Monday, November 22, 2021

Cursed Magic Items Through the Ages

The Monkey's PawA week back on the Wandering DMs YouTube channel we had a nifty conversation on the status of Cursed Magic Items in D&D. Largely we came out in agreement that they're a nice spice that makes magic in general feel more mysterious and dangerous. In the after-party chat on Discord, one of our Patrons asked: What exactly was the frequency of cursed magic items in the early editions? Did it really change very much over time?

Which I thought was a very good question, and I started researching it. And looked at every single magic item in D&D. In every single edition over the years. (Core rules only, thank you.) I guess it's my curse, but I hope it benefits you, Gentle Reader.

Original D&D (LBBs)

Here we're looking solely at the Little Brown Books in the white box, specifically Vol-2, which has both the monsters and treasures (including magic items). As noted in the WDMs show, pre-3E, there's no "keyword" system, so in most cases it's hazy about whether an item should count as "cursed" or not. However, the need for a remove curse spell to get rid of it is a pretty good sign, among others (more on that issue later). I'm sure there will be one or two items you'd differ with me in adding or taking out of these lists, but it won't change the overall numbers significantly.

In this case, I can only count six (6) items as cursed -- the sword –2, potion of delusion, potion of poison, cursed scrolls, ring of weakness, and ring of delusion

Notice there are no cursed armors, non-sword weapons, wands/staves, or miscellaneous magic. Some of those will soon be added -- but there are no cursed wands/staves in any edition. The overall chance of cursed items turning up here is 8%.

Original D&D (Greyhawk Supplement)

Less than a year later, Gygax published D&D Supplement I, Greyhawk. It  includes extensive "Additions and Changes" to the magic item tables; although the master types table, and the scrolls table, are unchanged and do not appear in this story (that latter being something I almost overlooked in computing statistics here). 

Several new cursed items are added, seemingly in an attempt to cover almost any form-factor of magic item in the game, including: one sword, one other weapon, an armor, a shield, one ring -- and thirty-three (33) miscellaneous magic items. I won't list them all here, but suffice to say pretty much any form of miscellaneous magic in the LBBs now has a cursed analog in the world by which to trick players. I think the majority of new magic items in the book are these cursed iterations of pre-existing magic items. Previously no miscellaneous magic was cursed; now 30% of the time miscellaneous items are cursed. 

And there's another issue that I'm not counting here, in an expansion of item types that are keyed to some class or alignment, helping the associated, but likely blasting others who pick it up. There's a special paragraph note (p. 59) that all manuals, books, librams, and tomes curse a reader who fails to benefit from it to hide and guard the book against anyone else successfully using it. (Dealing with the expansion of alignment-based effects would be an entire article unto itself.)

That said, the master table only sends you to miscellaneous types 5% of the time, so in the overall results this makes a very small difference, adding about 1.5% frequency (we've actually noted this both of the last two weeks in our WDMs chats on YouTube). But other stuff also adds to the chances: the new cursed armor & shield adds 2% to the cursed chance, and the chances for cursed rings expands to 1.5%. In total for this supplement, the chance of a cursed item now stands at nearly 13% (12.58%). This moment represents the high-water mark for cursed items in the game, and what we'll see in later editions is a slow erosion of the overall concept (including very few new cursed items added to the game after this point).

AD&D 1st Edition 

The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide is very helpful for this study, because the tables effectively flag bad/cursed items -- by virtue of leaving the XP and/or GP column blank in those cases. For instances in other editions (both before and immediately after) where I couldn't confidently tell one way or the other, I've used this as an indicator to resolve the issue by designer intent. (With one exception: the jewel of flawlessness is clearly only beneficial, despite having a null XP entry, so I've left it out of my count here. Other stuff with both pro-and-con effects, like artifacts and the deck of many things, I've synchronously counted as cursed, but they're negligible factors in the final numbers either way.) 

Here, Gygax has kept all the same cursed types as seen in Sup-I, but seems to have notably dialed down their frequency in most cases of potions, swords, armors, and rings. The cursed miscellaneous magic is about the same (1.65% of the total; about 1% or 2% on each of five sub-tables). The total frequency of cursed items therefore adds up to only 7%, a single percentage point below what it was in the OD&D LBBs. 

