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...