Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Going From New School to Old School in One Rule Tweak: The Case of Starting HP

What is the one rule tweak that one could make to 'new school D&D' (let's say, 3rd, 4th and 5th editions) to encourage old school play? Let's say one's aim was to do the least violence to the system by making the fewest changes imaginable - keeping everything the same but altering just one single rule. What would that be?

What trips off the tongue immediately is XP for gold. But I want to make the case that the one change in question would be going back to actually rolling the dice for starting hit points, as opposed to beginning with the maximum hp available. 

Starting with maximum hp as of right, as most editions of D&D have recommended or mandated since 2nd edition, is in my view possibly the most corrupting single rule from an 'old school' perspective, because of the way it transforms expectations. Maximum starting hit points makes the PCs more resilient, of course - they can survive more. But it also enshrines the expectation that they are tougher or more special than NPCs or monsters of the same broad rank. It bakes in 'plot armour': this is a story and these are the main characters, rather than the Just Another Adventurer archetype that old school games assume. 

And it bolsters the sense that there is something wrong or perverse about character death - like it is something to be avoided at all costs rather than the natural consequence of taking risks in the game (or mere foolishness). The idea that players should be protected from having hurt feelings because their new character has died is, frankly, patronising; far better the excitement that comes from knowing that dice rolls matter from the start.

43 comments:

  1. My one change would be to reinstate Morale for Monsters. Suddenly, not every fight has to be a fight to the death, and other role-play options become possible.

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    1. I've come to similar conclusions when introducing newer players to my old school games. Having to specifically spell out that morale was a thing & this is how it is triggered & why it is logical (things want to live). It folds in perfectly with XP for gold.

      But yeah it can be the mindset changer that takes people into an OSR mindset & style. Plus boosts creativity when they start looking for scary ways to break foes morale.

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    2. Yes, this is an important principle. He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. It is so much more interesting when even 'mook' type monsters withdraw to regroup, or hide, to reappear for revenge later.

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    3. It also reduces the tedium of new school D&D. The twin factors of higher HP and every goblin fighting to death make combat such a slog. And that's all made worse by the fact that all fights are tilted in favor of the PCs anyway, so the long, drawn-out battle only leads to a foregone conclusion.

      Personally, I don't always use concrete morale rules, but I've already absorbed the concept of playing my NPCs as beings that don't want to needlessly die. I still think they should be in the rules in order to get the concept through to new GMs.

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    4. Yeah, that is what I always feel whenever I have tried to watch a recording of new school play on YouTube or whatever. Combat seems like just a chance for the PCs to show off special moves. Takes forever and since it is painfully obvious nobody will die there is no excitement or tension.

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  2. Of course, "old-school" D&D is whatever you say it is, but there were a lot of varied house rules for starting hit points and unconsciousness instead of death already with the first reception of D&D. As for "official" rules, Holmes' Basic says to re-roll hopeless characters. Moldvay's Basic says you might re-roll hit points if you get just 1 or 2 at first level.

    I cajoled my son into trying Moldvay's B/X some months ago. We agreed we'd play strictly by the book, accepting whatever the dice said. The characters all turned out with low starting hit points, as expected by the odds. After a suitable adventurous intro, the characters approached the Caves of Chaos. They investigated their first cave and met a handful of goblin guards, who confronted them. Despite some tactical maneuvering and an attempt at flight, and no foolishness, the characters were all killed in their first encounter, TPK in under an hour of play in total. I have not succeeded in getting another B/X game going again, and no surprise after that experience. While the players thought it was hilarious for a short entertainment--far from the hurt feelings you are anticipating--the brevity of the fun was unsatisfying. This was not for lack of DM skill (if I may say so) or enthusiasm on the part of the players. It was that everybody dying in less than an hour, as a sacrifice to the spirit of a putative Old School and merciless dice, was not far better excitement for very long. The game is a pastime intended for prolonged fun, not proving manliness by avoiding supposedly new styles of play. Protecting players from hurt feelings upon character death might be patronising, if you really play with players like that, but insisting that if you don't bite the bullet, you're "corrupting" the original spirit would be even more patronising. The reaction here was, "Yeah, those original rules were pretty stupid." So much for my OSR proselytism among the kids. I tried.

