Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review: M2, Vengeance of Alphaks

M2: Vengeance of Alphaks
D&D Master Game, Levels 28-32
By Skip Williams

Vengeance of Alphaks has five chapters. This is a sequel to module M1, in which Alphaks seeks to precipitate a catastrophic war between Thyatis and Alphatia in the domains of Norworld. In some ways it documents a fairly straightforward invasion of Norworld, with various detailed side-plots and complications.

Chapter 1, "Dawn of the Giants", sees a PC dominion initially invaded by a mercenary band of about 50 fire giants and associated creatures (hellhounds and red dragons). Their base and an attack on a walled village are detailed.

Chapter 2, "Coiger's Lair", entails the PCs tracking down the master of the giants, a chaotic and evil 34th-level cleric named Coiger de Mory, in his wilderness stronghold. This dungeon has 17 encounter areas, including giants, meks, and a regular and undead beholder. In the end, Coiger will disavow sending the giants and offer his military forces to help the PCs.

Chapter 3, "Night of the Beetles" details four complications that befall PC domains (an assassination, usurper, raiders, and earthquakes). The earthquakes are further detailed in a cave system in which earthquake beetles (100-ft long monsters) are being generated by a series of 5 monoliths. The monoliths are unlocked by answering a set of (fairly familiar) logic puzzles posed by an agent of Alphaks.

Chapter 4, "Chaos Returns" details the actual invasion using War Machine statistics. In short, Baron Norlan of Qeodhar attacks Norworld with Alphatian allies; then he betrays them to Thyatis forces, who join the invasion; while the primary Alphatian forces wait to join the fight only if a certain number of their noble hostages are freed first. Thyatis seeks to dominate Norworld, while Alphatia also seeks to dominate and rebuke the independent-leaning territory. An outside possibility is that PC forces can retain the land's independence.

Chapter 5, "The Flying Castle", details the crown jewel in the Alphatian war effort: a magnificent flying castle which serves to harass supply lines and overcome land-based defenses at will. A map with 16 encounter areas is detailed. It's defended by air elementals, pegataurs (elf-pegasus centaurs), human artillerists, manscorpions, a nightwalker, and a lich commander (obviously a target for the PCs themselves, being quite deadly).

As stated above, M2 can be fairly summarized as "an invasion of Norworld and its complications". One weakness of the entire Companion and Master adventure lines is their dependence on the Norworld campaign setting, and the presumption that PC and NPC dominions are in place and have been developed there. As published, there are no existing domains, territories, or borders for a DM to actually set this action in by default. This makes it practically impossible to run this or similar adventures as a "one-shot" out of the box (despite the existence of some pregenerated PC characters themselves).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sorcerer's Scroll: October 1982

Hopefully I don't "go on a binge" and spend all re-posting old EGG articles. Nontheless, I'll post this one because it short and again falls in the file of "EGG sure said a whole lot of stuff". This comes from Dragon #66, October 1982. Upon the release of Deities & Demigods for AD&D, Gygax is apparently responding to some harsh criticism from another magazine that DDG isn't useful, in that it has insufficient details around the practices of the religions included.

This capable and knowledgeable individual suggests that data on the deities is insufficient for usefulness in an AD&D™ campaign. That religion, being so much a part of our real history, must likewise play a part in your campaign, J. R. R. Tolkien did not agree, for he wrote many pages without mention of religion. Most of the heroic fantasy and swords & sorcery books written do not feature any particular religious zeal on the part of their protagonists. Consider Conan, Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, Harold Shea, and the list goes on and on. I do not agree that it needs be a significant part of the campaign...

... Development of ideologies, rites, dogma, and so forth is purely a matter for the DM— with active participation of players, naturally. It is nothing which we desire to force upon players, nor will we. How a game is role-played is a matter of choice.

One unexpected thing here is seeing EGG turn to JRR Tolkein as the first-and-foremost authority of what belongs in a fantastic adventure. You can dig up a lot of quotes where EGG disavows being deeply influenced by Tolkein, and yet here when it suits his rhetorical purpose it's the first thing he thinks of.

Secondly, the advice here is at odds with what EGG wrote for an introduction to the DDG itself. There he offers it forth as an indispensible, necessary part of the core AD&D game. I guess I'll never entirely shake my 12-year-old naivete that publishing copy may be skewed in favor of whatever product is currently the target of sales efforts.

But thirdly in this case: I completely and strongly agree with the core analysis in this passage. When I think of precisely these authors, and precisely these characters -- personally I can't shake the impression that "Most of the heroic fantasy and swords & sorcery books written do not feature any particular religious zeal on the part of their protagonists."

I also "do not agree that it needs be a significant part of the campaign". The fit of the D&D cleric has always bothered me, and the campaign-building catastrophe that always befalls me as I try to fit it in, determine where clerics sit in the world power structure, detail a host of gods and churches before starting play, and try to fit together (1) Catholic-style crusading priests with (2) miraculous everyday powers, in (3) a paganistic pantheon of worship, is perhaps my biggest grief with D&D and all its traditions. As I've written before, I've finally expunged clerics from all the D&D that I personally develop (in OD&D, replacing clerics with Greyhawk's thieves). And here I'm rather stunned to find EGG one day arguing the same thing, when freed from the task of directly selling a specific product.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sorcerer's Scroll: March 1980

Flipping through old digital Dragon magazines, I find an article by EGG which jumps out at me, considering how I've been ruminating lately about exactly how I got into the hobby. This is Dragon #35, March 1980. Basically it's a corporate planning presentation, which touches on all the explosion of products that TSR would be working on in the 1980-1981 era and beyond.

