Wilderness Simulator Stats

Wilderness Encounters: Clear (log chart)

One more reflection on the Original D&D wilderness encounter charts. Last week we were using some tabulated charts to decide between two possible rules interpretations, and one was clearly much nicer. But that was based on just looking at the average EHD (Equivalent Hit Dice) for each encounter type, which is maybe a little sketchy. Since I'm obsessive about these things, I wrote a simulator program that actually rolls up the individual encounters (varying the number appearing by psuedo-random dice), and I had it spit out a thousand random encounters for each terrain type.

Here's the statistics that get produced looking at those samples of size N = 1,000 for each terrain category. Note that this includes accounting for the sweep-attacks rule (high level fighters get one attack per level vs. 1 HD types), and also reduced numbers for the outlier groups of Gnolls, Cavemen, Treants, and Vampires that seem necessary based on our analysis last time:

Wilderness Encounter Simulator Stats

As you can see, like we've said a few times, the danger levels across the different terrain types are a lot more constant than one might have guessed without inspecting closely. But of course, the various terrain types mostly feed into the same subtables, anyway. This is in stark contrast to encounters for different dungeon levels, which obviously represent a setting of increasingly dangerous tiers -- although note that the rate of encounter checks increases quadratically in bad terrain, so that does make for a significant difference in risk level. 

The mean EHD per encounter is close to 40 for any terrain, with a standard deviation around 27 or so; and the median is around 35 or something, with an IQR (interquartile range; comparable to standard deviation) around 30. The mean-higher-than-median indicates that the distribution is right-skewed, i.e., has a long tail to the right, with a number of very high EHD encounters occasionally occurring. In cases like this, it's sometimes interesting to take the logarithm of the data values (e.g., the general mean converts to log(40) = 1.6), and see if the distribution then looks like a normal curve. I did that below:

Wilderness Encounters Simulator Log Charts

Okay: They're kind of normal? None of these actually pass a statistical test for normality (rejected at P < 0.0001). That's not too surprising, since it's not like the encounter design in OD&D has any kind of systematic consistency (nor would I argue for it to that extent). But it's at least kind of suggestive: a log-normal distribution is reflective of many natural biological and demographic processes, and these encounters are sort of in that ballpark, which is nice. There's significant variation in the encounters to make the D&D wilderness challenging and risky, but it's not a lunatic level of variation, where you can't even imagine half of the creatures surviving for a week in the presence of the other creatures.

So overall this doesn't change our conclusions from last week much at all -- or, in other words, it gives added support to those conclusions. These distributions feel kind of nice to me. For a party sized 8 (all fighters in our sim), an average level of 5th should stack up against the average EHD of 40 pretty well. Although rarely you'll have an encounter in the EHD 100+ range, and then you'd darn well better engage with the Evading rules. Or if you Arneson-ify the wandering numbers down to about 1/3 book values, and play with a 4-person party, then 4th level can be okay -- at least until you delve into the lair locations for that sweet, sweet gold treasure.

How do those simulated stats look to you?

Wilderness Encounter Sim Stats (ODS file)

Wilderness Encounter Sim on Github (Java code)


Sweeping Up the Wilderness

Horse-Drawn McCormick Mower

Last week I opened my personal journal on accepting sweep attacks (fighters getting as many attacks as levels vs. 1 HD targets) as a critical element throughout the O/AD&D rules, and my own game, and the effect they have on play. Today we revisit our analysis of wilderness encounter perils, in the context of including sweep attacks in the picture.

State of the Wilderness

Here's a recap. Back in 2019 I analyzed Wilderness Encounter Levels, and the overall distribution of danger on the OD&D outdoors tables. A first observation is that, on average, the different terrain types are actually pretty uniformly dangerous: we estimate they're roughly balanced for a 10th-level party (with a classically big size of 8 PCs, fighters only, and no sweep attacks). A second observation is that looking past the averages, the encounters have a very prickly distribution: lots of encounters at total 50 EHD or less; but also lots of encounters with EHDs in the 200s or higher. (EHD being "Equivalent Hit Dice", something a bit analogous to challenge ratings.)

In 2020, considering that problematic, I took a stab at considering Rescaling Wilderness Encounters; maybe dialing down some monster numbers to get things a bit more manageable -- possibly by Arneson's tactic in the First Fantasy Campaign (assume only about a third of any group is wandering outside the lair), or Moldvay's in the Basic D&D rules (drop humanoid numbers to around one-sixth the original). Here's a copy of the table I had there of EHD distributions for all encounters in the OD&D wilderness (note the logarithmic x-axis):

Frequency of Encounter EHDs
Now, as a statistician, you kind of hate to see that kind of bimodal shape in a graph -- the fact that there's not one but two upward spikes in totally different locations. (As noted: a whole bunch of encounters around 50 EHD total, and another big batch of upward of 500 EHD. The coin-flip of doom!) That usually suggests that you've got a problem with your polling process, in that you've likely munged together two totally different categories of things, and instead should be dis-aggregating and measuring them separately.

In this case, the distinction is easy to determine: the big batch of super-high EHD encounters is precisely all of the humanoid bands appearing in numbers of hundreds (men, goblins, orcs, dwarves, elves, etc.). All of those kinds of encounters have average EHDs of 150 to 300 or so -- whereas the median for the overall set is only about 40. Likewise, the wilderness encounter subtables that have lots of these types (Men and Giant-types, i.e., humanoids) have average EHDs of 120 to 200, while all other subtables (Lycanthropes, Undead, Dragons, etc.) only have average EHDs of 25 to 50.

Earlier in 2021, I looked at Monster Numbers Through the Ages, specifically for the canonical wilderness encounters, and considered them in relation to the status of sweep attacks in each of those editions. A discovery there is that in some ways the numbers were pretty consistent from 0E to 3E, and then disappeared from monster stat blocks after that.

Start Sweeping

So recently I added a switch to turn on sweep attacks in the Arena Simulator on GitHub, and last week I presented that it has the effect of reducing the effective power of 1-HD humanoids to about one-fourth their actual hit dice (on average; and of course this varies enormously by the exact level of classed fighter-type they're facing off against). At some point, I went to the wilderness data tables from before, and dropped in those modified numbers. Here's what the distribution of encounter EHD totals looks like now:

Frequency of Encounter EHDs (with sweeps)
So: In one fell sweep, that solves the problem. The bimodal shape is gone, and now it kind of looks like a normal curve (after logarithmic scaling).

Some more details: The overall median is still around 40 EHD; but now the bands of humanoids have average EHDs in the range of 30 to 70 or so, that is, a much better match. Likewise, the subtable statistics become less jagged; mostly in the range of 30 to 50 on average (in other words, fairly spread around that 40 median). More on that later.

The difference in those two graphs is pretty much what single-handedly convinced me that if you're going to play an O/AD&D style, all other things being equal (like numbers appearing for humanoids), then it's pretty much a necessity to honor the classic sweep-attack rule.

Stones in the Field

But there are still a few exceptions: outlier encounters that have total EHD way outside the standard range of about 30 to 70. These are four specific cases that fall neatly into two classes:

  • Creatures with summoning abilities. When these creatures are encountered, they can summon other allies to help them, multiplying their strength (vs. their book hit dice, if that's all you were looking at when balancing the encounter size). With the summons respectively doubling or tripling their power, the average total EHD for Vampires is 140, and for Treants it's 360.

  • Creatures with 1 HD but a 2HD subtype. There are two humanoids with 2 HD, but are sub-types of a 1 HD primary creature class. Therefore they share the same high number appearing as the main type in the table (some hundreds), even though they're outside the range given for the sweep-attack rule. The average encounter EHD for Gnolls is 220, and for Cavemen about 310.

Let's be a little more specific about that latter category: In the OD&D Monster Reference Table, Hobgoblins and Gnolls share a single line jointly. The have the same AC, movement, % in-lair, treasure, and number appearing (20-200). But the hit dice entry says "1+1/2", i.e., Hobgoblins have HD 1+1, and Gnolls have 2. So while I'd interpret Hobgoblins as being in the range for sweep attacks, Gnolls would be out. In that regard, giving them the same numbers appearing seems to be a big mistake. This kind of gluing-together of types is in the tradition of Chainmail, where a lot of monsters were presented as tiny alterations of other classes. (In the past I've mistakenly said Gnolls were 1+1 hit dice in early drafts of D&D, but it turns out that was a typo in the later derived document called the Dalluhn Manuscript, so let's ignore I ever said that.)

