Saturday, March 26, 2016

Toward a History of RPG Mechanics, Part 9: Greyhawk

When Dungeons & Dragons was first published, its creators had no idea that it was going to be as successful as it was. Indeed, Gygax didn't even bother to register a copyright for the original printing!

It was also not expected that D&D would far outsell Chainmail, with the result that the vast majority of players were using the "alternative combat system". Under this system, the weapons characters used were irrelevant: the chance to hit was completely determined by the level and class of the attacker and armor class of the defender, and all weapons did the same damage (1d6). The Chainmail combat system handled weapon differences by giving each weapon type a unique profile of chances to hit different armor types, and by a set of initiative rules that were highly dependent on the weapon being used. This was all lost with the alternative combat system, though - indeed, D&D didn't even have an initiative system of its own, and one was supplied in the very first D&D FAQ, presented in The Strategic Review, volume 1, issue 2.

A fix for all this was one of the major changes to the D&D system in Greyhawk, the first supplement to be produced for Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax took a two-pronged approach: first, he introduced variable damage by weapon type, establishing the classic D&D weapon damages: 1d4 for a dagger, 1d8 for a long sword, and so forth. Monsters were also given different damage values for their attacks. Second, he added a table of "to hit" modifiers by weapon type vs. armor type, bringing some of Chainmail's sophistication in that regard into D&D. At the same time, the "alternative combat system" was declared to now be the official combat system of D&D in TSR's house organ of the time, The Strategic Review.

The second major change was to fix the progression of hit points and hit dice. Originally, D&D used only six-sided dice for determining character hit points. This resulted in some... shall we say, 'interesting', hit die progressions.

In Greyhawk, this was replaced by the much simpler expedient of using different types of dice for the different classes. Thus, magic-users now rolled a d4 each level, adding the new result to their existing hit points, so that hit points could only ever go up. Fighters used a d8, and clerics a d6.

A third major change was to how ability scores were used. Instead of providing adjustments of +1 or -1 to various things, they provided larger adjustments, ranging up to +3. Strength especially was expanded on, with high strength giving bonuses to hit and to damage, to how much weight could be carried, and to the chance to open dungeon doors.

Even more was added than that, however: Fighters (which was the name now primarily used in Greyhawk instead of the official class title of "Fighting-Man") who were lucky enough to have an 18 Strength could roll percentile dice for "exceptional strength", with a 50% chance of increasing their Strength even above the bonuses granted by an 18. With a roll of 00, the fighter would gain a massive +4 to hit and +6 to damage.

The use of Intelligence for magic-users was also expanded on, with  those of below 17 intelligence unable to use the highest levels of spells (on a sliding scale, so that a 17 was required for 9th-level spells, but only an 11 for 6th level spells).

Charisma acquired no new functions for the general run of characters, but fighters with a 17 or higher score could become Paladins if they were of Lawful alignment. The paladin gained a number of other special abilities. At low levels, these were not very significant, but as the paladin advanced, they became more significant.

Constitution had its bonuses increased, to a potential +3 hit points per hit die.

A Brief Aside/Rant

Why was the significance of ability scores changed so much? I would suggest that Gygax realized that while a +1 or -1 was quite significant in the Chainmail combat system, which relied on 2d6, it was much less important in the alternative combat system, based on 1d20. With 2d6, the increase in chance to hit varied from 5.56% (if a 12 was needed to hit), to 16.67% (if an 8 was needed). With 1d20, a +1 always increased the chance to hit by 5% - less than the minimum possible in the 2d6-based system. A +2 was comparable, but simply making the modifiers -2/0/+2 probably felt non-intuitive... leading to the +1/+2/+3 progression, to allow those with the highest ability scores a little something extra.

However, the net effect of all these changes was to make players' luck when generating characters much more significant. In original D&D, one needed a 12 or higher to get a +1 from an ability. On 3d6, the chance of rolling a 12 or higher is 37.5%. Since you'd roll 6 abilities, the chance that you'd have a bonus in at least one was 94%... so your character was almost certainly good at something. The changes, however, moved the improvement points up: with Strength, at least a 13 was needed to get any bonus; with Constitution, a 15 was now needed to get a bonus. These may not seem like a big difference... but on 3d6, the chance of getting a 13 or better is 26%, compared to the 37.5% for a 12... and to get a bonus to hit comparable to what a 12 gave originally, a 17 Strength was now needed... which only about 2% of characters would have. Meanwhile, the Constitution change meant that the chance of getting a hit point bonus was only about 10%.

