Monday, September 13, 2021

d6 Usage in OD&D

Red six-sided die

The d20, of course, is closely associated with the D&D game. But it's easy to forget that the early classic editions used the d20 in fairly narrow circumstances: just attacks and saves, in fact. Everything else about running an adventure was done with d6's -- it wasn't until the 3E version of the game that all of these other functions were replaced with the "core mechanic" of d20's for everything. 

There's something about that I really like, in fact. (And I've written about it several times.) The granularity of the game is usually at the d6 level, except when death is on the line (an attack or saving throw), at which point the detail "zooms in" to the d20 level. That's a bit like a movie slowing down when a character is in mortal peril, simulating the cognitive effect from increased adrenaline. When everything else is d6's, they probably don't show up to clutter the character sheets. There's a small enough list of modifiers that the DM can just remember them all. And when things go off-book -- like they should -- it's easier to correctly estimate the real-world chance of success out of 6 pips than out of 20 points. 

Here's an encyclopedic run-down of the use of the d6 for adventuring function in Original D&D. The majority of these cases appear in little brown book Vol-3, the DM's guide analog:

  • Damage from falling into pit: Occurs on 1-2 on d6 (suggested example). (p. 5)
  • Random dungeon stocking: Monsters appear 1-2 on d6. (p. 7)
  • Random dungeon stocking: Treasures appear 1-3 on d6 with monsters, or 1 on d6 without. (p. 7)
  • Searching for secret passages: Success 1-2 on d6 generally, or 1-4 on d6 for elves. Or elves can possibly find one 1-2 on d6 just by walking by. (p. 9)
  • Opening doors: Success 1-2 on d6, or 1 on d6 for smaller characters. (p. 9)
  • Spiking doors open: Success 5-6 on d6. (p. 9)
  • Traps activating on trigger: Occur 1-2 on d6. (p. 9)
  • Listening for sounds: Success 1 on d6 for humans, or 1-2 for elves, dwarves, and hobbits. (p. 9)
  • Surprise: Occurs 1-2 on d6 unless some signal prevents it. (p. 9)
  • Wandering monsters in dungeon: Occur on a 6 on d6, rolled each turn. (p. 10)
  • Monsters continuing pursuit: Occurs 1-2 on d6 when party passes a corner, door or stairs; or 1 on d6 when party passes through a secret door. (p. 12)
  • Castle occupants turning out: Occurs 1-3 on d6 within the castle hex, 1-2 at 1 hex distance, 1 at 2 hex distance. (p. 15)
  • Becoming lost in wilderness: Occurs on either 1, 1-2, or 1-3 on d6, depending on terrain type. (p. 18)
  • Wandering monsters in wilderness: Occur on 4-5, 5-6, or 6 on d6, depending on terrain type. (p. 18)
  • Castle inhabitants pursuing party: Occurs 1-3 on d6 if hostile, or 1 on d6 if neutral towards party. (p. 19)
  • Damage from fall off ship rigging: Occurs at one low pip on d6 for every ten feet fallen (more detail below). (p. 31)
  • Ship crew in melee obeying other commands: Occurs 1-4 on d6. (p. 32)

So let's take stock of what we have there for a "core d6 mechanic" sensibility. We've found 17 cases in OD&D Vol-3. We note that in 14 of the cases success is indicated by a low roll (82%), whereas in only 3 cases is success indicated by a high roll (18%).

Clearly, the fundamental instinct of the writer with these d6 mechanics is for the low roll to indicate success. That doesn't mean low is "good" exactly -- consider a trap being sprung or a party being surprised, for example. But generally some new-thing-of-note pops up with a low d6 roll -- a change to the status quo.

Of course, since most of these mechanics have a base success of 1-2 on d6, the inverse is in the majority, and we might say that's thereby the status quo by definition. 

The falling-off-ships-rigging case is interesting (Vol-3, p. 31), because it highlights that either side of the random occurrence could have certainly been phrased as the event of interest. In this case, the rules text is phrased in terms of taking damage from a low roll ("one chance out of six for every level fallen that damage will be sustained"), whereas the associated example is phrased in terms of saving with a high roll ("i.e. a fall from 40 feet will require a 5 or 6 to save"). 

