Wednesday 2 March 2011

Heroes in Dungeons and Dragons

Back in those halcyon days of gaming; when TSR was top dog, much due to the lack of many other dogs, Dungeons and Dragons was a merciless game. Heroes were little more than peasants who were slightly more capable in hacking and hewing goblins that most other dung-covered citizen. In those days it was common for players to roll up characters who were as fragile as Christian Bale's ego i.e. started with 1 hit point. Coupled with a violent trend for Dungeon Masters to throw their "friends" into over-deadly situations, early Dungeons and Dragons was a meat grinder.

Ok, so this isn't entirely fair. Surely back in the Basic/Expert days there were some Dungeon Masters who preferred to keep their players from shuffling the mortal coil at the hands of a bunch of foaming, disgruntled bugbears. It's just that with such weak early level characters it's no wonder many gaming groups decided to start at higher levels.

Anyone who has played or is the least bit familiar with 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons knows that heroes are no longer soggy flannels, but are beefed up superheroes from first level. Wizards of the Coast emphasise the game needs to be fun for players too and as a result killing characters is actually quite difficult unless the DM chucks in monsters 5 levels higher than the party. A TPK is still possible, but it's now frowned upon by the creators.

To be honest, 4th Edition has a point. What fun is it if a) the players can't make it to second level and b) the DM needs to constantly be catering for new characters? Heroes are heroes for a reason; although some of their ridiculous powers could be stripped away. I guess that's why Wizards have given us the Essentials line, which feels more like a call out to the old days of Dungeons and Dragons, where basic attacks were king and spells were limited.

Heroes are tough, hardy and shouldn't go down with a good fight. 4th Edition has pumped characters but Essentials has made them sensible. While the old days of Dungeons and Dragons had a wonderful flavour, fabulously evoked in OSR games such as Swords and Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord, this new generation makes heroes more heroic, as they should be.

What do you think? Do you prefer your heroes straight out of the old school or do you like them to be people to be reckoned with?


  1. I like both approaches. My only problem with the super-high hit points of Type IV D&D characters is that it leads to hit-point and damage inflation across the board. That's not a problem in actual play, but having higher numbers aren't so great if all your opponents have the commensurate hit points and damage, hella causing me to wonder what's the point?

    What I like about it is that it gives each player a chance to play a character that is at least competent in the main thing that character is about. In T&T I do something similar by allowing players to roll 4d6 for each ability score, picking any three (TARO) to sum up.

    My only critique of 4e powers-- for both delvers and monsters --is that it's slightly more challenging to run on the fly, especially compared to T&T. But that's not an overwhelming problem.

    Lately, I've been reading James Raggi's Weird Fantasy RPG called Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and I appreciate the aesthetic of sending untested, untrained, and undistinguished characters through the gauntlet of horror adventure, through which they may or may not survive. I think I could run his adventures in 4e with very few house rules, and they would be every bit as challenging-- and probably more horrifying due to the time investment it takes to create 4th edition heroes.

  2. I definitely prefer the characters I've played who emerged as heroes through play, as opposed to the ones who started out tough. Of the ones who were 'hard to kill' from the beginning, I don't remember any of them as feeling very special, in spite of the effort I put into their background, etc. It was like playing laser-tag with a real shotgun.. not really very fun, and nothing to be proud of when it was over.

  3. I don't play much any more (except the odd solo attempt using random dungeon generation from the old AD&D DMG) since I don't have a group, and mostly play skirmish games now. But back in the day, when I was playing regularly, all there was was...well...old school. Which back then of course wasn't old. Now I follow all the old school blogs because if I got back into a group, that'd be the kind of gaming I'd be most interested in. The starting "superhero" character doesn't really interest me. But, contrarily, the one area where I always felt a "weakness" in the original games was precisely in just how fragile 1st-level characters were, especially certain classes (read "magic-users") which I used to find simply unplayable at first level. Of course the easy fix was just to start everyone slightly higher than 1st level; maybe as high as third, and the problem was pretty much solved. So I guess my short answer would be: no to ultrapowerful starting characters; just raise the strength enough to make them not simply "ordinary" people.

  4. @migellito
    wouldn't it be logically speaking, if the characters are more or less of the same mechanics-wise, the characters that survived were simply luckier and not actually possessing more ability? So in actuality you are remembering your luckiest characters.

  5. @anonymous
    They weren't the same mechanics-wise though, that was the whole point :) The more memorable ones were much weaker in game mechanics. They survived because of the things I had them do, look out for, etc. When I took risks with them, they really could have ended up dead. When I made good choices during play, it actually prevented them from dying, rather than my decisions being meaningless. The 'super' characters would survive no matter how I played them - a monkey could have ran them and survived. :)

  6. I'm new to 4th edition D&D, and I never played the 3rd edition game at all. My only previous D&D experiences was in the AD&D era, so you can take all of this with a shaker of salt.

    From my experience with 4e so far, the characters aren't exactly superheroes at first level, especially if the GM chooses to disregard the idea of building "balanced" encounters, and instead provides the players with meaningful and challenging choices: "You can face the threat of X for this reward, or you can try Y for an even greater reward." Let X or Y be as harrowing and deadly as you dare; if the players came to play superheroes, they're gonna have to earn it in my game.

    Of course, as a GM I always regard the characters as *potential* superheroes regardless of the mechanics-- I'm always ready for the setting and NPCs to get wrecked up by clever and creative player actions. If you don't prepare for that, you're treating the players like chumps.

    What the powers do is give the players an ready-made imaginative hook on what their characters can do. The up side of this is that newbies who don't know what to do see a menu of options and can get started with little creative investment. The down side is that it can lead players to believe that these powers are their only options, and curtail imaginative interaction with other elements of the fiction through creative stunts and clever role-playing. For that style of play, I vastly prefer Tunnels & Trolls.

  7. I like the being able to throw interesting and tough encounters right away at first level IMO its where 4th shines. I do dislike the one size fits all approach to how characters work though