Gygax on Leveling Up Monsters

The always-informative Zenopus Archives pointed out a post Gygax made in a thread on the Pied Piper forums back in in 2004. In particular, this involves the infamous Old Guard Kobolds on the 1st level of his Castle Greyhawk dungeon that had a habit of surprising and wiping out whole parties of PCs. Here he outlines the fact that every TPK they scored, he boosted their stats in some way. I kind of like this as a very low-crunch way of representing monster "experience" and resource-scavenging. He says this:


Fact is that I have run OD&D games avery year at several cons for the last five or so years. I start them at 2nd level and use the old dungeon levels. So far about eight parties have been taken out by some kobolds on the 1st level. New RPGers seem to have not learned to run away when in doubt.

The first to fall used a sleep spell to get eight of the kobolds, but the six remaining ones used javelins to kill two PCs, then closed and in hand-to-hand killed all but two or the remainder of the party. One was about th kill another PC, while a second charged the m-u of the group, who turned to flee, finally. Too late, a javelin got him. Each group that died thus added to the kobolds:

1st TPK brought 12 more kobolds
2nd TPK gave them armor class of 6
3rd (near) TPK gave them all +1 HP
4th TPK added +1 damage
5th TPK added 4 2nd level and 2 3rd level kobolds
6th TPK gave them tactical manouvering and a 4th level leader
7th TPK upped AC to 5
8th TPK gave them unshakable morale

At JanCon this year the Old Guard Kobolds joined battle with a group of 8 PCs and wiped them out. I haven't decided how that will add to their combat ability, but I am considreing a kobold shaman with at least two 1st level spells



  1. I feel like there are some fascinating bits of thought on display here:

    1. The dungeon persists and evolves from session-to-session, as if each convention was a slice of time in an on-going campaign. I've got no idea how often this is done at conventions these days (at the least, your Outdoor Spoliation seems to have the same approach), but what I've seen online suggests most convention games tend towards one-shot adventures, which would've at least been present even back around the hobby's start (per TSR's tournaments).

    2. Players in a post-TPK session are punished for the failures of previous, presumably-unrelated players, in practice if not by intent. The disconnect between the actual (presumably) poor play and its lasting consequences seems like it'd be prone to becoming a sort of self-energizing cycle as there'd be no real chance for players to learn from their mistakes and improve, especially if the implication of TPK 2 and TPK 7 compounding is indicative of these improvements being persistent (I'd think that at least the increases in numbers from TPKs 1, 5, and 6 would be temporary, but their ever-escalating nature implies otherwise to me).

    3. The response to a TPK is very simulationist (the kobolds grow stronger from the spoils of their victories), which could be seen as a change in Gygax's attitude from the 1E DMG (based on the sections advocating for a fun game over realistic simulation, fudging/ignoring rules in play to increase fun, and at least one interpretation I can imagine of the "the game is the thing"-spiel).

    Not saying any of those are good or bad, as there's surely plenty of context missing from the vacuum of a single forum post, though #2 seems problematic to me if the changes are indeed all persistent and cumulative.

    1. Also, with the steep escalation in power, after the first few TPKs it seems like the kobolds would be essentially unassailable to a group 8 PCs no matter how good their tactics. So even if new groups hear through the grapevine to avoid these kobolds, all that he's successfully accomplished is to shut off that section of the dungeon from exploration so nobody can ever go there again.

    2. Especially in a convention environment, where there will presumably never be any higher levels than 1st coming in.

    3. 2nd level ("I start them at 2nd level..."), but I agree with both of you that reacting to TPKs by scaling up the monsters while keeping PCs on the same power level and running with uninformed players(*) seems like a questionable (to be diplomatic) series of choices. That's part of why I'm having a hard time believing the improvements were permanent, even with TPKs 2 and 7 being cumulative.

      (*)Seeing as he ran it "...at several cons for [...] years...", I don't think there's any reasonable allowance to be made for either recurring players nor spreading information between player groups, but I could be underestimating how dedicated some people would've been to getting in a game run by Gygax.

    4. Since TSR at one point was making a lot of money on tournament play, it is possible he was running several groups over the course of the con? And groups would share information?

