Thursday, December 6, 2012

Charm Person Alternatives

As I mentioned in the prior "Spells Through the Ages" blog post, charm person in the AD&D era is definitely one of those fiddly bits that truly aggravated me -- forcing the need to philosophically debate what counts as being "against one's nature" and whatnot (blech). Here's a couple other options to tone it down from the OD&D version, if necessary, while keeping it simple and straightforward to adjudicate.

1. Limit the Duration

This is pretty obvious; the fact that the spell was originally unending -- up to dispel magic --  was a primary source of its great strength. It's one of those things where one might extrapolate wizard characters with arbitrarily large entourages all from the 1st-level spell. In fact, as you can see in my OED Book of Spells, I'm in favor of a guideline of no spell under 5th level being allowed to be permanent. My own conversion of the charm person spell there has a flat duration of 1 week, period, which I find to be much more elegant (no special table needed), and still provides some opportunity for subterfuge and surveillance, for example.

2. Give a Saving Throw

Okay, so let's you go the "fight against their nature" route -- then my recommendation would be to give at most one extra saving throw in the specific case of "turning against one's former allies" (either in combat or by divulging secret information, say) -- to indicate that the victim is entirely, completely dominated. There are admittedly plenty of these "Fight it, Bob!" scenarios that pop up in fiction, but in many cases the enchanted victim really does wind up horribly fighting their old allies anyway. So maybe give the caster a strategic choice about either to (a) definitely keep the victim out of the current fight, or (b) risk using them against their old allies. That's a reasonably interesting tactical choice.

3. Slow the Victim

The other thing that I do is to treat the victim as slowed, and getting only half attacks, while in combat. What this does is moderate the great "swinginess" that occurs when a character is switched from one party to another when in combat (while avoiding the argument about whether that's "in their nature"), and at the same time giving the flavor of many fantasy portrayals of enchanted people acting against their own will, but doing so very slowly.

For example, here are a few panels from classic Lee/Kirby Thor stories:

And lest we not forget, ol' Reggie Jackson in the Naked Gun movie:

I Must Kill the Queen

I think I've made my case.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Spells Through the Ages – Charm Person

Man with hearts flying out of head
In classic D&D, the 1st-level spell charm person was one of the strongest possible selections for a beginning wizard character (possibly second only to sleep). It had no hit-die cap, so even the mightiest fighter in the game had about a 50% chance of missing the save and being neutralized by it; and it was possibly indefinite in duration, creating the possibility of nigh-permanent servitors or long-term secret double-agents (as used by certain notable monsters like vampires and ogre mages). Let's see how it evolved over the years:

Original D&D -- Charm person was not included in the Chainmail fantasy rules, but it was in the earliest version of D&D (for example, before the invention of magic missile):
Charm Person: This spell applies to all two-legged, generally mammalian figures near to or less than man-size, excluding all monsters in the "Undead" class but including Sprites, Pixies, Nixies, Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Hobgoblins and Gnolls. If the spell is successful it will cause the charmed entity to come completely under the influence of the Magic-User until such time as the "charm" is dispelled (Dispell Magic). Range: 12". [Vol-1, p. 23]
We'll note how potent the spell is, in that "it will cause the charmed entity to come completely under the influence of the Magic-User". It's even referenced prior to the spells section with similar powerful effect: "Monsters can be lured into service if they are of the same basic alignment as the player-character, or they can be charmed and thus ordered to serve" (Vol-1, p. 12). As we'll see, later editions will start nerfing that, but I like the clarity and simplicity of play here (what you do is what the M-U says; no weasely debate over whether it's in your nature or not). In addition, it seems to be effectively unending, at least until someone thinks to cast a "Dispell Magic" on the victim. I find that this spell alone makes solo play in OD&D almost untenable; the first time you encounter any 1st-level magic-user, they can cast charm person, and you'll probably fail your save and be out of the game. Of course, the larger your adventuring party, then the less of a proportional loss any single character will make (and note that Vol-1 recommends a referee to player ratio of about 1:20, and possibly up to 50! [Vol-1, p. 5]).

Greyhawk Supplement -- Normally, the OD&D Greyhawk supplement is not something I would check in on individually, but in the midst of its expanded spell list, it effectively errata'd two specific 1st levels spells -- charm person and sleep (indicative of the relative great power and utility of those spells; the only other spell so modified is charm monster, so as to keep the symmetry with charm person). Here's what it says:
Charm Person: Intelligence allows the charmed person to eventually free itself from the charm. A check will he made on the following basis, and if a score equal to a save vs. magic is made the charm is broken. Charms do not affect the Undead.

Intelligence Check Every
up to 6 month
7-9 three weeks
10-11 two weeks
12-15 week
16-17 two days
18 and above day

[Sup-I, p. 21]
So obviously, the major change here is to downgrade the effect from permanent-until-dispelled, to merely indefinite-until-the-next-save-per-intelligence. It's still potentially long term (especially for those of average intelligence or less), but likely does not last forever.

Holmes Basic D&D -- Here's our "transitional" edition before D&D entirely bifurcates from AD&D. Basically it copies the original D&D text, with the Greyhawk errata included. It has the identical range (120 feet underground) and still includes the precise phrase "come completely under the influence of the magic-user". The table to determine later saving throws is identical to the one we see in Greyhawk. (Thus, for brevity, I won't bother to include it here.)

Advanced D&D 1E -- In AD&D, this is one of the spells which rather inconveniently gets split into a series of back-references, because what comes first in the book is the very similar druid spell, as follows:
Charm Person Or Mammal: This spell will affect any single person or mammal it is cast upon. The creature then will regard the druid who cast the spell as a trusted friend and ally to be heeded and protected. The spell does not enable the druid to control the charmed creature as if it were an automaton, but any word or action of the druid will be viewed in its most favorable way. Thus, a charmed creature would not obey a suicide command, but might believe the druid if assured that the only chance to save the druid's life is if the creature holds back an onrushing red dragon for "just a round or two". Note also that the spell does not empower the druid with linguistic capabilities beyond those he or she normally possesses. The duration of the spell is a function of the charmed creature's intelligence, and it is tied to the saving throw. The spell may be broken if a saving throw is made, and this saving throw is checked on a periodic basis according to the creature's intelligence:

Intelligence Score Period Between Checks
3 or less 3 months
4 to 6 2 months
7 to 9 1 month
10 to 12 3 weeks
13 to 14 2 weeks
15 to 16 1 week
17 3 days
18 2 days
19 or more 1 day

If the druid harms, or attempts to harm, the charmed creature by some overt action, or if a dispel magic (q.v.) is successfully cast upon the charmed creature, the charm will be broken automatically. The spell affects all mammalian animals and persons. The term person includes all bipedal human and humanoid creatures of approximately man-size, or less than man-size, including those affected by the hold person spell (q.v.). If the recipient of the charm person/charm mammal spell makes its saving throw versus the spell, its effect is negated. [PHB, p. 55-56]
Then later in the magic-user's section:
Charm Person: Except as shown above, this spell is the same as the second level druid spell, charm person or mammal (q.v.), but the magic-user can charm only persons, i.e. brownies, dwarves, elves, gnolls, gnomes, goblins, half-elves, halflings, half-orcs, hobgoblins, humans, kobolds, lizard men, nixies, orcs, pixies, sprites, and troglodytes. All other comments regarding spell effects apply with respect to persons. [PHB, p. 65]
And like some spells, there is errata-like information in the DMG; first for the druid version:
Charm Person Or Mammal: If at the same time this spell is cast the subject is struck by any spell, missile or weapon which inflicts damage, the creature will make its saving throw at +1 per point of damage sustained. Naturally, this assumes damage is inflicted by members of the spell caster’s party.

