Monday, February 27, 2012

Light Posting

In the last two weeks: (a) I came down with the flu, (b) my computer crashed with a virus, and (c) my school almost tripled my normal workload for the semester starting this week. (And just for fun my desklamp also did a weeklong flickery crash-and-burn while I'm trying to pore over a new-to-me 1400-page math book, something out of a cyberpunk dystopia...)

So: I've got the first two items fixed in the last few days, but unfortunately a big backlog of email to which I just re-acquired access (big apologies to those who sent stuff and are waiting on replies from me). And even though I've got a big list of things that I'm eager to write about and get some feedback on, posting may be light for a few weeks. Fight on!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Damn You, Gygax! Part 3

More of the AD&D-intervention for places where Gygax fell down in the Dungeon Master's Guide. Today: Outdoor Movement.


Advanced D&D, Dungeon Master's Guide: Here's the Outdoor Movement table for AD&D.


Looks okay at first blush -- but try using it directly in-game. The numbers aren't evenly divisible by any common map scale (in fact, they can't be, except for a scale of 1 space = 1 mile). When I was playing with my books as-written all through my teenage years, I was constantly making little dots all over maps, trying to track party movement in fractional-hexes. Like if you were traveling with average gear through the woods of the World of Greyhawk (30-mile hexes), then I was making little 1/3-hex marks for every day of travel. Or if you were exploring the mountain wilds of Gygax's Dungeon Module S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (3.5 miles per hex) on heavy horses, then I was trying to make a mark every, um, 1.43 hexes or thereabouts. And worse: This doesn't even start to account for crossing multiple kinds of terrain in a single day, which technically would require pro-rating the movement in one region and calculating a proportion for what's left over for the next. Also: The terrain categories are abstracted, and looking at any map you've got a two-step process to convert terrain to general category to movement rate. And the carrying-weight burdens (given after the table) don't even synch up with the regular encumbrance categories seen elsewhere in the rules, either. It's a hot mess, I tell you!

Now let's look for the real origin of these movement rules...


Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival Game: Lest we forget: Outdoor Survival is part of Original D&D's "Recommended Equipment" (listed even before dice and Chainmail, in fact). It's the basis and presumed adventuring locale for the wilderness rules in OD&D Vol-3. Here's the sheet that comes with that game to display the Mapboard Movement Chart (thanks to BoardGameGeek):


Aha, now that's a lot more useful for gameplay! The terrain types are immediately keyed to what you see on the map, and they're given in whole-number costs to enter a hex. It's so obvious, really. You never need to deal with partial-hex movement, and cross-terrain travel is handled by simply deducting each hex-entry from an overall move-per-day. Very simple and manageable, and scaled to the gameplay at hand.

Two notes: The daily move rate for people afoot in this game starts out at 6 hexes/day (and decreases as health is lost from lack of food/water). And the scale is 3 miles (1 league) per hex -- that's not directly stated anywhere, but it can be inferred from the rules text. ("The mapboard is a representation of approximately 13,200 square miles of wilderness..."; and since the whole board is 34×43 hexes, assuming 3 miles per hex gives us the area of about 102×129 = 13,158 square miles.)


Original D&D Vol-3, Underworld & Wilderness Adventures: Basically, the Original D&D Wilderness rules are built directly on top of Outdoor Survival (and refer and depend on its map and rules throughout). Here are some parts of that:



So the overall mechanic is the same as Outdoor Survival (with some smallish adjustments). All travel is given a daily move-budget, and it's expressed directly in terms of hexagons on the map used in play. "All terrain penalties are as stated in OUTDOOR SURVIVAL", with adjudication done by paying for movement as each hex is entered (although swamp and mountain trail movement are given different values here; and note that no one's mentioned hills yet). Now that's immediately playable.

Also note also that the scale is different ("about 5 miles"), which is likely an intentional change, although it's not explained why (perhaps to cover more territory while adventuring?). It's approximately a doubling of scale, and the man-on-foot travel rate is correspondingly halved (3 hexes, instead of Outdoor Survival's base 6 hexes).


Summary: To come full circle, we can now return to the DMG movement chart and understand what's really happening there. Let's make an alternate view of it: Start with the "normal" move rates, make columns that just divide by 1, 2, and 3 respectively (as per move costs in Outdoor Survival and OD&D above), and then compare:


So those are pretty much the same (i.e., that's where the DMG numbers really come from), excusing some slight rounding in a different direction here and there. With one noticeable exception: The "very rugged" rates for movement on horseback are all further reduced a great deal, which is a fairly realistic handling of how horses fail to be useful for mountain-climbing purposes and the like. (I like this latter point, even though it was left out of later editions like B/X and 3E; I honor the idea in Book of War by doubling all move penalties for mounted troops).

Anyway, good to know that the Outdoor Survival movement costs are still "lurking" under the cover of the DMG (in fact, that's what most of the chart really boils down to). But the AD&D Outdoor Movement table is still not directly usable in-game, because it's not scaled to any particular map that we might use in play. The truth is, Gygax actually acknowledges this, but it's so curt that I always missed it as a young man (plus: it suffers from the table-distracts-from-text problem). Look closely one more time (DMG p. 58):


Right. So the DMG Outdoor Movement table isn't really intended to be used directly in play in the first place. You're supposed to "adapt them to the scale of your campaign maps accordingly. Some variation in movement rate is justifiable..." Or more directly stated: Take this as raw source material, and make your own table by dividing the numbers by your hex size in miles, rounding to the nearest whole number. Wow, that seems super-important now!

