Friday, December 19, 2008

Semester's Done

If you just landed here, you may be able to detect that my teaching semester just ended on the evening of December 17th. That's freed up some serious writing time, and I took a pile of post-it notes that had accumulated on my desk and wrote a whole series of blogs yesterday and last night. Enjoy and happy holidays.

Critiques of Chainmail

Okay, so I just mentioned Chainmail as part of my post on finding workable naval-combat rules within early D&D. So yes, I'm now digging into the original medieval/fantasy miniature rules. (I've had them for a while, but this is the first time I'm commenting on them.) Looking at Chainmail and OD&D is helpful because there's a lot of "aha!" moments in which you realize where certain puzzling or awkward D&D elements originally came from.


Here's some critiques about that old battle-axe, Chainmail, and how it affected what came afterwards:

(1) First of all, Gary had a wargaming table that was way too freaking big! Chainmail specifies a game board width of 4-7 feet, and a minimum length of at least 8 feet. Holy smoke, I don't have that, nobody I know has that. I can't fit that on a dining-room table. The move rates in Chainmail & all of AD&D are therefore really huge (12" base, etc.), pretty much moving across your whole table in one round. It pops up again in OD&D where he specifies at least a 6x6 foot space for aerial and naval encounters.

(2) Secondly, I think that the distance scale is off. 1" = 30 feet is close but not great; the problem comes when you try to apply it to enclosed spaces like a castle or a ship. Then, the miniatures don't quite fit in your scale model. What I've found is that if you make models at scale 1" = 20 feet, then your standard miniature figures fit very nicely on the boat, round tower, courtyard, etc.

Similarly, at the smaller indoor scale of D&D, 1" = 10 feet, miniatures again don't fit in the space allocated. You see the 1E DMG having to suggest using 1" = 3 feet for miniature placement. "If you do so, be certain to remember that ground scale differs from figure scale, and when dealing with length, two man-sized figures per square is quite possible, as the space is actually 6 scale feet with respect to length." (1E DMG p. 10). Hunh-what!? He really should have simply set indoor scale at the same size as the 30mm figures he was using (which is very close to 1" = 5 feet).

In short, Gary picked these convenient round numbers for scale size (1" = 10 yards, 1" = 10 feet) without thinking through how the figures really sat on the table (especially in enclosed spaces of any sort). If he'd done so, we would have been saved a lot of scaling awkwardness that existed throughout the AD&D era.

(3) Thirdly, I think the time scale is off for man-to-man combat. Okay, Chainmail mass-combat is 1 turn = 1 minute, I've got no problem with that. But in the man-to-man combat (which you're then thrown back to in OD&D), you should've cut the turn size down the same way you did the figure and distance scale. Say 1 turn = 10 seconds (ideally, imo) or something. It would've been sensible to do so, and not spend so much time in the 80's defending the really awkward 1 minute round time in AD&D, the many-blows-but-just-one-arrow paradox, the oddly slow encounter move rates, etc. This should've been revisited at some point in either OD&D or AD&D, and not simply carried through from the Chainmail mass-combat time scale. That was a mistake.

(4) Fourth, the turn structure of Chainmail assumes that movement occurs in halves. There's two different options, but either way, a player is going to move his armies a half-move, do something, and thereafter perform the other half-move. This pops up again in Swords & Spells later on.

Well, geez, why didn't you publish the move rates in half-turn increments in the first place, then? Every single turn, every single move, I've got to halve the move rates in my head to see how far to push my forces? And why'd you make the increments at 3", so that 30% of them are odd numbers and don't halve evenly? And since archery fire can occur at each split-move, that's why AD&D bows wind up with a rate-of-fire of "2" to recreate that. Arghh!

This drives me nearly bonkers (much like any RPG that tries to use written orders each turn). If it's so important to resolve actions at that granularity, then just cut everything in half and call it a day. Turns are 30 seconds; halve the move rates; archery fires once per new-turn. Or cut this down further to whatever granularity you think you need. And then in AD&D you've got a top move rate of 6", which is more reasonable and doesn't run across your kitchen table in one round... and also happens to be the same as where 3E wound up.

(5) Catapult fire range dice are way screwy. There's an option for catapult fire (and hence the all-important fireballs, which use the same rules) to roll 2d6 different colors for distance off the called range. Pick the higher one and you're off that many inches in the given direction (maybe red=long, white=short). This reappears in the Holmes Basic rules for giant rock-throwing.

But if you look at a distribution picking the higher die, it is waaay funky. It's like 6 chances in 36 to be right on the money; no chances to be 1" off; 1 chance to be +/-2" off, 2 chances to be +/-3" off... increasing to 5 chances to be +/-6" off. That's wacky, I don't even know what to call that probability distribution shape.

Consider instead picking the smaller die. Then you've got 6 chances to be right on the money, smoothly dropping down in a nice bell curve as you go further out: 5 chances at +/-1, 4 chances at +/-2, etc. And its mathematically the same as (but computationally simpler than) the OD&D Bombing rule where you roll 2d6, subtract 7, and use the result as the number of inches over/under the target (OD&D Vol. 3 p. 27-28). So maybe that's what they were really trying to communicate.

(6) Finally, fantasy heroes don't scale properly in man-to-man combat. You may have read elsewhere how much it aggravates me in D&D when your chances of winning at 1:1 scale radically transmogrify when you use a new set of rules for another scale, like mass combat. Well, that's baked into Chainmail/OD&D right from the get-go.

Now, it's important to realize that we're dealing with two separate, both optional side-systems, that maybe Gary never thought about when you plugged them in together. But notice this: In normal Chainmail mass-combat, a fantasy Hero can take on 4 normal figures. He attacks as 4 figures, he requires 4 hits to kill (and he's a 4th-level fighter in D&D). So that's 80 men that he's taking on at even or better odds. (Superheroes are all that but more so: 8 attacks/hits/levels, worth 160 men.)

At man-to-man scale, all the mechanics work the same. The Hero still takes on 4 figures, 4 attacks, 4 hits-to-kill. But now those figures are only representing one normal man each! So the Hero who wiped out 80 men in large-scale is now in a desperate fight for his life against just 4 normal men when you zoom in to man-to-man scale. Whoops. So that's where you get these wierd patches later on, with AD&D adding the lots-of-hits-versus-1HD-types rule, and Swords & Spells being equivalently funky, when trying to interact a Hero-type with mobs of normal men.

Not totally sure how that could've been fixed. Maybe Gary went a bit "wahoo" on that one, and should have had a Hero be one guy with a morale bonus equivalent to one normal figure (10 men), a Superhero equivalent to some larger number of figures, and scaling equivalently more powerful in the man-to-man (nee D&D) rules.

---

In summary, most of this stuff is scaling issues (in table size, distance, time, movement, and number of men represented). If Gary had spent some more time and care thinking about it in advance, he would have saved us all a lot of frustration. But maybe that kind of technical attention was just not his strong suit; maybe no one would have had the foresight to see what the Chainmail man-to-man rules would explode into. But he really should have revisited it in either OD&D or AD&D, I believe. We were (and still are) all supporting a legacy system from Chainmail on that score.

Ahoy, Captain

James Maliszewski over at Grognardia recently wrote (discussing the old Companion rules) about "a promise on which D&D had never quite managed to make good -- to provide rules and guidelines for the endgame of a character's adventuring career... domain management rules, [and] also a mass combat system. Together, these two systems addressed issues D&D had had ever since 1974..."

Well, for me I'll add a 3rd "itch" that I was never quite able to scratch: Naval rules. Man, I loves me some boats. Medieval pirates and sea monsters and broadsides from mad wizards and all that. But D&D never had a ruleset that actually made all that happen.

Ship combat is at an awkward scale, actually. You kind of want the ships to be maneuvering at one scale, but when they crash together for a boarding action, you kind of want to run standard D&D group melee. You've got like, a few score crew per boat which is both too big (for D&D man-to-man melee) and too small (not the hundreds-per-column you see in mass combat). If you figure out a system for ship-to-ship action, then you'll have a whole other problem if you try to scale up to squadrons of multiple boats. If you make a boat model at D&D outdoor scale (1"=30 ft), you'll find that your miniature figures don't even fit on the boat! (More on that, perhaps, at another time.)

When I got my AD&D DMG, there's a section on "Waterborne Adventures" that has details on ship sizes, winds, daily speeds, capture, and fires. It immediately attracted me. But whenever I turned to that section and tried to make it work, I ran into trouble. How many men per boat? (It doesn't say.) What's the tactical per-round move? (It doesn't say.) How fast can you change direction or beat against the wind? (It doesn't say.) How do I run combat between so many men? (Doesn't say.)

So I never really got to use that section. Over the years, I've tried to write my own several times, which is predicated on first writing a mass-combat system that makes sense.