For starters, it's interesting because right in the first paragraph EGG comes out and lays down the sales figure for the last 5 years of the company. Nowadays this kind of information from the publishers of D&D may as well be sealed in a cold, inacessible tomb on Neptune:
The course of TSR Hobbies’ development has been rather like a D&D campaign. When we finished our first fiscal year back in 1975, we were pretty much a low-level-character sort of company, with gross sales of only about $50,000. We had excellent experience the next year, with a $300,000 figure, and in 1977 we doubled that to $600,000. TSR didn’t quite double again in fiscal 1978, ending the year at a gross of near $1,000,000, but in ’79 we did a bit better, finishing at a gross of well over $2,000,000.

From the way 1980 is shaping up, there is no reason to doubt that we’ll at least double in size once again. It is possible that we’ll be the largest hobby game company—and ready to start toward the really high-level game producers such as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers—by 1982. (To those who doubt, think about the relative size ofTSR and Avalon Hill, for example, in 1975 . . . .)

It's kind of fascinating to think, in retrospect, about what became of TSR and those other "really high-level game producers" mentioned above. But more importantly for my purposes, EGG then goes and discusses the delayed AD&D line, and the thought process surrounding the Holmes Basic D&D edition. (My first edition of the game. Warning, this quote is a bit long.)

Most of the personnel at TSR took part in design and developmentin years past. As we realized that “Original” D&D (the first three booklets and the supplements) wasn’t anywhere near adequate for the needs of the readership it was attracting, it was decided that a simplified,clarified, introductory piece was needed. Shortly after this was decided, as if by divine inspiration, J. Eric Holmes got in touch with us and actually volunteered his services for just such an undertaking. All of you know the result, of course.

All of you also know why something had to be done. The “Original” work had been aimed at a small audience, one (wrongly) assumed to be highly conversant with military miniatures and basically non-critical. The booklets were hastily put together in late-night and spare-time hours, by and large, with little or no editing. Each supplement further-more reflected development and evolution of the game, so there was contradiction, duplication, and vast areas of ambiguity and non-direction.

I saw this as a second problem, one well known to you also. D&D was too flexible and unlimited, in my opinion. The game was actually unrecognizable as played from group to group in the same locale, let alone different regions of the country! As plans of reorganizing and rewriting D&D were developed, I began my own work on Advanced D&D, and this kept me busy for some three years, more or less. By the time the final manuscript from Eric was in our hands, the rough of the Monster Manual was also finished, rough outlines of Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide were typed up, and several portions ofboth works were likewise in manuscript form. We had two choices to consider with the new Basic Set: As it took players only through three experience levels, they could thereafter be directed to the “original”works, or we could refer them to AD&D. This put us on the horns of a real dilemma. Sending them into the morass of “Original” D&D put us back on square one, with all the attendant problems of rules questions, misinterpretations, and wildly divergent play. Yet there was no time to undertake a revision of the remainder of the “Original” works immediately—that was a project to take place sometime in the distant, dimly perceived future, when TSR could actually afford the luxury of a staff of designers!

On the other hand, Advanced D&D, even then obviously a different game system, could be offered as a stop-gap measure. Its classes, races, characters, monsters, magic, spells, and so forth were similar to, but certainly not the same as, those of D&D. Was it better to send enthusiasts into the welter of the “Original” material and let them founder around there? Or would it be better to direct them to AD&D, even if it meant throwing out what they had begun with the Basic Set and making them start a fresh? Faced with a choice between chaos and a clean slate, we opted for the latter. (Although there are occasional letters from irate D&Ders who refuse to move into the new system, that is far preferable to what would have happened had we directed readers to the “Original” volumes!) After we selected what was actually the lesser of two evils, things went into high gear.

Pieces and parts of the various components of AD&D were grafted into the Basic Set rules manuscript so that D&D would be more compatible with the Advanced game. Readers were directed to AD&D throughout the Basic Set, with muttered prayers accompanying these directions, I am sure, as our production people had no idea then just how well it would all work out in the end, because much of the AD&D system was still on rough notes or in my head at the time. It turned out to be relatively acceptable as an interim measure, too.


I think that now, almost 30 years later, there's a lot there that I can be critical of.

First of all, there's the classic claim by EGG that AD&D was motivated by a desire to standardize D&D and make it consistent game between all the playgroups that utilized it. I'm not sure that EGG was actually the man for that task alone. When I look at AD&D it seems like it has "more" stuff, but it's rather a stretch to say that it's been streamlined and clarified from OD&D. The complicated ability bonuses from Greyhawk I don't like anymore. Changing hit dice and monster damage wasn't thought out in a systematic way. Ultimately EGG struggled with this over his career -- his attempt at clarifications really just being piling up and more more stuff through AD&D and Dangerous Journeys -- and wound up back playing OD&D at the end.

Secondly, on the same point, I think we can look skeptically at the motivating point that "D&D was too flexible and unlimited... The game was actually unrecognizable as played from group to group...". We can now see that this wasn't a problem with the D&D game system per se; that's the result of a natural cycle of a hobby game that permits supplemental rules and add-ons to be published. Some will pick them up and some won't. At the end of the cycle a thousand permutations will exist and few games will look like any others. So it doesn't matter how "Advanced" you make the rule system, or how many cases you try to cover; after some number of years of pushing supplements, the games will be out-of-sync. Radically bulking up the core content is not going to permanently fix that.

