Basic D&D: On Pikes

Pikes are sort of the inverse of cavalry. (Last considered here.) As we might say -- considering its most advantageous mode -- Pike attack is intrinsic to the enemy's movement. When used on defense, all of the impetus that a charging attacker might generate (preeminently: cavalry) is turned back on the attacker himself.

Quotes to Consider

The use of pikes (in the general sense of extremely long spear-like weapons) went through several long cycles of use historically -- first by the ancient Greek hoplites in their phalanx formation (where the long weapon was called the sarissa), and later by the medieval Swiss and German landsknechts (where the weapon was in fact called a "pike"). Late in the period, pikes were used in various mixed formations, such as pike & halberd, pike & crossbow, pike & shot, etc.

The general consensus seems to be that pikes did a spectacular job on defense, obviously being able to present a dense thicket of points at great distance to the enemy. In particular, the re-discovery of their use in the Middle Ages was specifically in response to the dominance of European heavy cavalry. The disadvantages seemed to be: they needed an exceptional level of drill and discipline to be used as an effective unit (to march, support, and not get tangled up on each other), they were somewhat more difficult to use in an offensive attack, they were particularly vulnerable to loss of cohesion in cases of rough terrain, and they were overall less flexible in their use than other types.

Robin Lane Fox writes this description of the Greek phalanx in his biography Alexander the Great:
Sarissas were to be held erect and on command, the first five ranks were to lower them for the charge and swish them in perfect time from left to right... On the first rapid strides forward, the main enemy fled in panic from the hill-tops, scared by the disciplined drill and the sound of the war-cry. [Alexander the Great, p. 84]
Two classic examples which highlight the weaknesses of pike are the Battles of Pydna and Cynoscephalae, in each case seeing otherwise strong Macedonian phalanx-type units lose out to Roman sword-and-shield bearing legionnaires when they met on rough or confused terrain. C.W.C Oman, in his Art of War in the Middle Ages, refers back to these battles when discussing Swiss pike vs. Spanish sword battles in the 1500's: "the old problem... was once more worked out... Then, as in an earlier age, the wielders of the shorter weapon prevailed." [p. 108]. He then quotes from Machiavelli's Art of War:
When they came to engage, the Swiss pressed so hard on their enemy with their pikes, that they soon opened their ranks; but the Spaniards, under the cover of their bucklers, nimbly rushed in upon them with their swords, and laid about them so furiously, that they made a very great slaughter of the Swiss, and gained a complete victory.
Oman then continues:
The moment a breach had been made in a Macedonian or Swiss phalanx the great length of their spears became their ruin. There was nothing to do but drop them, and in the combat which then ensued troops using the sword alone, and without defensive armor, were at a hopeless disadvantage... Machiavelli was, from his studies in Roman antiquity, the most devoted admirer of the Spanish system, which seemed to bring back the days of the ancient legion. Yet even he conceded that the pike, a weapon which he is on every occasion ready to disparage, must be retained... He could think of no other arm which could resist a charge of cavalry steadily pressed home... [Oman, Art of War in the Middle Ages, p. 110]

Rules from Chainmail

Chainmail has several special rules for pikes in its mass combat section, including this one: "All troops formed in close order, with pole arms, can only suffer frontal melee casualties from troops armed with like weapons. While a Knight armed with a lance could attack a halberd formation, he could not attack a formation of pikes." [CM p. 40: Combat Tables]

However, the man-to-man combat section is almost silent on the issue. On the first turn, troops with long weapons get the first blow, while on later turns the opposite is true. [CM p. 25] This is adjudicated through numerical weapon "classes" in the man-to-man combat tables, higher numbers indicating longer, heavier weapons (1-12, with pikes of course being the maximum).

There is also a fairly complex series of cases for possible parry options and multiple attacks based on differences in weapon class [CM p. 25-26] -- broadly familiar to AD&D players because it formed the basis for similar rules in the DMG vis-a-vis weapon speed factors [DMG p. 66]. No other comment on number of ranks attacking, or any "cooperative" benefit from anyone other than the single person in man-to-man combat, is made in any of these sources.

On Number of Ranks Attacking

For the function of pikes, the number of ranks that can reach the enemy and attack seems like a fairly important (perhaps all-important) issue. However, sources such as Chainmail, Original D&D, or the AD&D PHB/DMG do not mention it at any point. OD&D Sup-I says of pikes in a footnote, "these weapons are not usable in dungeons as a general rule due to length" [Sup-I, p. 15], and leaves it at that; likewise, the AD&D DMG says, "Such a weapon [pike] is not usable in dungeon settings, or anywhere else without masses of other pikes to support it." [DMG, p. 66]. In Gygax's Swords & Spells mass combat rules, two ranks of pike attacks are possible [S&S, p. 17]; in Doug Niles' Battlesystem, three attacking ranks are allowed [BS1 p. 14, BS2 p. 40]. Again, the longer weapon always gets first strike opportunity, but no other mechanical benefits.

Compare this to historical sources which state that as many as four or five rows of pikes would have their points ahead of the front line, for use against the enemy. For example, see the Fox quote above regarding Alexander's forces. Or again, Machiavelli:
Although I have told you that six ranks were employed in the Phalanxes of Macedonia at one time, none the less, you have to know that a Swiss Battalion, if it were composed of ten thousand ranks could not employ but four, or at most five, because the pikes are nine arm lengths long and an arm length and a half is occupied by the hands... [Art of War, p. 71]

On the Shock of Mass Pikes

A recurring point among many sources is that a properly-formed pike square is practically unreachable by a foe without an equivalent weapon or some type of special advantage. For example, here's one description of the battle of Pydna:
Paullus [the Roman commander] claimed later that the sight of the phalanx filled him with alarm and amazement. The Romans tried to beat down the enemy pikes or hack off their points, but with little success. Unable to get under the thick bristle of spikes, the Romans used a planned retreat over the rough ground. [Wikipedia: Battle of Pydna]
However, probably the biggest weakness of classic OD&D or AD&D man-to-man combat rules is that they are all explicitly written to be just that: adjudicating one man fighting one other man, exchanging blows each round. Although the man with longer reach is given first blow in the first round, there is no allowance for any of the other, supporting men around him to assist in any way. Also: Even in the case of a "hit" there's no rule to prevent continued forward motion by the attacker and delivery of his attack.

Moreover, even if we assume that a man charging at a pike square runs past 3-5 pike tips (and associated interrupting strikes), the chance for a normal man to hit in D&D is so low, it likely won't keep away an attacker for very long. Consider OD&D 1st level fighters, with the attacker in chain & shield (AC4); the chance for one pike-defender to hit him is only 30% (6 in 20). If the attacker runs past 3 such pike-tips, there's still a 1-in-3 chance that he moves in totally unscathed (0.70^3 = 0.34%)! And if the first charger doesn't manage to make contact, then clearly one of the next few attackers will quickly be among the pikes. That just doesn't seem right.

On 3E Reach

3E D&D makes another design decision that at first blush seems reasonable: To generalize the idea of "reach" advantage, such that anyone who can strike at a distance -- whether pike-armed men or giant monsters -- will function the same mechanically [PHB p. 122].

However, upon further reflection, the two situations are really not comparable. For the pike, the defensive benefit is that it is fixed, pointing straight ahead and still; the enemy can thrust himself on it at any time and the tip will be there to intercept him. But for a large creature like a club-armed giant, blocking an attacker must require a properly-timed swing, presumably in a great swooping arc, and one would think it unlikely that it would be timed quite right against a charging hero.

