Monday, October 19, 2020

The First Characters

Thanks in large part to Jeff Rients, I think most people are aware of the existence of Xylarthen, the very first sample Dungeons & Dragons character ever.

Xylarthen is actually a very good sample character for a couple of reasons. First, he has ability scores that reflect the most likely spread of 3d6 in order. His player clearly didn't fudge the dice rolls. Second, and more significantly, the text notes that Xylarthen "would have progressed faster as a Cleric, but because of a personal preference for magic, opted for that class." I love that. A common knock against 3d6-in-order is that it somehow limits player preference. That's not true at all, as there's no reason that you have to choose your character's class solely on the basis of his highest ability score. The idea of, say, a fighter whose highest ability is Intelligence or a thief with a similarly high Charisma is rather appealing to me and offers a good model for the flexibility of the old school style of play. Three cheers for Xylarthen!

Holmes's Basic Set, sadly, does not offer a sample character. Mike Carr's In Search of the Unknown, which was packaged with many printings of the set, includes a large collection sample characters, but nearly all of them follow the banal principle of their prime requisite being their highest ability score. More famous than Xylarthen is Morgan Ironwolf, about whom I theorized recently.
Morgan Ironwolf's ability scores are those of a "typical" old school fighter – high Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution; low Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. She's very much in keeping with the sample characters in module B1. 

What people sometime forget is that Morgan Ironwolf is not the only sample character in Moldvay's Basic Rules. In fact, she's not even the first sample character presented in that rulebook. Behold: Borg!
I've always had a soft spot for Borg, primarily because of the way he's presented – as if written on a sheet of ruled paper of the sort every child uses in school (though his player's penmanship is far better than that of almost any child I ever knew). It's a reminder that character sheets, while useful, are unnecessary for a game that originally proclaimed itself "playable with paper and pencil and miniature figures." As for Borg himself, he's not all that different than Morgan Ironwolf in having a high Strength and Constitution. Where he differs is in having a low Dexterity as well, something I don't believe was quite as common (since Dexterity affected numerous combat capabilities, such as armor class, initiative, and missile attacks).

Despite their differences, what I find noteworthy is that all three possess two or more ability scores below 9. This isn't much of an impediment to Xylarthen, since, in LBB-only OD&D, low ability scores have minimal (or no) consequences. In this case of Morgan and Borg, though, those below average scores exact penalties on them, something that became increasingly rare as the game evolved. AD&D codified the importance of having high ability scores and, while I genuinely understand why that happened, I can't help but think it was ultimately an error that had a number of unintended (and undesirable) knock-on effects for the game. 


  1. I share your perplexities on the impact of ability scores.
    Their removal (or replacement with things like Aspects or Tags) is probably one of the more interesting things in more recent game designs for me.

  2. My younger cousins were very much affected by this "superhero" mentality regarding ability scores. I was so dismayed by their casual rejection of any character without an 18, that I intentionally made a character with miserable scores (I believe the highest was an 11 and the lowest was a 4!) just to prove that low scores didn't necessarily mean one had rolled a hopeless character. Of course, I had begun gaming with Holmes and theirs was AD&D; maybe that had something to do with it.