Recommended: The AD&D DMG Outdoor Movement table is acceptable as a starting point for wilderness play (it seems in-line with real-world research), but you have to do some derivation work. As we just stated: Divide the numbers by your hex scale and round off. Just do that with the "normal" terrain numbers, and in play assess costs of 2 hexes for rugged terrain (woods/hills) and 3 hexes for very rugged (mountains/swamp); payment is made as each hex is entered. Horses should be further penalized in very rugged terrain, perhaps most simply by just prohibiting movement altogether (unless map hexes are very finely grained).

For example, at the start of this week, I made a large-scale campaign map at a scale of 15 miles/5 leagues per hex (in fact: doing so is what motivated the series for this week). Here are the appropriate derived movement rates: 4 hexes/day for light horse, 3 for medium, 2 for foot/heavy horse/cart or wagon. Movement off-trail into a woods or hills space costs 2 points (i.e., halved; 1 hex on foot etc.). Travel through very rugged terrain -- like mountain climbing or a dread swamp -- is not appropriate at this particular scale, and should be shifted to a more zoomed-in map, with its own characteristic movement table (again taking the DMG table as a starting point).

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Damn You, Gygax! Part 2

A continuation of our if-you-love-someone-they-deserve-the-truth critique of some parts of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide: Let's talk Ships. This one I'll do in reverse order (or rather: the order in which I, and many others, discovered them):


Advanced D&D, Dungeon Master's Guide: The AD&D DMG has a very enticing section on ships. Hot damn, do I love ships! I analyzed this section over and over in my years, looking for ways to play with it. It has real-world historical background, hull values, ship sizes, wind determination, movement, recovery from fires, and some fairly short, general notes on boarding melees. Sounds great. Here are a few sample tables:




Looks good. But when you try to use this information, numerous sticking points arise. Why are the ship speeds given in miles-per-hour? The basic outdoor action in D&D is supposed to be either daily-turn long distance movement, or round-based combat, and this matches neither of them; is anyone running hour-turn action for ships, for some reason? If we want to use this for close-combat action (which is really main attraction, after all), then we'll have to do a bunch of math on these numbers ourselves in order to produce a game-able scale on the tabletop. Or else, if you want to use it for daily long-range travel then you need to add some off-book assumptions about how many hours per day sailing/rowing is possible, and do math in the other direction. And there's no given way for the wind-direction generated to interact with the sailing direction (I wound up doing more math/research on sailing points myself); and there's also a mystery of what to do with all those wind speed categories, when the move table only mentions a single one of them (Strong Breeze). And the ship-size information is somewhat interesting, but it's missing the real main course: How many fighting men can I put on deck? Exactly how many catapults are mounted on those ships? How much cargo/treasure can I sail away with? All those key details for a freebooting adventurer's game are, frustratingly, missing.


Original D&D Vol-3, Underworld & Wilderness Adventures: I open up the OD&D little-brown-book analog to the DMG, and -- holy crap, it's all right there (moves in inches/round, etc.):





There's really not much more to say about it than that. OD&D has concrete, immediately game-able stats for men, movement, maneuverability, etc., scaled the same as the core game; the wind speed and direction tables interface directly with how the sailed movement table is set up; and so on. We now see that the AD&D ship section is a higher-order abstraction, with very general notes on how ships sort-of might function; but they're only fully usable as an add-on and expansion to the real thing that exists in OD&D. Why the OD&D ship-fighting rules weren't included wholesale in AD&D is a tragedy and a mystery that I'm utterly at a loss to explain.


Recommended: Look at OD&D Vol-3 if you want to do ship-to-ship combat in D&D. No ifs-ands-or-buts. It's the best, most coherent and concise group of ship-based rules for D&D ever written (and it even interfaces with Gygax & Arneson's earlier Don't Give Up the Ship! historical game if you look really, really closely). Use that, period.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Damn You, Gygax! Part 1

I will now celebrate WOTC's upcoming re-release of the AD&D hardcover books by complaining about them -- particularly the DMG.


Of course, this is a little bit tongue-in-cheek. Like many other old-school pundits, I do think that Gygax's Dungeon Master's Guide is among the top books you should have and read in order to understand the classic game (and generally how to DM a D&D campaign). It's discursive, literary, free-wheeling, and gives great insight to the mindset of the creator. When I was a teenager, I would constantly bring the DMG with me on road trips and read its many lengthy passages on the game to try to understand them, and then re-read them again later on.

But it's not all wine-and-roses. Gygax made at least a few serious missteps in switching from Original D&D's little-brown-books to the AD&D hardcovers (or perhaps he took for granted certain knowledge from OD&D, and overlooked needing to reiterate those pieces in AD&D). He really could have used a strong 2nd-in-command editor figure, like an Arneson or a Holmes or someone like that. As a young player, I can recall many moments of semi-frustration trying to make certain parts of the game work; not until I acquired OD&D much later (start of this blog) did I see the origin of those components, and how much better they work in their original OD&D state.

The broad theme of these pieces will be: The perilous desire to take an early, satisfying game mechanic and make it over-generalized, too abstract, and non-concrete. Like: An attempt to "cover everyone's use cases" (thanks, XKCD!), or assuming that providing an abstract template and letting gamers "skin" it to their own game will be adequate (esp., thinking of the case of brand-new players). Stuff like that. Here's one short-ish early example: Disease.


