Sunday, October 21, 2007

Part I -- Continuity of Rules

The foremost problem I see with 4E is as follows. I do expect some continuity with the rules of the game as previously constructed (OD&D, 1E, 2E, 3E, etc.). There's a lot of the mechanics of D&D that I want to be a "shared experience" (as they have for a few decades now), and to be communicated between playgroups and even generations of players. (For example, fathers and sons can enjoy baseball as being fundamentally the same game when either one was a teenager.) Unfortunately, the designers of 4E have made it pretty explicit that they feel free to start everything over totally from ground zero -- they're re-evaluating everything in the game from the ground up, and tossing in new stuff from scratch anywhere it strikes their fancy here in late 2007.

Here's a few examples that I can currently dig up (picking many off ENWorld's news site at http://www.enworld.org/index.php?page=4e ):
- Standard Races & Classes in the PHB are being totally altered. Apparently out are gnomes, half-orcs, barbarians, druids, bards, monks, etc. In come tieflings, eladrin, warlords, and warlocks. (As I may point out several times, compare the continuity of 1E->3E to this lineup in 4E.) Paladins can be any alignment, etc.
- Wizards don't memorize daily spells anymore (also called the "Vancian" magic system). Instead, they have fixed, "siloed" powers -- some usable every round, some every few minutes, some once a day. They have some kind of "weaponized" accoutrement whereby they have to arm themselves with an orb, scepter, staff, or book to cast spells. There's a designer quote that "Wizards will be able to cast 25th-level spells." And I guess Fighters have similar Powers themselves that work kind of like magic (as seen in some late 3.5 supplements).
- Classes aren't categorized by the classic four primary classes anymore -- you've got these 4 "Roles" which categorize classes by Leader, Defender, Striker, or Controller (for some reason).
- 1st-level characters are designed to be inherently "head and shoulders" above normal people in the world. (Presumably like Star Wars Saga starting 1st-level PCs off with 3 Hit Dice). Levels are said to come faster but make less of a difference from step-to-step. PHB goes from levels 1-30, which a lot of people are saying cover the same "sweet spot" as classic levels 4-14 or so.
- Saving Throws no longer exist. Instead, you've now got fixed defense scores (like magic Armor Classes) that magical enemies roll their attacks against.
- There's some kind of "condition track" whereby lost hit points degrade your abilities (creating, I suppose, a kind of "death spiral"). Spells are being totally revised; fireball doesn't do d6/level damage anymore, for example. Save-or-die spells are gone, being turned into hit point damage that triggers the condition track (it appears).
- The D&D cosmology of the "Great Wheel" is wiped out and replaced with totally different, new stuff. There's a new division between devils & demons -- demons are actually some sort of corrupted Elementals, now, I guess.
- Magic Items don't have prices or rules for PC construction, apparently (a great tool in 3E).
- Challenge Ratings are gone (another great tool in 3E).
- Alignment is heavily revised, apparently.

Anyway, I could go on and on and on. Suffice to say that lots of the shared experiences from OD&D up through 3E are being wiped out and replaced with completely different mechanics. (Which is even more disturbing when you compare 30 years of development and fine-tuning to the very rushed time constraints that the 4E writers seem to be under in late 2007.) Let me pick out one illuminating quote from the designers:

You can't really just convert a character directly from 3e to 4e. We pretended you could do that from 2e to 3e, but that conversion book was pretty well bogus. The fact is, as I explained it a lot at GenCon, that your character isn't what's on your character sheet: your character is the guy in your head. The character sheet is how the guy in your head interacts with the rules of the game. The rules of the game are different, so you'll be creating a new implementation of that character, but the character needn't change much.

(That's James Wyatt writing in his blog here: http://forums.gleemax.com/showthread.php?t=906388 ). Got that? It's actually impossible to convert a character from 3E to 4E. While there was a widely-used conversion book published for the 2E->3E switch, the designers are saying that no such conversion system is possible from 3E->4E. The best you can do is to take the general "feel" of your character (or monster or adventure setting) and reconstruct it from scratch in 4E. That's definitely a first, as it wasn't the case in any previous switchover points between versions of D&D -- that's just how different 4E is from anything that came before it.

There are stories from playtests where monsters have thousands and thousands of hit points, clerical healing fires off automatically at the same time as they attack, and the players feel like they're playing a completely brand new game and have absolutely no idea how something as simple as a goblin or a zombie is going to function against them. And the designers are trumpeting all of this as specifically a good thing. Me, I think it's a bad thing that you can't use all your preceding understanding and materials for D&D at all anymore.

One thing I'll say is that this "accelerate the changes" mode of designing is very much consistent with the movement I saw in the 3.5 Revised rules (which I also skipped). At that time, I identified the rather encyclopedic changes to the spell lists as radically more different than all the changes from 1E->3E combined (see my report here: http://www.superdan.net/down3-5.html ). In my opinion, it seems like 3E made some noticable changes to the game; 3.5 was a test to see how widespread changes could be and still have acceptable sales (with ever-accelerating changes through later supplements); and 4E is finally embracing an entirely different kind of game.

Probably No 4E For Me

It's been about 2 months now since 4E D&D was announced at Gen Con 2007. There's been a lot of marketing push online to create "buzz" around it since then. Previously, I played 1E religiously, skipped 2E, and then came back and played a lot (and even published some) 3E. Now it looks pretty clear that I will be again skipping the upcoming 4E. I know I could go on at great, great length about this -- but here's my attempt at some concise reasons why. I'll expand on each in upcoming posts.

(1) Continuity of rules
(2) Digital initiative
(3) Promise of OGL

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Evolution of the Business Case

It's interesting to think about D&D's evolution from assuming you were selling adventure materials almost exclusively to DMs (at a presumed 1:20 player ratio! OD&D Vol. 1, p. 5), to selling lots of player-boosting aids (2E and 3E), to recommending that DM's be removed from the game entirely (Ryan Dancey in August '07).

It's like the business case for finding some way to sell stuff to the big end of the 1:20 DM/player ratio being a superpredator that consumed the whole idea of the original game.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Basic Set with Character Generation

This is something of a cross-post from a discussion at ENWorld. Once again there's been a discussion of "how to simplify the new player experience" that usually turns into calls to use pre-generated PCs, or templates or stock packages, etc. I rather strongly disagree with that, and here's why:

A lot of the addictive goodness in D&D comes from playing your own, personalized, unique character. The new player experience simply must have that element. The way they pick a character really has to be the same core process that the rest of us use, so they can cleanly interface with the rest of the rules after they play the first time.

To me, that means that the core process itself has to get whittled down. After a lot of thought, I have a campaign that does this:
- 4 core races
- 4 core classes
- No skill points (see Unearthed Arcana)
- Only class bonus feats (i.e., none at 1st level)
- Spontaneous divine casters (see Unearthed Arcana)
- Fixed starting spell lists for spellcasters (in 3 flavors)

Therefore, 1st-level character generation looks like this, for all players:
- Roll abilities & arrange
- Pick race & class, roll hit points
- Spellcasters choose starting faction (spellbook)
- Buy equipment (from one-page basic list)

I think that's easy enough for first-time players, but it's not any different for expert players in my campaign. If you want expanded options, those are all pushed to higher levels: new spell selections, fighter feats start at 2nd level, etc. If you have expert players and that's not enough for them, start them at higher level, to whatever point the number of options match their taste.

A really important thing to remember is that D&D's hugest growth came in the 1978-1984 era when they had the "Basic Blue Set", limited to levels 1-3, and was intended to directly connect with the larger AD&D ruleset that was coming out at the same time. For some reason, TSR/WOTC has avoided that ever since, and IMO it's the biggest ongoing mistake the company ever made.


To recap: Player choices are great; just push some of the choices to higher levels. Start new players at first level, and expert players at higher levels if so desired. 3E has too many of the choices front-loaded at first level.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Castles!

