Spells Through the Ages – Links

Thanks to everyone who visits this blog! One of the more well-read ongoing features we've had here, in conjunction with my good friend Paul, has been a series of articles called "Spells Through The Ages" where we track the evolution of a given spell throughout the various editions and incarnations of D&D. To make them easier to keep track of, I've added a tool over in the right sidebar called "Quick Search" that will immediately and conveniently show you to a Google search of our blogs (both mine and Paul's) for all the "Spells Through Ages"-related posts. Check it out >>>

If there's something there you haven't seen yet, we hope you find them interesting. Should be a few more of these on the way in coming weeks. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


Archery Revisited

I've written about refining the D&D archery rules a few times, in regards to indoors ballistics and normalized probabilities (e.g.: here, here, and here). A while ago I again looped back to thinking about them, because a few parts of the prior stuff I've written have started to bother me. Here's the revised rule what I've been using for a while now:

Bows: Bows can be fired every round; slings and crossbows every other round. Indoors, all missile weapons have an effective range of 6"/12"/24" (30/60/120 feet; assume a 10' ceiling). Attacks are +4 at short range, +2 at medium range.

Throwing: A spear, dagger, or hand axe may be thrown up to 12" (60 feet) indoors. These are always treated as long range (no bonus to hit).

Long Distance: High ceilings allow longer bowshots, but these are at -10 to hit individual targets. Shots at great distance outdoors are only effective against armies or the like.

Commentary: The primary issue that drove the change is as follows. Even with the modifications I've suggested in the past, I was still trying to hang on to the hand-wavy system in D&D that you can arbitrarily switch from scales in tens-of-feet (indoors) to scales in tens-of-yards (outdoors) and still use the exact same range modifiers. In retrospect, that's unsustainable, and I'm going to stop using it; different scales simply must recognize different chances to hit. (This would be one of the "distortions" mentioned by Gygax in Dragon #15 [todo: link], and one that most later systems sensibly avoided.)

Let's think about why that was done in the first place. Again, the scale 1" = 10 yards was originally established for historical, mass-combat Chainmail, and in so doing, created realistic scaling for mass figures, movement rates, and bowshots on the tabletop. Later, 1" = 10 feet was used by Arneson in his man-to-man games, and included by Gygax in D&D as the "underworld" scale (Vol-3, p. 8), with 1" = 10 yards maintained as "wilderness" scale (Vol-3, p. 17). But there are two major problems with this retention. First, the 1" = 10 yards scale is less about being outdoors, and more about the mass-combat scale, and so irrelevant for the man-to-man RPG. Second, while it enables a realistic-length bowshot outdoors, it overlooks a colossal and critical fact -- no one in the world can possibly hit a single man at maximum distance with a longbow. Hitting an army in formation, yes, easily so; hitting a single man, no, not even close. And hence this consideration is also irrelevant, and even permitting it is one of the "proud nails" that will irk many about the system for years to come.

So let's agree to abandon the separate scale for outdoors action, and consider some physics for a better rule: Due to the inverse-square-law, if we were being really honest, range categories should work by doubling the distance in each category -- in fact, you see this in a lot of gun-based systems like Boot Hill, Star Frontiers, etc. The D&D system (splitting ranges into equal thirds, linearly) is an outlier in that regard, and just plain incorrect. The best I can figure is that, taking a shot of about 40 yards as a base, every halving or doubling of distance should modify to-hits by about +/-8 on a d20 roll (for example: look at the expert archery table we made before; compare the chances shown at 80 yards and 160 yards; 76%-30% = 46%, i.e., 46%/5% = -9 in that case). Technically this modifier should be applied on our normalized table, but in the meat of the progression it's the same as standard D&D.

