Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Golden Rule

Comments on the last post made me once again recall what I consider to be the most important passage in all of Gygax's writings on D&D. I use the following as my "golden rule" when thinking about game design for D&D:

ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game for the fun and enjoyment of those who seek to use imagination and creativity. This is not to say that where it does not interfere with the flow of the game that the highest degree of realism hasn't been attempted, but neither is a serious approach to play discouraged.
- DMG p. 9: "The Game: Approaches to Playing Dungeons & Dragons"

Now, in the interest of being as clear as possible, allow me to unpack the latter two clauses and clean up the double negatives. If we do so, we read this:

(1) The highest degree of realism has been attempted (so long as it does not interfere with the flow of the game).

Again, the double-negatives make the slightly hard to parse on first viewing. In fact, we do seek the highest degree of realism -- claims that D&D has "never been realistic in any way" are totally false. Purely abstract systems are not of interest to us. However, if a conflict arises, then what must take precedence? Definitely, the flow of the game. Both elegant gamesmanship and realistic modelling, working in synergy, are the zenith of game design; but if those goals come into conflict, then gamesmanship must clearly, (narrowly) win out.

(2) A serious approach to play is encouraged.

We can allow ourselves to be serious about our gaming. Claims that "you're thinking too hard about fantasy" can generally be ignored as meaningless. And at the same time, if some of our friends are most interested in the fantastical, phantasmagoric, and even comical elements of our gaming, then that should be seriously respected, as well.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Here's an important aspect of early D&D I've been meditating on lately: the propensity for it to be an ongoing construction of games-within-games. Let's consider a few exemplary examples that spring to mind, starting with D&D and some of my most-favorite computer games:

(1) Dungeons & Dragons. In some sense, OD&D can itself be thought of as the “discovery” that the CHAINMAIL rules contained an even more interesting sub-game with its fantasy combat at the man-to-man scale (not to mention its even more refined system for jousting competitions). In the initial “White Books” you had both the standard dungeon exploration, as well as separate and distinct rules for large-scale wilderness exploration, castle-building, aerial combat, and ship-to-ship naval engagements.

What do I consider some of my most memorable D&D adventures? How about module X10, with its unique strategic-level world-warfare game (in parallel with PC-based diplomacy/adventure scenarios – including possible sidetracks to other X-series modules). Or M5, with a points-based diplomacy roleplay between imperial powers at the adventure's climax. Or even module S3, with its special system for trying to manipulate high-tech artifacts (among other things).

(2) Sid Meier's Pirates! Man, did I play a lot of this game on my cousin's Commodore 64 one summer. In some sense I consider it to be the near-perfect game – and, a lot of my design efforts wind up looking like attempts at replicating this classic. One of the strengths is that it has a completely different sub-game for each skill you might perform in your career as a privateer in the Carribean. Strategic sail navigation, taking a sun-sighting, fighting by cannons, personal swordplay on the deck, invading towns, choosing crew and cargoes, puzzling over map fragments, and wooing the daughters of prominent mayors, are all simulated in distinct sub-games. And almost all of them are both flat-out wonderful, and interface perfectly with all the rest (to the extent that only at this late date can I recognize them as sub-games at all).

(3) Mechwarrior. The original Mechwarrior was another game I played and re-played a whole lot of times. It's the first game I played that had both (a) “sandbox” play, and (b) “plot” based threads. The “sandbox” allowed you to progress as a mercenary captain, taking randomly-generated combat missions, improving your team and equipment over time. The “plot” (for lack of a better word) allowed you to follow up on clues that you were the member of a deposed royal family, and potentially win back your family's home. Some great (and dare I say Gygaxian) aspects of this: (1) you could play the mercenary sandbox indefinitely, (2) it was actually fairly hard to discover that there was a “plot” based mystery to follow up on in the first place, and (3) you still had to do some random mercenary missions in order to build up the strike team you needed at the end of the plotted scenarios. The exact time and sequence of events is impossible to predict in a game of Mechwarrior.

Now, some of this should be well-known to players of current computer game “sandbox” designs (Grand Theft Auto, anyone?), but since I don't play modern consoles, I can't comment directly on those. The thing I want to emphasize is that we don't lose the willingness to allow games-within-games in our classic tabletop RPGs.

Consider a few other examples from TSR/WOTC. In the old Star Frontiers Knight Hawks space combat game (by Doug Niles, who deserves his own blog acclaim), there was a brilliant scaling rule: for 15+ ships, use the coarse, Basic rules for the game; for 5-14 ships, use the more detailed Advanced rules; for 2-4 ships, use the Advanced rules with the individual characters' piloting & gunnery skills detailed. In the more recent d20-based Star Wars game, the spaceship rules were entirely done by analogy to the stock character-to-character system – which I was rather appalled to see when I read it.

