Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cinder and the Normal Man

From my notebook of OD&D house rules:


A 4th level Fighter is a Hero indeed, an adventurer worthy of a bard's praise. Veterans of many wars may never reach such lofty heights. In fact, nearly all people encountered will be Normal Men and Normal Women of 1 Hit Die and no levels, including many knights and hereditary nobles.

Similarly, most of the clergy at the various temples are Normal. In the safeties of civilization some so-called Patriarchs may be nothing more than Normal Man ecclesiastical bureaucrats. The ability to Turn Undead is generally considered a sign to expect great things from a young acolyte.

Even the Magic-User Guild has its share of Normal type people, forming a body of almost-apprentices who work as assistants to various higher grade MU's. About 1 in 6 such assistants have some minor skill with spells. See below.

1) Can cast a first level spell per week.
2) Can cast a first level spell per month.
3) Can cast a single first level spell once per day. (E.g. only understands a single spell)
4) Can Overcast 1/day as MU2 but -2 to the overcast roll.
5) Can write scrolls twice as slowly as an MU1.
6) May research spells at double cost or assist others in such research.

The basic deal is that in my low-level oriented setting having even one level in an adventuring class is a Big Honkin' Deal. The town guards? Almost assuredly Normal Men. The king's vizier? He may not be a wizard, but instead just a really clever dude with one hit die.

The last three items on the d6 chart for assistant magic-users were written under an earlier draft of my house rules for MUs and don't make a lot of sense outside that context. Still, I think you can get the general idea.


  1. Anonymous8:38 PM

    I like this and am using something fairly similar in my own B/X game.

    Ryan Stoughton's "E6" hack for D&D 3.5 caps the game at the first six levels--if you're Level 6, you're an epic hero with powers never before seen.

    Although this approach has its own benefits in 3.5, I think overall it's very sensible for most versions of the game.

    First: this method, or something like it, makes the players feel like somebodies right from the start. Second: given the difficulties of scheduling, odds are good that you're never going to get past Level 6 anyway, so why not top off there, instead of feeling unfulfilled? Third: the lower levels have a real "life is cheap" feel, not to mention an absence of magic, that suits more of a Sword & Sorcery feel.

    My own scaling is a bit like this:

    Level 1 = promising bad-ass
    Level 2 = seasoned veteran
    Level 3 = supervisor, boss
    Level 4 = renowned hero
    Level 5 = best in living memory
    Level 6 = best ever, mythical

  2. This is exactly how I've come to view classes as well. They're not occupations, they're rare and significant archetypal roles.

    It's one of those things that I initially welcomed with d20 ("Hey! Everyone gets a class now! That makes much more sense.") before I realized it really just adds an unnecessary level of complexity to the game and kind of de-protagonizes the PCs.

    When I want occupational character classes I'll go play Palladium (which is to say, probably never).

  3. Oh, also, the thing about the sub-apprentices reminds me of a little house rule I've been contemplating where basically there's a chance anyone might know a cantrip or two, just like (if magic=technology) there are folks who aren't IT gurus who know how to code a website or set up a network, say. I just think a magic-rich environment like your average D&D world, there'd be good odds for picking up little helpful bits of magic here and there.

  4. I heartily endorse this product or service.

    One thing I regularly alter in old Judges Guild products is the "ambient NPC level" ... nearly everyone in the City State of the Invincible Overlord, for instance, has multiple levels in an adventuring class. I lower most of them to "Normal Man" level; the true movers and shakers are still pretty high-level, but maybe not as high as published. I assume the leveled NPCs are an artifact of early PC parties who treated cities like dungeons.

    sirlarkins, you probably already know this, but RuneQuest similarly had most sentient creatures knowing at least a little bit of magic to make their swords sharper or arrows truer.

  5. One thing that I only came to realise a few years ago is that classless level 0 characters are blank slates with absolutely no restrictions. A level 0 apprentice can be given the ability to use a Read Magic once per day, a level 0 member of the Thieves' Guild can have Move Silently 50% without recourse to a class, and a level 0 knight can attack as though a level 5 fighter.

    There was a good thread on the subject of classes, levels and hit dice over at Knights & Knaves a few months back:

  6. Anonymous9:45 AM

    To echo what Matthew, I think it's always ok to cheat as long you keep it from overshadowing other things. Fun first, rules second. I do this with both PCs and NPCs. It's ok to give NPCs powers beyond 1st level characters if it's reasonable to their role - they're not on the hero track and aren't going to get powerful enough to develop it.

    This is especially true with magic abilities, that may or may not mimic a spell. You can, for example, have an NPC with the unfailing ability to know what someone ate last -it's outside the rules but won't break anyting.


  7. This is really cool - and I like the idea that ordinary people can have different sorts of abilities. But I think I have a nit to pick - seems to me that there are more heroes in the world than just the player-characters. Conceptually, there have to be retired heroes, other heroes in the making, etc., don't you think?

    On the basis of "demographics", Lew Pulsipher did an article in Space Gamer about this - if you assume that leveled characters are one in one hundred, and there's two or three or four for of these for each one at the next higher level, you quickly discover that 15th-20th level characters are almost literally one in a hundred million. This might seem statistically abstract, but I like it for the sense of scale it provides.

  8. Well, I wouldn't call it cheating. ;)

    There are some interesting examples in Temple of Elemental Evil for how NPCs might be represented in diverse ways. There is, for instance, a retired fighter who is described as being "still somewhat in practice, equivalent to level 4" and a Tailor so skilled with the Crossbow that he attacks with it as though a tenth level fighter.

    In many ways it is helpful to think of Classes and Levels as not absolute things, but simply short cut descriptions for how a given character interacts with the rule set. Certainly, retired adventurers with same ability sets as a player character of a given class and level might exist, but they could also be described as a "Level 0 Character with the following abilities..."

    The rules are guidelines, illusionary shackles, don't let them tie your hands.

  9. But I think I have a nit to pick - seems to me that there are more heroes in the world than just the player-characters.

    Oh, sure. There are other people with levels in the world. It's that they are not as prominent as suggested by the DMG City Encounter chart, for example.

  10. Anonymous11:36 PM

    This system would work well for me, very rarely have any of my players pushed a PC past level 8.

  11. Anonymous6:16 PM

    Seems to me there is no 'better' way, it depends entirely on what you want to do.

    If you want the PC to end up being more powerful than nearly everyone, that's perfectly valid. Superman is popular for a reason after all. Making the police of Metropolis on par with Superman wouldn't work every well.

    Making the PCs small fish in a big pond works better for some campaigns as well. Giving Tony super strength and heat vision would not improve the Sopranos.

    Luckily, its pretty simple to change the game to what you want simply by altering the levels of the NPC's.