But since 3E allows both types of defender to get a "free attack" against any approaching attacker, we arrive at a situation where giants -- usually pictured as lumbering and slow (in several senses) -- have the lightning reflexes of a master duelist, always able to snap off a riposte against fighting men running to the attack. This was, in my opinion, a greatly malformed rule -- as was giving giants several attacks per round based on Hit Dice.

Furthermore, 3E defines their interrupting attacks-of-opportunity as technically occurring when a character moves out of a threatened space -- which makes some design sense, as they didn't want a normal sword-vs-sword attack to trigger the action. However, it's greatly counter-intuitive in the case of a defensive pole-weapon, in which you'd think the dangerous stroke comes as you move into the pike-tip zone, and once you are past it you are by definition inside the shaft and unable to be hit.

Finally, the 3E system specifies by default that any defender only gets one such attack-of-opportunity per round (without some special and rarely-taken Feat), such that any follow-up attackers after the first can move in absolutely unimpeded. Again, this makes no sense in the context of a pike, simply being held straight out and forward, such that it is in the path of any onrusher who might approach.

In general, I feel like the 3E decisions on this point are, while initially clever-sounding, in every case exactly the opposite of the correct design choice.

Some Suggested Fixes

In light of the foregoing, we might look for some brand-new rules to add to the relative silence of OD&D and AD&D regarding pike formations. Can multiple ranks attack on defense (or otherwise)? Can multiple files to the side multiply this attack? Should there be a bonus to-hit, possibly from the density effect (less space for the incoming attacker to dodge to the side)? Should a non-fatal hit stop the attacker's forward progress, foiling their attack (really of minor effect, granted the low hit frequency)?

And other concerns quickly arise: Once one attacker rushes in (possibly being felled from the pikes), can other attackers follow in behind, during the same round? Do defenders get multiple interrupting attacks per round, or just one (as is explicit in 3E)? Do pikes drop victims on the ground, or hold them skewered upright (possibly blocking follow-up attackers)? Does a big pile of bodies develop, creating cover?

In my experiments, what I've found is that without some radical modifications to the base D&D rules, in most cases the result is routinely this -- a huge rush of attackers come towards the pikes, a significant number are struck down, but inevitably the attackers are in hand-to-hand combat with the pikes at the end of the very first round.

Open Questions
  1. How many ranks of pikemen can strike offensively (vary by target size)?
  2. How many ranks of pikemen can strike defensively (vary by target size)?
  3. How many ranks of pikemen can "set" for double damage?
  4. Do we allow an attack by pikes to "interrupt" the movement action of an opponent (even by a pikeman not individually the target of the attacker)?
  5. Can pike "interrupt attack" any number of attackers during a turn, or are they limited (say, to 1 as in 3E)?
  6. When used against charging cavalry, can the pikemen all opt to strike against the riders? (Or is it 50/50 riders/horses? Or more likely against the horses?)
  7. Do pikemen get a "formation bonus" to hit defensively due to closely-packed spikes?
  8. Does a strike by a pike vs. an attacker end the attacker's move?
  9. Does a kill by a pike block other attackers moving through the same zone (either by piling up bodies or "skewering" upright)?
  10. Do we need to establish special rules to simulate the organization/formation requirements of properly using pike?
  11. Do we permit heterogeneous formations (pike & halberd, pike & crossbow, pike & shot, etc.)?
  12. If a man drops the pike to use sidearm sword, can he later pick the pike back up?
  13. Do pikes cancel the cavalry rider AC bonus?

(Note: This corrects the garbled draft post I made a week or so back. The first few comments are re-posts of comments made at that time.)


Super Saturday: MSH Rank Numbers

From 1984 into the 1990's, TSR produced the Marvel Super Heroes game. It's well-known for its standard list of character abilities (FASERIP), and for having ability and power ranks measured with descriptive names (Remarkable, Incredible, Amazing, etc.) that have associated numbers.

Consider those rank numbers: Overall they have a geometric look to them, with the increment between ranks generally increasing upwards. But there are places that definitely rub me the wrong way, like the long "flat spot" in the middle, where the numbers increase uniformly by 10 points per step (Good to Amazing: scores 10, 20, 30, 40, 50). So, the MSH rank numbers were not really systematically chosen; see the chart above and the table below for specifics.

In the Basic Rules, there's one additional, separate rank called "Class 1000" for cosmic-level entities. In the Advanced Rules, the table is further extended to add Shift Y (200), Shift Z (500), Class 1000, Class 3000, Class 5000, and also "Beyond" (i.e., Infinite; for the Beyonder from the Secret Wars miniseries; see here). As a thought experiment, if we wanted to "smooth out" those numbers, what could we do?

Option One: Exponential Trendline

The most standard way of resolving this would be to use a "line of best fit", in this case an exponential curve which runs closest to the data points. I used the OpenOffice Calc spreadsheet program for this, and the resulting curve is shown in the chart at the top. The curve of best fit here is f(x) = 1.19*1.52^x (where x equals the order of the rank, i.e., Sh0=1, Fb=2, Pr=3, etc.) and the resulting correlation coefficient is R^2 = 0.98 (measures fitness of curve on scale 0 to 1; i.e., this is a 98% quality match).

If we use this function to compute new rank numbers, and round off to the first 1 or 2 significant digits, then we get the following:

Pretty close, but you can see in the middle of the chart that the Remarkable rank is fully 10 points off where it ideally should be. And, as you can see in the graph at the top, the "flat spot" causes what we might call a "slingshot" effect inwards, thereby missing the values for Unearthly and Shift X.

A sub-option here would be to prioritize anchoring the curve on the endpoints, i.e., temporarily take out the "flat spot" and then interpolate what should go in that region. If we do so, then we get a trendline of f(x) = 1.08*1.51^x, and an improved correlation coefficient of 99%. The rounded numbers then come out as follows:

Option Two: Renard Numbers

In industrial design there is the concept of "preferred numbers" from a logarithmic scale, chosen to conveniently divide into powers of 10, and also to maximize the chance of finding compatible parts of different sizes. One common international standard is called "Renard Numbers", the simplest of which increases by a factor of 10 over 5 steps (and is so called "R5"; i.e., at each step multiply by the 5th root of 10, approximately 1.58, similar to the base in the exponential function above). See here for more detail.

Interestingly, when rounded off to a single significant digit, the R5 series starts off with the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4..., which is the same as the "flat spot" in the middle of the MSH rank numbers. Thus, we might consider using this series for our basis. However, in order to do so we really need to delete the "Amazing" rank (the "flat spot" really is too flat for too long), and add another rank at the low end that I'll call "Anemic" (between Feeble and Poor); then we can use the R5 numbers directly, rounded to one significant digit:

I like this kind of thing because, in theory, we can extend it indefinitely by just remembering the initial sequence of digits {1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 10}. Or, if we want to add a bit more precision to the ranks after Unearthly (as per the ISO-3 rounding standard for R5), then we can get the extended ranks of Shift X (150), Shift Y (250), Shift Z (400), Class 600, Class 1000, Class 2000, Class 3000, etc.


Will I use either of these modifications? No; although I'm partial to the R5-series fix, the values shown in MSH are probably "close enough" for a comic book game, and the burden of changing all the pre-published material outweighs the benefit we'd get from this. However, similar analyses can be made of other irregular quantifications in the game that fail to convert or scale well, such as: Strength lifting capacity, Endurance breath-holding duration, Intensities from heat and cold, etc. -- and by far the most broken of all, Resource rank levels. So, I think it's interesting to think about.

Addendum: Hey, I'm Unearthly! This blog just ticked over the 100-follower count in the last day or so. I really immensely appreciate all of you who take the time to read here, and your thoughtful comments, ideas, and feedback. More to come!


