Spells Through The Ages – Invisible Stalker

In anticipation of the release of the 2nd Edition of Book of Spells on December 1st, I wanted to look at a couple of high-level spells which are not commonly thought of as problematic, but wind up revealing tricky details if you squint at them long enough. These are issues that I didn't have time to pick up on in the 1st edition, and only on this iteration did I catch them with the finer-toothed comb I was using to untangle stuff. At the end you'll see the specific language I decided to use in the new edition of the book.

Original D&D 

Invisible Stalker: The conjuration of an extra-dimensional monster which can be controlled with merely a word from the Magic-User who conjured him. The Invisible Stalker will continue on its mission until it is accomplished, regardless of time or distance. They cannot be dispelled once conjured, except through attack. Details of the Invisible Stalker itself will be found in the next volume.
The invisible stalker spell was never in Chainmail, so of course we begin with OD&D. One unusual issue with the spell is that you've got writeups for "invisible stalker" in two books: once in the player's book for the spell, and once in the monster book for the creature itself. So in each case we should look in both volumes. Here it is in OD&D Vol-2, Monster & Treasure:
INVISIBLE STALKERS: As previously noted (Vol. 1) these are monsters created by level 6 spells, uttered directly or from scrolls. They are faultless trackers. They follow continually until their mission is accomplished at which time they return to the non-dimension from whence they came. Until their mission is completed they will never vary, and must be destroyed by attack to be stopped, although a Dispell Magic spell will also work. The referee should note, however, that Invisible Stalkers resent missions which entail long periods of continuing service such as guarding a Magic-User for a month, a year, etc. They will then seek to fulfill the letter of their duties by perverting the spirit. For example: An Invisible Stalker is ordered to: "Guard me against all attack, and see that I come to no harm." In order to faithfully fulfill this endless duty the Invisible Stalker will have to take the Magic-User to its non-dimensional plane and place him in suspended animation, and assume this is accomplished whenever a 12 is rolled with two six-sided dice, checking either daily or weekly as the campaign progresses.
Did you catch the glitch? The spell writeup in Vol-1 says that dispel magic does not work, but the monster writeup in Vol-2 says dispel magic does work, so as to eliminate an invisible stalker. I don't see any way to decide the impasse in OD&D on the issue; perhaps taking a consensus from other editions will serve to clarify? The other thing that's interesting in this fairly long monster description (for OD&D) is the bit at the end, where long or ongoing assignments check a 2d6 roll daily or weekly, with box-cars indicating some subversion like carrying away the caster for eternity. This random roll is altered or deleted in future editions.

In the original D&D supplement Swords & Spells, invisible stalker appears in the list of parametrized spells, noting a Range of 1", Area Effect of "1 monster", and Turn Duration of "until destroyed". Note that many other spells in that list, basically the ones that are permanent, are listed as "until dispelled". So perhaps this is a second signal that dispel magic is not meant to work here; or perhaps it's just that destruction in combat takes priority as a more general and expected countering. So it's still unclear.

Expert D&D

Invisible Stalker
Range: 0'
Duration: special

This spell summons an invisible stalker (see page X34) which will follow orders from the magic-user that conjured it. The invisible stalker will continue on its given mission until the mission is accomplished, regardless of time or distance. Once conjured, the invisible stalker can only be sent back by being "killed" in combat or by a clerical dispel evil spell.
That's the spell description; note that it adds the capability of the 5th-level cleric dispel evil to take it out. While it doesn't mention dispel magic by name, if I'm reading the "can only be sent back" passage right, that lower-level spell should not be effective against invisible stalkers (same as the spell description in OD&D). Here's the monster description (stat block elided):
Invisible Stalker
An invisible stalker is a very intelligent enchanted monster summoned to this world by use of the invisible stalker magic-user's spell. If the stalker is given a simple task that is clear and can be swiftly completed, it will obey promptly. If the task is complex or lengthy, the invisible stalker will try to distort the intent while obeying the literal command. EXAMPLE: If ordered to guard a treasure for longer than a week, the stalker may take it away to its native plane of existence and guard it there forever.
Invisible stalkers are most often used to track and slay enemies. They are faultless trackers. They surprise any creature that cannot detect invisible creatures on a 1d6 roll of 1-5. They will return to their native plane once they are slain, or dispelled, or have completed their task.
Now once again the monster description says that it can be "dispelled". Most likely this is a carryover from the glitchy OD&D language. But in this case it at least can be interpreted as referring to dispel evil, thereby removing the contradiction. Perhaps.

