Subterrane Surveys: Dungeon of Zenopus (per Holmes)

Today we're looking at the sample dungeon from the first-ever D&D Basic Set, edited by Eric Holmes (1979) -- what many of us now call the "Dungeon of Zenopus". This has been very influential over the years -- and just last week, our friend Zenopus Archives published a 5E conversion on DM's Guild. It may be among the best-ever starter dungeons for new players.

We'll be looking at this in two parts, because we can identify at least two versions of the dungeon that differ in significant ways. There's the actual published version, that we'll get to next time. But before we do that I want to look at the original manuscript draft by Holmes -- as shared previously by Zenopus Archives himself. See that link, Parts 47 to 54, for his notes that I'm using for the work here (compiling the statistical information together in one place).

Design: The layout differs markedly from Gygax's early fully-packed (use every space) style, as seen in his Castle Greyhawk or the Dungeon Geomorphs (upper levels). Note that initially the Dungeon Geomorphs were included in the box with this ruleset, so Holmes seems to be striking out a different (simpler?) aesthetic here. He uses a lot of empty/negative space. The halls and chambers are almost totally locked to the graph-paper grid axes (no diagonal hallways, no trapezoidal rooms; except for one circular room in S and the few rough caves in the lower-left). This new design style is perhaps similar to the sample level given in the OD&D Vol-3 text, and later dungeons like the sample in the AD&D DMG.

Many of the chambers are extremely large by basic D&D standards. Most of them are too large to see the entirety using torch light (30' distance in these and other rules), and many are too large for infravision, as well (60' distance). Room A is 120' × 100', so about one-fifth the size of Notre Dame cathedral by area, while possibly only containing beds for just 2 goblins (or a few more depending on party size). Room N is as long and likely equally wide before its north wall collapsed, containing ten sarcophagi. These rooms are far larger than anything seen in Gygax's castle Greyhawk map, shown in the Dungeon Geomorphs product, generated by the AD&D DMG random dungeons tables, etc.

Five of the 20 areas are entirely empty ("E" code on the map); or in other words, 15 of 20 have some kind of content (75%). This is a far higher rate than suggested by Gygax's OD&D Vol-3, or Monster & Treasure Assortment (which argued for just 33% or 20% occupancy rates), or shown in his Castle Greyhawk map (25% with content; see two weeks ago).

Characters: As seen before, to this point in the publication history, no explicit party-size expectations are given in either the rulebook or the adventure materials. In Holmes' draft in the wandering monster section, he keeps the same language from OD&D Vol-3 (and also the same interpretation I take from the slightly muddy language there), that on average a party of 1-3 will meet one monster, a party of 4-6 will meet two, etc. In the introduction to his sample dungeon, he writes:

Because of the nature of some of the traps in the dungeon, it is highly recommended that no one attempt it alone. If only one player is taking his or her character into the dungeon, the Dungeon Master should recommend employing one or more men-at-arms. These non-player characters can then be "rolled up" and hired out for a share of the treasure.

So Holmes seems to be saying that as few as 2 characters working together, of 1st-level each, might be able to adventure successfully here. As a new DM in the first few days after opening the D&D Basic set box, I ran several of my friends through the Dungeon of Zenopus with one PC and a single hireling (more on the results of that next time).

Monsters: There are 13 monster encounters in the 20 keyed rooms (65% occupancy rate). The encounters have a median of EHD 2, and a mean of EHD 3. This means indeed that most of the encounters should be on the order of a fair fight for just 2 1st-level PCs, in accordance with Holmes' advice in the quoted paragraph above. The total placed monster strength is 35 EHD.

In terms of wandering monsters, following his draft rules -- which are close to a copy from OD&D rules -- a party of 1-3 PCs should only be facing one 1st-level wandering monster at a time, which would be EHD 1 in almost all cases; about half-strength from the placed encounters, and should be well-manageable.  

Treasures: Eight of the 13 monster encounters have some kind of treasure present (62%). There are no treasures in rooms without monsters. It seems clear that in almost all cases, Holmes directly used the monster Treasure Type tables from OD&D, copied in his draft, because almost all of the coins treasures come in units of 1000's. (Exceptions: the pirates have 2-12 gp each individually, in accordance with the special rule for Men from OD&D Vol-2 that Holmes copied into his draft Pirates monster entry; and there is one bag of 50 gp in some garbage, possibly in line with the OD&D Vol-3 random dungeon treasure table.)

