Monday, June 7, 2021

Surveys & Samples: Charm Person

I've struggled with the D&D charm person spell for some time (c.f.: Charm Person Through the Ages). Partly that's due to what appears to be one of the most radical de-powerings of any spell in the first 3 editions or so. In OD&D it started out with the stated effect of:

... come completely under the influence of the Magic-User until such time as the "charm" is dispelled (Dispell Magic)... (Vol-1, p. 23)

But this "complete" control and infinite duration was rapidly nerfed with recurrent saving throws (Supplent I: Greyhawk), language that the victim merely considered the caster a "trusted friend and ally" (AD&D PHB), bonuses to saves in combat and other restrictions (AD&D DMG), etc. By the time of the 3.5 edition revision, it merely lasts 1 hour/level, and requires an additional Charisma check to convince the victim to do anything they wouldn't normally do anyway. 

Now, some claim that this is broadly the way it always was intended (but boy, that seems like a huge shift in the language to me). E.g., Mike Mornard, who played in both original campaigns by Gygax & Arneson, recalls:

"Charmed" means "Charmed, I'm sure." The person is now your new best friend. They are NOT your mindless slave. That's how Dave and Gary both played it. (ODD74; account required)

On the other hand: In the section on hiring NPCs, it is written: "... or they can be Charmed and thus ordered to serve" (Vol-1, p. 12); and charm person was also ability ascribed to monsters such as Vampires, Dryads, etc., who could dominate and, indeed, "enslave" a victim (see: Vol-2, Nixie) for a year or more each. In the AD&D DMG Gygax tried to carve a distinction between those abilities and the spell of the same name, saying they were very different; which seems more like a retcon than consistent intent. 

Related to this wide variation in power of the spell over the years, one of the things that really bugs me about charm person is how often it turns into a debate at the table over what its effect should be -- and how often players are surprised or disappointed at an effect they didn't expect. For a 1st-level spell, I dare say this is unique. Other low-level spells generally have a very clearly qualified effect that the caster will be aware of in advance. But here we have charm person at 1st level -- frequently the very first offensive spell that a new magic-user will take -- and it usually turns into a dispute or a "gotcha" upon casting it. 

For the brand-new D&D player, it seems likely that their first impression of magic is that it's all based purely on fiat rulings by the DM and how much you can sway them through argument. 

Facebook Poll

Wondering what the majority opinion was, I thought to ask a poll on the sizable Facebook AD&D group. Questions were first reviewed & edited by Patrons on the Wandering DMs Discord channel (thanks!). Here's the result:

There were a total of 158 different voters (note participants were directed to pick "all that apply", so generally multiple selections). Of the options presented, the vote totals were as follows:

  • Defend the caster -- 126 (80%)
  • Flee the encounter -- 80 (51%)
  • Surrender and disarm -- 68 (43%)
  • Attack former allies -- 35 (22%)
  • Nothing: charm fails in combat -- 12 (8%)

So only two of the given options received majority approval: Defending the caster seems clearly to be allowed, and fleeing the encounter gets the nod from a hairs-breadth over half of the respondents. Other options like surrender or go on the offensive for the caster got the thumbs-down.

I must say I actually am quite heartened by the interpretation that an enemy charmed in combat doesn't immediately start fighting on the magic-user's side -- even though that's how I always ruled it by default historically. That seemed to me to be following the letter of the rule, but it felt incredibly swingy. Losing any party member to a spell is one thing, but then the other side gaining the same figure, of course, makes for an immediate 2-person swing which can be quite brutal (esp., again, to a 1st-level spell; and moreso with modern small party sizes). 

(Contrast, though, to an example like the magic-user in J. Eric Holmes' Basic D&D sample dungeon: he has a fighter he holds under a charm person spell, and the first thing he does in an encounter is "(a) direct the fighter to attack", albeit probably not former allies. Or likewise the one in Frank Mentzer's Basic D&D dungeon; when the player misses a save vs. charm person, they immediately abandon the cleric with whom they were adventuring -- and who earlier referred to the effect as, "He has probably cast a spell on the goblin to force it to serve him".)

Other Suggestions

As is common, a large number of other intriguing suggestions were added in the discussion, as well as some objections to the premise of the poll in the first place. The most common redirection is that the effect of charm person is indeed entirely context-dependent, and will only be known after the result of role-playing interactions between the player and DM. (Which if you recall is part of my grief earlier). Some examples:

John D.
None of the above! The magic-user can't force the fighter to do anything. They can only make suggestions and the fighter will respond as if they viewed the caster as favorably as possible. All of these would depend on the context.

Keith W.
Can't force anything....but with some good roleplaying, I'd allow some of those. Nothing that causes harm to him or his allies, but I could see him trying to talk them out of killing the caster as they now view you as a friend.

Drew B.
This is where the magic user has to come up with some strong role playing for the spell to work.

Troy O.
Great opportunity to let player role play dialogue and the more convincing the “story” the better chance it will work to charm but not force. For example go kill dragon now vs spun story of why fighter needs to go kill dragon might work. Of course DM final say...

Adam V.
I think it depends on the charisma of the mage

And so forth. A few other interesting takes:

Chris T.
The big problem is how does the charmed fighter square the circle that his best friend and allies want harm / kill each other?

Daniel N.
Since the spell says you could convince someone to hold off a dragon (and surely die) I’d say it’s pretty powerful, level one or not.

Alan S.
How good is group communication and how noisy is the fight?...

Mark B.
Just bc he regards the caster as a dear friend doesn't mean he stopped regarding his former allies as they were. He wouldn't likely attack them for any reason

Jay G.
Mark B. you’re assuming the charmee likes and trusted his former allies. Why is that necessarily true, especially for evil opponents? And even if they do...when the charmee trusts the caster totally, if he tells him “your comrades are really evil doppelgangers! We need to kill them!”, why wouldn’t he believe him?


As noted earlier, I'm quite uncomfortable with the "depends on roleplay" interpretation, because ultimately it depends far more on DM attitude or mood that any comparable, frequently-used, low-level spell. My instinct is that lower-levels spells should be clearly defined and known quantities to the player. Higher-level spells I'm a lot more comfortable transitioning to murky effects that may surprise the player or have an effect unique to a particular DM's game world. Charm person at 1st level with a hugely slippery and unpredictable effect stands out as "proud nail" unlike anything around it.

I actually feel very prone to write explicitly into my effect for charm person, following the poll results, that it can definitely make a victim play defense/shield-man for the caster, or withdraw from the encounter -- but not throw down their arms, or attack former allies. The items on the far ends I'm most comfortable with; the ones near the 50% I'm just somewhat more sketchy about, but not unhappy to follow a consensus on those.

What do you think about those results?

Monday, May 31, 2021

Maim is the Name of the Game

Last week we looked at the status of "cleaving" type attacks through the ages of D&D editions -- and were somewhat surprised to find it listed in the core rule books (maybe as an optional rule) of every edition to date! Okay, except the 80's Basic line, but everything else.

A side-point we've made there, and in the Wandering DMs chat on the subject, is that since the core books from Original, 1st, and 2nd editions never gave any identifying label to the ability (fighters getting multifold attacks vs. very-low-level enemies), a crazy kaleidoscope of different names sprang up in supplements, video games, 3rd-party works, the OSR, etc. My recent work made me pursue what the most recognizable name would be among those many options. 

Here's the poll I ultimately asked to the big Facebook 1st Edition AD&D group:

Poll for sweep attacks name

A total of 146 votes were cast here. As you can see, by far the most popular option there was simply Multiple Attacks with 94 votes cast (64% of the total). However, I am incredibly not fond of that as an option, because it explicitly gets used in the rulebooks multiple times for other types of abilities in both OD&D and AD&D. For example, monks are described as getting multiple attacks in their first appearance in OD&D (Supplement II, Blackmoor, p. 1):

... monks of higher levels may make multiple attacks during a melee round (see STATISTICS REGARDING CLASSES)
And more definitively, here for creatures hostile and benign in the 1st Edition AD&D Monster Manual (p. 5):

Multiple attacks usually indicate the use of several members such as multiple hea[ds] or two paws raking with claws and a bite from the monster's jaws.

Clearly, none of these are what we're talking about in regards to the fighters-versus-mooks mode of combat, so using the term for that would only cause confusion, I think. 

That aside, the next most-favored choice by a large margin is Sweep Attacks, garnering 30 votes (21% of the total), noted in last week's blog as recognizable to anyone who played the very popular AD&D Gold Box video games circa 1990. This is what I plan to call the ability myself in my classic-D&D materials in the future.

Other options, like Cleave Attacks, Heroic Fray, Fighting the Unskilled, and Combat Dominance only garnered between 1 and 5 votes each. (Note that there's a possibility of bias in the poll, since Facebook only shows the top 4 options at any time, and participants need to see and click on a "Show More" button to access the rest.) 

