Monday, May 3, 2021

Richard Garfield: Getting Lucky

Game Developer magazine was a publication for professionals in the video game industry that ran from 1994 to 2013. It was a pretty big deal at one time, with postmortem development-process analyses by developers of some of the largest games, annual surveys on salaries and tools, cutting-edge technical tips, and so forth.

My favorite article was published in the November 2006 issue, written by Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering. (Have I mentioned that the 2nd company I worked for, where I first met my good friend Paul, came in 2nd in a bid to make MtG Online? Maybe another time.) 

This article, titled "Getting Lucky", became one of the most influential insights that affected my game development ever since. I found the argument to be completely compelling, and an invaluable call-out to a significant risk in the ways that games evolve over time. Garfield has said similar things in other interviews, videos, lectures, etc. since, but -- people of the written word as we are in these parts -- I find that this presentation he personally crafted in writing to be the clearest and starkest communication of the idea.

Many times over the years I've wanted to share a link so others could read Garfield's "Getting Lucky" -- but was always frustrated that it appeared nowhere online, and seemed to have just dropped off the planet or anyone's awareness. Finally. I'm just going to post it here, so it can be shared with others, as it so highly deserves to be.

The article's introductory section says this:

I can find a board or card game for any group of players. Game players or people who never played games, old or young, in large or small numbers, with confrontational or passive personalities—there are games out there for them all. While I weigh many factors in choosing a game, by far the most important is the amount of luck inherent to the gameplay. If the game has a lot of luck, it usually appeals to a diverse group. Games in the non-electronic world are widely varied in luck, but computer games are a different story, as very few of them allow any real chance for a beginner to win against a skilled opponent. The number of electronic games I can play with my parents, kids, wife, or friends from outside the game industry is extremely limited.

Historically, games usually evolved in such a way as to reduce the amount of luck in them. Even chess at one time had dice. The people who are in a position to modify a game are likely to be very good at it, and the sort of modifications they will be drawn toward are the ones that showcase their talents and their friends’ talents—although they, of course, are all top players.

In other words, as games evolve, they tend to become better for the experts, but not necessarily better for new or non-dedicated players. A game that illustrates this conflict is Settlers of Catan, one of the best-selling board games of recent years. The only consistent criticism I have heard leveled at it (always from dedicated gamers) is that it has too much luck. But it’s rather possible that the abundance of luck is exactly what made the game so wide-reaching.

Enlightened players, skilled or not, will appreciate luck in their games for a number of reasons. First, they can play challenging games with a much broader audience, allowing them to easily assemble a galley of players and lure their friends, who would otherwise play something else, into the game. Second, if skilled players want to experiment and try off-the-wall strategies, the more luck a game has, the more forgiving it is — after all, no one is expected to win every time. The only cost of all these terrific benefits is that skillful players must manage to swallow their pride and settle for winning a majority of the time, rather than all the time.

We gamemakers are at a special time in game history. Fifty years ago, games were made with no credit to the designers or perhaps had no designers at all, with changes being wrought by players over time. But our nascent game design community tends to comprise game experts; it’s in our best interest to examine our own instincts openly with regard to how much luck should be in a game.

For the purposes of comment, criticism, scholarship, and research, here's a link to the full article. You should read it! And then leave a comment (or a piece of criticism, scholarship, or research) on your takeaways from Richard Garfield's observations here. 

Richard Garfield: Getting Lucky

Monday, April 26, 2021

Shooting at Groups

For your consideration: Here's a new rule I recently drafted for my OED House Rules to handle shooting into large groups of combatants (like into a melee, or an advancing goblin horde). I'm actually kind of delighted by it, but I fear I might be the only person willing to actually implement it.

First, recall a few things about how I run my OD&D. I use a ranged modifier of −1 per 10 feet distance, because that matches a rather large amount of research we've compiled on the blog in the past. Second, I'm working on the continuing project to dial in mass-warfare mechanics well for the Book of War game (hopefully in an upcoming 2nd edition). 

Both of these goals span the man-to-man case and huge-army cases. An aphorism I now use as foundational is: Shooting a man at a hundred yards is impossible, while shooting an army is certain success. (Practically speaking.) Previously in OED I had two different rules to handle the two different cases. The binary switchover has troubled me for a while, and raised a few reasonable questions recently. (I dare say in my head this echoed the conflict in physics between relativity and quantum mechanics.)

So I did some computer simulations and scribbled out some math (I'll spare you that here), and then realized that I could round things off to a rule I could hold easily in my head, and give a smoothly continuous switchover between the two cases. So here's what I just edited into my next draft of the OED rules. First:

Errant Shots

Errant Shots: Fumbled or random attacks into groups are assessed with a d20 roll that ignores attacker skill and range modifiers.

Like the text says, this is a mechanic that I will (and have in the past) used for a few different cases. If someone gets in a fumble situation where they attack themselves or a friend, we invoke this. (Rules where a fumble results in automatic-damage against a heavily armored ally have always ground my gears, or even a normal attack roll as if the fumbler was aiming the perfect attack against a weak spot.) Also a shot against a faraway, large group will trigger this mechanic. (Likewise: close-up an archer should be able to target a vulnerable point on the target, whereas far away this level of skill is impossible.) 

To be clear, in an "errant shot", the attacker's base attack bonus gets ignored. I would want to apply the defender's AC as usual, and I guess also any weapon-vs-armor effect, and magic as well. But to date any time this has happened for me it's just the player rolling a raw d20, and me applying the defender's AC (under the standard Target 20 resolution process). Now consider this:

Shots at Groups

Shots at Groups: Attack rolls (including range, but before AC addition) below 10 miss a man-sized target. Each adjacent man gives a 1 pip chance under 10 to trigger an errant shot against a random target in the group.

As usual, I write that with some curtness in the document. What that means is for a close group of N man-sized combatants, the DM computes 10 − N, and an attack roll from that number up to 10 indicates a shot that completely missed the individual target -- but, close enough to possibly strike someone else nearby (randomly determined, and adjudicated the with the "errant shot" rule above). Some examples:

  • Say an archer shoots at an opponent in melee with a single one of their friends. Then a modified attack roll (again: including range but before target AC is considered) of exactly 9 -- no more and no less -- triggers an errant shot against the friend.
  • Next, the archer shoots at a squad of 5 men-at-arms approaching angrily. In this case an attack roll of 5-9 results in an errant shot check against a random one of the men.
  • Ten goblins are running together down a hallway and the shooter makes an attack. Now an attack roll of 0-9 results in an errant shot.
  • A formation of 20 orcs is posted outside a cave. In this case, any modified attack roll from −10 up to 9 triggers an errant shot. 