On Choose Your Own Adventures

Last week, Slate had an interesting retrospective on Choose Your Own Adventure books. (James Mal also pointed to this article a few days ago.) In many ways it's downright jarring how much the development of these books parallels the arc of classic D&D as a publishing and artistic concern -- as you might guess from the opening line, "Between 1978 and 1982, entertainment went interactive... Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, which required friends... you could read them on your own." Here are some points to ponder.

The Timeline

According to the article, what would become the first Choose Your Own Adventure book had its inception as "the bedtime story Edward Packard told his two daughters in 1969." It was actually sold to a publishing house in 1976; transferred rights to Bantam in 1980; had an explosive "peak" of growth (hundreds of millions of copies sold), followed by a trailing off of sales; and finally cancellation in 1998. By way of comparison, note that Chainmail with its fantasy supplement was developed in the late 60's and published in 1971; D&D had its biggest spike in sales circa 1979-1982; and that a near-bankrupt TSR was bought out by WOTC in 1997.
"Researching interactive books," Demian Katz, gamebooks archivist, says, "There's pretty much the same pattern in every country. A few come out, they become explosively popular, a flood of knock-offs are released, they reach critical mass and then drop off into nothing. When I first started cataloguing them, around 1998, it was happening in the Czech Republic. That was one of the last booms."
If this trend is true in many countries at many different times, one which starkly resembles that of D&D itself, might we not wonder that such would have been the case regardless of any decisions that might have been made differently regarding the business or game design at TSR in the 1980's?

The Absence of Pre-Defined Characters

I remember one time in school being informed by an English teacher that stories could be written in either 1st-person or 3rd-person, but not 2nd-person -- which of course prompted myself and one or two friends to dedicate ourselves to writing second-person stories as much as we could. Likewise:

But they were committed to Choose Your Own Adventure and in total agreement about the series' voice: the second-person you. After all, the series was called "Choose Your Own Adventure" not "Choose a Fictional Character's Adventure." Using the second person also had another key benefit: "From the outset, we wanted Choose Your Own Adventure books to be non-gender specific," Montgomery says. "It was a conscious decision."

It's also a counterintuitive one, making the books resemble games far more than books. David Lebling, one of the fathers of computer gaming and one of the programmers behind the pioneering text-adventure series, Zork, says, "When you think about the way books work, for the most part the protagonist is a well-defined person and the book is about that well-defined person and it makes sense to say this is a man or a woman. The details are critical to the story. Second-person books, in my experience, have not been all that successful. Second-person games have been pretty successful."

Note that this is exactly the point that makes Dungeons & Dragons itself an awkward fit when attempting to expand the brand as a mark into other media (TV, movies, books, etc.); there aren't any "famous characters" at the core of the property itself. (And now that I think of it, I've heard the same criticism leveled at the way the Twilight books' female protagonist is written -- as something of a blank template onto which the reader can map their own personality and/or desires -- and corresponding weakness as a movie character. Ewww, now I feel a bit icky for having broached that subject.)

The Ubiquity of Death

Classic D&D had a high body count, many "insta-death" effects, and the expectation that destruction could result even from "good" decisions in the face of "bad" die-rolls. Meanwhile:

Many Choose Your Own Adventure fans at the time noted how fixated the books were on death. "One of the running jokes," says Christian Swinehart, a graphic designer who has spent a lot of time studying the structure of the series, "is that every choice leads to death, more or less." Packard and Montgomery were determined to make the books feel "real." Whereas most children's literature comes out of an educational tradition, which requires "good" choices to result in victory and "bad" choices to result in death, they wanted to keep the reader guessing. "My intent was to try to make it like life as much as possible," Packard says. "I didn't want it to be a random lottery but I didn't want it to be didactic so that if you always did the smart thing you always succeeded. I tried to balance it."... "There's no way we could have programmed a moral ending for every story line," Montgomery concurs. "Life isn't that way. Choose Your Own Adventure is not that way. Choose Your Own Adventure is a simulation that approximates the choices that we face in our lives."


Poul Anderson on Alignment

Poul Anderson's 1953 book Three Hearts and Three Lions conceived several of the important pieces of furniture for D&D: Paladins, Scottish-speaking dwarves, the Swanmay, and the D&D-type "True Troll". Also, it provides much of the foundation for the OD&D-style "Law and Chaos" alignment division. I thought it would be helpful to reflect on that here.

Recall that the story focuses on one Holger Carlson, an American-trained engineer and fighter for the underground in Denmark in WWII. In 1943 he is trapped and apparently shot by German forces, after which he wakes up in a "Carolingian" world, which he at turns theorizes may be Earth's past history, or a work of literature, or a parallel universe. As he interacts with various characters in the fantasy world, his understanding becomes clearer (Ch. 3):

Holger got the idea that a perpetual struggle went on between primeval forces of Law and Chaos. No, not forces exactly. Modes of existence? A terrestrial reflection of the spiritual conflict between heaven and hell? In any case, humans were the chief agents on earth of Law, though most of them were so only unconsciously and some, witches and warlocks and evildoers, had sold out to Chaos. A few nonhuman beings also stood for Law. Ranged against them was almost the whole Middle World, which seemed to include realms like Faerie, Trollheim, and the Giants -- an actual creation of Chaos. Wars among men, such as the long-drawn struggle between the Saracens and the Holy Empire, aided Chaos; under Law all men would live in peace and order and that liberty which only Law could give meaning. But this was so alien to the Middle Worlders that they were forever working to prevent it and to extend their own shadowy dominion.

And later (Ch. 11):

This business of Chaos versus Law, for example, turned out to be more than religious dogma. It was a practical fact of existence, here. He was reminded of the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency of the physical universe toward disorder and level entropy. Perhaps here, that tendency found a more... animistic... expression. Or, wait a minute, didn't it in his own world too? What had he been fighting when he fought the Nazis but a resurgence of archaic horrors that civilized men had once believed were safely dead?

In this universe the wild folk of the Middle World might be trying to break down a corresponding painfully established order; to restore some primeval state where anything could happen. Decent humanity would, on the other hand, always want to strengthen and extend Law, safety, predictability. Therefore Christianity, Judaism, even Mohammedanism frowned on witchcraft, that was more allied to Chaos than to orderly physical nature. Though to be sure, science had its perversions, while magic had its laws. A definite ritual was needed in either case, whether you built an airplane or a flying carpet. Gerd had mentioned something about the impersonal character of the supernatural. Yes, that was why Roland had tried to break Durendal, in his last hour at Roncesvalles: so the miraculous sword would not fall into paynim hands...


Super Saturday: MSH House Rules

Here's a post on my current house rules used when playing the Marvel Super Heroes game. This assumes use of just the original Basic set as core rules (available here). As usual, nothing major, just some "small changes": MARVEL SUPER HEROES NOTES AND HOUSE RULES
  • Charging: When charging, make an Endurance check at +1CS per space moved through (maximum +3CS). Damage is equal to Endurance or Body Armor, +2 points per space moved (as per the Advanced/Revised rules).
  • Dodging: When hit, a hero can declare a dodge (or use a defensive or "shielding" power). Roll an Agility check; if the color at least matches the color of the attack, then it becomes a miss. For defensive powers, an Agility check of at least green successfully activates the power. In any case, the hero loses their next normal action.
  • Grappling: If held or knocked down, then only allow use of Body Control abilities and/or Touch Attacks (energy, poison, etc.) until up or escaped.
  • Hack & Slash: Sharp attacks bypass Body Armor up to their material strength (e.g., Wolverine's claws, Hawkeye's pointed arrows, Nick Fury's needler gun).
  • Hero HQs: Note that each of modules MH1-3 have a playing map of one of the major hero groups' HQ (respectively, the X-Men, Avengers, and Fantastic Four).
  • Initiative: Roll initiative via opposed d% rolls and thereafter cycle around the table. (Optionally, add +10 per Intuition difference for the quicker party.)
  • Karma for Mega-Heroes: For very powerful heroes, reduce villain awards by as many ranks as their best ability exceeds Amazing. For example, if Thor (Unearthly; +2CS) defeats a Remarkable villain, then he gets only 10 Karma points (Good; -2CS).
  • Karma for Teams: Awards are given to each hero (not divided). See "Day of the Octopus" p. 5 and other official adventures.
  • Mapless Combat: We find that playing without map & figures, when possible, works very well.
  • Opposed Checks: All such checks & intensities are made as per breaking things on p. 8 (Green if lower, Yellow if equal, Red if higher; impossible if more than one rank above for checks of Strength, Resources, etc.).
  • Resources: Resources are adjudicated by means of FEAT rolls (as per the Advanced/Revised rules). See other documentation for price-of-goods ranks.
PDF version here.


