Monday, June 24, 2019

Advanced Multi & Media

Over at Wandering DMs, we've been rolling out a bunch of new social-media contact ways for you to get in touch and follow us, as per your current preferences. Please do consider the following fine sites and handles:
So far this year we've had some new content on the video sites up every Sunday at around 1 PM EST. In particular, we have a livecast discussion that you can join in and pitch comments/questions on alternate Sundays at that time (next one scheduled end of this week: Sunday June 30). Broadcasts are currently streamed simultaneously to Twitch & YouTube, and then you can see old stuff archived permanently on YouTube.

But the thing that's coming up I'm most excited about is that over the upcoming Independence Day weekend we'll be making our first dive into indie live-stream gaming, and it's a deep one. We plan to play D&D all weekend from Jul-4 to Jul-7 and broadcast the whole thing for four days straight. (Well, subject to breaks for meals and sleeping and pool time and whatever.) That's what we normally do for the weekend of the 4th anyway, so we figured, what the heck, let other people see how we run that. Don't look at me, people have actually asked us for that. :-)

Enormous thanks to Paul who's entirely responsible for taking the vanguard and rolling all that stuff out. He's the one who's kitted out his game space for livestreaming, and he'll also be DM'ing on the 4th while I play with another half-dozen of our close friends -- actually a continuation from last year, where we got about halfway through the famed Dyson's Delve. Either we finish it off, or it finishes us off; fair fight, I think.

See more of Paul's setup for the Jul-4th mega-stream at his blog here. 

While you're waiting for that (less than two weeks away!), also consider some recent stuff we've posted on WanderingDMs: Paul's visit to the "D&D Live 2019" convention event in LA with a few coworkers, and my visit to the NYC Morgan Library for an exhibit of J.R.R. Tolkien's artwork (with guest artist Isabelle Garbani for thoughts & analysis). Hope you enjoy!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Air Elemental Whirlwinds

Random math-y investigation: How powerful are air elemental whirlwinds? Pretty powerful. OD&D says this (Vol-2, p. 18):
Air Elementals: Air Elementals move only by flying, moving at a maximum rate of 36". When engaged in combat in the air they add +1 to damage scored from hits. They normally do one die roll of damage. They can turn into a whirlwind which will sweep all creatures under two hit dice away, the whirlwind being conical in shape, 3" diameter at the base, 6" diameter at the top, and as high as the number of hit dice possessed by the Elemental (16", 12" or 8"). Forming a whirlwind requires one full turn as does dissolving it.
A few other notes: The general elemental description on this page says, "Only magical weapons/ attacks affect Elementals", whereas OD&D Sup-I boosts that to, "Elementals are impervious to normal weapons and to magical weapons under +2" (p. 34). The "turn" in the last line is arguably the same as a "round" (or something), as they seem to be used interchangeably in this text, and the 1 turn = 10 minutes rule is not given until Vol-3 (e.g., the other elemental descriptions all say "move at a rate of 18" per turn" and the like). The AD&D Monster Manual limits the whirlwind to just 1 round duration, and adds a 2d8 damage factor to creatures it can't kill outright.

Consider using an air elemental against a large body of humanoids, such as in a mass-combat situation. If we use the by-the-book D&D scale that 1" = 10 feet, then the elemental can fly 360 feet in a round, and affect a 30' diameter along that path, for an area of about 10,800 square feet; if we allow one man per 5' square (25 sq. ft.), then that's about 432 men automatically destroyed per round by this rule. I'm pretty sure that makes the air elemental exponentially the most destructive mass-combat weapon in the game.

On the other hand, if we use the better-reasoned scale of 1" = 5 feet, then the distances are halved, and the area and number affected are thereby quartered: 180 feet move, 15' diameter path, 2700 square feet area, for about 108 men destroyed. I think it's then still the most destructive force against normal men, but not quite so stupendously overkill-y.

