01 November 2010

The Level Grind

Alex Schroeder on my last post:
I think that the reason D&D works the way it works is that as you go up in levels, the game itself is supposed to change. Ordinary men going through a military career will end up as veterans on 2nd, 3rd, or 4th level. Some rare commanders will reach 5th level. But adventurers will want to fight trolls, and giants, and dragons.

More hitpoints is what allows adventurers to proceed to the next type of D&D game, going toe-to-toe with tough brutes.

As they gain even more levels, hit-points start to loose in importance as magic items and spells, and the appropriate defenses gain in importance. Now you want to go up against nagas, and mindflayers, and beholders. No problem!

To me, that's the D&D secret nobody told me about: Every level range has a different "feel" to it, appropriate encounters, strategies, tactics, items, concerns, and so on.

The mental disconnect only happens, I think, if you take your level 8 fighter and fight bandits, or fight alongside henchmen. If you don't want the level 8 fighter to shine like a madman, like a prince of Amber, like a hairy foot god of war, then it's easy to point your finger at the hit-points. An alternative point of view might suggest that perhaps the adventurers should not gain more than a level or two in the first place. That keeps them within the level range where fighting bandits and goblins and remains a cause for caution.

I don't think that one way or the other is intrinsically better than the other way of playing the game. I do think, however, that the default rules imply a certain progression through the monster manual, if you like. Conversely, if you limit hit-points, I think you will have to massively change monsters. I'm not sure whether just reducing hit-points is appropriate enough. My guess is that higher level monsters also need to have their melee attacks reduced, otherwise an unarmed mind-flayer isn't just dangerous because of his mind-blasting and his brain-eating, in addition to that he'll also be a fearsome melee fighter (which he is not, with the default rules).

The entire thing is an interesting thought experiment. I'm not sure I'd want to go there, however, because personally, I like the changing nature of D&D as you go through in levels (and I therefore accept side-effects like knights being infinitely superior fighters to squires and henchmen, etc.).

 I'd like to start by saying that I agree with the spirit of this entire remark. There's really nothing wrong with the game as written, and it's a lot of fun to play as a level 8 Fighter and be a powerhouse of death and be tough as nails, able to slay a band of lesser men with only a couple of scratches to show for it. Similarly, I agree that the feel of the game changes dramatically, and not necessarily for the worse. Low-level campaigns are ones where the cauliflower-eared fighting man reigns supreme, and the most deadly threat is the sword in your back, but high level ones are where wizards are the deadly ones, and even the most staid of fighters are brandishing +4 Vorpal Greatswords and have quivers full of Arrows of Dragon Slaying and stuff.

I suppose the most fundamental disconnect comes, as you say, when you have to look at the monsters and realize that what is portrayed as a weak, but mentally powerful mind flayer can wrestle men to the ground and beat them to death with their bare hands, or when you realize that the sort of threats that require a 6th level party can nearly decimate a kingdom. Or when you realize that you're going to have to hit a fiery dude fifteen times with a sword to get it to quit trying to eat princesses. Or when you realize that your fighter can get straight chomped on by a troll a good four times and still get up and smack him with yet another axe chop. It's not particularly interesting, especially when you consider that, despite claims to the contrary, hit points as written are entirely toughness and not some sort of "strength of will and luck" and stuff. When's the last time you had to rest for a day to recover one point of your luck?

Regardless, I don't think there's really a reason that we have to throw out higher levels just because it's tied to health. I can't think of a less impressive fighter than one who never gets any better at dodging as he levels, and only learns to take a punch better. A man like that is a guile-less butcher, not a warrior. With just an easy tweak (perhaps applying the THAC0 as a bonus to Armor Class, and then halving hit point gains after level one?) you can make a fighter that's dodging and weaving as well as getting more grizzled and hard to kill.

And see, it's cool that D&D isn't really meant to emulate sword and sorcery fiction- it's sort of a science-fantasy game, with fire and forget spells and everybody trying to wear as much armor as possible and a high death rate and exploring dungeons created three world-spanning armageddons ago. It's a very cool feel for a game, but it's not the only one possible by any means. With just a couple of tweaks, you can make it into a more historical game, where killing trolls and dragons means that you're planning out a major invasion that would be the focus of a campaign in and of itself, instead of a session of hack and slashery made possible because you've got 80 hit points and seven +12 axes or whatever.

But I digress. Again.


  1. Thanks for the unexpected promotion to a separate blog post! :)

    In my own games, I may have lots of house-rules, but I try to not rewrite big parts of the system. I think that for an actual game my players would make something like the changes you propose impossible, as they would not understand the necessity of it all. If I had a bunch of tinkerer friends we might rewrite parts of the rules together and give it a try...

    Having said that, here is what I would do first: I would have players fighting bigger monsters at lower levels before making any bigger changes to the rules. Go hunting for trolls, giants, and dragons with characters in the 1-3 level range. Red Box or Holmes style! If the players don't like it, I'd have to reconsider my changes. Maybe they don't like being soft targets with low hit points. If they like it, however (as I would!) then planning a major invasion to kill big monsters at higher levels is a go.

    A design consideration that would have to be play-tested is the following: if your AC increases, you are harder to hit and therefore combat will last longer. If you have less hit-points, death will be quick and surprising. One possible design failure would be a result where on average combat takes just as long as before when everybody had lots of hit-points, except that now you cannot gauge the risk of staying in combat as there are no hit-points to watch: you don't have enough of them to measure your staying power. Basically the average stays the same but the variance of results increases. I'm not sure that would be an effect I'd like.

    It sure sounds like an interesting project! :)

  2. Hit points as written (in 1e AD&D) work much better than "they're all toughness". The fact that they work differently for heroes and monsters isn't important, really. The bottom line is that hit points measure how far from death the figure is.

    If you're having problems with fighters not becoming harder to hit, perhaps you should try looking at the RAW before laying on layers of houserules to fix a problem caused by your other houserules/misperceptions. Fighters with 80hp have 80hp precisely because they are harder to hit.