Sunday, December 27, 2009

Spells in Chainmail/ D&D

Hey, I just realized for the first time that all of the spells in Chainmail were converted to spells in OD&D, with the "complexity" of the former turning exactly into the "level" of the latter.

With one exception: Darkness, which didn't appear until D&D Sup-I, and then at a different level. Huh.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gygax on Miniatures in D&D

I don't usually employ miniatures in my RPG play. We ceased that when we moved from CHAINMAIL Fantasy to D&D.

I have nothing against the use of miniatures, but they are generally impractical for long and free-wheeling campaign play where the scene and opponents can vary wildly in the course of but an hour.

The GW folks use them a lot, but they are fighting set-piece battles as is usual with miniatures gaming.

I don't believe that fantasy miniatures are good or bad for FRPGs in general. If the GM sets up gaming sessions based on their use, the resulting play is great from my standpoint. It is mainly a matter of having the painted figures and a big tabletop to play on.

- Gary Gygax on ENWorld, 2003 (
http://www.enworld.org/forum/1263669-post6.html)


I've heard in the past that Gygax didn't use miniatures in D&D, but it's interesting to hear it in his own voice. "We ceased that when we moved from CHAINMAIL Fantasy to D&D." This makes sense in a lot of ways.

One of the things it helps make sense is how the rules for use of miniatures in AD&D don't (to be frank) make single lick of sense. Consider how miniatures don't physically fit on a map at 1" = 10 feet scale, and the truly crazy stuff on DMG p. 10 (make maps at 1" = 3⅓ feet). The reason? Well, Gygax had ceased actually using them as soon as the RPG itself came into existence. The ranges and movements are copy-and-pasted from Chainmail, but he wasn't actually using them directly. In other words, the use of minis became a vestigial, unusable appendage in D&D.

Consider stuff like this. A fireball in Chainmail & OD&D has a fixed range of 24". In AD&D that gets changed to a caster-dependent range of 10" + 1" per level. Repeat that for every spell's range and area in the entire book. Why the enormous increase in complexity (requiring math on the fly just to find any spell's area and range)? Especially when Gygax wasn't using miniatures or a game map in any way himself?

Knowing how Gary would write, I can almost hear how he'd answer this. "It's self-evident that more powerful casters will have greater efficacy, and rules for minatures were included for the kind of person who would enjoy that sort of thing." Something like that. Kind of dodging the fact that AD&D is shot full of complicated rules, everywhere, that he neither used nor playtested; looking good on paper but not playing out so well. (Funny, too, that he's licensing and promoting "OFFICIAL ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS miniature figures" [DMG p. 11] simultaneously with abandoning their use in his own play.)

Now, there are other things that this does helps rationalize. One is that it's an excellent point that, in a game with lots of random encounter tables, you really would be hamstrung if you have to go running for different types of miniatures every time a new encounter pops up. Another thing is the need for AD&D rules to now specify random contacts in combat. "Discharge of missiles into an existing melee is easily handled... Assign probabilities to each participant in the melee or target group according to sheer numbers." (DMG p. 63). "As with missile fire, it is generally not possible to select a specific opponent in a mass melee. If this is the case, simply use some random number generation to find out which attacks are upon which opponents..." (DMG p. 70). That sort of stuff.

But the one thing this egregiously overlooks is the interaction of area-effect spells (fireball and all the rest). If melee is an entirely abstracted, Pigpen-like dustup, how do you determine who gets hit by an area-effect spell? Everyone, friend and foe? Whoever you want? Just the bad guys? Random determination? To-hit rolls or Intelligence checks? In all of OD&D and AD&D, I'm pretty sure there's not a single line addressing this question, leaving it entirely ambiguous.

A critical history of D&D would include the following -- Start with Chainmail historical mass rules at 1:20 scale (1 turn = 1 minute, 1" = 10 yards); this includes catapult-fire where players declare the range shot without measurement. Then Gygax develops man-to-man combat, including jousting and the fantasy supplement (using the moves and ranges from 1:20 scale, but never addressing what the new scale is or what should change in that regard); a wizard's fireball simply refers back to the catapult rules.