Holmes' draft has a simple rule for gem and jewelry values; 50-500 gp each. While the gems are all in this range, the jewelry is all weirdly outside this range (a belt worth 1000 gp, and rings and coronets worth 3000 gp). However, they are legitimate products if one were using the OD&D jewelry table. 

Total treasure in the dungeon adds up to about 18,000 gp. On average there are about 500 gp of treasure per monster EHD in the complex. Note that this is ten times higher than in Gygax's Castle Greyhawk, which had a ratio of only 50 gp per EHD. (!)

Magic: Among the 8 treasures, 4 include magic items (50% rate), for a total of 5 items. These include: two scrolls, a potion, a wand, and a magic sword. All but one of these are initially in the control of the wizard who is the principal of the dungeon. This is close to the same rate as seen in Gygax's own Castle Greyhawk (43%), but much more than suggested in the OD&D Vol-3 dungeon treasure table (there: only 5% per treasure on the 1st level).

Experience: Recall that in assessing Gygax's Castle Greyhawk there was a question about whether we should award XP for picking up and keeping magic items or not. That parenthetically-suggested rule in OD&D is entirely excluded from the Holmes book (even post-Gygax edit!), and so too all of the later Basic D&D line. So when assessing an adventure officially for Basic D&D, there is no ambiguity; XP comes only from monsters and monetary treasure. Also, for simplicity, we'll ignore XP from wandering monsters, since we can't tell in advance how many times the party will have such encounters (or more fundamentally, how much time they'll take in the dungeon).

Holmes' draft includes a cut-down version of the revised (reduced awards) monster XP chart fro OD&D Supplement-I, Greyhawk. See here for specifics. Using that schedule, total monster awards add up to (only) about 400 XP, with about 18,000 for treasures, for a grand total of (you guessed it) around 18,400. The monster: treasure XP ratio is about 1:45, or about 2% to 98% (probably the largest differential we'll ever see). This would be enough to promote a party of 3 fighters from 1st to halfway through the 3rd level, which seems quite generous.

On the other hand, let's consider what use of the original, simpler, XP rules from OD&D Vol-1 would buy us; assume a fixed value of 100 XP per monster EHD. The total of 35 monster EHD in the complex would gives us 3,500 monster XP, and with 18,000 in treasure, a grand total of 21,500 XP. The monster: treasure ratio would be a more reasonable 1:5 (16% to 84%), and again the total would be enough to promote 3 fighters from 1st to the upper end of 3rd level.


In Memoriam: B.J. "BigFella" Johnson

Sadly, one of my best gaming buddies, B.J. Johnson (who identified online as "BigFella"), passed away suddenly and by surprise last weekend, at a fairly young age.

B.J. was at least a triple threat: an incredible artist, game designer, and miniature-modeller. We met around 1998 or so when we were both hired at Genetic Anomalies, Inc. (later a unit of THQ), along with Paul Siegel and others (see Paul's memory here, including the most perfect photo of BJ imaginable). None of us knew each other before that, but we've been lifelong friends ever since. In particular, we all started a regular D&D game that lasted for most of a decade, and allowed us to get to know each other much better outside work.

We've been living in separate states for a while, but we've always been in close contact and saw each other at least once a year at our regular house-con in the spring. Every year BJ would show up with jaw-droppingly elaborate game setups; entirely customized rules, handouts, play maps, 3D structures, customized miniatures for every PC and monster, lore and backstories... just on and on and on in unbelievable depth and detail. I've never seen anything like it, so consistently and in great variety, at any other game or convention I've ever been to. After every game he'd usually spend an hour or two pulling out extra boxes of miniatures and illustrations we didn't get to, telling every one's backstory.

