Thursday, July 31, 2014

Contra-Counterspells

I addressed counterspells in D&D previously when I wrote a "Spells Through the Ages" for Dispel Magic (link one, two). It's a confusing and easy-to-miss issue in older editions -- and it is highly coupled with the round sequence in any edition -- so I'd like to address it once more. Most of the language quoted below is from the dispel magic spell in the various editions.

Chainmail Fantasy -- Of wizards it is written, "The stronger magician can successfully cast a counter-spell with a two dice score of 7 or better... A counter-spell fully occupies a magician's powers.". Now, is this just another spell (against previous enemy castings), or an interruption ability (preventing a spell from being cast in the first place)? While Chainmail (and thus D&D) presents two different options for a movement turn sequence, neither addresses exactly when missile (or spell) determinations are made -- in each case players share a single undistinguished "missile fire" phase without further comment. It's within the realm of possibility that within that phase, it might be permitted for one player to declare a spell, and the other player to respond with a "counterspell", canceling the original casting, but it is not precisely spelled out in the book. However, you can see a problem might arise with both players delaying to see what the other does first before making their decision -- more likely determinations would have to be made in the order of movement, and then only the second-declarer would really have the option of an interrupting counterspell.

Original D&D -- The dispell magic spell says, "Unless countered, this spell will be effective in dispelling enchantments of most kinds...", clearly referring to the possibility that the dispel itself fails its percentage-based success roll. There is no other indication that the spell can be used in an interrupting manner.

Basic/Expert D&D Rules -- The Moldvay-written dispel magic spell uniquely does not include the word "counter" at all. The phrasing here is "remove spell effects", and again there is no hint of interrupting usage whatsoever. Note that in these rules and all those below, there are clearly distinguished cycles where one side and then the other gets to act and cast spells, etc. (spells are definitely not cast together in one phase as in Chainmail/OD&D).

AD&D 1st Ed. -- This version of the spell clearly states, "It will destroy magic potions (they are treated as 12th level for purposes of this spell), remove spells cast upon persons or objects, or counter the casting of spells in the area of effect." So that third clause seems to indicate something different, but it might be interpreted as either an interruption effect, or simply use against area-effecting magic (as opposed to persons or objects; which is how I read it in those days). This language is expanded in 2E, so I will address it further below.

AD&D 2nd Ed. -- Dispel magic here includes the description, "First, it removes spells and spell-like effects (including device effects and innate abilities) from creatures or objects. Second, it disrupts the casting or use of these in the area of effect at the instant the dispel is cast. Third, it destroys magical potions (which are treated as 12th level for purposes of this spell)." Now clearly, the second case is an interrupting-type ability, and it's a legitimate interpretation that 1E might have meant the same thing.

However, a problem arises: both versions of AD&D require that spellcasters specially commit to spells to be cast at the start of the round, before initiative is rolled, and before they have any knowledge of what the enemy is doing (including enemy spellcasters). So it would seem that a caster would need to cast dispel magic blindly, not even knowing if the enemy was casting any spells at all in that round, quite likely wasting the dispel. Moreover, dispel has a casting time of 3 segments (6 for clerics), so technically there's all kinds of ways that the enemy could finish their casting and avoid the interrupt even if dispel is being cast in the same round. Thus it seems like an almost impossible tactic, to burn off a dispel while simply crossing one's fingers that the enemy is in fact casting some unknown magic that round (and one that doesn't complete too fast).

D&D 3rd Ed. -- In what I might interpret as a reaction to the difficulties surrounding the AD&D rule above, 3E creates an entire 7-paragraph rule subsection just for counterspells. (See the prior "Spells Through The Ages" blog for complete text; link). In short, interrupts are specifically allowed and supported; but they require that the interested wizard target one specific enemy caster in the round, and only if that target does cast a spell can the wizard potentially interrupt with a dispel or other counterspell. In all other cases (target does not cast; anyone but the target casts; target casts a niggling spell unworthy of a dispel) the wizard has simply wasted their action for the round, an enormous loss of effectiveness. While this seems at least conceivably feasible at first glance, the disadvantage is so keen that I rarely saw it get used in 3E (excepting the case where the whole party was fighting one lone enemy caster, such that the party wizard could safely devote his or her action to locking down the one enemy's magic, while the rest of the party beat them physically).

Conclusions -- The interrupting-style "counter-spell" in D&D went from unmentioned (0E, BX), to vaguely implied (1E), to fully but problematically allowed (2E, 3E). It's conceivably workable in the Chainmail/0E rules with its shared missile phase (granted various interpretations and arguments), but seemingly not really feasible in the separated turn sequences of BX-1-2E. The 3E tried to solve this problem, but in a way that I still found lacking.

Moreover, every time I try to wrestle with the explicit 3E-style counterspell, it aggravates me that this spellcasting uniquely corrupts the turn sequence with interrupting actions. In my last game the countering usage came up again (the language is in my Book of Spells v.1, descended from the 3E SRD), and what happened next is that I forgot that the player's action was used up when we came back around the table of 9 players. Therefore, granted (1) the effective absence of counterspells in classic 0E-1E-BX, (2) the unique corrupting effect on the turn sequence, (3) the enormous amount of text required in later attempts to make it work, and (4) the fact that no version of the game really successfully made it a workable option, I've recently decided to strike it from my game (and my Book of Spells description for dispel magic).

How much would a ruling like that affect the games at your table?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Spells Through The Ages – Magic Jar

In the 1E AD&D PHB, Gygax writes, "Magic jar is a very unusual spell". In essence, it allows the caster to transfer their consciousness to some physical object, and from there to take possession of a series of other people (thus keeping their own body out of danger), returning to the "jar" when desired. This is the kind of evil-wizard stratagem that seems unlikely to be used by PCs, that is, more of a DM plot-device-spell of the sort that I'd guess would be added in D&D Sup-I (link) or later. But it has indeed been part of the game ever since OD&D Vol-1 (p. 28-29).

In other media, this is more commonly referred to as a "Soul Jar", and the TV Tropes site probably has the best overall writeup (link). Among the citations from mythology and fairy tales are stories such as the Russian "Tsarevich Petr and the Wizard" (link), in which a terrible wizard has hidden his soul in an egg on a far-off magical island; the Norwegian "Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body" (link), with a broadly similar theme in which a terrible giant has hidden his heart in a far-off secreted egg; and also a Native American myth about another giant who hid his soul in a pinecone on top of an unclimbable mountain. TV Tropes also mentions "The Picture of Dorian Gray" as a similar case (link).

Of course, the idea has now been used with variations in a great many fantasy stories written in the 20th Century (including Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Wheel of Time, Discworld, etc., etc.) One of the stories mentioned by TV Tropes, the mostly likely to be directly influential on Gygax's D&D, is the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser novella "Adept's Gambit" by Fritz Leiber (actually the first he ever wrote about the pair -- link). This story ultimately turns around a wizard who mentally enslaves his twin sister over many years of growing up together. Their mother is descended from priestesses pledged to an ancient god, and the young wizard seems unable to travel away from a set of three stones taken from that ancient temple; so ultimately he switches places with the sister, carries away the three stones, and imprisons her (in his body) in a tomb for many years. Separately, he also manages to remove his heart and vital organs, leaving them with the magic stones, such that his own body is invulnerable to death when discovered (at least as long as the innards in another location remain whole). The Leiber story isn't a perfect match for the D&D magic jar spell, but it does share many overall aspects. (Perhaps it's a better match for the D&D Expert Rules adventures X3 by Doug Niles, X5 by Dave Cook, and X10 by Michael S. Dobson, each of which feature an evil high priest who is invulnerable to harm due to putting his soul in a hidden container this way. Or likewise any lich in the game.)

Anyway, that's as much of the literary/mythological background as I could dig up. Let's see how the magic jar spell evolved in the D&D game, starting with the earliest edition:


Original D&D

Magic Jar: By means of this device the Magic-User houses his life force in some inanimate object (even a rock) and attempts to possess the body of any other creature within 12" of his Magic Jar. The container for his life force must be within 3" of his body at the time the spell is pronounced. Possession of another body takes place when the creature in question fails to make its saving throw against magic. If the possessed body is destroyed, the spirit of the Magic-User returns to the Magic Jar, and from thence it may attempt another possession or return to the Magic-Users body. The spirit of the Magic-User can return to the Magic Jar at any time he so desires. Note that if the body of the Magic-User is destroyed the life force must remain in a possessed body or the Magic Jar. If the Magic-Jar is destroyed the Magic-User is totally annihilated.

Note that the specific example of a magic jar device given above is "a rock", which would seem to connect it to the Leiber story mentioned above (where the life of the wizard was connected to three stones from an ancient temple). Note also that the 12" range limitation is only applicable to the initial possession of another body; no range limitation is given for return to the jar from other death or will of the magic-user. That makes it a very powerful protective ploy (just like in its literary and mythological forebearers), as the wizard can take on any adventures with no fear of his or her life actually being in jeopardy. Also, once possession occurs, there's no chance given for the victim to shake off the possession (although we can assume that a dispel magic or remove curse should likely do the job). Compare those aspects to what happens later, below.