It was about a year ago that I got my own copy of the Original D&D White Box set. 3 tiny little books. I get to Volume 3 (equivalent to the DMG), and... oh wow, here all that stuff is. Standard crew per boat. Per-round moves for each direction in the wind. Rules for changing direction, stepping sails, oarsman fatigue.

Basically, OD&D had all the tactical information you need on boat-to-boat actions. When Gygax wrote the AD&D DMG he basically expanded on all that stuff, by adding strategic elements he'd earlier left out (daily moves, sizes of the boats, historical notes, structural hits). But dangit, he hadn't thought to copy over all tactical stuff over that I needed! So that's why the AD&D naval rules always felt frustratingly incomplete to me (for, like, almost 30 years).

But wait... now how do I manage the crew-to-crew combat, the missile fire, catapult shots, and all that? Oh, yeah: "All missile fire, including the various forms of catapult fire, are as in CHAINMAIL." (OD&D Vol. 3 p. 30). So now I'm printing out pages from my digital copy of Chainmail to get that up and running.

(Whew.)

So at the end of the day, I guess there was a very cohesive set of naval D&D rules, available at least as early as when I got started with the game in 1979. It's just that to find them, you had to put together a copy of Chainmail + Original D&D + the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. (Passingly similar to all the page-flipping you'd do for monsters after OD&D added different monster attacks in the Greyhawk supplement.) I'm just now starting to try a few playtests of all this stuff put together with some wee model boats to see how it all hangs together. Looks good so far (which is both a great relief and also a bit of a melancholy lost opportunity).

But I still wish the damned miniatures fit on the scale boats.

C&C Quick Start

Recently I downloaded the Castles & Crusades Quick Start guide and read it. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would! A very clear and clean presentation, very much the same mechanics as classic D&D. I feel like I could run a very slick campaign with just the Quick Start guide.

For those who don't know, the C&C quick start guide has: All the basics (core mechanic, abilities, combat, saves). Equipment with a single statistic: armor bonus or damage die. 3 races (human, dwarf, elf). 4 classes (fighter, rogue, cleric, wizard). Levels 1-4, with spell levels 1-2 (smart). I love the way they folded saving throws into level-modded ability checks.

I'm impressed. That's, like, pretty much everything I want in my D&D campaign.

Now, here's the relatively small parts that I'll criticize.
- They retain the wildly miraculous clerical silence/darkness spells. Those clerical powers I've really lost my taste for (in fact, I think I lost my taste for them back in the late 80's: see me struggling with stufff like that here http://www.superdan.net/lowspell.html ).
- They keep the big-monster-with-reach AOO ability. After dealing with this for years in 3E, it's just not useful to me anymore. New players can't deal with tracking them. It doesn't make sense for big, lumbering monsters to get these free insta-attacks (as if they were a constantly readied pike hedge).
- They use BECMI-like ability modifiers. Ack, so close. I sooo want to see a system which is no modifier at 9-12, and +/-1 every 3 points above or below. Nicely consistent/memorizable. And another advantage: each +1 is exactly 1 standard deviation from the mean of the 3d6 distribution (yes, I'm a part-time statistics professor: the standard deviation of 3d6 is almost exactly 3). Oh, that would be sweet. But instead they drop to an increment of 2 a little further out, which is all wonky and can't be extrapolated cleanly.

Finally, the thing that aggravates me like a thumb in the eye:
- Why do they specify two different challenge bases (like DC's) depending on the actor's primary/secondary ability status? Why not just specify one challenge base and say "if it's your primary attribute, add +6 to your roll"? It's such a cluttered design that I can't wrap my head around it. It bothers me so much that this alone would almost prevent me from playing C&C. Is there some aspect to this that I'm missing?

Nice, nice work. Soooo freaking close.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Different ENWorld

I've been a visitor and poster at the ENWorld site nearly since its inception. My original account dates to Jan-2002, and I was clearly reading the site prior to that (2001 or likely even 2000). At the time I had a playgroup at the video game company where I worked in Boston that started in 1999 with 2E AD&D (I held my nose and agreed), quickly switched over to 3E in 2000, and continued every week up until I moved to NYC in late 2005.

If anything, I've spent too many hours of too many days sucked into the discussion at ENWorld. No matter what else, people care about their gaming there. A lot of people agreed that it was one of the more civil and welcoming public forums on the Internet. Staffers from Wizards of the Coast would regularly pop in and comment on discussions. Up until this year, Gygax maintained mammoth discussion threads as he participated in generous Q-and-A sessions. (When ENWorld ran into financial difficulties a few years ago, Gygax among other offered to fund the whole site, as I recall.)

Now, I think there's been a sea change since 4E D&D was announced last year. ENWorld is in a terribly awkward position since the release of 4E. Recall that it was originally called "Eric Noah's Unofficial 3E News Site". Up until this year, ENWorld was explicitly dedicated to one edition of the game -- 3E -- that also happened to be the currently-published edition of the game. Everyone that visited had some kind of agreement about the context under which they were posting.

When 4E was released, ENWorld's mission statement had to change (you can't both be 3E and currently-published brand-name D&D anymore). They chose to become big-tent and welcome discussions of 4E, 3E, everything. There's been some forward-and-backwards to that attempt (first, 4E got put in the title bar by itself; then 4E & 3E; now no edition appears in the title bar).

But of course 4E is enormously fractious, it's enormously different from any prior versions of the game, and ENWorld is trying to straddle this huge fissure cut directly through the D&D player community. I didn't want to say this last summer (when 4E was officially released), but waited a few months to see if the tension level would simmer down. From what I can see, it has not.

ENWorld has apparently become the site for a perpetual ongoing edition war. It seems like the majority of threads that I visit in the General forum turn into edition wars, usually between 3E and 4E. But sometimes 3.0 and 3.5. Sometimes 1E vs. 4E. Sometimes 2E and everything else. People can't agree on the very terms of debate anymore; people can't agree on what counts as reliable sources for anything to do with the publishing or game-design business. Posters seem aggravated, moderators seem consistently more aggravated and snide than they were before.

I don't think there's any way around this -- If 4E is as fractious as it seems, and ENWorld invites a multi-edition discussion, then these arguments will continue ad infintum. One of the wackiest claims is that ENWorld was equivalently argumentative when 3E was released, which (a) doesn't remotely match my recollection, and (b) doesn't make any sense because the whole site was dedicated to 3E from the get-go.

It seems like most D&D gaming forums I can think of are dedicated to one edition (brand) or another, not everything. ENWorld is particularly vulnerable because they'd grown a very dedicated membership to one edition from 2000-2008, and much of that membership is very willing to defend against criticism from players of the new game.

Part of me really wishes that ENWorld had bitten the bullet and dedicated itself to one version of the game, either 3E or 4E, but not both (or all). But they didn't, and perhaps they couldn't -- in any event, it will clearly be a very different ENWorld from here on out.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Skip Williams' Axe of the Dwarvish Lords

So I recently re-read this adventure from the very end of the 2E AD&D era: "Axe of the Dwarvish Lords" by Skip Williams (published 1999). Basically it's your canonical giant craftily defended goblin lair (see: "Tucker's Kobolds"), set in an abandoned dwarven mountain stronghold, whose leader happens to hold the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords. I'm not sure how it would play out in actual AD&D gaming -- depending on DM adjudications, it could possibly get boring or frustrating (PC levels 13-15).

There's a number of interesting details as I read it. First of all, "2nd Edition" is nowhere on the cover (it just says "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" on front & back, which I tend to see as admission of the foul taste 2E put in most everyone's mouth). In addition, there's a whole lot of 3E-isms included, so I think we can conclude exactly who was respibsible for certain new things in the 3E core rules:

(1) Opposed ability rolls in a sidebar on p. 5.
(2) Change of the Axe artifact from hammer-backed (1E) to spike-backed.
(3) Repeating crossbows in a sidebar on p. 63 (with nets & garrotes).
(4) Alchemical "thunderpots" (basically grenades, 4d10 damage in 15-ft; p. 183) which I'm assuming got transformed into alchemical "thunderstones" in 3E.
(5) The idea of "items of quality" providing a partial +1 bonus, similar to 3E's masterwork quality; although here it requires an artifact to produce them! (p. 185)
(6) The wacky idea that permanent, at-will powers time out every X-turns and need to be "re-cast" like a spell. That drove me a bit batty when Skip started asserting that for magic items (like a ring of invisibility) in his "Ask the Sage" articles for 3E. (See p. 94)

Finally, here are things in this adventure which irritate me when I read them.

(1) Volley fire. D&D is set up so that high-level characters mow down whole armes of low-level warriors. That's a primary expectation of the structure of D&D. But every now and then someone doesn't like that assumption, and proposes a mechanic to totally break the rules and let low-level warriors en masse somehow magically damage high-level characters. (See 3E DMG2 "Mob" rules.) Well, you have that here in a "Volley Fire" rule as Skip calls it. Get 2+ goblins together and suddenly their joint fire bypasses all AC and automatically deals damage (save for half). Frankly, I hate it when a D&D mass combat rule completely contradicts the effects of core D&D game mechanics.