And in the list above I'm not even counting cases from other books, like the end of OD&D Vol-2 (the monsters & treasure book), in which a roll of "1" on d6 bumps an individual gem in a batch up to the next-higher price level. Whereas, if you were in a different headspace, you'd likely think that a high value would indicate, well, a high value.

So where do the 3 outliers come from? To be clear, those are: (1) spiked doors failing, (2) wandering monsters in the dungeon, and (3) wandering monsters in the wilderness. Let's ignore the first of those for now. But the two wandering monster cases have a clear source -- that's exactly the mechanic in the earlier Outdoor Survival board game for the chance of a daily encounter (where the rule is itself optional). This is in contrast to all the other mechanics in Outdoor Survival, which are notably roll-low-on-d6 to break status quo -- e.g.: getting lost, finding food, or finding water (as allowed in some scenarios; finding food or water occurs 1-2 on d6 when permitted). Note that the lost/food/water mechanics are printed on the Scenario cards there, whereas the optional Encounters rule is in the separate rules pamphlet -- so they weren't synchronized with any core mechanic. And that's exactly why these rules appear in the same form in OD&D, since they were just wholesale lifted from that source & tweaked a bit. Examples below:

Outdoor Survival, Scenario 3: Search rules

Outdoor Survival, Rules of Play: Optional Encounters rule

So if I were going to get my rules-design steam press, and iron out the wrinkles in this particular system -- for both Original D&D and Outdoor Survival, because the system is at least conjoined if not identical at their root -- what I'd do is swap around the wandering-monster rolls and make them appear on low results on a d6, e.g., a "1" on d6 for encounters in the dungeon. Same for spikes failing, too. Taking the opposite tack and saying you're going to flip all the d6 rolls around so a high result is success entails a lot more editorial fixup-work (e.g., as Menzter tried to do with opening doors in BECMI; and as I've also stumbled towards doing in the past myself).

In conclusion, there's also a number of things that are attractive about what I might call an "accuracy" roll-low core mechanic. Principally, it's that announcing a target number is simultaneously communicating the probability of success. (As opposed to a high-roll mechanic, where the conversion between the two requires subtraction and then an off-by-one adjustment.) I assume that's why the writer of OD&D fell into this habit; you don't even need to mentally distinguish which way you're thinking about it as you furiously pound out the rules text on your typewriter. Additionally, to my mind, the die-roll then has the feel of communicating the amount of "error" in your task attempt, which is a statistically robust concept; as opposed to (I guess) "goodness", implied by a roll-high mechanic. 

So there are days when I wistfully daydream of a D&D tradition in which all the mechanics were always roll-low by default, instead of the legacy we have. Imagine celebrating being "Number one!" on an attack roll with as much gusto as we now do a "Natural twenty!". (Although I suppose it might not be immediately as clear that an exotic die type was in play.) It would also synch up with the old roll-under-ability mechanic, which at one point seemed natural and obvious (rather than convert to a modifier, and now have many people ask, "why do we record ability scores anyway?").

Do you agree with the suggested roll-low tweak to wandering monsters in OD&D? Did I miss any notable d6 mechanics in the DM's rules for OD&D?

Monday, September 6, 2021

Series Review: D&D Master Rules Modules

  

Some time ago (awkwardly pulls at collar), I wrote reviews for the entire M-series of adventure modules produced by TSR for the Dungeons & Dragons Master Rules. This was the BECMI boxed set for ultimate-level, empire-building, planes-hopping PCs in the 26-36 level range -- written by Frank Mentzer and released in 1985. 

Sounds pretty awesome, right? But the execution was a mixed bag at best -- admittedly it's such a high and wide-ranging concept, it's a very tough design goal to try and satisfy. And in the case of the adventure series, production seemed rushed, quality-control was low, and the results were all over the map (literally). So I think it's an interesting case study in approaching the challenge of adventure design by a bunch of heavyweight D&D writers.

For ease-of-search purposes, here's a collected list of links to those adventure reviews. If you have time to read just one, the standout is the final entry, module M5 by Jennell Jaquays (whom I got to interview about it here). Enjoy!

Monday, August 30, 2021

OED Traps Digest

Yesterday on Wandering DMs we pretty much had a blast trying (not quite succeeding) at designing an entire dungeon adventure live in a single hour. This was not just wildly productive, it was so much fun!

