Critical Hits Tables

In my OED house rules, I note that I use a set of detailed tables for critical hits or fumbles on a natural roll of 20 or 1. This is something that's been enormously satisfying in play since I started doing it a few years ago; it's actually the only complicated "tablature" that I regularly use in play, out of all the official D&D rulebooks, articles, or supplements that I've ever seen. (My DM screen interior normally showing (1) adventure location map, (2) standard monster stats, and (3) critical hits tables.)

Part of the satisfying nature of it is exactly in how rarely it gets invoked, like, two or three times per gaming session at most. It definitely throws in just the right amount of unexpected "spice" detail that makes combat exciting, unpredictable, and truly dangerous (without generally encumbering the process or the pacing). It throws a very nice curve ball into the standard d20-and-damage combat sequence, yet it's still an objective mechanic (not just DM fiat). And we have yet to see the exact same "special" result twice in the time that I've been using these tables. One of the things I do is, even after a 1 or 20 are indicated, grant the victim a saving throw to avoid going to the tables -- this nicely avoids oddities like high-level fighters constantly fumbling their sword, makes powerful monsters or established PCs difficult to take down by this technique, etc.

I haven't presented the tables here in the past because they're simply straight out of an old Dragon Magazine article -- a submission by the otherwise unfamiliar name of Carl Parlagreco, "Good Hits & Bad Misses", in Dragon #39 (July, 1980). To my knowledge, this is the only classic Dragon article dealing with the issue of critical hits; I think it was a short time after this was published that Gygax wrote one of his screeds, especially pointing out critical hits as a corruption of core D&D play. But I've found them to be extremely satisfying in my OD&D games. (Note that I almost totally ignore the text rules, but use the tables as written.)

Note how nicely this is laid out, from the era when meaty Dragon articles might only take up 2 pages as shown here (I print this out on one sheet of paper for my DM screen). It even has a thoughtful space left for "Notes" for your own refinements to the system. Here's what I have written in mine:

  • On natural "1" or "20", target saves vs. stone (level + 2) or consult appropriate table.
  • Fumbles: ignore indicated Dex checks.
  • Liberal interpretations necessary: negate/change unreasonable results.
  • Delayed death results negated by application of 3 cure light wounds.
  • Undead immune to effects except head crushing/decapitation.

Edit 1: Also, consider making the victim roll the d% dice to determine the final critical-hit effect. Holy god, the look of horror on the player's face when they have to do that is unparalleled.

Edit 2: Get a PDF copy extract of these tables here.


Xkcd Wish Log

If you haven't done so already, make sure you read this past Wednesday's xkcd strip titled "Eyelash Wish Log" -- an important case study in things to watch out for!

That is all.


OED Update (v. 1.0)

Over the last few years, I've been posting versions of my refinements to the Original D&D rules under the title "Original Edition Delta", with version numbers of 0.x. Seems like it's finally time to increment that to 1.0, since these house-rules seem to have largely stabilized, and seem pretty satisfying to work with in any of the games that I've run recently. This version is pretty much the same as the last one (0.11), with some very minor wording changes, and the added note that 1 turn = 1 minute ~ 5 rounds, as discussed recently.

Download from OEDGames.com:


Castles & Cutpurses

OD&D Rules for Stocking Castles; Adding Thieves and Their Expected Behavior

Thinking a bit more on my convention game exploring the Outdoor Survival map using the rules from Original D&D Vol-3 (the DM's booklet) -- the following are the rules for stocking Castles (p. 15-16). Note that in these rules the only classes are Fighters, Magic-Users, and Clerics; so for my game I had to think about how to replace the Clerics with Thieves (consideration follows page scans; recall that for me, basins are caves, and buildings are castles):

A few comments: Note that the "occupants" are all either "name level" or "one below name level" in their respective classes (as usual, with Clerics as an outlier: they're either "lawful name level" or "chaotic name level"). Note also the weird wording on fighter/wizard alignment: they're either "hostile to adventurers (die 1-3) or neutral (die 4.6)" -- I read that first option to mean "chaotic", although obviously if your PCs were Chaotic you might as well make the hostiles Lawful for some action-packed gaming.

Anyway, as mentioned above, I wanted to strip out the Clerics and replace them with Thieves (more in-line with the Fighters and Wizards in terms of levels and alignment distribution, in fact). So in the first table, my last two rows look like this:

The monsters I used were almost all from Sup-I Greyhawk, but I think that's acceptable since it's where the Thieves themselves come from (the elves in the top-right are Hero/Theurgists, i.e., 4th-level in each class). For the second table I gave Thieves a 25% chance of having a Magic-User, level 5-8 (same as for Fighting-Men).