Obviously, from the perspective of most modern big game publishers, this is a virtue, not a vice. But we can likewise be skeptical about whether it's been good for the health of the game itself long-term.

Finally, we can address the attested soul-searching about whether players of the Holmes Basic D&D should have been thereafter directed back to OD&D or forwards to AD&D. Here Gygax in 1980 concludes, "After we selected what was actually the lesser of two evils, things went into high gear... with muttered prayers accompanying these directions... It turned out to be relatively acceptable as an interim measure".

In the past month or so, I've decided explicitly the opposite. (And this is what stunned me running into this particular article tonight by chance.) You can see in my post from a few nights ago that I really feel a loss that no one could, in 1980, recommend looking at OD&D to me; because in general that was what I was looking for via AD&D and its successors all these years. To know that we were intentionally being directed to an incompatible gaming system, with a radically different philosophy, is a somewhat tart mouthful to swallow at this time. In fact, I think maybe a HUGE mistake was made back then, when D&D was standing at the crossroads of 1980.

Character Cards

One of the things I'm loving about Original D&D is that you can keep all the stats for a single character or monster on a simple index card (as opposed to multi-page character sheets). I keep them all in pocket-sized index card box, which is very hand to carry around.

However, I did get a bit tired of copying all the item labels over and over again by hand. Solution: Pre-printed character index cards. Link below; print on cardstock, cut out, and you're in business.

http://www.superdan.net/download/CharCards.pdf

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Review: M1, Into the Maelstrom

About 2 years ago, I got it in my head to do a comprehensive review of the Mentzer-era M-series "Master" level modules. I'm not sure why I focused on this -- I never played any C/M games, but: (a) there's only 5 M-modules, (b) I already owned most of them for some reason, (c) I'd never seen them reviewed by anyone else, and (d) they actually do bring up some interesting issues for D&D adventure design, not solely from the perspective of high-level/dimension-hopping heroes. Now that I've got a platform for this, I'll plan on posting a review each of the next few Saturdays: here's the first one.

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M1: Into the Maelstrom
D&D Master Game, Levels 25-30
By Bruce and Beatrice Heard

Into the Maelstrom has five chapters. The action is set in motion by three competing immortals, as pictured on the module cover: Koryis (lawful god of peace), Vanya (neutral goddess of battle), and Alphaks (chaotic god of death). The unique mechanic in the adventure is that the immortals score points after each encounter based on PC actions, thereby determining who has power to intervene in other scenes. The War Machine (and Sea Machine extension) is heavily used.

Chapter 1, "Into the Maelstrom", is provoked by a toxic plague on Norworld; the PCs are mustered with a war fleet to attack the island barony of Qeodhar, thinking they are responsible. (In actuality this is a trick by Alphaks.) On the trip back, a huge whirlpool sucks the fleet into a far part of the galaxy (!).

Chapter 2, "Flight to the Star Kingdoms", is the longest chapter. The fleet now flies through a peculiar region of starry space that is magically filled with air. They are blown through the southern region of the space, in a series of high-level encounters directly inspired by Homer's Odyssey. (For example, instead of a cyclops island, there is an asteroid with a gargantuan beholder keeping his sheep in a cave.)

In Chapter 3, "For the Glory of the Warlords", the PCs deal with 3 star-kingdoms in the northern part of the space (plus a merchant city and pirate port). Each is detailed briefly with one planet, capital, leader, and military force. The PCs will almost certainly have to conquer one or two of the Star Kingdoms to cross the space to the magical exit on the far side.

Chapter 4, "Back Into the Maelstrom", sees the PCs arrive with their fleet back at the island fortress of Alphaks off the coast of Norworld. They engage a fleet of undead-crewed magical ironclads (basically designed to automatically destroy their fleet). They must then personally penetrate the island, the underground port, pass the huge and deadly vortex to the Sphere of Death, and defeat Alphaks himself in the final chamber. If they do so, a time warp is created such that the original invasion never actually occurred, and their fleet is safe back in its original port.

As usual with the M-series, there are some very interesting ideas and mechanics, but often a very slipshod and rushed, non-playtested execution. In the Star Kingdoms, it's very unclear how sky-ships are required or manage to land on the seas of the various mini-worlds (or how thick the seas are, etc.) The PC fleet keeps running out of food automatically just when a world requires it as a plot point. There's a new "roaring demon" monster at the back, described there as Alphaks himself, but re-used at another point in the adventure. There's an impassable space barrier of "wandering rocks", unclear how thick it is; and a map of the central Great Sea Spiral, clearly shown with arms that could be used to bypass the central danger, and yet the text assumes that the center must be navigated. One of the sky kingdoms has a fleet of flying "phaseships", decked out exactly like German submarines. So, this adventure has interesting ideas, but requires a huge amount of patience and flexibility on the part of the DM.

Diseases

You know, I can't get over the fact that when I read OD&D's little books, I keep having the "oh my god, it's all right here!" reaction. I've written before about my decades-long quest for good mass combat & naval combat rules... and have been a little bit rattled to find that the most complete such rules are together in Chainmail and OD&D.