His personal website, collecting samples of artwork, was at BigFella.com. His gaming blog, which he'd kept for the last decade, is on Blogspot: Saturday Night Sandbox. If you browse through those you can see him sharing many of his creations, miniature-making, and so forth. Also in recent years (partly at Paul's urging, which was as usual master-level advice that we all benefited from), he started pulling his multifacted creations into publications which he released on his storefront at DriveThruRPG: Big Fella Games. There you can see his abiding love for Mutant, Western, Arabian, and Halloween-themed stuff (all of which had been playtested for some years by those of us in his annual games).

Last July, one of the pinnacle joys in our Wandering DMs marathon livestream game was the fact that B.J. was watching and posting laugh-out-loud commentary all weekend long in the live chat. (Anytime everyone at the table spontaneously starts laughing it's because of something BJ said online.) In our last show last season, we riffed for a bit on how perfect it would be to have a livestream game where B.J. acted as a color commentary man. In the show from one week ago on self-publishing, at one point I waxed rhapsodical about how the single best thing in game development was to write a new piece of content and hand it off to an artist, who would give it back with some mind-blowing unexpected take on the subject... well, that story was really 100% me thinking about working with B.J. at Genetic Anomalies on the Chron X game (a feat which he pulled off dozens and dozens of times).

Adding to the list of tragedies is that for the past year or so he'd been writing a sci-fi game based on my OED rules for D&D, and had been regularly sending me chapters one after the other for proofreading, as well as artwork pieces, fancy maps, etc. New races, classes, aliens, robots, coding-music-magic system, equipment, spaceships, new worlds, galactic backstory, etc., etc., etc. The whole thing was just incredible and the culmination of about a decade of games he'd been running. It just seems unbelievable that he didn't get to have people see this finished.

I've always looked at BJ's design and world/adventure-building skills with a mixture of awe and jealousy. I figured if I could have even one-quarter of the productivity he did I'd be happy with myself. So, I'm pretty broken up about his passing at the moment.

Being distant it's hard to make this all concrete. As I try to reach out to people I keep thinking that there might be some mistake or miscommunication, that he'll pop up and send a "Hey, wait" email, and then I'll have to apologize to everyone immediately after. Having a project we were halfway through together is making it extra hard. I still have multiple pending messages from him and readings that I had to get back to him on, so every time I open my email right now it feels like I'm still mid-conversation with him.

So I guess I just had to share his embarrassment of creative riches with folks at least one more time. BJ had one of the biggest and most generous hearts of anyone I ever knew. We played off each other incredibly well, in a virtuous cycle, even if sometimes we might get prickly or impatient or hard-to-understand with other people in our lives. He was the epitome of someone being loving and faithful and self-sacrificing to friends and family. A lot of his improvised jokes and one-liners became part of my standard vocabulary. My longest-running PCs were in his games. He was most often voted team leader/caller in the large-player games I'd run, because everyone trusted him to be fair and equitable and supportive. He made the cover artwork to my DM screen. One time the two of us mercilessly massacred another 7-person team at a game of Pictionary. We traded off reading each other's toy-based 80's comic books. I sent him a select batch of my old Dragon magazines to fill out his collection last summer (he had to have all the Wormy comics). He gifted me with his classic ROM action figure after I said my parents had accidentally thrown mine out years ago.

I guess I could go on and on with lots of stories in that vein. Immensely hard to believe all those plot threads got snipped in the last week. If you go check out his work, I hope you'll get a fraction of the brightness that he put into my life. 

You can still see all of BJ's published products at his DriveThruRPG store, via the affiliate link below (and you'll be helping support the Wandering DMs channel while you're there):

Big Fella Games at DriveThruRPG


Wandering Monsters in Holmes Basic D&D

Today we're looking at the first-ever D&D Basic set, edited by Eric Holmes (1977). This is the first set of D&D rules I ever had my hands on as a wee lad, and it's entirely how I learned the game at the outset.

In particular, let's look at the rules for Wandering Monsters, because it presents an interesting step in the design of classic D&D encounters. This is because it's one of the few places in this Basic set where a major overhaul was made between the draft and the published set; Holmes even publicly expressed his surprise at the switch at one point. We're now fairly confident that it was Gary Gygax himself who made an editorial pass of Holmes' draft, making various insertions and edits -- mostly to align with his developing AD&D game -- and this may have been the biggest change. Recommend that you read this article at Zenopus Archives for the full story.

