Sunday, December 21, 2014

Mixing and Matching Classes

I am a B/X D&D kind of guy: I like having four core classes and not much else. So officially that's Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, and Thief — but actually I tend to call them Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard instead. Never mind the details here, let's just say that I like those names better. Of course there are also demi-humans in B/X, but I treat them more like AD&D does: I separate race from class. I actually wrote a thing about that if you're interested. (Before you complain, I do understand why some people like race-as-class but for me it's just not the right fit, at least not for a campaign game.)

Now obviously there are many players with experience in other systems such as AD&D, and some of those players would really like to run a Paladin or a Druid or an Illusionist or whatnot. There are plenty of resources that provide those classes (and many more) as additions for B/X D&D or compatible systems such as Labyrinth Lord. But I still prefer the purity of just four core classes and so I usually negotiate with players like that, granting their characters a "small edge" that goes in the right direction but doesn't mess with the game too much. Dyson's random sub-classes are an excellent example of the kind of thing I tend to do.

Then along comes Zach H of Zenopus Archives fame with a G+ post that gets me thinking. Here's that post:

Idle thought on adding subclasses to whitebox OD&D or Holmes, but without adding any new rules.

Paladin = Fighter/Cleric
Ranger = Fighter/Thief
Monk = Cleric/Thief
Druid = Cleric/MU
Bard = Thief/MU

Subclasses are for humans only (Fighter/MU is still just elves). Use whatever multi-class rules you use for elves.

One can obviously debate whether the suggested "breakdown" for each of these is the best possible one, but the idea of "mixing and matching" the core classes to re-create approximations of other popular classes is genius! And although Zach's "idle thought" is not explicitly targetting B/X it can certainly work there as well, once we add some kind of multi-classing mechanic anyway.

As luck would have it, I already added such a mechanic in support of my take on demi-humans: I am using a variant of archetypal multi-classing! And one of the cool things about that approach is that Fighter/Thief and Thief/Fighter are not the same thing: The secondary class is always at half the level of the primary class, so those combinations feel very different in play.

Applied to Zach's idea this gives us a number of additional possibilities for "mixing" classes together. For example we can interpret Fighter/Thief as "Ranger" or maybe "Scout" whereas Thief/Fighter might be "Thug" or "Assassin" if we squint a little.

But I got my real Christmas present when I tried to figure out the difference between a Fighter/Cleric and a Cleric/Fighter. I agreed with Zach that a Fighter/Cleric should be a "Paladin", but what the heck is a Cleric/Fighter if not also a "Paladin", albeit of a slightly different bent? (Yes, I could make up another name for that combination, but it still seems too redundant.)

What hit me at that point was that the Cleric is already a multi-classed character: Clerics combine "divine spell-casting" with "decent combat-ability" after all! So if there was a class that only focused on the divine stuff, a Priest class say, then I would get a much more sensible result: The Fighter/Priest would be the "Paladin" but the Priest/Fighter would now be the "Cleric," reconstituted from salvaged parts.

Praise be to that glorious redemption from the interwebz!

This little insight fixes so much for me. I've always looked at Paladins with a critical eye, mostly because I felt like the Cleric was already some kind of Paladin to begin with. The "heavily armored guy bashing orcs with a mace while waving a cross" just never really worked for me as something a "run of the mill" religious person should be. So I found it necessary to cast the Cleric as a "militant fanatic" of sorts to make sense of it all and I assumed some "less militant" religious folks in the background as non-player characters: tending to the sick, writing history and philosophy tracts, celebrating "mass" of one sort or another, herding the undead pets of their EHP, etc.

Now I can finally remedy this situation in a framework that makes sense to me. I'll throw out the existing Cleric class and replace it with a Priest class that gets "divine spell-casting" and "turn undead" but nothing else. Priests are of a scholarly bent, sort of like Wizards (or Magic-Users or whatever). Priests get the Wizard's hit die, combat progression, weapon selection, and armor restrictions, but (just for kicks) they keep the old Cleric's saving throws. And of course Priests have to memorize spells from their "prayer books" just like Clerics had to already in my campaign. (This allows me to cut down on Dan's old complaint that Clerics have access to too many spells.) Now if players want to have a priestly character, one that's not also a slaughter-house, they finally can! And if they want to be something with more "oomph" in battle, well, just multi-class the right way and become either a Paladin or a Cleric.

Having said all that, the one thing I am not sure about is whether this added complexity is worth it in the end. Don't get me wrong, I really like this approach. But the old "just give them a special thing" worked as well and in the end it's more flexible since the referee is involved and can "grant" something that's very special and not in the "official" rules.

In any case, I still need to "interpret" all the possible class combinations in a useful way, and I am still having trouble with some of them. Maybe you can help by suggesting something I have not thought of? Here's what I have now:

Fighter / Priest = Paladin
Fighter / Rogue = Scout or Ranger
Fighter / Wizard = Warlock?
Priest / Fighter = Cleric
Priest / Rogue = Monk? Inquisitor?
Priest / Wizard = Druid? Shaman?
Rogue / Fighter = Thug or Assassin
Rogue / Priest = Charlatan? Agitator?
Rogue / Wizard = Bard?
Wizard / Fighter = ?
Wizard / Priest = Thaumaturgist? Theurge?
Wizard / Rogue = Illusionist? Mountebank? Trickster?

And with that I am putting my behind on a plane to Germany. Merry Christmas (or whatever it is you celebrate) and a Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Geeky B/X D&D Love

I am a computer scientist by trade and I used to work a lot on programming languages. Specifically I worked on what (at least a certain community of researchers) calls "modular programming languages," a fancy way of saying "languages designed in the style of Niklaus Wirth" for the most part. Wirth and friends were very active in the 1960s when ALGOL 60 was "en vogue" as the "academically respectable" counterpoint to FORTRAN and COBOL, those drooling ogres that were even then teaching us how not to do it.

There's a famous 1973 keynote address entitled "Hints on Programming Language Design" given by Tony Hoare (who I'd consider to be one of those friends of Wirth) which was later published in various places including this technical report. In it, Tony finds a wonderful way of expressing just how much he respected ALGOL 60 and just how terrible he thought many of the more recent languages were. This is what he said:

The more I ponder the principles of language design, and the techniques which put them into practice, the more is my amazement and admiration of ALGOL 60. Here is a language so far ahead of its time, that it was not only an improvement on its predecessors, but also on nearly all its successors.

Now some may think that this is pure arrogance and venom and that it's no wonder that an "old fart" would say it. But it's also a very witty declaration of love for ALGOL 60. As I've been playing around with the various versions of D&D in recent years, I started feeling exactly the same way about B/X. So paraphrasing Tony Hoare, I would like to publicly state the following:

The more I ponder the principles of role-playing game design, and the mechanics which put them into practice, the more is my amazement and admiration of B/X D&D. Here is a role-playing game so clean, so concise, yet so complete, that it was not only an improvement on its predecessors, but also on nearly all its successors.