D&D Expert Rules

Magic Jar 
Range: 30'
Duration: special


With this spell, the caster puts his or her body in a trance and transfers his or her life-force to an inanimate object (magic jar) within range. From this object, the spell caster may attempt to possess (take over) any one creature within 120' of the magic jar. If the victim makes a successful saving throw, the possession has failed and the caster may not try that victim again for one game turn. If the victim fails the saving throw, the creature is possessed and its body will do as the caster wills. While under the control of the spell caster no spells of the possessed may be used. If the possessed body is destroyed, the magic-user or elf must return to the magic jar. From there the caster may try to possess another body or return to his or her own. The caster can be forced out of the possessed body by a dispel evil spell.


Destroying the magic jar while the caster's life force is in it kills the caster. Destroying the magic jar while the caster's life-force is in another body strands the life-force in the possessed body. Killing the caster's real body strands the life-force in the magic jar until the caster can possess another body! Once the caster returns to his or her real body the spell is over.

This is pretty much the same thing as in OD&D (as usual). Dave Cook explicates that the clerical dispel evil seems to be the only thing to remove a possession. He also interprets destroying the magic jar as stranding the life-force in whatever body it's in (thereby possibly leading to real death); whereas if I read the OD&D text's last line, I would think that "the Magic-User is totally annihilated" immediately, wherever the soul was at the time. (Perhaps I should read the last two sentences in OD&D as being in sequence, instead.) Cook also states that the spell ends when the caster returns to his or her real body, a detail which was not present before. All-in-all, it seems that the OD&D spell was possibly a more permanent and severe switch, possibly irrevocable by the wizard, and a trigger for automatic death if the magic jar was discovered and destroyed (just like in the traditional myths).


AD&D 1st Ed.

Magic Jar (Possession)
Level: 5

Range: 1"/level
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: One creature

Explanation/Description: Magic jar is a very unusual spell. It enables the magic user to take over the mind of the victim and thus control the creature's body. In fact, if the body is human or humanoid, the magic-user can even use the spells he or she knows. The possessor can call upon rudimentary knowledge of the possessed, but not upon the real knowledge, i.e. a possessor will not know the language or spells of the possessed. The spell caster transfers his or her life force to a special container (a large gem or crystal), and from this magic jar the life force can sense and attack any creature within the spell range radius, but what the creature is, is not determinable from the magic jar. The special life force receptacle must be within spell range of the magic-user's body at the time of spell casting. Possession takes place only if the victim fails to make the required saving throw. Failure to possess a victim leaves the life force of the magic-user in the magic jar. Possession attempts require 1 round each. If the body of the spell caster is destroyed, the life force in the magic jar is not harmed. If the magic jar is destroyed, the life force is snuffed out. Returning to the real body requires 1 round, and can only be done from a magic jar in spell range of the body. The saving throw versus a magic jar spell is modified by comparing combined intelligence and wisdom scores (intelligence only in non-human or non-humanoid creatures) of the magic-user and victim.



A negative score indicates the magic-user has a lower score than does his or her intended victim; thus, the victim has a saving throw bonus. The magic jar is the spell's material component. Note that a possessed creature with any negative difference or a positive difference less than 5 is entitled to a saving throw each round to determine if it is able to displace the possessor's mind, a positive difference of 5 to 8 gains a saving throw each turn, a positive difference of 9 to 12 gains a saving throw each day, and a positive difference of 13 or better gains a saving throw each week. If the magic jarred creature regains control of its mind, the magic-user is trapped until he or she can take over the mind for control or escape.

Here's Gygax's revision of this "very unusual spell" for Advanced D&D. Among the significant changes are that he allows access to some of the possessed person's rudimentary knowledge (which does occur in the Leiber story). The spell changes the arbitrary "inanimate object" from OD&D to "a large gem or crystal" in AD&D, perhaps to better signal its great important in the story of the game (apparently, a simple rock is no longer permitted). And there's also a complicated, unique save mechanic and possibility of the possessed regaining their mind later. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader if you can interpret how that obtuse mechanic works.

One thing I've noticed in the past is that in the switch from the OD&D LBBs to the AD&D hardcover books, there are instances when Gygax "takes for granted" rules from OD&D, and either omits or overlooks their inclusion in AD&D -- and frequently these are the most critical parts of some sub-system. Examples that come to mind: text explaining use of the Monster Reactions table, system for hits in Aerial Combat, most of the statistics for Naval Combat (encounter-level speeds, sail-vs-wind-points, turning, ramming system, crew and marine numbers), etc.

With that in mind, in the lengthy text for the 1E magic jar spell above, note that it does explicate that possession of another's body, and return from jar-to-real-body, are limited to the range listed for the spell (1"/level, or 11" for a name-level Wizard, basically the same as in OD&D/BX). It also defines what happens if the real body is destroyed ("life force... is not harmed"), or the magic jar is destroyed ("life force is snuffed out"). But the spell entirely fails to say what happens if a possessed body is attacked or killed. And of course presumably that's the most important part of the spell, the whole reason for using it in the first place. We might continue using the OD&D rule that a spirit can return to the jar without restriction (and maybe by inference from the last line above when one regains their own mind, but it's very vague). Or if someone didn't have OD&D at hand, they could reasonably interpolate that out-of-range = impossible to return and destroyed (and by analogy to the written jar-back-to-real-body rule). To me that seems like an almost unconscionable oversight in this block of rules text; and yet, it is so long and complicated, it's easy to see how that happened -- it took me many re-readings to confirm that such a specification was in fact missing.


AD&D 2nd Ed.

Magic Jar
(Necromancy)
Range: 10 yds./level
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: 1 creature

The magic jar spell enables the caster to shift his life force into a special receptacle (a gem or large crystal). From there the caster can force an exchange of life forces between the receptacle and another creature, thus enabling the wizard to take over and control the body of another creature, while the life force of the host is confined in the receptacle. The special life force receptacle must be within spell range of the wizard's body at the time of spellcasting. The wizard's life force shifts into the receptacle in the round in which the casting is completed, allowing no other actions.

While in the magic jar, the caster can sense and attack any life force within a 10-footper-level radius (on the same plane); however, the exact creature types and relative physical positions cannot be determined. In a group of life forces, the caster can sense a difference of four or more levels/Hit Dice and can determine whether a life force is positive or negative energy.

For example, if two 10th-level fighters are attacking a hill giant and four ogres, the caster could determine that there are three stronger and four weaker life forces within range, all with positive life energy. The caster could try to take over either a stronger or a weaker creature, but he has no control over exactly which creature is attacked. An attempt to take over a host body requires a full round. It is blocked by a protection from evil spell or similar ward. It is successful only if the subject fails a saving throw vs. spell with a special modifier (see following). The saving throw is modified by subtracting the combined Intelligence and Wisdom scores of the target from those of the wizard (Intelligence and Hit Dice in nonhuman or nonhumanoid creatures). This modifier is added to (or subtracted from) the die roll.

 

A negative score indicates that the wizard has a lower total than the target; thus, the host has a saving throw bonus. Failure to take over the host leaves the wizard's life force in the magic jar.

If successful, the caster's life force occupies the host body and the host's life force is confined in the magic jar receptacle. The caster can call upon rudimentary or instinctive knowledge of the subject creature, but not upon its real or acquired knowledge (i.e., the wizard does not automatically know the language or spells of the creature). The caster retains his own attack rolls, class knowledge and training, and any adjustments due to his Intelligence or Wisdom. If the host body is human or humanoid, and the necessary spell components are available, the wizard can even use his memorized spells. The host body retains its own hit points and physical abilities and properties. The DM decides if any additional modifications are necessary; for example, perhaps clumsiness or inefficiency occurs if the caster must become used to the new form. The alignment of the host or receptacle is that of the occupying life force.

The caster can shift freely from the host to the receptacle if within the 10-foot-per-level range. Each attempt to shift requires one round. The spell ends when the wizard shifts from the jar to his own body.

A successful dispel magic spell cast on the host can drive the caster of the magic jar spell back into the receptacle and prevent him from making any attacks for 1d4 rounds plus 1 round per level of the caster of the dispel. The base success chance is 50%, plus or minus 5% per level difference between the casters. A successful dispel magic cast against the receptacle forces the occupant back into his own body. If the wizard who cast the magic jar is forced back into his own body, the spell ends.

If the host body is slain, the caster returns to the receptacle, if within range, and the life force of the host departs (i.e., it is dead). If the host body is slain beyond the range of the spell, both the host and the caster die.

Any life force with nowhere to go is treated as slain unless recalled by a raise dead, resurrection, or similar spell.

If the body of the caster is slain, his life force survives if it is in either the receptacle or the host. If the receptacle is destroyed while the caster's life force occupies it, the caster is irrevocably slain.

