Friday, April 17, 2015

Joe Nuttall's Blog

I just had the opportunity to discover Joe Nuttall's OSR-themed blog, "Explore: Beneath & Beyond". He just started it last month, but he posts on some novel rules alternatives that you may be interested in.  Plus he has a PhD in mathematics and investigates things like the distribution curves for his mechanics, so I'll be keeping an eye on it. A random sampling from his first few posts:

Monday, April 13, 2015

Compositions of Men

In Original D&D Vol-2, Monsters & Treasure, the first and most detailed monster description is for: Men. I find that running groups of men in the wilderness is potentially harrowing to manage, because each group comes in several different categories of composition (a certain percentage of footmen, some archers, some cavalry, etc.), as well as an array of different high-level leader types (each potentially with special abilities and unique magic items).

The number appearing for groups of Men is given as 30-300, which I think most of us generate by rolling 3d10×10. But technically this is contradicted by the example on p. 6:


Note that the number 183 is not a multiple of 10, so it could not actually be generated by the dice above. Did Gygax intend for us to be rolling 30d10 for this purpose? If so, then that would make for an extremely narrow distribution of values; 99% of the results would be between 125 and 205. (See Torben Mogensen's TROLL calculator here, with entry "sum 30d10": link). So let's assume that we don't literally take that approach. But the following paragraph may be even more troublesome:


Notice that the percentages given don't add up to 100% (40+25+25+20 = 110), so some fix is obviously necessary here. In AD&D, Gygax makes the composition percentages add up to 100% (MM p. 66), but in doing so he expands the number of distinct troop categories from 4 to 7, almost doubling the amount juggling that the DM has to do in these encounters (and he also increases the number of types of high-level leaders). Fortunately, if we batch up those AD&D types into superset categories, then we get the following: 50% Light Foot, 20% Archers, 20% Light Horse, and 10% Medium Horse; those numbers are workable as corrections to Vol-2, and they're conveniently all multiples of ten, so let's assume that we use them in OD&D.

One other sticking point remains when I seek to use groups of Men in my game. Even if you roll 3d10×10 (so the total number is a multiple of ten), and use those corrected and simplified percentages, the resulting categories are likely not multiples of ten. For example: 180 bandits would give 90 Light Foot, 36 Archers, 36 Light Horse, and 18 Medium Horse. Personally, I would prefer these cardinalities to also be multiples of ten, so as to make it easier to announce, manage, remember -- and switch to 1:10 mass warfare as in Book of War if that seems convenient. We could do this by rounding to the nearest ten, but then in some cases the total number would be different (for example: rounding and summing the example in this paragraph would give 190 bandits). So that then argues for hand-correcting the values, adding or subtracting some men in the higher-valued categories to always give the right total.

Below, I've done that for OD&D across all the types of Men indicated with sub-compositions there: Bandits (and Brigands), Buccaneers (and Pirates), and Nomads (Desert and Steppe). Of course, you could just note the percent corrections above and hand-tune any force to taste on the fly -- so in all probability you don't really want or need this as a separate handout. But I did it, so just in case you do, here it is (click here for PDF):


Monday, April 6, 2015

The Case for Level Zero

What evidence is there in classic version of D&D for the status level-0 characters? This could be important for a few reasons: (1) It would make a difference in the statistics for mass-combat armies, whether the basic troop type was level-0 or level-1 or something else; and (2) It could provide justification for common 1st-level boosts (as in ability scores or hit points), under the statistical survivability analysis that we've done via the Arena simulation program (link).

Original D&D

First of all, 1st-level fighters are given the level title "Veteran", implying that some action had to take place prior to reaching the 0-XP level (Vol-1, p. 16). They are given hit dice of "1+1" (i.e., 1d6+1), and in the original Chainmail-based combat mechanic, their fighting capability is listed as "Man + 1" (p. 17); but in the d20-based alternative combat system the footnote reads "Normal men equal 1st level fighters." (p. 19). Tellingly, in the monster reference the very first entry is for Men: Bandits, and it is quite detailed, giving number appearing of 30-300 (p. 3), saying "Bandits are normal men" (Vol-2, p. 5), and giving them "Hit Dice: 1 die/man" (p. 6; that is, 1d6). The following paragraphs on groups of Brigands, Nomads, Buccaneers, and Pirates refer back to the Bandit entry with its 1d6 hit die specifier (although Berserkers, Dervishes, and Mermen are given 1+1 hits, and Cavemen 2 hit dice).

