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Last night was session 5 or 6 (I don’t remember) of module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, my first 1st Edition AD&D (“1e“) game in 40 years. It was by far our best session yet. Everyone is more familiar with the combat system, so it went far more smoothly. We had two new players join: Vic and his 23-year-old son, Nicholas. For someone so young, Nicholas certainly got into the 1e spirit. He played a neutral evil wizard because . . . well, why not? He also chose to randomly select his spells, which I don’t require. Wizards get Read Magic at 1st level, but rather than randomly roll for one offensive spell, one defensive spell, and one miscellaneous spell (see Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 39), I allow them to choose one from each, and then choose another spell from either the defensive spell list or miscellaneous spell list. If they get to memorize only 1 spell at first level, they might as well have options.
So, Nicholas randomly rolled and learned Charm Person for his offensive spell. I noted at one point is a spell I’d never choose over Magic Missile or Sleep, but holy crap did that work out. Not only did his two uses of the spell have every bit as good a mechanical benefit as Sleep ever did, but it made the session memorable. In short, he charmed an orc, which (SPOILER ALERT!!!) greatly assisted towards taking over the remaining orcs in the tribe, which they then led to take out the kobold tribe. Next, they decided to clean up some unfinished business with the bugbear tribe, where the remaining orc minions lost their lives, but not before softening up the area. Nicholas’s second Charm Person was used on a prisoner that himself was evil and is supposed to wreak havoc on the party as soon as he could. That crisis was averted. Now Nicholas has two new allies that don’t get an automatic save against the charm for an entire month (in game time). The combats with the orcs were abstracted, which forced me to create a mass battle system on the fly. This session represented growing pains for that system, but with some help from the players, I think I have a good system in hand that allows for abstracted combat. I’ll discuss that system later this week.
While interesting, the anecdote above is also presented for context relevant in small part to this post’s theme.
As recently as last night’s session, I had a player (Erik) comment in passing on how stupid he thought segments were. I’ve discussed why I like segments, but here’s the short version: They replace material components that no one actually tracks (in 5th Edition at least), as a means to encourage variety among casters. That is, when you’re selecting a spell, you have to decide whether you want to take a strong spell that takes long to cast and risks being dispelled before it takes effect or a weak spell that you know will almost always take effect. Well, different players have different personalities, so that should result in different spell selection among players. A risk-averse player will choose a weaker spell rather than an uber-powerful spell that takes 8 or 9 segments to cast, while a risky player will accept the risk in favor of the reward something like Time Stop provides. Someone who’s mildly risk-averse may choose something in the middle. The same can be said for fighters. Which is better: a dagger that does only 1d4 (or 1d3) damage but has a weapon speed factor of 2, or a two-handed sword that does 1d10 (or 3d6) damage but has a weapon speed factor of 10? Well, a two-handed sword, but there are tougher choices than that.
But none of this becomes apparent at low levels. Sleep has a casting time of only 1 segment, and it’s uber-powerful for a 1st-level spell. Get to higher levels, and these decisions become far more interesting, and identically-classed, identically-raced characters will play out very differently. That’s a good thing that’s been inadequately replaced in modern versions of the game by relying on material components or, for example, increasing the number of races from which you can choose, but that can get a bit ridiculous at times (anthropomorphized hamster PCs?). Segments represent a far better way to encourage diverse character builds because they not only allow for player agency but actively encourage it. You get to build your character to suit your personality rather than according to pre-built build packages for classes.
Here’s another example that received far more grief last night than segments. If a DM awards experience points (“XP”) for gold found (as I do), then by definition your characters will always have more experience than they can afford to use. That’s weird, so let me explain by example. A first level thief needs 2,251 XP to level to second level, but let’s assume that the thief earns 1,000 gold pieces (“gp”) during the course of earning those XP from combat. For the sake of argument, we’re going to assume that you earn 1 XP for each gp you find adventuring, so in fact this thief is sitting on 3,251 XP (= 2,251 XP earned from killing monsters + 1,000 XP from the gold acquired). In the best case scenario, a thief must spend 1,500 gp to afford the training necessary to advance in level, so at this point, the thief is sitting on 3,251 XP he can’t use. That’s okay. He heads out to do some more adventuring. He finds another 500 gp while killing 1,000 XP worth of creatures. Now he has 1,500 gp, so he can spend it to move to level 2.
But wait a second. He just earned another 1,000 XP from killing monsters, and 500 XP from the 500 gp he found, so now he has 4,751 XP. That qualifies him for 3rd level with room to spare, but after leveling to level 2, he now has literally no gold left to pay the 3,000 gp necessary to level to third level. No, you’re going to have to go back out there and earn some coin, and that’s just going to exaggerate the problem.
Again, this is an issue at lower levels, but as the spread in required XP for leveling increases, this is less of an issue. I also noted to Erik that, “Hey, why are you complaining that you’re getting ‘too much’ gold. Just be happy you’re wealthy.” But let’s face it: That’s frustrating, so Erik has a point. You know you’re sitting on enough XP to level one or two times, but you don’t have the money to do so. It drives you nuts. That’s why I’m saying that this game requires patience. In the end, it all works out as you gain higher levels, and at that point you’re going to be very happy that you’re earning XP for wealth found, especially if you’re a fighter wanting to build a castle or a wizard wanting to build an ivory tower.
Just be patient, and it’ll all work out.
So, let’s bring this full circle with a simple statement so you can all go home: As these wizards increase in level, I may regret having given these characters an extra spell at 1st level. Remember, all spells scale with level, so a 1st level spell cast by a 12th level wizards is a lot more powerful than it was when the wizards was 1st level.
But how bad could it be?
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[…] On Sunday, I promised a post explaining my abstracted combat system. This came in handy when my 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons PCs took over an orc tribe and sent them in to clean out a kobold gang and some bugbears. However, I built it on the fly based in part on how Risk handles combats, so I never ran it quite as I wanted it to go. […]