Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How Hard Was 1st Edition?

A question: Exactly how much harder was 1st Edition D&D than more recent editions (in terms of expected challenge, body count, etc.)?

Here's one small piece of data that I semi-accidentally collected. Let's go through part of Gygax's classic Temple of Elemental Evil module, convert the various rooms to the 3rd Edition "Encounter Level" system (which has a lot of robustness to it), and see what we get:
  • Moathouse: Count 16, min 1, max 7, mean/median 4, stdev 2.
  • Temple 1st Level: Count 31, min 1, max 10, mean/median 5, stdev 2.
  • Temple 2nd Level: Count 34, min 2, max 11, mean/median 6, stdev 2.
The very first encounter at the moat house is particularly interesting, because of how explicit Gygax is about the challenge level: "The following encounter should challenge a party of 5-8 characters of 1st or 2nd level...". Now, this encounter (with a group of giant frogs), by my calculations in 3E would be an EL of 5 or 6. That is, 3rd Edition would expect this to be a "normal" encounter for about 4 PCs of 5-6th level, in which they'd deplete about 20% of their resources on hand. But Gygax thinks the same encounter is appropriate for 1st-2nd level PCs out of the gate.

Where does the discrepancy come from? Well, to begin with, in the 1st Edition days we expected a party size of about twice as many players at the table than we do now (and this is consistent in the foreword of all the modules at the time). In the EL system this doubling accounts for about a 2-point difference in the EL. (Meaning that a double-size party of 1st level could expect to see encounters of EL 3 in that edition.) But that still leaves a 2-point gap in the philosophies: depending on how you interpret that, it means that Gygax expected a "normal" encounter to suck up 40% or more of a party's resources -- and I'm guessing quite likely result in one or more party members' deaths in any encounter.

So by interpolation, we can use these numbers to broadly adjust expected character level today if we have smaller numbers of players. For example, we could send a group of about 4 3rd-level PCs into the moathouse, 4th-level into the upper works of the temple, 5th-level into the second level, etc. This assumes Gygaxian levels of difficulty, obviously; if you want to "safety bumper" the proceedings as in 3E, then you'd raise the PCs by another one or two levels. (Noting in either case that there are always some significantly higher-level encounters that you need to deal with very strategically, or simply avoid.)


P.S.:Ever notice how common it is for adventures to rather verbosely suggest adjusting monster numbers appearing in the first encounter but not anywhere else? Holmes does this in his Sample Dungeon area A; Gygax does this in the module T1 Moathouse area 1. Can you think of other examples?

23 comments:

  1. Did 3e have a morale rule? Implementing that can have profound effects on encounter difficulty (I like B/X's Squad Leader-ish style morale rules myself).

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    1. There's no mechanic for it in 3E; it's by DM fiat only. There was an example of orcs fleeing in the 3E PHB, but other than that it's rarely addressed.* So possibly you've got a point, but on the other hand the book morale rules in Chainmail and the AD&D DMG is so complicated I've never heard of anyone using those, either.

      (* P.S. Back in the day someone was so infuriated on another forum when I pointed this out that they rage-quit the whole forum.)

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  2. I played a lot of 1st edition over the years and the only consistency I have seen is that no one ever played by the rules as written back in the day. I suspect that aside from maybe a tiny number of convention games, 'Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' never got played by the rules until relatively recently (and the only evidence I have of AD&D actually being played 100% by the rules is the internet boasts of others --- since I have met a LOT MORE people who describe themselves as having 'probably a 17 to 18 Strength' since I arrived online and began to visit internet forums, please color me skeptical.
    Unlike AD&D, which seems to have been written piece by piece and then stuck together, 3e was pretty thoroughly playtested. As a result, I think terms like 'encounter levels' have a lot more meaning in 3e than 1e. And I need to say 'the AD&D's dungeon master's secret aloud, so I hope players aren't reading this, but all the tough talk aside, back in the AD&D days, EVERY dm I ever played with cheated --- sometimes reducing the toughness of an encounter on the fly or allowing the thief to find a trap when he blew his roll or letting a monster fail it's save when it really succeeded. The real measure of DM skill, in my opinion, isn't in cheating but in whether or not you players can tell when you are cheating.

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    1. Agree, agree, agree. When I run the old rules, I cheat my ass off. I call it "fudging the dice." 99% of the time the players don't know.

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    2. I used to fudge as a DM, but now I think you just need to modify your rules between games to make it flow better. Too many random encounters with giant ticks? Change the table, use Reaction Rolls for your encounters, use Morale so some fights end with the first casualty. But if you roll up an encounter with ticks don't fudge to skip it.

      Secondly, character deaths will happen, TPKs will happen. That's ok. Into every life some rain must fall - and that rain makes the sunny days so much sweeter. A player learns that his character's success is actually the player's success, because through clever play and luck he overcame challenges that he could have lost. Without the risk of losing, winning is pointless.

      If the DM cheats to get what he wants to happen, there's less player agency even if he's fooling them. And the activities of the players are an interesting and dynamic part of D&D, and a big part of the fun for the DM.

