Fearful Ends Now on Kickstarter

Fearful Ends book & cards on Kickstarter
The long-time passion project of my Wandering DMs partner Paul Siegel is currently funding on Kickstarter!

Fearful Ends is a rules-light, story-centric roleplaying system for horror themed games. It features nihilistic stories about characters discovering impossible horrors. It aims to allow players to roleplay characters that experience mental or emotional collapse in a safe play environment that neither stigmatizes nor sensationalizes mental illness. 

We've been playing and refining Paul's system for horror games for a bunch of years, and it really runs well. I've even GM'd a session of it myself with a custom scenario very successfully, without needing to be a deep expert in this flavor of RPG. Easy to pick up and learn, and we always have a great time with it.

Join the Fearful Ends Kickstarter today!


40 Years of the D&D Cartoon

Dungeons & Dragons cartoon ride entry

The D&D cartoon first appeared on CBS 40 years ago this week! Man, 1983-1984 were really great years for our hobby.

Here's a link to the blog and an hourlong video interview by Mark Evanier, who wrote the pilot script and series bible"

News From Me (Mark Evanier)


How Much Weight Can a Horse Carry in D&D?

Young horse with luggage
I've vaguely known for a long time that there was some essential problem with the system for horse encumbrance in early D&D (O/AD&D). But I hadn't personally done the accounting to pinpoint where the issue was; I recently went on a deep dive on that point. Big thanks to the folks on the Wandering DMs Discord server for pointing out the problem in OED and helping me think through this reasonably.

Original D&D

Original D&D encumbrance rules
To the side here is the page of encumbrance rules from OD&D (Vol-1, p. 15). Once again I'm struck by the overall completeness of the Original Dungeons & Dragons rules: whatever its other faults, everything you could possibly need to know about D&D encumbrance is included on this one digest-sized page. This includes: the weight of weapons and armor, helmets and shields, bows and arrows, miscellaneous gear, coins of any type, gems and jewelry, magical treasures, movement categories, container carrying capacities, saddles and barding for horses, and the weight of an average man. Plus a complete example. This compares extremely favorably to what came later: in AD&D, you'd need to look in at least four separate books, published over eight years time, to put all the equivalent information back together. (This complication makes it nontrivial to do the desired accounting as I wanted for AD&D, below).

So, here's the accounting for light, medium, and heavy lancer cavalry, under reasonable assumptions, according to the OD&D rules.

OD&D Cavalry Weight Accounting

Here's some notes & observations on that.

  • Horses are only given a single maximum load limit (in the Vol-2 monster entry): by type, 3000, 3750, and 4500 coins. These values are vaguely reasonable: real-world research frequently pegs 30% body weight as the point where horse gait performance starts to experimentally drop off (e.g., Wikipedia: "horses can carry approximately 30% of their weight"). If we take very round estimates for horse weight of 1000-1250-1500 pounds, and compute 30% of those, then we get exactly the load limits shown here.
  • The weight of men given, 175 pounds, is roughly equal to the average weight of men in the U.S. in the era of publication (173.4 pounds, per NHANES I, 1971-74 from the CDC; compare to S&P's estimate for medieval Swiss men, 71.7 kg = 158.1 pounds).
  • The weights for arms & armor seem high, like, around double the weights based on real-world examples (possibly more on that later). 
  • These rules only give one type each for a saddle, barding, shield, helmet, lance, and one-handed sword, so these are common across each cavalry type.
  • Following the listing for bandit men et. al. (in Vol-2), the expectation is that heavy horse are barded, but light and medium horse are not.
  • In particular, the barding weight (75 pounds) is reasonable; compare to Wikipedia ("barding, or horse armour, rarely weighed more than 70 pounds"). Several examples at the Met Museum weigh in at around 90 pounds. 

Conclusions for OD&D:

  • The fully kitted-out cavalryman weighs in nicely within the load limit given for each type of horse (indicated by green highlight in table).
  • Moreover, the gear for each type is greater than or equal to the limit for the next lower type -- implying that for medium kit-out you want the medium horse, and for heavy kit-out you really need the heavy horse. (Arguably, you could just barely use a light horse for medium kit; but let's ignore that wrinkle for now.)
  • In addition, if we look at the gear on the man alone (perhaps if they have to fight on foot), these weights also synch up perfectly with the encumbrance tiers for men (given as 750-1000-1500 coins). Respectively, each is just barely within the window for light, medium, and heavy loads for men (12-9-6 inch movement tiers).
  • Overall -- this is excellent, coherent game system design. All the parts work together to generate the expected & desired results. The numbers are within the ballpark of modern real-world research. It has the sign of someone who paid close attention to both historical details and good wargame design.

Advanced D&D

Now for a different story. First of all, doing a similar accounting for AD&D is a lot more work, because (as noted above), the equivalent information is spread all over at least four different books. To wit:
  • The PHB (1977) has melee weapon weights (p. 37), and elsewhere movement thresholds for men (p. 101).
  • The DMG (1979) has armor & shield weights (p. 27), and in Appendix O (p. 225), most other weights for miscellaneous gear, bows & arrows, helmets, saddles, etc.
  • Container carrying capacities could only be found if you looked in the AD&D Player Character Record Sheets product (1980). 
  • The specifications for barding weren't given until an article by Gygax in Dragon Magazine #74 (1983), and then reprinted in Unearthed Arcana (1985).

You can take this as a case study of my thesis that there was a lot of key stuff in OD&D that was haphazardly copied or lost in the transition to AD&D, making it a lot more cryptic and mysterious than it needed to be. Anyway, putting it all together we can get the accounting for cavalry weights in AD&D:

AD&D: Cavalry Weight Accounting

 Observations here:

  • In the AD&D Monster Manual, horses get two load categories: light (full-speed; approximately equal to the OD&D limits), and heavy (half-speed; about double the light load). That's arguably reasonable.
  • The average male human weight of 175 pounds is reiterated in the table on DMG p. 102, so we use that again in our spreadsheet.
  • The weight for arms & armor are generally reduced, pulling them more towards real-world scales, as far as I can tell.
  • The Advanced D&D ruleset gives distinctions to different types of saddles, barding, shields, helmets, lances, and swords -- so I've indicated the expected selection for each.
  • In particular, DMG p. 31 describes medium horsemen as "similar to heavy cavalry", so when necessary I picked the heavier version of the gear (saddle, shield, helmet).
  • The AD&D Monster Manual makes no reference to expected barding anywhere in the book (contrast with OD&D above). So are we to assume that light cavalry always use the leather barding, medium chain, and heavy plate, as provided in the equipment list? That would be my best guess of the intent (despite it being ahistorical to my knowledge) -- so that's what I've entered for each type.
  • Strangely, Gygax has massively increased the weight of barding to a completely ludicrous level (noted by orange warning lights above). Even the leather barding is more than double the weight of barding in OD&D. Plate barding is more than quintuple the heaviest historical example I could find -- on its own, maxing out the first-tier load limit of the heavy horse. (!)

