Monday, October 19, 2020

Damn You, Gygax! Part 4

Previously, I wrote a series of posts called "Damn You, Gygax!" on a theme: That in the transition from Original D&D to Advanced D&D (circa 1977-1979), Gygax stumbled several times in trying to make the system "fully abstract" (i.e., applicable to any world or milieu), thereby losing the flavor, specificity, visceralness, and game-mechanical utility of the original. 

That series had 3 parts, but was originally intended to have 4. The prior parts focused on:

  • Diseases switching from real-world named contagions, to packages of complicated symptoms and affected body parts. 
  • Ship movement switching from per-round tactical tabletop scales and points-of-sail (and specific numbers of crewmen), to units of miles-per-hour and stripped-out wind directions (as well as hazy broad ranges for crew). 
  • Overland movement switching from specific hexes-per-day on a recommended campaign map scale (with a clear rule for handling changes in terrain), to a more generalized miles-per-day which are not evenly divisible by any possible map scale (and no rule for handling the obvious case of covering multiple types in a day).

Now, eight years later, I'm at long-last filling in that final 4th part. Sometimes I get hugely delayed on important tasks, but I do generally keep track of them. My coming back to this is partly inspired by the always-excellent Justin Alexander of The Alexandrian blog, who wrote a series of posts on Twitter last week defending the wandering monster mechanic, like so:


I like that a lot; well put, as usual, Justin. However, I'll add a bit of a nuance: Arguably Gygax fell down on precisely that issue in the 1E AD&D core materials; such that if a player first became familiar with the game through those books, they might actually have a reasonable criticism about that. Digging into specifics:

Original D&D, Vol-3, Underworld & Wilderness Adventure (1974)

The initial tables for dungeon random encounters are fairly short, and look like this:


Here we see the first 4 monster level tables (out of 6) for Underworld adventures. These tables are reasonably sized: either 8 or 10 monsters listed per level. My primary point is this: These tables are specific the to the environment of Gary's Castle Greyhawk. It doesn't say that explicitly in the book, but if you compare the monsters on the Level 1 table to the first level key of Castle Greyhawk (unearthed and analyzed here earlier this year), you'll see that it's all precisely the same monsters. If they're on the wandering table, it's because they have a lair or nest on that level, and vice-versa. Every random encounter indeed gives a clue as to what the nearby lairs are about. And we know from other verbal sources that lairs and themes of other levels likewise matched the distribution of monsters on the other tables seen here. Every possible random encounters is a synthetic reflection and communication of the environment around you.

Advanced D&D, Dungeon Masters Guide (1979)

As the game expands and new monster listings expand between 1974 and 1979, Gary makes the mistake of expanding the wandering monster tables in the core rulebook to make sure that they include every monster in the game. Here are two (the Level I and Level VII lists):

 

That's, um... a lot of monsters. Frankly, way too many. (Instead of 8-12 types per table in OD&D Vol-3, we see 20-40+ listings in these tables, not counting the subtype tables). It's too many to build any cohesive theme or tone around, way too many to place lairs for all of them on the densest dungeon map I've ever seen. Every type and subtype of men, demons, devils, otyughs, and dragons (the types there likewise doubled from OD&D) are included. 

The fundamental problem here is that the random monster tables have become disconnected from any specific adventuring environment, such as Castle Greyhawk. Rather, the tables' primary function has become an encyclopedic index to list every monster in the game (and also indicate their power level). Encountering a particular monster from these tables likely tells you nothing about the ecosystem around you; there's no reason to think an associated lair exists, and chances are basically negligible that you'll ever meet the same type a second time (so no preparation or strategic response will help you). If you were adventuring with these tables in use for wandering monsters, actually, yeah -- there would seem to be no rhyme nor reason to what was happening. 

This is sort of a classic, even understandable, misstep which leads to design "bloat". You're only adding a few extra monsters at each step (e.g., OD&D Vol-3, then OD&D Supplement-I Greyhawk, followed by Supplement-III Eldritch Wizardry, then here in 1E AD&D DMG; each publication expanded the tables a little bit). What are you going to do today, paste in a few more monsters to your tables, or overhaul the entire system you've got going on? Most days and workplaces, the answer will be the former. Without tasteful editorial oversight, you get the "bloat" and loss of effective functionality.

Of course, that's just the story for the dungeon encounters; an identical story runs through the wilderness encounters. In OD&D Vol-3 they're pretty reasonable in size (like the dungeon tables, they take up just 2 digest-size pages in the book). In the AD&D DMG, every climactic zone and terrain type on Earth gets its own table with every imaginable animal and monster listed in them -- often a whole standard-size page is needed for a single table (the whole runs over 8 pages, not counting the tables for cities, castles, ethereal/astral planes, etc.) The table for Tropical areas alone has over 50 entries.

Furthermore, this bloat problem continued even further in the follow-up AD&D monster book of the Fiend Folio. Still committed to this same creaking design idiom, the authors were compelled to present all brand-new encounter tables for every dungeon level and wilderness area, again including every single monster in the entire further-expanded game. Now every single dungeon-level table requires a whole standard-sized page to fit it (e.g., the Level VII table has over 60 entries in it, plus follow-up dragon and sphinx subtables). Likewise the mammoth wilderness tables go for more and more pages. Over 15% of the whole book's page count is just the wandering monster tables, basically without any rhyme or reason. Just: Everything in the entire world, here in one place.