    In fact, though, first-level characters can die just as fast in 5e (seen it happen), because damage done in 5e is also *much* higher than in the older editions. One can look at this take by a 5e DM about how lethal those rules are for beginning characters: https://slyflourish.com/building_1st_level_encounters.html

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    1. LIch - just curious: did you have the recommended six to nine characters for your sortie against the goblins?

      I can see a small party coming to grief in the goblin or kobold caves, but fighter-heavy parties of the recommended size do well enough in my experience - especially with a magic-user or elf and a Sleep spell for the stickier situations. Retreating once Sleep was cast was pretty much the norm for both the groups I ran the module for last year, though.

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    2. The problem with that approach is that you can't guarantee you have the sleep spell (which is the earliest form of min-maxing, select the first level win spell and move on), you can't guarantee you have 6 - 9 players, and you can't guarantee they have funds to get hirelings or were successful in getting them.

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    3. JC, you raise a good point about the modules: they tend to be aimed at what are, in my own experience, large numbers of PCs. With that in mind, I usually dial down the numbers of foes slightly. In this case, two fighting PCs died within the first few rounds. Hit by a goblin > died immediately. The dice don't lie, and it was downhill from there.

      I'm sure you've seen "Old-School" advice about posing challenges to which the PCs are not equal and ignoring the felt need to pre-plan "encounter balance." On this front I was following OSR tips...

      A big gang of cannon-fodder hirelings surely would have been more successful (for the paymaster PCs, not for the slaughtered hirelings), but sending in an advance tactical squad (and using miniatures!) would mean a different kind of play. And maybe that's where the expectations we have of rule systems diverge (rather than over the supposed "babying the snowflake players with games in which their characters are spoiled with attention" one sometimes hears about). I don't advocate one kind of play over another, but I do have my own preferences. Well, it was an experiment, and I enjoy experimenting with what people recommend.

      Effectively requiring PCs to hire large bands of fighting hirelings to make low starting hit points viable is an interesting consequence of the idea in the post above. Fighters get experience from gold recovered by hirelings who take the bodily risks--until the fighters get more hit points for themselves. ;)

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    4. Monkapotomus - the introductory text to Keep in the Borderlands actually says, "the service of several men-at-arms *must* be available to smaller parties. If only two or three player characters are to adventure, be sure to have a non-player character or two going along, as well as a few men-at-arms. In addition, give the player characters a magic dagger or some magic arrows and at least one potion of healing - family bequests to aid them in finding their fame and fortune when they go against Chaos."

      So it's not a question of funds: the men-at-arms are supplied by the Keep authorities (that's the distinction between "men-at-arms" and NPCs here).

      And in B/X (the edition that Keep accompanied), magic-users and elves *choose* their spells. So, if you presume there's a spell-user in your six-to-nine-strong group, you can guarantee the most powerful spell.

      So, the rules and module do explicitly guarantee those three things (if the players want them).

      Lich - I wonder if the experience doesn't quite scale with the dialling down of opponents. The nice thing with the recommended party size is that you get a scary/exciting amount of attrition and risk/reward decisions about pushing on. If you had eight in the party, you might have six after your fight with the goblins; do they continue into the caves or retreat to the Keep? And, if you only have a few PCs, you have a supply of spare characters in the men-at-arms/NPCs that Gygax recommends.

      The impression I get about Keep is that it's a module designed for limited attachment to character *at first*. So you might expect to lose and replace a fair few PCs along the way, but those that survive generate real attachment. I'm not convinced that it was designed to have cannon-fodder hirelings so much as to have PCs taking risks alongside men-at-arms and other NPCs, with the last two groups providing a reservoir of fresh PCs if casualties mount.

      The other thing that's maybe different, expectations-wise, with Keep and similar modules, is the idea that the campaign will build through successive expeditions, some of them very minor raids or even just scouting missions. That's certainly the way it played out with my groups; on some occasions, they retreated before they even got inside the caves (when the hobgoblins were patrolling outside, for instance).

