Blurb for Orson Scott Card

A blurb on the back cover of Orson Scott Card's novel Speaker for the Dead, on the eve of my clearing it out of my personal library:
"Card is a writer of compassion and his heart breaks for the individual men and women of good will who find themselves caught up and forced to participate in the race's homicidal crossfire." -- Washington Post Book World


Wall of Fire Placement

A while back the thought occurred to me: If in Original D&D, the wall of fire spell has a 6" area width and also a 6" maximum range, and we assume that the entire conjured wall must be within that range limit, wouldn't the wall have to automatically get squeezed pretty close to the caster to fit in the range limit? The answer turns out to be "no", my intuition was mistaken about that. I could have computed the distance to an arc of length x in a circle of radius x, but it seemed easier to just test it physically.


Review of the 5E Battlesystem Draft

A few commenters have recently asked what my thoughts are on the new 5E "When Armies Clash" rules for mass combat (with "UA_Battlesystem" as the given filename at WOTC: link), previewed at the start of this month. I'm glad they did, because I would have overlooked it otherwise.

Let me approach this as an opportunity, if someone asked me to edit this (and certainly no one has), what I would suggest for changes. I'll split this into two main parts: "Minor Skirmishes" and "The Big Stickler" near the end.

Minor Skirmishes

Some smaller things that caught my eye:
  • Referring to "figures" as "stands". I think that initially 5E made the claim that it was trying to be compatible or support play in any traditional D&D system. If that's the case, it's a curious move to change terminology that remained constant up until now, as far as I know. The groups of 10 or 20 creatures throughout TSR's Chainmail/Swords & Spells/Battlesystem 1/Battlesystem 2 were always referred to as "figures". If multiple miniature figures were physically glued onto a platform together, then it was called a "stand". To this grognard it's pretty confusing to flip the two terms here in 5E.
  • Mass scales seem OK. The figure ("stand") scale is given as 1 = 10 men. The distance scale is 1" (space) = 20 feet. That's exactly the same as in my Book of War game, and to my knowledge 1" = 20 feet had not been used before that point. So great. The time scale is 1 turn = 1 minute which is completely reasonable, and matches original Chainmail, etc.
  • Grid seems like a bad idea. There was a time when I was designing Book of War that I gave serious consideration to using a fixed grid for the action, thinking it might simplify affairs. But I decided against it; while it might be arguably okay for independent fighters moving around, keeping large groups in any kind of formation on the grid becomes very burdensome. Movement and contact can basically only happen on the two axes, which gets more and more goofy-looking the larger your units are. But 5E Battlesystem does require the grid througout.
  • Counting distance. The terminology here is that juxtaposed spaces are "adjacent", while a step further is "1 square away". That was hard for me to parse; the normal metric would be that the former is "1 space distant" and the latter is "2 spaces distant" (i.e., how much movement it takes to get from one to the other). Unless this is already standardized in 5E, I'd recommend changing that.
  • Skirmishers vs. regiments. First of all, I've never really been fond of this distinction. It didn't exist in Chainmail/Swords & Spells (nor Book of War). It popped up in the original Battlesystem and I never really saw the need for it; it seemed like an unnecessary complication (particularly in the awful positioning rules that required a whole unit to be spaced out with figure 1" from each other; very inconvenient to move as a group). Secondly, the terminology has again been switched here: previously it was "skirmishers vs. regulars". The problem with "skirmishers vs. regiments" is that they aren't even the same part of speech, really: the former is a descriptor while the latter is a type of organization. Personally, I might cut the whole thing out for simplicity.
  • Figures move and act independently. Something that I really didn't expect is that although figures (sigh, "stands") are assigned to mass units, in truth each one in the game acts, moves, acts, and defends independently. So you can't just push a big block of orcs across the table in formation; you're really obligated to decide on a path and goal for each individual figure, and just make sure that at the end each is still adjacent to someone in the same unit. As burdensome as this is, it's sort of required by the gridded space, because otherwise you probably couldn't get a unit to go anywhere except straight north/south or east/west. But it's aesthetically weird (and nontraditional) that you don't see or simulate any kind of consistent army formation. Attacks and defenses are also decided and resolved for each individual figure, which seems like it will take a long time. One advantage: it can support heterogenous units (some with axes, others javelins, or a mix using various at the same time), which is not something I could make happen with Book of War.
  • Bookkeeping. This is one of those details that manages to quietly sneak in and you don't notice what a major deal it is until too late. ("A bit of bookkeeping on the side is also recommended," says a single sly paragraph on p. 4). In truth, because of the independent-figure action noted above, you definitely need to have every figure individually identifiable on the table (with marked letters or IDs, perhaps?), and then a complete list of every single figure to note its unit membership and its current hit points and conditions, at a minimum. This little "bit" is passingly similar to why I don't use Doug Niles' Battlesystem 2 (you need to match each attack die one-to-one to the figure who rolled it, which prevents rolling a big batch of dice at once). In contrast, I intentionally designed Book of War from the ground up to have no paperwork whatsoever -- the figures themselves on the table serve as all the record-keeping that exists in the game (with a few dice and markers). Every time we play BOW we set up our armies and then put all the paper away because we don't need it to play. In UA_BS you'd be shuffling lots of accounting paper, it seems. So you can consider your (and your fellow players') preference on that.
  • Morale trigger. No morale checks occur until any unit is over half killed. While game-able, it's a pretty significant break to classical wargames, where some units will collapse unexpectedly from just a few casualties or the first brush with the enemy (which is arguably far more realistic). In Book of War we find that the greatest drama in the game is specifically from the morale checks that decide the fate of a whole unit; without that, you're basically in a repetitive roll/hit/damage cycle for a long time. So I would consider switching the rule to be more like AD&D or Moldvay B/X, where even the first casualty triggered a morale check.
  • Attacks of opportunity. Wow, does 5E still have basically the same attacks-of-opportunity rule as in 3E? In retrospect I came to consider that one of the biggest blights on 3E; arguing about them was among the main barriers that turned my close friends away from D&D at the time. The main thing I notice here is that the "Reach" benefit again makes no distinction between reach from thrusting pole weapons (who can arrange together to catch opponents before they get close) versus giants creatures with clubbing attacks (who are presumably slow and swingy, and cannot just point continually in one direction at an enemy). That became as big a "proud nail" for me in 3E as the classic D&D missile range problems. I would recommend making the distinction. 
So far so good? Okay, now for the big'un:

The Big Stickler

In some circles this is the most contentious thing about Book of War, but failing to recognize it is so mind-warpingly, clearly wrong that I really can't understand how anyone can tolerate a game without it (link). There has to be a difference in the combat capacity of a mass unit, versus a solo/hero unit of the same type, because there are 10 times as many of the former -- obviously.

But the 5E Battlesystem draft rules have no such distinction. A mass unit uses mechanics exactly the same as in its normal D&D play. And without any other word on the subject, so does the solo unit. A single 4th-level fighter or ogre has 20 hit points and attacks twice a turn for 1d8 damage (or whatever it is nowadays). And a mass figure of 10 4th-level fighters or ogres apparently has the exact same 20 hit points, two attacks, and 1d8 damage.

One hero against 10 ogres is an even fight. And so is 10 heroes against 10 ogres. And so is 10 heroes against 1 ogre. If your warrior in normal D&D can fight off 20 orcs, then all of a sudden he can magically fight off 200 orcs just by virtue of playing a game on the Battlesystem table. Unless the exact same orcs are also declared as solos, at which point he can only fight of 20 of them again. Or if he's joined "magnificent seven" style by nine other heroes in a mass figure, at which point he can now only fight off 2 solo orcs (or whatever). Talk about Lovecraftian mathematics!