AD&D 1st Ed.

Invisible Stalker  (Conjuration/Summoning)
Level:  6 
Range:  1"
Duration: Special 
Components:  V, S, M
Casting Time:  1 round
Saving Throw: None
Area of Effect: Special

Expalantion [sic] /Description:  This spell summons an invisible stalker from the Elemental Plane of Air.  This 8 hit die monster will obey and serve the spell caster in performance of whatever tasks are set before it. However, the creature is bound to serve; it does not do so from loyalty or desire. Therefore, it will resent prolonged missions or complex tasks, and  it  will attempt to pervert instructions accordingly (for complete details of the invisible stalker, consult  ADVANCED DUNGEONS  &  DRAGONS, MONSTER MANUAL).  The invisible stalker will follow instructions even at hundreds or thousands of miles distance. The material components of this spell are burning incense and a piece of horn carved into a crescent shape.
In AD&D, for the first time we see the invisible stalker get the detail that it comes from the Elemental Plane of Air. For some reason I find this less awe-inspiring than some unknown alien dimension, possibly Lovecraftian, which is an option left open in OD&D. It does not mention use of dispel magic (so the restriction has been removed?). Note that the range given is 1", as seen first in Swords & Spells (and opposed to the B/X range of 0; a common pattern). The previously-published Monster Manual sayeth thusly:

The invisible stalker is a creature from the elemental plane of air, normally encountered on the material plane only due to the conjuration of some magic-user. This conjuration causes the creature to serve for a period on this plane. Invisible stalkers roam the astral and ethereal planes, and if they are encountered there on the elemental planes, they can be dimly seen. Otherwise or unless their opponents are able to detect/see invisible objects, their invisibility causes opponents to subtract 2 from "to hit" dice rolls. Unless slain on their own plane, invisible stalkers are simply sent back to the elemental plane when damage accrued exceeds their total hit points.

The conjuring party retains full command of the invisible stalker summoned until  it  fulfills its duties or is killed. Once set upon a mission, an invisible stalker will follow through unceasingly until it is accomplished. They are faultless trackers within one day of a quarry's passing. They must be destroyed to make them cease an ordered attack. Once a mission is finished, the creature is freed to return to its own plane. The invisible stalker is at best an unwilling servant but will not resent a brief, uncomplicated task. Service involving a period of a week tries the creature severely, and anything longer is  certain to make it attempt to fulfill the letter of command by perverting the spirit of it. This is not to say that impelling the invisible stalker to serve for extended periods is impossible, but the compulsion to cause it to do so fully and properly must be great, i.e. a carefully worded command from a very powerful magic-user. A simple command such as "Follow me, and guard me from any attack," could be interpreted to mean follow at  100'  distance if the invisible stalker had been on duty over a week - or perhaps even if it hadn't been that long, for dealing with such creatures is always a hazard. Similarly, a command to: "Keep me safe from all harm," can be construed by the invisible stalker to mean that it is to carry the conjuring party to its own plane and place them in suspended animation in a secret room in its own abode, thus carrying out its duties to the letter.

Each day of duty which an invisible stalker serves will see a 1% cumulative chance of the creature seeking to pervert the intent of its commands in order to be free of servitude. If no option remains open, the stalker must continue to serve.

Invisible stalkers understand the common speech, but they do not talk any language but their own.
While this block of text has bloated up usual under the unrestrained hand of Gygax in AD&D, parallel to the Player's Handbook spell description, the language allowing dispel magic to work has gone missing here from the monster description. So by default I would assume that most readers of AD&D would conclude that a dispel magic would will work to terminate this spell; and yet it's still not an explicit ruling on the situation one way or the other. Note that the boxcars-on-2d6 method of determining long mission subversion has switched to 1% daily cumulative chance (but unclear if that's meant to start after the first week or not).

AD&D 2nd Ed.

Invisible Stalker
Range: 10 yds.
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 rd.
Saving Throw: None

This spell summons an invisible stalker from the Elemental Plane of Air. This 8-Hit
Dice monster obeys and serves the spellcaster in performing whatever tasks are set before it. It is a faultless tracker within one day of the quarry's passing. The invisible stalker follows instructions even if they send him hundreds or thousands of miles away and, once given an order, follows through unceasingly until the task is accomplished. However, the creature is bound to serve; it does not do so from loyalty or desire. Therefore, it resents prolonged missions or complex tasks, and it attempts to pervert instructions accordingly. Invisible stalkers understand common speech but speak no language save their own.

