AD&D: Embrace the Imbalance

AD&D is imbalanced.  There, I said it.  The classes are imbalanced.  The races are imbalanced.  Many of the monsters feel imbalanced.  Everything about the game reeks of imbalance.

But is imbalance necessarily a bad thing?  I don’t think so.

Picture by Kevin Thai

My players are just learning the basic combat rules.  We’re only 2 full sessions in, due to crazy schedules, so we’re still working it out.  I’m still working it out.  So as we engaged our first serious combat opportunity, I thought, let’s keep the guard rails on:

4 PCs (a fighter, an assassin, an illusionist-thief, and a cleric)
1 allied PC (Elmo, if you’re familiar with The Village of Hommlet)
3 opposing NPCs (2 bandits and one fenced-in wild horse)

Everything about the encounter reeks of caution:

  • One less NPC than the PCs
  • The wild horse was fenced-in, just in case the 2 bandits were too much

But there was more than meets the eye:

  • The Monster Manual recommends bandits be in group of…wait for it…20-200!
  • Wild horses appear in packs of 5-30

So, yeah, I was pulling my punches.  But why?  I wanted to allow the players to learn the system without their characters getting slaughtered.  Is that so bad to do?  The game feels so imbalanced–weighted against low-level PCs–I don’t want them to get frustrated with the system.  In the end, this is the question I found myself facing:

Can I trust the numbers in the books—or do I need to flub them?

Well, I learned from the experience big-time.  Here’s how:

My players dispatched of the bandits with no problem.  Then they knocked out the horse.  All in a matter of two rounds.  And then?  The treasure.  I rolled on the treasure table (MM, 105) and they made bank.  To the tune of one player went from 0xp to Level 3 amounts of XP.  What the heck happened?

If there had been 20-200 bandits, it would have been hard to kill any of them, let alone get that large chunk of cash.  Gygax wasn’t no idiot.  He rewarded players for riskThe bigger the risk, the bigger the treasure.  By monkeying around with the numbers, I jacked up the system.  It may be imbalanced, but it’s not broken.

So if you’re wanting to be an AD&D Dungeon Master, here are my three tips for embracing the imbalance in encounter design:

Know the difference between the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Masters Guide

The MM and DMG are two different kinds of resources for DMs.

The Monster Manual is a book of biology and ecology.  You’ll learn that wild horses usually move in packs.  You’ll learn how bandits organize themselves and how they are led.  If you want your players to have a natural experience of stumbling on a bandit camp, by all means use the stats and treasure in the Monster Manual.  It will be awesome.

The Dungeon Masters Guide gives sound advice for encounters.  This is where “Appendix C: Random Monster Encounters” really shines.  It sorts out what kinds of threats should be thrown at certain level parties.  It tells you how many enemies are a reasonable amount.  It gives levels of treasure appropriate to the risk.  And, on top of all that, it’s in random tables, so that you can be quick about it.

If you want to embrace the imbalance as a DM, you’ve got to know the purpose of these two resources.  Each fits a very different, but appropriate purpose.

Choose the type of encounter you want to create

Are you training your players?  Use the DMG.

Are you trying to create a sense of danger?  Use the MM.

Are you giving them a taste of the world they’re living in?  Use the MM.

Are you pursuing a quest that, while important, is not worth dying over?  Use the DMG.

Of course, all of this can be solved by running modules.  But as I’m learning very quickly, not all of them have encounters just laid out for you.  You’ve got to do some encounter design yourself.  If you want to embrace the imbalance as a DM, you’ve got to choose the type of encounter you want to create–and then use the appropriate resource.

Award treasure appropriate to the level of risk

Do I regret giving my players all that gold and the XP that comes with it?  Nah, especially since you don’t level up automatically (more on that soon).  But if I’d known what I know now, I would have done it differently.

Don’t flub the numbers.  Instead, if an encounter is built using the MM, let it be risky and use its treasure table.  Meanwhile if you build an encounter using DMG’s Appendix C, let it be less risky and use its treasure tables.  There’s nothing wrong with either approach–just know what you’re aiming for.

In the end, that will ensure you’re awarding treasure appropriate to the level of risk.  And that will not only be satisfying to your players–it’ll be satisfying to you as a DM.  That’s what you get when you embrace the imbalance and just dive in.

What’s next?

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6 thoughts on “AD&D: Embrace the Imbalance

  1. That instant XP bump is why we made a house rule that XP in a session can never take you further than +1 level -1 XP from next level. So, that character would have only had enough XP then for 2nd level + (XP required for 3rd level -1). That rule kept players from jumping levels too quickly when an “imbalance” like this occurred. Now as we discussed on the podcast, later we removed XP for treasure completely and instead did XP for defeating monsters, finishing quests and roleplaying. But that is another entire set of house rules.

    • MadCleric says:

      Great idea! Yeah, we’re continuing to do our darndest to play rules-as-written. But there are a lot of concepts (like the one addressed in the blog) that are not made clear until you make the mistakes.

  2. That’s actually a rule in most of the old D&D sets. The original Basic Set: “No more experience points should be awarded for a single game than will move a character up one experience “level.” The AD&D 1E DMG has a similar rule on page 86, where XP gains are limited once you go up a level until you’ve trained for the new level. So once you get enough for leveling, you don’t get the rest b/c you haven’t trained yet.

    • MadCleric says:

      Yeah, I’m actually planning to write about leveling next week. It’s a pretty great rule. Didn’t know the rule from the Basic set, though. Thanks for the heads up!

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