Monday, April 20, 2020

Third Level

The trial and error and enthusiasm for the D&D game continues in my household. More dead characters abound. I will relate but a single amusing anecdote:

Diego (my boy) playing two characters simultaneously wanted to return to the lizard god temple mentioned last Thursday. This was his third such foray since the TPK that kicked off the campaign; he's like a dog gnawing at a bone. This time, he was bringing two characters: a cleric ("Brother James") and a magic-user whose name escapes me but who was said to be the younger brother of another mage that had been captured (and ultimately sacrificed) in Diego's second foray to the dungeon. D said he wanted revenge against the cultists (who, just by the way, have not established themselves as evil or anything).

Entering under the guise of new worshippers (and paying an offering in gold for the privilege), the pair made it to the main shrine where they cast sleep, dropping all present into a deep slumber. They then proceeded to steal the golden idol from the altar stone and abscond with it before anyone was the wiser. Back in the city, they sold its emerald eyes to a gnome gem-cutter and its gold body to a jeweler that paid them its weight in coin. Diego then congratulated himself mightily.

"Do you feel like you've gotten sufficient revenge for your brother's death?" Um...

The kid realized he'd been so excited at his ruse/petty theft working that he'd forgotten his vendetta entirely ("I should have killed them while they were asleep!")...and indeed, has made dangerous enemies who will certainly be seeking payback of their own for the defilement of their temple. Probably with a hired assassin (time to start working on those subclass rules...).

The more I hone my play, the more I focus on my campaign setting, the more dross and detriment I find myself doing away with. You really, really don't need a "thief" class to play this game (though I can see how one might be helpful in certain instances). And critical hits? Sheesh...I've axed them from the game after a single session and mine were really easy.

[my crit rule was simple: roll a natural 20, do max damage. I did this because I felt players would dig the "excitement" that came with hitting that nat 20 and that they would want some type of reward for the lucky happenstance. In practice, *I* was the one rolling the nat 20s...and why not, when I was acting as so many more NPCs?...which just meant PCs getting cut down faster. That being said I am keeping the "natural 1 attack risks losing your weapon" rule, which I hope will...eventually...affect the NPCs more than the PCs, for the same reasons]

Mostly, I'm running the game as originally written, with very few rule additions...most of which come directly from Mr. Gygax's (stated) house rules. However, there's been one Gygaxian house rule I've studiously avoided since the get go: starting all player characters at 3rd level of experience. I know I've written about this before (most recently back in 2018) and how I find it objectionable from both a design point of view and from general principal.

I've changed my mind.

All PCs in my campaign are now starting at 3rd level. I know there are folks reading this who are going to "tap out" of this discussion as soon as they read that sentence...I'm not the only person that likes to stand on principal. But I've thought about this a lot the last couple days (especially as I've gained more experience with the OD&D system) and I want to enumerate all the reasons I've decided this to be a sensible approach:

  • Enhanced survivability: characters get an extra two hit dice. On average this means they can absorb two more blows (one more as a magic-user) than a normal beginning character, giving the player time to re-evaluate a bad tactical decision (i.e. fighting a superior foe). There's some "wiggle-room" for the player, in other words, rather than a "oh, you made a bad decision and/or just got unlucky" one-shot kill result. At least, THOSE situations are more rare when PCs start with more hit points.
  • Retained low level experience: no OD&D character gets their first "step up" in attack table or saving throw matrices before 4th level (fighting men only). Heck, no character class gets extra weapon proficiencies (their first new one would be gained at 4th level); characters are left with the same basic "skills" as they had at 1st level.
  • Emphasize player skill: with regard to handling starting equipment of a 3rd level character, I allow the players to choose whatever they want off the basic equipment list, with the caveat that they must be able to carry it on their person (in addition, they automatically receive a light horse, saddle, and saddle bags). Players still roll "starting gold" (3d6x10), but this is coin wealth, not equipment. Rather than force players to conform to random chance with regard to what gear they take, they are only limited by their own wishes/choices and encumbrance...and encumbrance is a major part of the game.
  • Bonuses received are minor but helpful: a magic-user has three or four starting spells (one of 2nd level), a cleric has two or three (all first level) and the ability to turn monsters up to wraith, and fighters can make three attacks per round when in melee with "lesser" opponents (men and monsters of 1 HD or less). This provides a little more variation/utility to how PCs approach challenges and it isn't so much as to be overwhelming to the new player.
  • More game content available: DMs working with 1st level characters...especially inexperienced players using 1st level characters...are forced to walk on eggshells with regard to scenarios, monsters, and challenges presented. Goblins, kobolds, normal men, and giant rats (all in small numbers) are about the only thing such PCs have a decent chance against...and even then, poor luck can quickly mean the death of a character or five. The higher level of the PCs opens a larger range of possible opponents to delight and astound the players. The scenario I've written for today's game includes an encounter with ice trolls (adapted from the Fiend Folio)...2 hit die monsters with minor regeneration. Those should be both fun and different for the players to confront! Also, falling into a pit is less likely to break your character's neck.
  • Starting at 3rd level does not preclude low level characters in the game: in the past, I've asked 'If all PCs start at 3rd level, why even bother writing rules for 1st and 2nd level?' There are two very good reasons for this: 1st and 2nd level characters are fantastic for NPCs (wizard apprentices and under-clerics, or up-and-coming heroes) especially the retainers for the player characters (which must start at 1st level). The other reason is that players may end up playing lower level characters: if their main PC dies and they want to take control of a valued henchman, that might well mean playing a character of lower level. And don't forget energy drain! Wights are highly appropriate encounters for 3rd level characters, and it's not too tough to imagine players being drained to a lower level than that at which they started.
  • Still retains the "joy" of paying your dues: in OD&D, it takes a player the same number of experience points to get from 3rd to 4th level as it does to get from 1st to 3rd. All you've done is halved the distance...and the slog...of getting there. And even though your character is "paying dues" by fighting low HD monsters, the emphasis becomes more about the treasure, as the x.p. yield from lower HD monsters is fractional, using the PCs' level as a denominator (i.e. those 1 hit die orcs only yield 33 x.p. instead of 100 x.p. to the 3rd level character; you need to kill three times as many for the same reward). I'm not sure you're cutting more than handful of sessions from the character's career...and if it's half a dozen sessions of dross, so much the better.
  • Adequately handles the elf (and half-elf) "issue:" I actually like the OD&D mechanics of elves multi-classing...the handling of elves in OD&D generally has given me a lot of grist for my campaign setting which I will, perhaps, discuss in a later post (hint: I'm going Moorcock, not Tolkien, with the species). Unfortunately, you have an issue of the beginning elf character: is it assumed to be 1st/1st level from the get-go (thus giving the player an extra level compared to other adventurers?) or does it simply become 1st/1st in its second game session (when the player decides to switch classes solely with the purpose of picking up a much needed extra hit die)? By starting the PCs at 3rd level, I require elves (and half-elves who have the same capability) to chose which classes gain which levels: i.e. they start as a 1st/2nd fighter/magic-user or a 2nd/1st fighter/magic-user (half-elves with a wisdom of 13+ must be a 1st/1st/1st fighter/magic-user/cleric).Players can thereafter choose to split (or neglect) their advancement as they see fit, but all issues of "training" multiple classes are handled.
The "3" is for third level.
For all these reasons, I have no qualms about allowing PCs to begin their OD&D careers at 3rd level, just as "Grandpa Gary" claims to have been running for his own game. As I wrote at the beginning, I'm sure there are folks who will object to my reasoning out-of-hand, but until play-testing shows me the error of my ways, this is what I'm going with. I'll let y'all know how it goes, but right now I feel pretty good about this decision (as ever, I reserve the right to change my mind).



  1. Given that you've gutted constitution bonuses, the damage caused by weapons and many of the game's other benefits to characters, it makes sense you have to start them at 3rd level to ensure survivability. The DM taketh away and the DM giveth.

    1. Indeed.

      They *do* receive constitution bonuses...just limited to the amount in the original book (+1 per hit die for Con > 14). Even as the scale has shrunk, I’m hopeful that the scale of the game (or, perhaps, the scope of the game) will widen. I’m hopeful, yes.

      Right now, I’m formulating that stuff that you wrote about in your recent “Vision” post...the world stuff, the setting stuff, the interaction of players with environment stuff. Minimizing the minutia (while still retaining “rules” that require following) is allowing me to focus on the construction of said vision, even as I build it from the ground up. If it ends up not sufficing, I can always “add to,” right?

      Keeping my fingers crossed.
      ; )

    2. Fair enough: but I feel I should point out that the post you quote did not describe minimizing the rules or the game systems, but minimizing the amount of time spent on the nitpicky note-taking surrounding worldbuilding. One should not be mistaken for the other. A car does not run better by "simplifying" the engine.

    3. @ Alexis:

      Agreed...I didn't mean to imply otherwise. Me stripping down the engine is (one of) the means to the world-building.

  2. I am actually a fan of starting at 3rd, even though I stopped doing it a few years ago. I was doing it in B/X and 1e AD&D, but most of what your reasoning is remains true with those editions as well. I've gone back to starting at 1st out of a "purist" and BTB approach, but if I was designing my own version of the game, 1st level characters would be the equivalent of regular 3rd levelers.

  3. Why not give PCs critical hits on a natural 20, but not monsters, NPCs, or hirelings?

  4. Just out of curiosity... Your clerics typically choose which spells to prepare?

    1. @ G.B.:

      As most of their clerics to date have started at 1st level (and 1st level clerics receive no spells in the editions we play), they weren't preparing anything. The last two times my son used his 3rd level cleric ("Father James") he prepared cure light wounds and detect magic. However, in two (three?) game sessions he never cast a spell. And the character perished in today's session.

      You have to understand these kids are complete NOVICE players. They have no preconceived notions of how to play their characters, and I'm letting them figure things out for themselves, develop their own strategies. My daughter (who turns six years old tomorrow) refers to clerics as "healers" but I don't think she's yet healed anyone.

  5. Sure, I thougt it was a decent idea when his OD&D house rules became known...but...start them with 0xp so they have to earn that 4th level rightfully.

    1. @ Chass:

      Yeah. I'm starting to feel that way, too.