As you can see, for very large groups at very long range, the mechanic makes it more and more likely that an errant shot against a random target will be invoked. Obviously, the DM should be encouraged to round these numbers off to convenient values -- myself, I'd probably round it to units of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, etc. I've set it up so the lower bound is found by subtracting from 10 to make it as easy as possible. 

Moreover, the DM should be encouraged to invoke the errant shot rule immediately if it's clear that the shooter simply can't hit an individual man-sized target at the range in question. As a quick rule-of-thumb, if the range penalty is 10 points more than the shooter's fighter level, then they pretty much can't hit anything without a natural 20 (and you should just break to the random shot immediately).

To be completely clear, we're assuming that attack rolls that score 10 or higher are actually on-target, but are fended off by the person's armor if the final resolution (including AC) fails to indicate a hit. Note that this mechanic simulates attack values just a bit below hitting as indicating arrows zipping close by the target (the lower the roll, the further away). And it also allows you to separate out the effect of a critical-miss (natural 1), if you so choose. 

Let's momentarily consider a possibly alternative rule that comes to mind: If a shot doesn't hit, then a natural die-roll in the range from 1-N against N men triggers an errant shot (ignoring natural-1 fumbles momentarily). Seems nice. But the problem here is that it loses visibility of the range in which the shot was actually on-target but stopped by armor (which should be significant for heavily-armored figures). I suppose you could say that a roll of 1 - N (for N men) triggers an errant shot, unless the modified roll is in the range of 10 + AC to 20, in which case it was stopped by the original target's armor. But now you're tracking two different ranges instead of one, and that seems worse to me. (Plus this implies that both very high and very low rolls indicate close-to-the-target shots, while rolls in the middle indicate shots further away, which feels confusing and wrong.) So I would shy away from that alternate proposal.

Aside from all that, another thing that fairly excited me was that the same piece of math that generated this rule also spawned a really nifty rule for handling missile shots in Book of War at targets of unusual size, like solo heroes on the field -- but more on that later.

What do you think of that rule? I've used what I'm calling the "errant shot" mechanic before, but haven't tested the "shots at groups" at the table before -- but I'm pretty confident that would work for me. Would you want to try using that? Anything I could improve in the explanation?

Monday, April 19, 2021

Rumors, Information, and Legends

Medieval woman whispering to another
Original D&D has what I think is a marvelous little rule about gathering news, baked right into the core books (Vol-3, p. 23). This didn't get copied forward into any later edition, and it's at the bottom of a certain page in the DM's booklet, amidst unrelated information about hiring specialists and men-at-arms, so I think it's commonly forgotten. Here it is:

Obviously that's just loosely suggestive of the content of the news, and DMs can move in whatever direction they want with that. Reading it closely right now, I'll point out that the opening "Such activity as advertising" is referring to the immediately preceding section on advertising to hire men-at-arms and specialists ("Post notices in conspicuous places, stating the positions open and who is offering such employ; or have servitors circulate in public places, seeking such persons as are desired.") So read narrowly, the first 3 sentences seem to be thinking mostly about notable PC activity in town (maybe planning for competing groups of PCs keeping tabs on each other in a very large campaign?); and then very last sentence on legends seems to be a different thing ("to lead players into some form of activity"). 

So in my last campaign, I used this to basically drive all the action that was happening. Aside from the very opening of the campaign, there were no quests given, hiring boards, adventuring patrons, etc., unless the players first paid to gather rumors at the local tavern. So most sessions would open up with PCs going to the tavern with their current funds and gathering some new rumors this way (I charge the higher cost, 10-60 gold pieces based on a die roll; or in my silver-standard campaign, the analogous 10-60 silver pieces). I kind of like the flavor of this, of the PCs being essentially proactive in their nosing around for opportunities for loot and magic to steal from somewhere, and not an economy where "adventuring" is some kind of recognized industry. Also it kind of feels like an ante or blind payment before a hand of poker gets started.

Now, this keys into the trope that many early D&D adventure modules have, of a "list of rumors" table near the start of the adventure, which get handed out partially to PCs at the start, usually at random. (See D&D modules B1, B2, Top Secret TS001... and many retro-products like the DCC line and Rappan Athuk, etc.) Of course, the requirement for advance payment was already lost by the time published adventure modules became a thing -- and in some sense it makes sense for 1st-level characters in these cases, likely cash-constrained, to get a few for free to get started.

So I tried that same idiom in my campaign; drafting a list or lists of rumors, and dicing for which one to give out when the PCs went rumor-gathering. This attempt initially had a few problems, and I had to evolve it a bit before I got to something that seemed to work.

First, an early attempt had mostly "vague oracular idea-generators", that I probably yanked off an online adventure generator. The problem is that in-game I didn't own these, didn't really have a concrete idea on how to back them up, and they were usually so overwhelmingly weird and enticing that the players generally would pursue them exclusively, and not go anywhere near content I'd actually prepared. My attempts to fill in those ideas on the fly weren't that great (maybe not my forte, or I wasn't truly interested in them).

Second, after that, I started writing custom rumors about campaign locations that I had prepared. The problem here is that over a campaign, any list I'd write would get depleted relatively quickly. Do I just repeat the same rumor if it gets re-rolled on the table? Players felt deflated from that. So then I was crossing stuff off the table, and over time rolling more and more dice to get to an unused option. In either case, at some point the list would be totally used up. So then I was committing to writing a new rumor after a session to replace any that was shared, and my hand-written list started getting more and more cramped with overwritten replacements and the whole thing became totally unreadable. Ugh. 

Finally, I threw in the towel on that and decided to systematically improvise rumors about existing locations anytime they came up. This seemed to be what clicked, and I got at least a few compliments about how this felt in-game. The essential idea was this:

  • Roll a random location (which already exists in the campaign).
  • Roll for a true or false rumor: 2-in-6 it's false (based on the proportion seen in the B1, B2, TS001 lists).
  • Improvise the delivery of some detail in that location, and who in the tavern is telling it.
  • In any case, make sure that the detail given is something that will drive the action (an enticing true or false treasure, a promising strategy against some monster or trap, etc.)

So with this, I had an infinite-rumor generator that worked pretty well, and required no advance work or documentation. It also seemed that my "creative juices" flowed a lot better to fill in the rumor while my adrenaline was up mid-game, versus when I'd try to write stuff pre-game by myself at home.