In Holmes' original draft, he basically reiterates the rules seen in the OD&D Little Brown Books, Vol-3 (which was his charge for the project in the first place; organization & editing of OD&D). He states that wandering monster numbers will be about one-third of PCs present, in exactly the same terms we saw in OD&D Vol-3. The tables present are the same format as in OD&D, with the monster listings basically the same as in Supplement-I, Greyhawk.

But Gygax comes in and rips out all of that and replaces it with completely different rules. The rules now read (p. 10):

First level adventurers encountering monsters typically found on the first level of a dungeon should be faced with roughly equal numbers, i.e. a party of three would encounter 2-6 orcs, 3-12 giant rats, etc. However, if the party were second level, or the first level monsters were encountered on the second level of the dungeon, the number of wandering monsters encountered should be doubled. In a like manner, the number of monsters should be tripled for third level adventures or in the third level of the dungeon if the monsters appearing are first level.

So the new rule that wandering monsters should "roughly equal numbers" of PCs seems to at least triple the danger level as seen in OD&D. Worse than that, the examples given for a party of three PCs, e.g., 2-6 orcs, seems more like outnumbering the PCs than actual equity. It seems very much more dangerous than Holmes (or myself) would pick up from reading OD&D.

While these rules still don't anywhere state an "expected standard party size", maybe the suggestion here of "a party of three" is the closest that we'll get. Gygax inserts a new custom matrix of wandering monster tables, including for the first time specific number-appearing ranges, generally in line with the examples in the text above (e.g., 2-5 orcs on the first level), which further bolsters the theory that a party of 3 PCs was that expectation (as weird as that sounds, and counter to Gygax's claim that he had upwards of 20 people at his house playing every night for his first six months of gaming).

Let's analyze the danger level of those tables using my EHD/Equivalent Hit Dice analysis (in the last column, "Prod" means the product of Average number and EHD per monster):

The average (mean and median) encounter level here is about 4 EHD; a level that seems fairly balanced (in the sense of a 50/50 chance of either side being victorious) for a party of 3 or maybe 4 PCs. In this case, since few of the 1st-level monsters have exotic special abilities, the analysis is pretty much the same as just looking at HD values (which Gygax was almost assuredly doing).

I would observe that he probably undervalued the danger from kobolds, giant rats, and the like; they have half a HD, so he basically doubles their numbers. But in my simulations they have about two-thirds the power of a one hit-die creature. (It's a common error for game designers to downplay the danger from swarms of small, cheap opponents; e.g., enemies like these have a higher action-per-HD ratio.)

Doing a similar calculation for the other levels appearing in the Holmes chart, we get:
  • 1st Level: Average 4 EHD
  • 2nd Level: Average 8 EHD
  • 3rd Level: Average 10 EHD

So it does look (as per the text) like the danger level pretty much tracks linearly with the dungeon level (roughly dungeon level × 4 EHD in each case).

But what does this all say for set monster encounters in their lairs (not wandering)? The Holmes rules don't have standard numbers appearing in their monster listings -- unlike almost any other ruleset (OD&D, AD&D, B/X, etc.). If the wandering encounters are each a 50/50 fight to the death with the PCs, are the set encounters supposed to be the same, or even more perilous than that?

Note that this model of numbers-appearing we see here is very similar to what was in Gygax's Monster & Treasure Assortment released in the same year (1977). More on that another time.


On Empty Rooms

Occasionally I analyze early dungeon design rules given by Gygax (or others) in OD&D, and note that a majority of the rooms are supposed to be empty. Examples of this rule are:
  • OD&D, Vol-3 (1974), p. 6: "As a general rule there will be far more uninhabited space on a level than there will be space occupied by monsters..."; followed by a 1d6 for each room in which, "A roll of a 1 or 2 [on d6] indicates that there is some monster there."
  • Monster & Treasure Assortment, Set One (1977): "... a dungeon level should have monsters in only 20% or so of the available rooms and chambers..."
Often I then receive the following critique: "The rooms are supposed to be unoccupied, without monsters, but that doesn't mean they're empty of furnishings, puzzles, clues, useful tools, etc.".

