Monday, January 22, 2018

Hobbits and Habilitation

Here's about the worst confession I could ever make here. I'll play it out as a historical drama. It was early in 2002, Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring had just come out, and I was interviewing for a job at Turbine for the Dungeons & Dragons Online team. I thought we were having a wonderful get-together, and I was generously invited out to lunch with two of the producers.Then this happened:

Producer: "Have you seen the new Lord of the Rings movie?"

Me: "Oh yes! I loved it. I've actually seen it three times!"

Producer: "But do you think you'd appreciate it as much if you'd never read the books?"

Me: "But that's just it -- I've never read Lord of the Rings."
Is that what scuppered the job offer? Who knows? But here it is 16 years later -- and I've still never read Lord of the Rings.

Let's be honest: D&D junkie that I am/was, a lot of this is due to Gygax-worship. In the aftermath of the cease-and-desist letter from the Tolkien estate, he made a whiplash-inducing change of direction to consistently deny any cross-pollination between D&D and Middle Earth. Even to the point of badmouthing Tolkien's work in print. (E,g., in Dragon #95: "Considered in the light of fantasy action adventure, Tolkien is not dynamic. Gandalf is quite ineffectual, plying a sword at times and casting spells which are quite low-powered (in terms of the D&D game). Obviously, neither he nor his magic had any influence on the games... "). Fanboy that I was, a largely inherited a distaste for Tolkien from reading all that propaganda.

I do think that I've managed to discard the hero-worship at this point (and try to escort others in that direction as necessary), and committed to finally reading those works on my winter break this year. Starting with The Hobbit, which I recently completed. I have some thoughts on that as a decades-long fantasy gamer -- and of course the way I process such things is here on the blog. Of course, you probably already know everything here, but let me organize my thoughts below:



Concerning Hobbits

It seems like we can identify five major traits that Tolkien repeats about Hobbits (see also here):
  • Stealth (hiding & moving silently)
  • Stout and durable (good, or at least equal saves)
  • Deadly ranged attacks (due to eyesight)
  • Excellent eyesight (better than dwarves in dark)
  • Slower than dwarves
The first three -- stealth, saves, and shooting -- are pretty consistently represented in any edition of D&D. Regarding stealth, most of the emphasis is on the Hobbit being able to instantly disappear in undergrowth in the wilderness; but Bilbo is also silent underground (Ch. 12: "So silent was his going that smoke on a gentle wind could hardly have surpassed it, and he was inclined to feel a bit proud of himself as he drew near the lower door."), although we might pin this to skill in the D&D Thief class.

But the last two items do not figure so prominently in D&D. The constant emphasis on Bilbo's amazing vision is probably the top point of highlight in The Hobbit. In Ch. 4, Bilbo is so slow compared to dwarves that it is faster for him to be carried by them like a satchel; yet in Chainmail and classic D&D, halflings are given a much higher standard move rate than dwarves.

Elves & Dwarves

There are several tropes here that are usually mentioned in passing in D&D, and yet I'm somewhat unused to seeing them get played out live. Such as: We usually get a line that elves & dwarves don't trust each other, but I've never seen a game where elves literally imprison dwarves, or in which they march armies against each other (as in The Hobbit). It would seem that the D&D alignment system in which they are both in the Good classification squeezes out that rivalry. Likewise: truly near-sinister elves, and dwarves being greedy to the point of unreason and violence ("There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots...") are themes I should perhaps work into my games more.

Also the refrains of dwarves casting spells to make powerful weapons and armor are of course familiar from mythology, and somewhat at odds with D&D. They have some unique gear in that regard ("Each one of his folk was clad in a hauberk of steel mail that hung to his knees, and his legs were covered with hose of a fine and flexible metal mesh, the secret of whose making was possessed by Dain’s people..."). So too the elven army may possibly have magic weapons throughout ("Their
spears and swords shone in the gloom with a gleam of chill flame, so deadly was the wrath of the hands that held them"); a trait which is fairly evident in early Chainmail, for example, but transitions into a special +1 skill in later editions.

On Geography

There's a motif in which each geographic area seems to have main controlling intelligent race. This is kind of a nice idea, in that it focuses the idea of the area, and presents nice opportunities for roleplaying and political complications (kind of a B2 or D1-3 on steroids; lots of races who can be played off one another). 