Of course I am now an "old fart" myself and I am sure many out there will find my (derivative) statement arrogant and venomous in the extreme. But it's also a (somewhat?) witty declaration of love for B/X D&D. One that I can only hope will inspire a few of you who have never looked at B/X before to actually take a peek. It's well worth it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Riffing on 2d6: Turning Undead

Alright, time to look at another classic application of 2d6, the "Turn Undead" mechanic. Unlike reaction rolls where the range a roll falls into matters, turning the undead requires beating a target number that depends on the level of the cleric as well as (the hit dice of) the undead creature to be turned. Traditionally the numbers 7, 9, and 11 have to be beat. Here's (part of) the relevant table from OD&D (Vol 1, page 22):

(1/2 HD)
(1 HD)
(2 HD)
(3 HD)

Entries marked "N" cannot be turned at all, those marked "T" or "D" are automatically turned or destroyed. The chances of getting at least the required target number on a straight 2d6 roll are as follows:


If we compare cleric level against undead hit dice, this means that clerics have a fairly small chance, less than a third in fact, for turning creatures of power equal to themselves. But at least that's a nice pattern: The entire table uses 9 for creatures equal to the cleric's level in hit dice. So we may not like the low chance of success, but at least the mechanic is consistent (for the most part anyway, vampires ruin it a bit with their variable hit dice).

In Holmes D&D (page 12) and B/X D&D (page X5) we find the exact same table but with a small twist: Some undead creatures get different hit dice. Holmes keeps skeletons at 1/2 HD but changes zombies to 2 HD, B/X also changes skeletons to 1 HD. Curiously ghouls and wights remain at 2 HD and 3 HD respectively thus ruining the pattern that governed the table in OD&D.

Let's briefly look at AD&D in this regard (Dungeon Master's Guide, page 75). The hit dice are as in B/X D&D but the mechanic is now a d20 roll against a target number. Also clerics can affect undead creatures a lot more powerful than themselves:

(1 HD)
(2 HD)
(2 HD)
(3+3 HD)
(4+3 HD)
(4 HD)
(5+3 HD)
(6+3 HD)

Obviously nothing of the formerly elegant mechanic is left at this point: We have ghasts, monsters with fewer hit dice than wights that are nevertheless harder to turn, we have target numbers missing (no 19 at level 4 for instance), we suddenly jump to "T" for two monsters at level 4 (presumably because shadows got inserted into the table), etc. Gary, what were you thinking? And what about the chances of success?


So for level 1 clerics it got a little harder to turn skeletons, but turning zombies and ghouls actually became quite a bit easier. And now they even have a shot at turning shadows and wights! I guess the question is whether they should have a chance to turn undead creatures more than four times as powerful as they are? But that gets us too far off track, after all we want to study the 2d6 mechanic, not get bogged down in the thankless task of fixing AD&D.

One thing the AD&D version points to is that there probably should be more levels of difficulty. In the original 2d6 version we go from a 58% chance for turning directly to a 100% chance, a level of progress unheard of in other areas (combat or thieves' skills for example). And of course there are plenty of possible target numbers:


What sticks out, because they fit with the existing "7, 9, 11" pattern, are the target numbers "5" and "3" that could precede a "T" result thus extending the table. And that's exactly what Labyrinth Lord does (page 9):

1 HD2 HD3 HD4 HD5 HD

Note also that the table no longer lists specific undead creatures, probably just as much of an improvement as the wider range of target numbers. We now get the following chances for successfully turning undead:


Some may complain that the additional target numbers "nerf" the cleric too much, but I disagree. Modifying the table this way brings it closer to the more gradual progressions exhibited by other mechanics such as combat and thieves' skills. It's also fun to roll knowing that one is 97% likely to succeed, dare I say more fun than being 100% likely without a roll? What it doesn't do, however, is usefully approximate the AD&D chances for turning:


There are lots of gaps (for 2, 7, 13, and 19 on d20) that make mapping the AD&D table back to the 2d6 table too much of a hassle. Of course I am not even sure why we'd want to do that, but I had to point it out anyway because it was possible after all to get a decent approximation in the case of reaction rolls.

Yet another wonderful variation on the 2d6 table comes from Dyson Logos. He uses the notation "x/y" to indicate that on "x" or higher the undead are turned but on "y" or higher they are destroyed instead:

1 HD2 HD3 HD4 HD5 HD

In this way, not only are the chances for turning "smoothed out" compared to B/X, but the same is true for the chances of destroying the undead. Note that unlike Labyrinth Lord itself, Dyson consistently assigns 9 as a target number for undead creatures with the same number of hit dice as the cleric has levels. This is actually what OD&D did (see above) but the "B/X shift" for skeletons and zombies makes it seem like clerics in his campaign have it harder than clerics in regular Labyrinth Lord or B/X games. Fixing the table to bring it in line with those percentages is easy enough though:

1 HD2 HD3 HD4 HD5 HD

And there you have it, the 2d6-driven table for turning or destroying undead creatures that I would most likely use in the future. But now it seems like I spent a whole lot of time specifically on turning undead and not on 2d6. Or did I? What do we have "encoded" in that last table? It's a task that depending on the level of a character has different chances of succeeding. And actually, it can succeed "normally" and "perfectly" if we include turning and destroying undead creatures. Does that smell a little bit like a possible skill mechanic? :-)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Read Dyson! Now what about other blogs?

I spent the last three days reading the entirety of Dyson's Dodecahedron and I have to say it was worth it. I was about to load one of his maps into GIMP, slap "I read all of Dyson but I didn't even get a cookie!" over it and include it with this post, but frankly I am too tired now.

What got me started initially was simply trying to get my grubby little fingers on every single map he has posted, but then I found so many other fun things to read. Take, for example, his extended play report for The Temple of Illhan. I really wish he had been able to actually write the module with his then-DM, it sounds like so much fun! Or check out his design notes on the various levels of Dyson's Delve, quite inspirational for the dungeon stocker in me. Then there are the random tables covering everything from polearms to lost cities, all thoroughly enjoyable and most even useful.

So aside from singing Dyson's praises, why make a post about this? Well, now I wonder what I've been missing on other "famous" D&D-type blogs. Should I go ahead and schedule a few weeks to read all of Joe Bloch, Robert Conley, and Wayne Rossi? I probably won't get cookies from them either, will I? But what if I don't read them now and they disappear next month? If we're lucky the WayBack Machine has them archived forever in the way we got lucky with But who's to say? I guess I am getting old and weird, worrying about preserving the collective genius out there. Does anyone else worry about the same thing?

Anyway, I am off to buy myself a cookie now...

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Hit points over time in B/X

I read a claim somewhere that high-level thieves are formidable warriors in B/X and I almost back-stabbed myself for not noticing this before. Then again I rarely play at high levels so at least I have that excuse. At level 3, thieves are still just as wimpy as magic-users of course (details):

Average hit points at level 3.

An average of 7.5 versus the fighter's 13.5 hit points? Hardly a threat to anything but a lone kobold... Things get a bit more interesting at level 14 as the differences between the various classes become more pronounced (details):

Average hit points at level 14.

The thief has now moved past the halfling and the magic-user and is closing in on the elf. Of course an average of 32.5 versus the fighter's 50.5 is still not going to promote the thief into the front ranks. By the time we reach level 25, however, all of that changes (details):

Average hit points at level 25.