Remember that a charmed creature’s or person’s priorities are changed as regards the spell-caster, but the charmed one’s basic personality and alignment are not. The spell is not enslave person or mammal. A request that a charmee make itself defenseless or that he/she/it be required to give up a valued item or cast a valuable spell or use a charge on a valued item (especially against the charmee’s former associates or allies) could allow an immediate saving throw to see if the charm is thrown off. In like manner, a charmed figure will not necessarily tell everything he/she/it knows or draw maps of entire areas. A charmed figure can refuse a request, if such refusal is in character and will not directly cause harm to the charmer. Also, a charm spell does not substantially alter the charmee’s feelings toward the charmer’s friends and allies. The charmed person or creature will not react well to the charmer’s allies making suggestions like "Ask him this question..." The charmee is oriented toward friendship and acceptance of the charmer, but this does not mean that he/she/it will put up with verbal or physical abuse from the charmer‘s associates. [DMG p. 43]

And finally errata for the magic-user version:
Charm Person: Attacks causing damage upon the subject person will cause a saving throw bonus of +1 per hit point of damage sustained in the round that the charm is cast. [DMG p. 44]
(Phew!) The primary new inventions here are several mechanical tinkerings given in an attempt to reduce the spell from the simple and devastating effect originally given in OD&D ("come completely under the influence of the Magic-User"). That is: There is evidence of enormous tension in how powerful the spell is, and the ways in which it has been used by dungeon-delving adventurers in the past (and hence an tremendous increase in the verbosity of the rules text). In this case (specifically in the Druid spell text) we see a switch to having the victim "regard the druid who cast the spell as a trusted friend... not... an automaton... not obey a suicide command...", and more of the same in the DMG expansion. Unfortunately, this new rule opens the door to widespread rules-lawyering, as casting the spell is likely to initiate a prolonged philosophical debate about how a given character treats a "trusted friend and ally" (possibly in opposition to other friends and allies), in what cases they might "refuse a request", how likely they are to be duped into thinking they can stop a dragon for "a round or two", etc. So this would be one of the places where I've found that AD&D makes the game sometimes painfully subjective and argumentative (much like new interpretations of alignment, illusions, etc.) -- so that we might fold this into the greater trend of Silver-Age naturalism, perhaps.

But in addition, there are yet other provisions for breaking the spell, including (a) automatic termination if the caster harms the charmed person, and (b) a generous new saving throw whenever damage is taken from anyone in the caster's party (as per the DMG). The table of intelligence-based saves is also given some refinement, with more categories given, etc.

Another minor wrinkle is that if look at the OD&D spell, or the druid spell given here, the list of possible target types is open-ended, with a basic and simple rule-of-thumb given to adjudicate it (in OD&D, "all two-legged, generally mammalian figures near to or less than man-size"; in the AD&D Druid spell, "all bipedal human and humanoid creatures of approximately man-size, or less than man-size"). But the magic-user version includes a closed-form list of racial types, without any of the language of "including" or "for example"; thereby apparently restricting the use-cases from any new creatures that might be added to the game. You might reasonably choose to ignore that (i.e., continue to play by the OD&D rule); but it seemed enough of a serious issue to require a Gygax-penned Dragon article expanding the list to those types from the Fiend Folio and beyond -- including, in fact, the rather severe dictum that "players must attempt to remember the list of creatures affected" (Dragon #90, p. 16)!

Finally, as noted above, the spell is included as an ability for many powerful monster types, including vampires (since OD&D), ogre magi (since Sup-I, Greyhawk), and even the greatest demons (as of Sup-III, Eldritch Wizardry). This is a key component for how those evil creatures can survey and subvert nearby human communities on a long-term basis.

Advanced D&D 2E -- As usual, the 2E spell is basically a direct copy-and-paste from the 1E text, with some minor grammatical editing. The effect is identical with regard to: range and number effected (one); caster status of "trusted friend and ally", with all previous restrictions and ambiguities; immediate termination if the caster harms the charmee; identical table of intelligence-based saves, etc. (Thus I have chosen to forego copying the entirety of the text here.) It does bring back the open-ended effect on creatures types, to wit: "The term person includes any bipedal human, demihuman or humanoid of man-size or smaller, such as brownies, etc." Also, two somewhat interesting corner-case refinements are added at the end (although exhibiting the 2E tendency of being unable to make up its damned mind about a given mechanic):
If two or more charm effects simultaneously affect a creature, the result is decided by the DM. This could range from one effect being clearly dominant, to the subject being torn by conflicting desires, to new saving throws that could negate both spells...

Note: The period between checks is the time period during which the check occurs. When to roll the check during this time is determined (randomly or by selection) by the DM. The roll is made secretly. [2E PHB]
The latter actually does address a question I had looking at the 1E text: "Can't the caster calculate the exact time of the next saving throw, and wait for that moment to cast a new charm person spell or the like?" With this modification, the time of termination becomes unpredictable, and the casting magic-user can no longer manage it automatically like an accountant with a spreadsheet. More generally, I don't see why this couldn't be a regular rule for the system, with long-term spell effects being subject to some amount of unpredictable modification by the DM.

Dungeons & Dragons 3E -- The major change in 3E is the shortening of the spell from the open-ended duration (as given by the special table for saving throws) to one that is only 1-hour-per-caster-level:
Charm Person: Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels), Target: One person, Duration: 1 hour/level -- This charm makes a humanoid of Medium-size or smaller regard the character as a trusted friend and ally. If the creature is currently being threatened or attacked by the character or the character's allies, however, he receives a +5 bonus on his saving throw.
The spell does not enable the character to control the charmed person as if the person were an automaton, but the subject perceives the character's words and actions in the most favorable way. The character can try to give the subject orders, but the character must win an opposed Charisma check to convince the subject to do anything he or she wouldn’t ordinarily do. (Retries not allowed.) A charmed person never obeys suicidal or obviously harmful orders. Any act by the character or the character's apparent allies that threatens the charmed person breaks the spell. Note also that the character must speak the person’s language to communicate the character's commands, or else be good at pantomiming.
This version is at least somewhat simplified (compared to the behemoth that is the 1E AD&D text), but keeps fundamentally the same wibbly-wobbly restrictions with regard to the text on a "trusted friend and ally", "not... an automaton", "never obeys suicidal orders", etc. In fact, it strengthens them, by now making any threatening act by the caster's allies grounds for automatic termination of the spell (as opposed to granting a saving throw from damage, as in 1E-2E).

Now, as observed above, the greatest change is in removing the schedule for intelligence-based saves, and replacing it with the much shorter 1-hr/level duration. In some sense, this makes the spell more elegant, by removing the need for the large table, and bringing it in line with the way durations are expressed in most other spells. But unfortunately the effect completely neutralizes the use of the spell for long-term surveillance and espionage, as it had been used in many campaign and adventure plot points up until the time of 3E. In particular, the fact that the 1st-level spell remained on so many major monster lists (ogre magi, demons, etc.), with such a paltry effect, looked downright silly and spawned some bewilderment among players. More generally, this served as a poster-child for the 3E trend of taking 1E spells with long-term campaign usage, and narrowing them to only combat use within a single dungeon crawl.

On the one hand, 3E did introduce a more heavy-duty spell called dominate person which strips away many of the restrictions built up to this point ("generally force the subject to perform as you desire"). But: (a) it is a 5th-level wizard spell, (b) while it is used for the new vampire ability, it is left out of most other monster ability lists (see above), and (c) the duration is still only 1-day/level, and thus much less than the simple charm available in editions 0-2 (and so still limited for some plot purposes). To access an equivalent indefinite-duration power, you'd actually need to utilize the enslave ritual in the Epic Level Handbook.

Moldvay Basic D&D -- Now let's check in on the parallel line of Basic D&D that was published after Holmes, and concurrently with the AD&D line:
Charm Person: This spell can be used on any human, or human-like creature (such as bugbears, gnolls, gnomes, goblins, hobgoblins, lizard men, ogres, pixies, or sprites). It will not affect undead, nor creatures larger than an ogre. If the victim fails to make a saving throw vs. Spells, the victim will believe that the spell caster is its "best friend" and will try to defend the caster against any threat (real or imagined). If the caster speaks a language that the charmed creature understands, commands may be given to the victim. Any commands given will usually be obeyed, except that orders against its nature (alignment and habits) may be resisted, and an order to kill itself will be refused. Creatures with above average intelligence (a score of 13-18) may make a new saving throw each day. Creatures with average intelligence (a score of 9-12, which includes the monsters listed above) may save again once per week, and creatures with below average intelligence (a score of 3-8) may save again once each month. (A charm may be removed by a dispel magic spell.) [Moldvay, p. B16]
Like the OD&D and Holmes versions, the spell here keeps its open-ended list of creature types, such that the DM can clearly apply it to new types as desired. But unlike those editions, we see that this version has folded in the key ambiguous restrictions first seen in AD&D, re: "best friend", "orders against its nature (alignment and habits) may be resisted", etc. Those restrictions are nicely edited down, however, and they don't specify the auto-termination for caster attacking the charmee, nor extra save for allies causing damage (although they might reasonably be extrapolated by any DM). The long table has also been edited out, being replaced by a very elegant rule of one save per day, week, or month, depending on whether the creature's intelligence is above, equal to, or below average. Once again I'll say that Moldvay has done a very nice job of perceiving the essence of the spell, and he's spent the time to write it up far more elegantly than in other editions.

