HelgaCon VII – Shrine of the Kuo-Toa

At the recent HelgaCon VII I continued my annual check-in with the classic D&D G/D series modules, now for the fifth year in the sequence -- so that means we're up to module D2, Shrine of the Kuo-Toa. Like anything else, I now run these games using OD&D with my OED house rules. (The first two years I was running module S1, Tomb of Horrors, under regular AD&D rules. Use the search bar if you want to read previous year's writeups.)

Due to the growth of HelgaCon, I was pleased and excited to have fully seven players sitting in on the game. For the first time, there was some lead-up interest in players picking their PCs in advance and doing some amount of party organization and planning (equipment, spells, etc.) prior to game day. Dave G. took the lead on this and helpfully set up a Google Docs spreadsheet for this and my other games, that players could use to claim a PC of their choice in advance -- very efficient. I offer the same PC list I've used in prior years, so some players have grown familiar with certain PC personalities already (link). 

This game was set for the first slot that occurs on Friday night. I spent the early part of the day traveling, and re-reading H.P. Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth along the way -- later that night, I tried to communicate as much of the smelly, cold, wet, ancient frog-fish-man community as I could. The car ride from New York was actually delayed past our scheduled start time, so when we arrived I pretty much had to jump out of the car and run to the table and start rolling dice. (I walked in the house greeting people with, "Hello, now save versus poison!").