Open questions -- Per the text, "Occupants of these castles will venture out if a party of adventurers passes nearby", so as to make certain demands for tribute/treasure/toll, as indicated for each. One question is: What men do they bring with them? -- Initially I presumed just the castle leader himself with the Guards from Table 1, but in hindsight it seems a bit suspect that the castle ruler would jeopardize himself in such way (e.g., instead of using the castle itself for protection; perhaps that's good for the game, or perhaps they should bring a host standard men with them?). Second question is: What should Thieves do for analogous challenge/demands? -- I tried to come up with something, and frankly couldn't see anything in-flavor except for Thief-types to lay in hiding within their castle, hoping to ambush unwary intruders (which seemed to make sense until my PCs went to explore said castle and I had to make up reasons for how hundreds of men could remain hidden at once). Maybe you've got better ideas for those reactions?


HelgaCon V - Outdoor Spoliation

Sandbox Play on the OUTDOOR SURVIVAL Map; Party Configuration and Preparation; A Synopsis of Their Various Travels and Exploits; Final Commentary and Literary Echoes

So for the final game of HelgaCon back in April, Sunday morning, I ran a session of an upper-mid-level  hex-crawl D&D plundering adventure on the old Outdoor Survival map. This was done pretty closely following the guidelines set out in Original D&D, Vol-3 for adventures on said map (p. 14-20; as part of my continuing science experiments to play the original game as much as feasible). The goal is for the party to acquire 100,000 silver pieces worth of treasure in the session --which would be enough to raise the whole party up by one level (under my silver standard sp-for-gp, and ×5 XP rules). I call this scenario Outdoor Spoliation for hopefully obvious reasons.

I did make some alterations for flavor; while OD&D states that pond icons are castles and cabins are villages, I switched it around so that pond icons are caves (with monsters) and the small number of cabins are castles (with various high-level inhabitants). Also, for simplicity I use the movement chart directly from the original game box (instead of the slightly altered terrain adjustments rates in OD&D). Inhabitants of caves & castles were almost entirely generated beforehand by random methods (and wandering monsters could also occur mid-game, of course); I've got the pond/caves on my version of the map numbered with a wax pencil to link up with game notes. Due to my busy spring schedule, I came to play much less prepared than I ever have been for a game -- just 3 pages of handwritten notes, which was downright unsettling for me. Nevertheless, it may have been my biggest hit of the convention, and gave a seemingly pitch-perfect denouement to the whole weekend. For example, see here for the writeup of the game on Paul's Blog.

The Party

I had a very nice, full-sized group of 8 players, everyone well-experienced with D&D or RPG's in general. As usual, I provided a collection of OED-specification pre-generated characters for them to select from, all of them constructed at the 95,000 XP level. They selected a group of 2 human wizards, a fighter, a thief, a dwarven fighter and a halfling thief, with one elf fighter/wizard and another wizard/thief (levels 6-9 depending on class). You can see these characters here (PDF).

These characters were allowed to start with 5,000 sp for any gear they wanted, so of course they all had horses and 6 weeks of food. Several (wizards in particular) also decided to hire a few men-at-arms guardians with missile weapons, and grooms for the horses. This sort of made for a comical logistical snowballing at the start of the session, as some players decided they wanted helpers, then so did other players, then more horses were needed, etc. There was some friendly squabbling over exactly what to set for a limit on party size. (In truth, I actually had my Book of War mass-warfare game within reach, and without saying as much, I was fully prepared if the group decided to raise a whole army and traipse into the wilderness that way; in fact, the starting money was balanced for just that.)

The group was permitted to start at any of the 4 castles (cabin icons) around the map edge, assuming a friendly and allied castle-owner -- they selected the south-central one and proceeded northwards from there. At that point, I started rolling the standard encounter and "lost" checks and moving the group on a per-day basis. (Side note: Until this very moment I always presumed that the lost/encounter checks on Vol-3 p. 18 were on the same die; but then I realized this doesn't line up with the text, and I was rolling 2 dice of different colors each move-turn. Furthermore, note that encounters are technically at the end of a day, while lost conditions are triggered at the start of day.)

The Travels

Below you'll see a map of the group's travels (cabin/castles are indicated on the original map but not the image below; here they're replicated by numbers in circles). Thereafter, a synopsis of their journey is given.