As part of our research, I think we compiled a pretty interesting list of names used in a variety of video games and OSR materials, for this or closely related abilities:

  • Heroic Fray (2nd Ed. AD&D Combat & Tactics supplement)
  • Heroic Fighting (Hyperborea)
  • Fighting the Unskilled (OSRIC)
  • Combat Machine (Swords & Wizardry; previously "multiple attacks")
  • Combat Dominance (Castles & Crusades)
  • The Cuisinart (Wizardry video game)

Furthermore, the Facebook AD&D group poll has the option for "something else" which generated yet a larger and growing list of options -- some serious, some in jest, and some in a range of good taste. A selection the examples include (generally just a single mention each):

  • The Cuisinart (gaining 4 mentions)
  • La Machine (French analog to the Cuisinart)
  • Meat Grinder
  • Lawnmower Mode
  • Mowing the Grass (despite "Mowing" being unvoted in poll)
  • Weed Whacking
  • Snicker-Snack
  • The Aragorn
  • Minion Attacks
  • Rabble Attacks
  • Fight the Horde
  • Shredding Mode
  • Pest Control
  • Zero Level Attack
  • Cutting the Chaff
  • Spartan Attack
  • Full Auto Attack
  • The Mouli
  • Cinematic Attacks
  • Hackmastery

Notably, eminent D&D author Frank Mentzer (creator of the entire BECMI line, which is the only edition to expunge the rule) offered "Slice & Dice" as his term of art for the ability which he explicitly disliked so much (see prior post for details).

Frank Mentzer: slice & dice

Are there any other prominent names that I still haven't discovered? What's your favorite?

Monday, May 24, 2021

Cleaving Through the Ages

Medieval fighter in combat with piles of bodies

One of the things that I love the most about our Wandering DMs project is that we've had the happy accident of assembling a crack D&D research team from among our patrons and followers. Maybe the best? When we gather together for any Sunday afternoon show, we can usually get questions about the history of the D&D game, for any edition, answered live in a couple seconds flat with a citation down to the page and paragraph. It's pretty amazing.

In this vein, when we were prepping for our show a few weeks back on Sweep Attacks, my initial impression was that they'd basically died out after 1E AD&D. To be clear: I'm talking about the ability of classed fighters to get a large number of attacks against very weak opponents -- traditionally 1 hit die or less. (Since 1E didn't have a label for it, many different names have proliferated: Sweep, Cleave, Heroic Fray, Combat Dominance, Fighting the Unskilled, etc.... see the video for more.) In conversations in that show and afterward, it's turned out -- to my great surprise -- that some form of the rule has been in the core books of every single numbered edition.

Amazing. And I'd have never known that without the generous help of our viewers. Because of that community spirit, I think I can say this is first "Through the Ages" post that covers every edition from 0E to 5E. Thanks, everyone!

Chainmail Fantasy

HEROES (and Anti-heroes): Included in this class are certain well-known knights, leaders of army contingents, and similar men. They have the fighting ability of four figures... 

SUPER HEROES: Few and far between, these fellows are one-man armies! (Particularly when armed with magical weaponry.) They act as Hero-types in all cases, except they are about twice as powerful...

In the transition from normal Chainmail mass-combat, to the individual scale Fantasy combat, the basic implementation of high-powered fighters is simple: they just roll more attack dice. Noting that the Chainmail system is entirely d6-based, in a fight of equal-class normal units, each figure rolls a d6 and any "6" kills a figure. In this same situation, a Hero rolls 4 dice, and a Superhero rolls 8 dice. Elegant, yes? Of course, when D&D evolved from this system, 4th-level fighters were called Heroes and 8th-level fighters titled Superheroes. 

Now, there's a totally separate system added on for when Heroes fight fantastic monsters, in which only a single dice-roll was thrown against some target number on 2d6. Thus began the legacy of a distinctly different attack mode against basic-level types vs. higher-level opponents. 

It bears noting that in the introduction to the Fantasy rules, Gygax writes that:

Man-sized figures include: ghouls, heroes (including anti-heroes and super-heroes of the "Conan" type)... (p. 25)

And then near the end of these rules, under "Combination Figures", he observes:

There are certain natural, although rare, combinations. A good example of this is Moorcock's anti-heroish "Eric of Melnibone," who combines the attributes of the Hero-type with wizardry, and wields a magic sword in the balance! (p. 35)

Which gives some helpful literary references for exactly what Gygax had in mind for these mechanics.

Original D&D

Finding the rule in OD&D is unexpectedly tricky, to the extent that it eluded me for several years. There's this in the Monsters & Treasures book:

Attack/Defense capabilities versus normal men are simply a matter of allowing one roll as a man-type for every hit die, with any bonuses being given to only one of the attacks, i.e. a Troll would attack six times, once with a +3 added to the die roll. (Combat is detailed in Vol. III.) (Vol-2, p. 5)
That's basically the same as the mechanic in Chainmail Fantasy -- but arguably only given for monsters. (Some but not all monsters in Chainmail worked that way: ogres, trolls, giants, etc.) Plus I've definitely never seen anyone run classic D&D that way for monsters. But, here we find it more explicitly in the D&D FAQ from the Strategic Review #2 (by Gygax in Summer 1975, one year after D&D's debut), in a combat example where a Hero fights ten Orcs:

Assume the following dice score by the Hero. Note that he is allowed one attack for each of his combat levels as the ratio of one Orc vs. the Hero is 1:4, so this is treated as normal (non-fantastic) melee, as is any combat where the score of one side is a base 1 hit die or less. Hero: 19; 01; 16; 09. Two out of four blows struck... (TSR #2, p. 3)

And in addition, it's somewhat cryptically given as an essential basis for the system in Gygax's Swords & Spells 1:10 scale mass combat rules for D&D another year after that -- given on page 1, in the second paragraph of the Introduction:

At the scale of these rules a single man can be represented by a single figure on the table. So if one opponent has a lone hero (4th level fighting man) facing several figures of men-at-arms (or orcs or similar 1 hit die creatures), an actual melee can take place. The hero will inflict .40 of the damage shown for a 4th level creature on the combat tables and sustain damage until sufficient hits are scored upon the figure to kill the hero. Similarly, if a 12th level fighter is involved he will score 1.2 times the damage shown and so on. (S&S, p. 1)

Again, it's not entirely clear here, but I have marked in the margin of my copy there so I don't forget any more -- Why would a 4th level fighter get 0.40 damage multiplier in this situation? If the tables are designed for 1:10 scale play (they are; you can check the math), and it's a "lone hero", then shouldn't they only get 0.10 of the listed damage? Ah, but the solution is: they're getting a multiplier to attacks equal to their level (4), exactly as in the FAQ example. And likewise the 12th-level fighter is getting 0.10 × 12 = 1.2 damage multiplier for the same reason. Puzzle solved. 

Note that in both the FAQ and the Swords & Spells text, the attack mode is applicable to "1 hit die creatures", with an explicit example of it being used against Orcs. This sometimes unsettles players of later editions, where the benefit threshold was reduced to a lower value (see below). 

Another thing we might observe, from the 12th-level example above, is the assumption of something like theater-of-the-mind combat happening here. If we required immediate adjacency of man-to-man scale figures for attacks (something required in later editions; see further below), then there's no way that a 12th-level fighter could be adjacent to 12 enemies all at once, and thus get a multiplier of 12 attacks every round. It's more likely there's an implied walk-and-chop-and-walk-and-chop going on here.

In conclusion (although I resisted it for quite some time), given that the rule is clearly in Chainmail, in the OD&D FAQ and supplementary materials, as well as in the later 1E AD&D, I'm now convinced that Gygax's intent was to have this rule consistently present throughout all those versions of the game.


Note: This [the standard fighter attacks-per-melee-round table] excludes melee combat with monsters (q.v.) of less than one hit die (d8) and non-exceptional (0 level) humans and semi-humans, i.e. all creatures with less than one eight-sided hit die. All of these creatures entitle a fighter to attack once for each of his or her experience levels (See COMBAT). (PHB p. 25)

In 1E, the rule is explicitly given as a core mechanic (although still easy to miss, buried as a footnote to a table at the bottom of the page after Rangers). It's applicable to any member of the Fighter class, including all of its sub-classes (so: Fighters, Paladins, Rangers; and later, Barbarians from Unearthed Arcana). And as alluded to earlier, a critical lowering of the threshold has occurred: no longer "1 hit die creatures", but here, strictly "less than one hit die". So the ability is usable against, say, Goblins, but not the Orcs used as the canonical example in OD&D material. 

Occasionally there's some interpretation made here that, in terms of battling man-types, this represents fighters gaining an advantage over completely untrained combatants (hapless peasants), as opposed to trained soldiers. But, by the rules in the 1E DMG, mercenary soldiers also fall into this category -- including, for example, archers, pikes, and heavy horsemen:

Note that regular soldiers are 0 level men-at-arms with 4-7 hit points each. (DMG p. 30).

It should also be pointed out that near the end of this era (and overlapping with the next), TSR licensed the Advanced D&D brand to SSI to make their well-regarded Gold Box video games, and throughout those games this ability of the Fighter classes was referenced onscreen by the shorthand label, "Sweep Attacks". Players of those popular games are thus likely to remember the ability by that name.

2E AD&D 

As an option, a warrior fighting creatures with less than one Hit Die (1-1 or lower) can make a number of attacks equal to his level (i.e., a 7th-level fighter can make seven attacks). These attacks are handled in order of initiative. (DMG, p. 57)

Here's the same mechanic in 2E AD&D, now given as an optional rule, appearing only in the DMG. Again, it's distressingly easy to miss it, because it's tucked in at the end of a section titled, "Multiple Attacks and Initiative", and still not given any memorable label. Otherwise, it's identical to the mechanic seen in 1E (a fairly common situation for this ruleset). 