      I think this might be an unreasonable expectation on the part of each player: that his character will definitely become a world-striding superhero. Sometimes a promising adventurer just dies in a hole, and sometimes that adventurer is yours.

      Then again, some players like Final Fantasy, and there are DMs out there who run a game like an installment of Final Fantasy. They enjoy their games, they enjoy having special PCs that are the main important characters of the story, and to whom random bad things will generally not happen - but who may become cursed or contract lycanthropy if the story calls for it.

      At the risk of sounding like I'm putting down someone's DMing ability, perhaps if the encounters are too tough it's because the DM misjudged the PCs' combat ability. Then again, perhaps the encounter was written for a full group and the Paladin is at a wedding that weekend. Or everyone's dice are rolling cold that night - but the DM is on a hot streak. At that point the players ought to be skillful enough to know when to run, or to hire a couple hirelings or buy a couple war-dogs, or just be more cautious, or expend more reserves of magic items to succeed. If the players see a tough fight and just run in and bang their heads against it, should the DM fudge a win for them anyway? Will they begin to realize they can do anything without consequence? Will they fail to develop player skill because the walls are padded? These answers may be different for your players and the questions may not even matter.

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    3. On the one hand, I certainly agree that AD&D is inherently not runnable by the book. (The books have contradictions, overly complicated parts, pieces that evolved out-of-synch with each other, dependencies on OD&D and Chainmail that didn't get passed forward, etc., etc.) And likewise I'm perpetually bemused by people arguing for a certain IQ/Intelligence conversion based on what gives themselves an 18 Intelligence. (Link)

      However, I otherwise agree with 1d30 on the philosophy of "fudging" stuff. I've personally done away with it; all my rolls are in the open. Benefits include (1) more tension and excitement for players because the dice-roll is the law; (2) frankly easier for me as DM because I'm not trying to decide on the legitimacy of adjustments to that stuff on the fly; (3) keeps me as DM more interested when I don't how things or going to work out. (4) avoids the "tell" of the delay from the DM saying "uhhh..." as he reads the dice behind a screen. I feel more relaxed and engaged. So: I highly recommend trying the game without dice-fudging.

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    4. ... and, as 1d30 said, fixing mechanics in a considered manner if something obviously doesn't make sense.

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  3. I remember running this for my PCs back in the day and I don't remember the frogs as being particularly lethal. As I recall, Sean got stuck by a tongue but the others managed to rescue him.

    I'm curious how you arrived at EL5. Four of them are 1 HD (AC 7) but only do 1d3 damage so should be easily dispatched. The larger ones only use their non-damaging tongues so they are even less of a threat. My version (the T1 module, not the ToEE) only has the six and has no mention of adjusting their numbers.

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    1. The small frogs are inferior to goblins (CR 1/3) and the large ones inferior to gnolls (CR 1). That puts it, by my calculations, between EL2 and EL3 but closer to EL2.

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    2. Yeah, unfortunately the giant frogs there are the one monster type that has no core conversion in 3E to see an EL with. I was quickly estimating CR 1/2 for small frogs (HD1), CR 1 for large frogs (HD2), for total EL5. I guess if I equated the small types to dire rats (CR1/3), and large ones a step up (CR1/2), then I'd get EL3. I guess there's an official conversion in Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil? (Whoever did this thought the small should have CR1.)

      So: Good point. But anyway, my overall conclusion is based on the average across all the encounters which is right around EL4.5 for the whole moathouse. Even with old doubled party size, you'd need level character levels around 2.5 to be "safety bumpered" a la 3E.

      I must say I'm really interested in your pointing out how much the text changed from T1 to T1-4 in that initial encounter. In T1 it's just a single paragraph. In T1-4 it balloons to 6 paragraphs! Although the base is with the same six frogs, the first paragraph runs 11 lines about how you need to reduce the frog numbers for party size under 5-8 or if only one or none are 2nd level; and for higher levels, bump small frogs up to large. I suppose somewhere there's a blog-thesis to be done on how many changes there are from T1 to T1-4 generally.

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    3. Four CR1 creatures is EL3 not EL5. I still don't know how you are getting EL5.

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    4. Each doubling is +2EL, right? So 1 CR1 is EL 1; 2 CR 1 is EL 3; 4 CR 1 is EL 5.

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    5. The doubling at +2 EL only applies to CR2 monsters or better. There's a chart on the 3.5 DMG pg 49 that has the EL for multiple low level monsters. That CR 1 3.5 frog is better than the AD&D on: it has multiple attacks and it's tongue works in one round instead of the two or three of the 1e version.

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    6. 3.0 DMG p. 101, table 4-1 says that 4 CR1 monsters might be anything from EL3, EL4, to EL5.

      But don't get hung up on this one example; the point is to compare Gygax's expected party across the whole range of encounters in the moathouse & temple. Large sample size tells the tale.