I've been doing some extra reading on historical castles lately. I've hit on a wonderful architectural book: "Castles: Their Construction and History" by Sidney Toy. It's got almost 200 detailed maps and floor plans, so it's about the best resource for nearly game-ready historical maps that I can think of. Here's a few random thoughts:

Porting a small amount of magic into a historical milieu wouldn't change things a whole lot. Within a few pages of medieval siege chronicles, there's several references to what could be considered the belief in magic in the first place:
- "Among the engines of the crusaders there was one which threw enormous stones with unusual force. It did great execution among those on the battlements and the enemy's attacks on it had no effect. The Turks then brought up two witches and set them on the wall in order that they might curse it; but a missile from the engine struck and killed both the witches as well as three other women who were with them." (Siege of Jerusalem, 1099; p. 146).
- "The fleet, having erected on their galleys a tall siege tower and other engines, all covered with raw hides, made a vigorous attack on the Tower of Flies. Those in the tower, assisted by the citizens who came to their aid, responded with equal energy; they threw Greek fire on the siege tower, and on the other machines of their foes, and by this means destroyed them, and so the attack from this side failed." (Siege of Acre, 1189-1192; p. 147)
- "Greek fire, having the property of spreading in all directions, was thrown from the engines of the Saracens on the Crusaders to their great terror and consternation." (p. 143)

These last two quotes force me to think of replacing historical Greek fire (poorly understood by the Crusaders, and something of a mystery even to this day) with one or two wizards casting fireballs, and having much the same effect.

The other thing that occurs to me, is that even if some amount of flying magic or creatures are a concern in the setting, the likely technological response would be to simply halt castle evolution at the stage of strong square and round keeps, as seen in the 10th and 11th centuries. (That is, the evolution of large curtain walls and bailey complexes in the 12th and 13th and later centuries might be arrested.) In other words, the presence of some amount of magic and fantastic creatures might itself serve to retard certain technological progress beyond a low-middle-ages level.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Software Tool for 3E: OGCombatWin

I just completed a tool that I was aching for over a long time. What it does is automatically simulate several thousand combats in 3E D&D with any monster you enter, and evaluate what level of NPC fighter would be evenly matched against it. I'm using this as a super-fast starting point for CR evaluations of new (or advanced or modified) monsters. OGCombatWin only evaluates raw attacks (melee or ranged), against as many opponents as you'd like. It doesn't handle any spells, magic, or special abilities, so you'll still need to evaluate or playtest to come up with hard CR numbers (usually more devaluation is needed at higher levels).

In fact, I've found this incredibly fun to play around with, and I'm finding it to be a really useful tool for exploring how the 3E CR system fits together. One thing I've been really surprised by is how well the x2 monsters = +2 EL rule works -- it's not perfect, but it's close to correct a whole lot more than I originally would have guessed. Try it out, it's kind of fun! (I also provide all the source code if you want to see it or improve it.)

http://www.superdan.net/software/

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Playtest Party Stats

Recently I've been doing some playtests for a potential reduced d20 System game. Among the things I worked up is a nice page of standard statistics for NPC parties of levels 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12. I've found this pretty useful -- you might check it out under "Standard Party Statistics" located here: http://www.superdan.net/dnddocs.html

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Preferred Ruleset

I keep thinking about starting a few new D&D games from scratch, and I go back and forth about which ruleset to use. Frankly, I have a complete block on the issue, and I totally can't settle on being happy with any one ruleset anymore. It's kind of like a torture. :) Here's what it seems to boil down to -- consider the classic D&D division into material for Players, Judges, and Monsters (i.e., PHB, DMG, MM; or in OD&D, original Volumes 1, 2, and 3):

3E is Best for Players. I think the designers of 3E really took a huge leap forward with the mechanics for player-character creation. Frankly, I love the system and feel totally spoiled by it. I really like having a clean and unified chart for ability scores. I love the unified XP chart and simple, open, additive multiclassing (personally, I would reduce things down to the four core classes, and let multiclassing take care of all the combinative options). I love the feat system to death (although I think there are generally too many feats to manage in play -- I'd reduce it to class bonus feats only to make it manageable, very easily done).

3E has all kinds of potential for game-mastery, being reducible to a very small number of races and classes, with multitudes of combinations available via the feat and multiclassing options. One thing I don't like is the fiddly skill-point system (I'd cut it out or use UA's simplified variant). As an aside, I'm coming to the opinion that any point-based character system feels fussy and broken to me (such as for abilities, skills, spell resorvoirs, psionics, magic item creation, etc.)

OD&D is Best for Judges & Monsters. But that said, trying to actually run a game of 3E is a huge complicated mess for me. Resolving everyone's individual initiative order, laying out battlemaps for every fight, all the combat options and action types and AOOs and complex spells, opposed skill checks for everything, etc., is a big crushing time sink. I would so much rather use OD&D's simple system for surprise, initiative, searching, and combat.

The first thing I'm coming around to is that the worst mistake the 3E designers may have made is to make the monster mechanics fully an extended superset of the PC mechanics. If the players just have one PC each, but the DM preps and runs scores of monsters per session, it really makes sense to have different resolution fidelity (think level-of-detail) to make things easier for the DM. All prior versions of D&D did that, but 3E booted the idea as insufficient. Monster statistics now run a full page each in official adventures; many DMs personally find they can fudge details, but there's no agreed-upon standard for what goes and what stays. There's really no advantage to tracking all the skills, feats, languages, ability scores, hit point adjustments, damage bonuses, save modifiers, etc. for every single monster (how often would players truly notice any difference?) The worst case-study is when the designers decided that the rules implied that independent grapple scores had to be tracked for every single monster and inserted them as yet another new line in the 3.5 MM (an alternative would be to create a simple system based solely on Hit Dice, or just match primary attack scores, etc.).

My preference for monsters would be a version like OD&D where everything has a integral number of Hit Dice, attacks, and damage dice (i.e., no bother distinguishing between different damage die types, ranges, or plus-modifiers; just 1 or 2 or 3 dice of damage, the end).

A side note is how much better the treasure system is in OD&D/AD&D. In 3E, every monster has a standard treasure amount commensurate with its Challenge Rating. That's a huge mistake narratively, because it makes treasure-finding predictable and flat in each encounter. The OD&D/AD&D system has a fairly low "% in lair" chance that must be rolled for each monster (one of just 5 key statistics for each monster type), and if successful, then it's likely that a large amount of treasure appears. While commonly overlooked in AD&D, what that means is that treasure troves occur more rarely, but are larger, and hence a much bigger exciting event when they are discovered. A comparison can be made to a sport like football or soccer (or any casino game), where the scores happen but rarely, and the fans go absolutely wild when they actually do occur. 3E totally overlooked that aspect of the game when the designers normalized treasure appearance.

And the final thing is that even though I like regularized attack bonuses and getting rid of attack and saving throw tables -- I think the actual core mechanic of the d20 System isn't good enough for me. If I look at OD&D/AD&D, what it's very close to is a "Target 20" system as I call it, where a d20 is rolled, bonuses added, and success is any result of 20 or above. I think it's simpler and faster to adjudicate.

Example #1, D&D "d20 System": 10th-level fighter attacks a red dragon. He rolls a 19, adds 15 for his attack bonus (total 34), then compares to the dragon's AC of 32 (technically a subtraction operation), indicating a hit.

Example #2, OD&D, "Target 20" Mechanic: 10th-level fighter attacks a red dragon. He rolls a 12, adds 10 for his level, plus 2 for the dragon's AC. The result is clearly over 20, so a hit is scored.

Notice how in the second case the numbers involved are all lower, and the operation is purely additive. Having ACs look like 5 or 2 is much easier to deal with than 15 or 18 or 32 or up (carries happen less often). Performing saving throws the same way means no DCs ever need to be recorded (special attacks didn't generally scale up in OD&D/AD&D vs. saving throws; in special cases you might note a bonus or penalty to the save, but that's a definite minority of cases). When the 3E designers created the roll-vs-DC system, they instantly doubled the number of statistics that had to be tracked by the DM, because every single spell and special attack then needed a DC target recorded for it.

