The Alexandrian

The Subtle Shifts in Play

August 29th, 2011

B4 The Lost City - Tom MoldvayConsider this: In 1974, create water was a 4th level spell and create food was a 5th level spell. That meant you wouldn’t have magical access to a water supply until you had a 6th level cleric in the group; and you wouldn’t have magical access to food until you had a 7th level cleric. (By 7th level you’re considered a major religious leader and at 8th level you’re assumed to be founding your own churches.)

This remained true in the Basic line of the game all the way through the Rules Cyclopedia in ’91. In the Advanced line of the game, however, things shifted. In the 1st Edition PHB create water became a 1st level spell.

What does this mean? Well, it means that B4 The Lost City was a viable scenario in the Basic game, but not in the Advanced game:

Days ago your group of adventurers joined a desert caravan. Halfway across the desert, a terrible sandstorm struck, separating your party from the rest of the caravan. When the storm died down you found that you were alone. The caravan was nowhere in sight. The desert was unrecognizable, as the dunes had been blown into new patterns. You were lost.


The second day after your water ran out, you stumbled upon a number of stone blocks sticking out of a sand dune. Investigation showed that the sand covered the remains of a tall stone wall. On the other side of the stone wall was a ruined city.

The whole concept of being driven into an ancient ruin because you’re short on water pretty much ceases to be an issue. This is even more true in 3E when the already devalued create water became a 0-level orison.

But like the wings of a butterfly, the subtle shift in this single spell actually has a profound impact on gameplay.


As my old school 1974 campaign moved towards hexcrawling, my players began figuring out how to equip their characters for wilderness exploration. The hexcrawling was based around a fairly basic system (which served as the test pilot for the wilderness exploration mechanics found in Legends & Labyrinths). It’s not a mass of complexity, but it does provide a basic model for:

  1. Travel Time
  2. Navigation
  3. Discovery

Combined with the standard systems of encumbrance and a daily requirement of food and water, the result was a fairly plausible demand for supplies (particularly if they were heading into the jungle where potable water was difficult to come by).

What they quickly discovered was that, for any journey of appreciable length, they couldn’t physically carry the necessary supplies. So they needed horses.

But horses pose a problem if you need to go spelunking. So they needed hirelings to care for the horses.

And once you’ve got hirelings watching the horses, it doesn’t take much imagination to start hiring men-at-arms to come into the dungeon with you.

All these hirelings, of course, need their own supplies. Which means more horses. And eventually pack horses. (The latter, particularly, once they started hitting treasures that they couldn’t easily haul back in a single load.)

After some trial and error, each group found their own equilibrium. But, in general, adventuring parties grew. And as the parties grew, the need for larger, more elaborate, and more rewarding ventures grew.

The reality of this dynamic is actually more complex than this, of course. (For example, I also believe the fact that hirelings are given a prominent place as a major feature of your character in the original rulebooks plays a large role in making them a major feature in old school play. Take those same rules and put them somewhere else in the rulebook and that gameplay doesn’t get as much attention.) But the need for supplies was, in a very real sense, the camel’s nose in the tent: Take that need away, the need for horses disappears. The need for horses disappears, the hirelings disappear.

And I’d argue it can actually be taken one step further: Take low-level hirelings away and you take away mid-level fiefdoms because you haven’t developed the skills or style of play necessary to gradually transition into those fiefdoms. The entire original “end game” of the game disappears.


The other thing about create water as a spell is that it’s a small example of a larger phenomenon in D&D which is often overlooked.

Specifically, it’s an ability which removes gameplay.

I’ve spoken with many game designers who consider this to be a huge mistake. It was certainly a motivating factor in the design of 4th Edition. A similar motivation gives you the game world scaling of Oblivion.

But I, personally, think it’s great: As you play D&D, the game shifts. At 10th level you aren’t playing the same game you were playing at 1st level.

If we consider this narrow slice of the game, D&D basically used to say: “Okay, you start out exploring a nearby dungeon for 2 or 3 levels. Then you start exploring the wildnerness and you have to really focus on how to make those explorations a success — supplies, navigation aids, clear goals, etc. We’ll do that for 3-4 levels and then, ya know what? I’m bored with that. So we’ll keep doing the explorations, but we’re going to yank out all that logistical gameplay, replace it with some magical resources, and start shifting the focus of wilderness exploration to staking out fiefdoms and clearing the countryside. We’ll do that for 3-4 levels. By that time you’ve probably transitioned pretty thoroughly into realms management, so we’ll just give you this teleport spell and we can probably just phase that ‘trekking through the wilderness’ stuff out entirely.”