So we see that even in the earliest work there was a clear distinction between 1st-level Fighters and other Normal Men (even those who appear in large armed groups, making a living via combat and raiding, with high-level leadership). While the attacks and presumably saves are the same in the d20-based mechanic, the difference in hit dice (1d6+1 vs. 1d6) and the title "Veteran" highlight the distinction.

D&D Sup-I: Greyhawk

Here's a puzzle: what hit dice do Normal Men have under D&D Supplement-I, Greyhawk, using the alternate hit dice rule (p. 10: e.g, d8's for fighter levels)? The text says, "Use of this system is highly recommended, but if it is used all monsters should be based on the 8-sided die system." Does this include Normal Men, or merely every other being in the monster listing? If the former, then they are here equal to 1st-level fighters and unique compared to any other ruleset (see below); but if the latter then they have just become less strong than Orcs, for example.

Personally, I think this switch to d8-dice for monster hits was one of the major, early missteps in the evolution of D&D. So much simpler to roll batches of d6's for this purpose, and I see no compelling need for expert fighter dice to match monster dice. 

Swords & Spells

Gygax's Swords & Spells supplement for mass warfare in Original D&D appears to have the first actual use of the phrase "0 level". The combat tables for average damage per figure, unlike the OD&D core books, have a separate row for level "0", with the footnote: "0 Level is normal man-type (i.e., 1 die or less, and not able to progress upwards in levels.)" (p. 25).

These rules include different "Troop Classifications" in six tiers: Peasants, Levies, Regulars, Elite, Guards, and the combination Elite Guards. The latter are quite rare: "As a rule, guards should be limited to 10% of an army, and elite guards would surround the personage of the commander only, for example" (p. 5). But the following all-italic paragraph establishes that any 1st-level fighters qualify for this special category: "NOTE: Scale figures representing human/humanoid (and highly intelligent) creatures of 1st level or above or with 1+1 hit dice are always considered as having elite guard status. For example, the following types of troops are classified as elite guard status: Veterans (1st level fighters), Elves, Hobgoblins..." (p. 6). This status gives bonuses to formation, movement, morale, and melee. So in summary: 1st level is shown to be something very special indeed.

Advanced D&D

In Gygax's AD&D, there are even more copious distinctions made 1st-level characters and those less than that. The Player's Handbook states, "It is important to keep in mind that most humans and demi-humans are '0 level'." (p. 106). The Dungeon Master's Guide notes in the section on hiring mercenary soldiers, "Note that regular soldiers are 0 level men-at-arms with 4-7 hit points each" (p. 30: again highlighting that even trained career combatants are 0-level by default; see also class followers on p. 16). The combat and saving throw tables here give a separate, reduced column for level 0 fighters (p. 74, 79). A footnote reads, "Dwarves, elves and gnomes are never lower than 1st  level (unlike halflings and humans, which may be of 0 level)" (p. 74: possibly correcting PHB p. 106 above). A table on the campaign's "Typical Inhabitants" specifies combat ability of "0 level", or even as low as -1 to -3 from that mark for sedentary types, with hit points ranging from 1-3 to 2-7 (p. 88). Of peasant revolts it is noted, "Troops will be 0 level" (p. 94). For energy draining by undead, the stated rule is: "If this brings the character below 1st level of experience, then the individual is a 0 level person never capable of gaining experience again. If a 0 level individual is drained an energy level, he or she is dead (possibly to become an undead monster)" (p. 119). City and merchant guards are also 0 level (p. 191-192).

