Monday, October 17, 2016

Nothing Remains Interesting If Anything Can Happen

In 1902 H.G. Wells gave an interview to Cosmopolitan magazine. In part, he said this:
The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms and a rigid exclusion of other marvels from the story. Then it becomes human. How would you feel and what might not happen to you, is the typical question, if for instance pigs could fly and one came rocketing over a hedge at you? How would you feel and what might not happen to you if suddenly you were changed into an ass and couldn't tell anyone about it? Or if you suddenly became invisible? But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats, and dogs left and right, or if anyone could vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting if anything can happen.

I agree with Wells here, and I think that this is a very fine expression of one of the several disagreements I have with conventional D&D criticism, to wit, that appealing to "realism" has no place in our assessments. Almost surely we've all heard several arguments like this: "You want a mechanic for realistic [weapons/bows/armor/movement/mounts/encumbrance/rations/falling/swimming/boating]? But there is no place for realism in a game with wizards and fire-breathing dragons!"

As Wells points out, not everything can be fantastical and surprising and wahoo, because then the whole work collapses into indistinguishable, unapproachable mush. In our case of the fantasy D&D campaign, of course, we are certainly able to support somewhat more of an eclectic combination of elements than Wells could in the course of a single story. That's fine. But our players need some guidelines and parameters for how things work -- they can't make any valuable strategic choices if the DM is prone to springing crazy nonsense about everything, all the time.

And particularly for the new player (who is, in fact, most people), an excellent methodology is this: Give them a ground-state field of "normal medieval society", and how things generally work physically, technologically, and socially in the real world, and start building fantastical elements a bit at a time from there. This provides a very rich set of shared expectations and intuitions quickly, without reading tomes of background text to get into the milieu. Play can start immediately, and their instincts for how a sword, water, door, rope, horse, torch, mirror, spike, or tree work admirably, assuming a reasonable DM who is attentive, observant, and fair about things like that.

In old-school D&D we can give the new player a low-level fighter, who is mundane in practically all ways, maybe skip telling them anything about the rules at all, and just ask them to role-play honestly with the physical equipment with which they start. It works out perfectly fine and much of the time that player will be more creative than the person accustomed to working with lists of skills and feats. Notice that their tools principally come from the standard equipment list, which in Original D&D had no explanatory text of any kind associated with them (players were expected to be generally aware of the world around them and medieval-level technology).

Of course, realism can't be everything; as per the golden rule, it's balanced against playability of the game. But personally I see no reason why not to "dial in" the ground state rules of things like mundane combat, movement, archery, encumbrance, foodstuffs, riding, swimming, falling, etc., and I wholeheartedly support "realism" as a legitimate point of discussion in that part of the game design. In fact, frequently it serves to discover the most elegant rule. If someone says "it doesn't matter", then having a correct rule shouldn't trouble them any more than having an incorrect rule. Whereas if someone were to argue that a more-mangled base reality is always better in a fantastical game ("because dragons"), then it runs up against Wells' observation here: Then nothing remains interesting, and nothing is coherent to the part-time player.

(Hat tip for the quote: B.J. Johnson).

Monday, October 10, 2016

Dictionary of the Canting Crew

BE, Gent. "A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew." its Several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats, &c. With an Addition of Some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. Useful for all Sorts of People (especially Foreigners) to Secure their Money and Preserve their Lives; besides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New. London, c. 1698.

(Hat tip: BJ Johnson.)

Monday, October 3, 2016

Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 3

Continuing our look at the intimate connection between the rules of Outdoor Survival and Original D&D:


Here is the page-sized movement chart for Outdoor Survival:

Outdoor Survival Movement Chart

As you can see, the fundamental mechanic is, in entering a particular hex, to charge a particular cost against the person's daily move rate (cost being between 1 and 4 hexes). The terrain penalties in OD&D are assessed in almost an identical fashion: Gygax actually asserts that they are the same, but then inserts just a few edits along the way (Vol-3, p. 17):
Terrain Penalties: All terrain penalties are as stated in OUTDOOR SURVIVAL, mountains and swamps cost three movement per hex, crossing rivers at non-ford hexes also costs three, and woods or deserts cost two. Tracks through mountainous terrain cost two factors per hex moved, and tracks through woods or swamps incur no movement penalty.

The only changes here are that swamp hexes cost 3 movement units (instead of 4), and that tracks through mountains cost 2 move units (instead of 1 in Outdoor Survival). When I run D&D wilderness games, I ignore these minor changes, and actually just display this same movement chart from Outdoor Survival for my players' benefit.