What counts as a "location"? Well, you can shape that to taste (and I modified it over time). Some things I did:

  • When the action is mostly focused on a megadungeon, I'd roll for a random level, and then roll for a random location on that level. Or: maybe roll for the "current" level the PCs have recently been exploring, plus the next 1 or 2 (i.e., a d3 for level). That can keep it a bit tighter to things the PCs can achieve mid-term.
  • In the wilderness, roll for a numbered encounter location, and drop some tidbit about that place.
  • Sometimes I would even drop information about custom game rules in use for in the campaign that the players would be unlikely to know about. (Stuff of interest here would be bulleted in advance.)
  • Or, obviously, a combination: I think at one point I was dicing 1-3: megadungeon drop,  4-5: wilderness, 6: rules info.

This seemed very elegant to me, and it's what I'm still using today.

A couple other notes:

  • On the theme of game rules that "players would be unlikely to know about", note that this Rumors rule is itself in that class. It's both (a) hidden in the DM's book, and (b) not in any edition but Original. So make sure this is communicated to your players. Personally, I hand-added it to the Basic Equipment and Costs table. Then, I let my players "discover" the extra thing in the stuff-to-buy list, which was a nice moment (obviously if your players aren't as observant as mine, modify that).
  • This, combined with the monthly upkeep costs (OD&D 1% of XP per month), plus payments for healing potions, are the primary ways that extra cash gets sucked out of the PCs' pockets, and I think it worked well. Depending on success at the game, some PCs could get a nice store of jewelry, while others were begging for help at the start of each session from the richer ones (in a campaign that went up to about 6th level).
  • Note that this is sort of the inverse of the popular "carousing" rules. My method here happens at the start of an adventure, and directs PCs to some location that's already detailed in the campaign by the DM. Carousing rules, of course, are used at the end of an adventure, and (in the vague not-owned-by-your-campaign sourcing) generate ideas for new or improvised adventures. For me, I really prefer the flow of my rumors system better. And I really don't want to be handing out hundreds of XP based on a random roll outside of an actual adventuring session. Obviously your mileage may vary, and many people really really love those carousing rules. 
  • Also it differs from something like Justin Alexander's proposed Urbancrawl system, which creates a very elaborate, and very detailed, matrix of interconnecting relationships that one must work in a network to get information out of the town setting. My system here abstracts almost all of that away; I tend to make up a "character telling you this" on the fly, but you could skip even that and just say, "you hear that...".

Would you try something like that, or have you in the past? Tell me about your experiences!

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Monday, March 22, 2021

Suloise Tomb Architecture

Outside two ruined tomb structures

Today I'm happy to feature a guest post from our friend Angela Black, who wrote to me with what I thought was a clever idea for establishing standard architectural/layout detail for Suloise tombs in the World of Greyhawk. A stylistic notion like this is both (a) realistic to the world as we know it, and (b) jumps-starts the design for possibly many such tombs scattered throughout the campaign world, without needing to come up with a brand new design concept for every one of them. I'll let Angela explain in her own words:


In my campaign world, loosely based on Greyhawk, the Suel fill the role of the Roman Empire in medieval Europe - they used to own all this land, but they're gone now, and they've left behind interesting ruins and whatnot. Specifically, I stipulate that the Suel buried important dead people underground in elaborate tomb complexes filled with offerings to glorify the dead, so as to have a handy excuse for "dungeons" more or less where-ever I need them to be (in addition, of course, to the usual adventure-sites, which may or may not be connected to the Suel, like abandoned fortresses and ruined temples and so on).

It occurred to me, however, that such places in the real world tend to have common, identifiable characteristics - that is, buildings intended by a particular culture to serve a particular purpose usually share common features and maybe even a standard layout. And in a flash I realized how useful it would be to have a general notion of these features when it came time to design a dungeon. What IS the "typical" Suel tomb like? I don't have to pick up a blank piece of graph paper and stare at it until drops of blood form on my forehead - I can approach the same way the (fictional) people who (fictionally) built it would have approached it, with a "pre-loaded" set of ideas about what it must include and how those spaces would be connected to each other.

So, as an exercise in world-building and as a tool for future use as a DM, I wrote up a little archaeological-style report on the "Standard Features of a Suel Tomb." I thought you might find it interesting as an example of how a DM might approach such a thing. It could serve not only as a rubric for one's own use, but also, in part or in whole, as lore to give to players whose characters might actually know this kind of stuff. Of course, it could also be fun to watch the players put together over the course of a campaign that there really are certain standard, predictable features to these things!

Outer Tomb

Devotional Sepulcher

A round room, underground but open to the air without a door, that contains a sarcophagus, which itself contains a symbolic representation of the deceased. This symbolic representation may be anything from an item of clothing to the body of one of the deceased’s servants – there is no general rule. The walls of the Devotional Sepulcher are decorated to illustrate the life of the deceased; If the tomb’s occupant was especially important, there might be one or even two Siderooms attached to the Devotional Sepulcher (see below).

The Devotional Sepulcher is where people can come to pay devotion to the deceased, so there are typically small offerings, some of which might be valuable, in this room. Generally, the traffic of admirers to the tomb will keep it from becoming a nesting place for any animals except inconsequential vermin, but if the tomb is forgotten or in a distant location, larger and more dangerous beasts may have taken up residence.


If the deceased was particularly important, additional rooms might be constructed in the outer tombs. These are always smaller, rectangular rooms opening off from the Devotional Sepulcher without doors, decorated with murals or even statuary that reference particularly notable events of the deceased’s life. A Sideroom might likewise have some offerings, as noted under the description of the Devotional Sepulcher.

Inner Tomb

The Outer Tomb exists only to satisfy the need to revere the dead – the dead themselves are hidden in the Inner Tomb. The Suel, however, felt it very important the honored dead receive their due, and the Inner Tomb must always be connected to the Outer Tomb, so that the offerings made in the Outer Tomb are properly directed.

As such, behind one of the walls in the Devotional Sepulcher (or, very rarely, one of the Siderooms) will be the Entry Hall to the Inner Tomb. This Inner Tomb is not intended to be entered by anyone, so the masonry will be solid, but that does not mean it is impassable – tomb robbers are not often deterred by a little work with a pickaxe. The masonry is invariably painted to look like the rest of the wall in the Devotional Sepulcher, but a sharp eye can determine where to start working.

In remote tombs or ones difficult to reach, the masonry wall has likely already been breached, but entry into the Inner Tomb is only the first obstacle, as shall be seen.