So that's quite a lot of rules text for a spell you probably never used, right? Cook keeps the core of the spell the same, as was his modus operandi. He adds about two paragraphs about the misty sensory ability that the wizard's life-force has while in the magic jar. The unique saving throw mechanic and table are identical to 1E. There's more specification to the exact physical-mental-alignment split that occurs while possessed. He adds a paragraph ruling on dispel magic to drive out a possessor. And just like in his Expert Rules, he adds in two key rulings not found in either of Gygax's writeups: (1) returning to the real body ends the spell; and (2) destruction of the magic jar strands the life-force, not destroying it immediately (the opposite of what Gygax seems to say clearly in both OD&D and 1E).

But perhaps the most critical detail is that Cook adds back a specification on what happens if a possessed body is slain, filling in a gap left open by Gygax in 1E. Cook says, "If the host body is slain, the caster returns to the receptacle, if within range, and the life force of the host departs (i.e., it is dead). If the host body is slain beyond the range of the spell, both the host and the caster die." (emphasis mine). Is that an honest interpretation from the 1E text, where it was left unstated? Or was this Cook's personal preference in changing how the spell functions (different, albeit, from the Expert rules)?

In either event, the spell is now much less powerful as a protective device for the evil magic-user. Instead of roaming all over the world in a hijacked body (as in the mythological tales or Leiber's story), the user must instead remain within 120 feet of the jar and the original body, at all times, in order to benefit from its life insurance. They're effectively trapped or entombed wherever the magic jar is stored (or at least required to carry it with them on excursions).


D&D 3rd Ed.

Magic Jar
Necromancy
Level: Sor/Wiz 5
Components: V, S, F
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Medium (100 ft.+10 ft./level)
Target: One creature
Duration: 1 hour/level or until the character returns to the character's body
Saving Throw: Will negates (see text)
Spell Resistance: Yes

By casting magic jar, the character places the character's own soul in a gem or large crystal (known as the magic jar), leaving the character's body lifeless. Then the character can attempt to take control of a nearby body, forcing its soul into the magic jar. The character may move back to the jar (returning the trapped soul to its body) and attempt to possess another body. The spell ends when the character sends the character's soul back to the character's own body (leaving the receptacle empty).

To cast the spell, the magic jar must be within spell range and the character must know where it is, though the character does not need line of sight or effect to it. When the character transfers the character's soul upon casting, the character's body is, as near as anyone can tell, dead.

While in the magic jar, the character can sense and attack any life force within 10 feet per caster level (on the same plane). The character does need line of effect from the jar to the creatures. The character, however, cannot determine the exact creature types or positions of these creatures. In a group of life forces, the character can sense a difference of four or more HD and can determine whether a life force is positive or negative energy. (Undead creatures are powered by negative energy. Only sentient undead creatures have, or are, souls.)

Attempting to possess a body is a full-round action. It is blocked by protection from evil or a similar ward. The character possesses the body and forces the creature’s soul into the magic jar unless the subject succeeds at a Will save. Failure to take over the host leaves the character's life force in the magic jar, and the target automatically succeeds at further saving throws if the character attempts to possess its body again.

If successful, the character's life force occupies the host body, and the host’s life force is imprisoned in the magic jar. The character keeps his or her Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma, level, class, base attack bonus, base save bonuses, alignment, and mental abilities. The body retains its Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, hit points, natural abilities, and mental abilities, such as water breathing or regeneration. A body with extra limbs does not allow the character to make more attacks (or more advantageous two weapon attacks) than normal. The character can’t choose to activate the body’s extraordinary or supernatural abilities. The creature’s spells and spell-like abilities do not stay with the body. As a standard action, the character can shift freely from a host to the magic jar if within range, sending the trapped soul back to its body. The spell ends when the character shifts from the jar to the character's own body.

If the host body is slain, the character returns to the magic jar, if within range, and the life force of the host departs (that is, it is dead). If the host body is slain beyond the range of the spell, both the character and the host die. Any life force with nowhere to go is treated as slain.

If the spell ends while the character is in the magic jar, the character returns to the character's body (or dies if the character's body is out of range or destroyed). If the spell ends while the character is in a host, the character returns to the character's body (or dies, if it is out of range of the character's current position), and the soul in the magic jar returns to its body (or dies if it is out of range). Destroying the receptacle ends the spell, and the spell can be dispelled at either the magic jar or the host.

Incorporeal creatures with the magic jar ability can use a handy, nearby object (not just a gem or crystal) as the magic jar.

Focus: Worth at least 100 gp.

So 3E keeps most of the same mechanics as 2E. It collapses the saving throw back to the standard mechanic, allowing it to get rid of the special table and a few paragraphs of rules text. It keeps the 2E requirement that all transfers (esp., when a host body gets killed ) be within the limited range of the spell (200 feet or so). But this is probably a lot less important because of the new, much greater limitation added to the spell -- in that the duration is now capped at a very restrictive 1 hour/level, so the spell can't possibly last more than about half a day or so. No wandering the world in a stolen body for you, nor lurking in the darkness waiting for a victim and freedom for years! At this point I'm not even sure what the motivation or use of the spell would be in a literary context -- it seems like both the magic jar and the real body would have to be immediately at hand any time it gets used, and thus at risk of destruction or hostage-taking by whomever you're trying to victimize.


Conclusions

I think that's one of the more interesting spell-evolutions in D&D, even for a spell that possibly never actually gets used in play. It started out as a rather clear simulation of certain mythological and literary magics, and devolved consistently over the years to something that's almost vestigial, highly restricted, and perhaps totally unusable. Part of this was assisted in the AD&D 1E era by Gygax apparently getting lost in his own wall of text and neglecting to mention the single most important aspect of the spell (what happens when a possessed body gets killed?). So in those respects it wraps up many of the threads in "Spells Through the Ages" in a single magical package.

What's your experience with the magic jar spell? Have you ever used it as a player, or as a DM?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

In Which My Girlfriend Gets Hooked

So I've been trying to get my girlfriend Isabelle into D&D for what, 15 years now? The first go-round was as part of a long-running 3E D&D campaign with rotating DMs when it first came out and we were newly dating, so she was willing to humor me a bit more, but it really didn't take for her and was always a bit confusing and oblique. I've had numerous one-off games over the years, and the best match I'd gotten up to now was the solo-thief adventure, module O1 (The Gem and the Staff).

But then this Jul-4 comes around and she rather hesitantly agrees to join me at Paul S.'s house where we'll plan to play D&D for 3 days straight, purely old-school style, using Paul Jaquays' mega-dungeonish Caverns of Thracia (1979). And to our great mutual surprise, she is now totally hooked. She got up every morning that weekend increasingly hungry for what the party would explore next, where to find more treasure, how to possibly find and strike down the Minotaur King. We wrapped up Sunday afternoon and she was still jonesing for more. We've been talking for the last week (as I write this) about when we can play more, how we can jointly write dungeons and adventures together, etc., etc.

One of the great things is to be able to see the game through fresh eyes. My girlfriend doesn't have any back-in-the-day nostalgia. She first slogged through 3E and did not find it to her liking. (As a side note, the new 5E rules basically look to me like 3E with some of the parts moved around, and I was over that circa 2007.) But as we've reverted back to the most old-school stuff, and really gotten the first chance at a proper "mega-dungeon" style run, it's completely converted her. Here's a few observations that she's made independently in the last week since that game:


The large but limited dungeon environment felt manageable for the first time. Here it seems clear that she's locked onto the strengths of the mega-dungeon design structure. She said that prior campaign games seemed endless, without any apparent limits, and therefore somewhat pointless. But this environment excited her in that each foray allowed the players to focus on one subsection of the caverns and have a real possibility of exploring it in full, defeating it and solving its puzzles, and sacking its treasures and experience. So it felt like the players could set clear goals and actually "win" for the first time; but there were more subsections to be chosen and won over in later gaming sessions, and thus the excitement built on itself. And those sub-sections seemed rational and coherent in ways that other games did not (a nod to Jaquays' design, I think). When Isabelle said this, I felt like I was hearing Gygax's words on successful play from the back of the PHB all over again.

Having an advance sketch of the environment intensified interest. Two completely insane accidents served as an experiment which I would have never devised on my own. One is that Paul's character walked up to a statue of Apollo and cried out, "Oh Apollo, blessed healer, touch me and make me fly" -- to which I gave the old 1% chance that a god responds to an entreaty, and then couldn't believe my eyes when I leaned around the DM's screen and saw the percentile dice publicly come up the requisite "00"! So Paul's character took the opportunity to fly around the entire "outdoor" level and map out the gardens, orchards, and classical palace from above. On the next session, the party used this information to guide an assault the palace and just happened to catch the officers of the guard by surprise in the 2nd room, kill them, and take sketchy maps of almost the entire dungeon complex. Once I turned these over, all the later sessions started with players huddling over the maps and picking locations that seemed interesting, mysterious, or promising, and working out the most strategic paths of attack and areas to avoid or defend against, etc. The whole proceeding took on an extra level of strategic thoughtfulness and commitment, and the players clearly had their destinies in their own hands in a way that I'd not seen before. Isabelle & I have since been talking about what other devices could be used to give players similar advance, partial knowledge as to options about where they can explore in the future. (To which I'm thinking of some classic adventures that start with multiple obvious entrances for selection, like G1, G2, B2, etc.)

