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.

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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.