AD&D 2nd Edition 

AD&D 2nd Edition has an interesting change in idiom to the tables for magic weapons; there are separate tables for weapon type, vs. magic effect, the matrix of which can generate many more varieties of magic weapons than what was seen previously. In the table for magic weapon bonus, there is a flat 10% (2-in-20) chance the modifier on any magic weapon is –1, which is a significant increase from earlier rules. 

However, there are no general rules or commentary on the status of these negative-modifier weapons that I could find. Is the player stuck with using it permanently until a remove curse can be accessed? Without explicit text on that point, my reading would be no. Likewise, the list of cursed scroll effects is radically reduced in power -- 0E/1E had a list of instant-death, removed from planet effects, etc.; 2E replaces those with a -1 modifier to checks, taking 2-6 points damage, growing a beard, etc.

So while the overall frequency of cursed items in 2E has gone up to 10% (due to the magic weapons table), arguably the impact of those baneful magic items is much reduced.

D&D 3rd Edition 

The 3rd Edition DMG makes the whole issue of cursed items optional; if utilized, then any discovered magic item has a flat 5% chance of being cursed (DMG p. 231). This sends the DM to a separate set of tables to find add-on effects modifying the magic item in question -- things like delusion, opposite effect, intermittent functioning, trigger requirements, certain drawbacks, etc. Generally these are fairly gentle side-effects (compare to 2E scrolls above). There is a 10% chance to be sent to the "Specific Cursed Items" table, which has about 30 items carried forward from the AD&D list (mostly miscellaneous magic, as to be expected). 

There's also a behind-the-curtains sidebar discussing the pros & cons of having cursed items in the game -- it suggests that items with both benefits & drawbacks make for more interesting tough choices in the game. And that PCs finding that they have a cursed item should be able to get rid of the item easily (a hard about-face from Gygax's O/AD&D). 

Some of that philosophy I really like: The benefits + drawbacks dilemma is very much in line with what we agreed to on our WDMs show. I also really like the structure of separate add-on tables for curses, so any such item gives room for creativity and customization by the DM, and likely any cursed item is a unique creation (as opposed to the very large amount of ink spent in OD&D Sup-I providing individual cursed types of every form factor). But the effects here in 3E are generally so weak that I tend to think most of them wouldn't have any interesting impact.

D&D 4th Edition

Many idioms of 4E, including magic items, are so different from any other edition that they're almost incomparable. For example, magic items are such a critical and expected part of character builds, that the whole list appears in the PHB (whereas all other editions have them in the DMG). I'm also told that having them fully, fungibly convertible to cash on demand is a key mechanic. 

That said, I can't find any bad/cursed items in the 4E list. There's a power called warlock's curse, and some items boost that to the benefit of the caster/owner. There is an item called curseforged armor, but that's just flavor-text (crafted by bitter halflings), and again, beneficial to the wearer. So as far as I can tell the frequency of cursed items is zero (0%).

D&D 5th Edition

D&D 5E has a very small number of classic cursed items return to the game. By my count, these are: armor of vulnerability, bag of devouring, berserker axe, demon armor, shield of missile attraction, sword of vengeance (the classic cursed sword), and dust of sneezing & choking. That's close to the same number as in the OD&D LBBs. Most of these are tagged explicitly with the "cursed" keyword; the bag of devouring and dust of sneezing & choking are not, but I've counted them anyway (in line with the 1E understanding). There's a very curt 5 sentences on the general status of cursed items (DMG p. 138-139). Some of the effects are notably changed from older editions. Note that 5 of the 6 items are weapons & armor; there is now only one cursed miscellaneous item, that indelible and infamous bag of devouring (contrast sharply with OD&D Sup-I!).

Now, calculating the frequency of appearance here is a tougher problem, because the magic item tables are split up by level of power (into tables A through I), and those are keyed not from a master table, but from the encounter-level tables, which produce different possible packages of treasure. So parties of different levels will be running against different result tables, and hence different chances of cursed items, over the course of their adventuring careers. Tables A, C, E, and I have no cursed items. The others have either 1%, 2%, or in one case 3% frequency of cursed items (just a single cursed item each on tables B, D, F, and H, but three items on table G alone). Let's take a rough average over all the tables and say the frequency is about 1%.


