Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Good Grounding Point

Well, I said I wouldn't blog this week, but it turns out that's hard to do. Without too much analysis from me, I just wanted to highlight a most excellent comment from Robert Fisher over at Grognardia today (which other posters have also applauded):

Now, the world has both fantasy and common (i.e. mundane) elements. For me, a large portion of what makes the fantasy elements work is their juxtaposition against the common elements.

With the fantasy elements, sometimes we work to learn the rules that govern them in game, which can be a lot of fun. Sometimes they’re enigmas. It can be fun to have enigmas that we have to reason around, but too much of that gets frustrating. The common elements give us a good grounding point. Stuff we can reason about fairly reliably and that we don’t have to discover the rules governing first....

To me, though, one of the “side benefits” of this hobby has been the way it encourages me to learn more about various topics. Whether it is the history of coinage or the physics behind the weight, volume, and how efficiently objects pack into a container.


That's a great post, and it very nicely lays out some stuff that I've felt just the same but perhaps not expressed as eloquently in the past. It's synchronous with the AD&D mission statement (attempt the highest degree of realism, as long as it's compatible with flow of the game) and the fact that looking to real-life research solves game design problems. It explains why so much of this blog is spent lobbying for fix-ups to the major-oversight parts of original D&D -- like Money, Encumbrance, and Scale (see sidebar). It's a great reply to the occasional critics who say "the game has magic, so ignore all realism" (not to say that James M. is asserting that in his blog). And it's something that's pretty unique to RPG's, something that could never be completely codified or game-abstracted away.

Thanks, Robert! And Happy New Year everyone. :-)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Week Off

I'm taking the week off from blogging between the holidays. Hope everyone has a great New Year!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Night Book of War

Here's a Book of War game from last weekend where I decided to field a force of Elves and the new Treant figure -- gambling big that I'd get some Woods terrain, obviously. Well, I got not one but two Woods tiles, as well as Rainy weather (which helped to shut down opposing archers) -- but my opponent just coincidentally picked this game to bring a fire-using Wizard and Gold Dragon to the game (the first time she ever opted for a Wizard, in fact). Let's see how that played out:


Start -- Advanced Rules with All Unit Types Allowed (incl. Expansions); Optional Rules for Weather & Morale; 300 points. At the far top of the board, you'll see my opponent's two solo-hero figures: a Wizard (Rank 3, i.e., 13th level; with a wand of fireballs and two 6th-level spells that I don't know yet) and a Gold Dragon (charmed into service, perhaps?) In front of them are sizable units of Goblin Infantry and Archers, along with a figure representing a squad of Trolls (a perennial favorite of my opponent). At the bottom, I have only 7 figures on the table -- a half-dozen Light Cavalry, and the single figure of Treants (all I could afford). I also have 5 figures of Elf Archers, but they're currently hidden from view... somewhere.

I can't help but relate the terrain-placement phase, because this itself had us yelling at each other, and the dice, back-and-forth. I'm first-mover, so initially I rolled Rough and placed it center of the enemy, hoping to disrupt her movement. Then she rolled Woods and put it top-left, as far from me as possible (days earlier in my price-balancing for Treants, I'd sketched out a hypothetical game board that looked exactly like that placement, as expected opponent behavior). Hoping for my own Woods tile, I instead rolled a Marsh -- and after some consideration and trash-talking, I decided to put it top-right, on the very slim chance she would get another Woods on the final roll, thereby blocking its placement and forcing it towards my side. Well, that's exactly what happened, and after much rejoicing (huzzah!), she put it far right, as distant from the first Woods as possible. Armies were then placed -- and of course this allowed me to start my Treants already within 6" of those right-hand Woods. Random weather came up "Rainy" (-1 to hit with missiles), which, as noted above, was another point to my advantage, because the enemy was bringing twice as many archers to the table as I was (and I suppose in principle it might serve to dampen her fire-powers, though that's not simulated in any way).



Turn 1 -- On my first turn, the Treants immediately use their animation power, such that a new unit of two powerful Trees (really 20 huge trees, of course), step forward out of the Woods on my behalf. Cavalry also advance, getting into range for a fast charge on the next turn; and Elves appear from the edge of the Woods on the right, trying to get a shot at the Trolls (but between long range and rainy weather, it's an impossible shot; oops!!). On the enemy turn, the only movement she's made is to fly her Gold Dragon across the board, attacking my Treants in the bottom-right with fire breath, instantly and automatically burning them all to cinders. Holy crap! That was like 2/3 the value of my army right there, dead on the first turn -- thank goodness I got the animated trees out first (and as noted Wednesday, they remain in the game even with Treants gone).

Also: Compare the top-right of the picture to what came before. The other thing my opponent did was to have her Wizard cast Move Earth at the Marsh tile, so as to shift the whole terrain piece, along with the Elves now on it, towards the board edge. This caused a major argument: She thought she could slide the whole terrain piece (and my Elves) right off the table and out of the game, whereas when I'd pulled similar tricks in the past I mentally assumed that I had to keep it on the table somewhere (largely for manipulative purposes; half-off and it would probably fall awkwardly to the floor). Neither option is specified in the rules, so at an impasse, we went to rock-paper-scissors. First try: scissors/scissors. Second try: rock/scissors, with me winning, and thus the Marsh stayed on the edge of the board. (Phew!)



Turn 2 -- My Elves about-face and wheel out of the Moving Marsh, back into the Woods; my leftmost Light Cavalry charge the Goblin Infantry, and with some very nice rolls, actually run the whole unit down. I'm also compelled to try and wipe out the Dragon if I can, so my other Cavalry wheel rearward and charge; I've got 2 dice (1 figure) to attack, and if either one comes up 5+ the Dragon is dead -- but I fail to do so. Thus, on the enemy's turn, her Dragon takes off again and slams into my first Cavalry from the back, killing two figures and routing the unit. Also, the Wizard lobs two fireballs at my Trees, connecting with one for a full 6 hits (painful, but it takes 8 hits before I lose a figure).



Turn 4 -- On the 3rd turn, all I could do was partial-moves with my Elves, Trees, and remaining Cavalry, trying to get them forward into position to threaten the enemy. Then the enemy Dragon attacked and routed my second Cavalry; the Wizard fireballed my slow-moving trees again, burning up one figure; and the Trolls charged around the Trees into my Elves, killing a figure. Now I get a chance to respond -- Trees are in range to unleash their powerful melee attacks on the Trolls (2 dice which hit on 3+, for potential 2 damage each), and the Elves strike back as well. But the Trees roll snake-eyes and I score no hits at all!



Turn 5 -- The enemy Goblin Archers make a second move forward into the Rough; the Trolls kill another Elf figure; and the Dragon attacks my Trees, but fortunately it's out of dragon-breath for the day, and only scores 2 damage from tooth & claw. The Wizard also misses with both fireballs. On my turn, the Trees turn around and kill the Dragon (finally!), while the Elves wrap around the Trolls (still no hits!). Meanwhile, in a stroke of luck, my remaining Cavalry figure has managed to un-rout while fleeing through the Woods, and now moves to the edge of that grove of trees, aiming at the enemy Wizard.



Turn 6 -- On the enemy's 5th turn, the Wizard takes a risk to stand motionless and fireball my remaining animated Trees, incinerating them at last. The Goblin Archers (who haven't accomplished anything so far) about-face, and Trolls kill one more figure of Elves (but morale is still good). Then I attack: Elves score 2 hits on the Trolls, and my Cavalry unit charges out of the Woods at the Wizard. This is a dicey prospect -- I get 2 dice and one needs to show a "6" to succeed -- and that's exactly what happens (ding-dong, the Wizard's dead!). However, the enemy responds with a fusillade against my Cavalry -- she starts rolling 20 dice for the attack, but due to range & inclement weather she needs two 6's to kill my guys. Towards the end of the dice-rolling, she accomplishes this, and the Cavalry are now dead.



Turn 7 -- As you can probably guess, about a turn later the Trolls finish off the last of my Elves. Victory to the forces of Chaos!



Postscript -- This was a really interesting game to play: well-paced, constantly tense, with new unit-types on the board, and unforeseen rules debates to iron out.

My major mistake in this game (there's usually one) was to move my Elves out of the Woods on Turn 1 and try shooting the Trolls. By underestimating the distance (or simply not thinking it through), with the Rainy weather, that was an impossible shot, and the turn was wasted. Moreover, as I found out later, my opponent was guessing that the Elves were actually in the other Woods, and she was about to use the Move Earth spell over there instead (which would have wasted it entirely). So by revealing my Elves, it relieved her of that, making it doubly dumb on my part.