Post-2000, there's been a bit of an over-reaction by my left-brained brothers and sisters, often times feeling that all activities in a particular game need to be abstracted out into one single universal mechanic. While this might be nice in theory, in practice I consider it be an abject failure (see the Star Wars example above). Even AD&D is not immune to criticism – when it converted overland movement rates from hexes to miles-per-day (so as to be usable with any campaign map scale; compare DMG p. 58 to OD&D Vol. 3, p. 16), it should have been emphasized that each DM really needed to manipulate those numbers and turn them back into spaces-per-turn on their personal map scale. Unfortunately, it did not. Here we see how frequently the attempt at abstraction interrupts the gamesmanship that we need at any scale of action.

Hence we have a few criticisms of the current branding of D&D: Action at different scales should have different mechanics that support the distinct flavor appropriate to each. Likewise, character classes that represent very different approaches to adventuring (magic vs. martial arts) should have different mechanics supporting each. We lose a lot when the game is reduced to a single kind of action scale (6-second moves on 5-ft squares), and the willingness to include sub- and super-games is prohibited (such as castle-building, tactical mass warfare, etc.) And, we have even more reason to avoid fetishizing character development, because we have to be willing to lose those characters abruptly if we play out an encounter at a larger scale (see 3E's Tome of Battle for the mangled result of being unwilling to allow for this).

Much of the addictive beauty of the original D&D game comes specifically from its flexibility as a model of developing games-within-games, both above and below the “normal” scale of action. It's a more interesting and more challenging enterprise than writing either "story" or "sourcebook" supplements, which add nothing concrete to our gameplay. But likewise, we should avoid being dogmatic, and try to engage our expansion systems only when it makes sense to do so (perhaps taking Doug Niles' SFKH as a canonical, concise example).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Defending D&D?

I keep wanting to make a connection between some defensible "essential properties" of D&D, and established legal protections for food products such as Chocolate, Champagne, Gruyere cheese.

For each of these food products (see Wikipedia), there were companies that would have increased sales and made more money, if they could have labeled their products with these names (and of course, they desired to do so). However, trade groups did manage to defend certain definitions of the products and prohibit other usages.

Most of these defenses have been seen in the form of legal restrictions in the EU. However, you've got at least one case in the US in 2007 where companies wanted to replace cocoa butter with hydrogenated vegetable oil and still label the product as "chocolate", which the FDA shot down.

I like the basic idea of that, although in each case it's a legal construct, and it's hard to see where we could take that with the D&D trademark still currently held by WOTC/Hasbro.

(This post was originally a comment of mine on James Maliszewski's Grognardia blog.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

OED: Falling

There's just one more thing I realized I had to add to the OED, and that's a rule for falling:

Falling: Assess falling damage at 1d6 per 10 feet fallen (linearly). This assumes a fall onto earth or wood; decrease damage for yielding surfaces (water, snow, mud), and increase damage for very hard ones (stone, metal, etc.)

Falling has an extremely weird pedigree in D&D, and I could write at length just on that (in fact, here it comes...). Consider OD&D – Where are the falling rules located? Only in the naval combat section (for being pushed off the deck of a ship; also in passing in Vol. III, p. 5 *). And what is the rule? 1d6 damage per 10' fallen – but with a saving throw, generating only a 1-in-6 chance per 10' of taking any damage at all. For example, a 20' fall has just a 2-in-6 chance to fail the save (4-in-6 success) - and thus, two-thirds of the time, will deliver no damage whatsoever!

The subject of falling is mentioned in AD&D's PHB in only the most cursory fashion: “It is probable that your referee will simply use a hit points damage computation based on 1d6 for each 10' of distance fallen to a maximum of 20d6...” (p. 105) A pair of Dragon magazine articles later assert that this damage should be assessed cumulatively (i.e., 10'=1d6, 20'=3d6, 30'=6d6, etc.) – this being a very short blurb by Gygax in issue #69 (as part of his thief-acrobat presentation, later reprinted in Unearthed Arcana), and then a full-page article by Frank Mentzer in issue #70 (asserting a Gygax claim that the original PHB language was a typographical error; however, this does not agree with other Gygax works such as module G2).

