Slowing it Down

I discovered a new (to me) blog with some interesting content at Against the Wicked City.  One of the posts, The long haul: time and distance in D&D, discusses the author’s desire to play the game and advance PCs on a different timescale, so that campaigns take place over the course of years of in-game time rather than days of in-game time.

I agree with pretty much all of the author’s reasons for wanting to do this. I too have wrestled with the unreality of having a first level nobody become a demigod in as little as 60 days. I have just worked on the solution at a different angle.

In fact, there were several things I was trying to work on at the same time.  I was trying to find a way to slow down levelling.  I was trying to find a way to support a game that included having castles and troops such as are granted at “name” level in 1e.  And I was trying to find a way to support player desires for character optimization using in-game PC choices.

To understand how I got to where I got, you need to consider four elements:

  • In 1e, PCs have to train between levels.  Training takes 1-4 weeks and is very expensive; we eventually changed this rule to require training only when the PC gained a new feature, advanced a column on the “To Hit” table, or advanced a row on the saving throw table.
  • In 1e, at “name” level (usually 9th to 11th) many classes get the ability to clear land, erect a stronghold and gain followers, leading to a campaign centered around that position rather than just the pure dungeon delve.  I always wanted to run and/or play in a campaign like that, and as it turns out, so did at least one of my DMs, but we could never figure out how to do it.  Lets call this a “macro” campaign.  Most of my thoughts and partial solution to the macro campaign will have to wait for another post, but some of those thoughts cross over into this topic.
  • In 4e, not all options (powers, feats, paragon paths etc.) are created equal.  The CharOp folks generally rank options as red (crappy), purple (not totally useless or conceivably useful for corner-case builds), black (workable), blue (good), sky blue (very good) and gold (must-have’s unless you have a very good reason for not taking them).
  • In 4e treasure functions primarily as a resource for purchasing a level-appropriate number of magic items.  Mess with the types of things money gets spent on, and you have to mess with the whole system.
  • One of the traditions in my gaming group has always been that, if the player wants something specific, the PC needs to quest for it.

What I came up with was a system where, whenever a PC gains a level and is entitled to select from one or more options, said PC must find someone to teach the option and spend a certain amount of in-game time learning the option.  The better the option, the harder it is to find a teacher and the longer it takes to learn.

When you gain a level, you get the associated non-optional benefits of levelling right away.  This includes gains to hit points, 1/2 level bonuses, and rule elements you gain automatically like power strike.  For any element for which there is an option, however, you can only automatically take an option if it is ranked “red”.  If you want something better, you have to find someone to teach you, and you have to take the time to learn it.

A red option is automatically available and can be learned right away (there are exceptions for options that are ranked “red” not because they are bad, but because another option is clearly better at the same thing).

A purple option is commonly available and can be learned almost anywhere, and takes 1 unit of time to learn (I was initially using weeks, but that changed for reasons you will see below).

A black option is less commonly available, but can probably be learned at any school (or monastery, or whatever), or from graduates of a school, and takes two time units to learn.

A blue option is available at certain schools and takes three time units to learn.

A sky blue option is only available at one school and takes four time units to learn.

A gold option can only be learned from a particular grandmaster, who must be convinced to teach the PC, and takes six time units to learn.

A “time unit” was originally a week, keeping in step with the 1e training rules.  However, I decided to change it when I read the “Long haul” article to accommodate one of my other objectives, namely, to hand-waive the cost of training whenever possible.

See, my thought was and is, the length of training should assume that the PC has acquired a day job, or was doing odd-jobs, and that the training was part-time.  The day job supports the PC and pays the cost of the training, and the PC never has to dip into his hoard (and the player doesn’t have extra bookkeeping, and the DM doesn’t have to figure out how much extra treasure to award to make it all work).

But what if the PC was in a rush, and wanted to pay?  How much would it cost, and how much less time would training take?  I had been struggling with finding a shorter time, when I read Manola’s article and realized that what I really needed was to lengthen the time for part-time training.  If training took months, not weeks, it would really slow down the adventuring year, and make a macro campaign more doable.  If the PC wanted to pay for it out of his share of the loot, it could take weeks instead, since he could train full time.