Below is a summary table of the chance for a random magic item to be cursed in any edition of D&D to date. As you can see, the idea in Gygax's mind circa the Greyhawk supplement for magic items to be commonly cursed and dangerous to the players, and appearing in any form-factor that a beneficial item might, washed away with the tides, becoming less frequent, and much less punishing over time. As of the last 3 editions, many campaigns have been run with official support for no such items appearing whatsoever. As a guess, it seems quite likely that they might be totally absent (again) from the core books of whatever the next edition from WOTC might be. 

Cursed Magic Items Frequency Table

Download a work spreadsheet here with comprehensive listings of every cursed item (ODS format).

Monday, November 15, 2021

Demographics Quick Rule-of-Thumb

I was thinking again about medieval demographics the other day. This follows on an earlier summary article I wrote here

Thing is, I was trying to do some large-scale number crunching in my head, and found that I got a little tangled up about it. So in response, I came with a very rough rule-of-thumb based on units in powers of 10 that I could mentally juggle, and is roughly on the right order with what we know of medieval European societies. Here it is:

Medieval demographics rule-of-thumb

So in the grand total, that represents a 4-million population that might be an entire country on its own, or something. For example, England fluctuated from about half this population size, to the full unit, and back again (between the Dark Ages and the Black Death). On the lower end, recall that for a medieval village, it's pretty accurate to roll 1d6 × 100 for the population (giving an average of 350 each).

How much land space would this total organization take up? Well, that depends, because (much like the English example) population density varied a lot over the medieval period, and besides that we only have estimates anyway. A few possibilities:

  • 10 people/mi² -- Polity takes 400K mi² (600 × 600 miles); the lowest density estimate anyone's proposed for the Dark Ages in Europe.
  • 20 people/mi² -- Polity takes 200K mi² (450 × 450 miles); a more common estimate for Dark Ages population density.
  • 40 people/mi² -- Polity takes 100K mi² (300 × 300 miles); density of England at its low point, start and end of the middle ages. 
  • 80 people/mi² -- Polity takes 50K mi² (200 × 200 miles); density of England at its high point, middle of the medieval period, and matching its actual land area. 

Now -- that's a lot of real-world content. It's likely that you certainly don't want to detail quite that much stuff in your campaign world. As I've noted before, an obvious reasonable method is to just abstract away all the stuff below a particular map level that you're using. (For example, if you use low-England density and a 30-mile hex map, then your country might take up about 10 ×10 hexes; so you could explicitly place the capital and 10 cities, but just hand-wave, without drawing anything, the fact that most every such hex has its own town, 10 castles, and 100 villages). Alternatively, fantasy writers seem to have a tradition of much lower densities than ever occurred in reality, so you can feel free to follow suit.

So anyway, that gives me a couple of simple, memorable numbers I can remember when I'm doing mental estimates for this kind of thing. Is it helpful to others?

Monday, November 8, 2021

Mohs Scale to Marvel

Mohs scale hardness testing kit

Regular readers of this blog may know how much I adore finding some real-world measurement scale that can be easily used as the core of a game system mechanic. If available, this ticks off all my desired boxes for gaming: (1) an elegant mechanic, (2) a presumably rigorous mechanic, (3) an opportunity to learn something about the real world, and (4) provide a pre-made way to convert from real-world data to the game. 

Of course, if we look back to the origin of the wargame form, the entire intent was to use real-world data as a source for mechanics and training for the battlefield (say, at least as far back as Korns' Modern War in Miniature, if not original Kriegsspiel). So, this instinct is really a callback to our source inspiration. 

Here's the thing I just discovered: the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. This dates to 1822 when German geologist Fredrich Mohs established the system to measure relative hardness -- a mineral of higher-rank is able to visibly scratch the surface of a lower-rank material. (Per Wikipedia: "The method of comparing hardness by observing which minerals can scratch others is of great antiquity, having been mentioned by Theophrastus in his treatise On Stones, c. 300 BC, followed by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, c.  AD 77.")

