Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On Money


Let's talk money. Apparently, in some circles there is the following saying: "There are two fundamental causes of madness amongst students: sexual frustration and the study of coinage." (A nice set of lecture notes on the subject is here.) A few points:

One major unfixable mistake is in using the gold standard for the D&D economy. It's bad history and it's bad game design. Historically, medieval money supplies were almost uniformly in silver coins, and the value was fundamentally based in how much raw silver metal was at hand. But more importantly for our purposes, in D&D PCs start out with the most valuable coinage, and will only experience currency going down from there. Clearly, it would be better to start with the cheapest metal, and then advance through more exotic categories. (In accordance with the central design conceit of D&D itself.) Even if some portion of us run games with a silver standard (for example, see Dragon #74, June 1983), the gold-piece premise has been reiterated in so many hundreds of RPG's and computer games that it's inseparable from fantasy in general in the public's mind.


Leaving that aside, let's consider the value of our ideal coins. The historical issue is enormously complex (see proverb above) because every principality used different mints, sizes, metal purities, units of weight, etc. But there are two principal issues that we're warned to keep in mind. One is the difference in units between actual coins versus moneys-of-account (i.e., units used in paper accounting only). For example, in the famous Carolingian money system (1 pound/louvre = 20 shillings/sou = 240 pence/deniers) only pennies/deniers were actually minted -- no shillings/sous or pound coins were created, and those units were used for record-keeping and ledgers only.

The second principal cautionary issue is that of debasement: Over the years, the princes and their mints would continually reduce the amount of silver content in their coins (by either mixing in more copper, etc., or reducing the overall coin size). For us, this makes it hard to compare the value of actual coins over the whole medieval period, because the values were constantly in a downward slide, in some cases causing inflation and the need to establish new, larger coins or non-debased currency. (In fact, this was one of the reasons to use "moneys-of-account" -- sometimes measuring raw silver bullion weight -- to keep a fair evaluation of one's worth, even when the coins were getting less valuable over the years.) One notable exception: England (see linked article), which kept the pound sterling mostly fixed over the years -- and therefore we might use that as the most dependable example of medieval coinage.

So, consider this particular historical example. View a list of English coinage in the 13th-15th centuries here. As our chief examples we'll take the "groat" (silver coin, worth 4 pence, i.e., 1/3 shilling) and "noble" (gold coin, worth 20 groats, i.e., 1/3 pound). There are smaller coins than these (half-nobles, quarter-nobles, etc.), but none significantly larger. So the noble:groat:penny coin ratio is 1:20:80.

I think this would be excellent from a game-design perspective, assuming that we used the silver standard as a basis. Two notable advantages: (1) The copper/silver pennies, at a 1:4 ratio, are not so cheap as to be entirely worthless and left in the dungeon by our adventurers. (2) The gold nobles, at a 1:20 ratio provide a nice geometric increase in the value that can be carried at higher levels, without having to resort to omnipresent bags of holding. Once again, the historical solution could serve as our game-design solution: copper coins for peasants, silver coins for the daily trade of freemen, and gold coins for transactions between kings.

Note also how close this historical coinage is to the OD&D system in Vol-2, p. 39, which stipulates a gold:silver:copper piece ratio of 1:10:50. It's basically a quasi-decimalization of the 1:20:80 ratio that we're finding in our research. In addition, it fairly represents the medieval valuation of gold bullion (about 1:10 to 1:14 of silver), assuming that all of our coins are the same size. The OD&D numbers are both reasonably good history and game design.

So, coming back to our game's history, why change those numbers in the AD&D Player's Handbook? In that work, Gygax establishes a 1:20:240 valuation for our game coins, while maintaining a gold standard. That turns all of our advantages into disadvantages: (1) Players start at the top value with nowhere to work up, (2) PCs are unable to carry much value in coinage at higher levels, (3) Copper pieces are effectively worthless. While using the classic Carolingian value ratios for the pound:shilling:pence, it overlooks the historical fact that those were not coins, but rather moneys-of-account only. A highly questionable change to the game, when the Original D&D system was so eminently reasonable in both historical and game-design terms.

So at this point, I'm personally a bit torn. If we were to establish a reduced-value system of coinage with a silver standard, which is preferable? The 1:20:80 ratio we see in historical England, or the 1:10:50 ratio we see in OD&D Vol-2? Poll completed; follow-up over here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Realism in Game Design


A big part of my philosophy is this: Looking to real-life research actually solves a lot of game design problems. Numerous times I've been stuck looking for a design solution. When I finally asked, "Wait, how would they deal with this in real life?," I found my elegant, simple game mechanic. Here are some examples:


(1) Racing Games. In a prior life, I worked as a computer-game engineer at Papyrus Racing Group (part of Sierra On-Line, then Vivendi) on stuff like NASCAR and Grand Prix Legends. I wound up specializing in race-control issues. Q: What UI should we use to warn NASCAR players about crashes in places they can't see? A: Use audio from the radio "spotters" that the teams station on top of the grandstands as lookouts for just that purpose. Q: How can we do the same thing in a historical game before radios were used? A: Use men waving colored flags at points around the track, as was (and is) actually done. Q: How can we efficiently record the standing of cars for possible playback in a replay? A: Use a "lap sheet" as is done by real race control, simply recording the time each car passes the start/finish line, from which it's easy to back-calculate the positions on any given lap.


