Friday, May 12, 2023

What High Level D&D Looks Like

I can already tell I'm going to get in trouble for this post. Ah, well. No one reads blogs on Fridays, right?
; )

As my group gears up for another campaign start (the players need to generate PCs after our last TPK, and I need to find yet more low-level scenarios for 1st level characters...*sigh*), some questions arise in Ye Ol' Brain. Questions like: What's the aim here? What's the direction? Where do I hope to see the campaign go? What do I hope to accomplish with this thing? Why do I want to run a game at all?

To which the answer almost always comes back the same: I just want to play D&D.

What's the aim? Direction? Um...I don't really care. Where do I want to see the campaign go? I have no destination in mind. Accomplishments? It's just D&D.  My joy is in playing...and as a DM, "play" for me means creating a world and various scenarios/challenges for my players and then running those and seeing how they pan out. I am a mad god, with no ultimate divine plan...because, of course, I am not a TRUE God, and my life is as finite as any other human and will some day end. So I play to play. Because I enjoy it.  My players seem to enjoy my game (and why would they not when it is D&D, a magical realm of fantastic possibility, perilous danger, amazing rewards/loot). And so I run the game, hoping to see it last and last and last.

The world building is, thus, of paramount importance. Why? Because for a game to last it must have far more possibility and potential than what can be explored and consumed within the lifetime of the DM. Fortunately, our own world is a wonderful example of just how big a world can be. How many "adventures" (and misadventures) of large and small variety have you had in your own town? Or in towns that you've visited? Or wilderness areas outside of towns? And how many THOUSANDS or TENS OF THOUSANDS of towns and cities and wilderness areas have you NOT visited in your lifetime? Heck, I've been to Europe four or five times, visited three times that many cities (at least) on the continent and had amazing experiences, and that has barely scratched the surface of the possibilities...and all without a single combat encounter or larcenous incident.

This is why I can take an area as small as the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and British Columbia) and know that this TINY CORNER of planet Earth can provide all the "world" I need for the rest of my days. Throw in western Montana, parts of the California coastline, extraplanar adventures, and (possibly) some sort of "Underdark" like what you find in the classic "D" module series? There's far more than I could ever "finish;" far more than I'll ever probably need. My world map is set. Everything else is just keeping track of population points, resources, political factions (only if/as needed!) and "adventure sites" (i.e. dungeons). 

"Um...JB? You mentioned 'high level play' in your post title?"

Right, sorry...getting to that. My current world...the one I've been using since I started playing AD&D again (a couple years back), has yet to see high level characters as I define them. The players I've been working with are, after all, kids who are still learning the ropes of the game...but mainly it's just that 1E isn't a cakewalk game to play. Characters die...and with SMALL parties (less than six or seven characters), any single loss can lead to cascade failure and disaster. Eventually, some combination of skill and luck will enable a number of player characters to reach the higher levels, and once they do the "PC EcoSystem" will become much more stable and secure. They just haven't got there yet.

But I have seen high level campaign play in the past...both as a DM and a player. And with much talk about high level play being bandied about in recent months (both here and elsewhere), I thought I'd share my experiences, so that people can understand my perspective on this somewhat mythical level of play. 

BECAUSE...IF you share my joy of the game, and ARE committed to the long haul, and have a robust world that will LAST for the long haul, THEN with committed, determined players, you WILL eventually have high level PCs to deal with.

SO...there are two ways to end up with high level characters in your game: players "work them up" in standard fashion (aka The Hard Way), or they are "gifted" to players in the form of pre-gens or scenario specifics characters (which might be just one-offs or they might be allowed to linger in campaigns). I've run...and played...both types in past campaigns.

My first "campaign" lasted from circa 1982-1985 and mostly consisted of my friends and I learning to play the game (for the interested, I documented a rough history of my gaming history last June). I hesitate to even call it a proper campaign: much of it was dissociative, like a series of con-games...or FLAILSNAILS type adventures...with no common thread aside from the characters being used. Because our game started with B/X it was deadly but not punitive: resurrections didn't reduce CON for example, wishes did not age individuals and the DM (me) was fairly lenient with giving PCs means to reverse failures. However, there was NO world building to speak of, no real "town play" (just dungeons and wilderness), nothing for PCs to spend treasure on besides castles and specialist hirelings (B/X doesn't have upkeep and training costs).  Towards the end of this period, we began incorporating AD&D books into our game: high level spells, artifacts and relics, demon princes and arch-devils, etc. But the game was generally a one might expect from a bunch of pre-teen kids with little knowledge of the "real world" (history, geography, politics, economics, etc.). Just low-level D&D with bigger, fancier toys.

