Monday, December 7, 2020

The Lowly Fighter

When it comes to delving into history – any history, not just the history of RPGs – I tend to favor documents over memories, especially my own memories. Memories, after all, are tricky things, especially the memories of middle aged and older people. More times than I care to admit, I was sure I remembered something that was later proven, through documentary evidence, to be untrue or at least misconstrued. Documents don't tell the whole story, of course; divorced from context, they can be just as prone to being misconstrued as memories (and that's not even taking into account deliberately false documents). Nevertheless, I tend to think we're on more solid ground in examining history when we have physical evidence, which is why I have such respect for the work of people like Jon Peterson, whose careful examination of early RPG documents have revealed a great deal about the history of the hobby.

To that end, one of current activities is re-reading many of the RPG periodicals, both professional and amateur, I still have from the '70s and '80s. Though TSR's Dragon is quite useful in this regard, I'm finding that the Polyhedron is sometimes much more intriguing. Whereas the articles in Dragon tended to be both more polished and "theoretical," those in Polyhedron were (generally) rougher and more focused on "practical" considerations. In the process of re-reading those issues of Polyhedron I still have, I've come across a number of articles that seem to have arisen out of a referee's attempts to deal with some problem or other in his campaign.

A good example of what I'm talking about is Brian Leikam's "In Defense of the Lowly Fighter," which appears in issue #30 of Polyhedron (July 1986). Leikam was a RPGA tournament winner, as well as a member of the US Air Force, who ran a Dungeons & Dragons campaign at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri (or so says his author bio). It's also noted that he was "pleased with the convenience and playability" of the D&D (as opposed to AD&D) system. The article attempts to grapple with the fact that "no one seems to play fighters anymore" and that D&D campaigns are "overrun with 'rare' demihumans and spellcasters." To that end, Leikam proposes some solutions that have worked for him in his own D&D campaign.

I genuinely enjoy articles of this sort, both for what they tell us about the perception of supposed "problems" in the rules of Dungeons & Dragons and how individual referees dealt with them in their own campaigns. This is the kind of documentary evidence of which I want to see more, if only because it provides a useful counterpoint to the frequent cries of "I never saw that back in the day" or "We did it this way." Again, I don't want to discount memories entirely, but, speaking for myself, my own memories are so often hazy (or rose colored) that I think it's vital to buttress one's memories with additional testimony.

Leikam's assertion that fighters were often rare is, I think, right. That's certainly my recollection, particularly in AD&D, where rangers and paladins were much more commonplace, despite the supposed ability score restrictions. His comments about the prevalence of demihumans likewise comport with my experiences, though I mostly played AD&D rather than D&D. Regardless, Leikam proposes three solutions, only two of which interest me at the moment. Here's one of them:

This solution, as such, doesn't concern me so much as his claim that D&D and AD&D "are generally not compatible." I'm somewhat baffled by this statement. What does he mean by "not compatible?" In the context of demihumans, there might be some truth to it, inasmuch as D&D uses race-as-class and AD&D does not. On the other hand, nearly despite Gygax's regular assertions that the two games were completely different and never, ever, ever to be mixed, they not only were mixed but done so often by nearly everyone who played the games during this era – or so my memories tell me. It's a very peculiar thing to say and wonder what he meant by it.

The other suggestion that interests me is the following one:
This solution mentions that "demi-humans are supposed to be the minority in most worlds." I firmly agree that D&D (and AD&D) imply and sometimes outright state that this is supposed to be the case, but my memories tell me that very few people ever adhered to it. I certainly would have preferred it to be the case, but I think demihumans – dwarves and elves in particular – were simply too popular among players to make this work. In my recent OD&D campaigns, I set a strict limit of no more than a single instance of a demihuman race among the player characters, such that the PC elf was the elf in the campaign rather than being one of several. Most NPCs had never seen an elf before and, to hit that home, I was extremely stingy on including demihuman NPCs as well. Unlike Leikam, my concern had little to do with rules and more to do with tone: I prefer that most characters are human, in keeping with the pulp fantasy sensibilities I prefer.

I am deeply interested in how people actually played Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs in the first decade of the hobby's existence, in particular the kinds of fantasy inspirations they drew upon and how those influences shaped the shared worlds they created. Equally interesting is the interplay between the "official" intent of TSR and the desires of those who picked up the game and made it their own. That's why I'm seeking out as many documents of that era as I can find. They not only make for some excellent reading, they shed light on these and related questions.


  1. For my tastes 4th edition (Slayer) finally gave us a true Conan/John Carter. The OD&D GH Fighter was also a step up, over the other TSR versions. AD&D sunk them low again, and they were never "fixed' during TSR's reign nor during 3.X/PF. With 5E we are back to a similar, if less intense problem than in 3E and most TSR versions.

