Thursday, September 11, 2014


Do later editions of D&D make smaller parties more viable?

I confess, I probably don't have enough experience with later editions (I have none with 5e) to answer this question accurately.  Frankly, however, I don't see how the rule set actually matters where the problem is concerned - since everything that threatens a single character in the party can be increased or decreased in degree at the will of the dungeon master.  What difference does it make that two characters have more hit points in this system rather than that?  Or that those same characters are able to cause more damage in this system, or heal faster?  Isn't it a question of how many monsters the party encounters?  Or how high a height the character falls from?  Isn't the x-factor the decision of the DM to throw this much, this quickly, in these circumstances and with this much determination?

No matter how many hit points a character has or how many surges, I can always stack the deck with another dozen creatures pouring from another doorway, without mercy.  Which means that early editions of the game can be adjust the deadliness of encounters just as easily as any other edition - since the rule set doesn't limit the abundance of deadly possibilities.  Yet I hear every now and then that earlier editions lead to more total party kills.

My guess would be that modules like Tomb of Horrors or The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan built up a reputation for crunchy death-dealing sessioning, leading a lot of single-minded players into a mind-set that early gaming HAD to be deadly or else it wasn't 'D&D.'  Execution-style dungeons were trash in their day, played mostly by tourists who were in love with the idea of murder, death and killing, the same way that a fascination for these things will roll around in an emo's mind while clothing themselves in another layer of black.  Young boys develop such a fetish for the prospect of death that they'll dodge trains, jump from high bridges and otherwise experiment with chemicals just to prove that blood still flows in their veins.  For a segment of the population, D&D offered a safe, catechistic means of proving one's commitment - "I am willing to throw away a hundred characters to order to finish this dungeon, because that is how much I love this game!"

Unfortunately, this built up a renown for idiocy among certain groups in the population, so that I am still running across non-players in the late forties and fifties who - having not heard a word about Dungeons & Dragons in thirty years - still feel the need to roll their eyes upon hearing the words, remembering as they must the fuckwits screaming about the amount of damage they took in their high school cafeterias.  The impression was rooted and there it remains.

The question will arise, do I tailor the number of creatures to the party's size.  Of course I do.  Not in the sense that most would - if there is a goblin village in the area, then there is a goblin village.  But a party of 18 characters and their henchmen would make enough noise in approaching such a village that the first encounter would probably be a mass attack directed at the party before they knew a village existed.  On the other hand, two characters would make such a small footprint on the environment that they would probably stumble across the village undetected, thus allowing them to decide what to do about it.

The number of enemies is not the relevant issue - but the manner in which those enemies are encountered IS.  The smaller the party, the more likely they will be able to 'cut out' a section of the enemy and deal with them on their own terms.  If, however, two morons insist on openly approaching the enemy without thought given to strategy or tactics, then yes, they're going to die.  Quickly.

My 'tailoring' of my world is based entirely on giving my players the heads up where it comes to danger.  Knowledge is power.  Survival is the wise implementation of that knowledge.  If I as a DM were recalcitrant about delivering up that knowledge - and the possibility of players manipulating their situation into something they can handle - then yes, I probably would create a lot of TPK's.  But I can't see how the rule system I'm using is relevant to the situation.

But then, my small experience with 4e suggests that DM's are unwilling to create truly massive combats in the game.  No doubt, that is due to the ludicrous number of rules and sub-rules and rules of opportunity, all of which encourage situations of one party vs. one enemy, rather than a party fighting, say, 40+ enemies (which occurred in my last running).  Given what I've seen of later editions, 40+ enemies becomes a hassle - but perhaps that is due to my limited experience.  The reader should please correct me if, as a DM, they regularly run combats that feature squad or company sized battles.

For me, those may run half a session - but they're manageable and on the whole it usually means good treasure.  8 times out of 10, however, the players could avoid these fights - only the players like them.  While TPK's will sometimes threaten, they rarely occur.  In fact, I haven't had one in - fifteen years?

True enough, my parties have learned to run away.  Even when half the party dies, the rest usually get a chance to escape.  Partial Party Kill's are definitely the norm.


Harvicus said...


This is a great post that directly addresses and challenges my own ideas. I have sat on this open comment page for a while trying to formulate some sort of defense, but I really have none. Instead I will provide a look inside my own thoughts on how I came to the conclusion that newer editions better support small group sizes than early editions.

I believe it boils down into 2 different fronts. Starting HP and spell progression. The ironic bit here, is that both of these "issues" are solved simply by starting new characters at level 3 instead of 1. Somehow this feels like cheating and I recoil at the idea, no matter how clean of a solution it is. I have no claim to being sane or practical.

Both HP and spells available are the primary resources for adventuring, as they are depleted, the party is faced with the decision on how important their mission is vs their ever decreasing odds of survival.

DnD combat by nature is very swingy, where a single attack is capable of turning a near defeat into victory. This contributes a lot to how exciting of a game it can be.