Entry Hall

The Suel, always very proper, always build an Entry Hall into the Inner Tomb, even though it was never made to be entered. The Entry Hall is constructed in typical Suel fashion, a wide rectangular space with a high ceiling, decorated on the floor, ceiling, and wall so as to indicate the owner of the abode – in this case, the deceased.

The Entry Hall is also the first line of defense against would-be grave robbers. This typically takes the form of a magic mouth warning intruders to turn back, as well as perhaps some kind of trap, such as a spiked pit or even a glyph of warding. If the deceased was extremely important, there may even be a permanent wall of fire blocking further progress. Undead are never intentionally placed in the Entry Hall, however.

There is always one and only one exit to the entry hall, a portal with no door opposite to the ingress. This invariably opens to a set of stairs going down, which leads to the Hallways. The stairs are a crucial feature, as they symbolize the descent into the underworld, and they are, owing to their ritual function, never trapped.


After taking the stairs down from the Entry Hall, would-be robbers enter the Hallways. There must be enough rooms in the Inner Tomb to properly honor the deceased, and these are always connected to a series of winding halls – the Hallways, which provide access to the Devotional Rooms and the Shrine.

However, the Hallways are also part of the Inner Tomb’s defenses against intruders. They are intended to be confusing, decorated with repetitive designs and wind about in no discernible pattern, criss-crossing and sometimes leading to dead-ends. They are also commonly littered with traps of the usual kind – spiked pits, poison darts from the walls, and so forth; for this reason, the Hallways always use a tiled floor, the better to conceal the trigger mechanisms for traps. The Hallways also typically have at least a few secret doors, concealed by the architecture and the patterns of the paintings on the walls, which lead to other sections of the Hallways. The Hallways sometimes incorporate stairs that go up or down, but as these have no ritual purpose, they may be trapped, unlike the stairs descending from the Entry Hall.

Obviously, after so long, some of the traps in the Hallways will be non- or only partially-functional, and some that may have been triggered by tomb robbers will have failed to reset. Likewise, if the tomb has been opened and is remote enough, wild beasts may have made lairs in the Hallways.

Devotional Rooms

In the Inner Tomb, there are always at least two Devotional Rooms – one to honor the deceased and one to honor the deceased’s family. However, there are also rooms to commemorate significant events in the deceased’s life, so for anyone important enough to have a full tomb, there will be at least a few extra Devotional Rooms.

The Devotional Room for the deceased will be treated separately and is more properly known as the True Tomb (see below). The other Devotional Rooms are always alike – large, high-ceilinged square rooms, filled with devotional treasures and featuring not only decorative murals that depict the event or the deceased’s family, as appropriate, but also a stela, in the center of the room, which details the event or describe the family. It may or may not have other exits, concealed or obvious, back to the Hallways, but it never opens onto another Devotional Room. It is possible, however, that access to other sections of the Hallways can only be gained by passing through a Devotional Room.

The treasures are simply meant as offerings to the deceased and will be of value proportional to the glory and fame of the deceased. Sometimes, there might be an item relevant to the event, whether a piece of art, a weapon, or something else. For the family’s Devotional Room, however, there are always a few items that commemorate the family, usually things that were precious to them. There may be statuary depicting the family in the family’s Devotional Room, as well, but this is not consistent. If such statuary is present, it is ornamental and serves no ritual function, and so may well be trapped or even enchanted to animate and attack intruders (though such enchantments are rare and expensive).

What is consistent, however, is that the Devotional Rooms are well-protected. The most basic method is the use of skeletons who will mindlessly attack any living creature that enters the room, but for particularly important people, a few mummies might be found, as well. Such rooms are also sometimes protected by common traps or magical deterrents like glyphs of warding.

The Shrine

Somewhere in the Inner Tomb is a shrine to the god of the dead. This shrine is almost never connected to the Hallways in an obvious way – it may be connected to the Hallways by a secret door or perhaps even connected to one of the Devotional Rooms, either in an obvious way or by secret door. The Shrine is always protected by a glyph of warding at minimum and will usually have mechanical traps and undead guardians as well. It always contains a statute of the god of the dead as well as tablets or stelae with devotional prayers affirming the supreme status of the god of the dead and so on. Treasure is not usually found in this room, but there are rare exceptions – it has been recorded on at least a few occasions that the priests of the god of the dead have stored valuable objects d’art or even magic items in The Shrine. It is unclear why: sometimes the objects are situated in the open but sometimes they are well-concealed and protected. In any case, the Shrine is not intended to be entered, even in a metaphorical way; where the Shrine is connected to the rest of the Inner Tomb with an obvious door, the door is sealed, and where connected with a secret or concealed door, that door is always trapped. The usual caveats apply, of course – if the tomb has previously been breached, and the Shrine discovered already, it’s possible any traps will have been triggered and perhaps not reset, and likewise possible that some animal or monster will have taken up residence therein.

True Tomb

The True Tomb is the genuine resting place of the deceased. It is much like other devotional rooms except larger and more grandly decorated, with murals and/or statuary depicting the deceased in a variety of glorious poses. It will have a stela standing against the wall opposite the entrance that praises the deceased, and in the center of the room will be the genuine sarcophagus. Devotional treasures of the highest value are piled on tables against the walls or in the corners. In some cases, the True Tomb will have a mezzanine level, the better to provide space for depicting the glory of the occupant, but there are never stairs to this level (evidence from unfinished tombs indicates works would use ladders to complete and stock the mezzanine level, which would then be removed along with other tools and materials).

There is always only one entrance to the True Tomb, and it is intentionally very difficult to access, usually behind several series of secret doors in the Hallways. Aside from (possibly) the Shrine, the True Tomb alone in the whole Inner Tomb has a door, and it will certainly be trapped and/or warded. Within, there will be deterrents more deadly than anywhere else in the tomb (except, again possibly, the Shrine) –a contingent of skeletons commanded by a skeleton warrior, a small group of mummies, a clay golem, or perhaps even a demon that has been summoned and bound into service as a guardian. Of course, “more deadly than anywhere else in the tomb” is relative to the status of the deceased; at least a few Suel tombs have been recorded which were, shall we say, “aspirational” on the part of the occupant, with most available funds being spent on the mere construction of the tomb, leaving little for defenses.

