Iconics (Part 4)

During this little blog series, I’ve talked about the core four classes as iconics for the game, and we’ve taken a brief look at humans, dwarves, and halflings. But if you’re running convention games (or online games), it’s typically standard to have five or six players.

Why is this the case? To be honest, it’s just what we gravitated to. If you take a look at old adventures, the suggested numbers were often all over the place. I’ve been going back and reading some classic adventures, and here are a few examples.

G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief by Gary Gygax (1978)

“Only strong character should adventure into the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief if the party is 3 or 4 strong, 6th or 7th level character are suggested only when the party members are 5 or more and only if most of the party is higher level. The optimum mix for a group is 9 characters of various classes, with an a average experience level of at least 9th, and each should have 2 or 3 magic items.” (Page 2)

G2: The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl by Gary Gygax (1978) 

“Only strong and experienced characters should adventure into the Rift if the party is but 3 or 4 strong; 6th or 7th level character are suggested only if they are of dwarven race or when the party members 5 or more characters (and several of these are of higher level). The optimum mix for a group is 9 characters of various challenges, with an average experience level of at least 9th, and each should have 2 or 3 magic items which are useful against giants.” (Page 2)

G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King by Gary Gygax (1978)

“As with the two previous Modules (G1 and G2), the Dungeon Master is advised that only strong and experienced characters should be included on the adventure. The caution here, though, stresses experience [emphasis in text]. A party of 3 or 4 highly experienced characters of 9th level can expect a reasonable chance if they use their knowledge and cunning to best advantage. No character below 6th level should adventure in the Hall of the Fire Giant King. Characters under 9th level should be accompanied by a number of higher level characters. The optimal mix depends upon the class of the characters involved. A party of 3 might be as well off as three or four times their numbers under certain circumstances. This writer still believes that a mixed group with clerics, fighters, magic users, and thieves—with a dwarf, and elf, and perhaps a halfling or gnome and a half-elf—will be most successful overall if their average level is 9th and there are 8 or 10 in the party. Of course, this assumes that each member will be armed with several magic items useful against giants and fire. (Page 2)

S1: Tomb of Horrors by Gary Gygax (1978) 

This adventure’s early printings featured a character roaster on page 11 of both the original duotone adventure and the later full-color cover. The matrix gives several rough progenerated characters and how to assign those characters to the players. It provides these complex guidelines for anywhere between two (each playing at least two characters) to 10 players (each playing a single character). The 1987 reprint of the adventure presented (with revisions by Wm. John Wheeler) in Realms of Horror states that the “Tomb of Horrors was designed for 4 to 10 characters level 10-14.”

B1: Search for the Unknown by Mike Carr (1979)

“Since it is important to offer a challenge commensurate to the players’ level, this two-level dungeon design is made specifically for Basic D & D for exploration by beginning players in a party of 3 to 6 adventurers (players and non-player character combined).” (Page 2)

B2: Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax (1980)

“This module has been designed to allow six to nine player characters of first level to play out many adventures, gradually working up to second or third level of experience in the process.” (Page 2)

B3: Place of the Silver Princess by Tom Moldvay and Jean Wells (1981)

“This module has been designed for a party of 6 to 10 player characters.” (Page 2)

B4: The Lost City by Tom Moldvay (1982)

“This module is designed for a party of 6 to 10 player character of the 1st through 3rd level of experience.” (Page 2)

While I do appreciate that the guideline became simpler over time (sometimes Gygax’s recommendations were dizzying in their complexity and lack of helpful advice), in the early days of the game, the only way you knew how to balance your encounters (or run a published adventure) was through trial and error.

During the creation of 3rd Edition, the idea of CRs popped into the game, all of which (in theory) were geared around a group of four characters. Some of the designers of that edition were so entrenched in this thinking that while I was in the Organized Play department of Wizards of the Coast, they would suggest that we limit Organized Play D&D games to four players. The problem with that was the mix of DMs and players in the system. It was always tricky incenting folks to run at events, and there were always plenty of people wanting to play. The player base was always pushing toward a higher player count while the game designers often pushed for lower player numbers per table.

In the end, most organized play systems decided that six was the right number, and even most streamers gravitate toward that number. It’s momentum at this point. I have more to say on the general subject, but we are here to talk about iconics, so let’s move on.

Anyhow, I knew I wanted six characters, so I created an extra warrior and another priest. I chose those two because warriors (or fighters, or fighting-men) are often very vanilla, and I wanted to show off some versatility. I had Brumtha, which is a melee bruiser, so I created Craw Sharpeyes, who is more of a sword and bow generalist (maybe a tad better with the bow than the blade).

Craw is a bit of an homage to Joe Abercrombie’s Northmen from his First Law Trilogy and beyond. He’s got a lot of Dogman in him, with some parts Caul Shivers and Curnden Craw, obviously. He’s rough and tumble. He’s killed—and maybe not in the most heroic ways—and he’s at once running away from and always running toward trouble. He’s not the most handsome man he’s quite homely, but he’s one hell of a warrior, a stalwart friend, and the guy you want with you when the chips are down. Both on the table and in the fiction I’m writing for chapter openers, he and Ez’s interactions have been fun. She’s the city girl with a real sense of adventure. He’s the backwoods killer with a fatherly streak.

For the priest, I chose an elven priest. I wanted something a little bit Elrond and a little bit Legolas, with a good dose of British Isles myth thrown in. In the end, I wanted to make a focused do-gooder with a deity to match. That’s when I made Thillion Whiteraven. Thillion is not your typical cleric-type. He carries a bow, a longsword, and his spells focus more on protection than healing. He’s an outsider with a mission—spread as much good as possible. That includes ridding the world of dangerous monsters, helping lost children find their way home, and protecting those without the means to defend themselves. Thillion is a wandering agent of Vindri the Green Knight, sort of like an elven Kwai Chang Cain.

Thillion is a bit of a finesse character. His abilities and power really lie outside the typical assumptions of the rules. I had a bit of a sneaky goal for Thillion at the start. First, could a priest that was neither a healing bot nor a combat optimizer play in a compelling manner? Second, if I plugged many nonstandard items on the same character, how long would it take new players to grok it? The answer to the second question is about an hour and a half into the game. That’s how long it typically took for the player to get what makes Thillion shine. That’s not bad, considering I’m typically throwing an entirely new system at the players. As for the first question, I’m still not sure. He’s playable, and people have enjoyed him, but he doesn’t feel like a complete character until he reaches 2nd or 3rd level.

I lump these two together because I think they both will eventually get a very substantial overhaul. Last year when I launched the Delve Patreon, I allowed some of my early followers their say in shaping some of the rules and assumptions for Delve. One request was for a non-magical ranger-type class. It’s called the Hunter, and I’m still deciding whether to put it in the Delve Proto or save it for the first update. At that point, Craw will probably make the transition to the iconic for that class.

Thillion’s fate is less inevitable. I can either leave him as the stray iconic that shares the same class with Doma Doomhammer to show off the priest class’s diversity, or he might be the template for a holy warrior class. I’ll likely call it paladin because I think that name is all you need, and I don’t believe it has to be some heavily armored lawful good dude. I’m still chewing on that one.

Anyhow, I present Craw Sharpeyes and Thillion Whiteraven, the last of the six iconics…so far.