Friday, November 12, 2010

B/X D&D - A Flaw of Design

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 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/ 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.
; )


  1. With respect, JB, isn't WPM written for AD&D? As I recall, the amount of treasure in B/X modules tends to be on the high side, while I always had the impression that AD&D modules were more stingy.

  2. Or, I could have just read your post more carefully...

    As a comparison to the above, my college campaign consisted mostly of AD&D characters exploring D&D modules (set in Greyhawk). After 3 years of generally regular play (usually 2-3 times a month), the party of 4 was at or just below Name level.

    This was based on:

    * 1XP per gold piece recovered
    * Normal monster XP (by HD, excluding hp)
    * XP for magic items recovered and retained
    * Story awards (100-300XP per session)

  3. I also made a post on slow leveling in B/X/Labyrinth Lord a few months back and got a lot of interesting feedback and ideas. When my campaign starts up again (currently on baby hiatus) I think I'm going to do away with gold XP and institute some sort of XP/hours of game time (in addition to monster XP).

  4. I think this is only a "flaw" if you expect/desire characters to advance quickly. In my OD&D campaign, the highest level character only just achieved 7th level and we've been playing for nearly 2 years -- and I'm actually rather generous with treasure. That's a good rate of advancement as far as I'm concerned, but, obviously, tastes differ on this score. But I'll reiterate: D&D's design isn't flawed on this point; it simply assumes a fairly slow rate of advancement.

  5. If we were advancing that slowly, and then you hit me with level drain...oh boy. :)

    I think this post just emphasizes my own feeling that btb ANYthing is not really desirable. Every edition had good and bad, with one edition fixing something yet fucking up something else. Just cherry pick the bits you like. As long as the players know what the rule is, it's fine, regardless of where it came from.

  6. I have been thinking about this 'problem' with B/X but for a different reason. I am old, with a family - I and my friends can't play often or for long - but we want to advance in level. I intend to allow the spending of gold to give XP. This will be for or a single item, donation or service and must be in accordance to alignment (DM final arbitrator). For example a 1st level character buys a silver arrow (5gp) and gains 5 XP. Higher level characters will require a higher minimum and only a maximum of 50% of a level can be gained this way. Thus characters get XP for gold taken from the dungeon and then again for the same XP when spent. Hopefully leads to rapid advancement and hungry for more gold characters.

  7. I like the "story awards" thing--XP for completing various quests and goals of the adventure. I also like individual awards for clever ideas or using character abilities in particularly effective ways (although that means the DM should make sure there are opportunities to do so for every character type in the party). I guess that might disproportionately reward experienced players, or encourage players to waste time picking everyone's pockets or whatever, but it's better than having to find and haul around tons of coins.

    JB, I wouldn't carry too much angst about changing the XP or advancement rules, though. Moldvay explicitly says "...D&D has no rules, only rule suggestions. No rule is inviolate..."

  8. I'm mostly with James Maliszewski; my caveat is the shear weight of gold required. Slow advancement is great, but acquiring 40 tons of gold at a reasonably slow speed is still requiring too much treasure by bulk, even with the assumption of an inflated adventurer economy. Using a realistic silver standard (where 1 silver penny at 240 pennies to the pound nets 1 XP) helps a lot, but it's still an awful big pile of treasure.

    I also have an official rule that uses something like that mentioned by The Jovial Priest, where characters can essentially "double count" treasure for XP when it is spent on non-adventuring uses, which lets me afford to be a little more stingy.

    I think one base coin = one experience point is a nigh-perfect rule. It's just calibrating the treasure tables and experience tables to one another that keeps me up at night.

  9. Actually, one thing I don't get about the larger discussion is that some people seem to imply a difference between experience for treasure and experience for exploration. I was under the impression that the point of giving experience for treasure is that it /is/ experience for exploration.

  10. JLL, to me it seems it seems boring and/or cumbersome if treasure (specifically coinage) is the only way to award experience for exploration.

  11. Get really radical and just do the advancement every 4 weeks regardless of treasure accumulation.

  12. JB, weren't you just going on about withholding XP a few weeks ago? What finally clicked to turn you to reducing the amount needed to advance by a factor of 5-10?

  13. The solution may be more gems, jewelry and objets d'art.

  14. @ Spawn: One of the reasons I held off on awarding XP is I could see the tallies and kept thinking "what's the point? It's not going to be enough to get anyone anywhere."

    However, having coming to the end of the run and seeing the paltry reward for the five weeks of play, I'm inclined to say WTF?!

    @ Pal: Still not enough, man...

  15. I have to agree with @Paladin ... you can make a necklace/ring/whatever worth an arbitrarily large amount while keeping the weight down. It even works with the economy (almost) in that it's a rare/collectable item, so it's market value can be much higher than the intrinsic value of it's components.

    Of course, finding a market to sell your Star of India might be a different matter altogether...

  16. I don't think the advancement is too slow, and generally prefer low level play in any edition of D&D. Anything past 7th level and players start flying around like fruit cakes during encounters.

    "I cast Prismatic Sphere and enter the Ethereal Plane." Thanks, that'll take for-fucking-ever to adjudicate.

