Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Boots & Blood Hawks

One thing that has been a bit surprising about AD&D is the increased survivability of the characters. Surprising, I say, because I’ve been listening to a lot of AD&D podcasts and reading more than a couple of AD&D blogs, and the casual, jovial way they’ve talked about fatalities.

Maybe my vision is colored by years of playing B/X.

To date, neither of my kids’ original PCs has been killed…not even slain and brought back to life. Yes, they’ve been in some tight spots (they’re in one right now, as a matter of fact). Yes, they’ve been fortunate on at least one or two occasions, with dice rolls falling spectacularly in their favor. But I think there’s more to it than that.

AD&D is a different beast from other types of D&D play. The main thing that will do you in is overreaching, i.e. trying to punch above your weight or extending yourself when you really can’t afford to do so. This is, of course, true of ALL forms of early edition play, but AD&D has certain “brakes” imbedded in the system that can stop a bad situation from turning into an absolute freefall.

Hit point inflation is, of course, one contributing factor to survivability. Assuming you have at least one or two fighter types in the party, you should have the "beef" to survive at least a round or two of combat with low-level opponents. Goblins average 3.5 damage on a successful hit; orcs average 4.5 damage. Fighters and paladins average 5.5 hit points on D10 hit dice (and rangers even more) and I allow 1st level PCs to start with max hit points, so it's a LOT harder to be "one-shot" than a B/X fighter. 

In addition, negative hit points in AD&D provides an additional "buffer zone," albeit one that carries stiff penalties (coming back from negative hit points results in the same penalties one gets from the raise dead spell). We use the fairly strict rules found on page 82 of the DMG which do not allow survival in the case of blows that reduced a character to -4 or less in a single shot; however, even with that, for practical purposes a magic-user in my game has seven hit points before dying (4 for max starting plus 3 negative). Makes dying from the occasional stray arrow extremely unlikely, and gives everyone a decent chance of running away from a combat that's gone sideways...provided your characters are fast enough to run.

[my kids have insisted on wearing leather armor for this reason, despite better stuff being available]

But more than just mechanics, there is a mindset that comes with AD&D in the "rules as written" that just aren't present in other basic editions' text. I draw your attention to the equipment lists on page 35 of the PHB and the following items:
Boots, high, hard     2 g.p.
Boots, high, soft      1 g.p.
Boots, low, hard      1 g.p.
Boots, low, soft        8 s.p.
Some may feel that such "minutia" exists solely for the purpose of characterization, i.e. visualizing the character's appearance...and maybe that was (originally) its only reason for being in the book. After all, the rules provide no specific advantages to an individual wearing any type of boots; the question of one PC's taste for a particular style of footwear is mainly a matter of preference. 

"Low, Soft"
I'm of a different mind. Rather than being "meaningless" (mechanics-wise) stylistic minutia, these little touches help shift the mindset of the players right from start of character creation. Armor, weapons, backpacks, torches, thieves tools, rations, rope...those things, resources every good adventuring party will strive to purchase...have been around since OD&D, and are tools of play. Things like boots, or a cape, or a chicken...these are touches of world building that puts players in the realm of thinking NOT "what do I need for the game?" but instead "what do I need for the world?"

And it's amazing (to me) just how much gets accomplished with just a little nudge. A little nudge, mind you: the equipment lists for the entire game fits on two pages. I scan through the 10 pages that make up the "Equipment" chapter in the 3E PHB and, quite frankly, my eyes start to glaze over. I don't WANT to read a description of the differences between a "courtier's outfit," a "noble's outfit," and a "royal outfit." I've got a pretty good idea what boots, low, hard look like without any need for description.

[and just for the record, the three outfits I mentioned above? Bland as their descriptions are, none of them even bother to include footwear. And since boots aren't sold separately, I suppose that means nobles are walking around barefoot unless they want to spring for a "traveller's outfit" with its sturdy boots]

Look: do folks understand the difference of what I'm getting at? In DND3, you ARE just picking a style when you purchase an outfit for your character. My fighter dresses like a noble. Someone else's fighter dresses like an "explorer." It's just changing the "skin" on your avatar (to use video game terms). It doesn't make you think about what you're doing. And 5E...well, heck, everyone just starts with the same gear based on their class and background (and maybe race), right? The 5E PHB doesn't even bother listing clothes for sale...though if your choice of class includes a "diplomat's pack" then you pick up a set of fine clothes along with your quills and parchment. It's cookie cutter. 