I consider this hex-based mechanic to be far more elegant for gameplay purposes than the more abstract system that was presented in say, AD&D, where only daily miles traveled were presented -- ignoring the fact that different types of terrain could be encountered within a single day, or that odd remainders of movement between hexes might need consideration. Having moves purely in terms of whole-number hexes neatly solves a whole number of problems during play.


Outdoor Survival has a "Sequence of Play" that looks like this: (1) Select scenario and set players at full food, water, and health; (2) Determine order by random dice; (3) Roll for Direction ability and move counter; (4) Consult Necessities chart to see if food/water ration has been met for the day; (5) Mark any losses and reduced movement for the next turn. Repeat most of these steps until the game concludes.

However, there is an interesting "Optional" step included in the list, namely Step 6:

Outdoor Survival optional step 6: encounters

As you can see, this step triggers Wilderness Encounters, specified in a chart on the flip side of each Scenario card, wherein the player would, by default, pick one of 3 columns on which to roll for the exact type of encounter. The encounter charts vary by Scenario in the usual way (wickedly brutal at low levels; more easily manageable at higher levels); here are the encounters for Scenario 4 as one example:

Outdoor Survival Wilderness Encounters: Scenario 4

Note that among the options are remaining stationary (effectively: lose a turn), gaining or losing food or water, and possibly outright losing a life level (only one outcome for that, however). Lower-level charts include losing multiple turns and food/water units at once. Here is a bit more description of that optional rule:

Outdoor Survival encounters rules

From a top-level design perspective, this idea of how to run wilderness adventures was ported directly into OD&D; the two daily rolls there are, indeed, one for being lost (direction ability) and one for possible monsters (wilderness encounters). Concepts that were stripped out were: rolls or assessment of possible loss of food/water, loss of mobility for reduced life levels, and encounters of types other than creatures. Outdoor Survival included the presence of inclement weather ("Natural Hazards"), alongside creature encounters, but that was left our for D&D.

The other thing I want to point out is that Outdoor Survival, as simple as it is, includes an example of a non-uniform core mechanic; if you look at the Direction Ability charts (see last week), then on that d6 roll the player is penalized for rolling low, whereas for encounters here the player is penalized for rolling high (encounters only occur on 5-6 as above). I have found this prone to confuse players, so I penciled in a note to flip this latter roll around in play (see margin note above).

However, that was not an adjustment that was made in D&D Vol-3. Gygax ported in this exact same mechanic, with the exact same sense of the two 6-sided dice; low roll for loss of direction ability, and high roll for monsters encounters. Ranges vary for different terrain types, but otherwise the idea is completely the same (Vol-3, p. 18):

OD&D Vol-3 Wilderness Chart

When I first saw this chart, the contrasting sense of the dice-results made me wonder that possibly only a single 6-sided die was being rolled (with either a lost or monster result, never both together). But I think that reading the prior page carefully clarifies that two separate dice are rolled (technically: one is at the start of the day, the other at the end of the day). The fact that the mechanic is so transparently borrowed from Outdoor Survival makes that even more clear, I'm sure.

And this same basic idea was also used in the dungeon setting, of course, for one of the most important but often controversial D&D mechanics: "A roll of 6 indicates a wandering monster has appeared." (Vol-3, p. 10). Again: High roll indicates encounter (disjoint from, say, the fact that low roll indicates surprise).

But the idea of a "core mechanic" where all high rolls are uniformly desirable was something that was not on the radar of either Outdoor Survival or Dungeons & Dragons at that point in time. And that makes the shared DNA even more obvious in this rather telling case.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 2

If you visit a site like, you'll find that the usual knock on the Outdoor Survival game is that it's impossibly difficult to win at. This seems to be an interesting common theme with my other favorite stuff: Early-edition D&D, my work at Papyrus Racing, and my profession of teaching mathematics. As JFK said, we choose to do these things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard". So we should explore that further.

Outdoor Survival reviews at

Scenario Cards

Outdoor Survival isn't just a single game; it's actually a whole bunch of games, even an open-ended platform for making your own games (sound familiar?). The boxed set comes with 5 "Scenario Cards" which respectively outline completely different objectives, win conditions, and rules for being lost and finding sustenance. In the interest of comment, criticism, scholarship, and research, here's the front side of each of the cards:

Outdoor Survival Scenario 1

Outdoor Survival Scenario 2

Outdoor Survival Scenario 3

Outdoor Survival Scenario 4

Outdoor Survival Scenario 5

Aside from the context and objectives changing, the key observation is this: The scenarios represent a simulation of characters with progressively greater experience in surviving and navigating the wilderness.

