Wednesday, January 19, 2011

D&D Characters and the Common Man

Barking Alien raised something in a comment about this post and I thought it was worth discussng.

As I am coming to understand, most old school D&Ders disagree with your opening statement. The D&D PC is NOT special. He is NOT imbued with abilities above the norm. He or she is a fighter just as the baker is a baker, the thief was a street urchin, the miller runs the mill, etc.

They (tradition D&D fans) take great pride in the fact that their not so special character with the 6 Strength and 10 Dexterity somehow survived to 6th level. What skill the Player must have had to overcome these inherent weaknesses (not to mention luck since the bad and good of the game owe a lot to random chance).

That's a good point but I disagree and here's why:

As far as the old school D&D thing, old schoolers _now_ make a big deal about old characters being like a normal person. They didn't back then. It's mainly come about as a reaction to the increasing power levels of 2E-3E-4E. There were complaints back during the AD&D days about how a 9th level fighter could jump off of a 1000' cliff and survive, so characters doing outlandish things isn't even a new complaint - some people hated it 30 years ago.

The concept of the "Normal Man" or 0-level characters (NPC's) in the game shoots this idea down pretty thoroughly IMO and they were there back in AD&D1 and Basic D&D right from the start with their own line on the attack charts and their own line on the saving throw tables too. Gygax even writes that the PC's ability to advance in levels sets them apart from normal people. From 2E onwards it's even more explicitly stated that PC's are special, so I'm comfortable with the statement.

That said the idea is not totally incorrect - compared to 3E & 4E characters, older edition characters do look pretty mundane. For their time though, they were by no means just like anyone else. Low ability scores aside, by 3rd-5th level they are far more powerful than any normal person. At 1st level, sure, they are not vastly superior to a normal man, but they get there fairly quickly. The biggest change is that starting characters don;t die as easily as they did back then, and that's not a change I'm terribly upset about.

One other angle here is that Basic and 1E characters of a given class tended to look an awful lot alike. They tended to use similar armor and weapons or similar spells as some were just better than others. Fighters tended towards plate, shield, and longsword as longswords were the most common magical weapon type in the treasure tables. Clerics were usually plate & shield and wielded a mace as it was the highest damage blunt weapon and the most common magical blunt weapon.. They also took a lot of Cure Light Wounds, Bless, and Hold Person at the lower levels. Magic-Users looked like circus knife-throwers, usually carrying several daggers (unless they found a staff of striking at low levels) and throwing out magic missile or sleep most of the time as their main spell.  So one of the ways to distinguish your character from the others was with a low score in one area, often comically low. The fighter with the 4 Int, the M-U with the 6 Strength, those were good for some humor in the game and really didn't penalize you in those editions as much as they might in newer versions as they had limited mechanical impacts, and it did make them more distinctive than the character with 16-18's in everything.

To me there are a lot of rose-colored glasses views in OSR discussions and most of the time I chalk it up to different experiences and the wide variety of customizations made to the system back in those days. When it gets into some of the specific mechanical details though it's nice to have reference material handy to establish a baseline of what was at least in the books.  Just as an example, there's a pretty wide variance in memories of how fast characters advanced in AD&D. As it turns out a very common house rule was to not award experience points for gold pieces recovered which was how it was written in the game - some DM's said "that's stupid" and just dropped it. The outcome of that decision is that PC's advance at half or a quarter of the rate they would advance otherwise and over a year or two of play that has a big impct on the game. It also leads to the view 20-30 years later that 3E or 4E has characters advancing too quickly.

Some of this is probably bias on my part as I was never one of those "Let's start at 0 level" guys. It's not like 1st level characters were THAT powerful, and yet there were people trying to start out even weaker than level 1 and extend out that whole "you can die in 1 hit" period of the game - not me. I was a lot more interested in getting to 2nd and 3rd so I didn't have to sweat the damage roll every time an orc hit me. It's what led to things like the "maximum hit points at level 1" house rule.

Anyway, while there are certainly games where you are basically a "Normal Man" as a character, IMO D&D has never been one of them. Call of Cthulu, GURPS, Warhammer FRP - sure, but not D&D.

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