The other thing is that this caused both of us to re-evaluate the price of the Treants unit. Not wanting to overreact, but previously my thinking had been that as long as I had a Woods tile accessible I'd be a shoo-in to win -- whereas in this game I had that twice over, plus a Rainy weather advantage, and I still basically got stomped-on. So whereas earlier I had scored them at 200 points, this ignored the very potent value of Heroes & Wizards against them, and made them clearly over-priced (although -- isn't that a Christmas tradition, too?). After running the simulation in BookOfWar.java again some more times (adding code for the effect of fire on Tree-kind), and setting up a spreadsheet of hypothetical army weighted-values, I've now updated the price for a figure of Treants to 140 (as seen in Wednesday's post). That seems more likely to be about right.

Final thought: Look back at the dispute we had in the 1st turn over the Move Earth spell (which serves to shift one existing terrain tile, 6" per turn). What's you're opinion on that -- should Move Earth be allowed to slide terrain (and any supported units) right out of the game, or not? I suggest "no", but my worthy opponent argues that you should vote "yes". (Quoted argument: "Nobody likes elves! Nobody! That's right, you can quote me on that.") So, which seems preferable to you?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book of War Expansion: Treants

That's right, your holiday gift for today is: The Christmas Treant! Speaking more generally, Treants in the Book of War game look like this (mass scale of 1 figure = 10 treants; text between rules below is Open Game Content per the OGL):





Unit Cost MV AH HD Notes
Treants 140 6 6 8 2 attacks, 2 damage, animate trees, fire vulnerability

Treants: These are enormous sentient-tree creatures. At the start of a turn they can animate a section of woods within 6" range to join them; this creates a new unit with twice as many figures, fighting the same except for 3" move rate (use this ability only once per game). If attacked by magical fire, they receive no saving die.

Treants were a great challenge to price correctly -- I recently reduced them after a playtest, but even so, they're the highest-priced units in the game so far (and for the foreseeable future). They have excellent armor, pretty awesome attacks, very high hit dice (almost Hero-level), and the potential to effectively triple their starting numbers. However, this is offset by their slow movement rate, their vulnerability if the opponent takes a fire-using Wizard or Dragon, and the great gamble you're taking for a Woods tile to appear in range on the table (about 1-in-2, and so about half their value comes from the ~50% chance to animate trees).

A couple things that I considered but rejected (although you might re-institute them as variants): (a) Possibly simplifying the tree-animation to triple the size of the treant unit, instead of creating a new unit (this was discarded because slowing all of the treants to 3" would be a huge loss in attack potential); and (b) Enforcing a command/control requirement that the treants stay within 6" for the animated trees to remain active (a complicated kind of rule that I've avoided on principle for BOW, and would permit killing the treants to wipe out the trees as well, greatly devaluing them; contrast with 3E).

Consider altering the value for a campaign-game in which you have advance knowledge regarding the type of terrain in which they'll be fighting (i.e., if you're not using the standard Book of War random terrain frequencies): If you know that there will not be any Woods on the battlefield, then their value is only about 80. If you know there will definitely be Woods accessible on the battlefield (like in a deep-forest battle), then value is estimated to be about 220. (Possibly subject to future revisions -- tell me how they work out for you!)


[Illustration by ^Sandra^ under CC2.]

Monday, December 19, 2011

Elves Through the Ages

This week, a Holiday-themed Hotspot. First up, I thought it would be interesting to look at the state of Elves throughout different editions of D&D. For a few reasons, the ways in which they have evolved have left a few recurring "rough spots" on their profile. (Mom, this toy has a bunch of proud nails!) One of the places where cohesion sometimes gets lost is in the difference between player vs. monster description, so sometimes we may have to look at each.

Chainmail Fantasy
ELVES (and Fairies): Armed with deadly bows and magical swords, Elves (and Fairies) are dangerous opponents considering their size and build. They can perform split-move and fire, even though they are footmen. When invisible Elves (and Fairies) cannot attack -- or be attacked unless located by an enemy with the special ability to detect hidden or invisible troops -- but they can become visible and attack during the some turn. Those Elves (and Fairies) armed with magical weapons add an extra die in normal combat, and against other fantastic creatures they will perform even better... [CM p. 29]
Per the Fantasy Reference Table [CM p. 43], we see the following: Elves have a 12" move rate. They have special abilities A, B, and C (ability to become invisible [Halflings only in brush or woods]; see in normal darkness as if it were light; and split-move and fire). They have missile fire range of 18"; they attack as Heavy Foot, and also defend as Heavy Foot.

So, you see -- Elves as they first appear in Chainmail, following their Tolkien inspiration, are simply uber-everything. Their speed is equal to the fastest men afoot; their armor and hitting power is the same as heavy foot; their missile range is better than normal archers; they can see in darkness; and by default they are invisible and simply cannot be attacked by normal troops unless they wish it. That's a very powerful troop type! (Point value is quadruple standard light foot; double that of dwarves, for example.)


Original D&D
Elves: Elves can begin as either Fighting-Men or Magic-Users and freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game. Thus, they gain the benefits of both classes and may use both weaponry and spells. They may use magic armor and still act as Magic-Users. However, they may not progress beyond 4th level Fighting-Man (Hero) nor 8th level Magic-User (Warlock). Elves are more able to note secret and hidden doors. They also gain the advantages noted in the CHAINMAIL rules when fighting certain fantastic creatures. Finally, Elves are able to speak the languages of Orcs, Hobgoblins, and Gnolls in addition to their own (Elvish) and the other usual tongues. [Vol-1, p. 8]
This is the OD&D player's description for elves, with its infamous "switch class" language that so many of us have struggled to interpret. Presumably the magic-user class access is what explains how they might get the invisibility power after a few levels. Also, they are given special dispensation to "use magic armor" and still function as magic-users. In addition to this, they also get special detection abilities, numerous extra languages, and a fold-in of their Chainmail special attack abilities. Now for the monster side:
ELVES: Elves are of two general sorts, those who make their homes in woodlands and those who seek the remote meadowlands. For every 50 Elves encountered there will be one of above-normal capabilities. Roll a four-sided die for level of fighting and a six-sided die for level of magical ability, treating any 1's rolled as 2's and 6's (magical level),as 5's. For every 100 encountered there will be a Hero/Warlock. One-half of the Elves in any given party will be bow armed, the other half will bear spears, and all will have swords in addition. Elves have the ability of moving silently and are nearly invisible in their gray-green cloaks. Elves armed with magical weapons will add one pip to dice rolled to determine damage, i.e. when a hit is scored the possible number of damage points will be 2-7 per die. Elves on foot may split-move and fire. Mounted Elves may not split-move and fire, for they are not naturally adapted to horseback. [Vol-2, p. 16]
From the Monster Reference Table [Vol-2, p. 4] -- Elves have AC 5, MV 12", and HD 1+1. So: Very much following the precedent of Chainmail, with directly converted armor (as chain-type mail, i.e., same as heavy foot), identical movement, and a special hit dice bonus. Their combined armor & movement seem to violate the rules for player encumbrance, however (and this will be basically carried forward into future editions, as well).

Many of their listed abilities are further reminiscent of the Chainmail text (magic weapons, split-move and fire, etc.) One thing that jumps out for me is the language on being "nearly invisible in their gray-green cloaks", which reads like a naturalistic retcon of their earlier invisibility power (and a quite defensible one). Also, it's a bit unclear if all of the elves in a group have spell ability, or if the player's "switch class" language should mean that they are currently "switched" to fighters-only, or even if they are intended to have no relation at all. One other thing you see in the opening line is the first hint of different "sorts" of elves, which later on will explode into sheer craziness (IMO).

Also, in the magic items section, we see:
Elven Cloak and Boots: Wearing the Cloak makes a person next to invisible, while the Boots allow for totally silent movement. [Vol-2, p. 37]
How invisible is "next to invisible"? Are these meant to be the exact same "gray-green cloaks" worn by all elves in the monster description (or, instead, a magic facsimile for non-elves)? Does the color detail mean they only work as camouflage in woodsy surroundings (like the restriction for Halflings from Chainmail)? [Shaking Magic 8-Ball] Reply hazy, try again.

But then, the Greyhawk supplement to OD&D (Sup-I) did a pretty comprehensive re-tooling of all the demi-human races. They all get access to the new thief class (in various multi-class combinations); XP is now mandated as split equally between all classes all the time (a patch over the original "freely switch"?); the level-limits start to be tinkered with in relation to high ability scores. It doesn't explicitly say that elves can wear armor and still act as magic-users, although it does say "When acting in the thief capacity the elf can wear only leather armor." [Sup-I, p. 5] On top of all their other pre-existing abilities, the attached Corrections also give Elves "+1 to their hit probabilities when using sword or bow" [p. 68 in my copy].

