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

Friday, November 13, 2009

D&D Levels and S&S

Back near the beginning of my hacking around with B/X for a sword & sorcery inspired game, Matthew from Wheel of Samsara made a comment:
"D&D is not ideal for S&S. It's not that you can't do it. Akratic Wizardry and The Wasted Lands both posted good, S&S hacks for D&D. The problem for me, is that S&S is not a genre about guys leveling up and that's the central premise of D&D."

While I am quite happy with the alternate S&S classes I have done for B/X there is still the nagging problem that the D&D level system eventually ruins the "feel" of a sword & sorcery game. The are numerous instances in S&S literature where the mighty hero is forced to flee from a D&D monster that a 12th level fighter would slice up for breakfast. Or instances where the mightiest of sorcerers cannot do what a 5th level magic-user can.

The more I think about this though the more that I think it really is not much of an issue because the number of characters that will survive to high levels will be very small. This is due to:

- B/X classes, from which all of the S&S hacks I have done are based, have low power levels.
- The lower level of magic items.
- Fewer magic-using characters due to the drawbacks built into the new classes.
- If there are sorcerers in the party, the heavy artillery spells (fireball, etc have either been made higher level spells of removed altogether.
- If true to the inspiration of the S&S literature, the size of the adventuring party will likely be smaller than assumed in standard D&D.
- The Fear Check mechanic helps to keep the characters on their toes.


  1. That Slepin guy is clever. :)

    Anyway, I just wanted to clarify my point: all the things you propose are great. It's just that the "narrative" of D&D is low-level PC's working their way up to higher levels. They may never make it. They may all die from domestic house-cat wounds at Level 1. But the idea of the attempt is always there.

    Whereas S&S guys start out as bad-ass as they are going to be and stay bad-ass. They may ascend thrones or topple them, but they aren't trying to get "better" (whatever that means).

    So I think you can do a bang-up S&S flavoured game of D&D with all the suggested hacks, but it's not quite the same thing. Which is fine.

  2. I think that Matthew is right that the 'leveling up' aspect of D&D does not reflect well the S&S genre. However, I disagree with him that S&S heroes don't get "better" over time. They clearly do, in my opinion. Older King Conan is not just wiser than younger Thief Conan, he's more skilled overall (he knows how to use more weapons and armour than his younger self; he knows much more about military tactics, diplomacy, history, sailing, horsemanship, and so forth, than his earlier self; he knows more languages; etc.). However, King Conan doesn't have more 'hit points' and can't cleave through greater numbers of mooks than his younger self.

    This makes me think that a non-level-based RPG is probably better overall for simulating the S&S genre than a level-based RPG like D&D (but that doesn't mean, of course, that one cannot impart a 'S&S flavour' to a D&D game, as Matthew points out, and as I've tried to do in my own games).

    I've been reading the BRP corebook over the past few days, and looking at my old copy of the BRP 'Elric!' book, and think that BRP would be better than D&D for simulating the 'S&S' genre. Maybe I'll have a chance to play it some day and see ...

  3. BRP is one of many games that I think are better for playing a game of S&S (as oppossed to an S&S-flavoured game). It's actually quite a good time for S&S games, even if one discounts my own still-unfinished one. ;) I'm rather taken by Barbarians of Lemuria right now, meself.

  4. Well, I have to say I disagree a tiny bit with the prior posters...personally, after seeing your redefined classes, I think that B/X D&D might be a near perfect vehicle for S&S.

    First off, B/X levels measure only a couple things: combat ability (how well can I hit, how well can I dodge/resist damage), awareness (higher saving throws), and power/knowledge (for spell-users). And compared to other editions of the game (AD&D, BECMI, and later) these things inflate pretty modestly in B/X. Hell, some people even cap the human levels at 14 (which in my opinion would be a good thing for S&S...wouldn't want Conan too far out-stripped by a base fighter or high-level thief!).

    The thing that makes high level characters into power houses are 1) proliferation of magic gear, 2) heavy artillery spell use (fireballs, disintegrate, etc.). If you limit both of these, you have characters that will remain imperiled by cave bears, dire wolves, giant snakes, and sabre-toothed cats.

    In S&S genre, characters ARE badasses, but generally NOT when fighting the supernatural or monsters...the guys they take down quick and easy are the rank-and-file guards and soldiers. And this is easily modeled with B/X as well: by making ample use of the Normal Man monster (villainous barons and tyrants can use the slightly upped Noble from the basic set). There's no need for the average conscripted soldier to have more than 3 or 4 hit points, and a 4th level fighter or barbarian will make short work of a platoon...though he or she might take some damage in return when not wearing a suit of +3 chain mail and +2 shield.

    The old Conan modules for AD&D 1st edition had some good ideas for a more S&S type game, but one has to do A LOT of editing to really get the thing humming. B/X D&D, a much more modest game, requires a lot less tweaking.

    Hell, you could do a lot worse than simply limiting the magic items and monsters to the stuff in Moldvay's Basic book. A 10th level barbarian using a +1 sword is going to have his hands full with a grizzly...and Pat and I have seen just how quickly a wounded grizzly can devour a guy wearing simple plate mail armor.
    : )