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.]