    5. Isn't shutting off that part of the dungeon fine if there are plenty of other places to explore? Then eventually you get the reward of returning at high level and stomping those kobolds in the dirt.

    6. This is why context matters. All that post says is the dungeon was run "...at several cons for the last five or so years" and they scored 8 TPKs plus 1 "near" TPK that Gygax also rewarded them for across all of those sessions.

      If the kobolds were some Ur-example My Precious Encounter meant to make a section of the dungeon completely off-limits during that time (under the assumption Gygax was only running it at cons with level 2 PCs, "returning at high level" wouldn't be an option), then this was just a drawn-out "you shall not pass" death trap, arguably doing little more than wasting the players' time in a time-limited setting and let Gygax show off how hardcore he is or something, which would be a dick move power trip.

      On the other hand, if they were meant to be a nigh-unassailable obstacle for players to find ways of outwitting, outmaneuvering, and/or just recognizing to avoid (a few video game examples off the top of my head: Nemesis from Resident Evil 3, the ghost of Trebor from Wizardry 4, or Death from Persona 3-5), that could be a perfectly fine way of presenting the players with an obstacle that can't be dealt with mindlessly, as drawing out their deaths gives more time for the players to decide to run away, surrender, or otherwise stop trying to just fight them.

      We also don't know how Gygax was presenting the con sessions. There's a world of difference between doing an encounter like this in a game meant to be a slice of high adventure, in a game meant to be a survival challenge with a neutral referee, and in a game meant to be a death-fest where everything is out to kill you.

      Unfortunately, the post (and the linked thread) doesn't give any greater context. All it talks about is how these kobolds kept wiping out parties of players who "...have not learned to run away when in doubt". That comes off closer to the dick-move-power-trip end of things, in my eyes, because it implies (to me) that Gygax was only using them to teach those young'uns a lesson about how soft and stupid they are. To be clear, even as someone who isn't inclined to gloss over Gygax's flaws, I have a hard time believing that's actually the truth, because there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that Gygax presented himself with a lot of bluster that didn't show how much of a player-enabling DM he was in reality. It's entirely possible that "kobolds who got a bunch of TPKs" was just the first thing that came to Gygax's mind as an example of something fun he'd done with OD&D at cons in recent years, and he just happened to not talk about all of the times players got the better end of encountering them. It'd hardly be the first time his writing suffered from a lack of sufficient context to communicate accurately (I mean, there's an argument to be made that every version of D&D from Holmes Basic up until WotC's takeover was trying to clarify what the hell Gygax/Arneson tried to write in 1974).

      (repost to fix a misquote)

    7. Great thoughts here. Agree that there's mind-warping variation in what Gygax said he did in different circumstances. These days I read a lot of the "tough" things in the DMG as WWE-style theatrical "heel" talk.

      Likewise there's stuff at the start of the DMG (anti-simulationist) that I interpret as a very specific slapdown of overcomplicated hit-location, size-adjustment, and movement-segments in OD&D Sup-II and Sup-III. The overall idea of beefing up monsters between encounters feels very in line with the examples of "Monsters and Organization" in 1E DMG p. 104-105.

  2. I love it. Remember, these are con games. They're competitive. No need to survive, just survive longer than most. Expect that the scenario is out to kill your character, and roll with it. Sounds like great fun to me.

  3. Interesting how the thoughts on this post evolved from "fascinating" to "dick move" over the course of several comments.

    My takeaway from this is simply another example of a DM living his world. Forget, for a moment, the impact on the adventure on con games on fresh new players, etc. Forget, for a moment, any concrete "rules" concepts you might have, let alone thoughts on "balance."

    Live in the game world for a moment. The kobolds achieved a great victory. Kobolds! Not through some Tucker's Kobolds tactics, just through sheer brute force against non-savvy players. Should they get a reward? Of course: their ranks swell with additional soldiers (making up for lost comrades).

    The second time it happens, you're amazed again. Their exploits are making them a memorable encounter, reward them again. After so many player kills they've managed to scavenge better armor scrap from the surface dwellers and now their AC improves.

    Each subsequent victory builds on their reputation and makes them a tougher, more unique challenge. But they're not over-powering: they haven't suddenly become a pack of ogres! +1 hit point apiece isn't much. AC 5 doesn't protect against a sleep spell. +1 damage (what's kobold damage anyway?) only matters if the half HD creature can hit you.