Scenario 1, "Lost", is a situation with totally unprepared and disoriented characters stranded in the wilds; there is always some restriction on their movement. Looking on the left under "Direction Ability", they must always travel their full movement allowance. Half the time their movement starts in a random direction; only 1/3 of the time are they allowed even a single turn; the best they can hope for is being able to pick a direction of their choice and go in a straight line, full distance. On the right under "Necessities", their daily food and water requirements are almost never met. The only way that happens is to end a move directly on one of the few food hexes or a stream/water basin; and recall that players cannot choose how far to move in any event! I interpret this as a completely unaware lost soul, with no map, compass, food, or even a canteen with which to take water out of a stream when they pass one by. Indeed, the normal end to this game is everyone dying, no matter how well you try to play.

But on the other hand, as one progresses through the scenarios, these heavy restrictions are lessened. Direction ability options become more often a matter of player choice, and food/water become easier to collect and maintain. For example: Scenario 4, "Rescue", clearly features expert outdoorsmen looking to find and extract stranded victims. There is never any random direction taken; the choice is always up to the player, and they choose exactly how far to travel, and only half the time have any restrictions on the number of turns they make. Water supply is automatically full in all cases; the water index loss rule is completely a non-issue for these characters (full canteens?). Food may be found in any hex whatsoever, and certainly by passing through any indicated food hex. Simple survival and navigation about the map is all but guaranteed here; these characters are dealing with entirely different mental challenges than those in Scenario 1, say.

In short: The Outdoor Survival scenarios provide the germ of the idea of advancing character levels in D&D. Which is arguably the single most powerful game-design invention of all time. The scenarios provide a spectrum of characters of increasing knowledge and proficiency in surviving the challenges of the wilderness. At the lowest level, death is the most likely outcome, even with the best of strategies on the part of the player. But the strategy and game itself is entirely different as we advance experience. At the highest levels, mere survival is assured, those concerns are swept from the mental space of the game, and instead we wrestle with different, higher-order challenges.

Likewise as in D&D, it may be considered somewhat counter-intuitive that the hardest game (to simply survive) is at the introductory, lowest levels. If someone plays only Scenario 1 of Outdoor Survival, and dies several times in sequence, then perhaps they are not incited to play the other,  higher-level scenarios which are actually much easier to win at (due to increasing character proficiency). The traditional boardgame gesture is that more "advanced" scenarios are adding more and more rules, and hence increasingly hard to manage the play/strategy. Here this is reversed; higher levels actually remove certain rules from consideration (like the need to track water resources). If someone were committed to winning the first "level" before proceeding to others (which is not guaranteed in any case), then it is no wonder that they walk away from Outdoor Survival with the impression that it is simply an assured massacre on every play of the game.

Finally, consider the expression of the same kind rule for being lost in Original D&D (Vol-3, p. 17). While it doesn't perfectly match any of the "Direction Ability" tables above, it is more like the higher-level ones than the lower. Again on a low roll, the PCs may have to start in a random direction and be restricted to a single "turn" in their move. But this chance is lessened (either on only a 1, 1-2, or 1-3, depending on terrain), and at no time are they required to move their full speed for the day. Meanwhile, traditional D&D never included any rules for adjudicating a lack of food or water. D&D seems to expect that only the "highest level" of Outdoor Survival characters will be active in its wilderness play.

D&D Vol-3 Lost Parties rule

Still more to come.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 1

Recall again that having a copy of Outdoor Survival was originally listed as one of the top pieces of "Recommended Equipment", above dice, paper, pencil, players... everything, in fact, except for the D&D rules themselves (Vol-1, p. 5). Almost all of us have seen the Outdoor Survival map, I think, many times, because it keeps get re-used for many purposes. Instead, I'm looking at the rules of the game today; in some ways their direct relation to early D&D rules is a lot more interesting. Outdoor Survival says very little about its in-game context (or exactly what strategy to use while playing it), but it implies much.

Scale of the Map

Outdoor Survival map scale text
Notice my hand-annotations. While not explicitly stated, we can back-calculate from the given square mileage of the map to determine that each hex is about 3 miles across (i.e., 1 league). I tend to think that having a move system that handles up to about 7 spaces moved per turn is ideal (See: Magic Number 7 from back in '07). Indeed, as you can see below, the maximum (full health) movement for a man in Outdoor Survival is 6 hexes.