Conclusions for AD&D:

  • The fully-kitted cavalrymen are all significantly over the limit for expected full-speed horse movement. In particular, the heavy horseman is far over the maximum limit for the heavy horse, and cannot move at all by the letter of these rules. The medium horseman is only 3 pounds away from the same thing. (Noted by yellow & red highlights.)
  • Apart from the barding issue, looking at the men alone (i.e., off the horse), there is a similar problem. The load limits for average-strength men have been reduced by an order of about a half (35-70-105 pounds in the PHB), and the light & medium men are over the expected limits for the first two categories. (Despite this reduction being maybe real-world reasonable, it outpaced the reduction in arms & armor weight to drop the men into slower categories.)
  • Overall -- this design is simply broken. The primary problem is the unwarranted and inexplicable inflation in barding weights (which, again, renders the heavy horseman immobilized). But more generally, the fragmentation of where the encumbrance rules are located (scattered all over many books) is echoed in the design decisions being unsynchronized, and have produced a fundamentally incoherent system.

Further Discussion

Obviously, this is another instance where the Original D&D system runs the table on the later Advanced D&D system. It's really puzzling how the latter system was allowed to get so fragmented, so quickly, as to produce results like this.

I suppose one could argue that the light and medium horse types shouldn't be expected to wear barding -- despite a move-limit table in Dragon #74/Unearthed Arcana showing them in it (a table which doesn't make any sense, because the raw weight has already slowed the horse down more that the table shows for armor max moves). At the very least, you have to observe that plate barding is useless, because it and a heavy horseman are more than any horse can bear.

Of course, a lot of people don't want to use encumbrance rules at all. If you've read this blog before you're likely aware of my argument that scaling the weight units to individual coins was too fine-grained, and juggling all the big numbers is a major part of the headache. So I prefer using a bigger unit like historical stone weights, which (usually) makes the calculations easier to estimate and add up.

Based on our research on real-world horse carrying capacity, I'm confident that the 30% body weight number is a solid value to use before horse speed drops off (see short bibliography below). And aligned with patron feedback, I've become convinced that the 20% body weight number cited in a lot of modern horse-riding articles represents a very conservative rule-of-thumb, trying to be painstakingly humane, with a large safety buffer built in (i.e., not representing medieval workloads). For the OED House Rules we plan to use a round guideline of 1/3 and 2/3 body weight for the light and heavy load thresholds. This represents a revision to this prior article.

Finally, I seem to recall a letter or article in Dragon Magazine that pointed out the problem with AD&D horse encumbrance, in particular, that a heavy horseman couldn't move at all. But I can't remember which issue, and asking around online to date hasn't gotten any answers. Do you know of such an issue?

Answered: In the comments below, jbeltman found the letter we were looking for -- in Dragon Magazine #118 (February 1987), Forum p. 6, by David Carl Argall (of La Puente, CA). Huge thanks to jbeltman for that!


  • Bukhari, Syed SUH, Alan G. McElligott, and Rebecca SV Parkes. "Quantifying the impact of mounted load carrying on equids: a review." Animals 11.5 (2021): 1333. -- This is a really great, recent review of all the research to date around the issue of horse carrying capacity.
  • Matsuura, et. al. . Various articles (2012, 2013, 2016, 2018, etc.) -- Matsuura runs a lab in Japan that studies different horse breeds, and keeps coming up with a number close to 30% body weight for the point where any statistical dropoff in performance can be observed.
  • Wickler, S. J., et al. "Effect of load on preferred speed and cost of transport." Journal of Applied Physiology 90.4 (2001): 1548-1551. -- Wickler loaded seven Arabian horses with about 20% body weight burdens, let them walk freely with no rider or lead, and found only about a 5% drop in the speed at which they wanted to walk.

Here's a spreadsheet (ODS) with the tables above if you want to play around with them.


Solving Chainmail Jousting

Chainmail Jousting Matrix

Last year I wrote an academic paper formally solving Gary Gygax's Jousting game, as it appears in the original edition of Chainmail: Rules for medieval miniatures (1971; and prior to that in The Domesday Book newsletter).

This paper was presented at a conference of the International Computer Games Association (ICGA), namely, Computers and Games 2022 (CG2022) -- and recently published in the Springer collected lecture notes for the conference. You can see the abstract here:

Collins, D.R. (2023). Solving Chainmail Jousting. In: Browne, C., Kishimoto, A., Schaeffer, J. (eds) Computers and Games. CG 2022. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 13865. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-34017-8_4

Solving the game involves a mix of mathematical game theory principles and computer solving techniques. In brief, it turns out that there are 3 tentpole "best strategies" (Nash equilibria), involving a particular probabilistic selection of a handful of possible moves in the game. And for more sophisticated play, you can mix-and-match these three tentpoles in an infinite number of ways (all having an equivalent expected win payoff). One of the tentpole strategies is extremely simple, and possibly identifiable on inspection of the game matrix by a smart player; the others are more obscure.

Fortunately, the organizers of the conference record all of the presentations and make them publicly available on YouTube. Here's the session where I made my presentation (first in the block): it goes fast, as we only have 15 minutes each to speak. I'll let you watch below to see the three magic best strategies. Thanks to the organizers for giving me a platform to present these results!

(Note: If you're an entrant to the Jousting tournament at the GaryCon game convention, this won't help you win there; the rules context is significantly changed there in terms of the number of rides, point-scoring, end-game, restricted-ride rule, etc.)


Health & Damage in Swords & Spells

Mini monsters attacking men

I'm constantly fascinated by the novel rules detail in OD&D Swords & Spells. There's a bunch of stuff in there that can be interpreted as updates or clarifications to the core D&D rules -- stuff that often failed to matriculate forward into later versions of the game. Ironically, it's the only little-brown-book I had as a kid, until I got a copy of the other stuff well past 2000 A.D. 

Here's one: Recall that in the OD&D LBBs (1974) all hit dice and damage were just d6's by default. Then Supplement-I (1975) changed that to give different hit dice by character class, d8's for monsters, assorted dice for weapons, and a kaleidoscope of increased and altered attacks and damage for all the monsters in the game (e.g., ogre damage goes go from 1d6+2 to 1d10, hill giants go from 2d6 to 2d8, etc., among many other variations). We get linking text between those pieces like the following:

If varying amounts of damage according to weapon type used is employed, the various monsters will likewise be subject to-receive additional points of damage or dice of damage.


This [elaborated damage for monsters] system is to be used with the varying damage by weapons and in no event is it recommended for use without the aforementioned.