  1. This is the castle of the Lawful Necromancer, Thjodolf Crowfoot. He provided initial accommodations and saw the party off on their travels.
  2. This cave contained 4 Giant Scorpions, which were engaged with a combination of spells & hand-to-hand combat. One party member narrowly avoided death (had to make a save vs. poison); the group thereafter decided to be more thoughtful in their engagements. Only a small amount of treasure here: 500 gp and 500 cp.
  3. This cave at the edge of a mountain spur was the hideout for a band of 7 Ogres. Here the party sent several stealthy magic-using members forward under invisibility, catching the ogres by surprise and blasting them with multiple fireballs. While the ogres were successfully shock-and-awed to pieces, any treasure was liquified and ran into the bowels of the earth. The party decided to be more careful in this regard in the future.
  4. This was the stronghold of the Neutral Necromancer, Kaxen of the Rain Castle. He met the party on the plain outside the castle with his apprentice and a charmed manticore, demanding a toll for trespass on his property. While discussing this, one of the party members took the initiative to hit him in the head with a sling stone, at which point he ice stormed the party, and general mayhem ensued. At the end Kaxen and his apprentice were dead, and so was one party member (thereafter resuscitated with the single wish from Halig Redsaber's magic sword). This put negotiations with the other six-score defenders of the castle on a notably sour note, with the party dropping Kaxen's head in the castle with demands for surrender or else face destruction, while the castle-men declared steadfast resistance against such Chaotic marauders. Ultimately Halig found the proceedings distasteful, and got the party to agree to a more reasonable ransom demand, which was met with a magic scroll, 2,000 sp and some gems, and a map to a nearby large cache of treasure (see below).
  5. Here was the hideout of a large force of Bandits; 200, to be exact. Advance runners spotted the party coming up the forest trail and the body of the group formed an ambush, with cavalrymen arranged on the trail and scores of bowmen in the trees to either side, which the party then walked into. A wall of fire was effective in forestalling a cavalry charge from the enemy, with fighters dashing into the woods on either side for a general melee. One notable frustration was Yuri the Bull, who charged into the woods on his heavy warhorse, and then critical-fumbled his way into a stout tree branch, knocking his helmet around backwards and blinding him for the balance of the engagement. However, other fighters did more fine-edged work, the party guards returned fire, and a barrage of sleeps, charms, fireballs, and other magic served to break and send the bandits running. The party forced a number of captured bandits into their service and had them show the way to the cave-hidden treasure; and thus they marched away with a force stronger than they started out with, some 50,000 sp richer, and with an effusive forest fire burning gaily behind them.
  6. This is the location of a river crossing, at which point the group met Olaf Lancethruster, a Neutral Superhero in full plate armor challenging any who wished to cross the river to a joust. This the party agreed to, under the stipulation that the loser would forfeit all property to the winner, and Yuri went forward to meet Olaf in a glorious joust. (Olaf was a random wandering encounter; at this point I pulled out the jousting rules from original Chainmail.) Unfortunately, on the first hit, Yuri was hit square in the fess pale (center shield), and knocked clean from his horse with a resounding clang. The party decided to pay Olaf for Yuri's otherwise forfeited gear, and they proceeded onward, leaving Olaf happily 5,000 sp richer than he was previously.
  7. Here was found Castle Cougar, home of the arch-thief Ketil the Demon and his group of malign robbers and sell-swords. Initially the castle appeared deserted, but when the party investigated by means of flying and ESP they found the whole place well-guarded with hidden men and defenses. After some planning, they came up with an extravagant and detailed plan in which some members would be invisible, a phantasmal force of a far-off marching band created, while thieves scaled the walls, invisible wizards would knock the castle gate open, and then the remaining fighters and men could storm the place with help from various confusion, fear, and sleep-type magic. After a hard-fought battle, this turned out to be successful, with Ketil himself and his chief henchmen cut down in combat, and the other questionable men ultimately surrendering. Here was found some 40,000 sp in treasure -- a good amount, but not quite enough for the party to claim full victory as time ran out. 


Granted the relatively small amount of preparation I'd done, and the great amount of freedom on the part of the PC's and the ad-libbing I had to do, this game was a ridiculous blast to play. The thing is: Never in all my years of D&D play have I ever felt more like I was smack directly in the middle of a Vancian Dying Earth or Leiberian Fafhrd & Gray Mouser story -- jaded, wry, roguish, completely mercenary, and bewildering from the outside. I was frequently ducking down behind my DM's screen so as to hide my almost uncontrollable laughter -- particularly as the PC's were threatening to invade a castle of Neutral men, claiming right of seizure after its leader had "blackmailed" them by asking for a toll from their otherwise free movement across its land. Memorably, when the NPC's started calling back heroic taunts against the "Chaotic marauders", the face of one single player fell (Halig Redsaber), and he started basically yelling at the other players for their outrageous behavior -- but when other players suggested that they could let the men live for a mere ransom of 20,000 sp, then he considered it thoughtfully and agreed that was eminently reasonable. That and the fact that no one realized their many fireballs along the woodsy trail had set off a raging forest fire had me in stitches.

Probably the hardest thing to ad-lib in the game was running the open assault of high-level characters against fortresses that I only had a single line of information on each (name, leader, and number of men). Honestly, I hadn't actually expected that to happen when I visualized the game in advance -- although I did think possibly personal combat with the leaders was likely. On the fly, I had to visualize the layout of the castles and administer reasonable defenses along the gates, walls, etc.; that seemed to work out perfectly fine in practice, maybe even better pacing-wise than I'd normally manage, but I think in the future I'd like to have at least one "default" castle layout and defenses on hand for adjudication in that regard, since on my end everything seemed just a bit sketchy, like I was probably overlooking some obvious protections (and see also situational-response notes in 1E DMG p. 105).

At any rate, it's a game I don't think I'll ever forget, and in its random and accidental mechanical way, more successfully transported us all into the "Appendix N" literary tradition than anything I'd experienced before. A really great game, and great play and comments from all the players -- I'd love to do it again sometime.


