Monday, October 6, 2014

Orc & Goblin Light Penalties

I've always been frustrated with D&D's rule for Orc & Goblin light penalties. For example, here it is for goblins in the AD&D Monster Manual:


This is basically repeated in the entries for kobolds and orcs. It's always seemed to me that the −1 attack modifier is really too small to make any real difference. In fact: These days I'm of the mind set that I don't want to deal with any situational ±1 modifiers at all; the payoff from such things is almost surely not worth the mental effort spent tracking them. Certainly we can agree that a 1 in 20 difference does not resemble the complete abhorrence of daylight that you see in say, Tolkien's goblins or northern orcs.

I've known that this modifier had its origins in Chainmail, and assumed that the difference in scale to the combat mechanics was to blame, and that when viewed in those rules it would work in a rational and significant fashion. Let's actually look at that today, which I'd never done before. The interesting thing is that you have to join up three separate tables before you see the actual result in those rules. First, the text unit description (p. 29):


Note that the original had both a −1 modifier to morale and a −1 to "any die rolled"; this was included by reference in the entry for Orcs. Note also that this attack modifier was copied forward to any later version of D&D that we might care about. The −1 to morale was copied into Original D&D (which ostensibly makes use of Chaimail's inscrutable morale rules), but does not appear in Holmes or Moldvay Basic or AD&D, as seen above.This is slightly strange because Moldvay has excellent and highly playable morale rules in which the −1 modifier would be quite well-balanced, and technically there are percentage-based morale rules in the AD&D DMG (even if no one ever used them).

Second, let's look at the Chainmail Fantasy Reference Table near the end of the book (p. 43), where we can see exactly how well goblins and orcs normally fight:


As we can see in the 2nd-to-last column, each of these types attack as "Heavy Foot" (the middle of the 3 infantry types, equivalent to men in chain mail armor). But what does that mean, exactly? Now we flip back a few pages to the Chainmail Combat Tables (p. 40):


The "-" are organizational dashes (not subtractions), so see what the mechanic is here: Players attacking with these types of units will be rolling some handfuls of d6's, the number based on a ratio of attackers to defending types. In every case except one (light foot defending) kills are only possible when some dice show a perfect "6". Therefore: When orcs/goblins fight in daylight, and take a −1 modifier on their attack dice, then the highest they can roll is 5 and it is totally impossible for them to score hits on any opponent except light foot!

That seems like an amazing result when I noticed it tonight. In some wordings, you could sort of try to interpret it as "losing one of the dice they get to roll", but in truth the original language for Chainmail goblins, as shown above ("subtract 1... from any die rolled") can't be read that way -- it's not one subtracted from "dice", it's "any die", that is, every individual die clearly must get the same subtraction from its rolled result.

Amazing! As much as I always wanted a more significant penalty, that seems really stunning, making orcs and goblins entirely ineffective and impotent against almost any enemy when struck by light; how tremendously different that same -1 is in the d20 alternative system, where it is almost negligible. Recall that technically OD&D uses the Chainmail d6-based combat tables above by default -- scaling changes to the modifiers should have been necessary -- surely the difference is so huge it was an oversight and not an intentional adjustment.

Before we go, let's also check in on the little brown book that is Gygax's Swords & Spells fantasy miniature rules for use with (original) Dungeons & Dragons: here, all combat modifiers are given in terms of percentages (p. 24):



Notice that in full daylight, kobolds, orcs, and goblins are assessed a −30% melee output penalty (3rd row from the bottom). That's equivalent to subtracting 6 pips on a 20-sided die -- or close to 2 pips on every 6-sided die in a system like Chainmail, Warhammer, or Book of War! Even in "near full daylight" they take a −10% penalty, equal to subtracting 2 pips on a d20 (bottommost row). This is in addition to the −10% morale penalty that is specified elsewhere (p. 20). We might conclude that when Gygax was looking at the issue with intention, he assessed a severely heavy-duty penalty. Only when he was doing a mindless copy-and-paste job do we get the niggling −1 on a d20 modifier -- which is, unfortunately, how it appears in all the core rulebooks for OD&D, B/X D&D, AD&D, etc.


Looking at this closely, I'm actually motivated to revise my house rules and even Book of War miniature rules for orcs & goblins. Consider this: Let's say that the orcs & goblins D&D d20-based to-hit penalty "should have been" on the order of −4 or so in daylight. Then in a d6-scale like Book of War this becomes a substantive −1 penalty to hit, as in Chainmail; note that in my system they would then be helpless against opponents in plate armor (like heavy cavalry; "6" needed to hit by default), but would still have some chance to hit targets in leather or chain. So this would give greater interest to these types, and rationalize with what we see in Gygax's Chainmail and Swords & Spells games.

And it would also help rationalize the troop costs that he gives in OD&D Vol-3 p. 23 ("Orc support and upkeep is only half that of a man"); when I run these stats through our simulator program (link), preferred costs of just about half do in fact fall out of the system quite nicely (whereas previously there was almost no difference in effectiveness between orcs & men). If we do this re-interpretation, then Orcs & Goblins become a high-risk, high-reward gamble on the battlefield; you really want to avoid the weather being sunny (or at least make sure to bring a Wizard who can control the weather in your favor). What's your preference for that?