Because of this though, the resources of a small party can go from 100% to sucking fumes in just one round of combat. A larger party can mitigate the effects of luck streaks better due to the fact that their resource pool is greater, even when both groups are engaged with enemies that are scaled to match their group size.

Yes, the large party can still be destroyed in a single round due to great luck on their enemies part, but the odds of such an event is much lower for the large group vs the small group.

The funny thing here however, is that newer editions really do not change this up much. They provide some extra spell resources, and perhaps the ability to recover quicker between hostile encounters.

So why did I bother wasting your time with this post? I felt I owed you a response, as this post seemed at least partially directed on a comment I left yesterday. Somehow, simply agreeing with you silently did not seem sufficient. You deserved a bit more closure than that.

So there is a peek at my own convoluted reasoning.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Anything that keeps you thinking and re-evaluating, Harvicus. Those are the best policies.

Rather than jump to 3rd level, consider greater availability of tough armor at cheaper prices, greater rewards for less activity at 1st level, NPC companions that can take some of those swings for the party to allow greater survival, guard animals such as dogs that are available for purchase on your initial equipment lists or the inclusion of a negative hit point buffer. All of those might mitigate the one shot TPK that concerns you.

There are always ways to rebuild your structure to improve the function of your campaign.

fluerdemal said...

"Not in the sense that most would - if there is a goblin village in the area, then there is a goblin village..."

I am still kind of amazed that there are DMs and players who don't "get this" it always seemed somewhat self-evident to me. In my own games this led to re-writing the non-urban encounter tables to that you "ran into what you ran into" Lots of random small animals, some game animals, and then the further you moved from civilization increasing chances of random goblin hunting parties, ogre warbands, etc.

Low level parties stayed out of the wilderness because it was *dangerous* and as a result most adventures were against bandits, cults, etc, on behalf the local authorities. The idea of an trip into the "wilds" was an occasion for much planning and trepidation.

Fighting "monsters" was a sign of either being decent level and in the wilds, or things having rapidly gone pear-shaped because you don't normally find monsters within the bounds of civilization.


Christoffer Krakou said...

As for the running of large battles in later editions, you are pretty much right on the mark.

I play pathfinder (a spin-off from 3.5th edition of D&D), and as you level, you gain more magic items and more new abilities in the form of skill points and feats. All new things that you have to remember how to use. I guess, at this point, there are more than 500 feats in the pathfinder ruleset, including sourcebooks.

Keeping track of henchmen and followers is mostly right out due to the fact that they must be built in the same way as player characters. One character is quite enough, thanks, i don't need to look at 10 more at the table. A lot of GM's simply ban the Leadership feat because of the bookkeeping.

Monsters are built with the same amount of complexity. My current campaign is at level 10, and it is rare for us to have more than one battle per session, because a battle between 4 player characters and 6 ogres takes at least an hour. At lot of that time is spent looking up how that one spell works again for the 20th time.

Algol said...

My experience with d&d is mainly 3.0 onward since I'm in my mid 20's so some of my assumptions about earlier editions may be off base.

The character customization of later editions allows a single character to easily fill multiple niches. It's easy to have the standard fighter, rogue, cleric, mage paradigm in a 3 or even 2 person party when the players multiclass, which is very easy and intuitive in later editions. There aren't any requirements and multiclassing doesn't change a characters xp progression so it's easy for an entire party to multiclass. And in 4e, there's very little niche protection. So it's easier for a small party to fulfill every an extremely broad amount of party roles.

As far as large combats go. The large amount of resources a mid level party has theoretically makes large battle more survivable in 3.x but the complexity makes it an absolute nightmare to dm and a bore to play. In 4e the complexity of combat is extremely rich, drawing more from japanese tactical rpgs than wargaming. I've never personally seen a large battle in 4e, they're generally smaller than in even 3.x where you'd see fights with say 10 goblins sometimes. GM's who tell me they run large combats in 4e always tell me they also halve monster hp and double monster damage.

5e is much better for large combats than the two previous editions. It has a similar degree of character customizability as 3.x and plays as a generally better designed version of 3.x. The trend throughout the rules is to attempt to do with one rule what previous editions would do with 4. So abilities are very few in number, outside of "boss" monsters all of them I've seen had one. These abilities though are extremely significant compared to the collection of almost significant abilities a 3.x or 4e monster would have. The action economy is also loosened but the amount of actions taken is more regulated so a player only has a few decisions on their turn and the effects are few in number but more important.

I ran a 5e game until level 5 and it was very easy to have large combats. The average combat took about 10 minutes and involved 8 enemies. At level three the players had the largest battle I've ever seen in d&d. They played smart due to a TPK the previous session so when they had a chance to plan an ambush they spent a half hour planning the attack and preparing, then an hour in combat. The combat was against 30 orcs. One of the players said it felt more like warhammer fantasy than 3.x d&d. So it's very doable to run large combats in 5e, such an encounter would never be possible without massive houseruling in the previous two editions.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Hello Algol,

Here is the largest battle I've ever run in D&D. First, the beginning:



Still more.

And more.