The material components of this spell are burning incense and a piece of horn carved
into a crescent shape.
The is pretty much the customary copy-and-paste job from 1E. Here's the (incredibly long) monster description in this edition:

Invisible Stalker
The invisible stalker is a creature from the elemental plane of Air. Those encountered on the Prime Material plane have almost always been summoned by wizards to fulfill a specific task.

The true form of the invisible stalker is unknown. On the Material, Astral, or Ethereal planes, the invisible stalker can only be perceived as a shimmering air mass which looks much like the refraction effect caused by hot air passing in front of cold. Invisible stalkers understand the common speech of men, but can not speak it. They can converse only in their own language, which sounds much like the roaring and whooshing of a great wind storm.

Combat: Invisible stalkers attack by using the air itself as a weapon. It is capable of creating a sudden, intense vortex that batters a victim for 4-16 (4d4) points of damage. Such attacks affect a single victim on the same plane as the invisible stalker. Due to their invisibility, these creatures impose a -6 penalty on the surprise rolls of those they choose to attack. Similarly, all opponents who are unable to see or detect invisible foes are at a -2 on their attack rolls. Although they are fully invisible on the Prime Material plane, their outlines can be dimly perceived on the Astral or Ethereal planes.

Invisible stalkers can only be killed on the elemental plane of Air. If attacked on another plane, they automatically return to their home plane when their total hit points are exceeded by the damage they suffered.

Habitat/Society:Little is known about the lives of these creatures on their home plane. It is assumed that they are similar to normal air elementals when encountered there. Those present on the material plane are there as the result of a conjuration by some wizard. This magic causes the creature to serve its summoner for a time. The conjurer retains full command of the stalker until it either fulfills its duties or is defeated and driven back to its home plane. Once given a task, an invisible stalker is relentless. They are faultless trackers who can detect any trail less than a day old. If ordered to attack, they will do so with great fury and will cease their efforts only upon their own destruction or the direct orders of their master. Once their mission is accomplished, the creature is free to return to its home plane.

The invisible stalker is, at best, an unwilling servant. It resents any task assigned to it, although brief, uncomplicated labors may be seen as something of a diversion and thus undertaken with little resentment. Tasks that require a week or more of its time will drive the invisible stalker to pervert the stated intent of the command. Such commands must be carefully worded and come from a powerful wizard. An invisible stalker may look for a loop hole in the command as a means of striking back at its master. For example, a simple command such as "keep me safe from all harm" may result in the stalker carrying the conjurer back to the elemental plane of air and leaving him there in a well hidden location.

Each day of the invisible stalker's indenturedness there is a 1% cumulative chance that the creature will seek a means to pervert its commands and free itself of servitude. If no option is open, the creature must continue to serve.

Ecology: Invisible stalkers are a species unwillingly transplanted to the Prime Material plane. They are slaves whose terms of servitude dominate their brief stays. Those who have been subjected to great hardship, assigned very difficult tasks, or who have faced death at the hands of humanoids, tend to retain a distrust or outright hatred of them. Those that have had an easy time during past periods of service or who are first time arrivals on the Prime Material plane may be easier to deal with. Such feelings may carry over to influence encounters with humanoids traveling in the aerial plane. Anyone who has befriended an invisible stalker in the past will find that voyages through the plane of elemental Air are far less hazardous than they might otherwise have been. Invisible stalkers only obey those who actually summon them and few wizards can be commissioned to summon such a being on another's behalf. Some mercenary wizards have been able to construct the necessary summons onto scrolls that are usable by others. These sell for between 5,000 and 10,000 gp and are very dangerous to use. Even the slightest error can cause users of such scrolls to come to a tragic end.

I guess I never played 2E enough to have read this whole thing. The "vortex of air" attack seems very strange, and not nearly as terrifying as an intimate attack by tooth & claw from an invisible assailant. Perhaps this is the legacy of the Air Elemental specifier come home to roost (elaborated by later designers). Anyway: I can't find any mention of dispel in these blocks of text. So it works normally, by default? Or not?

D&D 3rd Ed.