Original D&D, Supplement II (Blackmoor): Diseases first appeared in Original D&D via Dave Arneson's Blackmoor supplement. Here's a bit of the introductory text and the key table (plus separate short paragraphs on each disease type and overall mechanics, running about 3 half-pages):



So: They key things here are that we're seeing real-world medieval diseases being given game mechanics -- the game refers to, and models, something outside itself; in addition to being playable, it's also a vehicle to learn more about our own world. The number of diseases is fairly limited; about a dozen, which is manageable and fairly memorable. And it's not a re-write of our core campaign sensibility; as the opening paragraph states, it's "optional, and primarily concerns the Gamemaster, as it is incumbent upon him to determine if the disease exists" (kind of like a new monster or trap type). You even get some explanation of designer attempt, about how diseases are important in our world, and thus the game. While I'm not totally thrilled with the mechanics as written, it's coherent enough that you get in and tweak them if you desire.


Advanced D&D, Dungeon Master's Guide: Now, here in the AD&D DMG you see what Gygax does to the system when he gets his hands on it:



Key point: In AD&D, you don't see specific diseases anymore; now they're fully abstracted and what you get is a severity, occurrence, and body area, in modern quasi-medical lingo, like a "mild, chronic nose-throat disorder" (quick, refer me to a good nose-throat specialist!). What you don't get is any in-world name for the disease (unless you want to make one up yourself or do outside research). Also, if you multiply out all the combinations of body part, occurrence, and severity, what you get is something like 110 different maladies; arguably a good thing if you want lots of variety, but too much for me (for example) to remember or name or get "system mastery" around as DM. And the introductory paragraphs don't make this sound like an option any more -- "Each game month check for each character to determine if he or she has become infested...". The section also appears very near the start of the DMG (page 13), even before ability scores, races, or classes are explained, making it seem even more like a core piece of the game campaign system.

As a young man, I indeed read this as a key expected component of the AD&D game, and I was regularly trying to roll that random 2% chance for disease & infestation on a weekly/monthly basis, as indicated. But more importantly, taking out concrete, named, player-identifiable and era-appropriate diseases and replacing them with abstract gobbledeygook is nigh-unforgivable to me.


3rd Edition D&D, Dungeon Master's Guide: Let's also check in on the much later 3rd Edition iteration:
Disease: When a character is injured by a contaminated attack, touches an item smeared with diseased matter, or consumes disease-tainted food or drink, he must make an immediate Fortitude saving throw. If he succeeds, the disease has no effect—his immune system fought off the infection. If he fails, he takes damage after an incubation period. Once per day afterward he must make a successful Fortitude saving throw to avoid repeated damage. Two successful saving throws in a row indicate that he has fought off the disease and recovers, taking no more damage.


Okay, so now we're back to a small number of specific diseases, and they once again have names. Only problem: In the evolution from OD&D to AD&D to 3E, they've lost any connection to the real world (or I'd even take myth or literature) and become pure fantasy, self-referential, gamist nonsense.


Summary: Looking at 3E, I honestly do think this material for diseases is better than the 1E AD&D system (and I was much relieved to see it when 3E was published). Concrete details beat abstract talking-at-me. But in my book, it's definitely beat out by Arneson's system in OD&D, which is even more anchored by being related to the real world. Say to a player that they've got "the plague" or "smallpox" and they immediately know what they're dealing with and how horrible it is -- they don't have to go parsing/interpreting game mechanics before getting a gut-feeling for the badness. And that's what role-playing should really be about; hitting you in the gut, immediately, with descriptive detail and then letting the mechanics support that drama with oracular dice rolls and similar means.

Recommended: Disease system in Original D&D Sup-II by Arneson. Use specific real-world diseases as a default basis if possible, and let the DM make up their own specific fantasy stuff for their own campaign if so inclined.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday Night Book of War

Here's a game from back in December which doesn't involve myself or anyone else that's previously seen the Book of War game. My girlfriend has some good acquaintances she works with occasionally on art business, and they visited us for an afternoon with their teenaged sons and a friend, for the express purpose of me introducing them to the game. (I'd previously talked up the game to the parents, by way of explaining the kind of thing I spend my time on.)

First of all, I surveyed them on their prior strategy game experience. What I got back was that at least one of them had played each of: Warcraft, Starcraft, and League of Legends (all computer games, obviously). They did say that they'd played some version of D&D in the past. No one had ever played any tabletop wargame (including Warhammer or anything else). I decided to start them off easy, using the Basic game only with 100 point armies of their selection. The game was sufficiently brief that I can show every turn below:


Turn 1A -- As you can see, the players will be fighting among a series of Hills, around a Stream which bisects the battlefield. The first-mover, in red at the bottom of the table (I'll call him "A"), has selected 4 light infantry, 5 archer, 2 pike, and 3 horse archer figures; he's mostly moved the full forward, with archers climbing the hill on his side, and horse archers stepping partway into the stream mid-table. His opponent, mostly in blue at the top (call him "J"), has taken 2 medium cavalry, 6 medium infantry, 3 longbow, and 3 pike figures; he'll move next.



Turn 1B -- J is maneuvering his cavalry and infantry complement around the hill on the far left, using the hill as cover from potential archery attacks (although getting a bit hung up in the narrow gap). On the right, pikes have moved forward full, and longbows have not yet made the top of their hill (staying behind the slower, protective medium infantry). Still no attacks to this point.



