Monday, January 20, 2020

Wandering Monsters in Holmes Basic D&D

Today we're looking at the first-ever D&D Basic set, edited by Eric Holmes (1977). This is the first set of D&D rules I ever had my hands on as a wee lad, and it's entirely how I learned the game at the outset.

In particular, let's look at the rules for Wandering Monsters, because it presents an interesting step in the design of classic D&D encounters. This is because it's one of the few places in this Basic set where a major overhaul was made between the draft and the published set; Holmes even publicly expressed his surprise at the switch at one point. We're now fairly confident that it was Gary Gygax himself who made an editorial pass of Holmes' draft, making various insertions and edits -- mostly to align with his developing AD&D game -- and this may have been the biggest change. Recommend that you read this article at Zenopus Archives for the full story.

In Holmes' original draft, he basically reiterates the rules seen in the OD&D Little Brown Books, Vol-3 (which was his charge for the project in the first place; organization & editing of OD&D). He states that wandering monster numbers will be about one-third of PCs present, in exactly the same terms we saw in OD&D Vol-3. The tables present are the same format as in OD&D, with the monster listings basically the same as in Supplement-I, Greyhawk.

But Gygax comes in and rips out all of that and replaces it with completely different rules. The rules now read (p. 10):

First level adventurers encountering monsters typically found on the first level of a dungeon should be faced with roughly equal numbers, i.e. a party of three would encounter 2-6 orcs, 3-12 giant rats, etc. However, if the party were second level, or the first level monsters were encountered on the second level of the dungeon, the number of wandering monsters encountered should be doubled. In a like manner, the number of monsters should be tripled for third level adventures or in the third level of the dungeon if the monsters appearing are first level.

So the new rule that wandering monsters should "roughly equal numbers" of PCs seems to at least triple the danger level as seen in OD&D. Worse than that, the examples given for a party of three PCs, e.g., 2-6 orcs, seems more like outnumbering the PCs than actual equity. It seems very much more dangerous than Holmes (or myself) would pick up from reading OD&D.

While these rules still don't anywhere state an "expected standard party size", maybe the suggestion here of "a party of three" is the closest that we'll get. Gygax inserts a new custom matrix of wandering monster tables, including for the first time specific number-appearing ranges, generally in line with the examples in the text above (e.g., 2-5 orcs on the first level), which further bolsters the theory that a party of 3 PCs was that expectation (as weird as that sounds, and counter to Gygax's claim that he had upwards of 20 people at his house playing every night for his first six months of gaming).

Let's analyze the danger level of those tables using my EHD/Equivalent Hit Dice analysis (in the last column, "Prod" means the product of Average number and EHD per monster):

The average (mean and median) encounter level here is about 4 EHD; a level that seems fairly balanced (in the sense of a 50/50 chance of either side being victorious) for a party of 3 or maybe 4 PCs. In this case, since few of the 1st-level monsters have exotic special abilities, the analysis is pretty much the same as just looking at HD values (which Gygax was almost assuredly doing).

I would observe that he probably undervalued the danger from kobolds, giant rats, and the like; they have half a HD, so he basically doubles their numbers. But in my simulations they have about two-thirds the power of a one hit-die creature. (It's a common error for game designers to downplay the danger from swarms of small, cheap opponents; e.g., enemies like these have a higher action-per-HD ratio.)

Doing a similar calculation for the other levels appearing in the Holmes chart, we get:
  • 1st Level: Average 4 EHD
  • 2nd Level: Average 8 EHD
  • 3rd Level: Average 10 EHD

So it does look (as per the text) like the danger level pretty much tracks linearly with the dungeon level (roughly dungeon level × 4 EHD in each case).

But what does this all say for set monster encounters in their lairs (not wandering)? The Holmes rules don't have standard numbers appearing in their monster listings -- unlike almost any other ruleset (OD&D, AD&D, B/X, etc.). If the wandering encounters are each a 50/50 fight to the death with the PCs, are the set encounters supposed to be the same, or even more perilous than that?

Note that this model of numbers-appearing we see here is very similar to what was in Gygax's Monster & Treasure Assortment released in the same year (1977). More on that another time.