Now the thief is second only to the fighter having passed all the other characters on average. Only lucky dwarves could conceivably have more hit points than the thief now. This situation only solidifies by the time we get to level 36 of course (details):

Average hit points at level 36.

At this point the role of the "backup fighter" has clearly shifted from the cleric to the thief, as long as we ignore armor class anyway. So thieves, while starting out at the bottom of the hit point food chain end up close to the top of it. I found that surprising enough to put together a post with lots of nice graphs for you.

Addendum: Just for kicks, how does B/X compare to AD&D for the core classes? Not surprisingly, AD&D characters at level 20 are quite a bit more hardy than B/X characters (details):

Average hit points at level 20 in B/X and AD&D.

The B/X fighter lines up perfectly with the AD&D cleric and the B/X thief is way behind the AD&D thief. Even the AD&D magic-user, getting to roll until level 11, is slightly more beefy than the B/X magic-user.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The "Strict" Reading of Spell Books in B/X

A few years back these posts over on Ode to Black Dougal pointed out that B/X spell books work differently than spell books in other D&D variants. In brief, B/X magic-users cannot add spells to their spell book from scrolls and the capacity of their spell books is limited to the number of spells they can actually cast. For example, a level 5 magic-user could have at most 2/2/1 spells in their spell book, that's it. Said magic-user could still memorize a spell multiple times of course, so if their book contained Read Magic and Sleep they could memorize either Read Magic/Read Magic or Read Magic/Sleep or Sleep/Sleep. What they cannot do is add another first-level spell to their spell book, that's that "sweet treat" reserved for magic-users of level 7 or higher.

Apparently I am not the only one intruiged by this so-called "strict reading" of the magic rules in B/X: At least Alex Schroeder seems to agree, but undoubtedly there must be a few more of us? (Feel free to give a shout-out in the comments!) I am actually a recent convert to this approach, for the longest time I thought that BECMI and AD&D had it right instead. Truth be told, I didn't even realize that B/X was different until I saw those posts: The BECMI approach was so deeply ingrained that I couldn't read the B/X rules correctly!

So why do I like this "strict reading" of the magic rules? After all, it seems to significantly "nerf" the poor magic-user whereas more recent editions of D&D have done almost the exact opposite. Let me take you through it...

First and foremost I like that it makes learning a new spell feel more like a significant life choice and less like just adding another stamp to Ye Olde Collection. Under BECMI rules a character who finds two scrolls does not have to make a choice at all: They can simply add both spells to their spell book, case closed. Under AD&D rules there might be a choice, for magic-users with a low intelligence score anyway. On page 10 of the Player's Handbook we learn that magic-users with an intelligence of 9 have at most 6 spells per level in their spell books. However, those with an intelligence of 18 are allowed 18 spells per level and those with an intelligence of 19 have no limit whatsoever. Quickly, when was the last time you saw an AD&D magic-user with a low intelligence score? (Granted, Unearthed Arcana piles some rules about the capacity of spell books on top of that, but those really just turn high-level magic-users into caravans of wagons and guards, traveling libraries if you will. Or maybe into "portable hole aficionados" for that matter.) Ignoring for the moment that spells can't be copied from scrolls, the limits in B/X are much lower than the limits in AD&D: A level 14 magic-user only has "room" for 4/4/4/4/3/3 spells! So suddenly it's not clear anymore that they should really learn Fireball and Lightning Bolt. Or look at it the other way around: A magic-user who does learn both of these spells has obviously chosen the path of a "war wizard" of sorts.

A second reason for preferring the "strict reading" in B/X is that it encourages what I would consider "wizardly" behavior. You cannot just "hunt for scrolls" in monster lairs! Instead you have to either develop "good professional relationships" to potential teachers or you have to lock yourself away for weeks at a time doing "spell research" on your own. Of course there are also "darker" options like blackmailing a potential teacher or even a "demonic pact" of some sort. Whatever it is, there are more interesting choices to be made and more depth is added to the campaign: Cabals of wizards make more sense, a magic-user's reputation suddenly matters, potential teachers may have quests that need completing, etc.

The nature of spell scrolls provides a third and (for now) final reason. In all D&D variants, magic-users who have a scroll and have read it are able to cast the spell from the scroll, thereby erasing it. In AD&D we're told explicitly (see Player's Handbook, page 100) that casting from a scroll only requires speaking the magical incantation, it does not require somatic or material components. It stands to reason that the magic-user who scribed the scroll had to somehow "encode" those things into the scroll thus making them unnecessary for casting from the scroll. This is further coroborated (see Dungeon Master's Guide, page 13) when we're told that spells that normally age the caster actually age the magic-user scribing the scroll, not the magic-user casting from the scroll. In other words, scrolls somehow contain the magical energies of a partially cast spell, lacking only the verbal component (which functions as some kind of "trigger" for releasing those energies). This understanding of scrolls can be used to explain why scrolls cannot be scribed into spell books: The "actual" description of the spell must contain details about somatic and material components and since those are missing from the scroll the information required to cast the spell "from scratch" is incomplete. (Note that of course AD&D goes on to say that you can copy from a scroll into a spell book anyway, but luckily we're not trying to understand AD&D, we're just trying to understand B/X. AD&D actually makes things even worse by allowing magic-users to cast directly from their spell books, see Unearthed Arcana, page 80...) Needless to say I find this distinction between "partially cast spells" on scrolls and "complete spells" in spell books quite satisfying. Gary would probably scold me for trying to use some kind of "consistent reasoning" in a game that features dragons and spells in the first place, but I still prefer for things to "make sense" when they can.

So there you have it, my interpretation of and reasoning about the "strict reading" of the B/X magic system. But I am not quite done. I can never leave "good enough" alone. The strange compulsion to "house rule" drives me further.

Quick, in B/X D&D, what's the difference between a magic-user with intelligence 9 and a magic-user with intelligence 18? That's right, the difference is three more languages and an XP bonus of +10% (see Basic Rules, page B7). Being familiar with AD&D this has always bothered me about B/X, I felt like there should be some other mechanical effect to distinguish those two magic-users. However, things like "bonus spells" of the sort that AD&D gives to clerics for high wisdom scores never sat right with me. (For example it's strange that a high wisdom score only gives bonus spells of the first four levels (see Player's Handbook, page 11), but giving a certain number of bonus spells on each level seems too overpowered.)

Luckily the "strict reading" provides a new option: Have intelligence affect the number of spells/level a magic-user can have in their spell book! Since B/X (strictly speaking) doesn't have standardized modifiers (they are a BECMI invention) we use the number of additional languages and reinterpret it as "number of additional spells per level" that can be written into the spell book. So our level 5 magic-user from above can still cast at most 2/2/1 spells per day, but if he or she has an intelligence of 16 they could have 4/4/3 spells in their spell book (instead of just 2/2/1). The effect of intelligence on "Maximum Number of Spells/Level" from AD&D actually provides a precendent for this and the rule is simpler than what ACKS does with "repertoires" and the intelligence bonus for those (see Adventurer Conqueror King, page 66+). I don't think it's overpowered either, after all a level 14 magic-user with INT 18 could have only 7/7/7/7/6/6 in their spell book, a far cry from the 12/12/12/12/12/12 actually available in B/X.

