Classic D&D's evolving gameplay

This is my (somewhat belated) contribution to this month’s Blog Carnival: “Transitions and Transformations” hosted at Critical Hits.

It’s a truism that those who do not study History are destined to repeat it, badly. That holds up especially well when you compare the current 4e Edition of D&D with Classic D&D. One of 4e’s “innovations” over 3e was the introduction of different Tiers of play which set major milestones at 1st, 11th and 21st level. Each Tier promises different styles of play to reflect the circles in which your Characters move. In the Heroic (1st-10th level) Tier, play is concerned primarily with mundane threats; this is so-called “traditional” D&D territory where the players raid tombs, explore dungeons and generally fight anything within a 100 square mile radius of their home base.

Moving up to the Paragon (11th to 20th level) Tier and the players’ wordview shifts to a more global scale. They’re reknowned champions in their region, and the go-to guys when it comes to thwarting Big Evil – the kind that threatens the entire country, or the world. Adventures take the characters further afield to other realms or even alternate planes.

At the Epic (21st to 30th level) Tier the players are serious major players and legends in their own lifetimes. They’re battling across the planes and multiverse saving reality itself on a daily basis. Or something. It’s a far cry from their humble origins battling Kobolds in some hole in the ground, that’s for sure.

That was now, this is then.

Back in the D&D of the 1970s and 1980s we had not three Tiers of play, but five. They were called Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal. Of course, we didn’t call ’em Tiers, but (to use modern parlance), that’s what they were. Each supplement brought a new facet to the game and recognised that a shift in the power levels meant a change in the way the game could be played. Whereas in 4e D&D, the different Tiers mean bigger and badder foes to fight and funkier settings in which to battle, the “Tiers” of Classic D&D meant much more.


Basic “Red Book” D&D covered levels 1-3, and offers pure Dungeon-based action. At this Tier, the players are pretty fragile things little better than the rest of the commoners from their home village or town. This is the root of traditional D&D gaming where the emphasis is on killing the monsters and taking their stuff. Up to the introduction of 4e D&D, when people thought of D&D, this is the style of play they think of with the DM drawing a Dungeon layout or cracking open a published adventure and the characters lighting torches to venture underground. It’s a style of play that expects a high level of attrition with players routinely rolling up characters (or better yet, having a handful prepared) as their Fighter dies at the hands of a couple of Goblins. Again. Only the incredibly lucky, skilled or tactical players made it through this trial by fire – or, more likely, the GM house ruled the number of Hit Points to improve survivability. When we play Classic D&D now, we give maximum HP at 1st level and the character is unconscious at 0hp. Further damage comes directly off CON. When combat ends any character at 0hp is revived to 1hp but the player is given the option to allow the character to die and create another one. If all of the party reaches 0hp….. well, they’re eaten.

It’s worh mentioning that gaining levels in Classic D&D is at a much slower pace than in 3e or 4e D&D, and it’s all the better for it. Whereas in 3e D&D 13 encounters are all that stands between one level and the next (do the math), in the Classic Red Book era, getting from one level to another could take years of play. For example, for a Fighter to get from 1st to 2nd level required 2,000xp, but a dead Orc was only worth 10xp, so you’d have to vanquish 200 of the things to get there. That’s why Classic D&D rewarded xp for gold and other tangibles – your rewards came primarily from getting the goodies rather than killing the monsters on the way. Being the hero who discovered the Gold Statue of Quirm (worth 500gp!) meant 500xp for you. Killing the Orcs to get it along the way was just icing on the cake. Compare and contrast with 4e’s emphasis on XP for encounters and Quests.


Moving on to the Expert (4th to 14th) Tier of play, and the style of play shifts out of the Dungeon and into the Wilderness. This is the D&D most akin to 4e’s Heroic Tier where the adventurers wander the lands as a kind of fantasy A-Team vanquishing evil as they go. The characters have a reasonable chance of survivability and a decent stock of kewl skillz and magic items, and adventures occur in a wide range of terrains from under the ground to in forests, cities, atop mountains and more. It’s exploratory D&D where the characters have reached the point where the world is their playground.

So, it’s just like Heroic Tier D&D. Except it’s much more than that, because around 9th level the game evolves in a radical direction. At that point the adventurers are recognised for their heroism (or lack of it, if they’re playing a Thief) and rewarded with a title and land. The characters build castles, temples and wizard towers, rule over a small dominion and become significant players at court. D&D becomes a Game of Thrones with political intrigue and warfare playing as important a part in the game as torches and 10′ poles were several levels earlier. It’s a play style that could only be found in obscure 3e D&D supplements and is so far entirely absent from 4e D&D. This is my favourite “Tier” of Classic D&D with the players deep in the Castle Construction rules managing their hex from season to season. It’s D&D zoomed out where the players feel (and, if done right, relish) their responsibilities for their subjects.