Still.  There were some beefy dungeons back then. And even uber-high level characters fear black puddings and rust monsters. No nerfing required.

In the fall of 1985, we decided to blow up the entire thing and start over from scratch using By The Book AD& best we could. Characters started at 1st level and had to "work their way up." But, again, we didn't do much in the way of world building: a lot of "town adventures," but the towns were (mostly) nameless and unconnected other than by nameless roads. Mostly we were learning the AD&D rules, including the incorporation of the Unearthed Arcana. The campaign was short-lived...I would guesstimate my character earned a maximum of 300,000 x.p. over the course of the entire thing (and my PC was the most consistently played of all our group, now that we were sharing DM duties). That's only "mid-level" in my book...the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth was one of the last adventure modules we ran, and the party ended up abandoning the quest sometime in the upper caves. 

Sometime circa 1986ish (I'm guessing the summer, maybe fall), we started over a final time, and this time went hard. We used the World of Greyhawk map, but far less of its background/history, and our pantheon of gods were strictly Grecian (as had been the case since moving to AD&D). Characters initially had to be started at level one, although replacement PCs, brought in to fill out decimated parties, were allowed to start at higher levels as per Gygax's stipulations on page 12 of the DMG. Over the course of the next two+ years, these PCs DID reach high own character, started as a first level fighter, eventually became a bard in at least the high teens (16th+) range. That's well over a million x.p. earned, and while some of that was certainly acquired magically, he definitely lost levels to level drain as well. 

In all honesty, it is my experience in that final, grand campaign that provided most of my concept of what "proper" AD&D adventuring should look like. This was not a sit-down, weekly session with the same six friends kind of thing: the campaign was always "on," always being played. Whenever the DM was with one or more players...and had his/her books, dice, etc....and an idea, the game was run. Records were tracked (time and location) to ensure continuity, but this was not otherwise an 'organized' affair. Hell, a lot of our games were conducted over (landline) telephone, and we had party lines and three-way calling to enable this kind of activity.

Sure: the campaign started off with 3-4 players and a DM with some introductory scenario, in some small town. After a few small successes, the characters would move onto the next adventure "lead" to another town. Many of the characters in the campaign were reiterations of past characters...I played the same half-elf bard in all three of these campaigns (I don't believe he even reached bard status in the second campaign)...and thus many had established "backgrounds" and personality quirks even if we did minor tweaks (alignment was OFTEN changed) between re-boots. Anyway, with "known" characters...and being experienced players...many of us had ideas and ambitions of what we wanted to accomplish in the game world, and set out to achieve those ambitions. First, of course, there was always the need to make a little coin and get some levels under the belt, then we'd move on to grander schemes...often causing the party to drift apart.

However, since the game was always "on," this separation allowed all of us to adventure independently while still maintaining the same world. Players would have secondary (or tertiary) characters that could join a group when their "main" PC was doing magical research or building their fortress or whatever. We would eventually have a total of eight players participate at one time or another, four of whom were "regulars," and two of whom acted as co-DMs of the world.  That's EIGHT players...but the number of PLAYER CHARACTERS that showed up was more like three-four times (?) that. "Main PCs" (for lack of a better term), like my bard, were the major characters by dint of their high levels, which gave them access to considerable resources (hirelings and henchmen, magic items and money, hit points and spells, etc.)...of these, my PC was the closest thing to a high level "murder hobo" since, being a bard, he never settled down, never had henchmen, and was fairly self-sufficient with a wide range of abilities. But I was still DMing, too...usually with modules (I ran a pair of 12th level PCs through D1: Descent Yadda-Yadda, though they never made it to the Grand Cavern before chickening out).

Because AD&D scales so well, the game never devolved into cartoony, superhero D&D. Any character can fail a poison save. Any character can fall off a cliff or be assassinated or get hit with an arrow of slaying. BTB wizards (who should ALL have INT 18) are still extremely limited in the spells they know, unless they are actively pursuing spell books/scrolls OR spending a tremendous amount of treasure on research...and all the best spells have serious restrictions (expensive components or side effects like aging/system shock). Because it's a bit of a grey area we only reduced CON for raise dead and resurrection, but PCs wished back to life had no such loss...even so, that knocked out a lot of wishing rings and luck swords and we still had characters with CON drain (my PC must have been brought back to life seven or eight times). 

