Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dungeon Treasure Revisited


Prior Analysis Reconsidered; Per-Level Monsters, Treasure, and Advancement by Vol-3 Table; Very High Starting Treasure-to-Monster Ratio; Surprising Synchronicity; Jewelry Key; Assumptions and Conclusion.

 I've written about the statistics of OD&D treasure placement a few times in the past. For example, here's short an assessment of the Vol-3 dungeon treasure tables, and here's a longer analysis of treasure types and XP awards in OD&D, Holmes, Moldvay, etc.

One of the primary observations from that latter essay is that, by the book in OD&D, the famous monster "Treasure Types" don't really get used in dungeon play. The monster numbers appearing are really intended for high-level wilderness gaming (with humanoids teeming in the hundreds per encounter; this point is reiterated in many sources), and since the treasure types are proportional to those huge numbers, they are not really suitable for dungeon play, either. The OD&D Vol-3 "Distribution of Monsters and Treasure" makes this clear:
It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures... and then switch to a random determination for the balance of the level... To determine the kind of treasure use the following table... [OD&D Vol-3, p. 6-7]
Note that the "following table" is not the treasure type letter-table, and that by the book this new table is used for treasure both with and without monsters (as opposed to later editions, which tend to use a separate table solely for "unguarded treasure"). We might ask: why this disconnect? Well, to my eye in places the various OD&D books appear like sequential progressions, in some ways modifying the earlier volumes even in the same original boxed set. I suppose with fairly lightweight editing they might evolve that way while being written. Additionally, there are sources saying that the Vol-2 monster numbers and treasure types were the work of Arneson for his wilderness game, so it would also make sense for Gygax to create a distinct system for his dungeon play. Just a theory.

Anyway, two main conclusions from last time (thinking of the famous Moldvay observation that "most of the experience the characters will get will be from treasure (usually 3/4 or more)", in Moldvay Basic p. B45): (1) the 3/4 (75%) of XP from treasure only works with the treasure type tables if we discard the In-Lair % check from OD&D, as Moldvay indeed does; and (2) the amount of XP from treasure by the dungeon tables is actually on average less than the monster XP, so in my house-rules I was set to multiply XP by some factor to make up for that fact. While item (1) still seems solid, today I'm backtracking on (2) for a few reasons: first, I was only looking at an average of all monster types, not by level; and second, perhaps more importantly, for treasure purposes I'd made the "monster level" max out at 6, as per the Wandering charts -- and so the higher levels of treasure in Vol-3 were simply missing entirely.

Here's a new chart where I estimate the overall number of monsters, treasure, and XP for each level of a dungeon by the rules in Vol-3, with the standard interpolations where necessary (click to enlarge below; or choose PDF or ODS format):


Note here that I'm assuming an encounter at level N is with 1d6 monsters of hit dice N (with XP awards as per Sup-I). While the Vol-3 random monster tables are labelled "Monster Level Tables [1 to 6]", currently I'm thinking that it's better to interpret "monster level" as simply hit dice for a few reasons. One is that you have the example in Vol-1 of a troll being referred to as a "7th level monster, as it has over 6 hit dice" (p. 18), different from the wandering table that it appears on (5th). Second is the implication to increase monster numbers if dungeon level exceeds monster level (Vol-3, p. 11),  which gets quickly ridiculous; anything past dungeon 6th level and you'll be multiplying the number of dragons, balrogs, hydras, etc. (max 6th level wandering chart) by some unknown geometric powers. Third is that "monster level" can then scale with hit dice, and XP are properly a function of monster level up to 21st (similarly: both the Vol-3 treasure and wandering tables max out at the same 13+ dungeon level, not just 6th). So that's basically the first column of numbers.

