Monday, October 17, 2016

Nothing Remains Interesting If Anything Can Happen

In 1902 H.G. Wells gave an interview to Cosmopolitan magazine. In part, he said this:
The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms and a rigid exclusion of other marvels from the story. Then it becomes human. How would you feel and what might not happen to you, is the typical question, if for instance pigs could fly and one came rocketing over a hedge at you? How would you feel and what might not happen to you if suddenly you were changed into an ass and couldn't tell anyone about it? Or if you suddenly became invisible? But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats, and dogs left and right, or if anyone could vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting if anything can happen.

I agree with Wells here, and I think that this is a very fine expression of one of the several disagreements I have with conventional D&D criticism, to wit, that appealing to "realism" has no place in our assessments. Almost surely we've all heard several arguments like this: "You want a mechanic for realistic [weapons/bows/armor/movement/mounts/encumbrance/rations/falling/swimming/boating]? But there is no place for realism in a game with wizards and fire-breathing dragons!"

As Wells points out, not everything can be fantastical and surprising and wahoo, because then the whole work collapses into indistinguishable, unapproachable mush. In our case of the fantasy D&D campaign, of course, we are certainly able to support somewhat more of an eclectic combination of elements than Wells could in the course of a single story. That's fine. But our players need some guidelines and parameters for how things work -- they can't make any valuable strategic choices if the DM is prone to springing crazy nonsense about everything, all the time.

And particularly for the new player (who is, in fact, most people), an excellent methodology is this: Give them a ground-state field of "normal medieval society", and how things generally work physically, technologically, and socially in the real world, and start building fantastical elements a bit at a time from there. This provides a very rich set of shared expectations and intuitions quickly, without reading tomes of background text to get into the milieu. Play can start immediately, and their instincts for how a sword, water, door, rope, horse, torch, mirror, spike, or tree work admirably, assuming a reasonable DM who is attentive, observant, and fair about things like that.

In old-school D&D we can give the new player a low-level fighter, who is mundane in practically all ways, maybe skip telling them anything about the rules at all, and just ask them to role-play honestly with the physical equipment with which they start. It works out perfectly fine and much of the time that player will be more creative than the person accustomed to working with lists of skills and feats. Notice that their tools principally come from the standard equipment list, which in Original D&D had no explanatory text of any kind associated with them (players were expected to be generally aware of the world around them and medieval-level technology).

Of course, realism can't be everything; as per the golden rule, it's balanced against playability of the game. But personally I see no reason why not to "dial in" the ground state rules of things like mundane combat, movement, archery, encumbrance, foodstuffs, riding, swimming, falling, etc., and I wholeheartedly support "realism" as a legitimate point of discussion in that part of the game design. In fact, frequently it serves to discover the most elegant rule. If someone says "it doesn't matter", then having a correct rule shouldn't trouble them any more than having an incorrect rule. Whereas if someone were to argue that a more-mangled base reality is always better in a fantastical game ("because dragons"), then it runs up against Wells' observation here: Then nothing remains interesting, and nothing is coherent to the part-time player.

(Hat tip for the quote: B.J. Johnson).

Monday, October 10, 2016

Dictionary of the Canting Crew

BE, Gent. "A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew." its Several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats, &c. With an Addition of Some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. Useful for all Sorts of People (especially Foreigners) to Secure their Money and Preserve their Lives; besides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New. London, c. 1698.

(Hat tip: BJ Johnson.)

Monday, October 3, 2016

Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 3

Continuing our look at the intimate connection between the rules of Outdoor Survival and Original D&D:


Here is the page-sized movement chart for Outdoor Survival:

Outdoor Survival Movement Chart

As you can see, the fundamental mechanic is, in entering a particular hex, to charge a particular cost against the person's daily move rate (cost being between 1 and 4 hexes). The terrain penalties in OD&D are assessed in almost an identical fashion: Gygax actually asserts that they are the same, but then inserts just a few edits along the way (Vol-3, p. 17):
Terrain Penalties: All terrain penalties are as stated in OUTDOOR SURVIVAL, mountains and swamps cost three movement per hex, crossing rivers at non-ford hexes also costs three, and woods or deserts cost two. Tracks through mountainous terrain cost two factors per hex moved, and tracks through woods or swamps incur no movement penalty.

The only changes here are that swamp hexes cost 3 movement units (instead of 4), and that tracks through mountains cost 2 move units (instead of 1 in Outdoor Survival). When I run D&D wilderness games, I ignore these minor changes, and actually just display this same movement chart from Outdoor Survival for my players' benefit.

I consider this hex-based mechanic to be far more elegant for gameplay purposes than the more abstract system that was presented in say, AD&D, where only daily miles traveled were presented -- ignoring the fact that different types of terrain could be encountered within a single day, or that odd remainders of movement between hexes might need consideration. Having moves purely in terms of whole-number hexes neatly solves a whole number of problems during play.


Outdoor Survival has a "Sequence of Play" that looks like this: (1) Select scenario and set players at full food, water, and health; (2) Determine order by random dice; (3) Roll for Direction ability and move counter; (4) Consult Necessities chart to see if food/water ration has been met for the day; (5) Mark any losses and reduced movement for the next turn. Repeat most of these steps until the game concludes.

However, there is an interesting "Optional" step included in the list, namely Step 6:

Outdoor Survival optional step 6: encounters

As you can see, this step triggers Wilderness Encounters, specified in a chart on the flip side of each Scenario card, wherein the player would, by default, pick one of 3 columns on which to roll for the exact type of encounter. The encounter charts vary by Scenario in the usual way (wickedly brutal at low levels; more easily manageable at higher levels); here are the encounters for Scenario 4 as one example:

Outdoor Survival Wilderness Encounters: Scenario 4

Note that among the options are remaining stationary (effectively: lose a turn), gaining or losing food or water, and possibly outright losing a life level (only one outcome for that, however). Lower-level charts include losing multiple turns and food/water units at once. Here is a bit more description of that optional rule:

Outdoor Survival encounters rules

From a top-level design perspective, this idea of how to run wilderness adventures was ported directly into OD&D; the two daily rolls there are, indeed, one for being lost (direction ability) and one for possible monsters (wilderness encounters). Concepts that were stripped out were: rolls or assessment of possible loss of food/water, loss of mobility for reduced life levels, and encounters of types other than creatures. Outdoor Survival included the presence of inclement weather ("Natural Hazards"), alongside creature encounters, but that was left our for D&D.

The other thing I want to point out is that Outdoor Survival, as simple as it is, includes an example of a non-uniform core mechanic; if you look at the Direction Ability charts (see last week), then on that d6 roll the player is penalized for rolling low, whereas for encounters here the player is penalized for rolling high (encounters only occur on 5-6 as above). I have found this prone to confuse players, so I penciled in a note to flip this latter roll around in play (see margin note above).

However, that was not an adjustment that was made in D&D Vol-3. Gygax ported in this exact same mechanic, with the exact same sense of the two 6-sided dice; low roll for loss of direction ability, and high roll for monsters encounters. Ranges vary for different terrain types, but otherwise the idea is completely the same (Vol-3, p. 18):

OD&D Vol-3 Wilderness Chart

When I first saw this chart, the contrasting sense of the dice-results made me wonder that possibly only a single 6-sided die was being rolled (with either a lost or monster result, never both together). But I think that reading the prior page carefully clarifies that two separate dice are rolled (technically: one is at the start of the day, the other at the end of the day). The fact that the mechanic is so transparently borrowed from Outdoor Survival makes that even more clear, I'm sure.

And this same basic idea was also used in the dungeon setting, of course, for one of the most important but often controversial D&D mechanics: "A roll of 6 indicates a wandering monster has appeared." (Vol-3, p. 10). Again: High roll indicates encounter (disjoint from, say, the fact that low roll indicates surprise).

But the idea of a "core mechanic" where all high rolls are uniformly desirable was something that was not on the radar of either Outdoor Survival or Dungeons & Dragons at that point in time. And that makes the shared DNA even more obvious in this rather telling case.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 2

If you visit a site like, you'll find that the usual knock on the Outdoor Survival game is that it's impossibly difficult to win at. This seems to be an interesting common theme with my other favorite stuff: Early-edition D&D, my work at Papyrus Racing, and my profession of teaching mathematics. As JFK said, we choose to do these things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard". So we should explore that further.