G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King

On the Extraordinary Toughness of the Adventure; First and Second Attacks; Commentary on Spell Availability Rulings

In my continuing recap of games from the convention back in April -- I also did my standard classic AD&D module game  (using OD&D with my personal house rule modifications), in which I was now in year 3 of the "Against the the Giants" series, i.e., the culminating Dungeon Module G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King. Dragon Magazine #19 has a wonderful writeup from Origins '78 from a tournament party playing through this module for the first time (recommended reading), and I've been using a scoring system based on the notes there throughout the series. This time, I had a somewhat reduced group of 6 players (in past years it's been greater; the module recommends 8-10), but as someone else pointed out, they were pretty much all of the "alpha" players at our mini-con (draining them out of other games at the same time slot), and gave a very determined, serious go at the adventure.

The Adventure

Let me make some comments about the G3 module in general. (SPOILERS galore from here on.) One is that this is simply the flat-out toughest module in the classic repertoire that I know of, by a fairly wide margin. It's totally, completely brutal if played as written. Even the championship winners at Origins '78 only made it through about 4 areas by my count (about the same as my players this year; out of over 60 in the complex). My friend Paul said that he had more enjoyment from the prior G2 because they got to explore and see more (totally understandable); another player said this was far harsher than when we played through the Tomb of Horrors a few years ago. Background quote:
Surely here in the stronghold of the fire giants will be encountered the evil genius -- or genii -- controlling the uprising and planning the well-executed attacks, for Snurre is said to be far stronger than smart. It is a sad fact that all encounters here will be worse than those the party has faced elsewhere, for fire giants are ferocious opponents, and their associates and helpers will undoubtedly be proportionately stronger and more fearsome than those of the lesser hill and frost giants. Sobering thought indeed! (p. 2)

There are a few very specific command-control reasons for this, looking at the sequence of G1-3. The steading in G1 has a coherent warning/guard system (alarm gong in a watchtower), except that when the PCs approach, the guards in question are all drunk asleep (so PCs can slip inside with ease). The glacial caves in G2 have alert defenders, but no well-organized alarm system (guards may run off so that others are not surprised, but a well-planned defense response doesn't occur). In contrast, G3 has both a coherent warning system (hidden horn at the gate) and well-manned defense response (unsurprisable ettins watchers, backup guards at the ready) -- plus much tougher giants, more of them, only one single way in, AND they have the "best advice immediately available to them" (i.e., the genius-level drow controllers). Basically, as soon as the first main room is breached, the entire complex instantly starts storming towards it; and if the party retires, the notes exhort the DM to plan all kinds of nasty ambushes for the next time. It's absolutely killer, and when preparing it I'm not entirely sure how any party could make it through.

Anecdote: Back in high school I was a much more forgiving DM, and my players gamed through G1 and G2 in a single run-through each. Yet even then, G3 turned into a year-long siege, with multiple forays at it numerous times by my otherwise well-equipped players, each time being thrown back and narrowly avoiding destruction. One result is that my G3 module is the most completely beat-up, annotated, erased, re-annotated, torn-apart and taped-up module in my collection. The result captures the mayhem and destruction that goes on within; it's truly brutal.

The First Attack

You can see the OED pre-generated characters that I offer my players here. Between them they opted to take Atol, Bellinus, Boris, Ezniak, Hedron, and Jurdan -- that is: 3 straight Fighters, one Ftr/Thief, one Ftr/Wizard, and one straight Wizard. Note that the latter character, "Jurdan the Red Wizard", is flame-themed, with a wand of fireballs, and he made tremendous havoc in the Glacial Rift last year; his player had such a blast with him (literally) that he was selected again this year -- a choice which seemed pretty suspect (especially when there was another wizard available with a wand of cold), but was allowed to stand.

I also provide pre-made spellbooks, and two other rulings may be of note. One is that (as has been the case for a while), under my OED rules I don't allow duplicates of the same spell to be memorized. The second is that, almost right before the game in a bit of pique at the continuing issues with haste, I decided that it only doubled movement, and did not affect attacks in any way. Somewhat surprisingly (or maybe not so, granted the first rule), players were still taking haste -- and it proved key to escaping the Hall at one point. But players also had a critique of the first rule that it limited their attack options (at the end there was speculation on whether an all-fighter party might have actually done better) -- can't stock up on repeated direct-damage spells, and giant saves are generally too good for more subtle stuff (confusion, etc.)

Thus equipped, the party enters the great doors of the complex and walks by the hidden alarm, setting it off, and initiating a general rise of all the defenders in the complex. How could this have been avoided? I'm honestly not sure. Perhaps if a single thief snuck inside and checked for secrets -- even so, it would be tough to silence the first guard because he has a mountain of hit points. Or actually, maybe a smaller party would have an advantage in being to turn everyone invisible (the introductory note does in fact mention, "A party of 3 or 4 highly experienced characters of 9th or higher level can expect a reasonable chance if they use their knowledge and cunning to best advantage"). And you might also think to consider a silence spell, except with no clerics in my game, neither is that spell. At any rate, triggering the alarm essentially set the tone for the rest of the game.

