Monday, August 31, 2015

Stocking Per Moldvay (Part 1)

AKA Adventure Design, B/X Style

Looking back, I can see that up until June I was blogging away at a fairly good clip, on pace for my highest post output since 2011 (when my first child was born). Then June hit and *ppbbbtt* things started sputtering. What happened exactly? Travel, vacations, the slow ramp up that happens when transitioning a child to a new stuff in other words. However, things are starting to settle back into some semblance of a "normal" routine, and I hope to get back to what I was doing pre-June. There is, unfortunately, a LOT that needs revisiting.

One thing I want to get back to is those abstract "treasure units" I was writing about. Remember these posts? Maybe not...they got very little "read" over here, per my blogger stats. That's fine, but I plan on working with the concept a little more (doing some conversions and such), so you can expect a little more blather on the subject in the near future. However, before I started blathering, I thought it might serve to write a bit on how I stock "dungeons" (i.e. adventure sites) in my games.

Usually, I'm a fan of all things owlbear.
It's funny...I was reading a recent post over at Raging Owlbear in which Marty states he feels 5th Edition does "Old School" better than many OSR games, including the original systems like (for example) 1st edition AD&D.

[yeah, I know: "why are you bothering to read this kind of stuff, JB?" Two reasons: I have at least a passing interest in the ongoing development of D&D, and (as mentioned earlier) I'm having a bit of a curiosity/gaming pang that leads me to this kind of post]

Um, one of the things Marty wrote that kind of stuck in my craw was this:
I don't know anyone who played Basic D&D or AD&D "by the book". That person doesn't exist. The fact of the matter is that we've always been house ruling D&D. That's also part of the DIY philosophy of the old school movement. So why is it that 5e isn't considered old school simply because one must house rule a few of the mechanics? That's a double standard. No OSR game is played 100% RAW.
I mean, I didn't even have to think about it. That person does's called me or, at least, was me for a number of years. I played B/X RAW when until I started adding AD&D books to the mix (circa two years in). My friends and I played AD&D RAW (including all those fiddly DMG rules...speed factor and helmets and disease tables and gem fencing and weapon versus armor, etc.), only spicing it up with the occasional add-in from Dragon Magazine. Later, years after I'd chucked AD&D (which for the record was about a year prior to the advent of 2E), I started a long-term campaign using the BECMI rules because (I felt) that RAW BECMI was the "most complete system" of D&D ever written. That party of 6 or 7 lasted through B2 and X2 before finally perishing, mid-level, somewhere on The Isle of Dread. When I started playing B/X again (a few months after starting this blog), it was once again Rules As Written, and while I've experimented with various "house rules" (and even wrote The B/X Companion for high level play), more often than not I've come back to Rules As Written, specifically because B/X is such a well-written game, regardless of the random gripes I've voiced and modifications I've put forward over the years.

In fact, the only "house rules" I've ever stuck to with any degree of regularity are:

  • Allowing clerics to choose their spells at the moment of casting (rather than requiring pre-memorization) in order to A) distinguish clerical magic from magic-user/elf magic, and B) to model the heartfelt prayer for divine intervention at the moment such intervention is required, and
  • Adding +1 to damage inflicted by two-handed weapons (since I use the standard D6 damage for all weapons). Sometimes this has been switched for a standard D8 roll.

However, even these rules only come into play when clerics or two-handed weapons are present in the game...and no, these rules aren't always used. "Straight B/X" like straight pool is a fine and under-appreciated game.

Sometimes, stripes don't matter.
But I'm digressing (and I realize I'm mostly preaching to the choir here). What I really wanted to talk about was how Moldvay has influenced my adventure design. See, one thing I realized in the process of playing B/X (and a lot of adventure modules either written for B/X or adapted by me for B/X) was how unfortunately sloooow my players' characters were advancing. After all, we were doing weekly sessions of 3-4 hours, getting through multiple encounters per hour and only seeing tiny incremental increases in XP totals. Considering the minimal power-curve combined with high mortality rate of your average B/X session, this was proving frustrating to all the participants, including myself. I wanted to expose the party members to greater threats and more deadly encounters, and their glacial rate of advancement was cramping my style.