I could say the same about effects like poison and energy draining. Previously they were simple, straightforward, and very dangerous (yes, save-or-die). In 3E they're fiddly, fussy, complicated, and kind of forgettable (the effect of most poison types is so minimal you wonder why anyone goes to the trouble of procuring them in-game).

So there you have it. I'm completely torn between the fantastic developmental leap between 3E's excellent system for a Players, and OD&D/AD&D's much more streamlined system for Judges and Monsters to run the actual action. The pain is in realizing that the 3E designers had one-third of a complete genius-level epiphany, and kind of dropped the ball on the remaining two-thirds. Every time I feel myself leaning towards one system, I find myself totally unable to let go of the advantages of the other system. I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to resolve this dilemma at this point. I guess my fantasy would be if 4E D&D came out, it was OGC, based on 3E's Player system with four core classes, and an immensely reduced resolution fidelity for its Judges and Monsters behind the screen. I can't conceivably imagine that there's any hope for that, however.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Helmet Rule

OD&D has 5 pieces of armor on the equipment list -- plate, chain, leather, shield, and helmet. An oversight is that the last item has no specified effect on your defensive status. AD&D tried to correct for this by adding an extremely cumbersome rule about the chance-to-hit-someones-head (involving an additional d6 roll for every attack, blech; 1E DMG p. 28), but we'll try to avoid that here.

The Helmet Rule
If no suit of armor is worn, a helmet gives a 1 point bonus to AC (up to AC 7). If a suit of armor is worn, then a helmet is also required or else a 1 point penalty to AC is applied.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Encumbrance

Encumbrance is one of those fiddly bits in D&D that no one really enjoys (and lots of people just ignore once the game is in progress). It's not something that really needs to be "fixed" in OD&D (it's as simple there as in any published ruleset), but nontheless, while falling asleep last night, a somewhat better way of handling things occured to me. In short, you should just use a coarser unit, one which makes the numbers easier to count mentally, and only have to deal with them when it makes a direct difference on gameplay.

Encumbrance
Calculating encumbrance can alternatively be done using the old English unit of the "stone" (that is, 14 pounds). For D&D, let's say that 1 "stone" = 150 coins weight. For example, a grown man weighs about 12 stone. Conversions for gear are as follows:

Plate -- 5 stone
Chain -- 3
Leather -- 2
Shield -- 1
Weapon, heavy -- 1
Weapon, light -- 1 per 3 carried
Misc. Equipment -- 1 (total)

Heavy weapons include the pole arm, halberd, pike, two-handed sword, morning star, flail, and battle axe. Light weapons include the sword, mace, hand axe, and bow -- or items like a helmet, small sack of coins, large chalice, etc. Tiny items are counted only if a character carries a large number of them; such gear as a dagger, potion, scroll, jewelry, etc. can be counted at 1 stone per 6 items, if so desired. Obviously, every 150 coins of treasure adds 1 stone (a backpack or large sack can carry 2 stone worth). Conversions for movement categories follow:

12" Move -- up to 5 stone weight
9" Move -- up to 7
6" Move -- up to 10
3" Move -- up to 20

It should be fairly easy to remember the 5-10-20 stone weight maximum categories (for movement rates of 12", 6", and 3").


Design Notes: Encumbrance
This alternative system feeds off of a particular thesis of mine regarding measurement systems. Sometimes I hear proponents of the Metric system complain about old-style Imperial units with comments like: "They don't make any sense; they're not based on units of 10". I claim that these are two separate considerations. Yes, the Metric system is ideally suited for making simple translations, and excellent for use in the sciences when your scales may need frequent conversions.

But the Imperial units "make sense" to a greater degree in that they're intrinsically scaled to people, and are more intuitive if you need to quickly and roughly estimate things on the fly. For example: a "foot" is about the length your foot. A "hand" is the size of your hand. A "league" is about how far you can walk in an hour. Temperature of 0 degrees fahrenheit is very cold (about where blood can freeze), 50 degrees temperate, 100 degress very hot (about where blood is in a living person). And, one "stone" is about the amount of weight that will get your attention when you try to carry it.

Of course, we have the additional benefit in D&D that Imperial units serve to further conjure the flavor of a medieval and "old-timey" campaign setting. They're very human-scaled and specifically pre-scientific. And most importantly, they highlight that the statistics used in any game should be scaled to the actual play of that game.

(One final note for 3E players -- using the "per stone" encumbrance system, you could simply use the total stone-weight carried as the character's skill Check Penalty, and it comes out just the same as the load categories the d20 System! Now, this is for average-Str PC's; perhaps you can let the Str bonus ignore the first number of stone weight units.)

Magic Number Seven

When we think about games in general, and D&D in particular, a lot of us have the complaint nowadays that "the game is too complicated". But can we agree on how "complicated" something really is? One thing I wish game designers would consider is concrete research from cognitive science about how people process information (and how much they can deal with at once).

Consider the following Wikipedia article, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_or_Minus_Two

In this article, you'll see two related (apparently coincidental) research observations. (1) Working memory capacity for most adults is in the range of 7+/-2 objects (i.e., 5 to 9 objects). That is, people can consider about 7 separate entities at once and make a choice among them at a high level of functionality. (For specific material, the limit may be 7, or 6, or 5). Beyond this limit, mental functioning rapidly drops off. (2) Short-term memory capacity is also 7+/-2 when measured for English speakers memorizing, say, a string of random digits. For example, the book Modern Structured Analysis recommends a 5 to 9 limit on the number of subroutines called from the main block of any computer program (for the convenience of maintenance programmers).

Now, I'm sure that lots of us (possibly reading this) may personally skew on the high side of these numbers. I bet that math- and computer-oriented folks have higher working memory capacities, possibly significantly so. (The guy who inspired the Rain Main character could instantly "chunk", or count, a whole box of toothpicks spilled on the floor, for example; so it varies a great deal by individual.) A lot of caution must be taken in over-expanding the results of research like this, but nontheless, it serves as an excellent starting point for discussions of "how much is too much?".

So, how many options are reasonable for a person to consider at once in a D&D-like game? I would argue for: Seven, plus or minus two. Best would be a number of about 5 or less, which is easily workable by everybody. Slightly less optimal would be a count of 6 or 7, which is parsable by most people. At most 8 or 9 options would be okay, which seems to tax most functioning adults, and feels less like fun and more like work to a lot of us.

Consider this in the context of OD&D and how many choices have to be made when a person creates a new character:
- Abilities: 6 (Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Cha). Excellent.
- Races: 4 (Men, Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits). Perfect.
- Classes: 4 (Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, Thief). Perfect.
- Alignment: 3 (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic). Perfect.
- Armor: 5 (leather, chain, plate, shield, helmet). Perfect.
- Weapons (Melee): 13. Too many to consider at once.
- Weapons (Ranged): 5. Perfect.
- Mounts: 5. Perfect.
- Wizard Spells (1st-level): 8. Acceptable.
- Cleric Spells (1st-level): 6. Excellent.

For all of the key considerations, OD&D just happened to appear "magically" with the perfect number of choices to be interesting and enticing, but not overwhelming to the brand-new player. I particularly find the initial options of 4 races, 4 classes, and 3 alignments to be extremely mentally satisfying. There are just three main categories here, each with a perfectly manageable number of options, but generating 48 different possible starting characters! (Assuming all race-class-alignment combinations are permitted.) That's a lot of variety blooming from a very small and manageable number of choices.

Compare this to the current state of D&D. We've always maintained the 6 core abilities (with a lot of resistance when AD&D tried to insert a 7th for "Comeliness"). In the 3E PHB we have:
- Abilities: 6 (Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Cha). Excellent.
- Races: 7. Acceptable, but borderline for some people.
- Classes: 11. Too many to consider at once.
- Alignment: 9. Almost too many to remember.
- Skills: 45. Far too many to consider at once.
- Feats: 74. Far too many to consider at once.
- Armor: 21. Too many to remember at once.
- Weapons (Melee): 56. Far too many to consider at once.
- Weapons (Ranged): 14. Too many to consider at once.
- Mounts: 8. Almost too many to remember.
- Wizard Spells (to 1st-level): 58. Far too many to consider at once.
- Cleric Spells (to 1st-level): 38. Far too many to consider at once.