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    5. Yes, it's a different expectation from the outset. You don't expect to clear the dungeon or even necessarily a single room in the first expedition. The first thing is just to find out what's there.

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    6. Ah, fellows, I understand these expectations, and I've read what Gygax wrote. Nobody here expected to clear the dungeon in a sitting, ha ha. The first thing is to find out what's there, but the first thing that was there killed 'em all. This certainly isn't about attachment to characters (or it wasn't for us). We've had plenty of character death and players with multiple characters. The point remains, though, that older editions of D&D (and new ones) can start with comically (or realistically) vulnerable characters, and this has ramifications for what one thinks the game is supposed to be.

      It could be fun to attempt a game where you're hit once and you automatically die, regardless of character level. 1HP per character, always and forever. That would get you a style of play different from what I usually aim at, closer (I guess) to miniatures wargaming. All characters are interchangeable with hirelings, like pawns on a chessboard, and strategy and scheming are the only ways forward because a direct fight means meaningful attrition if not slaughter. Maybe that was the original point here: which feature changes the whole style of play? Low starting HP > which requires lots of hirelings to proceed.

      JC, there's no doubt that you facilitate a distinctive style of play. I have a feeling there are other supporting factors involved, and I continue to learn about them from you at our various path-crossings.

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    7. I personally don't think the Keep on the Borderlands is the ideal first adventure for old school D&D. In the proposed dungeon design for OD&D, you have megadungeon where the deeper you go, the dangers increase as does the risk. The Caves of Chaos have all the "levels" of the dungeon equally accessible, and the choice between them is arbitrary.

      Also, for an adventure where the PCs are meant to recruit help, it presents only one NPC looking to join the party, and he is a poison pill. If you point to one easy reason why hirelings disappeared from play in the '80s, I'd point to Gygax teaching all new players never to let an NPC in their party. You need to teach the players the basics before you subvert them like that.

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  3. Another thing that helps is to make it hard to take long rests in the fields. It's so much harder to grind down 5e characters with all of their hit dice and whatnot so to get proper old school attrition you really need to limit long rests as much as possible, more so than you have to do with old school rulesets.

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    1. I sometimes think about experimenting with a 'you can only recover lost hp in town' rule.

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    2. I highly recommend it! My last campaign worked that way and it made wilderness adventures a lot more impactful, since even a single lost hitpoint was Actually Gone.

      In my current project I'm actually taking it a step further, and rather than making it town-based, tying it to consumption of dragonshards (rare gems), so Long Rests are actually another resource and a form of treasure.

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    3. I have something like that in Dreamland; you can only refresh the Night Clock by chilling in town for a few weeks.

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  4. I can see the point you are making, but im going to posit that the difference in gold for xp and max hp are based around design coherence, for lack of a better term.

    Ofc starting out stronger makes you seem like you are inherently special compared to the average opponent you go up against, but generally that gets balanced naturally against you facing more opponents than the average enemy you go up against. Gold for xp, however, gives direction to the gamespace since it creates an incentive structure (one where violence is an option but not generally one of first resort, as opposed to 'contemporary' d&d

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  5. don't think this would be nearly as effective as you assume. your big fallacy is believing that in 5e monsters and adventurers even belong to the same "broad rank"-- they expressly do not. adding class levels to 5e monsters fucks up the math inherent in the system, and the math goes like this: enemies are already hit-point bags with minimal offensive power; PCs have fewer hit-points and high damage output to compensate. it's one of the reasons PVP combat is so awful in 5e: even the tankiest PC isn't especially hearty by monster standards when you consider relative damage output.

    5th edition absolutely CANNOT be easily divorced from its treatment of PCs as special snowflakes. skimming off a few hit points at first level (which frankly nobody fucking plays anyway, almost every 5e group I've ever been in started at 3rd or MAYBE 2nd AT LOWEST, often higher) ignores the absolute slew of wacky options that PCs get that most NPCs simply do not.

    gold-for-XP at least gets players thinking beyond the confines of mandatory combat-as-sport and fetch-quests endemic to new-school play, it actively changes player incentive and player behavior. your proposal would functionally change nothing.