It also bears noting that in the 2E Combat & Tactics supplement, among the extra optional rules given, there's one called "Heroic Fray" which gives a modified mechanic: when outnumbered by 1-hit-die types, fighters get double attacks, plus one more if holding a shield. I mention this because (a) it's given an official label here for the first time, which some players used thereafter, and (b) possibly because of that nifty label it sticks in people's mind, and some folks think that's the only place it appeared in 2E. (The OSR Hyperborea game calls the attack mode "Heroic Fighting", probably as an homage.)

3E D&D

CLEAVE  [General] You can follow through with powerful blows. Prerequisites: Str 13+, Power Attack. Benefit: If you deal a creature enough damage to make it drop (typically by dropping it to below 0 hit points, killing it, etc.), you get an immediate, extra melee attack against another creature in the immediate vicinity... (PHB p. 80)

You can wield a melee weapon with such power that you can strike multiple times when you fell your foes. Prerequisites: Str 13+, Power Attack, Cleave, base attack bonus +4 or higher. Benefit: As Cleave, except that you have no limit to the number of times you can use it per round. (PHB p. 82)

3E D&D introduced the concept of "Feats": special powers that may be chosen as characters advance in level. Fighters get additional, bonus Feats (more than any other class), and the two listed above are on their Bonus Feat applicable list. That said, not every Fighter gets they power; they must make a deliberate choice to pick up the ability. At the earliest, a Fighter might have Cleave at 1st level, and Great Cleave by (you guessed it) 4th level.

Most of us interpret this as a reworking of the rule from earlier editions; if a Fighter (with the Feat) battles very weak creatures, then they're likely to get a chain of attacks that puts many of them down. And many of us prefer the continuity of this mechanic -- unlike in 1E, where there's a huge quantum collapse between fighting "up-to-7-hp" creatures vs. "up-to-8-hp" creatures, the benefit here will more smoothly be usable against 2 HD or 3 HD creatures, just less frequently.

In addition, there's another high-level Feat in these rules called Whirlwind Attack which gives one melee attack against each adjacent opponent in a round, which I think would be equally eligible for the "heir to sweep attacks" title. But in hindsight it's the Cleave terminology which got the most mind-share (e.g., note the title of this blog, and see more below). 

4E D&D

Cleave | Fighter Attack 1
You hit one enemy, then cleave into another.
At-Will | Martial, Weapon
Standard Action | Melee weapon
Target: One creature | Attack: Strength vs. AC
Hit: 1[W] + Strength modifier damage, and an enemy adjacent to you takes damage equal to your Strength modifier. Increase damage to 2[W] + Strength modifier at 21st level. (PHB p. 77)

Sweeping Blow | Fighter Attack 3
You put all your strength into a single mighty swing that strikes many enemies at once.
Encounter | Martial, Weapon
Standard Action | Close burst 1
Target: Each enemy in burst you can see | Attack: Strength vs. AC
Weapon: If you’re wielding an axe, a flail, a heavy blade, or a pick, you gain a bonus to the attack roll equal to one-half your Strength modifier.
Hit: 1[W] + Strength modifier damage. (PHB p. 79)

Surprised to see me covering 4E (I think for the very first time)? Yeah, me too. Again, thanks to the wonderful WDMs helpers to lead me here. 

In the 4E rules, if you don't know, every character class gets a menagerie of powers to pick from, about as deep as the wizard's spell list. In the Fighter's case they're called "Exploits". Note that the very first Fighter Exploit listed in the book is that "Cleave" ability. If chosen, this can be used every round at will; it provides the ability to make a normal hit against one target, and then get some more damage, equal to the Strength bonus, against a second adjacent enemy. At first blush, that may not seem like much, but recall: 4E has a rule for "Minions" where low-level types are all assumed to have 1 hit point by default. So in this use-case that Cleave ability is basically always a 2nd free kill. (Thanks, Ash!)

And the next thing that strikes my eye is the 3rd-level power "Sweeping Blow". Of course, the name of this exploit hearkens back to those AD&D Gold Box games. Note the attack type is given as "Close burst 1", which means that the attack effect is applied to every target immediately adjacent to the Fighter in question. To me, that seems like the closest analog to the original ability. (And the ability in the AD&D Gold Box games also required adjacency, as characters were portrayed miniature-style on a grid.)

There are other powers at higher levels which expand on this ability: "Come and Get It" (7th level), "Shift the Battlefield" (9th), "Thicket of Blades" (same), "Vorpal Tornado" (17th), "Devastation's Wake" (19th), "Warrior's Urging" (23rd), "Cruel Reaper" (27th), etc. -- these work in a similar "burst" fashion, and add on effects like allowing the Fighter to move between attacks, to pull more enemies into their burst, to add conditions like more damage or paralysis, and so forth. But I feel like "Sweeping Blow" is the basis for this system (the first available "burst" attack).

(Now, it's possible that I may be misinterpreting those listings! Please leave a comment with a correction if you have any.)

5E D&D

Cleaving through Creatures

If your player characters regularly fight hordes of lower-level monsters, consider using this optional rule to help speed up such fights.

When a melee attack reduces an undamaged creature to 0 hit points, any excess damage from that attack might carry over to another creature nearby. The attacker targets another creature within reach and, if the original attack roll can hit it, applies any remaining damage to it. If that creature was undamaged and is likewise reduced to 0 hit points, repeat this process, carrying over the remaining damage until there are no valid targets, or until the damage carried over fails to reduce an undamaged creature to 0 hit points. (DMG p. 272)

In 5E, the status of this rule somewhat reverts back to that of 2E; it's only an optional rule, but if utilized, then every Fighter in the game has it by default -- well actually, every character has it by default here, even non-Fighter-types; but my point is that PCs don't pick it from a list of options as in 3E or 4E. 

Other than that, the mechanic is quite different from early editions. 5E tends to be amenable to giving PCs two attacks per round, maybe three at most; but tries really hard to otherwise limit the number of attacks or rolls made in a turn. In that light, the possible multiple-hits are all adjudicated off a single d20 attack roll, and spreads out a damage roll only to creatures that are all insta-kills. There's an echo of the 4E version of the Cleave Exploit here (as well as other higher-level powers). 

Note that the option seems to be reserved only for "player characters". That's not generally a clause you'd find in a rule from classic editions, and Gygax (at least in his writings, e.g., around saving throws or critical hits) would frequently emphasize giving monsters a fair-shake, i.e., grant any general benefit that PCs get to monsters as well. In any case, this flips one possible reading of OD&D Vol-2, where monsters get the benefit and PCs don't.

Basic D&D Line

Let's not forgot that through the 1980's and into the 1990's there was a parallel ruleset, the "Basic D&D" line, being published alongside the flagship Advanced D&D line. This includes the Holmes Basic, Moldvay/Cook B/X sets, and Mentzer's BECMI line. All of those were boxed sets that could be sold in mainline department and toy stores, whereas the AD&D rulebook line was all hardcover gaming books, generally for specialty stores (broadly speaking). The Basic line, I think, is concurrent with the biggest "spike" of incoming players in the D&D boom-fad circa 1980-1981. There are a few Dragon articles by Gygax around the time where you get a whiff of surprise/grief that the Basic line is far outselling his  magnum opus AD&D line. 

Anyway, my point is that lots of classic D&D players started with the Basic set and are most familiar with those rules (assuming they didn't mix-and-match to the point where they can't tell the difference). Where is the cleave/sweep rule in that line?

Well, in this one case there isn't any, no matter where you look (and I've looked in all those dozen or so revised rulebooks trying to find it). Why is that? I'm not totally sure. You could say as a principle that while other editions were usually fairly generous about giving Fighters some way to get multiple attacks per round, the Basic line simply wasn't (outside of magic like haste). Maybe that's because the initial Basic set only covered levels 1-3, and such a benefit wouldn't really show up at those levels. Or maybe because Holmes was mostly just copying text directly from OD&D and its supplements -- not looking very much at Chainmail or AD&D, even for things that might be implied in Gary's mind by reference (also e.g.: dragon fear & detection abilities) -- and the one and only place the cleave/sweep rule is not given explicitly to PCs is in the OD&D LBBs. 

I asked Frank Mentzer about the status of the "sweep attack" type mechanic in his games on Facebook, and he kindly replied:

Menzter uses swep attacks in AD&D, but not in BECMI.

So Frank is (1) quite intentional about the rule status, (2) faithfully applies it in an AD&D game, (3) doesn't like it, and (4) tends to be sensitive about monsters getting equitable rule benefits compared to players (likewise as noted for Gygax above).

As an aside, you really have to hunt in Basic/BECMI to find any way for PCs to get multiple attacks without magic. There's a loosely suggested rule in Cook Expert (p. X8), pending release of a future Companion rule set, that Fighters might get a 2nd attack starting at 20th level (and more at 25th and 30th; maximum 4 attacks per round). But that rule is not part of the Companion rules when Mentzer finally publishes it.