    I enjoy getting shit done in a game. Low level play is faster play.

  17. gems and jewelry solve the weight issue, but not the fact that your characters are all little Sultans of Brunei by 7th level. Requiring gp in the millions seems excessive. It would literally have no value to the players beyond xp...just check in to any MMO to see that theory in practice.

  18. Personally, I think that White Plume Mountain is a bad example to use for this discussion. If you instead use the Giants modules for AD&D1e, you note that advancement is roughly the same pace as in 3e, which many people feel is too rapid.

    White Plume Mountain is low on treasure and big on awesome magic items.

    Having run three B/X and Labyrinth Lord campaigns in the past six months (including one going to name level), I don't find the advancement that slow.

  19. @ Dyson (and others): All right, all right folks...I suppose we can give it a shot with RAW and see how it goes. I suspect it works fine...up through about 3rd or 4th level. After that, depending on the size of the party, you'll be needing to invest in wagons to carry all your loot.
    ; )

  20. Yeah... I realized I use a house rule in my games. 80 coins to the pound, not 10 (based on Roman currency of 1/5 ounce to the coin). This makes treasure somewhat more portable.

  21. What's the rationale behind spending money to earn XP? I can figure out how it would be an experience that would improve the characters' skills and abilities.

  22. It's an abstraction, like picking up money is an abstraction. If you are into Philotomy's take on the dungeon as mythic underworld, you are claiming or reclaiming lost treasures and returning them to civilization. Alternately, there's the swords & sorcery, Conan/Fafhrd & Mouser ale-and-whores simulation aspect. Giving xp for spending the gold encourages adventurers to spend profligately, and to be poor and hungry for more cash.

  23. I see now that there's a follow-up post, but I wanted to add this link, expanding on the wine, women & song thing:

  24. Josh,
    First off, I agree that the coinage problem is an issue. To that end, I think that the process of generating the treasure itself needs to be as creative as the process that generates the location it is held in -- and that applies double for magical items.
    Using treasure as the single-lever for rewarding exploration is occasionally cumbersome, but it has something very important going for it: is a random-positive reinforcement, and that's like crack to the human brain. Specifically, you don't have to reward every particular instance of exploratory behavior with a heap of coins. In fact, that's counterproductive. Instead, following the old-school distribution of monsters, treasure, and other features, treasure should only be an occasional find, and it is the need to really pursue those rarer rewards in the face of risk that drives prudent exploration. When the treasure is interesting in and of itself, that's even better.

    So, from a design perspective, treasure makes a great driver, but how to we rationalize it? Well, /finding/ treasure leading to improvement does make some sense, since it is a loose measure of how well the characters did at being explorers, and doing something that is somewhat challenging well is the sweet spot for learning ("flow"). So that makes sense. The /spending/ of treasure arose as a way to "process" this that got the treasure out of the characters hands -- it was just the mechanical way that the treasure was dealt with, with the beneficial side effect of creating a narrative reason for the characters to go looking for more.

    But I think the real reason that spending treasure should lead to class-level progression is that levels can be about more than skill - they can also be about recognition, prestige, reputation, and other social power that gets things done -- which reflects in the use of level titles rather than index numbers. I think xp should be less about pure skill development and more about some of the things that accumulate under the label "Glory" in Pendragon, although that does make the name something of a misnomer. I use a hybrid rank-number/level-title scheme, so handing out xp to promiscuous big spenders reinforces their growing social role. If you don't represent that aspect of character development with levels, then xp for spending makes less sense.

  25. I can say without any irony, this is something I realized in the early 80s. That and keeping track of xp for each dead monster and speck of treasure is really tedious and un-fun. Nowadays I use a simple system. Each level requires that many sessions/adventures of experience. After 2 adventures, you are 2nd level. After another 3, 5 in total, you are 3rd level. All the characters level at the same rate. and I don't see why they shouldn't. RPGs are not supposed to be competitive games. I don't think class "balance" is possible or even necessarily desirable.

  26. I actually didn't play B/X (Via Labyrinth Lord) until the last five or six years, back in the day I also played my long term games with AD&D and bypassed all of this. That said I think the sorts of things folks have been suggesting in these comments encourage the exact sort of play I enjoy whereas looking back AD&D did not.

    AD&D became all about becoming a badass quickly so you could kill more monsters to become an even larger badass. B/X Is all about grubby little tomb robbers occasionally doing the right thing but mostly trying to accrue more gold than a dragons hord. I'd say let them gain one xp per 1/10th a lb gold piece, and then give them another when they spend it, double if they strait up waste it on booze, revelry, and parties (becoming men/women of the world and what have you). Also they should gain XP from the actions of their retainers and of their followers when you get to the higher level play your worrying about (Leadership changes a man/woman/dwarf and what not).