Now, it's good to be aware of the correct real-world success chances involved; but at the same time, it's best to take those insights and massage them into easy-to-use, highly memorable mechanics that are convenient at the table. What we've calculated in the past for indoor missile ballistics is a 150' maximum shot for basically any weapon under a 10' ceiling (see here). But I figure it's nice and simple to smooth it out to 120', and so have the range in inches revert back to our familiar multiples-of-three: 6"/12"/24". Also, this happens to line up perfectly for range in inches indicated for the heavy crossbow weapon (the longest in the game). And also the 30' lower limit is the same as that identified in AD&D Unearthed Arcana as "point blank range" (UA, p. 18). And also our bonuses are like those in man-to-man Chainmail/OD&D, except doubled for the conversion factor we agreed on in the past (here). So I think there's a lot in favor of this simple setup.

The scale and the mechanic will be used identically both indoors and out (removing one of the "distortions", as Gygax put it). We observe that single men simply cannot be hit by a bowshot outdoors at hundreds of yards distance. If an indoor area has a very high ceiling (cavern, giant-hall, etc.), then allow a shot perhaps up to 48" (240 feet), but at a massive -10 penalty. For simplicity, the same range rule is used for any missile weapon in the game (presenting something easy to memorize, and reflecting again that range of the weapon has little or no bearing on accuracy against a man-to-man target).

Below are some ideas for optional rules you might also consider using in conjunction with this rule.

Optional -- Other Penalties: The scores above assume best-case conditions. Be sure to apply other penalties for darkness or low-light, cover and obstructions, and possibly high-speed movement lateral to the shooter's field of fire. (See Lakofka article in Dragon #45, for example.)

Optional -- Weapon Variation: If you want to treat various weapons differently for indoor, man-to-man combat, then split ranges in inches into thirds as customary, and apply the +4/+2/+0 bonuses as shown above. For example: a longbow will be 7"/14"/21" (35/70/105 feet). This is not totally accurate, but fairly close, simple, and playable (although not so simple as the unified ranges above).

Optional -- Longer Shots: If you want to permit very long-range shots outdoors against man-size targets, keep in mind that this will be an epic feat achievable only by very high-level warriors. Longer shots can be allowed outdoors at ranges up to 50"/100"/200" (i.e., 250/500/1000 feet, or about 80/160/320 yards), at to-hit penalties of -8/-16/-24, respectively. Of course, the standard maximum range of the missile weapon still applies.

Optional -- Shots at Groups: While I'm thinking about it, here's a possible rule for shots at groups of size N. Step 1: Identify a target for the shot by random method. Step 2: Roll d20 to hit, but as long as the natural die-roll is less than or equal to 4×log2N, then re-roll any miss. See here for the exact upper bound: N=1:0, 2:4, 4:8, 8:12. (The basic observation here, again based on the inverse-square-law, is that each doubling of range category is balanced by each quadrupling of area/people in the group, i.e., +/-8 to hit. Therefore each doubling of people should be effectively half this, or +4. I don't actually do this, but perhaps you'd like to try it.)


Gygax on Scale

It's possible that issues of scale in D&D (distance, time, figures, etc.) are the single most commonly discussed topic on this blog. In this regard, we should pay close attention to when Gygax wrote a whole article on the subject, its legacy, and evolution, in the Dragon #15 Sorcerer's Scroll: "D&D Ground and Spell Area Scale" (June 1978). I've excerpted the whole article at the end of this post and highly recommend that you read the whole thing -- and yet I also want to highlight some particular parts of it. This article was the original source for the somewhat shrieky, all-caps note on distance scale in AD&D PHB p. 39 (which you'll see at the very conclusion of the article). Otherwise, Gygax has many observations the same as what I've posted here many times, although his ultimate "fixes" I think are not the best possible ones (and in fact they really haven't stood the test of time, being discarded by D&D and most other RPG's in the intervening years).