Summon Monster VII
Conjuration (Summoning) [see text]
Level: Clr 7, Sor/Wiz 7
Components: V, S, F/DF
Casting Time: 1 full round
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Effect: One or more summoned creatures, no two of which can be more than 30 ft. apart
Duration: 1 round/level (D)
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

This spell summons an outsider (extraplanar creature).  It appears where the character designates and acts immediately, on the character’s turn.  It attacks the character’s opponents to the best of its ability.  If the character can communicate with the outsider, the character can direct it not to attack, to attack particular enemies, or to perform other actions.  Summoned creatures act normally on the last round of the spell and disappear at the end of their turn.

The spell conjures one of the creatures from the 7th-level list on the Summon Monster table below, 1d3 creatures of the same type from the 6th-level list, or 1d4+1 creatures of the same type from a lower-level list.  The character chooses which creature to summon, and can change that choice each time the spell is cast.

Invisible stalker N
In 3rd Edition, the invisible stalker spell is eliminated entirely. Instead it is folded into the broader summon monster spells (here at the 7th level); and in so doing it shortens the duration to just 1 round/level, abstracting away the traditional long-term, long-distance, high-risk-and-reward special nature of the creature (similar to a few other spells like conjure elemental). This might be among the greatest sins of the 3rd Edition project; here a highly memorable piece of the game has been safety-bumpered into a total nonentity.

Notice here that the (D) notation for Duration does definitively establish that a dispel magic can be used to end this greatly altered spell. The monster description is now greatly cut down:

Invisible Stalker
These creatures speak only Auran but can understand Common.

An invisible stalker attacks by using the air itself as a weapon. It creates a sudden, intense vortex of wind that pounds a single target on the same plane as the creature.
Invisible stalkers can be killed only when on the Elemental Plane of Air. When performing tasks elsewhere, they automatically return to their home plane when they suffer sufficient damage to destroy them.

Elemental: Immune to poison, sleep, paralysis, and stunning. Not subject to critical hits. 
Natural Invisibility (Su): This ability is constant, allowing the stalker to remain invisible even when attacking. This ability is inherent and not subject to the invisibility purge spell. 
Improved Tracking (Ex): Invisible stalkers are consummate trackers and make Spot checks instead of the usual Wilderness Lore checks to trace a creature’s passage.
I'd say that all of the interesting aspects of the invisible stalker have been eliminated in this iteration. The sullenness, possible resistance, and risk to the caster from literal interpretation of orders are all gone. Actually only the dumbest thing has been retained -- the antiseptic, hands-off "vortex of wind" attack method. Even the tracking ability has been downgraded from cosmically "faultless" to just getting a Spot check. Basically the spell and the creature have been entirely neutered. But at least we know that a dispel magic serves to exterminate them here.


On the issue of dispelling, no edition of D&D clearly and unambiguously stated whether a dispel magic serves to end the existence of an invisible stalker (up until 3rd Ed., when the spell itself was cut from the rules and the much watered-down analog can definitely be dispelled). So after wrestling with this angel for some amount of time, what did I decide to do in the 2nd edition of Book of Spells? Here's my edited text:

Invisible Stalker: (Range: 6 inches, Duration: Permanent) This spell conjures an invisible stalker (an extraplanar creature), which is compelled to perform one service for the caster. Once conjured, the stalker can work at any time or distance to complete its task; however, the creature is clever, and will seek to subvert instructions for long missions. It cannot be dispelled, although it can be killed in combat. The spell ends when the stalker completes the specified service.

As you can see, I decided to keep the non-dispel restriction, as in the original spell from OD&D. My thinking here is that it increases the threat and the drama from the magical creature -- especially to the summoning wizard him- or herself (if sent after some fighter, thief, or other monster, then it makes little difference). In many cases I would not want an exceptional rule like this, but I think I'm okay with it to distinguish a few spells at the highest level of magic in the game (6th level in OD&D). Furthermore, I actually wanted it here to round out the cases to the theatrical rule-of-3: the new Book of Spells disallows dispel magic against invisible stalker, antimagic sphere, and geas. For purposes of maximal brevity, I did snip out the specific percentage roll for the stalker to subvert its instructions, leaving it fully in the hands of the DM (similar to Dave Cook's version in Expert D&D).

What do you think of that?


