1e Campaign flashback: adventuring as ‘commoners’

Reading this post over at the Trollish Delver about common people (i.e., those without class, level or other adventuring skills) taking part in adventures brought back some memories about a first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign I ran about 25 years ago.

Of course, this isn’t an exact comparison; the original post over at Trollish Delver dealt with a game supplement detailing commoners for use in-game. It also reflected on how certain heroes of fantasy literature, like the hobbits in Tolkein’s trilogy, really had no adventuring skills to speak of but managed to accomplish amazing feats.

Our experiment was more of an accident, but it did create a style of game that was unique to any of the other games I mastered.

We had just finished a homebrew campaign that borrowed from 1e Forgotten Realms materials. In that game, magic items were abundant, and magic had woven itself into lower societal classes, as seen in a town guild hall being heated by a trapped fire elemental. In true Forgotten Realms fashion, adventuring parties, all with colorful names, were everyplace.

While our group enjoyed the game, we reached a point – about ninth level or so – when the game didn’t feel as challenging. The heroes had a magic item for every occasion, and the new entertainment was using outdated, lower-powered magic items to equip followers and retainers.

When that game reached an acceptable stopping point for saying “happily ever after,” we decided to try a low-magic setting. Operating from the premise that, a few generations after the most recent game, all of that magic finally got the better of civilization and nearly destroyed it. Magic – except for restorative clerical magic – was outlawed for obvious reasons, and a shrine was built around a nether portal (basically an immovable Sphere of Annihilation that poppped up during the cataclysm that nearly destroyed humanity) at which magic items were ritually destroyed.

Since the high-magic game became unbalanced, we decided to start at a much lower power level, beginning with character ability scores. While we had always used Method I from the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide (determine abilities by rolling 4d6, adding the highest three to get the ability score, rolling six scores and arranging to taste), this time we opted for Method IV (roll 3d6 for all six abilities, in order, for 12 characters, then allow the player to choose the single set he or she thinks is best).

Needless to say, the starting ability scores were a lot lower than many campaigns. This resulted in correspondingly lower-powered heroes, especially in light of the fact that in 1e, ability-related bonuses didn’t start appearing until a score reached 15 out of a possible 18. The party’s fighter was a powerhouse with a strength of 16 – for which he had no attack bonus, and a mere +1 damage bonus. 

Mechanically, then, there was no real difference between the heroes and the commoners, especially at first level. Scaling back encounters was easy enough, and watching the heroes decide whether to use or destroy illegal forms of magic they found was entertaining. The party even took on a magic user (to fans of later editions – read as ‘wizard’) who was raised as an apprentice in a remote area and, shocked when he learned the devastation his art had wrought, swore to use his magic to destroy other magic.

At about third level, the heroes had collected enough clues to determine who the campaign’s major villain was, and what she would do if her plans were left unchecked.

One of my players, realizing what his character would be up against, replied completely out-of-character, “Dude, are you serious? There are no other adventuring parties but us in this entire world, and my thief doesn’t  even have a dexterity bonus! This is the peasant-pitchfork campaign!”

While we never did get to play out the battle with the campaign villain in that game – we got to about sixth level when 2e was released, and we were eager to play that game instead – we still talk about the Pitchfork Campaign. The players liked the idea of their being civilization’s only hope, of how having a few levels made them more physically powerful than most kings, and how a minor item like a potion could radically affect the outcome of a battle. They did miss, however, the excitement of using magic items, of having heroes far superior to normal people and other elements that passed for mainstream AD&D in 1987, so we never went back.

Have you ever experimented with low-powered heroes in your game, if you have, please consider sharing your experiences in a comment to this post.

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3 comments on “1e Campaign flashback: adventuring as ‘commoners’

  1. Iron Dragon says:

    I have never had the opportunity to run a low magic campaign, I played in one that reported to be as such (though we all had other things that replaced magic items which was sort of a disappoint). If I ever get a chance to run a game I am going to aim it towards a low magic setting. I really want to try out Barrowmaze which I just got, and a low magic setting is that mega-dungeons presupposed setting type. Also sounds like your Pitchfork campaign was really fun!

    • Alric says:

      We did have a good time with that campaign. Having only one adventuring party – which at higher levels unlocked abilities that no one else in the campaign world had – added a sense of urgency to every adventure. If the heroes couldn’t fix it, the world was going to be screwed, and everybody knew it.

      Another upside to low-magic, low-ability-score games is that it takes longer for a BECM/1e/2e game to become unbalanced. Even monsters like kobolds can be a threat to level 4 or 5 heroes in a setting like that, since the heroes are comparably low-powered for a longer time.

      • Iron Dragon says:

        I agree that’s one of the reasons I liked the idea behind say E6, it helped keep the power bloat of 3rd edition in check by capping the characters at a lower level. I also just wanted to say I really enjoy reading your blog, I peruse it all the time but this is the first time I have commented I feel sort of guilty for not leaving more feedback. Cheers

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