It's an incredibly simple system: integer values only, from 1 to 10 -- with talc at the lowest level, and diamond at the highest. Note the picture at the top of a standard field-testing kit, with the 10 different canonical materials neatly boxed and numbered. 

Also I realized, if you're a fan of the the original Marvel Super Heroes RPG, this neatly lines up with the 10 named ranks in the Universal Table. To wit:

Mohs Scale to Marvel Table
As usual, the neat thing is that having established this, there are now extensive tables of other materials with hardnesses measured in possibly fractional Mohs units; so for these other materials we have the option of just looking them up and converting to the nearest rank value. Example from Wikipedia below (click to go to full-sized table).

Intermediate Hardness Table

A number of these substance appear in the MSH rulebooks Material Strength table (like ice, gold, glass, iron steel, and diamond), and in most cases they do in fact appear at the same or within one rank. So kudos to Jeff Grubb for a pretty accurate system on that score; and that gives us confidence that we can interpolate these things reasonably in-game.

It's science, true believers!

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Landlord/Monopoly Game

On Twitter last week, Ethan Mollick, Professor of Management at the Wharton Business School, gave us a great reminder that the game of Monopoly was, ironically, ripped off from a prior game with partly similar mechanics and a totally different intent:

Of course, I share this as a reminder of our continuing reflection that games are not just about fun. The example here of Elizabeth Magie's "Landlord's Game" shows just one of the many other design goals that might be in sight -- and in fact, when the game was adjusted to strip out those other elements, we're really left with a degenerate, lesser form.

Now, I assume here when Mollick says that the game "has bad rules by design", that's shorthand for "rules that intentionally inflict pressure or pain on the players", so as to teach some kind of lesson.

What rules are in play in your personal game design that intentionally inflict pain on the players? And what lessons are being taught with those mechanics?

See the current publication of the original Landlord's Game here.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Early Evolution of Encounter Text

A number of times in recent episodes of the Wandering DMs D&D Sunday talk show we've wound up debating how much detail is best for published adventure text. So I wanted to share some of the possibilities running around my head from classic D&D products. In particular, for what follows I'll present a snippet of an adventure authored by Gary Gygax, graduated in 2-year intervals throughout his tenure as the "boss" of D&D (1974-1985). I've also intentionally tried to focus on his higher-level adventures, which composed most of his published output, so as to compare like-to-like in as many cases as possible (i.e., I intentionally skipped Keep on the Borderlands for this reason). Here we go:

1974 – Castle Greyhawk Notes

Okay, so this one wasn't exactly published, and it also isn't high-level. But we managed to get a look at Gary's notes for running Castle Greyhawk's first level when Matt Bogen (Eridanis) caught a photo at a special Gen Con 2007 event. As you can see, it's only a single curt bullet-line per encounter area, noting monster type, number range, and treasure (and absolutely nothing else). In fact, it's more stark than that, because multiple rooms on the map are denoted with any one given key number (often a half-dozen or so); and about three-quarters of the rooms have no key whatsoever, being simply empty (in line with the design advice from OD&D Vol-3).

Most everyone involved agrees the map layout is Gygax's original design for Greyhawk from the early 70's (could be 1972-1974 or so), developed in conjunction with the D&D rules; but there is some debate on whether the encounter text is original or not (maybe changed up for convention play?). Personally, I'm pretty confident that the text seen here is either original or in the same basic format -- if Gygax was so famous for improvising things mid-game, what would be the point to rewriting these minimalist text notes? Big thanks to Alan Grohe (grodog) & Zach Howard (Zenopus) for managing to decode that fuzzy photo taken from over Gary's shoulder.