Turn 2A -- On the left, A moves his infantry ahead through the stream, and his archers take the top of the hill (no other movement). With only one obvious target, both archers and horse archers start shooting at J's forward-charging pikes, and the barrage of 11 dice wipes them all out (already removed from the board below).



Turn 2B -- In response, J gets his cavalry to charge on the left, catching A's infantry just as they're coming out of the stream -- a good position for J, because his cavalry get full attacks and rout the infantry. On the right, infantry and longbows take their hill, and get half-dice shots at the horse archers; but only 1 hit results (not enough to remove a figure).



Turn 3A -- On the right, A's horse archers are still kept stationary in the stream -- so they get full shots at the longbows, and now they wipe out that whole unit! (Leaving J with no remaining missile troops.) A has also pushed his small pike unit across the stream. On the left, the red archers have turned to fire at the medium cavalry, but only 1 hit results there.



Turn 3B -- An important move for J, who is now rather clearly at a disadvantage. On the right, his infantry charge the horse archers in the stream -- not a bad move, because this ends their bow-fire, and horses lose their double-attacks in terrain such as this; one horse-archer figure has been eliminated, but they do pass their morale check. On the left, something very bad has happened; J ordered a charge of his cavalry at the archers, but he underestimated how much cavalry would be penalized for a move across a stream and up two tiers of hill -- the result is that they don't actually cover the distance, and are here shown working their up the hill below the red archers. Somewhat better, J's infantry are pursuing the fleeing enemy infantry, and gotten another hit from behind that way.



Turn 4A -- On the left, A's archers let loose full attacks at point-blank range at the oncoming medium cavalry, and the enemy unit is entirely destroyed. On the right, A's pikes have wheeled around onto the back of J's infantry, killing all but a single figure from the edge of the stream (who is now routed). All the horse archers really had to do here was keep the enemy boxed up in the stream. There's one turn after this -- J's remaining infantry charge halfway at the archers on the left in desperation, and then likewise get shot down. (The picture is too blurry so I'll skip it.) First victory to A and his excellent Archers!



Commentary -- Really interesting to see first-ever players come to the game, and I'd say that they had enough familiarity with history and strategy games in general that their intuitions were really quite fine. In this game you could see something of the first-mover advantage assisting A, in that he got his archers positioned in the middle of the board (and on top of a hill) first, allowing them the first opportunity for full-shot attacks. The other thing that's very common is for first-time players to underestimate how really crippling rough terrain is for cavalry; here on Turn 3B J thought he could get his cavalry across a stream & hills in a single charge, and that turned out not to be the case (although he got pretty close); probably he'd be more observant of that in the future. And one other thing is the many interesting uses of horse archers: in the post last week, we saw my friend BQ using them a lot in a highly mobile half-shot-on-the-run strategy, whereas here we see A using them quite successfully in a run-to-the-center and then set up as full-shot artillery tactic. There are other uses, as well.

So: A great game. Helped a lot by my girlfriend entertaining the parents while we played, and making also French-style chocolate crepes for everyone involved. A few weeks later we got a text that the boys were holed up in their basement playing Book of War on their own all weekend, and I'll have to say that's the highest compliment possible. Fight on!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book of War: Random Armies

Some evenings my girlfriend wants to play Book of War, but she's not so interested in the meta-game step of designing the army beforehand. So she actually asked to be able to roll a die and randomly pick an army that one of us has used recently (saving the step for her, while I still craft my forces). Here's the results of that, broken down by ruleset of the game you might opt to play with. Numbers below are in miniature figures (×10 for individual non-hero creatures), and in each case the price points add up to 300 or a bit less.


Basic Game
  1. 40 pikemen, 20 crossbows.
  2. 12 heavy cavalry, 12 archers.
  3. 8 horse archers, 21 medium infantry, 7 archers.
  4. 10 horse archers, 10 light cavalry, 20 light infantry.
  5. 9 heavy cavalry, 16 light infantry, 9 heavy crossbows.
  6. 6 heavy cavalry, 25 archers, 3 medium infantry.


Advanced Game
  1. 6 heavy cavalry, 11 elf archers, 18 pikemen.
  2. 2 trolls, 3 ogres, 16 orc archers.
  3. Red dragon, hill giants, trolls, 20 archers.
  4. Blue dragon, storm giant, 3 heavy cavalry, 31 orc archers.
  5. Red dragon, storm giant, 10 horse archers, 21 medium infantry.
  6. Trolls, 1 each dragon (blue, red, gold), 30 goblin infantry.

Wizards Game
  1. Wizard (rank 1), trolls, 16 orc archers, 16 goblin infantry.
  2. Wizard (rank 3), gold dragon, 18 pikemen, 12 crossbows.
  3. Wizard (rank 3), red dragon, trolls, 10 goblin archers, 6 goblin infantry.
  4. Wizard (rank 4), men elite cavalry, 25 orc medium infantry.

(Remember to pick fire/lightning wand and appropriate greater spells for each wizard.)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Spells Through the Ages -- Phantasmal Forces

Did you know that the very first spell presented in the Chainmail fantasy game is "phantasmal forces"? (Granted that things like personal invisibility, infravision, fireballs, lightning bolts, and dispels were basically at-will special abilities at the time.) Some time ago, I had a character generated with a certain magic item that made me curious about the history of illusions in D&D. As it turns out, a rather unusually large number of changes have been made over the years.


