Last night we finished our White Plume Mountain game. Despite anything I may have implied otherwise (when I was writing at 1am, after more than a couple beers), we all had a grand old time. Laughter (mine and others) was plentiful at the table, and that is always a good sign that people are having fun.
After cleaning up, we discussed next week's game: a new campaign, starting with all new 1st level characters. Whether we start with B2:Keep on the Borderlands or something new (like my Goblin Wars idea) remains to be seen...I plan on thinking about it over coming days and probably giving the players a choice/vote.
However, after playing B/X Dungeons & Dragons exclusively the last three months, I've discovered something that (at least to me) appears to be a serious flaw of game design in the system.
Which is tough to admit after having expounded on the virtues of this particular edition for so long. Personally, I prefer to play games "as written" rather than laying down extensive "house rules." But in this case, I may need to make an exception.
Because I like "long-term campaign play." And the particular issue I have directly relates to long-term campaign play.
The advancement system in B/X isn't good.
As written, characters advance in level through the acquisition of experience points (XP). XP is awarded for two things: defeat of monsters (based on monsters' Hit Dice plus the occasional 'exceptional ability" bonus) and the acquisition of treasure (1 XP per 1 GP value). The bulk of XP is awarded through treasure acquisition.
And it takes an extraordinary amount of treasure to advance even mid-level characters in level.
The absolute total amount of treasure available in S2: White Plume Mountain amounts to a total value of 65,100 gold pieces. That's for recovering every last scrap of treasure present in the module. For a party of seven PCs, that amounts to a little more than 9,000 XP worth of treasure per player. Characters of 7th level (the average level of adventure for whom S2 is designed) requires five to seven times that amount to advance.
Five to seven. And it took us five weeks to complete a module the size of White Plume Mountain. By extrapolation, it could take up to 35 weeks to advance 7th level characters to level 8?
Moldvay's own rules suggest three to four adventures (and "adventure" is defined as "single game session" in the Moldvay rules) to advance in level. He suggests upping the treasure level if the characters are taking too long to advance...but six times the treasure level of S2 would be close to half a million GP in value! That's a ton of gold!
Actually it's MORE than a ton, literally. If one uses the Encumbrance rules in the Basic set, 10 coins weighs one pound...and 400,000 gold pieces would weigh 40,000 pounds...or 20 tons. It would take 40 bags of holding to carry that much treasure...which would still weigh more than a ton when all full (each bag weighs 600 coins - 60 pounds when full, meaning 40 such sacks would weigh 2400 pounds...more than a ton by themselves!).
And that's just to get seven players to 8th level. The amount of treasure DOUBLES to get to 9th level...another 40 tons of gold, in other words.
After Name (9th) level, the XP needed to go up in level plateaus for all character classes...but that still means thousands and thousands of pounds of treasure need to be accumulated to advance! Holy crap!
And yet this seems to be the way the game is designed. Looking at Moldvay's own module X2:Castle Amber, the total treasure take is 252,560 (on average...there's a little variation for the final reward based on the number of surviving characters). A quarter-million gold piece worth of treasure...most of it coinage. And X2 is designed for 6-10 players of levels 3-6. For an average sized party (8 player characters) each character will earns close to 32,000...enough that even a 6th level character (the high end) will advance a whole level by the end of the module.
But how are eight characters supposed to carry a hundred tons of treasure? Ignore the encumbrance rules completely, I guess (which makes items like "bags of holding" completely unnecessary).
Even without discussing how such an influx of treasure would utterly destroy the "fantasy economy" of the game world (which would happen with even the least attention paid to such things) this appears to be sheer insanity. If X2 could be completed in 7 or 8 sessions (fairly easily, I'd imagine, despite its 70 encounter length...the challenges aren't nearly as "tricky" as White Plume Mountain), that leaves enough space to run eight such adventure modules over the course of a "real world" year...PCs would gain eight levels, and pull multiple millions of gold coins...enough to build several extensive castles even before reaching "Companion" levels (i.e. level 15+).
Why did I never realize this before? Well, first off, it's been nearly 30 years since I've played B/X this extensively. As a kid, you don't think about this kind of thing...but then, you're lucky if you can just keep track of all the rules. But back in primordial ooze of those early days, we didn't have extensive campaigns anyway...by the time we DID, we were playing AD&D.
White Plume Mountain is, of course, and AD&D module which probably accounts for the distinct lack of treasure compared to the (lower level) Castle Amber. AD&D includes the "Great Correction" of the XP system by adding two very important factors:
- XP for magic items (including SALE of magic items), and
- XP for monster hit points
Though AD&D advancement is roughly similar to B/X, by and large character classes require MORE XP in AD&D to advance. However, monsters and treasure troves are worth much more in overall XP than in B/X. A young sphinx in White Plume Mountain with HD 8** and 38 hit points is worth 1750 XP in B/X. The same monster in AD&D is worth 1930.
Larger monsters, and creatures with less exceptional abilities, however, have more discrepancy. The giant crab in White Plume Mountain, for example, is only worth 1350 in B/X...in AD&D it's worth 6450!
But magic items provide a ton of XP in AD&D. The B/X rules are very clear: experience points are not gained for magical treasure. In AD&D, each magical item provides an XP value for its acquisition...and selling the magical items provide even more XP based on its gold piece value (often 5-10 times as much as the XP gained from keeping the item). Giving XP for magical items cuts down drastically on the "over-flowing chests of coins" needed to advance PCs.
A bugbear with average hit points in B/X is worth 50, while in AD&D such a creature is worth 191, nearly four times as much. A goblin worth 5 in B/X is worth 14; three times as much. Considering that the basic classes of both B/X and AD&D (clerics, fighters, magic-users, and thieves) need the EXACT SAME number of XP to advance to level 2 that means the AD&D characters advance 3 to 4 times as fast...though probably faster.
When I was a kid playing long-term campaigns, we played AD&D. Characters advanced over time, growing in level and power and opening up more opportunities (more "content") based on their experience level...withOUT being burdened by millions of coins and tons of treasure. Without an adjustment to the rules as written, I don't see B/X can be played long term. Unless your dragons bleed molten gold or something. Perhaps this was a determining factor in early "Monty Haul" campaigns?
I don't know...all I do know is, I don't like it. I prefer characters to have regular advancement, and a level every 4 to 6 weeks of play isn't a bad rate of advancement in my opinion. Personally, I'm considering slashing all XP totals needed by a factor of 5 or 10 for B/X campaign play. As I gear up for next week's game, I'll be running some numbers to try to find a happy medium I can live with.