"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Odds are Stacked in Favour of B/X Characters

There is a thread over at RPGnet where a DM asks for advice in helping reduce the fatality rate of the characters.

There is an excellent reply by Galadrin which focuses on the subsystems in B/X that really help improve character survival. These are things I have mentioned a number of times here but I liked the way that he put it.

PC's actually have a very high survival probability, when you think about it. Here is my argument, with page citation in bold.

1) If you think about it, by the book, every 1st level character except Magic-Users and Thieves is running around with AC 2 (Plate Mail and Shield is only 70 of the average 110 gp for starting characters, B12). Assuming the average party size of 7 (B19), that means 5 of the 7 characters are only hit 20% of the time (and with an average 5-6 hit points, thanks to the last line of B6, they need to be hit twice on average to inflict a casualty). That means a character must be attacked 10 times (on average) to kill him.

2) Combine this with the caveat that allows a Magic-User to pick his first spell (B16), very likely "Sleep", and you have a pretty tough party.

3) But who needs Sleep, when monsters only attack 28% of the time (B24)?

4) Even when a fight does break out, monsters tend to flee when they take their first casualty (B27).

5) All of these factors make it more likely that you can snag the treasure without a hard slog for it. The lair treasure of 24 Hobgoblins is already more than a quarter of a level for that group of 7, with even more for unguarded treasure, monster XP and so on.


  1. Well, when you put it that way, suddenly I feel pretty fearless about striking out in search of the caves of chaos!

  2. Have the Troglodytes read this?

    Anyone explain it to Cave Bears?

  3. Ha!
    The specific numbers do presume a "level-balanced" encounter which is a non-certianty.

  4. So do the "Wandering Monster" charts on B53-B54 :D

    Troglodytes, of course, are not Level 1 Monsters, so you cannot actually be fighting them at Level 1. Moldvay D&D can be interpreted as being painfully deliberate. Unlike previous and later versions of D&D, it TELLS new players exactly how to play. This is, admittedly, one interpretation, but I'd offer it as the default interpretation from a newbie that has never seen an RPG before. Naturally, these are points on which reasonable people can differ, but they are nevertheless points to consider.

  5. @Upsidasium

    I agree that unlike earlier editions, B/X does not include a table to randomly determine what Wandering Monster Table to roll on which gives a range depending on what level of the dungeon you are on.

    However, there is the sentence on page B53 that says:

    "Most Wandering Monsters are the same level as the level of the dungeon..." (emphasis mine).

    Also, in the DM Information section of the basic rules where the process of developing a dungeon adventure is discussed (page B51 & B52), there is no instructions or provisions given for ensuring that monsters be of an appropriate or certain level.

    Also, B2 which was included in, I believe, all boxed sets with the Moldvay Basic rules (and which influenced how I play nearly as much as the rulebook) does not follow a strict Dungeon Level 1 = Monster Level 1 as can be seen in the goblin caves with an Ogre.

    I do agree, and have discussed a few other times here, that B/X does give an almost boardgame-like, step-by-step process that does tell players how to play. The system is full of if-then-else processes which manage the game.

  6. Thanks for posting this, since I don’t keep up with the fora much these days.

    What I like about this quote is that he not only shows that perhaps B/X PCs aren’t as destined to die early as tends to be thought, but that he also shines a light on some elements of the edition that don’t get considered much. Even if a DM doesn’t use these mechanics, they highlight factors that a DM ought to consider.

    This has nothing to do with “appropriate challenge”. While it does touch on calculating the chances of success against any specific opposition, that is useful in understanding the system and comparing it to other systems or possible house rules. It doesn’t have to be about balancing encounters.

  7. I think that what causes the most problems is that players (at least mine) ignore point #3 and approach each encounter as a combat exercise whereas if they approached them as negotiation and roleplaying encounters, they would get into a lot less fights.

    The key is to only fight when their is substantial monetary gain to be had and when you can't trick or negotiate your way to that monetary gain.

  8. approach each encounter as a combat exercise whereas if they approached them as negotiation and roleplaying encounters, they would get into a lot less fights I agree. I cannot figure out why my players take such great delight in getting initiative against things like giant rats--doing so gives them an opportunity to attack the critters before the rats can run away. While the likelihood of the rats doing real damage is small, unless there is a successful rat attack and failed saving through versus disease, it still is a waste of precious resources for low level characters. Resources that could be better spent on opponents who are truly (a) opponents and (b) have treasure. I might to have a PETA-inspired group of druids intercede.

  9. I've played with very few DMs that use the reaction table and morale rules as written, which might be why B/X has such a fearsome reputation.

    On the other hand, 5 out of 7 classes have a d4 or d6 for hit dice, which means that most characters are going to have either 3.5 or 4.5 hit points at first level (per B6), which means an average of 4 hit points for most PCs.

    That also means they die when the average first-level monster rolls a 4, 5 or 6 for damage, or half the time. Pretty fearsome!

  10. Patrick, if you are interested, I wrote a little more about this issue (albeit regarding OD&D) over at my blog.

  11. @Evan
    I actually checked out your blog for the first time the other day. I love the name and header! I am a big fan of Divine Right.
    I think the points you make are even more relevant in B/X where, with the abandonment of 1 HD = 100 XP (albeit abandoned in the Greyhawk supplement), the "10 orcs and a 1,000 gp" becomes either:

    - 10 orcs and 1,800 gp (in which case the characters survive and make the first step towards the end game)


    - 40 orcs and 1,000 gp (in which case the characters likely don't survive)

  12. Unless I'm reading it wrong, Moldvay says Orcs are No. Appearing 2-8 and Treasure Type D.

    That's an average of 5 orcs and 2,100gp (60% of 3,500gp). Which is still pretty crappy.

    I'm pretty sure the best way to level is by surviving long enough to get lucky and find the minimum number of orcs (2) guarding the maximum amount of treasure (8,000cp, 12,000sp, 6,000gp, 8 gems, 8 jewelry, 2 magic items and a potion).

  13. Galadrin's points are a wee bit slanted. Let's take a look:

    1) First, this assumes that the DM employs an optional rule (the hit point reroll on B6). Second, averages aren't terribly relevant, in that it only takes one lucky shot to down a character. And when a party can expect to face a bunch of wandering monsters with no treasure (animals and undead being common), front-line characters will often be attacked at least ten times in a given session! And that's not counting poisonous attacks, pit traps, and all manner of other threats that bypass high AC and/or HP.

    2) Again, an optional rule.

    3) The reaction table is -- say it with me -- optional. It's only rolled if the DM wants to leave a monster's reaction to chance.

    4) Actually, most monsters tend *not* to flee when they take their first casualty. First, the DM decides when monsters make a morale check; "first casualty" is recommended but not mandatory. Second, very few monsters are more likely than not to run; even goblins have a better than even chance of holding the line.

    5) This assumes that everything you're fighting has treasure! Lots of monsters have little to no treasure, especially the wandering monsters that you'll be fighting on your way back out of the dungeon.

    Certainly there's much to be said for the DM having options, by the book, for making things easier for the PCs. But these are options, meaning that a DM may not choose to use them. And even if the DM uses these options, there are still a lot of dangers for first level characters to worry about!


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