Advanced D&D, Monster Manual II (1983)

Now, I'll come back around and finish by giving Gygax some praise in the end: ultimately he did see the problem with this design path and made a course-correction in the Monster Manual II (this being a short 2 years before he departed TSR). Here, the new tables at the back of the book are, for the first time, cut down to a more manageable size. 



The mechanic used in all the tables here is a somewhat oddball method of 1d8 + 1d12, such that a range of 2-20 is generated (19 monsters in every list), with a "flat spot of equal probability in the 9-13 range" (as he writes), and bell-like tapering of chances down at the extremes. As usual, tables are presented for every dungeon level (I to X), outdoor climate types, aquatic zones, etc. Many iconic monsters are left out entirely (note the weirdly exotic population in the tables above); and there are no subtype tables (other than for character parties). The whole system matrix, underworld and wilderness, takes only 6 pages in the book (admittedly in a very small font, and with no art). 

More interesting is that following this is a section on, "Creating Your Own Random Encounter Tables" which explicates the mechanic and encourages the DM to make their own customized tables for specific adventure locations, as follows:

Two example are given: both wilderness tables ("Elven Forest", and "Spider Woods"), but clearly this system is meant to be used for customized dungeon areas, as well (otherwise, for example, no Giant other than the Hill variety can possibly appear in the game, etc., etc.). This is followed by 18 pages of teeny-tiny font listings of every monster indexed by every possible dungeon level, frequency class, climactic range, degree of civilization, etc. Clearly DMs are expected to pick from these (non-dice-indexed) master tables to populate their own d8 + d12 encounter tables. Finally, Gygax has written, "DMs are encouraged to tailor their encounters to their own worlds in a similar fashion".

With benefit of hindsight, is this a patently obvious thing for a DM to do? Perhaps. But it took almost the entire first decade of the game before anyone thought to write it in a rulebook. When someone picks up one of these big rulebooks, particularly as a child or teenager new to the game, one generally assumes that the structures defined in them give a reasonable play experience out-of-the-box. (If not, then exactly what are they for?) Even here, I'd opine that the d8 + d12 tables are too long at 19 monsters; as few as around seven things will likely fill up one's memory space (compare again to the OD&D tables at the top). So, I'd be happy with 2d6 or even 1d6 monster tables in my dungeons (compare to classic AD&D modules: the G1-3 and D1 series all have 1d3 or 1d4 tables; T1 and D2 have 1d6 and 1d8 tables; table size expands in later modules, etc.)

Even though Gygax finally saw the light and offered an explicit mechanic and advice for designing tables specific to a DMs' own campaign areas, I would argue -- at that point the damage had been done. Too many young people had picked up the books in the 1975-1983 era, used them as written by default, and had long series of wandering encounters that were confusing and disconnected from the adventuring environment they found themselves in. I think it's that play experience that gave random, wandering encounters a rotten smell that's lingered to this day. Anyway, that's my thesis: a whole lot of genius in those books, and also a large number of decadent semi-broken systems when Gygax tried to overly-abstract AD&D to make it the everything-game.

Phew! That was a bunch of stuff. I knew that was going to be a long one, which is why I've been trepidatious to write it lo, these many years. Big thanks to J. Alexander for kicking me back into action with a great observation on how wandering monsters definitely ought to be used, in synthesis with the immediate, specific adventuring locale. 


Monday, October 12, 2020

Marvel FASERIP: Thor's Power Stunts

Last time we took a look at the Advanced Marvel FASERIP (1986) rules with its novel "Power Stunts" rule. In brief: a character can expand their super-powers in creative ways by spending Karma and making a FEAT roll; and this roll gets easier the more times they try it. In particular, the rule calls out the fact that published examples of Power Stunts in Marvel comics count for canon characters -- and therefore, the more knowledge a player is in the lore of their favorite character, the more functionally powerful that character is at the table. From the book:

If you are playing an established Marvel Super Hero, the question of whether he has done this stunt before or not is determined from the Marvel Comics themselves. Each time you can spot him using this particular stunt, that counts as one time.

In the last post I wrote, "Surely only an insane player could be expected to actually go track down every researched use of super-powers that a long-running character has ever made." On that note, here's a complete accounting of power uses for my favorite Marvel character, Thor, from the first decade of his comic's publication -- which is to say, issues #83-195 (1962-1972), that is, all of the classic Lee/Kirby era, into the switch of John Buscema as artist, as collected in Marvel Essentials Thor Vol. 1-4. (ODS version here.)