Outdoor Survival reviews at

Scenario Cards

Outdoor Survival isn't just a single game; it's actually a whole bunch of games, even an open-ended platform for making your own games (sound familiar?). The boxed set comes with 5 "Scenario Cards" which respectively outline completely different objectives, win conditions, and rules for being lost and finding sustenance. In the interest of comment, criticism, scholarship, and research, here's the front side of each of the cards:

Outdoor Survival Scenario 1

Outdoor Survival Scenario 2

Outdoor Survival Scenario 3

Outdoor Survival Scenario 4

Outdoor Survival Scenario 5

Aside from the context and objectives changing, the key observation is this: The scenarios represent a simulation of characters with progressively greater experience in surviving and navigating the wilderness.

Scenario 1, "Lost", is a situation with totally unprepared and disoriented characters stranded in the wilds; there is always some restriction on their movement. Looking on the left under "Direction Ability", they must always travel their full movement allowance. Half the time their movement starts in a random direction; only 1/3 of the time are they allowed even a single turn; the best they can hope for is being able to pick a direction of their choice and go in a straight line, full distance. On the right under "Necessities", their daily food and water requirements are almost never met. The only way that happens is to end a move directly on one of the few food hexes or a stream/water basin; and recall that players cannot choose how far to move in any event! I interpret this as a completely unaware lost soul, with no map, compass, food, or even a canteen with which to take water out of a stream when they pass one by. Indeed, the normal end to this game is everyone dying, no matter how well you try to play.

But on the other hand, as one progresses through the scenarios, these heavy restrictions are lessened. Direction ability options become more often a matter of player choice, and food/water become easier to collect and maintain. For example: Scenario 4, "Rescue", clearly features expert outdoorsmen looking to find and extract stranded victims. There is never any random direction taken; the choice is always up to the player, and they choose exactly how far to travel, and only half the time have any restrictions on the number of turns they make. Water supply is automatically full in all cases; the water index loss rule is completely a non-issue for these characters (full canteens?). Food may be found in any hex whatsoever, and certainly by passing through any indicated food hex. Simple survival and navigation about the map is all but guaranteed here; these characters are dealing with entirely different mental challenges than those in Scenario 1, say.

In short: The Outdoor Survival scenarios provide the germ of the idea of advancing character levels in D&D. Which is arguably the single most powerful game-design invention of all time. The scenarios provide a spectrum of characters of increasing knowledge and proficiency in surviving the challenges of the wilderness. At the lowest level, death is the most likely outcome, even with the best of strategies on the part of the player. But the strategy and game itself is entirely different as we advance experience. At the highest levels, mere survival is assured, those concerns are swept from the mental space of the game, and instead we wrestle with different, higher-order challenges.

Likewise as in D&D, it may be considered somewhat counter-intuitive that the hardest game (to simply survive) is at the introductory, lowest levels. If someone plays only Scenario 1 of Outdoor Survival, and dies several times in sequence, then perhaps they are not incited to play the other,  higher-level scenarios which are actually much easier to win at (due to increasing character proficiency). The traditional boardgame gesture is that more "advanced" scenarios are adding more and more rules, and hence increasingly hard to manage the play/strategy. Here this is reversed; higher levels actually remove certain rules from consideration (like the need to track water resources). If someone were committed to winning the first "level" before proceeding to others (which is not guaranteed in any case), then it is no wonder that they walk away from Outdoor Survival with the impression that it is simply an assured massacre on every play of the game.

Finally, consider the expression of the same kind rule for being lost in Original D&D (Vol-3, p. 17). While it doesn't perfectly match any of the "Direction Ability" tables above, it is more like the higher-level ones than the lower. Again on a low roll, the PCs may have to start in a random direction and be restricted to a single "turn" in their move. But this chance is lessened (either on only a 1, 1-2, or 1-3, depending on terrain), and at no time are they required to move their full speed for the day. Meanwhile, traditional D&D never included any rules for adjudicating a lack of food or water. D&D seems to expect that only the "highest level" of Outdoor Survival characters will be active in its wilderness play.

D&D Vol-3 Lost Parties rule

Still more to come.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 1

Recall again that having a copy of Outdoor Survival was originally listed as one of the top pieces of "Recommended Equipment", above dice, paper, pencil, players... everything, in fact, except for the D&D rules themselves (Vol-1, p. 5). Almost all of us have seen the Outdoor Survival map, I think, many times, because it keeps get re-used for many purposes. Instead, I'm looking at the rules of the game today; in some ways their direct relation to early D&D rules is a lot more interesting. Outdoor Survival says very little about its in-game context (or exactly what strategy to use while playing it), but it implies much.

Scale of the Map

Outdoor Survival map scale text
Notice my hand-annotations. While not explicitly stated, we can back-calculate from the given square mileage of the map to determine that each hex is about 3 miles across (i.e., 1 league). I tend to think that having a move system that handles up to about 7 spaces moved per turn is ideal (See: Magic Number 7 from back in '07). Indeed, as you can see below, the maximum (full health) movement for a man in Outdoor Survival is 6 hexes.

But the wilderness rules of D&D Vol-3, which use the Outdoor Survival map, also need to handle travel modes such as horses, ships, and even flying dragons (much faster than walking). There, Gygax made the hexes about twice as big (5 miles; compare to 6 miles in later material like Moldvay/Cook, i.e., 2 leagues), thereby cutting the hexes walked by about half, prolonging the adventure and handling horses without leaving the entire map behind them in a single day. I constantly engage in a never-ending debate with myself over the descriptive elegance of having 1 hex = 1 league, versus the need to have a larger hex size so movement in hexes is a manageably low number.

Life Level Chart

Oyutdoor Survival Life Level Chart

Each player gets one of these yellow cards to track their current life level. Each day without food or water decreases the respective track by one box; after several are missed, life level is decreased. This happens more quickly for water than food; and in the later stages the loss becomes exponentially greater. Life levels A-O (15 stages) are noted, starting with A (full health). The intimate connection between health and mobility is the key mechanic of this game; as soon as a single life level "point" is lost, movement is reduced from 6 to 5 hexes/turn. The longer you go without food or water, the worse your mobility is, and it becomes increasingly hard to get to the next food/water supply point. If prolonged, it quickly falls into a "death spiral" where reaching food/water becomes impossible. Indeed, even by life level L, movement becomes zero, and you are effectively dead at that point.

It's an elegant rule, and it does a reasonably good job of communicating the critical concerns of real outdoor survival (I like this game a lot). Tracking the connection for one person per player is fairly easy by using these cards. But in D&D, we are likely to be running many people, characters, mounts, henchmen, etc. (to say nothing of the DM with dozens or hundreds of monsters!), and trying to use this exact same mechanic would become quickly, totally unworkable. In D&D, of course, decreasing mobility from injuries was never part of the core rules -- but is referenced in the earliest edition as something a DM could consider ("Whether sustaining accumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee.", Vol-1, p. 18).

More to come.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Book of War Updated Prices

I'd very much like to update the OED Book of War (see sidebar) for a 2nd Edition, but at this point it's unclear when I'll have the time. I will take the opportunity to release this much:

For more than a year now we've been playing our games with a somewhat revised pricing list. This was triggered by a few things. One, I revised the simulation/pricing program to take into account the effect of a large unit "wrapping" around a smaller unit, which gave a boost to the efficacy of really cheap unit types. Two, I allowed myself a little more leeway to slightly massage the prices at the higher end to round numbers to make it easy for players to quickly budget their forces without needing a calculator. (For example: The cavalry costs are now simply 10/15/20 -- the exact same as seen in Original D&D Vol-3, as opposed to having heavy cavalry priced at 18 or 19 as the simulator actually estimates).

Another important item that we've made a core rule (whereas it used to be optional) is the requirement that any units on the board need to have a total budget cost of at least 50. This corrects a few possible trouble spots: Players taking cheap forces and making them into lots of tiny 3-figure units; buying all different types so as to create 1-figure units; short-circuiting the critical importance of the morale rules; greatly slowing down the game due to the proliferation of units on the board; and so forth.

Some other changes that we now regularly play with can be found at the bottom of this post.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Me and the Ass Olympics

In 1998, I was looking for my second job in the gaming industry. I interviewed at GameFX, a small studio started by former Looking Glass members. I actually got a formal job offer from them, and utterly indecisive, I simply ghosted them on it. It was probably the single dumbest, embarrassing, most unprofessional thing I've ever done (possibly followed by publicly admitting it here?).

