Classic D&D's evolving gameplay
This is my (somewhat belated) contribution to this month’s Blog Carnival: “Transitions and Transformations” hosted at Critical Hits.
It’s a truism that those who do not study History are destined to repeat it, badly. That holds up especially well when you compare the current 4e Edition of D&D with Classic D&D. One of 4e’s “innovations” over 3e was the introduction of different Tiers of play which set major milestones at 1st, 11th and 21st level. Each Tier promises different styles of play to reflect the circles in which your Characters move. In the Heroic (1st-10th level) Tier, play is concerned primarily with mundane threats; this is so-called “traditional” D&D territory where the players raid tombs, explore dungeons and generally fight anything within a 100 square mile radius of their home base.
Moving up to the Paragon (11th to 20th level) Tier and the players’ wordview shifts to a more global scale. They’re reknowned champions in their region, and the go-to guys when it comes to thwarting Big Evil – the kind that threatens the entire country, or the world. Adventures take the characters further afield to other realms or even alternate planes.
At the Epic (21st to 30th level) Tier the players are serious major players and legends in their own lifetimes. They’re battling across the planes and multiverse saving reality itself on a daily basis. Or something. It’s a far cry from their humble origins battling Kobolds in some hole in the ground, that’s for sure.
That was now, this is then.
Back in the D&D of the 1970s and 1980s we had not three Tiers of play, but five. They were called Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal. Of course, we didn’t call ’em Tiers, but (to use modern parlance), that’s what they were. Each supplement brought a new facet to the game and recognised that a shift in the power levels meant a change in the way the game could be played. Whereas in 4e D&D, the different Tiers mean bigger and badder foes to fight and funkier settings in which to battle, the “Tiers” of Classic D&D meant much more.
Basic “Red Book” D&D covered levels 1-3, and offers pure Dungeon-based action. At this Tier, the players are pretty fragile things little better than the rest of the commoners from their home village or town. This is the root of traditional D&D gaming where the emphasis is on killing the monsters and taking their stuff. Up to the introduction of 4e D&D, when people thought of D&D, this is the style of play they think of with the DM drawing a Dungeon layout or cracking open a published adventure and the characters lighting torches to venture underground. It’s a style of play that expects a high level of attrition with players routinely rolling up characters (or better yet, having a handful prepared) as their Fighter dies at the hands of a couple of Goblins. Again. Only the incredibly lucky, skilled or tactical players made it through this trial by fire – or, more likely, the GM house ruled the number of Hit Points to improve survivability. When we play Classic D&D now, we give maximum HP at 1st level and the character is unconscious at 0hp. Further damage comes directly off CON. When combat ends any character at 0hp is revived to 1hp but the player is given the option to allow the character to die and create another one. If all of the party reaches 0hp….. well, they’re eaten.
It’s worh mentioning that gaining levels in Classic D&D is at a much slower pace than in 3e or 4e D&D, and it’s all the better for it. Whereas in 3e D&D 13 encounters are all that stands between one level and the next (do the math), in the Classic Red Book era, getting from one level to another could take years of play. For example, for a Fighter to get from 1st to 2nd level required 2,000xp, but a dead Orc was only worth 10xp, so you’d have to vanquish 200 of the things to get there. That’s why Classic D&D rewarded xp for gold and other tangibles – your rewards came primarily from getting the goodies rather than killing the monsters on the way. Being the hero who discovered the Gold Statue of Quirm (worth 500gp!) meant 500xp for you. Killing the Orcs to get it along the way was just icing on the cake. Compare and contrast with 4e’s emphasis on XP for encounters and Quests.
Moving on to the Expert (4th to 14th) Tier of play, and the style of play shifts out of the Dungeon and into the Wilderness. This is the D&D most akin to 4e’s Heroic Tier where the adventurers wander the lands as a kind of fantasy A-Team vanquishing evil as they go. The characters have a reasonable chance of survivability and a decent stock of kewl skillz and magic items, and adventures occur in a wide range of terrains from under the ground to in forests, cities, atop mountains and more. It’s exploratory D&D where the characters have reached the point where the world is their playground.
So, it’s just like Heroic Tier D&D. Except it’s much more than that, because around 9th level the game evolves in a radical direction. At that point the adventurers are recognised for their heroism (or lack of it, if they’re playing a Thief) and rewarded with a title and land. The characters build castles, temples and wizard towers, rule over a small dominion and become significant players at court. D&D becomes a Game of Thrones with political intrigue and warfare playing as important a part in the game as torches and 10′ poles were several levels earlier. It’s a play style that could only be found in obscure 3e D&D supplements and is so far entirely absent from 4e D&D. This is my favourite “Tier” of Classic D&D with the players deep in the Castle Construction rules managing their hex from season to season. It’s D&D zoomed out where the players feel (and, if done right, relish) their responsibilities for their subjects.
Moving to the Companion (15th to 25th) Tier and the Dominion rules come to the fore. This is adventure gaming where the players have the opportunity to expand their fledgling Empire. This is High Fantasy with the players leading armies in the field or going toe-to-toe against (in 4e terms) Paragon-level foes. Where Name (9th) Level put the focus on the character’s Stronghold, The Companion levels will have the players pouring over world maps calculating where to strike, and where to defend. It’s simulation-style gaming where the characters are heroic empire builders of the first degree. And I love it!
Reaching Master (25th to 36th) level is no mean feat. This is the equal to 4e’s Epic-level play with the characters battling planar foes on a daily basis and thwarting the Evils that threaten to destroy the whole word (dur dur DURRR!). This is where the GM Guide talks about Reality Shifts and Anti-Magic with a straight face, and the players can face-off against the Gods themselves. The players’ Empires expands and the characters no longer need to concern themselves with the day-to-day running of their vast territories.This is pure Epic-level D&D play with the characters able to cause Earthquakes, create Artefacts and shape terrain with a word. But that’s nothing compared to………………………
…………Immortal Tier play! If 36 whole levels aren’t enough for you, here’s another 36! The later Wrath of the Immortals boxed set does it better, but this is where is starts with information about how to attain D&D goodhood, and what to do when you get there. Classic D&D used the concept of the Immortals – eternal super-powerful beings who reside in planes of their own making and meddle in the Affairs of Man. They’re Gods by any other name, acting in accordance just like you’d expect the deities of Norse, Greek and Roman mythology to behave – like spoiled brats, mainly. The Classic D&D Immortals Rules set down the requirements to achieve Immortality and provides plenty of goodies for you to play with when you is one. At this Tier the focus is on increasing the influence of your own Sphere and interests while at the same time thwarting the machinations of……. pretty much everyone else, really.
In all, using Classic D&D means buying into an evolving game where how you play changes over time. Bart the Farmer’s Son can become Sir Bart the Blue Baron, then Bart the Conqueror and ultimately Bart the Onmipotent.
Ain’t evolution grand?