Sunday, August 18, 2019

On Starting as Heroes

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


Monday, August 12, 2019

Sunday Survey: Best Module Poll

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

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

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

Monday, August 5, 2019

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

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

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

Classical elements per Aristotle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Sunday Survey: Wizard Spell Failure

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 29, 2019

Wilderness Encounter Levels

We've spent some time on this blog in the past measuring the risk/reward level of the OD&D dungeon wandering monster tables (conclusion: as written, in total they're murderously lethal; even Gygax in AD&D massively ramped down the danger level). It recently occurred to me to ask a similar question about the OD&D wilderness encounter tables.

A somewhat theoretical difference is that while the dungeon tables have "levels" which theoretically relate to level of power of the monsters there, and suggested level of PCs adventuring there, the wilderness table don't come with that same packaging. Instead (obviously) it comes distinguished by "terrain types". We might assume that plains are designed to be safer than woods, and woods less dangerous than mountains, etc., but are they really?

What I did was go through all the entries in those tables and compute average Equivalent Hit Dice (EHD) from each type of encounter, using EHDs estimated algorithmically as shown in the OED Monster Database (code on GitHub) For example: Working bottom-up, here's the sub-table for "Typical Men" (i.e., the default for men in most terrain types):

OD&D Wilderness Subtable: Typical Men

The "grand average" of all the encounter averages in the rightmost column is 122, but that masks the bimodal structure of the table. These encounters split neatly into two halves: six are with mass groups of men in the range of hundreds (with a host of leader-types, including a Superhero or Lord for any group 100+; I estimated the EHDs for this by adding 25%), while the other six are with small parties of 2-12 men and a single NPC (like a Superhero or Lord). The average total EHD for the first category is in the 200's, while for the second category it's in the 20's. Clearly there's a big difference between meeting one Lord and his 200 soldiers, versus another Lord and his 10 soldiers.

This was done for all the different sub-tables, and "grand averages" compute for each resulting in the following:

OD&D Wilderness Subtables: Average EHD

Somewhat similarly, there's a big bifurcation in the danger levels of some of these subtables. For the Men and Giants (i.e., humanoids) tables, average EHDs are the range of 100+ -- specifically those tables which can produce bands of men, goblins, etc., grouped in the hundreds (30-300 men/orcs, or 40-400 for kobolds/goblins, etc.). For the other tables, average EHDs are only in the range of 20-50 or so.

Finally, we can turn to the top-level table, which serves as a function from terrain type to the different subtables, and see on average how dangerous each terrain type is on a per-encounter basis. We get this:

OD&D Wilderness Encounters: Terrain Table

What I've done there is compute the average encounter danger across all results for a given terrain type, and then divide by 8 (an assumed large PC party size?) to come up with a rough "suggested PC level" for adventuring in that terrain. Some of those assumptions can be easily debated, but at least it gives us a normalized basis by which to compare different terrain types.

The result is that on average, there isn't that much difference between the various terrain types. Rounded to the nearest integer, the Clear type suggests maybe 9th-level PCs, while Woods, River, Swamp, and Mountains are only one pip up from that, at 10th level. The City is 11th (because technically it generates more bands of 100s of bandits and brigands from the "Typical Men" table, however unreasonable that may seem), and the Desert table is 12th level, somewhat more dangerous (again because the "Desert Men" table skews more towards 100s of nomads and dervishes).

So this series of averages is a somewhat rougher analysis than I've done for dungeons (which have been given a complete simulation in software at the level of individual fighters adventuring and gaining experience in separate encounters). The overall distribution of encounters is not entirely clear, although it's trivial to guess that the tables with fewer Men and Giants encounters (River and Swamp) will have less variation than the other tables. Here are some other factors abstracted out by this rough analysis:
  • No modifiers are made for parties with special equipment (horses, ships, underwater, etc.)
  • No distinction is made for parties that may be parleyed with and turn out to be friendly (likely dependent on alignment).
  • Dragons and lycanthropes do not have family/pack structure simulated (which mandates presence of some immature figures, but also makes adults fight more fiercely).

Another thing that the numbers above overlook is that while the average encounter is roughly equivalent across different terrain types, the rate of those encounters is not. E.g.: Compared to Clear terrain, in Woods the party takes twice as long to cover a distance and has double chance for encounter each day; and in Mountains both time and encounter chances are tripled, etc. That is, for every 1 expected encounter for a given distance in the Clear, in Woods you'll expect 4 encounters, and in Mountains 9 encounters, for the same distance traveled. Ultimately that's where the real difference in danger levels comes from in this system. (On the other hand, with only one encounter per day, casters can unload their entire firepower capacity on each one, giving some buffer against that added danger.)

