Monday, August 31, 2020

Spells Through the Ages: Massmorph

Do you remember  the D&D spell, massmorph? Quite possibly not. A rather unique spell that I think highlights a few interesting aspects of the legacy D&D spell system. Let's recall:

Original D&D

Massmorph: This spell is used to conceal up to 100 men (or creatures of near man size) as a woods or orchards. The concealed figures may be moved through without being detected as anything other than trees, and it will not effect the spell. It will be negated by a command for the caster or by means of a Dispell Magic spell. Range: 24".

The massmorph spell first appears in OD&D, Vol-1 (1974), as a 4th-level magic-user spell. The effect is to transform a large body of men into trees, serving to disguise them, until such time as the caster switches the effect off. 

Here's part of why I think the spell is interesting. First, the effect is clearly meant to be used in the outdoors setting; having men appear as woods or an orchard would not serve as any kind of camouflage underground. Second, the range of 24" is the longest given in the game, likewise suggesting its expected use is wilderness-based. Third, it somewhat unusually specifies the exact number of men affected; 100, a large body indeed. On the other hand, no area of effect is otherwise specified.

So in total, this spell seems to cry out for use in the mass-combat setting. It really can't be used in any other way. And yet: the spell was not included in the Chainmail Fantasy wizard list, of any edition, even after that work was updated in 1975 to port in a number of new spells from OD&D (e.g., haste, slow, polymorph, confusion, hallucinatory terrain, etc.)

Now, consider also the OD&D Swords & Spells supplement which gave a more systematic way of incorporating fantasy figures into mass-combat situations. This work included a table for all the spells in the D&D game to that point, often filling in range, area, and duration where none existed before. Many of us look to Swords & Spells as an overall update/clarification to D&D combat, spells, and turn order rules. For massmorph this work shows:

That is: it adds an area specifier of a 4" diameter circle; for example, the exact same area as a fireball. Let's compare that area to the standard 2×5 stand of 10 figures (representing 100 total men), base size 3/4" per figure, as given in Swords & Spells:

Notice that area is pretty much exactly the right size to encompass 100 actual men at the standard scale and base size for Swords & Spells. I don't think that's an accident; it seems likely that the area addition in that work was chosen looking at a group of miniatures on the table at this same scale. 


D&D B/X Rules


Range: 240'
Duration: special

This spell will make up to 100 human or man-sized creatures in a 240' diameter circle appear as the trees of an orchard or dense woods. The illusion will even hide those it is cast on from creatures moving through the area of illusion. The spell lasts until a dispel magic is cast on it or the caster wills it away. The appearance of each disguised creature will return to normal when it moves away from the area where the spell was cast.

The spell appears in the Cook Expert D&D rules at the same level and effect. Note that it specifies a 240' diameter circle as its area (for the same count of 100 men). If we convert the area seen in Swords & Spells above, according to that work's 1" = 30 feet scale, we would only get 4" × 30 feet/inch = 120 feet. So for some reason the area has been doubled. Perhaps a simple mistake, or to synchronize with the given range?

AD&D 1st Edition

Massmorph  (Illusion/Phantasm)
Level:  4
Range: 1”/level
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: 11’ × 1” square/level
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 turn
Saving Throw: None

Explanation/Description: When this spell is cast upon willing creatures of man-size or smaller, up to 10 such creatures per level of experience of the magic-user can be made to appear as normal trees of any sort. Thus, a company of creatures can be made to appear as a copse, grove, or orchard. Furthermore, these massmorphed creatures can be passed through - and even touched - by other creatures without revealing the illusion. Note, however, that blows to the creature-trees will reveal their nature, as damage will be sustained by the creatures struck and blood will be seen. Creatures massmorphed must be within the spell‘s area of effect. Unwilling creatures are not affected. The spell persists until the caster commands it to cease or until a dispel magic is cast upon the creatures. The material component of this spell is a handful of bark chips. 

In AD&D, the spell is largely the same, except the effects are made caster-level-dependent. The canonical 12th-level wizard would affect 120 men, with a shortened range of 12", and a significantly expanded area of a 12"×12" space (we assume that the /11'/ above is a typo meant to be /1"/). Illusionists also get the spell at the same level. 

AD&D 2nd Edition

Range: 10 yds./level
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: 10 ft. cube/level
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 4
Saving Throw: None

When this spell is cast upon willing creatures of man-size or smaller, up to 10 such creatures per level of the caster can be magically altered to appear as trees of any sort. Thus, a company of creatures can be made to appear as a copse, grove, or orchard. Furthermore, these massmorphed creatures can be passed through and even touched by other creatures without revealing their true nature. Note, however, that blows to the creature-trees cause damage, and blood can be seen.

Creatures to be massmorphed must be within the spell's area of effect; unwilling creatures are not affected. Affected creatures remain unmoving but aware, subject to normal sleep requirements, and able to see, hear, and feel for as long as the spell is in effect. The spell persists until the caster commands it to cease or until a dispel magic spell is cast upon the creatures. Creatures left in this state for extended  periods are subject to insects, weather, disease, fire, and other natural hazards.

The material component of this spell is a handful of bark chips from the type of tree the creatures are to become.

Largely the same spell for 2E. We note that the range and area specifiers have switched from scale inchs to yards and feet. The 12th-level wizard would now cast the spell with a range of 120 yards (360 feet), and an area of a 120-foot cube. Note that in Swords & Spells scale this would convert to an area 4" across on the tabletop. 


D&D 3rd-5th Edition

The massmorph spell does not exist in the core rules of any later edition of the game. 


My points (and I do think I have some) are these: First, there are a number of classic D&D high-level spells which seem tailor-made for use in the outdoors, large-scale-combat, situation, that strangely don't appear in even the later editions Chainmail Fantasy. Massmorph is probably the best example but others include: growth of plants, transmute rock to mud, lower water, part water, control weather, etc. May we assume these were used in mass-combat games, but there was insufficient space to include them in Chainmail Fantasy? Or is it additional evidence that Chainmail Fantasy was not at mass scale?

Second, as the graduate-level D&D play of domains, castle, and mass-combat was squeezed out of the game, many of these spells became either problematic or nonsensical, and were either greatly changed, or dropped from the game entirely. By 3E, massmorph was gone, and so was part water (lower water turned into control water). While these spells might be very nifty indeed in a wargame (say: hiding a whole unit of troops, wiping out a barrier body of water, etc.), in the basic RPG play there was little or no use for them, especially for top-level spell slots.

Third, the famous adjustment by Gygax that inch scales should be converted to ten-yards for outdoor ranges, but only ten-feet for outdoor areas (maintained throughout both AD&D and the B/X line), totally fails for this spell. The OD&D area was in fact designed in the context of the mass-combat game, where 1" = 10 yards for all purposes. All of the spell areas in Swords & Spells are given in the full OD&D inches, and not shrunk for the yards-scale of that game (not surprising; S&S was written before Gygax's epiphany on how broken the scale system was). If we took the 4" diameter area, and shrunk it as per the ten-feet conversion (1/3), we'd only get a 1⅓" diameter circle, which could not encompass the 100 men specified (you wouldn't even get 4 full figures in that shrunken area).

Likewise, most of the other high-level, large-area, outdoor-specialized spells that at first blush would seem perfect for wargame usage are likewise broken if we use the standard inches-to-feet specification that Gygax screams at us in all-caps in the 1E PHB. Another indication of a legacy game form that had become vestigial and untested, sure. What to do about those, or the whole connected system of spell scales as a result? How can we interpret massmorph affecting 100 men, without, say, fireball (with the exact same area) blowing up 100 men at a time?

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Roots of Horror

H.P. Lovecraft
In the 1E AD&D DMG, Appendix N, Gygax identifies six authors as "the most immediate influences upon AD&D". Here I've ordered them in chronological order as per the "Period" listed for each on Wikipedia:

  • H.P. Lovecraft (1917-1937)
  • A. Merritt (1917-1943)
  • Robert E. Howard (1924-1936)
  • Fritz Leiber (1934-1992)
  • L. Sprague de Camp (1937-1996)
  • Jack Vance (1950-2009)

This past week we observed what would have been H.P. Lovecraft's 130th birthday. Lovecraft is, of course, now considered highly problematic for racial themes; it's common in some circles to consider him something close to taboo or beneath contempt. Simultaneously, however, we've seen this week the premiere of the highly-celebrated Lovecraft Country series on HBO, executive produced by Jordan Peele. Here I'll make a brief, amateur argument that Lovecraft is ultimately the closest thing we have to a root of the pulp tradition from which D&D grew.

Lovecraft is the earliest writer on the Appendix N list of "most immediate influences", with the exception of A. Merritt, with whom he had a contemporaneous start. Moreover, Lovecraft has clear documented, personal connections to almost all the other writers on this Core list (there is one exception, I think). Lovecraft and Merritt were mutually appreciative of each others' work, and met in New York City in 1934, upon which Lovecraft wrote in a letter:

It seems he had long known my work and held a very kindly opinion of it.  Hearing of my presence in NY he took steps to get in touch with me, and finally invited me to dinner at his club... I was extremely glad to meet Merritt in person, for I have admired his work for 15 years... he has a peculiar power of working up an atmosphere and investing a region with an aura of unholy dread.