So here is the current beta version of the rule:

  1. When a PC gains a level, he automatically receives any benefits that are not optional.  He also receives either any available “red” option, or any option for which he has pre-trained (see paragraph 5 below).
  2. In order to gain an option better than red, the PC must find someone to train him in the option, and must spend time learning the option as follows:
    • Purple Option – teacher:  common; time:  1 unit.
    • Black Option – teacher:  uncommon; time:  2 units.
    • Blue Option – teacher:  rare; time:  3 units.
    • Sky Blue Option – teacher: very rare; time:  4 units.
    • Gold Option – teacher:  unique; time:  6 units.
  3. The PC may re-train any option at any time, provided he qualifies for the option, has a teacher and takes the requisite time (this in in fact how he gets a better option when he levels if he automatically received a “default” red option).
  4. If the PC is training an option he previously held but re-trained out of, he does not require a teacher and may do so in 1 time unit, regardless of the difficulty of the option.
  5. The PC may pre-train for options that he will take the next time he levels.  For instance, when a PC is 9th level he may pre-train for the utility power and feat that he gains at 10th level.
  6. If a PC trains more than one option, the time taken is cumulative, not concurrent.  For example, a 9th level character pre-training for 10th level must spend the time to pre-train the utility power plus the time to pre-train the feat.
  7. If a PC trains part-time, a unit equals one month, and cost nothing.  The PC is deemed to support himself and the cost of his training through some sort of employment during the training period.
  8. If a PC trains full time, a unit equals one week, and costs one-fifth of the cost of a magic item of the PC’s level for each week of training.  The PC is training full time and cannot defray the cost of training and living expenses with other income.
  9. A PC may attempt to train himself without a teacher.  Such training must be full-time training, but takes four times as long.  At the end of the training period, the PC makes a hard skill check using a skill deemed by the DM to be related to the option.  If the check succeeds, the PC has learned the option; if the check fails, the training must be repeated.

The DM has more control over the timing than you might think.  For instance, if the PC has a patron who needs the PC to be out in the world, the patron may pick up the cost of accelerated training.  Consider also this take on a 1e magic item:

Manual of Puissant Skill at Arms: rare level 10/20/30 consumable.  Effect:  you study the Manual during an extended rest.  At the end of the extended rest you may re-train any feat, power or other option which can be retrained, to a martial option of your choice for which you meet the prerequisites.   If the feat, power or other option has a level, the new option must be of 10th/20th/30th level or below.  Feats must be of the Heroic/Paragon/Epic tier or below.

Note this allows for significant amounts of retraining if there is a long period of time between adventures.

Note also that since PC’s have to find teachers and convince them to train them, options are hooks, and teachers are potential patrons, quest-givers, sources of information or McGuffin people.

And for the types of campaigns I want to run, the time frames are just what the doctor ordered.



To Speed Up Design, Simplify

This post comes out of a conversation I was having in the comment section of a post over at Dungeon of Signs.  I had mentioned that I was running the sort of game I run in 4e, and Gus L said

I can respect the effort it must take to run a sandbox 4e game and if you enjoy it, that’s great.

The thing is, it really isn’t any more work.  At all.  When I played 1e, and by action of the dice or decision of the players we ended up in a fight with 1-6 orcs, we just plonked our minis down, the DM would mark the location of the orcs with a grease pencil (minis were expensive), mark any relevant terrain that occurred to him, and we would run the fight.

Technically each orc could have a different weapon which did different damage and theoretically had different speed factors and bonuses or penalties against various types of armor.  But I think we ignored all that:  “DAMAGE/ATTACK: 1-8 or by weapon type” meant 1-8 damage.  So all the orcs were the same but for having difference hit points from each other.

And there weren’t that many different types of creatures, and orcs are listed as “common”, so the PCs could expect to encounter orcs over and over again in the course of their careers.  And we never really got bored of it.

On the other hand, when you play with published 3e or 4e adventures you get used to set piece battles with the gorgeous battle maps with terrain carefully (actually, generally poorly) designed to make the battle unique and interesting.  And the battles often have a mix of creatures with complicated mechanics, again intended to make the battle unique and interesting.  Generally you don’t encounter the same mix of creatures often within a given adventure.

Added to this, the 4e DMG goes on at considerable length about the importance of mixing up the terrain and different types of terrain, and how this maintaining a mix of monsters in an encounter group will make your encounters better.

So you dutifully keep your players entertained by spending investing time in elaborate battle maps and a great variety of monsters with different abilities, and your players rarely have to deal with the same type of monster more than a couple of times, and never has to deal with the same mix of monster twice.

At which point the temptation arises to nudge your players toward the set-piece you worked so hard on because it irks you to have that effort wasted.