Sunday Night Book of War

This was a game played the evening of Jan-24. One thing you may notice is that the terrain is different than in prior games; fairly late in the design process I determined that I should double the size of the terrain tiles in use, and halve the number of rolls made for terrain setup. While this keeps the overall expected terrain area the same, it has the following advantages: (1) Speeds setup time by reducing rolls & placements for each player (especially on larger tables, where we reduce rolls from 12 per side to a more reasonable 6); (2) matches commonly used terrain pieces from other games; (3) allows use of aesthetically pleasing in-scale terrain graphics; and (4) matches area of the "stream" pieces that we otherwise use. Lots of compelling reasons for that.

Start -- For setup here, we've rolled a fairly small number of terrain elements (average on this table would be 3 tiles), so the board is mostly open, with one area of woods, and one large hill (both placed by me, for the blue team). Game is played at 200 points. Red army at top has heavy infantry, horse archers, and longbows. Blue army at bottom has all pikes and longbows.

Turn 2 -- BOW action can happen really fast. On the very first move, the red horse archers rode all the way across the table, up the hill, firing at my forces (full move & fire being something only horse archers can do). On that first turn my larger pike unit was immediately routed, while I drove off the enemy longbows on the far right. On turn two, the horse archers destroyed my middle longbows, but I replied with a lucky round of fire on the horse archers, who are about to rout back north off the table ("snake eyes" morale roll visible for the horse archers).

Turn 4 -- Now things get tricky. Red has nothing but heavy infantry left, who are extremely slow, but nigh-impossible to hit (move 6" per turn; hit only on a "6" die roll). Blue has pike & longbows who are both fast but fragile (move 12"; hit on a roll of 4+). In fact, my longbows can only hope to hit the heavy infantry at short range (within 10.5"), so any shooting will put them in a dangerous proximity. The rest of the game is a series of tense feints and maneuvering for position; here, red infantry groups behind the crest of the hill, seeking cover from missile fire.

Turn 6 -- Red infantry has made a move toward my longbows, who dutifully about-face to avoid contact. My pikes, seeing an opportunity, make an aggressive charge up the hill at the rear of the heavy infantry -- they'll lose their special pike defensive bonus on the hill, but have a chance to strike against the rear on a 5 or 6. Note my roll is all 3's, and thus fails.

Turn 8 -- On close combat, my pikes do manage to kill one figure (i.e., 10 men) and rout the smallest of red's units. However, they are hit by the second unit of heavy infantry and routed, while the largest unit wheels around for further support. My pikes are hereafter run off the board.

Turn 12 -- Several more turns of maneuvering, as red infantry again regroup to the west of the hill, allowing my longbows to take the summit. Here the red infantry is at last surging up the hill, taking hits from concentrated longbow fire.

Turn 14 -- In a classic "I shot the sheriff" action, my longbows manage to drive off 2 of the heavy infantry units, but not the 3rd and final one. Here close combat has reached my longbows, and I get to enjoy my own worst-possible roll on the morale check.

Turn 17 -- After fleeing, my longbows manage to regain morale near the far edge of the table (and so does the unit of a single red infantry), so they wheel around for one final shot to win. Unfortunately, these are again all misses against the heavy armor of the red forces, who charge through the fusillade and finish off my men. Another skin-of-the-teeth victory for red!



I had a rather garbled post "On Pikes" appear today -- I'd written a very rough draft, then went on a trip for the weekend and forgot when it was scheduled -- that I just took down. Hopefully I can clean that up to what I intended and have it visible again in a few days. Those of you who wrote (extensive!) comments, I saved all of those and I'll re-post them myself with the "real" article (or remove them if you wish, based on the new context). Sorry about that!


Super Saturday: Annotated Secret Wars

After the post on the Secret Wars comic last week, I pulled out my copy of the associated adventure for the Marvel Super Heroes RPG game (MHSP1: Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars). I realized that, at some point (likely the last few years) -- without ever having run it -- I had gone through and made a bunch of sidebar notes of things to change; so I figured I'd present them here if anyone's interested. These are not major changes -- as is my wont, they're fine-tuning operations, mostly to make the adventure more like the comic. Roster Booklet
  • p. 9, Galactus' Cat: (P1) Allow only 3 hits maximum against eyes/mouth. (P2) Paralyzing foam should last 6 rounds?
  • (Added general house-rules note: When I play MSH, I allow "sharp" attacks to ignore Body Armor up to their power/material strength. Examples: Wolverine's claws, Hawkeye's sharp-headed arrows, etc.)
Adventure Book
  • p.3, Running Events: (P1) Shifts are 6 hours each (4/day). (P4) In summary, heroes cannot be on work detail more than 1 shift in a row.
  • p. 8, The Tempest: (P2) Listed damage of Un/Mn is for someone outside for a whole shift. Damage per round is only Gd/Ty.
  • p. 9, Sneak Attack: (P3) Molecule Man will destroy HeroBase; other villains possibly "bomb" heroes with wreckage. (P4) Say finding safe spot requires 2 Red Intuition FEATS from the whole team (not every PC). (P5) Escape requires a Shift X power, or two Unearthly powers working in tandem.
  • p. 9, The Worldship: (P3) Mentally removed intruders take Unearthly damage (see p. 5-6)
  • p. 9, And Now... Galactus!: (P4) Underline "if the heroes do not do so by Day 7"!
  • p. 9, And Doom Against All: (P3) Information was gained using Klaw.
  • p. 11, Patrol: (P1) Or giant tank with stasis ray (instead of indicated vehicle).
  • p. 12, Professor X: (P1) Or should he lose half Karma for every battle he joins?
  • p. 13, The Thing: (P1) Or should he change on a failed Psyche roll?
  • p. 13, Magneto: (P2) Magneto may take a single prisoner to talk with.
  • p. 15, Lizard: (P1) Villains will be sent to re-capture him later.
  • p. 15, Ultron: (P2) Strikeout last sentence regarding disintegrator. Instead suggest rare usage, like 1 time per shift?
Missing Secret Wars Comic Scenes
  • Magneto's solo attack, Wasp's capture
  • Doom offers alliance to Magneto
  • Destruction of HeroBase & bombing
  • Zsaji attracts patients as side-effect of power
  • Doom considers sending villains to distract Galactus with attack
  • Zsaji's mental-image gas
  • Random find of Venom symbiote
  • Galactus' defensive drones
  • Confrontation with Beyonder -- effects on planet/req. for power
  • Omnipotent Doom/ Tower of Doom/ Klaw's Army/ reduced Beyonder/ ascendant Molecule Man
General Suggestion
  • Consider running without Denver slab?


