Monday, October 25, 2021

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 –Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure

For my last entry of 1984 (Gygax having been ousted from TSR as of 1986), I've got a bit of a problem, because the exact provenance of who wrote the adventure text in this era is in doubt, and the company was plastering Gygax's name on several products to which he had only a tenuous connection, for marketing purposes. In the case above I've shown one single area from Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, which we know was initially a Rub Kuntz creation, for which he DM'd Gygax playing his wizard character Mordenkainen. That said, the credit on the cover reads, "Robert J. Kuntz and Gary Gygax", and the preface inside sees Gygax writing, "after some time, Rob Kuntz and I sat down together as co-DMs of the Greyhawk Campaign to revise and expand the scenario. You now have substantially what we created at that time". And on top of that, there's an editing credit inside that goes to Frank Mentzer and Michael Dobson.

Any other adventure I might pick from this era, like Gygax's last ones in 1985, has this same issue. For example, The Temple of Elemental Evil is known as an original Gygax creation, but we also know he turned over sparse handwritten notes to Frank Mentzer, who wrote the text and changed and expanded many things. The cover credit there reads, "by Gary Gygax with Frank Mentzer", and inside there's a whole platoon of editors: Ed Carmlen, Bruce Heard, Harold Johnson, Thad Russell, and Steve Winter.

Or we could could look to Isle of the Ape from same year, with Gary's name alone on the cover (and he'd mentioned it as a level in his Greyhawk campaign back in the 1979 DMG), but inside there's a credit for "Development: Bruce A. Heard", so who knows what that means (maybe similar to Mentzer's work on the Temple of Elemental Evil?).

So my point here is this: Looking at any of these 3 latter adventures, all of which Gygax had some part in producing and was willing to have his name on as the lead, the text is in every case now very long. The "Fighter Frescoes" example above (possibly a Kuntz original), is some 4 paragraphs, with extensive sensory detail, and a numbered list of different ways that the puzzle/trap might be sprung. And this is largely the idiom throughout the adventure. Some single areas run multiple whole pages of text (e.g.: Weaver's Chamber, p. 6-8; Throne/Statue Area, p. 9-10; Round Chamber, p. 14-16). 

Similarly in Isle of the Ape: the introductory speech by Tenser alone is runs 2 full pages of boxed text to be read (some 1,600 words!). Multi-page encounters are fairly common (e.g.: Kawibusas' Ambush, p. 10-13; Plateau Area, p. 31-33; The Spheres of Thought, p. 38-39; The Glowing Pearl Chamber, p. 43-45). And the same thing happens in the Temple of Elemental Evil: an introductory boxed text section that runs more than a full page (about 1,300 words); 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; etc.). 

In other aspects these modules use a multiplicity of approaches. Isle and Temple make use of boxed text, whereas Mordenkainen does not. Regarding monster stats, Mordenkainen still places them mid-paragraph within the text; Temple moves them to dedicated stat blocks after each room description; and Isle takes them off the descriptive pages entirely, removing them to a master table of stats on an extended flap of the module cover. 

But whoever was compositing the exact text in each case, at this point Gygax was comfortable, or felt it was a requirement, to produce adventures with very elaborate and extensive descriptive text for many or most encounter areas.

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?

Monday, October 4, 2021

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