Sunday, September 29, 2019

Vexing Verdicts

My game last Friday night was the occasion of one of the most bewildering nonstop series of weird effects and judgement calls that I've had to make in many moons. It seemed unbelievable that every 10 minutes there was some exasperating (and possibly deadly) situation that I had to deal with, that I'd never seen before nor ever thought about. This friggin' game. Major props to my players for challenging me with all this crazy stuff. A sampling:
  • How to manage PCs finding and engaging 80 bandits fighting with 60 merchant guards in the wilderness.
  • Wandering gnolls blocking narrow mountain ledge, parties engage. PCs top choice is to grab them by the hair and throw them off the ledge, what's the rule for that?
  • In a deep dungeon, can you cast spells through a web spell blocking a tunnel? Lightning bolt? Cone of cold?
  • Elf wizard crouching on a tiny two-man rock ledge for cover. Casts 6 mirror images. Where do they appear?
  • Lead fighter gets charmed and ordered to attack fellow PCs.
  • What if he's Lawful, attacks with a Lawful intelligent sword, as is doing the bidding of a Chaotic being?
  • What if he's geased to do the exact opposite of what he's currently being charmed to do?
  • What if the charm-caster gets knocked unconscious by magic missiles?
  • And then starts regenerating?
  • Can an earth elemental summoned by a scroll spell pick up a live attacking giant hog and throw it as a missile weapon against the chaotic regenerating charmer guarded by a mob of angry giant-types?
  • Can an 18 Strength PC use a giant-sized club?
  • What about log fence posts from the giant devil hog enclosure?
  • Can the earth elemental collapse the rock tunnel everyone is fighting in?
  • If 20' tall, can it crawl into a 10' tunnel?
  • Can the charmed fighter block the elemental from advancing over his position?
  • If the charmed PC gets picked up by the elemental and deposited on a dangerous 20' high ledge and has his rope, net, etc., yanked away on subsequent rounds, what does he do then?
  • If a hobbit polymorphed for a year into an elf dies and then gets reincarnation cast on them, what counts as their "original" form, elf or hobbit?
And on and on and on like that, great jumpin' jehoshaphat. 


Tune in later today for Wandering DMs to help us discuss how appropriate mind-controlling spells (like charm person) are in D&D. I need a major debriefing on this! (1 PM ET)


Friday, September 27, 2019

Friday Figures: Holey Moley Caddysmack

ABC's summer fill-in show Holey Moley has a game called Caddysmack in which mini-golfers have a preliminary stage, and then winner chooses between a robot and Stephen Curry to make a 55-yard pitch shot into a turf-covered empty swimming pool, and then the contestants finish by shooting for the final hole in that playing area.

The weird thing is that the player with the choice almost inevitably picks Curry for the pitch shot, but his shots rather clearly bounce all around the pool area, while the robot's is predictably on-line every single time. (I suspect given some dialogue that Curry gets multiple attempts on each show, but if so they're off-camera.) The contestant playing off Curry's shot won 40% of the time in Season 1, so I'm pretty confused why every single person save one picked him.


Don't forget: Tune in to Wandering DMs this Sunday 1 PM ET for more live chat! This week, a discussion on mind-affecting magic spells and effects; okay to subvert player agency, or not?

Monday, September 23, 2019

Cave Dice

When I first started running my annual Outdoor Spoliation games, the intent was to explore the Original D&D Wilderness adventuring rules as closely as possible. In that ruleset, most of the action is driven by random outdoors encounters, where each type of monster comes with a "% in Lair" as one of their primary statistics (still visible as late as 1E AD&D). So you generate a random monster and then find out if it's holed up in a cave lair of some sort, with actual treasure.

But how to handle those randomly-determined cave lairs that might pop up anywhere, any time? As usual, I really prefer mechanics without some complicated table that I need to go paper-shuffling while players wait for me to adjudicate when it comes up. In this case I came up with a dead-simple method using a single d6, based on the shape of pips on each face. It's served me well ever since, in many different circumstances, and is IMO impossible to forget:

Random d6-based cave generation

In my application, I assume the the 4 and 6 cave results have no other exits, likely where the monsters are settled with their treasure. Therefore the 1, 4, and 6 results are all terminal; 2 and 3 lead to one other area; and only the 5 has any branching (namely, 3 other tunnels for PCs to explore). If this branch shows up, then depending on a whim I may split the monsters up into two groups and plan to pincer the PCs when hostilities commence.

Of course, many tunnel complexes will be a straight line; on the other hand, the 5 branches may lead to more branches, which may continue bifurcating indefinitely. That said, the average number of areas per complex is (oh god, here I go).... letting x = expected areas down any one tunnel:


And this result was double-checked by Monte Carlo simulation in C++.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Friday Figures: Exotic Attack Areas


Exotic attack areas survey on ODD75 Discussion forum.