RECESS Report: Siege on the Borderlands

This is another game played at RECESS, the NerdNYC-sponsored gaming convention in Manhattan, that I ran on Sunday, January-16. It's a revised version of "Siege on the Borderlands", played using my Book of War draft rules for D&D, and a big ol' castle on a high bluff made for just this purpose. (You can see the previous playtest blogged here.)

Setup -- With the defenders pre-set (red), here you see the monster players (blue) deciding where to arrange their forces for the initial assault. As usual, recall that each figure represents 10 of a given creature type. The defenders have 25 figures (250 men), mostly polearms and crossbows in chain, and a few heavy swordsmen in plate. The attackers have a major combined force of 56 figures (560 creatures), a motley mix of goblins, orcs, hobgoblins (with crossbows), ogres, and a squad of frost giants. (Side note: This force is some 6 times larger than the sum of all the warriors in the nearby monster caves!)

Turn 1 -- Here you see the start of the first turn. In this scenario, the monsters have poured out of the nearby woods under cover of darkness, and unseen, attempt an all-out escalade of the bluff and castle walls (with a variety of crude ropes and ladders). While the monsters can act freely at night, the defending men peer over the walls with sputtering torches, only able to shoot at the attackers once they come part way up the bluff and into the light (and so negating much of the advantage of the castle's commanding height). The monster players have picked a strategy of keeping the strongest portion of their forces off the board and out of sight for a prolonged time (unique in my playtests); the first wave here is mostly low-level monsters, but the threat of another attack from any point keep defenders posted all around the castle.

Turn 3 -- The defenders are doing a pretty good job fighting off the assault on the lower end of the castle; they're scoring hits from missiles & rocks, and you can see a force of goblins routing off the top side.

Turn 5 -- Here, one figure of ogres has managed to escalade over the wall into the outer bailey -- but they already have 3 out 4 hits against them; one more and they'll be eliminated. Other than that, the monsters attacking the wall have thinned noticeably.

Turn 7 -- Second Wave. At last, the monster players send in the rest of their forces, including more orcs, hobgoblins, ogres, and the squad of angry frost giants; they've chosen to send them en masse against the lower outer bailey again, where the defenders have already been stretched and weakened. (There are also sizable units of goblins thrown at the upper end of the castle, out of the picture here, mostly as a diversionary sacrifice.)

Turn 9 -- The giants have forced their way over the wall into the castle, and are being followed by scrambling units of goblins and hobgoblins. While fighting continues in the outer bailey, the defenders have chosen to collect their main strength in the strong inner gatehouse which defends the upper level of the castle.

Turn 11 -- At this point, the outer bailey is entirely taken over by the monsters. However, they seem to be tied down in a fire fight, exchanging stones and missiles with the crossbowmen at the upper level of the inner gatehouse and wall. The giants have taken 6 of their 10 allowed hits. Troublingly, however, a final squad of ogres is fighting their way up the wall and through a flanking tower (at top of the next picture).

Turn 13 -- The last of the giants go down! And, the ogres remain bottled up the guard tower by a squad of plate-armored heavy swordsmen. However, you can see how thin the remaining defenders have become after repeated devastating barrages of crossbows and giant throwing-stones.

Turn 15 -- Here, the remaining defenders are choosing to flee to the final keep fortress; the monsters are just now securing the inner gatehouse (and melee with ogres continues just behind the gatehouse).

Turn 17 -- The small number of remaining monsters exchanges some missile fire in preparation for the final assault. Note that the last ogre squad has taken 3 of 4 hits.

Turn 19 -- Endgame. The monsters make a final all-out rush against the final bastion. What happens next is: The ogres succeed at bashing down the gate, but are killed in hand-to-hand combat inside the entry hall. The rest of the monsters are too much for the defenders, however, and rush in, overwhelming them to the last man. A narrow victory for the forces of chaos!

Big thanks to my players here: Tavis, Adrian, Eric, and Joti. Really a total blast to run at this convention, I received really great feedback, and lets me further refine both Book of War and this particular scenario. Thanks, guys!


Basic D&D: Normalizing Resolutions

An opening question: Are most mechanical task resolutions in D&D (attacks, spells, skills, saves, etc.) simulating an act of intensity or one of accuracy? That is, it more important to "go big" or to "be right"? I will argue for the latter.

This has implications for the statistics (probability distribution) we might use for our underlying task-resolution mechanic (built into any tables, for instance). Many probability distributions can be described as "location-scale families", in that they have exactly 2 parameters -- one indicating the position (mean), and one for the likely spread around that center (variance). Perhaps it's important to think really carefully about which of these 2 parameters should be affected by increasing levels/skill/abilities/etc, and what that implies for our probability distributions.

Intensity Versus Accuracy

Again with the initial question: Are most mechanical resolutions in D&D (attacks, spells, skills, saves, etc.) simulating an act of intensity or one of accuracy? Let's consider some examples.

Melee attacks: More important to hit "hard" (in any random place) or to hit "right" (on the enemy, in a vulnerable spot)? I would argue the latter; slipping past the enemy's shield/armor/defenses/dodging is the key. This is reflected in increasing the attack bonus with level; the character is getting more skilled and accurate, not swinging harder and harder. (Obviously using the Strength bonus to-hit indicates there is some intensity that is important, perhaps smashing through a shield, etc., but I think it's a minority part of the task).

What about missile attacks? Obviously a case of accuracy -- the missile has to be shot in the right location, and no amount of special "ferocity" on the part of the shooter will help. What about casting spells? In classic D&D, again a case of accuracy -- "The energy flow is not from the caster per se, it is from the utterance of the sounds, each of which is charged with energy which is loosed when the proper formula and/or ritual is completed with their utterance" [Gygax in 1E AD&D DMG, p. 40]. It is the "proper formula" which is important, and a particularly bombastic rendition of it by the caster will not help things.

What about traditional thief skills? Open locks, remove traps, move silently, etc. -- Obviously these are all things that require carefulness and dexterity. Being too far left or too far right would equally result in failure; smashing tools into the lock harder than anyone else does not help.

What about expanded skills (non-weapon proficiencies)? Looking at the 3E skill list as an example, practically all of them seem to be more accuracy based than intensity based -- the ability to appraise, craft, disable devices, forgeries, intuit direction, knowledge, perform, search, speak languages, tumble, etc. -- there's a "right" and balanced way (to name another such skill) to do these things that would be the goal of any practitioner.

Perhaps the only exceptions I can see are Strength-based items: Maybe climb, jump, and swim would benefit from an exceptional "burst" of effort. Perhaps, more generally, any raw application of an ability score would qualify as seeking special intensity -- like Olympic-style events of running, lifting, throwing for distance. But even with these some would argue that there is a "correct form" that is more important than anyone's raw Strength.

Thus, speaking generally, I think that for the great majority of tasks simulated in a D&D-like RPG succeed based on accuracy (landing in the "right place"), and not on intensity (sheer power/ distance). For most stuff, doing it doubly-hard would be a disaster, not a benefit.

Mean Versus Variance

So, granted that for most tasks it is accuracy that is key (having a "correct" place to be and landing there), does that mean that the important consideration is location or scale? Or in other words, is it the mean or the variance of results that is most affected by increasing skill level?

Here's an example that I use in my statistics class: Consider two basketball players, each taking three shots at the hoop. The positions of the three shots are shown for each below.

Notice: They're both aiming at the same spot -- If you average the positions of the three shots, the result is "5" for each player (that being indeed within the rim); which is to say that the mean (central location) is the same. But which player's shots are bunched up closer together; that is, have less variance (spread)? It's Player B. And which player has more shots going in the hoop? Again, Player B. (2 shots in to Player A's 1 shot.)