In the Monster Manual section on Men, the first thing stated is, "Normal men have from 1-6 hit points each." (p. 66), and this is reiterated in the following entries "Hit Dice: 1-6 hit points" for Bandits (Brigands), Buccaneers (Pirates), Dervishes (Nomads), Merchants, and Pilgrims. So in this regard the hit points are identical to those for Men in OD&D Vol-2 (actually downgraded for Dervishes), and it argues that the likely intent in OD&D Sup-I was also to maintain them at the level of 1d6 hits, less than 1st-level fighters or 1-hit-die monsters.

The DMG also has the following statement in the section on henchmen (p. 35):
Number of Prospective Henchmen: Human and half-orc characters suitable for level advancement are found at a ratio of 1 in 100. Other races have an incidence of 1 in 50. However, as most of these characters will be other than low level adventurers and already in a situation they are satisfied with  -  and humans more so than other races, unless the development of the area is primarily other than human - about 1 in 1,000 population will be interested in offers of employment as a henchman. NOTE: This figure must be adjusted by the DM according to the locale, for if  it  is an active adventuring area, the incidence of prospective henchmen might be as great as 1 in 200, while if it  is  a settled and staid area, incidence might be as low as 1 in 5,000.
Note the opening line, "Human and half-orc characters suitable for level advancement are found at a ratio of 1 in 100." If taken at face value, then this could have interesting demographic implications; however, it seems to broadly contradict the fact elsewhere that for about every 100 normal men, there is at least one leader of 8th-10th level, along with a host of other lower-level fighters (see Men: Bandits in the Monster Manual p. 66 and other places). And surely the claim that "Other races have an incidence of 1 in 50 [for level advancement]" is in even starker contrast with the footnote on DMG p. 74 that "Dwarves, elves and gnomes are never lower than 1st  level". So coming up with some synthesized interpretation for these different statements seems very challenging; they seem as though if coming from completely different campaign systems. And yet -- there is no doubt that level 0 men are the norm; the only question is what their relative frequency is (high or extremely high).

Unearthed Arcana

In the AD&D Unearthed Arcana work, Gygax implements a mechanic for gaining XP and advancing through 0-levels in two places: for the Cavalier and the Magic-User. For the former (p. 14):
A cavalier character must be of proper social class, and is usually of noble or aristocratic origin. Only those characters of Upper Class  social status may immediately enter into the cavalier class. Those of lower social standing are generally excluded from becoming cavaliers, but certain members of lower social classes may be  so  honored. Such a character must be sponsored by a higher authority  of  greater status, and begins first as a 0-level Horseman (a retainer for a Knight), then a 0-level Lancer, and finally becomes a 1st-level Armiger of the cavalier class. The 0-level Horseman starts at -1500  experience points and has 1d4 + 1 initial hit points. The Horseman becomes a Lancer at  -500 experience points and gains another d4 roll for cumulative hit points. The Lancer becomes a 1st-level cavalier at 0 experience points, and gains another d4 in hit points. In contrast, a character whose social standing qualifies him or her for immediate entrance into the cavalier class begins as a 1st-level Armiger with 1d10 + 3 hit points. The character’s hit-point bonus for high constitution (if applicable) is first received at either Horseman or Armiger level, and is then applied to each additional hit die from second level on as normal. The special abilities of the cavalier class are only gained when the character attains Armiger status.
These statistics appear likewise in the class table for cavaliers (p. 15). For the Magic-User, 0-levels are the mechanic by which one can use Cantrips even before the character can cast a 1st-level spell (p. 45):
Cantrips are the magic spells learned and used by apprentice magic-users and illusionists during their long, rigorous, and tedious training for the craft of magic-use. An aspiring magic-user or illusionist may use 1 cantrip per day as a 0-level neophyte (-2000 x.p. to -1001 x.p.), 2 cantrips per day as a 0-level initiate  (-1000  to -501), and 3 cantrips per day as a 0-level apprentice (-500 to -1). Cantrips must be memorized just as higher-level spells are.
So these below-zero-XP rules are broadly consistent in their application. In each case there are actually more than one 0-level in question (two for the cavalier; three for the magic-user). Somewhat oddly in my view, the increasing XP-per level is reversed for the 0-levels; the earliest levels actually require more XP, and the level closest to 0 the least (in both cases, just 500 XP to get to 1st level from the immediate predecessor).