Friday, January 17, 2020

On Empty Rooms

Occasionally I analyze early dungeon design rules given by Gygax (or others) in OD&D, and note that a majority of the rooms are supposed to be empty. Examples of this rule are:
  • OD&D, Vol-3 (1974), p. 6: "As a general rule there will be far more uninhabited space on a level than there will be space occupied by monsters..."; followed by a 1d6 for each room in which, "A roll of a 1 or 2 [on d6] indicates that there is some monster there."
  • Monster & Treasure Assortment, Set One (1977): "... a dungeon level should have monsters in only 20% or so of the available rooms and chambers..."
Often I then receive the following critique: "The rooms are supposed to be unoccupied, without monsters, but that doesn't mean they're empty of furnishings, puzzles, clues, useful tools, etc.".

But I'll respond here by pointing out that Gygax's earliest dungeons had really, honestly, truly, totally-bare rooms for the most part. Examples:
  • In his map to Castle Greyhawk Level 1, seen Monday, the vast majority of spaces (like about 120 of 160, or 75%), didn't even have key codes. So they had literally no contents whatsoever (unless we posit that he was ad-libbing meaningless dungeon dressing in all of those unkeyed rooms). Which isn't very surprising consider the very cursory nature of that key; every keyed area was just a single line long. Even the keyed areas didn't have furnishings listed other than their monster and treasure. 
  • The map to AD&D Module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, follows the same design structure, so I suspect that it's among his earliest creations that actually got published. A snippet of the map to Level 1 is shown above; again, it utilizes a use-every-space style, and the vast majority of rooms aren't even keyed. (The text does say that these rooms are all demolished apartments or utility rooms, with shattered and useless furnishings, and 0-3 human skeletons. But it's hard to imagine that not being ignored in play as negligible after the first few such inspections.) 
Gygax's early strategy of using duplicated stock key codes (mostly novel to his works) is seen throughout adventures such as: his Castle Greyhawk map, AD&D module S3, D1-D3, etc. The Holmes Basic D&D sample dungeon follows the same pattern, with a key code of "E" for the many rooms that are completely empty of contents per the key (8 of 22, or 36% of the rooms by my count).

It's arguable whether this was a good idea or not, and possibly the design strategy was abandoned pretty soon after OD&D was published, but the evidence is pretty clear that Gygax's earliest dungeons were composed of majority really-empty (even unkeyed) room locations.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Subterrane Surveys: Gygax's Castle Greyhawk

We're incredibly fortunate that circa 2008 someone managed to take a few photos of Gary Gygax running his Castle Greyhawk adventure, including at least two maps and a key. The very fuzzy first-level key was mostly decoded with a great deal of effort from people like Allan Grohe (grodog), Zenopus Archives, and others. The evidence to my eye seems to be that was likely the true, original map of Castle Greyhawk (e.g., he wrote on the Pied Pier boards in 2004: "Fact is that I have run OD&D games every year at several cons for the last five or so years. I start them at 2nd level and use the old dungeon levels"; and Ernie Gygax has also recollected these match the earliest games). Let's assess the first-level key in detail.

Design: The dungeon design is of the fully-packed, use-every-space style, similar to what we see in the early Dungeon Geomorphs product, AD&D Module S3 (Expedition to the Barrier Peaks), etc. Many rooms are entirely empty, with no key code whatsoever. The Red Baron estimates there are about 160 rooms on the map; my own estimate is that maybe 40 have a key-code in them. That would be about 25% with any content at all -- similar to the guidelines in OD&D that about 33% have content (per 2-in-6 die roll; Vol-3, p. 7), the earliest Monster & Treasure Assortment suggestion that only 20% of rooms have monsters, etc.

Characters: Gygax's brief key doesn't state an expected party size. Recall from last week that neither do the core OD&D rulebooks. If we assume standard modern convention group size, then that could be maybe 6-8 people -- but recall also that in the earliest days a group might commonly be 12 or more people at once (e.g., see Jon Peterson, Playing at the World, p. 563, re: Gygax at Origins II). The question of what might be reasonable is, in fact, the whole point of our current investigation.