Moving to the Companion (15th to 25th) Tier and the Dominion rules come to the fore. This is adventure gaming where the players have the opportunity to expand their fledgling Empire. This is High Fantasy with the players leading armies in the field or going toe-to-toe against (in 4e terms) Paragon-level foes. Where Name (9th) Level put the focus on the character’s Stronghold, The Companion levels will have the players pouring over world maps calculating where to strike, and where to defend. It’s simulation-style gaming where the characters are heroic empire builders of the first degree. And I love it!


Reaching Master (25th to 36th) level is no mean feat. This is the equal to 4e’s Epic-level play with the characters battling planar foes on a daily basis and thwarting the Evils that threaten to destroy the whole word (dur dur DURRR!). This is where the GM Guide talks about Reality Shifts and Anti-Magic with a straight face, and the players can face-off against the Gods themselves. The players’ Empires expands and the characters no longer need to concern themselves with the day-to-day running of their vast territories.This is pure Epic-level D&D play with the characters able to cause Earthquakes, create Artefacts and shape terrain with a word. But that’s nothing compared to………………………


…………Immortal Tier play! If 36 whole levels aren’t enough for you, here’s another 36! The later Wrath of the Immortals boxed set does it better, but this is where is starts with information about how to attain D&D goodhood, and what to do when you get there. Classic D&D used the concept of the Immortals – eternal super-powerful beings who reside in planes of their own making and meddle in the Affairs of Man. They’re Gods by any other name, acting in accordance just like you’d expect the deities of Norse, Greek and Roman mythology to behave – like spoiled brats, mainly. The Classic D&D Immortals Rules set down the requirements to achieve Immortality and provides plenty of goodies for you to play with when you is one. At this Tier the focus is on increasing the influence of your own Sphere and interests while at the same time thwarting the machinations of……. pretty much everyone else, really.

In all, using Classic D&D means buying into an evolving game where how you play changes over time. Bart the Farmer’s Son can become Sir Bart the Blue Baron, then Bart the Conqueror and ultimately Bart the Onmipotent.

Ain’t evolution grand?

21 Comments on “Classic D&D's evolving gameplay”

  1. @Viriatha In many way, it is. It’s certainly easier than 3e D&D from a DM’s point of view; creating scenarios, encounters and new monsters is much quicker and more fun than it was in Third Edition D&D, and it’s more consistent when it comes to character generation.

    But simpler than Classic D&D? No, it’s not.

  2. What a fantastic article – I never played in a campaign that survived past mid-Expert, I had all of those box sets and everytime I sit down to create a campaign, the lesson of “what’s next in the scale of things” is always on my mind. 10′ view, 100′ view, 1000′ view and so on…

    One minor quibble about this statement: “Back in the D&D of the 1970s and 1980s we had not three Tiers of play, but five.”

    The “Red Book” that really started this procession, also known as Moldvay, was published in 1981. I love my Holmes, but I also bought this book as well as the Expert edition and played the hell out of them.

    Prior to that, in the 1970s, the only “basic” edition was Holmes and it was both a standalone D&D (in spirit) and an introduction meant to spur you to Advanced D&D. Neither Holmes or AD&D, as I remember/played it, had “tiers” like Moldvay/Mentzer. And of course, OD&D and Chainmail were not tiered.

    So I think that the concept of “tiered” play started in the 80s only.

    Chgowizs last blog post..When mapping becomes a chore (Wife’s solo game observation)

  3. @Chgowiz Good point, and I stand corrected. For some reason I had it in my head that Moldvay was published in 1979. Silly me. Must be getting old. I’ll keep it as writ to other folks can see how stupid I am and point ‘n’ laugh too. :D

    Glad you liked the post. The parallels between 4e D&D and Classic D&D (especially if you add the D&D Rules Cyclopedia into the mix) are there, if you know where to look.

  4. I’ve played through some 4E, I’ve looked through the books and I have to tell you, I don’t see it nearly as well as some people say.

    I think a little bit of parallels can be found in any edition, because we are dealing with a common ancestry. It’s the intent and delivery and focus that has changed, from “normal folk” braving dangerous depths to gain fabulous wealth at terrible risk, to a combat-simulation game of fantasy super-heroes. Things that some people do at 1st level in 4E, you couldn’t do until you were cracking open the Companion or Master Rules, as I recall – albiet at a lower level.

    It echoes and fulfills what people want to play, how they want to play it. That’s why I think 2009 will continue to see a vibrant community of all sorts – the old school community has it’s OGL simulacrums and numerous copies of the old references, 3E is alive and well with Paizo and 4E will continue to grow and gain momentum with the weight of WotC behind it. Just like the GBLTH communities – there are differences and sometimes lots of rancorous disagreements, but we’re still all exploring something very similar and in our own ways.