So we can see that it's really variance which dictates accuracy. Assuming that you're aiming anywhere near the target in the first place, then increasing your accuracy is really a matter of reducing variance. (Or technically: accuracy and variance are inversely related.) Which is to say, your training and skill acquisition are making the result more predictable, and closer to the "right" result, more of the time.

Again, throwing the ball extra super-hard and getting, say, a +15 bonus on your shot position (mean location) would be ruinous; every shot would miss wildly, for every player.

As an aside -- You see the same observation in modern portfolio theory -- granted that you've picked a particular target return rate, the real work then is to "reduce the total variance of the portfolio return" [Wikipedia], i.e., make the return as predictable as possible. (And that's done through diversification, i.e., increasing sample size, which reduces variance.) And if you watch some cable TV high-stakes poker shows, for really enormous pots you'll usually see the pros "run it twice" (or more) for the exact same reason.

Modeling with a Normal Curve

For a variety of good reasons, mechanical and muscular variance (i.e., "error") is most frequently modeled with a normal distribution (i.e., Gaussian; the z-curve; bell-shaped). As one example, see this abstract on "Analysis of Small-bore Shooting Scores":

For a competitor with a given average score, a calculation model based on the central circular bivariate normal distribution has been used to calculate the expected distribution of the displacements of shots from the point of aim, and hence the expected variation in the competitor's scores... [Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series C (Applied Statistics), Vol. 21, No. 3, p. 292]

For our purpose here, results off on the tail of the normal curve are not good (whether too far left or too far right). Our "target" is that central position (mean), like the center of a basketball hoop, or an archery target. So, we can draw a zone where our attempts count as being "on target"; the area of that zone reflects our probability of success. Increasing skill will reduce the spread/variance, narrowing the curve of possible results, and thereby getting more shots/attempts in the "target zone". Specifically, the probability of a hit/success is given by the common technique of a standardized table of areas for the normal curve (or alternatively: software like Excel or any spreadsheet program; or maybe you can do complex numerical integration in your head).

Here's an example of what we might try: Say that any result within z-score +/-2 on the normal curve counts as being "on target". At the top, for what we'll call "success level" 20, assume the standard deviation (square root of variance) is simply 1. Say we increase that error/variation by +12% (multiplying 1.12) for each step to a lower level. Then we can use a spreadsheet to easily calculate the probability at each level of landing "on target", and translate that to success target on a d20. (The previous graph shows the curve/success shape at the 10th level, in fact.)

Observations: This probability distribution has many very nice qualities. First of all, the numbers throughout levels 1-20 are broadly similar to the OD&D numbers for success at hitting AC0, or making a save vs. spells, or succeeding at a thief skill. Secondly, the numbers are "smooth", in that they don't jump at coarse increments. Thirdly, throughout the "meat" of our level progression (7th-18th), the numbers conveniently increase by 1 per level (see "The 5% Principle"). Fourth, at the bottom, we don't have the problem of very abruptly switching from possible to impossible: an advancement beyond AD&D's 6 repeated 20's, here we see an even "softer landing": 2 copies each of 15-17; 3 18's; 4 19's; and a long string of 10 20's, before success is effectively impossible. All of these desirable features automatically pop out for us by using the right model to reflect known physical systems of success and failure.

To use this, now we really would need to commit to using the resolution table all the time. (The results are not linear as with classic D&D/ d20 System/ Target 20, so there's no simple arithmetic shortcut to the procedure.) For attacks, take the character's "fighting level", add in the opponent's AC (classic descending), plus any other bonuses or modifiers; then find that "level" in the table, and look across to see what roll of d20 counts as success. Saving throws, thief abilities, special skills, etc., can all work in a similar fashion. In other words, all modifiers must be made to the "level" value (equivalent to moving up or down rows in the table); no modifiers are ever (EVER!) applied to the resulting "to hit" score.

Can I Accomplish The Same Thing By Rolling Many Dice?

No! Although it's a common mechanic to roll several dice and add them (generating a bell-shaped-like probability distribution), if you do this and compare to a minimum target number, then you're actually doing the exact opposite of our procedure.

Compare the graph above to the one on the right; in this proposed process, it is the dice results (not success results) which are bell-shaped. The target is not the in the "center", instead it is all the extremely high results out in the tail. Bonuses and modifiers (regardless of whether we apply them to the dice roll or the target number) will now shift the mean/center location, when our argument all along has been that we need to keep that fixed and alter the variance, or the spread of the curve.

Quick example: Say you roll 3d6 (range 3-18) for your resolution mechanic, and see the table to the right. Note that for our "normal resolution" process, the flattest spot was in the middle (levels 7-18), where every step was consistently a 1-in-20 difference in success; but here the opposite is true -- the very center is actually where the wildest fluctuations occur (a single step around target 8-14 changes success by the equivalent 2 or 3-in-20). The more dice you add, the spikier the distribution gets, so the more this disturbing effect will be exacerbated. And you certainly don't get the long "soft landing" effect of many 20's as shown in the AD&D DMG.


In summary, for almost any kind of skill you can think of (hitting/ shooting/ dodging/ picking locks, etc.) character level shouldn't change the mean result (i.e., the target); it should change the variance of the result (i.e., get closer to the desired target, reflecting increased accuracy). And, the standard normal (bell-shaped) curve would be an excellent choice for use as a model of "error level".

A summary table (without the normal-curve statistics on display) is shown to the right. An Excel spreadsheet of the original calculations is here if you want to confirm or play with the numbers involved.

Would I use this myself? Actually, I don't expect to. I like the Target 20 freedom from tablature (saving table space) and honestly, the results are "close enough" in the key central part of the chart (level 1-20) that it's approximately correct most of the time anyway. I might, however, use this in the future as a basis to analyze (for example) archery ranges; but if you use it in a game yourself, be sure to tell me how it went!


Community: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

The title of last week's episode of the NBC show Community was, intriguingly, titled "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons". The show is already one of the favorites for me & the girlfriend; we both really enjoyed the episode, and it pretty clearly came from someone with a great fondness and knowledge of the game. We watched it online at Hulu (available for the next 30 days). Here are some observations:

(1) While the adventure is fictional ("The Caverns of Draconis"), the trade dress and all of the other many books shown on camera are faithfully late-era 1E AD&D. For example, the Gary Gygax DMG appears in numerous shots (2nd cover with orange spine; i.e., 8th printing 1983+). Module Q1's "demonweb" map is in front of Abed while he DM's the supposed adventure.

It's interesting that none of the later iterations of D&D seem to be "sticky" in popular culture. Early-to-mid-1980's (the exponential fad years, of course) D&D is stuck in people's minds; and I think some of the asserted success of 3E publishing and even the OSR bears that out.

(Side anecdote: One of my best students mentioned last week that her slightly-older boyfriend recently re-acquired all of his original 1E AD&D books off EBay, and is now excitedly teaching her the game.)

(2) The DM rolls all of the dice. That was maybe the one outright jarring thing to see; although of course there's no mechanical reason not to do that. Possibly it read better on camera to have the one uber-geek handling the dice. (?)

(3) The adventure semi-accidentally winds up involving a big flock of Pegasi as a key plot point... kind of like, you know, the thing I posted the day before this episode aired last week. Freaky.