Commentary:

  • Color-coding above follows the rule for FEAT level from the book: stunts tried 1-3 times require a Yellow FEAT, those tried 4-10 times take Green FEAT, and those tried more than require no FEAT at all (in this list: only making wind & rain, and the lifting vortex-tornado attack form). 
  • Recall that the book rule uniquely calls out weather control powers as being intimately tied to the Power Stunt rule (perhaps the author was trying to rein in the powers of Thor specifically?), so if it ever matters for any character to make this survey, it seems most important in this case. 
  • There were a very small number of cases where Thor used the same "stunt" twice in a single issue of the comic. For simplicity, I only ever documented one case of a stunt per issue. 
  • The majority of this run has Stan Lee listed as writer, and Jack Kirby as artist, with occasional fill-ins by other artists. Notably, early issues #90-96 mostly have art by Joe Sinnot. Kirby's last issue is #179 (out-of-order with issue #178; delay or dispute in production?), #180-181 by Neal Adams, and then John Buscema from #182 on. Similarly, with issue #193 Lee's credit switches from Writer (et. al.) to Editor (or the like), with Gerry Conway as writer. Note that the tone and pacing changes considerably when Kirby leaves, even with Lee credited as writer throughout, giving evidence that the artist was greatly involved in plotting in the Marvel Method.
  • On that shift in tone, Thor's most prominent powers shift a bit. For example, up until issue #180, the "Lifting vortex-tornado" power is actually the most frequent ability seen, beating out even the "Make wind and rain" power. After Buscema becomes artist, that latter power gets used much more frequently, and it then takes the lead.
  • Likewise, there’s a change in the aspect of energy-blasts directed from the hammer. In issues #104, 114, and 156 it’s clearly a lightning-blast (so described and shown as jagged stroke). Then in #164-165 it becomes a single straight-line force blast, even though Thor in #165 describes this as “The fury of the thunder... the carnage of the storm... !!” From that point on, the attack always looks like a straightforward force-blast, and it gets used quite a bit more frequently thereafter (again, into the Buscema transition). I actually considered distinguishing these powers, but the verbal description in #165 convinced me to count them together.
  • Some of the powers which the FASERIP rules indicate as core powers of Thor are actually not  used very much in this run. For example: In most of the run, the power of Dimensional Travel is limited to Thor transporting himself from Earth to the Rainbow Bridge, with Odin being the who sends him back to Earth when necessary. Shooting the lightning-blast from the hammer only happens 3 times in the first 70 issues (becoming more common later, although the form changes, as noted above). Calling lightning from the skies only happens 3 times in the decade. Spinning the hammer in front of him as a shield likewise only happens 3 times -- far more common is for Thor to simply hold the invulnerable hammer fixed in front of him to ward off shooting attacks ("Parry projectiles", with 9 occurrences). 
  • A common trope is for Thor to battle a villain to a standstill throughout an issue, and then in the last few panels of the issue (on the last page) whip out some never-before-seen power that ends the battle. A deus ex malleo, if you will. The long list of powers used one single time, in the tail of the table above, is mostly evidence of this. (Was that also common for other Marvel comics at the time, or were they particularly prone to the "power stuntiness" of the divine magic hammer?)
  • Another thing that should be noted, and is not handled in the FASERIP rules, is the several instances of powers being canonically removed in the comics. For example, in Thor #282 (1979), Thor sacrifices the time-travel power of the hammer at the behest of Immortus, in order to save the world of Phantus. Later in Thor #340 (1984) the power/curse to transform into a mortal man is removed by Odin and transferred to Beta Ray Bill. (I think it's been returned and removed a few more times since then.) So this presents another pitfall in the FASERIP rule: a player could quote evidence of some particular power, and use that to their advantage at the table, while simply omitting the fact that it was known to have been removed at a later date. 
  • Again, the list above covers the 1962-1972 issues of Thor (originally Journey Into Mystery). A few other options for timeframe come to mind. Perhaps one could cut off the list around issue #180 for a purely classic Lee/Kirby presentation of the character. Or one could expand up to 1986 to when Jeff Grubb was writing those rules (about an additional decade-and-a-half), that is, close to the end of Walter Simonson's seminal run on the comic. Or one could try for an encyclopedic iteration up to the current day (another 35 years), and commit to adding more in the future. Also, one could look to crossover comics like the Avengers and add any other interesting power stunts that appear there. But that would certainly be beyond this writer's resources at this point!

Anything in the list here that was particularly surprising? Any critical things I missed? Don't try this at home.

Scheduling note: Don't forget that next Sunday on the Wandering DMs YouTube channel, we've scheduled Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP creator Jeff Grubb to be our live interview guest. That's Oct-18, 1 PM ET. Hopefully I'll sneak in a question about how comprehensively he expected players to be poring over their old comic books for their favorite characters' Power Stunts. Hope you'll join us as well and get your FASERIP questions in the live chat when he joins us!


Monday, October 5, 2020

Marvel FASERIP: Power Stunts

The Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Game (i.e., the 2nd edition of the FASERIP rules in 1986), by Jeff Grubb, has a novel rule called "Power Stunts". Basically, it gives a formal way to extend a character's super-powers by paying a fairly hefty amount of Karma (quasi-experience awards) for a chance to do some previously undefined ability. Here's what it says on its first appearance in the Advanced Players' Book (p. 16-17):

There are some cases when a hero may use a Power in a way it was not originally intended to carry out a certain task. These are known as Power Stunts.