(Of course, it’s not really gone because the same players are running multiple PCs. So if they’re in the mood for some hexcrawling on Tuesday night, they’ll just bring out their lower level characters to play.)

You’ll find these kinds of abilities studded throughout the game. Their impact has been dulled somewhat over the years (and removed pretty much completely from 4th Edition), but this fundamental panoply of gameplay experiences continues to be a major strength of classic D&D.

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19 Responses to “The Subtle Shifts in Play”

  1. Brian says:

    Their impact has been dulled somewhat over the years (and removed pretty much completely from 4th Edition), but this fundamental panoply of gameplay experiences continues to be a major strength of classic D&D.

    I’d argue they attempted to enshrine the watered-down version that cropped up in 3e in their three-stage character growth tiers. Unfortunately, it is horribly watered down; instead of really shifting what the game is about, they only use it change the scenery and the monsters you fight. :p

  2. StevenW says:

    One of my pet peeves – not just in D&D but in most fantasy RPGs – is the expectation of the PCs that they can ride their horses to the dungeon, leave them for several hours or days while dungeoneering, and then return to their horses to find them still there and in the same state they left them.

    When I tell some players that the abandoned horses will be subject to random encounters, and may run off or be eaten by a monster, they tell me I am being unfair.

    The idea of hiring help to guard the base camp is just foreign to most players these days.

  3. Sarah says:

    As one of the players in the old school campaign, I *love* the need to think of those sorts of things. Having a hireling, having a horse, planning out long term strategies. I think it’s helped a lot in how I play in our Ptolus campaign as well. Our party of 6 is being out numbered at the end of the dock? Call out to the sailors nearby that I’ll pay them to fight with us!

    The way the game shifts is really a lot of fun, too. As our wealth builds, being able to afford to do longer excursions makes sense. It’s progressive in a very natural way. And I enjoy playing my main character in a way that feels like he is reaching for something epic and will someday actually get there. That a character will have goals outside of “what’s the next dungeon” such as ‘where do I want to retire?”

  4. Justin Alexander says:

    @StevenW: I subverted that trope in my first 3E campaign. The PCs left their horses tied up and headed into the dungeon. When they got cut off from the surface, they were all convinced that their horses were dead meat (literally).

    When they returned three days later, however, they found the horses still calmly gathered in the clearing where they had left them… surrounded by a ring formed from the burnt and scorched remains of a half dozen twig blights that had apparently tried to attack them.

    The PCs were never completely certain exactly what had happened. But they were very paranoid.

  5. Hudax says:

    I like having to think of the contingencies as well. Me, some friends, a horse team and wagon, good gypsy fun in the wilderness. I draw the line at hirelings though. No thanks, stranger, I think my buddies and I will be just fine out there on our own. Wierdo.

    Another thing I don’t like about hirelings is, it messes with stories. How do you stat Frodo? Is he a hobbit with a hireling, or is he a hobbit accompanied by an equally (if not moreso) cool companion? Do you need one player to run them, or two? IMO, if someone’s presence is warranted in the party, they deserve to be a full-on character, not just a cohort extenton of someone else.

    I like the details of adventures, but I like it to be just us adventurers and no one else.

  6. Arbanax says:

    You make a really good point but I wonder if the problem is that firstly the types of people coming into RPG’s these days have little or no idea how to cope in the wilds. Therefore because they only have a fairly rudimentry idea, anything that dashes that expectation would be seen as unfair and harsh.

    For the same reason, tending to logistics like pack horses, men at arms, some folk have no wish for this level of detail (just want it handwaved) some people find this an immediate turn off and others, going back to my original point, wouldn’t even imagine that there was a problem, heading straight off without resources.

    In our game yesterday our DM (a new one to me) insisted we crossed off rations, wow revolutionary. It made us all remember we don’t have a bags of holding full of food we need nether worry about. But not everyone wants that level of detail, or needs it or possible imagines its even an issue.