But in Swords & Spells (1976) we get an unexpected combination (from p. 17):

The amount of damage base (1-3, 1-6, etc.) is a function of the size of the attacker and/or weapon size. As a rule of thumb, small creatures will do 1-3 base damage (exception: dwarves). Those large creatures indicated in the D&D rules as doing above-average damage (ogres 3-8, giants 2-12) will use the appropriate base. Once the appropriate base damage is determined, simply cross index the level of attacker against the armor class of the defender to find the number of hit points of damage scored upon the defender. Thereafter, modify this number by any bonuses or penalties to determine the final number of hit points of damage inflicted.

The amount of damage various creature types can sustain is computed by multiplying the average number of hit points a single such creature can sustain by ten (the number of scale creatures represented by a single figure) times the number of such figures mounted on a single stand. Mounted troops include the hit points of their mounts. For example, assume a stand of 10 orcs: the average damage an orc can take is 1 die or an average of 4.5 × 10 = 45 × 10 = 450 points, with a figure removed at 45 points, and a scale orc killed for every 4.5 points of damage inflicted on the unit.

While the signal we get in Sup-I is that the updated hit dice and damage are meant to be taken as a single package, in Swords & Spells, Gygax's monsters are using the updated hit dice (d8, for 4.5 points average), while still using the original uninflated damage (with the tweak that small monsters get only 1d3). All the recognized monster damage is still some multiple of d6 dice. The core combat tables reflect this: the only options presented for monster damage are 1d3, 1d6, 1d6+2, and 2d6. (Meanwhile, "Human-type" combat tables support damage in ranges 1d3, 1d6, 1d8, or 1d12.) There's also a table of damage for mounts (p. 18), on the same base d6 scale, with output much reduced from the earlier Sup-I revision (in particular: just a single attack each, instead of the claw/claw/bite routine set out for most in Sup-I).

It's an interesting editorial choice and I kind of like it. Without having noticed it before, it mostly lines up with I decided for monster damage in the OED Monster Database, reflecting an interpretation of late-era OD&D, but one where monster damage is kept on on the 1d6 base scale. For a long time I've been fond of the DM running everything with a pile of d6's behind the screen, while the PCs get to experience a finer-grained experience with the other polyhedral dice on their side. And my intuition is likewise to drop small-creature damage to 1d3.

Did you ever think to be surprised by this representation in OD&D Swords & Spells?


Can Superheroes See Invisible?

Invisible stalker lurking over unaware fighter

Consider the O/AD&D Superhero -- a.k.a, the 8th-level Fighter. If you blink you'll miss it, but in multiple places in early texts it says that fighters of that level can automatically see invisible enemies. (!)

Here's the Fantasy Reference Table from the Chainmail game (included by reference in multiple parts of Original D&D), with key parts highlighted:

Fantasy Reference Table: Superheroes highlighted

Now, you might possibly think that's a typo or something, except that it gets restated in Original D&D, Vol-2 (the Monsters & Treasures booklet), specifically in the entry for Pixies:

PIXIES: Air sprites as described in CHAINMAIL, Pixies can be made visible, or make themselves visible, but they are naturally invisible to human eyes. Therefore, they are able to attack while remaining generally invisible. They can be seen clearly only when a spell to make them visible is employed, although certain monsters such as Dragons and high-level fighters will be aware of their presence.
A few years later, the Advanced D&D game generalized this ability, such that any high-level creature had some chance of detecting invisible. However, the chances of success are much reduced. For example, the 8th-level Superhero fighter now needs a very high Intelligence score, specifically 15 or higher, to have even a 5% chance of detecting invisible in a given round. Here's this table from the 1E DMG p. 60:

AD&D Detection of Invisibility Table

This seems like an odd rule: counterintuitive, easy to forget, unlikely to come into play in most games. And under the interpretation seemingly shared by the earliest designers -- that OD&D and AD&D were a single continuous game undergoing some evolution -- this seems like a case where Gygax was quickly becoming disenchanted with the rule; radically dialing down the likelihood for standard high-level fighters, for example. I take this as evidence that the clear intent was to largely take the ability away from standard Superheroes after some amount of playtest experience in D&D. (And of course this general rule was sufficiently fragile that it disappeared in later editions.)

Separately: As usual for O/AD&D, if you disentangle the numbers in that 1E table, you'll find that the progression on each axis is mostly linear. You could get a good approximation of that rule by doing the following:

Roll 1d20 + Level + Intelligence and score 40 or more.
Or in Target 20 terms: roll d20 + Level + Intelligence - 20 and get a total of at least 20.

But would you want to use such a rule?


Consider Chaos

Horrified David with blue hair and wings
I had an experience the other day where, trying to resolve an issue, office A told me it's the job of office B, office B said to talk to office C, and C said I had to talk to A. This is not uncommon. Things are pretty chaotic.

The next time you lay out a dungeon or lair of a bunch of chaotic monsters, consider the chaotic people and institutions in your own life, and see if injecting some of those details doesn't heighten how bewildering they are (or at least give some catharsis to you). I'll say as someone just slightly on the spectrum, it's somewhere between challenging and painful to imagine a world that works like this -- but it is the world I live in.

Some seeds for thought:

  • Cave A, B, and C have the same monster type, but they don't coordinate in any way.
  • Different caves have different "bosses" who are in direct competition with each other.
  • There's a "king" monster but (like the book says), their immediate command is only the people in direct line of sight. They can give dictates to the larger complex, but it's always a per-area reaction roll to see if they are obeyed or not.
  • Cave A and B are the same clan, but due to a feud they haven't communicated in several years.
  • Cave A may have information the PCs can cajole, bribe, or force out of them: details on people, places, things, passwords, maps, etc. But they're simply wrong, and the monsters in Cave B say they've never heard of any of them. Maps are incorrect. Passwords are out of date.
  • Cave A has certain protocols that are maintained for weeks or months: a patrol schedule, name of a boss, guardian monster pass, puzzle-lock pattern, etc. Then one day it doesn't work like that and everyone denies any knowledge that it was ever different.
  • The tribe is known for using a particular weapon (say: long spears). Then one day the king announces that these are now anathema (due to a scroll, religious revelation, wormtongue consultant, etc.), and every such item in the tribe is burned in a great bonfire. The tribe starts manufacturing swords and shields; this works poorly, so, some months later, they switch back.
  • Monsters are not proficient with the new weapons they've recently been given. Or, they've had them for some time but never received any training.
  • The king has a cool magic item but can't use it. The shaman is currently on the 5th cycle of divining a series of control words for it, none of which have worked when the king goes to use the item in a crisis.
  • Any idiom you can possibly think of gets misconstrued. "We need to see the boss! - We don't allow portraits in here." "I'm all ears - That's horrible, I'm glad you masked yourself with an illusion." "That'll be a piece of cake - I had cake once, I challenge you to the death for it."
  • General willingness to give BS responses (in the Frankfurtian sense) randomly on any issue, large or small.
  • Claims to great monsters, defenses, or treasures that simply don't exist.
  • Boss monsters who run away immediately and let their goons die to cover their tracks.
  • Numbers in the lair may go up or down randomly between sessions as other monsters are recruited/dismissed for various reasons.
  • Various cargo-cult rituals occur; claims to magic power, alien gates, etc. The majority do nothing. Can the PCs depend on them continuing to do nothing as they try different things in the future?
  • Scrolls & spellbooks of twisted, semi-cursed versions of standard spells.
  • Bosses reactions: Always screaming random directions. Often self-contradictory.
  • Tribe has a series of religious dictates which are all vocally worshiped and ignored in practice.
  • Door with a puzzle lock unknown by anyone in the tribe. Maybe there is no solution.
  • One low-level member of tribe actually has solution or passkey for a certain puzzle, trap, or monster, but no one believes them, because they're politically disempowered. Who is it?
  • Key tribe members are mostly drunk or drugged on a regular basis.
  • Going darker: The tribe randomly accuses some of its members of non-existent heresy and imprisons or tortures them, to no benefit.
  • The tribe ejects members randomly for various infractions. And/or: If members seek to leave, they are captured and imprisoned instead.
  • Townsfolk are kidnapped: And some random proportion are afflicted by the chaos of the place with Stockholm syndrome and surprisingly fight for their captors.
  • The tribe is spending a great deal of resources to defend themselves from a nonexistent threat (fictional monster, enemy tribe, made-up curse, cult, etc.) Meanwhile there's an actual disease, poison gas, parasite infestation, or geologic catastrophe that's degrading the tribe and being scrupulously ignored.
  • The tribe practices culling of a certain part of its population (based on age, gender, physique, etc.) They then have a problem of being over-biased in one direction, so they flip to culling the opposite part of the tribe.

At a somewhat higher level, consider if reality itself isn't morphing all the time, faerie-style:

  • Room furnishings and decor are changed frequently to their exact opposites semi-randomly.
  • NPCs show up in sequential encounters with somewhat changed hair, body, facial features (scar switches side), vocal tics, etc.; and show no awareness they were ever different.
  • Magic tricks, traps, puzzles, riddles, etc., get morphed on different dungeon delves.
  • Time slows down or speeds up in different parts of the dungeon, randomly in different sessions.
  • The spatial map layout of the dungeon, and possibly the surrounding wilderness, likewise shift between different sessions. Connections appear and disappear. Rooms gets closer or further apart. (Note: I've wanted to implement this for some time, but creating a nice keyed map takes so much time, it's difficult to commit to re-generating it on a regular basis. Some software tooling that "rubber-sheets" the map would be really great.)

I'm sure you can think of more examples. Just reflect on the institutions closest to you and riff on out-of-control processes you've seen yourself. Write a dungeon background key as normal; then go through every sentence and roll for whether that really is how things work - in contrast to how the inhabitants think/claim it works. Go read Stack Exchange: Workplace and fold in various absurdities.

In conclusion: The classic trope of a dungeon with monsters in nearby rooms or caves who are totally disconnected, without any communication or coordination, is actually not that unrealistic. It happens around us in the standard workplace all the time. Let your players experience the force of true chaos!


The Gygaxian Hallway

Hallway from Temple of Elemental Evil

It's something of a common gag that in the earliest D&D dungeons, all of the hallways were composed of 10-foot cubes -- but it's not true (notwithstanding the customary backstory to the gelatinous cube).

If you look in the right places, Gygax was surprisingly consistent about the shape of his hallways -- and they look like the image at the top of this post here. This is from the original Temple of Elemental Evil (1985), p. 40, in the introductory material to the temple proper. (Note like most art pieces in the extended module, it's signed "Jack[ie] Fred", which is a pseudonym shared by a number of artists when they were unhappy about the time constraints to do their work; but this definitely looks like a Jeff Easley illustration to me.)

In the text, the very first thing detailed in Part 3: Dungeons of Elemental Evil (p. 43) is is the information on "Standard Corridors", which describes the same architecture. This paragraph reads as follows:

Unless noted otherwise, corridors are of dressed stone blocks or worked from the natural limestone (or granite, in the lower depths). Walls and floors are smooth and polished wherever possible. The 10' wide corridors have gothic arches, peaking at about 17' height. The 20' and 30' passages and spaces have roman arches, about 30' tall. Unless otherwise described, doors are of oak, homwood, or bronzewood. Each is about three inches thick, bound with bronze, and set with a large ring on each side. Cressets and sconces are along the walls, and unlit torches rest in most of the latter. In 10' wide corridors, sconces are at 10' intervals. Cressets in wider passages are at 30' intervals. Both are staggered left, right, left, right (etc.), and unlit unless specified.

Almost a decade earlier, Gygax specified almost exactly the same thing in the 1E AD&D PHB's description of the wall of stone spell (p. 82):

This spell creates a wall of granite rock which merges into adjoining rock surfaces if the area is sufficient to allow it. It is typically employed to close passages, portals, and breaches against opponents. The wall of stone is 1/4' thick and 20' square in area per level of experience of the magic-user casting the spell. Thus, a 12th level magic-user creates a wall of stone 3' thick and 240 square feet in surface area (a 12' wide and 20' high wall, for example, to completely close a 10' × 16' passage).
Moreover, one page before that, the passwall spell is described as creating a passage of exactly half that standard size in each dimension:

A passwall enables the spell caster to open a passage through wooden, plaster, or stone walls; thus he or she and any associates can simply walk through. The spell causes a 5' wide by 8' high by 10' deep opening. Note several of these spells will form a continuing passage so that very thick walls can be pierced The material component of this spell is a pinch of sesame seeds.

I suppose we might say that latter spell is making a door-sized opening (if we ignore times the DMG asserts that standard dungeon interior doors are a tremendous 8' wide: see p. 60, p. 97, and my commentary here).

Anyway, this consistency in scaling seems unlikely to be a coincidence. I'd say it's an easy call that the dungeons underneath Castle Greyhawk had this same architecture, for example. Keep in mind the extra space overhead for that Gothic arch when it's important. Can you find any other references to dungeon hallways being this specific shape?


Monsters Through the Ages -- Carrion Crawler

AD&D Monster Cards Carrion Crawler
Last week on Wandering DMs we had a smashing chat with one of our favorite repeat guests, Matt Finch of Mythmere Games. As I write this, his Kickstarter for the new Swords & Wizards Complete Revised edition is entering its last few days -- you should check it out if you can. 

Matt is both epically knowledgeable about old-school D&D, and also impressively generous with his time and wisdom. After the live show he hung out for another hour to chat with he patrons on our Discord server (accessible at any tier on our Patreon). As part of that discussion, we got on the subject of Carrion Crawlers. Almost everyone involved had a different take on some part of how they should work -- and as we dug out our various books, it turns out that every one of our competing interpretations had some support from one text or another, which was entirely fascinating.

