My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.
Last week, I talked about the concept of balance and how it relates to Dungeons & Dragons. Probably nothing better encapsulates the issues of balance in D&D—and the attitudes around those issues—than the comparison between the fighter and wizard. From the earliest days of the game, the disparities between these two classes has served as the basis for much of what people have loved and loathed about D&D’s rules.
In the Beginning…
In the original D&D rulebook (Volume 1: Men & Magic), this sentence leads off the description of the magic-user:
“Top level magic-users are perhaps the most powerful characters in the game, but it is a long, hard road to the top, and to begin with they are weak, so survival is often the question, unless fighters protect the low-level magic types until they have worked up.”
Right from the beginning, we have a nice encapsulation of the relationship between fighters and wizards. Fighters protected wizards, who eventually became the most powerful characters. A sleep spell was often the difference between victory and defeat in the early days. Thus, wizards were carefully protected by fighters and other characters to preserve them for just the right time to take down a whole mess of monsters.
On the face of it, this might seem like a bizarre way to design a game. However, it has some cousins in other areas. It’s common in wargames for one side to possess a big advantage in the early game, which it must exploit early on or face a grinding defeat by attrition as the other side’s strengths come into play in the late game. Collectible card games do this quite often, with some decks optimized for a quick victory and others built to hold back an opponent while creating a powerful combination for the late game.
That pattern of ebb and flow makes for an interesting game. It guarantees a lot of tension right from the beginning, rather than saving it all for the end. However, it seems strange to place something like that in an RPG. Why have some characters suffer a greater risk of death early on in exchange for greater power later?
The Evolution of Play Skill
In the early days of D&D, and to some extent through 3rd Edition, death was a cruel, capricious mistress. The luck of the die determined your starting hit points, and death awaited you at 0. Even if you used the rules for dropping below 0 hit points, such a trip meant an extended time healing up before the next adventure (the 1st Edition DMG required a minimum of one full week of bed rest following such recovery).
With hit points a precious resource, save-or-die traps and monsters lurking throughout the game, and player description of actions serving in place of a skill system, play skill focused on your ability to avoid danger and stack the odds in your favor. A 10-foot pole revealed a pit trap, not a Perception check. When searching a room, you told the DM how you wanted to tear apart a desk to find the gem hidden inside. You couldn’t rely on a Wisdom check or a skill. With few hit points at their disposal, players had to carefully shepherd their spells and use strategy to set up tactically advantageous situations against monsters. Charging ahead, kicking in doors, and pressing on without thought was a good way to die.
In this situation, play skill focused more on your ability to come up with a good plan or figure out the clues that pointed to a hidden trap or treasure. Character power was at the whim of the dice, making the concept of building your character largely irrelevant. Aside from choosing class and race, you had few decisions to make. How you played your character, rather than how you built it, determined your chances of success.
Against this backdrop, the disparity between wizards and fighters make sense. The fighter was akin to playing in easy mode. You had more hit points, better AC, and access to weapons. All things being equal, when it came time to use the rules to determine if you lived or died, the fighter had a leg up at low levels.
A magic-user had the worst hit points and worst AC. A single attack could kill a mage of even up to 3rd level or even higher (the most infamous example being magic-users slain by house cats). A duel between two casters of even moderate level came down to whoever fired off the first high-level, damaging spell. In some ways, playing a magic-user was like opting for hard mode.
When you think about the game in those terms, the disparity starts to make sense. If you played in easy mode, you had a better chance of survival but a lower ceiling of power. In hard mode, you ran the risk of losing a character in exchange for a shot at accessing powerful spells. On top of that, most DMs forced players to roll up 1st level characters after the loss of a PC. Support for creating characters above 1st level appeared in the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (Appendix P) but was largely aimed at convention play, with the assumption that such characters were not meant for ongoing use in a campaign. When the rest of the group was around 6th level, marching back to 1st level was a real penalty. Not only did you lose your earned experience points, but you also ran the risk of another character death with your weak PC taking on more powerful foes.
Next week, we’ll take a look at how things changed and what that means for the game. I’ll also tie that into how D&D evolves, and what that word actually means for the RPG.
Legends & Lore Poll Results: 04/05
How important is game balance to you in RPGs?
It's very important, not the most important thing but it’s up there: 55.1%
- It's useful but not a huge factor in how I assess an RPG: 21.6%
- It's the most important thing in a game: 12.5%
- Imbalance is fine if it reflects the setting or the genre: 8.3%
- I don't care about balance at all: 2.4%
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.