Now OD&D comes out, and in large part it refers back to Chainmail for combat. "Special Ability functions are generally as indicated in CHAINMAIL where not contradictory to the information stated hereinafter", stuff like that (Vol. 2, p. 5). Of course, the game creator himself is not using miniatures anymore. Questions of scale are given only the most cursory treatment: the combat turn is still 1 minute (fixed from Chainmail's 1:20 mass combat), and not until Vol. 3 are we told, "In the underworld all distances are in feet, so wherever distances are given in inches convert them to tens of feet." (Vol. 3, p. 8). Perhaps that's all the attention you need to the issue if combat has been entirely abstracted at this point.

If I had been more observant, a few years ago when Gary was still with us and generously answering questions in several different Q&A questions online, I really wish I'd asked him this: "What do you do in D&D to adjudicate the effect of area spells like a fireball, et. al?" Are we to assume that OD&D's reference back to Chainmail Fantasy, which in turn references back to Chainmail mass combat's catapult rules, requires declaration of shot range? (In neither of the former cases is it explicitly stated.) Or are we to assume that since miniatures are no longer actually in use on a map, that the determination is done by caster fiat or some random method?

Once I noticed this, it seems funny how much ink is spent in AD&D covering the new hit-the-caster-lose-the-spell rules, and never once addressing who-gets-hit-by-the-spell in its new, purely abstract combat system. Take-away here is two things, I think. (1) Gygax never actually played the game with miniatures at the alleged 1" = 10 feet scale (or 1" = 3⅓ feet, or the stated ranges for moves, missiles, and spells, or anything else), and (2) Area-of-effect spells are left entirely unaddressed in classic D&D, and definitely require some novel, independent adjudication on who gets hit by each individual DM.

Addendum: Another Q&A post by Gygax rules that targets for a sleep spell would be randomly chosen, so perhaps that aims us in a suggestive direction. ( http://www.enworld.org/forum/1972519-post68.html )

Virel: Say a sleep spell is cast at a group of ten characters... Can the caster specifically select the six creatures or six levels he or she wants to be effected?

Gygax: No. Six of the 1st level NPCs would be affected at random.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Gygax on Chainmail's Fantasy Scale

Regarding Chainmail's Fantasy man-to-man scale, here's an exchange between Gary Gygax and our friend RFisher, from ENWorld in 2005 ( http://www.enworld.org/forum/2069195-post152.html ):

RFisher: A couple of Chainmail questions: When the combat tables say "1 die per man", do they mean 1 die per man (20 dice per figure) or 1 die per figure (1 die per 20 men)? (I've known people to interpret it both ways.)

Gygax: Read "man" as "figure" and you have it. One die is just that...

RFisher: Under Heroes, does "They have the fighting ability of four figures" mean that they are equivalent to 4 men or 80 men?

Gygax: Heroes are used only in Man-to-Man play, so one is equal to four normal men.

RFisher: I understand that hero v. hero would be resolved on the Fantasy Combat Table. Hero v. normal forces would be resolved on the regular Combat Table. (The hero being classed as heavy foot, armored foot, light horse, &c. as fit the particular hero.) But were heroes & other things from the Fantasy Supplement ever used with the man-to-man rules? If so, how?

Gygax: I am quite at a loss to answer that, as the Hero and all the other Fantasy supplement figures were employed only in the play of Man-to-Man games, never in the mass system where one figure equalled 20.


And just so we don't forget, Gygax was very consistent on this point over the years. From the Swords & Spells Introduction in 1976 (p. 1):
The FANTASY SUPPLEMENT written for CHAINMAIL assumed a man-for-man situation.

From the original Dungeons & Dragons Vol. 3, Land Combat in 1974 (p. 25):
The basic system is that from CHAINMAIL, with one figure representing one man or creature.

And from Wargamer's Newsletter #127 in 1972, where early play of the game is discussed purely in terms of man-to-man play:
http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2009/12/1972-gygax-article.html

It's funny how many of us (definitely me included!) were tricked into the illusion that Chainmail Fantasy apparently supported mixed 1:20 and 1:1 scale play, when it really doesn't.

