Friday, December 31, 2010

On Collaborations

You should probably read Zak S's Monday post over at "Playing D&D With Porn Stars", or else there's some significant chance that I will come and burn your house down.

(You can skip the comments if you want.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Monday Night Book of War

You can sort of see how my holiday week between semesters is being spent. The "opposition" (i.e., my girlfriend) wanted a rematch after the loss the prior night. I was happy to comply. (There's a Grant-like theory that she plays better while drinking, so wine was poured...)

Turn 1 -- The opposition at top has speedy light cavalry, slow-but-tough heavy infantry, and two units of longbows. I have goblin wolf cavalry, goblin archers, and one figure of trolls. (Note that I'm using some flat counters for part of my wolf cavalry. Wolf cavalry has 3 HD; troll squad is 6 HD, with regeneration of 1 hit/turn, double attacks, and auto-morale.) After first-turn movement, light cavalry is already halfway into my territory, with goblin archers headed up the hill on the far right.

Turn 3 -- On left, light cavalry has surrounded and routed 1st unit of wolf cavalry. Troll has engaged heavy infantry, who are reforming into a single file so as to wrap around (some debate on this assessment; opponent felt wrapping should be complete in one turn). On the right, archers have exchanged fire, and I've been fortunate enough to drive away all of the longbowmen (with half my goblin archers also defeated).

Turn 5 -- With some moderately lucky rolls (esp., morale failure by opponent), my combined troll and wolf cavalry have routed the heavy infantry off the board. Simultaneously, the light cavalry have surrounded & cut down the rest of my goblin archers. Trolls & wolves have done an about-face and are headed back into the woods to gain the center and screening from now-free light cavalry.

Turn 7 -- Jockey for position. Light cavalry are wheeling around, seeking advantageous attack on my monster forces. Opponent goal is to wipe out the wolf cavalry in one sharp blow, and then pick off the troll figure alone.

Turn 8 -- Forces collide. The opposition actually falls short in their charge this turn, and wolf cavalry have made first contact. Some semi-friendly debate on this measurement.

Turn 10 -- Attrition. Light cavalry have reduced goblin cavalry to one figure (the yellow-colored cavalry miniature), while taking steady losses from wolves & trolls.

Turn 12 -- Victory. The monsters reduce opponent cavalry to 1 hit remaining, who then turn and flee the field.

This game was somewhat more lopsided than others we've played, largely due to the "gimmick" of me trotting out the troll figure here. The trolls are probably the most problematic thing to price-balance in the game, since at almost any price, they massacre normal melee troops, yet fall prey to large bodies of archers (that is, with regeneration, you need to rack up a huge number of hits against them all at once). Probably even by turn 5 I felt this game was mine, excepting a faint chance of the light cavalry surrounding them in the open for lots of attacks (and hence me running into the woods at that point). Currently I've got trolls priced at the equivalent of 75 gp/man-month (compare to D&D men-at-arms pricing), but maybe that's not enough. In the future I'll be interested in getting feedback on whether other people have a better analysis.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Saturday Night Book Of War

Actually Sunday night, but who's counting? I tried to get clever and have a Christmas-themed game with elves and "slaying" (you know the drill) but neither of us really had our hearts into that. So what you get instead is a bunch of murderous giant-types on a rampage. (Also trying to improve the lighting in my photos here.)

Turn 1 -- The girlfriend has medium infantry, medium cavalry, and longbows at the top. I have orcs in chain, ogres, and a squad of hill giants coming up out of the rough, wooded, marshy shithole at the bottom. (Recall that each figure represents 10 scale creatures. As you might expect, ogres take 4 hits to eliminate, giants take 8. Orcs skew a bit cheaper but have morale penalties due to alignment and daylight.)

Turn 4 -- My orcs have crept into the center woods; the girlfriend has wheeled her infantry & cavalry in a pincer move against them (gambling cavalry in bad terrain versus chance to quickly clear that whole side of the board & break into the open terrain beyond). Cavalry has taken some losses from stone-throwing giants and orc resistance. On the far right, ogres have slogged up through the marsh, losing 2 figures to withering longbow fire, but have just made contact and routed the archers.

Turn 5 -- Cavalry & infantry wrap around the enemy, who (as they are wont to do) fold rather quickly. So, orcs are routed and seeking to escape north over the hill. Ogres have wheeled around towards the melee. Giants have hit rear of cavalry but rolled a "1" -- no hits!

Turn 7 -- Clash in the trees. Orcs have fled the field, everyone else in a life-and-death struggle in the woods. Giants have destroyed 2 figures of cavalry, taking a hit in return.

Turn 10 -- The beat-down goes on for a while. Cavalry is gone, one figure of ogres is gone, giants accumulating more hits, infantry morale is good.

Turn 15 -- Finally, with 4 figures remaining, the infantry routs. This spells their doom as the remaining ogre & giant figures stomp them from behind. Note giant figure has 7 hits on it (1 hit away from elimination). Opponent expresses displeasure.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Marvel Ragnarok's Aftermath

So I've also been on a bit of a Marvel Super Heroes kick for a few weeks. I hit Midtown Comics here in Manhattan last week and picked up a few copies of Marvel Essentials: Thor (black & white, original Jack Kirby stuff), and have been reading through them with great pleasure.

In the Journey Into Mystery comic (prior to it getting renamed to The Mighty Thor), there was a backup feature called "Tales of Asgard". One multi-issue storyline therein featured a lengthy prophecy/foresight of Ragnarok and its ultimate climax. In issue #128, this comes to a final conclusion, with Surtur incinerating all the worlds, and then finally this:

Which I think is pretty interesting. This was published by Marvel in 1966, some 5 years before Kirby produced the "New Gods" with DC Comics in 1971 (whose backstory includes older gods being destroyed by Ragnarok, millennia in the past).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Saturday Night Book Of War

The last few Saturday nights, the girlfriend and I have stayed in and played Book of War (the lightweight mass-combat game I've been tooling on for some time that statistically recreates D&D results at 1:10 scale). Here's a quick recap of the most recent game.

Setup -- We play on a smallish 3x3 foot table, so a 200-point game works well for us (think: about 2,000 gp per side as per standard D&D men-at-arms costs), which works out to around 20-30 figures per side (or about one medieval battalion). On my side I've got infantry in chain, regular archers, and heavy cavalry (blue color); the opposition has several units of horse archers and pikes (red color). You can see the random terrain that we generated for this game (notably, she placed a hill near the center that would be advantageous for her horse archers; I responded by trying to block her approach with a bunch of heavy terrain I was rolling). You can also see our cat, Yowly, who generally sits on the "neutral party" ottoman and watches the proceedings:

Turn 2 -- Actually 1.5 turns in, at this point my girlfriend (acting first) has had 2 turns of movement, and managed to get her light forces all the way across the stream, and also up the hill in the center. With only one turn myself, my heavier forces are bogged down, only halfway across the stream, and I've got fairly cruddy options at this point. I really don't want to take my heavy cavalry into the middle, surrounded by archers & pikes, but I can't turn around & get out of the stream in one move.

Turn 4 -- At this point my heavy cavalry have fought their way back out of the river, taking casualties from archers & taking a rear attack from the pikes. My archers drove off the pikes, but were themselves then routed by the hill-top horse archers (note "routed" arrow markers on fleeing units). Look closely and you'll see how my medium infantry have moved under cover of the woods to the edge of the hill, while her second pike unit is coming up through the marsh.

Turn 6 -- My demise. My girlfriend's horse archers came off the hill, and managed to rout the rest of my heavy cavalry off the table. Her pikes ascended the hill and took a brave assault by my medium infantry, but kept morale even after having the whole hill showered by their horse-archer allies; note her 1 figure of pikes left and my infantry routing back through the woods.

Turn 7 -- The End. My already-broken infantry are surrounded in the woods by the fast-moving horses and eliminated on the next attack.

So in this case, my girlfriend beat me. (Which -- ahem -- doesn't usually happen.) Total playing time including army selection & setup was 1 hour, 40 minutes. I think this is also the first time in a few weeks where there wasn't a rules debate that caused me to edit something afterward, so that's probably a good sign for the shape things are in.