For example, a character with the Speed Power suddenly decides to run in a circle very fast, creating a whirlwind. Or a character with Leaping Power decides to use his powerful leg muscles to disrupt the ground, knocking over an opponent. Or our example above, the wall-crawler decides to use his stick-to-it-ness to grapple a thief. These are Power Stunts. Certain Powers, such as weather elemental controls, almost entirely consist of these stunts.

The players will, without a doubt, come up with an innumerable amount of stunts for their Powers (and the Judge will be told how to decide if a Power Stunt is possible in his Judge’s Book). The basic question to be asked is: Has this hero done this sort of thing before?

If you are playing an established Marvel Super Hero, the question of whether he has done this stunt before or not is determined from the Marvel Comics themselves. Each time you can spot him using this particular stunt, that counts as one time. Example: In one issue of X-Men, Nightcrawler uses his power to make three quick teleports, behind three separate opponents. He does it again several issues later. This means he has pulled this Power Stunt twice.

If you are playing a hero of your own creation, or a hero that you have never seen perform this stunt, this means you have never performed it before. In either case, the Judge may say "no" to a stunt, it he feels it unbalances the character. The type of FEAT (made against the Power rank) needed to make a Power Stunt is determined by the number of times your character has tried it.

Never tried it — red FEAT roll
Tried it up to three times — yellow FEAT roll
Tried it more than three times — green FEAT roll

In addition, a character making a Power Stunt must lay out 100 Karma points to make the roll (in addition to any other Karma he may spend -- see Karma). Spending the Karma does not guarantee success; it only ensures that yes, the character can try the stunt. If the stunt is ruled impossible by the Judge, no Karma is spent.

If a player character has tried a stunt more then ten times, it is considered to be part of his or her bag of tricks for that Power, and a FEAT roll is not necessary to say if it is possible (this is similar to purchasing another Power in full, but allowing the player to use the Power as he is paying for it).
 

Now, some people love this rule to death, and consider it to be a way to unleash creativity in the use of one's super-powers in one's Marvel game. Admittedly it's pretty common in classic Marvel comics for a hero to pull out a surprising deus ex machina with a previously-unseen power in a tense fight (more on that below). And maybe for custom characters this is an okay way to advance the character. However, I'm a lot more ambivalent about this rule in terms of the established Marvel comic book characters -- which is the way that I've most often see the game being played, then and now.

First, it's extremely interesting that Grubb calls out one specific power in the game as being most intimately tied to this rule -- weather control, which will of course will affect my favorite character of Thor quite a lot (e.g., see our recent live plays on the Wandering DMs channel of MH-6 Thunder Over Jotunheim):

Certain Powers, such as weather elemental controls, almost entirely consist of these stunts.

Secondly, and far more critically, is the call to player recall of the published appearances of the classic Marvel Super Heroes character that you're playing. The more well-read you are in that character, the more functionally powerful he or she becomes at the table. In some cases, this could incite certain players to research the whole back-catalog of that character to gain as much advantage at the table as possible. And presumably the powers in question expand more as time of publication history moves forward in time. And also: How does the Referee confirm a certain fanboy's claims that their favorite character has done power stunt X 10+ times is actually accurate?

If you are playing an established Marvel Super Hero, the question of whether he has done this stunt before or not is determined from the Marvel Comics themselves. Each time you can spot him using this particular stunt, that counts as one time.

Surely only an insane player could be expected to actually go track down every researched use of super-powers that a long-running character has ever made. So perhaps this bifurcated rule was perhaps reasonable for custom characters, but I'd argue that it's highly problematic for pre-established Marvel characters (even though that use-case is the first one presented in the rules text above). 

I think that many old-school referees would be happy to adjudicate novel or creative uses of super-powers on an ad-hoc basis for reasonability, without the bookkeeping overhead of tracking how often a particular stunt has been used or appeared in publication. I know for myself I'd be a lot happier with a general of Karma payment + FEAT roll with difficulty based on judge's assessment of overall reasonability, without that documentary clause in the rule. 

Did you love or loathe the Advanced FASERIP Power Stunts rule? Did you actually apply, count, and document the number of times each power stunt was used?

Scheduling note: Over on the Wandering DMs YouTube channel, we're planning on having Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP creator Jeff Grubb as our guest in two weeks, on Sunday Oct-18 -- so I'm making a note to ask him how he feels about the Power Stunt rule these days. Hope you'll join us and get your burning questions in the live chat when he joins us!


Monday, September 21, 2020

Rescaling Wilderness Encounters

Went to design some D&D encounters, and once again got thinking about the balance of monsters in the wilderness. Recall the top of the monster table in OD&D Vol-2:

Here we see what we now call the "humanoids" (at the time, "giant-types"), and there's a vast difference in the numbers appearing between the 1-HD types and the types larger than that. Previously we looked at summary statistics for the OD&D wilderness encounter tables, and saw enormous variation; most specifically in the danger between those army-types versus the non-army types. Let's take another perspective: here's a frequency table of the average total EHDs (Equivalent Hit Dice) for every separate encounter listed in the OD&D wilderness encounter tables. 