Saves as Severity

Saves in classic D&D come in 5 categories, and the exact categories evolved a bit from OD&D to AD&D, BXCMI, etc. Some thought has gone into tracking the different save categories, how they were meant to be distinguished, what they "mean", etc. Here's an observation I haven't seen expressed before: The save categories in OD&D are most easily interpreted as just levels-of-severity. Consider the following:

The first category is "Death Ray or Poison", and receives a +4 bonus in comparison to generic Spell saves for fighters (which we'll take as our baseline). Obviously, this is a category which represents instant death. In order to give our characters a fighting chance, a fairly hefty bonus is given.

Second is "All Wands -- Including Polymorph or Paralization". The emphasis on polymorph & paralyzation is interesting: these are effects that don't cause literal instant death, but do render the victim effectively helpless and subject to a follow-up coup de grace. Hence a relative +3 bonus is given to avoid these effects.

Third is "Stone", i.e., turn-to-stone (petrification). Similar to the preceding, a victim of stoning is immediately and permanently hors de combat. However, the victim is not quite so immediately subject to death, as the stony form doesn't allow an immediate dagger death-stroke. Presumably some amount of labor could break up the stone form, but that's a far more involved process. Bonus is +2 here compared to baseline.

Fourth is "Dragon Breath", which is not instant elimination from a failed save, but (obviously) pretty bad, major business. Bonus is effectively +1 in this case.

Fifth and finally you have "Staves & Spells" which is in some sense "everything else", i.e. non immediate death or incapacitation. This is our baseline, hardest to avoid, i.e., +0 bonus in similar terms.

Now, the counter-argument to all this is the position of "Wands" and "Staves" on the chart with the former (weaker) given an easier save, and the latter (stronger) given a more difficult save, which is counter to the observations above.

But more generally, you could use these principles for judgements on the fly about the severity of effect: basically you're awarding between +0 and +4 to the save, with more heinous effects given a more generous save (again, just to give the characters a fair, fighting chance). For example, I would consider giving the save for sleep (recall, "no-save" language doesn't yet exist in the OD&D LBBs) the same category as "paralization", since the effects are so similar. A bad falling-stone trap might be worth a save vs. dragon breath, whereas an instant pit-into-lava trap should be worth a save vs. death. Et. al.

Friday, December 11, 2009

No Scale in Man-to-Man Combat

I've said it before, but I've had it highlighted for me again recently. There are no scales given in Chainmail Man-to-Man Combat (corollary: same for the Fantasy Supplement), and I think that it's Gygax's single most fundamental oversight in the design of the original game. In any other miniatures context he's careful to specify the key 3 scales (figure, distance, and time). But the whole issue is conspicuously absent from the Chainmail Man-to-Man rules.

This caused a lot of grief over the years, IMO. First of all, the lack of figure scale made it unclear that the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement was actually for man-to-man action only (1:1), not mass combat, and thereby contributed to the faulty notion that original D&D had a mass-land-combat wargame included. Secondly, the lack of a distance scale precipitated a pretty short-sighted hack to OD&D that 1" = 10 feet (an evolution of Chainmail's 1" = 10 yards); this resulted in 25mm miniatures not actually fitting into a proportional space on a map, and really crazy convolutions like AD&D's DMG p. 10 (where it is specified that when using miniatures, ground scale should actually be mapped out at 1" = 3⅓ feet!). Thirdly, the lack of a time scale likewise caused Chainmail's mass combat turn (1 turn = 1 minute) to be carried over directly to D&D; and while this was entirely reasonable for Chainmail's 1:20 scale, it was frankly entirely unreasonable for man-to-man (1:1) swordplay and bowfire, again resulting in long-winded and unconvincing justification attempts in places like AD&D's DMG p. 61.

As much as I try to give priority to the original versions of the D&D rules, and hew to them as closely as possible, this trio of scaling issues is the #1 item that I simply cannot accept in OD&D and/or AD&D. It's the principal reason that miniatures never really worked all that well in classic D&D tactical play. I do feel that Holmes went in the right direction with a 1 round = 10 seconds time scale, and 3E was in fact a relief to allow 1" = 5 feet ground scale, thereby matching the miniatures we've always used. If Gary had only considered the issue more carefully when writing the original 2 pages of Chainmail Man-To-Man Combat, or sometime shortly thereafter.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

No Heroes In War

I want to expand on a few things I mentioned in the last blog.