Meanwhile, Cavemen don't appear in the table, rather being subsumed by Men, who have number appearing 30-300 and generally 1 hit die/man. But among the 9 different sub-types of Men described in the main text, Cavemen are uniquely noted as having 2 Hit Dice. (Actually, in the pre-publication draft of D&D, even that was ambiguous: the Guidon D&D manuscript says they "fight as 2nd level Fighting-Men", which could be interpreted a few different ways; when the LBBs were published, the entry was expanded to also say they "get 2 Hit Dice", apparently in response to some peoples' confusion. Thanks to Jon Peterson for personally answering a question about that.) Again, with this clarification, Cavemen stand outside the range of sweep attacks, but they still share the 30-300 number appearing like any other Men. 

Recall that up above I mentioned with sweep attacks, most of the wilderness subtables had average EHDs of 30 to 50. But I should point out that there's two notable exceptions: The Men (Mountains) and Giant subtables are both elevated up to around 90 instead, and that's entirely because those are the only tables with Cavemen and Gnolls (plus Treants) in them.

(Now, one might theorize that's evidence that 2 HD creatures should be in the range of sweep attacks, too. But there's even even more monsters on the reference table with 2 HD that have small numbers appearing: e.g., Zombies, Ghouls, Dryads, Pegasi. If we allow sweeps on them, then their EHDs plummet below the normal range, and you have an even worse problem. Also: most Horses and Mules are at the 2 HD level, and allowing whirlwind-slaughterhouse attacks against them just doesn't feel cool to me.)

So I do think that the numbers appearing in the four outlier cases are oversights and should be fixed. For Cavemen and Gnolls, following the idioms on the OD&D monster table, I'd recommend making their numbers 3-30 (as for skeletons/zombies), or 3-36 if you want to use Platonic dice, which of course you do, because you're a person of excellent taste.

Meanwhile for Vampires and Treants, I'd recommend lowering both to the smallest-appearing die of 1d4. This places Treant encounters at an average of about 80 EHD (still one of the highest), and Vampires at around 100 EHD (thereby making them the #1 most dangerous wilderness encounter). I'd actually make Vampires 1d3 if it weren't for the fact that it appears nowhere in the original table. Either way, this solves the eccentric subtables and related problems.

Wilderness Encounter Levels

All told, here's our revised estimate for encounter levels in the OD&D wilderness. Again, this assumes an eight-person, all-fighter party. When we started, we estimated that the tables present, on average, a balanced encounter for 10th-level PCs (with a huge amount of dangerous variation). By merely flipping on the sweep-attacks switch, our estimate drops to one appropriate for 6th-level PCs (and quite a bit more predictability in the danger, even you're still dicing for exact numbers in each case). What a huge difference that one rule makes! 

In both cases, this danger level is pretty consistent across all terrain types. Furthermore, if you make the adjustments to the monster numbers for the outliers I mentioned above -- even though that's only four entries -- they're influential enough to further drop the estimate down to 5th-level PCs. And that's pretty darned close to what many of our intuitions say (e.g., from the D&D Expert set rules) about what level wilderness adventures should be happening at in the first place.

One of my favorite things in the world is when two apparent problems cancel each other out, in that they're actually the mutual solution to each other. And for me, what appeared to be the bizarrely wonky variable danger of the OD&D wilderness encounter tables, and the mystery of whether sweep-attacks for PC fighters were really intended within the OD&D mechanics, is just such a satisfying case.

Just One More Thing

So sweep-attacks are the solution to the specific problem of big humanoid numbers in the wilderness. And yet separately, I'm still somewhat sympathetic to Arneson's idea in the FFC of having only around one-third of the given numbers actually show up wandering around in the wilderness (with the rest holding down the fort, or lair) -- applied universally to all monster types, not just humanoids. In some ways that cools the numbers for mythic monsters down to something more in line with what I have in my head for fantasy tales (what feels better: 4 dragons, or unicorns, or 1? 6 balrogs or 2? 8 giants or 3? 12 pegasi or 4?). And it also adjusts for the smaller standard (non-convention?) party sizes we might be dealing with now. If you reduce monster numbers appearing to 1/3 listed, and party size to 4 (instead of 8), then the average wilderness encounter in OD&D in fact seems to be balanced for 4th level PCs (exactly in line with the Expert rules expectation).

Appreciate any of your thoughts on that!

Wilderness Wandering Analysis 1.0.3 (ODS spreadsheet)


The Effect of Sweep Attacks

Conan the Destroyer

For quite some time, it's been left as ambiguous in my OED House Rules whether or not fighters get "sweep" attacks -- the hyper-accelerated mode where they take as many attacks per round as they have levels, but only against low-level (1 hit die) creatures.

One of the major themes for this year, both on my blog here (and here) and in discussions on the Wandering DMs YouTube channel, is my finally becoming convinced that (a) that rule really was intended consistently throughout Gygax's Chainmail, OD&D, and AD&D, (b) it's a critical aspect to balancing against the large mobs of 1-HD humanoids who appear in groups of hundreds, and (c) it's the single biggest rules difference between the O/AD&D lines and the Basic D&D lines (where the rule is removed, and humanoid numbers greatly reduced). 

So granted that, I think I need to make an explicit call about whether that's a base assumption for OED, and in my next update, in line with the classic game, I'll be highlighting that as an included rule. (And also removing "cleave" from the list of optional feats, but then I never saw a player pick that anyway, so it's a minor issue.) 

In some ways it's actually not my favorite rule; I'm less than thrilled with the discontinuity between 1 and 2 HD, and the possibility of a large number of dice being rolled. But the advantages of recognizing it include: (a) closer compatibility with the original game, (b) recreation of inspirational pulp stories (where heroes like Conan indeed hold off huge mobs), (c) some way for fighters to hold pace with high-level wizards, (d) less modification needed vs. reducing all the humanoid numbers appearing, and (e) a mechanic that legitimately makes high-level fighters significant in mass combat, such as Book of War

(And I'm less bothered by the OD&D FAQ/Swords & Spells presentation of, "base 1 hit die or less", versus the AD&D version of strictly "less than one hit die", which made the switchover difference a single hit point, e.g., leaving goblins in but taking orcs out.)

If a DM looks at OED and wants to snip out the sweep attack rule (and commit to changing monster numbers appearing), then that's fine and respectable -- and I think easier than if I left it out and another DM needed to add it back to the system. There were some other alternatives that I considered and tested along the way (like a generalized "cleave" rule, or changing every single monster number in the game), but I wound up rejecting those, so I won't go into them here.

Here are some other observations on the effect of sweep attacks, based on recent investigations.

Arena Simulator

Recently I modified the code in the Arena Simulator on Github to add an optional switch to turn on sweep attacks (-w). What we see is that on average, the power value of the 1-HD monster types gets cut down to about one-quarter basis. This is summarized in the following table; here, EHD is "Equivalent Hit Dice"; the average number of fighter-class hit dice the monster can evenly match up against.

Sweep Metrics Compiled

Normally the EHD calculation seems fairly robust to me, because it's an average over what I call the EFHD value (Equivalent Fighter Hit Dice) at each fighter level, and that latter number tends to be roughly constant over different levels for standard monster types (at least within a factor of about 2 or so). Some exceptions stand out for monsters with big area attacks or high hit-by magic (kill lots of low-level fighters, generating a right-skewed EFHD distribution), or ones with potent save-or-die effects (more easily wipe out high-level fighters' hit dice, giving a left-skewed EFHD distribution). 

And now, monsters subject to sweep attacks present another outlier case, because the lethality of the fighter-types suddenly varies so much by level, due to their many-multiplied attacks. (Normally fighter stamina is increasing by level, while attacks stay about the same; in this case fighters become quadratic, too.)

