Friday, September 30, 2011

Brilliant Arneson Quote of the Day

In honor of Dave Arneson's birthday tomorrow, something that tickled me recently at Beyond the Black Gate:
To say that Dave was completely impartial with regards to the game was not to say that Dave was completely impartial with regards to players, often with hilarious results. Once, while the party was being attacked by some sort of flying machines over the swamps near the Temple, a player whinged a bit that, since he had been paralyzed, he had nothing to do while everyone else got to fight the machines, and how unfair that was. Dave regarded him quietly for a moment, then handed him a d6, and said "here, roll that every round." The player, confused, asked why. "That," Dave said, "is how much damage you take every round. That should keep you busy." I don't believe anyone else complained about anything for the rest of the session.
Holy smoke do I love that! Let me analyze it a bit: (a) It's a jolly good answer. (b) It's unapologetic that if you get paralyzed or put down, it will last a while and you will be out of the action. (c) It actually is something to do each round for the player, physically. (d) It sort of makes sense that some shrapnel might be flying around and you're utterly unable to avoid it. (e) It's the exact inverse of action points in that kind of situation. (f) It's a fairly small amount of damage that may not be lethal -- not like a "bolt from the blue" insta-destruction. (g) It's above-board and explicit -- not some later behind-the-scenes passive-aggressive move wherein the DM sics a monster on you specifically, and you're left wondering why that happened. Delicious!

Happy birthday, Mr. Arneson. (And more Book of War stuff next week.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book of War Core Rules

Below is an OGL-ized version of the Book of War Core Rules (page 5 from the actual book). This page has had some product identity cleanup done, so that we can designate everything here as Open Game Content (whenever you see "the FRPG", read that as "the original fantasy role-playing game, as published by Gygax and Arneson in 1974"). Click for a PDF version:

Hopefully you see the fundamental idea -- We can basically convert any D&D d20-based target number to d6 by dividing by 3 and rounding down (20/3 ~ 6.67), and this allows us to roll lots of 1:10 figure attacks with big fistfuls of d6's (as in many other wargames). You can easily convert any D&D monsters to this system by using the exact same Movement and Hit Dice values, and a single conversion for the "Armor Hit" target value on d6 (that being eminently memorable). At this point, I've done it on the fly several times for large numbers of D&D random wilderness encounters, and it's worked very well.

Any other modifiers from D&D can likewise get converted in a divide-by-3 operation (noting that many minor adjustments will disappear from our abstraction entirely). In fact, if you use new-style "ascending Armor Class", then you can just go ahead and divide that by 3 for your AH, as well (for some time I was working on this game under 3E principles, and while that part worked, the rest of the 3E system was pretty much too complicated to deal with -- which was one reason among many that I switched back to OD&D, around the time this blog started).

More than one person has told me now that they've actually played some games of man-to-man D&D itself using this cut-down d6 system, with good results (although that wasn't the original intent).

Now, let's pose some questions about whether the scales chosen make sense. I suppose the first assumption is simply what kind of miniature figures we'll be using: and I definitely wanted to use the "standard" 25-28mm figures that you've already got for your D&D or Warhammer games, with base sizes as noted above (those being my best guess for what they're already on). With that as a given:

Why 10 men per figure?

Having thought about this quite a bit, I came to the exact same conclusion that Gygax did in the Introduction to Swords & Spells. I wound up re-discovering every point that he made there:
After considerable contemplation a 10:1 ratio was decided upon. If this seems somewhat small for a supposedly large-scale set of rules, the following factors must be remembered: First, most fantasy battles which involve numbers too large to handle at 1:1 are still on a relatively small scale -- hundreds and thousands rather than tens of thousands. More importantly, the exceptional creatures had to be allowed for, and this could not practically be done on a scale greater than 10:1. [S&S, p. 1]
Indeed. If mass figures are at 1:10 scale (10 HD per figure), then a 10+ level monster or character can appear as an equivalent-strength independent figure (plus, it's in the tradition of works like Swords & Spells and Battlesystem). If mass scale was 1:20 (as in Chainmail), then that would effectively rule out any hero figures of less than 20th level -- notably, all the monsters in Original D&D.

Why 20 feet per inch?

This took considerably more thought. Here are 3 separate pieces of evidence why this is the correct scale:

(1) We can do a direct math calculation. If Chainmail is correct that 1:20 mass action works at 1"=30 feet (and I think it does, from a realism perspective), then by halving the men per figure, the overall area covered should also be halved. Say the original area is given on the order of A=s2 (s is the old scale in feet, i.e., 30), that is, s=√A. Then our new scale should be s'=√(A/2). Compute: s'=√(A/2)=√A/√2 = s/√2 ~ 30/1.4 = 21 feet. Round that off to 20 feet for convenience.

(2) We can reason from the size of individual men in the figure. Assume that the 10 men in each figure are arrayed in 2 ranks of 5 men each (that's an important assumption!), and that they take up 3 feet each, shoulder-to-shoulder in formation (historical double-check; 168/56=3). Then compute our resulting scale from that and the figure base size: 3 feet/man × 5 men wide/figure × 1 figure/(0.75 inch) = 20 feet/inch.

(3) Consider scale ships & castles. (This was an important consideration for my games -- in fact, the original motivation was largely to be able to operate a D&D naval campaign in a reasonable way.) If you make historical ships & castles at a scale of 1"=30 feet, then they're actually too small for the figures we've chosen to stand on top of them. But if you use 1"=20 feet, i.e., larger scale models, then our figures fit beautifully on top of realistic boats, tower-tops, gatehouses, etc. I've tried both, and you really need the latter scale.

Quick example on that last point: To the right you'll see a photo of the main gate and flanking towers of the Keep on the Borderlands, which I modeled at the indicated 1"=20 feet. Note that one figure of crossbowmen nicely fit atop each tower (per the text, there's a total of 8 such men with crossbows in each tower). If the scale were instead 1"=30 feet, then those towers would be smaller by a factor of 2/3, and the figures would no longer fit there.

So -- It looks like 20 feet per inch has a preponderance of evidence in its favor.

Why 30 seconds per turn?

Again, we can reason from Chainmail; if 1:20 action takes place at 1 minute intervals (again, pretty reasonable), then 1:10 action should have turns of about half that length, or 30 seconds. More-or-less.

Or, more importantly: It turns out that the "golden" number of rounds-per-turn for our game is 3; that is, we say that 3 rounds of D&D action is equal to one turn in Book of War. If we use a source like Holmes that says 1 round=10 seconds (the most reasonable that I've seen), then clearly 1 turn=30 seconds here.

One of the really nice things about this is that it's coincidentally (?) about the same as our increase in distance scale, above. If you play D&D at 1"=5 feet (and I do), then our BOW scale is 4 times that (1"=20 feet). And you can see here that our time scale is itself 3 times that of D&D. So I call these numbers "approximately equal", and since we've increased both time & distance by about the same factor, our Movement rates in inches stay the same. If a horse runs 24"/round in D&D, then it runs 24"/turn in Book of War. That simplifies things enormously.