Among the things you'd see if you watched that is that when push comes to shove, Paul & I use a mishmash of whatever resources are at hand to get the job done. Some OD&D, B/X, and AD&D books get involved. We use Matt Finch's Tome of Adventure Design to get some initial ideas flowing. Plus a couple of custom resources via OED Games, of course. 

One such resource is the OED Monster Determination charts, which gets used as drop-in for OD&D monster tables. That's something that compiles monsters from later D&D products (i.e., original D&D Supplement I: Greyhawk by Gygax and Supplement II: Blackmoor by Arneson), and also gives me a lot more confidence in the relative danger levels, because they've been assessed by a few billion computer-simulated melees (see more detail in that linked page). 

Note that we only got our dungeon about half-stocked in the hour, with our special DM-designed tentpole areas, and one or two random monsters to boot. (Arguably the delay was me being my usual chatty self.) As we talked about finishing the rest in a future episode, likely with some tricks and traps, the question was posed how we flesh out those pieces. 

Here's the answer: I have another custom batch of tables called the OED Traps Digest that I've used behind-the-scenes for about 8 years now. One of the things that frustrated me a bit with classic D&D is that there's plenty of mentions in the books, tables even, for what kind of traps could be included -- but with just a few exceptions, no mechanical stats for those traps!

So the Traps Digest gives me a set of tables -- again, in a format that drops into the same OD&D system for determining monster levels -- from which I can either tastefully select or randomly roll, depending on the situation. And there are short "stat blocks" that I can copy-paste into adventure and not distract myself from writing the high-level content I'm rolling out for a dungeon area. Is it perfect? Probably not, but it's definitely saved me time and focus. 

Since viewers kindly asked about it, here it is. What do you think -- and what edits would you suggest? Tune in and see what comes from this the next time we do a Dungeon Design Dash episode. :-)

OED Traps Digest

Monday, August 9, 2021

Meet the Tomb of Horrors at Cracked

Quick post today: Our good friend Stephen Buckley had an article on the Tomb of Horrors published at Cracked.com last week, and we think it's really nifty. Humorous, but also some serious and thoughtful points there, we think. You may even recognize some of the people he cites. 


Tell us all what you thought of that? Hopefully more like that in the future.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Monster Numbers Through the Ages

  

As focused as I usually am on O/AD&D (1E), I got to wondering how the listed monster numbers appearing evolved over later editions of D&D. Here, have a chart (above). To make this relatively feasible, I'm limiting this to the "normal"-type monsters, i.e., those with generally 1 hit die and appearing in some kind of large-scale society. Along the way here we'll wind up exploring the shift in sensibility around "random encounter tables", the "default ecology" built into monster descriptions and the core rules, and the connection to fighter "sweep/cleave" attacks.

Original D&D

In the table above, I've picked out the 11 "normal" monster types in OD&D, and kept the original order (which is: chaotic types 1st, lawful types 2nd, increasing strength in each group). These are all the monsters that have numbers appearing into the hundreds; and they're also all the types against which fighters get "sweep" attacks, since they're all in the 1-hit-die range. (Exception: you know that gnolls to have 2 hit dice, but in the pre-publication draft of D&D, they had 1+1, hence the high numbers we presume.) The "Bandits" stands in for the "Men" catch-all of Bandits, Brigands, Buccaneers, Nomads, etc.

It bears keeping in mind that the footnote to the table (Vol-2, p. 4), says the number appearing stat is "used primarily only for out-door encounters", and this detail is maintained in most of the editions we're talking about here. There is of course some amount of debate (given the sketchiness of OD&D; that's literally all it says on the issue) about the intent or utility of these huge numbers. Many people interpret it as only in-lair numbers; Arneson in First Fantasy Campaign kvetches a bit, and stipulates that only 10-60% of these numbers should be encountered wandering outside the lair.

AD&D 1st Edition

The numbers from OD&D above are almost all transcribed identically into 1E. Specially: 7 of 11 (64%) are exactly the same. Some minor modifications are made to bandits, nixies, pixies, and elves -- in each case in the downwards direction. Pixies in particular took a more severe cut than the others. 

The Monster Manual likewise says on the figure (p. 5): "It is not generally recommended for use in establishing the population of dungeon levels." The "sweep" attack rule is explicitly given to all fighters in these rules (albeit limited to under-1-HD types; PHB p. 25).