The Skulls in Stars blog has a great article looking at Merritt's 1932 novel, Dwellers in the Mirage, whose cover featured a giant tentacled monster, the “terrible octopus-god Khalk’ru”, pretty obviously an homage to Lovecraft's Cthulhu, and commenting on similar cosmic phenomena, as well as the correspondence letter above. (Bonus: The "Mirage" in the story's title is a key part of the plot, and given that the Skulls and Stars author is a professor of physics and optics, he's well-positioned to write intelligently and clearly on that aspect.)

Almost all of the other Appendix N Core were in or connected in some way to the "Lovecraft Circle". Robert E. Howard wrote a letter to Weird Tales in 1930 praising Lovecraft's works; when the editor passed the letter on to Lovecraft himself, the two "engaged in a vigorous correspondence that would last for the rest of Howard's life". (Wikipedia).

Likewise, in 1936 Fritz Leiber "initiated a brief yet intense correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft, who 'encouraged and influenced [Leiber's] literary development'", which was only ended by Lovecraft's own death. Many of Leiber's stories in the first two decades of his career were connected to the Cthulhu Mythos, and much later he wrote several essays on Lovecraft in Fafhrd and Me. (Wikipedia)

L. Sprague de Camp is somewhat ambiguously in my list above, because in the Appendix N Core listing he appears as, "de Camp & Pratt", which connects further up on the page specifically to the Harold Shea series. This is now known as the "Compleat Enchanter" series, written by the pair of authors from 1940-1954. (And de Camp returned with some additional stories in the 1990's.) de Camp also famously wrote two full-length biographies of his forerunners: these being of Lovecraft and Howard. (Wikipedia)

Finally, we come to Jack Vance, who we all know to to be an essential contributor to the classic D&D thematic system. One thing I'll say in looking up dates here is that Vance did a masterful job of disguising how relatively recent and young of a writer he was; before I looked these dates up, I might have guessed he could have been the earliest one in the list. But instead, he was the only one still writing into the 2000's, and in fact was still active when I started this blog. (!) He's also the only member of the Core list of whom I couldn't find any direct connection to Lovecraft. (If you know of such, please post a comment.) (Wikipedia)

Obviously all the writers on the Appendix N Core list above are giants in their own right, and I certainly don't mean to say that they were in shadow of H.P. Lovecraft or anything like that. But it seems interesting how regularly generous he seemed to be with his time and correspondence, encouraging and nurturing other writers in the pulp field at critical moments in their careers. (Side note: Lovecraft, Merritt, and Howard even cooperated on a single story together in 1935, The Challenge from Beyond.)

More than once I've observed that for my D&D games, "No matter what my intention is at the outset, they always turn into horror at the end". Perhaps this is a fairly simple fact that the hobby is mechanically an outgrowth of wargames, and from the perspective of any single person involved, war is indeed horrible. Or perhaps it's an undergrowth of Lovecraftian tendrils connecting and nourishing almost all of the most important pulp authors that Gygax had in mind when he wrote D&D and AD&D. Is D&D ultimately a horror game at its deepest root? If one wanted to completely remove the horribleness, would it be viable for long-term survival?

Monday, August 17, 2020

Arneson's Battle In The Skies

I was informed/reminded by folks on the ODD74 forums that a year ago at GaryCon, the Secrets of Blackmoor folks displayed and ran a game with Dave Arneson's original "Battle In The Skies" rules for D&D-style aerial combat (inspired by Mike Carr's "Fight in the Skies" WWI aerial game, which I played with Skip Williams et. al. at GaryCon the prior year). Some documentation on Reddit here.

This caught my attention, because for a few years I've been wrestling with the cut-down version in OD&D Vol-3 and not finding it inherently playable. Apparently Arneson's draft was 18 full-sized pages, but the Vol-3 version only has about 3½ digest-sized pages (including two illustrations). For some time I've wondered, "could this have ever been playtested?", and this seems to give evidence that the version seen in Vol-3 was likely not -- inasmuch as Gygax likely took major shears to it with the interest of fitting it in the book on a deadline. But maybe Arneson's really was? Maybe, that's not a given, either. (In my experience, he also commonly wrote what I call "aspirational rules", really more a thought-experiment than something run in play.)

Even though we only see some hand-notes and the top page of the typewritten rules there, even from that a whole lot of interesting stuff jumps out:

First, from the hand-notes, it seems that Arneson had a specific roster of possible maneuvers in mind (even if the exact details of those maneuvers are unclear), similar to the hyper-detailed Fight In The Skies. In contrast the Vol-3 version has (really murky) turns, climbs, dives, and then "Any other maneuvers are optional at the discretion of the campaign referee". 

Second, from the typewritten page, we have a very nice roster of aerial creatures that serves as something of a "Rosetta Stone" for Arnesonian creatures when we compare it to the OD&D Vol-2 monster list. In particular:

  • The "Point to KIA", is basically the OD&D hit points. If we convert the given range back to d6's (take the first number; or, divide the second number by 6), in most cases we get the OD&D hit dice, or maybe one pip off in some cases. 
  • But note some creatures that don't get full detail in OD&D: The "Small Insects" have 6 hit dice (same as a Griffon here)! And the "Large Insects" have 10 hit dice (same as a Balrog)! That is not remotely something I'd ever guess in all my years -- but it's on-brand for Arneson with his commonly insane size for basic animal stats (see also giant beetles and aquatic creatures in OD&D Sup-II). Also we get stats for the Tarn, mentioned in his First Fantasy Campaign, but missing from OD&D (either 12 or 14 hit dice, bigger than any OD&D book monster)
  • Note that the "to Hit" numbers are actually what we'd now identify as "Ascending Armor Class". (!) It looks like they've got to be target numbers on a d20 (clearly none of them are achievable in 2d6, say). If we take those numbers and subtract from 20, then in most cases we get the standard one-digit AC number seen in OD&D Vol-2 (compare to: Target 20).
  • Movement is both given in "sqs" (squares shown on the handwritten page) and feet per turn, which allows us to decode the scale he intended: 1 square = 50 feet. I feel that's important, because the scale was struck out of the rules in OD&D Vol-3 (also: naval rules), which causes a lot of problems (e.g., I think aerial & naval rules are at different scales), and something I've struggled to back-fill in the past. For some reason Gygax really resisted clearly specifying scale in a lot of places -- same as the Chainmail Man-to-Man rules, which to my thinking was the root of the greatest mischief in all of classic D&D. 
  • Note that the OD&D move rates in inches are all the movements in squares shown here, multiplied by 3. Hence one might want to say that one square/space here represent 3 D&D inches; this is likewise stated on AD&D DMG p. 53. (But is that then 15, 30, 50, or 90 feet?). 
  • The "Radius Turn" is, I'm guessing, mapping to maneuverability classes like we see in OD&D in AD&D texts. We see 6 classes here; OD&D has 7. It seems like maybe the classes here are basically reversed compared to OD&D/AD&D? E.g.: Dragons are in class "I" here, while in Vol-3 they're near the end of the list, with among the worst move rates; the Sprite is class "VI", while in OD&D they're in the first category, with the best turning rates (in AD&D, class "A"). 
  • Note that OD&D has two statistics per maneuver class; "number of turns per move", and "number of spaces between turns". Based on the phrasing of the "Radius Turn" column, might it be that only the latter statistics is specified? That might be something I'd prefer; on the other hand, Arneson is not really known to be minimalist in his rules-writing, so I wouldn't bet on it.
  • The "Special Characteristics" column seems to have mostly attack bonuses for frontal attacks (added "pips"). 

Third, we see some missile weapons at the bottom of the page. Again, their rate-of-fire basically matches that of Chainmail, and the ranges are about one-third the standard D&D ranges (e.g.: in Chainmail, OD&D Sup-I, etc.), including for the magical fireball and lightning bolts.  

Boy, I wish I had a full copy of these rules to playtest!

Monday, August 10, 2020

Pricing Potions

On the OD&D '74 forums, there was a very thoughtful post by user magremore asking/following up on how I'd priced potions in my OED house rules: I add potions of healing at cost 200, and potions of mithridate (neutralize poison) at 1000, to the standard equipment list. Recall that there are no clerics in my campaign, so without these available, PCs in my game have no access to healing or neutralizing poison while on an adventure.

Here's a recreation of my thought process on that; the data I was trying to triangulate included the following:
  • OD&D Vol-1 says "costs", not entirely clear whether that's production or retail cost. Let's say it's production.

  • OD&D Vol-1 lists the potion of healing as 250 gp for a magic-user (and 1 week).

  • OD&D Vol-3, under Specialists, says an alchemist can "make a similar potion at a cost of one-half the potion's value" (p. 22).