(2) Calling hazards non-traps. In a move to gimp rogues' "Find Traps" ability, Skip pulls a rules-lawyerish move and starts calling out a whole bunch of hazards as "non-traps" and therefore impossible to find with the rogue ability. Crumbling pillar? (Not a trap: it's just erosion.) Collapsing ladder? (Not a trap: just poor workmanship.) Exploding gas? (Not a trap: it's an accidental release.) That's weak, man.

(3) Defensive matting. Probably the most ridiculous thing in the adventure, and it's splattered all over the dungeon maps, too. Supposedly these goblins have figured out how to make piles of straw/ hay/ sticks/ detritus a few feet deep, structured so it carries their weight (they walk on top of it), but human-sized adventurers crunch through it -- which (a) slows them, (b) makes noise, (c) pinpoints invisibles, (d) explodes into poison gas from fire, and (e) hides pits, exploding pots, rut grubs, disease, and pungi sticks along the way. I mean -- do I really want to play out all the crap it would take clear this stuff? Do the goblins really fill hundreds of feet of corridors directly outside their sleeping areas with poison/ rot grubs/ disease/ exploding/ poison garbage? Did they really structure every inch of it that perfectly -- and do they never have to haul in a bag of treasure or equipment that causes them to snap through it? Ugh!

D&D That Never Was (1)

Let's say OD&D was released as published. Later Gygax decides to use different Hit Dice for different classes. Instead of bumping Fighters and Monsters up to d8 (and later d10), he instead does this:

Fighters: d6 per level.
Clerics: d6-1 per level (equivalent to d4).
Wizards: 1/2 d6 per level (equivalent to d3).

So: (1) Different classes have different hit dice. (2) Everyone uses d6 dice for hits. (3) Monsters can cleanly add Fighter levels, since they use the same Hit Dice. (4) The DM can roll all monster hit dice with a big handful of regular d6's, instead of having to keep track of a set of d8's just for that purpose. Ah, sweet relief. :)

(Also, an elegant way to roll d6-1: Roll d6's, turn any "6" into a "1". Average is 2.67, compare to d4's average of 2.5.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

3E Feats Have One Flaw

A brief observation, I think: After OD&D, Gary Gygax seemed to go through a lot of iterations of trying to balance or strengthen Fighters, in comparison to the other spellcasting classes. (I guess some people still pursue that today.) In Supplement I he introduced exceptional strength (the 18/% score) that could significantly boost Fighters, and only Fighters, in melee. In the 1E PHB he gave Fighters (and subclasses) a special multiple attacks capability in a table. He also allowed them to make as many attacks on "normal" creatures -- under 1 full Hit Die (minion-types, if you insist) -- as they have levels. And a weapon-proficiency system was established, with Fighters getting the most slots. In Unearthed Arcana he gave them a weapon specialization capability (extra attacks, to-hit, and damage with specially selected weapons).

Now, in 3E one of the several truly wonderful systemizations (IMO) was the "Feats" system which provided a single overarching framework for all kinds of stuff like this. Most of these Fighter-advancements were folded into Feats, and as a Fighter you could pick and choose which ones you wanted. You could weigh these boosts against each other. And they provided an elegant mechanic to support future supplements or expansions in the set of choices (unlike, say, how expanding cleric spell lists were always a net power-inflation to clerics through the years).

But, can you spot which AD&D Fighter boost was left out?

Okay, actually 3 of the above got turned into feats. They're (1) the special Weapon Proficiency feats, (2) the Weapon Focus/ Specialization feats, and (3) the potential for many attacks on very weak creatures via the Cleave/ Great Cleave feat chain. So that leaves 2 of the above out of the picture.

The first one is very minor: Exceptional strength (18/%). Not a big problem --- darned if I don't like the ability modifiers than I can just remember off the top of my head. I suppose you could throw in a special Feat just to boost Fighter strength by a point or so. (Stay away, you other abilities. You're not invited.)

The second one is, in retrospect, an enormous gaffe: Multiple iterative attacks. The 3E designers should have seen the pattern in their own work and also turned this capacity into a Feat for Fighters (or anyone else) to select from. But they didn't. Instead they baked this capacity into the raw attack advancement for every class and monster type. What a bunch of overhead! Every attack progression got turned into a series of slashed numbers that you had to track. I saw lots of people confused, when adding BAB from different sources, about what point the extra attacks kicked in. At high levels you might have a single person with 4, 5, 6 or more attacks to resolve in a round, bogging down combat. Wizards and everyone else had extra attacks by default. Big powerful monsters like giants got extra attacks (multiple swings per round) when logically you'd picture them as lumbering, slow brutes.

Whoops.

Okay, I'll actually forgive the 3E guys because they gave me the Feats system in the first place (even the name makes me happy, I'm immediately in an Irish myth when I hear it -- 3.5/4E designers, you are entirely disinherited on this score). But wow, that was a pain to deal with for 8 years.

In my Diminutive d20 system, everyone has one base attack, and iterative attacks are wiped out of the picture. There's a feat called Rapid Attack (prerequisite: Combat Reflexes) which just does the same thing for melee attacks that Rapid Shot does for missiles (two attacks, each at -2 to hit). Less to remember, less to record, doesn't junk up every class/monster/PC listing, and doesn't explode into crazy bloated numbers at higher levels. So much nicer, and so obvious in retrospect.

Anyway 3E designers, I forgive you, at least you gave a crap about what you were doing.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Dan's Diminutive d20, Version 1.1

Update to Dan's Diminutive d20 after more playtests & analysis. Primary changes are as follows:
  • "Uniform Feats" which more closely match core rules feat acquisition, but spread evenly across levels. Fighters get a feat every level; rogues every 3/4; wizards every 1/2 level (that is, same as attack bonus). That's it.
  • Iterative attacks at high levels got cut out. Take the feat "Rapid Attack" if you want that.
  • Supplement downloads: PC Stock Parties (what I use for playtests) and Quick NPC Creation (what I use for NPC magic gear in about 1 minute flat).

There's a few more details if you're watching closely. Wizards get Knowledge (Arcana) at start, not all Knowledge skills. Skills are based on class level (not character level), to avoid obvious multiclass dipping. Reach weapons are given a simple ruling.

Thanks to everyone who's given comments recently! And special thanks to Simon Bull for his early email comments that actually inspired me to release the first version in this online format.

http://www.superdan.net/dimd20/

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Dan's Diminutive d20

Newly Released: Dan's Diminutive d20 is a free, minimal offshoot of the d20 System, published under the Open Game License. It assumes familiarity and use of the 3rd Edition System Reference Document (plus open game content from Unearthed Arcana). Major features include:
  • Generic Classes: 3 core classes (Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard), with easy-to-remember saves and skills.
  • Limited Levels, Magic, and Feats: Limited to 12 character levels, 5 magic items maximum, and class bonus feats only.
  • Level-Based Skills: No skill points are spent or recorded.
  • Equipment in Brief: Your core adventuring needs, with a unique measurement system that makes encumbrance a snap.
  • Monsters Redux: All the major monsters, reduced to fit in just 3 pages.

If my "Diminutive d20" sounds like something you'd like to check out, go download it over here: http://www.superdan.net/dimd20 . Comments welcome!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Good Calls for AD&D

Here's the last of my debriefing notes from the session running AD&D Module S1 3 weeks back now. I hope I can make sense out of this, let's see:


Good Calls On My Part
(1) Using weapon speed factors/casting times just for initiative ties. That added a nice a little occasional spice in the round of actions. Not much logistical overhead, but kind of surprising, and a nice little detail for those who chose light weapons or low-level spells. (I would also have used weapon-vs-AC adjustments if they'd fought NPCs in armor, but that didn't happen. I think that would be okay occasionally, with the AC adjustments printed on my screen.)

(2) Occasionally using a battlemap and miniatures. I had considered making up preprinted maps for the whole dungeon in advance, but that would have been overkill (and taken away attention from the published illustrations). Using the miniatures for standard marching order was actually a big help and very intuitive.

(3) Not making pregenerated characters and using DMG Appendix P instead. At first my players were surprised by this (I think one sort of gasped and said "What, no pregens?"). Appendix P was very nice and quick, since most stuff (including magic items) is determined by pure die rolls, players didn't get bogged down in analyzing options. We rolled for level as suggested, d4+10 for S1. I let all spellcasters have complete free reign in spell selection (ignoring any chance-to-know-spell percentages). We had a completed level 11-14 party in about 1 hour.