Finally, looking at the Swords & Spells mass-combat supplement by Gygax (which I hold in moderately low repute), we see that the fine print for men & elves flip-flop their armor and relative move rates; here, elves are by default more lightly armored than men, and also slower for the same armor type. From the Movement table under the Mass/Line entry, we see: "Elves 9, Lt. Armor 12, Hv. Armor 7... Men 9, Lt. Armor 12, Hv. Armor 6" with this footnote:
The base movement for elves assumes that they have full leather armor and shield or the equivalent. Elves in chainmail are considered as heavily armored. The base movement rate for men assumes chainmail and shield. Men in leather armor, with shield, are lightly armored; men in full plate are heavily armored. [S&S, p. 3-4]
To clarify: Wearing leather & shield, elves move 9" but men move 12". With chain & shield, elves move 7" but men move 9". (And it's unclear how elves would even qualify for the "light armor" rate.) This detail isn't something that really synchs up with either earlier or later works.


Advanced D&D (1st Edition)

As always, the text swells in Advanced D&D. Player elves are given the same general abilities as they existed as of the OD&D Greyhawk supplement -- including basic class access, level limits based on abilities, +1 with swords and bows, extra languages (increased some more), infravision, and detection. On top of that, here are some other additions and clarifications:
Although able to operate freely with the benefits of armor, weapons, and magical items available to the classes the character is operating in, any thieving is restricted to the armor and weaponry usable by the thief class...

Elven characters have a 90% resistance to sleep and charm spells (if these spells are cast upon them a percentile dice roll of 91% or better is required to allow the magic any chance of having an effect, and even then the saving throw against spells is allowed versus the charm spell)...

If alone and not in metal armor (or if well in advance- 90' or more - of a party which does not consist entirely of elves and/or halflings) an elven character moves so silently that he or she will surprise (q.v.) monsters 66 2/3% (d6, 1 through 4) of the time unless some portal must be opened in order to confront the monster. In the latter case the chance for surprise drops to 33 1/3% (d6, 1-2). [PHB, p. 16]
Here we have the first clear indication that elves can wear armor as fighters and still perform as magic-users (even without the need for magic armor as in OD&D) -- and if the line above isn't totally explicit, then the example at the end of the two-classed humans section makes it so: "Note that this does not allow spell use while armor clad, such as an elven fighter/magic-user is able to do." [PHB p. 33] The special move-silently-and-surprise ability reads to me as yet another reworking of their original invisibility power (although it won't work in their default "heavy" chain mail, and the ability is explicitly the same as for halflings now). And the near-total resistance to sleep and charm person -- by far the most useful 1st-level attack spells in the game -- is a very potent one indeed!

The Monster Manual entry for Elves spans about a page-and-a-half, so I won't replicate the whole thing here. Suffice to say, their basic stat block is again just copy-pasted from prior sources: AC 5, MV 12", HD 1+1, etc. Here, the special surprise ability is at last explicitly linked to woodsy surroundings: "When in natural surroundings such as a wood or meadow, elves can move silently (surprise on a 1-4) and blend into the vegetation so as to be invisible (requiring the ability to see invisible objects to locate them) as long as they are not attacking." [MM p. 39] In addition to the default High Elves ("the most common sort of elf", per player's description [PHB p. 16]), you also get paragraphs on 5 other special types -- the Aquatic Elf, Drow, Gray Elf (Faerie), Half-Elf, and Wood Elf.

Did you notice that second one? A short and cryptic note is all you get here:
Drow: The “Black Elves,” or drow, are only legend. They purportedly dwell deep beneath the surface in a strange subterranean realm. The drow are said to be as dark as faeries are bright and as evil as the latter are good. Tales picture them as weak fighters but strong magic-users. [MM, p. 39]
I think this deserves additional commentary. First, this is why some of us had unforgettable nerd-gasms when the drow actually appeared in the subsequent G3 and D1-3 modules. There may be no better example of such perfectly dovetailed marketing in D&D (intentional or not), with an irresistibly enticing hint in a hardcover rulebook, referring to details that were in fact already complete for adventure purposes, and just awaiting publication thereafter. (There are just a few other examples from the same adventure series, like the mezzodaemons and nycadaemons that also get referenced in the DMG.) I suspect that this mystery-connection in the core rulebooks is a major part of why the Drow cast such a permanent, influential shadow on D&D culture and design ever-efter.

One example: These variant Elves were so popular, successful, and powerful, that you got more and more Elven sub-races in later supplements, monster books, etc. By Unearthed Arcana you have all the sub-races open to player characters, including the added Wild Elves and Valley Elves. (Wild Elves in particular got a game-topping, unique +2 to generated Strength, which got noticed once by a player in my campaign, and then banned by yours truly after the single character.)

Also, in the DMG's piece on "Armor, Armor Class & Weapons", you get the first reference to "Elfin Chain" -- a special armor with Bulk: non-, Weight 15 pounds, and Base Movement 12". (Compare to normal Chain with Bulk: fairly, 30+ pounds weight, and Base Movement 9", listed in the PHB for 75 g.p.)
Chain, Elfin, is a finely wrought suit of chain which is of thinner links but stronger metal. It is obtainable only from elvenkind who do not sell it. [DMG p. 27]
And on the next page:
Magic Armor: When magic armor is worn, assume that its properties allow movement at the next higher base rate and that weight is cut by 50%. There is no magical elfin chain mail. [DMG p. 28]
Keep in mind that the DMG came out fully 2 years after the Monster Manual, and numerous sections read as revisions or errata to the earlier works. Is this another retcon to explain why Elves have had their encumbrance-rule-breaking AC 5 and MV 12" all along? Are all Elves encountered in the wild presumed to be wearing this special armor? Again, the material is suggestive but not completely forthcoming.

In the magic items section, the magic cloak & boots have been split into two separate entries (boots of elvenkind; cloak of elvenkind). In regards to the cloak (usually the more desired of the two items):
Cloak of Elvenkind: A cloak of elvenkind is of a plain neutral gray which is indistinguishable from any sort of ordinary cloak of the same color. However, when it is worn, with the hood drawn up around the head, it enables the wearer to be nearly invisible, for the cloak has chameleon-like powers. In the outdoors the wearer of a cloak of elvenkind is almost totally invisible in natural surroundings, nearly so in other settings. Note that the wearer is easily seen if violently or hastily moving, regardless of the surroundings. The invisibility bestowed is: [DMG p. 141]


So we see that the cloak is now explicitly chameleon-like in its functioning, it is now "plain neutral gray" in color (to make it harder to identify as treasure, I suppose), and the "near invisibility" is given specifics via the attached table. Based on the text that we saw earlier in the Player's and Monster's books, either this item is nearly useless for actual elves, or else all elves are presumed to be wearing them by default (which seems ludicrous, except that drow elves in module G3 et. al. are in fact said to be uniformly garbed in analogous magic garments). Has this item evolved from a core explanation for special Elven abilities (as of OD&D), to a near-orphaned status (here in AD&D)? Perhaps.

In the supplement Unearthed Arcana, for what it's worth, use of the Elfin Chain armor was expanded to thieves (allowing them to operate in it with a bit of an extra penalty), it is included in the magic item treasure tables at bonuses from +1 to +5 (overwriting the previous DMG restriction; in fact, no non-magical type appears in the tables here), and an option is even given for barding unicorns and griffons in it. Slightly different descriptions appear in the sections for thieves, normal armor, and magical armor; here's the last of them:
Elfin Chain Mail is magical armor of a sort that is so fine and light that it can be worn under normal clothing without revealing that it is there. Because of its incredible lightness and flexibility, thieves can utilize it, though it may slightly hinder their activities. However, it is rare for such mail to be sized to fit anyone other than an elf or a half-elf. If a suit of this mail is discovered, roll to ascertain what size of character it will fit... [table follows; UA p. 104]
And I can't resist looking at one other Gygax book from this era: the Glossography for the World of Greyhawk (in the 1983 boxed set). The Encounter Tables there include Knights of the Hart of Highfolk, elves and half-elves, mostly mid-level Fighter/Clerics with some Fighter/Magic-Users for support. (Note that in OD&D Sup-I, elven F/MU/C are NPC-only; in the PHB, there can be NPC elven clerics, with PC half-elves as F/C; but by UA errata basically any combination of Cleric is open to PC elves.) Among the notes here are these tidbits:
Elven clerics can and do wield all forms of edged and piercing weapons... Magic-users are armored as esquires but typically carry no shields and use bow and long sword. [Glossography for the Guide to the World of Greyhawk, p. 4]
The language about elven clerics using edged weapons at first seems like some special and noteworthy allowance, except that if they're all multiclassed F/C (as shown here), then that's already covered in the PHB: "Cleric combinations (with fighter types) may use edged weapons." [PHB p. 32]. And it also seems reasonable for fighter/magic-users to go without a shield, assuming that they need that hand free for component manipulations during spell-casting.