Super Saturday: In Praise of Secret Wars

Comics post of the day: I've got a good bunch of perfect-bound collections of classic comics on my shelf, and the one I find myself re-reading the most often, and with the greatest satisfaction, is Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. I'll broadly assume that you know what that is; the 1984-5 series by Marvel in which their highest-profile heroes and villains are whisked to an edge-of-the-universe battleground by the omnipotent Beyonder and told to "Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours!" If you need more on the specifics, look someplace like here or here. You could complain that it's a simplistic premise, and even that the overall motivation for the project was crassly commercial (according to writer and company editor-in-chief Jim Shooter: "Kenner had licensed the DC Heroes. Mattel had He-Man, but wanted to hedge in case superheroes became the next big fad. They were interested in Marvel's characters, but only if we staged a publishing event that would get a lot of attention, and they could build a theme around.") That said, I think that Secret Wars is one of those examples of a product that surpasses the commercial limitations in which it was incubated. The primary things that I'll praise are that (1) the number of heroes and villains featured is limited and manageable, (2) the story is entirely self-contained, and at no internal point does it intrude on any other Marvel publication or setting, and (3) there is a specific narrative through-line for its plot, towards which all the action is building throughout the series. Mostly this is a compare-and-contrast operation as regards other superhero cosmic mega-crossovers that I've read, such as DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths or Marvel's Secret Wars II, etc. If you have a truly "unlimited" number of characters, then they tend to not have enough time onscreen for any character development (or more broadly, for the reader to learn and remember who they are). Furthermore, most of those other crossovers feature many promotional tie-ins to other publications of the following ilk -- Hero X appears for two panels, gasps "Oh my god, look at what I'm dealing with!!", a footnote says "Read more in Amazing X #497", and then you switch to some other unrelated scene. This is an almost unbearable intrusion in the long-term collected form, where I've got no potential or interest to actually encounter those referenced works (and sometimes barely even know the character who just appeared). When the whole work is largely a patchwork of such blurbs, it's almost totally unreadable. Fortunately, the original Secret Wars manages to avoid both of these pitfalls -- I don't think that there are any forward-references in the entirety of the work, nor any characters appearing on only a single page. Note that structurally the story is not set on Earth at any point, thereby effectively "firewalling" the story from random intrusions, while the other crossover examples above are not in that category. It is, in fact, a flamboyant but self-contained story with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end, a characteristic which is frequently lacking in other examples of major-publisher superhero art. Is it without flaws? Certainly not. Here are some of the initial criticisms I would lob at it: (1) While I really like the art by Mike Zeck, issues #4-5 are filled in by Bob Layton, and the work there is clearly sub-standard (a particular shame in #4, which features an entire mountain range being dropped on the heroes, temporarily held up by a maddened Hulk until they can escape -- I would've loved to see what Zeck would do with that). (2) Although initially the Battleworld is indicated as being made from the fragments of a ruined alien galaxy, about halfway through the series it changes course to assert that one of the chunks was a suburb transported from Denver -- allowing the introduction of several new human characters (Volcana, Titania, Spider-Woman), but popping the "totally alien and forbidding" tone of the story. (3) The very end kind of falls apart a bit, anticlimactically, with the villains goofily hunched in a space-traveling suburban apartment, and the heroes departing meekly in separate groups -- except for the Thing, who stays behind, and whose concluding monologue tellingly trails off in ellipses. That said, a pretty good artifact of mid-80's major-label four-color superhero comics. All I can say is I keep re-reading it and being kind of surprised at how satisfying it is. Excelsior! (P.S.: See also Zak S.'s blog for a serendipitous post on Secret Wars earlier this week.)


Del Toro in New Yorker

The Feb-7 New Yorker has a profile on Guillermo del Toro (director of monster-heavy movies like Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth, worked on the Hobbit for 2 years of pre-production). The latter part of the profile digs extensively into the pre-production monster work for H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, "the movie that he most longs to make" (sketchbooks starting at least 1993, script written by 1998). Has James Cameron producing and some of the same staff/studio/technology from Avatar working on it.

Sounds interesting if (and that's a big IF) it gets made; recommended reading. Thumbs up for clearing the "did somebody give a shit?" bar (quote: "You try not to fall in love... But I'm hopelessly in love with the creatures."). Also check out the sidebar video link that looks at his sketchbooks and design process from paper to films.


A small adolescent part of me is actually hurt that Erol Otus isn't involved in creature design here. Another part of me is very happy that reading something like this conjures Otus' hallucinatory illustrations of Old Ones and Shoggoths to mind...

War Nerd: Egypt

A friend of mine today pointed me to a site called ExiledOnline.com, with a blog post by one Gary Brecher, who's written a book called "War Nerd". Here he makes a compelling analysis of the current news from Cairo, Egypt as -- with modern military standing on the sidelines -- the streets basically turn into middle-ages warfare: massed foot movements, skirmisher/missile troops, shield walls, and even cavalry charges, with clips from Al-Jazeera English TV. (If you check the comments, you'll also find a link to a photo of protesters building a catapult to lob stuff at barricades.)

Warning: Strong political content. Significant violence content. Some ethnic jabs. Not for everyone.


A key line: "Cavalry that’s stopped is dead cavalry." (Eerily, compare to my post Monday of this week expanding on the thesis, "Cavalry attack is intrinsic to the unit's own movement".)


RECESS Report: Corsairs of Medero

Here's a scenario that I've run a couple of times that I call "Corsairs of Medero". (Previously seen here.) In it, the players take the parts of adventurers seeking to capture three merchant vessels for the King of Medero over the course of a 16-week sailing season (and so be declared Barons of the Realm). The players control and outfit a single ship of corsairs; weekly turns are played out for encounters; and most of the mechanics come straight from OD&D Vol-3 (including the basis for ocean encounters, ship profiles, wind force, naval maneuvering and combat, etc.). There are potentially three levels of action: (1) strategic (weekly sailing orders and encounter checks), (2) tactical (ship-to-ship or monstrous creature combat at 1:10 scale), and (3) man-to-man (boarding actions, with a hit=kill rule for normal men). At the tactical level, I use my Book of War rules for mass combat (replacing Chainmail, so as to interface with high-level PCs and their spells and special abilities).

This run of the game was played out at the RECESS convention in New York City on Saturday, January-15. (That being a quarterly event sponsored by NerdNYC.com.) With an very well-organized convention and really great players in attendance, this was really a whole lot of fun for me to referee that Saturday.

The thing about classic D&D that's a true joy is that in relying on a lot of randomized tables for wilderness (and dungeon) encounters, it inevitably generates some real surprises, and really stretches my improvisational abilities as a DM. For example here, a story definitely develops by the time we're done; but it's nothing I would have conceivably imagined in advance, and it's probably a whole lot more creative than anything I could have plotted out in advance on my own. The interaction of certain naturalized-fantasy statistics, creative player problem-solving and strategizing, and my own ad-libbing, truly generates something greater than the sum of its parts.

Weeks 1-2: In this game, for the first time ever, the players chose at the start to outfit a cog as their vessel (slower, but carries 20 archers and 30 infantry) instead of a longship (faster and more maneuverable, but with more men dedicated to rowing). They were careful to load up at the start with plenty of burning oil, dummy flags of the enemy nations, and even a series of cover stories three-"reveals" deep. The spellcasters used a number of long-lasting charm person spells on their own mercenary crew in order to increase loyalty. In the first two weeks, the slow-sailing cog made its way across the Gulf of Krol to the enemy coast of Richland.

Week 3: The first roll for a weekly encounter is made. The 2d6 roll comes up "12", indicating some fantastic flyer-types. Turning to the "Flyers" table (OD&D Vol-3, p. 18), the d12 comes up a "1" -- which indicates a flight of Pegasi (1-12, which for our purpose we just call "10"), royally wheeling quickly past the player's ship just after dawn. (I probably couldn't have told you in advance that Pegasi were even anywhere in those wilderness encounter tables.)