    Chgowizs last blog post..When mapping becomes a chore (Wife’s solo game observation)

  5. Greywulf, I see. I have to admit that while I’d play a 3.5 game it was never anything I enjoyed and I really just moved on to other systems that were more streamlined but still allowed a great many options.

    I think my biggest turnoff, though, was tactical combat. I never wanted to wargame in my RPG unless I played MechWarrior.

  6. We bought a friend a battlemap for Christmas and it looks like we’re going to be able to :) We meant it for other games but as soon as he heard what he was getting, he yelled BATTLETECH! Gotta love getting the right gift ^^

  7. @Chgowiz Yeh. I’ve said before that 4e D&D at 1st level feels and plays like 3e D&D around 4th level – and when comparing it with Classic D&D I’d say it’s closer to 5th or 6th. Sad to say that straight-from-the-farm wide-eyed innocence of starting D&D characters is now a thing of the past – unless you still play Classic D&D, of course :D

    When compared to 3e D&D, 4e is much closer to it’s old school roots though. It’s a more hackable system which puts the fun back into DM’ing. It’s a system where even a beginning DM can draw a dungeon map, fill it with encounters and game like it’s 1982 again. Try doing that with 3e D&D with its mess of Challenge Ratings and Encounter Levels and whatnot – it’s a much less DM-friendly system all round.

    @Viriatha Amen to that. One of 4e D&D’s biggest problems is its over-emphasis on miniatures-based combat at the expense of tools to encourage role-playing. That’s something which has polarised the RPG crowd into folks that love 4e, or just shrug and say it’s not for them. That’s not a good place for something that supposed to be “the premier role-playing system” to be.

  8. @Viriatha – what a great gift! :)

    @Greywulf – I have to admit, I don’t see where 4E is anywhere near “old school”, but that’s just me. I agree, from reading the DMG, it is a lot easier for a newbie DM to create a 4E adventure than a 3E adventure… but in the same light, I don’t think that makes it ‘old school’. You still have rules and rules and rules – you still have a focus on mechanics versus play and you still have a ‘structure’ except now you have tactical units and you still have the 3e expectations of Step 1: Run the proscribed # of encounters; Step 2 … ; Step 3 Profit from the proscribed units of treasure!

    When I’m laying out my dungeons, I don’t follow a formula, and I didn’t as a newbie. I created (and still do) dungeons that sucked. I sent people into death traps, into Monty Hauls but we had fun because the focus was on the play. After playing 4e and reading 4e, I just don’t get that focus. That’s why I struggle (and I apologize for the mini-rant) with thinking that 4e somehow goes back to old school roots.

    If it did, it would be.. well… not 4e.

    Chgowizs last blog post..When mapping becomes a chore (Wife’s solo game observation)

  9. Though both 4e and OD&D were tiered, they are presented very differently. 4e shows you all of the neat powers you have to look forward to, making some players want to hurry through the lower levels as fast as they can.

    OD&D completely separated each tier. You were only presented with your small chunk of the rules (and view of the world) so you didn’t have any expectations of what was coming. Then, when you got into the higher levels, there was a sort of feeling that everything you just experienced–everything you struggled with, and possibly died fighting–was only the warm up for the new challenges that lay ahead. For me at least, this held true even after making it past the switching points the first time. Moving from Basic to Expert always held that same wide-eyed wonder for me.

    Of course, I’m now a bitter old man, so my experiences now may vary.

  10. @Golgotha That’s ok. We’re all bitter old men around here. You’re in good company :D

    That sense of wonder never leaves; I always feel the tingle of warm fuzzies when we reach 9th level, even in 3e and 4e D&D. Then, I feel the faint bitter pang of disappointment…………..

    @Dr Checkmate I know it’s not the same, but there’s always RPGNow. Here’s the Basic D&D section and the Rules Cyclopedia

  11. I had a basic set with a Picture (Google says: Art by Sutherland) of a Wizard and Warrior surprising a Dragon that’s sitting on a pile of loot. Quick research says this edition was printed seven times between 1977 & 1979. I guess this is the Holmes edition. What’s the difference (in rules, not in art or layout) between this and the Moldvay version?

  12. In my entire life, I never knew anyone to make it past the blue book. I knew people who bought the Champions book, but never ever actually using it, as anything other than an inspiration.

    Further: I agree re: “It takes years to level up.” This was true for AD&D 1 and AD&D 2 as well, — if you actually followed the rules. I seem to recall a number of cruel rules about aging and casting haste spells, as well. (Something like: You age a year every time you cast haste? Yikes!)

    House rules on “automatically getting full HP for first level” is nice; Nothing quite like playing a level 1 fighter with *2* (count them *2*) maximum hit points.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.