Mentzer Basic D&D -- In the Mentzer version of the rules, the charm person spell (actually the first magic-user spell in the game) fundamentally has the same effect as in Moldvay above. However, it again blooms to a much larger expanse of text, because (a) Mentzer seems to write to a much lower reading level, (b) the details are given more examples as to what does and does not qualify for the language given (including an in-game example boxed paragraph), and (c) the rules are split between player's and DM's books, with most of the content merely hinted at in the former, and then given specifics in the latter. All together it runs 16 paragraphs (which I will forgo here, since I don't have a digital copy and would have to retype the whole thing).

The one change I can spot in this version is that, like AD&D, it seems to veer back towards suggesting use of a fixed and closed list of creatures types effected. It says (DM's Rulebook p. 14), "You may decide the exact creatures affected, or you may use the list below". It then proceeds to give a separate paragraph for these apparently distinct ruling strategies for the spell; first a list of criteria "if you wish to make your own list", and secondly a closed-form list of "creatures in this set which are subject to Charm Person", ending with the pointer, "NOTE: Some other creatures given in the EXPERT and COMPANION Sets may also be Charmed. They are listed in each set." All in all, Moldvay expressed in a single paragraph the same idea that it takes Mentzer sixteen; or perhaps charitably we might say that Mentzer has had more time to see players wrestling over the ambiguous nature of the rule, and tried to give more detail to adjudicating it (but honestly: it's really the former).

Allston Rules Cyclopedia -- Largely the Rules Cyclopedia spell looks like the Mentzer version, again fairly verbose, split between the main spell text with the simple rule for durations a la Moldvay (p. 45) and a "more complex system" given in the DM's Procedures chapter, featuring an alternate table for durations which mostly resembles the one from Greyhawk/AD&D (although with even more categories, almost a separate one for each distinct point of Intelligence; p. 144-145). All together there are 12 paragraphs and 2 separate tables for this one 1st-level spell. Again, I would replicate it here but the text-copy out of my PDF version seems based on broken OCR and therefore prohibitive for me to correct.

Summary -- Charm person is a spell that seems to have simultaneously been at war with itself, its designers, editors, players, and referees. The spell that seemed so simple in OD&D was apparently seen as overpowered and abusive in later years (and even I must admit: it pretty much breaks solo play in OD&D all by itself). The text for the spell massively inflated, contracted, and re-inflated in different rulebooks over the years, presenting what must seem like a crushing weight of rules language to the incoming player for the single 1st-level spell -- and frequently split, re-addressed, and errata's in multiple books of the same ruleset. I'm pretty sure that no other 1st-level spell had such an enormous mass of rules text devoted to it over the years (although the phantasmal force illusion, at 2nd or 3rd level, is in the same general class).

As noted above, I've personally been long aggravated by the spell in its AD&D form, with its ambiguous and personality-dependent (even philosophy-dependent) restriction, and the propensity to argue ad nauseum over what a certain character would "ordinarily do". The expectation that such psychological and moral-based debates would be a regular part of D&D play is something that really annoyed me about so-called Silver Age naturalism -- and slowed the pace of many games to a dreadful crawl (and not of the exploring-the-dungeon type). Furthermore, the soft-and-fuzzy "best friends" rule doesn't match any of the fantasy literature I can think of, which in contrast does feature many cases of enchantment in which the heroes are forced into actions they definitely wouldn't normally take, irrespective of their inner desires and motivations.

So, I'm very much a proponent of a short and simple-to-parse rule in any of my RPG gaming; if that means that a certain spell is a very powerful one, then so be it (and in fact it make it more compatible with most fantasy literature, and game-balanced with a very small number of spells memorized by any wizard). If we must modify charm person, then I think the best idea would be a straight duration limitation like most other spells (as I did in OED: Book of Spells, limiting it to a straight 1 week period), or maybe a significant saving-throw bonus, or (if absolutely necessary) boosting it to a higher spell level. Among the many reasons that I'm delighted to play OD&D instead of AD&D is being able to avoid debate over the ubiquitous 1st-level magic-user spell charm person.

[Illustration by royblumenthal under CC2.]

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Spells Through the Ages – Links

Thanks to everyone who visits this blog! One of the more well-read ongoing features we've had here, in conjunction with my good friend Paul, has been a series of articles called "Spells Through The Ages" where we track the evolution of a given spell throughout the various editions and incarnations of D&D. To make them easier to keep track of, I've added a tool over in the right sidebar called "Quick Search" that will immediately and conveniently show you to a Google search of our blogs (both mine and Paul's) for all the "Spells Through Ages"-related posts. Check it out >>>

If there's something there you haven't seen yet, we hope you find them interesting. Should be a few more of these on the way in coming weeks. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Archery Revisited

I've written about refining the D&D archery rules a few times, in regards to indoors ballistics and normalized probabilities (e.g.: here, here, and here). A while ago I again looped back to thinking about them, because a few parts of the prior stuff I've written have started to bother me. Here's the revised rule what I've been using for a while now:

Bows: Bows can be fired every round; slings and crossbows every other round. Indoors, all missile weapons have an effective range of 6"/12"/24" (30/60/120 feet; assume a 10' ceiling). Attacks are +4 at short range, +2 at medium range.

Throwing: A spear, dagger, or hand axe may be thrown up to 12" (60 feet) indoors. These are always treated as long range (no bonus to hit).

Long Distance: High ceilings allow longer bowshots, but these are at -10 to hit individual targets. Shots at great distance outdoors are only effective against armies or the like.

Commentary: The primary issue that drove the change is as follows. Even with the modifications I've suggested in the past, I was still trying to hang on to the hand-wavy system in D&D that you can arbitrarily switch from scales in tens-of-feet (indoors) to scales in tens-of-yards (outdoors) and still use the exact same range modifiers. In retrospect, that's unsustainable, and I'm going to stop using it; different scales simply must recognize different chances to hit. (This would be one of the "distortions" mentioned by Gygax in Dragon #15 [todo: link], and one that most later systems sensibly avoided.)

Let's think about why that was done in the first place. Again, the scale 1" = 10 yards was originally established for historical, mass-combat Chainmail, and in so doing, created realistic scaling for mass figures, movement rates, and bowshots on the tabletop. Later, 1" = 10 feet was used by Arneson in his man-to-man games, and included by Gygax in D&D as the "underworld" scale (Vol-3, p. 8), with 1" = 10 yards maintained as "wilderness" scale (Vol-3, p. 17). But there are two major problems with this retention. First, the 1" = 10 yards scale is less about being outdoors, and more about the mass-combat scale, and so irrelevant for the man-to-man RPG. Second, while it enables a realistic-length bowshot outdoors, it overlooks a colossal and critical fact -- no one in the world can possibly hit a single man at maximum distance with a longbow. Hitting an army in formation, yes, easily so; hitting a single man, no, not even close. And hence this consideration is also irrelevant, and even permitting it is one of the "proud nails" that will irk many about the system for years to come.

So let's agree to abandon the separate scale for outdoors action, and consider some physics for a better rule: Due to the inverse-square-law, if we were being really honest, range categories should work by doubling the distance in each category -- in fact, you see this in a lot of gun-based systems like Boot Hill, Star Frontiers, etc. The D&D system (splitting ranges into equal thirds, linearly) is an outlier in that regard, and just plain incorrect. The best I can figure is that, taking a shot of about 40 yards as a base, every halving or doubling of distance should modify to-hits by about +/-8 on a d20 roll (for example: look at the expert archery table we made before; compare the chances shown at 80 yards and 160 yards; 76%-30% = 46%, i.e., 46%/5% = -9 in that case). Technically this modifier should be applied on our normalized table, but in the meat of the progression it's the same as standard D&D.

Now, it's good to be aware of the correct real-world success chances involved; but at the same time, it's best to take those insights and massage them into easy-to-use, highly memorable mechanics that are convenient at the table. What we've calculated in the past for indoor missile ballistics is a 150' maximum shot for basically any weapon under a 10' ceiling (see here). But I figure it's nice and simple to smooth it out to 120', and so have the range in inches revert back to our familiar multiples-of-three: 6"/12"/24". Also, this happens to line up perfectly for range in inches indicated for the heavy crossbow weapon (the longest in the game). And also the 30' lower limit is the same as that identified in AD&D Unearthed Arcana as "point blank range" (UA, p. 18). And also our bonuses are like those in man-to-man Chainmail/OD&D, except doubled for the conversion factor we agreed on in the past (here). So I think there's a lot in favor of this simple setup.

The scale and the mechanic will be used identically both indoors and out (removing one of the "distortions", as Gygax put it). We observe that single men simply cannot be hit by a bowshot outdoors at hundreds of yards distance. If an indoor area has a very high ceiling (cavern, giant-hall, etc.), then allow a shot perhaps up to 48" (240 feet), but at a massive -10 penalty. For simplicity, the same range rule is used for any missile weapon in the game (presenting something easy to memorize, and reflecting again that range of the weapon has little or no bearing on accuracy against a man-to-man target).