What Mentzer's Companion Rules set (for PC levels 15-25) does have is the following. Fighters who have sworn fealty to another ruler (either to serve as a wandering Paladin/Knight/Avenger, or as a ruler in a feudal network) get this combat option:

Multiple Attacks: The character gains this ability at 12th level. Demi-humans gain this ability at certain XP levels, as given in the class descriptions. If the character can hit an opponent with a Hit roll of 2 (calculated including all adjustments), he may make 2 attacks each combat round. At level 24 and higher, he may make 3 attacks; at level 36, he may make 4 attacks each round. This applies to ideal circumstances, and the character may use movement or some other action instead of an extra swing. (Player's Companion, p. 18)

I suppose if you squint really hard, this ability -- only usable if the PC basically auto-hits the target -- kind of has whispers of a more-attacks-against-very-weak-enemies concept? But of course it's based on armor, not hit dice or hit points, and the number of attacks given is still really very small. (Compare: In Swords & Spells a 12th-level fighter can get a multiplier of 12 to attacks; here it's just 2.) It does echo Cook's earlier proposal in that it has a top-level limit of 4 attacks per round. 

Up in the Master's Rules (for levels 26-36), there's an option where the DM might just let a character get one extra attack by wielding a second weapon in the off-hand, at a -4 penalty and loss of one mastery/specialization level there. And there's also an added piece of specialty equipment: a shield with one of various attached weapons (horn/knife/sword), which permits one extra attack per round with it. (Frank is really stingy with the extra attacks.)


I've been focusing on this lately because (1) honestly I overlooked this rule in my OD&D games for a long time, and (b) I now think it's the single most essential mechanical difference between the Basic and Advanced D&D lines from the 80's. 

In Original and Advanced D&D, the standard monster numbers appearing (by default for wilderness encounters per the texts there) zoomed up into the hundreds for humanoids like men, kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, dwarves, gnomes, and elves -- all types that were originally 1 base hit die. Anything else only had numbers up to 20 or 30 at most. There's fairly good statistical evidence that was done as a balancing factor in light of high-level fighters putting down many such targets per round. In fact, we're told that Arneson specifically used the listed numbers appearing as the trigger for fighter cleave/sweep attacks -- if the numbers were in the hundreds, then fighters got their turbo-attacks. 

On the other hand, in the BX/BECMI line, where the cleave/sweep rule is absent, then the designers (starting with Moldvay/Cook) were compelled to radically reduce the humanoid numbers appearing. This averaged by a cut of roughly 1/10th from the O/AD&D wilderness numbers (a division factor of from 3 to 13 depending on type). The most numerous monsters are goblins and orcs, who may appear in an outdoor band of up to 60. (Note that Holmes dodged this by not listing any standard numbers in his stock monster list; and the Expert rules have some text notes that camps of men, et. al., may be in larger OD&D-scale numbers.)

Anyway, players who switch between the Basic and Advanced games (and it was very common to mishmash the rulebooks together in play) are likely to be the most surprised by the sudden appearance or disappearance of the critical cleave/sweep rule. In our video discussion (at top), this was true for me & Paul, with me coming from more Advanced play, and Paul having more Basic line experience.

But it's a core part of how combat and encounters were structured in the root of the game back in O/AD&D, and that legacy is so strong and deep, that indeed it has appeared in some form in every edition since, up to the current day (Basic offshoot excepted). 

For my games going forward, I do need to make a decision for my brand of OD&D games: Incorporate the sweep/cleave rule for fighters, or some variant, or do some radical surgery on balancing encounter numbers (like the cuts done in B/X)? Which form do you like best? 

(And phew, thanks for reading all that. There's been a lot of editions at this point!)

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Book of War Test Units for May

We're continuing with our Book of War Playtests on the Wandering DMs channel Saturday nights. And we're getting some great feedback from our viewers and patrons. Here's the current list of units in play after a few recent refinements. Recent changes include the following:

  • We're not showing the big flying units at this time (eagle riders, griffon riders, wyvern riders). We've found in recent playtests that the aerial movement is hard to adjudicate over other units and terrain, the very high costs are stretching the system to the limit, and there's a question about whether it makes sense at all for the presumed flyers fighting in formation. They may return later as a special option or maybe solo figure types.
  • The Goblin Wolf Riders had their movement bumped up from 12" to 18". There's an interesting range of variations for wolves in classic D&D, actually: e.g., Chainmail says they're as Medium Horse (18"), unless mounted by Goblins, at which point they're as Heavy (12"). Note that other mounted types don't show a difference in their D&D natural movement and when mounted as cavalry. I've been convinced by patron seeker that it's a bit more interesting to have them at the higher base D&D move rate of 18" (as seen in B/X, AD&D MM, etc.), so we'll be testing them at that rate. 
  • I granted an extra morale bonus to the Men Elite Foot, largely because they stuck out awkwardly on the list with no special abilities at all, and it echoes the classic Chainmail/D&D trope of knights having extraordinary morale. 
  • And I got the formerly hidden column listing presumed figure Width in view (by abbreviating some of the column headers), for what that's worth. Note there's some advantage to a small unit figure, because you can pack in more melee attacks against an enemy in the same space, and reduce incoming melee attacks the same way (by a little bit). E.g.: It goes towards justifying why light-foot Goblins and Orcs are at the same price, even though Goblins are slower but otherwise have the same statistics. This entry is in units of a quarter-inch.

Note also if you're a Wandering DMs Patron, we're currently running a Patron's Pick option where we'll randomly pick armies from those proposed on our Discord server for the next live show. Choose wisely!

And: Any other ideas for things that should be further refined?

Book of War Units v.210521

Monday, May 17, 2021

Exploding Dice Statistics

In January, after our Wandering DMs show on critical hits, someone in the patron's after-party chat (Joshua, but you knew that) suggested replacing Nat-20-triggered criticals in D&D with exploding damage dice all the time. It's not something I ever considered for D&D, but the statistical niceties of that immediately got stuck in my head. Let's look at that a little more closely. (Someone's probably already done that in the past, but as they say: "This is my blog; there are many like it, but this one is mine," or something.) 

A Formula for Exploding Dice

I wanted a simple, closed formula for the expected (average) value from rolling any variety of exploding die. Here you get some math so I can show my work. 

The essential trick/insight/tactic is this: Say we want the expected value E of an exploding d6. There's a 1/6 chance of getting any of the values 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and then at the end, a like chance to get a value of (6 + E); that is, 6 plus the average result of the same process all over again (recursively, if you will). More generally, for an n-sided die, you have a 1/n chance for each value 1, 2, 3, ... , n − 1, (n + E). Some basic algebra solves for that E:

$$E = \frac 1 n (1) + \frac 1 n (2) + ... + \frac 1 n (n+ E)$$

$$E = \frac{1 + 2 + ... + n} n + \frac 1 n E$$

$$\frac{n - 1} n E = \frac {1 + 2 + ... + n} n$$

$$E = \frac {1 + 2 + ... +n} {n - 1}$$

Note in the 3rd step we subtracted \( \frac 1 n E \) from both sides, generating on the left-hand side a value of \( E - \frac 1 n E = \frac n n E - \frac 1 n E = \frac {n - 1} n E \).

What other ways of writing this are there? That top sum 1 + 2 + ... + n has a name, specifically the (nth) triangle number, which could be denoted simply \(T_n\). It's like the factorial function, but with adding instead of multiplying; and it's sequence A000217 in the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. So we could just write:

$$E = \frac {T_n} {n-1}$$

If you don't like that (and how dare you), we could use what I refer to as the Gaussian formula to replace it with more primitive operations; \(T_n = \frac {n(n+1)} 2\). Substituting that into our formula for E, we get this version of our exploding-die expected value formula:

$$E = \frac {n(n+1)} {2(n - 1)}$$

Note that the expected value for multiple dice is this number times the number of dice; e.g., for 3d6, just compute E for n = 6 and then triple it (expectation always being a linear operator).

A Table of Exploding Dice Values

Here you have a table of expected values for our standard mostly-Platonic dice, in both the normal-roll and exploding-roll forms. Consider the ratio column at the end, which shows the effective multiplier that exploding is giving you on average. The benefit is best for smaller dice; e.g., for a d4 you're multiplying your expectation by 1⅓, and then it goes down for larger dice. And yet this benefit doesn't flip the ordering of any dice; the benefit on d4 (which I kind of like, say, making daggers a bit more fearful) doesn't even reach the expectation for a standard (non-exploding) d6.

That said, watch out that things get weird in the edge-cases if you go off the top or bottom of this table. If you have 2- or 3-sided dice mechanics, those exploding expectations are actually the same: E(d2exp) = E(d3exp) = 3. And theoretically an exploding 1-sided would generate infinite damage! (E.g., consider the "ordinary rat" by Gygax in the AD&D MMII with that damage specifier; the standard 1st-level adventure just got a lot more dangerous.) On the other end, larger die values have a benefit ratio decreasing towards 1; in the limit for an infinite-sided die, there would be no benefit at all (uh... not that you'd need any).

Note that the ratio of exploding-to-normal damage expectation has a nice, short formula for it. (Thanks to Drew on Twitter for noticing this from the decimal values above.) This is:

$${n(n + 1) \over 2(n - 1)} \div {n+1 \over 2} = {n(n+1) \over 2(n-1)} \times {2 \over n+1}$$

$$ = {n \over n-1} = {n - 1 + 1 \over n-1} = 1 + {1 \over n-1}$$

Graphs of Exploding Dice Values

Here's the other thing that I think is really nifty about the exploding-die mechanic; the distribution becomes right-skewed (instead of uniform, or bell-shaped for multiple dice). Here's the probability distribution for an exploding 1d6 (from Troll Dice, turned on its side for more familiar presentation):

Probability Chart for Exploding 1d6 (Right-Skewed)

And possibly more illustrative, here's the chart for exploding 2d6 (like the damage for giants in Original D&D): 

Probability Chart for Exploding 2d6 (Right-Skewed)

Note how that slopes off gently on the extended right-hand side. My understanding is that right-skewed distributions like this are far more common (really, the only thing) for natural or biological processes -- you have a hard lower limit (often 0 or 1), but in theory no hard upper limit (on the right), and therefore the population/sample-space spreads out in exactly this way.