    To the DM living the world, they've earned these slight boosts and increased their reputation. They become another rumor about the dungeon: the Old Guard Kobolds are fearless; many adventurers have met death at their hands. It adds uniqueness and legend to the dungeon. Not to mention such creatures should have a better than usual trove of treasure (collected from scores of dead PCs)!

    Eventually, I'd assume Gygax would move the OGK from their original section of the dungeon. Their new abilities would allow them to claim better digs on a lower level, or they'd take more territory on their own level (displacing other player sapping opponents). Hell, maybe their new leadership would have them conducting raids outside the dungeon...the Duke might need to task able-bodied PCs with a specific mission to root out the Old Guard Kobolds and teach them a lesson!

    This is how a living campaign evolves: organically, through play. If an area becomes too tough, a DM can always create a new site for exploration by low-level PCs: write up a new lair for sacking or open a new level in an existing dungeon. The campaign world continues and grows...it is alive. Dynamic as opposed to static. It's not a video game that has sections "disappear" once you complete a particular "quest." It lives on.

    Fascinating indeed.
    ; )

    1. I don't have a problem with unbalanced encounters, and at no point did I criticize Gygax simply for having a group of kobolds that would be overpowering in a straight fight with 2nd level PCs. I said it would be a dick move IF it was Gygax blocking off an area with a death trap meant to teach "New RPGers [...] to run away when in doubt". An unbalanced encounter that can be dealt with in many creative ways is fun. An unbalanced encounter where it's just "if they enter this room, run away or TPK" is generally less fun, though it can still be great in the right situation.

      What I found fascinating was thinking about how the scant information of Gygax's post might fit within its greater context. Saying "If an area becomes too tough, a DM can always create a new site..." doesn't seem to match up with Gygax saying this was a con scenario where he would "start them at 2nd level and use the old dungeon levels", as that suggests allowing the kobolds to advance in difficulty while keeping the PCs locked (were there any other persistent changes? likely, but it's impossible to be sure). The AC changes or +1 HP aren't much, +1 damage is somewhat more significant (assuming Gygax was using the standard 1d6 damage of OD&D, that actually does put the kobolds pretty close to the 1d6+2 damage of ogres ;) ), and jumping from 14 kobolds to 26 kobolds (assuming no losses by the kobolds, as none were mentioned beyond a sleep spell) after the first TPK is a huge change.

      In fact, this seems to be by far the second biggest boost (just less than #5) that the kobolds got from any of the TPKs, except for maybe #6 (impossible to evaluate)(*) or #8 (depending on how he was using morale), which might suggest one of two things: (1) Gygax felt it went too far and dialed back the later increases until he had a better sense of how 1999-2004 con players would approach the dungeon, which was surely different from his original Castle Greyhawk's players playing a long-term campaign, and (2) the kobolds might have maintained their losses from con to con, with the change at #7 being an improvement to the remaining bearers of hand-me-down armor from #2.

      (*): This could very well suggest Tucker's Kobolds-type tactics, but it could also mean any number of other things.

      There are certainly ways of reading the post that makes it come off as a dick move, because it can give the impression of continually and increasingly stacking the odds against the players. My intuition says that wasn't how it was actually being played, and I'm fascinated by puzzling out how to fit that post together with the same DM who added weaknesses to Acererak as players came up with inventive ways of fighting the boss of S1. Saying "Eventually, I'd assume Gygax would move OGK from their original section..." is all well and good, but there's nothing in that post suggesting anything of the sort.

    2. Incidentally, if you look at point 1 and point 3 of my original comment, you'll see the aspects you bring up are also things I called out as fascinating.

    3. One thing I'll point out is that Gygax's basic (top-level) dungeon designs had an incredibly open (somewhat mazey) layout. The basic element was a complex of a few rooms entirely surrounded by corridors (kind of like a turnpike around a city).

      If you look at Gygax's map for Greyhawk level 1, and the key some folks decoded from a photo, we're pretty sure that the Old Guard Kobolds, Area 1, is a group of 3 rooms at about 8:00 on that map -- easily circumnavigated by open hallways. So the way that's designed they don't seem to really be blocking access to any large part of the dungeon.