Musings on Game Design and Revisiting AD&D 1st Edition: “Dead Levels” @DelveRPG #DnD #RPG #ADnD

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Introduction to Each Post in This Series

On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes by me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.

Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance and Shooting Yourselves in the Feet |

I’m an Asshole

In light of yesterday’s post on the inconvenience caused by having multiple uses of the word, “level,” I purposely added a fifth in the title of this post.

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When I say, “dead levels,” I’m referring to ability scores. Point buy has become the favored means to determine your base ability scores, but it always results in a stray +1 that in turn results in one odd ability score. This, of course, seems like a wasted value. I know my cleric is wiser than yours, but it doesn’t play out in any meaningful way. That can be a mild source of frustration adding to a chorus of frustrating sacred cows of game design. Interestingly enough, AD&D does a better job avoiding this problem despite a greater range of valid player character scores. The solution: Bring dead levels to life.

Okay, enough calling it a “dead level.” Instead, I’ll borrow from grammar and refer to it as a “dangling ability point.”

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“Dead level” it is!

Some Oppportunities

One such opportunity to bring a dead level to life is with languages. As I said recently, I want to see players have the opportunity to speak an amount of languages beyond common, and a dead level in intelligence is the perfect place to add some. Very simply, if your character winds up with a 13 in Intelligence, they know an extra language. If your character winds up with a 15 intelligence, they know yet another extra language, or maybe two. This would apply at character creation, but depending on your design philosophy could also apply when a character increases their Intelligence through leveling up or magic. Because these adjustments occur during downtime, it’s not a burden on the player. All it does is give the player a further opportunity to flesh out their character.

Another opportunity is with poison resistance. A dead level of Constitution could grant a character a very minor poison resistance that stacks with all other sources of poison resistance. This wouldn’t be enough to create a huge mechanical difference, but it technically would create a mechanical boon that logically follows from the nature of the higher Constitution score. It remains more flavor that mechanics, clearly distinguishing the character from other characters for which other choices were made.

These two examples show how a player can really flesh out their character concept, and how the relationship between mechanics and character concept can be reciprocal. For example, a player’s character concept could be that of a dwarven ranger with a tragic backstory involving giants. Ergo, the ranger’s favored enemy is giant. Moreover, the player boosts the ranger’s con score because a adding poison resistance to a dwarven woodsman (that sounds weird) makes sense. However, the ranger now has one point to place in another ability. The player puts it in Strength, and suddenly the ranger has a small amount of necrotic resistance. That feeds the backstory, giving the player the idea that the leader of the giants was vampiric. On the other hand, perhaps the player is playing in Ravenloft or otherwise knows that the campaign will use a larger than average number of undead. In that case, the needs of the campaign can be fulfilled by the player’s choice as to where to place the extra point. This isn’t a novel idea; it’s just one more opportunity for it to manifest.

Still Simple

As I said, neither of these two design elements make character creation or management significantly more difficult, but they give players yet another opportunity to fine tune their character designs. Not everyone agrees. I had a too-brief argument with Stephen Radney-MacFarland about this last February at Winter Fantasy. It got sidetracked by other attendees of the Zoom room long before either of us could state our positions with any level of detail. Maybe this post will rekindle that argument.

Where I suspect Stephen and I might agree is that ability scores certainly shouldn’t range from 3 to 18. That range originates from the need to create a perfect bell curve for random ability generation, and 3d6 was the only way to do that. Even D&D itself acknowledges how foolish that is, having all but eliminated scores below 8 as being possible for PCs (neither point buy nor standard arrays allow for it, and 4d6 drop 1 is a conscious attempt to make it rarer). WotC probably keeps the scores in that range for historical reasons and for allowing random generation to still be a thing. It certainly allows us to acknowledge that tigers are smarter than spiders. None of those reasons are compelling justifications to me. So, D&D scores actually run from 8 to 18, which means they should run from 0 to 10. For the record, I hate negative ability score modifiers, so I’d prefer 10 to 18, which maps to 0 to 8, but the math for a different game system may have a more appropriate range. The point is to go from 0 to X rather than 7.5 to the square root of 300. If you really want random generation of those numbers to follow a bell curve, force it through use of a table that maps a d100 roll to an ability score. I haven’t worked out the math on this yet, but instead you could add 1d8-1 (treating negatives as 0) to 8. This would on average generate numbers (15, 14, 12, 10, 10, 8) that could almost maps to the standard array from 5e (15, 14, 13, 10, 10, 8), but would be weighted too much towards the middle. Being able to freely transfer points among the scores would fix that, but if we’re doing that, just roll a 2d12 to generate a random pool of points that can be added to starting ability scores of 7 across the board. I’m certain we could work out a better die roll than these.

A Hippie’s Bad Idea

Stephen’s solution to dead levels is to eliminate them altogether. Your ability bonus is your ability score, such that your Strength is (+)2, your Dexterity is (+)1, and so on. This not only eliminates the dead level but also eliminates the math you have to do to calculate your ability score bonus. Dragon Age RPG uses this method, and I enjoyed that game. It also limits the difference between characters’ ability bonuses to 5 or 6 (I’m not sure what the range is in DelveRPG), which is a good thing I’ll address in a future post. Finally, if Stephen wants to give poison resistances, languages, etc. based on ability scores, he can still do that. However, that math isn’t that hard, and once you resurrect those dead levels, you’re creating a solution for a problem that no longer exists. I also suspect that most players would prefer a range from 0 to 10 more than they would 0 to 5 (or 6). That would make players feel that there’s a greater distinction between the characters, and filling in dead levels certainly feeds both that perception and reality without screwing up the math.

Ultimately, I suspect either way works just as well as the other, so Stephen shouldn’t be rushing to redesign DelveRPG. But don’t be too kind to Stephen. The man is a liar. I never said I didn’t appreciate Desperadoes Under the Eaves. I just said that it wasn’t my favorite Warren Zevon song, and as a lawyer, how could it be? Dirty hippie.

I told you I was an asshole.

Follow me on Twitter @gsllc
Follow Stephen through Delve RPG @DelveRPG


Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)

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