1976 – Lost Caverns of Tsojconth Tournament

This is a snippet from the document Gygax wrote for DMs running the D&D tournament at Winter Con V, which occurred at Oakland University in 1976. Rather than bullet-point atoms, here we at least get full English sentences describing each area (usually 2-3 per encounter). But the emphasis is largely the same: the very first piece of text per area gives the monsters and hit points; this is followed by a small bit of descriptive text, and ends by denoting a treasure value (possibly none). Instead of a numeric range for monster number appearing (as in his Greyhawk notes), the monster numbers are now fixed, and their hit points are listed in advance. Arguably this might be motivated by the tournament situation where the strength of encounters should be as fixed as possible across different tables. We should also note that the back of the document has a table (one page per dungeon level) with summary statistics for all the monsters present, including number, hit points, move, attacks, and specials -- and even a "hit bonus" and a target number to hit each PC in the adventure, which is equivalent to ascending-AC in the d20 system (!).

 1978 – Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

By the time of the GDQ (Giants/Drow) series, Gygax now starts providing a name for each keyed area (instead of just identifying it by monster type). The narrative descriptions are somewhat more textured, and the paragraphs tend to lead with those sense-descriptions -- with identification of any monster, and their hit points, possibly occurring deeper in the block. (As a result, it's possibly easy for the DM to overlook the monster present in room 2. above, say). Again it tends to conclude with a discussion of treasure, with somewhat more detail given to that description as well. 

1980 – Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

AD&D module S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, like most of Gygax's famous adventures, was birthed at a tournament event -- in this case at the Origins II game fair in Baltimore in 1976. Four years later, we got the elaborate published product, in full-color, and with a copious illustration booklet. Note that it exhibits similar DNA to the 1976 Tsojconth tournament text: areas are often identified only by the monster, the text is very mechanically terse, it concludes with a treasure, etc. (e.g., areas 5. and 6. above). But in some other cases we have a blossoming of more deeply detailed areas, even without any monsters or traps at all; for example area 7. above, the "Ship Commander's Quarters" -- which actually continues to sub-areas a., b., c., and d. (none of which have any monsters or unnatural contents), almost 500 words total for the one area. Also we see here an expansion of the monster statistics within the paragraph text -- not just hit points alone, but now also armor class, movement, hit dice, attacks, and damage. In some case these notational statistics take up a larger proportion of a paragraph, possibly making for a choppier read.

1982 – Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth Publication

The 1982 publication version of Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth gives us a golden opportunity to compare to the earlier tournament module (above). The maps in question closely match; from a quick survey they appear identical (despite lots of tricky, crooked, freehand-caverns). Areas 2., 3., and 4. in the 1982 publication (above) are the same caves as B., A., and D., respectively, in the earlier 1976 adventure (further up). We can see then that many of the contents were changed, moved, added, etc. Stirges in 2/B are basically the same. A flesh golem in D was changed to a clay golem in 3 (formerly A), the back-map removed. Blink dogs are removed entirely and the new mobat monster inserted. And so forth.

Aside from those content changes, the text is again more elaborate than in the tournament document. Note that the brand-new encounter with the mobats gets significantly more verbiage than some older encounters, say. We again have a name for each area, and a tendency to start the description with a monster, and end with a treasure. Monsters have expanded parenthetical stat blocks, including possibly extended description of special abilities. And hey, there's boxed text for the first time! 

Another aspect we should point out is that compared to the earlier version, S3 gets an added extensive wilderness adventure section through the mountains before the Lost Caverns can be explored. This runs 9 pages, including 3 pages devoted to a gnome vale (complete with large underground lair maze/complex) intended for use by the PCs as a secure base for rest & rehabilitation between forays. Two of the really interesting differences between this section and the dungeon text is that: (1) while the dungeon areas use boxed text, the wilderness does not, and (2) while the dungeon has parenthetical monster stats mid-paragraph, the newer wilderness areas remove them to separate stat-blocks outside the paragraphs. Personally, I find it really interesting to be able to pinpoint in this one document the moment when monster stat blocks grew too big to comfortably fit within the paragraph text, and obviously had to be moved to a separate dedicated place on each page.

1984 (c.) – Dungeonland & Temple of Elemental Evil


For my last entry, I'm hindered by the fact that there's no published adventure with Gygax as the principal author in the year of 1984. (An earlier version of this article presented a snippet from 1984's Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, which credits Gygax & Kuntz, but we know that was originally a Kuntz creation, and it differs in some key ways from other modules of the same era.)