If we look at the tradition here, Chainmail Fantasy did not suffer from this problem, because the whole game was intended at one-to-one scale at all times (as opposed to normal historical Chainmail; link) -- although players who mis-read that game might be tricked into a similar scaling paradox. Gygax's later Swords & Spells did accurately and intelligently deal with this, although it was somewhat circumspect on the fact that in practice a solo hero would be easily overwhelmed by a single mass figure ("The hero will inflict .40 of the damage shown for a 4th level creature on the combat tables and sustain damage until sufficient hits are scored upon the figure to kill the hero", p. 1). Battlesystem intentionally inflated its solo heroes by about times 5 for gaming drama (or PC safety-bumpering, depending on how you want to interpret it), but was at least explicit about the fact that it was doing so ("From a mathematical perspective, the attributes of heroes in a BATTLESYSTEM scenario are inflated beyond those of the creatures in the units surrounding them", Battlesystem 2, p. 106). Looking further afield, Warhammer deals with the issue just like original Chainmail, by declaring that the action is all technically at one-to-one scale, so no mixing of mass-vs-solo ever occurs (6E, p. 279).

But the new 5E Battlesystem draft takes the cake for completely submerging the whole issue and thus creating an unprecedented full 10-fold power inflation due to the mismatched scaling (or really 100-fold difference if you flip solo-to-mass on both sides of a conflict). To avoid that craziness, I would highly recommend that the 5E Battlesystem rules recognize this distinction and fix it by either multiplying mass figure hit points and damage by 10, or dividing solo hit points and damage by 10 -- as I did in Book of War.

In conclusion: The kernel of the idea to 5E Battlesystem is fairly attractive and one I agree with: find a way to use the same basic stats and mechanic as in regular D&D for resolutions. But the majority of the design decisions run opposite to those I settled on for my game -- 5E BS being anchored to a gridded map, with heterogeneous figures that need to be moved, tracked, and resolved separately, and lots of paperwork for each figure's individual hit points and conditions. But overshadowing all of that is the fact that, as currently written, ignoring the distinction in scale between mass/solo units makes the game fundamentally unusable for the purpose of accurately simulating a D&D-system combat with larger numbers of combatants.


Friday Night Book of War: Tale of Two Teams

Our good friends Kate & Matt came over the other night, and both cooked and queued up for a Book of War game -- my first chance to roll out the 3D terrain I recently made and new, bigger elephant miniatures. In order to get everyone involved, we played in teams of two, with each person controlling half of a 420-point army.

Turn 1: Kate & Matt at the top have horse archers, medium cavalry, heavy crossbows, elephant archers, trolls, and elite dwarves (3rd-level dwarves in heavy plate). Isabelle & I at the bottom have heavy cavalry, hill giants, heavy crossbows, trolls, orcs, and light cavalry. Terrain is one hill feature next to some woods. Weather is sunny so my big squad of cheap orc infantry are at -1 to hit and morale. Matt's horse archers have made a half-move on the left, shooting down one of our crossbow figures, but morale is good. Our cat Yowly looks on with suspicion at why horse archers chose not to take another half-move.

Turn 2: Isabelle's heavy cavalry caught those horse archers with a charge, and have routed them after two turns of melee. Also, Kate & Matt's crossbows and elephants chose to take a full move to the top of the hill, which allowed our heavy crossbows to get the first shot, routing their men and inflicting 3 hits (of 5) on their elephants.

Meanwhile, strange things in the woods: First, troll-on-troll action where each of our squads of trolls tears into the other and then regenerates the damage in the next turn. (Suggesting the mathematical problem of a random walk: will it ever end?) Secondly, while my orcs have surrounded and outnumbered Kate's dwarves 130-to-20 individuals, in the sunny weather I need to roll 6 + 1 = 7 on any d6 to score a hit. Which, as we say in the basic statistics class, will be assigned the descriptor of "impossible event". Except for the figures at the rear which can hit on a "6", but their blows ring down ineffectually...

Turn 3: Matt's medium cavalry is in a tough position; he decides to charge my light cavalry, but this leaves their rear open to my giants and Isabelle's heavy cavalry. Kate's elephant unit is shot down by our masses of heavy crossbows. Trolls keep clubbing each other with torn-off limbs and whatnot. My orcs are being chopped down in assembly-line fashion by Kate's dwarf swordsmen.