Even at high level, you STILL didn't traipse lightly into the Abyss to see what kind of treasure Jubilex (or whoever) had in his hoard...nether planar creatures will F you up in a Very Bad Way very quickly.  Adventures tended to be less "wahoo" gonzo and more grounded: rival baron with army is causing problems in your domain, or an unsullied Really Bad Dungeon so dangerous that any explorer under 10th level gets vaporized looking at it. You don't really need to nerf PCs when a dragon can strafe everyone in the party for 88 points of damage...that's a deterrent for dumb-dumb play right there.  So is grappling by hordes of 2HD humanoids (bullywugs are a good choice). So is energy drain. Hit points (and spells) always run out eventually. Yes, the fighter's armor class may be so low as to be un-hittable in melee...but there's no to hit roll needed for falling damage. And traps saved for half-damage will still whittle you down.

What you DO get with high level characters is the ability of PCs to operate far more independently of one another. No longer do you NEED to huddle together in groups of five to seven, pooling your resources and abilities. One high level PC...solo or accompanied by a pair of trusted henchmen...can make their own forays into forbidden cairns and tombs. And often they'll WANT to go solo: acting first to acquire some rare magic item or coveted spell scroll before another PC can acquire the same. As PCs become high level movers and shakers, it's not unusual to see more inter-player conflict as rivalries develop...which can work, sometimes, but isn't conducive for the long-term health of one's campaign.

[which is why I play with a strict, no-PVP policy these days]

But even with the ability to operate as independent agents, high level PCs can do MORE working together than apart. Yeah, invading the Demonweb Pits is probably a bad idea anyway, but it's a lot easier when you've got five or six stalwarts and as many lieutenants at your back. I've never run megadungeons myself, but I'd imagine you want as many spell batteries as possible when your group is pushing into the 6th (and deeper) levels below ground.

Regardless, in running a campaign that includes high level characters, it is important for the DM to provide carrots for the players to keep them engaged. GENERALLY SPEAKING, the world building by itself is the most important thing, because for long-term satisfaction, players must feel like they are having substantive impact on the imaginary environment and that is ONLY possible with a solid foundational setting

"Can I start a thieves guild?" Sure. "Can I run a tavern/brothel?" Yep. "Can I marry the prince, have him secretly killed and become Queen of the country?" Why not? All these things and more should be on the table for the enterprising player...and how they accomplish these goals IS the thing that becomes the adventure. High level characters have more grandiose dreams: my character, for example, wanted to become a deity and usurp Hades spot as the God of Death and the Underworld. It never happened for him (duh), but it was fun trying to figure out how one might go about doing it. As a DM of a long-running campaign with players who have put in the time and effort and earned their high levels you should expect...and be prepared!...for players to want to do more than look for the next 20-chamber labyrinth.

Because they'll want more. They always do. 

This is why the vast majority of the (very few) "high level" adventure modules fall into the range of fairly bad to nigh unplayable. High level characters are not only defined by their increased abilities and extraordinary gear, but by the relationship they've built over time with the campaign world. The constant interactions...necessary to achieve a high character level...over time embeds the character and builds them a place in the world's structure. I'm not just talking about strongholds and hideouts, but the relationships they build with the fantasy people (NPCs) of the world.

For example: the characters, mid-level (5th - 7th or thereabouts) get beat up pretty badly in some poorly thought-out venture. They have at least one or two beloved characters in need of resurrection, but they are far from the nearest city that might have a fundable patriarch (too far to arrive within the time limit of a raise dead spell). However, it just so happens that there is a rather seriously powerful druid (L13+ nearby) who is friendly to adventurers that are "forest helpers" (or non-orcs or whatever) who can give 'em some healing. 

And so they build a relationship with the archdruid (or whatever) and this EXTENDS their operating range as they can now push deeper into the wilderness, and...

Damn. Just got a call from my aunt. My 93 year old grandmother appears to be on her way to joining my mother in the Great Beyond. Ugh.

Sorry to cut the post short. The family and I are driving to Montana. I'll check in later.


  1. Enjoyable post! I've got a few questions if you don't mind, as someone who's got a B/X campaign reaching mid-levels (6-7) and is somewhat re-evaluating the system I want to use for the long term. Currently I'm running B/X but with many AD&D-isms houseruled in (separate race/class, some damage scaling for the fighter albiet flat instead of multi attacks, adding system shock rolls to resurrection attempts).