The Carrion Crawler is rather infamous for being probably the most brokenly imbalanced creature in early D&D. Positioned as a 2nd level monster on its birth in OD&D (Supplement I), it was re-evaluated as 6th level in the AD&D DMG, and got a special badge in its Monster Manual text: "... these monsters are greatly feared". Don Turnbull's MonsterMark System from the White Dwarf has an especially problematic time handling it. Frank Mentzer put forward using one as the single biggest mistake of his DM'ing career. And on and on. But what makes it the flagship for busting up a DM's best-laid plans?

OD&D Greyhawk (1976)

CARRION CRAWLERS: These scavangers will usually attack in order to insure that there will continue to be a supply of corpses to scavenge. They are worm-shaped, about 9’ in length, 3’ high at their head end, and move quickly on multiple legs. Their mouths are surrounded by eight tentacles of about 2’ length, and their touch causes paralization (save vs. or paralized). The Carrion Crawler is able to climb/move along walls or ceilings as readily as floors, thus allowing it to compete with Ochre Jellies, Black (or Gray) Puddings, and the like.

The "Attacks and Damage by Monster Type" table in this book (p. 16-19) confirms that a carrion crawler gets "8 tentacles" for its number of attacks, which is a very large number (rivaled only by octopi, squids, and hydra). The damage entry just says, "special", and the text here notes the paralyzing attack, which is really crippling (e.g., its one of the reasons ghouls punch so far above their weight class by hit dice). 

Note that no actual damage value is given -- I think this and the rust monster are the only two creatures to this point that lack a damage value or some other clear way of killing a PC (i.e., by poison or other death effect). This makes it a major trap and counterexample for any system that tries to measure monster threats by some kind of a-la-carte points system.

In our discussion last week, several opinions were put forward about what happens, as is quite likely, after a carrion crawler scores a TPP (total party paralysis). Does it just wander off, looking for actual dead meat (carrion), no-harm-no-foul? Does the DM start making wandering monster checks, who might actually kill the PCs and thus give the crawler something to scavenge (note that no duration was given to any paralysis abilities to this point). Does it presumably auto-consume the hapless PCs? Yes to all of these, depending what edition you play with.

AD&D Monster Manual (1977)




Carrion crawlers strongly resemble a cross between a giant green cutworm and a huge cephalopod. They are usually found only in subterranean areas. The carrion crawler is, as its name implies, a scavenger, but this does not preclude aggressive attacks upon living creatures, for that insures a constant supply of corpses upon which to feed or for deposit of eggs. The head of the monster is well protected, but its body is only armor class 7. A carrion crawler moves quite rapidly on its multiple legs despite its bulk, and a wall or ceiling is as easily traveled as a floor, for each of the beast's feet are equipped with sharp claws which hold it fast. The head is equipped with 8 tentacles which flail at prey; each 2' long tentacle exudes a gummy secretion which when fresh, will paralyze opponents (save versus paralyzation or it takes effect). As there are SO many tentacles with which to hit, and thus multiple chances of being paralyzed, these monsters are greatly feared.

A year later we have the 1E AD&D Monster Manual, which is almost entirely backwards-compatible with OD&D, and mostly just compiles all various stats for each monster (formerly spread around in separate pages of each book) in one place. It still gives no positive damage other than the paralysis effect, and no duration for that ability, either.

The text says that it's willing to attack living things, "for that insures a constant supply of corpses upon which to feed or for deposit of eggs". Without any specific mechanics, this could open up DM to interpret it in several ways. Maybe paralysis leads to death; maybe it waits for wandering monsters; maybe it injects eggs into PCs who get consumed by them immediately or later. The mind boggles at the hideous possibilities. 

D&D Basic Rules (Holmes, 1978)

This scavenger is worm shaped, 9' long, 3 feet high at the head and moves quickly on multiple legs. It can move equally well on the wall or ceiling as on the level. The mouth parts are surrounded by eight tentacles, two feet long, which produce paralysis on touch (i.e. when a hit is made). 

Holmes Basic is usually a faithful editorial presentation of the same rules as seen in OD&D. I briefly point out this book because it more explicitly gives a stat block for the carrion crawler that says, "Damage: 0". Zenopus Archives has a great series poring over the original Holmes manuscript for this book, which we know Gygax did an editorial pass on before publication. (And he makes the point that possibly one could argue in OD&D that by default every crawler tentacle gets a stock d6 damage on every hit, but that's taken off the table with this clarification.)

D&D Basic Rules (Moldvay, 1981)

This scavenger is worm-shaped, 9' long and 3' high with many legs. It can move equally well on a floor, wall, or ceiling like a spider. Its mouth is surrounded by 8 tentacles, each 2' long, which can paralyze on a successful hit unless a saving throw vs. Paralysis is made. Once paralyzed, a victim will be eaten (unless the carrion crawler is being attacked). The paralysis can be removed by a cure light wounds spell, but any spell so used will have no other effect. Without a spell, the paralysis will wear off in 2-8 turns.

As usual, Tom Moldvay makes the helpful decision to specify a duration for the paralysis for the first time. His stat block is back to saying, "Damage: Paralysis" (as opposed to 0 in Holmes). But most keenly he states that crawlers simply eat their paralyzed victims by fiat. (!) So DMs used to running the B/X or related systems likely have the intuition that crawlers just swallow their prey whole like a snake. No save for you.  

This same ruling is carried forward later into the Mentzer BECMI set. The Alston Rules Cyclopedia is largely the same with tiny adjustments: the stat block there says, "Damage: Paralysis or 1 point", and the text sets a timer on fast one eats paralyzed bodies: they "will eat paralyzed victims in three turns".

AD&D Monster Cards (1982)

Carrion crawlers attack with 8 tentacles that secrete a gummy fluid that will paralyze any opponents hit for 2d6 turns unless they save vs. Paralyzation. Carrion crawlers wll continue to attack as long as any opponents are unparalyzed. They will kill paralyzed creatures with their bite (DM 1-2), in order to have a constant supply of bodies to eat and to lay eggs in.

The AD&D Monster Cards are kind of a fascinating a beautiful set of products (the art at the top of this post is the front of the Carrion Crawler card). There are times I'm tempted to run a classic game by always showing players these cards, with name and info hidden on the back -- except there are too many gaps of key monsters that were never included (please, someone make a fill-in product here, take my money so I don't have to do it).

While the stat blocks are mostly identical to what's in the Monster Manual, these cards make some surprising, fundamental tweaks to certain monster rules. For example, you can see here that it specifies values for carrion crawler paralysis time (2d6 turns) and its capacity post-paralysis (a bite attack for a 1-2 damage). Other examples include specifying the duration for Ghoul paralysis for the first time in the game. So now the issue clarified for the AD&D line: a paralyzed party will clearly get TPK'd by the crawler. 