The locations seemed rational and not random. Apparently this was Isabelle's first foray into a dungeon that had a recognizable king, officers, guards, servants, a kitchen, dining area, etc., etc. To me this seems old-hat (again: see any of G1, G2, B2, etc., "Gygaxian naturalism"), but it had somehow escaped me that she'd never had a chance to experience that. The fact that players could quasi-correctly guess what the next few rooms contained made the game again more concrete, immediate, manageable, winnable, and rewarding.

One thing that I'm now personally wrestling with -- and feel free to say that I'm late to the party as usual -- is that this kind of design pattern is totally dislike what is presented in any of the classic D&D rules as a adventure-design protocol. That is: Make a map, place a few specially-crafted encounters in about 1/6 of the rooms, another 1/6 with traps, 1/3 of the rooms with random monsters, and another 1/3 or more empty (see: OD&D Vol-3, Dungeon Geomorphs/Monsters & Treasure, Moldvay Basic D&D, DMG Appendix A, etc.) I've been trying to follow that protocol, with frankly little success, for a number of years. But almost none of the classic published D&D adventures follow that design: practically every room has something to interact with in it, and nearby rooms are coordinated together in clans or supporting design or usage. Jaquays Caverns of Thracia has over 126 numbered areas in it (several with sub-locations lettered A-H or so), and not a single one is an empty room. (In fact: Area #85 makes a gag out of this by being labelled "An... Empty Room", and then when the author tries to inform you of this, he comically breaks down and can't resist putting in a set of giant watching eyes on the wall that put a curse on the players if they stay within.)

This is really bothering me at the moment, and I'm feeling like I've been blind (unlike those giant eyes) to what really hooks people into a good dungeon adventure. Perhaps we might say that while Gygax & Co. greatly advanced their dungeon designs from their initial mid-70's creations, the advice on dungeon construction stayed locked at that early state of OD&D in much later rulebooks. My own concern is that without random-table supports, I may not be personally creative enough to come up something interesting in every single room of an expansive mega-dungeon.

But Paul Jaquays did, and thanks to his creative genius it seems like my girlfriend is finally hooked on D&D. More interesting stuff to come later, I hope.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Spells Through The Ages – Contact Other Plane

The contact other plane spell is the D&D equivalent of a Magic 8-Ball; the wizard player asks several "yes or no" questions, and receives answers of varying accuracy based on dice-rolls by the DM. Trivia: It's the only spell in the OD&D LBB's complicated enough to have an attached table for its effects, or to run more than a single paragraph in length. That table and its expressed probabilities changed in every later edition, so it seems perfect for the kind of analysis I do here. It's a spell that rarely gets used in most games, because the clerical commune does the same job without any chance of inaccuracy ("veracity and knowledge should be near total"; Vol-1, p. 33) -- but since I run a non-clerical game, contact other plane is potentially of much greater interest. For brevity in the discussion below, I will use N = the Nth planar option in the list (regardless of title, which changes in almost every edition; usually between 1 and 10).


Original D&D

Contact Higher Plane: This spell allows the magical-type to seek advice and gain knowledge from creatures inhabiting higher planes of existence (the referee). Of course, the higher the plane contacted, the greater the number of questions that can be asked, the greater the chance that the information will be known, and the higher the probability that the question will be answered truthfully. Use the table below to determine these factors, as well as the probability of the Magic-User going insane. Only questions which can be answered "yes" or "no" are permitted.



If a Magic-User goes insane, he will remain so for a number of weeks equal to the number of the plane he was attempting to contact, the strain making him totally incapacitated until the time has elapsed. For each level above the 11th, Magic-Users should have a 5% better chance of retaining their sanity. The spell is usable only once every game week (referee's option).

So among the first questions I've always had about Gygax's original contact higher plane spell is: Why does it only start at the "3rd" plane? My best guess is something like: 1st is "Underworld", 2nd is "Surface World", and then 3rd+ are the "Seven+ Heavens" or something like that (i.e., the "higher planes"). Maybe you have a better idea about that than I do?

But let's look at the probabilities expressed; the Knowledge and Veracity columns aren't perfectly regular, jumping by either 5% or 10% increments in different spots (usually more gradual 5%'s near the start or end). The Insanity column does increase by exactly 10% per step. Thus we can observe (recall that N=1 indicates the starting 3rd Plane and so forth):
  • Knowledge ≈ N×10%
  • Veracity ≈ (N+2)×10%
  • Insanity = (N−1)×10%
Now, one thing that makes this spell really tough to use is that to get accurate information on any question you need to succeed at both the Knowledge and Veracity rolls (otherwise you get nothing, or incorrect information). Which is to say: You're at the mercy of the special multiplication rule of probability, which makes your chance of success drop below either of the individual components. Here's what you get for those products, that is, the actual chance of getting good information for each question:
  • 3rd Plane: 7.5%, 4th: 12%, 5th: 17.5%, 6th: 24%, 7th: 35%, 8th: 45%, 9th: 56%, 10th: 68%, 11th: 81%, 12th: 95%.
So as you can see, the chance of getting correct answers is practically negligible at any of the lower levels (3rd-5th Planes). In order to get past 50% (i.e., more right than wrong answers), you need to contact at least the 9th Plane -- at which point the chance of insanity is also more than half (60%), that is, you're resigned to probably going insane and not even getting to ask any questions in the first place (modified by caster levels above 11th, much like magic resistance). In summary: It's hard to avoid saying that this spell isn't flat-out broken. You're incredibly likely to go temporarily insane, and if you don't, then in most cases you'll get far more wrong answers than right answers.


D&D Expert Rules

Contact Higher Plane
Range: 0'
Duration: see below

This spell allows the caster to contact a higher plane and seek knowledge from strange and powerful creatures (played by the DM). The chart below lists the planes the caster can contact, how many yes or no questions a creature of it will answer, what its chance of knowing the answer is, how often the creature will lie, and what risk of insanity the caster takes contacting the plane. There is no way of knowing if the creature is lying. For every level above 11th, there is 5% less chance of insanity (thus a 12th level magic-user would have 5% less chance of going insane than indicated on the table shown).

This spell can be used once a week (or less often at the DM's option). Characters going insane recover after a number of weeks of game time equal to the number of the plane contacted. Thus, a person contacting the eighth plane would be out of the campaign for 8 weeks. The caster selects the plane to be contacted.

For Dave Cook's first take on interpreting Gygax, as usual he keeps the spell as much like the OD&D text as he can. The "Knowledge" chance is identical to OD&D. He's inverted the "Veracity" chance to what's here "Chance of Lying", and as he did that, he also smoothed out the progression to exactly 5% per step (resulting in a generally greater chance of veracity than in OD&D). He's also radically reduced the "Insanity" chance to only 5% per level, instead of OD&D's 10% per step. In summary the system here is:
  • Knowledge ≈ N×10%
  • Veracity = (N+9)×5%
  • Insanity = N×5%
Checking on multiplied products for good information with each question:
  • 3rd Plane: 12.5%, 4th: 16.5%, 5th: 21%, 6th: 26%, 7th: 35%, 8th: 45%, 9th: 56%, 10th: 68%, 11th: 81%, 12th: 90.3%.
With the small changes that Cook made, these chances are somewhat improved at the lower levels (3rd-5th Planes), but they're still all less than 25%, and thus pretty much not useful as options at all. The higher level (7th-11th) are all identical to OD&D, with the 12th Plane marginally reduced. At least with the reduction in Insanity chance, you're more likely to actually get to use the spell, no matter what Plane you pick in this system. So that's something.


AD&D 1st Ed.

Contact Other Plane (Divination)
Level: 5
Range: 0
Duration : Special
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V
Casting Time: I turn
Saving Throw: None


Explanation/Description: When this spell is cast, the magic-user sends his or her mind to another plane of existence in order to receive advice and information from powers there. As these powers are located at random, and resent such contact in any case, only brief answers will be given. (Your DM will answer all questions with a "yes", "no", "maybe", "never", "irrelevant", etc.) The character can contact an elemental plane or some plane further removed. For every 2 levels of experience of the magic-user one question may be asked. Contact with minds far removed from the plane of the magic-user increases the probability of the spell caster going insane or dying, but the chance of the power knowing the answer, as well as the probability of the being telling the correct answer, are likewise increased by moving to distant planes:



* For every. 1 point of intelligence over 15, the magic user reduces probability of insanity by 5%.

** If the answer is unknown, and the answer is not true, the being will answer definitely. If truth is indicated, it will answer "unknown."