Total win in my book.

Addendum: While writing all of this up I noticed that B/X interprets low intelligence scores as a limited ability to speak/read/write. However, magic-users are not required to have a minimum intelligence score. This either implies magic-users who can be almost braindead yet cast Fireball or a missing minimum requirement. I am about to house-rule that magic-users need a minimum intelligence of 9 just like elves. Whether I will allow elves to have additional spells in their spell books for high intelligence also remains to be seen.

Update 2014/12/11: I just noticed that my friend Delta had already been over the "Where are the somatic components?" territory a few years ago, albeit in a slightly different context. Then again, Dan has written about everything D&D already, so maybe I don't have to feel too horribly bad...

Monday, November 24, 2014

The "Evolve Rules" Table

Hidden in a secret cobweb-filled vault under TSR's former Lake Geneva headquarters we found a curious stone tablet of eldritch origin that had been laboriously inscribed with the following:

To produce a new edition of the rules, start with the current edition, roll on this table 3 times (re-rolling duplicates), and find new artists.

1Add a new playable race, roll on any of the current edition's random encounter table for race.
2Remove a playable race without explanation OR re-roll level limits for each class using 2d6+2.
3Change monster hit dice from d6 to d8, d8 to d10, d10 to d6 as compared with the current edition.
4Add or remove specialist magic-users, depending on whether or not the current edition has them.
5Change how rangers pick their favored enemy; if there currently are no rangers, introduce them.
6Roll d6: 1-3 combat is Theatre of the Mind; 4-5 combat is on square grids; 6 combat is on hex grids.
7Number of books/boxed sets to spread new edition rules out over: 3d20-2, reroll 1s.
8Add only 0.5 to edition, not 1.

Apparently an (incomplete!) copy of the tablet was made by certain WotC delvers when they first explored the ruins of TSR after acquiring a deed to their holdings. It's unclear what mistakes they made in their transcription, but they must have made some...

Riffing on 2d6: Reaction Rolls

I've started to take a real liking to 2d6 as a dice mechanic. For the longest time I didn't actually care for it, I was a fan of rolling a d20 for almost everything. But I've spent a lot of time thinking about the classic reaction roll in D&D (inspired in part by this post) and the longer it sat around in my brain, so more useful the probabilities created by 2d6 seemed to get. Here's how that reaction roll works abstractly, at least in most D&D-variants (B/X D&D, page B24 for example):

2really bad2.78%
12really good2.78%

This has some nice properties. Obviously the "neutral" outcome is most likely which is probably just as well. After all, this is meant for a confrontation with a random pack of monsters who just popped around a corner. If both sides indeed "try to chat" that should probably lead to a temporary stalemate more often than not. Then there's a pretty decent chance for making "progress" in one direction or the other. I think that fits the "random negotiation" model again where both parties can usually feel that things are starting to slip before any actual stabbing occurs. Finally there's a pretty slim chance that things lead to immediate hostilities or immediate friendship. Neither of these should be very likely when you turn a corner and suddenly face a dozen kobolds: your side may be worried about being outnumbered, but their side should be worried about your big swords. So to me, this is just about perfect for monster reactions.

It's strange that Gary Gygax decided to mess with this for AD&D where reaction rolls are suddenly percentile-based. Here's what he (unenthusiastically in my opinion) proposes in the Dungeon Master's Guide (page 63), again abstracted a bit:

1-5really bad5%
26-45neutral, negative bias20%
56-75neutral, positive bias20%
96-100really good5%

What exactly are three versions of "neutral" good for except to complicate the table and to force the poor referee to be prepared for seven different outcomes to portray? Five different outcomes already enough of a workload! Also we get slightly increased chances for "really bad" and "really good" at the price of upping the total chance for "not sure yet" to 50% instead of 44.45%. That really only seems to lengthen the average time spent on the mechanic (negotiations take longer to conclude). As far as I am concerned, this is one of several cases where Gary was trying too hard to be "advanced" as it were.

If the point was to make the extreme outcomes more likely, he could have achieved a similar effect just by using different bins:

2-3really bad8.34%
11-12really good8.34%

I am not sure if I am the first person to propose this? Maybe Gary even tried it but decided that 8.34% is too much? Who knows with these things...

Interestingly the reaction roll comes in two variants in OD&D. The "monster reaction" variant was actually an even simpler 2d6 roll with only three possible outcomes (Vol 3, page 12):


This variant is also used in the Confusion spell (Vol 1, page 27). The variant with 5 outcomes (as above from B/X) was used only when recruiting monsters (Vol 1, page 12), not when encountering them.

Using the simpler OD&D table with three outcomes, there's yet another variant we could construct by attaching "special meaning" to rolling doubles. For each of the three outcomes there are two ways of rolling doubles: 1-1 and 2-2 for "really bad", 3-3 and 4-4 for "really neutral", 5-5 and 6-6 for "really good" as it were. It's easy to interpret "really bad" as "monsters attack" and "really good" as "monsters help" but what the heck does "really neutral" mean? Maybe that negotiations end right there and the monsters just decide to leave? Seems reasonable I guess. Opinions?

In terms of probabilities we now get something a bit more complicated to figure out, but it's not impossible. It is, however, a pain to put into a table because the "special outcomes" are not a contiguous range:

2-5really bad5.56%
6-8really neutral5.56%
9-12really good5.56%

So for the "non-neutral" outcomes, that's also close to what Gary did with his AD&D reaction roll. On top of that it's pretty cute to make doubles meaningful, at least I find it fun.

I don't know if this turns anybody else on to 2d6 but I sure had fun writing it all up. There's more in my brain regarding 2d6, at least the "turn undead" mechanic and using 2d6 for skill checks. We'll see when I have the time to write them up. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your take on 2d6 in general and reaction rolls in particular.

Update 2014/12/11: Who would have thunk it, there are still more variants on the reaction roll! I noticed this earlier today when reading this post over at DHBoggs' fascinating blog. The version he gives comes from the "New Easy-to-Master Dungeons & Dragons Game" but it's also in the Rules Cyclopedia (page 93). Here's my reproduction with percentages inserted as I've done for the other versions above:

2-3really bad8.34%
4-6neutral, negative bias33.33%
10-11neutral, positive bias13.89%
12really good2.78%

Given the historical precedent discussed above, those asymmetric ranges are certainly strange: Monsters are now more likely to attack than to be cooperative! (Maybe that's just as well, after all the later versions of the game seem to encourage combat more anyway.) The AD&D idea of "bias" is back again, so there's a good chance (a 47.22% chance in fact!) that you'll roll on this table at least twice before getting a result (the rules recommend stopping after three such rolls). Note, however, that there's no longer a "good" and "bad" category, only the extreme outcomes are actually possible.

Now if you think this is a bad table for the reaction roll, think again. Think hard! Because I am about to show you an even worse one. If my brain is any indication, we simply repress things we find horrible even if we grow up with them. Case in point, I played a long-ish campaign using the Rules Cyclopedia back when it came out. I thought I knew those rules pretty well. But when I first wrote this post, I couldn't remember this whacky reaction roll table at all. I must have repressed it!