Having gotten into D&D in the era of Holmes Basic and AD&D, and then struggling with some of their limitations for years, part of me now wishes I'd had an opportunity to discover Original D&D circa 1980. But I simply didn't know at the time, and had no outlet to recommend them to me. (I suppose many of us our now following EGG's overall career path: Fighting with minutiae and trying to iron out ever-more detailed rules for years, then finally returning to OD&D at the end of the odyssey.)

Here's a small recent leg of my own journey: Trying to find good rules for diseases. When I first cracked open the 1E AD&D DMG, I found the detailed section on diseases, but at that point in the publishing cycle, it's already too abstract. There are no common names of diseases, just a huge list of body parts and broad categories of ailments which might strike them. Here, the author has already succumbed to the cancer of "complete abstract systemization". In reaching for mathematical-style completeness, he's removed the names and the flavor, losing the whole imaginative hook that would have enticed players in the first place.

Later, I moved on to 3E. Here, there is a smaller number of diseases (which I felt was an improvement: see my "magical number 7+/-2" article), and they have specific names and symptoms. Great. Only problem: None of them are real diseases, they're all made-up fantasy "wahoo" diseases (demon fever, devil chills, mindfire, etc). That was insufficient for conjuring the feel of a truly "fantastic medieval" adventure game that I desired.

At that point I turned to 3rd-party OGL publishers. Here I purchased Bloodstone Press' d20 supplement "Nature's Wrath: A Guide to Poisonous Plants and Infectious Diseases", which does in fact detail real-world poison animals and plants and diseases. Only problem here is, once again, there's an overabundance of information -- over 100 different types by my count. Which is of course a nice piece of work, but then I feel compelled to start doing own research about which types were most common in a medieval setting, so I can focus on introducing those in my game, hoping to cut it down to around 10 key representational types or so. Whew.

So, yesterday, I'm flipping through my digital copy of OD&D Supplement II: Blackmoor, and as you can probably guess -- exactly the treatment I've been looking for is sitting at the end of that book, waiting for me to find it since 1975. Three tiny pages; a baker's dozen of the most commonly known medieval diseases; standard real-world names and symptoms; in D&D terms and statistics. Precisely the names, numbers, and nomenclature that I've been looking to add as a little tainted spice to the medieval wargame, almost a throw-away gesture squeezed into the end of Blackmoor. I literally gasped.

If I'd only known.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Little Books

Here's another point of purely accidental praise for OD&D, in its "3 little books" presentation format. I don't think I've seen anyone else point this out, but here it is -- The "3 little books" format is absolutely perfect for presentation in digital publishing on the Internet.

For example, most current PDF publishers have to go through some awkward gymnastics in order to make their product usable on a computer screen. The standard 8.5x11 page format is, of course, exactly opposite the layout of your computer screen, requiring scrolling within a single page (twice as much if it's in 2-column format, both down and back up and down again), or possibly zooming-out, rendering the text teeny-tiny-unreadable. Many publishers feel it necessary to release their products in 2 formats: one, for printing (8.5x11), and the second, completely reformatted for computer-viewing (11x8.5 or something).

Compare this to the "little books" format: The whole point to them, of course, is that were originally published semi-professionally, using standard sheets of 8.5x11 paper printed landscape-wise, which could then be bound together as a booklet. Well, that's exactly what we can all do today, both with our computer monitors and personal printers!

If you open up the little books, the two facing pages appear together in 8.5x11 landscape format, which is precisely the same shape as a standard computer screen, in a convenient normal-sized font (for example, in my PDF reader, I select View > Page Display > Two-Up). If I want to print digital copies of the little books, it's just as easy to print them out in "booklet" format on standard paper at home, put staples through the center, and have exact duplicates of how they're supposed to be bound in the first place (for example, in my PDF viewer, it's: File > Print > Page Scaling: "Booklet Printing").

So, I've actually started laying out all my own D&D printouts in the same format as the "little books": It's both hands-down the easiest format for viewing on a computer screen, and lets me print out and bind my own "booklets" at home. Using Open Office, I set my page size to 5.5x8.5 (margins 0.38 L/R, 0.50 T/B, Arial 9-pt font), and then when I want I can print using File > Print > Options > Brochure (using Landscape-oriented paper).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Granularity in Checks

Let me briefly praise OD&D for the granularity level in its different checks. Perhaps even a theory of granularity can be initiated from this:

The closer the PC's are to combat and mortal peril, the higher the granularity used -- and hence the higher the detail in the rules for that system. For attacks and saving throws, we use d20's, that is, 5% increments; we can fairly finely tune and "game" the numbers in play when the PCs are in a life-or-death situation.

But as we get further away from that situation, the granularity is reduced. We use d6's (17% increments) for things like searching, listening, finding secret passages, and opening stuck doors. When we're in "exploration" mode, death is not so obviously at our throats, the peril not as great, and therefore there's no need for the same level of detail in the mechanics, nor space given for a multitude of bonuses and modifiers (or even time for the die in question to roll to a stop on the table).

Now, we can admit that this was possibly a historical accident. Chainmail introduced a game system with everything based on d6's. Original D&D presented the option to use d20's in combat as the optional "Alternative Combat System". EGG later went completely off the farm with Greyhawk's percentile-based Thief skills for hiding/ sneaking/ pickpocketing/ trap removal (although in 5% increments, so they could have just as easily been d20-based) -- and again in places like Oriental Adventures, which introduced d20 skill checks for generic things like riding, poetry, and tea ceremonies.