In fact: The famed evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote an entire book dedicated to exactly this observation: it's called Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin.

Are those compelling results? (And did you already know that?)  Would you consider using always-exploding weapon damage dice in your D&D games, instead of a Nat-20 trigger?

Monday, May 10, 2021

Ability Modifiers in Immortal Rules

Superhero-like bare-chested deity by Elmore

Occasionally I gripe about the slightly unfortunate pattern of standard ability score modifiers chosen by Tom Moldvay in the B/X rules. I mean: On the one hand it's kind of fun (you can get a +3 bonus but only at the perfect score of 18). It sort of has the feeling of reflecting a bell-shaped distribution; but in so doing it actually over-amplifies the effect. (Example gripes part way through our recent Wandering DMs show on 50 Years of Chainmail). Moreover, at some point for a variety of reasons you're going to want to expand the possible ability scores to higher numbers, and then the pattern doesn't scale well. As a case study I refer to the ability modifier table from Frank Mentzer's Immortal Rules, the final boxed set in his BECMI D&D line (1986), which expands the possible ability scores from 0 to 100:

As a someone slightly spectrum-gazing, that makes me really unhappy. Note you have that 18 score with a span of just 1 pip for the +3 bonus. Then the ranges re-expand to spans of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (in the category of 54-62), and then start contracting again, to spans of 8, 7, 6, 5, 5, 4, 2, 1, and 1 again (the last two for the 99 and 100 scores, of course). Here it is in chart form:

A bimodal distribution

Urgh, that bimodal distribution makes me feel like I've swallowed something very bitter.

I do think a better solution is to pick a standard class-width which allows you to predictably extrapolate to whatever point you might desire. This could be the 2-pips per bonus bump as seen in D&D from 3rd Edition (and echoing the way skill bonuses worked all the way back to 1E OA), or it could be the 3-pip ranges that I use in OED (which in my analysis is the best reflection of OD&D bonuses -- also has the statistical nicety that it reflects the z-score of a given ability versus the 3d6 population distribution, but don't worry about that too much).

(Side note: The Immortal Rules boxed set was the only D&D product I ever got which resulted in me returning it to the store. Partly for novelties like this, and that it's largely a totally different game; PCs simply discard whatever traits they had previously, etc.)

Can you think of any better way of expanding the Moldvay B/X ability modifier table than what Mentzer came up with here?

Monday, May 3, 2021

Richard Garfield: Getting Lucky

Game Developer magazine was a publication for professionals in the video game industry that ran from 1994 to 2013. It was a pretty big deal at one time, with postmortem development-process analyses by developers of some of the largest games, annual surveys on salaries and tools, cutting-edge technical tips, and so forth.

My favorite article was published in the November 2006 issue, written by Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering. (Have I mentioned that the 2nd company I worked for, where I first met my good friend Paul, came in 2nd in a bid to make MtG Online? Maybe another time.) 

This article, titled "Getting Lucky", became one of the most influential insights that affected my game development ever since. I found the argument to be completely compelling, and an invaluable call-out to a significant risk in the ways that games evolve over time. Garfield has said similar things in other interviews, videos, lectures, etc. since, but -- people of the written word as we are in these parts -- I find that this presentation he personally crafted in writing to be the clearest and starkest communication of the idea.

Many times over the years I've wanted to share a link so others could read Garfield's "Getting Lucky" -- but was always frustrated that it appeared nowhere online, and seemed to have just dropped off the planet or anyone's awareness. Finally. I'm just going to post it here, so it can be shared with others, as it so highly deserves to be.

The article's introductory section says this:

I can find a board or card game for any group of players. Game players or people who never played games, old or young, in large or small numbers, with confrontational or passive personalities—there are games out there for them all. While I weigh many factors in choosing a game, by far the most important is the amount of luck inherent to the gameplay. If the game has a lot of luck, it usually appeals to a diverse group. Games in the non-electronic world are widely varied in luck, but computer games are a different story, as very few of them allow any real chance for a beginner to win against a skilled opponent. The number of electronic games I can play with my parents, kids, wife, or friends from outside the game industry is extremely limited.

Historically, games usually evolved in such a way as to reduce the amount of luck in them. Even chess at one time had dice. The people who are in a position to modify a game are likely to be very good at it, and the sort of modifications they will be drawn toward are the ones that showcase their talents and their friends’ talents—although they, of course, are all top players.

In other words, as games evolve, they tend to become better for the experts, but not necessarily better for new or non-dedicated players. A game that illustrates this conflict is Settlers of Catan, one of the best-selling board games of recent years. The only consistent criticism I have heard leveled at it (always from dedicated gamers) is that it has too much luck. But it’s rather possible that the abundance of luck is exactly what made the game so wide-reaching.

Enlightened players, skilled or not, will appreciate luck in their games for a number of reasons. First, they can play challenging games with a much broader audience, allowing them to easily assemble a galley of players and lure their friends, who would otherwise play something else, into the game. Second, if skilled players want to experiment and try off-the-wall strategies, the more luck a game has, the more forgiving it is — after all, no one is expected to win every time. The only cost of all these terrific benefits is that skillful players must manage to swallow their pride and settle for winning a majority of the time, rather than all the time.

We gamemakers are at a special time in game history. Fifty years ago, games were made with no credit to the designers or perhaps had no designers at all, with changes being wrought by players over time. But our nascent game design community tends to comprise game experts; it’s in our best interest to examine our own instincts openly with regard to how much luck should be in a game.

For the purposes of comment, criticism, scholarship, and research, here's a link to the full article. You should read it! And then leave a comment (or a piece of criticism, scholarship, or research) on your takeaways from Richard Garfield's observations here. 

Richard Garfield: Getting Lucky

Monday, April 26, 2021

Shooting at Groups

For your consideration: Here's a new rule I recently drafted for my OED House Rules to handle shooting into large groups of combatants (like into a melee, or an advancing goblin horde). I'm actually kind of delighted by it, but I fear I might be the only person willing to actually implement it.

First, recall a few things about how I run my OD&D. I use a ranged modifier of −1 per 10 feet distance, because that matches a rather large amount of research we've compiled on the blog in the past. Second, I'm working on the continuing project to dial in mass-warfare mechanics well for the Book of War game (hopefully in an upcoming 2nd edition). 

Both of these goals span the man-to-man case and huge-army cases. An aphorism I now use as foundational is: Shooting a man at a hundred yards is impossible, while shooting an army is certain success. (Practically speaking.) Previously in OED I had two different rules to handle the two different cases. The binary switchover has troubled me for a while, and raised a few reasonable questions recently. (I dare say in my head this echoed the conflict in physics between relativity and quantum mechanics.)

So I did some computer simulations and scribbled out some math (I'll spare you that here), and then realized that I could round things off to a rule I could hold easily in my head, and give a smoothly continuous switchover between the two cases. So here's what I just edited into my next draft of the OED rules. First:

Errant Shots

Errant Shots: Fumbled or random attacks into groups are assessed with a d20 roll that ignores attacker skill and range modifiers.

Like the text says, this is a mechanic that I will (and have in the past) used for a few different cases. If someone gets in a fumble situation where they attack themselves or a friend, we invoke this. (Rules where a fumble results in automatic-damage against a heavily armored ally have always ground my gears, or even a normal attack roll as if the fumbler was aiming the perfect attack against a weak spot.) Also a shot against a faraway, large group will trigger this mechanic. (Likewise: close-up an archer should be able to target a vulnerable point on the target, whereas far away this level of skill is impossible.) 

To be clear, in an "errant shot", the attacker's base attack bonus gets ignored. I would want to apply the defender's AC as usual, and I guess also any weapon-vs-armor effect, and magic as well. But to date any time this has happened for me it's just the player rolling a raw d20, and me applying the defender's AC (under the standard Target 20 resolution process). Now consider this:

Shots at Groups

Shots at Groups: Attack rolls (including range, but before AC addition) below 10 miss a man-sized target. Each adjacent man gives a 1 pip chance under 10 to trigger an errant shot against a random target in the group.

As usual, I write that with some curtness in the document. What that means is for a close group of N man-sized combatants, the DM computes 10 − N, and an attack roll from that number up to 10 indicates a shot that completely missed the individual target -- but, close enough to possibly strike someone else nearby (randomly determined, and adjudicated the with the "errant shot" rule above). Some examples:

  • Say an archer shoots at an opponent in melee with a single one of their friends. Then a modified attack roll (again: including range but before target AC is considered) of exactly 9 -- no more and no less -- triggers an errant shot against the friend.
  • Next, the archer shoots at a squad of 5 men-at-arms approaching angrily. In this case an attack roll of 5-9 results in an errant shot check against a random one of the men.
  • Ten goblins are running together down a hallway and the shooter makes an attack. Now an attack roll of 0-9 results in an errant shot.
  • A formation of 20 orcs is posted outside a cave. In this case, any modified attack roll from −10 up to 9 triggers an errant shot. 