Now, let's say you disagree with my interpretations of D&D scale (like 1 round = 10 sec, per Holmes), and you want to stick with the legacy of 1 round = 1 minute for man-to-man scale. Well, that's not a problem; the far more important issue is that 1 BOW turn = 3 rounds of D&D. So for you, 1 BOW turn is 3 minutes. Everything else stays the same.

Next time: Why the statistics magically work at the conversion rate of 1 BOW turn = 3 D&D rounds.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Book of War Released!

Today I'm releasing my mass-combat miniatures rules, compatible with original D&D and similar systems, for public consumption. Hopefully you'll find it to be fast, simple, fun, and compatible with what you'd expect from a D&D-based wargame. You can get it right now on Lulu. In celebration, I've also started a new website called OED Games.

I've been working on a system like this for over 10+ years or something like that. (Maybe more, if you count all the way back to the 80's and me being frustrated with how existing systems played out.) The primary goal has been to create something that's statistically consistent with what would happen if D&D were played out with hundreds of men per side, while still making it elegant to play, and keeping an eye to history whenever possible. That said, I wanted it to be immediately accessible to brand-new players, without any wargaming or D&D experience required, and from what I've seen, it seems to fit the bill. And, I've tried to keep it as short and concise as humanly possible -- 24 pages (about 2 pages per year; cost to you: $1/year softcover).

Nothing in this world is perfect. But as I've ramped up the refinements and playtests in the last year or so, I've noticed that the edits at each step have been constantly shrinking in size. (In this form of the book I've gone through "zero" versions from letter A to M.) I was proofreading yet another version on the bus a few weeks ago, got to the end, and realized that there wasn't anything else I could detect that needed changing. As my best-girl Isabelle texted back to me that day: "Good! Now set it free! Release the Kraken!!"

I can imagine someone seeing the core of the rules (which I'll present here on Wednesday), and thinking that they're so incredibly simple, they could have come up with the same thing in a few short minutes; and that may be the case (part of a response might be: 80% of the effort has gone into cost-balancing the different units). But, I plan to keep discussing the game and presenting design notes, justifications, and expansions here on the blog in the coming months. My greatest wish is that together we can find some ways to make improvements and that there'll be a "Version 2" at some point in the future.

If you get Book of War, I truly hope that you enjoy playing it. And in any event, I always appreciate your reading and commenting here (and elsewhere!), as that's the fuel that got me to finally finish this project. Appreciatively,

- Daniel R. "Delta" Collins

Friday, September 23, 2011

On Burning Oil

Wrapping up another flame-filled week at the Hotspot: I'll come out and say that the use of burning oil bugs me in D&D. Let's see if I can explain why.

First of all, if you look at classic D&D, the player's materials (OD&D Vol-1, or AD&D PHB, etc.) contain descriptions of offensive resources like weapons and their damage, class abilities, attack spells, etc. Then burning oil gets described in the referee's book (Vol-3, or DMG), and it's like this "secret" resource that only expert players know to call out for. It's not something out in the open for regular players to opt for. And worse, if oil turns out to be a better weapon than some other element, then it will pretty quickly replace that other element in your milieu (maybe daggers, or slings, or hold portal spells, etc.), even if you didn't foresee your gaming being about oil-slinging adventurers, or whatever.

I mean, I've had acquaintances who were D&D players in other games proudly announce, "We got giant barrels of oil and just flooded the whole dungeon and lit it on fire from the outside, and got all the XP!" I mean: That game sounds like it royally sucks, man. And it's certainly not what the D&D game "says on the tin", so-to-speak.

Secondly, but a related point: Since oil is obviously such a secondary-thought bolt-on to the system, there's not much consistency to its effect. In OD&D the effect is actually nothing except for possibly scaring off pursuing monsters: "Burning oil will deter many monsters from continuing pursuit." [Vol-3, p. 12] -- in addition to the other options of food (for dumb monsters) and treasure (for intelligent ones). Although, in its brevity I guess that allowed lots of people to interpret their own damage statistics for oil, frequently numbers that rivaled fireballs or any other mundane weapon. In AD&D, this was officially set at 2d6+1d6 (over two rounds) for a direct hit from a flask of oil. Well hot damn, that's more than any other weapon in the system, see what I mean? (Exception: tied with a heavy lance or 2-handed sword vs. large opponent.) And that's just for one flask, when your players start asking for whole barrels of the stuff, and arguing that it does 20d6 or something per barrel, and whole exploding fire-ships in your naval game, what do you do then?

Thirdly, I don't even think that it makes real-world sense that you can use a flask of oil meant for burning in a lamp, and get it to explode like Greek fire in this way. I'm no chemist, but it sounds like someone's conflating different kinds of oil in a way that's not justified. Check out the Wikipedia page on Oil:

Organic Oils

Organic oils are produced in remarkable diversity by plants, animals, and other organisms through natural metabolic processes. Lipid is the scientific term for the fatty acids, steroids and similar chemicals often found in the oils produced by living things, while oil refers to an overall mixture of chemicals. Organic oils may also contain chemicals other than lipids, including proteins, waxes and alkaloids...

Mineral oils

Crude oil, or petroleum, and its refined components, collectively termed petrochemicals, are crucial resources in the modern economy. Crude oil originates from ancient fossilized organic materials, such as zooplankton and algae, which geochemical processes convert into oil.[6] It is classified as a mineral oil because it does not have an organic origin on human timescales, but is instead obtained from rocks, underground traps, or sands; however, mineral oil by itself refers to a specific distillate of crude oil.

So it appears to me like you've got two very different kinds of substances that both happen to called "oil" due to a linguistic quirk. Which did medieval-style lamps run on? The former. ("The main fuel in Western nations was olive oil in ancient Mediterranean cultures, though extracts from fish, crude fish oil, nuts, and cheese were also used." Link.) Which does a weapon like a Molotov cocktail use? The latter. ("A Molotov cocktail is a breakable bottle containing a flammable substance such as gasoline or a napalm-like mixture and usually a source of ignition such as a burning cloth wick held in place by the bottle's stopper." Link.) Then I've also had friends start talking to me about the need to aerosol-ize the oil for weaponization, although I'm afraid that's not a claim that's within my personal area of knowledge. But clearly there's a reason why Greek fire was so special in the ancient world. ("Most modern scholars agree that the actual Greek fire was based on petroleum, either crude or refined; comparable to modern napalm..." Link.)

Therefore, I think that the next time someone asks for burning oil in one of my D&D games, my response will be: "This oil is actually olive oil for use in lamps, and it cannot burn in the open as a weapon." -- you know, quite a bit like the Gygaxian response to someone choosing to dig up some saltpeter and construct gunpowder in a D&D campaign (except perhaps better justified). Not that following real-world physics is a necessity, but more importantly because the gameplay I want is not about oil-slinging dungeoneers to the exclusion of their other weapons and spells; and as usual: real-life research solves a lot of game design problems.