D&D Alignment: Three Hearts and Three Lions

If you're a D&D player who hasn't read Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (1953), you should go find a copy and fix that as soon as possible. It's short, it's easy to read, and it's very explicit and dense with proto-ideas that fed into the original version of Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, I dare say that pound-for-pound (or word-for-word) it's the single densest, most rewarding work to provide background for the milieu and set pieces of the D&D game.

Just one part of that is the origin of the D&D alignment system, in its most coherent state of Law-Balance-Chaos. For the purposes of commentary, criticism, teaching, and scholarship (and so the larger internet community can find it) I present the key passages below. Read this, and then the next step would be start reading some classic Michael Moorcock stories about Elric, which expands on the system (with an overview here).

Chapter 3

He let the dwarf growl on for a long time without learning much. Hugi wasn't very bright, and a backwoodsman as well. Holger got the idea that a perpetual struggle went on between primeval forces of Law and Chaos. No, not forces exactly. Modes of existence? A terrestrial reflection of the spiritual conflict between heaven and hell? In any case, humans were the chief agents on earth of Law, though most of them were so only unconsciously and some, witches and warlocks and evildoers, had sold out to Chaos. A few nonhuman beings also stood for Law. Ranged against them was almost the whole Middle World, which seemed to include realms like Faeries, Trollheim, and the Giants -- an actual creation of Chaos. Wars among men, such as the long-drawn struggle between the Saracens and the Holy Empire, aided Chaos; under Law all men would live in peace and order and that liberty which only Law could give meaning. But this was so alien to the Middle Worlders that they were forever working to prevent it and to extend their own shadowy dominion.

The whole thing seemed so vague that Holger switched the discussion to practical politics. Hugi wasn't much help there either. Holger gathered that the lands of men, where Law was predominant, lay to the west. They were divided into the Holy Empire of the Christians, the Saracen countries southward, and various lesser kingdoms. Faerie, the part of the Middle World closest to here, lay not far east. This immediate section was a disputed borderland where anything might happen.

Chapter 11

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

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

The symmetry was suggestive. In Holger's home world, physical forces were strong and well understood, mental-magical forces weak and unmanageable. In this universe the opposite held true. Both worlds were, in some obscure way, one; the endless struggle between Law and Chaos had reached a simultaneous climax in them. As for the force which made them so parallel, the ultimate oneness itself, he supposed he would have to break down and call it God. But he lacked a theological bent of mind. He'd rather stick to what he had directly observed, and to immediate practical problems. Such as his own reason for being here.

Chapter 12

There were still many miles of wilderness to travel on the other side of the range, but she had seen a few clearings, isolated farmsteads, and hamlets. "And where'er several men dwell, if they be not evil doers, will belike lie hallowed ground -- a shrine, if naught else -- which most o' the creatures that dog us dare no approach closely."

"But in that case," Holger asked, "how can the Middle World even think of seizing human land?"

"By help o' beings who need no fear daylicht or priestcraft. Animals like yon dragon; creatures wi' souls, like bad dwarfs. However, such allies be too few, and mostly too stupid, to have more than special use. Chiefly, methinks, the Middle World will depend on humans who'll fight for Chaos. Witches, warlocks, bandits, murderers, 'fore all the heathen savages o' the north and south.  These can desecrate the sacred places and slay such men as battle against them. Then the rest o' the humans will flee, and there'll be naught left to prevent the blue gloaming being drawn over hundreds o' leagues more. With every such advance, the realms of Law will grow weaker; not alone in numbers, but in spirit, for the near presence o' Chaos must affect the good folk, turning them skittish, lawless, and inclined to devilments o' their own." Alianora shook her head, troubled. "As evil waxes, the very men who stand for good will in their fear use ever worse means o' fighting; and thereby give evil a free beachhead."


Previewing Book of Spells 2E: Sleep

This December 1st I'll be releasing a 2nd-edition update to my Book of Spells (see sidebar). This is my interpretation of the wizard spells in Original D&D, as they initially existed in levels 1-6 (plus some Greyhawk spells thrown in), with some hopefully judicious edits and fixups for things I've seen in my games over the 40 years since then.

This is meant to serve a couple of purposes simultaneously: one, to be able to provide each wizard player at the table their own concise documentation for the effects of their spells in the game (without burdening other players with that information in a rulebook); and two, to fill in the gap that the original edition has been out-of-print and difficult to obtain for quite some time (while other editions are now sold digitally online, the original game is still not made available by Wizards/Hasbro).