Anyway, among the things that came up at that interview was that I sat down with one of the designers (can't remember the name) and found that they were mostly done with development on the game Sinistar Unleashed (a 3D reboot of an earlier, popular arcade game in 2D with digital voice features). One thing he said to me: "That's great that you're interested in the design aspect, because we're having problems with Sinistar Unleashed. We just can't figure out how to make it fun. If you have any ideas we'd love to hear them." Which was, you know, kind of a bad signal in an interview regarding a game I haven't played and was already nearing the end of its development.

So here I am this summer almost two decades later, clearing out some of my hoarded clutter, and I come across an issue of PC Accelerator magazine from May 2000. That was kind of a "Maxim-y" magazine for gaming, written throughout with a snarky "bro" tone. As I flip through it I find a piece called "The Ass Olympics" about recent games that had sucked to an unusual degree. Among them: Sinistar Unleashed, which was ranked fourth in the event of "Boredom", with a score of 8.0 out of 10 by their standards.

So here's a late salute to that now-forgotten designer for his perpicacity.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The First D&D Movie Script

If you haven't seen it already, here's Jon Peterson's review of the early-1980's script for a D&D movie for which Gygax was pushing so hard. Personally, I'm pretty convinced that it would have stunk the place up.

Hat tip: Ernest Gary Gygax, Jr.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Gygax Regretted Clerical Turning

From the old ENWorld Q&A thread with Gygax:
Q: If you could travel back in time to the early 1970s, would you still make it that clerics can turn undead? I ask because of these words you wrote on page 101 of the original version of Necropolis:

'Priests and Priestesses have no extraordinary ability to affect the Netherrealms creatures and beings, spirits, Unliving, Undead, and Unalive in this game system. There will be no mumbled prayer followed by a "Vaporize!" or "Shoo!" removing dangers such as these foes in this tomb! Naturally, clerical personas wield many instruments which are amongst the Susceptibilities of these sorts of creatures and beings, but there are no givens ("gimmes") here. Be sure to keep this in mind--and to gently remind players of this too, if they are veterans of game systems which make this sort of fell minions of Evil lightweights to be brushed aside with the wave of a sacred object.'

A: So many of the very most interesting "monsters" were subjected to that rude capacity of turning/destroying that I initially bestowed upon the cleric class that I did indeed come to rue the initial benison given to that class. My plan for a revised edition of AD&D was such as to limit that power somewhat while adjusting things for the capacity of undead to withstand "turning" so as to make things more challenging for PCs without emasculating the power of the cleric. Alas, that was not to be in AD&D terms, so I did things differently in the DJ system, as you note, and have continued that fine tradition now in the LA RPG :-D

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Saga of Gary & Glen

Following up from Monday's post about the Hall of the Fire Giant King game from Independence Day weekend: I would be remiss if I didn't add the following freaky activity.

From all the accounts that I've read, every party that ever explored the Hall always fell for the ruse played out by the evil dwarf Obmi  and his retinue of gnollish servants (including the champion party at the Origins '78 tournament). Now, my players have learned make really good use of the various charm spells as an information-gathering device (and under OD&D rules it even works on elves, which is important in the D1-3 series). In this case, knowing they were going up against giants and it wouldn't be generally useful, none of the wizards prepared charm person. But one PC, Ezniak of the Myriad Rings, just happens to have a ring of human control, and also speaks gnollish. (These are pregenerated PC's that I made up about 7 years ago. Did I pre-plan that or was it a random result? At this point, I have no recollection.)

Anyway, Ezniak, cunning as always, immediately hit the gnolls in area 12. with the charm effect from the ring. This affects d12 figures; the die came up only 4, and against the odds, 2 of those made saves, so only a pair were affected; Ezniak immediately named them "Gary" and "Glen" and interrogated them about Obmi. They more than happily gave up his ruse. Obmi loudly objected through his barred door; for good measure, the PCs used a read minds spell (ESP) on him for confirmation. The jig was clearly up. The group promised to free him while ambushers stood to either side.

The door opening up, Obmi in desperation jumped out, won initiative, and savagely attacked a random figure in range, trying to backstab with his dagger. Random determination of target comes up: Gary the gnoll. Obmi hits and Gary dies instantly. The other PCs fall upon him, and try as he might, the dwarf cannot quite get away, and he dies.

So this leaves Glen. For completion sake, I now roll hit points in the open so as to let Ezniak's player track here from now on; and this comes up snake eyes, that is, double 1's, so Glen has the minimum hit points possible: 2 pips worth. Glen is hence the weakest type of his entire race. We also learn that Gary was his own brother. But he joins his new friends, who in fact treat him far better than his prior employers did: They hand him a number of treasures, a magic shield +2, a small suit of plate mail (which he can't wear, but carries around on his back), and also a magic war hammer of unknown strength (never known to the PCs, it is actually the most powerful weapon amongst the whole party!). He happily tells them of the nearby guard post to beware, and gives them directions to the king's throne room, joining them under illusory disguise for the attack.

So basically Glen with his 2 hit points and magical accoutrement manages to survive this and multiple other forays into the Hall. He fights mightily against king himself. He actually jumps up on Snurre's own magical throne at one point in order to carry a potion of healing to a downed comrade there. He hits a previously-injured fire giant in the foot with his magic hammer and kills him. As DM I'm constantly rolling for random targets, or else continuing engagements round-to-round, and weirdly Glen never comes up as a target. His new friends encourage him warmly, and he starts to believe that he might very well become King of the Gnolls and free his entire race from subservience elsewhere.

Alas, on the third foray the invisible party (including Glen) is sniffed out by a hell hound, and a fire giant casts a tree-sized spear blindly in their direction, at a random target, and this does in fact strike a glancing blow off Glen. Of course, he goes down immediately. Wregan the elven fighter/wizard with his magical strength scoops him up as they run, and without further comment, carries his body throughout the rest of their adventure. Such was the impression that Glen the gnoll made on everyone.




Epilogue: If you read my OED House Rules, you'll know that there are no such things as negative hit points, but upon reaching 0 hits any character is allowed a saving throw vs. death to see if they are truly expired or not (see v.102, bottom of page 4). When the PCs return to their secret cave hideout, I make this roll for Glen... and the die comes up a natural 20. Glen stirs, coughs up a little blood, and awakens to general cheering. Our story ends here, but Glen's does not.

Which is to say that D&D is full of occurrences that we would all laugh off as being outrageously impossible if we didn't see the oracular dice come up that way before our very eyes. Is our world an amazing place? Yes, it is.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Fireworks in the Hall of the Fire Giants

For Independence Day weekend, I had the great pleasure of DM'ing high-level D&D games in marathon sessions for 4 days straight. Thursday I was at DexCon 19 in Morristown, NJ running a scenario I call The Stygian Karst of the Kuo-Toan King. Which was pretty awesome (and insane and terrifying), but I'll leave that tale for another time.

The rest of the weekend I was once again DM'ing another crawl through AD&D Module G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King, for a bunch of friends (using customized Original D&D rules, of course). It's one of my favorite things to do, honestly; it's almost surely one of the toughest classic modules to run for both players and DM. Last time I ran it, it rather quickly turned into a TPK in the first room. (link here). Here's a quick outline of the various PC assaults on the place (area numbers from the original module, to follow along if you have the module).

Action in the Hall

  1. A party of 7 PCs enter with a passwall. Invisible searching thief finds watchpost 1A., party attacks by surprise, kills the watcher before the horn can be sounded. Likewise ambush ettins at 2. by surprise and quickly finish them. Fight at 14., explore 13.; dwarven thief rolls a "1" to disarm traps, gets hit by 4 giant poisoned arrows, and manages to roll 4 sequential successful saves vs. death. Enter 12.; fighter/wizard who speaks gnollish charms two guards, who immediately gives up on Obmi's ruse; he is quickly disposed of. Charmee warns of guards at 24. and king at 3. Party casts illusion to appear as Obmi with gnollish cohort and march to 3., saying human intruders have been disposed of. King welcomes them gladly and summons them to kneel and receive prizes; hounds start barking and both sides engage in explosive combat. The party wizard is burned up by fire breath. The king is backstabbed, hammered, and lightning bolted; he dies with his guards. More guards start running into the chamber, initially into a blizzard of cold wand blasts. The party gets hasted and runs from the hall with the king's sword as a trophy. (I will point out that the overall path of the party here is almost identical to that of the winning group in the Origins '78 tournament as related in Dragon #19, although the exact engagements run differently, and perhaps most importantly, it's the only time I've ever heard of a party not being tricked and backstabbed by Obmi's ruse. A good job!)