Advanced D&D (2nd Edition)

Looking at the 2E PHB, we see a cut in the proliferation of different sub-race types from Unearthed Arcana: "Elf player characters are always assumed to be of the most common type -- high elves -- although a character can be another type of elf with the DM's permission (but the choice grants no additional powers)." Class combinations are likewise trimmed back to something like their 1E PHB status: an elf can be a cleric, fighter, wizard, thief, ranger, fighter/mage, fighter/thief, mage/thief, or a fighter/mage/thief. (Note: No combining clerics with anything else, whereas in OD&D Sup-I and the Glossography, elven clerics were required to be multiclassed with something else. Wow, those clerics just drive me nuts sometimes!).

But other than that, the sum total of all the abilities we've added over time is still included: (1) lots of languages, (2) 90% resistance to sleep and charm, (3) +1 with bows and swords, (4) surprise bonus in non-metal armor (in a group of all elves/halflings), (5) infravision, (6) detection of secret doors, et. al. Still a very desirable racial choice!

The special armor type, now "Elven Chain", is mentioned and given extra allowances in several places in the PHB. A thief is allowed to function in it, with certain penalties (this is a carryover from 1E Unearthed Arcana rules). And now it is the key to multiclass wizards being able to function in armor (which is a pretty big change!):
Wizard: A multi-classed wizard can freely combine the powers of the wizard with any other class allowed, although the wearing of armor is restricted. Elves wearing elven chain can cast spells in armor, as magic is part of the nature of elves. However, elven chain is extremely rare and can never be purchased. It must be given, found, or won. [2E PHB]
In the Monstrous Manual, Elves still have the same fixed AC 5, MV 12, HD 1+1, etc., that they've retained ever since their original appearance in Chainmail/OD&D. And likewise, their description is largely the same as what came before, with their abilities basically a restatement of what appears in the player's book. It even includes the same surprise-in-wilderness language with a line about wearing "
greenish grey cloaks to afford them quick camouflage" that has been there since OD&D. And then you have the copious 2E extensions on Habitat/Society and Ecology for each of the several different types (Aquatic Elves in particular).

The 2E DMG includes Elven Chain on its treasure list:
Elven Chain Mail: This is magical armor so fine and light that it can be worn under normal clothing without revealing its presence. Its lightness and flexibility allow even bards and thieves to use it with few restrictions (see Chapter 3 in the PHB). Elven fighter/mages use it without restriction. However, it is rarely sized to fit anyone other than an elf or a half-elf. Roll percentile dice and consult the following table to ascertain what size character elven chain mail will fit... [table follows; 2E DMG]
Note, as is the case more often than not, that the 2E text is simply a copy-and-paste from the 1E UA text above, with the sentences ever-so-minimally tweaked in places. The table that follows is also perfectly identical to the one in the 1E UA magic items section. However, in a reversal from the 1E UA (and a return to the 1E DMG rule), it does appear in non-magical form, and no magic versions appear. And note that due to changed location of the text, the material has gotten a bit better: the "so fine and light" language that UA reserved only for magic elfin chain is now par-for-the-course for any elfin chain.


d20 System D&D (3rd Edition)

Designers for 3E started being pretty liberal with their changes, keeping some of the flavor with what's come before, and modifying it pretty heavily in places. The elven character race in the PHB includes these listed abilities:
  • Immunity to magic sleep spells and effects.
  • +2 racial saving throw bonus against Enchantment spells or effects.
  • Low-light Vision: Elves can see twice as far as a human in starlight, moonlight, torchlight, and similar conditions of poor illumination. They retain the ability to distinguish color and detail under these conditions.
  • Proficient with either longsword or rapier; proficient with shortbow, longbow, composite longbow, and composite shortbow.
  • +2 racial bonus on Listen, Search, and Spot checks. An elf who merely passes within 5 feet of a secret or concealed door is entitled to a Search check to notice it as if she were actively looking for the door. [3E SRD]
So: Instead of infravision we have low-light vision (which won't be of any use in a dark dungeon). Instead of a bonus with sword & bow we have a simple proficiency allowance. Instead of a large 1-in-6 bonus to find secret doors, we have a fairly meager 2-in-20 addition to searching. Instead of 90% immunity to charm, there is a +2 bonus vs. enchantment magic. The resistance to sleep, however, is now complete (and expanded upon in the elven background, speaking of them as never-sleeping). There are also several bonus languages permitted, and Wizard is the "favored class" (removing an XP penalty that otherwise arises from unequal multiclassing). But the special and powerful move-silent/surprise ability is no longer present.

The monster entry is also a bit different. The basic elf is listed as wearing studded leather and shield, with longsword and longbow (which might make using that shield tricky, but with +1 Dexterity bonus works out to AC15, i.e., the same as AC5 in prior editions). Whereas Elves in all prior editions were uber in the sense of getting HD 1+1, here it is flip-flopped, with Elves by the rules only getting HD 1-1 -- the only creature type in the entire ruleset to get a hit dice subtraction! (This is explained by Elves getting a Dex bonus and Con penalty -- ever since 1E -- here doubled to +/-2, and with the new modifier table now creating a hit-point penalty. But again, they are the only creature type in the entire game to suffer this way, a stark contrast from everything that came before.) And again, pointedly: No special hiding or surprise capacity, which was a core ability since Chainmail (at long last: no mention of the "gray-green cloaks").

Speaking of Wizards and permitted armor: In a reversal from 2E, Elven Chain no longer has special status as the only armor-type that Fighter/Wizards can casts spells in (nor are Elves the only Fighter/Wizards; as you probably know, in 3E any multiclass combination imaginable is openly available to any racial type). As per its mission statement, 3E has generalized armor usage, such that a Wizard with proficiency can now wear any armor s/he wishes, incurring an escalating percentage chance of "Arcane Spell Failure" (from 5% for padded to 40% for half-plate, plus more for a shield). Here is what Elven Chain looks like (from the DMG treasure table):
Elven Chain: This very light chainmail is made of very fine mithral links. Speed while wearing elven chain is 30 feet for Medium-size creatures, or 20 feet for Small. The armor has an arcane spell failure chance of 20%, a maximum Dexterity bonus of +4, and an armor check penalty of -2. It is considered light armor and weighs 20 pounds. [3E SRD]
So notice that's not terribly "special" anymore; the language has removed the previous strictures about how incredibly jealous the Elves are of it, and now it is basically just an example of the "mithral" special material type, into which it has been folded:
Mithral: Mithral is a very rare silvery, glistening metal that is lighter than iron but just as hard. When worked like steel, it becomes a wonderful material from which to create armor and is occasionally used for other items as well. Most mithral armors are one category lighter than normal for purposes of movement and other limitations. Heavy armors are treated as medium, and medium armors are treated as light, but light armors are still treated as light. Spell failure chances for armors and shields made from mithral are decreased by 10%, maximum Dexterity bonus is increased by 2, and armor check penalties are decreased by 3. Nonarmor or nonshield items made from mithral weigh half as much as the same item made from other metals. Note that items not primarily of metal are not meaningfully affected. [3E SRD]
Note that "mithral" was mentioned as far back as the 1E DMG, but in a very different usage: any magical armor of the +4 bonus level was noted to be made of "mithral alloyed steel" (whereas the +5 level was "adamantite alloyed steel") [1E DMG p. 164]. So we see the the "Elven Chain" type, which started out looking closely connected to the special armor and move rates of uber elves, went through an evolution arc that seemingly grew away from that close connection, and then was finally eclipsed by a different, unrelated mechanic (and the same can be said for the elven cloak and boots, perhaps?).


Book of War

So granted all this complication, and seemingly vast differences between editions of D&D, what was I to do for Elves in my own Book of War mass-combat game? Well, I instituted two different types of Elves: (1) a low-level type similar to standard men (thinking of later AD&D, 3E, or Swords & Spells; appearing in leather at 12" MV or chain at 9" MV), or (2) a higher-level elite type (similar to Chainmail Fantasy, complete with Elfin Chain for MV 12"). Regarding the usual surprise power, I decided to give the low-level type a mundane "hide in woods" ability (as suggested by various language up through 2E), whereas the higher-level elite type are full 3rd-level Fighter/Wizards with the invisibility spell available to all of them (exactly as stated back in Chainmail). There are analogous "elite" types for men, dwarves, and halflings as well, so it makes for a nicely balanced set of options. I figure that whichever "sort" of elf you prefer (pastoral or superhuman), Book of War supports your need out-of-the-freshly-unwrapped-box.

Here's the specific "hiding" ability as it appears in BOW (text between the rules below is Open Game Content as per the OGL):


Hide in Woods: Halflings and elves can be secretly setup in any woods tile. The controlling player makes a note as to location, and then waits to place them at the start of a later turn. If enemies move into that location, then they are placed immediately.

So the idea here is to give elves (and halflings) some kind of hiding ability, but not to ever require adjudication of movement while unseen on the board (assuming a standard game with no 3rd-party referee); once they actually appear, the figures stay on the board for the rest of the game. Obviously, the value of this ability is dependent on terrain -- using the basic random generation, whether any woods tiles appear. The 3rd-level elite elves with their synchronized invisibility magic can be placed basically anywhere on the board without this terrain limitation.