The new edition is, of course, meant to serve the same major goals. While the 1st edition was based rather strictly on the Open Gaming System Reference Document (the new edition is still OGL), in the 2nd edition I've been spending more time individually crafting each spell to bring it more in line with the original game in terms of range, duration, effect, thematics, etc. And generally to try even harder to cut down the text and produce maximal brevity in the spell descriptions, to make things as clear and fast to players and DMs during play as possible. And also do some tune-ups to things that have bothered us in last couple of years about certain spells, or were unintentional side effects of using the SRD as a basis, etc.

One other thing: the 2nd edition has all-new interior artwork by my talented and beautiful partner Isabelle. It's been really delightful to throw some ideas for spells I'd like to see illustrated at her and see what she's come up with. In the next couple of weeks I'd like to share some of these with you. Let me start with this: I think she managed to nail the single most perfect, archetypal, and hilarious depiction of the omnipresent sleep spell in all the years that I've been gaming. Check it out:

(Yes, apparently some adventurers had the decency to put a blanket over their fallen victims before departing.) I'll provide some more updates to Book of Spells, 2nd Edition here in the weeks before Dec-1. If you have other ideas for errata I or rules details you think I may have missed, feel free to send them to me before that time. And check out past "Spells Through the Ages" posts (link) for analyses and discussions that we've had before.


Minis Workshop – Can They Retreat? Part 2

In the last post I asked a series of "can they retreat?" cases, in the context of a miniature mass warfare game, where a hypothetical routed unit is surrounded on just one side, or two, three, etc. Truth be told: The ruling on this is something that has frustrated me my entire life; I feel like I've never gotten it right, and it still pesters me today when running Book of War games. Let's look at some different minis rulebooks to see what they say.


Chainmail (3rd Ed., 1979) actually has two separate morale mechanics: one on p. 15 for post-melee morale (including effects like simply being pushed back a half move or so), and a second on p. 17 for total casualties throughout the battle (which results in immediate elimination). Rules for the former include clauses on what happens if a retreating unit contacts friendly troops (causing disorder or rout in the other unit), but nothing for contact on enemy units. The snippet above is from the second rule section, which says briefly that if "no route of retreat is open to it", then the unit surrenders instead of escaping -- but no guidance is given on what qualifies as an acceptable "route of retreat", or how complete a cordon is needed for a unit to be "surrounded". In these rules that passes as academic, because in either case the routed unit is immediately removed from the table when they fail that excess-casualty morale check.

Swords & Spells

Gygax's Swords & Spells rules was actually my first encounter with miniatures wargaming as a kid. Above you see the two cases in the morale rules there where a forced retreat can happen; in both situations, there is a one-line clause similar to Chainmail about what happens if the unit is "unable to retreat" (respectively: stand and fight at a penalty, or abject surrender). But what exactly constitutes being "unable to retreat"? That's still a raw judgement call. See also the note on the very last line: in both situations the unit "cannot change formation or face", which would seem to rule out any of the cases in the last post where there's contact on all 4 sides. Keeping that particular formation block, the routed unit would seem to be "stuck" by even a minimally wrapped-around enemy.

Battlesystem v.1

In Doug Niles' 1st version of Battlesyststem (the 1985 boxed set), he adds a little more detail to the situation than Gygax did. Here he indicates that as long as there is a gap of 1" extent -- about the width of one single figure -- than the entirety of any routing unit is allowed to escape through the bottleneck, irrespective of the size of the unit. This is actually how I myself interpreted Gygax's rule in Swords & Spells when I initially played with that ruleset. However, at some point it became deeply dissatisfying. If a relatively large unit routs, it seems nonsensical for all the figures to be able to file out through a tiny gap without the enemy being able to stop the action. Game-wise, if you added up the time for all the movements of the separate figures, it couldn't possibly happen within one turn; realism-wise, it fails to simulate "crowd crush" and panic-type situations in those sorts of bottlenecks. Also, since only a completely-surrounded unit could be stopped from escaping, it made capturing an enemy unit effectively impossible (the ability to get figures on every outer inch of a unit, without attacking and routing the target too early, is basically nil).