The first guard was dispatched and then a pair of well-armed ettin sentinels at the entrance to the Great Hall were engaged and defeated. The personal guard of King Snurre -- 4 beefy giants -- came running and engaged, while the King himself cowardly slipped off his throne and out of sight from the far end of the enormous hall. More giants could be heard running to the defense, so the party slipped out the gaping northern corridor -- only to be confronted by a pair of giants from the Guard Post ahead of them, and then 4 more armored giants from the Barracks cutting off their escape from behind, with the sounds of more defenders coming. A furious battle occurred here, with the two guards ahead killed, and one behind, at which point the haste spell cast on the whole party allowed them to run out the gap and escape from the Hall. Almost -- unfortunately, the dwarven fighter/thief Bellinus Blueeye was the victim of a giant-spear cast at him while separately investigating the throne area, took a critical hit through the heart, and died instantly.

The Second Attack

This resulted in some down-time as the party rested & recollected themselves -- using up healing potions, memorizing new spells, and coming up with a new plan of attack. The wizard Zaki Azeem teleported in to assist and replace the fallen thief (whose body could not be retrieved in the party's escape). At this point, I was considering Gygax's exhortation in the introductory module notes -- "As soon as the party strikes and then retires, the attack will be assessed and counter-measures taken... you will have to design some reactions personally... the fire giants will lay whatever traps and ambushes they are able to under the circumstances". To make this a bit more fair, while the players were strategizing their next attack, I personally stepped out of the room so as not to overhear -- into the kitchen where I myself tried to come up with some clever, evil-genius countermeasures in the few minutes that I had. When the players were ready, I stepped back into the play-area to begin again.

So this turned out rather more horribly than before. One idea that occurred to me while in the kitchen (looking around for inspiration, and just seeing some shopping bags) was to have a cadre of Giantesses waiting in ambush with giant sacks to try and scoop up the bothersome wizards. Plus some of the party was skulking around invisibly, so I brought up the Keeper with a pack of scent-tracking Hell Hounds which could foil this tactic. Plus a big mob of Trolls from the lower levels to surprise and pig-pile the party if that wasn't enough. And so it went: The hounds detected and trapped the invisible fighters, and while the party engaged them and some guard giants (confusion successfully cast against the less-powerful hounds), the giantesses jumped out from another corridor and indeed made hits to scoop up the wizards in the rear with their huge sacks and beat them senseless against the wall. One of the fighters had the misfortune of a critical fumble, having the head of his axe crack off and hitting any ally for tremendous damage. Then the mob of trolls rushed in on the remaining fighters, and though they fought bravely (another giant and several hounds were killed), they were pulled down in the rush, and that was that. A horrible, messy, total party kill at the mouth of the Great Hall.


So, I think my players gamed as well as they could given the circumstances, but just had too many strikes against them to get very far. This would include: (1) The sheer brutality and brilliant defense of the place itself, (2) The fact that the party was under-manned (6 players instead of the recommended 8-10), (3) The fact that the primary wizard brought along a wand of fire, and (4) The fact that the party did indeed trip the initial warning alarm in the Entry Passage. I might have been just a little harsh in a ruling or two right at the end, but the session time was running out and the writing was clearly on the wall at that point. That said, they did wind up exploring the exact same areas that the champion winners in 1978 did (per Dragon #19), which has got to be a significant moral victory.

To touch back on one issue: There was some criticism of my OED ruling to not allow duplicate spells being memorized; questions arose if that was instead allowed in 1E, or used by original PCs for the adventure. The answer to the first question is of course yes -- by default; not that it was specifically indicated in rulebooks, but numerous examples of NPC's in adventures doing so (most commonly clerics with multiple cure wounds). Actually, the villainous priests of the temple in this adventure have duplicated cause light wounds, hold person, and silence (but nothing higher than 2nd level; of course for my game this was all swapped out for Ftr/Wiz powers and no duplicates).

Regarding PC's: the original monochrome 1978 publications don't have stock PC's included, but the later 1981 collected G1-3 module does at the back (listed as "Original Tournament Characters"). They even have fixed memorized spell lists -- as opposed to my larger spellbooks and player selections from those -- so we can see exactly what was intended for those (click to enlarge):

So of the 6 spell-casters given here, rather as expected, most of the duplicate spells are used for clerical curatives -- lots of cure light wounds, cure serious wounds, remove curses, and neutralize poisons. In fact, many of the cleric spell levels are devoted to nothing but these spells; the need for this is avoided by my house-rule to nix clerics, and in fact that kind of result is a major reason for my doing so. Aside from that, the only duplicated spells are a pair of magic missiles and faerie fire, all at 1st level. Nothing is duplicated at a higher level for wizards, and so the tournament party is definitely not expected to walk in blasting with repeated lightning bolts for direct damage. (Nor did anyone stock lower-level spells in higher-level slots, which was a development permitted in 3E, for example.) In other words, I think that if we have to choose between permitting PCs to engage with a half-dozen memorized lightning bolts, or prohibit duplicated spells, then I think that traditional precedent is definitely more in line with the latter.