Notice that the x-axis is roughly logarithmic, and that the results are bimodal: there's a big clump of encounters in the 20-50 EHD range, and a separate clump in the 200-500 range. Statistically this kind of bimodal distribution is often taken as a hint that something weird is going on, that you've mixed up two distinctly different populations in your data. In this case it's simply the difference between the army-types and the non-army-types in numbers. For monsters with maximum numbers of 100+, the average encounter EHD is about 200; for those maximum numbers below 100, the average encounter EHD is only about 40.

How might we resolve this? Personally, I'm not entirely sure who was ever in favor of these giant armies in wilderness encounters in the first place. Even Arneson in the First Fantasy Campaign complained about them, and looked for interpretations to reduce their numbers. Here are some proposed options:

  • Arneson in FFC has a system which asserts the full numbers appearing are for in-lair encounters only, and squads actually roaming in the wilderness outside be only 10-60% the lair numbers. On average that reduces numbers to about 1/3 listed.
  • If we compare the average total EHDs above (40 for small-numbers, 200 for large-numbers), then we could roughly balance them together by reducing the army-types to about 1/5 the numbers listed for wandering wilderness encounters.
  • If we look at the Moldvay-Cook B/X rules, we see what they did is reduce the numbers for humanoid types to about 1/7 the OD&D numbers. (Varying between 1/3 and 1/13 for the various types.) This is shown in the table below.


Hmmm, which solution to use? In particular with the Arneson FFC system, I've tossed this for a long time, and I've made myself something of a pariah in some circle for finding it simply infeasible on its face (his suggested system there is to actually pre-populate every hex of the campaign map with multiple encounters and play out interactions between them every campaign year). Aside from that, solely from the numbers we're looking at, two drawbacks I can identify: (a) I really, really don't want to have to make an additional roll and percent multiplication on top of all the other variegated rolls for every damned encounter (or even a simplified roll-and-divide-by-3 for every encounter), and (b) it reduces all wilderness types by a like amount, so the bimodal challenge for the numerous humanoids is not resolved. (Although in its favor, maybe there's some charm in only encountering a single dragon, chimera, gorgon, etc., in the wilderness, with batches reserved for lairs.) So that pivots us to look favorably, once again, at edits in the direction of the Moldvay-Cook rules.

A highly notable observation: The 1-HD types that appear in bulk-size in OD&D are precisely the types against which Fighting-Men get attacks as per their level (e.g., 10th level fighter gets 10 attacks per round against goblins)*. They are precisely the types against which magic such as charm person and hold person are effective. Many days now I think that it's this multiple-attack rule, present in OD&D/AD&D but missing from B/X, which marks the single biggest enormous mechanical difference between the two systems. It's possible that the wilderness army sizes in OD&D are scaled specifically to assume high-level fighters destroying 10 enemies every round of combat. I haven't specifically done the simulations needed to develop alternate EHDs under the fighter-many-attacks rule, but it's possible that alone would collapse the bimodal encounter curve down to a single well-balanced population. If we don't play with that as a universal, then we instead deserve a fairly radical reduction in humanoid numbers, as we see in B/X. 

You may be able to detect that a lot of this thought process springboards and echoes our two recent discussions on the Wandering DMs about the Action Economy and how many things one can do in a single round (with fighter-many-attacks being the biggest difference between editions). 

 

* Excepting Gnolls, but they too were 1-HD in the pre-publication draft of D&D, and then 2-HD afterward, so it's likely that their retention of army-sized numbers was an editing oversight.


Monday, August 31, 2020

Spells Through the Ages: Massmorph

Do you remember  the D&D spell, massmorph? Quite possibly not. A rather unique spell that I think highlights a few interesting aspects of the legacy D&D spell system. Let's recall:


Original D&D

Massmorph: This spell is used to conceal up to 100 men (or creatures of near man size) as a woods or orchards. The concealed figures may be moved through without being detected as anything other than trees, and it will not effect the spell. It will be negated by a command for the caster or by means of a Dispell Magic spell. Range: 24".

The massmorph spell first appears in OD&D, Vol-1 (1974), as a 4th-level magic-user spell. The effect is to transform a large body of men into trees, serving to disguise them, until such time as the caster switches the effect off. 

Here's part of why I think the spell is interesting. First, the effect is clearly meant to be used in the outdoors setting; having men appear as woods or an orchard would not serve as any kind of camouflage underground. Second, the range of 24" is the longest given in the game, likewise suggesting its expected use is wilderness-based. Third, it somewhat unusually specifies the exact number of men affected; 100, a large body indeed. On the other hand, no area of effect is otherwise specified.

So in total, this spell seems to cry out for use in the mass-combat setting. It really can't be used in any other way. And yet: the spell was not included in the Chainmail Fantasy wizard list, of any edition, even after that work was updated in 1975 to port in a number of new spells from OD&D (e.g., haste, slow, polymorph, confusion, hallucinatory terrain, etc.)

Now, consider also the OD&D Swords & Spells supplement which gave a more systematic way of incorporating fantasy figures into mass-combat situations. This work included a table for all the spells in the D&D game to that point, often filling in range, area, and duration where none existed before. Many of us look to Swords & Spells as an overall update/clarification to D&D combat, spells, and turn order rules. For massmorph this work shows:

That is: it adds an area specifier of a 4" diameter circle; for example, the exact same area as a fireball. Let's compare that area to the standard 2×5 stand of 10 figures (representing 100 total men), base size 3/4" per figure, as given in Swords & Spells:

Notice that area is pretty much exactly the right size to encompass 100 actual men at the standard scale and base size for Swords & Spells. I don't think that's an accident; it seems likely that the area addition in that work was chosen looking at a group of miniatures on the table at this same scale. 