(Truth is, S1 includes a list a pregens, but they'd need to be transcribed to character sheets, they don't have hit points, there's a complicated recommendation for number-of-players-determines-which-PCs-to-use (which I couldn't know in advance), and I ran out of time the prior week to deal with it.)

(4) Ignoring the thief's "Remove Traps" ability. This was an unexpected thing that occurred spontaneously -- there's almost no reason to use a "Remove Traps" die roll. When you're dealing with the environment very concretely, it becomes obvious whether a found trap can be bypassed or not. Poisoned button? Tap it with a sword or pole. Pit trap? Hold it shut with a driven spike. Collapsing ceiling? No way to hold it up -- maybe just trigger it from afar with a rope. That was all very satisfying. It avoids eye-rolling arguments I've seen in the past about "I missed my roll but I can't just smash the poison lock off with a mace?" and stuff like that.

(It's ironic that the OD&D appearance of the thief had a "remove traps" ability but no "find traps" -- that got added later with AD&D. After this session I'm convinced I'd rather just ditch the former and use only the latter.)

(5) Correctly calling that thieves can't find magic traps. (That's confirmed by DMG p. 19). This also ties into the previous point -- a thief can only deal with a trap that you have some concrete way to describe the physical interaction. You don't get caught in the 3E-ism of a thief removing a magic trap and having to come up with some wild, abstracted explanation for how they can detect & disarm it (with no guidance from the rulebook).

(6) Ignoring the level-limit table's ability score notes. PHB p. 14 has a table of class level level limitations for demihumans (which I'm perfectly fine with as a balancing technique). But the real drag is the big list of notes under it that modify all the numbers downwards for changes in ability scores. Ugh. So I decided to ignore those notes and just use the number directly in the table (giving a little boost to any potential demihuman PCs). That's a nice streamlining, I think.

(7) Using rulebooks on a laptop. This worked a bit better than I might have guessed. It certainly cut down on the bulk of books I used to carry to game sessions (I still brought one PHB to hand over to the players). Searching for monsters & magic items became a snap (they usually have unique names in AD&D). Searching for spells worked significantly less well (they usually have generic names; try searching for "heal" and you'll run into it dozens of times in the text before hitting the spell of that name).

(8) Ignoring weapon proficiency specifications. That seems to add no real benefit to the game, and I'm glad to streamline them out.

(9) Disallowing regaining spells during the session. I picked this up from someone online who'd also run S1. If you try to rest anywhere during the session, demonic nightmares haunt you and can't regain spells. This surprised the heck out of my players, but it really made things run more crisply. They had to budget their spells and dig down into lower-level resources they might not have otherwise used. I'd really like to use this in almost any limited-time session of AD&D from now on. (I assume this is how AD&D tournaments were always run. Anyone know if there was an official ruling on this, or was it just an unstated shared assumption by everyone involved?)

(10) Suggesting that the party pick a leader. That's mostly out-of-favor in modern gaming, but my players instantly picked up on it and were pretty happy with it. My explanation was that this wasn't to be lorded over anyone, but that if things started to lag indecisively, I'd go to the leader to make a call about where to go next. That worked out well (even though it was rarely used).

(11) Making sure to ask for items-in-hand as the party entered a particular area.

(12) Calling 1E magic-users "wizards". Nobody minded using that term in the 1E context. Frankly, that's what Gygax should have called them originally. I even had extra cover here because in this case all the magic-users were name level, and hence officially "wizards".

(13) My general 1E rule fix-ups (house rules) for movement, encumbrance, initiative, surprise, attacks, saving throws, and ability checks. We were all really happy with these minimally streamlined mechanics. If you like, you can download this document I use: www.superdan.net/download/ADDFixUp.doc


Random Observations
(1) AD&D is very tangible, concrete, and tactile. The equipment, gear, tactics, and situations in AD&D seem very familiar and easy to describe and use in a shared fantasy. For example, the extra statistics for weapons include length, weight, speed, and space required. That's a lot more reality-based than 3E abstracted type, crit range, and crit multiplier, say. It's easy to know what a lantern, rations, or a 10' pole are (texture, size, smell, etc.). Increasing fantasy elements makes it increasingly harder to communicate between players (like 3E's tindertwig, thunderstone, tanglefoot bags, or 4E magic food something-or-other). The same can be said for traps, spells, combat maneuvers, etc. I like that.

(2) Some good ideas in AD&D are listed above (weapon speed factors, AC adjustments, thieves blocked from magical traps, using a party leader, etc.) Bad ideas would include -- limited weapon proficiency specifications, the class level limitations being minutely modified by ability scores, weapon damage by size of target, etc. The "chance to know spells" rule is really a holdover from OD&D Supplement I, and doesn't totally make sense anymore in the context of AD&D where you start with a very small spellbook and add to it over time. Those are all examples of complications that don't adequately payoff in the game, and could be easily streamlined out of consideration.

(3) One thing that frustrates me a bit is that the old classic AD&D modules, although originally used for tournaments & conventions, definitely don't fit into standard 4-hour convention time slots. It would nice if they did, to work with more mature players getting together less frequently. Presumably they must have bulked up the original versions for campaign play (which can be seen explicitly in the A-series modules but not most of the others). In this last session, it took us 7 hours to get through 12 encounter areas (1.7 areas/hour, or about 7 encounters in the course of a standard 4-hour slot).

(4) Most folks think of AD&D as having broken multiclassing, and that everyone should always multiclass. But the interesting thing with the high-level game is that all of my players specifically avoided multiclassing so as to avoid the class level limitations. Every character was single classed. Almost all were human, except for one elven thief (the only class with no level cap for demihumans).

(5) I was perusing the DMG when I ran into some text on detect evil. Sometimes you see these arguments about "Does detect evil detect standard character alignment, or only intense focused evil (possibly supernatural) intent?" I'd been involved in debates like this where I'd taken the position that the former was true in all original editions of the game, that the latter was a complication only initiated with 2E.

Well, lo-and-behold, there actually is text asserting something like the latter position in 1E DMG p. 60. If you go back and dig through the history, there's kind of a constant cycling on the issue. OD&D says it can "detect evil thought or intent". 1E PHB reads like it detects any evil-aligned creature. 1E DMG says it's "important to make a distinction between character alignment and some powerful force of evil". 2E goes back to focused intent. 3E goes back to any creature alignment. It's wacky, I tell you.

(6) Finally, I have to salute 3E for one thing. It made me finally comfortable with asserting house rules, massaging the core mechanics, and creating high-level PCs for an appropriate game. I have just enough touch of OCD that when I was younger that I gave the rulebooks near-religious consideration, and felt that I had to incorporate all the rules exactly as written, and spend a lot of time ironing out any contradictions or gaps. 3E was really nice for flagging rules as explicitly optional or "variants" (something 1E books didn't do, even though Gygax would categorize a lot of stuff later as optional). This finally gave me the freedom to streamline AD&D and be comfortable in tinkering around with it. Although obvious to some, that's a big benefit to me. Hooray!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Multiclass Hit Points

You know, it turns out that I always did multiclass hit points in AD&D incorrectly.

If you look at AD&D PHB p. 19, there's a procedure for multiclass hit points laid out. It says, in summary, to (1) "Roll the hit die (or dice) appropriate to each class the character is professing", (2) "Total the sum of all dice so rolled, and adjust for constitution", (3) Divide by the number of classes, and (4) Add that many hit points to the character's total.

Let's take an example. You've got a 1st-level Clr/Ftr who goes up a level in Cleric (assume no Con bonus). I always thought, by this plan, that you'd roll (d8+d10)/2 and add that to hit points, and do the same thing over again when he goes up a level in Fighter. Note that over the course of that you've effectively gotten the full hit dice for each class level, it's just smoothed out over each level increase. So effectively my multiclass characters all had hit points equal to the sum of all class levels they had, and had enormous hit points compared to their fellow characters.

Here's the glitch. I'm pretty sure now that you should only roll the hit die for the single class being increased at any step (and still divide by the number of classes). Now, maybe I misread step #1. Or maybe that paragraph was written thinking that a step up in level always occured simultaneously in all of the classes (which isn't the case because you've got different XP charts for each class). Either way you slice that, you should really be getting effectively the average of all their class levels, which is a lot more reasonable, and not totally outstrip single-class characters with the same total XP.

Here's what clinched it for me when I realized this possible discrepency. I actually went and made a spreadsheet, entered the data for every single pregenerated multiclass PC in any AD&D adventure module, plus the 100 multiclass characters appearing in the Rogues' Gallery. I computed the expected HP value for each character under each interpretation, and calculated the total sum-squared-errors for each option. Result: My old interpretation was way off compared to what appears on average in the books. Sum-squared errors for the module PCs was 8,690 vs. 668; for the Rogues Gallery characters it was 8,884 vs. 363. Clearly the second "averaging" interpretation was much closer to the mark.