Monday, November 29, 2010

MSH-3 Murderworld

I had friends stay over for the Thanksgiving weekend, and at some point when discussing what game to play, it seemed like it would make sense to pull out the Marvel Superheroes game and one of the adventures I have for it. I haven't played MSH in quite some time, and was mostly pulling an adventure at random (so zero prep time and just reading a paragraph or so ahead of play). My friends are just barely introductory role-players, so there were advantages to using a lightweight system, and one with characters that are pre-made. In fact, they're not even familiar with comic books, to the extent they don't know who the Fantastic Four are at all, but when I offered that group as one possibility to play (as part of MSH-3, Murderworld! by Jeff Grubb), they said, "That sounds interesting", and I started introducing them to the characters they'd be playing.

We actually had two stand-ins to the normal Fantastic Four lineup. We had Mister Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, of course (unknowingly picked by my married friends, to their great amusement when I told them, after their choice, about the relationship). As you can see by the cover above, at this time in Marvel history (1984) the Thing was actually being replaced by the She-Hulk, so that's part of the adventure as written. In addition to that, I also gave them the option of replacing the Torch with Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau; shown to right), which they took me up on, because it matched the gender roles around the table (3 women and 1 man).

Our result: TPK (total party kill). By the middle of the adventure, the Fantastic Four are lured into the deadly Murderworld complex run by the super hit-man Arcade, separated, and locked into individually prepared deathtraps. As it turns out, none of my players could figure out how to escape any of the death traps. I feel like I might rack this up to 20% inexperience on the players' part (with either RPGs or Marvel comic conceits), but 80% due to the fact that the traps are truly very hard to escape from. On review afterward, I think I even made several mistakes in their favor, to no avail.

First of all, by way of critical review, we pretty much all know that it's poor form to split the party up (and we had the standard problem of 3 people sitting inactive and somewhat restless while each person in turn fought their deathtrap alone). Secondly, each deathtrap features a hologram of a "fake" battle scene, and the only way out is to basically ignore it and punch one's way through the super-reinforced walls that you can't see until you've broken through them. Thirdly, that's not even theoretically possible for either Mister Fantastic or the Invisible Woman -- and only doable with great effort for the other two. Fourth, even if they do get out, the numerous exit passageways are themselves all still trapped in multiple ways, and in general these characters have very low (normal human-like) Health scores, and are likely to be KO'd by any one of them. So I'm not entirely sure how anyone ever managed to get through this adventure.

Thoughts? Did you successfully play through it? If so, how did it go for you?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dice Statistics

Observation -- The standard deviation of a normal polyhedral die (i.e., a discrete uniform distribution 1..N with small N) is approximately one-half of the mean. For the case of a 7-sided die, the standard deviation is exactly equal to one-half of the mean. For dice with fewer sides it is less, and for more sides it is greater.

The d7 coincidentally also has the property that the variance exactly equals the mean. However, the two are not generally close for other sorts of dice (although still less for smaller dice, and more for bigger dice).

Monday, October 25, 2010

10 Years of 3E & OGL

Here's a date that almost slipped by without me noticing: It's now been 10 years since 3E D&D was published.
... the Player's Handbook is only the first of three core books for the Dungeons & Dragons game. The Dungeon Master's Guide, available in September 2000, gives the DM all the tools to create and run fantastic D&D adventures. And the Monster Manual, available in October 2000, offers more than 500 fair and foul creatures. ["2000 Survival Kit", appendix to the 3E D&D Player's Handbook]
Let me give 3E a little bit of praise here, in retrospect. The frequency that commercial products these days evidence someone really caring about their production (or as I usually put it, "Did somebody at least give a shit?") is all too low. But 3E rises past that bar; whatever else one might say, clearly they cared (speaking of Cook, Tweet, Williams, et. al.).

Obviously, 3E was the first major D&D effort by WOTC and after TSR's long, slow, sad, stupid decline. In some ways it was a more detailed format, with high-level production values. It showed a generally deep understanding for the original AD&D system, even in places where it made different decisions. Its links to older works were respectful without being cheaply slavish (e.g., the quote above: "fair and foul creatures", echoing OD&D's "hostile & benign creatures" [Vol-2, p. 3] or AD&D's "creatures malevolent and benign" [Fiend Folio cover] without directly parroting them).

On top of all that, the rules were released in conjunction with the Open Game License, which offered the prospect of all of us contributing and publishing works for the game. I remember being absolutely excited at the combined prospect of all that; these were the first D&D books I bought since the end of 1E, and I wasn't alone.

In some sense, 3E was the initial "renaissance" of D&D, bringing lots of lapsed players back to the game, establishing a strong product line coming from a non-terminally-ill company, and laying the intellectual and legal groundwork for the spinoff OSR today. The truth is, since the only time in my life that I had a regular-as-clockwork weekly gaming group was in this era (1999 to 2005), I've probably played more actually-at-the-table 3E D&D than any other game system.

Of course, over time the heaviness of 3E came to feel a bit like a Sisyphean ordeal; I found myself struggling with the game and its choices, always feeling like the "right" game was within reach with a few fixes, but those fixes always led to other, larger fixes. Ridiculous hours were spent trying to get monster and NPC attack bonuses, skill points, feats, armor and size adjustments calculated properly. The complications of cleric domain spells probably contributed to breaking my camel's back on the whole class. Splatbook production had me sparking with some friends about exactly what "new" stuff should be allowed and what shouldn't on a near-monthly basis. Some of my casual players never intuited how attacks-of-opportunities would work, even after months of play. And of course the whole corporate project took a torpedo-hit when the 3.5 edition was rushed out only 3 years later, clearly signaling an end to company support for the OGL philosophy.

I stuck with 3E for while, until finally procuring a copy of the OD&D 1974 boxed set (what, close to 30 years after I started playing Holmes D&D?), and at some later point, decided that was my preferred ruleset, and then, this blog. To my surprise, it seemed like a lot of other people did something similar around the same time. Maybe without 3E we wouldn't even care about it any more; without the OGL, certainly the legal status of the OSR would be a lot more challenging. For all its warts, I'll say "thank you" to the guys who worked to bring it to us.

Friday, October 22, 2010

How to Hold a Lance

Another interesting blog post from a historical reenactor with copious primary-source citations: How to hold a lance on foot for single combat.

One of the excellent sources: The 1459 "Fight Book" by Hans Talhoffer:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How To Deliver a Cavalry Charge

Doing my usual thing, researching this & that, and I come across what I found to be a very interesting article: "La Régle du Temple as a Military Manual, or, How to Deliver a Cavalry Charge" by Matthew Bennett. This was a piece written by the now-Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst (British West Point, basically), giving an overview of a mid-13th century manual for organizing the Knights Templar. It's been included in at least two published books, see it here:

Or, if you can read French, a translation of the original La Régle du Temple is available here:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Elven Theme Recap

About a week ago, I posed the question: "The multiclass 'elven theme' is best extrapolated if elves automatically get what?" -- this being asked in the context of playing with the OD&D LBBs and thinking of expanding the classes available (specifically, to include Thieves).

I'm glad I asked it, because it turns out that my initial preference, how I've been playing it for a while now -- elves get any two classes of their choice -- came in dead last in popularity. What won over that by a wide margin (as you can see above) was having elves pick any one class, plus getting wizard (magic-user) for free. Some things I'd have a dogmatic opinion about, but this one not so much (hence the poll). So, I'm glad to have some data on what the grognards' consensus is, and I'll be playing OD&D this way from now on.

Of course, in my gaming -- with clerics discarded -- the choice is really one of picking either Fighter or Thief, and adding Wizard on top of that (but, if more classes are added in the future, it expands elegantly). Furthermore, since I play by the LBB multiclassing text of "switching classes" (at least insofar as which class is being trained for and gaining XP), and any combination of levels is possible, an elf PC might very well leave the wizard class fallow, and never rise past 1st level with a single 1st-level spell available to them daily. I like that flavor a lot, actually.

