Myths of D&D Part 1 - High and Low Magic, Play versus Game Design
There are a lot of myths about early edition D&D, 1e AD&D is my game, so I will talk about it, but I’m confident you could do something like this for all the early editions. I will periodically tackle a game myth here on the blog, as Tweeting about it is too cumbersome.
The myth of interest today is “power creep” or “high magic” games. I spend a lot of time reading posts where people lament the tendency of mid-level D&D characters to become too powerful, hard to challenge, that sort of thing. Part of these criticisms is often a sigh and wistful remark about magic items. A mid-level AD&D character, I am often told, has so many magic items it is hard to challenge them. I am always suspicious of these sorts of claims, as the way the game is written the magic is actually quite parsimonious.
I thought I would give an example.
First, look at the treasure tables in the back of the monster manual, the % chance of getting magical items is 30% or less in the majority of cases, and the high % cases are all for monsters that are significantly challenging so don’t come up as often. Many entries have no magic item option at all.
In short, low-level parties should have virtually no magical items for a while. It is quite conceivable they could go a few levels without magic, the table is weighted for loot, not magic items.
Say an adventuring party has been around for a short while, they are all 3rd and 2nd level (in 1e you get level variance due to differing class XP requirements). Your doughty party of adventurers is travelling to the sorcerer’s keep, on the way through the forest they roll an encounter with carnivorous apes using the tables in the back of the DMG for random wilderness encounters.
Wilderness encounters are not keyed to level, so this is a BTB fair encounter.
Now, right away many DM’s would choose to re-roll or change this encounter, and that’s fine, it’s always DM discretion, but for this example I will assume that you stick to the rules because I want to show what happens when you run these things roughly BTB.
Number appearing for carnivorous apes is 2-8, say we roll average and get 5. In lair is 10%, so let’s assume that the encounter is not in lair.
Carnivorous apes - AC:6 (equivalent to scale mail), MV:12” (so the party is not outrunning them), HD: 5 (average 22.5 HP), THACO: 15, NA: 3, DA: 1-4,-14,1-8, SD: only surprised on a 1, SA: if both hands hit 1d8 additional rending damage).
On the party side they will have lower average HP than the apes, likely worse average AC due to spell-casters, the apes have better THACO than the fighters, their CCB routines give them three attacks per round to the PC’s one - which means they will hit far more often, and do anywhere from a high average of 14hp damage if all hit to a low average of 2.5 hp if only one hits. If the PCs are rolling HP (not taking averages or HP kickers) then they aren’t going to last long. The apes are not going to be surprised, they will likely attack from the trees and gain surprise, but even if they don’t they will be formidable. This could quite easily be a TPK as the non-melee types might get nailed before spell casting.
So, with a BtB challenge *this* formidable, what is the loot? Surely this is where the problem comes from? Yes D&D is high risk, but the sweet reward of a huge treasure hoard means that IF the party survives long enough they are bound to become crazy overpowered.
Not so much.
First things first, if this was a random encounter they have to find the ape’s lair. They aren’t running around with bags of coin. So that’s time, effort, and possibly an additional random encounter on the way. If they don’t have a ranger in the party or a druid to track their trails back to their lair they might not find it at all.
But assume for the moment they avoid further encounters and find the lair, and they find whatever the apes have.
Carnivorous Apes are treasure type: C
1000-12,000 cp - 20%, 1000-6000 sp - 30%, 1000-4000 ep - 10%, 1-6 gems - 25%, 1-3 jewelry - 20%, “any 2 maps or magic” - 10%
So that’s an approximately 30% chance of getting absolutely nothing, no magic, no loot, and only a 10% chance of getting a magic item. Actually, it’s a bit worse, because for “maps or magic” there is a 10% chance of a map, 90% chance of a magic item.
So let’s say for the sake of argument that you rolled the 10% chance of “any 2 maps or magic items”, and that for both you rolled a magic item.
Now we’re talking.
However, check out the magic item table, your best odds are of getting potions, scrolls or magic weapons. And many of these are not combat relevant, a potion of sweet water is useful, but it isn’t saving you from the giant’s club. Of course, you can get lucky and get that +4 sword with a random roll, but the odds are against it. Even if you did roll well and everyone in the party survived (not that likely, but let’s be generous) then you have to decide how to split up these items, and since some will be temporary (scrolls and potions) they don’t last forever. Adding insult to injury, fireballs and breath weapons can destroy your magic items, they can be lost when you are dumped in the river, they can be stolen by thieves…
This was an arbitrary example, but the point is generalizable, if you run magic treasure distribution and monsters BtB, 1e AD&D is a very low magic game. Where it varies a bit from what you would think of as low magic is in the randomness. If you roll randomly for encounters, monsters, HP, number appearing, and treasure, then it is possible to die for nothing. However, sometimes your dice come up, sometimes the monsters have low HP, sometimes there’s a holy avenger in the giant spider’s lair.
What a BtB game produces is low magic with the very occasional spike of magic items. In most long running campaigns this means that a mid-level party will have far fewer magic items than I hear people talking about when complaining that characters are “too powerful”.
Is D&D a High-Magic Game?
I think that this example, and to be honest many others, reveals something important about game design and game play. The game as designed does not produce a “high-magic” game where characters have so many items they cannot be challenged. The game as played often does.
So when it happens that your D&D game becomes magic heavy, when it gets harder and harder to challenge your PCs because their gamut of magic items makes them formidable, this suggests more about your DM and gaming group than it does about the game. The game as designed doesn’t do this, this is a result of how you are running the game.
I think many people would find this surprising. The number of people I see online suggesting that “older edition” games were monty haul, or that they weren’t challenging or deadly after low levels, suggests to me that they are improvising magic item distribution in terms of frequency and item choice.
This is, of course, perfectly acceptable. The books explicitly say you can adjust these things to your liking, the DM can place magic items, the DM can ensure, for example, that certain magic items are there in the treasure hoard (e.g. that +1 spetum the party fighter needed) or that treasure hoards have magic items at all. But if they choose to deviate from the tables and the listed odds, then it isn’t the game that produces the high magic campaign, it’s the DM and players.
I think this general observation can be applied to a lot of things, low level play is too hard so the DM gives out HP kickers, and the DM also assigns HP rather than rolling HP, or fudges rolls when a PC has a bad run of luck, so the party survives a bit longer, and reaches mid-levels where the power levels increase. Add magic items generously sprinkled in to ensure that “each PC has a chance to shine” and so no player feels “left out” (and a BtB magic item distribution will often leave particular characters “out”) and suddenly “AD&D is OP” or “I can’t challenge my PCs anymore without waves of monsters”.
The game allows the DM complete discretion, if you WANT a higher magic game that’s just fine, and it can be fun, and even challenging if you play your cards right, but if people are going to bag on early edition D&D for being a “powergamers fantasy” or for having “unmanagable mid-level PCs”, they might want to think about going back to the books to see how the baseline is set, and adjusting accordingly.