I quickly set up and walked players through my remaining preparation checklist -- read module background, pick leader-equipment-spells, arrange marching order and scouting protocols, hand out the long-range map -- and then play began. Based on events from last year, players began just past the module D1 area, with two mules carrying 60 man-days days of supplies, a lot of rope and spikes, some jugs of healing, and a few doses of mithridate (neutralize poison in my games). Here's how play progressed:
  • First of all, Dave G. had planned his use of the fighter/wizard Ezniak of the Myriad Rings carefully -- Ezniak has the polymorph self spell in his book and while I was traveling reading Lovecraft, Dave was poring through the AD&D Monster Manual (which I told him was acceptable), and had hit upon the Androsphinx as a great choice of form. It's within the size limit for the spell, has a human head and voice for spellcasting, AC -2 (better than anything in OD&D), very fast flight of 30", and two heavy attacks for 2d6 each. It also lasts all day under my Book of Spells rules (derived from the 3E SRD). So the plan was to have Ezniak transform into a sphinx and do all his adventuring in that form. I wasn't thrilled about this tonally for my game, but Dave had put the effort into exploring the written rule, so I had to honor that and say "yes" to it. (I'll write more about this later.)
  • The first encounter area is a wide underground river that the party must cross. Dave's Ezniak (in sphinx form) took the initiative to fly to the other side and take hold of the barge beached there. Unfortunately, the crazed high-level Kuo-Toan monitor burst out of the darkness in a frenzy, landing on the sphinx's back, and tearing out great and gory clawfuls of his body with 6 attacks in the first round. Ezniak leaped off the barge, and with his incredible flying speed, immediately landed with the frog-man on the other side, where the rest of the party started beating on it. Clearly at risk of death, I made a morale check for the creature to see if he would flee or sacrifice himself for spite -- and he made the check, continuing to tear into the sphinx and actually killing Ezniak on round 2! (Welcome to old-school.) Meanwhile, BJ's character Boris of Briansk rolled a "1" and missed his fumble-save, resulting in a slip and fall into the river in full armor. In the next round he dropped his shield and made a check to grab the riverbank; but meanwhile the whale-sized giant gar roared up out of the river and started biting off his legs. Fortunately, the rest of the party could rally and quickly finish off the first Kuo-Toan and his monstrous creature, and take stock of their situation.
  • The party used their one scroll of reincarnation to bring back Ezniak; the way my rules work, he gets a save to come back in his own form -- which he failed. Result: I said he came back as a Sphinx permanently (what I actually rolled behind the screen was a Griffon, but it seemed so close that I felt a "spiritual vibration" had been set for us to play out the sphinx-form for the rest of the game). Side-caves were explored, and with a magic sword that can detect metal, the hidden treasure cache was found, including gold, gems, healing potions, and a magic-radiating clock. Paul S.'s character Jurdan the Red Wizard put it on (Jurdan carrying a wand of fireballs, and frequently being the party hero in earlier games) -- well, it's a poisonous cloak, and by Gygax's rules in OD&D Sup-I or the AD&D DMG, that's instant death, no save. So Paul's artillery wizard was out of the game with no way for the party to bring him back. (Welcome Part 2.)
  • The second encounter was a deep tunnel nexus of 3 major connecting arteries and several smaller side-caves. At this point, there was some discussion about pushing on ahead as quickly as possible (many times just what should be prioritized), but Maggie's dwarven fighter/thief Bellinus Blueye insisted on at least a quick search of the side-caves. This brought him face-to-face with a group of some 8 Deep Gnomes who had been hiding, assessing the explorers. Peaceful gestures were made, although the party had no shared languages or way to talk with them. I felt that they hit upon a pretty clever solution: they gestured for the gnome leader to start writing letters in the dirt, cast read languages, and thereby started deciphering key bits of their language Rosetta-stone style. They negotiated a mutual expedition against the Kuo-Toan shrine, with gnomes receiving 1/3 of any treasure found. I handed the pre-made character sheets for Trosli Garnetgetter and the rest of the Deep Gnome brigade over to Paul, who started intently studying their special powers and capabilities.
  • A few miles past this point, the party was ambushed by a Drow Patrol of about a dozen male fighters. The wizard leader got in one fireball against the party, scorching about half of them and killing one of the party's pack mules. Lukyan the Trickster responded with a lightning bolt, but the Drow made their spell-resistance, and the stroke passed through them as though the were but dreamy images. The party fighters leaped into the fray, hacking down the low-level warriors left and right; Paul's gnomes threw their darts with deadly precision -- scoring a critical hit against the evil wizard with a follow-up "00" d% roll, i.e., a head hit for instant death! Then the party searched the bodies, taking several of the diaphanous faerie cloaks and weapons, and also considered consuming the pre-cooked mule meat before pressing on.
  • The party turned into a narrow side-tunnel which their map and the Deep Gnomes told them led to a secret side-entrance of the Shrine area. A few miles into this area, the front of the party walked onto a huge, hidden Trapper spanning the passage, which instantly folded up on them and started crushing them to death (MM rule: 3 rounds to insta-death for everyone inside). Fortunately the back-half of the marching order had sufficient muscle that they could chop the terrifying creature to pieces and free their comrades.
  • A few miles after that, and the party stumbled across a hulking figure apparently gnawing on something at the side of the tunnel. The remaining party wizard used Jurdan's old wand of fireballs to preemptively blast it -- which, being a Xorn, it was entirely immune to. (Weirdly, this was another creature that Dave. G had considered polymorphing into at the start.) The creature came angrily at the party for the interruption to its mineral meal -- but the Deep Gnomes could use their special earth-communication to pacify the creature. They attempted to negotiate an alliance, but instead (reaction roll failing) the annoyed Xorn passed through the tunnel wall into deeper, more inaccessible parts of the Oerth.
  • Then the Deep Gnomes showed the party the secret door that led into the back area of the Shrine complex. Within, the walls were intricately carved with ancient alien underwater scenes; the air was filled with a hazy, wet, bone-chilling cold mist; a dim greenness glowed from the roof above; and silence prevailed, except for distant wavelike splashing. On one side of the party's entry was an Armory with hundreds of shields, spears, bows, arrows, nets, etc. The party took a few of these, and used wall of stone to block off access to the whole room before exploring in another direction. 
  • In the other direction was a storage chamber filled to overflowing with bales, boxes, barrels, etc., and an overpowering, almost nauseating fishy odor. Two doors led out of the room, which the party checked and then listened at. Opening one, the party found themselves facing the barracks of the high-level Kuo-Toan monitor elites who protected and disciplined the entire complex.
  • Combat erupted. Some of the party fighters tried to bar the doors, but the ultra-strong Kuo-Toans battered them in and lashed out with claws and fangs. Thieves hid momentarily in the clutter and then lashed out for backstabs. Trosli threw his special poison gas stone into the next room at the bulk of the Kuo-Toans, only to find out that they're immune. A fireball was launched after it, scorching the creatures but not killing them (I struck out the book vulnerability to fire, as I don't think it makes sense for the permanently-wet creatures). When one Kuo-Toan got very injured, Deep Gnomes would jump on it en masse and smash it underfoot with a fury of hammer-blows. One of the fighters scored a critical, slicing off one Kuo-Toan's arm. After some hard hand-to-hand fighting, the elites of the shrine were defeated (not that the players knew this -- at this point they had the rather horrifying assumption that all Kuo-Toa were level 7+ mega-hasted-monks, and from the Deep Gnomes they knew there were several hundred in the overall Shrine complex).
  • The monitor's quarters were spartan. In the next room, one more monitor lay in ambush and struck by surprise from around the corner, but once the party rallied, they quickly slew him.
  • Time was running short, but the Deep Gnomes could deduce that based on their entry, one of the primary passages north out of the Shrine had to be close by (one of the game's victory conditions). The party used an arcane eye to scout out the next passage -- a cyclopean hallway 50' wide and high, leading in several different directions including northeast. All of the walls were ringed 20' up by dark arrow slits; and in the center stood a troop of 10 Kuo-Toan guards, these ones armored (!). (The magic also allowed the party to see into the throne area, glittering with untold gems and jewels and various skulking, robed figures.) The party put together a an all-out attack plan, with a whole barrage of missiles, spells, haste, and gas-clouds, using the Deep Gnomes' surprise advantage as a trigger. To their complete amazement, when the first member of the party threw an unknown globe as the first attack, it erupted into a fireball and blew the whole group of low-level guards to pieces. (Which was hilarious -- the players almost tripped all over themselves in chaos, with their attack plan disrupted due to unintentional overkill.) Alarms and croaking calls to arms could be heard, and the party beat a hasty retreat to the north, running away from the shrine area, off into the far darkness. And what occurs there will be a tale for another time.