AD&D 2nd Edition

In 2E, designer Zeb Cook et. al. start to shake things up -- in a way that's inconsistent. In some cases they've dialed down the numbers appearing in the stat block significantly, and in other cases they haven't. Most of the monstrous types were reduced in numbers (exception: orcs), while most of the demi-human types were not (exception: gnomes). That said, even for the types that were downsized in the stat block, the text entry under "Habitat/Society" in every case specifies a lair group that's back to the 1E numbers. As a result: if you merge the 2E "Stat" and "Text" columns in the chart above (take the maximum in each case), then you perfectly recreate the 1E numbers.

For this survey, I'm looking at both the 1989 Monstrous Compendium (looseleaf binder) and the 1993 Monstrous Manual (hardcover book) products. The stats and descriptions all seem to be identical. Both of them still say the number appearing stat "indicates an average encounter size for a wilderness encounter... This should not be used for dungeon encounters". 

So it appears that Zeb & co. mostly just reduced the numbers of the hostile monsters you're expected to fight in random encounters in the wilderness (exceptions as above), while keeping the lair numbers the same as in 1E. Also, the given ratios of leaders, chieftans, wives, etc. seem to be identical as in the 1E text. Parallel to this: note that in 2E the fighter "sweep" attack mode becomes an optional variant for the first time (and kind of hard to find in the DMG). 

And this overall strategy is the same that Zeb used in his earlier D&D Expert set rules. While most of the low-level humanoids appeared in Moldvay's Basic rules (with severely cut-down numbers, and no text discussion of larger lairs), Cook fielded the Men entry, such as Brigands, Buccaneers, Dervishes, etc., and likewise pulled the same trick. For example: Nomad numbers are cut to 10-40 in the stat block, but the text description says, "tribes may have up to 300 fighting men gathered together in a camp", i.e., exactly the same as the maximum number back in OD&D.

Note the (*) in the entry for orcs in the table above. Uniquely, the "Habitat/Society" text has this bit of extra love for the orcs:

Orc communities range from small forts with 100-400 orcs to mining communities with 500-2,000 orcs to huge cities (partially underground and partially above ground) with 2,000 to 20,000 orcs.

Also: Did Jim Holloway illustrate every single monster in the entire Monstrous Compendium!? Holy smoke, that's a lot of art! I shudder to even think about it.

D&D 3rd Edition

Now, in 3E, the monster stat blocks tend not to have just one number appearing value, but several, for an array of different grouping structures. For example, here's the one for goblins:

Organization: Gang (4-9), band (10-100 plus 100% noncombatants plus 1 3rd-level sergeant per 20 adults and 1 leader of 4th-6th level), warband (10-24 with worg mounts), or tribe (40-400 plus 1 3rd-level sergeant per 20 adults, 1 or 2 lieutenants of 4th or 5th level, 1 leader of 6th-8th level, 10-24 worgs, and 2-4 dire wolves)
Sort of makes sense, and gives the DM some ecology-sensible different options for the situation that presents itself. In the chart at the top I've just taken the highest grouping for each monster. Note again that in a number of cases (4 of 11) this winds up being a restatement of the numbers from back in 1E, and in the others, the numbers are modifications on about the same scale. There's no strict consistency to the modifications: orcs go down, gnolls stay the same, hobgoblins go up, etc.

A major thing that changes with 3E is this: Whereas all the prior editions had a "baseline world ecology" baked into the core rules in the form of comprehensive wilderness encounter tables (which went on for many pages in various AD&D books), 3E ends that practice. Instead (DMG Ch. 4), the DM must build their own, with a guideline that each terrain type should have a constant Encounter Level (EL) range -- and the numbers for each monster filled in appropriately to meet that EL. There's no explicit tie-in to the Organization grouping from the Monster Manual either: the important thing is that the EL be right, regardless of other ecology issues. 

Jointly with the preceding fact, there's no need to state that the numbers appearing are wilderness-only -- they may or may not be, as the area-based Encounter Level requires. (In contrast, there are comprehensive default dungeon encounter tables given in the DMG.) In addition: These rules have no general feature of fighter "sweep" attacks (Fighters must choose to spend a Feat slot on either the Cleave or Whirlwind Attack ability for that).