This latter tradition was, of course, carried forth to the 3E d20 System. But we can see why the desire for a "unified mechanic" (every check on a d20, say) may be fundamentally flawed in this specific sense. When every check has the same granularity, then there is the implication that every check is equally meaningful, and deserves an equally detailed treatment in the rules system. It poses as an invitation to develop equally numerous modifiers, bonuses, and benefits to every different kind of check. And perhaps we should prefer to inhibit that in certain areas.

Keeping the high-granularity checks (d20's) reserved only for combat situations and/or mortal peril actually serves as a fairly good existential simulation of the adrenalized, time-slows-to-a-crawl, see-everything-in-detail nature of the life-or-death experience. It may have been an accident that OD&D exhibited that methodology, but perhaps it's one that deserves emulation.

My OD&D Multiclassing

The other day, I had to end a post about OD&D with the words, "Let a thousand multiclassing rules proliferate..." So here's my own offering:

Adding Classes: To add a new class, a character needs an ability of 16 or more in the new prime requisite, and must sacrifice their current top class level. Elves automatically start with two classes.

Experience: At the start of each adventure, the character specifies which class they are training in, and all XP is awarded to that class. Normal restrictions apply (at most one level per adventure).

Benefits: The multiclassed character uses the best entry for hit dice, attacks, and saves; they can freely use any other abilities (weapons, armor, skills, spells, etc.). Fighter/Wizards may cast spells in leather or chain mail, but not plate; thief skills are restricted to leather armor only.

Monsters: Monsters may use the same rules, treating base hit dice as Fighter levels with 6-sides.


A few comments follow. First, keep in mind that I now use Greyhawk-style Thieves to replace Clerics (albeit with d6 hit dice and skills simply rolled d20 + level + Dex >= 20).

I felt deeply that when adding a class, something had to be sacrificed in exchange for this benefit, and this price had to be fairly precious at any level (hence no fixed XP cost). The result was the "sacrifice their current top class level" clause, which I think is fair. In some sense this is similar in spirit to 3E multiclassing, but much less of a full-system overhaul.

The "specify which class they are training in" at adventure-start for all XP was an attempt to retain the spirit of the "freely switch class... but not during the course of a single game" from the original Elf description of multiclassing.

Using only the highest hit die type may seem odd in retrospect, but I've written before as to how it's elegantly consistent with all the other "max" operators for multiclass abilities in OD&D/AD&D. The implication is that you should keep separate hit point scores for each class, and only use whichever one is currently highest.

Finally, here's the reason for allowing Fighter/Wizards to use leather/chain but not plate: While the OD&D Elf description allows them to "use magic armor", for some mysterious reason, Elves never appear in plate in the original rules. The Vol. 2 monster entry has them all in chainmail. The Swords & Spells entry has the heaviest-armored Elf classification wearing chainmail. (And likewise 1E Bards can cast in chainmail but not heavier types.) So let's say that chain is broadly conducive to spellcasting, but plate is prohibited. It seems both consistent with the source material, and a useful and elegant game-balance restriction.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Monster & Treasure Assortment

I've got a digital copy of the old D&D "Monster & Treasure Assortment", and it's a very odd product. On the one hand, I think it's incredibly useful in theory: Hundreds of pre-rolled encounters (100 for each level), pre-generated hit points, and complete stat blocks that you can copy-and-paste directly into an adventure you're writing (in this digital format).

The problem is that this particular version of M&T doesn't match any edition of the D&D rules. There was an earlier edition (1977-78, in three separate booklets), which presumably matched the OD&D rules at that time. But a revised edition was released later (1980, collected in one book), with widespread editorial changes (one might say "mangling") throughout, and that's the version available in PDF form. The Acaeum has a nice page listing all the changes between the editions, compiled by Trent Smith, wherein he asserts the following ( http://www.acaeum.com/library/m&tchanges.html ):
Obviously a lot of these changes, especially at the lower levels, were made to try and match the content and conventions of the Moldvay-edit Basic Set (type-names for snakes, lizards, spiders, etc., class level titles, no paladins, etc.), but it's equally obvious that whoever did the editing/updating had no real idea of what was going to be in the Expert Set.

Here's some of the oddities that Trent doesn't mention. The stat blocks contain hit points, but no Hit Dice. That said, the hit points are calculated assuming 8-sided hit dice (best seen in the Hydra entries), which would distinguish it from Original D&D. However, there are no damage entries, assuming that all base damage is 1d6 (which was changed in OD&D at the same time that HD became d8). And yet, there are things like multiclassed Halfling Hero/ Thieves, which don't exist in the Holmes or Moldvay Basic sets. And finally, there's a statistic called "AL/Attack Level", which was never seen before or since in any D&D product of any sort to my knowledge (not the same thing as an "attack bonus", it starts at 10 and goes down with greater ability: possibly roll d20-AL+AC >= 10 for a hit or something).

In summary: The 1980 M&T Assortment isn't strictly compatible with any published D&D ruleset, ever.

Question for anyone who has the earlier printing (1977-78): Did it originally use d6 Hit Dice? (Most easily checked in the Hydra entries: heads x dice = hp.) Was it at least originally compatible with OD&D?

OD&D Multiclassing

One of the wonderful things about OD&D is this -- In some places, it just doesn't make a lick of sense. I'm semi-convinced (and I don't think I'm alone) that the necessity of some amount of house-rules and mechanical tinkering contributed to D&D being successful. Not only were you expected to contribute by way of making characters and monsters and dungeons: the rules even sucked you into thinking about game design and contributing rule add-ons, as a necessity. There's probably some Native American aphorism about the flaws being required for the strength of the product; if it had been a perfect work out of the box, we wouldn't have spent so much time with it.