I think, like a lot of people, I got sucked into that for a while.  Until the frustration as to how much time it took me to design adventures, in relation to the amount of time I got to spend actually playing them grew to the point that I started looking for another way.

I spend so much time reading OSR blogs I don’t know why it took me so long, but I eventually realized I could just run things the way I used to run them.  If a battle with 1-6 identical orcs on an improvised map was fun then, why wouldn’t it be fun now?  Random encounters are not usually meant to be epic battles, they are meant to be potential resource wasters, the increased risk of which is the cost of certain types of choices by the players.

You can run them, and plenty of other battles, on an improvised battle mat.  You can use only one kind of creature – and by one kind of creature I mean, for example, 1-6 Orc Raiders, not 1-6 orcs comprised of a mix of Orc Raiders, Orc Berserkers, and Orc Eyes of Gruumsh.

You can use that same kind of creature over and over again, partially because figting Orc Raiders in a room is not the same as fighting Orc Raiders in a corrider, or fighting Orc Raiders in a forest, or on a bridge, or attacking them in a fortified camp; but also because if the PCs fight Orc Raiders several times the players are going to get good at it, and players like to get good at things.  Fashions in 3e and 4e encounter design really rob players of the opportunity to get good at things.

And you as the DM will get good at running Orc Raiders, which then frees up your brain to do other things, like adjudicating your game using common sense instead of slavish adherence to the rules, or encouraging and adjudicating crazy player schemes on the fly.  After you have started to get a handle on Orc Raiders, you can throw in Orc Berserkers, or an Orc Eye of Gruumsh, or an Orc Chieftain, and give it your full attention, because Orc Raiders are easy for you now.

You don’t have to take on the cognitive load of running a handful of new monsters every time you run a fight.  You have a group of players who have customized their characters to one degree or another, know their abilities well and have experience with the best strategies for using those abilities.  And yet in every fight you have to process and develop strategies for two or three new monsters with new abilities and cobble that into a challenge for the players?  That is not a lot of fun for most people.

So when you introduce a new category of monsters, pick a particular monster in that category and run with it for a while.  Don’t add a new one to the mix until you are comfortable with the old one.  If the type of monster includes a skirmisher, start by using the skirmishers; they usually work well with each other as a group and are not dependent on support from monsters with other roles.  If there are no skirmishers, brutes and soliders will do.  Then add other roles over time, never adding more than one type of monster that you are not comfortable with at a time.

So the first level of your dungeon does not have kobolds and goblins (among other monsters), it has Kobold Quickblades and Goblin Warriors.  There may be the odd Kobold Wyrmpriest or Dragonshield, or goblin Hex Hurler as a commander in one of the rooms, but the wandering monsters will all be skirmishers.

Also go for simple battle maps without a lot of embellishment, and with only relevant features marked.  Ever have the problem with beautifully rendered maps that, since everything looks like difficult terrain, the players treat none of it as difficult terrain?  Or they infer something from the map details which you did not intend, because the only reason the mapmaker put it there was to look cool, or because you cribbed the map or the object from another source? That can be avoided if the floor is blank except where you have marked trees or rubble, or other things that are supposed to be interacted with.

This can be hard to do on the fly if you use a virtual tabletop and you are used to finding exactly the right object to convey your intention.  But when it comes to terrain, you really only need a few symbols, and it is more important that they be legible than pretty.  Take it from an old-timer, you don’t need pretty battle maps to suspend disbelief.  In terms of terrain, if you have a way to mark difficult terrain, water, big trees, little trees, undergrowth, and a few different types of zones, you are pretty much good to go.

You can do a lot with simple paint tools:  This large red square is a bed, the two blobs beside it are nightstands, that bigger blob is a dresser, and the blob at the end of the bed is a chest.  The blue blob is a pool of water.  The area marked with difficult terrain markers is mud.  The blue wavy line is a stream.  The brown wavy line is a road.

One final tip:  most tree symbols mislead players and DMs as to how the terrain should work.  A tree is normally portrayed as a trunk surrounded by a thick mass of leaves, but players and DMs always seem to forget that the leaves are above the PCs’ heads, not surrounding them or under their feet, and seem to think the leaves are either difficult terrain or grant concealment.  They are not and do not.  You are better off with a light brown circle to convey “tree” and its only mechanical effects of difficult terrain (in the trunk’s square only, not under the entire canopy of leaves) and providing cover.

Run Away! Keep Running!

Sometime you get in over your head and need to retreat. But running away is harder in 4e than in 1e.