Battlesystem v.2

Here is Doug Niles' second take on his mass war rules for D&D (1989 perfect-bound glossy book). Seemingly sharing my dissatisfaction with the previous naive interpretation of Gygax, he's a little bit more strict here. On the one hand, he says "a routed unit cannot change frontage [as in Swords & Spells], unless that is the only way it can perform its rout movement" -- but that's just a different way of saying "a routed unit can change its frontage [the opposite of Swords & Spells]". But instead of the previous one-figure gap requirement, here you need a gap equal to "the widest stand of figures in the unit". In these rules, "stand" means a combined base of either two figures for cavalry, or three for infantry. So now that's probably about 2" or 3" wide and then a whole unit can escape. So it's a difference, but not a big one.

I should say that, looking at the preceding, there's a lot of continuity in the mass-warfare rules published by TSR. We could perform an exercises similar to "Spells Through the Ages" and track specific rules or even blocks of text that are basically copy-and-pasted forward from Chainmail, to Swords & Spells, to Battlesystem, with certain edits or expansions along the way (much like this "when do you get blocked from retreating" rule). For some contrast, let's look at the other gorilla in fantasy wargaming:

Warhammer 6th Ed.

A lot of the sensibility is the same here -- a badly-damaged unit is forced to retreat, and is in some danger of being totally destroyed ("if caught by pursuers", i.e., the overrun rule, last paragraph above). Much like Chainmail, there is a treatment of running into friendly units on the move (moving around or even through, 4th paragraph), but not of running into enemy units. Also much like Swords & Spells, the text gently suggests that for fleeing units you should "keep them in formation" (2nd paragraph), which again if enforced strictly would prevent the retreat of a unit with even one or two enemy figures on its backside.

I can't find any more detail on the rights or restrictions for retreating units than that in these 6E Warhammer rules. Again we seem mostly in a judgement-call situation about how small a gap is necessary for a large mob of creatures to escape.


Personally,  I'm pretty surprised that I can't find any more detail to this situation in any of these miniature wargame rules than that. No wonder I've been frustrated for so long. The naive interpretation of Gygax's short comment in Swords & Spells, as implemented in Battlesystem, seems unsatisfyingly generous, and doesn't seem to resemble real "crowd crunch" situations.

What do you think the best expression of the allowed-retreat rule should be? Do any of these rulebooks synch up with your intuitions from the prior blog post?


Minis Workshop – Can They Retreat? Part 1

Below you'll see a series of cases from a miniature mass wargame. Each figure represents 10 or 20 actual creatures. In each case, the Orcs in the center have been Routed, which ordinarily indicates a must-retreat situation. The question is: in which of these cases, if any, would you expect that the Orc unit is blocked from retreating?

Case 1: Contact on one side.

Case 2: Contact on two sides.

Case 3: Contact on three sides.

Case 4: Contact on four sides, with a fairly large gap in the back.

Case 5: Contact on four sides, with a gap slightly larger than one figure in the back.

Case 6: Contact on four sides, completely surrounded.

In which of these cases does it seem that Orcs should not be able to run away or escape? And can you think of any other situations that might be tough or close judgement calls?


Orc & Goblin Light Penalties

I've always been frustrated with D&D's rule for Orc & Goblin light penalties. For example, here it is for goblins in the AD&D Monster Manual:

This is basically repeated in the entries for kobolds and orcs. It's always seemed to me that the −1 attack modifier is really too small to make any real difference. In fact: These days I'm of the mind set that I don't want to deal with any situational ±1 modifiers at all; the payoff from such things is almost surely not worth the mental effort spent tracking them. Certainly we can agree that a 1 in 20 difference does not resemble the complete abhorrence of daylight that you see in say, Tolkien's goblins or northern orcs.

I've known that this modifier had its origins in Chainmail, and assumed that the difference in scale to the combat mechanics was to blame, and that when viewed in those rules it would work in a rational and significant fashion. Let's actually look at that today, which I'd never done before. The interesting thing is that you have to join up three separate tables before you see the actual result in those rules. First, the text unit description (p. 29):

Note that the original had both a −1 modifier to morale and a −1 to "any die rolled"; this was included by reference in the entry for Orcs. Note also that this attack modifier was copied forward to any later version of D&D that we might care about. The −1 to morale was copied into Original D&D (which ostensibly makes use of Chaimail's inscrutable morale rules), but does not appear in Holmes or Moldvay Basic or AD&D, as seen above.This is slightly strange because Moldvay has excellent and highly playable morale rules in which the −1 modifier would be quite well-balanced, and technically there are percentage-based morale rules in the AD&D DMG (even if no one ever used them).