Chainmail Fantasy -- Here's how it begins in Chainmail:

Phantasmal Forces: The creation of the apparition of a unit or creature for four turns, maxi-duration. (Complexity 2) [CM, p. 31]
Wow, we do like things to be short, don't we? The interesting thing here, compared to later editions, is that the spell simply creates a temporary unit in your man-to-man skirmish game. ("Forces", as in "any organized group of soldiers, sailors, etc.", per Webster's.) Presumably the unit is fully functional the same as any other (re: move, attacks, and damage), but merely temporary? Apparently you're conjuring ghost-like warriors to fight for you, something like a proto-monster summoning spell, or the "Shadow Host" from the end of Lord of the Rings. I thought it was really interesting to realize where the name came from originally.


Original D&D -- Next let's look at the spell list in Original D&D, Volume 1:
Phantasmal Forces: The creation of vivid illusions of nearly anything the user envisions (a projected mental image so to speak). As long as the caster concentrates on the spell, the illusion will continue unless touched by some living creature, so there is no limit on duration, per se. Damage caused to viewers of a Phantasmal Force will be real if the illusion is believed to be real. Range: 24". [Vol-1, p. 24]
Now the spell has become a general-purpose illusion spell (2nd-level). It's still called "phantasmal forces", plural. The effect is also cited by the wand of illusion in Vol-2. While illusory, it can still cause real damage (in the tradition of Chainmail fighting forces, I assume?) But now, a major contradiction: The illusion does damage if believed to be real, yet it disappears when touched by any living creature. Personally, I'm having a hard time imagining any circumstances where the illusion could cause damage without touching the victim in question (and thereby disappearing and disrupting the effect, right?)


Advanced D&D 1E -- Now consider the AD&D Player's Handbook:
Phantasmal Force (Illusion/Phantasm): ... When this spell is cast, the magic-user creates a visual illusion which will affect all believing creatures which view the phantasmal force, even to the extent of suffering damage from phantasmal missiles or from falling into an illusory pit full of sharp spikes. Note that audial illusion is not a component of the spell. The illusion lasts until struck by an opponent - unless the spell caster causes the illusion to react appropriately - or until the magic-user ceases concentration upon the spell (due to desire, moving, or successful attack which causes damage). Creatures which disbelieve the phantasmal force gain a saving throw versus the spell, and if they succeed, they see it for what it is and add +4 to associates’ saving throws if this knowledge can be communicated effectively. Creatures not observing the spell effect are immune until they view it. The spell can create the illusion of any object, or creature, or force, as long as it is within the boundaries of the spell’s area of effect. This area can move within the limits of the range. The material component of the spell is a bit of fleece. [PHB, p. 75]
At this point, the spell is called "phantasmal force" in the singular, and it's been bumped up to 3rd-level. There's generally a lot more detail here (the general-purpose is expanded into "any object, or creature, or force", the "visual" but not "audial" component is specified, etc.) It still does actual damage, and the spell can be maintained after contact due to the "unless the spell caster causes the illusion to react appropriately" clause (and I presume that any spellcaster would do so by default). There's a small bit of addendum in the DMG (p. 45): "The magic-user must know of and understand the force/creature he/she is making an illusion of."

Now, there's a number of things that trouble me about this version (which may be the one most familiar to many of us). One is the possibility of falling into illusory pits: Apparently the spell is so strong that the viewers can go into a hallucinatory state and not even know what their physical location is. (What is seen by outsiders, the victim flailing prone on the floor? Is the victim unable to see the presumably occluded caster? How does the victim return mentally to their actual real-world location? Does stepping onto an illusory bridge cause one & one's associates to mentally see themselves as walking forward when they're actually falling to their doom?)

More importantly, though, is the mother-of-all-complications, that line that says, "Creatures which disbelieve the phantasmal force gain a saving throw versus the spell", resulting in fifty thousand AD&D players shouting "I disbelieve!!" at every encounter for the next decade, on the off chance that it was an illusion and they could save against it. What other D&D spell requires a specific technical meta-game action like this before a save is allowed? And how does the DM adjudicate this for monsters?

This difficulty generated a few different articles in Dragon magazines of the era, which I'll briefly survey here. In Dragon #43, Philip Meyers ("Now you see it... but is it really there?", Nov-1980) presents a system for deciding when monsters will opt to "disbelieve". Illusions are ranked by the DM on a 6-point scale as to believability, then cross-referenced with the Intelligence score and some other modifiers, and percentile dice are rolled; success indicates the need for a follow-up saving throw. In Dragon #66, Tom Armstrong ("Is it really real?", Oct-1982) makes a case that the damage potential is realistic in that it simulates a "shock" effect (i.e., acute stress disorder, with reference to a medical book from 1919 by Virgil H. Moon, and news stories from 1979), whereas illusory healing could not have the same effect (exception: illusory damage could be recorded separately and then healed with an illusory cleric); and he recommends abandoning the Meyers method in favor of a single saving throw for monsters, "secretly modified by the DM if the situation warrants it." Meanwhile, a sidebar by Quinn & Young ("Familiarity factor prevents illusionists from stealing the show") also recommends a single-saving throw method, with specific bonuses based on spell level, Intelligence, and familiarity of the actual phenomena to the caster. In short, many of us struggled with both the spell's damage-dealing capacity, and the devilish "creatures which disbelieve" clause from the PHB.