The genuine sarcophagus is always trapped and/or warded as well, though with good reason – not only does it contain the remains of the deceased, it also contains any significant items associated with them, such as special weapons. Or rather, it contains such items in theory – in far more cases than the Suel would have been likely to admit, highly desirable weapons and other powerful items were replaced with copies which were buried with the deceased so that the items could be secretly passed to relatives. However, even the most grasping relations would not be so bold as to replace a powerful item with a mere bit of brass; when such substitutions were made, a less powerful but still genuinely magical item was always used. It was not considered wise in Suel culture to tax too greatly the patience of the god of the dead.

Open Questions

Dan back here again -- I thought that was a really interesting piece of fantasy architectural digest. Thanks so much to Angela! And a follow-up idea that I immediately had: How hard would it be to code up an online generator for that particular "style" of dungeon (maybe with selections for small, medium, or large-sized Suel tomb)? Anyone else have an itch to make that happen?

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Big Mistake in Weapon vs. Armor Adjustments

Players of 1E AD&D duel with the most heavy-weight table in the PHB (p. 38): the "Weapon Types, General Data, and 'To Hit' Adjustment" table, which includes Armor Class Adjustments, intended to recreate the matchups of certain weapons versus certain classes of armor. 

AD&D 1E PHB Weapon TYpes Table

It's among the more complicated things in the game. On the one hand, they're not listed as variants or optional rules; and they're ingrained to the DMG example of combat -- so many 1E players do pound these these tables into their games, determined to faithfully use them no matter how awkward they are. On the other hand, at least as many players of the game overlooked them, and Gary Gygax is even on record as saying the same thing. Let's document a few quotes:

I did not use psionics, generally ignored weapons vs. armor type and weapon speed. – Gary Gygax, ENWorld Q&A, 24th January, 2003

There is often player pressure to add complexities and complications to rules and systems, such additions being urged in areas that the players like and believe to be critical to enjoyment of the game. I did that for some writing in OAD&D and regretted it considerably thereafter – mainly weapons vs. armor types and psionics. – Gary Gygax, ENWorld Q&A, 24th July, 2003

In all, I included the details because of insistance of some avid palyers that were in touch with me, regretted listening to them, for the RPG is not suited to combat simulation... As I noted above, we never used the weapons vs. armor type adjustments. – Gary Gygax, ENWorld Q&A, 7th September, 2005

He elsewhere says the same thing for the Space Required value given to each weapon; that is, Gygax wants to entirely ignore everything on the weapons table taking up all of AD&D PHB p. 38. (And his son Luke Gygax reiterated the same thesis when we interviewed on him on the Wandering DMs, the day after I wrote this.) But if that's the case, where exactly did these numbers come from? Were they ever playtested? The questioner on ENWorld Sep-7 2005 asks this question, but Gary lightly dodges it.

As usual, the answer is given more clearly if we take a step back to the Original D&D texts. Essentially these same modifiers first show up in an earlier table in OD&D Supplement-I, Greyhawk, p. 13-14. (I'll show a recreation of that chart a bit later.) Right before this table Gary writes the source for these numbers: 

For those who wish to include weapon types in the determination of hit probabilities the following matrix drawn from the “Hand-To-Hand Combat” section of CHAINMAIL is offered. If this system is used it is suggested that the separate damage by weapon type and monster type also he employed.

Okay, so we need to take one more step back to Chainmail and to the actual origin of these numbers. Here's the earliest expression of that work to which I have access, from Chainmail 2nd Edition (p.37):


Notice the presentation here is different; the numbers in Chainmail aren't modifiers to D&D-style attack rolls; they're final target numbers for the attack. That is, this system effectively assumes that all combatants are the same level and strength ("normal men", you might say), with the basic factor in this system being only the weapon and armor employed on each side. (They're also target numbers on a 2d6 roll, instead of D&D's d20 roll, but that's not the most important thing.) So how do those different systems correlate? Note that Gygax is a bit cagey on this point -- he says, "the following matrix drawn from the 'Hand-To-Hand Combat' section of CHAINMAIL", but he doesn't say exactly how it was drawn. And here's where the math comes in, which allows us to pierce the veil, and see exactly what he did.

I've tried a few things, and I won't present all the failed investigative paths on my part, but here's the recreation that works the best. Gary first takes the average of all the target numbers in the Chainmail table; we'll call this the "base to hit", and it works out to about 7.8, or simply 8 if you round it off. Now he just subtracts every number in the table from this base value of 8 to see what the effective modifier is in each weapon-vs-armor combination. That's it; pretty simple, actually.

You can see these computed differences compared to the numbers that appear in Greyhawk below (and afterward, mostly repeated in AD&D). The numbers match very closely; this is clearly what Gary did.

Chainmail Man-to-Man Melee Chart and Conversion

Greyhawk Weapon Adjustments and Errors

More detail on exactly how closely these match: As shown in the last table above, most of the entries in Greyhawk vary from our computation by either 0 or 1 pips. The sum of all the differences in the entire table from our formula-based conversion is only 30 pips total. Hypothetically, if you use any number other than "8" as the basis (the average of all the targets in the Chainmail table), then you get much more divergent differences (far bigger sum of absolute errors).

In the number of cases where our formula differs from what appears in Greyhawk, clearly Gary was bothered by the larger penalties, and shaved them down to something less onerous. In particular, it looks like he was especially troubled by the line for "Spear"; with our formula it mostly has penalties all down the line, up to a hefty "−4". Gary joins many of us amateur historians in recognizing the spear as a dominant force on the real-world battlefield, and in response, dials down the penalties by about half. That's the only row in our "Absolute Error" table where the adjustments are as much as 2 points off our calculated formula; and we empathize with that. 

But wait. 

If the Spear made sense in Chainmail, then why is the translated version giving us such a headache in Greyhawk, anyway?

Can you see the gaping flaw in the conversion method?

It's huge, and it's obvious, but I didn't see it for four decades, and I've never seen anyone else point it out.

I'll give you a minute to think about it.







It fails to recognize the built-in protective value of the armor in the Chainmail table. 

Even if your "base to hit" in Chainmail was 8, it shouldn't be 8 all the way down the line. It should be naturally adjusted by some amount for each step of increased armor protection, even before the weapon effect gets involved. (In D&D, we expect a natural 1-point extra difficulty in hitting per step of armor; it's not explicit in Chainmail, but maybe 1/2-point per step in the 2d6 mechanic would be fair.)

And as a result, you can't just be subtracting from 8, you should be subtracting from 8, 9, 10, 11, etc. depending on the armor type at the top of the table. Whoops!