Below are some ideas for optional rules you might also consider using in conjunction with this rule.

Optional -- Other Penalties: The scores above assume best-case conditions. Be sure to apply other penalties for darkness or low-light, cover and obstructions, and possibly high-speed movement lateral to the shooter's field of fire. (See Lakofka article in Dragon #45, for example.)

Optional -- Weapon Variation: If you want to treat various weapons differently for indoor, man-to-man combat, then split ranges in inches into thirds as customary, and apply the +4/+2/+0 bonuses as shown above. For example: a longbow will be 7"/14"/21" (35/70/105 feet). This is not totally accurate, but fairly close, simple, and playable (although not so simple as the unified ranges above).

Optional -- Longer Shots: If you want to permit very long-range shots outdoors against man-size targets, keep in mind that this will be an epic feat achievable only by very high-level warriors. Longer shots can be allowed outdoors at ranges up to 50"/100"/200" (i.e., 250/500/1000 feet, or about 80/160/320 yards), at to-hit penalties of -8/-16/-24, respectively. Of course, the standard maximum range of the missile weapon still applies.

Optional -- Shots at Groups: While I'm thinking about it, here's a possible rule for shots at groups of size N. Step 1: Identify a target for the shot by random method. Step 2: Roll d20 to hit, but as long as the natural die-roll is less than or equal to 4×log2N, then re-roll any miss. See here for the exact upper bound: N=1:0, 2:4, 4:8, 8:12. (The basic observation here, again based on the inverse-square-law, is that each doubling of range category is balanced by each quadrupling of area/people in the group, i.e., +/-8 to hit. Therefore each doubling of people should be effectively half this, or +4. I don't actually do this, but perhaps you'd like to try it.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gygax on Scale

It's possible that issues of scale in D&D (distance, time, figures, etc.) are the single most commonly discussed topic on this blog. In this regard, we should pay close attention to when Gygax wrote a whole article on the subject, its legacy, and evolution, in the Dragon #15 Sorcerer's Scroll: "D&D Ground and Spell Area Scale" (June 1978). I've excerpted the whole article at the end of this post and highly recommend that you read the whole thing -- and yet I also want to highlight some particular parts of it. This article was the original source for the somewhat shrieky, all-caps note on distance scale in AD&D PHB p. 39 (which you'll see at the very conclusion of the article). Otherwise, Gygax has many observations the same as what I've posted here many times, although his ultimate "fixes" I think are not the best possible ones (and in fact they really haven't stood the test of time, being discarded by D&D and most other RPG's in the intervening years).

Gygax starts by recapping the historical mass-combat Chainmail rules which used a scale of 1 turn = 1 minute, 1 figure = 20 men, and 1 inch = 30 feet,which I have no problem with and seems both gameable and realistic (really, the gold-standard for game design). Then he says:
When Dave Arneson took this concept into the “dungeons” of his Castle & Crusade Society medieval campaign castle, Blackmoor, he used a one-third smaller ground scale. This change was quite logical, and it was retained when I wrote D&D.
A nice credit that Arneson was initially responsible for the 1" = 10 feet D&D tradition. Or really maybe that's not so generous, since there's no reason why you couldn't have made ground scale equal to figure scale (approx. 1" = 5 feet) and avoid all the attendant distortions and problems, as done by almost all games post-D&D. So while the new 1" = 10 feet system will be used indoors/underground, Gygax attempted to stick with the old Chainmail mass scale of 1" = 10 yards for outdoor action (OD&D Vol-3 p. 8, vs. p. 17). I might call these the first and second fundamental missteps. These led to the following realization:
Len Lakofka was kind enough to point out to me what happens if the yards of effect of a spell are converted to feet in a game where a 1:1 ratio is used, viz. 1" equals 6 scale feet. A huge area can be covered with webs from a lowly magic-user’s second level spell. Of course this is ridiculous... If one scale is tampered with, all of the others must be adjusted accordingly in order to retain a reasonable, balanced, and playable game.
So it was Len Lakofka that had to point out the first problem with trying to hand-wave a sliding scale system, and needing to make sure that if the value of an "inch" changes for movement, then it must do the same thing for spell ranges and areas, or else the action becomes imbalanced. Or rather, since it's basically inexplicable to have areas changing value outdoors vs. indoors (as opposed to bowfire being partly limited by ceiling height), then they'll need to permanently fix the spell areas at the lower 1" = 10 feet value.
The “Fantasy Supplement” was an outgrowth of the medieval rules and the “Man-to-Man Combat” (1 figure to 1 actual combatant) section I also devised for conducting battles of several different campaigns I ran for the LGTSA... As D&D grew from CHAINMAIL, it too used the same scale assumptions as its basis. Changes had to be made, however, in order to meet the 1:1 figure ratio and the underground setting. Movement was adjusted to a period ten times longer than a CHAINMAIL turn of 1 minute, as exploring and mapping in an underground dungeon is slow work. Combat, however, stayed at the CHAINMAIL norm and was renamed a melee round or simply round. 
Now, the first part of this passage once again reiterates the point that the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement was intended to be an outgrowth of the Man-to-Man rules, at 1:1 scale --  which is actually one of the few facts that Gygax was completely consistent regarding in all of his writings from the very earliest years to the end of his life (and also one of the more virulently contentious observations that I ever make on this blog).

But the conclusion of that paragraph is, I think, where the third and perhaps most egregious mistake occurred. Gygax just wrote in the immediately preceding paragraph, "If one scale is tampered with, all of the others must be adjusted accordingly in order to retain a reasonable, balanced, and playable game", and yet here he neglects to fix the time scale (as it should be adjusted downward, jointly with the figure and distance scale), leaving it at the same 1 turn = 1 minute that was originally fit for a mass-scale wargame. Leaving this unfixed is what locked him into the infamous and rather absurd defense of the scale as highly abstracted action, taking up lots of dense argumentation on DMG p. 61 ("...many attacks are made, but some are mere feints..."), even though it makes no sense in terms of first-strike capability, ammunition shots used, etc. It's even worse when you note that mass Chainmail already has a notion of the combat "round" as subsection of the 1-minute turn, which only needed to be followed up on.

Approaching the end of the article, there is this:
For about two years D&D was played without benefit of any visual aids by the majority of enthusiasts. They held literally that it was a paper and pencil game, and if some particular situation arose which demanded more than verbalization, they would draw or place dice as tokens in order to picture the conditions. In 1976 a movement began among D&Ders to portray characters with actual miniature figurines... Because of the return of miniatures to D&D, the game is tending to come full circle; back to table top battles not unlike those which were first fought with D&D’s parent, CHAINMAIL’s “Fantasy Supplement”, now occurring quite regularly. Unfortunately, the majority of D&D enthusiasts did not grow up playing military miniatures, so even the most obvious precepts of table top play are arcane to them. Distorting the area of effect of a spell seems to be an excellent idea to players with magic-user characters, and many referees do not know how to handle these individuals when they wave the rule book under their nose and prate that scale outdoors is 1” equals 10” yards.
The first part -- that at the outset, D&D was played without miniatures -- is again consistent with other times that Gygax spoke on the same issue. (and explains why the quality of the scaling rules degenerated, because they had become vestigial and not actually playtested with miniatures).

But the second part is truly fascinating and delightful, because remember: this "game [which] is tending to come full circle" in regards to miniature usage (or least their promotion as a business case) was being observed as early as 1978. At this point -- 2012 -- we've gone through so many similar cycles of miniatures/not-minatures that I think I've personally lost count of them. It's like the Eternal Recurrence as simulated in-world by the mechanics of our metagame. And at the end of this passage, we see Gygax being aware of the problems if one is oblivious to matters of scale, and expressing some amount of contempt for those players who seek to gain an advantage through such slipperiness (much like those who think that D&D heroes can function identically at either 1:1 scale or 1:20 scale).

Finally, from the last paragraph of the article:
More unfortunately, the blame for the possible ignorance of player and Dungeon Master alike rests squarely on my shoulders. It would have been a small matter to explain to everyone that the outdoor scale must be used for range only, never for area of effect, unless a figure ratio of 1:20, or 1:10, is used, and constructions (siege equipment, buildings, castles, etc.) are scaled to figures rather than to ground scale! If ground scale is changed, movement distances must be adjusted. If time scales are changed, both movement and missile fire/spell casting must be altered. Furthermore, if 30 mm or 25 mm figures and scale buildings and terrain are not used, then the area of effect must be adjusted proportionately. I ask your collective pardon for this neglect, and I trust that the foregoing will now make the matter clear. There are distortions of scales in D&D and ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS as well. Despite distortions, each meshes with the other to make the game an enjoyable one.
Now, the emphasized portion above was basically transcribed identically to the all-caps rule in PHB p. 39. But what really made me sit up straight when I read this passage was Gygax expressing acknowledgment for a mistake in the system, personal blame, and asking "collective pardon for this neglect", which is not something that I'm accustomed to ever reading from his pen. It seems very much out of personal character for Gygax (or at least as his official TSR/D&D writings of the time), and should serve as a flag that this issue deserves possibly unique attention, much as I've tried to give it in this blog over the last few years.