Obviously, expert players have a working knowledge of almost all these options, but it's probably been built up over years or decades of play experience -- and they probably mentally "chunk" this material into certain categories (warrior vs. spellcaster classes, ethical vs. moral alignments, skills by ability, feats for fighters vs. items vs. metamagic, spells by attack/defense/utility or school) that may not be totally explicit in the rules.

OD&D has a score of 9:1 (say, 90%) categories ok:not-ok under this "magic number seven" cognitive rule analysis. Meanwhile, 3E D&D has a score of 4:8 (say, 33%) under the same analysis. OD&D seems to hit the "sweet spot" for working memory considerations in character creation, whereas 3E is clearly far, far more complicated. (Consider also something unrelated to character creation, like the number of giant or dragon types: OD&D with 6 dragon types, 3E D&D with 10.)

I truly wish that the D&D designers had the capacity to focus very specifically on the new-player experience, and think about what the ideal setup would be if we truly honestly wanted to expand the hobby, and make it accessible to everyone (not just old players and math whizzes). If this were the case, the options that lured us all into OD&D in the first place would be an excellent foundation to build on.

Here's some brainstorming in that regard. Let's say 1st level creation is set up to be accessible by any player who's never even heard of D&D or RPG's whatsoever. Provide the 6 abilities, 4 races, and 4 class options from OD&D (as above). Provide limited types of armor, weapons, and spells (again as per OD&D). Give fighters feat-like options, around 5 or so at 1st level (maybe melee/ archer/ mounted/ swashbuckler types); make sure that thief skills are limited to 6 or so to be memorable.

As levels go up, allow more options to be unlocked. More spells at higher levels (again like OD&D), as players get to know their spellcasters better. Feats (such as for fighters) allow access to more feats in a tree-like fashion. Prestige classes may still be digestible in limited numbers. Expert players should be encouraged to start play with heroes of 3rd level or higher, having more of these options on the table to begin with. (Note how the upcoming Star Wars Saga rules start characters at 3 hit dice.)

But at the same time, the branching options can't be so many that statting out high-level NPC's becomes unmanageable for the DM. Allow only a total of 7 or so feats absolute maximum, so that DMs can slot them out mentally when needed. A total of 7 or so spell levels is a good choice (see OD&D: a perfect 6 spell levels vs. 3E D&D: a swollen 10 levels). NPCs shouldn't need more than 7+/-2 magic items at most, nor should any monster have more than 5 to 9 special abilities at most.

Regardless of the actual choices or construction of the game (or even the specific cognitive research studies used to support them), rules-of-thumb like these would be extremely useful for determining when "more is too much", and when new added options serve as repellant to part of the hypothetical new-player base.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Class Combinations

One of the biggest points of confusion in the OD&D is how multiclassing works (otherwise known as the "oh my god, not elves again" problem). Elves are said to switch between Fighting-Men and Magic-Users, "not during the course of a single game", but "gain the benefits of both classes and may use both weaponry and spells" (Vol. 1, p. 8). Other races are "not recommended" for changing classes, but rules are given if so allowed (men require 16 prime requisite: Vol. 1, p. 10). Furthermore, the exact mechanical effects of having two classes are not described anywhere. Here's my best attempt at resolving those issues.

Classes
In my campaign, allowed classes are: Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, and Thief.

The Thief class is taken from Supplement I: Greyhawk, as follows. All thief skills are checked at d20 + level >= 20 for success. Hear Noise is as per book; Climbing fails only on a "1" on d6 through 5th level. Hit dice follow the magic-user progression.

Races
Allowed races are as follows: Human, Dwarf, Elf and Hobbit (halfling). The classes allowed to each are shown below, with level limits in parentheses.

Human: Any class (unlimited).
Dwarf: Fighter (6th), Cleric (7th), Thief (unlimited).
Elf: Fighter (4th), Cleric (6th), Wizard (8th), Thief (unlimited).
Hobbit: Fighter (4th), Thief (unlimited).

Adding Classes
Every character begins with a single class of their choice. Most characters can add a second permitted class of their choosing at the end of any adventure. (Exception: Humans must have an ability score of 16 or more in any class they are adding.) Each adventure's XP must be allocated towards a single class, possibly a new one in order to add to it.

The level limits shown above assume a character with two classes. If a character maintains only a single class, then they can add +2 levels to any limit shown above. For each class added beyond two, -2 levels are deducted from any limits shown.

A character with more than one class can use all of the abilities from any class (weapons, armor, spells, skills, etc.). They use only the best entry for Hit Dice, Attacks, and Saves. Fighter/Wizards may cast spells in leather or chain mail, but not plate. Thief skills are restricted to leather armor only.

Finally, the DM may decide to start a campaign with characters above 1st level. If this is done, a starting XP value should be awarded which can be allocated in units of 1,000 at a time. (For example, a 3rd-level campaign might award 5,000 XP to begin with.)


Design Notes: OD&D
As usual, I've tried to hew as closely to OD&D as possible, using supplements for themed inspiration to fill in the gaps. The level limits for fighters and wizards are as shown in OD&D -- and so is the ability restriction on men. The language about switching classes (but not within one game) has been interpreted as allocating XP to only one class per adventure.

Level limits for clerics and thieves are taken from Supplement I: Greyhawk. The +2 level bonus for keeping a single class is in flavor with the increased level limits shown there (in that case, for having high ability scores). Likewise, the -2 penalty is in line with the reduction in magic-use for elves with three classes in Greyhawk (the only such example).

Using only the maximal values for Hit Dice, Attacks, and Saves is necessary because adding new class levels is so cheap compared to the XP gained by already-advanced characters; that is, there really must be very little mechanical benefit or the XP-cheapness will create a very broken mechanic. As a strategy suggestion, it may be a good idea for characters to start as Fighters to increase survival odds, and then add spellcasting classes later on.

As a side note, I'm very happy with the restriction on humans multiclassing, because it solves the question of "why years of training for your starting wizard, but then a fighter is able to add it whenever he wants?" The high ability score precisely represents the extraordinary aptitude (and possibly prior training) needed for just such an addition.

Design Notes: 3E D&D
At this point, I must also take the time to highly commend the system used by 3E for classes and multiclassing. Trying to iron out the jagged parts of OD&D/AD&D multiclassing has made me appreciate that aspect of 3E even more. It was truly a stroke of genius to collapse the XP table to a single chart, and allow all multiclassing as a purely additive mechanic. I never would have thought of that, and it cleans up the system to a remarkable agree.

With this fine print: As long as we restrict the system to just 4 classes (Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Thief), then the 3E class system is absolutely my favorite and I'd love to use that in my game. However, if there are dozens of classes and prestige classes, and PC constructions start having 7-8 class notations each with 1-3 levels (like a Sws3/Ftr2/Mnk6/Swd3/Rog3/Nin2, from just the first example I could find on the Wizards.com forums), then my eyes glaze over and I want to play a different game. And then additionally with 3E, you're stuck with all the complicated monster statistics and reduced fiddly spell powers, and it's not nearly so much fun to think about anymore.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Realistic Time in D&D

An analysis of the proper time scale in D&D follows. Let's start by considering movement. First, note that a speed of 1 mph is about 100 feet per minute (actually 88 ft/min, but close enough).

Consider an article on human gait, including standard military march times (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gait_(human)). Both original Chainmail and 3E D&D scale are pretty close to assuming that base move matches a standard "Quick March" speed, that is, about 300 ft/min (3 MPH). If we use OD&D movement (12" for an unarmored man), and a corrected scale of 1"=5 feet (i.e., 60 ft per move), then the proper scale round would be about 1/5 of a minute, that is 10 or 12 seconds. We can double this number for a good "Double March" speed (a sustainable jog/run at 600 ft/min, or 6 mph), or double again for the maximum run which can be sustained for a few minutes at most (say 12 mph).

