The post over here at Grognardia about the mortality of low-level characters in Old School games has me revisiting something that I’ve been contemplating as I get my OSR on – how powerful is powerful?
It seems like a large part of the complaints about even 1E over OD&D (3E or 3.5E) is that characters are much more powerful than they were “before” – and and that they were more powerful in 2E than they were in 1E (forgetting that nonsense 10 die maximum damage rule for magic that I seem to remember) and that things have creeped along with each successive edition of the game.
Speaking as someone that was both a player and a DM for long-running 1E games this doesn’t make any sense to me.
I also used to run (way back in the day) a BYOC (“bring your own character”) “any level/any class” events at GenCon and took as many players as could fit in the booth (usually between 15 and 20) and run across multiple time slots for an all day event – fear the Rat God and everything else that lived in the sewers… I did that for about three years before the novelty of it and the annoyance of TSR inability to ever actually successfully put where where I was supposed to be per the convention booklet did me in. My buddy SD (my DM that I played under) did the same thing with a event that was a lich’s tomb, another that was an assult on an assassin’s temple, and then another event that was populated mainly by kobolds and nothing over 1HD – that event was based on the Cu Chi tunnel complex during the Vietnam War that the VC used.
These were events, circa 1987-88ish, where the average character level was 20th to 25th, and every third character had something that was equivalent to a minor artifact and every other character had thier version of a +5 Holy Avenger or Staff of the Magi.
All three of these used to eat up characters on a regular basis. I remember one year a group of guys showed up each with a 9th-or-so level character and explained that that “they fought well as group”. I, in turn, explained that they were a bit underpowered and they insisted that this was ok – it turns out that they died well as a group as well.
Now sure, we each had a couple of things that we looked for that we considered game-breakers – Spheres of Annhilation were always the big one for him. I’m trying to think of what I didn’t allow, but mostly we just played the monsters like they were player characters and we forced the players to play with the consequences of their actions. So in my Rat God event many of the characters probably could have blown out the sewers like a stroke victim’s arteries – but the city government certainly wouldn’t have liked that and there would have been “repercussions” to say the least…
But getting away from that level of craziness and power-gaming, there was the other end of smart player tricks and equally smart DM tricks – very little of which really had to resort to “bigger rocks”. Here’s a short list of the potentially game-destroying abilities and items from the rules.
Rope of Entanglement
Dust of Disappearance
Dust of Sneezing and Choking
Amulet of Proof vs. Location and Detection
Teleport without Error (whatever the actual method)
Only Two Real Psionic Abilities – Cell Adjustment and Energy Control (maybe Body Control as well)
The DM solutions (plus using all of the above on the characters in turn):
Withering / Aging Attacks
This is all, at least to my mind, pretty basic stuff after you figure it out or do a close reading of the rules and think about it a bit. Notice that none of this has to do with AC, HP, or bonuses to hit or damage – that is seriously the last thing I’m worried about as a DM. I remember that when I started playing with SD at the tender age of 15/16 the first adventure that I started out with him was a pretty obnoxious one that was kind of a “bigger stick” version of what to do when you had a group of 9th/10th level characters in a long-running campaign. It was a scenario based on the book Salems Lot, they were pretty important in the empire at this point and, IIRC, someone wanted to know why some isolated town wasn’t paying it’s taxes…
Imagine thier surprise when the terrified little girl ran up and grabbed them by the leg…
No special monsters, no arch-mage, no uber-EHP (evil high priest) – just a bunch of vampires, a whole damn town of freaking vampires, and it was an incredibly noteworthy set of adventures as the group as we ran around trying to gather what we needed to take out a couple of hundred vampires. It was a pretty simple exercise of Gygaxian naturalism – my buddy’s BYOC assassin temple (a temple to Kali filled with thuggees) was pretty much the same set up. Temple isn’t paying it’s taxes, the group is hired to go in and collect – but then taking the idea of a taking on a whole temple of religious fanatic assassins on – on their home ground – out to it’s logical extensions.
He had games where groups never made it through the front door on the first try because the pillars that flanked the steps up to the big front door to the temple were hollow, and had assassins with blowguns with the nastiest poison you could think of hiding inside and they’d make a massive collection of assassination attempts on the group as they tried to get in the front door… If they survived that then they’d managed to get in the front door and end up facing the same sort of traps and trickery through the whole damn temple.
One of the most successful versions of game had a couple of the players with Girdle’s of Giant Strength knocking over a pillar and the entire party using the tunnel to bypass the majority of the tricks and traps and head pretty much straight to the main sanctuary. The best part is that SD had never bothered to map out because he hadn’t forseen the possibility of somebody doing this but ran with it when they did – classic Old School sensibility! The same thing “happened to him” with his lich dungeon, the group ended up spiking open one of the pit traps that would have split the party and sent a couple of thier characters to their doom right in front of the lich to zip-line the entire party their quickly and without all of the attrition of healing and magic use that would have come about by beating their way down several levels to the final battle.
I don’t think people give either players or DM’s enough credit – and people will live up (or down) to the expectations people hold of them. SD wasn’t angry when people “beat” his dungeons, he had a great time because the players came up with great and novel solutions. I live for those times when a player can “boggle” me and come up with the spell combo or plan that I never-in-million-years-would-have-thought-of. That’s what great gaming can be about!