A somewhat later issue of the Dragon (#88) had what I consider to be one of the most inspired and challenging presentations for that era. That issue carried the article “Physics and falling damage” by Arn Ashleigh Parker, wherein a “proper” falling damage system was deduced from rigorous consultation to physics formulas, gravity constants, advanced algebra, wind speed, and reference to texts on skydiving (the result being quasi-similar to the original 1d6/10', with more damage assessed earlier on). And this article came as part of a debate, with reference to its own rebuttal article in the same issue by Steven Winter, “Kinetic energy is the key”, which used other physics concepts to argue precisely for the original linearly-assessed 1d6/10' rule. Imagine that happening in Dragon today!

In some circles, the 1d6-per-10' rule was commonly ridiculed (ignoring the cumulative revision) as permitting high-level fighters to leap off 100' cliffs without much fearing for their lives. There is some reason to this, in that fighter hit dice swelled up to d10, and Constitution bonus up to +4/die, while falling damage remained the same 1d6 per level over time. However, I'm convinced that the reaction to this produced one of the most atrocious disfigurements of the system in 3E: the “Massive Damage” rule, whereby a save-vs-death was called for when any damage amount hit the magic number of 50. Most players are under the impression that this was an optional variant rule, but in 3E, it was not.

For many years I was using Gygax's cumulative system for falling damage, feeling indeed that falls should be more perilous, and I also applied the idea to other environmental factors (such as heat, cold, thirst, and starvation). In general, I felt that if higher-level hit points represented less physical stamina and more “dodging/fortune-type” factors, then they should be devalued in the context of an unavoidable fall. However, two problems with that have occurred to me recently. First, there seems little justification that someone able to dodge a monstrous blow could not also be able to roll/spring/cover their head properly to avoid the worst effects of a great fall (or simply land in a lucky spot). Second, when I looked in the DMG to compute exactly what percentage of hit points were “fortune” at any level, I was dismayed to find (on p. 82) that Gygax had stipulated a system wherein the raw physical hit points grew at precisely a constant rate every level (before abruptly ending at level 7). If this were the case, then even under my former assumption, falling damage should increase only linearly through level 7 (at least).

So now, here I am back today, opting to assess damage at the old standard of 1d6 per 10' fallen. (Perhaps if I were playing 3E I would increase it to a base 1d10 per 10'.) I'm not going to use the save from OD&D because (a) it's simply an unnecessary complication, and (b) it makes too many 20' or 30' falls entirely without injury, which really is silly. It's probably a reasonable amount of damage if most hit dice are still d6 themselves (Fighters d8, maximum Con bonus +2), and surfaces like hard, jagged stone can boost this by +1 or +2 points per die. Other environmental factors will probably also be assessed linearly from now on. We shall see.

* Edit 11/23/11: I just learned of another place in OD&D that I had overlooked: in the Aerial Combat section. "Crash -- for every 1" of height a rider must throw one six-sided die for damage occurring from the crash, i.e. a crash from 12" means twelve dice must be rolled and their total scored as points of damage incurred by the creature's rider." [Vol-3, p. 27] Thanks, Grognardia!

Monday, June 8, 2009

OED: Spell Changes

In addition to the section on PC Generation, the OED v0.4 rules also added a section on Spell Changes, in 3 parts. In particular:

Sleep: Roll 1d6+1 for total hit dice affected (no figure over 3HD). Duration is 12 turns; slapping/shaking awakens 2-in-6 per round.

You'll see a lengthy analysis arriving at this a few posts back. I made the die roll 1d6+1 for elegance sake (it neatly results in exactly 1-3 creatures of 2HD, for example).

Missiles: For missile spells (fireball, lightning bolt), announce a range, and then roll 2d6 over/under for exact location (read lower die, ties indicate on target).

Now we're getting into the material that you might keep unmentioned until a player throws their first fireball and discovers this during play. This is originally an optional rule from Chainmail for catapults/field guns. (The fireball and lightning bolt in those rules, of course, simply reference back to the effect of such catapults/field guns.) Therefore I think it's both legitimate under the original rules, and scratches an itch of mine that the fireball/lightning combo are generally used with suspension-of-disbelief-shattering accuracy.

If there's any question about the rule, it's this: Announce a range to fire the missile-spell (say, 10”). Roll two d6 of different colors (say a red one for “over” distance that comes up 4, and a white one for “under” distance that comes up 2). Apply the result of the lower die (in this example, 2” under the declaration, placing the spell 8” from the caster in the desired direction; if the dice were tied then the shot would be exactly 10” away).

Permanence: Spells under 5th level cannot be permanent. Those without a listed duration fade after d6+6 weeks (such as charms, continual light, etc.)