  • The AD&D DMG is more explicit, giving a distinction between manufacture costs (equal to XP value; p. 116) and sales value. Manufacture times are generally reduced there; for potions, it's one day per hundred XP value. E.g., a potion of healing is 200 gp to manufacture, takes 2 days, and has a sale value of 400 gp.

  • In AD&D, a magic-user requires alchemist assistance to make potions at levels 7-10; at level 11+ it's not required, but (again) reduces price and time by half (p. 116).

  • Also, I'm trying to game-balance the thing in terms of my campaign.

So my thinking was that (assuming they're generally for sale at all) potions of healing are the most common potion or magic item available. If you're going to make them, you'll make them in batches and as close to mass-produced as you can get. They're pretty widely available as a formula known to alchemists (per the OD&D requirement). So you'll probably have an alchemist working on them to make it efficient.

In OD&D, arguably, that brings manufacture cost down to 125 gp; say double-markup to around 200 gp or so (note in OD&D: no magic-user required!). In AD&D, a high-level magic-user with an alchemist manufactures one for 100 gp; I assume the market price is likewise halved to 200 gp. For game-balance purposes, this puts it just tantalizingly out of reach of any starting PC (with 30-180 gp). If a whole party pools their resources, maybe they can get one. After the first adventure it's an obvious sink/investment for treasure (don't need to save up thousands to get one).

I do think that the OD&D times suggested are too high (e.g., a week for a single 1st-level spell seems generally not a good use of time for an MU), and that the AD&D reductions are well-considered. I have that reduction jotted in the margin of my Vol-1 book. So while I haven't included upkeep costs in the value (nor do they seem reflected in the AD&D market sales prices), that modification would certainly reduce the high opportunity cost a bunch.

For the potion of mithridate (neutralize poison), I was likewise eyeballing the elixir of health in the AD&D Unearthed Arcana, given sale value 2000 gp, and cutting that in half for presumed alchemist help. My players have these fairly useful; they usually carry a few potions each, and a single potion of mithridate for the party.

If you can access it, user magremore helpfully shared a 6-page essay with an alternative pricing theory, one that includes the value of the creator's term, in terms of standard upkeep costs. This comes out to much higher valuations, e.g., on the order of 1,500 or 5,000+ for the two potion types made by full-blown wizards. He also considers allowing them to be made by lower-level magic-users, which puts them on the order of about double my valuations. Thanks to him for the consideration of that!

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Comments Completed

 I had a chance this week to go read the comments backlog I've been remiss on since March. If you asked a question at some point and were waiting on a response, you might want to go back and check at this point.

Also: More Book of War wargame testing live on the Wandering DMs channel tonight, 9 PM EDT.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Weather and Book of War 2E Units

You may have seen on the Saturday night Book of War wargame livestream that Isabelle & I have started playing with monster-types and variant weather rules (which is important for balancing light-sensitive monsters, missile troops, etc.) I've been grappling with balanced, easy-to-use weather rules for eons, trying to get something that works efficiently across (1) the wargame table, (2) D&D wilderness exploration, and (3) the 6th-level control weather spell.

Here's the current, very simple idea: just roll 1d6 each day.
  1. Clear
  2. Scattered
  3. Broken
  4. Overcast
  5. Light Rain
  6. Heavy Rain

On results on 1-2 you have "full daylight or bright light" sufficient to trigger goblin and orc weakness in the daytime. Results 3-4 have no special effect. The 5, Light Rain result has no effect in large-scale operations (wargame or long-distance travel), but applies −2 to missiles in the man-to-man context. The 6, Heavy Rain result gives 1/2 movement for all (doubled for mounted troops), −4 to missiles (converts to −1 in wargame scale), and all mounts and pikes lose special bonuses.

These might seem rather gentle for top-level weather penalties. In particular I've snipped out the "Stormy" category that I had in Book of War 1E. But this closely mirrors the possibilities in the Chainmail system, Dragon #68 (official Greyhawk weather), Battlesystem, etc. The distribution of rainy days is a pretty good match for historical data in Europe and the U.S. in the summer. In wilderness adventure situations, you basically just need to roll an extra 1d6 each day and look for the "6". And the effects seem basically game-balanced, and something for which we don't need to gimp control weather too badly (i.e., okay for it access any level on demand).

As an aside, I did some assessments of the unit matchups in the different weather conditions: the upshot is the a player opting to take goblins/orcs is taking a big gamble. In the 1-2 sunny state, they're pretty close to useless trash. In the 3-5 cloudy state, they're at the top of the heap; especially the archers and wolves. In the 6 rainy state, then it's the close-combat infantry types that have a big advantage; and meanwhile it's any mounted type that gets put in the effective garbage bin (including wolves). We'll see in further tests if that makes for acceptably interesting gameplay.

Here's the current list of all units being tested. Comments welcome!

Book of War 2E Units List - 200726

Monday, July 27, 2020

Falling Re-Revisited

For some people, the dueling physics articles about falling damage in Dragon Magazine #88 (August 1984) were the worst thing ever, but to me they're the best. I did a deep dive into them on a number of points two years back.

Somehow I got sucked into them again, almost unbelievably, as I was preparing for a Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP game that we ran on the Wandering DMs Solo Play show the last few weeks. (The MSH Charging rule was massively changed between Basic & Advanced versions; which is best? Well, the best physical model I could think to base it on was falling, and as a result I sort of house ruled all of time-distance-height-falling scale rules as I'm wont to do.)

Previously I've was always sold on Steve Winters short argument "Kinetic energy is the key", in that kinetic energy is linear with height, and so falling damage would be as well: say 1d6 per 10 feet. Simple and nifty.

But for some reason it finally dawned on me that both articles in Dragon #88 entirely ignore an important issue: air resistance. Maybe they didn't have sufficient computing power to model it at the time?

Now, it's close to common knowledge that energy and velocity are related by the formula E = ½mv² e.g., this is brought up in almost any discussion of the danger of high-speed car collisions. The fact that Parker's main article actually quotes this formula and then explicitly discards it (in an attempted counter to Winter) is so incredibly wrong that in retrospect that I almost feel physical pain at the embarrassment from it.
The problem with using kinetic energy to determine damage is this: kinetic energy is a function of the square of velocity. Everyday physics (the classical mechanics) is very much intuitive. It does not make sense that the square of velocity linearly relates to falling damage; it does make sense that velocity itself directly relates to damage. When a person hits the ground at speed 2x, he should take 2d of damage -- not 4d. Therefore, we should feel free to discard the concept that kinetic energy is linearly related to falling damage.
Ouch. It may "not make sense" to Parker, but it's the fact anyway. On the other hand, by relying solely on potential kinetic energy at the start of a fall, Winter makes something of the reverse error -- ignoring the fact that a lot of the kinetic energy will be scrubbed off by (non-damaging) air resistance. In that regard, we really should look at the velocity at the end of the fall, and convert (by squaring!) to energy actually released at that point. Additionally: It wouldn't make sense for damage/energy to really be increasing regularly with every unit of distance, and then have some abrupt point where that suddenly stops because terminal velocity was reached (as Winter posits).

I'm really astounded that this exclusion of air resistance in both articles never occurred to me before, and I'm scratching my head at how I overlooked it for so long. Let's see what we get if include that, and whether or not we want to observe that in a game system.

Somewhat surprisingly, has a nice online calculator for falling with wind resistance that lets you compute time and velocity for a single fall at a time; the comments show it's mostly used by people in their TTRPG games. The formulas used look like the following (I'm not sure where the derivations come from, but the results closely match the figures quoted from Sellick's Skydiving in Dragon #88.)

Here's a tabulated set of results from those calculations:

If we take the 10' height as the basis for damage assessment, then the "Energy Multiplier" column is effectively the number of dice we should roll for damage from the indicated fall. Some observations: Due to the increasing effect of air resistance, the increase in velocity, and hence damage-per-unit tapers off with greater heights. For example, at 10' we roll 1d6, 20' 2d6, 30' 3d6, etc., as we're used to. But at 80' it's only 7d6; at 200' it's only 16d6. At extreme heights (probably pretty unlikely in most games), the damage-per-unit-height becomes effectively zero.

Here, we gradually approach terminal velocity as a limiting value, which makes a lot more sense than Parker or Winter with an abrupt cutoff at around 200' height. It's kind of interesting to see that even a 10' tall drop gets you to 15% of terminal velocity (last column), while 200' is only about 60%; 500' is about 80%, and not until a 2,000' drop is reached do you get to 99% of terminal velocity. But that smoothness is certainly more what I'd personally expect from the real world.

The damage increment at terminal velocity is 47 times the 10' fall; say about 50d6, which is what I've previously written into my OED house rules. Now, should we actually implement this slow drop-off in damage in-game? Since it's nonlinear, this is a case where the only legitimate way to do that is with a table (or a digital app, ugh), for which I don't think I'd want to spend space or time. So likely I'll just keep with the linear approximation -- it's pretty spot-on for distances up to 100' or so. Whereas the 500' fall should really only give about 30d6 damage, for me that's where I'll top out at the terminal 50d6 (being aware at the difference from reality).