(Side note: Post-Gygax, there was an AD&D-branded Greyhawk hardcover book with an appendix on running 0-level characters. However, those rules do not use standard XP, instead using a totally different AP point-buy system instead -- e.g., get an AP point and use it to boost an ability or buy a skill by one point -- and so we need not consider it further here.)

Holmes D&D

While the status of "0-level/normal men" is fairly consistent throughout all the Gygaxian works, the Basic D&D line veers off in another direction -- one which has caused a few mistakes and incorrect recollections on my part in the past. First, J. Eric Holmes started to dispose of them. Under "Non-Play Characters", he writes: "Generally, only the lowest level of character types can be hired, i.e. first level" (p. 8); that is, he seemed to collapse the distinction between 0-level hirelings and 1st-level henchmen in mainline D&D. Secondly, at the start of the monster list, he writes "Monsters' hit dice are 8-sided", and then three lines later in the lead-off Bandit entry, they get "Hit Dice: 1" (p. 22). So it's hard to read that in any way other than giving Bandits a full 1d8 hit points; a conceivable reading of Supplement-I Greyhawk (see above), but definitely at odds with the listing in the AD&D Monster Manual. On the other hand, the combat tables do include a row for "Normal Man" (p. 18) which didn't exist pre-Swords & Spells, but other than that I can't find reference or use of the term.

Moldvay/Cook D&D

The Moldvay Basic and Cook Expert D&D rules take this a step further, by attempting to make almost every man in an adventure a member of some class. Now, Moldvay does state that, "A retainer may be of any level (0, 1, 2, 3, or higher) and of any class (normal man or a character class)" (p. B21), and he does include rows for "Normal Man" in the combat and save tables (p. B26-27). But that level is used mostly for minor non-human monsters (e.g., bats, rats, centipedes, insect swarms, goblins, kobolds, and mules). The Bandits which previously represented the canonical normal men are here declared to be "NPC thieves" who save as "Thief: 1" (p. B30); but while 1st-level thieves get 1d4 hit points, once again the monster entry simply says "Hit Dice: 1" -- which means 1d8 by the rules of the monster section -- so these seem out-of-joint. Also, a new monster type of "Noble" is given, and for these, "In the D&D BASIC rules, a noble will always be a 3rd level fighter. However, the DM may choose to make a noble any class and level... A noble will always be accompanied by a squire (a 2nd level fighter). A noble might also be accompanied by as many as 10 retainers or hirelings (usually 1st level fighters)" (p. B39-40).

Edit: Thanks to JB in the comments for noticing that I'd overlooked a dedicated monster entry for the unclassed "Normal Human" (p. B40); I missed this because it's the only place in this or any other ruleset where the descriptor is other than "Normal Man". The stat block gives them 1d4 hit points. The description says this: "Most humans are 'normal' humans, though people with certain professions (such as merchant, soldier, lord, scout, and so forth) help in some adventures"; my reading is that those "certain professions" are all classed by default (c.f., "Noble" above and all the soldiers in any B/X adventure). Finally, Moldvay gives a unique rule for advancement, far more generous than Gygax: "As soon as a human gets experience points through an adventure, that person must choose a character class."

In the Cook Expert rules, the only place the phrase "0 level" or "normal man" appears is in the matching combat/save tables, the rules for the legacy potions of heroism and control human, and the stats for seamen and the normal hawk. Mercenaries are not explicated one way or another (p. X22). However, in the catch-all monster entry for Men, they are all given a full 1 Hit Die and saves as "Fighter: 1"; including all of the types of Brigands, Buccaneers, Pirates, Dervishes, Merchants, and Nomads (p. X35) -- very much at variance with the OD&D and AD&D game lines. Likewise, all of the adventures in the X-series of modules specified base soldiers in any army as being universally at least 1st-level fighters: see modules X4, X5, the comprehensive army rosters for all of the Known World in module X10, and so forth.