But if we look at adventures by EGG in 1983 and 1985, the overall style is pretty similar, so we can safely interpolate how one of his adventures in 1984 should have looked like. Above I've taken one encounter area from 1983's Dungeonland, and one from 1985's Temple of Elemental Evil, and compared them side-by-side. The Dungeonland adventure (a pastiche on Alice in Wonderland) is credited to Gary Gyax, and has no other credits listed that I can find, so it seems fair to assign responsibility wholly to him (and the same for the follow-up, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror). Temple of Elemental Evil, of course, is credited to Gary Gyagx and Frank Mentzer (with editing platoon of Carmlen, Heard, Johnson, Russell, and Winter); and we know the adventure was primarily loose notes from Gygax's campaign, turned over to Mentzer, who made significant changes when drafting the published text. 

Anyway, the format of these 1983-1985 adventures is very similar. Encounter areas tend to be several paragraphs each. Both adventures make use of boxed text, as introduced in the 1982 Tsojcanth dungeon areas. (Interestingly, Temple has a strong tendency to start with some non-boxed info to the DM, and then give a boxed description fairly deep in the encounter text; as shown above, this isn't universal.) Similarly, monster stat blocks are now uniformly removed from the paragraph text, and given as separate lines after the paragraph they're mentioned in, as was done in the Tsojcanth wilderness areas. Dungeonland has a 2-column format, while the Temple uses 3-columns per page. While both keep the tradition of noting treasure near the end of the text, Dungeonland had a formal annotation of a boldfaced "Treasure" label, whereas the later Temple abandoned that technique. (This is a trend I've seen a few times over the years: the more formal one tries to make the structure, the more brittle it is, and the less likely to stand the test of time.)

Also worthy of consideration: 1985's Isle of the Ape, which had Gary's name alone on the cover (and he'd mentioned it as a level in his Greyhawk campaign back in the 1979 DMG), with a credit inside for "Development: Bruce A. Heard". The interesting wrinkle here is that monster stats are entirely eliminated from the encounter text pages, and instead removed to a summary table on an extended flap of the module cover. 

And another common point among all the adventures of this time frame: The author/designer/publisher feels free (or maybe compelled?) to include some areas with very long descriptive text indeed. Each of the modules considered here have a number of areas with descriptions spanning multiple whole pages of text. Dungeonland sees this with The Long Hall (p. 4-5), Lawn and House (p. 14 and 19-21), Park (p. 21-23), and The Palace (p. 25-27). Isle of the Ape has an introductory boxed-speech by Tenser that is runs 2 full pages of text to be read verbatim (some 1,600 words!); with multi-page encounters such as Kawibusas' Ambush (p. 10-13), Plateau Area (p. 31-33), The Spheres of Thought (p. 38-39), and The Glowing Pearl Chamber (p. 43-45). The Gygax/Mentzer Temple of Elemental Evil is similar, with an introductory boxed text section that runs more than a full page (about 1,300 words), and area descriptions that commonly run many paragraphs or a whole page; e.g.: room 404 is ironically a 20'×30' room with 1,200 words of content text, room 417 has the same dimensions and 1,400 words, and so forth.

Open Questions

If you could set a dial for preferred extent of descriptive text in an adventure you'd pick up and run now, at what year would you set it: 1974, 1976, 1980, 1982, or 1984?

Where do you like your monster stats -- mid-text, after the paragraph, or removed to a separate table or section at the end of the module?

And did you like the boxed text innovation, or not?

Monday, October 4, 2021

Random Wizard's Online Arena

Verona arena lit at night

You may be aware that a while back I developed a set of tools called Arena/Athena to investigate things in OD&D like implied combat efficiency, level demographics, balancing monster threat levels, generating bands of bandits & pirates by playing out their full career arcs, etc. You can see a lot of results from the tool in prior blog posts here. 

Problem is, those tools run on the command-line locally and assume you have a Java installation and some programmer knowledge, with no fancy GUI controls. Because I'm hardcore like that, obv.