I found that the results of that new assumption were entirely fascinating when they popped out at me tonight. Here are some observations from the spreadsheet above:
  • At low levels, the treasure:monster XP ratio is much higher than Moldvay's 3/4 figure (see 2nd column from the end): it's actually 95% at 1st level (i.e., a ratio of almost 20:1)! Then it gradually decreases to the level of about 75% around the 17th-20th levels of the dungeon. I might call this a nice "starting boost" to XP at the lowest levels. (This would be compatible with my prior analysis, if I had separated out the lower-level monsters and noticed how much higher their treasure:monster ratio was from the overall average.)
  • A while back, I made a personal note to myself that I wanted the first level of a dungeon to level-up a party of five fighters, i.e., give 2,000×5 = 10,000 XP. Well, look at the first entry under "Grand Total XP": purely by coincidence, it's just a bit over 10,000 XP.
  • More generally, look at the column "Party of 4 PCs: Fighter Level", which shows level gained by a modern party of 4 players if they all had fighters, after clearing out each indicated level. Basically, they get one character level for each dungeon level. For dungeon levels 1-6, they almost always end at level N+1; then there's a bit of a flat spot for PC levels 8-10; and then after dungeon level 12 they go on to gain exactly one level per dungeon step. (Of course, magic-users might be one level behind, and clerics/thieves one level ahead, due to their different XP requirements.)
  • On that latter point, look in particular at the bottom-most entry under "Party of 4 PCs: XP Each" (per level): for levels 21+, that XP value is 123,003 -- almost exactly the 120,000 XP that fighters need to gain anything above "name level" in OD&D. There's no way this was pre-planned in OD&D (it's not even the same number of players they'd use then), but I found this almost unnervingly synchronous.
  • A different perspective is given by the "Party of 8 PCs", where I consider the approximately double-sized party used in the old days (in official modules and such). At low levels, the party might be one level behind the party of 4 PCs (which should be obvious, since half XP puts you one level behind in a geometrically increasing XP requirement situation). At the highest levels, once you get to the fixed XP increase per character level, then the party of 8 gets a bump every 2 dungeon levels (instead of every 1 for the party of 4).
  • A critical point, as I've made before, is that commonly the vast majority of treasure and XP value comes solely from the jewelry component of the treasure (see the very last column of the chart). At the 1st level it's 77% of all XP; it remains the majority of all XP awards through the 10th dungeon level; and it only decreases to about 1/3 in the range of the 13th-20th dungeon levels (when treasure is fixed but conceivably monster XP keeps increasing, as per Sup-I).
  • Interpretation of this key point on jewelry: In the 1st dungeon level, according to these parameters, we can expect exactly one treasure with jewelry. (50 rooms × 28% with treasure × 5% chance for jewelry = 0.7.) But this one treasure is worth around 12,000 gold on average (3,400 ×3.5 for 1d6 pieces = 11,900), which is practically all of the treasure value, and over 3/4 of all the XP for that level. If that one jewelry treasure is either missing or goes undiscovered by PCs, then their XP will be only 1/4 what it would be otherwise, and they will definitely lose their chance to level-up before delving deeper into the dungeon. (To the DM: if you roll a big jewelry treasure on the 1st level, then don't skip it for being too generous: it's expected that one of those is in there each dungeon level.)
  • Or in other words: Exceedingly crafty players (especially thieves) might actually consider a strategy of foregoing the metal-coin treasure entirely, and focus solely on retrieving the gem-jewelry-magic treasure exclusively -- which while giving the majority of the treasure value, adds negligible encumbrance while moving and exploring. 

A few caveats or assumptions that I should make clear (if they aren't already):
  • I'm assuming that there are about 50 rooms or so per level, which is about what I get from a piece of 30×40 graph paper, if I make a fairly dense dungeon map. This should generate about 17 monster areas (1/3), and can be cleared out (and thus level up) in maybe 2-3 play sessions of 4 hours each (judging 2 sessions × 4 hours × 9/4 rate = 18 based on a small sample of prior play records). If you make smaller or larger dungeon levels then the per-level rates change.
  • The number of monsters appearing is assumed to be 1d6 across all encounters; that is, an average of 3.5, approximately equal to the small party size. There is a lot of ambiguity in Vol-3, p. 11 regarding "Number of Wandering Monsters Appearing"; while that source says that larger parties should confront proportionally larger monster groups (not implemented in the chart above), no such statement is made for the treasures. Therefore, by the book, small parties benefit from finding full treasure without facing increased monster groups.
  • Values in the chart assume that the entire level is liquidated; to the extent that any monsters are bypassed, or hidden treasures unplundered, then the totals shown will be decreased.
  • The chart doesn't take into account PC casualties (lost XP), and/or how the DM implements any rule on replacement PCs.
  • I didn't take into account the rule on pro-rating XP for high-level PCs versus low-level challenges (Vol-3, p. 18); as long as PCs adventure at or above their level (as occurs in the chart naturally) or close to it, then this effect will be negligible.
  • Values do not take into account DM-placed "most important treasures" (as per the quote at the top, Vol-3 p. 6), which of course could completely outweigh anything else shown here. However, my recommendation would be that such crown-jewel treasures should be set at some level above the averages in the chart, and in point-of-fact, actually include real jewels.

