Edit: Several readers have correctly informed me that the game I played was actually BASIC Dungeons & Dragons. My use of “First Edition” throughout the post is incorrect, but I decided to keep the language because comparing “First” to Fourth felt more logical. I hope the distraction is minimal; the difference in language should not affect the themes in the post.
Before taking up 4th Edition in 2009, it had been over 15 years since I played Dungeons & Dragons. I have vague memories of playing old modules like Horror on the Hill but forgot the specific mechanics of the game. So I was eager to travel back in time when my DM recently suggested that we play a session of First Edition. We played Palace of the Silver Princess, and it was an eye-opening experience for me both as a DM and player who is accustomed to the rules and pacing of 4th Edition.
The surprises began with character generation, and continued throughout the entire day and night of gameplay with my Magic User (who died, and whose capabilities are nicely summarized by d20monkey above) and then Fighter. Our party suffered numerous deaths while exploring a much greater area than we could ever hope to do in a 4th Edition session. Below, I discuss my experience traveling back in time to play First Edition, and how returning to D&D’s roots have updated my view of 4th Edition.
The first thing about First Edition that is immediately different is the process of character creation. Instead of relying on the online Character Builder, the player is left with a single sheet of paper and a few d6’s. There is no opportunity for min/maxing as each of your six stats are determined by a single 3d6 roll. Sitting down to start a character, I had to roll my stats first and then choose the most appropriate Class to fit the results. It seems to be the opposite way in 4th Edition for the vast majority of character creation – decide on your Class first, and then generate stats that best fit your desired build. There is no such freedom with First Edition!
As you can see on the character sheet above, my stats are laughable by 4th Edition standards – Strength: 8; Intelligence: 11; Wisdom: 9; Dexterity: 7; Constitution: 9; Charisma: 11. I did not generate a single 3d6 roll over 11, and my best fit for class was Magic User. It should be noted that there are no Races in First Edition. In terms of additional components of character creation, I had to roll 3d6 (x10) for the amount of gold I could spend. Thankfully, I had a good roll and was able to spend 160 gold, which allowed me to buy daggers, flasks of oil, the ubiquitous 10-foot pole, wolfsbane, torches, rope and a mirror. The Saving Throws and “To Hit” Roll Needed are all based on the six generated stats. Finally, I got to choose a single spell (I went with Sleep) that could be used once each day, which is what the cartoon from d20monkey so eloquently illustrates above! My Magic User, Xavier Nen, was ready to enter the Palace of the Silver Princess.
Characters in First Edition are fragile, and my Magic User was no different. He began Level 1 with a whopping 3 Hit Points. Since Magic Users cannot wear armor, any attack directed at Xavier was likely to hit him, and the subsequent damage would likely kill him. He spent the first few encounters well behind the tanks in the group and threw the occasional dagger, which rarely hit. Xavier waited for his big moment to cast Sleep while attempting to find good situations to use flasks of oil to set bad guys on fire. It turned out, he waited too long.
While I took a bathroom break, which lasted perhaps 90 to 120 seconds, Xavier went from tucked behind the front-line fighters to dead. I walked back into the room and learned that Xavier died. I’m still not entirely sure how it happened since Xavier was cowering behind other melee party members, but apparantly a zombie broke through the line and killed him. The two hours or so I played as Xavier were fairly boring; the adventure was interesting (more on this in a bit) but my options were incredibly limited. I previously created a monster-style Stat Block for my Level 12 Rogue. For this post, I wanted to create a Stat Block for my Level 1 Magic User. As you can see below, the options for Xavier were nonexistent. I was somewhat glad he died because it meant I could roll up a different character.
I rolled another PC and had stats that were a fairly decent match for Fighter. My new Fighter, Id, was dumb as a stump but could at least rush into battle with plate armor, a greatsword and attempt to kill things. It was fun to be in the mix of battle after a few hours of hoping I could stay out of the way and waiting for the best moment to cast the lone daily spell in my arsenal.