Advanced D&D 2E -- In 2nd Edition the spell drops all the way down to 1st-level, but the effect is (as usual) mostly just copied from the preceding:
Phantasmal Force (Illusion/Phantasm): ... This spell creates the illusion of any object, creature, or force, as long as it is within the boundaries of the spell's area of effect. The illusion is visual and affects all believing creatures (undead are immune) that view it. It does not create sound, smell, or temperature. Effects that depend on these senses usually fail. The illusion lasts until struck by an opponent--unless the spellcaster causes the illusion to react appropriately--or until the wizard ceases concentration upon the spell (due to desire, moving, or a successful attack that causes damage). Saving throws for illusions are explained under "Illusions" in Chapter 7: Magic and under "Adjudicating Illusions" at the beginning of Appendix 2. Creatures that disbelieve the illusion see it for what it is and add +4 to associates' saving throws if this knowledge can be communicated effectively. Creatures believing the illusion are subject to its effects (again, as explained in Chapter 7). The illusionary effect can be moved by the caster within the limits of the area of effect. The DM has to rule on the effectiveness of this spell; detailed guidelines are outlined in Chapter 7: Magic and under "Adjudicating Illusions" at the beginning of Appendix 2. The material component of the spell is a bit of fleece. [2E PHB]
So again, this is mostly the same effect, but now at 1st-level. What of the Chapter 7 reference? Well, the text for the effect now explodes into a whole partial-chapter, running some 20 paragraphs long -- plus another 12 paragraphs in Appendix 2. In general, it's the standard 2E vagary of the, "You could consider this! Or consider this! Or consider this!" variety, without any concrete game-mechanics to back them up. A few exceptions: The "actively disbelieve" requirement is maintained before a save is allowed (DM fiat for monsters). They don't cause "real" damage, but do cause "illusory" damage which is recorded separately by the DM; when 0 hp is reached, a system-shock roll is made to determine survival. Characters can still mentally fall into an illusory pit or "lean" against an illusory wall, but if pushed externally then they'll be surprised to find themselves falling through it (uh, what?)


Dungeons & Dragons 3E -- Now in 3E, there is no longer any spell by the name "phantasmal force", but there are similar illusory spells at both 1st and 2nd level (and more at higher levels, too):

Silent Image: Illusion (Figment)... This spell creates the visual illusion of an object, creature, or force, as visualized by the character. The illusion does not create sound, smell, texture, or temperature. The character can move the image within the limits of the size of the effect.

Minor Image:
Illusion (Figment) ... This spell creates the visual illusion of an object, creature, or force, as visualized by the character. The spell includes some minor sounds but not understandable speech. The illusion does not create smell, texture, or temperature. The character can move the image within the limits of the size of the effect. [SRD]
Silent image is very similar to 2E's phantasmal force, with the 2nd-level minor image differing only with the addition of some non-speech, minor sounds. But overall, the spell descriptions here are radically shortened, with the heavy lifting all moved off to a special chapter section on illusions/figments (following the lead of 2E). In that section, the biggest change is that they simply "cannot cause damage to objects or creatures... these spells are useful for confounding or delaying foes, but useless for attacking them directly" [3E PHB, p. 158]. You still need to "disbelieve" before a saving throw is allowed, but this doesn't need to be a proactive decision: "interaction" suffices, and "faced with incontrovertible proof" (like falling through an illusory wall), one auto-saves against the effect.


Holmes Basic D&D -- Now we'll check in on the parallel line of Basic D&D. In the Holmes blue-book we see this:

Phantasmal Forces -- Level 2; Range: 240 feet; Duration: Infinite. Creation of vivid illusions of nearly anything the user envisions (a kind of projected mental image). The illusion persists as long as the caster concentrates on it unless it is touched by a living creature. Damage caused by the illusion will be real if the illusion is believed to be real. Note the illusion is visual and not auditory. [Holmes, p. 16]
So this is pretty much a copy-and-paste operation on the spell from Original D&D, with some minor re-ordering of the sentence structures. The name is still "forces" plural, the subject matter is still totally open-ended, and damage inflicted is real. The "no audio" which we otherwise first saw in 1E AD&D has been ported in here, as well.


Moldvay Basic D&D -- Now here's Tom Moldvay's take on the issue (again, 2nd level):

Phantasmal Force -- Range: 240'; Duration: concentration. This spell creates or changes appearances within the area of the spell effect: up to a 20' × 20' × 20' cube. The caster should create an illusion of something he or she has seen. If not, the DM should give a bonus to saving throws against this spell's attacks. If the caster does not use the spell to attack, the illusion will disappear if it is touched. If the spell is used to "create" a monster, it will have an Armor Class of 9 and will disappear if hit. If the spell is used as an attack (a false magic missile, a collapsing wall, etc.), the attack will not affect a victim who saves vs. Spells. If the caster moves or is affected by any attack in combat, the illusion will disappear and not return. This spell never inflicts any real damage. Those "killed" will pass out, those "turned to stone" will be paralyzed, and so forth. These effects will wear off in 1-4 (1d4) turns. [Moldvay p. B17-B18]
So once again, we see Moldvay here doing yeoman's work in detecting the trouble spots of classic D&D and making very legitimate, pretty elegant fixes where needed. Apparently he's the first one to switch off the "real damage" component of the spell, to give specific mechanics to hitting and disrupting the illusion (AC9, any hit dispels), and to crack down on the concentration of magic-users using the spell. This is pretty good stuff, and it's unique to his branch of the game; it was maintained unchanged throughout the later Mentzer D&D and Allston Rules Cyclopedia editions.