    #1) This comment here - "BTB wizards (who should ALL have INT 18)" - I did not understand. Is there something in AD&D that allows you to raise your ability scores? I thought that wasn't a thing?

    #2) Have you found that you've wanted to use any persistent house rules for your AD&D games, or are you pretty much just running it completely BtB? I've always been a tinkerer, but lately I'm starting to wonder if I want to rein my house rules in quite a bit.

    #3) Is there anything from 2e you're fond of, or are you pretty much 1e all the way?

    Best wishes and prayers for your grandmother. I'm certainly not hoping for a reply any time soon if you've got family stuff going on. You're just one of the AD&D bloggers I'm more familiar with so I figured I'd ask some of this stuff since you've been talking a lot of AD&D related stuff lately.

    1. Thanks for the wishes and prayers. I'm currently in Spokane...will hopefully be getting into Missoula by noon tomorrow. While I should probably get some sleep, the simple fact is that D&D helps keep me sane. So let me see if I can answer your questions:

      #1 Lots of ways to raise your ability scores (temporarily or permanently) in AD&D, generally using magic items. But that's not what I'm talking about. The usual way of creating 1E characters ("Method I") is rolling 4d6 six times (summing the best three dice in each case) and arranging the scores to taste. My point is that a magic-user in AD&D needs as high an INT as possible (i.e. put your best score in INT) because it directly affects the character's capacity for learning spells...which is very UN-like the B/X game.

      #2 I have very few "persistent" house rules at this point. I don't use alignment. I allow clerics to pray for spells ("ask for miracles") on the fly, rather than forcing them to choose them every morning. I give individual, bonus x.p. to characters for damage received and inflicted (in addition to normal group x.p.). of right now...I don't require PCs to spend money/time training. Everything else is, more or less, By The Book.

      BUT...I only use the PHB, DMG, and various bestiaries.

      #3 Flipping through the pages of a 2E manual still gives me a little thrill...they are lovely books with loads of character/style that are all their own. But despite some nice streamlining/layout, I find the 2E system inferior to 1E systems on the whole...and some mechanics are extremely misguided and unfortunate.

      THAT being said: the IDEA of specialty wizards is interesting (if poorly executed) and the domain-specific clerics is pretty cool (but subject to exploitation and not as PRACTICALLY interesting as 1E's asymmetrical class structure). I *am* a big fan of the 2E monster "greater mummy" (or "mummy lord" or whatever it's called)...I REALLY dig that, as opposed to the big dumb disease-ridden version (which is still cool, just not as interesting).

      But on the whole...nah. The 2E adventure module "Return to White Plume Mountain" is pretty nifty. Otherwise, I can ignore/leave most (all?) of 2nd edition without approaching anything resembling regret.

    2. Thanks for the answers! Re: Clerics, is that like a "spell slot" kind of thing where they have (e.g) 2 lvl 1 slots and 1 lvl 2 slot, and they can pray for the appropriate spell level in the moment and expend a slot - or is it a more free-form thing? I've always liked the idea of making divine magic a little more distinct from arcane magic mechanically. Do Druids get the same thing?

    3. With clerics: works like “spell slots”…or, rather, “divine favors.” Clerics in poor standing (or who ask for inappropriate spells) could have those favors denied, similar to the way DMs are supposed to “grant” spells for morning meditation (as laid out in the DMG). But it’s been a looong time since I had to “deny” any cleric spell.

      With druids: in near 40 years experience playing AD&D, I’ve never seen, run, or played a Druid PC in the game, so…I don’t know?

      Seen (and played) more than a few 1E bards, who receive Druid spells and we’ve always just run them BTB. Probably, I would do the same with any Druid characters (if I ever had one in my campaign), but rather than “memorizing,” or “praying” for spells, the spells chosen for the day would model the limits of specially prepared mistletoe, infusions, and incantations available to the shamanic class. Druids in my game are very “old school” Wicca types.

  2. Wow. I have been feeling pretty jaded lately about blog posts, but this really hit the spot. Thanks. Also, I'm interested in answers to Matt P's questions.

    1. Yeah. Always the fear the well will eventually run dry. But...maybe not just yet.
      ; )

  3. I still feel Dex is the most important Maguc User stat. Yeah it sucks not learning spells but if you don't have the AC to live long enough to find spells....