Have I got the chemistry issue right? Would medieval lamp oil burn in the open like a weapon (or worse, explode)? And what's your take on the gameplay considerations?

(Photo by visionshare under CC2.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fireball Missing Area

Some number of days ago, I had an extravagantly good question emailed to me by reader John Beltman from West Perth, Australia. His question was basically this: If fireball is assumed to have a spherical area, and that in a confined space it expands to maintain the same volume, then shouldn't it get some extra area even in the open when shot at a target on the ground?

Well hell yeah, he's totally right! Fantastic observation! Let's look at this more closely:

First of all, we know that Gygax initially presented the "rebound" rule in OD&D Vol-3, p. 9, as a response to "some referees" who otherwise let fireballs and lightning bolts blast out stone areas equal to their full area (which is admittedly crazy). Then it got more detail in the AD&D PHB p. 73 spell description, in a bracketed note: "The area which is covered by the fireball is a total volume of roughly 33,000 cubic feet (or yards)." Now already this is super-sketchy, because the "or yards" qualifier doesn't makes any sense -- the area can't ever be in yards due to the all-caps rule on p. 39: "IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT OUTDOOR SCALE BE USED FOR RANGE ONLY, NEVER FOR AREA OF EFFECT (which is kept at 1" = 10')". Recall that this is a new rule, first appearing in the 1E PHB; is it so new that it post-dates the AD&D text to fireball itself?

In any event, the volume given is basically correct: granted the "Area of Effect: 2" radius sphere" (interpreted here as 20 feet radius), we do have a spherical volume pretty close to the given "roughly 33,000 cubic feet", more specifically:
Okay. So let's consider the fairly simple and normal case where a fireball is directed so that it explodes at ground-zero height. Then obviously the resulting "compressed" area is actually a half-sphere with this same volume V above the ground. Therefore, we need to find the new radius r such that the half-sphere area has the same volume. Solve (with appropriate reductions at each step):

So, as John expected (and me as well, once he'd pointed this out), a standard fireball ground burst under the official rule does indeed get some extra area -- although only an extra 5 feet radius, less than I might have intuited. That is one extra square if you're using a 1"=5 feet battlemap; or maybe you're happy to ignore the difference, you philistine, you. If so, stop here, because the rest of the post is more complicated and makes even less difference.

Still with me? Okay, then -- You see, distressingly, that's not what John actually asked. What he asked was a more prickly problem, namely: "... the situation where a human caster is casting it at a man sized creature (I would say the most common use? e.g. a group of orcs) [so] the centre of the fireball will be roughly five feet off the ground..." Oooookay. Well, 5 feet off the ground isn't a simple half-sphere any more. It's calculusin' time! Consider the following:
On the left is a cross-section of the fireball area that we are about to rotate around to find the full volume. To make the notation easier, I've turned it 90 degrees on its side and placed the center of the attempted sphere at the origin (the "ground" is now vertically 5 feet to the left, where the shape gets flattened out; and the ball otherwise extends some unknown radius r from the origin in every direction, where we can guess that this r is something between 20 and 25 feet). On the right, you can see what one slice looks like as we start to revolve it around the x-axis: a circle of some other radius (note that every part of that upper arc is exactly r feet from the origin: that's what having a sphere means, after all). And what is the radius of that new-circular slice? Well, it's the height y, where, per the Pythagorean theorem, x2+y2=r2, and so y2 = r2-x2. And thus if y is the radius of this sub-circle, then its area must be A= πy2 = π(r2-x2); and if its width is some infinitesimal dx, then its part of the volume can be written as the product π(r2-x2)dx. Now we just need the integral of this between -5 and r, as shown in either illustration above.

This isn't novel: What's happening here is just the exact same formulation for the volume of a regular sphere that you'll find in any calculus textbook, just replacing the usual lower bound "-r" with the number "-5" for our purposes. Let's compute an expression for this integral (excuse handwritten notes below):

And it's this expression for volume that still has to maintain the value of 33,510 ("roughly 33,000") under our fireball-compression rule. So set it equal to that number and try to solve for r:

Now, if the highest exponent was 2 (a quadratic), then I could just run it through the ol' quadratic formula and get a solution; but it's not, it's got an exponent of 3, so I have to use the cubic formula. It's like the quadratic formula but it's more complicated. Probably easiest if I just let some software do it, like by going to the site, and punching in the coefficients (2, 15, 0, -32,125). Then we see that the 3 possible values of r include two imaginary numbers as well as the value r = 22.96... ≈ 23 feet.

So to answer John's actual, insightful, very profound question -- Yes, if fireballs are defined to be spheres, and you launch one 5 feet from the ground, then the extreme edge actually swells to 23 feet from the center point. Better watch your face, or you'll burn it right off!

(Want to see the cubic formula? Go here. What comes next? How about a quartic formula. After that? A proof that no higher-degree solving formulas can exist.)

Now, just to come up from the depths at the end -- Stuff like this is actually why I'm no longer a fan of the "compress to space" rule for fireball. In some ways it's kind of fun or even arguably a balancing factor for the otherwise all-powerful fireball -- but c'mon, the complications due to this rule are just crazy. The very fact that the PHB has to mention a figure of "roughly 33,000 cubic feet" is kind of ridiculous for a tabletop game. And the completely overlooked logical implication being that it's not really a 20-foot radius, but rather a 25-foot radius (or thereabouts) in normal usage on the ground. Blast it!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fireball Conclusions

What, it's the end of summer this week? Better go out with a bang...

In July, I had a sizable series of posts on those iconic and special D&D missile spells, fireball and lightning bolt. One of the things I highlighted was how they have special targeting rules ("declare distance of shot") unlike any other spell -- a legacy of their appearance in Chainmail as analogs to catapults and cannons, in a completely separate category from what are otherwise called "spells" there.

See some of those posts: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (Leaving out the posts on giant stone-throwing which likewise grew out of the same original artillery rules...). And, in one of those articles, I asked the poll question, "What's the best way to target fireballs?":

So that's pretty interesting because I don't think I've ever asked a poll question here that got such a wide range of replies, almost evenly spread over all the available responses. That said, one of the top ones was "Declare target & check 'to hit'... else apply variation"; that seems "right" to a lot of people, even though it appears nowhere in classic OD&D, AD&D, B/X, etc. -- although it was given that way in the more recent 3E. Also tied for the top was "Something else entirely", so I guess fireballs are like opinions... everyone's got their own! Note that pretty much dead last was the option for "Pinpoint any target in range as desired".

But with such a divergence in opinion, and a pretty small sample size, for the first time ever I went and cross-posted the same question over at the Dragonsfoot forums, in the hopes of casting a somewhat larger net. Had some good discussion here, and generated these responses:

Did that help me? Well, it's not yet double the replies I got on my blog, and the reactions are sort of upside-down from the poll here. Now, "Pinpoint any target in range as desired" came out first (with a narrow majority), but "Declare target & range of shot (legacy rule)" also made a strong showing. So... yet more difference in opinion.

