Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Death Statistics in D&D: 1978

This is an excerpt from a short article by Lyle Fitzgerald in Dragon #20 (November 1978, p. 26). I find myself mentally returning to this glimpse of the past rather frequently.
Our campaign is primarily a wilderness one (as the statistics reflect), although huge dungeons do exist. The 600 deaths listed include deaths of playing characters and their advanceable hirelings, not mercenaries or other non-playing characters. We started compiling these statistics 2 to 3 years ago...
  • Goblin races (61) 10.1%
  • Dragons (45) 7.5%
  • Giants (34) 5.7%
  • General Combat (26) 4.3%
  • Lycanthropes (24) 4.0%
  • Execution/ torture, sacrifice (23) 3.8%
  • Undead (21) 3.5%
  • Bandits/ pirates/etc. (20) 3.3%
  • Giant insects (20) 3.3%
  • Assasination/ treachery (18) 3.0%
  • Giant rocs (18) 3.0%
  • Fireballs/ lightning (17) 2.8%
  • Trolls (16) 2.7%
  • Turned to stone (14) 2.3%
  • Guards, military patrols (13) 2.2%
  • Evil high priests (13) 2.2%
  • Man-eating vegetation (13) 2.2%
  • Related dragon species (13) 2.2%
  • Cursed items/ booby traps (12) 2.0%
  • Giant animals (12) 2.0%
  • Falls (12) 2.0%
  • Gnolls (11) 1.8%
  • Gargoyles (9) 1.4%
  • Hell Hounds (8) 1.3%
  • Demons (8) 1.3%
  • Elementals (8) 1.3%
  • Griffins (8) 1.3%
  • Kindred races (elves/dwarves)(6) 1.0%
  • Misc. spells (6) 1.0%
  • War (6) 1.0%
  • Misc. causes (85) 14.6%

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Trite Expression

From a column this week by Jim Rossignol at Offworld.com:
Games don't necessarily have to be fun to be engaging. Indeed "fun" seems like a trite expression in the face of some contemporary projects: games can provoke more than simple enjoyment. Look at the terrifying crypts of Stalker, or the strange sadness of Shadow of the Colossus. To realise that games ride on more than fun only takes a quick glance at the bigger picture.

Sing it, brother! Of course, this is just prelude to an interesting article about other new developments, highly recommended. Plus, discussion at Slashdot.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Solo Thief Adventures

A recent post on Grognardia features a player reminiscing about playing in Gygax's Lake Geneva campaign in a solo expedition to Castle Greyhawk (as a 1st-level magic-user, no less). It brought to mind what I've long considered a potentially really great untapped market -- solo adventures, specifically for Thieves.

It's always seemed like there's a bit of awkwardness around having "thieves" working with adventuring parties, when they're presented as likely to cheat and steal from the very party they're working for. On the other hand, I've had lots of occasions in my life where I it would be great to run a game with the one single player I had available. It seems like "solo thief" scenarios would be an ideal solution (ostensibly two problems cancelling each other out).

I actually had a lot of fun once running module "O1: Gem and the Staff", which is the one dedicated solo-thief module I can think of. It also offered a really nice opportunity to run a "mini-tournament" game where I ran each person in my regular gaming group through it individually, and then compared scores at the end -- among other things, this got a little "quality time" with each player to see their personal reactions and preferences.

As much as I'd like to see scenarios like that, I know I'm not the one to make them -- I think you need someone a little more steeped in noir, crime drama, Lankhmar and Thieves' World traditions than I am (which is to say, practically none whatsoever).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On Light

I played a short game of D&D this weekend with some good friends (OD&D with OED interpretations). Played very well with 2 first-time players, my beginner-level girlfriend, and an almost 30-year veteran at the table (who gave me a great compliment about his suprise at how well the game worked sans clerics).

One thing that popped up is how far a torch illuminates, which isn't specified in OD&D. I started researching this, comparing across different rulesets, and the results were interesting. Partly this will be a critique about how games evolve towards greater abstraction over time, from realistic beginnings to nonsensical endings. It seems that the inertia, the infatuation with the game system itself takes over and late-version designers wind up working in an echo chamber. (And it's not just D&D: I've seen the exact same thing happen at games I worked on at a few video game companies. Perhaps it's true for other media as well, like books, TV, and movies.)

Question: How far does a torch let you see in reality? Consider this snippet from a Scientific American Supplement: "Torches consist of a bundle of loosely twisted threads which has been immersed in a mixture formed of two parts, by weight, of beeswax, eight of resin, and one of tallow. In warm, dry weather, these torches when lighted last for two hours when at rest, and for an hour and a quarter on a march. A good light is obtained by spacing them 20 or 30 yards apart." This indicates a bare minimum radius of visible illumination of 30 feet (half of 20 yards), maybe 45 feet (half 30 yards); possibly even 60 or 90 feet (20 or 30 yards itself) depending on how liberal the above usage of "good" is taken.

Question: How far does a torch let you see in D&D? In OD&D, the issue is seemingly not addressed; without directly comparing them to torches, the light spell is given a 3" radius, and the continual light spell a 12" radius (ostensibly 30 and 120 feet). In the AD&D 1E PHB a torch is given a 40-foot radius (p. 102, quite compatible with the research above), and the light spell is described this way: "The light thus caused is equal to torch light in brightness, but its sphere is limited to 4” in diameter." (Note that the second clause highlights the fact that while brightness is torch-like, the range of the magic spell is distinctly and intentionally shorter: just a 20-foot radius.) The continual light spell is reduced to a 6" radius, yet "its brightness is very great, being nearly as illuminating as full daylight".

