Thursday, October 23, 2014

D&D Alignment: Three Hearts and Three Lions

If you're a D&D player who hasn't read Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (1953), you should go find a copy and fix that as soon as possible. It's short, it's easy to read, and it's very explicit and dense with proto-ideas that fed into the original version of Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, I dare say that pound-for-pound (or word-for-word) it's the single densest, most rewarding work to provide background for the milieu and set pieces of the D&D game.

Just one part of that is the origin of the D&D alignment system, in its most coherent state of Law-Balance-Chaos. For the purposes of commentary, criticism, teaching, and scholarship (and so the larger internet community can find it) I present the key passages below. Read this, and then the next step would be start reading some classic Michael Moorcock stories about Elric, which expands on the system (with an overview here).

Chapter 3

He let the dwarf growl on for a long time without learning much. Hugi wasn't very bright, and a backwoodsman as well. Holger got the idea that a perpetual struggle went on between primeval forces of Law and Chaos. No, not forces exactly. Modes of existence? A terrestrial reflection of the spiritual conflict between heaven and hell? In any case, humans were the chief agents on earth of Law, though most of them were so only unconsciously and some, witches and warlocks and evildoers, had sold out to Chaos. A few nonhuman beings also stood for Law. Ranged against them was almost the whole Middle World, which seemed to include realms like Faeries, Trollheim, and the Giants -- an actual creation of Chaos. Wars among men, such as the long-drawn struggle between the Saracens and the Holy Empire, aided Chaos; under Law all men would live in peace and order and that liberty which only Law could give meaning. But this was so alien to the Middle Worlders that they were forever working to prevent it and to extend their own shadowy dominion.

The whole thing seemed so vague that Holger switched the discussion to practical politics. Hugi wasn't much help there either. Holger gathered that the lands of men, where Law was predominant, lay to the west. They were divided into the Holy Empire of the Christians, the Saracen countries southward, and various lesser kingdoms. Faerie, the part of the Middle World closest to here, lay not far east. This immediate section was a disputed borderland where anything might happen.

Chapter 11

He lost sight of the camp as he wandered on, trying to fit what he had learned into a pattern. This business of Chaos versus Law, for example, turned out to be more than religious dogma. It was a practical fact of existence, here. He was reminded of the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency of the physical universe toward disorder and level entropy. Perhaps here, that tendency found a more... animistic... expression. Or, wait a minute, didn't it in his own world too? What had he been fighting when he fought the Nazis but a resurgence of archaic horrors that civilized men had once believed were safely dead?

In this universe the wild folk of the Middle World might be trying to break down a corresponding painfully established order; to restore some primeval state where anything could happen. Decent humanity would, on the other hand, always want to strengthen and extend Law, safety, predictability. Therefore Christianity, Judaism, even Mohammedanism frowned on witchcraft, that was more allied to Chaos than to orderly physical nature. Though to be sure, science had its perversions, while magic had its laws. A definite ritual was needed in either case, whether you built an airplane or a flying carpet. Gerd had mentioned something about the impersonal character of the supernatural. Yes, that was why Roland had tried to break Durendal, in his last hour at Roncesvalles; so the miraculous sword would not fall into paynim hands...

The symmetry was suggestive. In Holger's home world, physical forces were strong and well understood, mental-magical forces weak and unmanageable. In this universe the opposite held true. Both worlds were, in some obscure way, one; the endless struggle between Law and Chaos had reached a simultaneous climax in them. As for the force which made them so parallel, the ultimate oneness itself, he supposed he would have to break down and call it God. But he lacked a theological bent of mind. He'd rather stick to what he had directly observed, and to immediate practical problems. Such as his own reason for being here.

Chapter 12

There were still many miles of wilderness to travel on the other side of the range, but she had seen a few clearings, isolated farmsteads, and hamlets. "And where'er several men dwell, if they be not evil doers, will belike lie hallowed ground -- a shrine, if naught else -- which most o' the creatures that dog us dare no approach closely."

"But in that case," Holger asked, "how can the Middle World even think of seizing human land?"