My customary opponent has used these abilities (especially the elites) to devastating effect on me several times. Among the many intriguing lessons from the Book of War game is this: I never truly understood the "orcs hate elves" detail until I was running an orc army and the main force all got shot down by a bunch of sneak-attacking, invisible elves; in my competitive spirit, I suddenly "got" what that animosity really feels like. Also: The elite's ability developed a restriction "excluding the enemy setup zone", because otherwise every game would start off with the elves on the far edge of the board, ambushing the enemy on the second turn from behind (usually a key hero figure).

Hope your Elves aren't working too hard this week!


Related links:
[Photo by essgee51 under CC2.]

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Super Saturday: Avengers on XD

So just recently, the new cartoon that I've been watching is Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, which I've been viewing piecemeal on YouTube (apparently all of the episodes are available there). I've basically fallen in love with this cartoon, and it's quite rapidly catapulted itself into the league of my top-ever-favorites, like #1 X-Men Evolution, and #2 Justice League. The fact that it has "Disney XD" branding initially made me very skeptical (along with, I suppose, the art style), but it's turned out to be extraordinarily satisfying.

It's actually quite mature in terms of character, plot, and theme. Probably the strongest element is that it pictures a very large world (in fact, I'm becoming convinced that this is the single strongest advantage that Marvel has in any of its best incarnations), with lots of different characters and conflicting power-centers, many of whom are untrustworthy, shadowy, and ambiguous (especially SHIELD and the rest of the American industrial-military structure). It's honestly surprising who's allied with whom -- and sometimes who is disguised as what. I love the fact that the story starts in media res, with a legion of supervillains who obviously have their own pre-existing (but left offscreen) backgrounds, with the whole lot staging a massive super-prison breakout at the start of the series -- and thus setting up a totally compelling long-term plot for the show. The episodes are not self-contained, as this larger plot continues to drive the action forward. I adore the fact that there isn't just one, but a whole bevy of "mastermind" super-villains who are all around trying to hatch their own competing conspiracies.

I'm really impressed by the characterizations I've seen so far, particularly of the Hulk and Thor, my top-two favorites superheroes. Some pieces of business are delivered very crisply and tellingly. Example: In one episode, Thor tells Jane Foster about the Odinsleep, in which his father is helpless for a week each year in Asgard, and the ongoing argument over whether Thor should be there at that time. Jane asks why he doesn't go: "It is... complicated," says Thor. "Really?" says Jane, "Because it just sounds like you're mad at your dad. There's nothing less complicated than that." I think that's a surprisingly poignant line for a kid's cartoon.

Some other stuff: My girlfriend almost burst into tears at how they told the tale of Wonder Man in episode #10. After the "Gamma World" story (hey: RPG shout-out) in episodes #12-13, we were both so terrified, amazed, and jazzed up that we almost couldn't sleep that night. The show also uses a lot of unconventional (for a cartoon) storytelling techniques, like flashbacks, flash-forwards, parallel locations, unusual perspectives, and occasionally running part of the same story twice from a second character's point-of-view. It also seems like someone gets their face melted off about once an episode, yowch!

One downside is that the show started with 5 episodes which set up the main characters individually, and these are a bit slow-going. The real fireworks start when the top characters come together and start sparking off each other; but you will probably still want to watch the setup episodes, or else the "Breakout" story with about 500 different characters all running around may be overwhelming. (When consolidated for "Season 1", the setup stories are episodes 3-7, and the Breakout which happens chronologically later is shown as episode 1-2.)

I guess one other thing is near the end of Episode 2, where my #1 favorite hero does this in an attempt to take down the master villain:


Dude, you just blew up the entirety of Downtown Brooklyn! Oh well, I guess that would've gotten me out of jury duty the other week.


Anyway, for those of you still alive, if you like Marvel comics, then you should definitely watch Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Highly recommended (caution: very habit-forming!)

[Top picture by edwick under CC2.]


Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Night Book of War

This past weekend, we played a game in which I crafted an army around a high-level Wizard character. He didn't bring any elementals to the table, but he did bring a Gold Dragon with him, which I thought rather clever. Imagine my surprise when I found out my opponent had brought three dragons to the fight! Here's how that played out:


Start -- Advanced Rules with All Unit Types Allowed; Optional Rules for Weather & Morale; 300 points. My opponent has selected 3 dragons (across top edge of table; one each blue, red, and gold; note fill-in figures we're using for 1:1 scale dragons), as well as figure of trolls (she loves them; extremely tough), and then rounded out those high-cost units with two big masses of goblin infantry (the cheapest unit type in the game). On the lower extreme edge of the table, you can see my wizard with 3 figures of pikemen guarding him. There are two long lines of pikes in the advance, followed by a row of crossbows; plus, I've got another unit of crossbows and my gold dragon positioned a bit to the left. My wizard is rank 3 (i.e., level 13), with a wand of fireballs and the 6th-level magic death spell and move earth.

Terrain, as you can see, is highly unusual. My opponent rolled not one but two streams, and she positioned them in a way that makes for a very tight bottleneck in the center of the board. I've placed the one wood and one hill tile. Finally, weather has come up "Sunny" (you can see the card hanging under the lamp in top right of photo), which is good news for me: No penalties for my crossbows, and the opponent's goblins will be at an extra -1 to morale checks.



Turn 1 -- I go first, pushing my forces as far forward as possible to get over the high ground, fill in the center bottleneck with pikes, and get my wizard on top of the hill. Then on my opponent's turn, the only movement she makes is to send two of her dragons roaring over my forces and attacking my rear (this is fairly standard usage for the dragons). Fortunately, her rolls are below average, and I lose only a single figure from each unit due to dragon breath (and also pass the morale checks).



Turn 2A -- I push most of my forces further forward -- in fact, more than I intended with the front pikes (I underestimated the distance and said "these pikes move forward full"). The main crossbows shoot goblins on the left, avoiding the overshoot penalty by virtue of being on the hill, but half the dice go against my own pikes because they're now so close to the enemy (hence, just 1 goblin figure down). My wizard has sent two fireballs crashing into the goblins on the right, automatically removing two figures. In the rear, the other crossbows have counterattacked the red dragon (no success), while the gold dragon has attacked and killed the opposing blue dragon (and also survived the hero's "dying blow" rule in return).



Turn 2B -- Stuff gets ugly. My opponent has charged my single row of pikes with all of her goblins and trolls. On contact, my pikes got their double-dice defensive interrupt attack, killing 7 of the goblin figures on the right (and routing them; so they get no attacks), plus 2 hits on the troll figure (of course, they have 6HD). They goblins on the left have wrapped around my rear, and they plus the trolls have killed 4 of my 7 pike figures, causing them to rout (although they're pinned in and unable to flee on the next turn). Elsewhere (not in the picture), the enemy red dragon has routed my secondary crossbows, and our gold dragons have fought, managing to kill each other simultaneously.



Turn 3 -- On my turn, all of my missile units (crossbows on the hill and two wizard fireballs) shot into the leftmost unit of goblins, managing to rout them. On the opponent's turn, both of those goblin units are now fleeing from the field, while the trolls have finished off my forward pikes (and are also regenerating their damage -- damn, how I hate that). Her remaining red dragon also just slammed into the rear of my second pikes, killing two figures (passing morale -- and that was the third and final fire-breath of the day). A bit out of the picture to the left, my other remaining crossbows routed across the stream, but then made a difficult morale check to un-rout and get back in the game. (Theme: Lucky morale checks for me.)



Turn 4A -- On my turn, instead of engaging the solo dragon figure, the pikes move forward, so the crossbows and wizard can get full unhindered shots -- and thus succeed in killing the last red dragon, which was a real concern for me. My other crossbows in the stream score one hit at long range on the goblins, so they can't un-rout before fleeing the table. However, the powerful trolls remain and are now undamaged.



Turns 4 to 6 -- The question now is basically: Can my massed missile troops shoot down the trolls before they get in contact (including my wizard on the hilltop who has only a 2-in-6 chance to accurately hit a lone figure with a fireball)? I'll probably only get 2 turns at most to succeed at it -- once the trolls come in contact, the missiles can't shoot, and generally not enough standard figures can melee them to overcome their regeneration and hellacious attacks (trolls roll 2 dice at +2 to hit each). This is a tense situation for me. I'll let pictures tell the story without further comment:






Postscript -- Victory for the forces of the wizard! In spite of the very unusual terrain setup, you can see a couple of regular things with Advanced Game play (including all the high-level monsters, heroes, wizards, etc. from the D&D game). One is that hero-types are very high-value targets, and tend be attacked quickly (perhaps desperately?) at the start of the battle. The dragons in particular, with their very high movement rate, and ignoring terrain penalties, often get used as fast-strike anti-hero assassins. Once hero-types are neutralized, the regular troops tend to battle each other in the standard fashion.