Finally, this project suggests a significant limitation to the overall attempt at using our EHD values in sum to balance against total PC levels. Here we've come up with a rough suggestion that OD&D wilderness encounters are, on average, a fair fight for a party of eight 9th- or 10th-level PCs. However, we can look back to our experiences in Outdoor Spoliation games using this system, which we've run with fairly large parties of around the 8th level; at least four times we've documented battles with groups of men and goblins in the size of 200+, and not had a single PC fatality in those encounters. (By the numbers a group of 200 bandits should be ~250 EHD, so for a eight-man party we would have suggested they be 250/8 ~ 30th level? That's clearly not right.) This points to a likely breakdown in simply summing EHDs, especially for very large groups of low-level monsters, versus PCs with high-level magic (not currently simulated in our program), very low armor classes for fighters, etc. It may be interesting to reflect on the exact magic used by players in those mass battles in Outdoor Spoliation sessions One, Two, and Three.

Full spreadsheet available here for the tables and calculations shown above.

Edit: Consider Arneson's rule in First Fantasy Campaign that (as I read it) wilderness encounter numbers are really for full lairs only, and encounters outside will only be 10-60% of those numbers (average 35%). If we take the charts above and multiply everything by 0.35 for expected outsiders, then the equated PC level (parties of 8) becomes 3 or 4 in each terrain. Which is kind of interesting, because reportedly at the start of Arneson's games everyone got Heroes from Chainmail -- fight as 4 men, D&D 4th level -- or else Wizards (I presume low-level, likely 4th-level equivalent?).

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sunday Survey: Wizard Armor

A while back on the Facebook 1E AD&D group, a discussion occurred that had me quite surprised by the direction it was going. Intrigued, I asked the following poll question:

This was surprising to me, because given the context, the top result ("elven chain only") is clearly counter to the 1E AD&D rules text. Of course, when we say multiclass fighter/magic-users in 1E, we're just talking about elves and half-elves (the only races allowed for that multiclass). Under Elves on PHB p. 16, it says that they can "operate freely with the benefits of armor, weapons, and magical items available to the classes the character is operating in", with the exception being if thief activities are occurring (so: plate mail and anything else is clearly on the menu for fighter/magic-users). Note that this contrasts with gnomes on the same page who are restricted to leather for any multiclass combination. Furthermore, as of the 1E AD&D PHB, "elven chain" wasn't even a thing yet named or defined; it didn't appear until the later DMG (p. 27, as "Chain, Elfin") which says merely that it's thin and light, with no special notes about spellcasting.

I think partly, the result of this poll can be explained by later edition's rules "bleeding" into the memory banks of the many gamers who played mix-and-match a lot with different edition products. It was the 2E AD&D PHB that established elven chain as a sufficient and necessary requirement for multiclass wizards to cast in armor: "A multi-classed wizard can freely combine the powers of the wizard with any other class allowed, although the wearing of armor is restricted. Elves wearing elven chain can cast spells in armor, as magic is part of the nature of elves." (Ch. 3).

Moreover, we can look at 1E adventure products by Gary Gygax and possibly detect an "implied ruling" in the same direction on this issue. Looking at the many drow fighter/magic-users throughout the D1-3 series, all of them are equipped with fine chain mail (not a single one in plate, to my knowledge). The 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set's Glossography has wandering encounter listings for that world, including "Elves, Patrol"; these are led by high-level elven fighter/magic-users with base AC 4 or 5 (chain, with or without shield). On the same page, "Elves, Knights" (p. 4) are principally fighter/clerics with better AC, but they have fighter/magic-user assistants again with AC 4 (chain & shield). So the consistency of this pattern may be another telling point.

Not initially knowing about the 2E AD&D rule or the apparent AD&D player consensus, I've done a similar thing in my OED house rules for OD&D for about a decade now; without reference to any special elven manufacture, multiclass fighter-wizards can cast spells in chain but not plate (also must have one hand free, no shield). Actually for quite some time I thought that was a semi-unique ruling; my surprise is that I've unintentionally matched how a lot of people elsewhere also play things.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Friday Figures: Swords & Spells Stand Sizes

I got started in the hobby at the point where the only ruleset for mass D&D combat that I could find in stores was the last supplement for original D&D: Gygax's Swords & Spells (1976). Looking at page 2, I saw numbers for scales and recommend size for miniature figure bases. To wit:

Figure Mounting sizes from Swords & Spells

Those fractional values looked odd, but I never questioned them, assuming that the author had some deeper reason for them. But looking back more critically today: Why 5/8" (instead of say, 1/2")? Why 1-3/8", or 1-5/8"? Why so complex?

Now, consider the following. We'll take a few key measurements in millimeters, in multiples of 5, and convert them to inches -- in each case rounding to the nearest eighth of an inch. We get:

Conversions rounded to eighth of an inch

That is, (noting 6/8" = 3/4") we get exactly the figures on display in the Swords & Spells table.

It occurred to me to check this when looking at Chainmail (1971), which gives the option of using either 30mm or 40mm scale figures for man-size (or in the fantasy section for others races, corresponding options such as 10mm, 20mm, 25mm, etc.). It should also be noted that the base sizes shown in Swords & Spells, and even the Chainmail suggestions for 30mm-scale goblins, orcs, ogres, etc., closely matched those provided by the Warhammer Fantasy product all the way up to 2015!

Theory: Gygax had miniatures that were originally based in metric measurements, which he mechanically converted to imperial figures (to the nearest eighth-of-an-inch) for the Swords & Spells publication.