Another observation is that when accounting for air resistance, weight matters. That is: as per the classic experiment by Galileo, if neglecting air resistance, we're used to saying that everything drops at the same acceleration, regardless of weight. But the formulas above actually do include a factor for weight (mass, m), and you get different results at different values. This reflects the observation previously by J.B.S. Haldane that for long falls, "A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes". For what it's worth, in my table above, I presumed a man of 150 pounds (68 kg, or 11 stone).

An additional item for me is that I recently broke down and decided to give a save for half damage on any fall (which both models the real survival rates for normal people a bit better, plus the bimodal rate of  whether someone hits their head or not). The downside is that for me this might trigger as many as 3 saving throws: (1) to avoid the fall, (2) for half-damage, (3) for a death save if hit points are depleted. But I think I'm willing to live with that in light of the other simulationist advantages.

Finally, a discussion like this can always lead into the "What are hit points, really?" discussion, and whether game damage is proportional to energy impact in the first place. But even if hit points aren't raw structural strength, it's unclear whether damage should be increased or decreased in light of that, which is outside our current scope.

In summary: Steve Winter's "Kinetic energy is the key" is certainly a lot more correct than the Parker article -- but it would have been nice to acknowledge the effect of air resistance and know exactly how much of an approximation is being made for a game rule. By looking at velocity at the end of the fall, and computing the energy thereby transferred, in some sense we get a model that's in between the Parker and Winter models. That said, it's close to 95% Winter and 5% Parker in their proposals.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Marvel FASERIP House Rules

The last few weeks on Wandering DMs, we've been playing sessions of the classic Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP system, with me introducing Paul to the system for the first time. In case anyone's interested in the house rules I use for that system, you can see those linked here. Primarily I stick with the original set rules because (I guess as usual?) they seem generally more coherent and a better synthesis than the Advanced and Revised elaborations that came later; in some small number of cases I pull out rules from the Advanced set and do use those, as noted. Comments welcome!

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Big Bad
Geez, 2020, am I right?

Between pandemic, online teaching, medical emergencies, quarantines and curfews... etc. ... we all deserve some hefty XP for staying in the game. "May you live in interesting times", as the saying goes, and we do. I owe lots of people a bunch of posts, replies, and emails.

Here's another thing I've been working on feverishly with Paul at Wandering DMs: The Big Bad. It's a new online show that we'll be releasing in the fall, and we're so excited about it that it's almost painful. We chatted about it publicly for the first time on Lord Gosumba's 100th Episode of Greyhawk Gabbin' on Twitch last night, you should check it out of you're intrigued (about an hour into this marathon episode; the whole thing's great -- note luminary Len Lakofka/Leomund on with us).

Right now we have a dedicated page where we'll roll out more information and clips as we record sessions through the summer.We hope you'll follow us on YouTube and The Big Bad website for more information, coming soon!

Also, wear a mask because we want you at full health.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Athena Toolset 1.0.2

Update on the program package from two weeks ago for OED rules assessment of character levels, demographics, treasure and XP, monster strength, NPC generators, etc., etc.: In place of the list of separate tool downloads, I've replaced it with a master program and a single ZIP file to make downloading and getting started easier.

If you get the ZIP at the linked page below, extract it, and on the command line type java -jar Athena.jar. Append the name of the tool you want to run (Arena, Marshal, MonsterMetrics, or NPCGenerator), as well as any desired arguments (run with -? to see the available options). That probably looks a lot nicer as a single package download. Also I added a link to the JavaDoc pages for the whole package. Good luck!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Vancian Magic is Mathematics

Saw someone on Twitter this week claiming that seeing Vancian magic as mathematics was a mistaken reader interpretation (and claimed that something very different was the case). I knew it was, rather, explicitly described as math, but it took me a few minutes to find the quote. In case I need that again in the future, here it is (page 12 of my copy of Dying Earth):
In this fashion did Turjan enter his apprenticeship to Pandelume. Day and far into the opalescent Embelyon night he worked under Pandelume's unseen tutelage. He learned the secret of renewed youth, many spells of the ancients, and a strange abstract lore that Pandelume termed "Mathematics."

"Within this instrument," said Pandelume, "resides the Universe. Passive in itself and not of sorcery, it elucidates every problem, each phase of existence, all the secrets of time and space. Your spells and runes are built upon its power and codified according to a great underlying mosaic of magic. The design of this mosaic we cannot surmise; our knowledge is didactic, empirical, arbitrary. Phandaal glimpsed the pattern and so was able to formulate many of the spells which bear his name. I have endeavored through the ages to break the clouded glass, but so far my research has failed. He who discovers the pattern will know all of sorcery and be a man powerful beyond comprehension."

So Turjan applied himself to the study and learned many of the simpler routines.

"I find herein a wonderful beauty," he told Pandelume. "This is no science, this is art, where equations fall away to elements like resolving chords, and where always prevails a symmetry either explicit or multiplex, but always of a crystalline serenity."

Monday, April 13, 2020

New OED Software Tools

One of my trademark gestures with OED games is to rely on a number of software and statistical tools to make sure that the systems we use are as robust, dependable, and playable at the table (or virtual table) as possible. For some time I've released the source code to those tools on Github. More than once I've received a comment that someone would like to use them, but as a non-coder they're not set up to do development & compilation from source files.

Here's a step in that direction; I've made pre-compiled Java executable JAR files and released them on a new add-ons page at So you can just grab one of those programs and the data files and run them immediately.

Caveat: For efficiency purposes they're still command-line tools with no graphical interface. So you'll still need to be comfortable with opening a command line and typing something like java -jar Arena-1.0.1.jar on your system, plus any command-line arguments to control the process; run with the -? to see the options available with each tool.

In particular, the new thing I've added in the lat week is the capacity for the NPCGenerator tool to output a batch of fully-formed PDF character sheets in the OED style. Run this like java -jar NPCGenerator.1.0.1.jar -p to get PDF output files (among other option switches). Beyond that, the Marshal program to batch-create large groups of man-types, with leaders fully developed over their entire simulated adventuring career, is also likey useful to DMs of any classic-D&D style games.

If anyone wants to take that code and create GUI wrappers around them for less-technical users, please go ahead, as the code is all released under the GPL on our Github page (ChgoWiz, I'm looking at you, among others). Hope that helps some folks!

Monday, April 6, 2020

Book of War 2nd Edition Draft Rules

Saturday night Isabelle & I streamed our first episode of wargaming from our house with the Book of War 2nd Edition rules, via the Wandering DMs channel. It was really a blast! I was so jazzed afterward that I almost watched the whole thing over again twice. :-) It's pretty neat to get to share what our normal back-and-forth chemistry is with other people.

Peter Conrad had the bright idea on YouTube to post the brief Player Aid Card that we were using in this episode, so here it is below. This is pretty tentative (I guess it always feels that way), and I was still tweaking and balancing prices in the afternoon running up to our playtest. Part of the goal for the 2nd Edition is to massage some rules in ways that make the basic game play a bit truer to historical reality, as we understand it. What I've been finding is that this accidentally makes some rules actually simpler. Of course, the core of the system meshes directly with classic D&D as it always did, and you can pretty much immediately convert stock D&D monsters into a Book of War game as we always have (pricing, of course, being the hard part... more CPU cycles to come on that).

Monday, March 23, 2020

Gygax on Leveling Up Monsters

The always-informative Zenopus Archives pointed out a post Gygax made in a thread on the Pied Piper forums back in in 2004. In particular, this involves the infamous Old Guard Kobolds on the 1st level of his Castle Greyhawk dungeon that had a habit of surprising and wiping out whole parties of PCs. Here he outlines the fact that every TPK they scored, he boosted their stats in some way. I kind of like this as a very low-crunch way of representing monster "experience" and resource-scavenging. He says this:


Fact is that I have run OD&D games avery year at several cons for the last five or so years. I start them at 2nd level and use the old dungeon levels. So far about eight parties have been taken out by some kobolds on the 1st level. New RPGers seem to have not learned to run away when in doubt.

The first to fall used a sleep spell to get eight of the kobolds, but the six remaining ones used javelins to kill two PCs, then closed and in hand-to-hand killed all but two or the remainder of the party. One was about th kill another PC, while a second charged the m-u of the group, who turned to flee, finally. Too late, a javelin got him. Each group that died thus added to the kobolds:

1st TPK brought 12 more kobolds
2nd TPK gave them armor class of 6
3rd (near) TPK gave them all +1 HP
4th TPK added +1 damage
5th TPK added 4 2nd level and 2 3rd level kobolds
6th TPK gave them tactical manouvering and a 4th level leader
7th TPK upped AC to 5
8th TPK gave them unshakable morale

At JanCon this year the Old Guard Kobolds joined battle with a group of 8 PCs and wiped them out. I haven't decided how that will add to their combat ability, but I am considreing a kobold shaman with at least two 1st level spells


Monday, March 16, 2020

Book of War Skirmish Rules: Odd Encounters

I've had a few inquiries lately about whether there is a skirmish-level (1:1 scale) version of my OED Book of War simple miniature-wargame rules. The fortunate answer is: yes!