  • Based on the victory conditions I gave the players, they scored a "major victory": (1) they successfully passed north of the Shrine area, (2) they discovered a black Drow medallion of passage in the river monitor's hidden cache, and (3) they allied with dissidents of the Drow (namely the Deep Gnomes). What they did not manage to do was (4) collect at least 25,000 silver pieces in wealth (g.p. for you non-silver-standard DM's). Well done!
  • Everyone seemed to have a really excellent play session -- there was a lot of excitement and satisfaction around the table. The scenes with the Deep Gnomes, Xorn, and Kuo-Toa seemed to be really appreciated and give a fulfilling sense of the really weird deep earth setting.
  • One thing that's been happening throughout the D-series is that we're actually spending more play time (like 3 out of 4 hours) in the advance long-range passages than the main encounter area map itself. On the one hand, in a limited convention format, we might consider skipping the random encounters and just presenting the highlight set pieces (the G/D series being a sometimes uncomfortable mishmash of tournament and campaign design). But on the other hand, it's very much not a failure -- the players have really been digging the variety and strangeness of the encounters they get in the far-ranging "wilderness" passages. And tactically it's kind of important (as is always the case for wandering encounters) that they be tested on how well they can avoid crippling delays or losses before getting to the goal areas. So really, you could totally go either way with this issue and get really strong (but distinct) games in any case.

Can't wait until next year! The Drow homeland already has some welcoming plans made...


Tournament Jousting

The Gygax & Perren Chainmail Man-to-Man Combat rules (I'm looking at 3rd Edition, 7th printing, April 1979) culminate with a short section on Jousting between knights in a tournament. It's only about four paragraphs, and most of the action is offloaded into a table in the Appendix, as shown below:

Again: Pretty cool. As you can see, the action is decided in a matrix comparing each rider's choice of "aiming point" (column on the left) to "defensive position" (row across the top). I generally like these kinds of mini-games if they're well done, and clearly this gives a very concrete result to the proceedings, so I'd like to use it. However: The system pre-dates the whole concept of levels in D&D, so it fails to incorporate any differences between competitors for fighter level, proficiency adjustments, ability scores, or anything else. Also, I think the allowed defensive positions rule is kind of complicated for players in practice, and I must say that I find the presented scoring system (p. 27) hard to decipher.

A Second Go

Let's consider making a few marginal modifications to this system. First, I'll ignore the "PDP/AP - Possible Defensive Positions Considering Aiming Point", and for simplicity say that players can choose any defensive position they want at any time. (While probably more realistic, this complication doesn't quite seem to fit the "where it does not interfere with the flow of the game" golden rule for realism concerns).

Second, that a result of "U - Unhorsed", which would normally win the joust, simply indicates a possible unhorsed result, that must then be confirmed with an attack roll by the jouster in question. Roll d20 + attack bonuses (level, specialization, Strength, any magic, etc.), and if the total is 20 or more (effectively target AC 0), then the opponent is actually unhorsed and the joust is over.  (A failure to confirm means that the attacker didn't quite succeed at the aiming point, or flinched at the last moment, etc.) This then brings in different D&D attack abilities to secure the win, while keeping the overall flavor of the original system. If an "I - Injured" result is seen, then roll lance damage normally with Strength and other modifiers included (not double damage -- these are competition lances with blunt ends and so forth).

As far as scoring goes, I'll say the same thing that Gygax does (p. 27). Competitors get three "rides" and if one is unhorsed, then the joust is over at that point. Award points of +3 if you knock the opponent's helm off, or +20 if you unhorse them. Subtract -1 if you break your lance or -10 if you get injured. And lay on!

Questions:The Gygaxian joust scoring seems unclear, do you read that differently than I do? Or do you know of other joust scoring systems that seem more suitable?


Tournament Archery

I like archery, I like tournaments in D&D, and I like having a good concise rule for both of those things. There was an article in &-Magazine #7, this past January, by Len Lakofka on the "Archer/Archer-Ranger PC Class" -- an update to his article originally in Dragon #45. I was tickled to see at the end of that article that Len included rules for a tournament archery competition:

Cool idea, although it's not exactly how I'd do it. One: it's another of these big table-based mechanics from the old days, which generally turn out to be unnecessary, and requires another page of paper at your table just for this. Two: The game-world target that Len presents has just 4 rings, as opposed to real-world targets with 5. Third: Len doesn't include any points-scoring system (which wouldn't be bad if the target was the same as real-world, but it isn't, so it's unclear to what resource we should turn).

A Second Shot

So here's my take on it. An initial, maximally-concise option would be this: just have the archers roll d20's and add their attack bonuses, and add the totals all up as their "points" (however many rolls you like). That's in line with the core mechanic and requires nothing to look up or memorize, really. However, maybe that's a little too abstract.