One point of analysis is that while this blog is more focused on OD&D and its close descendants, the Dragonsfoot forums are of course dedicated to 1E AD&D, and don't make too much distinction between other stuff they lump together as "Classic". (Not to say that many individual members are not highly knowledgeable about every edition.) And importantly, looking at Chainmail/OD&D you'll be staring at a very explicit "player calls distance on tabletop" rule, while in 1E AD&D this gets submarined into "caster declares distance of shot", which is very easy to interpret as being in-character-flavor and no longer player-skill-mechanic. So the large difference in opinion between visitors, even between OD&D and 1st-Edition sites, is not so surprising.

So what to do for Original Edition Delta? Well, this important interpretive issue was one of the last things that I had to "get right" for my upcoming miniature wargame rules, Book of War. And as I thought about it deeply, using the great responses from these polls as fodder, I came to the conclusion that fireballs and lighting bolts simply had to maintain some kind of increased variance, intrinsically baked into their mechanic, for balance and other purposes.

I mean -- We all know how crazy-powerful these key 3rd-level missile spells are. In classic D&D, they actually spit out significantly more damage than higher-level spells like 4th-level ice storm, 6th-level death spell, or even 9th-level power word kill, for a caster of the same level (if you crunch the numbers). So what's the balancing factor? The thing that was in the core rules from the inception was the special targeting uncertainty.

But on playtesting I found that the direct legacy "declare your distance" was simply far too difficult to succeed at. And more generally, it would be wildly dependent on player skill, such that someone who's spent time practicing their estimation (and thinking to pre-measure the table dimensions, say) would be at a monumental advantage over a newbie player, which was simply unacceptable for the kind of game I wanted to produce (namely: immediately accessible to non-hardcore gamers). Furthermore, that kind of wide-open player-skill mechanic was not something I could estimate or analyze when cost-balancing the different units and powers.

So having spent all that time dissecting and thinking about the issue, here's the rule as you'll see it in Book of War:
Roll one die for accuracy: 1-2, 1" short; 3-4, on target; 5-6, 1" long.
Thus, we maintain some kind of variation, which is fundamental to the powerful fireball and lightning bolt spells. It's not outright player-skill, but it is a callback to the original Chainmail cannon rules [CM p. 14, top picture], for example, where all this stuff springs from. Shooting into an enormous formation of troops is easy/automatic. Picking off an individual hero or monster is much harder to accomplish. I've already had some excellent and nail-biting wizard-vs-wizard long-range shootouts with my friend BigFella using this rule. (Side note: This rule is, for its brevity, not unique for the amount of backstage justification that went into producing it. The whole book is pretty much like that.)

I'll leave with one keenly important insight. For this mechanic to be justifiable, fireballs must be inherently more variable than archery. Like, based on our normal-curve ballistics insights (here), if you want to shoot an arrow and get within at least 10 or 20 feet of a target, then that's close to automatic at any range, for any trained bowman. Not so with a fireball, even for highly-trained and high-level wizards! So it's not just a matter of "presume the wizard has learned how to shoot a fireball properly"; what we're concluding here is that a fireball is specifically a weapon with such a high rate of variance that it's impossible to be as accurate as anyone is with a bow. They're like the earliest forms of wrought-iron cannons (in so many ways, again as per Chainmail), which were enormously inaccurate compared to other weapons (look up "obturation"). I guess this brand of magic is simply undependable and not-fully-controllable in that way (but it's still generally okay, since it's an explosive area-effect blast, after all).

At some point I'd like to come back with exact statistics at the man-to-man level for just how inaccurate a fireball must be (back-reasoning from the simple mass-combat rule). But for now consider this: If landing an arrow or a flask of oil in a particular space is a to-hit against AC10, then doing the same with a more-volatile, harder-to-control fireball shot must be significantly more difficult: maybe AC4 or harder?

(Top image by santus, under CC2.)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Extra Link Sunday

Don't forget that I'm not the only one making "Spells Through the Ages" posts. (Which, I must say, have generated lots of very gratifying comments.) My good friend Paul does the same thing over on his blog (frequently focusing on the clerical spell list, since I've given the class the heave-ho in my own game).

For example, he's recently made some posts carefully comparing the spells-per-day lists between different editions. Until he did this, I didn't realize that the magic-user spells per day had been revised and changed at each and every step of the whole OD&D/Holmes/Moldvay/Mentzer/Allston "Basic D&D" line.

See that stuff here and here and here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Life-Long Study of the Text

Random supernaturally prescient quote of the day: from Ares magazine July 1980, in a review meant to slam D&D (via Grognardia):
The original rules rate as one of the worst of all time, including fractured English, garbled text, contradictory rules, a re-invention of mythology, and passing references to crucial rules. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was meant to remedy this situation. Actually, in place of previous rules maladies, the gaming public received an overwritten, jumbled mass of discourse upon D&D which can only be assimilated by making a life-long study of the text.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Wisdom as Sanity

Let's say you're looking to use a Sanity-type mechanic in your game. In the 3E Unearthed Arcana book, a variant for Sanity was presented -- and I'm pretty sure it's just the same thing as used in WOTC's d20 Call of Cthulhu game by Monte Cook. The basis of which was: you get a Sanity score of Wisdom ×5, and at certain times you make Sanity check of d% lesser than or equal to this number, or else you lose a certain number of Sanity points.

So I've always wondered why they didn't just cut out the middleman and use Wisdom directly as your Sanity score? Your checks can just be the standard d20 + Wisdom ≥ 20 (in the Target 20 mechanic), or else d20 ≤ Wisdom (if you prefer a roll-low mechanic, presumably from missing too many Sanity saves yourself in the past), or maybe alternatively a Save vs. Spells with the standard "mental attack" modifier from your current Wisdom score. And then on failure you lose 1 point of Wisdom (or possibly more: look at the 3E rule and divide everything by 5).

So much simpler and cleaner. Everyone knows what Wisdom is, it wraps into the standard ability scores and save mechanics, and you don't have an unnecessary proliferation of new statistics and numbers to track. Or have I gone crazy?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Geomorphs Styles

I've written before about Gygax's Dungeon Geomorphs product (which I like to take as a nice case study to very old-school dungeon layout design). Today, a short observation that recently came to me:

Recall that the dungeon geomorphs come in three categories (originally 3 separate publications): (1) "Basic Dungeon", where almost the entire page is covered with open floor space (and which I think looks immensely odd to our modern sensibilities). (2) "Caves and Caverns", which are rough-hewn in about the way you'd expect. (3) "Lower Dungeons", where there are more blacked-out areas, more cramped rooms, and more oddball geometric shapes. Examples, respectively, below:

So the thing that occurred to me is this: These categories are basically sorted in order of how hard they are to draw by hand with graph-paper-and-pencil. Like, if Gygax is sitting down with a blank piece of graph paper and wanted to draw some rooms, then the easiest thing by far is to just overlay lines on top of the grid itself: and the result is your "Basic Dungeon", where every square is floor space. If you want to get fancier, then you can make some rough squiggles, and in addition to the walls, spend extra time to color in the "dead space", and then you've got "Caves and Caverns". And the "Lower Dungeons" are probably the most sophisticated: not only do you have to spend time with the coloring-in-dead-space issue, but you also have to spend more time initially measuring and plotting out your geometric shapes (like those zig-zag angles or that circular corridor) -- rough scribbles won't cut it like they did in the prior section.