"By help o' beings who need no fear daylicht or priestcraft. Animals like yon dragon; creatures wi' souls, like bad dwarfs. However, such allies be too few, and mostly too stupid, to have more than special use. Chiefly, methinks, the Middle World will depend on humans who'll fight for Chaos. Witches, warlocks, bandits, murderers, 'fore all the heathen savages o' the north and south.  These can desecrate the sacred places and slay such men as battle against them. Then the rest o' the humans will flee, and there'll be naught left to prevent the blue gloaming being drawn over hundreds o' leagues more. With every such advance, the realms of Law will grow weaker; not alone in numbers, but in spirit, for the near presence o' Chaos must affect the good folk, turning them skittish, lawless, and inclined to devilments o' their own." Alianora shook her head, troubled. "As evil waxes, the very men who stand for good will in their fear use ever worse means o' fighting; and thereby give evil a free beachhead."

Monday, October 20, 2014

Previewing Book of Spells v.2: Sleep

This December 1st I'll be releasing a version-2 update to my Book of Spells (see sidebar). This is my interpretation of the wizard spells in Original D&D, as they initially existed in levels 1-6 (plus some Greyhawk spells thrown in), with some hopefully judicious edits and fixups for things I've seen in my games over the 40 years since then.

This is meant to serve a couple of purposes simultaneously: one, to be able to provide each wizard player at the table their own concise documentation for the effects of their spells in the game (without burdening other players with that information in a rulebook); and two, to fill in the gap that the original edition has been out-of-print and difficult to obtain for quite some time (while other editions are now sold digitally online, the original game is still not made available by Wizards/Hasbro).

The new version is, of course, meant to serve the same major goals. While version-1 was based rather strictly on the Open Gaming System Reference Document (the new version is still OGL), in version-2 I've been spending more time individually crafting each spell to bring it more in line with the original game in terms of range, duration, effect, thematics, etc. And generally to try even harder to cut down the text and produce maximal brevity in the spell descriptions, to make things as clear and fast to players and DMs during play as possible. And also do some tune-ups to things that have bothered us in last couple of years about certain spells, or were unintentional side effects of using the SRD as a basis, etc.

One other thing: Version-2 has all-new interior artwork by my talented and beautiful partner Isabelle. It's been really delightful to throw some ideas for spells I'd like to see illustrated at her and see what she's come up with. In the next couple of weeks I'd like to share some of these with you. Let me start with this: I think she managed to nail the single most perfect, archetypal, and hilarious depiction of the omnipresent sleep spell in all the years that I've been gaming. Check it out:

(Yes, apparently some adventurers had the decency to put a blanket over their fallen victims before departing.) I'll provide some more updates to Book of Spells version-2 here in the weeks before Dec-1. If you have other ideas for errata I or rules details you think I may have missed, feel free to send them to me before that time. And check out past "Spells Through the Ages" posts (link) for analyses and discussions that we've had before.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Minis Workshop – Can They Retreat? Part 2

In the last post I asked a series of "can they retreat?" cases, in the context of a miniature mass warfare game, where a hypothetical routed unit is surrounded on just one side, or two, three, etc. Truth be told: The ruling on this is something that has frustrated me my entire life; I feel like I've never gotten it right, and it still pesters me today when running Book of War games. Let's look at some different minis rulebooks to see what they say.


Chainmail (3rd Ed., 1979) actually has two separate morale mechanics: one on p. 15 for post-melee morale (including effects like simply being pushed back a half move or so), and a second on p. 17 for total casualties throughout the battle (which results in immediate elimination). Rules for the former include clauses on what happens if a retreating unit contacts friendly troops (causing disorder or rout in the other unit), but nothing for contact on enemy units. The snippet above is from the second rule section, which says briefly that if "no route of retreat is open to it", then the unit surrenders instead of escaping -- but no guidance is given on what qualifies as an acceptable "route of retreat", or how complete a cordon is needed for a unit to be "surrounded". In these rules that passes as academic, because in either case the routed unit is immediately removed from the table when they fail that excess-casualty morale check.

Swords & Spells

Gygax's Swords & Spells rules was actually my first encounter with miniatures wargaming as a kid. Above you see the two cases in the morale rules there where a forced retreat can happen; in both situations, there is a one-line clause similar to Chainmail about what happens if the unit is "unable to retreat" (respectively: stand and fight at a penalty, or abject surrender). But what exactly constitutes being "unable to retreat"? That's still a raw judgement call. See also the note on the very last line: in both situations the unit "cannot change formation or face", which would seem to rule out any of the cases in the last post where there's contact on all 4 sides. Keeping that particular formation block, the routed unit would seem to be "stuck" by even a minimally wrapped-around enemy.