But there's a final limiting factor that's easy to forget; the rules for aerial movement in Vol-3, thought to be written by Dave Arneson, and inspired by "Dawn Patrol/Fight in the Skies" by Mike Carr. For air elementals (4th row down in the table on p. 26), the specifiers give "number of turns per move: 6", and "number of spaces between turns: 3". Given these and a hex map (specified in Vol-3 on the prior page), I attempted to find out what the most-compacting "sweeping" movement was that could be made by an air elemental in one round. Consider the following:

Path A: Trying to make the tightest loop possible; this depletes the available turns fairly quickly, and forces us to make a long straight path away from the fight at the end. Covers about 45 hexes in the initial loop, with a donut-hole in the middle.

Path B: Trying to make a back-and-forth sweeping action, but the required spaces-between-turns leaves sizable gaps between each "sweep". Each straight segment covers about 27 hexes. You need to have a packed-in army of about 30 rows x 15 columns (450 men) to hit a man on every hex of this path (for a total of about 100 victims, as noted above, assuming 1 hex = 1 man = 5 feet).

Path C: Here I have the elemental spin away and then back, so as to sweep a kind of contiguous block at the start and end of the path. The top-left part thereby has something approximating a 6 x 8 rectangle, thereby hitting about 48 normal men in close formation there.

Path D: An iteration on the previous strategy; again, we get a top-left block of about 6 x 8 = 48 contiguous hexes.

Conclusion: In open mass combat, I might summarize this with a rule saying that an air elemental in whirlwind form can wipe out about 50 normal men in formation in one turn. That's still very powerful, so before one shows up in your game you might want to consider interpreting or house-ruling things to a power level that you're comfortable with. For example, reducing the diameter of the whirlwind (AD&D took it from 3" to 2"), making the attack 1d6 damage or with a saving throw, etc. Another option is to strictly enforce the book's given rule, "Forming a whirlwind requires one full turn as does dissolving it", which would arguably make it still extremely powerful in (turn-based) mass combat, but basically not ever usable in standard man-to-man D&D action. Thoughts?

Monday, June 10, 2019

Prep Time Poll Results

On March 28 of this year, I asked on the Facebook AD&D group the following poll question: "As DM, how much preparation time do you take before a single game session?". Over the next few weeks I got 310 responses. As you can see below, a bit more than 50% answered in the range of "Hours".

In the comments/discussion attached to that poll, there were a small number of people who answered with "years", or "my whole life", which are very interesting ways to look at it, I think. :-)

Monday, June 3, 2019

Historical Costs Comparison

The following comes up regularly, and I think that it probably always will; given the incredibly kinked-up nature of the D&D economy, what's the best "correction" to bring it line with some kind of historical pricing basis? Or in other words: very generally, how do D&D costs compare to historical prices?

I'll look at this in three different categories: basic equipment, castle construction, and wages for men-at-arms. My primary resource for historical prices is the Medieval Sourcebook: Medieval Prices (MSMP), compiled by Kenneth Hodges, and currently hosted on a site at Goucher College. My primary strategy will be to run a linear regression between D&D price and Medieval Sourcebook prices and see if that tells us anything at all consistent.

First: Consider basic equipment. This may be the most tentative of the three classes, because it requires some subjective matching of item types, some of those have widely varying ranges and eras, there are many different possible horses and armor qualifications, almost no historical weapon prices, etc. While the D&D basic equipment list is fairly sizable, and so is the Medieval Sourcebook, there isn't as much overlap as I would have desired. The results are as follows:

As you can see from the chart, these prices are only vaguely linear related (R² = 0.57 only moderately related). That said: the regression here suggests that if you take D&D price units and treat them, on average, as historically something like three-quarters of a shilling then you'll be as much in the ballpark as you can be (technically: 76% of a shilling according to this regression; feel free to round to a half-shilling or whole shilling according to taste, any of those could be fine). There's a lot of variation there -- the two outlying high points are the two armor types (mail and plate); those are distinctly undervalued in D&D. The two outlying low points are the prices for the medium war horse and the cart. Also removed from the analysis was the MSMP stated value for a 13th century war horse: "up to L80", which would be 1,600 shillings, far off the upper end of the chart here.