 

D&D B/X Rules

Massmorph  

Range: 240'
Duration: special

This spell will make up to 100 human or man-sized creatures in a 240' diameter circle appear as the trees of an orchard or dense woods. The illusion will even hide those it is cast on from creatures moving through the area of illusion. The spell lasts until a dispel magic is cast on it or the caster wills it away. The appearance of each disguised creature will return to normal when it moves away from the area where the spell was cast.

The spell appears in the Cook Expert D&D rules at the same level and effect. Note that it specifies a 240' diameter circle as its area (for the same count of 100 men). If we convert the area seen in Swords & Spells above, according to that work's 1" = 30 feet scale, we would only get 4" × 30 feet/inch = 120 feet. So for some reason the area has been doubled. Perhaps a simple mistake, or to synchronize with the given range?


AD&D 1st Edition

Massmorph  (Illusion/Phantasm)
Level:  4
Range: 1”/level
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: 11’ × 1” square/level
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 turn
Saving Throw: None

Explanation/Description: When this spell is cast upon willing creatures of man-size or smaller, up to 10 such creatures per level of experience of the magic-user can be made to appear as normal trees of any sort. Thus, a company of creatures can be made to appear as a copse, grove, or orchard. Furthermore, these massmorphed creatures can be passed through - and even touched - by other creatures without revealing the illusion. Note, however, that blows to the creature-trees will reveal their nature, as damage will be sustained by the creatures struck and blood will be seen. Creatures massmorphed must be within the spell‘s area of effect. Unwilling creatures are not affected. The spell persists until the caster commands it to cease or until a dispel magic is cast upon the creatures. The material component of this spell is a handful of bark chips. 

In AD&D, the spell is largely the same, except the effects are made caster-level-dependent. The canonical 12th-level wizard would affect 120 men, with a shortened range of 12", and a significantly expanded area of a 12"×12" space (we assume that the /11'/ above is a typo meant to be /1"/). Illusionists also get the spell at the same level. 


AD&D 2nd Edition

Massmorph
(Alteration)
Range: 10 yds./level
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: 10 ft. cube/level
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 4
Saving Throw: None

When this spell is cast upon willing creatures of man-size or smaller, up to 10 such creatures per level of the caster can be magically altered to appear as trees of any sort. Thus, a company of creatures can be made to appear as a copse, grove, or orchard. Furthermore, these massmorphed creatures can be passed through and even touched by other creatures without revealing their true nature. Note, however, that blows to the creature-trees cause damage, and blood can be seen.

Creatures to be massmorphed must be within the spell's area of effect; unwilling creatures are not affected. Affected creatures remain unmoving but aware, subject to normal sleep requirements, and able to see, hear, and feel for as long as the spell is in effect. The spell persists until the caster commands it to cease or until a dispel magic spell is cast upon the creatures. Creatures left in this state for extended  periods are subject to insects, weather, disease, fire, and other natural hazards.

The material component of this spell is a handful of bark chips from the type of tree the creatures are to become.

Largely the same spell for 2E. We note that the range and area specifiers have switched from scale inches to yards and feet. The 12th-level wizard would now cast the spell with a range of 120 yards (360 feet), and an area of a 120-foot cube. Note that in Swords & Spells scale this would convert to an area 4" across on the tabletop. 

 

D&D 3rd-5th Edition

The massmorph spell does not exist in the core rules of any later edition of the game. 


Conclusions

My points (and I do think I have some) are these: First, there are a number of classic D&D high-level spells which seem tailor-made for use in the outdoors, large-scale-combat, situation, that strangely don't appear in even the later editions Chainmail Fantasy. Massmorph is probably the best example but others include: growth of plants, transmute rock to mud, lower water, part water, control weather, etc. May we assume these were used in mass-combat games, but there was insufficient space to include them in Chainmail Fantasy? Or is it additional evidence that Chainmail Fantasy was not at mass scale?

Second, as the graduate-level D&D play of domains, castle, and mass-combat was squeezed out of the game, many of these spells became either problematic or nonsensical, and were either greatly changed, or dropped from the game entirely. By 3E, massmorph was gone, and so was part water (lower water turned into control water). While these spells might be very nifty indeed in a wargame (say: hiding a whole unit of troops, wiping out a barrier body of water, etc.), in the basic RPG play there was little or no use for them, especially for top-level spell slots.

Third, the famous adjustment by Gygax that inch scales should be converted to ten-yards for outdoor ranges, but only ten-feet for outdoor areas (maintained throughout both AD&D and the B/X line), totally fails for this spell. The OD&D area was in fact designed in the context of the mass-combat game, where 1" = 10 yards for all purposes. All of the spell areas in Swords & Spells are given in the full OD&D inches, and not shrunk for the yards-scale of that game (not surprising; S&S was written before Gygax's epiphany on how broken the scale system was). If we took the 4" diameter area, and shrunk it as per the ten-feet conversion (1/3), we'd only get a 1⅓" diameter circle, which could not encompass the 100 men specified (you wouldn't even get 4 full figures in that shrunken area).