  7. cr0m says:

    @Hudax, Frodo’s player obviously started playing the hireling after his main PC was poisoned on Weathertop, and then later after he failed his saving throw vs Ring. Totally dick DM move!

    First off, I think Justin’s analysis of the way that logistics and spells at higher levels combine to create these distinct types of play is pretty genius. I’d never considered the connection before–although I do remember being a little disappointed that food and water were never an issue in 3e, though I couldn’t exactly articulate why.

    However, I think the main difference is one of playstyles. Some people want to play a cinematic game that emulates fiction, where the main characters never worry about getting food, never have a call of nature, treat horses like motorcycles that run on grass, and focus on the fighting and derring-do.

    Some other people want to play a game that simulates exploring a fantasy wilderness, so for them, Create Food and Water at 0-level sucks.

    The funny thing is, since people who play the first style of game aren’t interested in food and water in the first place, it seems unfair to even bother with a Create Food and Water spell, since all it does is mess up the latter group. The cinematic group probably never even bothers to prepare it.

  8. heromedel says:

    cr0m said exactly what bothers me about 3e

  9. Justin Alexander says:

    @Arbanax: There’s certainly an aspect of “chicken and the egg” in all this. Did those rules disappear because people were moving to a different style of play? Or did people move to a different style of play because those rules disappeared?

    Let’s take another example. On pages 8-9 of Volume 3 of OD&D, in the section entitled “The Move/Turn in the Underworld”, the following rules are given for dungeoncrawling:

    – How far you can move in a turn/round.
    – How often you need to rest.
    – How long it takes to search/ESP.
    – How to detect secret doors
    – How to open/shut/secure doors.
    – How traps are triggered.
    – How to listen at doors.
    – Light sources and infravision.
    – Torches can be blown out.
    – Two ways of adjudicating Fire Balls and Lightning Bolts in enclosed spaces.

    Couple interesting factoids:

    (1) In 60+ sessions of my Ptolus campaign, the players have listened at doors to see what might be beyond them maybe a half dozen times. These exact same players in OD&D? They listen at doors all the time.

    The notable thing here is that, obviously, rules for listening at doors didn’t disappear from the game. But they no longer have the same, central importance in the rulebook that they did in OD&D. (By virtue of being included among a very short list of actual mechanics.)

    (2) In a similar fashion, the rule that “torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind” is fascinating from a bibliographic standpoint. If you look at adventure modules from the 1970’s, you’ll find strong gusts of wind all over the place. It was a ubiquitous part of the game.

    Why? Again, I think it’s because of the prominent place the rule for gusting wind had in OD&D.

    What’s specifically interesting about torch-extinguishing winds is that, by ’79, they were gone from the rulebooks. (3E includes rules for this. I suspect AD&D must, too, but if so they’re so deeply buried I can’t figure out where they are.) Despite this, torch-extinguishing winds continue to crop up in published scenarios for several more years before slowly fading away.

    There are several possibilities for why this might have happened. But I’d like to propose that Occam’s Razor suggests that this bibliographic trail indicates that the playing-style of including torch-extinguishing winds faded away because the rules were removed from the rulebook (and not that the rules were removed from the rulebook because the torch-extinguishing winds weren’t being used any more).

    The other interesting implication of this sort of thing is that, contrary to our gut instincts, rules-light systems can actually have a much larger influence (or even inhibiting effect) on the players than complex systems.

    More specifically, if you have a completely neutral rules-light system (a universal mechanic and little more) then you won’t see much influence on the players. Similarly, if you give the players a panoply of mechanical support, you won’t see as much influence on chosen actions because the menu of options is so large.

    But if you take a rules-light system and, like old school D&D, bolt on just a handful of specific mechanics… the players are going to grab onto those mechanics like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver.

    I’d argue that you see a similar effect in 3E combat: 3E gives you a small list of very specific maneuvers for which it provides concrete mechanics. Players grab onto that small list of specific maneuvers and do those and nothing else. (4E, similarly, gives a different list of very specific maneuvers to each character… and you see lots of people complaining about people just using their powers instead of thinking outside the box.)

    OD&D combat, on the other hand, doesn’t give you much more than a universal “point and hit” mechanic. Players in OD&D campaigns will start trying all kinds of wacky stuff. (Similarly, in 3E, I see new players or players less familiar with the actual combat rules being more flexible and creative in the actions they choose. As they learn the specific mechanics, they zone into those mechanics.)