During the adventure, multiple PCs died and often in less than interesting ways. Players routinely start Level 1 with less than 6 Hit Points, and many monsters would cause 1d8 or more damage on a hit. The math is not in the players’ favor, and player death in First Edition is expected by everyone. As a result, it’s difficult to feel terribly connected to your character in a meaningful way.
My sense of timing in 4th Edition has developed over the course of two years as a player and DM. During a single gaming session, which for us is anywhere from five to seven hours, the number of combat encounters that can be squeezed in is quite limited. During our First Edition session, the party blazed through approximately 15 combat encounters. Additionally, the party explored over 30 rooms spread out across a ground level and basement of a huge palace. The pace of play is significantly faster in First Edition when compared to 4th Edition.
The reasons for the difference in pacing are primarily related to combat. As discussed on this blog previously and many others, combat in 4th Edition slows down because players and monsters have an array of choices to make each round. Also, the rounds in First Edition are able to be calculated at once. For example, each member of the party could declare their attack and target and the actions were reconciled at the same time. Each player did not need to wait to act “in order.” This type of combat management is simply not possible in 4th Edition; later on in the article, I will discuss why.
The setup for Palace of the Silver Princess is interesting. The following text is taken from the module’s Wikipedia page:
The module has been described as a low-level scenario, which involves the legends surrounding a ruined palace, a white dragon, and a giant ruby. The player characters encounter evil creatures that have taken over the palace. The plot of Palace of the Silver Princess revolves around a country frozen in time by a strange red light. The only seemingly unaffected location and the apparent source of the glow is the royal palace. The adventurers must restore the flow of time and save the country.
The players are brought together at the entrance of the palace and must explore numerous rooms from that point. The adventure takes a variety of turns that do not appear to be linked to one another. Over the course of a few hours, the party battles with goblins, zombies, fire beetles, spiders and a deranged humanoid – all in the same floor or two of the palace. The monsters do not appear to be connected in any way; the adventure seemed nonsensical and haphazard.
Granted, our group did not complete the entire module, but each room felt like it dropped out of a different module by 4th Edition standards. For example, the three-to-five encounter-series design is typically composed of monsters from the same “family” of creatures. It would be rare for a party to fight goblins, zombies and fire beetles in three consecutive encounters. Perhaps all First Editions modules are not as nonsensical as Palace of the Silver Princess, but the lack of internal logic and plot were noticeable.
Applying Lessons to 4th Edition Gameplay
Playing First Edition was fun, but other than playing the game again as a novelty, I would not want to leave our 4th Edition campaigns. No edition is perfect, and I’m sure each edition has their individual merits, but I walked away from our First Edition session with some ideas for how to integrate good components of the early days into 4th Edition gaming sessions.
The dynamics of Character Builder encourage players to maximize their most important stats by sacrificing others that are not as important to a given Class. I am guilty of this as well as I decided at the beginning of the character-creation process that I wanted to play a Rogue. So I used the point-buy system to load Dexterity as the highest stat; it would be slightly silly to allocate the stats in any other way.
It’s also been my experience that character creation rarely occurs at the gaming table. I just welcomed two new players to my campaign and they prepared their characters in the days leading up to the adventure. Not only are characters optimized, but the composition of the adventuring party is often optimized. When new players join the group, a common question is, “What does the party need?” If the party does not have a big-bad tank, then the next player to join the group is likely to be asked to create a Defender. There is an expectation that the composition of the party will be optimized to have a balance of Roles. The level of optimization, which is simply built into the character-creation process, is one reason why DMs have a challenge in terms of posing a significant challenge to players.
One way around this is to strip away the inherent optimization that comes with character creation in 4th Edition. DMs and players could return to die rolls to determine beginning stats instead of using the point-buy system. Players could be invited to roll the stats for their character first, and then choose their Class. The average results of 3d6 will be 10.5, which would result in miserable stats – as witnessed by the stats above for my hapless Magic User. The DM could allow the player to roll 4d6 and take the best three results.
A return to die rolls for beginning stats would increase the level of tension during the character-creation process. Character creation would go from a player calculating the most optimized character of a given Class to making the best of stats generated from rolls. The players would likely have more difficulty with combat since their attack bonuses and defenses would not be as high.
