Thursday 22 March 2012

By the Way, Conan Never Leveled Up

Trying to come up with answers to the challenge of how to make high-level combat more than a grind, I asked myself: "What did the great writers of adventure and fantasy do?" But in classic fantasy fiction there is no such thing as D&D's high-level combat between biological ironclads possessed of three-digit hit point totals. And who can blame those writers? In the pulp market, descriptions of combat needed to be pointed, tense and thrilling; though things have changed in these days of the interminable epic page-churner.

He actually takes one swing, then runs.
Take the Robert E. Howard story Red Nails. Its first combat pits Conan and Valeria versus an old-school, tail-dragging stegosaurus. By all chronologies the action in this story comes late-ish in Conan's career (Fighter 16/Thief 12? Really, Gary?) Valeria by all accounts is no knockover as a fighter. In D&D these two high level characters would come at the "dragon," swords swinging; maybe go a few rounds and take a few big blows before realizing that the monster is too hard-skinned and too strong for them. Instead, Conan sizes up the peril right away and immediately runs up a rock to hide. When he does prevail, it's not in a toe-to-toe slugfest, but through a ruse worthy of a desperate first-level D&D character.

Conan gains experience over time. But his experience is what we would now call player skill: a knowledge of the ways of the world. In battle he keeps rather than discards the sense and cunning to run, hide and fight dirty that kept him alive from the start. He is stronger, faster, more aware than most other men - but these are qualities he had at the start of his career. They have helped him survive, but they do not guarantee his survival. In the end, Conan reaches his kingdom without a battleship's load of hit points and an ability to hit AC0 more often than not. Maybe he's just the lucky one; the unlucky ones, as confident and skilled as they were, Slith and Alderic and Thangobrind, show up in Lord Dunsany's stories.

The point of tension in a D&D combat comes when hit points are low, when critical moves are contemplated, when the decision to cut and run is made. High-level combat takes a long time to reach that point. Unless they're infected with the D&D view of the world - a sad backwash indeed! - fantasy writers need to get there immediately. But how to get there in the D&D game without the deus ex machina of super saiyan sorcery?

As promised, more on that next time.


  1. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

  2. nice point.

    At the risk of completely missing the mark, since hit points are classically derived from a combination of con, level, and class, and level and class already grant survival benefits in being somewhat more likely to succeed when attempting an arbitrary gambit, why not cut out the middleman and take damage directly to con?

  3. You might find this interesting:

    25 levels of Conan.

    (the link comes from here: which offers a lot of material. I thought these were both well thought out. YMMV)

  4. @frijoles: That's a solution (I'll touch on that in the article) but one more associated with games like GURPS and Runequest than D&D.

    @ADD Grognard: Thanks for that, but it goes to show that little has changed in the disconnect between D&D stats and heroic fiction. So in Red Nails he has 190 hp and a Pathfinder stegosaurus has 90. If the story worked like D&D he and Valeria would have been dining on stego steak within the hour. (Maybe it was a more level-appropriate dire infernal colossal stegosaurus?)

  5. :)

    You did notice my disclaimer. Just simply saying somebody statted out Conan levels.

    But yeah, go 15 pages into ANY rpg as written and see if you don't come out with some nuggets like that.

    Part of the fun.

  6. Wierdly this is almost the exact same thing I was discussing with a friend the other day. He was lamenting 'laundry runs' in the Star Wars rpg, stating that it should always feel epic. If that's the case though, then the universe should be saved by the end of Level 3. Either that or, in the movies, Luke goes from level 1 to Level 17-ish in the space of half a dozen gaming sessions, more or less.

  7. Discussing this further last night with the same friend, it occured to us that during the entire Lord of the Rings 'campaign' the characters barely level at all in D&D terms. The Hobbits start at level 1 and by the end I wouldn't say they were any higher than 3. They certainly grow and develop as characters but by the time he's destroyed the ring, Frodo is no more capable of fighting an Uruk than he was when he left the Shire.
    Same for the other members of the Fellowship. Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn start at a reasonably high level but don't appear to improve signifigantly during the course of the 'campaign'.
    I think this is a major contributor to why I'm not keen on progressing beyond Level 10-ish. To my mind, by the time you've adventured your way to level 10, you should have more story arc than Conan or Aragorn and by the end of their adventures, both of them were formidable kings. Anything beyond that just seems totally over the top for the sake of just being more powerful.