Second: Let's look at castle construction costs. There are a few values in the MSMP (a gatehouse and tower), and I've also found a number of documented costs for castle construction on Wikipedia. You can see here for the full detail on the first occasion when I looked at that. The displayed D&D prices are dependent on my assessing the constructions in question and pricing them piecemeal according to D&D (a task which I did before looking to convert the historical prices, to try and avoid as much bias as possible):

This regression seems to look a bit more dependable at first appearance (R² = 1.00, apparently perfect correlation). Note, however, that this is largely dependent on what I estimated for the D&D construction of the large Dover castle (an "influential data point"). That said, it has a perhaps surprisingly similar conversion to the basic equipment list above: each D&D "gp" converts to something like a half shilling (specifically, about 40% of a shilling's value). To me, that seems interesting.

Third: Consider wages for men-at-arms. Now, these values in D&D seem to be at a distinctly different scale than those for other things in the game (basic equipment, castles, treasure, specialists, etc.). Fortunately there are several classifications that seem reasonably easy to compare in D&D and the MSMP:

This also seems reasonably linear in relationship (R² = 0.92, strongly correlated). Here if you take the D&D monthly "gp" and multiply by about 5, then you have something in the ballpark of actual medieval costs in shillings -- or in other words, the D&D units for men-at-arms costs are about a quarter of a pound sterling (i.e., roughly the value of an actual gold Noble coin; not something you can say about the units anywhere else in the D&D system).

In summary: With the exception of wages for men-at-arms, the pricing units in D&D seem to correspond (very roughly!) to historical units of a half shilling or something in that general order of magnitude. For me, it's been a number of years since I started interpreting the D&D price units in terms of historical silver Groat coins (one-third of a shilling each), and I'll probably continue to use that in the near future.

Download an ODS spreadsheet of the data and regressions seen above here. 

Monday, May 27, 2019

Wandering Hommlet

If a DM considers possibly running the classic Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, one must first answer: Where is Hommlet? Interestingly, its official published location varied quite a lot in those heady early years.

Here's a timeline of relevant publications (all with Gygax's name on them):
  • 1979: The original monochrome version of AD&D Dungeon Module T1: The Village of Hommlet is released. In the first paragraph of the Background (p. 2), it says, "The village... is located some 10 or so leagues southeast of the town of Verbobonc..." This places it in hex #1 of the regional map above (each hex being 10 leagues in distance). 
  • 1980: The World of Greyhawk folio set and Gazetteer are published, including the fabulous continental map by Darlene excerpted above. In the single-paragraph entry on Verbobonc (p. 18), it states, "A temple and fortress were constructed in the wooded hills southeast of the town of Verbobonc, not far from the village of Hommlet. (Look for the VILLAGE OF HOMMLET and the TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL modules from TSR)." So: no explicit change, although hex #1 noted above is not depicted with either woods or hills.
  • 1981: The multi-color version of module T1 is released. However, the booklet inside is identical as far as I can tell (even maintains the same inside logo and 1979 copyright, different from the color cover), so no textual changes in that regard.
  • 1983: The boxed-set version of the World of Greyhawk is produced, with the same map, but a pair of expanded books. The Glossography includes more detailed in-game statistics to various entities, including a section on "Adventure Locales" (p. 30), which gives specific hex coordinates for every TSR module published to date. For the Village of Hommlet (noted with a predicted change in code from T1 to WG1), it says, "The legendary villlage is located in hex O4-98 near Verbobonc". That hex is noted as #2 in the map above -- quite a surprising distance away; not 10 leagues, but rather some 40 leagues away from Verbobonc. And still not very much near the wooded area. 
  • 1985: The supermodule AD&D Official Game Adventure T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil is finally published (in the final year of Gygax's tenure with the company; finished with the help of Frank Mentzer). This includes what is mostly a reproduction of the T1 Hommlet module inside; although now the Player's Background section (p. 4) states that it is, "located some 30 leagues southeast of the town of Verbobonc" (not 10 as before). In addition, it comes with a rather sketchy wilderness "Map 1: From Hommlet to Nulb" that depicts Hommlet as being in hex #3 on the map shown above (indeed, 3 hexes, so 30 leagues from Verbobonc).
That's really quite a bit of wandering for a little village -- the triangle formed by hexes #1, 2, and 3 above is a bit larger than that formed by New York, Philadelphia, and Allentown, PA.