So, in summary -- This article shows us a Gygax who is fairly aware of issues of scale and the problems, imbalances, and cheats that can occur if they are ignored. He is aware that mistakes had been made and is personally penitent for them (!). Yet he seems to not have actually driven the precise changes that occurred in D&D, as he reports that the alteration in scale was first suggested to him by Arneson, and then a later correction by Lakofka. He still admits to important "distortions" in the last two sentences, which, I maintain, would have been much more easily fixed by doing the following:
  1. Setting ground scale to the same as figure scale (i.e., about 1"=5 feet), 
  2. Decreasing time scale in proportion to distance scale (i.e., about 1 round=10 sec), 
  3. Abandoning the different outdoor scale for man-to-man action, and 
  4. Actually playtesting the rules if he's going to bother publishing them.
Below is the rest of this fascinating and enlightening article. Highly recommended reading.

Friday, November 9, 2012

More Pickman's Model

More weirdness as I compare the Holmes Basic D&D text to H.P. Lovecraft's Pickman's Model -- this one more personal and not a direct text connection; from the latter short story:
Dances in the modern cemeteries were freely pictured, and another conception somehow shocked me more than all the rest—a scene in an unknown vault, where scores of the beasts crowded about one who held a well-known Boston guide-book and was evidently reading aloud. All were pointing to a certain passage, and every face seemed so distorted with epileptic and reverberant laughter that I almost thought I heard the fiendish echoes. The title of the picture was, "Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow Lie Buried in Mount Auburn".
Now, the weird thing here (aside from the rather eerie reference to a dead "Holmes") is that when I first moved to Boston some years ago, the apartment in which I sub-let a room let on directly across the street to the maintenance/grounds entrance of the enormous, rambling Mount Auburn Cemetery, which I would explore sometimes on the weekends. Based on where the main Egyptian-style entrance is, they'll tell you that it's in Cambridge, but don't let that fool you -- most of the grounds are in Watertown (where my first job in gaming was).

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Fearful Symmetry

J. Eric Holmes, D&D Basic (p. 41) -- "... the story tellers are always careful to point out that the reputed dungeons lie in close proximity to the foundations of the older, pre-human city, to the graveyard, and to the sea."

H.P. Lovecraft, Pickman's Model -- "Look here, do you know the whole North End once had a set of tunnels that kept certain people in touch with each other's houses, and the burying-ground, and the sea?"

Monday, November 5, 2012

Parry in AD&D

A question: "Is there a parry rule in the AD&D core rulebooks?" Clearly there's one in the man-to-man Chainmail rules (p. 25: -2 to attacker roll), hence implied inclusion by reference in OD&D, and a restatement of the rule in Holmes Basic D&D (p. 21). But I've said many times in the past that there's no such parry rule in AD&D (like, it's certainly not in the analogous section of DMG p. 66 that incorporates the rules for weapon speeds, order and number of blows, etc.)

Here's the thing, though: the back of the PHB has an oddball section called "The Adventure" which serves to introduce and organize standard D&D adventuring activities for the new player. In the historical sequence, obviously, the was written after OD&D was complete but before the DMG. It hints at rules in non-mechanical terms (you might say "flavor text") that will be presented in full detail only for the DM later in the DMG. As such, it includes the germs for numerous ideas for changes and alterations from OD&D, that were then dropped or reconsidered when the DMG was actually completed.

It's easy to overlook these ideas due to their placement, disagreement with the later DMG, and the fact that they are not generally included in the combined index at the back of the DMG. (For example: No "parry" rule is listed in that index). But here's what I ran into today, accidentally looking at the subsection on "Melee Combat":
Participants in a melee can opt to attack, parry, fall back, or flee. Attack can be by weapon, bare hands, or grappling. Parrying disallows any return attack that round, but the strength "to hit" bonus is then subtracted from the opponent's "to hit" dice roll(s), so the character is less likely to be hit. Falling back is a retrograde move facing the opponent(s) and can be used in conjunction with a parry, and opponent creatures are able to follow if not otherwise engaged. Fleeing means as rapid a withdrawal from combat as possible; while it exposes the character to rear attack at the time, subsequent attacks can only be made if the opponent is able to follow the fleeing character at equal or greater speed. [PHB, p. 104-5]
So: A rule for parrying somewhat hidden in the PHB, not reiterated in the DMG, and not included in any index. A rule that's different from the Chainmail (OD&D) rule, in that the -2 modifier is replaced by the user's Strength "to hit" bonus --  and hence only usable by those with exceptional strength, and of very small benefit even to them (in AD&D, +1 from 17 to 18/50, +2 from 18/51-99, and +3 from 18/00).

Have you ever used that PHB rule?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Marathon Picture Puzzle

This weekend, the New York City Marathon is scheduled to run by about a block from my apartment. When I first moved to the city about seven years ago, I noticed the Marathon Bank of New York on the corner of the block, and found myself really baffled by the logo. Sometimes I'm really slow about certain things, but it actually took me several years to finally decode it.

This brings to mind: The idea of using more picture-puzzles or glyphs to decode in D&D (as opposed to the perhaps more canonical word-puzzles or chess-based chambers). Do you frequently use picture-puzzles in your games? Can you figure out what the Marathon Bank logo represents faster than I could? (If not, I'll plan to post a hint in the comments.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Book of War: Weather Control

Book of War includes the following simple, optional rule for weather, rolled once at the start of a game (Open Game Content between the rules):

2d6 Weather Effect
2-7 Sunny Orcs/goblins at -1 morale
8-9 Cloudy (No effect)
10-11 Rainy Missiles at -1 to hit
12 Stormy No missiles, move cost x2,
cavalry attack 1 die/figure

Now, most of the time this won't make much difference -- until the ability to Control Weather gets put into play, as by any Storm Giant or Wizard in the advanced game. Then it becomes highly likely that the special figure can severely disadvantage opposing goblinoids, or more generally any missile troops or cavalry (recall that modifiers are in terms of a d6 roll). We've found that when playing by advanced rules, both sides almost always pick at least one Storm Giant by default so as to access this powerful ability.

I've previously written a column on "Spells Through Ages -- Control Weather", as Book of War was being finalized last year. Among the observations there is that the OD&D spell is immensely powerful, permitting instant conjurations of tornadoes, heavy rain, heat waves, etc., without limit. AD&D did seem to have a clever modification of allowing only a "one step" modification to weather, which I included in BOW. You can't automatically switch the weather to "Stormy" and lock down all the opponent missiles; the natural weather already has to be at least "Rainy" before that's possible. (And multiple spells or giants won't help; only a one-step change from natural, maximum, is ever allowed.)

Even so, the ability has proven to be very powerful. Partly this is due to the way we've adjudicated the gray areas of the spell in-game: First, there isn't any 10-minute delay to the spell as specified in AD&D, so the effect is immediately usable by the caster (otherwise, you'd need a rule for casting it prior to a battle, unlike any other spell, which is the only time it would be useful). Second, you're not stuck with just one change; if desired, you can switch the weather up and down by one step per turn (common usage: make the weather "Rainy" and cripple the opponent's missiles on one turn; then switch back to "Cloudy" and let your own missiles fire effectively, etc.). Third, opposing weather-controllers don't simply negate each other; they're allowed to ping-pong the weather back and forth on opposing turns, according to taste.

Now on the one hand, you might find this overly fiddly (weather changing dramatically every minute?). But we've actually found this to make for a lot of exciting and dynamic play situations (fun, you might say). Control Weather is a top-level ability that makes an immediate and high-impact effect on the game; it's in your face every turn as the casters battle for the sky overhead turn-by-turn. The alternative option, perhaps saying that preferred weather is picked only once before the battle and that opposing casters simply cancel each other invisibly, seems not nearly so dramatic or interesting.

One other thing that we need to adjudicate, not being written in the book: What happens to weather when the controller is killed? Options here seem to be (1) Nothing, weather stays at current level for the entire battle; (2) Gradual reversion back to natural weather, by one step per turn; or (3) Immediate switch back to natural weather, cancelling the magic. (Consider also how this interacts with an opposing caster who was being partly cancelled out; does it switch multiple steps to their preference instantly?) We've been playing by option #3, which is perhaps mangling normal D&D rules a bit (spell effects generally don't end with the death of a caster), but it makes for interesting in-game situations, where opposing weather-controllers are critical targets if the opposition can chase them down and eliminate them.

