Wednesday, July 15, 2009

B/X Satisfaction: A King's Ransom

Here’s what I love about old school D&D:


PCs start out as young adventurers living in the kingdom of an oppressive tyrant. He is aged. He is rich. He is greedy of his wealth and power. He is paranoid and Chaotic.

After the PCs first adventure they are rewarded. After the next they are subjected to insults and snide remarks. After the next they are heavily taxed. Finally, they are faced with torment and exile.

Their home village is mercilessly taxed. One PC’s husband is killed. Another sees his wife dragged off by the king’s soldiers. A third PC’s parents are indentured as servants, their farm burned to the ground. A Halfling PC is beaten and tortured for sport.

The PCs hide in the wilderness. Outcast they adventure to help those who suffer more than themselves. They organize a resistance; they begin a guerilla war.

Eventually, the now mid-to-high level adventurers storm the tyrant’s castle. They burst into the stronghold throne room and confront their enemy. Words are shouted, guards are hewn down. Finally the king stands alone.

The PCs do unto the tyrant as to Julius Caesar…what I like to call the “Charley Manson Special.”

How does a DM run this final encounter?

If you’re running BECMI, the elderly tyrant is probably a 9th+ level fighter. He hops from the throne swinging his +3 sword and bellowing bloody murder. Fight ensues and after many, long rounds (complete with the octogenarian delivering Smash Attacks!) the PCs manage to lay out the old man. ‘He was a lot spryer than he looked,’ quips the halfling.

If you’re running some version of D20, the Old Man is of a commensurate Challenge Rating to the PCs throwing out feats and skill use, tumbling and sundering, feinting and cleaving. Eventually the PCs shut down the Encounter Level and the elderly tyrant lies sprawled in a pool of blood. ‘Hmm…that was kind of cheesy,’ quips the halfling.

With 4th Edition the Old Man is probably bigger and badder, being a Boss Fight (like those dragon/turtle critters in Super Mario Bros!). After a heroic surge and a lot of frantic use of all available combat options, the PC gives the old geezer down for a dirt nap. ‘That took longer than our last Raid in Northrend,’ quips the halfling.

If you’re running B/X, the tyrant is probably either a Normal Man or at most a 2HD Noble. The former’s reign can be ended with an arrow through the eye by the party halfling, the latter dies after a couple sword thrusts through his scrawny frame. Robes of state awash in blood, the PCs stand over their nemesis. ‘He wasn’t worth much XP,' quips the halfling…and the halfling is right. Cutting down an old man at the end of his life, Chaotic tyrant or not, should NOT net you a lot of adventuring experience. But as the culmination of a campaign plot arc, there ARE rich XP awards…in the form of the late king’s treasure chamber. Every gold piece split between the PCs is an XP, and there’s plenty for them all to rise in level, even after distributing much of the wealth to the downtrodden populace. Plus they now have a castle, which any fighter can claim as his own, and which most Name level characters can make use of, if they so desire.

Old School B/X D&D connects the character’s rewards (wealth) to the player’s rewards (XP/game effectiveness) to the campaign’s rewards (adventure goals). And it does so very efficiently. OD&D and 1st edition AD&D are much the same, and (except for some strange level inflation) so does BECMI. Later editions of the game do not.


  1. I played in a B/X game where a PC actually said "Leave him, he's not worth it" rather than the player automatically seeing the old guy as walking XP and running him through with a broadsword.

    B/X PCs are more than ordinary men. Not Demi-gods but they have something that sets them apart. I've watched old school players nurture the hero-ism/anti-heroism of their characters accordingly.

  2. (Remember that this is coming from a B/X fan)

    You are seriously generalizing about playstyles here. In my own d20 campaigns, odds are he would be a level 4 or so Noble, even against a level 20 party. The idea of every fight having to be a commensurate Challenge Rating is bunk, CR is used to determine what kind of challenge you want to provide the party. What would be the challenge would be getting to the dude, not killing him once you've got him alone.

    In the 4e game I played in, the big bad villain at the end was almost exactly what you described here, a measly old goblin that we killed without a major battle. The issue was getting to her.

  3. Actually, I'm generalizing based on the adventures I've seen, read, and played in (with the D20 stuff).

    Having never played in a 4E, I only comment on what seems to be the implied style of play judging by the rules as written. But you may use the 4E rules in a very different way and I admit I may be inferring completely incorrectly.