Anyway, the spell issue was an interesting question mark raised at the end of the game, and it did pique my curiosity to check it out afterward. An excellent and well-fought foray into the Hall of the Fire Giant King which will be remembered in song for ages hence. In conclusion, after running the adventures tournament-style across 3 years: I do think that modules G1-3 are the "killer app" for the D&D game, and they might, on their own, justify the game itself. If you've never had a chance to run them, than I highly recommend that you do sometime (granted that you need to get players with at least some system experience, and provide high-level PCs for them to adventure with). Giant-sized thanks to my players for letting me run it again!


Siege on the Borderlands

A Book of War Scenario in Honor of Bastille Day: Sack the Keep on the Borderlands

This Saturday is Bastille Day! In honor of the birth of modern France (my partner's homeland), I invite you kids to have fun storming the castle -- namely, the Keep on the Borderlands.

Below you'll find a link to my brief PDF notes for the Book of War scenario, Siege on the Borderlands, which features a massive monster horde attempting to escalade the Keep by surprise at the dark of night. This includes a complete roster for those forces found in the Keep, as well as a monstrous army (6 times larger than the nearby Caves of Chaos; and only by attacking at night does even this legion have a chance of quickly taking the Keep). You'll need some kind of model or scale map (1" = 20 ft) of the Keep to run it.

I ran this scenario several times last year with excellent results; it's really kind of fascinating to see players on both sides evaluate plans, take some initial losses, and revise strategies on the fly. Stay cool!


Turn Length

Using a Turn Length of 1 Minute (and Rounds of 10 Seconds); Advantages, and Agreement with the Original CHAINMAIL Rules

For quite some time, as you can see in the sidebar, I've interpreted the OD&D "round" as a short period of about 10 seconds in length (in accordance with pretty much anything developed after 1978).

But one thing I've had as a dilemma for quite some time is how to interpret the "turns" of OD&D, especially in regard to durations for spells and potions and the like (e.g., I left it undefined in the OED Book of Spells). I've gone back-and-forth in considering the AD&D-style 10-minute turn, or just saying a turn = round (10 seconds for me), etc. But what I've finally decided recently is to read occurrences of "turn" as 1 minute (for simplicity, say: 1 turn = 5 rounds). Truth is, it's even a throwback to the original game of Chainmail, for reasons which I'll outline below:

Advantages of the 1-minute turn:

(1) It's easy to interpret for players. When they look at the OD&D spell list and ask "what's a turn?" I can just say "1 minute" and no mental conversions are necessary.

(2) It matches what we might expect for the length of one scene. When I browse through the OD&D spell listings (usually 3, 6, or 12 turns duration) and think about the real-time length each spell "should" last, usually a few minutes (surely less than an hour) seems about right. God forbid I use the word "cinematic" here, but it is the case that an action beat in literature, television, movies, or music usually lasts on the order of a few minutes.

(3) It means we usually won't have to track spells in combat. Granted OD&D spells durations above (15, 30, or 60 rounds by the simple conversion), most of our combats will terminate before we reach these points. Admittedly there's a bit of a loss in not having the end-time of spells be a tactical consideration in combat, but it's definitely balanced by the ease of record-keeping.

(4) It's a return to the better-thought-out original rules in Chainmail. Recall that Chainmail starts its mass-combat rules with a "turn" of 1 minute (p. 8); and a smaller division of "rounds" for melee cycles (not well-defined, but you can see the distinction in the Fatigue rules, p. 11 -- thanks to UWSGuy for educating me on this). Interestingly, when Chainmail gets to the Man-to-Man rules, then it uniformly presents the action in terms of the "round" designator (see all of p. 25, etc.), even though later fantasy spells are in "turns" (p. 31-32). So this both makes sense as pacing and is compatible with what I'm doing here; "turns" of 1 minute, with man-to-man "rounds" of a smaller unit (like around 10 seconds, perhaps).

The fact that Gygax garbled the issue later when he got to OD&D Vol-3 by asserting that turns were 10 minutes, and rounds were 1 minute -- and then doubling down in defending the nonsense in the DMG -- shouldn't inhibit us from using an interpretation that is easy, sensible, and more true to the actual root of the game.


HelgaCon V - BOW Round Robin Game 2

Armies of Men Struggle Over Heavy Terrain

Here's the second game from the Book of War tournament at Helgacon V back in April. The game is being played at the 300 point level -- again, with brand-new players who are learning the game as they play, in an approximate 2-hour time slot. Also, we've just established a new tournament rule that routed units never come back into combat (so as to simplify and speed up the game).

