Tag Archives: Conan

Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains

In “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it,” I showed why Dungeons & Dragons player characters get tons of gold through their career:

  1. Originally, D&D awarded experience points for gold to motivate players to act like Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and the other picaresque heroes of Appendix N.
  2. D&D lured players to more challenging dungeon levels by roughly doubling the treasure and experience available for each level deeper.
  3. The riches of the dungeon gave PCs enough wealth to become leaders who raise armies, launch fleets, and build castles.

Swords Against WizardryThis plan unraveled when nobody chose to abandon the dungeon-crawling fun of their D&D game to put their characters in a different, miniature-battle game. Characters never spent their wealth on armies, fleets, and castles.

In the pulp-fantasy adventures that inspired Gary Gygax, heroes who came upon a windfall tended to spend it on debauchery or lose it to “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar.” This put the heroes back on the road to adventure, chasing their next score.

When Gary saw no players retire to stronghold building, he sought to restore D&D worlds to match Appendix N—and to economic sense. In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), he wrote, “It is important in most campaigns to take excess monies away from player characters,” AD&D’s XP-for-gold system meant Gary couldn’t just impose the obvious solution: Stop giving characters so much loot.

Stronghold Builders GuidebookSo Gary found ways to take gold away. For characters ready to level, AD&D requires weeks for training accompanied by massive expenses. A master thief must spend 2,000 gold per level per week on training, just for tools and equipment. Master thieves demand pearl-encrusted crowbars. If these expenses fail to take enough, Gary suggests taxes. Remember that Conan yarn where the Cimmerian paid taxes? Nope. Few dungeon masters levied taxes because the punishing tedium of tax payments sucks the fun out of the game more quickly than it drains PCs of excess monies. Gary spent a page arguing that taxes add realism, forgetting that no sensible tax collector targets a powerful band of killers, especially if they sometimes prove useful finding missing heirs, thwarting attempts to summon demon gods, and whatnot.

Ultimately, none of the revenue-draining schemes lasted, because D&D players hate losing cash with nearly as much venom as they hate losing magical gear.

Richie Rich DiamondsBy third edition, the game had lost all the original reasons for awarding PCs tons of gold. Nonetheless, the designers followed tradition, so the game still awarded players enough loot to pile Richie Rich-style mountains of diamonds. The Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook tried to raise enthusiasm for the end game, but even the authors write, “Lounging about the stronghold day and night, engaging in the domestic dramas of daily life isn’t the sort of thing that stirs the blood of great heroes.” At least the heroes enjoy pampered luxury; players just experience hiring, expenses, and building management. A few players liked it, but I prefer not to work that hard without a dental benefit plan.

The fourth edition designers decided to deal with the problem of wealth by letting characters spend freely on magic items. Instead of hiring caravans of armored wagons, epic-level players could spend gold on a +6 sword. In this new spirit of player empowerment, magical gear appeared in the Player’s Handbook. Now when an epic-level adventurer wanted to upgrade from a +5 weapon to a +6, she could trade in her old blade and an extra 125 tons of gold for the new item. Call ahead. Ye Olde Magick Shoppe might need to special order some less popular weapons. In fourth edition, a single level-30 weapon matches the value of a fleet of 312 ships or 41,660 horses, a quantity typically referred to as “all of them.” And epic-level characters need more than a single weapon; they require protective gear and other magic with a value comparable to 1,000 ships.

The prices may seem silly, but they worked in play. Epic-level items are best described as priceless, because no one in a game world could pay cash for them. The prices just exist as a game measure for exchange.

Most players ignored the mind-bending economics, but a magic-item trade creates other problems:

Loss of wonder. In the original D&D, Gary meant to restrict descriptions of magic items to dungeon masters so their players could enjoy the thrill of discovery as they found items and learned their powers. Of course, players read all the rules, making this plan untenable. As magic items moved from being secret, to items awarded by the DM, to commodities in the Player’s Handbook, magic items changed from sources of wonder to appliances.

Power creep. When more and more fourth-edition books saw print and PCs gained options and access to more combinations, the game’s balance of power tilted to the players. When one appliance—or combination—proves best, everyone buys it. Soon, dungeon masters yearned for the days when they could limit characters by limiting the magic that entered their game.