If you like you can download the analysis spreadsheet here: www.superdan.net/download/MulticlassHitPoints.xls


(P.S. I'd also entertain a "maximum" operation for hit points where you roll hit points for each class separately and take whichever is currently highest. Pros: (1) Consistent with all other "max" operations for attacks, saves, proficiencies, etc.; (2) Would allow multiclassers to catch up a bit in HP compared to higher-level single-classers. Cons: (1) You'd have to track & record multiple class HP rolls, and (2) That one's clearly not supported by the rules-as-written.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

S1 Postmortem & Errors

Here's a secret I've never told anyone. When I get done DM'ing a game session, I walk away with my mind running over everything I screwed up. I think that's healthy -- I'm trying to find areas I can improve on.

The other thing is that I do think it's important to keep the gaming session at a lively pace. If we're uncertain about a rule, I absolutely think it's better to for the DM to make some decision -- almost any decision -- and move on, rather than flipping through a rulebook. I'm hugely grateful that the players in my 1E Tomb of Horrors game really cooperated and trusted me on this score. At least once they did hit on something I had wrong, and were willing to let it slide and have the game proceed anyway. (And I try to do the same when I'm a player. In the past I've had players who wouldn't be able to play this way. I suppose it helped a bit that most folks aren't that familiar with 1E rules in the first place. I wish I'd had more time to brush up on the rules myself, but other work took priority the week before.)

So for the first time ever, here's a public airing of my dirty laundry as a DM. The following is stuff that I just screwed up or remembered wrong on the fly. Some is minor; I don't think anything was a real game-breaker. Not included here are intentional house-rule changes, interpretations, or adjudications that I knew I was bending for the sake of saving time or game flavor. (A future blog might discuss those separately, and how they worked out.)

(1) I allowed the elven thief to take a bow, when that's actually prohibited to thieves in 1E. (They can only use slings for missile weapons -- you need to be a fighter to use a bow.) I don't think missile combat ever happened, so this had no actual effect.

(2) The fighter wanted to take an exotic pole arm as a weapon (very much in the EGG 1E spirit; specifically, a "glaive-guisarme"). I forgot to adjust his AC when he did that, giving him full benefit of a +2 large shield throughout the adventure. (DM shakes fist!)

(3) I forgot about the encumbrance benefit of magical armor. Depending on where you read it, magic armor should be half-weight or totally weightless. I overlooked any version of the rule and added the whole normal weight in anyway.

(4) I failed to get some bonuses to saving throws added in, as from Wisdom or rings of protection. I put the extra bonuses on the character sheets but forgot to tell the players that they had to add those in a separate step. (I was rushing and didn't take time to add them in advance.)

(5) I forgot about high-level fighter multiple attacks. Everyone was making just 1 attack/round, when the fighters should have been making 3/2 or 2. Actually, it took me almost an hour after the game to locate the damn table in the PHB, so it was really good that I didn't waste time mid-game looking for the same thing.

(6) I forgot that all the magic blades in 1E (magic swords & daggers) cast dim light all the time.

(7) Infravision is only ruined by heat, not magic light (DMG p. 59). I was nixing the elf's infravision in the area of a continual light spell, and I guess I shouldn't have. Also, I was asserting that it takes 1 turn (10 minutes) to switch back-and-forth, and I see now the rules say it's just 2 segments (about 12 seconds)! The wizard player caught me on this one, and he was right.

(8) I was overly strict about actions within a round. I was calling an end to a whole round if someone switched weapons, or pulled out a scroll, etc. Truthfully, that doesn't entirely make sense with rounds that are so long (1 minute, or even 30 seconds as I play it). This was one area where if I'd had more time to brush up on 1E I might have corrected myself. I was recollecting an example of melee where actions are enforced like that (DMG p. 71). The problem is, the examples occur in short surprise rounds that only last 1 segment (6 seconds), and so are necessarily a lot more restrictive. There's a section immediately before it that's counting parts of an action in segments, and clearly allows throwing oil, grabbing a potion from a pack, and then drinking it, all in one round. So although my ruling kept rounds snapping by quickly, I guess I should try being more liberal in any future 1E game.

Mea culpa!

Tomb of Horrors!

So this past weekend my friends and had a sometimes-annual gaming retreat in New England. As part of the festivities, I ran a "Gygax Memorial Gaming Session" wherein I ran the infamous AD&D Module S1: Tomb of Horrors using 1E rules. This was the first time I'd run a 1E session in about 16 years by my count. It was the first time ever I'd gotten to DM Tomb of Horrors, so it basically fulfilled a something I'd been dreaming of since I was at least in high school.

I was actually a little bit worried about the game going in -- in fact, I brought Gary's "Land Beyond the Magic Mirror" module and sort of recommended that instead, but popular opinion was for S1 instead. I was worried that the buzz-saw series of deathtraps would be a bit of a bummer (and that I might not DM it right, having DM'd no game whatsoever in a few years now). But actually, we had an enormous blast! We made characters on the fly using DMG Appendix P, even rolling randomly for level (d4+10). Everyone really got into the right mind frame, accepting the challenge with gusto, and it really exceeded my highest expectations.

I think the main thing is that I had players who really played at a high level of skill. In the time we had, they got about 1/2 way through the tomb (just to the entrance to area #14 for DMs that know what that is). They were using thief skills, ropes, spikes, and multiple 10' poles to the utmost. There were challenges that I really didn't expect anyone to puzzle out, that they totally keyed into, which was absolutely thrilling to me on my side of the screen (like the critical hidden door, or the series of nonstop magic missile-like rooms). Here's some of the highlights (and you MUST read the last one):

SCENE: ENTRYWAY. There's a red tile path snaking left and right down the hallway. Players start to debate about whether they should proceed on the path, or off. Tamsina the elven thief announces "I completely ignore the red path, and give it no regard one way or the other. Searching for traps..." At which point I think, wow! That's exactly the right mindset, they definitely have a chance!

SCENE: ENTRY HALL. Wizard announces he's very carefully looking for patterns all the way down the hall on the painted walls and ceilings. He finds no detectable pattern. (DM thought: Damn! So close! If he'd just said "...and floor" he'd have a giant payoff!)

SCENE: DEVIL FACE. They first prod it with a 10' pole, thereby avoiding losing anyone to that particular challenge. There's an archway there, and the thief decides to search the bare wall opposite the archway. (DM thought: Awesome. Nothing here, but there's another place later on where that's exactly what they have to do.)

SCENE: COMPLEX OF PORTALS. The party is getting shot at incessantly, every round, by unstoppable magic bolts as Grant the fighter tries to push, pull, slide, unhinge a series of stone portals. They've figured out that bunching together reduces the number of separate shots. They're rolling scores of saving throws and damage rolls (I'm counting off 5 at a time and have everyone save one time.) They get in a rhythm and hit the last door -- dammit, this one is different, it has a whole row of buttons to press! The fighter starts pressing sequences of buttons. Someone says "Try pushing all of them." DM asks, "Raise your hand if you're helping press all the buttons at once." Everyone raises their hand and shouts in unison "I am!!". Door swings open, and they spill into the next room. (DM thought: I seriously expected that would be the most aggravating unplayable encounter ever. Somehow it turned into this exciting, yell-out-loud team exercise. Amazing!)

SCENE: TINY CRAWLWAY (or, "THE PERFECT STORM, 1E STYLE"). They get past the second great hall by detecting the hidden crawlspace. (DM thought: Didn't realize in advance how unnerving it would be that it looks just like a sphere of annihilation.) Everyone squeezes into the tiny winding tunnel, fighters in plate armor with shields on their back barely able to wiggle through. They crawl, twisting and turning, for over an hour. The tunnel dead-ends in a blank stone wall. Thief in lead fails to find any secret door. Now what? (So we're laughing at this scene of the party stuck face-to-feet in the tiny crawlspace, unable to move. What if a monster came up behind them, like perhaps a "gelatinous tube"? Don't want to hear from the back: "Uh, guys, I can't feel me feet anymore...")

Remember, we made up characters from DMG Appendix P. The party got to pick a number of miscellaneous magic items from a list when they started. One of the items that they picked was -- yep, a wand of wonder. Having depleted quite a few spells, and with the wizard out of position to cast at the dead-end, the party hits upon trying this wand at the face of the wall. Thief pulls it out, points at the wall, and says the command word. I have the player roll percentile dice. Result: 56%. Darkness falls over the entire party, extinguishing all their lights, leaving them sightless in a pitch-black stone tube deep in the Tomb of Horrors. (A lot more laughter around the table. Now they can't see anything, and are just faceless voices debating what to do next. How could it get worse?) Well, they decide to use the wand of wonder again. Maybe it can reverse the prior effect? In any case, out it comes. Player rolls again. Result: 76%.