  2. Main party wizard is reincarnated (successfully in his own form!) and decides to teleport back to town to replenish their depleted healing potions. The teleport back to his tower is fine, and he is feted by the lords as a hero. However, the teleport back to the less-familiar secret cave goes less well, and he lands over a hundred miles away in monster-filled volcanic mountains. He hides overnight in an extended rope trick spot, which lasts an entire day. (Note that this is how teleport and extension are handled as per the OED Book of Spells; see sidebar.) The next day he accidentally teleports into the Sea of Dust. Then to a cliff overlooking the edge of the Sea Princes. Then back to town. Then into the mountains on the trail to the Hall, a mere 10 leagues distant; he casts extended haste and runs for two days straight, arriving at the cave dusty and winded (a full week after he was expected back). The party enters the hall, trips the backup trap and gets shot by a half-dozen giant ballista bolts, and promptly decides to retreat and form a better attack plan.

  3. After a few days of recuperation, the PCs disabuse themselves of the idea that the giants will be morally broken, and stage a more determined attack, with all members invisible. Scouts disarm the tripwire and check area 2. finding the giant ballista reloaded, 2 ettins, a giant with the warning horn, and a half-dozen hell hounds sniffing for intruders. They plan an attack starting with an invisible, giant-strengthened fighter grabbing the ballista, spinning it around, and firing at the ettins and giant (which hit each of them). Simultaneous they are hit with an ice storm and several hounds lightninged. Again they go down without the horn being sounded. The party sneaks into 12. thinking to hide where giants cannot go, finding the northern doors bricked up with giant stones. They proceed through 13. to 14. and are surprised to find the guard not only replaced but doubled and back up by hounds; they engage long enough to kill the hounds, then reactivate invisibility and escape back north and east (several giantesses throwing huge sacks of flour miss them). Another hound at 24. catches their scent and the gong is struck; they run east and hide against the wall. Area 10. opens up with giant chimera as giants run from 25. An argument of unnatural philosophy: Does the dragon head of the chimera see invisible (as normal dragons from Chainmail)? A die is used as oracle: 1-4 yes, 5-6 no; the result is 5 and the party escapes detection. The chimera passes, and they run into 10. barely before giants clog the hall from 25. Available time running out, they move to escape, finding a dozen giants, 3 hounds, and the chimera blocking the exit at 2. An illusion of themselves moving in the opposite direction towards 3. draws off half; and then hastened they narrowly run past the rest (the dwarven thief cutting down one hound that gets in her way).

  4. Another day, and a more stripped-down party searches covertly for the king's well-hidden treasure room. A mere 4 PCs enter, but they are each magically strengthened, extended hastened, with infravision, and having individual invisibility powers. They find a yet-more-formidable defense at the entrance; another doubling of the guards, hounds, more giants further back with boulders for crossfire, and re-use of the party's own wall of iron (conjured in the first foray) as a fence to bar the path. Now the party casts a pair of fly spells, which serve to buoy the casters, each barely carrying a single heavy fighter each, bobbing invisibly balloon-like over the heads of the giants. (A roll is made for detection or something dropped? But the PCs are in luck again.) They land in the darkened throne area at 3. and the spell soon expires; they search for secret doors or compartments (silently avoiding a pair of wandering guards) and succeed. They explore areas 4-7., finding all of them completely empty, except for the valueless contents of 7. left in place. Extensive searches for more secret doors find nothing in those places. They invisibly pass north and are again scented at 24. and the alarm struck, at which point they run west. A large group of guards with barking hounds run towards them from 2.; they flee, finding their way to the 2nd level. There they look into the hammering at area 6.; thereafter the scout touches the wall at 12. and narrowly dodges the resulting attack; the party wisely flees further west and hears approaching monsters. They find the entrance to level 3., but turn back and enter cell 4C., then double back to 1. to find Snurre's rotting corpse freshly interred; they take his remaining valuables and leave a rude message. A random check indicates something stirring in the southeast corner. (!?) The party now decides it's time to leave with treasures they have, and at the entrance find but 2 giants and a hound on station. They quickly dispose of them, and escape for a final time from the Hall of the Fire Giant King.

The thing about G3 that makes it most challenging for both players and DM, I think, is the emphasis on some genius-level mastermind running the responsive defense (see "Notes For the Dungeon Master" in the original text). In addition to the players, I'm also sweating bullets as DM every time I run it as I try to come up with the most intelligent responses I possibly can on the fly, moving around giant defenses as needed (it's not just a static area-by-area dungeon crawl). My players were at turns terrified and delighted that while all the giants in their past experience, including those in modules G1 and G2, were fairly lunk-headed brutes, the ones here are master architects, engineers, and tacticians (it's a perfect Rule of Three punchline, really). All of their expectations have to get adjusted in that light (see the quick retreat from the 2nd attack above.) Really, both sides of the engagement are on a mutually-assured-destruction learning arc, on every foray getting more creative and devastating with the resources available to them (consider: the PCs developing a tactic of focusing attacks to kill any hounds or other invisible-detectors, then re-activating invisibility and escaping elsewhere). At the end after several days of play, I'd be willing to say that the group we had last weekend was performing at a level of the most "superior play" I've ever seen (see very end of Gygax's AD&D PHB) -- and likewise I was trying to run the monsters in the most ruthless and inventive fashion that I could muster. Now I kind of regret not recording the whole event, because I think it would have been highly entertaining and instructive.

Notes and Future Improvements

  • Of course we all love Trampier, but his illustration on the back cover is unfortunately out of scale. The outside gates should loom high above the PC's; the depiction there is certainly not a 30' high portal. In the past I used that as a banner but I discarded it this time; perhaps something else could be drawn up for the future.

  • Spell adjustment: After the party wizard was burned up a reincarnate spell from a scroll was used in the next round to resuscitate him. While there's nothing in OD&D or the Book of Spells to prevent that, I wasn't entirely happy with the tone of that. In the future I'd like to make that require a longer ceremony for the effect.

  • Note that the fire opals on the throne are worth 1,000 gp each. Should the fire opal in the DMG sample dungeon not be the same value?

  • Bring a dice cup because I get overexcited and always throw dice off the table and across the room. Also bring my custom d12 with body locations, purely for descriptive purposes of hits in combat, because I think I accidentally get a little repetitive with my descriptions.

  • Should I have used the dungeon evasion rules when hounds detected invisible PCs?

  • I have handout slips for pre-made "Giant Bag Contents" that I hand out as appropriate. Rename those "Giant Container Contents" because they're actually more often used for giant trunks, chests, etc. Need specific numbers for range-based elements (coins, etc.).

  • Initially forgot to pick a caller. Again, I think this is so critical to quality D&D play, especially with larger groups. It advertises that we expect by default that the party will be (a) cooperative, and (b) not split up. We determined this quickly when it became necessary, but I need to highlight this more on my "game start" checklist.

  • Update ability score charts in OED booklet and player reference cards. In particular: I need to expand the listed scores to about 30, because high-level fighters are constantly getting their strengths magically boosted by party wizards well into the 20's. This time there was something of an ongoing competition to that effect, with fighters at strength 20, 22, 27, and finally 29 (including Obmi's gauntlets of ogre power). So I'm always counting on my fingers for what the modified bonus should be, when that should immediately be in front of the players at the start. Quote from the game: "A good workout is like benching half a ton for around 500 reps."

  • On that note: Write down a specific in-game penalty to opening giant doors. It's not specified in the module, and I was always doing a bit of guesswork all weekend.

  • Come up with a quick and palatable description for the three alignments for new/unfamiliar players who ask (in the vein of Anderson/Moorcock). Something like: Lawful wants human civilization to be extended and peaceful. Chaotic wants civilization broken down and destroyed. Neutrality is simply uncaring, or seeks a balance between the two.

  • Granted the existing book rules, and a desire for good pacing, how can we use dice to maximize the tension in the game? Example: On a critical hit, make the player roll the percentile dice, so that they are responsible for their own doom. On monster spotting, surprise, wandering checks, and who a monster attacks, announce the target and roll publicly in front of the players. Target20 in practice: For multiple monster attacks and saves, I do the reverse math mentally, announce the target for success on the die, and roll a whole batch of d20's at once. (In contrast, PC attacks report to me a total roll, and I add in monster AC mentally, so that is always hidden to players.)

Friday, July 8, 2016

Temple of the Frog

A very nice coverage of the backstory behind the design of Dave Arneson's "Temple of the Frog" scenario in OD&D Supplement II, Blackmoor. I must admit: The first time I read it I was similarly surprised and agog.