Thankfully, our friend Random Wizard made a proof-of-concept conversion from my Arena Java code to an online Javascript version that runs in a web browser, so it's a bit easier to test it out. Give it a minute when you click the link, because the simulator immediately starts running on page-load and it's a bit CPU-intensive while it thinks. After that you can enter other command-line arguments for different behavior, as per the original program. These include the following:

-a apply aging effects
-b base type of armor (=0-3, default 3)
-e report every encounter
-f fights per year (default =12)
-m magic per level chance (default =15)
-n number of men fighting (default =100)
-p play-by-play reporting
-r reporting types
      s summary statistics    y year-end info
      d detailed data         k monster kills
      t  total monster kills   x xp award ratios
-s start level for fighters (default =0)
-t treasure awards by monster (default by dungeon)
-u create matrix of win percentages
-v man-vs-monster (default man-vs-man)
-w use fighter sweep attacks (by level vs. 1 HD)
-x use revised XP award table (from Sup-I)
-y number of years to simulate (default =50)
-z fighter party size (default =1)

Thanks to Random Wizard for making this possible! Any interesting results you've discovered with it?

Random Wizard's Online Arena

Monday, September 13, 2021

d6 Usage in OD&D

Red six-sided die

The d20, of course, is closely associated with the D&D game. But it's easy to forget that the early classic editions used the d20 in fairly narrow circumstances: just attacks and saves, in fact. Everything else about running an adventure was done with d6's -- it wasn't until the 3E version of the game that all of these other functions were replaced with the "core mechanic" of d20's for everything. 

There's something about that I really like, in fact. (And I've written about it several times.) The granularity of the game is usually at the d6 level, except when death is on the line (an attack or saving throw), at which point the detail "zooms in" to the d20 level. That's a bit like a movie slowing down when a character is in mortal peril, simulating the cognitive effect from increased adrenaline. When everything else is d6's, they probably don't show up to clutter the character sheets. There's a small enough list of modifiers that the DM can just remember them all. And when things go off-book -- like they should -- it's easier to correctly estimate the real-world chance of success out of 6 pips than out of 20 points. 

Here's an encyclopedic run-down of the use of the d6 for adventuring function in Original D&D. The majority of these cases appear in little brown book Vol-3, the DM's guide analog:

  • Damage from falling into pit: Occurs on 1-2 on d6 (suggested example). (p. 5)
  • Random dungeon stocking: Monsters appear 1-2 on d6. (p. 7)
  • Random dungeon stocking: Treasures appear 1-3 on d6 with monsters, or 1 on d6 without. (p. 7)
  • Searching for secret passages: Success 1-2 on d6 generally, or 1-4 on d6 for elves. Or elves can possibly find one 1-2 on d6 just by walking by. (p. 9)
  • Opening doors: Success 1-2 on d6, or 1 on d6 for smaller characters. (p. 9)
  • Spiking doors open: Success 5-6 on d6. (p. 9)
  • Traps activating on trigger: Occur 1-2 on d6. (p. 9)
  • Listening for sounds: Success 1 on d6 for humans, or 1-2 for elves, dwarves, and hobbits. (p. 9)
  • Surprise: Occurs 1-2 on d6 unless some signal prevents it. (p. 9)
  • Wandering monsters in dungeon: Occur on a 6 on d6, rolled each turn. (p. 10)
  • Monsters continuing pursuit: Occurs 1-2 on d6 when party passes a corner, door or stairs; or 1 on d6 when party passes through a secret door. (p. 12)
  • Castle occupants turning out: Occurs 1-3 on d6 within the castle hex, 1-2 at 1 hex distance, 1 at 2 hex distance. (p. 15)
  • Becoming lost in wilderness: Occurs on either 1, 1-2, or 1-3 on d6, depending on terrain type. (p. 18)
  • Wandering monsters in wilderness: Occur on 4-5, 5-6, or 6 on d6, depending on terrain type. (p. 18)
  • Castle inhabitants pursuing party: Occurs 1-3 on d6 if hostile, or 1 on d6 if neutral towards party. (p. 19)
  • Damage from fall off ship rigging: Occurs at one low pip on d6 for every ten feet fallen (more detail below). (p. 31)
  • Ship crew in melee obeying other commands: Occurs 1-4 on d6. (p. 32)

So let's take stock of what we have there for a "core d6 mechanic" sensibility. We've found 17 cases in OD&D Vol-3. We note that in 14 of the cases success is indicated by a low roll (82%), whereas in only 3 cases is success indicated by a high roll (18%).