Let me be more specific by highlighting a single row and thinking about the story that it tells. Here's the Mace line in Chainmail. It is in fact pretty much just 8's all the way across. The story this tells is, "Screw your armor! Whatever armor you wear, I just ignore it. Maces reduce all worn armor to the same as 'none'". 

Mace 8 8 8 9 8 8 7 8

And here's the row for the Mace in Greyhawk . It is pretty much 0's all the way across. The story this tells is, "The mace is helpless against all armor! Whatever armor you wear, you get the full protective benefit against the mace. Maces have zero capacity to help you punch through heavier armor."

Mace 0 +1 0 0 0 0 0 0

(Remember that you need to flip one of the rows left-to-right to synch up with the reversed ordering of armor types in those two books; I picked this case for convenience in that regard.)

And those are precisely opposite stories, right? Maces reduce all armor to null-value in Chainmail, but give no benefit whatsoever in O/AD&D. And which of those two stories is more in synch with our real-world historical understanding? Chainmail, yea; O/AD&D, nay.

You can repeat this inspection row-by-row all throughout the tables. Wherever Chainmail indicated an advantage over heavy armor, in O/AD&D this turns into no advantage. Where Chainmail indicated no advantage, this turned into a hefty penalty in O/AD&D (for example, the Spear).

Yikes. I'm pretty sure this is the biggest numerical error I've ever seen in the legacy of D&D, and I do think it seems to have escaped everyone's noticed for lo these 45 years and counting. 

So I'd say that any 1E players who are still engaged in this gnashing-of-teeth exercise with these tables would be wise to put it to bed, because the whole effect of those tables in O/AD&D was fundamentally broken all along. It doesn't even begin to serve the purpose that they're allegedly for. I'm guessing that they were never playtested at Gary's table -- again, he was vehement that he never used them, and was essentially disinterested in the whole project -- but once they got printed and published, everyone took it on faith that they were reasonable ever after. But they very much weren't.

Mea culpa on my own part for not ever noticing this before. I was amazed when this finally dawned on me a short while ago.

To your knowledge, did anyone ever point out this arithmetic-modeling mistake previously? Can you think of any reason to use these tables as-written today? Or would you be amenable to a series of corrected, rationalized tables for this purpose?

Get a spreadsheet for this comparison here.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Friday Figures: Fighter Multiattacks

Do hero-types get multiple attacks vs. 1 HD creatures? 16 Yes, 1 No.

Here's another poll I ran on the ODD74 boards a while back. This dovetails with our article Monday on running mass fights in classic D&D -- we highlighted there how critical for balance purposes the original rule was in which fighters got a number of attacks equal to their level against normal (circa 1 HD) opponents. 

That's not a rule that appears anywhere in the Holmes Basic/B-X/BECMI line, or editions of D&D from 3E on. It's not even explicitly stated for fighters in the OD&D books themselves. It's not a rule that I really like design-wise. So at the time I was myself rather skeptical, and asked the community if they really played by that rule. (On the other hand, it is explicit in Chainmail Fantasy and 1E AD&D, so I wouldn't bother to ask this question in a forum for those rulesets.)

Many of these poll-presentations are meant to spotlight the fact that many pretty basic mechanics in Original D&D have wildly varying interpretations -- that there is no one true OD&D game (even for essential things like initiative, the action sequence, morale, etc.). But this is not one of those things. Somewhat to my surprise at the time, the response here was very lopsided: Almost everyone agreed that was a core rule. We got 16 "yes" votes, only 1 "no", and 0 "other". So I spent a bit of time re-evaluating the evidence, and why I was so far out in left field on the issue.

Briefly, here's where the evidence led me to think maybe "no":

  • The multiattacks rule is explicit in the Chainmail Fantasy rules (prior to OD&D); it's the essential way in which heroes & superheroes operate.
  • The rule is also explicit in the AD&D 1E PHB (after OD&D); it's given as a key ability for the fighter class and its sub-classes.
  • Some people point to a paragraph in OD&D Vol-2 (the Monsters book), p. 5, that says everything gets a number of attacks according to their hit dice vs. normal men. I don't find that to be persuasive, because (a) it's in the monster book and not explicit for PC fighters, and (b) no one I know has ever run D&D combat that way for monsters. 

But on closer inspection, there's two places where Gary wrote about OD&D that imply the intended answer was "yes":

  • The Strategic Review #2 has an OD&D FAQ, with an example of combat in which a 4th-level fighter gets 4 attacks per round against orcs (strangely doing so unarmed, but moving on...)
  • Swords & Spells p. 1, paragraph 2, notes that a solo 12th level fighter will do 1.2 times the damage given normally for a 1:10 scale figure, which works out to be the same thing. 

So in total: The fighter-multiattacks rule is written into Gary's rules before OD&D, after OD&D, in the FAQ for OD&D, and in the mass-combat rules for OD&D. So in total: yeah, it's pretty clearly a consistent intent there (and another example of his tendency to "implicitly assume rules from the prior edition").

After that is when I realized that in addition, all the monsters in OD&D that appear in numbers of hundreds are precisely the ones that fighters get multiattacks against (excepting gnolls, but then they too were 1 HD in the pre-D&D draft).

A few other interesting tidbits on this topic:

  • The one place in OD&D where this rule is arguably given (the Vol-2 passage), says, "Attack/Defense capabilities versus normal men are simply a matter of allowing one roll as a man-type for every hit die...". There are a small number of players who attest that they apply the "roll as a man-type" strictly, so that the multiattacks themselves are all rolled as if the attacker was 1st level. I've never done this, but: it is compatible with the Chainmail mechanic, and it would solve my problem with the discontinuity/double-dipping effect of the rule.
  • Some commenters on Monday were worried about how much play might slow down because of all the rolling for the multiattacks -- and I share that concern. Interestingly, the ODD74 forum has reports that at a later date Gygax -- and maybe Arneson, too -- boiled the whole thing down to a single die-roll in this way: if your fighter is level N, then roll a dN, and that's how many normal men you put down. (E.g.: At 8th-level, roll a d8 for total casualties this round.) I think that's fascinating. I still don't want to see your damn d7, though, so don't start with me on that.
  • Even though I posted that poll a year ago in February (and the poll itself is long closed), interestingly, the conversation is still going on even as I write this!

There are several other interesting takes or modifications to this rule. If you have an account, see here for the discussion thread on the ODD74 forums

Do you normally use the fighter multiattacks rule? Do you import it to a ruleset that normally doesn't have it on the books (Holmes, B/X, BECMI, 3E+, etc.)? What other novel modifications do you make to it?