Battlesystem v.1

In Doug Niles' 1st version of Battlesyststem (the 1985 boxed set), he adds a little more detail to the situation than Gygax did. Here he indicates that as long as there is a gap of 1" extent -- about the width of one single figure -- than the entirety of any routing unit is allowed to escape through the bottleneck, irrespective of the size of the unit. This is actually how I myself interpreted Gygax's rule in Swords & Spells when I initially played with that ruleset. However, at some point it became deeply dissatisfying. If a relatively large unit routs, it seems nonsensical for all the figures to be able to file out through a tiny gap without the enemy being able to stop the action. Game-wise, if you added up the time for all the movements of the separate figures, it couldn't possibly happen within one turn; realism-wise, it fails to simulate "crowd crush" and panic-type situations in those sorts of bottlenecks. Also, since only a completely-surrounded unit could be stopped from escaping, it made capturing an enemy unit effectively impossible (the ability to get figures on every outer inch of a unit, without attacking and routing the target too early, is basically nil).

Battlesystem v.2

Here is Doug Niles' second take on his mass war rules for D&D (1989 perfect-bound glossy book). Seemingly sharing my dissatisfaction with the previous naive interpretation of Gygax, he's a little bit more strict here. On the one hand, he says "a routed unit cannot change frontage [as in Swords & Spells], unless that is the only way it can perform its rout movement" -- but that's just a different way of saying "a routed unit can change its frontage [the opposite of Swords & Spells]". But instead of the previous one-figure gap requirement, here you need a gap equal to "the widest stand of figures in the unit". In these rules, "stand" means a combined base of either two figures for cavalry, or three for infantry. So now that's probably about 2" or 3" wide and then a whole unit can escape. So it's a difference, but not a big one.

I should say that, looking at the preceding, there's a lot of continuity in the mass-warfare rules published by TSR. We could perform an exercises similar to "Spells Through the Ages" and track specific rules or even blocks of text that are basically copy-and-pasted forward from Chainmail, to Swords & Spells, to Battlesystem, with certain edits or expansions along the way (much like this "when do you get blocked from retreating" rule). For some contrast, let's look at the other gorilla in fantasy wargaming:

Warhammer 6th Ed.

A lot of the sensibility is the same here -- a badly-damaged unit is forced to retreat, and is in some danger of being totally destroyed ("if caught by pursuers", i.e., the overrun rule, last paragraph above). Much like Chainmail, there is a treatment of running into friendly units on the move (moving around or even through, 4th paragraph), but not of running into enemy units. Also much like Swords & Spells, the text gently suggests that for fleeing units you should "keep them in formation" (2nd paragraph), which again if enforced strictly would prevent the retreat of a unit with even one or two enemy figures on its backside.

I can't find any more detail on the rights or restrictions for retreating units than that in these 6E Warhammer rules. Again we seem mostly in a judgement-call situation about how small a gap is necessary for a large mob of creatures to escape.


Personally,  I'm pretty surprised that I can't find any more detail to this situation in any of these miniature wargame rules than that. No wonder I've been frustrated for so long. The naive interpretation of Gygax's short comment in Swords & Spells, as implemented in Battlesystem, seems unsatisfyingly generous, and doesn't seem to resemble real "crowd crunch" situations.

What do you think the best expression of the allowed-retreat rule should be? Do any of these rulebooks synch up with your intuitions from the prior blog post?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Minis Workshop – Can They Retreat? Part 1

Below you'll see a series of cases from a miniature mass wargame. Each figure represents 10 or 20 actual creatures. In each case, the Orcs in the center have been Routed, which ordinarily indicates a must-retreat situation. The question is: in which of these cases, if any, would you expect that the Orc unit is blocked from retreating?

Case 1: Contact on one side.

Case 2: Contact on two sides.

Case 3: Contact on three sides.

Case 4: Contact on four sides, with a fairly large gap in the back.

Case 5: Contact on four sides, with a gap slightly larger than one figure in the back.