A more concrete option would be this: Say in-game targets are the same as real-world ones, viewed by Imperial scoring rules -- the targets have five concentric regions on them: white, black, blue, red, and gold, for point values 1-3-5-7-9 respectively (in Metric scoring the regions are subdivided into two halves each, for point-values from 1 to 10). Roll an attack as normal against the target, and for each +5 increment, say that an improved scoring region has been hit (i.e., each smaller region has +5 better armor class).

Based on our model of archery for D&D from last week (link), the effective AC for a large, immobile tournament target is approximately 10 (base AC) + 4 (size) + 6 (immobile) = 20. Note that this exactly cancels out the normal "Target 20" requirement for a hit, so we can simplify matters by just looking at the raw roll from the player, d20 + attack bonus (including level, Dexterity, equipment, etc.) and not even bothering with the normal AC or to-hit requirement. Say the levels of success are then as follows, for convenience:

Again, this is just standard real-world archery scoring. I would have each archer in the competition shoot perhaps 12 times (real-world tournament have contestants shoot 2-3 dozen arrows per round, but you'll probably have other players at the table waiting to do something). Also: this is at very short range (10 yards; Lakofka sets his at 40 feet) -- if you run a longer-range competition at a distance of 20, 40, or 80 yards (as in real life), then subtract a penalty of -4 from the attack roll for each doubling increment of range. (Optional simplification: just say hits are one ring worse per range increment.)

So I think that mechanic is pretty attractive, and you can probably memorize it for use without any table lookups -- Just make a standard attack roll for each archer, and remember that each increment of 5 is an improved hit location (with real-world Imperial scoring of 1-3-5-7-9 points). Easy!


HelgaCon VII – Overview

The first week of April we had our annual mini-convention on the shores of Massachusetts. It's a fantastic, intense, very energetic gathering that is one of the highlights of my year. This year it grew to the biggest yet, using up every bed in the once-upon-a-time-hotel that we rent now. A lovely way to connect with old friends and new, and share what we're currently doing in games and other stuff. A million thanks to Paul S. for setting the whole thing up, as always!

As usual, there are 5 blocks of gaming throughout the weekend (with 3-4 games running per block). Like in prior years, I ran 3 games and played in 2 myself -- one of the things I love is that it's my best opportunity to stretch myself DM'ing for the largest number of people all year (around 8 players per session). By the end of HelgaCon, I'm very happy, super tired, and pretty ragged in the voice. My schedule ran as follows for this year:

  • Friday Night -- DM'ing the classic Gygax Module D2, "Shrine of the Kuo-Toa".
  • Saturday Morning -- Playing in Paul's high-level B/X game, "The Lost Tablets of Emoria".
  • Saturday Afternoon -- Playing in Paul's pulpy Savage Worlds mashup, "Fortune and Glory".
  • Saturday Night -- DM'ing a gritty low-level D&D game, "The Dangerous Mine".
  • Sunday Morning -- DM'ing a second go-round of "Outdoor Spoliation", using the classic D&D Vol-3 wilderness rules and the recommended Outdoor Survival map.
As you can see, the way the convention's computerized slot-optimizer worked, Paul & I wound up together at the same table in every session (one or the other of us DM'ing the other), so he may need a few months before he wants to see me again. But I had a total blast the whole time. I'll probably summarize some gameplay in the near future for my games, but for now you can see a few sample photos below.

BJ's game, "The Metal Men of Planet Talos" -- Can players escape from an alien planet?

Paul's game, "Fortune and Glory" -- World-hopping pulp pursuit of cultists and ancient artifacts.

End of Paul's game -- Nazis and demonic gangsters attack the university campus in Shanghai!

My game, "The Dangerous Mine" -- Death in the first room, an unsolvable riddle, saves vs. poison gas, and then things start getting really tough.

My game, "Outdoor Spoliation" -- Hunting for major loot in the ruined borderlands (player preparation).

"Outdoor Spoliation" -- behind the DM's screen.


A Model of Archery for D&D

Problem Statement; Evidence; The Model; Conclusions for the Game; Open Questions

Problem Statement

As you may know, I've written about archery mechanics before (particularly in terms of maximum ballistic range in a low-ceiling dungeon; links one, two, three, four). What I've gone back-and-forth about a few times is the best way to modify chances to hit at different ranges. What I would like to develop here is a best-fit archery model, partly out of raw curiosity. This model may or may not be directly usable for D&D; but if not, then hopefully we can simplify, modify, or massage useful game mechanics from this basis.


First of all, it's critical that we note the difference between using a bow at very long range against army formations (which are easily hittable even at maximum bowshots of around 200 yards; see clout archery competitions), versus use of a bow in a man-to-man context (which may be impossible even at close range if the target is aware and moving, or maybe a 50% shot at 100 yards against an immobile target by the world's greatest marksmen; see Longman and Walrond, Archery, discussed more below). Conflation between these markedly different situations and success rates has caused much confusion in the past (starting with Chainmail's use of identical ranges for both, and continuing even up to this year with Len Lakofka's updated article on archery in &-Magazine #7, which retains the same core system.)