Additionally, every region has a distinct flavor and monster population. This is not so evident if we use D&D-style encounter tables keyed only by terrain type. We can consider transitioning to a model where every region has its own encounter table: perhaps just 1-6 options will suffice. We would do well to compare to the D&D underground charts, which in truth represent the Castle Greyhawk population, and other dungeons get custom tables; likewise, the D&D wilderness tables are really the Outdoor Survival-style wilderness locale, and perhaps other lands should get their own custom tables.

Underground tunnels don't fit on 10' scale graph paper; they always go for many miles, bypassing hills and mountains and entire regions above ground (think: Goblin caves, Smaug's mountain, etc.) Perhaps this argues for more D1-style mile-hex underground regions around the campaign world.

On Animals

Consider that every animal species apparently is apt to be intelligent, speak a language, and have some sort of ruling prince. E.g.: Wolves, spiders, eagles, thrushes, crows, bats, etc. Bears and horses appear to obey Beorn, at least. The birds and bats all serve as spies and messengers for different humanoid races. I don't think there's a single "normal" (unreasoning) animal in the entire work.

This is something you can observe in the earliest D&D works: the propensity for any animal to speak and possibly threaten or negotiate with the PCs. In times past I thought this was simply sloppy nigh-oversights by the dungeon designers. Have read The Hobbit, I'm maybe looking in a direction where that really does offer more points for roleplaying activity. (And language acquisition.)


On Dragons

In the earliest printings of Chainmail, Gygax had written this:
We will deal here with the great Red Dragon Draco  Conflagratio, or Draco Horribilis) which is typified in Tolkien's THE HOBBIT... 
So classic D&D dragons represent Smaug, despite how later power inflation might make that seem unreasonable to later players. The main thing that troubles me about that is the scene in Lake-town, where Smaug makes a lengthy attack, and the hosts of men fire arrows by the volley with no effect against him, at least until Bard uses his "Black arrow". (Big money quote: "I am armoured above and below with iron scales and hard gems. No blade can pierce me.")

Having crunched copious statistics for Book of War and the Monster Metrics program in the past, one of my primary observations -- and conclusions that surprise other players -- is that D&D dragons with their AC 2 go down real fast to mass missile fire. Like, they're pretty much insta-killed by 30 or 40 normal men archers. Now, in Chainmail, dragons are indeed immune to attacks by any normal men; they can only be hit by special hero-types or monsters -- much like wights, wraiths, elementals, and wizards. Note that the first three in that list are hit only by silver or magic; wizards have the "protection from normal missiles" spells which replicates their defense. But because dragons do not have that in D&D, they are pretty vulnerable to normal men, and not a major threat on the open battlefield. Perhaps that really does cry out for a little edit (noting that later editions do given older dragons a defense in this direction, with the 2E text almost directly quoting the description from The Hobbit).

49 comments:

  1. On animals.
    Yeah, it's much more like fairy tales where you don't really need to have 'Speak with Animals' to communicate with them.

    On dragons.
    Smaug is one of the greatest dragons. There is other dragons, specialy wingless dragons, that are much more killable.

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    1. I recall a dragon in the Silmarillion that entering some narrower tunnels of the Elves. Finrod's joint? Anyway, it made me think of dragons as much smaller and snakelike than the more recent komodo or crocodile body type.

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    2. @1d30: We know that Smaug was depicted as serpentine in the picture of the map of the Lonely Mountain. That said, his head wouldn't fit in a passage that had a door at one end that was 5 feet high by 3 feet wide (I would estimate that the passage was thus on the order of 6-7 feet high by maybe 5 feet wide; in any case, much is made of the precise straightness of it, so the passage definitely remains the same dimensions by the time it gets to the lowest basement where Smaug sleeps). If we assume a similar door at the lower end, that means that Smaug's head doesn't fit into a 5 foot by 3 foot entryway, though he does press his snout into it briefly.

      That is not a small head.

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    3. I was just doing research/math on this exact issue yesterday (and scribbling slightly revised sizes in my MM). I'm glad I found Tolkien's own watercolor "A Conversation with Smaug" (and also admission in a letter that he made Bilbo far too large in it).