Case 6: Contact on four sides, completely surrounded.

In which of these cases does it seem that Orcs should not be able to run away or escape? And can you think of any other situations that might be tough or close judgement calls?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Orc & Goblin Light Penalties

I've always been frustrated with D&D's rule for Orc & Goblin light penalties. For example, here it is for goblins in the AD&D Monster Manual:

This is basically repeated in the entries for kobolds and orcs. It's always seemed to me that the −1 attack modifier is really too small to make any real difference. In fact: These days I'm of the mind set that I don't want to deal with any situational ±1 modifiers at all; the payoff from such things is almost surely not worth the mental effort spent tracking them. Certainly we can agree that a 1 in 20 difference does not resemble the complete abhorrence of daylight that you see in say, Tolkien's goblins or northern orcs.

I've known that this modifier had its origins in Chainmail, and assumed that the difference in scale to the combat mechanics was to blame, and that when viewed in those rules it would work in a rational and significant fashion. Let's actually look at that today, which I'd never done before. The interesting thing is that you have to join up three separate tables before you see the actual result in those rules. First, the text unit description (p. 29):

Note that the original had both a −1 modifier to morale and a −1 to "any die rolled"; this was included by reference in the entry for Orcs. Note also that this attack modifier was copied forward to any later version of D&D that we might care about. The −1 to morale was copied into Original D&D (which ostensibly makes use of Chaimail's inscrutable morale rules), but does not appear in Holmes or Moldvay Basic or AD&D, as seen above.This is slightly strange because Moldvay has excellent and highly playable morale rules in which the −1 modifier would be quite well-balanced, and technically there are percentage-based morale rules in the AD&D DMG (even if no one ever used them).

Second, let's look at the Chainmail Fantasy Reference Table near the end of the book (p. 43), where we can see exactly how well goblins and orcs normally fight:

As we can see in the 2nd-to-last column, each of these types attack as "Heavy Foot" (the middle of the 3 infantry types, equivalent to men in chain mail armor). But what does that mean, exactly? Now we flip back a few pages to the Chainmail Combat Tables (p. 40):

The "-" are organizational dashes (not subtractions), so see what the mechanic is here: Players attacking with these types of units will be rolling some handfuls of d6's, the number based on a ratio of attackers to defending types. In every case except one (light foot defending) kills are only possible when some dice show a perfect "6". Therefore: When orcs/goblins fight in daylight, and take a −1 modifier on their attack dice, then the highest they can roll is 5 and it is totally impossible for them to score hits on any opponent except light foot!

That seems like an amazing result when I noticed it tonight. In some wordings, you could sort of try to interpret it as "losing one of the dice they get to roll", but in truth the original language for Chainmail goblins, as shown above ("subtract 1... from any die rolled") can't be read that way -- it's not one subtracted from "dice", it's "any die", that is, every individual die clearly must get the same subtraction from its rolled result.

Amazing! As much as I always wanted a more significant penalty, that seems really stunning, making orcs and goblins entirely ineffective and impotent against almost any enemy when struck by light; how tremendously different that same -1 is in the d20 alternative system, where it is almost negligible. Recall that technically OD&D uses the Chainmail d6-based combat tables above by default -- scaling changes to the modifiers should have been necessary -- surely the difference is so huge it was an oversight and not an intentional adjustment.

Before we go, let's also check in on the little brown book that is Gygax's Swords & Spells fantasy miniature rules for use with (original) Dungeons & Dragons: here, all combat modifiers are given in terms of percentages (p. 24):

Notice that in full daylight, kobolds, orcs, and goblins are assessed a −30% melee output penalty (3rd row from the bottom). That's equivalent to subtracting 6 pips on a 20-sided die -- or close to 2 pips on every 6-sided die in a system like Chainmail, Warhammer, or Book of War! Even in "near full daylight" they take a −10% penalty, equal to subtracting 2 pips on a d20 (bottommost row). This is in addition to the −10% morale penalty that is specified elsewhere (p. 20). We might conclude that when Gygax was looking at the issue with intention, he assessed a severely heavy-duty penalty. Only when he was doing a mindless copy-and-paste job do we get the niggling −1 on a d20 modifier -- which is, unfortunately, how it appears in all the core rulebooks for OD&D, B/X D&D, AD&D, etc.

