Violence Through the Ages (of D&D)

A smart person, upon considering my last post, asked me about how it relates to the various editions of D&D over the years.

The short, easy answer is that the basic Promise of D&D has been invariant; it’s as true today as it was in 1974.

The longer, but somewhat less on-topic answer, is more interesting.  To speak in the broadest of generalities:

In older D&D, violence is the means to an end.

In newer D&D, violence is the means and the end; violence is its own reward.

Let’s consider how this informs certain facets of the game.

Experience Points:  To start with the obvious, in older D&D, the characters won most of their XP from treasure, and practically none from slaying monsters.  Although they typically pulled the treasure from the bodies of their slain enemies.  In newer D&D, the characters don’t get any XP from treasure, but instead get almost all their XP from slaying monsters.  In other words, we shift from “killing monsters to get their treasure” to “killing monsters to kill monsters.”

Morale:  Older D&D typically features a system to model the morale of enemies, so that there’s some chance that some of them run away to fight another day.  This is no problem because the characters have no reason to mind, as long as the monsters drop all their treasure before running away.  But it is a problem in newer D&D, when the entire point is to kill them.  Various systems to award partial or full XP for fleeing opponents have been attempted, but they’ve never really worked that well.

Random Encounters:  The traditional way to ‘punish’ characters who take too long to get on with it, act overly-cautious, argue loudly, or are just unlucky is to subject them to a random encounter.  These monsters generally have little or no treasure, so are strictly nuisances in OD&D.  With newer D&D, a random encounter is its own reward, and it hardly makes much difference to the characters if they’re fighting four orcs who randomly jumped them on the side of the road or four orcs who have been patiently waiting for them in a 10’x10′ room.

Wealth:  When picking up gold means picking up XP, the characters have a good reason to pick up gold.  When gold is just a shiny metal to buy things with, there’s a certain pressure to give the characters something meaningful to buy — or to live with them just leaving sacks of gold lying around because they can’t be bothered to pick the heavy stuff up.  The most common wealth sink in various version of newer D&D is ye olde magical item shoppe, which is not a terrible solution, but it has its own problems.

Goals and Motivation:  When violence is its own reward, it becomes trivially-easy to encourage the players to attack just about anyone or anything, which makes the DM’s job that much easier.  When the players are trying to maximize their profits, there’s an additional layer of planning and consideration.  It’s no longer enough just to kill some orcs; now they want to kill specifically the orcs with the most treasure.

Magical Items, Again:  In older D&D we generally don’t see a lot of characters buying a lot of magical items, but we certainly see characters selling them, to get the treasure and thereby the XP.  As a result, no magical item is ever really pointless, since it can be converted to XP.  And even the useful magical items will tempt the players to consider selling it for the XP anyway.  With newer D&D we also see the selling of magical items, but that just gets us back around to the question of what they’re doing with all that gold, and the answer is probably that they’re buying other magical items with it.

This sort of retrospective analysis reveals more about the effects of game design than it does about the goals of game design.  I have my doubts that any of the authors of any of these versions intentionally set out to encourage any of these particular behaviours.  But it remains a useful analysis, in my opinion.


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One Response to “Violence Through the Ages (of D&D)”

  1. darkchocobo Says:

    Very interesting analysis. I once played an adventure where the party found an Ooze stuck in a hole and almost everyone soon rushed to draw their bows and crossbows to kill the poor monster.
    The DM didn’t give any XP to the party and I agreed as the XP is awarded by the “challenge rating” of the monster and that one offered no challenge at all, but some players complained. I wonder if the party would have the same behavior if XP was awarded by treasure and not by killing.
    Do you think that using coinage as XP as a homebrew rule would make the characters less “killer maniacs”?

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