      On the larger point: However you slice it, the Smaug analog in CM is immune to normal men, but the identically-sized dragon in D&D is not, so something got lost there.

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  2. Read the Hobbit in 6th grade, have never made it out of the shire while trying to read LOTR. I guess it is time to try again.

    Observations on Observations
    I can see how some factors did not make it into D&D or were eclipsed over time for the sake of "harmony" (a little bit of game/party balance, a little bit of "can we stop hating each other and just go on an adventure already")

    Interested to hear your thoughts on "Infra"vision, Low Light Vision, Darkvision, Elf-sight, etc.

    Races, Geography, Animals: I do lament that as D&D has advanced we seem to have lost the idea that the world itself is magical and special and try to inject that back into my games.

    Dragons: it seems that the pendulum is always swinging between "Dragons are too easy to kill, its Dungeons and DRAGONS after all" and "Dragons are too hard to kill, its Dungeons and DRAGONS after all" :)

    If you have not had a chance, take a look at the 5e Middle Earth system. It has some interesting alternate takes on magic and D&Disms that may help inform your ideas.

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    1. LOL at the contending quotes on the dragon cycle. :-)

      Weirdly my experience Tolkien is almost exactly like yours. Actually had my 6th grade teacher read the Hobbit to us over some number of days. And likewise I've read a few pages of LOTR in the past, and then put it down.

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    2. I had one of those English teachers at primary school too. Took us through loads of amazing geeky books (even HHGTTG!) When he took us through The Hobbit he got us to practise writing Tolkien's runes. I drank that stuff up :)

      But then I tried reading LotR several times, and only ever really got as far as Moria before giving up. At least I had the 1981 radio adaptation to listen to instead.

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    3. LotR is kind of an odd duck. There are parts that are really stirring, but then sometimes it goes on for pages of travelogue-style descriptions of the landforms and the particular kinds of vegetation and flowers and so on that the characters see as they are tramping along.

      I read LotR for the first time in the 5th or 6th grade, and I remember those parts feeling boring. But I would just skim ahead until something interesting started happening, and then start reading closely again. That got me through the book for the first couple of readings, and then once my curiosity about "what will happen next?!" was satisfied, I could read more slowly and kind of chew on the language a bit more.

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    4. @Leland: For a certain sort of reader, in which category one may include me, the pages of travelogue are a significant and lovely part of the experience. But, as I say, I am the sort who reads Ernest Thompson Seton, Mary Hunter Austin, or Edward Abbey, and I suppose that such nature writing doesn't appeal to everyone.

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  3. There's so much here to respond to. I might turn it into my own blog post when I've had time to chew and digest it all.

    Generally, though, I'm happy to see one old friend introduced to another. :)

    One quick thing I'll say about Smaug, which I'll agree with G.B. Veras' point, was that your sense of how killable dragons in D&D are vs. Smaug is by my lights correct. If Smaug hadn't been laying on the huge treasure pile in the great hall of Erebor and getting a crust of gemstones embedded in his soft underbelly, he'd be as vulnerable to missile fire as your average dragon. I'd make note of potential special circumstances if a Book of War player wanted to replicate the Battle of Laketown, but I'd definitely call Smaug a special case.

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    1. The mention of the gems makes it seem that way, but he destroyed the dwarves and the men of the nearby town earlier, when they were more numerous and at the height of their power, before his long time on the treasure pile.

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    2. Looks like you spotted the hole in the armored underbelly of the plot there, Bilbo.

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  4. Chainmail's dragon was certainly modeled after Smaug, right down to requiring a hero to slay the thing with an arrow.

    Speaking animals is a classic fairy tale trope not just related to Tolkien.

    If you ever get around to reading TLOR, I'll be interested in hearing your comments. I didn't read the thing till college (or later!), but I've read The Hobbit many times...it's my favorite of Tolkien (though I really like the Silmarillion) precisely because of its whimsical, fairy tale-ness.

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    1. It's true that Heroes/Superheroes each have a special rule for shooting down a dragon overhead. But I don't think it's required; they can go bash it in person via the Fantasy Combat Table just like anything else.

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  5. So how did you like the Hobbit?