Whereas the AD&D list puts a sliver in your mind. Boots...oh, yes. Very important to wear something on your feet when hiking or spelunking. What's my alternative? Going barefoot like a halfling (or a peasant)? What would work best? What can I afford? The presented choice...a small one, not an overwhelming one spread over a dozen pages with paragraphs of padded text describing a mess kit or a two-man tent...immediately puts your mental state in that of a D&D adventurer. It begins the immersion process. 

And players who approach the game as if they were IN the game, rather then just playing a game...well, I've found they tend to be a bit more cautious with their (imaginary) lives. Yes, even young children, like my kids. And that leads to increased survivability, too.

Fiend Folio original
Discretion isn't just the better part of valor; it's the key to playing the long game in AD&D. Failing to approach the game with some amount of discretion (and a willingness to cooperate with your fellow teammates) is a recipe for a quick demise, as monsters in the advanced game are vicious. Blood hawks? Basically a flying hobgoblin (1+1 hit dice) with three attacks per round. A wandering monster encounter in the mountains brought down seven of 'em on the party...and, no, the magic-user did not have a sleep spell (she failed her % roll to learn the spell). Somehow, they still all managed to survive...though not without severe injury.

Anyway. It's the holiday season and the pace around here has become a bit frantic. Look at this post...started writing it Saturday morning. It's now Tuesday night. *sigh*

Just to finish the point...first edition AD&D isn't as unforgiving as it's rumored to be. I've seen far more player character death in good ol' B/X and OD&D. At least at low levels, with low level challenges, and a good dose of player discretion, it's very survivable. Not "always" or even "mostly" survivable, no. But quite a bit more than "hardly" or "barely" survivable. 

Next post: more "duh" observations regarding first edition AD&D.
: )


  1. I think subconsciously, I've always considered AD&D more "survivable" than B/X, but I never analyzed the math. As far as AD&D equipment lists and "boots" go, I'm not so sure there was a thought process there. Any runner or hiker knows, footwear is essential, and that may be the crux of it. What Gygax probably couldn't see is how the expansion possibilities of these options would lead to the "avatar" conundrum you identify.
    I gravitated more to the useful new gear, especially those that aided thieves (caltrops, marbles, oilpaper/diamond, etc). Gear without a purpose is "character building", or raw accounting.

    1. Gygax also tried his hand at being a cobbler, no? He might have had some ideas about the hows and whys of footwear.

  2. Entirely disagree on the lethality issue. I alternated between B/X and AD&D for well over a decade and they were both comparable in terms of (high) PC mortality. A few swingy die rolls and a low level party was dead, dead, dead in either, and even at higher levels the plethora of save or die effects kept you vulnerable. AD&D might have had a very slight edge in terms of available healing at the lower levels simply because of differences in class rules, but it certainly wasn't safer - especially without adding rules like starting at max HP.

    d20 formalized a lot of the optional/house rules people had been using to prevent excessive early deaths, but you were still pretty fragile at low levels there. 4E was a completely different animal, with extremely durable PCs at all levels, but some of that was due to errors in monster design math that didn't get remedied until late in teh edition's lifecycle - monsters from Essentials and Nentir Vale were vastly more dangerous than earlier ones, for ex, and players had to be a lot smarter about how they played. 5th is somewhere between d20 and 4E in terms of deadliness IME, shading toward the "forgiving" end of things by a bit.

    Me, I've rediscovered the joys of The Fantasy Trip and have largely moved on from modern D&D. OSR stuff is still interesting, but mostly as an idea mine for TFT hacks.

    1. Ah, healing! I forgot to mention that (probably because, for a long time) the party did not include a cleric of any stripe.

      The potential to have a first level cleric with THREE "cure light wounds" spells is an amazing boost to survivability, considering that other early editions (OD&D, Holmes, B/X, BECMI) provide absolutely NOTHING.

      But "excessive early deaths?" I suppose excessive is in the eye of the beholder. Both my kids started at first level and have made it to 5th without a swingy die roll killing them. But maybe the low-level adventure modules I've been using are "easy" (not sure I'd qualify them as such)...they're not facing a lot of creatures with death dealing special effects. Maybe that will change as we start hitting intermediate level stuff, we'll see. They're saving throws are still pretty bad.