So let's look at that a little more closely. The interesting thing is that sweep attacks actually change the EFHD curve slope from positive to negative. For example, here's a listing of the EFHD values for an orc, matched against fighter levels 1 to 12, with sweep attacks on, from the Arena simulator (-e and -w switches):

[1.0, 0.67, 0.6, 0.5, 0.42, 0.35, 0.29, 0.25, 0.2, 0.18, 0.16, 0.14]

As expected, the value of the orc decreases from EFHD 1.0 at 1st level (indicating that a 1st level fighter can hold off 1 orc), to EFHD 0.14 at 12th level (indicating that a 12th level fighter can fight off about 12 / 0.14 = 85 orcs). Now, what might be more surprising is the EFHD curve for an orc before the sweep attacks get turned on as shown here (using just the -e switch):

[0.5, 1.0, 1.0, 1.0, 1.0, 1.2, 1.17, 1.14, 1.13, 1.25, 1.22, 1.2]

What that shows is that the pro-rated strength of an orc (or other basic monster type) is normally increasing somewhat versus fighter level; e,g., from 1.0 at 2nd level to 1.25 at 10th level or so. It may be easy to overlook, but that's not really a mystery: we've long identified that as the effect of the Packing Problem, in that mobs of low-hit creatures are effectively sponging up more wasted overkill damage, whereas high-hit figures are suffering full damage from every hit but the last.

The effect of sweeping is so powerful that I had to increase the MAX_ENEMIES cap in the simulator from the previous 64 to 256. (E.g.: a single sweeping 12th-level fighter can hold his own against some 80 orcs as above, 160 kobolds, or 240 rats). This had a side effect for certain powerful monsters that are only hit by higher-powered magic items, like elementals (+2 to hit) and golems (+2 for stone, +3 for iron). Granted that no low-level fighters can possibly have such magic weapons in the simulator, those monsters effectively stomp an infinite number of normal men. And when the MAX_ENEMIES number goes up, then their computed EHD goes up. So that will be reflected in the next OED Monster Database update. Iron Golems are now assessed at EHD 125!

On the other hand, I don't intend to change the EHDs listed for the 1-HD types (mostly EHD 1), because: (a) I don't want to deal with fractions there, (b) I don't want to trick anyone into throwing 4 orcs at every 1st-level fighter, (c) as noted, the averaging process is a bit cracked in this outlier case, and (d) maybe some DMs won't be using sweep attacks in the first place.

Experience Awards

Classic versions of the O/AD&D game generally have a rule for pro-rating experience in the downward direction; that is, awarding only a fraction of the experience based on monster or dungeon level divided by character level. (E.g., from OD&D Vol-1, p. 18: "Gains in experience points will be relative; thus an 8th level Magic-User operating on the 5th dungeon level would be awarded 5/8 experience."). Personally, I hate this rule, most people I know ignore it, it creates unsolved problems with multi-character parties at different levels, etc. 

Generally speaking, I don't think that rule makes any sense when the XP leveling tables are already themselves designed on a geometrically-increasing basis. Assuming we think of XP awards as generally balanced to the danger of the encounter, as noted above, we find that EFHD values are usually about constant across levels -- or in other words, danger is really linear in standard hit dice. The takeaway is that XP as a constant multiplier by HD (say 100 points per HD), and without taking a ratio for PC levels, is not a ridiculous thing to do.

But in the particular case of sweep attacks, that's certainly not true; the relative danger levels posed by goblins and orcs in the face of Superhero Cuisinart attacks indeed drop like so many carrot peelings. So for the first time ever, I could see the twinkling of an argument for reduced XP by a ratio of levels -- if one were focused specifically on the Hero-vs-mooks case as a default D&D fight, then the ratio-reduction is in fact legitimate. 

I still don't think I'll use that rule in the general case, but I could start to imagine engaging it, specifically in the unique case of PCs versus armies of 1-HD humanoids who are getting mowed down for pulp narrative purposes.

And we're not quite done with the issue yet: next time, we'll revisit the OD&D wilderness encounter tables in the context of the sweep attack mechanic.

Do you use sweep attacks in your OD&D-flavored games? Or if not, do you drastically reduce the humanoid numbers appearing? And do you use the XP ratio-reduction rule, maybe just in this one special case?


Cursed Magic Items Through the Ages

The Monkey's PawA week back on the Wandering DMs YouTube channel we had a nifty conversation on the status of Cursed Magic Items in D&D. Largely we came out in agreement that they're a nice spice that makes magic in general feel more mysterious and dangerous. In the after-party chat on Discord, one of our Patrons asked: What exactly was the frequency of cursed magic items in the early editions? Did it really change very much over time?

Which I thought was a very good question, and I started researching it. And looked at every single magic item in D&D. In every single edition over the years. (Core rules only, thank you.) I guess it's my curse, but I hope it benefits you, Gentle Reader.

Original D&D (LBBs)

Here we're looking solely at the Little Brown Books in the white box, specifically Vol-2, which has both the monsters and treasures (including magic items). As noted in the WDMs show, pre-3E, there's no "keyword" system, so in most cases it's hazy about whether an item should count as "cursed" or not. However, the need for a remove curse spell to get rid of it is a pretty good sign, among others (more on that issue later). I'm sure there will be one or two items you'd differ with me in adding or taking out of these lists, but it won't change the overall numbers significantly.

In this case, I can only count six (6) items as cursed -- the sword –2, potion of delusion, potion of poison, cursed scrolls, ring of weakness, and ring of delusion

Notice there are no cursed armors, non-sword weapons, wands/staves, or miscellaneous magic. Some of those will soon be added -- but there are no cursed wands/staves in any edition. The overall chance of cursed items turning up here is 8%.

Original D&D (Greyhawk Supplement)

Less than a year later, Gygax published D&D Supplement I, Greyhawk. It  includes extensive "Additions and Changes" to the magic item tables; although the master types table, and the scrolls table, are unchanged and do not appear in this story (that latter being something I almost overlooked in computing statistics here). 

Several new cursed items are added, seemingly in an attempt to cover almost any form-factor of magic item in the game, including: one sword, one other weapon, an armor, a shield, one ring -- and thirty-three (33) miscellaneous magic items. I won't list them all here, but suffice to say pretty much any form of miscellaneous magic in the LBBs now has a cursed analog in the world by which to trick players. I think the majority of new magic items in the book are these cursed iterations of pre-existing magic items. Previously no miscellaneous magic was cursed; now 30% of the time miscellaneous items are cursed. 

And there's another issue that I'm not counting here, in an expansion of item types that are keyed to some class or alignment, helping the associated, but likely blasting others who pick it up. There's a special paragraph note (p. 59) that all manuals, books, librams, and tomes curse a reader who fails to benefit from it to hide and guard the book against anyone else successfully using it. (Dealing with the expansion of alignment-based effects would be an entire article unto itself.)

That said, the master table only sends you to miscellaneous types 5% of the time, so in the overall results this makes a very small difference, adding about 1.5% frequency (we've actually noted this both of the last two weeks in our WDMs chats on YouTube). But other stuff also adds to the chances: the new cursed armor & shield adds 2% to the cursed chance, and the chances for cursed rings expands to 1.5%. In total for this supplement, the chance of a cursed item now stands at nearly 13% (12.58%). This moment represents the high-water mark for cursed items in the game, and what we'll see in later editions is a slow erosion of the overall concept (including very few new cursed items added to the game after this point).

AD&D 1st Edition 

The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide is very helpful for this study, because the tables effectively flag bad/cursed items -- by virtue of leaving the XP and/or GP column blank in those cases. For instances in other editions (both before and immediately after) where I couldn't confidently tell one way or the other, I've used this as an indicator to resolve the issue by designer intent. (With one exception: the jewel of flawlessness is clearly only beneficial, despite having a null XP entry, so I've left it out of my count here. Other stuff with both pro-and-con effects, like artifacts and the deck of many things, I've synchronously counted as cursed, but they're negligible factors in the final numbers either way.) 