***Assumes knowledge of questions pertaining to the appropriate elemental plane.


Insanity will strike as soon as 1 question is asked. It will last for 1 week for each removal of the plane contacted, 10 weeks maximum. There is a 1% chance per plane that the magic-user will die before recovering unless a remove curse spell is cast upon him or her.

By AD&D, Gygax seems to have been convinced that the spell needs some significant fix-ups. Here are the highlights of those changes:

  1. He changes the name to contact other plane (AD&D having now fleshed out the Gygaxian "Great Wheel" cosmology in early Dragon articles and the PHB Appendix, such that there are now both "higher" and "lower" planes that should reasonably be accessible by both good and evil wizards). 
  2. He's changed the names of the options, fixing that confusing start at the "3rd Plane", and now instead starting at "1 removed" (although now I'll ignore that anomalous "Elemental" option; below N=1 indicates "1 removed", et. al.). 
  3. He seems to agree with Cook on the reduced Insanity chances, duplicating them exactly as they appeared in the Expert Rules (and also moving that column first, which makes sense, because it's really the first thing you'd have to check as the spell commences). 
  4. On the other hand, he's removed the standard 5% modifier per level above 11th vs. insanity, replacing it with a 5% improvement per Intelligence above 15, which is likely to be a much smaller modifier (at most +3 steps in PHB rules; see single-asterisk note above). 
  5. He's changed the Knowledge chance to a straight 5% increase per step, and greatly increases the base chances at the lower levels over either OD&D or B/X (which were equal).
  6. He's likewise massively increased the Veracity chance over OD&D or B/X, more than doubling it in the starting "1 removed" (old 3rd Plane) category.
  7. He's also changed the number of questions from the Planar number to a formula based on caster level, namely Questions = Level/2 (thus abbreviating the table a little bit).
  8. He's added some specification to what happens if both the Knowledge and Veracity checks fail at the same time (namely, the spell lies and claims either "yes or no" -- presumably the opposite of the facts, otherwise this would wind up accidentally revealing correct information in a fail-fail situation; see the double-asterisk note).
  9. And there's a chance of caster death, following insanity, unless the user has an ally with remove curse nearby at the ready (maybe to make casters less blasé about using the spell casually and waiting out the insanity periods?).
In the DMG there's a note (p. 45) referring users of this spell to the new section on "Insanity" for specific options if things go awry here. So having said that, the overall system is now equivalent to (with irregularities only at the terminating 9+ level):
  • Knowledge = (N+11)×5%
  • Veracity = (N+20)×3%
  • Insanity = N×5%
And the products for truthful information per question work out as follows:
  • 1st Removed: 39.0%, 2nd: 43.6%, 3rd:49.0%, 4th: 54.8%, 5th: 60.0%, 6th: 66.3%, 7th: 72.9%, 8th: 80.8%, 9th+: 88.2%.
This is clearly improved from the user's perspective. There's no option with less than a one-third chance of correct answers; picking a plane where you'll get more correct answers (4th+) still has a low chance of insanity (20%; or just 5% after being modified for an 18 Int, say). I think a partisan can still reasonably argue that the contact other plane may be underpowered, but at least by this point I wouldn't tell a fellow player to hands-down avoid using the spell under any circumstances.


AD&D 2nd Ed.

Contact Other Plane
(Divination)
Range: 0

Duration: Special
Area of Effect: Special

When this spell is cast, the wizard sends his mind to another plane of existence in order to receive advice and information from powers there. As these powers resent such contact, only brief answers are given. (The DM answers all questions with "yes," "no," "maybe," "never," "irrelevant," etc.) Any questions asked are answered by the power during the spell's duration. The character can contact an elemental plane or some plane farther removed. For every two levels of experience of the wizard, one question may be asked. Contact with minds far removed from the plane of the wizard increases the probability of the spellcaster going insane or dying, but the chance of the power knowing the answer, as well as the probability of the being telling the correct answer, are likewise increased by moving to distant planes. Once the Outer Planes are reached, the Intelligence of the power contacted determines the effects.


The accompanying random table is subject to DM changes, development of extraplanar NPC beings, and so on.


If insanity occurs, it strikes as soon as the first question is asked. This condition lasts for one week for each removal of the plane contacted (see the DMG or the Planescape™ Campaign Setting boxed set), to a maximum of 10 weeks. There is a 1% chance per plane that the wizard dies before recovering, unless a remove curse spell is cast upon him. A surviving wizard can recall the answer to the question.


On rare occasions, this divination may be blocked by the action of certain lesser or greater powers.


* For every point of Intelligence over 15, the wizard reduces the chance of insanity by 5%.

** If the being does not know an answer, and the chance of veracity is not made, the being will emphatically give an incorrect answer. If the chance of veracity is made, the being will answer "unknown."
 

Percentages in parentheses are for questions that pertain to the appropriate elemental plane.
 

Optional Rule
The DM may allow a specific Outer Plane to be contacted (see the Planescape Campaign Setting boxed set). In this case, the difference in alignment between the caster and the plane contacted alters the maximum Intelligence that can be contacted--each difference in moral or ethical alignment lowers the maximum Intelligence that can be contacted by 1. For example, an 18th-level lawful good caster could contact Mount Celestia (a lawful good plane) on the "Intelligence 20" line, or Elysium (a neutral good plane) on the "Intelligence 19" line.

And here's Cook's second swing at interpreting & updating the works of Gygax. The overall mechanic, and the chances for both "Knowledge" and "Veracity" are totally identical to 1E. But he's significantly increased the chance of Insanity, adding +20% over what was used in both 1E and his own Expert rules; that seems unwarranted, and I'm kind of mystified by why he did that for this spell (maybe feeling he had to counter-balance the Int bonus that was added in 1E?). He gives a "mulligan" to the unfortunate caster, by letting him or her return from insanity with the answer to 1 question in their mind from using this spell.

But the biggest noticeable change here is a flavor-text makeover, now that the Great Wheel has been further fleshed out in later AD&D works like Deities & Demigods, the Manual of the Planes, and the Planescape campaign setting (which is given two shout-outs in the text above). At this point, it's been established that major and minor powers may hold dominion throughout the various planar levels -- it's not strictly just higher-is-better. And therefore Cook is compelled to switch from the simple "planar level" dial to one which specifies entities of different mega-Intelligence, regardless of what planar level they're on. Also he adds the "Optional Rule" that caster alignment interacts with what level of Intelligence they're allowed to contact on each Outer Plane. So that sort of makes sense, but for my money it starts entangling too many issues at once for the spell to be quickly comprehensible (esp. by newer players that don't have prior understanding of the "Great Wheel" cosmology... and after all, the "Optional Rule" just implies you should contact your alignment's plane, with no other side-effects from that fact). In any case, as stated earlier, the actual game-mechanics are effectively the same as before.

So the probability system is the same as 1E except for the increased "Insanity" chances (N=1 for "Inner Plane", etc.):
  • Knowledge = (N+11)×5%
  • Veracity = (N+20)×3%
  • Insanity = (N+4)×5%
And the truth-per-question chances are exactly the same as 1E (see above). However, to break 50% odds for correct answers, you need to pick a contact  (N=4, "4 removed" in 1E, "Outer Plane, Int 20" here) where you're almost equally likely to go insane before asking your first question (specifically, 40% or higher). So I can live with the flavor-text changes, but I'm wondering if Cook regrets that increase to the Insanity chances.


D&D 3rd Ed.

Contact Other Plane
Divination
Level: Brd 5, Sor/Wiz 5
Components: V
Casting Time: 10 minutes
Range: Personal
Target: The character
Duration: Concentration
The character sends his or her mind to another plane of existence in order to receive advice and information from powers there. (See the accompanying table for possible consequences and results of the attempt.)

Avoid Effective Intelligence/Charisma Decrease: The character must succeed at an Intelligence check against this DC in order to avoid effective Intelligence and Charisma decrease. If the check fails, the character's Intelligence and Charisma scores fall to 8 for the stated duration, and the character becomes unable to cast arcane spells. If the character loses Intelligence and Charisma, the effect strikes as soon as the first question is asked, and no answer is received. (The entries in parentheses are for questions that pertain to the appropriate Elemental Plane.)

Results of a Successful Contact: The DM rolls d% for the result shown on the table:

  • True Answer: The character gets a true, one-word answer. Questions not capable of being answered in this way are answered randomly.
  • Don’t Know: The entity tells the character that it doesn’t know.
  • Lie: The entity intentionally lies to the character.
  • Random Answer: The entity tries to lie but doesn’t know the answer, so it makes one up.
The powers reply in a language the character understands, but they resent such contact and give only brief answers to the character's questions. (The DM answers all questions with "yes," "no," "maybe," "never," "irrelevant," or some other one-word answer.) The character must concentrate on maintaining the spell (a standard action) in order to ask questions at the rate of one per round. A question is answered by the power during the same round. For every two caster levels, the character may ask one question.