Start -- This game features Kyle (in Red on the left) vs. Toby (in Blue on the Right). Red has selected a nicely balanced force of 10 Archer figures, 10 Light Cavalry, 10 Heavy Infantry, and 10 Pikemen. Blue has taken 6 Longbows, 6 Archers, 18 Pikemen (arranged in two blocks of 9 each), and 6 Heavy Cavalry (on the extreme close edge of the board). They've randomly rolled a great deal of very heavy terrain -- the whole middle of the board is clogged up with lots of Woods, a Marsh, a Pond, and a Hill (the latter on the side towards Red). There was some expectation by Blue that the various missile units could be organized together in a single unit, but this was disallowed; units must be of homogenous type, so at the back we have four close lines of Archers (with shortbows) and Longbows.

Turn 2 -- Both sides have taken two turns of movement, advancing forward. Blue has pushed his Pikes aggressively right into the Woods and Marsh; missile troops are now at the edge of the Marsh. Red has carefully positioned a body of troops on the Hill -- Heavy Infantry in front (which can serve as a shield against missiles), and Archers in the rear. Light Cavalry are somewhat tentatively advancing in the rear. On the close edge of the board, Red has drawn first blood; Pikes have rushed forward quickly to attack the Heavy Cavalry as they enter the Woods, downing one figure.

Turn 3 -- Blue is still pushing Pikes slowly through the Marsh and Woods; on the near edge, Heavy Cavalry have rushed in a counterattack against the Pike thicket, with the usual despairing "gasp" from the new player as he realizes how horrible this is; 3 Heavy Cavalry figures go down under the defensive Pikes, and another on Red's following round -- yet morale stays good. Missile units are firing at each other across the Marsh; with Red's advantageous position on the Hill, they've routed half of Blue's missile troops. Red has also pushed his Heavy Infantry forward into the Woods (which will be very slow, as plate-armored men go crashing through trees and thickets).

Turn 4A -- Blue seems to be getting the worst of it, and on his turn he performs a somewhat surprising move; both of his Pikes move into the open (out of the Woods and Marsh, respectively), and then switch into a Hedgehog formation (motionless, but very powerful for defensive pikes; every side is now protected by the Pike quadruple defensive bonuses). Heavy Cavalry are now in hand-to-hand combat with the Pikes, at a disadvantage at the edge of the Woods, and land no hits.

Turn 4B -- Red doesn't want to tangle with those Pikes on the near edge, so his Light Cavalry turn and maneuver further away to the back of the Hill. Archers turn and shoot the Pikes in the board-center, routing them. Now his pikes get no hits against the plate-armored Heavy Cavalry; his Heavy Infantry are right-facing in the Woods (you'll see no apparent change in position), and other Light Cavalry on the far edge are continuing to work slowly through the Woods there.

Turn 5 -- Although Blue's units of Pikes and Archers, he's doing a surprisingly good job of holding off the rest of Red's forces. Here, Red's Pikes have knocked off another unit of Heavy Cavalry -- but Blue's Pikes are otherwise keeping his opponent disjointed. Red's nearby Light Cavalry don't want to engage, his Archers on the Hill are busy turning, Heavy Infantry are slowed by the Woods, and now his other Light Cavalry are bogged down in the Marsh.

Turn 6 -- Blue's remaining Archers took aim at the Marsh-trapped Light Cavalry and routed them from the table; his Heavy Cavalry have wiped out several figures of Pikes; and his own hedgehogged Pikes have kept the rest of Red's army at bay. Unfortunately, at this point Red has wheeled his Archers around -- his ace-in-the-hole -- and shot those Pikes pretty much to pieces.

Turn 7 -- Pikemen on both sides have been driven from the table, and this frees up Red's Light Cavalry to charge forward and run down one of Blue's remaining Archer units. The Heavy Infantry have also finally made contact with the enemy Heavy Cavalry, and they're sure to do damage. At this point we call the game. Victory to the Red Men!

Commentary -- I really liked how this game played out. There was really interesting heavy terrain to mix things up, almost symmetric on the table except for the one Hill. Both of the new players probably made some moves they wouldn't repeat if they played a second time (like sending slow infantry or cavalry into rough terrain). Blue's move to hedgehog his Pikes and successfully split up the enemy from each other was novel and exciting, and might have carried the day if he hadn't had most of his archers get confused and routed right at the start. I'd love to see what happens when Kyle & Toby play the game again at some point!


HelgaCon V - BOW Round Robin Game 1

Heavily-Armored Men Face Off Against Gnolls, Wolf Riders, and Brigand Archers.

Here's the first game that I ran on the Saturday afternoon of HelgaCon -- the Book of War round-robin tournament, which has been a standard feature the last few years (as the game was going through design & testing cycles). What happens here is that I get 4 players -- usually all of whom are new to the game, which is a fun way to introduce it -- and try to run 3 or 4 games in a 4-hour block, in single-elimination brackets, so as to identify a winner.

That said, I've honestly been having an ongoing problem fitting the games into the designated block of time. Two years ago, I managed to fit in 4 games at 100 or 200 point army values. One year ago, I tried to test the game at the as-yet unseen 500 point level on a big table, and then I didn't really even get to two complete games. This year, I set the army values at 300 points, and limited the table space in play (while allowing fantasy figures like dwarves, elves, orcs and goblins for the first time), and again we had to cut things short even to fit in two games. (Plus I slightly scorched the chili I was supposed to watch during that time.)