Looking at this closely, I'm actually motivated to revise my house rules and even Book of War miniature rules for orcs & goblins. Consider this: Let's say that the orcs & goblins D&D d20-based to-hit penalty "should have been" on the order of −4 or so in daylight. Then in a d6-scale like Book of War this becomes a substantive −1 penalty to hit, as in Chainmail; note that in my system they would then be helpless against opponents in plate armor (like heavy cavalry; "6" needed to hit by default), but would still have some chance to hit targets in leather or chain. So this would give greater interest to these types, and rationalize with what we see in Gygax's Chainmail and Swords & Spells games.

And it would also help rationalize the troop costs that he gives in OD&D Vol-3 p. 23 ("Orc support and upkeep is only half that of a man"); when I run these stats through our simulator program (link), preferred costs of just about half do in fact fall out of the system quite nicely (whereas previously there was almost no difference in effectiveness between orcs & men). If we do this re-interpretation, then Orcs & Goblins become a high-risk, high-reward gamble on the battlefield; you really want to avoid the weather being sunny (or at least make sure to bring a Wizard who can control the weather in your favor). What's your preference for that?

Friday, October 3, 2014

DHBoggs on Turning Undead

In response to the "Special Herbs" last post, DHBoggs pointed out a wonderful bit of archeology he wrote about a month back on the cleric "turn undead" power, why it's so poorly defined in OD&D (no text description, no times-per-day, no duration, etc., etc.), crankily off with the mythology, and overpowered in later editions. Turns out (no pun intended) that if you look at Arneson's original game where it originated, it's far more restrained, balanced, in tune with the horror films, and so forth. Wish I'd written this; but when better to read it than in October?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Special Herbs

The Original D&D equipment list includes, near the end of the list, three special herbs:

However, there is no description given to the player about what the effects of those herbs are. In fact: The OD&D equipment list has no explicit explanation to any of the items featured therein (including armor, weapons, steeds, etc.; some you have to track down in other places or books, while weapons in fact have no distinctions from one to another in the original LBBs.) The herbs were copied forward into later edition equipment lists, but still received no explication to the players on their effects.

Let's see if we can piece together the intentions from different sources. Using Wikipedia may give you some clues, but I'd like to narrow down what was on the designer's mind in this regard, if we can.

I think it's the case that in OD&D, only one of those herbs is ever referenced at all (emphasis mine throughout this article):
Vampires cannot abide the smell of garlic, the face of a mirror, or the sight of cross. They will fall back from these if strongly presented. [OD&D Vol-2, p. 10]

So that's something, but the phrase "fall back" is at least a bit ambiguous. Let's skip forward to Gygax's AD&D project, and first check in on the DMG, which conveniently includes "Appendix J: Herbs, Spices, and Medicinal Vegetables". This features a very short, inspirational suggestion of possible uses for about 150 herbal types. Fortunately, the three on the equipment list are included:

Notice that a rather specific usage against a D&D-game monster is included as the last element in each of those suggestions. Now let's turn to the AD&D Monster Manual (which was published earlier, of course) for some more detail. Regarding vampires and garlic:
Vampires recoil from strong garlic, the face of a mirror, or a cross (or several other holy symbols of lawful good) if any of these objects are presented boldly. Note, however, that none of these devices harm or drive the monster off. They do cause a vampire to hesitate 1 to 4 rounds before attacking in the case of garlic... [AD&D MM, p. 99]

While in the entry for lycanthropes (werewolves, at. al.) we see this:
Any humanoid creature bitten by a lycanthrope for damage equal to or greater than 50% of its total potential, but not actually killed (and eaten), is infected by the disease of lycanthropy. If the person is carrying belladonna there is a 25% chance that this will cure the affliction if eaten within one hour. Note that this infusion will incapacitate the person for 1-4 days and there is a 1% chance of the poison in it killing the creature. [AD&D MM, p. 63]

