Sunday, August 18, 2019

On Starting as Heroes

Playing devil's advocate a bit: here is a short argument for starting PCs in your standard campaign at around 3rd or 4th level.
  1. Gygax in his later era ran games where PCs all started at 3rd level (see here). 
  2. Arneson started his initial "Fantasy Game" using the Chainmail Fantasy rules, with players starting as Heroes (equivalent to 4 normal men, or 4th level in D&D), and being able to progress up to Superheroes (as 8 men, or 8th level). With that ruleset, there simply weren't any other options for him to start with. (See: Gygax, Dragon #7, "The Origins of D&D".)
  3. Many people have argued that classic D&D is most interesting in the range of 4th to 8th level or so. Not a huge surprise why that may be the case. It's also the most common level range for classic D&D modules (listed here).
  4. There's a desire and trend in D&D play to demand that PCs are inherently "elite" and special, chosen-ones. That's not a completely insane desire (the original texts mention mega-heroes like Conan, Fafhrd, John Carter, etc. as models of play). However, that made later editions shift gauges so that 1st level was head-and-shoulders better than normal men. That kind of discontinuity upsets me; is there nothing in between? Using classic D&D, with smooth graduations, and simply starting at a higher level seems like a more robust solution.
  5. You do get more of a capacity for PCs to take some hits, assess whether they're in trouble/over their heads, flee, and fight another day. This was a design intent that Gygax regularly beat on in early Dragon articles (around issues #1-20), mostly in the context of harping against critical-hits bonuses. 
  6. It's not terrible that wizards get a few spells to resource-manage during the day, not just a single one (e.g., at 3rd level: three 1st level and one 2nd level spell). 
  7. Looking at Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign, we see an eminently reasonable rule modification for wilderness adventures: the (very large) numbers appearing in the standard monster list are only for in-lair encounters; actually wandering bands will be around one-third those numbers (10-60%). When I crunch statistics on those tables with that rule, I find that the encounters average around 4th level difficulty (for a party of 5 PCs). 
  8. When I've analyzed systems for environmental damage (falling, exposure, starvation, drowning, etc.) with units of base 1d6 damage, I keep coming back to the idea that these mechanics give halfway "realistic" results at around the 3rd level (links one, two, three). Or see the "Survival Rule of Threes".


Monday, August 12, 2019

Sunday Survey: Best Module Poll

Not a poll by me, but a gentleman named Jon Payton on the Facebook 1E AD&D group. And not just a single poll: Jon ran a whole series of round robin polls throughout May to determine a popular ranking for all of the published 1E modules (95 modules in all!). Here's an excerpt of his Top 10:

Now, in the run-up to the final bracket, I felt that the results were about as I would have guessed, and then right at the end it turned surprising. Namely the winner, S3: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth is not a module I normally hear as people's favorite (I've never run it, but it's an attractive work in some ways). Likewise, I know everybody loves module S2, but I was a little surprised to see it as high as 2nd place. For me, the G1-3 modules come out on top, always.

Related to this: In the final few rounds Jon was providing short supplementary commentary to each of the modules, that I thought was top-notch, refined, and observant. Right up until the end when he playfully spazzed out on his personal favorite, U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, not taking the top spot; Jon is apparently a big fan of all the UK-sourced modules (for me, the U1 Scooby-Doo plot is nigh-unforgivable). I'd highly recommend taking a look at the full rankings on his Musings from the Moathouse blog, as well his reviews there for other modules. And I wish that all of his Facebook blurbs were made public there, as well!

Monday, August 5, 2019

On a Theory of Elements, Energies, and Embellishments for D&D

Dragons in OD&D (and AD&D) each come with a characteristic color and breath weapon (energy) type. In addition, there's a table that gives attack bonuses and penalties in relation to the different elemental types (earth, air, water, and lightning). You'd think there might be some underlying theory for that, but it's very hard to pull out a consistent system for it.

As an exercise, let's pretend that I know nothing about the D&D relations of these things and go back to first principles, assuming an Aristotelian concept of the elements of the universe. We would consider this:

Classical elements per Aristotle

Fire would obviously be related to heat energy and the color red. Water, on the opposite side and following Aristotle, we could relate to coldness, and color it something like blue or green (the color of water and deep ice, and a complementary color to red). Earth we could relate to poison and the color black. Air, in opposition, we could relate to lightning and the color white (note that lightning is naturally white; and Aristotle opined that lightning was "dry exhalation" from cooling clouds, that is, colliding pockets of air).

That seems reasonable and good. However, the color/energy combinations are reversed from what we see in D&D in the two cases of white/cold and blue/lightning. That may be understandable when we think about white-reflective snow layers, and the poetic idea of lightning as a "bolt from the blue".

We may also note that in Chainmail, it seems that fire and lightning are set up as diametrical energy types; wizards must pick one of the two for missiles, and elementals are each affected by exactly one of those two types (air and water by fire; fire and earth by lightning). So with that we might say it is water that gets the blue/lightning relation, and air with white/cold... but at that point we are clashing with (a) the D&D conceit that blue dragons live in the dry desert, and (b) Aristotle's stipulation that air is essentially a hot element, not cold.

Consider also the table of attack modifiers against dragons given in OD&D, below. Note the columns are the four classic element types, oddly with a "lightning" column inserted as an addition. This was retained in AD&D, except that the two lower entries under "Earth" flipped from minuses to pluses. 

OD&D Vol-2 Attacking Dragons Chart (p. 12)

Water and fire seem reasonably like opposing types; they have opposite modifiers in every row except one. Air and fire seem more in agreement, because they never have opposite modifiers, and match in the "Red" row (suggesting hot air?). (This is nicely simpatico with Aristotle). It's harder to draw out consistent patterns with the other elements. The white and blue dragon types both seem friendly to water; while neither is specially attuned to air. Meanwhile, lightning seems opposed to water in the first row, but then synchronous with it in the fourth row.

As an aside, the first-ever depiction of extradimensional planes for D&D, appeared from Gygax in The Dragon #8: it includes a color schematic of all the now-standard planes. The elemental planes exhibit the same ordering as the Aristotelian conceit (above). The colors used are, somewhat unexpectedly: red (fire), green (earth), dark blue (water), and light blue (air).

In conclusion, perhaps the simplest correction on our part (vis-a-vis our first theory from Aristotelian principles) would be to surrender the expectation that complementary colors will be on opposite sides of the diagram above, and correlate air with blue and water (ice) with white. That seems slightly sub-optimal for those of us who are sensitive to color relations, but it might be the best we can do to draw a semi-consistent rule from D&D precedent.

You do not want to know how much time I spent thinking about this.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Sunday Survey: Wizard Spell Failure

Related to last week's survey on permitted armor, I asked another poll on the Facebook 1E AD&D group as follows:

This is even more surprising than last week, because the concept of a chance of "spell failure" for magic-users in armor is absolutely not a concept anywhere in either the 1E or 2E AD&D rulebooks. Nor does it appear in OD&D, Holmes, B/X, etc. (In those rules, multiclass magic-users are either permitted to use certain types of armor or they're not, end of story.)

But it is a core rule that appeared in the later 3E D&D ruleset (PHB, Ch. 7: Equipment). As a result, it also appears in the popular Pathfinder rules. However, it doesn't seem to be part of the 4E or 5E rules from the introductory materials that I have for those editions.

Spell failure for multiclass wizards in armor is not a thing that I assess in my games. That said, I do prohibit even multiclass fighter/wizards from casting in plate in my OED/OD&D game (as noted last week, a very common rule among AD&D players).