    Also it helps with your ranged dart and dagger attacks, the unfortunate side effect of the way early d&d works. I love OSR but don't love the dagger throwing MU trope.

    I've found in my 1e or 2e games MU find lots of enemy spell books or scrolls to learn spells so they have lots of chances. Though it still sucks if you fail your roll to learn Fireball and lose it forever.

    1. Mmm...well, remember that DEX is only really helpful to magic-users that are NOT casting spells (DMG p.65: "spell caster cannot use his or her dexterity bonus to avoid being hit during spell casting; doing so interrupts the spell). And while it may be the UA that stipulates "throwing dagger" and "melee dagger" are two different proficiencies, staff remains a very viable choice for MUs to take with their single selection for the first FIVE levels of experience. The staff IS kind of the symbol of the wizard, after all (commanding respect from the superstitious peasants) even if it's challenging to find a staff of striking, etc.

      For least in Basic games (B/X and Holmes) I've found that high INT has been great benefit as far as additional languages are concerned. Because one the spells run out, DIPLOMACY (rather than combat) is a nice way to increase the MU's survivability, and that ability to speak the language of various humanoids (coupled, perhaps, with a nice CHA bonus) works wonders.
      ; )

    2. Most rounds the MU is just hiding in the back not casting so I still feel dex is the edge to survival.

      I do agree with the language thing. And Elf MU is a good 1e combo as it adds lots of languages and some other abilities that give you out of combat contributions. High Charisma is also a good spot to give you more out of combat actions.

      Rules question for you how would you rule on a MU using a weapon not on the approved list? For example can a MU use a long sword, but it's at -5 due to no proficiency? Or not at all? I've seen it played that way but don't know the official rules.

      UA got a few things right......

    3. Whoa, whoa, whoa…UA got some things “right?” I’d love some examples.

      [that’s not snark…genuine curiosity to hear your opinion on good UA mechanics]

      I’ve been up and down with proficiencies, generally. There’s a part of me that would like ANY class to select ANY proficiency EXCEPT at 1st level. This seems SOMEWHAT reasonable to me (presuming, perhaps, minimum STR/DEX requirements for some weapon categories), ESPECIALLY if you are using training costs (both time and money).

      On the other hand, how much training would be necessary to learn a new weapon skill? Six weeks? Maybe ALL allowed (by class) weapons were part of a character’s “basic training,” but it’s only the earning of x.p. (and levels) that allow mastery of additional, previously un-polished skills. THAT I think is a more reasonable explanation for how/why proficiency mechanics work.

      [still. DARTS?! Why o why would that be part of a wizard’s training? Lessons in thermodynamics or something? Recreational throwing while hanging with the other apprentices down at the pub? Seems iffy]

      I find that the hefty -5 penalty, coupled with the poor attack matrix and the usual low STR is enough disincentive for PC magic-users to keep from picking up that two-handed sword or flail…even if it’s magical. I know some folks force players to roll on the zero-level column when using a disallowed weapon, but I don’t go that far. It’s enough to say a wizard will just never be as proficient a swordsman as a fighter or thief.

    4. Standard pushback. The rules say ... I don't like the rules because reasons ... granted the rules aren't grounded in logic ... therefore they shouldn't apply. QED.

      40 years of this. It's tiresome.

      The distance between home plate and first base is 90 feet. Why 90? What's that based on? Okay, it was arbitrarily defined by the NABBP, but come on, that was in 1857. Surely baseball can change. Why can't it be 85 feet? How could that possibly change the game, really?

    5. They did make bases bigger this year...and added a "pitch clock" to the game.

    6. "And while it may be the UA that stipulates "throwing dagger" and "melee dagger" are two different proficiencies"

      Most of UA is a mess, but i agree with that and I am sure I can find one or two other things.

      I'm down with your thoughts on MU and weapon profeciencies. I'm not a 1e rules scholar so I thought I would ask. I remember ten years ago it came up when I was playing a (Elf) MU and desperate I told them DM I was going to pick up a +2 sword from a the downed fighter and was told I couldn't use it at all. As a good player I argued for one or two minutes then accepted his rulling.

      What I love about D&D slightly different takes on the same rules even though it's been out for nearly 50 years.

    7. Uh huh. That totally justifies giving swords to mages.

      I've heard these arguments for 40 years. You're a mage. You get spells. No, you can't have better weapons, because you're a mage and something has to balance the power of your spells. No, you can't have more spells since your weapons are such garbage. Round and round we go. The lack of weapons is feature, not a bug. How come this is not obvious?