Let's skip ahead to 3E D&D. Clearly some designer wanted to synchronize all of these effects and make them identical, a pretty reasonable motivation. If a light spell has been compared to a torch, why not make it equivalent to a torch in all ways, for brevity's sake? Well, the problem arises when this late-era designer doesn't do any research, and takes as his basis (looking solely from inside the rules) the effect of the magic light spell, and revises the effect of the mundane torch to match it. Thus in 3E you have both normal torches and the various light spells illuminating only a 20-foot radius.

Now, not only is the 20-foot radius torch unrealistic (whereas it formerly was), it's also extremely awkward from a gameplay perspective. The torch bearer only lights up 4 spaces (3E) away; routinely you'll have the front-line party member in darkness, or the front-most enemy in direct melee unsightable, or the extent of most rooms indeterminable during routine exploration, if you adjudicate this literally. (Now in 3.5E both light sources were given a new rules category of "shadowy illumination from 20 to 40 feet", but don't even get me started about trying to adjudicate that.)

The truth is that I'd recently been looking at the 3E SRD spells listing with its 20-foot radius torch, and so made a similar ruling in my game this weekend, and did get a look of disbelief from at least one of my players at the awkwardly short range of the party's light. And, I see now, he was right (in both realism and gameplay), my being led astray by late-era D&D rules-mechanic navel-gazing. At this point I have half a mind to say that torches give "good enough" light up to 60 feet away, illuminating most rooms in their entirety, and just using a whole 12" ruler (at 1"=5 feet) if we ever need to check it in play.

A rule-of-thumb I discovered over 10 years ago at one of my game programming jobs, and refreshed at times later on (even while building miniature models not long ago): If stumped by a particular design problem, ask yourself "What solution is used in the real-life situation?" In my experience, the answer is usually immediately applicable as a solution in your game rules. I'd guess that only a fetish for over-abstraction in a game would lead one away from this principle. I'll say again that we don't want realism-for-realism sake (see DMG p. 9), but for pre-existing gameplay problems, it often provides the most elegant fix.

There's other stuff about the interaction of light in published D&D that's bugged me over time (like the effect of the darkness spell, SKR's absurd-but-successful rant "infravision and why it should be destroyed" in 3E, etc.) That may have to wait for another posting.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

OD&D Saving Throw Charts


Here's a series of charts I compiled, comparing the various OD&D saving throw categories (click image to expand).

These graphs chart the saves at every individual level in OD&D, and also insert linear regression lines ("trend lines", or "lines of best fit"). They incorporate all the data from levels 1 to 15. I think this highlights certain patterns which are not obvious in the tables (granted the differing ways the class levels are grouped), and may even disabuse a few common misconceptions.

One of the first things to be seen is how the class save values are grouped (Fighters in blocks of 3 levels, Clerics 4, Wizards 5). Some of us would like to smooth this out from the table values, permitting a small improvement every level or so (as suggested for fighter to-hits in the AD&D DMG, or the Lakofka/Gygax Dragon article noted here) -- so the trend lines are useful for that.

A second thing is that wizards (magic-users) tend to have a shallower trend line, improving more slowly than the other classes. This is partly because there is another higher-level category for wizards (levels 16+) which is not shown here. Ultimately wizards end up with saves as good as (or better than) the other classes, but that doesn't occur until the very high levels off these charts.

Now for some more specifics. Fighters and Clerics are extremely close in almost all their values and trends, to the extent where I'll simply regard them as effectively the same. Similarly, in the last chart, saves vs. Spells are practically identical for all the classes at all levels; at most a difference of +/-1 in the trend at any level. Saves vs. Stone are somewhat more mixed; the trend lines actually cross (Fighters start out the worst, then become the best), but are so closely packed that we may as well treat them as basically the same, as well.

Finally, some differences. Wizards (and hence Thieves, as per Greyhawk) are clearly, consistently deficient in their Death and Wands saves from levels 1-15. Also, while starting out fairly close, Fighters have a particularly steep (beneficial) trend line in Breath saving throws. Therefore on average, wizards are at -3 when compared to Fighters across all these categories (Wands, Death, and Breath; technically average -2.67, -2.67, -3.47 respectively). Even clerics are at a -2 average penalty when compared to fighters in the solitary category of Breath saves (-2.33, to be exact).

It's interesting that if you take Fighters as the basic character class (including all monsters), the baseline saves differ, on average, by precisely 1 point per category. That is, starting with the last category of Spells, Breath is at +1, Stone at +2, Wands +3, and Death +4 (again speaking in terms of the trend line intercept parameter; you can also see it immediately in the top row of the OD&D table itself).

The trend lines move downward with an average slope of -0.6 over all saves and classes (with a range of from -0.45 for the shallow wizard lines to -0.8 for the quickly advancing fighters vs. breath saves). If we think about smoothing out the curves with a simple formula (instead of using the tables directly), we might think about giving a bonus of half-the-level as a pretty good estimate. Of course, in my OED rules editorial, I felt even that was too complicated, and simply rounded it off to d20+level (beat 20+), plus the various modifiers noted above.