A secondary issue is: Given Hommlet, where are Nulb and the Temple in relation?

 Above is the wilderness map given in the T1-4 adventure. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of the story with that:
  • In the original 1979-1981 T1 text, Hommlet and Nulb are set fairly close together. The Background says (p. 2), "The folk of Hommlet tended to ignore Nulb, even though it was but six miles distant." Likewise, the T1 moat house is given as "about two or three miles away", along an overgrown track leading northeast off the Hommlet village map (area 33, text p. 8). The text to those ruins reiterates this, describing travel of "a mile or so" along the overgrown track, and then "two miles of distance" along a somewhat clearer pathway (total time: one hour on horse, two on foot; doubled on subsequent trips after clearing it). It concludes this description with, "The track continues past the ruins for many miles -- seven leagues, in fact -- until the temple area is reached." (p. 12) Note that this total of about 8 leagues (24 miles) to the Temple is considerably more than the 6 miles to Nulb in the opening Background.
  • On a related note, the T1 Background speaks of a "Lowroad" leading from Verbobonc, south of the river: "Many days' travel to the east, on the shores of the Lake of Unknown Depths (Nyr Dyv) is the great walled city of Dyvers". This first paragraph seems to be describing the various roads off the edges of the Hommlet village map; the one leading directly east (best matching this description) is labeled "To Nyr Dyv & the Temple". There is no mention in this text of any corresponding "Highroad". 
  • The Brief History in the 1980-1983 Greyhawk products (identical in both) spends a rather surprising amount of time focused on the area and action around the Temple. For a piece of text covering the entire history of the continent, 3 of its 11 paragraphs are specifically about the battle with the forces of the Temple (clearly, it was foremost in Gygax's mind at the time). Yet even here the location of things is just a bit garbled: the Brief History says the battle was, "below the city of Verbobonc" (folio p. 6), while the section on the Kron Hills mentions it as, "the battle above Verbobonc" (p. 23). 
  • With the 1985 T1-4 product you get the wilderness map above, but it seems mostly unrelated to any of the descriptions in the text itself. Note that it clearly shows Hommlet at Nulb as being at least 10 leagues (30 miles) distant as the crow flies; if I map and measure all the little twists and turns on the roads, then I count either 16 or 18 leagues (48 or 54 miles) depending on the route. But the Hommlet reproduced background still says Nulb is "6 miles distant" (p. 5), the track out of town still says the moathouse is "2-3 miles" away (p. 14), and the text to the ruins still describes the same "mile", then "two miles", then "seven leagues" to Nulb (p. 21); which again awkwardly implies a total of 24 miles from Hommlet to the Temple.
  • Meanwhile, the new Interlude section to T1-4 is also contradictory. The Players' Background says, "Just a half-day's journey afoot (only about two hours' ride), east along the High Road, lies the disreputable community of Nulb, and the Temple hidden in the hills nearby" (p. 27). Per standard AD&D/Greyhawk moves rates, this implies a road distance of about 5 leagues (15 miles). On the other hand, under Notes for the Dungeon Master, it says, "The adventure began in the Village of Hommlet, only about thirty miles west and south of the edge of the Nulb area map" (p. 28). 
  • Then the very next thing T1-4 says is, "You can construct your own campaign map by using graph paper of roughly the same parameters as that of the Nulb map, assuming 100 yards to the square. Two sheets of paper the west and to to the south cover all of the important territory, with Hommlet being located on the High Road, two maps west, one south near the map bottom, but in the southwest quadrant. (The Velverdyva river, by the way generally remains along the upper portion of the northern map additions...)". By my figures, the described map would only cover about 4 by 6 miles, although the description seems to cover an area at least 30 by 40 miles on the T1-4 wilderness map. Was this particular text accurate to an early placement close to Verbobonc (hex #1), and overlooked when the official T1-4 map was drafted? Or was it simply a total meltdown in someone's arithmetic?
  • Other miscellaneous comments about the T1-4 wilderness map: Note that while T1 mentioned only a "Lowroad", the new T1-4 sections have now switched to reference only a "High Road". Whereas T1 showed and spoke about a major road leading due east to the Nyr Dyv, the roads in T1-4 are highly kinked, going far to the south and then far to the north (not very useful for a major east-west highway). The map has no placement for the T1 moathouse or the overgrown track leading northeast off the Hommlet map. The relative location of the Temple seems to have switched sides of the road; in T1 you can go northeast of the main road and reach the Temple, while in T1-4 it is shown south of that road. It's weird that the "Low Road" is along the crests of the hills, while the "High Road" is in the depths of the forests; and also that while the T1-4 text speaks of the "High Road" as the major route to Nulb, on the map it is shown as an "unused trace road" with many points of Danger/Evil along the way. Likewise, none of those Danger/Evil areas are described in the T1-4 text.