Hat tip: Landon Schurtz.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Tournament Coverage

How much territory to did old-school tournament players manage to cover, back in the day? This is an issue that I've discussed with some of my friends, and in general it seems a bit opaque to me. Following up from last week, I see the "Tournament" markings on classic Gygaxian adventures like the S-, G-, and D-series, and then beat myself up as DM because my players get to only a very small fraction of such an adventure in a 4-hour time slot (like at our annual mini-convention of HelgaCon). What am I doing wrong?

Here are a few scraps of evidence I've built up which point to an answer of "possibly nothing".

Slavers Series

Consider the Slavers A-series of modules, first used in 1980 at Gen Con XIII and published later that year and the next, by various authors (Cook, Johnson/Moldvay, Hammack, and Schick). One of the very nice things about the series of modules is that they make explicit what reduced part was used in actual tournament play (as well as other details, like how to score such a tournament). For each dungeon level, regardless of how expansive it is, the module highlights a sequence of around a dozen areas noted as in use for that stage of the tournament (ranging from around 9 to 15 areas by my count; generally the same number for both levels in a given module by a particular author).

But that doesn't help a whole lot for the Gygaxian modules, which do not have any hint of different configuration for tournaments in their text, and were used at tournaments in earlier years (1975-1978). This possibly leaves an open question if expectation were different at that time.

Battle for Snurre's Hall

Going back in time a bit, one of the most useful pieces of data comes from Dragon Magazine #19, in October 1978, which published the story of the winning team from the Origins tournament that year. This was written by the leaders of that winning team, Bryan and Kathy Bullinger of Morgantown, WV (3 other players being friends they knew from Morgantown, with 3 others hailing from Michigan; a high level of cohesion and cooperation is noted throughout the article). This story runs about 2½ pages (see p. 3, 4, 6, and 20 to piece the whole thing together); plus there's an additional article by Bob Blake (p. 6) on how the G- and D-series tournaments were scored.

The writeups for G1 and G2 are relatively short (3 paragraphs and 1 paragraph respectively). By my count, in G1 this winning party got through about 12 encounter areas total (entering by #22 and then exploring much of areas #1-11 on the upper level), including one room of the dungeon level (trap #29), and a major planned assault on the feasting giants in the Great Hall. In G2 they seem to have cleared out at least areas #9-10 and #15-20 (which are on opposite sides of the rift); so that's a lower bound 8 areas, with at least 1-2 other areas necessary to pass from one of those locations to the other, and quite likely more than that. In an italicized sidebar, the DM who ran their session ("Your Kindly Editor", I think Tim Kask?) seems to tweak them for not having any knowledge of the lower level of the place, and uses the opportunity to pump orders for the G2 module then on sale for a low price of $4.49.

The memoir for G3 is much more extensive and detailed: 22 paragraphs, with 5 of them italicized inserts by the DM who ran their session (with behind-the-scenes information). Here on the first level they seem to have snuck past area #1, explored #12-14, instigated a major fight at #24, and with giant reinforcements converging from all over, attacked area #2-3 and successfully killed the King and Queen immediately before time was called on the session (thereafter prompting an argument about whether they could have feasibly escaped or not).

In summary:  In G1 and G2 this team cleared out about a dozen areas each, while in G3 only about a half-dozen rooms (again: this being the winning team of the Origins '78 tournament). G3 in particular is truly a brutal module; it makes me feel not so bad about the TPK that occurred last time I ran it. If the versions of G1-3 published by TSR were in use at the tournament, this best-of-class team mostly just explored a portion of the first level in each case.

(Coincidentally, I should be running G3 again the weekend that this post goes up, at a red-hot July-4th weekend party. As I write this I'm wondering: How that will have gone this time?)

Tomb of Horrors '75

Here's another early report that I just found in Jon Peterson's Playing at the World (p. 527-529). Jon recounts Mark Swanson's story of playing in the D&D tournament at Origins I in 1975, in the first appearance of the S1 module (this being published in Alarums & Excursions #4). Apparently the game was played in groups of 15 players at a time, in 4 time slots across that weekend; two groups played at once, the first refereed by Gary Gygax, the second by his son Ernie Gygax. Parenthetically, Jon reports that the winning team was selected by Gygax in terms of the most treasure looted from the dungeon.

Swanson had apparently played D&D before, but many of his fellow players had not, so he took the role of caller. From the description, it appears that Swanson's group explored areas #1, 3, 5, 7, 8 (presumably traveling through #9 and 10), to area 14B before time was called on the session. Swanson is among the many harsh critics of the S1 module, finding the experience, and by inference Gygaxian D&D in general, to be downright unpleasant. One grievance in particular is that his habit of deploying guards against wandering monsters slowed his group down in this scenario.

So it seems that Swanson's group may have only explored about 8 locations on the S1 map. On the other hand, he does point out that another group did finish the whole module in the same time, "possibly aided by rumors", which is about 18 areas by the most direct route possible. In terms of "rumors", Swanson might mean scuttlebutt at the convention (it was a "later party" who won), or possibly discovery of the riddle-clue at the start of the dungeon (which I have pointed out many times, to anyone I can, radically changes the texture of play in S1). I think that somewhere in a Dragon magazine there's another short anecdote from that winning party, that they used one of the dungeon's deadly traps against the arch-villain to win the day.

In summary: Again it seems that tournament parties are exploring between about a half-dozen and a full dozen encounter areas, or thereabouts.

Lost Tsojconth '76 reveal another piece of information: The exact tournament format of several early modules, including: S4 (Gygax, Wintercon 1976), C1 (Johnson & Leason, Origins 1979), and C2 (Hammack, Wintercon 1979). In each case, the module came in a Ziploc bag, with a cover and photocopied loose-leaf sheets. The proto-S4 is noted as being 8 pages long (compare to the mass published format: the text of the dungeon alone being 16 pages; including wilderness components, art, maps and pregenerated characters the booklet is 32 pages long; not counting the supplemental 32 page booklet of new monsters and magic items). C1 and C2 are noted as having printed 25 copies for staff, 50 for tournament DMs, and 300 numbered copies for sale at the indicated convention; Acaeum assumes that the early S4 was printed in about the same numbers. So: Even though the mass-printed version of S4 in 1982 gives little hint of it, the tournament dungeon must have been of lesser extent and/or detail, likely only about half of the later official printing.

Edit: An inspection of the original '76  tournament materials reveals some more detail. Originally it featured only the tournament dungeon component (no wilderness setting). While the maps are roughly similar to those in S4, the encounter descriptions are far more cursory: generally just a few lines each, describing each monster and treasure. This results in the entire description for each level fitting on a single page each (plus another page describing the ultimate encounter with the arch-villain, and full details on the artifact found there). For a complete side-by-side comparison, check out grodog's page.

In conclusion, I think I can forgive myself for not exploring the entirety of any of Gygax's "tournament" modules in a standard 4-hour convention game. It seems like most playing groups at the time may have only explored a half- to one-dozen areas at most.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Welcome to the Temple of Elemental Evil

Speaking of the T2 module, a poster on Facebook asked:
How do all the inhabitants of this module get in and out? There is one secret entrance, but that does not seem like it is the entrance and exit for everyone.

Here's the answer that I finally worked up:
That's a better puzzle than I first thought. There are quite a number of open stairways connecting the levels, but some of the rooms are guarded by monsters that don't make sense to be passable. I think we can conclude that only a small number of leader-types make that trip.

Path #1: For figures who can fly/levitate, you could most easily go through: 3-210-301-306-307. Creatures at 306 and 307 are noted as recognizing leaders/signs of power.

Path #2: Walking only, could go: 109-201-217-222a-312. Disadvantage here is guards in 217/218 are noted to only let through agents of Water Temple, and stairs at 222a are "dusty". Creature in 312 behavior is unclear, but is certainly more than intelligent enough to respect temple leaders.

Path #3: Or: 109-153-246-227-209a-314-311-308-307. This is a bit longer, but has the advantages that every area on the path is clearly traversible, has respectful guards, or non-encounters if you pass through without stopping. Stairs at 153 are "safe and sound". This path even has two drinkable fountains along the way at which you can refresh yourself!

Paths #1 and #3 require knowledge of certain secret doors, but Path #2 does not. If I were leading a sally party out of the lowest level, I'd probably kick the residents out of areas 217 and 312 and take my monsters through that way.

Hat tip to Danny Barry for the original question.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Gygax Module Stats, Part 3

More of Gygax's module encounters assessed statistically; this time from the era of his "campaign" style modules. On the one hand, these were all published later than his "tournament" modules; but on the other hand, most were quite likely conceived and played at some earlier point during his Greyhawk campaign.

