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Friday, September 5, 2014

When Exceptional Strength Was the Rule, Not the Exception

Back in the early 80's, it became readily apparent to us - and by "us", I mean my gaming groups both in NYC and the Poconos, that fighter types "needed" exceptional strength or they were no better than a cleric without spells.

Sure, I know differently now, but in looking back there were many things in AD&D that encouraged min-maxing. All of which made the game less about the players and the roleplay and more about the characters and the rollplay. It was like Spinal Tap and "this one goes to Eleven". And we had no idea.

Myself and most of my gaming circles at the time cut our teeth on AD&D. Basic D&D was a child's game to us (we were after all, teens, and it was important to play an "adult" version of Dungeons & Dragons.

Unearthed Arcana came along with weapon specialization and barbarians with a d12 HD and doubled bonuses for Dex and Con and we almost saw the issues. Almost. We quickly banned cavaliers and barbarians (and no one wanted to play a thief-acrobat, so it was a non-issue) but the new spells, new character generation, weapons specialization and the like? We kept it all. It fed our teen desire to be even more better. More super.

Now I look at 5e, and in many ways it makes me think of 1e. It's certainly closer than 3e or 4e are to that venerable edition to the rules. Except now, with 5e, stats matter less and all characters are damn near super.

Which is why my OSR clone of choice emulates pre-1e. I want exceptional players more than exceptional characters these days...

(not that exceptional players CAN'T have exceptional players - it is not mutually exclusive - I just want to emphasize player skill over character abilities in my old age)



  1. The more primitive the game, the more the player matters and the less the character sheet matters. I get that.

    The first game I wrote was an homage to B/X-BE. The next D&D game I wrote was (is) an homage to 0e. Because the more I think about it, the less I want the stats and special abilities to matter.

    Which is not to say there oughtn't be stats. There should be some numerical differences. But they shouldn't be the dominant reason for success or failure.

  2. While they may look more able, and they are, crunch wise, but man do they hit room temperature just as fast as pre-1e. I five sessions we've been nearly TPKed every time.

    Why can't you have exception players and characters? Nothing wrong with that. :P

  3. I see exceptional strength as part of a portfolio of rules Gary assembled over time as an attempt to create more parity between the fighter and magic-user at mid to high levels. A lot of the changes in the OD&D supplements and AD&D either boost the fighter or directly hamper the MU.

    For example, the d4 hit die and the AD&D cap on CON-based HP bonus indirectly hamper the magic-user, whereas AD&D Magic resistance is a direct assault on their power. The AD&D initiative system with segments, casting times, and material components all can be used to make it more difficult for the MU to get spells off.

    On the flipside Fighters get variable weapon damage, which helps raise the upper end of damage, exceptional STR, successively bigger HD (d8 then d10), higher CON bonuses, and multiple attacks per round. Also, think about the FIRST STRIKE commentary in the DMG and the staggered attacks when multiple attacks per round are used. That smacks of spell interruption to me. Then UA comes along and adds weapon specialization.

    Fortunately for me, I'm totally onboard with this notion, as I like the SWORDS to be in "eff-yeah capslock!" and the sorcery to be downplayed at the PC level. I realize I'm probably in the minority in this regard.

    One regret I have about gaming is never asking Gary if this was intentional or not. Either way, I think the effect is there, when the additional rules are considered as a whole.

    1. Most of that stuff can really be seen as not as a way to bring parity between fighters and M-Us but as a way to make up for the power LOSS fighters suffered when intelligent swords became much rarer.

      Magic swords were the 0e fighter's special power, since half of them were intelligent (thus having various special powers) and every one out of ten had a special purpose (thus had even more powers). Very first sword I rolled up with the 0e rules was a neutral sword +2 of charming with the ability to detect evil and magic, and create illusions. That's the sort of weapon one could take into a dungeon with nothing more than the clothes on one's back and come out leading a small army carrying one's loot.

      Don't like all the special perks the later editions gave fighters to try to buff them? Bring back the large amount of intelligent swords.

  4. Chivalry & Sorcery may have managed the opposite trick, super human fighters were Hell on Wheels killing machines with Damage Multiplier effects. As for the "Magick Users", a thousand flavors only a few could easily learn a spell. I mean even the Spells had Magic Resistance which you lowered by successfully casting them, but raised when you failed to cast it. And the XP awards were class based, the MU got 10% of the value if they used a weapon.

  5. @Rich Franks I'm right there with you. I'd prefer no PC magic users at all unless it was an all magic user campaign. I like magic to be mysterious and evil. I also liked the increased casting times suggested in one of the Ravenloft books (Masque of the Red Death perhaps).

  6. I think exceptional strength was definitely a (much needed) boost to fighters. I just think tying it to an attribute was poor design. I think specialisation was closer, but still not quite there. Like rangers with their bonus versus giants, fighters should have just got a flat 1/2 level bonus to damage or something.

  7. I definitely see the appeal of rules that emphasize player skill over character power. But even in a system that grants a lot of power on paper it can still sometimes punish the fool or the powergamer. Maybe this is why I gravitate towards DCC RPG so much? Everything sort of feels turned up to eleven; Warriors with their deed die, wizards with spellburn, Thieves with their devil's own luck, etc. But over all of it is the massive threat facing the player characters in those crit tables and the more deeply a caster drinks of the well of power the more quickly he damns himself with corruption.

    There are no perfect systems or solutions to the munchkin problem, but as long as there is enough swingy-ness to make combats somewhat unpredictable, then the odds are always going to with the house over the long-term if players try to rely on brute force and abilities over careful planning and prudence.

  8. Have you considered Hackmaster 5th edition then? It definitely promotes exceptional players over characters. I can't believe how old-school it feels.