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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Introducing Dungeons and Dragons!

I introduced my seven year old son to D&D this past weekend.  He had been aware of it for some time, and has done a couple of shared storytelling exercises, but hadn’t really been developmentally ready.

I had been thinking about running a 1e game, because I already have most of the modules and thought it would take less prep.  So I started reviewing the old rules, and realized that, with all of its subsystems and descending AC, it was actually going to be harder to run.

So I ran it in 4e.  I built a bog-standard Fighter (Slayer), which can be summed up as “hits hard”, “hits even harder once per encounter”, threw him in a procedurally generated dungeon and replaced the standard monsters with minions (since he was running a single character).  I didn’t make him search his character sheet for bonuses, I just told him what to roll and what to add and away we went.

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Bloat by Stat Block

Consider the lowly pit trap.  It is basically a hole in the ground, covered with something.  You fall in, you get hurt.  You receive a predictable amount of damage according to the rules of your system – in 4e, that would be 1d10 damage per 10 feet fallen.  More dangerous ones have spikes which might be poisoned.

Now consider this:

Coverd Spiked Pit Trap

All that for a hole in the ground with poisoned spikes in it.  Does this format really make it easier to find information?  Do I need a stat block to tell me a character can jump over the pit?  Or that a character can push the covering into the pit?  Would I not have been able to figure that out on my own?

Worse yet, will I think to look at the not-always-appearing trap description in the stat block, when describing the scene to my players?  This is the problem with text bloat, it obfuscates rather than illuminates.

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Awarding Experience for Treasure

One of the staples for old school play is the awarding of experience for treasure instead of for combat.  This creates a disincentive to engage in risky combat unless there is an expectation of a treasure reward, and encourages creative schemes for obtaining treasure while minimizing risk.

Now, when I was a tween and a teen playing first edition, I hated experience-for-treasure.  I thought you should gain experience for what you were doing, i.e. you got better at fighting by fighting.  It wasn’t until much, much later that I decided that (a) experience also comes from being cunning, clever and resourceful; (b) adventurers have more skills than just fighting; and (c) the benefits of incentivizing certain types of behavior for certain types of play outweighs any reduction in realism.

The irony is that experience-for-treasure was dropped in later editions at the same time that skill systems and other out-of-combat options (like fourth edition rituals) entered the game.  Experience primarily from combat began to be less and less realistic as PCs gained the ability to improve in actions taken outside of combat.

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