In summary -- These levels get more "advanced" from the perspective of the person drawing them. If you're using raw graph-paper-and-pencil.

So we might turn this around and think about what designs are easier, and which are harder, if you're using different artistic media with which to plan them out? What if your paper is not gridded? What if you use paint-and-brush instead of pen/pencil? What if you use various types of computer software (like some variant of GridMapper)?

Without wanting to slavishly copy the master, perhaps we can import some of his insights to our modern media tools, but using them to their greatest strength, instead of bending them in ways that are complicated for the tools in question.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Endless Quest Flowchart -- Return to Brookmere

For what I expect to be my final analysis/review of TSR's Endless Quest books (see the two priors here and here), today I'll dig into Endless Quest #4, Return to Brookmere. Again this was written by Rose Estes, "From TSR's Education Department", with cover art by Larry Elmore, and Frank Mentzer listed as D&D consultant. The interior art (25 full-page pieces, same as in the first book) is by Timothy Truman.

Part of the reason I picked the last two that I did (this one and #1, Dungeon of Dread) is that they were apparently the higher-rated ones in the series as reviewed by Marcus Rowland in White Dwarf #39 (per Wikipedia: 7/10 for Brookemere, 6/10 for Dread, and 4 or 5/10 for the rest). I'm going to be more cranky than Rowland was about this book: I liked it much less that Dread, for pretty much all the reasons below. At least it has more randomized pagination than the first book (not strictly increasing order of scenes); thus, the plot progression is not guessable by position in the media itself, so that's one single point in favor of Estes' evolution of the craft.


Generally speaking, I found this book a lot "easier" to get through -- on my recent re-read of the book, I navigated the "best possible" path on the very first try, and it seemed rather obvious to do so. Whereas book #1 required some risk-taking and aggression (in a perhaps more typical D&D dungeon adventure), this one is the opposite -- it features a single young elven prince on a scouting mission, and the best choices are usually in favor of caution, stealth, and avoidance. There are a few places with options like (a) go up, (b) go down, or (c) sit and think carefully about your situation. Okay, so that seems kind of unusual -- and in each case option (c) is the best course. (Maybe that just matches my own personal idiom.)

Committing fully to its dictum of "TSR's Education Department" for kids in the mid-80's, the monsters are in many cases juvenilized and nonthreatening -- which is something I personally detest. There is a moronic orc guard, a helplessly sneezing kobold, a weeping gnoll who likes jewelry and dislikes fighting, bowling giants who want you to help them cheat, etc., etc. The orc barracks has posters of female orcs hung up. There's a scene where child-monsters are interrogated by adults about seeing an intruder, featuring a painful ear-pinch, and dialogue like, "'Think they saw something?' asks one goblin. 'You know how kids are,' replies a kobold. 'Probably not.'" You get the idea. Even for "kids" books, monsters should be scary, not funny. IMO.

As I've said before, I suspect that only the first book of the series (Dread) has an adult protagonist. All the rest that I've seen have children in the lead roles, as is the case Brookmere. The other thing I've now seen is that in each case the protagonist has some smaller sidekick with them to give occasional advice and serve as comic relief. In Dread, it's a fearful halfling thief; in Brookmere, it is a sarcastic talking amulet; and in Dragon of Doom, it is a pet pseudo-dragon. A common gesture that Estes uses is that in catastrophic endings for the hero, narrative focus usually stays on the companion as they get away (softening the blow a bit, I suppose).

Okay, so let's talk about the structural design of the adventure; it has some glaring oddities and outright errors that are not apparent in other books in the series. Looking closely at the flowchart (see picture above), there is a topmost introductory section, and then generally the adventure tries very hard to funnel you into either "55-56 hobgoblins/disguise" (6 ways in), or right under it, "150 orc Swart" (4 ways in), and from there to the several victorious ending iterations on the bottom-right. There is a tangled-up set of possible scenes near the bottom left, which most likely winds up passing you back to that main branch at some point. And at the top-right, there is the "Mim's secret path" optional annex, with the single largest block of narrative text in the entire book ("75-91 Mazahs/Orobius"; 17 pages including 3 illustrations), which Estes was apparently very fond of, but doesn't affect the rest of the adventure in any way (and again, my very first review adventure took me through this path).

One questionable move is that there are some abrupt endings to the story available from even the very first or second choice branches (see "36 capture by orcs" and "12 home/exile"), which I did not see in other books. Another reason why I like this book so much less than Dread is that it's something of a tease: there are at least two scenes where the hero spies on meetings convened by very compelling, belligerent humanoid leaders -- the scenes go on for quite a while, building up these characters (a gnoll chief and a warlord wererat), and in each case there is a full-page illustration to go with them (plus, the wererat is featured on the front cover). But at no point in the book is it possible to have a confrontation with either one of them. Yes, the overall objective is one of reconnaissance: but still.

In many cases, the connections flat-out don't make sense, and show evidence of likely shoddy authorship (or else flat-out typographical errors). Several different scenes have you donning a goblin disguise in advance of the major "107-112 wererat audience" scene; and in at least one path, you can wind up donning the same disguise twice in sequence (p. 55-56 > 19 > 69-70). There is an irrelevant choice: at "142-143 cloaks/disguise", your options are "fool the orc guard" or "try the corridor on the right", but either path immediately takes you to the exact same guard ("150 orc Swart"). And there is an enormously surprising option that shows up in a fight on p. 99, "try to have Mim cast its sleep spell", when at no point previously have you been informed that Mim, your magic talking amulet, has any spells. (There is one scene where that spell-casting might get explained, but it's on a different path and much farther down the page -- actually right at the bottom: "40-50 win treas, et. al.")

Finally, a cardinal sin that I was wondering if I would ever see -- there is an infinite loop in the flowchart! It's possible to go through "71 rubble" near the upper-center, maneuver down through a sequence of monster encounters (bugbear, kobold, goblin, orcs), reach the bottom at "40-50" (with its extremely weak scene of adult monsters scolding children), and then take a corridor right back to "71 rubble" and do it all over again, ad infinitum! Of course, those narrative scenes make absolutely no sense to engage and trick a series of monsters in the exact same way multiple times. Tsk, tsk, tsk, Ms. Estes (Prof. Delta looks over his glasses and wags his finger).