My game-design partner Paul Siegel wrote and tested this adjunct to Book of War, now in its 10th year of existence, called Odd Encounters. It gives a very nice stripped-down form of combat for individual figures and mid-level heroes (as you like it), d20-based attack rolls (so it's likely directly convertible with all your standard D&D play), and nicely balanced points costs and features for one-off games. I'm so appreciative that Paul wrote this and made it available for us -- and entirely released under the Open Game License. Get it for free at the link below and tell us what you think!

Monday, March 9, 2020

Sarge's Advice: Target 20 Saves

Another question from an observant reader, this time regarding the Target 20 core rule for saving throws.

Quick query on Target 20 for saves -- for OD&D and B/X, as you know, different classes have different saves. Target 20, if I am reading it correctly, basically flattens everyone to the same chance, with the mods varying only by save type and NOT class. Is that correct? 

It's true that with Target 20, the way I run games, there's no distinction between classes for the saving throws. (Occasionally old-school players first realize that when they see there are no save records on the character sheets.)

One thing I've observed in the past is that the seeming class-distinction between saves in OD&D is at least partly illusory; the classes have different rates of increase (every 3 levels for fighters, 4 for clerics, 5 for magic-users), but on average the saves are about the same regardless. Like, just picking a level off the top of my head: at 8th level the save vs. spells are all an identical score of 12. (Which happens to be 20 - 8.) I made a post about that a while back:

In the charts there you can see that the average/regression lines for saves vs. Spells & Stone are almost indistinguishable between the different classes. In Death & Wand saves fighters do have about a 2-point advantage on average (with Breath sort of in the middle). So in early versions of OED I was giving wizards/thieves a -2 modifier on those latter saves as the best recreation -- but that always felt mean/stingy in play, so I wound up dropping it for simplicity.

At an extremely high level (16+), magic-users in OD&D do advance their save vs. spells to a point beyond the other classes -- but play at that level seems very rare, so to date it doesn't seem like a good distinction to make a separate rule for.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Sarge's Advice: OED Player's Rules

Recently on the Wandering DMs Paul pointed out that the rules I write are very concise, with a lot of information packed into the smallest amount of text I can get away with. That may partly be a bit of a math-infection I have. It certainly differs from the direction that late/post-TSR Gygax went in, trying to hammer out every possible detail in the rules to prevent people from playing in a way he didn't approve.

So anyway, from time to time I get really good questions by email about the OED rules. As long as I'm writing responses that way, if my wisdom score was reasonably high, I would also post them here for general consumption. A good opportunity for expansion and examples that I wouldn't want to take space on in the written rulebooks. Here are a few questions regarding the OED Variant Rules for Original D&D.

So I recently picked up OED and I have just a few question about the wizards and thieves attack bonus: Wizards list a +1/2 attack bonus/level is it rounded up or rounded down? For thieves I can't quite figure the numbers so could you clarify on those please?

With the wizard base attack bonus, like most anything else, I round down. Say it's +0 at 0th-1st level, +1 at 2nd-3rd, +2 at 4th-5th, etc. Similar principle for the thieves base attack bonus of +2/3 per level (round down). So that generates +0 at 0th-1st level, +1 at 2nd, +2 at 3rd-4th, +3 at 5th, +4 at 6th-7th, etc. (I usually take a calculator, type in level ×2/3, and round down.)

And about multiclassing it says you roll hit dice for both classes. Does it happens when the character gains a new level in any of the two classes? And for the elves I guess you roll both at level 1 but only once is it correct ?

For multiclassing the novel thing we do is track the hit point for each class in separate "tracks" and then actively use just whichever is highest as the actual hit points.

Example 1: I make a new elf PC at Ftr1/Wiz1. Respectively I roll 1d8 for 5, and 1d4 for 2 hp. So I'm operating with 5 hp maximum on the first adventure.

Example 2: I have a Ftr3/Thf4. For the fighter at this point I've rolled 3d8 for a total of 15; for the thief part I've rolled 4d6 and gotten 16. So on the next adventure this character is operating with effectively maximum hit points of 16.

The sum rolls for each class track are recorded separately on the character sheet (along with the separate XP totals). Any time either level goes up, you roll added hit points for that class; only if that "track" is or becomes the maximum, does the PC then operate at higher effective health.

About general tasks resolution do you still use the Target 20 system or do you just handwave it whenever it happens? I ask this question because I'm still the "not confident enough" kind of GM and I prefer having a good outline of rules before I try to make my own.

I love this question about "general tasks". Personally I tend to only use d20 rolls for explicitly-defined things in the rules; generally combat where the results are life-or-death. If a "brand new" thing comes up (say: baking skill, something like that) then I revert back to a d6 roll -- like OD&D uses for listening, opening doors, finding secret passages, traps opening, etc. I feel like on an improvisational basis I can estimate a reasonable chance for success out of 6 (but not 20) -- as a default I give a 2-in-6 chance to succeed, like: roll d6, add some ability bonus, and a total roll of 5+ is success.

Monday, February 24, 2020

In Which Gygax Gets Disenchanted with Wandering Monsters

Here's the standard rule for wandering monsters in OD&D Vol-3 (1974), p. 10; underlined emphasis by me:

Wandering Monsters: At the end of every turn the referee will roll a six-sided die to see if a "wandering monster" has been encountered. A roll of 6 indicates a wandering monster has appeared. The direction of appearance is determined by random number generation considering the number of possible entries. Distance and surprise are decided in the usual manner. The kind of monster is determined on the table below... 

Recall that in these rules, one exploratory turn is meant to be 10 minutes. So that's quite a few wandering monsters; we expect one every hour of in-game time at that rate. Now let's fast forward to the AD&D DMG (1979), p. 9, in the first section of "Introduction":

The final word, then, is the game. Read how and why the system is as if is, follow the parameters, and then cut portions as needed to maintain excitement. For example, the rules call for wandering monsters, but these can be not only irritating - if not deadly - but the appearance of such con actually spoil a game by interfering with an orderly expedition You have set up an area full of clever tricks and traps, populated it with well-thought-out creature complexes, given clues about it to pique players’ interest, and the group has worked hard to supply themselves with everything by way of information and equipment they will need to face and overcome the imagined perils. They are gathered together and eager to spend an enjoyable evening playing their favorite game, with the expectation of going to a new, strange area and doing their best to triumph. They are willing to accept the hazards of the dice, be it loss of items, wounding, insanity, disease, death, as long as the process is exciting. But lo!, everytime you throw the "monster die" a wandering nasty is indicated, and the party’s strength is spent trying to fight their way into the area. Spells expended, battered and wounded, the characters trek back to their base. Expectations have been dashed, and probably interest too, by random chance. Rather than spoil such an otherwise enjoyable time, omit the wandering monsters indicated by the die. No, don’t allow the party to kill them easily or escape unnaturally, for that goes contrary to the major precepts of the game. Wandering monsters, however, are included for two reasons, as is explained in the section about them. If a party deserves to have these beasties inflicted upon them, that is another matter, but in the example above it is assumed that they are doing everything possible to travel quickly and quietly to their planned destination. If your work as a DM has been sufficient, the players will have all they can handle upon arrival, so let them get there, give them a chance. The game is the thing, and certain rules can be distorted or disregarded altogether in favor of play.

In summary: an extended a harangue about what a bad idea randomly-generated wandering monsters are. Note the passage references the fact that, "Wandering monsters, however, are included for two reasons, as is explained in the section about them" -- but as far as I can tell, there isn't any section in the book which gives a standard process for checking for wandering monsters (nor any explanation of "two reasons" for them).

This is one of many cases in the transition from OD&D to AD&D in which it's easy to recreate Gary's brain saying, "I'm pretty sure I wrote a rule for that somewhere, right?", with the answer being, "Yes, back in OD&D". Recall the "presumed axiom" understood by Gygax & co., as shared by Frank Mentzer last year:

Presumed Axiom: 1e rules set should expand upon, and not directly contradict, 0e rules.

Anyway, what can we deduce about the rule for AD&D dungeon wandering monsters? Despite the preceding, and without any explicit written rule section in the DMG, looking at a parenthetical aside in the example of play it seems that a change has indeed been made, on p. 98:

(Here, as about 3 turns have elapsed, the DM rolls a d6 to see if a 'wandering monster' appears; the resulting 5 indicates none.)

That is; the checks for wandering monsters have been reduced by a factor of 3. Over the course of a 4-hour adventuring session (say), instead of expecting 4 wandering monsters encounters , now we would only expect around 1. It's a little odd that Gygax didn't call out this change clearly as a rule; perhaps he felt somehow constrained by the "presumed axiom" that it prevented him from doing so.