Final Conclusion: If we use the dungeon treasure tables from Vol-3 as written (and ignore the lettered "treasure types" as for wilderness only), then the result is that small PC parties will generally gain a level for each dungeon level cleared, and there is no need to modify or multiply book XP awards in any way. However, care must be taken to include adequately large treasures, in particular caches of high-value jewelry, especially in the DM-placed "most important treasures" -- even starting at the 1st dungeon level.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Super Sunday – How to Keep a Comic Character Dead, For Real

A comic character dying, and then coming back from the dead, is so universally common that it almost doesn't bear mentioning anymore.  The TVtropes website has this to say about the trope "Back from the Dead":
This is exceedingly common in American superhero comic books, to the point that whenever a popular character dies, it's a given that they'll be back on within no more than five years. At one time, it was said that "Nobody ever stays dead in comics, except Bucky, Uncle Ben, and Jason Todd." Naturally, since that phrase was coined, Bucky and Jason Todd have since been recalled to life.
The Marvel Wiki site has 115 characters currently tagged in the category of "People who used to be dead but aren't anymore".

Why is this? My personal interpretation is that the main problem is that comics companies are really nothing but intellectual property (copyrights and trademarked character designs and such), and to the extent that corporate directors are required to work "with a view to the best interests of the corporation", then the executives of those companies are in some sense required to milk every character property for every cent it can produce. If company X owns the rights to deceased character Y, and there are any customers who would purchase a book if character Y were brought back in it, then it can be argued that the company directors are legally required to bring back that character and produce that book. (That's a bit of a legal stretch, but it highlights the real principle: if Y can make money, then Y comes back from the dead.)

So of all the dastardly acts of vengeance, and cunning deathtraps, and cosmic-beating sacrifices one can imagine, it seems like no villain in the universe has any chance of permanently putting down any hero or antihero character... right?

Well, here's one way you can do it: Lose the license to the character.


If company X entirely loses the right to publish character Y, then they really-honestly won't be showing up anymore (at least in that company's universal continuity). One common way for this to happen is via cross-market toy promotions, where the rights are held primarily by some outside toy company, and the comics publisher has a limited term to write stories for it: instances of this at Marvel would include Shogun Warriors, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and perhaps most notably, Rom. Rom was intimately tied into the rest of the Marvel Universe in many ways; I know that the Fantastic Four appeared in Shogun Warriors, and Spider-Man at least once in Transformers. Nonetheless, these characters won't appear again in Marvel continuity because they no longer hold a right to publish them; in fact, in many cases Marvel can't even republish the stories in the now-standard trade-paperback formats, such that they become relatively rare collector's items. The same could be said for Godzilla which was also smack in the middle of the Marvel world when it was being published, fighting against S.H.I.E.L.D. and such from the first issue. (I don't think you'll find an entry for Godzilla in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, but you will find him referenced second-hand in places like the entry for Red Ronin: see here, volume 3, p. 207-208).

Now, it's not like any of the characters mentioned above are actually dead; they're just gone. Usually the writers of those books, upon being cancelled, write some fairly upbeat wrapping-up story with the characters victorious and basking in a sunset of glory. (Interesting example: Rom is so deeply woven into the fabric of the Marvel cosmos that he keeps being referenced as a past epic hero, or even appearing in-book in his human guise, it's just that no one can refer to him by his name "Rom" anymore. Neither, again, can his old stories be reprinted. See near the end of this article.)