First of all, just so it's clear, the primary point of the last post was this: There are no endgame rules presented in either Chainmail or Original D&D, and that goes for either fantasy mass-warfare or dominion management. It's not specifically my point that that's either a good thing or a bad thing. But clearly the impression of such is given, when it's not truly available. (Again, see OD&D Vol. 3 p. 25, as an example.) If we want to be charitable, we could call this impression a "teaser" of things that could come later. If we wanted to get really cranky about it, we could perhaps call it "deceptive advertising" or somesuch. (Of course, I prefer the former.)

Now, as a very minor corollary to that observation, we've also discovered another, somewhat more specific piece of common wisdom that was also erroneous, and that's what I'd like to further highlight here. Throughout D&D mass-warfare writings, we're given the impression that higher-level fighters and monsters can, acting alone, stand against masses of normal troops. ("These fellows are one-man armies!" as per Chainmail p. 30.) This is incorrect, and what I'm interested in here is the proactive effort that was needed to obscure this rather key fact. Here are some case studies.

Case 1 -- Chainmail Fantasy Supplement. Note again that these rules are only for man-to-man action (1:1 figure scale). There is simply no provision available to adjudicate a high-level fighter acting against large masses of troops. Of course, this fact wasn't made explicit in Chainmail, and you have to look to the Introduction of Swords & Spells years later to see it in print from Gygax.

Case 2 -- Swords & Spells. Consider this example from the Introduction (p. 1):

At the scale of these rules a single man can be represented by a single figure on the table. So if one opponent has a lone hero (4th level fighting man) facing several figures of men-at-arms (or orcs or similar 1 hit die creatures), an actual melee can take place. The hero will inflict .40 of the damage shown for a 4th level creature on the combat tables and sustain damage until sufficient hits are scored upon the figure to kill the hero.

Now, there's no need to leave you hanging here, when we can calculate in advance exactly when the hero in question will be killed. And that is (taking reasonable assumptions): In one full turn of melee against one opposing figure. Proof: Assume the hero has average hit points (4.5 x 4 = 18), and is wearing full plate & shield (AC 2). Average damage is shown in the combat table on p. 24 (or, take d6 damage and compute 4/20 x 3.5 x 10 = 7). Note that one full turn in S&S allows 3 melee rounds of attacks (p. 17) and you have 7 x 3 = 21 points of damage against the hero, killing him in one single turn. If you like, feel free to add some hit points for Con bonus, and I'll add the plural "figures" from the quote above to dispatch the hero even more quickly.

Gygax doesn't spell out exactly when the 4th level fighter gets killed (namely: immediately), nor does he explain later on the page why "the admonition regarding single creatures is important" (namely: so they don't get killed immediately). But he could have.

Case 3 -- Battlesystem 2E. (Side note: I love Doug Niles Battlesystem 2E book. It's a really beautiful work, and if it weren't for some very small but critical flaws I wish I could use it all the time.) Consider the same quote I pointed out last time (p. 106):

From a mathematical perspective, the attributes of heroes in a BATTLESYSTEM scenario are inflated beyond those of the creatures in the units surrounding them. However, the conversion is based on the assumption that there is an intangible quality to heroism that exceeds in importance the hero's worth as a fighting machine.

Well, why not spell out exactly the factor by which hero attributes have been inflated? Let's see: A standard figure represents 10 men and is given a "Hits" value 1; hence each "hit" really represents 10 HD total (or more; see p. 105 or my posts from last month, which are comparable). Meanwhile, "All monster types, and characters of the fighter class, receive 1 hit for each 2 Hit Dice or experience levels." For example, a 10th-level fighter or monster (~10HD, comparable to the total hit dice for a normal 1-hit figure), is given 5 hits by this system. In other words: Heroes in Battlesystem have been quintupled over their actual D&D-scale health values. This is to say nothing of their attack values, which are more complicated to compute, but given similar inflation factors.