But now open your 1983 Mentzer Basic Set, Dungeon Masters Rulebook, and turn to page 22. Yes, look at that triply-nested monstrosity. I won't even type it up, I'll just use a scan:

I know I certainly repressed that one. There's literally no record of this anywhere in my brain. And yet that's the D&D I grew up with, the D&D I played forever and ever before getting the Rules Cyclopedia. Did you repress it too? In protest, I'll leave the analysis of this table to someone else.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Trouble with Movement Rates

I am not sure why I suddenly had an urge to figure out how various editions of D&D handled movement rates for various creatures, but here's the result of my very brief study. I chose to focus on creatures that seem "familiar enough" to allow an "informed guess" of sorts, in other words I chose creatures I cared about for one reason or another. Here we go:


At first everything looks great, a wonderful consistency seems to rule across the entire 1970s and early 1980s. Then, however, the mischief becomes more obvious. Halflings used to be just a fast as elves in Chainmail, but their feet move a lot slower in AD&D and B/X; curiously neither OD&D or Holmes bother with Halflings, one would hope that maybe the "regular" movement (of 12" or 120') for player characters might be called for?

Kobolds are apparently under the influence of a Haste spell for Holmes, everybody else agreed that they are too short to move fast? Orcs, on the other hand, are given Formula-1 treatment only by B/X. Skeletons and Treants get the Haste spell by Gary Gygax himself in AD&D. The slow Trolls in Chainmail might be forgivable because there the category is actually "Trolls, Ogres" for whatever reason. Finally my favorite pet-peeve: Zombies, described as particularly slow in all editions that have them, suddenly run circles around everybody else in Holmes and B/X.

Looking at this, I find it difficult to determine who was smoking what when they put the monsters for their game together. Slowing down Halflings to somewhere between Elves and Dwarves? Maybe. Speeding up Skeletons and Zombies? What? Am I the only person in the world for whom "Zombie" always meant "Romero Zombie" while Ghoul was closer to "28 Days Later Zombie"? Maybe the size of a Treant (long legs) justifies giving them the same movement rate that Giants (almost) consistently get? But what about Tolkien's take on Ents and their rather slow habits?

I didn't spend the time to check what more recent retro-clones do with these movement rates. Well, I briefly checked on Delving Deeper and found that Simon has a much more rational set of movement rates. But I do wonder how many have copied "Zombie 120'/turn" without thinking twice about it...

Anyone else want to share their pet-peeves about movement rates?

Update 2014/11/23: Alright, I couldn't contain my curiousity so I checked a few retro clones regarding these monsters. Here's what I found:


Fascinating, isn't it? Delving Deeper's slightly faster Dwarves I can get behind, but that might be because I play a dwarf in my weekly game and I hate that without my boots of flying almost every monster can run away from my axe. Swords & Wizardry once again forgets Halflings in the monster section (just like Holmes), but at least everybody else seems to agree on their movement rate. But aside from Kobolds and Trolls, the remaining monsters are all over the place again, nobody can agree. And Labyrinth Lord is officially the least "thoughtful" clone because Dan copied both the fast movement and the slow description, just like predicted...

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Saving Throws in Mentzer Expert Set

I am working on a general comparison of the B/X and BECMI rulesets and as part of that project I had to compare saving throws. That's when I noticed that the BECMI Expert Set has something of a problem: Inconsistent saving throw tables. The saving throw tables are printed twice, once with each character class description and once as part of the combat tables. Sadly those saving throw tables don't agree. Take, for example, the saving throws for halflings. On page 19 we find the following table:

Magic Wands975
Dragon Breath13107

But then on page 29 we find the following table:

Magic Wands963
Breath Attack1385

It doesn't end there, in fact most of the saving throw tables are different between those two locations in the book. As far as I can tell only those for thieves are the same between the class description and the combat tables.

I am still trying for figure this out. There are simply too many differences to treat this as "just a typo" which was my first suspicion. It seems more likely that one set of tables comes from an earlier version of the manuscript. Overall the tables printed with the class descriptions seem more sane, so I would assume that the tables on page 29 are "wrong" and from an earlier draft. Just a guess of course. Opinions anyone?

Update 2014/05/07: Apparently later printings of the Expert Set correct this inconsistency by using the saving throw tables from page 29 everywhere. But the Rules Cyclopedia is actually different again! For example the "Halfling 4-6" saving throws are 5/6/7/9/8 in that edition. That's a more consistent pattern again, but it's also the third variation of this mess. Makes one wonder how modules could possibly be "tuned" to a certain power level at all...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wizard Spell Progressions Compared

Bryan Steward posted a question about the wizard (well, magic-user, whatever) spell progressions in B/X versus AD&D and made me realize that I had never formally compared the various editions of D&D in that regard. So I typed it all up in a spreadsheet that you may want to have a look at if you are interested in the details. (I should note that I suck at spreadsheets, so if you want to help me add more data or maybe some graphs, I'd appreciate it.)

The (perhaps not very surprising) conclusion is that wizards in AD&D and OD&D are more powerful (according to my metric anyway) than wizards in B/X. Between AD&D and OD&D it's sort of a toss-up with OD&D being slightly better at low levels and AD&D being slightly better at high levels.

Of course I couldn't resist and added my own spell progression to the mix, the one from my house rules. It mostly floats around AD&D except at level 14 where it clearly beats everything else with two 7th-level spells. But I should mention that the spreadsheet doesn't take XP requirements into account: it's pretty much impossible for anyone to advance to level 14 in my game because I keep doubling XP requirements forever.

So I am quite happy with my spell progression's power curve (mostly in line with the classics) and it's certainly a more straightforward pattern than what Gary and friends came up with.

Update 2014/04/15: Just added the BECMI progression from the Rules Cyclopedia and that wizard has it even worse than the B/X wizard. The Labyrinth Lord wizard is better off than most of the others, close to my progression actually. The Swords & Wizardry wizard is on par with mine as well, but the Lamentations wizard is in the AD&D range.

If that means anything, it's probably that most OSR folks like Dan Proctor, Matt Finch, and my humble self agree that the wizard's curve should have been a little better; just James Raggi (who would have thunk?) has to be different. Of course we all fervently disagree on how many XP it should take to reach, say, level 9 as a wizard: Dan says 310,000 XP, Matt says 100,000 XP, James says 288,000 XP, and I say 256,000 XP. Oh well...

Update 2014/04/16: Just for reference, B/X says 300,000 XP, AD&D says 135,000 XP, OD&D says 100,000 XP. For wizards to reach level 9. Go figure.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Scourge of the Demon Wolf

I just finished reading through Rob Conley's Scourge of the Demon Wolf and wanted to share my impressions. You should not consider this a "review" in any formal sense, it's just my ramblings inspired by having a good time flipping all those pages. In case you don't already know, this is what we're talking about:

Note that Scourge is billed as an "Adventure and Sourcebook" and that's exactly what you'll get: The first 30-odd pages describe a variety of encounters the player characters can have as they are trying to uncover the secret of the Demon Wolf, the last 40-odd pages then provide additional details about the locations that mostly serve as "backdrop" in the first part. Rob provides an excellent summary of why things are this way, so let me just quote him directly:
The majority of the adventures in my Majestic Wilderlands are based around locales and focused on conflicts between different groups. The players arrive in the midst of a situation and have to use their wits and roleplaying skills to figure out the underlying problem. The resolution results in new friends and enemies for the players. In later adventures, the players in my campaign find that these friends are just as valuable as a +5 sword.
When I first read this paragraph I didn't quite understand what it was saying yet, but in retrospect it's glaringly obvious: This might be an "adventure" but instead of dragging the players along a scripted "adventure path" it's really more of a "slightly constrained miniature sandbox" in a sense.