Here, Gygax has kept all the same cursed types as seen in Sup-I, but seems to have notably dialed down their frequency in most cases of potions, swords, armors, and rings. The cursed miscellaneous magic is about the same (1.65% of the total; about 1% or 2% on each of five sub-tables). The total frequency of cursed items therefore adds up to only 7%, a single percentage point below what it was in the OD&D LBBs. 

AD&D 2nd Edition 

AD&D 2nd Edition has an interesting change in idiom to the tables for magic weapons; there are separate tables for weapon type, vs. magic effect, the matrix of which can generate many more varieties of magic weapons than what was seen previously. In the table for magic weapon bonus, there is a flat 10% (2-in-20) chance the modifier on any magic weapon is –1, which is a significant increase from earlier rules. 

However, there are no general rules or commentary on the status of these negative-modifier weapons that I could find. Is the player stuck with using it permanently until a remove curse can be accessed? Without explicit text on that point, my reading would be no. Likewise, the list of cursed scroll effects is radically reduced in power -- 0E/1E had a list of instant-death, removed from planet effects, etc.; 2E replaces those with a -1 modifier to checks, taking 2-6 points damage, growing a beard, etc.

So while the overall frequency of cursed items in 2E has gone up to 10% (due to the magic weapons table), arguably the impact of those baneful magic items is much reduced.

D&D 3rd Edition 

The 3rd Edition DMG makes the whole issue of cursed items optional; if utilized, then any discovered magic item has a flat 5% chance of being cursed (DMG p. 231). This sends the DM to a separate set of tables to find add-on effects modifying the magic item in question -- things like delusion, opposite effect, intermittent functioning, trigger requirements, certain drawbacks, etc. Generally these are fairly gentle side-effects (compare to 2E scrolls above). There is a 10% chance to be sent to the "Specific Cursed Items" table, which has about 30 items carried forward from the AD&D list (mostly miscellaneous magic, as to be expected). 

There's also a behind-the-curtains sidebar discussing the pros & cons of having cursed items in the game -- it suggests that items with both benefits & drawbacks make for more interesting tough choices in the game. And that PCs finding that they have a cursed item should be able to get rid of the item easily (a hard about-face from Gygax's O/AD&D). 

Some of that philosophy I really like: The benefits + drawbacks dilemma is very much in line with what we agreed to on our WDMs show. I also really like the structure of separate add-on tables for curses, so any such item gives room for creativity and customization by the DM, and likely any cursed item is a unique creation (as opposed to the very large amount of ink spent in OD&D Sup-I providing individual cursed types of every form factor). But the effects here in 3E are generally so weak that I tend to think most of them wouldn't have any interesting impact.

D&D 4th Edition

Many idioms of 4E, including magic items, are so different from any other edition that they're almost incomparable. For example, magic items are such a critical and expected part of character builds, that the whole list appears in the PHB (whereas all other editions have them in the DMG). I'm also told that having them fully, fungibly convertible to cash on demand is a key mechanic. 

That said, I can't find any bad/cursed items in the 4E list. There's a power called warlock's curse, and some items boost that to the benefit of the caster/owner. There is an item called curseforged armor, but that's just flavor-text (crafted by bitter halflings), and again, beneficial to the wearer. So as far as I can tell the frequency of cursed items is zero (0%).

D&D 5th Edition

D&D 5E has a very small number of classic cursed items return to the game. By my count, these are: armor of vulnerability, bag of devouring, berserker axe, demon armor, shield of missile attraction, sword of vengeance (the classic cursed sword), and dust of sneezing & choking. That's close to the same number as in the OD&D LBBs. Most of these are tagged explicitly with the "cursed" keyword; the bag of devouring and dust of sneezing & choking are not, but I've counted them anyway (in line with the 1E understanding). There's a very curt 5 sentences on the general status of cursed items (DMG p. 138-139). Some of the effects are notably changed from older editions. Note that 5 of the 6 items are weapons & armor; there is now only one cursed miscellaneous item, that indelible and infamous bag of devouring (contrast sharply with OD&D Sup-I!).

Now, calculating the frequency of appearance here is a tougher problem, because the magic item tables are split up by level of power (into tables A through I), and those are keyed not from a master table, but from the encounter-level tables, which produce different possible packages of treasure. So parties of different levels will be running against different result tables, and hence different chances of cursed items, over the course of their adventuring careers. Tables A, C, E, and I have no cursed items. The others have either 1%, 2%, or in one case 3% frequency of cursed items (just a single cursed item each on tables B, D, F, and H, but three items on table G alone). Let's take a rough average over all the tables and say the frequency is about 1%.


Below is a summary table of the chance for a random magic item to be cursed in any edition of D&D to date. As you can see, the idea in Gygax's mind circa the Greyhawk supplement for magic items to be commonly cursed and dangerous to the players, and appearing in any form-factor that a beneficial item might, washed away with the tides, becoming less frequent, and much less punishing over time. As of the last 3 editions, many campaigns have been run with official support for no such items appearing whatsoever. As a guess, it seems quite likely that they might be totally absent (again) from the core books of whatever the next edition from WOTC might be. 

Cursed Magic Items Frequency Table

Download a work spreadsheet here with comprehensive listings of every cursed item (ODS format).


Demographics Quick Rule-of-Thumb

I was thinking again about medieval demographics the other day. This follows on an earlier summary article I wrote here

Thing is, I was trying to do some large-scale number crunching in my head, and found that I got a little tangled up about it. So in response, I came with a very rough rule-of-thumb based on units in powers of 10 that I could mentally juggle, and is roughly on the right order with what we know of medieval European societies. Here it is:

Medieval demographics rule-of-thumb

So in the grand total, that represents a 4-million population that might be an entire country on its own, or something. For example, England fluctuated from about half this population size, to the full unit, and back again (between the Dark Ages and the Black Death). On the lower end, recall that for a medieval village, it's pretty accurate to roll 1d6 × 100 for the population (giving an average of 350 each).

How much land space would this total organization take up? Well, that depends, because (much like the English example) population density varied a lot over the medieval period, and besides that we only have estimates anyway. A few possibilities:

  • 10 people/mi² -- Polity takes 400K mi² (600 × 600 miles); the lowest density estimate anyone's proposed for the Dark Ages in Europe.
  • 20 people/mi² -- Polity takes 200K mi² (450 × 450 miles); a more common estimate for Dark Ages population density.
  • 40 people/mi² -- Polity takes 100K mi² (300 × 300 miles); density of England at its low point, start and end of the middle ages. 
  • 80 people/mi² -- Polity takes 50K mi² (200 × 200 miles); density of England at its high point, middle of the medieval period, and matching its actual land area. 

Now -- that's a lot of real-world content. It's likely that you certainly don't want to detail quite that much stuff in your campaign world. As I've noted before, an obvious reasonable method is to just abstract away all the stuff below a particular map level that you're using. (For example, if you use low-England density and a 30-mile hex map, then your country might take up about 10 ×10 hexes; so you could explicitly place the capital and 10 cities, but just hand-wave, without drawing anything, the fact that most every such hex has its own town, 10 castles, and 100 villages). Alternatively, fantasy writers seem to have a tradition of much lower densities than ever occurred in reality, so you can feel free to follow suit.

So anyway, that gives me a couple of simple, memorable numbers I can remember when I'm doing mental estimates for this kind of thing. Is it helpful to others?


Mohs Scale to Marvel

Mohs scale hardness testing kit

Regular readers of this blog may know how much I adore finding some real-world measurement scale that can be easily used as the core of a game system mechanic. If available, this ticks off all my desired boxes for gaming: (1) an elegant mechanic, (2) a presumably rigorous mechanic, (3) an opportunity to learn something about the real world, and (4) provide a pre-made way to convert from real-world data to the game. 

Of course, if we look back to the origin of the wargame form, the entire intent was to use real-world data as a source for mechanics and training for the battlefield (say, at least as far back as Korns' Modern War in Miniature, if not original Kriegsspiel). So, this instinct is really a callback to our source inspiration. 

Here's the thing I just discovered: the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. This dates to 1822 when German geologist Fredrich Mohs established the system to measure relative hardness -- a mineral of higher-rank is able to visibly scratch the surface of a lower-rank material. (Per Wikipedia: "The method of comparing hardness by observing which minerals can scratch others is of great antiquity, having been mentioned by Theophrastus in his treatise On Stones, c. 300 BC, followed by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, c.  AD 77.")