Thanks to everyone who helped me with their opinion!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Retrospective: Bismarck

There's one single wargame that I've played very much in my life: Bismarck!

Now, I feel like personality-wise I'm well suited for wargaming, but other than this one game, I never did much. I had a copy of "Little Round Top" (part of the Gettysburg conflict), but I think I played it once and set it aside. Of course, the D&D references to mass battles always intrigued me greatly, but the only thing I could access was "Swords & Spells" and those rules are not really a lot of fun or very immersive. But this game seemed to draw me like a supermagnet at a very young age -- I think I've had it since circa 1980, when I picked it out of a game store at age 10. I dare say it changed my life and understanding of games, history, tactics, and technology in many ways.

Bismarck was Avalon Hill's 1979 game simulating a famous engagement in WWII, in the spring before the U.S. entered the war. The action revolves around the time when the lone, technologically advanced German battleship Bismarck was sent out of the Baltic to cut off British shipping in the North Atlantic (with one cruiser escort), and came precariously close to holding off the entire British Royal navy that was sent to hunt it down. The game is very well known; in the recent and acclaimed interview with David Wesely (inventor of RPGs?), he mentions it twice, as he's searching for some random example of an Avalon Hill game, and it's the first thing that springs to mind. (There was also an earlier 1968 version of the game.)

Play takes place partly on a strategic-level searchboard of the Atlantic Ocean, and partly on a zoomed-in battleboard. The two strategic boards are kept hidden by opposing players. The action here winds up sounding a lot like the game "Battleship", with players moving air and sea units, and then calling out board coordinates ("I15! H17! O20!") in places where they have sufficient search strength in the hopes of detecting enemy targets. Random rolls affect the weather (i.e., visibility; sets a required search strength score), general British search and radio intercepts, and the possibility of German encounters with convoys. When enemy targets are found, play switches to the battleboard where either air attacks are rolled, or ship-to-ship maneuvering and gunfire is resolved. Victory points are assessed at the end when time expires or the Bismarck is sunk.

The Basic game, simulating the core historical scenario, is already quite involved (I find I have to cut back on even some of the "Basic" game rules on movement and fuel tracking in order to get other people to play with me.) The Intermediate game adds modular supplements, such as refinements to weather tracking, submarines and destroyers, aircraft carrier on-deck status, fighter aircraft, random breakdowns, and alternative scenarios including French, U.S., and other hypothetical German vessels. The Advanced game provides an immensely more detailed tabletop miniatures game for ship-to-ship combat (based on the prior Avalon Hill game Jutland), which can constitute a daylong game all by itself.

To the right, you'll see some photos of the Basic game setup. First, the opposing British and German sides of play, including Searchboard, Player Aid Card (including time track, weather gauge, and initial setup instructions), and Game Tables Card. Second, closeups of the starting positions for both the British and German player. Third, a closeup of the battleboard near the end of a sample game (when the Bismarck has been bombed repeatedly, cornered, and is about to be sunk after a fierce firefight with the combined British battleships Hood and Prince of Wales). Finally, the game's Hit Record Pad.

Okay, some analysis: First, in some general sense, Bismarck is a game of "piracy" of the sort that's never failed to intrigue me. A lot like Sid Meier's addictive Pirates! or my own D&D-based Corsairs game, the fundamental action is one of a heavily-armed vessel preying on the cargo ships of some enemy nation, and being hunted in return by a more powerful but spread-out navy. In some sense, historically, naval actions tend to hinge on exactly this dynamic (far more so fleet-against-fleet battles). Even more generally, the "two levels" aspect of the game (strategic map vs. tactical combat map) is shared not only by all of those games, but even D&D itself (with an exploratory map action, and a distinct combat-encounter action). Not only is it almost unavoidable realism-wise, there's lots of interesting dynamics available via the "game-within-the-game".

Secondly, I think that even today Bismarck is, intriguingly, the most asymmetric game I've ever seen. The German player has all of 2 ships; the British player has more than 20 (in the Basic game), including a variety of cruisers, battleships, aircraft carriers, etc. The strategies are entirely different; the German player is trying to quietly "break out" past the northeastern British search line, skulking and hiding around convoy lines for merchantman targets of his firepower; while the British player is managing an ocean-wide search and destroy campaign, managing scores of air and sea searches every turn. At the same time, the Bismarck is itself more powerful than any ship in the British navy, and also faster-moving than any of the British capital ships; such that frequently the British player has to send waves of sacrificial planes and cruisers at it, until some lucky hit slows it down and allows several battleships catch it at a disadvantage. I don't know what other game has this dual-level of extreme asymmetry -- kind of like an Escape from Alcatraz game spliced with Steve Jackson's Ogre. And, it really happened.

Before I'm done with asymmetry issue, consider the following: (a) The fascination with Starcraft, another asymmetric game (though not as thoroughly), which is one of the best-selling PC games of all time. (b) Erick Wujcik's comments on Ogre, which parallel my feelings on Bismarck: "asymmetrical, ... open-ended, ... a teaching tool. Ogre had restructured my mind pretty completely ... but it wasn't until 2002 ... that I realized how effective Ogre is at getting across so many important component mechanisms of play and design." (c) My strongly-held belief that classic Dungeons & Dragons has a great strength in offering character classes that are very distinct, both in flavor and in having different mechanics to support that flavor (and that 4E-style homogenization is a gross misstep).

Also, there's a slight bit of concern about the following question: Which side do you give to a new player when you're first introducing them to the game? The obvious choice is to give the new player the Germans (with just 2 ships, and likely sticking together as one unit, it's much simpler to manage), with the more experienced player taking the British (managing a much larger fleet of planes and ships, and a higher-level search task to administer). Compare this to the D&D tradition of giving Fighters to new players, and Wizards to more experienced players. However, this does have some slight awkwardness here in that (a) the Germans are more easily considered the "bad guys"; (b) it may look like the expert player is "beating up" on the newbie with the much larger British force; and (c) the Germans have a slightly more abstract goal of avoiding combat with enemy principals and seeking out faceless merchants that appear by random rolls only.

Thirdly, however, is the issue that there is an extremely high level of trust required between the two players, in that they are fairly and correctly managing their movement, patrol status, search strength calculations, air endurance, fuel expenditure, etc., etc., on each of the pair of hidden strategic-level searchboards. It would be trivial for a player to shift a vessel to a nearby empty space if they wanted to avoid combat, possibly a location that they "could have" been in legitimately; and even if the game is played honestly, it's easy to make a number of management or calculation mistakes. In addition, there's the slightly goofy reveal in that as one player (primarily the British) calls out search coordinates, the opposition then knows what areas have units in them and should probably be avoided (or attacked by air) on their next move.

I've always felt that there is such an obvious, overwhelming need to computerize the hidden information in Bismarck that it's practically a core experience of the game (secondarily, the computer could also manage all the number-crunching of search strengths, fuel allocation, combat mechanics, etc.) Even at age 10 or 11 I was writing a program for a TRS-80 computer to control the Bismarck's escape route by a virtual German player, and respond to search requests as I played the British side; of course, this also had the beneficial side-effect of permitting the game to be played single-player. Until I listened to the Wesely interview this summer, a different option had never occurred to me -- namely, having a 3rd player present to act as referee. However, in my rural Maine adolescence, my problem was not one of having extra participants around, but rather one of having too few.

So that's my take on Bismarck. Just about 30 years after first obtaining it, I can still play it with relish (as my girlfriend and I did on an afternoon this weekend in our newly game-friendly living room setup), and afterward have a fairly extensive conversation about its history, strategy, and ramifications. I find that a lot of my interesting intuitions about game design are frothing around inside the rulebook and tables to this game. I still get wired after a game, almost hearing the waves and sea-spray, smelling the smoke powder, feeling the deep shock of cannons when dice hit the table (to the extent of sometimes having trouble sleeping afterward). I'm not exactly sure how the 10-year-old version of myself got drawn to the Bismarck box out of all possible games and wargames in the hobby store, but I think it was the right move. Maybe I've just got the North Atlantic salt-water in my veins, or something.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Elven Theme

In OD&D Vol-1, all elves are multiclassed fighter/wizards (or, to be specific in the language of the time, they can "freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game" [OD&D Vol-1, p. 8]). They're also the only character type formally allowed to multiclass -- in math terms we'd say "a character is multiclassed if and only if they are an elf".