    Now, I'm not all about BALANCE as the ultimate goal, but It seems common sense to me that a Fighter should be the BEST Fighter on the battlefield just like the literature that influenced the class. And I've not changed that opinion in 40 plus years. Again , this is why I prefer 4E's Slayer (and 13th Age's Fighter and Barbarian). And with a simple mechanic tweak, no magic items necessary to have them kicking @$$ through all the levels.

    I modify/houserule my OD&D/OSR Fighters (especially considering I am stingy with magic items, no matter edition).

    As for the articles in question, Ruins of Arduin (S&W) did a similar thing-Different ability score modifier table for Humans vs. Demi-Humans. I've not tried it as my games are nearly always Humano-Centric, but I'm guessing some players might find it disagreeable if they want to play anything besides a human.

    Though my initial Old School DM reaction is to NERF/Penalize those "more powerful" options, over the years I have come to find beefing up those classes that are weaker overall results in more satisfaction out of players and myself come table-time.

  2. When we started (almost a decade after D&D was first published) most of us stuck with humans.
    I was the kind of player that wanted to be a demi-human more often than not. And I played them all.
    But it was just me out of the 10-12 players my enlarged group consisted of.
    The game that really opened up the gates to non-humans in my group was MERP.
    Personally, I still favor humanocentric fantasy, both in books and games.
    I'm a Greyhawk and Birthright/Leiber and Vance kind of player, if that makes sense.
    I think that AD&D actually did a good job in upholding humanocentrism if the group agreed to do two things:
    A) Create characters with 3d6, in order.
    B) Actually enforce ability score requirments for non-humans.

    Another good way to do it, I think, is what the Labyrinth Lord AEC did: give full-fledged multi-classing to humans and drop dual-classing.

  3. Polyhedron was the 'zine of the RPGA, a TSR fan-insider group.
    Anyone could join, but as in all things those participating in person at tourneys and such, and getting face-familiar with TSR employees would have different levels of access.

    I don't find it surprising that members parroted the company line at the time when writing in to the group zine, or that such parroting made their letter or article more likely to see publication. That's not a denouncement per se; TSR was simply a company steeped in human foibles.

  4. We never much worried about it. If people wanted to play something, they did. As I recall, we didn’t keep the Demi-humans on the sidelines, either — there were elves and dwarves everywhere. In retrospect, there was kind of a TunFaire vibe, although I wasn’t aware of Glen Cook’s Garrett books until later.

  5. I think those suggestions are terrible. They are all punitive in nature compared to how classic D&D is typically run. As a result is almost always (roll 1d20 if you roll a 6 or higher) a negative reaction from players.

    You can get away with it if the setting is distinct enough aka Tekumel but otherwise it will be a negative reaction.

    My recommendation is to flip it around and add positive reinforcement. We all know the impact of Unearthed Arcana on the core AD&D rules. As well as the impact of the enhanced strength rules from Greyhawk. So we can establish that as example of how far we don't want to go.

    So I experimented with a few things to see how I can add elements without doing what Greyhawk or Unearthed Arcana did.

    1) In my Majestic Fantasy campaign human get +15% XP in addition to their prime requisite bonus. This developed over campaigns a decades. I tried values between +5% to +25%. +15% seem to hit the sweet spot of getting players to seriously consider humans as an option but not being too generous.

    2) I allow fighters to add their to-hit bonus (the difference between hitting AC 0 at 1st level and AC 0 at their current level). To their initiative die rolls. What this amounted to is fighters going first nearly every time. For monsters I use 1/2 their hit dice (round down) as the bonus.

    3) Currently I am experimenting with a multiple attack rules. Fighters in classic D&D get 1 attack per level when fighting 1 HD (or lower in some editions) creatures. I now expanded this to higher hit dice. So a fourth level fighter would get 2 attacks against a 2 HD Creature. Or they can attack a 3 HD creature and hit a 1 HD creature as well.

    The rule is that fighter attack a number of targets whose HD total is lower than or equal to the fighter's level.

    Currently my assessment that the concept is solid, it consistent with how OD&D is designed. However I am feeling out the best way of adjudicating this during combat.

    But rule #1 and rule #2 have proven to work out exceeding well without skewing things the way UA does.

    1. It sounds like you're essentially doing this already, but I'd urge you to check out how DCC does warriors (fighters). Really makes them more interesting and adds the umph you're looking for without complicating the game. Their dice chain is also pretty cool but that requires getting a set of their zocchi dice. Nowadays that's easy enough though.