But I'll respond here by pointing out that Gygax's earliest dungeons had really, honestly, truly, totally-bare rooms for the most part. Examples:
  • In his map to Castle Greyhawk Level 1, seen Monday, the vast majority of spaces (like about 120 of 160, or 75%), didn't even have key codes. So they had literally no contents whatsoever (unless we posit that he was ad-libbing meaningless dungeon dressing in all of those unkeyed rooms). Which isn't very surprising consider the very cursory nature of that key; every keyed area was just a single line long. Even the keyed areas didn't have furnishings listed other than their monster and treasure. 
  • The map to AD&D Module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, follows the same design structure, so I suspect that it's among his earliest creations that actually got published. A snippet of the map to Level 1 is shown above; again, it utilizes a use-every-space style, and the vast majority of rooms aren't even keyed. (The text does say that these rooms are all demolished apartments or utility rooms, with shattered and useless furnishings, and 0-3 human skeletons. But it's hard to imagine that not being ignored in play as negligible after the first few such inspections.) 
Gygax's early strategy of using duplicated stock key codes (mostly novel to his works) is seen throughout adventures such as: his Castle Greyhawk map, AD&D module S3, D1-D3, etc. The Holmes Basic D&D sample dungeon follows the same pattern, with a key code of "E" for the many rooms that are completely empty of contents per the key (8 of 22, or 36% of the rooms by my count).

It's arguable whether this was a good idea or not, and possibly the design strategy was abandoned pretty soon after OD&D was published, but the evidence is pretty clear that Gygax's earliest dungeons were composed of majority really-empty (even unkeyed) room locations.


Subterrane Surveys: Gygax's Castle Greyhawk

We're incredibly fortunate that on August 16th, 2007, Matt "Eridanis" Bogen managed to take a few photos of Gary Gygax running his Castle Greyhawk adventure (for ENWorld moderators at Gen Con), catching glimpses of at least two maps and a key. The very fuzzy first-level key was mostly decoded with a great deal of effort from people like Allan Grohe (grodog), Zenopus Archives, and others. The evidence to my eye seems to be that was likely the true, original map of Castle Greyhawk (e.g., he wrote on the Pied Pier boards in 2004: "Fact is that I have run OD&D games every year at several cons for the last five or so years. I start them at 2nd level and use the old dungeon levels"; and Ernie Gygax has also recollected these match the earliest games). Let's assess the first-level key in detail.

Design: The dungeon design is of the fully-packed, use-every-space style, similar to what we see in the early Dungeon Geomorphs product, AD&D Module S3 (Expedition to the Barrier Peaks), etc. Many rooms are entirely empty, with no key code whatsoever. The Red Baron estimates there are about 160 rooms on the map; my own estimate is that maybe 40 have a key-code in them. That would be about 25% with any content at all -- similar to the guidelines in OD&D that about 33% have content (per 2-in-6 die roll; Vol-3, p. 7), the earliest Monster & Treasure Assortment suggestion that only 20% of rooms have monsters, etc.

Characters: Gygax's brief key doesn't state an expected party size. Recall from last week that neither do the core OD&D rulebooks. If we assume standard modern convention group size, then that could be maybe 6-8 people -- but recall also that in the earliest days a group might commonly be 12 or more people at once (e.g., see Jon Peterson, Playing at the World, p. 563, re: Gygax at Origins II). The question of what might be reasonable is, in fact, the whole point of our current investigation.

Monsters: The key for the level has 18 numbered codes; several are repeated in the map in clusters of up to a half-dozen located together (e.g., the kobolds, goblins, orc entries). All 10 of the monsters from the OD&D Monster Level Table 1 appear in this key. There are 3 from the Level 2 list (hobgoblins, berserkers, gnoll), and one each from Level 3 (giant snake) and Level 4 (giant beetle). One is novel (giant bats), and the last two keys have evil NPC spellcasters (2nd level magic-user and cleric, which could arguably belong on any of the 1st-3rd level lists).

Wandering monsters are not shown here, but if Gygax used them at all, it would make sense to simply use the book tables from OD&D Vol-3, because (as noted) they inherently represent the Castle Greyhawk ecology, and are a perfect match for the monsters present in lairs (see above).