Sup-I Greyhawk switches this up a bit. It introduces the Thief class (available to all racial types), and other races can now multiclass (i.e., dwarves can be Ftr/Thf or NPC Ftr/Clr, the new half-elves can be Ftr/Wiz or Ftr/Wiz/Clr). At this point, Elves can explicitly be one of the following class combinations: (1) Fighter/wizard, (2) Fighter/wizard/thief, (3) Thief alone, or (4) NPC-only Fighter/wizard/cleric.
Elven thieves work in all three categories at once (fighter, magic-user, and thief) unless they opt to never be anything other than in the thief category. [Sup-I, p. 5]
Now, this seems like a truly odd asymmetry to me. Elves can be Ftr/wiz/thf, but they can't focus to the extent of being just Ftr/thf or Wiz/thf. They can't be a fighter or wizard alone. It seems like "fighter" and "wizard" are glued together and only come as a joint pair (unlike any other race) -- particularly odd because in Vol-1, elves could in theory just ignore one of their classes and never "switch" to using it at all. (Obviously in AD&D the options were expanded to any mix of one, two, or three of the core non-cleric classes; but by then, elves have lost anything particularly special in their multiclassing.)

So I'd like to pose the following as a question: If we look at the critical moment when Thieves are being added to the game as the 4th core class, what exactly is the OD&D elven multiclassing specialty really communicating? Are they simply "special" at picking up extra classes in general? Are they exceptionally gifted at fighting, such that they get that class for free? Are they supernaturally gifted at magic-use (wizardry), such that they get that class for free? How would the Vol-1 rule be best extrapolated to maintain the "elven theme" at the point when we add Thieves? What would fit best for the way you like to play? (See poll results here.)

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Dungeon Master by Sam Lipsyte

This week in The New Yorker magazine, there's a fiction piece by Sam Lipsyte called "The Dungeon Master". As the title implies, it largely revolves around a regular D&D game (obviously, even if the brand name isn't itself used) played by a certain DM and four players.

To my mind, it's a rather surprising throwback to 80's-style portrayals of D&D, in the tradition of Mazes & Monsters and stuff like that. The teenage boys playing are all outcasts, losers, kleptomaniacs, abusers and/or abuse survivors, mental patients, and likely suicides. While the four players have names, the DM doesn't go by any name in his social life other than "the Dungeon Master" (somewhat like the Seinfeld episode of "The Maestro"). This DM runs a nightmarish game, heaping emotional abuse on the players, repetitively killing their characters at an inn, a store, a kitchen, in bed, by disease, etc., with implicitly unfair adjudications, and without them ever seeing any actual dungeon or adventure.

Now, in its defense, the story makes some knowing nods to the fact that there are potentially other ways to interpret the game. There is a separate school-sponsored game for the kids "in gifted", although that game sounds like a Monty-Hall wish fulfillment exercise, and the players unsympathetic and described in-character as "some snotty faggots". The narrator's mom clips newspaper stories "... about how the game makes kids crazy? Makes them do horrible things?" to which the Dungeon Master responds, "The game doesn't create suicides. If anything, it postpones them." So I guess that's as good as it gets here.

Not that everything needs to be a polemic promoting my favorite game, but I was mildly surprised at what an early-80's D&D-scare-story vibe I got from reading this. I guess if I start flag-waving for an "old school renaissance", I should be careful how I phrase my wishes. :-)

Read the story here -- "The Dungeon Master" by Sam Lipsyte.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stone Encumbrance: Detail & Example

I've talked about how I count encumbrance in units of "stone" -- 14 pounds -- before (search for "encumbrance" above and you'll see several entries). I included a full chart for the system in my OED Player's Tables but didn't present them directly as a post before. The first and primary advantage is one of simply dealing with much smaller numbers (single digits; easily memorizable; trivial to add mentally). In particular:
  • 4 stone -- Plate mail.
  • 2 stone -- Chain mail.
  • 1 stone -- Leather, shield, polearm, halberd, pike, two-handed sword, morning star, flail, battle axe, staff, pole, standard rations, 1000 coins
  • 1/3 stone -- Helmet, sword, spear, mace, handaxe, bow, arrows, water/wineskin, lantern, torches, rope, spikes, iron rations
Smaller stuff is discounted entirely unless the player starts ringing the DM's "cheese" bell (maybe 10 daggers, gems, or potions might add up to 1 stone). I've modified this list a little bit over time, with some materials research thrown in once in a while, but in broad strokes it's simply the OD&D list converted to smaller units.

Example calculation -- Typical dwarven fighter. What I do is note a stone value in pencil next to large items, or (*) for the 3-per-stone items, adding up from the bottom for the total. With a little practice, the whole thing can be done mentally at a glance.
  • Plate mail (4)
  • Battle axe (1)
  • Shield (1)
  • Helmet (*)
  • Mace (*)
  • 50' Rope (*)
  • 12 Iron spikes (*)
  • Iron Rations (*)
  • Backpack
  • Small sack
  • Dagger
Total: 2 (5 items @ 1/3, round up to multiple of 3) + 2 + 4 = 8 Stone.

A secondary convenience is that these units are auto-magically scaled the same as a character's Strength score, i.e., a character's maximum "very heavy/armored load" (6" move rate) in stone is equal to their Strength. Much like ranged weapons, divide Strength in thirds for the other categories: up to 1/3 Strength for 12" move, 2/3 Strength for 9", full Strength for 6" (optionally allow "encumbered" movement, 3" rate, at up to twice Strength score).

In the example above with an 8-stone load, a character with 9 Strength would only move at 6" (over 2/3 Strength limit = 6 stone), while a character with 12 Strength would move at 9" (2/3 Strength limit = 8 stone).

A third advantage is in how the term "stone" carries with it a very nice, archaic, Imperial ring to your milieu. Even if one were so crass as to disagree with me on that score, I think the reasons above are more than compelling. (And, more generally, speaks to the advantages of human-based units of measurement.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

The 5% Principle

If we look at the 1E AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide combat tables, we see a table for Fighters (and rangers, paladins, and bards) which improves by 2 points every 2 levels. Immediately below it, there is this note:
Special Note Regarding Fighters' Progression: This table is designed to allow fighters to advance by 5% per level of experience attained, rather than 10% every 2 levels, if you believe that such will be helpful in your particular campaign. If you opt for a per level advancement in combat ability, simply use the table but give a +1 "to hit" bonus to fighters who attain the second level of experience shown in each group of 2 levels, i.e. 1-2, 3-4, etc. You may, of course, elect not to allow per level combat advancement. [DMG p. 74]
I bring this up partly because some people overlook it, and partly because it provides credence for Gygax being amenable towards combat charts with a "smooth" progression in them. In fact, we might hypothesize that the small, "jumpy" charts we see in the classic game are merely a concession to the limited page space available in OD&D and AD&D. A mechanic where we check d20 + level + AC ≥ 21 would perform the task identically, without any need for table lookups (i.e., one pip difference from what I call "Target 20"). This idea is further expanded upon in a Dragon Magazine article by Len Lakofka titled "New charts, using the '5% principle'", which begins thus:
© 1983 E. Gary Gygax & Lenard Lakofka


The following material is not official, but is provided for your study and comment. Gary Gygax has said that an expanded combat results table is certainly desirable, so perhaps that part of the following information will eventually be made part of the official rules. However, the suggestions on how to change the experience-point chart are entirely of my own devising. [Dragon #80, December 1983, p. 48]
Thereafter, consolidated charts are presented for attacks and saving throws which increment by exactly 5% (1 in 20) any time an improvement is made -- interpolating the existing tables in the AD&D DMG. This gives at least the impression of Gygax approval, due to (1) the conspicuous copyright notice, (2) the Gygax attribution, and (3) the distinction from the experience tables at the end of the article. I present the former tables below.