Interestingly, the earlier Holmes Basic D&D rules (1977) feature the same rule, on p. 10:

At the end of each three turns the Dungeon Master can roll a die to see if a wandering monster has come down the corridor. A roll of 6 means that something has come "strolling" along.

Zenopus Archives informs us that this rule is unchanged between Holmes' initial draft manuscript, and Gygax's later editorial pass. So who initiated this revision? Did Gygax somehow inform Holmes about it, or did Holmes invent it and prompted Gygax to follow suit, or something else?

(Side note: Commentator Chris reminds me that the DMG Random Dungeon Generation has a 1-in-20 chance of a wandering monster per periodic check on Appendix A: Table I. If one roll is made per turn, then that's again roughly equivalent to the 1-in-6 chance every 20/6 ≈ 3 turns.)

Personal opinion: This aspect of Gygax's curating of the rules, as seen in the long DMG p. 9 warning -- "here is the rule, but the rule is bad, so it should be disregarded" -- is probably my least favorite of all gestures that he makes. If we find from experience that a rule is not working satisfactorily, then fix it until it does. Spending time and space making excuses for it, or saying that good DMs can be expected to compensate for it, is not productive. The "presumed axiom" perhaps inculcated too much conservatism in what could have been an opportunity for smart edits in other places from more play experience.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Khopesh Curve

Here's something of a follow-up to last weekend's discussion of different approaches to XP Awards on Wandering DMs. I've previously looked at the radical switch in monster XP awards that occurred between OD&D Vol-1 (1974) and the Sup-I Greyhawk supplement (1975; which then became the basis for all XP awards in Holmes Basic, B/X, Mentzer, AD&D 1E and 2E, etc.). But I've been looking for a clearer visualization of that curve.

Here's the raw data just for Sup-I base XP awards (not including special abilities, although that just shadows this data pretty closely). You can see that the HD 1 to 8 range is where XP awards have been depressed, following roughly a quadratic curve; and then the higher HD 9 to 20 range, where the XP pretty much follows the same linear 100-per-HD award seen in the earlier Vol-1:

Now, here's a cleaned-up version showing just the regressed curves in the two pieces (using Wolfram Alpha):

For future identification purposes, I hereby name this shape the "Khopesh Curve":

Side note: The Wandering DMs are at TotalCon in Marlborough MA all this weekend -- check out our live streaming updates and if you're there, please say hi to us in person!

Monday, February 17, 2020

Subterrane Surveys: Caves of Chaos

This week we're looking at possibly the most-played of all D&D modules, Gary Gygax's Dungeon Module B2: The Keep on The Borderland (1980). Of course, we're not so interested in the Keep as the nearby, humanoid-infested adventure area, the Caves of Chaos. Bear in mind that this was the third adventure-supplement to be included in versions of the Holmes Basic D&D set (previously including the Dungeon Geomorphs, and later Mike Carr's Module B1: In Search of the Unknown). A smart move by Gygax, granted that the Basic D&D set had surprisingly become TSR's top seller (S. Applecline cites an estimate of some 1.5 million copies of module B2 being produced). That said, there is evidence that B2 was originally drafted using OD&D rules for hit dice.

Design: The adventure site here has a markedly different design from Gygax's early Castle Greyhawk or Dungeon Geomorphs mapping style. The map has a lot of negative space (it's not fully-packed with navigable space as are his earlier top-level maps). It has 11 different identified "cave" complexes, each with their own entry point from the central outside ravine. The cave complexes average about 6 keyed areas each (range between 1 and 14). Most are inhabited by a single humanoid type; and most have a secret entrance connecting to one other cave complex.

The stocking in most cases follows a regular pattern; given 6 standard areas, there are usually something like 2 guard rooms, 1 common room, 1 chief's room, and 2 "other" (like a storeroom, banquet area, slave pen, etc.). Usually the chief in each case guards the large treasure cache.

At this point, Gygax seems to have finally abandoned the early ideology that the majority of rooms in a dungeon should be empty of any contents. In fact, none of the 64 keyed entries are entirely empty of contents. Related, he no longer uses duplicated area codes for multiple areas (every space is unique). The vast majority of rooms have monsters in them: 57/64 (89% occupancy rate), very different from his earlier guidelines and dungeons that have only 20% or 33% occupied. (And consider how many more eyes saw this product as exemplary, versus those earlier rules.)

Characters: Under "Notes for the Dungeon Master" on p. 2, Gygax says: "This module has been designed to allow six to nine player characters of first level to play out many adventures, generally working up to second or third level of experience in the process." I think this may mark the first time that, in addition to explicitly stating a standard party size, an adventure also gives an expected progression rate upon completing the module. While 6-9 player characters may seem large by modern standards, consider that it still roughly matches normal convention-game sizes. I'll assume that a group is adventuring with around 8 total PC levels (same as expected for Carr's Module B1).

Monsters: As stated above, most rooms have monsters in them, with 57 total creature encounters in the place. In contrast to earlier adventures (Gygax's Castle Greyhawk, or Mike Carr's B1), the monster numbers here are all fixed specific quantities, not given as ranges. In the table above I've organized statistics for each separate cave complex. Most of the caves have a median encounter strength of 4, 5, or 6 EHD (Equivalent Hit Dice). There are three complexes that have about double that median encounter strength, i.e., 9, 11, or 12 EHD (caves H, J, and K). The module does not identify distinct "levels" to the Caves of Chaos, but we might hypothesize that caves H, J, and K are "2nd level", with the rest all being "1st level". If so, then a group of 8 PCs should generally be able to handle the average threats therein.

But one thing to note is that in many cases the "common area" of a cave complex has a very large number of monsters, presenting an outlier area of possibly extreme danger. For example, the kobold complex (cave A) has a median encounter of EHD 5, but the common chamber (room 6) has 40 adult kobolds all of whom will fight, for a total EHD of 26 by my estimation. Likewise the common rooms for the hobgoblins, bugbears, and gnolls have total EHD of 2 or 3 times the nearby guard rooms; and the evil shrine area has a median EHD of 12 but one area with a veritable army of undead, for a total of EHD 60. Keep in mind that all of these creatures have every reason to spill forth and attack if an alarm is generally raised; and the humanoid common areas would likely have to be entirely filled with bedding from wall to wall to house the indicated numbers. Possibly if PCs fight smart and bottle up the numbers with an organized front line in the narrow passages, then these encounters would be more manageable than the raw numbers indicate.

What about wandering monsters? The text of the module never explicitly says. On the one hand, there is a tear-out rules summary sheet in the center that duplicates the wandering monster lists for levels 1, 2, and 3 (originally as per the Holmes published text, the tables therein created by Gygax; in a later edition the Moldvay B/X tables were inserted instead). We might use the 1st/2nd level classification I suggested above. If so, Gygax's tables in Holmes have an average EHD of 4 at 1st level, and 8 at 2nd level; so they would be only slightly less strong than the set encounter areas. But on the other hand, two of the caves are noted with specific roving guard groups who attack intruders who make a commotion (goblins in cave D, zombies in cave K), so the expectation for wandering monsters is not entirely clear.

Compared to the previous module B1, module B2 is much more densely packed with monsters. B1 had an average EHD of 4 throughout (both levels), and an occupancy rate of only about 32%. In contrast, B2 has median encounters of between 5 and 12 (depending on cave complex), some very highly-populated monster lairs, and an occupancy rate of 89%. In total, B1 will have about 72 EHD of monsters, while B2 has 464 EHD, over 6 times the monster threat. As I've stated before, you can adventure in B1 quite successfully with around 4 total PC levels, but you shouldn't dare try that same thing in B2.

Treasures: Almost all of the areas with monsters also have some kind of treasure; specifically, 49/57 (86% ratio). Gygax is clearly customizing treasures, i.e., not using the book rules, because coin values come in odd values to the units-place, like 76, 139, and 157 (not round 10's, 100's, or 1000's in the various book tables). Moreover, almost every single humanoid is given a small amount of personal treasure, like 1d6 or 2d6 copper, silver, or gold coins. Frankly, this was one of the more frustrating things about analyzing this module, as it took quite a bit of calculator-work on my part to compute expected coinage from all these die-rolls in these scores of areas. In some sense you can understand the gesture of "Gygaxian naturalism" to have many scattered odd-amounts of personal coins, but in many cases the total value is negligible (like 2, 5, or 10gp total in an area), and I think it may detract from the game to have to roll, sum, and document these many weird small numbers.

Note that in OD&D Vol-2, men (and only men) are given this kind of small individual treasure, per the footnote to Treasure Type A (p. 23). In later rules Gygax expanded this to many different types of monsters; the first debut of the idea was when he struck out the old Treasure Types table in the Holmes Basic D&D draft and replaced it with an extended table with various small individual types -- even though none of the monsters in that work used them (see here). This same table was expanded a bit more, and more comprehensively used, in the AD&D Monster Manual. B2 represents the first adventure where this is generally utilized throughout.