Monster lair numbers are given in ranges of 3-7 orcs, 3-12 giant rats, etc.; very similar to what was suggested in Gygax's Monster & Treasure Assortment, and Holmes Basic D&D products. Using my "Equivalent Hit Dice" (EHD) analysis, I find that the average (mean and median) danger level of these encounters is 6 EHD, i.e., a fair fight for around 6 1st-level PCs. (There are reports that Gygax adjusted numbers to match the strength of PC parties present. Did he stay in the given ranges, I wonder?) The expected total strength for all the set encounters (ignoring duplications) is about 90 EHD.

Treasure: Almost every room with a monster has a treasure listed -- only 2 of 15 do not. This contrasts with the OD&D Vol-3 rule (p. 7) that half of monsters will have treasure; but it closely matches the Monster & Treasure Assortment rule that "about 20% of the monsters should have no treasure whatsoever". There is one room with no monster and a hidden treasure -- the largest reward on the level (room 8, with about 1/3 total value on the level). Note that with some key codes being duplicated, it's questionable whether every such room has the same treasure or not (unlikely that every kobold room has the same dusty silver mirror?), which would skew the treasure-to-monster ratio lower. The objects are clearly not from the monster-keyed Treasure Type tables, because coin values here are usually in the 10's (not 1000's as on that table; with one exception in room 4). Coin treasures are in the same basic order of magnitude as the OD&D dungeon treasure table (Vol-3, 7), without being exact matches. The gem values are usually in the 100's (as per book median gem type).

Total expected treasure (again, ignoring duplicated rooms) is about 4,400 gp. Given that, there are about 50 gp of treasure per monster EHD.

Magic: Magic is also relatively abundant. There are 6 of 14 treasures that have magic items (43% rate), for a total of 7 useful magic treasures; this includes 2 potions, 2 magic weapons, a magic shield, ring, and a staff (with 6 charges left). Contrast with the book rule that says only 5% of treasures at this level should have magic included (from which we might expect there to be none at all, given the total number of treasures here) .

Experience: Reports say that Gygax indeed used something like the Greyhawk revised XP system, as shared by B/X , AD&D, etc., instead of the original Vol-1 system (or maybe something simpler, like a flat 10 XP per monster HD?). For example, a play report from January 2008 with Gygax says, regarding area 18 above, "they got '20 xp from 1 gnoll' and '30 xp for the evil cleric'" -- which would be correct values per the Greyhawk chart for a 2 HD gnoll and a 2nd level cleric with double bonus for special abilities (suggested on Sup-I, p. 13).

So let's assume Gygax used the Greyhawk table, and each of the keyed areas only appears once. Then the total monster XP is about 2,000 and the total treasure XP available is roughly 4,400, for a grand total of about 6,400. This gives a monster: treasure XP ratio of about 1:2 (31% monsters, 69% treasure). Note that the total would only be enough to graduate 3 fighters to 2nd level.

On the other hand, if we use the original Vol-1 XP system, then the total of about 90 EHD would give monster XP of 9,000 or so, treasure the same 4,400, for a grand total of 13,400. Ratio would be inverted to about 2:1 (67% monsters to 33% treasure), and this would be enough to raise 6 fighters to 2nd level -- a good match for the 6 EHD average encounter here.

A few commenters have helpfully pointed out that there's at least a question about whether we should be adding XP from picking up and keeping magic items or not. There is a short line in OD&D suggesting as much (Vol-1, p. 18: "when they obtain various forms of treasure (money, gems, jewelry, magical items, etc.), they gain 'experience'."), but there are no rules or suggestions for what values to give them. Gygax gave a few examples in The Strategic Review Vol. 1, #2 (e.g., potions 250-500 XP, scrolls at 100/level, a sword +1 at 1000 maximum, etc.). Later in the AD&D DMG Gygax gave full XP valuations for all items in the game; they broadly match the Strategic Review values for potions & scrolls, with other items  mostly devalued (on the order of about a half).