D&D 4th Edition

The remaining editions are left out of my chart at the top for a simple reason: they just don't have any "number appearing" stats in the monster descriptions at all. And they also don't have any premade encounter tables of any sort -- either for the dungeon or wilderness. 

What 4E does have (DMG Ch. 10) is a brief section describing how DMs might randomize encounters on the fly, by first rolling a difficulty level relative to the PCs, then an encounter template specifying the "roles" of the monsters in question, and then picking from appropriate-level monsters on an ad-hoc basis from the Monster Manual. So at this point we have no broad sense of "ecology" for different monsters, except insofar as they interact in a balanced fashion when fighting against PCs (as represented by the 5 "[combat] role" classifications in the game). We don't even have the 3E recommendation that different regions have different native danger levels -- rather, wherever the PCs go, that's how strong the monsters are.

D&D 5th Edition 

Like 4th edition, the 5E game has no built-in stock numbers for monster listings, and no premade encounter tables. In fact, there's even less guidance on the issue than in 4E. There's only 3 brief pages on the issue (DMG Ch. 2), with no distinction between dungeon/wilderness, no guidelines to gauge danger levels as in 3E/4E, and even a broad discouragement against the very idea:

Not every DM likes to use random encounters. You might find that they distract from your game or are otherwise causing more trouble than you want. If random encounters don't work for you, don't use them. 

And with that, the whole presentation of a sample world "ecology", monster organization by type, and random encounters in general, seems to be pretty much dead and buried.

Conclusions

In O/AD&D, the very idea of a monster included an inherent (if sketchy) idea of the "ecology" in terms of some kind of grouping behavior for the type, at least in the wilderness. Admittedly these numbers were connected/balanced to the presence of the fighter "sweep" attack mechanic. With 2E, as the "sweep" rule became non-core, the default wandering numbers were generally reduced for hostile normal monsters (and the same in B/X), even while lair numbers were kept identical. Later editions continued to squeeze the whole idea out of the system, until the only important thing was how balanced any given fight was against the PCs, or maybe that random wandering monsters should be disposed of entirely.

How do your prefer your wandering monster number stipulations? Should each monster type have a default "ecology" in terms of its grouping in the wilderness in the core rules? Or should it be left to individual DMs and campaigns? Should the monsters appearing be based more on the monster itself, the region of the campaign, or balanced to the PCs in the game at all times?

Monday, July 19, 2021

Surveys & Samples: Charm Person Redux

A few weeks ago, I shared the poll on charm person that I posed to the big 1E AD&D group on Facebook. Shortly after I did that, I also thought to ask the exact same question on the ODD74 forum ("What can a charm person force on an enemy fighter?", i.e., when ensorcelling an enemy in combat), thinking that the opinions might be very different. This actually got more responses there than any of my prior polls, I think (N = 32) -- and more importantly a really valuable ongoing discussion. (Link; account required.)

The results are given in the table above. Given that respondents could pick multiple options, the percentages shown aren't exactly right. Here are the corrected numbers, showing what percent of voters approved each option: 

  1. Attack former allies: 10 votes; 31% approval
  2. Defend the caster: 25 votes; 78% approval
  3. Surrender and disarm: 17 votes; 53% approval
  4. Flee the encounter: 16 votes; 50% approval
  5. Nothing: charm fails in combat: 2 votes; 6% approval

Now, the first thing that occurs to me is how surprisingly similar these results are the poll of AD&D players. Again in that case: there was clear majority support (around 80%) for "defend the caster"; around 50% support for fleeing or surrendering; just a minority (20-30%) that support "attack former allies"; and almost no support (6-8%) for the "nothing" option. 

That said, it's a bit awkward that the fleeing/surrender options consistently get around 50% support -- making that an issue of ongoing contention and no clear consensus. Personally, when I first created those options, I assumed that those were clearly weaker possibilities than "defend the caster" (participating in combat at all seems like more power to the spell, and seemingly more risk to the victim), and that therefore anyone picking the latter option would surely also pick the other two. Clearly I was incorrect. (Thanks to the Discord advance comments that coached me not to make the assumption that the options are all well-ordered.) 

On a personal note, it's fascinating to find out that I've been well off the reservation for most of my gaming career, because the option to "Attack former allies" was something I always enforced, reading the O/AD&D language as clearly permitting that (as well as almost any other direct control desire). But simultaneously, it did always bug me a bit as making for overly swingy combats. This is a case where I'm very happy to hear the voice of community experience. 

