Friday, February 26, 2021

Friday Figures: XP for Magic Items?

Here's another poll asked on the ODD74 forums for experienced Original D&D players. It's easy to miss but the OD&D rules do say, ever so curtly and parenthetically, that PCs should get XP for acquisitions of magic items (Vol-1, p. 18, emphasis mine):

As characters meet monsters in mortal combat and defeat them, and when they obtain various forms of treasure (money, gems, jewelry, magical items, etc.), they gain "experience".

No further information is given (e.g., parameters or values for specific items). This is one of the fairly big differences between the two branches of D&D in the 1980's: The Basic-B/X-BECMI line ignored this, and never spoke of it again. On the other hand, the AD&D line dug into this deeply and more formally -- first a very few example values are suggested in The Strategic Review #2 (p. 4), and then complete XP (and gold) values were given in magic charts for every item in the game, in the 1E AD&D DMG (p. 121-125). 

So given that major bifurcation, I thought to ask OD&D players on which side of the divide their sensibilities lay? In this case (not the first time), it's an almost even split with no clear consensus. Of 21 votes cast, 11 said "yes" (they do award XP for magic), and 10 said "no".

For me, I'm pretty much still likewise split. Needing to decide, look up, and compute the values seems very burdensome and I've been avoiding it for years. Plus there's an argument that the value of the items should come from use (to get more treasure), and giving inherent XP is double-dipping. On the other hand, I fear that a major component of the OD&D XP economy depended on this factor (e.g., see in Subterrane Survey: Gygax's Castle Greyhawk, under the "Experience" section and related reader comments). What's your take currently?

Friday, February 19, 2021

Friday Figures: How Much Info on Henchmen?

Poll: How much information do you give to players about their hirelings?

Another poll asked previously on the ODD74 forums, and related to our question on Monday -- "How much information do you give players about their hirelings?" (And here OD&D uses the term "hirelings" for what B/X called "retainers", 1E "henchmen", etc.)

You could go in several directions on this, and over the years I've wrestled with them all. For full "immersion" you might consider giving the players no game information at all, keeping the NPCs entirely masked behind the DM's screen and interactive portrayal. On the other end of the dial, the DM might simply see it as a huge hassle to shuffle possibly dozens of sheets and personalities like that (in addition to every other person or monster in the campaign world), and so for logistical efficiency, just turn over the whole henchman PC sheet to the controlling player. Or something in the middle.

When I asked on ODD74, each of the options got at least some votes, but it's that "something in the middle" option that took first place. Specifically, "Index-card size" took 10 votes (66%). Second-place went to"None" with 3 votes (20%). "Full character sheet" and "Something else" each got 1 vote (7%). 

I don't mind that top choice, and I sympathize with the rationale for it. Most recently, I was giving players a full PC sheet for their henchmen after the first adventuring session -- I'm definitely now re-thinking this. Among the things I'm not thrilled about is the need for a different recording document for henchmen (the player-facing index card) -- and then need to keep that synched with the DM document, track XP, shuffle the paper in-game, etc. (Sounds like a violation of the DRY principle.)

So at the moment I'm a bit on the edge for that. What's your preference?

Poll Discussion at ODD74 Forums
(Account Required)

Monday, February 15, 2021

When are Henchmen Appropriate on an Adventure?

Classic D&D (OD&D, AD&D, B/X, etc.... everything prior to 3E in 2000) had as a core rule the fact that the Charisma score correlated with a particular number of maximum loyal hires. (Called variously "hirelings" in 0E, "henchmen" in AD&D, "retainers" in B/X, etc.). This number is 4 for the average Charisma score of 10-11, and varies for higher or lower Charisma, edition specifics, etc. Of course, this is the primary function of the Charisma ability in the first place, and without that mechanic in action, Charisma quickly becomes "the dump stat".

But I'll confess that I've found it a bit burdensome to run games by the letter of the book and have PC parties start to swell towards 4 henchmen per PC. (And related: I've wrestled and run some surveys on how much direct information/control to hand to the player in question, which bears on some recent discussions of "immersion" in the game.)

Random thought for today: In spite of the core rule being without any constraints (other than possibly cost and negotiations to hire the henchmen), the early adventure modules specify a narrower place for the hiring of loyal henchmen: namely, when the number of PCs does not match the design of the given adventure. 