Summary -- Phantasmal force(s) was one of the most problematic spells in D&D editions 0-2. In fact, it ping-ponged around different levels more than any other spell in the game (initially 2nd, then 3rd, then 1st), as designers struggled with exactly how powerful the effect was supposed to be (and depending greatly on DM adjudication). Major problem (1) is that the effect was completely open-ended, limited only by the player-caster's imagination, and could cause actual damage based on that effect. In fact: a permitted example in the 2E text is for the (1st-level) spell to create a ceiling cave-in for an automatic kill. (Holy crap!) Or, you could simulate a meteor swarm, an earthquake, gating in Orcus, or whatever else you like, for full actual effect. (2) Would be the fact that gauging "believability" on the part of the DM is practically impossible in the context of a fantasy world. For example, all of the previously suggested catastrophes are, indeed, actual permitted attack forms in AD&D. (3) Is the need for the "disbelieve!" request, which is a narrow meta-game technical demand on the players (consider that new players won't naturally know about this possibility?), and a critical piece of DM fiat for any monsters.

Unlike many other famous game effects, the fundamental tension here arose in the switch from Chainmail to original Dungeons & Dragons, where the spell changed from a ghostly fighting force to an all-purpose illusory image. The built-in contradiction between "ends if touched" and "damage is real if believed" was never fully resolved. Personally, I think that any of the following would have been reasonable mechanics by themselves: (1) ghostly fighters with fixed stats, (2) a "shocking" effect with fixed damage, or (3) a visual mirage with no capacity to damage. But the open-ended effect, real-but-not-real damage, "I disbelieve!", and may-or-may-not end on contact, was something of a continuing open sore throughout the AD&D era.


[Illustration by CapCat Ragu under CC2.]

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Super Saturday: Shift X

In the past week, this blog hit 150+ followers, making it officially "Shift X" as per the Sorcerer's Skull OSR Blogger Advancement Table, Superhero Flavor (otherwise known as the Marvel FASERIP Universal Table). Zounds, that's as powerful as when Thor hits you with his hammer!

As always, big thanks to everyone who reads and/or comments here. :-)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday Night Book of War

Last weekend I had the good fortune of having my friend BostonQuad come down and visit me in Brooklyn. Although not traditionally a big RPG'er or wargamer, I've managed to suck him into miniature wargaming via Book of War, and he's been cooking up strategies to use against me for a few months now. We played several games over the course the weekend; in the first one, with Basic-only units (historical), he managed to craftily hold me off and beat me (with end game being pikes vs. cavalry to my disadvantage). In the second one I figured I'd shake things up with some fantasy units he hadn't considered before: namely, a big army of Goblins. As we saw on Monday, Goblins statistically are just as difficult to kill as any other 1HD unit type (even though in D&D they have a one-hit-point penalty, and also a Morale penalty from fighting in daylight). So here's how that played out:


Start -- 300 Points; Advanced Rules for Mass Units Only. At the top, BQ has selected a small group of powerful and expensive figures; starting with Pikes, Longbows, and Medium Cavalry, adding a group of Horse Archers, and on the extreme top-right: a single figure of Elite Cavalry (representing 10 level 3 fighters riding heavy warhorses in plate; costing 90 points just for the single figure). On top of that, he's also taken 3 figures of Elite Elves (3rd level fighter/magic-users; another 90 points for the group), who you don't see in the picture because they're allowed to start off invisibly anywhere on the table. At the bottom, I've got 32 Goblin Infantry, 16 Goblin Archers, and 10 Wolf Riders organized into various units, plus 1 Gnoll figure on the far right with the money I had left over (representing an army of almost 600 individual creatures, as usual). We've also rolled up quite a lot of heavy terrain -- three Woods and one Marsh tile -- which should serve to hamper each side's archery & cavalry. I'll be moving first.



Turn 2 -- Right on the first turn, I ran into trouble. I pushed all of my forces as far forward as I could (9" afoot, 12" on wolves), but with no attack possible. My opponent moved up his pikes & longbows group, getting a half-dice shot at my vanguard Goblin infantry, and managed to hit with all of his dice and rout me! Then the uncomfortable problem is that with so many units, and relatively little open space on my side, this group is liable to rout back into my own forces and trigger a domino-like series of routs throughout my army. Fortunately, I was able to right-face the archers behind them and clear off to the side (although I'll get no attacks from them this turn). Meanwhile, my left-hand archers returned withering fire, wiping out most of his pikes and routing the longbows. Other moves happen for my big Infantry unit into the far woods, and the smaller Wolf infantry wheeling into the center of the table. For some reason, that caused a long out-of-room discussion with the neutral on-site moderator. Hmm, wonder what that was about.


Turn 3 -- The opponent's last move was to charge his remaining Pikes at my Wolf Riders in the center of the board, but they scored no hits. (He's also maneuvering his cavalry around in the backfield.) Here I've pulled my wolves away (don't want to risk the hideous pike defense bonus attack), so that the archers can pivot towards the Pikes and shoot them all dead. Also, I've managed to un-rout my retreating infantry near the bottom (an unlikely roll!), and bring a big infantry unit to block his hesitating Elite Heavy Cavalry on the far-right board.