Gygax starts by recapping the historical mass-combat Chainmail rules which used a scale of 1 turn = 1 minute, 1 figure = 20 men, and 1 inch = 30 feet,which I have no problem with and seems both gameable and realistic (really, the gold-standard for game design). Then he says:
When Dave Arneson took this concept into the “dungeons” of his Castle & Crusade Society medieval campaign castle, Blackmoor, he used a one-third smaller ground scale. This change was quite logical, and it was retained when I wrote D&D.
A nice credit that Arneson was initially responsible for the 1" = 10 feet D&D tradition. Or really maybe that's not so generous, since there's no reason why you couldn't have made ground scale equal to figure scale (approx. 1" = 5 feet) and avoid all the attendant distortions and problems, as done by almost all games post-D&D. So while the new 1" = 10 feet system will be used indoors/underground, Gygax attempted to stick with the old Chainmail mass scale of 1" = 10 yards for outdoor action (OD&D Vol-3 p. 8, vs. p. 17). I might call these the first and second fundamental missteps. These led to the following realization:
Len Lakofka was kind enough to point out to me what happens if the yards of effect of a spell are converted to feet in a game where a 1:1 ratio is used, viz. 1" equals 6 scale feet. A huge area can be covered with webs from a lowly magic-user’s second level spell. Of course this is ridiculous... If one scale is tampered with, all of the others must be adjusted accordingly in order to retain a reasonable, balanced, and playable game.
So it was Len Lakofka that had to point out the first problem with trying to hand-wave a sliding scale system, and needing to make sure that if the value of an "inch" changes for movement, then it must do the same thing for spell ranges and areas, or else the action becomes imbalanced. Or rather, since it's basically inexplicable to have areas changing value outdoors vs. indoors (as opposed to bowfire being partly limited by ceiling height), then they'll need to permanently fix the spell areas at the lower 1" = 10 feet value.
The “Fantasy Supplement” was an outgrowth of the medieval rules and the “Man-to-Man Combat” (1 figure to 1 actual combatant) section I also devised for conducting battles of several different campaigns I ran for the LGTSA... As D&D grew from CHAINMAIL, it too used the same scale assumptions as its basis. Changes had to be made, however, in order to meet the 1:1 figure ratio and the underground setting. Movement was adjusted to a period ten times longer than a CHAINMAIL turn of 1 minute, as exploring and mapping in an underground dungeon is slow work. Combat, however, stayed at the CHAINMAIL norm and was renamed a melee round or simply round. 
Now, the first part of this passage once again reiterates the point that the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement was intended to be an outgrowth of the Man-to-Man rules, at 1:1 scale --  which is actually one of the few facts that Gygax was completely consistent regarding in all of his writings from the very earliest years to the end of his life (and also one of the more virulently contentious observations that I ever make on this blog).

But the conclusion of that paragraph is, I think, where the third and perhaps most egregious mistake occurred. Gygax just wrote in the immediately preceding paragraph, "If one scale is tampered with, all of the others must be adjusted accordingly in order to retain a reasonable, balanced, and playable game", and yet here he neglects to fix the time scale (as it should be adjusted downward, jointly with the figure and distance scale), leaving it at the same 1 turn = 1 minute that was originally fit for a mass-scale wargame. Leaving this unfixed is what locked him into the infamous and rather absurd defense of the scale as highly abstracted action, taking up lots of dense argumentation on DMG p. 61 ("...many attacks are made, but some are mere feints..."), even though it makes no sense in terms of first-strike capability, ammunition shots used, etc. It's even worse when you note that mass Chainmail already has a notion of the combat "round" as subsection of the 1-minute turn, which only needed to be followed up on.

Approaching the end of the article, there is this:
For about two years D&D was played without benefit of any visual aids by the majority of enthusiasts. They held literally that it was a paper and pencil game, and if some particular situation arose which demanded more than verbalization, they would draw or place dice as tokens in order to picture the conditions. In 1976 a movement began among D&Ders to portray characters with actual miniature figurines... Because of the return of miniatures to D&D, the game is tending to come full circle; back to table top battles not unlike those which were first fought with D&D’s parent, CHAINMAIL’s “Fantasy Supplement”, now occurring quite regularly. Unfortunately, the majority of D&D enthusiasts did not grow up playing military miniatures, so even the most obvious precepts of table top play are arcane to them. Distorting the area of effect of a spell seems to be an excellent idea to players with magic-user characters, and many referees do not know how to handle these individuals when they wave the rule book under their nose and prate that scale outdoors is 1” equals 10” yards.