But it does bring up an interesting prospect, in that if you're a writer on one of those licensed comics when it gets cancelled, you might consider actually killing one or more characters off in a dramatic, climactic end-story. If you do that, then you'll be able to stand in the almost uniquely rarefied club of people who who killed a comic character in a way that they really can't come back.


(For supporting fodder on this plan, consider the article in the final issue of Game Developer magazine this past year, "In the End, Tell the Truth" by Jason VandenBerghe, which makes this compelling argument: "As a game designer, you are more free when crafting your ending than you are for any other piece of your game." Download it here.)


Thursday, February 13, 2014

On Jumping

For basic skill mechanics, it's not uncommon for me to turn to the d20 System (3E SRD) and abstract what I find there to some simpler rule for OD&D. Generally the SRD rules output pretty good results, but the system is far too complicated for me to use at the table (there's no way you can remember all the moving pieces, requiring constant book lookups for every bit of minutiae). So this "cutting down" process usually works pretty well for me. Here are some options for a simple running-long-jump rule (such as over pits or other obstacles):
  • Jump d20 feet; add Strength or Dex bonus, subtract −4 per encumbrance level.
  • Jump d6×3 feet; subtract −1 from roll per encumbrance level
  • Jump d4×5 feet; subtract −1 from roll per encumbrance level
You could use the first rule for more granularity and similarity to the d20 system (and it provides room for a Str/Dex bonus). The last rule is kind of convenient because it comes in increments of 5 feet per pip, matching our tabletop scale. Personally, I'm in the habit of using d6's for most everything that's not directly combat-related, so I'll be using that one. (Compare to the original d20 System rule here.)


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How Hard Was 1st Edition?

A question: Exactly how much harder was 1st Edition D&D than more recent editions (in terms of expected challenge, body count, etc.)?

Here's one small piece of data that I semi-accidentally collected. Let's go through part of Gygax's classic Temple of Elemental Evil module, convert the various rooms to the 3rd Edition "Encounter Level" system (which has a lot of robustness to it), and see what we get:
  • Moathouse: Count 16, min 1, max 7, mean/median 4, stdev 2.
  • Temple 1st Level: Count 31, min 1, max 10, mean/median 5, stdev 2.
  • Temple 2nd Level: Count 34, min 2, max 11, mean/median 6, stdev 2.
The very first encounter at the moat house is particularly interesting, because of how explicit Gygax is about the challenge level: "The following encounter should challenge a party of 5-8 characters of 1st or 2nd level...". Now, this encounter (with a group of giant frogs), by my calculations in 3E would be an EL of 5 or 6. That is, 3rd Edition would expect this to be a "normal" encounter for about 4 PCs of 5-6th level, in which they'd deplete about 20% of their resources on hand. But Gygax thinks the same encounter is appropriate for 1st-2nd level PCs out of the gate.

Where does the discrepancy come from? Well, to begin with, in the 1st Edition days we expected a party size of about twice as many players at the table than we do now (and this is consistent in the foreword of all the modules at the time). In the EL system this doubling accounts for about a 2-point difference in the EL. (Meaning that a double-size party of 1st level could expect to see encounters of EL 3 in that edition.) But that still leaves a 2-point gap in the philosophies: depending on how you interpret that, it means that Gygax expected a "normal" encounter to suck up 40% or more of a party's resources -- and I'm guessing quite likely result in one or more party members' deaths in any encounter.

So by interpolation, we can use these numbers to broadly adjust expected character level today if we have smaller numbers of players. For example, we could send a group of about 4 3rd-level PCs into the moathouse, 4th-level into the upper works of the temple, 5th-level into the second level, etc. This assumes Gygaxian levels of difficulty, obviously; if you want to "safety bumper" the proceedings as in 3E, then you'd raise the PCs by another one or two levels. (Noting in either case that there are always some significantly higher-level encounters that you need to deal with very strategically, or simply avoid.)