Among the more infamous components is the elf-only multiclassing (as we now call it) rule. Today let's read it with a perfectly open mind. Here in its entirety is the description for elven characters (Vol. I, p. 8):

Elves: Elves can begin as either Fighting-Men or Magic-Users and freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game. Thus, they gain the benefits of both classes and may use both weaponry and spells. They may use magic armor and still act as Magic-Users. However, they may not progress beyond 4th level Fighting-Man (Hero) nor 8th level Magic-User (Warlock). Elves are more able to note secret and hidden doors. They also gain the advantages noted in the CHAINMAIL rules when fighting certain fantastic creatures. Finally, Elves are able to speak the languages of Orcs, Hobgoblins, and Gnolls in addition to their own (Elvish) and the other usual tongues.

Now, what does this "freely switch class" possibly mean? First let's focus on the benefits from each class. It's called out that they can use armor (magic only?) as both Fighters and Magic-Users; apparently other benefits are exclusive. So, it looks like they only gain higher hit dice, attacks, saves, and martial weapons when in "Fighter-mode". And apparently they can only access spells and general magic-item usage in "Magic-mode".

What are the implications of a split like this? Does it mean that memorizing magic spells enervates the physical strength represented by hit dice, attack rolls, and saving throws? Does touching a martial weapon's material drain the knowledge of magic spells from one's mind?

But more importantly, what exactly does it mean to "switch" classes? In this era, we're used to characters having multiple classes, each with its own XP bank (AD&D) or at least level (d20 System). This text, however, doesn't read that way. Let's say we take the phrase "switch" at its most literal. Perhaps a character has a fixed XP value, and before each adventure can actually decide between one of two character tables to apply that XP towards. In any particular adventure, you get the sum total of XP applied in its entirety towards one class.

In some ways that would be more elegant -- No need to keep multiple XP or level totals. No need for any additions or compositions of class abilities. No tracking separate level totals. One value for XP, applied to one single class in any particular adventure. And again this looks most compatible with the language on p. 10: not "multiclassing" or "dual-classing" used there, but again the specific phrase "changing class":

Changing Character Class: While changing class (for other than elves) is not recommended, the following rule should be applied: In order for men to change class they must have a score of 1 6 or better in the prime requisite (see below) of the class they wish to change to, and this score must be unmodified. A Cleric with a "strength" of 15, for example, could not become a Fighting-Man. In any event Magic-Users cannot become Clerics and vice-versa.
An interesting interpretation, I think, with intriguing implications for the campaign-world of wizards and how their magic functions. Unfortunately, this particular reading is still entirely incompatible with the text written for elves encountered as monsters in the same ruleset (Vol. II, p. 16):

ELVES: Elves are of two general sorts, those who make their homes in woodlands and those who seek the remote meadowlands. For every 50 Elves encountered there
will be one of above-normal capabilities. Roll a four-sided die for level of fighting and a six-sided die for level of magical ability, treating any 1's rolled as 2's and 6's (magical level), as 5's. For every 100 encountered there will be a Hero/Warlock...

You can see here that NPC elves (at least) are given two specific, different levels in their classes of Fighting and Magic-Use. And no mention is made of any need to have selected which class is functional when they are encountered in the wild.

So, once again, we are thrown to our own devices when refereeing OD&D out of the original box. Something must give to preserve logical consistency, and the phrase "freely switch class" is the most likely sacrificial victim. Let a thousand multiclassing rules proliferate...

Sunday, January 18, 2009

OD&D Movement and Combat Sequence

So, about a week ago my girlfriend & I were bored one night. We're both moderately geeky, so I offered to play a bit of D&D... whereupon I grabbed my annotated copy of module B1, and my original white-box OD&D, and ran that. This was actually my first and only time running OD&D.

It's an interesting way to experience it, with no prep time whatsoever, and just being thrown into it cold. First, my girlfriend really enjoyed it, felt it was a lot of fun, and found it much more favorable than the game of 3E she'd been in for about a year. "Hey, that's what I thought an adventure game should be like," in her words. Now, that's universally the reaction I get from players who are (a) my age, (b) not hard-core gamers, (c) introduced first to a 3E/d20 System game, and then (d) later introduced to an early pre-1985 TSR role-playing game.

Secondly, I had to run full-tilt into all the obvious gaps in the OD&D rules, things that were implied from the Chainmail rules, etc. I have a simple resolution system I call "Target 20" (generally d20 + level + modifiers/AC, success on 20+) that got me through combat, saves, and thief skills nicely. But what I really had to make up on the fly in makeshift fashion was the combat movement-and-resolution cycle. Afterwards, I sat down and thought about it for a few days, and finally had an "aha!" moment, something I'm really happy with, and I hadn't seen elsewhere. Here's the key points in boldface, with commentary following in normal text:


Scale: Combat scale is 1” = 5 ft, and one combat round takes 10 seconds. Movement and ranges are as written in the core rulebooks. Running is at double speed, but requires dropping all held items.

I've written before that I felt EGG's distance and time scales were faulty, and not really thought out very carefully. I do like a scale of 1" = 5' because that matches your miniature scale (as opposed to the Lovecraftian mangling proposed in the front of the 1E DMG). 10-second rounds are nice for a lot of reasons (matches Holmes basic, allows holding breath to be equal to Con score, etc.)