So: what's your preference? Do you like dynamic weather changing turn-to-turn while a battle progresses, or do you prefer the AD&D-style delay, where one choice for weather would be maintained throughout the whole battle? Do you like the idea of opposing casters ping-ponging the weather every turn, or should they simply neutralize each other without visible effect?

[Picture courtesy smiteme under CC2.]

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Thief in Action

Over at Playing at the World this summer, Jon posted pages from the earliest version of Gygax's "Thief Addition" (used at GenCon VII prior to publication of Sup-I Greyhawk). I think one of the great things in there is a half-page "Example of a Thief in Action" which seems to clarify some expected usage of the thief class at that time. (Not unheard of rulings, but clarifying nonetheless.) Here we see:
  1. Automatic detection of traps prior to removal attempts.
  2. Explicit note that failure to remove a trap sets it off on the thief.
  3. Play wherein the thief splits from the party, hides from a pursuing monster, and then slips into its lair to lift its treasure.
One thing that always bothers me about these scenes -- surely I'm not alone -- is that the number of successes on display for the sample thief is wildly unlikely (probabilistically) for the chances given for the class abilities. There's definitely a tension in early D&D between sort of expecting a thief to succeed on several burgling-type tests in a row, but then having the probabilities set so low that they will fail most of the time. Some people will want to revise those chances upwards, whereas my response is to mostly remove any penalties for failure (like #2 above), and to try and give very generous benefits to success.

See Jon's article here (esp. the last image with the example of play).

Monday, October 22, 2012

Book of War: Variance

The Book of War mass-warfare game (see sidebar) is designed to quickly model standard D&D combat in as statistically high-fidelity a fashion as possible. Each d6 roll represents the attacks of 10 men or creatures (or more specifically: attacks by 5 men in the front row, over 3 rounds of combat, i.e., 15 individual attacks). The average casualties from the system are known to be very close to that of actual D&D combat played out en masse.

An outstanding question for me, however, has been: what of the variance? One fairly obvious observation would be that reducing the overall number of die rolls would make the game more "swingy" (i.e., reduced sample size causes higher variation). But on the other hand, by eliminating any damage rolls, that's actually one source of variation removed, so perhaps it pulls things back in the other direction. For a long time my assumption was that BOW combat would be about 3 times more swingy (in standard deviation) than normal D&D combat, but I didn't take the time to find out exactly.

Here are more exact comparisons, made possible by an edit to the BOWCore Rule program seen previously in the link above; revised version here). Numbers below are in terms of individual men killed per turn (3 rounds) by a single mass figure (5 across the front).

Variance in D&D & BOW

AC Mean Stdev Mean Stdev
10 5.9 3.3 6.7 4.7
7 4.4 3.1 5.0 5.0
4 3.0 2.7 3.3 4.7
1 1.5 2.0 1.7 3.7

Conclusion: The mean number killed is, as designed, as close as we could make it using a simple d6 roll. The BOW mechanic is indeed a bit more "swingy" (higher standard deviation/variance; more chance for an underdog to surprise a powerful opponent), but only on the order of about 1.5 times that of regular D&D (not triple the standard deviation as previously presumed).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Playing at the World

Many of you will already be aware of this, making me late to the party, but if you don't: Jon Peterson is a computer engineer and historian of D&D who self-published a 700-page book called “Playing at the World” which digs deep into the original development of D&D, its historical antecedents over several centuries, and the digital gaming revolution which came afterward. Apparently in some cases he traveled the world to dig up rare archival documents around the time of the first D&D game writings by Arneson and Gygax (and others). His book is available on Amazon, and he also started an associated blog a few months ago. (And I discovered his effort via an interview at Wired.) Work like this is enormously appreciated by people like myself, and I plan to eagerly read what other insights he posts to his blog in the future.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Jaquaying the Dungeon at the Alexandrian

A really fine series of articles I just found at Justin Alexander's blog site: "Jaquaying the Dungeon". This mostly concerns the kinds of complex and non-linear dungeon connection features seen in the work of Paul Jaquays, about whom I'm not alone in writing positively about in the past. Justin's series is highly recommended (and probably the verbing of Jaquays' name alone was enough to sell me on it).

Monday, October 1, 2012

Random Dungeon Stocking

Today I'd like to consider rules for semi-randomly stocking dungeons. I'll start with what I currently do, and then consider the history of such rules in the classic D&D book.

Delta's Rule: On a standard piece of graph paper (30×40 squares), I seem to get about 40 rooms or so, that will be dealt with in groups of sixths (i.e., about 6 rooms per category). First I make a list of about 6 "special" rooms I want to place (major sites, or monster clan lairs, usually with significant treasures); about 6 tricks or traps along the way (often corridor/navigation blockage or misdirection); and about 6 mundane "guard" areas in conjunction with the specials. Then I actually draw the map and place these indicated areas, filling about half the rooms of the map. Then I go through the remaining half of the areas (usually side-rooms, rarely main thoroughfare chambers) and roll dice: 2-in-6 indicates random monsters from the wandering charts (or semi-random; move or up down the list to something that generally fits). A second roll indicates treasure, 3-in-6 for monsters and 1-in-6 for otherwise empty rooms. If this random method comes out to greatly more or less than the expected 6 rooms or so (again, 1/6 of the total) then I go back and add some or take some away for the right distribution.

The end result of the preceding is 1/6 each "special" (major areas), 1/6 tricks/traps, 1/3 monsters (half selected guards, half random), and 1/3 empty -- which you'll see replicated in many of the classic rules below. One thing that's added for me are the pre-planned mundane guardrooms, which serve to flesh out the "theme" of who controls that part of the dungeon, and serve as buildup and clues to the major "special" lairs (trying to do that part randomly just doesn't build a proper theme). I think the overall effect is similar to Gygax's B2 or G1-3, with a primary monster type in each region, a general buildup to the encounters, and various and sundry surprise lurkers in the side areas (with perhaps somewhat more empty rooms).

Original D&D: OD&D is most similar to what I do above. It says, "It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures, with or without monstrous guardians, and then switch to a random determination for the balance of the level" (Vol-3, p. 6). The random rolls are identical to what I use above (2-in-6 has a monster; 3-in-6 monsters with treasure, 1-in-6 otherwise empty rooms), with a helpful table provided for these treasures (balanced by dungeon level, and quite different from the otherwise well-known Treasure Types intended for large wilderness groups).

One thing that's missing here is the overall monster distribution-- how many of those "special" areas are expected? A second thing is that there's no stated allowance for tricks/traps, although a list of suggestions comes immediately prior to this section. One very interesting thing about that list of tricks/traps -- they're almost all navigation-misdirection elements that are most likely to appear in a corridor (e.g., false stairs, slanting passages, sinking rooms, teleportation, etc.). Using that as inspiration, it's one reason I feel compelled to decide on a list of traps prior to mapping the dungeon; the plan of the corridors and rooms is intimately tied to what navigational trickery is possible. But keep in mind that "specials" as used in Original D&D means the major treasure caches and monster lairs, not weird magical trickery, as the phrase might be used later.

Dungeon Geomorphs: Gygax's Dungeon Geomorphs product (featuring the older "use-every-space", thin-blue-line wall design for the basic dungeons) has stocking suggestions on the inside cover. It says: "Roughly one third of the rooms should remain empty. One-third should contain monsters with or without treasure (possibly selected randomly using the Dungeons & Dragons Monster & Treasure Assortment), one-sixth traps and/or tricks, and the remaining one-sixth should be specially designed areas with monsters and treasures selected by the DM (rather than randomly  determined). Slides, teleport areas, and sloping passages should be added sparingly."

Note that these are the same overall distributions as I use today. One mistake I made in the past, I think, was to take this a simple random d6 roll in every area of the map (1-2 empty, 3-4 monsters, 5 trap, 6 special). The problem with that is that it handcuffs you into doing work to freshly invent traps and specials at times you don't want and places that don't fit (there being no random follow-up method for those). Moreover, the all-random monster method produces no intelligible theme or pattern, so nowadays I fill at least half of those intentionally beforehand (pretty simple, mostly just duplicating the "special" types).

Monster & Treasure Assortment: This collection of treasures to be used in different dungeon levels has a different distribution suggestion on the cover: "However, it is recommended that the DM selectively place as many treasures as possible, doubling up in some cases, and augmenting the whole by noting where and how the treasures are protected and/or hidden. It should also be noted that just as a dungeon level should have monsters in only 20% or so of the available rooms and chambers, about 20% of the monsters should have no treasure whatsoever."