Based on my prior work (link), if used indoors with 10' high ceiling, then no bowfire can be used past about 150' distance (as opposed to outdoors where a longbow may certainly be fired 210 yards, etc.). For simplicity in may game, I set the standard indoors missile fire ranges at 30/60/120' -- i.e., 10/20/40 yards, or 6/12/24" on the tabletop. (Compare this to 3E DMG, p. 65: Table 3-3: Direct Fire Range.) As we will see, at these smaller ranges, bowfire can be quite accurate, at least against a motionless target.

For example, modern bow-hunting sites generally expect shots to be sure-hits out to about 20 yards, with questionable hits to possibly 40 yards (link). Targets here are presumed to be unaware and immobile (careful shooting from ambush), but still the desired target is very small: possibly just an 8" diameter area in the chest (i.e., the goal is a one-shot kill through the vitals; this might argue for some added mechanic for called criticals at short range, left for future research). Furthermore, the consensus is that shots against immobile targets are near-certain, while shots against moving targets are nearly useless. Of course, this is with modern equipment: range-finders, sighting pins, high-quality bows, etc. Even 3E D&D staffer Dave Noonan agrees, in his 2006 "Proud Nails" article: "I did enough bow hunting in high school to know that a 110-foot range increment for a composite longbow is bogus. A shot beyond 30 yards or so is rarely worth taking... whenever one of my players makes a 400-foot bow shot, I grind my teeth" (link).

Another example comes from SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) experience with archery in mock combat situations. An SCA document of recommendations on bow-fighting (link) calls this same up-to-40-yards distance "point blank range" (i.e., effectively no arc in the arrow flight), and calls for practice against a man-shaped target, with aimed shots against unshielded portions of targets like the legs, neck, and face. Again, the claim in this document is that shooting an unaware man is easy, but one aware and moving around can easily dodge or block an arrow with a shield. Shooting in & among friends in melee is expected and successful behavior; in so doing, shots are aimed at specific individual parts, such as a visor looking over a shield, etc. (not random targets, very different from the rule in AD&D DMG p. 63). This is with intentionally low-weight draws and very soft, blunt arrows. For example:

Before I continue, as a bit of a side note, I should say that SCA combat videos are otherwise very educational (and fascinating) as a suggestion of the overall pacing & tactics that might get used for mass fights with a few hundred individuals per side. In particular, there are long minutes of general inaction, with face-offs across lines of opposed spears, each side looking for an opening;  and then some aggressive push with lots of blows struck rapidly in a very short time. Of course, this would be a resource that we didn't have in the 70's (and I find video to be invaluable for the rather narrow case of studying some particular action's timing and movement in space). Likewise, small-action contexts may be very similar to D&D dungeon action (with a few men on each side carrying mixed weapons, and very fast action). As usual, this is very distinct from the Gygaxian oversight/assertion that shots and blows are made only once per minute. Here are two other videos that I found quite interesting:

But now let's consider evidence on longer-range shooting; for example, expert bowmen competing in the top English archery tournaments over the course of a year (figures from Robert Barrow in Dragon #58; citation is Longman and Walrond, Archery, p. 240 (1894); as per Grand National Archery Series (GNAS) rules). Shooting at a motionless 2-foot radius target, the rounds in the top-level competition are held at 60, 80, and 100 yards (link) -- for which hit percentages by these champion archers are reported as 92%, 81%, and 54%, respectively. Obviously, shots at closer ranges (like under 40 yards) must be near-certain to hit. But if these are Grand Master Bowmen (GMB), then we should compare them to the lowest-level 3rd Class Bowmen -- who seem to have modern tournament scores of about 1/10 the Grand Masters (link), from which we might broadly infer that they are about 1/10th as accurate. (This is not a perfect inference by any means, because the area of the concentric scoring circles is not proportional, but it's the best I could come up with for a first-degree estimate). Say that if Grand Masters hit a target at 80 yards 80% of the time, that a minimally-trained archer will hit it about 8% of the time.

Both this data from Archery (by way of Dragon) and my theoretical model (based on bivariate normal-curve shot accuracy; see Java source code file here) assert a very sharp drop-off in hit rates, that is, about 40% loss for each doubling of range or halving of target radius (i.e., each subjective quartering of target area; a much steeper penalty than in official D&D). This is equivalent to –8 on d20, or more accurately, 8 steps on our normal-curve success chart (link), with the modifiers getting scrunched up on either end (as modeled in D&D by giving increased or auto-hits on rolls of "natural 20"). The English champion archers provide one example of this: 92% at 60 yards, but only 54% at 100 yards, for a drop-off of almost 40% with a not-quite-doubling of range (at around the 50/50 central value where modifiers are most sensitive).