Likewise, most of the other high-level, large-area, outdoor-specialized spells that at first blush would seem perfect for wargame usage are likewise broken if we use the standard inches-to-feet specification that Gygax screams at us in all-caps in the 1E PHB. Another indication of a legacy game form that had become vestigial and untested, sure. What to do about those, or the whole connected system of spell scales as a result? How can we interpret massmorph affecting 100 men, without, say, fireball (with the exact same area) blowing up 100 men at a time?


Monday, August 24, 2020

The Roots of Horror

H.P. Lovecraft
In the 1E AD&D DMG, Appendix N, Gygax identifies six authors as "the most immediate influences upon AD&D". Here I've ordered them in chronological order as per the "Period" listed for each on Wikipedia:

  • H.P. Lovecraft (1917-1937)
  • A. Merritt (1917-1943)
  • Robert E. Howard (1924-1936)
  • Fritz Leiber (1934-1992)
  • L. Sprague de Camp (1937-1996)
  • Jack Vance (1950-2009)

This past week we observed what would have been H.P. Lovecraft's 130th birthday. Lovecraft is, of course, now considered highly problematic for racial themes; it's common in some circles to consider him something close to taboo or beneath contempt. Simultaneously, however, we've seen this week the premiere of the highly-celebrated Lovecraft Country series on HBO, executive produced by Jordan Peele. Here I'll make a brief, amateur argument that Lovecraft is ultimately the closest thing we have to a root of the pulp tradition from which D&D grew.

Lovecraft is the earliest writer on the Appendix N list of "most immediate influences", with the exception of A. Merritt, with whom he had a contemporaneous start. Moreover, Lovecraft has clear documented, personal connections to almost all the other writers on this Core list (there is one exception, I think). Lovecraft and Merritt were mutually appreciative of each others' work, and met in New York City in 1934, upon which Lovecraft wrote in a letter:

It seems he had long known my work and held a very kindly opinion of it.  Hearing of my presence in NY he took steps to get in touch with me, and finally invited me to dinner at his club... I was extremely glad to meet Merritt in person, for I have admired his work for 15 years... he has a peculiar power of working up an atmosphere and investing a region with an aura of unholy dread.

The Skulls in Stars blog has a great article looking at Merritt's 1932 novel, Dwellers in the Mirage, whose cover featured a giant tentacled monster, the “terrible octopus-god Khalk’ru”, pretty obviously an homage to Lovecraft's Cthulhu, and commenting on similar cosmic phenomena, as well as the correspondence letter above. (Bonus: The "Mirage" in the story's title is a key part of the plot, and given that the Skulls and Stars author is a professor of physics and optics, he's well-positioned to write intelligently and clearly on that aspect.)

Almost all of the other Appendix N Core were in or connected in some way to the "Lovecraft Circle". Robert E. Howard wrote a letter to Weird Tales in 1930 praising Lovecraft's works; when the editor passed the letter on to Lovecraft himself, the two "engaged in a vigorous correspondence that would last for the rest of Howard's life". (Wikipedia).

Likewise, in 1936 Fritz Leiber "initiated a brief yet intense correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft, who 'encouraged and influenced [Leiber's] literary development'", which was only ended by Lovecraft's own death. Many of Leiber's stories in the first two decades of his career were connected to the Cthulhu Mythos, and much later he wrote several essays on Lovecraft in Fafhrd and Me. (Wikipedia)

L. Sprague de Camp is somewhat ambiguously in my list above, because in the Appendix N Core listing he appears as, "de Camp & Pratt", which connects further up on the page specifically to the Harold Shea series. This is now known as the "Compleat Enchanter" series, written by the pair of authors from 1940-1954. (And de Camp returned with some additional stories in the 1990's.) de Camp also famously wrote two full-length biographies of his forerunners: these being of Lovecraft and Howard. (Wikipedia)

Finally, we come to Jack Vance, who we all know to to be an essential contributor to the classic D&D thematic system. One thing I'll say in looking up dates here is that Vance did a masterful job of disguising how relatively recent and young of a writer he was; before I looked these dates up, I might have guessed he could have been the earliest one in the list. But instead, he was the only one still writing into the 2000's, and in fact was still active when I started this blog. (!) He's also the only member of the Core list of whom I couldn't find any direct connection to Lovecraft. (If you know of such, please post a comment.) (Wikipedia)

Obviously all the writers on the Appendix N Core list above are giants in their own right, and I certainly don't mean to say that they were in shadow of H.P. Lovecraft or anything like that. But it seems interesting how regularly generous he seemed to be with his time and correspondence, encouraging and nurturing other writers in the pulp field at critical moments in their careers. (Side note: Lovecraft, Merritt, and Howard even cooperated on a single story together in 1935, The Challenge from Beyond.)