This duration and damage was copied forward verbatim into 2E AD&D, for example. In 3E the duration was given as 2d6 minutes, and the post-paralysis bite damage was raised to 1d4+1.

Big thanks to our patron Adam for pointing out this detail to us.


At the outset, carrion crawlers have a fairly open-field ability profile that DMs could potentially fill in many different ways. But over time each of the bifurcating Basic and Advanced D&D lines of the 1980s-1990s came around to specifying a relatively limited paralysis duration, and a direct way for crawlers to finish off prey that they'd paralyzed -- including some small-damage bite attack in their final forms. 

Even with that specific damage figure, their main disabling threat is of course the paralysis ability, so systems that try to mechanically crunch damage numbers will still trip up over evaluating these monsters. In the OED Monster Metrics simulator, a carrion crawler with its full 8 attacks gets assessed at EHD (equivalent hit dice) 12, while a reduced one with 4 attacks is still EHD 9. (Note that latter form is what I customarily run with, coincidentally similar to what Mentzer rationalizes in his games.)

How do you like your carrion crawlers? Are you happy with the post-Moldvay consensus that crawlers definitely terminate their paralyzed prey, or would you prefer different possibilities?


Random Walks in the Dungeons of the Slave Lords

Cover of In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords

I recently had an opportunity to run AD&D module A4, In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, for the first time. This is of course the culminating adventure in the classic A-series Slavers tournament, famous for stripping the PCs of literally every resource and forcing them to outhink their way through a pitch-black labyrinth after being abandoned/ sacrificed to its horrors. We chatted about it a bit on Wandering DMs the other week. 

Once again, the playthrough made me realize several things about the adventure that I hadn't noticed, even having read through it multiple times since its release in 1981. (As usual, one of the pieces of dogma for this blog is: The acid test is gameplay.) One that came up in my discussion with WDM Paul is that, while the dungeon has 3 different possible exits, all the times we've run it the players have made it out through one exit in particular.

To investigate this, I took some graph-theory code I'd developed for one of my college courses, modeled the A4 dungeon as an abstract graph, and then simulated several thousand random walks starting from the entry area #1 to see the frequency that those walks run into the various exits. For this purpose, I annotated the dungeon map with extra areas 22-27 to mark otherwise unlabelled tunnel intersections (if you have your own map copy you can deduce where I put those labels, I'm sure). Then I cut out all of the mid-tunnel points that don't have any branches, places where the PCs are highly unlikely to turn back, counter to how a random walk will work (and this also simplifies the visual appearance of the graph, below). Here's the result, via the gvedit visualization tool:

Annotated & reduced abstract graph of AD&D module A4


Some observations: There are several interconnecting circuits in the section of areas #1-12 (top half of this graph), which allow numerous ways to navigate between those areas. But there's only one exit in that section, at area #10. 

In contrast to that, there's one critical bottleneck-tunnel from area #12 to #15; that's the only way to access the other branch composed of areas #15-21 (bottom half of the graph here). Despite the difficulty in getting there, that branch includes 2 of the 3 dungeon exits (at areas #19 and #21), as well as the notable Myconid colony (featured on the cover of the module, and the only place in the entire A series where negotiation can be profitable). If players never find their way to that particular tunnel out of area #12, then they'll never see any of that latter content.

So here's the results of my series of random walks -- note this is purely random at each location, including equal chances to turn around and backtrack from any location. After 10K simulations, the number of times each exit was reached are as follows:

AD&D Module A4 Random Walks 

Exit Reached Percent
10 5,360 53.60%
19 1,904 19.04%
21 2,736 27.36%

So broadly speaking, this model suggests that about half the time, players will exit from the top half of the graph, which means the exit at area #10. And the other half of the time, players will exit from the bottom half of the graph, with exits split between areas #19 and #21. Basically that toggle is a coin-flip over whether they take the tunnel from #12 to #15 or not. And consider that in this scenario, the players aren't allowed to map or properly orient themselves ("all directions should be given to them in terms of right and left", p. 3), so it's at least as likely that they'll circle back on their own path several times as they are to stumble onto the key connection. Indeed, it's the exit at #10 from which Paul & I have seen all of our playgroups escape (a small sample size, to be sure).

Regarding the difference between the two exits in the far part of our graph: our model makes it look significantly more likely that #21 is found than #19. On the other hand, it's the latter area that the Myconids are able to direct the players towards, which might shift some weight from #21 to #19; but on the other-other hand, anecdotal evidence suggests the Myconids are so frightening that it's rare for negotiations to be pursued with them. Since all of these factors are isolated in our lower branch, I don't think any such re-evaluation would affect the chance that area #10 is discovered first.

Here's he upshot: If you're preparing to run module A4, then you should prioritize being able to handle the #10 exit above the others, and more generally the whole branch that it's on, because it looks like a bit more than half the time that's how the action will play out. Secondarily you can prepare for running the more distant branch (with the complex Myconid area), in particular the area #21 exit, and not spend too much time thinking about #19, which seems to be a fairly unlikely exit point.

If you've played or run module A4, which exits did you personally see get used in play?


The Concentration Game

Man concentrating on dragon statueThe issue of "concentration" for spellcasting has come up a number of times in my OD&D games lately. For those somewhat more familiar with the current-edition of D&D, two reactions are halfway common: (a) surprise that a "concentration" mechanic existed in OD&D, and/or (b) surprise that it's so infrequently required for spells in OD&D.

At any rate: Yes, Virginia, concentration was a requirement for certain spells in the very first publication of D&D (1974). Just to reflect on it a bit more, here are all the spells which mention such a requirement:

Original D&D

  • Phantasmal Forces: "As long as the caster concentrates on the spell, the illusion will continue unless touched by some living creature, so there is no limit on duration, per se". This is the first appearance; kind of interesting it's used as means to avoid giving the spell a defined duration.

  • Wall of Fire: "The spell will create a wall of fire which lasts until the Magic-User no longer concentrates to maintain it." This is one of my least favorite uses (in that it locks the caster down to nothing but maintaining the wall while it's in use -- can't even flee while the wall serves as an obstacle). Requiring concentration while the caster directs some dynamic activity makes sense; just maintaining a static effect not so much.

  • Conjure Elemental: "The Elemental will remain until dispelled, but the Magic-User must concentrate on control or the elemental will turn upon its conjurer and attack him (see CHAINMAIL)." This is likely the most famous, idiomatic usage: concentrate on your summoned elemental or it irremediably go berserk and tries to kill you instead (which is a major downside to this spell!)

And that's it: just those 3 in the little brown books (Volume 1, Men & Magic).

