Thursday, July 2, 2009

Another Reason For A B/X Companion

Much as I like Frank Mentzer’s Companion set, especially the dominion rules, there are some problems with it…especially with the dominion rules!

I’ll get to this in a moment.

This has to do with something I’ve been gradually realizing the more I’ve delved into Old School gaming: D&D, as originally conceived and written, is a game of heroes. And I mean old school heroes (not Old School heroes…ugh! Semantics!). The game doesn’t need any help for the PCs to be heroic…they don’t need extra feats and kewl powers unless one wants to play a comic book super hero-type fantasy game (and doesn’t White Wolf already have Exalted?).

Here’s what I’m talking about: PCs (and any NPC with a “class” that gains “levels”) are EXCEPTIONAL individuals. Non-exceptional elves are HD 1 elves; dwarves and Halflings are the same, just like orcs, goblins, etc. Non-exceptional humans (i.e. humans that are not clerics, fighters, magic-users, or thieves) are classified as Normal Men.

And that’s it…that’s all you need to run a whole D&D society (at least in B/X). A Normal Man could be a priest, or a sage, or the ruler of a kingdom. But if he’s not an EXCEPTIONAL character (like ALL the player characters are!) then he’s still easily killed by a single sword thrust or arrow. HE AIN’T SO IMPORTANT TO THE STORY THAT HE NEEDS TO FIGHT AND ENDURE LIKE A HERO.

The PCs are heroic. Their capacity to learn from experience, gain levels, and increase their hit points give them the ability to take on more and last longer than other Normal Men. The increase of their abilities (i.e. increase of effectiveness) shows them as heroic forces to be reckoned with. Whereas a Normal Man priest could ward off a vampire with a holy symbol, a heroic crusading cleric can actually force the vampire to run away…or explode into dust! THAT’S power.

All the sentient humanoids have exceptional individuals…these are the “chiefs” and “sub-chiefs” present in monster descriptions. Only PC races (human, dwarf, elf, and Halfling in B/X) have the ability to actually “gain levels;” that is why they’re player allowed races.

(yes, I realize that may not have been the designer’s original intent, but that’s how it works out)

There’s no need to have bullshit like 3rd level nobles, 6th level blacksmiths, or 12th level peasants. There’s no need to stat up every monster with PC-like stats. This is needless complication and actually TAKES AWAY from the heroism of the player characters! Or forces them to need extra “super hero” abilities to make them “more special” (this ties into a related topic: Why I Hate Skills).

But let’s bring this back to Mentzer and his excellent Companion set. Excellent that is, except for the inflation of Normal Men to the ranks of PCs. And by this I mean, the rules whereby rulers of dominions gain experience points for sitting on their duffs.

At first glance, this seems like a reasonable set of rules. There’s a trade-off between characters that go out and adventure for experience and treasure (especially magic items), and those that stay home and “take care of business.” Shouldn’t these landowners gain something? And it’s not like they gain XP from ALL revenue. Mainly, just what they tax (and taxes affect Domain Confidence levels…tricky balance there). What’s wrong with this?

Well, a couple things , both part of the same whole: the de-protagonising of Player Characters. Here’s why:

#1 NPC Inflation: Check out the example tournament-feast adventure. Look at all those knights and lords, all high level fighters. That’s a lot of clout to be plying the lists…enough to make the PCs small by comparison. It’s one thing to have a high level EXCEPTIONAL person as an antagonist; it’s quite another thing to have all individuals born to nobility to be “exceptional” by dint of collecting taxes over the years. Not every ruler has carved out an empire with his or her own sword arm. Some are Normal Men born to their position.

#2 Retirement = Death: Only PCs that are actually out adventuring should be gaining XP, not guys sitting at home, handling the administration of a barony or county. Exceptional abilities are honed in the field (or the dungeon), and in life-and-death situations…not through practice with the castle guard captain. Once an adventurer has settled down, he (or she) has effectively been “put out to pasture.” A cleric’s deity isn’t going to see the need to reward the cleric with more powerful spells (why would the ruler cleric need them?) and a thief guildmaster is going to be too busy counting his money and training apprentices to improve himself. Complacency does NOT give a person better saving throws…hell, it should probably PENALIZE them.

#3 Encouraged Lethargy: From a design point of view, experience points (XP) are a reward mechanic. In RPGs, reward mechanics encourage and inspire behavior in play. If one can grow in power and wealth with little risk by NOT adventuring, then manning one’s throne will take precedence over heroic questing. Less risk means less loss means more gain…and a fairly boring campaign.

If a group wants to run a dominion based campaign where everything is intrigue and political maneuvering and little “adventuring” that’s fine…but characters have no need for “high levels” in that kind of game anyway (there’s little direct confrontation, save perhaps through proxies or assassins, and most armed conflict will be through war machines and military maneuvers). The rewards for characters in a game aristocratic intrigue are wealth, land, power, influence, and favors…NOT hit points, attack rolls, extra spells, or better saving throws! An individual (PC or NPC) can be feared or respected by the weight of his or her actions, not simply their “level.”


  1. Excellent post JB, a point that isn't made as often as it should be. Class levels for NPCs has made the construction of a 'rational' society impossible in the newer editions by creating a power-laden hit-point heavy funhouse where only GM fiat keeps the semblance of 'life as humans have always lived it' alive.

  2. Thanks, glad my point didn't get drowned out in my bit o ranting.

    But anyway...exactly. Most "people" of the game world (NPCs) don't need XP to thrive and survive. They don't even need hit points. Adventuring folks (like the PCs) DO need to measure these things.

    'Course this leads to some interesting quandries, but that's for a new post!