It seems to me that having monsters in only 20% of the rooms is way too low and wasteful. I don't think any other product ever suggested such a low number, and I think it can be pretty much ignored. Note that my current rule places monsters (specials, guards, and random) in 3 rooms in 6, i.e. 50%, or more than twice as many as suggested by the MT&A rule. With my rule 1 room in 3 is empty, which some people might already consider excessive. Furthermore, while it explicitly talks about the DM selectively placing only treasures and not monsters, it would clearly be a significant error to just go through a dungeon level rolling 2-in-10 for all the monster placements.

AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide: Again, no global dungeon distribution rules are given, although we can see a table in Appendix A: Random Dungeon Generation that gives some clues (p. 171). This table uses a d20 roll, with results of 1-12: Empty; 13-14: Monster only; 15-17: Monster and treasure; 18: Special (or else stairs), 19: Trick/Trap; 20: Treasure.

A few comments: This seems to be similar to the MT&A rule, with fully 60% of the rooms empty, only 25% with any kind of random monsters, and just a tiny number of specials or tricks/traps. In practice this seems incredibly sparse, and when using those rules I personally increase the numbers of non-empty results. One obvious sticking point are the "specials" which have no random method for completing them, and would be an outright conflict of interest for those playing a game solo by those rules. However, this does lead to the fascinating rule, "For special areas you can have a friend or correspondent send you sealed information." (p. 173)

Holmes Basic D&D: The "blue book" Basic D&D by Eric Holmes somewhat surprisingly doesn't have any distribution suggestions. It has a very short couple of paragraphs on Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art, where it states that "the Dungeon Master must sit down, pencil in hand, and map out the dungeons on graph paper... the introductory module 'In Search of the Unknown'... will be usable for initial adventuring as well as provide ideas for dungeon construction" (p. 39). My understanding is that earlier version of the D&D Basic set instead included the Dungeon Geomorphs product (above), which would thus pick up the slack both for mapping and distribution suggestions.

Moldvay Basic D&D: Moldvay's "red book" rules give a detailed step-by-step process for creating a dungeon, starting with: A. Choose a Scenario (listing 10 themes), B. Decide on a Setting (6 types), C. Decide on Special Monsters to be Used, D. Draw the Map of the Dungeon, E. Stock the Dungeon, and F. Filling in Final Details. In the Stock the Dungeon stage, he says, "Special monsters should be first placed in the appropriate rooms with special treasures. The remaining rooms can be stocked as the DM wishes. If there is no preference as to how certain rooms are stocked, then the following system may be used" (p. 52). This system is (as usual) determined by a d6: 1-2 Monster, 3 Trap, 4 Special, 5-6 Empty (treasure is indicated 3-in-6 for monsters, 2-in-6 for traps, and 1-in-6 for empty rooms). Traps and specials must be developed by the DM, but lists of ideas follow (e.g., navigational hazards a la OD&D, moaning room, talking statue, flying weapons, etc.)

Most of the time I'm highly impressed by the clear and detailed understanding that Moldvay provides; but here I think he falls down a little bit. First of all I'm not fond of the random method creating design work for the DM in 1/3 of the cases (traps and specials), since in theory the random generation should be relieving and completing the DM's labor, not making more of it. Secondly he's mangled the notion of "specials" a bit, using the phrase both for specially-selected major monsters and treasure, as well as randomly-indicated weird trickery, which is not terribly helpful. Using this in the past caused me quite a bit of frustration -- I'm not sure that drawing the map first, and then having traps randomly placed and determined (really unique to these rules except for the very small number in the DMG solo section), is the way to go. Furthermore, at the point where the DM turns to random stocking, the random system really needs to be a complete turnkey solution (and not demanding more work of the DM).

So, what system works best for you? (By the way, this marks the blog's 400th post. Thanks for reading!)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Was Module B1 a Good Design?

Today I'd like to compare classic D&D modules B1 (In Search of the Unknown, by Mike Carr) and B2 (The Keep on the Borderlands, by Gary Gygax). Both of these were included for a while in the original D&D Basic set by Eric Holmes (the former replaced by the latter at some point), and both are allegedly intended as example designs for new Dungeon Masters. (From B1 p. 2: "As a beginning Dungeon Master, you will find this module helpful in many ways. First of all it serves as a graphic example of a beginning dungeon. For this reason, it should prove illustrative...")

It's this latter point I'd like to focus on. Now, I love module B1 and I've used it many times for new players; it has lots of fantastical elements that really grab your imagination. But the design is radically different from the later B2, and I wonder if Gygax's desire to replace it isn't partly due to a difference in design philosophy. Just for starters: B1 is much easier than B2 in terms of monster numbers and tactical toughness (a small group that gets through B1 easily will be chewed up and spit out in the first encounter of B2). Secondly, the dungeon layout: B1 uses the older every-square-used design (i.e., pen-line walls), while B2 uses the later no-adjacent-squares design (i.e., 10' walls). Thirdly: B2 has themed monster lairs, with several areas populated by the same type, while B1 will have unrelated monsters scattered in small numbers throughout.

But perhaps the more important thing is the level of detail given to the area dressings. The B1 area descriptions are very long, with lots and lots of minute setting detail. That's great and gives a wonderful sense of place, but it seems exactly the opposite of what those of us in the OSR have taken to using, with our minimalist dungeon descriptions (and some acclaim for one-page only dungeon designs). Even the monsters and treasures in B1 are really afterthoughts, one-line notes to be filled in by the administering DM, with the area dressings, tricks, and traps really the centerpieces. This is also counter to the sensibility of module B2, whose area descriptor are very short, and focus primarily on the monsters and treasures therein, with relatively little in the way of dressings or tricks.

As a specific numerical comparison, surveying the first twenty encounter areas in each module: B1 encounter areas run an average of 36 lines long (stdev 27), while B2 encounter areas average 12 lines long (stdev 8). So on average, it appears that B1 encounters are 3 times longer in the description than B2 -- and that's not even including any monsters or treasures yet for B1, to placed by the individual DM!

So, what do you think? Was B1 fundamentally a misstep, showing neophyte DM's a setting design that was enormously more labor-intensive than is either required or used by experienced DM's? Or was it useful to show the maximum level of detail and trap/trickery that anyone might ever encounter? Was Gygax correct that it needed replacing with a more basic dungeon design as a starting example?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dungeon! Solitaire Variant

 In the last few weeks, my girlfriend and I have started pulling out the old Dungeon! boardgame (1975, in the purple box) and playing it after dinner nights, to great satisfaction. I'm not entirely sure why I never suggested it before now; seems like an oversight on my part. Anyway, at the bottom of the box is a somewhat yellowed piece of paper with rules for a solitaire variant I came up with, probably from 10 or 20 years ago. Now that I'm living in the future, it seems like a perfect opportunity to share it with you.

Dungeon! Solitaire Variant –

Become the Elven Lord Wizard!

Gold Combat
Level Title Returned Rank Spells
1 Veteran Medium 0 Elf 0
2 Warrior Seer 2,000 Elf 0
3 Swordmaster Conjuror 4,000 Elf 0
4 Hero Magician 8,000 Hero 0
5 Swashbuckler Enchanter 16,000 Hero 1
6 Myrmidon Warlock 32,000 Hero 2
7 Champion Sorcerer 64,000 Hero 3
8 Superhero Necromancer 120,000 Superhero 4
9 Lord Wizard 200,000 Wizard 6

Solitaire character starts out as an Elf (Veteran Medium) with zero returned gold. Use the "Returning Prizes for Safe Keeping" advanced rule. Character always retains the find Secret Doors ability (1-4) and can use any magic item. Advance levels by returning to the Main Staircase and owning the indicated total of gold returned. Use the combat rank listed or any previous one, whichever is best for a given monster. Memorization of spells is as normal for any Wizard (within the limits shown above).

(Note: My copy of the game has a grand total of 219,000 gold pieces value in the entire complex.)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Book of War Terrain Tiles

Here's an add-on to the Book of War mass-combat supplement that I've been meaning to provide for a while -- terrain tiles for each of the different land types that may appear in the game. Over at the site you'll find a ZIP file with seven photo-realistic images, each at the proper BOW scale (1"=20 feet), for use in the game. I'd suggest downloading and printing several copies of each in case more than one appear in a given game (more of the common ones, and maybe just one pond and one gulley, for example).