In almost every case the chief of a cave complex has a large, significant treasure hidden someplace in their room. I suppose we might argue about whether the small-personal coinage everywhere else should even be counted as a true treasure, but I have done so in the ratio above. Total treasure in the place adds up to 28,657 gp, about 8 times the amount in Greyhawk level 1 or both levels of B1 combined. While that's a much larger total haul of treasure, it's about 60 gp per monster EHD, still very close to the ratio we saw in both of those earlier works (but less than the Gygax-edited Dungeon of Zenopus with a ratio of 100, to say nothing of Holmes' hyper-inflated draft valuation of 500 gp per EHD).

Magic: In addition to every chief having a large treasure, they almost always one or two magic items, as well. (The evil shrine has an even larger proportion of magic.) There are 13 treasures with one or more magic items out of 49 total treasures (27% rate). This is very similar to the ratio in Mike Carr's B1, but less than the earlier Holmes or Greyhawk dungeons (which had rates around 50%).

Experience: As usual I'll ignore wandering monsters (of which there is some ambiguity, above) for this purpose. If we use the Greyhawk-style revised XP awards that appears in Holmes Basic D&D, then total XP from all monsters adds up to about 5,500, and treasures add up to 29,000 or so, for a grand total of about 34,500. The monster: treasure ratio is about 1:5 (16% to 84%). The total is indeed a bit more than enough to promote 8 fighters from 1st to 3rd level, as asserted in the introductory material to the module (see "Characters" above).

Compare to using the Original D&D Vol-1 XP awards where we give a higher, flat 100 XP per EHD. Then, given the incredibly large number of monsters herein, we get 46,400 XP from monsters, added to the 29,000 for treasure, for a total of 75,400 XP. This would be a monster: treasure ratio of about 3:2 (62% to 38%), and the total would actually be enough to promote 8 1st level fighters to 4th level, exceeding the expectation on the 2nd page.The overall lesson is that compared to earlier dungeons, the Caves of Chaos are much more densely packed with content; almost every room is veritably bursting with monsters and oodles of treasure.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Subterrane Surveys: Caverns of Quasqueton

Today we'll be looking at the overall design, encounters, and treasure in Mike Carr's D&D Module B1: In Search of the Unknown (1979). At one point this was packaged with the Holmes D&D Basic boxed set, so many people have adventured through its dungeon, the Caverns of Quasqueton, and it is much beloved. This beginning module has a special format, in that it comes with about 5 pages of general "how to run an adventure information" (something like Mike Carr's personal addendum to the D&D rules system), and 7 pages as the back of premade PC/hireling lists. While giving extravagantly-detailed room dressing throughout (in fact: I would argue too much), the monsters and primary treasure are given in a roster at the back, with space left in the text for the DM to place those objects as they see fit (and so, automatically customizing the dungeon for each DM and play group). Possibly this is an echo of the structure of the D&D Monster & Treasure Assortments, with its separate 1-100 lists of monsters and treasures for each level, which this module replaced as the insert to the D&D Basic boxed set? This methodology is shared only with the first introductory module for the Top Secret espionage game, Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle by Merle Rasmussen.

Design: Quasqueton has two levels, a basic-dungeon-like upper level and a caverns-like lower level. These designs are mostly very similar to those seen in Gygax's Castle Greyhawk, or the Dungeon Geomorphs product (Basic Dungeon, Caves & Caverns). As is customary, the upper level is mostly fully-packed (use every space), while the caverns level has a good deal of unused negative space. There are many by-the-book navigational tricks and traps, such as: pits that hurl a party to the lower level, mazey sections, death-by-a-thousand-doors sections, invisibly sloping passages to confuse what level you're on, dropping gates, etc.

As noted above, the rooms are copiously detailed with dressing for a mostly-intact former fortress (some room descriptions go on for many paragraphs or even multiple pages), without noting any monsters at all -- those are for the DM to fill in from lists at the back, much like the prior Monster & Treasure Assortments (more on that at a later date; perhaps I should have written a post on that first).

There are 56 keyed areas; unusually, the numbering runs sequentially across both levels (it doesn't restart from 1 on the lower level), and the monster & treasure list is likewise not distinguished by level. Note in the 1979 monochrome version room codes were in Roman numerals, while in the 1981 color-cover version room numbers were switched to Arabic numerals, greatly simplifying reading and writing an index for the site. The stocking pages at the back suggest using 16-20 out of a list of 25 monsters; and 15-25 out of a list of 34 treasures. If we use the median suggestion of 18 monsters in 56 areas, that is a 32% occupancy rate, in line with the OD&D rulebook, Gygax's Castle Greyhawk, the M&TA supplement, etc. However, unlike those prior works, given Carr's elaborate room dressing in almost every area, now almost none of the rooms on the upper level are truly "empty"; only about a half-dozen of the caverns on the lower level are left without any description at all.

This latter quality (practically no empty rooms), and moreover the very extensive room descriptions, marks a really radical break with Gygax's earliest one-line-per-room dungeons. Note that this, with Lawrence Schick's AD&D Module S2: White Plume Mountain, constitute the first two modules published by TSR by people other than Gygax himself (both in 1979), so it's not surprising that the design aesthetics start to evolve more rapidly at this time.

Characters: The module publications at this point in history do finally include explicit party strength recommendations (albeit not on the cover yet). In "The Dungeon" section on p. 7, this module says, "This area for exploration is designed to challenge a party of 3-8 adventurers (player characters and henchmen or hirelings) of up to the third level of experience". We might assume the implies around 8 total character levels; e.g., maybe 8 1st level characters or 3 3rd level characters on opposite ends of the continuum. Note that the Sutherland illustration on the Players' Background Sheet handout shows a mixed group of 8 adventurers departing a castle for the wilderness. In the lists of characters at the back of the module, rules are given for determining NPC levels; for every class of character, this resolves to rolling a d6 with equal chances for 1st, 2nd, or 3rd levels.

Monsters: Granted the unusual format of module B1, it doesn't help to look at a room-by-room listing, but instead consider the entire monster roster at the back:

Note that monster numbers are given in a range (e.g., 1-4 orcs), much like Gygax's Castle Greyhawk key, the Wandering Monster lists in Holmes Basic D&D, the Monster & Treasure Assortment, etc. The average (mean and median) encounter strength is 4 EHD, exactly like the Holmes sample dungeon (Dungeon of Zenopus); less than Gygax's Castle Greyhawk (with average EHD 6). If we use the suggested 18 or so monsters from this list, then total EHD for the complex would be around 72 EHD.

Separately, this seems to be the first introductory-level module with its own customized wandering-monster tables (that is: not assuming that the rulebook's stock wandering tables represent the ecology of this specific dungeon). Unlike the general monster roster, these are distinguished by level:

We see the wandering monsters on the upper level are indeed a bit weaker (average EHD 3) than those on the lower level (mean EHD 4, median 5). Note these are somewhat weaker than the wandering encounters specified (by Gygax) in the Holmes Basic D&D rulebook. Possibly the new DM should take a clue from this and put stronger, and related, monster lairs on the lower level.

Compared to the standard party strength (seen above), this module makes for a fairly safe training ground for new players. The expected 8 PC levels is twice that of the average EHD 4 monster encounter. And they outweigh the average 1st-level wandering monster by about 3-to-1. That seems in line with the OD&D book suggestion, but different from Gygax's Basic D&D rule (where wandering encounters should be equal to, or more than, the PC strength). Indeed, I've had players be very successful in module B1 and then get annihilated in their first encounter in Gygax's module B2. (Watch out for that next step!)

Treasures: See below for the roster of treasures to be placed by the DM.

The treasures listed here have a median value of 24 gp, mean 85 gp. As usual, the distribution is right-skewed, with a small number of more valuable treasures. (This includes magic item treasures valued here at 0.) If we place the suggested 20 or so treasures, then we would expect a total value of 20 × 85 = 1,700 gp. These treasures tend to be in the 10's or 100's of gp, so clearly not from the rulebook's monster Treasure Types table (which has units in the 1000's). Moreover, the treasures are now detailed down to the units -- not just 20 or 50 coins, but here we see 15, 28, 35, etc.

But wait, there's more, because Mike Carr's detailed room descriptions already include a fair number of valuable objects that the PCs can loot as treasure. When I add these up, coincidentally, they sum to almost exactly the same 1,700 gp. (Leaving out certain objects like a 5,000 gp statue which is described as effectively immovable, a pair of gems which may randomly appear but most likely don't; see rooms 4, 32, and 45.) So the total retrievable treasure is around 3,400 gp value. This gives a ratio of about 50 gp per monster EHD in the place (the exact same figure as in Gygax's Castle Greyhawk; we saw twice as much in Gygax's edited version of the Dungeon of Zenopus, but that was coming down from Holmes' hyper-inflated draft treasures).

Note also that the text suggests placing more treasures than monster encounters. So likely all or almost all of the monsters have a treasure, and others are hidden in the complex as well.