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    1. Thanks for asking; in a late-twist on the story, I've now read The Hobbit but didn't see the recent movies.

      That's mostly because I use critical ratings as a guide before I go see anything, and they were pretty low for the Hobbit. Conceptually it did seem very weird that the one book got inflated to three movies. I guess I saw the last half of the last movie in a hotel a year ago, and it did seem kind of bloated and not terrifically paced. Thinking back, all the extra man-on-man character melees kind of lost the epic flow of the battle.

      I've kind of worked on a theory that it would have been justified to have two movies: "There" and "Back Again". The cutpoint could be around Chapter 10 (of 19), when they are received at Lake-town and have a big celebration and weeks-long recovery session after escaping from the wood elves. I'd write the last scene of the first movie as dwarves and men feasting in a hall, with Bilbo by the dock looking worriedly at the mountain in the distance at night. "To be continued..."

      (I also generally feel like you need to take ownership of the fact that Bilbo gets knocked out in the climactic battle and the audience only learns about it second-hand afterward.)

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    2. The Hobbit movies did a lot of awful things with the general dramatic arc of the story, plus there were a lot of cases of egregious padding of scenes and trotting characters from the LotR movies as fan service. Thumbs very down.

      It's the only fantasy film series I can think of where I would gladly watch a condensed version, as opposed to an expanded director's cut.

      They could have done it in one film, to be honest, and it would have been a nice coda the LotR films.

      Lord knows, Rankin Bass got the job done quite admirably in 78 minutes.

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    3. My biggest beef with the Hobbit movies: with the multitude of things they added, deleted, or changed in the adaptation from book to film, I can't fathom why they felt the need to include all 13 dwarves. It was the one thing that bogged the book down, and yet it was also one of the (very) few things that made it into the movie intact. I can only conclude that they were intentionally trying to make the movies as terrible as possible.

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    4. Thanks for your observations on that! (Glad I didn't miss something wonderful.)

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    5. So, at the risk of being a nag, how did you like the book?

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    6. If I remember correctly, the original intent for the movies was to have Peter Jackson produce them and Del Toro write and direct them. Peter Jackson feared that if he wrote and directed them then everyone would expect him to tie them into The Lord of the Rings series which you really can't do without the addition of the material from the appendixes. The discussions were for two movies initially. However, due to the delays caused by Peter Jackson's lawsuit with Paramount, Del Toro backed out and Peter Jackson was left writing and directing it.

      I also think Paramount, who was going bankrupt at the time, pushed for three movies so they could make more money.

      Unlike the Lord of the Rings there were just lots of issues with the management of this series.

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    7. "So, at the risk of being a nag, how did you like the book?"

      LOVED IT. In particular, I really dug Tolkien's intimate voice, like he was telling a personal bedtime story ("I imagine you know the answer, of course, or can guess it as easy as winking, since you are sitting comfortably at home and have not the danger of being eaten to disturb your thinking...")

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    8. Monkapotomus: Right, I think I knew a good part that. I think I sometimes dream about Del Toro's art mockup for Smaug. Always sad when business corrupts art.

      So glad to see Del Toro bouncing back with his recent "Shape of Water", which I thought was far and away the best thing I've seen from him!

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    9. Re: Three Hobbit Movies. The books glossed over less-dangerous periods like Rivendell, while the movie lingered. The movie felt it necessary to make connections to LoTR that weren't in the book and were definitely un-called-for. And the movie expounded on parts where someone was telling a story to Bilbo (the example I think of now is the dwarves' fleeing through the Misty Mountains, which they explained to Bilbo later). These all added to runtime. Also the movies diverted from the book by giving Bilbo's achievements to the Dwarves. In the book, the Dwarves were constantly thanking Bilbo and making it clear that they would never have completed the adventure without him. But Jackson needed to make the Dwarves identifiable and interesting, so he gave them Bilbo's role. They should have called the movie "Thirteen Dwarves and Some Short Guy" instead. It certainly was not a Hobbit movie.

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    10. Interesting! Particular surprising removing Bilbo as central to scenes like that.