In 1e you had a simple rule for breaking off from melee: monster gets a free swing at the fleeing character (DMG p. 70). The procedures for dealing with pursuit, on the other hand, took nearly two pages of small font, with different subsystems for pursuit outdoors and pursuit underground. We never used them, and I’m not going to parse them out for the purposes of this article. It was more of a chase mechanic than a disengaging mechanic, and despite the attempt to systemize it, it boiled down to ad hoc adjudication.

In 4e disengaging is similar to 1e because of opportunity attacks (although it is less of an issue if you still have an action point). However, a significant complicating factor is the individual initiative mechanic. First edition generally assumed group initiative (individual initiative was possible but Gygax warned against it as too complicated – and then proceeded to outline even more complicated rules respecting initiative for creatures with multiple attacks and different speed factors – see DMG p. 62-3).

When you have group initiative, everyone gets to flee at the same time without interruption by the monsters – opportunity attacks excepted. With individual initiative, on the other hand, when the PCs high in the initiative flee, they often leave holes in the line that allow team monster to move to block the retreat of the remaining PCs, or to focus fire upon them. This especially sucks when the team defender would be the first to retreat.

The answer to this in 4e is to delay your turn until all of the PCs are acting on the same initiative count. Then they can retreat in a coordinated fashion.

The objective, on the first round of retreat, is to get far enough away from team monster that they cannot attack you on a move-charge. If you are outside the range that the monsters can reach in one move action and one charge action, this means if they want to attack you they can only take a single move action in the round, and will have to use ranged attacks. Many monsters don’t have ranged attacks, or have weak ranged attacks, so this should reduce the number and quality of attacks you need to deal with, while making you more likely to outdistance the monsters.

Getting outside of charge range likely means making a double-move, even if you have to risk the opportunity attack. Even if you are at low hit points, if you risk the opportunity attack you are only dead on a hit; whereas not risking the opportunity attack means you are almost certainly dead once team monster gets the initiative and everyone gets a swing.

Getting outside of charge range probably also means running (if you are fighting orcs it definitely means running). Don’t be afraid to risk granting combat advantage due to the run. If you run and grant +2 to team monster’s attacks, but team monster has to run to catch up, and suffers a -5 penalty on its attacks, you are better off.

If you are moving 14 squares per turn at a run (going at the slowest PC’s pace), and the monsters are moving 5 or 6 squares per turn so they can stop and shoot at you, you will quickly outpace them. It only take a round or two to get out of range of most missile and magical ranged attacks; javelin and bow attacks take a little longer if you are outdoors, but there are likely to be fewer of them, and the archers were probably in the back row anyway.

Don’t forget your unspent action points, which can be used to attack in a retreat round (attacks that slow, immobilize, blind, daze or stun can be handy), or by leaders to grant extra movement. Keeping caltrops and tanglefoot bags on hand can be handy for the non-casters. Also don’t forget your minor actions if you have any that can help; for example, unused healing powers can shore up characters who are in danger of being taken out by an opportunity attack or a ranged attack. The four-sided caltrops from Dragon 417 can also be deployed as a minor action.

If there are PCs who are unconscious, slowed, immobilized, or otherwise unable to retreat effectively, you have a choice to make. A healthy defender might be able to hold off team monster while the afflicted attempt saving throws or limp away; an unhealthy defender might also be able to do that if you are willing to sacrifice the defender to save the others. Sometimes you just can’t save everybody, and free PCs at least have an opportunity to rescue or bargain for captive PCs.

If you are in an area with choke points and terrain that limits the effectiveness of enemy missile fire (like the winding passages of a dungeon), then it is possible to run a fighting retreat against a significantly superior enemy. This usually means shoring up your defender, who provides cover to everyone else, and moving into positions where the enemy can’t bring many attacks to bear but the PCs can. Winding passages work well for this.

If you get to a door, close it. Bar it, lock it or spike it if you can. In 1e adventurers carried iron spikes for various purposes; this was one of them. Remember Hold Portal is only a standard action to cast, and anyone in the party can donate the healing surge if the Ritual Caster is running low.

Do that and you might just avoid a TPK. And avoid tempting your GM to cheat to keep you alive.

The Deterministic Ogre

See here and the Hack & Slash quantum ogre series for the inspiration for this article.

For those of you not in the know, there is a discussion among certain OSR bloggers who care about player agency involving the concept of a “quantum ogre”.  The quantum ogre refers to a form of negation of player agency where, if the characters make choices that would allow them to avoid an encounter, the encounter is moved in time or space so that the characters encounter it anyway.  The ogre is encountered despite the choices of the players.