So, I was rather lucky that my wizard didn't get directly assaulted by a dragon (for example) in this engagement. One problem I've found with wizards on the battlefield is that in addition to their high price, you also need to budget for a good number of guards to protect them (perhaps more than I used here) -- they can't move too much if you want to use their full spells, so they wind up in a defensive, artillery-like position.

My one glitch for the game (there's usually one) was the move on turn #2 where I over-advanced my pikes, leaving the narrow bottleneck between the streams that they filled, and getting in the way of my own missile shots. Fortunately my opponent then somewhat underestimated the effect of charging them frontally in open terrain, so I still got good effect from them. Lesson: Estimate the distance before making some glib declaration like "this unit moves full".

The other thing is that trolls are truly ferocious opponents, and I needed half my starting army in position shooting at the single figure over a few turns at the end to take them down. Fortunately, I knew that massed missile fire is key, and I'd also chosen the wand of fireballs, granted my opponent's propensity for using trolls. If not for that, there were lots of opportunities for her to win.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book of War Expansion: Elementals

Here's another "Hero" type that for a long time was included in the Book of War text, but towards the end of the design process was taken out (I'll explain the reasons why in a minute): Elementals. (Text between the rules below is indicated as Open Game Content, per the OGL):


Unit

Cost

MV

AH

HD

Atk

Dam

Notes

Elemental, Air

-

36

6

1

5

1

Magic to hit; whirlwind

Elemental, Earth

-

6

6

1

5

3

Magic to hit; battering ram

Elemental, Fire

-

12

6

1

5

2

Magic to hit; fire attack

Elemental, Water

-

18

6

1

5

2

Magic to hit; water domain


Elementals: Elementals can only be hit by those wielding magic attacks (any hero listed qualifies). Air elementals can form a whirlwind each turn and automatically eliminate one 1HD-figure. Earth elementals do damage to castles and other structures. Fire elementals do flame damage (e.g., deadly to trolls). Water elementals outside a stream or pond are reduced to 6" move and 1 damage.



Additional notes: The statistics above assume elementals of either 16HD (conjured), or possibly 12HD (device) size. While totally invulnerable to any normal troops, it's accurate to allow any heroes to hit them (big monsters like dragons & giants can hit them in any of Chainmail, OD&D, and AD&D, under a variety of different text language). There may be other restrictions, possibly dependent on your particular ruleset (like earth and fire elementals not crossing water, per OD&D Vol-3 p. 18), which can be adjudicated at your discretion. Note that no cost is given to elementals by themselves (the same as in Chainmail p. 36; see more below).

Why was the decision made to leave elementals out of the published book? Early play-testers pointed out a couple ways in which they were problematic (especially, my very perceptive friend Paul). In particular: (a) Conjure elemental is a 5th-level spell, and thus missing from BOW, which focuses only on top-level (6th) spells. I was instead giving elementals a fixed cost, and it was pretty dissonant to have them in the game but not summoned by wizards. (b) More generally, with elementals able to wade through any standard troops and completely ignore their attacks, pricing them was very much guesswork (I've estimated them at about value 40 each?). I became worried that in the absence of an opposing hero-type (esp., a wizard or dragon), they would be unbalanced and wind up breaking the game. (c) Earth elementals have the special "super battering ram against walls" power, but I didn't include any wall-destruction rules in BOW, so this particular rule was unsatisfyingly vague. Stuff like that; so in the end it seemed best to remove them and give a fuller treatment of options as an expansion option (with castle destruction yet to come).

So let's fix this now: here's conjure elemental as an optional spell for wizards in BOW:


  • Conjure Elemental (Range: 24 inches, Duration: Concentration). This spell summons an elemental of any one type. It appears within range from a large body of the appropriate elemental material. If concentration is lost (the wizard moves, casts another spell, or is the target of any feasible attack), then the elemental switches sides -- but assume the wizard can dispel the elemental if needed (as a half-move action). At most, one elemental of each type can be conjured per day.


Other notes: The fact that the elemental locks down the casting wizard from any other movement or action, by concentration, is a big balancing factor (thanks, Paul!), and you may consider giving this power to wizards, in addition to those already specified in the book, for free. However, I'm a big fan of charging for any increase in options/flexibility, so I would add +5 to the price of a wizard with this spell available. If you further introduce a full complement of 5th-level spells (around 4 for any BOW-level wizards: perhaps conjure elemental, animate dead, transmute rock to mud, and cloudkill), then I would suggest maybe a total +10 price increase for that. However, granted how long a standard game lasts, it's borderline unlikely that a wizard will actually get to use any of these lower-level spells.

In addition, I would be strict about the need for "a large body of the appropriate elemental material". This is generally trivial for air and earth elementals. Water elementals should be limited to a "pond, stream", etc. [OD&D Vol-2, p. 19 -- also the last two terrain types in BOW]. Fire elementals will be more troublesome -- either a large bonfire must be set in advance, or perhaps fireballs can set an area of woods on fire, etc.

I'd recommend that concentration be lost as soon as any attack is launched at the wizard that has a possibility for success -- this from closely reading text for elemental monsters like "being attacked... will tend to break this concentration" [OD&D Vol-2, p. 19], as well as similar text in 1E, etc. This also simplifies the abstraction at our chosen scale. However, if you prefer to have concentration lost only from a successful attack, then be sure to switch to Special Combat (1-to-1) for any such concentrating wizard!


One final thing (I think): This is rather dissimilar to how I presented conjure elemental in my earlier OGL Book of Spells. There, I downplayed the ongoing concentration requirement; had a very short duration of 3 turns (translated from 3E); and also required a single control check at the very start of the spell. This latter I was thinking to fill in for the automatic AD&D 5% chance to lose control every round (see insightful comments by Jerry here) -- and for what it's worth, the exact language was copied from 3E's pipes of the sewers (which is possibly the only piece of text remaining in 3E with a chance for a PC power to backlash against them).

What I didn't realize until I recently went through the copious text on elementals was how unusual that roll-for-loss-of-control is, if we compare different D&D editions (it's only in 1E & 2E). Now I see that the real common core of the spell is (a) the daily type limitation, (b) need for concentration, and (c) raw material requirement. At some point I'll get around to updating Book of Spells, and that's one of the adjustments I plan to make, so as to bring the spell more in line with classic D&D.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Spells Through the Ages -- Conjure Elemental

The conjure elemental spell has gone through many modifications through the various D&D editions, and in this case we frequently need to look in at least two different places: both the player's spell description, and also the monster description itself.


Chainmail Fantasy
Conjuration of an Elemental: Wizards can conjure Elementals, but no more than one of each type can be brought into existence. (Note: This does not apply to Djinn and Efreet.) If the Wizard who conjured the Elemental is disturbed (attacked) while the Elemental is still in existence, he loses control of it, and it will then attack the conjurer. An Elemental created by a Wizard who is subsequently killed will attack the nearest figure. Such Elementals must be dispelled by a Wizard or (killed) by combat. (Complexity 5) [CM p. 32]

ELEMENTALS... impervious to normal attacks against them... Only one Elemental of each kind may be brought into any game in play at the time. If an Elemental is uncontrolled by the Wizard who summoned it, it will attack the Wizard who conjured it, moving towards him in a straight path, attacking any figures in its path. [CM p. 36]

So, in its initial form the primary characteristics of the spell are (1) a per-type limitation on conjuring, and, importantly, (2) the wizard must avoid being disturbed or be attacked by their own elemental (what we'll call "concentration" in editions hereafter). The elementals are invulnerable any "normal attacks" (i.e., basic-level troops), and can only be defeated on the Fantasy Combat Table by some heroic type (like dragons, giants, superheroes, etc.). There is no specified duration limit to the spell, but then, only a minority of spells in Chainmail have one.


Original D&D
Conjure Elemental: A spell to conjure an Air, Water, Fire or Earth Elemental. Only one of each type can be conjured by a Magic-User during any one day. The Elemental will remain until dispelled, but the Magic-User must concentrate on control or the elemental will turn upon its conjurer and attack him (see CHAINMAIL). Conjured elementals are the strongest, with 16 hit dice as is explained in Volume II, MONSTERS & TREASURE. Range: 24". [OD&D Vol-1, p. 28]


ELEMENTALS: There are four types of Elemental: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. Each will be dealt with separately. There are variations of strength (hit dice) within all four types:
Conjured Elementals 16 Hit Dice
Device* Elementals 12 Hit Dice
Staff Elementals 8 Hit Dice
*Those from medallions, stones, gems, or bracelets.

Regardless of the strength of an Elemental, only one of each type can be brought into existence during any "day". Thus, if a character possessed a device to call up an Air Elemental, but before he could employ it an opponent conjured an Air Elemental, another could not be created until the next day. Only magical weapons/attacks affect Elementals...