As you can see, for very large groups at very long range, the mechanic makes it more and more likely that an errant shot against a random target will be invoked. Obviously, the DM should be encouraged to round these numbers off to convenient values -- myself, I'd probably round it to units of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, etc. I've set it up so the lower bound is found by subtracting from 10 to make it as easy as possible. 

Moreover, the DM should be encouraged to invoke the errant shot rule immediately if it's clear that the shooter simply can't hit an individual man-sized target at the range in question. As a quick rule-of-thumb, if the range penalty is 10 points more than the shooter's fighter level, then they pretty much can't hit anything without a natural 20 (and you should just break to the random shot immediately).

To be completely clear, we're assuming that attack rolls that score 10 or higher are actually on-target, but are fended off by the person's armor if the final resolution (including AC) fails to indicate a hit. Note that this mechanic simulates attack values just a bit below hitting as indicating arrows zipping close by the target (the lower the roll, the further away). And it also allows you to separate out the effect of a critical-miss (natural 1), if you so choose. 

Let's momentarily consider a possibly alternative rule that comes to mind: If a shot doesn't hit, then a natural die-roll in the range from 1-N against N men triggers an errant shot (ignoring natural-1 fumbles momentarily). Seems nice. But the problem here is that it loses visibility of the range in which the shot was actually on-target but stopped by armor (which should be significant for heavily-armored figures). I suppose you could say that a roll of 1 - N (for N men) triggers an errant shot, unless the modified roll is in the range of 10 + AC to 20, in which case it was stopped by the original target's armor. But now you're tracking two different ranges instead of one, and that seems worse to me. (Plus this implies that both very high and very low rolls indicate close-to-the-target shots, while rolls in the middle indicate shots further away, which feels confusing and wrong.) So I would shy away from that alternate proposal.

Aside from all that, another thing that fairly excited me was that the same piece of math that generated this rule also spawned a really nifty rule for handling missile shots in Book of War at targets of unusual size, like solo heroes on the field -- but more on that later.

What do you think of that rule? I've used what I'm calling the "errant shot" mechanic before, but haven't tested the "shots at groups" at the table before -- but I'm pretty confident that would work for me. Would you want to try using that? Anything I could improve in the explanation?

Monday, April 19, 2021

Rumors, Information, and Legends

Medieval woman whispering to another
Original D&D has what I think is a marvelous little rule about gathering news, baked right into the core books (Vol-3, p. 23). This didn't get copied forward into any later edition, and it's at the bottom of a certain page in the DM's booklet, amidst unrelated information about hiring specialists and men-at-arms, so I think it's commonly forgotten. Here it is:

Obviously that's just loosely suggestive of the content of the news, and DMs can move in whatever direction they want with that. Reading it closely right now, I'll point out that the opening "Such activity as advertising" is referring to the immediately preceding section on advertising to hire men-at-arms and specialists ("Post notices in conspicuous places, stating the positions open and who is offering such employ; or have servitors circulate in public places, seeking such persons as are desired.") So read narrowly, the first 3 sentences seem to be thinking mostly about notable PC activity in town (maybe planning for competing groups of PCs keeping tabs on each other in a very large campaign?); and then very last sentence on legends seems to be a different thing ("to lead players into some form of activity"). 

So in my last campaign, I used this to basically drive all the action that was happening. Aside from the very opening of the campaign, there were no quests given, hiring boards, adventuring patrons, etc., unless the players first paid to gather rumors at the local tavern. So most sessions would open up with PCs going to the tavern with their current funds and gathering some new rumors this way (I charge the higher cost, 10-60 gold pieces based on a die roll; or in my silver-standard campaign, the analogous 10-60 silver pieces). I kind of like the flavor of this, of the PCs being essentially proactive in their nosing around for opportunities for loot and magic to steal from somewhere, and not an economy where "adventuring" is some kind of recognized industry. Also it kind of feels like an ante or blind payment before a hand of poker gets started.

Now, this keys into the trope that many early D&D adventure modules have, of a "list of rumors" table near the start of the adventure, which get handed out partially to PCs at the start, usually at random. (See D&D modules B1, B2, Top Secret TS001... and many retro-products like the DCC line and Rappan Athuk, etc.) Of course, the requirement for advance payment was already lost by the time published adventure modules became a thing -- and in some sense it makes sense for 1st-level characters in these cases, likely cash-constrained, to get a few for free to get started.

So I tried that same idiom in my campaign; drafting a list or lists of rumors, and dicing for which one to give out when the PCs went rumor-gathering. This attempt initially had a few problems, and I had to evolve it a bit before I got to something that seemed to work.

First, an early attempt had mostly "vague oracular idea-generators", that I probably yanked off an online adventure generator. The problem is that in-game I didn't own these, didn't really have a concrete idea on how to back them up, and they were usually so overwhelmingly weird and enticing that the players generally would pursue them exclusively, and not go anywhere near content I'd actually prepared. My attempts to fill in those ideas on the fly weren't that great (maybe not my forte, or I wasn't truly interested in them).

Second, after that, I started writing custom rumors about campaign locations that I had prepared. The problem here is that over a campaign, any list I'd write would get depleted relatively quickly. Do I just repeat the same rumor if it gets re-rolled on the table? Players felt deflated from that. So then I was crossing stuff off the table, and over time rolling more and more dice to get to an unused option. In either case, at some point the list would be totally used up. So then I was committing to writing a new rumor after a session to replace any that was shared, and my hand-written list started getting more and more cramped with overwritten replacements and the whole thing became totally unreadable. Ugh. 

Finally, I threw in the towel on that and decided to systematically improvise rumors about existing locations anytime they came up. This seemed to be what clicked, and I got at least a few compliments about how this felt in-game. The essential idea was this:

  • Roll a random location (which already exists in the campaign).
  • Roll for a true or false rumor: 2-in-6 it's false (based on the proportion seen in the B1, B2, TS001 lists).
  • Improvise the delivery of some detail in that location, and who in the tavern is telling it.
  • In any case, make sure that the detail given is something that will drive the action (an enticing true or false treasure, a promising strategy against some monster or trap, etc.)

So with this, I had an infinite-rumor generator that worked pretty well, and required no advance work or documentation. It also seemed that my "creative juices" flowed a lot better to fill in the rumor while my adrenaline was up mid-game, versus when I'd try to write stuff pre-game by myself at home.

What counts as a "location"? Well, you can shape that to taste (and I modified it over time). Some things I did:

  • When the action is mostly focused on a megadungeon, I'd roll for a random level, and then roll for a random location on that level. Or: maybe roll for the "current" level the PCs have recently been exploring, plus the next 1 or 2 (i.e., a d3 for level). That can keep it a bit tighter to things the PCs can achieve mid-term.
  • In the wilderness, roll for a numbered encounter location, and drop some tidbit about that place.
  • Sometimes I would even drop information about custom game rules in use for in the campaign that the players would be unlikely to know about. (Stuff of interest here would be bulleted in advance.)
  • Or, obviously, a combination: I think at one point I was dicing 1-3: megadungeon drop,  4-5: wilderness, 6: rules info.

This seemed very elegant to me, and it's what I'm still using today.

A couple other notes:

  • On the theme of game rules that "players would be unlikely to know about", note that this Rumors rule is itself in that class. It's both (a) hidden in the DM's book, and (b) not in any edition but Original. So make sure this is communicated to your players. Personally, I hand-added it to the Basic Equipment and Costs table. Then, I let my players "discover" the extra thing in the stuff-to-buy list, which was a nice moment (obviously if your players aren't as observant as mine, modify that).
  • This, combined with the monthly upkeep costs (OD&D 1% of XP per month), plus payments for healing potions, are the primary ways that extra cash gets sucked out of the PCs' pockets, and I think it worked well. Depending on success at the game, some PCs could get a nice store of jewelry, while others were begging for help at the start of each session from the richer ones (in a campaign that went up to about 6th level).
  • Note that this is sort of the inverse of the popular "carousing" rules. My method here happens at the start of an adventure, and directs PCs to some location that's already detailed in the campaign by the DM. Carousing rules, of course, are used at the end of an adventure, and (in the vague not-owned-by-your-campaign sourcing) generate ideas for new or improvised adventures. For me, I really prefer the flow of my rumors system better. And I really don't want to be handing out hundreds of XP based on a random roll outside of an actual adventuring session. Obviously your mileage may vary, and many people really really love those carousing rules. 
  • Also it differs from something like Justin Alexander's proposed Urbancrawl system, which creates a very elaborate, and very detailed, matrix of interconnecting relationships that one must work in a network to get information out of the town setting. My system here abstracts almost all of that away; I tend to make up a "character telling you this" on the fly, but you could skip even that and just say, "you hear that...".

Would you try something like that, or have you in the past? Tell me about your experiences!