It's an incredibly simple system: integer values only, from 1 to 10 -- with talc at the lowest level, and diamond at the highest. Note the picture at the top of a standard field-testing kit, with the 10 different canonical materials neatly boxed and numbered. 

Also I realized, if you're a fan of the the original Marvel Super Heroes RPG, this neatly lines up with the 10 named ranks in the Universal Table. To wit:

Mohs Scale to Marvel Table
As usual, the neat thing is that having established this, there are now extensive tables of other materials with hardnesses measured in possibly fractional Mohs units; so for these other materials we have the option of just looking them up and converting to the nearest rank value. Example from Wikipedia below (click to go to full-sized table).

Intermediate Hardness Table

A number of these substance appear in the MSH rulebooks Material Strength table (like ice, gold, glass, iron steel, and diamond), and in most cases they do in fact appear at the same or within one rank. So kudos to Jeff Grubb for a pretty accurate system on that score; and that gives us confidence that we can interpolate these things reasonably in-game.

It's science, true believers!


The Landlord/Monopoly Game

On Twitter last week, Ethan Mollick, Professor of Management at the Wharton Business School, gave us a great reminder that the game of Monopoly was, ironically, ripped off from a prior game with partly similar mechanics and a totally different intent:

Of course, I share this as a reminder of our continuing reflection that games are not just about fun. The example here of Elizabeth Magie's "Landlord's Game" shows just one of the many other design goals that might be in sight -- and in fact, when the game was adjusted to strip out those other elements, we're really left with a degenerate, lesser form.

Now, I assume here when Mollick says that the game "has bad rules by design", that's shorthand for "rules that intentionally inflict pressure or pain on the players", so as to teach some kind of lesson.

What rules are in play in your personal game design that intentionally inflict pain on the players? And what lessons are being taught with those mechanics?

See the current publication of the original Landlord's Game here.


Early Evolution of Encounter Text

A number of times in recent episodes of the Wandering DMs D&D Sunday talk show we've wound up debating how much detail is best for published adventure text. So I wanted to share some of the possibilities running around my head from classic D&D products. In particular, for what follows I'll present a snippet of an adventure authored by Gary Gygax, graduated in 2-year intervals throughout his tenure as the "boss" of D&D (1974-1985). I've also intentionally tried to focus on his higher-level adventures, which composed most of his published output, so as to compare like-to-like in as many cases as possible (i.e., I intentionally skipped Keep on the Borderlands for this reason). Here we go:

1974 – Castle Greyhawk Notes

Okay, so this one wasn't exactly published, and it also isn't high-level. But we managed to get a look at Gary's notes for running Castle Greyhawk's first level when Matt Bogen (Eridanis) caught a photo at a special Gen Con 2007 event. As you can see, it's only a single curt bullet-line per encounter area, noting monster type, number range, and treasure (and absolutely nothing else). In fact, it's more stark than that, because multiple rooms on the map are denoted with any one given key number (often a half-dozen or so); and about three-quarters of the rooms have no key whatsoever, being simply empty (in line with the design advice from OD&D Vol-3).

Most everyone involved agrees the map layout is Gygax's original design for Greyhawk from the early 70's (could be 1972-1974 or so), developed in conjunction with the D&D rules; but there is some debate on whether the encounter text is original or not (maybe changed up for convention play?). Personally, I'm pretty confident that the text seen here is either original or in the same basic format -- if Gygax was so famous for improvising things mid-game, what would be the point to rewriting these minimalist text notes? Big thanks to Alan Grohe (grodog) & Zach Howard (Zenopus) for managing to decode that fuzzy photo taken from over Gary's shoulder.

1976 – Lost Caverns of Tsojconth Tournament

This is a snippet from the document Gygax wrote for DMs running the D&D tournament at Winter Con V, which occurred at Oakland University in 1976. Rather than bullet-point atoms, here we at least get full English sentences describing each area (usually 2-3 per encounter). But the emphasis is largely the same: the very first piece of text per area gives the monsters and hit points; this is followed by a small bit of descriptive text, and ends by denoting a treasure value (possibly none). Instead of a numeric range for monster number appearing (as in his Greyhawk notes), the monster numbers are now fixed, and their hit points are listed in advance. Arguably this might be motivated by the tournament situation where the strength of encounters should be as fixed as possible across different tables. We should also note that the back of the document has a table (one page per dungeon level) with summary statistics for all the monsters present, including number, hit points, move, attacks, and specials -- and even a "hit bonus" and a target number to hit each PC in the adventure, which is equivalent to ascending-AC in the d20 system (!).

 1978 – Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

By the time of the GDQ (Giants/Drow) series, Gygax now starts providing a name for each keyed area (instead of just identifying it by monster type). The narrative descriptions are somewhat more textured, and the paragraphs tend to lead with those sense-descriptions -- with identification of any monster, and their hit points, possibly occurring deeper in the block. (As a result, it's possibly easy for the DM to overlook the monster present in room 2. above, say). Again it tends to conclude with a discussion of treasure, with somewhat more detail given to that description as well. 

1980 – Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

AD&D module S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, like most of Gygax's famous adventures, was birthed at a tournament event -- in this case at the Origins II game fair in Baltimore in 1976. Four years later, we got the elaborate published product, in full-color, and with a copious illustration booklet. Note that it exhibits similar DNA to the 1976 Tsojconth tournament text: areas are often identified only by the monster, the text is very mechanically terse, it concludes with a treasure, etc. (e.g., areas 5. and 6. above). But in some other cases we have a blossoming of more deeply detailed areas, even without any monsters or traps at all; for example area 7. above, the "Ship Commander's Quarters" -- which actually continues to sub-areas a., b., c., and d. (none of which have any monsters or unnatural contents), almost 500 words total for the one area. Also we see here an expansion of the monster statistics within the paragraph text -- not just hit points alone, but now also armor class, movement, hit dice, attacks, and damage. In some case these notational statistics take up a larger proportion of a paragraph, possibly making for a choppier read.

1982 – Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth Publication

The 1982 publication version of Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth gives us a golden opportunity to compare to the earlier tournament module (above). The maps in question closely match; from a quick survey they appear identical (despite lots of tricky, crooked, freehand-caverns). Areas 2., 3., and 4. in the 1982 publication (above) are the same caves as B., A., and D., respectively, in the earlier 1976 adventure (further up). We can see then that many of the contents were changed, moved, added, etc. Stirges in 2/B are basically the same. A flesh golem in D was changed to a clay golem in 3 (formerly A), the back-map removed. Blink dogs are removed entirely and the new mobat monster inserted. And so forth.

Aside from those content changes, the text is again more elaborate than in the tournament document. Note that the brand-new encounter with the mobats gets significantly more verbiage than some older encounters, say. We again have a name for each area, and a tendency to start the description with a monster, and end with a treasure. Monsters have expanded parenthetical stat blocks, including possibly extended description of special abilities. And hey, there's boxed text for the first time! 

Another aspect we should point out is that compared to the earlier version, S3 gets an added extensive wilderness adventure section through the mountains before the Lost Caverns can be explored. This runs 9 pages, including 3 pages devoted to a gnome vale (complete with large underground lair maze/complex) intended for use by the PCs as a secure base for rest & rehabilitation between forays. Two of the really interesting differences between this section and the dungeon text is that: (1) while the dungeon areas use boxed text, the wilderness does not, and (2) while the dungeon has parenthetical monster stats mid-paragraph, the newer wilderness areas remove them to separate stat-blocks outside the paragraphs. Personally, I find it really interesting to be able to pinpoint in this one document the moment when monster stat blocks grew too big to comfortably fit within the paragraph text, and obviously had to be moved to a separate dedicated place on each page.

1984 (c.) – Dungeonland & Temple of Elemental Evil


For my last entry, I'm hindered by the fact that there's no published adventure with Gygax as the principal author in the year of 1984. (An earlier version of this article presented a snippet from 1984's Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, which credits Gygax & Kuntz, but we know that was originally a Kuntz creation, and it differs in some key ways from other modules of the same era.)