(2) Model Castles. For quite some years I was really interested in modelling castles out of simple cardboard, and finding some really slick procedures & materials to put them together quickly and at the right scale. The major problem I had was putting roofs on the various towers and buildings, which had to be inside and slightly beneath the level of the parapet/battlements. I tried making little tabs on the roofs to attach them, I tried capping the towers and then adding a wrapped battlement on the outside, etc. Everything turned into a hideous gluey, sinking, lopsided mess. Then one night in bed I asked myself, "Wait, how would they deal with this in real life?" Duh, start with big cross-beams that support the roof. The next day I took some toothpicks and poked them through my tower tops. Now the roof sits nicely, with no special cutting, almost no glue required, and I get realistic cross-beams jutting out of the top of the building and strengthening the whole structure as a side-effect (see detail in picture above).


(3) D&D Encumbrance. The calculation of encumbrance has always been a huge pain in the ass. So many of us have tried to avoid it or look for ways to wriggle out of having to deal with it. My attitude is that the only thing wrong is that the numbers are scaled too large; they should be single-digits like everything else in Original D&D. Something like:
  • 4 for plate mail
  • 2 for chain mail
  • 1 for leather, shield, pole arm, halberd, etc.
Then you could just do it in your head with a glance at the PC sheet, no problem. I mean, it's not like anyone in real life ever measured load weight in "coins". So one day I asked myself, "Wait, what did they measure load weight in?" And the answer for a medieval European-type region (English? Because I speak, you know, English) would be something like the "stone" measure, i.e., a 14-pound unit or so. In fact, the numbers above are the OD&D weights having been converted to "stone" (dividing by 140 or so)... that's how medieval peasants would gauge load weights, it's necessarily a bit coarse, and that's exactly what we want for our game. Kind of a general approximation for weights, totally ignoring the smallest items, and with only very small numbers to add up. The beneficial side-effect in this case is that you get additional old-timey flavor in your unit-of-weight language ("I'm carrying 5 stone"). But the most important thing is this: A short table with very small numbers.


Now, obviously not everything in the gaming universe can be solved this way. Spells and dragon-killing and fantastical chimerae are not so susceptible. What are the strategic and tactical implications of a land army half of whom are 3 feet tall? Well, we've got no precedent for that. But when you are dealing with something that's quasi-mundane, I continually find that the real-life solution to the same problem provides an exceedingly elegant mechanic, has additional unforeseen beneficial side-effects, and also teaches a person something about the greater world in general.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Rule for Climbing

I'm not a fan of the mechanic used for OD&D/AD&D thieves' climbing ability: (a) it is unlike the mechanic for any other single ability in the game, (b) it is far too useful at 1st level, (c) it improves too slowly, (d) the modifying rules for slippery surfaces are hard to apply, and (e) it fails to account for other characters' more mundane climbing abilities. Consider instead the following:

Any character has a 2-in-6 chance to climb up a rough surface, adding Dexterity modifier, and -1 for each encumbrance level. This includes surfaces such as: normal rope, old masonry, standard cliff, wooden stockade, bare pole, etc.; otherwise apply one of the following:
  • +2 for natural chimney or ship's rigging.
  • +1 for knotted rope, tree, or rock with many ledges.
  • -1 for well-kept masonry or smooth natural rock.
  • -2 for smooth and slippery stone, or an overhang.
Thieves add +1 to this check (with an additional +1 added every 4 levels). Success indicates ascending the character's Move rate in feet for one round (e.g., MV 12" ascends 12 feet). Failure by more than 2 points indicates falling.

(Note that this is broadly compatible with the probabilities and categories given in the 1E Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, 2E PHB, and 3E PHB, but using the simpler OD&D mechanic on the six-sided die.)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Small PC Races Not Moving Slower

For the last few weeks, I've been running a poll that asked "Should small PCs move slower?", based on a prior investigatory post here, which generated several interesting comments. As you can see, the "No" response won out by about a 2-to-1 margin, and that's what I'll henceforth use in my OED-labeled set of house rules for OD&D.


Comments like Lord Kilgore's were particularly telling: "I vote YES, because they SHOULD move slower. In practice, I do not play that way because it's usually more trouble than it's worth." I think that largely sums the issue up; from a realism perspective, there's lots of reasons to say "yes", but from a mechanical gameplay perspective, not so much. Previously I've posted what I like to consider the AD&D Golden Rule regarding realism: "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."