Total number of variant endings: 12. Failure endings: 8 (6 destruction, 1 capture, 1 escape home to continued family exile). Victory endings: 4 (in each case with some plan to retake the castle).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Super Saturday: Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co.

Last Sunday, I went out for chocolate with the girls and stumbled into the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. (372 Fifth Ave.) Excelsior!

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Power of Pictures

A picture is worth a thousand words. (Fred R. Barnard)

Pictures still speak the most universally understood language. (Walt Disney)

My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures. (Boss Tweed)

Yeah. So we all know how powerful pictorial displays are, but what I want to emphasize today (sort of on that last point) is the idea of a "CAUTION! SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTIBLE!" kind of power that you may have to watch out for. A picture can be so potent (specifically for our purposes, in the context of a game-rule manual) that it actually overrides a point you were trying to make elsewhere.

Here are three examples from classic D&D where the raw text said one thing, and the picture or table presented a special-case or variant way of doing it. In each case, I think that everyone I know remembers the picture, and mis-remembers the actual core rule from the text itself.

OD&D Monster Reactions

The OD&D text says this:
Monsters will automatically attack and/or pursue any characters they "see", with the exception of those monsters which are intelligent enough to avoid an obviously superior force. [OD&D Vol-3, p. 12]
Further down on that page, there is expansion on this "exception" to intelligent monster reactions, in table form:
2-5 negative reaction
6-8 uncertain reaction
9-12 positive reaction
Now, keep in mind that this table was supposed to be the "exception" for "more intelligent monsters". Presumably that's got to be a small minority of monsters -- in my reading, not just quasi-human intelligence like orcs and goblins, but special mastermind-level monsters like wizards, medusae, and vampires. And even then it was supposed to be applicable only in the face of an "obviously superior force". But generally folks forget about the original core rule (i.e., "automatically attack") and focus solely on the table.

In later editions, the reaction table was copied forward, but the default rule text was abandoned. The idea of a "random reaction table" became so universal that it was the very first thing the makers of Futurama thought to have the Gygax character do upon his introduction.

AD&D Combat Progression

In an apparent change from OD&D, AD&D inserts a sequence of 6 "20"'s in the combat tables before a value of "21" is reached. The DMG notes:
A quick glance at the progression of numbers on the COMBAT TABLES will reveal that 20 is repeated. This reflects the fact that a 20 indicates a "perfect" hit. It also incidentally helps to assure that opponents with high armor class value are not "hit proof" in most cases. [AD&D 1E DMG, p. 82]
Notice what this does not say: there's no special treatment of those 20's, no special way of calculating the attack total, no discounting of bonuses or magic. That comes later:
Should any DM find that this system offends his or her sensibilities, the following modification is suggested: Consider the repeated 20 as a perfectly-aimed attack which does not gain any benefit from strength or magical properties of any sort - spell, missile, or weapon. That is, the 20 must be attained by a roll of natural 20... Thus, the COMBAT TABLES could be amended to read like this:

Again, lots of people overlook the fact that the AD&D core rule allows you to hit any "20" (or more) by any means that you can add up the numbers, including bonuses and magic. What folks remember is this modified/"amended" table with its stipulation of "20 (natural)" in most of the cases. And that's the kind of thing that got translated to later editions as the "natural 20 always hits" rule.

AD&D Random Dungeon Generation

The back of the DMG has a nifty section titled "Appendix A: Random Dungeon Generation". Among the introductory paragraphs, it says this:
The first level of the dungeon is always begun with a room; that is, the stairway down leads to a room, so you might go immediately to TABLE V. and follow the procedure indicated or use one of the following "starter" areas. Always begin a level in the middle of the sheet of graph paper. [AD&D 1E DMG, p. 169]
So notice what the primary rule is: "go immediately to TABLE V" (i.e., a list of different chamber/room sizes, from 10'×10' to 30'×40' or more). Or, here is the secondary possibility, the pregenerated "starter" areas:

As you might guess, because it comes in highly-memorable visual form (and assisted by the non-qualified title in the figure), I think that most people wind up using these "starter" areas over and over again, repetitively starting random dungeons with these same recognizable shapes, even when the core rule is actually to do something different (namely, go to Table V. and roll a random probably-rectangular room).

So in conclusion: Only use a picture or table when you really want that element to be highly memorable. Probably you don't want to use an illustration for a variant that's at odds with a core rule communicated solely by text! For clarity I present this point in picture form:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Is Dungeon of Dread Mappable?

In my last post, I presented a flowchart for the Rose Estes adventure Endless Quest #1: Dungeon of Dread, and concluded with open questions: "Can this adventure be mapped as-described to a rational dungeon layout on graph paper, or not? Was it originally designed with such a map, or by pure narrative necessity?" So, a few days later now, I'll make an attempt at creating a map and answering those questions. Executive summary: No, it's not logically mappable.

Here's the beginning of the project before things get too crazy. If you compare this to the flowchart from last time, this represents just the upper left-hand branch of the adventure (everything from going through the "hole" at the starting introduction, down to meeting the "water weird").

So there's a few things that are already obvious, that perhaps should have been clear to me from the flowchart alone. The most significant problem is the placement of all the multitudinous branches that lead into the "bottleneck" points like "23 drunk baboon" and "62-66 water weird". There's just no way that so many passages can be drawn into these areas without overlapping them. I've already run into trouble with just 5 passages running into the "water weird" location, and that's only half of the total leading there! Perhaps you could rationalize them with some sort of retroactive continuity, such as: (1) there are many more side passages connecting things that the adventurers ignore, (2) there are copious secret doors, (3) there are lots of one-way doors, etc. -- all which Estes failed to mention in the text. That seems pretty clearly extracurricular, however.

While passages and rooms are not to scale -- this is meant as a topological exercise only (that is, what things are connected to what other things) -- I have tried to be as scrupulous as possible about direction changes as described in the text. For example, if you come out of the "giant toad" cave and turn left, you wind up in the water weird room. However, if you come out and turn right twice (avoiding the deadly "troll" room), then you also land in the water weird room. I don't know any way to make 1 left = 2 rights, to say nothing of the one-path-running-over-the-other problem. Maybe you could put some extra kinks in the tunnel, and say the "giant toad" cave is on a lower level, but none of those are described in the text. And that's just one small example of many problems that will arise.

Here's a more full attempt at mapping the adventure, including all of the encounter locations:

A few comments: The plethora of connections to "62 water weird" I've tried to represent with the long westerly corridor across the middle of the map (are all those unmentioned side-branches hidden tunnels? et. al.) I've intentionally placed the "endgame" section by itself near the top of the map (everything from which it's no longer possible to get back to the "water weird" room; e.g., the part starting on p. 88-91 where the heroes "armor up" after defeating the ogre, setting the tone for the climax). While my conclusion is that the location is fundamentally unmappable, it's a neat coincidence that the 3 rooms with water in them line up close to each other on the left-hand side of the map. Again, keep in mind that some apparently short corridors should really be long, and vice-versa (examples: the long tunnel at the bottom after the goblins is described as "soon" reaching the intersection at p. 40; surely the caves for the ogre, giant, and dragon should be much bigger than shown; and so forth).