    8. I've never quite liked rulings that just say flat out "no, you can't even try to do this thing that would be physically possible for your character to do." You're someone who doesn't know magic and you're trying to use magic, or you don't know how to pick a lock and you're trying to do so? Sure, those are both specialized skills you basically can't attempt without training.

      You're a mage and you're trying to pick up a sword? Obviously there's going to be a hefty penalty to hit, and you may not even get the full magic bonus (or any).... but I'm gonna let you try. This isn't a computer game or a board game where the rules just are what they are and absolutely nothing can change that. This is an RPG, where the GM (the best game mechanic ever invented) can listen to what you're trying to do, think about what makes sense in the world of the game, and make a ruling.

    9. Matt, you mean you don't like rules.

  4. I’m not making the argument the MU should use swords. I also get why the thief can only wear leather or why some classes have limits on magic items, game balance. I’m not trying to justify real world or logic either, more trying to find the right balance between letter and spirit of the rules. Is it completely disallowed or just a sub optimal choice.

    Using football as an example if your defense has 12 men on the field you get a flag. If you have 10 men on the field you’re at a disadvantage but play continues as normal. Does it makes sense to play with 10 men? No it’s a terrible strategy, but there our times it might be your only option. Late game clock management situation with an injury? Maybe it’s better to play with ten than stop the clock for a substitution.

    Latter editions codified this as simply that the MU takes the penalty to hit for not being proficient but they can try. I’ve seen AD&D done different ways. I imagine somewhere in Dragon Magazine it was answered at least once, probably more than once.

    With MU and swords I am on the fence.

    If you don’t allow MU to use swords at all then you get in the situation like my MU backed into a corner where you are facing a foe that can’t be hit by a magic weapon and the only magic weapon is one you can’t use that belongs to the fighter who just died. I say is its more fun for everyone at the table if you get to watch the wizard fumble awkwardly with a sword at a -5 to hit combined with his poor attack matrix and hope he rolls high. Sure he is probably going to die, but it’s more fun than just saying you can’t use a sword, your dagger is useless, you are dead.

    Like Matt said I don't love the binary approach of you can do that/or you can't do that. Sometime the thief needs to put on chain mail to disguise himself as one of the dukes guards, sure it might be hard to keep up the charade as he moves awkwardly in it and it should hinder his AC not help it, but i'm not going to say he absolutely can't wear chain mail he just doesn't get the benefit only hinderances.

    On the flip side let’s say you let MU use swords at -5. So does that mean they can use a bow at -5. All of a sudden an elf MU with a long bow is -4 to hit, but to attacks per round at range even if they miss most of the time is more effective than spending a turn cowering. I hate it, but I know players who are math driven looking for every slight advantage who would jump all over it so it makes me not want to play that way and be binary.

    1. @ 7B:

      I get it and I’ve had time to think on it a bit and now have an answer that (for me) offers plenty of justification. Here’s how I’d rule it:

      The weapons AVAILABLE to a particular class are the ones the character has been exposed to through their (prior to play) training in their class abilities. They do not start as PROFICIENT with every weapon, but they know the basics…SO (for example) a magic-user knows the “theory” of using a staff, or dagger or darts (grr) but is only PROFICIENT in one of them…to start. If the MU (or whoever) tries to use one of the weapons with which they are NOT proficient, they take the penalty.

      For non-allowable weapons the character wouldn’t even consider the use of such a weapon. The thought just doesn’t even cross their mind to try. They KNOW they’d be hopeless with it and are more likely to injure themselves or others than an enemy.

      So…no the elven thief with 18 dexterity doesn’t think, man, I’m not great with a bow but I can at least fire it quickly. NO! They don’t even know how to hold and draw the think, or how to knock an arrow without dropping it. To try to do so, while in the midst of a LiFE AND DEATH combat situation?! No…they aren’t even thinking of the possibility. Instead, they are falling back in the training they DO have.

      Does that make sense?

    2. That's a really good defense of why it could make sense to go ahead and treat the "weapons available" as more of a hard restriction. Kudos.

    3. So that said, out of curiosity.... say you've got a player playing an MU and another playing a fighter, and they're ambushed by zombies after the MU has spent his spells for the day. MU's staff gets taken away and the fighter falls. There's only a sword in reach. The MU's player says "I pick up the sword and in desperation swing it at the zombie".