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    11. Conversely, one of my big beefs with the first of the trilogy was that they felt like they had to accelerate Bilbo's character development from homebody to hero, such that they had him suddenly and out of the blue charge their ridiculous, CGI orc leader guy in the scene where they'd been treed by the wolves and rescued by the eagles. I could see the dumb thought process being played out here. In the book (or in a sensible movie that isn't stretched over a bloated trilogy) Bilbo doesn't really start swinging Sting around until he fights the spiders in Mirkwood, but they couldn't have the supposed protagonist go an entire movie being a whiny wuss, so we have this completely illogical jump were he suddenly nuts up and goes after Azog the Collectable (available for $40 from Games Workshop)

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    12. LOL. Now that you mention, I did catch that scene at my family's place, and OMG I thought it was a CGI-tastic bloated mess. (Like, putting it on a giant cliff and toppling trees over it for extra oomph.)

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  6. One issue about dragons in AD&D, at least, is the fear aura that they have. Pretty much most figures of less than 3HD are going to be immediately disabled through panic or paralyzation, at least when facing the upper half of the age brackets. Even 2HD figures facing as young as an Adult dragon will immediately lose 55% of their numbers to panic or paralyzation (save 17, +5 for Adult = save 12) when the dragon flies overhead or charges.

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    1. I think the fear-effect is important, and I interpret it as included in OD&D by reference to Chainmail.

      The thing I don't like in AD&D is the ambiguity of the range; it feels like one of those late-Gygax hacks that make things tougher to adjudicate. In Chainmail (and hence, my OD&D game) that effect is 15", which is a lot less than bows or crossbows.

      In the interest of simulating Smaug's attack, I'd really rather have arrows bouncing off him than have nobody able to attack him in the first place by virtue of fleeing, actually.

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    2. That's fair. I'd note that 15" is Long range for just about every missile weapon (in AD&D, only heavy crossbows would put 15" in medium range, and that barely), which brings us back to the issue we've discussed before that missile fire is simply too accurate and deadly, especially at the longer ranges, in every edition of the game.

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    3. And I do not disagree with you at all on the matter of making Smaug more invulnerable to attack. As others have noted, it would probably be best to improve a dragon's defenses based on its age, as there should be dragons that can be defeated as well as those which are not so vulnerable.

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  7. Re: big monsters going down fast to massed missile fire... this is true in later editions, too. In 3/3.5, since a natural '20' always hits, for every 20 arrows fired you can expect one hit even for inexperience archers firing at very tough foes. I kind of embrace this as the answer to "Why don't the giants and trolls and whatnot just come into town, smash the place up, and take what they want?" Because they'll turn into pincushions pretty darn fast, that's why. It explains the separation between civilization and the wilderness.

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    1. Yeah, I'm pretty okay with that, too. Partly for giants/trolls it gets counterbalanced by conceiving them in bands/numbers. With dragons we tend to think of them as a threat even solo (e.g., Smaug) and that's overturned more quickly.

      Similarly in Chainmail it's possibly to cut down giants with normal men, but not so for dragons.

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  8. I feel like giving dragons protection from normal missiles is a specific stopgap to a general problem. Torchbearer rules for example don't allow for characters of a low power level slaying a high power level creature. If you wanted to let only siege engines and magic weapons harm a dragon, giving it 3E D&D style Damage Reduction 5/- or 10/- would work. The question in general would be, if a really big creature has a total thickness of hide and fat that it's impossible for the stab of a sword to reach its muscle, why does said stab deal the same amount of HP damage as if it struck a leprechaun or trout?

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    1. @1d30: Of course, in AD&D (1st edition, anyway), it doesn't do the same damage to a S or M size creature as it does to one of L size. That's because the reading of what "hit points" are in each case is assumed to be different. For a S or M size creature to be hit at all means that they are out of the fight, so hit points are a measure of the individual not being hit. L size creatures, on the other hand, are less vulnerable simply due to their sheer mass, and each hit is applied to their physical structure.

      We may disagree with the specific numbers given, but the theory there was sound. Too bad that so many found it too complex to use in practice, or perhaps didn't understand the theory since it was never laid out in so blatant a form in the game itself.

      I won't speak to other editions of the game, as they aren't really my forte as far as D&D types go.