(As an aside, consider a flat-out sprint which only lasts 10 or 20 seconds or so. Modern research shows that slower runners can attain about 15 mph, intermediate runners 20 mph, and the world-records for 100m and 200m sprints are held at a speed of 23 mph.)

Now let's consider a separate consideration: how quickly attacks take place in combat. This is a lot harder to pin down, unless we had real-life medieval combats taking place to analyze and time. The best thing I could come up with is professional boxing, using data from the "CompuBox Stats Archive" (http://www.compuboxonline.com/). I've taken a fairly quick, random sample of 3 different bouts (6 fighters) in each of the light-, middle-, and heavyweight classes. Each bout lasted a full 12 rounds (36 minutes plus breaks), and I've only considered "power punch" statistics, which in theory could actually do some kind of damage. (That is, I left out "jab" counts, which are presumably only maneuvering setups for actual damaging attacks.)


So, a few things become clear about the "sweet science" from this table (note the "P/M" column, which indicates average punches-per-minute). The number of punches thrown goes down as the weight class goes up -- presumably this would continue downwards when using heavy martial weapons? The overall average here is 9 punches/minute (but possibly only 6 if we take another step down in weight categories). That again argues for a D&D round length of about 10 seconds or so (6 per minute) -- that provides a base number of attacks; expert fighters, such as these top-level boxing professionals, conceivably have the capacity to increase punches up to 2 per round at this scale (or maybe 3 as an absolute upper limit for unarmed lightweights).

Note also that power punch success rate is only about 35% for all of these top-level fighters (i.e., 14-20 on a d20). I think this argues for an unarmed combat system which highlights a lot of defense and blocking capacities (say, at least -4 to hit with unarmed attacks). Recall that I left out jab statistics from these numbers; that successful landing percentages for those are even lower than the power punches shown here. Also consider that these fighters are receiving one or two hundred of these so-called "power punches" (with gloves) and continuing to fight, so individually only a tiny fraction of them can do actual hit-point damage in D&D terms.

Let's look at it from another perspective, like bow fire rates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bow_(weapon)). It's said that a longbow could fire "as many as 20 shots a minute". But, consider a few other details: (1) that presumes a top-level expert bownman, (2) it considers a relative lack of aiming, as would be acceptable in a mass battle barrage, and (3) it also implies that "an archer could loose (shoot) 3 arrows before the first arrow hit its target"! Now, we certainly don't want to have to adjudicate a single arrow being in-flight over the course of 3 rounds or so. So what we should do is take these numbers and divide: 20/3 = 6.66 is the discrete number of arrows that can be carefully aimed, fired and landed sequentially, in one minute -- and hence the best number of rounds per minute. Again, we can use a 10-second round (6 per minute), assume carefully-aimed missile attacks, and allow top-level fighters to possibly make 2 (or maybe, at the very best, 3) attacks per round, and the result is quite close to real-life.

There are other reasons to support a 10-second round for man-to-man combat. (Another one that I like is to assume you can hold your breath for your Constitution, in rounds, and the result is again very realistic.) So, that's the final uptake on all this for my preferred games of D&D.

Conclusion: One combat round should last 10 seconds.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Most Powerful Monsters

It may be interesting to consider the most powerful monsters listed in the OD&D rules. Here's a list of all the monsters with potentially 10 or more Hit Dice (original white box only, Vol-2):
  1. Elementals (8-16 HD)
  2. Purple Worms (15 HD)
  3. Giants (8-12)
  4. Dragons (5-12)
  5. Hydras (5-12)
  6. Balrogs (10)
  7. Efreet (10)
  8. Black Pudding (10)
One thing you can see is that for the time, the mainstays of Giants and Dragons are definitely near the top of heap of most powerful monsters in the game. (This is before power inflation required them to swell in hit dice in 2E and 3E games.)

At the very top of the list are Elementals, in particular the 16 Hit Die types brought about by the 5th-level magic-user spell, conjure elemental, and are subject to a whole slew of special restrictions and risks (only one per type per day, large raw material requirement, maintain concentration or caster gets attacked, etc.) You can see how important those limitations are, when you get to call forth the toughest monster in the game-world, and put it under your control, any time you like (and it's not even the highest-level spell).

Other than that, the only thing more powerful than Giants or Dragons are the tremendous Purple Worms. Actually, I really like that flavor -- the most dangerous creature in the natural world, blind in the underworld, burrowing incessantly "just beneath the surface of the land" (Vol. 2, p. 15; compare, for example, to the monstrous "Dholes" in various H.P. Lovecraft stories).

Balrogs, of course (item #6), were included in the earliest editions of the OD&D game, but were removed in later printings after a skirmish with the Tolkien estate. They reappeared later on in Eldritch Wizardry as "Demon, Type VI (Balrog)" (Sup-III, p. 12), with some minor name-mangling afterward in the AD&D version. (See more here.)

And the other thing that might be surprising is the appearance of the Black Pudding monster, described as just "another member of the clean-up crew and nuisance monster" (Vol. 2, p. 19). Note the extraordinary strength of this creature, as shown by its very high Hit Dice (and brutal 3 dice of damage, the most in the game!) Perhaps the creature either needs to be as enormous as other creatures listed here, or be extremely rare due to some supernatural or unearthly part of its makeup. See the adjacent picture; scary! [from Sup-I, Greyhawk, p. 14] Other ooze-types like the ochre jelly, green slime, gray ooze, or yellow mold have only a fraction of the same hit dice. (Note also that, oddly, only the ochre jelly appears on the wandering monster tables.)

The list is modified somewhat if you take into account the special hit point accumulation for Dragons by maturity. In particular, a Very Old (6 hp/die) Gold dragon has 12 × 6 = 72 hit points, which is on average the same as 72/3.5 = 20 hit dice. In other words, it's the most powerful creature in the game (unless there's a great-granddaddy Elemental or Purple Worm somewhere that rolled all 5's and 6's for its hit points). The same can be said for Hydras, of course.

In addition, there are notes in the text that indicate the possible existence of even more powerful creatures. Sea Monsters start as Purple Worms, and increase to 2 or 3 times that size! (30 to 45 hit dice; Vol. 2, p. 15; although reduced from those levels when they later appeared as prehistoric beasts in Sup-II Blackmoor.) Rocs start at 6HD, but can increase to 2 or 3 times the basic listing (up to 18 HD, which became standard in AD&D; p. 17). Animals are also considered up to a Tyrannosaurus with 20 HD (p. 20).

Finally, If you add Supplement I: Greyhawk, then there are other rare and powerful monsters. These include Titans (effective 25 HD), Golems (23, 17, or 11 effective HD), Storm Giants (15), Giant Slugs (12), Beholders (11 or so), and Liches (10+). Note that some of these creatures are actually proposed in the original set (Vol. 2, p. 21), along with ideas for super-strong Cyclopes, Juggernauts, Robots, etc.

Honorable mention goes to the following (8-9 Hit Dice): Vampires, Gorgons, Chimeras, Treants, and Invisible Stalkers (plus Will O'Wisps and Umber Hulks from Greyhawk).

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

OD&D Variant Rules

One of the wonderful things about the OD&D rules (addictive, even) is that they're sparse enough to be manageable if you're interested in modifying, house-ruling, or fixing them. For example, when I think about modifying 3rd Ed., such as its skills or feats system, I find that there are simply far too many entangled parts to spend time modifying the entire game system. Below you'll see some very simple modifications to the OD&D rules that I think provide huge benefits. In particular, I've always been frustrated by D&D's ahistorical gold-based economy; you'll see that in the course of a single evening I was able to complete an analysis and change the entire pricing structure of all the equipment, wages, treasure, and constructions in the entire game to largely fix that!

Weapons
The alternate damage and hit die system from Greyhawk (Supplement I) is not used. The majority of weapons still do 1d6 damage, with the following exceptions:

* Dagger, Hand Axe, Mace – 1d4 damage.
* Halberd, Two-Handed Sword – 1d8 damage.