The first part -- that at the outset, D&D was played without miniatures -- is again consistent with other times that Gygax spoke on the same issue. (and explains why the quality of the scaling rules degenerated, because they had become vestigial and not actually playtested with miniatures).

And the second part is truly fascinating, because remember: this "game [which] is tending to come full circle" in regards to miniature usage (or least their promotion as a business case) was being observed as early as 1978. At this point -- 2012 -- we've gone through so many similar cycles of miniatures/not-minatures that I think I've personally lost count of them. And at the end of this passage, we see Gygax being aware of the problems if one is oblivious to matters of scale, and expressing some amount of contempt for those players who seek to gain an advantage through such slipperiness (much like those who think that D&D heroes can function identically at either 1:1 scale or 1:20 scale).

But that dripping contempt -- "even the most obvious precepts of table top play are arcane to them", etc. -- is exceedingly hard to swallow, because Gygax made the exact same error himself just two years prior in Swords & Spells. He spent the time copying the areas for every single spell in the D&D game into a master table there, and never thought to scale down the measurements in that mass context. He even detailed a very explicit example of a single fireball blowing up 80 orcs at once (i.e., 8 of "a unit of 10 orc figures representing 100 scale orcs"; p. 12). And in the present article he confessed that he needed Len Lakofka to point out the problem with the scaling system. So the claim to "obvious precepts" seems like something between a cover-up and a self-own.

Finally, from the last paragraph of the article:

More unfortunately, the blame for the possible ignorance of player and Dungeon Master alike rests squarely on my shoulders. It would have been a small matter to explain to everyone that the outdoor scale must be used for range only, never for area of effect, unless a figure ratio of 1:20, or 1:10, is used, and constructions (siege equipment, buildings, castles, etc.) are scaled to figures rather than to ground scale! If ground scale is changed, movement distances must be adjusted. If time scales are changed, both movement and missile fire/spell casting must be altered. Furthermore, if 30 mm or 25 mm figures and scale buildings and terrain are not used, then the area of effect must be adjusted proportionately. I ask your collective pardon for this neglect, and I trust that the foregoing will now make the matter clear. There are distortions of scales in D&D and ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS as well. Despite distortions, each meshes with the other to make the game an enjoyable one.
Now, the emphasized portion above was basically transcribed identically to the all-caps rule in PHB p. 39. But what really made me sit up straight when I read this passage was Gygax expressing acknowledgment for a mistake in the system, personal blame, and asking "collective pardon for this neglect", which is not something that I'm accustomed to ever reading from his pen. It seems very much out of personal character for Gygax (or at least as his official TSR/D&D writings of the time), and should serve as a flag that this issue deserves possibly unique attention, much as I've tried to give it in this blog over the last few years.

So, in summary -- This article shows us a Gygax who has become woken to issues of scale and the problems, imbalances, and cheats that can occur if they are ignored. He is aware that mistakes have been made and is at least partly penitent for them (!). Yet he seems to not have actually driven the precise changes that occurred in D&D, as he reports that the alteration in scale was first suggested to him by Arneson, and then a later correction by Lakofka. He still admits to important "distortions" in the last two sentences, which, I maintain, would have been much more easily fixed by doing the following:
  1. Setting ground scale to the same as figure scale (i.e., about 1"=5 feet), 
  2. Decreasing time scale in proportion to distance scale (i.e., about 1 round=10 sec), 
  3. Abandoning the different outdoor scale for man-to-man action, and 
  4. Actually playtesting the rules if he's going to bother publishing them.
Below is the rest of this fascinating and enlightening article. Highly recommended reading.