Conclusions

While there is some attraction to the simplicity of the Cook/Moldvay method (all soldiers are at least 1st-level fighters), I do think that the core D&D system makes the most sense if we interpret things in the sense of OD&D/AD&D with a "0-level/normal man" class prior to 1st-level characters. This justifies 1st-level fighters having the title "Veteran", their improved attack/defense capability, the status that trainee wizards might have prior to casting their first spell, etc.

As usual, I frown upon special-case discontinuities such as that "0 Level is... not able to progress upwards in levels" (per Swords & Spells). In this sense, I look favorably upon Gygax's addition in Unearthed Arcana of some kind of rules for pre-1st-level experience progression. Even if we never expect to use that during gameplay for PC's, it gives us something to hang our hat on for the purpose of campaign-wide NPC demographics, and how the matriculation from 0-level to 1st-level might occur. (And even for active play, I've had at least one player in the last year take over an NPC lantern boy who started racking up surprising kill rates and a developed persona -- moreso than his original dead PC -- and surely that should be rewarded.)

Here's what I think I would do for the unwashed masses in my "Original Edition Delta" games: Start at 0-level. Roll 3d6 in order for abilities. Roll 1d6 for hit points. Earn 1,000 XP to get to first level. On achieving 1st level, add 1 hp if becoming a fighter, or subtract 1 hp if a becoming wizard (minimum 1 hp before Constitution bonus). A slight wrinkle here is that 1st-level fighter graduates in this way could only have 2-7 hit points, but that actually matches the Original D&D Vol-1 text, and is on average the same as a 1d8 roll.

Note that I veer off from Gygax a bit here in the exact XP needed to graduate from 0-level. For both the cavalier and magic-user, he set the level immediately before 1st at 500 XP; although in both cases, there were other "negative" levels that one needed to progress through initially.  Looking at the standard geometric XP tables, with fighters starting at a 2,000 XP step for 1st level, the clear extrapolation is that the level before that should be 1,000 XP (i.e., half). In addition: under certain other demographic assumptions, having a 500 XP step may actually produce a greater number of 1st-level types than normal men, a result that we should certainly avoid.

A few notes for Book of War: statistically, these distinctions are all below the level of granularity recognized in that game. For example, say a target is wearing chain & shield (AC 4 in any edition above). If the attacker is 0-level, with d6 damage, against a d8 hit die, then the chance to score a kill with one hit is 11%; but if the attacker is 1st-level, with d8 damage, against a d6 hit die, then the chance is 21%. Any other permutation is somewhere within these bounds; but using the BOW d6-mechanic, all of these round off to the same 1-in-6 chance to score a kill (16.6...%). So that's why it's really nice that BOW is a statistically accurate representation of whichever edition of the game you normally play with, regardless of these small details; and at all times I assume that common 1 HD human soldiers are the same as common 1 HD orcs, for example (at least in reasonable lighting).

So we do like giving the 0-levels a chance to be heroes someday. But what implications does this have for campaign demographics or 1st-level abilities and hit points, having survived the 0-level to get there? More on that next time.


Monday, March 30, 2015

Blurb for Orson Scott Card

A blurb on the back cover of Orson Scott Card's novel Speaker for the Dead, on the eve of my clearing it out of my personal library:
"Card is a writer of compassion and his heart breaks for the individual men and women of good will who find themselves caught up and forced to participate in the race's homicidal crossfire." -- Washington Post Book World

Friday, March 27, 2015

Wall of Fire Placement

A while back the thought occurred to me: If in Original D&D, the wall of fire spell has a 6" area width and also a 6" maximum range, and we assume that the entire conjured wall must be within that range limit, wouldn't the wall have to automatically get squeezed pretty close to the caster to fit in the range limit? The answer turns out to be "no", my intuition was mistaken about that. I could have computed the distance to an arc of length x in a circle of radius x, but it seemed easier to just test it physically.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Review of the 5E Battlesystem Draft

A few commenters have recently asked what my thoughts are on the new 5E "When Armies Clash" rules for mass combat (with "UA_Battlesystem" as the given filename at WOTC: link), previewed at the start of this month. I'm glad they did, because I would have overlooked it otherwise.