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  4. I used to roll in the open as well; it does make for a lot more tension. When a player only has 2 HP left and you’re rolling the d8 damage in front of them, the tension is palpable. I also think the players know when the GM is fudging dice rolls more than the DM assumes.
    I see people talk about how everyone ran AD&D different, but I’m not sure in most cases they ran it that differently. Different methods of rolling characters and how much magic a GM gives out has more influence on the game than whether the GM uses the actual grapple or initiative rules.

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  5. I'm pretty much solidly in the 1d30 camp. When I was a younger GM I would fudge things all the time, but at some point I realized that I was taking away from the game - characters should die off and sometimes epic monsters get bashed up in the first few moments of combat. I roll in the open and have (almost) gotten rid of the GM screen ... although I do like to hide surprise minis I've painted behind it.

    I think 1e did have more difficult combat, but I also think it had a different scale and feeling to it. Eating an apple and eating a steak are both eating, but the experiences are very different.

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  6. This sounds more like an EL of 2 or 3. Eight 1st-level characters should find a level 2 encounter as challenging as four find an EL 1. Note also that the 3E DMGs own dungeon encounter tables allow for the possibility for CRs as high as 4 on the first level, and elsewhere it recommends having a mixture of encounter levels

    The real shift in assumptions regarding encounters was that they'd be weighted towards the dungeon level itself, whereas 1E assumed larger numbers closer to 2/3 the dungeon level. Funnily enough, 3E probably runs better if you simply return to that old assumption while still keeping the CR/EL system. I'd recommend going with the 3.0 stats rather than the inflated ones of 3.5, though. Kobolds are CR 1/6, dammit!

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    1. Agree with most of that, although again recall that the rule is +2 EL for each doubling of numbers (and that's borne our in computer simulations I've done), so eight 1st-level PCs should be well-equipped for EL 3 by those rules.

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  7. What's really interesting is that you can play this scenario in 3.x right on your computer in the Temple of Elemental Evil computer game. I don't remember it being particularly difficult, but the party had picked up Elmo from Hommlet, who is a 4th level fighter with 18/9x strength.

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    1. Very interesting. That thought did cross my mind, but I never had that computer game.

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  8. A few points of interest:

    First, given my understanding of how T1-4 was written I'm guessing the encounter guideline you're quoting is actually written by Frank Mentzer. (It doesn't appear in the original version of T1.)

    Second, you're making the common mistake of assuming that all encounters in 3E are supposed to be EL = APL. That's not the case. Mentzer/Gygax's use of the word "challenging" could very easily mean "this encounter is supposed to be a very serious threat" (in which case it would match 3.5's description of an EL 5 encounter for 2nd or 3rd level characters).

    (The encounter as written seems to assume a minimum of 10 character levels (5 x 2nd level; or 6 x 1st level + 2 x 2nd level). That translates to an APL of 2.5 for a party of four.)

    Third, what calls the entire exercise into question is what happens if you start following the rest of the advice.

    If there are no 2nd level characters present, then you're looking at eight 1st level characters. That's 8 total character levels, which still leaves us with four 2nd level characters. But the encounter adjustments drop a large frog and a small frog, resulting in EL 3.

    Conversely, if all the characters are 2nd level or higher (which would translate to four 4th level characters) you're supposed to convert the small frogs into large frogs. This either doesn't change the EL of the encounter, or bumps it up by +1.

    You see the problem: Mentzer/Gygax is describing a relatively huge range of party levels, but the adjustments are rather minor in terms of EL. This suggests that they had a very high comfort level with variable challenge levels in their encounter. (Which is also how 3E encounters are supposed to be designed, assuming you actually follow the DMG's advice).

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    1. I totally agree with all of your facts, of course you're definitely right about those details.

      However, I'm not seeing the interpretations that you're putting on them. First of all, at no point am I assuming that all encounters in 3E have EL = APL, I have no idea where you're getting that; however, I am assuming that on average EL = APL in 3E, as it is in the book. The average of the moathouse encounters is consistently around 4.5, which is at least one or two points higher than than the APL which we get from this particular block of text.

      Moreover, there's really no point to trying to put a priori special meaning to the Gygax/Mentzer use of the word "challenge" when that's the exact same word used in 3E to describe the expected average encounter. (Sidebar 3E DMG p. 101: "What's Challenging: So, what counts as a 'challenge'?... This means, on average, that after about four encounters of the party's level the PCs need to rest, heal, and regain spells.") Granted that the word is the same, we need to look to the numbers to confirm the difference.

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  9. The Moldvay rules, with which I am most familiar, we're more like a board game that can go off the rails (into RP land) than the inexorable and expected climb to higher levels of today's game.

    In chess, nobody fudges to keep the bishops in play until they reach level 20 or whatever. When pieces fall, you take them off the board and get a little smarter for future games. That's how the vestigal ancestors of D, war games, were played.

    While "everyone fudged" back in the day, the RAW we're perfectly acceptable. Modern tables who use retro D rules, or even the original rules, use RAW successfully. But the body count is considerably higher than many 3.5/PF tables would tolerate.

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