Would I want to use these tables? Actually, no -- I think they've become too complicated visually. Once you have more than 7 categories per axis, a person's speed at cross-referencing is sure to fall off. The attacks table here is exacerbated by 6 different lines of numbers across the x-axis (the classes) that you need to distinguish between on a case-by-case basis.

What I really want to argue is that the fundamental intent behind these tables would, in fact, be better served by a simple, much shorter, numerical core rule, but for some reason the Gygax/Lakofka team lacked the mechanical creativity to invest the game with such. While it's been argued that tables can present complicated mechanics in an easy-to-reference fashion, the fact is, there's nothing complicated here for the tables to simplify -- the presented progressions are all inherently linear, and tablature may in fact be about the clunkiest way to express the desired, smooth system seeking a "5% principle".

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

OD&D Trivia

Here's a trio of questions to test your Original D&D knowledge. Answers in the first comment.

(1) The "Alternative Combat System" (roll d20 on a table of level vs. AC) was first introduced in which book?
(a) Chainmail
(b) OD&D Vol-1 (Men & Magic)
(c) OD&D Supplement I (Greyhawk)
(d) AD&D Player's Handbook

(2) The Chainmail Fantasy Supplement introduces Wizards with two missile attack forms: fireball and lightning bolt. Their mechanics mimic and reference what siege weapons from the non-fantasy section (pick two)?
(a) Ballista
(b) Catapult
(c) Trebuchet
(d) Cannon

(3) Which of the following statements about Thieves, in their earliest presentation, is true?
(a) Thieves were allowed to multi-class.
(b) Thieves were one of 4 basic classes in OD&D Vol-1.
(c) Thieves were required to be humans.
(d) Thieves were the only class with a "find traps" ability.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Star Wars Saturday

Here's two things I don't normally do -- post on Saturday, or about Star Wars. Nevertheless, James Mal's recent posts on the old Star Wars comic book got me to dig out the only Star Wars comic I ever owned -- a 1977 "Marvel Special Edition Featuring Star Wars" (a.k.a. Star Wars Treasury #1); this being a large-format (10x13 inch) reprinting of issues #1-3 of the original comic book, with art by Howard Chaykin, and retelling the movie up to the point just before the trash-compactor scene. (Therefore, by necessity, this has to be my one-and-only post on the subject.)

A few things I've always found intriguing about this, and that greatly influenced my understanding of the original movie. To begin with, the use of narrative captions frequently gives a different, more-literary texture to many of the scenes. For example, Princess Leia is routinely referenced in the captions as "Princess/Senator Leia", which has a whole different feel. Similarly, here's the lightsabre fight in the cantina:

Perhaps more striking is the fact that the comic production was based a very early edit of the movie, and therefore includes several "lost scenes" in their entirety, of which footage still exists, but has never been included in released versions of the movie. Here are early scenes between Luke and Biggs, intercut around the opening spaceship fight, which set up (a) Luke's later argument with Uncle Owen, and (b) Biggs' appearance near the end of the film. (I used to be very weirded out watching the actual movie and missing these scenes!)

On the same general point, and certainly more jarring to modern eyes, you also get Han negotiating with a skinny, green, humanoid Jabba is his pre-"the Hut" form. As I recall, in the original footage this character is played by a human in bulky furs, and it was pasted back into versions within the last decade with an updated, CGI Jabba the Hut:

There are some nice uses of the large-format comic. For example, this 10x13" splash page has always exemplified my understanding of the scale of the Death Star:

So I guess that's about it, the rest more-or-less follows a pretty close replication of shots from the actual Star Wars move.

... Oh yeah, one more thing: Han shot first.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rules for Exposure

Classic D&D (OD&D/AD&D) somewhat oddly lacked any core rules for exposure to environmental factors such air, heat, and food. Here's my offering for the shortest possible rules to handle those situations; justification and analysis comes afterward. The text between the horizontal rules is designated as Open Game Content.

Rules for Exposure

Characters lacking certain physical necessities accrue 1d6 damage per time unit, as outlined below:
  • No Air: 1d6 per minute.
  • No Shelter: 1d6 per hour. *
  • No Water: 1d6 per day.
  • No Food: 1d6 per week.
* Assumes exposure to extreme temperatures, either below -20°F (-30°C) or above +90°F (+30°C).

There is no saving throw for this damage, and it cannot be healed by "cure wounds" magic. Once hit points are lost, a character suffers a -2 fatigue penalty to hit and AC. When the exposure condition ends, hit points are regained at the same rate they were reduced (1d6 per appropriate time unit). This rule should only be applied at an equivalent game time-unit; for example, if wilderness maps and action are scaled to 1 turn = 1 day, then a "no water" condition may be assessed, but travel under a "no air" or "no shelter" condition results in automatic death!

Justification for the Rule

First of all, one might meditate on the oddity that classic D&D lacked any rules for exposure factors, considering how closely and explicitly OD&D was interconnected to the Outdoor Survival game, that being nothing but a simulation of the effects of lacking water and food for a traveler in the wilderness (hopefully, more on that later).

If we do take Outdoor Survival as an example for rules of this nature, then we might think seriously about making a "death track" for each character, which realistically accelerates the degradation effect over time. However, in this author's opinion, nonlinear effects such as those are fundamentally outside the D&D idiom, and should be avoided. For example, it would short-circuit the supernatural endurance of high-level D&D characters (as modeled by hit points), and it would require a new tracking record at the table for every PC and NPC in a party (and beast of burden?) when these rules come into effect, which is undesirable.

Many other attempts have been made to model environmental and exposure effects in later editions of D&D, such as in various Dragon articles, boxed settings (such as the World of Greyhawk), 3rd Edition D&D, etc. (and also by myself, as well). Most of these are moderately complicated and fail the desired criteria of being (a) simple and resolvable by memory, (b) tied into the core D&D mechanic of level-based hit points, and (c) fixed to a sensible game-turn sequence (for example, most rules for weather are applied per-hour, which is then out-of-synch with the standard wilderness turn made per-day, as noted above). In regards to this last consideration, most likely none of those later sources would countenance the "automatic death" clause seen above, but this author considers it to be necessarily game-playable and tastefully old-school.

Thus, for inspiration I've turned to the outdoorsman's elegant "Rule of Three" (quoting Wikipedia):
  1. Humans cannot survive more than three hours exposed to extremely high or low temperatures, unless individual is using proper gear to cope with heat/cold.
  2. Humans cannot survive more than 3 days without water.
  3. Humans cannot survive more than three weeks without food.
Therefore, it occurred to me to simply assess damage at the same time-units as indicated above, which generally results in hit points being zeroed out for any introductory character (levels 1-3) in about 3 turns, as indicated. Note that the "no air" assessment during combat may differ significantly based on whether you play with 1 round = 1 minute (i.e., once per round), 1 round = 10 seconds (i.e., once every 6 rounds), or something else. The -2 "fatigue penalty" is in line with Chainmail (p. 11).

Now, some possible criticisms or rule alternatives. First, you might consider delaying any damage assessment until 2 turns have elapsed, based on the "Rule of Three" (thus ensuring that even 1HD creatures retain hit points until 3 turns have gone by). This I would recommend against for the following reasons: (1) It introduces an additional record-keeping requirement (instead of using hit points as the entire count of record). (2) We assume the capacity for full activity during the effect, which is a mitigating factor. (3) Wilderness adventures are generally intended for higher-level characters anyway. (4) Most of us don't play with death at exactly 0 hit points, using some other mechanic for a while thereafter. And (5) a large proportion of even 1HD creatures will survive at least 2 turns even with the existing mechanic (see here).

Secondly, you might consider giving a saving throw against the damage (perhaps half-damage with a save vs. paralysis or dragon breath), which I would personally decline because: (1) This again seems outside the D&D idiom if we look to something like "falling damage" as a model (generally a linear 1d6 per 10 feet fallen, with no save -- noting some alternate suggestions in the past). (2) The advantage would be effectively geometric for higher-level characters (with both greater hit points and saves; something like an O(n^2) effect), allowing them to survive not only significantly longer, but for truly outrageous amounts of time. And (3) you'd have the logistical irritation of needing to roll a save for every PC/NPC/creature in the party over and over again for small amounts of damage, in every turn that the assessment is made.