    2. This is what I do for fighters. Variable modifier for hits and damage. I like the unpredictability with the potential for epic hits.
      For humans I offer a couple +1 stat bumps at char creation. This has made Demi humans less prevalent.

  6. Got the magenta boxed set for Christmas in 1981. So we played Basic for a few weeks then picked up the Expert boxed set. A bit after that we picked up the Monster Manual, followed by the PHB and DMG. I remember that we were initially a bit confused about separating race and class at first and we just used our B/X demi-humans alongside the AD&D human classes. Eventually we switched over fully to AD&D. But when the Companion set came out my friend Dan convinced some of us to do a "regular" D&D campaign again. So, from then on, I've alternated back and forth between AD&D and B/X. This has continued into the retroclone era. We've played Labyrinth Lord Advanced, Swords & Wizardry, and more recently Old School Essentials, where we've used the various race classes alongside their adaptations of AD&D classes, with a few house rules of course. As I get older I appreciate streamlining and simplicity in rules and options so I find myself gravitating towards rules-light or familiar systems. So right now we are starting a foray into DCC, while also keeping our OSE campaign alive. Both are set in my homebrew setting, just at different places in the timeline.

    As far as demi-humans are concerned, I always found them far more interesting than humans so we typically had lots of them in our games. My first character ever created was Persimmon the Elf, modeled after Legolas. He is currently King of the Elven realm of Earthstar in my campaign setting. My second character was Crom the Halfling, basically combination of Merry & Pippin. So when I finally designed my own campaign world, I made it pretty heavy on demi-humans. They weren't necessarily rare or in decline and there were realms or cities for all the major demi-human races. One thing I did do was make it so that only demi-humans could multi-class and I retain level limits for demi-humans, albeit on the more favorable UA lines without the ability score requirements. So a gnome illusionist maxes out at 15th level due to the +2 level cap bonus for being single classed. For our OSE and DCC games we keep the RAW limits except for Elves, who use the tweaks from GAZ 5.

    As for making basic fighters more interesting, that's a great thing they've done in DCC with their deed dice and mighty deeds. Adds a ton of flavor without a raft of mechanics. And they do a good job of showing how one can easily add flavor to the warrior. You can make your warrior a samurai, ranger, or knight without creating a whole separate character class. Need a ninja? Their thief class can make that happen. So we're eager to see how it plays at the table, having just gotten the rulebook. I also like their tweaks to the demi-humans. Gives them all a bit of flavor and a little something to distinguish them from the humans.

  7. I'm thinking of limiting - or even eliminating - the presence of demihumans in player hands in my campaign.

    But how does one do that with a "1 or 2 per party" limit? If the party's lone demihuman dies, that player can immediately make another one, can't he?

    Ability requirements to prevent this wouldn't work in our case because players get to choose their class (MU, elf etc.) first, *then* roll the abilities. If the character does not have the prime requisite at 13 or more (4d6-drop-lowest, so about 50/50), the player *may* choose to discard the entire character and start over.

    This approach (a) allows the players to strategically assemble their party (which is why we introduced this) and (b) generally leads to satisfying characters -- your fighter either has a Strength of at least 13 -or- above average abilities that make him worth playing anyway (e.g a high Dex).

  8. A provocative topic, congratulations. My recollection is very much in the vein of Persimmon above a la the Magenta and then Aqua-Box followed by subsequent AD&D books and the Fiend.

    I have very little to add to the academic discussion. Our goal was to play the game. Whatever retarded that process was eliminated. No arguing over rules-commutation or definitions or ability adjustments. Just play. Common Sense Gaming.

    Our only real obstacle was in bridging the divide between what a Player recognizes, and/or a Character does: Sure, it's clear (to the player) that a howling goblin raid-mob is cresting the ridge, but have the character(s) ever seen a goblin before?

    Maybe there is a gray area between Academic and Common-Sense gaming.

  9. I agree with Rob, Fighters need more attacks. I like that even better than fighters doing more damage than other classes. I was looking at using a ratio of the fighters level, to the level of the people he was fighting, but his idea is much simpler.

    Something I have been mulling over lately, is switching the exp requirements between the Cleric and Fighter. If you are playing closer to OD&D (without exceptional strength) Clerics are very close to Fighters in combat ability...

  10. "The Elf" of "the Dwarf" is a great solution for OD&D it's clans or stay at home preferred demi humans. It's a great fantasy trope too, Star Wars (the good ones) has "a Chewie" & that works perfectly. ("A Yoda" etc).