So I checked what Moldvay had to say on the matter; from page B61:
PLAYER ADVANCEMENT: If no one has reached the 2nd level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure. If most of the players have reached the 3rd level of experience in this time, the DM should consider cutting down the amount of treasure, or increasing the "toughness" of the monsters.
Keep in mind the term "adventure" in Moldvay Basic is defined as a single session of game play. In other words, enough XP-granting treasure needs to be placed within an adventure site ("dungeon") to allow the advancement of one level over three to four game sessions. "Treasure" is the good measure in this case because A) monsters award such an insignificant amount of experience in B/X play, B) treasure is always a "mission objective," and C) treasure acquisition as an objective encourages players to think creatively in how they go get it. It allows all sorts of interesting in-play dynamics related to risk-reward (what are you willing to risk to gain a great treasure).

[I should note that, for this latter reason, I'm not a big fan of the "fake treasure trove" in adventures: the gold-painted coppers, worthless "glass" gems, and paste-board jewelry. I tend not to stock such unless there's something in the dungeon that might tip the players off to the fakery]

With the aid of a simple spreadsheet, I can easily figure out how much treasure I need to stock in an adventure site in order to provide enough "score" to level up the characters. But then, how do I seed the treasure? Welp, I use a very nerdy, mechanical method developed from the stocking scheme Moldvay presents in the Basic book.

But this post is getting a little long so I'm going to have to make this a two-part series. Tune in tomorrow!
; )

[to be continued]


  1. I also always played B/X 100% by the book. Played a lot of 2E by the book as well. Eventualy we started house rulling, but more often than not 2e was by the book, with limits on what books could be used.

    AD&D, not so much the rules were to disorganized. Like most everyone else AD&D mostly ignoring the dmg and using B/X rules for combat.

  2. Maybe I did house rule the original game all to hell . . . that doesn't mean I needed the company to do it for me. I find it insulting that they think that's the same thing as an individual DM reworking the game for personal reasons.

  3. Yes, lots of people house rule older editions, but the difference is you don't need to in order to have a playable, old school style game (and contrary to what some people claim, I don't think I've ever seen an edition of D&D that wasn't playable. Maybe not exactly to my tastes, but not unplayable). You'd have to house rule 5e to get that same kind of experience, though

  4. @ 7, Alexis, ProfO:

    Like I wrote, I realize I'm preaching to the choir with you folks. Really, though, I wasn't really trying to stir up any indignation.

  5. Over the weekend I had a friend of mine whom I have not seen in nearly 30 years come to visit. He brought his boys and we all played some D&D 5.
    We were talking about how in the early 80s even our small hometown of 21k people had enough to support multiple independent gaming groups. Then it was not uncommon for people to show up with different rule books and various competing and sometimes incompatible house rules.

    Every so often one of us would get in our heads to "play it by the book" and we would. For a while. Typically B/X was easier to stick too, but even then level limits were the first thing to go.

    D&D 2, 4 and 5 might be the ones I stuck to the rules as written the best.

    Oh, ProfOats, I disagree. A year into playing D&D5 and it is feels very old-school as written in the books.

    1. @ Tim:

      That's so interesting. My gaming groups NEVER removed level limits in any edition of play, ever. It wasn't even something that was suggested (as far as I can recall).

      Official level limits in AD&D (1E) led to a plethora of human characters, halfling thieves, and half-elven bards (at least three of the latter).

  6. I’m coming into this article really late — which I find fascinating, by the way — but I think your interpretation of Moldvay’s Character Advancement passage is incorrect. What he is saying is that players should advance a level for every *two* adventures (sessions) completed. It’s not written particularly well. He could have stated that simply instead of the way it was phrased.

    1. @ Coffee:

      No worries about the late comment...I regularly read and comment on other people's archived blog posts when I find something that sparks my interest.

      However, *ahem* the passage seems pretty cut-and-dry to my reading. I infer four sessions as a reasonable limit for the earning of a level (with additional treasure suggested in cases of slower progression). Heck, the second part (to me) implies that earning a level for every two sessions is TOO FAST a rate of advancement (since he suggests decreasing treasure for parties that advance two levels within the same time frame, i.e. four sessions, an average of a level every other session).