Second, let's look at the Chainmail Fantasy Reference Table near the end of the book (p. 43), where we can see exactly how well goblins and orcs normally fight:

As we can see in the 2nd-to-last column, each of these types attack as "Heavy Foot" (the middle of the 3 infantry types, equivalent to men in chain mail armor). But what does that mean, exactly? Now we flip back a few pages to the Chainmail Combat Tables (p. 40):

The "-" are organizational dashes (not subtractions), so see what the mechanic is here: Players attacking with these types of units will be rolling some handfuls of d6's, the number based on a ratio of attackers to defending types. In every case except one (light foot defending) kills are only possible when some dice show a perfect "6". Therefore: When orcs/goblins fight in daylight, and take a −1 modifier on their attack dice, then the highest they can roll is 5 and it is totally impossible for them to score hits on any opponent except light foot!

That seems like an amazing result when I noticed it tonight. In some wordings, you could sort of try to interpret it as "losing one of the dice they get to roll", but in truth the original language for Chainmail goblins, as shown above ("subtract 1... from any die rolled") can't be read that way -- it's not one subtracted from "dice", it's "any die", that is, every individual die clearly must get the same subtraction from its rolled result.

Amazing! As much as I always wanted a more significant penalty, that seems really stunning, making orcs and goblins entirely ineffective and impotent against almost any enemy when struck by light; how tremendously different that same -1 is in the d20 alternative system, where it is almost negligible. Recall that technically OD&D uses the Chainmail d6-based combat tables above by default -- scaling changes to the modifiers should have been necessary -- surely the difference is so huge it was an oversight and not an intentional adjustment.

Before we go, let's also check in on the little brown book that is Gygax's Swords & Spells fantasy miniature rules for use with (original) Dungeons & Dragons: here, all combat modifiers are given in terms of percentages (p. 24):

Notice that in full daylight, kobolds, orcs, and goblins are assessed a −30% melee output penalty (3rd row from the bottom). That's equivalent to subtracting 6 pips on a 20-sided die -- or close to 2 pips on every 6-sided die in a system like Chainmail, Warhammer, or Book of War! Even in "near full daylight" they take a −10% penalty, equal to subtracting 2 pips on a d20 (bottommost row). This is in addition to the −10% morale penalty that is specified elsewhere (p. 20). We might conclude that when Gygax was looking at the issue with intention, he assessed a severely heavy-duty penalty. Only when he was doing a mindless copy-and-paste job do we get the niggling −1 on a d20 modifier -- which is, unfortunately, how it appears in all the core rulebooks for OD&D, B/X D&D, AD&D, etc.

Looking at this closely, I'm actually motivated to revise my house rules and even Book of War miniature rules for orcs & goblins. Consider this: Let's say that the orcs & goblins D&D d20-based to-hit penalty "should have been" on the order of −4 or so in daylight. Then in a d6-scale like Book of War this becomes a substantive −1 penalty to hit, as in Chainmail; note that in my system they would then be helpless against opponents in plate armor (like heavy cavalry; "6" needed to hit by default), but would still have some chance to hit targets in leather or chain. So this would give greater interest to these types, and rationalize with what we see in Gygax's Chainmail and Swords & Spells games.

And it would also help rationalize the troop costs that he gives in OD&D Vol-3 p. 23 ("Orc support and upkeep is only half that of a man"); when I run these stats through our simulator program (link), preferred costs of just about half do in fact fall out of the system quite nicely (whereas previously there was almost no difference in effectiveness between orcs & men). If we do this re-interpretation, then Orcs & Goblins become a high-risk, high-reward gamble on the battlefield; you really want to avoid the weather being sunny (or at least make sure to bring a Wizard who can control the weather in your favor). What's your preference for that?


DHBoggs on Turning Undead

In response to the "Special Herbs" last post, DHBoggs pointed out a wonderful bit of archeology he wrote about a month back on the cleric "turn undead" power, why it's so poorly defined in OD&D (no text description, no times-per-day, no duration, etc., etc.), crankily off with the mythology, and overpowered in later editions. Turns out (no pun intended) that if you look at Arneson's original game where it originated, it's far more restrained, balanced, in tune with the horror films, and so forth. Wish I'd written this; but when better to read it than in October?