“Quantum ogre”, which I believe is a reference to Schrodinger’s cat, is actually a misnomer.  It implies some randomness or uncertainty regarding the ogre, whereas the ogre is actually characterized by its certainty.  In contrast to Schrodinger’s cat, its existence is certain.  Moreover, its existence in time and space is also determinable by its proximity to the PCs.  It is a “deterministic ogre”.

An ogre on a random monster table, by contrast, does not have a guaranteed existence.  Until the random monster check, or hazard die check, neither players nor GM know whether the monster exists.  It is “Schrodinger’s ogre”.

Unless it also appears as a keyed entry – it is a “wandering monster” as opposed to a “random monster”.  In that case, the existence of the monster is certain, but it location, or rather its movement, is uncertain.  Call this a “Brownian ogre”.

In contrast to the quantum (deterministic) ogre, the Schrodinger’s and Brownian ogres preserve player agency, because the check is triggered by choices of the players (resulting in either character action or inaction).


Alleged Lethality of First Edition

One of the things I often hear alleged on the comments sections of OSR blogs (the actual bloggers I follow seem to know better) is that the design of the newer editions has them permanently set on “Easy”.

Back in their day (when they had to walk two hours uphill through a blizzard to and from school every day), you didn’t even name your character until third level because the odds of survival were so low.  PCs these days have so many hit points its impossible to kill them, even at first level when they should be weak.  There was none of this negative hit point crap, once you hit zero hit points you were dead.  If you rolled a 1 hp first level magic-user, well it sucked to be you.

Leaving aside the question of whether increased lethality is a good or a bad thing, lets examine those assumptions and see if they are true.

Lets take an example from Appendix C of the 1e DMG – the wandering monster tables, for those who are not aware.  This includes a table of random monsters for “Dungeon Level I”, or the monsters most likely to be found on the first level of the dungeon.  On that table is an entry for hobgoblins, which shows that the appropriate number of hobgoblins at that level is 2-8.

Now a 1e hobgoblin is about equivalent to a 1e fighter in terms of power.  If you have an ur-party consisting of a level 1 fighter, ranger, cleric, thief and magic-user, a fight against the average of 5 hobgoblins is going to be touch and go, and a fight against 8 hobgoblins is likely to be lethal unless you run away (or the MU has a sleep spell and hasn’t used it yet).

Compare that to 4e.  We have already established that a 1e hobgoblin is about the equivalent of a level 1 or 2 elite monster, and a 1e PC of level 1 is about the equivalent of a 4e PC of level 1 or 2.  So if you have an ur-party consisting of a level 1 or 2 fighter, ranger, cleric, thief and wizard, a fight against the average of 5 hobgoblins is going to be touch and go, and a fight against 8 hobgoblins is likely to be lethal unless you run away (or the wizard has a sleep spell and hasn’t used it yet).


But here’s the thing.  Fourth edition assume a party size of 4-6.  First edition contemplated that party size would be much larger.  The 1e classic module The Lost City, for example, contemplated a party of 6-10 PCs of levels 1-3.  Castle Amber was meant for 6-10 characters of levels 3-6.  Slave Pits of the Undercity contemplated 6-8 PCs of levels 4-7.  The Dark Tower was designed for 6-10 adventurers of levels 7-11.  The Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain was designed for an optimum party of 9 characters.

These assumptions are reflected in Appendix C, which includes entries for randomly encountering character parties of rival adventurers.  The number of characters in such a party was always 9.  It would consist of 2-5 PCs, with the balance made up of henchmen and men-at-arms.  An ur-party of consisting of a level 1 fighter, ranger, cleric, thief and magic-user, plus four level 0 men-at-arms, could probably take a party of 5 hobgoblins, and would have a shot at taking a party of 8 hobgoblins.  The 4e equivalent would be a party of five PCs supported by four level 2 standard NPCs, which would do about the same.

Now, odds are the very first time out the party can’t afford much in the way of henchmen or hirelings.  But they probably could after they found a hoard or two.  After you have bought their equipment, the rate of pay for 1e hired mercenaries ranges from 1-6 gp per month.  So if you find the early editions to be lethal because your small party is easily killed off frequently, you are probably doing it wrong.

Oh, but in 1e some of them would die, because hit points are so low, right?  And there are no negative hit points?