Yes, there's a "hook" that gets the player characters into the fray. Yes, there's a "finale" that uncovers the mystery and allows the player characters to "win" in a sense. But between those two points we have roughly 18 encounters that (with a few exceptions) could go in pretty much any order. If that's not player agency taken seriously (in the context of something rather small like an adventure anyway) then I don't know what would be. Hence let me heap some praise:
It's not just good, it's mind-bogglingly (lol, what a word) great!
Of course my incredible enthusiasm for this aspect of Scourge might just mean that I've read too many "scripted modules" in my life. Just to make the point explicit: The way things are set up it's unlikely that the players will immediately stumble to the final encounter, but theoretically they could. The world doesn't function along a plot line, it functions by itself. Therefore the choices the players make will matter a lot more than they otherwise would.

So we have roughly 18 encounters which despite the dependencies between some encounters lead to a staggering number of possible ways for the adventure to develop. The encounters involve roughly 7 distinct factions (more if you count sub-factions), each with their own interests, motivations, and prejudices. And it all plays out in roughly 6 detailed locations (a lot more if you count wilderness areas and locations only roughly sketched out). That's a lot of adventuring.

I have hopefully already convinced you to at least spend the money for the PDF of Scourge, especially if this kind of open-ended adventure seems attractive to you. Note, however, how I didn't say anything about the actual events in the adventure yet. In a sense the setup is rather simple: People died horrible deaths, someone claimed to have taken care of the problem but was wrong, and now the player characters are about to try the same. Yes, of course the Demon Wolf is responsible, but there's a lot more to discover in the process:
Where did it come from and why? What is it doing? What was it doing for the past two months during which everything seemed peaceful? Exactly how powerful is it and can we even kill it? Can anyone?
In other words, you get some kind of "monster hunt" wrapped in a "murder mystery" with a good deal of "explore the unknown" on top. And then there are the cool locations. Let me just talk about two here: The Village of Kensla and The Golden House Conclave.

Kensla is a very believable medieval village. There is a bailiff appointed by the baron and a reeve elected by the villagers. There are craftsmen, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and yeoman farmers. There is a three field system and other details of the local agriculture. There are 43 distinct locations and every single building is described complete with its inhabitants, their stories, and their attitudes. The entire thing should be extremely useful well beyond the events of the adventure.

The Golden House is a conclave of mages. Its probably best described as an independent (well, mostly) magical research monastery. The masters, adepts, apprentices, and staff that make the whole thing work are all described in sufficient detail to let player character mages interact with it on a regular basis. Once again we get stories and attitudes for everybody, but in this case we also get details about the various research projects being undertaken and about in-game effects of studying magic here. Just like the village, the conclave is very believable and should be useful for a long time.

Okay, now that I've ranted on and on about how cool this thing is, what are the problems? There just two that I can see, and for the most part they pale in comparison to how great everything else is.
  • The editing leaves much to be desired. I am sure the spell-checker was happy, but there are missing or extra words all over and sometimes you have to read a sentence three times to finally parse it correctly. Worse in a way is that there are several inconsistencies. Just one example: "Bebba's husband, Norhelm, died three years ago..." is followed a page later by "...a lot of tension between him and the staff, particularly Bebba, the housekeeper (Norhelm's husband)..." and I guess you see the problems here.
  • There are several references to Rob's Majestic Wilderlands supplement which I don't own, mostly in the section about The Golden House. Some things are explained in Scourge itself, but there are several spells and magic items that are non-standard (at least to my knowledge) and must be from Majestic or from Rob's as-yet-unpublished Book of Lost Magic. Of course they are easily replaced with something the referee makes up, but I would have preferred another paragraph or three taking care of those lose ends.
And there you have it. Easily one of my favorite "adventures" now and I honestly can't wait to run it. Despite the immense campaign potential, I think it still makes an awesome one-shot. Maybe I can even talk a few people into playing it with the new Delving Deeper rules?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ambitious Orcs or Avaricious Ogres?

Alright, so I barely finished writing up my thoughts on Ambition & Avarice and I am already feeling the need to tinker with it. I guess it would be good to run at least one session before messing with the rules? But I can't resist, sorry!

One of the obvious things that sets A&A apart from "classic" D&D is playable "monster" races: We get dark elves, goblins, hobgoblins, lizardfolk, and orcs. Wait, rewind that one more time: goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs? Isn't that just a bit much of the same thing over and over again?

True, much to A&A's credit it does characterize each of those three races differently. So goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs as written up in A&A are actually quite different. However, that doesn't help my deep-seated D&D sensibility of those races being almost interchangeable. Of course there have always been minor variations, and the cosmetics have been different ever since the AD&D Monster Manual started mentioning skin coloration and so on. But for most of my gamer life, those three races have otherwise been one and the same: Things low-level PCs wade through on their way up the campaign's food chain.

What I was really hoping for when I started reading A&A was a monster race that goes a little beyond the "everyone is human-sized or smaller" trope that most games have been stuck in. What I really wanted was this guy:

Okay, that's in fact the illustration for a half-ogre from an old Best of Dragon magazine, but that's the kind of PC that I've not seen enough of. And I think it's easy to "tweak" it into A&A without actually having to write up a new race description: Just replace the existing Orc with Ogre and hand players the picture above if they are wondering what that's like!

Orcs in A&A get the largest hit die already, and obviously so should the Ogre. Orcs get a +1 to-hit and damage, and so should the Ogre. And Orcs get a -2 on reaction when dealing with "civilized pansies" such as humans and elves, right on for an Ogre. So it's really all about the cosmetics of it. I might be tempted to put some kind of cap on intelligence, and I might compensate for that with some kind of bonus for constitution, but A&A typically stays clear of having race modify attributes, so maybe I should follow suit.

Just imagine an Ogre Cultist defending a town from invasion and having to decide whether to sacrifice a few more tasty halflings in order to heal his party up as the big bad black dragon approaches in the dark and cloudy sky. Perfect.

Now how about some kobolds on the other end of the "barbarian" spectrum? :-)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ambition & Avarice

Warning: This "review" is not particularly well-organized, in fact it's mostly a "stream of consciousness" kind of thing that rambles along randomly. The various chapters/topics are covered highly unevenly as well, don't expect balance. But I hope you'll still find it somewhat useful?