The character can contact an Elemental Plane or some plane farther removed. Contact with minds far removed from the character's home plane increases the probability of suffering an effective decrease to Intelligence and Charisma, but the chance of the power knowing the answer, as well as the probability of the being telling the correct answer, are likewise increased by moving to distant planes. Once the Outer Planes are reached, the power of the deity contacted determines the effects.


On rare occasions, this divination may be blocked by an act of certain deities or forces.

So in Jonathan Tweet's 3E Player's Handbook, the spell is broadly similar (much of the text is copy-and-pasted from before), but the main mechanical change is that the double-roll for Knowledge and Veracity has been collapsed into a single roll on the table above that incorporates all the different possibilities. The last column, "Random Answer" is defined in the note as "entity tries to lie but doesn’t know the answer, so it makes one up". That's equivalent to our previous double-fail condition, although the 3E designers are interpreting that differently than I did above, apparently allowing for the accidental-truth possibility (which I guess makes sense; maybe I should use that myself).

The flat percentage "Insanity" chance has been replaced by an Intelligence check under these rules at some specified DC. Assuming that the caster has an Intelligence of 15 (like the basis for 1E/2E), then I calculate the chances for failing this insanity-like check as follows:
  • N=1 ("Positive/Negative Energy Plane"): 25%, 2: 30%, 3: 35%, 4: 45%, 5: 55%, 6: 65%.
And this is actually identical to how Cook's 2E chart for Insanity starts & ends, with a few lines cut out in the middle (see above). Those cut-out lines represent the new flavor text, which has switched from 2E's "Outer Plane Intelligence" trigger to the new "Lesser-Intermediate-Greater Deity" descriptions, and thus has fewer categories in that pre-existing system for gods (which I think I prefer). Also, the result for failure on this check has been "safety-bumpered" to simply reduce Int & Cha to 8, and thereby losing spellcasting abilities temporarily (which seems less harsh, but less interesting, than cosmic insanity). But Tweet cuts out Cook's 2E one-automatic-answer charity, here specifying that "no answer is received" in the case of a failed check.

If we just strip out the probabilities for a "True Answer" at each level (neglecting the possibility of accidental truthfulness from the last column), then we see:
  • N=1: 39%, 2: 44%, 3: 49%, 4: 60%, 5: 73%, 6: 88%.
Which again is exactly the same as the 1E/2E probabilities at the levels of "1 removed", 2, 3, 5, 7, and 9+  (see in 1E above, and round off to the nearest percentage). So it's obvious that the resident 3E number-cruncher was indeed carefully looking at the 1E/2E table and doing the same probability calculations I did above, to make those results match up as closely as possible, and with just a single die-roll. We can praise this for close observation and efficiency (one die-roll instead of two), but on the other hand this makes you entirely dependent on the lengthy table (no way to break out the two factors into simple probability formulas; the sources are entirely hidden in the 3E text).


Conclusions

The contact higher plane spell was super-weak, effectively unusable, in OD&D and B/X, largely due to an oversight about how compound probability events work (i.e., they get multiplicatively lower). When the spell changed to contact other plane in 1E, Gygax made those probabilities much more tractable, and they were retained effectively unchanged through 2E and 3E (except for the highly questionable Insanity-boost inserted in 2E). Also: flavor-text changed, from OD&D's planes-that-shall-not-be-named, 1E's steps on the Great Wheel, 2E's Intelligence-based Planescapery, and finally 3E's specific classes of deities.

One thing that I don't see addressed here, for the relative weakness of the spell, is to what extent players are allowed to re-ask the same question over again compare answers. If allowed to do this and apply the mechanic as-written, then players could compare answers and use statistical inference to decode what the truth really is -- even if only contacting the lowest-level option in OD&D where almost all of the answers are false. The most obvious response to this is: keep in mind what the entity said previously and repeat the same answer in all such cases. But players could maybe take one or more steps upward, contact a different entity with the same question, and compare those answers. Insanity-permitting, of course.

So, what do you think about the spell? Is it too weak or strong (pretending, for argument's sake, that options like clerical commune are not available)? Have you seen it used in actual games (I never have), and how did it work? Would it be better to discard the big table (remember, it's the only spell like that in the LBBs) and just present core mechanic dice-rolls in its place? I'm almost surprised that 3E didn't go that route instead (but god forbid 3E actually make something short when it could be long). I might also consider using the actual list of responses from the Magic 8-Ball (link), although that would require a bit more paper at the table, if I don't remember the list outright.

(Footnote: An ODS spreadsheet of my various probability calculations is available here.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Surprise & Initiative Details

A little while ago, I got a wonderful invitation from Paul S. to run a D&D game for 3 days straight of the 4th of July holiday. Which was awesome for more reasons than I can count, but one I'll state explicitly is that he has the most perfect dedicated RPG gaming space that I've ever seen (link; now with shelves full of miniatures & Dwarven Forge, old-style chairs from the Higgins Armory, etc.) Also it gave me a chance to see if my long-form DM'ing skills were still up to snuff.

Here's a thing I've had written in my house rules for some time -- not really a change of any sort, but a reminder to honor the original D&D rules for surprise and initiative. Namely: Surprise gives a free round and then automatic initiative, for 2 rounds of action in sequence (Vol-3, top of p. 10); and that at the start of the action sequence, a round of missile fire & spells are allowed before movement or melee (as seen in Chainmail p. 9, to which OD&D refers, or Swords & Spells p. 3, as an update).

Conceptually, I really like this, because it simulates arrows and spells flying and striking the opposition while they're making their charge across the space between. It synchs up with the Gygaxian/Holmesian descriptions of combat where PCs loose one round of missiles, then drop bows and pull out swords for melee. If monsters get surprise, they may not have any missiles on the actual surprise round, but they still get the free initiative to charge into combat and get one free round of melee attacks.

The main problem: The last several times I've run games, I keep entirely forgetting to enforce this rule. Even though I've got it written down as a reminder, even though I prime myself mentally to use it before going into the game; it just completely slips my mind every time. Secondarily, even when I've remembered about it in the past, players are a bit confused by the (now) unusual rule.

One thing that I'm noticing from this past Jul-4 weekend is that players were still using lots of missile weapons even in the absence of the "first round is missiles only" rule. They were using them to attack monsters at a distance, or to allow back ranks to fire over a melee in front (which should be further encouraged by my very liberal rule on firing into melee, even though I also forgot about that all weekend, too; link). In theory, if I strike out this joint rule for surprise & missiles, then I'll be matching what was done in all later rulesets, like BX/AD&D/3E, etc.

Maybe I should take a clue from my instincts in actual play, and let go of that attractive-in-theory but difficult-in-practice original rule?


Monday, July 14, 2014

Spells Through The Ages – ESP and Clairvoyance

The 2nd-level D&D wizard spell, ESP, has a somewhat interesting pedigree. For starters, it's oddly named -- just a 3-letter acronym, one which is not actually defined anywhere in OD&D, 1E, etc. Secondly, it's a bit of a misnomer; "ESP" is properly an umbrella term for a multitude of para-psychological powers, like telepathy, clairaudience, and clairvoyance (link). While the D&D ESP power itself is most like the first of those (3E renamed it "detect thoughts", a phrase briefly used in the OD&D text; perhaps "read minds" would be the best name for it), each of those D&D magics will be addressed below (they are all linked in the initial rules).

Inasmuch as D&D is an artifact of the pop sensibilities of its time, perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that ESP (extrasensory perception, of course) should be familiar to its readers -- in the wake of the 1960's "New Age" and "Human Potential Movement", there was a resurgence of interest in expanding one's consciousness by a number of means, and hope for investigating and harnessing it for practical real-world purposes. In fact, it was in the same decade as D&D's first publication that the governments of Russia, China, and the U.S. all founded research facilities dedicated to using ESP-like powers for military objectives (to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in the U.S. for at least a few decades -- see information on the "Stargate Project" and "remote viewing" generally.) Should your fantasy-world kings and archpriests be funding colleges of magic for the same purpose? Let's see:


Original D&D

ESP: A spell which allows the user to detect the thoughts (if any) of whatever lurks behind doors or in the darkness. It can penetrate solid rock up to about 2' in thickness, but a thin coating of lead will prevent its penetration. Duration: 12 turns. Range: 6"

Clairvoyance: Same as ESP spell except the spell user can visualize rather than merely pick up thoughts.

Clairaudience: Same as Clairvoyance except it allows hearing rather than visualization. This is one of the few spells which can be cast through a Crystal Ball (see Volume II).

ESP is 2nd-level, while the other two spells are 3rd-level. From a lot of personal use with medallions of ESP (the magic item in Vol-2) in contexts like the Dungeon! boardgame and AD&D DMG solo-dungeoneering rules, I feel like I've got a pretty good grip on the purpose of this short-range spell -- you use it to detect what's lurking on the other side of a door, before you burst in, kind of like a super-powered "hear noise" option. According to this text, the clairvoyance and clairaudience spells work about the same, but seem intended to give more complete information about the area behind the door. (Clearly of limited range: consider powers given to certain gods in OD&D Sup-IV tagged with a modification like, "Clairvoyance (no range limitations)": p. 23, 25, 43.)