The other thing is that you can use the move-in-inches from OD&D/1E directly as written. The basic 12" move now realistically converts to what I'll call a standard "combat jog" rate of movement (equivalent to 2 m/s, 7 km/h for an unburdened man), avoiding the need for EGG's complicated justifications regarding 1E's extremely slow movement. Halving this rate gives you a realistic "careful walk" (1m/s, 3.5 km/h); doubling this rate gives a realistic "full run" (4 m/s, 14 km/h).

Combat Sequence: Roll d6 initiative for each side; play goes around the table. The first round permits ranged attacks, but no movement. In each subsequent round, each side moves and then attacks in order. Figures must stand to fire missiles, spells, and ready weapons.

I've established that I really like a simple "play moves around the table" combat sequence, for a lot of reasons. It automatically advertises to all the players who's going next (without complicated and messy tracking with whiteboards or counters or play cards). My understanding is that this is what EGG would do in convention games. There are enormously good reasons why standard table games function this way. And finally, I absolutely loathe written-orders in the context of an RPG.

But let me focus on the "first round permits ranged attacks only" part, which I felt was the real breakthrough here. First, it solves the standard simultaneous-movement problem, where one side with initiative is able to charge across the battlefield before an enemy with a drawn bow can fire it at them (call this effect "pass-through fire" as per Chainmail if you like). Secondly, it automatically generates the desired-but-rarely-accomplished result of archers and spellcasters firing stuff through the air at the enemy just before the ground troops charge in. Thirdly, it's a good simulation of EGG's more refined turn sequence from Swords & Spells, which begins with a segment devoted to firing readied missiles, before any movement. (This latter was actually my own initial motivation -- if we only had the turn sequence from Chainmail/Swords & Spells as inspiration, what would the result be for D&D?)

First Strike: Pole weapons (spear, halberd, polearm, lance, and pike) get a free attack when readied against an onrushing attacker with a shorter weapon. However, in each later round of melee they permit a free attack on the part of the enemy.

This is as simple and realistic as I could make it. Chainmail has every man-to-man weapon categorized by length/speed factor, but I don't think that's necessary. The real issue is whether you're using a stick-it-straight-ahead pole weapon or not. The disadvantage listed here is both realistic and implied by Chainmail (and AD&D DMG speed factor rules), but can be resolved with much greater simplicity, as above. The goal is for these weapons to be "not usable in dungeons as a general rule" (Supplement I, p. 15), and for that result there's no need to be complicated.

Surprise: A roll of 2 in 6 indicates suprise (negated by light, noise, ESP, etc.). A surprised party is delayed by one round (no action in round #1; no movement in round #2; normal actions in following rounds).

You can see how the surprise rule now interacts with the dedicated "ranged attacks only" segment at the start of combat, quite easily. You'd roll initiative at the start of round #2, which may or may not result in the surprised party getting their first missiles off before the enemy has already closed and meleed with them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dan's Diminutive d20, Version 1.2

I've once again updated Dan's Diminutive d20 after some more playtests & proofreading. Mostly this update has short changes for text clarity, but I also tweaked Challenge Ratings for some monsters (humanoids, giants, lesser undead) after a good chunk of playtesting. This is likely the last update for the near future.

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

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

So apparently I'm in "complain about 3E" mode these days.

Let's think about 3E as if it were an attempt to re-simulate 1E, and just make some of the rules more consistent and standardized (which is how it always struck and enthused me). Well, let's look at the standard-issue enemy Orc in 3E. Remember that half-orcs are a PC race (in 1E and 3E), and they've always received a bonus to generated Strength (in 1E and 3E). In 3E, these bonuses always come in increments of 2, so the 3E Half-Orc must have a bonus of +2 (average result 12 or 13). Well, one can then reason that a *full* Orc must have a bonus twice as large, i.e., +4 (average result 14 or 15). Makes sense, right? That's obviously how the 3E designers saw things (as seen in the 3E MM).

Well, here's the problem: that chain of reasoning has now made Orcs far too tough in 3E, compared to their previous place in the D&D cosmos. It gives a +2 bonus on hit/damage rolls, and when given a greataxe by default, generates a stunning 1d12+3 base damage, triple that on a critical hit. In fact, a very standard critique of 3E damage/deadliness level is to take the stock Orc and consider a critical hit with that greataxe.

Moreover, it upends the usual hierarchy of who's the more powerful humanoid in D&D. Previously, Hobgoblins were held out to be a more powerful race than Orcs; in AD&D, they had more hit points, greater height (in MM), and more Strength (see DMG). But with 3E Hobgoblins only having Strength 12 (less than 1E), Orcs have a far greater damage output than Hobgoblins. You can see this reflected in the now-equal Challenge Rating scores (CR 1/2 as published). In this writer's physical playtests, it was even worse; it definitely looked like Orcs should have a higher CR than Hobgoblins.

So I'll identify this as another example when some D&D-revision-designer got over-focused on one small detail (specifically the Orc/Half-Orc Strength relationship), and lost sight of where that fit in the larger system (the hierarchy of humanoid power levels). And I think that's pretty common.

A proposal for a better solution, which I've now done in my Diminutive d20 rules, is this: Even if Half-Orcs get Str +2, there's no requirement for full Orcs to get as much as +4. Let's say in our fantasy universe "orc strength" is a dominant trait (which is compliant with the 1E MM saying that half-orcs almost always share the orcish characteristics), so Orcs get +2, and share all of that with any progeny. Of course, we should return Hobgoblins to the Str 15 (or thereabouts) that they were assigned in 1E AD&D. And thus avoid the otherwise foolish consistency.