More than once I've observed that for my D&D games, "No matter what my intention is at the outset, they always turn into horror at the end". Perhaps this is a fairly simple fact that the hobby is mechanically an outgrowth of wargames, and from the perspective of any single person involved, war is indeed horrible. Or perhaps it's an undergrowth of Lovecraftian tendrils connecting and nourishing almost all of the most important pulp authors that Gygax had in mind when he wrote D&D and AD&D. Is D&D ultimately a horror game at its deepest root? If one wanted to completely remove the horribleness, would it be viable for long-term survival?


Monday, August 17, 2020

Arneson's Battle In The Skies

I was informed/reminded by folks on the ODD74 forums that a year ago at GaryCon, the Secrets of Blackmoor folks displayed and ran a game with Dave Arneson's original "Battle In The Skies" rules for D&D-style aerial combat (inspired by Mike Carr's "Fight in the Skies" WWI aerial game, which I played with Skip Williams et. al. at GaryCon the prior year). Some documentation on Reddit here.

This caught my attention, because for a few years I've been wrestling with the cut-down version in OD&D Vol-3 and not finding it inherently playable. Apparently Arneson's draft was 18 full-sized pages, but the Vol-3 version only has about 3½ digest-sized pages (including two illustrations). For some time I've wondered, "could this have ever been playtested?", and this seems to give evidence that the version seen in Vol-3 was likely not -- inasmuch as Gygax likely took major shears to it with the interest of fitting it in the book on a deadline. But maybe Arneson's really was? Maybe, that's not a given, either. (In my experience, he also commonly wrote what I call "aspirational rules", really more a thought-experiment than something run in play.)

Even though we only see some hand-notes and the top page of the typewritten rules there, even from that a whole lot of interesting stuff jumps out:

First, from the hand-notes, it seems that Arneson had a specific roster of possible maneuvers in mind (even if the exact details of those maneuvers are unclear), similar to the hyper-detailed Fight In The Skies. In contrast the Vol-3 version has (really murky) turns, climbs, dives, and then "Any other maneuvers are optional at the discretion of the campaign referee". 

Second, from the typewritten page, we have a very nice roster of aerial creatures that serves as something of a "Rosetta Stone" for Arnesonian creatures when we compare it to the OD&D Vol-2 monster list. In particular:

  • The "Point to KIA", is basically the OD&D hit points. If we convert the given range back to d6's (take the first number; or, divide the second number by 6), in most cases we get the OD&D hit dice, or maybe one pip off in some cases. 
  • But note some creatures that don't get full detail in OD&D: The "Small Insects" have 6 hit dice (same as a Griffon here)! And the "Large Insects" have 10 hit dice (same as a Balrog)! That is not remotely something I'd ever guess in all my years -- but it's on-brand for Arneson with his commonly insane size for basic animal stats (see also giant beetles and aquatic creatures in OD&D Sup-II). Also we get stats for the Tarn, mentioned in his First Fantasy Campaign, but missing from OD&D (either 12 or 14 hit dice, bigger than any OD&D book monster)
  • Note that the "to Hit" numbers are actually what we'd now identify as "Ascending Armor Class". (!) It looks like they've got to be target numbers on a d20 (clearly none of them are achievable in 2d6, say). If we take those numbers and subtract from 20, then in most cases we get the standard one-digit AC number seen in OD&D Vol-2 (compare to: Target 20).
  • Movement is both given in "sqs" (squares shown on the handwritten page) and feet per turn, which allows us to decode the scale he intended: 1 square = 50 feet. I feel that's important, because the scale was struck out of the rules in OD&D Vol-3 (also: naval rules), which causes a lot of problems (e.g., I think aerial & naval rules are at different scales), and something I've struggled to back-fill in the past. For some reason Gygax really resisted clearly specifying scale in a lot of places -- same as the Chainmail Man-to-Man rules, which to my thinking was the root of the greatest mischief in all of classic D&D. 
  • Note that the OD&D move rates in inches are all the movements in squares shown here, multiplied by 3. Hence one might want to say that one square/space here represent 3 D&D inches; this is likewise stated on AD&D DMG p. 53. (But is that then 15, 30, 50, or 90 feet?). 
  • The "Radius Turn" is, I'm guessing, mapping to maneuverability classes like we see in OD&D in AD&D texts. We see 6 classes here; OD&D has 7. It seems like maybe the classes here are basically reversed compared to OD&D/AD&D? E.g.: Dragons are in class "I" here, while in Vol-3 they're near the end of the list, with among the worst move rates; the Sprite is class "VI", while in OD&D they're in the first category, with the best turning rates (in AD&D, class "A"). 
  • Note that OD&D has two statistics per maneuver class; "number of turns per move", and "number of spaces between turns". Based on the phrasing of the "Radius Turn" column, might it be that only the latter statistics is specified? That might be something I'd prefer; on the other hand, Arneson is not really known to be minimalist in his rules-writing, so I wouldn't bet on it.
  • The "Special Characteristics" column seems to have mostly attack bonuses for frontal attacks (added "pips"). 

Third, we see some missile weapons at the bottom of the page. Again, their rate-of-fire basically matches that of Chainmail, and the ranges are about one-third the standard D&D ranges (e.g.: in Chainmail, OD&D Sup-I, etc.), including for the magical fireball and lightning bolts.  

Boy, I wish I had a full copy of these rules to playtest!