Clearly, the fundamental instinct of the writer with these d6 mechanics is for the low roll to indicate success. That doesn't mean low is "good" exactly -- consider a trap being sprung or a party being surprised, for example. But generally some new-thing-of-note pops up with a low d6 roll -- a change to the status quo.

Of course, since most of these mechanics have a base success of 1-2 on d6, the inverse is in the majority, and we might say that's thereby the status quo by definition. 

The falling-off-ships-rigging case is interesting (Vol-3, p. 31), because it highlights that either side of the random occurrence could have certainly been phrased as the event of interest. In this case, the rules text is phrased in terms of taking damage from a low roll ("one chance out of six for every level fallen that damage will be sustained"), whereas the associated example is phrased in terms of saving with a high roll ("i.e. a fall from 40 feet will require a 5 or 6 to save"). 

And in the list above I'm not even counting cases from other books, like the end of OD&D Vol-2 (the monsters & treasure book), in which a roll of "1" on d6 bumps an individual gem in a batch up to the next-higher price level. Whereas, if you were in a different headspace, you'd likely think that a high value would indicate, well, a high value.

So where do the 3 outliers come from? To be clear, those are: (1) spiked doors failing, (2) wandering monsters in the dungeon, and (3) wandering monsters in the wilderness. Let's ignore the first of those for now. But the two wandering monster cases have a clear source -- that's exactly the mechanic in the earlier Outdoor Survival board game for the chance of a daily encounter (where the rule is itself optional). This is in contrast to all the other mechanics in Outdoor Survival, which are notably roll-low-on-d6 to break status quo -- e.g.: getting lost, finding food, or finding water (as allowed in some scenarios; finding food or water occurs 1-2 on d6 when permitted). Note that the lost/food/water mechanics are printed on the Scenario cards there, whereas the optional Encounters rule is in the separate rules pamphlet -- so they weren't synchronized with any core mechanic. And that's exactly why these rules appear in the same form in OD&D, since they were just wholesale lifted from that source & tweaked a bit. Examples below:

Outdoor Survival, Scenario 3: Search rules

Outdoor Survival, Rules of Play: Optional Encounters rule

So if I were going to get my rules-design steam press, and iron out the wrinkles in this particular system -- for both Original D&D and Outdoor Survival, because the system is at least conjoined if not identical at their root -- what I'd do is swap around the wandering-monster rolls and make them appear on low results on a d6, e.g., a "1" on d6 for encounters in the dungeon. Same for spikes failing, too. Taking the opposite tack and saying you're going to flip all the d6 rolls around so a high result is success entails a lot more editorial fixup-work (e.g., as Menzter tried to do with opening doors in BECMI; and as I've also stumbled towards doing in the past myself).

In conclusion, there's also a number of things that are attractive about what I might call an "accuracy" roll-low core mechanic. Principally, it's that announcing a target number is simultaneously communicating the probability of success. (As opposed to a high-roll mechanic, where the conversion between the two requires subtraction and then an off-by-one adjustment.) I assume that's why the writer of OD&D fell into this habit; you don't even need to mentally distinguish which way you're thinking about it as you furiously pound out the rules text on your typewriter. Additionally, to my mind, the die-roll then has the feel of communicating the amount of "error" in your task attempt, which is a statistically robust concept; as opposed to (I guess) "goodness", implied by a roll-high mechanic. 

So there are days when I wistfully daydream of a D&D tradition in which all the mechanics were always roll-low by default, instead of the legacy we have. Imagine celebrating being "Number one!" on an attack roll with as much gusto as we now do a "Natural twenty!". (Although I suppose it might not be immediately as clear that an exotic die type was in play.) It would also synch up with the old roll-under-ability mechanic, which at one point seemed natural and obvious (rather than convert to a modifier, and now have many people ask, "why do we record ability scores anyway?").

Do you agree with the suggested roll-low tweak to wandering monsters in OD&D? Did I miss any notable d6 mechanics in the DM's rules for OD&D?