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Monday, March 22, 2021

Suloise Tomb Architecture

Outside two ruined tomb structures

Today I'm happy to feature a guest post from our friend Angela Black, who wrote to me with what I thought was a clever idea for establishing standard architectural/layout detail for Suloise tombs in the World of Greyhawk. A stylistic notion like this is both (a) realistic to the world as we know it, and (b) jumps-starts the design for possibly many such tombs scattered throughout the campaign world, without needing to come up with a brand new design concept for every one of them. I'll let Angela explain in her own words:


In my campaign world, loosely based on Greyhawk, the Suel fill the role of the Roman Empire in medieval Europe - they used to own all this land, but they're gone now, and they've left behind interesting ruins and whatnot. Specifically, I stipulate that the Suel buried important dead people underground in elaborate tomb complexes filled with offerings to glorify the dead, so as to have a handy excuse for "dungeons" more or less where-ever I need them to be (in addition, of course, to the usual adventure-sites, which may or may not be connected to the Suel, like abandoned fortresses and ruined temples and so on).

It occurred to me, however, that such places in the real world tend to have common, identifiable characteristics - that is, buildings intended by a particular culture to serve a particular purpose usually share common features and maybe even a standard layout. And in a flash I realized how useful it would be to have a general notion of these features when it came time to design a dungeon. What IS the "typical" Suel tomb like? I don't have to pick up a blank piece of graph paper and stare at it until drops of blood form on my forehead - I can approach the same way the (fictional) people who (fictionally) built it would have approached it, with a "pre-loaded" set of ideas about what it must include and how those spaces would be connected to each other.

So, as an exercise in world-building and as a tool for future use as a DM, I wrote up a little archaeological-style report on the "Standard Features of a Suel Tomb." I thought you might find it interesting as an example of how a DM might approach such a thing. It could serve not only as a rubric for one's own use, but also, in part or in whole, as lore to give to players whose characters might actually know this kind of stuff. Of course, it could also be fun to watch the players put together over the course of a campaign that there really are certain standard, predictable features to these things!

Outer Tomb

Devotional Sepulcher

A round room, underground but open to the air without a door, that contains a sarcophagus, which itself contains a symbolic representation of the deceased. This symbolic representation may be anything from an item of clothing to the body of one of the deceased’s servants – there is no general rule. The walls of the Devotional Sepulcher are decorated to illustrate the life of the deceased; If the tomb’s occupant was especially important, there might be one or even two Siderooms attached to the Devotional Sepulcher (see below).

The Devotional Sepulcher is where people can come to pay devotion to the deceased, so there are typically small offerings, some of which might be valuable, in this room. Generally, the traffic of admirers to the tomb will keep it from becoming a nesting place for any animals except inconsequential vermin, but if the tomb is forgotten or in a distant location, larger and more dangerous beasts may have taken up residence.


If the deceased was particularly important, additional rooms might be constructed in the outer tombs. These are always smaller, rectangular rooms opening off from the Devotional Sepulcher without doors, decorated with murals or even statuary that reference particularly notable events of the deceased’s life. A Sideroom might likewise have some offerings, as noted under the description of the Devotional Sepulcher.

Inner Tomb

The Outer Tomb exists only to satisfy the need to revere the dead – the dead themselves are hidden in the Inner Tomb. The Suel, however, felt it very important the honored dead receive their due, and the Inner Tomb must always be connected to the Outer Tomb, so that the offerings made in the Outer Tomb are properly directed.

As such, behind one of the walls in the Devotional Sepulcher (or, very rarely, one of the Siderooms) will be the Entry Hall to the Inner Tomb. This Inner Tomb is not intended to be entered by anyone, so the masonry will be solid, but that does not mean it is impassable – tomb robbers are not often deterred by a little work with a pickaxe. The masonry is invariably painted to look like the rest of the wall in the Devotional Sepulcher, but a sharp eye can determine where to start working.

In remote tombs or ones difficult to reach, the masonry wall has likely already been breached, but entry into the Inner Tomb is only the first obstacle, as shall be seen.

Entry Hall

The Suel, always very proper, always build an Entry Hall into the Inner Tomb, even though it was never made to be entered. The Entry Hall is constructed in typical Suel fashion, a wide rectangular space with a high ceiling, decorated on the floor, ceiling, and wall so as to indicate the owner of the abode – in this case, the deceased.

The Entry Hall is also the first line of defense against would-be grave robbers. This typically takes the form of a magic mouth warning intruders to turn back, as well as perhaps some kind of trap, such as a spiked pit or even a glyph of warding. If the deceased was extremely important, there may even be a permanent wall of fire blocking further progress. Undead are never intentionally placed in the Entry Hall, however.

There is always one and only one exit to the entry hall, a portal with no door opposite to the ingress. This invariably opens to a set of stairs going down, which leads to the Hallways. The stairs are a crucial feature, as they symbolize the descent into the underworld, and they are, owing to their ritual function, never trapped.


After taking the stairs down from the Entry Hall, would-be robbers enter the Hallways. There must be enough rooms in the Inner Tomb to properly honor the deceased, and these are always connected to a series of winding halls – the Hallways, which provide access to the Devotional Rooms and the Shrine.

However, the Hallways are also part of the Inner Tomb’s defenses against intruders. They are intended to be confusing, decorated with repetitive designs and wind about in no discernible pattern, criss-crossing and sometimes leading to dead-ends. They are also commonly littered with traps of the usual kind – spiked pits, poison darts from the walls, and so forth; for this reason, the Hallways always use a tiled floor, the better to conceal the trigger mechanisms for traps. The Hallways also typically have at least a few secret doors, concealed by the architecture and the patterns of the paintings on the walls, which lead to other sections of the Hallways. The Hallways sometimes incorporate stairs that go up or down, but as these have no ritual purpose, they may be trapped, unlike the stairs descending from the Entry Hall.

Obviously, after so long, some of the traps in the Hallways will be non- or only partially-functional, and some that may have been triggered by tomb robbers will have failed to reset. Likewise, if the tomb has been opened and is remote enough, wild beasts may have made lairs in the Hallways.

Devotional Rooms

In the Inner Tomb, there are always at least two Devotional Rooms – one to honor the deceased and one to honor the deceased’s family. However, there are also rooms to commemorate significant events in the deceased’s life, so for anyone important enough to have a full tomb, there will be at least a few extra Devotional Rooms.

The Devotional Room for the deceased will be treated separately and is more properly known as the True Tomb (see below). The other Devotional Rooms are always alike – large, high-ceilinged square rooms, filled with devotional treasures and featuring not only decorative murals that depict the event or the deceased’s family, as appropriate, but also a stela, in the center of the room, which details the event or describe the family. It may or may not have other exits, concealed or obvious, back to the Hallways, but it never opens onto another Devotional Room. It is possible, however, that access to other sections of the Hallways can only be gained by passing through a Devotional Room.

The treasures are simply meant as offerings to the deceased and will be of value proportional to the glory and fame of the deceased. Sometimes, there might be an item relevant to the event, whether a piece of art, a weapon, or something else. For the family’s Devotional Room, however, there are always a few items that commemorate the family, usually things that were precious to them. There may be statuary depicting the family in the family’s Devotional Room, as well, but this is not consistent. If such statuary is present, it is ornamental and serves no ritual function, and so may well be trapped or even enchanted to animate and attack intruders (though such enchantments are rare and expensive).

What is consistent, however, is that the Devotional Rooms are well-protected. The most basic method is the use of skeletons who will mindlessly attack any living creature that enters the room, but for particularly important people, a few mummies might be found, as well. Such rooms are also sometimes protected by common traps or magical deterrents like glyphs of warding.

The Shrine

Somewhere in the Inner Tomb is a shrine to the god of the dead. This shrine is almost never connected to the Hallways in an obvious way – it may be connected to the Hallways by a secret door or perhaps even connected to one of the Devotional Rooms, either in an obvious way or by secret door. The Shrine is always protected by a glyph of warding at minimum and will usually have mechanical traps and undead guardians as well. It always contains a statute of the god of the dead as well as tablets or stelae with devotional prayers affirming the supreme status of the god of the dead and so on. Treasure is not usually found in this room, but there are rare exceptions – it has been recorded on at least a few occasions that the priests of the god of the dead have stored valuable objects d’art or even magic items in The Shrine. It is unclear why: sometimes the objects are situated in the open but sometimes they are well-concealed and protected. In any case, the Shrine is not intended to be entered, even in a metaphorical way; where the Shrine is connected to the rest of the Inner Tomb with an obvious door, the door is sealed, and where connected with a secret or concealed door, that door is always trapped. The usual caveats apply, of course – if the tomb has previously been breached, and the Shrine discovered already, it’s possible any traps will have been triggered and perhaps not reset, and likewise possible that some animal or monster will have taken up residence therein.

True Tomb

The True Tomb is the genuine resting place of the deceased. It is much like other devotional rooms except larger and more grandly decorated, with murals and/or statuary depicting the deceased in a variety of glorious poses. It will have a stela standing against the wall opposite the entrance that praises the deceased, and in the center of the room will be the genuine sarcophagus. Devotional treasures of the highest value are piled on tables against the walls or in the corners. In some cases, the True Tomb will have a mezzanine level, the better to provide space for depicting the glory of the occupant, but there are never stairs to this level (evidence from unfinished tombs indicates works would use ladders to complete and stock the mezzanine level, which would then be removed along with other tools and materials).

