms 1d8+1, Laborer 1d8, Normal Man 1d6, Weak Men 1d4 but the base idea, that l1 adventurers are a cut above still holds.

    Heck a L2 Wizard is near as tough as a man at arms at a L3 one without his spells is the equal of 2 normal men!

    I think what confuses people are the thief rules. They don't tie in well and the starting scores are crepulant.

    Fox that and the rest will follow. Or not.

  4. There's been some discussion on other blogs of late of the fantasy adventurer as a celebrity, and this fits in well with that. A first-level adventurer might be the equivalent of the local celebrity, the kind of person you'd get to open the village fete or somesuch, whereas a higher-level adventurer would be known across the land, probably in turn inspiring those lower-level types. Either way, they are significant, prominent, figures in the eyes of the general populace

  5. Excellent post. Bookmarked for future use...

  6. I actually think of your average adventuring party being thought of pretty much like the biker gang from Sons of Anarchy. Violent, lawless near-psychopaths you never, ever want to piss off, and heaven forbid the Law ever has to actually try to take one of these folks down, because the streets are going to run red.

    I think Adventurers are looked at as a "celebrity" in only the same fashion you look at your local gun-loving, cammie-wearing, bunker-building survivalist nutjobs as a "celebrity".

  7. Bookmarked and saved as a Word doc!

    Badelaire: My take on adventurers as celebrities was summarized more or less by Tim Shorts in his post on rock-star adventurers. Not the cliched modern idea of a rock star, mind you, but in the original dangerous, edgy, undermining-society type of rock star. So a bit like what you're talking about with the whole biker gang vibe, but the danger is an attractive element to a lot of more impressionable commoners (and a major red flag to the powers that be).

  8. Excellent post. The B/X "Philosophy of the Normal Man" is pivotal to making any kind of sensical campaign. I strictly adhere to levelling for PCs only.

    As an aside, the font you are using is barely readable on Firefox... I always have to reload your blog on an IE tab.

  9. I tend towards Badelaire's view. They are tough and scary but they're not heroes. They're thieves, robbers, and outcasts. People too inept, lazy, or proud to get a real job, or do an honest day's work. Instead they raid and pillage humanoids, plunder tombs, and go "adventuring" where no right and honest person ought go.

    They might be needed by society, but they sure aren't wanted. Villagers would like nothing better for them to move on, somewhere else, once they kill the Harpy that is. The villagers in The Seven Samurai are great example of this.

  10. @ Rain: Sorry. And in fact, this particular post got all screwed up somehow anyway (had to erase and reformat it, like, three times!). Generally, I write posts in Word and then copy and paste 'em later, when I have internet access...but it's tricky translating from Word to my Mac to Blogspot sometimes.
    : (

    @ Everyone else: thanks for the kind words. As I said, just something us "old school" players (and DMs) should be thinking about.

    RE: Adventurers as Biker Gangs

    I can easily see this point of view, but I'm not sure it's always the case...after all a Paladin (or Lawful Cleric like Sister Rebecca) isn't really what I'd call Sons of Anarchy material. Perhaps, though, adventurers are a bit of a "Force of Nature" (much as biker gangs can be) and that makes folks uncomfortable. Think of Strider's reputation around Bree.
    : )

  11. Awsome post! Then agian, I will love anything that gives praise to thieves. Can't wait for May, JB. Sorry, I didn't realize how close it is. Doh!

  12. @ Doc: Does it make you want to play a 1st level thief instead of your "pirate's pirate" character in Trav?

    ; )

  13. Thanks for reminding me of something that I had almost forgotten! And me a gamer since '81!

  14. Love the post but how do you view the towns local guard/watch ? Normal men with the advantage of armor, weapons and numbers or level 1 fighting men?

  15. @ Anthony: You're welcome!

    @ Dogrodeo: Depends on the town, of course! If it's a Viking village, maybe they're a bunch of berserkers. A pirate haven? Maybe buccaneers.

    The Keep on the Borderlands (the classic B/X introduction) is populated mostly with 1st level fighters (if I remember correctly)...but this may be reflective of the dangerous location and hazardous duty (they're all "veterans"). In my games, the average town guard is a Normal Man with a good armor class. Only elite guardsmen (the King's Protectorate or whatnot) would be F1+.

  16. Great post. Now do it again for <1 and 1HD monsters, to put the fear that a gang of goblins or orcs in proper perspective.

  17. Although I'm mostly the GM, as a player I find GMs never take this into account and are quick to diminish the presence of PCs by inflating the local populace with classed characters in the 'normal man' role.

    If I come across another third-level fighter turned inn keeper I'm going to pop my clogs!

  18. @ Hogscape: You and me both, man!

  19. reminds me of the dark sun setting, if i remember right all humans are like fighter level 2 or 3 by default because of how harsh the world is.