I never did post the whole combat on line, but we did run it to the very end. It ran about 35 total rounds, which we managed in about 10 sessions. NEVER did the party complain, and when I suggested we should maybe find a shortcut, the party REFUSED.

They still like to talk about it. Note these posts are from four years ago.

Arete said...

Great article. The great fallacy about survivability of character parties is that it has anything to do with the power and capabilities of the characters. When it is obvious that survivability is always dependent on the amount and strength of monsters that are encountered. The difference between earlier editions and later ones seems to be that in early editions (1st and 2nd) there were not many guidelines for a DM to gauge the threat that monsters posed to a specific group of characters. Then, the threat level of encounters were dependent on the experience of the DM. And the examples provided, e.g. published adventures, were mostly designed for larger groups. I think that this may have led to the perception that only large groups are viable in this early editions, when a little thought could have easily told that this is not really the case.
If you now enter the age of the later editions (3rd and onward), they have created meticulous systems to gauge the challenge an encounter presents. The downside of this is that, in my estimation, it has led to the phenomenon of the 'challenge rating bubble', which caused characters to only encounter 'level appropriate' challenges, completely destroying the verisimilitude of the campaign. The worst offender of this has been 4th edition, as the maths behind the system leads to encounters being either so deadly that they can't be overcome or so easy that there is no point in playing through the encounter, if you change the levels just a little bit (about 5 out of 30 levels up and down).

Algol said...

Wow. Now that is a serious large scale combat. Reading various posts, I've learned to feel shortchanged in my current games on how large combats and higher level play works. People have this intense fear of the boredom large scale combat produces in the games I've played.

When we get higher level it always feels logical for me to use the massive wealth I have to create armies. Surely a group of 200 men at arms would be a better investment for combat effectiveness than personal magic items? Or take command of the city guard or any other way to increase power other than increasing the numbers on my sheet. Yet it's always a fear of large combats that makes everyone shoot down this suggestion immediately when I bring it up.

It's funny, an hour long combat against 30 enemies feels amazing to see an edition even support that to me. It's humbling to see what kind of large scale other systems can support.

James said...

I play 4E. Largest combat I ever ran involved 3 PCs, 5 friendly NPCs the PCs ran (essentially henchmen) and about 25-30 enemies. I wouldn't do it on a regular basis, but I also wouldn't avoid it. The battle took about 2-3 hours and ended fairly satisfactorily, as the enemy withdrew once they realized achieving their goals had become impossible.

As for death and newer editions, I think you are slightly off-base:

1. In previous editions, death occurred at 0 hp. In 4E and 5E, death occurs at a much lower hp total, and/or requires failing three saving throws.

2. "Save or die" stopped being a thing.

3. In 4E, no level 1 creature could kill any level 1 PC in one hit (there may be a rare exception or two, but it would be exceedingly rare).

Though I think your initial analysis fails to address the fact that if the party has any synergy at all, additional PCs become a force multiplier, rather than just additive.

In 4E, for example, a really well-optimized leader can make his or her entire party more effective. Therefore, while this may be only good in a 3 person party, it becomes explosive in a 5 person party and outright insurmountable without drastically increasing the difficulty at 7+.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Like many who play the later editions, you assume us old grognards EVER played the rules as written. Save or die went by the wayside in thousands of games before the WOTC even existed, much less codified it, while we used a lot of different rules in those early days to make sure that negative hit points never meant death (negative hit points are in the original monster manual, for bears and such - we knew how to employ that).

As far as additional members being a force multiplier, why is it you think that additional monsters is not ALSO a force multiplier? At any rate, I never said in the post that I assigned the number of monsters to a party arithmetically. I found that part of your comment baffling.

Finally, as regards 4E: "a really well-optimized leader can . . ."

This is equally baffling. To begin with, as the DM I can 'optimize' any enemy I want, to whatever degree I want. Having had 35 years of experience setting up enemies for parties, I think I am somewhat in the fore where it comes to giving ANY party a challenge.

Nothing is insurmountable. It just takes longer.

At any rate, you know already, James, that I play a Frankenstein's monster of a campaign system, having stolen from hundreds of places, including my own imagination (my right hand is still looking for shit boosted by my left hand).

I can't say I care much about how 4e does things. No offense, but you're selling at the wrong door.

connor mckay said...

Regarding your asking for people running larger scale combats, I am running a pathfinder campaign and have run two larger combats. One was 5 first level PCs vs 25 goblins in a slap dash wooden fort [took 1.5 hours] and the other was 5 third level PCs and 20 orcish followers attacking 50 goblin/hobgoblins with barriers and towers [took 2.4 hours].

The first smaller battle was done entirely with dice and I found it went quite smoothly, even though it was the first session I had ever run and only my second time playing. The larger one vs the hobgoblins would have been a bit of a pain but I altered your mass combat die rolling sheet idea in excel to make it go fairly smoothly.

As someone less than a year into gaming and with only 10 run sessions under my belt I find that large scale combats in Pathfinder are not all that hard to run so long as the players pull their weight.