This may have been true in 0e, and it was true in Menzer Basic (I just looked it up, see p. 20 of the player’s book), but it is wrong in 1e.  In 1e a PC didn’t die until he hit -10 hit points.  Once brought to 0 hit points or lower, he would bleed 1 hp per round until he hit -10, when he would die.  The hit point loss would stop as soon as somebody announced they were binding his wound; no skill check was necessary. See p. 82 of the 1e DMG.

So character death probably would be more common in 0e and B/X, but probably not in 1e.  But I doubt Total Party Kills were more common in any of them.

Now it is true that PCs now have more hit points.  As do monsters.  But PCs and monsters also do more damage.  So probably a more realistic comparison is with the number of strikes it takes to kill a PC on average.

Hobgoblins in 1e do 1-8 damage or by weapon type, or on average 4.5 damage per hit.  A first level fighter without a constitution bonus has on average 5.5 hit points.  On average, it will take two successful strikes to take out either, with a reasonable change of taking them out in one.

In 4e, most standard monsters are designed to take out an at-level PC in 4 strikes.  However, an elite generally gets more than one attack per round, so our hypothetical elite hobgoblin can probably take out most PCs in 2 rounds worth of attacks.  Because the damage range is smaller, said hobgoblin is unlikely to be able to do the job in one round; however, his buddy may well be able to finish the job.  Five hobgoblins would have a reasonable shot at taking down two of five PCs in the first round.

That fact makes a big difference to how the fight will ultimately play out, because through a variety of tactical rules (particularly flanking and opportunity attacks) the relative number of opponents makes a big difference; a five-man party with one man down has lost more than 20% of its strength.  If it is two men down the party is in serious trouble; and its harder to run away in 4e than in 1e.

So, while in 0e or B/X you may be more likely to lose individual characters, in 4e you are more likely to have a TPK.  In 1e you have less of either.  And while I haven’t played 0e and have only played a little of B/X, I can say that this theory is supported by plenty of experience with respect to 1e and 4e.  In my experience, 4e has been much more lethal than 1e.


Converting Monsters from Other Editions

So converting characters is easy, but how to convert monsters? This was a big issue for me because I run my games on Eberron, and a lot of the material was written for 3e. It was particularly difficult because I never played 3e (I skipped from a heavily houseruled mix of 1e and 2e straight to 4e).

I decided to figure it out in terms of how powerful the monsters were in relation to the characters, or the character party.

Converting Third Edition Monsters

From my limited understanding of 3e (and someone can fell free to correct me on any of this if I am wrong), monster strength is measured in CR, with the intention that a monster of CR n is a moderate challenge for a party of four characters of level n. Sort of like an at-level 4e solo monster, but intended to fight four characters instead of five.

However, I read in various commentaries, monsters of CR n usually were not much of a challenge to parties of level n on their own. And then I later read that monsters that were created using the rules for building characters were usually much less challenging than monsters that were created using the rules for building monsters. Which made sense to me, since I had already figured out that a single NPC of level n was unlikely to be much of a challenge for a party of four PCs built identically to the NPC. Although if he was going all out he might not go down easily.

In 4e a number of standard monsters of level n is a moderate challenge for like number of PCs of level n. But if those PCs fight the same number of elite monsters of level n, it can be touch and go. As a rule, when used in a group, an elite monster is pretty much equivalent to a PC of the same level (the same is not true of one-on-one fights, but we will save that for another discussion).

So if I am converting an NPC from 3e to 4e, I first figure out the equivalent level, and then build the monster as an elite NPC of that level. So a 3e third level fighter would be converted to a sixth level elite monster. And a seventh level fighter would be converted to a twelfth level elite monster.

For fractional CRs, I have been dividing the 4e XPs by the fraction to figure out the appropriate monster level. So if a CR 1 NPC is a level 2 elite worth 250 XPs, then a CR 1/2 monster is a level 2 standard worth 125 XPs.

This would make 3e orc and hobgoblin warriors the equivalent of a level 2 standard monster; a 3e goblin warrior is the equivalent of a level 8 minion (or a level 4 half-standard monster – see how they come in handy?); and a 3e kobold warrior is the equivalent of a level 6 minion (or a level 2 half-standard monster).

I don’t know enough about 3e to assess how tough monsters built as monsters are, but I am prepared to treat them as being as tough as they were intended to be, that is, a CR n monster built as a monster is a moderate threat for a party of four level n characters. After you convert 3e level to 4e level, that roughly works out to be a solo monster of 4e level n-1. Sort of, depending on how you build your solos.