So you see, that's a fireball that goes off against the stone wall inches from the face of the lead character. And if you recall, one of the most infamous things about the entire 1E spell system is that fireballs they take the shape of whatever space they're in, up to a fairly sizable volume. And the players have managed to wedge themselves into the very smallest area they could possibly fit their bodies! (Very brief flash of intense light. The entire crawlspace roars with flame, spitting back out into the main hallway hundreds of feet back.) Some make their saves, others have lots of hit points. But recall again that 1E fireballs do affect all their material items. All their clothes and capes get burned to cinders. The map gets incinerated! (I gleefully yank it from the player.) The bag of holding has to save or lose everything within it (it succeeds.)

Massive gales of laughter all around the table. at 2AM, after about 6 hours of play, we're laughing so hard we're almost crying. We can't continue for about 15 minutes or so, play-acting the yelping voices of what the players have managed to do to themselves. They're playing 1E AD&D -- in the Tomb of Horrors -- using a wand of wonder -- and hit themselves with a fireball in the smallest space humanly possible. What could be more perfect? It could only happen in this particular game, with those particular die-rolls that probably no one has ever recreated. In 30 years of playing D&D, I've never seen anything so perfectly, hilariously catastrophic in my gaming life. (Somewhere Acererak looks down and says, "Wow, that's really good! Why'd I never think of that?")

Having just barely survived, the party does manage to crawl backwards into the last hallway over the course of another 2 hours or so in-game. They try to secure a resting space and conjure a demon instead. At the end of a long night, they desperately leap through an archway that yanks all their gear to the lich's crypt, and leaves them stark naked back at the entryway. Thankful to be alive at least, they turn and face the task of fighting bare-fisted through a hundred leagues of evil tropical swamp back to civilization. The sun sets and the credits roll.

Thanks, Gary! You were the best!

[Photo by tj.blackwell under CC2.]

Friday, March 7, 2008

1-2-(3)-Infinity

Nowadays I'm big on the 7+/-2 rule of game design construction. (Again, a psychological rule-of-thumb for how many things people can store in short term memory at once -- and therefore, I think, the maximum number of options anyone should have at one step in a character development process.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_plus_or_minus_two

Now, there's something else that just burbled up at me: I'll call it a rule of "Max 3 repetitions" until I come up with something snappier.

Here's the basic idea, again arising from some psychological experiments. It seems as if things repeating 3 times takes up the same mental space as things repeating infinitely. For example, there's a polling experiment referred to as a "Beauty-Contest Experiment" where people pick a number, and the winner is the one who guesses two-thirds the average. People who don't think about it at all pick a random number (average 50). People who realize that's what happens randomly pick two-thirds of that (33). People who can frame that line of reasoning as common, pick two-thirds of that (22).

And then the next most common selection group is to pick zero (0). That is, if people take a third step in this process, they assume the reasoning continues infinitely, reducing their guess to the limit of zero.

http://ideas.repec.org/p/upf/upfgen/438.html

Here's some other places this pops up. Quite a number of more primitive languages have words for "one, two, many". That is, anything beyond 2 they just lump all together with a word that means "many" (3 and infinity holding the same mental space for them). Also, you many notice that all professional jokes are written in a pattern of 1-2-(pause)-3. I think that's because after 2 repetition beats, our minds fall into the pattern, assume it goes on regularly and indefinitely, and are then kicked out of the repetition with the pattern-breaking punch line (on the 3). End result: laughter.

Okay, so what's got to do with game play? Well, don't do the same thing more than 3 times because then we're all bored with it. I might recommend not having the same monster or kind of encounter happen more than 3 times (I picked up on this in an old Gygax module today -- there's one single place in the adventure where the same basic encounter might happen two dozen times in sequence. Whoops.) Also, don't let someone use a "special ability" more than 3 times in any day because then it's inherently not "special" or "magical" anymore. So with that I'm thinking that 3E spontaneous healing, or 4E healing surges (6/day by everyone) are superfluous. More than 3 times per day is for mundane stuff (sword blows, arrow shots), no more than 3 times for day for anything you want to feel magical (spells & supernatural powers).

One thing you'll find in any piece of literature (book, comic book, etc.) is that practically no one uses the same power or move more than once in any fight. Certainly not more than 3 times, then it gets boring for everyone. That basically happened automatically in OD&D and 1E with the very limited number of spell slots that wizards & clerics had. Being able to duplicate spell slots (e.g., fill all spell slots of one level with the same spell) would be an exploit that would really break the game experience, I think (and fortunately I never saw it in play). Spontaneous casting in the d20 System falls down the same hole pretty badly.

Bummer

I got used to asking Gary minor questions on the ENWorld forums (or sometimes by email). Last night I was reading one of his old adventures again, and woke up this morning thinking, "Oh, I really need to ask Gary how he'd handle such-and-such in an actual game session," along with questions about map scale, possibly swapped illustrations, etc.

And then I realized that I can't anymore. Freakin' bummer.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Gygax Died Today

Yeah, dammit. Gary Gygax died today -- he would have turned 70 this July.

So at this point I have to mourn and salute the guy. No one had a greater impact on my personality and interests than Gygax. Everything that I know about gaming, number systems, probability, statistics, logic, ancient and classical history, technology, languages, acting, the military, comparative religion, literature, fiction and nonfiction writing, vocabulary, reading for pleasure, philosophy, nature, biology, physics -- and general intellectual curiousity -- has its origins in his works and writing.

He was one of those Renaissance men who knew a ridiculous amount about everything, and utilized all of it in his creation of fantasy worlds and systems. I clearly remember reading his books at a young age, feeling that he was speaking directly to me, and lighting a white-hot fire to know more about everything he was talking about. He made it addictive to know stuff.

A lot of people can recognize him as the founder of RPG's, but he was more than that. Here's a secret that you may or may not know -- in every video game company I know of, behind the scenes, all the game designers and engineers play D&D. It's ultimately the root of every computer game, in any genre, that's been made to date. Gygax spawned not just RPG's, but the whole idea that games could be an important part of your life and a big industry to boot, video games included.

I never met Gary, but a number of times I did correspond with him by email, and he was suprisingly generous with his time and insights. That's a guy who really was unique and you won't see another one like him, I don't think, ever. We'll miss him pretty badly.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Those Blasted Clerics

Random idle research topic: Where did D&D clerics get all these blasting spells from?

OD&D -- Good clerics don't have any direct-damage spells whatsoever. The closest thing to offensive spells they have are hold person, sticks to snakes (no stats for the snakes), and insect plague (which routs weak creatures but does no damage). The chaotic Anti-clerics do get to use reversed cure wounds spells and ye olde time finger of death.

1E AD&D PHB -- Now all clerics can use the reversed spells if they feel they really need to. You also have the damage-dealing spiritual hammer, blade barrier, earthquake, and my favorite outright blasting spell, flame strike.

1E AD&D UA -- Adds stuff like magic stone, spike stones, and spike growth. (Hmmm, seems like a lot of stoning going on there.)

2E AD&D PHB -- At this point you fold in all the spells that were previously unique to druids into a single, unified cleric spell list (and give pretty wide access under the 2E "spheres" system), such as: entangle, shillelagh, fire trap, flame blade, heat metal, produce flame, trip, call lightning, hold animal, pyrotechnics, snare, produce fire, wall of fire, fire seeds, animate rock, creeping doom, and fire storm. (You know, suddenly it makes a lot of sense why the long-running cleric character I had, made first for 2E, was something of a pyromaniac.)

3.0 D&D PHB -- So here some of those spells above again become restricted to just druids, but you also add stuff like: magic weapon, death knell, shatter, sound burst, searing light, greater magic weapon, energy drain, implosion, and storm of vengeance. Certain domains even add more stuff than that, like burning hands, wail of the banshee, disintegrate, incendiary cloud, Bigby's clenched fist et. al., subeam, sunburst, power word stun/ blind/ kill, ice storm, cone of cold, acid fog, horrid wilting, plus chaos hammer, unholy blight, holy smite, and order's wrath. Hey-o!

Okay, so the point is, when clerics started out, they were almost entirely defensive -- they could paralyze or drive off creatures with their spells, but not directly damage them. Except for the chaotic Anti-clerics. That's basically maintained throughout the OD&D supplement series, except for Druids being given a big heaping helping of fire-based attack spells (and there's some confusion in the Eldritch Wizardry supplement about whether they're supposed to be a sub-class of Clerics or Magic-Users). Then with 1E AD&D clerics get the flame strike spell outright, and we're sort of off to the races. Nowadays we don't think much at all of clerics having a wide array of long-distance direct blasting spells, even though that was (literally) the Antithesis of clerics in their original conception.

Friday, February 1, 2008

No OGL For 4E

One month ago in my "Promise of OGL" post, I wrote this about Wizards of the Coast with regard to 4E D&D (Jan-2, http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2008/01/part-iii-promise-of-ogl.html ):


They claim that there will be an OGL version of the rules, but details are extremely vague (frankly, I remain skeptical at this time).