Magic: Carr's treasure list has 8 useful magic items; there are two weapons, two armors, two scrolls, one potion, and one ring. (There are also several trick useless items: a false map, wand, and a cursed bag.) That constitutes about one-quarter (24%) of the whole treasure list; a bit lower than what we see in Gygax or Holmes' earliest works, but nowhere near as low as that suggested in OD&D Vol-3 (5%).

Experience: Let's assume we use the revised Greyhawk XP charts, as officially included in the Basic D&D rules. Ignoring XP from wandering monsters for simplicity, the total XP available is expected to be around 18 × 48 = 864, with treasure XP about 3,400 (as seen above). The grand total available is then 4,264. The monster: treasure ratio would be about 1:4 (20% to 80%). Note this total is only enough to advance 2 fighters to 2nd level, not close to enough for all of an 8-person starting party (similar to what we saw for the Gygax and Holmes dungeons).

On the other hand, if we use original D&D XP awards at 1 EHD = 100 XP, then the expected 72 monster EHD would generate 7,200 XP; combined with the 3,400 treasure, the grand total would be 10,600. This still wouldn't advance an entire 8-person party, but would be enough to advance 5 starting fighters. In this case the monster: treasure ratio would be about 2:1 (68% to 32%). Given that this is a two-level dungeon, it highlights that Carr was taking things easy on the starting adventurers; there's a relatively small number of monsters, and small-value treasures, within the Caverns of Quasqueton.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Subterrane Surveys: Dungeon of Zenopus (per Gygax)

Today we're again looking at the sample dungeon in the first Basic D&D set (1979), the "Dungeon of Zenopus". Last time we looked at Eric Holmes' original unpublished draft. But after Holmes submitted that work, Gary Gygax took an editorial pass at it, changing many items on a line-by-line basis. Among his larger changes included the entire wandering monster system, the treasure tables and XP, and the monsters and treasures in the sample dungeon itself. Zenopus Archives informed us of all the details. Let's give it a comprehensive analysis.

Design: The dungeon gets a new professional-grade map, although the overall structure is largely the same. Whether the changes here also came from Gygax's direction, or were just artistic flourishes, is not entirely clear -- but the changes do seem in line with Gygaxian written philosophy at the time.

In particular, Gygax was consistent to this point that dungeons should have lots of empty rooms. The map moves in that general direction with the addition of another 3 empty rooms. This gives a total of 8 in 23 rooms that are totally-empty (35%, or 65% with some kind of content). While that's a bit lower content rate, it's still nowhere near the guidelines in Gygax's OD&D Vol-3, the Monster & Treasure Assortment, or Castle Greyhawk (respectively suggesting as low as 33%, 20%, or 25%).

Characters: We've mentioned that at this point in time neither the rulebooks nor adventure have hard specification for the standard adventuring party size. One place Gygax makes very large changes is in the wandering monster section. There, he cuts out the language that Holmes took from OD&D Vol-3 (that monsters should scale to party size at about one-third the numbers). Here he writes:
The number of wandering monsters appearing should be roughly equal to the strength of the party encountering them. 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.
The only example he gives there is for a party size of 3. And while he addresses possibly different character levels, he says nothing about differing character numbers. So perhaps we should take parties of size 3 as the new norm? (Which seems very different from the playgroups of 12 or 20 simultaneous players we've seen in various other sources.)

You may recall from last time that Holmes has a passage in the introduction to his sample dungeon suggesting that if a player adventures solo, then they should take one or more hirelings with them (so maybe just 2 characters). This passage is left unaltered in the published version. However; we'll see below that Gygax went through and increased monster numbers and strength throughout the dungeon, so this advice is no longer appropriate.

As I said last week, when I ran this as my first-ever DM'ing (or RPG play of any sort) experience, I had my friends individually each take 1 PC and 1 hireling -- the result was that all of them died horribly on their first D&D expeditions. That formed our initial impressions of standard D&D play, and arguably, my lifelong quest to make sure that D&D adventures aren't too terribly broken in terms of balance for the expected adventuring party. 

Monsters: There are still 13 monster encounters, as in the Holmes draft. But Gygax increases monster numbers and strength throughout the dungeon. For example, he turns a 1 HD giant spider into a 6 HD monstrosity. He changes a single 1 HD giant rat into a more dangerous swarm of 2-8 half-HD rats. He increases hit dice for skeletons, a giant crab, and an octopus. He increases the number of pirates.

The median encounter is now 3 EHD, with a mean of 4 EHD (up one pip each from the Holmes draft). Also his new wandering monster tables have an average encounter strength of 4 EHD, as well, so on par with the set encounters (up from just 1 EHD in Holmes). I would suggest a party of at least 4 1st-level PCs to be on par with any of these encounters. The total set monster power in the dungeon is now 46 EHD; up from Holmes' version that had just 35 EHD (a 30% increase). 

Treasures: Gygax keeps treasure in all the same locations that Holmes does. But while in his editorial pass he notably increased the monster strength, he even more radically decreased the value of the treasures.

The primary way that he does this is that while Holmes used only silver and gold coins in both his text and dungeon, Gygax inserted the additions of copper, electrum, and platinum, and generally shifted all of the coin treasures to some lower-valued type. He also reduced the largest treasure in the dungeon, the jewelry in the necropolis room, from 3000/3000 gp to just 300/900 gp (in so doing, making them fair game for the edited jewelry rule of 300-1,800 value per piece, the lowest category from OD&D).

It should be pointed out that Gygax struck out the OD&D treasure table that Holmes had copied, and inserted a new one, which expands the Treasure Types from OD&D's A-I with added types J-T. This includes a series of per-individual monster small unit treasures, in contrast to the original types which were all in unit's of 1000's of coins. It looks particularly strange here because almost none of the new types are used by any of the monsters in this book (I think only type Q with a few gems is used in the stirge entry). This table matches the one found in the AD&D Monster Manual (1977), except that work also has space on the page for types U-Z. (See here for details.)

And another thing: In two separate places Gygax adds warning text that the Treasure Types table is only meant to be used for large groups of monsters in their lair. This recalls the rule in OD&D Vol-2 (p. 23) that treasure is only found in the "Lair", as assessed by the probability given in the Monster Reference Table (p. 3-4) -- which itself has monster numbers in the range of hundreds, and is noted as being "primarily only for out-door encounters". And that same rule is again repeated in the AD&D Monster Manual, p. 5 ("The use of treasure type to determine the treasure guarded by a creature in a dungeon is not generally recommended."). So this seems like a place where Gygax as editor seems to think Holmes essentially misunderstood the core rules (cloudy as they may have been expressed), and took action by dramatically reducing all the treasure values involved.

The total treasure available after Gygax's edits is less than 4,700 gp, a sharp drop from the Holmes version with almost 18,000 gp (leaving only about 1/4th the original treasure value). There is very close to 100 gp of treasure per monster EHD in the dungeon.

Magic: Gygax leaves all of Holmes' existing magic items unchanged; and he adds one item, a magic dagger in the hide of his now-colossal spider. This gives 5 treasures with magic out of 9 -- a 55% rate (only slightly off Holmes' original or Gygax's own Castle Greyhawk).

Experience: Gygax strikes out Holmes' abbreviated XP table, and inserts back the more detailed OD&D Supplement-I table (stopping at 5 HD to fit the available space). Using this, total placed monster XP adds up to 940, with treasures of about 4,700, for a grand total of 5,640. The monster: treasure ratio is 1:5 (16% to 83%). This reduced total is not enough to advance 4 1st-level fighters (what would balance the average set and wandering encounters) to 2nd level.

On the other hand, if we used the original Vol-1 XP method (say 100 XP per EHD) then the total 46 EHD gives 4,600 XP, almost the same as the rounded 4,700 gp treasure value; the grand total would then be about 9,300 XP. The ratio is then basically 1:1 (close to 50%:50%). And this total is enough to advance 4 1st level fighters to the 2nd level (assuming they clear out every monster and every treasure).

Possibly the low advancement under the first method highlights that the combination of Gygax reducing XP awards in Greyhawk (to about one-tenth the Vol-1 rule, at low-levels), combined with stripping out awards for magic items (in Basic D&D), has served to produce a fundamentally XP-deficient environment.

On the other hand, Zenopus Archives points out in the comments that in the Monsters section on p. 22 Gygax inserted, "As a guideline, it should take a group of players from 6 to 12 adventures before any of their characters are able to gain sufficient experience for successive levels". On the other other hand, in The Strategic Review Vol II, No. 2 (one year prior), he gave a guideline for leveling that worked out to an average of about 6 games per level. If I ballpark clearing out maybe 7 rooms per game session, then the Dungeon of Zenopus might take 3 or 4 sessions to clear, and Gygax's XP awards would be on track, expecting roughly as many sessions in another location to level-up the party.

I'll say that in my OD&D-style games for the past year or two I've been using the latter method; I plan to set monster and treasure values in about a 1:1 ratio, with monster XP and treasures both equal to 100 times the total enemy EHD, and not bothering with XP for magic items. This seems like a pretty simple, easy-to-remember rule-of-thumb, and progresses the PC levels in a reasonable fashion.