So a third level 3e monster would be converted to a fifth level solo monster. And a seventh level 3e monster would be converted to an eleventh level solo monster.

Converting First Edition Monsters

I also convert a lot of first edition modules, and I have been trying to build 1e-style encounter tables for use in 4e. This has been a bit of a challenge because first edition monster level is only vaguely related to its level of challenge, being more an indication of where they are likely to appear in a dungeon.

I have settled on experience point value as the best way of determining monster challenge relative to the PCs. A first level fighter is worth 20 + 2/hp XPs (or 28 + 2/hp XPs if he has a missile weapon). This is identical to a 1e hobgoblin, which stands at the top of the range of level I monsters; and is about twice the power of a 1e orc, which is worth 10 + 1/hp experience and is in the mid-range of level I monsters.

In 1e, the experience necessary to level more or less doubles every level until you hit “name” level (usually at around tenth level). A similar progression applies to monster levels, so that a level II monster is worth more or less twice as much as a level I monster, and a level III monster is worth more or less twice as much as a level II monster. Sort of. Until you get to level X monsters, of which the lowest is worth 10,001 XPs, and the highest (Demogorgon) is worth 74,000 (or 740,000 if killed on his own plane).

So you might use monster level as a proxy for character level, at least until level X, when you have to figure something else out. So a hobgoblin, which is at the high end of level I, is the equivalent of a level 1 1e character, which we can convert to a level 2 elite monster (or a level 6 standard monster). A gnoll is a level II monster, which we can convert to a level 4 elite monster (or a level 8 standard monster). A bugbear or an ogre is a level III monster, which we can convert to a level 6 elite monster (or a level 10 standard monster).

For monsters on the weaker end of level I we divide the 4e XPs by the fraction of experience the monster is worth in relation to the experience of a hobgoblin. So if a hobgoblin is worth 20 + 2/hp XPs, and an orc or goblin is worth 10 + 1/hp XPs, and a kobold is worth 5 + 1/hp XPs., then a converted orc or goblin is worth half as much as a converted hobgoblin, and a converted kobold is worth a quarter as much. That means an orc or goblin would be a level 2 standard monster, and a kobold would be a level 6 minion (or level 2 half-standard monster).

For monsters of level X, in keeping with the experience required by PCs to increase in level, monster level is increased by 1 for each 5,000 XP over 10,000. So an aspect of Demogorgon would effectively be level XXI, or perhaps a 4e level 26 elite monster (although all the conversions tend to break down after level 20).

Converting Fifth Edition Monsters

I’ve been looking at 5e as a game for when I want to play on a tabletop without computers. Because I will admit 4e combat is kind of a pig if condition-tracking isn’t computer-assisted. So I have been thinking about monster equivalencies there as well, and for this conversion I am also thinking about how challenging the monsters are for a given level of PC.

For the purposes of estimating challenge, the XP value of a monster increases when there are greater numbers of them. So we need to incorporate that XP budgeting system into how we evaluate monsters. And we need to think about the numbers that a monster typically comes in when evaluating it, because monsters that typically function in numbers, like goblins and orcs, will convert differently from monsters that typically work alone, like dragons (and FYI, I’m not ready to think about legendary monsters yet).

For a group of five level 1 PCs, a deadly encounter would be worth 500 XPs. This is the equivalent of five CR 1/4 monsters. Mapping this to 4e, this means a CR 1/4 monster, like a goblin, is the equivalent of a 4e level 2 elite (level 6 standard) monster. That’s a pretty tough goblin. One-on-one it would be an easier battle, the equivalent of a level 2 standard; but we don’t generally care how many goblins an individual PC can take, we are concerned with how many a PC party can take.

Following that pattern, a group of CR 1/8 monsters can be treated as level 2 standard monsters; a group of CR 0 monsters can be treated as level 6 minions (level 2 half-standard monsters); a group of CR 1/2 monsters can be treated as level 4 elite (level 8 standard) monsters; and a group of CR 1 monsters can be treated as level 6 elite (level 10 standard) monsters.

Which is fine in theory. But suggesting that a 5e goblin is equivalent on power to a 1e hobgoblin just seems wrong to me. I suspect I am going to have to learn more about the actual power of 5e monsters in play before I can make meaningful conversions.

Converting Characters Between Editions

I often need to convert monsters between editions.  I still have a preference for 1e modules over almost anything published later by TSR or WotC.  I run my campaigns in Eberron, and a lot of really good material for that setting was published in 3.5e.  And I am beginning to think about playing 5e for casual games (because, while I love 4e, it is a real pig to use without computer assistance, and I can’t expect casual gamers to load the necessary software for a pickup game).