Let me approach this as an opportunity, if someone asked me to edit this (and certainly no one has), what I would suggest for changes. I'll split this into two main parts: "Minor Skirmishes" and "The Big Stickler" near the end.

Minor Skirmishes

Some smaller things that caught my eye:
  • Referring to "figures" as "stands". I think that initially 5E made the claim that it was trying to be compatible or support play in any traditional D&D system. If that's the case, it's a curious move to change terminology that remained constant up until now, as far as I know. The groups of 10 or 20 creatures throughout TSR's Chainmail/Swords & Spells/Battlesystem 1/Battlesystem 2 were always referred to as "figures". If multiple miniature figures were physically glued onto a platform together, then it was called a "stand". To this grognard it's pretty confusing to flip the two terms here in 5E.
  • Mass scales seem OK. The figure ("stand") scale is given as 1 = 10 men. The distance scale is 1" (space) = 20 feet. That's exactly the same as in my Book of War game, and to my knowledge 1" = 20 feet had not been used before that point. So great. The time scale is 1 turn = 1 minute which is completely reasonable, and matches original Chainmail, etc.
  • Grid seems like a bad idea. There was a time when I was designing Book of War that I gave serious consideration to using a fixed grid for the action, thinking it might simplify affairs. But I decided against it; while it might be arguably okay for independent fighters moving around, keeping large groups in any kind of formation on the grid becomes very burdensome. Movement and contact can basically only happen on the two axes, which gets more and more goofy-looking the larger your units are. But 5E Battlesystem does require the grid througout.
  • Counting distance. The terminology here is that juxtaposed spaces are "adjacent", while a step further is "1 square away". That was hard for me to parse; the normal metric would be that the former is "1 space distant" and the latter is "2 spaces distant" (i.e., how much movement it takes to get from one to the other). Unless this is already standardized in 5E, I'd recommend changing that.
  • Skirmishers vs. regiments. First of all, I've never really been fond of this distinction. It didn't exist in Chainmail/Swords & Spells (nor Book of War). It popped up in the original Battlesystem and I never really saw the need for it; it seemed like an unnecessary complication (particularly in the awful positioning rules that required a whole unit to be spaced out with figure 1" from each other; very inconvenient to move as a group). Secondly, the terminology has again been switched here: previously it was "skirmishers vs. regulars". The problem with "skirmishers vs. regiments" is that they aren't even the same part of speech, really: the former is a descriptor while the latter is a type of organization. Personally, I might cut the whole thing out for simplicity.
  • Figures move and act independently. Something that I really didn't expect is that although figures (sigh, "stands") are assigned to mass units, in truth each one in the game acts, moves, acts, and defends independently. So you can't just push a big block of orcs across the table in formation; you're really obligated to decide on a path and goal for each individual figure, and just make sure that at the end each is still adjacent to someone in the same unit. As burdensome as this is, it's sort of required by the gridded space, because otherwise you probably couldn't get a unit to go anywhere except straight north/south or east/west. But it's aesthetically weird (and nontraditional) that you don't see or simulate any kind of consistent army formation. Attacks and defenses are also decided and resolved for each individual figure, which seems like it will take a long time. One advantage: it can support heterogenous units (some with axes, others javelins, or a mix using various at the same time), which is not something I could make happen with Book of War.
  • Bookkeeping. This is one of those details that manages to quietly sneak in and you don't notice what a major deal it is until too late. ("A bit of bookkeeping on the side is also recommended," says a single sly paragraph on p. 4). In truth, because of the independent-figure action noted above, you definitely need to have every figure individually identifiable on the table (with marked letters or IDs, perhaps?), and then a complete list of every single figure to note its unit membership and its current hit points and conditions, at a minimum. This little "bit" is passingly similar to why I don't use Doug Niles' Battlesystem 2 (you need to match each attack die one-to-one to the figure who rolled it, which prevents rolling a big batch of dice at once). In contrast, I intentionally designed Book of War from the ground up to have no paperwork whatsoever -- the figures themselves on the table serve as all the record-keeping that exists in the game (with a few dice and markers). Every time we play BOW we set up our armies and then put all the paper away because we don't need it to play. In UA_BS you'd be shuffling lots of accounting paper, it seems. So you can consider your (and your fellow players') preference on that.
  • Morale trigger. No morale checks occur until any unit is over half killed. While game-able, it's a pretty significant break to classical wargames, where some units will collapse unexpectedly from just a few casualties or the first brush with the enemy (which is arguably far more realistic). In Book of War we find that the greatest drama in the game is specifically from the morale checks that decide the fate of a whole unit; without that, you're basically in a repetitive roll/hit/damage cycle for a long time. So I would consider switching the rule to be more like AD&D or Moldvay B/X, where even the first casualty triggered a morale check.
  • Attacks of opportunity. Wow, does 5E still have basically the same attacks-of-opportunity rule as in 3E? In retrospect I came to consider that one of the biggest blights on 3E; arguing about them was among the main barriers that turned my close friends away from D&D at the time. The main thing I notice here is that the "Reach" benefit again makes no distinction between reach from thrusting pole weapons (who can arrange together to catch opponents before they get close) versus giants creatures with clubbing attacks (who are presumably slow and swingy, and cannot just point continually in one direction at an enemy). That became as big a "proud nail" for me in 3E as the classic D&D missile range problems. I would recommend making the distinction. 
So far so good? Okay, now for the big'un:

