Collapsed Tiers of Play

Above is a WIP background for a referee screen, drawn by Emiel Boven for Errant by Ava Islam!

Okay, whatever, I keep mentioning this in private conversations and meant to write about it at some point. I just kept forgetting. But now I'm in front of a computer drinking an afternoon coffee and we're all talking about related stuff again. Here you go!

The Old: Tiers of Play

There are three tiers of play in classic D&D (pictured above is Fantastic Medieval Campaigns):

  • Underworld (lvl. 1-3): Corresponding roughly with the 'flunky' character level in Chainmail, this phase involves expeditions into the underworld to fight monsters and retrieve treasure.
  • Wilderness (lvl. 4-7): Corresponds with the 'heroic' level in Chainmail, this phase is about exploring and conquering the wilderness.
  • Dominion (lvl. 8+): Corresponds with the 'superheroic' level in Chainmail, this phase is about building a domain and employing armies.

The main point I want to get across is that these three tiers are, well, tiers. You're expected to participate in these activities at specific stages of character progression. You can tell because wilderness encounters are way more fucking dangerous than underworld encounters—we're talking hundreds of mooks in OD&D, or dozens in the Basic revision—and once you have a domain, you are straight up playing a war game. I've heard it expressed a couple times, though I think Lich van Winkle told me last, that classic D&D functions as the origin story of 'fantastic' figures in Chainmail. That sounds about right to me!

The New: Modes of Play

I think more contemporary "old-school" (or adjacent) campaigns distinguish themselves by employing these activities across a campaign, i.e. regardless of character level, instead of at certain stages. You're less likely to grind in the dungeon to become powerful enough for the wilderness. Instead, you're more likely to take a hex crawl from a town en route to a dungeon, and then doing a downtime/domain activity before or after the main session. Rather than stages of a campaign, they're activities at any point of a campaign or individual session.

The most immediate example I can think of is Ava Islam's rulebook Errant, pictured above, which has four types of turns: travel (wilderness), exploration (underworld), initiative (combat), and downtime (dominion). As we can tell even by the names, these activities no longer occur at different stages of character progression, but can occur at any point during a campaign or session. A helpful analogy is that these activities exist on the same 'plane' as combat—it's not like combat in classic D&D is relegated to certain character power level, but it's an activity that begins at any point during underworld or wilderness exploration. The same is now true for hex crawls, dungeon crawls, and downtime (long-term) activities.

That being said, I don't think this really originates in Errant as much as it would from the G+ subculture of the OSR which focused on more DIY and freeform campaign structures, especially with shorter session and campaign lengths. It's natural that, when pressed with more restrictions on time, a play culture which broadens the scope of play would arise (when, otherwise, the post-underworld tiers of play would be inaccessible). That's all kind of hypothetical, though. I'm kind of frustrated that, off the top of my head, I can't think of a clear timeline. We don't really see it in the early 2010s retroclones which emphasize dungeon crawls (besides importing the basic assumptions of classic D&D), and we don't see it in the mid 2010s rulebooks which focus on player-side rules instead of play procedures. Maybe it picked up steam with the Hot Springs Island adventure, or with the West Marches campaign structure? Who knows.

So What?

The greatest implication this has on play is that each activity now has a lower "barrier of entry", at least when it comes to character power. Encounters triggered during hex crawls are now not necessarily more dangerous than encounters during dungeon crawls, since it's just as likely that a low-level character is traversing hexes as a high-level one. Downtime activities are also broadened in scope, not just having to with ruling domains and commanding armies, but with other long-term activities which—over time—may result in the character accumulating more power (that's really the basis of classic and old-school play). This results in a greater variety of play activity and player freedom, both good things!

I am kind of unsatisfied with the rulebooks that have been molded by this new trend, though. The tendency is to create kind of complicated subsystems for each activity, whereas I think we would benefit from thinking less about strict/specific mechanics and more about broader principles that can be applied between activities. How much time does something take? What will it cost? What does it risk? Thinking more generally about the impact of character decisions and activities, as opposed to modeling and simulating specific activities (or fitting a variety of activities into the same mold). That's just my opinion, though!

Thank you to both Emiel and Ava for giving me permission to use the WIP illustration above! :) It so perfectly... illustrates the new old-school way of things.


  1. I created sub-systems for all five phases of play (combat, dungeons, wilderness, cities, downtime) for Into the Unknown. I tried not to make them too complicated (they all advance time with an event die, except for combat and are basically aimed at making something happen).
    I took my inspiration from this from the B/X way of handling dungeon turns. The dungeon turn creates a pacing to the exploration that you just don't get with unstructured dungeon exploration.

    1 combat turn = 1 combat action
    1 dungeon segment = One significant exploration action (5-20m, average of 10m).
    1 Wilderness Watch = 4h hours, roughly a significant action in a hex.
    1 City watch = the same as with wilderness.
    1 downtime week = 1 significant action.
    So each other unit largely charts a scene to be played out, with time relative to what that means in the given environment.