A few other references can be found in Sup-III, Eldritch Wizardry, for the psionic domination ability; and in Sup-IV, Gods Demigods and Heroes, in that the Hyborean magical mirror of Lazbekri requires it (so as to function as a gem of seeing; maybe just flavor text), and that the Indian deity Rudra can cast illusions without such a requirement (as is normally the case for phantasmal forces, above).

So that's a very slight number of uses of the mechanic -- and as usual for the rules in those days, didn't really scope out exactly what the parameters of such a concentration requirement were.

The AD&D rules somewhat expand on those points, including requirements for -- gnome and halfling detection abilities, paladin detection of evil, spiritual hammer, locate animals, locate plants, wall of fire, conjure elementals, clairaudience, phantasmal forces, telekinesis, emotion, a few closely related spells, and numerous psionic abilities (in the optional Appendix I). 

One interesting point is that the 1E phantasmal force specifies that concentration ends with any movement (in addition to taking an attack, etc.), whereas the new improved phantasmal force permits half-speed movement. I find that latter rule pretty reasonable, and use it as a base assumption in my games.

Furthermore, in my Book of Spells (see sidebar) I have a tendency to include it any spells that have an ongoing detection or direction component, including (in addition to the classic ones above) -- read minds (ESP), legend lore, and move earth.

Of course, 5E D&D expanded the concentration mechanic to be a core limiting factoring in a lot more spells -- maybe something like half of all the spells in the game? When playing a caster in 5E, I routinely get tripped up by not foreseeing how many different spells have the concentration requirement, and wind up boxing myself out from good combinations and/or embarrassingly wasting a number of castings.

What's your master theory for what spells should require concentration?


Papier Und Spiele: Book of War vs. Chainmail

Schematic of goblin battle on path

Blogger ahabicher at Papier Und Spiele occasionally takes a really close look at my Book of War rules for classic D&D wargaming, and I think it's really helpful to get the perspective of someone who cares so much about D&D mass combat who isn't me. This week he's done a test of a battle between two tribes of warring goblins -- done twice, once in Chainmail, and once in Book of War, to see how they compare. I kind of love this to death. You should read the action

In the interest of full disclosure, I will collegially point out a few things in the report that I would personally interpret or run differently:

  1. Overall Book of War is trying to simulate classic Dungeons & Dragons combat (with its "Alternative Combat System" as of 1974 with d20 attack matrices), moreso than the original Chainmail book with its custom troop-type tables. That said, I'm constantly referring back to Chainmail myself for lots of stuff like the man-to-man combat sequence, modifiers, creature special abilities, movement and missile ranges, catapult/boulder/fireball targeting mechanics, etc., which are included by reference in Original D&D.

  2. I don't roll initiative every turn, just once at the start of the battle, then alternate sides sequentially. This follows what's in Gygax's later Swords & Spells, but it's opening my eyes for the first time that Chainmail and also Battlesystem determine initiative every round. I can see now in my text I left that a bit vague.

  3. Revisions we've made since the 1st Edition publication adjusted the successful 2d6 morale target from 10 down to 9. This was specifically to synchronize with the OD&D reaction table, which has success at a value of 9 and up (and is referenced as one of the two or three possible ways to adjudicate morale in OD&D: see Vol-1, p. 13). But that wouldn't make any difference in the current play-through, anyway.

  4. There's common debate about whether in Chainmail a player should be throwing 1 attack per figure, or per man (i.e., 20 dice per figure). I do think comes down to sloppy-casual writing in the original Chainmail text, in that Gygax would swap around "man" and "figure" for the same thing interchangeably, even at mass scale. When asked in 2005 on the issue, Gary responded, "Read 'man' as 'figure' and you have it. One die is just that...". You can see the full exchange here. So there's at least an interpretation that allows for much fewer dice when running Chainmail.

That said, I can acclaim enough how incredibly valuable this battle report is! Without giving away exactly how this fight goes, I can't help but highlight ahabiche's ultimate takeaway:

Book of War is faster and easier. It is the better choice to determine the outcome of a battle within the context of a roleplaying game, when we may want to determine the fate of specific individuals by the RPG rules in single combat, and our goal with the mass battle is to find out how it goes.

If you want to see more about the current state of the Book of War ruleset, check out the sidebar, and/or our continuing biweekly series of live playtests on Youtube. Fight on!


OED on Roll20

OED Character Sheet on Roll20

Hey, did you know there's an official Original Edition Delta Character Record Sheet available on Roll20? Yessiree Bob, there sure is.

This a joint work between myself and Jameson Proctor (Campaign Games, Forts & Frontiers), to whom I'm immensely grateful for starting this project. The sheet's actually been online for over a year at this point, but I just recently found some time to make all the OCD/OED tweaks that would make me extra-happy to use it myself.

We've tried to keep it fairly lightweight and flexible so DMs have the freedom to adjudicate details to their personal taste. But for convenience, we've added these webby features:

  • Auto-calculation of ability score bonuses.
  • Auto-calculation of movement rate from encumbrance.
  • Push-button for saving throws (based on character level).
  • Push-button for attack rolls (rolling both attack & damage).
  • Auto-summing of equipment encumbrance values.
  • Checkbox interface for memorizing spellbook entries.

When you're making a new game on Roll20, or updating an old game via the Settings > Game Settings > Character Sheet Template menu, you can scroll down to "Original Edition Delta" -- or just search for "delta", and that will bring it up.

Hopefully this will suit your purposes if you're playing our style of lightly-adjusted old-school game. I like to think I'm pretty good at testing & debugging this kind of work, so it looks pretty solid to my eye at this time. But please check it out and leave a comment on anything you think I missed.

Fight on!


Radius or Diameter?

Circle circumference, diameter, radius

I've been working on refining spell descriptions (again) lately -- for hopefully upcoming expanded releases of the OED Book of Spells and Book of War rules. (E.g., we started testing top-level spells in mass battle play in the BOW livestream sessions the other week.) A couple of recent testbeds brought to mind the question: what's better for expressing the area of a circular spell effect, the radius, or the diameter?

For many years I've been strongly biased towards using the radius, because that's the used in mathematical definition of a circle. Arguably, however, it's easier and more common to measure real-world existing circles via the diameter (given the center is not actually part of the circle or necessarily distinguished; think tires, pizzas, wells, etc.)

Funny observation: Gygax's writing for O/AD&D was amazingly inconsistent on the matter, often flip-flopping for various spells in opposite directions. Starting with the first few spells in the Chainmail list, I see:

  • Chainmail: Catapults/fireballs given by diameter, light by radius, protection from evil by diameter, etc.
  • Original D&D: Fireballs by radius, light by diameter, protection from evil by radius (so, each of example toggles)
  • Swords & Spells: Everything by diameter.
  • Advanced D&D: Everything by radius (as far as I can tell).