Also, one of the great parts of the ODD74 conversation was the observation of a fine distinction in the OD&D magic items of control. To wit: the potions of human, giant, and dragon control each refer back to the charm person/monster spells for their effect. But on the facing page, the ring of mammal control does something different: it says, "Control is complete, even to having the controlled mammals attack the others with it which are not controlled." See it seems like a compelling argument that the latter capacity ("complete control") is not included in the basic charm spells, or else it would not be so called out in this one case. (Big thanks to SebastianDM for picking up on that detail!)

So the next time I edit my custom Book of Spells, I'm pretty likely to edit in the limit against attacking former allies when charmed (or at least, you know, add a footnote on the issue). That would certainly have helped me on numerous occasions over the years in the past.

What's your justification for why fleeing/surrendering are considered by many to be less achievable than the "defend the caster" option?

Monday, July 12, 2021

Violence Inherent in the System (of Art)

Yesterday on the Wandering DMs channel we had the good luck to interview Goodman Games' Julian Bernick and Bob Brinkman, who gave us an inside look at their upcoming DCC Dying Earth boxed set (now on Kickstarter). One of the nifty things they highlighted was the achieved-stretch-goal of the "Supplemental art folio", which was of particular excitement to their backers -- including art from their all-star team of Doug Kovacs, Erol Otus, Russ Nicholson, and more. This brought a brief tangent to a thesis I've been developing for a while.

I've come to think that one of the biggest sensibility differences between old-school D&D art and and newer-school art is the amount of violence depicted against ostensibly player-character-types. I find that new-school illustrations are frequently "glamour shots" of presumed PCs. In these depictions, the adventurers look generally clean, rested, comfortable, and pretty.

In contrast, the art in early editions of D&D often depicted adventurers in general distress -- dirty, tired, surprised, shocked, terrified, fleeing, smothered, pierced, poisoned, and mangled. And the weight of the body structure was in realistic proportions that looked all-too-humanly fragile, not like models-bodybuilders-superheroes. Compare to actual medieval depictions such as in the Bayeux Tapestry (and the battle scenes on the far right side have a lower border literally covered with dying and dismembered bodies).

I won't argue that this was in all or even most of the art in classic D&D products. But it was frequent enough that flipping through any book you were bound to see a bunch of examples. It gave a signal that the PCs start out overshadowed by a world of lurking horrors, and weren't expected to come out victorious. The body count for early play could be remarkably high, and characters who did achieve levels above 1st were likely the exception, not the rule. 

I think I briefly posted this thought on social media a while back, and got some pushback on it. In the interest of providing citations for scholarship (as well as comment and criticism), here are some of the memorable pieces from 1st Edition AD&D products. (These are by no means comprehensive; in the interest of brevity I've rather painfully limited myself to a half-dozen per source.)

PHB and DMG



Monster Manual






Fiend Folio






Adventure Modules






Conclusions

So I think that's a pretty airtight case, that flipping through the earliest 1st Edition materials, you're going to get the idea that in D&D, player-character life is cheap. (Note that almost all the pieces above date from 1979 or ealier.)

Of course, the monster books tend to lean a bit more heavily on this theme, for at least two reasons: (1) they simply had a lot more art than other books, and there was close to a commitment that every monster needed to be separately illustrated, and (2) it was the stage for the monsters to "shine" and show off their most horrible features. The work in the UK-produced Fiend Folio is particularly gruesome.

Among the artists who amplified this tone (with several examples above) were of course Erol Otus and Russ Nicholson, who are still pumping out awesome work today (as in the DCC Dying Earth set).

While mainstream D&D has moved off from these possibly transgressive themes, other product lines like DCC and Warhammer maintain the root in Lovecraftian-inspired horror. (On the other hand, something like the work for Hackmaster, from what little I've seen, doesn't thrill me, as it seems to veer into horror-comedy. On the third hand, Erol Otus has successfully done work for it, as well as D&D and DCC, so it's impossible to draw a hard line in the sand on the issue.)

Do you agree that's a fairly stark distinction between early D&D art and the modern products? 

What are the pieces that stuck in your mind the most, that I overlooked here?

(And you might be interested in other discussions we've had about Art in D&D here and here.)