 In summary: At close ranges, shooting is more accurate than represented in D&D -- shots can be aimed at small critical locations on an individual engaged in melee (not random mass targets as in the AD&D DMG rule). However, factors of target awareness and possessing a shield appear to be much greater factors in the overall success of a shot (making the difference between certain shots and impossible ones) -- granted that D&D only gives +1 for a shield (optionally +2 vs. missiles in DMG variant p. 28), or up to +4 for a stunned target (DMG p. 67). Success with shots at longer ranges drops off much more rapidly than modeled in D&D, with perhaps a –8 on d20 for each doubling of range.

The Model

Let's try to recreate the GNAS archery results with some rudimentary modifications to D&D. Assume that the tournament target is naturally AC9, with another +4 to-hit for size (about double-area compared to a man; target is 2' radius for area πr2 ≈ 3(2)2 = 12 sq. ft.; man abreast is about 1' wide × 6' tall = 6 sq. ft). Give an increased bonus of about +6 for an immobile, unaware, helpless target (including around +3 for target null Dexterity, and +3 for the archer being unmoving, unthreatened, and with extra aim time). Give a bonus of between +1 and +5 for shooting with modern equipment. And apply the modifier of –8 for each range doubling, at yardage 10/20/40/80/160 (and so on if needed).

Consider the novice 3rd-Class Bowman. In the bow-fire simulator (again, link to Java code here), a precision factor of 1.7 gives about expected 8% hits at 80 yards (matching GNAS data above). We'll assume this is a 1st-level fighter, with basic proficiency in the bow, and with a +2 bonus for modern equipment. Base modifier to the d20 attack roll is: 9 (AC) + 4 (size) + 6 (immobile) + 2 (equipment) + 1 (level) = +22. The results are shown in the following table:

In the table above, the first column is distance (doubling at each step). The next four columns are assessments of our D&D d20-based mechanic, with the modifiers indicated above, culminating in the percent chance for success at each range. The last column is the output of our physical bivariate-normal-curve simulator, which as you can see is matched very closely to our proposed D&D mechanic (always within 5% of each other).

Now consider a world's-best Grand Master Bowman. In the simulator, a precision of 7.3 produces the reported 80% hits at 80 yards (as per GNAS data previously). We'll model this as a 12th-level fighter, with +5 bonus for the best modern equipment, and +2 Dexterity modifier. Base modifier to the d20 roll is: 9 (AC) + 4 (size) + 6 (immobile) + 5 (equipment) + 12 (level) + 2 (Dexterity) = +38. See the table below:

This table is set up the same way. (Simulator results listed as 100% are really 99.9...% rounded to the nearest percent.) Again, the hypothetical D&D mechanic matches our physical simulator very closely.

In summary: The model reproduces the action of target shooting, across various ranges for both high- and low-level fighters, very well. And these results are also aligned with available data from GNAS long-range archery competitions.  If we back out the "immobile" bonus as used above, then we should have a moderately sensible mechanic for shooting at live characters.

Conclusions for the Game

The first and simplest point of divergence between this model and classic D&D is the +6 ranged bonus versus an immobile (helpless) target; in other words, standard D&D insufficiently values the enormous difference between an aware and an unaware target (i.e., ability to dodge or deflect missile fire). I've noted this combat bonus in my house rules (link). Compare this to DMG p. 67: I think it's a reasonable step beyond +4 for stunned/slowed/partially bound targets, but not a full-on automatic hit (which wouldn't make sense at arbitrarily long ranges).

A second point of divergence, perhaps, is the +4 bonus that I gave for increased target size. Original D&D doesn't deal with that; 3rd Edition gives a +1 to-hit for the first doubling in size, then +2, +4, and +8 (whereas I would argue that a constant bonus should be given for each doubling of length or area; see the d20 System SRD (link)). I wouldn't require that assessment, but perhaps a DM can give a bonus in this general range to hit a giant with missile fire, if desired (compare to DMG p. 63, last sentence).

But the largest single factor here from which D&D diverges is the fairly hefty –8 to hit per doubling of range category. I think it would be jarring to include such an abnormally large series of modifiers to the game, so for playability purposes in my house rules I've indicated just half of that: –4 at medium range (10-20 yards), and –8 at long range (20-40 yards) for man-to-man combat. Note that this is shooting aimed at an individual target (not randomly fired at a group); possibly modified for cover if someone is in the way, and possibly subject to a follow-up roll if a wide miss occurs. Side note: It does seem like the best-fitting model, as above, is to have the base 0 be at short range, with increasing penalties as range increases (as opposed to a base of long range and bonuses as you get closer; which was used in Original D&D Vol-1 and myself in the past).

As a fairly arbitrary game-based cutoff, I would say that man-to-man targeting is only assessed within the indoor range of 40 yards (120 feet). Beyond that, an entirely different mechanic is used -- a mass target must be selected, and the attack is made against a randomly-selected individual; no range penalty would apply as long as there are something like at least 20 or 40 creatures in the group (up to the limit of 210 or 240 yards or whatever). In reality, top-class bowmen might have a chance to hit an unaware (surprised) target at up to 100 yards, but I think for simplicity that we can ignore that.