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Spells Through the Ages – Damage Types

On the Four Types of Damage in Original D&D

Sort of a short observation today. What follows are all of the spells in the Original D&D Little Brown Books that can cause direct and specific points of damage:
Fire Ball: A missile which springs from the finger of the Magic-User. It explodes with a burst radius of 2" (slightly larger than specified in CHAINMAIL). In a confined space the Fire Ball will generally conform to the shape of the space (elongate or whatever). The damage caused by the missile will be in proportion to the level of its user. A 6th level Magic-User throws a 6-die missile, a 7th a 7-die missile, and so on. (Note that Fire Balls from Scrolls (see Volume II) and Wand are 6-die missiles and those from Staves are 8-die missiles. Duration: 1 turn. Range: 24"

Lightning Bolt: Utterance of this spell generates a lightning bolt 6" long and up to 3/4" wide. If the space is not long enough to allow its full extension, the missile will double back to attain 6", possibly striking its creator. It is otherwise similar to a Fire Ball, but as stated in CHAINMAIL the head of the missile may never extend beyond the 24" range.

Wall of Fire: The spell will create a wall of fire which lasts until the Magic-User no longer concentrates to maintain it. The fire wall is opaque. It prevents creatures with under four hit dice from entering/passing through. Undead will take two dice of damage (2-12) and other creatures one die (1-6) when break ing through the fire. The shape of the wall can be either a plane of up to 6" width and 2" in height, or it can be cast in a circle of 3" diameter and 2" in height. Range: 6".

Wall of Ice:
A spell to create a wall of ice six inches thick, in dimensions like that of a Wall of Fire. It negates the effects of creatures employing fire and/or fire spells. It may be broken through by creatures with four or more hit dice, with damage equal to one die (1-6) for non-fire employing creatures and double that for fire-users. Range: 12"
That's actually it. Some things that I didn't count here: Spells that kill outright (cloudkill, death spell, disintegrate, finger of death). Spells that summon a monster to fight on your behalf (conjure elemental, invisible stalker, sticks to snakes, animal growth). Spells that come later in Supplement I (magic missile, ice storm, prismatic wall, blade barrier, etc.) Phantasmal forces, because it has no specific amount of damage indicated and is otherwise troublesome ("Damage caused to viewers of a Phantasmal Force will be real if the illusion is believed to be real").

So using OD&D Vol-1, there's actually only four ways that you can deal damage to someone -- fire, cold, lightning, and weapons. And this explains why a lot of the monsters have those 4 things specifically called out, for example (from Vol-2):
OCHRE JELLY: The clean-up crew includes Ochre Jelly and similar weird monsters. Ochre Jelly is a giant amoeba which can be killed by fire or cold, but hits by weaponry or lightening [sic] bolts will merely make them into several smaller Ochre Jellies...

BLACK (or GRAY) PUDDING: Another member of the clean-up crew and nuisance monster, Black Puddings are not affected by cold. It is spread into smaller ones by chops or lightening bolts, but is killed by fire...

GREEN SLIME: A non-mobile hazard, Green Slime can be killed by fire or cold, but it is not affected by lightening bolts or striking by weapons...
While to modern eyes those may look like a rather odd and motley assortment of things to call attention to in each case (fire, cold, lightning, and weapons) -- especially in later works like the AD&D Monster Manual -- in OD&D in makes a lot more sense, as it's simply a comprehensive treatment of every damage type that exists in the game. (Compare also to the table for Dragons with respect to their receiving different damage types.)

A couple more observations that we can make from this -- OD&D is actually fairly low in the "wahoo" scale, most spells being fairly subtle in effect, and quite compatible with classic swords & sorcery literature. The four spells above are the "flashiest" things in the game, elements that I sometimes wish weren't there for flavor sake, and yet even those have clear analogs in Conan stories (e.g., fireball, wall of fire; see here). After that, we might say that it's fairly obvious and even lazy game design to thereafter add more spells that just do alternate methods of damage output. When you later add something like magic missile with its untyped damage, then you wind up either in an ambiguous situation with regard to the monsters above, or else a cheesy short-circuiting of the game mechanics, depending on your perspective.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reading Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser

Now let me spend some time lavishing praise on a truly excellent piece of art: Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories, as collected in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks The First Book of Lankhmar (which puts together the books Swords Against Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, and Swords Against Wizardry -- themselves collections of various short stories and novelettes).

Both the characters and the language are truly an immense joy to discover; they're completely fantastic, even if they have quite a bit of variance from one story to another (not a bad thing; kind of like what people say about the Beatles, you can see Leiber evolving and experimenting with his art form, not just churning out longer hack-work over time). It probably doesn't hurt that Leiber based the characters on real-life models, namely himself and his friend Harry Otto Fischer.

I've written about one of these stories previously, in the context of D&D thieves-reading-magic-scrolls. But I really started with Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser about a year ago with the comic collection by Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola -- comic artists I admire greatly -- which frankly left me a little cold. The action seemed random, unpredictable, and unmotivated. Fortunately, there is a short 10-page preview of the original text at the back, which itself I found to be electrifying. The answer to this riddle is the immensely strong narrator's voice used by Leiber, with all its flourishes of language, cosmic description, and internal monologues and conflicting desires; much like a movie based on similar books, any adaptation can't avoid losing the essence of the thing, namely the amazing richness of the written word.

Here are a few sections that struck me as particularly memorable from the brilliant, if relatively down-tempo, 1968 short story "The Wrong Branch" (which on the prior point, has almost no spoken dialogue at all). It starts with this:
It is rumored by the wise-brained rats which burrow the citied earth and by the knowledgeable cats that stalk its shadows and by the sagacious bats that wing its night and by the sapient zats which soar through airless space, slanting their metal wings to winds of light, that those two swordsmen and blood-brothers, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, have adventured not only in the World of Nehwon with its great empire of Lankhmar, but also in many other worlds and times and dimensions, arriving at these through certain secret doors far inside the mazy caverns of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes -- whose great cave, in this sense, exists simultaneously in many worlds and times. It is a Door, while Ningauble glibly speaks the languages of many worlds and universes, loving the gossip of all times and places.

And then, during a danger-filled sea voyage:
Near Kvarch Nar they did manage to reprovision, though only with coarse food and muddy river water. Shortly thereafter the seams of the Black Treasurer were badly strained and two opened by glancing collision with an underwater reef which never should have been where it was. The only possible point where they could careen and mend their ship was the tiny beach on the southwest side of the Dragon Rocks, and it took them two days of nip-and-tuck sailing and bailing to get them there with deck above water. Whereupon while one patched or napped, the other must stand guard against inquisitive two- and three-headed dragons and even an occasional monocephalic. When they got a cauldron of pitch seething for final repairs, the dragons all deserted them, put off by the black stuff's stink -- a circumstance which irked rather than pleased the two adventurers, since they hadn't had the wit to keep a pot of pitch a-boil from the start. (They were most touchy and thin-skinned now from their long run of ill fortune.)

And finally:
As they were anchoring in Ilthmar harbor,  the Black Treasurer literally fell apart like a joke-box, starboard side parting from larboard like two quarters of a split melon, while the mast and cabin, weighted by the keel, sank speedily as a rock.

Fafhrd and Mouser saved only the clothes they were in, their swords, dirk, and ax. And it was well they hung onto the latter, for while swimming ashore they were attacked by a school of sharks, and each man had to defend himself and comrade while swimming encumbered. Ilthmarts lining the quays and moles cheered the heroes and the sharks impartially, or rather as to how they had laid their money, the odds being mostly three-to-one against both heroes surviving, with various shorter odds on the big man, the little man, or one or the other turning the trick.

Ilthmarts are a somewhat heartless people and much given to gambling. Besides, they welcome sharks into their harbor, since it makes for an easy way of disposing of common criminals, robbed and drunken strangers, slaves grown senile or otherwise useless, and also assures that the shark-god's chosen victims will always be spectacularly received.

When Fafhrd and the Mouser finally staggered ashore panting, they were cheered by such Ilthmarts as had won money on them. A larger number were busy booing the sharks.

One thing is that Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories are the most pitch-perfect representations of D&D play that I've ever encountered; turned around, you could easily argue that D&D itself is basically a simulation of the rogues-from-Lankhmar stories. They are venal, bold and aggressive, sanguine and insouciant in the face of the greatest wonders and outrages, bonded as a team unquestioningly even with a background patter of ongoing, casual dispute.

Another thing that happened is that I adored the language and tone so much that I started reading passages, such as those above, aloud to my lovely girlfriend Isabelle. I completely hadn't noticed it previously, but her observation was that listening to the Gray Mouser was practically identical to just hearing me talk normally (incessantly skeptical, technical-minded, kind of cranky, etc.), and that conversations between the two of them had the exact tone of many of our own ("It's us!", she exclaimed). Apparently I'm being called "Gray Mouser" around here now, for at least a few days.

It's really a wonderful body of work. In particular, the novelette "Stardock" may be the single most perfect, fully-formed and satisfying fantasy adventure story that I've ever read. It's like a perfect little gem (ironically). Highest recommendation.