P.S.:Ever notice how common it is for adventures to rather verbosely suggest adjusting monster numbers appearing in the first encounter but not anywhere else? Holmes does this in his Sample Dungeon area A; Gygax does this in the module T1 Moathouse area 1. Can you think of other examples?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Super Sunday – Power Grids to FASERIP

Recently I got sucked into the fairly extensive Marvel Universe Wiki at Marvel.com. One of the interesting things is that they use a standardized "Power Grid" (PG) metric of common abilities, the same device that the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (OHOTMU) has been using since at least 2004 (see here for details). So it's a tool that has quite a bit of usage and development at this point, and I was wondering how feasible it would be to convert these values to the classic Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP game.



Now first of all, only 4 of these categories directly match up with FASERIP abilities: Intelligence:Reason, Strength:Strength, Durability:Endurance, Fighting Skills:Fighting. Three FASERIP abilities are effectively left out: Agility, Intuition, and Psyche. The Speed and Energy Projection categories in the Power Grid reflect Powers, not core abilities in the FASERIP game.

The next question is, for those abilities that do correlate, how to convert from numbers to ranks? Note that the Power Grids (PG) have a 7-point scale, while FASERIP have 10 ranks from Feeble to Unearthly, so at least 3 of the former have to cover multiple of the latter. Here's the best that I could come up with:


Here's some commentary on how valid this is: The categories on the far ends are clearly correct and not up for debate: in the PG, a value of 1 means "below normal" (Feeble or Poor in FASERIP), and 2 means "normal human" (Typical); the value 7 indicates a maximum superhuman (Unearthly).

The place where there's possibly some debate is the range 3-6 or so -- the long "flat spot" in the FASERIP ranks, where the game was really optimized to handle mid-level heroes like Spider-Man, Captain America, or Wolverine with extra granularity (and not so much higher- or lower-powered characters). There's some evident "gray zone" here, and the PG value of 4 might reasonably convert to any of Excellent, Remarkable, or Incredible, in different cases.

Generally if I check against the top 8 Marvel heroes as featured on the Wiki (Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Nick Fury, Black Widow -- i.e., ones recently featured in the movies), and compare Official Power Grid ratings to FASERIP game ranks, then the conversions are either spot-on or within about 1 rank higher or lower.

However, it's impossible for the conversions to be completely consistent. For example: in Fighting Ability, Spider-Man and the Hulk get PG 5 and FASERIP Remarkable, while Wolverine gets a PG 4 and FASERIP Incredible (that is: lower in the Power Grid but higher in FASERIP), and there's no way for any conversion to synch up with that twisted reversal. In general, when the conversions are off I think I trust the actual FASERIP values as being more well-considered. (Wouldn't you agree that Wolverine should be a more experienced fighter than Spider-Man or the Hulk?) A confounding factor might be that possibly the characters have evolved in key ways in the last 30 years of comic continuity, but I doubt that's a major factor.

On Strength: Technically, the Strength Power Grids are given weight-value definitions that would correlate with a FASERIP rank one step higher than that shown above (examples: PG 2 is "up to twice own body weight", like FASERIP Good "400 lbs with difficulty"; PG 5 is "up to 75 tons", similar to FASERIP Monstrous "80 tons with difficulty", etc.) But on the other hand, actual characters in the Marvel Wiki have scores that do convert according to the table above (examples: Captain America PG 3 with published FASERIP Excellent; Thor and the Hulk with PG 7 and FASERIP Unearthly). So I would go with that, which has the added advantages of being aligned with the other abilities, and allowing the Power Grid range to synch up with the Feeble-to-Unearthly span (no Class 1000 or the like).

On Speed: You would kind of like the Speed category to correlate with the FASERIP Agility, but it doesn't. The Speed Power Grid represents mobility by way of flying or super-speed, and needs to get converted to a Power in the MSH game (examples: PG 3 "Subsonic Superhuman: peak velocity below Mach-1 (approximately 760 miles per hour)", PG 6 "Speed of light: peak velocity up to 186,000 miles per second"). So it's entirely uncorrelated with the Agility ability. Some examples would be Captain America (no speed power: PG 3 vs. Incredible Agility; 2 levels higher) or Thor or Cannonball (high speed but low agility: Thor 6/Ex, Cannonball 4/Pr; in each case 3 levels lower). A really extreme case would be the Hulk who is listed at PG 7 Speed but only Poor Agility, a difference of fully 8 ranks. (Side question: Can anyone explain to me why the Hulk is given a "Warp Speed" classification on the Wiki?)