Monday, March 8, 2021

Running Mass Fights in Classic D&D

A common troubling point of DM'ing appears when you run the O/AD&D game, especially in the wilderness, by the book: it's pretty common to encounter bands of malicious bandits, brigands, or humanoids numbering in the hundreds.

OD&D Monster Reference Table

What's the best way to handle these cases, and what is likely to happen? I've actually had pretty good luck in these cases, so I want to share it here with you.


First, I'll point out that this is something I've been wrestling with for a very long time. In particular, I ran up against this in preparing to run the famous World of Greyhawk adventure, Isle of the Ape. The first encounter has the PC party ambushed by over 250 native warriors, with a minimum barbarian level of 3rd, about 30 name-level leaders or above, and 5 trained giant apes. How to adjudicate that? I had the opportunity to ask Gary Gygax about this on the old ENWorld Q&A thread (21st June, 2005):

DELTA: How did you ever deal with the initial combat with some -300 barbarians of varying high levels in AD&D? (Personally, I had to jury-rig a set of mass-combat rules to handle it.)

GARY: Actually, IIRR the PCs from my campaign popped in, surprised the natives, and offed the main leaders quickly, so the mass fled from them. Then the lads ventured past the wall, got a look at things, and got out of there. I don't recall how they managed it, but they left, returned to attack the shaman and his guards, and eventually some of them faced Oonga...

Now, a few things you'll note here. One is that Gary's rough instinct is that defeating a large warrior band comes down to defeating the leaders. The other is that I refer to "a set of mass-combat rules" to handle the situation, that later became my publication of OED Book of War (see sidebar).  


Honestly, this is something I tend to overlook in my analyses, until someone reminds me, but this piece of game rules is very prominent in O/AD&D, and you shouldn't entirely overlook it. If PCs encounter an overwhelmingly large band of enemies, then it's quite likely they can choose to evade and escape completely without any combat. 

In particular, the OD&D evasion chart is specifically biased to make escape easier, the more monsters in the enemy party. E.g., for a PC party of 4-9 people, the chance to escape the upper-end of monster numbers is set at 70%. (Increased in woods, if the enemy is surprised, etc.) Although remember if the PCs are surprised this implies that they're inescapably surrounded by the monsters (Vol-3, p. 17).

A couple notes on that: The exact rules text of the outdoor evasion rules is mangled in both OD&D and AD&D in a way that several details are unclear. Slower monsters can't ever catch the PCs, but by the letter of the rule, the evasion process continues, possibly in an infinite loop forever (see other blog articles for this examination). You'll need to make some reasonable interpretations for yourself to fill that in.

Moreover, the evasion rules are not a panacea to PCs confronting the immense danger of the O/AD&D wilderness. Even in the beneficial case noted above, there's about a 1-in-3 chance that PCs are spotted, cannot evade, and have a 50% chance to be caught by a faster monster army. (With this chance repeated over and over, depending on your interpretation of the rules there.) Conclusions we can make are that the by-the-book O/AD&D wilderness rules are meant only for very high level characters (see stats here) -- or that it's super important to keep a high move rate in the wilderness, to avoid all the galumphing bandit and humanoid hordes on foot.

I'll point out that you'd better explicitly tell your players that this is an option, because the Evasion charts don't appear in the player-facing rules of any early edition (OD&D Vol-3, AD&D DMG). 

Note also that in most versions of the rules, elves and halflings have some special ability to hide from enemies, especially outdoors (see: Chainmail, OD&D Vol-2, etc.). Consider letting those PCs check that chance before turning to the Evasion table for effective members in the escaping party (and thus possibly increasing the chance to avoid: for 1-3 PCs the chance can be as high as 90% base).

If all evasion fails, and you have low-level PCs entrapped by an army of humanoids, consider hand-waving the combat, declaring them captured, and switching the campaign to other PCs until the original group can be rescued, ransomed back, etc.

Ranged Combat

Assuming that the monsters are encountered at long distance, and the PCs decide to engage, then some initial long-distance missile fire may occur. (If evasion is attempted and fails completely, the OD&D text says monsters "will catch" the party, while AD&D says there is a "confrontation" -- I interpret this as being in melee distance, but you might differ.) 

There's an interesting observation on this point in one of my favorite Dragon articles (issue #20, Nov. 1978), by Lyle Fitzgerald, "It's a Good Day to Die (Death Statistics of D&D Players)". In his data, Goblin races at the top of the list, accounting for 10.1% of the 600 deaths documented by player-characters in Lyle's campaign. He writes:

‘Goblin types’, while not being strong individually (although they may have the occasional troll or ogre with them), are usually found in large groups, eager to destroy, and can be encountered practically anywhere or anytime according to the monster encounter tables. Typically, you will come across up to 300 or 400 orcs or goblins, who will proceed to pepper your group with a huge cloud of arrows, wiping out all the low level players and hirelings. Very few higher level players ever get done in by these creatures, however.

Now, I might possibly counter-argue this a bit in that where evidence exists, Gygax specifies a fairly small proportion of any humanoid band as carrying missile weapons -- usually around 20%. In the D&D Monster & Treasure Assortment, the percent ticks upward with dungeon level, but tops out at 20% for kobolds, goblins, and dwarves; 25% for orcs and hobgoblins; 30% for gnomes and gnolls, 40% for bandits (there may be typos here), and 50% for elves (as given in OD&D Vol-2). In the Monster Manual the ratios are 15% for gnolls; 20% for kobolds, goblins, orcs, and hobgoblins; 25% for dwarves and elves; 30% for bandits; and 40% for halflings. 

I should probably write more on that analysis later, but, in summary, I use 20% as the standard proportion of missile weapons among any humanoid group. Looking back to Fitzgerald, the average goblin encounter of around 200 has only 40 missile weapons, and the maximum of 400 has 80 -- e.g., specified as slings in the Monster Manual (and undefined in M&TA).

Then you run into the issue of reasonable long-ranged accuracy, for which I've probably written tens of thousands of words on this blog. At maximum bow-range, hitting an army is certain, but hitting an individual man is impossible -- so a small PC band has a distinct advantage here. I'd let PC missile shots target a random figure in an army at effectively no range penalty; while some significant extra penalty should be applied to the army's shots on PCs.