  3. If you are not using a lot of save or die mosters and not a lot of enemy spell casters with high damage spells 1e is fairly survivable if charachters know when to flee.

    I ran a 1e campaign for 50 some sessions and some henchmen died, but the main full level PC were in danger but all survived. In part because the campaign was ran in a way to be less brutal and more RP.

    In a 2e campaign of 50 some sessions we had a lot more death, but I played my enemies smarter and meaner (Hold persons then throat slits) and the campaign was a sandbox.

    But my 5e campaign has been probably the most deadly. 5e has swingy damage a ill timed critical from the right monster can drop even a high level PC. Again a sandbox campaign.

    I guess in conclusion DM style in the last three campaigns I ran determined more about deaths than system.

    1. Interesting. But I'm not really comparing AD&D to 5E (or even 2E)...I'm comparing it to B/X and OD&D.

      Especially in B/X it is VERY easy to die at 1st level, even from a lowly spear attack. A zombie (with its 1d8 damage) can be a real killer on a solid hit despite being sloooow. Spell casters and poisonous creatures aren't necessary to garner a TPK in "basic" D&D!

      In my past (B/X) games, elves had the lowest life expectancy of any class. Why? Because they only roll 1d6 for hit points, they're expected to be active (i.e. fighting in melee, using attack spells), and most all monsters hate them. But my boy's elf is friggin' juggernaut...which I'll discuss in my next post.
      ; )

    2. Unfortunately I have not been able to convince anyone to play a long campaign of B/X so I can't comment on the long game.

      But I agree at low level PC are fragile. Elves also lag behind in level with the big XP hurdle. So may be on lower levels of the dungeon while still 1st level.

      I was curious so I looked it up. 1st level random monster chart in Basic has three posion save or die creatures out of 20. 1E DMG none.

      As for boots I always went for high and hard. Even without a game mechanic I figured I might need to argue my way out of damage from posion thorns or something. Same reason I always wore gloves. Heck I would have bought saftey glasses if they were on the equipment list.

    3. I was always high and hard, too. Would probably have preferred hobnail, though.
      ; )

  4. I'm glad someone else has articulated what I've thought for a long time - that AD&D is easier than BX if you're a fighter, thief or cleric. Another feature is that the XP gained from fighting in AD&D is greater for each monster slain than it is in BX.

    The only area BTB that BX is more forgiving than AD&D is in the cost of plate armour.

    1. Don't forget XP for magical items.

    2. AD&D monster-fighting XP is bigger but the terms are more generous in B-X. AD&D only awards XP for kills, by the book, but in B-X you get XP for any monster defeated by wits or fighting.

      In a recent game, our players encountered a 3rd level MU and 6 gnolls. They wound up killing two of the gnolls early on with what was essentially a wand of burning hands and the remainder failed a morale check and fled. In a later encounter a larger group of gnolls was convinced to depart without a fight after a convincing show of force by the party.

      It was a Sine Nomine game so I was on my own for XP rewards and decided to run the numbers in both AD&D and BX for guidance. Despite the numbers being higher for each individual foe in AD&D, the gnolls AD&D didn't grant XP for pushed the BX total higher in the end.

    3. I've been using Alexis Smolensk's system of awarding combat x.p. (based on damage inflicted and damage taken) rather than the standard tables. It has the advantage of awarding x.p. even when fights aren't finished (i.e. when one group runs away) and doesn't encourage battles to the death. Works exceptionally well and isn't that tough to get used to in practice.

  5. You mentioned you've been reading done other blogs... Any chance of some links?
    I've just discovered yours and I have to praise you on the interesting and thought provoking content. I too am just running an AD&D game with my son as the only player (one hopes his friends will be interested when the pandemic is over) he's had two NPCs die but his two main characters have survived this far. Keep it up.

    1. The best AD&D podcast these days is "Grogtalk" (check YouTube)...they really plumb the depths of 1E, and they've had some great interviews. The Blue Bard (thebluebard.com) is an excellent source for 1E thoughts, especially on how to run a game...I've found links from the various commentators/forum readers through that site. I link to a lot of folks via my blog, and while there aren't many 1E aficionados in the list, many of THEM have links to 1E enthusiasts (though the specific sites don't come to mind at the moment...sorry).