Monsters: The key for the level has 18 numbered codes; several are repeated in the map in clusters of up to a half-dozen located together (e.g., the kobolds, goblins, orc entries). All 10 of the monsters from the OD&D Monster Level Table 1 appear in this key. There are 3 from the Level 2 list (hobgoblins, berserkers, gnoll), and one each from Level 3 (giant snake) and Level 4 (giant beetle). One is novel (giant bats), and the last two keys have evil NPC spellcasters (2nd level magic-user and cleric, which could arguably belong on any of the 21st-3rd level lists).

Wandering monsters are not shown here, but if Gygax used them at all, it would make sense to simply use the book tables from OD&D Vol-3, because (as noted) they inherently represent the Castle Greyhawk ecology, and are a perfect match for the monsters present in lairs (see above).

Monster lair numbers are given in ranges of 3-7 orcs, 3-12 giant rats, etc.; very similar to what we suggested in Gygax's Monster& Treasure Assortment, and Holmes Basic D&D products. Using my "Equivalent Hit Dice" (EHD) analysis, I find that the average (mean and median) danger level of these encounters is 6 EHD, i.e., a fair fight for around 6 1st-level PCs. (There are reports that Gygax adjusted numbers to match the strength of PC parties present. Did he stay in the given ranges, I wonder?) The expected total strength for all the set encounters (ignoring duplications) is about 90 EHD.

Treasure: Almost every room with a monster has a treasure listed -- only 2 of 15 do not. This contrasts with the OD&D Vol-3 rule (p. 7) that half of monsters will have treasure; but it closely matches the Monster & Treasure Assortment rule that "about 20% of the monsters should have no treasure whatsoever". There is one room with no monster and a hidden treasure -- the largest reward on the level (room 8, with about 1/3 total value on the level). Note that with some key code being duplicated, it's questionable whether every such room has the same treasure or not (unlikely that every kobold room has the same dusty silver mirror?), which would skew the treasure-to-monster ratio lower. The objects are clearly not from the monster-keyed Treasure Type tables, because coin values here are usually in the 10's (not 1000's as on that table; with one exception in room 4). Coin treasures are in the same basic order of magnitude as the OD&D dungeon treasure table (Vol-3, 7), without being exact matches. The gem values are usually in the 100's (as per book median gem type).

Total expected treasure (again, ignoring duplicated rooms) is about 4,400 gp. Given that, there are about 50 gp of treasure per monster EHD.

Magic: Magic is also relatively abundant. There are 6 of 14 treasures have magic items (43% rate), for a total of 7 useful magic treasures; this includes 2 potions, 2 magic weapons, a magic shield, ring, and a staff (with 6 charges left). Contrast with the book rule that says only 5% of treasures at this level should have magic included (from which we might expect there to be none at all, given the total number of treasures here) .

Experience: Reports say that Gygax indeed used something like the Greyhawk revised XP system (same as B/X , AD&D, etc.), instead of the original Vol-1 system. Let's assume that's the case and each of the keyed areas only appears once. Then the total monster XP is about 2,000 and the total treasure XP available is roughly 4,400, for a grand total of about 6,400. This gives a monster: treasure XP ratio of about 1:2 (31% monsters, 69% treasure). Note that the total would only be enough to graduate 3 fighters to 2nd level.

On the other hand, if we use the original Vol-1 XP system, then the total of about 90 EHD would give monster XP of 9,000 or so, treasure the same 4,400, for a grand total of 13,400. Ratio would be inverted to about 2:1 (67% monsters to 33% treasure), and this would be enough to raise 6 fighters to 2nd level -- a good match for the 6 EHD average encounter here.

