Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Party Size, Game Balance, and Difficulty Level in Old School Games

There was a wight or wraith who lived in the neighbor, a high schooler with a Chaotic Neutral thief who chewed tobacco while he ran games in his basement. He had some high school friends, too, but he began luring my players away or, worse, corrupting them. It had never occurred to me to give people max. hit points (at every level, the munchkin). — Brian at Playing D&D With Stuffed Animals

After a dozen sessions of B/X D&D, this is how I tend to do players running multiple characters:

  • a single player gets four player characters and about as many hirelings
  • with two or three players, every player gets two characters with maybe a few hirelings
  • if there’s four or more players, then each player only gets one character

If you are six years old, then you get an infinite supply of men-at-arms who just so happen to be the only characters that die during the adventure. This allows for Zork and Rogue levels of death dealing without the hassle of starting over or reorganizing the party. The emphasis on this sort of game is on puzzles, exploration, and improvisational story telling.

If you are over six, then we can play anything you want. We can hash out which module, which ruleset, which house rules… all of it. You can start at the Isle of Dread with 5000 experience points and two random magic items. You can do the The Lost City with GURPS rules. It’s all good.

But if we’re running Keep on the Borderlands… I am very curious as to what develops with Moldvay’s rules and Gygax’s adventure played pretty well straight up. The OSR has reconstructed quite a bit about early D&D– stuff that was never articulated in any TSR products in a playable way. This is cool, but for my game… I’m personally more interested in what someone isolated from the Lake Geneva culture could have come up with using nothing but the Basic Set. By that point TSR had been through several iterations trying to nail down what new Dungeon Masters really need. Geomorphs and monster cards weren’t enough and B1 didn’t quite hit it, but Keep on the Borderlands…? With a comprehensible rule set…? That seems like a quintessential moment in gaming to me and I really wonder where it leads.

Now, the Caves of Chaos are pretty freaking hard. They are a meat grinder far worse even than CAR WARS’s amateur night games. The dreaded “15 minute work day” is the first thing that will emerge once the players decide to stop pointlessly killing themselves. If the players are really smart, they’ll organize expeditions expressly to gain information. They might even amass ten or twelve hirelings and pay them to hang out at cave entrances while the players go in.

They're playing with their cards face up, so maybe they're just starting out. The entire world will die a half dozen times before they finally win... but the game seems to have their rapt attention.

But here’s a secret for you: game balance in old school games is implemented by having so much to do and so many options, that it doesn’t matter if the players roll right through the occasional challenge like a hot knife through butter. The game is fast playing enough that you can do lots of stuff in a single sortie: make your foes flee when the first one drops, rampage through their lair, run away from scary monsters, then regroup and try something else. If the dungeon master serves up a smorgasbord of adventure hooks and provides a means for players to find out details about them without having to suffer total party kills, then the game is balanced.

But it’s not an accident that Keep is difficult. It’s that way for lots of reasons, I couldn’t tell you them all… but one of them is that the module was likely the only adventure a dungeon master would have for a long time, so it was built in such a way that you could play it all summer long. But it is also hard so that the tendency of the game towards lots of hirelings and lightening raids can really bring the resource management aspects of the game to the fore.

But there is a real game there. And I do think that if you sit down and play it again and again… you and your friends will eventually learn how to win it consistently. Without house ruling it, too. I don’t know all there is to know about the OSR or game mastering or role playing… but I do think that the Moldvay Basic Set deserves to be taken at least as seriously as Pandemic.


5 responses to “Party Size, Game Balance, and Difficulty Level in Old School Games

  1. Tedankhamen March 29, 2012 at 8:43 am

    I’m liking these posts mate. I think you’re bang on about B2 and the basic set as a chrysalis of what classic D&D could be. Wish I was in your group.

    • jeffro March 29, 2012 at 11:47 am

      Wow, thanks. I’m not sure if anyone in my area will jump into the game now that I am revealed to be a horrible Lawful Neutral dungeon master, but I do appreciate the vote of confidence.

  2. Brendan March 29, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Regarding the “win it consistently” comment. I wonder how much this could translate between referees. That is, how much of playing Moldvay “by the book” is located in the specific referee? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think the question goes to the heart of whether an RPG can be a generic ruleset or if it is unavoidably mutated by the group in question. For example, when you made rulings, how often did you consider multiple options and would some of the roads not taken (but almost taken) have changed the nature of the game?

    • jeffro March 29, 2012 at 11:42 am

      I would guess that probably 80% of the game occurs outside the scope of the rules. A dozen DM’s will call this stuff totally differently even if they are on the same page for a strict Moldvay game. (Stuff like handling monster learning, player dirty tricks, old school made-up swinging from the chandeliers stuff, what resources are available in town over time, how easy it is to find hirelings and henchmen, etc.)

      The 20% that actually is in the book is just a skeleton for the game. The common denominator for the hypothetical dozen DM’s is that the focus of the game would be on the players and dungeon master exploring and developing whatever the 80% is. The way that B2 is set up forces that to happen.

  3. Brian March 29, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Thanks so much for the link. What’s interesting is that I think your succinct and correct understanding of how B2 “works” applies regardless of whether you are an eleven-year-old in 1982, that same eleven-year-old all grown-up or a “3.5 guy”
    It’s a simple set-up (bunch of monster tribes in a kind of subterranean 19th-century slum), an incredibly flimsy and yet strangely compelling premise (an impregnable fortress chuck-full of men-at-arms in plate mail is imperiled by this slum several miles away), and a chain-of-plot events at once predictable and surprising (PCs almost immediately forget whatever heroic quest brought them there and find themselves ensnared in a fast-spin cycle of fighting for their lives and looting bodies for trinkets). My own unease about the inevitable genocide thread only makes it more interesting to play.

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