The problem is, monsters in 1e or 3.5e are not necessarily at the same power level in relation to the characters as are monsters in 4e.  For example, a first level party of five PCs fighting 5 bog-standard hobgoblins is going to have a pretty hard time of it in 1e, but a relatively easy time in 4e.

The usual advice is to just take the standard monster and add or subtract them until you have an appropriate challenge.  But there are several problems with this.  First of all, you have to determine what is an appropriate challenge, which is particularly difficult in converting from 1e because CR and EL mechanics did not exist.  Then, once you have done that, it requires an additional calculation to figure out the appropriate number of creatures.  This may or may not work in the space; 1e dungeons often feature small rooms and can’t afford the space the extra creatures take up.  It can also change the feel for the battle, and often the number of creatures is tied to the potential out-of-combat.  And sometimes the difference in power level is so great that the encounter can’t be recreated without a serious rebuild.

Since a lot of monsters get used over and over, it is better to build an equivalent monster once, and simply use the same number of monsters as appear in the original module.  So for example, I build the equivalent of a 1e hobgoblin one time, and if the module calls for three of them I just use three of them.

In order to do that, I need to estimate the monster’s strength relative to a party of characters in the edition I am converting from; and then build a monster of equivalent strength in relation to the party of characters in 4e.  And the first step in that process is comparing a 4e character to a 1e or 3.5e character.

To determine the baseline for comparing characters across edition, I look at what game-affecting resources the characters have access to.  And that usually comes down to magic.

There is a quote from James Wyatt, which I copied once but haven’t been able to locate on the web since, which shows how the game evolves with access to certain types of magic.  He said:

The Big Milestones

There’s not a huge difference between 1st- and 2nd-level spells in terms of their effect on the world, but once spellcasters gain access to 3rd-level spells, things start to change. Suddenly, characters can fly, damage large numbers of foes with spells like fireball and lightning bolt, and even breathe underwater. Spells of levels 3 to 5 include some of the most iconic spells in the game, such as dimension door, confusion, phantasmal killer, cloudkill, cone of cold, and teleport, to choose just from the wizard’s spell list. Acquiring those 5th-level spells—teleport, scrying, flame strike, and raise dead—is a pretty big milestone, too.

With 6th-level spells, we get into the territory of spells that really change the way adventurers interact with the world. It’s not so much the big, flashy spells—disintegrate, blade barrier, and heal, for example—but behind-the-scenes spells like word of recall, find the path, contingency, true seeing, and legend lore that start changing the way you play the game. Each spell level after that point introduces new effects with a similarly large impact.

When characters get 9th-level spells, they’ve just about reached the pinnacle of their class abilities, and their spells can reshape reality.

As near as I can tell, in all of the editions that primarily use Vancian magic (that is, all editions other than 4e), the game-changing spells usually appear around the same level.  For example, I know that in 1e, 2e, 3e, and 5e (and I think in OD&D and BECMI but I don’t have the books to check), Fly was a third level spell which casters received around 5th level.

So for all of the editions other than 4e one can assume that the levels are more or less equivalent.  But with 4e it is a bit harder, because the designers intended those milestones to occur at different levels.  For example in 4e, encounter-long tactical flight does not arrive until at least 9th level, depending on the class.

To quote from that same article:

While we were designing 4th Edition, we tried to group these big game-changing effects into three tiers of play. We figured that the heroic tier (levels 1–10) was about equivalent to 3rd Edition’s levels 1–5, with magic fairly limited so mundane equipment and skills were more important. Paragon tier (levels 11–20) would introduce tactical flight and teleportation, fast travel, invisibility, mind reading, and similar effects that 3rd Edition gave out over levels 6–14. Then epic tier (levels 21–30) gave characters access to flight and teleportation as travel, resurrection, group invisibility, and pervasive magical effects.

I pretty much follow that, simplified somewhat so I can make calculations in my head.  So 4e levels 1-10 are about equivalent to levels 1-5 in any other edition; 4e levels 11-20 are the equivalent of 6-15 (better to map 10 levels to 10 levels than to map 10 levels to 9 levels in my head); and 4e levels 21+ are equivalent to levels 16+.  So when converting a character to 4e, if the level is less than five I double it, and if it is more than five I don’t double it but I add five to it.  That means a first level character in 1e or 3.5e is equivalent to a second level character in 4e.