Here's the text in Mike Carr's Module B1, In Search of the Unknown (p. 3, 1979):

Here it is in Gary Gygax's Module B2, The Keep on the Borderlands (p. 2, 1980):

And Tom Moldvay's Module B4, The Lost City (p. 2, 1982):

Now arguably, these products starting in 1979 may not count as "early": at least half a decade after the publication of Original D&D. And I don't find similar text in other adventures of the same era (the earlier GDQ series, T1, either version of B3, etc.). But I do find an interesting take at the end of Gygax's Module S1, The Tomb of Horrors, from one year earlier. Here a list of 20 different high-level characters is given, and then a complicated matrix is given for exactly which ones are put in play depending on the number of players, which can range widely from 2 to 10 (from p. 12, 1978):

Following that rule, the associated table indeed gives two characters per player if the players number 2-4, and only one character each if the players number 5-10. This stock advice is then repeated at the end of Gygax's next adventure, Module S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (p. 30, 1980).

So: What happens if we follow that sensibility -- found only in certain O/AD&D adventure module publications -- that a player shouldn't be controlling more than two characters at a time in a dungeon adventure? As I think it now, the high Charisma allowance for many henchmen has the flavor of one of those rules that works better in high-level solo play, possibly by mail or phone, than it does in live, large-party dungeon crawls (which is part of a more general thesis that's been evolving for me of late).

I wonder: What mechanic could we institute to formalize this in the open-play campaign situation? (That is: give PCs the full benefit from a high Charisma score of many henchmen, but restrict the number in a dungeon crawl to perhaps one at most.) Possibly NPCs decline to take part in adventures when their proportional share of the rewards would be too low? Some logistical problem in spelunking with a large group of people? Something else? Maybe you have some creative ideas of which I wouldn't think...

Friday, February 12, 2021

Friday Figures: Are Hobgoblins and Gnolls Normal?

 Poll: Are hobgoblins/gnolls normal man-types? 

Here's another poll I asked on the ODD74 forums: Do Hobgoblins and Gnolls count as normal man-types?

What does that even mean?, you might possibly say. In OD&D circles, there are frequent rules debates on whether something counts as "normal" or "fantastic" (that is, not-normal) or not. This springs from the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement, where some types just borrowed the combat dice mechanic from the mass-combat game (e.g., hobbits, dwarves, elves, goblins, orcs), and others did not, appearing with special custom rules on the "Fantasy Combat Table" (e.g., heroes, wizards, dragons, trolls, giants). Sometimes those latter "fantastic" creatures were immune to "normal" attacks and sometimes not; sometimes they also had parallel values for the normal mass-combat mechanics, and others did not. 

So there's a hazy border area about what monsters are "normal" and what are not. And this distinction flows directly into the Original D&D rules, where some spells and magic items (e.g., charm person, hold person, potion/ring of human control) implicitly work just on the "normal" types. Furthermore, fighters throughout the Chainmail-0E-1E-2E rulesets are given a cleave-ability of attacks per round equal to their level, but only against "normal" types (the definition of which varied slightly over the editions). 

Therefore, in the hazy state of OD&D, the Hobgoblin/Gnoll types jumped out at me as existing right on the boundary of the normal/fantastic parameters, and I was wondering which side of the fence most OD&D players placed them on. Hobgoblins don't appear on the Chainmail Fantasy Combat Table; Gnolls don't appear in those rules at all. In OD&D they appear jointly on a single line of the monster roster. Hobgoblins have hit dice 1+1, Gnolls have 2, which in some definitions ("base 1 hit die or less", Gygax's FAQ in The Strategic Review #2) would put them on opposite sides of the divide, which could seem odd. On the other hand, the OD&D charm person spell is said to affect all these types up to Gnolls explicitly, and critically on the monster list, hobgoblins/gnolls are the highest type to appear in mass numbers into the hundreds (implying that the fighters' cleave-ability was meant to work against them)? 

Monster reference table, including hobgoblins/gnolls

As you can see in results at the top, the majority of respondents on the ODD74 forums said, "yes", Hobgoblins and Gnolls should count as "normal men" for these kinds of purposes (even though they both have more than 1 single hit die). Twelve people (80%) voted "yes", and only three people (20%) voted "no". As usual here: a small sample size, but a lopsided majority for "yes". 

I agree that does seem to make the best regression between various signals in different parts of the rules (charm person inclusion, mass numbers appearing, formation status in Swords & Spells, etc.). However, in my own house rules, I lean towards saying "no". It seems much more elegant to say "man-size is anything up to 1 hit die". That complies with the stated fighter-cleave requirements, restricts to actual man-sized figures (gnolls in AD&D are said to be 7+ feet tall!), and generally gives a nice easy-to-remember cutoff.