More Pickman's Model

More weirdness as I compare the Holmes Basic D&D text to H.P. Lovecraft's Pickman's Model -- this one more personal and not a direct text connection; from the latter short story:
Dances in the modern cemeteries were freely pictured, and another conception somehow shocked me more than all the rest—a scene in an unknown vault, where scores of the beasts crowded about one who held a well-known Boston guide-book and was evidently reading aloud. All were pointing to a certain passage, and every face seemed so distorted with epileptic and reverberant laughter that I almost thought I heard the fiendish echoes. The title of the picture was, "Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow Lie Buried in Mount Auburn".
Now, the weird thing here (aside from the rather eerie reference to a dead "Holmes") is that when I first moved to Boston some years ago, the apartment in which I sub-let a room let on directly across the street to the maintenance/grounds entrance of the enormous, rambling Mount Auburn Cemetery, which I would explore sometimes on the weekends. Based on where the main Egyptian-style entrance is, they'll tell you that it's in Cambridge, but don't let that fool you -- most of the grounds are in Watertown (where my first job in gaming was).


Fearful Symmetry

J. Eric Holmes, D&D Basic (p. 41) -- "... the story tellers are always careful to point out that the reputed dungeons lie in close proximity to the foundations of the older, pre-human city, to the graveyard, and to the sea."

H.P. Lovecraft, Pickman's Model -- "Look here, do you know the whole North End once had a set of tunnels that kept certain people in touch with each other's houses, and the burying-ground, and the sea?"


Parry in AD&D

A question: "Is there a parry rule in the AD&D core rulebooks?" Clearly there's one in the man-to-man Chainmail rules (p. 25: -2 to attacker roll), hence implied inclusion by reference in OD&D, and a restatement of the rule in Holmes Basic D&D (p. 21). But I've said many times in the past that there's no such parry rule in AD&D (like, it's certainly not in the analogous section of DMG p. 66 that incorporates the rules for weapon speeds, order and number of blows, etc.)

Here's the thing, though: the back of the PHB has an oddball section called "The Adventure" which serves to introduce and organize standard D&D adventuring activities for the new player. In the historical sequence, obviously, the was written after OD&D was complete but before the DMG. It hints at rules in non-mechanical terms (you might say "flavor text") that will be presented in full detail only for the DM later in the DMG. As such, it includes the germs for numerous ideas for changes and alterations from OD&D, that were then dropped or reconsidered when the DMG was actually completed.

It's easy to overlook these ideas due to their placement, disagreement with the later DMG, and the fact that they are not generally included in the combined index at the back of the DMG. (For example: No "parry" rule is listed in that index). But here's what I ran into today, accidentally looking at the subsection on "Melee Combat":
Participants in a melee can opt to attack, parry, fall back, or flee. Attack can be by weapon, bare hands, or grappling. Parrying disallows any return attack that round, but the strength "to hit" bonus is then subtracted from the opponent's "to hit" dice roll(s), so the character is less likely to be hit. Falling back is a retrograde move facing the opponent(s) and can be used in conjunction with a parry, and opponent creatures are able to follow if not otherwise engaged. Fleeing means as rapid a withdrawal from combat as possible; while it exposes the character to rear attack at the time, subsequent attacks can only be made if the opponent is able to follow the fleeing character at equal or greater speed. [PHB, p. 104-5]
So: A rule for parrying somewhat hidden in the PHB, not reiterated in the DMG, and not included in any index. A rule that's different from the Chainmail (OD&D) rule, in that the -2 modifier is replaced by the user's Strength "to hit" bonus --  and hence only usable by those with exceptional strength, and of very small benefit even to them (in AD&D, +1 from 17 to 18/50, +2 from 18/51-99, and +3 from 18/00).

Have you ever used that PHB rule?


Marathon Picture Puzzle

This weekend, the New York City Marathon is scheduled to run by about a block from my apartment. When I first moved to the city about seven years ago, I noticed the Marathon Bank of New York on the corner of the block, and found myself really baffled by the logo. Sometimes I'm really slow about certain things, but it actually took me several years to finally decode it.

This brings to mind: The idea of using more picture-puzzles or glyphs to decode in D&D (as opposed to the perhaps more canonical word-puzzles or chess-based chambers). Do you frequently use picture-puzzles in your games? Can you figure out what the Marathon Bank logo represents faster than I could? (If not, I'll plan to post a hint in the comments.)