And as of today, that's turned out to be the case. There won't be on OGL for 4E; instead there will be a brand-new license called the "Gaming System License" that is a far more restricted grant of rights than 3E allowed (Feb-2, http://www.enworld.org/showthread.php?t=218031 ):


Mike: Why is Wizards of the Coast calling it the OGL when it really doesn't seem quite open?

Linae Foster: We decided that yeah, OGL isn't the best name for it. So we're going to call it The Game System License from now on or GSL.

You can see comments and links to the prior "OGL" post here about why that was probably necessary. In particular, it's been pointed out that OGL v.1 Section 9 actually makes forward-referencing grants of rights to anything ever released under any OGL. (i.e., WOTC wants OGL v.2 with lots more restrictions, but OGL v.1 says you can take any such content and just re-release it under the less restrictive OGL v.1 anyway.)

So, as of today no more use of OGL by WOTC. I actually think that's positive, in that they're being up front about it and not trying to confuse/FUD-up the legal standing of the first OGL.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Defenses in D&D

One of the wierd things about D&D is how the use of defenses actually works to the detriment of the defenders in a standard game of D&D. (Whenever I boot a game of Diablo for a half-hour break this occurs to me.) Here's what I mean:

In the real world, defenses and strongholds are meant to bolster a weak party against a strong party. For example, castles were built to allow a small number of defenders to hold off a large army (for an amount of time, perhaps until an allied force arrives, or the invader runs out of money to pay his troops). The basic idea is that by channeling invaders down some narrow passage, you can fight them one-at-a-time, at equal odds or advantageously, instead at the skewed odds against all the attackers at once.

Now, this assumes one critical criteria -- That the defenders are, man-to-man, about equal or stronger than the men in the attacking force. In the medieval real world, this is basically always true.

But this key requirement is perfectly upended in the standard D&D game. Here, the general gameplay is for a very small number of PCs to be invading the territory of some sizeable hordes of evil beasts or minions, and the PCs are generally much stronger than most of the defenders they're fighting against, man-to-man. It's almost always desirable for the PCs to fight man-to-man if they can (they overpower most of the defenders), while it would be in the defendsers' best interest to bring the whole weight of their numbers to play at once (they could surround, flank, and get many attacks per single attack of the PCs).

And that's why, counterintuitively, almost all the "defenses" and tactical terrain in a D&D game wind up working for the PCs and against the monsters. It's actually the PCs who want to restrict mobility and fight the monsters one at a time. It's the monsters who are hurt by not being able to move freely and pig-pile the PCs.

The best possible case for the PCs is, usually, a single doorway where the toughest PC fighter can stand and chop down the monsters one by one. That's why smart PC fights wind up tactically with the PCs defending some narrow passage, and the native monsters acting the part of the attackers, getting mowed down as they try to wiggle through their own defenses.

And that's one of the reasons why the canonical "warren of kobold tunnels" never ever works (in my experience), because kobolds coming one at a time against the PCs is actually the best possible thing the PCs could hope for. They're the ones who are outnumbered (and facing weaker opponents), and therefore want limited mobility in the fight. Defenses help the small party -- and in D&D that's practically always the PCs.


How to deal with this in-game? Well, as a rationalization, you could say that standard stronghold/dungeon defenses do in fact keep out the hoi poloi (normal soldiers), and that's exactly why you need to send in extra-powerful PCs to root out the evil stronghold all the time. On the other hand, it argues for actual defenders arming themselves almost exclusively with missile weapons, and arranging defenses that allow the entire defensive host to rain down missiles on the attackers all at the same time -- perhaps narrow entryways that open into big spaces or courtyards which are basically firing ranges. A whole bunch of spread-out archers or missile-throwers can be the toughest thing for a standard PC party to deal with (assuming the archers have any kind of appreciable chance at punching through the PCs' armor, which is sometimes not the case).

Monday, January 7, 2008

Cross-Linking Forums

Personally, I like to cross-link forums about the same subject (even though I know some people who don't). I find that it adds depth to the conversation, and hey, isn't that what the hyperlinked World Wide Web is all about? Check out more of my observations on this issue here.

Con Bonus to HP

Here's a thing that irritates me, especially about 3E: the Constitution bonus to Hit Points. It makes monster hit dice listings really complicated. Why can't the natural "toughness" of a creature be entirely reflected in a number of hit dice? Why do they get to "double-dip" with both multiple HD & Con bonus in 3E? And also, how can you ever tell what part of PC hit points are raw physique when the Con bonus changes over levels?

Consider the original rules from OD&D (white box). Everyone gets the same dice -- d6's. Different PC classes get their d6 dice at different rates. All monsters get a simple integer number of dice. Only if PC's have Con 15 do they get +1 benefit (very minor). Monster hit dice merge perfectly with PCs if you choose to interchange the two. Very elegant.

Keeping that in mind, here's a possible variant rule for the 3E d20 System; in fact, it really based on the "Variant: Vitality/Wound Points" from UA. Say PCs start with a base hit points equal to full Constitution -- that's their raw physical durability. Add to that hit points from class -- their Vitality, or quasi-dodge/roll ability (in the UA system, you get bonus points from Con, but I'd strike that out). Now, switch monster "hit dice" to actually be a number of d6's rolled for Constitution (and hence base hit points).

To wit: Orcs get 3d6 Con (base hit points), the same as humans. Hobgoblins get 4d6. Gnolls get 5, ogres 7, trolls 8. Giants get 10 and up, etc.

So, this system has the following advantages: (a) race-based hit points are the same as Con dice, represented by just a single integer; (b) it makes explicit the difference between raw physical damage and dodging-exhaustion; (c) it triples starting PC hit points for survivablity & granularity, which seems to be all the rage these days; (d) it makes the power increase from 1st-2nd-3rd class levels a lot less steep; (e) if PC hit dice revert back to all d6's like in OD&D, it becomes trivial to add class levels to any base monster; (f) no special rule is needed for unclassed humans, they just have 3d6 base hit points like everyone else.

However, now you probably have to re-evaluate reams of existing rules, possibly like weapons, spells, and monster attacks, to make sure that things are at least somewhat balanced. Nontheless, it's an attractive proposition (hearkening back to OD&D) to have these kinds of things be a simple, raw number of dice for base racial characteristics.

Of course, I'll never have time to completely work out all the implications of a system like that. I suppose I can go back to the regular d20 System and make my peace by saying that PCs learn better how to use their natural physical endurance as they advance (and hence get re-investing Con bonus every level). But man, I wish I could torpedo the monster Con-bonus hit points, and just say the raw Hit Dice number encapsulates how tough they are.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Part III -- Promise of OGL

Conventional wisdom holds that a lot of former 1E players came back in the fold when 3E was released, and I was definitely part of that crowd. To me, the single most exciting thing about 3E was the OGL, the Open Gaming License.

To summarize, the OGL allowed anyone to distribute the core mechanics of the D&D rules. It allowed anyone to write & publish adventures compatible with D&D, and modify & expand the rules however they imagined. There were specific comparisons to the GPL used in open-source software (something also close to my heart, since I've been a professional software developer). The business case was that WOTC made money selling hardcover rulebooks, while others could write adventures that supported the system. There was a "d20 System" trademark made available, for free just by sending a letter to WOTC, that allowed anyone to signal compatibility with the greater system of D&D.

It might help to refresh one's memory with how Ryan Dancey was selling the OGL, back at the time of 3E's rollout in 2000, on the WOTC site here.)

I previously wrote about how I saw the breakup of the OGL happening at the advent of 3.5. The evangelizing Ryan Dancey had left the company at that point, and WOTC was pretty clearly stepping back from the OGL movement. They didn't communicate the rules changes to the companies that were dependent on the system, and many were forced out of business at the time. (You can see my prior posting on the 3.5 release here.)

I think the switch to 4E is going to be significantly more dramatic. For starters, there is no longer a free "d20 System" trademark. WOTC will be offering that to only a few select, approved large companies, and perhaps approved sub-licensors. They claim that there will be an OGL version of the rules, but details are extremely vague (frankly, I remain skeptical at this time). Third-party publishers seem to be suffering even more greatly this cycle; apparently no draft of the rules has been shown to third-party publishers (whereas they did have a draft at the equivalent time in advance of 3E). Some folks are reporting local game stores getting out of the D&D business entirely with the rules switchover. The head of ENWorld reports that their publishing sales have fallen 80% since the announcement of 4E (here).