    I’ll be interested to see if the stunt system in L&L — by providing both a simple, universal mechanic but also tying that mechanic into a panoply of options — manages to find a kind of “third way”. And what that will look like.

  10. Arbanax says:

    Justin you make a good point about the whole chicken and egg, and I didn’t know that about the OD&D rules. Long time since I played them ;-).

    Interesting Mike Mearls (on the Wizards site) has been having a fascinating discussion about all this in his Legends and lore column these last few weeks. He makes some very pertinent points about rules covering every situation v player freedom and the DM making a ruling. He also points out that downfalls of these two systems.

    I guess as you say it comes down to you play style and also that a lot of people grown up on differing systems perhaps expect a more detailed level of extraction and rules. Certainly the level of detail has gone up considerably (PAthfinder main core rules are 500+ pages aren’t they?). I don’t play Pathfinder, but I’d sure like to. But the cost of both buying what is needed to learn and the cost in terms of time to get things going, means I’ll be sticking with 4e, but I love what you are doing here and am enjoying reading the column and advice. You never know I might one day be able to stump up some cash to help in your efforts, though sadly nothing like the amounts you need. Besides I’m over in the UK anyway.

    Thanks again and all the best with your continued venture.

  11. Hudax says:

    People are drawn to the reward.

    I would argue that the trend of hand-waving certain survival and bookkeeping aspects out of the game is the result of them carrying no reward–they only carry restrictions. Restrictions aren’t fun. Fishing might be fun, but having to fish so you don’t starve and loose effectiveness is not. That’s when it turns from a game into a simulator.

    If successfully finding food or water for your party gave you some benefit beyond simply negating a penalty, then people would do it. Rogues get the party experience for disarming traps, why can’t the survival specialist get the same benefit for finding clean water and getting a nice catch of fish? If crossing off rations on your character sheet meant the opportunity to earn survival experience, suddenly everyone would be really keen on tracking rations.

    The example of listening at doors is similar. I only have access to OSRIC, but from there I gather that listening is one of the few specifically defined ways you can spend your OOC turn. It states that taking this action can make you better prepared and informed on how to proceed. That is a tangible potential benefit–listen at this door and maybe you get a surprise round against the orcs behind it.

    Even so, there is a later paragraph warning that too much listening can slow down play, and gives ideas on how to discourage players from doing it all the time (ie: traps and monsters that specifically target listening PCs). The rule was written with the seed of its own destruction: if your players are listening too much, punish them.

    Listening carried a potential benefit and also a potential detriment–a wash on the fun scale. So people stopped listening.

  12. cr0m says:

    Actually, I think the move away from simulating exploration has a lot to do with the way that the rulebooks present running the game.

    In B/X D&D, which is the edition I’m most familiar with, the Basic book tells the DM exactly how to create a dungeon, step-by-step, and includes tables for stocking the rooms with monsters, treasure, traps, etc. For levels 1-3, the dungeon IS the game, so tracking torches, hauling treasure, making careful maps so you can escape at the end of the session–that’s the focus.

    In the Expert book it tells the DM exactly how to make a wilderness to explore, and includes encounter tables by terrain, talks about getting lost, encountering the owners of castles and such… and suddenly, exploring a wilderness becomes the game (with bouts of dungeon delving as new dungeons are discovered). So you’ve got rules about mounts, mercenaries to guard your caravan, miles traveled per day, weather effects.

    In later editions, but especially 3e, you see advice about running the game more like serial fiction, with episodes, pacing, climaxes, etc. And starting with 2e for sure, but definitely in 3e, you see adventures that don’t really concern themselves with how the players get there–they have a “hook” that starts the adventure, and the DMs are given advice about engaging the players with the hook, keeping them “on track”, keeping the pace up, etc. This is not a play style that cares about running out of rations. This is a play style that puts pacing, drama and plot above exploration and simulation.

    And that’s cool! I’ve run and played tons of games that are focused more on pacing and they can be hella fun. I just prefer the simulationist/sandboxy types games at the moment.

  13. cr0m says:

    p.s. I meant to say, my point about the way the rulebooks present running the game tends to line up with Justin’s point about how rules influence game play.

