Friday, January 16, 2009

Core Activites: D&D, the Third and One Half Edition

I'm skipping around a bit, since I thought I'd tackle the two editions of D&D that I've played before I risk the rest of the versions that I'm familiar with mostly by hearsay. More importantly, there are more differences, and more significant differences, between 3rd edition (and its identical for our purposes revision) and its predecessors than between any of the older games. Best to get the broad strokes laid out before diving into minutiae.

Not that the differences between the game I started with and the older versions I'm just now discovering are staggering. It's still got the same basic core activity of every edition of D&D -- kill things, take their stuff, level up. How you get XP is a little different, loot is a little different, and what you get when you level up is quite different, but the outlines remain the same.

The experience system suffers mostly stylistic changes. I'm not well versed enough in the lore of AD&D to know if the business about "overcoming challenges rather than killing monsters" is unique to 3rd Edition, but even if so there's not as big of a difference as you might think. The book does suggest "XP for achieving story goals" and "XP by fiat" as options, and there's some talk in the challenge rating system about adjusting those ratings to take into account the difficulty of the circumstances, but CRs, and the accompanying XP, remain mainly attached to monsters.

Loot -- particularly of the magic variety -- contains some more significant differences. The CR system assumes that the PCs have a certain amount of magical equipment at each level, and magic items can, in a normal campaign, be purchased freely. There's no mention of XP for treasure since gold is now it's own reward, effectively becoming a point buy character generation system tacked on to the existing level based one.

The changes to treasure only foreshadow the really big innovation of third edition: powers. I don't use that word in the 4e sense (though that is where they end up) but rather just as a general term for all the mechanical stuff that PCs in third edition get. Spells, feats, class abilities, skills -- not to mention all the strange new subsystems introduced in books like Magic of Incarnum, Book of Nine Swords, and the Psionics Handbook (and its Expanded descendant).

In many ways, the proliferation of powers is a good fit for the core activity of D&D. It's an addition that most of the video games based on the game have made, and it grows naturally out of spells, and special ability based classes like the monk. It adds a new angle to play -- the character build -- that provides a good "away from the table" activity for players. But mostly it just means that everyone gets a decision or two when they level up, strengthening that particular motivation, and the core activity as a whole.

But it does tend to shift the focus. The proliferation of powers, and associated uniqueness of each character and difficulty in creating new ones, naturally leads to a greater focus on the characters and away from the campaign that contains them. (I suspect that the changes to third edition reflected a pre-existing shift in play style rather than forcing a new one on everyone, but it does have an effect on new players picking up the game.)

Even a dungeon crawl--heck, even if you're using the same dungeon--in third edition will differ significantly from a dungeon crawl in OD&D, due to the changes in the kill/loot/XP/level cycle and to all the little peripheral adjustments in third edition. One game will be about conquering, or being conquered by, the dungeon, and the other will be about the characters doing the conquering. Just because systems share a core activity doesn't mean the games you run with that system will be the same.


  1. Not sure about AD&D, because I didn't play that much of it, but the primary source of XP in the earlier editions was gold, not killing monsters. A freakin' Spectre with its 2-level drain ability is only worth 735 xp, whereas you can expect an unguarded treasure on a dungeon level where it might appear to contain d6 * 500 gold. If you could figure out a way to get the treasure without fighting the monster, you were well-advised to take it.

  2. jamused speaks the truth. Keep this in mind when exploring the jungles of Dreng Bdan. ;)

    Gotta agree with everything you say here. In spite of 3e being the edition that really bent over backwards in favor of verisimilitude, it's also the edition where I gave up on playing the current version, and this is part of the reason why. It was with 3e that players confronted with a challenge were more likely to lean forward, scanning their character sheets for the right ability or tool, rather than lean back, looking towards the heavens for inspiration. But it's also the first edition where the players were strongly encouraged to calm down and act like heroes, rather than money-hungry mercenaries. With 3e, it became the DM's job to make sure you got the treasure and magical goodies you were supposed to have. In earlier editions, it was entirely up to the players to find or make what they wanted.

    Do you have a copy of the 2e DMG? I only ask because a lot of us didn't use the experience rules as written. In addition to rewards for completing adventures and tasks, every class earned EXP in different ways. Fighters earned EXP for creatures killed, just like in earlier editions, but rogues earned EXP for skills used and gold pieces acquired. Magic-users and clerics earned EXP for casting spells. It was a gods-awful mess when it came time to calculate rewards at the end of the adventure, as you had to keep track of every spell cast, every ability used, and bards and fighters got different EXP rewards based on the HD of the creatures they defeated. Keeping all this balanced so that the party rose at roughly the same rate was impossible! Most people just tossed the rules and either went with entirely quest-based EXP (you got a big lump sum of EXP for completing the adventure, usually 1/3 or 1/4 of the amount needed to reach next level) or used variations on the rules from earlier editions.

    You might talk to Ripper X about this, as I believe 2e is still his game of choice.

    - Brian

  3. I can confirm that 1e AD&D RAW used treasure as XP. Though our group eventually threw that out and started using just monster and story awards. I think that was around the time we started really roleplaying rather than focussing solely on character power progression.

    We never used 2e and stuck with 1e for years and years. The single biggest thing that swayed us over to 3e was an important shift that I don't think you mentioned - multiclassing was fixed.

    We also found that 1e tended to go off the rails once your levels got into the teens. The upper tiers of monsterdom were also not sufficiently challenging to a party of levels 13+. Dragons were only good as far as about the 8th level of play despite various commonly-used flanges to beef them up a bit like extra attacks and strength bonuses.