I place the ship & flyer counters on the table at the indicated range, and ask the players what they do -- The answer being, a barrage of web spells from the party wizards to snag the Pegasi on the one turn that they're in range. Rolled result: The whole batch of them are ensnared and dunked into the ocean. The party thief with a ring of water walking runs to the site, ties a rope, and has them hauled back onto the ship (where they are securely restrained). The players start asking about the possibility of selling them, or training them to be ridden.

So with the very first encounter roll, this scenario has inescapably spun in a direction that I never expected to deal with. One of the players points out that there is a listing for Specialist: Animal Trainer (OD&D Vol-3, p. 22) for which "The length of time necessary to completely train the animals is up to the referee."

Week 4: Having not actually commenced any hostilities with Nevins yet, the party decides to pull into port there (under disguised colors) and proceeds to do two things: (1) find an animal trainer for hire, and (2) scout for intelligence on rich merchant targets, including use of charms and clairvoyance spells (neither of which has ever occurred in the scenario before). For the latter, I allow a few rolls that result in "+/-2 to your next encounter roll in a direction of your choice". For the former, I allow them to find and employ a rather scurrilous, on-the-run animal trainer who's willing to hire up with a sketchy group of mercenaries sailing for parts unknown. This made-on-the-fly character winds up being called "Glarkon the Unsavory; or, Daddy Midnight", and at some point he gets run by a new player who just happens to wander by and asks if he can sit at the table and observe. (Also at one point, the suggestion is made to just sack the whole town, but thankfully cooler heads prevail.)

Week 5: Hunting off the Nevins coast, the encounter roll comes up empty this week. My ruling on the animal trainer goes like this: Each week he gets to roll for 5 Pegasi (that is, one roll per player at the table). Training a Pegasi quickly seems really difficult, so I say a 19-20 on a d20 roll is necessary any week to make one semi-controllable. I'm thinking that's a glimmer of a chance that won't actually come up within the game. Of course, on the very first week, 2 Pegasi succeed at their checks. This continues in later weeks, so as time goes on, the overall action starts looking something like a medieval-fantasy aircraft carrier, with various riders flying off the deck for combat and scouting purposes.

Week 6: An encounter roll succeeds. The result comes up "4 - Patrol (Longship)", but due to the prior intelligence gathering, it's switched by the players to "2 - Merchant (Wine)" (I breathe a sigh of relief that they don't get to pick the Copper merchant, worth 2 cargoes, for fear of the scenario ending almost immediately in success -- see top above for a version of the top-level encounter tables in use). The ships close (under false colors as usual), but the merchants sense trouble with the large number of soldiers, and the players are forced to initiate hostilities.

Wildcat MacCusson (Human Ftr5/Thf6) takes off on a Pegasus in combat for the first time. Noting that the creature is only semi-trained, and the immense speed of the beast (48"), I call for a control roll of d20+level (trying to score 20+; i.e., chances 6-in-20). This fails, and so Wildcat and his Pegasus rocket off the deck uncontrollably -- traveling nearly a scale 1,000 feet instantly, and thereby leaping the miniature off the table entirely (somewhere around the window in the back of the room).

Meanwhile, the wizards are able to pacify most of the enemy with a series of sleep spells, and thereafter take command of the captured merchantman crew with a series of bribes, threats, ESP, and charm spells. The action with Wildcat, however, will happen a whole bunch more times throughout the game.

Week 7: Here, a result of "Patrol (Longship)" comes up unchanged. The players with their now-two vessels attempt to sail by under their false colors, as the Nevins patrol ship rows close. However, disaffected members of the captured merchant crew raise an alarm and call for help, so that the longship calls for attack speed and lurches forward. Wildcat again erupts off the deck out-of-control to great hilarity (every combat I gave an accumulative +1 or +2 to the check, but generally to no avail). Meanwhile Kjell Greenfish (Elf Ftr4/Wiz5) drops the bomb by pulling out his one-shot scroll of death (6th-level death spell) and devastating most of the enemy oarsmen/fighters. A few sleep spells and mercenary missile-salvos later, and the longship is cleared of hostiles and subsequently scavenged and sunk. (Another ESP spell is then used to identify the shouting merchant mate, who is then dunked overboard by way of Pegasus-flight.)

Week 8: Thinking that the locals may be warned about their activities, the players switch their hunting zone to the somewhat less-rich city of Muirhead, down the coast to the south. Now, a result of "Merchant (Fish)" appears. Again the players try to first hail peacefully for news, with the merchant drawing close before deciding the pair of vessels may be the pirates they've been warned about. Again Wildcat tumbles into the sky uncontrollably, but the merchant is surrounded on both sides, and a combination of magic and missile-shower bring them to bay. A second captured merchantman is added to the fleet -- the players are doing well!

Week 9: A third Pegasus is "successfully" trained. This week the encounter result is a Patrol -- this time not one but two ships, a fully loaded Caravel and companion Longship, on the hunt for pirates, with the powerful Captain Bidari (Female Human Ftr8, Str18) at the helm. The players try to sail away peacefully, but at this point the jig is up. The patrol ships are significantly faster than the player's tubby cogs, quickly tacking from behind them and throwing grapples for double simultaneous boarding actions. A fireball is shot into the midships of the caravel, burning a number of men and setting the mast on fire.

At this point we switch to man-to-man action, with me pulling out 5-foot-per-inch maps of the appropriate ships' decking, and pouring some 150 counters onto the table for all the individuals involved (the tactical-level models are pulled to the side for this). Wildcat shoots off out-of-control as usual. Kjell Greenfish mounts one of the winged steeds for the first time, calls for all the rest of the Pegasi to be cut free, and downs his potion of animal control, taking mental command of a half-dozen of the creatures. The thieves Taber and Gorka run with men below-decks on one of the vessel to set an ambush-and-backstab opportunity. Byrtwold (Human Wiz6, and overall captain) flings spells and charms one of the lieutenants leaping over the railing to attack him. Men from the burning caravel run forward at the urging of the enemy captain, pouring onto the players' decks.

Pretty soon, Kjell is making repeated swooping attacks at the head of his controlled Pegasus-flock, slashing men to pieces and into the ocean (and breaking off his magic spear at one point in the side of an enemy lieutenant). Taber winds up in hand-to-hand combat, nearly overwhelmed by the enemy Captain Bidari. Wildcat decides to land on deck, fails a control roll, and tumbles into the sail (the best of several truly terrible options, given a certain dire roll). Landing on deck, he pulls out his enormous magic two-handed sword and cuts down two of the enemy -- followed by a natural "1", a failed saving throw, and then a fumble result of 87/100 ("critical hit, self"), followed by 78/100 ("leg removed at knee"), effectively taking him out of the combat. This may be the single unluckiest character I've ever seen on a single day!

Unfortunately, as time runs out, the double-patrol forces at last seem to be more than the PC's can fend off. Taber goes down under the furious attack of Captain Bidari. Gorka slashes with his dagger where he can. Byrtwold tells the charmed lieutenant to go below-decks to "burn out the evil hobbits there" -- "there" being the location where they previously stacked up a large load of burning oil. That pair of linked ships effectively blows up (the enemy deck also having been bombed by barrels of oil), and the fireball-ed caravel sinks and pulls down the merchant wine vessel with it, as well. Did the PCs manage to escape and limp to safety with their remaining ship and crew? Or did Captain Bidari win the day after all? Whispered rumors hint at other, darker possibilities...

Enormous thanks to my excellent and good-humored players: James, Adrian, Chris, Eppy, and Tavis, and to everyone at RECESS. It was literally a blast to play with you!