Therefore, I think the rule above has a lot to commend for itself in terms of elegance, simplicity, and playability.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Surprise is a bit of a funny rule -- One wonders exactly what occurred to Gygax/Arneson to require the 2-in-6 chance for any side to be surprised as combat commences. For example, is it reasonable for an adventuring party, armed to the teeth and invading a particular location, to be surprised one-third of the time they smash down a particular door that an enemy is within? I suppose (a) it's at least balanced on both sides, and (b) it's more legitimate in the context of a mostly-empty dungeon as per OD&D.

Here's an interesting and significant difference between the OD&D and AD&D rules for surprise. In each case, the chance is a base 2-in-6 per party, and short-circuited by warning signals such as light, noise, and (notably) ESP. The effect of surprise differs, however. In OD&D:
Surprise gives the advantage of a free move segment, whether to flee, cast a spell, or engage in combat. If monsters gain surprise they will either close the distance between themselves and the character(s) (unless they are intelligent and their prey is obviously too strong to attack) or attack. For example, a Wyvern surprises a party of four characters when they round a corner into a large open area. It attacks as it is within striking distance as indicated by the surprise distance determination which was a 2, indicating distance between them was but 10 feet... The Wyvern may attack once again before the adventurers strike back. [OD&D Vol-3, p. 9-20]
So the effect here is to give one ("a free move segment") advance round of action. In addition, the monster gets a second attack routine ("may attack once again"). This latter clause requires some interpretation; personally, I interpret it as giving automatic first initiative in the subsequent normal round of combat. This makes a lot of sense, otherwise surprise basically degenerates to the same as simple first initiative, anyway. Here's the rather different effect in AD&D:
Each 1 of surprise equals 1 segment (six seconds) of time lost to the surprised party, and during the lost time the surprising party can freely act to escape or attack or whatever. If both parties are surprised, then the effect is negated or reduced... Example: Party A is surprised only on a roll of 1, but party B surprises on 5 in 6 (d6, 1-5) due to its nature or the particular set of circumstances which the DM has noted are applicable to this encounter... Assume A rolls a 4, so it is surprised for 4 segments... [AD&D DMG, p. 61-62]
So here, the primary alteration is the allowance for surprise chances to vary, possibly as high as 5-in-6 or more (see: Spider, Huge), and for each "pip" of the surprise die to indicate an additional free round for the attacker. As the example above indicates, this could result in as many as 4 or 5 free rounds of attack from certain kinds of monsters, without any return action from the PCs! This always seemed overwhelmingly lethal to me, and it's one thing I could never broach applying in actual play (sometimes fudging dice when I was in my younger, OCD ur-text mode). An additional subtlety pops up in the example of melee:
As party B is surprised for 2 segments, party A has a chance to hit in each segment as if they were full rounds (this does not apply to spell use, of course)... [This resolved:] Now initiative dice are rolled, and party A's score is lower, so party B gets to react to the assault. [AD&D DMG p. 71]
As opposed to OD&D, the surprising party does not get automatic initiative after the surprise is over; they must dice for it, and either party might take the next action at that point. In play this seems clunky to me, as it puts the brakes on the action/pacing, and forces me to think about the effect of who goes next. It also has greater variation, since now a surprising party might get as many 6 unanswered actions in its favor.

This is also related to the difference in initiative systems between OD&D and AD&D: (a) OD&D refers back to Chainmail with its roll-initiative-once, then cycle-between-parties approach, while (b) AD&D rolls dice at the start of each and every round to see which party goes first, thereby creating lots of back-to-back doubled actions by certain parties.

Considering the marked distinctions between the games, I find that my preference is (no surprise!) for the OD&D rule, which is - as usual - more straightforward, easier to remember and apply, and has less fiddly game-breaking variation available to it. Similarly, I use the sensibility of the OD&D/Chainmail/Swords & Spells initiative system where the action simply cycles back and forth between parties (in my case, in order around the table) after the initial determination.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Expected Treasure Value

Quick calculation of expected values of treasure in OD&D's dungeon treasure tables:

Calculations include the possibility of increasing gem values with secondary rolls. Click to see 2nd page with those expected-value calculations: gems base 233.5, gems total 500.78, jewelry 3,410 per piece. (Of course, in my game I now divide coin treasures by 10 and interpret all costs and gem/jewelry values in silver pieces; thus, purchasing power and XP remain exactly the same.)

Observation: The treasure troves generated by these tables are very "right-skewed" (many low-value treasures, few extremely large-value treasures) in the sense that the majority of the expected value comes from the pricey jewelry that only rarely shows up in the treasure. For example, at level 1 there's a 95% chance for no jewelry, and in that case an expected treasure value of only 141 gp -- but 5% of treasures do have 1-6 pieces of jewelry, and these will have an expected treasure value of 12,076 gp each! (Thus, we can expect the median values to be much less than the mean/expected values shown above, the calculation of which is left as an exercise to the reader.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Very Short D&D Story

So I've doing some playtests with solo dungeon generation, etc. Very high body count. I've revised encounter tables to iron some stuff out, I've exchanged most of the Appendix A elevator rooms for simple falling bars, etc., etc. Now I decide to bump up the solo PC level to 5th and see if we can at least clear out a 1st-level dungeon. I roll up a beauty of a character:

Garrick, Dwarven Fighter Level 5 (Lawful). S16, I15, W11, D18, C13, X15. Magic: Sword +1, +3 vs. trolls, Potion of Fire Resistance (3 doses), Displacer Cloak. Thus: AC -2, MV 9", hp 23, Atks Sword, magic +8 (1d8+3) or Spear, thrown +7 (1d6), Spec Infravision 60', Resist Magic +4, Rapid Strike feat (x2 melee atks), Cloak gives +2 to targeted saves, etc.

This, I'm thinking, is finally the ticket. Garrick & me should easily clear out a full level (via DMG Appendix A) and then consider any balancing issues for parts that were too easy (I mean, no 1st-level monsters can even hit him normally).

After the entrance, the first room is a big triangle with 1 orc. Obviously, he goes down quickly: collect 1 piece of jewelry & 100 sp. Leaving that room, we roll 19 on Table-I (Trick/Trap), and then a 20 on Table-VII (Chute down 1 level, cannot be ascended in any manner). So after all the safety bumpers installed around "Elevator Rooms", we've still stumbled into a down-one-level trap. Well, so be it.

I'm thinking maybe Garrick's got the goods to recover from a lost dungeon level. Room #1 on the new level: Bars fall blocking access to chute behind. (Well, at least that replaced another lost level from an elevator room.) Room #2: Huge spider with only 2hp, killed by opening spear-throw. (Treasure: 200 sp, 20 pp). Room #3: Monster with treasure indicated.

Roll for monster level: "6" on d6, indicating a 4th-level monster. Monster roll: "8" on d10, indicating a Giant Scorpion. Surprise roll: Garrick 2, Scorpion 4; so scorpion gets 2 actions before Garrick. Distance roll: "1" on d6, indicating 5-foot distance, so scorpion can immediately melee. Due to excellent AC, scorpion needs 17 or more with claw/claw/sting routine. Rolls are: 8, 14, 19. Stinger hits for 2hp, Garrick needs to save vs. Poison: Roll is a "2".

So the sterling Garrick is dead from scorpion poison after 4 explored rooms and just 3 total rounds in combat. Elapsed play time is about 10 minutes. That's D&D, folks.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Wall Sizes

Occasionally you hear a complaint that old-school maps of the earliest Gygaxian persuasion (like, here) are unrealistic because the walls don't have any width to them. But to my amateur eye, looking at some historical castle maps, it seems like interior castle walls tend to be about 2-3 feet thick or so. So a simple line between grid spaces could be taken as symbolizing a wall of this nature, right? And if you were modeling actual ruined-castle style structures, it would in fact be more realistic to have your dungeon set up in this style, right? And also it would be thick enough stone to make the AD&D gimmick of tapping on walls for hollow spaces not work, correct?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Elevator Deaths

Early D&D play seemed to be possibly more about exploration/ navigation than fighting monsters. Consider the OD&D "Sample Map of Underworld Level" (Vol-3, p. 4-5). Of the several keyed locations, there seem to be only 4 monsters (and addressed in throwaway parenthetical terms, such as "...let us suppose a basilisk"). Meanwhile, there are something like 15 different navigational tricks such as sloping passages, shifting rooms, transporters, false stairs, etc., all of which send players to some other location against their will and block their return. The list of Tricks and Traps on p. 6 is similar: 7 of 10 tricks there function in some way by sending and trapping players in another part of the dungeon.