Here's a possible rule for missed shots, solely in the man-to-man case (where the declared target is an individual, not a randomized group) -- If the total attack roll is less than 10 (as declared by the player: including any shooter bonuses, but not target AC; i.e., missed the target entirely), then the DM may opt to roll again at another target in-line with the shot. This second roll is simply d20+AC, no bonuses for level, magic, Dexterity, etc.; and no further rolls are made. (Compare to 3E DMG, p. 65: Variant: Firing Into a Crowd.)

In theory we might  consider larger bonuses for a shield vs. arrows, like on the order of +4 or so. I won't do that, but instead presume that the standard attack roll includes variation in the target sometimes being aware, and sometimes not. To conclude, the edits to my house rules are:

  • Fixed range for man-to-man fire is 30/60/120 feet for all bows.
  • Shooter selects one target (not randomized, even in melee).
  • Hits by missiles are at −4 for medium range, −8 for long range.
  • Helpless targets are hit at +6 by missile fire.
  • At DM's option, total-miss shots may be re-rolled against one random nearby target  (roll d20+AC, no other modifiers).
  • If ceiling height permits, then longer bowshots can be made at mass groups (20+ individuals); ranged penalty is waived, but roll the target randomly. 

Open Questions

How does that strike you, as regards to the theoretical model, and the derived house rules? Do you know of better data for novice-level archer hit rates? Or estimates for hit rates while in actual combat against opponents who are aware at fairly close range?


Papyrus, Parchment, Vellum

Gygax identified three permitted materials for the manufacture of magic scrolls -- papyrus at 2gp/sheet, parchment at 4gp, and vellum at 8gp, with respectively increasing chances of success for each (AD&D DMG, p. 117). How likely do you think it is that he was inspired by this line from Clark Ashton Smith's "The End of the Story" (actually the first in the Averoigne cycle of short stories):
Truly, he had not exaggerated the resources of the library; for the long shelves were overcrowded with books, and many volumes were piled high on the tables or stacked in corners. There were rolls of papyrus, of parchment, of vellum...
Or: How often are these three materials listed together, in exactly that order? (Read the whole story here, if you like; recommended.)


Weapon Matrix

For quite some time, I've had a house rule based on "weapon classes" (sword, spear, axe, club) that give a small but noticeable unique benefit to each (inspired, but massively cut down from, the old weapon-vs-AC modifiers). In my recent house rules update, I made two more small changes to weapons: (1) I added the hammer from OD&D Sup-I, and (2) I declared that flails are two-handed and ignore the opponent's shield. Why'd I do that?

Well, in the case of hammers, I've had players ask for them, they're a standard feature of some races like dwarf or gnome fighters -- and they fill in the gap of the "club" type not otherwise having an option for throwing. In the case of the flail, it gives them something distinct from morning stars, and it fills in the gap of there being no two-handed club type. In summary, it fills in each box of the following matrix with exactly the weapon types available in the Original D&D equipment list:

Here's what you see: On the left, the same weapon classes I've used for some years now (swords that are quick to draw, spears that have reach, axes +1 vs. chain/plate, clubs +2 vs. plate only). Across the top, each of three size categories: small, medium, and large.

Generally speaking: "Small" weapons are all one-handed, do 1d6 damage, and can be thrown (exceptions: daggers do 1d4, maces not throwable). "Medium" weapons can be held in one hand, do 1d8 damage, but cannot be thrown (exception: polearms are two-handed, of course). "Large" weapons all require two hands and have some special benefit, like 1d10 damage, extra-long reach, or, now in the case of flails, ignoring some added part of the enemy's armor.

So prior to this alteration, the "club" type lacked any throwing version, and was also missing a large two-handed variety. Now, with throwable hammers from Sup-I, and the flail declared as two-handed with its special benefit, both of these irritating gaps are resolved. Also, there's now something to distinguish any weapon from any other weapon in the system (for example: flails and morning stars used to be identical in usage, now there's some criteria to choose one instead of the other).

Historical note -- in the Middle Ages the flail weapon used by footmen was probably primarily two-handed; so once again historical realism serves to solve our initial game-balancing problem. I lifted the "ignore shield" idea from the Wikipedia article -- if you prefer to have flails do some kind of tripping, weapon-snaring, etc., action, I don't mind, but personally I wanted the benefit to be entirely encapsulated in the hit-versus-armor sphere. (Likewise, if you want to allow thrown maces, I can sympathize with that.)

Side point: Recall that real-world war hammers were little spiky things made to impact armor at a small focus point. They're not Wayne Reynolds-style giant battering-ram sized surfaces. They are basically synonymous with a "military pick", which is why I didn't carry that in separately from Sup-I (also: no one's ever asked for any military picks in my games).