B/X D&D Rules

ESP 
Range: 60'
Duration: 12 turns
 

This spell will allow the caster to "hear" thoughts. The spell caster must concentrate for one full turn in one direction to "hear" the thoughts (if any) of a creature within range. Any single creature's thoughts may be understood (regardless of the language), but if more than one creature is in the line of "hearing", a confused jumble of thoughts will be "heard". In this case, the caster may concentrate in that direction for an extra turn to sort out the jumble and concentrate on one creature. The spell caster may "hear" through 2 feet of rock, but a thin coating of lead will block the ESP. The thoughts of the undead (if any) cannot be "heard" by means of this spell.

Clairvoyance 
Range: 60'
Duration: 12 turns
 

This spell allows the user to see an area through the eyes of any single creature in it. The creature must be in the general direction chosen by the caster and in range. The spell is blocked by more than two feet of rock or a thin coating of lead. "Seeing" through a creature's eyes takes one full turn, after which the caster can change subjects.

The way these rules are organized, the 2nd level ESP is in Tom Moldvay's Basic D&D Set; the 3rd-level clairvoyance is in Dave Cook's Expert D&D Set (with clairaudience being discarded from those rules). ESP has effectively the same range & duration; it picks up complications over multiple targets, and an inability to read the minds of the undead. Clairvoyance is given greater specificity than in OD&D; the range & duration are the same as ESP (only given by implication in Vol-1), and Cook invents a detail that it functions by looking through another creature's eyes. One the one hand, that's sort of in spirit of "Same as ESP spell except the spell user can visualize" (per OD&D above); but on the other hand, that's generally not what's implied by the terms "clairvoyance" or "remote sensing" (see links above). This interpretation will not be re-used by any other version of the D&D rules.


AD&D 1st Ed. 

ESP (Divination)
Level: 2
Range: ½"/level, 9" maximum
Duration: 1 round/level
Area of Effect: One creature per probe
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 2 segments
Saving Throw: None


Explanation/Description: When an ESP spell is used, the caster is able to detect the surface thoughts of any creatures in range - except creatures with no mind (as we know it), such as all of the undead. The ESP is stopped by 2 or more feet of rock, 2 or more inches of any metal other than lead, or a thin sheet of lead foil. The magic-user employing the spell is able to probe the surface thoughts of 1 creature per turn, getting simple instinctual thoughts from lower order creatures. Probes can continue on the same creature from round to round. The caster can use the spell to help determine if some creature lurks behind a door, for example, but the ESP will not always reveal what sort of creature it is. The material component of this spell is a copper piece.


Clairaudience (Divination)
Level: 3
Range: Special
Duration: 1 round/level
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time! 3 segments
Saving Throw: None


Explanation/Description: The clairaudience spell enables the magic-user to concentrate upon some locale and hear in his or her mind whatever noise is within a 6" radius of his or her determined clairaudience locale center. Distance is not a factor, but the locale must be known, i.e. a place familiar to the spell caster or an obvious one (such as behind a door, around a corner, in a copse of woods, etc.). Only sounds which are normally detectable by the magic-user can be heard by use of this spell. Only metal sheeting or magical protections will prevent the operation of the spell. Note that it will function only on the plane of existence on which the magic-user is at the time of casting. The material component of the spell is a small silver horn of at least 100 g.p. value, and casting the spell causes it to disappear.


Clairvoyance (Divination)
Level: 3
Range: Special
Duration: 7 round/level
Area of Effect: Special


Explanation/Description: Similar to the clairaudience spell, the clairvoyance spell empowers the magic-user to see in his or her mind whatever is within sight range from the spell locale chosen. Distance is not a factor, but the locale must be known - familiar or obvious. Furthermore, light is a factor whether or not the spell caster has the ability to see into the infrared or ultraviolet spectrums. If the area is dark, only a 1" radius from the center of the locale of the spell's area of effect can be clairvoyed; otherwise, the seeing extends to normal vision range. Metal sheeting or magical protections will foil a clairvoyance spell. The spell functions only on the plane on which the magic-user is at the time of casting. The material component of the spell is a pinch of powdered pineal gland from a human or humanoid creature.

ESP is about the same as in OD&D. As usual for 1E, range & duration are transformed from fixed values to level-dependent variables, and at least two oddities arise from that -- first, it's one of only two in the entire ruleset that are tagged with a "maximum" range limit to its formula for range (the other being ventriloquism); and second, it's stepped into the confusing mess over time-units, in that the "1 round/level" duration is probably actually shorter than the text requirement of probing "1 creature per turn" (since 10 rounds = 1 turn in these rules).

It's in the clairvoyance/clairaudience pair that things get a bit more interesting. Here, Gygax has listed them both as "Range: Special" and written in the text "Distance is not a factor". So... that means you can see infinitely far away (as long as "familiar or obvious")? That's certainly not how I (or Dave Cook) would have read the OD&D text, and even here it's a bit cursory and easy to miss. I can see this causing a lot of interpretive arguments over what counts as "obvious" (The interior of the citadel I'm viewing from miles away, or simply know about? The center of the dungeon in that mountain I've been told exists?) No errata notes are given in the DMG. We might wonder if this expanded power takes some thunder away from the crystal ball magic item (originally the only infinite-distance detection power in the game; if clairaudience could do the job all by itself, then it wouldn't need casting through a crystal ball, as noted for OD&D above).

The fact the clairvoyance may work less well than ESP in the standard dungeon setting, because most rooms may well be dark in the first place, is noted for the first time here and addressed with a special "see 1 inch even in the dark" power (which I think is kind of fiddly). Also, is it a little strange that clairaudience is given a fairly pricey 100gp material component that gets disappears, but not clairvoyance?


AD&D 2nd Ed.

ESP
(Divination)
Range: 0

Duration: 1 rd./level
Area of Effect: 5 yds./level (90 yds. maximum)
 

When an ESP spell is used, the caster is able to detect the surface thoughts of any creatures in range--except for those of undead and creatures without minds (as we know them). The ESP is stopped by 2 feet of rock, 2 inches of any metal other than lead, or a thin sheet of lead foil.

The wizard employing the spell is able to probe the surface thoughts of one creature per round, getting simple instinctual thoughts from lower order creatures. Probes can continue on the same creature from round to round or can move on to other creatures. The caster can use the spell to help determine if a creature lurks behind a door, for example, but the ESP does not always reveal what sort of creature it is. If used as part of a program of interrogation, an intelligent and wary subject receives an initial saving throw. If successful, the creature successfully resists and the spell reveals no additional information. If the saving throw is failed, the caster may learn additional information, according to the DM's ruling. The creature's Wisdom adjustment applies, as may additional bonuses up to +4, based on the sensitivity of the information sought.


The material component of this spell is a copper piece.


Clairaudience
(Divination)
Range: Unlimited

Duration: 1 rd./level
Area of Effect: 60-ft. radius

The clairaudience spell enables the wizard to concentrate upon some locale and hear in his mind any noise within a 60-foot radius of that point. Distance is not a factor, but the locale must be known--a place familiar to the spellcaster or an obvious one (such as behind a door, around a corner, in a copse of trees, etc.). Only sounds that are normally detectable by the wizard can be heard by use of this spell. Lead sheeting or magical protections prevent the operation of the spell, and the wizard has some indication that the spell is so blocked. The spell creates an invisible sensor, similar to that created by a crystal ball spell, that can be dispelled. The spell functions only on the wizard's current plane of existence.

The material component of the spell is a small horn of at least 100 gp value.


Clairvoyance
(Divination)
Range: Unlimited

Duration: 1 rd./level
Area of Effect: Line of sight

Similar to the clairaudience spell, the clairvoyance spell empowers the wizard to see in his mind whatever is within sight range from the spell locale chosen. Distance from the wizard is not a factor, but the locale must be known--familiar or obvious. Furthermore, light is a factor, as the spell does not enable the use of infravision or magical enhancements. If the area is magically dark, only darkness is seen; if naturally pitch dark, only a 10-foot radius from the center of the spell's area of effect can be seen. Otherwise, the seeing extends to the normal vision range according to the prevailing light. Lead sheeting or magical protection foils a clairvoyance spell, and the wizard has some indication that it is so blocked. The spell creates an invisible sensor, similar to that created by a crystal ball spell, that can be dispelled. The spell functions only on the wizard's current plane of existence.

The material component is a pinch of powdered pineal gland.
So here's Dave Cook's second go at interpreting the works of Gygax. For the first time, Cook mentions a saving throw for ESP, in the specific case of an extended interrogation for specific information. For clairvoyance/clairaudience, the range is here explicated by Cook now listing them as "Range: Unlimited", so there's no question about how far they can function -- really far. They're in a very small group with that designator for range in this ruleset (the others being wish, limited wish, and the new spells sending and demand).


D&D 3rd Ed.