There is always only one entrance to the True Tomb, and it is intentionally very difficult to access, usually behind several series of secret doors in the Hallways. Aside from (possibly) the Shrine, the True Tomb alone in the whole Inner Tomb has a door, and it will certainly be trapped and/or warded. Within, there will be deterrents more deadly than anywhere else in the tomb (except, again possibly, the Shrine) –a contingent of skeletons commanded by a skeleton warrior, a small group of mummies, a clay golem, or perhaps even a demon that has been summoned and bound into service as a guardian. Of course, “more deadly than anywhere else in the tomb” is relative to the status of the deceased; at least a few Suel tombs have been recorded which were, shall we say, “aspirational” on the part of the occupant, with most available funds being spent on the mere construction of the tomb, leaving little for defenses.

The genuine sarcophagus is always trapped and/or warded as well, though with good reason – not only does it contain the remains of the deceased, it also contains any significant items associated with them, such as special weapons. Or rather, it contains such items in theory – in far more cases than the Suel would have been likely to admit, highly desirable weapons and other powerful items were replaced with copies which were buried with the deceased so that the items could be secretly passed to relatives. However, even the most grasping relations would not be so bold as to replace a powerful item with a mere bit of brass; when such substitutions were made, a less powerful but still genuinely magical item was always used. It was not considered wise in Suel culture to tax too greatly the patience of the god of the dead.

Open Questions

Dan back here again -- I thought that was a really interesting piece of fantasy architectural digest. Thanks so much to Angela! And a follow-up idea that I immediately had: How hard would it be to code up an online generator for that particular "style" of dungeon (maybe with selections for small, medium, or large-sized Suel tomb)? Anyone else have an itch to make that happen?

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Big Mistake in Weapon vs. Armor Adjustments

Players of 1E AD&D duel with the most heavy-weight table in the PHB (p. 38): the "Weapon Types, General Data, and 'To Hit' Adjustment" table, which includes Armor Class Adjustments, intended to recreate the matchups of certain weapons versus certain classes of armor. 

AD&D 1E PHB Weapon TYpes Table

It's among the more complicated things in the game. On the one hand, they're not listed as variants or optional rules; and they're ingrained to the DMG example of combat -- so many 1E players do pound these these tables into their games, determined to faithfully use them no matter how awkward they are. On the other hand, at least as many players of the game overlooked them, and Gary Gygax is even on record as saying the same thing. Let's document a few quotes:

I did not use psionics, generally ignored weapons vs. armor type and weapon speed. – Gary Gygax, ENWorld Q&A, 24th January, 2003

There is often player pressure to add complexities and complications to rules and systems, such additions being urged in areas that the players like and believe to be critical to enjoyment of the game. I did that for some writing in OAD&D and regretted it considerably thereafter – mainly weapons vs. armor types and psionics. – Gary Gygax, ENWorld Q&A, 24th July, 2003

In all, I included the details because of insistance of some avid palyers that were in touch with me, regretted listening to them, for the RPG is not suited to combat simulation... As I noted above, we never used the weapons vs. armor type adjustments. – Gary Gygax, ENWorld Q&A, 7th September, 2005

He elsewhere says the same thing for the Space Required value given to each weapon; that is, Gygax wants to entirely ignore everything on the weapons table taking up all of AD&D PHB p. 38. (And his son Luke Gygax reiterated the same thesis when we interviewed on him on the Wandering DMs, the day after I wrote this.) But if that's the case, where exactly did these numbers come from? Were they ever playtested? The questioner on ENWorld Sep-7 2005 asks this question, but Gary lightly dodges it.

As usual, the answer is given more clearly if we take a step back to the Original D&D texts. Essentially these same modifiers first show up in an earlier table in OD&D Supplement-I, Greyhawk, p. 13-14. (I'll show a recreation of that chart a bit later.) Right before this table Gary writes the source for these numbers: 

For those who wish to include weapon types in the determination of hit probabilities the following matrix drawn from the “Hand-To-Hand Combat” section of CHAINMAIL is offered. If this system is used it is suggested that the separate damage by weapon type and monster type also he employed.

Okay, so we need to take one more step back to Chainmail and to the actual origin of these numbers. Here's the earliest expression of that work to which I have access, from Chainmail 2nd Edition (p.37):


Notice the presentation here is different; the numbers in Chainmail aren't modifiers to D&D-style attack rolls; they're final target numbers for the attack. That is, this system effectively assumes that all combatants are the same level and strength ("normal men", you might say), with the basic factor in this system being only the weapon and armor employed on each side. (They're also target numbers on a 2d6 roll, instead of D&D's d20 roll, but that's not the most important thing.) So how do those different systems correlate? Note that Gygax is a bit cagey on this point -- he says, "the following matrix drawn from the 'Hand-To-Hand Combat' section of CHAINMAIL", but he doesn't say exactly how it was drawn. And here's where the math comes in, which allows us to pierce the veil, and see exactly what he did.

I've tried a few things, and I won't present all the failed investigative paths on my part, but here's the recreation that works the best. Gary first takes the average of all the target numbers in the Chainmail table; we'll call this the "base to hit", and it works out to about 7.8, or simply 8 if you round it off. Now he just subtracts every number in the table from this base value of 8 to see what the effective modifier is in each weapon-vs-armor combination. That's it; pretty simple, actually.

You can see these computed differences compared to the numbers that appear in Greyhawk below (and afterward, mostly repeated in AD&D). The numbers match very closely; this is clearly what Gary did.

Chainmail Man-to-Man Melee Chart and Conversion

Greyhawk Weapon Adjustments and Errors

More detail on exactly how closely these match: As shown in the last table above, most of the entries in Greyhawk vary from our computation by either 0 or 1 pips. The sum of all the differences in the entire table from our formula-based conversion is only 30 pips total. Hypothetically, if you use any number other than "8" as the basis (the average of all the targets in the Chainmail table), then you get much more divergent differences (far bigger sum of absolute errors).

In the number of cases where our formula differs from what appears in Greyhawk, clearly Gary was bothered by the larger penalties, and shaved them down to something less onerous. In particular, it looks like he was especially troubled by the line for "Spear"; with our formula it mostly has penalties all down the line, up to a hefty "−4". Gary joins many of us amateur historians in recognizing the spear as a dominant force on the real-world battlefield, and in response, dials down the penalties by about half. That's the only row in our "Absolute Error" table where the adjustments are as much as 2 points off our calculated formula; and we empathize with that. 

But wait. 

If the Spear made sense in Chainmail, then why is the translated version giving us such a headache in Greyhawk, anyway?

Can you see the gaping flaw in the conversion method?

It's huge, and it's obvious, but I didn't see it for four decades, and I've never seen anyone else point it out.

I'll give you a minute to think about it.







It fails to recognize the built-in protective value of the armor in the Chainmail table. 

Even if your "base to hit" in Chainmail was 8, it shouldn't be 8 all the way down the line. It should be naturally adjusted by some amount for each step of increased armor protection, even before the weapon effect gets involved. (In D&D, we expect a natural 1-point extra difficulty in hitting per step of armor; it's not explicit in Chainmail, but maybe 1/2-point per step in the 2d6 mechanic would be fair.)

And as a result, you can't just be subtracting from 8, you should be subtracting from 8, 9, 10, 11, etc. depending on the armor type at the top of the table. Whoops!

Let me be more specific by highlighting a single row and thinking about the story that it tells. Here's the Mace line in Chainmail. It is in fact pretty much just 8's all the way across. The story this tells is, "Screw your armor! Whatever armor you wear, I just ignore it. Maces reduce all worn armor to the same as 'none'". 

Mace 8 8 8 9 8 8 7 8

And here's the row for the Mace in Greyhawk . It is pretty much 0's all the way across. The story this tells is, "The mace is helpless against all armor! Whatever armor you wear, you get the full protective benefit against the mace. Maces have zero capacity to help you punch through heavier armor."

Mace 0 +1 0 0 0 0 0 0

(Remember that you need to flip one of the rows left-to-right to synch up with the reversed ordering of armor types in those two books; I picked this case for convenience in that regard.)

And those are precisely opposite stories, right? Maces reduce all armor to null-value in Chainmail, but give no benefit whatsoever in O/AD&D. And which of those two stories is more in synch with our real-world historical understanding? Chainmail, yea; O/AD&D, nay.

You can repeat this inspection row-by-row all throughout the tables. Wherever Chainmail indicated an advantage over heavy armor, in O/AD&D this turns into no advantage. Where Chainmail indicated no advantage, this turned into a hefty penalty in O/AD&D (for example, the Spear).

Yikes. I'm pretty sure this is the biggest numerical error I've ever seen in the legacy of D&D, and I do think it seems to have escaped everyone's noticed for lo these 45 years and counting. 

So I'd say that any 1E players who are still engaged in this gnashing-of-teeth exercise with these tables would be wise to put it to bed, because the whole effect of those tables in O/AD&D was fundamentally broken all along. It doesn't even begin to serve the purpose that they're allegedly for. I'm guessing that they were never playtested at Gary's table -- again, he was vehement that he never used them, and was essentially disinterested in the whole project -- but once they got printed and published, everyone took it on faith that they were reasonable ever after. But they very much weren't.

Mea culpa on my own part for not ever noticing this before. I was amazed when this finally dawned on me a short while ago.

To your knowledge, did anyone ever point out this arithmetic-modeling mistake previously? Can you think of any reason to use these tables as-written today? Or would you be amenable to a series of corrected, rationalized tables for this purpose?

Get a spreadsheet for this comparison here.