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    1. They really normally start at 3rd level? Weird. I am out of the loop with mainstream D&D culture.

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    2. We started at 1st, both in my long 5e campaign I ran and the one other campaign I briefly played in. But me and the other DM are both old dudes in our 40s, so maybe that’s a factor.

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    3. yeah, where I'm from 1st and 2nd levels are kinda considered "training" levels if you're playing a game with a bunch of first-timers, give them a chance to learn the ropes without bombarding them with TOO many features from the get-go. If everyone at the table is a bit more experienced, starting at 3rd level lets you have, y'know, a paladin who's actually sworn an oath already! or a sorcerer who actually knows metamagic! or a warlock who can base their personality around an invocation like Mask of Many Faces! very very different playstyle from OSR games where you come in with a mostly blank slate and develop through play.

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    4. Heh - my current 5e campaign http://frloudwater.blogspot.com/2020/08/faerun-adventures-beginner-5e-d-game.html has everyone start at 1st level, and classed NPCs built like PCs are very common (at least for levels 1-4; I tend to cap most NPCs at 4th). The PC parties are large, typically 8 PCs and 1-3 accompanying classed NPCs. Basically it runs like old school D&D - the 1 week long rests help a lot, too. And no Feats of course.

      I do love how driftable 5e is to different play styles.

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  6. I agree, but I have to say, the idea that characters can die early on & unscripted in stupid & pointless events can be a seriously hard sell to modern players. As is the concept of quickly rolling up a bare bones character and discovering what it's like in play instead of carefully crafting a boutique personality with a fully developed backstory.

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    1. Yes, I get it, but they can be taught. Just let them play Angband or similar a few times.

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  7. Having done it, I can say with certainty that using gold for XP and 2d6 morale checks in 5E does give it a much more old school feel in play. It also helped that I was playing with a mixed group of adults and some of our kids. The kids tended to come up with lots of outside the box solutions to problems.

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  8. I tend to agree - especially because low-HP parties should realise the need for numbers. So if you go with a single hit die as rolled, the players will want plenty of hired help to bolster their ranks. And if you include hit dice as rolled AND XP for treasure, you get a nice set of risk/reward mechanisms that lead to interesting decisions about pushing on or hightailing it back to base once casualties start to mount. Overall, you get a large adventuring 'expedition' rather than a knot of superheroes.

    I've been putting together a low-level Swords and Wizardry megadungeon campaign to run as an alternative to our main one (seventh-levelish at the moment using RC), and I've introduced a mechanic whereby hirelings fight for a share of the treasure based on their level. So you could hire a third-level fighter, but he or she'd be looking for three shares of the loot at the end. Of course, calculating PCs might end up recruiting lots of first-level fighters on the basis that most won't make it out. Much more about all that here:

    http://hobgoblinry.blogspot.com/search/label/megadungeons

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    1. This is the thing - the players KNOW how many hp their PCs have. They can run things accordingly. If you have 1hp why are you getting into melee if you can possibly help it? Be clever!

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  9. If I add maximum starting HP to my AD&D game, any player who thinks they "aren't supposed" to die will be disabused the first time they run into a troll in a level 1 dungeon or watch their higher-level cohort killed by a save-or-die effect.

    If I take it out of my 5E game (pretending I have made no other rules changes), players who die at higher levels (as they will) simply have a more arduous time catching up to their comrades, as they're potentially much more fragile at 1st level but not significantly so at 3rd. If anything it would make them more afraid of death, not less.

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    1. I don't think so. What I've noticed over the years of running a 5E campaign in 'old school' style is that characters of 3rd level and up are MUCH more resilient than 1st level characters. Whatever player expectations might be set up by 1st level PCs being tougher per the rules I don't think really matters, because they're quickly replaced by actual play experience - a party of mixed levels tackling a range of threats, typically including a handful of mid-level PCs and one or two 1st or 2nd levels along for the ride, either because they've had a character die recently or because they're levelling a "backup" in case their "main" kicks the bucket.