Looking to Gygax's Swords & Spells rules (a work which is otherwise flawed in significant ways), there are fairly well-considered penalties in this situation for missile fire. If the "target is one rank deep or in order" there is a -30% adjustment to casualties; if the "target is single creature, very large" then -50%; if "target is single creature, about man-sized" then -90%. Perhaps for brevity we might say a PC band of up to 10 people gets the 50% reduction, and we simply disregard half of the goblin shots (so maybe have 20 incoming sling-stones on average). 

At this point what I do is split up the arrows equally to each character or unmounted beast, take a handful of d20's, and go around the table rolling for each in batches. If there are 8 figures in the current example, then that's 2 or 3 shots per character. If the PCs have decent armor, and are being shot by 1-hit-die humanoids, then it's quite likely that only a 20 hits them. I would definitely skip critical hits from Nat-20's in cases like these (further abbreviating the process). I suppose you could have the players themselves roll these attacks and tell you the results, assuming you trust them, to make it even quicker. 

Characters Leading a Large Force

Now we get to engaging in close combat. There are a number of reasons why the PCs might be attached or leading a large armed force of their own. In my games, I've seen this occur when: (a) Players hire bands of mercenaries at the outset, (b) characters have previously defeated a force of bandits and pressed them into service, (c) encounter dice indicate simultaneous merchant bands & bandits locked in combat as PCs arrive, (d) a published adventure sets things up this way, etc.

In this case it does work pretty well to hand-wave the normal types battling the background, and have the PCs face off against the enemy leaders in melee. That's what all those copious notes on enemy leader-types in the Monster Manual are presumably for, right? (I mean, maybe?) And it also somewhat nicely echoes the idea of combat-of-champions in certain older cultures. 

Usually the PCs tend to have an advantage in number of leveled characters in this case -- even if the top enemy character is higher level, the action economy swings things in the PCs favor here.

For the background combat, I mentally apply the Book of War core rules -- every 3 rounds of D&D man-to-man fighting, roll a d6 for each 10 normal men battling; results of 4, 5, or 6 (depending on armor) each indicate 10 enemies down. Easy and statistically accurate. 

Characters on Their Own

Or, it's of course at least as likely that you have a small force of PCs on their own in the wilderness. Let's say they opt out or fail at Evasion, survive the Ranged Fire phase, close with the enemy to do combat, and they're high-enough level that hand-waving their automatic defeat is unreasonable.

First of all, if you're running the O/AD&D rules, you'd better honor the fact that fighters get a number of melee attacks equal to their level against normal-type creatures (roughly 1 hit die or less, but varying a bit by edition). So your Superhero (8th-level) fighter is likely going to hew through 8 goblins every round. My feeling now is that this is a paramount point of balance in those editions -- and also likely the single biggest rules difference between O/AD&D and the Basic/BX/BECMI line, where it was discarded. The types of humanoids that appear in numbers of hundreds are precisely the same types that fighters get their mass-attacks against. If you don't use that rule, then arguably you need to dial down the humanoid numbers by an order of magnitude (as was done in Basic/BX, etc.). 

(Hypothetically, I'm not fond of that rule in a design sense, because I don't like hard discontinuities like the normal/fantastic split in early D&D, it slows the game with lots of dice-rolling, etc. And it didn't help me with Isle of the Ape because everyone involved is above 1st level, hence my asking about that specific case to EGG. But it is a core part of the original rules and you should consider it carefully.)

Secondly, terrain is important. When PCs in my games march around the classic Outdoor Survival map, it's quite likely that they're following a path through woods or mountains (which voids chances to get lost). If that's the case, then the main body of humanoids can easily be bottled up, constrained, and dealt with by PCs facing a fairly limited front line. Probably the humanoid army is in a column formation and not well organized to engage in a fight. (I have small d6 charts of other layouts by terrain type that I use, possibly giving advantage to PCs.)

Third, don't forget about morale. It may not be very well defined in OD&D, or commonly used in AD&D, but it's a critical expectation on the part of the system designers. Recall that the kernel of what Gygax wrote in response to my question was that the PCs "offed the main leaders quickly, so the mass fled from them". Make sure you have a mechanic to your taste to handle this (whether from Chainmail, the OD&D reaction chart, the AD&D DMG system, B/X rules, or my BOW morale system of rolling 2d6 + HD and scoring 9 or more). You could possibly apply it to the whole armed opposition, or one unit at a time (foot contingent, archers, horsemen, etc.).

And if you get to this point, you get the joy of narratively describing a fight of epic heroes vs. hordes of enemies in the way that delights your heart the most. The fighters may wade in with their mass-attacks directly, or come up with other creative responses. I've had PCs with super-strength (from a spell, gauntlets of ogre power, etc.) go up hills and roll down boulders, throw trees to block a path of charge, rip off castle gates, etc., and that's all wonderful. 

Magic-users, of course, get to unleash their best area-attack spells. My interpretation of areas in OD&D is that spells like fireball or lightning bolt can only eliminate up to 10 enemy characters at a time -- but by-the-book it could be 40 characters or even 360 if you let the area expand feet-to-yards outdoors (which Gygax clamped down on later, and in Swords & Spells wrote another ad-hoc rule to limit total damage of such spells: example in the book has a 10th level wizard killing around 40 orcs with a fireball maximum, scaling downward for lower levels). A death spell or a conjured air elemental in whirlwind form could be even more devastating. 

But other options could be using illusions (wand or phantasmal force) to create fake allied units and confuse the opposing army -- maybe wasting a round of mass missile-fire (in fact, that was the origin and etymology of the phantasmal forces spell in Chainmail). Or perhaps targeting mind-control powers like charm, hold, or feeblemind spells against the enemy leaders might be more effective. I pretty much always allow the enemy leaders to be identified and targeted in this way (and likewise assume enemy leaders can target PCs the same way, including fighters in swirling melee) -- more than once an engagement with an enemy force has ended without mass casualties, due to the commander being ensorcelled and told to just walk away. There are lots of options here.


For a mid- to high-level party in classic D&D, there are many possibilities when confronting a mass brigade of armed opponents. They can evade the encounter, bring their own armed troop, probably withstand any mass ranged attacks, and then bring super-powerful attacks to bear in fighter whirlwind-melee and wizard area and mind-bending magics. That's not even considering the option to parley, which I've ignored here (OD&D says monsters automatically attack except in unusual cases, which I've assumed by default). My best experiences have been running things purely narratively without a board or map; this is an occasion when using the "rule of cool", bouncing off player suggestions, and giving at least some chance for effectiveness, can solve a lot of problems for you. 

How has running mass combats in D&D worked for you in the past? Any tips or tricks I'm missing here?

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