Consider the spells in OD&D that in some attack opponents, but don't do direct damage: things like sleep, hold person, confusion, and so forth. In the OD&D LBBs these affect a certain limited number of people, but no specific rules for how the targets are picked is given. By default I've always assumed that the caster can pick those targets at will.

But it turns out that this is a very idiosyncratic interpretation, not shared by almost anybody else. Instead I see pretty much everyone else agreeing that having these spells hit your own allies is a regular possibility (based on discussions on both the large Facebook AD&D group and ODD74 Discussion forum). Gygax wrote on ENWorld (2nd February, 2005):

To clarify, as the DM I would allow the spell caster to select one specific target, and by so doing nerrow the scope of a sleep sopell to that individual. If ut were used as an area spell, then all characters in the area would be affected up to the spell's maximum, and that includes PCs associated with the casting magic-user. In the example you give, the sleep spell would get the five goblins first, then the three 1 st level PCs, and if more than eight could be affected, then the two bugbears.

However, in the OD&D LBBs, these spells don't have any specified area. Those were added for the first time in the Swords & Spells supplement, e.g., 1" diameter for sleep, 3" diameter for hold person and confusion, etc. Some iteration of these were then maintained through the AD&D line, but are still missing from the B/X basic line. (An additional complicating factor is that Swords & Spells assumed a 1" = 10 yards scale, which was retconned away in Dragon #15 [see last week], bifurcating the possible interpretations and possibly leaving us with too-small areas?)

So I asked this question on the ODD74 Discussion board and -- while the sample size is very small -- it came out 4:1 in favor of not honoring the targeted areas from later works. But everyone still seems to agree that allies in range are subject to the spell, starting with lowest-level first, as per Gygax above. Then wouldn't that mean that the 1st-level magic-user casting his one and only sleep spell -- would pretty much only affect himself and his 1st-level companions at ground zero?

To me, that's an incredibly ugly interpretation. But the only way I see out of it is to add limited, targeted areas where the wizard focuses the magic, even if it's an added fiddly bit to the spell rules. What do you think?


Don't forget: Tune in to Wandering DMs this Sunday 1 PM ET for more live chat!

Monday, September 16, 2019

Castle Construction Times

Chateau Gaillard
Previously I looked at some real-world data for medieval castle construction costs and found, somewhat surprisingly, that if we read the costs from OD&D in silver pieces (groats; 1/3 shilling) that they're quite close to the actual prices involved. I'm still jazzed at how sweet that was!

But one thing I couldn't figure out at the time was a way to estimate castle construction times. The real-world data was all over the map and not consistent; a small single keep at Peveril could take 2 years; medium to large castles like Orford or Dover took 8 or 10 years; and then on the upper end the "vast" castle of Gaillard which cost twice as much as Dover (and on a difficult-to-reach precipice) itself took only a lightning-fast 2 years. So I left that puzzle for a later day.

Well, that day is today. The players in my ongoing campaign are advancing in experience and treasure enough that they're starting to ask about options for castle-construction. The night of this writing I sat down and played with some numbers and discovered a remarkably simple rule that gives fairly realistic results. Here it is:

The base time for construction is the square root of the OD&D total cost, read in weeks. If speedier construction is desired: Each multiplied cost factor divides time by a like amount, up to quadruple cost/speed.

Let's compare that to the real-world data; it's a small sample size, but for game-design purposes I'm comfortable making a decision on this basis. Gray and yellow highlights are things added to the spreadsheet since last time. The bottom row for Gaillard is special, because it's the only one where we're applying our quadruple speed-up rule.

Castle Construction Time Estimates

In the 8th column, we have our squart-root estimate for time in weeks. For example, with the top row of Peveril, we take the square root of the D&D cost (identical to real cost in this case): sqrt(12,000) = 110, rounded to nearest whole number. Dividing that by 52 weeks in the year comes out almost exactly to 2 years, exactly the real-world time it took to build it (in the 4th column). Doing that for Orford and Dover likewise comes out within 1 or 2 years of the actual figures.

Now let's look at the last case of Chateau Gaillard. Just looking at a map of the place, it looks smaller than Dover Castle (compare "Details" in the 5th column). My estimate using the OD&D tables it that it should cost about 208,000 sp or so; and construction time ought to be sqrt(208,000)/52 = 456/52 = 8.8 years or so. But to this we will apply a speed-up factor of 4, quadrupling both price and speed of construction; then the price jumps to 832,000 sp and the time drops to 2.2 years. Note that these figures now align with the real-world prices: Gaillard cost some 720,000 groats (i.e., 12,000 pounds) and did indeed get built in just 2 years time.

Consider: Gaillard was the major work of Richard the Lionheart, who worked feverishly to stake the world's finest castle directly in the heart of his French enemies. He personally supervised the work and drove laborers unrelentingly, even through reported rains of blood. Said one observer: 

... the king was not moved by this to slacken one whit the pace of work, in which he took such keen pleasure that, unless I am mistaken, even if an angel had descended from heaven to urge its abandonment he would have been roundly cursed.