      What I've found in our case is that the players expect low level characters to die, a lot. The players get a lot more cautious with their higher level PCs, and there is I'm afraid not a lot of espirit de corps from the veteran characters towards newbie characters (not players), who often enough treat them like a handful of iron spikes to a pursuing rust monster. The only sentimental attachment to PCs comes from length of play (roleplay investment) and how much hard-won experience they've earned.

      Which is as it should be, you might well say! But the difference in survivability is so big that it's actually become a serious problem that the newer or less regular players can get stuck with a string of throw-away characters with no advancement prospects, dying haplessly while the mighty 5th and 6th levels raid dangerous dungeons before the geometric XP progression can catch them up. This in spite of a number of rules I've passed that favour low-level characters, including a level-blind death & dismemberment table in place of the 5E massive damage rule, limited HP regained on rests, and a flat per-session bonus XP award to speed low level advancement, plus of course soft encouragement. Once the plague is over I'll be passing a rule that dead characters get a share of XP so that every dead PC is a net loss to the party instead of an expendable warm body, assuming I can get it past the vote.

      I agree with others above that XP for GP is the first and most important rules change, and without it my low level PCs would be even more disadvantaged, since at least this way the party is TRYING to avoid getting into dangerous fights.

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    2. You definitely need to split XP among all participating characters, not just the survivors!

      I don't think it's fair to expect Level 1s to survive a level 5+ adventure; the 5e Tiers are there for a reason. IMC we have had a level 1 to level 4 spread due to attrition, currently one group has a 2-5 spread while another is all level 3. Those both work ok but I've told them that if there are say 4 PCs in Tier 2 level 5+ & 4 at level 1-2 then they should form different parties.

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    3. I probably ought to play 5e more. I did run a campaign of it but only at low levels.

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    4. 5e does reward continued play, and experimenting with the optional-rule dials. It can play like 3e if you use feats & multiclassing.

      IMC I use: no feats or multiclassing, standard XP to level (XP awards halved at 11th+ so progression stays the same), no 'built' encounters, 1 week long rest (very important for the pacing and play balance), and the train-to-level rules in the DMG (10 days training to level at 1-4, 20 days at 5-10, etc). I love how with this it runs so like AD&D in the bits I want, without actually being AD&D. I'm running 2 5e groups and 1 AD&D group in the same campaign and it's very easy to convert NPCs & PCs between the systems as they move from one group to another.

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  10. Getting back into gaming as a player, it was a surprise and quite a relief to discover that 1st level 5e characters are guaranteed a decent number of hit points. Having played in your game though, I can see the appeal of rolling.

    The only game I've DMed this century was a Mörk Borg one-shot, and the sense that any player could and probably would die at any time really added to the mix. One player rolled up a 1HP character, and went ahead an played it. He tripped and died of a nosebleed in the first room of the dungeon. Felt good.

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  11. I play 4 hour B/X sessions (I'm at session 29 now), and I do ended up using max starting hp and reroll hp every level after a couple of sessions. I find a single sword blow from an Orc ending a character at the early levels should be somewhat rarer then random starting hp allows for, and to nourish proper play in new players they must learn to recognize bad situations and adjust accordingly. Too many early arbitrary deaths do not contribute to that process. The imbalance of max starting hit points is adjusted at around level 2-3 by the rerolling and deaths have occurred with diminishing regularity as player skill improves and their hit points provide a cushion for adjustment and skill. It is not that frequent death from a single hit is bad so much as it becomes an unavoidable cost that early adventuring entails, and max hp lowers but certainly does not eliminate that cost. This might be offset by my increasing the cost of platemail later on.

    XP for gold is a superior alternative for most oldschool because it will have a global effect on how the game is played, new school vs old school.

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    1. I'm not sure - since a 1st level B/X fighter can afford AC 4 or 3 off the bat with starting gold, that makes them pretty tough already. And I like the sense of fear that comes even from a basic entanglement.

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  12. I give the NPCs max level 1 hp too... it's not much of a death shield or plot armour. It merely reduces the huge gap between level 1 and level 2.

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  13. I just took all the small changes one could make and made it into a slim and coherent B/X-ified version of 5e.

    http://mythlands-erce.blogspot.com/2019/05/into-unknown-is-now-available-in-print.html

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