Design limitations. In an Escapist interview, Mike Mearls explained D&D Essentials’ magic-item rarities. “If players can buy anything, it really limits the design space you can put out there.” Fourth-edition designers avoided creating magic items that would change the style of the game by, for example, allowing every character to fly or teleport. “If the entire party can fly, it’s much easier to dominate encounters or dungeons or adventures.” Players empowered to buy any item can transform the game. “It turns the game into almost a superhero game. Which is fine, if that’s your style, but it’s not necessarily the default.”

Mike notes that limiting items can put PCs in more interesting predicaments. “If one character can fly, you’re more likely to get in more trouble that you can’t get out of when you can fly ahead of the rest of the party and get surrounded by ogres or something.”

In light of these problems, fifth edition abandoned the magic-item trade. The rules explain, “Aside from a few common magic items, you won’t normally come across magic items or spells to purchase. The value of magic is far beyond simple gold and should always be treated as such.”

Still, D&D’s tradition led players to expect mountains of gold. These riches originally lured players deeper into multi-level dungeons that few ran anymore. These riches built to an end game that no one ever played.

The fifth-edition game holds to the tradition of making PCs rich, so DMs running campaigns and organizers of public play face the challenge of making gold good for something—or breaking tradition.

Next: What is the typical amount of treasure awarded in a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign?

From Blackmoor to Dungeons & Dragons: the invention of the dungeon crawl

In my post, “How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success,” I argued that the invention of the dungeon crawl contributed as much to the initial popularity of Dungeons & Dragons as the invention of the role-playing game. In the dungeon, D&D found a fun and evocative activity for a group of players.

The strangest thing about focusing a game on parties of adventures who explore monster-infested dungeons for treasure is that this activity never happens in the fantasies that inspired the game. At best, you can find elements: treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, traps in a Conan yarn, and so on.

Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor game—the campaign that spawned D&D—began with a gaming group playing fictional versions of themselves in a fantasy world. The characters became champions in series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. Without any further inspiration, the Blackmoor game might have evolved into a role-playing game such as Chivalry & Sorcery, a game I found short on fun. But somehow, Dave invented a new activity that transformed the campaign and ultimately made a lasting addition to popular culture.

Dave Arneson never gave a good account of his invention the dungeon crawl. By the time people started asking, he obviously no longer remembered the details.

Playing at the World by Jon Peterson

Playing at the World by Jon Peterson

I’m currently reading Playing at the World, Jon Peterson’s sprawling, exhaustive investigation of D&D’s genesis. The book spans 700 dense pages, and seems to encompass a lifetime of research. In writing the book, Peterson explored sources like early interviews, court testimony, and Gary and Dave’s contributions to wargaming fanzines in the 60s and 70s. This is no breezy read; Peterson’s style is scholarly: He cites Greek terms in the Greek alphabet. He includes a quarter-page footnote on whether the author of an 1803 book of chess rules spelled his name with one or two “l”s. (I won’t spoil the answer.) But for anyone who shares my interest in D&D’s early history—or in the games and fiction that inspired the game—the book is a feast. I relish every detail. I drew on Peterson’s discussion of the origin of the dungeon for this post.

Blackmoor moves underground

The nascent Blackmoor campaign had very few ingredients that seemed to lead to dungeon delves. The campaign used Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules, which never mention dungeons. At most, they suggest using graph paper to map efforts to tunnel under fortifications.

Dave’s Blackmoor games did include a toy castle, which served as the focus for the above-ground battles. Castles can have dungeons, although in 1971, the dungeon of popular fiction was an underground jail rather than a sprawling compound stocked with monsters and treasure.

Nonetheless, in 1972’s second issue of the campaign newsletter, the “Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger”, Arneson reported on dungeons below the castle where “heroes went looking for adventure and treasure.” In Playing at the World, Jon Peterson writes, “By this point, Arneson had mapped, on a pad of graph paper, a dungeon six levels deep beneath the castle, with each level containing progressively more formidable adversaries.”

So what inspired Arneson to invent the new style of play?

Different Worlds issue 3 June/July 1979

Different Worlds issue 3 June/July 1979

His best account may come from the “My Life in Role Playing” article Dave wrote for Different Worlds issue 3, from June/July 1979. “How did it all start in Blackmoor? I can’t really say. I had spent the previous day watching about five monster movies on Creature Feature weekend (ch. 5), reading a Conan book (I cannot recall which one but I always thought they were much the same) and stuffing myself with popcorn, doodling on a piece of graph paper. I was also quite tired of my [Napoleonic] Campaign with all its rigid rules, etc., and was perhaps rebelling against it too (in fact I’m sure I was!!).”