Niles could have spelled this out, as well, be he chose not to. (The Battlesystem boxed set came with special lead figures for use as heroes/ commanders, and I guess it would be raining on someone's parade if Niles were to suggest that they weren't going to be at all effective standing alone in mass land combat.) Even so, heroes and lone fantastic monsters can be quickly dispatched in Battlesystem by racking up just a few hits on them.


Now, there are a few narrow exceptions to all of the foregoing. One is if the hero's AC is so good that no normal man can hit them. In OD&D this point occurs at AC -2 (plate & shield with +4 total bonus), which is pretty difficult in core OD&D (impossible with a literal reading?), but becomes more likely with Greyhawk and other supplements. (This is possibly countered if you use AD&D's combat tables, count a natural 20 as always hitting, or strictly apply rear/flanking situational bonuses, but that discussion becomes highly edition- or house-rule-specific.) Second would be if the hero/monster is only hit by attacks of a special sort, such as silver or magical weapons, et. al. In these cases a hero figure obviously really could wade through armies of men untouched, until some enemy hero decided to give him chase. But still there is no real contest to play out; the specially-protected hero could automatically massacre an unlimited number of normal men without any threat whatsoever.

Again, I want to clarify that I'm not saying that this affair is either good thing or a bad thing in itself. (In fact, I guess I'd have to say that the realization is refreshing compared to my prior thinking. Numerous new possibilities open up.) Maybe given completely free design capacities you'd choose to have the interaction of heroes with masses one way, or the other. But clearly the impression that heroes can stand against masses doesn't, in general, bear out in play for either D&D or any of the mass-combat games that were later based on it. And that's an error that could have easily been avoided.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Problem with the Endgame

These rules are as simple and straightforward as I could devise for a game system which involves "magical" and fantastic factors. The FANTASY SUPPLEMENT written for CHAINMAIL assumed a man-for-man situation. While it is fine for such actions, it soon became obvious that something for large-scale battles was needed.

- Gary Gygax, "Swords & Spells" Introduction, 1976

As old-school D&D'ers, I think that many of us share the intuition that there is an "endgame" in which high-level PCs wind up managing castles, baronies, and leading fantasy armies in battle. It seems a little frustrating that the endgame seems to have been "lost" somehow over time.

For probably 30 years I've been trying to scratch this itch and find the proper solution to the reputed endgame. Once again I've been attacking the problem recently, having had an opportunity in the last year to become familiar with Chainmail, OD&D, re-reading Swords & Spells and Battlesystem, etc. Personally, I need my mass-war system to have the same statistical expectations as if you actually played the RPG rules out man-to-man (i.e., it's no good to have X beat Y in RPG rules, but Y beat X in mass-war rules; I'm looking at you, War Machine.)

Here's my new observation: The endgame never actually existed in original D&D. It was sort of an illusion all along, which caused a lot of personal frustration.

Let me be specific: In neither Chainmail nor OD&D is there any provision for handling fantasy battles between opposing armies of hundreds of men (or monsters). It looks like there is, but there really isn't. Consider the quote at the top of this post (emphasis mine). Indeed, the Chainmail fantasy rules were in their entirety only meant to work on a 1:1 scale, not a mass scale, i.e., they're a continuation of the "Man-to-Man Combat" section that immediately precedes them. In other words, OD&D is in some sense just a somewhat revised edition of the Chainmail Fantasy Man-to-Man rules, not a totally different game.

Let's think about this a little more, because you get conflicting signals/ advertising from Chainmail itself. Conflicts would include: (1) Chainmail in general is at a 1:20 mass scale, and the Fantasy section never says explicitly that anything has changed in that regard. (2) The opening to Chainmail Fantasy says that it can be used to "refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers," which is not truly the case at 1:1 scale. (3) The language for Super Heroes asserts that, "these fellows are one-man armies!", when in fact they are only able to counter 8 normal men, not a whole army. (4) Combat chances between fantasy creatures and men refer back to the standard (mass) Combat Tables, not the Mam-to-Man Melee Table.