The above is basically repeated in the DMG section on lycanthropy, along with the following tidbit:
If the adventurer decides to be cured and the methods mentioned thus far have been unsuccessful, he or she may take refuge in a holy/unholy place such as a monastery or an abbey. There the clerics can administer to the afflicted one holy/unholy water laced with a goodly amount of wolfsbane and belladonna prepared by the spiritual methods of that particular religion. This potation is to be consumed by the victim at least twice a day from a silver chalice. No adventuring may be done by the character while he or she is being treated by the clerics. After a month or more (depending upon how advanced the disease is) the player character should be cured and somewhat poorer in the purse, as this procedure is very costly. [AD&D DMG, p. 22]

Obviously, this particular usage (of either wolfsbane or belladonna) is of no use to adventurers actively exploring a dungeon. Garlic and belladonna are also mentioned in DMG Appendix O, in the example of encumbrance among the equipment carried by the magic-user Dimwall. The only other reference I can find is in the PHB, where garlic is given as the material component to the spell slow poison.

So while no in-game use for wolvesbane was specified by Gygax, Moldvay in his D&D Basic rules included this:
If a lycanthrope is hit by wolfsbane, it must save vs. Poison or run away in fear. The sprig of wolfsbane must be swung or thrown as a weapon, using normal combat procedures. [Moldvay Basic, p. B38]

I will include one quote from Wikipedia, on the use of wolvesbane in the 1931 Dracula movie from Universal (whose monster movies are clear inspirations in places for the D&D designers):
In the 1931 classic horror film, "Dracula" starring Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula and Helen Chandler as Mina Seward, reference is made in regards to wolfbane (aconitum). Towards the end of the film, "Van Helsing holds up a sprig of wolfbane". Van Helsing educates the nurse protecting Mina from Count Dracula to place sprigs of wolfbane around Mina's neck for protection. Furthermore, he instructs that wolfane is a plant that grows in central Europe. There the natives use it to protect themselves against vampires. As long as the wolfbane is present in Mina's bedroom, she will be safe from Count Dracula. During the night, Count Dracula desires to visit Mina. He appears outside her window in the form of a flying bat. He causes the nurse to become drowsy and when she awakes from his spell, she removes the sprigs of wolfbane placing it in a hallway chest of drawers. With the removal of the wolfbane from Mina's room, Count Dracula mysteriously appears and transport Mina to the dungeon of the castle. [Wikipedia: Aconitum; link]

In this respect, note the otherwise odd language in Gygax's OD&D writeup of the vampire:
These monsters are properly of the "Undead" class rather than Lycanthropes. [OD&D Vol-2, p. 9]

Perhaps this argument is mostly in regards to the movie use of "wolfbane" to ward of the vampire? In the D&D game, Gygax instead specifies garlic, but the effect otherwise seems to be very similar in this respect.

So in summary we seem to find the following intentions for the three special herbs:
  • Garlic for warding off vampires.
  • Wolfsbane for driving off lycanthropes.
  • Belladonna for curing lycanthropy.

Side note: Recently Jon Peterson salvaged and published Craig VanGrasstek's 1974 "Rules to the Game of Dungeon" (link), which apparently documents someone who sat in on a D&D-like game at some point, without ever seeing the D&D rulebooks, and interpolating a set of written rules. One of the things that caught my eye is that in the rather whimsical list of equipment, there are two conspicuous protective items (p. 8):

Notice that there is a neck brace for "safety from vampires", and a special warding device so the "wearer cannot become a were-wolf". No other piece of equipment on this page mentions protections or use against any other specific monster. So from this we can infer that players of the game at its inception were uniquely interested or concerned (for some reason) with protecting themselves from vampires and werewolves. While we don't normally see these exact items, D&D does express the same interest in those two monster types by way of its special herbs in the equipment table (and personally I think it's much preferable to use legendary or real-world content for the same game mechanics).

Back to the main topic. Let's consider how we can clearly communicate the use of D&D's special herbs to the players by way of our maximally-brief house rules.

Herbs, Special: Wreaths of garlic ward off vampire attacks; wolvesbane does so for lycanthropes (save vs. breath negates; –1 reaction checks). Belladonna consumed just after infection may cure lycanthropy (save vs. poison, but on “1” death results).

Notice that you get some protection from wearing a wreath of garlic or wolvesbane, but if your PC does it all the time, then there's a drawback: -1 on reaction checks. What do you think of that? Is it acceptable to make the power of garlic-versus-vampires and wolvesbane-versus-lycanthropes symmetric? Anything else I missed in the published rules?