[Fire Elementals] are brought forth from flame of considerable heat, i.e. a large fire, lava pool, etc.... Water Elementals can only be brought forth from a considerable body of water, i.e. a pond, stream, or larger body of water...

All elementals must be controlled at all times by the persons who have called them forth. Failure to control any elemental will result in its turning upon the one who called it up and attacking. The returning/attacking Elemental will move directly toward the one who summoned it, attacking anything that gets in its path as it returns. Note that once control is lost it can never be re-established. Control consists merely of the summoner maintaining undivided attention upon the Elemental; and being attacked, moving, or any other action will tend to break this concentration.

No Elemental may be hit by normal men unless magically armed. [OD&D Vol-2, p. 18-19]

This is a 5th-level spell (as usual, the Chainmail "complexity" rating has translated directly into the D&D spell level). It's mostly the same as before, with very slight fleshing out to the restrictions of (1) the per-type limitation, and (2) keep-concentration-or-be-attacked. There's a new easy-to-miss detail at the end of the elemental type descriptions that (3) you need a significant body of the fire or water element to conjure an elemental of those types (but, technically, not air or earth). There is still no hard duration limit.

What has changed is that (instead of being simply invulnerable to attacks), the elementals are given different Hit Dice classes (8/12/16), with the strongest coming from the normal spell itself. And the invulnerability is translated via the underlined section, that "magical weapons/attacks" (i.e., +1 or better bonus) are required to hit them.

As a side note, in Original (White Box) D&D, the only wizard spells that could "summon" any monster type on the players' behalf are this spell, and invisible stalker (6th level; 8HD). In that context, these are among the toughest monsters available -- the 16HD elementals have flat-out the highest listed HD of any creature in the game!. (Possibly you might also include a spell like animate dead, and on the cleric side, there's sticks to snakes and insect plague.) All of these spells are in the top 1-2 spell levels for either class, and they all have very specific, heavily-themed effects -- which is to say that, in Original White Box D&D, summoning monsters is a big, even world-shaking, deal.

However, with OD&D Supplement I (Greyhawk), we see a new type of spell: the various monster summoning spells, in variations from spell level 3 to 9, which might randomly create any monster in the game ("By employing this spell the magic-user calls to his aid a monster appearing on the MONSTER LEVEL TABLES, level 1, i.e. kobolds, goblins, skeletons, etc...." [Sup-I, p. p 23]). Obviously, this is a far more abstract and self-referential game mechanic, and much more low-powered, than what we see for the earlier conjure elemental and its ilk.


Basic D&D

What I'll generally call the "Basic D&D" line -- the Holmes/Moldvay BX/Mentzer BXCMI/Allston Rules Cyclopedia product line -- branched off from the OD&D game and generally had only subtle changes to the spell system, so I'll treat that at this time:
Conjure Elemental
Range: 240’
Duration: Concentration
Effect: Summons one 16 HD elemental

This spell allows the caster to summon any one elemental (AC -2, HD 16, Damage 3d8; see the description of elementals in Chapter 14). The caster can only summon one of each type of elemental (earth, air, fire, water) in one day.

The elemental will perform any tasks within its power (carrying, attacking, etc.) as long as the caster maintains control by concentrating. The caster cannot fight, cast other spells. or move over half Normal Speed, else he will lose control of the elemental. If he loses control, he cannot regain it. An uncontrolled elemental will try to slay its summoner, and may attack anyone in its path while pursuing him.

The spell's caster may return a controlled elemental to its home plane simply by concentration. A dispel magic or dispel evil spell can return an uncontrolled elemental to its plane. [RC, p. 51]


Elemental*...

To summon an elemental, a character must have a large amount of the element nearby (such as open air, bare earth, a pool of water or a bonfire). When the elemental arrives, it is hostile, and must be controlled by concentration at all times. The summoner's concentration is broken if he takes damage or fails any saving throw. The summoner can move only up to half normal speed while concentrating.

If the summoner's concentration is broken, the elemental will attack him. Once lost, control cannot be regained. The elemental can attack any creature between it and its summoner if it desires.

If summoned in an area too small for it (see size notes below), an elemental will fill the available area - sideways, for example - possibly damaging the summoner in the process (and thus breaking the summoner's concentration). However, an elemental cannot pass a protection from evil spell effect.

An elemental will vanish if it or its summoner is slain, or when the summoner sends it back to its plane (which requires control), or if a dispel magic is cast upon it... [RC, p. 175]

This is fundamentally the same as in OD&D -- there aren't any big changes here. There is still no hard duration limit other than "concentration". Elementals are still hit by any magic weapon (noted by the asterisk after the name). The only new things I see here are: an explication that the elemental can be used for tasks other than just attacking; a highly reasonable expansion of the basic material requirement to all 4 types; and a novel addition that "An elemental will vanish if it or its summoner is slain, or when the summoner sends it back to its plane (which requires control" (in addition to the usual dispelling method). You can contrast these with the AD&D line, below.


Advanced D&D (1st Edition)
Conjure Elemental (Conjuration/Summoning)
Level: 5
Range: 6"
Duration: 1 turn/level
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 turn
Saving Throw: None

Explanation/Description: There are actually four spells in one as respects conjure elemental. The magic-user is able to conjure an air, earth, fire or water elemental with this spell - assuming he or she has the material component for the particular elemental. A considerable fire source must be in range to conjure that type of elemental; a large amount of water must be likewise available for conjuration of a water elemental. Conjured elementals are very strong - see ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, MONSTER MANUAL - typically having 16 hit dice (16d8). It is possible to conjure up successive elementals of different type if the spell caster has memorized two or more of these spells. The type of elemental to be conjured must be decided upon before memorizing the spell. The elemental conjured up must be controlled by the magic-user, i.e. the spell caster must concentrate on the elemental doing his or her commands, or it will turn on the magic-user and attack. The elemental, however, will not cease a combat to do so, but it will avoid creatures when seeking its conjurer. If the magic-user is wounded or grappled, his or her concentration is broken. There is always a 5% chance that the elemental will turn on its conjurer regardless of concentration, and this check is made at the end of the second and each succeeding round. The elemental can be controlled up to 3" distant per level of the spell caster. The elemental remains until its form on this plane is destroyed due to damage or the spell's duration expires. Note that water elementals are destroyed if they move beyond 6" of a body of water. The material component of this spell (besides the quantity of the element at hand) is a small amount of:

Air Elemental - burning incense
Earth Elemental -soft clay
Fire Elemental - sulphur and phosphorus
Water Elemental -water and sand

N.B. Special protection from uncontrolled elementals is available by means of a pentacle, pentagram, thaumaturgic triangle, magic circle, or protection from evil spell. [AD&D 1E PHB, p. 79]


ELEMENTAL... As elementals are stupid and resent being summoned, the conjuring party must concentrate upon controlling the creature. Failure to do so will result in the elemental turning upon the summoner 75% of the time and attacking. The turning elemental will come directly towards the conjuring party, attacking anything in its path along the way. Control can never be regained, and an uncontrolled elemental will always return to its own plane in three turns after control is lost. If an elemental does not turn (25% chance), it simply goes immediately to its own plane. Control concentration requires that the summoning party remain stationary and be neither physically nor mentally attacked, including attack by missile or distraction. In any event, only one elemental at a time can be controlled. Elementals are impervious to attacks by normal weapons and even magical weapons under +2 bonus. Creatures without magical ability of some sort cannot harm elementals unless the creatures have four or more hit dice. Magical ability includes paralysis, poison, acid, breath weapons, and even the characteristic of not being subject to attack by normal weapons. Kobolds, goblins, orcs, etc. are all powerless to affect elementals because they have neither magical property nor four or more hit dice. Ogres, however, could attack an elemental with effect as they have the necessary strength (four hit dice in this case). Note, however, that if a kobold with a +2 magic sword attacked an elemental the weapon would be effective.

A conjured elemental can be taken over and controlled by a magic-user casting a dispel magic spell (ratio dispeller's level over conjuring party's level to determine chance of success), and deliberately aiming it at dispelling the control rather than the elemental. However, if the spell fails, the effect is to strengthen the elemental to a full 8 points per hit die, double the controller's ability to concentrate, and make the elemental resent the one attempting the take-over, so that if it becomes uncontrolled it will go after that magic-user. [AD&D 1E MM, p. 37]

So: To begin with, we're starting to see a whole lot of text in the Advanced D&D line to wade through. All the usual Gygaxian AD&D additions are here: school of magic, component types, casting times, etc.

Consider our "top 3" restrictions on casting the spell: (1) The per-type daily restriction is still in place; (2) the concentration/control requirement is still there, but if lost, attack by the elemental is now only 75% likely instead of automatic (otherwise returning to its home plane; or else in 3 turns in any event); (3) the basic material requirement is still explicitly in place, just for water and fire.