Game Jam: The Resistance

I would encourage you to read any or all of the following blog posts by participants in what was to be the "Polaris/ Maker Studio/ Mountain Dew GAME_JAM". It's a story of what happens when indie game developers interface with reality show production -- and the producers of the half-million-dollar show attempt to "generate story drama" by crapping on the minority women game developers. Namely: the developers rise as one, walk out en masse, and nuke the entire production from orbit. It's a meditation on ethics under fire (i.e., when it counts), and the power of union & community. It's the best thing I've personally read all week.

More links available in those stories. From the introduction of the last article:
“Remember when it was just the five of us,” one of my supervisors asked me, “playing Dungeons and Dragons over the taco shop?”

“Yeah,” I replied quietly. “But that was a long time ago.”


Armor Costs

In my recent OED house rules update, I increased the cost of armor in the OD&D price list -- boosting chain mail from price 30 to 50, and plate mail from 50 to 200. Why? (Granted I try to avoid making lots of changes like that.) I've been on the cusp of doing this for some time (link) -- here are some reasons for finally doing so.
  1. For PCs to experience the full range of the resource scale. It always irks me in OD&D that fighters of median starting money (or less) all get to start with plate mail, the best possible armor in the system; and thus have no room for improvement in that regard. It's much more interesting if they starting with a lower armor type, possibly leather, and work their way up through the options (even if just for a single adventure).
  2. To explain why so many NPCs in the world are just wearing leather armor. This would include the majority of bandits, brigands, etc.; if chain and plate are just marginally more expensive, then there would be almost no reason for them to not all be outfit in those heavier armors. Also, this armor-resource scarcity explains how thieves are able to masquerade as generic low-level fighters. 
  3. To be somewhat more historically accurate. While many costs in OD&D, expressed in silver pieces (groats), are surprisingly close to their real-world historical documentation, one glaring exception is the armor costs. The lowest price I could find for historical plate documentation is about 200sp in our system, with most many times higher than that (see below for specifics).
Obviously, this is not totally dissimilar from what Gygax did in the AD&D PHB, by increasing the cost of chain to 75 and plate mail to 400; but I find those numbers a bit ugly and didn't want to go quite that far. What I'm doing here is to take two steps on the Reynard-like 1-2-5 scale; i.e., say leather is about 10sp, say chain is 50 (count 20, 50), and then say plate is 200 (count 100, 200).

Also, looking at the esteemed Medieval Sourcebook Price List (link; armor citation from Ffoulkes), we see the lowest-documents price for "Complete Lance Armor" at 3 pounds, 6 shillings, 8 pence (which converts for us as about 3×3×20+6×3 = 198sp). Other entries are at price points of 5, 8, or 16 pounds (or even 103 or 340 pounds for "gilt and graven" armor for the Prince of Wales in the 17th c.) -- so it's not unreasonable to set it possibly much higher.

What do 1st-level fighters get for those price points? Obviously, with starting money 30-180sp, plate mail is outside the budget for any starting fighters (and I think that's a good thing). Let's consider some "starting packages" with fighter budgets split into quartiles (1st Quartile meaning that 25% have this amount or less, etc.). In what follows, "sundries" means a backpack, waterskin, small sack, and three other 1-cost items (total 10sp).
  • Poor Fighter (1st Quartile) -- Leather, helm, sword, shortbow, arrows, sundries (80sp). This is equivalent to a bandit archer figure. Alternatively, the fighter could trade the leather, shortbow, and arrows for chain mail; but then they wouldn't have any shield, missile, or backup weapon.
  • Average Fighter (2nd Quartile) -- Chain, helm, shield, sword, light crossbow, quarrels (105sp). At this level, a character can definitely afford chain, but they can't get a pricey missile weapon at the same time; I also had to forego sundries in this list (hopefully assisted by other party members there).
  • Rich Fighter (3rd Quartile) -- Chain, helm, shield, sword, shortbow, 40 arrows, sundries (130sp). With this amount of money, the fighter can comfortably purchase chain, as well as a nice missile weapon and extra ammunition, and whatever minor items they need.
So I'm pretty comfortable with that profile for starting fighters -- some will have to wrestle with starting out in either leather or foregoing any shield or missile weapon. Most will have chain, but none will have plate initially (something to look forward to).

Presumably the PCs are starting with middle-class type money, more than the peasant bandits who must do with only leather; although some unfortunate PCs may start at that reduced level of circumstance. Some few may start with only leather, helm, shield, sword, and sundries (55sp), similar to the majority of bandit light foot. On the other hand, fighters with above-average money can possibly start equipped as light cavalry: leather, helm, shield, spear, dagger, light horse, saddle, sundries (115sp) -- although obviously that's not optimized for a dungeon setting.

In summary: Changing the OD&D price points for armor hit that "proud nail" for me, and I don't see anything else on the original price list that bothers me the same way. It gives starting PCs reasonable kit-outs, and something to look forward to in the near future.

Further reading: See my blog on Historical Costs Comparisons, in which I made a statistical regression analysis of the best conversion from D&D prices to historical sources. In the first chart you can see two (and only two) way-out-there outliers in the far top left, indicating underpricing: and these are the chain and plate armors in OD&D, which we've decided to fix here.