But if we look at adventures by EGG in 1983 and 1985, the overall style is pretty similar, so we can safely interpolate how one of his adventures in 1984 should have looked like. Above I've taken one encounter area from 1983's Dungeonland, and one from 1985's Temple of Elemental Evil, and compared them side-by-side. The Dungeonland adventure (a pastiche on Alice in Wonderland) is credited to Gary Gyax, and has no other credits listed that I can find, so it seems fair to assign responsibility wholly to him (and the same for the follow-up, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror). Temple of Elemental Evil, of course, is credited to Gary Gyagx and Frank Mentzer (with editing platoon of Carmlen, Heard, Johnson, Russell, and Winter); and we know the adventure was primarily loose notes from Gygax's campaign, turned over to Mentzer, who made significant changes when drafting the published text. 

Anyway, the format of these 1983-1985 adventures is very similar. Encounter areas tend to be several paragraphs each. Both adventures make use of boxed text, as introduced in the 1982 Tsojcanth dungeon areas. (Interestingly, Temple has a strong tendency to start with some non-boxed info to the DM, and then give a boxed description fairly deep in the encounter text; as shown above, this isn't universal.) Similarly, monster stat blocks are now uniformly removed from the paragraph text, and given as separate lines after the paragraph they're mentioned in, as was done in the Tsojcanth wilderness areas. Dungeonland has a 2-column format, while the Temple uses 3-columns per page. While both keep the tradition of noting treasure near the end of the text, Dungeonland had a formal annotation of a boldfaced "Treasure" label, whereas the later Temple abandoned that technique. (This is a trend I've seen a few times over the years: the more formal one tries to make the structure, the more brittle it is, and the less likely to stand the test of time.)

Also worthy of consideration: 1985's Isle of the Ape, which had Gary's name alone on the cover (and he'd mentioned it as a level in his Greyhawk campaign back in the 1979 DMG), with a credit inside for "Development: Bruce A. Heard". The interesting wrinkle here is that monster stats are entirely eliminated from the encounter text pages, and instead removed to a summary table on an extended flap of the module cover. 

And another common point among all the adventures of this time frame: The author/designer/publisher feels free (or maybe compelled?) to include some areas with very long descriptive text indeed. Each of the modules considered here have a number of areas with descriptions spanning multiple whole pages of text. Dungeonland sees this with The Long Hall (p. 4-5), Lawn and House (p. 14 and 19-21), Park (p. 21-23), and The Palace (p. 25-27). Isle of the Ape has an introductory boxed-speech by Tenser that is runs 2 full pages of text to be read verbatim (some 1,600 words!); with multi-page encounters such as Kawibusas' Ambush (p. 10-13), Plateau Area (p. 31-33), The Spheres of Thought (p. 38-39), and The Glowing Pearl Chamber (p. 43-45). The Gygax/Mentzer Temple of Elemental Evil is similar, with an introductory boxed text section that runs more than a full page (about 1,300 words), and area descriptions that commonly run many paragraphs or a whole page; e.g.: room 404 is ironically a 20'×30' room with 1,200 words of content text, room 417 has the same dimensions and 1,400 words, and so forth.

Open Questions

If you could set a dial for preferred extent of descriptive text in an adventure you'd pick up and run now, at what year would you set it: 1974, 1976, 1980, 1982, or 1984?

Where do you like your monster stats -- mid-text, after the paragraph, or removed to a separate table or section at the end of the module?

And did you like the boxed text innovation, or not?


Random Wizard's Online Arena

Verona arena lit at night

You may be aware that a while back I developed a set of tools called Arena/Athena to investigate things in OD&D like implied combat efficiency, level demographics, balancing monster threat levels, generating bands of bandits & pirates by playing out their full career arcs, etc. You can see a lot of results from the tool in prior blog posts here. 

Problem is, those tools run on the command-line locally and assume you have a Java installation and some programmer knowledge, with no fancy GUI controls. Because I'm hardcore like that, obv.

Thankfully, our friend Random Wizard made a proof-of-concept conversion from my Arena Java code to an online Javascript version that runs in a web browser, so it's a bit easier to test it out. Give it a minute when you click the link, because the simulator immediately starts running on page-load and it's a bit CPU-intensive while it thinks. After that you can enter other command-line arguments for different behavior, as per the original program. These include the following:

-a apply aging effects
-b base type of armor (=0-3, default 3)
-e report every encounter
-f fights per year (default =12)
-m magic per level chance (default =15)
-n number of men fighting (default =100)
-p play-by-play reporting
-r reporting types
      s summary statistics    y year-end info
      d detailed data         k monster kills
      t  total monster kills   x xp award ratios
-s start level for fighters (default =0)
-t treasure awards by monster (default by dungeon)
-u create matrix of win percentages
-v man-vs-monster (default man-vs-man)
-w use fighter sweep attacks (by level vs. 1 HD)
-x use revised XP award table (from Sup-I)
-y number of years to simulate (default =50)
-z fighter party size (default =1)

Thanks to Random Wizard for making this possible! Any interesting results you've discovered with it?

Random Wizard's Online Arena


d6 Usage in OD&D

Red six-sided die

The d20, of course, is closely associated with the D&D game. But it's easy to forget that the early classic editions used the d20 in fairly narrow circumstances: just attacks and saves, in fact. Everything else about running an adventure was done with d6's -- it wasn't until the 3E version of the game that all of these other functions were replaced with the "core mechanic" of d20's for everything. 

There's something about that I really like, in fact. (And I've written about it several times.) The granularity of the game is usually at the d6 level, except when death is on the line (an attack or saving throw), at which point the detail "zooms in" to the d20 level. That's a bit like a movie slowing down when a character is in mortal peril, simulating the cognitive effect from increased adrenaline. When everything else is d6's, they probably don't show up to clutter the character sheets. There's a small enough list of modifiers that the DM can just remember them all. And when things go off-book -- like they should -- it's easier to correctly estimate the real-world chance of success out of 6 pips than out of 20 points. 

Here's an encyclopedic run-down of the use of the d6 for adventuring function in Original D&D. The majority of these cases appear in little brown book Vol-3, the DM's guide analog:

  • Damage from falling into pit: Occurs on 1-2 on d6 (suggested example). (p. 5)
  • Random dungeon stocking: Monsters appear 1-2 on d6. (p. 7)
  • Random dungeon stocking: Treasures appear 1-3 on d6 with monsters, or 1 on d6 without. (p. 7)
  • Searching for secret passages: Success 1-2 on d6 generally, or 1-4 on d6 for elves. Or elves can possibly find one 1-2 on d6 just by walking by. (p. 9)
  • Opening doors: Success 1-2 on d6, or 1 on d6 for smaller characters. (p. 9)
  • Spiking doors open: Success 5-6 on d6. (p. 9)
  • Traps activating on trigger: Occur 1-2 on d6. (p. 9)
  • Listening for sounds: Success 1 on d6 for humans, or 1-2 for elves, dwarves, and hobbits. (p. 9)
  • Surprise: Occurs 1-2 on d6 unless some signal prevents it. (p. 9)
  • Wandering monsters in dungeon: Occur on a 6 on d6, rolled each turn. (p. 10)
  • Monsters continuing pursuit: Occurs 1-2 on d6 when party passes a corner, door or stairs; or 1 on d6 when party passes through a secret door. (p. 12)
  • Castle occupants turning out: Occurs 1-3 on d6 within the castle hex, 1-2 at 1 hex distance, 1 at 2 hex distance. (p. 15)
  • Becoming lost in wilderness: Occurs on either 1, 1-2, or 1-3 on d6, depending on terrain type. (p. 18)
  • Wandering monsters in wilderness: Occur on 4-5, 5-6, or 6 on d6, depending on terrain type. (p. 18)
  • Castle inhabitants pursuing party: Occurs 1-3 on d6 if hostile, or 1 on d6 if neutral towards party. (p. 19)
  • Damage from fall off ship rigging: Occurs at one low pip on d6 for every ten feet fallen (more detail below). (p. 31)
  • Ship crew in melee obeying other commands: Occurs 1-4 on d6. (p. 32)

So let's take stock of what we have there for a "core d6 mechanic" sensibility. We've found 17 cases in OD&D Vol-3. We note that in 14 of the cases success is indicated by a low roll (82%), whereas in only 3 cases is success indicated by a high roll (18%).