Gygax Module Encounter Stats 2

Now, this list looks short because I've left out those modules that don't really include any true "dungeon" area. Modules EX1, EX2, and WG6 are all "exceptional" modules which occur in some freaky side-dimension, and are predominantly outdoor/wilderness adventures in a strange new environment. (Each maps out a small mansion or cave complex, but these are either unkeyed or have just a single principal monster, so they are not representative of a standard dungeon exploration.) T1-4 and WG4 are much more canonical examples of Gygax's ideas for a true dungeon; and of course B2 is his contribution to the D&D basic set, with its dozen separate cave lairs for introducing new players to the idiom of the game -- so these are the ones assessed above. Statistics for T2 include only the dungeon areas, not the extra-planar "nodes" which are left principally for the DM to fill in (although the suggestions work out to about 40% areas with monsters, and about 10% with a trick/gate area).

Aside from the tournament/campaign axis, a second way to categorize Gygax's modules appears to us: whether the dungeon is organized/disorganized as a single community. Several of Gygax's modules present a stronghold run by a single racial type (most often "giant-types", i.e., humanoids); in these places, nearly every room serves a purpose, like a real-world institution or military base, and the number of "empty" boundary areas, and possibly "tricks/traps", will be small. These would certainly include the famous G1-3 and D1-3 sequences; B2 often looks like that, especially from the perspective of any single cave system; and WG4's uppermost and T2's lowest levels function like that. In contrast, other modules are more heterogeneous "ruins"-style dungeons, where a more random assortment of monsters have taken up posts and watch against each other; empty areas and traps may be more likely here -- and possibly this is the better match for the initial conception of the sprawling underworld "dungeon". Examples of this second case would be the S-series, EX1-2, WG6, T1, and levels 1-3 of module T2.

Having considered all of Gygax's modules at one go, let's reflect on some of his major tropes:
  • Watch Posts: Single guard watching approach through peephole.
  • Guard Rooms (multiple): Guards with negligible treasure.
  • Leader's Room (single): Leader with major treasure. 
  • Storage Rooms: "Empty" rooms with food, drink, supplies, arms, etc.
  • Prisoners: Cells with slaves/prisoners; mix of potentially helpful and harmful captives.
  • Kitchen/Dining Hall (esp. in giant-type organized areas). 
  • Random Beasts: Animal-type beasts with small hidden/forgotten/swallowed treasure.
  • Secret Treasure Room (occasional).
  • Strange Decorations (occasional, otherwise empty). 
  • Bandits in Upper Corner Structure (in dungeons of DMG, T1, T2). 
  • Crypts with Ghouls (DMG, T1, T2, suggested in WG4). 
  • Weird Temple Area (B2, G1, G3, S1, D2, D3, T2, WG4). 
  • Hidden Prison of Deity (D3, T2, WG4). 
  • Optional Expansion Area (often caved-in, clearance at DM's option; B2, G1-3, D1-3 underworld map, T2 wilderness & nodes, S4 river course, DMG dungeon caverns, etc.): A person could spend a whole career just expanding and filling in these areas!
  • Secret Exit Tunnels.

So in broad strokes, can we discern anything of the "standard population" of a Gygaxian adventure module? Looking at the statistics for more "normal" dungeon areas like B2, T1-2, and WG4 may give us a pretty good idea (see also: G1, D2-3). If we somewhat take the average of those statistics, and say possibly that I should have counted more "pocket change" monsters in the "monsters only" category, then for every 6 encounter areas we get something like this: 2 Monsters, 1 Monster with Treasure (major), 1 Treasure Only, 1 Trick/Trap, and 1 Empty.

Investigating the canonical B2 module, we see this highlighted, because every organized giant-type (humanoid) cave lair falls into the same approximate pattern (this includes caves A-D, F, H, and J). After initial entry (possibly with watch post or trap), there are about a half-dozen areas. And these areas tend to include: 2 Guard Rooms, 1 Chief's Chamber, 1 Common Chamber, 1 Storage Room, and 1 Special (possibly a slave pen, torture chamber, secret room, armory, or garbage pit). Or look at the partially-keyed Orc's Lair in module S4: every fighting "group" is split into exactly 3 chambers; generally 2 Guard-type positions, followed by the Leader/Chief's lair, and every cave being occupied for some purpose (none are empty). We might very well call this Gygax's "Rule of Three".

In regards to the T2 module, when we first presented publication statistics in Part 1 here, there was some debate or question about whether that adventure should really be counted as a work of Gygax's or Frank Mentzer's (see the comments there). I'm incredibly indebted to Jonathan Miller for providing links and previous personal communications with Gygax on the subject: indeed, Gygax wrote "Just FYI, that is my version of the adventure. Mentzer simply fleshed out the considerable body of preliminary work I had done but could not find time to finish.", and there are numerous pieces of evidence that Gygax had copious notes and had run playtests of the Temple around the era when T1 was published. The statistics in the chart above provide yet another piece of confirmatory evidence that T2 really was largely the work of Gygax: the stocking proportions per area are almost identical between T1 and T2. (Contrast this situation with Q1, which all evidence points to being the wholesale work of David Sutherland, and not Gygax.)

Now compare the ratio we're finding here to that suggested in OD&D Vol-3 from 1974 (2-in-6 with any monster, 1-in-6 of the rest with treasure; so about half empty). Or Gygax's 1976 Dungeon Geomorphs product (2-in-6 empty, 2-in-6 monsters, 1-in-6 trick/traps, 1-in-6 monsters and treasure by DM selection [so no suggestion of treasure-only areas]). Or his 1977 Monster & Treasure Assortment product (weirdly, even more empty: recommending only 20% with any monsters, or close to 1-in-6, and no comment on any other 5-in-6 contents). Or the 1979 DMG Random Dungeon Generation (12-in-20 empty, 2-in-20 monster only, 3-in-20 monster & treasure, 1-in-20 special, 1-in-20 trick/trap, 1-in-20 treasure only). These all suggest many more empty areas than Gygax actually put in his published adventures, unless we look solely to his sprawling S3 map with its many unkeyed/blank areas (or, alternatively, a locale like Rob Kuntz's WG5).

So having observed this, an exceedingly easy critique to make is now this: We should probably not methodically ape what Gygax did in his adventure modules. Yet as we key our own dungeons, I think it is useful to expand the frame of what can be a workable design. Having most of the areas with some content, and very few "empty" areas (and even those not actually devoid of furnishings) seems to have done a pretty good job for Gygax of hitting the adventuring "sweet spot" of published modules.

But a final, concluding question: Is that even doable for us mere mortals? One thing I must say in retrospect is that Gygax's output during this period was truly monumental. Between running TSR as a company, promoting its products, writing the AD&D hardcover books, and original drafts of all of these adventure modules (etc.) in about a 5-year span from 1975-1980; I'm really staggered at how he accomplished all of that. Just looking at the module materials here: They are big, extensive, richly detailed, deeply considered. Many encounter areas have brand-new items or monsters just for a single room, or a dozen random novel effects, and frequently the text may run for several pages for a single chamber (esp.: see S3, T2). Even just reading it, trying to digest it, consideration of running it in a game can be an intimidating experience. (But perhaps Pascal's "I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter" might be appropriate here.) An altogether towering body of work.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Atatl Mechanics

Speaking of the D-series module (in which the Drow use just such a weapon), here's a fascinating look at the mechanics of the atlatl:

Hat tip to Jonathan Songe Scott.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Gygax Module Stats, Part 2

Continuing from last week, here's a rough breakdown of the encounter areas in Gygax's published modules from the era of tournament origins (first appearing in conventions from 1975-1978). A few notes: This only includes dungeon areas, not wilderness or other adventuring locales. The categorizations given here are of course roughly subjective, and are discussed in detail further below. Again I try to present them in approximate chronological order of creation.

Gygax Module Encounter Areas 1

In the table above, the column marked "Empty" counts any room lacking a monster, trap, or treasure; but they are almost never literally bare. Most often this will be a fully-stocked storage chamber, supply room, armory, or at least some arcane decoration which foreshadows what is yet to come. Perhaps the closest one gets to a truly empty area are the galleries under clearance in the dungeon of G1, with only a few giant tools present. Contrast this with Rob Kuntz's WG5 module (1972-1973 design), which really does have many totally unkeyed/blank rooms on the map, with no defined contents whatsoever.

