Tuesday, September 16, 2014

OD&D Attack Progressions Compared (Originals and Clones), Part III

'The Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game' (1994)
The painting above is from the cover of the last 'non-Advanced' Dungeons & Dragons edition to be published before the special category was discontinued. A few years later TSR would be sold to Wizards of the Coast and the Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons lines would be folded into 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons--a game quite different from what had come before. The Dungeons & Dragons line (as opposed to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons line) had itself undergone a number of changes--from the introductory 'Holmes' edition in 1977, to 'Moldvay/Cook' in 1981, the revised 'Mentzer' edition of 1983 and the various permutations of 'Basic', 'Expert', 'Companion' and 'RulesCyclopedia' versions which followed. However, one thing that stayed almost precisely constant during that time was the attack progressions of the various classes. The sequence of 2, 3, 2, 2, 3 point increases per step (for Fighting-Men a step was three levels, for Clerics and Thieves four levels and for Magic-Users 5 levels) was modified slightly to change the 3 point increases to 2 point increases. But otherwise the algorithm presented by Gygax and Arneson in 1974 remained the same (at least on the 'non-Advanced' side) for twenty years.

So, why do such things matter? In two previous posts here and here, it was hinted that perhaps they didn't. Virtually all old school originals and clones have numbers that are similar, with all following the same general pattern: It gets easier to hit as you go up in levels but different classes get better at different rates. Fighting-Men progress the fastest, followed by Clerics and then Magic-Users. Thieves are sometimes like Clerics and sometimes like Magic-Users.

One way to get a handle on the question is to look at an example of one of the most extreme variations between some of the games (again excluding the outlier,  Lamentations of the Flame Princess)--the attack numbers for mid- to high-level Magic-Users in 1e, OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry--and ask whether even that matters. A 10th level Magic-User in 1e or OSRIC needs a 17 to hit AC 2. In Swords & Wizardry Complete she only needs a 13 to hit AC 2. Another way of putting that is a 10th level Magic-User in Swords & Wizardry Complete is twice as effective on the attack as 10th level Magic-User in 1e or OSRIC.

One can I suppose see the justifications for each. High level Magic-Users are so powerful that they need to be taken down another peg in relation to the other classes (so goes the thinking behind the 1e and OSRIC numbers). Or high level Magic-Users are so pathetic in melee (having so few hit points and using such relatively ineffective weapons) that they need a bit of help (so goes the thinking behind Swords & Wizardry Complete).

But again, does the difference matter in the scheme of things? Are mid- to high level games in 1e and OSRIC going to differ very much from mid- to high level games in Swords & Wizardry Complete simply because of the above difference in attack numbers? I would say obviously not. Whatever your attack number, you don't want your 10th level Magic-User engaging in melee very often, and if she is unfortunate enough to find herself in a melee engagement, she'll probably be toast pretty soon anyway, whether or not she has a 20% per turn chance to hit the monster with her dagger or a 40% chance.

So I think it's clear that at a particular level, whether a particular class needs this number or that number to hit (as long as the numbers aren't too different) is really not that earthshaking an issue.

But I think the overall question of attack progressions does matter, or rather matters just as much as any other piece in the puzzle as far as rules sets go. I think it matters largely for aesthetic reasons. Contrast two attack progression tables, one from the three little brown books and the other from OSRIC.

First, the three little brown books:


Actually, OSRIC has nine such tables, one for each class!

Now, to me, the first example is simple, elegant and intuitive, at least after one grasps the step thing. The second looks like something out of a Cal Tech Warlock variation. But the point of the exercise is not to be snarky against OSRIC. I'm sure there are some that prefer the granularity of the OSRIC table and like dealing with charts that look like that. That's okay. (Indeed, some would say that the attack progression presentation in my own game is almost as Cal Techy-looking as OSRIC's).  I'm simply trying to show that even though the actual numbers end up being pretty similar in practice (and even when they don't--such as for 10th level Magic-Users--the practical effect in play is minimal), the different presentations help to create different sorts of effects. The three little brown books are the three little brown books and OSRIC is OSRIC partly due to things like this.

And when I say aesthetics, I don't merely mean the direct visual look on the page. That's important, but there's also the lasting effect on one's assumptions and perceptions with what's going on in the game. OSRIC seems more 'realistic' or even 'naturalistic'. It's important to get these things right, the authors* seem to be saying. Since (presumably) Fighting-Men get better gradually, we should represent this process accurately.* That sort of thing helps to set the overall tone and vibe for the game.

*Of course with OSRIC the authors are to some extent trying to emulate the presentation and substance of 1e, so a bit of the blame (or praise) concerning these things should be placed on Gary Gygax.

A friend of mine commented that he liked discontinuous or 'chunky' progressions because he thought they discouraged a sort of annoying attitude he believes develops in some players--they expect to get a little something for everything, every time. That may or may not be true, or at least may or may not be true for some groups. But the fact that my friend--a very intelligent player and critic of game design--was thinking about it, shows that that sort of thing can matter.

Personally, I think the sort of symmetry exhibited by the three step, four step, five step algorithm--whether presented in table form as above, or in bonus point form as in my own game--fits the non-naturalistic vibe that I prefer. We're not, as it were, looking though a telescope at this world and then charting the results--oh, Fighting-Men progress at this rate, ah ha, Magic-Users progress at this rate, etc. Rather, we're defining these heroic archetypes clearly and simply with the algorithm that we've presented.

No, I don't believe I think too much about these things. But yes, it is wonky. Is there some way to get paid for it?


  1. Heh. When you figure out a way to earn money doing this, let me know. I might try to get a piece of the action.

  2. One thing about the OSRIC presentation is that this could be so much better presented as a formula. The OD&D progression is better as a chart.

    1. Yeah. Again, not to be too critical towards OSRIC, I find the table to be almost bizarrely off-putting and user unfriendly. And why go down to AC -10? (I can't remember whether 1e does this. Maybe it does.) How many times is your 1st level fighter (or anyone) going to go up against AC -10, anyway? Though, interestingly, I just noticed that weird stutter at 20 where it takes 6 columns to continue. What's going on with that? Is that in 1e? I don't have it with me.

  3. Yes, in the DMG at least off the top of my head they went down to -10. For when you want your Holy Avenger and Vorpal Weapon wielders to fight demon royalty.

  4. Multiple 20's mean something in 1E/OSRIC terms, but for the life of me I don't remember what. For Basic Fantasy RPG, I chose a the "naturalistic" progression of 1 point at a time deliberately; in 1E, I always used Len Lakofka's 5% Principle tables, and I wanted that same sort of progression.