Worst of all, though, were the 17 requirement for Charisma to become a paladin (again, a 2% chance on 3d6), and exceptional Strength for fighters. 1 in 216 characters were even eligible for the latter. Those lucky enough to get an 18/00 Strength - 1 in 21,600 - gained huge bonuses. A +4 to hit, equivalent for attack purposes to an extra six levels as a fighter, coupled with a +6 to damage, more than doubling damage output for a typical fighter.

Even without the 100 roll, the +2 to hit for an 18 Strength was equivalent to about 3 fighter levels for attack purposes, and the +3 damage would nearly double damage output.

Compounding this were the experience point adjustments for high ability scores... so not only were these lucky few much more effective in play, they also would increase in power faster.

Later additions to D&D would continue this trend of what I like to call "piling rewards on the lucky". Players of fighters began to feel that they couldn't compete without having at least a 17 (in either Strength, giving them a significant attack and damage bonus, or Charisma, giving them access to the paladin option). This led to the adoption of various alternative methods of character generation, from the famous "4d6, drop the lowest" method, to such variations as "everyone gets to make their highest score into an 18". Eventually, this ability score inflation would culminate with the character generation method given in Unearthed Arcana for AD&D, where the player would roll 9d6 and keep the best 3 for their most important ability, 8d6 for the next most significant, and so on.

The Thief

Of much more importance to the history of D&D, however, Greyhawk introduced the fourth of D&D's classic "core four" classes: the Thief. This class was given a d4 for hit points, like the magic-user; however, it rose in levels faster, so that at low to middle levels, a thief would tend to have more hit points than a magic-user playing in the same game.

Of course, with the thief came the concept of thieving skills. In Greyhawk, these were

open locks
remove traps
hear noise
move silently
hide in shadows
climb sheer surfaces

and "strike silently from behind" - the ability that would later be known as "backstab" (and still later, "sneak attack"). This last was the thief's best attack ability, giving a +4 to hit (on 1d20), and doubling damage done (moving up to triple damage at 5th level, quadruple at 9th, and so on).

The existing player races were all allowed to be thieves, giving dwarves and halflings a second class option (both were only able to be fighting-men in original D&D). Elves could choose to be purely a thief, or to be a fighter/magic-user/thief, in which case they were required to divide experience evenly among all three classes. None of these races had a level limit as thieves.

Greyhawk also introduced increased level limits for non-human characters with high ability scores. Where previously dwarves had been limited to 6th level as fighters, they could now reach 7th if they had a 17 Strength, or 8th with an 18. Elves could reach 6th level as fighters (with 18 Strength), and 9th as magic-users (with 18 Intelligence).

Dwarves and elves could also become clerics... but only as NPCs. All dwarven clerics were fighter/clerics (with the term "fighter" being used, instead of "fighting-man"). Elven clerics were fighter/magic-user/clerics.

While halflings couldn't be clerics at all, those wanting to be clerics did have a race option other than human - the newly introduced half-elf. Like elves, they could be fighter/magic-users, but their limits as such were lower than those for elves. For their clerical option, well, let me quote the rules:
"There are no helf-elf clerics, for in this regard their human side prevails. However, half-elves with a basic Wisdom score of 13 or more may also become clerics. If they so opt all experience will be divided in equal proportions between fight, magic use, and clericism. Half-elves may work up as high as the 4th level (Vicar) clerically."
(And yes, "helf-elf" is what is actually written. My copy is the 4th printing.)

I'll note that there is no mention of thieves in the half-elf description at all. This makes me wonder whether "There are no half-elf thieves" is what was intended... but what does "for in this regard their human side prevails" mean? That doesn't seem to make sense for either clerics or thieves, since humans can be either!

In any case, though, the strict three-way division of experience is interesting here and with the elven fighter/magic-user/thief. Given that AD&D would require all multi-classed characters to divide their experience evenly, and that when the Basic line branched off, its elves would effectively do the same, I have to wonder whether Gygax became unhappy with the elf's ability to switch back and forth between the two classes in original D&D.

Next Time

These level limits probably seem ridiculously low to those used to more modern versions of D&D - a maximum of 9th level for elven magic-users? Maxing out at 6th level as a fighter? Why would anyone play an elf at all under these restrictions?

We'll discuss this next time, as this post is getting a bit long, and the next part of Greyhawk's changes - those to experience point awards - really invites some comparison among editions. So, join us next time as we talk about Experience and Levels in Early D&D!


  1. I always enjoyed playing in Oerth, back 15 years ago when last I was able to play in it.

  2. I always enjoyed playing in Oerth, back 15 years ago when last I was able to play in it.