I hope that you'll forgive me for all that detailed nit-picking. But the contradictory nature of the T1-4 wilderness map has bothered me for a long time, and I think I've repeated this textual exercise a number of times, and wanted to document it here so I don't ever do it again. One last complaint I'll levy is how that map seems to imply that the PCs will need several more custom adventuring areas to gain XP between Hommlet and the Temple, when this simply isn't the case; the average danger level of the Moathouse is almost exactly the same as the first level of the Temple dungeon, by my calculations.

So, at this point I think I might come to the following conclusion if I were to ever run the T1-4 adventure: just kick that wilderness map entirely to the curb as incoherent, and make my own map in line with the original 1979-1980 descriptions, which suffered from somewhat fewer contradictions. Consider: perhaps Hommlet lies in the plains of Verbobonc, along a "Low Road" that runs generally due east (through wilderness and woods) to the Nyr Dyv. Meanwhile, there could be a "High Road" that loops north of the river and the whole area, through the safety and civilization of knighted Furyondy, and reaches Dyvers that way instead. (In fact: Gygax's Gord the Rogue books speak of a "High Road" running through the center of the City of Greyhawk; while not clear there, I might fantasize that this is the same major mercantile thoroughfare running all the way from Verbobonc, through Furyondy, then Dyvers, and then to Greyhawk itself. In contrast, there's no way to interpret the road on the T1-4 wilderness map as doing the same.).

A final thing I'll reflect on (a little bit of back-in-my-day-ism): Just think about the incredible wait time we suffered from the publication of T1 with all of its hints and promises about the soon-to-be-released Temple adventure, until the actual appearance of the T1-4 module. The former was in 1979, and actually my personal copy of T1-4 has a 1987 print date on the inside cover. That spans the time from when I was 9 to when I was 17, or in fact half of my life to that point waiting to get the damned thing. There's a reason why some of us have a small part of our brains kinked up over that production.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

House Con: Now You Try It

As a final-final thought to this year's HelgaCon wrap-up; I must reiterate that this house-con event is the singular highlight of my year for the past decade-plus. Having moved a few states away from where I was before, it's a priceless opportunity to connect back up with old friends, and somewhat surprisingly, some people I consider among my best new friends, whom I've only ever met or seen at this event. Thanks again to Paul Siegel who's been the motivating force and organizer for the event every year.

Along with that, some news I can now reveal (that I've been biting my lip on for months); after thirteen years of developing and refining the AI-driven software that serves to manage and schedule our mini-convention, in the last year Paul has been rolling out a website and associated tools to make it public and help assist other people in creating their own house cons. It's currently in beta testing and if you want to try it for your event, you should contact Paul directly. I can't recommend it enough; we've all been amazed by its seemingly magical powers (far better than any other convention I've attended) for years now. If you do a house-con or are thinking about, ring him up!