While fun to think about, you have to be careful with this kind of stuff and use it in moderation, particularly with traps that send players unwillingly to a lower level. Obviously, this has two major risks associated with it: (1) It increases the danger level of the monsters encountered from what the players had originally planned for (by about a doubling factor per level, in my rough estimation of the OD&D monster ecology), and (2) It simultaneously makes retreat and recuperation impossible until players discover some previously unknown access up and out of the level in question. (You could almost argue that a trap sending players up would make for better game balance; or perhaps the drop-downs are better suited for a reversed tower-of-death, perhaps.)

Interestingly, with some playtests of DMG Appendix A I find that the vast majority of deaths (in fact, practically all of them) are predicated on being caught in one of the several "Elevator Rooms", shunted to a lower level, and unable to ascend again before attrition and some powerful monsters take their toll. Note that unwilling, irrecoverable descent trickery composes 20% (4 of 20) of both Tables VI and VII (Stairs and Trick/Traps); and compounding this is the fact that there are relatively few entries with possibly ascending stairs. (Consider also the trio of traps in the old Dungeon! boardgame with the same function, and similar great difficulty.) I now recommend replacing some of those "Elevator Room" entries in Appendix A with other, less completely fatal trap possibilities (for me now: 5-in-6 get replaced by "Passage behind blocked by falling bars"). In your hand-crafted dungeons, you should probably pre-plan exactly how close players will be to a way back out after any transport-to-a-lower-level trap, or else you may be creating what's effectively a deathtrap without realizing it.

T. Foster also recently pointed out that the earliest version of the Dungeon Geomorphs product included the recommendation from Gygax that "Slanting passages, teleportation areas, slides, and the like should be added sparingly thereafter -- one or two such items per level is a fair guideline" (although the latter clause was edited out in later versions). That seems like good advice from learned experience, and bolsters the need to update Appendix A -- by default, I seem to get around 3 or so of these tricks per page of 34x43 graph paper, and that's not even with rooms nearly as densely tiled as in the Geomorphs product.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Indoor Missile Ballistics

I wrote a bit about missile ballistics previously. Part of that discussion is predicated on the observations that (a) the move and range statistics given in Chainmail show signs of excellent research, and are very historically accurate, but (b) the transition in OD&D from outdoors-to-indoor via a simple yards-to-feet conversion (and no time scale conversion at all) was pretty much not thought out at all. Here's a bit more on that.

If we take the original Chainmail maximum ranges for missiles as a starting point (assuming base level of historical accuracy), in each case we can use some ballistics calculations to back-calculate the launch speed of the missile in question. Then we can use that value to calculate the indoor range of the missile, under different ceiling heights. Consider the following results:

Tools and Assumptions
  • I used the "Ballistic Trajectory Calculator" by Stephen R. Schmitt to compute outdoor launch speeds, the greatest possible angle for a given ceiling height, and the resulting maximum ranges.
  • Maximum outdoor range is automatically given by a 45-degree shot, but with a limited ceiling overhead the maximum possible launch angle (to avoid hitting the ceiling) is usually between 5 and 20 degrees or so.
  • Distances have been crudely converted using a simple 1 meter = 1 yard = 3 feet assumption. Resulting ranges in inches have been rounded to the nearest multiple of 3, the same as in classic D&D.
  • We presume Earth-like gravity (9.8 m/sec^2) and an initial launch height of about a normal man's shoulder (1.5m).
  • The "Thrown" category includes spears, hand axes, daggers, etc. The "Crossbow" has the same range parameters as a Composite Bow.
Results and Analysis

Obviously, the range of the maximum possible shot indoors is dependent on the ceiling height; a higher ceiling allows for a longer potential shot. Also, the effect on different missiles is not linear; that is, the more powerful weapons suffer more than the lighter weapons. The overall effect is to "bunch up" the ranges of the weapons closer together, minimizing differences.

An interesting data point to look at is under the 10' ceiling, played with the "old school" game scale of 1"=10'. It turns out that the Shortbow has exactly the same game range as we started with; it's 15" in both Chainmail and our ballistics-accurate indoor conversion. However, Thrown weapons are not as hamstrung by the low ceiling, and in fact their in-game range has doubled to 6". Meanwhile, a weapon like the Heavy Crossbow is relatively more disadvantaged, with a resulting game range of 18" (a quarter less than its Chainmail range of 24").

Note that Thrown weapons outdoors actually have a maximum-shot height of only 8.8 meters (27 feet) -- so as soon as the indoor ceiling height reaches something above 20 feet, they can effectively achieve the maximum-possible shot range of 90 feet (30 yards/meters), the same as outdoors.

Suggestions and Options

What to do with this? Here are several different options for using this in your D&D game:
  1. One option is to use the tables above directly in your game for indoor missile fire. That may be overly complicated, however, and unnecessary: ranged combat will usually be much more limited by room size or extent of lighting.
  2. If you actually game at an "old school" scale of 1"=10 feet, then you can use the standard Chainmail ranges in inches and you'll be pretty close to the physically realistic results above (however, see below).
  3. Assuming a "new school" game scale of 1"= 5 feet, you might take the classic game ranges for bows and just double them (giving max ranges like 30/36/42/48 inches); thrown weapons quadruple (to 12"). This is pretty close to the ranges shown above for a 10' ceiling, but it's still pretty complicated, and is overly generous to the more powerful weapon types.
  4. We might approximate the different bows as being practically of equal range in a typical 10' high corridor or room. For example, stipulate that every type of bow has a 30" range indoors (150 ft); again, thrown weapons travel 12" (60 feet). That's probably close enough to our improved-accuracy model.
  5. Or, you might choose to basically dodge the whole issue, saying that additional obstruction issues reduce ranges back to the Chainmail givens of 15/18/21/24 inches (again, thinking 1"=5 feet here); lighting will probably always be less than that anyway, and we thereby keep the same balance with other movement/spell/special abilities in the game. Nevertheless, I'd strongly recommend increasing the thrown weapons range to either 6" or 12", depending on your taste in the matter.
  6. Whichever option you pick above, it's pretty easy to account for different ceiling heights (if you want to). Take a 10' ceiling as your base. For a 20' ceiling add +50% to the chosen ranges. For a 40' ceiling, double the listed ranges. Regardless, thrown weapons can't ever travel more than 90 feet (the maximum outdoor range, effectively achieved with a 20 foot ceiling).
At the moment, for simplicity I'm going with suggestion #5 above (range in inches as in classic Chainmail, except for thrown weapons which can be hurled 12" indoors, i.e., 60 feet). If anyone uses a more sophisticated option, I'd be delighted to hear how it works out.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Wandering Monster Summary

So, I actually spent, like, the last 5 blog posts or so considering issues springing out of OD&D's Underworld Wandering Monster tables (Vol-3, p. 10-11), considering these as a presentation of a "basic" D&D monster ecology, and a comprehensive presentation of all the most common hostile monsters in the game. Here's some final thoughts:

First, it's pretty freaking cool. The different levels of OD&D monsters are fairly well balanced in both overall power (Hit Dice) and nicely scaling up the perceived frequency of exotic special abilities (poison, paralysis, spells, etc.) They're mostly all recognizable to the new or casual player, leaving crazy "wahoo" new monsters for later editions (and by necessity, special hand-placement by the DM); I think that's a good thing.