Other problems, just to hammer home my thesis: In addition to the overlapping passages problem, you've also got issues wherein the described elevations are contradictory. For example, from the "drunk baboon" room you can exit, turn left, and arrive at the water weird. Or else you could turn right, spiral down a long tunnel (p. 71), then turn left to avoid the ogre, and likewise arrive at the water weird. Clearly those two routes shouldn't be on the same level. That's one case, and there are other examples. A similar oversight is this: If you slide down the chute trap from the entrance, then you can quickly wind up fighting some goblins -- possibly getting injured and ending the adventure, deciding to leave the dungeon (p. 43). But how? At that point the only part of the dungeon you know about is the chute immediately behind you (presumably not climbable.)

There are two scenes in which you can encounter a hobgoblin (p. 54, 103). Are they the same hobgoblin? In each case, if you fight with it, you'll trick it, turn left and arrive at the "water weird" room (really, what doesn't lead you there?). In my map I've tried to act like it's one hobgoblin guarding the long tunnel to area 62. Also, is there just one "secret exit" or are there several? There are numerous adventure branches which can end the adventure that way (on p. 81 or 105; sample text: "you have come away with little or no treasure to make it worth your while..."), but it's unclear whether it's all the same exit or not. I've placed 5 different "secret exit" locations on my attempted map, so as to keep it from getting too cluttered.

Maybe you can take this initial pass and come up with a better job of rationalizing the whole complex. If you do so, I'd love to see it!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Endless Quest Flowchart -- Dungeon of Dread

A few weeks ago I looked at a flowchart to one of TSR's Endless Quest books from near the middle of the series. Today I wanted to look at the very first one in the series, Endless Quest #1, Dungeon of Dread.

This was also written by Rose Estes, who wrote each of the first 7 books in the series (#13, Dragon of Doom, being the last one she did). Once again there is a credit for "D&D Consultant: Frank Mentzer". Cover art is by Larry Elmore, with internal pieces by Jim Holloway (other books in the series having art by Timothy Truman, Clyde Caldwell, Jeff Easley, etc.) It's kind of striking just how much unique art there is in these books, compared to a later degenerate era when TSR was recycling most of its art pieces over and over again. This slim book has no less 25 full-page interior illustrations by Holloway.

As the name implies, Dungeon of Dread is perhaps the most canonical D&D adventure in the series, being entirely dungeon-based once the action starts. It's also possibly the only one that has an adult protagonist (everything else in the series, to my recollection, featuring a child or teenager in the lead role) -- although the fighter here also has a reluctant, child-sized, halfling sidekick. (Oddly from a D&D game perspective, the adventuring warrior has no armor other than a shield.) The book has an unusual pagination scheme: only text pages are numbered, with illustration pages given no number (for example, between pages 12 and 13 there is another unnumbered page with an illustration). I'm pretty sure this was dropped in later books (probably easier for the publisher, although in my charts it means I have to make a decision about where to include certain picture element pages). You can see a flowchart of the overall adventure at the top here.


This flowchart is quite different from the one for the later Dragon of Doom (with its two distinct and incompatible plot branches). There's basically one most-desirable ending point, but there are lots of crossing branches and switchbacks possible along the way. I want to say that perhaps we can see Rose Estes learning how to take on this task from the tree-like structure itself: the first several layers generally have two branches each leading to unique blocks of text -- the result being a huge number of different scenes at around the 5th level down (so many that I had difficulty squeezing them all into the one-page flowchart).

At that point, by choice or necessity, she starts to have many consolidations, where lots of branches feed back into a few key "bottleneck" events. One of these points is "23 drunk baboon" (4th line down, far right), which has 5 different branches leading o it. Another one is "62-66 water weird" (left of page, about 2/3 way down) -- an obvious central set-piece, which (1) has a scrawled riddle-warning about it at the entrance to the dungeon, (2) is featured in the Larry Elmore cover art for the book, and (3) has no less than 10 different branches leading into the scene.

While many different monsters are encountered, surprisingly few of the branches lead to results of death or destruction. We can identify the overall theme of the story as "finding bravery and courage"; much of the narrative sections are devoted to Caric (the fighter) encouraging the at-first-cowardly Laurus (the halfling) to help him on the adventure -- and the halfling's subsequent story arc of finding that courage (at times to the surprise of both characters). This is reflected in the book structure itself, in that the best choice is usually the one which seeks confrontation and apparent risk-taking. There are only 4 fights which can result in death for the hero (for example: chasing after a dragon or a black pudding); even such fearsome opponents as an ogre, a gargoyle, a hill giant, or a green slime can be successfully overcome. And even on conclusions where the fighter dies, inevitably the story closes with the halfling getting away, and vowing to return to avenge his friend.

Estes uses a trope which, frankly, becomes repetitive once you look at the book in its entirety. Routinely, the heroes walk down a tunnel; they encounter a side-corridor but pass by it; they look through an open doorway ahead to see some monster (which fails to see them due to some stage business); do they (A) go forward and fight the monster, or (B) avoid it via the side-corridor behind them? Monsters are usually single classic D&D creatures (like an orc, hobgoblin, fire beetle, giant toad, troll, etc.); occasionally a pair (goblins/kobolds); and in two cases a larger group (swarm of giant ants; pack of blink dogs). Almost always in this adventure, the best option is (A), to fight.

As one example, if you look at the flowchart around the 4th line down, there is a sequence of about 4 different possible monster encounters. In each case, if you choose to flee, then you are passed onto the "23 drunk baboon" scene, and in so doing get shunted away from "62-66 water weird" encounter and the possibility of retrieving the special key there. If you fight, then in each case you proceed towards the important water weird encounter. If you practice avoidance multiple times, then you likely end up ejected from the dungeon from the secret boulder-disguised exit (ending the adventure, alive but without the primary treasure; see endings at p. 43, 105, 81-82, and 113-114). Exception: If you do nothing but mindlessly fight every single time, then after 4 aggressive choices you will in fact arrive at death from a maddened minotaur (leftmost branch at the top, ending at "37-38 dead").

Another observation is that the page positions of the scenes are fairly predictable. For example, the first scene is "1-12 intro". At this point you have two choices, one that takes you to the next page, "13-14 kobolds", the other to the page right after that, "15-16 chute/orc". And so forth. Usually the first of any pair of choices jumps you to the next sequentially unused page, and the other choice jumps to the page immediately after that. The "best ending" is positioned at exactly the end of book, "126-128 treasure victory!".

So, comments on that ending: Clearly, the structure at the end funnels you to confront the evil wizard and his pet basilisk (see bottom-middle of the flowchart; also mentioned in the start-of-adventure warning), which is defeated in the usual fashion. Having overcome the wizard, an interesting branch occurs: the reader is trusted (on the "honor system", we might say) to report whether they have successfully retrieved the special key from the water weird or not. If so, then you get the "best" ending at the end of the book, with 3 pages of text and an illustration celebrating the awesome amount of treasure and glory you've obtained. If not, then you go to a brief single-page ending on p. 125, that at least initially starts out expressing sadness that you can't get through the locked gate to the treasure.

