Monstrous Hit Dice

I’d never realised how radically different Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons is from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons until I started flipping through the Old-School Essentials Monsters book. I was struck by a simple fact that has been gnawing away at me ever since: the Giant Roc has more than three times the Hit Dice of the most powerful Dragon, the Gold Dragon.

The OSE entry for the Dragon states that:

Older dragons may have up to 3 HD more and twice as much treasure.

Old-School Essentials, Classic Fantasy Monsters, page 16

So that would boost the Gold Dragon to 14HD – still less than half the Hit Dice of the Roc. I was, frankly, dumb-founded. Maybe this was an (unlikely) error on the part of OSE? Checking the Basic D&D Rulebook (1981), we read:

Dragons generally range in size from 3 hit dice smaller to 3 hit dice larger than average. For example, red dragons could be found having 7 to 13 hit dice, depending on their age.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook, B34

This left me somewhat stunned. Perhaps it’s because I have always visualised Dragons in the way that the rulebook describes them – as “extremely powerful” – that I find it slightly weird to see how weedy they appear against Elementals, Hydra, Roc, Narwhal, Giant Crocodiles, and Bronze Golem.

When we turn to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition), we see that things have changed: the Gold Dragon has 10-12 Hit Dice (and the oldest will, admittedly, have 8 HP per die = 80 to 96 HP) versus the 18HD Roc (who now only comes in one size, but would net 18 to 144 HP, averaging 36). That’s when the penny dropped on how AD&D made the Dragon more formidable, and not just in terms of Hit Points.

But here’s my thought: when I was young, we played Dungeons & Dragons using a combination of the Basic Rulebook (1981) and the Monster Manual (1977), later adding the Expert Rulebook (1983). We assumed that they were, essentially, the same game line and regarded the “Advanced” books as being simply “more detail, same rules”.

Oh, how mistaken we were. Even though the adult me understood this mistake intellectually, the impression has been carried with me through until now.

Perhaps the reason for the higher HD monsters in the B/X rules has to do with the gradual accumulation of higher level challenges over time, as the game was developing. When Gary Gygax revised the entire system, he clearly dug in and revised many of the monsters – to positive effect, if this single case is anything to go by. I don’t have a problem with that per se.

I just never really internalised how widely arbitrary some of the monster categorisations can seem when one compares the different creatures on a tables OSE so neatly lays out for us to consider. Is a Narwhal really less powerful than a Giant Crocodile? Of course, this is fantasy and who is to say? But, hmm.

This was a surprise to me, is what I am saying.

I have the deepest regard for each iteration of D&D and have collected them all through the years – this is not an issue of “Edition Wars”. It’s just that I never really paid much attention to the monsters in the game up at the higher levels. I guess that makes me naïve?

Having had this experience – jarring though it initially was – I think it is interesting to begin to pay more attention to the monsters, especially now that I am planning to run an Old-School Essentials game. Better late than never, eh?

Game on!


  1. The difference regarding the power difference between a dragon and a roc may be that AD&D is a complete game whereas B/X was supposed to get a Companion expansion, which was never published. The BECMI Companion has stats for more powerful dragons, with the largest gold dragons having up to 25 hit dice.

    So the power levels are indeed quite different between AD&D and B/X-BECMI but I don’t see a real discrepancy here.


  2. For me the takeaway from this is I shouldn’t hesitate at all to radically customise any monsters as much as I want if it suits my setting or campaign. Want Trolls to be more powerful than Solars? Okay, go ahead. Want Ogres to be more intelligent than Illithids? Go ahead, it’s your game. Give all Dire Boars a flaming breath attack if you want and no one can really say a thing against it since even the official editions played fast and loose with oft times arbitrary stat blocks! 🙂


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