Here's the real kicker, though. As part of the discussion on ODD74, user retrorob pointed out a detail that all the rest of us missed: in the Beyond This Point Be Dragons document (BTPBD), presumed to be a copy of a pre-publication original D&D draft -- get this -- even Gnolls did have a single hit die! In this work, there is absolutely no mechanical distinction between the two types, except for either +1 or +2 morale bonus given in the descriptive text. Thanks immensely for that, retrorob!

BTPBD Monster Roster: including hobgoblins/gnolls

So that sort of comes back full circle. Assuming the BTPBD is an accurate reflection of the original design, the "normal" monster types affected by charm person, hold person, fighter cleaving, mass numbers appearing, etc. really did top out at base 1 hit die (including hobgoblins/gnolls at 1+1 hit dice). Having observed that, the elegance of such a system attracts me so much that I kind of want to declare that the true rule for my games. If we keep Gnolls at 2 hit dice for variety, then presumably we'd want to keep them off the fighter-cleave list, reduce their large Numbers Appearing, and cut them off the charm/hold person effect lists, etc. Suddenly that looks really nice to me. (And by implication, later 2 hit die creatures like Lizard Men and Troglodytes would be in the same category.)

How would you have voted there?

Poll on Hobgoblin/Gnolls at ODD74 (account required)

Monday, February 8, 2021

Book of War Rules v.2.0.7

Isabelle & I have gotten back in the swing of live Book of War games on Twitch & YouTube Saturday nights -- and there's been a growing amount interest around it, which is really gratifying! In fact, it sounds like some of our friends are dipping into miniature wargaming for the first time as a result. 

In January we started Season 2 after a number of (to my sensibility) pretty fundamental changes to the core rules. Since people have been asking, here is the current player-aid card and full unit roster that we're testing on the show, in hopes of an upcoming 2nd Edition release:

Player Aid Card

Full Unit Roster

Notable Changes

Some things that have been edited recently:

  • In Season 1, we were testing some suggested rules to give extra benefits to shields and charging cavalry (so as to increase historical fidelity and strategic balance). At this point we've discarded that (because we kept forgetting about it in play, and it was at odds with core D&D mechanics). That idea will still appear in an optional rules section.
  • Up until now (from 1st Edition to about last week), monsters with extra damage output, like giants, had their damage capped by the health of the target they were hitting. I did an analysis that shows giants vs. normal men getting a multiplier of about 1.4 on real casualties generated, which is pretty close to on-the-fence about rounding up or down. I've now decided to round up on that and remove the cap rule (for simplicity, remove being compelled to target giants at high-health enemies, and synchronize with Chainmail Fantasy, Swords & Spells, and Battlesystem). 
  • I've also added a few more exotic units (some of which have extra background rules necessary) whose details I'll leave until my Distinguished Competition decides to try them out live on the stream.

More to come soon!

Book of War Season 1 on YouTube

Book of War Season 2 on YouTube

Friday, February 5, 2021

Friday Figures: Favorite Basic D&D


Survey: Favorite Basic D&D set?

A few months ago on Twitter, user @LeroyD20 (thanks greatly, Leroy!) asked what I thought was a nifty question: what was people's favorite version of Basic D&D ruleset released in the 1977-1986 period? He got almost 80 votes which is fairly good sample size.

As you can see above, the results were -- Moldvay 57%, Mentzer 23%, Holmes 20%. 

Broadly speaking, I think those are fairly reasonable opinions. As someone who started with Holmes myself, of course I have a warm spot in my heart that. Holmes, of course, was trying very hard to mostly re-organize OD&D source material, frequently using the exact same language (and also getting a revision  pass by Gygax himself). On the other hand, Moldvay (which I did run for several years) has a certain spark of editorial design genius, refining, tightening, and improving rules in many, many places. Mentzer mostly follows Moldvay's core rules, but in my opinion is burdened down with the decision to make the player's book mostly a keyed choose-your-own-adventure (which takes a lot of space, and makes the book not very useful as a reference work after initial reading). 

So I might pick Moldvay as the best of the lot myself. That said: He also introduced race-as-class which almost single-handedly causes me to turn away from those rules anytime I think about announcing that my games are based on his work.

Also, how much of this is correlated with marketing pushes at the time, hitting the moment of the explosive fad years, etc.? Obviously, we'll never entirely disentangle that. But Moldvay stands above as the strong editor that many of us wish Gygax had throughout his D&D writing. 

Poll on Favorite Basic D&D at Twitter

Monday, February 1, 2021

Critical Hits Postmortem

Two weeks back on the Wandering DMs talk show, we had a lively conversation about all the different experiments that have been made over the years around critical hits. Or as Paul sagely observed: the possibly different strains of hit-location and extra-damage additions to the core D&D system. One of the things I loved the most about this dive is how diametrically opposite the two designers' attitudes were: Arneson loved complicated wargame-style systems, and Gygax seemed to absolutely loathe them.