Secondly, it's specialized for one particular game campaign/setting (Castle Greyhawk, with its idiosyncratic Giant Hogs, Weasels, White Apes, Thouls, etc.), and you really should customize these tables if you use them elsewhere. The tables are so short and simple that it's really super-easy to do this customization. In comparison, I think the attempt in AD&D to create more expansive tables incorporating every one of a much larger encyclopedia of possible creatures is really a failed experiment. (Other examples of AD&D's frustrating project to generalize and disconnect rules from any specific setting/referent: Disease, Outdoor Movement.)

Finally, speaking as one of the rare gamers who received a copy of the old blue Basic D&D set tabula rasa (i.e., no contact with any older gaming community, always the initial point of contact for the game in my neighborhood using the official written text only), it's something of a shame that the original 1974 edition, with all of its intimacy and call to customization, underwent an effective "cover up" by TSR in the AD&D period. Literally not knowing what it was for many years, it's now definitely my favorite and most immediate version of the game.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Missing Monsters

So here's a bit about the monsters that appear in the OD&D Wandering Monster lists, but don't actually have explicit statistics given in those rules. A rundown by category, from most common to least:

Giant Animals. We're all familiar with these. Things listed as "Giant X" where X is some normal animal type include: Rats, Hogs, Ants, Snakes, Weasels, Beetles, and Scorpions. Most of these are in monster levels 3 or 4 (although Giant Rats are level 1). All of these have some analogous entry in the AD&D Monster Manual, so post-1977 you could use that resource to fill things in (recognizing that some monsters got boosted in the OD&D --> AD&D switch; see the last post). But what would the DM do running with just OD&D itself? Some guidelines in Vol-2:
LARGE INSECTS OR ANIMALS: This category includes giant ants and prehistoric monsters. Armor Class can be anything from 8 to 2. Hit Dice should range from 2 to anywhere near 20, let us say, for a Tyrannasaurus Rex. Also included in this group are the optionally usable "Martian" animals such as Apts, Banths, Thoats, etc. If the referee is not personally familiar with the various monsters included in this category the participants of the campaign can be polled to decide all characteristics. Damage caused by hits should range between 2-4 dice (2-24 points). [OD&D Vol-2, p. 20]
A few comments here: Taken literally, the rule in the text above (min 2HD) would make for really heavyweight Giant Rats, which are of course level 1 and given only 1/2 hit die in AD&D. Note also that the damage parameters are rather terrifying -- in OD&D, 2 dice is the same as a Hill Giant, while 3-4 dice is the same as a double- or triple-size Purple Worm (i.e., Sea Monster). Personally, looking at the Wandering Monster charts, my first guess would have been to assign a number of Hit Dice according to whatever monster level is indicated -- and you'd be accurate to the AD&D Hit Dice (or one less) in each case.

Normal Animals. Oddly, there are a few animals pointedly listed without the "Giant" identifier. These are: Centipedes, Spiders (level 1 each), and Lizards (level 2). What to make of these? Obviously, in AD&D they're each listed as a Giant type with attacks like weak poison, but there's no indication of that in OD&D. They seem to be referenced in this entry from the monsters book:
INSECTS OR SMALL ANIMALS: These can be any of a huge variety of creatures such as wolves, centipedes, snakes and spiders. Any hit will kill the smaller, while larger beasts (such as wolves) will receive one Hit Die. Generally speaking they will be Armor Class 8. [OD&D Vol-2, p. 20]
So perhaps at one point the Centipedes and Spiders listed in OD&D effectively had just 1hp? Were we meant to intuit a poison attack, if anything? It's hard to tell here. (One other thing that I point out elsewhere is how ridiculously huge the 3HD Giant Lizard is in AD&D -- pretty much like every monster given a specific size in feet there -- 15' long, whereas all other monsters in OD&D from levels 1-4 are basically human-scaled.)

Thouls. So, Thouls are listed in the OD&D monster level 2 chart, but they were never given statistics in any OD&D or AD&D publication. Looking only there, I might think to give them 2HD (by level) and some abilities like Ghouls (of whom they seem cognate, and they come immediately prior to in the encounter table). Of course, Moldvay Basic D&D later gave them 3HD, paralysis, regeneration like a troll, and the appearance of a hobgoblin. Perhaps more interestingly, we have evidence that the original Greyhawk Castle notes show the monster with 4HD and similar abilities -- which would make it distressingly powerful compared to other creatures on the level 2 list. (This information from Gygax, via Gene Weigel, via T. Foster over at the Dragonsfoot boards.)

White Apes. These occur in the level 4 listing. Granted all the "John Carter from Mars" references, it's pretty obvious that these refer to the White Apes of Barsoom, who appear alongside such types as Apts, Banths, etc. (mentioned in the first quote above). These are huge, 4-armed, semi-intelligent gorillas lacking any direct statistics in D&D. I assume that AD&D's "Ape, Carnivorous" (5HD) is the replacement here, although it only has standard limbs. 3E D&D has the "Girallon" monster which is quite obviously the White Ape under different trade dress (7HD, huge, white-furred, and 4-armed; stats here and picture here).

Other Considerations. The preceding account for all of the OD&D Wandering Monsters that lack statistics in that game. Here's a few other thoughts:

Let's say you think to replace the missing monster stats with stuff from the AD&D Monster Manual. You've got to be careful for a few reasons. First, note that some animals may not have been intended as "giant", but that's all you have available in the MM. Second (and related), note that some amount of Hit Die inflation occurred between OD&D and AD&D, and that might be true for the missing monsters as they appear in the MM. Third, you've got to make some decisions about exactly which AD&D monster of several sub-types should fill the slot (my suggestions, generally looking for appropriate Hit Dice and size: Spiders-->Large Spiders, Lizards-->Giant Lizard, Giant Hogs-->Wild Boar, Giant Beetles-->Boring Beetles, Giant Snakes-->Poisonous or Constrictor Snakes?) Fourth, and again related, some of these types will skew more dangerous than others on the same list (e.g., poisonous large spiders HD1+1 at level 1, giant lizards HD3+1 at level 2). In particular, using either of AD&D's Poisonous or Constrictor Giant Snakes at level 3 is really dangerous (respectively HD 4+2 or 6+1 by special attacks each; compare to Ogres listed at level 4 without any instant-death ability) -- I recommend a 3HD Constrictor type at that level.

One final peculiarity is that, for some reason, most of these types have damage entries listed in Sup-I Greyhawk, but are still missing the more basic stats (AC, MV, HD, etc.) To see this, remember that throughout OD&D, basic monster stats were in a separate table/location from attacks and damage (those being introduced in Sup-I -- and really this whole issue is what made the Monster Manual product so highly desirable and the first publication in the AD&D line). So if you look at the new, large Sup-I attacks/damage table, although they're all strung one-after-the-other in a single unified listing, you see three identifiable sections: 1st, all the original monsters from Vol-2 (Sup-I p. 16-18); 2nd, "missing monsters" of the type we discuss here (midway down p. 18); and 3rd, all the monsters being introduced elsewhere in Sup-I (p. 18-19).

Just looking for a moment at these orphaned damage entries, we see these types -- Giant (Sumatran) Rat, Wolf, Dire Wolf, Lion, Sabre-tooth Tiger, Giant Weasel, Mastodon, Giant Spider, Giant Lizard, Giant Toad, Giant Snake, Giant Crab, Giant Beetle, Giant Scorpion, Crocodile, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Note that the spider and lizard are now explicitly "Giant". While many of these damage stats match what you see in the Monster Manual, that's not the case for any of the monsters with multiple sub-types in AD&D, so you can't use that to synchronize them (e.g., snakes, spiders, beetles). For example, the entry for the Giant Snake indicates Attacks: 1 bite/1 constriction, Damage: 1-6 bite (poison noted), and 2-8/turn of constricting; now, if I allege above that the poisonous or constrictor snakes from AD&D are particularly scary, imagine an OD&D snake of the same hit dice that's both poisonous AND constricting. Holy smoke! (Recommend bumping that to a higher monster level if you use it.)

But irrespective of these Sup-I damage listings, there are still no basic stats anywhere in OD&D for our "missing monsters". Were they originally intended to be in Sup-I Greyhawk and got edited out at some point? Interesting to think about.