While this may help to balance 4th Edition so DMs do not feel so overwhelmed by an optimized group of players, the players are likely to dislike this approach. I speak as a 4th Edition player when I say that I like building a character that is effective and do not want my character nerfed! But I encourage DMs to think about altering the character-creation process in 4th Edition to make it less strategic for players and more random.
Much has been said about increasing the lethality of 4th Edition, and there has been no stronger voice than the individuals behind Fourthcore. Those behind Fourthcore wished to increase the level of difficulty and chance of death for players in 4th Edition. In addition, the lethality of monsters has been increased across the board since Monster Manual 3. Damage for each attack has been increased, and there are many monster powers that feature Second Failed Save death outcomes.
It seems that DMs have been granted a greater license – both by the online community and Wizards of the Coast – to increase the threat of death in 4th Edition. There are now templates for DMs to increase the threat level of their campaign. Using monsters with updated damage outputs and powers in addition to deadly traps that feature Save versus Death outcomes are two excellent methods to return back to the First Edition level of fear players had when traipsing through a dungeon!
First Edition combat runs faster than 4th Edition, and the two editions are not even close. I have attempted to increase the pace of combat in multiple ways to increase the speed in 4th Edition. Initiative order is visually displayed on the table and players are informed about who is next to act to ensure they are aware their turn is coming up. However, the dynamics of 4th Edition combat make increasing the pace difficult.
For example, I have experimented with “skipping forward” when one player seems to have finished his or her turn. For example, a player may declare a minor, move and then use a standard to attack a monster. While reconciling the attack and damage rolls, I have alerted the next player up that they can start their turn. However, this has backfired more often than not. Players have expressed discomfort when someone else is taking actions before their turn is over. Players have completed their alloted actions only to declare the use of an Action Point while the next player is acting; the Action Point has invalidated the next player’s action since the monster the next player would have been attacking is now dead because the first player used an Action Point to deal more damage and kill it.
Player actions cannot happen simultaneously because combat in 4th Edition is much more tactical than First Edition. I have attempted to increase the flow of combat with simultaneous actions from players, but after experimenting with it, I advise against it. However, the DM can set the pace in other ways. Keep things moving by roleplaying when characters are taking too long (“The villain taunts you as you fumble with your sword.”).
Perhaps the most effective thing to do to increase the pace of combat is for the DM to model the type of behavior they are looking for from their players. DMs should know the monsters’ powers well, and execute actions rapidly. A prepared DM can take monster actions in less than 30 seconds; it may also help to take all monster actions at one point in the Initiative order. If a DM is taking minutes to take monster actions, then the players will follow suit.
The lack of logic in the First Edition module I played was a distraction. I am a player in the published Scales of War campaign by Wizards of the Coast and that story – while quite linear – is coherent. I run a homebrew campaign and I feel satisfied with the tools available to me to create a clear story with interesting monsters to face. However, there are lessons to be learned from First Edition.
I left the game thinking that I should spend more time on exploration in my campaign. Typically, a dungeon I create would include several rooms with monsters and the links between those rooms would often be ignored. Previously, I rarely fleshed out a dungeon to contain interesting rooms that are simply there to add flavor and additional backstory. One piece in the Palace of the Silver Princess I did enjoy was our party entered many rooms that featured statues of workers and other inhabitants of the palace. The implication was that something was roaming around the palace and turning things into stone. As a result, our party was hesitant to enter rooms and turn corners in hallways; we were using a mirror to investigate any corner before moving forward!
My take-away was to increase the level of tension involved in exploration in a dungeon between combat, skill and role-playing encounters. Use “empty” rooms to tell a story about your villain or the previous inhabitants of the dungeon. Use those areas to increase tension and foreshadow the type of monsters the party may face in the future.
I thoroughly enjoy playing 4th Edition, but there are lessons to be learned from previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons that can improve the experience for players and DMs. For critics of 4th Edition, I think it’s a good idea to revisit the problems in previous editions and realize that modifications were implemented for a reason. Whatever edition you play, enjoy it with your gaming group and make it the best game possible for the people in attendance.