Friday, January 9, 2009

3E Reach Rules Were Silly

Yeah, I played 3E for like, 7 years. When I first saw the ruleset I seriously thought the "Reach" rules were consistent, elegant, and a nice systemization. Now I'm really wondering what I was thinking.

In 3E a whole bunch things were designated as having "Reach" -- namely long weapons for men (polearms), and really big monsters (giants & dragons). If you had it, you could attack multiple squares away. You also, as a major intended consequence, got a first-attack on anybody that moved into contact with you. Okay, so that's sort of a generalization of the "long weapon hits first in a charge" and "set a polearm vs. onrushing attacker" rules that you had in AD&D.

Except that it really doesn't make any sense. First, if you've got a polearm, somehow you're managing to threaten a full 360-degree radius around you at will. Anyone who attacks from any direction, you spin instantly and impale them with the weapon. Sure, you've got the 3E "always in motion, no explicit facing" philosophy, but in this case (yaking the end of a 10' pole arm around, moving the tip 20' lateral distance instantly, possibly in a cramped dungeon tunnel) that's just plain ridiculous. Compare that to OD&D's thesis that "these weapons are not usable in dungeons as a general rule due to length" (Supplement I, p. 15) and similar proscriptions, which seems to be a much more clear-headed treatment of the subject.

Secondly, those big monsters that get the same benefit -- that possibly makes even less sense. Presumably they're big and lumbering brutes; it doesn't make sense to give them implied Ali-like reflexes to snap off a blow as soon as someone gets in range. They don't have a long pointy stick to set in your way; they've got to rear back, ready, and deliver a big swinging blow. If anything, the rules should support you getting in under them for a first blow faster than against other creatures. (And that's similar to the iterative-attacks problem in 3E that also lends whip-fast multiple attacks to these same behemoths: the larger, the more attacks.)

The only thing that really makes sense to get a "first attack" is a long, pointy/stabby polearm, set in a particular direction of facing, preferably backed up by a bunch of similar weapons in case you're not statically pointing in the right place at the right time. All the other "Reach grants first strike" in 3E was really an ugly mistake.

As an aside, no wonder my less hardcore friends had such a time following the "Reach" rule. While for some of us Aspergers-like math-heads, there's no problem applying an abstract rule in this case, the truth is that it's very counterintuitive trying to visualize these actions in a common-sense way. If the only rule was "he's got a long pointy stick set in your direction, if you charge at him, you'll run into it", that would probably a lot easier to parse for inductees to the game.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

B2 Used d6 Hit Dice

Here's an interesting statistical discovery I made last night -- take a look at D&D Module B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. Ostensibly this was written for the Holmes Basic set, and was included in many boxed version of that set. Supposedly in that set Hit Dice are supposed to represent 8-sided dice.

But if you take a close look at the monsters in B2, you'll see they were really developed presuming 6-sided Hit Dice; that is, it's really made for Original D&D, pre-Supplement I (Greyhawk, which revised hits to d8 dice). Here's some examples where it's easiest to see. We'll assume our hypothesis (B2 hit dice are d6; average roll 3.5) and see if things are consistent.
  • H. Bugbear Lair. HD 3+1 -> expect 11.5 hit points for a normal bugbear. Listed guard/male equivalent hit points are: 11, 12, 12, and 10, so that's very consistent. Key piece of evidence: In area #41 there's a 14 hp bugbear described as "the big bugbear"; if HD were d8 then he would be below average; but if HD are d6 then he is indeed bigger than expected.
  • J. Gnoll Lair. HD 2 -> expect 7 hp. Listed males are 9, 8, 8. It's more likely that EGG would make these gnolls slightly over-average, than under-average (as they'd be if HD were d8).
  • K. #57 Hall of Undead Warriors. Skeletons HD 1 -> expect 3.5, listed as 3 hp. Zombies 2 HD -> expect 7, listed as 8 hp.
  • D. Goblin Lair. HD 1-1 -> expect 2.5 hp. Listed males are 3, 3, 3, 4 hp. Again, most of these would under-average if HD were d8.

Now, Gary did a couple of recognizable things when setting hit points (familiar from his later writings), like, if in doubt he'd usually set monster hit points a little bit above the expectation. Most solo "boss" monsters he sets at Max or Max-1 possible hit points (and again you see that a lot in B2, recognizing that hit dice are d6 here).

But what he never did in B2 is set any monster hit points over the max possible with d6 hit dice. For example, there are no kobolds with 4 hp. There are no normal orcs with 7 or 8 hit points. The same can't be said of Mike Carr's module B1, which does in fact list some 4-hp kobolds and 8-hp orcs (for example), demonstrating that the B1 module was in fact developed using post-Greyhawk, Holmes Basic rules.

(Note: A more formal demonstration could be done in a comprehensive spreadsheet, listing all hit points in the module, and running an SSE "sum squared error" analysis on each hypothesis and seeing which comes out closer -- much as I did for the AD&D multiclassing problem: http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2008/04/multiclass-hit-points.html. I don't have the time now to do that more formal demonstration, but I'm very confident of what the results would be if it was done. B2 was developed and published assuming d6 Hit Dice, not truly in accordance with the Holmes Basic D&D rules.)