    The point is that rules resolution = Area of interest for the game.
    If you don't really care about wilderness travel, don't have rules for it that make PCs take actions. You can simply do as the 5e PHB suggests and montage it ("you travel through the forest and arrive at the dungeon on the third day").

    If you do care, there should be some sort of rules framework that encourages or enforces player actions, that help the GM create meaningful choices for the players and easy resolutions for the actions taken. Rules are not there just to simulate actions, but rather to stimulate them. The random encounter die is the most iconic example of that.

    1. sounds cool! to be clear, i'm not advocating for unstructured play without rules or framework, just that we can extend the strategies of specific play procedures (resource management, random risks, ticking clocks) to handle a variety of situations without having to specifically model them.

      i'm more than pretty familiar with hazard dice and turn order, like the above is very bog-standard in later OSR rulebooks because of there being a variety of play activities in games like i've discussed in the post. i'm saying that those procedures are homogeneous enough that we can learn how to employ their components more generally and judiciously. you don't have to explain procedural play to me!

  2. How broad are you thinking? Fate-style "everything is one of create advantage/overcome/attack/defend" or more specific? I'm thinking of the way Stonetop has Expedition and Homefront moves, but looking again those all end up with different mechanics so maybe that's not what you mean.

    1. hi hdp! i think those options are all from the standpoint of character actions, but i'm referring to the costs/risks/benefits of activities or situations. one point of reference is the hazard die which consolidates many effects of exploration (whether dungeons or hexes), so we can do the opposite of what it does and look at each effect separately:

      - **time management:** how long will an activity take?
      - **random risk:** does the current activity risk something happening, like an encounter?
      - **resource depletion:** does the current activity cost something, like a torch or ration?
      - **clock countdown:** is there something that will occur given enough time?

      these are things which (A) the hazard die abstracts into random events, or (B) which classic D&D handles disparately but defines strictly for each activity/context.

      so i'm suggesting that we can look at these effects not just in the context of a specific activity, like dungeon crawling or wilderness exploration, but also think about whether they apply to any given activity. :) some games which speak in these terms are harnmaster and, oddly enough, some of the D&D next play-test packets.

      it probably takes a well-practiced referee to adjudicate activities this way, so i wouldn't say that rulebooks should get rid of all activity-specific procedure, but i do think that we can afford to speak more broadly about the effects of time/activity.

    2. Oh, interesting! I totally misunderstood you, but I think maybe I get it now. Let me see how this lines up with what you were thinking.

      Suppose we consider the activity "learn a new spell through research".

      It might take:
      * A week per spell level spent in a lab environment with Magic Beakers and stuff
      * A success per spell level, where a success is a 5+ on a d6, adding a d6 each time you try, and each attempt needing at least a day of meditation
      * [something else]

      And you might risk
      * Causing a magical outburst with chaotic effects
      * Summoning a hostile demon
      * Wasting resources

      The resources you'd use up are normal food and water, so in theory you could do this on an expedition if the other requirements are satisfied. Or maybe you need to be actively experimenting with esoteric materials in a lab.

      You can adjudicate each of these dimensions independently based on the rules of the setting you're playing in, rather than needing a bespoke procedure for every combination of possible options.

      How close am I?

    3. you got it!!! and that's such a neat adjudication :D of course, if someone were writing a module or rulebook maybe they might want to give specific guidance for activities, but considering all those principles and learning how to apply/negotiate them feels like such a useful skill. again that is really cool!!

  3. Howdy! Since you refer to it :) I wrote up the bit about D&D as generating the origin stories of heroic leaders and wizards in Chainmail here:

  4. It sounds a bit like you're advocating the use of referee judgement to make rulings on these dimensions of time, cost, risk as each character activity comes up, at whatever scale and timeframe seems appropriate?

    What arena-specific subsystems typically do is define game models to represent interactions with those arenas in standardised ways. I.e. the world has time, resources, risks etc.; so let's build some mechanics that model those as turns, hirelings, random event tables etc. It's the simulation approach to game design.

    Something early D&D seemed to be trying to do was to keep some common baseline mechanical structures - character attributes, monster attributes, spell attributes - and re-use them through various arenas of play within a common-within-each-campaign fiction containing 'wizards', 'trolls', 'dungeons', 'wildernesses', 'domains'. Infinite, free imaginative play in a continuous fiction.

    One of the (probably many) questions about this approach is how well the one-structure-fits-all strategy works. Early D&D never really worked out how to do mass combat within its core mechanical structures, because the first-person-shooter skirmish game that developed for character play doesn't scale well. One is forced to introduce new mechanical structures to deal with e.g. mass manouevre and mass combat in a tractable and (I'd argue) reasonably 'plausible' way.

    But early D&D also customised within each play arena, with specialised rules at each tier. So the wilderness play loop highlights and has specific rules to deal with the arena-specific risk of 'getting lost'. The domain play loop highlights and has specific rules to deal with the arena-specific cost of maintaining and replacing soldiers' arms and weapons. The dungeon play loop highlights and has specific rules to deal with lighting conditions and the provision of light.