Two-handed weapons are as follows: Pole Arm, Halberd, Pike, Two-Handed Sword, Spear.

Throwing weapons are the following: Hand Axe, Spear (3" range each, no modifier to hit from range).

Other missile weapons have the following ranges (from Chainmail): short bow 15", crossbow 18", longbow 21", heavy crossbow 24".

Combat
An alternative combat system is presented here that produces nearly the same results as the book, but is so simple that it can be easily memorized without any table references.

For miniature usage, convert all underground scales to 1" = 5 ft (thereby matching ground to standard figure scale). Assume that one combat round takes 10 seconds.

Attacks are made by rolling d20 + fighter level + target AC. If the result is 20 or more, a hit has been scored. Monsters use their hit dice for level; magic-users and clerics use half their level.

Saves are also made by rolling d20 + level + modifiers. If the result is 20 or more, the save is successful. The following modifiers are used:

Class
Fighters: no modifier.
Clerics: +1 to all saves.
Wizards: +1 versus spells but –1 to all others.

Attack
Spell: no modifier.
Breath: +1
Stone: +2
Wand: +3
Death: +4

Treasure
The actual medieval world widely utilized coinage based on small silver-copper-zinc pence (pennies, d). Recognized units were 12 pence = 1 shilling (s), and 20 shillings = 1 pound (L), but these were counting units only, and usually did not exist as actual coins. For purposes of our D&D campaign, we'll assume the existence of large silver (shilling) and gold (pound) coins.

Prices in the game should now generally be read in "pence" instead of "gold pieces". Starting wealth, basic equipment prices, magic item costs, magical research, gem and jewelry values, stronghold constructions, and specialist wages are all approximately correct if read as pence. Exceptions are as follows.

Armor and horse costs should be read in silver shillings (making them much more valuable than other items in the list). Costs for men-at-arms must be read in pence-per-day. Monster treasure tables are read in 1000's of copper, 100's of silver, and 10's of gold pieces (which still results in treasure more than twice as valuable as before). Dungeon treasures should be read in copper and silver pieces, with coin amounts divided by 10 (which results in the same values as before; feel free to exchange amounts for gold on deeper levels).

Note that armor and horses are now so valuable that they are likely out of the price range for new characters. Consider giving fighter-types a free suit of leather armor to start with (much as wizards begin with a free spellbook). All listed equipment costs are for the most basic utilitarian type; finely-made arms and armor, champion horses, quality wines, and even covered wagons will be many times more expensive. Lawful characters should expect to send wealth from a fallen comrade back to their given family, clan, or fraternal order.

References
I've carefully compared the basic equipment list prices to real-life prices from the Medieval Sourcebook (link below). In general, the prices would be approximately accurate if the were priced in copper pence instead of "gold pieces".

This is verifiable for things like weapons (real-life 6d cheap sword vs. 10 cost in D&D; 5d axe vs. 3; 4d chisel vs. 3-cost dagger), food (a week of dried fruit 28d vs. iron ration 15; a week of cheese, 7d, or salted fish, 2d, vs. standard rations 5), and travel (iron-bound cart 4s=48d vs 100; a barge 10L=2400d vs. small merchant ship 5000).

The notable exceptions are armor and horses, where the prices would be approximately correct if they were in silver shillings; that is, in units 12 times more valuable than other costs.

This can be verified with somewhat more difficulty than the preceding categories (consider real-life 16th c. cuirass with pauldrons, 40s vs. D&D "plate mail" 50; 13th c. merchant's armor for 5s vs. "leather" 15; ox 13s vs. mule 20; draft horse 10-20s vs. 30; high-grade riding horse 10L=200s vs. light horse 40; knight's horse 5L=100s vs. medium warhorse 100).

Similar very rough comparisons have been made using the Medieval Sourcebook's sections for Wages, Buildings (constructions), and Miscellaneous items (jewelry).

The Medieval Sourcebook (accessed March 14, 2007):
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/medievalprices.html

Sunday, March 11, 2007

OD&D Spell Adjudications

One of the wonderful things about OD&D is the bare-bones descriptions of spells and magic items. Generally they are very common-sensical, before the language had to be expanded or tightened up to handle loophole cases or unexpected behavior. When I read them in this state, it's a lot easier to visualize fantasy-sensible rulings on spells I've had problems with before. Here's two examples:

- Transmute Rock to Mud. The problem with this 5th-level spell is it can frequently be taken to instantly reduce any castle or dungeon complex to quivering mud (i.e., for the campaign world it makes the entire technology and political usage of castles totally useless). But the origin is clear: it comes from the mass battle rules, intended to make a large area hard to pass for troops, and was never created thinking about fortifications or enclosed spaces.

So my ruling in this case would be to simply state that it can only be used to make a "mud pit", lying on top of a generally horizontal surface, as originally intended. Trying to use it on load-bearing, free-standing, or vertical structures (castle or dungeon walls) causes the spell to fail.

- Silence, 15' Radius. Added in Supplement I: Greyhawk, this is another problematic spell, in that it can instantly shut down opposing spellcasters -- not just by being cast at them, but by any thief, fighter, or thrown stone with the spell on it getting in range of effect. Also, it's just odd from a flavor aspect that clerics can make this radiating sound-cancelling aura, which to my knowledge has no analog in standard fantasy or myth. Strange.

But reading it in OD&D, the intention seems pretty clear. The language is practically the same as something like invisibility 10' radius or haste or slow. That is, I would rule that the silence spell effects specific individual objects or creatures -- you can cast it on several bodies within 15', which are then individually quieted. They don't radiate an aura of silence from that point forward; they are simply themselves quieted for the purposes of movement and surprise, much like elven boots or the like (in fact, I'd still allow normal speech and spellcasting if so desired). To me, that makes infinitely more sense as a divine magic effect.

Random Likes/Dislikes

Random stuff I like in OD&D:

- Simple equipment. There's a single one-page list of all the equipment you need, including weapons, armor, and gear. Every cost is simply in gold pieces (there are no fractions or cp/sp to make change with). Armor is simply leather, chain, plate, shield, helmet. They still manage to include horses, mules, wagons, and those pricey boats! (merchant ships and galleys)

- Naval rules. On the topic of boats, OD&D has what looks like the most playable ship rules I've seen for D&D (and I've looked for a long time). It very concisely has rules for points-of-sail and wind power, movement in inches, specific crew numbers for each ship type (something I always longed for in AD&D), and reference to Chainmail rules for combat. Nice!

- Limitless Levels. "There is no theoretical limit to how high a character may progress." (Vol. 1, p. 18) No supplemental books are required -- Right from the get-go, a single paragraph provides rules for continuing advancement in hit dice, fighting ability, even never-ending spell advancement for all the classes! The way experience gets added is a bit unclear, but you can work out something reasonable.

- The Astral Spell. Introduced in Supplement I: Greyhawk, this spell has wonderful flavor that matches standard fantasy much more closely. It's a lot like what the ethereal spell is today (which itself doesn't exist in OD&D). No travelling outer planes, it makes a powerful spellcaster basically invisible and intangible for long-range scouting missions (but with a good chance to cast spells into the physical world, and a small chance of losing their body and so being "immediately sent to jibber and shriek on the floor of the lowest hell"). That's great!

- Chaotic Storm Giants. Storm giants, also introduced in the Greyhawk supplement, can be any alignment -- which is more in sync with Norse depictions of evil storm giants.

- Limited Dragon Types. OD&D has only 6 dragon types: the five colored evil-type dragons, plus the good and intelligent Gold type. It seems a lot easier to keep track of that mentally.


Random stuff I don't like in OD&D:

- Gold Standard Pricing. I've always been bothered by D&D pricing in gold pieces, which prohibits using real-world medieval prices for an economic model (which would normally be in some type of silver coin, gold coins not really being exigent in the medieval world). I think I understand why this was done -- it's just fun to think about pricing things in gold. I can also now see that the line in the AD&D PHB about prices assuming an inflated, adventure-rich economy was just an after-the-fact rationalization.