The texts we were looking at in that show were pretty verbose (really, from Gygax and Arneson?) we didn't have time to look at all the details while chatting, so for those without access to the original materials, here's what we were looking at.

Mike Carr's Dawn Patrol (a.k.a Fight in the Skies)

This is just one summary page from the optional critical-hits rules in Carr's WWI fighter game. Note that hit-locations are part of the core rules for combat (separate hit-point tracks for wings, engine, etc.); the advanced add-on here is to possibly have extra damaging effects on a particular hit. These critical tables go one for several more pages. 

Dwan Patrol Critical Hits Tables

Arneson/Gygax OD&D Aerial Combat

Dave Arneson wrote a set of rules called Battle in the Skies (BITS). Griff from Secrets of Blackmoor has the whole manuscript, displayed at the last in-person GaryCon, and playtested in the game room. I'm told it's basically an add-on to Carr's FITS and requires that game to play (hey: shades of Outdoor Survival). Gygax took that manuscript and hacked it down to an extent that it could fit in as one section to OD&D Vol-3. Following Carr's precedent, this therefore represents the only place in OD&D that has a notion of hit locations and "critical hits":

OD&D Aerial Combat Tables

Arneson's OD&D Blackmoor

In Arneson's Blackmoor (OD&D Supplement II), he goes whole-hog with an extensive system of hit locations for every different kind of creature, and hit points divvied up between each body part (just like the planes in FITS; such that a hit to the head could much more easily incapacitate a foe, given a small number of hit points there). The tables for the system go on for many pages. He also has a system for per-segment movement of all creatures in a combat, which he also has in his full BITS game (see here); that's a novel development compared to Carr's FITS. Oh, and also a matrix on comparative height differentiation between different combatants.

It bears noting that in the Introduction to Arneson's later First Fantasy Campaign (FFC, p. 3), he asserts, "Combat was quite simple at first and then got progressively complicated with the addition of Hit Location, etc... Hit Location was generally used only for the bigger critters, and only on a man to man level were all the options thrown in. This allowed play to progress quickly even if the poor monsters suffered more from it."

OD&D Blackmoor: Hit Locations

Gygax in Dragon #16

In Dragon Magazine #16, Gygax has an extensive essay on the basic principles of the D&D game, and his attitude towards attempts at editing or expanding on them. In particular he truly hates the "offensive", "perverted" idea of double damage on a Natural 20. See below:

Gygax: The Dragon, July 1978

Gygax in the 1E AD&D DMG

Gygax doubles down on this position, inserting the same thesis to the very beginning on the Combat section of the 1E AD&D DMG. He also hammers more heavily on the offense of having lots of complications for "hit locations, special damage, and so on". Obviously this is a direct criticism of Arneson's approach in Blackmoor. This is from DMG p. 61, and you might go back and read that page if you get a chance, because he carries on in the same vein for fully 3 paragraphs. Following paragraphs defend the highly abstract one-minute round approach (possibly a response to Arneson's segment-based movement idea), and then a more full-throated complaint about "endless resort to charts, tables, procedure clarifications, and over-lengthy time requirements". Furthermore, I tend to interpret the line in the introductory The Game section (p. 9), "AD&D... does not stress any realism... It does little to attempt to simulate anything either", as quite likely having been written while looking at Arneson's pages and pages of extra combat systems from Blackmoor. Dave's work was assuredly directly in the crosshairs of all this series of grievances.

1E AD&D DMG: Combat (p. 61)

So that's sort of the historical springboard we used on Wandering DMs to frame our discussion of systems we've later tried (and we've tried a bunch of things). Between the two of us, we kicked around some new ideas live, and our viewers also shared some things that seemed novel and solid to us. 

For a number of years I used the critical-hits tables by Carl Parlagreco, "Good Hits & Bad Misses", from Dragon Magazine #39. But I found that I was making more and more edits and changes around the edges; the radical results were okay for one-of tournaments, but not great in extended campaign play. As you can see in last week's update to the OED house rules: within the last year I jettisoned that system and reverted to simply double damage on a Natural 20 (Gygax forgive me). Meanwhile, you can see Paul's system for critical hits here, which instead of increasing deadliness which was my motivation, actually serves as the safety bumper when a PC hits 0 hit points (whereas I now give a single Save vs. Death at that point).

Anything in there that's surprising to you? How many times have you evolved the critical hits in your games from experience?

Critical Hits at Wandering DMs