    Another big advantage 3e has over earlier editions is, as you say, the range of powers and options available. Now Trollsmyth has a point when he says that people tend to rely on powers rather than imagination, but there's another important point that's been missed here - in pre-3e editions the way people added options to their characters to make them more interesting was called 'magic items'. A 10th level fighter might have had all sorts of interesting roleplay personality quirks but he or she was basically the same as any other 10th level fighter in terms of abilities. Until you add magic items for flavour - eg an intelligent sword or a helmet that let them breathe underwater or whatever.

    3rd edition lets you create characters with distinctive abilities even without resorting to magic items. (Sure, there's still a huge list of the damn things in the DMG and people can make their own if they can be bothered - though you can easily reduce the ease of item creation by applying a multiplier to the xp costs).

    The great thing is that I can build NPCs to face the party who carry little or no magical loot and yet still have a good range of abilities to challenge the party with - abilities that they may have never encountered before. This also means less magical loot to fall into the party's hands when they defeat them.

    Certainly, 3e multiclassing can be abused - sometimes 'synergies' can turn into 'infinities' when you interpret them in a particular way or follow the written text very literally - and it needs a certain amount of referee moderation to prevent those abuses but it's not hard work. The payoff in terms of flexibility is worth it - at least, as far as my game is concerned.

  4. jamused: Very true, and I should have been clearer on that point. It is interesting, though, that pretty much all of OD&D's descendants have ditched that system. Seems to be something that a lot of people don't like, and even more don't understand. (Though I don't count myself in either category -- if and when I run Swords & Wizardry its a rule I intend to get a lot of use out of.)

    trollsmyth: I love 3e, but I definitely sympathize with a lot of the old school complaints about it. Much more than the CoDzilla nonsense that goes on in WotC forums and the like.

    And personally, I think treasure is one of the few things about the system that is actually, identifiably broken. A lot of the other issues are problems that D&D has always had (end game math) or places where the new ideas clashed with the old (trading simplicity for power vs. all classes being balanced) but treasure is both massively important and completely divorced from character advancement, which, well, it creates a lot of hassle.

    Nope -- just the 1st edition DMG and the 2nd edition PH. That part of the collection is just getting started. I do remember the guy who's obsessed with 2nd edition telling me about that system, and seemed surprised that I didn't agree to its superiority over the 3rd edition system. That confirms my suspicions, though, that 2nd edition was the start of quest XP; it fits with a lot else I've learned about it.

    Lurkinggherkin: That fits with the vague ideas I have about AD&D XP -- though I seem to remember something about it watering down the system by giving monsters bonus XP for special abilities.

    I'm probably more down on 3rd edition than I should be -- I really do love the system, and it's always served me well. But it's also very different from the earlier editions, and it's not superior for all applications.

    You make a good point that a lot of the changes in 3rd edition were driven by play style. Just take the proliferation of splats in 2nd edition -- it's not hard to look at kits and see a lot of people who would leap at stuff like feats and prestige classes. And as previously mentioned, people were already doing quest XP.

  5. The biggest difference was that there was not "the game" in a monolithic sense. "Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?" was the conclusion of the original set. One aim of the first "Advanced" edition was to provide a standard set of rules for tournaments, but even there the corpus of rigid rules as opposed to guidelines was pretty small next to 3E. When it came to campaigns, the Dungeon Master still had the final word. Different DMs awarded XP in different ways, although IME they more often added to than discarded the DMG guidelines.

    A trend begun toward the end of that period really hit full swing with 2nd ed. AD&D: cultivation of the notion that more rules means more options. That's actually backwards; whereas before you could simply play whatever sort of character you might fancy, now you "had" to buy a supplement to do it!

    That gets really nuts when people speak of "building" a monster as if it were a an entry in a war-game tournament. Of course, it goes hand in hand with the mechanical heaviness behind those massive "stat blocks."

    It also goes with the new version of "balance." Everyone is supposed to level up at the same time, with treasure "given" by the DM, to face (again by DM management in accordance with formulas) only "appropriate" encounters. To facilitate all this micro-management, scenarios are kept extremely linear -- none of the wide-open wandering of the old Underworld and Wilderness.

    All that is taken to the extreme with 4E, in which the true Game Master is the rules book. The board game aspect that already made fights dreadfully drawn-out affairs in 3E now thoroughly dominates the game; there's hardly time left in a session for real exploration and role-playing.

    And in point of fact those are the real "core activities" of old-style games. They are not just tactical exercises but strategic. Challenges are posed to actual player skill rather than just to collections of "stats."

    That's one reason why the old-style combat system is so rudimentary and abstract. A fight is usually something to resolve quickly so you can get on with the real meat of the adventure. If it's anything like a "fair" match, then it's likely your strategy has broken down somewhere; the goal is to get treasure, not get mired in gore. Great success often comes from taking out foes who would clean your clock if all else were equal -- because instead of rushing in counting on "balance" you've made sure all else is not equal. Whenever possible, you avoid unnecessary risks.

    Another reason is that piles of rules tend to say "no" more often than "yes." Whereas before the default was, "There's no reason you can't do that," now it's "There's no rule that allows you to do that."

  6. Oh, yeah: One thing about XP for treasure in old-style games is that distribution of treasure -- and thereby of XP -- is up to the players! The books provide guidelines for the DM's placement of treasure in the environment, but it's strictly up to the players how to secure and share it.

  7. Awesome post! I've been very, very curious as to what's in oD&D and how it compares to 3.5 ( which is how I got introduced to DnD). I've thought about getting into oD&D, but haven't been able due to lack of interest from the guys I play with.