      How do you respond? Is it a flat "no, you can't do that, do something else." Is it some sort of chance roll to see if you even allow the MU to make a normal attack roll vs just injuring themselves? I'm just curious how you'd respond - surely you'd have a ruling for something other action that falls outside the rules as written (like "I throw sand in the bandit's face" or "I offer to trade the gem for the life of the hostage" (neither of which have specific rules to handle them). I think what people are asking when they ask this question is simply that - OK, you say they aren't able to use the weapon competently. So what happens (at your table) if they try?

    4. It makes perfect sense to me, JB.

      Seven, the GAME is about not letting yourself get stuck in a corner. If you do get stuck, and you can't hit the monster, and the monster kills, you, too bad. You lose. If your 10 footballers get overwhelmed because they made a bad call in having 10 players on the field, they don't get to cry about it.

      And incidentally, if you can't field 9 players in baseball, you forfeit.

    5. So, Matt: having written what I wrote:

      In such an instance (that is, the wizard picking up the fallen fighter’s sword), I’d probably describe something like, “you pick up the blade, nearly slicing your hand in the process…you try to emulate what you think might be a ‘guard’ position, but the weapon is unfamiliar and unwieldy in your hands. You flail ineffectively, the balance so different from the staff, and the zombies brush aside your clumsy blows.”

      I would then roll to hit with the zombies. Mechanically, the character would lose a round of action and then realize the hopelessness of the attempt. Even a magic weapon would simply fail to respond…perhaps “sensing” the inappropriateness of the wielded and wanting nothing more than to be found by a more suitable master.

      Attempts at negotiation or a desperate “throw sand” (or other object) isn’t the same thing as attempting to murder someone in an effective way by a weapon precisely designed to deal death in a particular fashion. Perhaps that’s not particularly “cinematic,” but therm’s the breaks.

      Hey: ANYone can pummel, grapple, and overbear, as per the DMG. I would always suggest the truly desperate try THAT route before reaching for a prohibited weapon.
      ; )

  5. I'm with you on the bow example - I've dabbled in archery and I'd certainly classify it with things like lockpicking under the category of "without training you ain't getting nowhere" - but the counterexample of an MU swinging a sword (or heck, let's go even simpler - a mace - big heavy hunk o metal in a stick) at a ravenous zombie seems *exactly* like the kind of thing someone would do in a "LIFE OR DEATH" combat situation, previous training or no. I'm a "normal human" in D&D terms, but I'm relatively confident I could kill a person with a mace even though I would have the D&D equivalent of a serious penalty to hit (and let's be honest, a strength malus).

    1. Using a baseball bat as a weapon isn’t the same thing as trying to strike a baseball. A woodcutter’s axe or a sledge hammer is far more unwieldy than the similar weapons designed for war.

      But it’s MORE than that. Killing someone is a skill that must be learned. I mean, not to be too gruesome (well, not to be more gruesome than usual)…a knife thrust to the right place of a person’s anatomy will end them instantly. And, yet, when you see knife murder victims, they’ve generally taken MANY wounds…like, dozens. Why? Because they’re fighting back, fighting for their lives, and the knife murderer is generally NOT some sort of trained assassin or Green Beret type. Just some idiot trying to kill someone with a knife.

      What’s a bat but a big ol’ club, right? But it’s long and unwieldy and designed to be swung in a certain fashion. And it’s designed to hit a target that isn’t going to be fighting back (ducking, moving inside or outside its effective range, etc.). I fenced for years, and learning the correct DISTANCE at which to attack someone was as important as the proper hand and footwork. Being too close is as bad (or worse) than being too far. And while a mace is a simple weapon compared to any kind of blade, using it EFFECTIVELY (to strike a killing blow rather than a glancing one) is not a simple skill.

      Don’t let the movies fool you. If you want your PC to be able to pick up ANY weapon and use it, play a fighter…at worst you’ll only suffer a non-proficiency penalty.
      ; )

    2. Makes sense - thanks for the engagement and the perspective!

  6. It makes sense. I'm not sure we need to justify the why i'm also fine with "it just rules", but there's logic behind it which helps make it more palatable.

    Again I'm on the fence. I like the idea of your first thoughts on -5 with sword but think it would be abused in the long run.

    1. My first thoughts were “off the cuff.” Sometimes it takes me a while to come to my senses.
      ; )