On Intelligence: While we would like some better way of estimating a character's FASERIP abilities for Intuition and Psyche, unfortunately it's pretty clear that the PG Intelligence correlates to Reason and nothing else; the conversions above work fairly well for the Reason ability, but not for the other abilities. Some key examples of characters with low Reason but high Intuition/Psyche would be Wolverine (PG 2, RIP Ty/Mn/In), Thor (PG 2, RIP Ty/Gd/Am) and Daredevil (PG 3, RIP Ty/Mn/Gd); in each case the PG Intelligence is about correct for Reason, and does not reflect the higher special mental ability. Somewhat ambiguous cases might be Dr. Strange (PG 4, Gd/Mn/Un) or Professor X (PG 7, In/Am/Mn), where the Intelligence scores seems skewed a bit upward in recognition of their famed mental abilities. Overall: You'll have to come up with your own Intuition/Psyche estimates, because they are not usually reflected in the PG Intelligence value.

Conclusions: For less-known characters who never got FASERIP statistics, there may be some value in looking up the Marvel Wiki Power Grid and using the table above as a starting point for the character's Fighting, Strength, Endurance, and Reason scores. The PG Speed and Energy Projection values might be used as an estimate for the Ranks in those super powers (although this is untested). However, judgements must be made because there are some points of disagreement in the systems, and in some cases the Wiki assessments seem suspect (possibly more so the more unknown the character is). Furthermore, the FASERIP abilities of Agility, Intuition, and Psyche have no direct correlates, and must be estimated by the judge in the traditional fashion of comparing to other characters in the role-playing game.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

More Burning Oil

You may know that one of the things I find most irritating about classic D&D is the idea that oil you'd buy for a lamp can burn in a big pool in the open. Ridiculous!

But did you ever notice this tidbit from Gygax in Chainmail?
Boiling Oil: "Have some nice hot oil," said the smiling sergeant. When poured from atop a castle wall, flaming oil will sweep a 2" path downward, killing all figures within it; and at the base of the wall the flaming ail will form a puddle 4" wide by 3" deep, which will also kill all figures in its area. It will burn for three turns, preventing any troops from entering the area it lies on. Any wooden structure struck by flaming oil will begin to burn immediately... [Chainmail, p 23]
See how the section is titled "boiling oil" but then switches immediately to referencing "flaming oil" as though it's the exact same thing? Confusing!


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Vying for Vision

Here's a problem in playing out strategic-level mass warfare that I can never seem to resolve. Let's say you have two opposing D&D armies in the field: one army is orcs, and the other is men (et. al.). The orcs have the advantage of seeing in darkness at night (when the men are effectively blind), and in contradistinction, are disadvantaged in hits and morale in sunlight during the day. So clearly the orc army wants to meet the enemy during the night, but the army of men wants to avoid this and have the battle during the day.

It seems to me that this might be the single most important element of who wins the fight. Perhaps both armies would send out groups of scouts (light horse/ goblin cavalry), trying to locate the enemy for an advantageous battle, but making sure that the enemy is not in striking distance during one's own encampment...

Question: How do you decide if a battle like this takes place during day or night? Which side has the advantage?


Saturday, February 1, 2014

SciFi Saturday – Frontier Explorer #7

The 7th issue of Frontier Explorer magazine has just been released! I'm really impressed by what Tom Stephens does with this publication, it's slick, completely professional-looking, and jam-packed with useful content for an old-school Star Frontiers game. Really top-notch. Also: This issue features a very nice presentation of my own "Forging Fighters" articles here on the blog last year (showing all the steps to make custom UPF Fighters minis for Star Frontiers Knight Hawks, starting here). Thanks to Tom for the great editing & layout of that series of articles from me.

You can download it for free (Jim!) at either the Frontier Explorer home site, or DriveThru RPG below. Very nice, so check it out!