Also: We were unable to have a Wandering DMs show this past Sunday due to unexpected developments. We'll be back with a new show this Sunday June-2 at 1 PM EDT.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Helgacon: Lessons Learned

A top-ten (in no particular order) list of observations and lessons from this year's house con:

  1. I still need to get better about handling ("accordioning" per BJ) adventures for time constraints in the convention setting. I did better than Tomb of Horrors a decade ago, but still was over by an hour with the Tomb of Ra-Hotep run-through. 
  2. I'm liking bare-bones minimalist adventure text (like Ra-Hotep) more than towering wall-of-text give-all-details-imaginable (like in the Slavers modules). Easier to "own" the adventure and play loose and flexibly, with less note-lookups. Sometimes the wall-of-text approach (e.g., A2) loses its own plot, becoming incoherent or self-contradictory itself!
  3. In Outdoor Spoliation, I simply must offload the administration-handling to pre-game, if I run it again in the future. 
  4. There's surprising potential for a minimal PC team to do well in a game meant for lots of other players (e.g., the 4-person team in the stockade game). Does a streamlined communication network assist this? 
  5. On a related note, I got away from using the Caller role, and this might have contributed to bogging down the games with larger number of players (esp., Slavers Stockade part 2, Outdoor Spoliation). Part of what explains that is in the last year I've had a bi-weekly campaign that has a smaller number of players (usually 4-6) who also know each other and communicate/coordinate really well. So over time I simply forgot about Callers and if I thought about it, came to think I'd discovered they weren't necessary. But for larger groups (and those who may not know each other so well at a convention), it may in fact be very beneficial. I really need to keep in mind the need to switch protocols with a group of over 6 players, or something like that. 
  6. Also, I was trying out a new method for marching order in these games: Ask the players to sit down at the table the same as their standard 2x2 marching order; for round resolution I then went down the table likewise left-right, left-right and so forth. I officially made this optional but with a +1 bonus to all initiative if they did so. Every team took me up on this, and it seemed to work pretty well (didn't hear any complaints, and nicely represented the front-line people being in contact first). Note that Gygax specifically called out marching order as the one thing that was hard to handle for very large groups of around 20 or so players (I quoted him at Stack Exchange at the link there, from a 2005 ENWorld Q&A). So this real-world physical representation is feeling like a pretty good solution to me.
  7. For the last year or so I've used placecards (folded-up index cards) in front of each player to advertise what everyone's PC name, armor, and weapon are. That's largely so I can address everyone in-character on sight (I've seen a few people do this at other conventions, or else use lapel name stickers, etc.). This year I stumbled into the idea of having players also write their "preferred pronouns" on the placecard (granted that many of my pregenerated PCs have ambiguously gendered names, or else I'm just happy for players to pick which they want to play as in any case). This also may make me seem more "woke" than I probably really am. 
  8. For a climactic final boss fight in a convention game, a battlemap and minis (as used in Ra-Hotep) or something vaguely similar (as in the Slavers games) has a nice impact. This was complimented by at least one player. On the other hand, I need to gauge the extra time this may take. This may be unusual; most games I see with other people are either battlemap-all-the-time of else none-of-the-time. In all my games at Helgacon I had it as a possibility and made a call on the fly about whether to use it or not. 
  9. I may need to find a way to streamline calling distances in combat. The combination of feet (dungeons), yards (wilderness), and inches (rulebooks; 5' for me) definitely confused and frustrated some players. I'm thinking about trying to call all combat distances in "paces" (Roman paces, 5'), which would directly synch up to the "inches" specifier for movement and spells in OD&D. Haven't tried that yet as of this writing. (Alternatively, this possibly suggests the Holmesian approach of just jettisoning the "inches" and writing everything in terms of feet.) 
  10. Granted that intelligent swords were in use in all of my games, Paul's suggested streamlining of OD&D's complicated control-check rules to a Target 20 idiom saved me gobs of time in both preparation and at the table. Highly recommended; I just wrote it into my OD&D rulebook.