Another itch of mine being scratched. There's a whole lot of mischief that can be done if you permit low-level spells to be truly, indefinitely, permanent. Charm person allows someone to gain infinite followers over time. Continual light allows those magic-street-lamp cities (yuck). Wizard lock may as well be used by cantankerous wizards on their downtime, locking every door they encounter forever, just to be nasty.

You can also think of this as a generalization of the principle introduced in Supplement I: Greyhawk, where charm spells are given additional saves to break, assessed over some weeks of time. Why not apply the idea equally to other spells where indefinite duration allows silly mischief?

This does, however, still leave the door open to higher-level permanent spells, and we should carefully consider if there are any game-breakers in the bunch. I feel that the 5th-level spells provide in-milieu limitations: wall of stone can be dispelled (so a wizard would prefer to have a real wall constructed) and animate dead has obvious drawbacks (collecting wagonloads of bodies for an undead army invites the wrath of more heroic adventurers). The 6th-level spells need more careful handling: invisible stalkers should get more and more perilous if used in great numbers; geas spells should have some drawbacks or risk if used with abandon (c.f. the works of Vance, for example).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

OED: PC Generation

The OED v0.4 rules added a section on PC Generation in 3 parts. The first part says this:

Convention Play: When making a party for a one-off convention-style game, the normal level limits are not good balancing factors. Human characters should be created at +1 level. Wizards are required to have a minimum Intelligence of 10+highest spell level.

I'm thankful that my last convention game threw a high-intensity spotlight on this problem – it was the most troublesome issue I confronted, and I've been grappling with it for weeks, looking for the best solution. (I was working on a 2,000-word essay to explain it, but then I thought better to scrap that.)

Here's the issue: I'm happy to accept the OD&D doctrine that low-level powers can be balanced by high-level limitations, and vice-versa. This system creates “opportunity costs”, where early decisions have continuing repercussions over a lengthy period of time. In 3E, this was thrown out as anathema, and a demand was made that all races/classes be made equal at every possible level.

While not explained in the 3E texts, I now understand why this was done. While the level-limitations (and exponential wizards) are reasonable in a long-running home game, they are useless in a one-off convention game. For example: In my last low-level OD&D convention game, I think all of the wizards chose to be elves (gaining armor & weapon usage at no cost). Meanwhile, in my last high-level AD&D convention game, all of the characters chose to be humans, except for one dwarven thief (thereby sidestepping all level limits).

So now the dilemma is this: Do we re-write the race/class balancing mechanics so they work for any convention game, at any level? (This being the choice made in 3E; fulfilling, perhaps, a failed goal of AD&D). Or do we reserve the extra balancing rules to an appendix, for the special case of convention gaming? Obviously, after much soul-searching, I chose the latter.

Generation Order: Players should take a PC card and fill in the abilities, race, class, alignment, and money/ equipment. Then, the DM takes the card and calculates modifiers, move, AC, attacks, specials, and directs the roll for hit points. Finally, add the character to the DM's summary roster.

This here is just an observation of the most efficient way to administer the from-scratch character creation process. I'm using my pre-printed index cards for PC records. I let the DM do all the secondary calculations, both so that (a) no new player is required to know the number-crunching rules prior to play, and (b) we accomplish a character audit at the same time. Hit points require the Constitution modifier before rolling. I also keep a summary roster with: Player Name, Character Name, Race/Class, Move, AC, and Hit Points (the most important aspect being the reminder to address each player by their character name).

Magic Items: Characters should be checked for magic items at 10% per level. Checks are made by class: Fighters (2 weapons, armor, shield, potion); thieves (2 weapons, armor, ring, potion), or wizards (2 potions, dagger, scroll, ring). Items are +1 or a basic type, chosen by player; for a +2 item, roll again at 1%/level (+10%/level over 10th); for a +3 item roll yet again at 1%/level (no further bonus).

Up until recently, I was using the AD&D DMG Appendix P for higher-level party generation, in particular the assessment for magic items. Unfortunately, I found it very burdensome to mentally track all the different choices and percentages-per-level involved. Instead I thought it would easier to just batch everything up to a straight 10%/level for everything, in a few broad categories (much like the MM tables for “Men”; for NPCs, I would likewise roll at 5%/level). Once again, no table lookups required; we should be able to do this entirely from rote memory.

OED Update (v0.4)

I've updated the Original Edition Delta house-rules to version 0.4, after incorporating some changes after the last convention game. In particular, I added a “DM's Section” at the end with a few alterations that don't affect the core system. This brings the page count up from 4 to 5; I'm likely to continue printing a 4-panel brochure to give to my players. I'll also post comments from each new section in forthcoming blog entries. (Don't forget that the Open Office ODT file has additional sidebar notes to the main document.)