But by far, the greatest failure has been in the promise that the OGL would make the future evolution of D&D a cooperative effort between company & customers. Here's Ryan Dancey, from the above article, as 3E was being rolled out:

The other great effect of Open Gaming should be a rapid, constant improvement in the quality of the rules. With lots of people able to work on them in public, problems with math, with ease of use, of variance from standard forms, etc. should all be improved over time. The great thing about Open Gaming is that it is interactive -- someone figures out a way to make something work better, and everyone who uses that part of the rules is free to incorporate it into their products. Including us. So D&D as a game should benefit from the shared development of all the people who work on the Open Gaming derivative of D&D.

It was precisely this promise that was the biggest attraction for me to get back into 3E. Like the open software movement, the intellectual property was being opened to everyone. The users themselves would be driving the future "shared development". For me, I expected this to result in smaller changes over time, and an ongoing refinement of the system in the future, as consensus grew around particular parts of the ruleset. That's a big part of why I thought it was worthwhile to learn the new system, that the rate-of-change would be slowing, and therefore it would get wider usage for a longer period in the future.

That promise doesn't look remotely like the releases for 3.5 or 4E. In fact, it's pretty much the exact opposite of "someone figur[ing] out a way to make something work better, and everyone who uses that part of the rules... incorporat[ing] it into their products. Including us." Rather, 3.5 and 4E changes have come entirely from "star" designers in the WOTC offices. The new changes have in fact been closely-guarded secrets, sprung on the industry in the most surprising way possible. Hints and clues about the new 4E system are locked behind Gleemax logins, or even sold as "design preview" books in game stores (with the mechanics details still secret).

Clearly WOTC isn't taking direction from the larger community... in fact they apparently feel compelled to make as many surprising mechanical changes possible, so as to startle the players and get attention with the widespread, fundamental novelty. My estimation now is the reverse of what I thought when 3E was rolled out -- instead of changes slowing over time, I now expect them to accelerate over time into the future.

Consider Ryan Dancey's later analysis of how the the OGL played out to 2007 (a month before 4E was announced), in response to a question of mine posed at ENWorld here:

In practice I'm not too surprised at the lack of OGC use in D&D. There are several dozen people paid quite well to design & develop Dungeons & Dragons. You will remember that just after 3.0 shipped, Wizards went through 4 disastrous rounds of layoffs. The "survivors" (many of who also survived the Last Days of TSR) know how to keep their jobs: Do great work, and get it published. So there's an economic (and personal) motive to avoid using a lot of 3rd party OGC in the work that team produces. Nobody in that team wants an upper level manager to think "well hell! Let's just get rid of the RPG R&D group and rely on this talented pool of freelancers instead".

I'll also say that there's a unique thing going on at Wizards of the Coast, and that thing is what I call the "culture of design"... The result is, in my opinion, a qualitative difference between the WotC produced content and a lot of 3rd party content... it's hard for outside material to make it through the design inspection and review process and into a Dungeons & Dragons product.


So there you have it. The initial promise of the OGL (in any way that resembles the GPL of open source software) is basically pronounced dead by its initiator (and also a current WOTC spokeperson in the same thread). Refinements produced outside WOTC can't become part of core D&D products, because (a) the mind-set is now that WOTC provides a "cathedral" of unmatched game design high priests, and (b) the game designers themselves need to convince their bosses that only their work passes muster (and so specifically avoid OGL sources). And I'd also suggest that (c) WOTC wants to "suprise" the player base with many unexpected changes in order to drive sales. Whatever form the OGL'd content for 4E takes, the motivation behind the original idea is definitely no longer there.

Thus, for me, one of the biggest promises of 3E, which brought me back to the game, has specifically been reversed and renounced. If the players aren't formally participating in the evolution of D&D, then it just looks like any other RPG product to me. If there isn't the promise of everyone have the opportunity to publish work marked as compatible with D&D, then it's not so exciting. If it looks like changes will come more and more rapidly in the future, then it's not worth my time learning a new system today.

But, we'll always have 1E and 3E. Maybe if the pendulum swings back in the right direction for 5E, I'll once again take a look. Until then, cheers!

Part II -- Digital Initiative

(Heh, I got busy in the fall and didn't have time to add to this blog much. Here's the last two parts I outlined back shortly after 4E was announced.)

A core part of the business strategy is what they're calling the "Digital Initiative". This includes things like logins to the WOTC "Gleemax" forums, the now online-only version of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, web-based character creation and dungeon-design tools, and an online game table where players can push around virtual miniatures and roll dice. All for various fees, of course: some combination of overall monthly subscription fees, subscriptions to the "magazines", more for the tools, game table, more for virtual miniatures, access to digital versions of expansion books that they sell, etc.

At the announcement event at GenCon, the presenter laid out a strategy that included 4 parts: (1) Physical Product (actual books & miniatures), (2) Organized Play (conventions & online organization tools), (3) Community (Gleemax.com, social networking tools), (4) Digital Offerings (creation tools, game table, web magazines). You can see the summary at ENWorld here, and the first of the 4 video presentations on YouTube here.

By my counting, that's 3 of the 4 parts of this strategy that are really online computer-based offerings (for a subscription). They make it sound like 75% of their business model is now dependent on the Digital Initiative.

It seems clear that WOTC is looking enviously at the advent of major MMORPG's, like World of Warcraft, that are raking in millions of dollars per month in subscription fees (orders of magnitude more than pen-and-paper RPG's ever made). They're willing to completely re-architect the game to pursue the flavor, classes, magic sensibility, and levelling experience, basically of World of Warcraft, and the consensus opinion is that they're betting -- that they need -- to attract lots of young players away from WOW to start playing D&D. Like I say, they themselves make it sound like 75% of their strategy is dependent on a massive monthly income stream from online offerings.

This has an overwhelming number of risks -- in my opinion, it's fundamentally a bad bet. First, it's not playing to D&D's core strengths; instead of emphasizing the things that can be done well in pen-and-paper, and are poorly done online, they're specifically trying to mimic popular online games in mechanics and delivery. This will only make D&D look worse in comparison (while losing chunks of the traditional 1E, 3E customer base). Ryan Dancey made a similar argument a few weeks before 4E was announced, here:

We have to avoid dead end strategies designed to make tabletop games play like MMORPG games -- the worst thing we could do is spend time & resources trying to make a digital environment to virtualize the tabletop experience, or try to find ways to let people play a tabletop game across the internet.


Second, the great majority of MMORPG-like projects are outright failures. There's an excellent book by Mulligan & Patrovsky, Developing Online Games: An Insider's Guide. In it, these consultants on several MMORPG projects paint a picture of a whole lot of game companies getting stars in their eyes over ongoing subscription-based services, diving in without realizing the risks, pumping millions and millions of dollars into development (several multiples beyond any similar project they've completed), and then having it all crash down around their ears because they don't have expertise with these kinds of complicated real-time services. (From the Foreword: "The fact of the matter is that the history of online game development is littered with very expensive carcasses.") It's almost like you just can't stop game company executives from betting the whole farm on MMORPG's, even when you present reams of evidence on how unlikely it is to succeed. I think it's likely that WOTC is now determined to stomp down this same well-worn path.

Third, WOTC has a proven track record of being totally incompetent at software projects. It's not just that it isn't their core competency as a business. It's not just that they have no software development arm whatsoever. Rather, if you go back to the commencement of 3E, there was a fairly nice demo of a character generator, on a CD in the PHB. Promises were made about a fully-fleshed out PC generator, with -- you guessed it -- mapping, dungeon creation, monster placement, etc., to come. (There was an earlier kind of shaky version for 2E.) But this project suffered all the classic problems of mismanagement and feature bloat. As I recall, it took years and years, went through several development teams, completely ditched everything in the original demo UI product, abandoned the mapping tool, and was ultimately released to very poor reviews. Third-party tools were roundly considered far superior to WOTC's "official" product. (The first review I found of this 3E product, titled "Time for a toolbox -- but not this one" from Scifi.com, you can see here.) If they failed so miserably with just a local application like this, how can we possibly expect success on a far more complicated ongoing subscription service?

Finally, WOTC's Digital Initiative does not provide a game. For all the content and myriad of services they say they'll provide (preliminary reviews of their Dragon & Dungeon magazines have been quite poor), and the emphasis on the digital game table, that game table doesn't resolve any mechanics. You can push miniatures and roll dice and that's it -- you still have to make your own adventures and have a DM manage all resolutions by hand. (Oddly enough, I was actually involved in engineering a prototype project very much like that ten years ago at another computer game company. For the life of me, I couldn't understand how that project made sense at the time, and I still can't now. Ultimately, the project I was on was turned down by the license-holder we offered it to.) If WOW players are used to getting a fully-featured 3D world, automatically run with monsters and quests, with fellow players automatically and always available, for $15 per month, then I can't see why such players would accept paying a similar amount for a sterile miniature-placement tool. It's hard to see how the market would reward a half-hearted venture like that.

WOTC made it very clear in their initial presentation that they're betting the company on the Digital Initiative. I think there's an extremely high likelihood that this venture will not be a success.