New issues as far the casting of the spell are as follows: (4) the type of elemental desired must be pre-memorized at the start of the day (something I think was ignored in most published adventures with NPC wizards); (5) there is a 5% chance-per-round to lose control regardless of caster concentration; (6) it's possible to have your elemental taken over by an enemy magic-user with a dispel magic, and (7) for the first time, there is a hard duration limit of 1 turn/level.

The other thing is that the elemental special defense has been boosted from just anything "magic" (i.e., +1) to requiring a "+2 bonus" -- although that is mitigated somewhat by the fact that AD&D provides for alternatives to bypassing that defense, namely either having the same defense yourself, or simply very high Hit Dice. (Note that there's a contradiction in the example in the text above: while the MM states that ogres with 4 HD can hit an elemental, the DMG would have it otherwise -- the combat tables there show HD4+1 good to hit vs. +1 defense, but HD6+2 needed to hit +2 defense [AD&D DMG p. 75]).

And one more thing: In every edition, the protection from evil spell was noted as keeping away "fantastic" [CM] or "enchanted" [OD&D] monsters, and I would read that as including elementals. Here that detail is noted directly in the conjure elemental spell -- along with the possibility of using a non-spell-related "pentacle, pentagram, thaumaturgic triangle, [or] magic circle". The DMG Spell Explanations section (a source of quasi-errata to the PHB spells) has a note for "Conjure Elemental: See the cleric spell, aerial servant, for details of protective inscriptions." [DMG p. 45] , which in turn illustrates actual images for the different protective circles, saying, "The spell caster should be required to show you what form of protective inscription he or she has used when the spell is cast." [DMG p. 42] Based on the presumed usage of the DMG at the time (that players were not supposed to have access to its contents), this raises the fascinating possibility that players might have been required to actually, independently research one of those occult symbols (pre-Internet, of course), prior to being granted protection from their out-of-control elementals. (And if you happen to be in that situation now, you're in luck -- I've presented the images from the DMG below.)




Advanced D&D (2nd Edition)
Conjure Elemental
(Conjuration/Summoning)
Range: 60 yds. Components: V, S, M
Duration: 1 turn/level Casting Time: 1 turn
Area of Effect: Special Saving Throw: None

There are actually four spells in the conjure elemental spell. The wizard is able to conjure an air, earth, fire, or water elemental with this spell--assuming he has the material component for the particular elemental. (A considerable fire source must be in range to conjure a fire elemental; a large amount of water must be available to conjure a water elemental.) Conjured elementals have 8 Hit Dice.

It is possible to conjure successive elementals of different types if the spellcaster has memorized two or more of these spells. The type of elemental to be conjured must be decided upon before memorizing the spell. Each type of elemental can be conjured only once per day.

The conjured elemental must be controlled by the wizard--the spellcaster must concentrate on the elemental doing his commands--or it turns on the wizard and attacks. The elemental will not break off a combat to do so, but it will avoid creatures while seeking its conjurer. If the wizard is wounded or grappled, his concentration is broken. There is always a 5% chance that the elemental turns on its conjurer regardless of concentration. This check is made at the end of the second and each succeeding round. An elemental that breaks free of its control can be dispelled by the caster, but the chance of success is only 50%. The elemental can be controlled up to 30 yards away per level of the spellcaster. The elemental remains until its form on this plane is destroyed due to damage or until the spell's duration expires. Note that water elementals are destroyed if they are ever more than 60 yards from a large body of water.

The material component of the spell (besides the quantity of the element at hand) is a small amount of one of the following:

Air Elemental--burning incense
Earth Elemental--soft clay
Fire Elemental--sulphur and phosphorus
Water Elemental--water and sand

Special protection from uncontrolled elementals is available by means of a protection from evil spell. [AD&D 2E PHB Appendix 3]

Elemental, Generic Information... Summoning an Elemental: There are three basic ways to call an elemental to this plane, and the strength of the conjured elemental depends on the method used to summon it:

Conjured by spell 8, 12, 16, or 21-24 Hit Dice
Conjured by staff 16 Hit Dice
Conjured by summoning device 12 Hit Dice... [AD&D 2E MM]

I've omitted a lot of the MM text (mostly copied from 1E, as usual), so as to focus on the changes in 2E. What's shared are the same seven restrictions present in 1E: (1) per-type daily restriction, (2) concentration required or 75% chance to be attacked (returning to plane sooner or later), (3) basic material required for water & fire (but not air/earth), (4) type of elemental pre-memorized, (5) 5% chance per round to lose concentration, (6) possibility of hostile takeover by dispel magic, (7) duration limit of 1 turn/level. Elementals are again hit only by +2 or better weapons, possibly overridden by similar defense or large Hit Dice.

The single great change here is that the 5th-level conjure elemental spell now only brings a creature of 8HD size (i.e., half-strength what it was in prior editions); this while keeping all of the copious restrictions and risks present in 1E. As you can see, the precedence of summoning tools is exactly reversed: staffs are now best (16HD), followed by special devices (12HD), and the basic spell (8HD). Some other possibilities for spell conjurations are shown in the monster listing, accounting for possible use of the stronger priest (druid) spells of conjure fire elemental and conjure earth elemental (6th- and 7th-level, respectively). That said, the primary spell is now clearly much weaker.

And finally, the use of specific occult symbols (magic circle, pentagram, triangle), as presented in 1E AD&D, has been removed. Now your only defense against a rampaging elemental is the basic protection from evil spell.


d20 System D&D (3rd Edition)
Summon Monster III
Conjuration (Summoning) [see text]
Level: Brd 3, Clr 3, Sor/Wiz 3
Components: V, S, F/DF
Casting Time: 1 full round
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Effect: One or more summoned creatures, no two of which can be more than 30 ft. apart
Duration: 1 round/level (D)
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

This spell summons an outsider (extraplanar creature). It appears where the character designates and acts immediately, on the character’s turn. It attacks the character’s opponents to the best of its ability. If the character can communicate with the outsider, the character can direct it not to attack, to attack particular enemies, or to perform other actions. Summoned creatures act normally on the last round of the spell and disappear at the end of their turn.

The spell conjures one of the creatures from the 3rd-level list on the Summon Monster table below, 1d3 creatures of the same type from the 2nd-level list, or 1d4+1 creatures of the same type from the 1st-level list. The character chooses which creature to summon, and can change that choice each time the spell is cast.

3rd Level
Celestial bear, black LG (animal)
Celestial bison (animal) NG
Triton NG
Celestial dire badger CG
Azer LN
Elemental, Small N
Thoqqua N
Fiendish dire weasel LE
Fiendish gorilla (animal) LE
Fiendish snake, constrictor (animal) LE
Fiendish boar NE
Fiendish dire bat NE
Fiendish lizard, giant (animal) NE
Salamander, Small NE
Fiendish shark, Large (animal) NE
Fiendish viper, Small snake (animal) CE
Fiendish crocodile (animal) CE
Dretch CE
Fiendish leopard (animal) CE
Fiendish wolverine (animal) CE

When the character uses a summoning spell to summon an air, chaotic, earth, evil, fire, good, lawful, or water creature, it is a spell of that type. [3E SRD: Magic]

As you can see above, the conjuration of elementals was given a radical changeover in 3E D&D. First of all, all of the summoning-type spells were folded into a combined family called summon monster, which serves to summon fiendish animals, salamanders, tritons, demons, etc., as well as elementals. There is a version at every spell level (1-9; the one shown above is the first to include elementals). And there is now a wide variety of elementals that can be summoned by means of magic spell (from "small" with 2HD and no resistance to weapons, up to "elder" with 24HD and damage reduction of 15/+3; monster text omitted above).

Practically all of our characteristic risks and restrictions have been wiped out entirely. This includes: (1) no per-type daily restriction, (2) no concentration requirement, (3) no basic raw material needed for any type of elemental, (4) no type pre-memorization, (5) no chance to lose control, (6) no possibility of hostile takeover by spell.

The only restriction that remains, and has been greatly tightened, is number (7): duration is now only 1 round/level (instead of the previous 1 turn/level = 10 rounds/level in AD&D, or unlimited prior to that). As has been widely noted, this drastically restricted the usage of elementals for non-fighting tasks, such as digging, travel, burden-carrying, etc.

There was a time (when I initially saw 3E) that I thought this folding-in and increased abstraction to the summoning operation was a fine thing; but now I think that it was a big mistake. That's the kind of move that lost all of the character and danger of elementals (arising from a great body of the elemental material itself; enormous strength through AD&D 1E; risk of possibly being attacked by your own elemental, etc.). In retrospect, there's a level of abstraction, a loss of specificity, which irreparably damages the game for me, and the 3E summoning system was a case-in-point.


Below I include a summary table of selected characteristics for this spell through the different editions:


[Illustration by nsjmetzger, under CC2.]