Turn 4: Our cavalry and giants catch Matt's medium cavalry in a pincer move, and trample the whole bunch of them into the dirt. Their routed crossbows run off the table with some parting shots from my own, which was considered broadly unsporting. My orcs just got routed, but other (better) units are circling to finish off the opposition, so we called the game at this point and switched to some Yahtzee.

Conclusions: First of all, I really need to get some better lighting in the living room for these photos. The 3D terrain I recently built was very enjoyable (but probably not something I could take on the road with me). Somewhat embarrassing realization at the end: We probably shouldn't form a team of Isabelle & myself, the number one and two experts at Book of War, against relative newbie players. That was one of the more overwhelming tactical mismatches that we've seen. Also, I got a double Yahtzee.


Book of War Master Unit List by Mack Harrison

A few weeks ago, Mack Harrison sent me a really useful document -- a master list of all the units and heroes in Book of War, including the original book, plus various expansion posts here on the blog. Choice of font and layout is delightful as far as I'm concerned, too. Probably at some point this year a number of the costs shown here will get revised -- but for now it's state-of-the-art Book of War, and if you use the whole scope of the ruleset, this makes it very handy for players to choose their forces from all the options available. (Shades of D&D Supplements -> Monster Manual?) Get it below!


D&D Editions Timeline by Nick Wedig

Have you seen this? I just discovered it -- a very nice visual timeline of all the different major editions of Dungeons & Dragons. I'm not sure where this was first posted, but the credit at the bottom is to Nick Wedig, so big kudos to him for that.

For quite some time I'd been planning to make something just like this myself -- mostly to be able to educate those people who still didn't know there was a version of D&D that predated Red Box or AD&D. Surely none of the readers of this blog. But in case you find it helpful in a discussion, here it is for posterity sake. Thanks a bunch, Nick!


James Ward on Deities & Demigods

Speaking of Moorcock -- The other week James Ward made a pretty interesting and fiery post on his Facebook page (2/20/15). He said:
Deities & Demigods
Let me set the record straight on this again. I wrote the book Deities & Demigods with some slight help from others. In doing this work I included myths from H.P. Lovecraft's works and Elric of M. Moorcock works. Gary Gygax gave me M. Moorcock's address and I wrote him for permission and got it because I said it would renew peoples interests in his books. I wrote to Arkham House which was in my state of Wisconsin and also got the rights to Lovecraft's material. Going forward both groups sold their rights to Chaosium in California. Lawyers from Chaosium then sent a cease and desist letter to TSR. TSR had the permissions I gave them, but they had no money for lawyers at that time. So Brian Blume decided to take out those two sections. I went crazy. I had done my homework, I had gotten ironclad permission, and TSR wasn't going to fight it. I offered to replace the two sections with new ones and was told no. There was no copyright infringement. That was 30+ years ago. Every five years or so some idiot brings up the fact that TSR was in infringement on this book. Let me tell the people of the world who bring this up that they don't have their facts straight and it irritates the hell out of me.

I think this is a useful recollection to document -- even though, of course, memories do get hazy over a period of 30 years or more (in fact, the initial version of Ward's post accidentally spoke of Jack Vance being Elric's creator instead of Moorcock, before being edited). Sean K. Reynolds had earlier documented what people at TSR told him on his website, with a somewhat different interpretation (link):
I investigated the matter, actually talked to people who were at TSR when the Deities & Demigods stuff happened (including James “Drawmij” Ward, VP of Creative Services, TSR), and repeated online what actually happened often enough until the answer mostly stuck. Eventually, Joel “Aardy DeVarque” Hahn added this info to the FAQ for the rec.games.frp.dnd newsgroup*. Here’s the relevant info:

The first printing of Deities & Demigods included the mythoi of Cthulhu and Melnibone. The ideas behind the Cthulhu mythos were in the public domain at that time, but copyright on the Cthulhu books in print was owned by Arkham House, who had licensed Chaosium to create a Cthulhu RPG based on those books. TSR thought the public domain status allowed them to create game representations of whatever Cthulhu creatures they desired, and so that mythos was added to Deities & Demigods. TSR then contacted Michael Moorcock [author of the Elric of Melnibon√© stories], who gave permission for TSR to include the Melnibonean mythos in Deities & Demigods. However, again, Chaosium had already arranged for a license to create an Elric RPG. Chaosium became upset that TSR was apparently violating Chaosium’s licenses, and the print run of Deities & Demigods was halted while the two companies sat down to talk. Eventually, they agreed that TSR could continue printing the books with the two mythoi as is, on the condition that a note be added to the preface:  “Special thanks are given to Chaosium, Inc. for permission to use the material found in the Cthulhu Mythos and the Melnibonean Mythos.” The printing plates were changed, and the first printing continued.

When the time for a second printing came, the Blume brothers [majority shareholders of TSR at the time] decided that a TSR book should not contain such a prominent reference to one of their competitors. They decided to remove the two mythoi, and thus the need for the note. (Apparently, Gary Gygax offered to write up two new mythoi to fill the space, but the Blumes decided they could make more money charging the same price for a book with fewer pages.) Later, the book–still without the two mythoi and the note–was republished under the name “Legends & Lore.”

When Legends & Lore was updated to 2nd ed. AD&D, several more mythoi were removed, namely the Babylonian, Finnish, Nonhuman, and Sumerian mythoi; the Central American mythos was renamed the Aztec mythos. Contrary to rumor, the Newhon mythos was never removed, and, in fact, was included in the 2nd ed. L&L, probably due to the simple fact that it is TSR who owns the license to produce Lankhmar materials. The deities of the nonhumans were reintroduced in Monster Mythology.


Moorcock on D&D

I'm reading Michael Moorcock's critical work Wizardry and Wild Romance (1987) and I've been really taken by it. It's partly hot polemic (even hysterical in places), but the lovely thing is in how dense it is, that he probably references and introduces you to a half-dozen new authors on any given page on the book. The copy in my hands right now is from our school library, but I plan to buy a copy for my personal bookshelf.

In the last few pages of the work he writes this:
One of the peculiar developments in the past ten years or so has been the rise of the "Dungeons and Dragons" industry. These role-playing games are derived directly from epic fantasy. They owe everything to the original writers like Howard or Tolkien. Thousands of people -- mostly teenagers -- live out large parts of their lives questing for treasures, outwitting wizards and doing in dragons. I must admit that these games are too complex for me and, while they hold no attraction, I am fascinated by the elaborate pains people take in playing them. What is more, people are now frequently buying books because they are curious to discover the origins of their favorite game. [*] This industry has led to writers producing books which are essentially templates for role-playing games. It is a subject I'm not qualified to discuss and I am sure there must be a number of books which deal with the phenomenon itself. The kid you see in the street who appears to be the village idiot might well have a huge IQ. He also happens to "be" Gorijor the Thief, on a dangerous mission to the City of Slithering Salamanders. And that bulge in his pocket could well be a selection of toy models, each one of which is a character in a complicated drama being enacted across a district, sometimes an entire country! Together with the rise of the computer game, the fantasy-role-playing game is having an impact on children which is extremely hard to gauge. What was virtually a formless ambience in my eleven-year-old head is probably a highly codified and fully understood structure in the head of today's eleven-year-old. The impulses are the same, but there are now huge industries (like those which produce all kinds of movie "spin-offs") ready to tap into them, to exploit them commercially, to supply them with rules. (For once I find myself incapable of drawing a moral lesson from this!)

Commercial interests, of course, are always in the process of "taking away" from the people, formalizing and sanitizing something and selling it back to them, just as commercial interests successfully institutionalized so much rock music...

[*] That being the exact reason I'm reading these words from Moorcock right now, obviously.