I wish they'd thought in advance to model prices on real-world medieval economies, but I can also see how this was too much to ask for when a fun, lightweight game was being developed. (Probably 15, 30, 50 for armor costs is the hugest simplification ever.) The after-effect is that every fantasy paper or video game for the rest of history is stuck with a very unrealistic gold-standard economy (and basically useless copper and silver coins).

- Magic Item Construction. Yes, the times for sample magic item construction are probably way too long. 1 week for a potion of healing? 1 month for 20 magic arrows? 1 week per spell level on a scroll? That's probably way too long to make flavor-sense (consider doing some comparisons in legend for how long it takes to make a love potion, or write a spell, or craft a magic hammer...)

- All-Access Cleric Spells. In the white box rules everyone had spellbooks and full access to the list. In Supplement I: Greyhawk, magic-users had spellbooks with partial list access, but clerics got rid of the need for spellbooks while maintaining full access to expanded spell lists -- "All cleric spells are considered as 'divinely' given and as such a cleric with a wisdom factor of 3 would know all of the spells as well as would acleric with an 18 wisdom factor" (p. 8).

Unfortunately, this system created a power-creep and complexity problem in that every time a new cleric spell was added to the game, then every cleric automatically gained access to it (both increasing their power, and increasing the number of options cleric players had to parse each day in preparing spells). The current 3.5 Edition situation is basically out of hand for new players -- there are 37 or more spells available for consideration by every starting 1st-level cleric!

One of the very best new ideas I've seen in D&D is the 3rd Ed. Unearthed Arcana "Variant: Spontaneous Divine Casters", in which clerics must pick a small subset of spells from each level (I'd call them "miracles"), and then are allowed to cast them freely, without prepared selection in advance each day. This both reduces the complexity to new players, the everything-under-the-sun power of cleric spellcasting, and has a very nice flavor effect of priests having specific well-known powers you can depend on. But, I can certainly understand why this forever-expanding-spell-list probably could not have been predicted at the outset of the OD&D game.

Sliding Spell Effects

Another brief observation about the OD&D set -- spell effects truly had the "safety off". Even your low-level spell effects could be truly devastating: sleep (take out 2-16 1st level enemies, or 2-12 2nd level, etc.), hold person (affect 1-4 persons, duration over 1 hour), charm person (permanent until dispelled!), etc. Animate dead is a 5th-level magic-user spell that creates 1-6 undead per level above 8th (e.g., a 16th-level wizard gets an average of 36 undead per casting). A potion of diminution makes you 6 inches tall, a potion of growth makes you 30 feet! (Which again is much more in the tradition of myth or Carroll, etc.) In contrast, modern D&D has evolved to grant much more subdued effects with spells, but gives spellcasters a lot more spell slots to fire off over time.

An interesting place which has been mentioned by others is the classic blasting spells of fireball and lightning bolt. They're in OD&D (and Chainmail), of course, and they have always, always, done 1d6 damage per level of the caster. But hit points have routinely crept up over the editions, radically weaking the power of these spells over time. Consider a 5th-level caster who does 5d6 damage (17.5 points average.)

(1) In OD&D, a stock ogre had 4d6+1 HD, average 15 hit points. Your sample fireball would definitely kill this guy, unless he made his save for half damage (and then be over half-dead).
(2) In 1st-2nd Edition, the ogre had 4d8+1 HD, or 19 hit points. This is very close to the spell's damage, and so is about 50/50 to kill him before the save, depending on exact damage or hit points rolled.
(3) In 3rd Edition, the ogre has 4d8+8 HD, average 26 hit points. The sample fireball will definitely not kill him. If he makes his save he'll only lose about one-third of his hit points.

So in short, the classic fireball or lightning bolt has gone from almost certainly killing ogres, to sometimes killing ogres, to almost certainly not killing ogres in one blast. This, even though the actual damage roll is completely unchanged from the inception of the game. Wacky!

Class Trouble II: Clerics

Here are some more thoughts from reading the Original D&D (white box) set for the first time, and the origins of the more troubling class types.

Clerics -- My trouble with clerics is more subtle than the trouble with thieves (see previous post). It's not a mechanical problem so much as a flavor-setting problem.

Every time I try to design up a D&D campaign setting I run into the following issue. I want to use the core classes as written, and I want to create a medieval-flavored setting, as indicated by D&D's level of technology, armaments, coinage, and political assumptions (smallish kingdoms, rising mercantile class, a history of an older broken-down empire, etc.). But then, I'm confronted with the polytheistic religious structure in D&D, and I come to a stumbling block -- for the life of me I can't imagine what the political situation would look like, to have a medieval Europe lacking the unified Christian Catholic church, and instead overlaid with independent polytheistic temples.

To me, this is a huge contradictory disconnect in standard D&D, in that you've got a medieval world with polytheistic religion. I can't even find any examples to compare to in the real world -- by the early middle ages, all of Europe (including Scandinavian countries at the last) were Christian, all of the Middle East was monotheistic under Islam, etc. Only in the Far East like Japan did you have Shogun culture with polytheistic religion, but the priests of shrines there were (to my understanding) not politically powerful in any way, like we assume a D&D church to be.

And as I think about a polytheistic setting, I'm further blocked by the fact that the D&D Cleric class looks almost uniquely like a Christian crusading priest (or Templar, or what-have-you). Apparently they belong to an influential church, but what church like that was polytheistic? What kind of hierarchical structure could be supported by that? If you think of either shaman-culture (independent wise men) or a polytheistic professional religious class (like Celtic druids or Indian brahmans, who service a unified pantheon of gods together), you think about them in robes, not wandering around in full plate mail. Again, I'd like to reduce Clerics to not use full armor, to look more like polytheistic priests, if that's what they truly are.

In short, the problem is this: D&D claims to have a polytheistic religion, but you've got both the politics and the critical Cleric class set up as in the medieval Christian world, and nowhere else.

Now, if you look at the OD&D set, the reason for this is pretty clear -- Clerics really were assumed to be Christian at the outset of the design. (As usual, it's not explicitly stated *what* the class is, but the standard usage of the terms involved makes it clear). (1) The class-level titles all come out of the Catholic Christian church. (2) The equipment list and turning undead sections mention the Cross and no other type of holy symbol. (3) The cleric spell list is almost uniformly based on famous Biblical miracles. And so forth.

It's only afterwards (I presume Supplement IV: Gods, Demigods, and Heroes, although Supplement II: Blackmoor is the first one to mention non-cross holy items, p. 23) that the designers thought to use polytheistic deities as their mainstays, and glued this on after-the-fact to the existing D&D worldview and Clerical class. It's no wonder that still to this day the polytheism acts as a sort of strange extra appendage to the rest of the D&D ruleset (even contradictory, when I think about it fairly hard), as it truly wasn't there in OD&D. Perhaps the class would have looked different in its spell list and armor usage if polytheist priests had been in mind at the beginning (and perhaps the world setting would be presumed classical instead of medieval, who knows?)

One initial solution I can think of is to directly stipulate a monotheistic, powerful Catholic-like church for my medieval-style D&D world -- the problem there would be some dryness to the options of clerics and the political situation. A second solution would be to use a professional-class-style clerical establishment (like historical druids), where the priests all serve the same pantheon of gods as a single unit and teaching (some of the same drawbacks would apply). A third solution would be to find some historical pantheon of gods which best supports a combative, warlike Clerical class as found in D&D (perhaps Norse, Finnish or some other warrior culture which was Christianized as late as possible historically).

Class Trouble I: Thieves

Here's a continuation of my first post, in which I recently acquired a copy of the Original D&D Rules (1974 white box set). In particular I'll look at two troublesome classes.

Thieves -- Thieves (rogues in 3E) don't exist in the original rules; they were added as the 4th primary class in the first Greyhawk supplement. I often have a problem with thieves, which I'll describe in a minute.