Finally, commenters have helpfully pointed out that there's a least a question about whether we should be adding XP from picking up and keeping magic items or not. There is a short line in OD&D suggesting as much (Vol-1, p. 18: "when they obtain various forms of treasure (money, gems, jewelry, magical items, etc.), they gain 'experience'."), but there are no rules or suggestions for what values to give them. While Gygax fully fleshed this out in later AD&D (with comprehensive lists of awards for all items), the rule was entirely dropped from the Basic D&D line (incl. the Gygax-edited Holmes rules). Granted that ambiguity, I wouldn't feel comfortable guessing at the expected valuations for OD&D magic items for the purpose of the analysis here.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Article on OD&D at Dicebreaker

Dicebreaker is a brand-new news site dedicated to news in the tabletop gaming community. They just put up a really nice, meaty article for your weekend reading pleasure by author Steven T. Wright on, "Meet the Original Dungeons & Dragons diehards still playing by '70s rules".

In particular, both author Matt Finch and myself are quoted quite heavily throughout article. I had a really great conversation several weeks back with Mr. Wright when he was preparing this article -- he's a real fan already, knows and plays several indie/OSR games himself, and I got to learn at least a few things from him along the way. I think it's a really well-written and researched piece, and personally I'm looking forward to seeing more from Steven and Dicebreaker in the near future. Highly recommended!

And don't forget new Wandering DMs this Sunday at 1 PM ET -- we'll be chatting live with with Mr. Ian McGarty of Silver Bullette Publishing to get his thoughts on self-publishing for RPGs in 2020!

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Hobbit Autopsy by Lindsay Ellis

In the last few days, I had the pleasure of watching Lindsay Ellis' Hugo-nominated video essay on the making of Peter Jackson The Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014). Watch it here.

Here's a commentary on that. Lindsay largely frames her essay as "I deeply loved the LOTR movies, but then I was a kid; the Hobbit movies leave me cold, maybe that's because I was an adult when I saw them". (She was 17 when the first LOTR movie was released, 28 for the first Hobbit movie.)

My reply is: "No, it's not you, it's them."

Here's a few examples from personal experience for comparison, which I hope gives a helpful perspective. I was turning a teenager when the original Star Wars movies came out and I was crazy for them. (I can still remember heatedly debating plot points with friends between those movie releases.) Twenty years later, the prequels start coming out, and my girlfriend got tickets on opening night to Ep. 1; I was so excited. That wound up being one of the most embarrassing disappointments of my life. I didn't see either of the follow-ups.

Now, a common argument at the time was, "Star Wars are fantasy movies are for kids; if you're not a kid then you're not the target audience; and you can't possibly appreciate them." But this was contemporaneous with Peter Jackson's LOTR movies coming out -- and I loved those to death. I saw them multiple times in the theaters. Persuaded friends I don't usually go to movies with to join me. This being when I was an adult -- and someone who hadn't read the novels, either (so not intimately pre-invested in the franchise).

Fast forward another ten years and you start getting the Hobbit movies, as a prequel trilogy to LOTR. Based on advance reviews, I skipped the whole series. I later saw most of the third movie on TV in a hotel and I was like, yuck, what a loud, empty not-much.

But in the meantime I'm also wildly fond of many of the Marvel movies, and likewise I've seen several of those multiple times in theaters, and have very fond memories of them. In particular, I think the last Thor movie, Infinity War, and Endgame are pretty much genius works. As an adult.

In June of 1999 (in the early web days) I wrote a short essay called, "Star Wars Episode I: 20 Criticisms". Among my complaints were things such as: lack of character chemistry, cannibalizing the material of the previous films, having old characters reappear for bad reasons, repeating plot structure, the climactic fight being uncompelling, etc. Those are all rather uncannily similar to Lindsay's criticism of the Hobbit movies. (And check this out: on The Wrap, by Phil Owen and Ross Lincoln, "The 23 Worst Parts of ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’", which kind of says the same thing all over again about the 2019 film.) 

Looking up comparative critical ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, we see:
  • Original Star Wars Trilogy -- 93%, 94%, 82%.
  • Prequel Star Wars Trilogy -- 53%, 65%, 80%.
  • Original LOTR Trilogy -- 91%, 95%, 93%.
  • Prequel Hobbit Trilogy -- 64%, 74%, 59%.
  • Thor 3, Infinity War, Endgame -- 93%, 85%, 94%.