16 comments:

  1. I am deeply in favor of these changes, and will implement the -4 for light weakness in the alternative/AD&D combat system henceforth. I think that it is extremely atmospheric for the forces of chaos to nearly be required to come under a cloud of darkness instead of on a bright sunny day.

    Additional: I think that they should not be assessed that penalty in gloomy woods (in miniatures, any woods set down by a player with goblins/orcs in their forces), but happy elven woods should be sunny if the weather is.

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    1. Also, what does that do to the Book of War unit prices? Half cost (round up I presume) for all figures with Light Weakness? Or should we just wait until you can work it out for sure?

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    2. Cool! I agree, I think it adds some real interest for the orcs/goblins to a have significant change in sunny conditions.

      Now since I wrote that... I've largely overhauled my BOW simulator program in a couple ways. In particular, previously it didn't handle wrap-around effects, which penalized the cheap mobs more that it should have. Once I added that and also the major sunlight penalty... I'm embarrassed to say that they canceled out and the orc/goblin prices are right back where they started. Around 3/4 the cost of men.

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  2. @ Delta:

    Yeah, many of the bonuses, penalties, and adjustments found in OD&D (and subsequently in Basic editions) make much more sense within the context of Chainmail ("the Chainmail perspective"). Regarding only hitting "light foot:" keep in mind that there might be scenarios where orcs come in other "flavors" (warg riders, for example) where they might not be as limited.

    The hobgoblin entry (with its 1+1) appears to have been the model for Tolkien's uruk-hai, since in folklore a "hobgoblin" is actually a TINY goblin (the "hob" is a diminutive prefix). With the +1 bonus, it would seem to offset the sunlight penalty (at least if using Chainmail as your OD&D combat system).

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    1. Sure, I agree with that interpretation. Actually I'm surprised to realize just now that OD&D doesn't explicitly say Hobgoblins function normally in sunlight (as it does in AD&D).

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  3. The numbers seem sound. It does change the perception of Orcs/Goblins back to a "dark" species. vs. modern versions. Meaning, they appear to truly revile sunlight, puts them on par with Drow.
    I echo faoladh's comments: maybe a -2 in light and -4/-5 in full sunlight. But that would probably be more fiddly than you usually like.
    In my own setup I tend to use the 2/5/10 appraoch to numbers. +/- 1 only pops up in character creation.

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    1. Yeah, as you know I'm easily convinced by that philosophy (only dealing with "bulky" numbers of at least +/-2 while the game is running; for mass warfare only the -4 would be visible). It also makes it far more of incentive for the orcs/goblins to arrange ambushes in caves, at night, dark woods, etc.

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  4. You know what's funny? 5th edition completely does away with these "sunlight penalties" for orcs and goblins, yet probably have the best mechanic that could be used to model it: give all such critters "disadvantage" when fighting in sunlight (roll 2D20 and take the lower roll). That's pretty easy-shmeezy.
    : )

    [I love 5E's advantage/disadvantage rule, even while most of the game is a bloated pile]

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    1. Unfortunately that's actually the thing that made me snap the 5E book shut. Introducing nonlinear mechanics is like a dagger through my heart for what feels like D&D to me.

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    2. What happens in 5E if you get "disadvantage" for two reasons at the same time? Do you roll 3 dice, or do the effects fail to stack?

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    3. No stacking, not even for purposes of seeing whether you have Advantage or Disadvantage... any source of one cancels out all sources of the other, leaving a straight roll. I love that, since it means it's almost never the case that you realize after the fact that you missed a potential source and the roll should have been different.

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    4. Hmm, thanks for the information. To me that plus the altered hit progression is a surprising break with the classic mechanics (granted in the runup they were claiming they'd be compatible).

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    5. Yeah, advantage/disadvantage is probably the best new rule in 5e and why I like it so much.

      I don't agree with the rule about "any source of one cancels out the other" though. I look at the circumstance as a whole - do the current circumstances give either side a significant advantage or disadvantage? Simple, and quick. And you can either use the two dice approach, or a straight +5/-5 modifier.

      No fiddly numbers. Either you have advantage or you don't.

      Oh, and goblins and orcs have disadvantage in sunlight in my game. Overcast days are OK, just not sunlight.

      Ilbranteloth

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  5. The -4 penalty is also exactly like the one in AD&D for attacking an invisible opponent whose position is otherwise known. So sunlight effectively makes targets invisible to for orcs an goblins: they can tell there are foes there, but no more.

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  6. I think you (Delta) make a great point. But I left the small -1 modifier in for my 'neo-clone' and here's why: There's very little purely descriptive text in the three little brown books for monsters, character classes or pretty much anything else. In other words, most of what the game says about, say, monsters, comes from their stats or certain additional mechanics presented to us. I like this general scheme for many reasons. But given this scheme, the function of some rules isn't merely to set the mechanics for an actual play situation but to tell you a bit more about the thing in question. We know that Orcs and Goblins don't like sunlight (which might have all sorts of consequences in play) because a rule says they're less effective in it by -1. That the adjustment in question is almost meaningless in practice is beside the point. You might or might not want a much larger penalty. But if you don't want it, keeping the small penalty still serves the purpose of conveying the desired descriptive content.

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