I was torn about what to get in terms of a "modern OSR game" but I finally settled on Ambition & Avarice from Chubby Funster. In the end, feedback on a post I made in the G+ community for A&A convinced me to try it over the various competing products such as BareBones Fantasy, Beyond the Wall, and Dungeon World. You can actually tell a few things about the game from its cover:

Title image by Craig Brasco (orgo)

Heros? Well... They can be: For the right price! At least that's the setup, there's actually nothing in the rules that would make it a requirement to play a bunch of greedy "true neutral" mercenaries without a conscience. While that style of play is certainly supported (and playable races such as goblins and lizard men make it a tad more likely I guess) I don't think it's what Greg Christopher set out to give us. It's more of a side-effect of his obvious passion for sandboxes in which player agency rules and everybody around the table (including the referee) discovers the story as they play instead of having it scripted out ahead of time.

But let's not get too philosophical right away, let's look at the system first. We start with the usual six attributes rolled in mostly the familiar ways. There's a unified modifier table (in increments of two for some reason) but attributes also have other side-effects like constitution determining what kind of die you roll (from d4 to d12) to recover hit points after a day of rest. Some attributes are put to "surprising" uses, at least for people like me who come to A&A from D&D: strength is your to-hit bonus for thrown weapons, dexterity determines your movement speed, constitution determines your encumbrance level, wisdom modifies your initiative rolls, etc. There's nothing "wrong" with these choices, they just take a while to get used to.

There are two "core mechanics" if you will, rolling a d20 over a target number (saving throw, dungeon throw, attribute test) and rolling a d6 under a target number (various special abilities based on race and class). Saving throws are what you'd expect. Dungeon throws are "dungeon delving skills" that every character (regardless of race and class) has, things like force to open a door or chest, traps to find or disable a trap, sneak to move quietly and without being seen, etc. Attribute tests are everything else, including attacks in combat.

Speaking of race and class, there are a lot of those in A&A. You can play "civilized" dwarves, elves, gnomes, halflings, and humans or "barbarian" dark elves, goblins, hobgoblins, lizardfolk, and orcs. Each race gets a relatively fresh characterization (compared to the "usual" D&D tropes anyway), for example we learn that gnomes eat everything in sight whereas halflings are cosmopolitan adventurers. Race and not class determines hit dice (halflings and goblins get d4, dwarves and orcs get d10, everybody else is d6 or d8). Race also determines initial saving throws (with halflings getting the best and orcs getting the worst for some reason). Finally race confers some special abilities, for example dark elves have a 2-in-6 chance to identify poison, elves get a bonus to their notice dungeon throw, and hobgoblins don't have to count the weight of their armor against encumbrance.

It feels very "old school" to me that the exact abilities each race gets don't fit a cookie-cutter pattern of modifiers. Some people might criticize this as "unbalanced" but to me it creates a lot of fun flavor.

As for classes, we have brigand, knave, knight, ranger, and savage in terms of "mundane" ones as well as conjurer, cultist, priest, shaman, and sorcerer in terms of "magical" ones. Each of those is again nicely characterized, but I have to admit that I find it hard to remember what each class is supposed to be just from their names. To give you an impression of these classes, here's my summary for each:

  • Brigands are criminals all the way from highwaymen to cat-burglars; they can pick pockets and identify good loot quickly; they can fence off stolen goods and escape from bonds.
  • Knaves are spies and assassins usually playing for nobles in their political games; they can backstab and identify voices; they can find black market traders and blend in with the rich and powerful.
  • Knights are wannabe nobles who were born too late to inherit; they have to be honorable although that doesn't necessarily mean "good" here; they can identify heraldry and scare their enemies.
  • Rangers try to beat back the monsters surrounding the various "points of light" of civilization; they can track in the wilderness as well as identify plants and animals; they are hardy and get a larger hit die and have a chance to identify what left a certain track.
  • Savages are uncivilized barbarians; they can charge into battle with a big bonus and identify particularly weak enemies; they can also re-roll force throws and identify smells.
  • Conjurers summon and create stuff using magic; they can create binding circles to trap creatures and they recognize symbols, runes, and glyphs; they have spells such as summon elemental, burden, and shockwave.
  • Cultists receive their powers from young deities who expect sacrifices and conversions in return; they can sacrifice humanoids to heal others as well as identify individuals with weak wills; they have spells such as charm, cripple, and distraction.
  • Priests follow large established religions; they can keep someone hovering on death's door alive and they can also identify divine beings, symbols, and artifacts; they have spells such as emblazon, deathwatch, and eternal slumber.
  • Shamans draw on the spirit world to perform their magic; they can identify and cure poisons and disease; they have spells such as blink, dragon's breath, and infection.
  • Sorcerers are "scientific" magicians who study magic carefully and deeply; they can identify and counter spells being cast by others; they have spells such as detect magic, icy touch, and nap.

Class also determines initial dungeon throws (with mundane classes consistently getting away better than magical classes). Mundane classes also gain character points (three each level) to further improve their hit points, dungeon/saving throws, weapon proficiencies, or to-hit bonus. Note that these are in addition to the "leveling up" process described below. I should probably mention that the advantages mundane classes get regarding dungeon throws are somewhat compensated by the spell progressions for the magical classes: these can cast a lot more spells than you'd expect from D&D. For example a level 5 magic-user in D&D typically has 3/2/1 spells, but a level 5 shaman in A&A has 6/5/4 instead!

One last aspect of classes is a little scary to me: All of them get some kind of henchmen or familiar or whatnot every single level. Take the Conjurer and his imps for example: A level five conjurer could have 5 imps and could therefore be in 6 places at the same time. True, the imps are not very powerful, but being able to spy on that many locations just by concentrating (assuming the imp can hide well enough) could be very powerful. That said, I'd probably try it out before tossing it, but I'd warn my players that this particular aspect might get toned down.

Let's turn to another aspect of the game: equipment and related rules. Encumbrance is measured in pounds and there's a (rather fiddly in my opinion) system that first groups characters into encumbrance levels based on constitution and then tells you their (exploration, combat, running) speed based on dexterity. I would have preferred a simpler approach here, but I guess for those of you interested in "realism" there's something to be said for this system. What I do like is that "exploration speed" explicitly includes looking for traps, something that's not entirely clear in the D&D iterations I've played.

Armor has strength requirements, so plate mail is not for everybody who can afford it. There's a spell failure mechanic based on armor worn as well as encumbrance more generally. The coinage system is needlessly fiddly in my opinion, but not because of the valuation (it's a sane 1:10 ratio except for electrum pieces) but because of weight: Gold pieces are heavier than silver pieces for example. What a nightmare, realism be damned. There's a brief note about the campaign using a silver standard, but then most of the prices are given in gold pieces anyway. Thrown weapons have a range based on strength, which is neat. There are a bunch of herbs/poisons/drugs on the equipment list. They come with neat "stat blocks" which seems to indicate that their use is encouraged to a degree. Yes, characters can become addicted to drugs.

All of the items on the equipment list are described in some detail with many weapons getting a special effect or two and most "mundane" items receiving some suggested adventuring uses. I like the idea of making equipment choices more important, but I also see the drawback of forcing new players to read the entire equipment list if they want to make "optimal" choices for their characters.

How about experience and level progression? Experience points can be awarded for treasure recovered, monsters defeated, or quests/puzzles solved according to DM preference. There's a unified XP table straight from 3rd edition: 1000, 3000, 6000, etc. On gaining a level characters roll for additional hit points, reduce one saving throw by 1, and at levels 3, 6, 9, and 12 raise one attribute by 1; mundane characters gain 3 character points as described above, magical characters gain new spells.