I think the Swords & Spells case is interesting, because it gives a big list with all the stats (range, area, duration) for every spell in OD&D in a master list. When I did the same thing for my simulator, I found that things got confusing for a specific reason -- every other shape was being expressed by overall width (squares, lines, cubes, rectangles, etc.), but circles were listed by half-width. So I was getting a bit scrambled comparing entries of "circle-2-in." next to "square-3-in." and remembering that the former is actually bigger (wider). Note this is the case where Gygax gave diameters for everything, and I think this explains why.

The other (and related) case is trying to build templates for area spells in a VTT, specifically Roll20. There's a single pipeline for importing a token image and specifying how big it should be in map-square-units, and that interface asks for the total width (whether the image is of a square, rectangle, circle, etc.). So for my circle areas I was having to do an extra mental step and remember to double the indicated rule dimension for each token. In addition, I'd note that hand-drawing circles, ellipses, etc. in Roll20 and most drawing software I'm familiar with involves drawing and reporting on the bounding box for the shape in question; they don't draw from center to circumference.

Based on these experiences, for consistency with other shapes, I had an urge to switch all the circular specifications from radius over to diameter. But I also thought to ask opinions online, and got feedback like this on the ODD74 forums:

Poll: Radius (17) vs. diameter (0).

Similarly, folks on Twitter were almost unanimously in favor of using the radius. Voting on the Wandering DMs Discord server also went for the radius (with some votes switching from diameter back to radius based on discussion there: esp., targeting and determining casualties for a blasting spell). I didn't bother to ask on an AD&D forum, since those rules do uniformly use radius, so I assume everyone will be habituated to that.

Therefore, I'm taking that as an overwhelming preference among the classic D&D community, and not indulge my momentary instinct to switch things to a Swords & Spells type presentation, but instead keep giving radius like everyone expects.

We're all lucky I didn't find some way to argue for the circumference.


Dragon's Lair

Dragon's Lair cover

I've gotten a chance to play the Dragon's Lair arcade game on my PC (finally in the last week or so).

I can't emphasize how ground-breaking this game was when it showed up in arcades back in 1983 (40 years ago as I write this). Up to that point, we'd only seen 8-bit sprite-based games with digital audio blips. Consider the top games from 1982 (per Wikipedia, "the peak year for the golden age of arcade video games") -- Dig Dug, Pole Position, Zaxxon, Q*bert, Time Pilot, etc. Rendered 3D games were about a decade away at that point.

And then all of a sudden the Dragon's Lair cabinet shows up with Laserdisc technology, and you're playing through a full-on Disney-quality animated movie by Don Bluth & co., experiencing booming professional voice acting, etc. My brain still hasn't recovered from what a leap it was.

For years I've tried to get a PC version working and never succeeded. I think I bought at least two CD versions and each time they were broken beyond usability. This past week I decided to do another search and, amazingly, managed to get a version that actually works. Plus the sequels: Dragon's Lair 2, Space Ace, etc.

So I'm playing through and actually learning how to play and decoding the terrifying puzzles for the first time. An amazing trip.

Here's a point: I'm finding that I don't like the sequels nearly so much. This is not remotely a nostalgia thing because, for budget reasons, I really never played any of them back in the day more than once or twice. So, why this preference?

It's because the later iterations made that classic misstep (to me) of inserting more story into the games. The first Dragon's Lair is essentially a picaresque: the action sequences come in basically a random order, and you never know what's coming next. Part of the play is keeping on your toes and identifying each scene quickly as it starts, so as to engage the right move series. This randomness keeps replayability high, and keep the focus tightly on the player skill in each puzzle as you learn and gain expertise with it.

But then each of the games afterward make the Hickman-esque movement of "this game would be better if it was more like a story you'd see in a book or movie". There are more narrative sequences of people talking when you don't have anything to interact with. More importantly, the sequence of scenes is always exactly the same for every play-through, because it needs to keep on a tightly railroaded plot. I find this has three effects: One, replays get boring faster because of the predictability. Two, it's more likely that you replay parts of the same scene back-to-back because the scene needs to get completed before you can continue. Three, when it mulligans you and just pushes you forward after a failure (death), I find that weirdly more jarring, because the Kenny-like death in the middle of the narrative story seems more lampshaded-incoherent.

This sense is of course consistent with my discomfort with the historical progression of inserting more "story" elements into games. For me, something is lost when the tilty-trap swings more in that direction away from the focus on technical player skill. My partner & I have always rolled our eyes at the narrative cut-scenes in real-time strategy games, as another example. But I think we're in the minority, as it's something I've been fairly well exhausted at debating with people over the years -- and probably more than one guest we've had on Wandering DMs has said things like "RPGs aren't about the gameplay, it's about the stories we make with our friends", which I guess I have to respect, but feel completely different about.


Advancement in Classic D&D

Graph trending up

We frequently marvel at how sketchy the advice was in Original D&D (and other early editions) was for the number of monsters, amount of treasure, and expected rate of PC advancement in the dungeons.

There are a few semi-secondary sources that give estimates for advancement rates -- and it's rather remarkable how widely they differ. This is even though they all date from a time post-OD&D-Supplement-I, when in they're all using basically the same monster XP chart and treasure tables.

Gygax in The Strategic Review Vol. 2, #2, p. 23 (1976)

It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years to see 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level.

Note that on average this suggests about 60 games in the first year of play to achieve 10th level (i.e., an average of 6 games/level; but there's no reason to think this is a uniform rate over the ten levels). The data points afterward suggest a subsequent rate of about 2.5 levels gained per year of play. Obviously: that's an enormous number of games by modern standards!

Holmes in Basic D&D, p. 22 (1977)

As a guideline, it should take a group of players from 6 to 12 adventures before any of their characters are able to gain sufficient experience to attain second level. This guidelining will hold true for successive levels. Note that it is assumed that the 6 to 12 adventures are ones in which a fair amount of treasure was brought back — some 10% to 20% of adventures will likely prove relatively profitless for one reason or another.

On average, this works out to 9 adventures per level -- 50% slower than Gygax's general estimate (prior to name level).

Moldvay in B/X, p. B61 (1981)

If no one has reached the 2nd level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure. If most of the players have reached the 3rd level of experience in this time, the DM should consider cutting down the amount of treasure, or increasing the "toughness" of the monsters.

On average, this suggests around 2.5 adventures to gain the first level-up -- over 50% faster than Gygax's general estimate.

Is it surprising how much those estimates vary? The one thing I might point to as a difference is that Gygax's play in OD&D/AD&D awards (some) XP for acquisition of magic items, whereas that's never suggested in the Basic D&D lines. Hypothetically that might explain why the Holmes rate is slower, but certainly not why the Moldvay rate is faster.

Can you think of any other obvious mechanical differences in those rules that would explain that? Which rate best matches your experience at the table? Which best matches your desire as a DM at the table?