Here's the very strange thing, though: That alternate ending (sans key), nevertheless concludes with Laurus announcing (without any foreshadowing) that he can pick locks, opening the gate with a piece of bent wire, and then abruptly ending the story after announcing that "all the treasure in the world" is now yours. Question: Was this p. 125 supposed to be a more downcast ending, lacking the special key that it takes special pains to acquire? Was it altered late in the writing process, as some editor thought that it made the adventure too "tough" for the intended audience? I suspect that this might be the case.

Once again, see this link for some more commentary on Choose Your Own Adventure-style books trusting the reader to keep track of inventory items like this (and at least one example of a book punishing the reader for cheating, by first suggesting an item that doesn't exist anywhere in the adventure; search for "cheat" and do click on the footnote symbol).

Total number of variant endings: 10. Failure endings: 8 (4 deaths, 3 by secret exit, 1 injury & retreat). Victory endings: 2 (both post-wizard fight: 1 with key, 1 without).

Open Questions: Can this adventure be mapped as-described to a rational dungeon layout on graph paper, or not? Was it originally designed with such a map, or by pure narrative necessity?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Super Saturday: Fantastic Four TV

Recently for my superhero fix, I've taken to watching the animated Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes show, from circa 2006, on the free Hulu service.

I did not immediately care for it: for me, it was a bit of an acquired taste. In fact, after watching 1 or 2 episodes I took to calling it "that terrible FF show" -- but over the summer I wound up watching it anyway over dinner (without much else on that was new-to-me). It has very anime-esque art and over-the-top (say: juvenile) humor, with the Thing and the Torch routinely in open combat with each other as a gag. And the overall design follows in the footprints of the poorly-received 2005 Fantastic Four movie (including Doctor Doom's power design and involvement in the spaceship-launch origin, Alicia Masters' ethnicity, etc. -- not that I've seen said movie).

But after a while I've come to appreciate what the creators are doing with the show, and have found it to be a lot more rewarding than I first expected. It turns out that there's actually some very nice, subtle character development, and I think it's my favorite portrayal of Mr. Fantastic that I've ever seen (brilliant but fallible, and just a bit oblivious when his scientific wonderment overtakes him -- rings to me as true, based on colleagues that I've known). The Thing and the Invisible Woman have some very nice acting gestures. The Torch is probably the most grating, but after a while you learn to accept it and occasionally find him actually funny.

Other things: The opening title credits are uniformly fabulous, and clearly some creator was having a great deal of fun with them. The stories frequently start in media res, already and immediately in the thick of action, with the viewer forced to catch up on the story later on, through dialogue or flashback (and I routinely beg for some kind of alternative storytelling structure like this in regard to superhero movies). The series totally declines to bother with an opening origin-story episode (ditto; although you could take the live-action movie as having served this purpose).

Now, here's the thing that impresses me the most -- There are quite a few crossover/team-ups, but the show inverts the normal presentation. Like: I'm used to comic books that loudly trumpet a guest character on the cover, and maybe they only appear for a page or two, or even just in the very last panel. But in FF:WGH, it's played exactly the opposite -- frequently there's no hint or warning in the promo or title credits, and then some other Marvel hero busts into an action scene, and it's completely by surprise. I find myself literally shocked and applauding when it happens; there are several very clever touches they use to intentionally obscure or misdirect who's about to show up. In at least one episode, I'm pretty sure there's a famous character present with the FF for the entire show, who never once reveals or even hints at their super-hero identity.

And I also have it good authority the Namor the Sub-Mariner is apparently both "hot" and "doable". So take that as you will.

Recommended -- Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes on Hulu.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Alternative Monster Level Tables

Continuing a presentation of alternative OD&D wandering monster tables: Last time we created a smoothed-out "Level of Monster Matrix" as well as some simple, rationalized rules for "Number Appearing". Today I'll show you what I'm currently using for the individual "Monster Level Tables". What I actually have in my custom DM screen is just the OD&D tables themselves, with some manual scratch-outs and penciled-in replacements.

First some observations and explanations: From last year, you can see an analysis and average Hit Dice values for the original OD&D tables here (they're pretty regular in simply being based on increasing Hit Dice). My top recommendation is to treat these tables as specific to a certain megadungeon campaign location (in the case of OD&D, Castle Greyhawk), and to tailor them to your own adventuring site; nevertheless, I think the ones I present below are a bit more "generic D&D" than in the OD&D (Castle Greyhawk) source. As in OD&D, all encounters are with hostile types (i.e., attack by default); there are no benign/helpful types appearing (such as dwarves or elves).

Among the changes I've made -- I've specified the "giant animal" types in terms of Monster Manual entries (recall that many of these have no defined stats in OD&D proper). I've replaced some of the more oddball Castle Greyhawk stuff (e.g.: thouls, giant hogs, giant weasels) with iconic D&D monsters that were introduced in later supplements (e.g., stirges, bugbears, gelatinous cubes). Each regular character class gets one line per table, usually with a variation in possible levels (e.g., warriors/swordsmen; roll a die to specify). As per my inclinations, Thieves are in, Clerics are out (they only appeared in two spots in the original tables anyway; insert them back where you think best for your game).

A few monsters I downgrade in lethality a bit from the MM presentations. I double bonuses to spider poison saves (so large +4, huge +2), and my standard giant snakes are a 3-HD constrictor types (no poison). If you insert your own monsters, keep in mind that in OD&D the exotic special abilities generally scale with Hit Dice (i.e., a 1HD creature with lightning bolt powers would a whole new deal; you're on your own in determining appropriate monster level). Also, I've indicated my current personal XP awards, based simply on monster level; consider those as an optional variant.

Without further ado, here are my examples for alternate monster level tables. The tables below are identified as Open Game Content under the terms of the Open Game License v1.0a. A spreadsheet of these tables (.XLS) can be accessed here.

Alternative Monster Level Tables

Level 1

(50 XP)










Giant Rats




Bandits (AC6)


Spiders (Large)

Level 2

(100 XP)








Warriors/Swordsmen (AC4)






Spiders (Huge)







Level 3

(200 XP)




Heroes/Swashbucklers (AC2)




Giant Ants (Warriors)


Ochre Jelly






Gelatinous Cube


Giant Snakes (Constrict, 3HD)


Lizard, Giant

Level 4

(500 XP)






Pilferers/Master Pilferers




Giant Beetles (Boring)


Giant Scorpions


Lycanthropes (Werewolves)




White Apes (Carnivorous)



Level 5

(1,000 XP)






















Hydra (6-8 Heads)



Level 6

(2,000 XP)




Hydra (9-12 Heads)


















Master Thieves


Purple Worms