Note also at least one nifty side-effect of our square root rule: Designing a large castle up front will take overall less time than if you build a small construction and add to it over time. Say, two separate rounds of 10K construction would take sqrt(10K) * 2 = 100 * 2 = 200 weeks. But one round of 20K value construction would be just sqrt(20K) = 141 weeks. This sort of jives with the classic engineering experience that it's more efficient to get a design right early rather than late; and provides a neat in-game dilemma on whether a PC should get started with something small with available resources, or wait to gain more treasure so as to start on a larger (and ultimately faster) construction.

(N.B.: There's a bolt from the blue waiting for the first person who suggests Agile castle construction methodology.)


Friday, September 13, 2019

Friday Figures: Outdoor Areas


Outdoor areas survey on ODD74 Discussion forum.

Here's another somewhat surprisingly contentious survey result on Original D&D rules from the ODD74 Discussion forum (thanks to all who participated!).

Starting with OD&D Vol-3, there's a rule that each "inch" denoted for movement and spell effects means 10 feet indoors, but 10 yards (30 feet) outdoors. That's a rather enormous change; consider the fireball spell at scale 4" diameter. This effect is kept explicitly in the extensive list of spells in Gygax's mass-combat Swords & Spells rules for D&D; e.g. on p. 12 there's an example of a fireball catching 8 figures of orcs (80 individual orcs) in its area.

But then with Dragon #15 Gygax made a large theoretical shift; here he decided that rule didn't make sense for areas, and instead we should read 1" = 10 feet for all spell areas of effect, whether indoors or outdoors. He calls this one of "the most obvious precepts", and heaps scorn on any player who would seek an advantage from the DM to rule otherwise. This then becomes a rule which is expressed thereafter in screechy all-caps in Dragon, the 1E AD&D PHB (p. 39), the D&D Expert rulebook, and so forth (p. X19).

From the 1E AD&D PHB

That said, a few counterarguments can be put forth: (a) For some high-level large-scale spells, the adjustments makes the area so small as to be effectively useless in mass-combat situations (e.g., hallucinatory terrain, massmorph, move earth, lower water, etc.). (b) If this precept is so laughably obvious, then why did Gygax himself miss it entirely when preparing the several pages worth of spell statistics in Swords & Spells? (c) Further on in the 1E AD&D PHB, why is Gygax again asserting a switch in scale for the part water spell (p. 51)?


So this is certainly one of those areas where there's a great opportunity for a schism, about whether one chooses to honor the later rules adjustment or not. The survey on the ODD74 Discussion forum shows a 2:1 ratio in favor of following the revised rule; a significant majority, but far from unanimous. This is clearly one of those areas where the systemic "distortions" that Gygax speaks of (see Dragon #15, and also his Warriors of Mars text) create a practically irremovable fault line in the system; there is no perfect fix, especially if we seek both gameable man-to-man and mass combat action. What are your thoughts?


Don't forget: Tune in to Wandering DMs this Sunday 1 PM ET for more live chat!

Monday, September 9, 2019

Arneson Enigmas

As time goes on, claims about how Dave Arneson ran his Blackmoor games seem to get more and more inexplicably confused. Last week, after the release of the Secrets of Blackmoor streaming movie and related press on Kotaku and other sites, tempers flared and several people associated with the film seem to have deleted their accounts on the ODD74 Discussion forums. This post isn't really about that, but some lines of communication got cut off mid-discussion, which is a bit frustrating.

So here's a recent confusing thing. A particular blog series by Norbert Matausch recently spawned a lot of interest, in that it claimed to present the system that Arneson used to run games pre-D&D. He writes:

So how did the roleplaying game that came before D&D really work?

In a nutshell:
  • write down a few things about your character
  • one special power that allows you to do things others can't
  • no stats
  • no hit points; but you have to screw up real bad to die 
  • saves: roll 2d6; high=good; middling=does not change the situation; low=bad
  • combat: we both roll 2d6; if I'm higher, I say what happens, if you're higher, you say what happens; if we're close, we negotiate

Now, I've seen several old-school guys seem to agree with this idea that Arneson hid all of the mechanics and stats from the players (or maybe there weren't really any at all). One original player agrees that even Gygax hid hit points from the players. Matausch helpfully replied to a comment of mine on his blog:

Bob Meyer, one of Dave's players who's now the official Blackmoor referee, told me that even he doesn't know what rules Dave used - back in the days, players were deliberately kept in the dark.

Okay. But on the other hand, we also have PC record sheets from Dave Megarry (thanks to DH Boggs), who also played in Arneson's Blackmoor games from the earliest. Supposedly the sheets below span some two years of play starting in 1971. Note that they're nothing but a giant list of 36 separate statistics! (Including separate skill stats for all of the Chainmail man-to-man melee weapons, in the exact same order as that book.) Also, "Health" is the 11th one down.


How on Earth are both of these things possible? "No stats" and also a warship-full of "nothing but stats"? I'm stumped.