Robert E. Howard’s influence

While Robert E. Howard’s Conan never willingly enters a dungeon, he often finds himself trapped in dungeons, forced to overcome monsters to earn freedom.

Weird Tales 1935 -The Hour of the Dragon

Weird Tales 1935 -The Hour of the Dragon

In “Hour of the Dragon,” Conan is imprisoned in the dungeon under the palace of King Tarascus in the Nemedian empire. A sympathetic slave girl gives Conan a rough map of the tunnels, and then warns, “Beyond these dungeons lie the pits which are the doors to Hell.” To escape, Conan defeats a monster that was one of “the goblins of Hyborian legendry, and were in reality ogres of the natural world.”

In the “Scarlet Citadel,” Conan finds himself chained in “the very Halls of Horror named in shuddering legendry, the tunnels and dungeons wherein Tsotha performed horrible experiments with beings human, bestial, and, it was whispered, demoniac, tampering blasphemously with the naked basic elements of life itself. Rumor said that the mad poet Rinaldo had visited these pits, and been shown horrors by the wizard, and that the nameless monstrosities of which he hinted in his awful poem, The Song of the Pit, were no mere fantasies of a disordered brain.”

Playing at the World summarizes the events that follow. “Conan also begins his tenure in the dungeon of the ‘Scarlet Citadel’ chained to the wall, though in this case he has been left the plaything of an enormous serpent known as Satha, the Old One. Inadvertently freed by an assassin who came to take his life but instead fell to the serpent, Conan sets out with a torch in one hand and a sword in the other to find an exit from the dungeon. In his exploration he meets other monsters, including humans horribly reshaped by the evil wizard Tsotha. Eventually, he finds himself lost in a maze of tunnels with no obvious exit; its various rooms are described almost thoroughly enough that one could sketch a rudimentary map of the area. Finally, he discovers and liberates Pelias, a rival sorcerer of Tsotha, and together they escape when Pelias conveniently resurrects a deceased eunuch on the other side of the bars who can raise the gate. Jointly, the ‘Hour of the Dragon’ and the ‘Scarlet Citadel’ establish dungeons as places to explore, where monsters reside that must be confronted.”

In “Rogues in the House,” Conan is lost in the pits below the house of the Red Priest, where he evades the traps that slay companions who lack Conan’s “steel-spring quickness.” Although the covered city of “Red Nails” lies above ground, its interior shares the ambiance of a dungeon.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s influence

Arneson names Conan rather Tolkien as a source, but I suspect that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings provided nearly as much inspiration. Tolkien’s parties of heroes keep finding themselves in sprawling, underground compounds.

The Hobbit takes readers into the goblin king’s warrens under the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo gets lost in the tunnels and encounters Gollum. Next, the dwarves are imprisoned by the wood elves in an underground fortress. “The king’s cave was his palace, and the strong place of his treasure, and the fortress of his people against their enemies. It was also the dungeon of his prisoners.” Finally, Bilbo and his party reach the abandoned dwarven city under the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug sleeps in the “great bottommost cellar or dungeon-hall of the ancient dwarves right at the Mountain’s root.” Even though the tunnels under Lonely Mountain do not fit the definition of dungeon as an underground jail, Tolkien takes a bit of poetic license and refers to the halls as a dungeon. The dwarves sing,

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

Unlike any of the Conan tales, in The Hobbit, the adventurers seek the dungeon in search of gold and treasure.

The Lord of the Rings revisits the dungeon again with Moria, the vast underground compound where the fellowship encounters both orcs and the demonic Balrog.

From Blackmoor to Dungeons & Dragons

In 1971, Dave Arneson started with a toy castle and the notion that something might lurk in its cellar. He added a treasure hunt from Tolkien, traps from Robert E. Howard, lurking monsters from both authors—and perhaps from some creature features—to invent a new activity for the characters in his Blackmoor campaign. When Gary Gygax played one of Dave’s Blackmoor games, the experience so fired Gary’s imagination that he went on to do the hard work of fleshing out the game that would become Dungeons & Dragons. In the process, Gary’s imagination and broad knowledge of sword and sorcery would add countless details inseparable from the game. Ultimately, the dungeon crawl proved so compelling that took root in popular culture.