As a rough estimate, the first level of Castle Greyhawk would give about 5,000 XP for magic items under either system. This would make a very significant difference; roughly adding 2/3 more XP under the Greyhawk system (constituting 44% of the total, and then very nearly promoting 6 fighters to 2nd level), or about 1/3 more under the original Vol-1 system (then 27% of the total, and promoting as many as 9 fighters to 2nd level). If we look at other adventures in the Basic D&D line, then this won't be a consideration, because XP-for-magic-items was entirely dropped in those rulesets (even after Gygax personally edited the Holmes Basic D&D set).


Article on OD&D at Dicebreaker

Dicebreaker is a brand-new news site dedicated to news in the tabletop gaming community. They just put up a really nice, meaty article for your weekend reading pleasure by author Steven T. Wright on, "Meet the Original Dungeons & Dragons diehards still playing by '70s rules".

In particular, both author Matt Finch and myself are quoted quite heavily throughout article. I had a really great conversation several weeks back with Mr. Wright when he was preparing this article -- he's a real fan already, knows and plays several indie/OSR games himself, and I got to learn at least a few things from him along the way. I think it's a really well-written and researched piece, and personally I'm looking forward to seeing more from Steven and Dicebreaker in the near future. Highly recommended!

And don't forget new Wandering DMs this Sunday at 1 PM ET -- we'll be chatting live with with Mr. Ian McGarty of Silver Bullette Publishing to get his thoughts on self-publishing for RPGs in 2020!


The Hobbit Autopsy by Lindsay Ellis

In the last few days, I had the pleasure of watching Lindsay Ellis' Hugo-nominated video essay on the making of Peter Jackson The Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014). Watch it here.

Here's a commentary on that. Lindsay largely frames her essay as "I deeply loved the LOTR movies, but then I was a kid; the Hobbit movies leave me cold, maybe that's because I was an adult when I saw them". (She was 17 when the first LOTR movie was released, 28 for the first Hobbit movie.)

My reply is: "No, it's not you, it's them."

Here's a few examples from personal experience for comparison, which I hope gives a helpful perspective. I was turning a teenager when the original Star Wars movies came out and I was crazy for them. (I can still remember heatedly debating plot points with friends between those movie releases.) Twenty years later, the prequels start coming out, and my girlfriend got tickets on opening night to Ep. 1; I was so excited. That wound up being one of the most embarrassing disappointments of my life. I didn't see either of the follow-ups.

Now, a common argument at the time was, "Star Wars are fantasy movies are for kids; if you're not a kid then you're not the target audience; and you can't possibly appreciate them." But this was contemporaneous with Peter Jackson's LOTR movies coming out -- and I loved those to death. I saw them multiple times in the theaters. Persuaded friends I don't usually go to movies with to join me. This being when I was an adult -- and someone who hadn't read the novels, either (so not intimately pre-invested in the franchise).

Fast forward another ten years and you start getting the Hobbit movies, as a prequel trilogy to LOTR. Based on advance reviews, I skipped the whole series. I later saw most of the third movie on TV in a hotel and I was like, yuck, what a loud, empty not-much.

But in the meantime I'm also wildly fond of many of the Marvel movies, and likewise I've seen several of those multiple times in theaters, and have very fond memories of them. In particular, I think the last Thor movie, Infinity War, and Endgame are pretty much genius works. As an adult.

In June of 1999 (in the early web days) I wrote a short essay called, "Star Wars Episode I: 20 Criticisms". Among my complaints were things such as: lack of character chemistry, cannibalizing the material of the previous films, having old characters reappear for bad reasons, repeating plot structure, the climactic fight being uncompelling, etc. Those are all rather uncannily similar to Lindsay's criticism of the Hobbit movies. (And check this out: on The Wrap, by Phil Owen and Ross Lincoln, "The 23 Worst Parts of ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’", which kind of says the same thing all over again about the 2019 film.) 

Looking up comparative critical ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, we see:
  • Original Star Wars Trilogy -- 93%, 94%, 82%.
  • Prequel Star Wars Trilogy -- 53%, 65%, 80%.
  • Original LOTR Trilogy -- 91%, 95%, 93%.
  • Prequel Hobbit Trilogy -- 64%, 74%, 59%.
  • Thor 3, Infinity War, Endgame -- 93%, 85%, 94%.