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    2. I've found that the D&D weapon damage by target size was so pointless that I can never encourage anyone to use it. Weapons either do less damage, equal, or more vs. Large. In cases where they do less damage, it's generally 1 HP lower. For those with greater damage, it's generally the factor that makes that weapon the superior one of its type (Longsword vs. Scimitar and Broadsword for example). The only worthwhile weapons that come to mind are Longsword (d8 vs d12), Heavy Lance (1d8+1 vs. 3d6) and Two-Handed Sword (d10 vs. 3d6). It's unclear what rationalization there is for a lance having a greater spread than a spear. The only thing I could imagine is that a sword slash might make a longer cut against a huge target, or that a spear might penetrate a thin target and poke out the other side and waste that extra damage potential. But the corollary must be that when you slash or stab a pixie, you deal less damage. The extra column on the table should definitely have been replaced by a DR type rule. You also see players kind of breathe a sign of relief when they spot a large monster like an Ogre, because they know they'll have better damage against it. Separately from the inefficiency in the rule as it stands, it also makes certain weapons far better choices as I mentioned before. If I have a choice between a Scimitar and a Longsword I should choose the Longsword. A +1 Longsword should be far more valuable than a +1 Scimitar. But we might see a better range of weapon choices if there weren't such clear winners and losers.

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    3. There may also be a holdover sentiment from 0E that Fighters should be better at fighting large creatures. If you look at M-U and Cleric weapons, they typically (besides having lower damage) fare worse against Large size. But that's ruined by the Thief having access to the Longsword (again, still talking 1E/2E). If you want that kind of rule in a game, it's far better to just give the Fighter classes a bonus in combat vs. large creatures.

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    4. 1d30: I apologize. I had thought you were asking a question about the published rules, so I answered in regard to those (and provided what I believe to be the theory behind them, though you seem to reject that). I was not aware of your house rules and explanations, so I couldn't answer in that regard.

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    5. I do agree with 1d30's analysis of the size/damage rule starting in Sup-I. While I like having damage variable by weapon, the sizing distinction seems significantly more record-keeping work that it's worth. (Although I keep DR away from my OD&D game.)

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    6. faoladh: Sorry, I think I kinda talked past you a little bit with that :P What I meant as a reply was, I feel that if the Damage By Target Size rule was meant to tell us something about what HP mean for S/M vs. L, it doesn't do a very good job. Some weapons deal more, some less, inconsistently with the shape or attack mode. Do you have a reference to Large creatures' HP meaning more of a physical total rather than S/M creatures being a mix of physical durability, skill, luck, etc? I see on the 1E DMG pg. 82 a description of HP, but it doesn't mention Large creatures being different. (Incidentally, here Gygax flubs calculating avg. HP for a 10th level Fighter as 95, ignoring that the 10th level would give only 3 HP with no CON bonus. Maybe at the time he wrote that, the post-name-level HP acquisition rate was up in the air?)

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    7. 1d30: As I said, I "provided what I believe to be the theory behind them", which is based on extending Gygax's reasoning on that page to the difference between creatures of such differing sizes, noting that the weapons rules include differing damage for SM and L targets, and then noting that "[w]e may disagree with the specific numbers given". I don't think that a deep textual analysis is needed for that to be pretty obviously what Gygax intended the reasoning for the damage variable by target size to mean. It's not like dragons spend a lot of their time dodging attacks.

      I mean, there are other factors as well, like the ability of the attacker to get close enough to make an effective swing (and there's one of the clear patterns of difference in the damage types: pole weapons tend to have higher damage vs. L than vs. S/M, while short weapons tend toward the opposite; obviously exceptions to this pattern exist).

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  9. I tried reading The Hobbit once, but the prose left me flat. That was maybe 1991? Maybe I will try again some day.

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    1. I really like it; but it's undeniable that it's fanciful and pitched to the kid in all of us.

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  10. Regarding the quote: "Considered in the light of fantasy action adventure, Tolkien is not dynamic. Gandalf is quite ineffectual, plying a sword at times and casting spells which are quite low-powered (in terms of the D&D game). Obviously, neither he nor his magic had any influence on the games...", ever read the following?
    https://shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=612

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  11. I actually do have separate encounter charts for different geographical regions in my campaign - remind me to send you my write-up on how I decided on what to include in each table (it involved getting way deeper into ecology than I ever imagined!).

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