How about combat? There's hit point damage and attribute damage, the latter of which is much harder to cure. Combat rounds are 6 seconds (turns are 10 minutes) and you can typically move and attack unless you're casting a spell or aiming carefully. The combat sequence: casting declarations, initiative, actions, morale check. Two-handed attacks double strength bonus and cause a critical on 19 or 20. Two weapon attacks grant a flat +2 to-hit. Touch attacks ignore armor, and grappling is based on that as well as an interesting "degrees of success" scheme that goes back-and-forth between the "wrestlers" involved (yes, several characters can combine their forces to grapple one).

There are some cool optional rules covering sustenance, sleep, fatigue, long-distance movement, vision and light, and actions under time pressure.

Magic is not too different from what you would expect coming from classic D&D except that there are memorizing as well as spontaneous casters much like in 3rd edition. The real "shocker" are the spells themselves, some of which are really quite different from what I am used to in D&D games. Just some cool 1st level spells picked at random: burden to increase someone's encumbrance level, erosion to weaken a physical object, false cure to make it seem like you healed someone, overwhelm to create emotions in a target, rumors to start an contagious false belief in a population, etc. Those things are full of potential and I am officially amazed that many of the spells in A&A have never shown up in D&D before to the best of my knowledge. That's impressive.

The entire book is full of useful advice for DMs, especially regarding sandbox play and the concept of player agency. There's advice about adventure design with a long list of commonly used tropes and how to combine them. There's advice about monsters and how to design them (indeed, A&A doesn't come with a monster chapter in the traditional sense, you're almost completely on your own). There's advice about NPCs and a cute favor/disfavor system that immediately leads to sources for new quests. And so on, and so forth.

So what's the verdict? I very much enjoyed reading A&A because it offers a fresh approach to D&D that still mostly satisfies old-school sensibilities. True, in a few places the 3rd edition stuff shines through a little much, but it's not too horrible. There are a few editing problems that annoy me a bit, but OSR writers don't have an army of professional editors to help them out so that's okay. I look at A&A as a great "change of pace" game, something I would run "on occasion" whenever we need a break from our "regular" campaign. There are also a few mechanics (rest die!) and spells (rumors!) that I might steal outright for my D&D game. After reading A&A I feel inspired to run a gritty, high-fantasy, low-magic, weird monsters everywhere, let's borrow some ChAoS from Warhammer thing that could be a lot of fun. I really hope I get to try it out. Who knows, maybe it'll even become our regular campaign eventually?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The MICA/JHU Gaming Course, Part 2

A brief update on our "Special Edition" offering of 600.355: Video Game Design Project with MICA. Today we had Dan "Delta" Collins as our guest speaker. Dan gave a great talk about simulating the core mechanics of a game to determine how well-balanced everything is. A lack of balance leads to players ignoring certain options because they are not helpful in "winning" the game, which in turn means that (as a designer) you wasted a lot of effort adding things that nobody actually wants in play.

After his talk Dan went around to each team of students and tried to "extract" the core mechanics of their games in order to give them feedback and advice about how they could approach a simulation for their paper prototypes. Here are a few snapshots of this process:

For next week the students have to put together basic simulations of their central "encounter" or "conflict resolution" mechanic to determine if the options they are offering to players are all more-or-less attractive and should therefore stay. Our hope is that this process will help them further refine and simplify their rules, so that next week's final playtest will be a huge success and enable us to hand out lots of A grades for excellent paper prototypes.

This is the first time we're using the idea of simulating game mechanics in order to analyze the balance of a game design in a course, so it was really helpful to have an expert on the subject to introduce the basic ideas behind it. In the future we hope to expand this approach and present it earlier in the course to allow students to use it repeatedly to iterate on their designs.

Thank you Dan for coming all the way down from NYC to help us out! We hope you enjoyed your visit as much as we enjoyed having you.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The MICA/JHU Gaming Course, Part 1

I have been teaching gaming courses at Johns Hopkins for a while now, but this semester we're kicking things up a notch. Our usual 600.355: Video Game Design Project is being offered in a "Special Edition" which means that I am co-teaching it with Jason Corace from MICA. Jason is bringing half of the students for the course from MICA as well, and they are injecting some "groovy art school atmosphere" into the otherwise "cold rationality of engineering" that JHU can be.

The "classic" 600.355 course is focused entirely on developing a sizable video game, but for our "Special Edition" we're doing things very differently. Students start by developing a "paper prototype" of their game to study game mechanics. They then simulate those mechanics to ensure that the game is well-balanced and finally turn the essential ideas and mechanics from their "paper prototype" into a corresponding "digital prototype" for which the engineering students will focus on software development while the art students will focus on the artistic direction of the game. All of them are, of course, responsible for the entirety of the final game they produce together. Now that's how you do an interdisciplinary course!

Tonight we had the first round of playtests for the paper prototypes and I seized the opportunity to take a few snapshots of the "organized chaos" this entails. The first hour was dedicated to each team setting up their games and making some last-minute changes to their rule sets:

Feedback from Jason and finishing the "fate cards" for the game.

Cutting the rules down to size. With axes.

Relaxing with their supposedly already debugged game.

Clarifying the rules and adding illustrations to help new players.

Producing more and more custom game pieces.

Programmers fixing game boards, artists clarifying the rules.

If you have not caught on yet why this Computer Science course is a little different, maybe this picture will do the trick:

Dice and Crayola: Computer Science at work!

After the initial hour of prep-work we started the two rounds of playtesting. One person from each team "stayed behind" to observe what another team would do with their game. The "observers" were encouraged to really observe and only speak up to help the testers if they were really stuck on some iffy part of the rules. Here's how the first round went down:

Debugged rules getting debugged for real.

Jason listening in on a play test.

Wait, what are we supposed to do?

Ballistic Armor and Ninja Throwing Stars?

Cool, fate cards, but how do we move again?

After twenty minutes of rules we're about to start the game.

After 30 minutes each team did a 5-minute debriefing with the observer and then everybody moved on to another game for round two:

Sometimes even a co-designer needs to check the rules.

After six rounds we're still all naked and starving?

Attack or outrun the enemy?

Everything is better with different color game pieces!

Fun is being had interpreting rules.

Everything is better with a pre-configured game board!

We did allow for small adjustments between the playtests, and for several games that led to a much more satisfying second round. So our students saw first-hand how playtesting can improve their games, and we hope that by next week they will incorporate all of the feedback they received and arrive with suitably streamlined and even more enjoyable games.

And they better, because next week we're hosting Dan "Delta" Collins as a guest lecturer and he will be looking at each of their games in detail with his excellent eye for weak mechanics and shoddy design. And I've encouraged him to not hold back and be as cruel as he needs to be with his feedback. Good times!

Just in case you couldn't tell yet, I am having a great time co-teaching this "Special Edition" course, and I hope that we can get MICA and JHU to regularly offer something like this, a course that builds bridges between very different educational worlds and helps our students understand what it means to work on truly interdisciplinary teams.

And the best thing? Class officially ended at 7:30 pm but the first student asking "Wait, are we out of time already?" did so at 7:45 pm. I think they are having fun as well.