So the point is, there are pretty objectively good movies and bad movies in the world, and generally we know which is which (if we're honest about our internal experience of a thing). In my experience, I've grown surprised at how consistent my emotional perceptions of things are. I can become flush with excitement and fantasy at any age, if the work is essentially good.

Also: Prequels suck!


Subterrane Surveys: Little Brown Books

Happy New Year! I think many of us are looking forward to the magical year of double-nat-20's and seeing what that will bring. I'm hoping for some interesting OD&D-type things on the blog here, as well as more livestreaming with Wandering DMs. In fact, we've got some things lined up this year that I'm pinching myself over because it seems almost too good to believe (while keeping our normal schedule of live chat Sundays at 1 PM ET). More on that later.

One of the things I've been working on lately is assessing what early writers intuitions were about monster challenge levels. The earliest game (of course) didn't have any formalized notion of "challenge ratings" or the like. One early attempt was Don Turnbull's MonsterMark system. I have my own system for OD&D I call MonsterMetrics, which uses million-fold computer simulations to generate an estimated "Equivalent Hit Dice" (EHD) value; current valuations are available in the OED Monster Database on the website here.

Whenever I prep games nowadays, such as for classic modules, I make spreadsheet listing of all the contents and assess EHD ratings as a way to gauge reasonable PC numbers and levels going in. So I'll probably be sharing some of those in the near future.

For starters, here's a refresher of what the 1974 OD&D Little Brown Books say on the matter: almost nothing at all. There aren't any guidelines for what a single expected party size should be, or how many monsters populate a normal dungeon room, or how powerful a given monster is vs. PCs, or anything like that. The entire arrangement is expected to be managed on an ad-hoc basis by referees on the fly, basically.

Here's the closest we get to any hard advice, in the section on Wandering Monsters (Vol-3, p. 11):

One of the things this highlights is that early on, there was the apparent expectation that DMs would modify the monster numbers and threat levels on the fly to balance against the party present. Some DM's intuitively do that today, but the general idea dropped out of the published rules and modules pretty quickly. For example, in the Holmes Basic D&D Zenopus dungeon you get advice to do that in the very first room, but not anywhere else. The same thing occurs in Frank Mentzer's version of the Village of Hommlet (but not in Gygax's earlier version).

In this particular case, the wandering monsters seem to be balanced (at least on average) to about one-third the total strength level of the PCs. If you have 1-3 1st level PCs, on the 1st level of the dungeon, encountering a 1st-level monster, then apparently the advice is just to have a single such monster. For 4-6 PCs, you get two monsters, For 7-9 PCs, you get three, and so forth.

I don't mind that, and I try to do roughly this in my games today. Nowadays (after the miraculous year where Gygax & Arneson had the only D&D games in the world and their basements were stuffed with 20 players 7 nights a week), it's become conventional to think of "standard" party size as something in the 4-6 player zone, so for like-level monsters, I roll a 1d3 for numbers (then multiplied by dungeon level and divided by monster EHD, if these differ from party level).

But that's for wandering monsters. How many should you expect in a set-lair situation? The rules simply don't say. As a stab I might expect to double the number of a wandering group, so: roll 1d6 for a lair or something like that. If we look at rulebooks a few years later we'll see Gygax writing a lot of 1d4+1 or 1d6+1 numbers in those situations. That comes close to equating monster encounters with the total PC power level (like: 4 players running up against 4 monsters in the average case), for which we might expect just a 50% chance of victory in either case. (This gets modified by magic and strategy, as my EHD ratings don't take those into account at this time.)

But all the OD&D books say is this (Vol-3, p. 7):

That's totally it. In future posts hopefully we'll see some more specific things as that evolved in published books and adventures in the next few years. 

Open Questions: Do you massage monster encounter numbers to your player strength on the fly during games? In my case currently I would likely say "yes" in most one-off games (convention situations, etc.), and "no" in ongoing campaign situations (where the monsters have some background ecology and existence; so if PCs don't bring enough troops they shouldn't go in there). In the past I would probably have been more likely to say "no" uniformly, but that's me. What's your current practice?