Turn 4 -- In the last two turns, my opponent used his Horse Archers to move-and-shoot at my archers in the center (after which I sent them into the woods for cover), followed by a move to the corner of the marsh, at the halfway point of which he scored some hits on my main Wolf pack. His Elite Cavalry charged into battle on the right, and since my Gnolls are threatening to get their back, the enemy Medium Cavalry has plunged into the woods as a counter. But the most important thing is this -- his invisible Elite Elves have finally appeared in the bottom left, behind my lines, and nearly massacred all my Archers on that side with longbow-fire. Ouch! But perhaps even more amazingly: I roll "double 6's" on the Morale check and those normally-panic-stricken Goblins don't even have the sense to run from this (they may be slow, cheap, and cowardly, but at least they're really stupid).



Turn 5 -- My big Wolf Rider unit does an about-face and heads back to try and deal with those Elite Elves. Here the Elves pour bowfire into the onrushing Wolves -- killing 2 figures, but again Morale stays good (fortunately for me). Elsewhere: My Goblins trade some shots with the Horse Archers across the Marsh, and on the far right Elite Cavalry battle with masses of Goblins, while others maneuver towards each other in the woods.



Turn 7 -- I manage to rather decisively crush the Elves. In the prior turn, my Wolves attacked and killed a figure (exactly 3 hits), and then the Elves routed; however, effectively surrounded, they had no choice but to stay and fight. On this turn I opted to pull my Wolves back out of melee and let the Archers mow down the enemy, finishing them off after some 16-dice rolls of fire. But the enemy has been more successful in other locations; my Archers near the marsh are now dead (because of the Horse Archers), and not one but two Goblin Infantry units have been met and routed on the right-hand side of the board. However, other goblin units are bearing down to press the attack in their place.



Turn 8 -- On the far right, the Elite Cavalry is harassed from both sides; here they're cutting down the Gnolls but at the same time being charged from the rear by Wolves. The big Goblin Infantry unit in the woods is starting to envelop and pull down Medium Cavalry, who are at a great disadvantage in the rough terrain. On the left, I'm sending Wolves & Archers against the Horse Archers, who have managed to shoot down some and (finally) rout the Wold Riders. They'll flee off the table next turn, but the action has given cover to my Archers to move into position for some deadly shots when they go next.



Turn 10 -- Wolves finally kill the Elite Cavalry! Elsewhere, the Medium Cavalry and Horse Archers have likewise been taken down by my forces. The fleeing infantry even managed to un-rout with another roll of "double 6's", and were coming back to apply more pressure if needed. Victory to the Goblin Army!



Commentary -- Although BostonQuad played very well and beat me in our first game of the weekend, there were a bunch of things happening here that possibly threw him off his game. One was my using Goblins against him, which he hadn't previously had time to analyze (partly I was really eager to make use of the awesome goblin army miniatures that I'd just recently acquired). Two was that he's a bit new to using some of the terrain, which was abundant here and tripped him up on a few occasions (like not realizing you could shoot over Marsh, or just how dreadful it is to get cavalry stuck in Woods). Three was that I just generally got spectacular dice-rolls, particular with the Goblin morale checks which should mostly fall quite quickly, but here kept them in the game much longer than normal (even un-routing twice, very unlikely).

But there were a few things here that we might take as object lessons. Like, I was thrilled to have his mighty Elite Cavalry figure get bottled up in the narrow channel on the extreme right of the board, where they could be kept isolated from the rest of his army and ultimately surrounded and overwhelmed. Likewise, his Horse Archers got bogged down on the extreme opposite side, allowing me to control the center and keep his army split. And the fact that his Elite Elves were forced to keep hiding right next to where I kept my main Wolf pack in reserve, not appearing until late in Turn 4, kept almost a third the value of his army off the board until after I'd already gained some advantage. I'm guessing that it won't be nearly this easy (such as it was) the next time I play him.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Modern/Future Question

Observation -- Back in the 3E era, when it was announced that the new kernel of the classic Fantasy D&D rules would be released in an open SRD, and in addition there would be compatible Modern and Future rulesets, I thought that was totally the best idea since sliced bread. Totally psyched. Then I saw those rules - and actually tried to use them - and that feeling completely sputtered, gasped, and died. In particular, the whole superstructure of generic classes, elite classes, skill points, etc., just collapsed on me. Even I was overwhelmed by the math required to make pregen characters of basic pedigree (space marine, starship pilot, etc., who by the system would have to be at least 5th level and a combination of several classes to make work -- like in my attempt at converting Alternity Starcraft material; see bottom here).

Frequently I find my mind returning to the prospect of having a complete system, compatible with my D&D game, which expands across multiple genres, particularly Modern & Future. Ideally it would: (1) use the same core mechanics as OD&D or something close to it (AC, hit dice, hit points, d20-attack rolls, 6 abilities, etc.), and (2) have around 4 career-themed core classes something like: Soldier (Str), Technician (Int), Medic (Wis), and Diplomat (Cha). [NOT the Strong Hero, Smart Hero, etc. equivocal paste that d20 Modern came up with.] Sometimes I think about writing that up. But before I do that...

Question -- Has anyone already done such a thing? What OSR (or whatever) product comes the closest to what I just described?