So: Stipulated that having small PCs move slower would give a higher degree of realism. Now: Does it interfere with the flow of the game? In my experience, and apparently many of the readers here, the answer is "yes, it does". Therefore, that's not a level of realism that we can afford.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Fight On! #8

Hey, the new Fight On! magazine just came out (Issue #8, Winter 2010, 88 packed pages, available in print and PDF). I've got an article published on page 10 called "Supersize Me!" presenting a way to use consistent Strength and Constitution scores for your big humanoids and giants (including possible special NPCs and even PCs?) As usual, there was a whole lot of statistical regression analysis by me that we left out of the publication, which I might present here in the future. Best of all is the fact that I got published in a magazine with a cover by Erol Otus, who contributed to some of my worst nightmares circa 1980. I think I just leveled!



Thursday, March 4, 2010

OD&D+ Damage & Theory

If you've followed my blog for any time, you know that nowadays I play an OD&D game with about half of Sup-I (Greyhawk) added in, plus some streamlining and scaling house rules of my own.

Let's talk about that second part. I think a lot of the motivations behind the Greyhawk supplement were really good, but the actual executions were pretty flipped-out. (And of course much of that material became the hallmarks of AD&D, so same goes for that.)

Consider what I take from Greyhawk: I use Thieves, but maintain just 3 classes (deleting clerics). I expand ability modifiers, but in a simpler fashion than Sup-I's tables (no mod in 9-12, +/-1 per 3 points up/down). I use the new class hit dice, but without changing monster hit dice (still d6's). I use variant weapon damage, but slice out the column that distinguishes values for "Larger Opponents".

I think that's pretty obvious stuff, it's just bits and pieces of what you can find in the original books already. You might see the pattern: I like some reasonable variations (ability modifiers, class hit dice, weapon damage), but I like them to be in just a very small handful of categories (to the extent that I can remember them without any book lookups). It gives some nice "visual interest" as my artist friends say. Also: I like all this stuff to be on a single, whole-die basis -- I wouldn't allow any weapons that do d4+1 or 2d6 damage, for example; too much mental clutter even from that.

So what comes next? Looking at Sup-I, the next thing in the book is the addition of Attacks & Damage by Monster Type. Again, great idea -- the single-d6 for nearly everyone and everything in the LBBs was indeed... I'll say chalky. Pretty dry. So some variation and mechanical interest is warranted.

But holy god, look at all the complication that pops up (if you don't have OD&D, then it's just all the same attacks & damage figures you see in the AD&D MM). So many attacks, variations, "by weapon type"s, wide numerical ranges that you have to puzzle back into some kinds of actual dice to roll. I think that was, again, a bridge too far.

So what I did some time ago -- I feel that it's obvious but haven't seen it presented elsewhere -- is to go through the OD&D monster roster and just jot down some variations in attacks and damage dice. The key is that all monster damage is in units of d6. So I inserted into my table just two new single-digit numbers, one for "attacks" and one for "damage" (meaning "number of d6's to roll for damage"). I kept one eye on the general sensibilities of the Sup-I additions, but also kept everything scaled according to the LBB system (i.e., maintaining the exceptional cases of ogres doing d6+2, giants/elementals/et. al. doing 2d6, epic sea monsters doing 3 or 4d6). As DM, I never have to fiddle for different kinds of oddball dice -- I'm always reaching for my d6's, and it's just a question of how many.

Halfway between the LBBs and Sup-I mechanics seems to work very well for me. I'm following the motivation of Sup-I but not the Byzantine execution. And d6's rule for the DM!

My version of the OD&D monster reference table, with attacks & damage dice inserted: http://www.superdan.net/download/OED-Monsters.pdf

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Magic Resistance in OD&D

Sometimes it's amazing how complete the original D&D game was, including mechanics that we come to think of as being later developments or missing entirely. Case study: Numerous times I've stated that there's no "magic resistance" in the LBBs, until Sup-III (Eldritch Wizardry), with its varous demon types.

Turns out that's not quite correct. There was an example of magic resistance in the LBBs, exactly as we associate with later AD&D (75% resistance vs. 11th level caster, +/-5%/level, etc.). The wrinkle is, the only place this appeared was in the earliest printings of the game in the entry for "Balrogs". This appeared on Vol-2 p. 14 (between dragon and gargoyle), but after legal skirmishing with the Tolkien estate, it was taken out and replaced with a clever little Tom Wham illustration. (Which solves my personal mystery of how there's a Thief in that picture, but no thieves in the actual LBB rules themselves yet.) You can see other places the Balrog was or was not successfully removed from later editions, in the the blank spot in the monster Reference Sheets (again, between dragon & gargoyle), in the wandering monster tables (replaced by Spectres in Vol-3 p. 11, blank lines in PDF versions Vol-3 p. 18-19), inclusion in variant damage additions (Sup-I p. 17), etc., etc.

When the Balrogs got snipped out, so did the "magic resistance" mechanic, until much later publications.

Discussion at DragonsFoot from last year: http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=36874