Detect Thoughts
Divination [Mind-Affecting]
Level: Brd 2, Knowledge 2, Sor/Wiz 2
Components: V, S, F/DF
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 ft.
Area: Quarter circle emanating from the character to the extreme of the range
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute/level (D)
Saving Throw: Will negates (see text)
Spell Resistance: No


The character can detect surface thoughts. The amount of information revealed depends on how long the character studies a particular area or subject:

  • 1st Round: Presence or absence of thoughts (from conscious creatures with Intelligence scores of 1 or higher).
  • 2nd Round: Number of thinking minds and the mental strength of each.
  • 3rd Round: Surface thoughts of any mind in the area. A target’s Will save prevents the character from reading its thoughts, and the character must cast detect thoughts again to have another chance. Creatures of animal intelligence (Int 1 or 2) have simple, instinctual thoughts that the character can pick up.

Note: Each round, the character can turn to detect thoughts in a new area. The spell can penetrate barriers, but 1 foot of stone, 1 inch of common metal, a thin sheet of lead, or 3 feet of wood or dirt blocks it.

Arcane Focus: A copper piece.


Clairaudience/Clairvoyance
Divination
Level: Brd 3, Knowledge 3, Sor/Wiz 3
Components: V, S, F/DF
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: See text
Effect: Magical sensor
Duration: 1 minute/level (D)
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No


Clairaudience/clairvoyance enables the character to concentrate upon some locale and hear or see (the character's choice) almost as if the character were there. Distance is not a factor, but the locale must be known—a place familiar to the character or an obvious one. The spell does not allow magically enhanced senses to work through it. If the chosen locale is magically dark, the character sees nothing. If it is naturally pitch black, the character can see in a 10-foot radius around the center of the spell’s effect. Lead sheeting or magical protection blocks the spell, and the character senses that the spell is so blocked. The spell creates an invisible sensor that can be dispelled. The spell functions only on the plane of existence the character is currently occupying.

Oh 3E, I wanted to love you so terribly much. But here you've taken the old ESP, renamed to detect thoughts (which you can sort of sympathize with, although I can think of better names) and made a whole complicated piece of drama out of it. Now you've got this picky-itsy rule on what you pick up each round to distinguish between the "something's over there" and the "useful mental information" aspects of the spell. You've also got this big friggin' table with 10 rows to handle the fact that someone threw "mental strength" in as a detail in the 2nd round of scanning. That kind of thing totally burns my chaps, because it guarantees that the game stops and everyone flips through the PHB to this page every time the spell gets used. Hey, how about instead, I don't know, just directly declare the Intelligence ability score of the creature? Or cut it to 3 categories (dumb, average, genius)? Or skip the whole thing entirely?

Although in its defense, detect thoughts (nee ESP)  looks the way it does because all the 3E "detection" spells were synchronized to have this same kind of 3-rounds-of-increasing-effect and a table-of-strengths format. This includes: detect animals or plants, detect evil (et. al.), detect magic, detect secret doors, detect snares and pits, detect thoughts, and detect undead. And that was spawned by a little addition to detect magic back in the 1E DMG that allowed you get to get some extra information on a scan ("This spell detects the intensity of the magic (dim, faint, moderate, strong, very strong, intense) and there is a 10% chance per level of the caster that the type (abiuration, alteration, etc.) can be found as well..."; 1E DMG p. 44). Even the 3E detect thoughts "mental strength" table is basically derived from the similar table you'd find at the the start of the 1E Monster Manuals. On second thought -- that's not so much a defense, the fact that all of these detection spells were allowed to get so crazy complicated should be more of a deeper condemnation.

But meanwhile -- The clairaudience/clairvoyance pair has been collapsed to a single spell (again, you can sort of see why, but you just fixed the ESP name oddity and then made this the new clunkiest spell name in the system). Here the designers have stripped out Dave Cook's 2E clarification of "Range: Unlimited"... now you're back to 1E-style text with "Range: See text", and needing to pick up on the "Distance is not a factor" text and interpret it correctly.


D&D 3.5 Ed.

Detect Thoughts
Divination [Mind-Affecting]
Level: Brd 2, Knowledge 2, Sor/Wiz 2
Components: V, S, F/DF
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: 60 ft.
Area: Cone-shaped emanation
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 min./level (D)
Saving Throw: Will negates; see text
Spell Resistance: No

You detect surface thoughts. The amount of information revealed depends on how long you study a particular area or subject.

  • 1st Round: Presence or absence of thoughts (from conscious creatures with Intelligence scores of 1 or higher).
  • 2nd Round: Number of thinking minds and the Intelligence score of each. If the highest Intelligence is 26 or higher (and at least 10 points higher than your own Intelligence score), you are stunned for 1 round and the spell ends. This spell does not let you determine the location of the thinking minds if you can’t see the creatures whose thoughts you are detecting.
  • 3rd Round: Surface thoughts of any mind in the area. A target’s Will save prevents you from reading its thoughts, and you must cast detect thoughts again to have another chance. Creatures of animal intelligence (Int 1 or 2) have simple, instinctual thoughts that you can pick up.
Each round, you can turn to detect thoughts in a new area. The spell can penetrate barriers, but 1 foot of stone, 1 inch of common metal, a thin sheet of lead, or 3 feet of wood or dirt blocks it.

Arcane Focus: A copper piece.


Clairaudience/Clairvoyance
Divination (Scrying)
Level: Brd 3, Knowledge 3, Sor/Wiz 3
Components: V, S, F/DF
Casting Time: 10 minutes
Range: Long (400 ft. + 40 ft./level)
Effect: Magical sensor
Duration: 1 min./level (D)
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

Clairaudience/clairvoyance creates an invisible magical sensor at a specific location that enables you to hear or see (your choice) almost as if you were there. You don’t need line of sight or line of effect, but the locale must be known—a place familiar to you or an obvious one. Once you have selected the locale, the sensor doesn’t move, but you can rotate it in all directions to view the area as desired. Unlike other scrying spells, this spell does not allow magically or supernaturally enhanced senses to work through it. If the chosen locale is magically dark, you see nothing. If it is naturally pitch black, you can see in a 10- foot radius around the center of the spell’s effect.
Clairaudience/clairvoyance functions only on the plane of existence you are currently occupying.

Arcane Focus: A small horn (for hearing) or a glass eye (for seeing).

Okay, we can see a few things here that 3.5 actually did improve on -- or at least back-pedaled on some of the more ridiculous design decisions made in 3E. One is that the detect thoughts (ESP) big table did get snipped out, and replaced by simply knowing "the Intelligence score" of each target, as I suggested above. A second is that clairaudience/clairvoyance has its range cut down from unlimited (as it was in AD&D 1E-3E) back down to local-usage only, 400 ft. + 40 ft.level (a lot more like it was in OD&D and B/X). So that leaves some legitimate advantage to the higher-level scrying spells and items (crystal balls). At least those are good calls, I think.


Conclusions

So it seems to me like the clairvoyance/clairaudience spells are very powerful, if interpreted as being usable at totally any distance -- subject to arguments over what counts as "familiar or obvious", of course. In fact, I would think that these "remote viewing" spells available to any wizard would come pretty close to eliminating any need for crystal balls or the magic mirror/magic font spells that first popped up in 1E Unearthed Arcana and were kept in all later editions. Although: I can imagine in any edition other than 2E that someone might easily overlook the "Distance is not a factor" line and exactly what that implies. I have to admit, even with all this textual history, I keep coming back to these spells and expecting them to have the same restrictions that ESP did in OD&D.

Am I wrong about that? How powerful is the ESP-clairvoyance-clairaudience trio in your games? Do your players routinely use them to great effect? Have you found it necessary to insert any additional interpretations or limitations (or expansions) to these spells? Inquiring minds want to know.

Edit: One more question --  How do you feel about Cook's being able to understand any creature's thoughts "regardless of the language" that appears only in his Expert rules? Fair game or too powerful?

Edit: Added the look at the 3.5 edition versions. Thanks to commentator Monkapotomus for the heads-up on that.

Edit: See also my friend Paul's assessment of the clairvoyance and ESP suite of spells.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dice-Rolling Software

Back in the early 80's there were ads in Dragon magazine for an LED-lit stick that would generate random numbers, called the "Dragonbone" (link, although I wish the picture were in the original white, as opposed to that tasteless red color). This definitely caught my imagination, although I never had or saw one, and clearly the functionality was extremely limited. For example: it only did one roll at a time, so it wouldn't automatically roll 3d6 for abilities, or simulate the fistful of dice you need for mass saving throws from spells such as confusion, fireball, sleep (pre-Sup-I), etc.

So I was thinking the other day that obviously this functionality would be beyond trivial on a modern smartphone. Coincidentally, a few days later I had Allier G. contact me to point out his dice-rolling app (link; free and pay versions, Android only, no iPhone).

Does anyone use software-based dice rolling at the table? And if so, what's your favorite application for it? Or: do the benefits of tactility, visibility, security, and naturalness always favor actual dice-in-the-hand?