Thursday, May 21, 2009

Old School Tactics: Counting the Cost

Oddysey, ever our canary in the mineshaft, lost a PC to a giant bat in Godless Paladin's intriguing “Mayan/Aztec/Ghost Conquistador dungeon”. Apparently, GP just wanted to break up the monotony of lots of goblins and other such critters, which is always a good thing. Unfortunately, he had no idea just how nasty an 8 HD critter could be. Not until after it had chewed poor Biffy's face off.

This is not an unusual problem for DMs running “old school” games. In 3rd edition D&D, WotC added the challenge rating system to help codify just how nasty a critter was. I judge the results to be mixed, especially at higher levels, but it was a good attempt.

Older versions of D&D don't even have that. DMs are left to “eyeball” the situation as best they can, and the only way to get a good feel for that sort of thing is experience. Things are even worse at 1st level; when most PCs have 1d6 hit points and weapons typically do 1d6 damage, every successful attack has the potential to turn into a devastating alpha strike.

So what's a new DM to do? Here are a few rules-of-thumb you can use to judge the danger of your encounters in an old school game:

  • Watch the HD: You can generally judge the toughness of a monster by its hit dice. The more hit dice a critter has, the more hit points it's likely to have, and the better chance it will have to succeed on attack rolls. As a general rule-of-thumb, a group of enemies whose total hit dice is equal to the number of total levels in the PCs and their allies is a strong challenge up until the PCs reach 5th level. (At 5th level, all sorts of wacky things happen, primarily because the PCs gain access to 3rd level spells.)

  • Beware the Power of Iteration: A single foe is not as dangerous as a mob. This is due to attack rolls being made on a single d20. Since the probability of any single number coming up is flat, including a 20, rolling more attack dice has a huge effect on combat. This is magnified if you use any sort of “critical hit” rules.

  • Save or DIE: There are lots of save-or-die powers in old school monster lists. Most spiders and snakes with venom force a life-or-death saving throw with every successful attack. However, these are not nearly as dangerous as those that force multiple characters to save. For instance, the tarantella's poison might seem a safer choice since it doesn't cause immediate death, but rather a spastic dance. However, anyone who sees someone doing this dance must then save vs. Spells or they'll start dancing, too. A single successful bite can potentially wipe out the entire party!

So, with all this in mind, what can the DM do to provide a little breathing room for both the dungeon and the players without having to worry constantly about building “killer” adventures? One trick I use are “get out of jail free” options. Things like my shields shall be splintered rule allow PCs to ignore one hit, giving them a bit more surviveability. Notice that there's a price for this, however. Squirming over these sorts of choices is part of the fun of old school gaming. The heroes in my Labyrinth Lord game recently found a potion that will restore all hit points, neutralize nearly any poison, and undo effects like paralyzation and blindness. Unfortunately, it also switches your sex if you drink it.

If you're a player, remember that the same iterative power that works for the monsters can work for you as well. Hirelings and henchmen can go a long way towards evening the odds. Don't underestimate the usefulness of clerics, either. Having a few extra hit points in your back pocket, that can be rushed to any member in the party as needed, is a powerful equalizer.

Finally, remember that there are however many of you, and only one DM. Your combined cleverness can almost always trump any idea the DM has come up with. Yeah, clever planning didn't work for Biffy, but lateral thinking is a potent force multiplier that literally has no limit in the sorts of problems it can overcome.

Photo credits: cheesy42.


Natalie said...

I prefer to think of myself as the Chuck Yeager of RPGs. ;)

Squirming over these sorts of choices is part of the fun of old school gaming.As Sid Meier said, "A game is a series of interesting choices." That's what turns me on about good gaming, especially of the old school variety: there are serious challenges, but those challenges can't be mastered by clicking in the right place or finding the right combination of feats. You have to really think. You have all the resources of the game world available--personal, technological, and social. And it's not about finding the "right" answer, it's about finding a good answer.

Oh, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with that potion. Should be fun.

Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks for the advice. Yeah, it was a learning experience, I'm interested in seeing how she might overcome it now that we know it's too powerful.

taichara said...

Good advice, all of it :3 (And I love that potion you describe, I have to say *evil grin*)

Round about here, we call Beware the Power of Iteration the "Rule of Orc": Even if you're made of awesome, a horde of orcs surrounding you are going to cause you pain. Mob rule is aggravating like that ...

Rae7910819 said...

Some really excellent advice here, thank you. ^^

trollsmyth said...

Thanks, all, for the positive feedback. I'm thinking this may turn into a series. Playing a bit of 4e and 3e recently has reminded me just how different the older games can be. It's usually little things, but they can make a difference.

AndreasDavour said...

I wrote about that just recently myself.

I think it actually is true in any game, at any level, that combat should be a moment for doing something special.

If a combat is at all exciting it must be threatening, and that it should be a moment when you want to pull of all kind of weird shit to survive.

Tactics and "even out the odds" maneuvers should be used at all times, and is not only good advice for low level D&D, but for all games. But maybe especially for low level D&D games. ;)