So the point is, there are pretty objectively good movies and bad movies in the world, and generally we know which is which (if we're honest about our internal experience of a thing). In my experience, I've grown surprised at how consistent my emotional perceptions of things are. I can become flush with excitement and fantasy at any age, if the work is essentially good.

Also: Prequels suck!

Monday, January 6, 2020

Subterrane Surveys: Little Brown Books

Happy New Year! I think many of us are looking forward to the magical year of double-nat-20's and seeing what that will bring. I'm hoping for some interesting OD&D-type things on the blog here, as well as more livestreaming with Wandering DMs. In fact, we've got some things lined up this year that I'm pinching myself over because it seems almost too good to believe (while keeping our normal schedule of live chat Sundays at 1 PM ET). More on that later.

One of the things I've been working on lately is assessing what early writers intuitions were about monster challenge levels. The earliest game (of course) didn't have any formalized notion of "challenge ratings" or the like. One early attempt was Don Turnbull's MonsterMark system. I have my own system for OD&D I call MonsterMetrics, which uses million-fold computer simulations to generate an estimated "Equivalent Hit Dice" (EHD) value; current valuations are available in the OED Monster Database on the website here.

Whenever I prep games nowadays, such as for classic modules, I make spreadsheet listing of all the contents and assess EHD ratings as a way to gauge reasonable PC numbers and levels going in. So I'll probably be sharing some of those in the near future.

For starters, here's a refresher of what the 1974 OD&D Little Brown Books say on the matter: almost nothing at all. There aren't any guidelines for what a single expected party size should be, or how many monsters populate a normal dungeon room, or how powerful a given monster is vs. PCs, or anything like that. The entire arrangement is expected to be managed on an ad-hoc basis by referees on the fly, basically.

Here's the closest we get to any hard advice, in the section on Wandering Monsters (Vol-3, p. 11):

One of the things this highlights is that early on, there was the apparent expectation that DMs would modify the monster numbers and threat levels on the fly to balance against the party present. Some DM's intuitively do that today, but the general idea dropped out of the published rules and modules pretty quickly. For example, in the Holmes Basic D&D Zenopus dungeon you get advice to do that in the very first room, but not anywhere else. The same thing occurs in Frank Mentzer's version of the Village of Hommlet (but not in Gygax's earlier version).

In this particular case, the wandering monsters seem to be balanced (at least on average) to about one-third the total strength level of the PCs. If you have 1-3 1st level PCs, on the 1st level of the dungeon, encountering a 1st-level monster, then apparently the advice is just to have a single such monster. For 4-6 PCs, you get two monsters, For 7-9 PCs, you get three, and so forth.

I don't mind that, and I try to do roughly this in my games today. Nowadays (after the miraculous year where Gygax & Arneson had the only D&D games in the world and their basements were stuffed with 20 players 7 nights a week), it's become conventional to think of "standard" party size as something in the 4-6 player zone, so for like-level monsters, I roll a 1d3 for numbers (then multiplied by dungeon level and divided by monster EHD, if these differ from party level).

But that's for wandering monsters. How many should you expect in a set-lair situation? The rules simply don't say. As a stab I might expect to double the number of a wandering group, so: roll 1d6 for a lair or something like that. If we look at rulebooks a few years later we'll see Gygax writing a lot of 1d4+1 or 1d6+1 numbers in those situations. That comes close to equating monster encounters with the total PC power level (like: 4 players running up against 4 monsters in the average case), for which we might expect just a 50% chance of victory in either case. (This gets modified by magic and strategy, as my EHD ratings don't take those into account at this time.)

But all the OD&D books say is this (Vol-3, p. 7):

That's totally it. In future posts hopefully we'll see some more specific things as that evolved in published books and adventures in the next few years. 

Open Questions: Do you massage monster encounter numbers to your player strength on the fly during games? In my case currently I would likely say "yes" in most one-off games (convention situations, etc.), and "no" in ongoing campaign situations (where the monsters have some background ecology and existence; so if PCs don't bring enough troops they shouldn't go in there). In the past I would probably have been more likely to say "no" uniformly, but that's me. What's your current practice?