Initially I intended "Monster" to be a creature with zero treasure, in contrast to the "Monster & Treasure" entry. But midway through the assessment, I realized there was a bit of a problem; a common Gygax trope was to have some boundary guards with very small amounts of treasure (say, 1d6 or 2d6 sp or gp, something like that), and then a leader's chamber with a more sizable haul (hundreds or thousands of gold pieces). So later on I tried to put the "pocket change" bearing monsters in the first monster column, and the "major haul" monsters in the second; but this was extremely subjective, and I'm not sure that I always got it right (in retrospect, ideally I'd have some cutoff threshold for each dungeon based on adventuring level; perhaps someone else can improve on that). Again, contrast to Kuntz's WG5; most of the monsters there really have zero treasure.

The "Treasure" column represents halfway significant treasure with no monster guarding it, but is still often hidden, trapped, and/or dangerous to procure in some way. In the "Trick/Trap" column I counted things like actual traps, secret exits, penned-in captives (with a mixed of helpful and hurtful figures), possible allies, random magical effects, teleporting areas, aquatic travel challenges, etc.

Looking at the individual modules: S1 is of course infamous for being almost entirely trick/trap based, and it clearly shows up as an outlier in that sense above. S4 is a bit of a hack-fest; the lower level in particular is almost comical for every room, one after the other, being uniformly a huge monster with an equally huge treasure (somewhere I think I read Gygax saying he wrote this in a single weekend, and frankly, I think it shows; which is not to say that it's bad or something that I could replicate). G1-3 are of course the giant strongholds, organized and run in a coherent fashion for that purpose. G1 gives the appearance of more "empty" rooms, by virtue of its always-in-session celebratory feast (leaving many barracks and bedchambers devoid of occupants). D1-3 here only count the major encounter areas, not the minor encounters leading up the the main "dungeons" (arguably the out-areas function similar to a wilderness overland journey).

What I left for the end here: Module S3 deserves its own dissertation, as it is a wild, dense, and elaborately baroque one-of-a-kind adventure; it has the largest, most sprawling map of any of Gygax's modules, and any given area is liable to have a dozen crazy, new unique features just to liven up a particular room. At the same time, it is the only module in the list that reflects a particular old-school design sensibility: it has hundreds of rooms and areas which are actually unkeyed and blank on the map itself (although they are given a general guideline of having "jumbled furniture or rotting goods... inanimate skeletons..."). Meanwhile, levels II, V, and most of IV are enormous open areas, which made for a huge dilemma on my part about what to count as an "encounter area" (statistics above actually do count all of the separate empty rooms in S3; perhaps that was ill-advised).

Here's a design element that shows up in a few of these early modules that is not used later on: Re-using a particular key code for a very large number of small, similar monster lairs (S3 for its vegepygmy rooms and dangerous flora, S4 in the gnome lair, D1 for troglodyte caves, and D2 for Kuo-Toan pilgrim apartments). Which made a significant assessment coding problem: Should I count each of these minor rooms as a separate encounter area? Ultimately, I did count each one separately for S3, but did not count each separately for D1-2. (At least in D2, it would have added 45 rooms with monsters and 7 empty rooms.) I apologize for that discrepancy.

Now I wonder: Did anyone ever successfully run the S3 module? Just looking at the insane density of its maps and text (to say nothing of its special mechanics and illustration booklet, even a unique full-color insert!) leaves me trembling with fear at the prospect.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Snakes and Ladders

The surprisingly deep meaning of the non-mechanic of Snakes & Ladders (video):

Hat tip to Existentialist Comics.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Gygax Module Stats, Part 1

My  never-ending aggravation: How the dungeon-design parameters throughout classic D&D are at dire odds with the adventures that actually got published. As part of that ongoing saga, here's an attempt at assessing all of Gygax's D&D adventure modules while at TSR. Today, a look at the publication format. Modules are referenced here by their alphanumeric code (see Acaeum's Module Index if you're not intimately familiar with them already).

Gygax Module Publication Stats

In the table above, I've taken my best stab at ordering Gygax's published adventures in chronological order of writing, but the truth is that's an immensely murky, possibly intractable problem. Clearly most or all of these adventures were initially drafted and run for tournaments or his personal campaign, years prior to their mass-market publication, so it's really possible that they could have been crafted in almost any order, irrespective of their publication/copyright dates. But here are some broad observations:

The first wave of published modules are all designated as having been created for D&D tournaments in the era of 1975-1978; this would initially be the various S-modules, then G1-3, and then D1-3. Publication dates follow fairly closely from these tournaments, either the same year or seemingly a few years later. An interesting case is the famed G1-3 adventure used at Origins IV in 1978; the Dragon issue #19 from October 1978 had a players' memoir of the tournament, and editorial sidebars made sure to promote the modules then on-sale: "The setting for round one is available from TSR... it costs $4.49". (Note the 1978 monochrome printing has a cover starburst correctly saying "Official D&D Tournament Module used at ORIGINS '78", while the 1981 color printing for some reason incorrectly indicates "Origins 79 Tournament Module").

Somewhat unexpectedly, it is the earliest modules in the S-series that had some of the most elaborate production values. S1 and S3 include lengthy supplemental booklets of illustrations to show to players at given encounters. S4 had a supplemental booklet of many new monsters, not all included in the adventure; effectively a proto-Monster Manual II for a few years. No later productions ever rose to those heights of production value ever again. S3 in particular is a wild extravagance; it detailed the largest adventuring locale, and greatest total page count, of any Gygax adventure except for his very last one, T1-4 (as well as the most new items and new monsters, excepting S4's special monster booklet). Acaeum notes that G1 was published somewhat earlier in 1978 than S1, and that earlier ziplocked versions of S4 from the 1976 tournament have been traded on Ebay.

Later published adventurers are not noted as originating from tournament play, and instead generally express being rooted in Gygax's original Greyhawk campaign setting. Allusions to the EX1-2 and WG6 adventures are made in the past tense in the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide (see p. 112), even though the weren't published until the 1983-1985 time period. Likewise, the 1979 print of T1 references the Greyhawk T2 campaign in the past tense, yet the latter was also not published until 1985.

None of these later works have the elaborate supplemental illustration or new monster packets. Usually they include at most a handful of new monsters, spells, and/or magic items -- almost all of which were subsequently folded into the Unearthed Arcana and Monster Manual II rulebooks. More of the later works tend to have extensive wilderness adventuring components: e.g., B2, WG4, EX1-2, and WG6 have very sizable outdoor components (in fact, WG6 is effectively nothing but a wilderness scenario). T1-4 has a suggestive overland map, but it is not keyed. In contrast, of the early modules, only S4 has an outdoor adventure, and that is noted expressly as not having been part of the original tournament.

It's interesting that each of the S- and WG-series have something of an "interloper"; both those series are written by Gygax except for a single entry by someone else. Specifically: S2's famous dungeon-crawl by Lawrence Schick, and the WG5 entry by Robert Kuntz (with Gygax listed as second author, but the work is clearly Kuntz's). WG5 is particularly interesting, in that it seems to be a throwback to a much earlier style of dungeon design; in the Introduction Kuntz writes that the dungeon was originally designed in the years 1972-1973, giving it conceivably the earliest birthdate of the bunch; it has many empty, unkeyed rooms, few (almost all new) monsters, and very little treasure. (In contrast to Gygax's work, none of these new monsters were folded into later AD&D hardcover rulebooks.) Likewise, the Q1 module was authored by David Sutherland, with Gygax listed as secondary author, perhaps mostly for marketing purposes. None of these modules S1, Q1, or WG5 are included in the statistics here.

Have any scraps of knowledge that would alter the attempted timeline given above? Tell us!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Monday, June 6, 2016

Ballistae and Bell-Shapes

Got in a debate on StackExchange about whether Chainmail's "Fire Optional" rule for catapults (and hence fireballs?) was reasonably realistic or not. Then I realized that the chart that rule generates, so clear in my head, has never appeared on this blog. So let's consider some real-world evidence first.

Strohm, Luke S. "An Introduction to the Sources of Delivery Error for Direct-Fire Ballistic Projectiles". Army Research Laboratory. July 2013. (Link.)

2.2 Normal (Gaussian) Distributions
For direct-fire ballistic projectiles, it is common to assume that error sources and the shot distributions they produce can be characterized by normal (Gaussian) distributions. Normal distributions are defined by a mean (μ) and standard deviation (σ, SD), which produce a bell curve that is unique to the distribution. The mean is the average of the distribution, while the SD quantifies the spread or precision of the distribution. For a one-dimensional normal distribution, approximately 68% of the distribution is within one SD of the mean (+/–) and 95% within two SDs (figure 2).