Clearly, the fundamental instinct of the writer with these d6 mechanics is for the low roll to indicate success. That doesn't mean low is "good" exactly -- consider a trap being sprung or a party being surprised, for example. But generally some new-thing-of-note pops up with a low d6 roll -- a change to the status quo.

Of course, since most of these mechanics have a base success of 1-2 on d6, the inverse is in the majority, and we might say that's thereby the status quo by definition. 

The falling-off-ships-rigging case is interesting (Vol-3, p. 31), because it highlights that either side of the random occurrence could have certainly been phrased as the event of interest. In this case, the rules text is phrased in terms of taking damage from a low roll ("one chance out of six for every level fallen that damage will be sustained"), whereas the associated example is phrased in terms of saving with a high roll ("i.e. a fall from 40 feet will require a 5 or 6 to save"). 

And in the list above I'm not even counting cases from other books, like the end of OD&D Vol-2 (the monsters & treasure book), in which a roll of "1" on d6 bumps an individual gem in a batch up to the next-higher price level. Whereas, if you were in a different headspace, you'd likely think that a high value would indicate, well, a high value.

So where do the 3 outliers come from? To be clear, those are: (1) spiked doors failing, (2) wandering monsters in the dungeon, and (3) wandering monsters in the wilderness. Let's ignore the first of those for now. But the two wandering monster cases have a clear source -- that's exactly the mechanic in the earlier Outdoor Survival board game for the chance of a daily encounter (where the rule is itself optional). This is in contrast to all the other mechanics in Outdoor Survival, which are notably roll-low-on-d6 to break status quo -- e.g.: getting lost, finding food, or finding water (as allowed in some scenarios; finding food or water occurs 1-2 on d6 when permitted). Note that the lost/food/water mechanics are printed on the Scenario cards there, whereas the optional Encounters rule is in the separate rules pamphlet -- so they weren't synchronized with any core mechanic. And that's exactly why these rules appear in the same form in OD&D, since they were just wholesale lifted from that source & tweaked a bit. Examples below:

Outdoor Survival, Scenario 3: Search rules

Outdoor Survival, Rules of Play: Optional Encounters rule

So if I were going to get my rules-design steam press, and iron out the wrinkles in this particular system -- for both Original D&D and Outdoor Survival, because the system is at least conjoined if not identical at their root -- what I'd do is swap around the wandering-monster rolls and make them appear on low results on a d6, e.g., a "1" on d6 for encounters in the dungeon. Same for spikes failing, too. Taking the opposite tack and saying you're going to flip all the d6 rolls around so a high result is success entails a lot more editorial fixup-work (e.g., as Menzter tried to do with opening doors in BECMI; and as I've also stumbled towards doing in the past myself).

In conclusion, there's also a number of things that are attractive about what I might call an "accuracy" roll-low core mechanic. Principally, it's that announcing a target number is simultaneously communicating the probability of success. (As opposed to a high-roll mechanic, where the conversion between the two requires subtraction and then an off-by-one adjustment.) I assume that's why the writer of OD&D fell into this habit; you don't even need to mentally distinguish which way you're thinking about it as you furiously pound out the rules text on your typewriter. Additionally, to my mind, the die-roll then has the feel of communicating the amount of "error" in your task attempt, which is a statistically robust concept; as opposed to (I guess) "goodness", implied by a roll-high mechanic. 

So there are days when I wistfully daydream of a D&D tradition in which all the mechanics were always roll-low by default, instead of the legacy we have. Imagine celebrating being "Number one!" on an attack roll with as much gusto as we now do a "Natural twenty!". (Although I suppose it might not be immediately as clear that an exotic die type was in play.) It would also synch up with the old roll-under-ability mechanic, which at one point seemed natural and obvious (rather than convert to a modifier, and now have many people ask, "why do we record ability scores anyway?").

Do you agree with the suggested roll-low tweak to wandering monsters in OD&D? Did I miss any notable d6 mechanics in the DM's rules for OD&D?


Series Review: D&D Master Rules Modules


Some time ago (awkwardly pulls at collar), I wrote reviews for the entire M-series of adventure modules produced by TSR for the Dungeons & Dragons Master Rules. This was the BECMI boxed set for ultimate-level, empire-building, planes-hopping PCs in the 26-36 level range -- written by Frank Mentzer and released in 1985. 

Sounds pretty awesome, right? But the execution was a mixed bag at best -- admittedly it's such a high and wide-ranging concept, it's a very tough design goal to try and satisfy. And in the case of the adventure series, production seemed rushed, quality-control was low, and the results were all over the map (literally). So I think it's an interesting case study in approaching the challenge of adventure design by a bunch of heavyweight D&D writers.

For ease-of-search purposes, here's a collected list of links to those adventure reviews. If you have time to read just one, the standout is the final entry, module M5 by Jennell Jaquays (whom I got to interview about it here). Enjoy!


OED Traps Digest

Yesterday on Wandering DMs we pretty much had a blast trying (not quite succeeding) at designing an entire dungeon adventure live in a single hour. This was not just wildly productive, it was so much fun!

Among the things you'd see if you watched that is that when push comes to shove, Paul & I use a mishmash of whatever resources are at hand to get the job done. Some OD&D, B/X, and AD&D books get involved. We use Matt Finch's Tome of Adventure Design to get some initial ideas flowing. Plus a couple of custom resources via OED Games, of course. 

One such resource is the OED Monster Determination charts, which gets used as drop-in for OD&D monster tables. That's something that compiles monsters from later D&D products (i.e., original D&D Supplement I: Greyhawk by Gygax and Supplement II: Blackmoor by Arneson), and also gives me a lot more confidence in the relative danger levels, because they've been assessed by a few billion computer-simulated melees (see more detail in that linked page). 

Note that we only got our dungeon about half-stocked in the hour, with our special DM-designed tentpole areas, and one or two random monsters to boot. (Arguably the delay was me being my usual chatty self.) As we talked about finishing the rest in a future episode, likely with some tricks and traps, the question was posed how we flesh out those pieces. 

Here's the answer: I have another custom batch of tables called the OED Traps Digest that I've used behind-the-scenes for about 8 years now. One of the things that frustrated me a bit with classic D&D is that there's plenty of mentions in the books, tables even, for what kind of traps could be included -- but with just a few exceptions, no mechanical stats for those traps!

So the Traps Digest gives me a set of tables -- again, in a format that drops into the same OD&D system for determining monster levels -- from which I can either tastefully select or randomly roll, depending on the situation. And there are short "stat blocks" that I can copy-paste into adventure and not distract myself from writing the high-level content I'm rolling out for a dungeon area. Is it perfect? Probably not, but it's definitely saved me time and focus. 

Since viewers kindly asked about it, here it is. What do you think -- and what edits would you suggest? Tune in and see what comes from this the next time we do a Dungeon Design Dash episode. :-)

OED Traps Digest


Meet the Tomb of Horrors at Cracked

Quick post today: Our good friend Stephen Buckley had an article on the Tomb of Horrors published at Cracked.com last week, and we think it's really nifty. Humorous, but also some serious and thoughtful points there, we think. You may even recognize some of the people he cites. 

Tell us all what you thought of that? Hopefully more like that in the future.


Monster Numbers Through the Ages


As focused as I usually am on O/AD&D (1E), I got to wondering how the listed monster numbers appearing evolved over later editions of D&D. Here, have a chart (above). To make this relatively feasible, I'm limiting this to the "normal"-type monsters, i.e., those with generally 1 hit die and appearing in some kind of large-scale society. Along the way here we'll wind up exploring the shift in sensibility around "random encounter tables", the "default ecology" built into monster descriptions and the core rules, and the connection to fighter "sweep/cleave" attacks.