So, these assertions in the past led me to think that Chainmail Fantasy was at 1:20 scale, which caused all kinds of collisions with the standard D&D rules. I would think, "How can Super Heroes be worth an army in Chainmail (8x20 = 160 men), but only 8 men in D&D?" (Or, "Is every individual catapult/ giant boulder/ fireball really killing 100-300 men per shot?") Furthermore, you would have all these situations in D&D indicating the action of hundreds of men or monsters (such as [a] monster number appearing stats, [b] guards in castles, [c] clerical faithful followers, [d] crew numbers on naval ships, etc.) And let's pile it on one more time with OD&D Vol. 3, p. 25, which has a very brief (as always) reference to "Land Combat" which says this:

The basic system is that from CHAINMAIL, with one figure representing one man or creature. Melee can be conducted with the combat table given in Volume I or by the CHAINMAIL system, with losses equalling a drive back or kill equal only to a hit. Battles involving large numbers of figures can be fought at a 20:1 ratio, with single fantastic types fighting at 1:1 or otherwise against but a single 20:1 figure.

Now, we can see that the first part of this is an honest description of the Chainmail rules (man-to-man). The second part is not so honest, making it sound like Chainmail has the capacity to handle a 1:20 fantasy scale, when the truth is it really doesn't. As much as we'd all like it to, Gygax included. The last sentence with its waffle-y "or otherwise" is really more of a thought-experiment or a proposal than an actual rules reference. The fact is, we really have no pre-planned way in either Chainmail or OD&D to deal with those hundreds of wandering orcs, castle guards, faithful soldiers, or ship crews. (Nor the hundreds of guards in the barracks of Sup-II's Temple of the Frog.)

The conjoined problem is that any single hero-type will, if we honestly look at the statistics in OD&D, get chewed to pieces by dozens or hundreds of 1st-level opponents. Even a D&D Superhero in plate & shield (HD8, AC2) will get hit by normal men 20% on each strike (req. 17+ on d20). Surrounded by just 5 normal men at a time -- ignoring flank/rear bonuses -- the Superhero can be expected to take 1 hit per round and go down in 8 standard rounds (or less). Even with their fearsome number of attacks and morale effects from Chainmail, the Superhero will be dead in just a few minutes of standard D&D combat. (In OD&D it requires AC -2 to become immune to the attacks of normal men; of course, this immunity is taken away by the AD&D combat tables with their repeating 20's.)

So, I find that for the first time in 30 years I fully understand Gygax's Introduction to Swords & Spells. It's a fascinating read. He knows that there's a problem with mass Land Combat in D&D and he's trying to provide a solution. He knows that the presented ruleset is only a partial solution at best (using all expected-value hit point calculations, with no dice or randomization of combat results whatsoever.) In fact, having recently drafted a forward for my own similar work, I find that Gygax anticipated most of my initial comments 33 years ago, working on an equivalent project.

Some extra-curricular way must be added to allow our D&D heroes to survive on the battlefield, when they really shouldn't according to the stock rules of D&D. Gygax writes in Swords & Spells, "The admonition regarding single creatures is important: If they meet, or are simply near each other, they should seek combat with each other rather than inferior opponents, and this combat should be fought at 1:1 in the normal D&D manner". Yep, that's one way to keep them alive (i.e., force them to avoid masses of normal men whenever possible).

Likewise, Doug Niles writes in the Battlesystem 2E book p. 106: "From a mathematical perspective, the attributes of heroes in a BATTLESYSTEM scenario are inflated beyond those of the creatures in the units surrounding them. However, the conversion is based on the assumption that there is an intangible quality to heroism that exceeds in importance the hero's worth as a fighting machine." Yep, that's another way -- just arbitrarily boost the hero's stats on the battlefield to keep them alive.

An interesting problem, and some highly interesting reads when you lay out the entire sequence of mass-land combat in D&D. The truth is, there were no rules even intended for mass combat in fantasy D&D until Swords & Spells, and later Battlesystem, and these were only limited successes at best. OD&D hinted at an endgame that wasn't really ever there in the first place.

(Special thanks to James & Jervis for recently getting the 1972 Gygax letter on fantasy wargaming posted on Grognardia, which jogged my thought process a bit more on this subject.)