... In two dimensions, target impact distributions follow a bivariate normal distribution, meaning that the impact locations vary normally in two directions—in this case the horizontal and vertical directions of the target plane.

(Note that the bivariate normal model is the same as I've used in various archery simulations on this site.) Consider also the empirical test of shotgun shell spread presented here: Lowry, Ed. "Properties of Shotshell Patterns". American Rifleman. 1990. (Link.)

Now let's reflect on the rule as written in Chainmail for "Fire Optional"scatter:
Fire Optional: Roll two different colored dice. One color is for an over-shoot and the other is for an under-shoot. To decide which number of use you take the higher of the two. Miss is in inches, shown by dice spots. If they tie then the rock lands at the specified range. This method is simple but effective.
Taking the higher of the two dice biases the scatter towards the high end of the range. This is shown as "Chainmail Fire Option A" below. Note that the resulting probability distribution is distinctly anti-Guassian; it is impossible for a shot to land exactly 1" away from the target; and generally speaking, it's simply total lunacy, some kind of Lovecraftian non-Euclidean physics:

But if we change one critical word to make the rule instead "take the lower of the two" dice, then this mechanic, while still very simple, does in fact generate a quasi-bell-shaped distribution as suggested by the American Rifleman and Army Research Laboratory publications above (shown as "Chainmail Fire Option B" below). It seems patently obvious that this is the better rule:

Monday, May 23, 2016

Book of War Compatibility Mark

Ever since I released the Book of War mass-combat rules for miniatures, compatible with classic versions most versions of D&D, in 2011, I've had numerous people contact me and ask if they could use/incorporate those rules in various supplements, books, and RPG adventures that they planned to write. Unfortunately, I had a embarrassingly hard time figuring out a proper response to that. The main thing is that I wanted to say "yes", and provide a clear-cut way to indicate that for people, without getting too legalistic about the whole thing.

So finally I have, I think, a good answer for when people ask me about that in the future. On this page you can see the new Book of War Compatibility Mark that you can use to signal that your product makes use of the rules, if you want to do that. There's no fee or license, and strictly speaking it's not even necessary (game mechanics aren't subject to copyright, after all, according to current law). But it's a great way to highlight to people that you're using a simple and streamlined way of doing mass combat that a lot of people have found of benefit to their games.

Also it's appreciated if you include a line of thanks to me, "Daniel 'Delta' Collins (", and drop me an email so I know about it. If you want to reference an OGL version of the core rules, that's available, too (again: at your option, not required). See more at the official OED Games website.

Thanks immensely to my partner Isabelle for drafting the compatibility mark. I think it rocks!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Arena v1.11: Man vs. Monster, Pt. 2

Last time we convinced ourselves that the Monster Level Matrix given in OD&D Vol-3 is, to be honest, irreparably broken and in need of a fix. Here we search for a revised table to use in its place. Previously I'd contrasted the alternatives that followed, as in Holmes' Basic D&D and Gygax's AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (link). My impression at that time was that Gygax's AD&D table was such an incredibly radical swing in a direction away from OD&D, and the Holmes' table appeared to be a balanced medium between them, that the latter seemed to be the better choice.

Here I'll consider the AD&D table more closely, partly because it has the Gygax imprimatur on it (and also I want to avoid any psychological Framing Effect). First, recall the OD&D matrix:

Compare to the equivalent table in the AD&D DMG:

This latter table is much more forgiving. Of course, it's stretched the monster levels out from 6 to 10, and it uses a d20 instead of a d6, but that's not what really interests us here. On the 1st dungeon level, where OD&D includes 2/3 of the possible monster levels, AD&D covers less than 1/3 (equivalent to permitting only monster levels 1 or 2 in OD&D; so the danger level is approximately half or less). In OD&D, the danger level rapidly ramps up, because of the way dungeon levels are batched up starting at the 4-5 tier and so forth; in AD&D, levels are kept distinct up until level 10, so a much more gradual increase can be drawn (except for the completely bizarre joint step at dungeon level 2-3, which skips having a 20 in the monster level IV column; Odin only knows how that came about). And while OD&D ends up with the only possibility being top-level encounters by the end of the table, AD&D always keeps at least a 1-pip chance for any lower-level encounters down to level I (including the possibility of maybe very large collections of goblins, skeletons, or giant ants, say).

So what I decided to do was linearly translate this AD&D table back into the OD&D format. The process was like this: (1) Interpolate a distinct row for dungeon level 2 in the AD&D table. (2) Separate the AD&D table out into "pips" value difference in each cell. (3) Transform the pips in the 10 columns of AD&D into 6 columns for OD&D (e.g., OD&D monster level 1 gets the pips from AD&D column 1, plus 2/3 the value of column 2; OD&D column 2 gets pips from AD&D as 1/3 column 2, all of column 3, and 1/3 column 4; etc.). (4) Scale the pips from d20 to d6 with a 6/20 multiplication in each cell. (5) Sum the values back up sequentially on each row for d6 roll ranges. You can see all the details in an ODS spreadsheet at the end of this post, but the end result of the translated AD&D table looks like this:

Dungeon levels 1 & 2 end up looking identically, by which I'm not hugely offended. Due to the lower granularity of the d6, we don't have space to maintain every single possible monster level on the deeper rows of the table, but that's not a huge tragedy, either. In general this sort of looks like the inverse of the original OD&D table (just a few options in the top-right, with most of the level possibilities covered on the bottommost row).

Now, let's load this as a data file into the Arena simulator, in place of the original OD&D Monster Level Matrix, and see what the resulting population of Man-vs-Monster gladiator combats produces. This is done with 10,000 fighting men in the list, over 100 years, fighting 24 times/year (biweekly), with age effects implemented, and the standard 5% chance for a magical boost on each level-up:

Now, that looks like a more reasonable population (i.e., a game that's not entirely suicidal to play). It's still a significantly more risky path than the Man-Vs-Man game we looked at two weeks ago. No one here has reached Name Level, and most fighters do not survive to the age of 30 years. But at least it covers most of the D&D span of levels, Superheroes are at least possible, and at least one figure did see 34 years. I think we can conclude that Gygax's table in AD&D is not too generous; it's still a very highly risky path to fame and fortune; if anything, one might argue that it should be softened some more to actual produce a Lord or two over the course of a century. But it's not completely the holocaust that the OD&D table was.

One thing you might notice here in the chart is the drop-step at fighter level 2. This isn't because level 2 is too dangerous, but rather just the opposite; it's an unusually easy level to survive and graduate, so most members have quickly moved on to level 3 at this point. This is because of two reasons here: (1) Although the fighters are about twice as durable as when they were 1st-level, they are still rolling on the same row of our Revised Monster Level Matrix, and (2) The way the geometric XP tables are constructed in OD&D Vol-1, it doesn't take any more XP to graduate 2nd level than it did 1st (2,000 XP in each case).

In conclusion: This is something I can live with for my game. My plan is to paste this into my custom print of the OD&D ruleset and use it in place of the original Monster Level Matrix. Be cognizant that while this game is at least conceivably survivable (for a time), it is still too risky to reflect the demographics of groups of Men in the upper world; for that, we will continue to look at the Man-vs-Man results from earlier (and as in the Marshal application, etc.).

Below, the software package you can use to play with this yourself. As before, if you have Java installed, you can download and unzip the first file, which includes Arena.jar and associated data files. You'll need to run it with several command-line parameters to get useful output, for example the command

java -jar Arena.jar -n=1000 -m -a -rys 

will run the simulator respectively with 1,000 men in the list, fighting man-vs-monster (instead of man-vs-man), with aging effects applied, and reporting yearly updates and summary statistics at the end. To switch from the original (brutal) OD&D monster level matrix to the revised one, rename the included data file MonsterLevelMatrixRev.csv to MonsterLevelMatrix.csv and run it again (or modify the data file to whatever format you prefer). A complete listing of all the available command-line parameters is as follows:

Usage: Arena [options]
  where options include:
        -a apply aging effects
        -b base type of armor (=0-3, default 3)
        -f fights per year (default =24)
        -m man-vs-monster (default man-vs-man)
        -n number of men fighting (default =100)
        -p percent chance of magic per level (default =5)
        -r reporting types
                s summary statistics    y year-end info
                d detailed data         k monster kills
        -s start level for fighters (default =0)
        -x use revised XP award table (from Sup-I)
        -y number of years to simulate (default =100)

Have fun! And tell me if you find any other interesting discoveries that I've overlooked.