Original D&D

In the table above, I've picked out the 11 "normal" monster types in OD&D, and kept the original order (which is: chaotic types 1st, lawful types 2nd, increasing strength in each group). These are all the monsters that have numbers appearing into the hundreds; and they're also all the types against which fighters get "sweep" attacks, since they're all in the 1-hit-die range. (Exception: you're probably familiar with gnolls having 2 hit dice, but in the pre-publication draft of D&D, they had 1+1, hence the high numbers we presume.) The "Bandits" stands in for the "Men" catch-all of Bandits, Brigands, Buccaneers, Nomads, etc.

It bears keeping in mind that the footnote to the table (Vol-2, p. 4), says the number appearing stat is "used primarily only for out-door encounters", and this detail is maintained in most of the editions we're talking about here. There is of course some amount of debate (given the sketchiness of OD&D; that's literally all it says on the issue) about the intent or utility of these huge numbers. Many people interpret it as only in-lair numbers; Arneson in First Fantasy Campaign kvetches a bit, and stipulates that only 10-60% of these numbers should be encountered wandering outside the lair.

AD&D 1st Edition

The numbers from OD&D above are almost all transcribed identically into 1E. Specially: 7 of 11 (64%) are exactly the same. Some minor modifications are made to bandits, nixies, pixies, and elves -- in each case in the downwards direction. Pixies in particular took a more severe cut than the others. 

The Monster Manual likewise says on the figure (p. 5): "It is not generally recommended for use in establishing the population of dungeon levels." The "sweep" attack rule is explicitly given to all fighters in these rules (albeit limited to under-1-HD types; PHB p. 25).

AD&D 2nd Edition

In 2E, designer Zeb Cook et. al. start to shake things up -- in a way that's inconsistent. In some cases they've dialed down the numbers appearing in the stat block significantly, and in other cases they haven't. Most of the monstrous types were reduced in numbers (exception: orcs), while most of the demi-human types were not (exception: gnomes). That said, even for the types that were downsized in the stat block, the text entry under "Habitat/Society" in every case specifies a lair group that's back to the 1E numbers. As a result: if you merge the 2E "Stat" and "Text" columns in the chart above (take the maximum in each case), then you perfectly recreate the 1E numbers.

For this survey, I'm looking at both the 1989 Monstrous Compendium (looseleaf binder) and the 1993 Monstrous Manual (hardcover book) products. The stats and descriptions all seem to be identical. Both of them still say the number appearing stat "indicates an average encounter size for a wilderness encounter... This should not be used for dungeon encounters". 

So it appears that Zeb & co. mostly just reduced the numbers of the hostile monsters you're expected to fight in random encounters in the wilderness (exceptions as above), while keeping the lair numbers the same as in 1E. Also, the given ratios of leaders, chieftans, wives, etc. seem to be identical as in the 1E text. Parallel to this: note that in 2E the fighter "sweep" attack mode becomes an optional variant for the first time (and kind of hard to find in the DMG). 

And this overall strategy is the same that Zeb used in his earlier D&D Expert set rules, as part of the B/X series. Monsters there have a fairly small standard number range, a parenthetical larger number for lair-or-wilderness encounters, and a frontispiece text note to multiply that number by five for lair-and-wilderness events. E.g: Basic game orcs have numbers 2-8 (randomly around the 1st level), or 10-60 for lairs-or-wilderness, or a product of 50-300 for lairs-and-wilderness. Cook in the Expert rules fielded the Men entry, such as Brigands, Buccaneers, Dervishes, etc., and in the their text blocks gave additional guidance for camp numbers, echoing the maximum 300 number from OD&D (even though this doesn't exactly line up with the multiply-by-five formula)

Note the (*) in the entry for orcs in the table above. Uniquely, the "Habitat/Society" text has this bit of extra love for the orcs:

Orc communities range from small forts with 100-400 orcs to mining communities with 500-2,000 orcs to huge cities (partially underground and partially above ground) with 2,000 to 20,000 orcs.

Also: Did Jim Holloway illustrate every single monster in the entire Monstrous Compendium!? Holy smoke, that's a lot of art! I shudder to even think about it.

D&D 3rd Edition

Now, in 3E, the monster stat blocks tend not to have just one number appearing value, but several, for an array of different grouping structures. For example, here's the one for goblins:

Organization: Gang (4-9), band (10-100 plus 100% noncombatants plus 1 3rd-level sergeant per 20 adults and 1 leader of 4th-6th level), warband (10-24 with worg mounts), or tribe (40-400 plus 1 3rd-level sergeant per 20 adults, 1 or 2 lieutenants of 4th or 5th level, 1 leader of 6th-8th level, 10-24 worgs, and 2-4 dire wolves)
Sort of makes sense, and gives the DM some ecology-sensible different options for the situation that presents itself. In the chart at the top I've just taken the highest grouping for each monster. Note again that in a number of cases (4 of 11) this winds up being a restatement of the numbers from back in 1E, and in the others, the numbers are modifications on about the same scale. There's no strict consistency to the modifications: orcs go down, gnolls stay the same, hobgoblins go up, etc.

A major thing that changes with 3E is this: Whereas all the prior editions had a "baseline world ecology" baked into the core rules in the form of comprehensive wilderness encounter tables (which went on for many pages in various AD&D books), 3E ends that practice. Instead (DMG Ch. 4), the DM must build their own, with a guideline that each terrain type should have a constant Encounter Level (EL) range -- and the numbers for each monster filled in appropriately to meet that EL. There's no explicit tie-in to the Organization grouping from the Monster Manual either: the important thing is that the EL be right, regardless of other ecology issues. 

Jointly with the preceding fact, there's no need to state that the numbers appearing are wilderness-only -- they may or may not be, as the area-based Encounter Level requires. (In contrast, there are comprehensive default dungeon encounter tables given in the DMG.) In addition: These rules have no general feature of fighter "sweep" attacks (Fighters must choose to spend a Feat slot on either the Cleave or Whirlwind Attack ability for that).

D&D 4th Edition

The remaining editions are left out of my chart at the top for a simple reason: they just don't have any "number appearing" stats in the monster descriptions at all. And they also don't have any premade encounter tables of any sort -- either for the dungeon or wilderness. 

What 4E does have (DMG Ch. 10) is a brief section describing how DMs might randomize encounters on the fly, by first rolling a difficulty level relative to the PCs, then an encounter template specifying the "roles" of the monsters in question, and then picking from appropriate-level monsters on an ad-hoc basis from the Monster Manual. So at this point we have no broad sense of "ecology" for different monsters, except insofar as they interact in a balanced fashion when fighting against PCs (as represented by the 5 "[combat] role" classifications in the game). We don't even have the 3E recommendation that different regions have different native danger levels -- rather, wherever the PCs go, that's how strong the monsters are.

D&D 5th Edition 

Like 4th edition, the 5E game has no built-in stock numbers for monster listings, and no premade encounter tables. In fact, there's even less guidance on the issue than in 4E. There's only 3 brief pages on the issue (DMG Ch. 2), with no distinction between dungeon/wilderness, no guidelines to gauge danger levels as in 3E/4E, and even a broad discouragement against the very idea:

Not every DM likes to use random encounters. You might find that they distract from your game or are otherwise causing more trouble than you want. If random encounters don't work for you, don't use them. 

And with that, the whole presentation of a sample world "ecology", monster organization by type, and random encounters in general, seems to be pretty much dead and buried.


In O/AD&D, the very idea of a monster included an inherent (if sketchy) idea of the "ecology" in terms of some kind of grouping behavior for the type, at least in the wilderness. Admittedly these numbers were connected/balanced to the presence of the fighter "sweep" attack mechanic. With 2E, as the "sweep" rule became non-core, the default wandering numbers were generally reduced for hostile normal monsters (and the same in B/X), even while lair numbers were kept identical. Later editions continued to squeeze the whole idea out of the system, until the only important thing was how balanced any given fight was against the PCs, or maybe that random wandering monsters should be disposed of entirely.

How do your prefer your wandering monster number stipulations? Should each monster type have a default "ecology" in terms of its grouping in the wilderness in the core rules? Or should it be left to individual DMs and campaigns? Should the monsters appearing be based more on the monster itself, the region of the campaign, or balanced to the PCs in the game at all times?