    Also works well if you want to run a more fairy tale campaign- no one cares about Rumplestilskins clan geneaology. A changeling can be a weird, lonely, one off elf.

  11. As for fighters. Adding cleave works pretty well to make them popular again. Simple. Effective.

  12. As for fighters, I'm mostly satisfied with how the LL+AEC worked it out.
    I use "helmets shall be cloven", my version of shield splintering.
    I also added two more things:
    1) Fighters (only) win initiative ties with non-fighters from 3rd level on
    2) my version of weapon specialization: from level 6 onward Fighters (only, no subclasses) bump up the damage dice of any weapon they use: daggers do 1d6, longswords 1d10...
    All this, along with AD&D-like additional attacks seems to work out quite well.

  13. I will pass at the moment on demihumans. They are rare enough in my campaign.

    On fighters I point put that the polearm special rules/notes in the phb and UA and that a skilled fighter can disarm that pesky mage of his Staff of the Magi and Wand of Fireballs.
    Or knock that evil cavalier off his mount... with the right weapon.

  14. Over the years I've found the biggest problems with fighting-men in D&D is simply the amount of time it takes to resolve a combat. Whilst it is equally likely for a heroic fighting man to wipe out a room full of orcs as for the equivalent mage to do so with a fireball, one effort takes a single roll of dice, whilst the other take lots of turns of rolling - with much the same results when it is all done.

    It's one of the reasons I liked adapting Chainmail's tabletop resolution system (not the Man-to-Man resolution system) as a quick combat system. Suddenly that 8th level fighting man deserves their name as Superhero (and the ability to cause enemy units to check morale when they enter charge range). The big disadvantage with it is that it can be pretty deadly at low level - although this is mitigated by the fact that I consider a "hit" in Chainmail terms as well, which means you are out of the combat but you may not be dead. I actually use a modified version of the serious injury table from the Dungeon board game for the result.

    I always considered the fighting-man to be the melee specialist and that they should be better. Of course that left the problem in later editions that you tended to have two tiers of opponents - one for the fighter and one for the rest of the party (in a party situation).

    I do think there is a perception that melee is easy and that anyone can do it because it is the backup plan for every class. But the reality is that it isn't. It's actually easier to hit someone who doesn't know how to use a shield for example - especially since it's relatively easy to get them to blind themselves inadvertently by throwing a feint to the head.

  15. SPI's DragonQuest (1980) handled "the demihuman issue" by requiring players to roll % dice if they wanted to be something other than human. You want to be an elf? 30% chance. Halfling? 15%. How about a shapechanger? 4%.

    In DQ you could try up to three times for a nonhuman character type. Failing all three, you were left only with the human option.

    My oldest AD&D games (back in the day) had few demihumans because racial level restrictions were so stringent. We had a couple half-elf bards and a halfling thief or two (for obvious reasons), but human was, on average, the most prevalent species.

  16. In the early days (Holmes), the options for non-humans were limited enough that you usually got only the occasional Elf or Dwarf, mostly a party of Humans. AD&D seemed to be all Elves or Half-Elves, with the rare Dwarf as poison-tester, and Humans only for Paladins.

    Sticking to OD&D/Holmes/Blueholme:

    For fighters, the answer is either offer more stuff (but then you get powerful fighters) or reduce the ability of other classes to intrude on their role; lower HP (d8/d6/d4/d4 is a good hit die system), lower damage (d6 maximum for non-fighters), lower to-hit and damage bonuses. Don't use full Greyhawk Strength tables, at most give a +1 or +2 (fighters only) bonus.

    For non-Humans, I strictly enforce level limits. They can continue gaining experience, but each level-like unit of XP only gives the usual post-name-level HP boost of 2/1/1/1 HP, no other benefit. Dwarfs are limited to Fighter 8, Cleric 6, or Thief 4. Elves to Fighter 4, Magic-User 8, or Thief 6. Gnomes, Hobbits, Goblins, etc. scavenger races to Fighter 4, Thief 8. When they're confronted with Humans blowing past them at high levels, most players eschew the non-Humans, and the ones who choose them anyway are committed role-players.

  17. Strangely enough I've used a rule like the SPI rules to limit non-human races in Star Trek to avoid having a ship full of Vulcans. I never thought about it for fantasy, but it seems like a good idea! Thanks!

  18. In the past I have allowed humans to start at max hp at 1st level (a terrible decision I have since abandoned!) and currently permit humans to reroll 1s for hp. The reason that humans get a concession on hp is that Fate has ordained the ascendancy of humans and the decline of the other races.

    Since players usually live in fear of the "1" on hp rolls it's a good incentive to play a human. But if you really want to be one of the elder races you may.