  14. echoota says:

    I have to agree with hudax. I’ve been experimenting with “logistics” rules for years and years and what I’ve found works best is to emphasize the carrot over the stick.

    Say, rather than having the default state of a character be top health, you work in things like rest and hearty meals as rewards, and not just averting penalties. The way these things typically work is that you just have to rest and eat to avert some kind of penalty, and that becomes tedium rather quickly.

    However, if you have a system where the better the conditions you can create the more reward you get out of it (such as temporary hit points for the day) then players start grubbing for hearty meals and long for a comfy room in an inn. Basically, keep the default state of 100% for a character, but let them do things that can top it up so they are at 115% for the next day. You can run the risk of making the 115% become the new 100%, and that unfortunately has to come down to framing the context, which not everyone is willing to do on a consistent basis.

    Also, excellent article Justin! I’ve been complaining about this issue for years, now I can point to your well laid out argument.

  15. cr0m says:

    @echoota, I like your method a lot.

    re: your name–how rude! ::wink::

  16. strange7 says:

    What about re-indexing the normal/fatigued/exhausted/disabled/unconscious condition track so that the second stage is default, but characters get +2 strength and dexterity after they’ve had a good night’s sleep, a good meal, and otherwise kept themselves in fighting shape? Exhaustion, then, would be -4 str and dex, can’t run or charge.

  17. Muninn says:

    Just a slight comment regarding B4 The Lost City becoming invalid due to “Create Water” becoming a lower level spell: It could be viable in a different sense, but only for a few levels: 3rd edition characters require 1 gallon of water per day, unless they are in a desert environment, in which case they require 2-3 gallons. A Cleric can generate 2 gallons per caster level, meaning that it would take them 4-6 “levels” to supply water for a party of 4 characters (depending on whether the DM uses the lower bound of required water, the higher one, or something in the middle).

    1st level Cleric: 4-6 castings required to supply party. Cleric only would be guaranteed 4 spell slots in the first place, with a 5th coming from WIS12+ and a sixth only if you’ve got a WIS20+ cleric in your party.
    2nd level Cleric would need to use most of their 0th level spells (which, admittedly, probably won’t find much better use)

    I guess my rambling point is that a first level party could do something like that (they’d survive, but you’d naturally want to find a water source immediately so that your cleric can be freed up for other spells)… which isn’t really that much of an improvement over “Completely absent from the game”. (It would also work in games without a Cleric, Druid, or higher-level Paladin, but I don’t really see those being tremendously common to the point that you could design an entire adventure on that premise (for Published adventures, that is. Any DM could do it with his regular campaign group if they had such a makeup, I guess))

    I’d think this would also have a major effect on the “world” lore-wise: In the older system, being able to create water essentially has no widespread effect (Clerics that can cast it are so few that you’d never be able to feed an army or maybe not even just a village). 3rd edition… well, as I was typing this, I realized how silly it sounded to suggest that each village or army might have enough clerics to sustain itself, so it still wouldn’t have earth-changing consequences. Even so, I would imagine there should be a difference in perspective between the newer-edition “He is a man of god, he can create water” and the older “He can create water… he is a man of GOD”.

    (I am rather sad at the thought of one possible resource-management aspect of DnD that could be in the more recent editions but isn’t… I do play Nethack, after all)

  18. Dan Dare says:

    I had to revisit this as recently I have been playing D&D 5th ed as an open table. (sessions here

    Hexcrawls seem easiest for 5e. No one has done a dungeon crawl yet but there are a few on offer, and an urban crawl in Druidstone. Howevera lot of old stuff seems to be coming back. For example Nick is looking at the logistics of breeding his giant spider and creating an industry out of it. Andras has his druid character building a sacred grove full of magic mushrooms and has gained a land grant from the local lord. Phaedra has been growing her character Gudrid’s reputation as a folk hero.We don’t calculate weight if its obvious that there is no problem but a number of time it has become problematic. I have weather events built into my encounter tables so players had to deal with a rain deluge at one point. People travel with covered lanterns at night if they have to. Candles and torches blow out. Its all there but you have to really read the rules to grock it as a new player.

  19. Dan Dare says:

    Oh and P.S. you were right in your open table manifesto. Matching session start to the date in real life is the magic that makes this thing really fly. It forces the characters to account for their time between but also allows them to deal with bigger perspectives that don’t necessarily take up “drama time”.

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