But the wilderness rules of D&D Vol-3, which use the Outdoor Survival map, also need to handle travel modes such as horses, ships, and even flying dragons (much faster than walking). There, Gygax made the hexes about twice as big (5 miles; compare to 6 miles in later material like Moldvay/Cook, i.e., 2 leagues), thereby cutting the hexes walked by about half, prolonging the adventure and handling horses without leaving the entire map behind them in a single day. I constantly engage in a never-ending debate with myself over the descriptive elegance of having 1 hex = 1 league, versus the need to have a larger hex size so movement in hexes is a manageably low number.

Life Level Chart

Oyutdoor Survival Life Level Chart

Each player gets one of these yellow cards to track their current life level. Each day without food or water decreases the respective track by one box; after several are missed, life level is decreased. This happens more quickly for water than food; and in the later stages the loss becomes exponentially greater. Life levels A-O (15 stages) are noted, starting with A (full health). The intimate connection between health and mobility is the key mechanic of this game; as soon as a single life level "point" is lost, movement is reduced from 6 to 5 hexes/turn. The longer you go without food or water, the worse your mobility is, and it becomes increasingly hard to get to the next food/water supply point. If prolonged, it quickly falls into a "death spiral" where reaching food/water becomes impossible. Indeed, even by life level L, movement becomes zero, and you are effectively dead at that point.

It's an elegant rule, and it does a reasonably good job of communicating the critical concerns of real outdoor survival (I like this game a lot). Tracking the connection for one person per player is fairly easy by using these cards. But in D&D, we are likely to be running many people, characters, mounts, henchmen, etc. (to say nothing of the DM with dozens or hundreds of monsters!), and trying to use this exact same mechanic would become quickly, totally unworkable. In D&D, of course, decreasing mobility from injuries was never part of the core rules -- but is referenced in the earliest edition as something a DM could consider ("Whether sustaining accumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee.", Vol-1, p. 18).

More to come.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Book of War Updated Prices

I'd very much like to update the OED Book of War (see sidebar) for a 2nd Edition, but at this point it's unclear when I'll have the time. I will take the opportunity to release this much:

For more than a year now we've been playing our games with a somewhat revised pricing list. This was triggered by a few things. One, I revised the simulation/pricing program to take into account the effect of a large unit "wrapping" around a smaller unit, which gave a boost to the efficacy of really cheap unit types. Two, I allowed myself a little more leeway to slightly massage the prices at the higher end to round numbers to make it easy for players to quickly budget their forces without needing a calculator. (For example: The cavalry costs are now simply 10/15/20 -- the exact same as seen in Original D&D Vol-3, as opposed to having heavy cavalry priced at 18 or 19 as the simulator actually estimates).

Another important item that we've made a core rule (whereas it used to be optional) is the requirement that any units on the board need to have a total budget cost of at least 50. This corrects a few possible trouble spots: Players taking cheap forces and making them into lots of tiny 3-figure units; buying all different types so as to create 1-figure units; short-circuiting the critical importance of the morale rules; greatly slowing down the game due to the proliferation of units on the board; and so forth.

Some other changes that we now regularly play with can be found at the bottom of this post.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Me and the Ass Olympics

In 1998, I was looking for my second job in the gaming industry. I interviewed at GameFX, a small studio started by former Looking Glass members. I actually got a formal job offer from them, and utterly indecisive, I simply ghosted them on it. It was probably the single dumbest, embarrassing, most unprofessional thing I've ever done (possibly followed by publicly admitting it here?).

Anyway, among the things that came up at that interview was that I sat down with one of the designers (can't remember the name) and found that they were mostly done with development on the game Sinistar Unleashed (a 3D reboot of an earlier, popular arcade game in 2D with digital voice features). One thing he said to me: "That's great that you're interested in the design aspect, because we're having problems with Sinistar Unleashed. We just can't figure out how to make it fun. If you have any ideas we'd love to hear them." Which was, you know, kind of a bad signal in an interview regarding a game I haven't played and was already nearing the end of its development.

So here I am this summer almost two decades later, clearing out some of my hoarded clutter, and I come across an issue of PC Accelerator magazine from May 2000. That was kind of a "Maxim-y" magazine for gaming, written throughout with a snarky "bro" tone. As I flip through it I find a piece called "The Ass Olympics" about recent games that had sucked to an unusual degree. Among them: Sinistar Unleashed, which was ranked fourth in the event of "Boredom", with a score of 8.0 out of 10 by their standards.

So here's a late salute to that now-forgotten designer for his perpicacity.