    This follows naturally from the game writer's goals: we want the instruction book to help the user to play the game. It's also helpful, I think, because it saves the referee from re-inventing the wheel on each of those points. And to some extent, it helps ensure that those interesting factors or risk and cost are built into the common turn-based structure.

    For an interesting comparison, look at how the text of Dungeon World, for all its programmatic, self-contained Moves with their promise of a simple universal, plain English structure, is stuffed full of examples of play. The mechanics alone are not enough to show us how to play.

    I'm making two points there. 1) The text of an innovative game has to work hard at teaching how to use the rules; 2) the more the rules allow room for judgement, the more important that teaching is.

    Apologies for the rambling comment. I got distracted!

    1. hey kenco, no worries + thank you for your thoughts! :) i totally agree that pre-existing structures, even if they sometimes accidentally restrain the referee's adjudication, still definitely help give a basis for referees to understand how a situation *should* be handled. what prompted my post was actually a friend trying to incorporate the hazard die into combat, and it felt like trying to put a square pin into a round hole. it's not that the hazard die isn't useful, especially for how it basically contains the game, but it does impose its own particular scheme onto things.

      but any case, i definitely agree that it's really important that game texts explain how to play but also teach how to take things off the rails. more interested in discursive writings than authoritative ones!

    2. "trying to incorporate the hazard die into combat, and it felt like trying to put a square pin into a round hole" Ah! I didn't really pick that up in your post. My first reaction to that is that while the same general considerations (time, cost, risk, opportunity cost) apply in 'combat' as in 'exploration' mode, there are important differences. The main ones are 1) that the situation emphasises different options and imperatives: typically multiple enemy actors all actively threatening something bad every round in a confined space, combined with generally limited interactions outside that confined space, and turns too short to carry out meaningful investigation actions; and 2) the traditional combat mechanics tend to either explicitly cover the costly, risky, action-wasting things you want to do, or to distract attention from them, by taking up so much a) real estate in the rules, character sheets etc.; and b) cognitive capacity in round-by-round play. I'd expect that with a bit of thought one could draw up some contingencies not captured in the standard combat suite, although it might always be a bit of a challenge making it gel with the hazard die. To me this limitations of the hazard die mechanic, rather than the idea of modelling the general considerations (time, cost, risk, opportunity cost). A key obstacle is that the hazard die relies on having a fairly generic list of events, e.g. wanderer, light, spell, fatigue. But all or most of these are already either excluded or covered by the standard combat framework. So you're either looking to add entirely new dimensions to combat, or to provide custom events affecting each combat situation. The latter seems more promising to me.

    3. 100%!!! combat is almost structured in a way comparable to PBTA relative to how exploration is typically handled, in that all actions and outcomes are character-triggered rather than tracked or rolled separately---which makes it very convenient. mixing the two would make it a lot more difficult, especially because of the varied responsibilities between participants.

    4. I think your PBTA comparison is highlighting that the classic exploration mechanics include 'automated' environmental factors e.g. wandering monsters, fuel depletion, fatigue, getting lost etc. that don't result from a player/DM announcing a character/monster action such as moving, searching etc. I think this is generally true, and it makes me want to add a couple of points. 1) early versions of the game commonly include two important 'automated' combat events as standard: the initiative roll and morale tests (I don't count reaction rolls because they generally precede combat). Subsidiary elements of this sort include the burn time for flaming oil, ammunition counts, and (in some editions more than others) spell durations expressed in combat rounds. All of these tend to be watered down or materially changed in later versions of the game, for various reasons; 2) Combat is characters versus monsters; exploration is characters versus dungeon. (1) offers an angle to explore if you want to introduce more 'environmental' events in the combat context that might link to e.g. a hazard-die like mechanic. (2) Points to very important differences between the combat mini-game and the various exploration mini-games. Because D&D chooses to model monsters in combat in roughly the same way as it does characters, the DM is making a lot more active choices, and seems to be declaring monster actions just like the players declare character actions: But the game need not work like that, its just that it happens to do so because of some early design decisions. Other approaches might work just as well (in fact PbtA structures offer a great example of doing the whole thing differently). It's also important because there is intrinsically less room for risk management in combat. Getting into combat in the first place is an exploration level risk, that players can manage by their exploration decisions. But once in combat, the monsters are coming at the characters every round. There is no 'play it safe' option analogous to NOT picking the lock, NOT scaling the cliff, NOT trying to steal the gems from the demon statue, or NOT going down the stairs to level 3, NOT spending 6 turns searching for a secret panel etc. Once you're in combat, not making attacks doesn't stop the monsters attacking the characters. Adding a 'run away scot free' rule to the combat mechanics to let the characters get out of the combat mechanics does not solve any problem with combat mechanics themselves, although it would probably reduce the incidence of TPKs.


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