      But maybe I'm missing something?

  7. Hmn. Here’s how I’m reading it, breaking this down bit-by-bit:

    “If no one has reached the 2nd level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure.”

    This means leveling from level 1 to 2 in 3-4 sessions is too slow (i.e., 1/4 level per session)

    “If most of the players have reached the 3rd level of experience in this time, the DM should consider cutting down the amount of treasure, or increasing the “toughness” of the monsters.”

    This means leveling from 1 to 3 in 3-4 sessions is too fast (i.e., 1 level per session)

    So finding the median — which is what he was trying to say, but beat around the bush quite a bit — leaves us with leveling from 1 to 2 in 2 sessions (i.e., 1/2 level per session — which is greater than 1/4 and less than 1). It’s certainly within reason to assume that leveling once every 3 sessions is what he meant as well.

    Does that make sense, or am I grokking the math incorrectly?

    1. @ Coffee:

      Well, the fallacy in your interpretation (or, rather, the reason we don't see eye-to-eye) is the difference in our reading of the first sentence. When Moldvay writes:

      “If no one has reached the 2nd level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure.”

      He is NOT saying that going up a single level (from 1st to 2nd) in four sessions is too slow; he is saying that NOT going up to level two (i.e. everyone's still 1st level) may bean indication that your advancement rate is too slow.

      In other words, if PCs HAVE gone up to 2nd level after four sessions, then great! But if they have NOT (i.e. "if no one" has advanced), THEN you need to look at upping the amount of treasure the PCs find.

      [ooo...semantic differences! The type of minutia debate that Old School gamers thrive upon!]
      ; )

      For what it's worth (and something I didn't write about in my original post), I do NOT think this particular rate of advancement has to continue throughout the adventurers' careers...I'd certainly consider slowing it as they approach and reach Name level.

  8. Hah! Okay, yes, I’m with you. He definitely provides the solution after he states the situations (throw gold at them!). But, and I’m not trying to be contrary, I’m just trying to interpret what he means (so cryptically)… but in this case, where GP XP and Monster XP are the same thing, isn’t he also providing an indication of the pace of character advancement? I mean, if the players haven’t dinged by 4 adventures (sessions), then that’s too slow. So clearly he implies to have the party advance quicker. Then, he explains the opposite scenario, where they are leveling too fast, and therefor cut down the treasure and up the encounter challenge… which would mean a slower advancement.

    I too, prefer to advance my players at different paces depending where they are on the level curve (quickly for low levels, more slowly as they advance). I’m sure the passage was written to provide guidance since there didn’t seem to be anything written concretely previously. I think what’s fascinating, and may be point of debate amongst DMs, is what was his intent. It would have been much simpler if he plainly stated, “Parties should advance in level after X number of game sessions, on average.” Something so direct would have helped to clarify the rest of the adventure-writing process for DMs, so that they could adjust their encounters and treasure appropriately.

    Anyway, good stuff. Glad someone else is as nutty as me to be interested in this topic. :)

    1. The silly things that haunt us when everything in our lives are (relatively speaking) pretty good.
      ; )

      To your contrary point (and to use your terminology): if one hasn't "dinged" by four sessions, you're moving to slow thus implying the inverse (that if your party HAS "dinged" you're doing fine).

      You're only advancing too fast if the party has "dinged" TWICE (going from 1st level to 3rd). See?

      In other words, advancing to 3rd over four sessions (an average on one level every two sessions) is the indicator (for Moldvay) that you need to cut the treasure take...because treasure is the bulk of XP generation in the B/X system.

      IMO, Moldvay is laying out some general guidelines, but doesn't want to put to many specifics in place due to the nature of the beast: specifically different rates of advancement for different character classes (within B/X) and even between different PCs of shared class (due to XP adjustment for prime requisites). The low INT elf or magic-user advances a lot slower than the high DEX thief, for example. Which (for me) explains Moldvay's use of phrases like "most players" and his generalizing of "three or four" adventures.