  27. To commit blog necromancy, this is a feature, not a bug. Dave Arneson never got any of his PCs higher than level 4. An adventure (session) is supposed to be several hours, maybe a half day event, not half an hour before you pick up the kids from the mall.
    Character motives should be in game, not metagame. In game characters don't level up at all. Players should find things to do aside from what around in nonsense Dungeons.
    Basically, D&D is not a game about dungeon crawling and leveling up. It's a weird fiction rpg. The domain crawling and focus leveling up are a function of tournament play and lazy module writers, and perpetuated by a gaming public that is marginally literate at best.
    D&D's classic works worn week of you play them how their creators did and ignore the bullshit about quests and mega Dungeons that was invented to make TSR money.

    1. Minor correction - Dave Arneson retired his players' characters when the reached level 20. Lots of the Blackmoor characters were above level 4.

  28. In general, I enjoy your blog, but this post (and a few others you've made), scream "inexperience". I can't help but wonder if you aren't yet ANOTHER of the "Blog-nards" who claim to have been playing BX (or whatever version) for YEARS, but in fact just boarded the hype train that left the station when OSRIC and LL came out. I don't want to believe this, because, as I said, I enjoy your blog generally, but come on, you've been playing for 30+ years and just now realized you don't like the advancement system? More likely, this s the first time you've experienced it extensively.

    1. @ Dieter:


      I think I've been clear about my history with this game. I started circa 1982 with B/X and eventually moved into AD&D, which I played more-or-less exclusively till 1990, when I switched over to BECMI (when I ran D&D at all...mostly I was running Vampire, Rifts, Shadowrun, or Stormbringer), only occasionally playing AD&D2 as a player (not a DM). Around 2000 I got the 3rd edition of D&D and played it three to five years (off and on) before kicking it to the curb. I got back into D&D play about the time I discovered the OSR (2008-2009) and have played B/X exclusively since.

      At the time I wrote this post I'd been "back in" for about a year...but for the first time it was as an adult and amateur game designer, really analyzing the rules and systems. I'm a person who's always preferred (and still prefers) to play RPGs RAW...if a system is clunky or poorly written, I take it as part of the flaws of a game or I stop playing the game once it becomes too burdensome to stomach (as I've done with Deadlands, D&D 3E, and Dungon Crawl Classics).

      So, Dieter, I'm glad you generally enjoy my blog and I welcome you contributing to the discussion here (or on any of my posts), even dissenting opinions. But if you just want to belittle me, then you can kindly fuck off.

    2. Just because you say it, doesn't make it true.
      And, you ruined a perfectly mature, and rather eloquent response, with the "fuck off" bit at the end.

  29. @ Dieter:

    Back at you, man.
    : )

  30. Could just go with 3 adventure sessions per level, or by XP count, which ever comes first.

    1. @ Travis:

      While I think my stance on this particular "flaw" has softened over time, I doubt that I will ever base advancement on simple participation (i.e. showing up to sessions). That doesn't encourage good play.

  31. I know I'm... 10 years late... to this post (wow)... but I think I'll help ya out with my fixes on these issues.

    I'm running a full playthrough of b/x to 5th edition... I've came into the same damn issue you did with the friggin money, and the immortals are to blame with that.

    I fixed this simply by creating a bank of sorts and really focused on inflation with areas.

    Players may have multiple dragon hoards worth of gold, but... things cost money too. I'm being a dirty DM by using as many cash sink options I can think of... Guild Dues, taxes, food, torches, anything that's consumable is great.

    Also, Magic Item acquisition will not net experience or gold, but CREATION I allow to award XP.

    I made GP and XP an in-game currency... GP is "Guild Points" which gives a base "credit" value to things, (also why things are weighed in coins...).

    XP is a sort of "guild score" that will be given based on your report. If you provide more materials, or come up with solutions, solve problems, or find and return thousands of lore items I hid, it's bonus XP.

    I'm hoping to use that to offset the actual cash amount I'm giving people, but I do plan on running a by the books campaign, wwith the economy the way it is... and just see... what happens to it...

    500plat for a flask of wine?!?!

    1. @ Kaiju (great handle):

      I've had a bit of a change of heart on the topic in recent years (though the gross imbalance remains in "straight" B/X play). The X.P. totals and manner of awarding experience is not the issue (with regard to treasure) but, rather the perception of WHAT treasure is. Can't think of gold as a real world equivalent...think of it more as a currency, and (approximately) the equivalent of a $20 bill in today's economy.

      Then figure out all the things your players need to buy.

      The issue is really one of managing the economy, not of stemming the cash flow, or changing point totals. There should be constant streams of currency going both into and out of the PCs pockets...and gold should be exchanged as quickly as possible for actual goods. Goods need to have finite lifespans...a backpack purchased at 1st level will need to be replaced after several hard adventures. Weapons break, armor needs repair, horses need shoeing (and feeding and stables), provisions for characters and henchmen, etc. The DM should take every possible chance to soak the players for wealth (and not just throw thieves and taxes at them). When they're low on funds, give them a break; when they're rich, offer them things to bleed off the excess.

      AD&D did this well with item saving throws, upkeep costs, and training expenses. You need to add these types of things to your B/X game to provide real value to treasure.

      [oh, as for monster X.P. I *have* changed the way that gets awarded. It's now based on actual damage taken while on adventures]