The Big Stickler

In some circles this is the most contentious thing about Book of War, but failing to recognize it is so mind-warpingly, clearly wrong that I really can't understand how anyone can tolerate a game without it (link). There has to be a difference in the combat capacity of a mass unit, versus a solo/hero unit of the same type, because there are 10 times as many of the former -- obviously.

But the 5E Battlesystem draft rules have no such distinction. A mass unit uses mechanics exactly the same as in its normal D&D play. And without any other word on the subject, so does the solo unit. A single 4th-level fighter or ogre has 20 hit points and attacks twice a turn for 1d8 damage (or whatever it is nowadays). And a mass figure of 10 4th-level fighters or ogres apparently has the exact same 20 hit points, two attacks, and 1d8 damage.

One hero against 10 ogres is an even fight. And so is 10 heroes against 10 ogres. And so is 10 heroes against 1 ogre. If your warrior in normal D&D can fight off 20 orcs, then all of a sudden he can magically fight off 200 orcs just by virtue of playing a game on the Battlesystem table. Unless the exact same orcs are also declared as solos, at which point he can only fight of 20 of them again. Or if he's joined "magnificent seven" style by nine other heroes in a mass figure, at which point he can now only fight off 2 solo orcs (or whatever). Talk about Lovecraftian mathematics!

If we look at the tradition here, Chainmail Fantasy did not suffer from this problem, because the whole game was intended at one-to-one scale at all times (as opposed to normal historical Chainmail; link) -- although players who mis-read that game might be tricked into a similar scaling paradox. Gygax's later Swords & Spells did accurately and intelligently deal with this, although it was somewhat circumspect on the fact that in practice a solo hero would be easily overwhelmed by a single mass figure ("The hero will inflict .40 of the damage shown for a 4th level creature on the combat tables and sustain damage until sufficient hits are scored upon the figure to kill the hero", p. 1). Battlesystem intentionally inflated its solo heroes by about times 5 for gaming drama (or PC safety-bumpering, depending on how you want to interpret it), but was at least explicit about the fact that it was doing so ("From a mathematical perspective, the attributes of heroes in a BATTLESYSTEM scenario are inflated beyond those of the creatures in the units surrounding them", Battlesystem 2, p. 106). Looking further afield, Warhammer deals with the issue just like original Chainmail, by declaring that the action is all technically at one-to-one scale, so no mixing of mass-vs-solo ever occurs (6E, p. 279).