When I think about 3E D&D, I'd love to simplify the game in a few broad strokes. The first thing I think about is just slicing off the whole skill system. (Perhaps using a variant simplification from 3E Unearthed Arcana.) When I'm acting as DM making NPCs, the thing that frustrates me and burns the most time is fiddling with individual skill points, max ranks, multiclass per-level class versus cross-class costs, armor penalties, feat bonuses, synergy bonuses, OMG yuck! When I was working on converting the D1-3 series I was finding it took me at least 30 minutes per individual NPC to do all the work, with the biggest chunk going into skill-point fiddling. My understanding is this is always the biggest source of stat-block errors even in WOTC publications, by those who look for such things. The feat system is pretty nice -- a new feat usually seems like a nice significant gift package -- but having the skill system running in parallel drives me nuts; I'd like to get rid of the whole subsystem.

Except that I can't really do that in 3E because of the 4th primary class, the Rogue, whose whole functioning is predicated on making use of lots of skill points for their abilities.

So, looking at the Original D&D publications, I can see that this has always been an oddball situation. With the original books, you had Fighter, Cleric, Magic-user; all three had hit dice, could strike in combat, made saving throws, and the latter could cast spells in binary fashion (you either shot it off or you didn't). With the addition of the Thief in Supplement I: Greyhawk, the designers tinkered up a completely brand new mechanics invention -- a list of skills that sometimes worked and sometimes didn't, with a roll-under-percentage success mechanic, failure vastly more likely than not at 1st level, etc. I guess that's an inventive piece of gaming R&D, but the oddball mechanic and skill-usage stuck around as an odd appendage through 1E right to 3E and this very day. You've got this one class whose lifeblood is pumped by the skill system, which for other classes is usually extraneous to their core functioning.

What could have been the alternative in those early days? Perhaps if the Thief skill system were treated more like a Fighter's combat potential, where you rolled a stock d20 to get a particular score (and the scores were the same for that whole list of skill abilities, so you didn't have to track 5-6 different percentages or skill scores). I'm now thinking about that as a modification to an OD&D/AD&D campaign if I ever run one again. Or, just slice away the Thief class itself and depend on the Clerical find traps spell that was in the game since OD&D (but which nowadays gets de-powered so as to not take spotlight time away from Rogue skills!) -- but then that takes away a lot of the class choice (namely, the only unlimited-level class) available to dwarves, elves, and hobbits in the OD&D rules.


Oh yes, more random OD&D stuff in this post -- initially the game had dwarves, elves, and hobbits, but of course the latter were renamed "halflings" to avoid trademark issues with the Tolkein estate. My OD&D set (6th printing) is funny in that they mostly completed that switchover (with easily spottable different-font text pasted in over offending areas), but missed it in a certain number of places.

Also in the OD&D set, every monster or dungeon-based enemy had infravision, but every PC character was specifically lacking infravision and had to use torches or lanterns (including PC dwarves, elves, and hobbits)! Wrap your head around that one, if you're in the habit of criticizing minor discrepancies in current rulesets. With the Greyhawk supplement that was modified to give all demihumans equal infravision, etc.

Also: Every magic sword in OD&D was automatically intelligent. With just about the same list of abilities and statistics that was used in 1E, 2E, 3E, and still today. Wow!

First Post! Original D&D

Hi there, I'm Delta and I'm a complete old-school D&D junkie. I've started this blog to jot down random thoughts as I study old D&D texts and think about the game.

Frankly, I haven't played a game of D&D in about 1.5 years, since moving from Boston to New York City, at which point I lost my playgroup. Prior to that we had met every week for 5 years running (since about a year before the release of 3rd Edition D&D).

Here's the topic of my first post -- I recently procured a copy of the Original D&D set of EBay. That's the original white-box, three-small-booklets edition, copyright 1974. Of course, I've had copies (more than one) of 1st Edition rulebooks, Holmes blue-book sets, Basic D&D, 3rd Edition D&D, etc., but I never had the original white-box stuff, and I'm tickled pink to have it at this point. (Got it *relatively* cheap off EBay -- $45, 6th printing with slightly dented box, when lots of these sets go for over $100 these days). The other thing I do now is occasionally get old PDFs of stuff from RPGNow.com -- for example, I recently picked up the original Chainmail rules, and also Supplement I: Greyhawk, but the original rules haven't been released in digital form, so I went out and gave it to myself as a gift.

It's really intriguing to see the original D&D rules and consider exactly how they have evolved over time. On the one hand, they're fairly different in things like character classes, races, ability modifiers, how to run combat, and so forth. But on the other hand, lots of the text and ideas for certain spells and magic items has been nearly copy-and-pasted (at least in part) between every edition, from OD&D to 1E to 2E to 3rd Edition.

Some quick examples of the quirkiest things in the OD&D set: There are only 3 classes (fighter, magic-user, and cleric). Most ability scores don't have any modifier on combat actions, just experience award modifiers (just like Holmes Blue Book, in fact). All class and monster hit dice are d6's! (Which actually makes a heck of a lot of sense, since it's the most common die type on any table. Depending on class you might go 1d6, 1d6+1, 2d6, etc., for your hit dice.) Every hit from any weapon does 1d6 damage -- with certain exceptions like a giant or staff of striking that does 2d6 damage. Every magic-user or cleric apparently has a spellbook with all spells in the game included. Elves can function as fighters or magic-users, but must pick only one for a given adventure! There is no specification for what falling damage does (one example says a 30' fall should likely be fatal). A lot of stuff like what dice mean, or what happens when you run out of "hits", is entirely undefined in the rules, assuming they're just obvious common knowledge to gamers. Really fascinating material to me.

With the release of Supplement I: Greyhawk, a lot of changes were made that filtered seemingly verbatim into the AD&D books. For example, the thief class was added as the 4th primary class type. Classes were given stock die types (d8, d6, d4), and monsters converted to d8 hit dice. Varying damage types by weapon were given (including medium-vs-large targets), weapon type-vs-armor modifiers, and specific monster attacks and damage (which is a real pain because you then needed to flip between 2 books for a monster's full statistics). Ability modifiers were given for different abilities like Strength, including the exceptional d% component we all loved (explicitly to make fighters more potent and survivable). You've got the more familiar and wider multiclass mechanic where experience is constantly being split between two classes.

Another thing that interests me is that the rules were explicitly set in a medieval technology and time frame. (This pops up in discussions of equipment, ships, and the campaign.) It specifically cautions that you shouldn't think about other milieus like ancient or classical until your medieval possibilities have been exhausted (Vol. 1, p. 5). It's an interesting specification because modern rules try to genericize everything, and make it seem like any fantastic setting is equally supported by the rules.

Oh yeah, why were the ability scores in the order they were? (In 3rd Ed. they go Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha, which does seem to make sense... physical stuff first, mental stuff second.). Why Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Cha? (As in 1st. Ed.?) Well, it's easy to see from OD&D... they're just the prime requisites of the classes in the order they were invented: fighter, magic-user, cleric, and then finally thief in the Greyhawk supplement, etc.

By 1st Ed. AD&D, the spell lists were organized so that there was a plethora of 1st level spells, the same or fewer 2nd, same or fewer 3rd, etc. But that hadn't yet happened in OD&D: the numbers go up and down randomly, with the fewest spells of all at 1st level... You've got just 8 1st-level spells for magic-users, 10 2nd-level, then 14, 12, 14, and 12 again. Clerics have just 4 spells on their 2nd & 3rd level lists, 6 spells on the others.

In addition, there aren't any specific planes-of-existence yet... for example, elementals spring directly from the terrestrial substance itself (which to me is actually a lot more attractive in-spirit-flavor than the elemental planes concept). But, there is the prospect held out of other dimensions, times, trips to the moon or Mars, robots and androids, living statues (as-yet unnamed golems). And you do already have the contact higher plane spell with its big list of plane-levels (starting at 3rd? maybe 1 above "heaven"? on up to 12). It's kind of a mishmash of every fantastical place or concept that set the stage for a pretty complicated multiversal construction later on. (As opposed to say, most classical mythologies with their tripartite worldview of heaven-earth-underworld.)

More to come in a minute!