Observation: At this point I'm accustomed to playing with my girlfriend who really does know the game pretty well at this point, so with her we can run a complete game at the 300 point level in about an hour -- this leads me to think I can fit in 3 or 4 in four hours, but that's not the case if I'm explaining things to new players as we go along. We came up with one modification at the end of the first game which should help a bit in the future (see bottom of this post).

Anyway, here's the first game of the day (second game will be a later post): Dave vs. Jon at the 300 point level. The board you see here has some rough terrain (pond, rough, woods, marsh, and gulley), mostly positioned around the edges of the table. Dave is moving first, coming from the right with a Goblin-centric army in Blue (7 Goblin Wolf Riders, 7 Longbow-men, 18 Gnolls, and 3 Goblin Light Infantry figures). Jon is moving second, coming from the left with an army of heavily armored Men mostly in Red (6 Heavy Cavalry, 10 Heavy Crossbows, and 20 Pike figures). Here's how that played out:

Turn 2 -- The armies have advanced on each other for two turns here. On the right, Dave has more freedom of movement; he has a big force of Gnolls in the center, with Wolf Riders on the wings and human Longbows following in the rear. Jon is advancing more slowly, because his men are getting hung up in the woods, rough, and gulley on his side of the board.

Turn 3 -- Here, the goblins have moved forward, allowing the men to charge into combat and make the first attacks. Pikemen are staying at distance and landed one hit each on the Gnolls (which eliminates no figures, since Gnolls have 2 hits-to-kill). The Heavy Cavalry are also at a disadvantage, since they're fighting on the very lip of the Gulley, and thus have their attacks halved (this is true for all cavalry on any non-open terrain); they haven't scored any hits at all. The Heavy Crossbows have also fired at the far-forward Wolf Riders, scoring one hit.

Turn 4 -- Gnolls and Wolf Riders have now charged into combat on the right. Against the Pikes, this triggers their hellacious defensive attack, and several figures of Gnolls go down as they throw themselves on the massed ranks of pikes -- the men follow up with more attacks, and the Gnolls on the left are now routed. (As always, the severity of the defensive Pike formation catches the player running against it for the first time by surprise.) While the Heavy Cavalry are attacking at half-strength, the Wolves haven't been able to get through their armor with effective attacks yet. The other Wolf Riders on the far left are cagily running a circle around the Crossbows, keeping them off-balance and having to pivot and fire at half-strength. One Wolf figure (really 10 wolves & goblin riders) is down, but morale stays good.

Turn 5 -- The first unit of Gnolls is shattered and running from the fight, leaving an opening for the chaotic Longbowmen to fire a barrage of missiles at the Pikemen; a half-dozen figures go down (60 men), and one of their units is routed. The Heavy Cavalry's plate armor is still turning aside the Gnoll and Wolf attacks; and on the far-left, Wolf Riders have almost -- but not quite -- managed to turn the rear of the Crossbows.

Turn 6 -- One unit of Pikemen is fleeing into the Woods, but the other unit charges ahead at the blue Longbowmen; this allows the longbows to fire another salvo at close-range, almost wiping out the entire unit to a man. Meanwhile, Wolves have contacted the wheeling Crossbows and killed a figure; otherwise, the Gnoll-Wolf-Cavalry fight at the edge of the Gulley continues at something of a vicious stalemate.

Turn 7 -- Here things get a little wonky with the game. Both the Pikemen units have managed to successfully un-rout and return to the fight -- even the one with just a single figure, who has now made contact with the Longbowmen. This will in fact hold up the Longbowmen for the next turn, since their only option is to engage in melee combat to remove that figure (Dave had a very legitimate critique of this action, I think -- pretty awkward on my game's part). The Crossbows have also successful killed a Wolf figure and run off the remainder. Two turns after this, and the Heavy Cavalry finally break the Gnolls they're fighting, and send them running. Based on time, I call the game and count up un-routed unit points still on the table: Dave has 130, Jon has 158. A narrow victory for the Men!

Commentary -- This was a case where the plate-armor of the Heavy Cavalry (get hit only by a 6 on any d6) clearly made a difference; they were able to absorb lots of attacks by the relatively low-level Gnolls and Wolf Riders and still stay in the fight. Dave was also getting very unfortunate rolls, going about 4 turns without landing any attacks on them at all.

The far more critical mechanic here, though, was the allowance for units to un-rout (requires a roll of 10+ on 2d6) and return to the fight. In fact, I think that every single unit that routed managed to turn around and return based on that rule in this game. That caused the very awkward scene above of a single figure holding up the whole Longbow unit, and more generally prolonged the game beyond the point I expected (exacerbating my usual time-management issue). We agreed for the following game(s) to waive that rule, and have routed units automatically move off the table without recourse. I'm told that's standard for Warhammer (for example), and I think that's what I'll do in the future for any tournament events (to help with the time issue).