But the new 5E Battlesystem draft takes the cake for completely submerging the whole issue and thus creating an unprecedented full 10-fold power inflation due to the mismatched scaling (or really 100-fold difference if you flip solo-to-mass on both sides of a conflict). To avoid that craziness, I would highly recommend that the 5E Battlesystem rules recognize this distinction and fix it by either multiplying mass figure hit points and damage by 10, or dividing solo hit points and damage by 10 -- as I did in Book of War.

In conclusion: The kernel of the idea to 5E Battlesystem is fairly attractive and one I agree with: find a way to use the same basic stats and mechanic as in regular D&D for resolutions. But the majority of the design decisions run opposite to those I settled on for my game -- 5E BS being anchored to a gridded map, with heterogeneous figures that need to be moved, tracked, and resolved separately, and lots of paperwork for each figure's individual hit points and conditions. But overshadowing all of that is the fact that, as currently written, ignoring the distinction in scale between mass/solo units makes the game fundamentally unusable for the purpose of accurately simulating a D&D-system combat with larger numbers of combatants.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Night Book of War: Tale of Two Teams

Our good friends Kate & Matt came over the other night, and both cooked and queued up for a Book of War game -- my first chance to roll out the 3D terrain I recently made and new, bigger elephant miniatures. In order to get everyone involved, we played in teams of two, with each person controlling half of a 420-point army.


Turn 1: Kate & Matt at the top have horse archers, medium cavalry, heavy crossbows, elephant archers, trolls, and elite dwarves (3rd-level dwarves in heavy plate). Isabelle & I at the bottom have heavy cavalry, hill giants, heavy crossbows, trolls, orcs, and light cavalry. Terrain is one hill feature next to some woods. Weather is sunny so my big squad of cheap orc infantry are at -1 to hit and morale. Matt's horse archers have made a half-move on the left, shooting down one of our crossbow figures, but morale is good. Our cat Yowly looks on with suspicion at why horse archers chose not to take another half-move.



Turn 2: Isabelle's heavy cavalry caught those horse archers with a charge, and have routed them after two turns of melee. Also, Kate & Matt's crossbows and elephants chose to take a full move to the top of the hill, which allowed our heavy crossbows to get the first shot, routing their men and inflicting 3 hits (of 5) on their elephants.

Meanwhile, strange things in the woods: First, troll-on-troll action where each of our squads of trolls tears into the other and then regenerates the damage in the next turn. (Suggesting the mathematical problem of a random walk: will it ever end?) Secondly, while my orcs have surrounded and outnumbered Kate's dwarves 130-to-20 individuals, in the sunny weather I need to roll 6 + 1 = 7 on any d6 to score a hit. Which, as we say in the basic statistics class, will be assigned the descriptor of "impossible event". Except for the figures at the rear which can hit on a "6", but their blows ring down ineffectually...



Turn 3: Matt's medium cavalry is in a tough position; he decides to charge my light cavalry, but this leaves their rear open to my giants and Isabelle's heavy cavalry. Kate's elephant unit is shot down by our masses of heavy crossbows. Trolls keep clubbing each other with torn-off limbs and whatnot. My orcs are being chopped down in assembly-line fashion by Kate's dwarf swordsmen.



Turn 4: Our cavalry and giants catch Matt's medium cavalry in a pincer move, and trample the whole bunch of them into the dirt. Their routed crossbows run off the table with some parting shots from my own, which was considered broadly unsporting. My orcs just got routed, but other (better) units are circling to finish off the opposition, so we called the game at this point and switched to some Yahtzee.



Conclusions: First of all, I really need to get some better lighting in the living room for these photos. The 3D terrain I recently built was very enjoyable (but probably not something I could take on the road with me). Somewhat embarrassing realization at the end: We probably shouldn't form a team of Isabelle & myself, the number one and two experts at Book of War, against relative newbie players. That was one of the more overwhelming tactical mismatches that we've seen. Also, I got a double Yahtzee.